Progress Notes

The first time I visit her, she lies in bed at the far end of the hall where residents with the worst kinds of dementia are placed, where the man in room 308 rigidly slumps in a geri-chair, eyes and mouth open wide as if in a trance, where the wild-haired woman in room 309 clasps a soft-bristle brush to her breast and rocks back and forth, tied to her wheelchair with a blue padded belt, where the bed alarms never stop beeping and the questions are endless, Where am I? Who am I? Will you help me? Two knocks on her door, room 310, and I enter. A radio sits on her bedside table. On the shelf across from her bed, a rubber snake coils against a pink ballerina music box. She stares up at a poster tacked to the ceiling above her bed, a photo of wildflowers on a high mountain slope. I wonder what she thinks about, if she can still think at all.

Her name is Rita. She is in her mid-fifties, decades younger than most residents, admitted for wound care because bedsores have broken through the tender skin on her backside, and her husband can no longer care for her at home. Her thin body is contracted, bent knees wedged between the bedrails, hands curled into tight fists. She can tolerate sitting in her wheelchair for an hour a day when her husband comes on his lunch break. After he leaves, an aide puts her back to bed and a nurse pours milky-brown, high-protein liquid into the tube in her belly to keep her hydrated and fed.

Her care plan goals are to get her to track with her eyes, move her head, or change her expression.

I know a little about advanced multiple sclerosis: she may suffer from painful spasms or burning sensations. She may have a lucid mind or significant memory loss, clear vision or blurred. Because I’ve heard she can no longer speak, I have no way of knowing for sure. According to her Activities Care Plan, I’m supposed to provide one-to-one visits three times a week for sensory stimulation: play music and ring bells, wave cinnamon sticks and rosebud sachets beneath her nose, or show her objects from my cart—bright fabrics, silk flowers, rhinestone jewelry—the types of activities I do for residents with severe cognitive deficits. Her care plan goals are to get her to track with her eyes, move her head, or change her expression.

Her long wavy hair, deep brown with a hint of silver at the temples, fans across her pillow, and several tendrils stick to her damp forehead.

I rub her arm.

She screams, high-pitched wails that rise from deep inside, as if with all her strength she pushes out the noise.

I turn on the radio.

I know staff can hear her in the hallway and residents listen through the walls. When I push their wheelchairs past her room on my way to a social program, they glance toward her door. One resident may shake his head and say, “Poor kid.” Another will yell, “Shut the hell up!” She annoys me too.

Each one of her screams is punctuated by a moment of silence before beginning again. I pull a picture book from my cart and hold it up to her face. She bares her teeth.

*     *     *

I spend my workdays serving coffee, painting fingernails, conducting exercise groups, and calling Bingo. A year has passed since I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in English, got married, and moved five hours from home. When I tell people that I work in the Activities Department of a nursing home, the same type of job I had all through high school and college, I always add that I plan on returning to college to get my master’s degree, that I intend on doing something else with my life. And before the move, I seriously did consider graduate school, even took the GRE, but my scores were so low that I lost my nerve. I threw away the admissions packets I sent for and said I needed a break. I said I needed time to study, to read and to write. Besides, I said, I was a college graduate and could find a good writing job anywhere.

But after the move and weeks of filling out applications, I realized I wasn’t going to get that writing or editing job. Just one company called for an interview, and it was for a position in collections at a bank. I let the machine pick up and continued to scan the Classifieds until I saw the ad for an activities assistant, a job I knew I could get.

So I help the residents plant flower gardens in the courtyard and paint birdhouses. I sing to them, songs like “Bicycle Built for Two” and “You Are My Sunshine.” I take them shopping at the dollar store and help them place two dollar bets on horses at the racetrack across town. I also read to them, sweet stories with happy endings. When I conduct the nursing home’s monthly poetry group, I photocopy lighthearted poems from Reminisce or Good Old Days magazines. I sit at a table with eight or ten residents and read the verses aloud. Then I ask them what they would like to write about.

Some stare off into the distance. Others nap.

“What happens this month?” I ask.

“Kids return to school,” one resident says.

I write down their words:

September first, and back to the red brick schoolhouse,

skipping or dragging summer-feet

in ugly brown Oxfords.

A far cry from black patent leather,

but “they’re practical.”

Their poems fit well inside the Resident Chronicle, the facility newsletter I put out each month. They see their words in print, next to the birthday list. Some cut them out and post them on the corkboards in their rooms; others carry the newsletters with them, tucked inside the waistbands of their sweatpants, ready to read to visitors, or again to themselves.

For a while, after work and on weekends, I write too. My husband works nights as a security guard at an abandoned factory on the outskirts of town, so I spend evenings alone, and those first few months I draft essays, laptop balanced on my knees, notebooks and journals strewn across the floor of our one-bedroom rental. Free from the demands of college homework, I write whatever, whenever, I want.

This doesn’t last long.

Tonight, get in bed and watch television. Tomorrow, write.

Blame it on the lack of deadlines to keep me motivated, blame it on the demands of a forty-hour work week, but after a while I am no longer writing. I watch television. The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I Love Lucy fill my evenings. When I think about writing, I manage to talk myself out of it: I am too tired, I have to clean the bathroom, go to the laundromat, walk the dog, wash dishes, mow the lawn, sweep the garage, trim the shrubs, grocery shop. I begin frequenting craft stores, learn to make oatmeal soap, plaster trivets and cement stepping stones decorated with cobalt sea glass and bits of broken mirror. I make dog biscuits and roll out egg noodles for chicken soup from scratch. Or I just don’t feel like writing. Tonight, get in bed and watch television. Tomorrow, write.

*     *     *

Three times a week, I show Rita photographs of horses and cats, wave vials of citrus and peppermint beneath her nose, stroke her arm with a peacock feather, even read to her from Chicken Soup for the Soul—anything to get her to respond—but she screams or stares at the ceiling, not once indicating she knows I am there. When I record our interactions in her chart’s Progress Notes, I consistently write “No response.” One afternoon, the charge nurse asks me to give Rita’s contracted hands range of motion therapy, so I smooth lotion over the top of her right fist and stroke her fingers down to the tips, where her long nails burrow into her palm. She whimpers, and when I slip my thumb beneath her curled fingers to straighten them, she shrieks. The undersides of her fingers are gummed with sweat and smell like sour milk. I try to ease her hand open a little more, to rub lotion around the joints, but she screams louder. Afraid I’ve hurt her and that I’ll break her brittle bones, I let her fingers spring back into her palm.

In the hall outside Rita’s room, the charge nurse smiles sympathetically. “What did you do to that poor woman?”

I know she’s only teasing, but I don’t feel like laughing. I go next door for a visit with a catatonic man in the end stages of Alzheimer’s. I lean over the man’s bed, carefully wipe the sleep from his unblinking eyes with a warm washcloth, and listen to Rita wail through the wall.

Later, at home, I wonder if she cries out clear into evening, or if she’s finally stopped. I curl up in my own bed and let Lucy Ricardo’s terrible singing lull me to sleep.

*     *     *

I meet Rita’s husband after I’ve been visiting her room for a month. The conference room is cramped with a large table and a dusty, ceiling-high ficus tree. The state requires that the care plan team meet every few weeks to review and update the progress of new admits. I ask her husband, a small man with dark hair and a thick mustache, about her past interests.

“She used to like poetry,” he says, adjusting the bill of his baseball cap. “Used to write it too, even went to graduate school for her MFA, but never finished because—well, you know.”

And I’ve been reading her Chicken Soup for the Soul.

“Who are her favorite writers?” I think of the books high up on my shelves at home, the dog-eared covers and tissue-thin pages filled with blue ink and pink highlighter.

He folds his hands and shrugs. “The usual famous ones, I guess.”

Impatiently, I wait for the other departments to finish giving their reports—Nursing: her bedsores have almost healed. Dietary: she maintains a healthy weight. Social services: she screams on a regular basis—and after the meeting, I hurry to Rita’s room.

As usual, she lies on her back, staring at the ceiling.

“So you’re a poet,” I say.

I lean over her bedrails. “I used to study writing, too. Who do you like? Plath? Dickinson? Wordsworth? Blake?”

She turns her head and looks at me.

*     *     *

I scoot a chair up to my bookshelf and pull down dusty copies of Keats, Cummings, and Bishop. I leaf through my Norton and Heath anthologies, the comments I penned as an undergrad, the loose papers tucked inside, a quiz on “The Wasteland,” notes on “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.”

When I was in college, I used to take my textbooks with me to the nursing home and study on my breaks, sometimes when I was supposed to be doing quarterly activity assessments and care plans. During music performances, while the residents listened to fiddlers strum “Tennessee Waltz,” I critiqued essays for workshop, and during church programs, I scribbled ideas for essays on napkins. Back then I filled every spare moment with reading and writing, some mornings rising at 4:30 to fit a few more hours into my day. I wouldn’t turn on the television all semester. Now, a year later, I scoot a chair up to my bookshelf and pull down dusty copies of Keats, Cummings, and Bishop. I leaf through my Norton and Heath anthologies, the comments I penned as an undergrad, the loose papers tucked inside, a quiz on “The Wasteland,” notes on “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” I’ve grown into the habit of sleeping in until the last possible minute, hitting the snooze button so many times that I’m nearly late for work each morning. On my lunch breaks I drive home and settle into the Game Show channel, after work TV Land.

I wipe off my book jackets with a damp cloth. It is fall, and classes are in full swing. Right now, students hurry across campus on their way to the library, backpacks weighted with binders and books. Maybe a young student heads up to the second floor, to the quiet cubicle in the northeast corner, the heart of the literature stacks overlooking the sprawling lawn and administration building, my favorite place to study. Maybe this student opens an American lit book and begins to read. It is nearly seven o’clock, dusk, and through the branches of the giant elms lining the sidewalks, the streetlights dully gleam. Then the clock tower begins to chime, and almost 300 miles away, kneeling in front of my old textbooks, something stirs inside.

*     *     *

Her eyes are closed and she moans the afternoon I read Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips.”  I’ve spent the morning at the copy machine with a heavy pile of books, filling a three-ring binder with my favorite poems. I glance up from the page. The vertical blinds are drawn, and the leaves on the cherry tree outside her window have turned deep gold. Sun glints off the metal light poles in the parking lot, off the windshields of the parked cars, and she’s stopped groaning. She watches me, studying my face and hands, and for once, I can also really see her, the intensity of her green eyes.

When I reach the concluding lines—

The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,

And comes from a country far away as health

—I hesitate. Should I be reading something this grim to her? But she remains still, staring at me, as I skim the pages of the binder. I ask who she would like to hear next, Williams, maybe Blake?

She opens her eyes wide and inhales, and so softly I almost miss it, she mouths a “B.”

Doctors, nurses—everyone—say she’s nonverbal, so I’m not sure I hear her correctly.

She tries to lift her head from the pillow, but her hair is pinned beneath her shoulders. “B— Bla—,” she whispers.

“Do you mean Blake?”

Perspiration flecks her upper lip, and she closes her eyes. “Yes,” she breathes.

I suppress the urge to run out of her room and tell my co-workers they were wrong—she can talk. Instead, I flip through the notebook and find the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I turn to the first poem and start to read:

Piping down the valleys wild,  

Piping songs of pleasant glee . . .

And then I lose track of time. I read about bright tigers, little lambs, and chimney sweeps, about laughing meadows and London town, bleak fields and children’s cries of weep, weep, weep, weep. When I finally look up from the binder, I’ve read through most of the Songs, poems I haven’t read for a long time, that she hasn’t heard for an even longer time.

Before I leave her room, I turn on the radio. The announcer gives the weather report, and Rita stares at the ceiling, but I believe she sees something else. Instead of the mountain scene on the poster above her bed, she sees the words she still knows.

*     *     *

I would like to say it is the poetry that inspires me to fill out the application for graduate school, but it’s more complicated than that. Rita couldn’t finish school because of the rapid progression of her disease, and I know it sounds cliché to say that I feel my own life slipping away when I visit her room and see her deteriorated body, the days she passes in bed, but how else can I put it?

That fall, when she is able to sit up for an hour, and her husband doesn’t make it in, I brush her dark hair so that it falls in thick waves over her shoulders. She purses her lips so I can apply her lipstick, and I show her how beautiful she looks in a hand mirror. Then I take her outside. The courtyard is in the middle of the nursing home, surrounded on all sides by windows and resident rooms. I wheel her to the rose garden and pull up a patio chair next to hers. Inside, residents sit in wheelchairs waiting to be invited to an activity program or a meal. Some watch television. Others are dying. But I don’t look at the banks of windows encircling us. The roses are four-feet tall and we face them, white with pink trim, deep red with velvet petals. I read to her, and for a short time pretend we aren’t in the nursing home, in the center of the city, caught in the same routine. The howls of an ambulance at the hospital across the street, the beeping of the facility bus, disappear, and if only for a few minutes, we live somewhere else, immersed in the language of some other time, breathing in the sweetness of the last of the season’s roses, wisps of hair skimming our flushed cheeks in the crisp breeze.

But then one dark winter afternoon I visit her room, and from her bed she looks at me with what I can only describe as despair. The nursing staff has shaved her head nearly bald with clippers.

When I stop Rita’s nurses’ aide in the hall and ask why, she says the long hair was too hard to care for and that Rita’s husband gave his consent.

“But did you ask her?”

The aide continues down the hall, her arms filled with bed linens, and does not respond.

