I am floating down an open, empty stretch of I-95, listening to the stock market crash, trying to figure out what I am doing—why I am going home—to take care of whom. It is the twelfth of March, and I have decided that I am coming back for my brother.[…]
This is not my story to tell. I was only a brief visitor to this land. Today, I read that the old town of Kashgar has been torn down and modernized. The Id Kah Mosque is closed to both visitors and worshippers. The city is rife with police checkpoints, and security cameras with facial recognition technology are installed at every street corner.[…]
What children of survivors add to the gift is a moral imperative of conveying knowledge; feelings of being dwarfed by the past; guilt at being alive; and kinship with other descendants.[…]
The white male body that exists and speaks—and shops and wears a mask (or doesn’t)—can also wield a gun, and kneel, and kill, as Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin proved when he crushed the life out of George Floyd.[…]
He ain’t my favorite person, she’d say, but he is your father. A simple truth he ignored, never once attempting to bridge the gap. Lived ten minutes away, worked even closer, but he was like a ghost, an apparition, someone we fabricated a connection with but who would ultimately vanish.[…]
As anyone who has ever heard a black comic perform or listened to a rap song knows, we don’t do
humblebragging. When you are the bomb, you simply say so.[…]
So, if I feel so alienated from gender, why should it be such a determining factor in who I would like? I can’t imagine making any woman who likes men happy. Wouldn’t we all be better off just liking everyone?[…]
My feelings didn’t shift, but my body did. I knelt beside you on our bed and brought your head to my shoulder. I repeated her message. But you already knew. You had seen my face change.[…]
The small FedEx box arrived in DC bearing an unlikely return address: Peter C. Hulsebosch III, Houston, TX. Surely this wasn’t from my brother, the brother who’d once told me he would never send a card, much less a gift, because then I’d get used to it […]
Simian Immunodeficiency Virus adapted to live in the body of a person, and then the window was pried
open: open to spread through the villages of Cameroon, and then the rest of Africa, and then the world
beyond, until it found its way to a club in the suburbs of New Orleans and into the lifeblood of the man
who lived next door, my uncle.[…]
I take solace in knowing how to make my father’s chicken adobo, because when he died in 2017, it was one of the many dishes he had made for us that wasn’t lost to us forever with his sudden passing[…]
During childhood I heard the stories about the shtetls and the pogroms that escalated to become the
Holocaust where 6 million Jews—two thirds of the Jewish population in Europe— were killed for no other
reason than for being Jewish.[…]
The hospital walls were stark white and we weren’t allowed to have pens: they were on the list of things we could potentially hurt ourselves with, alongside other items like shoelaces and earrings. I was thirteen and doodling with Crayola markers on construction paper. Even with the “non-toxic” declaration written on its label in the same vibrant purple of my marker, a staff sat beside me and watched my hand move, making sure it didn’t go anywhere it didn’t belong. Marker to paper and back again, until the felt tip was back inside its cap. Across the table there were two windows that had bars on them that were less like bars and more like braided wire, more similar to a tightly woven fence rather than a jail cell. Just behind the wire was the kind of blue sky that only appears in early spring, a blue that feels like hope after a long Chicago winter. I hadn’t been outside in nearly a week, and the blue was taunting me. I was in art therapy. It was my first time in a psychiatric ward.
“Why don’t we go around and share our work?” the therapist asked.
A girl named Emma volunteered. From the chin up, Emma looked young, innocent even. Her bare face was spotted with freckles and her under-eyes were white, not a deep purple like mine. From her chin down, it was like she was a different person. Red and purple rope burns covered the sides of her neck but when I’d asked her how she’d gotten them she told me they were hickeys. She said her boyfriend’s mom had walked in on her fucking him in his trailer home and they couldn’t deny what they were doing because of them being naked and him being inside her and the evidence he’d written all over her neck. I knew, though. We all did. Maybe if we were on the outside I could’ve believed her, but one look at the windows and the wire and those horrible bruises and burns made any faith I had in her story fade away. There is no way to hide that you want to die from someone who understands.
I even had a nurse ask one day during breakfast why I looked so upset, as if I hadn’t been hospitalized for depression, as if we all didn’t want to die. Despite this, I wondered how my sadness could measure up to anyone else’s, even if I felt like I would crumble if anyone tried to touch me to make sure I was real.
“I drew the bottom of a swimming pool,” Emma told the therapist. “Because I don’t think there is anywhere safer than being on the bottom looking up.”
I had tried to drown myself a few weeks prior. I hadn’t understood that no matter how hard you try to empty your lungs, keep your eyes squeezed shut, press your head to the bottom of a bathtub, that your body will force you to the surface. Your mind can scream “kill me” while your body screams “let me live,” and your body will always win.
I understood what Emma was saying. The bottom of a bathtub, the bottom of a pool. Somewhere that was quiet and deep. A place between worlds.
I didn’t want to die forever, necessarily, but I didn’t want to be in this body and living in this world, either. I was too young to think about eternity, or getting married, or even turning sixteen. All I knew was that if life felt like this, I didn’t want to live it anymore. But my attempt at an ending failed, just like the attempts of the twenty other inpatients on the adolescent floor of Woodland Park Hospital’s psychiatric ward. So there we were, in art therapy, on a Tuesday afternoon when we should’ve been at work, or in math class, or, really, anywhere but there.
Sitting in the emergency room five nights prior, I couldn’t have imagined I’d have been admitted at all, no less kept for a week inpatient and six weeks in a day program of intensive therapy. I couldn’t have known I would be sent to a residential treatment center for at-risk teenage girls for ten months, or that just half a year after graduating that program, I’d be back at another hospital, followed by another day program. I hadn’t even told the doctor who spoke to me in the emergency room that I wanted to die, or about the bathtub. All I had said was that sometimes when I sat in the bathroom and cut myself with a pair of scissors, I worried I’d take it too far.
I did worry I’d take it too far, but what did ‘too far’ mean? Even I didn’t know. After all, what truly constitutes a suicide attempt? I’d hung my body over railings atop ten story buildings, feeling the blood swell to the bottom of my fingertips with my weight and gravity pulling them down, but I’d never jumped. I’d often sat with my back to the glass railings that lined the third story of the mall, hoping the glass would shatter and I’d fall, but it never did. I knew if things got to be too much, there was always a pill cabinet to raid and a knife waiting for me in the kitchen, but I never took them up on their offer. To sit in therapy alongside a girl with rope burns covering her neck, or a twelve-year-old boy who had stabbed himself in the stomach, and say, “I tried to drown myself in my bathtub,” felt incredibly lame, so I didn’t say anything at all.
To say what I’d done, or rather, what I’d failed to do, out loud would’ve been too shameful, too real. So I listened to Emma lie about her neck and cried when a girl named Bella told me she’d swallowed twenty Advil and washed them down with bleach. I envied every new admit that came in with stitches on their wrists and silently cursed myself for not having the guts to bleed like they did. I wanted to go back to the world I knew before the hospital; before a friend had called my parents and told them I was cutting, that she was concerned. But that world had already moved on without me, and I was watching it pass by behind layers of wire and glass.
I stayed up every night in the hospital, eyes trying to find the ceiling in the dark. The months leading up to my hospitalization seemed to go on forever. I couldn’t remember a time before this sadness. At some point after turning thirteen, something inside me had broken, and I began to feel a hollowness that started to eat me from the inside. Every friend I had was fighting depression in one way or another: was I really that much worse off than the others? Was I really the one who needed to be saved? I know there was a time when I complained of a headache and the nurse at school didn’t ask to check my wrists, leaving me so grateful that I’d chosen to cut my thigh the night before. I know there was a time before my teachers followed me into the bathroom because they were worried about me being alone, even only for a few minutes. I’d been in the hospital only a week, but the days before it felt somewhere far away, like a dream I had partially forgotten.
* * *
A few weeks before my hospitalization, my friend Teddy had asked me to video chat. When the video connected, he didn’t even say hello before putting his chin to the sky and dragging a razor blade from it down to his chest. I had watched blood form like droplets of morning dew and slip from his pale skin, dripping downwards, staining his white t-shirt. I hadn’t said anything as I watched that stain grow, and I stayed silent as he swallowed an entire bottle of Excedrin by the fistful. There was nothing to say that could undo what he’d done, so instead I cried.
I texted him asking him to vomit, to call an ambulance, to please not go to sleep—I couldn’t bring myself to say any of it out loud. He ignored my requests and didn’t speak, either. His actions had done the talking. I think he just wanted a witness, someone to understand the extent of his pain. When he exited out of our video chat and told me he was going to sleep, I printed out the suicide note he’d written me and clutched the paper like it could keep him there.
I’ma miss you and everyone else so tell them that, K? Thanks for supporting me when I was fucked. I know you care about me but I need you to swear you won’t kill yourself or anything. If anyone kills themselves over me it would ruin me even as I’m dead. What really surprises me is that I’m only twelve, right now I think I sound a lot older…I know you’re probably crying as you read this, but I am too so don’t feel left out. I don’t really know what to say anymore, but if anybody tries hurting themselves please stop them for me. Thanks, I love you, and I’ll maybe see you in hell one day if you go there too.
I read his words over and over until I had them memorized.
The next day, I climbed into the passenger seat of my car, looked my mom in the eyes, and told her what had happened. My voice was monotone, my demeanor calm. I had spent the last four hours unsure if my best friend was dead. I had nothing left to give.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Do you want to stay home?”
Her eyes were wide and filled with concern, her voice shaking. I told her I was fine; I couldn’t bear to sit at home with my sadness. I had to see my friends, ask if any of them had heard from Teddy. The waiting game was too much, and I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing his bloody neck, but the only way I knew how to handle it was to keep moving.
I went to school with swollen eyes and his suicide note folded in my pocket, showing it to anyone who would read it. When I saw my cousin in the cafeteria, I broke down sobbing and fell to the ground beside the foldout lunch table she sat in, handing her the note so she could understand. She picked me up and took me to the bathroom, where I stayed and skipped gym class to hide in a stall and cut his initials—T.L.—into my arm, needing at least a piece of him to stay with me forever. The police picked him up later that day and took him to Woodland Park Hospital.
Each night during my hospitalization, I thought about Teddy and wondered if he’d slept in the same bed I was laying in then while he was an inpatient. I wondered how he had gotten released after a mere three days, and how I’d been hospitalized for nearly a week. It didn’t make sense to me how Emma and her burns were already out the door, how a girl named KT, who had been in the ICU fighting for her life for an entire week after she overdosed before coming to the ward, came and went after only two days. I watched those who appeared much worse off than I was come and go, and I stayed put. No one talked about my discharge date. I even had a nurse ask one day during breakfast why I looked so upset, as if I hadn’t been hospitalized for depression, as if we all didn’t want to die. Despite this, I wondered how my sadness could measure up to anyone else’s, even if I felt like I would crumble if anyone tried to touch me to make sure I was real.
I was released after seven days of inpatient care, and then continued with six weeks of outpatient therapy that replaced my going to school. I watched those who were still inpatient from the other side of the dayroom, trying to tell them I understood through just a look because those who were inpatient and those who were outpatient weren’t allowed to talk to one another. I was okay until I wasn’t, and I headed back to treatment. This time my stay extended from seven days to ten months. I graduated. I was okay until I wasn’t. I became a frequent flier of the psychiatric wards of the greater Chicagoland area. I am always okay until I’m not.
The thing doctors don’t tell you about getting better is that Better isn’t a destination, but rather the road between Bad and Good. Some months I do well. I forget about the doctors, about Emma’s neck, about that night I spent watching Teddy nearly die. I almost don’t remember the months I spent desperately fighting for my life in a treatment center full of thirty-two other girls who were doing the same exact thing. I take my Lexapro without really thinking about what it’s for. And when someone who knows my story asks what it felt like to want to die, I can’t even remember. “I don’t know,” I tell them, and I’m being honest. I’ve forgotten. Sadness feels so far away. It’s like the girl who was hospitalized at thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen isn’t even me. Those months, I’m living in Good.
Other months I feel like I’m just treading water, waiting for a riptide to pull me under or for my legs to go limp. Barely holding on. Taking my pill at night and cursing it for not doing the job it’s assigned. Crying when I accidentally drop my Eggo waffle on the way out the door in the morning, and feeling like I don’t know who I’m looking at when I see my reflection in the mirror. Bad is a place that scares me shitless.
I’ve been out of the hospital for eight years now. I haven’t intentionally hurt myself in seven years, and my scars have all but faded to nothing. I have spent years fighting whatever part of me it is that tells me I want to die. Call it a chemical imbalance, Major Depressive Disorder, whatever. More than half of my life, it and I have been at war. I don’t know why everyone else I knew who was fighting depression made their way out without help, why it took me years of intensive therapy to overcome what they could on their own. Maybe they’re all fighting silent battles, but my depression has never been a beast I’ve been able to keep quiet.
When doctors with prescription pads and reading glasses on chains around their necks promise you happiness is possible, they don’t tell you it’s a job. You don’t get to Good and get to stay there forever. Most of the time you’re just running in place, just trying not to fall behind.
There is no way you’d know by looking at me that I spent years of my life in and out of hospitals, going doctor to doctor desperately trying to find the right medication, and wearing long sleeves in the middle of summer to hide that I’d hurt myself. There is no way you’d know that on my eighteenth birthday I sobbed uncontrollably to my friends because I never could’ve believed I would live that long. That even just turning eighteen felt like magic.
When doctors with prescription pads and reading glasses on chains around their necks promise you happiness is possible, they don’t tell you it’s a job. You don’t get to Good and get to stay there forever. Most of the time you’re just running in place, just trying not to fall behind. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the fight, but it is a goddamn marathon. It also doesn’t mean that Bad doesn’t sneak up on you once in a while. Every few months Bad comes back as a reminder that this is my forever, and I’m reminded of the cyclicality of things. All I can do is try to get help before the hospital has become my only option and I become the girl who believes even her sadness isn’t enough, again.
I once read a poem by Richard Siken that says: “a man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river but then he’s still left with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away, but then he’s still left with his hands.” I may always have that reminder of my own river, that night I spent in the bathtub. I may always be stuck in this cycle of Good and Bad and back again. I may be left with my hands, but I was still able to cry on them when I turned twenty-one, so fucking grateful to be alive.
Courtney Cook, an essayist, poet, and illustrator, is an MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside, and a graduate of the University of Michigan. Courtney’s work has been seen in Hobart, The Manifest-Station, The Cerurove, and Entropy Magazine, among others. When not creating, Courtney enjoys napping with her senior dog, Francie.
In the middle of an IKEA showroom, I agonized over the transition between two sentences. I was wrestling with a second-grade assignment on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While I knew any seven-year-old could cobble together two statements about Dr. King, bridging together two thoughts about his achievements with one seamless transition proved to be impossible for me. I treated the plywood desk as my own while I sulked in its Örfjäll swivel chair and stared at my elementary school homework with my head in my hands. Unaware that her only child was facing a literary crisis, my mother took her time as she flipped over price tags on the matching bedroom set. She was busy furniture-shopping for our new apartment. I got up from my desk to interrupt her and tugged on her shirt for help.
