Oranges

It’s terrible when you’re defeated by a bag of oranges.

The oranges were just a purchase, one of many at the supermarket. It was such a tiny act, so lost in the millions of ordinary tasks of the day that I don’t remember the details. Maybe it was Tuesday and raining, or Thursday and annoyingly sunny as usual. Maybe I had bought the oranges in some futile effort to be healthier. Though it was clear to me, by then, that it was pointless, and too late, and that I should just be eating chocolate and blowing my savings on frivolous things like cruises and tiaras, or if I liked that sort of thing, whiskey, and cigarettes, and hookers.

What I wonder now is, why would a 32-year-old single woman, who lived alone, and who was dying, buy a five-pound bag of oranges?

Perhaps I wasn’t thinking.

Perhaps I was in denial.

Perhaps I meant to share them.

But I can’t imagine whom I meant to share them with. Even my closest friends and the most well-meaning of people made me tired. All I wanted to do was sleep all the time. The pain had made me antisocial, paranoid, and sensitive.

Whom would I have shared the oranges with when I was in such a state?

By the time the oranges began to bother me, they were as far away as my feet, which  might as well have been like reaching down to the center of the earth. I knew the inner core was there, soft and gooey like the candy center of a Tootsie Pop, but I couldn’t reach it.

How tall had I become?

I wondered how many thousands of feet had I grown. I was like Alice, who in Wonderland, had been tempted by a piece of cake and that clever little famous sign—those simple sinister words begging out to little girls, “eat me.”

But I wasn’t a foolish little girl tempted by candy from strangers. I hadn’t grown the same way Alice had. I wasn’t busting out of The White Rabbit’s house. I wasn’t in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. I was just five feet four, here on Earth, where the center of the world was on fire, full of magma burning as hot as the sun, and I knew the best part of anything, that gooey-candy-center of life, was just out of my reach.

Tensile as glass, I had been replaced by the mirror image of myself. I worried that if I was not careful in my movements, I might shatter. How many months had it been since I had touched my toes or bought the oranges? How many months since I placed those oranges in the drawer at the bottom of the refrigerator? How many months had they laughed at me?

How many months could I smell the stink of them?

Six at least,

—or more?

Death seemed slow and inevitable, as natural to me as the tiny lines forming around my eyes. Everyone gets wrinkles. Everyone dies, but the decay of the oranges seemed unnatural. Their demise seemed so much more rapid than my own—so much more graphic—oranges that in any normal context could be something else entirely.

Have you ever really thought about eating an orange?

I once saw a beautiful woman sitting in the sun of a Spanish courtyard in Santa Fe. She stretched her young body out on a wooden bench. She delicately crossed her long legs.

She knew how to eat an orange.

She gently peeled back the thick rind, caressing its thin

—naked skin—

beneath,

as if she were about to make love to it.

Slowly, she pulled it apart,

—tenderly pulled loose a perfect piece,

++++—and bit into it passionately as if biting the neck of a lover.

Have you ever really thought about eating an orange?

She let its juices dribble down her chin, down her neck, down her wrist. She was unapologetic about this. Most polite people would have reached for a napkin, but she just ran her hands up the side of her neck, trying to experience it one last time, before she licked her fingers clean. She let what was left grow sticky on her face in the hot sun. Afterwards, she smelled the peelings, pleased with the scent of them.

She was satisfied.

How long had it been since I had been so satisfied with anything? How long had it been since I had known oranges the way a young woman should?

Sweet.

++—and ripe.

++++—and fresh.

How long had it been, since I had been in love? If I ever had been in love, then I had forgotten. How long since I had felt passion, or an orgasm, or even been laid?

—But the oranges I knew were not like food. They were not like making love. They were not even like a one-night stand, which one might later regret. They were like death. I had forgotten what food was like, or love, or even sex. All I knew was those oranges were slowly decaying, just out of reach, and all I could do was watch.

They watched me back.

We watched each other rot like two old men in a life raft marooned in the middle of the ocean. Each of us annoyed the other’s slow demise. But I was not in the ocean. I was not an old man. I was not even an orange. I was a young woman who had slowly given up on asking for help.

I saw those oranges one last time when I got home from work that night—hours before quitting time, on a double overnight shift, at the hospital where I didn’t even have insurance. I had been working as a nursing assistant in hospitals throughout the state, but as my illness became worse, I had settled into a job at the rehab center five years earlier. Every day I helped other bodies become healthier, as mine decayed just a little more.

My last night of work, a co-worker named Hilda called the charge nurse, “Cruzita,” she said, “I’m really worried about Candice. She’s so pale. I don’t know if she should be working.”

Cruzita was the physical embodiment of the perfect woman I had grown up reading about by poets like Jimmy Santiago Baca. She had in fact married a Chicano poet, and had entire pages written about her, but my own need to be a writer made her uncomfortable. My own independence—the way I resisted the norm and always insisted on doing things my own way—exhausted her.

I was a single woman who had dared to date men young enough to be Cruzita’s son, I was an artist, and I lived alone. We were two hard-working women with strong and unending convictions in how we lived our lives. But as much as we didn’t get along, and as much as we both spent a great deal of effort patronizing each other, she sent me home that night, to rest, without harassing me about my illness like many of my other supervisors had.

I remembered our conflicts when I got home. I wanted a glass of water, but I had neglected the contents of my refrigerator; mold floated at the top of my Brita pitcher. I gave up and shut the door. It was the last time I saw those oranges.

I thought about how Cruzita and I struggled not to bicker and fight. I wondered if we would ever understand each other. I would probably never see any of the people I worked with again. It made me a little sad that she and I would be frozen in time, neither of us ever able to transcend our expectations of the other.

My outside appearance was suspended in that moment. But on the inside, I had aged centuries. In my early twenties, I had once gone to the Petrified Forest, on the New Mexico/Arizona Border. Over the centuries, those trees had turned to stone: striated rocks that, as a young woman, I once held in my hands. How many centuries had I been the petrified woman, both terrified and turning to stone? Like Susan Sontag said, “Time works differently in the kingdom of the well than in the kingdom of the sick.” Within a year’s time of an ordinary life, my insides had fossilized for eons into something not much different from all those miles of dead trees stretched out across the desert.

I was nothing more than a monument, chipped by steady hands into stone. In the kingdom of the well, this statue had begun to replace me. I only existed on the other side of living, where the natural world seemed like nothing more than an echo. I could see it in the eyes of men—the way they would try to make eye contact, the way they thought I was still a young woman:

ripe,       and ready,     and free.

I slunk gingerly out of my scrubs and went to bed. I had become sicker than my patients.