Several weeks later on New Year’s Eve, I apply to just one school, one thirty miles north of my hometown that doesn’t require entrance exams.

*     *     *

It’s early spring, and the cherry tree outside Rita’s window is thick with pink blossoms. The day before, I received the phone call I’ve been hoping for—I’ve been accepted into graduate school—and just like that, my life has changed. The binder overflows with hundreds of photocopies, some I’ve enlarged so she can read along with me though I never know if she can actually see them.

I’m not really thinking about poetry. I’m thinking about packing and moving, about registering for classes. I’m thinking about how to describe the stuffiness of Rita’s room, the rash of broken capillaries on her cheeks, and the flecks of dried blood on her chapped lower lip.

I need to tell her I am leaving.

Her room feels too warm, so I crack the window. “Is that better?”

She stares at the poster on the ceiling.

“Your hair’s really growing back.”

She raises her eyebrows. An inch of dark stubble covers her head. I haven’t shown her a mirror in a long time.

I begin to tell her that I wrote the night before, but then stop. What will she think if I tell her I am writing about the residents in the Alzheimer’s Unit, how they try the doors all day, insisting they need to get home, how when I take them for rides in the facility van, they beg to go back inside? What will she think if she knows I will also one day write about her?

I finally blurt out that I am going back to school to get an MFA. Then I hesitate. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all. Part of me feels as if I’m rubbing in what she will never have.

Dense white clouds drift past the sun, and the plastic blinds clack in the breeze. She doesn’t look at me, but there is no mistaking what I hear. “Good for you,” she whispers.

*     *     *

I brush her dark hair so that it falls in thick waves over her shoulders. She purses her lips so I can apply her lipstick, and I show her how beautiful she looks in a hand mirror.

It isn’t always good those months before I leave. There are days when she cries out during the entire visit, days when I sit beside her bed and her screams drown out the poems I read aloud, when I lose my temper and ask, “Do you want me to read to you, or not?” One afternoon she spits in my face. I glare at her and leave her room, though when I return to my office to record our interaction in her progress notes, I don’t know what to write. What is it like when a woman half her age bounds into her room with poems she’s picked out for her to hear? How does it feel when she tells her she’s going to graduate school to study writing while her hands, no longer able to grip a pen, have curled like dead leaves? When her husband visits once a day for an hour, and she’s so lonely for his touch, but can’t ask him to lie down beside her and hold her or even demand that he stay, when the old man in the hallway outside her door won’t stop asking where he is, and the woman in the room next door rhythmically thumps her wheelchair into the wall behind her head, and the whole place smells like piss and shit, and she is young—only in her fifties—and should be doing anything but lying in a bed, staring at a poster of wildflowers someone tacked to the ceiling.

Twice before I leave, she scrapes her fist against her G-tube until it pops out of her belly and liquid food soaks her sheets, pooling on the white linoleum beneath her bed. Nursing staff considers the first time an accident, but they scold her the second time.

“What are you trying to do?” I overhear her nurse say. She and an aide tape the tube down along her side. They smother her stomach with a pillow so she can no longer work it free.

When I show the binder to the middle-aged woman hired to take my place, she glances at a stack of care plan assessments in her hand instead. I flip through the photocopies, pausing at the pages with the corners folded—Wordsworth and Keats, Coleridge and Blake—trying to explain Rita’s preferences. “Don’t worry,” the woman says, “I know just the kind of inspirational poetry she needs.”

Then I stop trying to explain. I know she isn’t listening, and I tell myself I don’t really know what Rita needs anyway. I used to ask her husband to bring in her own poetry from home, but he never did. At first, he told me he forgot. Then he said he couldn’t find it. Maybe he wanted to keep that part of her for himself. I used to imagine him sitting at her desk, sifting through her notebooks, reading her words, remembering. Or maybe he kept the notebooks shut, tucked away on the top shelf of the bookcase. Maybe he thought the poems would awaken something inside that she would never be able to regain. Maybe he knew something I didn’t, that it would hurt too much, and it was best if she forgot. She once mouthed a B, maybe a D, when I asked her to tell me her favorite poet, and I listed off names. Blake, Bishop, Dickinson, Donne? She shook her head. Dickey, Berryman, Bly? No, she said loudly, her face red with effort. Doolittle, Browning? Spit gathered in the corners of her mouth, and she screamed.

I am leaving soon, starting a new life, but until then, I visit her room three times a week. The pink privacy curtain surrounding her bed is drawn back, and her folded bedspread neatly covers her feet. My mind these days is elsewhere, already focused on the future. Still, I sit beside her bed and flip through the notebook, choosing poems I think she wants to hear. The lazy slant of afternoon sun shines on her face and perspiration beads her forehead. Her light blue hospital gown has slipped off her shoulders, and the white sheet bunched up at her waist hides the tube in her belly. She listens to me read, her hands balled into tight fists against her heart, and stares up at the poster on the ceiling, looming peaks of snow-flecked mountains, sparse stands of subalpine fir, and a lush meadow of wildflowers, tiny lavender daisies and white tufts of bear grass, their pale faces forever turned toward the sky. For her, delicate fingers of lupine hold everything.

Jennifer AndersonJennifer Anderson is an English instructor at Lewis-Clark State College, and her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, the Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Cimarron Review, and Open Spaces Quarterly, among other places. She also collaborates on documentary films with her husband, Vernon Lott; their latest project, “The Act of Becoming,” explores the recent international success behind John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner.

 

Every Man a Fortress

We traded snippets about ourselves when the chaos allowed and found we’d both joined the Corps to make something of ourselves, serve our country, and shoot things—Schnieder wanted to be a Rifleman while I was already slated to be a Machine Gunner. Before enlisting, Schnieder had been a degenerate living in his parents’ basement. I’d enlisted eight months prior at seventeen, and had just graduated high school before shipping out. I told Schnieder how the Army Recruiter had blown off my appointment, and when the Navy Recruiter asked me why I wanted to join I’d told him, “To shoot things,” so I’d been sent across the hall to the Marines. We were scared, but determined. Neither of us had any intention of washing out. When we’d watched the rack-less Recruits being marched away he’d said thank you. And meant it.

I slowly rocked my weight to the balls of my feet and then back onto my heels again to alleviate the pain in my lower back. When the Drill Instructors had left, after putting the platoon at POA, they’d laughed and joked about how they’d come back to find a squad bay of Recruits passed out face first on the concrete floor. Many dark outlines of Recruits swayed as if drunk on their feet. When knees lock they cut off circulation, but when a Recruit stood at the POA he needed to “lock his body.” As new Recruits we hadn’t figured out to almost lock our knees, or rhythmically tense and relax them to keep blood flowing.

Heads bobbed and weaved as things started to gray out. I relaxed my knees, not realizing I’d tensed them, hoping it wasn’t too late to recover before passing out. If I fell no one would move to help me. The Drill Instructors had been clear that if a Recruit went down, no one was to help him up. They said we would be told not to help others throughout boot camp to destroy our expectation of assistance—seek nothing outside of yourself, the well-built Korean DI said, once every man became a fortress we would be Marines.

The florescent tubes hummed overhead. Light became dizzy staccato flashes. I tried to motivate myself by thinking back to why I joined the Corps. My memory of the morning blurred into a kaleidoscope of images. The initial scene of a single tower smoking seared into my mind. I could still see a 747 glide into the second tower and erupt out the other side a shotgun blast of fire, twisted rebar, and broken glass. Smoke, pouring out of the first tower and wreathing the second. The way flailing figures spun as they plunged to the street, their descent tracked frantically by cameras.

Images of first responders digging through rubble were replaced by the towers standing—just in time to watch them get slammed by 747s and come tumbling down again.

Towers crumbling to nothing. People running, screaming, as tidal waves of ash and debris flooded through the surrounding avenues. They just fell, one after the other, first the bodies then the towers.

I’d wondered if there had been trumpets that morning, as my teacher panicked and sat dumbfounded. From the doom on his face my stomach had knotted in fear that the rapture had happened and all of our parents had been disappeared off the face of the earth, teleported up to heaven—that my parents had been right all along. My classmates and I stared at the television screens with blank expressions. The cyclical nature of the newscasts, hashing out and then rehashing what had happened, showed us again and again. Images of first responders digging through rubble were replaced by the towers standing—just in time to watch them get slammed by 747s and come tumbling down again. The narrative stopped being linear in my mind and become a jumble of destruction on screens I had to watch. The humming of florescent lights took the place of sirens and screaming as teachers switched on subtitles. The same sound that had filled that day buzzed above me now, and the same scared looks and blank stares on faces lined up.

Silently the door opened, and Stahl stepped through. Silently it closed again.

“Look to your left and right,” Stahl said.

The platoon looked.

“Some of the men to your right and left won’t be here a year from now. Hell, some of them won’t even be alive six months from now,” Stahl said.

Staff Sergeant Stahl paced the length of the squad bay, his flashing corframs click-clacking, click-clack as he drove his heels into the floor. He told us about himself and how he was going to run the platoon with an iron fist while the First Hat was away bucking for promotion. Stahl was a “been there, done that,” Marine. He came from the Old Corps, when things had been much harder. And he’d served in Iraq, leading a Mortar Section in combat operations and earned several decorations for their performance. Stahl had taken lives, rifled through dead insurgents’ pockets for cigarettes and food. He’d seen teenagers, their hair already gray, break down, shaking and sobbing as they begged not to be the first through the door this time. He’d watched his men die, blood bubbling out of their nostrils as they screamed for their mothers. Stahl knew something we couldn’t imagine—we weren’t all going to make it.

“And some of you,” Stahl shouted. “Shouldn’t be here! Take a look around and you’ll see who they are. Schnieder wouldn’t even have a rack if it wasn’t for his rack-mate telling a bunch of Recruits twice his size to fuck off. You know what kind of Recruits can’t seize and hold a rack? Non-hackers.”

Stahl explained that “non-hacker,” like almost all military jargon, was not counter-intuitive. Later in our careers as Marines we would learn idioms and rhymes that seemed childish: “red means dead” to remind us if we could see the red dot below a pistol’s safety then the safety was disengaged; “brass to the grass” to remind us to load ammunition into machine guns always with the shiny side of the brass rounds down and the black connecting links on top; “tap, rack, bang,” to remind us of the correct immediate action of tapping the magazine, racking the bolt and trying to fire again when our rifle misfired; “treat, never, keep, keep,” to reduce the four weapons safety rules to something small and manageable. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded. Never point your weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot, keep your weapon on safe until you intend to fire, and keep your finger safe and off the trigger until you are ready to fire, was easily remembered as “treat, never, keep, keep.” Non-hacker was the first in a long list, and the most self-explanatory.

He’d seen teenagers, their hair already gray, break down, shaking and sobbing as they begged not to be the first through the door this time.

Stahl explained it anyway.

“A non-hacker is someone who can’t fucking hack it, good to go?” Stahl asked. He didn’t look up to see if there were any questions. The platoon couldn’t move or speak when at the POA.

“Recruiters, they don’t go to combat and watch men die. They sit stateside and don’t do shit like the fleet dodgers they are. All they care about is numbers. So some of you were recruited by men who knew you don’t have what it takes.”

Stahl’s head whipped like he’d heard a sound. He stalked over to a short, fat Recruit with freckles, a red nose and red stubble on his head. The Recruit looked straight ahead while Stahl stared at him, inches from his face.

“Your Recruiter was slumming when he picked you up,” Stahl bellowed. “What the fuck did you do in the civilian world?”

The Recruit didn’t answer for a second, then spoke in a quavering voice.

“I–” the Recruit started.

“This Recruit!” Stahl screamed, spittle speckling the recruits face. “You no longer say ‘I’ do you understand? You will only say ‘This Recruit’ when referring to yourself.”

“This Recruit,” he started again, voice cracking. “Used to roller blade and hang out with his friends.”

Stahl took off the hat DIs wore, the same kind worn by Smokey the Bear. Holding his hat in one hand he ran the other down his face. When his hand fell it revealed an Oni mask of hate where Stahl’s face had been. The sudden transformation could have been comical in the civilian world only because it would have been safe to assume it jest. Stahl wasn’t joking though. His face turned purple with rage, a hue I hadn’t realized brown-skinned people could achieve. His right hand knotted into a fist with the pointer finger extended at the second knuckle that he slammed into the Recruit’s cheek, as if pointing at his eyebrow.

“And you didn’t think it might be important to lose some fucking weight for Marine Corps boot camp?” Stahl asked. “What did your friends say when you told them that you were going to join the Marine Corps?”

The Recruit looked ready to shit himself.

“They told me not to,” he said. “They told me I couldn’t make it.”

“They were right! You are, disgusting!” Stahl’s body made a retching motion; his head swung down to slam the brim of his Smokey Bear into the Recruit’s face.

The Recruit started to cry.

“What did your dad say?” Stahl asked.

“My father killed himself when I was young,” the Recruit started to explain, slipping back into the first person.

“Oh, you don’t have a dad?” Stahl said, interrupting. “Well it makes sense he killed himself, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t want to be your dad either!”

The Recruit wept openly. Stahl turned away in disgust and spat on the floor. His muscles bulged as he stalked between the two lines of Recruits. His head swung back and forth, looking for certain ones. When he found them he’d stuck his hand in their face, all his fingers and thumb pointing forward in what the Corps called a “knife hand,” and asked them if they had a father. Every time the answer was no. Every time Stahl leaned back and brayed at the top of his lungs about what degenerates the Recruits were, how no man would claim them as their children. When the Recruit’s race allowed, Stahl would say their father “ran back across the border,” or “got lost, drunk on the reservation,” or “their momma couldn’t pick which one because it was dark.” He broke them down, left them struggling against their sobs.

