À La Carte: Two Apples a Day, Keeps the Pounds Away

[creative nonfiction]

When I was seventeen, my daily food consumption consisted of two apples per day, nothing more and nothing less.

Every single calorie that I ate was tracked, measured, and promptly exterminated like a nasty virus through rigorous exercise. Every aspect of my life revolved around numbers: calories in, calories out, how many minutes on the treadmill, the numeric size of my jeans, and how many days until I could eat “bad” foods once again. A typical apple has anywhere from seventy to one hundred calories, depending on the size. Based on this information, I would need to burn off at least two hundred and fifty calories to ensure my weight on the scale would be lower for my daily next morning weigh in. A routine that consisted of immediately waking up, pissing out every ounce of fluid I could, then removing all of my clothes before stepping on my electronic scale. Watching those numbers flash while calculating would determine my worth that day, worthy if I lost at least one pound and unworthy if I gained even an ounce. At least, this is what my anorexia told me every day, as a mantra for my weakening willpower.

The kind of apples I ate differed each time, but I mainly stuck to red or Fuji apples. The green apples were too sweet, which told the rigorous calorie tracker inside my head to place this type of apple on the “banned foods list,” since it contained more sugar which would make me gain weight. I stuck to my reliable apple diet for about six months until I passed out cold while walking on the treadmill which, sadly, was stationed in my living room for “convenience.” That particular evening, I had been walking on an incline up the treadmill, grinding along to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” when everything stopped. The lights went out, internally, as my body went on strike. The little men inside my digestive track were all out of coal to shovel into the fires of my metabolism oven. With this immediate shutdown, my body slumped to the ground beside the treadmill. Though I did not know it then, this uninvited collapse and fall would kick start my literal freefall from anorexia.

I opened my eyes to find that I was laying on my back, facing the direct blast of the whooshing ceiling fan, suddenly thankful for its cool gusts. Before I had a moment to get up and brush the dog hair off my butt, my mom screamed “Bethany!”

It wasn’t the usual scream that accompanies a burst of anger; this was a scream that was animalistic in its concern. Something I hadn’t heard in my mom’s voice since I was child and fell off the monkey bars, landing on my right arm, fracturing it. She reached for me, before she lifted me up to a wobbly standing position. Her soft hand brushed the beads of sweat off my flushed skin, like a warm soothing washcloth wiping away the remnants of a long day. She cupped my face in her hands, looking into my eyes for any sign of proper motor functioning. “That’s enough,” she said. Before I could answer, Gwen Stefani answered for me with the poetic verse of “this shit is bananas. B.A.N.A.N.A.S…” For the first time in what seemed like years, I agreed. That’s enough and yes, this shit is Bananas.

My face became bright red, the same color of my daily apples as I began to hold in my breath, trying to keep my rage from bursting forth from my chest, like a scene out of Alien. I wasn’t angry at her, but at myself, for not being strong enough to complete my workout and burn off the calories. What kind of wimp passes out from walking on a treadmill? Those two hundred calories would take at least thirty minutes of speed walking to destroy and now I was forced to stop. I, for once in a very long time, had to wave the white flag and admit defeat to my body. My inner voice began to scream at me, you’re going to gain weight tonight. My breathing quickened and I felt like my heart was pounding loudly outside of my chest. My mom led me to the couch as I willingly collapsed onto its cushions like a trust fall. The weight that I had worked so hard to get rid of those past six months would consume me like an infectious skin eating disease. Still a desperate virgin and never having been in a relationship, I blamed my body size on this failure. No boy would ever love me, I thought. I would never be small enough for a guy to pick me up and carry me over his shoulder, never be able to wear a string bikini at the beach, and never pose for pictures with other girls and feel confident knowing that I too was a “sexy girl.” My entire existence relied on losing weight and obtaining a better figure. I wanted that power that came with having a desirable body. I wanted to keep that confidence I had rightfully earned.

Watching those numbers flash while calculating would determine my worth that day, worthy if I lost at least one pound and unworthy if I gained even an ounce. At least, this is what my anorexia told me every day, as a mantra for my weakening willpower.

Looking back now, with a clear mind and realistic eyes, I feel such empathy for that naive teenage girl. But, I understand why I felt such self-loathing. Starting with my childhood, I always was given the title of “big girl.” No matter how little I ate, I always had a belly. It stuck out like a pregnant woman, especially after a large meal. I remember my eighth birthday party, sitting in front of a large white sheet cake and surrounded at my kitchen table by all my family and friends. What should have been a happy moment had become overshadowed by how miserable I felt. Ten minutes before it was time to cut my cake, as I was exiting the pool to dry off as per my mom’s orders, my cousin Jacob pointed at me in front of everyone and shouted, “Wow! You’re so fat.” No one laughed or said anything, but I felt their eyes staring into the layers of fat that encircled my round belly and jiggly thighs. I pulled at my swimsuit so that it wouldn’t cling to my body as I rushed past Jacob, and past the stares of my family. Everyone in the Scott family has what we affectionately call a “beer belly.” It’s my physical curse that I carry everywhere. It would take six months of starvation to realize that no matter how hard I pushed, cried, and walked, this curse could never be broken. But, my spirit and mental health could be.

It the summer of 2005 when I said enough, it’s time to try and lose some weight! I was about to enter my junior year of high school and I was extremely overweight at two hundred and forty pounds. I was a size eighteen in pants and wore XXL shirts, which was always a challenge to buy since most of the young adult clothing only went up to a petite XL. I was tired of having to wear Granny-style shirts, lovingly bought for me by my mother at Bealls. She would never say the words aloud, but I know she felt disappointed at my size. At family parties, I couldn’t help but feel a disconnection from my family as I compared my size to everyone. I was, at that moment, roughly the same weight as my large six foot-something uncles. Two of my cousins, both around the same age, were not overweight. More importantly, they were not quiet or self-conscious about their appearance. I was extremely shy and quiet, mostly because I felt I had to be that way. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, at least not to my weight. You become the literal elephant in the room. I don’t remember the exact date, but I do remember coming home from a summer party at my Nana’s house and telling my mom cautiously that “I want to start losing weight. I think I need to, don’t you?” She closed her eyes and nodded yes. My body had become a problem, and it desperately needed to be solved. So, I did. But like all problems, sometimes we don’t know how to draw a line in the sand of acceptance.

In the July-October months of 2005, I did what most people did to lose weight: counted calories. My weight loss journey began by cutting out half of what I would’ve normally eaten. Then, I cut out all carbs. Soda was the first item placed on the “banned foods” list in my notebook, with candy and all forms of carbohydrates added by September. By Halloween, I was down forty pounds and did I feel fantastic! I had so much more energy. My clothes were now loose instead of tight. I went down to a size fourteen and threw out all of my “fat” clothes. I was a weight loss addict, who got high by watching the number go down every day on the scale.

More! More I say!

I came to the conclusion by November that all the food I was eating, like Lean Cuisines or a Slim Fast, were not natural and therefore going to stall my weight loss. So I placed those on the banned list and stuck to only fruits, particularly apples. I had always loved the smell of apples, with their crisp sweet aroma. It always made my mouth water just thinking about biting into a big juicy red apple and hearing a nice snap! as my teeth gnawed through its core. Fruit was natural and healthy for you, so why not only eat apples? Around the end of November, I found that the scale would no longer budge as much as I wanted daily. I decided to only eat one apple for lunch, one for dinner, and then fast all night and morning with only bottled water to drink. I told myself that water would fill my stomach up, so the hunger pains would stop. Maybe it was all psychological or maybe it was a lie I told myself, but I truly never felt hunger pains. My stomach growled, but there was no real pain. If there was, it was pushed aside for the euphoric sensations that came with my weight loss. As the scale went down a pound each day, I felt so alive and enthusiastic about my life for once. I became more social at school, more confident when talking to boys, and I felt that I could compete with others my age. I was no longer on the lower end of the social totem pole. Yet, that nagging voice in my head was always there to make me question my self-worth and to tell me false stories about what others thought of me, really. I was my own worst enemy.

