À La Carte: Daddy’s Girl

[creative nonfiction]

Her father dies three times. The first time, in ‘69, she’s six, and her mother tells her, “They lost him; he’s missing.” But she knows they’ll find him, and he’ll find her, even after her mother packs a folded-over mattress and her three daughters in the back seat of her white VW bug and drives them from their mobile home near the air force base in Corpus Christi to a cold apartment in Vermont. She knows her father will find her, even after she stops believing in Santa, even after she understands that her parents divorced before her father left for the war in Vietnam, even after she gets a new stepfather and moves again, this time to New York. She holds on inside, even after his photos vanish and no one ever speaks his name.

The second time her father dies, she is sixteen. The Air Force declares him dead, not based on new information, but because a missing pilot has to be paid and a dead one doesn’t. She and her two sisters each get their own set of medals in velvety black boxes and a folded American flag in the mail. Her stepfather asks to adopt her, but she says no. She has a father, and though she doesn’t say it, she isn’t about to let him go.

Another fifteen years pass before she realizes that her father is not the only one missing in action. On the outside, she’s done well, graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth, won a Dean’s Fellowship to graduate school at Penn. But on the inside, she is grey, half-dead and disconnected, uncommitted to anything or anyone besides her aging half-lab, Molly. When she hits thirty—the age her father was when his O-2A Skymaster disappeared over Laos—she can’t pretend anymore, not even to herself. Her friends are graduating, getting married, having kids. She is still in school but not sure why, in a relationship she knows is going nowhere, without a future she can’t begin to imagine.

She is afraid, like Rilke, that therapy will kill off her angels as well as her devils, but she doesn’t know what else to do. Luckily, she finds a therapist wise in the ways of grief. Having lost his own mother as a child, he assures her that being fully alive doesn’t have to mean forgetting. He helps her see that part of her is stuck at six, still certain she’s done something terrible to make her father leave, still sure her hope is the only thing holding his plane in the air.

It takes a lot of going backwards before she can move on. She drives around Texas visiting places she lived as a child. Back in Philly, she spends evenings cross-legged on the worn wooden floor of her grad school rental, flipping through folders of dental records and personnel evaluations. The answers to her questions aren’t there, not even in the one-page Facts and Circumstances summary of what the Air Force calls “the incident,” and she calls “the day my Daddy disappeared.” Her questions aren’t so black and white. Why did her father leave her? Why didn’t he come back? How can she go forward in a world without him in it?

The third time her father dies, it’s 1996, and she kills him herself. She puts his dog tags around her neck for the last time and stands between her sisters in the tiny family cemetery in Mahomet, Texas. She shivers in the hot April wind as her older sister sings The Beatles’s “Let it Be,” as her younger sister recites John Magee’s poem, “High Flight.” And finally, she steps forward to explain herself to her family and her father, borrowing words from Mary Oliver’s poem, “In Blackwater Woods.” “In order to live in this world…” she begins, but then inside she stumbles. How can she do it—choose to let her father go?

He never said goodbye, but in the sudden cemetery silence, she hears her father’s voice. She’s six again, at the Marina RV and Mobile Home Park in Corpus, and her father is home on leave, his long legs loping beside her hand-me-down two-wheeler, steadying her seat until suddenly he’s not. “You’re doing it,” he calls after her as she pedals fiercely, her wobbly progress leaving him behind. “That’s right, Kitten” —his voice is fading— “You’re doing it! Now just keep going!”

 

Cathy Luna is a writer and writing coach who lives in Western Massachusetts with her computer scientist spouse, three teenagers, and far too many pets. A late bloomer in every way, Cathy’s long journey to becoming a memoirist included stints as a veterinarian’s assistant (too tender-hearted), a carpenter (dangerous with a hammer), a film editor (great, but no pay), an English teacher and a professor. When not working, writing, or driving someone somewhere, she enjoys reading, hiking, and going to the movies.

Conversations Needed Between Mother and Daughter

Growing up no one ever talked to me about the essential knowledge a young girl needs to know. There were no conversations about boys, what I wanted to do with my life or how I wanted to live my life. No one talked about marriage being an essential part having a family, job choices, menstruation, sex/how babies are made. Most importantly, no one told me that I have the right to say what I can and won’t do with my body. No one told me that I could say “no” when it comes to sex. I suppose these conversations never occurred because I lived with my grandparents until I was twelve years old. My grandmother was battling breast cancer and I suppose these conversations weren’t high on her to do list after fighting cancer. My grandfather went to work everyday, to pick tobacco and coming home to discuss life issues definitely wasn’t a priority to him. As a mother, I’ve often thought about the life lessons I should have taught my daughter. How should I have I talked to her about situations she might have encountered?

Even after moving in with my parents after the death of my grandmother, there were still no conversations to be had. I do remember my father telling me in the car on my way to school, “do not have sex with a boy unless you love him.” I remember saying, “okay, Da.” I was in the fourth grade and had no clue what the hell he meant by those words. Later in my teen years, when my dad discovered I had allowed some one’s son talk me into giving him my most precious gift, he said to me, “I thought I told you not to have sex with a boy unless you loved him.” My response to him was, “Da, I was only in the fourth grade, I had no clue what you were talking about and I still don’t understand what you’re talking about.” Hell at the age of 43, it’s safe to say, I am still clueless about that thing called love.

