You asked me how it felt, my belly swollen with cramps and emptiness. Those were the cold-spark days when winter kept us huddled in bed. You were worried about how much pain I was in, but I had no answer to give that didn’t end in blood, so I turned my head due west and pondered the slice of sky framed in the window [. . .]
When I checked the clock again it was 5:16 a.m. I would get up in less than an hour. And I would have to stay alive until O, our five-year-old, was eighteen. When you don’t want to live another day, thirteen years is an impossible amount of time to fathom. In the half-light, simple math and insomniac logic can lead to infinity. [. . .]
You are with your parents when you first meet him. You are on vacation, a spring break trip to a big city you are going to live near next year. You are seventeen, and certainly, you look it, if not younger [. . .]
Almost every night now, I cauterize my jaws shut. Our melancholy, this weight—as Ginsberg once put it, this love—grinding and pressurizing my teeth into dust.[…]
Each time a new friend was in treatment, I held my breath waiting for results of follow-up scans, my entire body exhaling when results were positive. As in negative. As in clear.[…]
You get to re-live childhood again if you have children, a kind of a do-over, the opportunity to
create the kind of childhood you had and loved, or, even more seductive, the chance to create
the childhood you never had and missed your whole life.[…]
Well, it looks as though you have three choices. You can go to him as he orders; you can refuse,
be whipped, and then have him take you by force; or you can run away again.[…]
Mama tilts the cup to the side, rolls it around, examines each line, dot, drop. They look like black, crusty Jackson Pollock paintings. She doesn’t take it too seriously.
“Ah, habibti, it’s a man in a hat. You’ll meet him soon, and he will be very important to you,” she says to my friend Danielle.
I ask my mom to read my cup next, and she shakes her head, says no because I actually believe in it.
She says, “We’re Christians. We don’t believe in this stuff,” as she peers into the cup.
She doesn’t trust that my faith is strong enough and worries about my intrigue with the unknown. She’s suspicious of my love of astrology, tarot, and ghosts. Once, in eighth grade, she discovered that my friends and I bought a Ouija board, and she stormed into my room in the middle of the night to find it. She took it to her room and covered it with two bibles.
When we arrive at the psychic’s house, it’s tiny, and a swarm of feral cats are wandering in and around her doorway. She’s very poor –the kind of place people imagine when they see documentaries about the Middle East.
“You’ve cursed this house! You’ve cursed this family!” she shouted.
More than suspicious, she prays for my soul daily. Mama just does it for fun. Everyone in Jordan does it—a party trick. They believe it’s forbidden, harram, but they’ll excuse it for its lightheartedness. Something the girls do when they come over in the morning for coffee, where they’ll serve it with something sweet, a date cookie, perhaps fruit too. This man in a hat turns out to be Danielle’s first fiancé.
* * *
I believe it because my cousin Christine’s aunt says she does it for fun but really doesn’t. Seven years ago, she read Christine’s mom’s cup and predicted that Christine’s mom would get sick, Christine would find love, and there would be two deaths in the family; one an older man, and one would be a young girl. That year, Christine’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Christine fell in love with a man who’d cheat on her two years into their relationship. He would later become a born-again Christian and meet his wife in church. It was also the year Dounia died. She was eight. George and I were the last ones to leave her grave; we just stared as they dumped gravel on the small, white, casket, while her mother kept praying for her daughter to find peace.
“Allah yerhamek, Mama,” she said, until all you could see was dirt.
I can’t remember the old man.
* * *
My cousin Riham and I visit a psychic named Um Ahmad during my last visit to Jordan. Um Ahmad meaning “mother of Ahmad,” her first-born son. All mothers go by the name of their first-born son, unless, of course, they have no son at all. We drive to the outer edges of Amman. Riham’s mom’s friend gives Aunty directions and raves about how accurate Um Ahmad is and how she’s been seeing her for over a year now. She predicted her new job, and if all goes according to plan, this year (this very year) will be when she meets her future husband. She’s just had her lips done and they’re swollen and bruised. Riham and I can’t stop giggling at her. When we arrive at the psychic’s house, it’s tiny, and a swarm of feral cats are wandering in and around her doorway. She’s very poor—the kind of place people imagine when they see documentaries about the Middle East.
“If she’s so good, why can’t she afford a better place?” my brother whispers.
I tell him that sometimes the gift is the price. She uses the masbahah to focus, moving the beads one and then two at a time with her thumb, and prays to Muhammad. She tells my brother, Aunty, and her friend to drink their coffee and she’ll read it afterwards. They all decline. They don’t trust the cleanliness of the cup.
* * *
Anytime I had a stomach ache, I’d be doubled over in a praying position because it was the only position that would alleviate the pain. I’d moan and wail in fits of seven-year-old theatrics. My mom humored me and allowed me to be dramatic, babying me all the way through with back rubs and sympathetic “I know, habibti.” Eventually, she would bring the orange blossom water, the mazahir, and pour a tablespoon.
“Drink this, and you’ll feel better,” she’d coo.
I’d slurp the spoonful and within twenty minutes I’d be in the toilet (or the sink, or the trash, or on the floor, or the wall, once even on the ceiling) throwing up everything.
Teary-eyed, I’d shout, “I’m never listening to you again!”
Even though I knew what was to come, I didn’t actually stop listening to her about the mazahir until years later.
“Habibti, now that you threw up, you’re going to feel so much better. Just wait, shoofee.”
I did always feel better. But, even now, I always associate the smell with sweaty pajamas and vomit.
* * *
My friend is Palestinian, and she said instead of the orange blossom water, her dad would rub arak on her stomach. Arak is a powerful Levantine stronger-than-vodka-proof alcohol that smells like licorice. Just the smell would be enough to elicit the same reaction the orange blossom did. I can bet this is exactly why it was so effective. My grandfather liked to have some to sip on when there was company over, or when he ate fish. The elders of the family especially enjoyed it on Easter. At church, everyone would break their Lent fast after liturgy with meat, chocolate, pies, cigarettes, booze, or anything else they abstained from for God. He also loved whiskey. Sometimes when we went out in Jordan, he’d bring a flask. He’d call it his “honey.” We visited Um Qais, the lake where Jesus walked on water, and Jido would sip from his flask, and say, “Thanks, Jesus, for honey! I can walk on water too!”
He also took it with him when we went on picnics. Occasionally, my brother, mom, aunt, grandparents, and my dad, if he happened to be in Jordan at the time, would drive and hike up the mountains for a picnic. Teta made black tea in a kettle over the fire, while Jido drank his “honey.” During one of our picnics, another boy, most likely a poor orphan, was also wandering the mountains. He began to sing an old folk song in Arabic. I didn’t know what his words meant, but his voice was velvety and rich with nostalgia. My grandfather’s eyes watered.
“Don’t stop, young one. Keep going,” he urged.
Jido wept. Velvet voice? No. The boy’s voice was honey.
* * *
It grew like weeds, straight through the cracks in our patio, right at the door. It was our own personal jungle of mint in our backyard. On summer nights, we’d invite my mom’s sister and my cousins, who lived next door, for tea. We would turn on the Christmas lights we’d draped around the patio and gather outside while we played Umm Kalthoum. Umm Kalthoum was an iconic Egyptian singer whose songs would famously last an hour each. My uncle told us that when she was having a concert, the shops would close early, and everyone would go home to watch her perform on TV. Umm Kalthoum was reserved for the night time, while Fairouz’s voice was one to rise to. My mom would have me pluck the mint for the tea that we all enjoyed outside. It was our way of replicating Jordanian nights in the Midwest.
* * *
Teta had mint leaves growing in her yard too. And parsley, cilantro, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, mloukheya, oregano, boysenberries, pears, lemons, and a whole collection of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. She had a green thumb unlike any other. For her, life was about nature, herself, and God. My grandmother’s faith was strong enough to refuse locking her doors for four decades. People say I resemble her in the way that we act boldly and abruptly with the unwavering belief that God favors us. We would make tea and sit at the table with the deep purple table cloth, beneath the tree in her front yard. During the spring and summer months, she would close her eyes and enjoy the breeze as she held the cup to her lips.
I don’t know how to cook, so I make sure to add plenty of garlic, because it fixes anything. The chicken was dry. I’m paranoid about salmonella. I scrub everything down with bleach three times and my hands smell like it for the next two days.
When I told her I’d met a boy I really liked, she said, “Mmm, be careful. All men in the military have hepatitis.”
And that was that. She had been widowed over forty years. Teta tells me that after Jido died, she ran the grocery store/butchery alone. A man would come every so often to buy cigarettes and asked my uncle if he could take my grandma on a date.
“Ask her yourself,” my uncle responded.
Teta told the man to bring her a bible, which he did on his following visit to the store.
“Let me keep this for a couple days,” she told him.
The next time he came, she had his bible ready for him. She highlighted some verses for him and denied him a date. She asked him not to ask again, and to shop elsewhere.
“A few months later, he came back. He said that he was a recovering alcoholic and the verses inspired him to stop drinking. He said I was a good woman. Then I never saw him again,” she says solemnly.
Teta came to America with nothing, yet she did everything. She sipped her tea. Teta didn’t need anyone but God.
* * *
Jido, my grandfather, would always get my brother and I apricots and chocolate and strawberry milk on his way back from work in Irbid. We’d visit Jordan some summers and he always made sure to have them stashed for us.
“Did you see the mish mish and haleeb? Make sure you finish it, so I can get more for you tomorrow,” he’d say.
We’d drink the milk through the straw and inhale it in forty seconds, then we’d split the apricots in half, throw away the seeds, and devour them.
Teta told us we could plant the seeds in the backyard.
“Bring everything outside. Let’s sit on the veranda,” she said.
In the back was a cement path with rose bushes and flowers on either side, and beyond the gate was a dust road that resembled nothing of the small desert paradise within their yard. We’d migrate beneath the grape leaves, and the grapes hanging would always be too tart and sour. I never had a ripe one any summer I went.
* * *
In Indiana, I’d sit outside on summer mornings where I didn’t have to go to work until the afternoon. The sun wouldn’t be as hot yet, and there was refuge beneath the leaves of the tree in the backyard. I’d make a cup of Nescafé, and bring a fresh plate of fruit with me, as I read Women Who Run with the Wolves and journaled. My brother might come down before I had to get ready for work to tan. I was with him in Barcelona when we had an apricot stuffed with cheese (Was it Manchego?) and honey. Revolutionary. He loved not living in Indiana. He even loved his host family more. I can’t remember a time when my brother has told me he loves me first. I know he does though because I got lost at the movie theater when we were kids seeing Madagascar for the second time. I moved to the front of the theater and, eventually, I turned around and saw the empty row my family was sitting in and then I headed towards the exit. When I opened the door, my brother was there with an employee, his face red and contorted, “Nicole, where were you? Mama called the police!” he cried.
He moved to California a couple years later during his gap year after college; all he does now is tan, work at Ross, and hurt my parents’ feelings.
* * *
Teta sends Baba home with a box of garlic, and when I visit her the next day, I see there are still two other baskets filled with garlic. I comment on how much she has.
“I know. I’m planning to start growing them. I just peeled some and gave it to your dad.”
She serves me a cup of cinnamon tea with walnuts, as I sit in the fluffy chair next to her usual spot. The chair looks out of place, but then again, so does much of her decor that she buys from Goodwill. I tell her about having to go to court in Chicago for driving with an expired license plate and not having my proof of insurance. She asks who I went to Chicago with when I got in trouble, and I tell her I went to a show with my boyfriend Rico. She turns it into a sermon about how one decision can change your life forever. She alludes to my dad’s estranged first daughter. She never says it. I let her talk.
“Thank you for telling me things. It means so much to me. Don’t stop. I only say things because I love you,” she says.
“If I didn’t tell you, I’d be putting a Band-Aid on an injury, and it would be infected. My words are the rubbing alcohol that stings but cleans.”
She begins talking about her fraudulent lawyers and everyone else who’s out to swindle her. One of her tenants called the cops on her for pushing his daughter, but I pretend I don’t know. I let her talk and explain the soap opera she’s watching. There’s always someone out to get my grandmother.
* * *
I don’t know how to cook, so I make sure to add plenty of garlic, because it fixes anything. The chicken is dry. I’m paranoid about salmonella. I scrub everything down with bleach three times and my hands smell like it for the next two days. My mom and my grandmas are all excellent cooks, and they all somehow instinctively know how much seasoning to put in. They never use measuring cups as if it’s God that tells them when to cool it with the cardamom.
My mom is listening to Joel Osteen as she cooks. We were all baptized Orthodox, but we stopped going to the church that all the other Christian Arabs go to when I was still a kid. We quit it because my parents felt it was too much about the ritual of faith rather than the god of the faith. I agree, but I also hate Joel Osteen. I’m watching her, and she tells me to grab the garlic from the pantry.
“Put it in Tupperware and shake it,” she instructs me.
I shake it like a maraca, and it peels itself. My dad gets home from work and he’s already eaten. Junk. His diabetes is through the roof. Teta blames my mom, as if it’s just my dad, and not all her kids who have it. Mama warns me to marry someone who loves me more than he loves his mother.
* * *
Whenever a baby has their first teething, Arabs throw a huge party and invite everyone over. This gathering is called the Snowneeya, meant to celebrate that first tooth, and everyone gathers to eat berbara. It has a consistency almost like pudding and is made with spices like anise, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and it is topped with things like coconut, walnuts, and candy-coated fennel seeds, then more cinnamon on the top. When the first boy is born, there’s another huge party to celebrate that the family now has someone to carry the name. Not just the last name. Every child would carry their dad’s first name as their middle name, so you could trace their lineage to the very beginning through the name of the father, just like when the Bible introduces Jesus for the first time. Yes, boys are a big deal.
* * *
A dash of cinnamon goes into nearly every dish. Nutmeg and allspice too. I ask my mom what they season the meat in grape leaves with.
“Arabic spices,” she answers.
“That’s vague, can you be more specific?”
She buys the seasoning pre-made in Jordan, or my grandma sends it with my grandpa or my aunt when they visit us in America from overseas. I went with her to the spice shop in Jordan once, where it smelled of cloves and was lined with wooden barrels filled with nuts and a museum of spices that encompassed every color of the color wheel.
My cousins and I help roll the grape leaves. There’s a technique to it, and I don’t nail it until I’m almost out of grape leaves to roll. My uncle tells us how he’s so proud of us and snaps a picture to send to the family group chat. That’s one of the only times my dad says it too—as I’m learning how to cook. He glows.
“Habibet albi! Love of my heart! Learning how to cook!” he says.
He sees it as me growing into my womanhood, and he beams.
When I first got my period, my mom made a big deal out of it. She sent me with my older cousin, and we got our nails done and went to dinner. She sees it as me growing into my womanhood, and she beams. My dad looks disappointed. He’s afraid of what happens when a girl grows into her womanhood. But are either of these things what make me a woman?
* * *
Roses and oud. Staples of every perfume I’ve smelled between my aunts, my mom, and my grandmother. My grandmother is more of a rose and jasmine type of woman. I feel like a stereotypical Arab woman when I wear some fragrances and I chock it up to something in our chemistry. Maybe something that reminds us of home. Perhaps the pink roses in my grandmothers’ gardens. Both of them. My mother’s pashminas smell of rose and their soft smell lingers on them through the winter. It is my favorite perfume, and when I wear her scarf, my boyfriend says it smells like me. I must be my mother’s daughter.
* * *
Knafeh, warbat, awamat, qatayif—all sweets that wouldn’t be sweet without either a drizzle or a drowning of rose water syrup. We rarely have sweets at the house because they take too long to make and because my father is diabetic with no self-control. When I visit Detroit with Rico, my mother sends me a grocery list and a hefty request of items from the famous Middle Eastern bakery in Dearborn, Shatila. Rico waits in the car while I go inside. The place is buzzing with people; it reminds me of Wall Street, the way everyone is lined at the cases of sweets and shouting what they want at the employees. Another customer, about the age of my father, asks me where I’m from in Arabic, and introduces himself; I forget his name. He asks about my tattoo that’s written in Arabic script. He lives in either Columbus or near Chicago and asks where I live.
“I am always there to help if you ever need anything,” he says to me.
Sometimes Arabs are especially nice to other Arabs. He doesn’t talk to anyone else inside the bakery except his son and the employee taking his order. My midriff is showing, amidst women dressed conservatively. I doubt it’s because we’re both Arab.
* * *
My maternal grandmother is a beauty queen. She’s barely aged and hasn’t seen the sun in over thirty years. She’s the type to carry around an umbrella to block the sun and wear floppy hats, but I suspect the expensive eye creams that line her vanity help. She is much different than my dad’s mom, who was raised humbly in a small village in Jordan. That Teta talks to herself, doesn’t wear shoes, and hasn’t slept in a bed since the eighties. This Teta is a diva who wanted to major in English and always keeps a coral lipstick handy. Teta tells me that rose oil is good for my skin, and luckily, I can afford rose oil. At home, I boil the rosebuds in water, and put them in a mesh holder as if I were making a tea. I strain and refrigerate it—add it to the beauty regiment as a toner and use rosehip oil as my moisturizer. I’ll learn how to age gracefully like my grandmother, but I’ll never insist on dodging the sun. I let the oil seep into my skin, while I read Rumi. He writes, “What was said to the rose to make it open was said here in my heart.” I open. I write this. I write without a responsibility to anyone but myself and God. I create, and I see this as my growing into my womanhood. Somehow, it feels lighter.
Special Guest Judge, Terry Wolverton:
“Secret Ingredients” uses an inventive structure to explore themes of culture, diaspora, family and gender expectations. By focusing on traditional foods, the author brings us into the intimate customs and rituals of this Jordanian family living in the U.S., what is preserved of the homeland and what shifts, morphs, or is left behind altogether. The essayist makes her larger points without ever growing didactic; rather, she allows the reader to discover them in the tastes and smells, the activities within the family kitchen.
—Terry Wolverton is author of eleven books of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, including Embers, a novel in poems, and Insurgent Muse: art and life at the Woman’s Building, a memoir. Her most recent poetry collection is Ruin Porn. She has edited fourteen literary compilations, including the Lambda Literary Award winning His: brilliant new fiction by gay men and Hers: brilliant new fiction by lesbians. Terry also collaborated with composer David Ornette Cherry to adapt Embers as a jazz opera.
Terry has received a COLA Fellowship from the City of Los Angeles, a Fellowship in Poetry from the California Arts Council, and the Judy Grahn Award from the Publishing Triangle, among other honors. She is the founder of Writers At Work, a creative writing studio in Los Angeles, and affiliate faculty in the MFA Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles. http://terrywolverton.com
Nicole Nimri is a Jordanian-American writer hailing from the Midwest. She received her bachelors in creative writing from IUPUI. This is her first published essay.
Despite my protests, neither my mother nor my father will concede the point. I was not, according to them, in my right mind when I called from a hospital bed at Ajou University Hospital. They detected something. An aberrance. Like an incoherence of speech, or a delirious register of voice. It’s only natural they would conclude that my memory of the episode is suspect. I was admitted to the hospital at Ajou University, a few blocks from my apartment in Suwon, with a preliminary diagnosis of viral meningitis. I spoke to my parents several times from my hospital bed, sounding—distressed; unglued? I was in a lot of pain. But I’m certain I was lucid. The pain no doubt hindered my capacity to speak in plain, clear sentences. The memories nonetheless are as clear as day—as clear as the taxi ride from Incheon International Airport; or the wide expanse of the Han River; or the heavy, stinging prick of the anesthetic needle in the Operating Room of Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital a few months prior.
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, the psychologist Daniel Gilbert expounds on the shortcomings of memory. The brain doesn’t preserve every bit of palpable information that comes to it through the senses. Memory isn’t stored in its entirety as neuro-electrical equivalents of the sights and tastes and so on of our past experiences. So why does it seem like it’s all there? Gilbert explains that memory has a way of filling in the gaps of experience. This is less a glitch than a practical adaptation, one that allows human beings to remember the past with remarkable coherence, if not complete accuracy. Without this basic mechanism, memory would be too patchy and muddled to be useful. The artifice makes the act of remembering relatively smooth and efficient, an important function in the spontaneous, sometimes dangerous contexts of human life. For the same reason, however, the details of memory are often flawed. This is especially true of remembered feelings—details related to emotions and subjective experiences. It is the basic predicament of memory that its coherence goes hand in hand with its unreliability.
Much later, when I recall this scene in writing, I will want to sympathize with her. I will want to write—the nursing profession seems taxing and thankless and I genuinely admire the dedication of anyone who undertakes it. But here, in the crowded space behind the ER, my sympathy finds no channel to pass through.
The predicament of memory makes the writing of memoir especially hazardous. If your life is a story you tell yourself about yourself, then it is not a reliable one. There are plenty of things that can be recalled with accuracy: names; dates; even some dialogue. But experience is another matter. What does it mean to remember something that was felt vividly at the time, in a condition of sound mind, if not sound body? To recall it as if it were happening once more? Memoir isn’t reportage. The writer doesn’t take notes or speak into a voice recorder for playback later. It is remembered. And the past can never be made whole again. As Gilbert notes, to remember an experience with absolute accuracy would mean having to replay it in your head in real time, which would effectively paralyze us. We’d be stuck endlessly replaying memories and never attending to the present. Instead, we remember the gist, the essence, the bullet points, the threads that help us survive better. Memoir, wherein the past is distilled in language, is as much a process of deformation as revelation. It can only ever recall a past that is out of focus and extinct, and meditate in the present (that other perilous zone) where time slows down and hardens into some willful meaning. Therefore, it must be conceded in advance and without evasion that, as memory goes, the course of memoir will be more than a little—dishonest.
I’m certain of at least one thing—all of the events will unfold and come close to being resolved within the span of seven days. It was Friday when I first noticed a dull pain in the node of my left armpit. Saturday, the fever picked up steam and dehydration set in. Sunday, I began to notice a deep ache in my right abdomen. Monday night, I was admitted to Ajou University Hospital. It will be Friday again when the headache finally subsides.
It’s late Monday night. It’s early Tuesday morning. It feels like Monday night. There are no vacant beds upstairs. I will remain in the ER ward tonight, or rather this morning. It’s just past midnight. I drift into a fitful half-sleep. When I wake, I’m lying crumpled on my left side. It can’t have been more than an hour. A nurse must have started an IV drip. And I changed into hospital clothes at some point. When I look down at the IV, I can see red running through the line. The blood is backing up. I don’t know for how long. When I roll onto my back, a red stain is revealed to cover most of the left side of my shirt. The sight of the large red smear startles me. I lift the gown to check my torso—no apparent rips or slits in the flesh—then carefully wheel the IV pole to the nurses’ station. I wave to one of them and direct her attention to the dark red seeping into the fabric of the shirt. She draws a small, quick breath. I point to the IV in my arm. She seems to register what has happened. In fact, she seems a little irritated, as if to suggest that the ruined shirt was the result of my carelessness. Her impatience irks me, and I in turn become irritated. I shake my head and hold up both hands, indicating something like—how’s this my fault? We talk over each other in our respective languages. I unbutton my top, and she hands me a new one. Much later, when I recall this scene in writing, I will want to sympathize with her. I will want to write—the nursing profession seems taxing and thankless and I genuinely admire the dedication of anyone who undertakes it. But here, in the crowded space behind the ER, my sympathy finds no channel to pass through. I don’t see the nurse standing in front of me holding a bloody shirt. I only see an obstacle frustrating my expectations—I’m the patient; this isn’t my fault; it’s your job to help me and so on. I can’t know what she sees standing in front of her—a frightened patient; an inconsiderate lout; one more in an endless series of interruptions; or someone in distress. I don’t know enough Korean to ask her what she’s feeling. I can only guess. And she wouldn’t be able to answer me in English. And anyways there’s no time and a million other things to do. It really is an admirable profession. I shuffle back to my bed buttoning the smear-less shirt as I go.
It’s Tuesday morning. The headache, which will continue unbroken for the next three days, wakes me up. A man is leaning over my bed—a specialist from Infectious Diseases. He informs me that the most recent blood work indicates a serious illness. My head pounds up and down like a parabola. I ask him for something to ease the pain. I mistakenly assume that, lying inert on a hospital bed behind the ER, the drugs will come straightaway. They do not. In the days to follow I will make numerous requests for pain medication. My requests will be rebuffed with halting English and untranslated Korean. By degrees I will become paranoid and desperate. I’ll convince myself that the nurses and doctors are spitefully withholding the drugs that could otherwise mute this damn racket in my head like a damned TV that lands on static with the volume maxed out. Their repeated instructions to take Extra Strength Tylenol will be met with exasperation and impatience and more than a few sniveling protests meant to indicate something like—are you goddamn kidding me? What I will repeatedly fail to consider is the possibility that no medication can assuage the headache caused by meningitis.
Meningitis is an infection of the membranes, called meninges, that surround the brain and spinal cord. There are different types of meningitis, each defined by its underlying cause. Bacterial meningitis is extremely serious. Even with treatment, the mortality rate in adults is 19-37%. Viral meningitis, on the other hand, rarely causes death and typically resolves on its own. It will be weeks before I read about this on Wikipedia. For now, I’m mostly in the dark. My doctor seems confident that I have viral meningitis. I trust him. The aggressive, infectious agents in which he specializes do not bespeak his manner, which is one of unaffected regard. But he won’t be able to make a definitive diagnosis until my spinal fluid is examined. In two days, a young resident will extract the fluid with a spinal needle, a procedure known as a lumbar puncture or, more commonly, a spinal tap. The specialist says the lumbar puncture will involve “some amount of pain.” Something to look forward to, eh? No one responds to my mocking, rhetorical question because I’m speaking only to myself inside my pounding head.
A single-occupancy room is open on the eighth floor. No other rooms will be available for two days. A single room is not covered by insurance, but there’s no room in my head to worry about that now. Despite my very private and very expensive room, I won’t be able to sleep because of the headache. They say severe to describe the pain; they say the pain associated with the headache as if it were a business partnership. These descriptors are stupidly inert. They impart a technical designation. The classic 1-10 pain scale, another impotent gauge, is replaced with oblique words like mild, moderate, and severe. In the face of a real, honest-to-god pain that you never would have imagined (because no person in their right mind would), the numbers and words lose whatever substance they might have had in ordinary life. Perhaps someday far removed from this moment I’ll feel grateful. The ordeal will prove to be a test of character, and I’ll come out the other side stronger—or something like that. In the midst of its unfolding, however, I am not grateful. I’m ill-tempered, defensive, misanthropic. I recoil from words of consolation. And who gives a damn about personal growth anyway? Or the condition of my liver and kidneys, which could be damaged by the overuse of certain medications that nonetheless reduce the fever and diminish, by just a hair, the headache, and I’ll take a hair. I’ll take anything. My liver and kidneys can shrivel and rot as far as I’m concerned. I’ll get new kidneys. And my liver will grow back. But I swear to god this throbbing is going to blow my cranium wide open, and goddammit if the gooey insides won’t make a perfect mess of my very expensive room. When a doctor or nurse drops in and asks me to indicate my level of pain, I have no recourse to any meaningful response. Just grab hold of the sheets and make a fist as tight as you can and ride it out. They look puzzled standing over me unable to quantify what they’ve observed. For a second, I take comfort in the thought of them standing at the foot of my bed, covered from head to waist in the clumps and shards of brain matter and skull.
I am sitting upright in bed. The door has been left open a crack. The opening forms a cleft through which the hallway light cuts down my face in a vertical dash. The light falls over one or the other of my eyes. I could close the door, but that would mean getting up. Getting up is a problem. The headache falls loud and heavy like a factory machine; its pounding coincides with the blood propelled by the pounding of my heart. If my heart stopped beating then my head would stop beating. The beating feels like what a heart attack might feel like—too much blood trying to squeeze through too small a vessel. I press my fingers to my temples. Trying to open something up in there. Nothing opens. But it’s better to keep pressing because the movement of my fingers is a diversion, a way of forgetting, if only for a second or two. I keep pressing and the pressing is a rhythm and I sigh after every seventh or eighth beat and the sighing is a rhythm and soon there’s a whole chorus of noiseless effects. These details—the door and the rhythms and the light—will one day seem like a sterile cloud, devoid of that potent agony of the present moment.
I will continue to not eat, save for some homemade yogurt one of the teachers from my school brings me. They will eventually have to start a nutrition IV and weigh me every few hours. And that’s how it will go for the next few days. Everyone will continue urging me to eat. But they don’t get it. And I don’t get how they don’t get it. And none of us will get it.
Movement, at the moment, presents a dilemma. It amplifies the pounding. But it is necessary—to avoid getting sore; to go to the bathroom; to change the cold wet rag against my forehead. The pounding arouses a keen awareness of movement. Not movement in a hypothetical sense, but the singularity of each and every movement. The pounding thus encourages a kind of kinesthetic efficiency. Even a few inches registers like forty dump trucks driving off a four-mile cliff, hitting the ground and getting reduced to a fine metallic dust. The relationship between pounding and movement is exponential—if movement were graphed horizontally and pounding graphed vertically, then a point less than one horizontal value would shoot straight up. Walking to the bathroom involves the longest and most dramatic movement. It’s so big and sustained that the pounding registers beyond any threshold of pain. For a second, it actually ebbs. And, so, going to the bathroom offers a tiny respite, a relief more acute than that of emptying the bladder. The insane pounding nullifies itself on the way to the bathroom. But because movement halts at the toilet, the pounding slows just enough to register below that neutralizing point as a sustained, concrete pain. Urinate with eyes closed. Walk back to bed. The pounding is neutered again. Get into bed. The worst of it comes when getting into bed. Unspeakable really. The pounding will slow in the morning. It’s morning now because it’s past midnight. It will slow when the sun comes up in seven hours. An hour of sleep, at most, will offer the only real break. Then it will be time to wake up and get looked over by all the people who mean to take care of me.
It’s Wednesday morning. Presently a young doctor will enter my room. She will sit in the chair next to my bed and ask me questions—about my pain; my symptoms; my condition in general. Finally, she will ask about the quality of my sleep:
– Did you sleep well?
– I didn’t sleep.
– How long did you sleep?
– Not at all.
– Maybe one hour.
– Are you sure?
– Not more than an hour and a half.
– I think you slept more than that.
– How can you be sure?
– I didn’t sleep.
It will go on like this for a few minutes until I fall silent. I won’t have an answer that satisfies her. I’ll even start to second guess myself. Wouldn’t the inflamed tissue surrounding my brain and spine affect my ability to accurately report the previous night’s sleep after all? Maybe the young doctor checked up on me during the night. Maybe she really does know better than I do.
Later, a hospital administrator will come to my room to inquire about my meals. Besides the headache, the other major symptom has been a persistent nausea—a weight on my abdomen that kills all appetite, gastric or otherwise. The headache and nausea of meningitis don’t amount to a cleansing sort of pain. They don’t clarify anything, like quitting coffee or fasting for a day might. They only blunt vitality and magnify every awful feeling, physical and mental, until any trace of cheerful confidence is scraped clean. The spirit, irradiated.
When lunch arrives, I’ll lift the metal lid from the tray to find a pile of pasta drenched in cream sauce. I’ll immediately cover the tray and put a hand to my mouth, heaving several times until nothing comes up. The administrator will arrive after lunch, the covered tray of food still sitting on a cart behind her as she addresses me:
– Do you not like the food here?
– I can’t eat.
– I will talk to the chef.
– I’m too sick to eat.
– We can change the menu.
– I’m throwing up an empty stomach all day.
– Would you like to try some Korean food?
– I can’t eat.
It will go on like this until a half-formed feeling fizzles inside me. A feeling of wanting to grab her and make her understand how I feel and shake her until she knows exactly how it is. Like I want to do to everyone who comes to see me. The empty stomach and the pounding head will preclude any action, or even quibbling, on my part. I will continue to not eat, save for some homemade yogurt one of the teachers from my school brings me. They will eventually have to start a nutrition IV and weigh me every few hours. And that’s how it will go for the next few days. Everyone will continue urging me to eat. But they don’t get it. And I don’t get how they don’t get it. And none of us will get it.
It’s late Wednesday night. It’s early Thursday morning. Mrs. H has come to stay with me for a few hours. She retrieves a small cloth from the wardrobe and soaks it in cold water under the bathroom faucet and leans on the edge of the bed to press it against my forehead. She stretches out on the short sofa against the far wall and falls asleep. I remain awake trying not to move. She wakes up and asks me if I’ve slept. When I tell her no, I haven’t, she takes the cloth from my forehead and goes into the bathroom to soak it in cold water again.
Mrs. H is a teacher at the elementary school where I work as an ESL instructor. We didn’t meet for the first time until almost a year after I had arrived in Korea. She’s in her early thirties and seems to be filled at all times with a vibrant and persuasive enthusiasm.
There’s a reason I didn’t meet Mrs. H until many months after arriving in Korea. During that time, she herself was a patient at Ajou University Hospital. I picked up the details of her illness in bits and pieces after she returned to work. I was never able to assemble a complete picture of what had happened to her. But I’m reasonably confident about the following: Mrs. H had an operation at Ajou University Hospital; there were post-op complications; the exact nature of the complications remains unclear, just that they were very serious; Mrs. H spent several months recovering, both in the hospital and at home. After I’m discharged, Mrs. H will describe her experience to me in some detail. She will tell me about the medication she was given every day, several times a day, to relieve her pain. She will describe the stabbing sensations that afflicted her whole abdomen day and night, as if her organs were simultaneously riven from the inside. She will convey the sense of the pain by miming the gnarled contortions to which her body succumbed. She will note how the effects of the medication disappeared after only a short while, leaving her in a fit of panicked anguish. She will tell me how she thought she was going to die and received visitors in a fog of misery and occasionally asked them will I die? in Korean. She will not mention how, or if, they responded.
I will wonder, many months after leaving the hospital, if it is useful, or even possible, to remember my experience of meningitis in any faithful way. Why would I even want to reconstruct so rigorously a painful memory like that?
It seems obvious to say that imagery is the most vivid form of memory. I can recall so many indefinite images—the AUH Emergency Room; the red-soaked shirt; the spinal needle; Mrs. H’s evanescent face—that collectively suggest an entire world. The other senses can usually be inferred from the images—the low hum of the fluorescent lights; the cold of the cotton bed sheets; the needle’s sting. For this same reason, imagery is also the most hazardous form of memory. Imagery seduces us into a facile belief that we have found a clear and definite route to the past. It makes the act of remembering accessible and, therefore, prone to error. Perhaps the more compelling provocateur of memory is smell. Smell perplexes because it cannot be conjured so freely and confidently as imagery. A forgotten smell has to be located again in a real encounter with the world, where it hits the individual unawares and throws him into a strange oblivion between past and present. And it evaporates in equally swift and furtive form—a whiff that rebuffs any attempt at expression. Smell does not seduce. It confronts the individual with a nagging suspicion that the past is only ever ephemeral and cannot be known again exactly as it was.
I straighten my legs and neck but do not sit up. The resident tells me I must remain horizontal for the next six hours. It’s not clear why. Perhaps I am liable to lose my balance and fall. A nurse places the call button in my hand. My head is pointed towards the foot of the bed. Other than the clock on the far wall, there is almost nothing to observe.
According to my parents I was a blue baby—an unnatural blue tinge colored most of my little newborn body. The cause was a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot that would eventually require open-heart surgery. The surgery was performed just before my first birthday. It was the only other time before moving to Korea that I had been hospitalized. Not a single trace of the surgery or recovery remains in my memory. I know it happened because there are other traces—the accounts of my mother and father and other relatives who were present at the time; the long scar running the length of my sternum and the two smaller scars just below it; the scar on the underside of my right wrist and the one above my right clavicle running over the carotid artery; a handful of photographs. There is ample evidence for me to consult, but no memories. Perhaps the past is so bewildering because it suggests a paradox. In one sense, the past is always with us; there is no way to completely separate oneself from what came before. In another sense, the past has nothing to do with us; it is, by definition, never present. Always gone. There is no perfect analogy for the past, no unadulterated version. Memory provides a connection, but a tenuous one and always flirting with oblivion. Even the same experience repeated—like another case of meningitis, perish the thought—would be different. The context, the surroundings, will have changed at the very least. The present feels like this. But the past was that—that open wound; that inflamed tissue; that pounding under the cheek or inside the skull in the membranes around the brain; that pain and anger. That and no other.
It’s Thursday morning. A resident will arrive shortly toting a bag of tools. He will insert a spinal needle into the middle of my back and extract fluid from my spine. The entire procedure will last about twenty minutes. Despite the unnerving image of a large needle puncturing my spine, I am looking forward to the procedure. It was something the specialist said to me not long after I was admitted: because a spinal tap draws fluid from around the inflamed tissue, the procedure can potentially relieve some of the pressure on the brain and diminish the headache.
At ten o’clock, the resident enters my room. He instructs me to lie down on my right side, pull my knees up to my chest, and scrunch my body into a ball. The position, appropriately fetal- like, helps to spread apart the vertebrae and make room for the insertion of the needle. He says it’s important to keep still throughout the procedure. It’s okay to yell if it hurts, just don’t move. The part about the yelling isn’t reassuring. When the needle goes in, a sudden sharp pain is followed by numbness. The needle stops at a precise spot, then continues, then stops again when it reaches the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord.
The fluid, which will be tested to confirm the initial diagnosis, is called cerebrospinal fluid. No one ever says lumbar puncture or spinal tap. They all just keep referring to CSF in that peculiar language, partial to acronyms, of hospital-speak. Once the resident has collected enough CSF, he places a bandage over the spot where the needle went in. I straighten my legs and neck but do not sit up. The resident tells me I must remain horizontal for the next six hours. It’s not clear why. Perhaps I am liable to lose my balance and fall. A nurse places the call button in my hand. My head is pointed towards the foot of the bed. Other than the clock on the far wall, there is almost nothing to observe.
Friday morning—one week has passed since I first felt the dull pain in my armpit. The headache has retreated. My appetite has returned. A couple of teachers from my school escort me to the basement floor where the food court is located. We pass a Burger King and end up at a little cafe called SANDRICH where one of them buys me a sandwich.
I have been in the hospital for four days and will remain for another three. Mrs. H’s sister, who works as a doctor here, has come to check on me every day and will continue to do so until I leave. We were introduced on Monday evening a few hours before I was admitted. On Wednesday, she came to my room to discuss something that she said had been weighing on her. It was her opinion that I should be transferred to the Neurology department so that I could be under the direct care of a neurologist. My doctor, the specialist of Infectious Diseases, seemed confident that I would recover on my own without complications. As far as I could tell, he saw no reason to move me to another department. Mrs. H’s sister never explicitly contradicted his judgment. But her concern for me suggested that she did not entirely agree with him. The situation is more delicate than it might seem. My doctor is technically her boss. And in Korea there is an unspoken, but rigid, protocol when it comes to the chain of command. In coming to me directly, Mrs. H’s sister had potentially subverted that protocol. She was taking a risk in going over the head of her superior. She did what she thought was right at the time. After I recover and am discharged, she will apologize to me for, as she put it, letting her emotions get the better of her. She seemed to feel that her personal connection to me, however thin, had clouded her judgment. After the apology, I will think to myself how unnecessary it is. Her actions were not unseemly but admirable.