When you focus all of your energy and thoughts into weight loss, life begins to swirl around you like a tornado loaded with cows that “MOO” at you as you are contemplating cheating on your diet with a delicious gooey cinnamon roll. Hell, a piece of stale dried up cheese appeals to your now desperate taste buds. Without the worry of where and when to eat, you have an awful lot of free time on your hands to examine your life and it’s inadequacies. You question your entire being and wonder how much weight you’d have to lose to make others like you. How much weight would it take for me to finally feel confident enough to stand in front of a group of people without feeling like a freak? For me, at the hopeless virginal stage of my late teens, I wondered how much weight I would have to lose in order to make any hot guy want to have sex with me. When every aspect of my acceptance revolved around my body, it’s no wonder why I developed a terrible eating habit that would cause permanent psychological damage, which has stuck with me like that annoying shirt tag that sharply scratches your back, even after cutting it out. You shrug your shoulders, but it still occasionally irritates you. Anorexia comes with incessant thoughts about the one thing you want but can’t have, no matter how hard your mom tries to persuade you with a sliver of pizza or a bottle of crisp apple juice instead of that small apple. After a while of denying your body food, all kinds of tasty meals begin to occupy your every thought. When I look back at my journal during my period of anorexia, all I see are lists upon lists of different foods I would eat once I reached my goal weight. Pumpkin pie, pancakes, cheeseburger, fries with copious amounts of ketchup, and even olives made the most wanted list. After that fateful day when I passed out on my treadmill, I caved and allowed myself to have one cheat day in six months. I told myself, one meal won’t hurt, right? But, as I learned, once I gave in to my temptations, I could never hop back onto my winning streak of anorexia. Within two months of that cheat day, I had regained twenty pounds. I started a new diet: which was to have days of binging on all those yummy foods in my banned foods list, then days of complete starvation to counteract the weight gain. I once ate a Cheeseburger from McDonald’s, and then punished myself by not eating for three days.

The truth is that not everyone who has or had an eating disorder looked like this, no matter how hard they tried. Some of us, myself included, have bodies that regardless of how much we lose weight still appear to the casual passerby as being “normal” or “healthy.”

By February, I was about 160 lbs. Do you want to know the most shocking part of this whole ordeal? The lowest weight I was ever able to get down to was 128 pounds—with starvation. If you had taken one look at me, you would have never guessed that deep inside was this nagging monster that thrived on self-hatred and physical punishment. You probably would have said I was a chubby girl, even at my lowest weight, which was the one title I so desperately tried to erase from my resume. By March, I stopped every diet plan. Although I wanted to fit into those size eight jeans that hung up in my closet like a trophy on display, it just wasn’t worth the daily struggle of resisting any food I craved. That award wasn’t worth winning anymore. I wanted to be free from all restrictions and expectations. Stopping my eating disorder was the hardest and yet most freeing moment of my life. I began a new journey, one of self-love and acceptance of myself, rolls and all.

One of the main issues I’ve always struggled with when coming to terms with my eating disorder is telling others about that period of time. It’s not that I’m shy or feel uneasy sharing such personal information. No, it’s because every time I have told anyone that I was once anorexic they take one look at my obviously not so thin figure and literally laugh or mentally “pfff sure” me. I can’t say I exactly blame them, because I would do the same if I had never experienced an eating disorder. When I was in college, I was over at my boyfriend Chris’s house when somehow those six months of my anorexia popped into our conversation. I told an entire table full of his family, including his mom, all about my apples and the aftermath of my fall. His mom, who had been listening from her patio chair, would later tell Chris that I was completely full of shit. As they cleaned up the after party mess around their house, she recalled my story about my anorexia while laughing; pointing out that my current weight at that time was definitely an indicator of my lies. She said, “How could someone like her have been anorexic?”

The worst part was that though he didn’t say the words, I knew he agreed with her. Looking now at my size fourteen body, with all the jiggles and rolls that shake like Jell-O as I walk, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a daunt, skeletal figure. The irony of it all is that they are right, I never was bone thin. That image is what the dramatic movies showcase. That image is what comes to mind when you hear the words “anorexia” and “bulimia.” What I wish more people understood is that the image where one’s skin is stretched tightly over protruding bones happens when the disorder becomes life-threatening. It’s when your body has depleted every ounce of fat and is now eating away at your muscles, desperate for something to make fuel out of. Nothing about my eating disorder or figure was stereotypical, thankfully. But sometimes, especially when I reopen that scar that once was a gaping hole, I wonder if people’s reactions would be different if I was a smaller size naturally. By allowing myself to share my story, I become vulnerable, like a weakened animal. I crave, more than anything now, a sign of empathy. But, I rarely receive it. After twelve years of searching, I’ve given up on telling my story. Instead, I store it in my “teenage years” section of my memory closet. But, with this essay, it’s time to release my story into the world in hopes that someone else, boy or girl, will read it and know that your negative thoughts about your body are not real. Your body image can be distorted, regardless of your age or weight. Thin, fat, tall, short, wide, petite, and everything in between can experience shame from within.

Eating disorders are portrayed using conventional images of rail-thin young girls, with pencil-like legs and hollowed out eyes. These girls are so thin that just looking at them makes your stomach drop and your heartache for their well-being. The truth is that not everyone who has or had an eating disorder looked like this, no matter how hard they tried. Some of us, myself included, have bodies that regardless of how much we lose weight still appear to the casual passerby as being “normal” or “healthy.” Some of us can deplete every ounce of body fat and still have “weight” on them. Not everyone, boy or girl, can completely change their body type to that of someone who “looks anorexic.” I’ve found, from talking to many other women who had an eating disorder in their teenage years, most were like me. And like me, their stories remain hidden due to the fear of having one more person doubt the most emotionally painful experience of their life.

Something that also comes with having the label of “former anorexic” is the question of how you stopped. “Didn’t they send you to a rehab or something?” is the most asked question, and to their surprise, my answer is always, “No, I just stopped.” If you already didn’t believe my tale of woe with anorexia, this statement guarantees a “yeah, sure” look. Not everyone who once had an eating disorder was given the luxury of attending an expensive rehab vacation to work out the fat-shaming demons from your head. I’ve always looked at my recovery as being like a smoker who finally reached their limit and quit cold turkey. You reach a point where the starving, the longing for food, hair loss, feeling cold in ninety-degree Florida weather, and lack of self-love becomes too much to bear. You reach your tolerance level and decide to never go back. To put it simply, you’re just tired of all the bullshit.

The reality is you’re never really cured from an eating disorder. It lays dormant in your head, constantly reminding you of the power you once had over your body, and how wonderful it would feel again. It’s like a drug, in that it brings comfort and chaos. It patronizes you when you eat a bag of chips, cookies, or even drink a small glass of ice cold Coke. It’s constantly reminding you of all the opportunities you’re missing out on because of your weight. You tell yourself lies in order to get through your current state of shame, like “I’m fat right now, but if I lose ten pounds by the end of July, I can finally show off my thighs in that cute sundress!” You tell yourself that your confidence would be boosted, your energy levels will be through the roof, and most importantly, just how much people would like you if you only lost enough weight to fit in with all the other “normal” women. But here’s the thing, your mind is full of shit and lies to you all the time. It’s hard to see it, because you literally live inside your head, but your mind can be a frenemy when given the opportunity. It preys on your weaknesses like a shark smelling blood, ready to pounce when its victim is already sensing an unknown danger lurking below the water’s depth.

Starting with my childhood, I always was given the title of “big girl.”

It’s hard to truly love yourself when your mind plays Devil’s advocate every day. You try and decide what to eat for lunch, which sends you on a rollercoaster of ups and downs. You tell yourself that you should eat a big and savory Cobb salad, along with a bottle of unsweetened iced tea, sweetened only with stevia. Sounds okay, right? Especially since you’re trying to eat better, but the reality is you’re so hungry and want something more filling, more satisfying to bite into. This is when you get hit with an “Oh! What about a cheeseburger from Five Guys?” Then your mind and desires begin to battle back and forth until eventually you decide what’s going to make you feel better right now? If you go with the salad, you’ve proven to yourself that you do indeed have strong willpower. If you go with the cheeseburger, you feel great while eating it and your savor every single bite. But, within a few minutes, you feel shame. You’ve lost the battle today and you feel like such a complete failure. You tell yourself that this is why you’re failing in various aspects of your life. If you can’t even resist one cheeseburger, how in the hell are you ever going to write that book? Or, find a hot guy to hit on you? Why, Bethany, are you like this? You make promises to yourself about how you’re going to change, how next week we will diet. But, every single time, you fail. So this vicious cycle of shame continues onward, as it has now for me since 2006, post-anorexia.