 *     *     *

I mull over long nights and conversations with my daughter only to come to the realization that I didn’t have those conversations with her either. Instead, I told her what should and should not happen. I told her she had to go to college instead of asking her if that was what she wanted to do. I didn’t explain how the importance of marriage and having a two parent home would be beneficial to the child; instead I told her “do not under any circumstances stay in a marriage that leaves you feeling unhappiness and at a sense of lost within yourself. I controlled her finances instead of showing her how to manage it herself. There were no back and forth exchanges of conversation about what she thought about boys, just me telling her “stay away from boys, they are dangerous,” without any explanation as to why I thought they were dangerous.

 *     *     *

Recently I received a phone call from my daughter telling me she believes she’s been sexually harassed at work. I could hear panic and uncertainty in her voice as she spoke to me. She said, “Ma, I am not sure but I think I was sexually harassed.” At that moment I realized I had never had a conversation with her about sexual harassment, rape or child molestation. I just assumed she would know these type of incidents are wrong and I believed that if any of these situations happened to her,  she would come to me and let me know. The words “I think” have not settled in the basement of my stomach. These two small  words, “I think”  have paralyzed me with so much fear that I am unraveling at the seams. How can she not be certain that she was actually sexually harassed and not have to think about it.

I reflect on the many times sexual comments were said to me or the touch of a hand that snuck across my shoulder, leaving me uncomfortable. I thought about how I chose to ignore it. I wondered if I had let down the girl that would come after me.

I listen as she tells me her story of the sexually fueled words he used and and how he grabbed and pulled her close to him. My thoughts race from calling my brothers to filing complaints back to calling my brothers. I am heart broken that she is experiencing this and I’m saddened by the fact I did not prepare her with a conversation called “Sexual Harassment: Life Lesson Number 264.” Instead I  sheltered her trying to protect the  innocence that would crumble with each life experience. I believe if I experienced and allowed all these bad things to happen to me that it would skip her and she would not have to the endure or face the hardships of sexism and racism because I allowed myself to go through it in order to protect her. I now see I easily handicapped her with my thought process.

As I listen to her give me detail by detail about her encounter with her supervisor, I am surprised and I am proud that she stood up for herself. I am proud that she knew she was being violated and she needed help. I am proud that she stood up and fought back for herself, not knowing she was standing up for the rights of the young ladies that will come  behind her and the ones that were before her. I am proud that she brought attention to him, which has led to him being fired and placed under investigation. I think about all the other young girls that he has done this to and how many times he has gotten away with it.

Throughout my day to day routines, I allow myself to get bogged down with the many different roles I played as wife, daughter, mother and employee, that I neglected to have crucial conversations with my daughter. Outside of asking the basic “how are you doing?” did I really know how she was doing and/or did she really detail to me how she was doing. I think about countless drives in the car where there was complete silence, that I now see were missed opportunities to having powerful yet simple conversations.

 *     *     *

As a young mother, I didn’t realize the power I possessed in guiding my daughter. It is now twenty-three years later, I am realizing how powerful my presence and words can be. She seeks advice from me. That makes me proud! I tend to get wound up at things I feel she should already know. She says to me, “Ma, it’s your fault, you handicapped me because you do everything for me, let me at least try.” Now I realize that her words are true, no matter how bad they hurt. I didn’t give her space to spread her wings, instead I chose to clip them and allowed her to fly with mines. No matter how late I am with having these important conversations, it is still necessary that I continue to show and teach her, her value, encourage her to challenge herself to kick that glass ceiling in and know that she is worthy of all things great.

I am not sure if this essay is about sexual harassment or conversations and life lessons that are not being taught to our daughters. I wanted to write a sexual harassment piece but in the end I find myself  more concerned with  conversations that should have been held with my daughter. I am beginning to realize this is about the many silent conversations I have yet to have as a mother.

Shaneka Jones Cook is a former elementary school teacher who writes fiction, poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction in addition to being a freelance writer. She is currently working on her MFA in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s been published in The Record (Trinity Washington University), and most recently Antioch University’s very own Lunch Ticket. She is currently working on a children’s book based on her two younger sons, and a collection of essays about mother/son relationships. She is the founder of the book and poetry club Chapter Chicks. She was an assistant editor for Amuse-Bouche, and the fiction team, and worked on the outreach and currently work on the interview and blog teams for Lunch Ticket. She resides in Washington, D.C. with her daughter and three sons. When Shaneka’s not writing, she’s either watching the Syfy channel or binge-watching Hulu and Netflix.

