The hospital walls were stark white and we weren’t allowed to have pens: they were on the list of things we could potentially hurt ourselves with, alongside other items like shoelaces and earrings. I was thirteen and doodling with Crayola markers on construction paper. Even with the “non-toxic” declaration written on its label in the same vibrant purple of my marker, a staff sat beside me and watched my hand move, making sure it didn’t go anywhere it didn’t belong. Marker to paper and back again, until the felt tip was back inside its cap. Across the table there were two windows that had bars on them that were less like bars and more like braided wire, more similar to a tightly woven fence rather than a jail cell. Just behind the wire was the kind of blue sky that only appears in early spring, a blue that feels like hope after a long Chicago winter. I hadn’t been outside in nearly a week, and the blue was taunting me. I was in art therapy. It was my first time in a psychiatric ward.
“Why don’t we go around and share our work?” the therapist asked.
A girl named Emma volunteered. From the chin up, Emma looked young, innocent even. Her bare face was spotted with freckles and her under-eyes were white, not a deep purple like mine. From her chin down, it was like she was a different person. Red and purple rope burns covered the sides of her neck but when I’d asked her how she’d gotten them she told me they were hickeys. She said her boyfriend’s mom had walked in on her fucking him in his trailer home and they couldn’t deny what they were doing because of them being naked and him being inside her and the evidence he’d written all over her neck. I knew, though. We all did. Maybe if we were on the outside I could’ve believed her, but one look at the windows and the wire and those horrible bruises and burns made any faith I had in her story fade away. There is no way to hide that you want to die from someone who understands.
I even had a nurse ask one day during breakfast why I looked so upset, as if I hadn’t been hospitalized for depression, as if we all didn’t want to die. Despite this, I wondered how my sadness could measure up to anyone else’s, even if I felt like I would crumble if anyone tried to touch me to make sure I was real.
“I drew the bottom of a swimming pool,” Emma told the therapist. “Because I don’t think there is anywhere safer than being on the bottom looking up.”
I had tried to drown myself a few weeks prior. I hadn’t understood that no matter how hard you try to empty your lungs, keep your eyes squeezed shut, press your head to the bottom of a bathtub, that your body will force you to the surface. Your mind can scream “kill me” while your body screams “let me live,” and your body will always win.
I understood what Emma was saying. The bottom of a bathtub, the bottom of a pool. Somewhere that was quiet and deep. A place between worlds.
I didn’t want to die forever, necessarily, but I didn’t want to be in this body and living in this world, either. I was too young to think about eternity, or getting married, or even turning sixteen. All I knew was that if life felt like this, I didn’t want to live it anymore. But my attempt at an ending failed, just like the attempts of the twenty other inpatients on the adolescent floor of Woodland Park Hospital’s psychiatric ward. So there we were, in art therapy, on a Tuesday afternoon when we should’ve been at work, or in math class, or, really, anywhere but there.
Sitting in the emergency room five nights prior, I couldn’t have imagined I’d have been admitted at all, no less kept for a week inpatient and six weeks in a day program of intensive therapy. I couldn’t have known I would be sent to a residential treatment center for at-risk teenage girls for ten months, or that just half a year after graduating that program, I’d be back at another hospital, followed by another day program. I hadn’t even told the doctor who spoke to me in the emergency room that I wanted to die, or about the bathtub. All I had said was that sometimes when I sat in the bathroom and cut myself with a pair of scissors, I worried I’d take it too far.
I did worry I’d take it too far, but what did ‘too far’ mean? Even I didn’t know. After all, what truly constitutes a suicide attempt? I’d hung my body over railings atop ten story buildings, feeling the blood swell to the bottom of my fingertips with my weight and gravity pulling them down, but I’d never jumped. I’d often sat with my back to the glass railings that lined the third story of the mall, hoping the glass would shatter and I’d fall, but it never did. I knew if things got to be too much, there was always a pill cabinet to raid and a knife waiting for me in the kitchen, but I never took them up on their offer. To sit in therapy alongside a girl with rope burns covering her neck, or a twelve-year-old boy who had stabbed himself in the stomach, and say, “I tried to drown myself in my bathtub,” felt incredibly lame, so I didn’t say anything at all.
To say what I’d done, or rather, what I’d failed to do, out loud would’ve been too shameful, too real. So I listened to Emma lie about her neck and cried when a girl named Bella told me she’d swallowed twenty Advil and washed them down with bleach. I envied every new admit that came in with stitches on their wrists and silently cursed myself for not having the guts to bleed like they did. I wanted to go back to the world I knew before the hospital; before a friend had called my parents and told them I was cutting, that she was concerned. But that world had already moved on without me, and I was watching it pass by behind layers of wire and glass.
I stayed up every night in the hospital, eyes trying to find the ceiling in the dark. The months leading up to my hospitalization seemed to go on forever. I couldn’t remember a time before this sadness. At some point after turning thirteen, something inside me had broken, and I began to feel a hollowness that started to eat me from the inside. Every friend I had was fighting depression in one way or another: was I really that much worse off than the others? Was I really the one who needed to be saved? I know there was a time when I complained of a headache and the nurse at school didn’t ask to check my wrists, leaving me so grateful that I’d chosen to cut my thigh the night before. I know there was a time before my teachers followed me into the bathroom because they were worried about me being alone, even only for a few minutes. I’d been in the hospital only a week, but the days before it felt somewhere far away, like a dream I had partially forgotten.
* * *
A few weeks before my hospitalization, my friend Teddy had asked me to video chat. When the video connected, he didn’t even say hello before putting his chin to the sky and dragging a razor blade from it down to his chest. I had watched blood form like droplets of morning dew and slip from his pale skin, dripping downwards, staining his white t-shirt. I hadn’t said anything as I watched that stain grow, and I stayed silent as he swallowed an entire bottle of Excedrin by the fistful. There was nothing to say that could undo what he’d done, so instead I cried.
I texted him asking him to vomit, to call an ambulance, to please not go to sleep—I couldn’t bring myself to say any of it out loud. He ignored my requests and didn’t speak, either. His actions had done the talking. I think he just wanted a witness, someone to understand the extent of his pain. When he exited out of our video chat and told me he was going to sleep, I printed out the suicide note he’d written me and clutched the paper like it could keep him there.
I’ma miss you and everyone else so tell them that, K? Thanks for supporting me when I was fucked. I know you care about me but I need you to swear you won’t kill yourself or anything. If anyone kills themselves over me it would ruin me even as I’m dead. What really surprises me is that I’m only twelve, right now I think I sound a lot older…I know you’re probably crying as you read this, but I am too so don’t feel left out. I don’t really know what to say anymore, but if anybody tries hurting themselves please stop them for me. Thanks, I love you, and I’ll maybe see you in hell one day if you go there too.
I read his words over and over until I had them memorized.
The next day, I climbed into the passenger seat of my car, looked my mom in the eyes, and told her what had happened. My voice was monotone, my demeanor calm. I had spent the last four hours unsure if my best friend was dead. I had nothing left to give.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Do you want to stay home?”
Her eyes were wide and filled with concern, her voice shaking. I told her I was fine; I couldn’t bear to sit at home with my sadness. I had to see my friends, ask if any of them had heard from Teddy. The waiting game was too much, and I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing his bloody neck, but the only way I knew how to handle it was to keep moving.
I went to school with swollen eyes and his suicide note folded in my pocket, showing it to anyone who would read it. When I saw my cousin in the cafeteria, I broke down sobbing and fell to the ground beside the foldout lunch table she sat in, handing her the note so she could understand. She picked me up and took me to the bathroom, where I stayed and skipped gym class to hide in a stall and cut his initials—T.L.—into my arm, needing at least a piece of him to stay with me forever. The police picked him up later that day and took him to Woodland Park Hospital.
Each night during my hospitalization, I thought about Teddy and wondered if he’d slept in the same bed I was laying in then while he was an inpatient. I wondered how he had gotten released after a mere three days, and how I’d been hospitalized for nearly a week. It didn’t make sense to me how Emma and her burns were already out the door, how a girl named KT, who had been in the ICU fighting for her life for an entire week after she overdosed before coming to the ward, came and went after only two days. I watched those who appeared much worse off than I was come and go, and I stayed put. No one talked about my discharge date. I even had a nurse ask one day during breakfast why I looked so upset, as if I hadn’t been hospitalized for depression, as if we all didn’t want to die. Despite this, I wondered how my sadness could measure up to anyone else’s, even if I felt like I would crumble if anyone tried to touch me to make sure I was real.
I was released after seven days of inpatient care, and then continued with six weeks of outpatient therapy that replaced my going to school. I watched those who were still inpatient from the other side of the dayroom, trying to tell them I understood through just a look because those who were inpatient and those who were outpatient weren’t allowed to talk to one another. I was okay until I wasn’t, and I headed back to treatment. This time my stay extended from seven days to ten months. I graduated. I was okay until I wasn’t. I became a frequent flier of the psychiatric wards of the greater Chicagoland area. I am always okay until I’m not.
The thing doctors don’t tell you about getting better is that Better isn’t a destination, but rather the road between Bad and Good. Some months I do well. I forget about the doctors, about Emma’s neck, about that night I spent watching Teddy nearly die. I almost don’t remember the months I spent desperately fighting for my life in a treatment center full of thirty-two other girls who were doing the same exact thing. I take my Lexapro without really thinking about what it’s for. And when someone who knows my story asks what it felt like to want to die, I can’t even remember. “I don’t know,” I tell them, and I’m being honest. I’ve forgotten. Sadness feels so far away. It’s like the girl who was hospitalized at thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen isn’t even me. Those months, I’m living in Good.
Other months I feel like I’m just treading water, waiting for a riptide to pull me under or for my legs to go limp. Barely holding on. Taking my pill at night and cursing it for not doing the job it’s assigned. Crying when I accidentally drop my Eggo waffle on the way out the door in the morning, and feeling like I don’t know who I’m looking at when I see my reflection in the mirror. Bad is a place that scares me shitless.
I’ve been out of the hospital for eight years now. I haven’t intentionally hurt myself in seven years, and my scars have all but faded to nothing. I have spent years fighting whatever part of me it is that tells me I want to die. Call it a chemical imbalance, Major Depressive Disorder, whatever. More than half of my life, it and I have been at war. I don’t know why everyone else I knew who was fighting depression made their way out without help, why it took me years of intensive therapy to overcome what they could on their own. Maybe they’re all fighting silent battles, but my depression has never been a beast I’ve been able to keep quiet.
When doctors with prescription pads and reading glasses on chains around their necks promise you happiness is possible, they don’t tell you it’s a job. You don’t get to Good and get to stay there forever. Most of the time you’re just running in place, just trying not to fall behind.
There is no way you’d know by looking at me that I spent years of my life in and out of hospitals, going doctor to doctor desperately trying to find the right medication, and wearing long sleeves in the middle of summer to hide that I’d hurt myself. There is no way you’d know that on my eighteenth birthday I sobbed uncontrollably to my friends because I never could’ve believed I would live that long. That even just turning eighteen felt like magic.
When doctors with prescription pads and reading glasses on chains around their necks promise you happiness is possible, they don’t tell you it’s a job. You don’t get to Good and get to stay there forever. Most of the time you’re just running in place, just trying not to fall behind. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the fight, but it is a goddamn marathon. It also doesn’t mean that Bad doesn’t sneak up on you once in a while. Every few months Bad comes back as a reminder that this is my forever, and I’m reminded of the cyclicality of things. All I can do is try to get help before the hospital has become my only option and I become the girl who believes even her sadness isn’t enough, again.
I once read a poem by Richard Siken that says: “a man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river but then he’s still left with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away, but then he’s still left with his hands.” I may always have that reminder of my own river, that night I spent in the bathtub. I may always be stuck in this cycle of Good and Bad and back again. I may be left with my hands, but I was still able to cry on them when I turned twenty-one, so fucking grateful to be alive.
Courtney Cook, an essayist, poet, and illustrator, is an MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside, and a graduate of the University of Michigan. Courtney’s work has been seen in Hobart, The Manifest-Station, The Cerurove, and Entropy Magazine, among others. When not creating, Courtney enjoys napping with her senior dog, Francie.
In the middle of an IKEA showroom, I agonized over the transition between two sentences. I was wrestling with a second-grade assignment on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While I knew any seven-year-old could cobble together two statements about Dr. King, bridging together two thoughts about his achievements with one seamless transition proved to be impossible for me. I treated the plywood desk as my own while I sulked in its Örfjäll swivel chair and stared at my elementary school homework with my head in my hands. Unaware that her only child was facing a literary crisis, my mother took her time as she flipped over price tags on the matching bedroom set. She was busy furniture-shopping for our new apartment. I got up from my desk to interrupt her and tugged on her shirt for help.
“Add the word ‘hence’,” she answered. Then, she glanced at the assignment again to suggest a more age-appropriate solution, “Or even ‘henceforth’.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s like, uhm…” After a long pause, she handed me back my paper and sighed, “Just write it.”
Explanations were always difficult for Mom. Finding the right words to provide additional context often left her feeling vulnerable and easily frustrated. She was especially annoyed when she had to provide such explanations to her young, American-born daughter who only spoke English. My language would never be quite as seamless for her compared to her native tongue of Tagalog. Although my mom could speak English fluently, she still fumbled with pronunciations out loud as she confused her f’s and p’s—the fine line between foot and put being a classic example. She took long breaks between sentences as she searched her mind for the right phrases in her upcoming thought. She repeated nonsensical errors in her speech when they were left uncorrected. They even bled into my own imperfect English and became the reason why I thought easy over was my favorite style of eggs.
Somewhere between fumbled words, botched sayings, and foreign accents, my mother and I were destined to be lost in translation. While there were certain lessons in language she’d be willing to teach, explaining the terminology behind the complexities of love was never one of them.
My mom’s written English was an entirely different story. She gravitated toward lengthy formalities and embraced vocabulary that most people would find verbose. It was as if each written document was an opportunity to prove her English was up to par. She could take time articulating her thoughts and flaunting her fluency. In the safety of her handwritten notes, no reader could criticize her mistakes or fault her for having an accent. So, in addition to hence, henceforth, and other advanced adverbs, my mom would teach me to write formally as well. Every time Father’s Day, Christmas, or my dad’s birthday rolled around, she would pick out a card for him. She’d then instruct me to pen the salutation, “Write, ‘Dear Dad’.” After a brief pause, she’d correct herself, “‘Dearest Dad’.” The first few attempts included “Father,” and as she stared at the end of the card, I could practically hear her debating the use of “Cordially” in her head. When signing the card, I’d ask my mom if she wanted me to include her name. She’d politely decline with a shy smile. Her response always confused me, and in the early years of their separation, I think it confused her too.
Like many IKEA shoppers, Mom was living on her own for the first time in America. Because, like one out of every two American couples, she was ending a marriage. While the separation should have upset me, I was more concerned with the details of my paper on Dr. King. At seven years old, I easily adapted to our new normal because my parents hardly spoke about their problems. I took my dad at his word when he told me the change was temporary, and I simply assumed my mom’s silence was her way of agreeing with him. While I was confused when she moved into her new apartment, I took comfort in the reassurance I had been given and focused on other matters at hand. After all, Mom needed my help with picking out new furniture.
The apartment had a decent amount of space to fill as it boasted two bedrooms, a sizeable living room, a terrace, and a kitchen that was much larger than the one in our original apartment where Dad still lived. However, our new Grand Concourse neighborhood seemed different from our former Riverdale home. There, we lived in a co-op that came equipped with a kids’ playground and a modest garden where our elderly Jewish neighbors would sit and quietly gossip with their nurse aides. Mom’s new apartment was in a walk-up with no amenities, and we only had one neighbor named Victoria. A kind woman whose bright blue eyes amplified her sadness while alcohol stained her breath. I’d usually hear her fighting with her husband downstairs, but occasionally she’d come up to our apartment to talk to Mom and ask her for help. Sometimes she’d cry, other times she’d have bruises, but every time, she’d go back to her husband.
Mom eventually stopped allowing Victoria to visit. It became too difficult for her to support a new neighbor while being in the thick of her own marital issues. While I understood that much about the situation, I still wanted to know the details. When I asked my mom to explain the circumstances, she refused. For one thing, the pronunciation of the word circumstances always tripped her up. She’d pronounce the “I” in the first syllable as “ɪr” rather than “ər” so that it sounded more like searcumstances. After avoiding that word, she then told me I was too young to understand such adult topics. These were including but not limited to why married people fight, why they stay together, and why they don’t. She shifted the conversation by asking me if I could higher the volume and close the doors so her cooking didn’t smell the room. She’d leave the conversation at that and go back to preparing our dinner. In turn, I’d make sure the bedroom doors were closed and then raised the volume on our TV to drown out the sounds of Victoria and her husband as they either fought or loudly made up.
Coming back from IKEA, Mom and I lugged our new furniture up the second-floor walk-up. We left the packages of disassembled pieces scattered on the living room floor for us to deal with later. Then, we collapsed onto her bed where my mother smiled and held me so tight. Without any words, I knew she was in a state of bliss. The separation was the start of a life that she chose for herself, and the happiness it gave her was not lost on me. While our apartment may not have been in the perfect building or neighborhood, she took pride in the fact that it was ours. As we cuddled in her new bed, I was surprised when Mom prompted a language lesson. One that would be filled with explanations and translations that usually annoyed her.
“Do you want to learn my language?” she smiled.
“TAG-a-log?” My American-born tongue was too heavy on the “T” and elongated the first syllable, but I was intrigued. My father never wanted to teach me Tagalog. Also raised in America, he feared I would be teased at school like he was for adopting even an ounce of Philippine culture. He made sure my English was like his, smooth and free of any alarming accents. However, my mom presented her language as an opportunity rather than a burden. When I agreed to a lesson, she excitedly propped herself up on the bed and tried teaching me simple numbers.
“Can you say, ‘Isa’?” she asked.
“Good. Then, ‘dalawa’.”
“Da-LAH-wahhh,” I joked.
She repeated herself, “Dalawa!”
“Your language sounds funny,” I told her.
My mom made a few more reluctant attempts. Her foreign words, odd pronunciation, and strange-sounding syllables were only met with more teasing. It was the first and only time she ever tried teaching me her language. Although my immature responses were said with laughter, they managed to serve as an unforgiving echo of her new reality. She was a foreigner who was living on American soil. An immigrant who was on her own for the first time. A single-mother who was misunderstood by her only daughter. Mom would continue speaking imperfect English while teaching me written words that were several years above my grade level. She would do her best to downplay her accent in public. She would hand me the phone whenever she needed to order take-out. Every now and then I’d hear her speak to family members and certain friends in Tagalog, all the while never knowing what exactly she said.
During yet another round of furniture shopping, Mom explored our options in a nearby shopping mall as she crossed her fingers for a sale at Stern’s. Although I was warming up to our new apartment, I began to develop more questions about my parents’ marriage. I was hearing about a word called divorce that, unlike a separation, was permanent. It was gradually being used more and more along with other ominous terms like custody and attorneys. My family members repeated these expressions in whispers when they thought I wasn’t listening. Even my friends and classmates talked about it as their own parents showed concern. It seemed as if divorce was a bad word that wasn’t so much connected to my mother’s newfound happiness but more so to my father’s sadness and our family’s disbelief. While Mom tried her best to shield me from the complexities of marriage, she couldn’t contain my curiosity as the finality of our new normal began to sink in.
“Why are you and Dad getting divorced?”
My mother got quiet, not expecting the question to come in a parking lot during an afternoon shopping run. “It’s hard to explain,” she replied. I pouted in the front seat. I knew she wasn’t great at explanations, but I wanted an answer. Now seven-and-a-half years old, I deserved to know what was going on. “How about this,” she smiled, “I’ll tell you when you turn sixteen. Promise!” The white lie and allure of a grown-up birthday present was exactly what my mom needed to buy herself some time and to quell her young daughter’s growing curiosity. With child-like satisfaction, I agreed to her offer and held her hand as we walked to the mall.
Somewhere between fumbled words, botched sayings, and foreign accents, my mother and I were destined to be lost in translation. While there were certain lessons in language she’d be willing to teach, explaining the terminology behind the complexities of love was never one of them. While there would be a time when she finally spoke about irreconcilable differences, falling out of love, and other intricate phrases that shaped her marriage, these explanations never took place during my childhood. Or even on my sixteenth birthday, as promised. They happened well into my adulthood when factors, such as time, experience, and patience, would gradually mend our language barrier. Perhaps my mom could have explained things to me right then and there in the parking lot. Perhaps she could have written down the details with her eloquence and precision. But neither of those options were the choice she made. It wasn’t that the divorce and its adult terminologies were too difficult for an immigrant to teach. Rather, they were too painful for a single-mother to convey. Looking back on it, I’d like to believe my mom was simply trying her best to find the right words.
Kristen Gaerlan is an emerging writer and native New Yorker. Her home is in Brooklyn, her roots are in the Bronx, and the roots to her roots are in the Philippines. Her work has been featured in publications that include Bustle, Pop Sugar, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She’s currently writing a memoir about Filipino-American assimilation.
“Your mother’s your slave,” a girl in the playground taunted.
