Arabian Night

Call me Ismail, not Ishmael, which rhymes with wish fail, or Tom, Dick, or Harry, which rhyme with nothing that rings true to me, just because you cannot be bothered to learn to pronounce my name. It goes like this, three separate syllables: Is—like the prolonged break of a wave; ma—half of Mama; il—like a sea snake, or the French word for island. IS-MA-IL, stress on the island.

Now that you have been properly introduced to Ismail, and know how to pronounce his name properly, allow him to tell you a short fairy tale.

Once upon a time, there was a sunny country whose long coast was bathed by a turquoise sea, where a barefoot boy had an important job, of which he was proud, and which he performed with both pleasure and ceremony. Every morning except one, the one designated as a rest day, he was entrusted with a gleaming tray dotted with soft, doughy, fragrant pastries and bread protected by dust and dirt by a tea towel, which he balanced on other clean towels coiled atop his dark, curly head, as it was heavy and his walk to the village bakery some distance.

 

This fairy tale is a grim, modern one. It does not end with the proper restoration of position or property or future. Does not end with reconciliation or love or fortune.

 

His step was joyous and his eyes bright as he glanced at his ample, color-wrapped grandmother seated on their kitchen step and humming her habitual, unrecognizable tune, sifting dried grain rhythmically through the round, wood-bound sieve resembling a large tambourine. The busy, cheerful, chatter of his mother and sisters wafted up on wisps of smoke, while he stepped lithe and sure from one orange grove through the next, inhaling the perfume of spring as his birthright while receiving casual smiles and nods of approving recognition from his neighbors in passing.

Turning toward the village, he glanced up the hill, whence had vanished the baby Rhim gazelle he had thought he’d domesticated until it grew old enough to object, impaling his forearm with a perfectly spiraled, long, slender horn. He rubbed the scar; to the hill where his father sometimes took him to buy honey and Geminus mint for their tea from the old German lady who kept bees. While the bread was being baked, he would drop by his uncle Saleh’s house, where sometimes men gathered to smoke, drink tea or whiskey, and recite the formal Italian poetry they had learned while in school, educated by convent nuns, some of whom had stayed on after the Italian colonization gave way to the British occupation. Soon, his grandfather would gather them together for an annual feast, the high point of which was Grandfather’s recitation of the Al-Hilali epic, the 1,000 year-old oral poem recounting the heroic feats of Bedouin ancestors during their migration from Arabia to North Africa. If they were lucky, and harvests prosperous that year, they would find musicians to accompany the performance with rababa, tampura, or tabla. Not many men were left who could perform the epic. It was an honor to attend.

The boy thought that growing up in this, his land, was as sweet as halwa.

 *     *    *

Then came hard times, the trials and tribulations that must be surmounted in every fairy tale, when his family and neighbors, the people he loved and trusted, were suddenly and inexplicably crushed like sesame seeds. First came the earthquake on his part of the eastern coast, which flattened his village and damaged much of the nearby city of Benghazi. The boy’s mother and sisters had run quickly out of the house as soon as pictures began to fall off the walls, calling for him to get out. He had been reading in his room that evening and slow to shift consciousness, was trapped in the corridor when the ceiling began to crumble. Recalling a story his mother had told about sheltering under tables during World War II bombing raids, the still slight boy recovered his wits enough to dive under a nearby table. When the world ceased roaring and trembling, the women’s wails slipped into cries of relief and gratitude upon sight of the boy’s dusty apparition emerging from the rubble that had been their home only minutes before. Witnesses said that the tower clock in town stopped at 9:20 p.m., just as in an Agatha Christie mystery. The family moved to Tripoli.

The capital city was daunting at first, though, by degrees, the boy became accustomed to their greater prosperity, two-story house, and American television reception. This marvel was accessible because of the American military bases nearby. Once, after watching I Love Lucy, the teenaged boy impudently chided his parents for their primitive custom of sleeping in one large bed together. Lucy and Desi, if they had observed, slept in twin beds, both in primly buttoned pajamas, which must be the way civilized people behaved. Dad and Mom were less than amused.

That was already after Nestlé baby formula exports and Italian tomato paste had inundated their shops and brains and habits, causing the Underdeveloped local population to stop breast-feeding, and throw their bumper crops of tomatoes into the sea, prefiguring its transformation from turquoise to iron red. Though, still before the dictator paved the seaside promenade, painted rocks green, imprisoned the boy’s father, uncles, cousins, and hanged his friends from lampposts.

Before the boy had grown into a man, before the American buffoon actor-president issued a decree forbidding the man to rejoin his American wife and child in relative safety. You think the anti-Muslim travel ban is new? You think there is anything new under the scorching sun? But that is another story.

No, this was still when the boy was enamored of Rembrandt’s etchings, Impressionist painters, Brecht plays, and bell-bottomed jeans. When he tried to practice his English with American girls on the fashionable, white Tripoli shopping streets. Tapping a blonde one on her shoulder, and politely asking if he might help her translate, she had brushed off her skin where his finger had touched it, saying “Ooh, cooties!” The teenaged boy had mistaken the word for “cuties” at first, and had smiled shyly, pleased at what he thought was flirtation. Then she had flicked him away with her pale-pink painted nails, giggling derisively with her light brown-haired girlfriend. He made it his business to learn what cooties were.

 

The shriveled, ancient one calls my name faintly, swathing it in soft appeal from her room down the hall, “Ismail.” Three polished, worn, caressing syllables.

When the pockmarked, square-headed young Demon seized power in a military coup, the usual suspects were rounded up and imprisoned, among them the boy’s father. The only son, the boy left high school in order to devote all his time to waiting in the lines of bureaucrats who might be able to pull strings, if the bribe and connections were sufficient, or waiting at the prison gates to try to gain visitor’s access or news about his father, or deliver the man’s much needed Insulin. When the heat pushed the overdressed soldiers over the edge, or their appetite for brutal sport hadn’t been satisfied, the boy endured their taunts and “roughing up” in prudent silence. It was a full time job for about a year and a half, until his father’s remand to house arrest, whereupon the boy returned to his formal studies.