 

 

 

Doren Damico

Spotlight: Inheriting Post-it Notes

[poetry]

I

June 25, 2013

i’m in Mom’s office
helping her pack
for her new home
the last home
where she’s going home
to die

I want you to have this
she says
handing me a yellow post-it
it’s a quote that she wrote

“In the end it’s not
the years in your life
that counts.
It’s the life
in your years.”
—Abe Lincoln

(my mother
was assassinated
by cancer)

II

we discover post-its
on books and in piles
post-its obsolete
crumpled and tossed
some post-its i learn
shouldn’t be lost
she bequeaths them
to her eldest daughter

“The love you leave behind
is the measure of your life.”

blue ink on hot pink
—Fred Small
i think

III

i take them in two hands
each delicate, sticky
colored leaf
reverently pondering
the adages and proverbs
mottos and maxims
like gold-filled cracks
of ceramic tea cups
in a tea ceremony
she’s teaching me
to celebrate everything
even old post-its

“If I’d followed all the rules
I’d never have gotten anywhere.”
—Marilyn Monroe

“u only live once
but if u do it right
once is enough”
—Mae West

but Mom, i say
you’re a Buddhist

IV

the last is sky-blue
and i read it aloud

“I have slipped
surly bonds of earth
and followed the birds
into the sun
with joy”

who wrote this? i ask
that’s my epitaph
says Mom

 

Doren Damico

Doren Damico is an artist, educator, and writer based in Los Angeles, California. Her first book, When You Can’t Scream… Or 10 Reasons Why I Smoke, includes poetry, photography, and an intimate narrative that explores her journey of trauma, acceptance, and healing. Doren’s poetry can also be found in: Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles, Nuclear Impact: Broken Atoms in Our Hands, and 2016 In The Words of Women International Anthology.

Photo by Alfredo Hidalgo

Ideation

I used to think of death as one of my closest friends when I was young. Not that many people in my life had died.. Now death was just my imaginary playmate. Mental illness ran in my family like a creek. The waters were dirty and filled with parasites, but you could sit by the edge and dip your toes into it. It cooled you down, but you could feel the rapid force of the stream, sucking you under. At least, that’s how I viewed depression as a kid. First I got my feet wet in childhood, experiencing a level of sadness that I knew was not typical for a “normal” kid. When I was eleven, I was diagnosed with “mood adjustment disorder” after having been bullied out of my middle school. I was put on Zoloft by my pediatrician and my mother believed that would be the cure.

I felt like I was constantly walking down this path, forever. (Stock photo)

I viewed death as the best cure. Especially during the years I was bullied. I had an entire school against me and I got the first taste of suicidal ideation at that time. It was 2006, mid spring when I attempted suicide for the first time in my life. I remember clear as day passing out in my closet after a half-hearted hanging only to be awake by dinnertime. I picked myself up off the floor and ate, pretended like nothing ever happened. To this day, my family still doesn’t know.

 

In May of 2015, during my sophomore year of college, I was diagnosed as “bipolar 1 disorder with psychotic features.” Otherwise known as schizoaffective disorder. But I remember my symptoms worsening much earlier. In fact I can trace it to one gloomy day in October of 2014. I was going to school in Indianapolis and that day it was raining harder than it had that entire year. I wore a black dress, black boots, and had a black umbrella over my head as I made my way to group therapy.

This group was run by my school’s counseling center. Free for any student to come to talk about homework stress, relationship stress. They weren’t equipped to handle my case, as I soon learned. “It’s always about you wanting to kill yourself,” I remember one of my group members, the perky yet depressed sorority girl saying to me. And I looked at my hands in shame as everyone else around me nodded their heads. I could feel stress swelling in my back. I was a burden, too much of a burden even for the group and the therapist, who encouraged the sorority sweetheart to “speak her mind.”

She was right, though, I did always talk about wanting to kill myself. I’d spend most of my waking hours looking around at all the tall school buildings. I wondered which ones I could jump off of, how my body would look on the ground. I imagined the vigils held in my name, down to how some vague student in my stats class would claim they were “close” to me and wished I’d have said something. Anything. How my professors would wish that I had spoken up. I was still close friends with death. I believed that one move and it would be over for me and I would no longer be in pain.

  *    *     *

I’ve attempted suicide 6 times. One hanging, four overdoses, and one slit wrist.  I’ve since learned that my body is incredibly resilient to my attempts to destroy it. One such attempt occurred during my freshman year before my diagnosis. I had a bottle of Zoloft that night, approximately ninety pills I had stopped taking previously. I woke up the morning after and hobbled myself to the communal bathroom. I vomited for three hours. I heard a girl walk in and mutter “wow, this early into the semester?” I knew she assumed I was just a new college girl who partied too hard the night before. I brushed my teeth after, and went to class. Once more, nobody had knew what really happened.

Depression still has its claws in me. I am medically stable but nowhere near perfect or healthy. But here is where life gets interesting: I moved to California eight months ago. I walked across my graduation stage in Indianapolis to catch a flight to Los Angeles the next day. I wanted better for myself. I wanted to distance myself from the friendship I made with death and possibly learn who or what life actually is.

That’s when I ended up inside a Planned Parenthood to get an IUD. I had a boyfriend at the time, and the thought of pregnancy scared the shit out of me. Likewise, hormonal birth control has fucked with my mood swings, especially with my bipolar and suicide ideation. The Paraguard is a useful, hormone-free way of baby proofing your uterus. But the insertion and cramps I experienced afterward had me doubled over like I was about to deliver a baby right there in the parking lot. After two or so weeks of this mess, I found myself sitting panicked in my studio apartment, begging to be taken to the hospital.