It was Sunday night. I should have been working. I should have been wherever in life I chose to be, but instead I had fallen out of time and space. I was back at my apartment, which like the oranges was a testament to the truth.

Exhausted, I pulled my stone body up the steep stairs that led to my bedroom and bathroom. I dragged myself by my thousand-pound stone feet. With great effort, I bent my stone legs over the lip of the bathtub, so I could take a shower. Then I fell graciously into my unmade bed. I slept restlessly, marinating in my own sweat. My sheets stank like the oranges, they stank like me, they stank like death, but I was too tired to care.

In the book Jesus’ Son, a hitchhiker gets into a car that he knows, by some supernatural intuition, is going to get into a fatal accident, but he’s so cold from sleeping by the side of the road, in the rain, that he doesn’t care. He just wants to be warm, and in the backseat of the car, even if it means he might never wake up.

It didn’t occur to me, as I slipped under the dirty covers, that it wasn’t normal to go to bed if I wasn’t sure if I would ever wake up. It wasn’t normal to be so tired that I didn’t care if I lived. I didn’t realize I was going into shock.

It was my heartbeat that, after three years of confusion, finally woke me up.

The POUNDING, POUNDING, POUNDING, that I knew at once wasn’t right.

140, 180, or more beats a minute.

Too many to count.

Too many beats for a        single heart        to bear        alone.

But I was not an orange. I was not a statue. I was a woman whose heart should not be pounding so loudly she couldn’t sleep. I was a young woman who needed to get to a hospital and get an EKG because she thought she was having a heart attack.

It was my heartbeat that, after three years of confusion, finally woke me up.

But I couldn’t get out of bed, because I couldn’t move my stone leg. It was as if someone was pushing me down. And I sank like dead weight into my memory foam mattress. And I started to feel suffocated. And for the first time I panicked, which didn’t help my heart.

It    is    absurd where

your   mind   goes       when you start    to          lose it

—the kind of   insane thoughts  you    grab    onto     for clarity when your mind begins to

Float

Like     these words.

Some TV show doctor’s voice comes to you. Some faceless “authority” who’s the star of some storyline you don’t even remember. Some impractical super show like ER, or House, or Grey’s Anatomy with make-believe hospitals where no one thinks to put a sick patient’s bed rails up, no matter how confused they are—and even the sickest patients are perfectly symmetrical, beautiful, and thin.

What was it the not-real doctor said to that not-real patient?

Something about how a broken femur could leak bone marrow into your blood stream and can cause heart problems. I had been waiting—for some bizarre epiphany—from a lunatic idea of a fake doctor—that my leg was broken—just to pay attention. I worked in a rehab hospital where I taught patients, with broken hips, to get out of bed. I knew how to get out of bed with a stone leg. If I tried, I could get to the hospital, and try to save my sorry-ass-stone-life.

What I didn’t know—as I planned my escape—was that an abscess had formed in my right torso. My kidney—to fight back—was turning to stone—and a strange mass was shoving my kidney into my spine—until the stone had pressed against my spine—and everywhere my body was fighting everything with pus, and blood, and fluid. My whole torso was so ready to pop that even my right leg was filling up with what infection the rest of me could no longer hold.

In that moment, I was grateful for my experiences in healthcare. I was grateful for what I knew of moving patients. I was grateful for my understanding of moving stone people from one place to another. I was grateful for knowing how to get my stone-self out of bed.

I pushed with my left leg, and used my arms to drag my sheet to the side of the bed. I tilted with the left. I took a deep breath, and risked letting my feet fall to the floor. I was grateful for being stiff as stone. I was grateful that, unlike noodles, statues could stand. I dragged my right foot by pulling my pant leg forward.  My toes caught on the carpet—like a zombie—like walking—like the still-living dead.

I cursed myself for leaving my cell phone in the car, and hoped I wouldn’t fall down the stairs. I threw my weight from side to side, as I held onto the wall and rail, dragging my stiff right leg. It landed with a thud down each step.

There was clean laundry on the dryer downstairs, but I had no idea what to pack.

How could I pack when I didn’t know if I was ever coming home? What shoes could I get on my swollen football-feet—football-feet I couldn’t even reach? What bag could I carry when I could not even carry myself?

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, the mother packs a family of six for a missionary trip to the Congo. Orleana, a preacher’s wife—in 1959—tries so hard with everything she knows of the world—to be prepared—and fails miserably. She packs Betty Crocker cake mixes for her four daughters’ birthdays without knowing what it is like to not have a stove. Everything she thought she would need seems so brightly ornamental and useless against the mud hut walls. She would eventually leave her husband in Africa to save her children from the uncertainties of the jungle.

I realize now, despite all my experience in the healthcare field, I didn’t know anything more about being sick, than Orleana Price did about Africa. There was no way to properly prepare for it, and all the Betty Crocker cake mixes in the world wouldn’t have helped.

I should have taken a pillow and a blanket for the sixteen-hour emergency room wait. Had I known I would be there for a month, I would have thought of something to entertain myself, so my mind would not have floated so much in morphine-induced-limbo (where I would still be in pain, but be too strung out to care).

I should have taken a wide-toothed comb, shampoo, conditioner, and detangler, because a woman who has long hair, and is hospitalized, will have so many tangles that by the time she gets home the first thing she will want to do is shave her head.

But who knows these things, really knows them, until they have experienced them?

That night, all I knew was I feared nothing would be fixed. I feared like all the other doctors I had seen, no one would try to help me, even if I asked for help. I feared that after so long in the waiting room, and crying my eyes out to one more doctor, I would be even more exhausted, and there would be nothing left to do except come home to the oranges, write my will, and wait.

I wanted to be strong enough to defeat this beast on my own, but I had failed. I had failed in being independent, and I had failed in my ability to ask for help, and I knew I would fail my family by not knowing how to live. I would die young, and unnecessarily, and foolishly, and this pain and emptiness would be my only legacy to them.

But I didn’t go home to the oranges. I had the best emergency room doctor in the world. I lived because a doctor cared enough to personally run in terrified when I started throwing-up, even though it had become normal for me. She was the kind of doctor who refused to go home until she found someone to help me. And she was the kind of doctor who came upstairs, the next night, to make sure I was okay, once I had been admitted.

I stayed in the hospital where I belonged, where none of my possessions would help me, without even a shirt on my back. I watched my mother become frantic and take away what few belongings I had thought to bring with me, because she was so worried someone would steal my things while I was sleeping (and once I was finally settled in, I was almost always sleeping).

I learned to laugh at what absurd things she would bring me as I began to need clothes again. I asked for a T-shirt and she would bring me a tight fitting low-cut blouse. I wondered why she would think that’s what I wanted, and I would learn to love her for trying so hard.