“Is not!” I insisted, but even at six years old, I recognized the truth in her words.
My mom pulled socks on my feet while I lay in bed to save me from the shock of cold tile, read to me in the bathroom when I had trouble going, brought sweaters out to whatever stoop I’d landed on instead of calling me home.
Meanwhile, my mom did none of this for my sister. She spat Andra’s name. She screeched with anger. A curse or lie slipped from twelve-year-old Andra’s lips and she’d have to kneel in the kitchen, the cutout specks in the linoleum patterning her knees.
* * *
“Where’s-my-sis-ter?” I chanted one afternoon, bouncing a pink ball in rhythm.
My mom kept browsing The Pennysaver. “Probably out with friends.”
Andra didn’t show up for supper, or after I finished my homework, or when I sat with my dad while he watched Gunsmoke. Outside, night had spilled all of its ink.
“She’s always home by now. She should be here.”
“You’re right,” my dad answered. “She should.”
* * *
After that, Andra left often. Even when she pinky swore she wouldn’t. Even after we watched Dorothy tell Auntie Em there’s no place like home.
* * *
At home, Andra taught me to draw girls with slants of hair covering one eye. She explained why Fred Flintstone wore dresses and kept a pet dinosaur.
“Don’t tell,” she’d say, lighting a Kool in our hideout behind the garage.
Shaping her mouth into the O from my name, she sent bracelets of smoke skyward. I watched them spread and disappear.
* * *
The next time Andra returned from wherever runaways go, my parents threatened to send her away. “There are special schools for girls who keep looking for trouble.”
It seemed upside down to me. Why banish someone whose worst offense was leaving?
* * *
Eventually, Andra was sent to what was described to me as a girls’ boarding school in upstate New York. I pictured a line of teenagers standing frozen in a row like Barbies at the toy store.
When we finally visited, we sat at a picnic table surrounded by trees and distant mountains. Andra probably told us something about her days there, but her words are as lost to me as the dialogue on the silent screen at the drive-in across from our motel. All I recall is needing to touch my sister, pushing her hair back from her pretty face.
* * *
A decade later, Andra visited me on my own grassy campus. I was eighteen, studying poetry and women’s literature.
“Well, excuse me, Miss Educated,” Andra quipped when I claimed to practically live at the library.
“Schoolwork,” I mumbled, glancing away. I couldn’t articulate that reading was how I escaped the painful imbalances at home.
Miss Educated. Listening back through the years, I can hear pride beneath her teasing. But at the time, it felt like an indictment. Who was I to move so far past the sister I once worshipped? Her education ended in eighth grade at the school I didn’t yet know wasn’t a school at all.
I also didn’t know that when Andra arrived there, at thirteen, she’d already reached what for her would be late middle age. She died suddenly and violently the year after our stroll through my college campus.
* * *
It took thirty years—both parents gone, my own child a teenager—before I thought to call the library in Hudson, New York.
“My sister attended a boarding school in your town in 1970. Would you know what the name of it might’ve been?”
Hearing the word reformatory, my breath caught in my throat. That pretty campus had been a lockup. I wondered what crime Andra could’ve possibly committed. Then I read about the Wayward Minor Act, which allowed the incarceration of children for deeds no more serious than skipping school or running away from an unlivable home. Under this state law, parents could bring charges against their kids simply for being difficult, simply for being kids.
* * *
The New York State Training School for Girls. The focus wasn’t on education, but on discipline and keeping the twelve to sixteen-year-old inmates sealed off from the world. Inside, they faced forced labor, violence, sexual abuse, and long stretches in solitary.
Throw adolescents together and they can be relentlessly cruel. Thankfully, they can also be loving and fiercely loyal. Training School girls fell in love, held wedding ceremonies, claimed other inmates as their children. The families they formed could be as rough as street gangs, but also caring and protective in ways many, including Andra, never experienced at home.
* * *
“Don’t tell,” Andra often made me promise. I never did, but I also never asked.
Where were you, I’m asking now. What happened there? What got you through?
Without her here to answer, I turn to school and court records, case studies in yellowed books, memoirs by women who were once incarcerated girls—reading, finally, not to escape, but to bear witness.
“About time, Miss Educated,” I hear my sister say.
Ona Gritz’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Utne Reader, MORE magazine, and elsewhere. “It’s Time,” which appeared in The Rumpus, was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2016. Ona’s books include the memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, and the poetry collections Geode, and Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems, written with her husband, Daniel Simpson.
Josef didn’t realize how little I thought about religion—how complete my lack of belief.
“Are you religious?” I asked on one of our New York subway trips. I wonder now why I asked. I didn’t have the slightest premonition. I was making a joke, teasing, the way I might have said, “So, are you secretly addicted to amphetamines? Biting long, slim, feminine necks? Plucking wolfsbane in the middle of the night?” I was tickling. Didn’t realize I was asking a bigger question than I knew. Wanted to see if he’d giggle or flinch. He did neither.
I couldn’t believe how great this guy was, so I thought there had to be something wrong with him. There wasn’t, although his answer threw me—almost literally. I remember clutching my subway seat as though I were afraid I’d hit the floor.
To my surprise he nodded calmly. “Yes,” he said.
Yes, he was religious? Had I heard him correctly? This might be weirder than wolfsbane. An affirmative answer was the last thing I expected. He was a graduate student living in L.A. and somehow that added up to secular—at least to me.
“Really?” I said, after I’d caught my breath. He explained he was Catholic and Bavarian—I had yet to learn how completely these two identities merged. He wanted kids, and so did I, but I hadn’t realized he’d want the kids to be Catholic. He was asking whether this was okay with me. His expression said he wasn’t kidding. I looked him over.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s okay.”
Given his personality, I’d be doing our children no harm. I got that if I were to object, the deal would be off. He couldn’t contemplate raising non-religious children. But I still thought of his religion as a harmless eccentricity, the expression of a deficit: a few more New York Philharmonic concerts, another Alvin Ailey performance, throw in a Swan Lake—and I’d convert him from Catholicism to culture, I assumed.
Dr. Sternbach said when dealing with a schizophrenic patient (he reassured me I wasn’t quite that bad, although, he pointed out often, my brother and father were), he would walk in and announce, “I’m God!” Then, my analyst claimed, the crazy person would trust him and listen to him.
I didn’t consider myself remotely religious. From my frosty heights of presumed superiority, I told myself I’d grown up in a middle-class New York family suffused with art, dance, theater, and psychoanalysis, while he had grown up in a tiny German village to parents whose Second World War experiences and dawn-to-dusk backbreaking farm labor left no room for consolations other than churchly. I figured he grew up the way my father did. Traveling preachers presented the only form of entertainment in Dad’s North Carolina town. No books, no movies, no art, no circuses—just fire-breathing Presbyterian ministers spouting gruesome depictions of hellfire. My father had shaken the dust of old-time religion off his feet when he moved to New York, diving into psychoanalysis almost as soon as he got there. Mom swam in soon after—the two were united by their doting, or scheming, psychoanalyst, who kept a tight grip, bringing in a colleague of her own to manage me the minute I hit adolescence.
Josef had Catholicism, but I had Dr. Sternbach.
My fiancé hadn’t grown up with visions of hellfire, but rather maypoles sporting Bavarian flags, baby clothes and baby bottles—the latter two pagan holdovers meant to encourage fertility. He described huge bonfires on summer solstice—he and his friends, in an inebriated state, leapt over them. Before that, on Walpurgisnacht, a young man could plant a decorated birch tree outside the window of a young woman he liked. The ceremony was technically about St. Walpurga, but that phallic tree was about fertility and witches, drinking and cavorting. Although, he confessed, he and five guys planted a tree in front of the window of a fat, homely girl because they wanted to make her feel better.
His descriptions made me think of Breughel’s The Kermess, especially in the William Carlos Williams version. Jolly, fat peasants dancing, drinking, and doing what my Chaucer professor said peasants do: have sex in the fields so the recently planted seeds get the right idea. For my husband-to-be, religion seemed a merry combination of official Catholic ritual—he drank that wine and took that wafer, under the watchful gaze of plaintive Madonnas and soulful Jesuses hanging from gory crucifixes—and happy-go-lucky paganism. The jolly mood of forgiveness, the singing, the lights, the candles, the gleeful baroque angels, the community, seemed the dominant themes.
I could go for all of those, I thought, in the dreamy unreality of unexpected pregnancy. For a moment, I considered the possibility of miracles, since I was forty-one. Practicality took over: Josef had a home, the likelihood of a full-time job, and the luck of German health insurance, which would extend to his bride. We were to enjoy two more successful pregnancies. To this day, I attribute them to champagne, sex, and our unconventional fertility specialist. Josef doesn’t.
A few weeks after I’d moved to Bavaria, there was the moment when he asked, “But you do believe there’s a God, right?”
Surprised, I put down my cup of tea.
“I’m an atheist!” Where had he gotten this idea? Had I somehow said this?
His eyes widened.
“But you said you believed in the teachings of Jesus!” I shifted in my seat. I had indeed said that, but the one thing had nothing to do with the other. Memories of playing “telephone” as a child were now flooding into my mind.
“Yes, I do, but I meant Jesus is a great philosopher, a great psychologist!” Josef put his hand on his heart.
“Please don’t tell the priest that.”
His eyes traveled to a flaw on the rim of my poly-fleece pullover; I’d gotten too close to a burner while cooking, and a little spot had melted away. You could barely see the burned part, but his thumb gripped it. A bit ruefully, he said, “This is what happens to people who don’t believe!”
“You don’t really mean that, do you?”
I’m not sure he didn’t.
“I hope you can feel God’s love,” he murmured after the mandatory meeting with other betrothed couples and a Catholic priest in a roomy church.
“I can feel your love!” I told him.
The priest, if I remember correctly, talked about finding one’s wife sexy even when she’s wearing an old granny nightgown. The Catholic doctor wearily remarked, “That was too much material to fight with!” He was okay with the pill, since no life had begun, but experienced moral qualms about the IUD, since it worked to destroy a zygote potentially implanting in the lining of the uterus. The church, said both priest and doctor, didn’t like homosexuals “because they don’t have babies! We want children.” On the plus side, they said sex was “the mirror of the marriage,” and since Josef and I were having sex around eight times a day, I figured we’d be fine. We rode home through sunny fields filled with hay bales and had a nice dinner.
* * *
As I settled into life in devastatingly quiet Bavaria, taking long walks through the woods, my thoughts got louder. Now I had time to write. But I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I did produce a few half-baked descriptions of my parents and growing-up years, but always, an angry, disapproving face appeared in my mind’s eye—the face of the psychoanalyst whose patient I’d been for decades, and whom I thought of as a father, if not a god. He had raised me, in the sense that I considered my four-to-five day-a-week sessions in his office the central experience of my life from ages fourteen to almost-forty. He knew everything. He said so. Occasionally, I thought him a little selfish, but I felt guilty thinking that. He had done so much for me. I was very grateful to him. He insisted I go to college and graduate school. I had wanted to study dance and theater. He called me his “masterpiece.”
He’d been wrong about Josef. He’d said Josef wasn’t interested in me. When Josef flew to New York just to see me, Dr. Sternbach told me not to sleep with him—Josef would surely never marry me if I did. I didn’t. It took another few years for Josef and me to get together.
Even so, I told myself, walking that ploughed field trail from the shining meadow into the piney woods, the baby a snoring bump on my chest in his bright-blue Snugli, Dr. Sternbach was just trying to protect me. He had put so much effort into me. He said so. He hadn’t wanted me to feel disappointed was all. My marriage was my reward, and the person to whom I would forever be grateful, Dr. Sternbach, had cured me so that I, unworthy though he knew I was, had still managed to get married.
“We don’t ask for perfect,” he had said, looking me over one day when I’d been crying about wanting to be married. I still had many problems, I knew, that he, with a frown and a wagging finger, had daily pointed out to me. He warned me to keep everything about myself and my crazy family a secret from my husband. I had been “a brat” but now I was passable.
* * *
If you were to tote up superstition for superstition, ritual for ritual, obsession for obsession, sin for sin, and god for god, my husband’s Catholic faith and my own hidebound devotion to a secular deity irrationally enraged as an old testament prophet, then my husband would come out ahead. Way ahead. His was a god of love, and a relaxed one. Yes, my husband observes Lent, that holiday right before Easter when religious Catholics give up something they really love in order to honor Christ’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness. Just the kind of holiday I used to think of as an unnatural torment for innocent people who don’t know Freud.
My husband always gives up peanuts and beer, his very favorite things. At first, I thought this a cruel thing to do to himself—so out of character.
“Except for special occasions,” he said, smiling. “And… some weekends.”
I was always relieved to see him crunching away in front of the TV, washing down his Lenten peanuts with a glass of Weizen.
Did I have anywhere near the same easygoing self-indulgence in my own religious observances?
Walking from the subway stop on 96th and Broadway to Dr. Sternbach’s home office on 96th and Central Park West four days a week, I developed the habit of chanting to myself, “Dr. Sternbach is always right,” and this consoled me, because I liked absolutes and so did he—his absolutely right and my absolutely wrong ways of doing things. I was miserable, but I had the solace of certainty. I feared uncertainty. If I didn’t believe in him, I thought, everything would fall apart. I made sure to chant “he-is-right” in order to prevent what a Puritan would call “backsliding.” I had a need to remind myself that he knew better. I must be wrong, wrong about the boys I wanted to kiss me, the jazz dance classes I loved, and alas, about ballet.
I believed, no matter how miserable it made me, that my psychoanalyst had healed me, not destroyed me. I might as well have been Sister Melissa of the order of Perpetual Humility, devoted to Saint Sigmund the All-Powerful.
“You are not a dancer!” he spat.
My analyst always said he was an atheist, and praised Freud’s atheism, so I read every single thing Freud ever wrote about religion.
None of it’s flattering. But it’s clear that if you don’t believe in the Oedipus complex, you cannot be admitted to the world of psychoanalysis—you remain forever in the outer darkness with the people who believe in religion instead. Naturally, I considered myself an atheist too—I followed Dr. Sternbach’s contempt for religion. Having faith in everything Dr. Sternbach said was just part of the psychoanalytic deal—the only way I could ever be healthy, he said.
I never admitted to myself that I’d put my psychoanalyst in the position of a god, or that he’d encouraged me to do so, even though I joked about doing so, or he did, in almost every session. A Viennese refugee from Hitler, he said I was psychotic.
It’s easy to believe something bad about yourself when you’re fourteen, and when the grown-up spouting such poppycock has an exotic accent. When I was first sent to him, I was desperate to do anything to get away from my father, who drank and threw things, my mother, whose girlish helplessness appealed to everyone but me, and my brother, whose real and imaginary friends frightened me. Dr. Sternbach said when dealing with a schizophrenic patient (he reassured me I wasn’t quite that bad, although, he pointed out often, my brother and father were), he would walk in and announce, “I’m God!” Then, my analyst claimed, the crazy person would trust him and listen to him.
I was just young enough or nutsy enough not to question him. Or if I did, he yelled so loudly that I learned not to repeat my mistake. He loved a story about entering his building on a cold day and running into a patient. As they waited for the elevator in the freezing lobby, she looked him up and down, remarking, “God doesn’t wear an overcoat.” My analyst repeated that anecdote often.
Mostly, he insisted he was always right. I believed him to the point that I chose a college in New York City because he told me I needed psychoanalysis so could not leave him. I believed him to the point that I didn’t apply for a Time magazine internship during my senior year in college because it would have interfered with sessions, and he refused to let me have sessions at any other hours than those convenient to him. When friends expressed surprise or shock at the amount of time I devoted to psychoanalysis or blanched at some remark he’d made that I found amusing and they did not, I brushed off objections. I told myself my analyst knew better. I was smug. My analyst and I: we were the initiated, the ones in the know. I believed him when he said, “I am the only one who can help you.”
Sometimes, now, I look at videos of women in polygamous cults in their identical pioneer-style pastel dresses and hairdos, all smiling, all saying they are happy. I wore my analyst’s ideas, assertions, beliefs. I buttoned them on tightly—I strapped myself into them. I thought I had no idea what I wanted because I didn’t dare think about ambitions he had warned me to forget. He had a therapeutic group, and all members sat quietly when he interrupted, or yelled, that they were wrong and he was right. His expressions of disgust, uninhibited and extreme, seem to have impressed us all as the natural anger of a Jehovah who had every right to tell us what to do. His ideas, his beliefs, his assertions, were righteous. Ours were worthless.
* * *
In a village not far from Eichstätt, where Josef’s brother and sister-in-law had a farm, Josef and I visited his old friend, the retired priest with whom he used to have a beer, and who was going to marry us. The priest asked, “So are you willing to raise your children as Christians? With the knowledge of Jesus?” I rearranged some definitions in my head, smiled at the priest, whose face was filled with expectant hope, and said, “Yes.” The look of rapture on his face in the moment that misleading answer fell from my lips astonished me. I felt homesick. I had visions of my children stepping into dark confessionals and being told to say Hail Marys if they’d masturbated. On the other hand, the old priest didn’t look the punitive sort—he now had such an ecstatic look that if he hadn’t been a Catholic old man, I could easily have envisioned him dancing the Hora.
“You don’t actually believe in the devil, do you?” I asked my husband as we made our way back to the car.
“You mean a guy with horns and a tail?”
“Well, no, but we feel there is evil in the world, right?”
I could go with him on that. There was evil in the world. I decided to leave religion up to him. I remembered to make fish, or anything but meat, on Fridays, and discovered that baptisms and first communions seemed mainly occasions for big parties, good food, and presents.
“Daddy, will I get a camera?” was, to my relief, a pressing question of far greater interest than any doctrinal issue about Mary, Jesus or the Trinity.
Anytime a religious inquiry arose, I deferred to my husband: “Daddy knows about that! Ask him.”
A moment came when the kids wanted to know my religion. I admitted I’d been raised without any. When they pointedly asked what I believed, I confessed to atheism, remarking that Daddy and I had decided Catholicism was the best for them. Secretly, I wished our eldest would become a New York intellectual. Lo: he lives in Berlin and studies law.
“Mom, why didn’t you tell me there wasn’t a god?” he complained at about age sixteen. I started to say we didn’t actually know that, when he interrupted: “When I was ten, I thought there was something terribly wrong with me because I didn’t believe in God. You could have said something.”
And then I realized that I needn’t have worried—our children would make their own way, just like their Dad, who worried the most with our firstborn: “I wouldn’t want him to marry someone Jewish or Muslim.” That was too far from the true faith.
“You mean like you wouldn’t marry an atheist?” A look that was hard to interpret—a slight chagrin? being found out? embarrassment? guilt?—crossed his face. He grew up in a world where his Catholic saint’s day was a far bigger deal than his birthday, yet he and his brother both married non-religious Protestants.
Our younger two children went along with their first communions—they especially enjoyed choosing their costumes, my daughter her lacy white dress and patent-leather white Mary Janes, my son his “real suit!” For them, the church means becoming a grown-up, belonging to a group, and being in on the Christmas nativity scene. I worried all priests would be child molesters, but since German schools teach children about such things, I figured my kids would let me know about any funny business. Benjamin came home from his confirmation class with the information that when he told the priest, “I want to be the best,” the priest had advised, “You should just want to be yourself.”
That particularly good piece of advice was exactly what his fundamentalist Mom had never heard from her psychoanalyst, who was determined to make me over in his own image. My worst fear—that my children would go into religious orders—turned out to be what Freudians call a “projection.” It was I who had entered the religious order. I believed, no matter how miserable it made me, that my psychoanalyst had healed me, not destroyed me. I might as well have been Sister Melissa of the Order of Perpetual Humility, devoted to Saint Sigmund the All-Powerful. Whenever New York City came up in conversation or on TV, I’d get annoyed at my husband’s joke: “I’m glad I got you out of there!” Until one day I realized I was glad, too.
* * *
When my husband’s lungs worsened to the point where he had to use a portable oxygen tank and start losing weight in order to be eligible for a lung transplant, when my X-ray revealed a six-centimeter cancerous tumor on my femur, when we realized we had to start thinking about guardians for our young teenagers, I asked him whether he believed that our illnesses came from God, or whether the kind of God he believed in could condone or allow such things. I still don’t believe in a god, but when I’m scared I wish I did. In flights of fancy, I imagine Apollo and Dionysius, sun chariots, grapevines curling around trees, vats of purple wine, dancing fauns, Athena waltzing in with a dove and a shield, Hermes with his winged shoes flying me in some miracle cure. I could pray to all of them. Occasionally, I have. When I walked home in the evenings before I got sick, I loved to gaze at the full moon and recall Shelley’s description of her as a dying lady, “lean and pale,” but I imagined her as some sort of mother goddess and the evening star as the twinkling sidekick of my imaginary pagan companions. I half-believed I was praying when I asked Apollo, “and Josef’s God, if you’re around,” for good health and long life for my whole family.
That particular prayer seems not to have been heard, or maybe the gods resented it. I’m a part-time believer, a person who prays when she’s in the mood, which is not often. I don’t get down on my knees or go to church, except occasionally, to keep my husband company, and I don’t sacrifice sides of beef to anyone. I think of the Old Testament god liking the smell of burning meat. I not only haven’t barbecued a single sausage for him, I’ve forgotten him and all possible divine cohorts for long, happy periods.