“Add the word ‘hence’,” she answered. Then, she glanced at the assignment again to suggest a more age-appropriate solution, “Or even ‘henceforth’.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s like, uhm…” After a long pause, she handed me back my paper and sighed, “Just write it.”
Explanations were always difficult for Mom. Finding the right words to provide additional context often left her feeling vulnerable and easily frustrated. She was especially annoyed when she had to provide such explanations to her young, American-born daughter who only spoke English. My language would never be quite as seamless for her compared to her native tongue of Tagalog. Although my mom could speak English fluently, she still fumbled with pronunciations out loud as she confused her f’s and p’s—the fine line between foot and put being a classic example. She took long breaks between sentences as she searched her mind for the right phrases in her upcoming thought. She repeated nonsensical errors in her speech when they were left uncorrected. They even bled into my own imperfect English and became the reason why I thought easy over was my favorite style of eggs.
Somewhere between fumbled words, botched sayings, and foreign accents, my mother and I were destined to be lost in translation. While there were certain lessons in language she’d be willing to teach, explaining the terminology behind the complexities of love was never one of them.
My mom’s written English was an entirely different story. She gravitated toward lengthy formalities and embraced vocabulary that most people would find verbose. It was as if each written document was an opportunity to prove her English was up to par. She could take time articulating her thoughts and flaunting her fluency. In the safety of her handwritten notes, no reader could criticize her mistakes or fault her for having an accent. So, in addition to hence, henceforth, and other advanced adverbs, my mom would teach me to write formally as well. Every time Father’s Day, Christmas, or my dad’s birthday rolled around, she would pick out a card for him. She’d then instruct me to pen the salutation, “Write, ‘Dear Dad’.” After a brief pause, she’d correct herself, “‘Dearest Dad’.” The first few attempts included “Father,” and as she stared at the end of the card, I could practically hear her debating the use of “Cordially” in her head. When signing the card, I’d ask my mom if she wanted me to include her name. She’d politely decline with a shy smile. Her response always confused me, and in the early years of their separation, I think it confused her too.
Like many IKEA shoppers, Mom was living on her own for the first time in America. Because, like one out of every two American couples, she was ending a marriage. While the separation should have upset me, I was more concerned with the details of my paper on Dr. King. At seven years old, I easily adapted to our new normal because my parents hardly spoke about their problems. I took my dad at his word when he told me the change was temporary, and I simply assumed my mom’s silence was her way of agreeing with him. While I was confused when she moved into her new apartment, I took comfort in the reassurance I had been given and focused on other matters at hand. After all, Mom needed my help with picking out new furniture.
The apartment had a decent amount of space to fill as it boasted two bedrooms, a sizeable living room, a terrace, and a kitchen that was much larger than the one in our original apartment where Dad still lived. However, our new Grand Concourse neighborhood seemed different from our former Riverdale home. There, we lived in a co-op that came equipped with a kids’ playground and a modest garden where our elderly Jewish neighbors would sit and quietly gossip with their nurse aides. Mom’s new apartment was in a walk-up with no amenities, and we only had one neighbor named Victoria. A kind woman whose bright blue eyes amplified her sadness while alcohol stained her breath. I’d usually hear her fighting with her husband downstairs, but occasionally she’d come up to our apartment to talk to Mom and ask her for help. Sometimes she’d cry, other times she’d have bruises, but every time, she’d go back to her husband.
Mom eventually stopped allowing Victoria to visit. It became too difficult for her to support a new neighbor while being in the thick of her own marital issues. While I understood that much about the situation, I still wanted to know the details. When I asked my mom to explain the circumstances, she refused. For one thing, the pronunciation of the word circumstances always tripped her up. She’d pronounce the “I” in the first syllable as “ɪr” rather than “ər” so that it sounded more like searcumstances. After avoiding that word, she then told me I was too young to understand such adult topics. These were including but not limited to why married people fight, why they stay together, and why they don’t. She shifted the conversation by asking me if I could higher the volume and close the doors so her cooking didn’t smell the room. She’d leave the conversation at that and go back to preparing our dinner. In turn, I’d make sure the bedroom doors were closed and then raised the volume on our TV to drown out the sounds of Victoria and her husband as they either fought or loudly made up.
Coming back from IKEA, Mom and I lugged our new furniture up the second-floor walk-up. We left the packages of disassembled pieces scattered on the living room floor for us to deal with later. Then, we collapsed onto her bed where my mother smiled and held me so tight. Without any words, I knew she was in a state of bliss. The separation was the start of a life that she chose for herself, and the happiness it gave her was not lost on me. While our apartment may not have been in the perfect building or neighborhood, she took pride in the fact that it was ours. As we cuddled in her new bed, I was surprised when Mom prompted a language lesson. One that would be filled with explanations and translations that usually annoyed her.
“Do you want to learn my language?” she smiled.
“TAG-a-log?” My American-born tongue was too heavy on the “T” and elongated the first syllable, but I was intrigued. My father never wanted to teach me Tagalog. Also raised in America, he feared I would be teased at school like he was for adopting even an ounce of Philippine culture. He made sure my English was like his, smooth and free of any alarming accents. However, my mom presented her language as an opportunity rather than a burden. When I agreed to a lesson, she excitedly propped herself up on the bed and tried teaching me simple numbers.
“Can you say, ‘Isa’?” she asked.
“Good. Then, ‘dalawa’.”
“Da-LAH-wahhh,” I joked.
She repeated herself, “Dalawa!”
“Your language sounds funny,” I told her.
My mom made a few more reluctant attempts. Her foreign words, odd pronunciation, and strange-sounding syllables were only met with more teasing. It was the first and only time she ever tried teaching me her language. Although my immature responses were said with laughter, they managed to serve as an unforgiving echo of her new reality. She was a foreigner who was living on American soil. An immigrant who was on her own for the first time. A single-mother who was misunderstood by her only daughter. Mom would continue speaking imperfect English while teaching me written words that were several years above my grade level. She would do her best to downplay her accent in public. She would hand me the phone whenever she needed to order take-out. Every now and then I’d hear her speak to family members and certain friends in Tagalog, all the while never knowing what exactly she said.
During yet another round of furniture shopping, Mom explored our options in a nearby shopping mall as she crossed her fingers for a sale at Stern’s. Although I was warming up to our new apartment, I began to develop more questions about my parents’ marriage. I was hearing about a word called divorce that, unlike a separation, was permanent. It was gradually being used more and more along with other ominous terms like custody and attorneys. My family members repeated these expressions in whispers when they thought I wasn’t listening. Even my friends and classmates talked about it as their own parents showed concern. It seemed as if divorce was a bad word that wasn’t so much connected to my mother’s newfound happiness but more so to my father’s sadness and our family’s disbelief. While Mom tried her best to shield me from the complexities of marriage, she couldn’t contain my curiosity as the finality of our new normal began to sink in.
“Why are you and Dad getting divorced?”
My mother got quiet, not expecting the question to come in a parking lot during an afternoon shopping run. “It’s hard to explain,” she replied. I pouted in the front seat. I knew she wasn’t great at explanations, but I wanted an answer. Now seven-and-a-half years old, I deserved to know what was going on. “How about this,” she smiled, “I’ll tell you when you turn sixteen. Promise!” The white lie and allure of a grown-up birthday present was exactly what my mom needed to buy herself some time and to quell her young daughter’s growing curiosity. With child-like satisfaction, I agreed to her offer and held her hand as we walked to the mall.
Somewhere between fumbled words, botched sayings, and foreign accents, my mother and I were destined to be lost in translation. While there were certain lessons in language she’d be willing to teach, explaining the terminology behind the complexities of love was never one of them. While there would be a time when she finally spoke about irreconcilable differences, falling out of love, and other intricate phrases that shaped her marriage, these explanations never took place during my childhood. Or even on my sixteenth birthday, as promised. They happened well into my adulthood when factors, such as time, experience, and patience, would gradually mend our language barrier. Perhaps my mom could have explained things to me right then and there in the parking lot. Perhaps she could have written down the details with her eloquence and precision. But neither of those options were the choice she made. It wasn’t that the divorce and its adult terminologies were too difficult for an immigrant to teach. Rather, they were too painful for a single-mother to convey. Looking back on it, I’d like to believe my mom was simply trying her best to find the right words.
Kristen Gaerlan is an emerging writer and native New Yorker. Her home is in Brooklyn, her roots are in the Bronx, and the roots to her roots are in the Philippines. Her work has been featured in publications that include Bustle, Pop Sugar, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She’s currently writing a memoir about Filipino-American assimilation.
“Your mother’s your slave,” a girl in the playground taunted.
“Is not!” I insisted, but even at six years old, I recognized the truth in her words.
My mom pulled socks on my feet while I lay in bed to save me from the shock of cold tile, read to me in the bathroom when I had trouble going, brought sweaters out to whatever stoop I’d landed on instead of calling me home.
Meanwhile, my mom did none of this for my sister. She spat Andra’s name. She screeched with anger. A curse or lie slipped from twelve-year-old Andra’s lips and she’d have to kneel in the kitchen, the cutout specks in the linoleum patterning her knees.
* * *
“Where’s-my-sis-ter?” I chanted one afternoon, bouncing a pink ball in rhythm.
My mom kept browsing The Pennysaver. “Probably out with friends.”
Andra didn’t show up for supper, or after I finished my homework, or when I sat with my dad while he watched Gunsmoke. Outside, night had spilled all of its ink.
“She’s always home by now. She should be here.”
“You’re right,” my dad answered. “She should.”
* * *
After that, Andra left often. Even when she pinky swore she wouldn’t. Even after we watched Dorothy tell Auntie Em there’s no place like home.
* * *
At home, Andra taught me to draw girls with slants of hair covering one eye. She explained why Fred Flintstone wore dresses and kept a pet dinosaur.
“Don’t tell,” she’d say, lighting a Kool in our hideout behind the garage.
Shaping her mouth into the O from my name, she sent bracelets of smoke skyward. I watched them spread and disappear.
* * *
The next time Andra returned from wherever runaways go, my parents threatened to send her away. “There are special schools for girls who keep looking for trouble.”
It seemed upside down to me. Why banish someone whose worst offense was leaving?
* * *
Eventually, Andra was sent to what was described to me as a girls’ boarding school in upstate New York. I pictured a line of teenagers standing frozen in a row like Barbies at the toy store.
When we finally visited, we sat at a picnic table surrounded by trees and distant mountains. Andra probably told us something about her days there, but her words are as lost to me as the dialogue on the silent screen at the drive-in across from our motel. All I recall is needing to touch my sister, pushing her hair back from her pretty face.
* * *
A decade later, Andra visited me on my own grassy campus. I was eighteen, studying poetry and women’s literature.
“Well, excuse me, Miss Educated,” Andra quipped when I claimed to practically live at the library.
“Schoolwork,” I mumbled, glancing away. I couldn’t articulate that reading was how I escaped the painful imbalances at home.
Miss Educated. Listening back through the years, I can hear pride beneath her teasing. But at the time, it felt like an indictment. Who was I to move so far past the sister I once worshipped? Her education ended in eighth grade at the school I didn’t yet know wasn’t a school at all.
I also didn’t know that when Andra arrived there, at thirteen, she’d already reached what for her would be late middle age. She died suddenly and violently the year after our stroll through my college campus.
* * *
It took thirty years—both parents gone, my own child a teenager—before I thought to call the library in Hudson, New York.
“My sister attended a boarding school in your town in 1970. Would you know what the name of it might’ve been?”
Hearing the word reformatory, my breath caught in my throat. That pretty campus had been a lockup. I wondered what crime Andra could’ve possibly committed. Then I read about the Wayward Minor Act, which allowed the incarceration of children for deeds no more serious than skipping school or running away from an unlivable home. Under this state law, parents could bring charges against their kids simply for being difficult, simply for being kids.
* * *
The New York State Training School for Girls. The focus wasn’t on education, but on discipline and keeping the twelve to sixteen-year-old inmates sealed off from the world. Inside, they faced forced labor, violence, sexual abuse, and long stretches in solitary.
Throw adolescents together and they can be relentlessly cruel. Thankfully, they can also be loving and fiercely loyal. Training School girls fell in love, held wedding ceremonies, claimed other inmates as their children. The families they formed could be as rough as street gangs, but also caring and protective in ways many, including Andra, never experienced at home.
* * *
“Don’t tell,” Andra often made me promise. I never did, but I also never asked.
Where were you, I’m asking now. What happened there? What got you through?
Without her here to answer, I turn to school and court records, case studies in yellowed books, memoirs by women who were once incarcerated girls—reading, finally, not to escape, but to bear witness.
“About time, Miss Educated,” I hear my sister say.
Ona Gritz’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Utne Reader, MORE magazine, and elsewhere. “It’s Time,” which appeared in The Rumpus, was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2016. Ona’s books include the memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, and the poetry collections Geode, and Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems, written with her husband, Daniel Simpson.
Josef didn’t realize how little I thought about religion—how complete my lack of belief.
“Are you religious?” I asked on one of our New York subway trips. I wonder now why I asked. I didn’t have the slightest premonition. I was making a joke, teasing, the way I might have said, “So, are you secretly addicted to amphetamines? Biting long, slim, feminine necks? Plucking wolfsbane in the middle of the night?” I was tickling. Didn’t realize I was asking a bigger question than I knew. Wanted to see if he’d giggle or flinch. He did neither.
I couldn’t believe how great this guy was, so I thought there had to be something wrong with him. There wasn’t, although his answer threw me—almost literally. I remember clutching my subway seat as though I were afraid I’d hit the floor.
To my surprise he nodded calmly. “Yes,” he said.
Yes, he was religious? Had I heard him correctly? This might be weirder than wolfsbane. An affirmative answer was the last thing I expected. He was a graduate student living in L.A. and somehow that added up to secular—at least to me.
“Really?” I said, after I’d caught my breath. He explained he was Catholic and Bavarian—I had yet to learn how completely these two identities merged. He wanted kids, and so did I, but I hadn’t realized he’d want the kids to be Catholic. He was asking whether this was okay with me. His expression said he wasn’t kidding. I looked him over.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s okay.”
Given his personality, I’d be doing our children no harm. I got that if I were to object, the deal would be off. He couldn’t contemplate raising non-religious children. But I still thought of his religion as a harmless eccentricity, the expression of a deficit: a few more New York Philharmonic concerts, another Alvin Ailey performance, throw in a Swan Lake—and I’d convert him from Catholicism to culture, I assumed.
Dr. Sternbach said when dealing with a schizophrenic patient (he reassured me I wasn’t quite that bad, although, he pointed out often, my brother and father were), he would walk in and announce, “I’m God!” Then, my analyst claimed, the crazy person would trust him and listen to him.
