Waiting Room

It’s been said that you are only as happy as your most unhappy child, and I believe there is some truth to that. Lately, I am all about my twenty-six-year-old daughter, Phoebe, who keeps veering into crisis like a motorist drifting into oncoming traffic on a highway. For instance, Phoebe and I recently visited the Emergency Room. This was on the after-hours advice of the doctor on call with our GP. Phoebe had told him that she was having trouble breathing, she was dizzy, she couldn’t feel her hands and her legs didn’t work right. She told him she hurt all over.

At the admitting desk, a flamboyant young man and an even younger woman with a volunteer tag asked Phoebe what issue brought her to the ER. “A broken heart?” Phoebe suggested. A nine-year relationship had ended.  Phoebe was entered in the system and we were sent around the corner to the noncontagious area to wait for someone to see her. I sat next to a guy about thirty years old in a ball cap with a gauze bandage on his left thumb that gave it the dimensions of an ear of corn. Volunteer Girl came in and began to quiz Phoebe. Pain in the left arm? A crushing feeling? No, no. I told her. Nothing like angina or anything like that. No need to get the paddles and clear. A broken heart. Volunteer Girl seemed relieved she would not have to write up an incident report and she returned to the front desk. Phoebe turned to me. “That’s a real thing, you know. Broken Heart Syndrome.” I did know. She went back to tapping on her iPhone.

I’ve always thought of love as a verb. Full of energy and action and visible (if subtle) display. It’s come to me today that no one tells you how much waiting is required of deep love. How much sitting is necessary. How very much boredom you must be willing to embrace. A good training ground for demonstrating that level of devotion is the Emergency Room. “Emergency” is a relative term, and the person who brings what they consider an urgent illness or injury to the room is likely to find that the staff on duty don’t consider their condition time-sensitive at all. It is they, who are the professionals, who will determine what is an emergency. Your emergency may have no more value to them than the Canadian quarter the lobby drink machine won’t accept.

Given five minutes warning, I know how to wait in an Emergency Room. It’s always cold, bring a sweatshirt. It’s incredibly tedious even with five TVs bolted near the ceiling. Bring a paperback or two. Bring your cell phone and the charger. Bring cash for sodas, Nabs, whatever. I bring earplugs. ChapStick. Come with the knowledge that you will wait. A long time. And the long time will seem much longer than if you were at home. When you get home, you’ll want to take a shower.

If you are accompanying someone you love to the Emergency Room and find yourself remembering random bits of poetry, keep it to yourself.

You have to be sure the other people in the ER are open to conversation. Read their body language. The young man with the gauze-wrapped thumb in the chair next to me looked relaxed. He was wearing a Nationals T-shirt.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I sliced off the end of my thumb, chopping onions. It’s just a little scrap of skin holding it on.”

I gave an appreciative whistle. He lowered his arm.

“How long you been waiting?”

He looked at the clock on the wall. “About an hour and fifteen minutes.”

I thought about a Robert Frost poem, “Out, Out,” about a kid who cuts his finger or hand or something off and bleeds to death. And they, since they were not the one dead, returned to their affairs.

“You could’ve bled to death by now,” I remarked.

He nodded yes, shook his head in disbelief. His phone went off with a musical ring tone I didn’t recognize and he shifted his attention to it. Phoebe was texting someone with her own thumbs.

I thought about a Sylvia Plath poem, in which the speaker accidentally cuts herself instead of the onion. What a thrilla hinge of skin, a flap like a hat. A disturbing and beautiful and playful poem. If you are accompanying someone you love to the Emergency Room and find yourself remembering random bits of poetry, keep it to yourself. Tuck your poetry fragments away for later in the way you would save a cookie. The chances that the person you are with will know or care about the fragments is no more likely than that they will be seen by a doctor right away unless they have a gunshot wound. Still, poetry can help you wait.

*     *     *

After the trip to the Emergency Room, I waited with Phoebe in her bedroom for several days. Phoebe lives with us while she works part time and finishes a second degree in horticulture. She has a king size bed that she shares with her laptop, notebook, phone, and other detritus. She has a TV on a long table opposite the bed. A cat or two and the dog will often settle in for a nap or to be petted. I sat in the blue chair off to the side by the door. I know how to sit in Phoebe’s room with her, too. I had on sweats and a T-shirt, sock feet. A glass of water or juice or wine. I had a book. I had my phone. “What can I do for you, Phee?” I’d say. “What do you need?” It wasn’t until several days had passed that Phoebe would ask for a Powerade or a piece of toast. She lost six pounds in four days.

She said, “Will you stay with me?”

“Of course,” I said.

She slept or watched The Munsters or Frasier on YouTube. She texted. She went to the bathroom. She slept some more. I stayed. Just as I had when she was younger and sick. Just as when she was a kid and throwing up, there really wasn’t much for me to do, except wipe her face with a cold wet cloth and hold her hand.

“Will you spend the night in here with me?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t mind?”

“No.”

I got her a cold wet cloth, more to make her feel cared for than to bring down a fever, although she did have a little one.

Phoebe burrowed into the covers. I sat and read and waited. Sometimes, I got on the other side of her king size bed and slept, too. She’d rise up in the night like a sea creature breeching the surface, see that I was there—awake, because she was—and she’d drop back into her blankets.

*     *     *

After a week or so Phoebe returned to work. Phoebe has been cautioned about being too cheerful and friendly with the customers. They asked her not to laugh so much, until they realized that engaging with her customers didn’t slow down her checkout speed. The day Phoebe went back to work, the store manager sent her home after one hour.

At Phoebe’s request, I drove her and her broken heart to a therapist, Susan, who’s helped me off and on over the years. Susan and Phoebe hit it off right away. Susan prescribed Xanax and breathing exercises and set up more appointments. Phoebe had sessions with Susan two or three times a week. Since Phoebe has never needed a driver’s license to go to work or to school, I ended up taking her to therapy.

Here’s another skill deep love requires. Shutting up. The ability to know when to shut up and to actually do it is closely tied to waiting.

The therapy practice Susan belongs to has a waiting room of slick, stain-resistant upholstered chairs and loveseats, and side tables with copies of WebMD Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Arthritis Today, Time, and Golf Digest. Three times a week I waited for Phoebe and listened to dreary music and read the magazines. By the end of Phoebe’s third fifty-minute hour with Susan, I’d gone through all the magazines, including Golf Digest, which might as well be titled A Guide to Mind Crushing Ennui as far as I’m concerned. So, for entertainment, I observed the people who came and sat near me, trying to determine who was a patient and who was a waiter like me. What issues brought them to this room of boring music, bad art, and dim lighting? I tried to read their posture, clothes, gestures, and conversation with the receptionists. I eavesdropped on the dialogue of people who were obviously there together. They frequently ignored each other and tapped on their smart phones, a sound like muffled telegraph keys. The etiquette of therapy waiting rooms is different than the ER. You do not make small talk in a room in which mental illness, emotional distress, and trauma cling to everyone like sweat. It’s bad form. Should you run into these same people in the organic produce section of the Harris Teeter, you do not acknowledge that you’ve ever seen them before.

*     *     *

Phoebe began to leave sessions with Susan in wary optimism. Things might work out. A plan of action and even a Plan B were possibilities. Within a couple of weeks, on a late Sunday afternoon, I went looking for Phoebe to ask her a question and found her pacing in the backyard. She was clutching her cell, waiting on a phone call. Her breathing was rapid and she was shaking a little. She was on the cusp of a panic attack.

“Talk to me,” I said, sitting down and watching her stride to and fro like an agitated animal. “What’s happened?”

Phoebe filled me in as she continued to walk laps. I brought her some juice. I thought stopping to drink and swallow might interrupt the advance of hyperventilating. It worked for a little while. I asked a few more questions and Phoebe answered.

Here’s another skill deep love requires. Shutting up. The ability to know when to shut up and to actually do it is closely tied to waiting. This ability doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m still struggling with it. Timing can be so important.

This late Sunday afternoon I lost the struggle. I had shut up for a long time. I had been careful not to push, not to judge. I had been waiting for the crisis to pass. Until this sultry August evening. This time I said I was angry and frustrated. I told Phoebe what I’d like to do and say if I hadn’t been raised with good manners. I called someone she cares about a pussy. I called other people insane. I also asked her forgiveness. I told her that I felt like I was watching her bleed and that I felt I could do nothing to stop the bleeding. It was not her my anger and frustration were directed at, but at the sources of her profound unhappiness. “Forgive me for not being diplomatic,” I said. “Please.”

She stopped pacing and looked me in the face for the first time. “It’s okay,” she said. Her cell phone rang and I went inside to give her privacy. Later, she sought me out and told me things were better. She was, in fact, happy. Everything would be fine and resolved in September.

“What’s changed?” I asked.

She shrugged. It didn’t matter. She was happy, that was enough. This time instead of asking more questions, I shut up.

Because I remembered that years ago when Phoebe was in preschool, she and her friends were playing while a couple of other mothers and I sat and watched.

“Phoebe is just your Mini Me,” Jessie said.

“We share the same soul,” I told her.

Phoebe looked up from drawing a mandala in the sand. She’s always been an artist.

“I want my own soul,” she insisted.

I laughed. “Okay.”

And I remembered that when she was a little older, Phoebe and I were playing outside on another late sunny summer afternoon. Our shadows were long and sharply defined on the sand around the swings.

“Let’s share shadows!” Phoebe said.

So, I stood behind her as she sat in the swing and we became one shadow with many moving parts. Then I pushed her and our shadows separated soundlessly only to merge again briefly and leave once more.

Phoebe told me a couple of days ago, “It’s hard to wait until the end of September.”

“It must be,” I said. “It must feel like forever.”

What I think, is Phoebe is waiting for September and it is hard. Learning how to wait is very hard. She has regained her optimism and works to hold on to it. I am waiting with her for September, without optimism, but not without hope. I hope the end of September will be worth the wait. And I will try to shut up, try remember that Phoebe’s soul belongs to her, but that I may, from time to time, be invited to share shadows.

 

Jane Andrews has a BA in creative writing from NC State University. Andrews teaches writing and poetry courses through Duke continuing education and is a writing coach at Central Carolina Community College She is nonfiction editor at Glint Literary Journal and a poetry editor at 3 Elements Review. She has earned awards in memoir, personal essay, and poetry. Andrews’ fiction, essays, memoir, and poetry have appeared in Prime Number Magazine, Red Clay Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Verdad, Kindred, The News & Observer, and other publications. She is a past board member of Carolina Wren Press and the NC Poetry Society. Andrews is a freelance writing instructor, workshop facilitator, and book editor.

Abiding in the Realm of Calmness

“I have a special affection for Kajar… It is a wonderful and mysterious place.”
~S. Ann Dunham, Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia

On our way from Yogyakarta, my friend Satriyo braced himself at the handlebars like a speed demon, overtaking slowpokes and narrowly sideswiping oncoming trucks in the maelstrom of traffic. As usual on Indonesia’s roads, I hung on and prayed we wouldn’t die, and at the same time never felt so alive in all my life. We flew past a crumbling old Dutch building—a colonial relic—reclaimed by vines; in the distance clouds brooded around the funnel of Mount Merapi, an active volcano. We climbed the winding slopes of Gunung Kidul, pausing to eat fried rice at a local restaurant clinging to the side of the cliffs. The plains of central Java spread out below, a patchwork of rice, corn, and cassava fields stretching towards Yogya to the west. About a quarter of Indonesia’s fast-growing population of more than 260 million still depends on agriculture for their livelihoods. But in post-colonial Indonesia, the pressure is on to bring it into the fold of industrialized nations.