I was terrified. Stahl could pick out the bastard children.

When the Recruit’s race allowed, Stahl would say their father “ran back across the border,” or “got lost, drunk on the reservation,” or “their momma couldn’t pick which one because it was dark.” He broke them down, left them struggling against their sobs.

That information wasn’t in our Service Record Books, which had transported our basic information—height, weight, hair color, religious preference—to boot camp. Stahl had only been able to observe the platoon for a few hours that day before the inspection. I wondered what kind of predatory instinct allowed him to feel out weakness. I realized I was dealing with someone very good at his profession, what he grimly referred to as “making Marines.” But Stahl said a lot of cliché little idioms, and the next was something about “needing to break a few Recruits to make an omelet.” Stahl offered to fight any man in the platoon, said he’d take his rank off. He walked up to the largest Recruit, a six-and-a-half-feet tall, three hundred pound Texan with the last name Payne.

“What about you, corn-fed white boy?” Stahl asked, his voice croaked hoarse from smoking.

Payne stared ahead, “No, Sir!”

“Had to think about it,” Stahl said, stepping in close so his face starred up into Payne’s. “You sure? Maybe it’ll be like wrestling a steer?”

“Sir, no Sir!” Payne’s voice shook.

Stahl walked away and addressed the platoon, his heels clacking.

“That’s goddamn right you don’t!” he said, jabbing his finger in the air. “Gentlemen, welcome to boot camp. I make the rules here!”

But I had my own problems—“problem children.” These Recruits weren’t just Stahl’s pet projects, his little toys he’d play with on the quarterdeck until they broke or he got tired. No, the problem children represented the fault lines in the platoon’s granite foundation: the people who would crack under pressure, who made mistakes not out of laziness but ineptitude. Recruits that couldn’t figure out how to get dressed quickly enough when the platoon woke, couldn’t remember to say “Sir” at the start and finish of everything they said, who didn’t understand making the entire platoon wait on them several times a day couldn’t be justified with an excuse. Stahl hated them for it. Veins writhed in his neck and bulged from his forehead as he screamed at them. Spittle flew in explosions of syllabubs as Stahl barked diatribes-turned-psychoanalysis that probed the depths of the mind. Stahl examined Recruits’ foibles with the steady rhythm of an oncoming train, divining the gruesome future from their pupils.

Schnieder was one of them, so was Oou.

Schnieder’s carelessness struck early the morning when he wanted to move slowly. He’d forget how his shower towel hung folded from his rack, or to shave. The more Schnieder messed up, the more Stahl rode him, the more mistakes he made, the more attention he got—to the point where I shared in the punishments because I shared a rack with him. Stahl told me that’s how it went, that I needed to make up for the shortcomings of my brothers and I was failing not only the platoon, but Recruit Schnieder and myself.

“I’m sorry I’ve been fucking up a lot lately,” Schnieder whispered to me after a particular bad hazing session. “I’ll do better, I promise. Just don’t hate me. Stahl is trying to get everyone to hate me.”

“You’ve got to get better,” I replied.

Schnieder stopped making incessant mistakes and life got easier for us. After he’d kept it up for a few days he apologized to the whole platoon when we got turned to hygiene. From then on the platoon widely accepted him. Schnieder proved he could hack it. He’d walked through the fire, maybe not well, but well enough. Stahl even gave him a few kind words in passing. I could tell Schnieder’s heart swelled with pride that he’d turned things around. When other Recruits turned into problem children, Schnieder didn’t hate them; he accepted it as part of the process. But there was one problem child that tested all of our patience collectively, even Schnieder’s. I felt bad for him at first, because he was a nice enough guy.

The more Schnieder messed up, the more Stahl rode him, the more mistakes he made, the more attention he got—to the point where I shared in the punishments because I shared a rack with him.

“Things aren’t so bad, guys, right?” Oou would say. “Pretty soon we’ll graduate and boot camp will be over.”

Oou didn’t realize that after boot camp there would be war. No matter how many times Stahl showed him the dead in the papers and explained the similarities the dead Marines and Oou had in common, he didn’t understand. Oou always had a look of perpetual astonishment on his face. Always. No matter how many times he made the same mistake and the entire platoon got hazed for it, Oou was always surprised. Stahl knew how to fix him. Before lights out, when the platoon stood in line in front of the bunks, locked at attention, waiting for taps to play over the loudspeakers, Stahl called Oou front in center. Stahl made Oou drink first one canteen of water, then two. Then he had Oou refill the canteens and come back out in front of the platoon.

“No one gives a fuck about you, Oou,” Stahl said. “Because you’re weak, a non-hacker I couldn’t wash out. I failed you, Oou. You shouldn’t be here. And it’s going to get you and the men around you killed.”

Stahl turned to us, grin spilling across his dark face like milk.

“What do you think, 3111?” Stahl asked, addressing the platoon by its number. “If the rod should be spared, speak out.”

My jaw set. I wasn’t going to stick my neck out for Oou, who had been fucking up at every opportunity. I’d been sucked into the mind games, made to hate Oou for his shortcomings when I should have tried to help him. I thought about how Oou kept letting us down, how pushups bruised my palms stigmata. How he sat there looking like a child while the rest of us paid for hours. I knew Stahl would stop the punishment if someone spoke out, but I kept my mouth shut.

“Drink the other two,” Stahl said. “While you jump up and down.”

Oou made it half way through the third canteen before he threw up—once, and then twice. Stahl made him keep drinking and jumping, until the third canteen was empty and Oou bent over retching long tendrils of bile that hung from his lips.

“Should I have him roll in it?” Stahl asked.

He looked at the platoon for a reaction.

The platoon didn’t need to say anything. Stahl already knew the answer.

“3111, always too soft,” Stahl said. “Well Oou, I guess everyone likes paying for your mistakes.”

*     *     *

Before being sent out into the world as full-fledged Marines we’d had the boot camp version of a battalion meeting. The entire purpose of this meeting was to instill the idea in Marines that they should not do drugs on leave, or get arrested. But especially no drugs. Several DIs took the stage in an auditorium and pleaded with everyone to “piss clean” at the School Of Infantry. When we checked in to SOI, it was explained, as many as half would be randomly selected to take a urinary analysis. The Marine Corps zero-tolerance policy of illicit drug use made passing the test an imperative. If a Marine failed the test, he would be separated from the Marine Corps.

The first thing I heard out of Schnieder’s mouth after leave was, “If I have to piss, it’s going to be dirty.”

“What did you smoke,” I asked. “And when?”

The entire purpose of this meeting was to instill the idea in Marines that they should not do drugs on leave, or get arrested. But especially no drugs.

He had a sickly pallor and looked like he hadn’t slept all leave. As a short, overweight balding guy with the first signs of meth-mouth, Schnieder usually looked pretty bad, but now he looked terrible. I had no doubt he would be picked for a urine screening, and so did he.

“I smoked meth last night,” Schnieder said.

Sure enough, when the Marines formed up outside of the barracks the first thing that happened was roll call for urinary analysis. My name was one of the first called and Schnieder’s one of the last. We stood in line together, cups in hand, waiting our turn. I learned an important lesson that day. Not that listening and doing the right thing pays off. I learned that Marines were frequently men of extremes. Maybe the Corps owning Marines drove men to excess of drinking, drugs, and women, or maybe the kind of person that seeks out the profession of United States Marine is predisposed to immoderation. Schnieder had decided to go on a ten-day meth bender knowing that he was going to be tested, and if he failed it would ruin his life. This lesson didn’t stop with our piss test.

I saw Schnieder in line at the PX buying a pack of smokes and a cheesy lighter. I tried to get his attention. I wanted to ask him what he was going to do about the piss test, if there was any way to fight it. While we’d waited in line, cups of piss in hand, I’d had the idea that maybe he could blame it on an over-the-counter medication causing a false positive. Explaining away the results was a long shot, but I wanted Schnieder to make it. He had become a part of my Marine Corps experience, and I was having a hard time imagining it without him—letting go.

Like a lot of guys trying to claw their way out of the gutter, Schnieder never imagined he’d be a Marine; Schnieder came from a life of meth and video games in his parents’ basement. When Stahl had got me down, Schnieder cheered me up with his lopsided grin and easy humor. The first time hunger drove me dumpster-diving, Schnieder stood watch and I’d split it with him.  When the San Diego skyline exploded with fireworks we’d stood and watched from the squad bay; it made us feel better to know that the whole world wasn’t boot camp. Something changed, though, and he’d started thinking about using again—talked about it with other junkies. Then Stahl had become frustrated toying with me, like a coyote giving up on a box turtle. When he shifted his attention to Schnieder, he sensed a weakness I missed, one that went beyond messing up the trivialities of boot camp.

I waived to Schnieder from across the PX; he just looked at the ground and shuffled out the front door. I never saw him again. He went UA; that is, he decided Unauthorized Absence was better than consequences. Schnieder was the first person I lost in the Corps.

Jason ArmentJason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He’s earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in, among others, Narrative, Gulf Coast, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review (Pushcart nomination), and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volumes 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in Zone 3, Duende, New Madrid, Veterans Writing Project, Midwestern Gothic, and The Iowa Review. University of Hell Press will publish his memoir Musalaheen in 2017. He lives in Denver, where he coordinates the Denver Veterans Writing Workshop with the Colorado Humanities.

 

Somebody. Still.

I had wanted to be something in the world once. A teaching degree, a Masters degree, and several academic honors hang framed on my study wall. I might have had any number of careers but at twenty-five I made a choice and let the world go on without me: Bedside for my mother’s cancer right after college slid into marriage, morphed into children, and landed me in a seaside community buffered by comforts. A few decades later I was looking at fifty and an empty house. And hiding in the laundry room.

Four years out of college my best friend whisked me to France when my mother became terminal, and proposed over flaming omelets on Mont-Saint-Michel, an ancient French Monastery stranded by the tides at the edge of the northwestern coast. Despite the earnest look on his face I hardly noticed the romantic setting. I was all out of emotions: My mother was dying from ovarian cancer far away in Seattle and I was worn out keeping her and myself together. As the velvet box slid across the table my reasoning seemed so reasonable; we knew everything there was to know about each other, he loved my family, my mother would still be there for my wedding if we hurried. So instead of waiting to see how mother-less, cancer-less, home-less worked, maybe finally starting a career or living alone, I would snap on a silk garter.

Nobody put a hand on my shoulder and counseled me to avoid making big decisions in times of big grief. Nobody warned me that grief was not a reliable emotion on which to base life-changing commitments. I had pushed the three-diamond heirloom ring on my finger with relief, chose the road most traveled and said yes yes yes to my oldest friend. I was tired. Marriage seemed an easy answer.

I looked down at the sparkling ring and said quickly, “How fast do you think we can pull off a wedding?”

Twenty years later, three talented children, one suburban community, twenty slack pounds heavier an invisible net began to cinch tight.

So instead of waiting to see how mother-less, cancer-less, home-less worked, maybe finally starting a career or living alone, I would snap on a silk garter.

The first episodes began in the laundry room, folding the never-diminishing pile of sports shorts, lacrosse jerseys, strings of candy-colored thongs, hipster boxers, and my faded, elastic granny panties. I discovered I couldn’t breathe. All I could hear inside my head was, I am nobody.

Then I closed myself in the coat closet and cried.

Was this empty nest syndrome, my second child departing for college at the same time my youngest decided to head to boarding school? In truth, they were all ready to go: happy, adjusted, busting at the seams to grow into adulthood.

Was I an ungrateful bitch, not appreciating my safe community, successful husband, beautiful family? No one could doubt my love, devotion, and dedication to my family. I sobbed into the raincoats hiding my despair; I wanted to do something else with my life, only I had no idea how to start again or where to start again. I wasn’t ungrateful I just wasn’t done. Who thinks this way?

My struggle intensified as the house got quieter. Anxiety chattered in my head, You only have yourself to blame, as I tried to catch my breath while the dryer tumbled. Back to gratitude! my mind raced. My mother had died at fifty-one-years-old. I was lucky to be alive to see my children grow. I shoved my saggy underwear behind the detergent and put a smile on my face.

*     *     *

The garage was staged with bins of extra-long sheets, towels and pillows for the two dorm rooms. Moving old photo boxes out of the way, a picture of my husband and his former live-in girlfriend, sitting an inch apart on a couch smiling at each other, dropped to the floor.

The photo haunted me for days.

He married you out of pity.

He loved your mom and wanted her to know you were taken care of.

But what froze my blood was,

He had never smiled at me like that before.

But let’s be honest, what was he looking at? I filled the days, months, and years with too much food, alcohol, and projects. Caregiving of other relatives took a toll on me all over again. I gained weight, had high cholesterol, and drank martinis nightly by the double. Filling my time and my belly had not filled my soul or made me attractive. Her face in the photo glowed, her chestnut hair swirled around flawless skin. I had stopped looking in the mirror.

The cost of my decision over that omelet flambé was finally here: I gave up being someone—I was my apron, gardens, roasting pan, and children; wore granny panties and hadn’t had sex for ten years. I had sledded down the slippery slope of taking care of everyone else, riding a comfy cushion under my butt into oblivion. How could I possibly salvage anything of that twenty-five-year-old now?