I didn’t consider myself remotely religious. From my frosty heights of presumed superiority, I told myself I’d grown up in a middle-class New York family suffused with art, dance, theater, and psychoanalysis, while he had grown up in a tiny German village to parents whose Second World War experiences and dawn-to-dusk backbreaking farm labor left no room for consolations other than churchly. I figured he grew up the way my father did. Traveling preachers presented the only form of entertainment in Dad’s North Carolina town. No books, no movies, no art, no circuses—just fire-breathing Presbyterian ministers spouting gruesome depictions of hellfire. My father had shaken the dust of old-time religion off his feet when he moved to New York, diving into psychoanalysis almost as soon as he got there. Mom swam in soon after—the two were united by their doting, or scheming, psychoanalyst, who kept a tight grip, bringing in a colleague of her own to manage me the minute I hit adolescence.
Josef had Catholicism, but I had Dr. Sternbach.
My fiancé hadn’t grown up with visions of hellfire, but rather maypoles sporting Bavarian flags, baby clothes and baby bottles—the latter two pagan holdovers meant to encourage fertility. He described huge bonfires on summer solstice—he and his friends, in an inebriated state, leapt over them. Before that, on Walpurgisnacht, a young man could plant a decorated birch tree outside the window of a young woman he liked. The ceremony was technically about St. Walpurga, but that phallic tree was about fertility and witches, drinking and cavorting. Although, he confessed, he and five guys planted a tree in front of the window of a fat, homely girl because they wanted to make her feel better.
His descriptions made me think of Breughel’s The Kermess, especially in the William Carlos Williams version. Jolly, fat peasants dancing, drinking, and doing what my Chaucer professor said peasants do: have sex in the fields so the recently planted seeds get the right idea. For my husband-to-be, religion seemed a merry combination of official Catholic ritual—he drank that wine and took that wafer, under the watchful gaze of plaintive Madonnas and soulful Jesuses hanging from gory crucifixes—and happy-go-lucky paganism. The jolly mood of forgiveness, the singing, the lights, the candles, the gleeful baroque angels, the community, seemed the dominant themes.
I could go for all of those, I thought, in the dreamy unreality of unexpected pregnancy. For a moment, I considered the possibility of miracles, since I was forty-one. Practicality took over: Josef had a home, the likelihood of a full-time job, and the luck of German health insurance, which would extend to his bride. We were to enjoy two more successful pregnancies. To this day, I attribute them to champagne, sex, and our unconventional fertility specialist. Josef doesn’t.
A few weeks after I’d moved to Bavaria, there was the moment when he asked, “But you do believe there’s a God, right?”
Surprised, I put down my cup of tea.
“I’m an atheist!” Where had he gotten this idea? Had I somehow said this?
His eyes widened.
“But you said you believed in the teachings of Jesus!” I shifted in my seat. I had indeed said that, but the one thing had nothing to do with the other. Memories of playing “telephone” as a child were now flooding into my mind.
“Yes, I do, but I meant Jesus is a great philosopher, a great psychologist!” Josef put his hand on his heart.
“Please don’t tell the priest that.”
His eyes traveled to a flaw on the rim of my poly-fleece pullover; I’d gotten too close to a burner while cooking, and a little spot had melted away. You could barely see the burned part, but his thumb gripped it. A bit ruefully, he said, “This is what happens to people who don’t believe!”
“You don’t really mean that, do you?”
I’m not sure he didn’t.
“I hope you can feel God’s love,” he murmured after the mandatory meeting with other betrothed couples and a Catholic priest in a roomy church.
“I can feel your love!” I told him.
The priest, if I remember correctly, talked about finding one’s wife sexy even when she’s wearing an old granny nightgown. The Catholic doctor wearily remarked, “That was too much material to fight with!” He was okay with the pill, since no life had begun, but experienced moral qualms about the IUD, since it worked to destroy a zygote potentially implanting in the lining of the uterus. The church, said both priest and doctor, didn’t like homosexuals “because they don’t have babies! We want children.” On the plus side, they said sex was “the mirror of the marriage,” and since Josef and I were having sex around eight times a day, I figured we’d be fine. We rode home through sunny fields filled with hay bales and had a nice dinner.
* * *
As I settled into life in devastatingly quiet Bavaria, taking long walks through the woods, my thoughts got louder. Now I had time to write. But I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I did produce a few half-baked descriptions of my parents and growing-up years, but always, an angry, disapproving face appeared in my mind’s eye—the face of the psychoanalyst whose patient I’d been for decades, and whom I thought of as a father, if not a god. He had raised me, in the sense that I considered my four-to-five day-a-week sessions in his office the central experience of my life from ages fourteen to almost-forty. He knew everything. He said so. Occasionally, I thought him a little selfish, but I felt guilty thinking that. He had done so much for me. I was very grateful to him. He insisted I go to college and graduate school. I had wanted to study dance and theater. He called me his “masterpiece.”
He’d been wrong about Josef. He’d said Josef wasn’t interested in me. When Josef flew to New York just to see me, Dr. Sternbach told me not to sleep with him—Josef would surely never marry me if I did. I didn’t. It took another few years for Josef and me to get together.
Even so, I told myself, walking that ploughed field trail from the shining meadow into the piney woods, the baby a snoring bump on my chest in his bright-blue Snugli, Dr. Sternbach was just trying to protect me. He had put so much effort into me. He said so. He hadn’t wanted me to feel disappointed was all. My marriage was my reward, and the person to whom I would forever be grateful, Dr. Sternbach, had cured me so that I, unworthy though he knew I was, had still managed to get married.
“We don’t ask for perfect,” he had said, looking me over one day when I’d been crying about wanting to be married. I still had many problems, I knew, that he, with a frown and a wagging finger, had daily pointed out to me. He warned me to keep everything about myself and my crazy family a secret from my husband. I had been “a brat” but now I was passable.
* * *
If you were to tote up superstition for superstition, ritual for ritual, obsession for obsession, sin for sin, and god for god, my husband’s Catholic faith and my own hidebound devotion to a secular deity irrationally enraged as an old testament prophet, then my husband would come out ahead. Way ahead. His was a god of love, and a relaxed one. Yes, my husband observes Lent, that holiday right before Easter when religious Catholics give up something they really love in order to honor Christ’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness. Just the kind of holiday I used to think of as an unnatural torment for innocent people who don’t know Freud.
My husband always gives up peanuts and beer, his very favorite things. At first, I thought this a cruel thing to do to himself—so out of character.
“Except for special occasions,” he said, smiling. “And… some weekends.”
I was always relieved to see him crunching away in front of the TV, washing down his Lenten peanuts with a glass of Weizen.
Did I have anywhere near the same easygoing self-indulgence in my own religious observances?
Walking from the subway stop on 96th and Broadway to Dr. Sternbach’s home office on 96th and Central Park West four days a week, I developed the habit of chanting to myself, “Dr. Sternbach is always right,” and this consoled me, because I liked absolutes and so did he—his absolutely right and my absolutely wrong ways of doing things. I was miserable, but I had the solace of certainty. I feared uncertainty. If I didn’t believe in him, I thought, everything would fall apart. I made sure to chant “he-is-right” in order to prevent what a Puritan would call “backsliding.” I had a need to remind myself that he knew better. I must be wrong, wrong about the boys I wanted to kiss me, the jazz dance classes I loved, and alas, about ballet.
I believed, no matter how miserable it made me, that my psychoanalyst had healed me, not destroyed me. I might as well have been Sister Melissa of the order of Perpetual Humility, devoted to Saint Sigmund the All-Powerful.
“You are not a dancer!” he spat.
My analyst always said he was an atheist, and praised Freud’s atheism, so I read every single thing Freud ever wrote about religion.
None of it’s flattering. But it’s clear that if you don’t believe in the Oedipus complex, you cannot be admitted to the world of psychoanalysis—you remain forever in the outer darkness with the people who believe in religion instead. Naturally, I considered myself an atheist too—I followed Dr. Sternbach’s contempt for religion. Having faith in everything Dr. Sternbach said was just part of the psychoanalytic deal—the only way I could ever be healthy, he said.
I never admitted to myself that I’d put my psychoanalyst in the position of a god, or that he’d encouraged me to do so, even though I joked about doing so, or he did, in almost every session. A Viennese refugee from Hitler, he said I was psychotic.
It’s easy to believe something bad about yourself when you’re fourteen, and when the grown-up spouting such poppycock has an exotic accent. When I was first sent to him, I was desperate to do anything to get away from my father, who drank and threw things, my mother, whose girlish helplessness appealed to everyone but me, and my brother, whose real and imaginary friends frightened me. Dr. Sternbach said when dealing with a schizophrenic patient (he reassured me I wasn’t quite that bad, although, he pointed out often, my brother and father were), he would walk in and announce, “I’m God!” Then, my analyst claimed, the crazy person would trust him and listen to him.
I was just young enough or nutsy enough not to question him. Or if I did, he yelled so loudly that I learned not to repeat my mistake. He loved a story about entering his building on a cold day and running into a patient. As they waited for the elevator in the freezing lobby, she looked him up and down, remarking, “God doesn’t wear an overcoat.” My analyst repeated that anecdote often.
Mostly, he insisted he was always right. I believed him to the point that I chose a college in New York City because he told me I needed psychoanalysis so could not leave him. I believed him to the point that I didn’t apply for a Time magazine internship during my senior year in college because it would have interfered with sessions, and he refused to let me have sessions at any other hours than those convenient to him. When friends expressed surprise or shock at the amount of time I devoted to psychoanalysis or blanched at some remark he’d made that I found amusing and they did not, I brushed off objections. I told myself my analyst knew better. I was smug. My analyst and I: we were the initiated, the ones in the know. I believed him when he said, “I am the only one who can help you.”
Sometimes, now, I look at videos of women in polygamous cults in their identical pioneer-style pastel dresses and hairdos, all smiling, all saying they are happy. I wore my analyst’s ideas, assertions, beliefs. I buttoned them on tightly—I strapped myself into them. I thought I had no idea what I wanted because I didn’t dare think about ambitions he had warned me to forget. He had a therapeutic group, and all members sat quietly when he interrupted, or yelled, that they were wrong and he was right. His expressions of disgust, uninhibited and extreme, seem to have impressed us all as the natural anger of a Jehovah who had every right to tell us what to do. His ideas, his beliefs, his assertions, were righteous. Ours were worthless.
* * *
In a village not far from Eichstätt, where Josef’s brother and sister-in-law had a farm, Josef and I visited his old friend, the retired priest with whom he used to have a beer, and who was going to marry us. The priest asked, “So are you willing to raise your children as Christians? With the knowledge of Jesus?” I rearranged some definitions in my head, smiled at the priest, whose face was filled with expectant hope, and said, “Yes.” The look of rapture on his face in the moment that misleading answer fell from my lips astonished me. I felt homesick. I had visions of my children stepping into dark confessionals and being told to say Hail Marys if they’d masturbated. On the other hand, the old priest didn’t look the punitive sort—he now had such an ecstatic look that if he hadn’t been a Catholic old man, I could easily have envisioned him dancing the Hora.
“You don’t actually believe in the devil, do you?” I asked my husband as we made our way back to the car.
“You mean a guy with horns and a tail?”
“Well, no, but we feel there is evil in the world, right?”
I could go with him on that. There was evil in the world. I decided to leave religion up to him. I remembered to make fish, or anything but meat, on Fridays, and discovered that baptisms and first communions seemed mainly occasions for big parties, good food, and presents.
“Daddy, will I get a camera?” was, to my relief, a pressing question of far greater interest than any doctrinal issue about Mary, Jesus or the Trinity.
Anytime a religious inquiry arose, I deferred to my husband: “Daddy knows about that! Ask him.”
A moment came when the kids wanted to know my religion. I admitted I’d been raised without any. When they pointedly asked what I believed, I confessed to atheism, remarking that Daddy and I had decided Catholicism was the best for them. Secretly, I wished our eldest would become a New York intellectual. Lo: he lives in Berlin and studies law.
“Mom, why didn’t you tell me there wasn’t a god?” he complained at about age sixteen. I started to say we didn’t actually know that, when he interrupted: “When I was ten, I thought there was something terribly wrong with me because I didn’t believe in God. You could have said something.”
And then I realized that I needn’t have worried—our children would make their own way, just like their Dad, who worried the most with our firstborn: “I wouldn’t want him to marry someone Jewish or Muslim.” That was too far from the true faith.
“You mean like you wouldn’t marry an atheist?” A look that was hard to interpret—a slight chagrin? being found out? embarrassment? guilt?—crossed his face. He grew up in a world where his Catholic saint’s day was a far bigger deal than his birthday, yet he and his brother both married non-religious Protestants.
Our younger two children went along with their first communions—they especially enjoyed choosing their costumes, my daughter her lacy white dress and patent-leather white Mary Janes, my son his “real suit!” For them, the church means becoming a grown-up, belonging to a group, and being in on the Christmas nativity scene. I worried all priests would be child molesters, but since German schools teach children about such things, I figured my kids would let me know about any funny business. Benjamin came home from his confirmation class with the information that when he told the priest, “I want to be the best,” the priest had advised, “You should just want to be yourself.”
That particularly good piece of advice was exactly what his fundamentalist Mom had never heard from her psychoanalyst, who was determined to make me over in his own image. My worst fear—that my children would go into religious orders—turned out to be what Freudians call a “projection.” It was I who had entered the religious order. I believed, no matter how miserable it made me, that my psychoanalyst had healed me, not destroyed me. I might as well have been Sister Melissa of the Order of Perpetual Humility, devoted to Saint Sigmund the All-Powerful. Whenever New York City came up in conversation or on TV, I’d get annoyed at my husband’s joke: “I’m glad I got you out of there!” Until one day I realized I was glad, too.
* * *
When my husband’s lungs worsened to the point where he had to use a portable oxygen tank and start losing weight in order to be eligible for a lung transplant, when my X-ray revealed a six-centimeter cancerous tumor on my femur, when we realized we had to start thinking about guardians for our young teenagers, I asked him whether he believed that our illnesses came from God, or whether the kind of God he believed in could condone or allow such things. I still don’t believe in a god, but when I’m scared I wish I did. In flights of fancy, I imagine Apollo and Dionysius, sun chariots, grapevines curling around trees, vats of purple wine, dancing fauns, Athena waltzing in with a dove and a shield, Hermes with his winged shoes flying me in some miracle cure. I could pray to all of them. Occasionally, I have. When I walked home in the evenings before I got sick, I loved to gaze at the full moon and recall Shelley’s description of her as a dying lady, “lean and pale,” but I imagined her as some sort of mother goddess and the evening star as the twinkling sidekick of my imaginary pagan companions. I half-believed I was praying when I asked Apollo, “and Josef’s God, if you’re around,” for good health and long life for my whole family.
