The day your mother has a stroke, you have to admit you know almost nothing.It starts when you receive a text from your sister that lights up your phone in the darkness of a movie theater: Mom is in the hospital. […]
My words held up a mirror and exhibited the same qualities she’d always instilled in me, one last time. Two weeks later, she let go. She found that bravery I’d asked her to, our bravery. Her last lesson to me was how to love myself again […]
This whole situation was like trying to find all the hidden items of Zelda. Can’t you enjoy the game without discovering all the secrets? Not for me. To truly know myself, to be able to successfully walk through my life, I had to understand my parents’ programming.
I was 16. It was fall of my senior year, and I was applying to colleges. But I knew where I wanted to go. For most of my life, I’d lived down the street from my dream school, an ivy-covered university that loomed large in my consciousness. My father was affiliated with it, and it played a central role in my family’s life—we went there for plays, exhibits, sports events. I’d even dressed up on Halloween as the school’s star football player when I was a kid. I was sure this university was my destiny […]
Shame defined my womanhood, then motherhood when I gave birth to my first son two years later. The vessel in me expanded and shrunk, carved and bubbled, carrying the scars, my past becoming my present: a hysterectomy.
When asked, I almost always give up and offer the term “a nonsexual orgy.” People enter a dance studio in a leafy Boston suburb and commence to touch, play, and move with each other’s bodies. What else should I call it? The people who come here often know it by its technical name: A Contact Improv Workshop. The people who […]
I wondered what it must be like to live every day looking death so directly in the face. I stepped closer. The marble he was cleaning had long ago lost its sheen, but he cleaned with a vigor that defied all skepticism as if he would only stop working when at last he could look down and see the reflection of the sky […]
A recent DNA analysis told me I’m “less likely to freckle,” “more susceptible to male pattern baldness,” and have “a stronger tendency to be agreeable.” Coincidentally, I do have very few freckles, am shedding hair by the fistful, and when in the right mood, I can be as congenial as Sandra Bullock in a rom-com flick […]
Nesting Matryoshka dolls were originally created as an homage to family, each doll at home inside a loving matriarch. Now an important part of Russian culture, the first sets were designed as toys. Traditional sets consisted of eight hand-painted pieces: the largest a Babushka, holding a rooster with a headscarf tied […]
Two years after being hospitalized, I’m still not 100% certain if I’m bipolar or not. I mean I’ve had two different psychologists tell me that they think so. That I “exhibit” the key characteristics. They’ve said so after sessions where I’ve talked too much, but felt like I was only starting to describe how I felt every day. How it started as depressive episodes in High School when sat on the corner of my bed without moving for hours. I used to blame it on the music I listened to. Elliott Smith…Daniel Johnson. I used to think I was just a moody teenager that needed Lexapro. I was labeled as manic depressive and hurried along my merry way. The first time I recognized my mood swings was through the daily fights I engaged in with my mom. We’d both circle each other like angry bulls until something caused us both to explode. I’d lock myself in my room and punch the walls. My little brother was the first to ask if I thought I was bipolar. I took it as an insult. How would he know that about me without me knowing it myself? He hasn’t said anything to me that honest since. The chemistry in my head darkened as I transitioned into college. While all of my friends explored and found themselves, I could only see myself make choices and act from some distant prison inside my chest. I started hearing my mouth spewing words I didn’t recognize and didn’t mean. Even as I asked my body not to scream, not to feel so panicked I couldn’t breathe, not to hurt itself, my body did as it pleased. In a way, it was like walking away from a good friend after seeing burn your bridge on purpose. The more control I lost the more impulsive I got, too. While my mood shifts were brief, their consequences stretched on like scar that refuses to forget. At least I started to learn more about myself. Then came the insomnia. Around that time my eyes started to refuse any rest.
I’ve always been able to stay up until three or four at night and wake up the next day without an alarm before the sun comes back. The truth is both sides of me need each other. That is the half that is overwhelmed with love and warmth for the people and things I care about and the other half which tries to inflict as much pain as possible onto myself and all those around me. I’ve never gotten a formal diagnosis. I’ve tried. But not really. A work schedule that required my attention twelve hours a day didn’t help and I’ve always been bad at talking to anybody about these things. At complaining. Not knowing my diagnosis all the way is like walking through a pitch-dark room and then realizing you’re standing in a tunnel instead. The goal posts running away from you. When I told my parents about the first time the psychologists said they thought I was bipolar, they said I was just stressed. Underneath the tug of war between my mind and my body lay my being, urgently needing to be liked and loved by everybody I came into contact with. It’s more than a little pathetic. At times I feel like my personality is just a combination of performances meant to seduce and entertain while I cringe inside. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I wonder if I am actually sick or if this is just actually doing all the heavy lifting for the rest of my personality? My game of avoidance came to an end one night after my band played a show in Somerville. That night throughout our set, I drank my favorite emotional trigger. Towards the end I stopped playing some songs halfway through and fell on top of the drumset. My bandmates’ fury outweighed their concern so I snuck away after the final song to another bar next door. I don’t really remember getting home, but I know that it took multiple people to restrain me from running into my bathroom or locking my door. They thought I was a danger to myself and called for an ambulance. Am I just a piece of shit looking for an excuse not to blame myself for all the things I’ve done? Are my feelings just another easy way out? I question this and then remember there’s nothing easy about this.
Esteban Cajigas is a writer, musician, and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. His short stories and poems have been featured in publications such as Venture Magazine, Foliate Oak, and others. Esteban also previously wrote for The Boston Globe as a correspondent and The Suffolk Voice as Editor-in-Chief.
- the practicing of an activity, especially a sport, on an unpaid rather than a professional basis.
- the fact or quality of being incompetent at a particular activity.
A friend of mine took up ballet at forty. It’s been ten years of chassés and ballonés and wobbly pirouettes. There are some moves she will never do well, and even more that she’ll never do at all. A whipped throw, anyone? But that hardly matters. Where one pair of eyes might see blundering futility in tights tottering across the wooden boards, my friend, she experiences a moment of grace.
I know how she feels.
Three, five, maybe seven seconds on a wave, is enough to carry me through the day. When I’m up on my surfboard, gliding along the wave’s shifting face, the whole world hushes for an instant. There is just the energy of the ocean pushing me forward, while my body calibrates to balance and steer for the ride. It is a place beyond thinking, a pure immersion in the Now.
And then it’s over.
Did you picture someone in the perfect feline crouch or standing tall with a lazy poise, or even better, making delicate cross steps up and down a board? Don’t. I really suck at surfing. And like my friend, who has no delusions of becoming the next Margot Fonteyn, I don’t mind if I tumble off the side, starfish off the back, get rolled in a rush of white churning water. I only want to get better because getting better means catching more waves and catching more waves means catching that brief feeling of being totally in the moment, of feeling one’s incessant inner chatter silenced. The euphoria from a string of those few wave riding seconds can last hours, the sense of calmness, days.
This is not an advertisement for surfing. God knows, there are enough bodies and boards in the water. From Montauk to Malibu, on a sunny weekend with a swell, you can gaze off the cliffs and imagine the D-Day landing, were it not for the joyful whoops echoing through the air. The water below is so carpeted with rubber-suited forms bobbing and flailing about. It’s hectic out there. No, don’t go surfing.
When I first took it up ten years ago, I wasn’t in the best of shape. I still had a lingering sand bag’s worth of the seventy-five pounds I’d gained during pregnancy, but it wasn’t the shape of my bathing suit bod that most urgently needed to rebound. It was the inner me I hardly recognized. Like one of those giant mylar balloons you find half deflated and tangled up in seaweed on the beach, I felt hollowed out and baggy all at once. Joy reached me through my young daughter but otherwise, a sodden emptiness crept in, a sense of disconnection, a low aimless drift. Phone sessions with a therapist on the other coast were of no help.
Melancholia, she is a most unwelcomed and impudent houseguest. Try to cast her out the front door and she’ll go around and sit on your back porch until you let the dog out. You never know if she’ll be followed by Depression. I had been blessed not to have had a protracted visit in years, but there she was pitching her gloom tent over me, settling in. And it was summer. Wasn’t summer supposed to be fun?
I can’t remember who hooked me up with my first lesson. If I did, I’d thank them. But I still remember the morning. I was the only one in the water without a strappingly handsome instructor who looked like he’d cruised out of a Rip Curl catalog. Instead, thank goodness, I was with an elfin, craggy-faced, white-haired man who’d definitely gotten his AARP card years before. His red Toyota pick-up was a tsunami of faded wetsuits, stained towels, wadded up Hawaiian shirts, and foam boards. Before he found me suitable attire and something to ride, he’d opened the passenger door of his truck, pawed through crumpled posters, half-empty bottles of suntan lotion, tangles of surf leashes and miraculously pulled out a perfectly yellow, unbruised banana. “Want one?” I declined. “Suit yourself,” Steve said, peeling it back. “But you might be sorry.”
After shoving myself in a wetsuit like sausage meat in its casing and doing some dorky push-ups and pop-ups on the beach, it was time to hit the water and “paddle out.” Imagine a drunken seal heading into the waves. “I’m not getting anywhere!” I’d shriek as another monster crashed in front of me and sent me careening backwards to the shore or, more often, off my board and into bubbling white foam. Finally, gasping like I’d summitted Everest without oxygen, I made it past the break. I felt totally spent. But I was grinning ear to ear.
If you’re lucky enough to have an instructor the first time you surf, you will paddle toward the shore, but they will give you an extra push to catch the wave. You may wipe out, you may pop up on your knees, or you may ride on your belly all the way to the beach.
I once asked an instructor down in Mexico if there was anyone he’d taught who’d just “got the hang of it” right away. Two, he said. One was a Cirque De Soleil acrobat and the other was Jimmy Chin, the extraordinary skier, climber, Nat Geo photographer and filmmaker – you may have seen his Oscar winning documentary Free Solo? Yeah, that guy.
As for me, I managed to catch a few small waves and get on my feet while we were out there. Maybe I coursed through the water upright for a total of 22 seconds. 22 out of the 3,600 that make up an hour-long session. But those few seconds buoyed me, and I felt a soggy layer of despair lift off me just enough. Better yet, it didn’t collapse over me again when I lost my footing and plunged back in the water nor even later when I was out of the water, dragging my board with rubbery arms up the beach. For Emily Dickinson, hope came as the thing with feathers. For me, it was a nine-foot foam log with a leash. I knew that if I could get a little more of this surfing thing into my life, maybe I would start to feel better.
The word “amateur” comes from the Latin verb amar: to love. You do it not to win nor for profession gain, not for recognition nor for money. You just do it because you love it.
Since that day ten years ago, surfing has not only helped me reconnect with a happiness and peace inside myself, it’s connected me to the many wonderful people I’ve met out on the water, and to organizations committed to protecting our oceans and sharing the healing power of surfing. I’ve also been able to surf with my daughter (who fast outpaced me in the skills department) and watched as she developed a deep and abiding connection to the water. A party wave with your kid, as the sun hangs like a fat orange just above the glassy water, is bliss.
But I didn’t know any of that would happen yet when I hauled my aching, dripping body to the parking lot. All I knew was that I was really happy and really hungry. So yes, if Steve still had one buried in the depths of his truck, I wanted that banana.
Liz Tynes Netto is a lapsed journalist, TV producer, and current MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is the flash prose editor of Lunch Ticket and she is writing a novel.
My father is a simple man in old age. He lives on the outskirts of Las Vegas now, in a rinky-dink apartment complex. The television blasts CNN at an alarming volume for such close quarters, but he’s outside, minding his business and squatting on the patio with a cigarette between his fingers. In between puffs, he pokes at his quaint, urban garden, a sign of his domesticated life as a retiree. He always wanted someplace warmer than the chilly, wet climate in Seattle, better for tired bones. In his heyday, he was a bell bottom-wearing playboy with dark features and a baritone voice. I always thought he looked like a Filipino Harrison Ford, but he is 73 years old now, his swagger tempered and grey.
My step-mother is inside, always the first to greet me whenever I visit with my children. She keeps a tidy home for my father in their tiny two-bedroom apartment. They returned to America from the Philippines with only a few belongings to send my little brother to college. Now, it’s neatly cluttered with nautical trinkets and various furnishings they’ve collected over the years. Amidst the sea blues, anchors and seashells is a massive subwoofer, now a makeshift side table. The coffee table is slightly askew from the living room futon to make room for my father’s prized possession, an 88-key Yamaha digital piano. He plays it on the futon whenever I visit, but not for entertainment. He plays it because it’s part of his routine, and the sound of him playing is so normal that I don’t recognize he’s playing unless I bring someone over that appreciates his talent.
Aside from his “real job” at Boeing, my first memories were running around bars or venues while he danced his fingers along the keyboard. My siblings and I grew up to synthesized disco beats and strobe lights. Our family lived and breathed music: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, A Taste of Honey, Mouth to Mouth, and every cover song from the 60s and 70s.
As a teenager, I would find him downstairs in the dimly lit garage studio, sitting down next to a lamp, riffing off a song, enveloped in a cloud of nicotine. We didn’t talk to each other most of the time because I didn’t know what to say to my reserved father. Connecting with him was tough when my parents divorced, and I grew more distant during adolescent growing pains. The only time I had a conversation about his music was when I was sixteen after I handed him a sheet of music and asked him to play. He handed it right back to me.
“No,” he laughed, “I can’t read music.” So, he asked if he could listen to the song, some millennial pop ballad, and he played it, improvising with his signature keyboard sound along the way. Anyway, the studio wasn’t a place for bonding. The music slowed everything down. I drifted away in his melodies, further away from anyone, but close to his sound.
The smoky garage studio burnt down years ago in Seattle. (A case of a cigarette thrown in a receptacle. Go figure.) His studio has now been relegated to the center of the living room where he sits down to play a song. Except I don’t drift away this time. This time, I want to know why he plays every day and will for the rest of his life. I do because I’m in my MFA program, and I’m hungry for art and music. I wonder about my creative process, and if it was born out of my upbringing. Now I wonder if it was born out of his. Maybe his hunger is hereditary?
When I sit down to ask him questions, he lights up and tells me stories I’ve never heard and can’t quite picture. My father was the oldest brother of five siblings and cared for the family as the “man of the house” when their father, my grandfather, left our grandmother, the family matriarch. Maybe this is how he obtained his survivor sensibilities, qualities I mistook to be too blunt and hurtful.
My grandmother gifted his first guitar at fifteen and he played every morning after studying others play at clubs. He chaperoned my then teenage aunt when she worked as a restaurant crooner, realizing music was a passion during this time. My father was so good, in fact, that one of the restaurant band members asked him to form a band and tour Japan. He believed he would only be away from his responsibilities at home for six months, but soon he was a college drop-out, leaving his studies in Business Accounting.
I balked at the earlier prospect—my father bookkeeping in a dimly lit garage. It didn’t equate. But he didn’t choose that path. He stayed in Japan for six years and learned how to play the piano in one month after breaking his finger in karate. My late grandmother proudly showed me a black-and-white photograph of my dad with his band, dressed like an Asian Beatle.