I would soon learn to live without things I never thought possible to live without: a bra or underwear, my health, my mind, coffee shops, reading, writing, or anything I had felt were the things I loved and knew of myself. I would learn to let go of my fears and my attachments the way Orleana Price learns to let go of making her daughters’ birthday cakes.

I had to understand none of the things I might liked to have had with me would have done much good. I still had to let not only the doctors, and nurses, and techs, and hospital staff, help me, but my family, and friends, strangers, and even people I didn’t like, help me. I still had to hand my keys over to my mother, and let her drive my car away from the patient parking lot to my empty apartment. I had to let others clean and sift through my remains—to rearrange for me what I could not do for myself. I would have to allow others to enter my home as one would enter the homes of the dead.

I waited to find out what kind of surgery I might need, and I waited to find out how sick I was. While I waited, sleepy-minded on too much morphine, my little brother would have do for me what I could not do for myself. He would have to go into my abandoned apartment, after another week of ripening, and throw away those damned oranges.

Candice CarnesCandice Carnes worked as a caregiver for over fifteen years. This piece is an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir An Incomplete Case Study of the Petrified Woman. She earned a BFA in writing from Goddard College and is currently a graduate student in Science-Medical Writing at Johns Hopkins University. She also serves on the board of directors for the New Mexico Direct Caregivers Coalition. You can find out more about her writing at: candicecarnes.com

Tackle Box

“I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare.”
—Ecclesiastes 7:26

Some interstate in the south. I’m around seven. We’ve been in the car for hours—en route to Irmo, a suburb outside Columbia, SC so Dad can take classes at USC to become an officer in the Marines. We’re in his sporty black Nissan; my mom and younger sisters, Jenna and Katie, are in the brown and yellow station wagon behind us. Bart is barely a kidney bean in Mom’s belly. I press my forehead to the cool window and watch my reflection superimposed over the trees rushing by. It gets dark and dad asks me if I want to talk to the truckers on the CB radio.  He picks up the mouthpiece and rotates the channel dial. Voices crackle over the speaker. They sound like aliens speaking a garbled foreign language. “Watch this,” he winks at me, then presses the receiver and starts to lisp in falsetto, I feel pretty, oh so pretty, oh so pretty, and witty, and gaaaaaaaayyyyy… This usually gets a response from one or two truckers. “What’s your twenty?” a voice wavers across the radio.  They want to know where we are, what highway, what car. Sometimes we talk to them until their signal gets too fuzzy. Sometimes they yell at my dad and he laughs so hard tears roll down his cheeks and he has to turn the channel before I hear too many profanities. “You do it,” he nudges me with the speaker. I don’t know what to say, and whisper a timid, questioning, “Hi?” into the crackling space. Sometimes the truckers will talk to me, tell me about their kids back home. Other times they tell my dad to get me the hell off the radio. In those moments I’m aware, as young as I am, that we’re intruders in their world.  Then one calls me “honey” and “pretty thing,” and says he likes the softness in my voice. My insides rustle and it’s like I’ve dipped my toes into warm water. My dad snaps off the CB. “That’s enough of that.”

We listen in silence to the radio, stare forward as the yellow lines of the road roll like a conveyor belt beneath our car. When Hall & Oates comes across Dad turns up the radio, drums his fingers on the steering wheel, sings along wistfully:

She’ll only come out at night,
The lean and hungry type,
Nothing is new,
I’ve seen her here before…

I watch his face flashing in the darkness, lit up by the headlights of passing cars like someone’s opening and closing shutters. He’s not laughing anymore. He’s serious about this song, I can tell.

Oh-oh here she comes.
Watch out boy she’ll chew you up.
 Oh-oh here she comes.
She’s a man-eater.

“What’s a man-eater?” I ask him. It sounds dangerous. My eyes try to penetrate the woods outside the windowso much darkness pressing in. I imagine some she-monster with yellow eyes stalking our car from the bushes. Dad replies solemnly, eyes straight ahead, “A woman every man wants.” I am still riding the high of the power I felt with that last trucker—his desire to know more about me, a need so dangerous my dad had to silence him. I wonder if somehow that trucker has left his route, tracked us down, is following behind us, waiting for us to pull over. The thought gives me another warm thrill—but scares me, too. I scoot across the seat to Dad, lean my head on his shoulder, and he takes one hand off the steering wheel and squeezes my knee. Man-eater. Whomever or whatever she is, she has inspired a man to write a song about her, to long for her, to make other men like my father ache for her. I know right then and there what I want to be when I grow up. A man-eater.

Every time I looked in the mirror, though, I knew I was decidedly not a man-eater—not yet, anyway. Man-eaters, the kind I came to see on the big screen and on magazine covers, did not have stringy red hair or freckles or glasses. And the teeth they used to chew up and spit out men were straight and blindingly white. My teeth looked more like those belonging to a Venus fly trap. The bottom row turned every which way but straight, and my left and right incisors had grown in at an angle, overlapping the front two teeth like fangs. Sometimes the kids at school pretended I was a vampire, raced away from me as if I might suck blood from their necks.

I know right then and there what I want to be when I grow up. A man-eater.

It only added injury to insult that my mother was a real life beauty queen. At eighteen, she had had been crowned Miss Ligonier, the trophy of which was displayed prominently on the bookshelf of every living room in every house into which we moved. It was a gold figurine about the same size as a Barbie, on its head a crown and in its hands a scepter. The scepter was about the size of a sewing needle and slid into a hole in the trophy’s fist. It wasn’t supposed to be removable. Jenna and I used to take the trophy down from its bookcase and stroke its hard, gold dress. Eventually, we loosened the scepter and found we could take it from her hands. We gave it to our Barbies until Mom found out and yelled at us. Tears brimmed in her eyes as she cradled the trophy, trying to fix it. After that, she kept the trophy out of our reach.

My father was convinced that every man wanted her so he watched over her jealously. His fears were not unfounded. Once at a Kmart, when she was pushing my baby brother in the cart and we sisters were trailing behind her like ducks on a string, a young marine, probably no older than eighteen or nineteen, touched her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I just had to tell you that I think you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” I was probably around nine and this was the most impressive thing I had seen. “Look at your mother, girls,” Dad would say to us, gazing up at her with hungry eyes while she’d fill our plates at dinner. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

And she was. But she didn’t wake up that way. We knew her secret: the orange tackle box. For the better part of the day that she spent vacuuming floors, dusting cabinets, and folding laundry, she was downright plain—thick, red hair gathered into a tight bun like a knob on the top of her head, small eyes fading into a pale and freckled face. But an hour before Dad came home, Mom would stop whatever household chore she was attending to and head up to her bathroom where, under the cabinet, she stored a fisherman’s tackle box. The contents of that tacklebox were magic, invoking into being the beauty queen hiding inside my mother. Where men might separate lures, lines, and hooks into each compartment, Mom had neatly arranged row after row of eye shadows, mascaras, and lipsticks. I’d lean against the doorframe of her bathroom and watch as she’d “put on her face.” First there was the pale, almost white concealer she’d dab under her eyes, then the liquid foundation she’d swirl across her cheeks, forehead, and chin. Next, powder and a sweep of pink blush. She’d lean into the mirror, carefully swipe blue eye shadow across each eyelid, step back, examine her work, lean in again to fill in creases. Next the eyelash curler, a stroke of eyeliner, a flourish of mascara. She’d brush out her eyebrows and pencil them in so her dark, almond-shaped eyes slowly emerged as if coaxed.