The truth is Mrs. H’s sister had a good reason to be emotional at the time. It’s the same reason Mrs. H was at the hospital the night she slept on the couch in my room. Their father is a patient at Ajou University Hospital. That night he lay in the Oncology ward, just a few floors below my room, dying of cancer. I was aware of this fact at the time and insisted more than once that she go back to his room. But she declined. Perhaps she was glad to have an excuse to leave his room and forget the weight of her feelings, if only for an hour or two. Their father will pass away not long after I am discharged from AUH. I will attend the funeral with the principal and a handful of teachers from my school. In a large rented van, we will drive to Mrs. H’s hometown more than two hours from Suwon. It’s spring, so the air will be clear and cool. We’ll drive straight through the evening as the sun goes down. The light will strike the hills at shallow angles, and the steep hills of ash and pine and the road ahead of us and the tunnels, one after the next, propelling the van like a spring-loaded toy, will be washed in the pallid light of a nascent blossoming. At the service, I will want to offer Mrs. H and her sister some condolence, a word or an embrace to repay their generosity. I will want to say the right thing. Why is there always a trace of self-indulgence in sympathy? You almost feel more sorry for the sad guests, searching desperately for something meaningful to say, than the bereaved family. But why should anything be said? Nothing can fix the condition of death or the ruins it leaves behind. It’s as if the act of consoling, apparently directed at the grieving individual, reverses course and returns to the actor. Finally, it is himself he consoles, his own anxiety over the fact of death, so nakedly on display, a fact to which he and everyone else are obliged to witness. Blessed are those who have already passed. When the moment arrives, no words will come. I will stand with the other teachers facing the funeral display—the wreaths of flowers; the burning sticks of incense; the photo of the dead man—and offer my sympathy in silence.
Tyler Arndt was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. He graduated from the University of Washington, Seattle in 2005 with a bachelor’s in English literature. Since 2012, he has been working on a memoir of the years he spent teaching ESL in South Korea. In September 2015 Tyler stayed at the Vermont Studio Center as a resident in nonfiction writing. His writing has appeared in the Rappahannock Review. He lives in Seattle with his books.
* * *
I grew up in south Florida not too far from Cape Canaveral when the shuttle program was active in the eighties. The heady days of the space race were not yet a distant memory, and Reagan wanted to beat the Russians at star wars. I remember watching morning shuttle launches from my front yard, and I once saw a night launch from a friend’s back patio. It looked like a shooting star momentarily blazing with light, before disappearing into the clouds beyond human sight.
I rode with my parents to Columbia, South Carolina, the day before the competition. After arriving, we got a surprising call in our hotel room: my English teacher was there to attend the contest. I was mortified, but I tried to put her out of my mind. By getting to state, I had already proven that my speech “would fly.”
There was a buzz at my elementary school about the Challenger mission in 1986. It was to be a late morning launch, and everyone in my grade was going outside to view it from our playground field. Even more exciting was the plan for us to take science classes (from outer space!) with Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to join a shuttle mission. Sadly, those lessons never occurred. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, Challenger did something no one had ever seen. There was a look of shock and confusion on my classmates’ faces when we witnessed that disastrous launch. Everyone was oddly silent and I—usually a very quiet kid—blurted out: “It’s just the rocket boosters dropping off.” I glanced at my teacher for confirmation. The concern in her eyes told a different story.
* * *
T minus nine minutes and counting. Start automatic ground launch sequencer.
* * *
My family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1990. One day in tenth grade English class, my teacher announced that we could enter an annual speech contest sponsored by the Optimist Club. My ears perked up. The winner, if one made it to the state competition, would receive a college scholarship. The theme that year was: “I can make a difference.” I felt immediately that I wanted to enter the contest. I went home and talked to my Pop. He was a preacher and had recently helped me prepare an oral book report on The Red Badge of Courage. It had been so well received that the students spontaneously clapped when I stepped from the podium. I wondered aloud to Pop, “What could I do that would be unique for this speech competition?” We came up with the idea of doing something on Christa McAuliffe because I had been inspired by her bravery and the story of the Challenger was close to my heart.
Excitedly, the next day I told my teacher about the idea. She thought it was far too unconventional that I wanted to weave together the shuttle liftoff within the narrative of the speech. Her words, “It will never fly,” echoed in my ears. I cried silently at my seat in class that day as we discussed Shakespeare. My aspirations crushed, I told Pop that night how my teacher had responded. “Write the speech the way you want to,” Pop counseled me. Even if I lost, I would enjoy the process of writing about something meaningful to me.
* * *
T minus two minutes. Crew members close and lock their visors.
* * *
I soon girded myself for the school-wide contest. Clutching my speech on the podium and reading it word for word, I was constantly aware of my teacher’s glare from the back of the room. She was one of the judges. Because he was a preacher and active in the local Toastmaster’s club, Pop had also been recruited as a judge. It was comforting to see a friendly face in the crowd.
I paced outside the classroom where the judges convened after I delivered that first speech. All of the students were gone for the day and the hallway was unusually quiet and dim. Suddenly one of the judges came out. Putting on her sunglasses to go home, she called out as she briskly strode toward the door: “You won, Lindsey.” My heart raced. I knew I had a lot of work to do on the speech. And I knew my teacher was not going to help me because I had defied her. That night, Pop told me he would be my coach for the rest of the competition.
* * *
T minus fifty seconds. Orbiter transfers from ground to internal power.
* * *
Pop and I only had a couple of weeks to revise the speech for the city contest. On a road trip to one of his church lectures, I pulled out the speech and we chopped it up. Pop called it: “Cutting the dead wood.” We were relentless. Every word had to convey something vital. Nothing extraneous was left on the page. We started going to his church at night when it was empty. I rehearsed from the stage and he patiently directed me. Timing was crucial: a few seconds over time and I would be immediately disqualified.
The city contest was held in the banquet hall of a local restaurant. There were about fifteen kids in the contest and I was pretty tense. Only the top male and female competitors would advance to the next round. Pop was busy that night and could not attend the event, but my English teacher had come which only heightened my consternation. I stared at my shrimp and baked potato as they got cold because I was far too anxious about hearing the results to enjoy the free dinner. Winning that round was more of a relief than anything else. I felt that my speech had been vindicated and my teacher proven incorrect (in person).
* * *
T minus thirty-one seconds. Ground launch sequencer is go for auto sequence start.
* * *
The county contest was held at The Citadel, the storied military university. That location was more than a little intimidating to me. There were armed security checkpoints at every entrance. Cadets in uniform looked stern as they marched across campus. The local Optimist Club leaders were at the event to arrange travel for the winners to the state capital for the final round. The stakes were high. However, I was feeling more comfortable with the speech. Pop had continued to coach me, and I was heartened to learn that there were only a few competitors in this round. Thankfully, my teacher decided to stay home. As I delivered the speech, I felt like my speech might be going against the grain. I could not read the judges’ faces as I meandered through each phrase. Standing stiffly as the winners were named, I was exceedingly proud to make my way to the finals. My whole family had attended this round, and the Optimist Club was going to pay for our hotel stay in Columbia, South Carolina. It felt significant that I was representing my school and my city in the upstate.
* * *
T minus sixteen seconds and counting. Activate launch pad sound suppression system.
* * *
As the state competition neared, Pop and I were in full rehearsal mode. Every night that it was available, we went to the church to practice. The speech narrative was trimmed and honed. Only a single page of notes could be carried onstage during the seven-minute speech. I could not fit the entire speech on a single page, so I made sure the speech was totally committed to memory. Using scotch tape, I affixed a picture of the Challenger that I had cut from a magazine to my page of notes for inspiration. Pop directed me to move from behind the lectern at two pivotal moments in the speech. He advised, “You should only move for emphasis of specific words. Don’t move around just for the sake of it.” We timed the speech relentlessly and plugged in moments of pause to underscore important phrases. Christa McAuliffe’s quote, “I touch the future, I teach,” was the idea I wanted to leave with the audience.
When the shuttle Challenger exploded, the elevated expectations for NASA were temporarily grounded. The shuttle program would never again invoke the kind of hopeful anticipation that it did in its heyday.
As we worked, Pop and I became like a single entity. In between recitations, he told me stories about speeches of his that won trophies and times when he was “in the zone.” “What does that mean?” I asked. “You want to be so familiar with your speech that it becomes part of you,” he clarified. “It’s like watching Dan Marino on the football field. It’s fourth down and the Dolphins must score to win. He knows precisely where to throw the ball before Mark Duper even gets there.” Sports metaphors were a favorite of his. “Watch Marino drop back. Those seconds right before he heaves the ball are crucial. The nights when he can’t miss: he’s in the zone. Everything—the ball, the receiver, the timing—flows together flawlessly,” Pop explained. “Could I ever achieve that?” I wondered. Could I be like Dan Marino in the Orange Bowl: oblivious to the noise, moving through time and space in a harmonious energy?
* * *
T minus ten seconds. Activate main engine hydrogen burn off system.
* * *
I rode with my parents to Columbia, South Carolina, the day before the competition. After arriving, we got a surprising call in our hotel room: my English teacher was there to attend the contest. I was mortified, but I tried to put her out of my mind. By getting to state, I had already proven that my speech “would fly.” She had never had a student get this far in the competition, and she was being suspiciously friendly. She tried slyly to praise the speech even though she had not initially supported it.
The morning of the competition, I woke up early to shower and dress. I was wearing a suit with pumps for the first time. Too anxious to eat breakfast, I walked down to the main ballroom after only a cup of coffee. Shockingly, there were hundreds of people gathering, and I saw that there were ten women and ten men competing. The room was much larger than I had anticipated. Most of the seats were filling quickly, and the trophies were prominently placed on a table in the front of the room. The stage was set. My eyes were wide as I left Pop’s side to join the other speakers.
We drew from a bowl for our speaking order. I would compete last! A rush of excitement surged in my chest. Pop had told me that going last was a gift because you got to see the other competitors, and the judges would remember your speech when they convened. I turned around and scanned the crowd for Pop. We locked eyes and I mouthed the words: “I go last.” He nodded and gave me a thumbs-up. I watched the other speakers carefully and calmly. When my name was called, I approached the stage unhurriedly, with confidence. My heart was full and ready to breathe life into this story.
* * *
T minus six seconds. Main engines start. 5-4-3-2-1-0. Solid rocket booster ignition. We have liftoff!
* * *
When I placed my page of notes onto the podium, I breathed in deeply and looked at the photo of the Challenger taking off. When I began to speak, it was as if time stopped. Immediately, I gained the full attention of the audience. They were visibly moved by the story I was telling! My speech was different from everyone else’s and they were hungry to hear each word. Every time I paused, it was calculated. Each word was stressed with precision. The crowd was like clay in my hands. I moved around the stage with complete ease. No phrase fell flat. Every pass I hurled was caught. I was Dan Marino throwing perfect spirals to Mark Duper and Mark Clayton on a Monday night in the Orange Bowl. I couldn’t miss. The energy inside of me was electric and I was in perfect sync with the universe. My conviction was powerful: I was doing what I was born to do.
* * *
When the shuttle Challenger exploded, the elevated expectations for NASA were temporarily grounded. The shuttle program would never again invoke the kind of hopeful anticipation that it did in its heyday. But a little girl in south Florida had been inspired to become an educator and to “make a difference” the way Christa McAuliffe did for her students and school children around the country.
I have long since spent that college scholarship money, and the trophy was lost in a move years ago. But this is what was eternal from that day: When I stepped down off that stage, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I had won the competition. And yet, strangely, the contest did not matter at all to me anymore. I had been in the zone, and it was the most exhilarating moment of my life. The huge crowd was standing, applauding loudly, and everyone seemed to be surging toward the front of the room. I was searching in the commotion for one person. There was only one person who would understand what I had just experienced. I pushed through the shaking hands and pats on the back. Then my Pop’s face appeared above the people in the aisle. There were tears streaming down from his eyes and a huge smile on his face. He knew. We embraced but said nothing. We just held that moment and laughed joyfully. I had been Marino. The words had flowed and I had been in complete harmony with the story, the audience, the moment. There was nothing more to say.
Lindsey R. Swindall, PhD teaches US history and the freshman colloquium at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. She has written numerous books and articles in the field of African American history. Working with actor Grant Cooper, she has developed a dramatization of her biography of Paul Robeson for middle and high school students. She also co-facilitates public discussions about race and US history through the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Public Scholars Project.
There was an abandoned house a few miles from where I grew up. It was out on Mt. Mica Mine Road, past the egg farm, past the little cemetery that held just a few toothlike stones, up a big hill and then down the other side. If you did it right, if you let the earth take you, giving yourself and your bike over to gravity, you could plunge down that hill and coast about halfway up the next one. And halfway up the next one was where the abandoned house stood.
My brother found it. He was always finding things in the woods: quartz crystals, cow skeletons, birds’ nests. A long sandy drive clogged with birch and poplar trees stretched from the road to the house. For some reason, we always walked our bikes down the drive, as if we didn’t want to approach too quickly. As if we needed to listen keenly, muffling our steps as our sneakers squeaked against the sand.
The house had once been painted white, but the paint had faded and chipped so that now the gray of the wood beneath formed the dominant color. A few black shutters clung on, looking like a drag queen’s false eyelashes after a long night.
Here’s the thing: this was and was not a house. It didn’t have to behave—we didn’t have to behave—by the rules of “what it means to be a house.”
We’d prop our bikes against the big trunk of a mostly-dead maple tree and then we’d hop up onto the porch—the front steps had long since disappeared. I can remember being little enough that I had to push myself up onto that porch, like you’d lever yourself out of the deep end of the swimming pool, shimmying on my belly, getting a splinter through my shirt. The front door still stood in its frame, and so we would walk around the porch to where a window had been broken, and we’d step through—one leg, then the other—into what had once been the dining room.
We certainly could have gone through the front door. But it was more fun to go through the window. Here’s the thing: this was and was not a house. It didn’t have to behave—we didn’t have to behave—by the rules of “what it means to be a house.” We could go in through the window.
Inside, wallpaper hung in loose scrolls or had been torn off in rough patches. On a few walls, someone had spray-painted pentagrams in drippy black. The chandelier dangled askew. Across the front hall, through a double door surmounted by a graceful arch, stood the living room. I liked this room best. The floor had rotted away in the middle. But the edges of the wood floor were still intact, forming a rim maybe three feet wide all around. In the center, nothing. A hole. The dirt floor of the basement was visible below. I liked to walk around the outer edge of this room and imagine how it had happened. How the floor had sagged slowly, drooping and drooping, until it just gave way. It looked to me like a volcano. This hole was not one of emptiness but of latent power.
Along one wall of the living room, there was a built-in bookshelf. The volumes had long ago been pulled from the shelves, but many of them still lay strewn across the floor, mostly paperbacks with big, water-swollen pages. They looked like ticks that had enjoyed a nice long feed. I liked to kick them; I liked how I knew books—real books—were solid, but these books—which weren’t quite real books—were squishy.
There were no tales of the house being haunted. My brother never tried to scare me with ghost noises. But, even so, the house terrified me. My brother would climb the stairs up to the second floor; only once did I have the guts to follow him. Actually, I didn’t have the guts, but that day I was more scared to stay downstairs alone than I was to see the upstairs.
I don’t know what scared me more, the emptiness or the not-quite of the emptiness. The fact that some rooms still had curtains in the windows. A few carpets, threadbare and rotten, still covered the bedroom floors. It was enough that it felt like someone not only had lived there, but, in a sense, lived there still. They weren’t quite gone.
Moreover, I just didn’t understand it. Why would you let a house decay? Why wouldn’t you take everything with you when you went?
I loved that house. Well, love is a strong word. You know how when you lose a tooth, you kind of can’t help your tongue from just going right to that gap and feeling around and around, even though it hurts a bit and is kind of gross? That’s what I felt towards that old, abandoned house.
* * *
As a kid, as a little girl, I spent a lot of time “playing house.” I would go to my friends’ houses and we would drape a sheet or blanket over a table and then huddle underneath. As the tomboy of the group, I was always cast as the father, Amanda or Ann would be the mother, our Cabbage Patch Kids or teddy bears would be our children. We played other games, too. We spent sunny days climbing trees and chasing each other in endless games of tag or hide-and-seek. But on rainy days, we played house.
That house was beautiful and horrifying. It had the logic of dreams. It contained those beautiful little things that as a five-year-old I would have desperately wanted in a house.
In the semi-dark, under the sheet-draped table, we would overturn a cardboard box and settle our stuffed offspring around it. Amanda would set plates and teacups on the table. She’d shoo me out and tell me, “You have to come home.” And I would crawl outside of the sheet and sit for a moment on the living room rug, blinking, back out in the boring real-world, the larger house in which we had no interest, which we only wanted to recreate on our own terms. “Okay,” she’d say, “Come home now.” And I would crawl through the sheet and into the dark, orderly place we’d created. This was house.
But this abandoned place, this gaping wounded thing, was also house. House was future. House was hope. But house was also past. House was history. House was memory and decline and decay towards nothing.
No one could play house in this place my brother had found. But someone had. This was a possible outcome of the game. House with hole in the floor. House with squirrel poop in the kitchen. House with pentagram on dining room walls.
I remember walking around and around that thin parapet of living room floor, circling the hole in the middle, trying to be tomboy bold, unafraid of falling in. Unafraid of this place, the mystery of it, its seeming inevitability.
* * *
Years later, I ended up (as one does) working for the Forest Service in Wyoming, in the Shoshone Forest, just outside the eastern gate to Yellowstone National Park. I turned nineteen while I worked that job—my title, wilderness interpreter, implying much more romance than it deserved: I explained the campground regulations to visitors, especially how to store food in grizzly bear country.
That summer, that nineteenth birthday, marked two years of my living as a guy. Two years of being out as transgender. When I had come out to my parents—sitting them down at the kitchen table, telling them I wanted to be Alex, not Alice—they had been upset, confused, sad. Again and again, that day and in the weeks and months that followed, they worried that I had thrown my future away. That I would never be happy, never be loved, never be successful.
I hadn’t been kicked out of anything, not formally, not except for one grandmother who said she didn’t want to see me again. But it felt as if my world had slipped away. It was a strange feeling, a mixture of both elation and fear. After I came out to my parents, I went up to my room and gathered an armful of skirts, dresses, blouses, stuffing them into a garbage bag and setting them aside to donate. I took the jewelry box my aunt had given me and brought it to my mother’s room, returning to her the ring and necklace she had presented me on my sixteenth birthday. It was like handing my future back to her. If I wasn’t going to be this girl, this daughter… What was I going to be?
It was my brother who brought me bits of conversation, who relayed what it was my parents were struggling with. They spoke to him when they couldn’t speak to me. “They’re worried that you won’t fit in. That no one will hire you, that you’ll never get married or whatever.” I worried about this, too. I tried to embrace the queer community, the idea of radical queerness, of turning my back on social expectations: Who needed marriage? Who wanted a conventional job? But some part of me, rooted and formed in that sheet-over-the-table place, wanted, needed that house.
* * *
The Shoshone National Forest contains over 1.75 million acres designated wilderness: rhyolite cliffs, towering buttes, foaming rivers with hot springs in their midst. When I arrived out there, I may as well have been dropped on another planet: the place bore no resemblance to rural New England where I’d grown up. And beyond the landscape, I was preoccupied with trying to be a boy, with trying to convince the dozen other rangers and firefighters at the station that I was just plain old Alex, just another guy. But in the midst of all this, there was one thing I noticed in particular, one thing I couldn’t ignore.
On the highway that led from Wapiti, Wyoming, to Yellowstone, maybe six or eight miles away from the ranger station, stood a large and strange house. It was set back from the road and up a slope so that it was readily visible. No big trees grew to mask it in that high desert.
I noticed it the first time I drove by. It was clear that the house wasn’t really done. The wood was still raw—no shingles, no paint, just bare wood and, in places, only the frame of two-by-fours. At first, I thought the house had some sort of scaffolding on it as it was being finished. But what I thought was scaffolding turned out to be part of the house: a succession of staircases and ladders and platforms and outgrowths that the builder had begun but never finished.
I took to watching the house—it was untouched. No workmen ever swarmed it. No cars were ever in the drive. No lights were ever on. And so, I waited for a full moon and a clear night, and then I went to that house.
I stepped over the chain that dangled across the driveway, with its sign in the middle: no trespassing. I walked right up to the base of the structure. From the bottom, it started off normal enough. A few steps up to a wrap-around porch. Two bow windows. A front door, firmly closed, but with the lock torn out—just a big hole where the bolt had been.
How to describe this house? I walked all over it that night, and it is the strangest place I have ever been. Moonlight makes anything eerie, with its unforgiving shadows. But this place would have been eerie even in full sun.
There were doors in the rooms that opened onto solid walls. There were other doors in the rooms that opened onto thin air. There were staircases that led up from hallways and ended abruptly against a wall or a ceiling. And there were stairways that went up and up, through a roof, and kept going, ending with a step with nothing beyond it.
On the first floor, there were rooms of normal proportions and then, in the middle of the house, one room of precisely half scale. When I walked around the porch, I noticed a tiny window of thick plexiglass and, when I peered through, I could barely make out a cozy little room—the only spot in the house that was furnished—a couch, a fireplace, a little side table, a book. Perfect. But when I went inside, I couldn’t find the room. I walked around and around, before realizing that the room had been built without a door, just a hermetically sealed-off space.
I walked all over that house. It was so strange, so inexplicable, that—in the years since—I have often wondered if I dreamed it all up.
The next day, I asked my boss at the ranger station if he knew anything about the house. “Oh, sure,” he said. Two brothers had bought the land and were going to open a cattle ranch together. They started building the house, but one day during construction, one of the brothers had fallen and died. The other one tried to carry on building on his own, but the grief must have unhinged him because that’s when the house went all crazy.
There are parts of ourselves we can escape, defy, or reinvent. There are parts of ourselves that are unavoidable, hard-wired.
I asked the clerk at the store nearest the house—what’s the story? She told me that a man had come out and bought a bunch of land to open a ranch and was building a big house for him and his new wife. But then his wife left him and he went crazy. Wouldn’t leave the house, even though it wasn’t done. Had his groceries delivered, even, right from this store, and just went on building and building. Loads of lumber would come in and he’d cobble on another room or another staircase. Take potshots with his rifle if any strangers came up his drive. Then just disappeared.
That summer, I heard various tales of what had happened, but the basic contours were the same: man begins building, man suffers loss, man continues building.
That house was beautiful and horrifying. It had the logic of dreams. It contained those beautiful little things that as a five-year-old I would have desperately wanted in a house—a ship’s mast with a crow’s nest growing from the roof!—but that made no sense in the world of actual houses that served actual functions. Trapdoors to secret chambers: such notions had delighted me as a child, but in this house, the secret chambers were stuffy and claustrophobic, prisons as much as safe zones. It was hard to tell whether this was a dream house, spun from fantasy and desire, or something much darker.
Yet, this was house, too.
* * *
That summer, as I lived in an old coal cabin, built by the Work Progress Administration during the depths of the Great Depression, I thought a lot about that house. I thought a lot about the abandoned house of my childhood, the destruction and decay there. I thought even more about the draped sheets over the dining room tables. Odd, that these should seem to be the most real of all. These make-pretend places, where I was the dad, where my friends recognized something in me that I couldn’t see, couldn’t put words to.
I wondered, what place did I have now?
I suppose it is a question that many almost-nineteen-year-olds ponder. At that age, many are confronting the idea that the next house they have will be one they will build themselves. Perhaps not in the sense of build it with hammer and nails, but construct it of their own will, their own selves.
Every time I drove past the crazy house—that’s what I took to calling it—I would slow down and stare, at its spires and ladders and jutting platforms. Who could have dreamed what shape it would take when it was begun? Who had thought, as they set the rugs on the floor, as they hung curtains on the windows of that house in Maine, that someday the living room would collapse in on itself? And who is to say that these fates aren’t beautiful? Who is to say that the original intention is the correct one?
There are parts of ourselves we can escape, defy, or reinvent. There are parts of ourselves that are unavoidable, hard-wired. I had always known I was a boy, and my earliest houses, those sheet-draped tables, had welcomed me home as a make-believe dad. My parents, understandably, set a different table for me. Their daughter, who would one day marry and who would wear necklaces and earrings and dresses. To them, I had abandoned this self, abandoned the idea of house and home that they had constructed for me.
Transgender felt like a crazy word. A wild idea. A renunciation of all that they had intended for me. Queer people went off to the margins, lived at the teetering edges of society, in artists’ colonies and hippie style cooperatives, crazy cobbled-together chaotic places. Abandoned or forsaken by others, we queer folk were meant to gather together in some sort of outcast solace.
House as past, house as future. House as self. I learned that summer in Wyoming, that though I liked living as a guy, I was transgender, and hiding that part of myself did me no good. I could do it, but only at a cost. I came back to the East Coast. I told almost no one about the crazy house I’d seen. I’d taken pictures of the rhyolite cliffs, the snow-capped mountains, the rushing rivers. The house remained only in my mind.
A year or so after that, when my parents were preparing to sell the house I’d grown up in, I took my bike out for a ride on the Mt. Mica Road. Past the egg farm, now closed, and the cemetery, unchanged, up the big hill and down the backside. I kept my hands off the brakes, though the speed seemed unsafe. I let myself coast, slowing mid-way up the next hill. I hopped off. I couldn’t find the driveway. I propped the bike against a tree and walked higher up the hill, then lower. The brush and saplings grew thick and even along the road. I found a stone wall and followed it into the woods, pacing back to where I thought would be even with the house, and walked around. Nothing.
Perhaps it had been torn down. Perhaps I mis-remembered its location. I should have brought my brother with me. But he had already graduated college, had no more summer vacations to spend idly. I picked up my bike and began to pedal back. There were boxes to pack and rugs to roll up and another family waiting to move in.
Special Guest Judge, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich:
“Playing House” drew me in with its unexpected, evocative metaphors and descriptions—its language just slightly off-kilter, as alluring and evocative as the abandoned houses that drew in the narrator and their brother. As I read, I found myself underlining line after line. From its almost haunted opening, to a moving reflection on the houses we find and the homes we make for ourselves, this is an essay that stayed with me.
—Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, named one of the best books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Audible.com, Bustle, Book Riot, The Times of London, and The Guardian. A finalist for a New England Book Award, a Goodreads Choice Award, and a Lambda Literary Award, it will be translated into eight languages. Marzano-Lesnevich’s essays and reviews appear in The New York Times, The Mail on Sunday (UK), Oxford American, and many other publications. They have received fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, as well as a Rona Jaffe Award. They have taught at Harvard and in the fall will become an assistant professor at Bowdoin College, teaching creative nonfiction.
Alex Myers’s essays have been published in Hobart, Salon, Good Housekeeping, and River Styx. He also writes fiction, and his debut novel, Revolutionary, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. Find more at alexmyerswriting.com.
It’s Monday at the top of the world. It’s morning, but the sun hasn’t risen in weeks. The elementary school where I teach is a fifteen-minute walk across the tundra and past the lagoon where Arctic swans glide during the brief summer season. In the fall, snowy owls fly overhead in the dusky morning hours hunting the swift aviŋŋaq who burrow and tunnel in the tundra grasses. But this morning, we are deep in the heart of winter. Wind buffets my parka and tears at my backpack as I stumble through uneven terrain. Lifting the goggles that protect my eyes from icy gusts, I squint into the darkness, searching the sky for familiar constellations or the phosphorescent river of the aurora borealis. I didn’t know what I was seeing the first time I saw the aurora. I was new to Alaska, running to my apartment through the night. Stopping at the door to find my key, I looked up and froze. A jagged green scar flickered atop the stars. The universe ripped apart, I thought, slow and shocked, gasping in the frigid cold. The next day, I discovered that what I had seen was the movement of charged particles flung from the sun, crashing into Earth’s atmosphere. This morning, like most mornings, clouds obscure the sky. No stars or particles shine through the thick coverage. I blink away the ice coating my eyelashes and shove the goggles back on my face, carefully tugging down my hat and pulling up my scarf. I have seen skin black with frostbite and take no chances. Arriving at school, I remember I should have scanned for polar bears.
I moved to Utqiaġvik, the northernmost community in Alaska, following a failed engagement and the miscarriage of an unwanted baby. My almost-husband and I met in a post-baccalaureate program in laidback North Carolina town, both working on our teaching credentials. In a required young adult literature class, we batted eyelashes across the table while discussing psychic wounds in To Kill a Mockingbird, conversations that carried over to coffee shops and porch swings. Later, he charmed me with a re-writing of William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say.” (I had no idea, then, all I’d be asked to forgive.) Those late summer days merged into fall, and he sparkled in the clear mountain light. We shared dreams of traveling, and Alaska was to be the first of many teaching adventures. With shiny, new teaching certifications in hand, we signed contracts to teach in a small Alaska Native village at the tip of St. Lawrence Island in the middle of the Bering Strait. Extensive searches on his computer revealed pictures posted by adventurous birders making pilgrimages to the island for bucket list Arctic birds. We researched winter gear and bought tickets that carried us north to Anchorage, then to Nome, the famous site of the Iditarod, before bringing us to Gambell, a subsistence community of a few hundred Siberian Yu’piks.
By the end of the school year, our relationship had collapsed under the weight of the pregnancy we never talked about, the stress of being new teachers, and the isolation inflicted by living thousands of miles from friends and family. We had promised to support each other, but that promise was too big.
As our nineteen-passenger turboprop bounced to a stop on the gravel runway, I panicked, hit by an unexpected wave of claustrophobia. What the hell have we done? I thought. We remained in our seats as the pilot unloaded sacks of mail and cases of soda for the local store. Finally disembarking I was struck first by the wind and then the expanse of gravel stretching to the crashing waves of the Bering Sea and the base of a mountain rising behind what I would soon learn was the village school. Our principal and her husband met us at the runway with their ATVs to ride us and our baggage to our apartment, furnished and generously subsidized by the school district. “We weren’t sure if you were getting off,” our principal said after introductions. “Some people don’t get off the plane?” I asked. “Yeah,” she laughed. “They take one look around and fly back to Nome.” That’s an option? my brain screamed. But I was committed. Committed to my job with a signed contract, committed financially by going into debt to finance the move to Alaska, and committed to my partner. Rather than flagging down the pilot and climbing back onboard the tiny aircraft I flew in on, I perched on the back of the ATV and rode in stunned silence to the old school building that had been converted into apartments for teacher housing. I remember wearing barefoot style shoes without socks and my feet froze in moments. It was early August, and the temperature hovered in the 40s.
Two weeks later, I discovered I was pregnant. I tracked my fertility by diligently taking early morning basal temperature readings. During the fertile periods of my cycle, identified by a subtle increase in temperature, we used condoms, but there had been a day before the trip we had chanced it. Now, an alarming spike in my readings soared off the graph paper used to monitor and chart each cycle. It’s because of the move, I told myself. More days passed, resulting in a missed period. Stress, I said. When we flew to Anchorage for an orientation for new teachers, I purchased two pregnancy tests. I didn’t need the second. The double pink lines were vivid, even brighter than the image on the front of the package. The claustrophobia I felt landing in Gambell rushed back with an urgent need to get the baby out of me. I suffocated in my own skin, fear tearing the breath from my throat. We scheduled an abortion for October, and knowing that I had to spend six weeks carrying a baby I didn’t want drove me to the internet where I read everything I could find about naturally inducing miscarriage and home abortions. Articles about toxic herbs and tiny vaginal vacuums filled my browser history. Stumbling across a few blog posts about high doses of vitamin C successfully preventing pregnancies from taking hold, I ordered pills so large that I had to take them with food in order to swallow them, and maybe it worked because the day we flew to Anchorage for the abortion, I miscarried the baby in the staff bathroom at our school.
By the end of the school year, our relationship had collapsed under the weight of the pregnancy we never talked about, the stress of being new teachers, and the isolation inflicted by living thousands of miles from friends and family. We had promised to support each other, but that promise was too big. We faltered. We stopped having sex, and my green-eyed, soft-lipped boyfriend began secretly fooling around with another teacher. When I found out, I met with my principal and sobbed in her office while she arranged for me to transfer to another village, an Iñupiaq village further north, for the following school year.
They held my broken heart together with their sticky hands. Weekends were a horror. I slept as much as I could, rising late, going to bed early, crying myself to sleep.
Not quite finished disappointing one another, we made the misguided decision to try again over the summer and even got engaged at the start of the next school year. We planned a wedding and made it through with a few well-timed visits, but the relationship felt hollow, forced. Our voices echoed in the emptiness of the miles between us. At the end of May, we flew to Anchorage from our separate homes to reconnect before continuing on to see our friends and family in the weeks preceding our June wedding. The second night of the trip we lay, not touching, on the polyester spread covering the bed in our Anchorage hotel room watching a Coen Brothers’ film. “There’s something I have to tell you,” he said. Tears soaked into his beard as confessed that he was in love with someone else. “I’ll still marry you,” he said, voice wavering and shoulder trembling. “No, you won’t,” I answered, dry-eyed. I moved to the second bed in the room and froze more swiftly, more solidly than had arctic winds gripped me. I can’t feel this now, I told myself, packing my heart in ice. Numbness got me to the airport and on a plane the following morning. Frozen wounds don’t heal. He married that other woman almost exactly one year later. On stronger days, I tell myself that I hope they’re happy.
I needed a fresh start, somewhere I could begin again anonymously. When offered a position teaching kindergarten on the North Slope, the northernmost school district in Alaska, I decided I’d go for one year to gather myself and plan the next step. Two years have passed, now, and I’m still here. There’s no mall or movie theater or bar. No mountains or trees interrupt the vast expanse of frozen tundra. Wifi and cell reception can be spotty, but my life moves in familiar rhythms set by the environment and my role as a classroom teacher. Despite the challenges of waiting weeks for packages sent via two-day shipping and living two months of the year in complete darkness and two months in perpetual light, it’s difficult to imagine leaving. Insulated by hundreds of miles of arctic tundra and polar ice, I am remote, I am isolated, and I am safe.
This year I looped with my kindergarten class to first grade. As kindergartners, they brushed my hair, kept track of my coffee cup, and made me endless of bowls of imaginary soup and plastic sandwiches.
“Is it vegetarian?” I’d ask my subsistence-living students as they handed me an empty plastic plate while I sat at the child-size table.
“Uh-huh,” they’d nod, smiling. “But soup’s very hot.”
They held my broken heart together with their sticky hands. Weekends were a horror. I slept as much as I could, rising late, going to bed early, crying myself to sleep. But the long hours of the weekend felt impossible to fill. My loneliness, my emptiness, my sorrow reflecting off the snow, off the sky, off the bare white walls of my apartment. Monday mornings were a gift.
“It’s Monday,” my fellow teachers would groan as we passed in the hallways.
“Yep,” I’d beam back at them, gratefully rescued from the abyss of the weekend.
This year, my students and I are in another wing of the school for first and second-grade students, and we’ve left the play kitchen behind for the new kindergarteners to use. We have moved to a new room with yellow cabinets instead of orange and a view of the outdoor playground instead of the parking lot. Our procedures and classroom routines have stayed the same, though. We focus on community and kindness and group work. We live in an Iñupiaq village, but we come from all over the world. In our class, we have students from Polynesia and Southeast Asia, as well as Alaska.
In our classroom, we take each other seriously. We gather each morning to discuss the daily schedule and share our thoughts about what excites us, what makes us cry, or whatever happens to be on our minds. One student is moving into a bigger house where he will have to sleep in his own bedroom. Another is newly living with her mother. When it’s my turn, I share my dream from the night before. Looking down at the multi-colored carpet, I say, “Last night I dreamed that my friend didn’t want to be my friend anymore.” Immediately, the squishy bodies on either side of me lean in, molding themselves against me. A boy on the opposite side of the circle looks at me with dark, steady eyes and answers, “We’re your friends.” I smile and say, “I know” because I do, and then it’s the next person’s turn to share. I rely on them too much, I know. But in this icy darkness, sadness gains too strong a foothold in my heart, and my students help to lessen it. I forget myself when I’m with them. Our days are full of fun and learning, and even if the world is dark, our classroom is bright. Even when my home is quiet, I know the classroom will be frothy with excited voices pushing back the darkness. One student is obsessed with Godzilla movies from the 1970s and shares facts with his table group, while another vividly describes a recent hunting trip. Zombies and the ongoing debate of heroes versus villains vie for space and choke out the spread of the pernicious whisperings of self-doubt and self-hate that linger in the shadowy places of my heart.
In our classroom, we gather around wounds. I provide bandages for paper cuts, scabbed knees, dry skin, bruises, and ingrown toenails. Even a sore throat. It can take nearly half the class for a bandage to be applied. The moment the injury is announced, six-year-old medics rush from all corners of the classroom to assess the damage.
“It bleed already,” one expert notes.
“I got one like that,” another nods.
Yet another early responder will rush to the desk drawer where the first aid supplies are kept and deftly rip open the package, releasing that comforting and sterile smell of latex and gauze. The injured party receives a chorus of ooohs and ahhhs while one or more students gently rub her back and the bandage is wrapped securely around the wound. Among us is a survivor of childhood cancer. His scars run from his knee to just beneath his hip. At their widest, they span over an inch of skin. The scars twist like gnarled vines over his knee cap and thigh, trailing delicately up to his pelvis. Eight metal pins hold his femur together. On days when his leg is sore, he, too, will steer his tiny, red wheelchair to my desk. Projecting a confidence I do not feel, I gently press the bit of latex and gauze to his skin and send him back to his book box stuffed with early readers that tell of bike rides, animals that live in ponds, and messy baby brothers.
It’s not the bandage so much as it is what it represents. I understand this more perfectly when one night I slip into a new friend’s apartment to celebrate my first published essay. We are strangers brought together by proximity. We toast to the future as we inch closer to one another on the overstuffed couch. Switching from wine to whiskey, I am drunkenly determined to shove an oversized ice cube into a half-pint mason jar when the glass shatters in my hand. Blood slides down my arm and shards fall to floor. I gather the fragments as she searches for the first aid kit. When she comes to me, I hold out my bloody hand. She gives me the bandage and walks away. The warm glow of the night turns cool. I could never love her, I realize.
During read-alouds, I sit in my chair on the classroom carpet and prop the book on my knee to share the words and pictures. Students press against me to idly touch the parts of me they can reach in that unconscious, free way that kids do. They trace the veins in my feet, rub their palms against the stubble on my legs, alternately pull off and push on my ballet flats. When I join them on the floor, they rest their heads on my shoulder, run their fingers through my hair, lean against my sides, or, if they’re very tired, curl up in my lap. It’s not uncommon for there to be spontaneous group hugs in the middle of a math lesson. They remind me that love doesn’t have to hurt.