I was screaming, at-the-top-of-my-lungs screaming. I felt sharp pains from my uterus to my back to my ribs. It felt like I was bleeding on the inside. I felt like I was moments away from dying, and for once the thought scared me.

The hospital scared me so much. I was so grateful when my boyfriend showed up. (Stock photo)

Once I reached the hospital,  I called my boyfriend. I had feared that this vicious device had somehow punctured every vital organ in my body and I was at death’s doorstep. And this time, death wasn’t the same friend I had in childhood. He was going to take me from my boyfriend, from my new life. By the time my boyfriend arrived, I was being hooked up to an IV and an ultrasound technician came in. He told us both the news: I had a softball sized cyst on my left ovary.

When I was a teenager, my doctor had told me me I had PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) “But it’s fine,” she said “unless you’re planning to have children these cysts are pretty much benign.” I took the notion of infertility as a blessing. I never wanted children, so maybe if I had cysts they’d be alright and keep me baby free. Even at the Planned Parenthood clinic they said that the only risk I had was increased cramps and possibly heavier periods. So I never followed up on this. Until now.

    *     *      *

The doctor told me I needed to be in surgery immediately and that if I delayed any longer, or if I arrived at the hospital later, I’d be facing a rupture. A rupture that would be certain death. I cried, heavily. I didn’t want to be put under for surgery. I didn’t want to not wake up the next day. I thought about all the times I begged my body to die and for once I was frightened that it would actually happen. I was having it so good, despite my depression. I was actually living on my own, paying rent, and being responsible for myself.  I initially fought with the nurses as they pulled me up for an anesthetic shot to my spine. The next thing I know, I’m awake.

Recovery was the worst part of my surgery. I couldn’t get any pharmacy to fill my prescription for painkillers. We just don’t keep them in stock. Try next week. I’m also a medical cannabis user but couldn’t get out of bed to make it to a dispensary. I got sores on my back from only being able to lay stiff and still. My scars were tiny, but the gas they pumped inside me had yet to pop and I could feel it everywhere. I panicked easily post op.  I’d feel similar pains as to how I felt before and start crying, begging my roommates to take me back to the hospital.

Doctors were tired of me. Everything is okay. They said. My IUD wasn’t even much of a problem according to them and I should just expect to feel shitty because I just had surgery. I didn’t sleep for 3 weeks. When I did sleep, I feared I would not wake up. Death was now the hooded figure in my closet. Ready to put an end to any positivity I could have had. The type of pain I experienced exacerbated my depression. I couldn’t care for myself, couldn’t eat. And it caused me more anxiety about dying than ever before.

   *     *     *

I’ve gained a new paranoid relationship with death and myself. Even on my worst days I enjoy living because, as an atheist, I believe this is it for me. Finito. But that doesn’t scare me. Instead, it’s the awareness of dying that makes me so afraid. During one of my other attempts at overdosing, I blacked out. I had taken a heavy mix of Xanax and a cheap box of wine. I cried so loudly that my neighbor called the cops. I remember being too weak to walk to the ambulance. I was so close to the end and I was distraught that they had stopped me.

I’ve heard most people who attempt suicide decide they don’t want to die seconds after they attempt. A lot of this happens to people who jump from high places. No one told me coming close to death, accidentally or otherwise, would give me more psychological trauma to have to heal from. My own mortality seemed very fragile. One cyst over time had the power to choose my end for me. Now I have nightmares where my brain tries to show me what death would feel like. In one I had a night ago, I was falling into water and I could feel myself drown. It was too realistic, the water caving in on my lungs. I was unable to wake up until I accepted that I am going to die.

(Stock photo)

As I’m writing this I’m smoking a cigarette, fearful of dying from cancer but too stressed to quit. I keep having night terrors of being shot, dying in a hospital, bleeding to death. I still have pain; the IUD still remains in place. I intend to go back to hormonal birth control when I can see a gynecologist. But  I no longer have a therapist. Now, I can no longer turn to suicide ideation as an escape. I’m a functional depressive who can’t even experience the satisfaction of knowing death is the end. I sit and watch myself simultaneously twist back and forth from hanging by a thread and conquering the world.

  Noel Ortega loves sarcasm, podcasts, and memes almost as much as she loves writing. She was born in Illinois but considers Los Angeles her true home. Trying this whole “grown up” thing while completing a masters in creative writing.

Writers Read: The Torturer’s Wife by Thomas Glave

This collection of short stories never shies away from the human potential for life-destroying darkness. Stories such as “Between,” “The Torturer’s Wife,” “Invasion: Evening: Two,” “Woman Impossible Task,” “He Who Would have Become ‘Joshua’ 1791,” and “Out There” confront the evils of war, political torture, slavery, and violence perpetrated against the gay community. Glave insists that the reader confront the violence, the death that results when people are excluded from the community or are not recognized as fully human, whether in a situation of war or the banality of gender conformity.