But the most magical part of the tackle box was the assortment of lipstick tubes piled in two or three of the compartments and organized by shade. All shades of red, they touted names like “Cherry Lush,” “Ruby Dream,” “Scarlett Empress,” “Femme Fatale.” I loved running my fingers over the smooth tubes, removing their caps, rolling up colors so deep and rich my mouth watered. First she’d line her lips, drawing in a fuller pout on bottom, a cupid’s bow on top. Then she’d choose a lipstick and drag it slowly across, back and forth, press her lips together, and repeat. Again, she’d step back from the mirror, survey her reflection, dissatisfied, rummage through the tackle box for something to right it. Lean in again, fix the mistakes. With each sweep, stroke, and blot, ho-hum servant girl slowly transformed into Cinderella. What I wanted more than anything was to look like her when I grew up.

Indeed, it was this beauty regimen alone that kept me from climbing onto a chair and tying a rope around my neck. That she could transform herself so completely gave me hope every time I looked in the mirror at my own plain-Jane face and straight-as-a-board body (“You’re a pirate’s dream,” my dad joked. “A buried chest”). Still, I assured my friends that the story of the Ugly Duckling was my own. My mother was proof; of course I’d inherited her genes. Plus all five of my dad’s sisters were beautiful and his own mom was so gorgeous she’d been married six times. How could it turn out otherwise for me? Friends of my parents concurred when they’d come over for dinner and I’d skip downstairs on break from playing dress-up, my adolescent face inexpertly plastered with lipstick and eye shadow. “You’re in trouble,” the men would elbow my dad and wink, “Get your gun ready.” I’d blush, pleased.

And, eventually, it happened, with the assistance of puberty and its helpful side-kick, Cover Girl. Each morning, I woke up early to put on my own face, jostling with my sister, Jenna, for real estate in front of the bathroom mirror. By then, I didn’t need a tackle box as some marketing genius had created Caboodles, essentially a tackle box but in appropriately girly pink and purple. Because it was too big to carry to school, I dumped its essentials into a plastic pencil pouch that I stuffed into my backpack. As soon as I got to school, I dashed to the bathroom to check that my makeup had remained in place during the harrowing thirty-minute bus ride. I repeated this process in each of the ten-minute breaks between class, joining the line of teenage girls who were also reapplying their lipstick and eyeliner, brushing their hair, and otherwise checking for any break in the surface that might betray us to the boys.

The boys were the thing.  The thrill of knowing we were desired was like static electricity coursing through our veins. Every moment of our teenage years became a pageant. Friday nights my dad would drop a group of neighborhood girls at the mall and we’d treat it like a catwalk until it closed at nine: strut around the top floor, then take the escalator and sashay around the bottom, then ride the escalator back up and start over. We never actually talked to these boys. It seemed to us they spoke an entirely different language, one composed of guttural grunts and groans. It was enough to glide past them in their huddled masses and feel the hush our presence caused. Sometimes one would break the silence, whistle or moan, or another would lick his lips, a lascivious “niiiice” unrolling from his tongue like a carpet at our feet. Without speaking a word to them, we possessed the power to interrupt their compact and gated world, to make their heads swivel in our directions, to command their bodies to straighten and stiffen, to invoke the gazes that caressed the length of our emerging curves. Sometimes as we swept by they’d collapse into each other like sailors thrown about by the force of a wave; we imagined them set adrift, desperate, clinging to the hope that we might turn and save them. We thought the most romantic thing in the world was to be desired from afar, a belief confirmed and encouraged by any number of love songs our boom boxes crooned—“Lady in Red,” “Jesse’s Girl,” “Private Eyes,” “Every Step You Take.”

It wasn’t just teenage boys wanting us, though. On nights we couldn’t pester a parent to drive us to the mall, we made do with the gravel catwalk alongside the main road beyond our houses. We were allowed to walk only as far as a stop sign at the corner. Still, we’d saunter down and back, down and back, practicing our swagger. The point was simply the thrill of the horns beeping as cars slowed down, adult men hanging their heads out the window like dogs, calling to us “baby” or “honey” or “sugar lips.” Sometimes they’d slow down too much, as if intending to pull over. We didn’t know what to do, had no plan for desire that materialized itself into an actual encounter, especially not with a mustached man, so we’d giggle and run into the grass, feeling safe behind the wood fence posts that separated our backyards from the street. And we mostly were.

The truth is, we didn’t really understand this “power” we had inherited with our bodies, with being born female. We, too, felt set adrift—without anchor or direction, our bodies like rafts floating on some vast sea in which we were told lurked all species of danger. Somewhere on this sea there was safety, an island paradise called marriage. All we knew was we had to get there, and in one piece. Not broken. Not damaged. But we were provided no oars, no compass. Sure, we were given “direction,” of a sort, but it was like being handed a map to use on an ocean with no landmarks. Our school counselors and health teachers talked to us all the time about how to “just say no,” and our fathers guarded our virtue like border police. Then, too, there were the sermons. Church elders constantly lectured us about what to do with male desire should it ever present itself in a tangible way: run. Our bodies did not belong to us, but to our fathers on earth and our father in heaven; one day, if we were lucky, they’d belong to our husbands. Our bodies were temples, they told us. But temples need worshippers, or else they’re just empty buildings.

There were plenty of worshippers at church. The churches to which we belonged were of the evangelical brand, notable for their populations of zealous converts who’d led sad and seamy lives before being lit on fire by Jesus. In one church, our youth group leaders were two handsome young men both of whom had been male strippers. In fact, our pastor had been a pimp, his wife a prostitute about whom he told stories of beating before he found his way to the Lord. Their wives were dour-faced women, saddled by arms full of infants and diaper bags and clung to by toddlers with sticky fingers; they scowled at us when we ran up to hug their husbands after service. We ignored them. Those hugs were soft, and warm, their husbands’ beards scratching our cheeks, musky cologne pressing into our noses and lungs. Every Sunday I looked forward to the five minutes the pastor would take from the sermon so we might greet and hug those in adjacent pews. Jenna and I positioned ourselves strategically so we’d be sitting directly beside, in front of, or behind the boys or men we most liked to hug. “You give such nice hugs,” I remember one growling in my ear as he pulled me into an embrace; something inside me clenched with pleasure. All of this, of course, under and approved by my father’s watchful eyes.