Despite the darkness and freezing temperatures, the drum teaches my heart to beat again, deep and strong in my chest.
Friday afternoons drummers occasionally visit our school with their round wooden framed drums with the liver membrane of bowhead whales stretched across the frame. We walk down the hallway from our classroom to the gym in a jiggly line. Not everyone in our group will dance, but four or five students will bounce and stomp vigorously until the buses arrive to take them home. The drummers sit in folding chairs on the stage and the three Iñupiaq language teachers, women from the community, stand before us. Uvlulluataq, one greets us. Good afternoon. We do a mix of motion dances and fun dances. The motion dances have specific moves that I strive to imitate by watching our Iñupiaq teachers and my students, some of whom practice in local dance groups with their families. Fun dances don’t have specific movements, women and girls bounce and move one arm at a time in the air in front of their bodies. Men and boys stomp and whoop with their legs spread, knees bent, and arms stretched wide and strong, as if pulling back a bow and arrow.
Perhaps the first song will be “Tiŋŋun,” the airplane song. “Where will we fly to?” the Iñupaiq teachers call out. “Anchorage!” “Hawaii!” “The Philippines!” young voices cry back. The drummers splash water on the membranes covering their drum frames and set the rhythm, holding the drum in one hand and striking it with a long, thin stick held in the other. A sharper sound when the drummer strikes the wooden frame, a deeper heartbeat sound when they strike against the membrane pulled taut. Water droplets bounce to floor at the feet of the drummers.
They add their voices, and we begin. Together, we make the motions that tell the story of the song’s creator riding in an airplane for the first time. Looking out the windows as she flew through the air and her relief when the plane landed and she kneeled down and pressed her hands to the ground. The songs are short and are repeated twice, and I slowly improve with practice. I stand in a small cluster with my students and we smile and dance together. These motion dances tell stories of Iñupiaq culture. Some celebrate the return of the sun or tell the story of Mother Eagle and the coming of the new year, others celebrate religion or important moments in Iñupiaq history. During a cultural training for teachers, an elder explained that these dances pass along Iñupiaq culture, but also bring people together during the long winters. It’s true, I realize. Despite the darkness and freezing temperatures, the drum teaches my heart to beat again, deep and strong in my chest.
But this place is not my home. I may have eaten whale, but I’m a vegetarian. I may know some Native dances, but I will never be Iñupiaq. I can look at the tundra and the frozen ocean and feel awe, but I will never feel as enmeshed in the landscape as the people who have lived here for thousands of years. I attended a talk in which a local man smiled and sighed and said, “I love the smell of good ice.” No matter how many years I spend in the Arctic, that will never be me smiling and sighing and saying with my whole heart that I belong here, that I am of this place. I will never step from the plane and press my hands to the ground, so thankful to have returned.
Megan Donnelly is an MFA Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, she lived and taught for six years in rural Alaskan communities. More of her work can be found at megandonnellywrites.com.
In 1973, the Squirrel Cage was just another scummy go-go bar on a street filled with businesses that paired well with scummy go-go bars. It’s gone now, of course; replaced by an above ground pool company—almost an elbow-to-the-ribs attempt at baptismal humor.
The Squirrel Cage sat at the crossroads of Austin Highway and Walzem Road in San Antonio, Texas. In the distance, like a siren’s song, was Interstate 35 luring cars north to Austin. I was almost thirteen then, living with my family in subsidized housing a very short distance from the Squirrel Cage. When I told adults where I lived, they looked away.
There were two playgrounds at the Austin Arms Apartments. One was for real kids—the ones who wanted to swing and teeter-totter and scream a lot; the other was the hang-out for older kids, the ones who sat on the swings, lounged on the monkey bars, and whispered plans for future trouble.
His eyes said he’d been betrayed. Betrayed by blood.
My “because of proximity” best friend was a thirteen-year-old named Liz who stood nearly six-feet tall. Her mother ran promotions at a local radio station. Liz always gave me inside information, like times to call in to a radio show so I could win prizes, but I never made any of those calls. When I saw her mom coming home from work wearing blouses with built-in bows at the neck, I couldn’t see a woman who would jeopardize her job to help a preteen cheat a contest.
“You know so little about the world,” Liz told me over and over. “Winners only win because they know people.”
The older boys at the playground were probably not considered winners by Liz, but they knew a lot about how our small world worked. I listened while they talked about things like the ice house on the corner where you could pay an extra fifty cents to get a six pack of beer without showing any ID. Judging from the number of beer cans littering the sides of the playground, I believed the story.
“You can also say you’re getting cigarettes for your mom and they’ll let you buy them,” Kenny, a regular on the playground, said to a new kid I didn’t know. Kenny’s hair was so blonde it was closer to white than yellow. People said his father was in prison for stabbing a truck driver in Fort Worth. Liz whispered about the knife collection Kenny had in his room, but that information made Kenny seem more sad than dangerous.
“Where is this place?” the new kid asked.
“Right across from the Squirrel Cage,” Liz said. “On the other side of Walzem. Marty’s Ice House.”
The new kid nodded silently.
“Naked girls dance at the Squirrel Cage,” Kenny said, in a hushed voice like he was giving up an answer to a test in school. “They dance in gold cages.”
“Cages? Like bird cages?” Liz asked. She walked nearer to Kenny, making him shield his eyes from the sun as he looked up at her.
“Sure,” Kenny said. “They hang the cages from the ceiling so everything shakes real good when they dance.” He gyrated his hips and cupped his pecs. His tongue stuck out the side of his mouth as he shook.
The new boy laughed.
Liz rolled her eyes and walked away. “You don’t know anything.”
“I do too.”
“Well, I know the girls aren’t all the way naked,” Liz said, looking at me as if we’d won Jeopardy. I went up a rung on the monkey bars. Liz could come across as a know-it-all sometimes.
“They got these little star things over their nips,” Kenny said. “And go-go boots. Otherwise, they are naked.” He paused, waiting to throw out his trump card. “My brother works there.”
“He does?” I said.
“Is he in a cage too?” Liz laughed.
“Nah, but he could probably get you a job there,” Kenny said, staring at my breasts. From my perch on the monkey bars, I crossed my legs.
The next week I went to Solo Serve with my mom so she could buy some new tops for summer. I waited until she went into the dressing room to try on clothes, then I walked to the shoe department. There was an entire rack devoted to go-go boots. I picked up a pair of shiny white boots and hid behind the coats to try them on. The boots were a cheap plastic, not leather at all, and smelled odd. Before I had the second boot zipped, my first leg began to sweat. Still, when I stood up and felt the silky material reach over the top of my knee like an unfamiliar hand, I stuck out my chest and sucked in my stomach.
Before I walked back to the dressing room, I stuffed the boots behind the men’s work shoes, hoping they’d stay hidden until I could figure out a way to buy them.
* * *
That night, my brother and I sat in the bedroom we shared, listening to my mother plead with my father to calm down. They were in their bedroom with their door shut, which was never a good sign. Occasionally we heard a slap or a fall or a sharp cry. We didn’t look at each other though, only at the Mickey Mouse rug beneath our feet.
When their bedroom door finally opened, my mother came straight into our room. She was wearing a light blue robe. There were drops of blood around her collar, like she had sewn tiny roses around the neckline. Her right eye was already swollen.
“Let’s go,” she said, reaching for my brother’s hand. He was nine and skinny, like something that could easily be broken in a move.
“Now,” my mother said looking at me and pulling my brother toward the door. I followed.
The three of us ran down the two flights of stairs in harmony, as if we had trained for this event. When we pushed open the hall door, a neighbor opened her door, then quickly shut it. Outside, the cool air surprised me. My pajamas were light cotton. My brother had on short pajama bottoms and tube socks with green stripes. I was barefoot. It had been warm when we dressed for bed.
“Hurry,” my mother said. “Andiamo,” she said in Italian, as if those words were magic carpets that might make us move faster.
I tried to run without stepping on loose rocks or tabs from soda cans. Once we ran past the porch lights, I was glad for the dark so I wouldn’t see what my feet were headed for.
I followed my mother’s robe as she ran toward Austin Highway. When we got to the highway, she abruptly stopped and held her arms out to each side like a human cross. It was as if we stood on a precipice. The wind and noise from the cars sounded like an ocean far below us. My mother looked to her right, toward Austin and the Squirrel Cage, then ran to the left down the side of the busy road. She wore thin slippers and hobbled occasionally when her foot stepped on something sharp. She was not used to hot summer days and bare feet like we kids were.
We ran past tattoo parlors and bars and motels that seemed abandoned but weren’t. I finally saw the shopping center where my mother must have known she’d find a phone booth and safety. The Piggly-Wiggly was already closed for the night, but there were employees inside the store sweeping up and stocking shelves. I looked at the three of us and wondered if someone would call the cops. No one did.
My mother picked up the pay phone and dialed “0” for the operator. “I want to make a collect call,” she said, giving the operator a number. “Marie,” she said a few seconds later. “Ho bisogno di aiuto.” I need help.
While we waited for Marie’s husband Carlo to arrive, my mother went into mother mode. She found a planter box beneath a bright light with a wide ledge where we could sit out of the wind and get off our feet.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said, checking the bottoms of our feet. “Marie has milk for you and then we’ll all go to bed. Tomorrow will be a better day.” My mother’s bottom lip was cracked, but the blood had dried a strange orange color.
It didn’t take long for Carlo to arrive. He was a short, chubby Sicilian man with a thick head of hair he would keep well into his eighties.
“Valli,” he said, hugging my mom. “Let’s go, huh? Hi, kids. Go ahead and get in the car.” We slid off the planter and into his massive Cadillac.
As Carlo drove toward his house, I looked out the window and watched the neighborhood change, like I was a character in one of those movies where people’s fortunes rapidly shift. As we crossed under Interstate 35, lighted coffee shops began to appear along with gas stations and restaurants and fancy furniture stores. When we got to the corner full of churches, I knew we were almost there.
This wasn’t our first late night visit to the Presti house. It wouldn’t be the last. In the driveway, I saw the curtains in the front window open a bit. We walked to the front door and Marie opened it wide. “Vieni dentro,” she said, leading us all gently by the shoulder, like refugees you see on the news at night. Come in, come in.
“Hey,” I heard from down the hallway. I followed the voice and went into Nina’s room. She was two years older than I was; beautiful and thin with a car she couldn’t even drive yet waiting for her in the garage. “Same old, same old?”
“Yep,” I said.
Nina sat back in her canopy bed and patted the other side. The whole room was white and lavender and gold, like something I figured French aristocrats set up for their daughters. “So what’s new?” she asked.
“I tried on some go-go boots the other day.”
“What?” she said, stopping in mid-yawn. “Where?”
“Solo Serve. My mom was in the dressing room. Over the knee,” I said, showing her where the boots had hit my thigh.
“No,” I said, suddenly disappointed in my choice. “I mean, little block ones. I guess that’s easier to dance in, right?”
“At the Squirrel Cage! Those boots are the first part of the job interview. Boots? Check. Boobs? Check. You’re hired!”
We laughed, then talked about some friends we knew until she fell asleep. It was good to feel normal, like this was any other sleepover with a friend. I had known Nina my whole life. Our mothers met in Europe when we were babies. Both husbands joined the military and ended up in San Antonio. Even though Carlo was an officer and my father was not, we never talked about that difference, or any of the other ones.
While Nina slept, I planned. I figured if I babysat every weekend for a month, I could buy the go-go boots. My breasts were already larger than most girls my age. Maybe, with makeup, I could get a job at the Squirrel Cage. Maybe I could make enough money so we could leave my father behind.
In Nina’s bathroom, I took off my pajama top and found some Band-Aids in the medicine cabinet. I taped my nipples and shook my body up and down and side to side. There was some good shaking going on beneath the Band-Aids.
Taking them off was a different matter. When the adhesive ripped away from the tender area around my nipples, tears sprang to my eyes. I ran a washcloth under cold water and held it to my breasts to stop the pain. I knew so little about my own body, but I had big plans for it anyway.
The next morning, Carlo drove us home. My brother and I got ready for school. My mother cooked breakfast. Their bedroom door stayed shut.
It wasn’t easy to concentrate in class that day. During lunch I took my sandwich to the library, ate it in the bathroom, then grabbed a study table and planned. I wrote down the following:
Money: + $32.00 saved in the bank
+ $40.00 possible babysitting money for weekends through March
– $29.99 boots
In the light of day, I’d realized that getting a job wasn’t going to be enough to save us. Over the years, I’d heard my father threaten to kill my mother if she ever left him. Sometimes he even said he’d kill us kids first then leave her alive so she would have to live knowing we were dead because of her. There was no simple getting away from him. We would live in fear as long as he was alive.
I was willing to fix that.
My dad worked all night delivering bundles of newspapers to boys on bicycles so they could deliver papers to their smaller routes. When he came home, he slept on the couch almost all afternoon. If I could get a gun, I would come home from school while he was asleep and solve all our problems.
Until that episode aired, I’d never seen a man hit a woman anywhere but in my own home. It felt like a shameful secret we just lived with.
After he died, I would go to school during the day and work at the Squirrel Cage at night to help with bills. We would be a happy family then. My mother was still beautiful. What if she met a nice man who could care for us all? There would be no more late-night trips to the Presti’s, no more neighbors calling the police, no more sleeping on my stomach so I wouldn’t see it coming.
I felt like a hero in the making.
This plan consumed my thoughts for months. I fixated on how to make sure my father would be asleep when I walked in the door. Like a director, I blocked and re-blocked the scene over and over, imagining every possible pitfall. I wanted to avoid hitting a noisy step and causing the dog across the hall to bark. If I dropped the gun or my book bag or my keys, or miss-timed the departure of the postman who always said hello in a too loud voice that echoed in the hallway, my father might wake up. I needed my father soundly asleep when I walked through the door because I knew if he looked at me, I couldn’t kill him.
I spent weekends at the public library researching social security benefits my mother and brother could get from my dead father. I wasn’t sure I would get them too, since I was the one who killed him, but I had the phantom job at the Squirrel Cage anyway. I read about trials where children killed their abusers and were set free or placed in detention centers for a short time. I learned what I was doing was called parricide, the killing of a parent, and I hoped the outcome would not be living in a detention center, but a conviction of manslaughter, probation, and the right to live at home.
I kept notebooks filled with details of the plan. The notebook was my confessor because there was no one else to talk through my plan with. There were no conversations about things like abuse on TV or on the playground or in our kitchen. After a night of beatings, my mother would tell us that my father had just been tired, or worked too hard, or didn’t feel good.
“Everyone has something,” she told me one night. I was suspicious of everyone after that.
I babysat every weekend in March and ended up with $47.00.
“Hey Kenny,” I said, surprising him at school one day when Liz was not around. “Where do people buy guns?”
Kenny shrugged his shoulders. “Why are you asking me?” I raised my eyebrows. “The flea market maybe?”
“Ask your brother for me, okay? Also, ask him how I can get a job at the Squirrel Cage.”
“Sure,” Kenny said, but he looked at me like I had once given him a gift and was taking it back. “My brother doesn’t even have a gun.”
“Just ask him, okay?”
* * *
In June of that year, my father surprised us by buying a house. My mother was happier than I’d ever seen her. “I told your father I wanted a house before I turned fifty,” she said, as if she had stumbled upon a winning lottery ticket. “And here it is. I can’t wait to invite Marie over for coffee.”
My plan died there. If I killed my father now, there would be no house. I would no longer be the hero. I let go of the gun, the boots, and the Squirrel Cage, and concentrated on the new house and the new version of our family instead.
In September of 1973, in the living room of our new house, I watched the season two opening episode of the TV sitcom Maude. The show began with lots of references to drinking. The night before, a drunk Walter made obscene phone calls to Maude’s mother, slow danced with his friend Arthur, and fell asleep on the living room floor. The audience laughed as each exploit was recalled. Boys will be boys.
The next morning, somewhat shamed by the night before, Walter and Arthur decide to stop drinking. By lunchtime, Walter is already spiking his Shirley Temple. By dinnertime, Walter is so drunk he ruins his nine-year-old grandson’s birthday cake. The whole time, laughter from the audience. Drunk is funny. Bea Arthur is funny. Hey, she’s drunk too.
Then things turn dark. Maude tells Walter he’s mean when he drinks. Walter tells Maude he drinks because all he sees when he looks into her eyes is how much she resents him.
Then he hits her.
In the face.
The laughter stops. You can hear the audience’s collective intake of breath. Walter looks appropriately shocked by his own actions.
Then he cries.
“You didn’t hurt me,” Maude assures Walter. MAUDE ASSURES WALTER. Her tag line on the show was, “God will get you for this, Walter,” but she didn’t utter it this time.
In the morning, Maude sits at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee and a black eye. She tells her daughter she walked into a chocolate donut. Laughter again.
Until that episode aired, I’d never seen a man hit a woman anywhere but in my own home. It felt like a shameful secret we just lived with. And Maude playing it off reinforced what my mother taught us—don’t let people know, pretend it’s all okay, be better so we look better.
The episode wasn’t a total waste though. It taught me to blame everything on alcohol. Though I never saw my father take one sip of alcohol in my entire life, from then on, when neighbors called the police, I had a ready excuse. Thank you, Maude.
We were in our house for a year when I heard my parents arguing through my closed bedroom door. The fight was unusual because it was daytime and because things had been calmer since we’d moved into the house. I walked toward the kitchen and passed my brother sitting on the floor of his bedroom playing with GI Joes.
He shrugged his shoulders, not taking his eyes off the action on his floor.
In the kitchen, my father had my mother by the throat. Her head was against the brick wall. The pistachio colored bricks were her favorite part of the new house. I saw blood on her forehead and on the brick.
“Stop it,” I screamed. “Stop it, you asshole.” When he turned toward me, I slugged him, close-fisted, on the mouth. A tooth must have hit his lip and the blood began to flow. He reached up to his face, looked at his hand, then at me.
His eyes said he’d been betrayed.
Betrayed by blood.
While he walked to the bathroom, my mother yelled for my brother. We all ran to the garage, into the car, and back to the Presti’s. None of us said a word until we hit Austin Highway. At the stop light, my mother sighed. “Tomorrow you’ll tell him you’re sorry.”
“No way,” I said. “I’m not sorry.”
“You hit him,” she said. “What did he do to you?”
I’m guessing there is a feeling people get when they realize they are completely alone in the world. It feels like you are drowning from the inside out. The instinct to hold your breath is almost involuntary, like a gift to keep you from speaking or crying out or taking in something that will prevent you from ever opening your mouth again.
We passed the Squirrel Cage and I remembered how that place had once been the church I sent my prayers to. Now I knew that if I had gotten a gun, if I had killed my father, my mother wouldn’t have taken my side. I imagined her in court, talking to the judge, “He never did anything to her. He was a good father.”
I was the one betrayed by blood.
I also became bitter and resentful and keenly aware of how much my mother seemed to best love the ones who hurt her the most. But, like most things in life, we adapt to our roles.
When we returned to the house the next day, the door to my bedroom had been removed. I knew it was part of my punishment, but I couldn’t figure out how. Over the years it became clearer. I could no longer try on clothes for the school week posing in front of the mirror that once hung on the back of my door. I couldn’t dance to records and pretend I was in a Broadway musical, or read plays out loud, acting out each of the parts, or shut out the noise when things got bad.
For the next five years, my father refused to speak to me. All through high school, I was into theater. He never saw one of my productions, not even when we won the State UIL competition. He missed my high school graduation, seeing me go to proms, and taking part in any plans for the scholarships I received to colleges.
For five years, we never ate a meal at the same table, watched TV in the same room, or looked at old family photos. My brother and mother and father still did all those things together. I was the excommunicated one.
At least once a week my mother would come to me like a temptress in a fairy tale: “Just say you’re sorry. Then he will talk to you.”
“I’m not sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. Just say it. Then we can go back to normal.”
There is a long list of things I am not proud of in my life, but not giving in to my father is not on that list.
At the end of my freshman year in college, my mother’s sister and her husband arrived from Switzerland to stay with my parents for the summer and take a tour of the USA. I loved my Zia Armida. She’d confided in me that she’d left Italy at fifteen to become a maid for a family in Switzerland just so she wouldn’t have to stay in Italy and marry an Italian man. In her mid-twenties, she met my Zio Jean-Pierre, a native of the French part of Switzerland. He was a watch engineer and mayor of their small town. My father adored my Zio. He called him his brother.
I was living with my friend Lisa for the summer. Her parents went to the beach every June and July, so living together was a good solution for both of us.
When I drove up to my parent’s house, my Zia was sitting on the front porch wrapped in a blanket.
“Così freddo dentro,” she said to me. It’s so cold inside. It was June in San Antonio. It had been hot for so long, we’d already stopped complaining.
“They don’t like air conditioning,” my father said to me. And just like that, we began to talk. I knew it was so he could save face in front of my Zio, but I played along.
My mother hugged me when my father went back into the house.
“See? Everything is good now.”
“Mom, everything is the same. We’re just talking again.”
“Good,” she said. “That’s how it should be with family. Forgive and forget.”
* * *
My father finally got too old to be mean, then he died.
My mother lived another three years after his death.
As a child, her family left Italy and moved to France after her father found work in the coalmines. When she was twelve, and World War II began to escalate, they fled France, where the coalmines were being bombed, to return to Italy only to find Russian armies occupying their family land. My mother went through puberty hungry and scared, but entered adulthood strong and cunning.
She picked me as the child to count on because she knew how to survive. When the chips were down, when my family was in crisis, I contacted doctors, lawyers, bankers. I put all the pieces together for all the cracked eggs after all the big falls.
I also became bitter and resentful and keenly aware of how much my mother seemed to best love the ones who hurt her the most. But, like most things in life, we adapt to our roles.
When I talk about my mother’s final days, I talk about her strength and courage. I tell the story of how my husband held her face after the nurse gave her what I always suspected was a larger than usual dose of morphine and said, “Mom, if you can, come back and let us know you’re okay.” She nodded and expelled her last breath. It was a breath of force and finality. She’d made up her mind to go.
A few years after my mother died, my sister died as well. Her kids struggled with their own grief and guilt. They also had to turn to me for help. When my niece texted asking for $350.00, I told my husband I was going to say no.
“We just gave her money a few weeks ago,” I said. “And she never thanked us. She never calls to check on us either. I’m done.”
Before I could finish my text to her, the postman rang the doorbell and handed my husband a certified letter from State Farm insurance.
It was that dramatic.
In the envelope was a check for $349.83. The refund was from a six-year-old audit they had completed of my mother’s insurance policy.
I texted my niece and told her she could have the $350.00. Could there have been a clearer sign from my mother that she wanted to help my niece?
* * *
Later that day, I drove to Brackenridge Park. I sat on a concrete ledge facing the green water of the San Antonio River and watched the ugly hybrid ducks swim by. Across the river, families played loud music and sat on blankets in the grass. It seemed appropriate I was on the other side of the divide.
“Sorry,” a woman said as her dog began licking my leg. She grabbed his leash and pulled the dog away. “Do you teach at Northwest Vista College?”
I nodded again.
“I had you for Comp II,” she said. “About eight years ago. I loved your class.”
I said I remembered her, but I didn’t.
What I did remember was going to the grocery store with my mother a few months before she died. We’d run into an Italian woman I had never met before.
“This is my daughter,” my mom said to the woman.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you, Olga,” the woman said to me.
“I’m Denise, her other daughter.”
“You don’t work for the basketball team?” she asked. My sister was a temporary usher for the San Antonio Spurs since a back injury and a drug addiction made it impossible for her to continue working as a hairstylist.
“No. I’m the teacher.”
“A teacher?” she said. “What grade?”
“College. I teach English.”
“Valencia,” the woman said to my mom. “You never told us you had a daughter who was a professora.”
I felt a rush beneath my feet. It was what I’d always imagined an undertow might be—something grabbing you by the ankles and pulling you along so fast you wouldn’t have time to breathe. I was drowning from the inside out again.
She’d never even mentioned me.
The story I don’t tell about my mother’s death is from right before my husband took her face and asked her to give us a sign from beyond. I sat by her bed and stroked her arm, hoping she would feel me and know she was not alone. But when I touched her, she scrunched her eyes as if biting down on something distasteful and pulled her arm away. It felt intentional, not reactive, almost like she’d recoiled from something awful.
I never told anyone this happened. I felt shamed by her reaction and stupid that I had ever believed I was anything more than the child who was necessary for her survival.
So when the check from State Farm came—when my mother finally gave a sign from beyond, I wasn’t completely surprised it wasn’t for me. She just wanted to make sure I’d take care of my sister’s kid.
I’d been betrayed by blood.
Denise Tolan has published work in journals such as Lunch Ticket‘s Amuse-Bouche, Hobart, Apple Valley Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. Tolan’s piece “Because You Are Dead,” first published in Lunch Ticket’s Amuse-Bouche, was included in 2018’s The Best Small Fictions. She was also a finalist for the 2018 International Literary Award’s Penelope Niven Prize in Nonfiction.
Call me Ismail, not Ishmael, which rhymes with wish fail, or Tom, Dick, or Harry, which rhyme with nothing that rings true to me, just because you cannot be bothered to learn to pronounce my name. It goes like this, three separate syllables: Is—like the prolonged break of a wave; ma—half of Mama; il—like a sea snake, or the French word for island. IS-MA-IL, stress on the island.
Now that you have been properly introduced to Ismail, and know how to pronounce his name properly, allow him to tell you a short fairy tale.
Once upon a time, there was a sunny country whose long coast was bathed by a turquoise sea, where a barefoot boy had an important job, of which he was proud, and which he performed with both pleasure and ceremony. Every morning except one, the one designated as a rest day, he was entrusted with a gleaming tray dotted with soft, doughy, fragrant pastries and bread protected by dust and dirt by a tea towel, which he balanced on other clean towels coiled atop his dark, curly head, as it was heavy and his walk to the village bakery some distance.
This fairy tale is a grim, modern one. It does not end with the proper restoration of position or property or future. Does not end with reconciliation or love or fortune.
His step was joyous and his eyes bright as he glanced at his ample, color-wrapped grandmother seated on their kitchen step and humming her habitual, unrecognizable tune, sifting dried grain rhythmically through the round, wood-bound sieve resembling a large tambourine. The busy, cheerful, chatter of his mother and sisters wafted up on wisps of smoke, while he stepped lithe and sure from one orange grove through the next, inhaling the perfume of spring as his birthright while receiving casual smiles and nods of approving recognition from his neighbors in passing.
Turning toward the village, he glanced up the hill, whence had vanished the baby Rhim gazelle he had thought he’d domesticated until it grew old enough to object, impaling his forearm with a perfectly spiraled, long, slender horn. He rubbed the scar; to the hill where his father sometimes took him to buy honey and Geminus mint for their tea from the old German lady who kept bees. While the bread was being baked, he would drop by his uncle Saleh’s house, where sometimes men gathered to smoke, drink tea or whiskey, and recite the formal Italian poetry they had learned while in school, educated by convent nuns, some of whom had stayed on after the Italian colonization gave way to the British occupation. Soon, his grandfather would gather them together for an annual feast, the high point of which was Grandfather’s recitation of the Al-Hilali epic, the 1,000 year-old oral poem recounting the heroic feats of Bedouin ancestors during their migration from Arabia to North Africa. If they were lucky, and harvests prosperous that year, they would find musicians to accompany the performance with rababa, tampura, or tabla. Not many men were left who could perform the epic. It was an honor to attend.
The boy thought that growing up in this, his land, was as sweet as halwa.
* * *
Then came hard times, the trials and tribulations that must be surmounted in every fairy tale, when his family and neighbors, the people he loved and trusted, were suddenly and inexplicably crushed like sesame seeds. First came the earthquake on his part of the eastern coast, which flattened his village and damaged much of the nearby city of Benghazi. The boy’s mother and sisters had run quickly out of the house as soon as pictures began to fall off the walls, calling for him to get out. He had been reading in his room that evening and slow to shift consciousness, was trapped in the corridor when the ceiling began to crumble. Recalling a story his mother had told about sheltering under tables during World War II bombing raids, the still slight boy recovered his wits enough to dive under a nearby table. When the world ceased roaring and trembling, the women’s wails slipped into cries of relief and gratitude upon sight of the boy’s dusty apparition emerging from the rubble that had been their home only minutes before. Witnesses said that the tower clock in town stopped at 9:20 p.m., just as in an Agatha Christie mystery. The family moved to Tripoli.
The capital city was daunting at first, though, by degrees, the boy became accustomed to their greater prosperity, two-story house, and American television reception. This marvel was accessible because of the American military bases nearby. Once, after watching I Love Lucy, the teenaged boy impudently chided his parents for their primitive custom of sleeping in one large bed together. Lucy and Desi, if they had observed, slept in twin beds, both in primly buttoned pajamas, which must be the way civilized people behaved. Dad and Mom were less than amused.
That was already after Nestlé baby formula exports and Italian tomato paste had inundated their shops and brains and habits, causing the Underdeveloped local population to stop breast-feeding, and throw their bumper crops of tomatoes into the sea, prefiguring its transformation from turquoise to iron red. Though, still before the dictator paved the seaside promenade, painted rocks green, imprisoned the boy’s father, uncles, cousins, and hanged his friends from lampposts.
Before the boy had grown into a man, before the American buffoon actor-president issued a decree forbidding the man to rejoin his American wife and child in relative safety. You think the anti-Muslim travel ban is new? You think there is anything new under the scorching sun? But that is another story.
No, this was still when the boy was enamored of Rembrandt’s etchings, Impressionist painters, Brecht plays, and bell-bottomed jeans. When he tried to practice his English with American girls on the fashionable, white Tripoli shopping streets. Tapping a blonde one on her shoulder, and politely asking if he might help her translate, she had brushed off her skin where his finger had touched it, saying “Ooh, cooties!” The teenaged boy had mistaken the word for “cuties” at first, and had smiled shyly, pleased at what he thought was flirtation. Then she had flicked him away with her pale-pink painted nails, giggling derisively with her light brown-haired girlfriend. He made it his business to learn what cooties were.
The shriveled, ancient one calls my name faintly, swathing it in soft appeal from her room down the hall, “Ismail.” Three polished, worn, caressing syllables.
When the pockmarked, square-headed young Demon seized power in a military coup, the usual suspects were rounded up and imprisoned, among them the boy’s father. The only son, the boy left high school in order to devote all his time to waiting in the lines of bureaucrats who might be able to pull strings, if the bribe and connections were sufficient, or waiting at the prison gates to try to gain visitor’s access or news about his father, or deliver the man’s much needed Insulin. When the heat pushed the overdressed soldiers over the edge, or their appetite for brutal sport hadn’t been satisfied, the boy endured their taunts and “roughing up” in prudent silence. It was a full time job for about a year and a half, until his father’s remand to house arrest, whereupon the boy returned to his formal studies.
Five years of channeled engineering study, in which the boy had scant interest, might have earned the young man a degree and marketable profession had he completed the final semester and taken the required exams. However, when his father saw members of his son’s university circle, his friends, brutally murdered and hung up to dry like prosciutto in the sun along the city’s straight, modern boulevards, unmistakable warnings to all who opposed the Demon’s oppressive regime, he shipped the young man off to study in the United States of America, where the young man tasted some elusive freedom and license, as well as some more discrimination and insult. There, he studied art instead of engineering, painting pictures, taking pictures, making love among pictures, memorizing pictures.
Some years later, those men who had remained in other countries, with jobs, with new families, with new habits, were publicly and privately recalled home to the no longer sweet, fertile Mediterranean land become awash with oil and grimy oil money, threatened with assassination on foreign soil if their duty was ignored. And the family arrests had begun again in earnest. A cousin appeared as an emissary one day, and shortly thereafter, another, on the beautiful hill in San Francisco, to shatter the crystal idyll where the young man had been amassing pictures. These pictures, too, trembled and fell off the wall when the cousin told him with firsthand knowledge and frank description of torture, show trials, the condition of his own now blind father in his cell, as he awaited, without his Insulin, his military trial. For what? For being a journalist. A dangerous profession to be avoided, truth telling.
The emotional blackmail practiced with a twilit, lilac view of repetitive ocean spray proved far more hypnotic, and eventually, effective than dictatorial edicts and threats had done. The image of the young man’s pleading mother was invoked. He took a leave of absence from his pregnant American wife, with the promise that he would return in three weeks, after his uncle’s trial. Her pleas had been more easily set aside, as his guilt toward her had not yet sought its spirit level. The young man was, of course, arrested upon arrival in the land no longer cleansed by the turquoise sea, transforming his odyssey into absence without leave.
Months turned into years, during which a few attempts had been made to reknit the rent in life’s rich fabric, including appealing to the steely American powers that be. Rather like trying to give a hollow, tin man a heart. In the end, our hero, no longer so young, acquiesced to his stronger, more numerous, more powerful, more present family, settling into decades of dreary, unartistic routine, where he scarcely noticed the iron red, or then the battleship gray of the sea. We could speak of bombings, when his small apartment windows rattled, were dislodged, and splintered on the floor of a blacked-out kitchen, while his present children and current wife pretended to sleep in the next room. Of more bombings, when they were able to borrow enough money to flee the worst for a time. Of the torching of his sister’s house by black clad criminals, who succeeded in killing her husband and son, and severely burning her and her other children. Of the rape of certain of his nieces, and shooting of his nephews. Of the crucifixion of… But why prolong the trials and tribulations? This fairy tale is a grim, modern one. It does not end with the proper restoration of position or property or future. Does not end with reconciliation or love or fortune. Let the tale end there, hanging by a tail. Now old, and too defeated to flee anymore, our prince will not live happily ever after.
* * *
The shriveled, ancient one calls my name faintly, swathing it in soft appeal from her room down the hall, “Ismail.” Three polished, worn, caressing syllables. In the darkened house, she may not know what time it is, that it is only evening. As soon as the terrifying commotion, the barking shouts and hammering on doors began down the street some minutes ago, all of the buildings in our neighborhood went instantly dark, as if on cue. As if we could hide from evil, like children, by turning off the lights or closing our eyes and holding our breath. There is nowhere to hide, no place to escape. Some time ago, I read some jokes about human smugglers posted on the Net. There were even cartoons showing hijabbed women clutching swaddled infants, crammed in leaky boats. Even if I could raise the money to get into one, would I rather spend it entertaining the Developed nations, watching my family drown in sham lifejackets, or wait here at home for my head to be chopped off? At least the Worldwide Web has been disconnected. That’s some consolation. I sit in my immovable chair facing a black, rectangular picture window like a darkened screen, waiting soundlessly, and smoking, dragging the nicotine poison deep into my scarred lungs. Anyway, what would we do with the ancient one?
“Ismail,” she repeats, she who suckled and protected me, once upon a time before Nestlé. I can do nothing for her now except guard her bed.
“Don’t worry, Mama. Everyone will be back soon. They’ve just gone out.” I lie soothingly, softly, adding, “There’s been a power cut.”
My stalwart, intrepid wife has gone to the city center looking for the kids, no longer kids, who failed to come home as expected, putting on a headscarf in hope of anonymity, or slight protection. About as useful as a white flag in our present situation. I must not leave the house. “Mama, if strangers come to the door, don’t say anything. I’ll take care of it, all right? Be patient.” Don’t give yourself away.
Someone from another house entreats Allah. Then I hear a shout. “Libya!” Libya. Long ago, I used to feel the word on my cheek, as if it were a warm kiss blown from the desert, a promise. Later, it resounded like a slap, or a wail, down the blood stained lanes, where a young boy’s spirit had been sensed, wafting aimlessly, humming a bygone tune, blowing soothingly on sweaty, fearful foreheads. I wish I could remember at least one stanza from the Al Hilali epic. Not a line. I am not the man my grandfather was, and this debacle is not his heritage.
Staring blankly past the balcony, through the black window, I try to conjure a slideshow: the low fog rolling across the mauve Golden Gate like a fluffy bolster; my first ever snowflakes cloaking in white feathers, the wings of the storks in a fountain on a square in Copenhagen, golden Prosecco bubbles flickering like fireflies on Lake Como. I see nothing. Blackness. All that is left is a distant, beckoning whiff of Geminus mint and the eternal aroma of freshly baked bread.
Special Guest Judge, Gayle Brandeis:
“Arabian Night” implicates the reader from the very first sentence—“you cannot be bothered to learn to pronounce my name”—yet also takes us by the hand, invites us deeply into the writer’s lost world. This essay-meets-fairy-tale holds so much pain—the anguish of atrocity, of displacement, of layer upon layer of injustice—yet it also leaves space for tenderness, for remembrance of how the word “Libya” had once felt like “a warm kiss blown from the desert” before it became “a slap, or a wail.” A stunning, necessary, gut punch of an essay.
—Gayle Brandeis is the author of the poetry collections The Selfless Bliss of the Body and Dictionary Poems, novels The Book of Dead Birds, Delta Girls: A Novel, Self Storage, and My Life with the Lincolns, and a recent memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide.
Diane G. Martin, Russian literature specialist, Willamette University graduate, has published work in numerous literary journals including New London Writers, Vine Leaves Literary Review, Poetry Circle, Open:JAL, Breath and Shadow, the Willamette Review, Portland Review of Art, Pentimento, Twisted Vine Leaves, The Examined Life, Wordgathering, Dodging the Rain, Antiphon, Dark Ink, Gyroscope, Poor Yorick, Rhino, Conclave, Slipstream, Stonecoast Review, Steam Ticket, Pigeonholes, Shantih, Zingara, and The Grief Diaries.
Long-time resident of San Francisco, CA; Maine, USA; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Sansepolcro, Italy; Diane has traveled throughout much of the world. The themes of exile, disability, and displacement pervade her work.
Photo Credit: Ricardo Mendez Pastrana
By the time I brought my son to vacation in Hawai’i, I knew something was wrong. With him, with me, with the world—take your pick. I remember it as perfect; the month we spent lost among the wild sunshine of the deep Pacific. A time outside of time. Our special little bubble of happiness when, for a few weeks that ended far too quickly, everything was okay.
He was a quiet baby. The first thing I ever noticed about him when I saw my son for the first time, was his fatness. He was like a jelly bean. Short and curved and plump. Double chinned, rolls everywhere, a sort of rubbed, reddish hue; he certainly didn’t look like he was born three weeks preterm. But there was his tinny cry, like a kitten’s mew, struggling to sound from lungs three weeks too small, and there was the small hole hidden inside of his heart, a tiny blip of silence on the echocardiogram.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder,” announced my therapist, her voice bringing me back to the room. My new diagnosis. She said it like a revelation.
I named him Robin, after the mischievous Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I expected Robin to grow to be an energetic boy, full of pranks and chatter. I expected him to be loud, funny, the kind of guy his father would have been if he hadn’t been what he was instead. A part of me prepared for him to be like his father. No part of me was prepared for his silence.