When the house was empty of children we began to eat dinner in front of a news show every night, our meal balanced on knees, his laptop open beside him. I was bored to tears and brought to tears that this was how my life would continue to unspool forward. I lay awake at night, stroking my dogs, devising plans: I will go back to school. Find part-time work in a shop in town. I was qualified to be a dog walker, a cook, a housecleaner. I pulled the pillows over my head.

I gave up being someone—I was my apron, gardens, roasting pan, and children; wore granny panties and hadn’t had sex for ten years.

First, I thought, first I should salvage the marriage. I set a table for two, lit candles and prepared a nice meal the next day.

“Now we can focus on us for the first time in years!” I said, clinking our wine glasses together.

“Did I tell you I am going to Europe next month to extend the company?” he replied.

Could I have been any more invisible than that moment?

As his words hung between us I stacked the dishes and felt a bizarre rush of relief. In some ways, being apart would be good for both of us. As he chatted on about his trip, I suddenly realized that I had no intention of just sitting here waiting for someone to decide to come home for a meal. I wasn’t angry. I was certain.

I sat at the computer the next day and typed random requests into Google:

Continuing Education Classes Knitting instructor Writing courses

I applied to a workshop in Seattle, noting at the beginning of my essay,

“I am not pretending I know how to write. I just want to try.”

Someone in the program wrote back,

“Welcome! This is great. Here is what we recommend.”

Someone wants me?

Just one line, from a stranger. In rapid succession I scoured Craigslist for rentals and found a furnished flat for a six-week workshop, put down the deposits with my own inherited money, secured dog sitters, emptied the fridge, put the garden to bed, and found a ride to the airport.

“I’ll be back after you return from Europe,” I said as he packed. But both of us knew this was the defining moment of something else. And I had defined it. Unprecedented. Exhilarating.

*     *     *

A friend said to me before I left, “We are so confused, you were the ultimate mom, you did everything perfectly, why do you need to go away?”

My dog sitter said, “Do you know everyone is talking about you? Wondering if you are getting divorced?”

I shouldn’t move forward, but everyone else can?

*     *     *

The first hour in the flat I watched the clouds flick the tips of the snow-capped Cascade mountains and listened to the silence. Not fearful, just acutely aware I was making big, irrevocable decisions based on advice from a stranger. Would this work out? Did it matter?

At a second-hand store down the street I purchased two wine glasses, two plates, and a vintage tablecloth dotted with plums. I felt the blood zinging through me.

Who did this? Somebody.

I took a deep breath and went to bed alone.

Alexandra DaneAlexandra Dane is currently completing Cope: An Imperfect Story, her memoir about coming of age in the midst of her mother’s divorce and terminal illness. For the last four years she has honed her writing voice in Seattle, Washington with thanks to Hugo House and The Writer’s Workshop. Her work has appeared in thewritersworkshopreview.net. Her weekly blog alexandradanewrites.com is an assemblage of thoughts on the small things that matter. She lives in Boston and Seattle.

Chassis

I knew I was in trouble when the Director asked me to cock my head to the right.

“I can’t cock my head to the right. Or the left.”

“Just like this.” He cocks his head to the right. But, see, he’s not wearing a fiberglass suit of armor with a helmet attached to the shoulders. He doesn’t look like a low budget Cyberman. Or, a lower budget Cyberman, as it were.

“I can’t move my head.”

“Okay. Just, look shocked.”

So the camera starts speeding, I take my mark, and it’s time to make this awkward robot costume convey shock. I try some Meisner. Why am I shocked? What is causing the shock in me? Well, I am trapped in a dirty robot costume, standing in a parking lot on Cahuenga. That should be shocking enough. Why am I here? Because at 11:30 last night I got a frantic text from the Producer telling me they’d lost their robot guy and needed me to come in and replace him. Obviously, this was a terrible thing to do with my time. So I was relieved when the Producer texted me a few moments later, saying she’d found a replacement. But, bright and early next morning, another frantic text. It seemed the replacement had also disappeared (this should have been a warning sign but my reasoning skills aren’t the sharpest in the morning) and I saw this all as a Sign from the Universe. Some inescapable force of nature had determined it was my fate to don a clunky robot costume and have at it.

“Can you try tilting your head up?” the Director asks. He demonstrates again.

I convey shock.

“That was great! Next shot.”

This is going to be a long day.

*     *     *

By 2:00 pm I’ve discovered this wonderful resting position. See, I can’t sit down in the armor and I can’t take it off because the AD assures me we are going up in “a few seconds.” So I’ve taken to leaning against one of the cars on set and using the back of my helmet as a headrest. It’s surprisingly comfortable.

I can’t sit down in the armor and I can’t take it off because the AD assures me we are going up in “a few seconds.”

While in this position, I can see Houston through the tiny little eye holes, teaching the Producer how to punch. Houston is my fight partner. We go on sets and choreograph the fight scenes. That’s how I wound up involved with this project. Of course, I had no idea that I’d be the one having to throw the punches. If I’d known, I would have had the robot fight entirely from this awesome leaning position. Houston isn’t choreographing the Producer into the fight though. He’s just doing that thing that we all do where we constantly teach people how to throw a proper punch. You’d be surprised how few people can.

And the Producer is asking, “How many fights have you been in?”

Houston says, “Four, maybe. One of them was with that kid I was telling you about, in a Chinese restaurant. Then there was Japan, where I saw a fight and tried breaking it up.”

I can’t imagine Houston breaking up a fight. He’s all Krav Maga and Falcon Punch.

“Then there was the one at the football game in high school.”

Huh? I’ve never heard this one.

“Tim, have I ever told you about that one? It was a Stanford game and this racist guy behind me kept shouting awful stuff and spitting sunflower seeds on me. So I asked my dad if it was okay to get into a fight with him.”

I can picture Houston asking his dad for permission to get into a fist fight.

“Every fight I got into, I broke these bones.” He points at the little bones in the back of his hand.

“Where’s Tim?” I hear the Director call out. Like he can’t take the extra two seconds to locate the only robot on set. Maybe I blend in against the mustard-colored 1982 Mercedes Benz.

I say, “Here” but my voice just sort of meanders around the inside of my helmet, unable to squeeze through the tiny mouth and even tinier eye holes. So I push off the car, which takes more effort than I’m proud of, and do my robot saunter.

“We need the robot to fall over.”

“I can’t fall over.” A nickel in the jar for every “I can’t” today would really cost me.

“Can you just go prone and do a reverse pushup?”

“Nope.” I can’t even dougie. That’s how restrictive this outfit is.

“Guys. That suit cannot touch the gravel,” the Producer says. “It is worth 19,000 dollars and if we scratch it . . .”

19,000 dollars? This awkward piece of shit?

“Okay, so, Houston! Do we have those pads we talked about?” the Director asks.

“No. I don’t have the pads. The Producer does.”

“Yeah, but I asked you to bring them.”

Houston clenches his jaw, takes a deep breath. He has a short fuse when it comes to incompetence.

“I emailed you. I said, ‘I don’t have the pads. The producer does. She owns them. She has them in her possession.’” Houston has taken out his phone. He’s reading an email. “‘She is in charge of the pads. She has them. If you want them on set, ask her.’”

The AD asks the Producer if she brought the pads. I have to turn my whole upper body to see her.

“I didn’t realize I was supposed to.”

By now, we’ve moved on. I’m dropping to one knee, putting one hand on the ground. Like I’m hiking a football.

“Can you make a fist?”

“No. I can’t make a fist.”

My gloves are made of the thickest possible rubber, as if the designers were terrified that the suit would allow for any amount of dexterity.

…every take ended with us just sort of going on until we didn’t know what to do next. We’d start strong and then just peter out, like windup toys.

“Try something like this.” The Director demonstrates making a fist.

*     *     *

Later on, I start to notice that the shadows are awfully long, and we still have most of the fight scene ahead of us. The Director makes an impassioned plea to the actors, who are circling the craft table. He says, “We’re running out of time, so we need to speed this up.”

For whatever reason I imagine us doing the fight scene in Benny Hill double-time. Maybe it’s the tunnel vision, but by now I’ve begun interpreting everything literally.

I overhear the AD tell the Cinematographer, “I’m going to start calling cut, if that’s okay.” Which is nice to hear. Until then, every take ended with us just sort of going on until we didn’t know what to do next. We’d start strong and then just peter out, like windup toys.

I’m supposed to lower one of the actors to his knees in this take, and the actor seems really worried. He says his knees are messed up. I’m not sure what that means.

Now, during the next take, he’s supposed to just wait on his knees a while. For a moment, I forget he’s there because he’s left my pathetic field of vision and I’ve taken to imagining that the universe is just two little disks, joined in the middle and if I can’t see it, it’s not there.

Then he stands up.

“You have to stay on your knees,” the Director says.

The actor goes back down, exiting the universe. I hear him say something about his knees bleeding.

“Action!”

I know every move. After all, I came up with half of them. But I can’t really see what I’m doing so it’s harder than I’d hoped. I start feeling like I’m actually inside a robot, and the robot isn’t responding to my human desires to maim and brutalize. It resists at every instant.

One of the PAs walks over and tells the Director his cat has gone missing. Someone else makes a meowing noise.

While a fellow actor wildly thrashes my armor with a rubber crowbar, I notice that the crew has shifted their attention to the parking lot entrance. I rotate my entire body around to see a white pickup pull in. The driver, who looks like Terry Crews in a golf cap, jumps out of the car and starts shouting at us.

“Either someone shows me a permit right now, or you get the fuck off my lot! Right now! This is private property!”

I hear someone say “Okay, pack it up. Pack it all up.”

So we’re all rushing around, packing up the crafts table, the props, the rigging, the camera. I’m very slowly making my way out of the parking lot. There are no extra hands to help me take off my armor, so I’m doing my best impersonation of an embarrassed robot, one foot at a time, while Terry Crews eyes me from his pickup.

Finally I manage to get my gloves off. I use my newfound dexterity to remove my helmet. My shell of solitude is gone. I suddenly realize how loud everything is. Everyone is shouting at someone, somewhere. Terry Crews is shouting at the Producer. Cars are peeling out, tearing up the road. The Props Master finishes removing my armor and now I’m in a form-fitting silver jumpsuit feeling more than a little naked.

I start feeling like I’m actually inside a robot, and the robot isn’t responding to my human desires to maim and brutalize.

I climb in the back seat of my car because it’s the only open door and Houston has my keys.

From inside the car I can see everyone is still shouting. I spot Houston talking with the Director. As the Director talks I can practically see the power-up bar above Houston’s head, slowly building up. Like when it reaches the limit he’ll have enough energy for a fireball, or go Super Sayan or something. I wonder if the Director realizes how close he is to the edge of a very steep, unforgiving cliff. Does he really want to start a fight with the fight choreographer?

It occurs to me that I’ve just replaced the robot armor with the car armor. I’m still separated from the world. Hidden, muffled. I’m not really here. I’m just observing from my spaceship. Then Houston gets in and starts the car. I put on my seatbelt and think of Houston as my chauffeur. I’m still wearing the silver jumpsuit.

We’re driving to the AD’s house to regroup and for some reason Houston’s gone all The Italian Job, weaving through traffic, driving in the breakdown lane. I’m not sure why we’re trying to get there so fast but it’s all very exciting nonetheless.

Houston rants in the front seat and this is what I pick up between the growling: First, the Director blamed Houston for not rehearsing enough. Then, when Houston asked him about whether or not we had permission to shoot there, the Director said he had talked to management. Then, when Houston asked the same question again, the Director revised his story saying that he “called them, like, five times and no one picked up so I assumed it was okay.” Then, Houston didn’t punch him.

“I swear I’m going to punch him,” he says. I think about the little bones in the back of his hand. “If he tries to blame anyone but himself for this mess, I’m just . . .” Then more growling.

We’re the first people to arrive at the AD’s house. We sit on the porch and the sun starts to set over Silver Lake Boulevard. Ten minutes later, everyone except the Director has filed in. Each of them haggard, shell-shocked. The Producer has been crying. She asks if everyone’s here.

“Everyone except our fearless leader,” Houston says.

“Where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

Someone calls him. His phone is dead.

The AD talks about some other shots they need to get today while the sun is out. But we need the Mercedes, which the Director is driving. They also need the Director, though I’m not sure why.

The Cinematographer is on the phone with someone in the car with the Director. He’s giving directions.

“760 Harvard Ave . . . 760 Harvard Ave. 760 . . . Harvard . . . Harvard. Harvard . . . Like Harvard University. Like the college. Like, ‘I went to an Ivy League college, Harvard University.’ Yes . . . 760. Harvard.”

Houston starts laughing.

“Did he just get in the car and drive somewhere . . . anywhere?”

Apparently, he is in West Hollywood. No one really knows why.

So later, an hour later, the Director, our fearless leader, shows up. He looks awful. I wonder where his cat is. I picture the little critter, wandering Cahuenga, playing with strays, smelling new smells. Seeing new sights. Then the sun sets and the cat is alone and hungry and his home is nowhere to be found. He licks his fur. He curls up in a ball and forgets everything that’s ever happened. He accepts the wild.

So now I’m putting the suit on again. They’re turning on the little blue bulbs around the eye holes so now everything I see is framed in little blue glowing lights.