Five years of channeled engineering study, in which the boy had scant interest, might have earned the young man a degree and marketable profession had he completed the final semester and taken the required exams. However, when his father saw members of his son’s university circle, his friends, brutally murdered and hung up to dry like prosciutto in the sun along the city’s straight, modern boulevards, unmistakable warnings to all who opposed the Demon’s oppressive regime, he shipped the young man off to study in the United States of America, where the young man tasted some elusive freedom and license, as well as some more discrimination and insult. There, he studied art instead of engineering, painting pictures, taking pictures, making love among pictures, memorizing pictures.

Some years later, those men who had remained in other countries, with jobs, with new families, with new habits, were publicly and privately recalled home to the no longer sweet, fertile Mediterranean land become awash with oil and grimy oil money, threatened with assassination on foreign soil if their duty was ignored. And the family arrests had begun again in earnest. A cousin appeared as an emissary one day, and shortly thereafter, another, on the beautiful hill in San Francisco, to shatter the crystal idyll where the young man had been amassing pictures. These pictures, too, trembled and fell off the wall when the cousin told him with firsthand knowledge and frank description of torture, show trials, the condition of his own now blind father in his cell, as he awaited, without his Insulin, his military trial. For what? For being a journalist. A dangerous profession to be avoided, truth telling.

The emotional blackmail practiced with a twilit, lilac view of repetitive ocean spray proved far more hypnotic, and eventually, effective than dictatorial edicts and threats had done. The image of the young man’s pleading mother was invoked. He took a leave of absence from his pregnant American wife, with the promise that he would return in three weeks, after his uncle’s trial. Her pleas had been more easily set aside, as his guilt toward her had not yet sought its spirit level. The young man was, of course, arrested upon arrival in the land no longer cleansed by the turquoise sea, transforming his odyssey into absence without leave.

Months turned into years, during which a few attempts had been made to reknit the rent in life’s rich fabric, including appealing to the steely American powers that be. Rather like trying to give a hollow, tin man a heart. In the end, our hero, no longer so young, acquiesced to his stronger, more numerous, more powerful, more present family, settling into decades of dreary, unartistic routine, where he scarcely noticed the iron red, or then the battleship gray of the sea. We could speak of bombings, when his small apartment windows rattled, were dislodged, and splintered on the floor of a blacked-out kitchen, while his present children and current wife pretended to sleep in the next room. Of more bombings, when they were able to borrow enough money to flee the worst for a time. Of the torching of his sister’s house by black clad criminals, who succeeded in killing her husband and son, and severely burning her and her other children. Of the rape of certain of his nieces, and shooting of his nephews. Of the crucifixion of… But why prolong the trials and tribulations? This fairy tale is a grim, modern one. It does not end with the proper restoration of position or property or future. Does not end with reconciliation or love or fortune. Let the tale end there, hanging by a tail. Now old, and too defeated to flee anymore, our prince will not live happily ever after.

 *     *    *

The shriveled, ancient one calls my name faintly, swathing it in soft appeal from her room down the hall, “Ismail.” Three polished, worn, caressing syllables. In the darkened house, she may not know what time it is, that it is only evening. As soon as the terrifying commotion, the barking shouts and hammering on doors began down the street some minutes ago, all of the buildings in our neighborhood went instantly dark, as if on cue. As if we could hide from evil, like children, by turning off the lights or closing our eyes and holding our breath. There is nowhere to hide, no place to escape. Some time ago, I read some jokes about human smugglers posted on the Net. There were even cartoons showing hijabbed women clutching swaddled infants, crammed in leaky boats. Even if I could raise the money to get into one, would I rather spend it entertaining the Developed nations, watching my family drown in sham lifejackets, or wait here at home for my head to be chopped off? At least the Worldwide Web has been disconnected. That’s some consolation. I sit in my immovable chair facing a black, rectangular picture window like a darkened screen, waiting soundlessly, and smoking, dragging the nicotine poison deep into my scarred lungs. Anyway, what would we do with the ancient one?

“Ismail,” she repeats, she who suckled and protected me, once upon a time before Nestlé. I can do nothing for her now except guard her bed.

“Don’t worry, Mama. Everyone will be back soon. They’ve just gone out.” I lie soothingly, softly, adding, “There’s been a power cut.”

My stalwart, intrepid wife has gone to the city center looking for the kids, no longer kids, who failed to come home as expected, putting on a headscarf in hope of anonymity, or slight protection. About as useful as a white flag in our present situation. I must not leave the house. “Mama, if strangers come to the door, don’t say anything. I’ll take care of it, all right? Be patient.” Don’t give yourself away.

Someone from another house entreats Allah. Then I hear a shout. “Libya!” Libya. Long ago, I used to feel the word on my cheek, as if it were a warm kiss blown from the desert, a promise. Later, it resounded like a slap, or a wail, down the blood stained lanes, where a young boy’s spirit had been sensed, wafting aimlessly, humming a bygone tune, blowing soothingly on sweaty, fearful foreheads. I wish I could remember at least one stanza from the Al Hilali epic. Not a line. I am not the man my grandfather was, and this debacle is not his heritage.

Staring blankly past the balcony, through the black window, I try to conjure a slideshow: the low fog rolling across the mauve Golden Gate like a fluffy bolster; my first ever snowflakes cloaking in white feathers, the wings of the storks in a fountain on a square in Copenhagen, golden Prosecco bubbles flickering like fireflies on Lake Como. I see nothing. Blackness. All that is left is a distant, beckoning whiff of Geminus mint and the eternal aroma of freshly baked bread.

 

Special Guest Judge, Gayle Brandeis:

“Arabian Night” implicates the reader from the very first sentence—“you cannot be bothered to learn to pronounce my name”—yet also takes us by the hand, invites us deeply into the writer’s lost world. This essay-meets-fairy-tale holds so much pain—the anguish of atrocity, of displacement, of layer upon layer of injustice—yet it also leaves space for tenderness, for remembrance of how the word “Libya” had once felt like “a warm kiss blown from the desert” before it became “a slap, or a wail.” A stunning, necessary, gut punch of an essay.

—Gayle Brandeis is the author of the poetry collections The Selfless Bliss of the Body and Dictionary Poems, novels The Book of Dead Birds, Delta Girls: A Novel, Self Storage, and My Life with the Lincolns, and a recent memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide.