Autism. The thought shuddered behind everything, even then, before the diagnosis. In Hawai’i, when he finally said his first word at age one and a half, and we all celebrated, it was too gleeful. I had the milestone commemorated as a tattoo: a turtle, for the first and—as it would happen—last word he said. On my hand, where it could never be forgotten or hidden away. Later, I would imagine my body cursed.
* * *
There is a voice echoing itself and it is mine but it is not mine. It comes from my head, but it fills the whole world. It says “but I didn’t do anything,” on loop. A spiral of protest in that voice that is mine but not mine. I am me but I am not me.
I have traveled outside of my body. Returning is a chaos of sensation. There is something in my mouth, crunchy. At the same time I am returning to my teeth, so the thing in my mouth feels like the crunch of my teeth. I am chewing my teeth. I am swallowing my teeth.
Someone is with me. I grip his hand. It is the only thing that feels familiar and I desperately want that hand to stay in mine.
The loop in my head grows hush, then silent.
“Are you dead? Did I kill you?” the man asks. The way that he looms above me, he fills my whole vision. The blue of his eyes is the sky.
I reach for him, not making sense of his words.
The man is sitting on a bench, and I am in the dirt beneath him.
I am beginning to remember how to breathe.
He scrambles upright. He is leaving. I beg him to stay.
He hesitates, and my vision expands. He and I are the only people around. His bike is a tangle of wheels and frame toppled on the ground. There is a shed. A bench, and the dirt where I find myself after my strange absence. We are behind a house. The house has an empty feeling about it.
I beg the man to stay. He seems anxious. He is pacing. I don’t know what is wrong with him, but I know that his hand is the thing that brought me back to life. I still don’t know where I am. To be alone now would be terrifying. I beg the man to stay, and he listens.
It will take a few more breaths before I remember that the man is my boyfriend, and that he has just strangled me to the point of seizure.
* * *
“Post-traumatic stress disorder,” announced my therapist, her voice bringing me back to the room. My new diagnosis. She said it like a revelation. Like I hadn’t already been living every day in a body tarnished by trauma.
“I know,” I responded. My voice dull. My face blank. My body an anonymous curvature. In the eyes of the world, flat affect is a form of invisibility. In a traumatized body, it is a kind of screaming.
I was screaming at my therapist and she didn’t hear a thing. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that I didn’t go back.
Domestic Violence Survivor. That label fit, whether I wanted it to or not.
After the hearing tests, the ear tubes, the cardiograms, the nutritional assessments, the rooms full of toys with big observational windows and faceless doctors on the other side; after my son’s diagnosis, a regime was set for him. He needed routine. He needed intensive therapy. He was accepted to a special needs daycare. He began occupational and speech therapy. My PTSD worsened. Day by day, my heart broke a little more.
Before the diagnoses, my son and I traveled to Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New York, New Jersey, Hawai’i. I idolized the friend of a friend, a long-haired mother who traveled the world, taking a new lover with each location. I remember listening, infatuated as she recounted eating magic mushrooms while her infant son was strapped to her chest.
“It was like he was back inside of me,” she said, “like I was pregnant again.” She waded into the sea. It was beautiful.
I wanted to travel the world, commune with nature, take lovers, eat psychedelics, swim in every ocean of the world. Live free. The diagnoses were like shackles, chaining me to a life I never wanted. On one arm, PTSD; on the other, autism.
Single mom. Working Mom. Stay-at-home mom. Student mom. Autism Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. I tried each one and none fit the way I wanted it to. Manufactured lives. Disconnected lives. Lives tailored to other people’s desires. Lives shaped by the hands of a man long gone.
* * *
I leave Boston after I try to kill myself. My teachers let me finish my classes online, so I am able to keep my grades. As I walk the halls of my BFA program for the last time, past the ridiculous picture of Henry Winkler that hangs alone on some hallway wall, I tell myself I will be back. I know I am lying.
After the springtime snow and endless grey sludge of Boston, Seattle is a glory of greenery. I want so much to revel in it—to realize the paradise of my homecoming deep in my body; to feel the precious magical connection to nature and blossoming that those of us from the Pacific Northwest are supposed to feel when we return from being away.
Instead I feel lonely. I collect strange hairs from my boyfriend’s bedding, make alters of my palms and mourn them when he isn’t looking. I imagine the impossible beauty of the women who possess these hairs. One day, when I dare to ask him about the curly black one that reminds me of his best friend’s girlfriend, he tells me he will leave me if I don’t stop taking my birth control. There is nothing more to say about that, except that I am nineteen and in love with a man who is not in love with me.
Maybe we conceive our son on the night maggots worm through the floorboards, rising from some unknown putrefaction beneath the house where my boyfriend rents his basement apartment—or maybe it happens the day he rapes me and drags me across the floor by my hair, dumping me next to a pile of laundry. Or maybe it happens on one of the many times when we just have sex, the way lovers do. What is certain, is that when I say the word “abortion,” he holds me, hands to my throat, and threatens to kill me if I kill his child.
Yet even that is uncertain—the report I give to the police that day says he bit me, then kicked me, before making the threat. The bite mark is noted by the officer. There is no mention of hands to my neck or body pressed to the wall the way I so clearly remember years later.
* * *
Domestic Violence Survivor. That label fit, whether I wanted it to or not.
I hated that word: Survivor. I hated the strength of it, and the image it brought to my mind. A world-weary woman standing at the peak of a cliff, her face and body battered, her hands rough like a man’s. Arms akimbo. Jaw set. Eyes firm and mirthless. Her hair whipping in the wind, or sometimes it is braided like a Viking’s. Behind her the sea foams, black as poison. When she walks, the earth trembles—for she is a Survivor, and nothing like me at all.
I felt safer as a victim. As a victim, I was allowed to feel small and sad. As a victim, I could curl in my bed for days. As a victim, I got to behave like the words “weep,” and “maiden,” and “fragile,” which was how I felt. But my motherhood did not leave space for my victimhood. As my son grew, and with him his silence, I began to feel my motherhood left no space for me at all.
You are not allowed to say you didn’t ask for this. You are not allowed to need all the things he needs too. You are not allowed to not be able to give them to him.
My son’s silence became a dirge. In it I heard the absence of the words he would never say, and the life together we would never have.
“I love you mom,” our feet padding across the white sand beaches of Cuba, our ancestral home.
“Mom I’m cold,” so I tighten his coat as we gaze up at Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
“Mom, I’m happy,” as we watch the Aurora Borealis dance their colors across the Icelandic horizon.
And living next to these phantoms of a life that would never be, my terrible cacophony of memory.
* * *
We are on the bed in my room at my mom’s apartment, where I live. I have not yet written my application to Emerson, which means I am still very young. The bed has a headboard with shelves. I will use it to my advantage when I have to lie about my bruises. I will say that I stacked too many things on it.
“Like an idiot,” I will add—I have to insult myself.
I will say that all my many things fell on me, bruising me. “The bed was moving a lot,” I will smirk as I say it. I want my life to look sexy and fun.
But before I have to tell the lie, my boyfriend is on top of me, half crouched, knees splayed around my hips, crotch pressed into my belly. He smells like sun-warmed blue jeans and armpit stink, which I like. He is angry. I don’t know why. I never know why he is so angry. His anger is omnipotent. It touches everything. If he is in the mood to be angry there is not a thing in this world that will keep him from it.
His hands imprint themselves in my memory. The knob of his knuckles, the splotches of red across the tops of them. His long fingers. His crime-toughened skin; a different texture than a working man’s hands, but just as rough.
This time when he strangles me, he lets go before the familiar darkness comes.
This time, I can feel the seizure overtake me.
My limbs float upward, like in that game I used to play with my friends when I was a little girl, where we would press our arms against a door frame—hard, as long as we could bear it—and when we walked out they would lift up like balloons. I feel my body shake. A motion at once both violent, jerky, and also smooth. A motion without a thought behind it. It is my body moving, but I have no control to stop it. Me, but not me.
The seizure ends. The oxygen is already flowing back. My senses are clearing. I am gaining sharpness too fast. I know I have been strangled. I know who did it. I know that he is still on top of me.
* * *
The first time my son had a night terror, I heard his shriek from the bedroom. It was sudden, howling, and once it started, it did not stop. I watched his body writhe in the bed, unresponsive to my touch, my voice, anything. A sound so loud it wracked his entire frame, and yet completely indecipherable. Another louder form of silence.
I carried him as he screamed and struggled against me. I laid him out on the living room floor. I stared as his body lifted and contorted like a thing possessed. Not once did his eyes open. Not once did he say a word. He screamed until dawn. The sound bounced off the walls of my apartment, stitching them together, bringing them slowly down around us.
As the horizon lengthened pinkly out the window, he finally crawled into my lap, rested his head against my chest, and slept.
Later, I would learn that night terrors result from disorder. When a child with certain sensitivities does not follow a strict bedtime routine, his brain function alters and the result is violent sleep disturbances that are worsened by even the most affectionate touch. Later, I would learn that my son was possessed by my own disorganization, a side-effect of my diagnosis.
But that morning, when he lay against my breast, his brow damp with sweat, his face suddenly peaceful, I felt that I was sitting at the precipice of a great and terrible ending. The end of time, the dying of the sun, or maybe only the last moments of my own happiness. The room, which moments ago had been filled with my child’s screams, now seemed crowded by silence. It was this same silence that was suffocating me, day in and day out, and that now pressed upon me with the full weight of the knowledge that it would always be this way.
* * *
When I loved my boyfriend, it was a love like terror. I was desperate. I was searching. I would interrogate the trees about his intentions and imagine answers out of wind currents. My love for him was rabid, competitive; a force stronger than any truth because it did not rely on truth for its sustenance.
But when my son was born, love gained new meaning. My love for my son was at once soft, gentle; a blanket of a feeling that I could nuzzle into, and also forceful, raging; something akin to the interlocking of wind and ocean.
One night, I awoke to the sound of my infant son crying in his bassinet. I walked to the living room, where he had been sleeping, lifted him, and sat down on the couch to breastfeed him back to sleep. It worked. My son, who three years later would be diagnosed with autism, was a gentle baby, easily comforted as long as he had access to Mama, and able to sleep through almost anything. I decided to stay up and watch TV.
My boyfriend didn’t like that. He began to yell from the bedroom, demanding that I return.
“Come back, I can’t sleep without you,” he shouted.
I ignored him.
I barely registered that he was in the room with me until he was on top of me, hands around my neck. He strangled me while I held our baby. He strangled me until I could no longer hold our baby. Our son fell to the floor. After my boyfriend’s hands released my throat and my consciousness began to return, I spotted my boy, sitting upright on his chubby bottom, blinking away the sleep.
“Where’s the baby?” My boyfriend shouted, stomping nearer to my son with each iteration. “The baby’s dead!” He kept repeating those words, louder and louder, ignoring me as I tried to warn him that our baby was under his feet. I grabbed for my son but his father’s legs were always in my way.
When I have nightmares about that night, I don’t re-experience the yelling, or the strangulation—just that forest of long, naked legs stomping endlessly while my son waits for me on the other side, unseen and unheard.
When my son turned two, I sent him to live with my family. People who could implement a routine, drive him to his many therapies, and coax the night terrors out of him for good. It was, like so many things in my life, something I was able, but not allowed, to do. When your child has non-verbal autism, there are rules. You are not allowed to grieve the words he will never say. You are not allowed to mourn the independent adult he can’t become. You are only supposed to celebrate his uniqueness, his beauty, the small miracle of his latest accomplishment. You are not allowed to think of him as a burden. You are not allowed to say you didn’t ask for this. You are not allowed to need all the things he needs too. You are not allowed to not be able to give them to him.
I remember a day, shortly before my boyfriend left forever, when the three of us went walking to the beach. It was one of those grey, windswept beaches that film directors like to use as establishing shots. The kind of beach where you might find crabs or collect small perfect shells that break in your pockets before you reach home. At the beach, my boyfriend lifted the baby from my sling. He cradled my son to his chest. He pulled me to him and asked a stranger to take a picture of us, the ocean foaming in the background. In the picture he is tall and slim and handsome. He holds our baby and smiles. My hair is stringy and scattered across my face like a net or a web newly torn. My body, still inflated from pregnancy, looks as though it might crumple into itself.
“You’re such a great father,” the stranger told my abuser when she handed back the camera.
When my son’s father left for good, everyone agreed it was the best thing. That man—with his anger and his addictions and his enormous self-interest—was in no position to care for an infant.
When I left, everyone agreed I was a Bad Mom. The selfish woman with her anger and her mental illness and her overwhelming need for self-care.
My son was not taken or killed. I gave him away. There are rules about that, too. I am not allowed to say I miss him. I don’t get to say it hurts. I am not allowed to both mourn the mother I could have been, and still not want to want to be her.
For Bad Moms like me, our lost children can only exist as silence.
Elizabeth Brico is a freelance writer originally from the Pacific Northwest. In 2017, her blog, Betty’s Battleground, was ranked by Feedspotas one of the top 75 PTSD blogs. She is also a contributing writer for HealthyPlace. Her work, which often focuses on mental health, addiction, and social justice, has appeared in PoliticoMagazine, Vice, Vox, TalkPoverty, Ozy, The Fix, and The Establishment, among others. In her free time, she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction.
If you ask me now, I could still do it. Not all of it, of course—not now, not anymore. The more esoteric things—the notes for B minor, the exactitude between allegro and allegretto—those have long since been forgotten, faded with time and disuse. But hand me the sheet music, my bent Bach primers and blue Schumann workbooks, and I could play you a sonatina, a minuet, an arabesque, any of the carefully-annotated pieces I once knew by heart. The mechanics, after all these years, are still there: how to read treble and bass clefs, which sharps to match with which scales, the proper way to properly hold my hands (fingertips on the keys, wrist loose but high, fingers rounded as if clutching a tennis ball)—that is all it would take.
And if you were to ask me to play, I could still remember, still try. Für Elise, The Doll’s Dream, Minuet in G Major—though it has been years since I last touched a keyboard, I still find myself humming at odd moments, in class suddenly, unconsciously tapping out snatches of song.
* * *
I was a good student. Your typical Asian student, really: straight As, math club, 4.0 and AP tests—everything a good stereotype requires. I took BC Calculus and SAT subject tests, did quiz bowl and National Honor Society, dutifully attended ACT prep classes, where seventy dollars an hour helped improve my score by two points.
Years later, a teacher would tell me that she admired that in her Asian students, this tendency to take academics so seriously and settle for nothing less than perfection. Out of politeness, I would smile, say nothing in response.
And then there was, of course, the piano.
Here is how the rest would go if this were a proper story. The curtains, drawing back; the lights, overhead, shining down on a lone figure, the protagonist of this play. A girl, the sole daughter of Chinese peasants born during Mao’s Revolution and now come to the New World—you’ve heard the script; you know how it goes. The childhoods of hunger and uphill both ways; the struggle, long and laborious, to overcome them; the victories; the PhDs; and then America, the promised land that gave both more and less than what it had promised. Classic underdog story, in other words. But remember—that’s all backstory, all lead-up to the grand finale that will make it all pay off. Our protagonist, she remembers: remembers and knows they are important, holds her parents’ stories as close as Narnia and Harry Potter. Knows the stories, and knows she must top them, finish this quest they have begun.
And one-two-three, lights-camera-action—here it is, the first real task on our hero’s journey. Not poverty or politics, but no less daunting: the piano, dark and glossy with its many, many keys. It looms over her, high and proud and oh-so-very complex, but her parents’ memories reassure her, give her back her strength—compared to their pains, this was not so bad, not so hard. They had done what they had, so she could do this. And so she perseveres, and so she practices, plays scales ten times each and practices each song ten times more—until one day it is done, she has done it! And as she sits on the stage, the song she plays so sweet the birds outside quiet, the audience inside weeps at its loveliness—
And when she finishes, she stands up and curtsies to them—accomplished at last, a pianist against all the odds.
* * *
Which would have been nice, if I had been able to actually play.
Part of it was natural, I suppose: I had no sense of rhythm, no intuitive sense to tell me the difference between allegro and larghissimo or how to play in 4/4 time. Notes were as long or as short as I felt they were, holistic as opposed to ordered time. I distinctly remember, once, attending a church retreat and clapping along to the hymns out of time.
The other part, though, was practice. My parents started me at eight—late, compared to my friends, but still young enough to chafe at sitting in a chair for forty-five minutes each day, drilling the same scales over and over again. One day without practice, my mother would chide me, shuffling flashcards in the dim light of our apartment, and you know the difference. One day.
At eight, these are the things you smile at, nod at without quite hearing, ignore as easily as your grandmother’s admonishments to wash before and after meals. At eight, these are the things you can let slide away, that you can forget.
At eighteen, these are the things you remember, dredge up through the years as you retreat into an armchair curled up and away, tea growing cold on the cream-colored coffee table nearby. The woman across from you leaning back, smiling as she asks, well, and how did that make you feel?
Funny, the difference a few years can make.
Because you see, at eight, it has not happened yet; at eight, none of what will plague you at eighteen has yet bothered you. Your mother tells you to do your summer homework, and you do it; your father calls you in to practice piano, and you, grumbling, obey. But these are just things you do; they affect nothing of what you feel, who you are. At eight, you have a self, a center.
But just jump five years ahead—and, well. At thirteen, things get muddier. Boys you played tag with begin ignoring you; girls you’d climbed trees with begin wearing makeup and talking about calories and waistlines. All around you, your friends finding niches, taking places as easily as seats in musical chairs—the pretty one, the sporty one, the good one—
And you? You, you get stuck with, “Gifted.”
* * *
And there’s the thing, about being thirteen and being “Gifted.” When you are twelve or thirteen, and you’ve demonstrated an aptitude in math or science or English or best of all, all three, then the world narrows. Suddenly, it is just you, you and the four or five other students whose test scores have proven equally high, sitting in the front row of Honors English and eyeing each other across chess club—wary, suspicious.
Or perhaps that was just me, my personal paranoia and neuroses painting sixth-grade friendships in Darwinian shades. Perhaps.
It certainly felt that way, around my parents. At parties with the other Chinese families, while the kids sat in the basement playing Mario or idly browsing through their phones. The adults would all stay upstairs, playing cards late into the night and gossiping like tabloid reporters about their children, who got what grades and who got into Stanford or Harvard. At thirteen, you begin to enter into these conversations; at thirteen, you begin to become relevant, another variable in the bell curve of who would Make It—
One moment, you were eight. The next, you are thirteen, and your parents are buying you ACT prep books and taking you to talks by Harvard freshmen on how to apply to college, and no one is questioning the absurdity of it, the fact that you are taking sixth-graders, fucking sixth-graders, kids who still watch Hannah Montana and blush at French kissing—taking them and sitting down in all seriousness to tell them what AP classes to take, what sports to play, and what tests to take and and and—
* * *
And look. I like to think, in my better moments, that I’m not that myopically bitter—that somewhere over the course of overpriced medications and specialists, I have gained some degree of self-knowledge. And so I know—I do!—that I am being unfair. That there were other parts to it, social and historical factors that led my parents and their friends to the values they hold—Mao and deprivation and Confucius, tradition and cultural values so deeply entrenched that to reject them would be to reject identity itself. That higher test grades equaled higher income equaled higher quality of life and hence greater happiness—I can still do enough math to understand that. That I am speaking in stereotypes, and stereotypes are not life: do not have the kindness and love that go into them, soften the tropes into something livable. That parents, in the end, are people, too.
I think of that: of being barely sixteen or seventeen and already knowing fear, the helpless guilt of lying in a hospital bed and listening to parents, angry and terrified and confused, demand why?
But, well. I was thirteen, then, and higher reasoning is less pertinent when you are entering puberty and a pronounced hating-the-world phase. Thirteen-fourteen, lurking in the enclaves at parties with my diet Pepsi and iceberg salad, I began to despise it all: the constant comparing and critiquing, whose kids are going where and got what grades. Yes, there may have been utility behind it—higher grades, higher income, correlation/causation et cetera—but at some point, listening to it all, aunts telling cousins to follow in the steps of more studious friends, fathers lecturing sixth-graders on the importance of community service not on grounds of altruism, but because it would look good on a college resume—well. At some point, it gets to you.
Maybe I wouldn’t have put it in those words, not then—thirteen, remember, fresh out of three weeks in the hospital and still tearing up over Bs in gym—and maybe I wouldn’t have said it until I was Well and Truly into therapy, but that was how I felt then. That was what I thought.
* * *
And like summer vacation, and like community service, music became another casualty, another part of the daily march towards Making It. From the time your parents were putting you through chess club and hiring math tutors, they were taking you to your piano or violin teacher’s house to learn petals and positions. It did not matter if you actually liked the instrument; if you were smart and wanted to get into a good school (a real school), then you played the piano or the violin. And if you were not good at it, then it could not be because you had no musical talent—it was because you were simply not trying hard enough.It was a very Asian belief, that, but also a very American one: self-cultivation and Horatio Alger, the American dream and Mao’s voluntarism mixing in a red-red-white-blue combination that would have made your revolutionary ancestors roll over in their graves. “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step;” “genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration;” et cetera, et cetera. If you wish upon a star and try, try, and try again, then you too can be talented; then you, too, can be special.
Years later, a teacher would tell me that she admired that in her Asian students, this tendency to take academics so seriously and settle for nothing less than perfection. Out of politeness, I would smile, say nothing in response.
* * *
A curious thing, about fifteen-sixteen-year-old Amber and standardized tests. I did well on exams generally, had few logical reasons to worry about failing all my classes and forced to attend community college. But I used to work myself up anyways, talking myself into hyper-awareness before tests, rehearsing every wrong thing that could happen—a ball player, winding herself up before a game. After all, if I let my guard down, if I let myself relax for only one second, then that was it, that was the path of stupid errors and bubbling in the wrong answers. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back; stop being smart, and you’ll break her heart.
I suppose, beyond the superstitious hyperbole of the feeling, it made an odd sense. God knows I’d made plenty of careless mistakes by not paying enough attention to the placement of a decimal or the insertion of a “NOT” before “all of the above”—by not paying attention, my mother said; by being complacent, I thought. And hell, maybe it did work—I did pretty well in high school, took all the right tests and got all the right test scores. When the time came, even made it to University of Chicago, which on the nerd ladder is pretty good.
But. But but but but but.
But there were things, other places where winding yourself so tight-tight-tight is not good, does not work. Try talking to people like that—see how well it works. I did that, for a while. Would walk out of AP Chemistry after a quiz, head aching too much to focus on anything other than the tiles immediately before me—only to start, nearly jumping as someone said, “Hi, Amber!” Turning around, heart jumping a beat as I forced out, “Hi”—hating the way my voice went up an octave when I was nervous, dear God what was wrong with you, Amber, so stupid so ridiculous, couldn’t even talk to people without freezing up—and God, God, those had been popular kids, hadn’t they? Cheerleaders and prom queens, oh you knew, Amber that they only smiled at you because they felt sorry for you, because you were so, so very pathetic and they all knew—
Try that. Try that with talking, with writing or drawing or eating or anything else, really. Try that with piano.
At fifteen, I had finally done it—at fifteen, finally achieved the discipline I had lacked at eight and thirteen. Like clockwork, I dutifully played my forty minutes each day—not as much as other students, I was well aware, but an achievement for me. A small victory.
But even then, even with all that, I was still no better than before. My piano teacher, after years of clucking at my lack of precision, now told me I played too rigidly, too mechanically. Relax, she told me, watching the rigid claw of my hand upon the keys, don’t slam them down—let your hands fall on the keys, naturally. And I had tried, tried all the exercises and techniques she suggested, but how could I? How could I, when she there, always a watching eye, always ready to tell me what I did wrong and how? How could I relax, how could I relax when I knew (knew oh so well, familiar lump in my throat, my chest, my lungs) that once I did, once I let my guard down for the slightest, slightest second, it would all come crumbling, crumbling down—
I cried in front of her a few times, I remember. I cried in front of a lot of people. It seemed to be a thing I did.
* * *
Like all things, I talked with my therapist about this. I was, what, fourteen?—eighth or ninth grade, a year after I’d done the essentially thirteen-year-old thing of taking a crash course in fad dieting. In any other subject, I would have gotten a gold star; here, all my self-discipline had gotten me was three weeks in the hospital and a doctor’s ultimatum that unless I followed up with a therapist, I could not be medically discharged.
Despite the whiff of coercion hanging over our beginning, I like to think we had an amiable relationship, Cassie and me. There was always plenty of coffee, which I pretended to like without cream, and even more silence, which I actually did like and now did my best to maintain. Occasionally, Cassie would speak—a handful of observations, a few questions to fish out replies—and even more occasionally, I would answer, cool and monosyllabic as a John Wayne character. Mostly, I kept silent.
And then, one day—in response to a journal, a passing comment, some art therapy collage I’d made at her request, I don’t remember what—she said something so radically heretical that I had stared at her for a moment, gaping at the sheer temerity to even think such a thing:
Well, Cassie said, is it really that bad if you get a B?
Later, when she came to pick me up, I told my mother about it. In the foyer of the glass building, we shared the same startled, almost offended stare of disbelief—she had said what? That it didn’t matter if I let myself get poor grades, that it didn’t matter if I had no standards, if I didn’t try?
It must have been a culture thing, my mother concluded, back in our gray Honda, and I agreed. And that, coupled with my extreme distaste for sitting in a chair and talking about my feelings, meant that not long after, I stopped going to therapy.
It has been seven years since then. These days, it is my mother—conscious of my anxieties, as careful around me as if already teetering towards a third hospitalization—it is she who reassures me, reminds me that a B on my transcript will not doom me to a life of mediocrity and trailer park alcoholism. Half an adolescence spent in doctor’s offices, and it is she who has learned more from it. And I—self-dramatizing, self-eulogizing, ninety-eight percent cured and thirteen after all this time—I, I have never quite been able to let it go.
* * *
In the end, I stopped playing piano. I was sixteen; college was on the horizon, ACTs and SATs and the roulette of other acronyms I had been preparing for since age thirteen. Forty minutes a day were now a luxury, and my mother—after years of insisting that putting aside an hour each day was not that difficult, not really—seemed to have finally realized that I took to the piano like a lead duck to water—i.e., not at all. Quitting, I was surprised not to be elated. I’d never had any talent, but I had grown used to the structure, thought I might finally have a chance at improving—but well, the piano and I had never been the best of friends. Our breakup was quick, almost painless.
I visited new places. I tried new things. Years of practicing discipline, of freeing time for schoolwork by cutting myself down to essentials, the clean, bare bones of life—years of that, and it surprised me how easily I took to having fun, to making friends.
And so came the ACTS, so came the SATs, the APs and the Common App essay and three more from the University of Chicago. And like a good little machine, I wound myself up for them—a little more carefully now from the therapy, a little better oiled now from the meds. Maybe not quite kicking the habit of worrying, but managing it: a lesser vice now, under control. Old habits are hard to give up, after all, especially ones that had been double, triple, quadruple-checked to work.
* * *
Walking in from the cold into the warm foyer of Lewis dorm, one of the first things you notice is the piano. Beyond the quartets of soft armchairs and the warm wood, in a corner next to the stairwells and facing the entire room, it stands: a tall, black concert grand, its wood well-kept and well-loved, keys as glossy as the notes they produced.
It was certainly one of the first things I noticed, walking in that first day of college. Not necessarily the most immediate, processed as it was into the overall atmosphere of Old World grace and comforting hominess—oh wow, so I am going to live here, aren’t I?—but still there, still present. Just one brushstroke in the painting.
And that was how it was, for the first few days or so, a part of the decor I noticed but did not linger over.
I visited new places. I tried new things. Years of practicing discipline, of freeing time for schoolwork by cutting myself down to essentials, the clean, bare bones of life—years of that, and it surprised me how easily I took to having fun, to making friends. All smart kids of course, all talented, but not like the smart and talented kids I’d known in high school, aggressive about knowing each other’s grades and always jockeying for the highest position on the academic ladder. Perhaps there was some of that, seething down under. We were all high-achieving students at a high-achieving school; there had to be other similarities outside of the test scores. Or perhaps that was just me. Already, I was noting the similarities, seeing how I measured up—mathletes and poets and fantasy geeks, boys who had taken the same AP classes, girls with the same pained memories of Chinese school—
And then there were, of course, those who had played the piano.
I noticed at the beginning of first week, maybe the last days of orientation. Walking into the dorm lounge, bright chandeliers and familiar faces in chintzy chairs—Hey Dan! Hi Maddie!—I would see, maybe two times out of five, that someone was playing the piano. I didn’t think much of initially—it was the University of Chicago, of course everyone knew how to play the piano—but after a while, I began to wonder. Some of these musicians had been playing for nine, ten, eleven years—meaning they’d been, what, seven, eight when they’d started? Practically the same time age I’d been.
And I wondered about that. Wondered about how they did it, the way they took such evident joy in learning melodies and technique—so different from my history with playing the piano, the years of parental disapproval and kicking/screaming that had eventually settled into failed hopes and lingering regret. Wondered about that, whether music had been as hard for them as it had been for me. Watching them play, humming even through the missed notes, not cringing but smiling when others paused to listen, it didn’t seem so.
And yet. Maybe it had been—at least at first, at the start. Few eight-year-olds, after all, have the innate motivation to sit still for forty-plus minutes at a time; few eight-year-olds have the discipline to practice scales twenty minutes each day, every day. Concert pianist Lang Lang Guoren tells journalists that he became interested in the piano when he was two, at three was practicing hours each day at his father’s demand—and just look at him now. World-famous, and grateful to his father for pushing him. Maybe, if I had followed his example like I had been exhorted to, I could have gotten there too, that glittering plateau where all the gritted teeth and lifted bootstraps paid off. Maybe. Maybe.
* * *
My mom talks, these days, about selling our piano. It would be the logical thing to do, of course; no one plays it anymore, and it takes up space, sitting alone in a corner of our sunroom, a bin of bent lesson books next to it. A secondhand standup, but still good after all these years, keys still mostly in tune despite the years of disuse.
Listening, I brush my hands over the key bed, say nothing. Dust has gathered on the keys, over the years—on the wood yellowed with age, in the flat crevices between E and F. I think of my stuffed animals, missing fur and missing eyes, mutely sitting in the dark of old closets; I think of my mother, eighteen and envious of the other students, girls who had had money, who wore pretty dresses and could play piano and guitar. I tell her, I don’t know.
But when she asks me whether we should buy a new one, a sleek baby grand or sleek new Steinway, I scoff at it: what would be the point of that, spending thousands of dollars on something no one would use? How was that in any way necessary, how did that in any way make sense?
Well, my mother says, smiling wistfully, it would make the room look nice.
Because that was why they’d come here, wasn’t it? Why they’d worked so hard in grad school, spent so much money on private tutors, and so much time cutting personal luxury down to necessity—because it would all pay off here, in this land of new hopes and opportunity; because America would be better, brighter. Would be nicer.
My parents hadn’t had very many nice things, growing up. They’d come to America so that I could have all the crisp clothes and bright holidays they’d never had. All the sullen, long drives to Chinese school, all the evenings spent fidgeting on a piano bench, waiting for the timer to tell me my forty minutes were up—it all had been for this, my parents’ simple wish that I have a future better than they had. In the end, that was what it had all been for; in the end, that was all they had wanted.
* * *
I still think, with some nostalgia, of being her again: Amber at thirteen, at sixteen, the girl who would sleep four hours a night to study for AP exams and refuse to eat anything before knowing exact number of carbs first. Time makes fools of us all, makes romantic what had in actuality been terrifying and suffocating—but it is tempting, sometimes, to indulge in the lie. It is a simpler world there, brighter colors and sharper contrasts: up is always up, down is always down, and the whole world is yours, if only you will reach out and try.
From a distance, it is a very beautiful world, very white and very pristine.
And then I hear tales from my classmates, Kyoto-born boyfriends worrying about the number of A-minuses on Ivy League transcripts; and then I hear tales from my friends, old classmates’ younger sisters who are already landing themselves in hospitals, already breaking down. I think of that: of being barely sixteen or seventeen and already knowing fear, the helpless guilt of lying in a hospital bed and listening to parents, angry and terrified and confused, demand why? I think of classmates I know, old dorm mates who discuss bad grades in the context of Bs and 88s, while the next moment dismissing Sylvia Plath’s suicide as selfish. I think: alright. So that is how it happens, how the story goes now.
And then fourteen-year-olds come to me at parties, eager to ask how I had done it—what AP classes had I taken, what clubs had I joined, which standardized tests I had taken and what I had scored on them. And then I look down at them, these rows of young faces so sincere and intense, and I realize that at twenty, I have done it—become the success story, the Harvard inductee instructing others on how they could do it, how they could make it. I look down, and I do not know what to say.
And then I come home, and my parents are nearly in hysterics over the B on my brother’s report card, berating him for not doing as well in Honors English as he does Honors Chemistry, asking him, why can’t you be a little more like your sister—not completely, of course, because God knows how well that ended, but still. Just a little.
And then I think of lying in a white hospital bed, at thirteen, bones brittle as those of an old woman, heart rate resting at the 30s, sobbing not from frustration or fear, but because I was missing school, because I had quiz bowl practice I was missing and teammates I was disappointing, because they were going to make me gain so much weight and people were going to know—I think, and then I remember: this is not a way of life. This is a way of dying, by inches.
And yet. Malcolm Gladwell tells us you need to put in ten thousand hours of effort before greatness. Stephen King tells us that you need a million words of practice before writing anything worthwhile. Marie Curie fainting because she had forgotten to eat. Buddhist monks sitting cross-legged in temples and living on tea and clean mountain air. High school students in China opting for intravenous feeding in order to carve out more time for studying—these are the stories we tell, the idols we make for myth. Privation and self-deprivation the paths to sainthood and transcendence and not egoistic want.
And yet. And yet.
* * *
And in the revised, reedited edition of my life, here is how it would happen. In the final draft, I would go back to sixteen, to thirteen, to eight, and this time around, all the equations would add up precisely—time plus persistence equals success, equals happiness, equals the America dream without any thorny remainders left over. This time, the story would run better, smoother, stagehands in their places and actors knowing all their lines—this time, it would go right.
* * *
But in the end, it is always the same story. In the end—after all the hours of self-doubt and self-recrimination, of staring at still-familiar keys and wondering what if, what if—after all that and all the years, it always ends the same way.
I stand up. Take my fingers off the keys: Put my old sheet music away, thinking maybe, someday as I push the bench back in, brush the dust off the music rack. Glance one last time at middle C and F sharp, before lowering the fallboard over the keys.
And then—because it is late and I work best at night—I make myself a cup of coffee, stirring in two packets of sugar to cut the tinfoil taste of instant, make it tolerable. Then, kissing my dog goodnight, I go upstairs with my coffee and my laptop, and I write.
Amber Wu is an aspiring academic, part-time writer, and former pianist. An alumna of the University of Chicago, where she studied comparative literature and creative writing, she currently lives in Chicago with her books, a collection of dog-themed paraphernalia, and her plans to pursue a PhD at the University of Southern California. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in Memoryhouse Magazine, daCunha Global, and The Other Stories.
I hang up from haggling with a software rep and realize my second cup of coffee is cold. Typical. I get lost in what I’m doing and rarely finish a cup of anything.
In the kitchen, my husband is half done preparing a poor-boy lunch: taco shell rejects—the ones in each box a little too warped to stuff—cracked exactly in half and topped with grated cheese and cream sauce from last night’s pasta. He’s feeling triumphant in his frugality, I can tell. But I’m a little ticked he didn’t even ask if I wanted any. Just a couple nights ago—when we’d eaten the shells that did stand up to stuffing—we’d both remarked how much we loved the greasy indulgence of melted cheese and marinated sirloin we’d raised ourselves.
This casual maneuver is typical, too. As I’m asking, “Making some for me?” I can hear his How-many-times-have-I-come-in-from-working-and-you-haven’t-made-anything? reply. And when he actually says it, I’m ready with How-many-times-have-I-made-something-and-you-haven’t-eaten-it/didn’t-like-it/thought-it-dried-out-too-much-warming-in-the-oven?
“That’s a defense from Out West,” he says for both of us, referring to the season of our marriage in which his best friend’s wife—a traditional ranch wife—kept a plate warm in the oven. I resented the expectation so much that I started treating missed meals as do-it-yourself affairs.
“That’s true,” I say and leave it at that. No real use dredging up arguments that ended in “selfish fucking pig.” His whole-body screams when he gets to words like that. Blunted, I hear myself fling them back.
I put three whole shells for myself on the cookie sheet and chop onions and garlic, knowing he’ll want some, too, as soon as he smells them cooking.
He returns to the corner that contains his desk and the spreadsheet he’s cross-referencing for year-end profit and loss calculations.
We’ve weathered several of both, I think. Trouble is, the profits weigh little in my memory. And it bothers me. Loss seems worth more—and that bothers me, too.
Our first terrible investment might well have been Martha, a tank of a Brown Swiss, and her Holstein-cross heifer calf, Lightning. They were his first livestock purchase Out West and a bargain for good reason. Broad, suspicious, unyielding, Martha dominated any herd she mixed with. Call the cows one way, and she’d throw up her head at the sound of your voice and bolt the other direction, trailing the less ambitious behind her. Her calves had to earn her protection. If they couldn’t keep up, she’d leave them behind or at least love them less.
Stretched and strung, she would froth, breathing hard, as the calves sucked. Twice a day this was necessary. And not with sure success. You’d think the udder relief would be worth it.
Against obvious odds, my husband intended to make Martha a nurse cow. She produced enough milk to raise more than one calf each season—a double-your-money bet. The trick was to “draft on” an orphan calf or dairy steer, fooling her into surrogacy. When the calf’s shit started to smell like her milk, conventional wisdom went, she’d take him.
But Martha would not submit. Twisting like a bronc in a box stall, winching her halter tight as a noose on her head, she would fight until one leg could be caught in a lariat and tied in a corner opposite her head. Stretched and strung, she would froth, breathing hard, as the calves sucked. Twice a day this was necessary. And not with sure success. You’d think the udder relief would be worth it.
Lightning turned out as big and indomitable but black with a jag of white on her forehead. Same deal with drafting. She had a way of tensing her hind leg just enough to cow the orphan calf into backing away, for fear of catching a hoof in the jaw. At that rate, the calf probably wouldn’t thrive, but he’d still fare a little better than on sugar-laced milk replacer. Break even, I guess.
“Jesus—low broil, LOW broil,” I mutter, mostly to myself, as I take the shells out about a minute past perfect. He believes in high broil, despite the consequences. I think it has something to do with the reliable intensity of the heat, the way virtually anything will quickly crisp under it. My shells are burned on one side. His aren’t as bad.
“Hmm… very artistic,” he says of my near-loss with a smirk, as he dots his with hot sauce.
“Shut up,” I say, smirking too.