I’ve been searching for any sort of validation that I’m not batshit insane since my literal fall from my eating disorder. I’ve gone these past twelve years with an unshakable feeling of shame regarding my eating habits and, of course, weight. No matter how many of my friends, family, or strangers compliment me on my appearance, I still have that voice in my head that pipes up and says Uh, yeah, let’s not get too confident there, girl. You know that the mirror doesn’t lie, bitch. You’d think that because of this voice, I’d avoid mirrors, but it’s quite the opposite. I love looking at myself in the mirror. Some days, I can look in the mirror and just focus on the good parts of my physical beauty. I think I have a pretty face. I like my dark Italian features, like my wonderfully thick hair (eyebrows included). I love how my eyes are both green and brown, which is like a beautiful swirling of my Irish and Italian features.

But, I can never look at apples, especially the ones in my mom’s fake plastic fruit basket that sits upon our kitchen table, with the same innocent eyes. All I see is that desperate girl, who doesn’t know that only time can bring her the kind of acceptance she so badly craves.

 

Bethany Bruno is a born and raised Florida Writer. She attended Flagler College, in St. Augustine, FL, where she earned her B.A in English.  She later attended the University of North Florida for her M.A. Before becoming a Library Specialist, she was an English Teacher and a Park Ranger with the National Park Service. Her work has been previously published in The Flagler Review, Lunch Ticket, Paragon Press, Underwood Press, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and Ripples in Space. She’s currently working on her debut novel, “From the Passenger Seat.” She lives in Port Saint Lucie, FL.

A Queer Declaration

Over the weekend, I watched Gaycation for the first time. This investigative series follows Ellen Page and her best friend Ian as they examine LGBTQ+ culture and laws in different places around the world—something that interests me as a queer woman in the United States. While watching and hearing the varied views on the implications of being gay, realizations started churning within me of my own struggles with self-acceptance, inwardly and outwardly, past and present.

Then my phone rang—my girlfriend in Kansas. What are you doing? she asked, always eager to know what I’m up to 1,568 miles away. I told her what I was watching and asked if she ever saw it. Um, no, I think that show is similar to Gay Pride parades for me. Me, head-scratching, as confused as I was about my crush on Avril Lavigne when I was thirteen-years-old: Oh, okay.

I let it go, but after we hung up, I kept thinking of her tone when she compared it to Gay Pride, so I sent a text.

Me: Wait… What’s wrong with Gay Pride parades?

Her: Lol idk… it’s like being expected to drink tequila on Cinco de Mayo because I’m Mexican.

Again, I let it go, but I kept thinking of the Stonewall riots, the 1969 uprising that essentially turned the wheels on LGBTQ+ rights in the U.S., and of all the injustices committed throughout the years against members of the LGBTQ+ community. I thought about how my gay brother hates going to “straight bars,” because you never know what discrimination you’ll face outside of safe spaces, and I thought of all the enraging reasons safe spaces exist in the first place. I thought about growing up in the stifling state of Kansas and how I’d never been to a Gay Pride parade until I was twenty-eight years old and living in California. I wondered if she thought about any of this or if, to her, Gay Pride celebrations were just an excuse to party.

At that moment, I decided, and declared on Facebook:

“I WANT TO WRITE THE MOST ELOQUENT, ACCESSIBLE QUEER SHIT I CAN WRITE TO HELP OTHER QUEER PEOPLE KNOW IT’S OKAY TO BE QUEER.

And, yes, that needed to be in all caps.”

It needed to be in all caps because I was trying to convince myself it was okay just as much as I wanted others to know it was okay.

*     *    *

Growing up in a small town in Kansas, raised by a Mexican father and a German mother, identity was a tricky thing to navigate even without the “queer.”

When I was twelve, my brother asked me to his room, telling me he’d like to talk to me, to tell me something important. I was hesitant—I loved my brother, but we weren’t exactly best friends at that age, so I wasn’t sure what he’d want to tell me.

I stood at the side of his bed, near the door, as he sat at his desk, then turned to me and said, “I’m gay.” Without needing to process, I just said over and over, while smiling, “I knew it, I knew it!” He laughed and asked, in disbelief, how I could possibly have known, causing me to think about all the times he pretended to be Britney Spears, flipping his fake long hair as often as he mirrored her choreography. In hindsight, this wasn’t actually a good indicator of his sexuality, but it happened to be the connection my young mind made. We talked about his experiences up to that point and everything seemed fine. I mean, I knew he was going to deal with hardship with our family and school and the world in general, but everything between us was fine.

I didn’t understand at that point how it could or would affect me, but it became a huge hindrance for my own acceptance of self.

*      *    *

You can’t be gay—your brother’s gay. One gay per family. What I’d tell myself.

You just haven’t slept with the right man yet. What others told me.

I spent the next sixteen years conflicted about my sexuality. I had a couple girlfriends in high schoolmostly only “out” because that’s what they wanted, though it made me uncomfortable to walk the halls holding their hand with all those eyes staring.

My first adolescent long-term relationship ended when I was fifteen. After a year and a half, she cheated on me with a guy from work, and then left me for a boy from school. When she was breaking up with me, she asked in an accusatory tone, “How do you know you’re really gay if you haven’t even slept with a guy?”

The overthinker that I am, I thought about this for weeks. And then I found an opportunity with a male classmate, a guy I thought was cute but who I was otherwise disinterested in. He picked me up in his truck one evening and we drove to a park near my house where he turned off the engine and leaned over to kiss me. As he climbed over the middle console, unbuttoning his jeans and then mine, and then positioning himself on top of me, I panicked briefly, wondering what I was getting myself into. I tried not to let my apprehension show as he brought his body down to meet mine, and then I instantly got lost in thoughts of a girl I admired, picturing her sitting on the steps in front of the school where I always saw her reading by herself. I thought about her and then it was overI’d successfully had sex with a male. And then I thought, Okay, well, now I know.

But I didn’t know, because then the more predatory conversations came, the ones that went: He probably just wasn’t any good. You need to sleep with me to find out.

Again, the overthinker that I am, I thought about that for years. Thus began a pattern of getting blackout drunk and giving myself to men—a pattern that lasted eleven years, starting when I was seventeen, fresh out of high school with no plan for the future. I didn’t question whether I was interested in women; I knew that I was, but I questioned whether I could actually not be into men, because society made it really fucking hard to believe that was possible. I wanted so badly to be interested in mento fall in love with a man, to marry a man, to have children with a man, to give my parents and society what they wanted because everything would be so much easier that way.

But that never happened.

*      *    *

Society, along with many personal demons, had really warped my sense of self.

At twenty-eight, I’d find myself on Tinder, changing the settings from “Women Only” to “Men and Women,” but taking notice that any interest I’d have in men at that point had more to do with self-deprecation. I’d get into these moods of wanting to be used, of wanting to be treated as lowly as I felt about myself, and so I’d swipe right on an influx of men, and I’d read the mostly disgusting messages objectifying me, and I’d respond to a handful and tell them I was only interested in hooking up—but I could never bring myself to follow through.

*      *    *

And so, on episode one of Gaycation (“Japan”), when Ellen Page said how important it was for her to no longer be in hiding and how the level of toxicity of it was just so extreme and wanting to be in love and to love someone openly was far more important to her than being in movies or having someone dislike her for her sexuality, it resonated with me. I was tired of going to family reunions and having to play the game of being heterosexual with my dad’s straight-laced Christian family. I was tired of introducing girlfriends as just friends. But mostly, I was tired of hating myself for not being what made others comfortable, as if their comfort was more important than my self-worth.