I’m sitting in the passenger seat. I can’t even put on my seatbelt without help. They’re mounting a camera to the hood. And the driver, my lovely co-star, decides this is a good time to mention she’s almost blind without her glasses. And it’s night time.

“So, put on your glasses.”

“No, see,” the Director pipes in. Fuck. “If she wears the glasses then she’ll have to be wearing them in the next scene.”

“We could have her take them off.”

“No. We don’t have time for a shot like that. No . . . Are you comfortable driving just around the back roads?” he asks.

I can hear Houston restraining the urge to hit The Director.

“You cannot seriously be thinking . . .” he says. Then storms off.

“I couldn’t drive on the freeway. But back roads should be fine.”

“We could have Tim spot for her.”

Then we would literally have the blind leading the blind. Between the two of us we could barely read a stop sign.

“The AD will sit in the back and give her directions.”

So we start to pull out, but the light attached to the dashboard falls off.

Correction, the dashboard falls off.

So the Cinematographer is taping the dashboard back on. The Props Master is helping him. The AD is sitting in the back. The Cinematographer accidentally opens the sunroof. Suddenly everyone bursts into motion pressing every single button they can find trying to get it shut. They’re reaching over me, fumbling over each other. I can’t help but notice that the car has a bright red button on the front panel. Occasionally someone’s finger drifts over it then moves on. I wonder what it could be.

Finally, someone finds the right button, the sunroof is shut. The light is attached. The dash is attached. We’re ready to go. And I guess she’s not going to wear her glasses, so that’s cool.

It occurs to me that I’ve just replaced the robot armor with the car armor. I’m still separated from the world. Hidden, muffled.

Two rings of glowing blue frame the lights of Western Ave. and I start to realize that there’s a good chance I will die in this stupid robot costume. And the funny thing is I don’t really care. I can see the red tail lights and the orange streetlights reflected in the pavement. I can’t really see my driver, but when she asks the AD where to go next, she sounds confident enough. Of course she doesn’t seem to understand how to follow directions.

“Turn right here.”

She goes straight.

“Okay, it’s okay. Just keep going straight.”

She turns.

“This is fine. It’s fine. Turn left here.”

I watch a pedestrian skitter across the road.

I pull back from the eye holes and look around the inside of my helmet. My iron maiden. My little spaceship. It’s just me in here, alone. I’m not in a car, headed towards my inevitable early death. I’m in a robot. I trust him to keep me safe. I trust him to lead us home.

Then someone’s pulling off my helmet. We’re parked at the house. We’re not dead, which is nice.

We wait inside for the Director to make an appearance. Secretly, I think we’re hoping he’ll make things worse for himself. Blame someone else, maybe make some racist comments. But maybe we’re too exhausted for that. Even Houston looks haggard.

When he finally arrives, he sits down on the couch between Houston and the Producer. He doesn’t speak at first. He just stares at his shoes. Then, after a long electric moment, he begins, “Guys, my girlfriend is going to be so pissed when I get home, for the cat getting out. Just so you know, she’s going to tear into me so . . .”

So . . . so what? Are we supposed to pity you? Should we mount a search team? Jump in our cars and patrol Cahuenga? We could have the lead actress drive. Maybe I could spot for her.

After all the ridiculous events of the day I wonder if possibly this is some sort of elaborate practical joke, or maybe performance art. It would be called “A Dog Teaching a Human How to Wag His Tail,” or “The Limits of Tolerance,” or the always classic, “Sabotage.” I think about the robot, now in pieces in his box. They didn’t need me. They just needed someone to fill the skin, someone to carry it. I wonder if that’s all the Director is. Maybe this kind of thinking is dangerous.

The Director makes some comment about how we might have to cut the fight scene completely and Houston gets up. He doesn’t look the Director in the eyes, but he points his whole body at him, clenching his fists. They share a silent moment, filled with horrible potential. Then, something truly amazing happens: Houston just pulls out his keys and we leave in silence.

On the drive back we see an empty car parked in the middle of the street with its lights on, its engine running, and its doors ajar. It hums quietly to no one.

T. Lucas EarleT. Lucas Earle is a writer, filmmaker, and musician. His fiction has appeared in Electric SpecColored LensRazor Literary Magazine, and New Myths. His dark comedy, Abduction, premiered in LA Shorts Fest in 2013. His most recent film, in which he plays the lead, is Up Next. T. Lucas lives in Los Angeles.  http://www.tlucasearle.com/

 

Community

A few weeks before my brain broke, as I waited in a grocery store coffee line, an elderly man in front of me dropped his cane. I focused on it. The cane’s clatter, the man’s shaky stoop, careful and slow as he picked it up. How sad, I thought, the need to link one hand to the ground. How frustrating to have only one hand to fill your coffee cup, to add creamer and sugar, to stir.

*     *     *

Estranged from my extended family in preadolescence and raised in a home of three—myself, my identical twin brother, and my mother (my father, already a father, bolted before my birth)—I never considered myself part of a real family. I idolized TV families, normalized a mother and father, children of different ages, and as a teenager I formed pseudo families. Friends I referred to as brothers and sisters. Parents of friends I called mom and dad. Most weekends I attended hardcore shows, which I later traded for the underworld of drug addicts.

*     *     *

A week before my brain broke, as I sat in the waiting area of a drugstore pharmacy, I noticed an old man. Grinning, chuckling, his cane clicking the floors. “Excuse me,” he said, “I’m a little slow.” All around him people smiled and stepped aside to let him pass. The disabled, I’d soon learn, especially those who use mobility equipment, draw attention to themselves. They’re surrounded by pitying patronizers, people who infantilize and play Good Samaritan—forcing smiles as they open doors, stepping aside to let them pass.

*     *     *

For two years I felt at home in twelve-step halls. Gone were the betrayals and ensuing distrust that pervaded the drug scene. Twelve-steppers, we held weekend dance parties and cookouts. We visited each other’s home for birthdays and holidays. But something felt off about the program. Trading one obsession for another: caffeine, cigarettes, sex, food, petty fights, clean time, the number of meetings one can attend in a week (some, somehow, boasted double digits). Chanting “keep coming back” to those who relapsed, but never guiding them toward professional help, the rehab and detox facilities many of us had briefly called home. And while we were encouraged to celebrate our “recovery,” we were also encouraged to hide our last names and to contain the contents of our meetings within the walls of twelve-step halls.

*     *     *

Two weeks after my brain broke, after an MRI showed that my cerebellum had atrophied, a neurologist showed me pictures of my brain, led me in painful, exhausting exercises, and said, with a grin, “You have spinocerebellar ataxia.” When I asked him to define the condition, he refused, still smiling, and ushered me from his office, leaving me to wander into dangerous emotional territory. Maybe he needed to refuse an explanation—having seen patients break down in his office, faking a tight-lipped smile helped him survive each workday. He was wrong, however, to guess my diagnosis before the genetics test results arrived, sending me home with no explanation of the disease, aside from this: my brain may continue to shrink; the only treatment was physical therapy.

*     *     *

I’d romanticized drum and bass since high school. Not sure why. Call it a visceral urge. Like television, hardcore, and drugs, drum and bass felt as necessary as food and water, as friends and family, and though I felt less connected to bass heads than to recovering addicts, climbing twelve-steps seemed a sluggish, senseless exercise when I entered the drum and bass scene. I was twenty-one, had drunk plenty in my teens, but never in a bar, and after two and a half years of listening to the same recovery stories in church basements and attics, and in stuffy twelve-step halls, furnished with soda bars and old video games, I needed this: hooting and bouncing, sloshing drinks in darkened nightclubs as DJs spun out deep bass lines over breakbeats, transitioning to warbling bass riffs layered over doom-laden samples. I managed not to die or go to jail—a common twelve-step caution (If you leave these halls…)—once the club closed and we convoyed to an old house near train tracks, where we danced as we chased pills with beer, sniffed powders, and filled our lungs with smoke, until daylight revealed our faces.

*     *     *

My brain shriveled. My knees buckled. I bought a cane. “Excuse me. I’m a little slow.”

*     *     *

A month after my brain broke, before I began physical therapy, before the lab sent inconclusive results of my genetics test, leaving me without a specific diagnosis, a cause for my shrunken cerebellum—doctors use the word “sporadic” (sporadic cerebellar ataxia) to name an unknown cause of cerebellar atrophy—I researched spinocerebellar ataxia and learned this: The disease is progressive, fatal. Genetic. On my way home I wondered who else in my family suffered from this disease. Who else developed epilepsy and blindness and lost motor skills until they died too young? Each time my eyes wiggled, each time my vision blurred, my hands shook, or pain shot through my back or chest, adding to the constant ache in my hands and feet, the soreness in my legs as if I’d been standing five, six hours at a time, I saw myself in a hospital bed, a death bed, attached to tubes, my neck supported in brace. Drool dangling from my lip.

*     *     *

Twelve-steppers, active addicts, bass heads—each subculture welcomed me into a realm that for various reasons was closed off, misunderstood, or shunned by society. Each required a special skill, a bank of knowledge, or a particular interest for entry. Each contained its own jargon, a unique set of rules. Its members were dedicated. Obsessed. Despite the pitfalls each subculture contained, each one offered the gift of community.

*     *     *

Two months after my brain broke, the first time I followed my physical therapist into the gym, filled with people who seemed unlike me because they were elderly, missing limbs, or overweight, I felt out of place. Any moment someone would tell me how much harder their lives were, and that I should come back when I needed fake limbs or a wheelchair, or when I was eligible for senior discounts. Fear dissipated as I worked through exercises in a gym with these others, all of us fighting our conditions. While walking on a treadmill, practicing tai chi, lifting tiny barbells, I began to feel united with those who all my life had seemed unlike me—the obese, the amputees, the senior citizens who smiled through pain as we hurtled toward uncertainty.

Bernard GrantBernard Grant is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is a Yates Fellow. He’s also received residency and fellowship support from The Anderson Center, the Jack Straw Cultural Center, Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Mineral School. He holds an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and his stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, New Delta Review, Stirring, and The Chicago Tribune. He’s the author of the nonfiction chapbook Puzzle Pieces (Paper Nautilus Press) and currently serves as associate essays editor at the Nervous Breakdown.

Hollow

I dig my fingers into the pockets of my jacket and tilt my face towards the sun. The sharp wind of fall stings my cheeks. I want to drink in the spaciousness of this place, disappear into the rust red canyon, become the shadows dancing on painted rock.

Behind me, there are voices belonging to people pointing cameras and fingers at the enormity that surrounds us. One of the voices belongs to my travel companion for the day, Mark the meteorologist. He’s made a point to stop every tourist we pass, asking them where they’re from and what trails they plan on taking while visiting the Grand Canyon.

We met on Couchsurfing a few weeks earlier, and although I didn’t end up staying with him, I took him up on his offer to take me on a hike. The canyon is his backyard; he knows it the way I know the hidden creeks and wide curves of the slow-moving river down the street from my duplex back in Florida.

“Germany?” I hear Mark ask another tourist.

“Austria!” the man bellows.

I inch closer to the rock’s edge, peering down at the layers of sediment stacked beneath my feet. A shard loosens and falls into the canyon, a tiny part of this massive whole.

“Would you like me to take your picture?” the meteorologist asks his new friend.

“Of course! And then I take one of you and your girlfriend!”

My heart cringes at the word. I feign temporary deafness, but Mark calls my name twice.

The meteorologist and I don’t correct the Austrian. Instead, we hand him our cameras, stand dutifully in front of the unfathomable view, and smile, arms dangling like dead fish at our sides. My smile is tight-lipped, my eyes squinting into the Arizona sun. I won’t bother checking the photo afterwards to make sure he’s taken a decent shot.

It’s not the Austrian’s fault. It’s not wrong to assume that two people visiting the Grand Canyon together would be lovers. How would he know that I only met Mark this morning, in the half-light of morning?

“Thanks,” I say to the Austrian, retrieving my camera from his bulky hands. I try to keep the sarcastic tilt out of my voice.

Back in the car, Mark drives so that I can take in the last of the views on our way out of the park.

“Halloween’s tomorrow,” he says.

“Mhm,” I say. “You going to dress up?”

He laughs. “I just pass out candy to the kids.”

On the steering wheel, his left hand is hairless and naked.

“Are you a vegetarian?” Mark asks.

“Nope,” I say, snapping another picture of the view outside my windowcanyons within canyons. “Why do you ask?”

“I shot my first elk of the season, and I was wondering if you wanted to come over tomorrow night for some elk stew.”

Although my first instinct is to always say yes to venison, I pause.

“I’ll have to see what my friend has planned for Halloween.” How is Mark to know that Cait, the friend I came to the conference with, is leaving tonight?

The whole drive down from the canyon, I go back and forth about the elk stew. You should go, I think. He’s nice enough to show you all over the Grand Canyon, and now he’s inviting you over for dinner. Why not? You don’t have anything else planned.

But the question tugs at me: What’s the point? This is not my town, not my time zone. Kissing men who live in far-off places has lost its appeal over the years.

Later that night, I text him my thanks and an apology. It was a beautiful trip to the canyon. Thanks for being such a great guide! My friend already had Halloween plans so I’ll have to take a rain check on the elk stew.

The next morning, I spy a flyer in the bathroom of a coffee shopa brass band from New Orleans playing a Halloween show at a venue nearby. I buy a single ticket and wait until eight p.m. to apply a single coat of red lipstick.