I was responsible for getting calves on Lightning one weekend while he was gone. I hadn’t practiced enough to do it well—always relying, I realized, on him—but the calves had to eat. The net result was that we never drained a single quarter. She’d have to be stripped out by hand for several days to save her udder from mastitis or some other infection. My hands cramped, then went numb. She knew where the bucket sat between her legs and periodically kicked its contents onto the barn floor, warm earthy milk seeping away, yogurty clots stuck in the straw.
I remember the sticky, sick feeling in my stomach and between most of my thoughts in those days. Fights erupting even before they hit the surface. Tit-for-tat and caring less with each pass. Little time for best-case scenarios and less for hitches like Lightning.
Pregnant and very indifferent, I had let our pony run past me down a road, away from the neighbor’s yard where he was pastured for the sake of her small kids, and into a forty-acre field of oats owned by another neighbor quietly suspected of catching and selling off livestock not his own. “Fuck it,” I repeated in my head with each awkward step out of the field access. “Let him fucking deal.” My pony-less neighbor walked with me, carrots in her hand, as though they would reel the tension back into proportion.
Desperately over-committed, my husband had spent the afternoon single-handedly corralling cows that had pushed through fences on our rented property. By the time he got to the pony with a bucket of grain, it was well after dark. Enraged at my unwillingness to solve such a simple problem, in comparison, he threatened not to come home that night—not coincidentally, just as my family was due to pick me up for the drive to Denver for an uncle’s birthday. I told my parents and grandmother this even as I finished making the soup that I’d leave for leftovers. “Let him fend for himself,” my mom said flatly. I said nothing.
I’m just topping my last taco with homemade salsa when the cupboards banging behind me reveal he’s rummaging for something for his sweet tooth, metal mixing bowls and spoons clattering.
He doesn’t realize he does this—slamming through life. When he leaves the house, the door shuts so hard behind him that the floor reverberates and pictures leap a little on the walls. In our first year together, we each bought a pair of rubber clogs. He wore through both the liners and the heels of the soles themselves within a couple years. A sales rep marveled at the destruction when I asked about repair. We’ve since replaced them altogether.
“How many bananas for banana bread?” he asks. I know he’s already mashed a couple but just wants to check. He’s the ask-forgiveness-not-permission type.
“Two cups, if you’re following the Moosewood,” I reply. As reckless as he is with oils, vinegars, and cayenne when whisking a salad dressing, he will follow a recipe to the teaspoon—his mother’s perfectionism, I think—so I point him toward the more indulgent version that I like. It calls for three sticks of butter, citrus and nuts, but I know I’ll have to put the latter two in myself if they’re going to get in at all.
…on average, he asks how to spell five words a day, from the moderately tricky to those he doesn’t bother to remember because he knows I do. He’s also reliably a few keystrokes short of good grammar because I usually proof his important drafts.
“How many teaspoons in a tablespoon?” he asks.
“Two?” he counters, because he wasn’t listening or—more likely—because he wants to test how sure I am.
This happens outside the kitchen, too. We work independently a wall away from each other, and on average, he asks how to spell five words a day, from the moderately tricky to those he doesn’t bother to remember because he knows I do. He’s also reliably a few keystrokes short of good grammar because I usually proof his important drafts.
“Do we have any allspice?” he asks. He really wants me to rummage for him through the Tupperware container that contains handfuls of bulk-bagged spices, most of them unlabeled but easily recognizable by smell, at least I think.
Instead, I offer to grate some of the fresh nutmeg my eighty-four-year-old Norwegian grandmother unwittingly smuggled back from Jamaica. She gave me five nuts and half a coconut shell to display them in three years ago, and at the rate we’re grating them, the rippling, glossy meats will be around years longer than she will be.
There’s one taco still standing on my plate, cold now and soggy because I’d already spooned salsa across it, but I run downstairs for a couple satsumas to grate for zest. Citrus fits into only two categories for him: juice and fresh-peeled. Not bread or salad.
“Here,” I say, sweeping a little pile of zest into his batter without asking how much the recipe needed or whether he wanted any. I already know the answers to both. I skip the nuts.
“Only one teaspoon!” he sputters, feigning that he will flick some out with his spatula.
“Are you really going to notice?” I reason, submerging the zest myself. I know he’d considered this. In at least six cups of batter, one teaspoon doesn’t stand a chance, but I think it’s better to have just that hint than to go without.
Cooped up at a resort outside Denver, through three days of talking around my marriage with my family, I register that the baby moves little. I don’t allow this to surprise or alarm me, but I sense that I’m distracting myself from the sudden, localized pain I’d felt jogging after the pony. A slow but searing pulling, like peeling fascia from a raw steak with your fingers. It had gone away after a few minutes, but I could have traced on my abdomen where it had been.
A slow but searing pulling, like peeling fascia from a raw steak with your fingers. It had gone away after a few minutes, but I could have traced on my abdomen where it had been.
At some point, my grandma, sharing a full-size bed with me, asks to feel the baby kick. She rests her hand there a while, then concludes for me, “He must be sleeping.”
Driving the many hours home, I feel a denseness returning to my thoughts, knowing stuff that matters awaits me. That my world cannot run on small-talk. I also remember thinking, my head pressed uncomfortably against the window of the sedan, “Maybe, kid, it would be better if you weren’t here.” The words, the phrasing, hung there like I had spoken them out loud.
A weight, the size and shape of a fist, dropped from the area of my throat to the pit of my stomach.
He’s smoothing the batter into two loaf pans now. I’m massaging one with a wooden spoon because he’s got the spatula. Satisfied with his pan, he takes mine. “Hmm… I did a better job than you,” he says absentmindedly, stroking the second pool into swirls, a pursed-lipped cake decorator.
“I didn’t have the right tool,” I complain, feeling the lameness of my defense. Truth is, I didn’t care. “But if you want to keep score, I’d say you could have scraped a good quarter-cup more out of this bowl.” I swab it out and lick it off the spoon.
He’s already back at his computer. I notice he’s set the oven on convection bake—a feature he likes because it purportedly cooks multiple items more evenly. I avoid it because I think it skews baking times.
I return to work—off the farm at that point—and pretend we’re fine. One conversation gives me away, though, when, “What the fuck were you thinking?” comes too loudly through the receiver at my ear and there’s a little too much silence in the shared office after that.
A coworker notes that my right ankle is swollen and jokes that she bought slip-on shoes in her second pregnancy so she wouldn’t have to look too closely at her feet near the end. I don’t register this comment until much later.
Two days pass and there’s a clenching in my stomach, almost like cramps, I realize, but I finish the accounts payable and crawl into bed late as usual.
By midnight, though the ceiling fan is shoving humid July our direction, I’m shuddering with chills. I wake him, but he tells me not to worry. We both know that everything is dramatic and distorted in the dark.
Around four a.m., I’m wheeling down a hospital corridor, its sick greenish lights revealing too much, it seems. The nurse asks how far along, and when I say, “Twenty-seven weeks,” she says worriedly, “That’s too early.” As though I honestly didn’t know.
They search for a heartbeat for twelve minutes, then there’s a heated conversation in the hallway. The doctor is livid that they can’t get my medical record together. I relax a little, my contractions eased by the distraction.
But our son is dead.
We both know it. And pity the doctor who has to actually say it. I don’t look at the ultrasound screen.
The nurse asks how far along, and when I say, ‘Twenty-seven weeks,’ she says worriedly, ‘That’s too early.’ As though I honestly didn’t know.
By morning, the baby floating still inside me, we’ve called our parents. “Oh, no,” my dad finally manages, and I can hear my mom gasping, gagging. My next closest sibling—a sister—was stillborn at full term, a casualty of misdiagnosed negative rH factor.
Canceling appointments until his cell phone dies, my husband is getting used to saying, “We lost the baby.” But I’m realizing that it’s not lost. He has yet, literally, to be born. The body can’t reabsorb twenty-seven weeks of organ and bone. It all has to come out. And there’s going to be a lot more to remember than I’m ready to.
I’m transferred by ambulance, because my hemorrhaging could be fatal. I chat with the paramedic, and he can tell I’m not facing the fire.
We get admitted to a birthing suite and set adrift for twelve hours or more in our own quiet. Narcotics and Pitocin, hushed voices, a white paper rose taped to our door.
My husband sleeps cramped in the armchair in my room, holds my hand for a few seconds only when I ask, wanders out to eat. When he wakes and finds me curled like a fetus, my un-brushed breath condensing heavily on the plastic handrail of my bed, and I’m telling the nurse not to fucking touch me, he finally panics. He’s raging in the hallway, crying and screaming for more painkillers. He doesn’t know that’s not really what I want. More nurses rush in. The doctor on-call has been asleep—it’s 6:18 a.m.—and it takes minutes to release more meds.
I know it’s over before his fury has even passed.
“It’s out,” I say, lifting my head back onto the bed. Someone pulls the mess of baby away, and I sleep, aware suddenly that this is a beginning, not an end.
I shuttle the banana-sticky dishes to the sink, sweep up a handful of wayward sugar on the floor. He has flour down one leg of his dark jeans and under his nose.
“I’m sweating,” he announces, a little surprised himself.
I don’t mention that he gives off energy of almost comical intensity when he sets about a project like baking, something beyond his orbit but clearly, though he never stops to think it, within his abilities. Then again, maybe he does think this and runs on confidence. Typical.
They ask if we want pictures, want to bathe our son or hold him. I say no to bathing but yes to pictures and holding, and then there’s a bundle in my arms. He’s much heavier than I imagined, an actual weight, a substance, though just over two pounds at birth. His skin is still pink, not yet gray, and the line of his brow, the set of his nose are unmistakably his father’s. Wedged in that wretched, partially inclined bed together, we curl and uncurl his translucent still-pliable fingers, little red veins running down each one. We’re swollen but cry little, dead ourselves to what this means.
And then it’s time. It skins me to watch the nurse walk away with our child, the peach tassel of his knitted hat in the crook of her arm. We will never see him again.
Just hours later we get released, practically outpatients. When I balk in front of the nurses’ station, caught in the fluorescent awareness that they’ve witnessed our disaster and our unpreparedness and the resentment between us, my husband takes my hand and leads me quietly to the elevator, then into the real light of day.
For some reason, I’m surprised to see the same dirt and small gravel beneath my feet on the floormat of the car. Then, I see I’m wearing exactly what I wore in—a pair of maternity jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt, not new or clean, no bra—as though this all might not have happened, like we could have turned right instead of left.
We drive to the mortuary down the street to sign over our son’s little body for cremation, writing out his full name, letter by letter, in standardized boxes, for the first and last time. We’re told he will arrive a few days later by certified mail. His enameled urn, it turns out, is the size of a film canister.
As the searing engorgement of breasts dies down and the cleanings flush out—the last of the physical—there’s nothing more to do but see it all in hindsight.
“Your bread is beeping,” I say, hearing the oven timer go off. It sounds loudly at first, then chirps every thirty seconds that it goes unattended.
His skill is measuring how far things are from good. Mine is sensing just how close.
“How do I get the middle cooked?” he asks, several beeps later. I can see him probing the loaves methodically with a toothpick.
“Move them to the top rack and check again in five minutes,” I suggest, irritated by his asking but glad he’s made dessert. His feet slide back to his desk.
After seasons of second, third, and fourth chances, we send Martha and Lightning to the sale barn within months of each other. He tells me he has to sit on his hands to keep from bidding on Martha when she is pushed, bewildered, into the ring and circles wildly, nostrils skimming the gates, her eyes rolling. “When it’s your first one, you’re surprised how you feel,” he jokes to a friend, but I think he means it. She goes for $.40/lb live weight and is burger by eight a.m. the next day.
Lightning has twins in an ice storm the next March and abandons them. Barely forty pounds each, they’re half dead, gray, too cold to shiver when he hauls them in. As they thaw under towels and our fingers, we notice one is male and that one of its hind legs is broken—probably stepped on—and the other is female. Insult to injury. A female fraternal twin is almost always runty and infertile, a “free martin.” We give her away to a neighbor who will raise her as a project with his daughter. The male limps hideously until we stop splinting the leg. Then it heals quickly, and we turn him out to lush summer pasture with Lightning and a Jersey calf half drafted on.
“Fuck it,” he says. “I’m done fighting her.”
Miraculously, both calves come back showing little heartbreak. But Lightning hasn’t changed and cinches her fate the next time we’re sorting misfits for sale. In our way at every turn, she wheels and squirts the wrong direction, sending her own calves stumbling and unhinging the others we’re steering toward the loading pen. Without a word, he pushes her into the trailer first. He swings the compartment door shut, slams the bolt through. I never hear what price she brings.
He made it forty minutes of the hour that the recipe suggests we wait before cutting the cooling bread.
“It’s dry,” he mumbles through his first bite. “The damn convection bake dried it out.”
I say nothing and know, as I push back from my desk, that I will not think it’s as dry as he does. His skill is measuring how far things are from good. Mine is sensing just how close.
“I’m writing little scenes like this down,” I say, spreading butter on my first slice. “I think there’s something I can do with them.”
“So, I should watch what I say?” he asks, but we both know he’s kidding.
“Yeah,” I answer anyway. Funny how things come out.
Special Guest Judge, Christine Hale:
Kristine Jepsen’s “Gut Instinct” makes powerful use of juxtaposition—between time periods and narrative lines—to create subtle but viscerally disturbing parallels between the fates of cows and of women: their service as breeders and nurses; their small, often doomed rebellions; and their ultimate expendability within a meat- and male-dominated food chain. I admire both the tonal restraint and the fierce emotional risk-taking in this memorable piece.
—Christine Hale is the author of A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations, and the novel, Basil’s Dream.
Kristine Jepsen is a writer and farm-business owner in northeast Iowa who writes most often for the Driftless Region’s Inspire(d) Magazine. This piece comes from her experience founding a Midwestern grass-fed beef company and a memoir project that earned her a spot in the AWP Writer-to-Writer mentorship program. She is also a 2017 finalist in the personal essay competition at Proximity Magazine.
Photo by Eliza Jepsen
The Work’s medium was oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, birthed one December day in 1960, Brooklyn. Boy child from brush strokes of Puerto Rican mother and Haitian father. Face framing wide-set brown eyes and wide refined nose. Our eyes are drawn to the thin line that divided his naked torso in two—a bisect from a childhood car accident that kept him bedridden and flipping through Gray’s Anatomy for weeks. We could dedicate a whole page to The Work’s hair, which was sometimes untrimmed garden with thick clusters of kink. Other times it was a simple landing strip of wool on scalp. By adulthood The Work was distinguished by an average height and flowing lines. His walk more of an ooze, really: a median for a being in a hurry and taking his time all at once. He painted sans shirt or nude. His smile was all play, all bold teeth framed by wide lips. Watching Jean-Michel grin was watching a magnet at work. No wonder The Work was born artist, weaned when his mother brought him to The Met again and again to absorb post-impressionism like a prayer of echoing stipples.
Take note of the repetition; a common motif in The Work’s life was black excellence and white indifference—or exploitation.
Throughout most of his life Jean-Michel was unstable. His Met-loving mother became institutionalized. His accountant father demanded pure tones and definition… the expectation was all school and obedience, no deviation from the classics. Going from Brooklyn to Puerto Rico back to Brooklyn left The Work unevenly seeking some form of stability, a sense of permanence.
The Work’s magnet-grin made him repellant. A rebel of law and order (namely his father’s and the public school system’s) that christened him problem child. Meanwhile the city dragged him across one landscape to another, from sleeping in Washington Square Park at seventeen to writing cryptic messages on subways in the early morning hours, all the while taking the drugs that allowed his brain to rattle. His favorite would become heroin and the way it made lines converge and blur.
Consistent drugs rendered Jean-Michel’s interior chaotic. He learned to channel the chaos through broad strokes and colossal ambition—his, not his makers’. That ambition was channeled onto eighty-four-inch canvases. Some subjects of choice were griots, black athletes, the body, and the self. Under double-weight of expectation and constraint, elasticity may’ve been what The Work craved all along, like in his painting Flexible. The painting is a shadow of near-black acrylic on near-white wood. A dark figure’s eyes, nose, and head are outlined in yellow. Jagged circles and squares are teeth. The lungs drawn in white on the torso. The dark figure’s arms loop together like a speech bubble. Kindergarten colors with an esoteric message crowned Jean-Michel the art world’s radiant child, their primitive painter. Even better he was black; primitivity from the source.
The Work’s most distinctive feature, talent aside, was his ochre surface that dubbed his success dangerous. That made hailing a cab impossible, multimillionaire status be damned. That branded The Work isolatingly individual, a Twombly in a room of Rembrandts. That curdled the eighties art world constants of white wine, white walls, and white people. That classified Jean-Michel as “Black artist” rather than “artist.” Take note of the repetition; a common motif in The Work’s life was black excellence and white indifference—or exploitation.
But what does it all mean?
If you break apart the name, “Jean” comes from the Hebrew root for “God is gracious.” “Michel” translates to “Who is like God?” A rhetorical question, since no one is like God. Even if they leave a Godlike furor in their wake: pained lovers, painted fridge doors, befuddled art dealers, powder trails. If Jean-Michel was like God he was strictly Old Testament. The ones who felt his grace most were friends and women who could stand the clutter. Some came as dark-eyed runaways that couldn’t tell him no. Others came as Area blondes, though none were as free-form as he was. They were awarded with garish love (gourmet desserts, cheeky portraits, playfulness) and grayed selfishness (infidelity, indifference, STD-turned-sterility).
If Jean-Michel was like God he was strictly Old Testament. The ones who felt his grace most were friends and women who could stand the clutter.
It’s hard to determine what Jean-Michel was meant to convey. If we asked the makers—Matilde and Gerard—what their intentions were in sculpting him, their answers might have varied. Perhaps they envisioned neoclassical rather than neoexpressionist. In any case, the makers were unwitting masters. Their Work sold canvases that disappeared in the blink of an eye for millions. Some say his purpose was to do just that, shake up 1980s art and then vanish. Some say his purpose was to color in the blindingly pale, where the only African art in museums came from Picasso. Maybe all that matters is that the rest of us felt Jean-Michel’s grace, too, jarring and certain on his canvases. Maybe The Work taught us that grace reveals itself in crossed-out words and three-point crowns, and that mercy is not as neat as we like to think.
Now the lingering question: Was he worthwhile? We must outline the criteria for what makes a work of art “worthwhile,” being: 1) beauty, 2) uniqueness, and 3) fulfilled purpose. There’s little doubt about The Work’s sly symmetry, bold shading, and pure form. His glaze was breathtaking before his decay. There’s even less doubt of his etchings without boundaries, the likes of which the world had never seen, nor will ever see again. Heroin shortened The Work’s duration at twenty-seven years in August 1989, Brooklyn. Jean-Michel’s funeral was attended by comrades and art dealers alike; the latter’s eyes glossed over The Work’s corpse while calculating death revenues. Now his pictures garnish t-shirts, sneakers, and backpacks. Canonization renders Jean-Michel costume fodder for hip young black men and those who want to be them.
We’ll say The Work was what he was: black, brazen, and beaming. We’ll say Jean-Michel was the harshest brand of divinity.
The third criteria, however, isn’t as easy to discern; Gerard and Matilde left no artist’s statement. They didn’t post a placard saying, “In this male flesh we recognize our own blood and tempest. Through him we explore the concepts of love and longing. We merge the prodigal with the inventive. Touch him. Love him and expect to be loved in return” next to his mounted figure. They didn’t anticipate bringing a spectacle into the world.
At best The Work was explicitly abstract. As one of many lovers noted, “[He] was attracted to people for all different reasons. They could be boys, girls, thin, fat, pretty, ugly… [He] was attracted to intelligence more than anything and to pain.” At worst The Work was warped. In his most aggressive sheen he obscured all obligations, hurting the ones who loved him in fits of puerility. Beloveds didn’t want to risk hearts, dealers didn’t want to risk wallets. But how do you say no to gloss? How do you subdue a magnet’s pull?
You don’t. You appreciate the strength of his hands and the resolve of his paintbrush. You marvel; in The Work’s eyes, every canvas mistake was a chance at invention. We won’t say The Work was good, good is too noncommittal. We’ll say The Work was what he was: black, brazen, and beaming. We’ll say Jean-Michel was the harshest brand of divinity.
And we weren’t ready for his corona.
Basquiat, Jean-Michel. Flexible. Digital image. Pace Prints. Pace Editions, 2 June 2016.
Clement, Jennifer. Widow Basquiat: A Love Story. Broadway Books, 2014.
Davis, Tamra, director. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. Arthouse Films, 2011.
Haden-Guest, Anthony. “Burning Out.” Vanity Fair, Nov. 1988.
Hoban, Phoebe. Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art. New Edition ed., Quartet Books, 2015.
Ola Faleti lives, works, and writes in Chicago, Illinois. When she’s not writing grants for a creative writing nonprofit, she is eating her weight in peanut butter cups, probably. Her work has appeared in Harpoon Review, The James Franco Review, Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology, and elsewhere. She is honored to be a finalist for the Diana Woods Memorial Award.
The typewriter’s film of dust: I could have written in it with a finger. It had been a while since she’d found reason to type anything. The last thing, perhaps, a fresh list of contacts she carried around with her, knowing she could not be trusted to know, might not remember. Her family, our names, phone numbers tying her to what she knows she knew, to who is tied to her, who ties her to home as she walks, her walks in tighter circles as she comes to not know what she knew. Have I shown you this? she’d often said, pulling the folded list from a pocket. Or, What’s this, she’d ask, pulling the folded list from a pocket. Oh, yes. Have I shown you this? She was always a preparer, thinking, planning, figuring, preparing.
I was there packing, packing clothes for the rest of her life, whatever it would look like. What does a ninety-four-year-old need? How many bras? A sweatshirt with a garden on it? Her USA baseball cap? I have no idea. All the underwear that’s not decrepit, her fleece jackets, two dress blouses, two dress pants, a pretty jacket. I don’t know. Sneakers. Light hikers? Slippers. Nice loafers? I don’t know. How many sweaters? How many sweaters does anyone need ever? How many pairs of corduroy pants in pastel colors?
I was there packing, packing clothes for the rest of her life, whatever it would look like. What does a ninety-four-year-old need?
I have filled garbage bags with her life. Articles clipped out of magazines, magazines, small pads of paper, old bug spray, piles of paperclips, maps, pencils and pencils, pens, erasers. A spare roll of correction tape for the typewriter. Should I keep the typewriter? She wrote some of her classic tales on it. The one about the Texan on the bus trip in Canada. What do y’all Yankees think about us Texans? We don’t think of you at all. The one about winning the speech contests all the way up to the state level when she was a girl. By the shores of Gitchee Gumee. By the shining big sea waters. The one about her boss at the Horn and Hardart accusing her twenty-something self of fraternizing with the customers when the “Okay, I’ll see you Friday” meant she had just served coffee to her dentist and she was due for a checkup. I will find the pages somewhere, in a file folder. In days (years) to come, I will sometimes remind her of the stories she told again and again. Really? she’ll ask. Interesting, she’ll say.
I will show her photos of herself in her seventies, standing on a sidewalk in New York City, waiting to hold hands with two strangers who hold hands with two strangers who hold hands across the country with Hands Across America, a fundraiser for our poor. I will explain the photos to her again and again, and each time will tear up about this tender and silly-innocent initiative that she so proudly joined.
We will look at her terrible photos—always blurry, unartful, on the fly—from Germany, China, Thailand, Tennessee, Seattle, London, an Adirondack hike, an Oregon camping trip, in front of a church in Prague, along a canal in Paris. Is that me? she’ll ask. Yes, I’ll say. Is that you? She’ll point at an old photo of her young self. No, that’s you, I’ll say.
I look for but do not find the old Brownie. It hadn’t worked in years, but I remember as a child peering down into its viewfinder, feeling the nubbled leather of it in my hands. I must have found her current camera. I do not remember what I did with it.
Without our memories what are we? She remains a Maine-iac, a former travel agent, a mother of MichaelMartinMaryMarilyn, someone who does not like vegetables, or flying insects, or food that gets under her dentures. She never wins at Bingo (she frequently wins at Bingo). She’s not interested in things she used to be interested in. You like peaches, I tell her. Oh, she says. Interesting. She no longer likes mandarin oranges, until she sees what they are. She loves chocolate. She’s from Maine. She was a travel agent. Been all over the world. She has… four children, MichaelMartinMaryMarilyn. She believes she has grandchildren. Yes, she says vaguely. She has a great-grandchild, I explain. She does not understand that idea. Interesting.
She remembers that she must use her walker. She does not remember a time when she did not use a walker. Sometimes she remembers a time when she did not use a walker. She remembers how to pronounce certain Welsh place-names. She cannot remember exactly who Jan Sibelius is or how to pronounce Jan. She likes to say, “après vous,” impressing the aides in her facility. Some research on the development of the sense of self indicates that memory and goal-related behavior and the memory of goal-related behavior work to define the self for the self. If you have no memory and no goals, who are you?
Among her articles neatly scissored, I found one detailing instructions from the Hemlock Society.
Typed notes from trips. Typed envelopes ready to send her rent, unless the landlord himself stopped by to borrow her hammer or a screwdriver from her little toolkit. Typed list of items to remember to bring on trips: Band-Aids, a small expandable clothesline, binoculars. Typed list of people to send Christmas cards to. Last year I’d asked, Who are Madelyn and Don? People she’d exchanged Christmas cards with for years. I can’t remember. Isn’t that awful, she said. Is she a cousin? A college roommate? I thought of the photos of four laughing women on the roof of a building in New York. One hand to her mouth in mock horror, she repeats, I don’t remember. Isn’t that awful?
The sense of self must begin on the skin. Warm water in the womb; mucus on the way; woop, air everywhere. Discovery of the hand. The foot. The Other. The World. Then the whole unfolding story of our life, a story narrated and rewritten in our head, retold to the world, reflected back to us by those people who say, “I remember that time when you…” or, “Tell that story again about when you…” Responses to the world become habits of mind. Will I ever forget that apple pie makes me shudder? She is always cordial, always polite, always thanks people for visiting, thanks people for assisting her. Some days she says yes to going for a walk and some days no, not now. Some days she says, I don’t know, what should I do?
The sense of self must begin on the skin. Warm water in the womb; mucus on the way; woop, air everywhere. Discovery of the hand. The foot. The Other. The World.
Near the door she long kept a small backpack. I discover inside it a pair of underwear, a pair of socks, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a soft container of Kleenex, a roll of toilet paper, a small bottle of water, a packet of peanut butter crackers. She never knew when opportunity or emergency might arise. I had called her one day to say we were going up to our mountain house and would she like to come. We would not get there until later this evening, but she could come the next day. She heard “come to the mountain house.” We arrived after eight p.m. to find her settled on the porch sofa, the porch door having been uncharacteristically left unlatched, with her book, bottle of water, packet of crackers, the blanket she kept in her car for emergencies. She didn’t know where we were, but if we didn’t show up, she was ready to settle in for the night. I no longer latch the porch door, in case some other traveler needs a couch.
Piles of letters from old friends, postcards. I find my own handwriting scrawled tiny on international letter paper, that thin blue stuff onto which I would try to pack my adventures running around the edges. I don’t find the very old postcards from my dad that she’d kept for some reason for years and that I would, as a preteen, periodically take out and examine. Hong Kong. Amsterdam. His blocky handwriting looked just like my brothers’. Her own neat writing appears on notes to herself, notes taken about books she was reading, dates to remember.
In the last few years, on the arm of her sofa she kept tiny slips of paper with the days of the week typed on them, each attached to a paper clip. Each day she would attach the proper day’s name to her purse.
It had been mine, I think, the typewriter. Maybe an older one was in a closet somewhere, or I’d already hauled it away in one load to the Salvation Army. The self-correcting tape was a miracle. Gone the days of feverish erasing with the pencil-like white eraser, always grinding away at the paper, and the tiny whisk broom at the other end to flick away the debris, the extra e, the misspelling, the errant comma, converted to dust and sailing around the room to settle in crevices in the floor. I had read somewhere that the first typewriter to be mass-produced was made by the sewing machine manufacturer Remington, which also went on to produce firearms. This all seems fitting.
She has outlived her money, her hearing, her brain, her lifelong good health, her better judgment, her best intentions. Judas Priest, she used to swear. I did? she says. Interesting. Tough shit is her new favorite.
This model is a Brother. In place of the old metal arm that pulls the paper along, this has an automatic carriage return and paper feed. It has a neatly fitted top that snaps into place and a handle for carrying. Each letter cradles the fingertip. The space bar is shinier than the rest. If I un-scroll the correction tape, I will find impressions of the things taken away. If I un-scroll the ink ribbon, I will find the impression of what was written, dim, blurred letters, ghost stories. Names and numbers.
Marilyn McCabe’s book of poems Glass Factory was published by The Word Works in 2016. Her poem “On Hearing the Call to Prayer Over the Marcellus Shale on Easter Morning” was awarded A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize. Her book of poetry Perpetual Motion was published by The Word Works in 2012 as the winner of the Hilary Tham Capitol Collection contest. A grant from the New York State Council on the Arts resulted in the video-poem “At Freeman’s Farm,” which was published in The Continental Review and Motion Poems. She blogs about writing and reading at marilynonaroll.wordpress.com.
This essay will have a dead daddy in it. There will be some other stuff in here, but it will mainly be about a dead daddy (mine). There are some who want to know the details. I am not one of those people. But I’m also not generally a reader of dead daddy stories. Add to that list, chronicles of dying relatives of any kind, memories about bad mommies, and random musings on the sanctity of Grandmomma’s cooking. But this is just my preference, and I like mustard on my French fries, so who am I to judge? But for those who can read these stories of dead and dying loved ones, of failed cobblers, of bad parenting, and don’t grow uncomfortable with the level of intimacy they require, who don’t squirm at the level of self-aggrandizing they inherently evoke, who don’t roll their eyes and think, “You and everyone else…”, I’ll give the following details. My father was sixty-two.  My father died at home in, and because of, his sleep.  My father lived by himself. My father was slightly overweight. My father liked a stiff drink. My father had just recently bought a bike. My father loved, in the following debatable order, the following things: himself (large break), me, his ex-wife (his second),  his other daughter, her children, the memory of his grandmother, female attention (which may or may not have included sex), Detroit, White Castle, poker, my mother (his first wife), his twenty-eight years as a cop, the Washington Redskins, a nice dark liquor, the Temptations, The Godfather, a good book. I won’t write about the ongoing legal battle between me and his second wife over his “estate”—basically a pair of socks and a Charles Mann autograph—because that’s even more boring and predictable than dead daddy stories. I won’t write about any of the other women in his life, including my mother and his other daughter (who was born when I was thirteen, and who I didn’t know existed until I was twenty-one). I won’t write about the team that plays football in Washington, because they really don’t play in Washington and they shouldn’t keep that name, and that’s just one of the areas where my father and I saw things very differently. But I will write about White Castle and my dead father, and if you read this as an apology of sorts, it is, but maybe not for what you think.
* * *
I won’t write about the ongoing legal battle between me and his second wife over his “estate”—basically a pair of socks and a Charles Mann autograph—because that’s even more boring and predictable than dead daddy stories.
There is a picture.  In the picture, my father has his head braided into five cornrows. He is wearing a dark green dashiki that my mother made for him. My mother braided his hair. The image of what that entailed—he sitting between her legs, she parting his hair and oiling his scalp—embarrasses me. In one hand, he holds a long barrel rifle. In his other arm, he is holding me as a baby. The way he holds the rifle, the gun angles across his body. I have my tiny hand on the wooden barrel of the gun. My father is wearing sunglasses. His look says, “I will defend to the death, this baby in my arm.” The picture says, “I am willing to bleed for the revolution, so that this little girl will have a better world.” The gun says, “You had until April 4th to pull it together. Now, it’s a demand…” I could say that I’m looking at the camera as if to say, “I was born in the Congo…” while djembes beat in the background. I could say that you look at the me in the picture and know that if I could talk I would say, “It is the right of the people to alter or to abolish this destructive government, Daddy, and institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to affect my safety— actually, our collective safety and happiness.” But, I’m a baby, so mostly I just look like I’m ready for a nap.
* * *
My mother, who took the picture, says of it now, “We were always being so dramatic then. Like raising baby Kunta to the night sky. My God, I can’t tell you how many times that picture was reenacted.” My mother is not prone to high levels of sentimentality. Both my father and I are.
* * *
Or is it “were”? Or is it “I am” and “He was”? And how do you write that sentence? “It doesn’t matter,” I would tell my students, “it’s a fragment anyway.”
* * *
The closest White Castle to where my father lived is in Tom’s River, which according to MapQuest is about eighty-nine miles away. There is really nothing exciting in Tom’s River. We—my father, mother, and I—and later, just my father and I, have driven to Tom’s River with no other expressed purpose but to get a sack. I have not eaten red meat in more than sixteen years.
* * *
My father became a cop because we moved to Bridgeton, New Jersey, and he needed a job, and somehow his fifteen-year-old charge for trying to bring seventeen stolen guns  from New York City to Detroit in a stolen car hadn’t shown up on his background check. At my Daddy’s repast, a man wearing a gold tooth and a brown silk pantsuit sat next to me. “Your father was always a soldier. Extra food tray. Some more time on the phone. Once he saw me on the outside, at a store, and said, ‘I think I have some mail for you.’ He did what he could. Unlike—” and here he lowered his voice and nodded his head towards the table of cops eating behind us, “some of these other motherfuckers who get a badge and forget they niggahs too.”
* * *
My father and I hated that word. Whenever I argued that the name of the team playing in Fed Ex stadium was just as bad, my father would only sigh. My mother, when admonished about saying the word replied, “Context is everything, ‘Keng.”
* * *
The first White Castle opened in Detroit in 1929. When both my father and I were growing up, there were more White Castles in Motown than Burger Kings, Wendy’s and even McDonald’s. The basic design of White Castle, white sparkling tile and shiny spotless chrome, has stayed mostly the same over the store’s one-hundred-year history. White Castles (popular opinion be damned) were always so clean that when I was a little girl, walking into them on a sunny days almost hurt my eyes.
* * *
This is coincidence, but growing up, both of the bathrooms in our houses were predominately white tile. And this reminds me of the time, not too long after a school lesson on Sir Alexander Fleming, that I looked in our medicine cabinet and saw a prescription bottle for penicillin.
* * *
The following things, in the following order, make me cry for months afterwards: the chewing gum commercial when the woman goes to college with a box filled with folded wrappers, seeing a man holding his baby in an Ergo, hearing the Temptations play on Muzak, getting pulled over for not coming to a complete stop, the Extra chewing gum commercial when the woman goes to college with a shoebox filled with folded gum wrapper birds that had been lovingly folded for her by her father over the years.
* * *
My father had, by my accounts, sex with over twenty women during the time he was married to my mother. This is a surprisingly accurate guess considering that I was a child for most of my parents’ marriage. When, days after his funeral, I share my tally with my mother, she says, “Well, that’s probably a very conservative estimate.” But I said this isn’t about my mother and it isn’t.
* * *
My father’s favorite song was “Papa was a Rolling Stone.” 
* * *
It is five months after my father died in and because of his sleep, not because of his diet, and this man who loves me and whom my father liked, has never had a White Castle. So we drive to a White Castle, and I take great pains to explain to him how to order. No ketchup. At least four. A mixture of both cheese and plain. He orders two, plain. He slides the burger out of the thin cardboard box and looks at it, turning it around to inspect it. He peels off the bottom bun, and then (and this pains me to write), scrapes off the soggy part of the bun where the burger’s juices have soaked through. He wipes his finger on a napkin, spreading remnants of burger and bun onto the sheet. He then neatly folds over the napkin. I am watching all of this through the lens of my phone. I had been poised to take a picture of him eating his first White Castle. And somehow, I still click as he takes a bite. His face is pained, as if I have forced him to eat cuy or tripe or hog maws. He swallows painfully and then says, “Well, give me a Wendy’s any day.”
* * *
This man, who I think loves me, was liked by my father because of a shared love of 1970s American History. My father liked this man, despite the fact that this man is white. My father liked this man, who gave him a copy of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. My father liked this man, despite the fact that this man does not gamble. This man really does not drink. This man, I know deeply, purely, completely, would never cheat. He is as aghast at infidelity as I once was. His parents have recently celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary. But a week later, I’m looking at the picture of him eating his first slider and I know I’m eventually going to delete it, just as now I’m deleting text messages from another man I met six months before I started dating this man. And I hear David Byrne in my head and I think, “My God, what have I done…”
* * *
I think I love the following things, in the following order: my mother, myself, my father (large break), my best friend who lives in Detroit, the memory of my dead grandmothers, male attention (which may or may not include sex), White Castle…
I think I love the following things, in the following order: my mother, myself, my father (large break), my best friend who lives in Detroit, the memory of my dead grandmothers, male attention (which may or may not include sex), White Castle, Detroit, a nice glass of wine, a good book, The Godfather.
I know I don’t love the following things as much as I should: the man who doesn’t like White Castle, my father’s family, New Jersey, police officers.
* * *
When my father graduated from the Trenton Police Academy, we went to White Castle for his graduation dinner. This probably isn’t important, but I wanted to mention it anyway.
* * *
In what was probably my mother’s last stand against “the man,” she didn’t seek child support from my father when we moved out. (Perhaps, she should have. At that point, my father had already been in the system for six years.) The arrangement was that she wouldn’t get the courts involved, provided that my parents would alternate on paying for my college tuition. When my second semester arrived and it became time for my father to pay, he wasn’t able to pay. Somehow (credit cards, overtime, loans) my mother was able to get the tuition. In the fall, my father again was unable to pay his portion. I had to come home, to Bridgeton, for two years.
* * *
During that first summer home, my father came over to show me a brand new truck he and Madame Mastodon had just purchased. It was one of the Big Three’s finest—white, all chrome with custom details. I would like to say that I reasonably shared my disappointment with my father; that I calmly asked how he could afford a truck, yet, could ignore the bills from my university’s bursar’s office. But I didn’t. I cried, I yelled. I cursed. I slammed the door. I did not speak to my father for seven years.
* * *
In dead daddy stories, someone inevitably wishes they hadn’t said this or wishes they hadn’t done that. But, I’m not one of those people.
* * *
In dead daddy stories, someone inevitably wishes they hadn’t said this or wishes they hadn’t done that. But, I’m not one of those people.
So, yeah, this isn’t really about White Castle. But it should be. Those perfect little burgers, made square so that they can fit more on the grill. Those five holes in the center so that the meat melts, melts in your mouth. Those crispy, crinkly, crunchy fries. And the Coke. My God, the Coca-Cola.