That particular prayer seems not to have been heard, or maybe the gods resented it. I’m a part-time believer, a person who prays when she’s in the mood, which is not often. I don’t get down on my knees or go to church, except occasionally, to keep my husband company, and I don’t sacrifice sides of beef to anyone. I think of the Old Testament god liking the smell of burning meat. I not only haven’t barbecued a single sausage for him, I’ve forgotten him and all possible divine cohorts for long, happy periods.
I’m a part-time believer, a person who prays when she’s in the mood, which is not often. I don’t get down on my knees or go to church, except occasionally, to keep my husband company, and I don’t sacrifice sides of beef to anyone.
But I asked my husband what he thought, since I wanted to know how he was coping, too. He didn’t think God caused our illnesses.
“It’s fate,” he said.
It took me a moment to realize that wasn’t just his kindly stoicism responding—that was a quintessentially German answer. Fate, for Germans, is a massive, unyielding thing that cannot be fought and must be accepted.
I had a different answer, one I must admit is typically American. These illnesses—they’re a mistake, a fluke. There’s a new cure around the corner every minute, and if I just Google enough clinical trials, raise enough money on GoFundMe, consult enough experts, I’ll live. I’m a can-do gal: I’m American.
But I am still afraid to pray. So far, the gods have given me the opposite of what I requested. I must be doing something wrong. I can’t keep talking to them if they don’t like me, can I?
Then I see I’ve crucified myself on the remnants of my psychoanalytic past. It’s the angry analyst who’s behind my fears. I might as well assume kinder gods out there—like the one to whom my husband prays. He married me after all, though his mother, once upon a time before we met, allegedly waved a pitchfork at a woman not romantically entangled with him, but known to be Protestant. What would his poor mom do if she knew two of her sons married just the kind of women she’d chased with that pitchfork? Luckily for her, she was gathered to her foremothers by the time her youngest, and, I suspect, favorite son proposed to me. But if I know the family, and I should, after almost two decades of marriage, she’d be raising a Weizen, shaking her head merrily, explaining things to God so he wouldn’t get bent out of shape or feel insulted.
* * *
A friend told me of the man she wanted to marry, but could not, after meeting his parents. She is Jewish, and he’d grown up with German-speaking parents, in a very non-Jewish mid-western flyover town. His father, a Pole who had survived Auschwitz, and his mother, a German Protestant, both refugees from Hitler who lived in a permanent state of fear, insisted: “Children born of your union must not be Jewish—they’ll never be safe.” This doomed effort to erase identity deeply saddened my friend, who couldn’t imagine raising children with a buried identity.
When I met my husband, he said, “I’m a Bavarian.” He took me to the circus and a local cathedral. He never tried to convert me, but I could tell that secretly he felt sorry for my lack of belief, just as secretly I felt sorry for his entrapment in old wives’ tales. Loyalty, his chief quality, would never allow him to abandon the religion of his parents. But he makes of it what he will.
I, of course, started my marriage with the notion that I wanted my children exposed to the brilliant insights of Sigmund Freud, not the pathetic superstitions, as I saw them, of the Catholic church. But the brilliant insight of the Catholic church lies in the original meaning of καθολικός (katholikos, from two Greek words meaning throughout-the-whole or, approximately, all-inclusive). In the best sense—which reverses what the church as an institution has become—Catholicism means universal love, all-embracing acceptance. Psychoanalysis, meanwhile, has institutionalized a set of beliefs about insight and personality, with the notion that the seeker of truth needs a guide to get through the “underworld” of the unconscious mind, the way Dante needed Virgil to usher him through the Inferno. Dante’s Virgil remained, of course, his own construct—a piece of himself.
You might as well walk that trip through your personal Inferno alone in front of your keyboard, or your canvas, or your big hunk of clay. Costs less.
Now that I’ve relinquished psychoanalysis, I find I haven’t, really. A world devoid of dreams or an unconscious mind is one I can’t imagine; I could say Dante or Shakespeare or Woolf provided these ideas before Freud, but I’d be whistling in the dark. If I’m heading for that very dark place Hamlet calls “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” I want a pathfinder. You can’t analyze death; analysis is all about distilling the known from the unknown—not the inaccessible. I can’t assume there’s a god out there in the way I can assume I might figure out what makes someone tick using high-tech psychoanalytic tools. I doubt I’ll ever talk myself into religious devotion, and I’m still with the Freudians in the notion that “man creates God in his image.” I can’t seem to exorcise the irritated face of Oscar Sternbach, even after years of happy marriage to someone as far removed from Sternbach’s world as I could find. Take it on faith, however, that I will try to do so.
Melissa Knox’s book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, was published by Cynren Press in January 2019, and has received advance praise from Helen Fremont, Phyllis Chesler, and Charles Monroe-Kane. Recent essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Streetlight Magazine, Eclectica, and Empty Mirror.
It was a cloudy September morning in San Francisco and my body had decided that everything inside of it was poison. It was 8:34 a.m. on a Thursday and I was hungover at work, sitting behind my desk praying that my breath smelled like coffee and not vomit. It wasn’t very often that I was praying for coffee breath but, desperate times. The fluorescent lights were giving me a migraine and I wanted to wear my sunglasses, but I knew that wearing them inside would look suss as shit. As far as I could tell, only musicians got to wear sunglasses inside, and I wasn’t confident that telling my boss I can slay at Guitar Hero would grant me the right.
I was popping aspirin and splashing cold water on my face in the bathroom when a co-worker rushed into a stall, teary-eyed. I listened to her muffled sobs and contemplated what to do. I considered knocking on the door and saying something like, “Hello… you good fam?” I considered sliding her one of the edibles in my pocket. I considered emailing her a Sylvia Plath poem so that she could see how someone always has it worse. I considered what I would want someone to do for me if I were crying in a bathroom stall, so I left without saying a word and walked back to my desk. I’d been planning on hiding in the bathroom for the rest of the morning, reading movie reviews and scrolling through Instagram, in between vomit sessions, so, you’re welcome, Annie.
During my first hangover, I didn’t get out of bed for two full days. I stayed under the covers, throwing up in a trashcan, sleeping, and watching cat videos on YouTube. Sometimes it felt like I was doing all three things at once. The night before, I’d been at some rich kid’s party in the suburbs of the Bay. It was a Halloween party. This prissy girl who’d already been accepted to USC months before senior year even began—whose parents “donated” heaps of money to the school every year—had valet and a tough looking bouncer crossing his arms in front of her stupid house party. I threw the old-fashioned key to my banged up ‘96 Subaru at the kid wearing a black suit and tie. He caught it, hastily ducked into my dank-smelling shit hole, and drove it slowly down the block. A cheerleader pulled up behind me in a black Tesla. She was dressed like an angel and her friend who spilled out of the passenger-side door was dressed like a devil. The angel tapped me on the shoulder as I told the bouncer my name and let him stamp my wrist. “Are you supposed to be Charlie Chaplin?” she asked.
“La-di-da,” I said. I was wearing brown corduroy pants, a white button-down shirt tucked into my brown corduroy pants, a black vest over my white button-down shirt, a chunky blue tie tucked under my black vest, and a velvet hat. Picture a vaguely masculine Mary Poppins. “I’m Annie Hall,” I said. Clearly, the last Halloween party I’d been invited to involved an empty pillow case and asking strangers for candy. I noticed that neither the devil nor the angel were wearing costumes that covered their entire bodies, and neither of them were wearing ties. I admired the angel’s long legs and the devil’s long neck. I admired the way their tight costumes hugged their pale, delicate skin, and the way their long hair rolled easily off their shoulders. Suddenly, I felt horribly out of place. As I was planning my exit strategy—ask the bouncer to go find my car? run after the valet? slowly start backing away from everyone saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry”—the angel took me by the arm. “I love it,” she said. “So vintage.”
I strolled into the house with the angel and the devil, offering to roll them a spliff and announcing that I could kick their ass at beer pong. They said their names were Amber and Alison. It wasn’t long before the house was packed, the music was loud, and kids were stripping and jumping in the pool. I was sitting on the couch smoking a spliff and drinking out of a forty when this kid named Toby sat dangerously close to me. Toby was the kid who picked his nose while giving book reports and who drooled too much during phys ed. Somehow, he’d convinced kids he was cool by high school, but he’d always be a drooling nose-picker to me. His pupils were hazy. He was so wet I almost thought he’d joined the other idiots who’d jumped in the pool, but from the smell of his ugly dinosaur onesie, I could tell that he was drenched in sweat. He draped his arm across my shoulder. I audibly gagged.
“Why aren’t you smiling?” he asked, poking me in the ribs. “It’s a party, aren’t you having any fun?”
“Toby,” I said, picking his arm off my shoulder as if I were picking up a rat by its tail. “I mean this in the nicest way possible: you smell like dog shit. Please, get your sweaty ass away from me and find some friends who are as equally fucked up on molly as you, so you can all be disgustingly overheated together.”
“Yo! You know this song?” he asked, pointing towards the ceiling. Before I could answer, he said, “Hey! Did you know that Pete and Amber are fucking in the pool house?” He laughed as if he’d said something funny.
“You remember the whole thing I said earlier?” I asked. “You know, about you being disgusting?” Finally, this girl in my second period English class saved me by yanking my arm and pulling me outside.
“Thanks,” I said as she took the spliff from me and took a hit.
“I gotchu,” she said, before handing it back to me and cannonballing into the pool. When she’d arrived, she was dressed like a bottle of sriracha, but now all she was wearing was her red shirt and some white boy shorts she picked up somewhere.
I kept smoking and found a half-empty bottle of cheap vodka near some Rainbow flip flops. I drank it while I watched this closeted girl who’d been sexting me the night before make out with Toby inside on the couch. I’d see her a few days later with her incredibly religious parents at some church fundraiser. I’d resist the urge to make fun of her for letting that drooling nose-picker touch her tits.
That’s when I heard people cheering.
I turned just as Pete was opening up the pool house door. I watched him slide on some ratty band tee and walk out to a crowd of cheering football players who were handing out high fives and “hell yeah, bros” as if they were throwing candy off a float in a Fourth of July parade. As Pete buckled his belt, I raised my vodka bottle in his direction. He nodded back. We’d spoken in passing. The last thing he’d said to me was “Pound it. I dig chicks too,” so make of that what you will. Pete and his friends wandered into the kitchen to take shots, tussling each other’s hair and laughing at nothing. I passed the bottle off to someone and walked around the pool towards the pool house, stepping over wet clothes and red solo cups. I sat on some ugly outdoor furniture and waited, smoking, while someone shot water through a pool noodle on the grass next to me.
After a long time, the pool house door slowly opened. Amber wearily made her way outside. One of her wings was bent, and her halo was crumpled and crooked. There weren’t any high fives or “hell yeah, bros” for her. There was just me.
After a long time, the pool house door slowly opened. Amber wearily made her way outside. One of her wings was bent, and her halo was crumpled and crooked. There weren’t any high fives or “hell yeah, bros” for her. There was just me. I watched her eyes dart back and forth across the yard before they caught mine. I offered her the spliff. She shook her head “no” and sat down on the ugly furniture next to me. We listened to the techno song that was blaring out of some massive speakers and watched drunk people almost drown for a while.
She adjusted her white dress, but it continued to sag. “What just happened?” she asked, turning towards me and wrapping her arms around her long legs.
I offered her the spliff again. This time she took it and stuck it between her lips. “Everyone’s been saying you fucked Pete in the pool house,” I told her, flicking my head towards the door she just came out of. She didn’t look. She didn’t say anything. She was silent, and I felt that I should fill the space between us. “Do you want me to grab your devil friend?” I asked. “Maybe you guys wanna like, I don’t know, compare notes about dick size or like…” my words felt hollow and weak as they fumbled out of my mouth, so I stopped trying to fill anything.
She took a long drag before quietly saying, “I can’t remember anything.”
I considered reaching out my hands towards her, gently, and brushing a stray strand of hair from her face. I considered marching inside and earning the nickname The Drunk Tie-Wearing Bitch Who Punched the Varsity Football Player at a Halloween Party.
I considered reaching out my hands towards her, gently, and brushing a stray strand of hair from her face. I considered marching inside and earning the nickname The Drunk Tie-Wearing Bitch Who Punched the Varsity Football Player at a Halloween Party. I considered calling 911. Instead, I said, “That’s some shit dude.”
I’d spend a lot of nights wishing I’d said something else.
She handed me back the spliff and stood up. “I think I’m gonna get out of here.”
“Can I drive you?”
She laughed to herself, maybe at the thought of driving around in my ugly-ass Subaru instead of her Tesla, or maybe at something else. “Nah, it’s chill,” she said. She began wandering through the backyard, down some hill towards the highway.
“Hey,” I called after her. “Valet and shit is that way.” I pointed back towards the house.
She looked through the glass pane, towards the boys taking shots. Now, Toby was tearing his shirt off like the fucking Hulk and Pete was taking pictures. We could hear their laughter all the way across the lawn. “I think I’m just gonna walk and find my car on my own,” she called back. I thought about running after her, but I didn’t. I sat there smoking until I knew I had to leave. I dropped the butt of the spliff in Pete’s tequila-filled shot glass as I left out the front door.
Six years would go by before I’d find myself hungover in San Francisco behind a desk in an office building. I arrived back at my desk, head swimming in nausea, I attempted to read through some emails and keep the grimace off my face. When I felt as if I were about to spew bile all over my coffee mug, notebook, and collection of pens, I stood up from my desk, snatched a box of tissues off my co-worker’s desk, and walked back towards the bathroom. Annie was still there, trying and failing to cry quietly. I stood there quietly for a long time, holding down the contents of my stomach. I listened to her sobbing. After I collected myself, I walked over to the stall she was in. I slid the box of tissues under the door and she went silent.
“Feel free to ignore me,” I said, “and I’ll take the hint and leave but… are you okay?”
She was quiet for a long time. I wished I had a spliff to offer her. She slowly opened the door. Her clothing was wrinkled, and her face was wet. She was holding the tissue box and using one to wipe her nose.
As we stood in the bathroom, congress was conducting a job interview with a rapist. He liked wearing black robes, drinking beer, and holding down young girls on unwashed sheets. Lindsey Graham was yelling at a brave college professor for telling the truth, and our president was stitching a new “Grab em’ by the Pussy Gang” letterman’s jacket.
“I get it.” I said.
“This whole thing just really brings up some bad memories,” she said. We stood in the bathroom for a long time. We didn’t say anything because we didn’t have to. When I rushed into an adjacent stall to vomit, Annie laughed. She laughed until she cried, and then she cried until I offered to buy her some coffee.
As I stood in line at Peet’s, drinking water, I wondered if Amber was watching C-SPAN somewhere, or if she was crying in some bathroom stall. I’d run into her a few years after the Halloween party, at a coffee shop in Oakland. I’d waved to her and she’d waved back. I’d stuck my nose back in my book, and when I’d looked up, there was a note next to my cappuccino. “He’s at Harvard studying law,” was all it said.