I’m a part-time believer, a person who prays when she’s in the mood, which is not often. I don’t get down on my knees or go to church, except occasionally, to keep my husband company, and I don’t sacrifice sides of beef to anyone.
But I asked my husband what he thought, since I wanted to know how he was coping, too. He didn’t think God caused our illnesses.
“It’s fate,” he said.
It took me a moment to realize that wasn’t just his kindly stoicism responding—that was a quintessentially German answer. Fate, for Germans, is a massive, unyielding thing that cannot be fought and must be accepted.
I had a different answer, one I must admit is typically American. These illnesses—they’re a mistake, a fluke. There’s a new cure around the corner every minute, and if I just Google enough clinical trials, raise enough money on GoFundMe, consult enough experts, I’ll live. I’m a can-do gal: I’m American.
But I am still afraid to pray. So far, the gods have given me the opposite of what I requested. I must be doing something wrong. I can’t keep talking to them if they don’t like me, can I?
Then I see I’ve crucified myself on the remnants of my psychoanalytic past. It’s the angry analyst who’s behind my fears. I might as well assume kinder gods out there—like the one to whom my husband prays. He married me after all, though his mother, once upon a time before we met, allegedly waved a pitchfork at a woman not romantically entangled with him, but known to be Protestant. What would his poor mom do if she knew two of her sons married just the kind of women she’d chased with that pitchfork? Luckily for her, she was gathered to her foremothers by the time her youngest, and, I suspect, favorite son proposed to me. But if I know the family, and I should, after almost two decades of marriage, she’d be raising a Weizen, shaking her head merrily, explaining things to God so he wouldn’t get bent out of shape or feel insulted.
* * *
A friend told me of the man she wanted to marry, but could not, after meeting his parents. She is Jewish, and he’d grown up with German-speaking parents, in a very non-Jewish mid-western flyover town. His father, a Pole who had survived Auschwitz, and his mother, a German Protestant, both refugees from Hitler who lived in a permanent state of fear, insisted: “Children born of your union must not be Jewish—they’ll never be safe.” This doomed effort to erase identity deeply saddened my friend, who couldn’t imagine raising children with a buried identity.
When I met my husband, he said, “I’m a Bavarian.” He took me to the circus and a local cathedral. He never tried to convert me, but I could tell that secretly he felt sorry for my lack of belief, just as secretly I felt sorry for his entrapment in old wives’ tales. Loyalty, his chief quality, would never allow him to abandon the religion of his parents. But he makes of it what he will.
I, of course, started my marriage with the notion that I wanted my children exposed to the brilliant insights of Sigmund Freud, not the pathetic superstitions, as I saw them, of the Catholic church. But the brilliant insight of the Catholic church lies in the original meaning of καθολικός (katholikos, from two Greek words meaning throughout-the-whole or, approximately, all-inclusive). In the best sense—which reverses what the church as an institution has become—Catholicism means universal love, all-embracing acceptance. Psychoanalysis, meanwhile, has institutionalized a set of beliefs about insight and personality, with the notion that the seeker of truth needs a guide to get through the “underworld” of the unconscious mind, the way Dante needed Virgil to usher him through the Inferno. Dante’s Virgil remained, of course, his own construct—a piece of himself.
You might as well walk that trip through your personal Inferno alone in front of your keyboard, or your canvas, or your big hunk of clay. Costs less.
Now that I’ve relinquished psychoanalysis, I find I haven’t, really. A world devoid of dreams or an unconscious mind is one I can’t imagine; I could say Dante or Shakespeare or Woolf provided these ideas before Freud, but I’d be whistling in the dark. If I’m heading for that very dark place Hamlet calls “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” I want a pathfinder. You can’t analyze death; analysis is all about distilling the known from the unknown—not the inaccessible. I can’t assume there’s a god out there in the way I can assume I might figure out what makes someone tick using high-tech psychoanalytic tools. I doubt I’ll ever talk myself into religious devotion, and I’m still with the Freudians in the notion that “man creates God in his image.” I can’t seem to exorcise the irritated face of Oscar Sternbach, even after years of happy marriage to someone as far removed from Sternbach’s world as I could find. Take it on faith, however, that I will try to do so.
Melissa Knox’s book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, was published by Cynren Press in January 2019, and has received advance praise from Helen Fremont, Phyllis Chesler, and Charles Monroe-Kane. Recent essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Streetlight Magazine, Eclectica, and Empty Mirror.
It was a cloudy September morning in San Francisco and my body had decided that everything inside of it was poison. It was 8:34 a.m. on a Thursday and I was hungover at work, sitting behind my desk praying that my breath smelled like coffee and not vomit. It wasn’t very often that I was praying for coffee breath but, desperate times. The fluorescent lights were giving me a migraine and I wanted to wear my sunglasses, but I knew that wearing them inside would look suss as shit. As far as I could tell, only musicians got to wear sunglasses inside, and I wasn’t confident that telling my boss I can slay at Guitar Hero would grant me the right.
I was popping aspirin and splashing cold water on my face in the bathroom when a co-worker rushed into a stall, teary-eyed. I listened to her muffled sobs and contemplated what to do. I considered knocking on the door and saying something like, “Hello… you good fam?” I considered sliding her one of the edibles in my pocket. I considered emailing her a Sylvia Plath poem so that she could see how someone always has it worse. I considered what I would want someone to do for me if I were crying in a bathroom stall, so I left without saying a word and walked back to my desk. I’d been planning on hiding in the bathroom for the rest of the morning, reading movie reviews and scrolling through Instagram, in between vomit sessions, so, you’re welcome, Annie.
During my first hangover, I didn’t get out of bed for two full days. I stayed under the covers, throwing up in a trashcan, sleeping, and watching cat videos on YouTube. Sometimes it felt like I was doing all three things at once. The night before, I’d been at some rich kid’s party in the suburbs of the Bay. It was a Halloween party. This prissy girl who’d already been accepted to USC months before senior year even began—whose parents “donated” heaps of money to the school every year—had valet and a tough looking bouncer crossing his arms in front of her stupid house party. I threw the old-fashioned key to my banged up ‘96 Subaru at the kid wearing a black suit and tie. He caught it, hastily ducked into my dank-smelling shit hole, and drove it slowly down the block. A cheerleader pulled up behind me in a black Tesla. She was dressed like an angel and her friend who spilled out of the passenger-side door was dressed like a devil. The angel tapped me on the shoulder as I told the bouncer my name and let him stamp my wrist. “Are you supposed to be Charlie Chaplin?” she asked.
“La-di-da,” I said. I was wearing brown corduroy pants, a white button-down shirt tucked into my brown corduroy pants, a black vest over my white button-down shirt, a chunky blue tie tucked under my black vest, and a velvet hat. Picture a vaguely masculine Mary Poppins. “I’m Annie Hall,” I said. Clearly, the last Halloween party I’d been invited to involved an empty pillow case and asking strangers for candy. I noticed that neither the devil nor the angel were wearing costumes that covered their entire bodies, and neither of them were wearing ties. I admired the angel’s long legs and the devil’s long neck. I admired the way their tight costumes hugged their pale, delicate skin, and the way their long hair rolled easily off their shoulders. Suddenly, I felt horribly out of place. As I was planning my exit strategy—ask the bouncer to go find my car? run after the valet? slowly start backing away from everyone saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry”—the angel took me by the arm. “I love it,” she said. “So vintage.”
I strolled into the house with the angel and the devil, offering to roll them a spliff and announcing that I could kick their ass at beer pong. They said their names were Amber and Alison. It wasn’t long before the house was packed, the music was loud, and kids were stripping and jumping in the pool. I was sitting on the couch smoking a spliff and drinking out of a forty when this kid named Toby sat dangerously close to me. Toby was the kid who picked his nose while giving book reports and who drooled too much during phys ed. Somehow, he’d convinced kids he was cool by high school, but he’d always be a drooling nose-picker to me. His pupils were hazy. He was so wet I almost thought he’d joined the other idiots who’d jumped in the pool, but from the smell of his ugly dinosaur onesie, I could tell that he was drenched in sweat. He draped his arm across my shoulder. I audibly gagged.
“Why aren’t you smiling?” he asked, poking me in the ribs. “It’s a party, aren’t you having any fun?”
“Toby,” I said, picking his arm off my shoulder as if I were picking up a rat by its tail. “I mean this in the nicest way possible: you smell like dog shit. Please, get your sweaty ass away from me and find some friends who are as equally fucked up on molly as you, so you can all be disgustingly overheated together.”
“Yo! You know this song?” he asked, pointing towards the ceiling. Before I could answer, he said, “Hey! Did you know that Pete and Amber are fucking in the pool house?” He laughed as if he’d said something funny.
“You remember the whole thing I said earlier?” I asked. “You know, about you being disgusting?” Finally, this girl in my second period English class saved me by yanking my arm and pulling me outside.
“Thanks,” I said as she took the spliff from me and took a hit.
“I gotchu,” she said, before handing it back to me and cannonballing into the pool. When she’d arrived, she was dressed like a bottle of sriracha, but now all she was wearing was her red shirt and some white boy shorts she picked up somewhere.
I kept smoking and found a half-empty bottle of cheap vodka near some Rainbow flip flops. I drank it while I watched this closeted girl who’d been sexting me the night before make out with Toby inside on the couch. I’d see her a few days later with her incredibly religious parents at some church fundraiser. I’d resist the urge to make fun of her for letting that drooling nose-picker touch her tits.
That’s when I heard people cheering.
I turned just as Pete was opening up the pool house door. I watched him slide on some ratty band tee and walk out to a crowd of cheering football players who were handing out high fives and “hell yeah, bros” as if they were throwing candy off a float in a Fourth of July parade. As Pete buckled his belt, I raised my vodka bottle in his direction. He nodded back. We’d spoken in passing. The last thing he’d said to me was “Pound it. I dig chicks too,” so make of that what you will. Pete and his friends wandered into the kitchen to take shots, tussling each other’s hair and laughing at nothing. I passed the bottle off to someone and walked around the pool towards the pool house, stepping over wet clothes and red solo cups. I sat on some ugly outdoor furniture and waited, smoking, while someone shot water through a pool noodle on the grass next to me.
After a long time, the pool house door slowly opened. Amber wearily made her way outside. One of her wings was bent, and her halo was crumpled and crooked. There weren’t any high fives or “hell yeah, bros” for her. There was just me.
After a long time, the pool house door slowly opened. Amber wearily made her way outside. One of her wings was bent, and her halo was crumpled and crooked. There weren’t any high fives or “hell yeah, bros” for her. There was just me. I watched her eyes dart back and forth across the yard before they caught mine. I offered her the spliff. She shook her head “no” and sat down on the ugly furniture next to me. We listened to the techno song that was blaring out of some massive speakers and watched drunk people almost drown for a while.
She adjusted her white dress, but it continued to sag. “What just happened?” she asked, turning towards me and wrapping her arms around her long legs.
I offered her the spliff again. This time she took it and stuck it between her lips. “Everyone’s been saying you fucked Pete in the pool house,” I told her, flicking my head towards the door she just came out of. She didn’t look. She didn’t say anything. She was silent, and I felt that I should fill the space between us. “Do you want me to grab your devil friend?” I asked. “Maybe you guys wanna like, I don’t know, compare notes about dick size or like…” my words felt hollow and weak as they fumbled out of my mouth, so I stopped trying to fill anything.
She took a long drag before quietly saying, “I can’t remember anything.”
I considered reaching out my hands towards her, gently, and brushing a stray strand of hair from her face. I considered marching inside and earning the nickname The Drunk Tie-Wearing Bitch Who Punched the Varsity Football Player at a Halloween Party.
I considered reaching out my hands towards her, gently, and brushing a stray strand of hair from her face. I considered marching inside and earning the nickname The Drunk Tie-Wearing Bitch Who Punched the Varsity Football Player at a Halloween Party. I considered calling 911. Instead, I said, “That’s some shit dude.”
I’d spend a lot of nights wishing I’d said something else.
She handed me back the spliff and stood up. “I think I’m gonna get out of here.”
“Can I drive you?”
She laughed to herself, maybe at the thought of driving around in my ugly-ass Subaru instead of her Tesla, or maybe at something else. “Nah, it’s chill,” she said. She began wandering through the backyard, down some hill towards the highway.
“Hey,” I called after her. “Valet and shit is that way.” I pointed back towards the house.
She looked through the glass pane, towards the boys taking shots. Now, Toby was tearing his shirt off like the fucking Hulk and Pete was taking pictures. We could hear their laughter all the way across the lawn. “I think I’m just gonna walk and find my car on my own,” she called back. I thought about running after her, but I didn’t. I sat there smoking until I knew I had to leave. I dropped the butt of the spliff in Pete’s tequila-filled shot glass as I left out the front door.
Six years would go by before I’d find myself hungover in San Francisco behind a desk in an office building. I arrived back at my desk, head swimming in nausea, I attempted to read through some emails and keep the grimace off my face. When I felt as if I were about to spew bile all over my coffee mug, notebook, and collection of pens, I stood up from my desk, snatched a box of tissues off my co-worker’s desk, and walked back towards the bathroom. Annie was still there, trying and failing to cry quietly. I stood there quietly for a long time, holding down the contents of my stomach. I listened to her sobbing. After I collected myself, I walked over to the stall she was in. I slid the box of tissues under the door and she went silent.
“Feel free to ignore me,” I said, “and I’ll take the hint and leave but… are you okay?”
She was quiet for a long time. I wished I had a spliff to offer her. She slowly opened the door. Her clothing was wrinkled, and her face was wet. She was holding the tissue box and using one to wipe her nose.
As we stood in the bathroom, congress was conducting a job interview with a rapist. He liked wearing black robes, drinking beer, and holding down young girls on unwashed sheets. Lindsey Graham was yelling at a brave college professor for telling the truth, and our president was stitching a new “Grab em’ by the Pussy Gang” letterman’s jacket.
“I get it.” I said.
“This whole thing just really brings up some bad memories,” she said. We stood in the bathroom for a long time. We didn’t say anything because we didn’t have to. When I rushed into an adjacent stall to vomit, Annie laughed. She laughed until she cried, and then she cried until I offered to buy her some coffee.
As I stood in line at Peet’s, drinking water, I wondered if Amber was watching C-SPAN somewhere, or if she was crying in some bathroom stall. I’d run into her a few years after the Halloween party, at a coffee shop in Oakland. I’d waved to her and she’d waved back. I’d stuck my nose back in my book, and when I’d looked up, there was a note next to my cappuccino. “He’s at Harvard studying law,” was all it said.
Anita Levin is a poet and essayist from San Francisco, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Lifted Brow, The Lindenwood Review, Barnhouse, and Hypertext Magazine, among others. She has worked as a bookseller for an independent bookshop, a poetry editor for Jeopardy Magazine, and she currently works in publishing.
The February I am twenty-six, on the day before I’m supposed to fly to Portland to rent a house, I come down with the most brutal and short-lived flu I’ve ever had. My body aches so badly, I can’t move. When I say this, I don’t just mean that it hurts to move—I worry, when I’m describing pain, even just to myself, that I’m being melodramatic, hyperbolic.
Tonight, I’m frozen by it.
After my first breakup, I was unable to drive on the street where he worked, to eat, to sleep in my own bed at night. Eventually, a little scared of myself, I went to see a husband and wife who practiced Santeria. It made as much sense as anything.
They had a little storefront at a strip mall in Albuquerque, filled with Guadalupe candles, milagros, and Tarot decks. They reminded me of kindly abuelos, until the husband told me that all my suffering stemmed from a spell that had been cast on my mother, that it had been passed on to me.
He told me that he could break the spell if I participated in a cleansing ritual involving a rooster. The cuandero would transfer the black magic into the rooster, and I would be freed. He saw me hesitate, took my hand, and asked me if I was suicidal. I told him I wasn’t, which was true.
“You will be,” he said. “Soon.” Shaken, I scheduled the ritual, but the day of, I chickened out, so to speak, canceled on his voicemail. A few years later, the woman I thought of as a second mother told me that she’d gone to see the couple after a run of bad luck, that he’d given her a similar warning about spells and suicide, recommended the rooster ritual. She went through with it.
“I saw that rooster die,” she told me. She thought maybe the santero had poisoned it, but she couldn’t say for sure.
My mother stops by, briefly, with supplies (she is, as I knew she would be, annoyed by the request), leaves water on the carpet beside my bed. I have to call her an hour later to come back, because by then I am unable to reach down and get it. She’s so good at sighing right into the phone.
It’s terrifying, lying alone in my two-story house, realizing that I physically cannot extend myself enough to pick up a glass, but somewhat gratifying at the same time. I appreciate symptoms I can quantify, point to them again and again: this is how it happened, here’s the proof, it was real.
The first few months in Portland were lonely, miserable. I made an appointment with a tarot card reader in Kenton: she had only five-star reviews on Yelp. I knew I wouldn’t fully believe anything she told me, but I reasoned that she’d have at least one positive prediction, and that this would give me something to hope for. Instead, Miss Renée told me that I was only at the beginning of a years-long struggle. She said that it would be a period of change and growth, but the benefits of these changes would not be apparent until they were complete. I’d be all movement, but it would feel like I was standing still.
“Let me put it this way,” she said. “If a woman is in labor, how many other things do you expect her to be doing?”
My temperature eventually shoots above 103, and my mother calls a friend, a doctor, to ask her what to do.
“Pile on the blankets,” the doctor says. “As many as she can stand.”
My mom asks shouldn’t I take something to bring the fever down instead?
“No,” she says. “Her body needs to fight through it.”
Whenever I tell this story, I mention how that night I’d soaked through two sets of sheets, as though I’d wet the bed. I think this detail makes the whole thing more believable.
The day before my abortion, my therapist advised me not to take the full dose of Ativan they would offer me.
“I worry,” she said, “That feeling removed from your body during the procedure would be more triggering than the pain.” She thought that this could actually be an opportunity for healing.
I followed her advice, skipped the second pill. It took less than ten minutes: three sharp pulls. My boyfriend stood to the right of me, the volunteer to the left; her job, she explained, was to hold my hand and tell me I was doing great. He performed his role not quite as well, too wrapped up in his guilt over my pain. The whole time we were together, I tried and failed to hide it.
I’d start squeezing both their hands before each pull; the doctor warned me when they were coming, every time.
A year later, I would be asked to share my Planned Parenthood story. I wrote about how I’ve rarely felt so cared for and so safe.
Before she leaves for the night, my mom calls upstairs: do I want her to lock the door behind her, and in my fried egg-brain, I tell her to leave it open. I’ll never know why she listened to me, or why she asked at all.
We split up not long after the abortion. I realized I’d rather be heartbroken and alone than pretend that I wasn’t. Our short relationship seemed pointlessly painful, so I went back to Miss Renée to ask what I was meant to learn from in falling in love with someone who stopped loving me the second he felt needed.
“All of it was about his karma, not yours,” she said. “This relationship had nothing to do with you.”
I imagine that people who never go to psychics don’t know how mean they can be.
My mom’s never been much of a nurturer. After she left my dad, she became more attached to her job; less, I felt, to me. Now I realize this was more a reflection of how precarious our financial situation was, the danger of unemployment. I think she was terrified that she wouldn’t be able to support us on her own.
I hated how she always refused to come pick me up when I called her from the nurse’s office, where I spent so many hours lying on that grey vinyl cot with the paper-covered pillow. She never stayed home with me when I was sick either, though, to be fair, I claimed to be sick pretty often.
When I was younger, I would periodically be up all night, nauseous, sobbing, until I finally threw up. One doctor finally diagnosed these as stomach migraines, though no one was ever able to find a cause. They stopped around seventh grade, but I continued to use them as an excuse to miss class through high school.
Many years later, I found an article about how chronic stomach problems can be a way for children to manifest hidden pain. My memories are rarely visual, but I remember sitting at the computer reading that explanation, alone, the house quiet, how the background of the survivor website was inexplicably mauve, that the dogs were napping on the guest bed, and the sunlight was split against tiles.
After I moved back home, I began to see an acupuncturist who told me my body still thought that it was pregnant. In our first session, I gave him the bullet points of my history: when it started, when it was stopped, what I remember. I’ve become good at doing this quickly, at striking a balance of being precise with the more upsetting details without lingering in them. I don’t get emotional, but I try not to sound too clinical either, like I understand the weight of my story, but I’m no longer crushed by it. He told me that they were fucking assholes. I liked hearing his anger.
The D.O.M. put needles in my toes, at the corners of my eyes, and through my underwear, connecting them with a gold silk ion cord. I’d lie on his table, almost naked beneath the white sheet, feeling increasingly nauseous but safe. He’d stand at my feet, speak rapidly in his beautiful British accent about archetypes and mythology, about how I had been trapped as Sleeping Beauty, how it was time to embrace my own wounded inner child. He wanted me to tell her:
I’m so sorry that this happened to you, but I’m here now, and it’s going to be okay.
Sometime in the middle of the night, I hear footsteps coming up the stairs. At first, I pull them into my fever dreams: maybe it’s my mom, or my ex, or my friend Sumitra, already here to drive me to the airport. Suddenly, I am fully awake; I realize that it is still black outside and in my room, that the footsteps are real, and that I am paralyzed and alone in the master bedroom of my two-story house.