I thought of the gay culture I’d experienced since moving to southern California and I thought of how my most recent love interests would ask me how I felt about public displays of affection. I thought of how I’d tell them I’m only sometimes okay with it, and then how sad it made me when they’d later ask, “Am I allowed to hold your hand here?” How they’d follow with, “Are you sure?” when I’d say, “Yes,” because they loved me enough to not want to make me uncomfortable, when all I really wanted was to love them and to be loved by them, regardless of the world around us.

So when I declared “loudly” on Facebook that I want to write the most eloquent, accessible queer shit I can to help others know it’s okay to be queer, I was making a declaration to myself. I was declaring to write shamelessly about my truth and the truth of so many others, of being a woman who loves women and of learning to love myself by accepting that and sharing it with the world. I was promising myself to stop letting society dictate who I am, and who I have sex with, and who I love, and when and where I hold hands with or kiss or even hug the person I love.

Because if I write about it, if my goal is to help other queer individuals shed the shame, I most certainly have to come out of hiding and be about it.

 

Alisha Escobedo is a marketing coordinator and an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. She also works as proof edit assistant manager for Lunch Ticket. Her work can be found in Desolate Country: We the Poets, United, Against Trump and Prompts!: A Spontaneous Anthology. Originally from Kansas, she currently resides in Long Beach, CA.

Spotlight: Weight & Call Me Animal

Weight

First thing you learn is to swallow a fist/ that sets its aim/ on the white manager who calls you/ so articulate/ as if the notion is as rare as a nun in full habit/ or unicorns/ I learned to play house/ with dolls I’d rather bury/ and frilly girls I’d prefer to avoid/ my mother taught me to keep your true friends hidden/ and your daydreams to yourself/ you knew Reagan was an awful president/ but never said outside the home/ clouds are for white girls/ and silver-haired bosses with striped chrome ties/ press your hair/ think corsage and prom/ not botany and muddy sport/ hold your aptitude on your sleeve/ but not too much/ just a tint of intelligence is enough/ lest you be branded WANNABE or uppity/ you make people uncomfortable if they’re unable to place you/ bite your nails/ scream in your pillow/ tell no one/ be quiet/ be sociable but non-threatening/ say please and thank you/ earn an unobtrusive living/ get married/ have kids/ get divorced get remarried have more kids/ go to church/ be quiet/ sing in the choir/ you hate gospel but no one needs to know/ wear sunblock/ despise the sun/ tiptoe/ don’t spill anything/ mistakes are for white people/ work hard work hard work hard/ be normal/ compact your aura/ wear heels/ put your game face on/ huddle/ don’t intrude or invade/ eat bland food/ truncate your name/ swallow your fist your pride your everything/ understand the gravity of your situation/ you are predicament/ you are flash and other other other/ swallow it all

 


 

Call Me Animal

I feel the need to pulverize
a white and guarded space.

A wolf buys a townhouse         surely
to rend and transmogrify the cherubs in your garden.

Kestrels at a wine tasting beg to differ
they shriek and dive in groups of three
someone ought to do something
they’ll only multiply if the hunting’s good.

These creatures
with their shiny teeth and coiled manes are everywhere
too sudden too much loud spices and howling
stomping hooves and marking territory with Jazz and inventions.
.
Re-begin here
with a gospel of bodies
Gryllidae warned you the revolution will be televised
indivisible hoodies Pynk in the Bible Belt
on the scent on the hunt on the verge.

 

Nicole Burney is a native of New Jersey. She’s fascinated by linguistics and how language reveals layers of estrangement and human identity. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Cold Creek Review, Glass Poetry Press, Cleaver Magazine, and Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora. Nicole is currently working on her first full-length collection entitled BLACK MAMBA.

Awakening the Unconscious Legacy [trigger warning]

I dreamt I was a sex slave. One of many, though I couldn’t talk to the others. And every night there was a faceless entity pushing down on me, forcing himself inside of me.

When I woke up, the terror was still there, a tidal wave waiting to crash until my dog licked me to take him out, and the feeling dissipated completely.

Later, while doing my dance of writing, then pacing, then writing, then pacing, my friend texted me to discuss an essay I sent her about a woman’s life of trauma. While we texted back-and-forth about the essay, she apologized to me. I asked why. She said she’s having a funky day from the nightmares she had the night before. I told her apology wasn’t necessary and that I had nightmares too.

“It was scary,” I said. “Maybe it was from an NPR story I heard a couple of weeks ago that’s been stuck in my head.”

I know what trembling presence feels like. A gift man thinks is to his kind. The curse of being born to bodies like mine. I know what it means to strengthen the spine. To lift the weight from solid feet to carry the presence from the bones. Writing wakes the rage fueled by the ever-presence in synapses. Writing makes you sit with senses, with firing synapses forming words, finding space on a blank page. Words hold space. Vibrations. Tones. Waves. Vibrating to the bone. Shaking the core. A taser. Clipped to skin. Electric.

I thought that was why I trembled. I thought wading in memories until words took shape must have sent the shock to my unconscious mind making words perform while I slept. Then, something told me that it wasn’t a memory but a haunting. The ghost of an unconscious legacy, and I didn’t know what he wanted yet.

So, I pushed the ghost aside, and my friend and I casually comforted each other through silly memes and gifs. We chatted about her recent publication and Pushcart nomination. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm for her.

“Yes, it’s very exciting, and I’m honored,” she said, “but no one tells you when you write a rape story, every woman wants to share theirs with you.”

I thought about my recent difficulty with putting myself back in harm’s way to write about my past experiences with boys and men who take up their rite of abuse. I saw my writing as an act of resistance; with my broken bones healed, I could carry the weight of his (of every his) presence. I hoped writing my resistance would inspire others. But I, like my friend, never thought sharing my story would mean sharing their weight.

I listened as she shared stories, but none of the burden; she only held me there for a minute before she shocked me out of it with her twisted humor. Somehow she knew—perhaps from years of service to her community or years of carrying weight that could crush most others—how to carry on with the weight of hers and theirs.

When we got off the phone, I got a text from a friend inviting me to see the keynote speaker at the White Privilege Symposium. A few hours later, I met my friend at the Symposium. We sat down at an empty table as one of introductory speakers began. Their thought-provoking performance put me back in the space of deconstructing white supremacy. In my writing, I put focusing on whiteness aside to bear witness to my experiences as a woman—at the time, I hadn’t quite connected how they intersected.

They introduced the keynote, and I felt the presence of the ghost.

_____

I have felt unwanted fingers slip in while sleeping, waking me to the nightmare of fighting off a boy I thought was my friend. Each time I straddle my legs in stirrups at the gynecologist, anxiety emanates as I’m forced to put blind faith in the hands of the figure in the white lab coat. Many women know this feeling. For this reason, I choose to make my appointments with women.

This appointment, an insertion of an IUD. A nurse asked me how long ago I took ibuprofen. Was I supposed to? I never saw the emailed instructions to prepare for the pain. I started to panic slightly. She told me not to worry; she’d get me some ibuprofen, and the doctor could give me time for it to kick in.

Less than five minutes later, a white middle-aged woman entered. Of course the one time I want the doctor to take her time, she doesn’t. I asked the doctor if she thought I needed more time for the pain medication to kick in. She assured me I didn’t have to worry and that it was a “quick and easy” procedure. I laid back, saddled up to the stirrups, and tried to relax. A quick insertion to keep me—us—worry-free. I have a high tolerance for pain.

Photo Credit: Brittany Horrigan

“This will feel a little cold,” she said inserting the speculum. “This will feel a bit uncomfortable,” as if the proclamation would push any anxiety away. I felt her poking and prodding, fishing around in me. And with it, excruciating pain.

“You have a small cervix. You haven’t had any children?” She asked.

“No.” I was in too much agony to be offended by the assumption that my age meant I had.

“Ah. Here we go. Okay, you’ll feel a little pinch.”

Pinch? Pinch is what your mom does when she wants you to pay attention in church. “Pinch” in this case was a razor-sharp instrument clasping my skin, pulling off all the skin on my body. Except this wasn’t happening outside of my body. It was happening within.

“All set,” she said, rolling back her chair indicating I could free myself from the stirrups. “Sit up slowly.”