Anita Levin is a poet and essayist from San Francisco, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Lifted Brow, The Lindenwood Review, Barnhouse, and Hypertext Magazine, among others. She has worked as a bookseller for an independent bookshop, a poetry editor for Jeopardy Magazine, and she currently works in publishing.
The February I am twenty-six, on the day before I’m supposed to fly to Portland to rent a house, I come down with the most brutal and short-lived flu I’ve ever had. My body aches so badly, I can’t move. When I say this, I don’t just mean that it hurts to move—I worry, when I’m describing pain, even just to myself, that I’m being melodramatic, hyperbolic.
Tonight, I’m frozen by it.
After my first breakup, I was unable to drive on the street where he worked, to eat, to sleep in my own bed at night. Eventually, a little scared of myself, I went to see a husband and wife who practiced Santeria. It made as much sense as anything.
They had a little storefront at a strip mall in Albuquerque, filled with Guadalupe candles, milagros, and Tarot decks. They reminded me of kindly abuelos, until the husband told me that all my suffering stemmed from a spell that had been cast on my mother, that it had been passed on to me.
He told me that he could break the spell if I participated in a cleansing ritual involving a rooster. The cuandero would transfer the black magic into the rooster, and I would be freed. He saw me hesitate, took my hand, and asked me if I was suicidal. I told him I wasn’t, which was true.
“You will be,” he said. “Soon.” Shaken, I scheduled the ritual, but the day of, I chickened out, so to speak, canceled on his voicemail. A few years later, the woman I thought of as a second mother told me that she’d gone to see the couple after a run of bad luck, that he’d given her a similar warning about spells and suicide, recommended the rooster ritual. She went through with it.
“I saw that rooster die,” she told me. She thought maybe the santero had poisoned it, but she couldn’t say for sure.
My mother stops by, briefly, with supplies (she is, as I knew she would be, annoyed by the request), leaves water on the carpet beside my bed. I have to call her an hour later to come back, because by then I am unable to reach down and get it. She’s so good at sighing right into the phone.
It’s terrifying, lying alone in my two-story house, realizing that I physically cannot extend myself enough to pick up a glass, but somewhat gratifying at the same time. I appreciate symptoms I can quantify, point to them again and again: this is how it happened, here’s the proof, it was real.
The first few months in Portland were lonely, miserable. I made an appointment with a tarot card reader in Kenton: she had only five-star reviews on Yelp. I knew I wouldn’t fully believe anything she told me, but I reasoned that she’d have at least one positive prediction, and that this would give me something to hope for. Instead, Miss Renée told me that I was only at the beginning of a years-long struggle. She said that it would be a period of change and growth, but the benefits of these changes would not be apparent until they were complete. I’d be all movement, but it would feel like I was standing still.
“Let me put it this way,” she said. “If a woman is in labor, how many other things do you expect her to be doing?”
My temperature eventually shoots above 103, and my mother calls a friend, a doctor, to ask her what to do.
“Pile on the blankets,” the doctor says. “As many as she can stand.”
My mom asks shouldn’t I take something to bring the fever down instead?
“No,” she says. “Her body needs to fight through it.”
Whenever I tell this story, I mention how that night I’d soaked through two sets of sheets, as though I’d wet the bed. I think this detail makes the whole thing more believable.
The day before my abortion, my therapist advised me not to take the full dose of Ativan they would offer me.
“I worry,” she said, “That feeling removed from your body during the procedure would be more triggering than the pain.” She thought that this could actually be an opportunity for healing.
I followed her advice, skipped the second pill. It took less than ten minutes: three sharp pulls. My boyfriend stood to the right of me, the volunteer to the left; her job, she explained, was to hold my hand and tell me I was doing great. He performed his role not quite as well, too wrapped up in his guilt over my pain. The whole time we were together, I tried and failed to hide it.
I’d start squeezing both their hands before each pull; the doctor warned me when they were coming, every time.
A year later, I would be asked to share my Planned Parenthood story. I wrote about how I’ve rarely felt so cared for and so safe.
Before she leaves for the night, my mom calls upstairs: do I want her to lock the door behind her, and in my fried egg-brain, I tell her to leave it open. I’ll never know why she listened to me, or why she asked at all.
We split up not long after the abortion. I realized I’d rather be heartbroken and alone than pretend that I wasn’t. Our short relationship seemed pointlessly painful, so I went back to Miss Renée to ask what I was meant to learn from in falling in love with someone who stopped loving me the second he felt needed.
“All of it was about his karma, not yours,” she said. “This relationship had nothing to do with you.”
I imagine that people who never go to psychics don’t know how mean they can be.
My mom’s never been much of a nurturer. After she left my dad, she became more attached to her job; less, I felt, to me. Now I realize this was more a reflection of how precarious our financial situation was, the danger of unemployment. I think she was terrified that she wouldn’t be able to support us on her own.
I hated how she always refused to come pick me up when I called her from the nurse’s office, where I spent so many hours lying on that grey vinyl cot with the paper-covered pillow. She never stayed home with me when I was sick either, though, to be fair, I claimed to be sick pretty often.
When I was younger, I would periodically be up all night, nauseous, sobbing, until I finally threw up. One doctor finally diagnosed these as stomach migraines, though no one was ever able to find a cause. They stopped around seventh grade, but I continued to use them as an excuse to miss class through high school.
Many years later, I found an article about how chronic stomach problems can be a way for children to manifest hidden pain. My memories are rarely visual, but I remember sitting at the computer reading that explanation, alone, the house quiet, how the background of the survivor website was inexplicably mauve, that the dogs were napping on the guest bed, and the sunlight was split against tiles.
After I moved back home, I began to see an acupuncturist who told me my body still thought that it was pregnant. In our first session, I gave him the bullet points of my history: when it started, when it was stopped, what I remember. I’ve become good at doing this quickly, at striking a balance of being precise with the more upsetting details without lingering in them. I don’t get emotional, but I try not to sound too clinical either, like I understand the weight of my story, but I’m no longer crushed by it. He told me that they were fucking assholes. I liked hearing his anger.
The D.O.M. put needles in my toes, at the corners of my eyes, and through my underwear, connecting them with a gold silk ion cord. I’d lie on his table, almost naked beneath the white sheet, feeling increasingly nauseous but safe. He’d stand at my feet, speak rapidly in his beautiful British accent about archetypes and mythology, about how I had been trapped as Sleeping Beauty, how it was time to embrace my own wounded inner child. He wanted me to tell her:
I’m so sorry that this happened to you, but I’m here now, and it’s going to be okay.
Sometime in the middle of the night, I hear footsteps coming up the stairs. At first, I pull them into my fever dreams: maybe it’s my mom, or my ex, or my friend Sumitra, already here to drive me to the airport. Suddenly, I am fully awake; I realize that it is still black outside and in my room, that the footsteps are real, and that I am paralyzed and alone in the master bedroom of my two-story house.
“Hello?” I call from under the damp sheets. The footsteps stop.
“Hello?” comes a man’s voice.
“Hello?” I don’t know what else to say.
“I think I’ve got the wrong house,” says the man.
“Yes,” I say.
“I’m leaving now.”
“Yes,” I say.
I hear him go, and I fall back asleep. When I wake up two hours later, my fever has broken. My sheets, still wet, are cold.
Once I was at a sitting by a bonfire, telling someone the story of when the man walked up my stairs. Another guy heard us talking, interrupted me to ask, deadpan:
“Is this when you get raped?” The best punchlines are surprising, yet expected.
There’s an energy worker in Santa Fe who has, at times, almost a year-long waiting list: people say that he performs miracles, though they are unable to explain what it is he does. He charges $120 per visit and doesn’t take insurance, but he won’t see anyone more than three times. If his methods haven’t worked by then, he can’t help you.
I finally made it off the list before I moved away again. I saw him twice. He had me sit straight in a chair facing away from him, repeatedly and aloud asked my heart about its relationship with the electromagnetic field of the sun. He held a vibrating instrument on my lower back. It made my skin tickle until it itched, until I couldn’t stand it. He would knock, with his fists, around my body, call to it:
“Amelia’s left ventricle! Amelia’s left ventricle!”
On the second visit, I lay on his table as he knocked and knocked against my back, and I felt a tremendous pressure building and building, my cheek pressed against the cool white sheet. Finally, something inside of me shifted, broke, and I gasped. He sat down in the chair beside me and was quiet for a long time.
“He hurt you so badly,” he said. I was touched by his sadness.
When, at twenty-six, I decided to break up with my boyfriend and move across the country alone with some vague idea of starting over, everyone in Santa Fe told me that my Saturn return had come early. Every twenty-nine-ish years, Saturn completes its orbit around the sun. This means that in your late twenties, Saturn is approaching the point in its orbit when your life began. Some people believe that this return brings the urge, in some form or another, to see it begin again.
Originally from Santa Fe, Amelia Morand now lives in Missoula, Montana, where she serves as a fiction editor for Cutbank Magazine. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming with apt, Brevity’s nonfiction blog, Hobart, and Pithead Chapel.
The cover of my phonics workbook is plaid like my uniform but in reds and pinks and whites. Inside, each page is covered with little pictures. Crowns, shoes, fruits, stars, each in its own little box.
Then there are the letters. I know them all and know the sounds they make, but in English they are different. E is A and I is E, and two Os together sound like U. H has lots of friends and sounds like J when it’s alone.
It’s a lot to remember. My tongue flips and turns and bends when I try to form the sounds my teacher makes, but in my head, the letters speak to me in Spanish. Milk is “meelk.” Toad is “tow-odd.” Mouse is “moseh.”
When I get my papers back, they’re covered with Mrs. Castle’s marks. Red slashes over the pretty pictures. I have learned that 100 is the goal for everything, but those phonics workbook pages come to me with ugly numbers at the top, 80s and 70s, sometimes lower. At first, I close my eyes and try harder to hear the words I’m reading, try to listen for the sounds, but the slashes keep coming like little scratches on my skin, and eventually I give up.
Eventually, the English sounds begin to make more sense. I make room for them inside my Spanish-speaking head, and one day I discover that I can read the books my teacher reads all by myself. Then it’s like a dam has broken and I am gushing through, free to read anything I want.
I spend more time coloring the pictures, adding details here and there, a ribbon to a girl’s head, leaves to a flower. The directions say to draw a ring around the correct answer. I know they mean a circle, but I start making fancy diamond wedding bands instead. Mrs. Castle calls me over for a private conversation.
“You need to try harder,” she says, pleading. “Focus on the words.”
I admire her thick brown hair as she speaks, the way it curls under at the ends. I don’t want to make her angry. I wish I could be as good at phonics as I am at math.
In math class, we have each cut out and decorated our own paper armadillo. Mrs. Castle has put up giant cacti all around the room. On Fridays, we take a timed test, addition and subtraction problems arranged in neat rows. Every time you pass a test, you are rewarded with a new one the following week, and your armadillo moves ahead. The tests get harder and harder, with more problems, bigger numbers, and tricky moves like zeroes on the top when you’re subtracting. I love them. I hear my father’s voice in my ear telling me all the tricks, and my pencil flies through the sheets. Before too long, my armadillo has made it all the way across the room to the final cactus. My teacher says there are no more tests and I ask if I can start over from the beginning again, just for fun.
But phonics class isn’t like that. Mrs. Castle cocks her head and frowns at me, and it feels as if I’ve let her down. I stop drawing rings and coloring the pictures, but my grades do not improve.
* * *
One day, we’re sitting on the carpet and she’s reading us a book. Her voice flows up and down in rhythm like she’s singing. I don’t know everything she’s saying, but I love to hear her speak. Suddenly she stops and puts the book aside. Her eyes get big with excitement and she tells us about something called poetry, about rhyming words. Then she gives us some examples.
“Do you hear?” she says, and I do. I hear the words; I recognize the sounds. I like this thing called poetry. “Now you try!”
A hand shoots up from the front of the class. Grace McCallister, of course. Grace is the most beautiful child I’ve ever seen. Her hair is long and straight and gold. Not yellow blonde, but actually gold. She wears it pulled up tight and smooth away from her face, gathered in a high ponytail without a single untamed strand. She is perfect in every way a child can be perfect. Always has the right answers, never gets her clothes dirty, and refers to her grandparents as Grammy and Grampy. I have looked up to her since the first day of school.
“Cat and bat,” she says now, beaming.
Mrs. Castle smiles and nods then looks around the room. One by one, she calls on each of my classmates. A few of them answer incorrectly on their first attempt, but after another try, they get it.
Then I hear her call my name.
“Bob and pop,” I say, but Mrs. Castle shakes her head.
“Hat and bad?”
She repeats the words after me, emphasizing their ending sounds. “Hat-tuh, bad-duh.”
When I mention that I don’t want to speak Spanish anymore, my mother grows serious and tells me “No señora.” She has a friend mail her a book of Spanish grammar from Colombia.
“Try again,” she says. “Listen to them in your head.”
I take a breath. Try to form the words in my mouth before saying them out loud. Finally, I think I’ve got it.
“Sit and sat,” I say, smiling this time, ready for her words of praise, but they don’t come. Instead, she says she’ll get back to me, but after calling on my other classmates, she has us all return to our desks to write our spelling words. I pick up my pencil and begin to work, but all I can think about are rhyming words. I don’t understand why the ones I’d said were wrong and all the others right. I start to write some new words on the margins of my page, and suddenly, in the middle of class, it comes to me.
“Duck and truck!” I shout, and the other children jerk their heads up in surprise. They laugh at me, and even Mrs. Castle chuckles.
“You got it!” she says, and I feel my heart grow warm with happiness inside my chest.
For the rest of the day, I go around smiling as I think of other pairs of words that rhyme—sometimes even sets of three. I’ve got it, I tell myself, and it feels as if I’ve won.
* * *
Eventually, the English sounds begin to make more sense. I make room for them inside my Spanish-speaking head, and one day I discover that I can read the books my teacher reads all by myself. Then it’s like a dam has broken and I am gushing through, free to read anything I want. The school library is across the hall from Mrs. Castle’s room and I look forward to our weekly visits.
At home, my mother says my name the way it’s meant to be pronounced, with a long U and lofty As, the Z a hiss and not a buzz. She takes advantage of my newfound English knowledge by having me read aloud. She tells me I am helping her learn English that way, and that makes me happy too. Our favorite book to read together is Are You My Mother, about a little bird who hatches from its egg only to find itself alone in the nest. We read the book again and again and again, until I have learned all the words and illustrations by heart.
When I mention that I don’t want to speak Spanish anymore, my mother grows serious and tells me “No señora.” She has a friend mail her a book of Spanish grammar from Colombia.
The cover says Coquito and it has a picture of a boy flying a kite over a hilly countryside. Inside there are stories and sentences, writing prompts and riddles, all in Spanish. We sit together at the kitchen table late at night, my mother looking over my shoulder as I practice my compositions in a notebook she has bought just for this purpose. She has me copy the stories along with the drawings. I write the vocabulary words many times, and then she calls them out to test me. She makes me practice my penmanship, too, and teaches me the rules of when to use accent marks. It’s like going to school in Spanish after going to school in English.