The Japan tour lasted through the 70s near the end of the disco era. My father would have traveled to Singapore had my grandmother not petitioned for him to immigrate to Seattle, Washington, where he met my mother. She reluctantly supported his musician lifestyle for the better part of their marriage, waiting up at night or on the sidelines while my father stayed out for gigs. I watched as his musical endeavors tore at his relationships or mended them, depending on which story I heard. Either way, my father’s keyboard was always the center of his universe and now it was literally center of his living room.
My step-mother tells me he plays the piano every morning, as soon as he wakes up. My father, the simple man, but gosh—did he have glorious adventures. Some might call it foolish or risky the number of times he put music first, but he played because he couldn’t keep his hands off of it. The hunger was always there as soon as he found music in his hands.
When I asked him if he ever sought a record deal, he replied, “No.” He had his heyday, and now he spends days drifting off in chords. “I play to get away from negative thoughts,” he says.
That’s when I realize our creative lives are similar. I didn’t quite inherit the music family trait. I can’t even sing karaoke. No, my fingers drift over a different type of keyboard, the kind that allows me to write about my father and reminisce about disco balls and bell bottoms. I found the hunger in different ways, but there’s the same impulse, the same desire to channel a baritone voice chalked up in smoke, a riff, a melody, then poetry. And maybe I won’t get to live the rock star life in Japan, but I have my center of the living room in me and at my fingertips. I return to it day after day and make it sing, baby.
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.
Books rest on shelves, floors, tables, and chairs in my home. Film posters, book covers, maps, and even postcards hang on my walls. Plants crawl down the mantle, down from the ceiling, and sit in corners, window sills, shelves, and on tables.
A globe, a mason jar of number two pencils, a coat rack made from old skis, coasters from The Globe my cousin gave me, a poster from the Arcade Fire concert I attended, Virginia Woolf and Frida Kahlo saint-like candles from Strand Bookstore, the abstract painting made by my friend, paintings by my partner’s mother, sister, and uncle. My great-cousin’s shillelagh from Ireland given to me by my parents, my granddad’s WWII diaries willed to me with the hope I’d write his story, my childhood blanket made by a close family friend, my great-grandmother’s Cuban coin ring smuggled into the country during the revolution. Photographs close-pinned above our bed. Collected piece by piece over time.
Some given to me, some bought on my own. Some given to my partner, some bought on his own. Rich colors carried from place to place make white walls home.
The things we hang and rest on shelves speak. These walls and shelves hold silhouettes of people that lived here before, from the time the house was built in 1900 to the present. These objects, these things live in the words of those who lived here before us. Their words stick to plaster and coats of paint. Words and walls and shelves hold history—mine, and yours, and everyone’s—to tell it all takes time, takes practice, takes play.
We’re not supposed to care about things. And words are just things. Things written, sung, preached, shouted, and shared. Yet, I pledge my allegiance to them. I firmly support their power. Then, I pick them up for safekeeping, adding them to my collection. Hints of them sneak into my writing like boys at girls’ slumber parties.
My influences are like my Craigslist bike—the yellow Bianchi frame is still the same, but I changed the pedals to purple, switched the tires to blue, and made the handlebars green. Their words provide the framework, but I steer mine to their destination.
Even this metaphor is like the things Tim O’Brien carried or Zora Neale Hurston’s bag, but I’m making it my own.
We writers are hoarders of syntax and polygamists of diction. The compound, complex, and simple burst out of closets and climb to the ceiling. I welcome more words to my colony. Then, I lay them all out in front of me to play like a child emptying her toy box. No one told me I couldn’t put my He-Man figurine in Barbie’s Dream House. No one should tell me that I can’t use Leonard Pitts in my poetry or Louise Erdrich in my essays.
I am the mad scientist—stirring a vat of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness, Sherwood Anderson’s grotesque, Langston Hughes’s resistance, Octavia Butler’s vision, Sandra Cisneros’s fragments, Elie Wiesel’s memory, Richard Wright’s poetic honesty, Maggie Nelson’s transitioning textual body, Kazim Ali’s text queering, Julie Otsuka’s point of view, Eula Biss’s braiding, Rebecca Solnit’s fire, Claudia Rankine’s exposure of imagination, Roxane Gay’s direct reflection of today. Each word still wiggling as I throw it in.
But this is nothing sinister. I do not torture words; I let them bloom.
Still, I realize what may come to mind when thinking about the mad scientist caricature in film and literature. A white man driven insane by his work. Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde or the scientist in the film The Fly turns himself into the insect. Their humanity transformed into monstrosity. Good turned to evil. Or the already evil, downright diabolical, mad scientist with crazy white hair, a white coat, and bulging eyes, paces in his laboratory plotting ways to destroy the perfect society. What’s worse: writing a trope or being one? Carmen Maria Machado’s writer narrator asks in “The Resident.”
I am the mad scientist—but not him. (I may be paranoid but not an android.)
I’ve got white skin and crazy hair with white strands here and there. I’ve got doctors’ papers diagnosing my disorder. But what makes me mad is not my concoction but the world we live in. I am a woman. I embrace defiance, disorder, disillusionment, deconstruction. When given a command, I am absentmindedly wandering in a world that doesn’t yet exist—I hear Vincent Harding say, I am a citizen in a land that does not yet exist—a world where there isn’t an Other, only One—a You, an I, and a We—not an Us versus Them. I am absentmindedly, not aimlessly, sifting through my collection of constructed words that break, that bury the laws, the order deemed natural and normal that oppresses most of us—working to distance my mind from the carefully curated lies of the monstrous bodies who established these paradigms. (You don’t own me.)
Many writers say they are storytellers and that’s okay. I’m not focused on narrative arc, but what’s organic. I’m the mad scientist here to give words the space to do what they do—to move, to meander, to travel until they reach your door, soliciting next steps. (This must be the place.)
Words are living, we are living, ravenously. And we can’t survive on the diet we’re fed. We hunger for something more satisfying. Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear, Sappho says.
Unsatisfied by what is, I nourish what’s becoming.
In my vat, my words and influences clink glasses and dance to Lizzo’s “Juice” and Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.” Sometimes they get too rowdy, but sometimes they don’t get along. Intertextuality isn’t ever cut-and-dry. Sometimes Solnit confronts Anderson for his portrayal of fragile women. Sometimes Gay calls out Woolf for limiting intellectual worthiness to white, privileged women. I have to sit with the things conflicting. I have to confront them honestly. Listening to them helps me think about the past, the present, and my life within.
But sometimes I’m overwhelmed by their wisdom and doubt my ability to continue. I hear that loud, sharp, high-pitched ringing in my ears. And sitting becomes stuck.
When my words aren’t moving, I have to move. (Twist your head around.) I pace from room to room and, if need be, around the neighborhood. I bring my dog with me. Together we’re two animals sniffing for a place to leave our mark. A wall of sweet perfume hits me as I pass the blooming lilac bushes. I think of my mother spraying perfume on her wrists, dabbing her wrists to her neck, then spraying again into the air and walking into the scent, letting it fall onto her clothes and skin. Lawnmower blades slice through blades of grass, flowers pop pink, orange, yellow, red, and purple at the first sight of spring, sawdust scatters in the light by the construction site. I’m reminded of Ana Maria Spagna’s Uplake and all the things she taught me. Twirling my hair, I wind thoughts down streets and, eventually, to white space. The music begins again. They fill the place. They feel the tempo of Giorgio Moroder’s arpeggiator as everybody sings to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”
I proceed with glee but caution. And only disturb the neighbors enough to wake them. And I hope other experimenters continue to offer me the same courtesy.
Listen to Kate Carmody’s Mad Scientist’s Mix Playlist.
Kate Carmody is a writer, teacher, and activist. While pursuing her MFA in creative nonfiction at Antioch University in Los Angeles, she works as a blogger, assistant blog editor, and a member of the community outreach team at Lunch Ticket. Her writing recently appeared in Stain’d Arts. She was born in St. Louis and lives in Denver, Colorado with her fiancé and dog, Corky St. Clair. The three of them are also in a band called Datafacer, named after her niece’s childhood doll. Twitter: @KateCarmody8 Instagram: carmo8
I notice small details. Hairline cracks in a wall, misspellings and incorrect grammar, the moment a person lies. There’s no inquiry involved, no attempt to gather evidence. I’ve always been this way.
It still stings my mom. She wonders what I’m even talking about when I point out the fret on her nurse’s face. People bring their worries to work, I tell her. They can’t just shut it down. But Mom waves me off as she always did while Dad listened intently. He was the same way and valued my perception.
Where we come from it’s called touched and not something to boast about. Some consider it second sight—of the Devil. Others: a spiritual gift. Whatever its source, this inclination has barbs. People don’t take well feeling seen through.
I’ve learned to hold my tongue. Even lost friends. When you see a thing and know a thing can crush someone you love, you feel conscripted to warn against the thing. Age and sages have taught me: you have to let people fall. There exists one exception to this platitude: if a person asks me for advice, then let thee be warned: I go full hog.
A person introduces me to a new man she likes. Let’s call him Jack. We work through the small talk. I cover my reactions like a smiling ventriloquist. The visit finishes and later the woman contacts me with such hope.
So, what’d you think?
If Jack calls you or comes to see you: Kindly give your regrets.
How do I know this?
It’s in the eyebrows. Small face muscles. How Jack rubs the back of his neck. Honestly, it’s a feeling I get. Something otherworldly that just…tells.
When I was eight, my parents took me out to dinner. The server wore a pale pink cotton dress. My father remarked how pretty her hands were. She thanked him, took our order, and left.
Daddy. She’s in a fight with her boyfriend.
What on earth, child? My mother sucked in air and turned away.
Daddy nodded, yes. He believed me. Something was weighing our server down, a burden pushing on her chest. To me, it was as visible as the slender fingers that held her pen and notepad.
Those who notice small details, who closely observe others, notice fellow observers. We find each other usually in silent acknowledgement. These are my people. No secrets are hidden, no heavy blankets laid over top. I don’t have to hold back what I know. They don’t deny what they already accept.
My father was a watcher. But by the time I was nine, he missed warnings signs I’d begun flagging in front of him. What my father didn’t notice and my mother denied shaped my future. The turmoil this caused derailed how I self-expressed. A child in conflict is left with few options.
I became a liar.
I want to tell you lying started out little white-like. That I occasionally cried wolf or the fish got bigger in retold legends. But my lies were astounding fictions.
Lies built walls and closed me away, became my hiding place, and though child-lying is obvious, it emboldened me. With age, practice, and a shrewd ability to evaluate others, by high school, I was a damned good liar.
Keeping the details straight exhausted me. Compulsively shifting narratives, dodging peoples’ suspicions. To be caught in a lie struck a fear in me, yet not more frightening than having my truth exposed. I would do anything to protect it. Anything.
Off at art school, oil painting, and habitually denied sleep, the hairline cracks in my thinking began to dissemble it. Lies distracted my restless, hungry mind—the mind I thought I was starting to lose.
By the time I dropped out of my senior year in college, I had mastered lying. I lied so completely the words fooled everybody. Lies became my superego and spokeswoman. I lied when it wasn’t even needed. The compulsion was flexed and ready. If backed into a corner, a lie came out swinging.
* * *
Now a part-time department store and daycare worker, a nanny, and a full-time education student, I could sneak away one night a week for group therapy. I took the #5 bus to Salem Ave. United Way for low cost therapy. The very first bus ride— about midway—the driver stopped and picked up a mousey girl with a slight limp. Miles later, I pulled the cord, stood until the driver lurched to a stop, and I stepped forward. Down at the second bus door, I noted Mouse Girl doing the same. We exited the bus and walked wordlessly together.
* * *
The group scraped chairs into a circle. We sat in an awkward silence until a bubbly therapist burst in and introduced herself, then encouraged us to do the same. We named off counter clockwise, all fifteen of us, except for one. The therapist introduced this woman who sat, knitting, as “Ruby,” and moved on to the business of how we would honor confidentiality. For the next six months of Wednesdays, Ruby knitted without looking up, come whatever #MeToo share swirled around her.
During this momentous first group therapy, fifteen minutes into the session, a tiny knock interrupted one woman’s confession. The therapist looked rattled, and quickly met a colleague at the door. Whispers passed between the huddle. Someone had arrived late. When the therapist turned and offered the new member a seat, it was Mouse Girl standing there more bent and looking feeble with a pained face. The therapist patted and fawned the newcomer as they walked into our circle.
Ladies, this is Penny.
Penny missed her bus and had to walk over a half an hour just to get here!
The group sighed. Poor thing. How awful.
Penny limped large, arduous steps to an empty chair, ladies praising her efforts.
Her dress was maroon, closely formed to her shape. Skin, the color of limestone. Brown hair, frizzing in the August haze cupped her small shoulders. As she turned to ease down into the chair, she spotted me. Her eyes narrowed. Gold, like my brother’s and nervous. I stared at my caught mouse.
* * *
That’s the night I changed my life.
Riding home on the bus, without Penny accompanying me, I realized how much we were alike. She lied and made people sympathize with her. She needed their immediate affection just to be able to join in a circle, because being herself was too frightening. When I saw my reflection behaved back at me, I swore this oath:
I will never lie again.
I’ve stuck to it. Okay, okay. Saying Santa is real to a three-year-old, yes. I’m feeling great today when I’m not, those little fibs, they happen. But otherwise, I speak the truth.
When I committed to truth, I stuck to group therapy and waited for the day Penny would return or Ruby would dare speak. Ruby only shared once. She’d grown up in a farm house with all brothers. I kept my eyes focused on the nubby yarn, pulling through her fingers in even strokes. Knitting needles scraped with each word.
I’d been so kind, so entertaining to this group, smiling no matter how much emotional pain I incurred. Ruby’s share began to crack the casing that housed me. Tears lifted over and pooled into my smile, but I choked them back and kept smiling. Rage wouldn’t knock loose for many years.
Penny never came back.
* * *
Student teaching back at my prestigious high school, I was daunted to face all those teachers. They wanted me to call them by their first names! How would I escape the ridiculous, lying fool I was back then? I kept reminding myself that my teachers had been saviors during those terrible days. There were truths, there were facts. Learning was real. Even the tragic loss of my close friend was real. Truth showed up in other ways. My singing voice had filled the theatre. My art had decked the walls.
But one hard truth hounded me. Still does. In my two-mile town, schooled with the same people K-12, not one teacher, principal, guidance counselor, coach, not even one mother asked me the question I would have answered.
Is somebody hurting you?
When my teachers introduced me to Tom Auten one Friday lunch in mid-May, I was struck in love at first sight. I had a smudge of art charcoal on my nose. Our first date—after the movie—we drove down to the river, sat with the top down by the Carillon Bells, and talked. When bugs started biting, we retreated to his little house, sprawled out on his carpet, and told each other all our shit. We both had loads.
A few months after our confessional, Tom and I were engaged.
I’ve spent my life with the one person who knows all my truth and he loves every part of it. I want to tell you Tom’s love restores all ails. That faith heals. Time is a balm. But I don’t lie.
Restoration is tiring work, gathering the broken pieces and overcoming the damage I endured.
Some days, I wonder who I’d be if I hadn’t needed to protect myself, if I hadn’t been The Liar. What body of art I would’ve created, where my stage career would have taken me? These reflections aren’t grand schemes to diffuse the dull ache of a well-educated wannabe. I remember what it felt like before I lost me.