She pulled off her latex gloves, handed me a pamphlet, and mumbled instructions. But all I heard was a throbbing, a ringing, resonating throughout my body. Clearly, she had no clue how much I was suffering. Or maybe she did and had forced herself to numb the empathy. How else could she routinely perform procedural pain?

Ringing. A call. For me to answer and shout, “I’m in pain!” But I didn’t. I stayed mute. Like we often do. I stayed mute and said, “Thank you.”

She told me to take my time before leaving, but all I wanted was to get the fuck out of there. I put on my clothes, and while slightly hunched, pressing one arm to my lower abdomen, headed to the line to pick up my other prescriptions.

Oh my god. Please hurry. Fuck. Fucking terrible health insurance too cheap to give the actual care you need.

I clenched my teeth and pressed a little harder. Fuck! The line shuffled steps forward, and I began to sweat profusely. It was winter, and I started to de-layer. Two more people. Please hurry! I reached the counter, and the woman asked for my medical ID card. I moved my arm to grab my wallet, but my hands were claws. My fingers wouldn’t bend or open, and suddenly, I felt faint. I felt my white face get whiter. “Excuse me,” I said and stumbled over to a chair a few feet away. I looked at my feet to ignore the people staring at me.

Somehow, I drove to meet my partner halfway and laid in the fetal position on the passenger side until we reached home.

_____

Years later, I remembered my IUD experience when a story on NPR struck me. The host introduced Denver poet Dominique Christina’s latest book about “Dr. J. Marion Sims, a white doctor considered to be the ‘father of modern gynecology,’” who in the 1800s “experimented on enslaved black women” to discover new procedures for white women.

Christina wrote the book from the perspectives of Dr. Sims and one of the slaves, Anarcha. She introduced a poem from Sims’s perspective, “Dr. Sims Makes Something New,” by explaining how without giving Anarcha any anesthesiawhite people conveniently believed that blacks had a different threshold for painhe used Anarcha’s body to invent the modern-day speculum, an instrument used for gynecological exams:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
She is so easily disassembled.
I take the ruined stock of Eve,
The wilted petals, the spent flesh,
And bring it wire, steel.
Restoration.
Everything we delight in came
First by the blood of a woman . . .

I sat in my car in front of my house frozen, listening. To Sims, Anarcha wasn’t a person, but an open wound to stitch and tear and torture, again and again (thirty times) until his fingers found the right moves, hands ready to repair wounded white women.

Then, Christina read “No Magic, No How” from Anarcha’s perspective:

. . . . . . . . . . . .
blood and shit
Massa-Doctor’s               prayer less ness
what i gotta do Jesus to
get out myself?
huh?
what i gotta do to
junk this here body.
tell me quick lawd.
i’m listenin
i’s ready . . .

But Anarcha was not just an open wound; she was somebody. Somebody who desperately wanted to escape the body being tortured by a body whose brutality will be justified, by a body who will be memorialized by a body of citizens seduced by convenient truths. When the segment ended, I went inside, and Anarcha followed. She haunted me. But I had work to do, so I put my thoughts and feelings to rest. But the thing about ghosts is, what we can’t see doesn’t disturb their presence.

_____

As Dominique Christina walked up to the Symposium stage, I realized she was the poet I heard on NPR weeks before.

“This is an invitation for you to be in your body, to risk feeling everything,” Christina said.

I felt the “pinch;” I felt the forced fingers.

However, in dreams, all of the characters are you. I remembered that I was not just the slave, but also the faceless entity. This time, when the poet read, the skin that cut into Anarcha’s was mine. Everything we delight in came / First by the blood of a woman. It was my choice to let her bleed for white women—for us.

And with it, a new sense not just of what it felt like to be subject to terror, but what it feels like to terrorize—the unconscious legacy of white supremacy buried within.

“Memory is a persistent ancestor; it hangs onto the marrow.”

I don’t know how dreams work, how they grab at feelings buried in synapses. But this was a seance. Dominique Christina a medium. Anarcha’s and Sims’s ghosts hovered until striking. Vibrations. Tones. Waves. Vibrating to the bone. Shaking the core. A taser. Clipped to skin. Electric.

Stunned. Frozen by the waves of words projected, rocketed, shot at me. I was motionless. Without words. I was only with what haunts me: the shudder of lives we terrorize(d). A resuscitated reckoning that white folks must perform.

Pictured: Dominique Christina
Photo Credit: Dominique Christina

Dominique Christina pinched a nerve in me to wake the unconscious legacy of white supremacy and the pain that radiates. As she read and spoke, I knew that Anarcha didn’t choose to subject herself to torture for white people like my partner and me.

“You are a concept, but from the moment you arrive, you are given a construct.”

Christina made me confront the fact that if I decide to have a child when I take the IUD out, I can do so because of what Anarcha and the other slaves were forced to endure. My blood birthed from theirs. Every child is/was born from the torture white people inflict. Every white and black child is a memory. Black children are born with the pride and the pain. White children are born with the guilt and the shame. Black children learn to reckon with and resist it. White children learn to ignore it. But shame and guilt carry weight too. Although white folks have gotten good at putting it back on people of color to carry and have taken the rest and buried it, the ghost of our legacy refuses to leave. He meets us in our dreams.

“I really do engage memory as a radical act. I really do like to re-member, which is to say, I’m trying to integrate the stories back into my body.”

Christina makes sure we remember the pain and not just the science. We live in an open wound. Amnesia cannot dam the blood from spilling. I, as a woman with all other women, suffer living in this oppressive patriarchy, but I, as a white person with all other white people, am trained to ignore how the systems in place benefit white people. Subversion, dismantling the systems that benefit white people, is the only way to mend our wounds and heal. For a white person, resistance without recognition of her place in history denies what haunts her.

What I inherited brings me sorrow, yet avoiding the ghost of white supremacy solidifies his power. To haunt is to inhibit, to reside, to remain. Christina uncloaked the ghost of white supremacy, the whiteness occupying our bodies—he has moved and morphed as we have. I now see that before I can exorcise him and embrace the spirit of resistance, I must understand his presence, his terror, his shape-shifting ability. The unconscious legacy that lives in me doesn’t make me a bad person; this is not a matter of good or bad, but of learning to use eyes. I work to shift his position to my conscious, so I have the perspective needed to examine my place in the space whiteness possesses. I work to move my body, so Anarcha, Christina, and all of the resistance have the space to lead.

 

Kate Carmody is a writer, teacher, and activist. She is currently working on her MFA at Antioch University in Los Angeles. At Lunch Ticket, she is a blogger and a member of the community outreach team. Her writing is forthcoming in Stain’d Arts. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her fiancé and dog, Corky St. Clair. Twitter: @KateCarmody8

Litdish: Valeria Luiselli, Author

Photo Credit: Diego Berruecos Gatopardo

Valeria Luiselli earned her PhD in comparative literature from Columbia University and has received awards from the Los Angeles Times, the Azul Prize, and the National Book Foundation. Her books include Sidewalks, Faces in the Crowd, The Story of My Teeth, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, and now, Lost Children Archive. Her work also appears in The New York TimesGrantaMcSweeney’s, and The New Yorker, and has been translated into more than twenty languages.

As the female protagonist, a wife and mother of two, packs books for a cross-country road trip in Luiselli’s latest lyrical, culturally relevant novel, Lost Children Archive, the character ruminates on why citizens of the world read.

“When someone else’s words enter your consciousness like that, they become small conceptual light-marks. They’re not necessarily illuminating,” she muses. “But sometimes a little light can make you aware of the dark, unknown space that surrounds it, of the enormous ignorance that envelops everything we think we know.”

Whether the reader of these thoughts is a writer, MFA student, or lifelong learner, the author encapsulates our own experiences of processing and internalizing literature—to expel some of the darkness in our knowledge bases.

To call Luiselli just a smart writer would be an oversimplification of her broad range. She is prescient but funny, politically brilliant (holding unparalleled knowledge of the child migrant crisis), and incisive but warm: a writing polymath. Lost Children Archive dips and soars on an emotional bell curve while maintaining rigorous attention to literary influences, current events, and story structure.