In another church, our youth ministers were recovering alcoholics who would talk to us about why we should wait for marriage to have sex and tell us how hard it would be since many men would, of course, want us so badly. They’d refer vaguely but wistfully to the girls they had “ruined” before their conversion. After group prayer, we teens would play capture the flag in the parking lot, while our illustrious leaders would guard the bases, keeping us warm when we arrived there by hugging us to them or rubbing our hands between their palms. One of them was enraptured with a fourteen-year-old friend of mine whom he nicknamed “Face” because, he said, she was so pretty. It hurt my feelings that he only called me “Red,” tribute to the much-maligned color of my hair and decidedly not my beauty. “Too bad I’m too old for you,” he’d tell my friend, hugging her to him, or, he’d wink, lift her chin up to his face, cluck approvingly, “Trouble. Trouble. Trouble.” Eventually, he started dating a woman in the choir and shortly thereafter began to ignore us; when he resigned from youth group, we felt betrayed and whispered loudly about his new wife’s snaggle-toothed smile and pointy chin when she passed us in the pews. We were certain she had cast some spell on him, forced him to abandon us.

There were also the men who’d show up for the first time on a Sunday morning, sit behind us in the pews, and afterwards ask if they could call. We’d give them our numbers, knowing they’d never get past our dads who would ask them how old they were. Once, but only once, Jenna called one of them up herself and he showed up at our house on a Saturday while my parents were out shopping. She was thirteen, he twenty-eight. I wouldn’t let him into the house, so Jenna met him on the porch instead. I watched them through the blinds as they kissed. It was the kind of kissing inexperienced kissers do, tongues battling in the hollow of wide and motionless mouths. Jenna came back inside, flushed. “He said I was jail-bait,” she confided. “What does that mean?” I didn’t know.

I was fifteen when I French-kissed for the first time. It happened while watching Road House in a movie theater with a nineteen-year-old named Eric. My friend Sandy, who my mother complained was “fast,” had set me up with him; I’d met Sandy at church and Eric was her ex. They’d already had sex. I was supposed to be at a sleepover at Sandy’s, but instead I’d let Eric pick me from her house and take me on a date. He kissed me as soon as the lights went out in the theater, pressing me against the hard-backed seat and spilling my popcorn onto the sticky floor. He tasted like cigarettes and beer, though I didn’t know it at the time. The second time I snuck out with Eric, we made out in the back of his mother’s car during a Fourth of July party. We stretched out on the backseat while Boys to Men played on the radio, but I wouldn’t let him slip his hands up my shirt or beneath the waistband of my shorts. It was hot inside the car and he was frustrated, so after awhile we went back to the party and he disappeared into the crowd, leaving me alone to wander the yard among strangers. Everyone was drunk; his mother offered me a Budweiser, and I carried it around, not drinking it, letting it sweat in my palm. I retreated inside, where dirty dishes were piled on the counter and the carpet smelled of dogs; upstairs the toilet was stained brown with rust. In the bathroom mirror I practiced my smile. It felt quivery and loose, like it might slide off. I called Sandy from the phone in the kitchen and her mom picked me up. I told her my stomach hurt.

Eric didn’t call me after that, although I did see him one more time. It was in a McDonald’s after I’d been canoeing with the youth group. I had fallen in the water; my clothes were dirty, my hair scraggly, and my make-up melted in rivulets down my cheeks. I had just paid for my milkshake when I turned around to see Eric. He nodded at me and I rushed past him, embarrassed by my Alice Cooper appearance. Later, referring to my appearance, he told Sandy that he had dodged a bullet. Eric was a high-school drop out and an alcoholic. His tongue had felt thick and dry in my mouth, his fingers calloused. I was an honors student and, except for my brief flirtation with lying to my parents about my whereabouts, morally irreproachable. But his assessment of my worth was all that mattered.

What was “real” anyway, I reasoned. What was identity? Isn’t identity unstable? Always shifting? Isn’t that how we decenter power? I used my courses in feminism and philosophy to rationalize the fact that there wasn’t really any “me” to begin with. “I” was a series of constructs, an assemblage of parts I could compartmentalize, rearrange, brush on and, just as easily, strip away.

If I had been careful before about making sure to put my face on before I went in public, I now became a zealot. With boyfriends in college, I woke up early to sneak into the bathroom to reapply whatever makeup had worn off overnight. I bought only waterproof makeup in the summer and didn’t go under the water lest what wasn’t waterproof wash off. If a man didn’t desire me, I read it as a sign that I needed to procure whatever lure would bait him. Perhaps my hair needed to be less red. Or more. Perhaps my green eyes should be blue. Or purple. Or turquoise (a smitten eye doctor supplied me with six months supply of colored lenses for free). For many years I was convinced it was my pale skin and freckles (a suspicion initiated by a fellow student’s remark in high school that I would be “even more hot” with a tan). When I suffered one too many sunburns trying to tan my tender Scotch-Irish skin, I switched to lotions and sprays which left me orange—but which was better than pale. For a time, I wore pantyhose under shorts because I was so embarrassed by my pasty legs. One night, I looked in the mirror and realized that everything about me was fake—bleached hair, colored contacts, painted lips, acrylic nails, spray-tanned skin, adhesive eyelashes, waist-cinching corset, padded bra, platform heels. I was a fraud. False-advertising.

But by then I was taking classes in poststructuralist theory. What was “real” anyway, I reasoned. What was identity? Isn’t identity unstable? Always shifting? Isn’t that how we decenter power? I used my courses in feminism and philosophy to rationalize the fact that there wasn’t really any “me” to begin with. “I” was a series of constructs, an assemblage of parts I could compartmentalize, rearrange, brush on and, just as easily, strip away. I was a Colorform paper doll. Mrs. Potato Head. An Etch A Sketch. Shake and start over. This man liked a woman who wore baseball caps and big hoop earrings; I went shopping. This one wanted a woman to take home to Mom; I went to church. Another had a thing for Claudia Schiffer; I bleached my hair and bought big rollers. This one was into athletes; I joined a gym. Sometimes when my girlfriends and I went to bars in El Paso where we meet college boys from UTEP or GIs stationed at the nearby military base, I’d even make up a new persona. I was Savannah. Or Callie. Or Elena. I was a medical student. Or a dancer. Or a runaway. I had no scruples about lying. After all, I knew they weren’t really interested in me; an Elena was as good as a Savannah or an Elizabeth. I was all surface. Smoke and mirrors, I’d joke.