* * *
Six months later, my closest friend, my friend who lives in Detroit, told me that White Castle was selling turkey sliders. And since I gave up red meat, when I go—nay, went—to White Castle with my dad, I’d have to order chicken (which is NOT the same thing). She called me, whispering on the phone from underneath her cubicle. She knew what hearing that news would mean to me. The next Saturday, after getting her call, I went to three White Castles in upstate New Jersey, with employees at each store looking blankly at me when I asked for turkey burgers. A year earlier, this would have been the perfect joke to play on me. Seven months earlier, I would have laughed when I went to my fourth White Castle, this time near Penn Station, and again, was met with confused faces when I placed my order. Four turkey burgers, no ketchup, fries, a Coke.
No turkey, the counter woman said to me twice because I just stood there, looking at her after she had said it the first time. She looked to her coworker as if maybe her English wasn’t getting the message across. I ordered fries, Coke, two chicken sandwiches, and walked to a table.
And I’m sitting there, in a booth, in a White Castle, and I’m thinking about my daddy. And for some reason, I remember something I had forgotten about, the way that it happens in dead daddy stories.
My father and I are at a beach, a lake, really, and he is trying to teach me to swim. And he promises me if I can hold my breath, if I try to swim just a bit, he’ll take me over to a sandbar that exists on the other side. And because my father knows me and because my father knows that I have never seen a sandbar, and because my father knows that in just the few minutes since he’s made that offer, I’ve imagined the sandbar to be much more than a patch of sand, he knows how much of an incentive that offer was. And so I try to swim much harder than I had been trying earlier. I make it halfway towards him where he stood, marking my distance. After I rest for a bit, he tells me to hop on his back and then my father dives in and swims towards the sandbar. I am scared. I am excited. I hold onto his neck too tightly, and at times he says to me, “Not so tight, Pooh.” But he keeps swimming, he keeps swimming.
I’m suddenly one of those people crying in public. I’m furiously wiping my eyes with a napkin someone left on the table. And I know the poor girl at the counter is thinking that I’m unstable or I’m taking their lack of turkey really hard. And as my number is called, as they tell me my order is ready, I’m crying in a booth in a White Castle because it hits me, really hits me. In dead daddy stories, fathers can be a lot of things. But the one thing they can’t ever be is alive.
 The average life expectancy for black males in the United States is 71.8. This is about five years shorter than the expected age of death for white men, seven years shorter than the expectancy of black women and about ten years less than that of white women.
 His official cause of death was listed as sleep apnea. Who knew?
 The order of the next two things in his list is debatable. For the years 1998-2013, his ex-wife—the hideous succubus in the form of Mrs. Snufflelupagus  who he was married to during that time—might be third in this list. For the years 1971-1987, my mother would have been third, and for a brief period, second in the list.
 This is being unkind to Mrs. Snufflelupagus, who besides being a perfectly lovely beast, had the most exquisite eyelashes that were years ahead of the trend.
 In dead daddy stories, there is always a picture.
 “They must arm themselves as best they can (rifles, revolvers, bombs, knives, knuckle-dusters, sticks, rags soaked in kerosene for starting fires, ropes or rope ladders, shovels for building barricades, pyroxylin cartridges, barbed wire, nails [against cavalry], etc., etc.). Under no circumstances should they wait for help from other sources, from above, from the outside; they must procure everything themselves.” –Lenin “Sometimes you have to pick up the gun, to put down the gun.” –Malcolm X
 I cannot make this shit up.
Special Guest Judge, Ana Maria Spagna, on “Dead Daddies and White Castles”:
“There is so much to admire in this essay: the lively voice, the powerful imagery (the rifle, the sunglasses, the cornrows, the soggy White Castle bun), the strong sense of context, the subtle humor, and most of all the devastating self-awareness of the narrator.”
–Ana Maria Spagna is the author of six nonfiction books including Reclaimers and Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.
N’kenge Feagin is a Philadelphia-based, Detroit-born, Jersey-raised writer who spent most of her adult life living in Washington, DC. She’s been an adjunct, state park janitor, Girl 6, bartender, program coordinator, hostess, fugitive, waitress, comedy scriptwriter, nonprofit supervisor, restaurant manager, and to her five-year-old relatives, “The Best Cousin EVERRR.”
My daughter, Angie, splashes in the swimming pool one minute, then jumps into the hot tub the next minute, at our rented beach house in Kea’au, a tiny town on the eastern side of Hawaii’s Big Island. Afternoon clouds break as she goes from one extreme to the other, sending herself into alternating fits of giggles and shivers. Beyond her, past a row of towering palms, lies the mighty Pacific Ocean, still roiling from a passing storm. Giant waves pound the jet-black lava rocks, fierce and curling, like a temper.
From this distance, I can hear the ocean’s relentless rumble, feel each wave in my chest like the after-boom of fireworks. I can also scan the horizon for signs of trouble. In 1946, a tsunami hit this part of the island, killing 159 people. Among the dead were twenty schoolchildren—all second-graders, just like my daughter.
But here on the island, we sit at the mouth of an angry sea, its churlish tongue lashing at the edges of the land.
That day in 1946, the wave hit just before 7 a.m., about the time Angie would normally be eating her scrambled eggs and drinking her chocolate milk at the kitchen table. I’m usually on my second cup of coffee by then, ready to swap pajama-bottoms for jeans and walk her to school. We live in Los Angeles, closer to the mountains than the ocean. The mountains have their own dangers: rockslides, wildfires, mountain lions, bears. But here on the island, we sit at the mouth of an angry sea, its churlish tongue lashing at the edges of the land.
And what if I were to see an approaching tsunami? Would there be enough time to react? Time to pull Angie from the pool? Time to alert my husband, James, inside the beach house? Time to jump in our rental car and drive to higher ground? Seventy years ago, the surge took residents by surprise, sending them scrambling for shelter. Those who didn’t find refuge in time were swept out to sea. Homes were destroyed. Buildings were ruined. Children were missing.
My child is safe. My child is secure. This is my mantra, recited daily whether she’s in school or at a friend’s house or climbing on the jungle gym at the park. The words are a balm, of sorts, for the constant worry that something bad is going to happen to my family. But she is fine. See? There she is on the deck, happy and healthy, hopping from the cold pool to the steaming tub, feeling one extreme and then another on her ivory skin.
* * *
My husband wanted to go to Costa Rica. Ten days in the rainforest, he said. Ziplining, snorkeling, trekking through jungles, swimming under waterfalls. Instead, my mind flashed to jaguars, monkeys and poisonous snakes, to vaccinations and passports and civil unrest in neighboring countries.
How about Hawaii? I suggested.
Sure, he said. Find a place to rent. Something on the water.
We chose the east side of the Big Island, mostly for its verdant landscape and lack of tourists—the perfect place to celebrate Christmas and our first wedding anniversary. For days, I searched online and over the phone, looking for a place for the three of us to stay. But with only three weeks to go before the holiday, everything was either booked or too expensive. I wondered if I’d have to face the wilds of Central America.
Eventually, though, I found the beach house in Kea’au, just south of Hilo. It promised quietude and privacy, two things lacking in suburban LA. I paid the deposit and exchanged email messages with the owner, who sent along photographs of coconuts and pineapples growing in the yard, of hibiscuses and bromeliads lining the walkway, of the setting sun glowing warm and orange over the water.
With my internet search focused entirely on rental properties, I overlooked an important fact: the Big Island is home to three active volcanoes, including one currently in a state of eruption. Videos from Hawaiian television stations showed lava flowing from Mt. Kilauea toward the remote village of Pahoa. Residents were evacuating. A handful of homes had already burned. All of this was happening eleven miles from Kea’au, our tropical island retreat, our safe alternative to Costa Rica. I wanted to cancel, but the plane tickets were already booked. The rental deposit had already been paid.
In the days leading up to our vacation, I lost sight of the bromeliads. I forgot about the radiant sky and the abundant fruit. Instead, I lay awake in the night thinking about Hilo, the foggy coastal town prone to tsunamis, and Pahoa, the tiny village in the path of an erupting volcano. I thought of riptides pulling my child out to sea, of storm waves flooding our beach house, of red-hot liquid rock blocking the only road out of town.
* * *
When I was a child, maybe six or seven, I told my mother something bad was going to happen. I didn’t know what, and I didn’t know when, but something terrible was waiting, like an animal ready to pounce. Now, as an adult, I wonder where that feeling came from. Was it inherited from my father, who unplugged the toaster and the television whenever we left the house? Or was it more pragmatic? In my hometown in rural western Maine, terrible things happened all the time. Cars veered off snowy roadways. Parents lost their jobs. Trailer homes burned down, sometimes even on Christmas Day. In our own trailer, which rested on blocks at the end of a dead-end street, Dad sometimes lost his temper. After his shift at the local shoe factory, he came home chatty or surly, depending on how many beers he’d had. Any little thing—unfolded laundry or a bicycle left in the driveway—could set him off. I learned how to be on guard, ready for anything.
* * *
The first newspaper story I ever wrote as a journalist was about death. It was August 1997, and the car carrying Princess Diana had just crashed into a tunnel wall in Paris. Her passing was sudden and grisly, and despite the geographical distance, it left people in the United States reeling. My assignment that day was to interview locals who were stricken by the loss, even though they had never actually met the princess.
After the story made page one, my reporting career comprised a slew of personal and national tragedies: fires, murders, assaults, even a kidnapping. Some of the incidents were high profile, like the crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane off Martha’s Vineyard or the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. But most were regular people doing regular things. A Marine carjacked on his way home from boot camp. A nine-year-old boy with terminal cancer. A woman who lost her job and her lover after contracting Lyme disease. I listened to their experiences and wrote their stories, all the while wondering whether they had sensed something bad was going to happen. Had they felt dread or a sense of impending danger? Or had they been completely blind-sided, thrown off track by something too terrible to even imagine?
Sometimes after deadline, I’d sit in my car in the employee parking lot and crumble beneath the weight of their despair. I’d cry for them and for myself, because if something terrible could happen to such nice people, then something terrible could also happen to me.
* * *
When my daughter was born in 2006, I gave up news writing to focus on raising her in a world where good things happen, not just bad. By then, though, the damage was done. I saw trouble everywhere. My baby’s leg could get caught in the swing set. The blanket in her crib could smother her in the night. She might choke on a Cheerio or tumble down the stairs. Then what would I do?
That year, during the divorce, I had my first panic attack. As I stood at the kitchen counter slicing cheese for Angie’s lunch, a dark wave moved over me.
Her father, my first husband, worked as a boat driver, and when he went to work each morning, I worried he might fall off the vessel and drown. I imagined all the widows I’d met over the years, all the children whose fathers died in the World Trade Center, who had heart attacks at work or were killed in Iraq. I made urgent prayers. Please don’t let anything bad happen to my family. I crossed my fingers. I begged him to be careful. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Something bad happened anyway, only it wasn’t the thing I’d thought it would be. Instead of falling off the boat, he fell in love with another woman.
That year, during the divorce, I had my first panic attack. As I stood at the kitchen counter slicing cheese for Angie’s lunch, a dark wave moved over me. It seemed like I was going to die, not because I wanted to—I didn’t—but because everything in my body was happening too quickly. My heart slammed inside my chest. My skin felt hot and prickly, like electricity. My vision blurred. My hands trembled. Then, as suddenly as the feeling came, it stopped. I told the doctor it was a heart attack. She said it was anxiety.
* * *
On our first evening in Kea’au, instead of joining Angie and James on the deck to watch the stars, I search the house for anything that could potentially hurt my daughter: sharp knives in kitchen drawers, glassware on high shelves, electrical wires lying loose along the floorboards. Like LA, Hawaii is prone to earthquakes, and if something is going to fall during a jolt, I want to be ready for it. If I’m ready, then we’ll be safe.
Even as I go from room to room, restless and hyper-vigilant, the absurdity of the situation is clear to me: here I am, in a tropical island utopia, searching for things to worry about. I should be outside counting stars, but instead, I am relocating ashtrays, checking locks on windows and doors, and pushing Angie’s bed against the wall so she won’t roll out in her sleep.
When everything seems secure, I call Angie in from the deck, tuck her into bed and lie with her until she falls asleep. Outside, waves crash. The night darkens. Palm branches brush the tile roof, and coqui frogs chant their high-pitched calls. Ko-kee. Ko-kee. Everything is beautiful. Everything is scary.
* * *
The next day, strong winds blow from the west as the three of us sit by the pool playing Uno. Hurricanes are rare in Hawaii, but still, I wonder about the possibility. As Angie lays her card on the pile, a coconut frond the size of a bicycle crashes down onto the deck, just a few feet from where we sit. The clatter sends a clench to the center of my chest.
James and I have been married only a year, but he knows when I am uneasy. He sees me grip the seat belt when we drive along twisty mountain roads. He watches my hesitation when I’m about to try something new. He doesn’t always understand the origin of my anxiety or grasp how deeply it affects me, but he stays composed and logical, a welcome antidote to my agitation.
For a moment, nobody moves. But then James sets down his cards, walks to the frond in the yard and lifts it up over the fence, out of sight but not entirely out of mind. When we resume our game, Angie plays a red skip card, meaning I lose my turn. James studies his hand, and I wonder if the wind will get stronger, if more branches will fall. When my turn comes back around, I lay a blue seven, hoping it’s lucky.
* * *
After the weather improves, we go to a beach park in Hilo. There are no sandy beaches here, just rocky ledges and inlets. A breakwater protects the cove from pounding surf, but there is still a strong current and a rising tide. We lay our things on the rocks and make our way down to the water. James and Angie jump in right away, but I perch at the edge, dipping one foot and then the other.
Back on the rocks, a young man in a baseball cap sits next to our things. He is fully dressed, no swimsuit, with earbuds and a cellphone. Another man in the same attire stands on the street near our rental car. The agency gave us a red Mustang convertible—a virtual neon sign advertising our tourist status. The men make me nervous. I’ve read about pickpockets and thieves at Hawaiian beaches, how coordinated and covert they are with their hits. If these guys take our stuff, we’ll be stranded. No phone to call for help. No money for a cab back to the beach house. No identification to fly home.
I scramble back up the rocks to retrieve our things, then keep watch while James and Angie finish their swim. There is trouble everywhere, all the time. But if I’m vigilant enough, if I worry just right, I can save us.
* * *
Midway through our vacation, we drive to an abandoned transfer station on Apa’a Street in Pahoa to see the lava flow from Kilauea, which has been erupting off and on for thirty years. On Hawaii, lava is part of life, and locals have learned to live with it. When molten rock threatened their homes and their school, when it closed the highway, the people of Pahoa worked around it. They moved in with friends, relocated the schoolchildren, and built a bypass.
Because visitors are curious about the flow, county officials set up this viewing station, marked by ropes and metal fencing. The fencing is melted in spots where the molten rock advanced, then cooled into thick black slabs. The air is warm and slightly sulfurous, as small, scattered plumes of smoke still rise over the hardened landscape. Spectators are quiet and still, humbled by the sight of what nature can do.
Along the ropes lay piles of coins, fruits and colorful flowers—a stark contrast to the hard, black lava-rock. These are gifts, or makana, left behind to appease Pele, the goddess of volcanoes. Angie and I leave the only things we have in our pockets: two pennies and a piece of spearmint gum wrapped in silver paper—a modest appeasement for the deity of destruction and regeneration.
* * *
After the divorce, my panic attacks subsided. A general nervousness remained, though, as Angie and I restarted our lives. I rented an apartment, put her in daycare for the first time, and juggled part-time jobs. We spent our evenings on the living room rug, playing with blocks and reading books. Tumble Bumble and Goodnight Moon. When things got lonely, when life felt insurmountable, we finger-painted at the kitchen table and went for long walks through our small, quiet town.
When trouble comes, you can learn to live with it. You can build a road or make a bridge and find another way around. Or you can stand at the foot of what scares you the most, watching sulfur rise from the ashes, knowing you can rise too.
After two years on our own, Angie and I packed our things and got on a plane bound for southern California. She went to kindergarten and I went to graduate school, thanks to a scholarship from an organization that supports journalists. When we met James, I waited for something bad to happen, for him to reveal himself as untrustworthy or unpredictable. I waited and waited, but only good things happened. Card games and movie nights. Trips to the zoo. Christmases and birthday celebrations. Eventually he and I married, high on a mountain overlooking LA, the sky clear enough to see all the way to the Pacific.
* * *
One morning, we wade into a manmade lagoon in Waikoloa Village, on the west side of the island. The water is salty and clear, and we can see down to our feet. Tiny swimmers dart left and right. Saddle wrasses, triggerfish, small scurrying crabs. The lagoon is ocean-fed, meaning any creature that wishes may make its way inside. An octopus, perhaps. A jellyfish or a barracuda. I worry Angie will step on a sea urchin or bump into an eel. I keep a close eye on her, trailing as she explores the shallows.
I want to pull them back, set them both down on the beach where it’s safer, but instead I follow. I follow because if something bad is going to happen, I want to be there to help.
Then James urges her deeper, toward the middle of the lagoon. He is more adventuresome than I am, with no compulsion for constant watchfulness. He takes Angie’s hand and moves her through the water slowly, gauging my level of nervousness. I want to pull them back, set them both down on the beach where it’s safer, but instead I follow. I follow because if something bad is going to happen, I want to be there to help.
As the current swirls around our bellies, then our shoulders, the water gets a bit murkier. Still, we see schools of brightly colored fish. Orange, yellow, blue and green. They swim between our legs and around in circles, shining like sequins in the sun’s refracted light. It’s like being inside a kaleidoscope.
Then, in the distance, a large shadow appears. It moves toward us, slowly—so slowly that for a moment I wonder if it’s moving at all. No one speaks. I imagine a shark or a dolphin, maybe some kind of ray. I glance back at the beach, wondering if we have enough time to make it back to the shore. I reach for Angie’s hand, readying myself for whatever is going to happen next, as James adjusts his goggles and dips his head beneath the surface.
It’s just a turtle, he says.
Green sea turtles, or honu, are common around the island. Locals refer to them as great navigators because they travel hundreds of miles to lay eggs in their original birthplaces. In local folklore, they are considered good-luck symbols of a guardian spirit. In one story, a turtle named Kauila turns into a girl and watches over the other children playing along the shoreline.
My instinct, though, is to pull my daughter back and keep her away. Adult honu weigh two hundred pounds, sometimes more. The sight of the creature gliding toward us makes my muscles tighten, makes my chest hurt. It looks otherworldly and grumpy, a permanent scowl on its old-man face.
Before I can grab Angie, she lifts her feet away from the sandy bottom and paddles toward the animal. In a flash, they are swimming alongside one another. Sunbeams gleam into the water, illuminating the turtle’s marbled shell and my child’s golden-brown hair. She looks mystical, angelic.
Without thinking, I lift my feet away too, unclenching for the first time during our vacation. My body dips beneath the surface, where sunlight glistens through salt water. I grab my daughter’s hand and glide with her, awestruck by the incredible lightness in my own body. For once, there is no tightness in my chest. There is no dread or foreboding. We are underwater with a giant turtle, and for an instant, nothing else exists.
* * *
On our final day in Hawaii, we walk the streets of downtown Hilo, stopping for burgers at one place, ice cream cones at another. We peek inside an art gallery, wander a bookstore, and watch a barefoot man play ukulele on the corner. Along the roadways, blue-and-white signs mark the official tsunami evacuation route, another reminder of the ever-present potential for disaster.
After the destruction of the 1946 swell, Hilo officials redesigned the city’s infrastructure and buildings. They planted trees and set up a buffer zone between the shoreline and the business district. They built a seawall, raised the highway, and implemented a new tsunami warning system with sirens. When another wave hit in 1960, sixty-one residents died, despite all the city’s precautions.
* * *
That night, I tuck Angie into bed and slip outside to join James in a lounge chair on the deck. Strong winds are moving over the island again, pushing clouds across our field of vision. It’s chaotic and scary, but also exciting. Waves are slamming the shoreline. Palms are bending in the breeze, their fronds rustling in a wild crescendo. Now and then, we hear one snap, hear it tumble to the ground somewhere in the darkness around us.
As the storm pushes the clouds away, the stars come into sight—a few at first and then hundreds, maybe thousands, shimmering inside our sphere of uncertainty.
It takes all the strength I have not to run back inside and check on my daughter, to make sure she is okay and the noises haven’t startled her. What keeps me in my chair, though, is the night sky, how blue it is, how deep and eternal. As the storm pushes the clouds away, the stars come into sight—a few at first and then hundreds, maybe thousands, shimmering inside our sphere of uncertainty.
Anything can happen, at any time and in any place. A tectonic plate could shift in Chile or the Aleutian Islands, triggering an earthquake or a volcano or seismic wave in Hilo or Sumatra. Uncertainty is the natural state of our world. It’s what makes everything scary. It’s what makes everything beautiful.
I can’t stop bad things from happening, but maybe I can see my fear for what it is: the memory of disasters gone by. When I feel nervous, when I feel dread, I can hold the black wave in my chest, feel it swirl and churn. Then maybe I can let it go, just a bit, so I won’t miss the bright moments. So much lies in the blank space between stars. I am learning to navigate the darkness.
And if that’s what my anxiety truly is, the consciousness of prior catastrophe, then isn’t that also what stars are—celestial bodies that existed long ago, that exploded when I wasn’t paying attention, when I was sleeping or eating or worrying about something else? Aren’t they also memories of a different sort, still sending their light, showing me that the world, however frightening, is also divine?
I reach for my husband’s hand as even more stars appear, closing the distance between one bright spot and the next.
Wendy Fontaine is a Pushcart-nominated writer whose work has appeared in Hippocampus, Passages North, Readers Digest, Literary Mama, Brain Child, Role Reboot, and elsewhere. In 2015, she won the Tiferet Prize for creative nonfiction. She teaches creative writing and journalism, lives in Los Angeles, and is currently seeking representation for her memoir, Leaves in the Fall. Follow her on Twitter @wendymfontaine
Photo by Ali Dubin Photography
My brother Mark is the essence of juvey cool, hair slicked back in a perfect duck’s ass, white T-shirt with a pack of Camels rolled up in one sleeve, Levis like the skin he was born in, pointy-toed shoes that the Mexican kids call cockroach killers. He is sixteen, months from dropping out of high school to join the Navy, one of the last recruits they’ll take under eighteen without a diploma. It is a time of screaming all over the house, wives throwing ashtrays at cheating husbands’ heads, acid-bitter grandmas pounding their canes against guestroom walls, sisters squabbling over trinkets, and Mark in a boxer’s stance, face hard, while Dad shouts about speeding tickets and F report cards and a room like a demolition site. “No more sitting back here in squalor messing around with this thing,” Dad yells, picking up Mark’s acoustic guitar by the neck from a pile of clothes and papers near the bed. Mark grabs the guitar from his hand, raises it above his head, and brings it smashing down on the bedpost. Sprong, go the strings.
* * *
He burns through life like it is a drag race down a Central Valley back road after midnight on a full moon with cop sirens closing in.
Mark is vivid in the family legend, the first born, the original in a bookend-set of two sons sixteen years apart with four daughters in between. He is a rebel and a scrapper, knows how to fight and to fix cars, falls hard in love. He has no use for his old man’s life-of-the-mind, expressed in hours of booze-fueled talk around the kitchen table, nor for the mild professional tolerance of his social-worker mom. He burns through life like it is a drag race down a Central Valley back road after midnight on a full moon with cop sirens closing in. I know all the Mark stories, and have a couple of my own, but mostly I associate him with absence: his first, then mine, then his again. That, and the passionate memories of others. I have scarcely any claim on him at all.
* * *
My older sister is born in 1953, five years after Mark, and occupies with him the temporary nucleus of a perfectly calibrated postwar family. My parents call her Eve, the first female, with a middle name of Adrian after the college where they met, from which they’d set out on bicycles to Oregon to start a new life of letters, running a weekly newspaper far from the sad snows of Michigan. Adrian turns out to be the name that suits her best, Mark agrees. Those Sandy, Oregon years set the template for who the four of them will henceforth always be to each other. The brilliant, reprobate father who would buy a horse for $10 from some Indian bar-buddy. The sensible wife who would laugh tartly that the office rent had yet to be paid, and no one in the family knew how to ride. The fearless first son, who would vault onto the pony’s bare back and lean forward into its mane, urging it forward. And the fierce first daughter who would chase behind, face to hooves, clamoring for her turn at the danger.
* * *
Family pictures tell a certain kind of story. There’s Mark at eight in his plaid cowboy shirt and six-guns, scowl-smiling under his cowlicks, hand on the shoulder of Ade in her braids, gazing up at him as if for a signal. Riley the collie is poised watchful at their feet. The house has a front yard with a red wagon and a couple of bikes. Mom has cat-eye glasses, Dad smokes a pipe. There’s rough newsreel glamour in their setting of type and running of presses, Mark helping deliver the paper they publish every week. Things start tipping out of balance when I am born two years after this photo was snapped, though Mark and Adrian are united as the big kids and praise the collie for keeping me herded in my playpen in that cluttered front yard. Then twins Merry and Melody come a year and a half after me, and the little house and the little town are suddenly too small, the books too short to keep it all going.
* * *
In 1962, Dad gets a job at the Sacramento Union, a real newspaper, a daily where he won’t have to sell the ads, just cover his beat: state politics, the aerospace industry. I remember the trip south from Oregon, stopping in the redwoods, driving through a tree big enough to have a car-size tunnel in its trunk. Mark is thirteen. Does he roll his eyes and press his forehead to the car window while the old man plays tour guide to the squeals of us little kids? Or does he patiently read the explanatory placards with me, helping me sound out the hard words? I can’t recall. The snapshot only shows us all lined up against the Chevy in stair-step formation with Mark looking off to the left when the camera flashes.
* * *
Rat Fink has bulging pop-eyes and bright green fur, a long tongue lolling out of his maniacal grin, spittle flying while his pointy tail swipes back from his torn T-shirt. Rat Fink loves hot rods and hates rules. Mark draws Rat Fink in elaborate detail on his notes in history class, all over his math homework, and on the back of his report card. Rat Fink puts the school on notice. Of course, Mark is smart: our parents wouldn’t have any other kind of kid. But he’s restless, engine always racing. He’d rather have his head under the hood of a car than in a book. He’d rather act first and worry later. He’d rather leave the rest of us in his dust.
* * *
One hot Sacramento Delta summer day, my sister Melody and I, ages four and six, decide to run away from home. We’re bored. We’re tired of watching cars pass by outside the split-rail fence, bound for the freeway. We decide to visit our grandmother who has an apartment in town near the high school where Mark is in tenth grade. We pack some dolls into hobo sacks on sticks and load up a Barbie lunchbox, then head out down the frontage road. We get as far as the creek where some older boys stop fishing to watch us approach.
Where you going? they call out, sauntering up the embankment. Whatcha doing?
We’re frozen to the spot when a Highway Patrol car suddenly pulls up just ahead of us on the shoulder, Mark in the front passenger seat. He leaps out and grabs us both up, one sister under each arm. He slides us into the back of the cop car and orders us to sit while the officer radios to the general store, where Mark tells us our parents are assembling a search party. Mark paces alongside the car, stopping every few circuits to lean his head through the open back window and harangue us. “You little shits,” he says. “You should have seen Mom. What were you thinking?” We’re crying silently, too scared to make a sound, when suddenly he starts to laugh. “And Elk Grove! You could at least have aimed for the city. Maybe even San Francisco. That’s what I would have done.”
He slides his wiry frame into the back seat, scooching Melody and me to the side. “This is where I’m more used to riding,” he whispers to us, out the side of his mouth, then taps the glass separating us from the front seat. “Let’s get these little criminals back home,” he says.
* * *
In the fall of 1964, my parents finally have their last child, their second son. They joke that Matthew should have been born with the Pill in his fist, so unexpected is he. He’s also just golden and sweet enough to extend their marriage a few years beyond the end of its natural life. One day when Matt is two, he toddles out of the yard of the house we are renting in the middle of a dairy farm, drifts away from his babysitter, who is in front of the bathroom mirror perfecting her Cleopatra eyeliner. The corn is already a couple feet high; the pear orchard is leafing out; the silo door gapes open; the bulls in the big barn are pawing the ground and snuffling toward their lady cows, bumping together around the milking machines. The babysitter’s screams bring the farmhands running, and finally one of them climbs up to the top of the silo and spots Matt making his meandering way across the cornfield toward the county road. The Portuguese foreman and his teenage son bring Matt home howling with fury. Melody and I know Mark would have found Matt in an instant and made him laugh just as fast. But our tracker-brother is gone, off to the other side of the world. He left when Matt was barely a year old. Maybe that’s who Matt was looking for when he wandered off.
* * *
The Navy has Mark’s date of enlistment as December 15, 1965, five days after his seventeenth birthday. He serves most of his four years on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam, listening through headphones for enemy subs, like his father in another war before him. “This is the USS Floyd B. Parks (DD 884),” he writes on the back of the regulation photo he sends home. “She was in WWII and Korea also.” On the front of the picture he marks with arrows pointing down below decks, “My sonar station,” and “Where I sleep.” He also sends a picture of the assembled 200-plus men on board, all of them tiny and practically indistinguishable in their matching crewcuts and white caps, with one circled near the left front: “I think this is me.” He gets an elaborate certificate the first time he crosses the equator. He is engaged for a few months to a bar girl in Hong Kong but breaks it off when she calls him another man’s name during one of their scratchy long-distance calls. My mother keeps Mark’s dress blues in her back closet. When we clean her house after her death in 2010, the wool uniform disintegrates at our touch.
* * *
She’d spent her teen years in a convent, which makes her role as a common-law co-wife all the more transgressive—or maybe not, since she’d previously been one of Jesus’s many brides.
By the time Mark comes home on leave in September of 1967, we’ve moved again. We’re in Sacramento proper now, giving a Summer of Love-style combined family a try: my mom, us five kids, my dad’s latest paramour and her three kids, all in a haunted-looking Victorian a few blocks from the Capitol. Carilla is in her late twenties, as close to Mark in age as she is to Dad, and beautiful in a sharp, freckled way, partial to white cotton shifts and gold bangles. She’d spent her teen years in a convent, which makes her role as a common-law co-wife all the more transgressive—or maybe not, since she’d previously been one of Jesus’s many brides.
Mark seethes around the house, chin out, cracking his knuckles and muttering imprecations about disrespect of our mother and neglect of our moral care. He’s in Dad’s face daily, seemingly trying to draw him past argument into an actual fistfight that Mark must figure he can win, muscled up as he is by basic training. After each near-blowup there are whispered kitchen conversations between Mark and Carilla in the name of restoring the peace. Soon the whispers are more frequent than the fights. When it’s time for Mark to report back to San Diego and his ship, he leaves behind a letter declaring his love for her. “I may only be nineteen but I am more of a man than he’ll ever be again,” Mark wrote in his all-caps hand on blue-lined loose-leaf binder paper. If she wrote back, there’s no trace of her letters in his small cache of papers. By late 1968, Dad has moved solo to San Francisco and Mom has transported us kids to Bakersfield. No one seems to know where Carilla landed.
* * *
The fall I am supposed to start seventh grade, I am instead in a body cast in a crank-up bed in our living room. I’ve broken my femur in a park-swing incident involving a boy I like and his miscalculated show of interest: Here, let me give you a real push on that thing! After four weeks of traction at the hospital, I am now encased in plaster from my chest to my pelvis and all down my left leg. It itches and I think I will go crazy from not being able to move more than a few inches one way or the other on my own, but my yet-to-be-met homeroom classmates write me nice get-well letters, and the visiting teacher keeps me sporadically busy with worksheets and paperback novels.
In November, midway through month two in my cast, Mark finishes his stint in the Navy. He rolls into Bakersfield with his release pay in his pocket and a permanent scowl on his face. It’s 1969, and even here in Okie-from-Muskogee country, the war is unpopular. “Fucking hippie freaks, what do they know?” Mark snarls, tapping the front page of the newspaper with his cigarette hand. One night he storms through the park out by the river searching for Adrian when she’s late coming home. When he finally steers her through the front door in her beads and bell-bottoms, they won’t look at each other. They barely speak for the few weeks Mark lives on the couch, my living-room-mate, till right before Christmas when I finally get the cast removed.
The doctor comes to the house to saw the thing off, and once he leaves I am horrified to see my dead-white, atrophied left limb. I’d just started shaving my legs before the accident, and now I am convinced I looked like a diseased gorilla. I start crying the way only a twelve-year-old girl can, as if all life is ending. My mom and sisters are fluttering around, trying to console me, when Mark drains his beer and stamps out his cigarette. “Start the bath water running,” he tells Ade, who scurries off to comply. He scoops me up off the bed like a in a fairytale. “Time to get this one ship-shape again.” Ignoring my shrieks of mortification, he carries me into the bathroom and places me gently in the tub. “Don’t worry, I kept my eyes closed the whole time,” he tells me.
The next day he throws his duffel bag into the back of his Impala and heads out again.
* * *
There’s a girl in Milwaukee, the sister of a Navy buddy. They’d met by chance when Mark was on shore-leave six months earlier. Christine is dark-haired, dark-eyed, ivory-skinned, the kind of girl you’d drive all night and a day to see. They get jobs together at the appliance factory in West Bend. He fixes cars on the side. In their wedding picture marked August 1970, Mark in his white tuxedo seems to fade a little in the flare of Christine’s beauty. They have a baby girl the following May and name her Misty. We all take turns pushing her stroller to the corner and back in front of Mom’s house in Bakersfield when they bring Misty to visit as a toddler, the first grandchild. She looks just like her mother, who seems weary of childrearing already and is inclined to snap when Misty and her Uncle Matt, now eight, get racing too fast on the sprinkler-wet sidewalk. Mark draws a cartoon of Misty guarding her ice cream cone from our assorted pets. The posture is pure Rat Fink, though the face is essence of Veronica.
* * *
Something happens out there in the middle of the country, where life is supposed to be as reliable as brats and beer when the Packers play.
Something happens out there in the middle of the country, where life is supposed to be as reliable as brats and beer when the Packers play. Mark and Christine are in their groove, staggering shifts at the plant, kid-chasing, pillowing into a cluster of other young couples doing the same. Everyone in their twenties, smoothing out the rough winters and rougher childhoods by grabbing onto good times. At some point someone cheats a little, grabs a good time that’s not really theirs, and it starts a chain reaction. Next thing you know, Christine is slicing into Mark’s clothes with pinking shears and throwing them out onto the frozen lawn, then digging a scratch across the cherry paint-job on the hood of his Impala with her nail file. Mark moves in with Ellen instead, who is small and kind, with long honey hair and flowing skirts to contrast with Christine’s hard glamour. Once Christine sets her sights on her next husband and starts making it hard to see Misty—no, she can’t visit your house while that whore is there; no, Sundays won’t work anymore, Kurt and I take her to church now—there’s no point in Mark’s staying around. He makes his way with Ellen back to California, where at least there’s no snow, and no exes to trip over every time you go out to pick up a six of Schlitz.
* * *
That June, Mark and his Navy buddy Snakey lease a gas station together near Whittier. It is right off the highway, two exits from Disneyland, and a crushed empty’s throw over a concrete canal from East LA. Mark hires Matt, age eleven, to come work for him for the summer. Matt is thrilled to be hanging with the big brother he is just getting to know, but his real focus is saving up enough money to go to Disney. Matt paints the gas station bathrooms, and repaints them when they get graffitied the very next day. He sweeps the office and restocks the windshield washing fluid and once in a while gets to fill up a car, careful not to spill a drop of gas. On days off he sneaks through the hole in the chain-link fence and picks his way through the dust and sand to the trickling stream of the Rio Hondo Channel, a tributary of the LA River. Down there, the roar of the freeway mixes with the wind and water to make a sound like a good engine humming.
When they get to the last week of summer, Mark drives Matt to Anaheim, pulls up to the gates of the Magic Kingdom, and opens his wallet. “Here’s your pay,” Mark says, handing over $100. “I’ll be back to pick you up at 5 p.m.” The next day, he does exactly the same thing.
Matt figures out the first day that by stationing himself near the exit around mid-afternoon and looking forlorn, he becomes the recipient of every departing family’s unused tickets. He goes on his favorite rides three, four, five times. He eats his body weight in Matterhorn sundaes. And when Mark later gives up the gas station and moves to Bakersfield, he puts Matt to work again, this time sorting the seeds out of oversize plastic bags of pot.
* * *
By then what’s compelling is what father and son have in common: sonar, smoke, a string of wives.
In 1976, Mark and Dad are roommates for a few months. The Bicentennial is in full swing, Americans trying hard with fireworks and readings of the Declaration to poke through the funk of stagflation, the gas crisis. Mark and Dad wash up a few weeks apart in Bakersfield, where neither of them really belong; I am already gone, escaped to college on the other side of the country. By then what’s compelling is what father and son have in common: sonar, smoke, a string of wives. I imagine them as saloon buddies, road dogs, backing each other up with pool cues when things get ugly near closing time and knowing just how low to keep their voices pitched in the morning. I don’t know if Dad assumes that he and Mark will grow old on adjoining bar stools at the Woolgrowers Tavern. I just know that after Mark is gone and Bakersfield is out of the question, Dad becomes a magnet for young hotheads all up and down the West Coast, the first call they make from lockup. The crappy apartment they shared near downtown is an empty lot now next to a bail bond agency called Gotta Go.
* * *
Melody is barely able to sleep for a month after her twin dies in a one-car crash into a freeway embankment that Merry’s boyfriend is too dumb or drunk to see. Melody knows it could just have easily been one of many other things that took Merry out at sixteen: the wrong pickup while hitchhiking, a bad batch of pills, tightrope-walking over the Golden Gate. The two of them ran hard but Merry ran harder, and now Melody can’t bring herself to face junior year alone. Instead she buries her face into her big dog’s fur until the spins stop, and then lies on the bed in her deadly quiet room waiting for dark.
I can see Mark padding into the adjoining bathroom, wiping off the grease from his latest car salvation project. He usually has two or three hopeless cases going at once in Mom’s stifling garage out back on the alley. He pokes his head into what everyone is now reminding themselves not to call the twins’ room.
“You okay there, Mel?” he asks. He doesn’t expect a yes but he also doesn’t anticipate the wild glaze of her eyes beneath a nest of dark blond tangles. She’s wound and wound hanks of her hair around her fists to try to still her mind for the sleep that won’t come.
“Hey now, hey,” Mark says. He sits on the corner of her bed and lifts her head onto his knee. He sees her hairbrush in the dresser and can just reach it without dislodging her. “I got good at this with Misty,” he says, dabbing at each knot till it loosens and catches some of the tears streaming from the corners of her eyes.
“I’m just so tired,” Melody whispers.
“I know what might help,” Mark says. “You just can’t let Mom know.” He puts down the brush and digs his Marlboro hard-pack and Bic lighter out of his back pocket. Fishing inside the pack, he pulls out a fat joint and lights it up.
“Two or three good hits ought to do the trick,” he says. Melody sits up a little and holds it to her lips. “I see you’ve already met my friend Mary Jane,” he laughs as she inhales, then lets the smoke roll out through her first smile in weeks.