As an anthropologist, S. Ann Dunham (the “S” stands for Stanley, the name her father gave her when she was born because he’d wanted a boy) documented these pressures and the ways Indonesian villagers struggled to keep their cultural traditions alive. Her book, Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, was in an e-reader tucked in my backpack. While famous as the mother of Barack Obama, forty-fourth president of the United States, Ann was an accomplished academic in her own right. From 1977 to 1991 she visited Kajar, her primary source of research, compiling notes that her colleagues at the University of Hawaii eventually turned into a book after she died of ovarian cancer in 1995. It was Ann’s work in Kajar, a village in the mountains of Java known for its blacksmiths, that had prompted me to follow in her footsteps.

On the Kidul plateau, we flew past traditional Javanese houses, their red-tiled joglo roofs flashing through the trees. Along the side of the road, tourist touts held up hand-painted signs enticing motorists to stop and explore the area’s sacred underground caves. The mountain is riddled with them; if you descended into the heart of such a cave, you’d see sunlight streaming in from above through holes like Swiss cheese. The Javanese army took refuge here from the occupying Dutch forces, finding refreshment from the network of subterranean springs while planning their counter attacks. According to the ancient Javanese religion Kejawen, mystics came to fast, pray, and find spiritual enlightenment. The subterranean river network sometimes emits hollow booming sounds, or, as the villagers describe them, “magic voices” as they erupt into springs to relieve droughts.

We turned off the main road onto a lane fringed with rustling teak forests and sugar cane fields you could get lost in. White Brahmin cattle with dewy eyes and hunched backs grazed in the surrounding hills. The countryside was working its spell; I felt a sense of calm and contentment move through me like a warm breeze. There’s a saying in Javanese: sinukmaya winahya ing asepi: “Abiding in the realm of calmness.” This was a world that seemed unchanged by industrialization and technology, where time slowed and magic remained.

We arrived in Kajar and paused at a corner shop stacked high with bottled water and blue canisters of cooking gas, confused about where to begin. An old man was squatting in front of the shop smoking a kretek, or clove cigarette. Satriyo sauntered over, produced his own pack from his pocket and fired up.

“Mau ke mana?” the old man asked.

When I explained I wanted to learn more about Ibu Ann (ibu means “mother,” a term of respect for all married women), he immediately got on his cellphone. Within minutes, a young woman appeared on her motorbike to greet us, and soon we were sipping tea and nibbling coconut biscuits in her family house, which was attached to a sky-blue mosque with a pagoda roof. There was a small commotion outside, and neighbors appeared in the doorway to get a look at the strangers who’d just blown into town. While I sat with my sugary tea on the sofa, a girl of about three toddled up and stared at me suspiciously. I braced for her reaction—my slanted blue eyes (a combination of my Scottish and Native American heritage) have a way of making Indonesian children stare, then burst into tears.

“Don’t be scared,” I soothed her in Indonesian. “I’m not a ghost!”

The neighbors laughed and edged in closer, but the little girl didn’t seem convinced. Evi, who looked not a day over sixteen, explained that she was a married mother of two whose husband was away working on a cruise ship. The suspicious child was hers, she said. We chatted while Satriyo helped smooth our communication with his fluent Javanese; while Indonesian is the national language, the country has more than 500 among its diverse cultures, and people often still use their mother tongue at home. Evi jiggled her other child, a baby girl, gently in a batik sling tied over her shoulder. When we finished the tea and biscuits, she gave the children to their grandmother and motioned us to follow her through the throng of curious neighbors.

*     *     *

In the dim light of the perapen, or blackmith’s shop, the man in the floppy hat puffed on a kretek, the sweetness of burning cloves mingling with the scent of ashes, hot metal. He squinted at me through the smoke and with a glint in his eye replied, “Obama suka bakso.”

I was beginning to understand why Ann describes the empu’s role as that of ‘the magician ritual specialist, puppet master, poet, priest, and even musician.’

The three other men around the anvil burst into grins so wide that the wrinkles around their mouths met the crinkles of their eyes, contoured by the glow of the smithy fire. I couldn’t help but smile too, amused by his expert deflection of my question (“Do you remember Ann or her children?”) with the former president’s fondness for Indonesian meatball soup. Who wouldn’t be—it’s delicious. In Indonesia, food is by far everyone’s favourite subject.

“When Maya was a child, she often played with the children of the village,” said one.

“She liked to eat nuts and boiled corn,” said another.

They crushed their cigarettes underfoot and got back to work. The man with the floppy hat—the empu, or head smithgrabbed a white-hot chunk of metal from the forge with a pair of long-handled pliers and laid it on the anvil. The panjak raised their hammers and swung as the empu held it steady. The metal sang; sparks swirled like fireflies with each well-aimed blow. The empu turned the metal, now cooling to red, to draw out the shape. The panjak gained momentum, striking with musical regularity like the three-four time of a waltz; they had to work fast before the metal cooled.

I blinked a few times and drew a hand across my forehead to wipe off the sweat. The heat from the forge, the glow of metal, and the rhythm of the blows had me a little mesmerized. I was beginning to understand why Ann describes the empu’s role as that of “the magician ritual specialist, puppet master, poet, priest, and even musician.” In the preface her book, Ann’s daughter Maya remembers, “I had a marvelous time as a child, surrounded by pictures of anvils and forges and stories about the magic of fire.” Blacksmithing is known as a trade with magical powers, the anvil a sacred place of sacrifice where fire can transform metal.

Ann may have told her daughter the legend of the blacksmith Mpu Gandring from the ancient Javanese Book of Kings. The story goes that Ken Arok, son of the Hindu god Brahma and the human wife of a priest, was seized with lust for a married woman, Ken Dedes, when he caught a glimpse of her legs. Determined to have her, he ordered Mpu Gandring to forge a keris, or dagger, to kill her unfortunate husband. A keris takes at least a year in the making, over which many prayers must be said to prevent it from being used for evil purposes. But Ken Arok was impatient—he grabbed the keris and stabbed Mpu Gandring with it. Before he took his last breath, the blacksmith cast a curse on the keris, which eventually killed Ken Arok and seven generations of his descendants. (The takeaways: Don’t let lust get the better of you. And never mess with a blacksmith.)

While glimmers of magic shine through Ann’s work, she takes a largely pragmatic approach, describing the blacksmith’s art with the precision of a scientist, and the scene I was witnessing matched her account exactly: “Most Kajar perapen make large agricultural tools requiring three panjak, so that the dominant sound is the heavy ‘one-two-three’ of metal hitting metal.” Though the style and tone are academic, I can feel Ann’s deep respect for Indonesian people in each word. Because it was always more than just a study. Ann also wanted to positively impact the lives of traditional Indonesian craftspeople as they adapted to, and in some cases embraced, modernization. “I was fortunate to have had a fourteen-year relationship with the people of this village,” she writes, “to have visited it many times during that period, and to have witnessed both the changes that it underwent and the remarkable strength and tenacity of its traditions.”

Ann’s strength and tenacity were equally remarkable as she adapted to the traditions of being a woman and mother. Born in 1942, she grew up in the Midwest at a time when women were expected to stay at home at care for the children. Yet a mortgage, a Maytag dishwasher, and a white picket fence were not for her. Instead she travelled to a far-flung corner of the earth that many wouldn’t be able to find on a map—including myself before I came here in 2007 (Indonesia stretches in a wide arc across the equator between Australia to the south and Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines to the north). When Ann met her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, an engineering student at the University of Hawaii, she married him and moved to his native country—a gutsy move in a politically chaotic time. It was 1965, the same year Suharto overthrew Indonesia’s democratically elected government in a military coup and began his thirty-year dictatorship. It must have been safe enough, though, because in 1967 Ann brought young Obama to live with them in Jakarta. She began her fieldwork with calm determination, living and working amongst the people with ease. For a time, she taught English, and was also a consultant with the United States Agency for International Development, establishing a microcredit financing system still in use today to help alleviate poverty among Indonesia’s craftspeople. After her daughter Maya was born in 1970 she brought both children into the field with her.

Ann and her family are a source of great pride in Indonesia, where I’ve lived for more than ten years. Their former house in Menteng, Jakarta’s embassy district, where LoLo once urged his stepson to try tiger meat, has become a tourist attraction, and stories still appear in the news with locals remembering amusing anecdotes, like how Obama was called bebek or “duck” because of his youthful plumpness. Gentle ribbing is part of the culture—my Indonesian mother-in-law often prods my waistline saying, “Wendy lebih gemuk ya!” Which means I’m getting pleasantly chubby. It used to drive me crazy, but I realize now that it’s a compliment because it means you have enough food to eat—hence the Indonesian preoccupation with food in this country, where millions still live on less than two dollars a day.

When Obama went on the presidential campaign trail, everyone I knew, including my husband’s family and my students at the Australian Consulate in Medan, North Sumatra, followed the election, caught up with excitement that a positive change was afoot, not just for Americans but for everyone around the world, since American elections deeply impact all of us. One of my students became famous among his classmates for his resemblance to Obama. Whenever it was his turn to speak, the class urged, “Obama! Speak English please.” In response, Akbar always beamed proudly, if a little bashfully, as we all giggled.

A few years ago, Ann’s daughter Maya returned to Indonesia for a visit. I saw her on the news, arriving to much fanfare in her modest attire with a scarf wrapped around her shoulders in respect for local customs. It was around that time that I finally read Ann’s book and learned more about her history. I admired her sense of adventure, the rigor of her work, the calmness and ease with which she navigated worlds so different from her own. And as a woman I could relate so much to her. I, too, had given birth to a child at eighteen and struggled for years to balance both motherhood and my academic studies in English literature. In 2007, when my daughter had grown and flown the nest, I also felt called to do something meaningful in the world, so I joined a volunteer research project to help conserve endangered orangutans in Sumatra. Like Ann, I taught English. And I fell in love with an Indonesian man, his country and his people, finding them easygoing, quick to laugh, and quick to welcome strangers as friends into their home.

*    *     *

The empu tossed the freshly completed axe head on a pile in the corner where it landed with a clank. With unflagging vigor, he grabbed another lump of white-hot metal from the fire and the men began anew. Each axe head took about ten minutes, he explained; they made about eighty a day. In the corner, an electric fan blew next to a dented tea kettle, some tin cups with lids on to keep out flies, jars of cassava root chips, and battered ashtrays overflowing with butts. Ash was everywhere—spilling out of the ashtrays, collecting in drifts around the anvil. A cool breeze sifted through the basket-weave walls, cutting through the heat and blowing more ash around. “Like sand on the beach,” one of the panjak joked. They paused as the empu inserted a small oval mould made of wood into the glowing metal and began to swing again, muscles slick with sweat, to create a hole for the handle. Their movements were robust, full of a kind of joy and pride in their work that I’d never known when toiling away in office cubicles.

When the dull red glow faded, I saw that the metal had been transformed into an axe head. The empu tapped it sharply and tossed it onto the heap. Then he picked up an already cooled axe head and smoothed the ash off lovingly with blackened fingers to reveal the stamp of an anvil at its base. “See,” he said. “This shows we made it here in Kajar. Now it will be exported to somewhere in Indonesia, maybe the world. And it is our product.”

