Area of Concern

As Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’m hugging a mammogram machine. “Okay, we’ll take four pictures on the right, and two on the left,” says the bubbly tech with the blond bangs. “Oops! I mean, four on the left, two on the right. Sorry! Haven’t had my coffee yet.” It’s odd to hear a medical professional apologize to you as she maneuvers a beige device the size of a small car.

“Then, an ultrasound,” she informs me. “Standard procedure, whenever you have a spot.” I instinctively pat the lump where I’d placed the small metal sticker she’d given me to better highlight the area of concern on the x-ray.

*     *     *

I’ve had this spot checked twice before. First, seven or eight years ago, when a duct in my left breast started leaking a substance that looked terrifyingly like milk. Then again, about two years ago, when I was lactating for real, and that duct had hardened into a painful lump that wouldn’t go away. The previous tests indicated no cause for alarm. It’s gone down, but it’s always there, as much a part of me as the scar on my knee from falling off my bike in fourth grade. Or was it fifth—or sixth? The memory of picking gravel from my bloody skin is no less vivid because I can’t pinpoint the year.

This time, the spot on my breast feels different, and leaks again for no apparent reason. It’s worrisome enough to stop unpacking from our recent move for a diagnostic mammogram, on the advice of my new ob/gyn. Thankfully, I find a place that can fit me in before the annual rush in October, though I forget to schedule around the news cycle.

I call my new insurance company, but I can’t determine whether this facility is in network, or that I’m covered at all. After forty-five minutes on the phone, I’m so angry that I politely decline the request to complete a brief one-question survey about the experience.

*     *     *

I slip my right shoulder out of the robe first. The tech guides my breast into the machine that seems to have been designed for someone a foot taller and molds my skin like clay with her cold hands, for which she again apologizes. She follows the diagrams and numbers printed on the clear plastic plate that are comprehensible only to her. The machine whirrs, and the plate tightens, pressing and pressing and pressing my flesh, not just my breast, but parts of my shoulder, my ribs, my armpit, until it cannot possibly go any further, then one smidge more. “Take a deep breath in, and… hold it,” the tech says as she captures the image. Briefly, I’m free. She asks me to hug the machine another way, and another, for scans at different angles: 37 degrees, 90, two 180’s.

Part of being a woman: having your story fact-checked against a man’s. Either way, you lose.

Then, mercifully, it’s over. In the waiting room—design concept: spa on a budget—I chat with my mom, braless in public for the first time since my last mammogram. The rough threads of the starched robe scratch against my nipples. I sip a diet cranberry juice box, the least worst of the all-diet beverage options available. We gab like we’re getting manicures or something, like we’re anywhere but a waiting room. I pull out my phone and check every app except for Twitter, whose quick dopamine hits seem lately to have been spiked with something more toxic than usual.

*     *     *

The documents released before the hearings catapulted me back to my small, private high school. Nestled on a tree-lined campus in a rural area of a red state, it occupied its own quirky orbit, far removed from the elite schools of the country’s power centers. Instead of a football team, we had laid-back Episcopalian chapel services in which we sang “Drop-Kick Me, Jesus” and the “Cheers” theme song. Still, the demographics were similar. In the student parking lot, I’d navigate my old station wagon with its ripped seats and broken air conditioner around hand-me-down Beemers and brand-new Range Rovers. Every year, a handful of graduates moved up to the Ivy League. The doctors’ and lawyers’ children who were my classmates are now the next generation of doctors and lawyers.

Seeing that page scanned from private-school yearbooks reminded me we’d had those, too. Dot-dots, we’d called them. Each of the fifty-two seniors in my graduating class got a half-page to say whatever we wanted—to fill up space, I suppose. My dot-dots included a quotation from an obscure Beck interview and a handful of inside jokes with my girlfriends that mostly originated while tipsy on hard lemonade at sleepovers.

At least, I think that’s what’s there. I haven’t read mine, or anyone else’s, in seventeen years. I’m sure they’re in a box, somewhere, in our new house, where all of our belongings are together for the first time in months. But I don’t look for them. I’m afraid of what I’d find in certain entries, like the boy who gave me my first kiss at a party before disclosing he’d been dared to. Or the boys who teased me incessantly about my height, using my shoulders as armrests; the boys who knew the best places to park so we could steam up the windows for a while before my curfew; the boys with legendary alcohol tolerances who ended up in rehab; the boys who, when asked to give a persuasive speech on any topic, argued they should be allowed to, as eighteen-year-old seniors, take eighth-grade girls to prom.

*     *     *

Before I can help myself to a second diet cranberry juice, my results are ready. Despite my unusual symptoms, there is, thankfully, nothing wrong. The radiologist tells me, “Like many women, you have an abundance of breast tissue that is very responsive to change.”

They’re not fat cells, though I have plenty of those, too. But fat doesn’t care when you’re stressed, say, or when you’ve just moved with your family across the country, or when you spent too many weeks in a short-term rental with a painted toilet seat your son started calling the psychedelic potty, or when you reward yourself for unpacking all your dishes by compulsively reloading an app with the latest iterations of collective trauma. Everyone is talking about the woman who’s preparing to testify on a national stage against a man who seems with each new anecdote like someone who, if you’d gone to school together, would have made fun of you, or worse. This kind of tissue soaks up hormones—stress and otherwise—like a sponge.

The radiologist performs a cursory ultrasound. She apologizes for the cold jelly, then confirms that what I’ve experienced is normal. “All part of being a woman,” she says, as she snaps off her gloves. I feel like I’ve wasted her time.

*     *     *

Part of being a woman: being one, or zero, degrees away from someone who’s experienced sexual trauma. These are the only two numbers available.

Part of being a woman: feeling the impossibility of writing about such topics without detailing your own traumas—as though without such validation, no one would believe you.

Part of being a woman: feeling like your rage has swelled out of proportion to what you’ve experienced personally.

Part of being a woman: feeling like you should probably apologize to someone for something, but you’re not sure what.

*     *     *

In the hospital atrium, my mom and I hug, then dodge plump drops as we sprint to our separate cars. On my local NPR station, the hearing’s still underway, but on a break. The commentators fill the downtime by replaying earlier highlights. When I hear the clip, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” I start to cry. The tears sting as I compare my pain to hers. What I endured was nothing. My morning experience was a momentary, private discomfort that ended in good news. Her morning is a waking nightmare. She’s received death threats. She can speak her truth in a such a way that no one will believe her, or they’ll believe her and yet not care. What good, if any, can come of her bravery?

Rain falls on my windshield in sheets.

Later, the man testifies as I drive to preschool pick-up. At a red light, I smack the steering wheel with my palm and scream as he plays coy about those old yearbook passages. He portrays himself as a good boy, an all-American jock who loves God, his country, and beer. As though a man whose colleagues insist he’s super nice cannot possibly have a dark side.

Continuing to listen, no matter how historic the proceedings, feels like picking at a scab. I turn the radio off and retreat into my Spotify playlist of high-school angst, one of this week’s only comforts.

Listening to Tori Amos’ “Precious Things” for the first time in years feels like trying on an old, well-loved sweater and discovering it still fits.

He said you’re really an ugly girl
But I like the way you play
And I died
But I thanked him

During college, I stopped listening to Tori. Her total lack of irony made her deeply uncool. She needed to get a grip, have a sense of humor about it all. Sometime senior year, a cute boy told me he was forming a metal band. “We’re calling ourselves Torn Anus,” he said. “You know, like Tori Amos, but…not.”

“That’s hilarious,” I remember telling him. He was a nice guy and, later, a good boyfriend. We occasionally like each other’s Instagram photos. But I no longer find his wordplay hilarious.

*     *     *

Part of being a woman: having your story fact-checked against a man’s. Either way, you lose.

Part of being a woman: convincing yourself what happened was nothing at all.

Part of being a woman: considering yourself to be one of the lucky ones and looking back with fury anyway.

*     *     *

As I drive home with my kid in the backseat, the remainder of Little Earthquakes now playing at an imperceptible volume, I think of the two young men who stood at a lectern, picked at the crotches of their uniform khakis, and bragged about wanting to ask tweens to prom. Even then, I knew it was awful and walked out of class in protest.

Other events take years to reveal their shadiness, like the fact that the person who bought us all those hard lemonades at our sleepovers was usually my friend’s older brother, who was in his early twenties. Only as an adult do I wonder why a grown man would want to purchase alcohol for a bunch of teenage girls, though, as far as I can remember, nothing bad ever happened. But looking back makes me question everything.

I’d forgotten that the aspiring eighth-grade paramours were both part of a crew of dudes who’d use our free period to bench press in the gym’s weight room during freshman, or maybe sophomore, year. Then they’d come outside, where us girls were chatting, or finishing our geometry homework on a picnic bench, and find us.

Part of being a woman: convincing yourself what happened was nothing at all.

Not all of us—just the more petite girls, or the ones who, in some subtle way, seemed to be asking for it. Anything that made it easier for the boys to stick their hands under our armpits and lift us up in the air, without warning. They particularly liked to place our small bodies in one of the cylindrical black plastic trash cans that dotted our campus. We’d yelp and kick in protest, with no teachers in sight to rescue us, but we didn’t fight that hard. It was male attention.

I enjoyed my share of it, especially from one broad-shouldered boy already north of six feet tall. He could have been a linebacker if our school had fielded a team. I’d have preferred that he ask me out instead of hoisting me into garbage, but still, there was that feeling of weightlessness, of helplessness, the sense of my body as an object that someone stronger could pick up and put down at any time. Without question, I accepted that being female meant tolerating lowkey degradation.

It’s okay, I remember rationalizing. They always make sure the trash can is empty first. Later, it would become the punchline to a story I’d tell about something funny that used to happen to me in high school. I don’t think it’s funny anymore.

*     *     *

Part of being a woman: wondering whether these stories will suffice for you.

Part of being a woman: intuiting how wide I need to open the vein for you to care.

On a scale from one to five, where 1 = completely dissatisfied and 5 = completely satisfied, please rate your satisfaction with the information presented here. We’d like to know how to make this topic more appealing for you. If something more explicit would better suit your needs, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

*     *     *

Part of being a woman: cells at the ready to absorb what life slings your way.

Part of being a woman: carrying it around in your body, long after it’s over.

*     *     *

Predictably, Kavanaugh is confirmed. Life moves on, but it’s difficult to accept that I can’t walk around every day quietly seething, as I did in high school. My new therapist encourages me to work on putting those old books, metaphorically speaking, back on the shelf where they belong. “Or I could just keep them in moving boxes for months,” I offer. I thought that was a good solution.

These precious things
Let them bleed
Let them wash away

Like every other woman who grew up in America, I spent my formative years marinating in a culture that empowers and excuses the actions of a privileged class of young men. It’s okay to be angry if you experienced something like what Dr. Blasey Ford went through. It’s okay to be angry if you didn’t. We should all be angry about what recent events remind us about the worth of women in this country. We should channel our rage into action, and fight to transform our culture.

When it happens, I know where I’ll feel it. I’ve been told it’s very responsive to change.

 

Colleen Rothman is a writer based in New Orleans. Her essays have been featured in The Atlantic and Mutha Magazine, and her short fiction has appeared in Jellyfish Review, Okay Donkey, and Chicago Literati, among other journals. You can find her on Twitter @colleenrothman or colleenrothman.com

Photo Credit: Jacob Rothman

The Right of Way

At the intersection of the six-lane highway I live on in Washington, DC, I waited for the light to turn green and for the little white man to appear above the numbers—starting at twenty-six—counting down how long I had to cross the street. I looked carefully to make sure no cars were going to make a right turn; vehicles infamously whip around the corner as if it’s a race track with right turns instead of left. No cars were coming. I stepped out into the street.

After that, my memory slows down each second, moment by moment.

*     *     *

I first learned that anger is synonymous with evil from my father. It was his life’s goal to become a preacher and, by the time he did, my mother had left him, partly because of his horrible temper. The memories of my childhood that feature my father most prominently are ones in which he is angry: his voice booming so hard I swore I felt the walls shake; his eyes bugging out, determining who would be the target of his wrath; his veins swelling from his arms so I thought they would jump out of his skin; his hands reaching for one of my sisters, to throw her against the wall.

My mom struggled with clinical depression for years during and after her marriage to my father. With therapy and medication, she began to feel like herself again, the self who could smile and laugh, not just stare blankly at the walls. When I showed signs of sadness or anger, my mother was on guard. She didn’t want me to be depressed, so she ensured that I always displayed happiness. Emotions other than joyful ones were looked at with suspicion. If I became angry, I could behave like my father, losing control and physically lashing out.

When I was ten, my cousin pushed me and I scraped my knee on the curb. So, I pushed her into the dirt, ruining her all-white outfit.

“Vonetta, why did you do that? You know not to do that!” My mom chided me as if I’d killed the girl, using the same tone she used when my father hit my sisters. Her equating my behavior with his frightened me.

Despite him physically abusing them, my father was hopelessly devoted to my sisters. The children from his first marriage, they occupied a different space in his mind and heart than me. He loved them obsessively. He refused to let them get their driver’s licenses until after they had graduated from high school, so he was the only way they could get around. He defended them against his wives’ complaints about their disrespectful behavior.

My sisters often didn’t speak to me even when we lived in the same house. As an eight-year-old, when I wanted to laugh with them, watching television, they stopped laughing the moment a sound came out of my mouth. They left the room when I entered. They rolled their eyes at me when no one was looking. My sisters were angry that I even existed.

I didn’t know what I’d done to make them so mad that they treated me with such contempt. Years later, I learned that our dad was still married to their mom when I was born. Their mother decided that she hated me. In a way, I couldn’t blame her, what with my being walking evidence of my father’s infidelity. But she groomed my sisters to hate me, too. I guessed they never thought to question why they pointed their ire at me; I hadn’t chosen to be born.

 

Sometimes, when I was at home by myself, I cried silently, my body seeking even just the smallest bit of release. But then I swallowed it all again, immediately put my face back on, and marched back into line.

After my mother left him, Dad didn’t try to stay in touch with me. My mom pressured me to call him periodically, and each time I spoke with him I became more and more aware of how much he didn’t think about me.

“I’m so proud of you,” he said in a voice that sounded so close to genuine.

“Thank you,” I squeaked, trying not to let on that I was moments away from bursting into tears. I knew he was lying.

Subconsciously wanting my father to love me, or at least to make him look like a fool for abandoning me, I decided that I would make good grades and follow all the rules. I was a quiet, shy kid who liked to laugh, so I took all of the anger I felt toward my dad and sisters and let it fester at the base of my belly.

*     *     *

I saw that cars were waiting to turn left. I made eye contact with the driver of the first car, a black SUV. I saw him, so I figured he saw me. I thought he was slowing down.

But then, I realized that he wasn’t slowing down. In fact, he appeared to be speeding up. Since facts from my high school honors physics class were permanently burned into my brain, I knew that he was going too fast for me to continue without contact and that I did not have time to jump backward, out of the way.

*     *     *

When I was in eleventh grade, one of my classmates took to bullying me. He was a big dude, a star of the varsity football team. I usually brushed him off, ignoring his taunting about my glasses and crooked teeth because I didn’t want to dignify any of it with a response. Until one day.

I can’t remember what exactly he said, but it enraged me. It was as if I stepped outside of my body and was replaced by a sensationally bold girl who looked exactly like me. Very calmly, but very quickly, she picked up a ballpoint pen with the cap on, and poked the guy—hard—in the back. She didn’t want to hurt him, just for him to leave her alone. How much damage could a capped pen do?

He immediately took off his shirt. The pen had ruptured a small hole in his flesh, the size of the pen head. It had gone through the plastic cap and into his skin. A dot of ink spotted where blood should have been.

My eyes shot open as I dropped the pen, the plastic skittering across the floor for a second.

“I am so sorry,” I said, immediately panicking as I anticipated his retribution. He could literally crush me, and I was sure he was going to at some point.

He was speechless as he left the classroom to go to the bathroom. I followed him out the door and down the hall, almost going into the boys’ bathroom, repeating, “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

When I told my mom what happened, she looked at me through squinting eyes. “Maybe we should get you in to see a counselor,” she said.

She knew I’d decided to stop speaking to my father and quickly made the connection between the two situations.

“I know the boy probably made you mad,” she continued, “but you can’t go around hitting people. You know what the Bible says about being angry.”

The Bible said that one should not sleep on one’s anger, implying that anger rotted your insides during your slumber. I always assumed that it meant that being angry was a sin: totally wrong, a moral failing against God. My outburst confirmed this for me.

My mom never followed up on therapy, so I went along suppressing my feelings.

My bully never hit me back. Instead, he made me do his vocabulary homework for the rest of the year. I intentionally put down some wrong answers, so the teacher wouldn’t suspect someone else was doing it. I learned the words “surreptitious” and “diatribe,” among others, and as a result, I did remarkably well on the verbal portion of the SAT.

I decided that I would never be angry again. I wanted to be righteous, and there was no room for failure.

*     *     *

As the SUV hit me in the left knee, I screamed. His tires screeched, striking up the smell of fresh asphalt. Both of my knees buckled, sending me onto the ground. My sunglasses fell off my face and skidded a few inches away. I caught myself on all fours, my knees scraping the ground.

My jeans better not be torn, I thought. They were my favorite: straight, dark Lucky Brand jeans it took me months to find.

*     *     *

For college, I went to Georgetown. Just being around so many rich white kids produced an annoying amount of jealousy in me. But the insistence that their opinions were more meaningful than mine was most infuriating.

Once, in a leadership class, a white guy insisted that Black people just hadn’t worked hard enough to gain economic equality to whites.

“You’re ignoring the existence of institutional racism,” I said, trying to be kind and explain the issue in objective terms to help convert him to common sense. “Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how hard you work; you just don’t gain as much if you’re Black.”

“You need to look up Robert Johnson,” he replied, assuming I was unfamiliar with the owner of the then Charlotte Bobcats and his inspiring—though highly uncommon—rags to riches story.

My heart started to beat faster and my cheeks began to flush. “I’m from Charlotte!” I said, not quite yelling, but making sure he could hear me.

His eyes widened and his jaw clenched, but the conversation was over. After class, we apologized for getting so heated with each other. I knew I’d done the right thing, but I was ashamed, convinced that he would have listened to me if I had not gotten angry.

*     *     *

On my hands and knees on the pavement, I felt no pops or snaps. No sounds of shattered bones. No rushing sensation of torn muscles or ligaments. My books were on the ground. My purse was on the ground, dangling from my shoulder. I picked up the books, adjusted my bag, then stood upright.

At the same moment I realized I was okay, I realized that I had been hit by a car while walking in the crosswalk, with the right of way.

*     *     *

In my early 20s, I dated a guy who prided himself on his extreme liberalism. Even though I disagreed with nearly everything he believed, I asked him questions and listened earnestly to his reasoning because I liked him and that’s what you’re supposed to do with someone you like. He said he liked me, too, but he didn’t bother asking me any questions about how and why I came to the conclusions I’d come to.

After a couple of months, he texted to tell me that he hated my conservative-leaning centrism so much that he couldn’t be with me any longer. He followed up with a pages-long email detailing everything he thought was wrong with me, mostly that I was an impostor, in his opinion. He appreciated my respect for his views, though.

Standing on a friend’s deck outside of a raging house party, unable to choke back tears, I lamented on the phone to a friend, “I accepted him. Why couldn’t he do the same for me?”

*     *     *

When I went to business school, I was one of few women and the only Black person actively participating in the student investment fund. During my stock pitch, a few of the guys asked for information about the inventory levels of the company I was presenting. I hadn’t looked at the balance sheet that closely, because no one ever looked at it that closely.

When I said I didn’t know, one guy said that a few of them just met with that company’s CEO a few days ago, a meeting to which I was not invited. The CEO had confessed that inventory was problematically high.

I blinked, wondering why he would ask me a question whose answer he already knew, why he would embarrass me in front of the whole club.

My ears and eyes grew hot, but I exhaled, cooling them.

*     *     *

Standing in the middle of the street, I inhaled, my lungs filling with a sharp gust of wind that I could not stop from making its way out of my mouth.

*     *     *

During my job after business school, my Latina coworker and I met with the “HR” partner at our firm to report some racist things our bosses had said to us. She scribbled down notes and made her face look distraught.

“I’m sorry, girls,” she said, shaking her head. “But don’t worry, we’ll look into it. And don’t be afraid of retribution because there will not be any.”

My coworker and I gave each other grateful, relieved looks.

 

Forgiveness starts peace, but an apology completes it. The acknowledgment of an offense, and remorse for it, rounds out the sharp edges of wrongdoing. It doesn’t make the bad action disappear, but it helps it to fade.

 

Over the course of the next year, my coworker was given poor performance reviews and I was not given any new projects, even after begging for work. During my year-end review, the company president told me, “You’re not as engaged—we need you to be engaged.”

My ears set on fire. My jaw clenched. I balled up my fists under the table. I released my fingers and pinched my thigh through my dress pants. I was not going to be an Angry Black Woman. I was not going to lose control.

Sometimes, when I was at home by myself, I cried silently, my body seeking even just the smallest bit of release. But then I swallowed it all again, immediately put my face back on, and marched back into line.

*     *     *

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? DIDN’T YOU SEE ME? I HAD THE LIGHT AND EVERYTHING!”

I pointed to the walk signal, where the little white man still stood over the countdown, which had gone down to ten. The white man turned into a red hand and the numbers flashed: nine, eight.

“WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU DOING?”

My knees were throbbing, my hands were shaking, my heart was blasting, and my voice was raw. I screamed every word from the deepest depths of myself.

It was as if I was screaming at every person who had ever hurt me.

*     *     *

I wanted to know why they had hurt me. I had followed the rules, done what I was supposed to do—be born, be smart, be a team player, be accepting, stay in the crosswalk and walk only when the white man is there—and they hurt me. I was holding up my end of the bargain, bringing my contents to the table, but they had all chosen to turn the table over and discard my contribution. Righteousness never mattered—people would hurt if they wanted to hurt, if they held themselves in higher regard than me.

*     *     *

Just like after I pen-stabbed my eleventh-grade bully, my heart nearly stopped. I had just screamed at a person. I wasn’t supposed to scream at anyone.

The driver had stopped, and the passengers in a few of the cars on the other side of the street looked on. At the sound of my bellowing, the driver got out of his car, in the middle of the lane. He was an older Black man. He wore a tan three-piece suit, a straw trilby, and brown rimless sunglasses that kept me from really seeing his face.

“I’m sorry, sis.” He shook his head faintly.

I am not your sister, I thought.

I considered apologizing for screaming at him, but I quickly reasoned that I was not wrong here. And the way the man shook his head and looked down told me that I was safe. He looked nothing like my father; he was an age my father would never reach. And unlike my dad, this man wasn’t going to attack me if I said the wrong thing. So I continued to let it out.

“WHAT WERE YOU DOING? I HAD THE RIGHT OF WAY!”

“I had the right of the way, too,” he said, holding his sun-spotted hands out.

“NO, YOU DIDN’T! YOU DIDN’T!” I started to add, “I’M MARRIED TO A LAWYER, I KNOW WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT.”

But before I could, he said, “Yeah, I know. Pedestrians have the right of the way.”

“You scared me, too!” He continued, his hands trembling.

I looked at him as if he’d just called my mother stupid. I’d never said that he had scared me. Sure, I had screamed—because that’s the appropriate reaction when an SUV rams into your knee. But he had not frightened me at all.

“Do you want my insurance information?” The driver asked.

Insurance information seemed irrelevant. What was relevant was why he had chosen not to follow the rules. I had been following the rules and he violated them. His lack of regard for these boundaries resulted in my being harmed. Rules keep us from hurting each other because we are capable of causing so much pain.

On the sidewalk, an old Black lady yelled, “You ain’t supposed to get up! You ‘sposed to stay down on the ground until the police come! You know better than to get up when you get hit by a car!”

I realized then that we were in the middle of a highway at almost five o’clock in the evening. Traffic stretched out behind us for what looked like miles, but, miraculously, no one was honking. It seemed that they knew what had transpired and were going to wait for us to figure things out, but not for much longer. I was in the way, and I hate being in the way because I hate when people are in my way, and you do unto others as you would like to be done unto.

I asked him for his business card. He said he didn’t have any on him, but he wrote down his phone numbers and asked me for mine. I hesitated to give him my number, but then I thought he might want to check on me later, to see how badly he’d hurt me and to try to make recompense.

“Where do you go to school?” He asked as he scribbled.

“I’M NOT A STUDENT. I’M A REGULAR ADULT.”

My hair was in a ponytail, so perhaps that made me look younger than thirty-two. If he was trying to flatter me, it wasn’t going to work—I was not going to let him subvert my power by delegitimizing me because of my youthful appearance.

“Miss Young,” he said, peering at me through his sunglasses. “I am truly sorry.” He took the paper and offered his other hand. “I am truly sorry.”

Still infuriated, I looked at his hand.

Something deep inside, below my belly, below all the crevices where I’d stored all that anger, whispered to me, “Forgive.”

*     *     *

The best explanation of the difference between forgiveness and bitterness was told to me by the anti-trafficking activist Christine Caine: “Bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

Forgiveness liberates you, not the perpetrator.

I couldn’t say that word in the moment. If I forgave him, I would have no recourse to funds if something did actually go wrong with my body. People always said they felt worse after an accident the next day. I felt fine in that moment, aside from the trembling hands, scraped knees, and inability to speak with an inside voice. The word “forgive” seemed too potent for what had just happened and what could happen if my body happened to fall completely apart in the near future.

But that thing inside, over the course of only a second or two, told me that it was the right thing to do.

*     *     *

“I accept your apology,” I finally said, in my normal voice, at my normal volume. I shook his hand firmly and looked in his eyes, which I still couldn’t really see.

“Thank you, sis,” he said.

He got back in his car and I huffed, then crossed the street with the red hand and numbers flashing nine, eight anew.

The old lady yelled at me again as I walked away. I shook my head, wondering if she really would have blocked traffic on a busy road during rush hour. By the stoop in her shoulders, I was certain she would have. But I didn’t need the man’s money. The only thing he owed me was an apology, which he gave me, multiple times.

*     *     *

My therapist once asked what I wanted from my old bosses.

“The same thing I wanted from my dad and my sisters,” I said. “An apology that I will never get.”

Forgiveness starts peace, but an apology completes it. The acknowledgment of an offense, and remorse for it, rounds out the sharp edges of wrongdoing. It doesn’t make the bad action disappear, but it helps it to fade.

*     *     *

As I walked toward the library, I noticed that my breathing pattern had changed. The air went deeper into my body and came out fuller, more completely.

It was relief.

It was like I’d been carrying a boulder for miles and had finally dropped it.

I had been angry, but I hadn’t lost control.

It took being hit by an SUV to create a safe space for me to feel this emotion and dispel almost thirty-three years of pent up anger, guilt-free.

Everyone told me that I’d feel worse the next day, and I did, a little. My knee was sore, and my hip felt a little gimpy. Yet I felt the strongest sense of peace, almost like sitting in the relaxation room of a spa after a massage.

The driver never called to see if I was okay like I’d fantasized about him doing, being what I felt a good man would be. I decided to let God handle the justice angle, if there was one. I’d done my job: learned that anger isn’t evil when it’s done the right way.

 

Vonetta Young is a writer living in Washington, DC. Her essays have been published in/by Catapult, Past Ten, Blavity, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, Levo League, and The Billfold, among others. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up with an absent father who was a preacher with a black belt. Follow her on Twitter at @VonettaWrites.

Dope

The first time that I ever saw a crack pipe, I must have been five or six years old. My mother was still raw from my father’s suffering and eventual death. He had been only forty-four years old when he passed away. Still young and beautiful by human standards. My mother had dubbed him the “black Tom Selleck.” He stood 6’3 and weighed 220 pounds and his bare chest boasted a shock of silky, jet-black hair against his copper skin. She would joke that near the end of his illness, she’d spend the night at the hospital to guard him from the single nurses. She had been just thirty-four at the time. Seeing my mother winded and widowed too soon, a close friend named Liz had offered something to “take the edge off”—to dull the sting of her loss, to loosen the grip of despair and depression that had begun to suffocate her, to lighten the weight of having to raise her daughter alone. It was cocaine. Eighteen months later my mother had a full-blown crack addiction. And crack addictions require a pipe.

For twenty-two years, she would do battle with this faceless devil. It rumbled gray and heavy like an endless storm tearing roofs from their houses, uprooting trees older than God, sending furniture and cars airborne, leaving lives frayed and unfurled.

It wasn’t just one pipe. There were hundreds of pipes. Literally. Purple ones that seemed to be as tall as me. Short ones that were no longer than a cigarette. Ancient wooden ones that I imagined were so-called peace pipes of the Natives. They were all behind the glass case in what the old folks called a “head shop.” These were small stores owned by tattooed, bald white guys that catered to vice. The merchandise included glass crack pipes, TOPS rolling papers, a wide variety of lighters decorated with dirty words or bare-chested women, heady sticks of incense, brightly colored incense holders, roach clips, guns of what seemed to my five or six-year-old self to be of every size and shape possible. Dazed as children are often rendered when the curtain concealing adult secrets has been pulled back, I squeezed my mother’s hand tighter so I wouldn’t pass out. By the time that I found myself awed in that head shop, Liz had been dead more than a year.

As time passed, I grew to understand that Liz had been the lucky one—succumbing to her illness (her addiction) swiftly. Before it could mangle her youth, beauty, home, job, happiness, family, relationships, and reputation into an unrecognizable heap. Liz’s exit was brutal but quick. My mother’s would be a destructive, dreadful, achingly slow departure. For twenty-two years, she would do battle with this faceless devil. It rumbled gray and heavy like an endless storm tearing roofs from their houses, uprooting trees older than God, sending furniture and cars airborne, leaving lives frayed and unfurled.

*     *     *

I often overheard other grown-ups—grandmas, uncles, aunts, cousins, play cousins, teachers, preachers—refer to my mother as a “functioning addict.” It meant that because she could hold down a job in between the first and fifteenth of each month and had not yet lost her home, car, or me and had not yet sold her body in exchange for crack that she belonged to the highest rung of junkies in the addict hierarchy. It meant that things could’ve been worse. Much worse.

Because my mother had been employed as a substitute teacher for most of my childhood, the mask of normalcy was easy to maintain. She could choose which days she wanted to work and which days she wanted to use. Paydays and the day or two following a payday were always set aside for using. Even when family and friends could readily recognize the pattern, she denied it vehemently. From the time that I was five, the first seventy-two hours of any given month my mother was a ghost. Quick trips to get a pack of cigarettes, brief dashes to go cash checks, and short rides to a friend’s house almost always swelled into two or three-day long crack binges. She always returned in the dead of night, silent, smelling of musk, stale beer, Newport’s, and the faint odor of Paloma Picasso perfume (her signature scent when sober).

Despite my mother’s struggle I was an honor roll student and she feigned sobriety so well that she was appointed secretary of the Parent Teacher Association at my school. I wore my hair in long plaits, was painfully shy and often labeled a nerd.

Another fringe benefit of being a substitute teacher/addict was that your weekends were always free. Some weekends our house would seem to overflow with “partiers”—fellow users, dealers, enabling friends who smoked marijuana but didn’t do blow or smoke crack. While the men’s faces seemed to switch with great regularity, like people sifting through a busy revolving door, The Women were static, beautiful constants. LP, TM, CS, and my mother were all in their early to mid-thirties and stunning. They shined with the kind of beauty and confidence that comes with maturity. Knowing exactly what shade of foundation blended best with their tone. Clothes that accentuated their curvy legs and hid the stretchmarks on their bellies. Brilliant smiles and large, hearty laughs that echoed self-awareness, self-assuredness. LP was the tallest. She had watery, bright eyes and flawless skin the color of peanut butter. She was a nurse and the single mother of two teenagers. CS was the youngest of The Women, high-yellow and heavy-chested. She spoke with a near-staccato cadence. Her words tumbling over one another. My mother said she was “tie tongued.” TM was thin and waif-figured with African features. She had a daughter my age and we often found ourselves exiled to my room to play while they “partied” deep into the night. My mother was the shortest of The Women, but the toughest by far. Just a shade lighter than a Hershey’s Kiss, she wore raisin colored lipstick and grew her nails long and painted them a deep hue that resembled red wine. The Women were sophisticated and strong and might have gathered at book club meetings or swank happy hour affairs had they not befriended cocaine. They would huddle in the den—a room one door down the hall from mine that Mama had repurposed after my father’s funeral; it had been my half-brother’s room when he lived with us before Daddy died—their heads collectively bowed over a small glass-top coffee table. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think they were chemists in a lab, intensely focused on precise measurements and portions. Their tools were typical: razor blades, foil, lighters, a ceramic plate, sometimes a spoon and Pyrex bowl. They made frequent trips from the den to the kitchen and back. When I got older, I would get a kick out of watching the eyes of men widen to saucers as I told them that I knew how to cook crack before my eighth birthday. I became instantly dark and dangerous and intriguing with the candid revelation. Over time I learned to use it to shock and entice. Like a card trick at dinner parties. Small gifts I suppose.

The parties usually crawled from one day into the next and the adults rarely seemed to notice or mind that they hadn’t eaten or showered in nearly twenty-four hours. The Women never looked the same as they had the night before. Hair tousled and out of place. Mouths dry. Skin dulled and ashen. Pupils dilated. Eyes red with fatigue. Laughter reduced to effortless groans. Luster lost to the reverie of inebriation. Regrets slowly filled in the slight lines on their faces as they filed out one by one to return to reality, daylight, and the other things they had been desperately trying to escape.

From kindergarten right up until the last day of high school, this was my version of “functional.”

*     *     *

In 1991, “Your Mama’s on Crack Rock” had to have been the most popular song on the radio, certainly the most popular song blasting from boom boxes and thumping from car stereos on my block. At least it felt like it. For fifth-grade bullies, the punchlines wrote themselves. And I had a bright, blinking target affixed squarely between my eyes.

Despite my mother’s struggle I was an honor roll student and she feigned sobriety so well that she was appointed secretary of the Parent Teacher Association at my school. I wore my hair in long plaits, was painfully shy and often labeled a nerd. And while Mama had been able to successfully deceive the teachers and parents from surrounding neighborhoods, there was no fooling the kids who lived on my block. They knew our secret. Their fathers, uncles, and cousins were often my mother’s suppliers. Sometimes they showed up at our house on the weekends. This knowledge was more than enough ammunition for girls who built their reputations and esteem by tearing down girls like me who were quiet, timid, spineless mounds of flesh. Shenita was one of those soul-eating, fire breathing girls. Her uncle was a dark-skinned guy known to everyone as Spencer. He was as notorious as a neighborhood dope boy could be. He drove a black Mustang GT and had a gold tooth that could blind you if the sun hit his broad smile just right. He was buoyant and funny and a frequent visitor to the weekend parties. One day Shenita cornered me at lunch. She asked me if my mama was a crackhead. I froze. She said that Spencer was her uncle and that everyone knew my mama was a crackhead. Feeling the curious and bloodthirsty stares of the other kids at the table, I just shook my head “no” and stared down into the institutional-looking mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables on my lunch tray and prayed for her to just walk away. When I summoned enough courage to raise my eyes from the food, Shenita was still hovering, now with a spoonful of mashed potatoes fashioned as a catapult pointed directly at my face. “Admit it,” she demanded. The “or else” was unspoken, but evident in her bulging bug-eyes. I felt my own eyes start to fill with tears as a teacher approached the group. Shenita put her spoon down but her eyes lingered on my shame. I don’t recall her ever really bothering me again. I guess her mission had been accomplished.

*     *     *

By the time I entered my teen years, Mama had lost the house (so much for functional) and we’d moved in with my grandmother shortly after Mama’s first stint in rehab. My grandmother’s house was situated in the back of a subdivision called Apple Valley. It had once been a beautiful slice of suburbia when Granny first purchased her house but was soon bastardized by white-flight and Section 8. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was my favorite album, and Snoop Dog’s “Gin and Juice” was my favorite song. My mother had finally let me get a fashion-forward haircut, boys had begun to show interest in me, and I was discovering ways to cope with my mother’s demons by creating some of my own.

Jesus was my first drug of choice. I discovered Him when I started going to church with my grandmother. She was a freshly-converted zealot. She had just been “saved” and wanted to make sure that everyone that she encountered from that day forward would be “saved” as well. Me and Mama had been first on her spirit-filled hit list. My mother, having been both an adult and addict at the time, was hard to turn. But I was easier pickings. Logging in what felt like thousands of hours at Wednesday night Bible study, Sunday school, Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, first and third Thursday young adult meetings, choir practices, annual revivals, vacation Bible school, Mother’s Board meetings, choir anniversaries, Usher Board anniversaries, and a handful of Youth Ministry lock-in’s, I became hooked. Entranced by the prevailing sense of community. Rapt by the notion that all of the answers to life’s most perplexing queries could be found in King James’ version of the Bible. Completely swept by the choir’s sway and melody and Pastor’s guttural, ardent invocation. Like most dependencies, I would leave and return and leave and return again, never quite able to achieve that first miraculous high. Sweet Jesus, indeed.

To outsiders, it must have seemed like torture. My grandmother’s siblings repeatedly admonished her as an enabler.

The only thing that seemed as intoxicating as the holy ghost was the gaze of men and teenaged boys—full of primitive longing, carnality, desire. For me, men and boys were peripheral and taboo. They had always lurked around the margins of my life. A dead daddy. A shipped-off half-brother. Mama’s married, on-again-off-again boyfriend. Drug dealers. Grown men who stared too long at my budding figure. Bumbling, anxiety-ridden, sex obsessed boys. It wasn’t until I became the mother of two sons that I understood the opposite sex to be vulnerable, complex human beings and not beasts that only existed to be tamed, conquered, or feared. When I was fifteen I fell in love with one of those unreachable “beasts.” His name was Charles and he was a low-level dope peddler (marijuana by ounces, not pounds; small quantities of cocaine and crack). He was nineteen, lean, muscular, the color of an old penny, and tall enough that my head lay comfortably on his shoulder in embrace. His eyes were perpetual slits underneath long black lashes, always half-closed. His lips had the shiny brown sheen of someone who smoked blunts all day. His gait was weighed down with disappointment and rage, not unlike most of the other guys in our hood. His mother was an addict like mine, and he let me wear his gold herringbone chain to make it “official.” I wasn’t a virgin the first time I had sex with Charles, but it was still magical in a way. It was more emotional than physical. We were two kids escaping the same pain. Together. We were making love. As with most teenage love affairs, the relationship quickly fizzled. I remember returning his chain by way of his younger brother who was a high school classmate. But I never forgot Charles, his torment, or the sound of his beating heart as we laid naked and pressed together under the cheap plaid sheets on his twin bed, both our mamas too high to care where we were or what we were doing. I was supposed to hate boys like Charles, the black-hearted pushers whose main goal in life was to keep my mother hooked and going back for more. But I couldn’t. I had seen too much of my own anguish in their eyes. Left despondent and bewildered by underperforming schools, half-assed teachers, overworked or absent parents, an ever-present overzealous police state, and dwindling job opportunities, selling dope was just another expected chore for guys like Charles (along with dropping out of school and going to jail). This fate was an inescapable destiny for kids like us. So, I wasn’t surprised when, five years later, I found myself giving to birth to a son while his father—a dealer like Charles—paced back and forth in a 6X8 cage in an Alabama county lock-up.

*     *     *

Life has a way of becoming less and less black and white as we grow older. The world becomes grayer. Uncrossable lines get crossed. Unthinkable thoughts begin to inhabit the mind. Never becomes maybe and suddenly we find ourselves changing in frightening, unexpected ways.

After my mother’s second failed attempt at rehab, I began to accept the idea that she was always going to be an addict and would always need some kind of vice—somewhere to hide the hurt when life’s relentless foot was too heavy upon her neck. I was also beginning to realize that I was my mother’s daughter. I, too, was an escape artist, constantly in search of a door marked EXIT. And when neither sex nor salvation were at my fingertips, other substances would have to suffice.

Weed became our Switzerland—a neutral, peaceful stomping ground far less damaging than crack, not nearly as risky as alcohol-fueled hook-ups with questionable men, and less manipulative than religion. Even though it was illegal, it was tolerable and soothing. Weed mended a great deal of the fractures that existed in our relationships. Me and Mama. Mama and Granny.

When me and my one-year-old son moved out of my grandmother’s house and into our own apartment, Mama and I celebrated the move at the end of the day by plopping down on my futon, putting our feet up on the coffee table that we’d just assembled, and rolling a joint. I remember her mocking my technique calling my joints “guppies” because they were often fat in the middle. I hadn’t yet perfected the art. We laughed and for a moment I caught a glimpse of the tough, sassy leader of The Women. Radiant.

While Granny still loved Jesus vigorously, her holy-roller streak had subsided. Sometimes I think that she may have even viewed Mama’s penchant for marijuana as a twisted answer to a fervent prayer. Granny had always had a green thumb and loved to watch things grow. So, on a whim, she planted some stray marijuana seeds alongside her squash, zucchini, tomato, and collard plants. Then she loved it, watered it, tended to it, talked to it, doted on it. And it grew into an ample plant, so big that she eventually had to uproot it for fear police might see the small tree from the street. My mother affectionately called the green, leafy, 5-feet-tall bush Bappy.

Marijuana never did what we had wanted it to do. It hadn’t cured Mama. It hadn’t been strong enough to silence the Siren song of cocaine. At best, it’d given us brief periods of reprieve and respite from the tumult and chaos of loving an addict, a temporary break from the arguments, accusations, and tears. It’d offered us a few days out of each month when me nor my grandmother had to worry whether Mama would return when she asked to borrow the car; it’d gifted us with a handful of serene nights spent sleeping and not wondering if she’s dead or alive. Granny and I had learned to be thankful for the good days and prepared for the bad.

To outsiders, it must have seemed like torture. My grandmother’s siblings repeatedly admonished her as an enabler. Don’t lend Pat any money. You know what she gonna do with it. Most of the time Granny heeded their advice. But Pat was her only child. And there are times when one just must believe in their child. How does one just discard their only daughter? The pressure was no lighter on me. As a teen, on more than one occasion, teachers, counselors, and friends’ parents had blatantly suggested that I pursue legal emancipation from my mother. But I’d never seriously considered it. My godmother once asserted, Your mother has never let you finish anything. But that was only half true. Sure, a violin or two had been pawned for drug money and gymnastics and piano lessons and cheerleading had taken a backseat to my mother’s habit. She had disappeared on the night of my first debutante ball and the day after my son was born. But my mother was my mother. And I had learned early in life that death was certain and quick footed and in inexorable pursuit of my mama. She needed me. And I needed her more than I needed sanity or stability.

*     *     *

The eerie fact—the thought that syphons sleep from my nights—is that Pat would’ve been the perfect mother minus the disease of addiction. Sober Pat was the ideal matriarch. Sober Pat sacrificed her light and life and energy to watch my father die. She aided home health workers in lifting his 200-plus pound frame to wipe his bottom and change his adult diapers and risked arrest yelling at the police officer who had pulled them over on the muted drive home from the doctor’s appointment where they’d learned that Daddy only had six months to a year to live. Sober Pat allowed my six-year-old hands to part her texturized hair into small square sections with a giant neon blue Goody comb and practice plaiting and French braiding when my Barbie dolls no longer sufficed. Sober Pat and I often took naps together on the couch in the den—she laid on her belly, face pressed into the cushion, and my small frame snuggled on her back, soothed by the warmth emanating from her slumbering body. We performed this ritual until I was about eight-years-old (too big to sleep on my Mama’s back). Sober Pat baked cupcakes and brought them to my classroom on my birthday. And when I was in middle school, she let me have a sleepover with three of my friends and spent forty dollars on a tub of Superman-flavored ice cream (it was vanilla with hot pink and blue food coloring) from a fancy ice cream parlor in the mall. When Sober Pat had money, she spared no expense. We vacationed in Disney World and Myrtle Beach. Sober Pat purchased every edition of World Book Encyclopedias from 1980 until 1990, and whenever I asked her a question that was academic in nature, she fired back without raising an eyebrow, Look it up. In doing this, she taught me to love learning and to take charge of my own education. And often, when Sober Pat wasn’t sober, it was those volumes in which I took refuge until Sober Pat returned. Indeed, it was Sober Pat who envisioned me as a writer decades before I could see myself as an essayist and poet. It was she who encouraged me (her shy, self-doubting, eighth-grader) to submit a poem for publication in the Sego Middle School anthology. Once published, a sixth-grader chose my piece to perform in a school talent show. I was flabbergasted. Sober Pat wasn’t surprised at all. It was Sober Pat who believed the doctor when my son was diagnosed with autism and helped me shuttle him back and forth to daily speech and occupational therapy appointments and held my hand in those first IEP meetings while I wept. As selfless as she was, Sober Pat tried to nurse her own fading dreams as well. She’d always confessed a lifelong desire to be a prison warden and, at fifty-three years old, Sober Pat became a POST trained and certified corrections officer with Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice.

Almost perfect.

*     *     *

On June 6, 2006—twenty days before her fifty-sixth birthday—Mama went to sleep and never woke up, apparently claimed by a massive stroke according the Columbia County coroner. TM was the only one of The Women who called and offered her condolences.

*     *     *

And even as a crack fiend, mama/You always was a black queen, mama

That’s the line that always breaks me. It picks me up and then drops me from a hundred-story skyscraper. Tupac’s Dear Mama plays on a loop as I scoot my patio chair closer to the sun. I want to feel the heat on my toes. I wash an ill-gotten Adderall down with a lukewarm Corona. It’s my second drink today. I balance my laptop on my thighs and stare into a blank Word document. These are my Mother’s Days now—motherless and teeming with memories too vivid to relive, dreams too distant to imagine. I wish that Mama were still here. I wish that Granny could’ve held her daughter one last time confident in her complete sobriety. I wish that Mama had started using in 2004 instead of 1984. Then, perhaps, a better educated society would have looked at her and saw a person with an illness in need of help and not a lost cause from which to flee. I wish that Mama had been born white and preferred painkillers, then she would’ve been at the center of the Republicans’ “heartfelt” plea to “address America’s opioid epidemic” and not the target of disproportionate and oppressive sentencing laws. I wish Mama were sitting in the chair next to me, round-faced and glowing and laughing, holding an impeccably rolled joint between her thumb and index finger, legs crossed at the ankles, shoeless toes swinging just a hair above the concrete ground beneath. I wish she’d bring the joint to her ebony puckered lips, inhale, and blow small white clouds above her head in the shape of halos. I wish…

 

Kristie Robin Johnson is an educator, essayist, and poet. The native of Augusta, GA, is a graduate of the MFA creative writing program at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, GA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atlanta Free Speech, HEArt Online Journal, Rigorous, Split Lip, Dear Esme, Under the Gum Tree, and riverSedge.