I take comfort in the small details: how I can stop a baby from crying with one smile, how I can finally hug, how dogs adore me. I’m great at jury selection, keenly aware of the out-of-tune, able to closely match colors. I can smoke out schemes, sleuth plots, solve them, feel when change is coming, sense evil.
When teaching, my classroom is a safe place. I’ll protect every child. Protection is of great importance to me. Mess with my sons, regardless of the consequences, I’ll take you down. And there’s more. I’m a forever friend. My ability to spot trouble helps me know who to keep at a distance. And, yes, pay attention to the men I keep close to me. They are quality.
Learning to trust women hasn’t come as easily.
* * *
Recently, I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Portland. At the loving suggestion of a writing mentor, I attended a panel discussion titled: “Writing the Mother Wound.” Close friend and CNF writer, Mireya S. Vela and I entered the large presentation room already filled. Women spilled to the sides, lined the walls, and bunched in the corners.
Mothers are in trouble.
Mireya and I slid to the floor and listened. The presenters shared raw words, exposing their mother rage. These women voiced the forbidden, complex expressions never allowed. I stared at the rungs of a chair. My body, still, breath even. I closed my eyes and listened as poets and essayists spoke for me.
Why didn’t you help me?
Then I heard it. Weeping. Beside me, above, reverberating against the walls, with breath and heat: rows of women emoting and heaving. I didn’t move. I couldn’t. But these women moved me.
Somedays I wonder who I’d be had I not grown up with secrets and shame. Would I be a person who scoffs at the hyper-vigilant-touched, who turns her head away and waves people off?
* * *
I am the daughter of a man with deep sight. Combined with my own hyper-vigilance, not much slips past my view. But my wrecked childhood slipped past his. My father was devastated to learn he hadn’t protected me. The news diminished him.
I wanted to rewind, get back to the moment before he knew, when I didn’t feel dirty and used. This was the man who respected my opinions, valued my thinking, whose face lit up when I entered a room. I just wanted my Daddy back.
I wanted to lie.
Need help? R.A.I.N.N. says, “Visit online.rainn.org to chat one-on-one with a trained RAINN support specialist, any time 24/7.”
Andrea Auten is a writer and a visual | performing artist. A writing specialist for Antioch University Los Angeles, she is an Associate Managing Editor for Lunch Ticket Literary and Art Journal. She lives with her husband, sons, and beloved writing partner, Dusky, the family cat, where she is currently working on a collection of short stories. @AndreaAutenArts | andreaauten.com |
His name was Nicolas. We called him “Greek God.” It was 1995, pre-Facebook and we huddled in a dorm room, perusing a glossy, thin booklet displaying headshots of over 500 Vassar freshmen. Instead of chugging tepid beer at a nearby party, our friend group, a motley crew who shared little in common except that we were all beneficiaries of generous financial aid packages, ate greasy pizza and doled out nicknames for classmates we’d noticed from afar but hadn’t yet met. “Drama Girl” for a willow-thin young woman who wrapped Pucci silk scarves around her Manhattan prep-school crown of chestnut highlights. “Greenwich Boy” for a trust-fund kid with green hair who dressed like Billy Idol and wore a pierced safety pin through his chapped bottom lip. And finally, there was “Greek God,” a rumored Austrian count by way of Palm Beach, Florida and Findlay, Ohio. Nicknames were saved for other first-years we found exotic and intimidating. Rich kids more sophisticated than us and therefore, more beautiful and deserving of a spot on a campus where they vacuumed fallen leaves and dried twigs off the rolling lawns each morning.
Over the course of the semester, we eventually called them by their given names, yet for me, “Greek God” stuck. He looked the part with his gelled, flaxen curls, a pronounced, aquiline nose, and a smile both wide and broad that dominated his year-round sun-kissed face. Nicolas wasn’t much taller than me, maybe 5’10”, but his posture was like a dancer, and his broad shoulders and slim waist made him appear more formidable. And then there were his clothes: a seemingly never-ending array of Prada loafers, skin-tight Armani slacks, Versace jackets with swirls of turquoise and gold.
One particularly bleak February afternoon, I was walking back to my dorm from class and I spotted him across the empty quad. He pranced toward me along the slush-lined path wearing sumptuous black leather Chelsea boots and the most beautiful camel mohair coat I’d ever seen. A cashmere scarf trailed behind him like a Pride flag rippling in the icy wind. Nicolas must’ve noticed me staring, mouth agape, because he shot me a glance and then a wry, knowing smile that said, I dare you to look at me. I immediately shut my eyes and turned away, my nose in the air. He was fully out and I was only halfway there and resented his bravery. I was also jealous of all the things he had that I lacked: wealth, white privilege, ridiculously good looks, confidence. In any case, I decided that day to hate him and for the remainder of my college career, I went out of my way to ignore him whenever I saw him on the quad or at parties. At the time, I’d recently read Marx and Weber and saw myself as a budding Democratic Socialist, despite that I’d spent all of my summer barista tips on new clothes at J. Crew and Urban Outfitters. And because of this, I thought I was better than him. In my mind, Nicolas was part of the evil capitalist class with his silver BMW three-series and a wardrobe of showy designer clothes. Meanwhile, I strived to be an understated, yet stylish, social justice warrior who just happened to know the brand names of everything he wore and drove.
For the next two decades, we didn’t cross paths nor did he cross my mind much. Then a few months ago, I woke to find a former classmate had posted a news article about him on Facebook. The story said he’d worked as the personal assistant to the head of an investment bank and had stolen over a million dollars’ worth of wine from his employer. After hiding out in Brazil, Morocco, and Italy for fourteen months, he was arrested at the Los Angeles airport and transported to the LA County Jail, the latter of which just happened to be where I worked as the Senior Fellow, charged with improving healthcare delivery for inmates. In my pre-caffeinated morning haze, none of the story’s pieces made sense. Wasn’t he Austrian Royalty? If he was so rich, why was he working as a modern-day butler? I swiped through the article for photos of him but was disappointed to find none.
When I arrived at my office at the county jail’s healthcare division, I cancelled my morning staff meeting in order to Google news stories. Article after article portrayed him as a lifelong charlatan with humble midwestern roots. His mother wasn’t an Austrian countess but in fact, operated a self-storage facility. She’d mortgaged her house in Ohio to make his bail. Over the next few hours, I devoured everything I could find online until I realized he was probably in my building. I had to see him. To help him. I wanted to make sure he was housed in one of the LGBTQ wards so to avoid harassment or worse. I asked one of the sheriff’s deputies I’d befriended how to gain access to the jail information database and in my manic fuss, I spilled that I was looking for a college friend.
“Don’t do it,” she said. “That’s called fraternization. You could lose your job. It’s considered breaking the law.”
I returned to my desk crestfallen but decided my mission was worth the risk. I clicked open the database and was about to type his name into the search engine. It dawned on me that I didn’t know what to say to him besides asking whether he felt safe. I then looked down at my battered J. Crew khakis and denim shirt that had recently started buckling against my growing stomach. I was middle-aged, starting to look it, and working in a jail. And though it sounds ridiculous given that he was the one behind bars, I was too ashamed to face him. Besides, what if he didn’t remember who I was? It had been almost twenty years. So I closed the database and returned to work, rationalizing it wasn’t worth risking my livelihood for someone I’d barely known.
Weeks passed and I convinced myself that Nicolas would get off without jail time. Some politician would pardon him or the investment banker would drop charges or the judge would order community service in lieu of time served.
“We live in a country where white people, especially pretty ones, get away with just about everything,” I said to a friend with a dismissive eye-roll.
However, Nicolas made the mistake of doing the one thing you can never get away with in America and that’s steal from the wealthy. In 2008, American bankers bamboozled middle- and working-class folks into billions of dollars’ worth of subprime mortgages and were later gifted a bailout. Around the same time, Bernie Madoff, an investment advisor for the uber-wealthy was caught defrauding his clients and slapped with a maximum sentence of 150 years. One news story reported Nicolas’s mother begged his former employer’s wife to drop the charges. She even promised to repay them for the wine. Purportedly, the investment banker’s wife said it was out of her hands.
On the day of his arraignment, Nicolas checked into the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan and jumped to his death. A news article reported that he’d called his sister before to say he couldn’t go back to jail. The following day, I called in sick to work. I wallowed in bed wondering if there was something I could’ve said or done to have changed the outcome. And though in retrospect, this rumination was ultimately self-serving, it was my way of mourning someone I didn’t know well but with whom I shared something in common. We were both class traitors. I am the only son of Korean immigrants and, like Nicolas, raised squarely middle-class. We’d clawed our way into an elite liberal arts college historically reputed for educating young women of the leisure class. We strived for lives that outsized our birthright.
This summer, I will fly to New York before riding a Metro-North train to Poughkeepsie for my 20th college reunion. I don’t consider myself a “rah-rah” reunion-type, and despite incessant pleas, my close friends have chosen not to attend. However, there will be a memorial service where we remember those from our class we’ve lost. I hope to light a candle for our Greek God.
Tom Pyun is a writer based in Los Angeles. He was a fellow with Tin House, Vermont Studio Center, Gemini Ink, and VONA/Voices. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, 7×7.la, Joyland, and Blue Mesa Review and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net award. He is an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University.
Sometime in the past week or so, I hit a funk. I decided to catch a few extra minutes of sleep in the morning and it quickly became a few extra hours. It can easily be dismissed as having a lazy day. Or a lazy week. Or a month. It doesn’t bother me that much, at first at least. It only bothers me when it gets out of hand.
The reasons behind the funks can vary, but the feeling is always the same: Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Tired. Frustrated. In summary, not giving a fuck. I stopped giving a fuck years ago, but the feeling is more aggressive nowadays. When you can go without taking a quick shower for three days, you know you’ve reached peak apathy. It’s also the time when you know that you need to take a goddamn bath.
It’s clear at this point that the funks need to be addressed, but they always take a backseat to everything else. It didn’t seem like too much of an issue. It can be worked around, or helped out with other things. It’s no big deal.
And then I couldn’t write a damn thing.
* * *
It’s hard enough to find the time to write. It’s even worse when you can’t find the motivation. The funk muddles the process, makes it excruciating to get through. It’s a miracle to concentrate on anything for more than a minute. I stare at the screen, willing the words to arrive before I give up and move on to something else. Anything else. Even then, the breaks turn into a distraction from getting anything done, then to an excuse to not do anything at all.
Part of it is the perfectionist in me. I get so caught up in the idea of what I want to write that I get nothing done. The other part is that I live in a house that is never quiet. Calm has no place in this house when family is in it. I’m used to chaos, but this chaos has no order. It shows no mercy and for what I know, there’s no end to it. After a while, despite my struggles, the chaos seeps into my calm and warps it into something disgusting. Something toxic. Writing becomes the last thing I want to do.
* * *
It doesn’t take long for the funk to manifest itself. My bedroom serves as an indicator of what I’m going through. When it gets bad—when I can’t walk the two feet from my bed to my door without tripping over whatever the hell my cat knocked over this time—that’s the sign that I’m in a bad place.
I was scrolling aimlessly through my Facebook feed two summers ago when I came to this realization. A friend who was probably going through her own funk mentioned how the state of your room usually represents the state of your mind. It spoke to me for obvious reasons; my bedroom was currently a biohazard and I was behind on my writing. Before I came across the post, I never fully considered that my lack of motivation could be something else.
It was in the comments of that post that I found the solution to that problem. A minor solution, at least.
* * *
Once you get past the title of the website, Unfuck Your Habitat is a helpful kick in the ass. Browse long enough and you’ll come across a section titled “The Depression/Messy House Cycle”. I don’t recall finding the page on my first visit; I remember looking it up on Tumblr and finding post after post of before and after photos of bedrooms, kitchens, closets. I came across a challenge that sounded like a good place to start: make your bed as soon as you wake up.
The morning after, I started making my bed. The first attempt was sloppy; the bedsheet was hanging off my mattress haphazardly, the pillows were lumpy and in need of pillowcases, and an eighth of it was taken up by books and clothes I haven’t bothered to put away yet. But it was still an attempt.
Over time, I started putting in more of an effort. I tucked in the sheets. I removed the large pile of books from the foot of my bed to its proper place on my desk. Eventually, I began making efforts to keep my desk organized, put my clothes away properly, vacuum the floor. The room was still messy, but I could at least see the bottom of my floor now.
* * *
On the worst day of my current funk, I spent the better part of my morning staring aimlessly into space under the guise of watching terrible movies. Maybe it was the movie itself or I got tired of doing nothing, but whatever the reason I reached for my phone, set the timer for twenty minutes, and began clearing the floor. I set the timer a few more times, cleaning up the room until I got tired of setting the timer.
Obviously, tidying up your space doesn’t solve everything. It helps me get out of my funk, but it doesn’t keep it from returning. I’m still in that funk from last week, and while I’m back to getting out of bed the moment I wake up, it’s still a struggle to focus on the important things. It’s still a process, but I’m okay with that.
Lily Caraballo is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles and a figure model. She is a staff member of Lunch Ticket, a former contributor for Black Girl Nerds, and is featured in the anthology My Body, My Words: A Collection of Bodies. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat.
I rifled through the plastic container, searching for the perfect nail to affix my handmade sign to the tree. Renee, my partner in crime, stood to my right holding the “NO Gas Station!” signs that we’d just made in my garage. She seemed unconcerned about the vehicles that whizzed by a few feet from us, but I noticed the drivers who stared at us quizzically as they paused at an adjacent stop sign. We must’ve been a curious sight, the two of us, traipsing around that wooded lot in sweatpants and sneakers. She, the retired social worker and seasoned community organizer. Me, the former executive and reluctant activist, wondering just how I’d ended up here.
* * *
This isn’t the story of a girl who undergoes an emotionally linear transformation from working for the establishment to leading protest marches. It would be simpler if I told it that way. It just wouldn’t be true. And that’s not usually how it happens anyway, is it? While most good stories have an inflection point that sets the protagonist off in some new direction, real life isn’t so black-and-white. We often evolve in fits and starts, over micro millennia, not fully aware of the changes we’re experiencing on a molecular level. And when we are, sometimes yielding, sometimes resisting.
If we’re lucky, when we catch a glimpse of our transformed selves—perhaps, like me, in the reflection of a passing car window—we’ll recognize the new creature we’ve become and embrace her. It’s when we don’t, or won’t, that we can experience identity crisis. According to the clinical definition, identity crises are reserved for adolescents, but I don’t agree with that. I think it’s when your internal identity no longer matches your external reality, and it happens to adults all the time. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon among friends who had to shed their former identities of successful professionals to take on the thankless—and financially perilous—role of caregiver to an ailing parent. The men who lost their status as breadwinners during The Great Recession likely had a similar experience. In retrospect, I’ve had identity crises at multiple stages in my life.
As far as I know, we’re the only species that experiences such neuroses. We think that possessing that level of consciousness makes us superior. But do you know that bugs don’t have identity crises? They are born knowing that they’re not yet what they will be, but also exactly what they will become, so they don’t get attached to identities that will one day no longer fit them. I think that makes them superior.
…the Universe has a will of its own that bends and shapes us in spite of—or perhaps because of—our ambitions.