Glave disposes of traditional narrative technique in order to fully enter the consciousness of his characters. In the story “Between,” the narrative is non-linear, moving quickly between past, present, and future tense so that the reader is beside, or inside, the characters’ embodied experience before, during, and after a horrific act of violence. Glave breaks the narrative here, as in other stories, with italics, parentheses, and em-dashes, forcing the reader to enter more completely into the frequently disoriented perspective of his characters. In “The Torturer’s Wife,” the bodies of the tortured become reanimated, haunting the story’s titular character. In “He Who Would Have Become ‘Joshua’ 1791,” two young boys who would be enslaved fly away.

Thomas Glave

This is not, by any means, an easy read. Over and again, Glave demands that the reader confront humanity’s most horrific capacities by fully inhabiting the internal experience of his characters—often the devastated survivors of personal and/or political violence. This is an exhausting, yet necessary, confrontation. The last story in the collection, “Out There,” explores the aftermath of a lynching from the perspective of a man who is mourning the victim, his best friend. The situation is horrifying, to say the least, but the love between the two men, the central character and his murdered friend, is present beyond death.

“Now unsure as to whether it is in fact Carlton’s or the archangel’s—and in that moment, to his astonishment and sudden quiet joy, not caring either way—he closes his eyes once more and squeezes that caressing hand…” (262).

In this particular story, Glave presents the reader with a portrait of a man who has been murdered at the hands of a community that insists upon seeing him as “other,” as less than human, due to his gender expression. We see the victim’s friend, the central character, surviving by passing. We also see how their friendship, their human connection, exists in a space beyond violence, beyond death. So often violence seems to be written gratuitously, for shock value. But every painful instance is necessary to these stories. Glave offers no simplistic solutions, he never ties the story up neatly. But in between the lines, there is the insistence that if, as readers, we look closely at evil, if we participate in the dismantling of denial, we might come an inch closer to shining light against darkness.

Glave, Thomas. The Torturer’s Wife. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books. 2008.

 

Melissa Benton Barker is a recent graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work appears on Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, Five on the Fifth, and elsewhere. She is currently the Managing Editor of Lunch Ticket.

Groundhog Daying Our Lives with Each Memoir Draft

There is a certain luxury enjoyed by us memoirists. We get to live the rough first draft of an experience and we get to right it by writing it into polished narratives of growth. Pain can be transformed into a source of inspiration. Any mistake can be chalked up to a learning experience and newfound wisdom to be imparted to future readers. Failure can be written as another chapter to be continued…until success surely arrives.

I try to remind myself this each time I face my laptop screen with the intention of typing words into life on the digital page. A life I’ve already lived––and often suffered through––living on evermore with each keystroke.

*     *     *

In the comedy classic Groundhog Day, Phil Connors’ lived first draft of February 2 begins innocuous enough. At six o’clock in the morning in the room of his Punxsutawney bed and breakfast, Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” fades out on the radio as the DJ’s chime in about the impending blizzard. He endures some strained small talk with the B&B hosts about groundhog predictions and weather, all before a more tiresome impromptu high school reunion with former classmate Ned Ryerson.

The world’s most famous groundhog weatherman. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/ Getty Images)

Phil, a Pittsburgh weatherman, is in town for the day to cover the eponymous Groundhog Day celebration that has become bitterly redundant for him over the years. “It’s the same old shtick every year. The guy comes out with a big stick and raps on the door. They pull the little rat out. They talk to him. The rat talks back. And then they tell us what’s going to happen.” Yet, on his way back home, he gets caught in a blizzard he underestimated. Stuck in Punxsutawney for another night with no hot water. 

At six o’clock in the morning in the room of his Punxsutawney bed and breakfast, Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” fades out on the radio as the DJ’s chime in about the impending blizzard. Phil comments on the recycled radio programming and endures some confusing small talk with the B&B hosts confirming that it is, somehow, Groundhog Day all over again. Phil’s second draft.

*     *     *

When I get around to my next drafts, a sort of emotional muscle memory tends to activate. The increased heart rate, shortness in breath, tightness in my shoulders and throat, and/or tears rolling down my face join me in the present, replicating my physiological responses to facing demons in the past. It can be a very uncomfortable time machine where forty-five minutes of typing can suspend me in an intense moment of agony, or three years’ worth of stress––one I often evacuate by slamming my computer shut and walking away. Not today, Satan!

*     *     *

Phil similarly lives whole lifetimes in individual iterations of his purgatorial Groundhog days. Engagement. Bank heist. Police chases. Suicides. Loss.

It all begins the same way: At six o’clock in the morning in the room of his Punxsutawney bed and breakfast, Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” fades out on the radio as the DJ’s chime in about the impending blizzard.

The early re-drafts leave Phil distraught. “What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”

After suffering through enough Groundhog Days, however, he chooses to have fun with this predicament.

*     *     *

At the time I decided to do my MFA at Antioch, I had been living in Los Angeles as a Canadian ex-pat for a little more than five years. My permanent border-hopping into the US was urged by my brutal case of the aptly acronymed Seasonal Affective Disorder that held my life spirit hostage for six to eight months of the year.

Six extra weeks of winter? My personal hell. (Lancaster Online)

In 2009, I was done living a great fraction of my annual cycle feeling miserable because the bus splashed salty slush up the right side of my body, or black ice bruised my ass and tailbone and back of head, or because the basic act of just standing is painful when icicles are forming in your nostrils and sheets of snow are flying into your eyeballs.