Walking to the show, I push my hands into my jacket pocket and clutch my key between my fingers; I am a stranger to this city, and I take shadows for bodies waiting to pounce. The streets are dark, and shouts of laughter echo between buildings. I wonder if Mark still made the elk stew, and if he’s eating it alone in his warm house. How many children have come to his door, asking for chocolate and gummy worms in their cheerleader costumes and mummified getups? Beneath my jacket, I am dressed in all black. I think of what I will tell people if they ask about my costume, but I don’t speak to a soul all night.

Carmella de los Angeles GuiolCarmella de los Angeles Guiol is a Florida-based gardener, dancer, adventurer, photographer, and writer. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review, The Toast, BUST, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Thought Catalog, The Normal School, Slag Glass City, Kudzu House, Tahoma Literary Review, The Manifest-Station, and elsewhere. She is the 2016 recipient of Crab Orchard Review’s Charles Johnson Award for fiction. You can often find her working in the garden or kayaking the Hillsborough River, but you can always find her writing at www.therestlesswriter.com.

Nipple Gazing

Nineties Girlhood

No one ever praised me for being smart, only for being good. Good meant pretty and quiet, pressed like a flower in the middle of a bell curve. The first time I thought about becoming an adult had nothing to do with ambition but with a yearning to be beautiful. Baywatch was playing on the television. I asked my mother when my breasts would look like the actress’s. She told me to pray, that women in our family were flat unless they got fat, but then it didn’t matter. I added getting fat to my mental list of life’s worst possible outcomes.

In sixth grade my best friend Monica grew breasts. At a sleepover, she showed them to me, a set of full, pale wonders. I don’t remember nipples. She was like a mannequin, plastic yet somehow organic, important yet lacking function. She asked me if I wanted to touch them. More than anything. I averted my eyes and whispered, “No.”

Millennial Adolescence

I wore padded bras that promised both to lift and enhance. When a clumsy-fingered boy couldn’t undo the Wonderbra’s clasp, he pulled the straps and padded cups down so that he could squeeze and twist my breasts like stress balls.

I thought of Monica. If I’d had the courage, I would’ve said, “Yes.” Stood close enough to catch the lavender scent of her soap and using the tips of my fingers, I’d trace each curve and dent. Cupping her breast with great tenderness, I would’ve treated them like such delicate, special things, art to behold, not a battlefield to conquer.

In a record store, I discovered Easter. The album cover showed a girl whose arm stretched overhead revealing a swatch of pit hair. A dirty camisole caressed her small braless form. I bought the record to know more about the girl. Patti Smith’s music was messy, raw and thick enough to swallow, to carry in the gut of your soul. I quit wearing bras and cut my hair short. I relished the thrill of being mistaken for a boy. Boys didn’t have to be pretty or good. They just had to be.

Grownup  

After years of barista and thrift-store jobs, I got a grownup gig at an office full of button-ups and sensible heels. I grew out my hair and wore bras. No longer sure who I was, I scrambled to be the person I figured I should be. One by one my friends got married, moved away, and I felt left behind, terminally lonely. So I married a man whom I wasn’t sure I loved because he’d asked, because I needed to check off boxes. First comes marriage and then comes baby. Right?

Pregnancy made my boobs swell three sizes. My areolas transformed from pink wafers to bumpy brown Ritz. The new shade and shape disgusted me. It was hard to reconcile my feminist beliefs with popular aesthetics. Gumdrop nipples were the stuff of nude paintings, of tasteful porn. My sole association with dark, large nipples came from a long-ago overheard conversation.

That bitch had the nastiest nips.  Looked like a couple of salami slices!

I was relieved that my nipples could not accurately be compared to lunchmeat. Still, the remark clung to me burr-like for well over a decade until I adopted the prejudice as my own.

I relished the thrill of being mistaken for a boy. Boys didn’t have to be pretty or good. They just had to be.

I wondered if I’d ever be happy with my breasts again. It felt like a shallow thought for a new mother. Instead of evaluating shades of areola, wasn’t I supposed to be in a rocking chair, nursing serenely? At those most maternal moments, I was not peaceful; I wore a burp rag and a grimace. No one warned me of the throbbing ache brought by milk surging in, the skin pulling taut, and forging zebra stripes. Whenever my starving infant latched, I swallowed gasps of pain and squeezed my eyes shut, willing the ache to wash over me. I wished to be numb. The lactation consultant provided pamphlets, encouragement, and a rush of guilt when I’d brought up the f-word, formula. Breast is best! Infections came. I dreaded nursing. Where was the blissful bonding? I was struggling with one of the most basic maternal duties.

When I was pregnant I read all the books, ate folic acid, and avoided soft cheeses. I gave birth naturally in a Jacuzzi tub. I was determined to be a perfect mother. Now that the baby was here, I was exhausted; all my lofty ideals seemed ridiculous. My husband and I fought. He got angry, threw things. Slammed the door, disappeared for hours. I couldn’t leave, I had a baby. My body was weak, deflated, and I no longer felt I belonged in it. Purple pustules blistered the undersides of my breasts. I ignored them, figuring that like coarse hairs curling from an areola the pimples were another one of those secrets women hid.

When my left breast morphed into a lobster shell and a fever came, I went to the hospital. At three a.m. a doctor told me I had MRSA. I nodded. I didn’t understand, but I’d Google it later. The doctor said they’d have to act fast before the infection entered the bloodstream. They’d scheduled an emergency surgery. I nodded again. Alone in my hospital room, I read about MRSA. Sepsis. Death. I thought about my five-week-old daughter. It was my first time being away from her for more than a moment. I didn’t sleep; I couldn’t shake the thought of who would tell my sweet girl about periods if I died. At a gut level, I knew my husband wouldn’t. How could I trust him to raise my daughter?

As they wheeled me off to surgery, I stared up at the ceiling tiles and cried. I’d always thought mothers were brave and dignified. My eyes were swollen, and snot dripped from my nose. Before sliding into the cocoon of anesthesia I called my husband. No answer. Texted him that I was afraid. No answer. I decided I’d leave him.

I woke up struggling for breath with my chest wrapped tight, bound into androgyny. Grief clawed up my throat. I would never be one of those hippie mothers fearlessly breastfeeding in public under some flowering tree. Until that moment, I didn’t realize that was what I had wanted. Under the bandages my breasts strained to fill with milk, swelling like a choked hose.

The changing of surgical dressing was a magician’s trick, ribbons of gauze pulled from inside me like endless scarves. Milk pooled in the wound, blood dripped from my nipple. A golf ball-sized hole revealed everything from crust to inner core: reds, pinks, whites and yellows, all meat.

Matriarch

It took three months for the wound to close. The resulting scar resting on my nipple resembled a pirate’s hook. For a long while, my breasts were a stranger’s with their ripples of raised skin and that crescent scar. Almost a year dripped by before I stopped hating those indented streaks and started thinking of them as the flood marks of my history. Another year would pass before I learned to treat my body with tenderness, and demand that others do the same.

My daughter is four. We live in the Sonoran desert where she runs feral, wild curls racing down her bare back. One day we’ll go on a mother-daughter hike and I’ll tell her of the feats and wonders that her body is capable of. I’ll buy her a bra. Teach her how to press circular motions and check for the cancer that curses her genes. But that can wait.

For now, I give her three truths. We are more than our bodies. I’ll always love you. You are enough.

L.L. MadridL.L. Madrid lives in Tucson where the rain smells like creosote. She resides with her daughter and an antisocial cat. When she’s not writing for places like Gamut, Jersey Devil Press, and Spirit’s Tincture, she’s busy reading for and editing a peculiar little journal called Speculative 66. Links to L.L. Madrid’s works can be found at http://llmadrid.weebly.com/.

Falling—A Mothering (Or, a Tale of Postpartum Depression)

Leaves fluttering down on the grave in the fall, and her ashes. And I’m lying, it wasn’t fall, it was February. But the leaves were real. And it felt like she was supposed to die in the fall. Maybe I read that in a book, saw it in a movie. A girl who goes on a journey every fall because that’s when her mom died. Do you know that story? But it wasn’t fall, it was February and there was no crisp autumn sky or warm yellow light. The leaves were brown, like ashes, like skeletons gone brittle, like the webbing of vein when the leaf has rotted away and there was snow on the ground and we wiped away the snow, the brittle skeleton leaves, and underneath was the name of my nephew, his birthdeathdate in stone, and her ashes fell into the wet cracks and stuck.

*     *     *

Kian, he is three and he’s running down the trail littered in yellow leaves, hopping, with his blue cargo pants down around his ankles, the elastic waistband torn. The air is colder than I expected, it’s biting and his legs reddening and his smile wide and thick like it could swallow me—me, my body weakened still from years of overuse of overgiving of single motherhood, but it’s strengthening now and I feel my heart beat, throw blood to my fingers, cold, and toes, feel muscles flex and grab and lift him, his small tight body in the cold air and the smell of fall, of crisp, of broken, of decay, of getting ready to die—and his blood pump-pumps into his little red legs and his body dances wild in my arms.

*     *     *

I fell off the front porch and tore my pants, it wasn’t autumn, it was summer, end of summer, it was fall and I was falling. There is ground, drying grass, falling toward a face. Blood on orange linen, peer inside the torn cloth and a body, torn, starts to rebuild. The smell of alcohol is like an image, or a filter, glazing over a hazy moon. Moon bleeding, seeping, white, blue black gray sky. Pain colors over, red is blue is black is orange is torn.

*     *     *

I have written this many times and every time I do the mouth becomes bigger, so by now it is a gaping hole swallowing her chin and some of the universe with it. It is no longer a jaw slung slack, teeth and tongue opened inside; now it is a pit black circle, escaping even the shape of a circle; a passage not to her lungs and the breath contained there (not much longer), a tunnel not leading into her (cancer-spackled) body, but a bridge to nowhere to nothingness to endless open atmosphere-less space. But it was—before I wrote and remembered it too many times—a mouth after all. It was a jaw released by sleep and morphine from any tension or sense of placement or self. A jaw they would later crack closed to put her in the coffin because I don’t think anyone could stomach an openmouthed corpse. There is no gentle way to say it. It was, after all, a tunnel that led to her waterlogged lungs, where the breath was, for its final time, exiting.

It was a mouth, after all. A mother’s mouth. Her mouth. The first mouth that touched you, after all. That breathed life and breath into yours. That licked away the milky trails that marked your passage. That gave you sound before you were even part of this world that spoke you into being.

*     *     *

My body is a body that is cleaved. My body is a body that, I wonder, is it turned inside out? My body is a body in water. The passage that I am is neither open nor closed. Neither whole nor hole. Water passes from within and without, blood tendrils in the water, with shit and piss and amniotic fluid and leaking milk and up curls the blue bubble-wrapped cord linking me to the other side before death but after, what? And on the other end of the cord is Kian, though he is pre-name, he is blue water flesh fish, he is alien and covered in soft fur and he is eyeballs creaking open to brown blue fuzz more than color, not-color, not-name, not yet yelled into being I have not yet spoke him not yet I am calling up sound from the fur of my belly that I moaned just moments before when I cleaved and my cunt cracked the world and out from the watery depths pushed out, carved out, called out. Child. Stranger. Boy.

With my heart beat beating blood into me into him into us, with the blood tearing out of the passage of me as I tear, as the bear wrapped in fur coiled up in my belly bleats a drum-sound so ancient that the sounds—the ones that rip through from the other side to this one with a life in their teeth—get up on all fours up inside of me and begin their growl and ready their claws—he, who isn’t yet even he, is born.

*     *     *

There is a me I don’t know, even though I remember her, standing on the edge of a subway platform. There is a train, rattling in a dark tunnel, yellow lights and faces streaking by. Vision, soaked in red wine, the haze of liquor, the haze of sad, of alone. The me I don’t know is standing, peering down into the abyss of subway tracks. There is track, there is train, there is what if. Just that. Just, what if. Just, that wouldn’t be so hard.

*     *     *

Before there was death. There was breath. Before there was breath. There was cancer. Before cancer there was mother.

Mother was skin and breast and mouth. Mother was milk was sustenance was name. Mother was angry. Mother was sad. Mother was sorrow webbed like veinery around a heart, snaked by briar, beating quiet and soft inside. Hardly a whisper. Mother was unspoken sound.

She died in fall. She died in February. She died before I was born.

*     *     *

What you were never. Maybe never ever. Going to write. Were those nights you wanted. To throw. Him. Against the wall. There is no gentle way to say this. Were those nights that the purring of the blood beating through his body was like sirens in the dark, that those bluebrown eyes peeling open and wide without sleep were like nails against your skin, that the long imagined rope of tomorrow and tomorrow like this trailing out into the distance of infinite future was more. More. Than you could. Bear.

And it doesn’t even matter that I never did. The most monstrous parts of myself, dripping in shame like lighter fluid. Because shame is beautiful fuel to depression.

*     *     *

Her death. But that’s not where the depression came from. It’s the heavy blanket of my life and her life and lives stretched out behind us for miles and miles, skins and bones we tug and trip over as we walk. (Her abusive father, her War, her life as an immigrant.) (Her yelling, her anger, her panic.)

This is not it either. This is not what I was trying to say. What I’m trying to say is that she loved me—but her depression/anxiety lay over my childhood, a heavy blanket blanking out the sun, laying over the beats of my heart until I couldn’t hear it anymore. What else is there to say? I have forgiven her now. I have mostly forgotten her now. She wasn’t bad. She was Mother, she was Love. I fear my son will resent me no matter what I do.