As for humans, we consider it an act of love and encouragement to tell our offspring that they can become whatever they wish, choose your own adventure. Schools still have Career Days where children are encouraged to pick a label that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. But we don’t usually tell the rest of the story: that the Universe has a will of its own that bends and shapes us in spite of—or perhaps because of—our ambitions. When that sculpting process reaches its conclusion, we must come to terms with the outcome, whatever it may be.
* * *
If you’d met me in high school, you might have predicted that one day I’d be making protest signs in my garage and pissing off the powers that be. But life doesn’t always unfold in the way we expect.
Freshman year had barely started when my troublemaking gene fully expressed itself. I grew up in Pittsburgh where air conditioning was a rare find, and when classes began in the late summer of 1989, it was stifling hot. As if the lack of AC wasn’t bad enough, some sadistic bureaucrat had decided that we weren’t allowed to wear shorts to school. We were miserable and complained openly about this undeserved oppression. So I circulated a petition demanding that the school change its policy and allow us to wear shorts. I don’t remember how many signatures I collected, but it was enough that I felt confident presenting them to our harried principal, and in what seemed like record time, our demands were met! We could wear shorts, the authoritarians decreed, but not more than one inch above our knees, or we risked being sent home. We reveled in this small victory even though school administrators refused to give us credit for it, lest we allow our newfound power to go to our heads. I parlayed that win into formal leadership roles at school and honed my reputation as someone who wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power.
At home, my parents were sticking it to The Man in their own right. After my father had run unsuccessfully for school board, he and my mother organized with other parents to sue the Pittsburgh Public Schools for discriminating against black students. Through years of persistence and a lot of data, they succeeded in having the school system placed under a consent decree to correct its racist disciplinary practices.
With my whole family’s community organizing bona fides firmly established, I departed for college. As it is on many college campuses, protest was a relatively common occurrence at my historically black university. I marched on at least three different occasions during my undergraduate years. Except for one, I don’t even remember why. I assume I believed in the causes I marched for, but I was likely also influenced by the energy of the moment and by the fact that I was a columnist and an editor for my college newspaper—so it made for great material.
* * *
At some point between protesting on campus and taking a job with a public/private partnership, I had made a choice: to try and change the system from within. I don’t remember it being a conscious decision, but it is a common rationalization. I made this decision without irony and resolved to be a champion for representation, excellence, integrity, and efficiency. Regardless of the story I told myself, however, I couldn’t deny that I was no longer anybody’s activist.
Regardless of the story I told myself, I couldn’t deny that I was no longer anybody’s activist.
As I wrestled with this internal conflict, I colored outside the lines by challenging the status quo and occasionally pissing off a superior. In fact, I may have been the most outspoken and nonconformist senior manager many of my colleagues had worked with. At the time, I cast it as part of my change agent identity, but I think it was also a way to reassure myself that I had not completely abandoned my activist principles.
Once I transitioned from local government to entrepreneurship in 2013, I struggled to find my place. In more ways than one, I was questioning who I was and where I belonged. I became a hashtag activist, signing Change.org petitions and reposting #BlackLivesMatter memes, but I clung to my identity as an insider. I suppose I was attempting to hold on to the respectability (and income) that comes with working inside the system. Besides, I rationalized, not everyone could effectively manage large, complex institutions, so wouldn’t my talents be put to better use there?
* * *
It was in late 2016 that I found myself at my first Black Lives Matter event. The specific atrocity that prompted me to attend, I don’t recall, but I do remember that my soul was tired. The names and faces of black people murdered by police tormented me. The occasion was billed as a self-care event, a safe space for us to come together and heal from the violence and neglect directed toward the black community. My spirit wanted and needed to be there, but my conscience berated me: These people are tired because they’ve been doing the work, it screamed. What have you been doing? Go home! I shifted in the pew and looked around at the faces in the small church where we’d gathered. I winced at the thought that the young white activists sitting next to me had more of a right to be there than I did. After chatting with them for a few minutes, I trudged to a workshop that started off with some deep breathing exercises. Then we went around the room sharing what had brought us there that day. I made a self-conscious confession about my inadequate involvement in the community. It seemed even more pitiful once a young woman shared tearfully about her boyfriend, a veteran, who had been killed by a police officer while naked, unarmed, and in mental distress.
That event became a turning point for me, and I joined some grassroots groups in my community. I even became the president of one. Still, I strongly favored roles that depended on my professional skills: strategic planning, writing policy statements and press releases, running meetings, and moderating panels. Until a need arose that compelled me to step outside of my comfort zone. I and many residents were dismayed by what we perceived to be our city administration ignoring the will of the community and violating commonly accepted ethics. In my professional role, I had addressed elected officials at public meetings more times than I could count. I had even been verbally attacked and disparaged and didn’t back down or lose my cool because that was the job. But when I stepped to the podium as a citizen, I stumbled over my handwritten notes as if it were my first time. My message still found its mark, but a realization weighed on me: I had just come out as an activist. There was no going back now.
So earlier this year, when my neighbors and I learned of an unwanted development in the works during a town hall meeting, I sprang into action. An out-of-state developer wanted to put in a gas station and convenience store on an improperly zoned lot smack in the middle of our heavily residential neighborhood. The community had fought them off once before, but now they were back and receiving the covert assistance of our city officials to complete the project. The thought of underground fuel tanks threatening a nearby stream, tankers barreling down our already-neglected neighborhood streets and a busy establishment on a treacherous stretch of road was too much for us to bear. I scribbled out a petition and circulated it around the meeting room to my angry neighbors. Renee and I joined forces, and in short order there was a small coordinating committee, flyers, a huge turnout at the next City Council meeting, and, of course, the signs.
In a stunning about-face, the mayor announced that the city would no longer support the convenience store project and would instead purchase the land from the developer and turn it into a neighborhood park. This was less than two weeks after we organized our opposition. I guess even a reluctant activist can be effective.
* * *
Once Renee and I had finished hanging up the last sign, we waited for oncoming cars to pass so we could cross the road. It was then that I caught a glimpse of myself in the window of a passing SUV and felt the familiar sting of self-consciousness. Was this how I wanted to advocate for change? As a community organizer in sweatpants rather than a policymaker in a business suit?
In all honesty, my answer is still “No.” Even after a major community organizing victory, I have to admit that I am much more comfortable in a boardroom than I am at a protest. I realize that my sculpting process is not yet complete, and I do not know who I will be when it is. What I do know is that whoever I become, I want to embrace her without shame or insecurity. For now, activism is the assignment the Universe has given me, so that is how I will serve. I’m still working on the reluctant part.
A.D. Lowman is a management professional, consultant, and community leader. Her leadership and career advice has been featured in Essence, Money, and Diversity Woman magazines. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles where she serves as a blogger, interviewer, and assistant web team manager for Lunch Ticket.
I was 14 when my mom told me she was pregnant. Right away, I knew it would be a little brother. On the bus one day, Mom called and broke the news: “I know you’ll be disappointed, but it’s a girl.” Bella is still figuring out which is more accurate and has decided to try out “they” pronouns (a gender-neutral alternative to “he” or “she”).
Bella is now the same age I was when they were born. At 14, they are several inches taller than me. These days, they wear their hair short, somewhere between the ears and chin. It’s usually messy, and sometimes dyed a weird color. They’re a fashionable kid, taking inspiration for their clothes and makeup from the world of K-Pop. They’re a deft hand with eyeliner—it’s always on point.
When they were a baby, I didn’t really want anything to do with them. I didn’t know what changes a baby would bring to our household, which was already tense with years of problems between my parents. I’d proven myself to be more of a troublemaker than my two older siblings, who had both recently left home. I earned myself a place in the police academy program at a nearby public high school because I “needed discipline.” Just a couple of days before the baby was born, I met my first long-term boyfriend, who would be part of my life, and the baby’s, for the next few years. He was three years older than me. My mom and I fought for days before she relented and allowed me to see him.
During her pregnancy and for a while after, my mom spent her life in fear. She was almost forty when she had the baby, and she had high blood pressure. Born six weeks early, Bella was tiny and had to spend two weeks in the NICU before being cleared by the doctors to come home. The first night in our apartment, Mom laid Bella in the bassinet that dominated the living room. They fussed so much that, before the sun rose, they were in bed with Mom. The two slept in the same bed until Bella was a teenager.
Welcoming a new baby brought relatives to our door. First, my mom’s favorite sister Suzi visited when Bella was about six months old. Later, Bella’s grandma and uncle on their dad’s side came. Pictures were taken, hugs exchanged, gifts received. I only have a few memories about this time. I was immersed in my own struggles, aching to spend every waking moment with my boyfriend. In a typical teenage fashion, I was completely egocentric and petulant, dealing with the depression that came with puberty while struggling to discover my own identity. Bella had sinus problems and was often sick. My mom and I still fought, but she focused her real energy on the baby, on the never-ending problems with my stepfather, on her own struggle with addiction.
Just before Bella turned one, I left the police academy, where I’d been miserable and short of breath all year. I went into independent study to finish high school, which was a much better fit for me. I spent several years in a nocturnal state, writing at night, sleeping in the mornings, and babysitting in the afternoons. During this time, I dabbled in prescription and over-the-counter pills, tried smoking a cigarette, and learned about sex. My boyfriend and I would babysit together, cuddling and kissing on the couch, Bella fixated on the TV. Whenever we went out, people assumed I was a teenage mother, which never really bothered me.
I remember Bella’s first big smile up at me as I sat in front of the computer, looking down at them in their little bouncy chair. I made squished eggs in the morning and plain pasta in the afternoons, annoyed at being the one to have to complete these chores. When my mom asked me to, I brushed Bella’s rat’s nest of hair, making sure their favorite show was turned on and they had a snack to get through it. I tried to be gentle. As a kid, I also had unga-bunga hair, so I understood the pain. Bella looked just like me when I was little.
Bella and I were together with our parents in a situation that was often stressful and sometimes violent. Our mom and Bella’s dad fought often and hard. When this happened, I became the caretaker. My teenage angst was sidelined by these crises. I would take Bella into the bedroom, into my lap, and we would watch the Powerpuff Girls, or play Legos, trying to ignore the shouting from the other room. I was beyond fear by this point, used to the screaming matches that had been going on as long as I could remember, but Bella would whimper and cry and ask questions. I tried not to be too harsh with my answers, tried to remember that they wouldn’t understand the complicated reasoning behind my almost grown-up emotions and opinions. When I would occasionally interfere in these domestic disturbances, I felt puffed up, empowered—but also helpless. I was still a kid, older boyfriend or not. I tried to shield Bella as best I could. I tried to shield myself.
* * *
Besides being sick all the time, Bella was always an accident-prone child. Once, they slipped while climbing on the back of the couch and smashed their chin into the windowsill, biting through their bottom lip. I was babysitting at the time, and I was wracked with guilt. For once, my mom didn’t react with anger, instead understanding that kids sometimes get hurt. I was relieved she wasn’t mad at me for my negligence. Another time, Bella reached up and touched the electric stove while it was on, receiving massive blistery burns on three fingers. Just before I went away to college, a kid pushed Bella off the playground slide. When they hit the ground, their glasses sliced open their eyebrow. My mom sped to the hospital, then turned the keys over to me for the first time so I could park as she rushed Bella inside. Bella will always have that scar above their left eye. They never try to cover it with makeup, embracing the uniqueness it brings to their face. Their right thigh is a mass of huge scars from the time our big sister’s cat decided they were a threat and tore into their exposed leg. Bella is no stranger to physical pain.
I knew some things about Bella years ago. I knew they would be a dancer. Through all of the illnesses and injuries, they always had a mastery over their own body that I couldn’t really relate to. I knew they would question everything, empowered to explore the opportunities life placed before them. I knew they would experience many of the same things I did as a kid, like mental illness. No one could have convinced me, though, that we would be so much alike.
* * *
Bella’s father left when they were barely five. At that time, I was a college student with my own life and concerns. Our mom moved into a new apartment across the street from the old one, where rent was a constant worry. When I came home from school to visit, Bella and I would spend hours coloring or playing in front of the TV. We sang our souls out to The Backyardigans, and I introduced them to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It may have been inappropriate for a kid, but we had a blast singing along to each subversive song. Music was everything to us, necessary in our TV shows and games. Early one Sunday morning, Bella and I lounged in bed and sang “opera” until the neighbors started yelling at us to shut up. We laughed for hours.
When the power was shut off due to nonpayment, our big brother came over. As night fell, we armed ourselves with Nerf guns, jump ropes, and sticks. Then, we divided the apartment into kingdoms: The Kingdom of Kitchen, Bedroomlandia, The Plains of Livingroom, Bathroom Swamp. Finally, we declared war on each other. Peeking around doorways, hiding underneath tables, and charging each other head on, we play-fought for dominance of the darkened rooms. Bella and I were both thrilled and enthralled that our big brother had decided to join us in this flight of fancy—and I was grateful, because Bella’s laughter echoed through the apartment, their fear of the power outage lost in the great fun of the impromptu session of imagination. We never had occasion to play Apartment Kingdoms again, but Bella asked us to for ages afterward.
* * *
After college, I moved away for a couple of years. When I came back to Los Angeles, Bella was a preteen. They had grown even taller and looked much older. They were deep into their own life, just as I was at that age. It was different for Bella, though. I had been introverted and inactive, obsessed with my boyfriend to the exclusion of other friends, while Bella was dedicated to dance and seemed to have a new best friend every week. They were always going out to concerts or events, surrounded by a gaggle of dressed up teens.
Now that we live in the same part of town, we see each other more often. Bella is older, which makes our relationship different, more balanced. They’ve developed quite an irksome and entertaining personality. We’ve been able to spend time together one-on-one, reminiscent of the long days spent playing and singing when they were a toddler.
Last summer, Bella came over a couple of times a week so we could go swimming together. In my backyard surrounded by plants, statues, deck chairs, and the palpable presence of the sun, we would languish in the water. We cranked the radio, tuning in to our favorite alt rock stations, belting out the lyrics when Twenty-One Pilots came on. We played nonsense games reminiscent of Apartment Kingdoms, creating a plot worthy of publication. We sprayed each other with the hose as we took turns zooming down the big yellow slide into the deep end. When the time came to get out, we were equally reluctant, wishing we could stay in the cool safety of the water forever, living like mermaids. Even as I tried to act the grown-up and make Bella get out, all I could see in them was myself. Staying in the pool too long was my favorite act of defiance as a kid. I love the little things like this that tie us together, the little quirks that say we have a common history and family.
I remember the indifference and occasional resentment I felt toward Bella when I was a teenager, and I can’t connect to those feelings at all anymore. As different as we are, I can see those things in Bella now, the same emotions I battled as a kid. Depression and anxiety have set in, right on schedule. They’ve even enrolled in independent study, just like I did. My mom and I talk often about how frustrated and helpless we feel when we know Bella is in pain and there’s nothing we can do about it. I wish I could take away all the bad parts of their life, but I can barely keep swimming myself.
* * *
I guess if I want you to know one thing, it’s this: When life gets too hard to bear, when it seems like it’s all spiraling down to hell and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, I will be there, and I will rescue you. That’s a promise.
Adrien Kade Sdao writes young adult fiction and works in a children’s bookstore in Los Angeles. They are an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and they are the lead editor for the Young Adult genre at Lunch Ticket. Their work has appeared in Lunch Ticket and Womanpause. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.
