Dope

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

Almost perfect.

*     *     *

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

*     *     *

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

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

 

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

 

 

LIGO

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They sure are noisy,” I said.

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Leaving Cleveland

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

“Who is it?”

“Cherie. Inspection time.”

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

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

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

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

Bingo.

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

“Stove is not clean.”

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fingering of paper stopped and Craig cleared his throat.

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

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

Does Craig see these things?

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

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

I was terrified of driving in snow.

Does he see me skidding on black ice?

*     *     *

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

“Wrong—I want balanced salt solution.”

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

“Where’s my diamond knife?”

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

*     *     *

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

“He says you need to cut your nails.”

My nails.

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

I had to get it insured. Right?

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

“Well Mrs. Bubba is from Virginia.”

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

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

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

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

A Diamond.

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

“Yes. I have.” he replied.

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

“Goodbye Dr. Craig.”

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

 

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

Photo Credit: Rashida De Vore

 

 

Encounters with Snakes

1981

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

1986

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

1988

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

1991

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

1996

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

1999

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

2001

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

2003

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

2005

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

I want to feel the elation she feels.

2006

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

2007

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

2008

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

2011

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

2013

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

2014

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

2016

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

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

2017

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

 

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

Photo Credit: Nick Triolo

Losing Faith

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

Five minutes. Five miles.

*     *     *

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

He knew my list of reasons.

“Children are too unpredictable.”

He knew to listen when I recited them.

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

He even knew to agree with me.

“Parenthood is irreversible.”

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

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

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

*     *     *

Tom knew I knew. And now he was asking.

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

*     *     *

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

Minutes and miles ticked away. Austin continued to sob.

*     *     *

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

 

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

Twelve minutes. Twelve miles.

*     *     *

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

*     *     *

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

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

“We can’t do that ma’am.”

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

They answered with shrugs.

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

Fifteen minutes. Fifteen miles.

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

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

*     *     *

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

*     *     *

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

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

 

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

Photo credit: Faith Lemire-Baeten.

 

You Memorize The Way Your Hand Lets Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Notes to Self

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

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

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

The last scud of day holds back for me,

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

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

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

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

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

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

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

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You could not go to her funeral.

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

Dear Elliot,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,

Elliot

 

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

A Life in a Body (With Breasts)

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

 

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

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

Is forty a color?

I ignored it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You pretend as hard as you can to ignore it.

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

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

Look down at your finger.

Point up.

Look down.

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

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

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

You are almost forty.

And afraid.

 

  1. The Suburbanite and The Pamphlet of Doom

 

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

The Pamphlet demands attention.

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

You might even begin avoiding the kitchen completely.

Ordering in.

Buying a new cable to charge your phone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Cornholio Behaving Badly

 

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

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

Don’t worry, he’s joking.

He sincerely believes he is being funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did resemble the character just a little.

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

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

Let’s call it a lifestyle choice.

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

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

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

This is how people talk about my body.

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

Cornholio is nothing if not a real physical comedian.

 

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

 

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

She looks like money.

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

“Are they good?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

This is the way strangers talk about your body.

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

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

 

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

 

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

She asks me to explain.

“They’re sort of turning black.”

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

Off my nipples.

BITS OF MY NIPPLES FLAKE OFF.

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

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

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

Google is strangely unhelpful.

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

Forget the diagnoses, look at the pictures.

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

It is the worst hobby ever.

 

  1. The Agony of These Feet

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

You still may panic.

I call my mother from the car. Sobbing.

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

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

I sound like I am dying.

“Remove—remove—remove—”

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

“My—My—My—”

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

“My toenails.”

Vanity thy name is open-toed shoes.

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

 

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

 

My gynecologist is perplexed by my nipples.

Disturbed even.

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

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

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

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

I say it to my husband. To my mother.

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

Hysterical.

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

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

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

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

Then she uses the word “palpate.”

It’s no scraping, but it’ll do.

*     *     *

My nipple problem is above her pay grade.

I get a mammogram.

“Pay close attention to the nipple.”

I get another one.

“Pay close attention to the nipple.”

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

An ultrasound.

“Pay close attention to the nipple.”

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

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

“Will you—have to do—a—a scraping.”

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

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

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

Suddenly, I feel great shame.

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

I confess.

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

She hands me The Pamphlet.

 

  1. Nipple Madness!

 

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

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

Also, there’s a lot of math.

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

Eye Candy

Baby Candy

Cancer

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

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

Yes. You read that correctly.

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

Your breasts are yours.

 

  1. There Are No Jokes in Nine

 

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

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

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

“It’s your decision. It’s your body.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do not want the test.

But.

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

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

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

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

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

It is the only thing I know for sure.

 

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