Joke’s on me: In sunny California, gone went the SAD; in came the immigration anxieties swiftly taking its place as my life hijacker. The palm trees dancing with the Pacific breezes and the panorama of mountains served as a fantastic set for my countless breakdowns over whether I would be able to maintain a legal status or––worst case scenario––face deportation with each expiring two- and three- year visa while I awaited my green card.

Starting at Antioch in June 2015 was a way for me to write on these green card blues. I was finally ready to review and revise the rough first draft I began when I had started my US immigration process, all while buying more lawful time in the country on a student visa status.

*     *     *

Just a month into my MFA program, I T-boned a semi-truck on the 101 on my way home from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

By some sort of miracle and incredibly effective safety features in my ’98 Corolla, I was ambulanced away with no fractures. Grateful as I was to have survived with a only couple of scars on the right side of my body and residual neck/shoulder/back pains, the close call on my life and the consequent medical treatments and legal process took me far from that point of readiness to review any pending rough drafts I had been meaning to right.

*     *     *

A balanced breakfast.

I had enrolled in Antioch’s MFA because I wanted to write about how I had spent months effectively lobotomized during an unsuccessful [understatement] antidepressant trial to treat my immigration anxieties in early 2014. How the medication made my limbs feel like they were imprisoned in cinder blocks; how traveling during this time paralyzed me with fear, when it would normally charge me with omnipotence; how, prior to the meds, I would have spontaneous public crying spells where I’d blubber at my mom about not having a job that could sponsor my immigration. But so soon after the accident, my body could not handle reliving that. With my MacBook on lap and these thoughts colliding in my head, my post-crash shoulder would tighten in no time, fingers following, prohibiting me from even physically typing.

On top of that, my standard memoir strategy of extracting funny content from that lived first draft was impossible to access, what with my mental faculties stuck in the purgatory of physical rehabilitation during an injury lawsuit. What’s going to happen? When will I be done with this? Why isn’t anyone telling me anything? Helplessness and humor became mutually exclusive for the two plus years of my case settlement. Not finding the funny in my own circumstances, I spent two terms away from Creative Nonfiction in Poetry, where studying Hamilton and composing educational raps about genitalia and STIs kept me in a safe space. (Seriously, writing “Herp Derp” and “Going, Going, Gonorrhea” was hella therapeutic!)

*     *     *

Post-settlement, with a newfound sense of health and financial security, I’m back in a place where I can dare to revisit those lived first drafts.

Rewriting the cinder-block-limb feeling: First of all, I no longer have to worry about my post-accident shoulder’s emotional muscle memory taking over and adopting that weighed down sensation. I can conceive of more pleasant imagery and shift the focus to my perseverance through the cinder-block-limb feeling. I can write on how it was to move through honey during that time on meds, and especially sweeter to emerge from it. Yum! A more delightful association than the building blocks of a brutalist structure, eh?

Rather than lamenting my lonely 2014 Eurotrip, I could celebrate the abundance of cozy places to take a vacation from vacation (mainly the beds in whichever hostel and apartments I respectively stayed at during my stops in Stockholm, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London). What a blessing to be able to be depressed and discover coping mechanisms in a new continent, right?

When it comes to the anxiety attacks, I can focus on the part where I’m a pretty crier, so public breakdowns are NBD. Nevermind the routine millennial quarter-life crisis about reaching and maintaining stability for my future; I could write how tears come to my eyes in a very stoic Mariah Carey fashion, without the rest of my face too fazed about what’s going on (okay, at worst I pout. But no snot bubbling out of my nose or furrowed brow!). If America’s taught me anything, it’s that looking good is half the battle.

Revisiting the lived first drafts of my green card blues and writing them––even after my car accident recovery––can still strap me into that uncomfortable time machine. Nevertheless, I power through the repetitive loops, deking the chest tightness and tears with humor as my GPS.

My immigration story matters. I can stand to cycle through the cinder-block-limb flashbacks if it means I can shine a light on a topic that’s widely discussed yet even more misunderstood.

*     *     *

After numerous drafts of February 2, spanning a spectrum of emotions and experiences, the final pass sees Phil delivering a profound Groundhog Day report.

Reliving the same scenarios has blessed him with the opportunity to be at the right place, at the right time to catch a boy falling from a tree, replace a flat tire for stranded ladies, and clear the airway of a choking man. What makes Phil a hero more than anything, however, is his transformation from surly miser to joyous friend. Groundhog Day ultimately turns into February 3 when he wakes up in the same Punxsutawney bed and breakfast, with his coworker/romantic interest Rita and a new appreciation for the community.

*     *     *

It feels good to be able to rewrite some lightness into so many challenging times in my life––to find some peace in those lived first drafts so I can move forward and create more. Granted, this pass at my rough draft can stand to use more polishing. But with each revision, I can re-envision what present Nikki gains from the trials and tribulations of past Nikki, and especially celebrate all the ass-kicking she otherwise did.  

Nikki San Pedro loves words almost as much as she loves ice cream and travel. She was born in Manila, raised in Toronto, semestered abroad in Sydney, and has been adulting in Los Angeles since 2009. At Antioch University, she explores US immigration and health care while  completing her MFA in Creative Writing for Social Justice.