*     *     *

Later that afternoon, waiting with Evi and Satriyo in the driveway of Pak Sostro’s long, butter-cream house, I spied a television set through the open door, surprised it wasn’t a fifty-inch flat screen. Ann says that Pak Sostro was Kajar’s most important empu pedagang, a head of the blacksmith’s collective. “Though the richest man with the biggest house, Pak Sostro was known for his modesty, except when it came to technology,” she writes. “He was the first in Kajar to own a diesel-powered electric generator, an electrically powered edge-grinding machine, and electrically powered bellows (blower), a four-wheeled vehicle, a television set, electric lights, and a camera. Partly this was because he had the money with which to purchase these items, and partly it was because of his enthusiasm for new technologies and anything which he perceives as modern.”

I’d seen this among my students. In the rush to catch up with the rest of the world, young people no longer wanted to follow in their family traditions, seeing a city job as the way to a better future.

Pak Sostro’s daughter, Bu Mintasirih, greeted us, and I was disappointed to learn that both her father and mother had died. A striking woman of forty-five with luminous eyes, she was one of several children the Sostros adopted from other family members because they were unable to have their own. She sat with us on the tiled veranda, set with long wooden tables and chairs to accommodate large groups of blacksmiths on their breaks. As I politely sipped another cup of sugary tea, she waved a hand at the road. “People from all over the world come here now. I see them wandering around looking for our house.” It seemed Kajar was undergoing something of a mini tourism boom as people came to see the village that Barack Obama’s mother had written about. “Maya and I were both kids. We often played here on the terrace. I haven’t seen her in a long time.”

Bu Mintarsih showed us the blacksmith shop behind the house—much larger than the first one we’d seen. “We have about fifty workers, and when they’re busy, wow. Klentang, klentung, klentang, klentung, all day long. So loud!” The shop—an open yard with work stations around the perimeter under corrugated tin eaves—was now silent and empty, hammers lying on the ground as if they’d been hastily abandoned. “Their day off,” she explained. Hundreds of metalwork chairs painted turquoise were stacked neatly in a corner. I recognized the same chair in my hotel room back in Yogya: sturdy and attractive, with a rounded backrest and two brackets up the centre. Bu Mintarsih explained that she had a son in university, and she’d already spent a good portion of income on his masters in management. Did he want to take over the family business? “Maybe. He’s not sure.” She rolled her eyes. “These days kids want to live in the city. They want to be so modern.”

I’d seen this among my students. In the rush to catch up with the rest of the world, young people no longer wanted to follow in their family traditions, seeing a city job as the way to a better future. It seemed odd to me, though, since another reason I’d come to Indonesia was to escape that very fate—my third time watching Office Space had sealed the deal. Once again, as in Ann’s time, this tiny village seemed poised for change, awaiting what other challenges the modern world would bring. Even the old blacksmith workers’ collective building Ann had written about, across from the Sostro family compound, was permanently closed.

*     *     *

The elders are among the last keepers of cultural tradition at a time when the world seems thirsty for it. In Pak Subari’s workshop, hundreds of copper gongs were stacked neatly for export. A gongsmith, Pak Subari estimated that he made at least one complete gamelan orchestra set per month for buyers in Bali and abroad. That’s no small task—a gamelan orchestra has sixteen pieces, including a xylophone and sets of hanging gongs of various sizes. Gamelan music is integral to Indonesian identity. Its music haunts, sends both men and women dancing with their hips, eyes, and fingers as they perform the ancient Hindu stories of the Ramayana.

Pak Subari’s wife, Mbak Nur, brought a large clear jug of tea with bits of leaf swirling around inside. At this point I felt like I was about to pop like a water balloon but it would be rude to refuse, so I forced down a little sip and smiled. Mbak Nur lay down a big bowl of shelled peanuts on the rough-hewn table and swatted away the flies.

Pak Subari asked to see Ann’s book. I pulled out my e-reader and everyone gathered around to look as I clicked through the photos. With still-sharp eyes, Pak Subari, the father of four children and six grandchildren, spotted the name of his village written in Ann’s own handwriting on the screen. He placed a work-worn finger over her notes and repeated with wonder in his voice: “Kajar.” Then he gasped and stared a moment at Ann’s illustrations of farm tools forged by Kajar blacksmiths. “They’re still the same,” he said. One of the axe heads was indeed exactly like those we’d just seen in the perapen.

I clicked to the next picture.

“Ah.” He pointed to the roof of thatched palm. “We don’t have roofs like that anymore. More modern now, with tiles.”

I clicked again: a man with smooth pompadour hair, crouched next to a water trough.

“Pak Pangusi!” He nudged Mbak Nur, who’d fallen into animated conversation with Satriyo in musical Javanese.

“Mm hmm,” she confirmed. “He looks so young. He used to live just behind our house. But he is gone now.” We gazed at Pak Pangusi, still alive in the photo, a newly forged pickaxe in his hand.

Click. An old man sitting in the doorway, baskets of flowers at his feet: The only Islamic official in Kajar village, making offerings and burning incense at the Bersih Desa festival.

“Pak Wornosamin! He had a store in the traditional market. He’s gone now too.”

As they remembered their old friend who once presided over Kajar’s annual village purification festival, it struck me just how important Ann’s work is to the history of Kajar, especially as parts of it were already slipping away. I asked if they’d ever seen the book before.

“No, never. How much does it cost?”

They all shook their heads when I told them in the Indonesian currency. “Very expensive,” Evi said. “We don’t have money for books. Besides, we don’t know English.”

Suddenly I saw myself in a different light. Here I was, a comparatively wealthy foreigner who had brought an expensive device to show them images of their own village. It didn’t seem fair. Feeling a little guilty and not knowing what to do about it, I changed the subject. But when I asked if they knew about Sumbur Kajar, the sacred spring with the image of a keris in the stone that Ann had described, they looked even more perplexed. I attempted to translate:

I wandered along the bank where the stream flowed over a few bits of garbage stuck in the mud—discarded plastic water bottles and potato-chip bags. Above us, the banyan’s crown billowed and creaked.

“At the base of the spring is a wide, flat stone, worn smooth from water action. When the water level is low, one can look down and make out the clear shape of a keris in the stone… Villagers consider this image of a keris as proof that the men of Kajar are fated to be smiths.”

“You mean Sumbur Air,” Evi said.

“Ah,” said Pak Subari. “That stone was taken long ago. Somebody stole it.”

*     *     *

We parked next to a well with a large copper cistern and a mosque that stood clean and white among the rusty teaks and umbrella-leafed cassavas. A cool wind blew and the late afternoon sunlight filtered through the trees. Nearby, a stream fed into a spring enclosed by a low wall with some stone steps leading into the water. An old banyan grew there, perhaps the one Ann mentions in her notes. In Javanese mysticism, banyans house the spirits of the ancestors and should be avoided at night. I asked Evi about this, but she just looked at me as if I were slightly delusional and turned her attention to texting on her phone. It was getting late; maybe she was checking on the kids. Satriyo leaned against his motorbike, occasionally flicking his hair as he stared into his own phone. I wondered if it was a hot date—he and my other friend Daniel had just broken up over Satriyo’s roving eye.

I wandered along the bank where the stream flowed over a few bits of garbage stuck in the mud—discarded plastic water bottles and potato-chip bags. Above us, the banyan’s crown billowed and creaked. Through the papery rustle of the teak forest, borne high on the wind, came the clear rhythmic ring of a blacksmith’s hammer: Ting ting ting.

I wondered if Ann also felt the presence of spirits here. Maybe she didn’t believe in that kind of thing. Or maybe she still visits once in a while.

*     *     *

I fell into my own quiet thoughts on the back of Satriyo’s bike as we motored to our final destination through fields of cassava, corn, peanuts, and sugarcane tended with Kajar’s own hand-forged farm tools. Why should all this change? I wondered. Why do we believe without question that industrialization is so necessary for progress, that to live like this is somehow backwards? Surely true progress is our ability to hold onto the traditions that nourish our spirits and preserve the future for our earth and our loved ones. Then again, I’d never wish the hard grinding work of poverty on anyone. And the people of Kajar were facing difficult times.

Next to a stone well with Black Roses spray-painted on it was a small dammed-up lake papered over with fallen teak leaves. All around us, living leaves twisted and turned on their slender branches, gold, then rust. As we crossed the dam I spied a hill through the trees. It looked a little like a postcard of a Greek village but in miniature, with jumbles of whitewashed houses and tiled gazebos interspersed with gnarled frangipani trees. Some houses were topped with stone flames, some with white sheets, their corners pierced on the stone and fluttering in the wind. As we came closer I saw that they were graves.

Once, when Ann contracted an eye infection, the villagers suggested she rinse her eyes in the waters of Sumbur Kajar. When this didn’t work, they advised her to make a pilgrimage to the top of Gunung Panduran and make an offering to the graves of Gunokaryo and Kasan Ikhsan, Pak Sostro’s blacksmithing ancestors and the founders of Kajar. Their graves had become pepunden, sacred sites that even had their own cult. “Whenever villagers have a problem with illness or sterility they bring offerings of rice and flowers to these graves,” she writes. She does not mention, though, if she followed their advice, or if it worked.

As we picked our way up the hill, voices called out to us in greeting from among the graves. Three villagers were sitting on a grave with plates of food and a large tin teapot. One of the villagers, an old woman with her head wrapped in a batik cloth, looked at me in alarm as we passed by, as if she’d seen a wandering spirit. I smiled and called out good afternoon, just to show I was human. This only made her titter nervously and whisper to the others. Near the top of the hill, Evi pointed to a black marble grave. “That’s my father,” she said. Her voice sounded calm and happy, not a tinge of sadness in it. She was the youngest of ten children, she said. The final child in a long, productive life.

We paused to rest and look down over the sea of roofs and the rustling teak forest. Satriyo and Evi perched on a low stone wall. Heaven or Hell was spray-painted on it in Gothic letters. They soon tired of the view and began texting again. Ah, kids these days. I turned to amble among the gravestones, taking care not to step on them and cause offense. Suddenly I caught the sweet scent of frangipani blossoms and breathed in deeply. I love frangipani; I used to wear the oil as perfume until my husband joked that I smelled like a cemetery. No one ever wears frangipani perfume in Indonesia.

I looked up to find the source of the scent. A flowering pink frangipani crowned the top of the hill, guarding a set of curling black flames—four rows in all, about seven feet long, in sharp relief against the burning blue sky. They appeared to be grave-markers, yet none bore any inscription. Each had been set with a round earthenware jar and a plate, cracked and weatherworn. Did the original blacksmiths, the founders of Kajar, lie beneath these flames? I opened my e-reader to check.

“Near the top of a small hill which is used as a graveyard is a curious black stone, several feet in length. The upper surface of this stone is carved in curious convoluted shapes which are toothlike or hornlike. These shapes resemble those on the clay gable ornaments used in some parts of Java, and they also resemble the flamelike flanges on Balinese gates.”

My heart began to pound as if I’d made a momentous discovery. In the twenty years since Ann had written about Kajar, more flames had appeared, more sacred sites added to Kajar’s long and growing history. Yet all around us—through the trees and over the rooftops—the ting ting ting of the blacksmith’s hammer continued, rising in the air, above the black flames on the hill. I imagined Ann would be happy to know that, despite more modern developments like cellphones and e-readers, or maybe even because of them, Kajar’s blacksmithing tradition continues to survive against the odds. And Ann’s legacy remains, abiding in this realm of calmness and shaping its future in subtle, unseen ways.

I wished I’d brought something for the blacksmiths, some kind of offering. I rifled through my bag in search of the only thing I could give, a tool of my own trade. I laid down my last pen, an old Bic, and left the blacksmiths to their rest.