 

Diane G. Martin, Russian literature specialist, Willamette University graduate, has published work in numerous literary journals including New London WritersVine Leaves Literary ReviewPoetry CircleOpen:JALBreath and Shadow, the Willamette ReviewPortland Review of ArtPentimentoTwisted Vine LeavesThe Examined LifeWordgatheringDodging the RainAntiphonDark InkGyroscope, Poor YorickRhinoConclaveSlipstreamStonecoast ReviewSteam TicketPigeonholesShantihZingara, and The Grief Diaries.

Long-time resident of San Francisco, CA; Maine, USA; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Sansepolcro, Italy; Diane has traveled throughout much of the world. The themes of exile, disability, and displacement pervade her work.

Photo Credit: Ricardo Mendez Pastrana

Bad Mom

By the time I brought my son to vacation in Hawai’i, I knew something was wrong. With him, with me, with the world—take your pick. I remember it as perfect; the month we spent lost among the wild sunshine of the deep Pacific. A time outside of time. Our special little bubble of happiness when, for a few weeks that ended far too quickly, everything was okay.

He was a quiet baby. The first thing I ever noticed about him when I saw my son for the first time, was his fatness. He was like a jelly bean. Short and curved and plump. Double chinned, rolls everywhere, a sort of rubbed, reddish hue; he certainly didn’t look like he was born three weeks preterm. But there was his tinny cry, like a kitten’s mew, struggling to sound from lungs three weeks too small, and there was the small hole hidden inside of his heart, a tiny blip of silence on the echocardiogram.

 

“Post-traumatic stress disorder,” announced my therapist, her voice bringing me back to the room. My new diagnosis. She said it like a revelation.

I named him Robin, after the mischievous Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I expected Robin to grow to be an energetic boy, full of pranks and chatter. I expected him to be loud, funny, the kind of guy his father would have been if he hadn’t been what he was instead. A part of me prepared for him to be like his father. No part of me was prepared for his silence.

Autism. The thought shuddered behind everything, even then, before the diagnosis. In Hawai’i, when he finally said his first word at age one and a half, and we all celebrated, it was too gleeful. I had the milestone commemorated as a tattoo: a turtle, for the first and—as it would happen—last word he said. On my hand, where it could never be forgotten or hidden away. Later, I would imagine my body cursed.

*     *    *

There is a voice echoing itself and it is mine but it is not mine. It comes from my head, but it fills the whole world. It says “but I didn’t do anything,” on loop. A spiral of protest in that voice that is mine but not mine. I am me but I am not me.

I have traveled outside of my body. Returning is a chaos of sensation. There is something in my mouth, crunchy. At the same time I am returning to my teeth, so the thing in my mouth feels like the crunch of my teeth. I am chewing my teeth. I am swallowing my teeth.

Someone is with me. I grip his hand. It is the only thing that feels familiar and I desperately want that hand to stay in mine.

The loop in my head grows hush, then silent.

“Are you dead? Did I kill you?” the man asks. The way that he looms above me, he fills my whole vision. The blue of his eyes is the sky.

I reach for him, not making sense of his words.

The man is sitting on a bench, and I am in the dirt beneath him.

I am beginning to remember how to breathe.

He scrambles upright. He is leaving. I beg him to stay.

He hesitates, and my vision expands. He and I are the only people around. His bike is a tangle of wheels and frame toppled on the ground. There is a shed. A bench, and the dirt where I find myself after my strange absence. We are behind a house. The house has an empty feeling about it.

I beg the man to stay. He seems anxious. He is pacing. I don’t know what is wrong with him, but I know that his hand is the thing that brought me back to life. I still don’t know where I am. To be alone now would be terrifying. I beg the man to stay, and he listens.

It will take a few more breaths before I remember that the man is my boyfriend, and that he has just strangled me to the point of seizure.

*     *    *

“Post-traumatic stress disorder,” announced my therapist, her voice bringing me back to the room. My new diagnosis. She said it like a revelation. Like I hadn’t already been living every day in a body tarnished by trauma.

“I know,” I responded. My voice dull. My face blank. My body an anonymous curvature. In the eyes of the world, flat affect is a form of invisibility. In a traumatized body, it is a kind of screaming.

I was screaming at my therapist and she didn’t hear a thing. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that I didn’t go back.

 

Domestic Violence Survivor. That label fit, whether I wanted it to or not.

After the hearing tests, the ear tubes, the cardiograms, the nutritional assessments, the rooms full of toys with big observational windows and faceless doctors on the other side; after my son’s diagnosis, a regime was set for him. He needed routine. He needed intensive therapy. He was accepted to a special needs daycare. He began occupational and speech therapy. My PTSD worsened. Day by day, my heart broke a little more.

Before the diagnoses, my son and I traveled to Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New York, New Jersey, Hawai’i. I idolized the friend of a friend, a long-haired mother who traveled the world, taking a new lover with each location. I remember listening, infatuated as she recounted eating magic mushrooms while her infant son was strapped to her chest.

“It was like he was back inside of me,” she said, “like I was pregnant again.” She waded into the sea. It was beautiful.

I wanted to travel the world, commune with nature, take lovers, eat psychedelics, swim in every ocean of the world. Live free. The diagnoses were like shackles, chaining me to a life I never wanted. On one arm, PTSD; on the other, autism.

Single mom. Working Mom. Stay-at-home mom. Student mom. Autism Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. I tried each one and none fit the way I wanted it to. Manufactured lives. Disconnected lives. Lives tailored to other people’s desires. Lives shaped by the hands of a man long gone.

*     *    *

I leave Boston after I try to kill myself. My teachers let me finish my classes online, so I am able to keep my grades. As I walk the halls of my BFA program for the last time, past the ridiculous picture of Henry Winkler that hangs alone on some hallway wall, I tell myself I will be back. I know I am lying.

 After the springtime snow and endless grey sludge of Boston, Seattle is a glory of greenery. I want so much to revel in it—to realize the paradise of my homecoming deep in my body; to feel the precious magical connection to nature and blossoming that those of us from the Pacific Northwest are supposed to feel when we return from being away.

Instead I feel lonely. I collect strange hairs from my boyfriend’s bedding, make alters of my palms and mourn them when he isn’t looking. I imagine the impossible beauty of the women who possess these hairs. One day, when I dare to ask him about the curly black one that reminds me of his best friend’s girlfriend, he tells me he will leave me if I don’t stop taking my birth control. There is nothing more to say about that, except that I am nineteen and in love with a man who is not in love with me.