It’s the eve of my mother’s heart surgery. I’m not referring to the past, as if this was some story. It’s actually tomorrow. I’m playing the countdown game, taking a redeye and arriving home at 4:45 in the morning of the procedure. Within hours I’ll hug her, say our goodbyes, and watch her be taken out to a sterile room nearby.
By the time you read this, the surgery and its results will be in the past. Nothing, no problem solving, no getting lucky, no wishful thinking, not even armor, can change these facts.
Up until about twenty minutes ago, I’d been telling most people that this wasn’t anything serious. When I called out of work for the rest of this week, I described it as a minor procedure. That changed when I found out it was a five-hour operation.
My mother said it so nonchalantly. She’d always been the hypochondriac that worried about standing in the sun for longer than a minute without sunscreen. The one to call and ask if I was eating healthy. The youngest mom out of all of my friend’s parents. She swerved to her next stop in the conversation. Maybe she didn’t give me a moment to respond on purpose. I looked for an opportunity to ask more questions, but then she revealed how aware she was of her own mortality. My mother said she’d given me power of attorney and finished her living will giving me the responsibility of “taking care of it” were she to fall into some unrecoverable state.
“I tried texting you after I did it, but I accidentally texted the wrong person,” she said forcing out a laugh.
“If something happens, I want to be cremated. It’s all written down,” she said.
The nerves firing off across my spine somehow translated into the beginnings of a teardrop on my face. I realized that we’d never once talked about these types of plans before. Not even jokingly the way people sometimes do, treating it like a casual table conversation. Processing her words was both numbing and excruciating. A lesson in standing like stone while erupting lava from within.
It struck me that I didn’t know anything I could say to help my mother feel better.
“Spread my ashes somewhere in D.C.,” she said, and I could picture her eyes wander from across the telephone line. She’d wanted to move back there after living there when I was only a few months old. Circumstances out of my mom’s control, like my dad’s work, brought us back to Colombia. She likes to remind me that she’d still be living in DC if she’d been given the choice. “Nobody asked me,” she always says.
This stung the most, that her pain transcended the physical battle in her chest and went back two decades to a memory she’d be returning to no matter what. That her happiness was out of my control and it would never come close. It felt like a decision on her fate had already been made without any of our consultations and all I could do was hear the verdict.
I held back the receiver so that she wouldn’t hear me breathing erratically, but she knew. “Don’t cry. There’s no reason to. You and your brother have given me everything in this life. It was more than I could have ever asked for,” she said.
The last heart emergency, I’d ignored her. The first time, two years ago, we’d been fighting over an unrelated matter over the phone. I don’t even remember what the fight was about, but I hung up on her. She called me again, but I ignored her hoping to avoid another fight. I later found out that she was calling out alarm because she was fainting due to her heart.
This time, she’d called me all morning on a weekend. Determined to sleep, I slept through every ring until she texted me in all caps that her chest was exploding.
“I don’t have a lot to leave you, but at least I have the house.” The one she bought back when we moved to Florida. Moments lived with the purpose of becoming a memory. My invincible mother laid in pain while considering a contingency plan in case her surgery went badly.
We hung up and I remembered that we were acting out the worst case scenario. That this was just our fears running amok within an inevitable countdown to the morning.
I board the plane and swap my window seat with an older man in the aisle. It’s a red eye, but I won’t blink until I’m in Orlando.
Esteban Cajigas is a writer, musician, and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. His short stories and poems have been featured in publications such as Venture Magazine, Foliate Oak, and others. Esteban also previously wrote for The Boston Globe as a correspondent and The Suffolk Voice as Editor-in-Chief.
My husband and I married in Madison, Wisconsin four years ago and moved to his rural childhood home to lead and grow his family’s farm. Before moving here, my husband and I made a list of pros and cons of leaving to live in a rural place, where the nearest town is politically scarlet. The pros won, and we left the state’s progressive capital city for a place where many vehicles have “We Still Stand with Scott Walker” bumper stickers.
For the first few years, living in our rural area in an isolated subdivision, I commuted fifty-five miles one way to work for a communications job in the nearest city. My peer coworkers were, predictably, all male and white. They enthused over online-based video games, their favorite shows on Netflix, and Fantasy Football. They asked what I did for fun, living way out there.
Hike, I told them.
Pro: The rolling hills of the Kettle Moraine State Forest – Northern Unit are a quick drive from my home, allowing access to the epic and well-maintained Ice Age Trail and scores of other beautiful hiking, swimming, and biking spots.
* * *
I also decorate our house, I told my bro-workers. We don’t have Internet, I said.
They stared at me as if I’d confessed I couldn’t read or write.
Con: My husband and I live in a rural and faraway enough part of our Wisconsin county that no fiber optic cable for high-speed broadband Internet has been dug. We’re not in view of the line-of-sight Internet tower. Painfully slow, uber-expensive satellite Internet is our only option, a contract we signed for two years and then quit, never to use again. Now, I am enrolled as a full-time graduate student, and any work that requires the Internet—email, weekly check-ins, literary journal blog and content management—I do via the hotspot I create with my iPhone, with an unlimited data plan that still seems too limited.
One of the “pros” on our original list—the list that justified us leaving Madison—was the possibility of a tighter-knit community in a rural area. As Lunch Ticket bloggers have stated in such eloquent terms this issue, community is essential to strong mental health and survival.
* * *
Pro: The lack of fast Internet encourages me to write more, enables me to be a graduate student in a low-residency MFA program, work on art and our house projects, run or bike outside for miles without seeing a single car, and get more work done for my job at the farm. There is solitude here—room to breathe.
Con: The best place to get high-speed Internet is the Starbucks nearest the well-stocked if sterile 24-hour grocery store. Most of my Internet-using time is spent in this same strip mall, a pandering line of shops with a hectic parking lot. I dislike the coffee; the dark-roasted grounds are burnt and over-extracted. I prefer the brighter, berry flavors of a single origin light roast. All those years we lived in pampered, foodie Madison made me soft and snobby, unable to withstand bad coffee. Anyway, I sit there, hour after hour, working on critical paper research using the university’s online libraries system, managing online submissions queues for the literary journal, blog posts, and weekly content. I need the Internet to be a writer—to submit to journals, apply for editorial positions, and share my work via social media. To work.
Nobody ever asks my name. Nobody memorizes my drink. I never see anyone I know at this coffee shop, which defies all previous coffee shop culture conventions—warm, conversational—I’ve ever known.
* * *
In November 2016, a little over a year after moving to our home, Trump became president of the United States. The urban-rural divide became national fodder, with some reductive voters blaming rural areas for the proliferation of “Make America Great Again” devotees. Community building here seemed bleaker by the day. 2017 and, in particular, 2018, proved atrocious for human rights. The nation stands by, mouths covered in horrified half-laughter, as this presidential administration train-wrecks itself, turns laws and morality upside-down, and persecutes immigrant families.
Pro: I can isolate myself with good reason—productivity—from booze-soaked happy hours while I work on my novel, personal essays, and short stories instead. While I’m inspired by the bustling of big cities, I need solitude to create, to find those seeds of concentration I never sowed during all those years of corporate jobs and happy hours in my late twenties.
Con: I feel like a bird on a wire, the gigabytes pulsing beneath my feet. A wide world to which I don’t have access.
Pro: Life in a lower-cost, low-density area means more money to travel, a recognized privilege I try not to take for granted.
Con: When I do have high-speed Internet—at hotels, at my Los Angeles AirBnBs when I stay during residency, in line at the ice cream stand drive-through—I glut on it. Watch five episodes in a row of “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Look up ex-boyfriends’ new girlfriends’ new and different boyfriends on Facebook. Scroll, scroll, scroll, feed, feed, feed.
* * *
Pro: I get some “me” time—decompress, self-care, whatever.
Con: It’s all so lonely.
Pro: I never have to worry about parking or the neighbors’ sewage problems, or stolen Internet causing slow Hulu streaming.
Con: There is no Internet to steal.
When the management team named me blog editor and weekly content manager for Issue 15 of Lunch Ticket, I hesitated, knowing how much the position would rely on ample Internet access. The hesitation only lasted a second. I’m so honored to edit and publish personal essays about “What now?” questions, combating medical misconceptions, the ache of missing love, and the need for intersectional feminism. Social media—supplied by the omnipresent Internet—is just one way I share these works.
As much as I can, I take the opportunity to talk about these essays, in person, via text, or over the phone, to permeate a culture around me that may not be too knowledgeable of LGBTQ issues or aware of the plights of urban homelessness.
Pro: I built a community, though it’s far away.
Con: Fostering this community requires the Internet. In warm weather, when semester is in session and deadlines bear down, I have to move from room to room in my house with iPhone in tow, searching for a hotspot signal. Denser summer foliage means frequent data interruptions for those far from cellular data pinging towers.
* * *
Pro: After a string of corporate jobs in which I was told I had a strange personality to operate in a big company (Female? Youthful? Ambitious? Still not sure.), and during which I overheard catty remarks about my outfits over low cubicle walls, I vowed never to set foot in a corporate office again. I now do most of my work for the farm from home.
Con: My day job at the farm, as the compliance, communications, and HR director, is much harder than it should be. Handwritten tasks take longer and result in more human errors—I still remember the time I wrote a five instead of a four on a spreadsheet and couldn’t figure out why the books did not balance at the end of the month. Thirty-nine percent of people in rural areas still do not have access to high-speed Internet, which is considered a vital tool to run a business. Emailing invoices and vendor payments are no longer futuristic automations. They’re here to stay, and farms that cannot keep up will suffer the economic consequences.
Pro: Electric cooperatives may come to our area soon to bridge the urban-rural digital divide.
Con: It’s unlikely those cooperatives will be able to achieve the 25 megabytes per second requirement the Federal Communications Commission sets to define high-speed broadband access.
* * *
This is my last blog for Lunch Ticket, though I’ll edit and manage our team of bloggers through June. It’s bittersweet. I’ll miss my bloggers and connections to those in far-flung places—bigger cities and more rural places alike.
Point: Only four percent of people in urban areas don’t have access to high-speed Internet. We should all just move to big cities.
Counterpoint: Who will grow all of our food, organic, conventional, or otherwise? Crops and livestock require space and land, and farmers to grow, nurture, and oversee them. The demand for produce continues to increase, despite the proliferation of technologies and automation.
In the end, four years ago, the “pros” won. We know it will be a challenging road to run a farm, but the list doesn’t lie.
Pros: We are close to our family, our most supportive and important allies. I watch my nephews grow up. We have enough space to adopt a puppy. I see a supermoon illuminate our backyard woods. I witness 27 wild turkeys peck around in the field by our home. I try and fail to video herds of deer stampeding through our subdivision.
By helping to grow produce, we serve as an edifying counterpoint to the struggling farms that pump antibiotics into their Big Dairy cows or raise many, many cattle for beef, one of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and thus climate change.
We can feed the world.
Con: Due to limited data, I can’t live stream the whole thing.
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 Rumpus, Lunch Ticket, Litbreak Magazine, and Reservoir. Find her online at epfloyd.com and on Twitter at @eprofloyd.
My car’s having problems, again, so I’ve been taking the bus and train to work. Walking to the bus stop each morning, I pass the U-Haul place, which is always populated by Latino men, young and old, talking and waiting. Across the street at the bus stop, I stand to one side and observe street life on Lankershim Boulevard. One morning, I’m standing half a block up from the bus stop, smoking as I wait for the bus. I spot a youngish white man walking up the street—not the sidewalk—toward me. He swings his fists and shouts at the air, legs rigid as he throws his feet forward over and over. He spots me and crosses the street against traffic. I shove my lighter in my pocket and sidle as quickly as possible back to the safety of the bus bench. He passes me by and continues up the street, jerking and screaming. I wonder where he came from, and where he’s going, and what he’s so angry about.
Beautiful isn’t a sufficient word. Los Angeles is skies of purple, orange, blue, and yellow. It’s bearded palm trees and pink and white pale-bark crape myrtles. Lonesome skyscrapers and homely houses, sweltering valley and chilly coast, alt rock bands and hip-hop dancers. Los Angeles is the subway below and airplanes above. But in the rain, my city feels scuzzy. All the filth and sorrow that’s been pounded into the streets for most of the year becomes slick and muddy as the clouds release their drizzles and torrents. Still, the visual of the rain in the city can be astounding: the asphalt reflects the green-yellow-red cycle of the stoplight, its colors stretching out for blocks; the firetruck tears down the street toward a wreck, its red lights pulsing against the looming buildings; the sun breaks through the grey-black clouds, its focused beams catching the still-falling raindrops and casting a rainbow across the sky. We’re not used to it here. We marvel at weather, necks craned skyward as we wonder whether the snow in the mountains is a sign of climate change, of coming drought.
When it rains in L.A., there are two types of people: those who dust off the umbrellas and rainboots that spend most of the year in the back of a closet, and those who rely on layers of flannels and coats and the same old sneakers that inevitably become soaked as the sidewalks flood.
* * *
At the North Hollywood Station, there are grates over a large portion of the sidewalk. The air blowing up from the trains below is slightly warmer than the chilly wind, so people pitch their tents on top of the grates. As I walk by, I try not to look, and I try not to look away. A woman sitting on a bus bench wrapped in a red sleeping bag says, “Hey,” to me as I pass. I stop and turn. She points across the street. “I think they’re selling coffee for a dollar.” I reach into my pocket and take out a dollar I can’t afford to spend and hand it to her. She looks cold. I’m glad she has a blanket.
My entire family has a soft spot for people who are down on their luck. My brother carries spare bottles of water to pass out to street people on hot days. I try not to keep cash in my pockets because it flows from my hands and leaves me wondering where all my lunch money went. My parents come from the backwoods of South Carolina, where people lived off the land and the charity of their churches. I don’t remember a time before I knew we were poor. I wore hand-me-downs and reread all my books a hundred times and accepted that there were things I would never have. I can’t help but see myself as adjacent to the population of people scrounging an existence from the streets and the trash of those who are better off. Finances are always tenuous, and the possibility of being on the street is always a looming terror. On tough days, I find myself eyeing soft-looking patches of dirt underneath bushes, or niches in alleys hidden from view of the street, wondering if I could spend a night there. On better days, I wonder who would take my cat in if I had to live in my car. I’ve been lucky, relying on my family and friends to help me when things spiral out of control and I can’t afford something vital.
Heading downtown, I’m trapped in a subway car with the suffocating smell of unwashed human. A black man stands in the center of the car, holding on to a pole. He’s slipped off his shoes, and his feet look painful. I blow air out of my nostrils and try to concentrate on my book. He rides the train for three or four stops, then shuffles off the train onto the platform. Another man, also black, says to the car at large, “The government’s doing that to us, you know.” Blank white faces look uncomfortably away, pretending to be absorbed in cell phones with no reception. I want him to say more, to bring attention to the dire situation pressed against our eyes, to make these other people think about something other than the lingering smell of a human body. He doesn’t say anything else.
* * *
My parents met in a trailer park, and they left South Carolina together, eventually ending up 3,000 miles away from home. They arrived in Los Angeles in 1987 with two young children in tow and took jobs as paralegals.
“We hustled our asses off,” my mom says, recalling days as a notary public and process server and nights of cleaning the law office building top to bottom.