* * *
One day, my mother says she has a surprise for me, and she drives me to a one-story building with narrow vertical windows all the way around. The sign in front says Nicholson Memorial Library, and as we enter through the sliding double doors, the smell of paper wraps around me like a tongue and pulls me in.
The children’s section sits inside a corner near the entrance, but it’s hidden from view by the shelves of books I’ll get to when I’m older. In the open space behind them, four large, brightly colored seats shaped liked giant M&M’s are arranged into a square. Between them are dark blue beanbags you can sit on too, and in another area, they have tables with little chairs like the ones at school. My mother helps me find the shelves of children’s books and leaves me rocking on one of the giant M&M’s while she heads over to the grown-up section of the library.
This is how we spend our Saturdays, my mother and I. She has a card that gives us permission to take the books home, and every time we leave, it’s with armfuls of our new friends. I take them everywhere and read them every chance I get. I put some in a bag and carry them up when I climb the tree in our back yard. I take them to the outer yard and lay down on the grass to read.
And when my father does the thing where he checks for a rash between my legs, I take a book and prop it up against my chest. I hold it in a way that makes it turn into a wall, with me safely on this side, reading the words and looking at the pictures, while other things take place behind it.
Luz Pinilla is a Colombian-American writer of literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. She is a student in the creative writing program at the University of Texas at El Paso and holds a master of arts in aesthetic studies from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her work has appeared in The Acentos Review, 34th Parallel Magazine, and Straight Forward Poetry. Please visit LuzPinilla.com for more information.
Mack has been hit by a Mack Truck more than once. I know this because he tells me the story often. It is fuzzy though, because I ignore him every time he shares it. When I tell my family about the things that Mack has narrated to me, they look at me funny, like maybe I am telling a joke or making up a story of my own. I try not to feel offended. My stepmother at the time tells me that she loves his stories. In the future, she’ll tell me that he was her favorite of all my boyfriends.
* * *
Summer after high school I’m nineteen and running around the Methuen strip mall, in Massachusetts, in my camouflage skirt and tank top to match. No shoes. My bare feet smack against large slabs of the concrete walkway. I leap from column to column, the short round structures meant for sitting, not standing. That day, I had just totaled my car, whose name had been Mack.
This guy in camouflage watches me. He is standing outside Chuck E. Cheese with a friend, smoking a cigarette. He will tell me that he is nineteen too. He is tall, has red hair and his clothes are baggy and all grunge. “Redneck,” my friends call him. But he calls himself Mack. It should be a foreshadowing that my last Mack ended in disaster, but I’m not paying attention.
Mack drives fast down the winding city streets of Lawrence and Methuen. He whips down a straightaway lined with so many cars on either side that it’s practically a one-car road. Speed limit twenty-five; Mack limit sixty. At first it is exhilarating, freeing, exciting.
“I go four-wheeling all the time,” he tells me. “I live in Lawrence with my stepdad.” I learn that he is into cars and trucks and he reminds me of the junkyard back home, of my father who taught me how to drive a car when I was twelve, and a quad when I was younger. I think that maybe Mack will be fun.
I let him drive me away from the mall in his pickup truck. Later I will hold my breath when he kisses me with his mouth that tastes like ash. I will let him slide his fingers under my skirt. Sometimes this will happen in the Market Basket parking lot and once in the woods behind the store. Later, when this is all over, when Mack is gone, I will force myself to walk through these woods and enjoy them without reminiscing; I will hold back the memories, black them out for myself.
* * *
“I was born in Ireland,” Mack tells me. He lets me help him on errands. We stop at his mother’s apartment complex to gather trash barrels from the back of the parking lot, and he swings them up—I catch them and place them down in the bed of the truck. I love that he lets me help, because I’m tired of boys who won’t let me help because I’m a girl, synonymous with weakling. We need to bring the trash barrels somewhere later.
When we go inside I meet his mother. She is short and skinny, and a redhead like her son. She is kind, and, while Mack is in the bathroom, I ask if he was really born in Ireland. “I was pregnant in Ireland,” she says. “But no, he was born here in the US.”
When Mack gets out of the bathroom he tells me it’s time to go. Out in the car he yells at me for asking his mother questions. “I don’t know why it bothers you that I asked if you were born in Ireland or not,” I yell back. “Why does that make you mad?”
“It’s disrespectful,” he says, “You should just trust me.”
* * *
Mack drives fast down the winding city streets of Lawrence and Methuen. He whips down a straightaway lined with so many cars on either side that it’s practically a one-car road. Speed limit twenty-five; Mack limit sixty. At first it is exhilarating, freeing, exciting. Once, as we’re stopped at a red light just outside Richdale in North Andover, red and blue lights flash behind us and Mack pulls over.
“Why were you driving so erratically?” The cop demands. I am frightened. (I also wonder if Mack knows what “erratically” means. I’ve never heard a cop use such a big word before.)
“My brother is John, he’s a Marine,” Mack defends, as if military connections compensate for erratic behavior, as if irrationality is the answer to life’s problems. John used to be a police officer, it seems. Mack gets a warning, I think, but it isn’t written, and I wonder if knowing someone really just worked for him. It makes me uncomfortable and a little pissed. If I don’t stop completely at a stop sign I’ll get a ticket, while Mack will feed his brother’s name and get away with driving in a way that could get people killed.
* * *
In the fall, nearly a month after we begin dating, he brings me to his house where he lives with his former stepdad. There are hundreds or thousands of golf balls in the shed under the hill outside. Maybe it used to be a bomb shelter or a bunker. I wish it was empty so I could crawl inside and explore. It feels like that’s what I’m doing with Mack right now: exploring him, trying to figure out what draws me in. The kitchen looks lived-in: floor unclean, dishes in the sink, a terrible smell. But I won’t notice this until later. For now it just reminds me of Dad’s house when it was messy before he had a girlfriend.
He shows me a melted cell phone in an extra room. “It was my brother’s,” he says. “It got destroyed in his wreck. The wreck that killed him. See—it’s half-melted.” His twin brother, he says, got into an accident with—can you guess?—a Mack Truck. Only he didn’t survive. I am overcome with grief for his loss and agree to lie nearly naked with him on the couch in this room. It’s a thing I’ve never done before, and it feels uncomfortable but interesting; daring, maybe. I leave my shirt on.
When we come here again, I’ll meet his stepfather, who sits on the living room couch and smokes cigarette after cigarette. He isn’t talkative, and I don’t know how to make a good impression, and I don’t want Mack getting mad at me for asking questions, so I don’t say anything.
* * *
There’s a popular song on the radio around this time in 2006. It goes, “Where oh where can my baby be, the lord took her away from me…” It’s by the Caveliers and the story goes that the narrator was driving and got into an accident, and his girlfriend died in his arms. I begin to fear for my life after the cop pulls us over. With no reprimands, why would Mack ever choose to drive safely?
One day, as he’s driving fast down a crowded city road I ask, “What if something happens with the way you drive? What if you get me killed?”
“It won’t happen,” he says, like we’re invincible, and takes my hand. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” But his foot stays planted on the gas.
* * *
I have an off-and-on victim mentality. As soon as I get nervous, I begin to blame other people for the way I feel. But there’s something unnerving about Mack that I feel I maybe should have paid attention to early on. I believe that Mack cares about me, but I don’t understand him or how he feels. I can’t get inside his head.
One day he calls to say that he dedicated a song to me on the radio. “Lips of an Angel.” “Because your voice is like an angel’s,” he tells me, and I think it’s sweet. I sing constantly, because it’s one of the only things that I feel like I’m good at. I keep wishing that I could have been sitting in my car and listening to the station when he dedicated it.
But it isn’t long before I begin to wonder if he really did call and dedicate a song, or if he just invented that story to make me feel romanticized. When Mack and I end a few months later, I’ll tell a friend about the song, and he’ll tell me that the story is about a man who cheats on his girlfriend with an ex. If you listen to the lyrics, he’s talking to her on the phone in another room so his current girlfriend can’t hear him. Am I being deceived?
* * *
After tonight, the kitchen looks dirty, and I can see the grimy yellow stains on the bathroom floor; ashtrays line the house, overflowing onto tables and the hardwood floors.
When Mack and I are ready to move beyond naked bed-lying, we go into his room and close the door, and I set up my sex mix: a mix I’ve made for just this occasion. I think this is romantic and necessary, but I won’t take my shirt off.
I sing to the lyrics playing while we have sex, or rather, while he has sex with me. “Closer,” by Nine Inch Nails; “I Hate Everything About You;” a plethora of Evanescence and Korn, Slipknot, and Disturbed. The music is distracting, but it becomes my salve. We have sex for what feels like hours, and he keeps going even when I’m dry and it hurts but I don’t want to say anything. I don’t want to be a tease or upset him.
When it’s over, he goes to the bathroom first, and I lie in bed and wait, still singing to my songs, focusing on the lyrics so I don’t have to think about what just happened and how unromantic and painful it was because sex is supposed to be this thing that makes everything okay or better, or that’s how it feels to me. When it’s my turn to go pee, I sit on the toilet and find myself soaked. He pissed all over the toilet seat and left it that way. When I tell him this, he laughs.
After tonight, the kitchen looks dirty, and I can see the grimy yellow stains on the bathroom floor; ashtrays line the house, overflowing onto tables and the hardwood floors. The birdcage in the living room is piled high with droppings. I wonder if the cage has ever been cleaned, and how the bird feels living helplessly in its own squalor. The best decision I’ve made, I decide, was not to take my shirt off. It’s a small victory that feels powerful.
* * *
The small window in the passenger seat of Mack’s truck is broken so that I can push it open without having to squeeze the little button on the inside. One night we’re in a parking lot outside of a grocery store. Mack locks the keys in the car by accident. I try reminding him about the broken window, but before I’ve finished speaking, he pulls his fist back and punches a hole through the glass. I stare at him incredulously, and then push the window open to show him what I’d been trying to say. “You didn’t have to do that,” I say, and then I look at his hand, which is bleeding profusely. “Let me help you. Let’s go in the store.”
“I can do it,” he says, when I try to look more closely. “I don’t need help.” And he walks to the store by himself. This feels like a burn, although I’m not sure why. Maybe because helping someone heal is one of the most intimate experiences I have known.
For years I have taken inventory of injuries, both my own and others’. During the first few months that I dated Anthony, back in high school, I wiped out on my bike and wound up in the hospital. I can still remember fear consuming me as I woke up and saw him standing at the end of my bed crying. A few months later, he got jumped and some guys left a cut above his eyebrow so deep that he needed stitches. These moments of pain morphed into more than mere misery or suffering because I connected them to stories and emotions. There was care on Anthony’s face when he saw me hurt, and I felt empathy when he told me that he was getting stitches. I feared his walks through the city later. But Mack hides his pain from me. He hides it from everyone.
* * *
Mack says this to me one day: “My mom thinks I’m Mack,” who is apparently his dead twin. The guy I am dating? His real name is Mike, he admits. The idea of this is shocking, although I can’t believe it. When I look at his license again, I notice that he is really seventeen, and I point this out, because Mack told me he was nineteen when we met. “Well, this is Mack’s license.” The twin—the twin who was two years younger than my boyfriend?
Part of me wants to believe everything. I want to believe that Mack isn’t a liar, and that crazy stories really do happen every day.
Sometimes in my journal I write fiction. Sometimes it’s incredible or vile—like getting raped or finding a dead body—or it’s dreams not labeled as dreams. Nightmares become real in the pages of my journal where fiction isn’t separate from fact. Maybe Mack’s mind works this way. Maybe he comes up with a story so interesting that he can’t separate it from the rest of his life until he realizes that his Truth is being questioned, and then he gets mad because he doesn’t know what else to do.
* * *
Mack calls me once, early in our relationship. He tells me that something is wrong, he can’t breathe, and he’s driving to his mom’s house. When I get there, he’s on her living room floor with paramedics leaning over him. They tell me not to follow the ambulance, but I do anyway because I don’t know how to get to the hospital. When I find him on a bed, IV in his arm, his stepdad is there. He is calling Mack names, insulting him, angry with him, and leaves the room when I enter. I remember my own brush with the hospital, when I cut myself too deep and my parents found out, and my dad asked why I didn’t just roll around in poison ivy if I liked pain so much, because he didn’t understand what was happening. I don’t see Mack’s mom. No one cares about him. Everyone needs love.
<blockquote class=”bq-right”>For years I have taken inventory of injuries, both my own and others’. During the first few months that I dated Anthony, back in high school, I wiped out on my bike and wound up in the hospital. I can still remember fear consuming me as I woke up and saw him standing at the end of my bed crying.</blockquote>
I hold his hand and tell him I love him. It’s a lie. Maybe worse than all the lies he’ll tell me. His stepdad will tell me that Mack overdosed on speed. Or maybe it’s the mall rats who say it. The mall rats will inform me that Mack wasn’t a virgin and he’s been telling everyone that he told me he was. For now, Mack keeps telling me that he doesn’t know what happened, just that he doesn’t feel good. And I am holding his hand and lying to him, telling him I love him.
* * *
When I stop calling Mack, he doesn’t call me either. He’ll tell people at the mall that he dumped me, when really we just stopped talking. Months later, he’ll call to talk to me, and I’ll confess that I never really loved him.
Maybe as much as a year after our breakup, I’ll be standing at Winnekenni Park in Haverhill at the edge of Kenoza Lake, when I check my voicemail and hear a message from him: “I’m going to drive off this cliff and I just wanted to say goodbye…” It’s more than a minute in length. And even though I know he’s probably bullshitting, as always, my heart picks up and I’m nervous for him. I care about him in the way that I’d be concerned about a stranger. I try calling back, but his phone doesn’t ring and instead goes straight to voicemail.
I imagine his body lying in a ditch somewhere. But someone at the mall mentions that they saw Mack the other day, and I’ll be reassured that his suicide message was really an attention attempt. I’ll forget about him and move on, away from craziness, from lies. Or so I believe.
Artemis Savory is a writer with a passion for creative nonfiction. She prefers hiking and writing to anything else, and you can find her work in a number of magazines and on her Starving Artist blog at ArtemisSavory.com.
I remember Camp David. Not actually being there, of course. But I remember hearing about it on the news. And I remember Jerusalem, awaking to a new millennium, the feeling that the whole city was rubbed raw, like a skinned knee. Tension was building everywhere, and with it, the blood pressure of the entire population was steadily rising. Everywhere a hum-buzz-whisper. On the streets, in the corner stores, in the dry, desert air that mixed with exhaust fumes to hang low over our busy streets.