“Hello?” I call from under the damp sheets. The footsteps stop.
“Hello?” comes a man’s voice.
“Hello?” I don’t know what else to say.
“I think I’ve got the wrong house,” says the man.
“Yes,” I say.
“I’m leaving now.”
“Yes,” I say.
I hear him go, and I fall back asleep. When I wake up two hours later, my fever has broken. My sheets, still wet, are cold.
Once I was at a sitting by a bonfire, telling someone the story of when the man walked up my stairs. Another guy heard us talking, interrupted me to ask, deadpan:
“Is this when you get raped?” The best punchlines are surprising, yet expected.
There’s an energy worker in Santa Fe who has, at times, almost a year-long waiting list: people say that he performs miracles, though they are unable to explain what it is he does. He charges $120 per visit and doesn’t take insurance, but he won’t see anyone more than three times. If his methods haven’t worked by then, he can’t help you.
I finally made it off the list before I moved away again. I saw him twice. He had me sit straight in a chair facing away from him, repeatedly and aloud asked my heart about its relationship with the electromagnetic field of the sun. He held a vibrating instrument on my lower back. It made my skin tickle until it itched, until I couldn’t stand it. He would knock, with his fists, around my body, call to it:
“Amelia’s left ventricle! Amelia’s left ventricle!”
On the second visit, I lay on his table as he knocked and knocked against my back, and I felt a tremendous pressure building and building, my cheek pressed against the cool white sheet. Finally, something inside of me shifted, broke, and I gasped. He sat down in the chair beside me and was quiet for a long time.
“He hurt you so badly,” he said. I was touched by his sadness.
When, at twenty-six, I decided to break up with my boyfriend and move across the country alone with some vague idea of starting over, everyone in Santa Fe told me that my Saturn return had come early. Every twenty-nine-ish years, Saturn completes its orbit around the sun. This means that in your late twenties, Saturn is approaching the point in its orbit when your life began. Some people believe that this return brings the urge, in some form or another, to see it begin again.
Originally from Santa Fe, Amelia Morand now lives in Missoula, Montana, where she serves as a fiction editor for Cutbank Magazine. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming with apt, Brevity’s nonfiction blog, Hobart, and Pithead Chapel.
The cover of my phonics workbook is plaid like my uniform but in reds and pinks and whites. Inside, each page is covered with little pictures. Crowns, shoes, fruits, stars, each in its own little box.
Then there are the letters. I know them all and know the sounds they make, but in English they are different. E is A and I is E, and two Os together sound like U. H has lots of friends and sounds like J when it’s alone.
It’s a lot to remember. My tongue flips and turns and bends when I try to form the sounds my teacher makes, but in my head, the letters speak to me in Spanish. Milk is “meelk.” Toad is “tow-odd.” Mouse is “moseh.”
When I get my papers back, they’re covered with Mrs. Castle’s marks. Red slashes over the pretty pictures. I have learned that 100 is the goal for everything, but those phonics workbook pages come to me with ugly numbers at the top, 80s and 70s, sometimes lower. At first, I close my eyes and try harder to hear the words I’m reading, try to listen for the sounds, but the slashes keep coming like little scratches on my skin, and eventually I give up.
Eventually, the English sounds begin to make more sense. I make room for them inside my Spanish-speaking head, and one day I discover that I can read the books my teacher reads all by myself. Then it’s like a dam has broken and I am gushing through, free to read anything I want.
I spend more time coloring the pictures, adding details here and there, a ribbon to a girl’s head, leaves to a flower. The directions say to draw a ring around the correct answer. I know they mean a circle, but I start making fancy diamond wedding bands instead. Mrs. Castle calls me over for a private conversation.
“You need to try harder,” she says, pleading. “Focus on the words.”
I admire her thick brown hair as she speaks, the way it curls under at the ends. I don’t want to make her angry. I wish I could be as good at phonics as I am at math.
In math class, we have each cut out and decorated our own paper armadillo. Mrs. Castle has put up giant cacti all around the room. On Fridays, we take a timed test, addition and subtraction problems arranged in neat rows. Every time you pass a test, you are rewarded with a new one the following week, and your armadillo moves ahead. The tests get harder and harder, with more problems, bigger numbers, and tricky moves like zeroes on the top when you’re subtracting. I love them. I hear my father’s voice in my ear telling me all the tricks, and my pencil flies through the sheets. Before too long, my armadillo has made it all the way across the room to the final cactus. My teacher says there are no more tests and I ask if I can start over from the beginning again, just for fun.
But phonics class isn’t like that. Mrs. Castle cocks her head and frowns at me, and it feels as if I’ve let her down. I stop drawing rings and coloring the pictures, but my grades do not improve.
* * *
One day, we’re sitting on the carpet and she’s reading us a book. Her voice flows up and down in rhythm like she’s singing. I don’t know everything she’s saying, but I love to hear her speak. Suddenly she stops and puts the book aside. Her eyes get big with excitement and she tells us about something called poetry, about rhyming words. Then she gives us some examples.
“Do you hear?” she says, and I do. I hear the words; I recognize the sounds. I like this thing called poetry. “Now you try!”
A hand shoots up from the front of the class. Grace McCallister, of course. Grace is the most beautiful child I’ve ever seen. Her hair is long and straight and gold. Not yellow blonde, but actually gold. She wears it pulled up tight and smooth away from her face, gathered in a high ponytail without a single untamed strand. She is perfect in every way a child can be perfect. Always has the right answers, never gets her clothes dirty, and refers to her grandparents as Grammy and Grampy. I have looked up to her since the first day of school.
“Cat and bat,” she says now, beaming.
Mrs. Castle smiles and nods then looks around the room. One by one, she calls on each of my classmates. A few of them answer incorrectly on their first attempt, but after another try, they get it.
Then I hear her call my name.
“Bob and pop,” I say, but Mrs. Castle shakes her head.
“Hat and bad?”
She repeats the words after me, emphasizing their ending sounds. “Hat-tuh, bad-duh.”
When I mention that I don’t want to speak Spanish anymore, my mother grows serious and tells me “No señora.” She has a friend mail her a book of Spanish grammar from Colombia.
“Try again,” she says. “Listen to them in your head.”
I take a breath. Try to form the words in my mouth before saying them out loud. Finally, I think I’ve got it.
“Sit and sat,” I say, smiling this time, ready for her words of praise, but they don’t come. Instead, she says she’ll get back to me, but after calling on my other classmates, she has us all return to our desks to write our spelling words. I pick up my pencil and begin to work, but all I can think about are rhyming words. I don’t understand why the ones I’d said were wrong and all the others right. I start to write some new words on the margins of my page, and suddenly, in the middle of class, it comes to me.
“Duck and truck!” I shout, and the other children jerk their heads up in surprise. They laugh at me, and even Mrs. Castle chuckles.
“You got it!” she says, and I feel my heart grow warm with happiness inside my chest.
For the rest of the day, I go around smiling as I think of other pairs of words that rhyme—sometimes even sets of three. I’ve got it, I tell myself, and it feels as if I’ve won.
* * *
Eventually, the English sounds begin to make more sense. I make room for them inside my Spanish-speaking head, and one day I discover that I can read the books my teacher reads all by myself. Then it’s like a dam has broken and I am gushing through, free to read anything I want. The school library is across the hall from Mrs. Castle’s room and I look forward to our weekly visits.
At home, my mother says my name the way it’s meant to be pronounced, with a long U and lofty As, the Z a hiss and not a buzz. She takes advantage of my newfound English knowledge by having me read aloud. She tells me I am helping her learn English that way, and that makes me happy too. Our favorite book to read together is Are You My Mother, about a little bird who hatches from its egg only to find itself alone in the nest. We read the book again and again and again, until I have learned all the words and illustrations by heart.
When I mention that I don’t want to speak Spanish anymore, my mother grows serious and tells me “No señora.” She has a friend mail her a book of Spanish grammar from Colombia.
The cover says Coquito and it has a picture of a boy flying a kite over a hilly countryside. Inside there are stories and sentences, writing prompts and riddles, all in Spanish. We sit together at the kitchen table late at night, my mother looking over my shoulder as I practice my compositions in a notebook she has bought just for this purpose. She has me copy the stories along with the drawings. I write the vocabulary words many times, and then she calls them out to test me. She makes me practice my penmanship, too, and teaches me the rules of when to use accent marks. It’s like going to school in Spanish after going to school in English.
* * *
One day, my mother says she has a surprise for me, and she drives me to a one-story building with narrow vertical windows all the way around. The sign in front says Nicholson Memorial Library, and as we enter through the sliding double doors, the smell of paper wraps around me like a tongue and pulls me in.
The children’s section sits inside a corner near the entrance, but it’s hidden from view by the shelves of books I’ll get to when I’m older. In the open space behind them, four large, brightly colored seats shaped liked giant M&M’s are arranged into a square. Between them are dark blue beanbags you can sit on too, and in another area, they have tables with little chairs like the ones at school. My mother helps me find the shelves of children’s books and leaves me rocking on one of the giant M&M’s while she heads over to the grown-up section of the library.
This is how we spend our Saturdays, my mother and I. She has a card that gives us permission to take the books home, and every time we leave, it’s with armfuls of our new friends. I take them everywhere and read them every chance I get. I put some in a bag and carry them up when I climb the tree in our back yard. I take them to the outer yard and lay down on the grass to read.
And when my father does the thing where he checks for a rash between my legs, I take a book and prop it up against my chest. I hold it in a way that makes it turn into a wall, with me safely on this side, reading the words and looking at the pictures, while other things take place behind it.
Luz Pinilla is a Colombian-American writer of literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. She is a student in the creative writing program at the University of Texas at El Paso and holds a master of arts in aesthetic studies from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her work has appeared in The Acentos Review, 34th Parallel Magazine, and Straight Forward Poetry. Please visit LuzPinilla.com for more information.
Mack has been hit by a Mack Truck more than once. I know this because he tells me the story often. It is fuzzy though, because I ignore him every time he shares it. When I tell my family about the things that Mack has narrated to me, they look at me funny, like maybe I am telling a joke or making up a story of my own. I try not to feel offended. My stepmother at the time tells me that she loves his stories. In the future, she’ll tell me that he was her favorite of all my boyfriends.
* * *
Summer after high school I’m nineteen and running around the Methuen strip mall, in Massachusetts, in my camouflage skirt and tank top to match. No shoes. My bare feet smack against large slabs of the concrete walkway. I leap from column to column, the short round structures meant for sitting, not standing. That day, I had just totaled my car, whose name had been Mack.
This guy in camouflage watches me. He is standing outside Chuck E. Cheese with a friend, smoking a cigarette. He will tell me that he is nineteen too. He is tall, has red hair and his clothes are baggy and all grunge. “Redneck,” my friends call him. But he calls himself Mack. It should be a foreshadowing that my last Mack ended in disaster, but I’m not paying attention.
Mack drives fast down the winding city streets of Lawrence and Methuen. He whips down a straightaway lined with so many cars on either side that it’s practically a one-car road. Speed limit twenty-five; Mack limit sixty. At first it is exhilarating, freeing, exciting.
“I go four-wheeling all the time,” he tells me. “I live in Lawrence with my stepdad.” I learn that he is into cars and trucks and he reminds me of the junkyard back home, of my father who taught me how to drive a car when I was twelve, and a quad when I was younger. I think that maybe Mack will be fun.
I let him drive me away from the mall in his pickup truck. Later I will hold my breath when he kisses me with his mouth that tastes like ash. I will let him slide his fingers under my skirt. Sometimes this will happen in the Market Basket parking lot and once in the woods behind the store. Later, when this is all over, when Mack is gone, I will force myself to walk through these woods and enjoy them without reminiscing; I will hold back the memories, black them out for myself.
* * *
“I was born in Ireland,” Mack tells me. He lets me help him on errands. We stop at his mother’s apartment complex to gather trash barrels from the back of the parking lot, and he swings them up—I catch them and place them down in the bed of the truck. I love that he lets me help, because I’m tired of boys who won’t let me help because I’m a girl, synonymous with weakling. We need to bring the trash barrels somewhere later.
When we go inside I meet his mother. She is short and skinny, and a redhead like her son. She is kind, and, while Mack is in the bathroom, I ask if he was really born in Ireland. “I was pregnant in Ireland,” she says. “But no, he was born here in the US.”
When Mack gets out of the bathroom he tells me it’s time to go. Out in the car he yells at me for asking his mother questions. “I don’t know why it bothers you that I asked if you were born in Ireland or not,” I yell back. “Why does that make you mad?”
“It’s disrespectful,” he says, “You should just trust me.”
* * *
Mack drives fast down the winding city streets of Lawrence and Methuen. He whips down a straightaway lined with so many cars on either side that it’s practically a one-car road. Speed limit twenty-five; Mack limit sixty. At first it is exhilarating, freeing, exciting. Once, as we’re stopped at a red light just outside Richdale in North Andover, red and blue lights flash behind us and Mack pulls over.
“Why were you driving so erratically?” The cop demands. I am frightened. (I also wonder if Mack knows what “erratically” means. I’ve never heard a cop use such a big word before.)
“My brother is John, he’s a Marine,” Mack defends, as if military connections compensate for erratic behavior, as if irrationality is the answer to life’s problems. John used to be a police officer, it seems. Mack gets a warning, I think, but it isn’t written, and I wonder if knowing someone really just worked for him. It makes me uncomfortable and a little pissed. If I don’t stop completely at a stop sign I’ll get a ticket, while Mack will feed his brother’s name and get away with driving in a way that could get people killed.
* * *
In the fall, nearly a month after we begin dating, he brings me to his house where he lives with his former stepdad. There are hundreds or thousands of golf balls in the shed under the hill outside. Maybe it used to be a bomb shelter or a bunker. I wish it was empty so I could crawl inside and explore. It feels like that’s what I’m doing with Mack right now: exploring him, trying to figure out what draws me in. The kitchen looks lived-in: floor unclean, dishes in the sink, a terrible smell. But I won’t notice this until later. For now it just reminds me of Dad’s house when it was messy before he had a girlfriend.
He shows me a melted cell phone in an extra room. “It was my brother’s,” he says. “It got destroyed in his wreck. The wreck that killed him. See—it’s half-melted.” His twin brother, he says, got into an accident with—can you guess?—a Mack Truck. Only he didn’t survive. I am overcome with grief for his loss and agree to lie nearly naked with him on the couch in this room. It’s a thing I’ve never done before, and it feels uncomfortable but interesting; daring, maybe. I leave my shirt on.
When we come here again, I’ll meet his stepfather, who sits on the living room couch and smokes cigarette after cigarette. He isn’t talkative, and I don’t know how to make a good impression, and I don’t want Mack getting mad at me for asking questions, so I don’t say anything.
* * *
There’s a popular song on the radio around this time in 2006. It goes, “Where oh where can my baby be, the lord took her away from me…” It’s by the Caveliers and the story goes that the narrator was driving and got into an accident, and his girlfriend died in his arms. I begin to fear for my life after the cop pulls us over. With no reprimands, why would Mack ever choose to drive safely?
One day, as he’s driving fast down a crowded city road I ask, “What if something happens with the way you drive? What if you get me killed?”
“It won’t happen,” he says, like we’re invincible, and takes my hand. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” But his foot stays planted on the gas.
* * *
I have an off-and-on victim mentality. As soon as I get nervous, I begin to blame other people for the way I feel. But there’s something unnerving about Mack that I feel I maybe should have paid attention to early on. I believe that Mack cares about me, but I don’t understand him or how he feels. I can’t get inside his head.
One day he calls to say that he dedicated a song to me on the radio. “Lips of an Angel.” “Because your voice is like an angel’s,” he tells me, and I think it’s sweet. I sing constantly, because it’s one of the only things that I feel like I’m good at. I keep wishing that I could have been sitting in my car and listening to the station when he dedicated it.
But it isn’t long before I begin to wonder if he really did call and dedicate a song, or if he just invented that story to make me feel romanticized. When Mack and I end a few months later, I’ll tell a friend about the song, and he’ll tell me that the story is about a man who cheats on his girlfriend with an ex. If you listen to the lyrics, he’s talking to her on the phone in another room so his current girlfriend can’t hear him. Am I being deceived?
* * *
After tonight, the kitchen looks dirty, and I can see the grimy yellow stains on the bathroom floor; ashtrays line the house, overflowing onto tables and the hardwood floors.
When Mack and I are ready to move beyond naked bed-lying, we go into his room and close the door, and I set up my sex mix: a mix I’ve made for just this occasion. I think this is romantic and necessary, but I won’t take my shirt off.
I sing to the lyrics playing while we have sex, or rather, while he has sex with me. “Closer,” by Nine Inch Nails; “I Hate Everything About You;” a plethora of Evanescence and Korn, Slipknot, and Disturbed. The music is distracting, but it becomes my salve. We have sex for what feels like hours, and he keeps going even when I’m dry and it hurts but I don’t want to say anything. I don’t want to be a tease or upset him.
When it’s over, he goes to the bathroom first, and I lie in bed and wait, still singing to my songs, focusing on the lyrics so I don’t have to think about what just happened and how unromantic and painful it was because sex is supposed to be this thing that makes everything okay or better, or that’s how it feels to me. When it’s my turn to go pee, I sit on the toilet and find myself soaked. He pissed all over the toilet seat and left it that way. When I tell him this, he laughs.
After tonight, the kitchen looks dirty, and I can see the grimy yellow stains on the bathroom floor; ashtrays line the house, overflowing onto tables and the hardwood floors. The birdcage in the living room is piled high with droppings. I wonder if the cage has ever been cleaned, and how the bird feels living helplessly in its own squalor. The best decision I’ve made, I decide, was not to take my shirt off. It’s a small victory that feels powerful.
* * *
The small window in the passenger seat of Mack’s truck is broken so that I can push it open without having to squeeze the little button on the inside. One night we’re in a parking lot outside of a grocery store. Mack locks the keys in the car by accident. I try reminding him about the broken window, but before I’ve finished speaking, he pulls his fist back and punches a hole through the glass. I stare at him incredulously, and then push the window open to show him what I’d been trying to say. “You didn’t have to do that,” I say, and then I look at his hand, which is bleeding profusely. “Let me help you. Let’s go in the store.”
“I can do it,” he says, when I try to look more closely. “I don’t need help.” And he walks to the store by himself. This feels like a burn, although I’m not sure why. Maybe because helping someone heal is one of the most intimate experiences I have known.
For years I have taken inventory of injuries, both my own and others’. During the first few months that I dated Anthony, back in high school, I wiped out on my bike and wound up in the hospital. I can still remember fear consuming me as I woke up and saw him standing at the end of my bed crying. A few months later, he got jumped and some guys left a cut above his eyebrow so deep that he needed stitches. These moments of pain morphed into more than mere misery or suffering because I connected them to stories and emotions. There was care on Anthony’s face when he saw me hurt, and I felt empathy when he told me that he was getting stitches. I feared his walks through the city later. But Mack hides his pain from me. He hides it from everyone.
* * *
Mack says this to me one day: “My mom thinks I’m Mack,” who is apparently his dead twin. The guy I am dating? His real name is Mike, he admits. The idea of this is shocking, although I can’t believe it. When I look at his license again, I notice that he is really seventeen, and I point this out, because Mack told me he was nineteen when we met. “Well, this is Mack’s license.” The twin—the twin who was two years younger than my boyfriend?
Part of me wants to believe everything. I want to believe that Mack isn’t a liar, and that crazy stories really do happen every day.
Sometimes in my journal I write fiction. Sometimes it’s incredible or vile—like getting raped or finding a dead body—or it’s dreams not labeled as dreams. Nightmares become real in the pages of my journal where fiction isn’t separate from fact. Maybe Mack’s mind works this way. Maybe he comes up with a story so interesting that he can’t separate it from the rest of his life until he realizes that his Truth is being questioned, and then he gets mad because he doesn’t know what else to do.
* * *
Mack calls me once, early in our relationship. He tells me that something is wrong, he can’t breathe, and he’s driving to his mom’s house. When I get there, he’s on her living room floor with paramedics leaning over him. They tell me not to follow the ambulance, but I do anyway because I don’t know how to get to the hospital. When I find him on a bed, IV in his arm, his stepdad is there. He is calling Mack names, insulting him, angry with him, and leaves the room when I enter. I remember my own brush with the hospital, when I cut myself too deep and my parents found out, and my dad asked why I didn’t just roll around in poison ivy if I liked pain so much, because he didn’t understand what was happening. I don’t see Mack’s mom. No one cares about him. Everyone needs love.
<blockquote class=”bq-right”>For years I have taken inventory of injuries, both my own and others’. During the first few months that I dated Anthony, back in high school, I wiped out on my bike and wound up in the hospital. I can still remember fear consuming me as I woke up and saw him standing at the end of my bed crying.</blockquote>
I hold his hand and tell him I love him. It’s a lie. Maybe worse than all the lies he’ll tell me. His stepdad will tell me that Mack overdosed on speed. Or maybe it’s the mall rats who say it. The mall rats will inform me that Mack wasn’t a virgin and he’s been telling everyone that he told me he was. For now, Mack keeps telling me that he doesn’t know what happened, just that he doesn’t feel good. And I am holding his hand and lying to him, telling him I love him.