 

 

LIGO

Every year when my breast is squeezed into the machine and the woman behind the Plexiglas tells me not to move, when the radiologist reads the film and says, “You’re high risk,” I’m forced to think of Barbara, my maternal aunt, who found a lump at fifty-six, the age I am now.

My mammogram happens in July, so Barbara wasn’t on my mind on February 10, 2017. That night, the Snow Moon was in partial eclipse, and then comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, named after the astronomers who discovered it, was burning across the Milky Way.

I’m a sucker for outer space, for how it is out there but inside too. When we inhale and exhale, we offer ourselves to space one moment and draw it into ourselves the next. Every few weeks there’s some new cosmic event to take in. I’ve learned the names of stars, clusters, galaxies, and exoplanets, and downloaded apps I point skyward to find constellations and space junk floating unseen. Astronomers can tell us a lot about outer space, but there’s so much they still don’t know. I’ve learned to trust the invisible. But even more, I stalk the sky for what I can see.

*     *     *

It was cloudy in Moscow, Idaho, where I live, so I had no hope of watching the night’s events. On the other hand, the forecast for Hanford, Washington, three hours away, was clear. I’d been eyeing Hanford’s brand-new astronomy observatory called LIGO. The weekend of February 10 was the first anniversary of LIGO’s biggest discovery to date. It had found something new in the universe that proved Einstein’s theory of general relativity. This new thing had the potential to change the way we think about space, time, and ourselves. So I packed the car and set out, though it was already 9 p.m. on a Friday.

I’m a sucker for outer space, for how it is out there but inside too. When we inhale and exhale, we offer ourselves to space one moment and draw it into ourselves the next.

Highway 26 winds across Washington state over undulating hills planted in a dozen strains of wheat. It’s a lonely road, and I met only two other vehicles in seventy miles. We’d had above normal snowfall that winter. The snow had melted, but the hills shimmered with patches of white that seemed, in the darkness, to stretch and contract like spots on a leopard.

I knew the Hanford Reservation—a sprawling complex of nuclear reactors and buildings dedicated to research—and Richland, the nearby city of 80,000. I’d once lived on the edge of the reservation, teaching high school while my husband, Myron, tried to get an engineering job. I hadn’t been back in twenty-eight years. I didn’t know anyone there. I couldn’t really remember what the place looked like. But as soon as I drove into town, cruised down the long straight road past buildings squatting under the streetlights and the Snow Moon, I found myself among scenes from my earlier life, which I had not thought about in a long time.

I arrived at midnight and checked in to the Hampton Inn on the Columbia River, one of America’s great arteries, fed by the Snake, Deschutes, Willamette, and Yakima Rivers before making its way to the Pacific Ocean. The government built its reservation here because of the Columbia. Nuclear reactors, like people, need water.

Outside the hotel, the river flowed wide and placid. The woman at the front desk remarked on the Canada geese, how they had not migrated that winter as usual. “I’ve seen them on the golf course all year,” she said as she handed me the key.

“They sure are noisy,” I said.

In my room, I flung open the window. The air smelled desert-y and dark. I could tell by my giddiness that the river and the very air were bringing me somewhere. I stepped out on the deck looking for the green tail of the comet with my small telescope. But I couldn’t see anything special. Tired, I folded into bed, bathroom light reflecting in the mirror, moon glowing outside. Throughout the night, I slipped in and out of sleep, conscious of the chirps of grebes, plovers, and the Canada geese.

*     *     *

Perhaps it was the geese that drew me back to when Myron and I first arrived in Hanford in 1986 to begin our lives. When we’d entered college in Calgary, he in engineering, me in education, oil companies were handing out signing bonuses to engineering graduates. We assumed we’d end up north of Edmonton or Fort McMurray in the tar sands. But during our senior year, the oil industry plummeted, jobs dried up, and we made our way south to Spokane where my parents lived. We moved into my old bedroom with the soiled white carpet. Myron worked for my parents’ plumbing company. I hit the pavement with my teaching degree, interviewing at schools in Connell, Clarkston, Asotin, and Milton-Freewater, though Myron’s job prospects in these small western towns were grim. When the principle at Hanford High School told me that Richland had more engineers than any city in the state and offered me a position as a drama teacher, I took it.

At Hanford, I started directing plays and teaching Shakespeare. We rented an apartment across from the school. To our west grew a huge field of Russian thistle that threw roots ten feet down and bloomed into prickly green barrels that tumbled across the highway. From a distance, those barrels looked like moon rocks. Beyond the field was the 600-square-mile nuclear reservation where engineers worked. Myron began applying for jobs at Westinghouse, Battelle, Rockwell, and the Department of Energy. Neither of us knew the reservation was a response to a 1939 letter from Einstein to Franklin Roosevelt. Much later, when I started work as a professor at Washington State University in Pullman, I learned from an exhibit in the library that Einstein and fellow physicist Leó Szilárd informed the president in that letter that it was possible to use uranium to set up a nuclear chain reaction and create an unfathomable amount of energy. This process would lead, they said, “to the construction of bombs.”

In my own high school days, I had watched grainy films of nuclear detonations, the Trinity test in New Mexico and the Castle Bravo in the South Pacific. No one who grew up in 1960s American public schools can forget the trembling footage of a black, simmering sea and a sunrise lasting a split second followed by fire, dust, smoke, and then slow-forming rings, like giant halos, appearing above it all. There was something about those perfect rings I never got out of my mind, something more powerful than the mushroom cloud itself because the rings made terror look holy. The footage entered the dreams of thousands, becoming an archetype like the cross or the flood, and even seeped into the imagination of Hollywood, giving birth to Godzilla.

What seemed strange to me now as I tossed in the ample hotel bed, is how Myron and I moved to Hanford that summer of 1986 and I didn’t even think about the footage of the slow-forming rings in the South Pacific. The only way I could account for it was that Hanford and other nuclear towns of the Manhattan Project like Oak Ridge and Los Alamos were secret cities. Employees were forbidden from talking about their work. The bombs they made killed tens and tens of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet during World War II and the Cold War, less than one percent of Hanford’s 50,000 employees knew they were doing nuclear research, much less making bombs. Some thought they were working in a sandpaper factory.

Shortly before dawn, I checked my telescope again. Still no sign of the comet, just a warm glimmer on the river.

*     *     *

The Hampton Inn breakfast lounge had a great glass window facing the Columbia. The deck outside, strewn with aluminum umbrella poles, wicker tables, and plastic chairs—all coated with ice and snow—looked desolate. I wandered out. The hotel guests, separated from me by the glass wall, watched news reports on the TV about possible Russian interference in the United States election, piling their plates with muffins, toast, and waffles, as if Russian meddling were nothing to worry about. On the river, geese swam curlicues, their black necks flecked with patches of white. Ripples traveled in concentric rings toward the edge. The patrons, the birds, me. Three worlds brought together in silence.

I sipped my coffee watching the birds, remembering that I may not have come to Hanford all those years ago if not for my Aunt Barbara. Barbara’s husband Merle had been a high school principal in several dust-blown Eastern Washington towns, and they knew the superintendent at Richland. Unbeknownst to me, they’d called the school district the morning of my interview. When I signed my contract at the district office, the superintendent said, “Your application went straight to the top when I found out who you’re related to.”

Barbara and Merle made quite the pair. The image I carried in my head was him standing under a tree, a portly man with prematurely white hair and a wide, gleaming smile, and her next to him, slight and emotionally remote, arms folded across her chest. I always felt as if I should have known Barbara better, given that she was my mother’s only sister. I was connected to her in one special way at least. I had inherited her feet, petite, arched, and lightly padded, with the middle digit on the left foot just a stub.

Barbara and my mother, ten years apart, looked like twins, with their black eyes and bony shoulders. Their brother, unable to hit a ball because of his glass eye, was too artsy to please their baseball-loving father and too disobedient to satisfy their mother. That left my mother and Barbara to compete for their parents’ affection, or so I understood from the way my mother talked. Barbara was forever ahead in those competitions: she folded socks in a neat twist while my mother’s were lumpy; she had boyfriends while my mother spent her time with her horse; and she played the sleek, sultry clarinet while my mother chose the loud trumpet. Barbara could do no wrong. But miraculously, my mother didn’t resent Barbara. “I looked up to her just like everyone else did,” my mother would say. Throughout my childhood, I saw Barbara as someone born under a lucky star.

Though I was bundled up as I sat on the deck at the Hampton Inn, a chill cut through me. I was remembering more things now, connecting the dots. Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer the same year I started teaching at Hanford—could that be right? I did the math. Yes, it was.

More than two hours may have passed before I gathered my camera, my notebook, and my courage. Under a pale sky and bright sun, I hopped in my car and drove down George Washington Way, the main road through town, toward LIGO, the place that some claimed had made the most important discovery in astronomy since the telescope.

And I somehow thought she would be okay. How could I have not been concerned? My mother was my pulse for how to feel about family crises, and I recall her saying the doctor told Barbara to “watch the lump” to make sure it didn’t get worse. For some reason, we all assumed she would get better. And, in a childish way, I thought of Barbara as too beautiful and beloved to get seriously ill.

I walked back into the breakfast lounge. The other patrons had left, and the hotel staff were busy cleaning up the buffet. Back at my room, I checked the Internet for some credible information about the nuclear bomb, thinking I would jot down a quick timeline before I left for LIGO, but soon I was deep into a puzzle. I figured out that the April before Myron and I moved to Hanford, Chernobyl had melted down. Vaguely, I recalled photos showing steel innards of concrete buildings and piles of rubble, a landscape in outlines. I pulled up some old newspapers, where phrases like “nuclear disaster” and “thousands dead” danced across the screen. I wasn’t aware until that moment just how closely Chernobyl’s failed operations mirrored those at Hanford.

In fact, I realized, Myron and I had arrived at Hanford with our newly minted college degrees, our hopes and dreams, when the first wave of documents exposing the contamination of the 1940s and ‘50s was released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. Also that year whistle-blower Casey Ruud leaked information to the Seattle Times about Hanford’s safety violations. As a result, the largest plutonium production facility for nuclear weapons at Hanford—Reactor N, of similar design to the one at Chernobyl—ceased production.

In the hot tub at our apartment complex, I recalled, we had soaked in the water while talking with our neighbors. “Do you work at Hanford?” I’d said in a chirpy voice, angling for a contact that might turn into a job interview. Men and women five or ten years older than we were narrowed their eyes and said nothing, as if they weren’t vulnerable, as if we all weren’t practically naked. The hot tub jets bubbled. Our words vanished in the damp air. Myron and I had walked into Richland’s forty-year history of refusing to know about the risks, not talking shop, and shunning or expelling those who did talk. The community focus was on how whistle-blower Casey Ruud cost people their jobs, a fact to which we were oblivious.

*     *     *

More than two hours may have passed before I gathered my camera, my notebook, and my courage. Under a pale sky and bright sun, I hopped in my car and drove down George Washington Way, the main road through town, toward LIGO, the place that some claimed had made the most important discovery in astronomy since the telescope. I was overcome with a sense of presentiment thinking about how this strange place where I had once lived was now at the center of describing the universe. I passed the courthouse and glanced over at the hospital, Richland Bell Furniture, and the Red Lion Motel, buildings suddenly familiar.

I sailed by the high school and down the grid-like roads of the reservation, past the barbed wire and thistled tumbleweeds. Even now, long after Hanford had quit producing mass quantities of plutonium, after the government had launched a $110 billion cleanup, I had a sense of entering a forbidden zone, signs warning: “All Persons/Vehicles Are Subject to Search” and “Roadways on the Hanford Site Are Private Roads Owned and Maintained by the Department of Energy for the Department of Energy.” Some fifty years earlier, those signs would have said: “Loose talk—a chain reaction from espionage” and “Protection for all—don’t talk. Silence means security.” The government was worried about information leaks when they should have worried about radiation leaking into the ground, air, and water.

I wanted to focus on LIGO but couldn’t put to rest what I’d just read. The nuclear program at Hanford had left behind fifty-six million gallons of radioactive waste—not just fourteen-foot-long fuel rods and fingernail-sized uranium pellets, but regular things, a pile of computers, a bag of clothes, rags, faucets, plastic gloves, scissors, shoes, hair brushes, a book about the migration habits of geese—which they had buried in tunnels and underground storage units in the 1980s.

I passed the sturdy research buildings of the reservation, like Pacific Northwest Labs and Test America, some made of corrugated aluminum, others poured concrete, and then the desert fanned out before me, flat, treeless, seemingly endless. Now half under snow, with bromegrass poking through, it was hard to imagine the place being the most contaminated nuclear site in America. In some ways, it felt pristine, undeveloped, except for the remains of nine reactors, now shut down, simple cement squares or domes. 

The room was quiet. The sound left me breathless. I was in love with it, the way you’re in love with what can open you up.

I made a couple of wrong turns, the roads not being marked and with no helpful signs to guide me, before I pulled up to six gleaming white buildings set against crusty snow. I had imagined the facility to be a windowless cement structure similar to the mothballed reactors. But no, it was a celestial city. A small sign read: LIGO, Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

The sky was a high chroma blue and the sun at an angle as I pulled into the parking lot. Minutes later I was in a pleasant foyer full of displays. Einstein played a central role. The outline of his face was drawn in stars across a wall, as if he were a constellation. A man came and shooed us away from the exhibit. “The program’s about to start.” He wore square glasses that darkened in the light and a nametag, “Raymond—Research Engineer.” I shook his hand and told him I’d lived here in the ‘80s. He only said, “Go sit down in the theater.” Perhaps he’d heard that too many times.

The theater reminded me of a university lecture hall, dimly lit, staunch, hushed. Raymond, I could see now, was a fragile man with a precise nose and chin. He stood at the front fiddling with a computer. He didn’t seem to know how to operate his PowerPoint show. I wondered how those skills translated to his operation of LIGO, which he told us was the world’s most sensitive instrument. “In 1907, Einstein had what he described as his happiest thought, that gravity disappears when you free fall,” Raymond said in a soft voice. He told us we had all experienced that on a roller coaster. “What happens in free fall,” he continued, “is we’re going as straight as possible through empty space, yet we’re on a curved path, the curvature of space and time.”

The metaphor worked for me, sitting there imagining the thrill and terror of free fall, the way we all migrate through the universe. “And Einstein,” Raymond said with a crooked smile, “came up with the idea of relativity by thinking about things like that.” Raymond didn’t mention the irony that Einstein would not have been permitted at Hanford during the war because the US Army denied the famous scientist a clearance to work on the Manhattan Project, or that after the war, Einstein regretted writing to Roosevelt. He told friend Max von Laue he did so only because he was afraid Hitler would make the bomb first. If not for that, he said, “I would not have participated in opening this Pandora’s box. For my distrust of government was not limited to Germany.”

Einstein had predicted gravitational waves in a 1916 paper, Raymond told us. “No one, until now, knew if those waves existed”—and here his voice rose in excitement—“but LIGO sensed them by measuring distances in two different locations!” Besides Hanford, the government had built an identical LIGO in Louisiana. The two LIGOs had detected two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. The black holes had spiraled around one another, then collided, then merged. The event was so catastrophic it actually bent space and time, sending a ripple like a rock dropped in water.

The beauty of the idea overwhelmed me. That the black holes had been so massive in the first place, that they circled one another like lovers—not even Romeo and Juliet at the Capulet ball could have been so powerfully attracted—that they wrinkled the very universe, flowing backward in human time, and now the faintest swell could be heard on Earth at Hanford—it seemed mythic.

“One day LIGO may even hear the Big Bang itself,” Raymond said. He clicked the computer off and on and then nothing happened. He got on his phone and called another engineer who came and pressed buttons and checked wires. After ten minutes, the theater shook with rumbling sounds, the kind of aggressive noise of World War II bombers. Then another vibration abruptly took over, strange and comic, and carved out a soft space in me. A whooop. People smiled. These instruments had recorded the waves on a graph and translated them into sound. Raymond replayed it. Whooop. “It’s a chirp,” he said. “The cosmos is talking to us at Hanford.”

The room was quiet. The sound left me breathless. I was in love with it, the way you’re in love with what can open you up. But underneath the love was another, darker, feeling. The machinery of death and murder at Hanford had been retooled to hear the universe.

*     *     *

In 1955, Barbara finished college and started her teaching career in Washtucna, an ordinary small town on Highway 26 with one gas pump, one store, and a main street. I had just passed it on my drive the night before. But that same year, something extraordinary was happening at Hanford. Swallows were building nests out of radioactive mud. It soon became apparent to the few people paying attention that everything around Hanford was “hot.” Hot rabbits, mice, ducks, and coyotes. Hot salmon and trout. Hot mulberry bushes, sagebrush, and Russian thistle. Hot garbage—apple cores and banana peels. Even geese were hot. But the worst were ants, mosquitoes, flies, gnats, wasps, and worms. Radioactivity concentrated in the tissues of invertebrates at vastly higher levels than what had originally discharged into the environment. Miniature Godzillas. Miniature bombs, slowly detonating.

Barbara married Merle a few years after she started in Washtucna, and over the years, the two of them moved to one little Washington town after the other, including Washtucna a second time. All of those places were downwind from Hanford, and of course the 237 different radionuclides leaked into the ground, air, and water on the reservation eventually affected people as much as they did banana peels, ants, and geese. Over two million individuals, who were later saddled with the grim moniker “downwinders,” got sick with lung diseases and cancers of the liver, thyroid, lungs, pancreas, and breast.

Halfway through my second year of teaching at Hanford, I got pregnant. That year, Barbara’s breast lump grew worse. She went back to the doctor and told him it hurt. She was tired of watching it. My mother and I visited her in the hospital in Spokane after her mastectomy. When we came in, me with my newborn daughter in my arms, an orderly was leading Barbara around the ward, bathed in broken light from the slatted blinds. She seemed strong, more radiant than I had ever seen her, dark hair curled at her temples. Suddenly I remembered her spaghetti sauce made from tomatoes and basil grown in her garden when our family would come for dinner, how rich and earthy it tasted, or how when she held her grandchildren on her lap they wiggled and her body moved like a curve of music.

“You look wonderful,” my mother said, offering her arm to Barbara. The two talked the way close sisters do, heads bent toward one another. When we went to leave, Barbara opened her arms to hug me. Our bodies came together, my daughter wedged between, the three of us one braided strand, and I felt very close to her.

“She’s walking,” my mother whispered as we boarded the hospital elevator. “They always want you up walking after surgery. It means you’re getting better.”

*     *     *

Raymond led us outside. LIGO, the actual instrument, was two long detectors made of steel vacuum tubes and set at right angles. We crunched over the snow, walking in the footsteps of people who had done the tour before us. Feathery contrails shot across the sky like shadows. From the outside LIGO appeared like an ordinary engineering site. Water tanks. Pipes. A tractor. A place in flux.

The tubes stretched into the horizon two and a half miles. We couldn’t see inside the tubes—they were sheathed in heavy concrete—we had to take it on faith. “We’re sending lasers down these long vacuum tubes, and if LIGO hears something, the distance changes by something that’s one-hundred million billion times smaller than the thickness of a human hair,” Raymond said.

“That’s one way to say really small,” I said, and a man who looked to be in his thirties smiled. Raymond did not smile. The man and I took photos of one another in front of the tubes, him in a new Carhartt jacket with his hands snuggled into the pockets and me in my neon yellow ski parka. We continued chatting as Raymond led us back inside. His name was Victor, I learned, and he had immigrated from Mexico a few years earlier to work “on the cleanup” at the Hanford Vit Plant. It was hazardous work. The radioactive waste that had been buried in the 1980s had leaked, he told me, and now he and others were digging it up and turning it into glass and reburying it, a process called vitrification. We walked through the LIGO office buildings, which seemed too ordinary to be listening for the Big Bang. A watercooler, a fern, a carton of disinfectant wipes, makeshift cubicles, pink Post-Its on computers, photos of people smiling with their children. I asked Victor if he was putting himself in danger by working on the cleanup. He shook his head “no” but his smile lifted into a slight smirk. “We wear suits and masks,” he said. “Don’t worry.” I nodded, and because his eyes were so kind, I half believed him.

*     *     *

My mother was with Barbara for her last meal in the hospital. “It was heartbreaking,” my mother said. Even after the mastectomy, the cancer spread to her liver and bones. “They brought her a tray of food. There was soup, some fruit. A salad. And do you know what she said? ‘I’m trying to eat healthy.’ It makes me so sad to think about it now. She was eating healthy, but her health was gone.”

I would have gone to see her then, but a few months after our daughter was born, Myron and I left Hanford. Every manager Myron met with during his job search turned him away saying he was a Canadian and couldn’t get a security clearance. Casey Ruud, the whistleblower, left shortly thereafter. He started a construction business, and then a brewery in another corner of Washington away from the controversy and the contamination.

*     *     *

As different as they were, Hanford and LIGO had some things in common. The power of the nuclear bomb was the closest thing to the two black holes colliding that humans could devise. Violent events bent space and time, sending out ripples long afterward. Violent events in human history sent ripples out long afterward, as well. Sites across Hanford continue to exhibit newly found contamination, even to this day, Victor had told me. Radioactive plumes inched closer to the Columbia River. Wildlife was still radioactive. “The environment will never be the same,” he said. It struck me how I couldn’t see the contamination with my naked eye. I had to see it through scientific measurements and newspaper reports. That day at LIGO required imagination too. All we could see were steel tubes covered in cement. The waves were invisible.

But a person could see the effects of Barbara’s disease when Merle brought her home to die. She lifted her shirt for my mother. “And the cancer had eaten through her body,” my mother told me. “There were round, open sores up and down her torso.” Rings spreading outward, I thought, devouring her skin. Signs of cancer’s migration through a body.

I love the transitional moment of being in a place and leaving it. It’s a moment of having no home but the now, a small opening before the finality of having left. The middle-aged couple who had been sitting next to me in the theater, the mother and daughter a few rows down, Victor, and Raymond, we had driven from wherever we were to the Hanford Reservation to lose ourselves in the whispers of the universe, and now we were dispersing. We got back in our cars and left the dream of LIGO.

I stopped for a double espresso in Richland, then headed back across the state on Highway 26. I was settling accounts with myself. The tender and tough part of a woman—breast tissue—connected Barbara and me in strange ways, yet I had always been afraid to think about it, afraid of statistics and risk factors, of what else I might have inherited from her besides a left foot and a love of teaching. I was even afraid to talk to my mother about her sister’s death, and maybe, unconsciously, to think about what we all had inherited with the nuclear bomb. Instead, I had lived in denial, not letting myself free fall into memory.

The sun had already set as I drove past Washtucna, but the Snow Moon was keeping the darkness awake.

 

DJ Lee is Regents Professor of English at Washington State University. She has published over twenty nonfiction essays in the Los Angeles Review of BooksNarrativeVelaTerrain, and Superstition Review, as well as other journals and anthologies. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Grant and a Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, she has written or edited seven books on environmental history, oral history, British poetry, and travel literature.

 

Leaving Cleveland

It was June 24, 1994. A Friday. And it was my last day in Cleveland. I was surrounded by stacks of boxes piled high in makeshift towers. I’d spent the last week shredding papers, dusting, and mopping. Toiling and cleaning was in my blood, gifted to me by my Caribbean ancestors. I was holding a stack of playbills, trying to decide which ones to toss, when I heard a knock at my front door.

“Who is it?”

“Cherie. Inspection time.”

As part of the move out procedure, my landlord had requested that my apartment be inspected. The only thing standing between me and my $900 security deposit was Cherie.

Toiling and cleaning was in my blood, gifted to me by my Caribbean ancestors.

Cherie’s the super; a light-skinned black woman who missed the lesson on the “nod,” rarely, if ever acknowledging my presence. I opened the door and Cherie, nose upturned, remained true to form. Without glancing at me, she made a beeline to the alcove that held my kitchen. The year before, as I struggled to pay my student loans, I had traded down from a spacious two bedroom. I missed my old galley kitchen with the large oven and tons of counter space. There I had turned to baking as a respite from the stress of my medical training.

Cherie opened the refrigerator. Empty. She pulled a few cabinet doors open. Empty. Then with her index finger she scrawled a “C” on the stovetop.

Bingo.

Cherie held her finger up to my face, so close I was able to make out a whorl pattern formed in droplets of cooking grease.

“Stove is not clean.”

Her words tumbled out like a verse from a song, one she clearly enjoyed singing. I held my tongue but I wondered, How many drops of white blood someone had to possess to put a fingerprint of cooking grease in a black woman’s face?

*     *     *

In the afternoon, I went to University Hospital for my exit interview with Dr. Craig. I’d endured three years of residency training and during that time Craig had ascended from awkward, gangly attending physician to Chairman of the Ophthalmology department. My eyes scanned his family photos on the credenza behind him as I sat down in a chair in front of his mahogany desk. There was one of him in black tie holding his cello. Every year he played in a concert held at the annual academy meeting. He bragged about paying for a first-class ticket for his cello.

I want to fall in love and have my man hold me like that. Like a beloved cello.

With his gold wire rimmed glasses perched on the tip of his nose, Craig flipped through my file. I wondered if there are photos of me in the file. “Before” residency and “after” residency.  My “before” face would be narrow but smiling, full of promise. My “after” face—fuller, a soft veneer of sadness peeking through.

What was left of Craig’s hair is dyed shoe-polish black, deftly parted above his right ear and flipped to the left side of his head.

Why doesn’t he shave it off like the brothers do?

He reminded me in size, shape, and demeanor of Big Bird. Dr. Big Bird. I suppressed a snort.

What muppet am I? What muppet is there that is a black girl from Brooklyn, the first American born daughter of Caribbean parents, now a doctor, on her last day of residency, being judged by Big Bird.

The fingering of paper stopped and Craig cleared his throat.

“Umm…. I’m worried about you… umm…passing your boards.”

His words fluttered past me, a winged butterfly of insults. All the things I had worried about flickered on a screen in my mind. I felt as if I was looking through my favorite childhood toy, a Viewmaster, as images of my life in Cleveland clicked by.

Does Craig see these things?

This program had existed for over a hundred years but I was the first black woman admitted for training.

I endured three winters in Ohio with a no-wheel drive econobox.

I was terrified of driving in snow.

Does he see me skidding on black ice?

*     *     *

Dr. Craig had a favorite nurse, Jane. Jane was a horse of a woman, six feet tall with sturdy arms and legs. She was prone to turning red in the face and crying when he lashed out at her, which was often.

“Wrong—I want balanced salt solution.”

“Raise the infusion bottle. No, lower it.”

“Where’s my diamond knife?”

He issued directives the way my dad cursed, one right after the other, pummeling the recipient and not waiting for a response

*     *     *

When I first arrived in Cleveland I’d kept up on weekly manicures. Getting my nails done reminded me of New York. Glamorous and cheap. Until one day during my first year of training, Jane pulled me aside at the scrub sink. She tapped the tip of my index finger.

“He says you need to cut your nails.”

My nails.

I had kept them squared and fairly short. No polish, no decals, no stick-on bling. I did not cheat like the OR nurses who wore clear polish or French manicures. I didn’t dare do like Marie, another resident, a white girl with a bouffant hairdo from the 1950s, who professed to love Jesus but barely spoke to me. Marie had nails so long I feared she’d use one to pluck out an eye. I imagined the case written up in a medical journal, “Enucleation By Fingernail.” Had he sent Jane to talk to Marie?

The following week, Jane stood over me as I peeled open the povidone iodine scrub package. She watched as I used the green spoke tipped plastic applicator to remove what little dirt was beneath the stubs that used to be my nails. She gave me a slight nod.

*     *     *

I met a man in my first year in Cleveland. He was a dentist in Shaker Heights with skin the color of caramel toffee. He was a tall glass of water at six feet and four inches. He prayed to Allah, didn’t eat pork, and told big tall tales. All these things and his talk about being in Special Forces and plans to become an oral maxillofacial surgeon made the white boys I worked with crazy. He lied and he cheated. Yet I loved him. 

In America, people are people. In America, if you work hard you can make it. In America, everyone is valued, respected and worthy. I did not want to ruin America for them.

In my third year he gave me the biggest diamond I’d ever seen. I decided to get the ring appraised.

I had to get it insured. Right?

When the jeweler called me, I was in the clinic between patients, on a phone behind the desk where Sue Ellen, the unit clerk sat. Months before I’d caught Sue Ellen removing patients from my schedule—patients who didn’t want a black doctor. When I confronted her, Sue Ellen rendered an explanation, without any trace of regret or emotion.

“Well Mrs. Bubba is from Virginia.”

Her tone was filled with the exasperation of a mother trying to explain some existential fact to a young child.

I went to my chief resident and complained about Sue Ellen. He looked down at his feet. The shoe stare. The shoe stare was what the white boys I worked with did when I caught them in their shit. He knew.

I went to my hospital chief, Dr. Rappaport. On the outside, Rappaport was quite a beautiful man, tall and dapper. He was always tanned, his salt and pepper hair with every strand in place, gelled and coiffed to perfection. His clothing was never rumpled and he always wore cufflinks and shiny polished shoes. He had a mouth full of straight, white teeth, which was unusual in Ohio. I imagined that although he knew how to use a hammer, he wouldn’t risk chipping his fingernails. With a fake grin, he tipped back slightly in his chair as he twirled his pen and then proffered a peace offering.

“Oh, Sue Ellen is a diamond in the rough.”

A Diamond.

I made sure not to raise my voice, or gesture wildly. I tried to not be the angry black woman we both knew I was.

“My tax dollars pay for Mrs. Bubba’s Medicaid. If she wants a white doctor, she needs to pay for that with her private funds and not taxpayer dollars.”

He looked down at his shiny black shoes. His smile shriveled up; his face resembled a dried-up prune.

I was staring at Sue Ellen’s round back, her overly teased brown hair, when I heard the jeweler say, “I’m sorry. This is fake. It’s a cubic zirconia.”

My diamond engagement ring is fake, but Sue Ellen is real.

*     *     *

I broke up with the dentist. He threatened me, promised to ram his BMW into oncoming traffic. I remembered his guns; hundreds of bullets scattered in the trunk of his car like rice pellets.

Does Craig realize I’d spent the last few months fighting for my life?

*     *     *

Does Craig know about the doctor who vigorously rubbed his leg against mine during a surgical case, while I looked for veins, arteries, muscles—all pink and sinewy—just like in my atlas?

I turned to Dr. Leg Rub and asked, “Have you been touching me under the operating table for the last five minutes?” In that moment I had felt brave. Dr. Leg Rub was braver.

“Yes. I have.” he replied.

Does he know about Dr. Pepper Pike, widely published, who drove a red Porsche? Every Monday I assisted him. He’d lean over and through his sky blue surgical mask ask, “Can we make zebra babies?”

The night before our graduation dinner he said, “My wife’s coming.”  Code for don’t tell. I want to tell him to kiss my black ass. But I don’t say anything.

I was alone at that dinner. The dentist was gone and my family in Brooklyn does not have the time, money, or inclination for such events. I was glad they did not come. It would have been hard to explain all that I had endured in Cleveland. In America, people are people. In America, if you work hard you can make it. In America, everyone is valued, respected and worthy. I did not want to ruin America for them.

*     *     *

I heard my heart pounding. I heard a voice. It was mine.

“Dr. Craig, how does it affect you if I don’t pass the boards? Do you have to take them for me again?”

Big Bird turned beet red. Then he looked down at his shoes. I got up and extended my hand.

“Goodbye Dr. Craig.”

His hand felt clammy and weak and I didn’t hear his reply. I’d moved on to thinking about moving later and what I had to do to get my security deposit back. One thing I knew for sure; I was not cleaning that stove again.

 

Ann Arthur-Andrew is a New York City based mother, wife, physician, travel/leisure blogger, and emerging writer. Raised in Brooklyn by Grenadian parents, Ann uses her heritage as a first generation American, to explore issues of family, legacy, belonging, voice, and black womanhood. Ann holds a BA in political science from Brown University and an MD from the Yale University School of Medicine. When not practicing medicine or attending a PTA Meeting, Ann enjoys the piano, reading, cuddling with her dog, or watching movies with her husband and children. Ann can be found online at annarthurandrew.com.

Photo Credit: Rashida De Vore

 

 

Encounters with Snakes

1981

When I am born in Taos, New Mexico, following my parents’ raucous 1970s commune living, my mom and dad agree they will not raise me with any religion. This means I will not learn the story of the Garden of Eden and the snake that goads Eve to eat the apple until much, much later. There is a conspicuous absence of snakes for the first few years of my life.

1986

Our driveway is the last stop for the Peñasco public school bus. In kindergarten I walk the mile-long dirt road to my house, accompanied by my cat Wailin’. Three hundred feet from the house I see a dead garter snake in the road. It is little and yellow-brown and very flat. I pee my pants.

1988

My dad decides to scare the Jehovah’s Witnesses off by opening the door naked. It works; they never come back. He also reads Native American stories and Greek mythology to me and my sister. I am fascinated by the illustrations of Medusa. She doesn’t scare me. Even if she were real, I decide, the snakes wouldn’t really grow back if they were chopped off.

1991

We live in El Petén—the jungles of Guatemala. I almost step on a boa constrictor—ten feet long and eight inches wide. “Culebra!” I scream to Orlando. He arrives quickly and hacks the boa in half with a machete. Both ends start twisting and curling and one end wraps itself around a dog’s neck, coiling tighter and tighter. Orlando hacks it off.

1996

My cousin Jessie introduces me to Ani Difranco’s music. I sing incessantly and memorize words to songs I don’t understand. One of my favorite lines is: “I happen to like apples and I am not afraid of snakes.” Ani is fierce and fearless, and at fifteen I aspire to such bad-assery.

1999

At my high school in India the biology students go into the hills to collect poisonous snakes and later pass a jar around at assembly. A bright red snake is coiled inside, floating in formaldehyde. It’s newly dead and as the jar sloshes the snake moves as if still alive. Are its eyes gleaming or is it just refracted light on the glass? When it’s my turn to hold the jar, I pass.

2001

In her book As Eve Said to the Serpent, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Imagine Eve as one of the few scientists to discuss the long-term consequences of her acts before she began her apple-eating experiment. Imagine what she and the snake might have had to say to each other about becoming symbols and scapegoats, about how they would be represented and misrepresented.”

2003

The snake pictographs on the cliffs in Gallinas Canyon are faint and hard to see. Apaches used to live here where the Great Plains meet the Rockies, and to them skin-shedding snakes provided evidence of death and rebirth, regeneration.

2005

I am introduced to Gloria Anzaldúa. We read “Entering Into the Serpent” in class. She writes, “Snakes, víboras: since that day I’ve sought and shunned them. Always when they cross my path, fear and elation flood my body. I know things older than Freud, older than gender. She—that’s how I think of la Víbora, Snake Woman. Like the ancient Olmecs, I know the earth is a coiled Serpent. Forty years it’s taken me to enter into the Serpent, to acknowledge that I have a body, that I am a body and to assimilate the animal body, the animal soul.”

I want to feel the elation she feels.

2006

I take my two-year-old daughter to the children’s museum where she likes to pet the corn snake. I watch from a distance, stroking my pregnant belly.

2007

Somehow I have never seen a rattlesnake in all my years in New Mexico. But my brother-in-law encounters them every day as he weeds his garden in La Liendre. His farmhouse faces an old ghost town. I shiver. Who would live in such a snake-infested place?

2008

Some people go through amicable divorces, I hear. Mine was anything but. I meet with lawyers in town who seem more interested in hitting on me than representing me. A friend tells me a joke: “What’s the difference between a lawyer in the road and a snake in the road?” I wait for the punch-line: “The skid-marks in front of the snake.”

2011

Riding with my first girlfriend in her red pick-up truck in Golandrinas, we see a massive brown and yellow snake on the dirt road ahead of us. She identifies it as a bull snake, not a rattler, and she uses a stick to nudge it into the ditch and away from danger.

2013

In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta I visit a python farm that uses python dung to generate electricity through a biogas system. When the snakes get big enough they are sold as a delicacy for a good price. The building is lined with huge cages made of wood and thick, meshed wire. One or two snakes occupy each cage. Each snake grows to about 20 feet long before it is sold. They appear to be a foot in diameter in some places. I watch as a man uses metal tongs to force-feed one python a dead rat. The snakes mostly sleep in an overstuffed stupor, but sometimes, I am told, a snake escapes.

2014

A woman I have been talking to online agrees to meet me in person on the banks of the Clark Fork. We sit near the water, our silences full to spilling over. A garter snake, pencil-width, is looped around the speared tips of the tall grass, staring at us. We stare back. The suspense between us shimmers in the summer heat until it becomes too bright to bear. Time elongates like the shadows. When we stand up to brush the dirt from our clothes, the snake has vanished.

2016

I peer at the mass of brown writhing in the grass along the banks of the East Fork of the Wallowa River. A den of snakes. I am reminded of the time, a few months ago, when one of my sixth grade poetry students stomped on a spider. When her classmate asked what it had done to her, she shrieked in response, “But it’s scary!” I want to tell her now that maybe Genesis is like the poetry we’re writing—there’s so much meaning in what is not said. I want to point out that Eve chose knowledge in the end, not fear.

In the fall, I teach Genesis to college students. Despite my attempts to point out that the Serpent is not named as the Devil in the text and that the Old Testament was written before the conceptions of Heaven and Hell were in place, the Devil enters my students’ essays as a serpent. I teach them Gloria Anzaldúa, then. Their essays whisper devil, devil, devil. I ask them to point to the devil in the texts. They cannot.

2017

I read the news every day and think of serpents. I imagine myself a rattlesnake, rattling my tail like a yucca pod. I imagine a million Medusas marching along Pennsylvania Avenue, my head wound with snakes writhing, snakes seething, snakes shedding old skin.

 

Emily Withnall is a freelance writer and editor and teaches poetry to young people. She holds an MS in environmental writing from the University of Montana, and her essays and poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, High Country News, Ms. Magazine, and The Fourth River, among other publications. Emily is currently at work on a book about domestic violence and hydraulic fracturing. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two kids.

Photo Credit: Nick Triolo

Losing Faith

My daughter’s hand was gone. It took me only moments to slide coins across a counter on Santa Cruz’s boardwalk. When I dropped my hand back, hers was missing. In my left hand, I found the familiar grip of her five-year-old brother, Austin. As I used my chin to snap my wallet, I groped around to my right, searching for three-year-old Faith’s plump, soft fingers, certain they were seeking mine through the crush of people near the ice cream stand. I felt bony arms and sticky chins, but my hand came back empty. I pressed my back against the crowd to open the space where Faith had been standing. Gone.

A mile a minute: the speed at which an abducted child can be distanced from her place of origin. This statistic raced through my head as I shoved aside strollers and teenagers and beer bellies, frantic to find my daughter’s face.

“Faith!” I called out once, maybe twice, in a voice too weak to be my own. A tiny voice afraid of letting strangers know that I had lost my child.

I held tight to Austin’s wrist. He sobbed at my side.

“I’m going to miss her so much,” he cried.

*     *     *

I never wanted to be a mom. My friends feared the loss of their figures, freedom, or finances. But I feared failure as a mom.

“From the minute your child takes their first breath,” a mother once told me, “your life is no longer your own.”

As I used my chin to snap my wallet, I groped around to my right, searching for three-year-old Faith’s plump, soft fingers, certain they were seeking mine through the crush of people near the ice cream stand.

She said this the same way other moms did, not as a warning, but more as a source of pride for surviving the challenge. As if motherhood was a badge you earn when you’re thrown into the middle of a lake and manage to swim to shore. This was not a badge I wanted. As I listened to their tales of motherhood survival, I felt certain I would drown.

I never hid this from my then-fiancé, and I reiterated as our wedding drew near.

“I’m fine without kids,” Tom told me, eyes avoiding mine.

*     *     *

“Lady! Lady!” the carnie barked at me with an urgency that could only mean he found the child no one knew I lost. When I spun to face him, he offered only a consolation prize.

“Win this for your little boy.” He shook a green and black tiger plushie at me. “He’ll stop crying.”

Five minutes. Five miles.

*     *     *

My husband was the middle child in a brood of nine, a young helper with nighttime bottle feedings and morning diaper changes. Still, I was surprised in my thirties when he brought up children. I had checked off items on my youthful bucket list—trekked through New Zealand, promoted to management, bought a house—when he asked, “Then how about kids?”

He knew my list of reasons.

“Children are too unpredictable.”

He knew to listen when I recited them.

“There’s no guarantee they’ll be healthy.”

He even knew to agree with me.

“Parenthood is irreversible.”

But he also knew the story I told at neighborhood barbeques, about a clutch of his old girlfriends cornering me at his brother’s wedding. Our neighbors laughed as I feigned the role of victim in the story, acting as if these women had me pinned against a wall.

“You know Tom has always wanted kids, right?”

“Yeah, sure. I know.” I had no intention of letting his former girlfriends think they knew my husband better than I did. Their faces blurred together as doubt clouded the image I had of Tom and I as a happy twosome.

*     *     *

Tom knew I knew. And now he was asking.

I surveyed parent friends. Marriage had been a smoother transition than friends had warned, perhaps motherhood would be, too. I was surprised that the thought of being a mom no longer entirely panicked me. I poured the same energy into learning about childhood vaccinations and mommy meditation as I had for other decisions I deemed of equal importance: moving solo across the country, working my way through college, accepting a high-stress job offer. When fear swelled in my chest, I reminded myself of those successes. Convinced of my abilities and encouraged by Tom’s baby-tending experience, I decided I wouldn’t drown.

*     *     *

Eight minutes—eight miles—had passed since I lost Faith. A mustached man with red-veined eyes pressed too close against me as he passed, the oily scent of fries mingling with his Budweiser breath. Children screamed out to me above the clanging metal of rides that jerked them left and right, back and forth. I was light-headed and sick, on my own private ride, jostled by sweat-slicked adults, their children safe at their sides. The boardwalk’s mob of strangers, most disguised as parents, crisscrossed in front of me, north and south, east and west, all potential predators. I struggled to breathe as I looked over the sea of heads. The erratic flow spilled onto the beach on one side and down to the busy city street on the other. My heart pounded in my ears.

Minutes and miles ticked away. Austin continued to sob.

*     *     *

Our son came into the world tawny, towheaded, and calm—already possessing traits of the lifeguard he would become. When we eased him into his crib his first night at home, he fell fast asleep, seamlessly transitioning into our lives. Buoyed by the ease with which he joined us, Tom and I decided to have a second child. Surely our next baby would be just as easy.

 

I had them fooled, my family and friends. No one knew how I fretted and floundered. Just as I had feared, there were so many opportunities—from food to discipline to boardwalks—to fail my children.

We chose the name Faith as a testament to Tom’s confidence that I would master this full immersion into motherhood.

“Have faith,” he told me. A year later I did.

Our baby girl arrived screaming and hairy all over. Faith was what my dad called a handful, her months of colicky crying a sharp contrast to Austin’s contented calm. I wore smooth the hardwood floor in her nursery as I tried to soothe both her and me. Too new to motherhood, I didn’t know that Faith’s colic would pass; instead it reinforced my fears of life with children. Our first baby was an easy float on the lake. With my new inconsolable baby, I was losing sight of the shore.

*     *     *

The reverberation of the rollercoaster rattled the boardwalk beneath our feet. Ten minutes—ten miles—had passed since Faith’s hand slipped from mine. I pulled Austin along, retracing our steps back to the ice cream stand, wanting to convince myself I could turn back the clock, erase my error. I tried to focus at a three-year old’s level. Cotton-candied hands, plushie prizes, and tails of tickets passed by in a blur. When our backtracking resulted in only the passage of precious minutes, my chest squeezed tighter. A high-pitched cry of “Mommy!” whirled me around. Three feet away I saw a pig-tailed kernel of a girl with her arms outstretched towards a beleaguered, but competent, mom.

Twelve minutes. Twelve miles.

*     *     *

On one of our kids’ first trips to the beach, I kept Faith corralled as she scurried about in the sand while Tom dipped Austin’s toes in the water at the ocean’s edge. They hit like people say they do, those rogue waves. I heard the crash behind me and turned to see Tom chasing after Austin into the surf. Austin disappeared into a wave as fast and easily as Faith disappeared into the crowd on the boardwalk. But Tom’s reaction was quick and spot-on. He lunged over the next wave and plunged his arm into the sea. When he lifted it, he held a handful of Austin’s white hair, Austin gasping. Another wave tumbled them out of the water and onto the sand. Tom sputtering, Austin wailing.

*     *     *

Austin slowed my search, stumbling along beside me. I scanned the crowd for an information booth, a person of authority, but found none. I pushed through the back door of the ice cream stand, startling the two teenagers inside.

“Please, please watch my son.” My voice shook. “I’ve lost my daughter and have to find her.”

“We can’t do that ma’am.”

“Is there someone I can call? Is there a security person, a phone number, anything?”

They answered with shrugs.

Even if they had answers, I couldn’t describe my daughter’s appearance with any clarity. I squeezed my eyes shut but my jumbled brain couldn’t recall the clothes she wore, the length of her hair, or even the color of her eyes. I was failing as a mom. With the teenagers’ attention turned back to customers, I planted Austin inside the doorway of their booth—their protests be damned—and took a step toward the boardwalk crowd. Austin stumbled a step or two as he tried to follow me.

“Don’t you move!” I shook a finger at him. “You stay there!”

He backed up into the doorway, sobbing and rocking. He was not my adventurer. I pressed back into the crowd.

*     *     *

Faith was barely three when she developed a penchant for talking. At the library, the pool, the grocery store, her round face bubbled up to anyone who would listen.

My mom warned me about this. “You have to stop her. Faith should feel frightened by strangers.”

I had a tough time teaching fear. Faith had no problem ignoring it.

During our group walks home from Austin’s kindergarten, Faith often led the conversations, walking backwards, sideways, whichever way ensured that everyone could hear her. One day, as she animated a story, she stepped off the curb right into the path of an oncoming school bus. I grabbed for her but caught only air. My core went cold. A quick-acting crossing guard plucked her from the street.

*     *     *

Fifteen minutes. Fifteen miles.

At the boardwalk, thoughts of these near misses—the beach, the bus, and others—slowed my steps. I dug my fingernails into my palms as I tried to coax these memories into calming me. These near-misses turned out fine. Instead my breathing shallowed. What if we had used up our mistakes? What if this one was fatal? I had neither Tom nor that crossing guard there to rescue my child.

I pictured Austin alone at the ice-cream stand and pushed through the crowd to get back to him. One of the teenagers stood beside Austin, not comforting him, but keeping a watchful eye. When Austin saw me, he bolted from the booth and wrapped himself around my legs. The relief I felt dissolved as I pictured his life without his sister.