Sometimes one foot in front of the other is too much to move.

*     *     *

There are soggy tears that fill his bones, softening them like papier-mâché and I think how can he ever grow strong and tall and how have I failed him.

Because I promised you that I wouldn’t give this to you. This heavy heart beating, clouds rolling filling cobwebs in my brain. Because I promised that I would not give you this, our family lineage, that trails back through winding capillaries like gray country roads, that fires across rusty synapses and sits coiled in the depths of DNA. The promise I could not keep for you. All I ever wanted to give you. And here am I, drowning in dampened cotton web skies praying that I could keep this from you.

*     *     *

Sometimes life is just a pause. An in-breath. A space between the drops of rain.

*     *     *

I wonder what the swallowed sky is and where I can find it and put it and give it to you in a bow-tied box like I always always promised. No one told me that joy is something you have to fight for, have to claw your way to through flesh and sinews and roiling clouds.

I have been running, now, from it, from the fuzziness and fog of it, like a poison mushroom cloud and now I have to turn, again, and claw my fucking way through.

*     *     *

I lift him, skyward, and feel his heart in beats and pauses against my skull. I feel blood, thick as life, down the shoots of my limbs, as his body dances wild in my arms.

*     *     *

I open my mouth, wide, wider than the infinite night and nothingness. In moanscream in bearbleat in languageless sound: I call you.

Falling. We tear through.


Courtney E. MorganCourtney E. Morgan received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she has also taught creative writing. Her collection of stories, The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman, was a semifinalist for the FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest and is forthcoming from FC2 Press in Spring 2017. She is managing editor of The Thought Erotic journal on sexuality and gender. She lives in Denver with her son. www.CourtneyEMorgan.com.

When a Neighbor Dies

When I get home from my morning run, there are two police officers hanging around my driveway. They look like babies, plump skin and short bangs under their caps. Barely in their twenties. They stand under our ancient weeping cherry tree, and scant snowflakes flutter down between the tired skeleton branches. It’s not cold enough to see our breath.

“Are you here for this house?” I ask, a bit incredulous, pointing up our driveway.

One of the officers shakes his head.

“That one,” he says. Next door.

A more senior officer stands at the neighbors’ side entrance, and I see Mrs. J. behind the screen, her hair choppy, flyaway. She’s in her gray sweats.

I shower and make my coffee, wondering about what might be going on. When I sit down at my desk, I see that a white van has pulled up in front of our house. I text my husband.

The medical examiner just showed up.

That can’t be good, he texts back.

I wait for friends or colleagues to ring the front doorbell, to envelop Mrs. J. in a hug, perhaps the first time they will have ever physically touched each other.

Our neighbors are older, but not old. Mrs. J. might be sixty. She travels a lot for work. I overlap with her when we garden, but she’s got a sharp edge, exudes weariness. Mr. J., an unfit man in his early seventies, is more acerbic, off-putting. He parks his worn pickup truck in front of our house, the bumper plastered in NRA stickers. Our days are punctuated by his loud voice calling sternly to his hunting dogs or hacking out a dry cough. When my husband went over once to help him with his printer in their basement, I pictured the walls covered in rifles or shot guns and kept an eye on the clock to see how long they’d been down there together. We’re in an unfinished, uncomfortable discussion with Mr. J. about whether he can paint their side of our fence, and it makes me glad that it’s now December and no one’s wanting to paint anything for at least another four months.

Two guys open the back of the van and pop out a gurney, its spindly wheels dropping to the street. They disappear up the walkway, and I keep guard out my window like a meddling Parisian concierge. It’s impossible to work. The shorthaired cat sleeps by the heater vent behind my desk, the longhaired cat stalks something outside in the front lawn; the sky above all of us is city-gray. The medical examiner team emerges on the walkway.

They have to carry the gurney carefully over the brick steps. Their burden: a thick plastic body bag zipped and belted to the stretcher. Its contents are large, bulky. Man-like. Past the walkway, the wheels drop, and the men roll out to the street. Through the leggy branches of the weeping cherry, I watch them load the gurney into the back of the van. The doors snap shut. Several minutes after the van drives away, the police cars disappear, too. Then it’s quiet out my study window.

I wait for activity. For the adult daughter who lives nearby to arrive, skid into a parking spot, and run up the walkway with her blond hair covering her face and her short-legged blond dog yipping at her heels. I wait for friends or colleagues to ring the front doorbell, to envelop Mrs. J. in a hug, perhaps the first time they will have ever physically touched each other. But the street is silent.

In the afternoon, Mrs. J. leaves on an errand. Our two kids come home from school, and I tell them the shocking news that Mr. J. probably died. We don’t know our neighbors well, nor do we have warm feelings about them, but we see them every day. We are disturbed by the turn of events. It is devastating to imagine losing a spouse.

I phone my in-laws.

“What do I do? When should I stop by?”

“As soon as possible,” my mother-in-law tells me.

So I draft a vague card and deliver it before dinner.

Dear Mrs. J., We are so sorry for what has happened. Please let us know if there is anything we can do for you during this difficult time.

I include our phone number because I’m not sure she has it.

Mrs. J. answers the door in her sweats, rubber cleaning gloves up to her elbows, a cell phone between her shoulder and ear. I hand the card to her, and she closes the door.

We have a neighborhood email list, and I decide it’s my duty to inform the street of Mr. J.’s passing.

“But you don’t know that he actually died,” my husband says.

“I saw a body,” I say. Isn’t a body irrevocable evidence? It’s too awful that no one has stopped by—not even their daughter—to support Mrs. J. There is drama on the street, and I feel information needs to be disseminated. I craft the email.

Dear Neighbors, I wanted to share the sad news that Mr. J. died this morning.

I’m not oblivious to my own preoccupation with what has happened next door, self-indulgent sympathy for a couple I have mostly bad feelings about.

I dislike(d) Mr. J. immensely. We’ve overheard wicked, abusive yelling matches between Mr. J. and his daughter, one time with his wife. His dogs bark furiously at us whenever we are in our backyard; we can’t let the kids retrieve their basketball because we worry for their safety with those dogs. I blame both Mr. and Mrs. J. for the used syringes and cigarette butts we sometimes find on our side of the fence, and wish they had more control over their adult daughter and what she does at their house. The best news to our being homeowners would be that the Js. are moving away.

But there’s no other way to say it: the sad news. Death on a gray winter day is sad. And, equally compelling, is the proximity of tragedy. I’m not oblivious to my own preoccupation with what has happened next door, self-indulgent sympathy for a couple I have mostly bad feelings about.

My husband’s caution tickles my send finger. I decide to wait to publicize the news until I’ve talked with Mrs. J. in person.

The next day, there is no sign of her, no sign of the daughter, no sign of any activity. The dogs are silent. I look at the yellow light from a bedroom, what in most homes would exude warmth now speaks of only loneliness to me. The cold humidity pushes against our two houses. I text Mrs. J.

Hi Mrs. J. I will drop off dinner for you tonight. I’ll bring it by around 6:00. It will be packaged so you can put it right in the freezer if you don’t want to eat it today.

I see a welcomed closure, for myself. I will deliver the food. If I don’t make direct contact with Mrs. J. tonight, at least I will have fulfilled my neighborly duty of expressing sympathy and providing food and offers of support. I don’t look forward to listening to her tell me the details of her loss, but there is no way to avoid it when our two side doors look right at each other and we tend to pick the same sunny days to weed. At least the fence painting disagreement with her husband can be put to bed.

It rains, and I cook curried cream of chicken soup to memories of the Amadeus cinematic funeral scene. I bake cranberry nut bread. I shop for firm grapes and make a last-minute decision to include two small squares of dark chocolate, gourmet and indulgent. Everything fits in a few disposable Tupperware and some layers of aluminum foil. I am particularly attuned to portioning small sizes for Mrs. J., what I entertain as a “widow’s dinner.” I pack it all in a plastic grocery bag.

I leave the kids to their homework and ring Mrs. J.’s door. The dogs are back. They bark murderously from the inside, and bells jingle as someone undoes the locks.

Mr. J. answers the door.

He stands there in front of me, filling the doorframe. I hadn’t remembered him being such a large person, and his presence looms over me like an indictment. The day before, I might have seen him wheeled out of the house by the county medical examiners, but tonight he stands at the threshold of his house while I hold a plastic bag with dinner for his widowed wife.

“Hi. Mr. J.,” I say, feeling ridiculous about everything that’s gone through my head during the past thirty-six hours. Confused. And also disappointed. “Um.”

Mrs. J. appears behind her husband. Neither of them is smiling, but then they never were before, either.

“Hello,” she says.

“Hi. Sorry.” Does my script from when I thought Mr. J. had died still apply? “I saw the police here yesterday. Also, the medical examiner.” They look at each other, raise their eyebrows. The dogs smash their muzzles against the screen, frantic, trying to get to me. “I don’t know what happened. I thought you could use—some help.” I hold up the small—so small—bag of food. “I made you a few things to eat, just a little something. Very little. I’m not sure it will feed,” and I make eye contact with Mr. J., “everyone.”

They look at each other again.

“Should we tell her?” Mrs. J. asks her husband.

“I don’t care. But do it outside,” Mr. J. says, and yells at the dogs to get back while Mrs. J. slips out. She raises her arms like, what can she do?

The day before, I might have seen him wheeled out of the house by the county medical examiners, but tonight he stands at the threshold of his house while I hold a plastic bag with dinner for his widowed wife.

We step over to the bushes that my husband and I planted near the property line the first year we moved in to block our view of Mr. J.’s marathon television-watching. It’s the first time I’ve noticed translucent red berries tucked into the branches, although in the evening light they look blue. Mr. J. closes the door, disappears.

“Oh, I don’t need to know anything, really,” I say, trying to convey both concern and disinterest. She takes a noisy breath.

“Our daughter’s awful boyfriend overdosed here last night. She was going to break up with him…. But she never wanted this.”

I picture the stuffed body bag. A large man. The colorless, cold body first of Mr. J. with his square frame and glittering pokes of silver facial stubble, his pockmarked cheeks and irritated frown, and then not Mr. J. A man we’ve never met. Never seen, presumably much younger, younger than me.

“Of course not,” I say. The Js.’ porch lights are boxy and dim. I can smell a wood burning fire from their chimney, a smell that always makes me think of my grandparents, and skiing. On dark winter nights, I am grateful for that smell.

“She’s beside herself. I have to leave town for a few days, but Mr. J. will be at home with her.”

I have to fight myself from saying, If there’s anything I can do to help. I hand the food to her.

“It’s very small,” I say. “Honestly,” and I hide my mouth like I’m telling a secret, “we were worried it was Mr. J.”

She laughs out loud. Sometimes, she does share a giant laugh with our kids.

“No, no.” Mrs. J. shakes her head. “Nope.” She thanks me for the food, says Mr. J. and their daughter will save it for lunch the next day, and we retreat to our separate houses.

“Thank god I didn’t send that email,” I say to my husband after telling him that Mr. J. is, in fact, still alive. “Can you imagine?”

“I actually was kind of glad he had died,” my husband says.

It’s true. Since we aren’t able to break up with our neighbors, death would have been our lucky out. Instead, we have the blue lights of their television to flicker outside our windows all winter, and several contentious fence-painting discussions lined up for when the first crocuses peek out of the ground. I set the table for chicken soup and cranberry nut bread. It will feed the four of us.

Milena NigamMilena Nigam is a 2016 fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, The Fourth River, Compose Journal, and Halfway Down the Stairs. For many years, Milena worked as a research psychologist and as the director of a non-profit evaluation group. She has recently finished a collection of short stories.

Are We There Yet?

I imagine my father as a small boy, sitting on stone steps. Chin in hand, he glares at the dry towel and swim trunks he’s thrown beside him. The façade of the Hayward Plunge, a public swimming pool near his Oakland, California home, stands in harsh rebuke. How dare you, it seems to say, Chinese aren’t allowed. Not until the end of the month. An hour earlier he’d tried to push his way in with his crowd of friends—all white friends from Cleveland Elementary—but was pulled aside. Not you, they’d told him, pointing at the door. Even if he had told them that he was a fourth-generation American—the truth—it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Later he would know that “Yellow Day” was the next to last day of the month. The last day of the month was “Black Day.” When the last black swimmer exited The Plunge, the pool was drained and scrubbed, then refilled with freshly chlorinated water, ready for a month of “White Days.”

His friends should be done in an hour, maybe two. Shading his eyes from the California sun, he studies the traffic along Mission Boulevard. There’s a brand new 1940 model Cadillac just like his father’s. There’s the bus for the Cleveland Heights neighborhood, the route they need to take home. He memorizes the bus numbers that stop here. After three Cleveland Heights buses pass, he starts to sweat, black hair hot to the touch.

When his friends finally emerge—wet hair combed into blonde and brunette rooster-tails, chlorine smell in the damp of their towels, loud boasts about who can hold his breath the longest—he brushes off his pants and falls in line. When the bus arrives, he sits silent on the ride back to their neighborhood.

*     *     *

As the mellow strains of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” wafted from my clock radio—always tuned to KFRC, the Bay Area’s rock station—I closed my bedroom door and pushed aside the heap of dresses on my bed. I’m such a dork, I thought, I’ve got nothing to wear to my first high school dance! I fingered a homemade white polyester number, the one with the zipper that I’d accidentally sewed shut, snipped open, and resewed three times that summer. Mom had helped me pick the pattern, its modest V-neckline and long puffy sleeves perfect for church. And that was the best of the lot. All my other dresses—A-lines, shirtwaists, and shapeless shifts—had hems at the knee, the proper length for the Lutheran parochial school which, in 1969, I’d just graduated from.