How tenuous a hold women have on the power they believe they possess. When I was seventeen and still living at home, I pulled a book from my parents’ bookshelf. It was about marriage and was written by a Christian woman. My parents were evangelicals then and most of our reading material involved how to be better servants of God. This book had a foreword written by the woman’s husband. I remember reading something to this effect: “My wife is a beautiful woman. Still, how hard it must be on her to know that every ten years, a new decade’s worth of young men no longer find her desirable.” What hooked my seventeen-year-old brain was the instability of power—that at some point, no orange tackle box could save her. I hadn’t considered this before. It was like suddenly realizing there was fine print in a contract I had already signed. I remember looking into the mirror and thinking about what my mother’s friends would say to me when they’d come to coffee—things like, “Oh, to have that body again!” Or, “Oh, how time flies.  Enjoy that face of yours now!” What were they talking about? Would men really stop desiring them? Up to this point, getting older had meant only that I would get prettier. I’d grow boobs. I’d be able to wear makeup. I had never before thought of getting older as being bad. Suddenly I realized that I was sailing toward a horizon on a world that was not round, but flat. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do but brace for the fall.

This knowledge made the performance I was giving all the more important. I began to really feel the pressure as I was finishing college. Although an honors student with plans for graduate school, I was convinced that I was running out of time to accomplish the most important goal: marriage. My mother had been engaged three times before her senior year of school. My cousins and many of my friends from high school were already planning their weddings. “Some women never get married,” an older cousin consoled me when I showed up, date-less, to Thanksgiving dinner. “It’s okay,” she patted my arm, unconvincingly. At the time I was dating a med student, but tradition instructed me that the man, not the woman, gets to propose. After three years together, he still wasn’t proposing and was making plans to move elsewhere for his residency. “Of course he hasn’t proposed. Why buy the cow if he’s getting the milk for free?” my father intoned. “But I’m not a cow!” I protested.

One night I went to dinner with my roommate and her parents. Over drinks her mother laughingly told us about how she got her husband to propose: “I spray-painted the window of his car with the words, ‘Shit or get off the pot!’” I cringed at the metaphor. But I got it. Soon after, I told my boyfriend, blankly: “I’m twenty-three. I’m not going to look like this forever. Either you ask me to marry you, or I need to go out and use what I’ve got now to find someone who will.”

No surprise that we broke up soon after. So I went to grad school. I finished graduate school ten years ago and have been teaching gender studies classes at a community college for almost as long. The conversation hasn’t evolved much. My students read and discuss poems by feminist poets like Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich and Kim Addonizio. I lead them in discussions about the traps of a media-driven society obsessed with an unrealistic feminine ideal. We mourn for young girls growing up under the guidance of shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, and Extreme Makeover. We reminisce about our mothers’ beauty routines and the suitcases of Barbie dolls we kept under our beds. We admit to each other our obsession with the mirror, our dieting woes. We shake our heads and cluck our tongues at sexism masquerading as girl-power in popular songs like “Put a Ring on It,” and “All About That Bass.” They are comforted to know that their professor, long-steeped in feminist theory, still battles with her own vexed position in regard to beauty and desire. I, in turn, feel guilty for allowing them that comfort, which I worry confirms for them that there is no way out of the [tackle] box and therefore no reason to seek, much less attempt, escape.

Last year I turned forty. In our culture, this means I have officially entered the point of no return, crossed over into the no-woman’s-land of middle age and its menagerie of cougars and crones, am preparing to fall off the edge of the world. Woman overboard, my body parts sagging, shrinking, sinking. Here, then, is the whirling sea of my life: my ex-husband dating a woman seventeen years his junior; my father engaged to a woman who just turned fifty; my mother choosing an aquarium of brightly colored fish instead of a husband. I myself am remarried, this time not foolish enough to imagine marriage as a destination. If I’m on a raft, my husband’s on it too, both our hands in the water paddling. I take my face off before I get in bed. I trust him to love me—faceless and bare, hooked and gutted.

Still, there are nights when my husband falls asleep before me, and I close the door to our bathroom, stare into the mirror, push my disloyal skin back and up, beseech it to stay and not sag. When it refuses, I reach for the vials that line my shelves, for their promises of youth and beauty and perpetual power. As if from over a hill I hear Botox and Juvederm and their minions calling, like Christina Rossetti’s 19th century goblin men: “Come buy, Come buy.”

They sound so kind, and full of love.

Elizabeth JohnstonElizabeth Johnston has been telling stories since middle school, when she found (like Scheherezade) that a good story can distract bullies.Her poetry has appeared in a variety of literary magazines and collections and been nominated for Pushcart and “Best of the Net” prizes. You can read her most recent poems in New Verse News, Mom Egg Review, NonBinary Review, The Luminary, Rose Red Review, Carbon Culture, and Cahoodaloodaling. While primarily a poet, she also tells stories in other genres, as evidenced by “Tackle Box” and a number of scholarly essays on gender. Her co-authored play, FourPlay, was featured at the 2014 Rochester Fringe Festival and received honorable mention in Cahoodaloodaling’s 2014 In Cahoots Collaboration Contest, and her play, “Cinderella Snubs a Hand Out” will appear in Cahoodaloodaling’s summer 2015 issue. Elizabeth is a founding member of the award-winning writer’s group, Straw Mat. She makes her home in Rochester, NY, where she enjoys the messiness of life with her partner, Brian, her daughters, Ava and Christina, and a menagerie of unruly pets.

 

When You Stop Digging

I have started going to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings—the acronym is SLAA, pronounced like the chopped cabbage side-dish that a friend of mine once declared only straight people eat. Which means that the other program I belong to, the so-called “beverage program,” which shall remain nameless because the first rule of Fight Club is we do not talk about Fight Club, would be pronounced “AHHHHHHHHHHH!” Something between a war cry and a scream. That sounds about right to me.

I sit in the chair in these meetings and I build a parapet around myself: coffee cup, water bottle, sweater, second sweater, handbag. No one can come near me. An elderly woman with Birkenstocks and a Eugene Levy brow sits down beside me and I peep at her from behind the privacy curtain of my hair. She is a sex addict, I tell myself with wonder. I am mentally pointing.

There is no way to announce that I am a “sex addict” without feeling like a parody of myself. Before the meetings, I apply strata of red lipstick and pull my skirt up higher in case someone good wants to relapse with me—I can’t help myself, I am a sex addict. In my head, I am supposed to smolder at the eyes and stick out my chest as I say these words, like I’m in a Tennessee Williams play and I’m all depending on the kindness of strangers.