* * *
When I stop calling Mack, he doesn’t call me either. He’ll tell people at the mall that he dumped me, when really we just stopped talking. Months later, he’ll call to talk to me, and I’ll confess that I never really loved him.
Maybe as much as a year after our breakup, I’ll be standing at Winnekenni Park in Haverhill at the edge of Kenoza Lake, when I check my voicemail and hear a message from him: “I’m going to drive off this cliff and I just wanted to say goodbye…” It’s more than a minute in length. And even though I know he’s probably bullshitting, as always, my heart picks up and I’m nervous for him. I care about him in the way that I’d be concerned about a stranger. I try calling back, but his phone doesn’t ring and instead goes straight to voicemail.
I imagine his body lying in a ditch somewhere. But someone at the mall mentions that they saw Mack the other day, and I’ll be reassured that his suicide message was really an attention attempt. I’ll forget about him and move on, away from craziness, from lies. Or so I believe.
Artemis Savory is a writer with a passion for creative nonfiction. She prefers hiking and writing to anything else, and you can find her work in a number of magazines and on her Starving Artist blog at ArtemisSavory.com.
I remember Camp David. Not actually being there, of course. But I remember hearing about it on the news. And I remember Jerusalem, awaking to a new millennium, the feeling that the whole city was rubbed raw, like a skinned knee. Tension was building everywhere, and with it, the blood pressure of the entire population was steadily rising. Everywhere a hum-buzz-whisper. On the streets, in the corner stores, in the dry, desert air that mixed with exhaust fumes to hang low over our busy streets.
My dad drove my sisters and I to school every morning during those first years of the new century. I had been taking public buses alone for years, but this year my wings were clipped. Transportation had become too risky. Even walking down the sidewalk was too risky, sometimes. There would be five suicide bombings in Israel in the year 2000—rising sharply to forty the following year. In response, my parents had bought a second used car, just like most other parents who could afford it, and they took us everywhere in the interminable, choked traffic. Many other Israelis had stopped taking buses, too, and so there we all sat, unified in our exasperation with the endless lines of cars. My dad shifted from first to second gear, then back again. Time stood still.
We chatted sparsely as we crawled along, taking part of this eternal human centipede, offering opinions on school and politics and music. We listened to whatever pop music was on the only radio station that came through clearly and, of course, the news report every thirty minutes. The DJs spinning Will Smith’s “Willenium” are all soldiers; it’s an army-run radio station. Mostly, my dad is waiting for the news to give him a short reprieve from the crap I like to listen to.
On this October morning, I’m in the front seat, applying thick black and silver eye makeup and cultivating my bad attitude for homeroom. My older sister is in the back seat, sulking because I got to sit upfront and dreading school. Ours is a religious high school, complete with an hour of prayers every morning and afternoon. She was already a passionate atheist. Her opinions on religion were not well received by the administration, to say the least.
The clock hits 7:30, the DJ cuts the tunes in favor of the news, and the station jingle plays, echoey and electronic. Then three beeps—two short and one long—pierce the silence.
“Nu, what’s the bad news today?” my dad asks, turning the volume dial up.
A deep, male voice comes on, stating, “The time is 7:30. And now the news, from Kol Israel. President Clinton made a statement this morning, strongly condemning the violence on both sides and encouraging PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak to reconsider the terms of the Camp David negotiations as a step on the path to peace.”
There is no savior, no prophet with our best intentions at heart. There are only fallible humans with personal interests in mind, eyes glinting as they jockey for the best position in the rat race, cutting each other off in their attempt to get ahead.
My dad has gotten quiet.
“An aide to the Prime Minister has said that there is a great deal of optimism about ending the violence. Demonstrations and violent clashes continue in the West Bank and Jerusalem.”
My dad shifts from neutral back into first and eases the car forward a few meters.
The announcer lists the main traffic jams, signs off, and Eminem comes on with Dr. Dre. I was hoping for Madonna’s new single, “Ray of Light.”
The radio dial clicks shut as my dad seethes, “What is that?” I guess the combination of traffic, war, and hip-hop were too much for him that morning. My dad is more of a Beatles fan. Call it a generational gap.
A thick silence descends on the car. The atmosphere in the car is tinted burnt orange by my dad’s frustration. I gaze out the window of our champagne colored Mazda, taking in the road and buildings. Trying not to tick him off any more.
I notice that, incidentally, the road we’re on used to be the border between Israel and Jordan, from 1949 until 1967, when the Israeli army conquered huge swaths of territories in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. We’d learned about it in history class. There was a wall right here where our tire tread grasps the asphalt and drags us forwards. Barbed wire adorned the top and round guard towers were set, like jewels in a concrete chain, dotting the landscape for as far as you could see. All this was before I was born, but it’s obvious even today. On either side of us, the buildings are pock-marked with bullet holes. On the east side, all the store signs are in Arabic. On the west, they’re all in Hebrew. We don’t turn eastward on this morning. We never do.
My dad breaks the stillness, stirring me from my haze.
“You know…,” his voice trails off as he navigates the lanes. Someone cuts us off. He beeps, shifts back into neutral.
“What?” I asked with extra grumpiness.
“I don’t think Arafat actually has the power to stop it anymore.”
“What do you mean?” I glance at him, confused. His face is tired and serious and sad.
“I think he had control at first,” he goes on, “that he was allowing the attacks to continue, to put pressure on Israel for a good deal. But it might be out of his hands now. It might be out of everyone’s hands now. It might have gone too far.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d thought about the violence. We all thought about it constantly. In the coming years, there would be so many, too many close calls. No one would be left untouched by the grief on both sides. And all of this searing pain would culminate in the Wall, a scar across the Judean desert, an eight-meter-tall concrete testament to this time in our lives standing like a hatchet blade in the dunes that bleeds suffering on all sides. I can still see it from my parent’s backyard.
I’m sure my dad doesn’t remember this conversation. It wasn’t a special day. But to me, it was a turning point. This was the first time I understood that maybe no one was in charge. I’d always assumed that the adults would fix this, find a plan soon to stop the hurting and the deaths. Naïve, maybe. Childish, certainly. I left a part of my innocence, splattered like roadkill, behind us that morning.
The truth sank in. There is no savior, no prophet with our best intentions at heart. There are only fallible humans with personal interests in mind, eyes glinting as they jockey for the best position in the rat race, cutting each other off in their attempt to get ahead. The future is in our hands. No one else is coming to put out the fire.
On that slate-gray morning in Jerusalem, I waited a few moments of silence longer and clicked the radio back on. Pop-rock nonsense surrounded us, three weary pilgrims in a ’93 Mazda. We drove on, past the Muslim quarter, then the Jewish quarter, gliding past the Jaffa gate. We fought our way through downtown and the German Colony, whose main street is called the Valley of Ghosts. On either side of us, rows of homes, once owned by Arab families, ‘til they were taken in a war. Israeli Jews now live and love and raise children in those houses. So many fates intertwined; the thicket is so thick here. Turning right at the street named for Rachel, our Matriarch, my dad pulled over and let us climb out. We waved goodbye, blew kisses, and headed inside, just in time to join our classmates for a morning prayer.
Mikhal Weiner is a writer and musician, originally from Israel, currently writing and living in Brooklyn. She studied classical composition at Berklee College of Music, graduating with honors. Her work, whether text or music, is deeply influenced by her experiences as an Israeli gay woman and her love of poetry and all genres of music. She loves writing about people, places, and the ways their stories intersect.
“Are you a slut, or are you just plain thoughtless?” I heard Mother shout from the top of the stairs. I was in bed. On the landing, just on the other side of my bedroom door, Mother was not visible to me, but I could see her clearly in my mind’s eye, clad in a nightgown, hands on hips, glaring into the dark below as the creaky front door inched open. Mother was a light sleeper, and, until all five of her children were accounted for, she roamed the house like a ghost. She had taken her post on the stairs in order to intercept my sister, Charlene, who had now missed curfew by several hours.
My sister, I knew, had spent the better part of the night with her boyfriend. Recently, sitting cross-legged, knee-to-knee, in the middle of her canopied bed, Charlene had confided to me the story of her first sexual experience. This being my sister, I did and didn’t want to hear. Five years her junior, I knew little about sex, but I was curious. I wanted to know about sex, just not her sex. But I’d have to take what I could get. “Mark,” she whispered conspiratorially, “when I saw that thing pointin’ at me, Lord, I thought something was wrong with it.”
Erections, it seemed, had escaped my sister. Growing up with four brothers, how had she missed this basic physiology, I wondered. I tried to picture the scene, even as I tried not to picture the scene. This was the late 1970s, and toe socks with brightly colored horizontal stripes were in fashion among teenage girls like my sister. I could see Charlene’s toe socks spread eagle above her, her boyfriend, his dick at attention, striding across the room in her direction. Her socks, my sister explained, had played a key role in the encounter. “I’m keeping them on until I get married,” she assured me.
* * *
For Boys Only is the sex-ed guide Mother gave me when I turned thirteen. Written by Dr. Frank Richardson and published in 1952, this yellowed volume must have been a book my grandmother had given my uncle Allen, when he had become a teen around the time of its publication. As the tattered dust jacket explained, “It is written by a doctor in easy, plain everyday language that doesn’t try to ramble around or moralize over the facts that are a perfectly natural and necessary part of this startling but fascinating process of growing into manhood.”
And it was startling and fascinating. Framed as talks delivered in a high school chapel to a group of boys, with names like Jack and Harry and Tom, Dr. Richardson’s book explained the facts of life. As his narrator, the “Doc,” put it, “I talk to the fellows for a while, and then they pop any questions at me they want to, and I try my best to answer them. Some of them are really humdingers with no holds barred.” Jack and Harry and Tom were boy’s boys. They weren’t timid, sissy boys like me. With words like “gee,” and “golly,” they spoke with easy candor to each other and to the Doc. I’d never witnessed such openness, least of all among other boys.
But as a confirmed sissy-boy, I understood that I was not, nor would I ever be, Boy Scout material. My interest was not in nourishing my spiritual and moral character through love of the out-of-doors and an earnest vigor in working for God. Rather, I loved to accessorize.
My father was mostly mute about sex. His version of the facts of life was so indirect that I missed the topic altogether. Before my first middle school sweetheart dance, he asked with some solemnity, “So, is there anything you want to ask me about?” My immediate thought was, “Yeah, can I have twenty dollars?” It took me several minutes to realize that he was asking me to ask him about sex.
It was different with Doc Richardson. He was direct. “You remember I told you that the testicles make these sperms and store them in the body, floating about in a thick whitish fluid called semen,” he explained. “Whenever the storage tanks get too full, they empty themselves. Sometimes they do this at night, when a boy is dreaming about sex matters. Sometimes they do it without any sign at all except that the night clothing or bed clothes may be wet or discolored. This may happen several nights in succession, or as seldom as several weeks apart, or, in some boys, hardly ever.”
Huh? What can happen when you dream about “sex matters?” I was certain that if I had not read about nocturnal emissions, I never would have learned about them. With growing curiosity, I read on and waited in hopeful anticipation for my first wet dream.
I wondered, too, if my older brother John knew about this yet. He wasn’t much of a reader. When I asked if he had received the same book from Mother, he confirmed that he had, but he didn’t seem to have found it as startling or fascinating as I had. “I read the chapter about girls,” he grunted. That was all he would say on the subject.
About being gay, Dr. Richardson had nothing to say. There was no mention in For Boys Only of men having consensual sex with other men. There was only an opaque caution about illegal “monkey business,” of adult men corrupting young boys. When Tom said, “What I can’t understand is what makes older fellows, and sometimes even men that you’d think were decent people, try to get boys to let them do things to them that they know they ought not to,” Doc didn’t use the word pedophilia, but that’s what he seemed to be talking about. “It would take too long to tell you,” he demurred, “why some men get their satisfaction out of ruining young boys, and getting them started doing the same sort of thing with other youngsters. They are mentally ‘off,’ of course, and they really ought to be taken away for treatment.”
* * *
That one might be taken away for treatment was a genuine threat in the house where I grew up. We were unruly children, who often frayed our mother’s patience. “I’d pay to have you sent away,” she fumed whenever we misbehaved. Then she would pile us in the back of her Country Squire Wagon to visit a terrifying place in town called “The Last Stop.” This was a crumbling Gothic mansion, painted garish shades of purple, turned home for wayward children. Presumably, it was “the last stop” before one was sent to the Regional Youth Detention Center. When Mother was really angry, with no other reason to travel to the remotest outskirts of town, she would drive us to the YDC. Gripping the steering wheel in a trembling rage, she’d slow, just long enough for us to get a good look at its menacing razor-wire. As we took in the scene, Mother would glare at us in the rearview mirror. “Some day, you’re going to end up there,” she’d threaten.
Eventually, Mother made good on her promise, sending my oldest brother, Joe, to the YDC after he was caught stealing a neighbor’s mail. Afterwards, he made a tour of residential treatment homes, hospital psychiatric wards, and state mental institutions, before being housed at the Anneewakee Treatment Center near Atlanta. “Annewakee,” we were told, is a Native American name meaning “land of the friendly people.” But Annewakee was anything but friendly. Years later, long after Joe’s release, news reports detailed how its director, a one-legged pedophile named Dr. Poetter, encouraged sex between staff and patients because he believed it was “good for the boys.”
While stealing mail may have been the catalyst for Joe’s detention, Mom was motivated by a darker fear. She worried that Joe might be gay, and worse still, that he might turn her other sons gay too. One afternoon after Joe was sent away, she took me aside for a solemn chat. “Has he ever touched your . . . privates?” she asked. I didn’t understand what she meant. Did she mean my “private possessions,” like the miniature Swiss Army knife I hid deep in the pocket of my Billy the Kid jeans? Like Granddaddy, who was never without his pocket knife, with its beautifully iridescent mother-of-pearl handle, I guarded this tiny red treasure. Even so, I wouldn’t have minded if Joe touched it. He and I shared everything. As far as I was concerned, he could borrow anything of mine. Just as his privates were mine, so my privates were his, just for the asking. I considered Mom’s query, but I could not remember a time when Joe had borrowed my knife. “No,” I told her, I didn’t think Joe had touched my privates. But he could if he wanted to, I added, anytime he liked.
* * *
Like Mother, my father was vocal in his opposition to homosexuality. Not long after returning home from Annewakee, Joe was thrown out of the house for good. Then my father sat me down and gave me a good talking to about the fiery torments of Hell that awaited a “known homosexual.” He instructed me to call the cops if Joe stepped foot in the yard. My father’s homosexual anxiety, however, had deeper roots.
Roaming the yard in search of something to do one August afternoon, I was knocked unconscious when the better part of a Loblolly Pine fell on my head. After a visit to the emergency room, Mother offered a stop at Toys “R” Us. There she bought me my first doll, a handsome Boy Scout named Steve. Now I was not a Boy Scout, nor did I wish to become one. I didn’t even know any Boy Scouts. All I knew was that they liked to go camping, something else I did not wish to do. Sleeping under the stars, in the woods, with bugs, snakes, and who-knows-what other creatures held no interest for me.
What captivated me about the Boy Scouts were their accessories: The ubiquitous Swiss Army knife and the endless assortment of colorful patches, insignia, and emblems. The tooled leather belt with the antique finish. The animal tracks bandana, with illustrations of common woodland footprints. The felt Campaign Hat with leather hatband and chinstrap and Universal Boy Scout Emblem Hat Pin.
My father was mostly mute about sex. His version of the facts of life was so indirect that I missed the topic altogether. Before my first middle school sweetheart dance, he asked with some solemnity, “So, is there anything you want to ask me about?”
At eight years old, I could not have understood Scouting founder Robert S.S. Baden-Powell’s ideal of “muscular Christianity” that joined physical fitness with moral rectitude at the end of the nineteenth century. But as a confirmed sissy-boy, I understood that I was not, nor would I ever be, Boy Scout material. My interest was not in nourishing my spiritual and moral character through love of the out-of-doors and an earnest vigor in working for God. Rather, I loved to accessorize.
Sporting a swath the size of a dollar bill shaved from my scalp, and a dozen fresh prickly-black stitches, I held Steve Scout in my arms for the first time. Along with Steve, came several accessories: A Scouting Booklet, badges, an Official Scout Uniform, shoes, a jaunty red neckerchief. But this would be only the beginning. Steve would need a tent, a sleeping bag, the Steve Scout First-Aid Backpack, the Steve Scout Campfire, and, come winter, Steve Scout Snowshoes.
When my lesbian Buddhist aunt arrived from LA on Christmas Eve, I was certain that Aunt Jean would bring an exciting new Steve Scout Adventure Set from the West Coast. It would be one we could not find at our local Midtown Mall, where the anchor establishments were a Post Office at one end and a Laundromat at the other. Aunt Jean’s Christmas gift would be as exotic as she was. And she was. That she was from California would have been enough, but, to a boy growing up in the rural Deep South, that she was both lesbian and Buddhist was intoxicating.
What’s more, Aunt Jean worked as a DJ, announcing song titles on the in-flight radio station for a major airline. Her voice was smooth, with a hint of smoke, washed clean of the Southern accent of her Georgia kin. Her dark hair and eyes, her sharp, square chin, these could have been my father’s. But there the resemblance ended. Unlike her country relations, whose fashion sense was dictated by the Sears catalogue, Jean was sophisticated, glamorous. In her rich, ginger-colored Ultrasuede shirtwaist dress and black knee-high boots, to me, she was like one of Charlie’s Angels.
Not only, according to Mother, had Aunt Jean burned her bra, but she and her girlfriend, Barbara, also burned incense, much to Mother’s dismay, in Grandmama’s Wedgwood egg-cups, while they chanted before a makeshift altar in the guest bedroom: “Nam myoho renge kyo, nam myoho renge kyo, nam myoho renge kyo.”
My father embraced his little sister with jaw-clenching Christian duty. He was visibly unnerved by Aunt Jean, grinding his teeth and clearing nothing from his throat whenever she spoke. “Uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn, uuuhn.” At the same time, he welcomed his sister’s return home as a chance to coax her to Christmas Eve services at the First Baptist Church. If he could just get her in the door, then maybe the Holy Spirit would lay a hand on Jean. Maybe she would give up girls and The Eightfold Path. Maybe she would cancel her return flight to Sodom.
Just as she feared my brother Joe’s corrupting influence, Mother was certain that Aunt Jean would poison us all. When Barbara leaned in to receive a chaste peck on the cheek from Aunt Jean after the Christmas dinner blessing, I watched beneath the table as Mother’s nails dug deep into my father’s thigh. Later, I heard angry whispers in the kitchen: “I won’t have my boys exposed to her and that Barbara making out at my dinner table.” Whenever Aunt Jean came to visit, the air in our house was charged, and I eagerly drank in her electricity.
My heart sank on Christmas morning when all Aunt Jean pulled from her tiny carry-on, her only piece of luggage, was a small, shrink-wrapped basket of dried apricots, with a gift tag addressed to “The Hall Family.” Seeing my disappointment, Aunt Jean explained that Buddhists don’t give Christmas presents. Then she added quickly, “It won’t be a Christmas gift, but you and I could go to the mall tomorrow.”
The next morning, Aunt Jean borrowed my father’s red VW Bug, and we raced to beat the crowds of post-holiday shoppers. When she offered, “You can choose one toy, anything—anything you want,” I made a beeline for Bob Scout. But when I laid his box on the counter, Aunt Jean hesitated. She seemed to be doing a quick calculation in her head. I thought of the paltry dried apricots. Maybe I had overshot. I could feel Steve Scout’s emptiness in my own stomach.
“It’s only $12.99,” I pointed out. “You said anything.” But Aunt Jean was not searching her wallet. She was making a different sort of reckoning. Aunt Jean recognized that toys like GI Joe were “action figures.” Steve and Bob Scout were not. They were dolls, just like Barbie dolls and Ken dolls. Aunt Jean could also plainly see that Steve Scout was white and Bob Scout was black. Not only was her Deep South, white, sissy-boy nephew playing with dolls, but now he wanted a black doll.
“Are you sure that’s the one you want, Sweetie?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve already got Steve. I just need Bob so he’ll have someone to camp with. I’ve got the forest fire observation tower all set up.” Aunt Jean looked uncertain. She tugged at her crocheted vest.
“Well, you get Bob, then,” she said, “and let’s put out some fires.”
The house was quiet that afternoon as Steve toured Bob around the campsite, artfully staged under the Christmas tree. The only voices in the house were theirs, from a backpack filled with prerecorded camp-talk, activated by a pull-string. “Let’s make camp, here,” Steve and Bob Scout repeated again and again. “I’ll roll out the tent, and sleeping bags. You cook the fish.”
Later that evening, I overheard more angry whispers in the kitchen. Afterwards, Aunt Jean told us, as she and Barbara quickly gathered their things, that their visit would have to be cut short.
Soon after Christmas, Aunt Jean sent me a note. She inquired about Steve and Bob. In San Francisco, in a neighborhood called the Castro, she explained, there were lots of nice guys like Steve and Bob. When I was older, maybe I could visit her and Aunt Barbara to see for myself.