*     *     *

I had them fooled, my family and friends. No one knew how I fretted and floundered. Just as I had feared, there were so many opportunities—from food to discipline to boardwalks—to fail my children. And there was more. I hadn’t foreseen how my own resilience would be tested and retested as I saw my children fall and recover and fall again. Cradling my shivering baby in an emergency room made me stronger and more vulnerable; pausing to watch snails crawl with Austin made me more relaxed and more alert; hearing Faith sing made me full-hearted and soul-stretched. The soft pastel intensity of my life with children melded together fear and fulfillment in such a way that I had to remind myself to breathe. Motherhood shaped me into a person that I could not have come to be by any other means. And I liked that person, however flawed.

*     *     *

Twenty minutes after I lost Faith on the boardwalk, my teary-eyed daughter was returned to me. She had crossed the busy street alone to look for our car, following instructions I had given on a different outing. Kind strangers found my three-year-old wandering two city-blocks away. Once Faith told them what happened, they brought her back to the boardwalk.

When I spotted her threading towards me through the crowd, I took my first full breath. I sank to my knees and scooped her into the circle of Austin and me. There, on the sun-soaked boardwalk, the three of us clung to each other, rocking and crying and laughing as the rollercoaster roared on by.

 

MJ Lemire is a Northern California writer whose work has appeared in Literary Mama, Cosumnes River Journal and elsewhere. She’s been a regular columnist for UC Davis’ In the Know and fiction editor of American River Review. Currently working on a collection of essays, MJ divides her time between her writing, her family, and teaching local first graders how to read.

Photo credit: Faith Lemire-Baeten.

 

You Memorize The Way Your Hand Lets Go

Aesculus glabra: My father, a tall, fat-fingered guy with a stomach that fell over his belt buckle who used to hold my entire hand in his palm, rubbed his thumb against the smooth side of his index finger. He had been sitting in the beige recliner with his eyes glued to the television set. In the living room—a labyrinth he’d built with his own hands—a picture of the final moments of the 2016 World Series was enclosed by a multitude of signed baseballs and glowing amber lights. In the tenth inning of game seven, the Cleveland Indians sent Michael Martinez—Michael Martinez, the fucking bum position player who rode the bench all year—to the plate to be the last man standing between the game staying alive and the Chicago Cubs winning their first championship in over one hundred years.

The Cavaliers were winning when the final buzzer rang and my father cried into the night, still squeezing my hand—curling his fingers around my knuckle like it was the rough edge of our lucky buckeye.

He’d left our family’s “lucky buckeye” in the cabinet above the television set. I don’t remember much of the next few moments, but the sound of skin scraping against his curled fingers was louder than the ball popping off Martinez’s bat. It was a ground ball to third base on an 0-1 count—another heartbreak added to the scrapbook. Dad rose from his chair and picked up a wine bottle—Chief Wahoo adorning the front—and placed it on the top shelf of the television stand, just behind a row of signed baseballs from the eighties. He bought the bottle for him and Mom to drink after the Indians won the ninety-seven World Series. But they didn’t win then and they didn’t win now. They blew a game seven lead—twice. “There’s always next year,” a war cry submerged in a bottle of piss warm vinegar that was once a delectable red wine—one that flowed like a waterfall, or a perfect jump shot.

Wine And Gold, Forever: His fingers meandered through the top shelf, looking for the buckeye. The Cleveland Cavaliers were up by one point against the Golden State Warriors in game seven of the 2016 NBA Championship. When Dad couldn’t place the buckeye, he sat back down in his recliner and grabbed my hand—my entire fist could still fit in his palm. The screen flashed against our faces and we couldn’t look away. The city of Cleveland hadn’t won a professional sports championship since 1964—when my father was just a year old. LeBron James—a kid from Akron, the King, the proclaimed “greatest of all time,” our city’s savior—chased down a California body, maybe it was Andre Iguodala but I can’t remember, and blocked a shot that would’ve given Golden State the lead. Dad sank out of the chair and put one knee on the carpet. He gripped my fingers in the same way he held onto those of his mother just hours before the game started. On a ventilator at the hospital, the machines in her room made sounds that clanked and howled like a roaring crowd.
The Cavaliers were winning when the final buzzer rang and my father cried into the night, still squeezing my hand—curling his fingers around my knuckle like it was the rough edge of our lucky buckeye.

Metamorphosis: In the seventies, Dad wandered around in the summertime from morning to dark, but mostly lingered near the neighborhood boys and played basketball on the slab of blacktop by the Hoover house. He had skinny legs shaped like upside down champagne bottles and drank from them with grace when outrunning everyone else on the court. In an account of my father’s jump shot, the local word of mouth claimed it was the sweetest in all of Trumbull County. “Money,” he’d say to me thirty years later when he’d drain a jumper during a game of “h-o-r-s-e.” Dad would stand on the railroad tie by the garage and send one of his crisp shots through the net and hold his hand in the air like Larry Bird. He had a bitchin’ follow-through, man. He placed his beer bottle on the front porch seat and stood stoically with his belly protruding out of his shirt. It was something to be in awe of, especially the way he could still cross you over and hit a step-back jumper without blinking an eye. Dad had a name for his over-the-shoulder shot—the reverse layup. He’d run under the basketball hoop and toss it, without looking at the net, practically behind his back. When I asked him how he could do it without looking, he said “as you get older, you memorize the way your hand lets go.”

Cycle: Before my final third grade peewee baseball game, Dad stood by me in front of our living room mirror and drew black streaks under my eyes. Under the revolving ceiling fan, he reached his hand behind the stacks of baseballs and pulled out our lucky buckeye. “Rub it,” he said, “for good luck and a win.” Placing the sacred nut under the curls of my nimble fingers, I rubbed it until static heat encompassed both hands. He gracefully placed it above the television set. Dad was the first base coach on my team, the Southington Reds, and played catch with me until the stars presented themselves above the roof of our house, launching balls into a different dimension for me to run down.

With the Browns down at halftime, Dad pulled our lucky buckeye out of his coat pocket and had me rub it for good luck. We’d never used the buckeye on a Browns game, but Dad wanted my first time to be a winner.

When it was too dark to see him, I mapped my way towards his body by following the sounds of the ball hitting the inside of his mitt. In my first three at-bats of that final game, I managed to collect a single, double, and a triple. Just a home run away from a cycle, I stepped up to home plate with dirt streaks on my pants and sweat dripping off my forearms. In peewee, the only way to achieve a home run is to smack the ball to the fence and pray to the ghost of Rocky Colavito that you can round every base before it’s back in the coach’s glove on the pitcher’s mound. I had never hit a homer before. I was never fast enough, on account of Genu valgum—also known as knock knees. But in my final at-bat, I watched Dad stand like Daedalus at first base and give me the go-ahead to let it soar. The sun reflected off his black sunglasses and his skinny legs buckled in the sweltering warmth. I looked at him and he smiled. With the first pitch, I drove a fly ball all the way to the fence, rocketing over the heads of prepubescent twerps. The rattling of the rusted chain-link echoed through the infield and Dad’s yells cut through it. Under the hidden cosmos he sent me around first and before I knew it, I was being motioned to round third and head for home plate. As my cleats smacked the rubber plate, I heard the roar of the crowd behind me. After attempting to catch my breath near the dugout, I felt the arms of my father wrap around my waist. He held me up to the sky—his winded offering to the baseball gods—and guarded me close. An “I love you” hid behind his lips as he kissed the top of my head. When our team went on to lose the game, I looked at my dad with welled eyes. “There’s always next year,” he responded as we walked hand-in-hand to our car parked across the street in the crackling Ohio summer heatwave.

The Rust Belt’s Sour Bark: The last time the Browns were close to going to the Super Bowl, it was January 1988, and Dad was sitting on a beat-up sofa with some friends. The team was one yard away from getting a chance to go to the pearly gates, but Earnest Byner fumbled the ball at the goal line. In his lifetime—what has now become our lifetime together—the Browns have made the playoffs less than a handful of times and never even sniffed the “big game.” We’ve spent the past decade-and-a-half sitting on our crummy living room sofa, laughing at a team that somehow, miraculously, becomes more embarrassing as each week passes by. The first Cleveland Browns game I ever attended was a Christmas present from Dad in 2007. He bought me two tickets and a brand-new Brady Quinn jersey—Quinn was our prized “quarterback of the future” who only lasted two years in Cleveland. It was under twenty degrees outside and we packed about four extra layers under our jerseys. We claimed our temporary residence—two plastic orange seats at midfield—and it felt like the most serene view in the stadium. The sun cracked through the clouds in the first quarter and the “Dawg Pound” behind the east end zone heaved beer cans onto the field, barking GO BROWNS over and over. With the Browns down at halftime, Dad pulled our lucky buckeye out of his coat pocket and had me rub it for good luck. We’d never used the buckeye on a Browns game, but Dad wanted my first time to be a winner. I remember the winding moments of the game and the way he stood next to me—his hands flailing around and saliva coming out of his mouth with every word he spoke. With a ten-dollar drink in hand, he howled at every first down and cursed every time our running back, Jamal Lewis, was tackled in the backfield. The light fourth-quarter snow coated his beard and he gave me his gloves for warmth. When Kellen Winslow caught the game-winning touchdown, Dad picked me up and I ascended towards the sky in his hands. We enjoyed that game more than anything else because, for once, the two of us didn’t spend a Sunday miserable together. He clutched my hand as we walked out of the stadium but there were moments where he’d let me run ahead of him—yelling at his sluggish frame to move faster because it was so damn cold. In his blue pickup truck he handed our buckeye to me, letting my tiny hands keep it safe on our ride home. I cranked up the radio, he burped out a combination of beer and hot dogs, and we let Bruce Springsteen take us home along the Rust Belt of I-77. Whether he was young or old, even on a snowy Cleveland Sunday, the sun still shone down on him—my patron saint decked out in orange and brown.

The Lucky Buckeye: We shuffled into a bar near Mollenkopf Stadium—home of the Warren G. Harding Raiders—before a football game. I gulped down a few root beers and watched Dad knock back a handful of Miller Lites. The neon sign in the window was half burnt-out and spelled BENA VIST instead of BUENA VISTA. A purple fluorescent streak painted my face as I let the carbonation sizzle against my teeth. The Raiders were playing their rivals—the Howland Tigers—and Dad was intent on seeing Daniel “Boom” Herron “run them fucking bums over,” as he colorfully put it. We climbed to a pair of open seats and settled in under the cool, Friday sky. The bleachers were loud, rattling like a broken metallic machine under us. Dad and I spent that afternoon surrounded by loud, drunk parents yelling at the refs and cursing at other fans and fighting over stale nachos. Dad almost picked a fight with a Harding dad just to get a little plastic football for me. It was black with SUNRISE INN PIZZA written in gold on the side. The cheerleaders stormed the bleachers with a bag full of them and, of course, my beaming eyes couldn’t look away. When Dad put his fist about two inches from the face of a man—who dressed in camo and was probably packing some heat underneath his sherpa-lined jacket—I couldn’t move. I’d never seen my Dad take an interest in “winning” anything for me before. I’m not sure if it was the bucket of brews he packed away before the game that pushed him to throw his hand up in the air for the ball, or if it was just my rosy-red cheeks eager for a plastic toy I was surely going to lose within a few days of getting. What he did was his way of saying he loved me and I was on top of the world in that moment. I, a chubby second grader with a missing front tooth who liked to sing Tom Petty songs in the car, was on the receiving end of a gift that cost about five cents to make. I held onto the little football inside my coat pocket as we walked tall through the parking lot, stumbling over our laughter after Harding completely dismantled Howland. I let go when we came across a string of buckeye trees poking up through the dry soil just off the lot. Dad lifted me up by the waist and held me close to the sky while I picked a buckeye off the tree. This time it wasn’t him throwing his hand in the air, hoping for a miracle, but it was me. I soared towards the sky beyond the branches like Icarus, thinking my arms could almost touch the sun, but before I got too close he pulled me back down into his chest while I grasped the buckeye in my palm.

 

Matthew Mitchell is a creative writing major at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, and has spent all twenty of his glorious years living in the heart of the Midwest. His work will be featured in upcoming editions of The Oakland Arts Review and Clockhouse. He is a recipient of the Gillmer Kroehle Prize for Creative Nonfiction as well as the Barbara Thompson Award for Fiction.

Notes to Self

“The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

When you read this, I want you to know what is happening to you. People will say things to you like “Maybe that won’t happen for a long time” and other ways of telling you not to think about this, but that won’t help you, because it never has.

First, about the treatment you will try—they say it’s common to forget why you did it. Which makes sense, since you’re almost certain to lose your memories of the time immediately surrounding the treatment. So, for the record, here’s how you made the decision: you were standing in the middle of Target, next to a display of plastic organizational baskets, which were neatly arranged by color and stacked atop one another. You had been actively suicidal for over a week straight. Your hands trembled as you held the phone to your ear. Your psychiatrist was talking to you; you thought she must be a good psychiatrist, because she listened to you, and also, her voice was soothing.

“If I were you,” she said, “Personally, I’d choose ECT.” So that’s what you will do.

The empirical literature suggests that bipolar disorder is a progressive illness. Interventions, such as lithium therapy, can prevent the progression to further stages; however, when intervention does not come soon enough to the onset of symptoms, bipolar disorder will follow a predictable worsening course.

Yes, one day—maybe soon, I will put down the pen, and I will leave you. Maybe ECT will bring me back for a while.

“Late-stage” bipolar disorder is characterized by shorter episodes and rapid cycling (the mood episodes get closer together, with progressively less euthymic or “normal” time in between them), as well as sustained attention deficits and greater functional impairment. Research has found that bipolar brains become increasingly abnormal as the number of previous episodes rises. And, in its “final form,” bipolar disorder may cease to respond to pharmacological treatment altogether. This is what has happened to you.

When you saw your (new, young-seeming) psychiatrist, Dr. N, she talked to you for a long time. She said “this is very serious” a few times and looked at you with genuine nervousness; then she said she would make a call, and started to do so, and then stopped. She looked at you again, that nervous look, and said she would step outside to call. Your therapist would later tell you that Dr. N consulted with the best psychiatrist UCLA has to offer, thus, one of the very best psychiatrists in the entire world.

You knew then that it was true. You are getting worse, and you will not get better.

Yes, one day—maybe soon, I will put down the pen, and I will leave you. Maybe ECT will bring me back for a while. But not forever. When this happens, you will be hurt and alone, I know. When I cease to exist within our mind, I suppose that is like dying. I have always been characterized as a confident voice; yet I am face-to-face with an indescribable fear—I do not know what will happen to me after I die. But, I think I will miss being alive; breathing, eating, writing, living, even if you do not remember me or anything anymore, maybe in some way, somewhere—I will live on in you.

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

You wrote your tenth grade pre-AP English “research paper” on a topic of your choosing. You chose a topic that you knew would get you screamed at (or worse) behind the closed doors of your suburban childhood home (and it did!): transgender rights.

But you wrote the paper, and you put everything you had into it, because you were very stubborn and you refused to be broken. Later, for the final paper—it wasn’t actually the final, but the last assignment you completed due to your absences and subsequently vast amount of missing work—Mrs. E had you write your first-ever piece of memoir in response to The Things They Carried. You wrote about your relationship with Alec, the first trans guy you ever knew; and you printed it out and stapled it and neatly hand-wrote marginal comments for her in blue ink.

She cried reading it. You were proud, and from that day on, you knew you had power with your words.

Others were beginning to become aware of your power, too. Your college essay was about coming out. You were genuinely nervous about it (as you very much desired to go to college so that you could move out of your house), and reflexively said that you would revise it. Mr. M replied that it was already perfect, “like a glass of fine wine.” It was the only perfect first draft in your entire grade.

You didn’t have power over your life, but you had power over the page. It helped you cope with some of the other things: like how you were forced to change for gym in the nurse’s office, and then you’d always get in trouble for being the last one to gym; or that math teacher who openly and actively refused to use your pronouns; or the time you got an anonymous letter from some girls in your class who thought it was “disgusting” that you did not shave your legs, and that you did not look very much like a boy at all, and accused you of simply not “trying hard enough” to grow facial hair. You knew right away how incredibly stupid they had to be—it takes hormone replacement therapy to do that, and no amount of thinking will help!—and yet it was as if they knew exactly how to cut you, by telling you that you didn’t even want it bad enough.

Because the truth is that you wanted to be a boy more than you had ever wanted anything in your life, before or since then, and probably more than they had or would ever want anything in their lives, either. Even when that therapist tried to convince you that you didn’t want it, you knew that you did. You learned to lie, and to hide things. You learned to go places by yourself for the very first time—even somewhere as simple as the CVS on Gillette Avenue was a new frontier for you, and you were absolutely terrified that your parents would drive by and see you buying store-brand men’s deodorant with the $10 bill you carefully stole from your mom’s purse.

But those experiences are what made you independent today. You found a voice, you learned to fight and to stand up for yourself. You were strong. And you still are.

One summer, many years later, you were sitting on the swings in your backyard with one of the nerds (your nerds), Mike, smoking a bowl under the stars. He told you how, in high school, popular kids would ask him personal questions about you, like why you were so quiet in school. And he told you that he would always say the same things to them:

“Look, I really don’t know. He doesn’t talk to me or anyone about his past or the way he feels. And I wouldn’t ask him. He does seem sad sometimes. Personally, I think he’s been through things, bad things, horrible things, I think he’s had a life you or I couldn’t even wrap our heads around. Listen, because I mean this: [Author Name] is the strongest person I know.

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

You will need some materials before you read this next part: a blanket, a favorite beverage, and a box of tissues. It will be hard to remember these things. For many years, you suppressed thoughts like this from your mind and destroyed most of your memories; but I think they are important for you to understand why you are the way you are and to be gentle with your own personality.

They say she loved you more than anyone else in the world. You have never considered yourself a delusional person, and so you do not believe in ghosts or guardian angels.

As you know, bipolar disorder runs in families; it is highly genetic—perhaps more so than any other DSM diagnosis—and there is a phenomenon called “genetic anticipation” wherein successive generations tend to have the illness earlier and more severely. You will know most of this because doctors will ask you, as part of a routine intake, whether you have any relatives with bipolar disorder. At first, you didn’t know how to answer this question because nobody in your family had ever told you that she had a diagnosis; but you are comfortable by now asserting that, indeed, she was bipolar. She was your grandmother.

You remember—her house. You spent a lot of time there. It was messy, with objects strewn into piles in every room; a lot of it was (to your great joy) art supplies. You remember digging through her mountains of junk one day and stumbling across a barely-used box of charcoals—not an unusual find, and of course she let you draw with them. You did many art projects together. She was probably a very creative person, and she also loved to bake. Your favorite was her blueberry tart.

Most people recognized that she was eccentric. You do not know if they knew her eccentricities were signs of underlying bipolar illness.

Try as you might, you are no longer able to remember what she was like. There are only fragments of her left, short and nonsensical-seeming clips you can play over and over again in your head, but nothing more. It will occur to you at some point that this is very strange; after all, most people your age can remember (to some extent) being ten years old.

You think that you were very close with her. She was always the “parent” you brought to elementary school functions, and you chose to bestow such honors with care.

You were, as far as anyone in your family knows, the last person to see her alive. You think—not from memories but gut feelings—that she told you how much you’d grown up, how much she would always love you. It was Valentine’s Day. She gave you gifts, including a teddy bear; you don’t know what happened to them.

Your parents will insist to you for your whole life that what happened was an accident. But you knew things about her that even they did not know. You knew, and you have always known, that it was not.

Yes—she committed suicide. It’s okay to remember things and to feel sad. I have learned that “sadness” and “depression” are different things. You banished these thoughts and feelings for years afterwards, or at least, experienced them without knowing why.

You don’t know who told you that she died; you only remember waking in the middle of the night, scared and alone. The rest of those days are a blackout. Your family have implied that you had a mental breakdown—your very own first bipolar episode.

You could not go to her funeral.

Although you moved on—destroyed the pictures of you and her together even—your brain never returned to being the way it was before it happened. Your prodigiously accurate Asperger’s memory became distorted and dysfluent.

You are very much like her. We can call this a “gene-environment interaction”.

Your rational mind knew that she did not intend her suicide as a rejection of you—but it’s always been hard to feel that way. After all, she quit, exited stage right. You learned to cope. That’s what happened to your personality.

They say she loved you more than anyone else in the world. You have never considered yourself a delusional person, and so you do not believe in ghosts or guardian angels. But some people believe that the night, about two weeks after she died, the night you hemorrhaged—and almost died yourself—but, for some unknown reason, you woke up, covered in blood, red everywhere, your pillows were permanently stained—they believe that was her spirit, protecting you. They believe she protects you still.

I think maybe it’s okay, in this one instance, to believe in such things.

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

I had a Skype call with our college mentor, Dr. Pinball, a couple of days ago. Actually, my writing these letters began at his suggestion.

During the most recent episode—well, you sent him a lot of emails. You always have. It’s not like he doesn’t already know you or how you can be; Dr. Pinball and I have worked closely together for years. But he seemed to notice that this time was different, that things are changing, that the room we inhabit is getting darker and warping at a faster rate. He is, after all, a clinical psychologist—and a good one, to be sure.

I can’t explain exactly why we latched onto Dr. Pinball the way we have. It’s probably an excessive relationship to have with one’s college mentor. He is aware of this, too; so I thought maybe he would request that you stop sending him these obviously distressed messages. It would be justifiable to anyone. He looked thoughtful (as he often does) and said, “I respect you very much, and your work, and—well, you, and I hope you feel the same way. But I also have an obligation, an ethical obligation, as a clinical psychologist.”

Quietly, I nodded, and said, “I do respect you very much.”

“Well, it seems like maybe those emails are a way of managing those feelings for you—a catharsis of sorts—and I could ask you to stop sending them to me. Maybe it would make me feel happier and more comfortable. But that’s—after the things you’ve been through, in your life—that’s not the point, is it?” He chuckled kind of softly, maybe sadly. Dr. Pinball knows more about your life than anyone else.

“You were hurting and in pain, [Author Name]—but, this last time, the content—in the future, I have to be able to make sure you are actually safe.” He paused. “And I want you to know that I wouldn’t be having this conversation with just anybody, I mean, if someone else sent me emails like this, then…”

I looked at the floor, rested my hands on my desk because they were trembling and hoped he would not be able to notice this. I guess I didn’t really know what to say. The relationship we have with Dr. Pinball is not something even I, with all my gifts, can express easily in words; it never has been. He asked me a few questions about what he could do to help you, and how he could know that you aren’t going to kill yourself (or, alternatively, exactly when he would really have to take action). I agreed to write up a contract with this type of information, even though outsmarting you is very difficult.

“The good thing about our field,” he said (proudly), “Is that—you’re my student and I’m your mentor, so no matter how far you go—until, well, forever!—I’ll always be.”

I smiled—I did not cry, although it was difficult. Somehow, for once, we felt a little bit loved.

I do not know—can’t really know—where I am going, or how far, or how it will be when I get there. But the darkness in the room feels just a little bit lighter than before.

Sincerely yours,

Elliot

 

Elliot Gavin Keenan is a PhD student in human development & psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studies cognition in autistic individuals. (There are rumors that he is autistic himself. Fortunately, these rumors are true.) He is 22 years old. He lives with his cat, Tarot, who is not very classy at all. His interests include strategy board games, swinging on swing sets, and using italics.

A Life in a Body (With Breasts)

  1. The Blackening (Or That Time It Wasn’t Cancer)

 

My nipples started turning black a month or so before I hit forty.

Well, not exactly black. Not then. Not at first. Just—dark? Deepest brown? Existential crisis grey? Forty?

Is forty a color?

I ignored it.

That sounds crazier than it actually is—of course I didn’t ignore it.

The thing to know here is that when your nipple starts turning black, deepest brown, or even existential grey, the change does not happen all at once.

I probed, stubby fingers poking and twisting at each nipple. At the best of times, the cheap lightbulbs I settled on for the bathroom are depressing. They have a distinct yellow tinge that makes me look sad and sallow when I brush my teeth, a dramatic, poor art-film pauper trapped in a toothy suburbanite. The tip-tops of my breasts, perhaps blackening by the second, looked considerably worse under their environmentally friendly, yet affordably jaundiced glow.

No, of course I didn’t ignore it. I couldn’t. No one could. Not such a major change, certainly not such an alarming one.

Certainly, not right there. Not on your favorite bits.

What you do when your nipples start turning black is you try to ignore it. You want to ignore it. You don’t do anything about it.

You pretend as hard as you can to ignore it.

Our family motto is “fake it ‘till we make it.” So, I faked it. I told myself a lie. I told myself that the situation was ignorable. That my MUTATING NIPPLES were ignorable.

The thing to know here is that when your nipple starts turning black, deepest brown, or even existential grey, the change does not happen all at once. It is a creep. A transformation glacially slow. Just specks at first, specks circling the rim of the tip. Specks too small to be noticed by anyone else, even your husband.

Look down at your finger.

Point up.

Look down.

Imagine a speck of dirt on the tip of your nail. Or a fleck of brownie crumb after you have finished the last one in the pan. Imagine a hill on a planet. Imagine a moth on an oak. A small nothing.

And maybe you are not even sure if this is new, this fleck of brownie crumb. This molehill. This moth. Or the other one. The one right next to it.

Maybe, just maybe, your nipple has always been a little darker there, around the rim. Maybe these are freckles. You have freckles everywhere, on your scalp, between your toes, arms, fingers, near your eyes. You are speckled and many colored. Maybe your nipples are, too. Maybe you have never noticed.

You are almost forty.

And afraid.

 

  1. The Suburbanite and The Pamphlet of Doom

 

These days, a stylish pamphlet has taken up residence in the wooden bowl I keep on my kitchen counter—a catch all bowl, low and long, carved from a single piece of cypress. On top of charging cables and purse candy, an emergency flashlight, the wrinkled bits of paper and bobby pins and earrings and coins I shed when I get home is The Pamphlet—too big, too glossy, WAY too fancy for the rest of the junk in the bowl.

The Pamphlet demands attention.

If it were yours, it’d be all you could see when you step in the room. You’d wander to the refrigerator out of boredom, see The Pamphlet, and wander right back out. It’s a real appetite killer. An excellent diet tool.

You might even begin avoiding the kitchen completely.

Ordering in.

Buying a new cable to charge your phone.

The truth is, The Pamphlet is much, much too big and glossy and fancy for its job. Disturbingly so. Every time I look at it, I imagine some poor graphic designer nodding doubtfully as the client says over and over, “Can’t you make these dire warnings, I don’t know, SEXIER?”

Because that’s The Pamphlet’s job: Warning us fragile humans that one of the risk factors for hereditary breast cancer is that “your family has had someone diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50.”

I was in my early twenties when my mother was diagnosed. She was in her early forties. Roughly the age I am now.

The Pamphlet is not exactly best seller reading, not even in the self-help section, but it has friends in high places. Several years ago, Angelina Jolie had the genetic test it advertises. Credits it for saving her life. It’s the sort of endorsement you listen to.

I approach the bowl. “So, uh, just anyone in your family with an early diagnosis is a problem, right?” I say to The Pamphlet.

“Well, your mother is certainly a good start,” it seems to answer.

I pull a Werther’s Original from between its sexy folds and chew on that.

 

  1. Cornholio Behaving Badly

 

Let’s call the older gentleman who suggested I ask my boyfriend to beat me with a baseball bat Cornholio. There’s no physical resemblance between him and Mike Judge’s character, still the name feels like a good fit.

It is about a year after my mother’s diagnosis, a time when I am still thinking only in terms of before and after, and I have known Cornholio for nearly a whole semester when he says this to me.

Don’t worry, he’s joking.

He sincerely believes he is being funny.

Perhaps before someone says something like this to you, this violent thing he thinks is the height of wit, you are kind to him. Maybe you help him do his algebra homework once or twice a week, every single week, in the free drop-in tutoring lab where you get paid a dollar or so over minimum wage to be of help to anyone who needs it. Even annoying Cornholios.

In the weeks before he says this thing, this joke, you tell him a linear equation is a lot like ordering pizza—x is the number of toppings, y is the cost of the pizza—and that he can do it; let’s try it one more time. You are a math cheerleader (A meerleader? A chath?). Your job is to be the embodiment of the kitten poster—Hang in there!

In the before of this event, you tell the other tutors that he’s really very sweet, in his own way; you don’t mind helping him; he’ll catch on.

But here is the thing, in the after, you won’t give a rat’s ass anymore. And not just about him.

Cornholio used a cane to walk and he swung it to punctuate his really, really excellent joke.

The lab was empty that day. A lull before finals panic. He liked to stall at the beginning of sessions. To run his mouth, leave his book closed. It was hard to get Cornholio focused.

He did resemble the character just a little.

“You know, your tattoo,” was how he started, pointing to the ink on my chest.

I smiled. My tattoos are very visible, especially this one, which sits right above my cleavage, smack dab in the middle of my chest.

Let’s call it a lifestyle choice.

People see visible ink and believe you want to talk about it, ESPECIALLY with strangers. I don’t. I just like being able to easily see my tattoos, my own skin. No craning my neck. It’s always right there if I look down. Still, I try to be nice. Like an ambassador for those of us that polite society so politely calls “freaks.” A mission of peace.

Cornholio smiles back at me. His teeth are excessively straight and white. No air between any of them. Dentures. The smile he flashes is not comforting. Not because of those huge, perfect teeth, but because it’s one of those shit-grins people give before they say something they think is ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC.

His pointing finger hovers dangerously close to touching the thickest part of my breast. He isn’t even really pointing at my tattoo. His aim is off. “If you wanted attention so bad,” he says after that weird, grinning pause, that set up, “Why didn’t you just get your boyfriend to beat you with a baseball bat.”

This is how people talk about my body.

He finally drops his finger, chokes up on his cane, his bat, sets his legs, and swings it through the air.

Cornholio is nothing if not a real physical comedian.

 

  1. Fine Wine and the Art of Body Shaming (A Master Class)

 

She is older than my mother, dressed much better than either I or my mother ever has. She is like a fashionable window treatment, which is to say that the jewel toned layers that swing around her thin body are much too fine to be compared to any word as mundane as “curtains.”

She looks like money.

“Try the spring rolls,” she says. This charity art show is her baby. Though we have met a few times, it is all I really know about her—charity, art, and clothes that are decidedly not from Old Navy or Target. There is a language barrier between us, and we have occasionally had trouble understanding each other’s accents, but more importantly, there is a hell of a class barrier. We’ve talked very little before now.

“Are they good?” I ask.

She puts one on my plate. “I made them,” she says, adding another two to my little hors d’oeuvres pile. She takes a sip from her white wine. Graceful. Looks me up and down, adds, “I wish I too did not care how much I eat.”

She sounds like the script to a sitcom has been run through Google translate and come out the other side to stab me awkwardly. I check my torso for blood as inconspicuously as I can with a plate of food in one hand and a glass of unnamed red in the other.

I know I haven’t heard her wrong but can’t stop the “hmm?” from coming out my lips. It is compulsive.

“My daughter is like you. Age at least. Not so round. She is a dainty eater. Have more.”

Another woman joins us before I can respond, but let’s face it, I had no response. It’s the sort of thing I will find a snappy retort to only when I am brushing my teeth, the foam a little yellow under those cheap bathroom lights.

I have never met the woman who joins us, but I don’t think Window Treatment has either. She is also older than my mother and dressed in swinging layers, these more earthy and cheaper than Window Treatment’s. Chunky jewelry swings on top of them. Her accent is a deeper southern than mine, two generations deeper.

“Look at you,” she says, gesturing directly at my breasts. “Look at her,” she says to Window Treatments. Her friend walks up and Chunky Jewelry tugs on our new companion’s arm. “Look at those,” she says.

 

Google is strangely unhelpful. No matter what combination of search words you try, the results are unsatisfactory. Terrifying? Certainly. Weird? Absolutely. Gross? Without a freaking doubt. But, nonetheless, unsatisfactory. Nothing actually fits.

You want to pretend that surrounded by art and food and people, three strange old ladies will not suddenly start talking about your breasts as if you aren’t even there. But I promise you, they will. They will go on for a while. An oddly long time for the dissection of a living stranger’s body. Their scalpels curiously probe at your hips and tits and the pouch of belly you don’t work as hard as you should to hide (or get rid of). One may even caress the smooth fatty part of your upper arm, a finger nail’s width from your right boob.

If they were men, you would know exactly what to do. You have been handling men since you were thirteen. You have gotten fairly adept at it, if not always successful. But when women touch you. Talk about you, you are always flummoxed.

Of course, the women have also been doing it since you were thirteen.

No one at the art show calls you fat. But the thin crows flapping around you talk extensively about the ride of your shirt and the way you enjoy the meatballs on your plate. They have no problem saying things about the size of your breasts. “So voluptuous!” one says. “Even if I had them, I’d have to cover them up,” she adds.

This is the way strangers talk about your body.

Window Treatments nods her head and says with enthusiasm, “And look how much she eats.”

You gulp your red and remind yourself to lie still and quiet, think of England, and take it like a good girl.

 

  1. The Blackening, Part Deaux (Still Isn’t Cancer)

 

It takes me a year to make an appointment with my gynecologist, a year to say to the receptionist, “Yeah, so there’s this weird thing going on with my nipples.”

She asks me to explain.

“They’re sort of turning black.”

During this year, the dark spots grow, converge until they ring and slide across much of one tip, become a short, dotted line around parts of the other, then (miraculously?) some of them flake off.

Off my nipples.

BITS OF MY NIPPLES FLAKE OFF.

During this year, I convince my husband there is nothing wrong. Everything is so small, it is easy to convince him, until everything is not so small.

And besides, they are my nipples. This is my problem.

That is how I see it. And I do not want to make a fuss. If I let him worry, I will have to worry, after all.

Google is strangely unhelpful.

No matter what combination of search words you try, the results are unsatisfactory. Terrifying? Certainly. Weird? Absolutely. Gross? Without a freaking doubt. But, nonetheless, unsatisfactory. Nothing actually fits.

Forget the diagnoses, look at the pictures.

None of those nipples look like your nipples. It is like scanning the worst porn ever. You definitely keep these pictures a secret. Tell no one. Anytime you cannot sleep, you search for them. At three in the morning, you lie on your side in bed, shielding the light from your cell phone so as not to wake your partner, not to break the small sounds of their breath, and you look at the diseased nipples of other women and think of your own, mutter so quietly that you can feel the words fluttering in your chest but cannot hear them, your husband cannot hear them: “Not cancer. Not cancer. Please don’t be cancer.”

It is the worst hobby ever.

 

  1. The Agony of These Feet

 

I don’t begin crying immediately when the podiatrist tells me he has to permanently remove both my big toenails, but that’s just because I will myself not to blink or breathe or even move my head much. It turns out, this is an unsustainable strategy.

It is not fear of pain that drives the tears when they come—and boy howdy, do they ever come—although when he explains how he will use “acid to kill the nailbeds,” I am appropriately terrified.

 

Sex scientists are the sort of unsung heroes the rest of us rarely think about. And let me tell you, they deserve your adulation.

Let me repeat that: Acid. To kill. My nailbeds.

No, the reason I cry is a strange and exciting brand-new fear I didn’t even know was possible: the fear that my feet will look bizarre. And let me tell you, this wasn’t normal fear. It was full blown, hyperventilating panic.

Even if you are not the kind of woman who cares what her feet look like. Even if you hate pedicures not just because of the deadly combination of a stranger simultaneously tickling and stabbing your feet, but because pedicures take off all that hard, protective skin that allows you to walk for hours. Barefoot. Uphill. Both ways. On hot pavement. In hell. Even if you have goddamn warrior feet. Are good with their ugliness. Even if you have damn well earned your ugly feet.

You still may panic.

I call my mother from the car. Sobbing.

“He—he says he needs to—needs to—needs to,” I couldn’t get it out.

“You need to breathe,” my mother says. She is the sort of calm that a mother gets as she steels herself to find out her child is dying.

I sound like I am dying.

“Remove—remove—remove—”

My mother’s right breast has been removed for nearly twenty years at this point.

“My—My—My—”

“Leigh. You need to calm down. You need to breathe.”

“My toenails.”

Vanity thy name is open-toed shoes.

My mother, strangely enough, takes the whole thing in easy, peasy stride.

 

  1. The Blackening: Don’t Call it a Threequel

 

My gynecologist is perplexed by my nipples.

Disturbed even.

She says she doesn’t think it’s cancer. “Especially not the way it’s—” She is choosing her words carefully. Very carefully. “On both of them. Cancer’s almost never unilateral like this.”

I am without a doubt her first pair of blackening nipples. The confidence this instills is not profound.

In the days leading up to this appointment, I became convinced that she will need to do a scraping. The blackening has overtaken the tip or my left nipple, a scaly pasty, and this, I am sure, is where she will strike, scalpel pressed like a knife against a neck. “Your secrets!” the scalpel wielder in my head hollers, and I spill. I tell everything.

I’ve become so obsessed with this idea, that I’ve taken to repeating the word over and over to myself. “Scraping. Scraping. Skkrape. Ing.”

I say it to my husband. To my mother.

I say it to my toast as crumbs dislodge against my butter knife. I say it to the microwave instead of cleaning it. I work myself into a tearful frenzy. I am again the stereotype I hate.

Hysterical.

This reaction is, of course, based entirely upon my near encyclopedic knowledge of television doctors. And common sense, I guess?

She laughs when I ask, my voice all aquiver, “Will—will you have to take a—a scraping?”

She seems hesitant to even touch my breasts, moving her head back and forth as she peers at them from a safe distance. “No.”

It has been a turbulent ride, and I feel a mixed bag of utter relief and vague disappointment. I came here to be tortured in the name of medicine, after all. Both emotions are themselves fleeting. “I’m just going to check for discharge,” she adds.

Then she uses the word “palpate.”

It’s no scraping, but it’ll do.

*     *     *

My nipple problem is above her pay grade.

I get a mammogram.

“Pay close attention to the nipple.”

I get another one.

“Pay close attention to the nipple.”

Are these humans so jaded that had they not been told, my many-hued nipples would have gone unnoticed? Am I nothing special?

An ultrasound.

“Pay close attention to the nipple.”

Finally, I see the breast specialist. She is a gorgeous woman. She looks strong. In charge. Her voice is kind. She likes my tattoos.

She is maybe more than a breast specialist. A breast goddess?

“Will you—have to do—a—a scraping.”

It takes seconds for her to diagnose me with keratosis of the nipples. She is nonchalant. “It happens. Do you sunbathe topless?”

The last bathing suit I bought had a built-in skirt and fabric so thick and “shaping” I longed for something less restrictive that I might be able to actually swim in, like a good old-fashioned corset. “Nope.”

“That can cause it sometimes. But, well, it happens.”

Suddenly, I feel great shame.

What I have forgotten until this very moment is the scaly grey patch of skin near my collarbone. In my defense it is light grey, not the deep darkness of existential grey. It has also already been diagnosed by a dermatologist. Keratosis.

I confess.

“Honestly, I am glad you came in. I was looking at your chart. Your mother was pretty young when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.”

She hands me The Pamphlet.

 

  1. Nipple Madness!

 

Sex scientists are the sort of unsung heroes the rest of us rarely think about. And let me tell you, they deserve your adulation. Still, unless your horse has lost his drive, your ocean refuses high tide, your cowboy just won’t ride, or your genitals appear to be on what I am sure medical professionals call “the fritz,” you probably forget these brave humans even exist, much less that they spend their lives watching primates orgasm in machines for your pleasure.

Not even hot primates, if we are going to be honest here. Could be Bill and Pat from across the street, you know the couple with the trampoline and no kids? Could even be you, if you’ve signed up. You’d know if it was you, though.

Also, there’s a lot of math.

There are three ways the people I know talk about breasts:

Eye Candy

Baby Candy

Cancer

In other words, we talk about breasts as if they are an object you’ve been asked to carry for other people’s pleasure and needs and at your own peril. But that is not the start and end of all things boob. Ask the sex scientists, if you don’t believe me.

I have a secret, I am one of what those superhero scientists have found are somewhere between the 1% (Kinsey, Masters, and Johnson) or 29% (Otto) of women who can orgasm from breast stimulation.

Yes. You read that correctly.

It turns out, that nipples are wired to light up your “genital sensing brain regions” (Komisaruk). For most women, that means that their breasts function as a pretty great erogenous zone. And for an unknown amount of lucky others, they may as well be the on switch to Vegas, baby.

Your breasts are yours.

 

  1. There Are No Jokes in Nine

 

We are taking our nightly walk when I tell my husband that this isn’t just my decision. And though he disagrees, he hears me out.

If you get The Pamphlet, you will have a choice to make. You will have to decide what you want to know. You will have to decide what you do not want to know.

There will be a time before the test. There will be a time after the test.

“It’s your decision. It’s your body.”

This is not the way most people talk about my flesh. My meat. My body.

But it is always the way he does. It is always the way he has.

If I decide I want to know, and I have the gene, I will have three new choices.

Know and do nothing. Know and remove my breasts, my nipples while they are still healthy flesh. Know and take a low dose of chemotherapy every single day for the rest of my life.

If I do have the gene, it is likely that I will get cancer, but not guaranteed.

If I do not have the gene, I am not safe from breast cancer. My chances are just lower.

I do not want the test.

But.

Several years ago my husband called me. I was still in bed when the phone rang. It seemed like mere seconds since he’d woken me, said, “I’m going to work,” and kissed me. Seconds since I’d fallen back asleep to the click of our front door lock sliding back into place.

He tried to sound calm as he explained that he’d been hit by a car on his motorcycle. That he was in an ambulance. If you were listening in, you may have thought he was simply calling to say he needed his insurance card. It was all he really mentioned, after all. You may have missed what I heard: something was very, very, very wrong.

After, I learned exactly what illness looks like through the lens of marriage.

It looks like your own shattered body as you clean your lover’s wounds. It is worse. It looks like your own greatest fears in blood and cotton and antiseptic technicolor. It is worse. It looks like your love spilled out. It is worse. It looks like nothing you know how to explain. It is worse.

This is my body. But it would be our cancer.

It is the only thing I know for sure.

 

Leigh Camacho Rourks is a Cuban-American author living and teaching in South Louisiana. She is the recipient of the St. Lawrence Press Award, the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, and the Robert Watson Literary Review Prize, and her work has been shortlisted for several other awards. Her writing has appeared in a number of journals, including Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, December Magazine, and Greensboro Review. Her collection of short stories, Moon Trees and Other Orphans, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press (Sept. 2019).

Waiting Room

It’s been said that you are only as happy as your most unhappy child, and I believe there is some truth to that. Lately, I am all about my twenty-six-year-old daughter, Phoebe, who keeps veering into crisis like a motorist drifting into oncoming traffic on a highway. For instance, Phoebe and I recently visited the Emergency Room. This was on the after-hours advice of the doctor on call with our GP. Phoebe had told him that she was having trouble breathing, she was dizzy, she couldn’t feel her hands and her legs didn’t work right. She told him she hurt all over.

At the admitting desk, a flamboyant young man and an even younger woman with a volunteer tag asked Phoebe what issue brought her to the ER. “A broken heart?” Phoebe suggested. A nine-year relationship had ended.  Phoebe was entered in the system and we were sent around the corner to the noncontagious area to wait for someone to see her. I sat next to a guy about thirty years old in a ball cap with a gauze bandage on his left thumb that gave it the dimensions of an ear of corn. Volunteer Girl came in and began to quiz Phoebe. Pain in the left arm? A crushing feeling? No, no. I told her. Nothing like angina or anything like that. No need to get the paddles and clear. A broken heart. Volunteer Girl seemed relieved she would not have to write up an incident report and she returned to the front desk. Phoebe turned to me. “That’s a real thing, you know. Broken Heart Syndrome.” I did know. She went back to tapping on her iPhone.

I’ve always thought of love as a verb. Full of energy and action and visible (if subtle) display. It’s come to me today that no one tells you how much waiting is required of deep love. How much sitting is necessary. How very much boredom you must be willing to embrace. A good training ground for demonstrating that level of devotion is the Emergency Room. “Emergency” is a relative term, and the person who brings what they consider an urgent illness or injury to the room is likely to find that the staff on duty don’t consider their condition time-sensitive at all. It is they, who are the professionals, who will determine what is an emergency. Your emergency may have no more value to them than the Canadian quarter the lobby drink machine won’t accept.

Given five minutes warning, I know how to wait in an Emergency Room. It’s always cold, bring a sweatshirt. It’s incredibly tedious even with five TVs bolted near the ceiling. Bring a paperback or two. Bring your cell phone and the charger. Bring cash for sodas, Nabs, whatever. I bring earplugs. ChapStick. Come with the knowledge that you will wait. A long time. And the long time will seem much longer than if you were at home. When you get home, you’ll want to take a shower.

If you are accompanying someone you love to the Emergency Room and find yourself remembering random bits of poetry, keep it to yourself.

You have to be sure the other people in the ER are open to conversation. Read their body language. The young man with the gauze-wrapped thumb in the chair next to me looked relaxed. He was wearing a Nationals T-shirt.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I sliced off the end of my thumb, chopping onions. It’s just a little scrap of skin holding it on.”

I gave an appreciative whistle. He lowered his arm.

“How long you been waiting?”

He looked at the clock on the wall. “About an hour and fifteen minutes.”

I thought about a Robert Frost poem, “Out, Out,” about a kid who cuts his finger or hand or something off and bleeds to death. And they, since they were not the one dead, returned to their affairs.

“You could’ve bled to death by now,” I remarked.

He nodded yes, shook his head in disbelief. His phone went off with a musical ring tone I didn’t recognize and he shifted his attention to it. Phoebe was texting someone with her own thumbs.

I thought about a Sylvia Plath poem, in which the speaker accidentally cuts herself instead of the onion. What a thrilla hinge of skin, a flap like a hat. A disturbing and beautiful and playful poem. If you are accompanying someone you love to the Emergency Room and find yourself remembering random bits of poetry, keep it to yourself. Tuck your poetry fragments away for later in the way you would save a cookie. The chances that the person you are with will know or care about the fragments is no more likely than that they will be seen by a doctor right away unless they have a gunshot wound. Still, poetry can help you wait.

*     *     *

After the trip to the Emergency Room, I waited with Phoebe in her bedroom for several days. Phoebe lives with us while she works part time and finishes a second degree in horticulture. She has a king size bed that she shares with her laptop, notebook, phone, and other detritus. She has a TV on a long table opposite the bed. A cat or two and the dog will often settle in for a nap or to be petted. I sat in the blue chair off to the side by the door. I know how to sit in Phoebe’s room with her, too. I had on sweats and a T-shirt, sock feet. A glass of water or juice or wine. I had a book. I had my phone. “What can I do for you, Phee?” I’d say. “What do you need?” It wasn’t until several days had passed that Phoebe would ask for a Powerade or a piece of toast. She lost six pounds in four days.

She said, “Will you stay with me?”

“Of course,” I said.

She slept or watched The Munsters or Frasier on YouTube. She texted. She went to the bathroom. She slept some more. I stayed. Just as I had when she was younger and sick. Just as when she was a kid and throwing up, there really wasn’t much for me to do, except wipe her face with a cold wet cloth and hold her hand.