 Maybe we conceive our son on the night maggots worm through the floorboards, rising from some unknown putrefaction beneath the house where my boyfriend rents his basement apartment—or maybe it happens the day he rapes me and drags me across the floor by my hair, dumping me next to a pile of laundry. Or maybe it happens on one of the many times when we just have sex, the way lovers do. What is certain, is that when I say the word “abortion,” he holds me, hands to my throat, and threatens to kill me if I kill his child.

Yet even that is uncertain—the report I give to the police that day says he bit me, then kicked me, before making the threat. The bite mark is noted by the officer. There is no mention of hands to my neck or body pressed to the wall the way I so clearly remember years later.

*     *    *

Domestic Violence Survivor. That label fit, whether I wanted it to or not.

I hated that word: Survivor. I hated the strength of it, and the image it brought to my mind.  A world-weary woman standing at the peak of a cliff, her face and body battered, her hands rough like a man’s. Arms akimbo. Jaw set. Eyes firm and mirthless. Her hair whipping in the wind, or sometimes it is braided like a Viking’s. Behind her the sea foams, black as poison. When she walks, the earth trembles—for she is a Survivor, and nothing like me at all.

I felt safer as a victim. As a victim, I was allowed to feel small and sad. As a victim, I could curl in my bed for days. As a victim, I got to behave like the words “weep,” and “maiden,” and “fragile,” which was how I felt. But my motherhood did not leave space for my victimhood. As my son grew, and with him his silence, I began to feel my motherhood left no space for me at all.

 

You are not allowed to say you didn’t ask for this. You are not allowed to need all the things he needs too. You are not allowed to not be able to give them to him.

My son’s silence became a dirge. In it I heard the absence of the words he would never say, and the life together we would never have.

“I love you mom,” our feet padding across the white sand beaches of Cuba, our ancestral home.

“Mom I’m cold,” so I tighten his coat as we gaze up at Saint Basil’s Cathedral.

“Mom, I’m happy,” as we watch the Aurora Borealis dance their colors across the Icelandic horizon.

And living next to these phantoms of a life that would never be, my terrible cacophony of memory.

*     *    *

We are on the bed in my room at my mom’s apartment, where I live. I have not yet written my application to Emerson, which means I am still very young. The bed has a headboard with shelves. I will use it to my advantage when I have to lie about my bruises. I will say that I stacked too many things on it.

“Like an idiot,” I will add—I have to insult myself.

I will say that all my many things fell on me, bruising me. “The bed was moving a lot,” I will smirk as I say it. I want my life to look sexy and fun.

But before I have to tell the lie, my boyfriend is on top of me, half crouched, knees splayed around my hips, crotch pressed into my belly. He smells like sun-warmed blue jeans and armpit stink, which I like. He is angry. I don’t know why. I never know why he is so angry. His anger is omnipotent. It touches everything. If he is in the mood to be angry there is not a thing in this world that will keep him from it.

His hands imprint themselves in my memory. The knob of his knuckles, the splotches of red across the tops of them. His long fingers. His crime-toughened skin; a different texture than a working man’s hands, but just as rough.

This time when he strangles me, he lets go before the familiar darkness comes.

This time, I can feel the seizure overtake me.

My limbs float upward, like in that game I used to play with my friends when I was a little girl, where we would press our arms against a door frame—hard, as long as we could bear it—and when we walked out they would lift up like balloons. I feel my body shake.  A motion at once both violent, jerky, and also smooth. A motion without a thought behind it. It is my body moving, but I have no control to stop it. Me, but not me.

The seizure ends. The oxygen is already flowing back. My senses are clearing. I am gaining sharpness too fast.  I know I have been strangled. I know who did it. I know that he is still on top of me.

*     *    *

The first time my son had a night terror, I heard his shriek from the bedroom. It was sudden, howling, and once it started, it did not stop. I watched his body writhe in the bed, unresponsive to my touch, my voice, anything. A sound so loud it wracked his entire frame, and yet completely indecipherable. Another louder form of silence.

I carried him as he screamed and struggled against me. I laid him out on the living room floor. I stared as his body lifted and contorted like a thing possessed. Not once did his eyes open. Not once did he say a word. He screamed until dawn. The sound bounced off the walls of my apartment, stitching them together, bringing them slowly down around us.

As the horizon lengthened pinkly out the window, he finally crawled into my lap, rested his head against my chest, and slept.

Later, I would learn that night terrors result from disorder. When a child with certain sensitivities does not follow a strict bedtime routine, his brain function alters and the result is violent sleep disturbances that are worsened by even the most affectionate touch. Later, I would learn that my son was possessed by my own disorganization, a side-effect of my diagnosis.

But that morning, when he lay against my breast, his brow damp with sweat, his face suddenly peaceful, I felt that I was sitting at the precipice of a great and terrible ending. The end of time, the dying of the sun, or maybe only the last moments of my own happiness. The room, which moments ago had been filled with my child’s screams, now seemed crowded by silence. It was this same silence that was suffocating me, day in and day out, and that now pressed upon me with the full weight of the knowledge that it would always be this way.

*     *    *

When I loved my boyfriend, it was a love like terror. I was desperate. I was searching. I would interrogate the trees about his intentions and imagine answers out of wind currents. My love for him was rabid, competitive; a force stronger than any truth because it did not rely on truth for its sustenance.

But when my son was born, love gained new meaning. My love for my son was at once soft, gentle; a blanket of a feeling that I could nuzzle into, and also forceful, raging; something akin to the interlocking of wind and ocean.

One night, I awoke to the sound of my infant son crying in his bassinet. I walked to the living room, where he had been sleeping, lifted him, and sat down on the couch to breastfeed him back to sleep. It worked. My son, who three years later would be diagnosed with autism, was a gentle baby, easily comforted as long as he had access to Mama, and able to sleep through almost anything. I decided to stay up and watch TV.

My boyfriend didn’t like that. He began to yell from the bedroom, demanding that I return.

“Come back, I can’t sleep without you,” he shouted.

I ignored him.

I barely registered that he was in the room with me until he was on top of me, hands around my neck. He strangled me while I held our baby. He strangled me until I could no longer hold our baby. Our son fell to the floor. After my boyfriend’s hands released my throat and my consciousness began to return, I spotted my boy, sitting upright on his chubby bottom, blinking away the sleep.