The meetings are strange and confusing. Unlike other 12 step jams where there is one specific thing you do not do, i.e. drink alcohol, pound crystal meth into your veins, etc., the recovery process for sex addiction involves an end-goal of having sex. I can sit in church basements at meetings until I’m numb, nothing is ever going to turn me into a girl who can one day sip a lychee martini and then go about her life. Whenever I hit the bottle, there’s always going to be apartment fires and losing my shoes on the walk home and waking up to a bedroom full of squirrels and no idea how they got there. So this idea of moderation is radical. I sit in the sex meetings with people who brand themselves sex addicts, love addicts, fantasy addicts (I picture an apartment full of Gandalf posters, unicorns, those 12-sided D&D dice), affection addicts, and codependents, and I mentally bookmark men I find interesting.

 

The meeting I go to most is called, depressingly, Becoming Unaddicted to A Person. It’s been one month, one day, and a handful of stingy hours: no contact with Sketch. My person.

I visit my friend in New England, a woman who’s married and who has a horse. This seems like gluttonous good fortune to me, but she lets me ride her horse, and I do not act flirty and cute around her husband, which is an improvement over some of my recent behavior. I learn that a pony is not a different animal than a horse—it refers to any horse that is short. I ride a pony named Raven through the back trails, and the leaves have begun to turn. I feel happy for a little while, sore in the space between my legs but for once without an attendant need to text pictures of myself in skimpy yoga outfits in a transparent plea for attention. I just ride the fucking pony, and like it, and go home.

 

I’m supposed to be cycling down from the frantic hunt for sex and validation, but I keep looking for loopholes, a way to feed my jones for boy-attention. I message Engineer-Carl, offering to take the bus out to New Jersey to see a Neil Simon show he just directed at some shitty suburban community theater. The bus from New York to New Jersey is disgusting—I take it all the time to see my parents, and I want to record a PSA with the working title “It’s Never OK to Eat Eggs on the Bus.” But I figure taking the trouble to see his show is a nice gesture, and admittedly I’m craving attention; I’m falling in love twelve times a day. But I don’t want to be a big tease or an asshole, so I tell him (maturely, in a Facebook message) that I’m doing a thing and I’m staying out of physical entanglements for a bit, “but you’re my friend and I want to see you and I want to see your show.” I guess I sound like a fucking weirdo; he writes back, “I’d rather you didn’t come, then.”

So I don’t.

Miffed, I de-friend him on Facebook, a dick move that always feels incredibly satisfying when someone has hurt my feelings online. It reminds me of middle-school, when friendship was a package deal that could be bestowed or rescinded: “Give me half your ice cream sandwich and I will be your best friend” was a legitimate offer. A boyfriend was out of reach, so we transferred all the drama to one another.

I teach seventh-grade, or at least I will until someone at school discovers my blog and I get fired, and I see kids come in crying with heartbreaking frequency. I always want to tell them that this is not what life is like. Only in seventh grade is someone coming up to say the meanest thing anyone has ever said to you a fucking daily occurrence. You get older and people learn to talk about you properly: passive-aggressively, and behind your back. Or sometimes they send you messages on Facebook, rejecting your offer of friendship.

The kids make up for a lot. I hear a lot of teachers talk about making a difference, closing the achievement gap between rich and poor, and naturally, having two months every year to get as far from New York as a working-poor person can. But for me, a colossal draw of teaching has always been a chorus of voices asking me things and saying my name while they do it. It’s hard to feel lonely while four different seventh-graders repeatedly intone your name because they want the stapler.

The girls at my school are touching creatures—slouching in their hoodies, all hollow bird bones. They link arms in the hallway when they walk—once in awhile, I am conscripted to join the chain. I lend them my phone to take pictures for yearbook during an assembly, and they return it with a group selfie on the homescreen. I have no idea how to change it back.

The boys haven’t reached puberty yet, but they will, over the course of the year, eyes widening in sudden recognition as the penny drops: girls.

When I was twelve, I fell hard for a boy at my school: Robert. I would sit behind him in social studies and cry. My school had a dance every few months; a dj would be hired, orange drink and cheez doodles would be served in the cafeteria. All the girls would spend their time in the bathroom, running vital messages back and forth to their encampment in the lobby near the payphones. There would be occasional forays onto the dance floor, scattering when a slow song bubbled up. We watched enviously while the three middle school couples came together, everything we didn’t have.

 

Everyone knew I loved Robert, so when a slow rhythm started up, a bunch of girls grabbed me by the back of my oversized sweater dress and propelled me across the waxed gymnasium floor. I braced my feet like a cat before a bath, but my flats slid like runners across it and it was a sleigh ride before I stood before him. I think hellos were exchanged. A ring of girls around us serious as riot police, I put my arms around his neck and began the slow dance, which involves swaying from side to side like a mental patient. I said, I am certain, at least five stupid things that are mercifully lost in the mists of time.

But then the song changed, and got all up-tempo. So no one was slow-dancing, but Robert and I grimly soldiered on, swaying in the inertia. And it wasn’t just any song—it was that 80s staple in which the woman sings, “We don’t have to take our CLOTHES OFF! To have a good time—NO NO! We can dance and party ALL NIGHT! And drink some cherry wine—UH HUH!” It is a song/personal prophecy about not getting laid and burgeoning alcoholism, and when it was finished, Robert ran one way and I ran the other.

It’s been nearly three decades since that magical night left its cheez doodley fingerprints on my consciousness, and I am only now beginning to be able to tell that story without wanting to crawl under furniture. What does this mean?  Will I see seventy before I am able to pull out and look at the pieces of the last year without wanting to rip out my eyes and throw them at somebody?

 

I run into Sketch, walking with his parents in Jackson Heights at the Diwali Festival, an Indian affair bright with costume gold and steeped in the smell of cardamom. He walks me back to Sunnyside, asking why I am always so mean to him. He asks: Do you want to go to the movies? Do you want to go hiking next weekend? And: Can I kiss you? I tell him I’m not doing that right now—I’m trying to do something different. As revenge, he tells me about the girls he’s been sleeping with. Apparently, Kim is a squirter. I love him, but there’s a new layer of relief on top of the complicated, seven-layer-taco-dip strata of my feelings for him when I tell him goodbye.

 

One of the side effects of being a “sex addict” (ugh, air quotes are once more being heavily deployed) is vanity—how I look, how my body looks. I am driven to wear heels my arches can no longer tolerate. I torture my hair with a keratin-and-formaldehyde process so toxic that most salons have banned it and the place I go to leaves me in the hands of the Korean Lennie from Of Mice and Men—his tongue sticks out the corner of his mouth while he works, he sometimes hits my head with the wrong side of the hairbrush. There is a French poodle that lives in the shop, tethered to a chair, and my friend Kyla jokes that it is like the canary in the coal mine, posted to give the workers a heads-up when the chemical levels reach toxicity.