Nneka Osueke, Speak Softly, But Carry A Big Stick, 2017, acrylic, activated charcoal paint, homemade activated charcoal, genuine 24k gold on canvas, 30x26in / 76.2x66.04 cm

Spotlight: Into the Fifth

Into The Fifth speaks to the force of a paradigm shift, as I experience the world transitioning from one dimension to the next. During the creative process, I experimented with sculpture, photography, homemade activated charcoal paint, ceramics, 24k gold, and collage, allowing my creative process to flow through me, without or without thought. In each painting […]

Sitting Under the Redwoods

Did I create the monster lovingly known as my son? Or is this a case of nature vs. nurture? Should I smash my iPhone into the side of the building? Or just turn it off?

Antioch University – LA

These are some of the questions swirling in my mind as I sit under towering California redwoods, in a Zen-like courtyard at Antioch University, Los Angeles. It’s a beautiful December day, and I’m on a break between classes I’m attending toward earning my MFA in Creative Writing. Other than my son’s constant texts with demands for one thing or another, peppered with insults—it’s pure heaven.

*  *  *

I decided to obtain an MFA just for me. My educational experience before this was for my parents. I went to college and earned a B.A. in Philosophy. I didn’t necessarily want a degree in Philosophy, but when one is studying to be a priest in a Catholic Seminary—you don’t argue. I still, to this day, can’t stand to get into a Socratic debate with anyone, about anything. While writing under these redwoods won’t necessarily pay the bills right away, I can dream that one day it will. I know that now.

What I don’t know is how to convince my nineteen-year-old son, Ciprian (Chip for short) that there is a life outside of his bedroom, and beyond his Xbox. I don’t know how to convince him to go to college, get a job, or even to begin to take some responsibility for his life. I also don’t know how to stop him from calling me and my husband faggots if we refuse one of his demands. He would rather engage us in the only thing he apparently learned at High Tech High—to Socratically debate the crap out of everything he believes he deserves or wants, and to hurl insults if he doesn’t win. So, as I sit under these redwoods, Chip resorts to texting me his newest demand.

Chip: “What’s your fucking issue? You need to buy me a new car unless you wanna continue to screw yourself paying all this money for a buggy car.”

Yesterday, it was his broken iPhone (the third one in six months) and the day before that it was a one-thousand-dollar list of new clothes. The day before that it was for money he needed to replace a driver’s license he lost. I have taken to not immediately engaging him on the reasons he should begin to take care of what he has, or even (god forbid) obtain these things on his own through a (gasp) job. He is truly brilliant when it comes to Socratic debates, and I would be screwed. I instinctively want to revert to how my dad handled all of the problems he incurred with me when I was this age, and lecture the hell out of him. But as I write this, and goosebumps run up and down my body—I know better. When I was young, all my dad’s lectures over the years served only one purpose—to make me feel there was no way I could ever be good at anything because, in his words, “I was just a stupid boy.” As I aged, he still lectured me but came to respect my decisions. Or, at least he let me believe that he did.

Ciprian (Chip) age 1 1/2 Vaslui, Romania Orphanage

So, before you “get up in my grill” (as Chip loves to say) about my unlettered parenting style, and how I raised my son, you should know that he came wired this way. When we adopted him at two years of age from Romania, he refused to be put into a stroller, or wear a cap to keep his shaved head warm. Upon meeting him for the first time, the large brown eyes dominating his gaunt face instantly told us where we stood in his pecking order of needs. He had learned to live without a parent, but his basic other needs and wants would have to be fulfilled, or there would be hell to pay. If he needed his diaper changed, and we didn’t act fast enough, he would do it himself, and find a way to let us know of his displeasure. As he grew older and started to string enough English words together, he would insult us if we didn’t give him exactly what he wanted. Ultimately, he called 911 from a wall mounted telephone to talk to them about those needs and demands.

Chip: “Hello, is this mommy?”
911: “Where are your parents?”
Chip: “I’m on the toilet, they won’t give me anything I want.”
911: “Are you OK, do you need the police?”
Chip: “No, I just want a big TV for my room.”

At first, we found this humorous, but when the 911 operator asked if we wanted a visit from CPS for abandoning him on the toilet and to “help us out,” I knew we had to figure out a better way to allow Chip to express his needs.

*  *  *

Stock Photo – Romanian Orphan

Today you hear little about “Romanian Orphans.” In 2001, four months after we adopted Chip, the EU forced the stoppage of all adoptions from Romania due to what they perceived as corruption and child abuse within the system. If Romania was ever to become a member of the European Union, they needed to comply. This left many children caught in a system that would seal their fates in life. Chip was one of the lucky ones—he got out before the doors slammed shut. Today there are still over 19,000 children living in orphanages in Romania. Conditions have improved, but sensory deprivation still takes its toll. There are too many children and too few caring adults who are willing to pick up a crying baby. They cry because they’re hungry. Because they want to be held. Because they want to be loved.