“Where’s the baby?” My boyfriend shouted, stomping nearer to my son with each iteration. “The baby’s dead!” He kept repeating those words, louder and louder, ignoring me as I tried to warn him that our baby was under his feet. I grabbed for my son but his father’s legs were always in my way.

When I have nightmares about that night, I don’t re-experience the yelling, or the strangulation—just that forest of long, naked legs stomping endlessly while my son waits for me on the other side, unseen and unheard.

When my son turned two, I sent him to live with my family. People who could implement a routine, drive him to his many therapies, and coax the night terrors out of him for good. It was, like so many things in my life, something I was able, but not allowed, to do. When your child has non-verbal autism, there are rules. You are not allowed to grieve the words he will never say. You are not allowed to mourn the independent adult he can’t become. You are only supposed to celebrate his uniqueness, his beauty, the small miracle of his latest accomplishment. You are not allowed to think of him as a burden. You are not allowed to say you didn’t ask for this. You are not allowed to need all the things he needs too. You are not allowed to not be able to give them to him.

I remember a day, shortly before my boyfriend left forever, when the three of us went walking to the beach. It was one of those grey, windswept beaches that film directors like to use as establishing shots. The kind of beach where you might find crabs or collect small perfect shells that break in your pockets before you reach home. At the beach, my boyfriend lifted the baby from my sling. He cradled my son to his chest. He pulled me to him and asked a stranger to take a picture of us, the ocean foaming in the background. In the picture he is tall and slim and handsome. He holds our baby and smiles. My hair is stringy and scattered across my face like a net or a web newly torn. My body, still inflated from pregnancy, looks as though it might crumple into itself.

“You’re such a great father,” the stranger told my abuser when she handed back the camera.

When my son’s father left for good, everyone agreed it was the best thing. That man—with his anger and his addictions and his enormous self-interest—was in no position to care for an infant.

When I left, everyone agreed I was a Bad Mom. The selfish woman with her anger and her mental illness and her overwhelming need for self-care.

My son was not taken or killed. I gave him away. There are rules about that, too. I am not allowed to say I miss him. I don’t get to say it hurts. I am not allowed to both mourn the mother I could have been, and still not want to want to be her.

For Bad Moms like me, our lost children can only exist as silence.

 

Elizabeth Brico is a freelance writer originally from the Pacific Northwest. In 2017, her blog, Betty’s Battleground, was ranked by Feedspotas one of the top 75 PTSD blogs. She is also a contributing writer for HealthyPlace. Her work, which often focuses on mental health, addiction, and social justice, has appeared in PoliticoMagazine, Vice, Vox, TalkPoverty, Ozy, The Fix, and The Establishment, among others. In her free time, she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction.

and so we wind ourselves up

If you ask me now, I could still do it. Not all of it, of course—not now, not anymore. The more esoteric things—the notes for B minor, the exactitude between allegro and allegretto—those have long since been forgotten, faded with time and disuse. But hand me the sheet music, my bent Bach primers and blue Schumann workbooks, and I could play you a sonatina, a minuet, an arabesque, any of the carefully-annotated pieces I once knew by heart. The mechanics, after all these years, are still there: how to read treble and bass clefs, which sharps to match with which scales, the proper way to properly hold my hands (fingertips on the keys, wrist loose but high, fingers rounded as if clutching a tennis ball)—that is all it would take.

And if you were to ask me to play, I could still remember, still try. Für Elise, The Doll’s Dream, Minuet in G Major—though it has been years since I last touched a keyboard, I still find myself humming at odd moments, in class suddenly, unconsciously tapping out snatches of song.

*    *     *

I was a good student. Your typical Asian student, really: straight As, math club, 4.0 and AP tests—everything a good stereotype requires. I took BC Calculus and SAT subject tests, did quiz bowl and National Honor Society, dutifully attended ACT prep classes, where seventy dollars an hour helped improve my score by two points.

 

Years later, a teacher would tell me that she admired that in her Asian students, this tendency to take academics so seriously and settle for nothing less than perfection. Out of politeness, I would smile, say nothing in response.

And then there was, of course, the piano.

Here is how the rest would go if this were a proper story. The curtains, drawing back; the lights, overhead, shining down on a lone figure, the protagonist of this play. A girl, the sole daughter of Chinese peasants born during Mao’s Revolution and now come to the New World—you’ve heard the script; you know how it goes. The childhoods of hunger and uphill both ways; the struggle, long and laborious, to overcome them; the victories; the PhDs; and then America, the promised land that gave both more and less than what it had promised. Classic underdog story, in other words. But remember—that’s all backstory, all lead-up to the grand finale that will make it all pay off. Our protagonist, she remembers: remembers and knows they are important, holds her parents’ stories as close as Narnia and Harry Potter. Knows the stories, and knows she must top them, finish this quest they have begun.

And one-two-three, lights-camera-action—here it is, the first real task on our hero’s journey. Not poverty or politics, but no less daunting: the piano, dark and glossy with its many, many keys. It looms over her, high and proud and oh-so-very complex, but her parents’ memories reassure her, give her back her strength—compared to their pains, this was not so bad, not so hard. They had done what they had, so she could do this. And so she perseveres, and so she practices, plays scales ten times each and practices each song ten times more—until one day it is done, she has done it! And as she sits on the stage, the song she plays so sweet the birds outside quiet, the audience inside weeps at its loveliness—

And when she finishes, she stands up and curtsies to them—accomplished at last, a pianist against all the odds.

*     *     *

Which would have been nice, if I had been able to actually play.

Part of it was natural, I suppose: I had no sense of rhythm, no intuitive sense to tell me the difference between allegro and larghissimo or how to play in 4/4 time. Notes were as long or as short as I felt they were, holistic as opposed to ordered time. I distinctly remember, once, attending a church retreat and clapping along to the hymns out of time.

The other part, though, was practice. My parents started me at eight—late, compared to my friends, but still young enough to chafe at sitting in a chair for forty-five minutes each day, drilling the same scales over and over again. One day without practice, my mother would chide me, shuffling flashcards in the dim light of our apartment, and you know the difference. One day.

At eight, these are the things you smile at, nod at without quite hearing, ignore as easily as your grandmother’s admonishments to wash before and after meals. At eight, these are the things you can let slide away, that you can forget.

At eighteen, these are the things you remember, dredge up through the years as you retreat into an armchair curled up and away, tea growing cold on the cream-colored coffee table nearby. The woman across from you leaning back, smiling as she asks, well, and how did that make you feel?