Hair extensions are snapped into my scalp and contact lenses turn my eyes a Fremen blue. Unlimbering the credit card, I spend vast sums of money on clothing and black silk underwear; I am a vain woman, and I would rather work on my outsides than my insides.

So in light of all this, it is particularly disturbing to me that one morning, twenty years ago, I woke up and half of my face had quit. It looked like one of those masks that denote comedy and tragedy; on one side, everything was a few centimeters lower, like there was some invisible sinkhole that my features were slumping into. I didn’t know what had happened, but I had been doing a lot of heroin at the time, so I figured this was down to that.

It wasn’t. It was Bell’s Palsy, some kind of neurological tic that shuts down communication along the seventh cranial nerve once in a while and forces me to tape my eye shut when I sleep. It’s not that uncommon; I was just reading that the hot-shit CEO of a media chain had it recently and was freaking everyone out at meetings. But I get it the way I seem to get everything—over and over and over. Every couple of years since I was twenty, there’s at least one neurological brown-out and I further lose my ability to pronounce words with an F or a P.

Mostly it comes back, but there is further slippage with each passing attack, enough so that it’s noticeable in photos. “What’s up with your face?” was the opening line to an email from a suitor on one of the online dating sites. So much of what we perceive as beauty is down to symmetry and youth, and as those things recede in the rearview mirror for me, other things come and take their place. I still think I’m dead sexy; I think I look interesting, that my face has character. But Sketch thought I was pretty, and I miss that: looking at him looking at me.

 

I carry on with the sex meetings; people are counting days off their last happy-ending massage, off their last extramarital tryst. Some of them have sworn off masturbation, and it freaks me out, as they count days, to know precisely when this or that paunchy stranger last came into his own hands.

As for me, I am getting increasingly hypersensitized to male touch. I go with my friends to a haunted house downtown, unaware that it is Touch-Me Thursday, and accept a glowstick that lets the actors know: touch me. We traverse the winding corridors and through the sets: meat locker with hatchet-wielding pig, zombified strip club, surgical theater with the patient wide-awake and screaming. The glowstick around my neck pulls killers and freaks from their niches and I am cornered and stroked. A man in a rubber mask grabs my hair and I find I am breathing harder.

We leave, and my friends are laughing, and I join them, but I am mentally looking around for another haunted house. I take the glowstick with me. I troll about the Internet looking for scarier, more explicit, more intense. Anything with a superlative label.

I go to my sex meeting the next night, and people laugh when I share about this, as people always laugh when you say something in a meeting that is not funny but is somehow relatable. It’s a bark of recognition.

I go to a yoga class after, and the instructor looks like Sketch: tall, bald, cut, features that look like they were hacked out of a mountainside. I spend the class with my eyes pressed to him, chin lowered like a bull about to charge. My chest heaves when he comes over and puts his hands on me, lifting my legs higher. I put my hand on his hairless chest when I thank him for the class afterwards, and give him my deepest eye-contact over tea in the lobby; another girl comes out with her Botticelli red curls a fountain from her ponytail, but I deftly box her out when she tries to join the conversation. This, by the way, is why I would never date a yoga instructor: you would have to be constantly circling him, growling “MINE” at all the encroaching hyenas.

I ask him to crack my back, which is still tight after class, and he wraps his arms around me from behind. I press my ass against him as much as I dare, and lean back into him as he lifts me off my feet and my spine crackles down to my tail. Wobbly on my feet after, I ask after the classes he is taking, having Facebook-stalked the shit out of him, and he tells me about the Kundalini-training he is doing. It’s all about moving the sexual energy up out of your root chakra, he says, into the other chakras so that you can function more creatively.

Since I’ve been practicing this whole abstinence thing, I’ve been writing everyday, for the first time ever. It’s new. Is it because I’m not humping up on every weirdo I can find? I don’t know, but it feels very Sophie’s Choice. My libido or this thing where the words come out? Which do I need to feed more?

 

Halloween is coming up, and my friend Joanne sends me a satirical post on Facebook showing different available costumes for women looking to get their sexy on: you can be a sexy hammer, a sexy envelope, sexy late-stage syphilis. Apparently there is nothing we can’t add fishnets and false eyelashes to.

I love Halloween, have since I was a kid. Sketch and I met and exchanged love-yous and moved in together right around Halloween; it was the one-year anniversary of his release from prison, and his parole officer used to come around and leave us just enough time to hide the cocaine. We dressed up together every year: Batman and Catwoman; Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf; Lecherous Priest and Catholic Schoolgirl.

Sketch likes to describe the evolution of our relationship thusly: we were back-to-back, fighting our demons together. Then we were side-by-side. Then we kept turning and ended up head-to head as combatants. The last couple of years we were together, we didn’t bother matching our costumes. I went as Hit Girl and he went as a Yeti, and we walked in the East Village Halloween Parade one last time. Walking in this parade is the only way to see it; the sidewalks fill up with spectators like caulking from barricade to building. At the end of the route, someone was giving out samples of Nivea which were discarded in the street, and Sixth Avenue was a long slick of moisturizer. Sketch asked me to take a picture of him in his Yeti costume with two police-officers, in commemoration of walking out of prison exactly one decade earlier. He had added a Yankees hat and an I heart NY tee-shirt to the ensemble: a New York yeti. We laughed our way down the slippery streets, holding on to each other.

I want to call him, but I don’t know what I will say, or what I want him to say. I just want a moment of contact with him, any contact. I could bump into him in the street or grab his ankle in a haunted house. I could send him a single emoji: a pumpkin, or a ghost.

 

He texts me on Veteran’s Day; this feels appropriate; we are certainly veterans of something. It surprises me to see his name on my phone. It’s like getting a text from Santa, and for a few moments, all I can do is blink at it.

He asks if we can talk later, and before we talk, I know it will be the same talk we’ve had before; we love each other, things have to change, why is this so hard?

I feel livelier when I get off the phone, but the next morning, I don’t want to get out of bed to write.  I drift through my day, features listing to one side, feeling as insubstantial as a ghost that begs you to touch her.

Tippy RexTippy Rex is a semi-reformed fuck-up turned blogger who teaches middle school in New York City and thus attempts to mask her identity online so that her students won’t find all the drug and dildo references with her name attached to them. She has an MFA from Columbia, and is easily distracted by shiny objects. Her blog can be found at www.whenyoustopdigging.com.