 

Wendy Bone is a Canadian writer whose most recent work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction and Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change, with an essay forthcoming in River Teeth Journal. Currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, Wendy is writing a book about the effects of global palm oil consumption on the Indonesian rainforest. She has lived in Indonesia for more than ten years with her Sumatran husband and a clowder of kampung cats. For more, visit wendyboneabroad.com.

My Father, the Trickster

I’ve been looking for myths about gulls, and found only ravens. Raven, the trickster, who eats Raccoon’s young. Raven, with his head stuck in a bison skull and bumbling tree to tree to river. Raven led by stomach. I want a story to frame my own. But I did not grow up with ravens. They are too beautiful, with feathers that whisper danger and a name shaped like the hard point of their beak.

Gulls with no pretty name. Gulls with red-rimmed eyes, feet that look neither wet nor dry. Gulls fanning to the horizon, a lens-flare photograph of someone’s beach home.

My father would leave us in the car as he folded newspapers in the distribution center: our bodies cocooned in mothy blankets, our legs tangled together. I’d stay awake as long as I could, watching the window fog with our breath, icing out the world. I worried the lock would come unstuck. I worried that my father was ashamed of us, this job meant for children, paperboys, that he had only taken because all of his money went to our mother. Sometimes I woke to smokers clustered outside our windows, peering in on us foundling children, a nest of lumps waiting to crack open.

When my father loaded the car with each wrapped reminder of the world’s disasters, I pretended to sleep. The car rocked with the weight of hundreds of pages of newsprint wrapped in plastic casings. He’d fill the wells under our feet with bundles, row on row that slid into us on curves.

*     *     *

The fairy tales I loved were daughters bought and sold, from Gretel’s father leading her to the forest, to Cinderella’s father giving her to the ashes. I loved Beauty and the Beast most of all: I too loved books and lived in small towns. I too was strange and had a father prone to distraction. I wanted castles with libraries that stretched to heaven and horizon. I longed for dark forests or lighthouses with an attic bedroom. Instead, I had the Shore.

In the winter, the ocean was larger. The beaches were quiet. People did not come to the Shore. There was nothing there.

*     *     *

For a few winters, we lived in other people’s summer homes: pre-furnished with beds and toys, pots and pans, a view of the ocean, and a walk to the beach. They’d leave behind their curled paper tickets from Jenkinson’s Arcade, rolls of points buried in closets and under beds. I loved running them through my fingers, imagining buying all the candy I could hold, pencils with pop stars’ faces, notebooks or games. It wasn’t cheating. We had found them, fair and square.

My father would leave us in the car as he folded newspapers in the distribution center: our bodies cocooned in mothy blankets, our legs tangled together.

These houses, winter houses, were nice houses, nicer than the tiny apartments my father usually rented with a strip of kitchen and walls soft enough to splinter under a fist, where we—my brother, sister, and myself—took turns sleeping on the futon or the floor. Those apartments came with big, hairy neighbors: the kind of men who’d invite us over to watch wrestling specials and eat nachos; the kind of men with tarantulas and snakes; the kind of men who broke beer bottles late at night; the kind of men who knew a guy who was remodeling Joe Pesci’s place, and so one Sunday after delivering newspapers, we were let in to Joe’s Shore house and walked his cool tile floors, tracking mud.

I wondered if this was what my father did when we were with our mother: drank cheap beers and watched men hit each other with chairs, committed petty trespassing. What did he say about us in front of those tropical glass tanks, where the dead-eyed snakes uncurled slowly so not to scare the mice, their jaws had already unhinged to eat. Did he say anything about us at all?

In winter, lawns receded back to sand and hard dirt, gray and dried like feathers crushed by tires in the street. When we delivered newspapers to houses with strips of expensive sod rolled out like lasagna sheets, I stepped on the new grass. I wanted the marks of my feet to be discovered, like some alien crop circle, a gift from the fairies.

*     *     *

Gull young are precocial: they crack free and their eyes are open. Their bodies are covered in downy feathers. Their beaks are designed to peck at their parent for regurgitated dinner.

We ate fine—frozen dinners, cheese in cellophane—but it was never anything I wanted. My father ate mostly meat—sausages and steak and lettuce—from some diet that taught your body to eat itself.

When we returned to my mother’s house, she would ask us what we did. How did we eat? Did he buy us school clothes, winter jackets, or books? Sometimes, I wondered if she eyed our pockets, hoping he had stuffed them full of twenties.

Sometimes we would come back in wild excitement, for some grand adventure we’d been promised for the next weekend. Some treat or toy or trick. As time went on, she learned to tell us not to be disappointed. Still, we would believe him.

*     *     *

One house was only a few blocks from the ocean. Gulls cried out, I’m here, I’m here, at all hours, as they swooped ten, twenty feet above my head, or roosted on the shingles.

We’d walk the sand on nicer weekends, daring each other to go deeper into the tide until one of us would be soaked from the waist on a large wave. Our father would no longer laugh, egging us on, but be suddenly furious that we’d soaked our underwear and would track sand into the house. It was a rental, he’d remind us. It wasn’t ours. Anything we broke, he’d have to pay for. I knew that this was another step closer to the brink, closer to him pulling the mythical car over and we could all walk home.

We knew we couldn’t afford better. All of our father’s money went to our mother to support us. Our mother told us differently, cried on phone calls when she asked her sisters for money to pay our bills. What was true was the story told by the parent we were with.

We were loved, but it was a possessive love, a jealous love. A commodity. I wondered constantly if I was still worthy of such a love, and how I could earn more.

I learned to read the signs. Gulls became the smoke twisting in the sacrificial fires, the entrails poured onto the earth. I was the Oracle, trying to make sense of their message. What are you trying to tell me? Do his shoulders hunch like that because he is more or as-angry as usual? Do I find a funny story from school, or a memory of our old life? Do I pretend not to see? Should I be extra careful when I clean tonight, scraping the fork tins for grease and lining up the cups in the dishwasher like puzzle pieces? When his anger erupted, where was the best place to hide away? What should I clean, how do I be of use so that he is reminded that we were worth having, worth loving?

*     *     *

In the winter homes, I imagined the summer folks. It was a fairy existence. Who could possibly live here? What did it mean to have two houses, and not one for each parent?

In the summers, the stoplights were turned back on and the stop signs unhinged to warn lines of traffic. Panties or vomit dotted the sidewalk and the beach was always full of bodies pinking or leathering under the sun.

Were we the poltergeists, haunting their homes when they returned? I made sure to rub my greasy fingers into the walls. I wanted to leave a sign that I had lived there, that their home wasn’t fully their own. And yet we were always the ones to leave.

*     *     *

Sometimes we would see a dog scatter the gulls on the beach, churning through wet sand. Sometimes there would be people dressed in Lycra, running along the shore. Mostly though, it was just us, writing our names with our fingers in the sand and watching the tide wash the letters away. Or we trudged on, knowing the water would wash our names away eventually.

We were winter children. We had nothing better to do.

*     *     *

Part of what brings Beauty and her Beast together is their shared love of books. In the Disney telling, the library seems to stretch for days. More than the dresses or the talking cutlery, this was my favorite part. I had taught myself to read when I was three. Quickly, I learned to hide in books. I could become so lost in the world of letters that I wouldn’t hear the world around me. During car rides, I could block out the sound of traffic or my father’s rages. The threats to crash the car, the promise to leave us behind.

Books were a doorway: a way to open and close. When I needed to hide, books. When I felt lost, books connected me. The best stories were the ones that lived in my breast. The best stories were the ones I could imagine myself into.

If I wasn’t reading, I wrote. I filled composition books with poems and stories and journal entries. Often, my characters were orphans. It seemed natural to kill off the parents.

When I was a teenager, I began to win awards for my writing. I attended luncheons and national conferences. My father is also a writer. In my teens, I worried he resented my success. If only he hadn’t had to work, he would say occasionally. If only he could have followed his writing. I always felt a bit ashamed for making him need to work, to provide food and clothing.

But then, for anything we really needed, we asked our mother.

*     *     *

Once, Beauty’s father was rich and could spoil his children. But by the time he stumbles into the Beast’s kindness, he is impoverished. His daughters have demanded gowns and his sons, swords. Only Beauty asks for a rose. And so he steals.

Books were a doorway: a way to open and close. When I needed to hide, books. When I felt lost, books connected me. The best stories were the ones that lived in my breast.

Did my father love me as much as that?

When the Beast threatens to lock that father away, he begs for the chance to tell his children goodbye. Beauty offers to stand in his place and the rest—well. You know the story.

How does her father let her go? He must, of course, but how does he leave that castle covered in vines? What is the shape of his spine as he journeys away, back to his other children?

What lesson could I take from this story but that love is duty.

Love is ballast-named but a crucible, all the same.

*     *     *

Beauty’s dresses turn to rags when her sisters try them on, her jewels to dust when they adorn their bodies. What do they make of their old gowns and bracelets, what they had exchanged for their sister?

I thought myself Beauty when I was younger, convinced that one day I’d be taken away, bedecked. I assumed emancipation needed to be given by a hand other than my own.

*     *     *

Eventually my father moved into the town where my mother lived. He rented a loft apartment where we took turns rotating between the floor and an exercise mat when we spent weekday nights and alternating weekends there. At first, he talked about buying beds or sleeping bags, but we adjusted to blankets and the floor.

We ate pizza from the restaurant downstairs sitting around the coffee table in front of a television. What we loved best was wrestling: my brother and I against my sister and father. Soon, it would devolve into the three of us piled on top of our father, trying to hold him down. For a moment, we could puppet his body. But again and again, he rose or one of us would catch an elbow in the soft of our belly, a knee in the back and cry. I was already a bit relieved when the wrestling ended. Fearful, I was sure someone could get really hurt. I worried I loved kneeling on his back, pressing bone to kidney, too much.

*     *     *

Gulls mob strangers: other birds, people, anything that might threaten their nests. The flock unite to form a golem, terrifying children and Bennys alike. But their allegiances fracture easily: over food, a nesting spot. Gulls tear scraps between them, wrestling for the biggest crumb.

*     *     *

As I grew beyond childhood, I or my siblings would ask my father about moments from childhood: remember this? Remember that? No, he would tell us. No, it didn’t happen like that. No, you’re remembering it wrong.

Who gets to decide?

If I remember my father’s anger, if I remember sleeping on the floor, then do I have a right to say it? It wasn’t all bad. But it wasn’t all good. And sure, that is childhood. But I knew other children weren’t itinerant like my siblings and me. I had dreaded someone seeing me help my father fling newspapers. I worried my shame would bleed out of me.

I love my father. But I no longer feel I can let him into my life. When I last confronted him, over email, his response asked me if I hadn’t thought about how he would feel. Don’t you know all the ways you’ve hurt me? he asked.

You’re remembering it wrong, he told me.

*     *     *

A gull is also a term for one who is fooled or deceived. Perhaps this comes from the word gullet, meaning “the throat” but also “to swallow.” Perhaps it is not that uncommon to be fooled by your parent and to still hope that they have changed. Say fooled instead of failed; say trickster instead of father. Perhaps we should expect our parents to devour us, like Kreon. Perhaps I need to find in me a way to slit his stomach open and see what piles forth. Perhaps I need to open my own gut, spill what I’ve ingested in hopes that he might change.