* * *
In my early teens, I had no notion of “gay,” and so I wasn’t looking for Doc Richardson to discuss the subject in For Boys Only. In retrospect, I understand that long before then I had had feelings for other boys, but I didn’t think of those feelings as romantic. Rather, I thought I just wanted to be like the cute, confident boys I admired at school. They were not my friends, only distant, mysterious objects. What I thought I felt for other boys was envy, not attraction.
I had much the same feeling for the boys who appeared one month in National Geographic World magazine. This was National Geographic for children, so the articles were about kid stuff. For a long time, I was captured by one story in particular, “An American Gymnast in the U.S.S.R.” “Few Americans have had the chance to train with Soviet athletes,” the story explained. “But thirteen-year-old Caleb Daniloff, of Washington, DC did.” In the article, Daniloff is pictured with classmates in a Moscow gymnastics school. Photos depict the young gymnasts in various poses. There is nothing sexual about the pictures. But there is a physical intimacy among boys that was foreign and strange to me, wholly unknown, and deeply captivating. One photo showed a boy in a perfect bridge pose. His hands and feet flat on the floor, his head and neck curving behind him, he thrusts his waist toward the ceiling. Another boy, his fingers spread wide and pressed firmly into the first boy’s abdomen and chest, is doing a handstand, his legs a rigid V in the air above his partner’s bridge. Their bodies are lean and taut, exposed in tiny shorts and tank tops. Pictured behind this pair is the American, Daniloff. He stands side-by-side with a Soviet boy. Each balances on one foot, the other foot, leg stretching up, up, held tightly in an outstretched hand. Their arms reach toward the ceiling. The two boys maintain their balance by holding hands with each other. I’d never touched another boy with such familiarity. At the time, I had no idea why I was so drawn to this image. But I could not take my eyes off it.
* * *
At the end of the winter break of my first year of college, I drove to Florida to pick up my friend Marcia. She needed a ride back to school. Our plan was to travel to my home in Georgia, stay the night, then return to campus near Atlanta the following day. In the car together, we did what we always did: We got high and sang along to Marvin Gaye and Lou Rawls.
I was twenty-one before I had my first serious boy crush. His name was Ethan. He had a beautiful, unruly mop of blond hair, which I suspected had been highlighted. His doe eyes were green as grapes, his smile electric.
The private college we attended was filled with well-to-do prep-school kids. They were high achievers, accustomed to excellence, entitled to it. They had credit cards and drove flashy cars. They had drugs of every description. These students, I was surprised to learn, studied as hard as they partied. The unofficial center of our small campus social life was a notorious club whose members were required to maintain a 4.0 GPA, even as they binge-drank and Hoovered up great piles of cocaine. At their parties, they doled out ecstasy like Skittles. In my small-town public-school experience, one could either be a top student or a drug fiend, but not both. It had never occured to me that the two aspirations might be successfully combined. I was intrigued. And so I studied diligently, and, to fit in, I bought a bong and a coke spoon.
Like me, Marcia didn’t belong. She was a scholarship kid, as unpolished as I. But she was smart and driven and always available to get high. Together, we studied and wrote papers late into the night, then drove the miles of deserted country roads that surrounded the tiny college town, smoking weed and singing “What’s Going On” and “Love is a Hurting Thing.” Marcia was unlike the genteel Southern women of modest, understated grace I’d grown up with. She was loud, brash, and direct, with a raucous laugh that filled a room. I was enthralled. But when she arrived at our house after Christmas, one look from Mother told me that she didn’t care for Marcia. The next morning, as soon as I made my way down to the kitchen, Mother looked over my shoulder and asked, “Where’s Marcia?”
I glanced back too, toward the stairs. “In bed, still asleep.”
Mother’s eyes narrowed. “That will not go on in a Christian home!” she shouted.
It took me an instant, as I shook off sleep, to understand her flash of rage. Mother had arranged for Marcia to take my sister’s now-vacant downstairs bedroom. My room was upstairs on the opposite side of the house. Mother imagined that we’d shared a room so that we could have sex. This was strictly forbidden. But I had no way of explaining why she was mistaken. Nothing could have been further from my mind. Yes, we had slept together in my bedroom, Marcia in one twin bed, I in the other. After a late-night ride around town, we were high as usual, and forgetful of the house rules regarding the sleeping arrangements of unmarried couples. Our infraction was, at any rate, less intimate than Marcia and I were accustomed to at college. There we often bedded down in my dorm room in a single twin bed. But it wasn’t what Mother assumed. Sex between Marcia and me was inconceivable. After all, she was dating my friend Steve, and they couldn’t get enough sex with each other. I was the friend to study with, get high with, and then fall asleep with. But not sleep with. Besides, Marcia had been telling me, almost since we met, that I was gay. I didn’t know what she was talking about. “Just because I like Patti LaBelle, that doesn’t make me gay,” I insisted.
“Since when did this become a Christian home?” I shot back to Mother. Marcia and I loaded the car in silence and made a quick exit. Mother didn’t speak to me again until sometime after Easter, when my father phoned and begged me to apologize. “Apologize for what?” I insisted. I wanted him to say what he thought I’d done, that I’d had sex under his roof—with a woman.
* * *
I was twenty-one before I had my first serious boy crush. His name was Ethan. He had a beautiful, unruly mop of blond hair, which I suspected had been highlighted. His doe eyes were green as grapes, his smile electric. Men and women alike pursued him. Everyone who met him seemed smitten. But Ethan was aloof, unavailable to all. Whether he was gay or straight was uncertain. Some days I would observe him sunbathing in the courtyard of our dormitory. I longed to stroke the angry purple scar, which marked the exit of his appendix. One evening, I surprised him at the sink in the communal bath on our hall. He was applying mascara. I wanted nothing more than to become that brush.
Just beginning to take my first tentative steps out to gay bars, I was elated one night to see Ethan in the same Midtown dive, Burkharts. He was leaning against a wall, drinking a seventy-five-cent draft beer, observing the scene, just as I was. Afterward, we began to talk and to acknowledge one another on campus.
As summer approached, I learned that Ethan had gotten a job at Cafe Intermezzo, an upscale coffee shop and bar, but he did not plan to start until after he returned from visiting family at the close of the term. Ethan didn’t know I knew about his new job. To be near him all summer long, while he was away, I too applied for a job at Cafe Intermezzo. I’d get hired and begin right away, while Ethan was gone. Then, when he started at the cafe, I planned, it would appear that he was following me, rather than the other way around. By then, I’d already know the ropes, and Ethan would depend on me to help him get acquainted in his new position.
In the meantime, I moved out of the dorm and into my first apartment. It was a tiny two-room basement flat in the home of blue-haired widow from Derbyshire, England. She had a vicious German Shepherd who pursued me every time I stepped foot out the door. But I chose this particular apartment because it had a fireplace. Whatever its drawbacks, come winter, I could imagine how romantic it would be, my first boyfriend on the futon in front of a blazing fire.
Cafe Intermezzo was opened late at night, in the heart of Buckhead. It was the last stop for posh crowds concluding a night at the theatre or out on the town, with fancy desserts and cocktails. Wait staff began early in the evening and worked until 2:00 a.m. After unwinding at the bar over drinks of our own, Ethan and I would go out to nearby dance clubs until dawn. If I was lucky, Ethan might suggest sleeping over at my place. As we spent more and more time together, my crush deepened. But so did my shyness. Whenever Ethan stayed over, I kept to my twin bed, while he slept alone on the futon, just feet away, by the empty fireplace. In the dark, I felt a deep ache as I listened to his slow, even breathing.
* * *
Thanks to Doc Richardson, I understood the mechanics of sex, but I could not imagine how it all got started, exactly. In my teens, I sometimes overheard conversations among peers about having sex. Some couples in high school behaved like old married folks, they’d been fucking for so long and with such regularity. But how did they get together initially? I couldn’t guess.
When I finally did find myself in bed with a woman for the first time, I was as surprised as she was. Sarah had visited the college writing center where I worked as a tutor and confided in me about a boy she had a terrible crush on. She was invisible to him, she lamented. His name was Ethan. While I did not reveal my own love-sickness for the same Ethan, I shared her palpable ache. Somehow we ended up at the newly-built Ecolodge near campus. While the encounter was fumbling and awkward, I was relieved. I was having sex with a woman. In spite of the insistence of friends like Marcia, this was clear evidence that I was not gay.
Not long after that, at a sprawling dance complex called Backstreet, I met a boy visiting Atlanta from Minneapolis. I watched while other men stalked him around the club. They shared my opinion of his handsome good looks. I would have to act if I was to be the one to capture his attention. Too shy to introduce myself, I sidled up next to him at the bar, making sure my bare arm lightly brushed his. My knees nearly buckled at the spark. Without turning toward me, he flashed a wry smile at the mirrored wall behind the bar, his eyes mischievous behind long, thick lashes. When Daniel introduced himself, I fell in love with his voice. Unlike my Southern drawl, Daniel had the polished Midwestern dialect of a television news anchor. I could have listened to him talk all night long. As he unspooled the contours of his life, I learned that Daniel had been a child gymnast, and later, an Eagle Scout. I’d never kissed a man before, but that night on the dance floor with him, I seized the opportunity. His lips remain vivid in my memory. They were full and insistent, his tongue curious. We kissed for hours. As the music thumped in our chests, we were so involved that other patrons gathered round several deep to watch. I’d never been kissed like that. This, I understood crucially, was what Doc Richardson had left out of his sex-ed guide, For Boys Only.
Daniel was slight, a few inches shorter than I. Looking down into his dark eyes made me feel tall, confident. I was delighted by this new sensation. Holding his face between my hands, I kissed his eyelids, gently plucking them up with my lips. In the early hours before dawn, after he’d stepped away for a moment, Daniel slipped up behind me, wrapping his arms around me in a fierce embrace. He was small, but powerful. I felt an opening inside me, like a taut spring had been released. The feelings of comfort and security were overwhelming. I was on the verge of something, which was a great mystery to me, even as I was about to enter into it. Although I never saw Daniel again after that night, for the first time, the romantic touch of another—a man—felt right and natural to me. With certainty, his lips, his embrace told me who I was.
Mark Hall is a professor of rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies at the University of Central Florida, where he directs the University Writing Center. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Flashquake, JMWW: A Quarterly Journal of Writing, Chelsea Station, and The Timberline Review.
Photo Credit: Nkosi Shanga
I slide a pinky beneath the leather band of my love’s watch and feel his humid skin. I love this virgin bracelet around his wrist, the manacle of tan line where he unbuckles the hours and becomes master of our time together.
We divide one moment from another with embraces, laughter, kisses, breath. My body is a timepiece wrapped around him, the moments gaining speed with our rocking.
Scientists have demonstrated that two living heart cells placed in a petri dish together will gravitate toward one another and their beats will synchronize. I haven’t worn a watch since I was eighteen, wary of anything that outpaced my pulse. A ticking watch might confuse my blood: which is the true heart?
My life has gentler cycles, beginning with the journey of the sun. Sundials are more human-paced; they cast lazy shadows and measure days by half hours, give or take. Before village bell towers, the sundial was king. Shadows slid off the sides of buildings—evening’s laconic striptease.
We once lived in a 400-year old cottage in Buckinghamshire near a parish church that tolled the hour at precisely twenty-three minutes past the hour, every hour. You could set your watch by it. I smiled when I noticed; a village clock set to my own obliviousness.
I tell time by statues, too—each stone shadow morphs and lengthens. Every evening as the sun sets, a muse of lyric poetry leans slowly, darkly, from her rooftop plinth on the Oxford skyline and bends across an alley, slinking onto a medieval wall. By nightfall half of her body has climbed into a window of a student dormitory. When the window is lit, her shadow disappears like a cat thief and all that’s left is her heavy half standing sentinel over the Bodleian. It takes just a second to arrest her movement after hours of progress toward that room.
Last year in a watchmaker’s store window display on via Romana, near Boboli Garden, I saw a still life of a disassembled pocket watch that appeared to float—invisible threads holding each minuscule component mid-air; wheels, cogs, spokes, screws and coils suspended in space as if the watch had been photographed in the act of explosion.
The anatomy of a second.
I can’t think of anything I’d like to do inside of a second. A kiss, even a blink, would fall outside the lines of that seismic tick.
In August I didn’t have to miss the reassuring punctuations of family life: doors opening and closing, laughter in an adjoining room, smells from the kitchen, wet footprints on the bathroom floor. My girls were with me.
In the time it takes to conceptualize a second, or pronounce its syllables, it’s gone. Loss comes soon enough. How thin can you slice a minute? What is its smallest atom?
I’d rather wear an hourglass around my neck than a watch on my wrist. My body is an hourglass, anyway, in shape and function. It tells me what time it is; its hungers and exhaustions toll bells in my mind. I wind my body by curling in a circle and letting my mind replay the day over and over, till I fall asleep.
I write this in January but illustrated nasturtiums still bloom above August on my wall calendar. I’m months behind the days. I sleep with a hot water bottle but refuse to acknowledge winter.
My calendar is just as nostalgic as I am.
If it’s still August, that means my daughters are still here in Florence celebrating my birthday with me and not back starting new lives in the states. They’ll be by my side here, no big deal, acting as though it’s normal to have a mother in exile. We’ll play out our old family routines as best as possible, turning blind eyes.
In August I didn’t have to miss the reassuring punctuations of family life: doors opening and closing, laughter in an adjoining room, smells from the kitchen, wet footprints on the bathroom floor. My girls were with me.
From September to January I curled up in the memory of August and refused to enter autumn; refused to be alone again, in a foreign country, an immigrant jumping at the doorbell and the immigration police that might be waiting on the other side.
In my thoughts I followed my daughters’ wet footsteps across the bathroom floor again and again, in a house many countries away, a world away, a world that I’m deported from, not allowed to enter.
Funny the things we remember. I used to worry about slipping on their slick footprints and cracking my head on the floor. Ever since August I’ve prayed their slippery pathway wouldn’t evaporate, like I’m chasing them, and if I hop from step to step I’ll eventually catch up. I’ve teetered along the elegant arcs of their insteps, carefully, fitting my whole self in each wedge as if I might fall off the cliff of their memory and drown in bathroom tiles.
Another family inhabits that house now. I lurk at the windows, looking for hints of my family.
The Gregorian calendar ought to be a procession of Augusts. I’m not interested in the following months, of a future alone after twenty years with my family, of autumn and its evergreens. Even the word “ever” is a lie, as if green is invincible. Everything browns, rusts, sags, turns. Turns away.
But time moves slower than we imagine.
My timepieces are organic: the sun traveling from my ankle to my knee as I write this, my daughters turning away from my affections, the somnolent nod of tulips on my dining table during my divorce, and the limp in my dog’s leg that led him to the grave – these are the things I orbit, the timepieces I wind over and over in my thoughts.
Jalina Mhyana is the author of three poetry collections, one of which won publication in the Pudding House competition, as well as Dreaming in Night Vision, an illustrated hybrid book of prose. Her work appears in or is forthcoming from The Southeast Review, The Cincinnati Review, CutBank, The Roanoke Review, and others. “Counting the Beats” is an excerpt from her memoir about immigration and displacement, for which she is seeking representation. Learn more at http://www.jalina.co.uk.
I have bad memories of ballet class, and isn’t yoga like dancing in a way, teaching the muscles how to lengthen, how to lean, how to turn elastic as rubber bands? All my springs are coiled tight for bouncing. My love even calls me Tigger sometimes. I watch her step out of the studio from my warm perch in the coffee shop across the street. Steam rises from her body. Steam rises from all the yogis’ bodies in unison, in pseudo-cirrus reverie. They are shrouded. They are turning to clouds. They wrap scarves around their long, exposed necks, all of them, thin and elegant. They tuck their bony feet deep inside fleece-lined boots. I only have eyes for one of them, but I am watching all of them. Icicles dangle from the eaves, pointing down like arrows as if to say, See here: these bodies have melted into their most fluid selves.
I am solid. I hold a latte in my hand, which I have just ordered so it will be hot for her when she steps inside. The little bell above the door tinkles softly. Her cheeks are still burning from the heated room and the fire that yogis are taught to stoke inside them. I want to kiss her right here, right now, always, but she is not like that—not one for spectacle or display. She is always water flowing away from a scene. I am still land, of course, still solid, but I follow her everywhere with my eyes and with the secret compass lodged inside my throat.
Eventually, I follow her to yoga class. She doesn’t have to ask. People have crossed oceans for love, scaled mountains for love. Why is a mat my mountain? I notice, and then try not to notice, that when I hollow out my back in Cow and raise my chin, my clavicles still sink into my skin. No sharp crescent-moon rises out of the flesh. I notice, and then try not to notice, that when I lift myself into Wheel, there is nothing of the full circle about me. I only creak and cringe.
But there she is on her mat, doing beautiful things with her body. In a small way, we have scaled this mountain together. I feel so grateful and so vulnerable at once. What to do now? My sternum is full of suggestions, that hard ridge above my soft heart. Stop anticipating. Stop analyzing. Just breathe. She touches my hand in Savasana—only a light brush of her fingers, but it is enough. I lie supine and gaze at the stars.
* * *
I have bad memories of singing. Not the earliest, not the baby song or the toddler song—nonsense burbling as echo from the womb. Nor even the kindergarten song—sitting crisscross applesauce on the worn carpet, pudgy hands clapping a beat, the wheels on the bus going round and round. But shortly after. When the world began to scowl. Hands clamped to ears. Sidelong smirk. So I shut up after that. Whispered and lip synced whenever singing was required.
But here I am, somehow, in a roomful of women, on a summer Tuesday evening, making strange noises with my breath. We’ve trilled Yoo Hoo! to each other in British accents, and held our hands to our soft bellies while murmuring yum… None of it feels like singing, so we’re able to let go and laugh—yet all of it is singing. It turns out singing begins in the body, becoming aware of the body as an instrument of sound.
And since the body is the instrument, we grow powerful and vulnerable at the same time. When your body is the instrument, any wrong note, any discord, feels as though you, yourself, are wrong. Singing is all about tuning your body, attuning to the slightest shift of posture: the lift of the ribs, the well of the pelvis, the slight rise of an eyebrow. You need to become liquid with song—not the ordinary solid cage of muscle and bone.
We’re in a room with a piano, a small stage, and rickety chairs. It’s the Bellingham Academy of Arts for Youth, and any minute now, children are going to stream in to rehearse The Music Man. I remember watching that movie with my parents and bouncing in my seat, leaning forward and aching to sing: Till there was you… vowels warbling up into the stratosphere.
I am not allowed to fail. I gather other people’s expectations like daisies in a field. I weave them into plain but respectable garlands.
In a few months’ time, I’ll be performing with some of those children in a recital. The youngest will go first, singing the Tigger song, and then the 8-year-olds, and then me: so nervous in my cowboy boots and twirly skirt. But there will be no stopping it: I’ll stand up to the microphone, and my teacher will sit at the piano, smiling her encouraging smile. I’ll launch into it, diving, as my teacher says, into the song that already exists in the air.
Oh, give me a home… And then the lesser known verse: Oh give me a land, with its white diamond sand, and the light from the glittering stream/ where glideth along, the snowy white swan, like a maid in her heavenly dream… And though I know my pitch is in flux, every round “o” floats from me like a bubble (so many songs, it turns out, rely on that long “o” sound, a vowel that opens the back of the throat so music can rush in). Then the audience will join me on the chorus, raucous and alive: and never is heard, a discouraging word, and the sky is not cloudy all day…
But for now I’m just humming, deep in my belly, feeling the way the core muscles support every sound. I’m holding my hands at the side of my ribs to feel the way they can expand, and stay expanded, on their own. I feel the stickiness of my lungs as they adhere to the ribs in order to hold more breath. I’m standing on one foot—wobbly, unbalanced, laughing—to ignite the muscles of song.
* * *
“No environment could be better for young women who have feared it all their lives,” Sister Ann Cornelia says as she writes Failure with a flourish on the board. Here I am, somehow, in a roomful of others like me: all of us soon-to-be freshmen, soon-to-be fourteen, future Valedictorians and National Merit Scholars. Or so we’ve been told. All of us promised since infancy that we were fit to be Ivy League.
“Most of you have never been pushed to your fullest potential.” She faces us now, chalky hands pressed against her middle button firmly. She is small and round and sure of herself. Her clothes are dark with white smudges like a winter sky. “But the day will come when your best won’t be good enough. You will fail at something here, for once—I promise you that—and you will be better for it, forever.”
Not me, though. I am not allowed to fail. I gather other people’s expectations like daisies in a field. I weave them into plain but respectable garlands. At Holy Names Academy, my first year, there are only flowers, and I keep collecting them, the way I have learned to do—not stopping to smell them anymore, only bending to pluck, then tuck them in my temperate bouquet: A after A after A. But the next year, there is chemistry. The next year there are numbers doing things I don’t quite understand. There is also Bridget who shares the lab desk with me: Bridget who writes poems on graph paper, Bridget who braids her own hair, Bridget who wants to go to alternative school in British Columbia.