* * *
The 7-Eleven is on everyone’s flight path. It’s where all his sisters and little brother buy penny candy or trade up for a Slurpee. It’s where you go when you’re a teenager and you need someone to make a buy: you hang out over toward the ice machine until someone with a real jones pulls up and is willing to make a deal, five bucks if you buy us some Boone’s Farm, a pack of Camels for you if you get one for me. It’s where frazzled moms pick up Pampers and milk after bedtime, praying the kids will sleep through their exit and return. It’s where local stoners go for Funyuns and Twinkies, and local bums go to pee and wash up.
Mark takes the graveyard shift, midnight to eight. He likes the quiet, the long hours broken by occasional headlights pulling up to the front, the jingle of the front door as customers float in and out, maybe two an hour. Plenty of time to read and do a little drawing, and time to chat if someone he knows comes in. Friends of his sisters’ out on the town, or the dudes living across the street, or a new buddy from the apartment on K Street he shares with Ellen and, astonishingly, his dad. There must be something to this idea of mellowing out, Mark thinks. The old man doesn’t piss me off anymore. Slow drivers don’t piss me off anymore. Christine doesn’t even piss me off anymore.
He catches sight of his face in the fisheye mirror behind the counter. Brown shock of hair, mustache and goatee, eyebrows that seem to move on their own. Ellen keeps telling him he’s too skinny, but that’s just because she’s starting to put the baby-weight on. He thinks he looks tough and interesting, like someone you’d want to have a beer with but never cross.
Mark looks up at the Coors clock. 5:20 a.m. Another forty minutes, Melody will jog by to wave hello and then the breakfast crowd will start filtering in. Better check the coffee-maker after I take care of this guy from across the street. He looks like he’s having a bad night.
* * *
The Bakersfield Californian, November 9, 1976 “Police Ask for Help in Death Probe”
The Bakersfield Californian, November 9, 1976
“Police Ask for Help in Death Probe”
Police today appealed to the public for help in solving what a spokesman called the “cold-blooded killing” about 5:30 a.m. yesterday of store clerk Mark L. ____________, 27. An autopsy by coroner’s pathologist Dr. Dominick Ambrosecchia disclosed ___________ had been shot once through the heart with a .22-caliber bullet. His body was found by a customer about 6 a.m.
Coroner Richard P. Gervais said the victim, who was employed at a 7-Eleven store, 2331 Chester Lane, was shot at close range. Powder burns were noted on ____________’s shirt. Also, a police official said, the clerk apparently was surprised by the action of his killer.
* * *
Christine takes over all the funeral arrangements. He is still her husband, though they’ve been separated for almost two years, though Ellen has been with him ever since. It is Christine who insists on an open casket at the Bakersfield funeral home—as we file by we can’t help joking that it is the only time we’ve ever seen Mark sit still. Then she has him cremated and stashed in a niche at Union Cemetery, where the mausoleum is something out of the Gilded Age though the neighborhood around it is getting ragged. There Mark rests in a drawer marked with his name and dates—December 10, 1948 to November 8, 1976—surrounded by other people’s dead devoted brothers and loving husbands and loyal sons for longer than he walked the earth.
* * *
By the time Mark’s daughter Merry is born in March 1977, Ellen has purchased an old bread truck and outfitted it for the drive to Alaska. Adrian is there now, in Ketchikan, a town that has bathtub races on the Fourth of July. It’s as far away from Wisconsin as you can get—far from Bakersfield too. Before Merry has started crawling, Ellen tucks her into the bassinet she’s built in behind the driver’s seat, asks Mom for directions to the freeway, and heads north.
* * *
Half-sisters who grew up separated by half a continent of silence, Misty and Merry make up for lost time. Ever since their father’s mother connected them, first by letter and then by cautiously orchestrated rendezvous at her house in Bakersfield when they were twenty-three and nineteen, respectively, they’ve been deeply intertwined. The tattoos are just the latest thing. There’s the elaborate one of a swallow—a perennial sailor’s favorite—with a Converse-red star and cherry blossoms that they designed together in 2008 in honor of their dad, and then got inked separately in Wisconsin and Seattle according to detailed mutual instructions. Then there’s the simple feather from 2013, also for Mark. Whenever they find a white feather in the street or the random back yard, they believe it’s him saying hello. And now he’ll be greeting them every time they catch a glimpse of their own forearms, or each other’s.
* * *
At about hour thirty-six of labor, Merry swears she sees her father in the corner of the delivery room, visible just over the heads of her husband and aunts and cousin as they cluster around her, urging Gemma into the world. Is it a ghost or a hallucination from the meds they’ve finally given her? Doesn’t matter. Though she’s never actually met him, she knows it is Mark. He is the age he should be in real time, in his sixties, his slicked-back hair streaked with gray, but his face has that same surprised look it has in the photo Merry props up in the little shrine she recreates wherever she lives. He is wearing a red flannel shirt, because it is Seattle in October, and he can be practical that way. Right before her wedding a year earlier, Merry saw him in a dream wearing that same shirt, sitting at a picnic table on the bluff near where the ceremony would take place, and now here he is again. Afterwards, when she feeds Gemma very early in the morning, Merry swears the baby always squirms to face the corner where Merry keeps Mark’s picture along with the latest feathers she’s found.
* * *
In July 2010, all of us who are left pool our funds and buy a cluster of four niches together at Union Cemetery, where none of us have been in three decades. We put Mom’s ashes in one compartment—what’s left of them after we fill nearly twenty small pouches for the siblings and grandkids and great-grands—and in the drawer next to her, the cookie tin of our dad’s ashes she’d been saving in her file cabinet since he passed in the mid-1980s. We make the third niche for the original sister Merry, though there are no ashes to put in it since we scattered hers in the Kern River in a special and wholly illegal ceremony orchestrated by Dad and abetted by Mark. We move Mark over from terra incognita and prop his door open so his daughters can add a poem and a ring and some feathers to keep his ashes company. Then we file out into the summer air thick as pomade, gun our engines, and peel out.
Mickey Revenaugh grew up in in various parts of California’s Central Valley and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. She served as a journalist and editor for many years before taking on her current work in global K-12 online learning. Mickey earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College in 2017, and also holds a BA in American studies from Yale University and an MBA from New York University. In addition to Lunch Ticket, her writing has appeared in Louisiana Literature, The End of the World, One-to-One Journal, Threshold, Catapult, Chautauqua, The Thing Itself, The Tishman Review, and LA Review of Books.
Photo by Zina Saunders
It is still dark when I leave the house, bags and rolling cart full of teaching materials stacked up by the door. I let the silence of the road and the slowly lightening landscape pull me into the waking world, coffee clasped tight in one hand, while the other hand steers. I drive for an hour and forty-five minutes up I-5, arriving in Redding with twenty minutes to spare.
I will teach teachers all day at the county office, clicking around in low heels and doing my best impression of what I think a charismatic person does—points excitedly, tells engaging pseudo-personal stories, praises others for their contributions. At the end of the day, I sit for a second and read through the evaluations. Powerful learning. Best professional development I’ve attended. Could’ve provided more snacks.
I gather up all the stray papers, binders, and trash and haul the load back out to my Honda with a dent in the front. I will never get this dent fixed. I don’t care about a pristine car and my daughter says it’s how she recognizes our vehicle in a crowded parking lot. I slip my shoes off and put on some sneakers over my tights. Rather than turn left out of the parking lot toward home, I turn right. I’ve been thinking about that right turn all day.
Just half a mile from here is a white, geometric building that now houses an insurance agency. It’s changed faces many times over the years. Twenty years ago it was a mental health facility for youth. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t stop cutting my arms and dreaming about death. My mother brought me here hoping to save my life.
* * *
Randy was there the night of my intake. I was snowy-eyed and limp. It was the apex of late June heat, but Mom and I stopped at the outlet stores on our way and I picked out a Stanford sweatshirt. I needed long sleeves because I didn’t want them to see my arms. They all had the manila file, but I still didn’t. Randy brought me up from the blinding lobby, three floors to the Adolescent Ward. He put my suitcase on the bed and pulled out every item—clothes, shoes, toiletries, books, stationary—unzipping and unfolding each object and organizing them in piles.
Being brought to the Hilltop Care Center meant that I was beyond trying to look like things were okay. I relented my control, which I had believed was utter and complete. In Randy’s presence, I cried inexplicably. I asked him questions that others didn’t and requested that he pray with me in my room. He hugged me hard, which was the payoff. He had five kids, a wife, and smelled like Ivory soap. There was a tidiness about him that permeated everything—his collared shirt, high-waisted jeans, clean white sneakers, jet-black hair clipped short over his ears.
Twenty years ago it was a mental health facility for youth. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t stop cutting my arms and dreaming about death. My mother brought me here hoping to save my life.
He had control, so I felt I didn’t have to when in his presence.
Randy noticed the small cross I wore, gave me a little book of biblical meditations and wrote a message on the inside cover: What occurs on this earth by the hands of men means little in the eyes of our Eternal Father. He loves you, Sarah. I read the inscription again and again, blurring the words to say, “I love you,” which is what I wanted desperately to hear from him. I wanted him to take me home with him at the end of his shift and plunk me down at that table of seven.
He was one man in a cluster of men that fit a particular profile: Christian, a father, conservative, a caregiving rescuer. These men made me cry easily. I needed their physical touch in a way that was a bottomless asking.
At the HCC, our days were composed of a rigid schedule that started at six a.m. The first few days there I felt half-dead, either from waking early or the myriad pills I swallowed from a white paper cup. At home, I had been sleeping twenty hours a day, spending my brief waking hours in the middle of the night, when the house was dark and silent.
* * *
Rose, my roommate, had the same need that I did. She had targeted the male nurse, Greg, who was good-looking, like Huey Lewis, but only had one arm. She hung around the front desk long after everyone had retired to their rooms for Free Time. Joking, she would dance around in front of him, her cut sweatshirt hanging down on one side, showing the hint of tattoo just below the raw fabric. Her makeup was always perfect. She filled our room with a musky, womanly scent.
We bonded quickly, in part, because we were both survivors of sexual abuse. “Sister,” she would start each sentence directed at me, “My sister, Sarah.” I loved my little brother, but I had always had a deep desire for an older sister. I often developed sibling crushes on my friends’, jealous of the shared family knowledge, the way one launched out into the world like a pilot fish for the other to follow. Rose was an unexpected, yet perfect companion—mouthy to my quiet, angry rather than depressed, tan fleshy arms against my covered, broken skin.
Her daddy was a biker. During group family therapy, I remember the way she clung to his large, calloused hands and crumbled inside the circle his arms made for her. He was a fortress built of leather, ink, facial hair and buckles, yet he cried when she cried.
In my adulthood, many people have commended me for surviving the early parts of my life. You could’ve been a drug addict, they say, a prostitute, and while I think there are a hundred other possibilities in between those extremes, I always think of Rose. She was a prostitute. She was trading time from the California Youth Authority and could lessen her punishment for getting through the levels of the HCC. I wonder about the shape of her story, whom she ended up loving, if she was able to discover a life in which she didn’t have to sell her body to survive.
I wonder if she would remember me now and if she did, would she still call me “Sister”?
* * *
Each time we transitioned to a new activity, I had to meet another adult. They liked me. I wasn’t belligerent or acting out. In the schoolroom I read past the passages that were assigned and wrote long responses. I immediately earned enough points to be taken out to pizza for lunch, but couldn’t until I had reached the second level. There wasn’t a set graduation from the program, or really a stated objective we were told to accomplish. Most were pushed out of the program as soon as their insurance stopped paying, which, on the average, was two weeks. It was more like they had to provide us some system to work through, a measurement of “progress.” Some kids were there for eating disorders, others for violent episodes. I was there for what they labeled as “Major Depression” and “Suicidal Ideation.”
Their guiding principle for getting better seemed to be based on proximity—that closeness to the suffering and eventual improvement of others would cause you to follow. It worked both ways. Sometimes there would be a vacuum of despair, everyone leap frogging off the person who just shared, anteing the trauma like tokens of anguish. Other times, you would weep at the earnest confession that another was, in fact, feeling better. I hope, they would admit hesitantly, as if they would be kicked out of the sacred circle for wanting to live.
My therapist, Jamie, had the bluest eyes I had ever witnessed in another human. Mt. Shasta loomed huge out the window of her office and the jagged powdered peaks cut a sky to match them.
Rose was an unexpected, yet perfect companion—mouthy to my quiet, angry rather than depressed, tan fleshy arms against my covered, broken skin.
Most of the time, Shasta looked like a postcard with its pristine and ancient presence held in that small frame, but once in a while, I would use it as an imaginative space, a placeholder for the life I would one day have. Maybe I would be a woman who hikes, or one who meditates, as I’d heard the staff talking about both. The native people of the area saw it as the center of creation, a stepping stone for the Great Spirit ascending from heaven.
Conversations around ideas of “spirit” were mostly limited to a Judeo-Christian framework. Jamie and the other staff believed that I could handle adult texts and would take me to the storage room filled with self-help books of every kind. I would go back to my room, arms full, and arrange them on the small desk in my room. Of all the books they offered on spirituality and wellness, the ones I chose were about surviving sexual abuse. And out of all the words in those books, I was interested most in the gritty, detailed descriptions of “what happened.”
There’s a way in which suffering becomes quantified, especially when first identifying it as your own. A need emerges to press your experience into a discernable shape, to measure it next to other shapes, and feel the contraction or expansion of that. When I was fourteen, it seemed everyone had been abused by somebody else. Soon after my father went to prison, he began having flashbacks of an older neighborhood boy. He was discovering the shape of his wounds, too.
Jamie put The Story of a Soul in my hands, the autobiographical writings of Saint Therese of Lisieux. St. Therese died at twenty-four and lived her short life certain that she was meant for service to God. She believed in the power of small sacrifice, in gestures that lift those around you. Those that have studied her note the potential for a kind of mania, of hysteria and oversensitivity. Her mother died of breast cancer when Therese was very young, which triggered what could be characterized as a breakdown, in a strand of many. What cured these hysterical occurrences were her signs received from Christ. She found respite in prayer. She said, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”
It was the simplicity of her message that anchored me. She didn’t deny suffering and was still able to find comfort, to persist into what her mind had first told her was unlivable.
* * *
One of the beliefs I held during this time was that I was a pervert magnet. I have a fragmented memory of being very small and holding my mother’s hand as we walked around the downtown plaza of my hometown. As we walked, two men, twins, walked in our direction. They were like living Ken dolls—wavy blonde hair, well-dressed, tan—and my mother knew them. She began to chat with them and one crouched down, trying to engage with me. I lost it. I started crying, screeching, pawing at my mom to pick me up. She told me years later that she was shocked by my response. I had never done such a thing and was usually such a placid child.
Many years later, we read in the newspaper that the twins were brought up on charges of sexually assaulting their own invalid mother. They had thousands of photographs of her nude, in various positions, with them, without them.
“They were always so nice,” my mother commented. She had met them at a time when she was very involved with church and was excessively kind, even when she didn’t have to be. And then she remembered that time I cried at the sight of them. The way I clung to her and squeezed my eyes shut, so they would stop trying to make me see them.
Did I know they were deviants, that somewhere in the perfect curl of their smiles, there was a dark damaged yearning? Maybe I was a sensor, rather than a magnet.
But then what of Mr. Bell, my seventh-grade Science teacher whom people whispered about? He was suspect of lingering too long with female students after school, letting his hand rest on their shoulders, complimented them on their beauty, offered to drive them home. I volunteered to stay after. I felt luminous in his presence, as if I could drown in the light he doled out with each hug, pat on the back. I also felt drawn by his hesitation. He knew what people said about him. Whether he was what they said or not, I wanted to live in his classroom, yet he would make me go home after an hour.
He came to my house to visit me after everyone had found out what my father had done. He was the only teacher who did. I can still see him sitting on the dark blue floral couch in our living room, his checked shirt buttoned all the way up, his ankles crossed in front of him. It’s a terrible thing, he confirmed, but you will be okay. You will have a good life.
Years later, I was in the lingerie section of a department store browsing for something sexy to wear for my boyfriend. I was just out of high school and trying out my new adult identity, attempting to perform something—the wiles of a woman, someone who is capable of seduction.
I was holding a black and grey lace teddy against my body and looked up to see Mr. Bell approaching from the Housewares section. I blushed at his arrival, letting the garment sag against my leg. He looked just the way he always had—grey-haired and distinguished, like Sean Connery. We made small talk. I told him I was registered to take classes at the community college.
We hugged goodbye, transported by years and the shared knowledge of secrets and the power of what people say. He leaned in and whispered in my ear, “Take a picture of yourself in that and send me a copy.”
* * *
At Hilltop, it was easy to get lulled into familiarity. A strict schedule offers someone who is untethered a sense of purpose. Even if that compulsion, what one might call will, was merely the tiny agreement to walk to the Art Therapy room. I loved that room. Wall-to-wall shelves with every craft supply you could think of. For weeks, I worked on a pine box, creating a mosaic on the top surface that was white with a blue cross. I was making it for John, a family friend who had become a kind of father figure.
John was a good man. Maybe the prototype for all of those who came after him. He was conservative, hardworking, and devoted to his family. His wife, Jennifer, was the first person whom I told about the abuse. She was my youth group leader at church.
I felt luminous in his presence, as if I could drown in the light he doled out with each hug, pat on the back. I also felt drawn by his hesitation.
In the chaos after everyone found out, after the police had left, after my father had gone, Jennifer stayed close to our family. She picked my brother and me up from school, something my father had always done. She spent hours listening to me, letting me cry, making us dinner. She told me that when she told John what had happened to me, he cried. I had known them both from the after-part of church on Sundays, when everyone was in clusters chatting and kids and teenagers chased each other around the lawn. He had always teased me.
That he cried made me feel something I had never experienced before. I felt protected. Maybe valued? Loved? It was not sexual, though there was some part of me that was compelled to make it that. The truth is that I didn’t know what to do with a healthy presentation of genuine care.
But I wanted his love and affection so badly that I would work myself into a fit—sit, thinking about my father, his hands, the smell of his hair, set with grease and a metallic dust from the garage. I would allow myself into the worst thoughts. The darkened hallway. His loafers, softly crossing the house to my bedroom. And then I’d be crying. John would come and take my hand, lead me into their room, sit down in his recliner and let me sink into his lap, resting my face on the muscled edge between his shoulder and neck.
I step away from that image now and witness my thirteen-year-old self being rocked by a thirty-year-old. I am thankful that someone, a grown man who was intrinsically good, would offer that kind of closeness to me. Yet, I am also undone by the nearness, the potential harm that could’ve occurred if he had been otherwise.
It was almost impossible to get that kind of contact in the hospital. Hans, a permanently red-faced, red-haired boy, would go on periodic rampages. The kind of screaming that should be reserved for the actual act of murder, the kind that alerted the body to run and get as far away from whatever animal is in such exquisite pain and hide. A staff member would draw some kind of boundary—no more foosball, something fairly benign and you would first see his fists form, like small hearts, flooded with pulse and power. He would spin into a blur of punches. Then he would shoot like a bullet down the hallway, feet pounding the soft carpet after him. The first one to him would wrap him up in their arms, his legs striking for any surface, sweeping through the air—his chaos something so large his small body could not contain it.
Once a week, a man would come to sit with us cross-legged in the group meeting room and play us songs on his guitar. There would be a stir in the group energy when he would arrive, his long, salt-and-pepper hair tied back by a leather string, the black guitar case a new intruding shape on our monochrome, strapped-down environment.
He wrote his own songs, most of them about having been redeemed by Jesus. He had a low vibrato and I would sit in the circle and let tears go. Hans was also affected in this way. He would close his eyes, his freckled cheeks flushed with something that looked like pleasure, like peace.
* * *
Then, Billy came through the door in ropes. His parents told him they were going to visit family and when he agreed, they tied him up, shoved him in the car, and drove straight to HCC. We were circled up in our evening group when he arrived, but I could see him through the cracked door. His face was dark with rage. He looked like he could destroy us all. I knew if given the chance, I would let him.
There are two opposing male archetypes that have populated my life. One is the Randy, the John—men that would be described as gentle, loyal, trustworthy, kind. They are the Good Men.
Then there is the other army. The young men who had swallowed a bomb at birth, those who were ignited in their injury and were bent on loving women as a kind of revenge. I could sniff them out, rouse them from their disaffected sleep, and get them to turn their blistering gaze on me. Some of my men were both: older ones who had grown out of a rebellious youth to become righteous, younger ones who looked like disciples from the exterior, but seethed with some caustic potential. No one is just one thing, but for many years, it felt like that.
Billy was sullen, non-verbal and impervious to the tactics of even the most engaging staff. In our many circles, he sat low in a chair, arms crossed. The only time I saw him behave differently was during gym. We were encouraged, but not forced, to spend an hour a day engaged in physical activity. Most of the girls sat with their backs against the wall watching the boys play basketball. I loved basketball, but had spent my gym time each day in the row of girls. It was easier to conform. And I was a little bit afraid to seem okay. I worried that if I indicated enthusiasm toward any given thing, they would take note, and make me leave.
I had a boyfriend at home.
I am thankful that someone, a grown man who was intrinsically good, would offer that kind of closeness to me. Yet, I am also undone by the nearness, the potential harm that could’ve occurred if he had been otherwise.
He was Jennifer and John’s foster son. At different times, they would have between two and six teenage foster boys in their home, but Tim was permanent. Jennifer would pick us all up from school. They had a freezer full of Homerun pies and we would take turns at the microwave warming them up. Mostly they were hot as molten lava, but we would blow and bite, blow and bite, while crowding around on the carpet like puppies, watching Days of Our Lives, Jennifer’s unwavering choice.
After scarfing down the powdery pastry and saccharine fruit gel, some of us would go out to the bare dirt mound where the basketball hoop was mounted. Tim was the best at basketball, and the other boys would get bored after few games of Horse. I was tenacious though, waiting for the moment when everyone else would clear, leaving the two of us alone. In these short lengths of time between the moment we were left and the encroaching night, we would go head-to-head, the ball ringing out against the hard-packed dirt, our hands smooth with dust, sweat sticking to our t-shirts, marking our hands and anywhere we had touched one another with the smudges of our game.
He, like all the boys, had been warned by John to treat me with respect. I was like a princess among them. Except for Tim, who would let his arms wrap around my middle in an attempt to get the upper hand, would place his legs on either side of mine—our appendages woven together—any closeness the ball allowed. It was only a matter of time before we kissed.
It was decided that I would go to Hilltop when I stopped going to school. Things that had been keeping me alive were losing their hold. Tim knew. He seemed to love my damage. He was going to be a Good Man, or at least he was trying. When I said stop, he did. I told him I would come back better.
When Billy passed me the basketball, it was reflex that grabbed hold of it and lobbed it back. He was rough and fast, his movements unfamiliar and jerky. I met him, step to step, didn’t fall back when he pushed forward. I scored on him from the three-point line, expecting the wide-open grin that Tim would’ve reserved for such a shot. I turned into his body and he checked me. I hit the ground hard. He was not my sweet opponent who would sneak a kiss to the back of my neck, who would throw me over his shoulder for winning.
I mistook this boy for another. No one had told him to protect me. To keep me safe from someone just like him.
* * *
My mother came to visit every chance she could. She would work all day, get in the car and drive the hour and forty-five minutes north just to see me for forty minutes. There were kids whose parents lived in the same town, but only came on Family Night. I knew then, and have always known, the certainty of my mother’s love. It’s something that set me apart at HCC, that my mother came each day. She gave me letters from my family, my friends, and Tim. She knew every staff member by their first name and asked for detailed updates on my progress.
She is the reason I lived. She believed me, both when I said the truth of what had happened and then again when I questioned the value of my own life. The hardest truth is that a mother’s love can’t always protect the child. Even from the other parent.
That month I was at HCC, there were record heat waves. We didn’t know it or feel it in the air-conditioned bubble of the interior. A week before I was released, our whole unit was allowed to hike up the hillside along the side of the facility to watch fireworks. A few days before, Rose had been moved to another place. She still had time left, but there was no more funding to support her treatment. Her departure was hard on me. I was surprised by the strength of my grief. If she left, I would leave soon too.
Without Rose around, I was vulnerable to Billy’s attention. She recognized immediately what kind of boy he was and would tell him to get the fuck away from us. Once she was gone he began sitting at my table at meal times, passing little misspelled notes: “Yur room. Toniht.”
“You’re not going to get into my room,” I challenged. “Staff are everywhere.”
“Is that a dare?” he sneered, his face red and pocked with acne. I wanted to tell Randy about the notes, but there was a part of me that was testing what would happen, that didn’t want protection, who wanted to see if the pervert curse held. There was also the beguiling hook that he liked me (or I perceived that was what his attentions meant). He wasn’t threatening to sneak into any other girl’s room, which by default, made me special. How many times had I enacted this exchange: aggression, silence, agreement, accusation? Was there ever a time I hadn’t, was more likely the question.
Was I surprised when the hall light, that never turned off, cut a shadow of his figure in my doorframe?
Did I answer him, deflating my name in the static air, hissing, Sarah Sarah Sarah?
I remember that his breath was acrid and mouth dry as he pressed his lips to mine, then the cruel bite, and the warmth of my blood. I was tucked in up to my chin, swaddled in the number-stamped bedding, which he pulled at, my lower lip kept still in his teeth. He found my nightshirt, pulled it up and held my breasts, one in each hand. He held to my flesh like he was intent on remaking me, as if I were clay he could shape into someone else, as if I could be pressed through the small openings his fingers left.
The next day, I had a fat lip. In the mirror, I saw that he left two purple wings, spreading and deepening in color across my chest.
He had only been there a moment. He knew that’s all he had. Before I could react to his swift violence, he was back in the doorframe, waiting for the right moment to creep back to his room.
I turned over into my wild, beating heart. I never told anyone.
* * *
Would it have been easier if Story of a Soul were my story? If praying was the answer to my suffering, letting me embrace the contrast of loss with the love of God. It wasn’t. I never opened that book of scriptures that Randy gifted to me, other than to read his words. It’s in a box somewhere, buried in stacks of letters and worksheets populated with my loopy teen script. If God existed anywhere, it was in those seconds my body was held against his with pure intent, or those few moments John allowed me to fall apart, protected in his arms.
When I was at HCC, I was between dying and finding the next story to live into. I didn’t yet believe that there was something better. I wanted merely to know that eventually the radiant edge of Mt. Shasta would look again like a mountain, rather than a cardboard cutout someone might punch their fist through. The love of those steadfast, uptight, gracious men calmed the gasping, flailing girl inside me, allowing me the knowledge that safety was possible. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have imagined the life I would build or know that some suffering abates, that trauma retreats with the discovery of new ecstasies, new grief.
Driving south on I-5 toward home, I watch the last hour of sun play along the hillsides and ravines that make up the landscape between where I’ve come from and where I live. I think of my mother at the end of her long workday, driving these same roads to visit me, the fear and hope she must’ve held together over these miles.
I can barely remember the body and mind of my young self at Hilltop, but I do recall the guided imagery Jamie would lead me through in our sessions. She would lay me back on her couch and cover me with a soft blanket, turn the lights down. Once, she asked me to imagine a place where I felt protected and I saw my childhood bedroom, the butter-yellow walls and crinkled gauze curtains floating over the windows. I moved toward the small closet that my brother and I would hide in sometimes, pretending that we were looking for a portal into another world. There was a board there that you could move aside and see into the guts of the house.
In my mind, I held the edges of the board with my fingertips. I pried at it with all the strength my hands could muster. There was warmth on the other side. And there was light.
Special Guest Judge, Bernadette Murphy
“’Eternal Father and the Other Army’ is a narrative of healing crafted with lyric language and deep emotional insight. The author limns the human condition in all its complexity and messiness, celebrating moments of peace and redemption amid the pain and difficulties of growing up and moving forward.”
– Bernadette Murphy is the author of, most recently, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press, May 2016), and the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles.
Sarah Pape teaches English and works as the Managing Editor of Watershed Review at Chico State. Her poetry and prose has recently been published in New England Review, Passages North, Ecotone, Crab Orchard Review, Bluestem, The Pinch, Smartish Pace, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and others. Her chapbook, Ruination Atlas, was published this year (dancing girl press). She curates community literary programming and is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Check out her website for more: www.sarahpape.com.
Malaria nearly killed my ex-husband when we lived in Vietnam. His fevers reached 107.5. He convulsed, raged, and sweat. He should have died, like our friend Clive.
The disease doesn’t always kill you. If you’re really unlucky, it can cause brain damage. I’m working in Mozambique, where malaria is one of the leading causes of death. It kills more than cancer, tuberculosis, car accidents, heart disease, murder, and diabetes combined.
I want to be lucky, so I take the drug then wait for that in-between state when I can never be sure what is real and who is dangerous. I’m sleeping in my Maputo hotel when I hear the voices. There are two this time. One is angry and loud, the other is scared.
Foda-se! Foda-se! It sounds like Fuck you! Fuck you! It’s strange to dream in Portuguese. I don’t speak the language.
The mournful, pitiful cry must be coming from my psyche. I run away from it.
In fine print the pill bottle says, Psychotic episodes are rare though one of the undesirable effects. The longer I am on the drug, the crazier I get. There was a time I mutilated a man, cut his arms off to keep him from grabbing me. Another time, I ate that same man, scraping his tattoos off with my teeth. I’m powerful between waking and sleeping.
I get out of bed and open my hotel room door. The only light comes from the doorways open just wide enough so that whoever is standing behind them can see what’s happening without being seen. They are voyeurs. Like me.
The frightened voice is below me. A girl lies naked in the hallway. Her smooth brown skin is exposed, her tiny nipples erect. With no pubic hair I guess she’s younger than my daughter, maybe eleven. She’s crying, but she’s not alone. There’s a wrinkled white man, maybe in his fifties, kicking her with his dress shoe, screaming.
Everyone is watching. She looks up at me.
I think about the time I was in the New Delhi train station—a time I am not hallucinating. A boy sleeps on the platform steps. People are walking over him. His friend, his sister, I don’t know which, pulls on my dress and points. She scares me. The train station is notorious for thieving monkeys and children. The boy is not moving. Is he dead? Someone is supposed to meet me soon. I can’t miss my ride. I don’t know Delhi. Why isn’t anyone else helping?
The longer I am on the drug, the crazier I get. There was a time I mutilated a man, cut his arms off to keep him from grabbing me.
Mom-m-m-m-a. I’m back in Maputo. She’s still naked. Stop crying, I want to tell her. Can’t she understand that he kicks her harder the louder she gets? Keep quiet. It can save you. It saved me thirty years ago in a different hotel.
I was seventeen when my rapist broke into a room, dragged me through the window and told his friend to keep watch. He couldn’t get my clothes all the way off. Jeans half on, my legs were trapped. I couldn’t flail them. I stayed quiet. In return, he didn’t kill me. I was thankful. My rapist had been kind.
I’m terrified for this girl. Terrified, wishing for her silence. I have to do something. She’s crying for her mother. Why didn’t I cry for mine? Thirty years of silence.
If I’m remembering, am I hallucinating?
I run to my bed and pull the sheets off, as if the thin white cotton will protect her.
Here’s the part where what I tell people and what I do are different. I tell them I wrap the sheets around her and protect her from the man. This is what I would want someone else to do if it was my daughter, if it was me. But I don’t. I throw them toward her, and she wraps them around herself.
The white man is still yelling Foda-se! Foda-se! when the hotel staff arrives. A young man picks her up while another shushes her like a mother quiets a child. They carry her away in my sheets and leave the man. She’s still crying, Mom-m-m-m-a! as they leave the hallway. The man standing two feet away looks to me.
I run inside my room. There’s no furniture to block his entry. I checked earlier. Like I always do. Everything is bolted to the floor. I should have refused to stay here when I saw the hotel room safe had been stolen, leaving an empty space in the wall. But I didn’t want to be that women—a fearful blonde American who insists on a safer hotel, a woman who demands of others. My Blackberry has no service. There is no peephole to see if he’s coming, so I slide my back down the door and hope my body weight will keep him out. I cradle myself, arms wrapped around my knees, staring at my sheetless bed. Then, only then, do I start to make noise. Sobs—a crying that’s half in, half out: a pathetic crying that tries silencing itself and results in half breathing, half living.
I’m not hallucinating though wish I was. I long for the power. Instead, I’m crying for the girl, for the girl’s mother, for my daughter. I’m crying because I’m not the woman I want to be. I’m silent. Like everyone else.
Laura P. McCarty is pursuing her MFA at American University. Her work has appeared in the GW Review and is forthcoming in the St. Petersburg Review. In 2016, she was a semi-finalist for the Disquiet International Literary Prize in nonfiction, and a selected reader at The Inner Loop, a monthly literary reading series in Washington, DC. In 2014, she coauthored and published her first book of poetry, My Mother, My Daughter, My Sister, My Self. She lives in Arlington, VA. (Photo credit: Nicole Schofield)
Before I was confirmed into the Catholic Church, I was reprimanded by a Buddhist monk in a forest thick with mosquitos. My khaki pants stuck to my legs and my collared shirt clung to my damp neck. The hijab I had worn earlier that day was still in the car along with five or six library books about Judaism. I wanted to appeal to the monk, so I hid the fact that I was shopping for other religions like flavors of ice cream at the Winn-Dixie. I desperately wanted to be his next project. I wanted the monk to look at me and see unbounded spiritual potential in the form of a sixteen-year-old girl who would do anything to escape the Catholic Church.
Instead, I killed a mosquito and scraped the blood off my skin with my fingernail. The sound of the slap reverberated as if caught in the trees and the monk spun slowly to face me.
“Have you learned nothing?” he asked. “What is the first precept of Buddhism?”
Shamefully, I recited what I learned while trying to hide the caked blood on my forearm.
“Abstain from taking the lives of living beings.”
The monk nodded slowly. Everything he did was slow.
The hijab I had worn earlier that day was still in the car along with five or six library books about Judaism.
Humidity congregated on his bald head and slid down his temples. I wondered if his bare feet ached from traveling without shoes in the woods; he showed no indication of pain. When he turned back around and started moving down the path leading to the temple, mosquitos continued landing on my exposed arms and neck. I let them take my blood. Nothing made my life more valuable than theirs.
* * *
I was told confirmation was the process of becoming recognized as an adult in the eyes of the church, but no one clued in my mother who still insisted on driving me there twice a week as she had done my entire life. She knew that I disagreed with many lessons taught in my religious education classes, but I never told her that I was ejected once during a discussion about women’s roles in the church.
Although my religious education leader was a woman, she maintained that since Jesus did not ordain any women in the Bible, the church should never allow women to hold any positions of power. She argued that God deliberately made women weaker than men and she cited the Bible as evidence.
“Has it ever occurred to you that book was written by men?” I spat. “You act like it came flying down from Heaven and that’s just bullshit.”
I hid in the bathroom for the duration of class, trying to forget the indignant look on my teacher’s face as she silently held open the door for me to leave. On the way home, I stared fixedly out the window so that my mom wouldn’t notice the tears coating my hot cheeks.
When I approached my confirmation mentor to ask if I could explore other religions, she agreed that I should be educated in other systems of faith before committing to Catholicism. She sent me to a synagogue where the Torah was taken down from a sparkling golden shrine and unraveled before my eyes. She took me to an Eastern Orthodox Church where the murals were so bright and enveloping that I forgot to breathe while staring up at them. She even offered me a hijab to wear for my first time entering a mosque.
“Before you enter the masjid, you must cover your head with this,” she said, touching the golden crucifix dangling from her neck. “Non-Muslims are welcome to see the Islamic way of prayer, but you must be modest.”
I think my church knew that my brief voyages into other faiths only provided the illusion of free will. They were constructed to make me feel alien so that when I returned to the familiar wooden benches and stained glass I would feel at home. Catholicism was inevitable for me as long as I lived under the domain of my mother.
For a while, I tried to talk to her about my exploration of other religions. On the way to a Saturday evening mass I told her all about the Muslim’s systematic worship in the mosque. It gave me comfort to remember watching from the balcony as they chanted to Allah and fell to their knees in unison. My hijab kept unraveling and blocking my view, but I pushed it back and kept watching. Their faith was raw and honest and I envied it.
“In Islam, there is no Heaven,” I told my mom. “This life is just preparation for the next realm of existence. So death is just movement, not permanent. Isn’t that interesting?”
My mother didn’t answer. She pulled into our usual spot in the church lot and walked intently through the glass doors leading to the narthex. They swung closed before I could catch up with her, but I entered in time to see her genuflect at the end of our regular pew and drop to her knees. It creaked loudly but I doubt she heard. Her eyes were already squeezed tight and her fingers laced in prayer.
Around the time I was exploring other faiths I was also attending a world history class taught by an elderly man with kind eyes who called himself a determinist.
“Based on what I know of things, I do not believe in free will,” Mr. Johnson told us. “By definition, determinism is the philosophy that every human action is an inevitable and necessary consequence of the ones that came before it.”
I didn’t raise my hand before I spoke.
“Are you saying that you think everything we do is predetermined?”
The old man nodded.
“Exactly. It would require a computer precisely the size of the universe to untangle the future, but I believe we live in a deterministic universe. It’s just best for our sanity to pretend that there is such a thing as free will and act accordingly.”
At night when I was alone, I contemplated free will. I considered determinism and the notion that every single physical movement I made, every thought in my head, every event in my life, was not really my own design and merely a consequence of the events that happened prior. When this became too overwhelming I squeezed my eyes shut and imagined reaching through a sky full of clouds. This image alone put my mind at ease enough to sleep.
* * *
My mother taught me at a young age that bodies decompose but the soul is immortal. We rarely discussed death, but my mom once almost drowned in the ocean several years before I was born. She never learned how to swim but she could float on her back, which is how she saw the lifeguard frantically blowing his whistle and waving a green flag to warn her of the undertow. Without her knowledge, the current had already pulled my mom out so far that her toes couldn’t scrape the murky ocean bottom and she quickly sunk under the surface.
Even though I refused to call myself gay and promised I would marry a man later in life, I became increasingly sure that my sins qualified me for an entirely different level of Hell.
My mom always discussed Heaven as if it would be lucky to have her. I think it gave her comfort to assume her soul would live forever in a place with no suffering, but Heaven never seemed as inevitable to me.
We read excerpts of Dante’s Inferno in Mr. Johnson’s class. I wrote down the circles of hell in my spiral notebook and tried to decide which circle I would be condemned to after my death. Certainly not the third where the gluttonous lie in vile, freezing slush but perhaps in the sixth circle, where heretics are forever trapped in flaming tombs. The fifth seemed just as likely, where the wrathful and sullen would be forced to fight each other until the end of time. When I started dating another woman soon after I turned eighteen, I changed my mind. My church called gay relationships moral disorder, and maintained that homosexuals are contrary to the natural law. Even though I refused to call myself gay and promised I would marry a man later in life, I became increasingly sure that my sins qualified me for an entirely different level of Hell: a level where souls are blown about forever in a violent storm. I belonged in the circle of lust.