My dad drove my sisters and I to school every morning during those first years of the new century. I had been taking public buses alone for years, but this year my wings were clipped. Transportation had become too risky. Even walking down the sidewalk was too risky, sometimes. There would be five suicide bombings in Israel in the year 2000—rising sharply to forty the following year. In response, my parents had bought a second used car, just like most other parents who could afford it, and they took us everywhere in the interminable, choked traffic. Many other Israelis had stopped taking buses, too, and so there we all sat, unified in our exasperation with the endless lines of cars. My dad shifted from first to second gear, then back again. Time stood still.
We chatted sparsely as we crawled along, taking part of this eternal human centipede, offering opinions on school and politics and music. We listened to whatever pop music was on the only radio station that came through clearly and, of course, the news report every thirty minutes. The DJs spinning Will Smith’s “Willenium” are all soldiers; it’s an army-run radio station. Mostly, my dad is waiting for the news to give him a short reprieve from the crap I like to listen to.
On this October morning, I’m in the front seat, applying thick black and silver eye makeup and cultivating my bad attitude for homeroom. My older sister is in the back seat, sulking because I got to sit upfront and dreading school. Ours is a religious high school, complete with an hour of prayers every morning and afternoon. She was already a passionate atheist. Her opinions on religion were not well received by the administration, to say the least.
The clock hits 7:30, the DJ cuts the tunes in favor of the news, and the station jingle plays, echoey and electronic. Then three beeps—two short and one long—pierce the silence.
“Nu, what’s the bad news today?” my dad asks, turning the volume dial up.
A deep, male voice comes on, stating, “The time is 7:30. And now the news, from Kol Israel. President Clinton made a statement this morning, strongly condemning the violence on both sides and encouraging PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak to reconsider the terms of the Camp David negotiations as a step on the path to peace.”
There is no savior, no prophet with our best intentions at heart. There are only fallible humans with personal interests in mind, eyes glinting as they jockey for the best position in the rat race, cutting each other off in their attempt to get ahead.
My dad has gotten quiet.
“An aide to the Prime Minister has said that there is a great deal of optimism about ending the violence. Demonstrations and violent clashes continue in the West Bank and Jerusalem.”
My dad shifts from neutral back into first and eases the car forward a few meters.
The announcer lists the main traffic jams, signs off, and Eminem comes on with Dr. Dre. I was hoping for Madonna’s new single, “Ray of Light.”
The radio dial clicks shut as my dad seethes, “What is that?” I guess the combination of traffic, war, and hip-hop were too much for him that morning. My dad is more of a Beatles fan. Call it a generational gap.
A thick silence descends on the car. The atmosphere in the car is tinted burnt orange by my dad’s frustration. I gaze out the window of our champagne colored Mazda, taking in the road and buildings. Trying not to tick him off any more.
I notice that, incidentally, the road we’re on used to be the border between Israel and Jordan, from 1949 until 1967, when the Israeli army conquered huge swaths of territories in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. We’d learned about it in history class. There was a wall right here where our tire tread grasps the asphalt and drags us forwards. Barbed wire adorned the top and round guard towers were set, like jewels in a concrete chain, dotting the landscape for as far as you could see. All this was before I was born, but it’s obvious even today. On either side of us, the buildings are pock-marked with bullet holes. On the east side, all the store signs are in Arabic. On the west, they’re all in Hebrew. We don’t turn eastward on this morning. We never do.
My dad breaks the stillness, stirring me from my haze.
“You know…,” his voice trails off as he navigates the lanes. Someone cuts us off. He beeps, shifts back into neutral.
“What?” I asked with extra grumpiness.
“I don’t think Arafat actually has the power to stop it anymore.”
“What do you mean?” I glance at him, confused. His face is tired and serious and sad.
“I think he had control at first,” he goes on, “that he was allowing the attacks to continue, to put pressure on Israel for a good deal. But it might be out of his hands now. It might be out of everyone’s hands now. It might have gone too far.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d thought about the violence. We all thought about it constantly. In the coming years, there would be so many, too many close calls. No one would be left untouched by the grief on both sides. And all of this searing pain would culminate in the Wall, a scar across the Judean desert, an eight-meter-tall concrete testament to this time in our lives standing like a hatchet blade in the dunes that bleeds suffering on all sides. I can still see it from my parent’s backyard.
I’m sure my dad doesn’t remember this conversation. It wasn’t a special day. But to me, it was a turning point. This was the first time I understood that maybe no one was in charge. I’d always assumed that the adults would fix this, find a plan soon to stop the hurting and the deaths. Naïve, maybe. Childish, certainly. I left a part of my innocence, splattered like roadkill, behind us that morning.
The truth sank in. There is no savior, no prophet with our best intentions at heart. There are only fallible humans with personal interests in mind, eyes glinting as they jockey for the best position in the rat race, cutting each other off in their attempt to get ahead. The future is in our hands. No one else is coming to put out the fire.
On that slate-gray morning in Jerusalem, I waited a few moments of silence longer and clicked the radio back on. Pop-rock nonsense surrounded us, three weary pilgrims in a ’93 Mazda. We drove on, past the Muslim quarter, then the Jewish quarter, gliding past the Jaffa gate. We fought our way through downtown and the German Colony, whose main street is called the Valley of Ghosts. On either side of us, rows of homes, once owned by Arab families, ‘til they were taken in a war. Israeli Jews now live and love and raise children in those houses. So many fates intertwined; the thicket is so thick here. Turning right at the street named for Rachel, our Matriarch, my dad pulled over and let us climb out. We waved goodbye, blew kisses, and headed inside, just in time to join our classmates for a morning prayer.
Mikhal Weiner is a writer and musician, originally from Israel, currently writing and living in Brooklyn. She studied classical composition at Berklee College of Music, graduating with honors. Her work, whether text or music, is deeply influenced by her experiences as an Israeli gay woman and her love of poetry and all genres of music. She loves writing about people, places, and the ways their stories intersect.
“Are you a slut, or are you just plain thoughtless?” I heard Mother shout from the top of the stairs. I was in bed. On the landing, just on the other side of my bedroom door, Mother was not visible to me, but I could see her clearly in my mind’s eye, clad in a nightgown, hands on hips, glaring into the dark below as the creaky front door inched open. Mother was a light sleeper, and, until all five of her children were accounted for, she roamed the house like a ghost. She had taken her post on the stairs in order to intercept my sister, Charlene, who had now missed curfew by several hours.
My sister, I knew, had spent the better part of the night with her boyfriend. Recently, sitting cross-legged, knee-to-knee, in the middle of her canopied bed, Charlene had confided to me the story of her first sexual experience. This being my sister, I did and didn’t want to hear. Five years her junior, I knew little about sex, but I was curious. I wanted to know about sex, just not her sex. But I’d have to take what I could get. “Mark,” she whispered conspiratorially, “when I saw that thing pointin’ at me, Lord, I thought something was wrong with it.”
Erections, it seemed, had escaped my sister. Growing up with four brothers, how had she missed this basic physiology, I wondered. I tried to picture the scene, even as I tried not to picture the scene. This was the late 1970s, and toe socks with brightly colored horizontal stripes were in fashion among teenage girls like my sister. I could see Charlene’s toe socks spread eagle above her, her boyfriend, his dick at attention, striding across the room in her direction. Her socks, my sister explained, had played a key role in the encounter. “I’m keeping them on until I get married,” she assured me.
* * *
For Boys Only is the sex-ed guide Mother gave me when I turned thirteen. Written by Dr. Frank Richardson and published in 1952, this yellowed volume must have been a book my grandmother had given my uncle Allen, when he had become a teen around the time of its publication. As the tattered dust jacket explained, “It is written by a doctor in easy, plain everyday language that doesn’t try to ramble around or moralize over the facts that are a perfectly natural and necessary part of this startling but fascinating process of growing into manhood.”
And it was startling and fascinating. Framed as talks delivered in a high school chapel to a group of boys, with names like Jack and Harry and Tom, Dr. Richardson’s book explained the facts of life. As his narrator, the “Doc,” put it, “I talk to the fellows for a while, and then they pop any questions at me they want to, and I try my best to answer them. Some of them are really humdingers with no holds barred.” Jack and Harry and Tom were boy’s boys. They weren’t timid, sissy boys like me. With words like “gee,” and “golly,” they spoke with easy candor to each other and to the Doc. I’d never witnessed such openness, least of all among other boys.
But as a confirmed sissy-boy, I understood that I was not, nor would I ever be, Boy Scout material. My interest was not in nourishing my spiritual and moral character through love of the out-of-doors and an earnest vigor in working for God. Rather, I loved to accessorize.
My father was mostly mute about sex. His version of the facts of life was so indirect that I missed the topic altogether. Before my first middle school sweetheart dance, he asked with some solemnity, “So, is there anything you want to ask me about?” My immediate thought was, “Yeah, can I have twenty dollars?” It took me several minutes to realize that he was asking me to ask him about sex.
It was different with Doc Richardson. He was direct. “You remember I told you that the testicles make these sperms and store them in the body, floating about in a thick whitish fluid called semen,” he explained. “Whenever the storage tanks get too full, they empty themselves. Sometimes they do this at night, when a boy is dreaming about sex matters. Sometimes they do it without any sign at all except that the night clothing or bed clothes may be wet or discolored. This may happen several nights in succession, or as seldom as several weeks apart, or, in some boys, hardly ever.”
Huh? What can happen when you dream about “sex matters?” I was certain that if I had not read about nocturnal emissions, I never would have learned about them. With growing curiosity, I read on and waited in hopeful anticipation for my first wet dream.
I wondered, too, if my older brother John knew about this yet. He wasn’t much of a reader. When I asked if he had received the same book from Mother, he confirmed that he had, but he didn’t seem to have found it as startling or fascinating as I had. “I read the chapter about girls,” he grunted. That was all he would say on the subject.
About being gay, Dr. Richardson had nothing to say. There was no mention in For Boys Only of men having consensual sex with other men. There was only an opaque caution about illegal “monkey business,” of adult men corrupting young boys. When Tom said, “What I can’t understand is what makes older fellows, and sometimes even men that you’d think were decent people, try to get boys to let them do things to them that they know they ought not to,” Doc didn’t use the word pedophilia, but that’s what he seemed to be talking about. “It would take too long to tell you,” he demurred, “why some men get their satisfaction out of ruining young boys, and getting them started doing the same sort of thing with other youngsters. They are mentally ‘off,’ of course, and they really ought to be taken away for treatment.”
* * *
That one might be taken away for treatment was a genuine threat in the house where I grew up. We were unruly children, who often frayed our mother’s patience. “I’d pay to have you sent away,” she fumed whenever we misbehaved. Then she would pile us in the back of her Country Squire Wagon to visit a terrifying place in town called “The Last Stop.” This was a crumbling Gothic mansion, painted garish shades of purple, turned home for wayward children. Presumably, it was “the last stop” before one was sent to the Regional Youth Detention Center. When Mother was really angry, with no other reason to travel to the remotest outskirts of town, she would drive us to the YDC. Gripping the steering wheel in a trembling rage, she’d slow, just long enough for us to get a good look at its menacing razor-wire. As we took in the scene, Mother would glare at us in the rearview mirror. “Some day, you’re going to end up there,” she’d threaten.
Eventually, Mother made good on her promise, sending my oldest brother, Joe, to the YDC after he was caught stealing a neighbor’s mail. Afterwards, he made a tour of residential treatment homes, hospital psychiatric wards, and state mental institutions, before being housed at the Anneewakee Treatment Center near Atlanta. “Annewakee,” we were told, is a Native American name meaning “land of the friendly people.” But Annewakee was anything but friendly. Years later, long after Joe’s release, news reports detailed how its director, a one-legged pedophile named Dr. Poetter, encouraged sex between staff and patients because he believed it was “good for the boys.”
While stealing mail may have been the catalyst for Joe’s detention, Mom was motivated by a darker fear. She worried that Joe might be gay, and worse still, that he might turn her other sons gay too. One afternoon after Joe was sent away, she took me aside for a solemn chat. “Has he ever touched your . . . privates?” she asked. I didn’t understand what she meant. Did she mean my “private possessions,” like the miniature Swiss Army knife I hid deep in the pocket of my Billy the Kid jeans? Like Granddaddy, who was never without his pocket knife, with its beautifully iridescent mother-of-pearl handle, I guarded this tiny red treasure. Even so, I wouldn’t have minded if Joe touched it. He and I shared everything. As far as I was concerned, he could borrow anything of mine. Just as his privates were mine, so my privates were his, just for the asking. I considered Mom’s query, but I could not remember a time when Joe had borrowed my knife. “No,” I told her, I didn’t think Joe had touched my privates. But he could if he wanted to, I added, anytime he liked.
* * *
Like Mother, my father was vocal in his opposition to homosexuality. Not long after returning home from Annewakee, Joe was thrown out of the house for good. Then my father sat me down and gave me a good talking to about the fiery torments of Hell that awaited a “known homosexual.” He instructed me to call the cops if Joe stepped foot in the yard. My father’s homosexual anxiety, however, had deeper roots.
Roaming the yard in search of something to do one August afternoon, I was knocked unconscious when the better part of a Loblolly Pine fell on my head. After a visit to the emergency room, Mother offered a stop at Toys “R” Us. There she bought me my first doll, a handsome Boy Scout named Steve. Now I was not a Boy Scout, nor did I wish to become one. I didn’t even know any Boy Scouts. All I knew was that they liked to go camping, something else I did not wish to do. Sleeping under the stars, in the woods, with bugs, snakes, and who-knows-what other creatures held no interest for me.
What captivated me about the Boy Scouts were their accessories: The ubiquitous Swiss Army knife and the endless assortment of colorful patches, insignia, and emblems. The tooled leather belt with the antique finish. The animal tracks bandana, with illustrations of common woodland footprints. The felt Campaign Hat with leather hatband and chinstrap and Universal Boy Scout Emblem Hat Pin.
My father was mostly mute about sex. His version of the facts of life was so indirect that I missed the topic altogether. Before my first middle school sweetheart dance, he asked with some solemnity, “So, is there anything you want to ask me about?”
At eight years old, I could not have understood Scouting founder Robert S.S. Baden-Powell’s ideal of “muscular Christianity” that joined physical fitness with moral rectitude at the end of the nineteenth century. But as a confirmed sissy-boy, I understood that I was not, nor would I ever be, Boy Scout material. My interest was not in nourishing my spiritual and moral character through love of the out-of-doors and an earnest vigor in working for God. Rather, I loved to accessorize.
Sporting a swath the size of a dollar bill shaved from my scalp, and a dozen fresh prickly-black stitches, I held Steve Scout in my arms for the first time. Along with Steve, came several accessories: A Scouting Booklet, badges, an Official Scout Uniform, shoes, a jaunty red neckerchief. But this would be only the beginning. Steve would need a tent, a sleeping bag, the Steve Scout First-Aid Backpack, the Steve Scout Campfire, and, come winter, Steve Scout Snowshoes.