Funny, the difference a few years can make.

Because you see, at eight, it has not happened yet; at eight, none of what will plague you at eighteen has yet bothered you. Your mother tells you to do your summer homework, and you do it; your father calls you in to practice piano, and you, grumbling, obey. But these are just things you do; they affect nothing of what you feel, who you are. At eight, you have a self, a center.

But just jump five years ahead—and, well. At thirteen, things get muddier. Boys you played tag with begin ignoring you; girls you’d climbed trees with begin wearing makeup and talking about calories and waistlines. All around you, your friends finding niches, taking places as easily as seats in musical chairs—the pretty one, the sporty one, the good one—

And you? You, you get stuck with, “Gifted.”

*     *     *

And there’s the thing, about being thirteen and being “Gifted.” When you are twelve or thirteen, and you’ve demonstrated an aptitude in math or science or English or best of all, all three, then the world narrows. Suddenly, it is just you, you and the four or five other students whose test scores have proven equally high, sitting in the front row of Honors English and eyeing each other across chess club—wary, suspicious.

Or perhaps that was just me, my personal paranoia and neuroses painting sixth-grade friendships in Darwinian shades. Perhaps.

It certainly felt that way, around my parents. At parties with the other Chinese families, while the kids sat in the basement playing Mario or idly browsing through their phones. The adults would all stay upstairs, playing cards late into the night and gossiping like tabloid reporters about their children, who got what grades and who got into Stanford or Harvard. At thirteen, you begin to enter into these conversations; at thirteen, you begin to become relevant, another variable in the bell curve of who would Make It—

One moment, you were eight. The next, you are thirteen, and your parents are buying you ACT prep books and taking you to talks by Harvard freshmen on how to apply to college, and no one is questioning the absurdity of it, the fact that you are taking sixth-graders, fucking sixth-graders, kids who still watch Hannah Montana and blush at French kissing—taking them and sitting down in all seriousness to tell them what AP classes to take, what sports to play, and what tests to take and and and

*     *     *

And look. I like to think, in my better moments, that I’m not that myopically bitter—that somewhere over the course of overpriced medications and specialists, I have gained some degree of self-knowledge. And so I know—I do!—that I am being unfair. That there were other parts to it, social and historical factors that led my parents and their friends to the values they hold—Mao and deprivation and Confucius, tradition and cultural values so deeply entrenched that to reject them would be to reject identity itself. That higher test grades equaled higher income equaled higher quality of life and hence greater happiness—I can still do enough math to understand that. That I am speaking in stereotypes, and stereotypes are not life: do not have the kindness and love that go into them, soften the tropes into something livable. That parents, in the end, are people, too.

 

I think of that: of being barely sixteen or seventeen and already knowing fear, the helpless guilt of lying in a hospital bed and listening to parents, angry and terrified and confused, demand why?

But, well. I was thirteen, then, and higher reasoning is less pertinent when you are entering puberty and a pronounced hating-the-world phase. Thirteen-fourteen, lurking in the enclaves at parties with my diet Pepsi and iceberg salad, I began to despise it all: the constant comparing and critiquing, whose kids are going where and got what grades. Yes, there may have been utility behind it—higher grades, higher income, correlation/causation et cetera—but at some point, listening to it all, aunts telling cousins to follow in the steps of more studious friends, fathers lecturing sixth-graders on the importance of community service not on grounds of altruism, but because it would look good on a college resume—well. At some point, it gets to you.

Maybe I wouldn’t have put it in those words, not then—thirteen, remember, fresh out of three weeks in the hospital and still tearing up over Bs in gym—and maybe I wouldn’t have said it until I was Well and Truly into therapy, but that was how I felt then. That was what I thought.

*     *     *

And like summer vacation, and like community service, music became another casualty, another part of the daily march towards Making It. From the time your parents were putting you through chess club and hiring math tutors, they were taking you to your piano or violin teacher’s house to learn petals and positions. It did not matter if you actually liked the instrument; if you were smart and wanted to get into a good school (a real school), then you played the piano or the violin. And if you were not good at it, then it could not be because you had no musical talent—it was because you were simply not trying hard enough.It was a very Asian belief, that, but also a very American one: self-cultivation and Horatio Alger, the American dream and Mao’s voluntarism mixing in a red-red-white-blue combination that would have made your revolutionary ancestors roll over in their graves. “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step;” “genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration;” et cetera, et cetera. If you wish upon a star and try, try, and try again, then you too can be talented; then you, too, can be special.

Years later, a teacher would tell me that she admired that in her Asian students, this tendency to take academics so seriously and settle for nothing less than perfection. Out of politeness, I would smile, say nothing in response.

*     *     *

A curious thing, about fifteen-sixteen-year-old Amber and standardized tests. I did well on exams generally, had few logical reasons to worry about failing all my classes and forced to attend community college. But I used to work myself up anyways, talking myself into hyper-awareness before tests, rehearsing every wrong thing that could happen—a ball player, winding herself up before a game. After all, if I let my guard down, if I let myself relax for only one second, then that was it, that was the path of stupid errors and bubbling in the wrong answers. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back; stop being smart, and you’ll break her heart.

I suppose, beyond the superstitious hyperbole of the feeling, it made an odd sense. God knows I’d made plenty of careless mistakes by not paying enough attention to the placement of a decimal or the insertion of a “NOT” before “all of the above”—by not paying attention, my mother said; by being complacent, I thought. And hell, maybe it did work—I did pretty well in high school, took all the right tests and got all the right test scores. When the time came, even made it to University of Chicago, which on the nerd ladder is pretty good.

But. But but but but but.

But there were things, other places where winding yourself so tight-tight-tight is not good, does not work. Try talking to people like that—see how well it works. I did that, for a while. Would walk out of AP Chemistry after a quiz, head aching too much to focus on anything other than the tiles immediately before me—only to start, nearly jumping as someone said, “Hi, Amber!” Turning around, heart jumping a beat as I forced out, “Hi”—hating the way my voice went up an octave when I was nervous, dear God what was wrong with you, Amber, so stupid so ridiculous, couldn’t even talk to people without freezing up—and God, God, those had been popular kids, hadn’t they? Cheerleaders and prom queens, oh you knew, Amber that they only smiled at you because they felt sorry for you, because you were so, so very pathetic and they all knew—

Try that. Try that with talking, with writing or drawing or eating or anything else, really. Try that with piano.