“Will you spend the night in here with me?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t mind?”

“No.”

I got her a cold wet cloth, more to make her feel cared for than to bring down a fever, although she did have a little one.

Phoebe burrowed into the covers. I sat and read and waited. Sometimes, I got on the other side of her king size bed and slept, too. She’d rise up in the night like a sea creature breeching the surface, see that I was there—awake, because she was—and she’d drop back into her blankets.

*     *     *

After a week or so Phoebe returned to work. Phoebe has been cautioned about being too cheerful and friendly with the customers. They asked her not to laugh so much, until they realized that engaging with her customers didn’t slow down her checkout speed. The day Phoebe went back to work, the store manager sent her home after one hour.

At Phoebe’s request, I drove her and her broken heart to a therapist, Susan, who’s helped me off and on over the years. Susan and Phoebe hit it off right away. Susan prescribed Xanax and breathing exercises and set up more appointments. Phoebe had sessions with Susan two or three times a week. Since Phoebe has never needed a driver’s license to go to work or to school, I ended up taking her to therapy.

Here’s another skill deep love requires. Shutting up. The ability to know when to shut up and to actually do it is closely tied to waiting.

The therapy practice Susan belongs to has a waiting room of slick, stain-resistant upholstered chairs and loveseats, and side tables with copies of WebMD Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Arthritis Today, Time, and Golf Digest. Three times a week I waited for Phoebe and listened to dreary music and read the magazines. By the end of Phoebe’s third fifty-minute hour with Susan, I’d gone through all the magazines, including Golf Digest, which might as well be titled A Guide to Mind Crushing Ennui as far as I’m concerned. So, for entertainment, I observed the people who came and sat near me, trying to determine who was a patient and who was a waiter like me. What issues brought them to this room of boring music, bad art, and dim lighting? I tried to read their posture, clothes, gestures, and conversation with the receptionists. I eavesdropped on the dialogue of people who were obviously there together. They frequently ignored each other and tapped on their smart phones, a sound like muffled telegraph keys. The etiquette of therapy waiting rooms is different than the ER. You do not make small talk in a room in which mental illness, emotional distress, and trauma cling to everyone like sweat. It’s bad form. Should you run into these same people in the organic produce section of the Harris Teeter, you do not acknowledge that you’ve ever seen them before.

*     *     *

Phoebe began to leave sessions with Susan in wary optimism. Things might work out. A plan of action and even a Plan B were possibilities. Within a couple of weeks, on a late Sunday afternoon, I went looking for Phoebe to ask her a question and found her pacing in the backyard. She was clutching her cell, waiting on a phone call. Her breathing was rapid and she was shaking a little. She was on the cusp of a panic attack.

“Talk to me,” I said, sitting down and watching her stride to and fro like an agitated animal. “What’s happened?”

Phoebe filled me in as she continued to walk laps. I brought her some juice. I thought stopping to drink and swallow might interrupt the advance of hyperventilating. It worked for a little while. I asked a few more questions and Phoebe answered.

Here’s another skill deep love requires. Shutting up. The ability to know when to shut up and to actually do it is closely tied to waiting. This ability doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m still struggling with it. Timing can be so important.

This late Sunday afternoon I lost the struggle. I had shut up for a long time. I had been careful not to push, not to judge. I had been waiting for the crisis to pass. Until this sultry August evening. This time I said I was angry and frustrated. I told Phoebe what I’d like to do and say if I hadn’t been raised with good manners. I called someone she cares about a pussy. I called other people insane. I also asked her forgiveness. I told her that I felt like I was watching her bleed and that I felt I could do nothing to stop the bleeding. It was not her my anger and frustration were directed at, but at the sources of her profound unhappiness. “Forgive me for not being diplomatic,” I said. “Please.”

She stopped pacing and looked me in the face for the first time. “It’s okay,” she said. Her cell phone rang and I went inside to give her privacy. Later, she sought me out and told me things were better. She was, in fact, happy. Everything would be fine and resolved in September.

“What’s changed?” I asked.

She shrugged. It didn’t matter. She was happy, that was enough. This time instead of asking more questions, I shut up.

Because I remembered that years ago when Phoebe was in preschool, she and her friends were playing while a couple of other mothers and I sat and watched.

“Phoebe is just your Mini Me,” Jessie said.

“We share the same soul,” I told her.

Phoebe looked up from drawing a mandala in the sand. She’s always been an artist.

“I want my own soul,” she insisted.

I laughed. “Okay.”

And I remembered that when she was a little older, Phoebe and I were playing outside on another late sunny summer afternoon. Our shadows were long and sharply defined on the sand around the swings.

“Let’s share shadows!” Phoebe said.

So, I stood behind her as she sat in the swing and we became one shadow with many moving parts. Then I pushed her and our shadows separated soundlessly only to merge again briefly and leave once more.

Phoebe told me a couple of days ago, “It’s hard to wait until the end of September.”

“It must be,” I said. “It must feel like forever.”

What I think, is Phoebe is waiting for September and it is hard. Learning how to wait is very hard. She has regained her optimism and works to hold on to it. I am waiting with her for September, without optimism, but not without hope. I hope the end of September will be worth the wait. And I will try to shut up, try remember that Phoebe’s soul belongs to her, but that I may, from time to time, be invited to share shadows.

 

Jane Andrews has a BA in creative writing from NC State University. Andrews teaches writing and poetry courses through Duke continuing education and is a writing coach at Central Carolina Community College She is nonfiction editor at Glint Literary Journal and a poetry editor at 3 Elements Review. She has earned awards in memoir, personal essay, and poetry. Andrews’ fiction, essays, memoir, and poetry have appeared in Prime Number Magazine, Red Clay Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Verdad, Kindred, The News & Observer, and other publications. She is a past board member of Carolina Wren Press and the NC Poetry Society. Andrews is a freelance writing instructor, workshop facilitator, and book editor.

Abiding in the Realm of Calmness

“I have a special affection for Kajar… It is a wonderful and mysterious place.”
~S. Ann Dunham, Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia

On our way from Yogyakarta, my friend Satriyo braced himself at the handlebars like a speed demon, overtaking slowpokes and narrowly sideswiping oncoming trucks in the maelstrom of traffic. As usual on Indonesia’s roads, I hung on and prayed we wouldn’t die, and at the same time never felt so alive in all my life. We flew past a crumbling old Dutch building—a colonial relic—reclaimed by vines; in the distance clouds brooded around the funnel of Mount Merapi, an active volcano. We climbed the winding slopes of Gunung Kidul, pausing to eat fried rice at a local restaurant clinging to the side of the cliffs. The plains of central Java spread out below, a patchwork of rice, corn, and cassava fields stretching towards Yogya to the west. About a quarter of Indonesia’s fast-growing population of more than 260 million still depends on agriculture for their livelihoods. But in post-colonial Indonesia, the pressure is on to bring it into the fold of industrialized nations.

As an anthropologist, S. Ann Dunham (the “S” stands for Stanley, the name her father gave her when she was born because he’d wanted a boy) documented these pressures and the ways Indonesian villagers struggled to keep their cultural traditions alive. Her book, Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, was in an e-reader tucked in my backpack. While famous as the mother of Barack Obama, forty-fourth president of the United States, Ann was an accomplished academic in her own right. From 1977 to 1991 she visited Kajar, her primary source of research, compiling notes that her colleagues at the University of Hawaii eventually turned into a book after she died of ovarian cancer in 1995. It was Ann’s work in Kajar, a village in the mountains of Java known for its blacksmiths, that had prompted me to follow in her footsteps.

On the Kidul plateau, we flew past traditional Javanese houses, their red-tiled joglo roofs flashing through the trees. Along the side of the road, tourist touts held up hand-painted signs enticing motorists to stop and explore the area’s sacred underground caves. The mountain is riddled with them; if you descended into the heart of such a cave, you’d see sunlight streaming in from above through holes like Swiss cheese. The Javanese army took refuge here from the occupying Dutch forces, finding refreshment from the network of subterranean springs while planning their counter attacks. According to the ancient Javanese religion Kejawen, mystics came to fast, pray, and find spiritual enlightenment. The subterranean river network sometimes emits hollow booming sounds, or, as the villagers describe them, “magic voices” as they erupt into springs to relieve droughts.

We turned off the main road onto a lane fringed with rustling teak forests and sugar cane fields you could get lost in. White Brahmin cattle with dewy eyes and hunched backs grazed in the surrounding hills. The countryside was working its spell; I felt a sense of calm and contentment move through me like a warm breeze. There’s a saying in Javanese: sinukmaya winahya ing asepi: “Abiding in the realm of calmness.” This was a world that seemed unchanged by industrialization and technology, where time slowed and magic remained.

We arrived in Kajar and paused at a corner shop stacked high with bottled water and blue canisters of cooking gas, confused about where to begin. An old man was squatting in front of the shop smoking a kretek, or clove cigarette. Satriyo sauntered over, produced his own pack from his pocket and fired up.

“Mau ke mana?” the old man asked.

When I explained I wanted to learn more about Ibu Ann (ibu means “mother,” a term of respect for all married women), he immediately got on his cellphone. Within minutes, a young woman appeared on her motorbike to greet us, and soon we were sipping tea and nibbling coconut biscuits in her family house, which was attached to a sky-blue mosque with a pagoda roof. There was a small commotion outside, and neighbors appeared in the doorway to get a look at the strangers who’d just blown into town. While I sat with my sugary tea on the sofa, a girl of about three toddled up and stared at me suspiciously. I braced for her reaction—my slanted blue eyes (a combination of my Scottish and Native American heritage) have a way of making Indonesian children stare, then burst into tears.

“Don’t be scared,” I soothed her in Indonesian. “I’m not a ghost!”

The neighbors laughed and edged in closer, but the little girl didn’t seem convinced. Evi, who looked not a day over sixteen, explained that she was a married mother of two whose husband was away working on a cruise ship. The suspicious child was hers, she said. We chatted while Satriyo helped smooth our communication with his fluent Javanese; while Indonesian is the national language, the country has more than 500 among its diverse cultures, and people often still use their mother tongue at home. Evi jiggled her other child, a baby girl, gently in a batik sling tied over her shoulder. When we finished the tea and biscuits, she gave the children to their grandmother and motioned us to follow her through the throng of curious neighbors.

*     *     *

In the dim light of the perapen, or blackmith’s shop, the man in the floppy hat puffed on a kretek, the sweetness of burning cloves mingling with the scent of ashes, hot metal. He squinted at me through the smoke and with a glint in his eye replied, “Obama suka bakso.”

I was beginning to understand why Ann describes the empu’s role as that of ‘the magician ritual specialist, puppet master, poet, priest, and even musician.’

The three other men around the anvil burst into grins so wide that the wrinkles around their mouths met the crinkles of their eyes, contoured by the glow of the smithy fire. I couldn’t help but smile too, amused by his expert deflection of my question (“Do you remember Ann or her children?”) with the former president’s fondness for Indonesian meatball soup. Who wouldn’t be—it’s delicious. In Indonesia, food is by far everyone’s favourite subject.

“When Maya was a child, she often played with the children of the village,” said one.

“She liked to eat nuts and boiled corn,” said another.

They crushed their cigarettes underfoot and got back to work. The man with the floppy hat—the empu, or head smithgrabbed a white-hot chunk of metal from the forge with a pair of long-handled pliers and laid it on the anvil. The panjak raised their hammers and swung as the empu held it steady. The metal sang; sparks swirled like fireflies with each well-aimed blow. The empu turned the metal, now cooling to red, to draw out the shape. The panjak gained momentum, striking with musical regularity like the three-four time of a waltz; they had to work fast before the metal cooled.

I blinked a few times and drew a hand across my forehead to wipe off the sweat. The heat from the forge, the glow of metal, and the rhythm of the blows had me a little mesmerized. I was beginning to understand why Ann describes the empu’s role as that of “the magician ritual specialist, puppet master, poet, priest, and even musician.” In the preface her book, Ann’s daughter Maya remembers, “I had a marvelous time as a child, surrounded by pictures of anvils and forges and stories about the magic of fire.” Blacksmithing is known as a trade with magical powers, the anvil a sacred place of sacrifice where fire can transform metal.

Ann may have told her daughter the legend of the blacksmith Mpu Gandring from the ancient Javanese Book of Kings. The story goes that Ken Arok, son of the Hindu god Brahma and the human wife of a priest, was seized with lust for a married woman, Ken Dedes, when he caught a glimpse of her legs. Determined to have her, he ordered Mpu Gandring to forge a keris, or dagger, to kill her unfortunate husband. A keris takes at least a year in the making, over which many prayers must be said to prevent it from being used for evil purposes. But Ken Arok was impatient—he grabbed the keris and stabbed Mpu Gandring with it. Before he took his last breath, the blacksmith cast a curse on the keris, which eventually killed Ken Arok and seven generations of his descendants. (The takeaways: Don’t let lust get the better of you. And never mess with a blacksmith.)

While glimmers of magic shine through Ann’s work, she takes a largely pragmatic approach, describing the blacksmith’s art with the precision of a scientist, and the scene I was witnessing matched her account exactly: “Most Kajar perapen make large agricultural tools requiring three panjak, so that the dominant sound is the heavy ‘one-two-three’ of metal hitting metal.” Though the style and tone are academic, I can feel Ann’s deep respect for Indonesian people in each word. Because it was always more than just a study. Ann also wanted to positively impact the lives of traditional Indonesian craftspeople as they adapted to, and in some cases embraced, modernization. “I was fortunate to have had a fourteen-year relationship with the people of this village,” she writes, “to have visited it many times during that period, and to have witnessed both the changes that it underwent and the remarkable strength and tenacity of its traditions.”

Ann’s strength and tenacity were equally remarkable as she adapted to the traditions of being a woman and mother. Born in 1942, she grew up in the Midwest at a time when women were expected to stay at home at care for the children. Yet a mortgage, a Maytag dishwasher, and a white picket fence were not for her. Instead she travelled to a far-flung corner of the earth that many wouldn’t be able to find on a map—including myself before I came here in 2007 (Indonesia stretches in a wide arc across the equator between Australia to the south and Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines to the north). When Ann met her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, an engineering student at the University of Hawaii, she married him and moved to his native country—a gutsy move in a politically chaotic time. It was 1965, the same year Suharto overthrew Indonesia’s democratically elected government in a military coup and began his thirty-year dictatorship. It must have been safe enough, though, because in 1967 Ann brought young Obama to live with them in Jakarta. She began her fieldwork with calm determination, living and working amongst the people with ease. For a time, she taught English, and was also a consultant with the United States Agency for International Development, establishing a microcredit financing system still in use today to help alleviate poverty among Indonesia’s craftspeople. After her daughter Maya was born in 1970 she brought both children into the field with her.

Ann and her family are a source of great pride in Indonesia, where I’ve lived for more than ten years. Their former house in Menteng, Jakarta’s embassy district, where LoLo once urged his stepson to try tiger meat, has become a tourist attraction, and stories still appear in the news with locals remembering amusing anecdotes, like how Obama was called bebek or “duck” because of his youthful plumpness. Gentle ribbing is part of the culture—my Indonesian mother-in-law often prods my waistline saying, “Wendy lebih gemuk ya!” Which means I’m getting pleasantly chubby. It used to drive me crazy, but I realize now that it’s a compliment because it means you have enough food to eat—hence the Indonesian preoccupation with food in this country, where millions still live on less than two dollars a day.

When Obama went on the presidential campaign trail, everyone I knew, including my husband’s family and my students at the Australian Consulate in Medan, North Sumatra, followed the election, caught up with excitement that a positive change was afoot, not just for Americans but for everyone around the world, since American elections deeply impact all of us. One of my students became famous among his classmates for his resemblance to Obama. Whenever it was his turn to speak, the class urged, “Obama! Speak English please.” In response, Akbar always beamed proudly, if a little bashfully, as we all giggled.

A few years ago, Ann’s daughter Maya returned to Indonesia for a visit. I saw her on the news, arriving to much fanfare in her modest attire with a scarf wrapped around her shoulders in respect for local customs. It was around that time that I finally read Ann’s book and learned more about her history. I admired her sense of adventure, the rigor of her work, the calmness and ease with which she navigated worlds so different from her own. And as a woman I could relate so much to her. I, too, had given birth to a child at eighteen and struggled for years to balance both motherhood and my academic studies in English literature. In 2007, when my daughter had grown and flown the nest, I also felt called to do something meaningful in the world, so I joined a volunteer research project to help conserve endangered orangutans in Sumatra. Like Ann, I taught English. And I fell in love with an Indonesian man, his country and his people, finding them easygoing, quick to laugh, and quick to welcome strangers as friends into their home.

*    *     *

The empu tossed the freshly completed axe head on a pile in the corner where it landed with a clank. With unflagging vigor, he grabbed another lump of white-hot metal from the fire and the men began anew. Each axe head took about ten minutes, he explained; they made about eighty a day. In the corner, an electric fan blew next to a dented tea kettle, some tin cups with lids on to keep out flies, jars of cassava root chips, and battered ashtrays overflowing with butts. Ash was everywhere—spilling out of the ashtrays, collecting in drifts around the anvil. A cool breeze sifted through the basket-weave walls, cutting through the heat and blowing more ash around. “Like sand on the beach,” one of the panjak joked. They paused as the empu inserted a small oval mould made of wood into the glowing metal and began to swing again, muscles slick with sweat, to create a hole for the handle. Their movements were robust, full of a kind of joy and pride in their work that I’d never known when toiling away in office cubicles.

When the dull red glow faded, I saw that the metal had been transformed into an axe head. The empu tapped it sharply and tossed it onto the heap. Then he picked up an already cooled axe head and smoothed the ash off lovingly with blackened fingers to reveal the stamp of an anvil at its base. “See,” he said. “This shows we made it here in Kajar. Now it will be exported to somewhere in Indonesia, maybe the world. And it is our product.”

*     *     *

Later that afternoon, waiting with Evi and Satriyo in the driveway of Pak Sostro’s long, butter-cream house, I spied a television set through the open door, surprised it wasn’t a fifty-inch flat screen. Ann says that Pak Sostro was Kajar’s most important empu pedagang, a head of the blacksmith’s collective. “Though the richest man with the biggest house, Pak Sostro was known for his modesty, except when it came to technology,” she writes. “He was the first in Kajar to own a diesel-powered electric generator, an electrically powered edge-grinding machine, and electrically powered bellows (blower), a four-wheeled vehicle, a television set, electric lights, and a camera. Partly this was because he had the money with which to purchase these items, and partly it was because of his enthusiasm for new technologies and anything which he perceives as modern.”

I’d seen this among my students. In the rush to catch up with the rest of the world, young people no longer wanted to follow in their family traditions, seeing a city job as the way to a better future.

Pak Sostro’s daughter, Bu Mintasirih, greeted us, and I was disappointed to learn that both her father and mother had died. A striking woman of forty-five with luminous eyes, she was one of several children the Sostros adopted from other family members because they were unable to have their own. She sat with us on the tiled veranda, set with long wooden tables and chairs to accommodate large groups of blacksmiths on their breaks. As I politely sipped another cup of sugary tea, she waved a hand at the road. “People from all over the world come here now. I see them wandering around looking for our house.” It seemed Kajar was undergoing something of a mini tourism boom as people came to see the village that Barack Obama’s mother had written about. “Maya and I were both kids. We often played here on the terrace. I haven’t seen her in a long time.”

Bu Mintarsih showed us the blacksmith shop behind the house—much larger than the first one we’d seen. “We have about fifty workers, and when they’re busy, wow. Klentang, klentung, klentang, klentung, all day long. So loud!” The shop—an open yard with work stations around the perimeter under corrugated tin eaves—was now silent and empty, hammers lying on the ground as if they’d been hastily abandoned. “Their day off,” she explained. Hundreds of metalwork chairs painted turquoise were stacked neatly in a corner. I recognized the same chair in my hotel room back in Yogya: sturdy and attractive, with a rounded backrest and two brackets up the centre. Bu Mintarsih explained that she had a son in university, and she’d already spent a good portion of income on his masters in management. Did he want to take over the family business? “Maybe. He’s not sure.” She rolled her eyes. “These days kids want to live in the city. They want to be so modern.”

I’d seen this among my students. In the rush to catch up with the rest of the world, young people no longer wanted to follow in their family traditions, seeing a city job as the way to a better future. It seemed odd to me, though, since another reason I’d come to Indonesia was to escape that very fate—my third time watching Office Space had sealed the deal. Once again, as in Ann’s time, this tiny village seemed poised for change, awaiting what other challenges the modern world would bring. Even the old blacksmith workers’ collective building Ann had written about, across from the Sostro family compound, was permanently closed.

*     *     *

The elders are among the last keepers of cultural tradition at a time when the world seems thirsty for it. In Pak Subari’s workshop, hundreds of copper gongs were stacked neatly for export. A gongsmith, Pak Subari estimated that he made at least one complete gamelan orchestra set per month for buyers in Bali and abroad. That’s no small task—a gamelan orchestra has sixteen pieces, including a xylophone and sets of hanging gongs of various sizes. Gamelan music is integral to Indonesian identity. Its music haunts, sends both men and women dancing with their hips, eyes, and fingers as they perform the ancient Hindu stories of the Ramayana.

Pak Subari’s wife, Mbak Nur, brought a large clear jug of tea with bits of leaf swirling around inside. At this point I felt like I was about to pop like a water balloon but it would be rude to refuse, so I forced down a little sip and smiled. Mbak Nur lay down a big bowl of shelled peanuts on the rough-hewn table and swatted away the flies.

Pak Subari asked to see Ann’s book. I pulled out my e-reader and everyone gathered around to look as I clicked through the photos. With still-sharp eyes, Pak Subari, the father of four children and six grandchildren, spotted the name of his village written in Ann’s own handwriting on the screen. He placed a work-worn finger over her notes and repeated with wonder in his voice: “Kajar.” Then he gasped and stared a moment at Ann’s illustrations of farm tools forged by Kajar blacksmiths. “They’re still the same,” he said. One of the axe heads was indeed exactly like those we’d just seen in the perapen.

I clicked to the next picture.

“Ah.” He pointed to the roof of thatched palm. “We don’t have roofs like that anymore. More modern now, with tiles.”

I clicked again: a man with smooth pompadour hair, crouched next to a water trough.

“Pak Pangusi!” He nudged Mbak Nur, who’d fallen into animated conversation with Satriyo in musical Javanese.

“Mm hmm,” she confirmed. “He looks so young. He used to live just behind our house. But he is gone now.” We gazed at Pak Pangusi, still alive in the photo, a newly forged pickaxe in his hand.

Click. An old man sitting in the doorway, baskets of flowers at his feet: The only Islamic official in Kajar village, making offerings and burning incense at the Bersih Desa festival.

“Pak Wornosamin! He had a store in the traditional market. He’s gone now too.”

As they remembered their old friend who once presided over Kajar’s annual village purification festival, it struck me just how important Ann’s work is to the history of Kajar, especially as parts of it were already slipping away. I asked if they’d ever seen the book before.

“No, never. How much does it cost?”

They all shook their heads when I told them in the Indonesian currency. “Very expensive,” Evi said. “We don’t have money for books. Besides, we don’t know English.”

Suddenly I saw myself in a different light. Here I was, a comparatively wealthy foreigner who had brought an expensive device to show them images of their own village. It didn’t seem fair. Feeling a little guilty and not knowing what to do about it, I changed the subject. But when I asked if they knew about Sumbur Kajar, the sacred spring with the image of a keris in the stone that Ann had described, they looked even more perplexed. I attempted to translate:

I wandered along the bank where the stream flowed over a few bits of garbage stuck in the mud—discarded plastic water bottles and potato-chip bags. Above us, the banyan’s crown billowed and creaked.

“At the base of the spring is a wide, flat stone, worn smooth from water action. When the water level is low, one can look down and make out the clear shape of a keris in the stone… Villagers consider this image of a keris as proof that the men of Kajar are fated to be smiths.”

“You mean Sumbur Air,” Evi said.

“Ah,” said Pak Subari. “That stone was taken long ago. Somebody stole it.”

*     *     *

We parked next to a well with a large copper cistern and a mosque that stood clean and white among the rusty teaks and umbrella-leafed cassavas. A cool wind blew and the late afternoon sunlight filtered through the trees. Nearby, a stream fed into a spring enclosed by a low wall with some stone steps leading into the water. An old banyan grew there, perhaps the one Ann mentions in her notes. In Javanese mysticism, banyans house the spirits of the ancestors and should be avoided at night. I asked Evi about this, but she just looked at me as if I were slightly delusional and turned her attention to texting on her phone. It was getting late; maybe she was checking on the kids. Satriyo leaned against his motorbike, occasionally flicking his hair as he stared into his own phone. I wondered if it was a hot date—he and my other friend Daniel had just broken up over Satriyo’s roving eye.

I wandered along the bank where the stream flowed over a few bits of garbage stuck in the mud—discarded plastic water bottles and potato-chip bags. Above us, the banyan’s crown billowed and creaked. Through the papery rustle of the teak forest, borne high on the wind, came the clear rhythmic ring of a blacksmith’s hammer: Ting ting ting.

I wondered if Ann also felt the presence of spirits here. Maybe she didn’t believe in that kind of thing. Or maybe she still visits once in a while.

*     *     *

I fell into my own quiet thoughts on the back of Satriyo’s bike as we motored to our final destination through fields of cassava, corn, peanuts, and sugarcane tended with Kajar’s own hand-forged farm tools. Why should all this change? I wondered. Why do we believe without question that industrialization is so necessary for progress, that to live like this is somehow backwards? Surely true progress is our ability to hold onto the traditions that nourish our spirits and preserve the future for our earth and our loved ones. Then again, I’d never wish the hard grinding work of poverty on anyone. And the people of Kajar were facing difficult times.

Next to a stone well with Black Roses spray-painted on it was a small dammed-up lake papered over with fallen teak leaves. All around us, living leaves twisted and turned on their slender branches, gold, then rust. As we crossed the dam I spied a hill through the trees. It looked a little like a postcard of a Greek village but in miniature, with jumbles of whitewashed houses and tiled gazebos interspersed with gnarled frangipani trees. Some houses were topped with stone flames, some with white sheets, their corners pierced on the stone and fluttering in the wind. As we came closer I saw that they were graves.

Once, when Ann contracted an eye infection, the villagers suggested she rinse her eyes in the waters of Sumbur Kajar. When this didn’t work, they advised her to make a pilgrimage to the top of Gunung Panduran and make an offering to the graves of Gunokaryo and Kasan Ikhsan, Pak Sostro’s blacksmithing ancestors and the founders of Kajar. Their graves had become pepunden, sacred sites that even had their own cult. “Whenever villagers have a problem with illness or sterility they bring offerings of rice and flowers to these graves,” she writes. She does not mention, though, if she followed their advice, or if it worked.

As we picked our way up the hill, voices called out to us in greeting from among the graves. Three villagers were sitting on a grave with plates of food and a large tin teapot. One of the villagers, an old woman with her head wrapped in a batik cloth, looked at me in alarm as we passed by, as if she’d seen a wandering spirit. I smiled and called out good afternoon, just to show I was human. This only made her titter nervously and whisper to the others. Near the top of the hill, Evi pointed to a black marble grave. “That’s my father,” she said. Her voice sounded calm and happy, not a tinge of sadness in it. She was the youngest of ten children, she said. The final child in a long, productive life.

We paused to rest and look down over the sea of roofs and the rustling teak forest. Satriyo and Evi perched on a low stone wall. Heaven or Hell was spray-painted on it in Gothic letters. They soon tired of the view and began texting again. Ah, kids these days. I turned to amble among the gravestones, taking care not to step on them and cause offense. Suddenly I caught the sweet scent of frangipani blossoms and breathed in deeply. I love frangipani; I used to wear the oil as perfume until my husband joked that I smelled like a cemetery. No one ever wears frangipani perfume in Indonesia.

I looked up to find the source of the scent. A flowering pink frangipani crowned the top of the hill, guarding a set of curling black flames—four rows in all, about seven feet long, in sharp relief against the burning blue sky. They appeared to be grave-markers, yet none bore any inscription. Each had been set with a round earthenware jar and a plate, cracked and weatherworn. Did the original blacksmiths, the founders of Kajar, lie beneath these flames? I opened my e-reader to check.

“Near the top of a small hill which is used as a graveyard is a curious black stone, several feet in length. The upper surface of this stone is carved in curious convoluted shapes which are toothlike or hornlike. These shapes resemble those on the clay gable ornaments used in some parts of Java, and they also resemble the flamelike flanges on Balinese gates.”

My heart began to pound as if I’d made a momentous discovery. In the twenty years since Ann had written about Kajar, more flames had appeared, more sacred sites added to Kajar’s long and growing history. Yet all around us—through the trees and over the rooftops—the ting ting ting of the blacksmith’s hammer continued, rising in the air, above the black flames on the hill. I imagined Ann would be happy to know that, despite more modern developments like cellphones and e-readers, or maybe even because of them, Kajar’s blacksmithing tradition continues to survive against the odds. And Ann’s legacy remains, abiding in this realm of calmness and shaping its future in subtle, unseen ways.

I wished I’d brought something for the blacksmiths, some kind of offering. I rifled through my bag in search of the only thing I could give, a tool of my own trade. I laid down my last pen, an old Bic, and left the blacksmiths to their rest.

 

Wendy Bone is a Canadian writer whose most recent work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction and Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change, with an essay forthcoming in River Teeth Journal. Currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, Wendy is writing a book about the effects of global palm oil consumption on the Indonesian rainforest. She has lived in Indonesia for more than ten years with her Sumatran husband and a clowder of kampung cats. For more, visit wendyboneabroad.com.

My Father, the Trickster

I’ve been looking for myths about gulls, and found only ravens. Raven, the trickster, who eats Raccoon’s young. Raven, with his head stuck in a bison skull and bumbling tree to tree to river. Raven led by stomach. I want a story to frame my own. But I did not grow up with ravens. They are too beautiful, with feathers that whisper danger and a name shaped like the hard point of their beak.

Gulls with no pretty name. Gulls with red-rimmed eyes, feet that look neither wet nor dry. Gulls fanning to the horizon, a lens-flare photograph of someone’s beach home.

My father would leave us in the car as he folded newspapers in the distribution center: our bodies cocooned in mothy blankets, our legs tangled together. I’d stay awake as long as I could, watching the window fog with our breath, icing out the world. I worried the lock would come unstuck. I worried that my father was ashamed of us, this job meant for children, paperboys, that he had only taken because all of his money went to our mother. Sometimes I woke to smokers clustered outside our windows, peering in on us foundling children, a nest of lumps waiting to crack open.

When my father loaded the car with each wrapped reminder of the world’s disasters, I pretended to sleep. The car rocked with the weight of hundreds of pages of newsprint wrapped in plastic casings. He’d fill the wells under our feet with bundles, row on row that slid into us on curves.

*     *     *

The fairy tales I loved were daughters bought and sold, from Gretel’s father leading her to the forest, to Cinderella’s father giving her to the ashes. I loved Beauty and the Beast most of all: I too loved books and lived in small towns. I too was strange and had a father prone to distraction. I wanted castles with libraries that stretched to heaven and horizon. I longed for dark forests or lighthouses with an attic bedroom. Instead, I had the Shore.

In the winter, the ocean was larger. The beaches were quiet. People did not come to the Shore. There was nothing there.

*     *     *

For a few winters, we lived in other people’s summer homes: pre-furnished with beds and toys, pots and pans, a view of the ocean, and a walk to the beach. They’d leave behind their curled paper tickets from Jenkinson’s Arcade, rolls of points buried in closets and under beds. I loved running them through my fingers, imagining buying all the candy I could hold, pencils with pop stars’ faces, notebooks or games. It wasn’t cheating. We had found them, fair and square.

My father would leave us in the car as he folded newspapers in the distribution center: our bodies cocooned in mothy blankets, our legs tangled together.

These houses, winter houses, were nice houses, nicer than the tiny apartments my father usually rented with a strip of kitchen and walls soft enough to splinter under a fist, where we—my brother, sister, and myself—took turns sleeping on the futon or the floor. Those apartments came with big, hairy neighbors: the kind of men who’d invite us over to watch wrestling specials and eat nachos; the kind of men with tarantulas and snakes; the kind of men who broke beer bottles late at night; the kind of men who knew a guy who was remodeling Joe Pesci’s place, and so one Sunday after delivering newspapers, we were let in to Joe’s Shore house and walked his cool tile floors, tracking mud.

I wondered if this was what my father did when we were with our mother: drank cheap beers and watched men hit each other with chairs, committed petty trespassing. What did he say about us in front of those tropical glass tanks, where the dead-eyed snakes uncurled slowly so not to scare the mice, their jaws had already unhinged to eat. Did he say anything about us at all?

In winter, lawns receded back to sand and hard dirt, gray and dried like feathers crushed by tires in the street. When we delivered newspapers to houses with strips of expensive sod rolled out like lasagna sheets, I stepped on the new grass. I wanted the marks of my feet to be discovered, like some alien crop circle, a gift from the fairies.

*     *     *

Gull young are precocial: they crack free and their eyes are open. Their bodies are covered in downy feathers. Their beaks are designed to peck at their parent for regurgitated dinner.

We ate fine—frozen dinners, cheese in cellophane—but it was never anything I wanted. My father ate mostly meat—sausages and steak and lettuce—from some diet that taught your body to eat itself.

When we returned to my mother’s house, she would ask us what we did. How did we eat? Did he buy us school clothes, winter jackets, or books? Sometimes, I wondered if she eyed our pockets, hoping he had stuffed them full of twenties.

Sometimes we would come back in wild excitement, for some grand adventure we’d been promised for the next weekend. Some treat or toy or trick. As time went on, she learned to tell us not to be disappointed. Still, we would believe him.

*     *     *

One house was only a few blocks from the ocean. Gulls cried out, I’m here, I’m here, at all hours, as they swooped ten, twenty feet above my head, or roosted on the shingles.

We’d walk the sand on nicer weekends, daring each other to go deeper into the tide until one of us would be soaked from the waist on a large wave. Our father would no longer laugh, egging us on, but be suddenly furious that we’d soaked our underwear and would track sand into the house. It was a rental, he’d remind us. It wasn’t ours. Anything we broke, he’d have to pay for. I knew that this was another step closer to the brink, closer to him pulling the mythical car over and we could all walk home.

We knew we couldn’t afford better. All of our father’s money went to our mother to support us. Our mother told us differently, cried on phone calls when she asked her sisters for money to pay our bills. What was true was the story told by the parent we were with.

We were loved, but it was a possessive love, a jealous love. A commodity. I wondered constantly if I was still worthy of such a love, and how I could earn more.

I learned to read the signs. Gulls became the smoke twisting in the sacrificial fires, the entrails poured onto the earth. I was the Oracle, trying to make sense of their message. What are you trying to tell me? Do his shoulders hunch like that because he is more or as-angry as usual? Do I find a funny story from school, or a memory of our old life? Do I pretend not to see? Should I be extra careful when I clean tonight, scraping the fork tins for grease and lining up the cups in the dishwasher like puzzle pieces? When his anger erupted, where was the best place to hide away? What should I clean, how do I be of use so that he is reminded that we were worth having, worth loving?

*     *     *

In the winter homes, I imagined the summer folks. It was a fairy existence. Who could possibly live here? What did it mean to have two houses, and not one for each parent?

In the summers, the stoplights were turned back on and the stop signs unhinged to warn lines of traffic. Panties or vomit dotted the sidewalk and the beach was always full of bodies pinking or leathering under the sun.

Were we the poltergeists, haunting their homes when they returned? I made sure to rub my greasy fingers into the walls. I wanted to leave a sign that I had lived there, that their home wasn’t fully their own. And yet we were always the ones to leave.

*     *     *

Sometimes we would see a dog scatter the gulls on the beach, churning through wet sand. Sometimes there would be people dressed in Lycra, running along the shore. Mostly though, it was just us, writing our names with our fingers in the sand and watching the tide wash the letters away. Or we trudged on, knowing the water would wash our names away eventually.

We were winter children. We had nothing better to do.

*     *     *

Part of what brings Beauty and her Beast together is their shared love of books. In the Disney telling, the library seems to stretch for days. More than the dresses or the talking cutlery, this was my favorite part. I had taught myself to read when I was three. Quickly, I learned to hide in books. I could become so lost in the world of letters that I wouldn’t hear the world around me. During car rides, I could block out the sound of traffic or my father’s rages. The threats to crash the car, the promise to leave us behind.

Books were a doorway: a way to open and close. When I needed to hide, books. When I felt lost, books connected me. The best stories were the ones that lived in my breast. The best stories were the ones I could imagine myself into.

If I wasn’t reading, I wrote. I filled composition books with poems and stories and journal entries. Often, my characters were orphans. It seemed natural to kill off the parents.

When I was a teenager, I began to win awards for my writing. I attended luncheons and national conferences. My father is also a writer. In my teens, I worried he resented my success. If only he hadn’t had to work, he would say occasionally. If only he could have followed his writing. I always felt a bit ashamed for making him need to work, to provide food and clothing.

But then, for anything we really needed, we asked our mother.

*     *     *

Once, Beauty’s father was rich and could spoil his children. But by the time he stumbles into the Beast’s kindness, he is impoverished. His daughters have demanded gowns and his sons, swords. Only Beauty asks for a rose. And so he steals.

Books were a doorway: a way to open and close. When I needed to hide, books. When I felt lost, books connected me. The best stories were the ones that lived in my breast.

Did my father love me as much as that?

When the Beast threatens to lock that father away, he begs for the chance to tell his children goodbye. Beauty offers to stand in his place and the rest—well. You know the story.

How does her father let her go? He must, of course, but how does he leave that castle covered in vines? What is the shape of his spine as he journeys away, back to his other children?

What lesson could I take from this story but that love is duty.

Love is ballast-named but a crucible, all the same.

*     *     *

Beauty’s dresses turn to rags when her sisters try them on, her jewels to dust when they adorn their bodies. What do they make of their old gowns and bracelets, what they had exchanged for their sister?

I thought myself Beauty when I was younger, convinced that one day I’d be taken away, bedecked. I assumed emancipation needed to be given by a hand other than my own.

*     *     *

Eventually my father moved into the town where my mother lived. He rented a loft apartment where we took turns rotating between the floor and an exercise mat when we spent weekday nights and alternating weekends there. At first, he talked about buying beds or sleeping bags, but we adjusted to blankets and the floor.

We ate pizza from the restaurant downstairs sitting around the coffee table in front of a television. What we loved best was wrestling: my brother and I against my sister and father. Soon, it would devolve into the three of us piled on top of our father, trying to hold him down. For a moment, we could puppet his body. But again and again, he rose or one of us would catch an elbow in the soft of our belly, a knee in the back and cry. I was already a bit relieved when the wrestling ended. Fearful, I was sure someone could get really hurt. I worried I loved kneeling on his back, pressing bone to kidney, too much.

*     *     *

Gulls mob strangers: other birds, people, anything that might threaten their nests. The flock unite to form a golem, terrifying children and Bennys alike. But their allegiances fracture easily: over food, a nesting spot. Gulls tear scraps between them, wrestling for the biggest crumb.

*     *     *

As I grew beyond childhood, I or my siblings would ask my father about moments from childhood: remember this? Remember that? No, he would tell us. No, it didn’t happen like that. No, you’re remembering it wrong.

Who gets to decide?

If I remember my father’s anger, if I remember sleeping on the floor, then do I have a right to say it? It wasn’t all bad. But it wasn’t all good. And sure, that is childhood. But I knew other children weren’t itinerant like my siblings and me. I had dreaded someone seeing me help my father fling newspapers. I worried my shame would bleed out of me.

I love my father. But I no longer feel I can let him into my life. When I last confronted him, over email, his response asked me if I hadn’t thought about how he would feel. Don’t you know all the ways you’ve hurt me? he asked.

You’re remembering it wrong, he told me.

*     *     *

A gull is also a term for one who is fooled or deceived. Perhaps this comes from the word gullet, meaning “the throat” but also “to swallow.” Perhaps it is not that uncommon to be fooled by your parent and to still hope that they have changed. Say fooled instead of failed; say trickster instead of father. Perhaps we should expect our parents to devour us, like Kreon. Perhaps I need to find in me a way to slit his stomach open and see what piles forth. Perhaps I need to open my own gut, spill what I’ve ingested in hopes that he might change.

My father has asked me to forgive much of him: cancelling trips after I purchased plane tickets; skipping graduations and Thanksgivings at the last minute; taking out loans in my name that went to collection agencies that led to me weeping on the phone in public spaces, trying to explain that I didn’t know about the loans and had never seen the money.

But my father is always the aggrieved, the hero of his stories. Even the stories I tell about him must follow this pattern. Still, I wonder, what could I have done differently?

*     *     *

Gulls exist in the liminal space: they eat both meat and vegetation. In some myths, birds carry the souls of the dead to heaven or the underworld.

This is not to say that gulls are honest, but that they are what they are.

I used to believe that gulls could fly across oceans, that they could sleep on the water with their heads tucked under a wing. But they don’t—usually. They stay close to the coast, feeding off scraps or what they hunt for themselves. They’re opportunistic and bold: I’ve watched them steal pizza crusts inches from someone’s hand. They’ve been seen landing on live whales to peck away strips of their flesh.

This is not to say that gulls are honest, but that they are what they are. At least, as far as I can tell. The appearance of honesty counts for a lot, to so many.

I’ve believed my father is capable of changing. Perhaps I must believe that I am.

*     *     *

I used to play a game. Would my father give me five hundred dollars? I imagine the phone call: I’m in a bad spot, Dad; I’ve made a bad decision, Dad; Dad, they’re holding me for ransom, and I’ve scrounged everything but the last five hundred.

I imagine us tied to train tracks, a game of William Tell, a room slowly filling with water. Would my father give me part of his liver? I try to imagine us wheeled into surgery, our hands clasped until the swinging doors wrench us apart. But then I see him turning to the nurse wheeling his gurney, smiling a bit sadly, and saying, “You know, I don’t think I can do this right now.” He’d really want to, of course, but the timing. The timing would just be terrible.

*     *     *

The only class trip I remember my father chaperoning was to the Trenton War Memorial. We learned about bayonets, specifically their three points, so designed to create wounds that couldn’t close.

*     *     *

Recently a friend asked me how my father died. He’s still alive, I explained. We just don’t speak. Divorcing your parent is an unnatural act. Children are meant to be cared for; we are then meant to care, to nurture. Rejecting this had left me unmoored. Each of my siblings has handled this situation differently. My sister has refused to speak to my father for years. My brother maintains an uneasy relationship. I worry that by not missing him, I’m a bad person. I worry that this means I’m not made to love. Loving me must be a burden.

Beauty forgets her father. She and the Beast create a world without a past, despite decades spent trapped in forms beyond their natural, beautiful shape. Furniture reverts back to flesh, uncracked. What magic was this, what lesson was I meant to learn?

*     *     *

I was a square child. I knew I wasn’t beautiful, but I imagined I might be strong or fierce. Able to pick up cars pinning smaller children. An Atlas for a tired world. Once, I bragged I could carry my father, and in that parking lot he let me try. I bent, braced shoulder to thigh and lifted. I stumbled a few steps before he returned to the ground, surprised and laughing.

It must be time to put him down now.

 

Brynn Downing served as the thirty-fourth writer-in-residence at St. Albans School for boys in Washington, DC, where she also taught literature and creative writing. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and BA in global studies, focusing on masculinity and nationalism in the former Yugoslavia, from the College of William and Mary. She currently volunteers with Four Way Review. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine, The James Franco Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. You can find her online at: brynndowning.info.

Paper Shackles

Now, when I think of it, I can see only the sun. I can feel its heat infiltrating my light brown skin, boiling the blood therein, and I can hear the other students sizzling beside me, can smell burning flesh. I have to remind myself that we were indoors. That this wasn’t some celestial oven. Just a normal seventh-grade classroom and a normal class day.

We had pushed all the desks to the sides of the room so that we could tape two, thin, boat-like shapes in the middle of the classroom. The class day prior we made shackles out of construction paper. Some of the kids decorated theirs, but I left mine blank—a solid shade of sky-blue upon which my imaginary sun reflected. The teacher might have called it laziness; she had often questioned my work ethic, and, being thirteen, I would not have been able to articulate my position well enough to refute the indictment. No, I could not express how heavy those paper shackles felt, how inadequate a job stickers and glitter did of covering them, how disgraceful it seemed to me to make a craft of this inexplicable anxiety dwelling within me.

Still, we were to learn about the middle passage. We were to experience it.

At an age when hormones were supposed to turn me apathetic, I found myself preoccupied with slavery. The year before I was born, some archaeologists excavated the unceremonious burial site of several hundred black men, women, and children in New York City, and for a moment the nation had to confront the gaping wound in its past. [1] Black bodies mobilized. They demanded this history no longer remain invisible, buried. [2] Furthermore, I was born in the year of the LA Riots. I was conceived as Rodney King was beaten atop California pavement. Maybe that wave was still lingering in the atmosphere when my eyes first saw light. Often, I fantasized that I had been born a crusader for racial justice. I was less minority and more X-Man. However, my fascination with the institution of slavery was more fear than righteous indignation. I studied it in horror. I could not look away.

The class day prior we made shackles out of construction paper. Some of the kids decorated theirs, but I left mine blank—a solid shade of sky-blue upon which my imaginary sun reflected.

As we lined up and took our place in the imaginary boats, careful not to go over the walls indicated by lines of masking tape, the forward movement of time stopped, then regressed. I sat with my legs crossed and my right knee went overboard. If my classmates, white as they were, noticed my horror or if they were horrified themselves, I can’t recall, and, likely, didn’t observe in the moment. I would’ve been caught up in the waves now rising up to the ship’s deck, would’ve been fiddling with my shackles, would’ve been following the curved spines of black backs bent and broken.

Maybe I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn too early. At eleven, I had also marathoned Roots and, afterwards, crafted my own African identity. I was Udo Ka. Sean was my slave name. Or, perhaps, my resignation to the societal periphery had prompted my curiosity. For the first half of my childhood, we lived in the heart of Dallas, Texas, [3] and in those schools I was too white for all but a handful of my peers. My skin tone did not matter. The other kids had all seen my father, and his pastiness was an integral part of my brown. Dallas was where a kid shoved me into a garbage can—one of those big, gray, monolith-looking ones that teenagers have to wheel out at the end of their shift at McDonalds—and rolled me down a hill. Like the bullies did to the pale, scrawny protagonists in eighties teen flicks. In the bully’s defense I had called him precocious. We were six. I had it coming.

Then, before fourth grade, we moved to the country-suburbs of Wylie, Texas, [4] a town whose name cannot be pronounced without a hint of southern inflection, and all of a sudden, I was black. Less than black. I was a nigger; my mom, too. She had been called such at the Starbucks she managed. I sat nearby, Gameboy in hand and waiting for her shift to end.