My father has asked me to forgive much of him: cancelling trips after I purchased plane tickets; skipping graduations and Thanksgivings at the last minute; taking out loans in my name that went to collection agencies that led to me weeping on the phone in public spaces, trying to explain that I didn’t know about the loans and had never seen the money.

But my father is always the aggrieved, the hero of his stories. Even the stories I tell about him must follow this pattern. Still, I wonder, what could I have done differently?

*     *     *

Gulls exist in the liminal space: they eat both meat and vegetation. In some myths, birds carry the souls of the dead to heaven or the underworld.

This is not to say that gulls are honest, but that they are what they are.

I used to believe that gulls could fly across oceans, that they could sleep on the water with their heads tucked under a wing. But they don’t—usually. They stay close to the coast, feeding off scraps or what they hunt for themselves. They’re opportunistic and bold: I’ve watched them steal pizza crusts inches from someone’s hand. They’ve been seen landing on live whales to peck away strips of their flesh.

This is not to say that gulls are honest, but that they are what they are. At least, as far as I can tell. The appearance of honesty counts for a lot, to so many.

I’ve believed my father is capable of changing. Perhaps I must believe that I am.

*     *     *

I used to play a game. Would my father give me five hundred dollars? I imagine the phone call: I’m in a bad spot, Dad; I’ve made a bad decision, Dad; Dad, they’re holding me for ransom, and I’ve scrounged everything but the last five hundred.

I imagine us tied to train tracks, a game of William Tell, a room slowly filling with water. Would my father give me part of his liver? I try to imagine us wheeled into surgery, our hands clasped until the swinging doors wrench us apart. But then I see him turning to the nurse wheeling his gurney, smiling a bit sadly, and saying, “You know, I don’t think I can do this right now.” He’d really want to, of course, but the timing. The timing would just be terrible.

*     *     *

The only class trip I remember my father chaperoning was to the Trenton War Memorial. We learned about bayonets, specifically their three points, so designed to create wounds that couldn’t close.

*     *     *

Recently a friend asked me how my father died. He’s still alive, I explained. We just don’t speak. Divorcing your parent is an unnatural act. Children are meant to be cared for; we are then meant to care, to nurture. Rejecting this had left me unmoored. Each of my siblings has handled this situation differently. My sister has refused to speak to my father for years. My brother maintains an uneasy relationship. I worry that by not missing him, I’m a bad person. I worry that this means I’m not made to love. Loving me must be a burden.

Beauty forgets her father. She and the Beast create a world without a past, despite decades spent trapped in forms beyond their natural, beautiful shape. Furniture reverts back to flesh, uncracked. What magic was this, what lesson was I meant to learn?

*     *     *

I was a square child. I knew I wasn’t beautiful, but I imagined I might be strong or fierce. Able to pick up cars pinning smaller children. An Atlas for a tired world. Once, I bragged I could carry my father, and in that parking lot he let me try. I bent, braced shoulder to thigh and lifted. I stumbled a few steps before he returned to the ground, surprised and laughing.

It must be time to put him down now.

 

Brynn Downing served as the thirty-fourth writer-in-residence at St. Albans School for boys in Washington, DC, where she also taught literature and creative writing. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and BA in global studies, focusing on masculinity and nationalism in the former Yugoslavia, from the College of William and Mary. She currently volunteers with Four Way Review. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine, The James Franco Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. You can find her online at: brynndowning.info.

Paper Shackles

Now, when I think of it, I can see only the sun. I can feel its heat infiltrating my light brown skin, boiling the blood therein, and I can hear the other students sizzling beside me, can smell burning flesh. I have to remind myself that we were indoors. That this wasn’t some celestial oven. Just a normal seventh-grade classroom and a normal class day.

We had pushed all the desks to the sides of the room so that we could tape two, thin, boat-like shapes in the middle of the classroom. The class day prior we made shackles out of construction paper. Some of the kids decorated theirs, but I left mine blank—a solid shade of sky-blue upon which my imaginary sun reflected. The teacher might have called it laziness; she had often questioned my work ethic, and, being thirteen, I would not have been able to articulate my position well enough to refute the indictment. No, I could not express how heavy those paper shackles felt, how inadequate a job stickers and glitter did of covering them, how disgraceful it seemed to me to make a craft of this inexplicable anxiety dwelling within me.

Still, we were to learn about the middle passage. We were to experience it.

At an age when hormones were supposed to turn me apathetic, I found myself preoccupied with slavery. The year before I was born, some archaeologists excavated the unceremonious burial site of several hundred black men, women, and children in New York City, and for a moment the nation had to confront the gaping wound in its past. [1] Black bodies mobilized. They demanded this history no longer remain invisible, buried. [2] Furthermore, I was born in the year of the LA Riots. I was conceived as Rodney King was beaten atop California pavement. Maybe that wave was still lingering in the atmosphere when my eyes first saw light. Often, I fantasized that I had been born a crusader for racial justice. I was less minority and more X-Man. However, my fascination with the institution of slavery was more fear than righteous indignation. I studied it in horror. I could not look away.

The class day prior we made shackles out of construction paper. Some of the kids decorated theirs, but I left mine blank—a solid shade of sky-blue upon which my imaginary sun reflected.

As we lined up and took our place in the imaginary boats, careful not to go over the walls indicated by lines of masking tape, the forward movement of time stopped, then regressed. I sat with my legs crossed and my right knee went overboard. If my classmates, white as they were, noticed my horror or if they were horrified themselves, I can’t recall, and, likely, didn’t observe in the moment. I would’ve been caught up in the waves now rising up to the ship’s deck, would’ve been fiddling with my shackles, would’ve been following the curved spines of black backs bent and broken.

Maybe I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn too early. At eleven, I had also marathoned Roots and, afterwards, crafted my own African identity. I was Udo Ka. Sean was my slave name. Or, perhaps, my resignation to the societal periphery had prompted my curiosity. For the first half of my childhood, we lived in the heart of Dallas, Texas, [3] and in those schools I was too white for all but a handful of my peers. My skin tone did not matter. The other kids had all seen my father, and his pastiness was an integral part of my brown. Dallas was where a kid shoved me into a garbage can—one of those big, gray, monolith-looking ones that teenagers have to wheel out at the end of their shift at McDonalds—and rolled me down a hill. Like the bullies did to the pale, scrawny protagonists in eighties teen flicks. In the bully’s defense I had called him precocious. We were six. I had it coming.

Then, before fourth grade, we moved to the country-suburbs of Wylie, Texas, [4] a town whose name cannot be pronounced without a hint of southern inflection, and all of a sudden, I was black. Less than black. I was a nigger; my mom, too. She had been called such at the Starbucks she managed. I sat nearby, Gameboy in hand and waiting for her shift to end.

Reading Huckleberry Finn aloud prompted some of my classmates to look my direction, apologetically, before each “nigger,” “nigga,” or “negro” while others read the words with a bravado and gravitas most often utilized upon the stage, reveling in the word’s inherent mischief. I knew that I was somehow conjured with each exclamation. Our English teacher would flinch whenever the word was uttered. She would remind us of its severity, of its history, every class period before we commenced the reading. Her voice rarely rose above a conversational tone no matter how enthusiastic she got about the lesson or how angry a student made her. That classroom was lined with posters—Rosie the Riveter, book covers, one or two motivational messages—and bookshelves occupied the remaining wall space. I had often borrowed books from her collection. She had pegged me as a part of her nerdy, literature-loving clan almost immediately, and when she gave the context lectures for our Huck Finn readings, for that pesky, little n-word, I felt as if they were for my benefit and my benefit, alone. In the desk next to mine, Ethan, a brute of a seventh grader, napped while she talked, face down and arms dangling off the side of the desk. He woke only when it was time to do the reading. He savored every opportunity to speak. That same year, in history, we learned about the slave trade.

My invocation of the sun has little to do with the lesson in particular, though I swear I still feel the burning of flesh and the boiling of blood. In reality, the classroom had one window in the very back of the room and was too far from me to cast any light, and the only burning of flesh I’d ever experienced was the naïve and childish touch of a hot stove. Instead, the fluorescents bore down on me, and the sun seemed intimately tied that room, to slavery in general. All the images in our textbook, paintings of black bodies toiling underneath the southern heat, foregrounded the sun—not the slave, not slaver, not for me. The lead actor in Roots? In Amistad? In Gone with the Wind? The sun.

So as we sat, aligned in rows of two, in the interior of the boat, I felt the sun beat against my flesh. I knew it would make me darker. Would make me all the more different from my classmates.

We linked our paper shackles together. The teacher stood at the front of the classroom. She had a habit of tapping a ruler on the back of her forearm while she spoke. I watched the rhythm as if she were conducting us in a symphony. She was the kind of lady who placed the now-tired phrase, “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it,” upon her breast. I would have her again for a humanities class. In that class she issued an assignment in which we relived our personal experience of 9/11 and wrote it into a letter to our future selves.

“Could you imagine,” she began her lecture on the middle passage.

I could do nothing but imagine.

Not even the ornamented shackles with their colorful patterns, garnished with glitter and sequins, could distract my imagination.

It occurred to me then that I couldn’t have existed. Or that I might have been a product of rape. Oh God. Something I cannot imagine—my docile, looks-at-his-feet-when-in-the-company-of-strangers father taking advantage of my mother who had bullied free food from a Chili’s because of her displeasure with TGI Friday’s. The power gained from racial hierarchy can only carry a person so far. Perhaps, I would have been the product of a secret affair, the product of the Romeo and Juliet of American Slavery. That would have at least been romantic. I would have at least been a metaphor for hope and possible reconciliation or some bullshit like that. And, of course, I had not yet ruled out the possibility of Immaculate Conception.

However I came to be, I would have no seat on that boat.

And yet here I was, simulating a ride that fascinated and horrified me all at once. As if to remind me, the other kids stared at me. They stared with eyes that insinuated that I would have been the only one among them on that boat. But they did not understand. They had not spent as much time thinking about it. And why would they?

Our teacher walked between the two boats. She tapped other knees that had fallen overboard back behind the line with the side of her boot. My knee was one of them. All the while, she described the atrocities of the events we were reliving. She reinforced the idea that these people were not treated as such. They were cargo. Some refused to eat. Others leaped over the edge. Into the glistening sun. [5] Centuries of history consolidated in a single lecture, a fiery star. Our teacher did not make eye contact as she spoke. I do not think she could have if she tried. All the kids were staring down at the carpet, drawing imaginary lines with the tips of their fingers. She stared straight ahead, through the walls. Her words carried the weight of each body lost to the atrocity. That incalculable multitude, not even given the courtesy of a statistic. When those words fell upon us, our bodies became vessels of historical trauma and sunk below the surface of the earth. Our lines transformed from generic, geometric shapes into crude and invisible illustrations of dying men. As she spoke, the sun illuminated her red hair, white skin. I wondered which side she was on. Then, I turned the question on myself: Which side was I on? Which side would even accept me? I could still feel the eyes of my peers. Their eyes were pairs of suns. Discerning eyes, trying to decide if I was, indeed, one of them or one of them. But there were no sides, only an agonizing and ambivalent history.

They were cargo. Some refused to eat. Others leaped over the edge. Into the glistening sun. Centuries of history consolidated in a single lecture, a fiery star.