At fifteen, I had finally done it—at fifteen, finally achieved the discipline I had lacked at eight and thirteen. Like clockwork, I dutifully played my forty minutes each day—not as much as other students, I was well aware, but an achievement for me. A small victory.

But even then, even with all that, I was still no better than before. My piano teacher, after years of clucking at my lack of precision, now told me I played too rigidly, too mechanically. Relax, she told me, watching the rigid claw of my hand upon the keys, don’t slam them down—let your hands fall on the keys, naturally. And I had tried, tried all the exercises and techniques she suggested, but how could I? How could I, when she there, always a watching eye, always ready to tell me what I did wrong and how? How could I relax, how could I relax when I knew (knew oh so well, familiar lump in my throat, my chest, my lungs) that once I did, once I let my guard down for the slightest, slightest second, it would all come crumbling, crumbling down—

I cried in front of her a few times, I remember. I cried in front of a lot of people. It seemed to be a thing I did.

*     *     *

Like all things, I talked with my therapist about this. I was, what, fourteen?—eighth or ninth grade, a year after I’d done the essentially thirteen-year-old thing of taking a crash course in fad dieting. In any other subject, I would have gotten a gold star; here, all my self-discipline had gotten me was three weeks in the hospital and a doctor’s ultimatum that unless I followed up with a therapist, I could not be medically discharged.

Despite the whiff of coercion hanging over our beginning, I like to think we had an amiable relationship, Cassie and me. There was always plenty of coffee, which I pretended to like without cream, and even more silence, which I actually did like and now did my best to maintain. Occasionally, Cassie would speak—a handful of observations, a few questions to fish out replies—and even more occasionally, I would answer, cool and monosyllabic as a John Wayne character. Mostly, I kept silent.

And then, one day—in response to a journal, a passing comment, some art therapy collage I’d made at her request, I don’t remember what—she said something so radically heretical that I had stared at her for a moment, gaping at the sheer temerity to even think such a thing:

Well, Cassie said, is it really that bad if you get a B?

Later, when she came to pick me up, I told my mother about it. In the foyer of the glass building, we shared the same startled, almost offended stare of disbelief—she had said what? That it didn’t matter if I let myself get poor grades, that it didn’t matter if I had no standards, if I didn’t try?

It must have been a culture thing, my mother concluded, back in our gray Honda, and I agreed. And that, coupled with my extreme distaste for sitting in a chair and talking about my feelings, meant that not long after, I stopped going to therapy.

It has been seven years since then. These days, it is my mother—conscious of my anxieties, as careful around me as if already teetering towards a third hospitalization—it is she who reassures me, reminds me that a B on my transcript will not doom me to a life of mediocrity and trailer park alcoholism. Half an adolescence spent in doctor’s offices, and it is she who has learned more from it. And I—self-dramatizing, self-eulogizing, ninety-eight percent cured and thirteen after all this time—I, I have never quite been able to let it go.

*     *     *

In the end, I stopped playing piano. I was sixteen; college was on the horizon, ACTs and SATs and the roulette of other acronyms I had been preparing for since age thirteen. Forty minutes a day were now a luxury, and my mother—after years of insisting that putting aside an hour each day was not that difficult, not really—seemed to have finally realized that I took to the piano like a lead duck to water—i.e., not at all. Quitting, I was surprised not to be elated. I’d never had any talent, but I had grown used to the structure, thought I might finally have a chance at improving—but well, the piano and I had never been the best of friends. Our breakup was quick, almost painless.

I visited new places. I tried new things. Years of practicing discipline, of freeing time for schoolwork by cutting myself down to essentials, the clean, bare bones of life—years of that, and it surprised me how easily I took to having fun, to making friends.

And so came the ACTS, so came the SATs, the APs and the Common App essay and three more from the University of Chicago. And like a good little machine, I wound myself up for them—a little more carefully now from the therapy, a little better oiled now from the meds. Maybe not quite kicking the habit of worrying, but managing it: a lesser vice now, under control. Old habits are hard to give up, after all, especially ones that had been double, triple, quadruple-checked to work.

*     *     *

Walking in from the cold into the warm foyer of Lewis dorm, one of the first things you notice is the piano. Beyond the quartets of soft armchairs and the warm wood, in a corner next to the stairwells and facing the entire room, it stands: a tall, black concert grand, its wood well-kept and well-loved, keys as glossy as the notes they produced.

It was certainly one of the first things I noticed, walking in that first day of college. Not necessarily the most immediate, processed as it was into the overall atmosphere of Old World grace and comforting hominess—oh wow, so I am going to live here, aren’t I?—but still there, still present. Just one brushstroke in the painting.

And that was how it was, for the first few days or so, a part of the decor I noticed but did not linger over.

I visited new places. I tried new things. Years of practicing discipline, of freeing time for schoolwork by cutting myself down to essentials, the clean, bare bones of life—years of that, and it surprised me how easily I took to having fun, to making friends. All smart kids of course, all talented, but not like the smart and talented kids I’d known in high school, aggressive about knowing each other’s grades and always jockeying for the highest position on the academic ladder. Perhaps there was some of that, seething down under. We were all high-achieving students at a high-achieving school; there had to be other similarities outside of the test scores. Or perhaps that was just me. Already, I was noting the similarities, seeing how I measured up—mathletes and poets and fantasy geeks, boys who had taken the same AP classes, girls with the same pained memories of Chinese school—

And then there were, of course, those who had played the piano.

I noticed at the beginning of first week, maybe the last days of orientation. Walking into the dorm lounge, bright chandeliers and familiar faces in chintzy chairs—Hey Dan! Hi Maddie!—I would see, maybe two times out of five, that someone was playing the piano. I didn’t think much of initially—it was the University of Chicago, of course everyone knew how to play the piano—but after a while, I began to wonder. Some of these musicians had been playing for nine, ten, eleven years—meaning they’d been, what, seven, eight when they’d started?  Practically the same time age I’d been.

And I wondered about that. Wondered about how they did it, the way they took such evident joy in learning melodies and technique—so different from my history with playing the piano, the years of parental disapproval and kicking/screaming that had eventually settled into failed hopes and lingering regret. Wondered about that, whether music had been as hard for them as it had been for me. Watching them play, humming even through the missed notes, not cringing but smiling when others paused to listen, it didn’t seem so.