Luiselli recently spoke with me on the novel writing process, media coverage of the migrant refugee crisis, engagement in differing communities, self-translation, the books we should all read, and word fetishes. Our conversation was humor-filled but so informative—illuminating—much like the experience of reading Luiselli’s work:

 E.P. Floyd: Can you talk a little about your writing process for Lost Children Archive? I know you wrote The Story of My Teeth in weekly installments for factory workers, who were your first readers. So, how was this novel writing process different?

Valeria Luiselli: I in fact started writing this novel in that summer of 2014 when the refugee crisis at the border erupted, and I wrote it during the next four years or so. Tell Me How It Ends [Luiselli’s long form essay on her experience as a volunteer translator for migrant children] was a bit of a hiatus from the novel-writing process. That came at a moment when I realized I was using the novel as a vehicle for my own political thought, my political rage, my activism, and I was both spoiling the prose, stuffing it, and also not doing the situation justice by using the novel as that kind of vehicle. So, I had to stop writing the novel for a long time, for about six months, and write Tell Me How It Ends. I was able to articulate what I wanted to articulate in a nonfictional form, more spare and to the point, that purely just denounces the situation, without much more. It’s a very straightforward book—it denounces and portrays. Only then was I able to go back to Lost Children Archive and think about it no longer as an instrument or as a means to an end, but as an exploration in itself.

EPF: That’s fascinating. I didn’t realize that you wrote both at the same time. But, I see it now, the influence.

VL: Right. In many senses, the novel doesn’t answer any question, but it unfolds some of the questions that are asked in Tell Me How It Ends, both the question of what would happen if my own children were alone at the border, and some of the stories left undeveloped completely in Tell Me How It Ends, particularly the story about the two girls, who I actually did meet in court when I started volunteering and translating for kids, and whom I never knew anything about after that one interview. Those are the ghostly presences in the very heart of this novel.

EPF: Are you still keeping up with and are you satisfied with the way the news media in the US is handling the refugee crisis, and what would you like to see more of?

VL: Am I satisfied? No, I’m not satisfied. But, it’s not a US thing. The way that these kinds of narratives are formed is very sensationalist, very much based on a kind of shock politics. As soon as something wears out, the media stops paying attention even though usually the consequences of violence towards communities reach much deeper, and linger for such a long time. Sometimes, even if there’s no shocking headline, things are usually just not covered. We were just talking about things like family separation this past summer. While it was happening, many other things were happening, whose effects are much more long lasting, like little tiny changes to policy, things that are difficult to understand. It’s a kind of reporting that tends to shy away from nuance and complexity, but also from what seem to be boring, technical details. It’s not all about, like, cages and blood—but also the everyday institutional violence that’s not as shiny and not as loud, but that should be reported on.

EPF: Thank you for sharing that, because the female narrator in Lost Children Archive is a journalist, or she identifies as a journalist. There are all these incredible revelations and concerns about how to tell a story and what story to tell in the book. She’s worrying at one point about cultural appropriation, and she lists out all these concerns she has when telling a story:

“Constant concerns: Cultural appropriation, pissing all over someone else’s toilet seat, who am I to tell this story, micromanaging identity politics, heavy-handedness, am I too angry, am I mentally colonized by Western-Saxon-white categories, what’s the correct use of personal pronouns, go light on the adjectives, and oh, who gives a fuck how very whimsical phrasal verbs are?” 

Which concerns of these do you share, and what concerns do you want readers to take away?

VL: I suppose all of the above. We all partake in forms of journalistic or writerly sloppiness and have to be constantly checking ourselves to see where we’re writing from, the things that we’re not looking at, the things that we’re assuming. I think those kind of questions are not the end of a discourse, but the beginning, like you should know where you narrate from in order to from there go into more complex questions. It was very clear for me, writing Tell Me How It Ends, that I belong to the Hispanic community. We belong to many communities at the same time, we’re intersectional, we’re in different worlds at the same time. So, I belong to the Hispanic community, but at the same time I belong to the literary community, which gives me a platform, and at that same time I belong to a community in which I was highly educated here, in a PhD program, so that gives me a certain responsibility, a social responsibility. I try to be very conscious of those things, and I try to also be transparent about where I’m writing from. Tell Me How It Ends, for example, is a book that has a personal strand just for the purpose of disclosing of where I’m speaking from.

EPF: I think you told Democracy Now in 2017 that violence starts with language, but so does resistance. What kind of resistance are you hoping to see from publication and from the effects of the book?

VL: I think if a novel creates a political dent in the world in which it falls, then all the better. I mean if it’s a good one, of course. But I don’t think you can write or walk into a project with that kind of expectation, especially not a fictional work. And that’s exactly why I stopped writing the novel for a period. Because I was trying to do just that and I was, as I said earlier, ruining the novel and not doing justice to the subject. The essay that I wrote, Tell Me How It Ends, is a very different beast. That was a political statement and meant to disclose a very pure, political stance. A novel, I don’t think, can or should do that. It becomes this lofty, heavy-handed, pedagogical thing. A novel needs to be a place where real people breathe, and they have sex, and they pee. [A novel with a political message] really just becomes this instrument for personal politics. It’s terrible. Characters become archetypes and personality becomes only traits. One always hopes that something good will come of it. But I have no expectation in that sense.

EPF: Exactly. A novel with a political message will just feel really forced and…propaganda-esque. One thing I wanted to ask you that doesn’t have much to do with the book—what do you think, besides Lost Children Archive, we should all be reading?

VL: That’s a good question. What should I tell you? There are so many things that are good and important. I just unpacked half of my library. Well, all of my library, actually. I had always had my books in Mexico until I moved to a house. I bought a house in the Bronx last year.

EPF: Oh, congratulations!

VL: Thank you! And then, I was able to ship, after ten years, all my books to New York from Mexico. It’s been really such a discovery to see what I know from the books that had always been my books. They’re mostly philosophy, because I studied philosophy. So, I’ve been opening a few books up and reading them here and there. I’m kind of there in that universe right now, reading little bits and pieces of things that I read long ago—Gadamer’s Truth and Method. Kant, essays on history. No one’s going to pay any attention to this part of the conversation.

EPF: Oh, they will!

Both: (Laugh)

VL: But, you know, this year, there are a couple of interesting books coming out. Samanta Schweblin’s first book, A Mouthful of Birds, is coming out this year in English. I think she wrote it like twelve years ago. That’s an amazing book. Everything she writes is fantastic. I always struggle with this question.

EPF: It’s probably because you read so much to begin with it’s hard to make recommendations. I think that’s a good thing.

VL: There’s also a book by Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism, which is about the prison-industrial complex. She brings in a much more complex way of hearing incarceration in the US, incarceration in the criminal justice system, but also in the immigration system. It’s a very good book, a vital book. In translation, Alejandra Pizarnik’s books came out in the last couple of years, and they’re very interesting.

EPF: It looks like you referenced, in an interview with the New School, that you wrote this book in English and then did some self-translating into Spanish. What was that process like?

VL: This book, just like Tell Me How It Ends, I wrote in English. I self-translated Tell Me How It Ends into Spanish. But I’m not self-translating this novel, because it’s just too big of an animal. I attempted it, but I started rewriting it completely. Then I thought, it’s another five years of this. I didn’t want to write the same book twice. Right now I’m revising the Spanish translation, which someone else has done. Several pieces I attempted to write simultaneously in both languages. That was a very naïve project I had at the beginning, which was that I would write the entire novel simultaneously in two languages. The passages I actually managed to write that way were probably some of the best passages in the book. I think the process itself was very fruitful. Were I poet, I would definitely work that way. But I’m not. There are so many other ways. A novel is language, but it’s not only language. It’s not only the words and images. There are so many others layers of consideration. The impulse is different, the rhythm. It worked for me on some pages, but I think it was a naïve thing to think I could do.

EPF: Well, now I’m dying to know, which of those passages did you write in both languages?

VL: That’s a secret.