* * *
I learned I was a sinner at age seven. Around the same time, we were preparing for the sacrament of communion by practicing with a roll of candy Smarties. This specific event was also when my religious education teachers started rightfully identifying me as a threat to their lesson plans and everything about the church they held sacred.
“When I place this on your tongue, you must let it dissolve,” my teacher said. “While it disintegrates you have to contemplate sacrifice.”
The instant the first Smartie hit my tongue I crunched it in half with my teeth.
“No, no, honey. You must let it dissolve,” she said. “Go back to the end of the line and try again.”
Her tone was harsher when I chewed the Smartie a second time.
“Are you deliberately disobeying me? This is the body of Christ,” she said, madly shaking the roll of candy.
It didn’t take long for the other kids to catch on. When they realized that I was being punished with more candy, they all chewed their Smarties too and eventually my teacher threw the extra candy at us in defeat.
The lessons I never interrupted were the ones in which we discussed the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. In high school, one of my friends thought she was pregnant with the next Messiah. She hadn’t had sex but was positive there was a baby inside her. This was never a fear of mine. I sinned enough to be disqualified for the role. That part of Christianity never fascinated me anyway—what did fascinate me was the relationship between Jesus and his mother. Jesus had been born the natural way, but somehow the woman who birthed him was not biologically his mother. He was not a derivative of her and did not share her genetic makeup. It didn’t matter if the Virgin Mary had attached earlobes or a widow’s peak. It didn’t matter if her eyes were blue or brown or if her hair was curly or straight. Jesus was entirely his own person. I wanted to be my own person more than anything in the world.
My mother didn’t pass on many of her physical traits to me, but she blames my grandmother’s genetics for making me queer. She told me one day when we were out at lunch.
“It’s obvious it comes from that woman,” she said. “Think about it—she had three children and the only one that’s not a homosexual is your father. I don’t want you to think I believe this is some sort of genetic problem, though. It’s not. At least it’s not for you. You made a very deliberate choice. And I feel sorry for you, because you’re too stupid to realize that the one you chose will make the rest of your life very hard.”
The first summer I spent away from my mother I worked with artists in Rome and although I walked past hundreds of churches every day, I didn’t attend mass once. Instead, I smoked Macedonian cigarettes in tall grass with people I didn’t understand despite their perfect English. We lay there on the hard ground for hours and stared at the stars, which looked about the same to me as they did in Michigan. The familiarity of the sky gave me the kind of comfort I never found through prayer. I clutched the slim cigarette clumsily between my fingers and expelled the smoke deep from my belly. When it all cleared and I could see the sky again I shut my eyes and smoked and pleaded with the universe not to make me go back home.
* * *
Shortly before I was confirmed, I invited Mr. Johnson to a pub down the road from my high school. His stringy gray hair, which was tied back into a low pony tail, stuck to his face at various angles. He drank beer. I drank Diet Coke and swiveled on the stool like a child. He asked me about my future, writing, college, and why I’d wanted to talk to him.
“Of course, as a determinist I would say you had no choice,” he said, chuckling.
I wanted to tell him that his faith in determinism was exactly why I picked him, but instead, I just smiled and shrugged.
I thought of Mr. Johnson when I raised my arms and slid on my white confirmation dress. Although it hung loosely from my thin frame, I could not take a deep breath while it was on me. I wrapped pieces of my long hair around the curling iron and stared at my hollow reflection.
In church I sat beside my mother. She insisted we should be silent, but before the mass began she knocked her foot against mine and whispered, I hope you get married in this church one day.
Her words knocked the remaining air out of me. Suddenly, I was the one drowning in the ocean. The undertow grabbed my ankles and was dragging me down and I couldn’t fight back. I didn’t know which way was up.
I was confirmed into the Catholic Church feeling violent. When the priest anointed my forehead with oil I felt like a wild horse being held down for branding. His thumb seared my skin and when I opened my eyes and saw everyone watching me and smiling I was struck by how similar they all looked. I wanted to shake them and yell. I don’t belong with you people. This isn’t me. I tried to escape this but the Buddhists didn’t want me and my Jewish books were overdue and my fucking hijab kept falling off. I don’t belong here with you but my teacher says I had no choice. From the moment I was born, I had no choice.
For a brief second I felt faint. From the pew, I concentrated on the window in the lobby. The sky was blue and clouds hung peacefully above the tree line. I shut my eyes and imagined I was reaching into the sky and through the clouds. Slowly I felt my breath even and my chest relax. We lined up for communion and I flattened my white dress calmly. I held my hands in prayer like I had been taught in second grade. I sang the communion hymn from memory.
As I approached the priest, I made a conscious decision. Perhaps the decision was not mine and was predetermined long before I was born. Maybe a computer the size of the universe could have teased out the threads that led to that moment. Or maybe, like my mother insisted, the choice was all my own. I still do not know.
The instant the priest placed the host into my mouth I snapped it in half with my teeth. I hoped everyone heard the sound as loud as the death of a mosquito in a silent forest.
Gabe Montesanti is a current MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Washington University in St. Louis. She has a BA in mathematics and studio art from Kalamazoo College in Michigan. She wrote her senior thesis in Rome, a creative nonfiction piece about working for artists along the Tiber River, and the project was awarded honors from the college. After graduation, she was awarded a residency at Sundress Academy for the Arts in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her work is featured in Word Riot, Crab Creek Review, Devil’s Lake, and forthcoming in Sinister Wisdom.
Sharlotte walked into the A.A. meeting just as the Arizona sunset was throwing peach and orange colors on the walls of the cheap commercial space. A loose, dingy white T-shirt barely concealed the inner tube of weight she’d gained from a cocktail of psychotropics. Her thin, unwashed hair looked like an animal pelt pasted onto her scalp. Her skin was broken out, oily, her breathing audible from tables away as she sat down and made her third stab at sobriety in a year.
I was barely weeks into a life without wine in my hand. A mutual friend introduced us and within weeks I was taking her to art openings and she was bringing me to burlesque performances. She’d come to my apartment door on these nights, dolled up, smiling with perfect lipstick like a lady ready to party, hoisting a 12-pack of Coke Zero that we’d devour like our last supper. We’d play Scrabble or swap life stories and she’d laugh, tossing her head back and her mouth opening wide so her deep laughter punctuated the air. We counted our days clean and went to meetings. We counted our weeks clean and went to meetings. They helped me get through prolonged unemployment and the humility of staying on a friend’s proverbial couch. They helped Sharlotte face one sucker punch after another, the latest of which she told me about over dinner at a Thai restaurant.
Sipping a Diet Coke, she sunk back into the corner of the maroon booth. “My shrink says it’s PTSD. That’s why I still can’t work. And now on top of it my other doctor’s telling me I have colitis.”
The next week at our favorite coffee shop, her voice shaky, face sans makeup, she had more news. “My shrink says I might never return to work. She even told me to start filing papers to get disability.” She gripped her latte cup. “This isn’t how life’s supposed to go. I’m an over-achiever. I’ve always bounced back. My god, I want a drink.” Instead she devoured a pastry. By the time our lattes were near the bottom of the thick brown paper cups, her eyes were scanning her milieu. Back and forth, back and forth. A tiger pacing its cage. She picked up her purse, said, “I have to go,” and bolted from the café.
* * *
We count our days, weeks, months clean until one of life’s shit storms blows through, blasting our confidence to ashes, making us want to kick the table of sobriety out from under us.
As we counted our months clean, we noticed the zealotry of many recovering addicts, the stuff that’s earned A.A. the moniker of a cult. Specialized language and symbols are like secret handshakes and code words. Hours once spent drinking turn into hours spent talking about not drinking, continuing to place alcohol front and center in members’ lives. Some members find themselves “hiding in meetings,” attending meetings rather than joining the rest of life, terrified of alcohol’s ubiquity, clutching to that safe zone as if it’s some inoculation against relapse. I think about other groups who face a terrifying potential return like cancer survivors. Do cancer survivors in remission spend as many hours or days or months thinking about the disease’s likely return? Do they reside in survivor support groups like addicts do the Anonymous meetings? Do they let the potential return dictate major decisions? A cancer survivor knows her remission could change course at any moment. She knows she’s not in control. She can go in and out of remission just as a criminal can weave in and out of prison. Recidivism. In and out of the bars like V. or Tastee did in Orange Is the New Black. Though they had a choice. When you look at it through characters like those, it looks like they’re unwilling to live straight, like they’re racing right back to what put them in the joint. Then there’s Brooks from Shawshank Redemption. In him, a kind and gentle man, is someone so accustomed to life inside that anything outside seems cold, the light too harsh, the pressure too crushing. What could he do? Live in the halfway-house community for the short rest of his life? For his decision that takes place on the beam he’s carved his name into anyone can feel compassion. The addict, though, empathizes with Brooks. We count our days, weeks, months clean until one of life’s shit storms blows through, blasting our confidence to ashes, making us want to kick the table of sobriety out from under us too. If we learn to weather that shit storm, we don’t become one of the seventy percent who relapse by day ninety. Or the ninety percent who do so within four years.
We take new steps every day toward a healthier life. We get to know ourselves, discover what the hell we’d missed while floating around in a haze for years. We get to know ourselves, discover what the hell we’d missed while floating around in a haze for years, and hopefully learn about ourselves. Self-awareness appears in my mind like a lighthouse. A baby blue beacon of a thing with a Shaker roof, three or four stories high. Instead of overlooking the cold, rocky shores of an isolated coastal town, though, it scans my psychic landscape, ready to strike at the first sign of thirsty thoughts. It’ll be there, scanning, for the rest of my life.
* * *
The blue beacon was just beginning to form when my sponsor took me on a sober women’s weekend retreat in the mountains of Prescott. I’d signed up for it two months before, back when the sunlight of sobriety still hurt my eyes. My sponsor, Denise, was like a kid looking forward to summer camp as she drove us out of the bloody heat and sepia-colored desert of the Phoenix valley north to a national forest. Sharlotte and I, by this autumn weekend, had grown cocky in our burgeoning sobriety. She had exercised her free will to stop attending recovery meetings en toto while I kept going, though to diminishing returns. Now I just looked forward to moist, green mountain soil, the smell of pine trees and ponds, and the cool mountain air on lone walks through the woods. When Denise caught onto my plans, eye piercing me beneath her dripping dishwater blonde hair after the first morning shower, I bid farewell to my plans like a child to her favorite toy. She instead extolled the virtue of this annual excursion. A hundred or so women from all over the Southwest met here to celebrate and support each other’s recovery from overeating, sex, gambling, histrionic behavior, drugs, alcohol. In the national forest campgrounds there were real wood cabins with bunk beds and tractor rides and zip lining. And if I was feeling down or doubtful, there were 24-hour meetings for small groups or one-on-ones in the chapel. It wasn’t time for solitude, Denise said. It was time to enjoy the sober sisterhood.
Liquefy it. Put it in cups and drink the Kumbaya Kool-Aid. It tasted like saccharine.
I followed her around from sober celebration to sober celebration, feeling less acolyte, more show pony. In the auditorium we sat in two putty brown, poorly padded, metal chairs typical of VFW halls and church basements to watch a play written and performed by my sober sisters. On stage they used props made of construction paper, tape and markers, along with a few books commonly found in meetings, to recreate a scene seen every day in sober groups across the planet. Some played the role of long-sober people, some were new, and others were struggling to remember why to remain sober. “Find your higher power. It doesn’t have to be God; it can be this chair.” “Embrace the suck.” The audience, scattered in small clusters among the seven or eight rows of chairs, nodded. Mmm hmmm. Uh huh. Southern gospel style.
Later came freeze-dried eggs and other institutional foods over breakfast with some friends Denise had known for most of her thirteen years in the program. They caught up. I listened.
“We had been friends for years! But they assumed that since I wasn’t going to meetings I was back to drinking or drugging,” one said. She gulped from a large plastic mug commemorating last year’s retreat.
“Right. No one even called me when they heard I had my baby. They sure loved to help during my pregnancy—but stop going to meetings and where are they then?” another said. She shook her long, wavy brown hair, forking up another bite of plastic food.
Denise sat there silent, face bent toward her plate. Could she detect my declining interest?
Her skin was broken out, oily, her breathing audible from tables away as she sat down and made her third stab at sobriety in a year.
After the retreat, Denise backed out of lunch plans and left my calls and texts unanswered. I stopped going to meetings. They’d given me a good start in sobriety, but I alone had made wine a central part of my life; I would learn to eradicate it. Even when the shit storms come. Such as the time I finally landed a job, only to watch it disappear after four days. Still I did not drink. With the next oncoming storm, things weren’t as easy. I rode my scooter through it across the December Phoenix rush hour to take care of a computer problem that no, after all, the warranty didn’t cover. The people surrounding me in the mall and at traffic lights were laughing and smiling and singing in a festive holiday spirit, but Santa had put fire where my heart should’ve been, and didn’t it sound like a grand idea to pour wine all over it? I pictured myself pulling up to the neighborhood liquor store where I used to go, picking up a bottle or two, and walking up to the cashier, a young guy who didn’t know to tell me no. That’s where my fantasy reached the end of the tether. Instead, I drove back home through the rain, poured a fat glass of Diet Coke, and drank it on the cement square of my friend’s porch, looking out at the darkness, and belting out frustrated Living Colour lyric after frustrated Living Colour lyric through my headphones. Within twenty minutes of exposing my out-of-sight neighbors to a voice that would win no contests, the rage unclenched its claws. It dissipated like a hangover until the storm passed, leaving me spent, sober, relieved.
That’s the kind of stuff that drew such a powerful connection between Sharlotte and me. We were both learning what to do with life instead of drinking at it. We didn’t need meetings; we had each other. Until one day, her texts came closer and closer, almost palpable obstacles her mind was throwing in sobriety’s way.
“I’m a mess,” she wrote. It had been a week of similar texts. “I’m having a shitty day.” “Waiting for my shrink to return my call.” “I’m wiped out.” Her typing that Thursday grew increasingly illegible as the evening progressed. I walked out to the patio, cooled by the late evening desert. I dialed her up, keeping my voice calm.
In the initial phase the scientists divided the rats into two equal groups. Half remained in Rat Park. The other half was crammed into a typical lab cage. Each was given two containers: one of morphine-laced water sweetened incrementally with sucrose to entice their natural predilection for sweet things, another of unadulterated water.
“Hey there. Whatcha doin’?”
She sounded like she had a porterhouse steak for a tongue. “I’m drunk.”
I slumped into my patio chair, fired up a cigarette.
“I hope you don’t hate me now.”
“Silly girl, I don’t hate you.”
“No matter how hard I work to overcome my PTSD, it might just stick around. What if it does? What if this shit never goes away?”
“It really will get better,” I said, the beginning of a string of platitudes. “I understand.” “Of course I still love you.” I wanted to add some levity, tease her by saying, “Next time you want to drink, call me up. I’ll drink with you,” but what if she called my bluff—and did call me? What if after driving over there I didn’t convince her to put the bottle down but joined her instead? Is my beacon sturdy enough to scan for that? Is relapse contagious?
To slow those thoughts growing out of control I tried to switch to her, to put myself in her shoes. Relief rang through her voice. Ah, what a cost, that relief. She’d have a helluva hangover the next morning. She’d be shaky and sensitive and guilty. Guilty in Technicolor layers. Guilty long after the nausea and headache and crying. I could empathize with those hangovers, having had thousands of them. But I hadn’t yet had one from this side of Rat Park.
Rat Park was the name of an addiction study done in the late 1970s. In it, psychologist Bruce Alexander and his colleagues Robert Coambes and Patricia Hadaway developed a veritable Shangri-La for rats: two hundred square feet for a colony of thirty-two rats, heated comfortably, cushy with cedar shavings, colorful balls, wheels, and other playthings. In the initial phase the scientists divided the rats into two equal groups. Half remained in Rat Park. The other half was crammed into a typical lab cage. Each was given two containers: one of morphine-laced water sweetened incrementally with sucrose to entice their natural predilection for sweet things, another of unadulterated water. The comfy rats in Rat Park drank sixteen times less of the morphine-laced water than the caged rats, preferring plain water. When the researchers added an agent to the morphine water, mitigating the morphine’s effects yet retaining the sucrose sweetness, even the Rat Park inhabitants drank it.
Continuing their experiment, Alexander et al. turned a third group of rats into the Skid Row image of addicts, giving them nothing but morphine to drink until they were sufficiently entrenched in addiction. The scientists then divided them equally between a simple cage and Rat Park. Then they gave them a choice: morphine water or plain water. The caged group lapped up the drugged stuff. The Rat Park group, however, went less and less to it. “The implications,” Lauren Slater wrote in Opening Skinner’s Box, were that “addictions in progress are not inexorable.” Addicts choosing to sustain their addictions are in fact “quite subject to free will.”
* * *
Relapse is rarely the knee-jerk reaction portrayed in Hollywood. There’s a long process back to lifting a glass or placing a bet or shagging a stranger in a public bathroom. Research looks at it in three major stages: emotional, mental, physical. The emotional trigger can be a bad day at work—or even a great one. Take Gary, for instance. He’d been sober a dozen years before his relapse.
“My girlfriend asked when we first started dating, ‘You can’t ever drink? Not even a little drink with me?’ I told her no, but then when I thought about it I figured I could handle a drink or two. That wouldn’t make me the raging alcoholic I was before. But it did. Within weeks I was back to drinking like I’d never quit,” he said.
Half a dozen years into sobriety, Denise succumbed. Having come down with a flu while on holiday with family, she simply wanted some sleep. It came. With help from a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream. She didn’t get drunk. She didn’t fall back into a drinking routine. She considers it a relapse, though. That solitary shot scared her enough to break her two-year hiatus from meetings, back to those people who had stopped talking to her, back to people who welcomed her back unequivocally. Seven years later that shot still gives her nightmares.
Her experience was exactly the kind of touchstone I needed in my fear of relapse by proxy. It was her tough love that fortified my resolve, strengthening it like steel against fear.
“Listen, you’re going to see people fall all around you for the rest of your life. You have to be prepared to walk over the bodies,” Denise said over sandwiches and salads after a meeting. “People are going to disappoint you by picking up a drink again. People you know will go to jail or die.”
Well, Sharlotte hadn’t continued drinking. And she never tested my resolve or called my bluff. The lines of communication grew dusty. No more art exhibits. No more burlesque shows. Maybe she thought less of me for returning to meetings after my paroxysm of relapse fear. She definitely thought my distance looked like judgment, even when we were together. Who could fault her for that? Sometimes the line between empathy and sympathy is gossamer. Sometimes it’s wide as a river. Sometimes it crushes friendships, and sometimes it changes your life. For now I could only stay on the side of sympathy, my blue lighthouse scanning my psyche in the Shangri-La of sobriety.
Maybe one day the beacon of sobriety will lead her this way, away from the bars of cages. I hope I’m still here to welcome her.
Special Guest Judge, Erin Aubry Kaplan
“With humor, heart and urgency, “Fragile Rat” describes the modern travails of addiction—and love—in language that’s honest, propulsive, and never cliched.”
– Erin Aubry Kaplan, is author of I Heart Obama (2016), and the collection of essays and reportage, Black Talk, Blue Thoughts and Walking the Color Line: Dispaches From a Black Journalista. She has written about African-American political, economic, and cultural issues since 1992, and is a regular contributor to Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Salon.com, Ms., and Essence.
Nichole L. Reber digs every day of sobriety and has reached new highs in life because of it. She hopes her essay shows a different side of addiction/recovery than the norm. Her nonfiction and literary criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in Entropy, Fanzine, PANK Magazine, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She writes a monthly blog series about Indigenous World Literature and Contemporary Asian Literature for Ploughshares. In addition to some awards, she holds an MFA from DePaul University.
My obsession with Michael Jackson began the day he died. Before then, I owned a handful of his albums and clawed my arms in the air like a “Thriller” zombie at dance parties, but so did millions of other people. On June 25, 2009, I was working in the office of a museum in Seattle, when I overheard the muffled gasp of a woman sitting on the other side of my cubicle wall. She circulated an email to the eight people sitting around us, with a link. TMZ told us the news. The internet crashed. I made note of the way I was sitting alone behind dirty-beige fabric walls, when it occurred to me that someone might ask one day.
Several years earlier, I learned of James Brown’s death on the radio, while driving around Vancouver, British Columbia. His music enshrouded my car almost instantly, as people driving beside me rolled down their windows and turned up their stereos. Between the vehicles, one song faded out as the next faded in, creating a collective soundtrack that we passed between one another. We’re the people, we’re just like the birds and the bees, we’d rather die on our feet than live on our knees… He’s lost in the wilderness, he’s lost in the bitterness, he’s lost lost… Somber and dragged out, the waves of sound mirrored the rhythm of long exhales broken by fleeting sobs—the sensation of the suppressed cry that can feel like the only option we have when grieving in public places.
In my office, I found myself wanting to do something similar for Michael Jackson. A few people came out of their cubes and gathered in the aisles. I unplugged the headphones from my iPod and played “Billie Jean” aloud in the center of the room. Everyone listened for a minute or so before returning to their desks, maybe overtaken by sadness or just by disinterest. I stood there with the iPod in the outstretched palm of my hand until the song played all the way through, in case anyone was still listening.
The next day, I heard that another museum had put together a display in memoriam, so I left work early and arrived just before they closed. In the center of an otherwise dark empty hallway, a spotlight rested on a white sequined glove and the shimmering black jacket Jackson had paired with the moonwalk during the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, when he so famously lip-synched to “Billie Jean” in 1983 on TV. The jacket had belonged to his mother. I pictured him wearing it as he practiced the dance in the family kitchen the day before the performance. I wondered if he chose that jacket knowing his mother’s black sequins would be what he wore the moment his life changed. And, I wondered if she wished she could have it back now.
* * *
When I was growing up in the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time listening to a copied cassette tape of Thriller that my mother made using a CD she checked out from the library. I don’t remember loving the album at the time, despite playing it over and over again. I also don’t remember ever listening to it with my mom. In the year following her death from cancer when I was nine, I quietly collected things that belonged to her as I happened upon them in places around our house. When I found a few of her cassettes left beside the stereo, I took the ones by artists whose names I knew: Gloria Estefan, Carly Simon, and Michael Jackson. The other two tapes were originals from the store, with pictures of the singers on their covers. Thriller just had the track list written in red pen in my mother’s handwriting. When I found these things untouched, I considered them my belongings as if they were from an inheritance she didn’t have time to leave.
I convinced myself I was being fashionable by wearing the enormous shirts, but when I see photographs from that time in my life, I can see how absurd they must have appeared to everyone else, draped over my narrow fourth-grade frame like a bulbous sheet.
At some point during that year, in a more deliberate way, I also started collecting her t-shirts. Most were souvenirs from family vacations we had taken together, or from places where she and my father traveled before I was born, like Aruba and Bermuda. They had palm tree silhouettes and neon fish and destination names printed in a relaxed script that curled like the handwriting of postcards written from the beach. She mostly wore them to sleep or work out, maybe because they didn’t fit what I now consider her eighties-mom aesthetic (cable knit sweaters, high-wasted pants, and boat shoes, all in earth tones). I wore them with matching neon leggings and black Reebok high tops that I first spotted on the feet of the hipper-looking ladies in her aerobics class.
At the time I convinced myself I was being fashionable by wearing the enormous shirts, but when I see photographs from that time in my life, I can see how absurd they must have appeared to everyone else, draped over my narrow fourth-grade frame like a bulbous sheet. The way I looked doesn’t even evoke that sweetness one might expect from seeing a daughter wearing her mother’s clothes. We both had similar brown hair and eyes whose blueness shifted depending on the time of day, but coupled with my permed bangs and general unkempt state, I mostly just looked like a kid who didn’t know how to dress herself.
I know I was unaware of how strange I must have looked because that time marked my aversion to doing anything that would attract attention. Finding myself within a life that had become hard to recognize as my own, I became determined to impose some normalcy upon it. My solution was to act as closely as I could to the way I remembered myself being before my mom died. Her funeral was on a Thursday. I insisted on going back to school the following Monday. I dreaded being watched by everyone when I was pulled out of math class every week to see the school counselor—a person whose office the old version of myself would have never expected to enter. Above all else, I never wanted anyone except my father and sister to see me cry. But somehow, wearing my mother’s clothes seemed like a completely normal thing to do.
* * *
He became an internet sensation by creating a real-life version of the music video for “Beat It,” in which Jackson lies in bed, distressed by gang conflict, until he puts a stop to it using snapping fingers, hip thrusts, and a blazing, red jacket. This worked. People in Baltimore stopped yelling and fighting in the streets to watch. A Michael Jackson impersonator somehow made sense of the senseless death in their city.
When riots broke out in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police in 2015, a man named Dmitri Reeves dressed up like Michael Jackson and tried to combat the violence bleeding through his city by moonwalking. He became an internet sensation by creating a real-life version of the music video for “Beat It,” in which Jackson lies in bed, distressed by gang conflict, until he puts a stop to it using snapping fingers, hip thrusts, and a blazing, red jacket. This worked. People in Baltimore stopped yelling and fighting in the streets to watch. A Michael Jackson impersonator somehow made sense of the senseless death in their city.
I knew about Dmitri Reeves because people kept sending me links to the video in a barrage of emails, Facebook posts, and text messages. I understand how obsessions are a way of knowing a person, but so many people forwarded me this link that I had to wonder if they thought I needed it, too.
Some may have known I had taken a Michael Jackson dance class recently. In the six years since his death, I had intermittently been drawn to activities most would associate with die-hard fans. One of Seattle’s most famous drag queens, named Waxy Moon, led the dance class. He wasn’t in drag while he taught, and he looked nothing like Michael, except for his thinness. Waxy’s limbs were long and lanky, his head shorn and shiny. The only perceivable hairs on his body were the brown tufts of a mustache and eyebrows dabbed above his lips and eyes. My mother had enrolled me in dance classes for all of my childhood, beginning when I was three years old, so the process of following dance instructions was engrained in my body; I even could pull off the moonwalk reasonably well. But, the best part of class always came at the beginning of each lesson, when Waxy performed the dance we were about to learn. His feet’s seamless glides and staccato kicks and dramatic pauses were so sharp and slick and true, I simply stood there, mesmerized, like the people in the streets of Baltimore, watching Dmitri Reeves.
* * *
Mastery of dance is an essential skill for all Michael Jackson impersonators. The Michael Jackson impersonator said to be the best is Navi. Originally from Trinidad, he began impersonating Michael during the star’s more modest moment of success, between Off the Wall’s release in 1979 and the avalanche of fame induced by Thriller, in 1982. This already makes Navi seem more authentic than the average, post-success, possibly cash-motivated impersonator.
Similar to Michael Jackson’s popularity explosion following the Motown 25 performance, Navi also experienced an overnight increase in demand for his talents following Jackson’s death. In an interview, he recounted, “Before June 25, 2009, I was a Michael Jackson impersonator. I still am, but post-June 25, it exploded. I became this substitute for people, a comfort for Jackson fans because the world wasn’t ready to let go of him.”  Before I read this, I never had the desire to see an impersonator show. Did it really work that way? It was hard not to see this kind of substitution of a new Michael for the old one as an insult, like replacing a dead pet with the same kind of animal the next day. We are quick to judge people’s mourning habits, including our own. An amount of time is expected to pass before any form of replacement should happen. But will enough time ever pass? Navi’s fans felt no need to wait.
* * *
The Michael Jackson impersonator show I saw at the Stratosphere casino in Las Vegas was called “MJ Live: Michael Jackson Tribute Concert.” Jalles Franca, a dancer from Brazil who moved to Vegas when he was sixteen, opened the performance by telling the audience how he lived for us, which I believed after reading his bio. His first MJ gig was at the recreation of Studio 54 that lived inside the MGM Grand Casino during the 1990s—a fitting backstory, given Michael’s own history at the real Studio 54 in New York. My favorite photograph of Jackson shows him sitting in one of the club’s booths, outfitted in a polyester shirt and a globe Afro, young and laughing, when he was only pleasantly famous. It looks like the version of him that Michael sometimes seemed to want back after he became older and paler and relentlessly recognized.
Jalles Franca probably would not be mistaken for Michael Jackson on the street or anywhere he is not in costume. He did not appear to have gone beneath the knife to make his face truer to Michael’s hyper-chiseled contours. He was also svelte without seeming emaciated, the way Michael was, towards the end. Franca’s shoulders were robust, his nose was narrow but strong, and, despite never having seen Michael Jackson in person, I got the sense that he was noticeably shorter than the King of Pop.
I realized how little these discrepancies mattered when, a few songs into the show, an usher tapped my shoulder and asked, “Do you want to move closer to the stage?”
I rose immediately and gestured toward the front of the stage to my friend Sarah, who hadn’t been particularly disappointed when we found our original seats to be a row of folding chairs at the back of the theater. She dutifully stood, and we followed the usher from row SS, past the scalloped inner rows of booths, to what looked like (what I hoped all along would be) row A. As we approached the foot of the stage, it started to become difficult to contain myself. I turned to Sarah, who was following behind me and mouthed, “Can you believe this?” She smiled with hesitancy, looking unsure of whether these new seats were something she actually wanted.
I am usually the person to slouch into an auditorium’s shadows when a performance involves selecting someone from the audience to come on stage, but as we were reseated in the front row, I had the sudden compulsion to make Jalles Franca aware of my presence. I wanted him to know there was a female younger than age 50 sitting right in front of him, should he need someone to bring up the way Michael did when he sang ballads like “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” I had visions of myself impersonating a Michael Jackson concert fan: putting my hands to my cheeks, to my chest, screaming, “Oh my God, oh my God…” over and over again in the orgiastic ecstasy I recalled seeing girls explode into just before fainting during footage from the 1992 Dangerous tour I watched on DVD.
I wasn’t brought up on stage during the show, but sitting in front meant I could record an unobstructed Instagram video of “Billie Jean” that I admit to having watched more than a few times since. Franca’s staging imitated the Motown 25 performance: he wore the fedora, the bulging white socks, the shiny penny loafers, the sequined coat. Everything on stage was dark except for a single spotlight that followed him as he paced back and forth, jumped in the air, and slipped across the stage into the climaxing moonwalk. The silhouetted image that I captured on my phone highlights the clothes while obscuring the man. When I squint hard enough, I can almost believe I’m watching Michael.
* * *
The closest I have ever been to the real Michael Jackson was when I stood outside the wall of the mausoleum in which he is interred, in Glendale, California, around the same time I was taking the dance class. The exact location of his body is supposedly unknown, but a Google search revealed a handful of questionable MJ fan websites that all pointed to the same corner of Forest Lawn Cemetery’s Great Mausoleum, called Holly Terrace. A stained glass window showing the ascension of Jesus marked the corner for non-family members like myself, who were relegated to the building’s exterior for our visitations.
Forest Lawn Cemetery is full of impersonations of other objects. A stained glass version of da Vinci’s The Last Supper looks down upon visitors inside the Great Mausoleum. A full-scale replica of Michelangelo’s David and a mosaic version of John Trumbull’s painting of the Declaration of Independence also live on the premises. The Great Mausoleum itself is modeled after a building from the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno, in Genoa, Italy.
En route to finding Michael’s final resting place, I happened upon the massive Declaration of Independence, hovering over a field of tombstones. As I walked closer, I could see how the mosaic’s tiled men had more of the round, brightness of cartoons from the 1980s than the original painting, which made the regal, disembodied voice that suddenly boomed down from the empty air only slightly less bizarre: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…” Startled, it took me a moment to recognize the recorded reading of the actual Declaration. While I expected theatrics from a cemetery in L.A., a talking, fake painting took the relationship between death and spectacle to an entirely new place. It also made me like this cemetery even more.
Forest Lawn was unlike the traditional, Catholic cemetery several blocks from our house in suburban Chicago, where my mother was buried. My father always made my sister and me pick out flowers to leave at her tombstone, which I despised having to do every few weeks in the years following her death. I was convinced she would never see these flowers. But more concerning was the fear that someone I knew would see me standing in the cemetery and think that I wasn’t actually okay.
When I arrived at the Great Mausoleum, no one else was around. There were no piles of stuffed animals or notes telling Michael how we missed him. The only hints suggesting I was in the right place were a couple of bouquets wrapped in plastic and a pot of yellow mums that had been pushed to the side of the building, near the Holly Terrace sign. I stared into the decaying pot of mums, unsure of what I should do now that I was there. The compulsion to go through the motions of my past cemetery experiences crept into my consciousness: observe the tombstone (or the building corner, in this case) and be reverent. But, standing beside the looming mausoleum, I felt as out of place and awkward as I did when I was a kid, breathing and walking around among objects this dead person on the other side of the wall would never see. Who were these Davids and disembodied voices and mums really for—the person who had brought them, Michael Jackson, or me, the person standing there, trying to understand what it means to mourn the people we have and have not known?
* * *
About one year later, when I walked into the Michael Jackson Fan Festival at the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas, I knew I had come to the right place. Less a festival than an exhibit of his costumes and belongings, presiding over the entrance was the ten-foot statue of Michael used for his HIStory album cover, outfitted in aviator sunglasses and a military-inspired suit. The detritus of his career fanned out behind him, filling a massive hall of the casino’s convention center. A rainbow assortment of sequined gloves, a Moonwalker game consul that once lived at the Neverland Ranch, a trophy case-like assemblage of his Certified Platinum plaques and MTV Music Video Award moon men were all there, to be “enjoyed for as long as I liked,” according to the man who took my thirty-five dollars at the door. The one hundred or so people who arrived before us were wandering between all of these things, photographing one another making peace signs and zombie-arms. Some also dressed up as various iterations of Michael: a Thriller-Michael in full-body, red pleather; early-90s-Michael in jeans and loafers and a white armband; late-breaking-Michael with long, wavy, black hair and severe eyeliner.
I barely knew the person who came with me to the Michael Jackson Fan Festival. We worked at the same museum but hadn’t before found reasons to be friends. When I first learned of the Fan Festival’s existence, I posted a link about it on Facebook expecting a few “Likes” from people who relished my Michael Jackson obsession. But, Joice, who looked about five or ten years older than me but, as I learned on our trip, was actually about twenty-five years older, left a comment: “Are you really going to this? Can I come with you?”
As an African-American woman who had grown up in North Carolina, Joice had a long history with Michael Jackson. She had seen him perform over the course of her whole life, as the Jackson 5, The Jacksons, and solo on the Bad tour. On one occasion, she stood close enough to the stage for a dollop of his Jheri curl cream to land directly in her screaming mouth, as she told me proudly during our walk to the festival. I admitted my obsession’s more recent origins with the shame of a fraud being detected by the expert. But Joice’s face remained bright, still beaming even, when she responded, “That is fascinating.” I then knew there would be no judgment at the Michael Jackson Fan Festival.
After we arrived and circled behind the HIStory statue, we found ourselves walking across a set of square tiles that flashed in a random sequence, imitating the music video set for “Billie Jean.” Focused on an exhibit of jackets just past the dance floor, I almost didn’t realize Joice had stayed behind, crouched atop one of the squares and sobbing. When I approached her, she began waving me away and said, “It’s just that my grandmother always took me to those concerts, and now I can’t stop thinking of her. Go on, I’ll catch up with you. Really, please, go on.”
I walked towards a row of mannequins dressed in Michael Jackson’s costumes from the Dangerous tour. It seemed like I should know what to do—how to help her grieve or get beyond grieving, or at least console her, but none of those things seemed like what she wanted. So I waited beside a golden hologram jacket, until she approached me, sighed and nodded her head towards the rest of the Fan Festival. We moved on to a spaceship set from the music video for “Scream.” We took turns photographing each other through the ship’s broken window, contorting our faces into Michael’s wrenching, pained expressions.
* * *
“She’s Out of My Life” is a song that Quincy Jones could not record without Michael Jackson physically crying before the song’s end. Originally planned for Frank Sinatra to sing, Jones gave the track to Jackson when he was nineteen years old for Off the Wall. “She’s Out of My Life” embodies Jackson’s much-lauded ability to sing about sophisticated notions of love and loss as if he were older than his actual age. The piercing sorrow that echoes through his voice on the Jackson 5’s cover of Smoky Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” had an earlier, similar affect. Despite Jones’s attempt to get a recording without the sobs, the song’s ability to become something more than a sappy ballad resides in their presence.
I disliked “She’s Out of My Life” for a long time. It reminded me of the like-mindedly slow-paced, dramatic ballad “Human Nature” that I fast-forwarded through when I listened to my mom’s copy of Thriller. I hated the way the high notes of these songs hung in the air unnaturally long before fading. I hated the desperation embedded in their pleading repetitions. And most of all I hated the saccharine heartfelt lyrics, like “If they say, why, why/Tell ‘em that it’s human nature” and “…Kept my love for her locked deep inside/And it cuts like a knife/She’s out of my life.”
I may have softened since that time. Over the past couple of years, I have found myself turning “Human Nature” up as loudly as possible when it comes on the car radio so I can physically feel the reverberations of the “Why, why” that I used to find so intolerable. “She’s Out of My Life” still feels difficult to like. When listening to the full Off the Wall album, I experience a tinge of dread when I know it’s the next track. But then the sliver of Michael’s voice opens the song like a hand parting the stage curtains. He may or may not have lost someone important by the time the song landed in his repertoire, but when he sings its lines, he becomes an audible extension of those of us who have. “She’s out of my life” is the very first and the very last lyric of the song. The forgettable clichés in between repeat over and over again, wrapping around themselves in circular repetitions and echoes. The only respite is the final, almost-withheld sob that ends the song.
Almost no one has ever asked me if I miss my mother, maybe because I was so young the last time I saw her. Or because loss when you’re young is different from loss when you’re older. It is the difference between hearing Smoky Robinson sing, “Who’s Lovin’ You” when he was twenty and hearing Michael Jackson sing it when he was eleven. Quincy Jones didn’t need to hear Frank Sinatra sing “She’s Out of My Life” at age sixty-four once he’d heard nineteen-year-old Michael sing it. Maybe not knowing the person you lost is worse, and that is why I hear so much in Michael Jackson’s perfect, young vocal chords when they stand tall and aligned like pallbearers, grasping their shiny box before dropping it into the darkness.
 Pisner, Noah. “Navi.” The Believer. Oct. 2013. Print.
Erin Langner earned her MA in Museology at the University of Washington and her BA in Humanities from the University of Colorado. Her art criticism and essays have appeared in Hyperallergic, ARTnews, The Stranger, and ARCADE, among other publications. In 2010, she was selected by Peter Plagens for the Creative Capitol/Warhol Foundation Art Writing Workshop. She lives in Seattle, WA, where she is at work on an essay collection inspired by her experiences visiting the Las Vegas Strip over the last decade.
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