Three years later, I came along, and we moved into a yellow, four-bedroom house in Van Nuys. For a time, my parents inhabited their dream, working hard and raising their children in the ideal, iconic city, opportunity lurking around every corner. Even after they split and my mom married my stepfather, I lived a life surrounded by glamour, diversity, and color. When I was little, we went to the beach all summer, threw ourselves against the waves of the Pacific, caught and cradled sand crabs in our palms. The sun shone long into the school year, warming our faces and arms—until the grey overtook the sky and rain made it so wet we had to tie plastic Ralph’s bags over our shoes.
My mom once befriended a man who lived in the Ralph’s parking lot, Russell.
“We were pals,” she says.
When she heard that Russell and his wife Janet spent their time in their tent playing cards by candlelight, she put together a package of candles and decks of cards and presented it to the homeless couple for Christmas, along with a new jacket for Russell. He and my mom cried together, gratitude and compassion mingling in the tears of two humans who cared about each other.
* * *
In the early morning, a young woman gets on the train at the North Hollywood Station. She is dressed in black leggings and a black top with a swirly red skirt. She is barefoot. Loud, desperate, alone, her voice rises above the noise of the train: “Can anyone help with spare change, if you would?” On another day, “Could anyone help with spare change besides the black guy who’s—” Did she say “who’s dead?” Her smell is overwhelming and her feet look awful and her hair is short and thinning. When I hand her a dollar, no eye contact, she says, “Thank you, my love.” Her words pierce the middle of my chest and wriggle inside, and they reside there beside the pain that comes when I’m off my meds and always near tears. Eyes on screens, headphones in, hoods up—no one looks at us. I wonder how much money she makes doing this every day. She gets off at the next stop and hops on the next car, her reedy voice ringing out again to beg.
I finally took my car in for repairs, expensive but so worth it. After more than a month, moving under my own power again is intoxicating, foreign. The rain has abated a bit, allowing me to put the top down and scrub the mold out of my flooded backseat. Water has gotten into the door, and now the window is stuck, but I’m not even mad about it. I’m grateful for my janky car, more than I’ve ever been. I’m safe again, protected, independent.
Still, I don’t think I’ll be able to return to my bubble. I feel powerless. Within me, the need to act has been awakened. I can’t help but think of how much I have relative to those who can’t even afford a room to rest their head. I also can’t help but think how futile it feels to try to chip away at the problem of homelessness a dollar bill at a time, like trying to dig a tunnel in a mountain with a toothpick. While I believe putting cash into the hands of the people who need it is usually the best course of action, isn’t there something else we can do, something bigger and more impactful?
* * *
Today, while I was walking to pick up my car, I passed an older man with a long white beard, carrying a small dog under his arm.
“Hello there!” he said, not looking at me. There was no one else nearby.
“Hello,” I replied, slowing. I knew he would call me back, and he did. He explained that he hated to come to me asking like this, but he and his puppy needed help with food. He invited me to scratch the adorable thing under the chin. It was a cutie, very little, but I didn’t hand over three bucks for the pup. It was for the man who didn’t expect me to reply to him when he greeted me, who was embarrassed to ask for help. He appreciated it so much he hugged me, a thump on the back from him to me and me to him.
* * *
As a grad student, I’ve met a lot of outstanding people. One is my friend Stephanie Jaeger, who is a pastor here in North Hollywood at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church. I was incredibly heartened when I learned about the church’s nonprofit: the NoHo Home Alliance. Through this community organization, Stephanie and other volunteers work to provide the local homeless population with resources, including access to bathrooms and showers, clothing, and meals. In addition, they make a safe space for recreation, supplying folks with books, games, and movies as well as charging stations for cell phones. This work not only gives dignity to those who are ignored or thrust aside, but it also mobilizes the community to address issues such as homelessness in their neighborhood. By giving residents a course of action, it benefits the homeless population while also easing the anxiety of residents, who are able to make personal connections and relationships with people experiencing homelessness. It is good work, and needed, showing the power of community.
If you would like more information about the NoHo Home Alliance, please check out their website at www.nohohome.org or follow them on social media: @nohohome.
Adrien Kade Sdao writes young adult fiction and works in a children’s bookstore in Los Angeles. They are an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and they are the lead editor for the Young Adult genre at Lunch Ticket. Their work has appeared in Lunch Ticket and Womanpause. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.
At first, I stared at your e-mail and blinked a few times, thinking that perhaps my contact lenses were blurry. It said, “Thank you for your interest in employment with [REDACTED]. Your application was received and carefully reviewed. However, based on the information you submitted, it was determined you did not meet the minimum training and experience required.”
No, I was reading it correctly, but it still didn’t make any sense. See, my last employer was five times your size, and I held a nearly identical position to the one for which I applied. What kind of new math are you using? If this weren’t the eleventh time that I’d received such a reply—or no response at all—I would call the HR office directly and contest your rejection.
But I’m tired of this whole charade. Tired of the backhanded compliments where you tell me how “impressive” my resume is and then proceed to explain that I’m also “too confident” or “too intimidating” or “not the right fit.” I’m tired of jumping through hoops, tired of tap dancing. Tired of being the “First Black This” or the “Youngest Female That.” Tired of having to fight you just to get paid what I’m worth. Tired of collecting degrees and experience, only to be told that I’m Still. Not. Enough.
And you always have reasons. So many reasons. The ones you state out loud are perfectly plausible: I’m underqualified, or I’m overqualified; we’re in a recession, or we just got out of a recession; you’re going in a different direction, or you decided not to fill the position at all. But it is the reasons you don’t say that tell the rest of the story. The reasons I can’t say aloud either, lest I be labeled “bitter” or “angry” like the last black woman you hired. And we all know how uncomfortable you get when black women are angry.
But did you know that black women are the most educated people in this country? We attain advanced degrees at far higher rates than any other group. That’s become a very popular statistic, shared with pride and awe at our hard work and achievements, but that’s what black women have always done: work hard and overcome obstacles. So that doesn’t impress or surprise me. Not because it isn’t impressive, mind you, but because I know what it’s really about. See, what they don’t share alongside that data about black women’s educational attainment, is the degree to which we aspire to positions of leadership—at almost three times the rate of our white female peers, and yet we’re perpetually underrepresented in C-suites, boardrooms and halls of power. Lean In wasn’t written for black women. Hell, black women invented leaning in and then turned it into a dance. But still we think, “Maybe if I get one more degree, take on one more project, achieve one more milestone, maybe…it will finally…be enough.”
Lean In wasn’t written for black women. Hell, black women invented leaning in and then turned it into a dance.
It can eat away at you if you let it, that feeling of knowing you’re capable but not being acknowledged for it. It’s like being invisible. I imagine that’s how Katherine Johnson and her NASA coworkers felt. Did you see that movie, Hidden Figures? Katherine Johnson was a mathematical genius who, along with other black women, were hired as human computers to do calculations for the male engineers trying to put a man on the moon. They worked in an area that was segregated from the rest of the Langley Research Center, until they had to step up and save the mission. Everyone kept saying it was the “feel good movie of the year,” but it just irritated me. What is so inspiring about watching a bunch of white men shoot themselves in the foot while the black women with all the answers aren’t even allowed in the room? John Glenn almost died and the United States nearly lost the Space Race before these women were allowed just to do their jobs.
If you haven’t even seen Hidden Figures, then I’m sure you’ve never heard of Charlotte Ray. She was the first black female attorney in the United States. She graduated from Howard Law School at 22 years old and was admitted to the D.C. Bar the same year. Then she became the first woman, of any race, admitted to argue before the Supreme Court of D.C. Her legal intelligence was undisputed, but do you know what she got for all her accomplishments? She had to close her law firm because no one would hire a black woman to represent them. Instead, the first black woman attorney in America moved back home to New York and taught public school.
And don’t dare tell me it’s gotten better since then, as if Katherine and Charlotte don’t have a debt to be paid. I don’t know how they kept their souls from shriveling up like a raisin in the sun. Some days, I don’t know how I do. It’s maddening to be dismissed in spite of your abilities, to be ignored to the point where you doubt your own existence. Did they recite the same futile affirmations as me in their mirrors, I wonder, steeling themselves against a world indifferent to their brilliance? They say a person’s value does not decrease based on someone’s inability to see their worth…but their paycheck certainly does. No amount of affirmations, self-love or leaning in can make up for more than $713,000 in lost income. That was the average amount a college-educated woman could expect to lose over a 40-year career. In 2017. I dare say Katherine and Charlotte would be disappointed.
What’s ironic is that you have problems that black women can solve, but you look right through us. We are the descendants of miracle workers, refined in the fires of oppression. Black women gave birth to this world. Why would it surprise you that we know how to heal it? How much untapped human potential is wasting away before your eyes? How many technological breakthroughs, medical miracles, diplomatic victories and social advancements are we missing out on because this world refuses to see black women’s greatness? Because you don’t see our greatness.
Black women gave birth to this world. Why would it surprise you that we know how to heal it?
Thank God for Bessie Coleman who, after being rejected by every flight school in the United States, moved to France instead to become the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license. Thank God for Raven Wilkinson, who persisted even when racism nearly sidelined her dance career. Thank God for Audre Lorde, who didn’t let discrimination or cancer silence her. Because of them, I will persist. Because God blesses the child that’s got her own.
You’re probably wondering why I’m unloading on you like this. You might be thinking this is unfair, uncalled for. After all, your e-mail to me was three measly sentences. I mean, you hardly even know me. But you are a symbol, a proxy for those whose hubris and fragility render black women invisible. For those whose identity is rooted in our subjugation. Because you want our ideas, our labor and our magic, but you don’t want us. Because you could stand before me, and with a straight face, tell me I don’t exist.
So I reject your rejection. I reject whatever calculations you make that lead you to believe that I’m not enough, that we’re not enough. I reject your new math, because it’s just as backward as your old math, because it doesn’t add up.
While you may choose not to see what is right in front of you, I demand to be seen. I don’t need your permission to be great; I have no choice but to be great. My ancestors will accept nothing less. I will serve, and I will speak, and I will write, and I will live, and I will win. Because I. Am. Enough.
A.D. Lowman is a management professional, consultant and community leader. Her leadership and career advice has been featured in Essence, Money and Diversity Woman magazines. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles where she serves as a blogger, interviewer and assistant web team manager for Lunch Ticket.
Once I gave up alcohol, sugar and flour, there were only a few splurges left in the culinary world for me to enjoy—one of them was good coffee. I didn’t mind standing in line to get it—even the time some jerk interrupted my order.
“I ordered extra whip,” a voice boomed, behind me. “This doesn’t have any.”
I turned. A tall, skinny man with a full beard showed the clerk his cup, filled with nothing but café au lait, and then shoved it toward her.
“Sorry,” she said, and passed it to the baristas at the espresso machine. As she explained the terrible disaster of his missing whipped cream, the guy looked down at me and shook his head.
“I come in here every day,” he said, in a low voice. “You’d think they’d know me by now.” He went to the pick-up counter, but not before he looked back at me. “Sorry for interrupting your order. I’m in a hurry.”
He grabbed the cup, ignoring the barista’s apology. As quickly as he appeared, he was gone, running across the street before the light changed to green.
* * *
The language of this story informs the narrative, as language has the power to do. I never mention how the coffeehouse was across the street from a research hospital, or describe what the jerk was wearing (wrinkled doctor’s scrubs). He looked exhausted, like an overworked intern fueled by coffee—close to seeing visions. Because this is my story, I can dress him like a red devil, with a pointed tail and cloven hooves if I want to. I could also make a case about those baristas, too; they kept checking their phones while they made espresso. I almost blew the conch shell (Twitter) to complain how the baristas were all distracted and moving in slow-motion.
I think about everyone in this story now—the intern in wrinkled scrubs, me, the distracted baristas trying to keep up with the line—and I see how we’re all connected. Hurried, distracted, self-contained people, we interacted as little as possible with each other, pretending we weren’t part of the same community.
* * *
I always loved the way that Charles Olson described projective verse: “from the heart, by way of the breath, to the line.” It shows how words are more than words—they’re the essence of what we value, the souvenirs of our experience, and the trembling tokens of our fears. We’re warned to choose them carefully.
In 2011, Google released its database of 5.2 million books, published between the years of 1500 and 2008. It measured the frequency of words used in these books, and it showed how our language has changed: “Words and phrases like ‘personalized,’ ‘self,’ ‘standout,’ ‘unique,’ ‘I come first’ and ‘I can do it myself’ are used more frequently in today’s language. Communal words and phrases like, ‘community,’ ‘collective,’ ‘tribe,’ ‘share,’ ‘united,’ and ‘common good’ have receded… significantly.” American English has changed because we are an isolating people—our communities are shrinking.
Gallup’s latest polls reflect that Americans are engaging in community exercise less and less. Charitable clubs, like Elks, Moose, Rotary, have a decrease in new membership. Church memberships are experiencing a steady decline: 38% of adults attended weekly in 2016, compared to the 42% in 2008. Rushing from one activity to another, we’re less likely to engage and invest in communities outside of our immediate families.
Social media platforms are taking the place of social gatherings. Cell phones are the preferred method of communication. Even when squished together in public places, we look at our phone screens as much as we do one another.
My husband, Mario, and I lived in Africa for seven years, north of the mile-high city of Johannesburg, on an agricultural holding where our neighbors rode horses on the dirt roads. It was eight miles away from the township of Diepsloot, where we worked (and played). We’d come home to our small cottage to hear our neighbor’s geese and peacocks calling to each other, green dragonflies, the size of pencils, resting on bushes. Sunsets painted the sky a violet-red-orange, and Sacred Ibis filled the willow tree that bordered our dirt road. There was epic lightning and rain. Our dusty Toyota Hilux took us to nineteen different countries on the continent, including a forty-seven day trip to the Sudan.
The language of my story informs its narrative, as all language has the power to do. What I haven’t said is that we were part of a Christian ministry team, serving existing churches on the continent. We loved this work, believing we could help. I usually withhold this part of my story unless I know I’m safe. It’s the equivalent of getting naked and showing how the years have taken their toll on my body. My friends who fight for social justice tell me how they detest churches and the hypocrites who populate them. I never know what to say, other than my knee-jerk reaction of, “I’m not a hypocrite!” I want to prove this, but I can’t. I withdraw. The absence of language betrays me. There are cracks in the sentences, an insincerity of voice. But when I drop the veil and tell you that I was lonely when I was in Africa, and drank wine and martinis just to silence my heartache, you just might empathize.
* * *
Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, studies empathy—our human connection—in the age of digital distraction.
“Quite frankly,” she says, “empathy is in trouble. Too often we find ways around conversation and get our phones. We lose touch with what each other are thinking and feeling.” Empathy is how we’re wired to respond to one another, especially when we see that someone is hurting. Cell phones have accelerated this loss of empathy toward our communities, for the most part.
Last week, I had a rare visit with my sister that led us to a place of some soul sharing.
“Who are you texting?” I asked her, as she picked up her phone while I was talking.
“No one,” she said, putting it down. “I just got a call. My phone is on vibrate, so I shut it off.”
I felt my shoulders relax and unexpected emotions filled me: Relief. Acceptance. Love.