Reading Huckleberry Finn aloud prompted some of my classmates to look my direction, apologetically, before each “nigger,” “nigga,” or “negro” while others read the words with a bravado and gravitas most often utilized upon the stage, reveling in the word’s inherent mischief. I knew that I was somehow conjured with each exclamation. Our English teacher would flinch whenever the word was uttered. She would remind us of its severity, of its history, every class period before we commenced the reading. Her voice rarely rose above a conversational tone no matter how enthusiastic she got about the lesson or how angry a student made her. That classroom was lined with posters—Rosie the Riveter, book covers, one or two motivational messages—and bookshelves occupied the remaining wall space. I had often borrowed books from her collection. She had pegged me as a part of her nerdy, literature-loving clan almost immediately, and when she gave the context lectures for our Huck Finn readings, for that pesky, little n-word, I felt as if they were for my benefit and my benefit, alone. In the desk next to mine, Ethan, a brute of a seventh grader, napped while she talked, face down and arms dangling off the side of the desk. He woke only when it was time to do the reading. He savored every opportunity to speak. That same year, in history, we learned about the slave trade.

My invocation of the sun has little to do with the lesson in particular, though I swear I still feel the burning of flesh and the boiling of blood. In reality, the classroom had one window in the very back of the room and was too far from me to cast any light, and the only burning of flesh I’d ever experienced was the naïve and childish touch of a hot stove. Instead, the fluorescents bore down on me, and the sun seemed intimately tied that room, to slavery in general. All the images in our textbook, paintings of black bodies toiling underneath the southern heat, foregrounded the sun—not the slave, not slaver, not for me. The lead actor in Roots? In Amistad? In Gone with the Wind? The sun.

So as we sat, aligned in rows of two, in the interior of the boat, I felt the sun beat against my flesh. I knew it would make me darker. Would make me all the more different from my classmates.

We linked our paper shackles together. The teacher stood at the front of the classroom. She had a habit of tapping a ruler on the back of her forearm while she spoke. I watched the rhythm as if she were conducting us in a symphony. She was the kind of lady who placed the now-tired phrase, “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it,” upon her breast. I would have her again for a humanities class. In that class she issued an assignment in which we relived our personal experience of 9/11 and wrote it into a letter to our future selves.

“Could you imagine,” she began her lecture on the middle passage.

I could do nothing but imagine.

Not even the ornamented shackles with their colorful patterns, garnished with glitter and sequins, could distract my imagination.

It occurred to me then that I couldn’t have existed. Or that I might have been a product of rape. Oh God. Something I cannot imagine—my docile, looks-at-his-feet-when-in-the-company-of-strangers father taking advantage of my mother who had bullied free food from a Chili’s because of her displeasure with TGI Friday’s. The power gained from racial hierarchy can only carry a person so far. Perhaps, I would have been the product of a secret affair, the product of the Romeo and Juliet of American Slavery. That would have at least been romantic. I would have at least been a metaphor for hope and possible reconciliation or some bullshit like that. And, of course, I had not yet ruled out the possibility of Immaculate Conception.

However I came to be, I would have no seat on that boat.

And yet here I was, simulating a ride that fascinated and horrified me all at once. As if to remind me, the other kids stared at me. They stared with eyes that insinuated that I would have been the only one among them on that boat. But they did not understand. They had not spent as much time thinking about it. And why would they?

Our teacher walked between the two boats. She tapped other knees that had fallen overboard back behind the line with the side of her boot. My knee was one of them. All the while, she described the atrocities of the events we were reliving. She reinforced the idea that these people were not treated as such. They were cargo. Some refused to eat. Others leaped over the edge. Into the glistening sun. [5] Centuries of history consolidated in a single lecture, a fiery star. Our teacher did not make eye contact as she spoke. I do not think she could have if she tried. All the kids were staring down at the carpet, drawing imaginary lines with the tips of their fingers. She stared straight ahead, through the walls. Her words carried the weight of each body lost to the atrocity. That incalculable multitude, not even given the courtesy of a statistic. When those words fell upon us, our bodies became vessels of historical trauma and sunk below the surface of the earth. Our lines transformed from generic, geometric shapes into crude and invisible illustrations of dying men. As she spoke, the sun illuminated her red hair, white skin. I wondered which side she was on. Then, I turned the question on myself: Which side was I on? Which side would even accept me? I could still feel the eyes of my peers. Their eyes were pairs of suns. Discerning eyes, trying to decide if I was, indeed, one of them or one of them. But there were no sides, only an agonizing and ambivalent history.

They were cargo. Some refused to eat. Others leaped over the edge. Into the glistening sun. Centuries of history consolidated in a single lecture, a fiery star.

Time found a way to repress that history. So many years circled around me without even the slightest consideration of that seventh-grade classroom. I almost forgot that that sun still hangs above my head until a friend and I were walking to class. The sidewalk stretched into the clutter of campus, and we stumbled into a conversation about Huckleberry Finn. [6] It had been in the news. Headlines about removing “nigger” and all its various iterations in the novel filled our newsfeeds. Before I could decide otherwise, I was walking back into that seventh-grade classroom, recanting the lesson, searching for the comedic beats of the tale, but in the telling I lost myself. My humorous anecdote turned psychoanalytic confessional. The words spilled out of my mouth, hit the pavement, melted. Sweat formed on every pore, and the sun reasserted itself on the scene. Ever-present, that entity, [7] essential to my formation, and yet I forget it every morning. I wondered if my friend felt the heat too. There was discomfort in his face. This I saw clearly. He fumbled with his glasses, didn’t make eye contact, laughed at non-jokes. He’s white, most of my friends are, and I imagined, that if I were him, my mind would wander, as nonsensical as the thoughts may be—did my ancestors own the ancestors of my friends? am I somehow to blame for all of this? could I possibly go back in time and right all the wrongs? I stopped trying to read his face. Instead, I stared into the sky and hoped the sun would burn spots onto my vision.

Eventually, I finished the story. It did not end; rather, it dissolved into a nervous chuckle.

“Wow,” my friend said, “that’s a crazy story, man. Funny stuff.” We walked into silence, both of us peering ahead.

“Could you imagine?” I could hear the teacher’s voice behind me. Funny stuff, indeed. In that classroom, all those years ago, the lesson and the history it pertained to were one and the same, but now, as I recall it, bit by bit, I am reminded that I had never embarked on any middle passage. What was in me then and in me now was Sethe’s spiteful Beloved, the ghost that haunted house 124. I could see it, there among the two boats taped to the carpet, my white classmates, the teacher’s red hair and wooden ruler tapping against the crook of her arm, my horrified frame huddled over paper shackles, and a sun that will burn and burn and burn. Until nothing remains.

 

Author’s Notes:

[1] In 1991, before the planned construction of a $276 million, thirty-four-story office tower could get underway, Historic Conservation and Interpretation (HCI), an archaeological salvage and consulting firm, discovered the remains of 420 African slaves underneath a parking lot in New York City. The General Services Administration (GSA) had bought the lot hoping that 200 years and a shit ton of cement had all but eradicated any remaining bodies, but no such luck. Would you believe it? Those resilient skeletons were still there, were still reminding the Yanks that they had had slaves too.

[2] Black activists protested the GSA’s decision to continue with their construction project and were outraged that, as always, the fate of this symbolic discovery was in the hands of old white men. It took those old white men fifteen years to agree that maybe a museum was a more fitting tribute to those slaves than a parking lot. By that time, I had kissed my first girl. She didn’t like it when I talked about the burial grounds.

[3] At the time, Dallas had a minority (that’s black, Hispanic, “other” according to the Texas Department of State Services) population of 884, 887 out of about two million, but most of that (looking at you, black and Hispanic) was concentrated in the lower-class parts of the city. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t grow up in the inner, inner city, but there weren’t a lot of nerdy white kids hanging around my school either. I’ll say that much.

[4] Now, I could give you the census data for Wylie, but the numbers really just amount to “Pretty damn white.”

[5] She gave one specific anecdote of a man: name unspoken, unknown, who tried to stage a mutiny but failed to stir the ire of his peers. He chose to drown rather than let the shipmen beat him to death. As the slavers approached him, whips in hand, teeth gnashing, he barreled through them. He even managed to snag himself a white man. Together, the two of them flew into the ocean, the sun spotlighting their descent. In all my research, I have yet to find this story, this man, but apparently, slave mutinies were less common than you might think. There was, of course, the Amistad mutiny made famous by a couple of paragraphs in your high school history books and Steven Spielberg, himself, in which some bold niggers from Sierra Leone used machetes to take control of their ship and good ol’ fashion lawyering to take control of their freedom. This story did not come up in our lecture.

[6] The debate exploded in 2011 when a publishing company in Alabama, of all places, replaced the heinous “nigger” with the much more tolerable “slave.” The publisher, appropriately named NewSouth Books, claimed the decision was less about censoring Twain and more about introducing the text to schools that had banned it. In the co-owner’s (paraphrased) words he wanted those uncomfortable with having the discussion to “have the discussion.”

[7] I feel this is as good a time as any to remind everyone that, in perhaps the most amusing political oversight in history, Mississippi did not officially ratify the Thirteenth Amendment until 2013, after a studious watcher of Lincoln did some digging. Once again, Mr. Spielberg stuck up for the underdog.

 

Sean Enfield is an educator, writer, and musician based in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. He graduated from the University of North Texas, where he received a University writing award, with a bachelor’s in English literature. His work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vine Leaves, Poetry Quarterly, F(r)Online, and Entropy magazine.

 

Lagrimitas

Mami used to tell people that I was a very delicate boy.

My parents instilled in me to do right and to avoid hurting others. I took it to heart. I always assumed that if I treated people the way I wanted to be treated, people around me would do likewise. It was the golden rule.

The golden rule. Little did I know that this moral imperative would be seriously challenged within a few short years of exposure to other kids in my barrio, especially in unsupervised settings, like on the alleys and empty lots off Medio, Guachinango, and San Gabriel Streets. I was the youngest of a group of boys that wandered about the calles in my neighborhood. This was our playground.

Henry, Oscar, Félix, Vento, Pupi, Armando, Generoso, and Helio were at least three or four years older than me. They attended the same public school in our neighborhood. I took the bus to Irene Toland School, a private school run by the Presbiterianos in the Simpson neighborhood, on the outskirts of Matanzas. At Irene Toland most of the kids were paired in classes with the same-age kids and supervised by gentle but discipline-inclined teachers. I had some run-ins with other kids from time to time at school, but short of name-calling and a shove here and there, I rarely encountered kids who didn’t share consensus in the golden rule.

In my barrio of Matanzas Oeste, things were different. I soon learned that finding my place among a group of kids in the neighborhood came with a complex set of herd behaviors. To say that I was beyond naïve was a gross understatement. I was drawn into fights I didn’t provoke, pushed into puddles I didn’t intend to step in, blamed for stealing or breaking things I neither stole nor broke. Because I was younger, I became the by-default recipient of most nefarious happenings in the neighborhood. Whenever there was need to blame someone for something gone wrong, I became the designated perpetrator.

I was the youngest of a group of boys that wandered about the calles in my neighborhood. This was our playground.

It didn’t help that my father was a well-respected businessman in the neighborhood who had no tolerance for me being out of line, even in unprovoked situations where I might have been trying to defend myself. My father embraced a “customer is always right” and “turn the other cheek” philosophy, which I suspect served him well with his customers. He was a polite, albeit big and muscular man, who exuded and demanded respect, and who actively avoided altercations. What this meant for me was that if I ever took a swing at any of the neighborhood kids, even in self-defense, and a parent ever came to complain about me to my father, it didn’t matter who did what, or when. I was always in the wrong.

It was under such tenuous circumstances that my childhood socialization and coping mechanisms soon imploded. The boys in the neighborhood nicknamed me “Lagrimitas” (“little tears” in Spanish). And so it was, that whenever my face became the target of a flying fist or my knee the substrate for an asphalt confrontation from an ill-intentioned shove, I had to suck it up: Don’t fight back, turn the other cheek, succumb to the misery of passivity and walk off quietly, hold back the sobs, try to hide the anger, pain, and frustration that comes from humiliation and helplessness. That was it. But holding back tears was contrary to the physiology of the moment.

It also didn’t help that I was not a meat eater. According to my mother I was “anémico and asténico” because of this. I was what some would describe as a wimpy, scrawny kid. I used to faint at the sight of blood, and was known to collapse when overheated. In contrast, the rest of the kids in the barrio were tough, street-hardened kids. Félix was the most macho and Pupi, at age thirteen, looked and smelled like Kid Gavilán, the legendary Cuban welterweight champion. Pupi had glistening blue-black skin and well-developed muscles on his arms and torso. He even had bulging muscles on his forehead and neck and hair in his underarms.

Despite being skinny, I was a good technical boxer and I could outrun any kid in Matanzas Oeste, except for Armando, who was fifteen and already had facial hair. Abuelo taught me to punch well, but the accuracy of my punches was consistently undermined by the lack of impact-force behind them. And so it was: if I was to coexist in the barrio, I had no choice but to have hope for the golden rule. But just in case, as I perfected the art of turning the other cheek, I learned to run fast whenever I had to.

Then there was Helio. A habitual brawler, Helio would put my golden rule to the test on several occasions. A head of curly black hair topped his greasy forehead, and tufts of unruly eyebrows rimmed a pair of beady, menacing eyes. When he spoke, a stench of rotting meat seeped out between and around a mouth busied by thick lips and several missing teeth. He was short and stocky and rolled his sleeves over his biceps.

Helio was an only child. His father was a bricklayer who drank aguardiente on a regular basis. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Helio’s father beat him regularly, sometimes for no obvious reason. I overheard Mami talk with neighbors about Helio’s mother not being a very motherly woman. I think Helio had no one in his family to teach him about the golden rule or the importance of cheek-turning. But I lacked the intellectual maturity to rationalize this at the time, so I couldn’t help but dislike him intensely.

I don’t know, but Helio was an angry person whose purpose in life, it seemed, was about stealing fruit from La Plaza market or skipping school or even beating up people like me who could not defend themselves. Most of the other neighborhood kids tolerated him but no one ever sought him out to play.

They say that every person has his day of reckoning. My uncle was greatly instrumental in allowing my day of reckoning to materialize. He knew that I was being bullied by someone in the neighborhood. Uncle Yayo sensed that I had withdrawn for several days. I came home from school and found excuses not to play outside. He asked me if something was wrong, and although I tried to avoid the topic, the lagrimitas on my face would ultimately betray me.

Uncle Yayo told me that as a child he had been bullied. He told me that his uncle Luis gave him a solution to the problem and that although he knew my father wouldn’t approve of it, he felt it was time for him to intervene on my behalf. I was mortified. I didn’t want my uncle to embarrass me in front of the neighborhood kids by trying to defend me.

The next day when I stopped to see Tio Yayo, he said he had something for me. From the glove compartment of his Chevrolet he pulled an object which was wrapped in brown paper, and tied neatly with twine. It was about four inches-by-one and triangle-shaped. When he handed it to me, it felt dense. I suspected it was a rock wrapped in paper. Indeed, it was a chunk of heavy, white marble.

“Keep this in your back pocket at all times,” he said. “The next time anyone does something really bad to you, you just quietly stand up, take a step back, slide your fingers into your back pocket and smile.”

“Smile for what?” I said.

“You smile to make him think you are not angry. At the same time, you are gripping your rock tightly in your hand and you are positioning yourself just far enough not to be reached by the bully, but not too far to miss your target,” Yayo said.

“You mean, you expect me to throw the rock at him? Is that what you mean?”

“No, not exactly. I want him to catch the rock that you will be pitching to him as fast and as hard as you can throw it. If he is not quick enough to catch it, then it becomes his problem. Then you apologize politely and walk away.”  That is what Uncle Yayo said to do.

I was totally confused. I could not believe my uncle, a highly respected teacher, was telling me to do this. Urging me to deliberately hurt someone went counter to everything Mami, Papi, and Abuela ever taught me. At the same time, however, I was desperate. I felt trapped in my own anemic, asthenic, and scrawny body. I had had it with hiding from Helio when I got home from school. The taunts and shouts of “Here comes Lagrimitas, crying down the street… Are you going to hide under your mami’s blusa?” were more than I could take. Now that I was almost ten, I didn’t like the idea that girls in the neighborhood would see me crying and running away—especially Catia.

I put the rock in my back pocket and headed home. That night I hid it under my pillow so Mami wouldn’t see it. The next morning, I hid it under the mattress and when I came home from school and changed into my play clothes, I placed the rock in my right rear pocket.

As I went outside that day, I felt different somehow. I knew I wouldn’t likely do what my uncle suggested, for it was not my nature to be violent, but I felt more secure knowing, just in case that I had protection. I noticed I began to walk differently. I looked up instead of at the ground. I swung my arms with confianza y seguridad, instead of letting them dangle by my side.

Several weeks went by. There were no confrontations, no taunts from the kids. I began to think there was something special about my rock, that perhaps it was a talisman and that it protected me from the taunts and the bullying while still letting me apply the golden rule and avoid becoming the neighborhood pincushion. I had to get new paper to rewrap the rock every two or three days, as the sweat from my body and the friction from playing frayed the wrapping.

I began to think there was something special about my rock, that perhaps it was a talisman and that it protected me from the taunts and the bullying while still letting me apply the golden rule and avoid becoming the neighborhood pincushion.

One day, several of the kids had been talking and bragging about birds they had trapped in the fields. We called these small finch-like birds tomeguínes (grassquits). Prized for their beautiful song, many people in Matanzas trapped and kept these little birds as pets in homemade cages and aviaries.

Uncle Yayo, who built bird cages out of river reeds, helped me build my trap cage. This cage had a center compartment, in which a male bird would be placed as decoy. Tomeguínes are very territorial, and a singing male would attract other birds. On the side compartments of the trap cage there were rocking trap doors onto whose edges I glued thistle seeds. Birds attracted by the decoy’s song would land on the cage, hop towards the rocker panels in search of the seed. Upon landing on the rockers, their own body weight would push the rocker doors and they would fall through to the bottom of the trap, unharmed, but unable to flee.

Others in the neighborhood had similar traps. We would go out to the sugarcane fields early on weekends to trap the prized songbirds. By day’s end it was common to return to find ten or twenty tomeguines in our cages. We traded, sold, or kept the best birds, and let the others go.

I brought out my cage to show the kids a tomeguín I had trapped two days earlier at Juanito’s father’s farm. Uncle Yayo said he was an unusually fine bird, with the loudest and sweetest song he had ever heard. I placed the cage on the edge of the sidewalk at the base of the steps of the butcher’s shop. My little tomeguín with the olive-green body, fiery yellow breast and shiny black beak hopped to and fro in the cage. I knelt against the curb, with the cage in front of me. Henry and Oscar and Félix and Helio were sitting on the steps, with Helio nearest to the sidewalk.

As I began to tell them where I had trapped this bird, the little tomeguín started to chirp excitedly, then went into a singing flurry. The boys were amazed, as was I, at how loud, crisp, and clear this little bird’s song was. That is, all except Helio. He looked down with disdain at the cage, and as he uncurled his legs out from under him, he puckered up and spit on my cage. He then kicked the cage off the sidewalk with his right leg. I fell back onto the street, trying to catch the tipping cage.

I eased the cage onto the curb, then stood up slowly. Helio glared at me.

“Don’t you start to cry, now, Lagrimitas… You can just take your little tomeguín and shove it up your…” Helio seethed. He was shouting so close to me that I could smell his foul spittle as it sprayed my face.

I stepped back, smiled, and reached with my hand around to my back pocket, just like Tio Yayo said. In one single, smooth motion I put my left foot forward, leaned back slightly as I unsheathed the rock. All I can remember was an uncontrollable fury unfurling inside. In a blur I swung my arm forward with a strength I never before experienced. I flung the rock at Helio. His groin got in the way.

In utter disbelief, Helio looked at me and tried to lunge. His fists were curled, his rotten teeth showing, eyes glaring. But as he tried to get to his feet, his eyes rolled upwards in a most unusual way, like a doll’s eyes. He grunted, exhaled, fell to his knees, and then face-down onto the concrete sidewalk. His arms lay curled below his hips. Helio lay there, limp, like an abandoned marionette.

They all thought I had killed him. He wasn’t moving. A man across the street ran towards us, lifted Helio up, and put him in a car with the help of a woman passerby. They took him away.

The other three boys stood silent, arms at their sides, looking like they’d just seen a ghost.

I knew what I had done. I thought of my father. I thought I would go to jail. Then I thought I would go to Hell for having killed Helio and that God would never forgive me.

I ran up the street to Abuela’s house and slammed the front door shut, panting heavily. My heart raced. I felt flushed. My chest was tight and my fingers tingled. This time there were no tears. Leaning behind the closed front door, I felt an ugly calm inside. I had left my trap cage and my little bird by the curb. But I felt like the whole neighborhood knew what a terrible thing I had done. I could not go back out in the street.

I stayed at Abuela’s house until it was dark and then scrambled to the apartment behind Papi’s grocery. I didn’t eat my dinner that night. Luckily, Papi had been at a Chamber of Commerce meeting since earlier that afternoon, so he didn’t come home until after I was in bed and he didn’t know about Helio. Mami also did not know what had happened because Abuela had not told her. I buried my face in a comic book after draping my mosquito net over the posts on the bed when Mami came to kiss me good night. She must have assumed I was asleep, turned out the light, and closed the door. I lay awake in the darkness for most of the night. No tears.

The next morning, I left for school. No news of Helio. The police had not come to arrest me yet. I prayed at the Irene Toland Chapel, but I felt no remorse. All I could feel in my heart was an empty, emotionless dark space.

When I got off the bus from Irene Toland School that afternoon, my father was standing at the corner, waiting for me. Helio’s father was there, as was Helio’s mother. There were several neighbors around them, including Oscar and Henry and Felix. None of them could look me straight in the face. I scanned for the familiar drab, tan uniform of Matanzas policemen, but there were none in sight.

My father said nothing. He twisted my ear in front of all those people and dragged me inside the grocery store. He slid off his leather belt as he pulled me into my bedroom.

I felt no pain. The sound of the leather snapping midair before it struck was welcomed. I deserved punishment. I realized then, as I lay face-down on my bed, accepting my father’s anger and feeling the sting of the leather on my buttocks that Helio must not have died. Still no tears. Ugly calm inside.

I realized then, as I lay face-down on my bed, accepting my father’s anger and feeling the sting of the leather on my buttocks that Helio must not have died.

I would find out later that night from my parents that Helio went to the hospital, that the neighborhood kids who were there explained to Helio’s mother and father what had happened. My father implored Helio’s parents not to call the police. They didn’t. Papi promised them I would be punished by being confined to my room for a month and that this would never happen again.

The month went by. My father did not speak to me for the whole time. I would come home from school, change into my play clothes, and sit on my bed. I read comic books and drew cartoons to ward off the boredom. I thought many times about escaping out the window and running to Abuela’s. I thought about running away from home altogether. Twice I packed some clothing, a penknife and some candy, and fashioned a bundle with a shirt whose long sleeves I knotted together and looped as a handle. I was ready to escape, but I didn’t. I was afraid.

I didn’t know what happened to my tomeguín or my trap cage after the incident. I was not allowed to visit or talk to Abuela or Abuelo, or to my Uncle Yayo, or to play with my dog, Yuti. My mother would never talk about the incident, but somehow I wished she could know how I felt.

After the month of home imprisonment ended, I felt both relieved and scared to be free. I didn’t know what would happen. Would Helio be waiting to ambush me? Had he been plotting to kill me? What would the neighborhood kids do?

They were all playing hide-and-go-seek on the early evening of my release. I walked down the street eating shaved ice with coconut syrup from a paper cone. I sat on the curb near where Félix was counting. The other boys ran off to find places to hide. Félix looked over his shoulder towards me. “Ocho, nueve y diéz… Here I come.” He nodded. I looked down and away towards my snow cone. I bit into the sugary slush.

One by one all but Henry ran to home base without being tagged. Félix tagged Henry and they walked towards me. Félix then patted me on the shoulder, bending down slightly to meet my eyes.

“Wanna play?” he asked.

 

An academic physician for over three decades with a primary emphasis in scientific writing, Ricardo Jose Gonzalez-Rothi is a relative newcomer to creative writing. He has had his fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry featured in Acentos Review, Heal Literary Magazine, Gainesville Magazine, Foliate Oak, bioStories, and the journal Chest.

We Race American

0.1 We race distinctly American.

.2 The run in itself is familiarized as 26.2 miles—a half 13.1. Here, we change to meters as the distances shrink: a 10K is more impressive than 6.2 miles in the same way that a 5K sounds further than 3.1. And yet with the marathon, there is something less glamorous when stated as 42.195 kilometers—we do the conversions in our heads to spite ourselves. For something that seems archaic, predating the cities in which I have lived, there is something distinctly American about the whole endeavor—of how large and sprawling it is, of how we run in the streets paved with gold.

.3 In the 1908 Summer Olympics, Irish-American Johnny Hayes took home the gold medal for the marathon race. This was not without controversy: Dorando Pietri of Italy entered White City Stadium and turned the wrong way. Exhausted, Pietri collapsed from dehydration a total of five times as he attempted to make it to the finish line—the last 0.2 miles taking over ten minutes. Race officials ran over to help Pietri up each time he stumbled, essentially dragging him across the finish line. Hayes finished the race shortly afterward, thirty-two seconds off of the lead. However, due to Pietri receiving outside assistance, Pietri was disqualified. As a result of the dramatic nature of the race, there was a new interest in distance running in the United States: head-to-head races between Pietri and Hayes were scheduled in New York, with Pietri winning both times. The Boston Marathon, only ten years prior with a total of twenty-one participants, now boasted over 160 runners by 1909. One has to wonder, if Hayes had rightfully received silver, whether there would have been the same amount of excitement about long-distance running—we would still claim Johnny Hayes as “American,” yet we would put more emphasis on the “Irish” part; an Olympian forever hyphenated. There is something about second-place that seems so anti-American; the streets were not rumored to be paved with silver.

There is something about second-place that seems so anti-American; the streets were not rumored to be paved with silver.

.4 I was born in New Jersey. My father, too, was born in New Jersey—the first of his siblings to be born in the United States, although my grandparents traveled extensively when he was growing up: to Barcelona and back again; to Germany. When people ask me about the origins of my last name, I always lead with Catalan and work my way down—I typically follow up with a line about, My family is from Barcelona, to which a typical response is, So, Spanish. I have family members who refuse to speak Castellano. I have aunts that cross themselves when they hear the name “Franco;” those who balk at even the mention of the word rey. For the sake of argument, I say, Yes, from Spain, and shove my name and all of its vowels into my pocket, as if the ghosts an ocean away can hear me.

.5 In 1977, my grandfather brought five Catalan runners to the United States to run in the New York City Marathon—this was a common occurrence throughout my childhood, as we would always have visitors from Catalunya come stay with my grandparents, until, after six or seven days of take-out and cheeseburgers, my grandmother would cook a paella to try to drive the homesickness away. A newspaper article from the Asbury Park Press mentions these runners staying in people’s houses all throughout my grandparents’ neighborhood—how families in New Jersey would be rooting for the runners “from Spain.” My mother’s side is distinctly American, distinctly Brooklyn, although there are distinctions there, too: of city blocks and bars, of Scots-Irish last names. My other grandfather’s name, too, contains an I and a U, though it is through foreignness that I got to know the boroughs. It is through the visitors how I got to know my own country: tracing my grandparents’ names on Ellis Island, climbing halfway up the Statue of Liberty before my legs would give.

.6 While running there are moments when I feel as if I am a tourist in my own body—still exploring what will always be unfamiliar; how, despite knowing that a particular hill will be difficult, I am still surprised at how shallow my breaths are, as if the air hits something solid before entering my lungs. This is true of my surroundings: I run the same route with slight deviations, yet there is something new to be seen, always—I do not stop to see the refurbished boat on the Riverwalk; I do not buy a peach from the farmer’s market. During races, I travel to towns I have never been and see none of them but the time spent on the course; my body too tired to notice the nuances, my legs broken down at the end of the day to the point where the only thing I see is the inside of a hotel room and episodes of a television show I have seen far too many times before. I ask friends who are locals for recommendations of bars, of places to eat, of things to do, yet I know that there is no way my feet will carry me to these landmarks at the end of the day. Instead, I order a pizza from a chain that I am familiar with. Instead, I hit the road back home in the morning, stopping for breakfast on the way out of town.

I ‘pass’ as American in the same way that Hayes could but my grandfather and millions of others could not.

.7 The idea behind running is to transport yourself somewhere that does not exist at that moment. I am not a runner who is constantly thinking about the next stride, or how my breathing matches up with my cadence. I am one who tries to forget the moment—to focus on hypotheticals: what I will eat when I am done, how the rest of my day will go. I ascribe to magical thinking—the day before my football team plays, I picture how the game will go; who will score first, what big play will put us ahead. The day of the 2016 election I did this as well—I imagined the victory speech with the repetition of the phrase “stronger together;” I imagined the space I would inhabit. In the days afterward, I imagined an alternate route—a recounting of steps, a way to feel less alien in a country where I was born, despite the fact that I speak the language without an accent, despite the fact that I do not need to explain to strangers where I come from unless they ask me to spell my last name. I “pass” as American in the same way that Hayes could but my grandfather and millions of others could not. Yet, even in this reimagining, I am simply visiting—the world will end well before my stopwatch does. How I feel in any world does not make others feel any less out of breath.

.8 When my grandparents first moved to this country, my grandmother spoke three languages, though none of them was English. She learned the language through talk radio and through the walls of their apartment, where the landlord would yell and curse about lord knows what. A photographer came by one day selling his services; for a fee, he would take a family photo as well as give them a United States government savings bond. My grandmother, hearing the words “United States Government,” let the photographer take the photo, for fear of some semblance of repercussion. Many years later, after my grandmother had passed her citizenship test, my grandparents’ household was known as “the Puerto Rican family,” as if there were no other plausible reasons for using a language foreign to suburban ears—as if there is only one place where our families could possibly be from.

.9 After settling in New Jersey, my grandfather ran for the Shore Athletic Club—the same club that houses all of Johnny Hayes’s accolades: his Boston Marathon second place trophy, his Olympic gold. Shore A.C. was Hayes’s adopted club in the same way that it was my grandfather’s—Hayes ran Boston under the umbrella of the Irish American Athletic Club, whereas my grandfather ran New York with A.C. Catalunya, a group he helped found. There is a statue of Hayes in his home county of Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland. There is a monument to my grandfather at the base of Montjuïc in Barcelona, Catalunya. There are no monuments of either of these men in the United States—instead, they exist only as trivial anecdotes: Do you know the story of the 1908 London Marathon? Did you know that my grandfather founded the Barcelona Marathon? Small items that are concrete only in that they are facts. However, the truth grows old and fleeting—we replace old with new to the point where we forget where we came from, but we are remiss to remember the middle parts; the ninetieth mile in a life of thousands, until all of the breaths seem to blur together.

 

Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, most recently the lyric-memoir i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms), and Enter Your Initials for Record Keeping (Cobalt Press), a collection of essays on NBA Jam. Recent essays on topics ranging from long-distance running to professional wrestling appear in The Collagist, Catapult, The Rumpus, Runner’s World, and elsewhere.

How to Disappear

Here is how they disappear:

Slowly, and then completely. The phone calls go from once a week to once a month, then a text message here or there; a string of emails at two in the morning full of drunk poems and questions like: How am I supposed to stop shooting dope when the asshole guard who raped me at the county jail likes all the Facebook pictures of my four-year-old daughter?

I return the emails when I wake up, I try to take the phone calls, try to remember to extend invitations to come to literary readings, send links for free counseling, always sign the correspondence with love, or you got this, or I am proud of you. My writing students from jails and prisons and rehab centers—even though they are disappearing, they keep writing their stories down, as if the ink will provide evidence once they’ve gone.

*     *     *

Here is how they disappear:

Mostly to heroin, but also to handguns. I have come to see these things not as different, but as two sides of the same Buffalo nickel, hot and sweaty in all our palms, burning holes in our pockets until they find the perfect time to detonate.

I look up statistics as if numbers will give me solace or prove me wrong. 47,000 hand gun deaths a year; 52,000 heroin overdoses, to say nothing of the other ways drugs and drug cocktails kill us.

*     *     *

Here is how they disappear:

My writing students from jails and prisons and rehab centers—even though they are disappearing, they keep writing their stories down, as if the ink will provide evidence once they’ve gone.

First, to themselves. Microscopically, imperceptibly. Only later do they disappear to those around them. The people who love us manage to find ways to glimpse the familiar even as our eyes become strangers in the mirror. No, first we disappear to ourselves.

Like Terra, who, when I met her, had never even visited a city. Who had never been outside rural Western Pennsylvania. When I met her at the county jail, she wrote pieces about not fitting into her housing unit. How all the other girls were talking about drugs—she’d smoked pot once in high school; it made her sick. In class, she rarely spoke in volumes above a whisper, and when she did she inevitably broke down in tears about how much she missed her children and her dog.

She stayed at county for two years. The last time I saw Terra she told me she’d married a man through a toilet bowl. I’d heard about this from staff—how the plumbing in the building allowed for makeshift telephones to the cells directly above and below one another; drain the water from the toilet bowl and thrust your head toward the bottom; project your voice. Or whisper. Make a love connection. Terra, in her new white-girl braids, told me proudly she’d found a new man who treated her like a queen. Her speech was full of Hilltop slang; she’d gotten a shitty tattoo of a rose and crossbones on her wrist. She bragged about making the best jail juice in the whole place.

There she was: disappeared.

When I use the bathrooms at the jail, at the prison, the mirrors are foggy, made of something other than glass. I assume for safety—something unbreakable, something that can’t splinter into shards. Looking into the distorted, gray, non-reflection, I imagine it might be easy to forget what I look like. To slowly become convinced that I am not full of specific detail—the new wrinkle I grimace at on my forehead. To forget the particular shade of hazel that names my eyes. Without truth staring back at me, I could so easily begin reflecting the faces around me instead of my own.

*     *     *

Here is how they disappear:

Into un-medicated freedom. Freedom that does not provide psychiatric care or follow-up visits or counseling. Freedom that depends on self-advocacy that is almost impossible.

Like Will. Will wrote poems about love. Long, winding, curlicue poems that professed the kind of love even fairy tales don’t claim is real.

And he wrote poems about a smashing kind of violence. Rip your teeth out violence. No one will recognize your face again violence.

Will was the teacher’s pet. Especially for an unexperienced teacher who often fumbled over her words, explained complicated ideas with even more confounding examples. I was a teacher who was grateful for the student who always had an answer, a comment, who raised his hand, always did the homework. Will never stopped smiling.

Once he asked me, “Is it possible to write something happy?”

I shrugged. “It must be,” I said, “but I don’t know how to do it.”

The next week I brought him the Romantics—the Byron and Blake poems that pontificated on the value of love above all else.

Will devoured them.

When he got out of county, he came to every literary event, attended each and every workshop we offered on campus, took the mic at all the readings. He brought his girlfriend, Precious. One night the love poem he recited was so amorous the audience thought he’d propose right then and there.

They broke up a few months later, and Will wrote about that, too. He asked me out on dates, and I said politely and firmly: no, no, another no, one more no.

The last time I heard from Will he sent me an email with a poem about broken promises and one more entreaty: “I could keep you warm,” he wrote. “Don’t keep yourself cold all winter.”

The truth is, if I’d met Will anywhere outside the county jail, I probably would have taken him up on his offer. He was handsome, and charming, and talented, and had strong shoulders. The truth is, I often changed clothes two or three times before I went to class when he was my student. I wanted to look nice. I wanted to stay within the dress code, but just within it. As the years went by, my strategies changed on this front, but in those first classes with Will, my body was a strategy that I was willing to employ as quick as a rubric or a great anthology. On so many nights, it seemed like all I had.

A week after that last email, Will took Precious into the woods behind her house and shot her. Then he drove to a cousin’s house and shot himself.

Will told me once that he knew it was wrong, but he was most stable in prison. “My psych meds are expensive, Sarah,” he’d said. “It’s not cheap to have psychosis.” He laughed when he told me this. Will was always in a good mood.

I only knew Will in jail, on those expensive, stabilizing psych meds that let his brain smile and write poetry and read all of William Blake.

I am glad those are my memories of Will, glad I will always know the side of him that wanted proof that poets, too, could be happy. That we do not only put pen to paper in despair. And I am glad that I did not know Precious, as selfish or blind as that might seem. Because it is easier that my affection for Will not be complicated by affection for his dead girlfriend, for her children, for the violent ends.

And then, just like that: disappeared.

*     *     *

And here is how they disappear:

In the mail.

Every few weeks, I get letters with “Department of Corrections” return addresses. The letters are dated six months, nine months previous. They are about events long since passed, requests now expired and thought to have been ignored.

I imagine the letters in a giant bin of mail, fading with their expensive stamps and standard-issue paper. What is a letter to do if it can’t be sent? It sits, becoming unlike itself, disconnecting its purpose from its physical presence—disappearing.

*     *     *

And here is how they disappear:

Out in the street, broad daylight, begging for change for a get-well bag.

Lisa jumps in and out of my life, mostly when she needs something. When I move out of my apartment, she comes in a borrowed truck for a twin mattress and some bookshelves.

I only knew Will in jail, on those expensive, stabilizing psych meds that let his brain smile and write poetry and read all of William Blake.

I see her on Liberty Avenue twice: once, she tells me she’s got a new waitressing job at Thai Cuisine. The next time, she says she’s staying under the Bloomfield Bridge, but she’s gonna get to a methadone clinic soon.

I see her at the Sunoco, catty-corner to the hipster bar, both of us buying cigarettes. She says she’s with her Pap, but when she jumps into the Chevy idling at a pump, he doesn’t look like anyone’s Pap I’ve ever met.

And then she texts, and says, “I fly a sign on the corner of Penn and Fifth Avenue most days. It’s a few blocks from Chatham. I always imagine I’ll see you drive by.”

Lisa was a full-time art teacher at the ritzy all-girls private school five years ago. She was married. Had two kids, then a third. But her baby was born with a rare genetic heart condition. Long QT Syndrome. When she tells the story at the rehab center where I meet her teaching a creative writing class, I gasp.

She looks up from her paper. “I know,” she says, “it’s sad.”

“It is,” I say. “But I know Long QT.”

Lisa looks back, shocked, because most people, most doctors even, don’t know about Long QT. “How?” she asks.

I tell the story of my boyfriend who died next to me in a movie theater, almost twenty years ago now. Long QT, we found out, a year later.

After her baby died, suddenly and in the crib, she started taking pain killers. Five years later, she’s on a street corner two blocks from her old teaching job, begging for change to pay her dope dealer.

She looks like a dead person.

When I see her, after the text, I drive her home. She’s still managed to keep the little house she bought in Larimer before the divorce and the drugs and the looking like a dead person. How she’s held onto it, I don’t know. Maybe a mom, some generous aunt, maybe her ex-husband keeps paying the mortgage. I buy us Thai food—green curry and thick noodles with syrupy brown gravy that I know she is too sick to eat. Her house is immaculately clean. Her paintings hang on every square inch of wall space. But it smells like dope seeping out of sick skin—a smell I wonder if I’ll ever really know how to find the precise words for.

I called my boyfriend before I went to pick her up. “I’m not going to give her money,” I said.

“Try to find something specific you can help her with,” he told me. “Ask her if she has an ID. She needs a current ID to get into a clinic.”

It turns out she does need an ID, but more than that, she needs dope, because we both know she’s not going to drag herself to the DMV or Public Health sick. I give her $60.

I know it’s probably wrong, but sometimes, I justify to myself, people just need someone to be kind to them even when they’re doing the wrong thing. Sometimes you need someone to help you get well without judging you for being sick. I remember all the times I was dope-sick. How humongous the kindness of strangers seemed, how powerful, when everyone crossed the street to avoid me coming. I still remember a woman who gave me her Yoplait at a bus stop; the nurse who quietly brought me a pencil during detox so I could write on the scraps of paper I’d found; the generous regulars at the bar who could look at me and tell I hadn’t had my medicine for the day, would just slip me a $20 before they’d even finished their first beer. These people live in an outsized glory in my memory. They are the heroes who saw me as human.

And so, $60.

The next night I get a text message that Lisa has overdosed in the parking lot of the Onala Club during a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

There. Disappeared.

When I went to Lisa’s house, I could feel the insides of my own body slowly and serenely disappearing. I was still a body, but where my person was, I don’t know. I was leaving my present-Sarah, and replacing her with five, six, seven different versions of me. I was a college administrator—responding phenomenally poorly to what was, in some sense, a work situation. And I was a woman in recovery, who wasn’t going to flinch at a little dope-sickness and desperation. I was a writer—and yes, now it’s material. And I was a teacher, and I was also a junkie.

What percentage of me went to Lisa’s house because I knew it was a place where maybe I, too, could get high? What percentage of me wanted to save the day, and get credit for it? And what percentage of me wanted to gaze at the disaster of a woman disappearing in front of me, and be grateful that I had somehow been spared? Gotten out almost scot-free.

Some of me was fifteen, and some of me was twenty-eight, and some of me was thirty-five, but at Lisa’s house, I remembered why, in some part, I keep going back to these places and meeting the people who share their stories with me. I felt it. I felt the draw of being a disappeared person, the syrupy allure of fading into a square of wax paper, a thumbprint of black tar. The seduction, the power to say: Here I am, but now, watch me, I’m gone. I am my own magic trick. Done disappeared.

 

Sarah Shotland is the author of the novel Junkette, and a playwright whose work has been widely produced. She is cofounder of Words Without Walls, which brings creative writing classes to jails, prisons, and rehab centers in Pittsburgh. She is a 2017-2018 fellow at Santa Fe Art Institute’s Social Justice initiative, and teaches in the MFA program at Chatham University.

Testimony

I wear my purple suit to testify against my father. Deep-hued and simply tailored, it masks my insecurities, costumes me in a longed-for confidence that I hope will belie my fear. I resist smoothing the brushed-gold buttons on the jacket, avoid fingering the garment’s knotted rayon slubs. Instead I worry the flat gold pendant around my neck that bears the Hebrew symbol chai, which means “life.” My grandmother gave it to me when I was born.

My sister, Jean, has decided to sue our father for sexual abuse from the time she was a toddler until well into her teens. She is thirty years old but the statute of limitations in Michigan is liberal and tolls as long as memories keep surfacing. Because the traumas flood her psyche like sewage backing up after a storm, the statute continues to run.

Jean’s lawyer wants me to provide corroborating evidence, state for the record what I observed between my sister and my father. But Jean and I are eleven years apart and I cannot corroborate with absolutes; while he was violating her I was at school, with friends, on dates, shopping, married. Or sequestered in my room, inhaling books and their alternative realities that, from the time I could read, sheltered me from the turmoil inherent in nine children attempting to navigate an environment forged by maternal alcoholism and paternal violence.

Although my own psychological septic system continues to overflow, I have no interest in suing my father: I have not spoken to him for more than seven years and feel safe in the silence. But I admire my sister’s courage. And because I know that speaking out will help my own healing, I can testify about how he sexually abused me.

“To help establish a pattern,” I tell Jean’s lawyer when he unexpectedly calls me at my job as communications director for a bar association.

“Exactly,” he says. “I’ll send you an affidavit to sign. You’ll be deposed some time after that.”

Shaking, I hang up the phone and call my therapist.

“Of course, you’re scared,” she says. “But you’re ready, you’re safe, and you’ll be fine.”

I remind myself to believe her and attempt to finish a press release about lawyer community service. But instead, I stare at a window washer riding up the side of the parking garage across the street. He stands on chrome scaffolding, brushes against the orange cyclone fencing that keeps him safe. Cables dangle from his perch, yellow and black ropes that sway like pendulums over the garage walls. I want to reach out and grab one.

Several days later, I receive the affidavit. Written in legalese, it is a jumble of words that says everything yet nothing; that what happened to Jean happened to me, and so help me God, I’m telling. A vacationing panic attack returns and reminds me of the prohibitions against speaking out, of my father’s threats to kill me if I do, his promises that no one will believe me anyway. My psychiatrist increases the dosage of my medication.

“The affidavit is too broad,” my own lawyer says. “We need to make it as detailed as possible. Tell everything. Convince the judge that you’ve nothing to hide, that your father’s a monster.”

In the weeks following, I try to remember what I was wearing when I answered the telephone and volunteered to testify, which suit I will donate to Goodwill so it won’t betray me again.

*     *     *

Although my own psychological septic system continues to overflow, I have no interest in suing my father: I have not spoken to him for more than seven years and feel safe in the silence.

I am the family golden girl. Intelligent and restless like my father who, in his thirties, returned to school to become an English and drama teacher. Quiet like my mother who, between drinking binges and depressive episodes, wrapped herself in the living room drapes and peered through the plate glass at our cats padding across the front lawn, at the crazy people entering and exiting the home office of the psychiatrist across the street. My father liked me that way and I didn’t want to trigger his rage; my sister and brother had that responsibility. He brought me books, gold charms to add to the bracelet he bought for my birthday, a corsage for my piano recital. When I met his friends and students he smiled, said, “This is my dumb one.” He pointed to my beautiful sister Naomi. “And this is the ugly one.”

My mother lived her days in captivity, her slurred words and erratic behaviors raging through our lives like a squall.

“She’s nuts,” my father said, and nodded toward where she lay curled on the living room floor, weeping and muttering. “Look at her. Crazy.” I turned away.

My father worked at his typewriter in the basement where there were witches, he said. We’d better listen to him or he’d throw us down there and they’d get us. In the kitchen he sliced rotting mangoes and pears for chutney. We’d better listen to him or he’d chop us all up into bloody pieces.

“I hate you!” my sister said, and punched him. He bloodied her nose.

“Cock sucker,” my brother said. My father lunged at him with a knife.

I stayed safe in my room with a book.

When I was in second grade, my father came to my bed at night, wrapped his arms around me, reached between my legs and rubbed. He taunted me with the consequences of telling. “They’ll say you’re crazy, too. Lock you up, throw away the key. Then the spiders will eat you.”

When he went to the bathroom or across the hall to my sister or fell asleep, sated, I crept downstairs. “Daddy’s bothering me,” I said to the tangle of sheets that was my mother.

“Go back to bed. You’re having a nightmare.”

Years later, my cousin told me that my father called me his rose. I think of the deposition, wonder if my father now calls me his thorn.

*     *     *

Jean, my youngest sister, is the eighth child. When she was four years old and our baby brother was born, her imaginary friend, Jane, moved in with us. Jean carted Jane everywhere, talked to her, bathed her.

“See,” my father said. “The only people who like you are invisible.”