I have chemistry with Bridget. Any way you say it, the statement is true. We start tie-dyeing shirts together. We start writing and casting a play. Soon, I am borrowing hats with crush velvet flowers that flop carelessly over my eyes. I forget I am a Virgo and pledge my devotion to a less exacting sign.
When it arrives, the F appears almost neutral, like a fingerprint that hasn’t been scanned yet—just a lone blue letter centered at the top of a page. It is both unexpected and entirely deserved. I cannot argue with it, this F I have earned through relentless non-attention, and yet I have to lean against the wall to keep from tipping over. My legs are wobbly now, my joints unhinged.
“So what?” Bridget says. “It’s just a letter. Let’s tear up our tests and make streamers!” But alas, I am not the kind of girl who can part ways so quickly and completely with convention.
My lungs are sticky as I try to steady my breath, as I lean over and somberly whisper: “I don’t think we should see so much of each other anymore.”
* * *
It’s ridiculous, really: A PhD. A “Doctor of Philosophy.” In my family, doctors (real doctors) are revered; we submit to their authority and do anything they say. And of course, the unspoken Jewish expectation: you’ll meet a nice boy, a doctor maybe, why not? It’s expected of young girls, young women. Sure, you can go to college, but don’t make a habit of it.
I’ve met nice boys, but they’re not doctors or lawyers or shrewd businessmen. They are novelists, poets, teachers, carpenters. None of them are Jewish. Their beliefs fluctuate from day to day. We drink lots of coffee and take long walks. We hold hands. We walk along rivers and mountains and lakes. We walk to funky cinemas with disco balls rotating in the ceiling, making everything sparkle.
Philosophy, in Greek, means “love of wisdom.” So I suppose I’m about to become a “doctor of wisdom,” or a “doctor of love.” But I’m neither of these things. I’ve stumbled into graduate school in complete ignorance, as if I’ve been sleepwalking, inching slowly backward down a dark alley. It’s only now, minutes before my oral exams, that I’ve begun to wake up, take my bearings, turn on the lights. How did I get here? Where am I?
I’m sitting in a windowless classroom, waiting for my professors. I’ve brought a bouquet of irises and tulips; I’ve brought pastries from the groovy shop downtown. Are these bribes? Perhaps. I’ve dressed like an adult, in a nice skirt and shoes with a heel. I’ve even put on lipstick. But my fingernails are bitten down, and there’s a big pimple on my chin. The seams in me always show.
I’ve been studying, spending long hours in the library with Montaigne and Hazlitt and Lamb. I know Didion and E.B White as if they’re old friends. I’ve made flash cards. I’ve memorized quotes. I’ve constructed arguments about representations of the self on the page. But success seems unfathomable, unthinkable, for a girl who’s never had any idea where she’s going. At this moment I feel blank as a new notebook. Nothing has been inscribed.
* * *
I had dressed like an adult since I was a child, a miniature version of my mother. At eleven, she gave me a tube of lipstick just her shade, rouge, mascara, and powder. She said people might mistake us for sisters and smiled at the thought. By the time I was twenty-one, I was weary from a decade of make-up and polish—the way my mother insisted we must make up for something, the fact we were not “natural beauties.”
No more high heels, I vowed. For another decade at least, not even a dress, not once. I cut up my stockings. I kept my hair short and my face bare. Perhaps others assumed I was marking myself and my love affair with a woman. Perhaps they even inferred that I was “the man” in our relationship. Evidence: hadn’t I also purchased a Pierre Cardin tie, a blush-worthy impulse buy? But I think it was adolescent rebellion at last, years overdue—this stalwart refusal to gussy.
The day before our wedding, also years overdue, my beloved suggests we get a manicure. Our best friend is with us. She knows a place. “It might be fun,” she laughs, “to do something girly together for once.”
Now the most important women in my life are sitting side by side, having their nails done, chatting softly and choosing a color. They are lesbians. They are feminists. They are not worried about the implications of a little gloss and tint on their hands. So why am I? “This your first time in nail salon?” the man at the counter asks. I nod, sheepishly, but still I linger near the door, resisting the chairs and magazines. The seams in me always show.
“Your turn, Miss,” a young woman beckons. Her face is an open door. This is my chance to be normal, to be one of the girls, to participate in the rituals of femininity that have so long eluded me. This time, I can even do so on my own terms.
I place my hands in hers, gingerly, the way I will place my hands in my beloved’s tomorrow, when we stand before the small crowd to exchange our vows. “Your nails are very short,” she observes, a diplomatic alternative to ragged or gnawed. “I will soak your hands first, then push down your cuticles so we can see the moons. Yes?”
All at once, years of longing and fear and other feelings I don’t quite recognize are streaming from my eyes. I blot them quickly before we begin. “You are all right, Miss?” I want to say how my mother isn’t coming to my wedding, how my mother doesn’t believe in my love. And I want to say how sad I am to be so relieved that she won’t have a chance to ruin everything. But instead, I nod my head, less sheepish this time: “Yes, please, I want to see the moons.”
* * *
I lean my head into her hands and instinctively nuzzle them, like a cat. My eyes close and I hum quietly—a resonant yum—while she massages my scalp with lavender oil. These days, I get touched like this only by professionals: my hairdresser, my massage therapist, my chiropractor. My skin tingles at their touch. I feel a quick flush of shame at my pleasure.
She lifts one lock of hair, then another. I feel the gentle tug on my scalp, but even when I open my eyes, I can’t see what she’s doing; without my glasses I’m a blur in the mirror, a faint outline of head and shoulders draped with a black cloth. I know she’s pondering what to do with me today. My hair is at the in-between stage where nothing seems quite right.
How about highlights? she muses, almost to herself. Highlights? My hair has always been what I call “chestnut”: brown but with an undertone of red. At certain angles, it’s had a sheen to it, though my bangs get frizzy or oily, depending on the day. Most often they hang in one lanky bunch above my eyebrows. I’ve managed to arrive into my fifties without dyeing my hair, the gray strands barely noticeable until they spring up like coarse wire. I’ve never wanted to get caught in the hair-dyeing cycle, roots showing like flags of age that must be quickly hidden.
But lately, the gray hairs have been accumulating—quietly, like radicals gathering for subversion—and so I now suddenly see wide swathes of them when I brush my hair or push my bangs back with a headband. I see them, but I don’t see them, averting my eyes. It’s not a stylish wing of gray, like Susan Sontag, or a silver sheen like Helen Mirren. My gray is unruly, dowdy, stripping my hair of whatever vital spark it once possessed.
We’ll do it subtly, very natural, she says, gazing at me in the mirror. I can’t see her eyes, but she’s smiling. Her hands cup my shoulders, firm but gentle, as if she’s about to steer me the right direction on a trail. Yes?
How can I resist her, this woman who has examined every inch of my head? This woman who washes my hair and smoothes it against my scalp, who is always happy to see me, who wants only to make me lovely? We’ve talked about everything and nothing. But if I say yes—if I agree to be highlighted—will I still be myself? Will the highlights announce themselves, tell the world I no longer trust my own body to act in its best interests?
She’s waiting for my answer. The phone rings, and I hear the snip of other scissors, the roar of the blow dryer. The sound system is playing Hallelujah, a song I’ve been hearing lately everywhere: …love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah… This song always makes me both sad and happy at the same time; it’s a prayer of longing and not-quite-forgiveness. It’s a voice that wants to shout in jubilation to the heavens—you can it hear it straining to find its pitch—but finds itself hobbled by the failings of an earth-bound body.
It’s a song I’ve been singing my whole life.
Without speaking, I say yes. I nod, and she claps her hands, hurries off to get the foils and dyes. My blurred self and I wait quietly for her return. I know she’ll gently lift each hank of hair, carefully paint each strand until it shines.
* * *
Follow your heart! the poets exhort. I shrug my shoulders: What else would I follow? These are the lyrics I’ve been singing my whole life: songs of love and longing, passion and devotion. If I am anything, I am loyal. My eyes never wander. My feet are invariably warm.
But in college, when I begin to listen to radical folk singers like Ani DiFranco, I’m surprised, then riveted by lines like these: We’re in a room without a door, and I am sure without a doubt, they’re gonna wanna know how we got in here, and they’re gonna wanna know how we plan to get out. The song is called “Shameless,” and I play it hour after hour, the repeat button set on my small dorm stereo.
What I can’t get over is how candid the speaker is about covet[ing] another man’s wife. This is the first time I have ever heard a woman express such unabashed desire for another. I flush every time DiFranco’s voice dips low, slices through study time with a guttural moan: Then I get to see how close I can get to it without giving in; then I get to rub up against it until I break the skin. If my roommate walks in, I plunge for the pause button. I consider investing in a pair of headphones.
I once thought I’d have a daughter, a baby I could sing to sleep. I once thought I’d have a husband who would hold this baby lightly in the crook of his arm.
Little do I know that in just a few years I will find myself promised to a man. I will say Yes, OK, to marrying him, No, I’d rather not to the suggestion of a ring. He laughs at me. “You’re never about the bling, are you?” But he knows he can trust me, even with my bare left hand. He knows I’m not one for shirking my commitments. I always call, even if I’m only running a few minutes behind.
So I will not be able to name this. I will not be able to explain this. When I finally pick up the phone, days too late, I will wince at his fury, though I will know it is what I deserve. Shameless, he says, a snake in the grass. Later, in a letter: Men don’t choose a woman like you because you’re the hottest. They choose a woman like you because you’re the safest.
Why I didn’t call him first, why I didn’t sever one cord before I tied another—I couldn’t say. I was raised with Captain Von Trapp telling Baronness Shraeder on the Austrian terrace, You can’t marry someone when you’re in love with someone else. This he does before he kisses Fraulein Maria in the gazebo by the water, before they sing together about having done something good.
My heart, strange Geiger counter, is sending signals only my body can read. Perhaps the gazebo is the room without a door. Surely it is the glass house from which I must never throw stones. I am alone with the woman I love by a lake in darkness. It is spring, and our bodies are acting at last in their own best interests. My place. Her place. It hardly matters where we go next. I can’t even slow this down, let alone stop this. The night is a stringed instrument. The future an encore. We cannot top this, even if we tried.
* * *
The root word of fidelity means faith. As in devotion or belief. An infidel is one who has lost her belief. And, as with any faith, doubt comes into play. Doubt, the philosopher Paul Tillich stressed, isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Or, to put it more lyrically, from Sylvia Plath: I talk to God but the sky is empty.
Fidelity also means accuracy, exactitude. As in fidelity to the facts. Or it means the quality of sound: high fidelity, as in a record or a film—each note clear and true. So many meanings for one word that, on the face of it, seems so simple and steadfast.
When I think of fidelity I think of my dog. Though her name is not “Fido” (a name that must, I hope, have the same origin), she keeps me always in her sights. She arranges herself in ways that seem meant to guard me from whatever, or whoever, might take me unaware (at the moment, for example, she has curled up behind my chair, blocking the doorway). She often has her eyes closed, but her ears twitch and she can be on her feet in a flash. She’s a small dog—only twenty pounds, with a foxlike face and a white plume for a tail—but her bark is that of a Great Dane’s.
She will bark at mailmen and anyone who delivers a package to my door. She will bark at the jingle of another dog’s collar in the street. She will bark at things invisible to my eye and ear, anything that might be a threat. She will bark to alert me, too, of friends arriving, wagging her tail so vigorously it’s a blur. Her pant becomes a smile, says: look who’s here!
She’s been my dog for almost ten years now, though I dreamed of her long before plucking her from the listings on Petfinder. She came to me as a puppy—all legs and nose and eyes—and I often felt at a loss, consulting my Puppies for Dummies book constantly, memorizing the steps for potty training, leash training, socialization, hygiene. She poked her head out of the cat carrier I’d used to pick her up, tongue lolling, eyes rolling from side to side. I could hardly speak, sure that anything I did might cause irrevocable harm. I touch her flank while we sleep, feeling her slow steady breath. I kiss her snout when we wake, nuzzle her under the chin. We make a full circle.
I once thought I’d have a daughter, a baby I could sing to sleep. I once thought I’d have a husband who would hold this baby lightly in the crook of his arm. I once thought my home would be filled with voices at all hours, a family working together at the mundane tasks—dishes, homework, puzzles—that make up a life. I believed these were facts, and anything else a poor imitation, inaccurate.
But, as it turns out, it’s just me and my dog. We are faithful to one another, and to this house that does not seem to mind its sparse occupancy. My dog roams the backyard, ears alert for any intruder; she comes inside and watches my every move. I stretch into downward dog, crocodile, cat and cow under her scrutiny. I sing to her the songs I’m learning, and she listens, sighing, stretching to make herself long as pulled taffy. Our sky is not empty, oh no. The night is a duet; it teems with a thousand stars.
Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016). She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University, and associate faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her website is www.brendamillerwriter.com.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose, most recently Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2018). She is also the co-author, with Denise Duhamel, of The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose (Noctuary Press, 2019). Wade is an Associate Professor of English at Florida International University in Miami and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus.
“First I use the curry comb.”
Rachel’s in the passenger seat. Outside the window, the sky’s clear while the Tetons hover. The day’s so bright it hurts.
“It’s important to comb against the grain,” she says. “That removes the dirt and grit. Then I use the brush. They love the brush. That’s more like a massage.”
Her hand swipes the air as if the horse’s coat were still within her grasp. Driving, I nod. Yes, I tell her. Yes, I remember. Yes. Yes. Yes. Our conversations are achingly familiar, repetitions circling on one big loop. I finish her sentences, me and my daughter. Years ago, when I was younger, we used to bleed in sync.
“You can tell the horse likes it. Ears forward. Eyes closed. Hocks up.” Then she perfectly replicates a horse’s whinny. Though her face is blank, I can tell that she’s happy. Happier than she’s been in a very long time.
* * *
For the last twenty-five years, our family has dodged the Miami heat by vacationing in Jackson Hole. And ever since that first year, Rachel has spent her mornings visiting the ranch. But this July is different. The days stretch from one to the next as we scratch out blocks on the calendar. My husband Michael and I give her what she needs for however long as she needs it.
All families develop a dynamic. Ours has always revolved around Rachel. Born with an open spine, my daughter’s a success story. Corrective surgery at birth. Early intervention. But the problems that surfaced down the line were not the ones doctors warned us about.
That night, she wanders the cabin like a lost soul. Her hair’s damp from her shower. She’s wearing a long cotton nightgown with thick wool socks on her feet.
Rachel’s thirty-eight years old and has Asperger’s Syndrome. Not the new and improved version. Not the everything’s fine if not for a few charming tics. The most mundane multi-tasking stumps her. Driving a car. Riding a bike. Even ordinary chit chat is a challenge. The listening. The processing. The jiggering of words to form just the right reply. Conversation, after all, is a two-step dance. She’s a college graduate and library assistant. Still, we take nothing for granted.
The latest crisis: her marriage, somewhat of a miracle in itself, hit the tenth year mark and sputtered. This is the first time in many years that she’s come to Wyoming alone.
The signs of sadness were there for me to read. A voice registering in all black keys. A perpetual slouch. A dullness where there should have been a light. My daughter’s calling it a “time-out,” but I know different. Though she can’t tap the feelings, her very smart brain digs deep. Lately each conversation, no matter where it starts, ends up in the same place. Her eyes water as she gazes into the distance. A few cows are ambling near the road.
“Ken’s used to me,” she says. “He’s comfortable.” Wiping her cheek with the back of a sleeve, she quietly mumbles. “I’m like an old shoe. I’m broken in. I fit.”
Rachel’s a sucker for romance novels and movies with happy endings. And she’s savvy enough to know how the plots will enfold long before the story’s over. She was hoping, I suppose, that real life follows suit.
“I feel empty,” she says. “Shouldn’t I feel full?”
Animals have always soothed her. We bring apples with us wherever we drive and pull over when the impulse calls. In Wyoming, pastures are everywhere. Sleepy-eyed horses stand stilt straight and nod over open rails. I press down on the brake and stop the car. Then I wait in the shadows while she pets and pampers them. To Rachel, horses are merely overgrown dogs. My heart pounds and my pulse races, knowing they could kill her with a kick.
“Did you know their stomachs are too small for their bodies?” she says. “That’s why they graze. Just to survive they need nourishment all day long.”
Fearlessly, she runs her hand between the bulging eyes then lets it slide toward the muzzle. Teeth the size of dominoes gnash and gnaw the apple’s skin, seeds, core. Then they perilously march up and down my daughter’s arm searching for more. Rachel inches nearer. Close isn’t close enough.
“Did you know their lips are prehensile?” she says. “See how they reach out and grab?”
* * *
After the tumult of college, Rachel came back home to live. Though her days were structured with activity, she was lonely. A friend set her up on a blind date with someone who was lonely, too. He was an inch shorter, bald, and almost fifteen years older. Rachel’s blond, blue-eyed. Pretty. Most of the boys she had dated were nothing more than groping hands and thrusting tongues. This guy was different.
On the way home that first night, his fingers clenching the steering wheel, he serenaded her with Broadway tunes. And for the finale, when he pulled up in front of our home, he turned to her and crooned “On the Street Where You Live.” His face was lit by a street lamp, the tune a cappella and off-key. Still he plowed through all five verses. Looking back, it was a sort of a test, I suppose. And Rachel passed with flying colors.
“His voice isn’t very good,” she confessed. “But boy does he like to sing.”
* * *
Wyoming’s the yin to Florida’s yang. Our cabin in the woods is perched at an elevation of 6000 feet. The air’s dry. The wind scours your skin. We get home that afternoon tired and thirsty and head to the kitchen.
My husband’s sitting at the table, his fingers clicking his laptop. Meanwhile Rachel ducks her head into the refrigerator.
“It’s my turn to cook, Mom. Remember? It’s the least I can do. You and Dad have done so much.”
Though she and her husband live just fifteen minutes away, so much of what transpired stayed hidden. New habits developed that are just starting to surface. Extraordinary amounts of sleep. Slippage in the hygiene department. And for the first time in her life, my daughter, my child who has never ever lied, is mildly dissembling.
“I’ve got some great new recipes. You’ll like them. You really will.”
Rachel loves to cook. Cooking is therapy. The whir of the Cuisinart, the stirring, the spreading. But unlike me and Michael, she’s a strict vegetarian. If our meals were Venn-diagrammed, rarely does anything in the Rachel bubble intersect with ours.
“I’m thinking a Greek moussaka. Do we have lentils? Or how about some sloppy Joes? I make them with walnuts and cremini mushrooms. You got any eggplants lying around? You’ll like it. You really will.”
I close my eyes and see the beginnings of a grocery list. In a few hours, my kitchen will look like a crime scene. Sauces will fly, grease will drip, a tornado of foods will splotch the walls. While on vacation, my husband and I like to eat out. Why can’t we eat out?
When she looks at the windows, she only sees her reflection. She has no idea that I’m watching her. That the world is watching her. That beyond the protective boundaries of her mind, strangers hide and danger lurks.
“I cook farm to table. Aren’t you tired of eating all those steaks and hamburgers? I mean look outside. What do you see? Cows. Bovines with big brown eyes and swishy tails. It kills me, really. It’s like we’re driving a knife into their hearts.”
This is an argument I cannot win. Rachel knows exactly what’s entailed from the moment a cow leaves the barn until it ends up on your plate. Plus, she’s anxious. First, her husband didn’t return her phone calls. Now, he doesn’t return her texts. When she’s anxious, flexibility flies out the door.
“Sounds great,” I tell her.
Michael, his fingers still clacking, shakes his head and rolls his eyes.
“There’s no harm giving it a try,” I say. “Sure. Why not?”
That night, she wanders the cabin like a lost soul. Her hair’s damp from her shower. She’s wearing a long cotton nightgown with thick wool socks on her feet. Finally, her options narrowed, she wedges herself between me and Michael on the sofa. Though the TV’s on, she ignores it. She’s half asleep when she lays her head on my shoulder, shudders.
Rachel’s always been our early riser. The next morning, the sky is crayon-colored when I’m woken by noise. I blink my eyes and face a clock screaming 5:15. Then I hear Rachel rattling around in the kitchen. She’s making herself oatmeal from scratch. I check the outdoor thermometer and see that it’s forty-five degrees. Even though I’m shivering in my fleece bathrobe, she’s still wearing the thin nightgown.
Except for the clanging and banging of pots, the world is eerily quiet. Our cabin is tucked into a forested subdivision. We leave the windows cranked open, curtainless. I gaze outside looking for wildlife and am startled to see a person power walking down the street. Expensive hiking poles, spandex pants, the whole shebang. It’s no doubt one of my neighbors. Half the homeowners in Jackson are crazy fitness addicts, usually transplanted from LA.
Then I look at Rachel. In her mind, rules are rigid. One setting’s no different from the other. Her home in Miami has shutters on the windows and a six-foot-tall wood fence around the yard. It’s like living in an air-conditioned cave. The windows stay closed. The temperature’s steady. No one sees in and no one sees out.
“Look,” I say. “There’s a guy out there. Racking up points on his Fitbit.”
Rachel doesn’t flinch. She’s stirring the oatmeal, her head slightly swirling with the spoon. Only when she’s satisfied with the oatmeal’s consistency does she look up.