* * *
Our travel schedule for ministry was rigorous, but nothing compared to the demands of keeping my mouth shut. Our team scheduled a trip to Mozambique, a group of villages near the Shire River, where pastor-friends had been asking for Bibles and mosquito nets. The trip was organized for the winter, when the Anopheles mosquitoes—the ones that carry the malaria protozoa like sick junkies —aren’t as numerous.
The village leaders had rented a local community hall, with enough space to camp next door. They arranged meetings, welcomed us warmly, shared fresh fruits, water, and bread. The team guys met in the hall with local pastors; the village women invited the wives to sit down on the logs outside our camp. After a few minutes of socializing, the team wives retreated to start cooking. I stayed with the village women, who taught me songs and greetings in their Shangaan language. Children—wide-eyed and shy—clung to their mothers, which made me miss our new grandchildren. The women seemed to understand, and I felt more connected with them than any of the wives on the team.
Near the end of our trip, our team leader approached Mario and asked to speak to him privately. “Your wife should be sitting with you in meetings—not with the village women. She laughs too loud, and talks too much.”
At first, Mario tried to explain how cultural differences might color this man’s view of me, but Mario could tell our leader had made up his mind. That night, as we went to bed in our tent, Mario told me what was said; I knew he was leaving a lot out.
“I told him to back off,” Mario whispered in the cold darkness. “I assured him that he was wrong. You’re not just an important part of our team, you’re wonderful. It’s sad he can’t see that.” We were still and quiet, holding each other. From the neighboring tent, I could hear snoring. Mario’s neck felt warm against my fingers, chapped from washing dishes, one of the jobs I was allowed to do. Sleep came eventually. In the morning, I decided to do what the team leader said, and sat next to Mario in the meeting, while the village women talked outside.
The last day at camp, we met with the village pastors one last time in the conference hall. There was a feast of music and worship. Children sang and danced. Then, as a surprise: the village women approached the team wives, singing and carrying woven textiles to tie around our waists.
One by one, the women unfolded pieces of bright fabric to tie around our waists—the four team-wives and me. For a moment, the wives were standing there, in the front of the church, wrapped in colorful textiles and thanking our hosts. Soon, more women came up to me and tied fabric around me—one cloth after another—until I had at least ten cloths around me, compared to the other wives, who only had one.
The Shangaan women, none of whom spoke English, bestowed a blessing of sisterly acceptance, as if they could see the pain and rejection I was trying not to feel. They first allowed the other team-wives to feel their blessing of fabric, and then, unapologetically, gave me more. Wrapped in the multi-colored layers of blessing, in the presence of my accusers, my cup overflowed. My language is clumsy as I tell this story, reaching for the words that I know I’ll never find.
* * *
In 2013, after seven years, we returned to Sacramento. I was exhausted, convinced I’d failed our friends we left behind, and abandoned our calling. I collapsed into the arms of my family and friends—the ones we left behind—and relaxed to the point of vegetation. For about a year.
Sometimes, I’d look around and wonder why I’d ever left my homeland; other times I was furious with the rampant selfishness in my country. I drank more, just to tolerate everybody’s bullshit. I took delight in feasting with cultural foods, pushing back the rumbling volcano of feelings, adding daily to my weight. Eventually, I admitted that this homeland of mine had the same DNA that I did, and we both were in desperate need of grace.
I joined a community of people who, like me, needed to find their way back to a place of peace. I found my bearings—and faith—again. I started eating organic foods and drinking good water. I got my first smartphone, a computer, and then completed my first college degree, in English. After that, I decided to get an MFA in Creative Writing.
Once I gave up alcohol, sugar and flour, there were only a few splurges left in the culinary world for me to enjoy—one of them was good coffee. At the beginning of my story, this sentence gets carried away by other stories, but in the end, it’s that first sentence that holds all the beauty of my world.
I love how Rumi simplifies it:
“Christ is the population of the world,
and every object as well.
There is no room for hypocrisy.
Why use bitter soup for healing when sweet water is everywhere?”
Janet Rodriguez is an author, blogger, teacher, and editor who lives in Sacramento with her husband, extended family, three dogs, and one cat. In the United States, her work has appeared in Cloud Women’s Quarterly, Salon.com, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. Rodriguez has also published essays, stories and two biographies in South Africa.
Her writing examines themes of identity and morality in faith communities, and the mestiza experience in a culturally binary world. Currently she is a Cardinal cohort at Antioch University Los Angeles, serving on the magazine, Lunch Ticket, where a bunch of younger nerds keep her on her toes. Follow her on Twitter @brazenprincess or her personal blog at www.brazenprincess.com.
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 school—mostly 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 over—I’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 men—to 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.
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.
“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 anesthesia—white people conveniently believed that blacks had a different threshold for pain—he 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.
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?
what i gotta do to
junk this here body.
tell me quick lawd.
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.
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
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…
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.
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.
My original piece for this was titled “What It Means to Be Human Today,” but since I was introducing a new paradigm of human man, the post was perhaps ambitious in aim. So I withdrew it. Since I am a waterproof hybrid human being made in part of walrus skin [not], my annoyance with my own misfire rolled right off and theoretically wetted the bellybutton lint and dried port stains under my writing desk.
So why am I still talking about that original post? Because of Roland Barthes.
The point was to illuminate that in my wealth of experience with this, people do not accept the reality of a different healthy human DNA paradigm than the one we are taught in K-12 school, and to illustrate why that is, why it is a human problem, and to share a simple way to take my background and apply it in a productive way to your own differences. I gathered from the feedback, a heavy read on Western medicine’s human difference extermination agenda and Google’s lack of accountability was a bit much to digest.
The gist was, the assumed human chromosome archetypes in Western medicine are XX women and XY men. I am an XXY man, which is not a combination of XX and XY, but a male iteration all its own.
XXY is not intersex, but being that it’s different, people generally don’t accept it at face value. Instead, they squirm. That’s probably because the idea that a human might have two sex parts or inclinations—which is not what XXY is—threatens masculinity and gender roles. If men had both a penis and a vagina, what they have done to women personally and societally could also be done to them. They’d be screwed, literally and figuratively. Of course, it’s not that simple.
All you really need to digest is, XXY is the newer, more sensitive, fully capable man. Got that reality? Great, now you can ignore the false facts and misinformation Western medicine preaches (and Google regurgitates) to keep their annual research funding intact instead of doing right by humanity, and you can skip all the hard facts (such as the 280,000 annual terminations of healthy XXY fetuses based on doctor recommendation—not a pro-life argument, but a pro-human statement; or the fact that XXY does not equal Klinefelter syndrome, in spite of what Google and NICHD’s Genetics Home Reference state).
On the other hand, if you want to know what the hell I’m talking about, and help me rip the chastity belt off supposed human archetypes, get in touch, especially if you are an agent, because I’ve written a well-reviewed book on the subject, will market it with all the re-appropriated energy of my left nut, and I’d love to be your client. That’s not an ad for me—people need to know the truth.
Then there is Roland Barthes. He knew what was going on.
I had not read Roland Barthes until hours prior to writing this piece. Yet, in the lengthiest of totally roundabout ways, I would never have found his writing if not for my XXY chromosomes. I fucking love XXY chromosomes!
My path to Roland Barthes began in my lower right bicuspid, at the office of my Seattle dentist of eight years. He messed up a root canal, drilling through the tooth root, and pushing the infected nerve through the hole, leaving it on my jaw to writhe in its misery and plot my demise.
The infection spread up my jaw to the trigeminal nerve, a large cluster of nerves just in front of your temple. The trigeminal nerve runs around your eye and ear, then threads inside your skull, where it wraps around one hemisphere of your brain.
It was soon apparent, my nerve intended to kill me.
My dentist left me for dead, refusing to see me to address the problem. I had to fend for myself for five weeks, during which I survived roughly four hundred and twenty prolonged six-minute brain shock treatments (forty-two hours worth), courtesy of my infected trigeminal nerve.
Some people would have smoked a corresponding four hundred and twenty bowls of pot, but being the son of a dead international drug smuggler, I have always preferred to not partake.
I went to my doctor instead, but as brilliant as the man is, he couldn’t figure out how to stop my nerve’s audacious nerve. He dutifully handed me a whopping bottle of Percocet, which I proceeded to hate as it caused my eyesight to go blurry, yet did nothing to dull the pain. He said, “You might have taurodontism because of your XXY chromosomes; that could be the cause of everything.”
He was not right. Taurodontism is when the roots of teeth are expanded and curl under, causing a weak root structure.
My teeth are the opposite, with abnormally long, strong roots, so when a tooth dies, I feel the pain more intensely further up into the soft tissues.
That one incorrect comment, the thought that my chromosomes could be the cause of my pain ignited my social justice mind and my writing.
I want to share with you just how inhumanly painful it is to have your brain shocked for six minutes straight by your trigeminal nerve. It is FUCKING painful (if you know what a point size is [it’s a typography term], increase the word FUCKING by about 97,477 points). The only fair comparison to equate the magnitude of it is pouring ethanol on your scalp and lighting it on fire, while having a ripped bodybuilder squeeze your head in their hands with all the strength they can muster. Oh, and jamming a live wire through your eardrum.
After five weeks, my former dentist sent me to a renowned oral surgeon who said, “People die from this. You are lucky to be alive.” He performed an incredibly painful micro-surgery, sticking hook-nosed forceps down my tooth socket, and placing medicated gauze directly against the nerve on my jaw, which stimulated the nerve to heal itself. He couldn’t numb me up for it because he had to see me wince when he contacted the nerve.
I don’t know how or why I survived, but it is surely in part because of my XXY chromosomes, and to share my stories.
I am one stubborn fucker. I really am. When it is my time, I will climb a mountain if I have to crawl the whole way on my knuckles and knees through a whiteout blizzard. I will see the world fade on my own terms. There was no way I was going to croak from a goddamned root canal, and though I cried humble tears and begged to feel the grim reaper’s scythe pierce the skin of my nape to escape the pain, once I had fought those terrible, wretched nerve shocks for a few weeks, I dreamed deep down that I could beat them. It’s why I kept fighting.
Being stubborn is part of being XXY. If you know when to give in, stubbornness can be a good thing.
The micro-surgeries—there were two—were successful, and one week later, I had survived. Nine years on, I know it was the greatest of all my victories.
There were no long-term negative repercussions. Except the complete dismantling and re-informing of my life.
I had forgotten much of my childhood, but somehow the nerve shocks brought the memories back into my consciousness, and it changed how I related to the world.
The abandonment I experienced during the nerve infection from friends, family, medical professionals, and the financial sector, also changed my relationship to society. I learned that the pillars of our life are a sham, a frolicking fraud, salivating to suck the last dollars out of you before you fall down, a mere bloodless corpse.
Family and friends returned when I was healthy again. The overwhelming positive was, I began writing in recovery, and I never stopped. Before that, I had written one novel, cast it aside, and rarely wrote anything but one of the thousand or so songs I have penned.
I’m not one to rest on accomplishments. After surviving, I had to figure out how to be alive again, and that led me to Antioch University Seattle, where I gained a new awareness of what it means to be human. It’s also where I began writing several books, including the one about my chromosomes.
I learned about diversity, intercultural communication, racism, poverty, and writing. I learned I am a natural born writer. My love of reading books was reignited. I discovered how my XXY chromosomes heavily influence how I learn. I wrote four books.
Next, I was accepted into Antioch University Los Angeles’ top-ranked MFA in Creative Writing program. Yet, I still had only a slight awareness of this character named Roland Barthes.
During my MFA, I rewrote the XXY book, wrote a novel about surviving and learning how to be alive again (go figure), wrote much of a collection of short stories, and penned most of a third novel, which I am currently completing.
Oh my God—we’re here! Enter Roland Barthes.
Oh, wait. First, I gotta’ tell you, I fucking hate the French—kidding! I love the Cole Porter song “I Love Paris!” when performed by Les Negresses Vertes. I love riding my bike in southern France. I enjoyed Jacques Derrida’s concept of “The Other.” As a hopeless romantic, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films are among my favorites. People being people, I probably would love the French and their deliciously gawdawful attitude if I could cobble my four years of high school French—which provided me perhaps a grade deux level—into effectively communicating in France.
Anyway, Roland Barthes.
How I came to know Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text was, I wanted to see the whole of America’s K-12 education system leveled and redesigned (forgive my idealism), so that every child and adult learner truly has equal opportunity at an excellent education, without cultural bias, racism, without human difference or financial exclusion, and without learning differences remanding intelligent minds to remedial classes.
I was an A-student in middle and high school, yet today’s standards say XXY boys and men will possess subnormal intelligence. Sadly, parents believe what doctors preach about XXY, even though most doctors do not understand the difference. It leaves XXY kids not connecting with the teaching because they’ve been taught they are not intelligent, when the truth is, they may be abnormally intelligent and bored.
When I gained an awareness of how I learn, I wanted to help people who have experienced difficulty in school born of their own learning differences. I wanted to help them forge connections, and to tell their stories. Because our thoughts and stories are all we truly own.
I applied to the Post-MFA Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing at Antioch Los Angeles to gain a solid foundation and some experience. That brought me to being a Teacher Assistant for Kathryn Pope, who is a natural born teacher, it’s plain to see, her writing classes an experience to behold. Even as her TA, I am learning things about writing that slipped by me previously.
Kathryn Pope brought me to Roland Barthes. Or rather, her bio page on Antioch’s site did. It says, “Barthes once wrote that, for a writer, language is “a field of action, the definition of, and hope for, a possibility.””
The same goes for a reader, for even if they are reading fiction, there is the hope of connecting in the manner of synchronized thought with the author. The reader wants to feel.
The author confirms and expresses dreams, makes connections, and teaches through their text. The author wants to make readers feel.
It is the connection that matters, for connection is playing, just as playing is connecting. Students and writers play with words and thoughts. We connect through them, and we forge a kind of community. Together we raise awareness and inspire change, in ourselves and others.
Teaching, as I have experienced with many teachers, now, at Antioch, is not all that different from playing. There is a brilliance that goes into the arc of an excellent class. The connections between teachers, their material, and students are born of playing with goals and words—reading and sharing histories, experiences, difficulties, differences, and similarities.
I returned to school to relearn how to be alive. To open my mind. To connect. Today, I connected with Roland Barthes’ words. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes said, “If you hammer a nail into a piece of wood, the wood has a different resistance according to the place you attack it.”
His words reminded me that this is not the place for the weight of an argument on a paradigm shift in consciousness around what constitutes healthy human beings. This is the place to enjoy the pleasure of words.
I have learned, in writing and life, it is usually the smallest suggestions that make the biggest impact.
Gene Manne recently earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. He is currently working on his third novel and a collection of short stories. His writing is published in Licton Springs Review, KNOCK, and Lunch Ticket. Find him online at genemanne.com. Read more about XXY at xxytruth.com.
I graduated two weeks ago, but it feels like a year went by. Blame it on the holidays and their ability to warp the passage of time, but between then and now I devolved into a couch potato. I slept in, binge watching as I laid on my mess of a bed. Doing anything more strenuous than holding a pen was too much to handle. It still is. In truth, my brain is still trying to process the fact that I’m finally finished with school.