When the last black swimmer exited The Plunge, the pool was drained and scrubbed, then refilled with freshly chlorinated water, ready for a month of “White Days.”

My best option—indeed, my only option—was the green-and-cream herringbone wool jumper with a high-necked Victorian blouse I’d just received for my thirteenth birthday. The deep U of the jumper dipped beneath my bustline, accentuating my small breasts. Its hemline struck mid-thigh, six inches above the knee. Although the blouse and jumper were school clothes, they were far more fashionable than anything else in my closet. I pulled on my blouse and jumper, rolling up my slip so it wouldn’t hang below the hemline. Instead of cabled knee socks, I slid on cream-colored fishnet tights, carefully leaving three inches at the toes and folding them under before sliding on my boots. I hated when my toes got strangled in the fishnet holes.

Dad looked up from his medical journal, peering at me through thick black-rimmed glasses as my heels clicked across our family room’s wood parquet floor. He took it all in: the faintest blue eyeshadow, the thread of eyeliner behind my black cat-eye glasses. The slight curl at the bottom of my waist-length hair. The cream-colored fishnets tucked into white go-go boots.

“Where are you going?” he barked, his crew-cut as severe as his expression. His face held no hint of a smile.

I recoiled at the unexpected heat in his voice. I tried to be nonchalant, enunciating clearly around the new metal braces on my teeth, but my voice trembled. “Umm… there’s a dance tonight. It’s Friday.”

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” His face was still unreadable, but there was an edge I couldn’t quite name.

Because I just met some new friends and they’re counting on me, I wanted to say. I swelled with pride. Two weeks into my freshman year, I’d already found a group of girls I could look for at “our spot” on the lawn at lunchtime. With them, it was easy to fit in. They’d just graduated from Holy Ghost; I’d graduated from Prince of Peace. We shared the parochial cloak of penance and guilt. From them I got a quick lesson on Catholic strictures: school uniforms, cruel nuns, and Stations of the Cross. I told them about my seventh grade teacher, mimed how he’d hurl erasers at misbehaving students. We all laughed with relief that those days were over.

I was especially glad of their attention. For five years, from fourth through eighth grade, I’d been virtually friendless, unexpected fallout from our move to the milk-white California Bay Area suburbs. Mom insisted that my brother and I attend a Lutheran parochial school, as she had years ago in Oakland. Not only were we the only minorities in a sea of Germans, we were also forever the “new” kids. I was an impossible interloper, an awkward Chinese girl with buck teeth and turquoise cat-eye glasses, already a year and a half younger than my fourth grade classmates when word got out that they wanted to skip me another grade. No one invited me over. Mom shrugged, saying only, “Well, maybe it’s your fault you don’t have any friends.”

But now everything could change. Instead of thirteen kids, there were over 500 in my freshman class. I was ready to remake myself, I had something to prove. No one knew I was so young. I steadied myself; I wasn’t used to defying Dad.

“Because I thought it’d be fun! I haven’t been to a dance before.” Before he could object, I assured him, “Oh, and I’m getting a ride there and back, so that’s taken care of.” I was proud that I’d thought ahead. I knew better than to inconvenience him or Mom with my plans.

Dad’s shoulders slumped as he shook his head. But why? Was he upset that he wasn’t going to win this argument? Was he distressed at my new assertiveness? Did he think I was too young to be out with boys?

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” he repeated, but now his tone had turned bitter. What he said next shocked me. “Because no white boy is going to ask you to dance.”

*     *     *

Almost forty years later, as I readied my late parents’ house for sale, I came across a thick tattered file marked, in my mother’s hand, simply “Castlewood.” An odd unease fluttered in my chest. Castlewood Country Club, originally built as a residence for the Hearst family in the dry heat of the Pleasanton foothills, was at that time the premier country club in the East Bay, boasting two golf courses and two clubhouses. My parents had joined the club in 1970; my wedding reception was held there in 1984.

But there was something wrong, the stink of a story passed down. Mom must have told me, because Dad wouldn’t have. He could pretend—and hope—that none of life’s disappointments would touch me, if only he could keep them to himself. But his war with Castlewood, and with himself, remained a scourge.

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” he repeated. “Because no white boy is going to ask you to dance.”

When we moved to California in 1964, Dad took up golf. At first my brother and I laughed—wasn’t golf an old man’s sport? But for Dad, a young doctor with a new private practice, it became a vital link. Not only was it a personal challenge, it was the perfect vehicle to socialize with colleagues. The theory was simple: if you like someone, you’ll refer work to them. Businessmen and businesswomen have used this tactic—golf, Rotary, community fundraisers—for years.

By 1966, Dad was playing golf twice a week. Most Sunday mornings he’d be on the links with his doctor friends, returning home tired and happy, tan lines on his arms. He’d mix himself a drink and press himself into his easy chair. Other times he was more circumspect. Four hours on a golf course told you much about a man. “I won’t play with him again,” Dad said one afternoon. “He cheats. And if you cheat at golf, you cheat at everything.”

Often Dad was invited to Castlewood Country Club, rounding out a foursome of doctors. But there was a hitch: as a guest there wasn’t a way to reciprocate. “Your money’s no good here,” his friends would joke, reaching for the bar bill, the lunch bill, the greens fees silently slipped onto their tabs. Dad felt uncomfortable, used to paying his own way and more. His friends enthusiastically sponsored him, so he applied for membership.

Castlewood turned him down. The day it happened, Mom took me aside. “He was blackballed,” she whispered.

Blackballed. Two years later, when I defied our Lutheran-Missouri Synod pastor and joined the Rainbow Girls, a Masonic youth organization, I finally understood the term. We cast secret ballots. When a prospective member’s name was called, one by one we’d silently file past a small wooden box where we’d pick a white ball for yes, a black ball for no, roll it down the box’s chute, hear it land with a dull thud. After everyone had voted, our leader, our Worthy Advisor, would pull out a little drawer at the bottom of the box and could immediately see if the vote was unanimous. Any black ball was grounds for rejection.

Dad was stunned and humiliated. His friends were outraged. In the file marked “Castlewood” I found letters they wrote, signed by dozens of colleagues, asking the club to reverse its decision. He’s a stalwart member of the community, they wrote. He’s of the highest moral character. There is no reason to exclude him from the Castlewood community.

The club turned him down again.

When I looked at the date on the Castlewood letterhead, I felt a chill. Dad had received his second denial in September 1969, days before my high school dance.

*     *     *

In the end, Dad was right. No one asked me to dance.

In a turn of poetic justice, the Castlewood Clubhouse, the gracious Hacienda built by Phoebe Hearst, had burned to the ground on August 24, 1969. Dad’s rejection letter had slipped out quietly just before the flames began.

*     *     *

Six months later, in early 1970, Castlewood sent Dad an invitation. “Please join our club,” they said. “It’s the premier golf course in the area.” Dad was furious. “No way,” he declared.

I can see Mom now, sitting at the kitchen table, smoke curling from the cigarette in her outstretched fingers. How to approach this? On the one hand, being members of a premier country club would be the culmination of a dream for Dad and her. Isn’t that the height of assimilation? Also, they’d be paving another inroad for the Chinese community, setting a precedent, making it easier for the next family. Two strokes for pragmatism over idealism. But on the other hand, isn’t the club just using them to help rebuild the clubhouse? Bringing them on as members, and then slapping them with a capital assessment? It was so transparent—the “I’ll be your best friend if…” bribe. But who wants to be part of a club that rejected them twice?

Mom finally decided, the voice of reason. “You like the course. Your friends play there,” she told Dad, citing the two most salient points in her favor. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”

*     *     *

Why join a club that rejected you twice? Nowadays, people don’t get it. Even my twenty-four-year-old son, Bryce.

In the warm light of our Seattle kitchen, Bryce, arms folded over his chest, grimaces. Absurdly, a huge cow face is visible on his thrift store T-shirt, its bucolic stare in stark contrast to Bryce, whose eyes darken. He leans against the counter, now cleared of dinner dishes, although the familiar scent of black bean prawns in lobster sauce hangs in the air. He tucks a shoulder length strand of reddish-brown hair behind his ear. Folds his arms closed again.

“How could Goong-Goong do that? Doesn’t he have any pride?” I’m glad that my father, long gone, can’t hear this accusation. Pride—of his heritage, of his integrity—was something Dad had in spades.

I try to explain using my mother’s reasoning, and at first it sounds hopelessly quaint. Bryce shakes his head, regards his tattered sneakers, and it’s obvious he’s not buying it. In 2016, what inroads do Chinese still have to make?

Why join a club that rejected you twice? Nowadays, people don’t get it.

He doesn’t get that in 1969 America, any progress toward acceptance was seen as a victory.

What could possibly justify my parents’ decision? Bryce and I posit circumstances. What if those who blackballed Dad were outed as racist, and enough other members banded together to offer Dad a membership?

“Okay,” he says evenly, “but those people will still be around, snubbing him.”

“But they lost. And he doesn’t need them, he has his own friends. Goong-Goong’s essentially saying, ‘I made it, I’m here.’ By joining, he’s sort of shoving it in their faces.”

His mood brightens as he nods, a sly grin—just like my father’s—rimming his lips. “Yeah, kind of an ‘up yours!’” Bryce eases up his six-foot two-inch frame and reaches into the refrigerator for the carton of guava juice that I know is his favorite. As he pours a glass, he turns thoughtful. “And if they saw him hanging out with his white doctor friends, maybe they’d be less apt to see him as ‘other.’”

This is our point of mutuality, where I know we have to come. At this age, defiance becomes him, the cloak of impermeability between young adulthood’s earnest twenties and realist thirties. Although he doesn’t know it yet, the diffusion of layers is gradual and, in most cases, silent. When I crossed the Rubicon to adulthood, did the ends suddenly justify the means?

I’m reminded of what my brother recently revealed to me—When you wanted to join the Rainbow Girls, Dad called his Mason friends and made sure you wouldn’t get blackballed. Dad, behind the scenes, making sure I wouldn’t suffer the humiliation that he faced. Trying to make it easier for me and the following generations, and letting us think we did it on our own.

But in today’s modern era, there’s still a question in the back of my mind: Would I press to join a club, an organization, perhaps even an executive team, that’s rejected me twice? Would I be able to rationalize it away, the fox with the grapes?

What would be worth bowing for?

Bryce drains his glass and again stands adamant, intensity smoldering. Now his voice brims with authority, and although I listen hard for the subtle equivocation that my female cousins and I often layer into our voices—well, here’s my opinion, but I’ll understand if you have a different one—I hear none of that. For us, adopting a “saving face” strategy was, and still is, a double-edged sword. Within my family, that nuance allows everyone’s dignity to remain intact. But out in corporate America, it smacks of indecision, or even worse, weakness. Breaking that habit took me twenty years.

“Okay, maybe it was okay for them, but I’d say ‘screw it,’” he concludes. “You don’t want me, I don’t want you.”

It’s an eye-roll of a statement, but—to my surprise—I’m shot with envy. That note of surety in his voice—is it just the bravado of youth? Is it simply a man’s truth in a man’s world? Why should I feel threatened that he, a sixth-generation American, has allowed himself the luxury of letting idealism trump pragmatism? I smile ruefully and shake my head. Is that just his white half talking?

Because by my choice—and a roll of the genetic dice—people look at my son and think, “American.” With his height, titian hair, and a name that bears no witness to his Chinese heritage, he passes for white. No one will call him “chink.” No one will expect him to be quiet and passive, to defer to others in the room. No one will ask, “Where are you from?” with any expectation of an answer outside the United States. With his lifetime immersion into twenty-first century America, all his cultural references are grounded deeply here.

Shouldn’t I be happy for him that his inner cultural identity matches his outer? On our family’s five-generation journey toward cultural acceptance—from laundryman to gambler to Army pilot to doctor to engineer—are we there yet?

With a start I feel the heavy drape of his arm around my shoulders, hear the jingle of car keys in his hand. He’s heading to a music gig, ready to end this standoff. With a gentle pat on my bicep, his unspoken, “Are we good?” is asked and answered. As I lean into his cotton warmth, my frown disappears and my mom persona returns, the one that forgives him everything.

I slip out from under his arm so he can make a graceful exit, and he turns toward me with a lopsided smile. “I’ll be back later tonight,” he says, and I reply as I always do, “So I’ll leave the light on for you.” He nods, our silent contract—to watch out for each other—complete.

He steps into the cool of the night with a singular ease. As I close the door I finally feel the truth of his reassuring pat on my arm. For him there’s no air lock, no threshold change, no cloak of whiteness between out and in. What he inherited from my father was a square chin and towering height. I’m glad of what he didn’t inherit: that hulking, leaden chip on his shoulder.

Amber WongAmber Wong is an environmental engineer who enjoys life’s ironies, like being an engineer who writes. A fifth-generation American, she explores how the statics of culture—ethnicity, gender, even one’s profession—bend the dynamics of modern-day America. Winner of The Writer’s Connection essay contest, her work has also appeared in Slippery Elm, We Came to Say: A Collection of Memoir, We Came Back to Say, and seattletimes.com. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford University.