*  *  *

Regardless of origin, adopting a child from a foreign country is a bit like playing Russian roulette. For every five children who find the inner strength to survive emotionally, there is one that will blow your mind. That “one” is our son. He is bigger than life, reminding us from time to time that if we don’t like how he acts, we should never have adopted him. He is also, despite his colorful use of personal nouns and adjectives to make a point, attached to both of our hips. Other than those times when I would just like to be alone with my thoughts—under these redwoods, selfishly writing my prose—I wouldn’t want it any other way. Who wants a sweet boy, or girl, who sits with a pencil in hand and does his or her homework without complaint? One that says “Yes, Papa, I love you!” If I had a child like that, I would probably sleep with one eye open fearing that their sweet exterior would soon crack, and the real “Chuckie” underneath would rear its ugly head one night with a knife in hand. I may gnash my teeth, from time to time, over how my child treats me—but I always know where I stand with him. Through it all I know he deeply loves both of us, as we deeply love him. There is no doubt in my mind.

*  *  *

I have never known a day to go by that Chip hasn’t had a complaint or called me, or my husband, a name. Some are legitimate; like “Hey stupid, I need my diaper changed,” but others are the rantings of someone who is trying to find his voice—and his way through life. They are the rantings of someone who at birth was diagnosed with failure to thrive—when his efforts to continue life, upon being abandoned by his mother, ultimately ceased—and was dumped into an orphanage to die. They are the rantings of someone who had the cradle turned upside down on top of him—so he wouldn’t crawl away—instead of lovingly placing him down in it for a nap. They are the rantings of someone who got nothing but porridge every day, and one small chunk of meat on the weekend—if he was good. They are the rantings of someone who only knows how to scream out his needs—instead of patiently waiting, or planning like the rest of us who whisper our needs to ourselves.

Chip and Daisy 2010

Over the seventeen years, he has been in our life, we’ve explored all forms of therapy, pills, etc. to “normalize” him in our eyes. I tried to instill religion, rationalize with him about life, and occasionally yelled at him until I was red in the face, elevating my blood pressure too high for a man my age. Nothing seems to faze him, and nothing stops him from trying to get what he wants. While the orphanage did not fulfill his early childhood need to be loved, to be touched, it did give him an almost herculean strength never to give up asking.

Yesterday he informed me that he was destined to make it on his own; that he refuses to work an 8 to 5 like the rest of us losers. I told him that was a good plan—if he didn’t like eating, but even that didn’t make a dent in his protective emotional armor. I wish that I could say that it made a scratch.

 

Photo of friend – downtown San Diego

The good news is that Chip has an incredibly large heart. He loves animals, his family, and friends. He protects them at all costs. There has never been a parent who met him that didn’t make a point of going out of the way to tell us how polite and generous he is. He is also very talented. He’s a fantastic photographer. He composes computer beats that he is trying to get in front of several rap artists around the country. He can design logos and t-shirt designs like a graphic artist in a Madison Avenue advertising firm. He has done this all on his own. He has always refused help. He avoids the easy road in any aspect of life. These traits may be, unfortunately for him, what he received on the nurture side from my husband and me. Chip has had a front-row seat watching as Larry, and I struggle to make a living through our creativity—Larry, a talented floral designer, and me—a frustrated writer.

*  *  *

What I would like him to ultimately do in life doesn’t matter. Should we as parents try and impose our will on our children? Should we expect that they will follow in our footsteps and become a “mini-me?” My parents, because of their religious convictions, wanted that for me. So, I spent the early part of my life pursuing their dream to become a priest, and the other part working myself to the bone in one hotel after another—instead of taking time to explore my first love—writing. It wasn’t until my mom laid dying that I finally received permission to do what I wanted to do. Her last words to me were: “Remember, Girard, life is short—make sure you take time to stop and smell the roses.” Even with those words of empowerment, it took me another twenty years to believe in myself. I don’t want Chip following in those footsteps.

*  *  *

Chip 2017

As I am writing this, amid the sounds of wind rustling through the redwoods and my fellow students quietly chatting around me, another text has come through from Chip with a photo of an ad for a beautiful 2017 red, convertible Camaro LT.

Chip: “You need to get me this car, it’s only $24,000.”

I haven’t responded. Nor will I immediately respond to his other texts for the new iPhone, the clothes, etc. While he refuses to learn, he has taught me that he still needs to shout out his demands from under his self-imposed living cradle. He intrinsically needs to be heard for his survival. These diatribes are more about letting the world know that he is still alive than they are about insulting us or actually getting what he is demanding. Eventually, as I have done many times in the past, I will sit next to him, discuss the way he asks for things, and talk about the names he calls us. He will apologize, and admit that life frustrates him. I will tell him that he is not alone.

While I fear for him on the road ahead, I’ve learned from my own experiences that it is his road, not mine. So, for now, I will acknowledge his rantings and continually encourage him to find better ways to express his frustration. Oh, and to also stop and smell the roses, or at the minimum—to find his own grove of redwoods to sit beneath. One hopefully without cellular service.

 

Jerry (Girard) Parent

Jerry Parent is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is serving as Lunch Ticket’s Flash Prose Editor. He earned his B.A. in Philosophy from St. John’s Seminary College, and currently resides in San Diego with his husband, son, two dogs and one cat. He and his husband own one of San Diego’s oldest floral companies, Adelaide’s, located in the village of La Jolla.