Both: (Laugh)

VL: To be honest, I don’t remember all of them, but there’s a scene where the girl is sucking her thumb and slowly falling asleep in the back of the car. And then there are echoes of that scene, because there’s a kid in the airplane who’s doing the same thing, he’s being deported and sucking his thumb in the airplane. Those parts I wrote simultaneously. And then several parts of the Elegies [one of the female protagonist’s packed road trip books is Elegies for Lost Children, written by a fictional Italian writer] I wrote simultaneously as well.

EPF: Wow.

VL: And that was kind of fun, because I had originally started writing the Elegies in English, and decided not to circumscribe the Elegies to a specific geographic region or moment in history. But, then when I started playing with them in Spanish, I suddenly realized that I needed—or I wanted—to bring in the language of Central American words in Spanish for objects that exist in the reality of a migrant. Everything from the tube tires, which have a specific name, tubo, to the person who will ferry a group of people across the Rio, the River, the Usumacinta, at the Mexican-Guatemalan border. That person is called a torero. There was this realization of a lot of words in Spanish than I didn’t know because they’re not Mexican, they’re Central American. The fact that that part of a train, the boxcar, is called a gondola, like the boats.

In the end, I’m a writer who absolutely fetishizes words. So, I was really drawn to exploring that linguistic repertoire in Spanish and that circumscribed the story into a region and moment in history. So, I thought, well, I have to bring this back to English. I can’t let the story exist just sort of floating above history and above space. So, it was language and playing and translation that grounded the Elegies in a different way. And I foreignized the Elegies by bringing in terms such as a “gondola.” And, it’s a risky decision, right, because if a reader doesn’t read patiently or wonder, “What do you mean, fucking ‘gondola’?”—they might assume.

The exercise of imagination there is immediate. I think the immediate impulse of the reader is to imagine what you already know as a gondola, an Italian long boat that looks like a bit of a coffin. And then I think there has to be this effort. And I think that that effort is also something that makes literature worth it. That pause and thinking and maybe researching and then understanding, and then saying, “Okay, that’s what it is.”

 

E.P. Floyd is blog editor and weekly content manager of Lunch Ticket, and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work is published or forthcoming in The RumpusLunch TicketLitbreak Magazine, and Reservoir. Find her online at epfloyd.com and on Twitter at @eprofloyd.

Being A Stepmother

Being a stepmother is different from being a mother. And maybe that is a good thing.

I date a man with a daughter. I don’t see much of Kate in the beginning, which I understand is intentional. She is only two-and-a-half, and single parents can have rules about these things, not wanting their kids to bond with people they are casually dating, not wanting their children to see strangers affectionately ruffling their parents’ hair, sleeping in their bed.

But after a couple months, I visit the boyfriend and his daughter for a long weekend in Maine. It takes me a plane ride and a taxi and a ferry to get there. I am flattered and excited to have entered the-meet-the-kid-stage. I am also nervous as hell. Kids don’t lie, especially little ones. What if she just hates me?

I come to breakfast our first morning with a turquoise kikoi tied around my head that Boyfriend says makes me look like Keith Richards. Since I’m not used to being upright and conscious on a weekend morning before eight a.m., I’m also incapable of worrying whether I’ve blown it already with the odd headgear. This is good. Instead, I blithely choose to take my new Rolling Stones persona and Boyfriend’s toddler for a morning swim. A little grey stony cove waits for us where the lawn ends. What good is a rented house on the water, if you don’t go in?

Now there is cold water and there is water so cold, it stabs and curls the toes. This is the latter. Stubborn pebbles punch the undersides of my feet as I shuffle in. Such are the joys of coastal Maine in June. The only thing blessedly missing is a thick blanket of fog.

Still, I’m a big girl and the little girl feels good on my hip, thin arms circling my neck, soft belly pressed against my side, thighs locked around my waist. Her father waves to us from the shore, his hair spiky with bedhead, his jeans rolled up to below his knees. We wave, we look at one another, smile, she giggles. I walk in deep enough for the water to catch her toes. She squeals.

“You want to go under?” I say. She nods. “It’s cold,” I warn her. The last thing I need is a wet, crying two-and-a-half-year-old. Maine is lonely without friends.

But something in her expression, a mixture of courage and trust and mischief, convinces me that it’s going to be okay.

One, two, three. I make her count it with me. We’re in this together after all.

One, two, three! And I drop us into the bone-chilling, heart-stopping water.

Are we gasping when we emerge? Yes. Are we screaming? Does Kate’s dripping, stunned face have a look of pure terror? Only for an instant. Is Boyfriend whooping on the shore impressed? Most certainly. But that hardly matters. What matters is Kate.

We shriek, we hug each other tight, we grin from ear to ear, and I hurry us back to dry towels and Boyfriend on the shore. As I place her carefully down at the lip of the water to run into her father’s outstretched, towel holding arms, she looks up at me, shiny, shivering, but radiant. When I smile at her I feel an easy peace come over me. We have had our first adventure, our first experience of complicity, and just like that, I know we are in love.

Her father? I’m not so sure how I feel about Boyfriend yet. But he does look so tender bundling Kate up in the faded striped towel. Rubbing her sides, laughing, telling her she is so brave.

Eight months later I’m walking out of a church, ring on my finger. Boyfriend is Husband and his right arm encircles mine. In his left he holds Kate. The three of us descend the steps to a waiting car and pile in.

Kate sits between us, a flower crown circling her head, black Mary Janes on her feet. She looks like a mini Snow White and it dawns on me that with a simple “I do,” I’ve become the villianess of all her favorite fairy tales. Will she make the connection?

Kate curls into her father, sleepy. She must wish, somewhere in her young heart, that her father had married her mother instead of me. But she’s a kid, so she rolls with it. We all do.

Now stepmothers get a bad rap. We’re evil and conniving. We’re jealous and petty. We’re unloving and unlovable. So bad are the tropes, near strangers used to corner me at kids’ birthday parties after seeing me and Kate hug, me tie her shoelaces, her rush up to tell me one thing or another, things so unremarkable between a mother and daughter you’d cut them from a movie script.

So, these mothers, because it was almost always mothers, would rush up and say, “You’re so close!” And it was like, yes, we are. But the gushing would continue, and I’d add how I got along with Kate’s mother, that I’d been in Kate’s life since as long as she could remember, that Kate’s parents were never married. I’d add all this by way of explanation, because I believe it does, in part, explain things, but you’d be surprised at how many people would still shake their heads in wonder at our bond before they drifted away with the drained looks of real parents trying to parent their real children.

These parents, they tear their hearts up over every conflict. They try to hide it, but they bleed. They speak in measured tones. They are patient. They are trying to be grown-ups, but it’s not easy. These kids, their kids, unwittingly hold up funhouse mirrors and trigger old wounds, activate frustration and shame in the most unpredictable ways. I know this because I am a real parent too. Kate has a younger half-sister. Her name is Madelyn.

I think I might’ve been a better parent to my step-daughter than I am to my daughter.

With Madelyn, if there is too much feeling I start to adopt it, embody it, like the umbilical cord was never cut. I claw my way toward steady ground, toward some kind of healthy emotional distance from which I can parent, from which I can be a mature adult, from which I can be wise and be a guide. But often I lose. I can be reactive, sarcastic, vindictive, withholding. I can be childish.

If Kate was scared, I made her feel less so. If she was unhappy, I cheered her up. If she was angry at me, I didn’t feel angry back. I fixed it. We talked things out. There was something rational going on. Usually.

*    *    *

“You’d never have married me, if it wasn’t for Kate,” my husband likes to say. He’s right. We laugh. What I say less often, but also know to be true is, “If it wasn’t for Kate, you wouldn’t have married me either.”

*     *    *

 

Now, Kate is sixteen and going to boarding school. I blame it on Harry Potter and Dead Poets Society, but then I think too the girl is tired of shuffling from one house to another. She wants a place to call her own.

We throw her a party. It is impossibly hot. Our A.C. is broken and we drape ourselves over chaises on the lawn. Her friends sweat in front of hastily purchased fans and eat caramel popcorn and Chinese chicken salad that practically wilts on the fork. But they seem to be having fun. I fret about the hole Kate will leave in our family when she goes.

For ten years she’s been living here one week on, one week at her mom’s.

One week on.

One week off.