When my lesbian Buddhist aunt arrived from LA on Christmas Eve, I was certain that Aunt Jean would bring an exciting new Steve Scout Adventure Set from the West Coast. It would be one we could not find at our local Midtown Mall, where the anchor establishments were a Post Office at one end and a Laundromat at the other. Aunt Jean’s Christmas gift would be as exotic as she was. And she was. That she was from California would have been enough, but, to a boy growing up in the rural Deep South, that she was both lesbian and Buddhist was intoxicating.
What’s more, Aunt Jean worked as a DJ, announcing song titles on the in-flight radio station for a major airline. Her voice was smooth, with a hint of smoke, washed clean of the Southern accent of her Georgia kin. Her dark hair and eyes, her sharp, square chin, these could have been my father’s. But there the resemblance ended. Unlike her country relations, whose fashion sense was dictated by the Sears catalogue, Jean was sophisticated, glamorous. In her rich, ginger-colored Ultrasuede shirtwaist dress and black knee-high boots, to me, she was like one of Charlie’s Angels.
Not only, according to Mother, had Aunt Jean burned her bra, but she and her girlfriend, Barbara, also burned incense, much to Mother’s dismay, in Grandmama’s Wedgwood egg-cups, while they chanted before a makeshift altar in the guest bedroom: “Nam myoho renge kyo, nam myoho renge kyo, nam myoho renge kyo.”
My father embraced his little sister with jaw-clenching Christian duty. He was visibly unnerved by Aunt Jean, grinding his teeth and clearing nothing from his throat whenever she spoke. “Uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn, uuuhn.” At the same time, he welcomed his sister’s return home as a chance to coax her to Christmas Eve services at the First Baptist Church. If he could just get her in the door, then maybe the Holy Spirit would lay a hand on Jean. Maybe she would give up girls and The Eightfold Path. Maybe she would cancel her return flight to Sodom.
Just as she feared my brother Joe’s corrupting influence, Mother was certain that Aunt Jean would poison us all. When Barbara leaned in to receive a chaste peck on the cheek from Aunt Jean after the Christmas dinner blessing, I watched beneath the table as Mother’s nails dug deep into my father’s thigh. Later, I heard angry whispers in the kitchen: “I won’t have my boys exposed to her and that Barbara making out at my dinner table.” Whenever Aunt Jean came to visit, the air in our house was charged, and I eagerly drank in her electricity.
My heart sank on Christmas morning when all Aunt Jean pulled from her tiny carry-on, her only piece of luggage, was a small, shrink-wrapped basket of dried apricots, with a gift tag addressed to “The Hall Family.” Seeing my disappointment, Aunt Jean explained that Buddhists don’t give Christmas presents. Then she added quickly, “It won’t be a Christmas gift, but you and I could go to the mall tomorrow.”
The next morning, Aunt Jean borrowed my father’s red VW Bug, and we raced to beat the crowds of post-holiday shoppers. When she offered, “You can choose one toy, anything—anything you want,” I made a beeline for Bob Scout. But when I laid his box on the counter, Aunt Jean hesitated. She seemed to be doing a quick calculation in her head. I thought of the paltry dried apricots. Maybe I had overshot. I could feel Steve Scout’s emptiness in my own stomach.
“It’s only $12.99,” I pointed out. “You said anything.” But Aunt Jean was not searching her wallet. She was making a different sort of reckoning. Aunt Jean recognized that toys like GI Joe were “action figures.” Steve and Bob Scout were not. They were dolls, just like Barbie dolls and Ken dolls. Aunt Jean could also plainly see that Steve Scout was white and Bob Scout was black. Not only was her Deep South, white, sissy-boy nephew playing with dolls, but now he wanted a black doll.
“Are you sure that’s the one you want, Sweetie?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve already got Steve. I just need Bob so he’ll have someone to camp with. I’ve got the forest fire observation tower all set up.” Aunt Jean looked uncertain. She tugged at her crocheted vest.
“Well, you get Bob, then,” she said, “and let’s put out some fires.”
The house was quiet that afternoon as Steve toured Bob around the campsite, artfully staged under the Christmas tree. The only voices in the house were theirs, from a backpack filled with prerecorded camp-talk, activated by a pull-string. “Let’s make camp, here,” Steve and Bob Scout repeated again and again. “I’ll roll out the tent, and sleeping bags. You cook the fish.”
Later that evening, I overheard more angry whispers in the kitchen. Afterwards, Aunt Jean told us, as she and Barbara quickly gathered their things, that their visit would have to be cut short.
Soon after Christmas, Aunt Jean sent me a note. She inquired about Steve and Bob. In San Francisco, in a neighborhood called the Castro, she explained, there were lots of nice guys like Steve and Bob. When I was older, maybe I could visit her and Aunt Barbara to see for myself.
* * *
In my early teens, I had no notion of “gay,” and so I wasn’t looking for Doc Richardson to discuss the subject in For Boys Only. In retrospect, I understand that long before then I had had feelings for other boys, but I didn’t think of those feelings as romantic. Rather, I thought I just wanted to be like the cute, confident boys I admired at school. They were not my friends, only distant, mysterious objects. What I thought I felt for other boys was envy, not attraction.
I had much the same feeling for the boys who appeared one month in National Geographic World magazine. This was National Geographic for children, so the articles were about kid stuff. For a long time, I was captured by one story in particular, “An American Gymnast in the U.S.S.R.” “Few Americans have had the chance to train with Soviet athletes,” the story explained. “But thirteen-year-old Caleb Daniloff, of Washington, DC did.” In the article, Daniloff is pictured with classmates in a Moscow gymnastics school. Photos depict the young gymnasts in various poses. There is nothing sexual about the pictures. But there is a physical intimacy among boys that was foreign and strange to me, wholly unknown, and deeply captivating. One photo showed a boy in a perfect bridge pose. His hands and feet flat on the floor, his head and neck curving behind him, he thrusts his waist toward the ceiling. Another boy, his fingers spread wide and pressed firmly into the first boy’s abdomen and chest, is doing a handstand, his legs a rigid V in the air above his partner’s bridge. Their bodies are lean and taut, exposed in tiny shorts and tank tops. Pictured behind this pair is the American, Daniloff. He stands side-by-side with a Soviet boy. Each balances on one foot, the other foot, leg stretching up, up, held tightly in an outstretched hand. Their arms reach toward the ceiling. The two boys maintain their balance by holding hands with each other. I’d never touched another boy with such familiarity. At the time, I had no idea why I was so drawn to this image. But I could not take my eyes off it.
* * *
At the end of the winter break of my first year of college, I drove to Florida to pick up my friend Marcia. She needed a ride back to school. Our plan was to travel to my home in Georgia, stay the night, then return to campus near Atlanta the following day. In the car together, we did what we always did: We got high and sang along to Marvin Gaye and Lou Rawls.
I was twenty-one before I had my first serious boy crush. His name was Ethan. He had a beautiful, unruly mop of blond hair, which I suspected had been highlighted. His doe eyes were green as grapes, his smile electric.
The private college we attended was filled with well-to-do prep-school kids. They were high achievers, accustomed to excellence, entitled to it. They had credit cards and drove flashy cars. They had drugs of every description. These students, I was surprised to learn, studied as hard as they partied. The unofficial center of our small campus social life was a notorious club whose members were required to maintain a 4.0 GPA, even as they binge-drank and Hoovered up great piles of cocaine. At their parties, they doled out ecstasy like Skittles. In my small-town public-school experience, one could either be a top student or a drug fiend, but not both. It had never occured to me that the two aspirations might be successfully combined. I was intrigued. And so I studied diligently, and, to fit in, I bought a bong and a coke spoon.
Like me, Marcia didn’t belong. She was a scholarship kid, as unpolished as I. But she was smart and driven and always available to get high. Together, we studied and wrote papers late into the night, then drove the miles of deserted country roads that surrounded the tiny college town, smoking weed and singing “What’s Going On” and “Love is a Hurting Thing.” Marcia was unlike the genteel Southern women of modest, understated grace I’d grown up with. She was loud, brash, and direct, with a raucous laugh that filled a room. I was enthralled. But when she arrived at our house after Christmas, one look from Mother told me that she didn’t care for Marcia. The next morning, as soon as I made my way down to the kitchen, Mother looked over my shoulder and asked, “Where’s Marcia?”
I glanced back too, toward the stairs. “In bed, still asleep.”
Mother’s eyes narrowed. “That will not go on in a Christian home!” she shouted.
It took me an instant, as I shook off sleep, to understand her flash of rage. Mother had arranged for Marcia to take my sister’s now-vacant downstairs bedroom. My room was upstairs on the opposite side of the house. Mother imagined that we’d shared a room so that we could have sex. This was strictly forbidden. But I had no way of explaining why she was mistaken. Nothing could have been further from my mind. Yes, we had slept together in my bedroom, Marcia in one twin bed, I in the other. After a late-night ride around town, we were high as usual, and forgetful of the house rules regarding the sleeping arrangements of unmarried couples. Our infraction was, at any rate, less intimate than Marcia and I were accustomed to at college. There we often bedded down in my dorm room in a single twin bed. But it wasn’t what Mother assumed. Sex between Marcia and me was inconceivable. After all, she was dating my friend Steve, and they couldn’t get enough sex with each other. I was the friend to study with, get high with, and then fall asleep with. But not sleep with. Besides, Marcia had been telling me, almost since we met, that I was gay. I didn’t know what she was talking about. “Just because I like Patti LaBelle, that doesn’t make me gay,” I insisted.
“Since when did this become a Christian home?” I shot back to Mother. Marcia and I loaded the car in silence and made a quick exit. Mother didn’t speak to me again until sometime after Easter, when my father phoned and begged me to apologize. “Apologize for what?” I insisted. I wanted him to say what he thought I’d done, that I’d had sex under his roof—with a woman.
* * *
I was twenty-one before I had my first serious boy crush. His name was Ethan. He had a beautiful, unruly mop of blond hair, which I suspected had been highlighted. His doe eyes were green as grapes, his smile electric. Men and women alike pursued him. Everyone who met him seemed smitten. But Ethan was aloof, unavailable to all. Whether he was gay or straight was uncertain. Some days I would observe him sunbathing in the courtyard of our dormitory. I longed to stroke the angry purple scar, which marked the exit of his appendix. One evening, I surprised him at the sink in the communal bath on our hall. He was applying mascara. I wanted nothing more than to become that brush.
Just beginning to take my first tentative steps out to gay bars, I was elated one night to see Ethan in the same Midtown dive, Burkharts. He was leaning against a wall, drinking a seventy-five-cent draft beer, observing the scene, just as I was. Afterward, we began to talk and to acknowledge one another on campus.
As summer approached, I learned that Ethan had gotten a job at Cafe Intermezzo, an upscale coffee shop and bar, but he did not plan to start until after he returned from visiting family at the close of the term. Ethan didn’t know I knew about his new job. To be near him all summer long, while he was away, I too applied for a job at Cafe Intermezzo. I’d get hired and begin right away, while Ethan was gone. Then, when he started at the cafe, I planned, it would appear that he was following me, rather than the other way around. By then, I’d already know the ropes, and Ethan would depend on me to help him get acquainted in his new position.
In the meantime, I moved out of the dorm and into my first apartment. It was a tiny two-room basement flat in the home of blue-haired widow from Derbyshire, England. She had a vicious German Shepherd who pursued me every time I stepped foot out the door. But I chose this particular apartment because it had a fireplace. Whatever its drawbacks, come winter, I could imagine how romantic it would be, my first boyfriend on the futon in front of a blazing fire.
Cafe Intermezzo was opened late at night, in the heart of Buckhead. It was the last stop for posh crowds concluding a night at the theatre or out on the town, with fancy desserts and cocktails. Wait staff began early in the evening and worked until 2:00 a.m. After unwinding at the bar over drinks of our own, Ethan and I would go out to nearby dance clubs until dawn. If I was lucky, Ethan might suggest sleeping over at my place. As we spent more and more time together, my crush deepened. But so did my shyness. Whenever Ethan stayed over, I kept to my twin bed, while he slept alone on the futon, just feet away, by the empty fireplace. In the dark, I felt a deep ache as I listened to his slow, even breathing.
* * *
Thanks to Doc Richardson, I understood the mechanics of sex, but I could not imagine how it all got started, exactly. In my teens, I sometimes overheard conversations among peers about having sex. Some couples in high school behaved like old married folks, they’d been fucking for so long and with such regularity. But how did they get together initially? I couldn’t guess.
When I finally did find myself in bed with a woman for the first time, I was as surprised as she was. Sarah had visited the college writing center where I worked as a tutor and confided in me about a boy she had a terrible crush on. She was invisible to him, she lamented. His name was Ethan. While I did not reveal my own love-sickness for the same Ethan, I shared her palpable ache. Somehow we ended up at the newly-built Ecolodge near campus. While the encounter was fumbling and awkward, I was relieved. I was having sex with a woman. In spite of the insistence of friends like Marcia, this was clear evidence that I was not gay.
Not long after that, at a sprawling dance complex called Backstreet, I met a boy visiting Atlanta from Minneapolis. I watched while other men stalked him around the club. They shared my opinion of his handsome good looks. I would have to act if I was to be the one to capture his attention. Too shy to introduce myself, I sidled up next to him at the bar, making sure my bare arm lightly brushed his. My knees nearly buckled at the spark. Without turning toward me, he flashed a wry smile at the mirrored wall behind the bar, his eyes mischievous behind long, thick lashes. When Daniel introduced himself, I fell in love with his voice. Unlike my Southern drawl, Daniel had the polished Midwestern dialect of a television news anchor. I could have listened to him talk all night long. As he unspooled the contours of his life, I learned that Daniel had been a child gymnast, and later, an Eagle Scout. I’d never kissed a man before, but that night on the dance floor with him, I seized the opportunity. His lips remain vivid in my memory. They were full and insistent, his tongue curious. We kissed for hours. As the music thumped in our chests, we were so involved that other patrons gathered round several deep to watch. I’d never been kissed like that. This, I understood crucially, was what Doc Richardson had left out of his sex-ed guide, For Boys Only.
Daniel was slight, a few inches shorter than I. Looking down into his dark eyes made me feel tall, confident. I was delighted by this new sensation. Holding his face between my hands, I kissed his eyelids, gently plucking them up with my lips. In the early hours before dawn, after he’d stepped away for a moment, Daniel slipped up behind me, wrapping his arms around me in a fierce embrace. He was small, but powerful. I felt an opening inside me, like a taut spring had been released. The feelings of comfort and security were overwhelming. I was on the verge of something, which was a great mystery to me, even as I was about to enter into it. Although I never saw Daniel again after that night, for the first time, the romantic touch of another—a man—felt right and natural to me. With certainty, his lips, his embrace told me who I was.
Mark Hall is a professor of rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies at the University of Central Florida, where he directs the University Writing Center. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Flashquake, JMWW: A Quarterly Journal of Writing, Chelsea Station, and The Timberline Review.
Photo Credit: Nkosi Shanga
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