Time found a way to repress that history. So many years circled around me without even the slightest consideration of that seventh-grade classroom. I almost forgot that that sun still hangs above my head until a friend and I were walking to class. The sidewalk stretched into the clutter of campus, and we stumbled into a conversation about Huckleberry Finn. [6] It had been in the news. Headlines about removing “nigger” and all its various iterations in the novel filled our newsfeeds. Before I could decide otherwise, I was walking back into that seventh-grade classroom, recanting the lesson, searching for the comedic beats of the tale, but in the telling I lost myself. My humorous anecdote turned psychoanalytic confessional. The words spilled out of my mouth, hit the pavement, melted. Sweat formed on every pore, and the sun reasserted itself on the scene. Ever-present, that entity, [7] essential to my formation, and yet I forget it every morning. I wondered if my friend felt the heat too. There was discomfort in his face. This I saw clearly. He fumbled with his glasses, didn’t make eye contact, laughed at non-jokes. He’s white, most of my friends are, and I imagined, that if I were him, my mind would wander, as nonsensical as the thoughts may be—did my ancestors own the ancestors of my friends? am I somehow to blame for all of this? could I possibly go back in time and right all the wrongs? I stopped trying to read his face. Instead, I stared into the sky and hoped the sun would burn spots onto my vision.

Eventually, I finished the story. It did not end; rather, it dissolved into a nervous chuckle.

“Wow,” my friend said, “that’s a crazy story, man. Funny stuff.” We walked into silence, both of us peering ahead.

“Could you imagine?” I could hear the teacher’s voice behind me. Funny stuff, indeed. In that classroom, all those years ago, the lesson and the history it pertained to were one and the same, but now, as I recall it, bit by bit, I am reminded that I had never embarked on any middle passage. What was in me then and in me now was Sethe’s spiteful Beloved, the ghost that haunted house 124. I could see it, there among the two boats taped to the carpet, my white classmates, the teacher’s red hair and wooden ruler tapping against the crook of her arm, my horrified frame huddled over paper shackles, and a sun that will burn and burn and burn. Until nothing remains.

 

Author’s Notes:

[1] In 1991, before the planned construction of a $276 million, thirty-four-story office tower could get underway, Historic Conservation and Interpretation (HCI), an archaeological salvage and consulting firm, discovered the remains of 420 African slaves underneath a parking lot in New York City. The General Services Administration (GSA) had bought the lot hoping that 200 years and a shit ton of cement had all but eradicated any remaining bodies, but no such luck. Would you believe it? Those resilient skeletons were still there, were still reminding the Yanks that they had had slaves too.

[2] Black activists protested the GSA’s decision to continue with their construction project and were outraged that, as always, the fate of this symbolic discovery was in the hands of old white men. It took those old white men fifteen years to agree that maybe a museum was a more fitting tribute to those slaves than a parking lot. By that time, I had kissed my first girl. She didn’t like it when I talked about the burial grounds.

[3] At the time, Dallas had a minority (that’s black, Hispanic, “other” according to the Texas Department of State Services) population of 884, 887 out of about two million, but most of that (looking at you, black and Hispanic) was concentrated in the lower-class parts of the city. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t grow up in the inner, inner city, but there weren’t a lot of nerdy white kids hanging around my school either. I’ll say that much.

[4] Now, I could give you the census data for Wylie, but the numbers really just amount to “Pretty damn white.”

[5] She gave one specific anecdote of a man: name unspoken, unknown, who tried to stage a mutiny but failed to stir the ire of his peers. He chose to drown rather than let the shipmen beat him to death. As the slavers approached him, whips in hand, teeth gnashing, he barreled through them. He even managed to snag himself a white man. Together, the two of them flew into the ocean, the sun spotlighting their descent. In all my research, I have yet to find this story, this man, but apparently, slave mutinies were less common than you might think. There was, of course, the Amistad mutiny made famous by a couple of paragraphs in your high school history books and Steven Spielberg, himself, in which some bold niggers from Sierra Leone used machetes to take control of their ship and good ol’ fashion lawyering to take control of their freedom. This story did not come up in our lecture.

[6] The debate exploded in 2011 when a publishing company in Alabama, of all places, replaced the heinous “nigger” with the much more tolerable “slave.” The publisher, appropriately named NewSouth Books, claimed the decision was less about censoring Twain and more about introducing the text to schools that had banned it. In the co-owner’s (paraphrased) words he wanted those uncomfortable with having the discussion to “have the discussion.”

[7] I feel this is as good a time as any to remind everyone that, in perhaps the most amusing political oversight in history, Mississippi did not officially ratify the Thirteenth Amendment until 2013, after a studious watcher of Lincoln did some digging. Once again, Mr. Spielberg stuck up for the underdog.

 

Sean Enfield is an educator, writer, and musician based in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. He graduated from the University of North Texas, where he received a University writing award, with a bachelor’s in English literature. His work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vine Leaves, Poetry Quarterly, F(r)Online, and Entropy magazine.

 

Lagrimitas

Mami used to tell people that I was a very delicate boy.

My parents instilled in me to do right and to avoid hurting others. I took it to heart. I always assumed that if I treated people the way I wanted to be treated, people around me would do likewise. It was the golden rule.

The golden rule. Little did I know that this moral imperative would be seriously challenged within a few short years of exposure to other kids in my barrio, especially in unsupervised settings, like on the alleys and empty lots off Medio, Guachinango, and San Gabriel Streets. I was the youngest of a group of boys that wandered about the calles in my neighborhood. This was our playground.

Henry, Oscar, Félix, Vento, Pupi, Armando, Generoso, and Helio were at least three or four years older than me. They attended the same public school in our neighborhood. I took the bus to Irene Toland School, a private school run by the Presbiterianos in the Simpson neighborhood, on the outskirts of Matanzas. At Irene Toland most of the kids were paired in classes with the same-age kids and supervised by gentle but discipline-inclined teachers. I had some run-ins with other kids from time to time at school, but short of name-calling and a shove here and there, I rarely encountered kids who didn’t share consensus in the golden rule.

In my barrio of Matanzas Oeste, things were different. I soon learned that finding my place among a group of kids in the neighborhood came with a complex set of herd behaviors. To say that I was beyond naïve was a gross understatement. I was drawn into fights I didn’t provoke, pushed into puddles I didn’t intend to step in, blamed for stealing or breaking things I neither stole nor broke. Because I was younger, I became the by-default recipient of most nefarious happenings in the neighborhood. Whenever there was need to blame someone for something gone wrong, I became the designated perpetrator.

I was the youngest of a group of boys that wandered about the calles in my neighborhood. This was our playground.

It didn’t help that my father was a well-respected businessman in the neighborhood who had no tolerance for me being out of line, even in unprovoked situations where I might have been trying to defend myself. My father embraced a “customer is always right” and “turn the other cheek” philosophy, which I suspect served him well with his customers. He was a polite, albeit big and muscular man, who exuded and demanded respect, and who actively avoided altercations. What this meant for me was that if I ever took a swing at any of the neighborhood kids, even in self-defense, and a parent ever came to complain about me to my father, it didn’t matter who did what, or when. I was always in the wrong.

It was under such tenuous circumstances that my childhood socialization and coping mechanisms soon imploded. The boys in the neighborhood nicknamed me “Lagrimitas” (“little tears” in Spanish). And so it was, that whenever my face became the target of a flying fist or my knee the substrate for an asphalt confrontation from an ill-intentioned shove, I had to suck it up: Don’t fight back, turn the other cheek, succumb to the misery of passivity and walk off quietly, hold back the sobs, try to hide the anger, pain, and frustration that comes from humiliation and helplessness. That was it. But holding back tears was contrary to the physiology of the moment.

It also didn’t help that I was not a meat eater. According to my mother I was “anémico and asténico” because of this. I was what some would describe as a wimpy, scrawny kid. I used to faint at the sight of blood, and was known to collapse when overheated. In contrast, the rest of the kids in the barrio were tough, street-hardened kids. Félix was the most macho and Pupi, at age thirteen, looked and smelled like Kid Gavilán, the legendary Cuban welterweight champion. Pupi had glistening blue-black skin and well-developed muscles on his arms and torso. He even had bulging muscles on his forehead and neck and hair in his underarms.

Despite being skinny, I was a good technical boxer and I could outrun any kid in Matanzas Oeste, except for Armando, who was fifteen and already had facial hair. Abuelo taught me to punch well, but the accuracy of my punches was consistently undermined by the lack of impact-force behind them. And so it was: if I was to coexist in the barrio, I had no choice but to have hope for the golden rule. But just in case, as I perfected the art of turning the other cheek, I learned to run fast whenever I had to.

Then there was Helio. A habitual brawler, Helio would put my golden rule to the test on several occasions. A head of curly black hair topped his greasy forehead, and tufts of unruly eyebrows rimmed a pair of beady, menacing eyes. When he spoke, a stench of rotting meat seeped out between and around a mouth busied by thick lips and several missing teeth. He was short and stocky and rolled his sleeves over his biceps.

Helio was an only child. His father was a bricklayer who drank aguardiente on a regular basis. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Helio’s father beat him regularly, sometimes for no obvious reason. I overheard Mami talk with neighbors about Helio’s mother not being a very motherly woman. I think Helio had no one in his family to teach him about the golden rule or the importance of cheek-turning. But I lacked the intellectual maturity to rationalize this at the time, so I couldn’t help but dislike him intensely.

I don’t know, but Helio was an angry person whose purpose in life, it seemed, was about stealing fruit from La Plaza market or skipping school or even beating up people like me who could not defend themselves. Most of the other neighborhood kids tolerated him but no one ever sought him out to play.

They say that every person has his day of reckoning. My uncle was greatly instrumental in allowing my day of reckoning to materialize. He knew that I was being bullied by someone in the neighborhood. Uncle Yayo sensed that I had withdrawn for several days. I came home from school and found excuses not to play outside. He asked me if something was wrong, and although I tried to avoid the topic, the lagrimitas on my face would ultimately betray me.

Uncle Yayo told me that as a child he had been bullied. He told me that his uncle Luis gave him a solution to the problem and that although he knew my father wouldn’t approve of it, he felt it was time for him to intervene on my behalf. I was mortified. I didn’t want my uncle to embarrass me in front of the neighborhood kids by trying to defend me.

The next day when I stopped to see Tio Yayo, he said he had something for me. From the glove compartment of his Chevrolet he pulled an object which was wrapped in brown paper, and tied neatly with twine. It was about four inches-by-one and triangle-shaped. When he handed it to me, it felt dense. I suspected it was a rock wrapped in paper. Indeed, it was a chunk of heavy, white marble.

“Keep this in your back pocket at all times,” he said. “The next time anyone does something really bad to you, you just quietly stand up, take a step back, slide your fingers into your back pocket and smile.”

“Smile for what?” I said.

“You smile to make him think you are not angry. At the same time, you are gripping your rock tightly in your hand and you are positioning yourself just far enough not to be reached by the bully, but not too far to miss your target,” Yayo said.

“You mean, you expect me to throw the rock at him? Is that what you mean?”

“No, not exactly. I want him to catch the rock that you will be pitching to him as fast and as hard as you can throw it. If he is not quick enough to catch it, then it becomes his problem. Then you apologize politely and walk away.”  That is what Uncle Yayo said to do.

I was totally confused. I could not believe my uncle, a highly respected teacher, was telling me to do this. Urging me to deliberately hurt someone went counter to everything Mami, Papi, and Abuela ever taught me. At the same time, however, I was desperate. I felt trapped in my own anemic, asthenic, and scrawny body. I had had it with hiding from Helio when I got home from school. The taunts and shouts of “Here comes Lagrimitas, crying down the street… Are you going to hide under your mami’s blusa?” were more than I could take. Now that I was almost ten, I didn’t like the idea that girls in the neighborhood would see me crying and running away—especially Catia.