“Do you think we can go to the supermarket today? I have a great recipe for vegan cheesecake. Tofu. Vegan cream cheese. Vegan margarine. You’ll like it. You really will.”
* * *
A few hours later we’re back at the ranch. She’s grooming another draft horse. He’s big and brown, a barge on four legs. She has decided that this Percheron is her favorite, sturdy and dependable. On the way home, she once again provides a running commentary.
“Buster’s eighteen hands. Can you believe it? They say he weighs a ton.” Her voice is dreamy, her arms tired, her body lax. The horses, as always, have worked their magic. “The farrier was in today. I got to clean the hooves.”
Most of our days follow a routine. After lunch, we usually take a two-mile walk. Sometimes we foray into town and check out the shops. But today Rachel wants to spend the afternoon in the kitchen. Her husband has finally returned a text. He’s looking for an apartment, he tells her. She spends hours concocting a tofu turkey with a chestnut stuffing plus a ratatouille casserole even the dogs will ignore.
Later, after she’s fed us, when the kitchen’s clean and her work done, she again wanders the house. Though the socks have changed, the nightgown’s the same. I’m reading. My husband’s upstairs working. She turns on the TV only to shut it off seconds later. It’s around ten o’clock and the sun is setting, washing the valley in purples and blues.
“Can someone take out the trash?” My husband yells.
We always forget. The truck just shows up on Fridays. And you need to roll the bin uphill around fifty yards for them to see it. I could use the fresh air and jump at the chance.
The exercise feels great as my elbows strain. The temperature has dropped. And when I get to the top of the driveway, everything’s seen from a new perspective. The fir trees. The sky dotted with stars. It’s so quiet I can hear our tiny creek rippling. When I glance back at the house, it’s blanketed by shadows. Only the windows are lit.
Like a ghost, Rachel is roaming from room to room, her curvy figure silhouetted in her nightgown. When she looks at the windows, she only sees her reflection. She has no idea that I’m watching her. That the world is watching her. That beyond the protective boundaries of her mind, strangers hide and danger lurks.
I leave the bin and about-face. Then I formulate more lists. Lentils. Russet potatoes. Almond milk. I suppose we need to call a divorce lawyer. Do we know a divorce lawyer? An eggplant. Some soy yogurt. A tin of nuts.
In a week’s time another Thursday will roll around. A zucchini. Cauliflower rice. A little anise. We’ll ask Rachel to take out the garbage. Then I’ll stand by the window in my cotton nightgown. Perhaps I’ll find a pair of wool socks. A can of capers. A sprig of parsley. A fake Brie. And afterwards, if the mood is right, we’ll have another conversation. One which we’ve had before and which I suspect we’ll have many times again. One person’s view is different from another’s, I’ll remind her. A bag of apples. A jar of honey. A quart of juice.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Eclectica, The American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart as well as the Best of the Net Prizes, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize.
(All frags reported herein are genuine, heard in Oak Bluffs, a town on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, USA, captured here for this publication only)
Nothing like a good long walk, exercise and meditation in one. Two birds with one stone, though I hate that image. Who throws stones at birds? Cavemen and nasty ten year olds. When I have errands, I cluster them and walk into town the long way to the post office, the market, hardware store and packy. A long walk, on curvy one-way streets, past big old Victorians, little Gothic cottages. People on porches. Wind chimes. Gardens neat and not. Ocean here and there. Serene.
Then around a sudden sharp corner into raucous. Cars and bikes, outdoor bars, racks of tee shirts and pink rubber beach shoes. Families of six clogging the sidewalks, ice cream, fried clams, chowder. All of it perfect frag collecting territory.
Frag is short for fragment, of course. A small chunk of overheard conversation, an incomplete sentence or two caught as you intersect someone else’s orbit on a stroll. A few words broken off in passing, truncated by a boat whistle, interrupted by seagulls, wind or waves.
“…would that be normal for me……?”
“…my boyfriend’s favorite price point…”
“…price of a bacon doughnut…”
They fall out windows of passing cars, drop off bikes. Ellipses on one end or the other or both.
“…how about fishing college?…”
“…abandoned house or not….”
“… make it a national agenda…”
Elusive and intriguing. Like a dragonfly at the edge of your vision, a whiff of charred steak next street over. Sparking a chuckle, a wise nod, total bewilderment.
“…no extra seat in the bathroom…”
“…time to notify our people…”
“…found it in dystopian history…”
I don’t actually collect frags. Hear and release. Trying to hang on to them closes your ears, changes the experience so I rarely write them down. Once in a while a phrase pops up in a notebook margin when I’m looking for something else. The other day I came across
“…a legend so reductive…” from July 2012 on the fishing pier. No wonder I wrote that one down. I also admit I sometimes call my sister to report a great frag and we’ll imagine a story, speculate on a context, analyze the speaker. An old family game. “… all shaped by iniquity,” the most recent.
I used to be a collector. Cardigans, white rocks, Ferris Wheels. According to the dictionary, a collector is:
- a person who collects things, professionally or as a hobby, as in art collector, stamp collector, coin collector
- a person who collects something in their job, as in garbage collector.
I fell somewhere in the middle. The dictionary then told me to “see hoarder.”
I appreciate the urge to collect. The families who rent our house in the summer leave shells and dead crabs lined up on the porch railing, having forbidden the children, I imagine, to take them home in their little backpacks. Collecting is fun at first. To love something, search for it, make space for it. Arrange and re-arrange the objects of your obsession until there’s no place to put any of it. Friends and family, happy to give the perfect gift, give you more. Clutter ensues.
Frags take up no space and they’re everywhere. Hear and release. My route today was around the corner and through the park,
“…an insignificant branch of the family…”
“……ants dropping from the sky….”
across the park to the water side,
When you first begin to hear frags on a walk it’s tempting to categorize, mentally order and file them–domestic, metaphysical, illuminating. Let that go. It’s just serendipity to get two fishing frags in the same afternoon, we’re surrounded by water after all.
“…first time in my life I’m tired of taking pictures…”
north toward the harbor,
“ …you go over there girl and you drive that Mercedes….”
along endless ocean and endless horizon,
“…not an actual bed with an actual mattress…, “
past the ferry dock, a flood of arrivals,
“…where’s the sea serpent at?”
“I heard that on a Garfield episode…”
along the boardwalk and down to the tie-ups.
“…wouldn’t let me go fishing so I ran away from home…”
When you first begin to hear frags on a walk it’s tempting to categorize, mentally order and file them—domestic, metaphysical, illuminating. Let that go. It’s just serendipity to get two fishing frags in the same afternoon, we’re surrounded by water after all. No organizing is one of my rules. You can make your own. No lurking is another. The more you hear of a conversation, the more it makes sense, therefore not a frag. Too much attention and focus, too much grasping turns it ordinary. Ears open, never searching. No changing direction either, no following just to listen, that’s eavesdropping. That’s creepy.
Past the bars along the harbor,
“…amazing to get it done without standing…”
“…so stupid they don’t know how ignorant they are.”
where a tour group waits for the boat to Nantucket.
“….the kids just blew up…”
“…sombre et orageux…”
Up the side street, sounds but no words. A young woman on her porch strums a ukulele. A boy on a skateboard whizzes past, arms outstretched, followed by, I realize, not an origami bird but a small, humming drone, three feet above and right behind him.
Through the musical din of the carousel,
“…more than once is boring…”
up to the crowded post office.
“ …peculiar scouting mission…”
“I choose to be not alone ever since…”
I head home with the water bill in my pocket, past the brew pub and the house with the sail boat trim, across the park to the water again and turn right.
“My nose is not that big and my butt’s not that small…”
“…one Lexus dealer in a hundred miles has that color…”
Along the sandy beach,
“…vodka smells nothing like kombucha…”
“…they don’t want you to know where you’re going…”
then home through curvy one-way streets with people on porches where I hear my last frag of the day.
“ … pickled in his own mess..”
Frag season is winding down. Porches empty, tour groups gone. Dead leaves in the gardens. Frags forgotten. When orbits intersect off-season you usually know the other person and stop. Conversations are real and complete and meaningful, springing from a bedrock of shared time and space. Still counts as a walk but you can meditate at home in front of the fire.
Wendy Palmer is an ex-social worker who lives on an island. Her work has appeared in Rosebud, New Millennium Writings, Nimrod, Confluence, and Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. She is shopping a novel about Ferris Wheels and working on a novel about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 19th century radical feminist, described at the time as hysterical and overly absorbed by the woman question.
Photo Credit: Susan Helgeson
Equipped with our net, bucket, raw chicken and roll of string, we trekked from the ragged graveled patch where we had parked the van. Glassy-skinned frogs hidden in the thick marsh grass croaked in a languid manner; they paused when we were near and resumed their song after we passed. All was still dark when we reached the water. My sleepy body stumbled onto the nondescript, wobbly wooden dock to which a handful of simple rowboats were moored, bobbing and pulling with the current like willful creatures. Our flashlights lit the way to the water, but they could not cut through the layer of mist over the bay’s surface. Our family split up into two boats. While appointed rowers quietly transported, others tied up chicken legs with string. Once the dock became the size of my hand, we carefully but powerfully threw out the legs and listened to the distant thunks as they struck the water. Then we sat and waited, dark stones rocking back and forth, without a word or move lest we frightened off the easily spooked crustaceans with the echo of our voices or a knock against the wood.
Women pulled down on their skirts, men examined the leather on their shoes. Nowhere was it as bright as it was in there, during that time of repentance and prayer.
My maternal grandmother lived in Seabrook, Maryland, a town I fondly remember by the fishy smell and icy climate of a Korean grocery store where we ate red bean popsicles, the low metal fences bordering each house and the sidewalks that were so deeply and widely cracked we had to keep our heads down and watch our feet while walking. My mom never talked warmly about that town; there were too many robberies and assaults. She deplored the shabby character of the neighborhood, but my brother and I loved that place growing up. We watched rated R videos from our uncle’s VHS collection, attended jesa for our maternal grandfather and played with the sprinkler in the backyard where our grandmother diligently grew tongue-tickling kkaenip and brow-sweating gochu. We especially looked forward to the pre-dawn crabbing trips out on the Chesapeake Bay. Around three o’clock on a Saturday morning, my mom would shake my brother and me out of bed. Still mostly asleep, we dressed, brushed our teeth and crammed into an old caravan with our parents, grandmother, two aunts and two uncles. Being awake at such an early hour and squeezed into the back of a van, with heat building from mashed bodies and omnipresent humidity, induced wave after wave of nausea. I would sit, hunched over the large white bucket meant to hold caught crabs, dry heaving and tracking little starbursts in my periphery. It was impossible to try and catch some more sleep during the ride. My uncles and aunts were raucous, joking and drinking hot coffee from 7-11. The van would bump up and down as we made our way to the bay.
* * *
I recently attended Sunday service at the church I grew up in, after decades of exodus. Because of the growing number of congregants over the years, the church had built a brand-new campus half an hour away from the original sanctuary. The new campus was massive and modern, complete with enormous hundred-foot bay windows, tasteful stone exteriors and sparkling linoleum floors. Similar in ambience to a shopping mall or airport, the cavernous complex comfortably accommodated its three thousand churchgoers. There were separate sanctuaries for English speaking ministries and Korean speaking ministries, TVs broadcasting sermons in the lobbies for parents cradling crying infants, a stylish cafeteria selling espresso and kimbap, an enormous gym for kids playing volleyball and basketball and a fully staffed day care center. I attended service in the sanctuary for young English-speaking adults. The back wall of the sanctuary was a brilliant, Crest whitening strip shade of white and textured with small, undulating waves that gave the sense one was on a boat out at sea, or high up on a plane among the clouds. The space was beautiful. It was also discomforting. The overhead LED lighting shined down on us with an interrogating radiance, exposing every crease on every face, every grain in the wood of the smooth pews. Women pulled down on their skirts, men examined the leather on their shoes. Nowhere was it as bright as it was in there, during that time of repentance and prayer.
The church of my childhood was a small, white-brick building. The top floor held the single sanctuary and the dingy cafeteria-cum-gym was underneath. I grew up crawling under the pews, kicking up dust from the plum-colored carpeted floor. Every Sunday we sat with our parents as the reverend proclaimed the gospel to a packed house of recently arrived Koreans. The sermons, which tranquilized us children with their tedious and repetitive verses in a language we only half understood, nourished our parents not only with its message of salvation, but with its plodding and familiar mother tongue. The occasional Amens en masse punctuated the tonal rise and fall of the reverend’s preaching. My mom would pinch my father’s side whenever he began to nod off.
A large, plain wooden cross hung on the wall behind the reverend. The reverend was an older, soft-spoken man with wavy black hair and small, delicate features. His slightly stooped back and slow pace of speaking reminded me of a tortoise. When I saw him recently at a relative’s funeral, for the first time in twenty years, he softly took my hand and greeted me by my full Korean name and English name, telling me in his same slow manner that he was still praying for me.
As kids, my friends and I would sneak into the sanctuary after service to play tag and hide-and-seek in the dark. The thick, drawn curtains blocked out most of the sun, but thin slices of light would peek through gaps here and there and reflect off the polished brass candle holders behind the podium. The reflected light would blind us at random moments as we ran away from each other. Although we could have run around in the gym downstairs, we always preferred the dark, stale sanctuary. The quiet, drawn-in atmosphere of the room was alluring, mysterious. The smell of our parents lingered there; dust motes floated listlessly in the lines of light. The man named “yeh-su” hung in wooden agony as one of us counted to ten. The way the room both muffled and echoed our stomping feet and laughter afforded the illusion of absolute separateness from the rest of the world—from overworked, distant parents or abusive ones—and from the perpetually fragmenting self-awareness we were scraping together as not-quite-Koreans and not-quite-Americans.
* * *
This was before girls I knew would vomit in the car after an abortion, the shame refusing to come up in the heaving; before girls I knew brusquely narrated stories of assault and rape between sips of coffee; before misogyny became routine and mundane as toast in all of our lives.
One minute we were inside of the van rocking with thick laughter and heat and the next minute out on the water, where we were induced to silence and stillness. This was my favorite part of the trip: settling in with my family under a blanket of cold mist, unified for once in our anticipation of the catch. We were almost meditative: our breathing slowed, our postures straightened and our eyes focused on the little waves running in from the horizon. Crabs were sensitive, skittish. The chance to catch a crab demanded all of you. Although my brother and I were young, we never once felt the urge to fidget—the world conspired with us, in its pull to still us for the greater reward. We all sat and looked out across the gray expanse, the rowdy and boisterous behavior from before diminished into faint memory. Blue herons flew just above the water and fish broke the surface with their open-shut-open-shut maws. My grandmother would always pick up on the nibbling first. She would feel the tug in her hand and somehow she would always know that that tug was the right one, and not one from a stray fish or current. She continued to hold the string between thumb and pointer with such caution and delicacy; the string was a baby bird’s neck, a keen open blade, a precious life. Her eyes skimmed out to a spot on the water. And then, ever so slowly, and only when she was ready, she began to reel in the string in excruciatingly smooth segments. And here was when the stretches of time became delicious—because of the unknown events occurring beneath the salty brown. Because I could have waited for eternity. At first, the opaque water was dark and fungal, but in the next moment, a phantom appeared—a mere shape that seemed only imagined. While your brain attempted to catch up to your eyes, it was and was becoming. Then suddenly there it was, as real as the wood we were floating in: a crusty brown alien latched to a chicken leg that was softened and disintegrating in the saltwater. The possibilities of what the water held and offered was something to be relished, cherished. While my grandmother eased the crab closer to the boat, my aunt or uncle quietly took hold of the large green net. As the crab continued to attend to the abundance in front of him, the net became merely a hanging bough of a tree for a suspended moment. We held our breaths in unison, our world hushed and sealed off from any other existence. Then in one quick exhalation, the bough transformed into a predatory bird, broke the surface of the water and scooped the crab and chicken into its gullet. Salty droplets freckled my face and arms, some landing on my lips so I would taste the same salt as the crab had. The disoriented crab instinctively gripped onto the green net and its tiny mouth emitted small bubbles of air, creating a mask of froth. We tossed our haul into the same big white bucket my head was hovering over just a moment ago. His chepelids tapped against the bucket and from his foaming mouth came a hissing sibilance.
* * *
In eighth grade I walked out of Sunday service for the first time. Reverend Lee was our youth group’s new leader. He had a pale, hairless face, wire-rimmed glasses and a perfect, straight part down the center of his hair. He would pace restlessly from end to end of the stage with his microphone, the serpentine cord never once entangling his feet. Like everyone else, I submerged into daydreams during his sermons. After innumerable days of hide-and-seek, after thousands of verses and prayers and Amens, all sermons melded into one sermon, so worn that no deeper mark could be made. We now fidgeted in our seats more than ever before since pubescence was budding in bodies that were no longer familiar. It was not home anymore. Looks were hooded; laughter was crafted. We were now painfully conscious of acting out a script of which we knew very little. But we knew it existed all the same. We knew with certainty that we had to play it out. During that particular service, I wore a sleeveless knee-length black dress with tiny periwinkle blue flowers. I remember picking at the stitched buds on the skirt hem when my ears caught something from the podium. I don’t remember what first caught my attention, but as I broke through my reverie and attuned my ears to his speech, I heard Reverend Lee talk about something I had never heard anyone talk about up on that stage before. I thought I had misheard. He was yelling about how we women must remain vigilant and steadfast—that if we went down the path of sexual immorality we would be faced with pregnancy and the sin of abortion, the path to assured damnation. I looked around, discreetly at first, seeing if anyone else was splintering like I was. Everyone I saw was facing forward, motionless—you could barely tell they were breathing. The story Reverend Lee was fingering on us, while his spittle landed on the first row, bled through my brain and out my nostrils. If I didn’t leave the room soon, I was going to rip my dress and scream so hard my mouth would split open. I could not articulate why my body shook so. This was before girls I knew would vomit in the car after an abortion, the shame refusing to come up in the heaving; before girls I knew brusquely narrated stories of assault and rape between sips of coffee; before misogyny became routine and mundane as toast in all of our lives. That Sunday, a hand from the depths simply tugged an unnamable, soft bit of me and drew out salted blood.
I got up, walked to the back of the room and turned around at the entrance, yearning to spot just a hint of opposition, any lick of discomfort, a slight cough or questioning tilt of the head. I waited with my hands at my sides, holding my breath and praying for something—anything—to break the surface. But nothing came forth; the lake of bodies remained still and silent and unresistant. I hurried to the bathroom and looked at my pale, hairless face. No one else was in the bathroom hunched and seething in front of the mirror, trying to make themselves clean and whole again. No one was stifling a jaw-breaking scream. Everyone was dead and burning in their seats.
* * *
When we brought the catch back to my grandmother’s house, my youngest uncle placed a cutting board on the kitchen counter right next to the stove. A large, dark blue pot rested above the stove light. The white bucket was on the floor next to his feet. He swiftly selected a crab, laid it on its back on the cutting board and stabbed it right in the center of its stomach, above the apron. The blade was small but very sharp. He was precise. As I watched, some stopped moving almost immediately, while others continued to slowly wave their claws. I imagined if I leaned down close enough to their mouths, I could hear their faint, salty gasps. My uncle then tossed the crab into the pot. I stood very still at the kitchen’s entrance behind him, my back to the raspy newspaper being laid out on the dinner table like new linen. My face, colored by the dim yellow of the kitchen light, observed the killing without expression. Once they were all in the pot, my uncle turned the heat all the way up and left the kitchen. Did I continue to hear the tiny clinking of claws against the sides of the pot? I strained to hear it. I hovered over the pot, wanting to lift the lid, wanting not to lift the lid. I would relent every time, lifting the pot by its handle just a bit and peering into the darkness and heat to try and see if there were any signs of struggling persistence, any waving or skittering, any bubbles frothing from orifices.
When the crabs were done, they were piled into a red orange heap at the center of the newspaper-covered table. Nutcrackers, little steel forks and wooden mallets were scattered about for shared use. My brother and I watched and replicated how to open up a crab correctly. My grandmother and mother always got the most meat from the bodies as they had the nimblest fingers and quietest hands. I flipped the crab on its back and opened and removed the apron; then with thumb and pointer, I pried the shell off the rest of the body, uncovering the meat and organs. I used the utensils to crack open the legs and claws and either pulled or sucked out the meat. Our fingers were marred by cuts made from the sharp bits of broken shell. We sprinkled Old Bay seasoning over the precious white clumps, sucking our teeth and then ignoring the stinging when the Old Bay made contact with the open wounds on our hands. My lips would swell and sting too. The only sounds during the meal were the splintering of shell and the slurping of flesh. None of the darkness that had held me during the crabs’ slow death in heat remained over the breaking of fast.
Helen Park’s work appears in The Flexible Persona, Sleet Magazine, Inertia Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Cactus Heart Press, Hamilton Stone Review, Eclectica Magazine, Visitant Lit, the Asian American Female Anthology, Yellow as Turmeric; Fragrant as Cloves (Deep Bowl Press, 2008), and others. Read more about her work at https://helenparkprose.wordpress.com/
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
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.
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.
* * *
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.
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 Books, Narrative, Vela, Terrain, 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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