Three years later, during my first semester of college, I came home for a visit. Jane was gone, replaced by a real child from the neighborhood. As Jean dressed to go play, I noticed her arms. Scabs covered them. Fresh and bleeding. Old and crusty. I smoothed my hair back and remembered seventh grade honors English, the double class periods where, as I listened to the silence of others working, I carefully peeled brown crusts from my scalp.

“What happened to Jean?” I asked my mother. She lit a cigarette, told me how my sister picked at the skin on her arms, then the resulting scabs. She raised an eyebrow, blew out a thin line of smoke.

I approached my father, suggested that they take Jean to a counselor. “Aren’t we little Miss Psych 101,” he said.

In the sixth grade, Jean threw her desk and the district transferred her to another school.

“She just wants attention,” my mother said about the requirement that Jean go into therapy.

After several sessions with a social worker, Jean ran away. When she returned, my parents sent her to a home for delinquent girls and, later, committed her to a local state hospital. She ran some more, got pregnant a few times, had abortions. Pregnant again at seventeen, she married the baby’s father. The marriage lasted less than a year.

*     *     *

In spring 1986, I was thirty-four and in therapy for the fourth time: I had recently returned to my marriage after a five-month separation that I’d initiated without understanding why. During treatment my memories started surfacing, then consuming me. As panic suffocated me and dizziness spun me to the couch, my husband, a full-time graduate student, assumed most of the parenting responsibilities for our young sons. Each night I lay in his arms in bed, sweating and breathless, trying to convince myself that he was not my father, that I was safe. “He’ll kill me,” I said, and sobbed, shook.

My husband clutched me tighter, kissed the top of my head.

My father worked at his typewriter in the basement where there were witches, he said. We’d better listen to him or he’d throw us down there and they’d get us.

During the day, I sold furniture in a shop near our home. As long as I went to work, I could pretend that I was fine, I was capable, I was calm. But even when business thrived, traffic in the store was light. So in between chatting with my coworker about his social life or my kids or the inanity of what we were doing, I wandered around the showroom from bookcase to bar stool, stopping at a dresser with a mirror that showed me, when I dared to look, that even if I was a ghost, I was a visible one.

One night that summer, I was washing dinner dishes while my husband read to our boys. The telephone rang. I turned off the water, dried my hands. “Hello?” I said.

“Hi, Leah,” my father replied. “You feeling any better?”

“I don’t want to talk to you!” I slammed down the receiver and returned to the sink, where I turned the water back on, twisted it off, stared out the window, shook my head. With my teeth, I tore the nail from my pinkie.

*     *     *

After Jean files her lawsuit, she calls me frequently. Our mother is named codefendant, she says, and, several months later, in June 1992, our mother calls me, enraged. “Doesn’t she have enough attention already?” she says. “What’s she doing this to me for? The money? That’s it, Leah. It must be the money. Doesn’t she know Dad doesn’t have any, he’s a teacher?”

Jean pleads with me to make it stop, the nightmares that wake her, the day terrors that stalk her, the clattering chaos of her kids being kids as she huddles in the corner of her living room, knees bent, head tucked, arms clutching her gut. As she whispers and sobs, I watch the air from the vent on my kitchen floor ruffle my calendar, separate yesterday, today, tomorrow.

My lawyer asks me to write about how my father abused me, what I observed in his relationship with Jean, with my other siblings, the general chaos and violence in our house. From it, he will prepare a detailed affidavit. I flush twelve pages from my system in little more than two days, amazed at the ease with which the truth escapes. His finished product annoys me. Though the facts are mine, the voice, the verbose writing, the disorganization belong to him. Still, I sign Leah Joy Silverman Gales and affix a date. I choose a judge to notarize it, a woman who is a vocal supporter of efforts to stop domestic violence.

As the months pass, my sister’s telephone calls ebb and flow. I talk to her out of love, out of a sense of responsibility and duty as the oldest. We rant about our father, deplore his actions in our pasts, his antagonism toward her now. He raped us both, the sonofabitch, asshole, slime. It doesn’t matter how, when, where, how often. We don’t talk about the other ways he abused us, so certain are we of the similarities in trespass, in violence. So much is family lore, anyway. The “tickle tortures” we accepted so matter-of-factly, the “Indian burns” he twisted into rawness around our forearms. The feel of his tongue in our ears, his fingers pinching our buttocks, groping our crotches. Didn’t all fathers walk around the house in boxer shorts, flaunting belly and balls like trophies? Or adorn their suits at election time with pins proclaiming, “Mike Hunt for President?” We fantasize how we’d like to slice him crotch to throat, let him bleed, see how it feels to be split open. We wonder about why, absent one short letter, he doesn’t try to find out the source of my anger, the reason his golden girl has cut him off. Jean is crazy, everybody knows that. But Leah? The smart one? The good one?

*     *     *

When my mother dies in early 1993 from emphysema and probable lung cancer, the lawsuit is well underway. I attend the funeral in California. Jean stays home. She doesn’t want to see the brother who offers her $10,000 to shut up, the sister who tells her to “just let go and let God.” Our father, though divorced from our mother for almost twenty years—nearly as long as the two of them were married—will certainly be there. It’s an event; he’s a director.

Six of my siblings attend. All have a relationship with my father, know that I’ve cut him off too, pretend that I haven’t. “Jean’s a bitch,” they say. “She’s crazy. Fuck her.” They study me as I enter my brother’s California contemporary home, wait for my father to return from viewing my mother’s body.

The front door opens with a squeak followed by a collective but quiet gasp. “Hello!” my father says to us all.

I am silent.

He’s upbeat but emotional, this man who cried through Pollyanna, and works the room like a politician desperate for votes. “How are the kids?” he asks me jovially.

My sibs look at one another as I mumble, turn my head, sit on the piano bench with my young nephew and begin to play something, anything.

My father asks if my husband, a professor, has tenure yet, how my job is going. I mutter an answer and get a bagel from the dining room, a hug from a brother, return to the piano. The phone rings. “I’ll get it,” my father announces. My brothers and sisters relax. I sigh, brush some poppy seeds from the skirt of my deep purple suit.

That night, a brother who regularly welcomes Grandpa’s offers to babysit the granddaughters says, “I know Dad’s an asshole, but you could at least talk to him. He feels bad.”

I stare at him.

A few months later, the judge assigned to my sister’s case orders both sides into non-binding mediation. My father now has two lawyers: his personal lawyer and the one from the insurance company that, if my father is found guilty, will be responsible for any settlements.

After the mediation, my lawyer calls me. “The mediators found in your sister’s favor,” he says. “Four hundred fifty thousand dollars worth.”

“Really?” I say. “That’s fantastic. It’s over, right? I don’t have to testify.”

“Assuming your father accepts the mediator’s recommendations,” my lawyer explains.

“I’m not giving her a fucking penny of my money,” my father tells my brother.

*     *     *

Jean and I continue our long-distance hand holding and hugs. She sails through her deposition, she says, proud that she’s healing, anxious to put all in her past. Pregnant with child number five, she asks if she and her boyfriend can visit over Labor Day weekend on their way to Tennessee. I can’t wait to hold her, see that she’s okay. Have concrete proof that we’ve both come this far.

We fantasize how we’d like to slice him crotch to throat, let him bleed, see how it feels to be split open.

In August, I attend a five-day Outward Bound course for women survivors of violence and, at its conclusion, collect the pin that reminds us of all we’ve accomplished. Though my panic attacks are diminishing, memories still steal my breath and remind me that I’m enmeshed in a process that most likely won’t end. But my children are healthy, my marriage stable, and every weekday morning I dress in a suit and pumps, drive downtown and publicize the good deeds of lawyers. I’m proud; I’m tough. Like a biker chick, my friends tease, and say that I’ll soon want a Harley.

The lawyers schedule my deposition for November, in Cincinnati, where I live. My sister’s and father’s lawyers will attend, as will my lawyer and my therapist. My father, playing coward, will stay home.

Except when it’s already tomorrow, time drags. I spend it in therapy and on hold with my lawyer, calculating his fees. When I travel to professional conferences, my pumps, purses, and pearls share space in my two-suiter with Charles, my ratty stuffed panda and confidante.

Finally, the week before Labor Day, I call Jean about her impending visit. Her telephone has been disconnected. The sister who lives in the area, who often takes Jean’s son for weekends, doesn’t have the new number, tells me Jean’s probably run again. I hear her chuckle softly over the phone, see in my mind the smirk, her self-righteous nod. “She’s nuts, Leah. You really think she’s going to hang around for that court case?”

Neither my nor Jean’s lawyers has information on her whereabouts. In extra therapy sessions, I vacillate from worrying about her safety to raging about her disappearance. She’s using me, I tell my therapist. She doesn’t need my testimony, hers is enough, she gets off on the idea of our father writhing even more. She wants our siblings to rally around her, thinks having me on her side will make that happen. I’m freaking out, I tell my therapist, while Jean’s laughing hysterically.

“Who are you doing this for, Leah?” my therapist asks repeatedly.

And always I answer, “Me.”

*     *     *

On the morning of November 5, I ease into my black-silk shell, step into my purple skirt. Before putting on my jacket, I lightly moisten my left upper arm and slip a temporary tattoo onto the skin. “Born Free,” it says. “Harley-Davidson.” I attach the Outward Bound pin to an inside jacket seam and, around my neck, fasten the chai necklace.

At the law office where my deposition is scheduled, I seat myself at the conference table and smooth my skirt. Around me sit the lawyers, my therapist, the court reporter. On the floor beside me, Charles the Bear scrunches inside my briefcase.

We make introductions, chatter mindlessly about the weather or the bar association or college football. My lawyer shuffles the pile of legal folders on the table in front of him, clears his throat. He reminds me that the court will seal the record, asks me if I am ready to begin.

“Yes,” I say, and nod.

The court reporter’s fingernails click codelike against the keys on her miniature keyboard. Do you solemnly swear? she says. The record needs to know.

Again I nod, then, “Yes.”

I take a deep breath and speak.

 

Leah Silverman writes in part to help raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual abuse in the Jewish community. Her fiction, which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has been published (under the name Leah Silverman Gales) in The Carolina Quarterly, Meridian, and Web del Sol, and is forthcoming on JewishFiction.net. Her nonfiction has appeared in River Teeth. A metropolitan Detroit native, Leah holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She currently lives in Durham, NC, where she is writing a memoir and making abstract art.

Out of Houston

When I think back to that bar in Houston, the one that offered us mahogany and beveled glass and a brief reprieve from our hot, damp lives, I can still see Lynda and me: my blue-jean jacket, her skeleton earrings. We’ve swiveled onto our stools, and she’s paid for our drinks. She is laughing, leaning into me, and I nod, slowly agreeing to something.

Now that I am a professor, I catch whiffs of that familiar stink on them: a mix of sweat and burritos, of ego and anxiety.

We were graduate students then. Grad students inspire little pity because their misery is self-generated—what fools to chase education to such an extreme—and they are often obnoxious. Now that I am a professor, I catch whiffs of that familiar stink on them: a mix of sweat and burritos, of ego and anxiety.

But the agonies of graduate school don’t feel manufactured and optional while you’re going through them. They feel like hell. When I finished my orals, for some reason on Wuthering Heights, I went home and wept to General Hospital, my daily, and, I am not proud to say, singular guilty pleasure. I’d become unhinged enough to think of getting a couple of cats, of naming them Edgar and Heathcliff, and of finding this enormously amusing, but I doubted that I could support two feline suitors on a teaching assistantship.

Yes, life as a TA was tough, but what other choice did we have? To work full-time? A Maynard G. Krebs shriek formed in our sensitive throats. The poorer and older of us already had been there, done that. We’d slung enough hash to fatten whole towns, coming home with pockets full of crumpled bills, our hair smelling of other people’s food. Or we’d put in our time at pink-collar jobs, playing secretary in skirts and fingernails. We’d filed and phoned and tried to write poetry on the side, knowing that no one in Poe-Biz would take someone like us seriously.

Being in a creative writing program changed that.

We got to call ourselves writers, not secretaries, not waitresses; we deemed this to be a sacrifice worth making.

I remember breaking down to spend fifteen dollars on a lamp so I could have a decent light to read by. And dragging a mattress and box springs—a lucky find by the apartment Dumpster—up three flights to my lair. Sleeping on that bed was like lying on a slab of rock, with smaller rocks randomly embedded in the primary boulder, but I took pleasure in getting off my two-inch foam pad, in my upward move away from a cigarette-stale carpet.

Lynda was no better off than I. Her apartment had air and light and nothing in it. Well, a card table and two folding chairs, her pink three-speed propped against a wall, a plugged-in radio. I don’t think that I’m erasing furniture from my memory. I recall an impromptu gathering: after one of our fellow students had shot himself in the head, wham bam, dead and gone, a stunned and drunken group of us sitting on the hardwood floor, our backs against the wall because there was nowhere else to sit.

It always looked as if Lynda could be packed and on a plane in half an hour. And she could. Yet in the end, she chose not to fly but to drive her dirt-brown Honda Civic home to Washington. She’d had enough, gotten her MA, screwed around for another year in the PhD program while her beloved awaited and, apparently, issued ultimatums, as beloveds are wont to do. Lynda wanted company. It was a long way to go alone, especially in that rusty bucket of hers.

We had both come into a bit of luck, having been granted the two creative writing fellowships offered that year: five thousand bucks each. The director called me first, and I asked if I could tell Lynda, my best friend, the news, so I rang her up when she was still in Seattle. First, I told her that I’d gotten a fellowship. There was that half-second pause of disappointment, discouragement, despair before she breathed into the phone, “That’s great. That’s really great. Congratulations.” “Oh, yeah,” I said as if I had just remembered something. “You got one too.”

In Houston, we celebrated by ordering fancy lady drinks. I liked something the mahogany and glass bar served that tasted similar to strawberry tea with cream, and Lynda always fancied Pernod, that awful liquid licorice. She would have been a great Absinthe drinker.

We said that we should buy ourselves leather jackets, cocaine, and sexual favors, but we didn’t do these things. I paid bills, bought books, and forked over a thousand of my five so that one of Lynda’s questionable friends, a kindly Charles Manson lookalike, would rebuild the engine in my flame-red Karmann-Ghia. I also decided to take a summer off from teaching in Houston: one of the all-time worst ways to spend that season, wading through one hundred percent humidity into frozen classrooms filled with restless, albeit friendly, Texans.

I should spend the summer in Berkeley, Lynda told me, in that beautifully cool bar. I could see my mother, drink Peet’s coffee, and stroll under the Liquidambars, which blessed my shoulders with drops of their mysterious water. After another drink, I agreed to make the drive with her to the West Coast even though I would have to buy a one-way ticket back to Houston in August, even though it would be a long haul, and even though her tiny car, like mine, lacked AC. She made it sound good: a road trip, two girlfriends taking to the highway, a last hurrah. Lynda could be silver-tongued, and I can make rash decisions.

Usually I flew home on my annual pilgrimage to California, but the year before Lynda’s invitation, I had elected to take the train instead. My on/off ex/boyfriend dropped me at the station, then waved me off as I mounted the metal steps onto the car. Someone directed me to my seat, which was plush enough but did not recline a single inch. I felt a band of panic tighten my chest. Forty-eight hours, they’d said. Forty-eight hours in that seat? I couldn’t imagine enduring this, but the landscape already clipped past the tinted windows.

My seatmate was twenty, a handsome bagger at Kroger’s. We talked for awhile, then drifted downstairs to a small “screening room,” which ran B movies all night long. At 6:00 a.m., talked out, sleep-deprived, we were propped up on our elbows in the observation car, sipping too-hot coffee from Styrofoam cups and watching small, wild pigs jog around the seemingly endless prairie. He kissed me goodbye in San Francisco.

On the way back, I hung out with an eighteen-year-old guy who was traveling with his mother. Young men and trains go together, I guess. As we strolled around El Paso, he gallantly made sure to stay on the street-side of me, puffing up his chest, my protector. Having waved goodbye to his mom, we found a quiet spot and made out to while away the hours. I arrived with hickeys blossoming on my sleepy neck, but my ex/boyfriend didn’t seem to notice.

Let me set the record straight: mostly, I don’t want anything to happen to me. I want to stay where I am, usually prone. I want to eat in the same restaurants and order the same food because it was good before and it’s bound to be pretty good again. I like routine, comfort, security. But a vixen in my head sometimes says, “Take the train. Sit in the observation car until dawn. Let that boy slip his eighteen-year-old tongue between your lips.”

So I arranged everything, got new contacts (another fellowship expenditure) and prepared to depart with Lynda. The day before we were to go, I grew convinced that one lens wasn’t sitting well on my eye. How could I leave and not be able to see?

“Oh, honey,” Lynda murmured. She had a good voice, sincere yet amused. “I’m so sorry,” she said, then added, “I hate it when I get like that.”

After a moment, I realized that Lynda wasn’t saying she was sorry my contact didn’t sit right; she was sorry I was crazy. Okay, so Lynda turned out to be right. Eventually, the lens did seem to fit. I accustomed myself to it, maybe.

We drove off, Lynda wiping the dust of Texas permanently off her cowgirl boots, I temporarily retreating from the confusion of loving and hating somebody I wasn’t exactly sleeping with anymore.

The trip was a drag.

We talked, sure. That was the good part. Lynda assured me that I was open-minded when I told her I feared I was judgmental. She made fun of the red bandanna on my head and all the bobby pins that I helplessly had stuck into my layered hair to keep it from getting wind-whipped. One arm grew stiff and pink; then the other. My nose reddened. By the end of the first day, my throat ached from shouting over the sound of the engine.

Lynda leaned to the left of me. I was a liberal and a feminist. She was a Marxist and a lesbian. She told me, laughing, that I kept her in touch with the mainstream. It is true that I made her watch The Princess Bride. Munching popcorn, she looked over at me with a buttery smile of surprise. “I thought it would be more ironic,” I said, but she shook off my apology. Lynda took me, along with half a dozen rowdy cowgirls, to see Desert Hearts, a sensitive and sexy lesbian love story. I tried to interest her in thirtysomething, my favorite television show at the time; she sat on my Salvation Army couch and scoffed. “You mean it’s all about these whiney white people?”

The last time that Lynda had gone west she had done so with her love, the woman with almost the same name as mine. Lynda’s girl had lived with her in Houston for a few years before she called it quits. She was pug-nosed and fair, with small breasts, short hair, and strong legs.

A young man circled around her for a while. Finally, he asked, “You a boy or you a girl?” “Girl,” she’d answered. Then he asked her out.

Once Lynda’s girlfriend told me about working at a gas station, squirreled away all night in a glass box. A young man circled around her for a while. Finally, he asked, “You a boy or you a girl?” “Girl,” she’d answered. Then he asked her out. Obviously, he was attracted to her any which way, but he wanted to make sure he’d gotten the gender straight. I loved that story, but I don’t remember her telling too many tales, at least not to me. Hearty and able, she worked at the natural foods market. I felt weakly feminine around her, the effete geek that Lynda dragged home to share their dinners of brown rice and saitan, the straight chick who didn’t even know what saitan was, for Christ’s sake.

On our road trip, I wanted to stop in real restaurants. I longed to be served, to be indoors, and to be out of the wind. Lynda objected. She and her girlfriend had eaten peanut butter and crackers by the side of the road, and they were perfectly happy. “I’m not going to sit by the side of the road and eat peanut butter and crackers,” I snapped.

As a vegetarian, Lynda had a hard time in the places we tried. She ordered cheese sandwich after cheese sandwich, and paid what I’m sure she felt was too much money for them. In New Mexico, at some in-between restaurant in some in-between town, I’d contentedly tucked into my turkey club, and she seemed mollified that they had pasta salad on the menu. Then her dish came: iceberg lettuce leaves beneath a mound of cold spaghetti, on top of which wobbled a large glob of mayonnaise. Pasta Salad. The cook must have put those two words together as best as he could. Lynda laughed but put her fork down. “I don’t think I can eat this,” she said, and she sounded close to tears.

It isn’t easy traveling with someone you’re not sleeping with. Of course, it isn’t easy doing so with a lover either. In my early twenties, a boyfriend and I spent three months wandering as far as our Eurail passes and limited budget could take us. We made it to Monte Carlo, to Morocco, to Athens, to Stockholm. This sounds exciting and romantic; in truth, the trek was difficult and tedious. I remember a fourteen-hour train-ride in Spain, crouching on the wet floor near an overflowing restroom, bound to each other and hell-bent. Afraid of the Babel of tongues and of men looking at me as though I were a side of beef, I clung to my guy, who came to want nothing more than to shake free of me. We parted at the San Francisco airport, each taking BART different directions towards our parents’ homes.

You travel with a partner, you break up. That’s the lesson I learned. There is greater politeness with friends; at least there is for me. I don’t get really rude until I have sex with someone. But it’s tiring being polite, and when you shift out of politeness into extended pissing and moaning, the switch can be a bit of a shock. Plus, you lack sexual soothing to help you through the other person’s terrible sense of direction, endless wheel-turning, or lead foot.

When Lynda and I checked into our first motel, she trilled with self-congratulation on her find—the place was terrifically cheap—but I remained peevish about the cracked tile and funky shower. I prefer standard brands: Motel 6, Travel Lodge. I like sterile and blank, not interesting and creepy. I fussed over the dingy shower curtain, then flopped on my twin bed in a vintage black slip that I wore as a nightgown. Lynda smoked, pleased with herself.

For the first time in our friendship, I felt uncomfortable, as if I had been traveling with a girlfriend, my bestie, and she suddenly transformed into a man.

I hate to admit that I suffered from classic straight-person’s anxiety: the fear that her gay friend will want to have sex with her, that she’ll be in love with her, that there will be weirdness, that there will be a scene.

What was I thinking in that Spanish-style hovel? That Lynda would make a move on me? That she’d try to seduce me? That I’d have to beat her off with a stick? Something along those lines. I hate to admit that I suffered from classic straight-person’s anxiety: the fear that her gay friend will want to have sex with her, that she’ll be in love with her, that there will be weirdness, that there will be a scene.

I had never felt such discomfort with Lynda before. I was surprised when she’d apologized for wearing a thin undershirt in front of me. We were friends; who noticed loose boobs? But Lynda slept with women. She noticed loose boobs. I remember her admiring the dark, cloudy beauty of a woman in our program one night. “She’s a vampire,” I said. “She’d bite your neck and drink your blood.” I didn’t care for the woman myself. “I’d bite her back,” Lynda insisted, and I turned my head away, shy to hear the lust in her voice.

In truth, my discomfort didn’t come simply from my nervousness that Lynda might hit on me. I’ve had a number of male friends flirt with me, make discreet sexual overtures, and, in a couple of cases, overt and awkward passes. But I am used to there being a certain degree of erotic tension with male friends. As long as they don’t push things, that extra zing has been the hot mustard to the hamburger of our friendship. But my relations with men haven’t been the same as those with women. I don’t preen or purr or pose with my women friends.

Yet I’ve always liked lesbians.

When I lived in San Francisco and taught at a private high school, before I’d had enough of kids and gone back for my doctorate in the hope that I would one day teach adults, I answered an ad that promised a household of varying sexual preferences and moved into a fantastic apartment off Van Ness, with a lesbian couple, a cult-happy bisexual, and a woman who seemed to be predominately asexual, which made me the resident hetero.

The pigeon coos of lovemaking on the other side of the wall didn’t bother me, and the nutty bisexual and I got to be pretty friendly. I even let her take me to see Rama, that eighties’ guru, though I didn’t witness his bursting into a shower of lights; apparently, one needed to be enlightened to observe this.

Naïve as I was, I’d thought that the lesbian and bi women in my household also would be intellectual and political. But no. I was “the school-teacher.” The white woman in the couple worked as a cosmetologist, “a lipstick lesbian,” as she termed herself, and spent her free time giving her partner facials. “I used to go for black men,” she told me. “Then I met her.”

Her partner kept taking my typewriter, which annoyed me, but she scared me a little too, with her impressive biceps, on one of which a large, crescent-shaped scar shone. Finally, I got the nerve up to ask what had happened. “I got bit,” she explained. I pictured a mad dog, but she told me about being attacked by a former lover. “Human mouths are filthy,” she said. “That’s what they told me at the hospital.”

We never became more than amicable strangers. I often ate in my room, grading exams, half in love with a beautiful student, who sometimes drove me home in his father’s BMW.

Although I’ve always liked lesbians, I have never gone for women sexually. Well, once, when I was twenty, I made out with a woman at her birthday party. Someone had put on a tape of old Beatles’ songs, and a group of us shouted, “I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND! I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HA-AH-AND!” She and I slung our arms around each other, buoyed on the endless Beatles high.

We were in the same acting class, and she’d been sleeping with our married teacher, a man I also found desirable, so I envied her position as the designated student-lover. She was pretty, as I recall, blonde. We ended up in her bedroom, and she, drunk, blathered on about how attractive she found me, about how she’d never been with a woman before.

Then she threw up in the attached bathroom. However, the waves of nausea did not deter her. She’d washed her hands and brushed her teeth, she told me. I was lying on her bed, flipping through a magazine. She wanted to kiss me, so I let her kiss me. Back then, I was “open to experience.”

My friend’s face felt thin, her skin smooth, lips soft, a mirror of my own. I didn’t feel a fire light in my loins, but I let her stroke my jeans as I perused ads in Vogue. She complimented my ass, and I like being complimented.

Finally, I told her that this wasn’t going to happen between us, and she raged more than I would have thought her capable of doing. Then she slipped out the window of her bedroom because it seemed to her less embarrassing to reemerge through the front door than to come out of the bedroom with me. I left the way that I came in and weaved home.

Some days later, she left a note on my door. She wasn’t embarrassed, she said, about being attracted to me, she didn’t hate herself for it, she hoped that I didn’t either. I never responded. I didn’t despise her for coming on to me, but I distrusted the melodrama of that window-exit and the rather extended rant. Now I wish that I had written her a note, called her, something. Because I think that she was embarrassed and that she did hate herself a little for being attracted to me.

At first, I didn’t know that Lynda was gay. I came to Houston as one half of a couple (my troubled and troubling ex/boyfriend), and I was on guard against all comers (one of his troubling qualities was an inability to remain monogamous for more than a minute). Lynda had prematurely gray but hiply spiked hair and a nice figure: slender with curves. I remember watching her warily as she bounced on the balls of her feet and laughed at my ex/boyfriend’s jokes.

We were all in workshop together. She’d turned in some poems that didn’t impress me; one about a grandmother I found sentimental. But I liked what I thought was a poem in which a man tells his father that he’s “a queer.” “Lynda wrote an interesting dramatic monologue,” I told my ex/boyfriend. “Um, I don’t think it’s a dramatic monologue,” he said. I felt like a fool, but I had never heard a woman refer to herself as “a queer” before. I liked Lynda more after that.

“What does it smell like to you?” he asks his friend. “Fish gut or pussy?” That’s how the poem ended.

Then she handed in a poem that made me want to be her friend. Lynda had down all the details of waiting tables in a nice restaurant: the fanning of cloth napkins, snapping open of a lighter. The waitress goes through her professional moves, believing a man to be a good tipper. Then she feels him tug on the hem of skirt. “What does it smell like to you?” he asks his friend. “Fish gut or pussy?” That’s how the poem ended. It knocked me out.

When my ex/boyfriend gave me the boot, I called up Lynda, and she met me for gigantic glasses of iced tea, a Texan staple, and microwaved quiche. I confessed my heartbreak and made her my (perhaps reluctant) confidante, pushing us into emotional intimacy.

As a high school freshman, I had a terrific crush on this senior, Wally Silva: long black curls and sky-blue eyes. Cool to the nth degree. One night he actually called me. True, it only happened once; then he made up with his tempestuous girlfriend and never sought me out again, but it was a magical moment nonetheless. Wally Silva called me! Unbelievable! That’s how I felt about Lynda’s friendship. I couldn’t get over that someone as hip and cool as she was liked me, really liked me.

Of course, Lynda didn’t make a pass at me that night in New Mexico. We made fun of the TV and ate potato chips until we fell asleep. In the purple morning, she happily rubbed the soles of her feet together under the sheets, sounding like a human cricket. I told her to knock it off. We kept driving.

By the time we made it to the Bay Area, we had tired of each other. My mother welcomed us, and Lynda tried to be nice, but neither of us was in good spirits. When I ran my hand over my mother’s cat, creating a cloud of fur, Lynda abruptly said, “Stop it.” Then she bought me a red wooden goat from the import/export shop on College Avenue. I had admired it, and I still do. Faded to pink, it watches me in the bath, peeking out between pots of ivy.

Lynda tried to convince me to come with her all the way to Seattle, but I refused, no longer charmed, for the moment, by her seductive offers of adventure. She went on alone, and I spent the summer sure that I had stomach cancer, smoking cigarettes and drinking heart-palpitating coffee, hanging out in my mother’s studio apartment, a flowered curtain dividing our beds.

My ex/boyfriend called to say that he was seeing somebody in the program. Seeing somebody. As if he were spending his evenings watching some woman duck-walk back and forth in his living room. I wailed into the pillows on my mother’s couch as she offered me a cheese danish from Nabolom Bakery and a glass of pucker-sweet sherry.

Lynda didn’t stay on Vashon Island very long. A year, maybe. Then a fellowship to Provincetown, a reckless move to a bad section of Brooklyn. Sirens and car horns drowned out her voice on the phone. She sounded thrilled that I got a teaching job in Rhode Island, just a quick train trip, and came to see me in my new digs on Benefit Street.

I had purchased a shit-brown Civic similar to her old one, after the fiery demise of my Ghia, and chugged to Providence to begin my first tenure-track position. Mostly, I moved through the US mail (books and papers and clothes). Everything else had been folded in tissue, including my neon coyote, a final gift from the ex/boyfriend, and strategically positioned in my small car, while allowing enough breathing room for my little dog, Percival.

My ex/boyfriend and I drove in tandem to Ohio, where he would begin his own job. We traveled like that for days, Percy watching me from his carrier. I watched my ex/boyfriend’s drugged Siamese crawl up the back of his seat and wrap around his head. I laughed when I saw the turn signal frantically sputter on. That drive was us all over: traveling together and alone.

We swallowed mile after mile like that, past countless dead armadillos, their small bodies armored and not cute, out of Houston at last, leaving behind a lot of our history along with fluffy biscuits and white gravy. He dropped off his cat at a feline hotel and came with me to Providence, where we said goodbye for good.

As lovers, I mean. We’re still friends. Well, friendly exes. The cat died, but he’s got a kid, and I think he’s pretty happy. I am pretty happy too. I’m married to someone who doesn’t (seem to) have issues with monogamy. My mother is dead, gone to Alzheimer’s, then gone altogether a few years ago. And Lynda is long dead.

When she came to see me in Providence, she looked great, newly blond and pink-cheeked, but she flicked drops of sweat off the end of her nose as we strolled around the East Side. She bled on my ivory-colored couch: a sudden period. Unfairly, this annoyed me. My first brand-new couch!

Not much of a pet person, Lynda was prepared to dislike Percy, a frou-frou with orange Troll hair, but he put his fox-like face on her shoulder. “Well, that is cute,” she conceded.

In a Thayer Street bar, Lynda admitted that she hadn’t been feeling well, then tapped her pack of cigarettes on the table. “And this,” she said, “has got to stop.” I told her that she looked too good for anything to be seriously wrong. She said, “Isn’t that how it goes? Everyone says that she looks great and six months later she’s dead?”

Lynda didn’t even make it to six months: an unusual and relentless cancer, the tumors not as “meltable” as the oncologist had promised as he blasted her body with poisons.

Lynda didn’t even make it to six months: an unusual and relentless cancer, the tumors not as “meltable” as the oncologist had promised as he blasted her body with poisons.

“I’m terrified,” she told me over the phone, having limped home to her family in the Midwest. “What are you afraid of?” I asked, dense as usual. “Of dying,” she told me flatly. She wasn’t ready to meet her maker, to make her peace. Her ex sent her books on death and spiritual transcendence; she threw them out. I got together a care package that she liked: boxes of chocolates and some sort of “healing” crystal, which Lynda said she clutched to her chest as she slept.

Her ex/girlfriend was with her at the end. With Lynda unconscious, on a respirator, I talked to her former partner on the phone. “Please tell Lynda that her spirit is welcome to visit me any time,” I said. She curtly said that she would. I imagine she thought Lynda’s spirit would never want to hang out with a nerd like me. Of course, after I’d made the invitation, I thought the same thing. Of all the places to go in the after-world!

I haven’t believed in a life-after-death for quite a few years. Instead of praying, I retell stories, I look at pictures. Lynda and my mother with their arms around each other, my mother alarmingly white-haired. Lynda and me, my hair alarmingly Texanned, long with poufy bangs. The quality of the photographs isn’t good. Our faces are slightly out of focus, the outlines blurred. But I like those arms around each other’s waists. We love each other; you can see that much.

I remember one long night in Houston when I bewailed the seemingly endless seesaw with my ex/boyfriend: how could I be so damnably weak, why did I let this thing drag on? Lynda shook her head. “Miss Calbert, nothing is harder than breaking up with someone,” she told me. “The truth is, we’ll do anything for love.”

Well, she was wrong, and she was right. There are some things that are harder than breaking up with someone, and we will do many things for love.

 

Cathleen Calbert’s poetry and prose have appeared in many publications, including Ms. Magazine, The New Republic, The New York Times, and The Paris Review. She is the author of four books of poetry: Lessons in Space, Bad Judgment, Sleeping with a Famous Poet, and The Afflicted Girls. Her awards include The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Sheila Motton Book Prize, the Vernice Quebodeaux Poetry Prize for Women, and the Mary Tucker Thorp Award from Rhode Island College.

 

Mapping Coordinates of Poor, Queer, and Feminine in the High Desert Air

~an excerpt from the unpublished hybrid memoir Honey & Vinegar: Recipe for an Outlaw

Ruth and I both love horses, wear jeans and plaid shirts, are strong and kind of skittish around boys. We live in remote parts of the desert, where going anywhere means miles of walking or begging a ride. We are both dirt-poor. No shiny new shoes. No hamburger lunches with straw wrappers and easy laughter flying. Free lunch program and the outside edge of a bus seat, grudgingly given. Home-cut hair and hand-me-downs. These rare afternoons of horse care and trail rides and Uno are an escape for us both. Not only from boredom and chores, but of the need to hide our empty pockets.

I will sometimes, but not often, stay the night. The horse corral, her room, these are good places. Full of comfort and easy conversation. Her father, however, poisons every moment he is a part of. His is a sneaky cruelty meant to shame. Anything she values is fair game. Any audience who cares makes it better for him, especially if it is another teenage girl. I never let him within four feet of me, wear my baggiest clothes, and stare hate at him. I wish I could make him disappear for her, don’t even try to disguise it.

Her horse is everything to her. Riding, grooming, training him to barrels, feeling that freedom of movement. She has been carefully growing out and tending his mane and tail for months, getting ready for the rodeo, hoarding change for ribbons and practicing plaits. Every bit of pride her life doesn’t allow for her own sturdy beauty is poured into that chestnut coat, that black horsehair. One afternoon just three days before show-time, her father saunters into the house, swinging a large, rusty pair of shears. “Spring haircut…” he drawls, and she’s already out the door, running for the stable.

Had he come out to view the effect of his deed, he might’ve found how dangerous two downtrodden horse-crazy teenage girls could be with a pitchfork.

I find her swallowing rage and tears, face pressed hard against that broad shoulder, while all around their feet lie ragged hanks of hair. Cut right down to the bone of the tail, and in inch-long clumps along his neck, unrepairable. Unbearable. Had he come out to view the effect of his deed, he might’ve found how dangerous two downtrodden horse-crazy teenage girls could be with a pitchfork. With some predator’s sense of danger, he chooses instead to head to the bar to laugh about how sensitive women folks are.

I stay all day, through endless games of cards, and distract her with fantasies about a horse ranch run only by women. As usual, ramen is the only food available, and not the freshest ramen at that. As we carefully strain the weevils out with the water, mutually ignoring the fact of what we are doing with practiced moves, the dream of owning land stands stark in my mind as impossible. As with the weevils, we ignore it. We need the dream.

*     *     *

The stars seem closer than usual, even accounting for the fact that I’m up a tree. The storm pushes them towards me, or me to them. The leaves flatten against the wind, dream of flying free. Or maybe that’s me again.

The lightning stretches blue-white light across the length of timeworn mountains and the back of my eyelids. My skin is tingling from widow’s peak to toes curled tight against peeling bark.

This rough tumbling of air and electricity, this press of sap and breath and gravity, is another channel entirely. I want to open up like roots to water. Want to climb the sky.

I’m snugged into a thick crook, hugging the trunk, head back and mouth open to better taste the ozone. To better smell the creosote, wet for thunder. Want is deep in me like a jagged splinter, invisible pressure on a bundle of nerves, impossible to grasp with my fingers.

Almost all I’ve known of sex is pain. Passive and stolen away. This rough tumbling of air and electricity, this press of sap and breath and gravity, is another channel entirely. I want to open up like roots to water. Want to climb the sky.

*     *     *

I was raised with a strong sense of justice and fairness, among people who share easily and often. Nobody has much, but nobody goes without. There are plenty of toys, of books, of clothes, none of it new, but no less good for that. Until public school. Until the contests of popular began, and secondhand was second-class. I hold firm against the taunting until high school, when every day is a war. Everything about me is a target. My name, body, brain, all counting against me. I am tired. Tired of have not. Tired of making do.

I don’t remember the first thing I stole, but I remember whole lists of things I didn’t. Things I never had. I have my own rules—no stealing from people or small businesses, or just for fun. I know it doesn’t make it OK, but it makes it bearable. Most of what I steal I give away. None of my friends have much, either, and whether it is caretaker or courtship, I want something to offer. That giving streak, it runs in the family, and I’m not the first to make questionable choices in service of it.

I swipe steel-tipped three-inch heels from a factory discount store on a trip up to Tucson. Slip my fingers in the toes on my way past the table and out the door, so smooth my friend walking next to me doesn’t notice a thing. I wait until we are in the car to tell her, knowing she’ll freak out. Knowing also that she enjoys living vicariously through me and my bad-girl ways. Knowing these shoes hold some fundamental piece of my forming identity that makes them a need, not just a want.

I wear them with tight skirts and silky blouses and a black cotton duster, a wide-brimmed Aussie hat on my head and dark sunglasses. I learn how to walk in them quickly, climbing the stairs to collect the slips that show who is missing from class, and turning (most of) them in. Working in the front office gives me freedom to prowl the halls alone, and gives my friends and other weirdos a break. Not always, but if they really need it. High school is a sequence of forced circumstances, and sometimes it’s just too much. Sometimes the need to slip away and lick our wounds in private, or in drunken company, is too big. Those slips, they get lost on the way to the office. Sometimes.

I steal bras and underwear, makeup, and seven silver rings of varying designs that I give to the group of girls I most often hang out with. Misfits and nerds and poor kids, a Venn diagram of different that gives us safe ground to meet on. It is 1988 and none of us has found the language to hang our thoughts on, but we stand strong together. Spin stories of protection and revenge against men that hurt us, or want to. Support each other’s crushes, even if we share them. Pass notes and make up code names, quirky semiprecious stones. I have no words for the safety net they give me, the hope they embody. I want to give them a token of gratitude, and my clever fingers slip seven shiny sparks of love into my pocket.

 

Sossity Chiricuzio

Sossity Chiricuzio is a queer femme outlaw poet, a working-class storyteller. What her friends’ parents often referred to as a bad influence, and possibly still do. A 2015 Lambda Fellow, she writes as activism, connection, and survival. Current projects include a hybrid memoir, poetry chapbooks, her ongoing column, “Embody,” for PQ Monthly, and the performance duo Sparkle & truth. Chiricuzio has been published in a wide range of journals, including AdrienneGlitterwolfNANO FictionLunch Ticket, and great weather for MEDIA, as well as anthologies such as The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care, Glitter & Grit: Queer Performance from the Heels on Wheels Femme Galaxy, and Not My President: The Anthology of Dissent. For more info: sossitywrites.com.

Photo by J Tyler Huber Photography

The Day We Buried My Father

On the day of my father’s funeral, I wake up in a twin bed at his house. Liz is still asleep in the identical twin bed across the room. Dad and Penny bought these beds for Caroline and Cate, my nieces, but as usual, we make accommodations that negate the previous accommodations we’ve made for them, and so, at thirty-five years old, my pregnant wife and I are sleeping in twin beds in a room cluttered by toys that piss me off for reasons I’m still trying to nail down. People tell me I’ll get used to toys like that, but I honestly don’t think so. And the way they tell me pisses me off. They say things like, “Just you wait… You’ll see come June, when you become a daddy.” And they say it with this all-knowing grin on their faces, and I wonder if my child will hate me some day for hating when people say well-intentioned things. Because it feels wrong, but I don’t want to stop hating people for that.

As if a childless person is too mentally stunted to see the benefit of a functional arm. I know I need to get my shoulder fixed but my dad is gone.

I try to guess what time it is, but I have no frame of reference beyond that it’s still dark outside. I don’t sleep well when I need to be marking things off my to-do list. Instead of sleeping, I recount the things on that list over and over, and I try to work out the steps I need to take to complete those tasks. What have I neglected in these days leading up to my father’s death? I try to remember if it’s the electric bill or the gas bill I haven’t put on auto-pay yet. I’ve been ignoring my work email completely. I think I scheduled a meeting with our wellness coordinator for this morning to look at my shoulder. I can’t do much with my left arm and it’s been this way since September when I moved a bookshelf down a flight of stairs, and I have to get it fixed they tell me: “You’re going to need that arm come June when you become a daddy, you’ll see.” As if a childless person is too mentally stunted to see the benefit of a functional arm. I know I need to get my shoulder fixed but my dad is gone.

I make a mental note to reschedule my wellness appointment, but that’s as far as I get on my to-do list. I’m too distracted by what the day will bring. We are putting my father in the ground today and I will never see his body again. I lie in that twin bed and consider my dad’s life until I can’t keep it all in my head at the same time, and I feel like if I can just write it down I can come to terms with it. So, I tiptoe out of the bedroom and walk in the dark to the dining room where the large table is covered with a smorgasbord of food the church ladies brought last night, and I have to move the dishes around a little to make room for my laptop.

There’s a tray of nine homemade cinnamon rolls. I start to cut one from the edge, but the one cinnamon roll in the middle looks so soft, and it has no hard edges because the other eight cinnamon rolls have protected it. I think about how my sister would cut the cinnamon roll from the center because it will undoubtedly be the gooiest. She always does things like that. She will run her finger along the bottom of a chocolate cake tray to get extra chocolate while I will insist on getting only the chocolate goo that is intended for my allotted piece. It pissed me off so much. I remind myself of how my sister strongly suggested Liz and I sleep on the twin beds instead of the room that was built for us with the queen-size, and I decide I won’t be able to handle seeing her get the middle cinnamon roll. And so, I put it on a plate and stick it into the microwave for fifteen seconds before sitting down to write about my dad.

To really understand who Dad was, a reader will have to understand the stock he came from and the heritage he was so proud of. And so, in explaining my dad, I begin writing about his grandfather, whom Dad will soon be sharing a patch of ground with. Maybe I get too into the weeds, but after a couple of hours of writing, I’m still ninety-some-odd years away from the part of the story where my dad is born. That’s when Liz emerges from the darkness into the light of the dining room. She has this look she gives me during the early morning hours, when she doesn’t know how long I’ve been up and she finds me at my computer. It’s a look that says she didn’t like me not being there when she woke up because she missed me while she was sleeping. Even if we were in twin beds. That look is a reminder of how much she loves me, and I take comfort there on this day that has already been committed to both formal and informal sadnesses.

Liz gets a cinnamon roll and laughs at the vacancy in the middle of the pan.

“You didn’t,” she says.

But I assure her I did. I am eating my grief, and it becomes clear to me that my grief warrants a second cinnamon roll. We heat them up and share a fork so there is one less utensil to wash later.

The others wake up and trickle into the kitchen for coffee and to survey the breakfast options. Penny, her friend Anita, my sister’s family. I sip my tea and watch my little nieces sitting at the bar eating cinnamon rolls that are the size of their faces. They’re still in their pajamas—cotton gowns with Disney princesses on them. Cate, the five-year-old, asks why my tea is in a coffee cup instead of a regular glass. Because it’s hot, I tell her. That’s not tea, she says. Yes, it is. It’s hot tea. No, it’s not, Gunkel. I don’t know what to tell you, Cate—it’s hot tea. She’s confused and embarrassed at the things she does not know yet because she is only five, so she changes the subject.

“Talk like St. Patrick’s Day!” she says. That’s her way of saying she wants me to use an Irish accent, but my Irish accent is terrible and I don’t want to do it in front of adults. When I tell her as much, she is unsatisfied.

“Talk like Mommy!” Caroline, the nine-year-old, says.

I can do that, I tell them.

The girls look at me expectantly with their big, little-girl eyes, waiting for my impression of their mother. “Caroline, Caroline—hey, listen to me for a second.” Caroline thinks I’m talking to her in real-time, rather than doing an impression and she drops her head down to listen to what I’ll say next. Chris, my brother-in-law, is listening and he laughs.

“That doesn’t sound like Mommy,” Cate says.

Chris assures his daughters it does sound like Mommy.

“Talk like Daddy!” Cate says.

I tell Chris to say something and then I mimic the line as best I can and the girls laugh.

“Talk like Penny!” “Talk like Aunt Liz!” “Talk like Nene!” I roll out my best impressions for my nieces and it’s fun, but I can feel the inevitable conclusion long before we get there.

“Talk like Papa!” Cate says.

I can’t think of what my now-deceased father sounded like. For years, when I thought of him, I thought of how he would say, “Good grief,” when something had completely exasperated his patience—quite often his son—but the girls wouldn’t know about that. Ever since that first brain hemorrhage three and a half years ago, Dad had all the patience in the world as he endured one thing after the other—the stroke and the physical therapy and the occupational therapy and all the rehabilitation and the shitty food and not being allowed to drive. The seizure while behind the wheel shortly after he got his license back, the wreck that it caused, the tumor on his brain that caused the seizure, the house fire in the middle of the night that nearly killed him because the medicine he had to take at the time made him sleep hard, the tumor that came back on his brain after they told him there was a 99% chance it wouldn’t, the four tumors on his spine they stumbled across by chance moments before they went in after the tumor on his brain, the sleepless days and nights in the hospital that Dad called the “beepin’est place he’d ever been in.” He had times when he could barely breathe, yet he endured the goddamned hiccups as a side effect for two years. And of course, there were the treatments, the treatments, the treatments, and there was the deterioration of the man who let me steer on the dirt road just before we reached our house when I was six. The man who told me to watch the ball and keep my elbow up. The man who took me bear hunting with a BB gun because he just wanted to go to a piece of land he loved and walk around there with me for a while. He just wanted to give me a life I would enjoy. And I hope I can do that as well for my son as he did for me.