Now it’s just going to be off…

Forever?

As the party winds down, and we lower the music so as not to annoy the neighbors, Kate leaves with her mom and two besties for a sleepover.

Me and my friend Jen, we wave at them and blow kisses as they leave.

“Thank you, Liz, for the party!” Kate says. She looks happy standing on the path, her face rosy and glowing, thick brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. It is dark finally, though not much cooler. The outdoor lights spook up the eucalyptus trees behind her and the wall of bamboo that edges the trampoline.

I feel this immense gratitude welling up inside me, looking at her, this person I’ve known and loved and helped raise since she was a toddler.

I think of getting up from the lounge chair, wading through the water feature that separates us, carpeted with dead leaves, and wrapping my arms around her, but we are so sweaty and really this isn’t goodbyegoodbye. Instead, I continue to grin at her, hoping she can feel the love radiating from my chest.

“Thank YOU,” I shout, my voice cracking like a teenage boy’s. “Thank you for everything.”

I almost starting bawling, right there, but Jen shouts, “For everything! Everything! We love Kate!” like a football chant and Kate shouts, “I love you. I love all of you guys,” and scoots down the steps to the curb.

“She looked really happy,” Jen says, once Kate is gone.

“Yeah,” I say. “She looked loved.”

 

Liz Tynes Netto is a lapsed journalist, TV producer, and current MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is the flash prose editor for Lunch Ticket and she is writing a novel.

 

Yael Sapir, lace on a leaf, 2018, found leaf and cotton threads

Spotlight: The Ornamented Leaf



Finding the Woman with Jasmine: A Self-Portrait

My husband kissed me in the middle of the night eight months ago, but I didn’t feel him leave until I reached for the dip in the bed. We had received Army orders for his deployment overseas and prepared for the reality our family would face. I had lived in Los Angeles for eight years, but four years as a married woman and now mother to our children. The liberties of living “single” looked different now and frightening. I promised to be the same woman he left, a wife waiting, even if that meant reserving an empty space he wouldn’t occupy.

I always held onto the improbability he hadn’t really gone. The day he left—and I knew he left—I ran down the stairs expecting to see him making coffee, but the bench was clean where his boots sat. The hot twinkling from his car engine’s had long left the garage. We were ripped from each other like a Band-Aid.

I bought a calendar for the kitchen wall to count the 321 days he would be gone and fanned the thickness of the months. Vulnerability followed me to the sore places at the dinner table, or on the days I toted our three kids around on errands and another stranger would grin and say, “looks like you got your hands full.”

My husband, a collected military man, would call us twice a day crazy with affection. We set online dates and delayed saying goodbye like we did when we first met, and then I’d feel the rush of sobbing my eyes to prunes.

The early days without a partner can be painfully misleading. His closet was still his. The dip in the bed was still his. My son would cross another day’s box out and we’d cheer together. Missing someone was sweet adrenaline.

*      *      *

The bar was full of superficial intimacy sparking potential affairs. In the corner, a couple too hopeful to be steady, the collagen-plump young eating baskets of bread, carefree arms swooping for hugs but tipping Happy Hour glasses, and the bartender dispensing liquor at the counter. I was a bystander on the outskirts, infiltrating the nightlife crowd carefully as he followed me to an open spot at the bar and offered to buy me a drink.

We were co-workers last year, but the office rapport quickly turned into a warm, platonic relationship. Formal greetings became text updates about his new job, complaints about traffic, his long-term girlfriend, our love of tequila, my husband, our darling children.

Nothing significant over the months, but then a message: “Hey, I have your painting.”

A lithograph I found on a whim at a NoHo thrift store. The woman with cocoa tendrils around her face; a divine and unwavering gaze over the stalk of yellow jasmine she clutched to her chest.

I saw her above the staggering pile of used throw pillows. The cashier, tight-lipped and shrewd, brought her down for me and placed her out of arms reach onto a glass counter. She offered me a price based on my obvious enthusiasm. I surprised myself when I blurted out a barter and received twenty-five dollars off.

My arms bound around the frame all the way to my office. I leaned her against the white space of my desk. She wasn’t hiding anymore.

When my husband left, I decided to quit my job and stay home with the children. It was a hot June afternoon in the valley when I packed my work belongings. The lithograph was the last item on my desk, but leaving was a sweaty, disorganized haul and I had forgotten all about her when I handed in my key. My co-worker had stopped by on his way home one day and found her stuffed in a closet.

Of course, I wanted her back. “Let’s meet,” I replied. Only a quick exchange and a harmless drink.  

*      *      *

My mother had a formula for a love story. She divorced my father when she met my step-father, and they bought a white house together. She clung to that formula for 13 blissful years, but infidelity snuck into the spaces of his body that were abandoned.  

Maybe the entry point for my step-father was an evening out with friends or another woman’s laugh—the woman at work. Maybe it was the fact that he was now 50-years-old and married for 13 years. Maybe it was a refreshing secret phone call or a new image.

I could only assume that when my step-father denied my mother, it was an extraordinary disorder to the equation she trusted for the rest of their lives. My mother lost 25 lbs and moved into her own apartment before they reconciled.

Even after forgiveness, she warned me about marriage. It shook my perception of certainty. Each family member grieved the loss of an image in our own way. I loved like there wasn’t a formula, only catastrophe.

*      *      *

Something happens when you miss someone too long. The longing becomes emptiness, the homeostasis. The shirt was vacant. Space was occupied by stacking one measuring cup into another.

Halfway across the world, my husband woke up for work from a windowless shipping container to sit in an office made from another shipping container.

“How was your day?” these messages came day-after-day. What he really meant was, How were the kids? Conversations like this were the death of marriage without divorce.

I turned over in the bed and went to sleep.

*      *      *

Our conversation began with formalities at the bar. How is life? Plainly—I’m well. When I responded, my body was a bucket, and words sounded like the hollow beat of its bottom.

I always assured my ego I wouldn’t let myself go when I was young, but self-care after motherhood is cumbersome. I traded in the small luxuries for rapid, efficient tasks. My house was a tight ship, my husband used to say. That’s how parts of me began disappearing until I was just a working part in the ship. First, to my husband and then myself.

My haphazard ponytail and black cloak were impenetrable. I was foolish to think it. I hadn’t been close to feeling anything in months, but in the axis of the noisy room, I sensed his leg pressing into mine. My breath quickened and filled my body with the rush of familiar catastrophe.

What came out of my mouth was uninteresting, but later, I noticed my body sitting up straighter. He leaned in closer. Soon, I was weaving stories and throwing my hands in the air. The more I rambled, the more I craved his proximity. He squeezed my hand, and I went on and on. I was aware of my ignorance. The blatant desperation for someone, anyone, to validate my experiences as unworldly: he inquires. Go on, go on. Eyes open, I spilled my desires and ambitions onto the wafer napkin below a wet glass.


*      *      *

He set the lithograph into my car and hugged me like a scene out of a tacky movie. While we walked to the car, he offered a proposition. I would be lying if I said I didn’t hesitate, how quickly I soared over sabotage. I think I’ve won.

Outside of the bar room, slumped bodies hurried alone to their cars. Cabana lights flared off on Main street. The boxes would transform into children’s boutiques and bagel shops by morning. The reality was both heartbreaking and romantic. I stood back from my friend on the edge of the road. Not every self-realization fit in the cloak pocket where I felt for my keys. Not yet.

I felt then the urgency to go home, take my hand, and reach for the empty spaces in bed. On the drive there, I erupted in intervals of laughter and tears. I felt the rush of shame, flattery, loss, and love. Love for the morning coldness on my shoulders. Love for the coffee I brewed myself, and the children’s cereal bowls overflown. My children, who cross their right leg over left like their father and sob like their mother when she spoke to her husband for the first time; after, sitting on the couch below the picture of a cocoa woman clutching jasmine, waiting for him to come home.  

 


Cristina Van Orden lives in South Los Angeles with her family and Chorkie. She is currently an MFA Candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Poetry Editor for Lunch Ticket. Her work can be seen or is forthcoming in Chaleur Magazine, Gordon Square Review, HOOT Review, and Silverneedle Press.