And yet. Maybe it had been—at least at first, at the start. Few eight-year-olds, after all, have the innate motivation to sit still for forty-plus minutes at a time; few eight-year-olds have the discipline to practice scales twenty minutes each day, every day. Concert pianist Lang Lang Guoren tells journalists that he became interested in the piano when he was two, at three was practicing hours each day at his father’s demand—and just look at him now. World-famous, and grateful to his father for pushing him. Maybe, if I had followed his example like I had been exhorted to, I could have gotten there too, that glittering plateau where all the gritted teeth and lifted bootstraps paid off. Maybe. Maybe.

*     *     *

My mom talks, these days, about selling our piano. It would be the logical thing to do, of course; no one plays it anymore, and it takes up space, sitting alone in a corner of our sunroom, a bin of bent lesson books next to it. A secondhand standup, but still good after all these years, keys still mostly in tune despite the years of disuse.

Listening, I brush my hands over the key bed, say nothing. Dust has gathered on the keys, over the years—on the wood yellowed with age, in the flat crevices between E and F. I think of my stuffed animals, missing fur and missing eyes, mutely sitting in the dark of old closets; I think of my mother, eighteen and envious of the other students, girls who had had money, who wore pretty dresses and could play piano and guitar. I tell her, I don’t know.

But when she asks me whether we should buy a new one, a sleek baby grand or sleek new Steinway, I scoff at it: what would be the point of that, spending thousands of dollars on something no one would use? How was that in any way necessary, how did that in any way make sense?

Well, my mother says, smiling wistfully, it would make the room look nice.

Nice.

Because that was why they’d come here, wasn’t it? Why they’d worked so hard in grad school, spent so much money on private tutors, and so much time cutting personal luxury down to necessity—because it would all pay off here, in this land of new hopes and opportunity; because America would be better, brighter. Would be nicer.

My parents hadn’t had very many nice things, growing up. They’d come to America so that I could have all the crisp clothes and bright holidays they’d never had. All the sullen, long drives to Chinese school, all the evenings spent fidgeting on a piano bench, waiting for the timer to tell me my forty minutes were up—it all had been for this, my parents’ simple wish that I have a future better than they had. In the end, that was what it had all been for; in the end, that was all they had wanted.

*     *     *

I still think, with some nostalgia, of being her again: Amber at thirteen, at sixteen, the girl who would sleep four hours a night to study for AP exams and refuse to eat anything before knowing exact number of carbs first. Time makes fools of us all, makes romantic what had in actuality been terrifying and suffocating—but it is tempting, sometimes, to indulge in the lie. It is a simpler world there, brighter colors and sharper contrasts: up is always up, down is always down, and the whole world is yours, if only you will reach out and try.

From a distance, it is a very beautiful world, very white and very pristine.

And then I hear tales from my classmates, Kyoto-born boyfriends worrying about the number of A-minuses on Ivy League transcripts; and then I hear tales from my friends, old classmates’ younger sisters who are already landing themselves in hospitals, already breaking down. I think of that: of being barely sixteen or seventeen and already knowing fear, the helpless guilt of lying in a hospital bed and listening to parents, angry and terrified and confused, demand why? I think of classmates I know, old dorm mates who discuss bad grades in the context of Bs and 88s, while the next moment dismissing Sylvia Plath’s suicide as selfish. I think: alright. So that is how it happens, how the story goes now.

And then fourteen-year-olds come to me at parties, eager to ask how I had done it—what AP classes had I taken, what clubs had I joined, which standardized tests I had taken and what I had scored on them. And then I look down at them, these rows of young faces so sincere and intense, and I realize that at twenty, I have done it—become the success story, the Harvard inductee instructing others on how they could do it, how they could make it. I look down, and I do not know what to say.

And then I come home, and my parents are nearly in hysterics over the B on my brother’s report card, berating him for not doing as well in Honors English as he does Honors Chemistry, asking him, why can’t you be a little more like your sister—not completely, of course, because God knows how well that ended, but still. Just a little.

And then I think of lying in a white hospital bed, at thirteen, bones brittle as those of an old woman, heart rate resting at the 30s, sobbing not from frustration or fear, but because I was missing school, because I had quiz bowl practice I was missing and teammates I was disappointing, because they were going to make me gain so much weight and people were going to know—I think, and then I remember: this is not a way of life. This is a way of dying, by inches.

And yet. Malcolm Gladwell tells us you need to put in ten thousand hours of effort before greatness. Stephen King tells us that you need a million words of practice before writing anything worthwhile. Marie Curie fainting because she had forgotten to eat. Buddhist monks sitting cross-legged in temples and living on tea and clean mountain air. High school students in China opting for intravenous feeding in order to carve out more time for studying—these are the stories we tell, the idols we make for myth. Privation and self-deprivation the paths to sainthood and transcendence and not egoistic want.

And yet. And yet.

*     *     *

And in the revised, reedited edition of my life, here is how it would happen. In the final draft, I would go back to sixteen, to thirteen, to eight, and this time around, all the equations would add up precisely—time plus persistence equals success, equals happiness, equals the America dream without any thorny remainders left over. This time, the story would run better, smoother, stagehands in their places and actors knowing all their lines—this time, it would go right.

*     *     *

But in the end, it is always the same story. In the end—after all the hours of self-doubt and self-recrimination, of staring at still-familiar keys and wondering what if, what if—after all that and all the years, it always ends the same way.

I stand up. Take my fingers off the keys: Put my old sheet music away, thinking maybe, someday as I push the bench back in, brush the dust off the music rack. Glance one last time at middle C and F sharp, before lowering the fallboard over the keys.

And then—because it is late and I work best at night—I make myself a cup of coffee, stirring in two packets of sugar to cut the tinfoil taste of instant, make it tolerable. Then, kissing my dog goodnight, I go upstairs with my coffee and my laptop, and I write.

 

Amber Wu is an aspiring academic, part-time writer, and former pianist. An alumna of the University of Chicago, where she studied comparative literature and creative writing, she currently lives in Chicago with her books, a collection of dog-themed paraphernalia, and her plans to pursue a PhD at the University of Southern California. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in Memoryhouse Magazine, daCunha Global, and The Other Stories.