I put the rock in my back pocket and headed home. That night I hid it under my pillow so Mami wouldn’t see it. The next morning, I hid it under the mattress and when I came home from school and changed into my play clothes, I placed the rock in my right rear pocket.

As I went outside that day, I felt different somehow. I knew I wouldn’t likely do what my uncle suggested, for it was not my nature to be violent, but I felt more secure knowing, just in case that I had protection. I noticed I began to walk differently. I looked up instead of at the ground. I swung my arms with confianza y seguridad, instead of letting them dangle by my side.

Several weeks went by. There were no confrontations, no taunts from the kids. I began to think there was something special about my rock, that perhaps it was a talisman and that it protected me from the taunts and the bullying while still letting me apply the golden rule and avoid becoming the neighborhood pincushion. I had to get new paper to rewrap the rock every two or three days, as the sweat from my body and the friction from playing frayed the wrapping.

I began to think there was something special about my rock, that perhaps it was a talisman and that it protected me from the taunts and the bullying while still letting me apply the golden rule and avoid becoming the neighborhood pincushion.

One day, several of the kids had been talking and bragging about birds they had trapped in the fields. We called these small finch-like birds tomeguínes (grassquits). Prized for their beautiful song, many people in Matanzas trapped and kept these little birds as pets in homemade cages and aviaries.

Uncle Yayo, who built bird cages out of river reeds, helped me build my trap cage. This cage had a center compartment, in which a male bird would be placed as decoy. Tomeguínes are very territorial, and a singing male would attract other birds. On the side compartments of the trap cage there were rocking trap doors onto whose edges I glued thistle seeds. Birds attracted by the decoy’s song would land on the cage, hop towards the rocker panels in search of the seed. Upon landing on the rockers, their own body weight would push the rocker doors and they would fall through to the bottom of the trap, unharmed, but unable to flee.

Others in the neighborhood had similar traps. We would go out to the sugarcane fields early on weekends to trap the prized songbirds. By day’s end it was common to return to find ten or twenty tomeguines in our cages. We traded, sold, or kept the best birds, and let the others go.

I brought out my cage to show the kids a tomeguín I had trapped two days earlier at Juanito’s father’s farm. Uncle Yayo said he was an unusually fine bird, with the loudest and sweetest song he had ever heard. I placed the cage on the edge of the sidewalk at the base of the steps of the butcher’s shop. My little tomeguín with the olive-green body, fiery yellow breast and shiny black beak hopped to and fro in the cage. I knelt against the curb, with the cage in front of me. Henry and Oscar and Félix and Helio were sitting on the steps, with Helio nearest to the sidewalk.

As I began to tell them where I had trapped this bird, the little tomeguín started to chirp excitedly, then went into a singing flurry. The boys were amazed, as was I, at how loud, crisp, and clear this little bird’s song was. That is, all except Helio. He looked down with disdain at the cage, and as he uncurled his legs out from under him, he puckered up and spit on my cage. He then kicked the cage off the sidewalk with his right leg. I fell back onto the street, trying to catch the tipping cage.

I eased the cage onto the curb, then stood up slowly. Helio glared at me.

“Don’t you start to cry, now, Lagrimitas… You can just take your little tomeguín and shove it up your…” Helio seethed. He was shouting so close to me that I could smell his foul spittle as it sprayed my face.

I stepped back, smiled, and reached with my hand around to my back pocket, just like Tio Yayo said. In one single, smooth motion I put my left foot forward, leaned back slightly as I unsheathed the rock. All I can remember was an uncontrollable fury unfurling inside. In a blur I swung my arm forward with a strength I never before experienced. I flung the rock at Helio. His groin got in the way.

In utter disbelief, Helio looked at me and tried to lunge. His fists were curled, his rotten teeth showing, eyes glaring. But as he tried to get to his feet, his eyes rolled upwards in a most unusual way, like a doll’s eyes. He grunted, exhaled, fell to his knees, and then face-down onto the concrete sidewalk. His arms lay curled below his hips. Helio lay there, limp, like an abandoned marionette.

They all thought I had killed him. He wasn’t moving. A man across the street ran towards us, lifted Helio up, and put him in a car with the help of a woman passerby. They took him away.

The other three boys stood silent, arms at their sides, looking like they’d just seen a ghost.

I knew what I had done. I thought of my father. I thought I would go to jail. Then I thought I would go to Hell for having killed Helio and that God would never forgive me.

I ran up the street to Abuela’s house and slammed the front door shut, panting heavily. My heart raced. I felt flushed. My chest was tight and my fingers tingled. This time there were no tears. Leaning behind the closed front door, I felt an ugly calm inside. I had left my trap cage and my little bird by the curb. But I felt like the whole neighborhood knew what a terrible thing I had done. I could not go back out in the street.

I stayed at Abuela’s house until it was dark and then scrambled to the apartment behind Papi’s grocery. I didn’t eat my dinner that night. Luckily, Papi had been at a Chamber of Commerce meeting since earlier that afternoon, so he didn’t come home until after I was in bed and he didn’t know about Helio. Mami also did not know what had happened because Abuela had not told her. I buried my face in a comic book after draping my mosquito net over the posts on the bed when Mami came to kiss me good night. She must have assumed I was asleep, turned out the light, and closed the door. I lay awake in the darkness for most of the night. No tears.

The next morning, I left for school. No news of Helio. The police had not come to arrest me yet. I prayed at the Irene Toland Chapel, but I felt no remorse. All I could feel in my heart was an empty, emotionless dark space.

When I got off the bus from Irene Toland School that afternoon, my father was standing at the corner, waiting for me. Helio’s father was there, as was Helio’s mother. There were several neighbors around them, including Oscar and Henry and Felix. None of them could look me straight in the face. I scanned for the familiar drab, tan uniform of Matanzas policemen, but there were none in sight.

My father said nothing. He twisted my ear in front of all those people and dragged me inside the grocery store. He slid off his leather belt as he pulled me into my bedroom.

I felt no pain. The sound of the leather snapping midair before it struck was welcomed. I deserved punishment. I realized then, as I lay face-down on my bed, accepting my father’s anger and feeling the sting of the leather on my buttocks that Helio must not have died. Still no tears. Ugly calm inside.

I realized then, as I lay face-down on my bed, accepting my father’s anger and feeling the sting of the leather on my buttocks that Helio must not have died.

I would find out later that night from my parents that Helio went to the hospital, that the neighborhood kids who were there explained to Helio’s mother and father what had happened. My father implored Helio’s parents not to call the police. They didn’t. Papi promised them I would be punished by being confined to my room for a month and that this would never happen again.

The month went by. My father did not speak to me for the whole time. I would come home from school, change into my play clothes, and sit on my bed. I read comic books and drew cartoons to ward off the boredom. I thought many times about escaping out the window and running to Abuela’s. I thought about running away from home altogether. Twice I packed some clothing, a penknife and some candy, and fashioned a bundle with a shirt whose long sleeves I knotted together and looped as a handle. I was ready to escape, but I didn’t. I was afraid.

I didn’t know what happened to my tomeguín or my trap cage after the incident. I was not allowed to visit or talk to Abuela or Abuelo, or to my Uncle Yayo, or to play with my dog, Yuti. My mother would never talk about the incident, but somehow I wished she could know how I felt.

After the month of home imprisonment ended, I felt both relieved and scared to be free. I didn’t know what would happen. Would Helio be waiting to ambush me? Had he been plotting to kill me? What would the neighborhood kids do?

They were all playing hide-and-go-seek on the early evening of my release. I walked down the street eating shaved ice with coconut syrup from a paper cone. I sat on the curb near where Félix was counting. The other boys ran off to find places to hide. Félix looked over his shoulder towards me. “Ocho, nueve y diéz… Here I come.” He nodded. I looked down and away towards my snow cone. I bit into the sugary slush.

One by one all but Henry ran to home base without being tagged. Félix tagged Henry and they walked towards me. Félix then patted me on the shoulder, bending down slightly to meet my eyes.

“Wanna play?” he asked.

 

An academic physician for over three decades with a primary emphasis in scientific writing, Ricardo Jose Gonzalez-Rothi is a relative newcomer to creative writing. He has had his fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry featured in Acentos Review, Heal Literary Magazine, Gainesville Magazine, Foliate Oak, bioStories, and the journal Chest.

We Race American

0.1 We race distinctly American.

.2 The run in itself is familiarized as 26.2 miles—a half 13.1. Here, we change to meters as the distances shrink: a 10K is more impressive than 6.2 miles in the same way that a 5K sounds further than 3.1. And yet with the marathon, there is something less glamorous when stated as 42.195 kilometers—we do the conversions in our heads to spite ourselves. For something that seems archaic, predating the cities in which I have lived, there is something distinctly American about the whole endeavor—of how large and sprawling it is, of how we run in the streets paved with gold.

.3 In the 1908 Summer Olympics, Irish-American Johnny Hayes took home the gold medal for the marathon race. This was not without controversy: Dorando Pietri of Italy entered White City Stadium and turned the wrong way. Exhausted, Pietri collapsed from dehydration a total of five times as he attempted to make it to the finish line—the last 0.2 miles taking over ten minutes. Race officials ran over to help Pietri up each time he stumbled, essentially dragging him across the finish line. Hayes finished the race shortly afterward, thirty-two seconds off of the lead. However, due to Pietri receiving outside assistance, Pietri was disqualified. As a result of the dramatic nature of the race, there was a new interest in distance running in the United States: head-to-head races between Pietri and Hayes were scheduled in New York, with Pietri winning both times. The Boston Marathon, only ten years prior with a total of twenty-one participants, now boasted over 160 runners by 1909. One has to wonder, if Hayes had rightfully received silver, whether there would have been the same amount of excitement about long-distance running—we would still claim Johnny Hayes as “American,” yet we would put more emphasis on the “Irish” part; an Olympian forever hyphenated. There is something about second-place that seems so anti-American; the streets were not rumored to be paved with silver.

There is something about second-place that seems so anti-American; the streets were not rumored to be paved with silver.

.4 I was born in New Jersey. My father, too, was born in New Jersey—the first of his siblings to be born in the United States, although my grandparents traveled extensively when he was growing up: to Barcelona and back again; to Germany. When people ask me about the origins of my last name, I always lead with Catalan and work my way down—I typically follow up with a line about, My family is from Barcelona, to which a typical response is, So, Spanish. I have family members who refuse to speak Castellano. I have aunts that cross themselves when they hear the name “Franco;” those who balk at even the mention of the word rey. For the sake of argument, I say, Yes, from Spain, and shove my name and all of its vowels into my pocket, as if the ghosts an ocean away can hear me.

.5 In 1977, my grandfather brought five Catalan runners to the United States to run in the New York City Marathon—this was a common occurrence throughout my childhood, as we would always have visitors from Catalunya come stay with my grandparents, until, after six or seven days of take-out and cheeseburgers, my grandmother would cook a paella to try to drive the homesickness away. A newspaper article from the Asbury Park Press mentions these runners staying in people’s houses all throughout my grandparents’ neighborhood—how families in New Jersey would be rooting for the runners “from Spain.” My mother’s side is distinctly American, distinctly Brooklyn, although there are distinctions there, too: of city blocks and bars, of Scots-Irish last names. My other grandfather’s name, too, contains an I and a U, though it is through foreignness that I got to know the boroughs. It is through the visitors how I got to know my own country: tracing my grandparents’ names on Ellis Island, climbing halfway up the Statue of Liberty before my legs would give.