Cate was two when Dad got sick and from that time on, so much of his communication was reduced to short but strained yesses or no’s—Are you cold? Yes. Are you hungry? No. I try to think of an impression of her Papa that she will recognize, but I can only think of the last words he gave me. Three days before he died, Dad lifted his head barely off the pillow, which required significant effort, so I knew he meant to tell me something important. I was alone with him, sitting at the side of his bed, and I leaned in so he wouldn’t have to speak any louder than he had to. “What is it, Dad?” I whispered. He had no medicine that day and so I knew he had his incomparable wit about him. I put my hand behind his head to help him lift it.

He looked at me through what became his foggy, gray eyes and he said, “Just. Shoot. Me.” And he looked at me with what I think was hope.

He looked at me through what became his foggy, gray eyes and he said, “Just. Shoot. Me.” And he looked at me with what I think was hope.

“Dad, I can’t do that,” I said.

“But maybe, you can,” he said.

“It’ll be over soon,” I told him.

A stranger might interpret Dad’s asking me to end his life as weakness, but I assure you it was a testament to the dignity with which he lived. Long before he ever got sick, Dad said, “Son, if I’m ever stuck in bed and unable to care for myself with no hope of recovery, just shoot me.” And now he was living up to those courageous and selfless words he’d laid out for me then. My father was strong and dignified, even in those final days—especially in those final days.

He looked cold and I saw his hand trying to pull the plaid blanket, but he was too weak to move it. I straightened it for him and tucked it around his body, up to his neck like he liked it. I asked him if he remembered tucking me in when I was a little boy. He nodded slowly. I told him how I remember watching him tuck my sister into her bed across the hall before coming to tuck me in. And how after he would tuck me in I’d watch him go back into her bedroom and turn on the lamp so they could check her for ticks. She always claimed to have ticks as a way to get him to come back in to see her. And when he’d finally turn out her lamp for good, I’d fear what might be waiting for me in the dark—a possessed Teddy Ruxpin, or an animal of some kind just outside my window, maybe—but I told him how I found security in the sound of the television coming through the wall behind my headboard. Because as long as I could hear that television, I knew my dad was awake on the other side of the wall and would ward off anything that might get me. And if they attacked, he would use his pickax to destroy them, just like he did that copperhead I almost stepped on in our driveway. And I’d be reassured by his strength and his ability to keep anything bad from ever happening to me.

A tear fell down my dying father’s cheek as I conveyed the memory to him. I wiped it with my hand and I told him I loved him and that he was a good dad to have. I sat with him until he fell asleep and I never saw him awake after that.

I don’t know how to do an impression of my father that the girls will recognize and I am stalling until finally Caroline says, with attitude, “Okay, moving on…” the way nine-year-old girls do. And we stop the game and I go to the bedroom with the twin beds and the toys that will hopefully stop pissing me off “once that baby gets here,” and I pull out the suit and tie I will wear on this day when we will bury my father.

 

Guy Choate earned an MFA at the University of New Orleans. Among other literary journals, his work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly and Cobalt Review, and he is currently working on a manuscript about his attempt to walk across the country with his friend Rory. Guy is the founder and director of the Argenta Reading Series in North Little Rock, Arkansas, where he lives with his wife, Liz. They are expecting their first child, to whom Guy addresses his photo-a-day blog, which you can follow at getoutofthisplace.tumblr.com.

Photo by Joshua Asante

Big Ball of String Theory

Yoo-hoo! I’m back here, in the bedroom, in the bed. I’m seventeen, I’m twenty-two, I’m thirty-seven, fifty. I dress in white and lie here. Let’s just say it’s mono, or Some Disease, the lazies, or the dreads. Let’s just say I never learned to spell élan vitale right. Let’s just say I should be dead.

My mother says I don’t complain. I’ve been sentenced to six weeks. Not that people will notice. I’m barely a blip at school. Mom tries to fix that with plenty of pudding to fatten me up. She buys me a blue Princess phone for my bedside, and dashes off to work. She went back to school and is all professorial now in her swinging skirt and trim jacket. She always carries a stack of papers. Always. Since Daddy died, she’s raised us on her own.

Sweetheart, she says, I hope you get better soon. Better to her means going to school, cheering her up, not dying. Better to me means getting a letter from my boyfriend back east at one of the Ivies, closing my eyes, floating back to holding hands, filling the neighborhood streets with Prufrock’s love call, back and back again through pheromones thickening the air in the back seat of his mother’s blue compact car. Oh please, don’t wake me up.

Problem is, I’m stuck between hormones and hosannas, shopping for a mate when my purchasing power is zilch, and will be for years.

Problem is, I’m stuck between hormones and hosannas, shopping for a mate when my purchasing power is zilch, and will be for years. In Mom’s dictionary, college always comes before marriage, a case of the pot trying to keep the kettle from turning black. Get married, and I’ll cut you off at the pockets, she threatens. So I lie here, spend hours composing letters to send far way. I am what I write. It’s perfect. Just don’t make me talk on that phone, make the words come out of my mouth. If I knew what to say, it would have been, Shut up and kiss me.

Mom comes home at night and asks after my day. I got a letter, but it’s my sweet secret. At dinner she talks about work, so I’m off the hook. I study the grain on the table, cultivating my opaque veneer. She has single-handedly integrated the faculty senate by crossing the aisle to sit with the men. Feminism is just around the corner. What are you reading that for? she asks when The Feminine Mystique shows up on my lap. She has always preferred male company. If she had a best friend, it wouldn’t be me.

After dinner, she types on the Royal. Seventy words per minute, hour after hour—lesson plans, letters, agendas. She’s been doing this my whole life. My first lullaby. No matter what her job is, she never stops being a secretary. I want to be a philosopher. I read Durant’s one-volume history into the night. Plato, Augustine’s Ethics, then on to Spinoza. She makes me take two terms of typing, which I ditch, forging her name on the slip.

Last weekend my sister came home. We’ve slipped into a truce now that she’s going to college away. She got a call during dinner—a meeting of all the new cheerleaders. Mom and I couldn’t stop laughing. She’s always tripping over herself. I was the acrobat. She got the boobs and the bubbly thing, all those guys with their gropey hands. If I had a line of guys at the door, I’d probably crawl back in bed. What she didn’t know then is this—one guy used to kiss me.

Let’s just say I’m not proud of it. Let’s just say I needed the practice. Let’s just say, Every dog has its day, which is what she said to me when she finally caught us.

One year later, my love and I turn eighteen three time zones apart. It’s spring, and his letter says he wants to get married. Nay, nay, I say, my wings are still wet. He mentions his mother, who’s for it. I don’t mention mine. We call the thing done, and I date his brother, who dated my sister, then romance a flurry of friends and friends’ friends, until the connections dead-end. After four years, he finds another blonde hometown girl. After forty years, they’re still at it.

At twenty-two, I’m a senior at Berkeley, where my words are confined to paper, my spoken self broken, no dates in two years. America’s armies invade Cambodia. My fever won’t break. In the next bed a Japanese student is reading haiku. They tell me you can’t get this twice, but, Look, here I am! I feel my credibility sinking as low as my blood count. Outside my window, my classmates are marching, out raging and outraged. Some students are dead on TV. I am holding my debutante ball here, so white and so pure. No one drops in, no one dances. The nurses are starchy in nurse-caps, my makeshift attendants. Two little white pills a day and you’re back on your feet in a week, right back where you started.

When you spend lots of time between sheets, things start to look different. When I turn thirty-seven, they give it a name. Something I had all along that turned ugly, like the divorce. They want to cut out the pain, but I won’t let them do it, not yet. I’m thinking of healing. Months later, a chastened shadow, my ghost gets the message to let it begin—the removal of scraps of organs, one piece at a time. Let’s just say I must have had more than I needed. Let’s just say there are surgeons still sunning themselves on deck during cruises Aruban. Let’s just say there was only one time in ten when I didn’t want to wake up.

When your body is disappearing into biohazard bags at a good clip, it’s time to take stock. Are you still the who that you were, without this, without that? Have you left all the right things behind? What about all those brain cells that live in the gut? I turn on the TV that hangs from the ceiling. The Challenger shuttle explosion is looping the loop, transfixing a nation, blasting carnage and smoke from incredulous skies, and indelible tears from school-aged eyes. My neighbor tells me she’s seen my son ditching classes. My step-daughter hates him. Her friends steal my car.

Let’s just say you’re the Maytag repairman, so lonely the phone is repelled and refuses to ring, or the Dalai Lama, watching it all move through you like wind through tall grasses.

Let’s just say you are Donna Reed, and the kids are clean and squeaky. Let’s just say you’re the Maytag repairman, so lonely the phone is repelled and refuses to ring, or the Dalai Lama, watching it all move through you like wind through tall grasses. Let’s just say you are Harriet and Ozzie is on his way home with takeout. After dinner, the whole family sings.

At fifty, I have my lastectomy. My son stops by with a jones and I pay him off so he’ll go. They stitch me up crooked, take out some nerve endings too. Who cares. I’m getting divorced again. I move to a new town, re-date my first love’s brother, but soon get re-dumped, after making fast friends with their mother. Who the hell knew.

Most days I’m fine now. My own mother’s up on the mantle. I don’t complain. Let’s just say I’ve made some adjustments. Let’s just say I can make the case for adversity, and then rebut it. Let’s just say that in another universe, available in theory via strings, quarks, and quantum leaps, my mother stands in a doorway, misty-eyed in an apron, and blesses a union, one in which love finds a voice that speaks in my voice—a world where I not only squeak through alive, but finally walk away whole.

 

Linnea Wortham Harper writes on the banks of McKinney Slough on the central Oregon coast. A retired psychiatric social worker, she labors under the impression that she is still writing chart notes to make sense of what otherwise won’t. When she was five, she introduced W.H. Auden to the works of A.A. Milne. This has been her greatest literary accomplishment.

Matches

Green signs loom over I-80, beckoning us towards Omaha; it’s difficult not to exit downtown to the Courtyard Marriott, tell them we want our old room so we could pretend we’re still new at this. I could still get butterflies when he emerges from the bathroom in a shirt and tie, flash-forwarding to the man this boyfriend might become; I could take a shower, examining the suck-marks on my sore body with ecstasy, the proof of a desire I believe is permanent; he could take me to The French Café where I’d purr like a raccoon, us drinking cappuccinos by the fireplace, sneaking our hands under the table and between each other’s legs; we could be nineteen and so new in love we can’t stop looking at each other and grinning.

We scoop up and over hills, loping and bounding westward past clusters of farmhouses that make me remember a life I once thought I wanted.

But we’re older now, bound for the grit and grub of a campground, turning off the interstate and driving down small Nebraska roads. We scoop up and over hills, loping and bounding westward past clusters of farmhouses that make me remember a life I once thought I wanted. I get a little panicky that this road is map-colored the gray of gravel and isolation as we turn into the state park where we’ll camp.

We drive past a series of algae-clogged manmade lakes named 1, 1A, 2, 2A, 3. The grandma who took my $15 at the head of the campground promised nothing more offensive than a skunk or a deer, but I can’t shake the fear that a bear has rambled its way across the state, is hiding in the thin patches of trees marking the edges of the campground, so I pick a site near the center of the grounds, making sure other tents will barricade us, just in case.

We brought no firewood or matches, so we drive to the gas station and I refuse to go inside, preferring the air-conditioned car, watching the Dodge-driving high-school football player pull up next to our Saturn, sidle into the gas station, come back clutching a Dasani, and back his truck down the road before my angry boyfriend bursts out with a cord of firewood and a whole paper-covered box of Winston matches. “I had to buy this fucking thing,” he storms, tossing the box of two hundred matchbooks onto my lap. $2.19 is outrageous for something we could have gotten for free, I argue, because he totally should have just gotten a single matchbook up at the register. We yell the whole way back through the campground, the windows rolled up: he says there weren’t any single matchbooks, I contend that we could have borrowed two fucking matches from someone else at the campground, he snarls that he’s sure I would have asked someone to borrow matches when he’s never even seen me call a pizza place in the two years we’ve been dating, that’s fine, whatever, I’m sure we need two hundred fucking books of matches.

We promised the grandma we wouldn’t drink alcohol on the premises, but as the sun starts to set and he runs to the river to take pink-and-orange-scarred photographs, I uncap a Rolling Rock and camouflage the green bottle behind the green gas burner as I pat a hamburger, trying to wipe away the unbudging fat with one of the three napkins we scrounged from the glovebox. I wait for him to come back and fry the burgers, bees crawling in the burger-blood no matter how worriedly I flap at them.

In the gloaming, a flashlight trained on our napkin-plates, I build prairie dreams, remarking how skillfully I’d picked a good campsite, how we’re eating a great dinner of chips, Oreos, and homemade burgers, dreams rapidly dissipating when we can’t even build a campfire, and I snidely poke at him, trying to give advice that wouldn’t be useful even if he’d let me get it out. I sulk in a lawn chair, watching the stars poetically as he swears and snorts until a little plume of smoke gets started and I remind him that the fire probably wouldn’t have started without the twigs and branches that I collected, but that’s okay, whatever, it’s finally working, right.

But the kindling refuses to take off, and we bicker around the charred firewood that’s haphazardly towering inside our fire pit; the family to our north roasts marshmallows and the kids run around with burning branches, excited; angry, we unstick all the burrs from our fur and hurl them at each other, remember when we used to be in love, remember when we didn’t use to fight all the time, we are in love!, don’t you know why we’re fighting, and I start crying, pull my hood over my eyes and crawl into the tent, I’m going to sleep.

We break camp by the Platte, the brilliant oranges in the sky reflecting in the shallow riverbed, little mudlets choking the flowing water, morning coffee on the gas burner and our soft sighs of comfort as we reconcile inside the zippered double sleeping bag, spooning like two raccoons.

I turn on my side and refuse to touch him when he finally enters the tent after enough time has elapsed to show me he isn’t caving. I have a dream that makes my stomach drop out, even in my sleep, and it scares me so much that even when I wake up to him ripping open the tent zipper to piss right outside the tent, I don’t yell at him for peeing somewhere I’m going to have to step in the morning; it is a bite on my tongue I can sustain.

We break camp by the Platte, the brilliant oranges in the sky reflecting in the shallow riverbed, little mudlets choking the flowing water, morning coffee on the gas burner and our soft sighs of comfort as we reconcile inside the zippered double sleeping bag, spooning like two raccoons. We disassemble the tent, the morning air breathing humidly under my hair, the slot-machine shower flushing hot and cold, and I walk in my wet clothes hand-in-hand with him, the rest of the world waking up while we drive out of the campground, sputtering past last night’s roadkill, speeding past the signs for downtown Omaha in the rearview, one hundred and ninety-nine books of matches in the glovebox.

 

Kristine Langley Mahler has recently published nonfiction (or has work forthcoming) in Quarter After Eight, Sweet: A Literary Confection, The Bitter Southerner, the Brevity nonfiction blog, and Crab Orchard Review, where her work was awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award. She is a nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel, an assistant editor at Profane Journal, and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

If Memory

If memory is talisman, this I hold in my palm: my father strides, back straight and face serious, to the edge of the pool. It’s a late summer day. Children of other families splash and shout, a cooling breeze chases the sun. My father is sturdy, not fat and not thin, handsome with wavy dark hair, brown eyes, a high forehead, classically sculpted nose and wide, good-humored mouth. Fun, yet in control. Always in control, so that now what seems remarkable is the happiness I recall amid the games of risk we played in the safety of that pool. As if we were not all the time living under the mandate that ruled him—to keep himself and his family as well-protected as possible from what he could not foresee but felt sure was coming.

We line up to watch, his four children aged six to eleven, clasping arms against skinny torsos in lengthening evening shadows. My father marches to the edge of the pool, grabs his nose with his left hand and the shoulder strap of an invisible gun with his right. He steps out over the water—cautiously, mindful of his bad back. At the same time, his right arm thrusts out in a strong and precise movement, fisted hand opening to signify throwing off the gun.

A vigorous kick or two brings him quickly to the surface. He swims to the side. This is the abandon ship drill, which he learned on the boat going to England for the war, and he is teaching it to his kids. “You’ll need this,” he says, with mock-seriousness that makes us grin without letting us think we can slack off, “if you are ever attacked on the sea.” So, we practice, imitating his movements, working to keep our backs as straight as his. I do everything just like him, with one exception. I sink all the way to the bottom ten feet below, loose and quiet and happy. Suspended. Effortless.

Later, when we’re playing in the shallow end, he might pretend he’s drowning and shout for me to save him. I always do.

*     *     *

If memory is present, here I am: Dad is singing, bass voice thrilling and resonant, songs from the thirties and forties that we kids hear so often we sing too, words memorized—By the light (not the dark but the light) of the silvery moon. Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men. Show me the way to go home.

*     *     *

In his embrace is all my security, yet what I remember now, now that he is dead, is the bitter smell of cigarette smoke in his suit.

If memory foreshadows, this chills: I run up the sidewalk along a block of small Cape Cod houses with driveways in front and sandboxes in back. I’m five years old, and have been waiting until my father, walking home from work, appears around the corner at the top of our street. He stops to watch me. I shriek my nickname for him, Daddy-me-guy! In his embrace is all my security, yet what I remember now, now that he is dead, is the bitter smell of cigarette smoke in his suit.

My father had quit his pack-a-day habit in 1954 when he was thirty and my mother was pregnant with me. By his early eighties, when even minor exertions left him gasping for air and X-rays showed calcifying lungs, his doctor didn’t believe he’d stopped smoking so young. But I recall his workday smell. Until his retirement in 1991, my father had spent his days in smoke-filled offices and meeting rooms.

The doctor biopsied the left lung and put my father on medication to slow the progression of the disease. The biopsied lung developed pneumonia, which quickly spread to the other. It was bewildering. Never had he imagined that the smoky exhalations of others less disciplined than he would sabotage his carefully ordered life.

At that time, I was close enough to him to know he was ill, but too far from him to know he feared he was dying. Or maybe I’d stopped listening.

*     *     *

If memory is present here I am: my father puts key to ignition and glances over at me, sitting next to him—a big girl in the front seat. Before rolling out of the garage, he snakes his broad hand over, grabs my leg just above the knee, and says, “Gripper’s gotcha!” I laugh because though his hand is strong, his touch is gentle.

*     *    *

If memory is image, this I see: he looks up from his book, his legs and feet draped in towels to protect him from the seaside sun, reminding me to stay in sight of the lifeguards and not swim out too far. I run off to dare the sea to overwhelm me.

Dad, who’d made it physically unscathed through the Battle of the Bulge only to break his back falling on a freshly polished dance floor in 1946, would only go ankle-deep into the surf. Perhaps this was then I first began leaving him, each plunge into the traveling waves carrying me further away. Away from his caution for his bad back. Away from the order of his suburban home, neat yard, and mid-level management job. Away from the promise of the fifties and early sixties that had already begun to shred, a process he saw and fought with ever-increasing dismay.

Toward the curling waves where I, by ten-years-old a good swimmer, tread water out beyond the breakers where I can’t touch bottom, watching the shimmer for a darker oncoming swell. My father behind me, the horizon before me, I swim madly at the biggest ones, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, free—sliding smoothly up the face and dizzily down the back. Exultant.

If I time it poorly, the wave breaks onto me and combined forces of forward momentum and downward thrust shove me to the hard, sandy bottom. The ocean’s is a capricious rhythm. Its sand-blasted saltwater stings my nose and throat and eyes. Its disorienting power causes me moments of panic when I’ve lost the surface and the bottom. And air. I develop a relaxed awareness that helps me feel where up is in that roiling world. I surface, swiping water from my eyes, ready—the ocean’s is relentless rhythm—for a new surge. Though the terror of being tossed about never diminishes, I learn to accept chaos while willing inward calm, a lesson that will serve me well forty years on when I seek to overcome inherent, gripping anxiety.

Sometimes I take a deep breath and swim out, head down and not looking, until suddenly swept up—the best option for confronting the ocean. I never know exactly when I’ll soar. Or I dive several feet below the heaving surface, suspended. Peaceful. Later in life I will dream of floating bonelessly in the deeps of a vast ocean, so still I need not breathe.

*     *    *

If memory is present, here I am: we’ve picnicked near Hoopes Reservoir, and are walking off lunch. Dad starts acting like a hippie—his version of a hippie—head bobbing with his long strides, arms swinging loosely from broad shoulders. I’m too young to be embarrassed by his antics, and I laugh when he says, Yeah, man, cool.

*     *    *

If memories explain how the living might ignore the dying, these instruct: I’m fourteen, liberal consciousness dawning and feminist indignation growing. I argue with my conservative, staunchly Republican father, who has only been able to manage the tumult of the sixties by retreating to the suburbs. Sometimes he uses the dinner table forum to vent his ire at permissive parents with undisciplined children, Democrats, hippies, and women’s libbers: those war protestors are un-American, women shouldn’t wear pants because they look like they have watermelons in their back pockets, and Goldwater will save the country. When I argue, sitting to his left at dinners that my mom has ready the minute he comes home from work, he refuses to engage me. He snaps his mouth shut and looks away.

Arguing with Dad is like boxing Jell-O.

I’m a teenager. I resort to one of two strategies, depending on which contentious topic—war, feminism, social justice—is at hand. If it’s war, I often match his silence out of deference to his pride in his World War II service. If it’s feminism or social justice, I goad him, knowing he won’t respond but taking perverse satisfaction in my ability to get him angry, and even though he criticizes women who argue or seem too confident.

“I don’t see why I can’t marry anyone I want. Who cares if I marry an African? It’s no different from marrying a Frenchman.”

“We had an argument today in social studies. It was me and Laurie Keene against the world. We said a woman could be president and everyone else said no.” I watch his lips grow tight and his face take on a remote look that, though I’ve deliberately caused it, I resent.

In my twenties and at last weary of my steps in our dance, I stop needling him. We talk about sports or literature or my parents’ travels. We sing in the car, his basso voice taking low harmony under my soprano. I laugh at his puns and silly jokes, knowing he drinks in my attention. Though I still challenge him when he’s contemptuous of women, I’m also happy to give him the attention he wants.

I am so different than he: divorced after six years in a marriage with a man who either derided or ignored me, I had returned to college in my late twenties hoping for a career in music. I’m living with a rock-and-roll drummer. I have no stability and no prospect of the upper middle-class life that anchored him and that he’d worked so hard to make possible for me—a life that, achingly conscious of social and economic imbalances, I’m not seeking.

And my father had done his back exercises most mornings for sixty years. He had immersed himself only in pools with sides to hang onto and bottoms to stand on. He had kept his suits dry-cleaned and his ties neatly knotted, his family provided for and his kids well-behaved, his work ethical and his actions moral, his religion faithful and his politics conservative. What was he to make of me and my comparatively disordered life?

*     *     *

If memory pierces, I am defenseless before this: I stand at the sink washing the dinner dishes as my father dries them, our usual arrangement on my weekend visits. It’s June 2006. I’m looking out the window at our back yard, my hands in warm, sudsy water, the kitchen still smelling of the roast we had for dinner. He’s putting pans in a cupboard to my left. Casually, he mentions a recent walk. “I thought I might be able to make the lung tissue relax, or expand. I went around the back yard, trying to breathe deeply with each step.”

“It didn’t help,” he says. “Sometimes I get breathless just getting up out of my chair and walking across the family room.”

What was I thinking, beside him yet not close, when he tried to tell me he was afraid, when he tried to tell me he was dying?

That’s all. That’s the memory. I don’t recall if he said anything else, or if I responded. What was I thinking, beside him yet not close, when he tried to tell me he was afraid, when he tried to tell me he was dying?

Long after, my mother told me what he’d left unsaid: as the breathlessness increased, so did my father’s fear. He would jerk out of a heavy sleep, choking and gasping, frantic. His shoulders sagged, bowing protectively around his chest. Then he had a bad fall while walking his dog, and his step became slower, more cautious. Trying to make his fright and his lungs yield to what had served him so well for all his years—discipline, reason, and self-control—he felt persuaded that a regimen of walking combined with deep breathing would heal him.

If memory can exist for an experience not mine, I see him. Just like I see him striding to the edge of the pool, though I was there at the pool and I was not there—I was not there—in our back yard.

He marches along the perimeter of the space in which he’d taught his kids catch, baseball, croquet, and badminton. Step and inhale, step and exhale. Past the woodpile, following the stockade fence across the back and then down the side. Step and inhale, step and exhale. Past the garden where he once grew rhubarb and tomatoes, now shaded by a tall birch, down into the hollow where the fence turns toward the house, up to the back porch and then indoors. Step and inhale… His body rebels. He collapses into his recliner in the family room, coughing uncontrollably. Gasping. My mother kneels beside the jerking chair, trying to help him. Such is her belief that the strength of their partnership can overcome even this, she never thinks of calling an ambulance.

When he’d mentioned it that evening in the kitchen, he’d said so little and I asked for nothing more. I wish now I had. He might have told me how afraid he was, and I might have told him about the sea and below-chaos calm.

The end came in late June 2006. In the hospital, catheterized and on oxygen, at the mercy of doctors and tests and shots and bedpans, he wanted no visitors. Not even his children. Only my mother. Anti-anxiety and even sedating medications couldn’t calm his struggle against the relentless onslaught, in such an agony for breath he could not breathe. He thought he was sparing us the memory of this battle. Yet memory exists for this experience-not-mine and I see my father. He is choking. He is gasping. Real fear lives in his brown eyes and I am not there to help him to the shallows. He had not told me he was drowning. I had not told him how to curl himself around chosen inner quiet and allow tumult its way. And so, my father fought. As we all do. Until something like an ocean, or death, teaches us different.

*     *     *

If memory is talisman, this I hold in my palm: Dad waves his arms frantically and shouts for help, sinking then coming up spouting water like a surfacing whale. I rush to him. We are in no more than four feet of water and I’m a skinny eight-year-old, but in the buoyancy he is light and I am strong. I tow him, on tiptoe and giggling madly, to the shallow end. Still clinging to me and pretending to choke, he staggers, loudly grateful (“Oh, thank you! You saved me!”), water from his hair dripping down and off his nose and chin, his breath smelling faintly of coffee. And though I know it’s a game and his gasping panic is faked, I feel proud as my toes reach for the bottom and my arms bring him to safety.

 

Carol D. Marsh’s essay, “Pictures in Leaves,” won the 41st Nonfiction Award from New Millennium Writings; her essay, “Highest and Best,” received honorable mention in Under the Gum Tree’s fifth anniversary contest. A 2014 graduate of the MFA–CNF program at Goucher College, Marsh’s memoir, Nowhere Else I Want to Be, was published in January 2017, and is a Finalist in the 2017 National Indie Excellence Awards, Memoir Category. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in Soundings Review (honorable mention in the 2014 First Publications contest), bioStories, Jenny Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review.

Imposter

Today: “Ms. Rolfe, are you dying?” This isn’t the first time a student has asked me this after I had a coughing fit in class. In fact, I get asked this all the time. Too often. And I’m used to it. But today, I am hanging on by a thread. I have trouble walking up the stairs. Today, when I got to the top, I was so winded I was seeing stars, and for a minute everything inside me was hard, immovable, like the air was made of liquid steel. It’s only ten steps, but it’s fucking hard. Now my thighs ache, and my breath is shallow. I don’t feel well. I can’t go home sick because there’s a standardized test coming up, and my inattentive students need to do well. I want them to graduate. I want them to move beyond this class and learn how to actually think and be good citizens. I must power through. It’s important because I don’t want to look weak. I do not want to be a liability. But when one of my best students asks this question and another snickers and says under her breath, “Daaaamn, that doesn’t sound good. She might be,” I snap. I just snap. And I snap on a kid who really, really doesn’t deserve it. I say, “Yes, actually, I am dying.” And I don’t leave it at that. I continue, “Would you say that to someone who had cancer? I mean, have you ever really thought about how rude that question is? Like, what if the person is dying?” My student is stunned. He is stunned because I don’t often talk about the fact that I am, indeed, dying. That I’ve been dying for a decade. And that I might be dying for another decade.

2007: I have a fourth-period conference that runs into lunch. I have three office aides who are my best students. They edit the newspaper and yearbook. I love these girls. I see one of them four times a day. She stops by my classroom in the morning, eats lunch with me, and takes two of my classes. She has her aunt’s old Cure records, and I quickly realize a few months into the school year that we are cut from the same weirdo cloth. We watch Strong Bad videos together. She makes a video project for my photojournalism class to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” and I think if I had a daughter, I would want her to be this kid. I’m in a bad, abusive relationship. I am sick and damaged and they miss their fun teacher. I feel like crap all the time. I am losing weight. I’m miserable and exhausted. The moping, scattered mess I’ve become is starting to scare my students and they assume it’s boyfriend trouble. They are teenagers and they always assume it’s a boy. I even think it’s about a boy. However, what I don’t know yet is that it isn’t just the boyfriend making me depressed and exhausted and sick. My boyfriend thinks I am faking being sick so he won’t leave me for the hairdresser who, I learn from a barely readable message she sends me, can’t even spell liar. He thinks I am exaggerating the seriousness of the situation. And the whole time, I am not focused on the fact that I might have a terminal illness. I am more concerned with being able to prove him wrong and make him feel like shit—because, you know, that’s what’s really important. Then one morning during that fourth-period conference, my pulmonologist calls to discuss the results of my genetic test. Before he gets into it, I mention that the lab called the day before and said that the sweat test was negative, but he responds by saying, “Well, it doesn’t matter because the genetic test turned up two different cystic fibrosis gene mutations.” He says that usually people have two copies of the same gene, but I have two different genes that cause CF, and one is extremely rare. He calls my CF atypical, and I cling to this word for years. I will think it means that the CF I have is somehow different than the CF that I’ve read about—the one that causes people to die by my age. For years, my CF will exist somewhere in the background. I begin treatment for an infection in my lungs that has been slowly destroying my health for the past few years. And for a long time, I feel better.

When I finally cut that abusive boyfriend loose for good, one of the last things he yells at me is, “Who’s going to love the dying girl?”

2008 or so: When I finally cut that abusive boyfriend loose for good, one of the last things he yells at me is, “Who’s going to love the dying girl?” But I don’t think of myself that way, or at least not yet. Years later, these words will bubble up again, and they will be more painful than they were at the time they were spoken. Now that I know I have CF, I do some research, and while what I learn should be scary, it’s not, because I realize I can’t possibly have the same disease as these people I’m reading about. I’m atypical. I don’t take hundreds of pills—just five or six. I have inhalers but not nebulizers. I have no idea what this vest contraption is that people keep talking about online, and when I read about doing hours of treatments a day, I have no concept of what that’s like because I don’t do any treatments. I take my antibiotics, and I use my inhaler, but other than that, life is pretty much the same as it always has been.

2013: I began my teaching career at a Title I school where sixty-five percent of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged or “at risk.” Most of my students do not speak English as their native language, and since I teach English, this makes my job a challenge. My last year at this school, eighty-nine out of my 120 students do not pass their standardized test, and now I’ll have to prepare them for not only their ninth-grade test but their tenth-grade test as well. What they want me to do is impossible, but I try anyway because I love my students. I want them to graduate and have opportunities. But I am tired, and I am starting to realize that I am sicker than I used to be. One day after school, one of my coworkers, who confuses my thick-skin and blunt manner for a lack of feelings, says to me, “My students keep asking me who’s going to die first, you or McDonald,” meaning a coworker who is planning on retiring at the end of the year because of prolonged illness. And in that moment, I understand that perhaps I look as run-down as I feel and that maybe my coughing, though normal and routine for me, is jarring for others. Two days later, my school district announces that it is switching to some state-sponsored health insurance and that if I want actual coverage, it will cost me $425 a month out of my own pocket. The union has plans to protest, but I am scared shitless. A week later, I go to see my pulmonologist, and he says that he wants me to get established at the transplant center in San Antonio. My pulmonary function tests are showing a decline. And after requesting these test results for the past few years and doing more online research, I realize that my rate of decline is concerning. I’m getting close to the transplant range. I make the appointment. I start looking for a job in a district with better health insurance. And then I join a CF forum because the only person I know who has had a lung transplant is dead.

Thoughts that regularly occurred between 2013 and 2015: A lung transplant is considered a success if the patient lives one year post-transplant. I know this from Gregory. His transplant went down in the books as a success. But he died one year and one month later, and in my mind, it was not a success because my friend is dead, and I need him now. Most CF patients live five years post-transplant.

At first, at my new job, I do not tell anyone that I have cystic fibrosis. Mentioning this while applying for a teaching position would’ve hurt my chances of getting a job.

2014: At first, at my new job, I do not tell anyone that I have cystic fibrosis. Mentioning this while applying for a teaching position would’ve hurt my chances of getting a job. Later, I tell a few coworkers, but I still don’t want to tell my boss until I’ve proven myself. One day during my first year at this new school, a man approaches me in the copy room and pulls me aside to talk to in confidence. He says, “I know this is a weird question, but do you have cystic fibrosis?” He explains that he heard there was a new English teacher with CF and that his daughter has it. We talk for a while. He suggests I contact the CF clinic at Dell Children’s Hospital, where his daughter is a patient. I realize at the end of the conversation that this man looked at me and recognized that I had CF. I look like I have CF.

2014: I’m in the hospital for IV meds. The infection I had for years is gone, but now I have pseudomonas. I know from my CF forum that this is common, and while not the worst bug you can get, it’s hard to shake. I’ve been quietly lurking on the CF forum for a while now, and I’m starting to realize that I am indeed atypical, but perhaps not in the ways I thought. I slowly begin to understand from stalking profiles and gleaning information from posts that there is no such thing as atypical CF, or rather there is, but in general all CF is different. It’s a disease that affects no two people exactly the same. Some die at thirty, and some live into their seventies, and no doctor can tell you what will happen. They can’t tell you how long you will live or how you will respond to a transplant, if you can have children or not, or even how long you’ll be able to work with the disease. One study I find on the internet says that atypical CF, while once believed to be a milder form of the disease, can actually just be a later onset of the disease that affects mostly one organ, and unfortunately for you, it’s the lung. The one you need to breathe—the most basic life-sustaining function. When my coworkers come to visit me at the hospital, I take them to the mini-kitchen for ice cream. I get to order hospital food like it’s room service, and so I don’t mind being here. I keep saying that it’s like a very boring all-inclusive resort.

Six months later in 2014: At the transplant hospital, they forget about me for two hours. This is my third visit, and my lung function has dropped to thirty-five percent. The respiratory therapist, who is an asshole, grills me about why I don’t go to a CF clinic. He asks why I don’t do the usual treatments that most CF patients do, and then he gives me the hard sell on going to the CF clinic that’s opening in San Antonio. Later, when I see the transplant doctor, he also gives me the hard sell for a lung transplant. I can tell he wants me to get one because he thinks I’ll be good for their success rates. I’m young(ish) and healthy(ish). I still go to work. I still function like a relatively normal person, but my lung is indeed damaged and only getting worse. When I leave, I decide I’m never going back. I don’t want to be sold a transplant. I don’t give a fuck about their success rates. If I get a new lung, I will be out of work, and I’m not going to stop working unless I’m near death. Odds be damned. If I can’t teach, I don’t know who I am. But things are bad enough that I’m finally very afraid I’m going to die, and so I call the CF clinic. I also finally tell my boss. When I tell my pulmonologist I am leaving him for the CF clinic, it feels like a breakup. At the clinic, they give me the vest. I get the nebulizer, and I am put on the typical treatment regimen.

2015: I am going back into the hospital for the second summer in a row. I’ll be getting my first PICC line. And since I still have exactly zero friends with CF, I Google the process, and I’m freaked-the-fuck-out. Websites describe needles and long tubes that go into a peripheral vein and are then guided toward one of the central veins near the heart where blood flows more quickly. They mention the use of ultrasound machines to find the vein. The night before I go into the hospital, I get drunk with my coworkers. I’m facing two weeks of being connected to tubes and drugs and probably no booze. And this realization actually scares me more than the poking and prodding does.

Somewhere deep inside I can still feel a visceral denial coursing through me. Because this has always been my problem—dealing with the admission that I am dying, or seriously ill, in any real sort of way. It’s the denial that allows me to skip treatments in favor of watching the love arc of Naomi and Max on 90210. It’s the denial that never fills my inhaler prescriptions because I would rather spend twenty-five dollars on booze than on albuterol. And I am pretty sure that denial was in full force the night I decided to smoke a clove at a Queers concert despite knowing the probable consequences. (That night I coughed up so much blood that I texted a photo of it to my boyfriend for confirmation that it was, in fact, a disconcerting amount of blood.) The denial comes in waves, but it’s always there. Until something happens and my body forces me to reckon with the reality of its limitations.

Today: I am almost forty, and I’m standing in front of my students—all of them born since the turn of the century—losing my shit over a dumb “are you dying” joke. Which is stupid because I’ve never had trouble with the admission that I am dying when I need it for dramatic or comic effect—mostly when I return home for a visit and my family seems both unrecognizable and unaware that I am visiting for only a short time and forces me to do things I do not want to do, like a family gathering where I don’t actually know anyone they’ve invited. Sometimes I use it when I am pissed off at a friend or ex-boyfriend and I want to make him feel like shit for ignoring me for the last decade, or when a coworker is complaining about something petty and I want to be morbid to freak her out because I am bored of teacher talk. Sometimes I use it to segue into a particularly inappropriate comment or as an excuse for one. Sometimes I whip it out in lieu of an apology. More often than not, it’s the reason I give for canceling plans or being late to work.

But today, I can’t deal with jokes. I am too tired, and the walk up those ten steps felt like it was killing me

But today, I can’t deal with jokes. I am too tired, and the walk up those ten steps felt like it was killing me. I have told my students bits and pieces about my illness before. I have even said at times that I have cystic fibrosis, but they are fifteen, and they don’t know what it is, and even more important, they can’t fathom that the person who stands in front of them every day bitching at them to pay attention or proofread could actually die. But I am dying, and I spend a good portion of my life either trying to acknowledge that fact in some sort of authentic way so I don’t waste time—reminding myself that to do good in the world and make the most of life and all that shit—or trying to ignore it. And when I cough, and I do indeed feel like I’m fucking dying, and the chorus of apathetic teenagers keeps saying what I’m hearing in my head—“You’re dying”—I snap. And then I am sorry. I am sorry not only because I feel bad for making them feel bad but also because I have said over and over again to anyone who will listen that I would teach until my last dying breath, and right now I feel like a liar. I am an imposter. Most days, I don’t feel sick enough for that statement to be true without a qualifier. And, to be honest, I have more important shit to think about. Because fuck that. I’m not the dying girl. I’m Ms. Rolfe.

 

Bree A. Rolfe lives in Austin, TX, where she teaches writing and literature to the mostly reluctant, but always lovable, teenagers at James Bowie High School. She is originally from Boston, Massachusetts, where she worked as a music journalist for ten years before she decided she wanted to dedicate her life to writing poetry and teaching. Her work has appeared in Saul Williams’ poetry anthology Chorus: A Literary Mixtape, the Barefoot Muse anthology Forgetting Home: Poems About Alzheimer’s, the Redpaint Hill anthology Mother is a Verb, and 5AMMagazine. She holds an MFA from the Writing Seminars at Bennington College.​​

Photo by Cynthia L. Miller

Flash Point

My best friend is buying a house in Upstate New York with her boyfriend. A family friend expects her first child in eight days. I’m twenty-two, and I have never felt more alone.

I. “For this was the round of love: fear which leads on desire, tenderness and fury, and that brutal anguish which triumphantly follows pleasure,” Françoise Sagan, seventeen-years-old, wrote in Bonjour Tristesse.

At thirteen, I lie awake at night, wrapping my arms about my own torso, and imagine they belong to someone else. I dream of unrequited love; the most poignant stories are always bittersweet. The Brontës are my bonnes soeurs.

Five years pass. Unpacking boxes into an empty dorm, I hesitate. What could love do to me? Friends give up opportunities in the name of compromise, for “love.” Chipper, they readily change the shape of their lives to suit someone else’s plans. My decisions are my own now. I choose solipsism.

II. “I don’t know how to write love letters,” Frieda Kahlo wrote in 1946. “But I wanted to tell you that my whole being opened up for you. Since I fell in love with you, everything is transformed and full of beauty… love is like an aroma, like a current, like rain.”

I have a friend who is an actor in New York. Caught between time zones, we attempt to keep each other relevant in our increasingly separate lives.

I tell him that I love him. I try to distill my feelings into a straightforward narrative. I tell him that there are obstacles.

On my morning métro commute, I lean heavily against the window, watching the tangle of Gare du Nord slide by. My phone flashes with the flow of his uninhibited late night musings. At twilight, walking home from work, he reads my snarled texts about the trials of putting down roots in a transient city. We compare the pressures of trying to make it in cultural capitals: our shaken sense of place, identity; our occupational dreams and whether or not we’re cut out for them. But we always come back to love.

“This is the most mixed up, terrifying, exciting time of my life, and this love thing? Those feelings are the most mixed up of all,” he writes to me.

I tell him I have met a man. I tell him that I love him. I try to distill my feelings into a straightforward narrative. I tell him that there are obstacles.

III. “I saw her again last night, and you know that I shouldn’t,” John Phillips wrote for The Mamas and The Papas’ self-titled, second album.

People ask me if I have someone. Turning twenty-five demands it: invitations to weddings clutter my letterbox; engagement announcements stack up in my feed. They mistake my hesitation. I’m searching for words. Do I begin with a lecture on their assumption that a relationship defines me, or attempt to explain the unformed thing we have between us?

What little I know about firefighting is at the forefront of my mind: the time during a fire at which the room is so completely consumed with flames that saving it becomes an impossibility—the flash point. It is the point of no return; a moment splitting your life into a before and an after.

I lose myself in your orbit. I go soft. At once open and closed, I wonder if you notice that you’re missing half of me.

A close friend watches me with you. I lose myself in your orbit. I go soft. At once open and closed, I wonder if you notice that you’re missing half of me. Does loving you demand division? You’re incapable of telling yourself how you feel, but your whole face lights up at the sight of me. I resign myself to this.

IV. “And I can’t be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight,” J. D. Salinger writes at the closing of Franny and Zooey.

In attic rooms, we argue. His bag clinks as he sets it down. He never arrives without three bottles of red wine.

“You’re a child,” he spits, refilling his glass again. He leans back in his chair and tells me exactly what’s wrong with me. I choke down a fourth glass, hoping it will allow me to be myself.

I wake to one-line apologies.

When we first fell, we’d linger in his bed, push our heads close together. Glasses on the nightstand, his face was the only thing in focus as the sun changed its slant across the white plaster walls.

Abruptly, he is gone.

These days are no longer shaped by his fluctuations. Feeling the unspoken edges, my heart heals slowly. For the first time in months, my rhythm is my own. I wonder how he fills his hours. I wonder who calms him down. He still has my book, and I wonder if he thinks of me.

 

Lauren Sarazen graduated from Chapman University with a BFA in creative writing. She has contributed articles for publications such as Paste Magazine, LensCulture, and Teen Vogue. Her short stories have received an honorable mention in Writer’s Digest’s 2014 Popular Fiction Awards, as well as a finalist distinction for Crab Orchard Review’s 2013 Charles Johnson Fiction Award. She currently lives in Paris.

Faith Is What You Have: Reading Photographs with Flannery O’Connor

On the day of my great-aunt Era Mae and great-uncle Alvin’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, I wore my stepfather’s striped, navy tie and—after stopping for breakfast on the drive through North Alabama—a small grease stain on my khaki pants. Over the air conditioner, my grandmother told me I should’ve put a napkin on my lap first. My grandfather fumbled with an Altoids tin.

Is it important to remember exactly how old you are when your grandmother’s family—who she has described your entire life, from the safe distance that separates Birmingham from Southeast Tennessee, as “frustrating” or “backwards”—decides to celebrate a fact of nuptial endurance in the wood-paneled community room of a Protestant church, during which you have been tasked to sit next to the guestbook at the entrance and say to each increasingly distant and underdressed relative, “Please sign in?”

I remember my grandmother sitting with her sister Era Mae as she opened presents, a pinned yellow tulip making the right side of her cream blouse sag. A congratulatory cake, matching white-and-yellow arrangements throughout, and—memorialized in a photograph—my grandmother standing between her siblings, hair coiffed, a single strand of pearls along the neckline of an unbelted black dress worn without regard for the occasion’s theme or day’s humidity.

*     *     *

Southerners, unsurprisingly, age; why is more complicated. After announcing he keeps so young by kissing “all the pretty guls,” Flannery O’Connor’s narrator considers 104-year-old General Sash:

The past and the future were the same thing to him, one
forgotten and the other not remembered… Every year on
Confederate Memorial Day, he was bundled up and lent
to the Capitol City Museum where he was displayed from
one to four in a musty room full of old photographs…

“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” situates a dying, and then dead, Confederate General between the cultural and social fictions his wartime labor necessitated in a Reconstructed South, as well as the past that labor separated from the future, and present, it produces. “Late Encounter,” like most of O’Connor’s early short fiction, trades in religious undertones and images. Critics of O’Connor’s mid- and late-life writing have, since its publication, acknowledged certain and, quite frankly, racist and homophobic passages within O’Connor’s larger project to make more explicit how her characters experience, understand, or misunderstand the operation of grace through this world.

Critics of O’Connor’s mid- and late-life writing have, since its publication, acknowledged certain and, quite frankly, racist and homophobic passages within O’Connor’s larger project to make more explicit how her characters experience, understand, or misunderstand the operation of grace through this world.

My grandmother was born in 1935; my grandfather, 1932. They moved to Birmingham from Lawrenceburg and Talledega after my grandfather’s naval service in the Korean War and started a family. My mother was born in 1962, soon after her sister who, twenty-three years later, died from a rare genetic disorder. During those twenty-three years, my grandparents bought a houseboat, kept at the nearby lake, and lived a life that seems, based on advertisements from the period, precisely metropolitan: mentholated cigarettes, late-night games of bridge, rolled-sleeves, hair buns, well-tailored blouses with accent pieces and exaggerated features. A life to which I have no direct access, under which inevitably lurked the violence and “backwardness” typifying O’Connor’s fiction, but otherwise seems in photographs and memory normal—a life from which my grandmother, at an age just older than I was next-to-that-guestbook, with a courage rarely discussed, decided to flee, leaving behind her hometown, to follow the bright meridian of what she knew she deserved.

O’Connor’s fiction is rife with Southerners torturously denying or confronting their arrogance to comprehend the land of their first or only thinking. Her characters live in and return from New York or Japan; they earn doctoral degrees in philosophy and change their names; they try to educate orphaned prophets in the ways of modern rationalism. In a letter to Robie Macauley from September 1955, O’Connor writes: “I wonder at how you can pick up the feeling of foreign places like that as I cannot put down any idiom but my own. I presume there are some advantages to not being a Southerner.” O’Connor disregards her efforts to integrate theological concepts and registers into the idioms of her characters and narrators, but does illuminate the darker condition: that language, for all the travel and knowledge it is able to communicate, is experience. Displacement is expressed throughout O’Connor’s work as a problem of utterance. What we say—or fail to say—is re-homed in the experience we have left outside our past or trapped inside the idiom of that excision, which fails to make this bright future, this fought-for elsewhere, newly different.

“Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge,” Flannery writes in 1962. When my aunt died, the family that my grandmother had escaped converged for an afternoon in the remains of the life she had built, had selectively narrated to them for years. Inside this time my mother said it changed: my family’s shared, past experience into an unceasing experience of the past. “I know God has a plan,” Southerners are prone to say on funeral occasions, arriving themselves as O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin did at the understanding, “you must have certain things before you could know certain things.” Grief, like grace, is encountered or deepened through gestures of possession. Through these efforts, we know incomprehensibility.

*     *     *

I was given two blue-ink Bic pens to keep with the book, laughing to myself at the blunted handwriting unknown kin offered. Leaving the car, my mom told me I was only there to make sure everyone signed in, so Era Mae could review the ledger and later call the invited but absent guests, wondering with passive aggression if they’d got sick, or what had kept them from the party.

Where my chubby, adolescent queer body shrunk when asked about a date, I relished telling my family—as many Southern children have and do and will—that I wanted out, there’s more to this world; and that my life as a writer depends on staying away.

I was too young at the time to lie under the awkward questions everyone later subjected me: “Where’s your girlfriend,” for instance, or, “You aren’t going away for school, are you?” Where my chubby, adolescent queer body shrunk when asked about a date, I relished telling my family—as many Southern children have and do and will—that I wanted out, there’s more to this world; and that my life as a writer depends on staying away. Language that, in the old spirit of her own mother, my mom encouraged.

O’Connor was “roped and tied” into the Protestant South where, she says, with the dilution of time and matter, “the best of my writing has been done.” Her chronicle of this time exposes the fault line along which generations of families in the American South continually form: aspiration, communicated from the past, for a vague and better future is defined within the parameters of the stuck—fallen— parent. In the case of Tarwater and The Violent Bear It Away, this line runs in two directions: toward the past and death, into his uncle’s prophesying, and into the future, where Rayber offers a world that ironically contains and reproduces all the violence his modernity alleges to obviate.

“How do you like being in the country again?” [Rayber] growled. “Reminder you of Powderhead?”

“I come to fish,” the boy said disagreeably.

Goddam you, his uncle thought, all I’m trying to do is save you from being a freak.

Rayber—comically, ironically—thinks “Goddam” in his proselytizing efforts against the quiet orphan he suspects of religious zealotry. Celebratory sign-ins become carceral, and salvation is a function of unbecoming, or staying.

I study the photos from that anniversary party now—in one my great uncle covers his face in laughter—where, in looking around the room of her sister’s celebration, my grandmother refused to smile. She observed with eyes long incapable of ordinary sight. I wonder whether debility is produced by singular losses or trauma, or by the contexts these events reopen. The final pages of The Violent Bear It Away rank among my favorite—even though I’m still uncomfortable with framing Tarwater’s molestation as a prerequisite for prophetic consciousness—because the confrontation between, and the tolls of, understanding what the dead demand and the limiting registers of our sensation are created and perceived at breakneck speeds by O’Connor’s child. The novel’s dated position in its time reinforces the awful paradox of what language produces here: purpose from the absence of knowledge, and absence as the only communicable form of our shared lack.

For my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary we drove them through north Alabama, past the room of yellow flowers, to Nashville, where we sat rows from a performance of the Grand Ole Opry, after which we stayed in a hotel. We ate dinner in a garden where, on a bench canopied by lights, they sat, staring at one another, smiling in profile. I try to imagine what it would mean to look at this photo and think only as my grandmother would: staring across, glimpsing a light behind my grandfather, noticing the handrail a few paces past his shoulder leading down the stone stairway to our car. At what moment she had had her vision, if she recalled that moment in the blink of my mother’s camera. If the string band and hotel room was the fate she envisioned, in a nearby county decades ago, studying the twilight road along which Tarwater comprehended God’s terrible speed of mercy.

 

Born and raised in central Alabama, Engram Wilkinson studied literature and writing at Tulane. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offing, LIT, Anomalous PressWag’s Revue, Room220, and elsewhere. He is currently working on his first full-length manuscript, and lives in California, where he studies law. Engram can be found online at engramwilkinson.info.

Progress Notes

The first time I visit her, she lies in bed at the far end of the hall where residents with the worst kinds of dementia are placed, where the man in room 308 rigidly slumps in a geri-chair, eyes and mouth open wide as if in a trance, where the wild-haired woman in room 309 clasps a soft-bristle brush to her breast and rocks back and forth, tied to her wheelchair with a blue padded belt, where the bed alarms never stop beeping and the questions are endless, Where am I? Who am I? Will you help me? Two knocks on her door, room 310, and I enter. A radio sits on her bedside table. On the shelf across from her bed, a rubber snake coils against a pink ballerina music box. She stares up at a poster tacked to the ceiling above her bed, a photo of wildflowers on a high mountain slope. I wonder what she thinks about, if she can still think at all.

Her name is Rita. She is in her mid-fifties, decades younger than most residents, admitted for wound care because bedsores have broken through the tender skin on her backside, and her husband can no longer care for her at home. Her thin body is contracted, bent knees wedged between the bedrails, hands curled into tight fists. She can tolerate sitting in her wheelchair for an hour a day when her husband comes on his lunch break. After he leaves, an aide puts her back to bed and a nurse pours milky-brown, high-protein liquid into the tube in her belly to keep her hydrated and fed.

Her care plan goals are to get her to track with her eyes, move her head, or change her expression.

I know a little about advanced multiple sclerosis: she may suffer from painful spasms or burning sensations. She may have a lucid mind or significant memory loss, clear vision or blurred. Because I’ve heard she can no longer speak, I have no way of knowing for sure. According to her Activities Care Plan, I’m supposed to provide one-to-one visits three times a week for sensory stimulation: play music and ring bells, wave cinnamon sticks and rosebud sachets beneath her nose, or show her objects from my cart—bright fabrics, silk flowers, rhinestone jewelry—the types of activities I do for residents with severe cognitive deficits. Her care plan goals are to get her to track with her eyes, move her head, or change her expression.

Her long wavy hair, deep brown with a hint of silver at the temples, fans across her pillow, and several tendrils stick to her damp forehead.

I rub her arm.

She screams, high-pitched wails that rise from deep inside, as if with all her strength she pushes out the noise.

I turn on the radio.

I know staff can hear her in the hallway and residents listen through the walls. When I push their wheelchairs past her room on my way to a social program, they glance toward her door. One resident may shake his head and say, “Poor kid.” Another will yell, “Shut the hell up!” She annoys me too.

Each one of her screams is punctuated by a moment of silence before beginning again. I pull a picture book from my cart and hold it up to her face. She bares her teeth.

*     *     *

I spend my workdays serving coffee, painting fingernails, conducting exercise groups, and calling Bingo. A year has passed since I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in English, got married, and moved five hours from home. When I tell people that I work in the Activities Department of a nursing home, the same type of job I had all through high school and college, I always add that I plan on returning to college to get my master’s degree, that I intend on doing something else with my life. And before the move, I seriously did consider graduate school, even took the GRE, but my scores were so low that I lost my nerve. I threw away the admissions packets I sent for and said I needed a break. I said I needed time to study, to read and to write. Besides, I said, I was a college graduate and could find a good writing job anywhere.

But after the move and weeks of filling out applications, I realized I wasn’t going to get that writing or editing job. Just one company called for an interview, and it was for a position in collections at a bank. I let the machine pick up and continued to scan the Classifieds until I saw the ad for an activities assistant, a job I knew I could get.

So I help the residents plant flower gardens in the courtyard and paint birdhouses. I sing to them, songs like “Bicycle Built for Two” and “You Are My Sunshine.” I take them shopping at the dollar store and help them place two dollar bets on horses at the racetrack across town. I also read to them, sweet stories with happy endings. When I conduct the nursing home’s monthly poetry group, I photocopy lighthearted poems from Reminisce or Good Old Days magazines. I sit at a table with eight or ten residents and read the verses aloud. Then I ask them what they would like to write about.

Some stare off into the distance. Others nap.

“What happens this month?” I ask.

“Kids return to school,” one resident says.

I write down their words:

September first, and back to the red brick schoolhouse,

skipping or dragging summer-feet

in ugly brown Oxfords.

A far cry from black patent leather,

but “they’re practical.”

Their poems fit well inside the Resident Chronicle, the facility newsletter I put out each month. They see their words in print, next to the birthday list. Some cut them out and post them on the corkboards in their rooms; others carry the newsletters with them, tucked inside the waistbands of their sweatpants, ready to read to visitors, or again to themselves.

For a while, after work and on weekends, I write too. My husband works nights as a security guard at an abandoned factory on the outskirts of town, so I spend evenings alone, and those first few months I draft essays, laptop balanced on my knees, notebooks and journals strewn across the floor of our one-bedroom rental. Free from the demands of college homework, I write whatever, whenever, I want.

This doesn’t last long.

Tonight, get in bed and watch television. Tomorrow, write.

Blame it on the lack of deadlines to keep me motivated, blame it on the demands of a forty-hour work week, but after a while I am no longer writing. I watch television. The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I Love Lucy fill my evenings. When I think about writing, I manage to talk myself out of it: I am too tired, I have to clean the bathroom, go to the laundromat, walk the dog, wash dishes, mow the lawn, sweep the garage, trim the shrubs, grocery shop. I begin frequenting craft stores, learn to make oatmeal soap, plaster trivets and cement stepping stones decorated with cobalt sea glass and bits of broken mirror. I make dog biscuits and roll out egg noodles for chicken soup from scratch. Or I just don’t feel like writing. Tonight, get in bed and watch television. Tomorrow, write.

*     *     *

Three times a week, I show Rita photographs of horses and cats, wave vials of citrus and peppermint beneath her nose, stroke her arm with a peacock feather, even read to her from Chicken Soup for the Soul—anything to get her to respond—but she screams or stares at the ceiling, not once indicating she knows I am there. When I record our interactions in her chart’s Progress Notes, I consistently write “No response.” One afternoon, the charge nurse asks me to give Rita’s contracted hands range of motion therapy, so I smooth lotion over the top of her right fist and stroke her fingers down to the tips, where her long nails burrow into her palm. She whimpers, and when I slip my thumb beneath her curled fingers to straighten them, she shrieks. The undersides of her fingers are gummed with sweat and smell like sour milk. I try to ease her hand open a little more, to rub lotion around the joints, but she screams louder. Afraid I’ve hurt her and that I’ll break her brittle bones, I let her fingers spring back into her palm.

In the hall outside Rita’s room, the charge nurse smiles sympathetically. “What did you do to that poor woman?”

I know she’s only teasing, but I don’t feel like laughing. I go next door for a visit with a catatonic man in the end stages of Alzheimer’s. I lean over the man’s bed, carefully wipe the sleep from his unblinking eyes with a warm washcloth, and listen to Rita wail through the wall.

Later, at home, I wonder if she cries out clear into evening, or if she’s finally stopped. I curl up in my own bed and let Lucy Ricardo’s terrible singing lull me to sleep.

*     *     *

I meet Rita’s husband after I’ve been visiting her room for a month. The conference room is cramped with a large table and a dusty, ceiling-high ficus tree. The state requires that the care plan team meet every few weeks to review and update the progress of new admits. I ask her husband, a small man with dark hair and a thick mustache, about her past interests.

“She used to like poetry,” he says, adjusting the bill of his baseball cap. “Used to write it too, even went to graduate school for her MFA, but never finished because—well, you know.”

And I’ve been reading her Chicken Soup for the Soul.

“Who are her favorite writers?” I think of the books high up on my shelves at home, the dog-eared covers and tissue-thin pages filled with blue ink and pink highlighter.

He folds his hands and shrugs. “The usual famous ones, I guess.”

Impatiently, I wait for the other departments to finish giving their reports—Nursing: her bedsores have almost healed. Dietary: she maintains a healthy weight. Social services: she screams on a regular basis—and after the meeting, I hurry to Rita’s room.

As usual, she lies on her back, staring at the ceiling.

“So you’re a poet,” I say.

I lean over her bedrails. “I used to study writing, too. Who do you like? Plath? Dickinson? Wordsworth? Blake?”

She turns her head and looks at me.

*     *     *

I scoot a chair up to my bookshelf and pull down dusty copies of Keats, Cummings, and Bishop. I leaf through my Norton and Heath anthologies, the comments I penned as an undergrad, the loose papers tucked inside, a quiz on “The Wasteland,” notes on “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.”

When I was in college, I used to take my textbooks with me to the nursing home and study on my breaks, sometimes when I was supposed to be doing quarterly activity assessments and care plans. During music performances, while the residents listened to fiddlers strum “Tennessee Waltz,” I critiqued essays for workshop, and during church programs, I scribbled ideas for essays on napkins. Back then I filled every spare moment with reading and writing, some mornings rising at 4:30 to fit a few more hours into my day. I wouldn’t turn on the television all semester. Now, a year later, I scoot a chair up to my bookshelf and pull down dusty copies of Keats, Cummings, and Bishop. I leaf through my Norton and Heath anthologies, the comments I penned as an undergrad, the loose papers tucked inside, a quiz on “The Wasteland,” notes on “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” I’ve grown into the habit of sleeping in until the last possible minute, hitting the snooze button so many times that I’m nearly late for work each morning. On my lunch breaks I drive home and settle into the Game Show channel, after work TV Land.

I wipe off my book jackets with a damp cloth. It is fall, and classes are in full swing. Right now, students hurry across campus on their way to the library, backpacks weighted with binders and books. Maybe a young student heads up to the second floor, to the quiet cubicle in the northeast corner, the heart of the literature stacks overlooking the sprawling lawn and administration building, my favorite place to study. Maybe this student opens an American lit book and begins to read. It is nearly seven o’clock, dusk, and through the branches of the giant elms lining the sidewalks, the streetlights dully gleam. Then the clock tower begins to chime, and almost 300 miles away, kneeling in front of my old textbooks, something stirs inside.

*     *     *

Her eyes are closed and she moans the afternoon I read Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips.”  I’ve spent the morning at the copy machine with a heavy pile of books, filling a three-ring binder with my favorite poems. I glance up from the page. The vertical blinds are drawn, and the leaves on the cherry tree outside her window have turned deep gold. Sun glints off the metal light poles in the parking lot, off the windshields of the parked cars, and she’s stopped groaning. She watches me, studying my face and hands, and for once, I can also really see her, the intensity of her green eyes.

When I reach the concluding lines—

The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,

And comes from a country far away as health

—I hesitate. Should I be reading something this grim to her? But she remains still, staring at me, as I skim the pages of the binder. I ask who she would like to hear next, Williams, maybe Blake?

She opens her eyes wide and inhales, and so softly I almost miss it, she mouths a “B.”

Doctors, nurses—everyone—say she’s nonverbal, so I’m not sure I hear her correctly.

She tries to lift her head from the pillow, but her hair is pinned beneath her shoulders. “B— Bla—,” she whispers.

“Do you mean Blake?”

Perspiration flecks her upper lip, and she closes her eyes. “Yes,” she breathes.

I suppress the urge to run out of her room and tell my co-workers they were wrong—she can talk. Instead, I flip through the notebook and find the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I turn to the first poem and start to read:

Piping down the valleys wild,  

Piping songs of pleasant glee . . .

And then I lose track of time. I read about bright tigers, little lambs, and chimney sweeps, about laughing meadows and London town, bleak fields and children’s cries of weep, weep, weep, weep. When I finally look up from the binder, I’ve read through most of the Songs, poems I haven’t read for a long time, that she hasn’t heard for an even longer time.

Before I leave her room, I turn on the radio. The announcer gives the weather report, and Rita stares at the ceiling, but I believe she sees something else. Instead of the mountain scene on the poster above her bed, she sees the words she still knows.

*     *     *

I would like to say it is the poetry that inspires me to fill out the application for graduate school, but it’s more complicated than that. Rita couldn’t finish school because of the rapid progression of her disease, and I know it sounds cliché to say that I feel my own life slipping away when I visit her room and see her deteriorated body, the days she passes in bed, but how else can I put it?

That fall, when she is able to sit up for an hour, and her husband doesn’t make it in, I brush her dark hair so that it falls in thick waves over her shoulders. She purses her lips so I can apply her lipstick, and I show her how beautiful she looks in a hand mirror. Then I take her outside. The courtyard is in the middle of the nursing home, surrounded on all sides by windows and resident rooms. I wheel her to the rose garden and pull up a patio chair next to hers. Inside, residents sit in wheelchairs waiting to be invited to an activity program or a meal. Some watch television. Others are dying. But I don’t look at the banks of windows encircling us. The roses are four-feet tall and we face them, white with pink trim, deep red with velvet petals. I read to her, and for a short time pretend we aren’t in the nursing home, in the center of the city, caught in the same routine. The howls of an ambulance at the hospital across the street, the beeping of the facility bus, disappear, and if only for a few minutes, we live somewhere else, immersed in the language of some other time, breathing in the sweetness of the last of the season’s roses, wisps of hair skimming our flushed cheeks in the crisp breeze.

But then one dark winter afternoon I visit her room, and from her bed she looks at me with what I can only describe as despair. The nursing staff has shaved her head nearly bald with clippers.

When I stop Rita’s nurses’ aide in the hall and ask why, she says the long hair was too hard to care for and that Rita’s husband gave his consent.

“But did you ask her?”

The aide continues down the hall, her arms filled with bed linens, and does not respond.

Several weeks later on New Year’s Eve, I apply to just one school, one thirty miles north of my hometown that doesn’t require entrance exams.

*     *     *

It’s early spring, and the cherry tree outside Rita’s window is thick with pink blossoms. The day before, I received the phone call I’ve been hoping for—I’ve been accepted into graduate school—and just like that, my life has changed. The binder overflows with hundreds of photocopies, some I’ve enlarged so she can read along with me though I never know if she can actually see them.

I’m not really thinking about poetry. I’m thinking about packing and moving, about registering for classes. I’m thinking about how to describe the stuffiness of Rita’s room, the rash of broken capillaries on her cheeks, and the flecks of dried blood on her chapped lower lip.

I need to tell her I am leaving.

Her room feels too warm, so I crack the window. “Is that better?”

She stares at the poster on the ceiling.

“Your hair’s really growing back.”

She raises her eyebrows. An inch of dark stubble covers her head. I haven’t shown her a mirror in a long time.

I begin to tell her that I wrote the night before, but then stop. What will she think if I tell her I am writing about the residents in the Alzheimer’s Unit, how they try the doors all day, insisting they need to get home, how when I take them for rides in the facility van, they beg to go back inside? What will she think if she knows I will also one day write about her?

I finally blurt out that I am going back to school to get an MFA. Then I hesitate. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all. Part of me feels as if I’m rubbing in what she will never have.

Dense white clouds drift past the sun, and the plastic blinds clack in the breeze. She doesn’t look at me, but there is no mistaking what I hear. “Good for you,” she whispers.

*     *     *

I brush her dark hair so that it falls in thick waves over her shoulders. She purses her lips so I can apply her lipstick, and I show her how beautiful she looks in a hand mirror.

It isn’t always good those months before I leave. There are days when she cries out during the entire visit, days when I sit beside her bed and her screams drown out the poems I read aloud, when I lose my temper and ask, “Do you want me to read to you, or not?” One afternoon she spits in my face. I glare at her and leave her room, though when I return to my office to record our interaction in her progress notes, I don’t know what to write. What is it like when a woman half her age bounds into her room with poems she’s picked out for her to hear? How does it feel when she tells her she’s going to graduate school to study writing while her hands, no longer able to grip a pen, have curled like dead leaves? When her husband visits once a day for an hour, and she’s so lonely for his touch, but can’t ask him to lie down beside her and hold her or even demand that he stay, when the old man in the hallway outside her door won’t stop asking where he is, and the woman in the room next door rhythmically thumps her wheelchair into the wall behind her head, and the whole place smells like piss and shit, and she is young—only in her fifties—and should be doing anything but lying in a bed, staring at a poster of wildflowers someone tacked to the ceiling.

Twice before I leave, she scrapes her fist against her G-tube until it pops out of her belly and liquid food soaks her sheets, pooling on the white linoleum beneath her bed. Nursing staff considers the first time an accident, but they scold her the second time.

“What are you trying to do?” I overhear her nurse say. She and an aide tape the tube down along her side. They smother her stomach with a pillow so she can no longer work it free.

When I show the binder to the middle-aged woman hired to take my place, she glances at a stack of care plan assessments in her hand instead. I flip through the photocopies, pausing at the pages with the corners folded—Wordsworth and Keats, Coleridge and Blake—trying to explain Rita’s preferences. “Don’t worry,” the woman says, “I know just the kind of inspirational poetry she needs.”

Then I stop trying to explain. I know she isn’t listening, and I tell myself I don’t really know what Rita needs anyway. I used to ask her husband to bring in her own poetry from home, but he never did. At first, he told me he forgot. Then he said he couldn’t find it. Maybe he wanted to keep that part of her for himself. I used to imagine him sitting at her desk, sifting through her notebooks, reading her words, remembering. Or maybe he kept the notebooks shut, tucked away on the top shelf of the bookcase. Maybe he thought the poems would awaken something inside that she would never be able to regain. Maybe he knew something I didn’t, that it would hurt too much, and it was best if she forgot. She once mouthed a B, maybe a D, when I asked her to tell me her favorite poet, and I listed off names. Blake, Bishop, Dickinson, Donne? She shook her head. Dickey, Berryman, Bly? No, she said loudly, her face red with effort. Doolittle, Browning? Spit gathered in the corners of her mouth, and she screamed.

I am leaving soon, starting a new life, but until then, I visit her room three times a week. The pink privacy curtain surrounding her bed is drawn back, and her folded bedspread neatly covers her feet. My mind these days is elsewhere, already focused on the future. Still, I sit beside her bed and flip through the notebook, choosing poems I think she wants to hear. The lazy slant of afternoon sun shines on her face and perspiration beads her forehead. Her light blue hospital gown has slipped off her shoulders, and the white sheet bunched up at her waist hides the tube in her belly. She listens to me read, her hands balled into tight fists against her heart, and stares up at the poster on the ceiling, looming peaks of snow-flecked mountains, sparse stands of subalpine fir, and a lush meadow of wildflowers, tiny lavender daisies and white tufts of bear grass, their pale faces forever turned toward the sky. For her, delicate fingers of lupine hold everything.

Jennifer AndersonJennifer Anderson is an English instructor at Lewis-Clark State College, and her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, the Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Cimarron Review, and Open Spaces Quarterly, among other places. She also collaborates on documentary films with her husband, Vernon Lott; their latest project, “The Act of Becoming,” explores the recent international success behind John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner.

 

Every Man a Fortress

We traded snippets about ourselves when the chaos allowed and found we’d both joined the Corps to make something of ourselves, serve our country, and shoot things—Schnieder wanted to be a Rifleman while I was already slated to be a Machine Gunner. Before enlisting, Schnieder had been a degenerate living in his parents’ basement. I’d enlisted eight months prior at seventeen, and had just graduated high school before shipping out. I told Schnieder how the Army Recruiter had blown off my appointment, and when the Navy Recruiter asked me why I wanted to join I’d told him, “To shoot things,” so I’d been sent across the hall to the Marines. We were scared, but determined. Neither of us had any intention of washing out. When we’d watched the rack-less Recruits being marched away he’d said thank you. And meant it.

I slowly rocked my weight to the balls of my feet and then back onto my heels again to alleviate the pain in my lower back. When the Drill Instructors had left, after putting the platoon at POA, they’d laughed and joked about how they’d come back to find a squad bay of Recruits passed out face first on the concrete floor. Many dark outlines of Recruits swayed as if drunk on their feet. When knees lock they cut off circulation, but when a Recruit stood at the POA he needed to “lock his body.” As new Recruits we hadn’t figured out to almost lock our knees, or rhythmically tense and relax them to keep blood flowing.

Heads bobbed and weaved as things started to gray out. I relaxed my knees, not realizing I’d tensed them, hoping it wasn’t too late to recover before passing out. If I fell no one would move to help me. The Drill Instructors had been clear that if a Recruit went down, no one was to help him up. They said we would be told not to help others throughout boot camp to destroy our expectation of assistance—seek nothing outside of yourself, the well-built Korean DI said, once every man became a fortress we would be Marines.

The florescent tubes hummed overhead. Light became dizzy staccato flashes. I tried to motivate myself by thinking back to why I joined the Corps. My memory of the morning blurred into a kaleidoscope of images. The initial scene of a single tower smoking seared into my mind. I could still see a 747 glide into the second tower and erupt out the other side a shotgun blast of fire, twisted rebar, and broken glass. Smoke, pouring out of the first tower and wreathing the second. The way flailing figures spun as they plunged to the street, their descent tracked frantically by cameras.

Images of first responders digging through rubble were replaced by the towers standing—just in time to watch them get slammed by 747s and come tumbling down again.

Towers crumbling to nothing. People running, screaming, as tidal waves of ash and debris flooded through the surrounding avenues. They just fell, one after the other, first the bodies then the towers.

I’d wondered if there had been trumpets that morning, as my teacher panicked and sat dumbfounded. From the doom on his face my stomach had knotted in fear that the rapture had happened and all of our parents had been disappeared off the face of the earth, teleported up to heaven—that my parents had been right all along. My classmates and I stared at the television screens with blank expressions. The cyclical nature of the newscasts, hashing out and then rehashing what had happened, showed us again and again. Images of first responders digging through rubble were replaced by the towers standing—just in time to watch them get slammed by 747s and come tumbling down again. The narrative stopped being linear in my mind and become a jumble of destruction on screens I had to watch. The humming of florescent lights took the place of sirens and screaming as teachers switched on subtitles. The same sound that had filled that day buzzed above me now, and the same scared looks and blank stares on faces lined up.

Silently the door opened, and Stahl stepped through. Silently it closed again.

“Look to your left and right,” Stahl said.

The platoon looked.

“Some of the men to your right and left won’t be here a year from now. Hell, some of them won’t even be alive six months from now,” Stahl said.

Staff Sergeant Stahl paced the length of the squad bay, his flashing corframs click-clacking, click-clack as he drove his heels into the floor. He told us about himself and how he was going to run the platoon with an iron fist while the First Hat was away bucking for promotion. Stahl was a “been there, done that,” Marine. He came from the Old Corps, when things had been much harder. And he’d served in Iraq, leading a Mortar Section in combat operations and earned several decorations for their performance. Stahl had taken lives, rifled through dead insurgents’ pockets for cigarettes and food. He’d seen teenagers, their hair already gray, break down, shaking and sobbing as they begged not to be the first through the door this time. He’d watched his men die, blood bubbling out of their nostrils as they screamed for their mothers. Stahl knew something we couldn’t imagine—we weren’t all going to make it.

“And some of you,” Stahl shouted. “Shouldn’t be here! Take a look around and you’ll see who they are. Schnieder wouldn’t even have a rack if it wasn’t for his rack-mate telling a bunch of Recruits twice his size to fuck off. You know what kind of Recruits can’t seize and hold a rack? Non-hackers.”

Stahl explained that “non-hacker,” like almost all military jargon, was not counter-intuitive. Later in our careers as Marines we would learn idioms and rhymes that seemed childish: “red means dead” to remind us if we could see the red dot below a pistol’s safety then the safety was disengaged; “brass to the grass” to remind us to load ammunition into machine guns always with the shiny side of the brass rounds down and the black connecting links on top; “tap, rack, bang,” to remind us of the correct immediate action of tapping the magazine, racking the bolt and trying to fire again when our rifle misfired; “treat, never, keep, keep,” to reduce the four weapons safety rules to something small and manageable. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded. Never point your weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot, keep your weapon on safe until you intend to fire, and keep your finger safe and off the trigger until you are ready to fire, was easily remembered as “treat, never, keep, keep.” Non-hacker was the first in a long list, and the most self-explanatory.

He’d seen teenagers, their hair already gray, break down, shaking and sobbing as they begged not to be the first through the door this time.

Stahl explained it anyway.

“A non-hacker is someone who can’t fucking hack it, good to go?” Stahl asked. He didn’t look up to see if there were any questions. The platoon couldn’t move or speak when at the POA.

“Recruiters, they don’t go to combat and watch men die. They sit stateside and don’t do shit like the fleet dodgers they are. All they care about is numbers. So some of you were recruited by men who knew you don’t have what it takes.”

Stahl’s head whipped like he’d heard a sound. He stalked over to a short, fat Recruit with freckles, a red nose and red stubble on his head. The Recruit looked straight ahead while Stahl stared at him, inches from his face.

“Your Recruiter was slumming when he picked you up,” Stahl bellowed. “What the fuck did you do in the civilian world?”

The Recruit didn’t answer for a second, then spoke in a quavering voice.

“I–” the Recruit started.

“This Recruit!” Stahl screamed, spittle speckling the recruits face. “You no longer say ‘I’ do you understand? You will only say ‘This Recruit’ when referring to yourself.”

“This Recruit,” he started again, voice cracking. “Used to roller blade and hang out with his friends.”

Stahl took off the hat DIs wore, the same kind worn by Smokey the Bear. Holding his hat in one hand he ran the other down his face. When his hand fell it revealed an Oni mask of hate where Stahl’s face had been. The sudden transformation could have been comical in the civilian world only because it would have been safe to assume it jest. Stahl wasn’t joking though. His face turned purple with rage, a hue I hadn’t realized brown-skinned people could achieve. His right hand knotted into a fist with the pointer finger extended at the second knuckle that he slammed into the Recruit’s cheek, as if pointing at his eyebrow.

“And you didn’t think it might be important to lose some fucking weight for Marine Corps boot camp?” Stahl asked. “What did your friends say when you told them that you were going to join the Marine Corps?”

The Recruit looked ready to shit himself.

“They told me not to,” he said. “They told me I couldn’t make it.”

“They were right! You are, disgusting!” Stahl’s body made a retching motion; his head swung down to slam the brim of his Smokey Bear into the Recruit’s face.

The Recruit started to cry.

“What did your dad say?” Stahl asked.

“My father killed himself when I was young,” the Recruit started to explain, slipping back into the first person.

“Oh, you don’t have a dad?” Stahl said, interrupting. “Well it makes sense he killed himself, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t want to be your dad either!”

The Recruit wept openly. Stahl turned away in disgust and spat on the floor. His muscles bulged as he stalked between the two lines of Recruits. His head swung back and forth, looking for certain ones. When he found them he’d stuck his hand in their face, all his fingers and thumb pointing forward in what the Corps called a “knife hand,” and asked them if they had a father. Every time the answer was no. Every time Stahl leaned back and brayed at the top of his lungs about what degenerates the Recruits were, how no man would claim them as their children. When the Recruit’s race allowed, Stahl would say their father “ran back across the border,” or “got lost, drunk on the reservation,” or “their momma couldn’t pick which one because it was dark.” He broke them down, left them struggling against their sobs.

I was terrified. Stahl could pick out the bastard children.

When the Recruit’s race allowed, Stahl would say their father “ran back across the border,” or “got lost, drunk on the reservation,” or “their momma couldn’t pick which one because it was dark.” He broke them down, left them struggling against their sobs.

That information wasn’t in our Service Record Books, which had transported our basic information—height, weight, hair color, religious preference—to boot camp. Stahl had only been able to observe the platoon for a few hours that day before the inspection. I wondered what kind of predatory instinct allowed him to feel out weakness. I realized I was dealing with someone very good at his profession, what he grimly referred to as “making Marines.” But Stahl said a lot of cliché little idioms, and the next was something about “needing to break a few Recruits to make an omelet.” Stahl offered to fight any man in the platoon, said he’d take his rank off. He walked up to the largest Recruit, a six-and-a-half-feet tall, three hundred pound Texan with the last name Payne.

“What about you, corn-fed white boy?” Stahl asked, his voice croaked hoarse from smoking.

Payne stared ahead, “No, Sir!”

“Had to think about it,” Stahl said, stepping in close so his face starred up into Payne’s. “You sure? Maybe it’ll be like wrestling a steer?”

“Sir, no Sir!” Payne’s voice shook.

Stahl walked away and addressed the platoon, his heels clacking.

“That’s goddamn right you don’t!” he said, jabbing his finger in the air. “Gentlemen, welcome to boot camp. I make the rules here!”

But I had my own problems—“problem children.” These Recruits weren’t just Stahl’s pet projects, his little toys he’d play with on the quarterdeck until they broke or he got tired. No, the problem children represented the fault lines in the platoon’s granite foundation: the people who would crack under pressure, who made mistakes not out of laziness but ineptitude. Recruits that couldn’t figure out how to get dressed quickly enough when the platoon woke, couldn’t remember to say “Sir” at the start and finish of everything they said, who didn’t understand making the entire platoon wait on them several times a day couldn’t be justified with an excuse. Stahl hated them for it. Veins writhed in his neck and bulged from his forehead as he screamed at them. Spittle flew in explosions of syllabubs as Stahl barked diatribes-turned-psychoanalysis that probed the depths of the mind. Stahl examined Recruits’ foibles with the steady rhythm of an oncoming train, divining the gruesome future from their pupils.

Schnieder was one of them, so was Oou.

Schnieder’s carelessness struck early the morning when he wanted to move slowly. He’d forget how his shower towel hung folded from his rack, or to shave. The more Schnieder messed up, the more Stahl rode him, the more mistakes he made, the more attention he got—to the point where I shared in the punishments because I shared a rack with him. Stahl told me that’s how it went, that I needed to make up for the shortcomings of my brothers and I was failing not only the platoon, but Recruit Schnieder and myself.

“I’m sorry I’ve been fucking up a lot lately,” Schnieder whispered to me after a particular bad hazing session. “I’ll do better, I promise. Just don’t hate me. Stahl is trying to get everyone to hate me.”

“You’ve got to get better,” I replied.

Schnieder stopped making incessant mistakes and life got easier for us. After he’d kept it up for a few days he apologized to the whole platoon when we got turned to hygiene. From then on the platoon widely accepted him. Schnieder proved he could hack it. He’d walked through the fire, maybe not well, but well enough. Stahl even gave him a few kind words in passing. I could tell Schnieder’s heart swelled with pride that he’d turned things around. When other Recruits turned into problem children, Schnieder didn’t hate them; he accepted it as part of the process. But there was one problem child that tested all of our patience collectively, even Schnieder’s. I felt bad for him at first, because he was a nice enough guy.

The more Schnieder messed up, the more Stahl rode him, the more mistakes he made, the more attention he got—to the point where I shared in the punishments because I shared a rack with him.

“Things aren’t so bad, guys, right?” Oou would say. “Pretty soon we’ll graduate and boot camp will be over.”

Oou didn’t realize that after boot camp there would be war. No matter how many times Stahl showed him the dead in the papers and explained the similarities the dead Marines and Oou had in common, he didn’t understand. Oou always had a look of perpetual astonishment on his face. Always. No matter how many times he made the same mistake and the entire platoon got hazed for it, Oou was always surprised. Stahl knew how to fix him. Before lights out, when the platoon stood in line in front of the bunks, locked at attention, waiting for taps to play over the loudspeakers, Stahl called Oou front in center. Stahl made Oou drink first one canteen of water, then two. Then he had Oou refill the canteens and come back out in front of the platoon.

“No one gives a fuck about you, Oou,” Stahl said. “Because you’re weak, a non-hacker I couldn’t wash out. I failed you, Oou. You shouldn’t be here. And it’s going to get you and the men around you killed.”

Stahl turned to us, grin spilling across his dark face like milk.

“What do you think, 3111?” Stahl asked, addressing the platoon by its number. “If the rod should be spared, speak out.”

My jaw set. I wasn’t going to stick my neck out for Oou, who had been fucking up at every opportunity. I’d been sucked into the mind games, made to hate Oou for his shortcomings when I should have tried to help him. I thought about how Oou kept letting us down, how pushups bruised my palms stigmata. How he sat there looking like a child while the rest of us paid for hours. I knew Stahl would stop the punishment if someone spoke out, but I kept my mouth shut.

“Drink the other two,” Stahl said. “While you jump up and down.”

Oou made it half way through the third canteen before he threw up—once, and then twice. Stahl made him keep drinking and jumping, until the third canteen was empty and Oou bent over retching long tendrils of bile that hung from his lips.

“Should I have him roll in it?” Stahl asked.

He looked at the platoon for a reaction.

The platoon didn’t need to say anything. Stahl already knew the answer.

“3111, always too soft,” Stahl said. “Well Oou, I guess everyone likes paying for your mistakes.”

*     *     *

Before being sent out into the world as full-fledged Marines we’d had the boot camp version of a battalion meeting. The entire purpose of this meeting was to instill the idea in Marines that they should not do drugs on leave, or get arrested. But especially no drugs. Several DIs took the stage in an auditorium and pleaded with everyone to “piss clean” at the School Of Infantry. When we checked in to SOI, it was explained, as many as half would be randomly selected to take a urinary analysis. The Marine Corps zero-tolerance policy of illicit drug use made passing the test an imperative. If a Marine failed the test, he would be separated from the Marine Corps.

The first thing I heard out of Schnieder’s mouth after leave was, “If I have to piss, it’s going to be dirty.”

“What did you smoke,” I asked. “And when?”

The entire purpose of this meeting was to instill the idea in Marines that they should not do drugs on leave, or get arrested. But especially no drugs.

He had a sickly pallor and looked like he hadn’t slept all leave. As a short, overweight balding guy with the first signs of meth-mouth, Schnieder usually looked pretty bad, but now he looked terrible. I had no doubt he would be picked for a urine screening, and so did he.

“I smoked meth last night,” Schnieder said.

Sure enough, when the Marines formed up outside of the barracks the first thing that happened was roll call for urinary analysis. My name was one of the first called and Schnieder’s one of the last. We stood in line together, cups in hand, waiting our turn. I learned an important lesson that day. Not that listening and doing the right thing pays off. I learned that Marines were frequently men of extremes. Maybe the Corps owning Marines drove men to excess of drinking, drugs, and women, or maybe the kind of person that seeks out the profession of United States Marine is predisposed to immoderation. Schnieder had decided to go on a ten-day meth bender knowing that he was going to be tested, and if he failed it would ruin his life. This lesson didn’t stop with our piss test.

I saw Schnieder in line at the PX buying a pack of smokes and a cheesy lighter. I tried to get his attention. I wanted to ask him what he was going to do about the piss test, if there was any way to fight it. While we’d waited in line, cups of piss in hand, I’d had the idea that maybe he could blame it on an over-the-counter medication causing a false positive. Explaining away the results was a long shot, but I wanted Schnieder to make it. He had become a part of my Marine Corps experience, and I was having a hard time imagining it without him—letting go.

Like a lot of guys trying to claw their way out of the gutter, Schnieder never imagined he’d be a Marine; Schnieder came from a life of meth and video games in his parents’ basement. When Stahl had got me down, Schnieder cheered me up with his lopsided grin and easy humor. The first time hunger drove me dumpster-diving, Schnieder stood watch and I’d split it with him.  When the San Diego skyline exploded with fireworks we’d stood and watched from the squad bay; it made us feel better to know that the whole world wasn’t boot camp. Something changed, though, and he’d started thinking about using again—talked about it with other junkies. Then Stahl had become frustrated toying with me, like a coyote giving up on a box turtle. When he shifted his attention to Schnieder, he sensed a weakness I missed, one that went beyond messing up the trivialities of boot camp.

I waived to Schnieder from across the PX; he just looked at the ground and shuffled out the front door. I never saw him again. He went UA; that is, he decided Unauthorized Absence was better than consequences. Schnieder was the first person I lost in the Corps.

Jason ArmentJason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He’s earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in, among others, Narrative, Gulf Coast, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review (Pushcart nomination), and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volumes 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in Zone 3, Duende, New Madrid, Veterans Writing Project, Midwestern Gothic, and The Iowa Review. University of Hell Press will publish his memoir Musalaheen in 2017. He lives in Denver, where he coordinates the Denver Veterans Writing Workshop with the Colorado Humanities.

 

Somebody. Still.

I had wanted to be something in the world once. A teaching degree, a Masters degree, and several academic honors hang framed on my study wall. I might have had any number of careers but at twenty-five I made a choice and let the world go on without me: Bedside for my mother’s cancer right after college slid into marriage, morphed into children, and landed me in a seaside community buffered by comforts. A few decades later I was looking at fifty and an empty house. And hiding in the laundry room.

Four years out of college my best friend whisked me to France when my mother became terminal, and proposed over flaming omelets on Mont-Saint-Michel, an ancient French Monastery stranded by the tides at the edge of the northwestern coast. Despite the earnest look on his face I hardly noticed the romantic setting. I was all out of emotions: My mother was dying from ovarian cancer far away in Seattle and I was worn out keeping her and myself together. As the velvet box slid across the table my reasoning seemed so reasonable; we knew everything there was to know about each other, he loved my family, my mother would still be there for my wedding if we hurried. So instead of waiting to see how mother-less, cancer-less, home-less worked, maybe finally starting a career or living alone, I would snap on a silk garter.

Nobody put a hand on my shoulder and counseled me to avoid making big decisions in times of big grief. Nobody warned me that grief was not a reliable emotion on which to base life-changing commitments. I had pushed the three-diamond heirloom ring on my finger with relief, chose the road most traveled and said yes yes yes to my oldest friend. I was tired. Marriage seemed an easy answer.

I looked down at the sparkling ring and said quickly, “How fast do you think we can pull off a wedding?”

Twenty years later, three talented children, one suburban community, twenty slack pounds heavier an invisible net began to cinch tight.

So instead of waiting to see how mother-less, cancer-less, home-less worked, maybe finally starting a career or living alone, I would snap on a silk garter.

The first episodes began in the laundry room, folding the never-diminishing pile of sports shorts, lacrosse jerseys, strings of candy-colored thongs, hipster boxers, and my faded, elastic granny panties. I discovered I couldn’t breathe. All I could hear inside my head was, I am nobody.

Then I closed myself in the coat closet and cried.

Was this empty nest syndrome, my second child departing for college at the same time my youngest decided to head to boarding school? In truth, they were all ready to go: happy, adjusted, busting at the seams to grow into adulthood.

Was I an ungrateful bitch, not appreciating my safe community, successful husband, beautiful family? No one could doubt my love, devotion, and dedication to my family. I sobbed into the raincoats hiding my despair; I wanted to do something else with my life, only I had no idea how to start again or where to start again. I wasn’t ungrateful I just wasn’t done. Who thinks this way?

My struggle intensified as the house got quieter. Anxiety chattered in my head, You only have yourself to blame, as I tried to catch my breath while the dryer tumbled. Back to gratitude! my mind raced. My mother had died at fifty-one-years-old. I was lucky to be alive to see my children grow. I shoved my saggy underwear behind the detergent and put a smile on my face.

*     *     *

The garage was staged with bins of extra-long sheets, towels and pillows for the two dorm rooms. Moving old photo boxes out of the way, a picture of my husband and his former live-in girlfriend, sitting an inch apart on a couch smiling at each other, dropped to the floor.

The photo haunted me for days.

He married you out of pity.

He loved your mom and wanted her to know you were taken care of.

But what froze my blood was,

He had never smiled at me like that before.

But let’s be honest, what was he looking at? I filled the days, months, and years with too much food, alcohol, and projects. Caregiving of other relatives took a toll on me all over again. I gained weight, had high cholesterol, and drank martinis nightly by the double. Filling my time and my belly had not filled my soul or made me attractive. Her face in the photo glowed, her chestnut hair swirled around flawless skin. I had stopped looking in the mirror.

The cost of my decision over that omelet flambé was finally here: I gave up being someone—I was my apron, gardens, roasting pan, and children; wore granny panties and hadn’t had sex for ten years. I had sledded down the slippery slope of taking care of everyone else, riding a comfy cushion under my butt into oblivion. How could I possibly salvage anything of that twenty-five-year-old now?

When the house was empty of children we began to eat dinner in front of a news show every night, our meal balanced on knees, his laptop open beside him. I was bored to tears and brought to tears that this was how my life would continue to unspool forward. I lay awake at night, stroking my dogs, devising plans: I will go back to school. Find part-time work in a shop in town. I was qualified to be a dog walker, a cook, a housecleaner. I pulled the pillows over my head.

I gave up being someone—I was my apron, gardens, roasting pan, and children; wore granny panties and hadn’t had sex for ten years.

First, I thought, first I should salvage the marriage. I set a table for two, lit candles and prepared a nice meal the next day.

“Now we can focus on us for the first time in years!” I said, clinking our wine glasses together.

“Did I tell you I am going to Europe next month to extend the company?” he replied.

Could I have been any more invisible than that moment?

As his words hung between us I stacked the dishes and felt a bizarre rush of relief. In some ways, being apart would be good for both of us. As he chatted on about his trip, I suddenly realized that I had no intention of just sitting here waiting for someone to decide to come home for a meal. I wasn’t angry. I was certain.

I sat at the computer the next day and typed random requests into Google:

Continuing Education Classes Knitting instructor Writing courses

I applied to a workshop in Seattle, noting at the beginning of my essay,

“I am not pretending I know how to write. I just want to try.”

Someone in the program wrote back,

“Welcome! This is great. Here is what we recommend.”

Someone wants me?

Just one line, from a stranger. In rapid succession I scoured Craigslist for rentals and found a furnished flat for a six-week workshop, put down the deposits with my own inherited money, secured dog sitters, emptied the fridge, put the garden to bed, and found a ride to the airport.

“I’ll be back after you return from Europe,” I said as he packed. But both of us knew this was the defining moment of something else. And I had defined it. Unprecedented. Exhilarating.

*     *     *

A friend said to me before I left, “We are so confused, you were the ultimate mom, you did everything perfectly, why do you need to go away?”

My dog sitter said, “Do you know everyone is talking about you? Wondering if you are getting divorced?”

I shouldn’t move forward, but everyone else can?

*     *     *

The first hour in the flat I watched the clouds flick the tips of the snow-capped Cascade mountains and listened to the silence. Not fearful, just acutely aware I was making big, irrevocable decisions based on advice from a stranger. Would this work out? Did it matter?

At a second-hand store down the street I purchased two wine glasses, two plates, and a vintage tablecloth dotted with plums. I felt the blood zinging through me.

Who did this? Somebody.

I took a deep breath and went to bed alone.

Alexandra DaneAlexandra Dane is currently completing Cope: An Imperfect Story, her memoir about coming of age in the midst of her mother’s divorce and terminal illness. For the last four years she has honed her writing voice in Seattle, Washington with thanks to Hugo House and The Writer’s Workshop. Her work has appeared in thewritersworkshopreview.net. Her weekly blog alexandradanewrites.com is an assemblage of thoughts on the small things that matter. She lives in Boston and Seattle.