Being in denial can be helpful if you look at it a certain way. Kinda. It’s reassuring to lock myself in my room and focus on things that don’t matter in the long run. Binge watching crappy shows and living off junk food is much easier than filling out that job application or completing that rough draft that’s due in five hours. Especially that rough draft. To fill out that job application and finish that draft mean accepting that I’m done with school and ready to move on to the next chapter in my life. But I’m not ready. Not one bit.
* * *
Growing up, my mother’s family stressed the importance of education. Having a good education meant opportunities, which is why she and her sisters moved to the States in the first place. My grandmother was the most aggressive about it. She didn’t have a chance to finish her education; I vaguely remember her telling me she never completed grammar school, and she wished she had the chance. My mom got farther, making it to college until it got too expensive. Every once in a while she would go back to some online institution, only to drop out soon after. They knew better than anyone the true cost of a good education, and they made sure we knew the sacrifices.
The teachers and counselors became more aggressive as I entered high school.
“Do you want to flip burgers for the rest of your life?” the college counselor asked once during history class.
It felt less like a question and more like a reprimand. If you weren’t planning on going to college, you weren’t giving enough thought to your future. Until two weeks ago at graduation, going to school was—is—all I know. What does a person do after all this? The obvious answer would be to work in the area I got my degree in, to be a writer and do whatever it is that a writer does (aside from writing, anyway). But that’s too simple for my overactive mind to accept. It insists there’s something more to post-grad life when there really isn’t. This is it.
The realization makes me freeze up. Five years ago, I couldn’t wait to be done with school, to finally have a job and get a place of my own. Now, the very thought of these things gives me an anxiety attack. Not because I’m resisting the transition, but because I’m afraid of what will happen when I’m not able to get those things. You can’t fail if you don’t give anything a shot.
* * *
About six years ago, I moved to Los Angeles to live with my dad. My decision was a selfish one; it wasn’t to get to know him better as he re-entered my life, but to get away from everything. During my first year of college, my mom was laid off from a firm she worked at for ten years. She told my brother and I not to worry at first, that she would find a job and everything would go back to normal. The weeks turned to months, then to a year, until it became the new normal. I was expected to get a job of my own to help with bills, so I applied to some stores I regularly shopped at. When that didn’t work, I tried everywhere else. Anywhere else—a department store, a salesperson for a pyramid scheme, any coffee shop or bookstore I came across. Every other week, I would come home from campus and Mom would ask if I found a job yet.
It was around this time that I stopped asking myself what getting a degree would mean for me and what it would mean for my family instead. Guilt crept up on me as my grades slipped. I started skipping class on the days I did manage to get to campus on time. All the while, the pressure continued to gnaw at the back of my head until I snapped one evening during yet another argument over how I wasn’t contributing. I turned away from Mom as she yelled at me, picked up the phone and called Dad.
“I don’t want to be here anymore,” I said as he answered. “Get me out of here.”
About six months later, I got a check in the mail from Lehman College. It was my refund from dropping out. It didn’t occur to me to use that money to help me start a new life. I was so focused on getting away from everything that I didn’t fully consider the consequences. So I did what any unemployed twenty-something slacker would do with three grand: I dined out and bought a lot of cheap booze.
* * *
I was out of college for a year. The California college system took time to get around, and I had very little patience to learn it. I couldn’t find any college that allowed for mid-term transfers, so I took it as a sign to take a break. For a moment, I wondered if going back was the right idea. It didn’t do me any favors. But then I thought of my mom and grandmother, and how disappointed they would be. Especially my mother, who had lost so much. She never got a job as stable or well paid since. The downside of being a college dropout in your fifties. Going back to complete my degree wasn’t so important anymore. Going back to validate my mother’s sacrifices were.
* * *
“What do you want to do after this?”
I’m sitting down with my mentor in his office. I was going into my final project period for my MFA, and talk turned to my post-grad prospects. I told him that I wanted to write, maybe get a teaching gig on the side. Whatever was necessary to let me help out Mom. I never gave much thought beyond that. I just knew it was something I had to do.
He reminded me that writing doesn’t pay much. It’s not enough if supporting my family is my main priority. “What do you want to get out of this program?”
I knew the answer to this question. And yet I felt doubt as I said it out loud. A few months later, he asked the question again. I mailed him my response with the rest of my work, but for the life of me I can’t remember what I told him. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what I want to do.
* * *
I wrote down a six-month plan for my post-grad life. It’s not much–a list of places I want to get published in and some random errands still waiting to be done. I look at the abandoned plan and make a mental note to go back to it when I have some free time. Despite the fact that it’s incomplete, looking at what I hope to accomplish gives me a small glimmer of hope. I stayed on for another semester to set up an online course. I’m excited, but once in a while the anxiety returns to screw with my head.
The thing about attending school for so long is that you fantasize about your life getting better to the point where you don’t see your goal as a possibility anymore, only as a fantasy. It feels too good to be true. I’ve managed to push through all the bullshit, and it feels surreal to be standing on the other side and realize not much has changed.
* * *
The day before graduation, Mom called me. She wanted to tell me how proud she was of how far I’ve come. She wasn’t the only one who said it that week, and she wasn’t the only family member who felt that way. But hearing it from her carries a different meaning. It makes things clearer. The impossible seems possible. For a moment.
Lily Caraballo is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles and a figure model. She is a staff member of Lunch Ticket, a former contributor for Black Girl Nerds, and is featured in the anthology My Body, My Words: A Collection of Bodies. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat.
They say that as much as the human mind can remember experiences of excitement, pleasure, or boredom, it is incapable of similarly remembering pain. Once well again, we can’t put back together the pieces of agony that ruled our days during illness or after an injury. Scientists think this is an evolutionary necessity—if we remembered how bad pain felt, we’d never do anything physically perilous, never give birth to a second child, never get our vaccine boosters.
I know that this is true not only for physical but also for mental pain because I keep traveling abroad even though if I could ever properly remember the pain of international travel I might never leave the U.S. again.
A few weeks ago I had cause to remember this, during a long drive home. My partner was behind the wheel when we started talking about how excited we were to go to the Dominican Republic with her sister and parents. Our flight was due to leave in three days.
“Hey, do you mind checking in my purse to make sure my passport’s there?” she said.
I grabbed her purse from the back seat and fished around. “Here it is,” I said. I flipped through its stamps and visas. Then I stopped, feeling a little dizzy. I said, “When we pull over again we should check my passport, too.”
“Why? Are you worried it’s missing?”
“No, I’m pretty sure it’s in my backpack,” I said.
“Then what could be wrong?”
I sighed. “I’m a little worried it might be expired.”
When we stopped on the side of the road in Santa Nella to swap seats, I found my passport and flipped it open. Reader, it was expired. It had expired three months earlier. When I told my partner, she didn’t say anything. I sat back in the car and then got out so I could scream into the Central Valley night. I felt so bad, so stupid.
You see, this vacation meant a lot to my partner and her family: it was their first real vacation since her mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer and her dad had finished selling her childhood home. It had been a tumultuous few years, but for months we had been looking forward to Christmas with them in the tropics. And it had seemed especially important after a health crisis with my partner’s father had forced them to scuttle their plans to visit us over Thanksgiving. Further, my partner and I were hoping to spend Christmas together for the first time. There was a lot riding on the fact that we were going to have a relaxing week together.
I screamed into the dark night remembering all of this and feeling the anguish of having ruined everything. I felt so ashamed.
Done screaming, we had to keep driving. We were still five hours from home. At first I could only shake my head and laugh ruefully. It seemed a singular screw-up I had committed. But as I settled into my mental anguish, the pain, which at first felt singular, did what pain always does. It reminded me of other, similar pains.
Slowly—one memory at a time—I pieced together that, basically every time I’ve tried to leave the country, through some screw-up or another, my travel plans have almost come to naught.
There was the time I took the subway from my friend’s apartment in Williamsburg out to JFK International Airport in Queens. I hadn’t looked up the travel time and was surprised to find that it took almost two hours to take the subway to the airport. And then when I got there, I realized that I didn’t know what airline my flight was on—all I had written in my notebook were the call numbers: AF158. (I didn’t have a smartphone then.) I guessed that it was Aeroflot, the Russian state airline and so got off at Terminal 2. A kind bookings agent there informed me that AF stood instead for Air France, which left from Terminal 1. “Run,” she said, and I did. I was the last person on the flight.
Probably the worst was the time when I went to India. I thought leaving three weeks to get a visa would be long enough, but I was wrong. The Indian Consulate in San Francisco had recently decided to outsource visa processing to a private company. The only way to get a visa was to mail your passport, two headshots, and a check to the address listed online. I did so and then didn’t hear anything back. As the date of my departure got closer and closer, I spent longer and longer lengths of time on hold with this company’s customer support line. I had a ridiculous clamshell cell phone at the time, and after two hours on hold I would have to plug it in. Usually after about three hours someone would pick up, but they couldn’t promise very much. Finally they told me it would be ready for pick-up at 4:30 p.m. on the day of my flight, which left at 11 p.m. I remember my feeling of wonder when I had the passport in my hands, with the visa pasted in. We went straight to the airport.
Or maybe the worst time is when I had an eleven-hour layover in Moscow and tried to stay awake the whole time, only to fall asleep in front of my gate an hour before departure. I awoke with a start and was surprised to find that nobody was boarding the flight: it had been moved to a gate on the other side of the airport. I sprinted there but was too late. The airline refused to rebook me. I was distraught, almost crying, until I realized that for about $20 USD I could take a sleeper train to St. Petersburg and skip paying a night’s rent at a hostel.
I could go on, of course. I’ve been blessed to make four extended trips out of the U.S.A. and two shorter ones—by grace of grants to study abroad, a deep devotion to living cheaply, and the blind faith that one of my parents would buy me a plane ticket home when the money ran out. My travel has also been enabled by a fair amount of dumb luck in those situations when a lack of forethought seemed headed for disaster.
But just as often, those in charge have taken an interest in my case and helped me out. The folks in charge of granting Indian Visas eventually agreed to speed up my application in time for my trip. A Public Security Bureau agent in Urumqi, China, once granted me a special 30-day visa so I could continue backpacking around Xinjiang and Tibet. And when I went to the wrong terminal at the last minute at JFK, someone from the airline escorted me to the front of the security line and made sure I made it on my flight.
So much of this must be due simply to me being a white American man. I am always getting a second chance, some help at the finish line, or a special dispensation. This is what people mean when they talk about privilege: the way that the systems that undergird our world can really be looking out for you if you look like me. I have tried this privilege, and I can report that it is an unbelievable relief to land on your feet after doing something idiotic.
Unfortunately, not everyone is experiencing the world the same way I am. Some people reading this miss their flights even after doing everything right, showing up early, checking every box—because of their name, their nationality, or the color of their skin. Maybe you can’t pick a visa up in person because you live far from a consulate. Some of you can’t afford to take time off and travel at all. And some of you are nervous in your own country that a police officer could stop you for having a tail light out and thereby set into motion your ejection from the U.S.A. into a country you have not been to since you were two years old. I feel blessed not to face these problems—and at the same time furious that others do.
This feels particularly pertinent now, when the current administration is hell-bent on keeping out people who look certain ways, speak certain languages, and worship in certain traditions. Over one thousand children seeking to live in our country have been separated from their parents and kept in cages. The inept government agency that tore them from their parents’ arms didn’t even keep enough records to reunite many of the children with their families after the policy of family separation was putatively cancelled. And as I write this essay, the government is shut down, its workers furloughed or forced to work without pay, because the president demands money to build a physical embodiment of the urge to reject others. The fight to extend privilege to all human beings is a project that has rarely felt so embattled.
But there in the deepening Saturday evening, driving up I-5 and looking out for the off-ramp onto 580, it seemed like even the privileges accorded to 21st-century white American men weren’t going to be enough to get me a passport in time for our Tuesday flight. Sketchy agencies with names like “Fastport Passport” and “Swift Passport Services” promised to overnight your photo to a nearby passport agency—for $569. We called a listed 1-800 number to see if someone on the other end could talk us down from our state of terror, but the number rang a dozen times and a dozen more before we hung up.
We sat in silent in our bucket seats, half-blinded by oncoming headlights, thinking about what Christmas apart would mean. My partner dived into her phone, and I drove. The cruise control carried us at a steady 80.
“Hey, listen to this,” she said. “I’m reading Yelp reviews of the San Francisco Passport Agency. Did you ever hear of a government agency with almost five stars? This is crazy. Here, let me read you one: ‘So impressed with this government agency! They were so organized, and helpful. I didn’t realize I needed a passport for my infant and wasn’t able to get on my 7 a.m. flight. So I headed to the passport agency and had a passport by 3:30 same day, and was able to make an evening flight! Seriously, so amazing.’”
We both laughed nervously, and then I begged her to read more. Then I begged her to read even more. There were so many happy stories here. So many tales of people in the same situation I had put us in. Over and over again, people said that they knew it was their own fault, but that the passport agents had been kind, professional, and efficient. We laughed and kept our fingers crossed, feeling that our doom might jam after all, that Christmas might in fact not be canceled. Five hours later we made it home, feeling wrung-out and utterly exhausted.
Monday morning we drove to the city, parked the car in a garage, and by 10:30 a.m. we were through security at the San Francisco Federal Building. The passport office is on the third floor. You can only go there if you have travel plans within the next two weeks. I waited in line for an officer to check that I had the correct documents. I didn’t have an appointment, so I had to wait in a special zone for the line to die down.
This gave me an opportunity to look around the room. There were Americans of every race, age, and religion in that room. Hijabis with strollers sat next to old white guys in Vietnam vet hats. In the “no appointment” section a young Hispanic woman there with her partner and two kids tried to calm down a solo white woman who claimed to have been waiting since seven in the morning. An electronically generated woman’s voice kept announcing variations on, “Ticket C-127 will be seen at Window 17.”
I once spent four days in a row waiting six hours in front of the Chinese embassy in Moscow only to give up on ever getting an appointment, so I was ready for a long wait. But within half an hour I was put in a different queue, and soon my documents were accepted by a nice Chinese-American woman who commented on my Hong Kong immigration slip and convinced me to check the box requesting a passport with extra pages in it. By 1 p.m. we were eating a giant feast of hot pot over in Chinatown, and at 4 p.m. I received my brand new passport. Christmas was saved.
In the elevator down to show my partner the new passport, I met an older Latino father and his handsome son. We quickly showed off our fresh passports to each other, and the old man beamingly told me that his son was about to graduate from college and was going on an international trip. The three of us felt so light, so relieved, that we shook hands when I got off on the second floor. I felt so happy in that moment to think that not only had my passport nightmare been resolved but the passport nightmares of every eligible citizen—regardless of skin color, language, or religion—are daily being resolved by these hardworking federal employees. Thank you, San Francisco Passport Agency.
And that would be the end of the story, but I have to tell you: in celebration of our success, my partner paid for a barber named Vega to give me the hairstyle I had when I was four and ever since have dreamed of having again: a glorious mullet, so short in the front and far past my shoulders in back.
Jasper Henderson is a writer and teacher from the Mendocino Coast. His work has appeared in Joyland, Juked, 7×7, Permasummer, Your Impossible Voice, and an anthology of California writing, Golden State 2017. As a poet-teacher, he works with over four hundred students every year, from third-graders to high school seniors. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University L.A. His cat is named Sybil, after the sibilant, favorite sound of cats across the galaxy.
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