.6 While running there are moments when I feel as if I am a tourist in my own body—still exploring what will always be unfamiliar; how, despite knowing that a particular hill will be difficult, I am still surprised at how shallow my breaths are, as if the air hits something solid before entering my lungs. This is true of my surroundings: I run the same route with slight deviations, yet there is something new to be seen, always—I do not stop to see the refurbished boat on the Riverwalk; I do not buy a peach from the farmer’s market. During races, I travel to towns I have never been and see none of them but the time spent on the course; my body too tired to notice the nuances, my legs broken down at the end of the day to the point where the only thing I see is the inside of a hotel room and episodes of a television show I have seen far too many times before. I ask friends who are locals for recommendations of bars, of places to eat, of things to do, yet I know that there is no way my feet will carry me to these landmarks at the end of the day. Instead, I order a pizza from a chain that I am familiar with. Instead, I hit the road back home in the morning, stopping for breakfast on the way out of town.

I ‘pass’ as American in the same way that Hayes could but my grandfather and millions of others could not.

.7 The idea behind running is to transport yourself somewhere that does not exist at that moment. I am not a runner who is constantly thinking about the next stride, or how my breathing matches up with my cadence. I am one who tries to forget the moment—to focus on hypotheticals: what I will eat when I am done, how the rest of my day will go. I ascribe to magical thinking—the day before my football team plays, I picture how the game will go; who will score first, what big play will put us ahead. The day of the 2016 election I did this as well—I imagined the victory speech with the repetition of the phrase “stronger together;” I imagined the space I would inhabit. In the days afterward, I imagined an alternate route—a recounting of steps, a way to feel less alien in a country where I was born, despite the fact that I speak the language without an accent, despite the fact that I do not need to explain to strangers where I come from unless they ask me to spell my last name. I “pass” as American in the same way that Hayes could but my grandfather and millions of others could not. Yet, even in this reimagining, I am simply visiting—the world will end well before my stopwatch does. How I feel in any world does not make others feel any less out of breath.

.8 When my grandparents first moved to this country, my grandmother spoke three languages, though none of them was English. She learned the language through talk radio and through the walls of their apartment, where the landlord would yell and curse about lord knows what. A photographer came by one day selling his services; for a fee, he would take a family photo as well as give them a United States government savings bond. My grandmother, hearing the words “United States Government,” let the photographer take the photo, for fear of some semblance of repercussion. Many years later, after my grandmother had passed her citizenship test, my grandparents’ household was known as “the Puerto Rican family,” as if there were no other plausible reasons for using a language foreign to suburban ears—as if there is only one place where our families could possibly be from.

.9 After settling in New Jersey, my grandfather ran for the Shore Athletic Club—the same club that houses all of Johnny Hayes’s accolades: his Boston Marathon second place trophy, his Olympic gold. Shore A.C. was Hayes’s adopted club in the same way that it was my grandfather’s—Hayes ran Boston under the umbrella of the Irish American Athletic Club, whereas my grandfather ran New York with A.C. Catalunya, a group he helped found. There is a statue of Hayes in his home county of Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland. There is a monument to my grandfather at the base of Montjuïc in Barcelona, Catalunya. There are no monuments of either of these men in the United States—instead, they exist only as trivial anecdotes: Do you know the story of the 1908 London Marathon? Did you know that my grandfather founded the Barcelona Marathon? Small items that are concrete only in that they are facts. However, the truth grows old and fleeting—we replace old with new to the point where we forget where we came from, but we are remiss to remember the middle parts; the ninetieth mile in a life of thousands, until all of the breaths seem to blur together.

 

Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, most recently the lyric-memoir i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms), and Enter Your Initials for Record Keeping (Cobalt Press), a collection of essays on NBA Jam. Recent essays on topics ranging from long-distance running to professional wrestling appear in The Collagist, Catapult, The Rumpus, Runner’s World, and elsewhere.

How to Disappear

Here is how they disappear:

Slowly, and then completely. The phone calls go from once a week to once a month, then a text message here or there; a string of emails at two in the morning full of drunk poems and questions like: How am I supposed to stop shooting dope when the asshole guard who raped me at the county jail likes all the Facebook pictures of my four-year-old daughter?

I return the emails when I wake up, I try to take the phone calls, try to remember to extend invitations to come to literary readings, send links for free counseling, always sign the correspondence with love, or you got this, or I am proud of you. My writing students from jails and prisons and rehab centers—even though they are disappearing, they keep writing their stories down, as if the ink will provide evidence once they’ve gone.

*     *     *

Here is how they disappear:

Mostly to heroin, but also to handguns. I have come to see these things not as different, but as two sides of the same Buffalo nickel, hot and sweaty in all our palms, burning holes in our pockets until they find the perfect time to detonate.

I look up statistics as if numbers will give me solace or prove me wrong. 47,000 hand gun deaths a year; 52,000 heroin overdoses, to say nothing of the other ways drugs and drug cocktails kill us.

*     *     *

Here is how they disappear:

My writing students from jails and prisons and rehab centers—even though they are disappearing, they keep writing their stories down, as if the ink will provide evidence once they’ve gone.

First, to themselves. Microscopically, imperceptibly. Only later do they disappear to those around them. The people who love us manage to find ways to glimpse the familiar even as our eyes become strangers in the mirror. No, first we disappear to ourselves.

Like Terra, who, when I met her, had never even visited a city. Who had never been outside rural Western Pennsylvania. When I met her at the county jail, she wrote pieces about not fitting into her housing unit. How all the other girls were talking about drugs—she’d smoked pot once in high school; it made her sick. In class, she rarely spoke in volumes above a whisper, and when she did she inevitably broke down in tears about how much she missed her children and her dog.

She stayed at county for two years. The last time I saw Terra she told me she’d married a man through a toilet bowl. I’d heard about this from staff—how the plumbing in the building allowed for makeshift telephones to the cells directly above and below one another; drain the water from the toilet bowl and thrust your head toward the bottom; project your voice. Or whisper. Make a love connection. Terra, in her new white-girl braids, told me proudly she’d found a new man who treated her like a queen. Her speech was full of Hilltop slang; she’d gotten a shitty tattoo of a rose and crossbones on her wrist. She bragged about making the best jail juice in the whole place.

There she was: disappeared.

When I use the bathrooms at the jail, at the prison, the mirrors are foggy, made of something other than glass. I assume for safety—something unbreakable, something that can’t splinter into shards. Looking into the distorted, gray, non-reflection, I imagine it might be easy to forget what I look like. To slowly become convinced that I am not full of specific detail—the new wrinkle I grimace at on my forehead. To forget the particular shade of hazel that names my eyes. Without truth staring back at me, I could so easily begin reflecting the faces around me instead of my own.

*     *     *

Here is how they disappear:

Into un-medicated freedom. Freedom that does not provide psychiatric care or follow-up visits or counseling. Freedom that depends on self-advocacy that is almost impossible.

Like Will. Will wrote poems about love. Long, winding, curlicue poems that professed the kind of love even fairy tales don’t claim is real.

And he wrote poems about a smashing kind of violence. Rip your teeth out violence. No one will recognize your face again violence.

Will was the teacher’s pet. Especially for an unexperienced teacher who often fumbled over her words, explained complicated ideas with even more confounding examples. I was a teacher who was grateful for the student who always had an answer, a comment, who raised his hand, always did the homework. Will never stopped smiling.

Once he asked me, “Is it possible to write something happy?”

I shrugged. “It must be,” I said, “but I don’t know how to do it.”

The next week I brought him the Romantics—the Byron and Blake poems that pontificated on the value of love above all else.

Will devoured them.

When he got out of county, he came to every literary event, attended each and every workshop we offered on campus, took the mic at all the readings. He brought his girlfriend, Precious. One night the love poem he recited was so amorous the audience thought he’d propose right then and there.

They broke up a few months later, and Will wrote about that, too. He asked me out on dates, and I said politely and firmly: no, no, another no, one more no.

The last time I heard from Will he sent me an email with a poem about broken promises and one more entreaty: “I could keep you warm,” he wrote. “Don’t keep yourself cold all winter.”

The truth is, if I’d met Will anywhere outside the county jail, I probably would have taken him up on his offer. He was handsome, and charming, and talented, and had strong shoulders. The truth is, I often changed clothes two or three times before I went to class when he was my student. I wanted to look nice. I wanted to stay within the dress code, but just within it. As the years went by, my strategies changed on this front, but in those first classes with Will, my body was a strategy that I was willing to employ as quick as a rubric or a great anthology. On so many nights, it seemed like all I had.

A week after that last email, Will took Precious into the woods behind her house and shot her. Then he drove to a cousin’s house and shot himself.

Will told me once that he knew it was wrong, but he was most stable in prison. “My psych meds are expensive, Sarah,” he’d said. “It’s not cheap to have psychosis.” He laughed when he told me this. Will was always in a good mood.

I only knew Will in jail, on those expensive, stabilizing psych meds that let his brain smile and write poetry and read all of William Blake.

I am glad those are my memories of Will, glad I will always know the side of him that wanted proof that poets, too, could be happy. That we do not only put pen to paper in despair. And I am glad that I did not know Precious, as selfish or blind as that might seem. Because it is easier that my affection for Will not be complicated by affection for his dead girlfriend, for her children, for the violent ends.

And then, just like that: disappeared.

*     *     *

And here is how they disappear:

In the mail.

Every few weeks, I get letters with “Department of Corrections” return addresses. The letters are dated six months, nine months previous. They are about events long since passed, requests now expired and thought to have been ignored.

I imagine the letters in a giant bin of mail, fading with their expensive stamps and standard-issue paper. What is a letter to do if it can’t be sent? It sits, becoming unlike itself, disconnecting its purpose from its physical presence—disappearing.

*     *     *

And here is how they disappear:

Out in the street, broad daylight, begging for change for a get-well bag.

Lisa jumps in and out of my life, mostly when she needs something. When I move out of my apartment, she comes in a borrowed truck for a twin mattress and some bookshelves.

I only knew Will in jail, on those expensive, stabilizing psych meds that let his brain smile and write poetry and read all of William Blake.

I see her on Liberty Avenue twice: once, she tells me she’s got a new waitressing job at Thai Cuisine. The next time, she says she’s staying under the Bloomfield Bridge, but she’s gonna get to a methadone clinic soon.

I see her at the Sunoco, catty-corner to the hipster bar, both of us buying cigarettes. She says she’s with her Pap, but when she jumps into the Chevy idling at a pump, he doesn’t look like anyone’s Pap I’ve ever met.

And then she texts, and says, “I fly a sign on the corner of Penn and Fifth Avenue most days. It’s a few blocks from Chatham. I always imagine I’ll see you drive by.”

Lisa was a full-time art teacher at the ritzy all-girls private school five years ago. She was married. Had two kids, then a third. But her baby was born with a rare genetic heart condition. Long QT Syndrome. When she tells the story at the rehab center where I meet her teaching a creative writing class, I gasp.

She looks up from her paper. “I know,” she says, “it’s sad.”

“It is,” I say. “But I know Long QT.”

Lisa looks back, shocked, because most people, most doctors even, don’t know about Long QT. “How?” she asks.

I tell the story of my boyfriend who died next to me in a movie theater, almost twenty years ago now. Long QT, we found out, a year later.

After her baby died, suddenly and in the crib, she started taking pain killers. Five years later, she’s on a street corner two blocks from her old teaching job, begging for change to pay her dope dealer.

She looks like a dead person.

When I see her, after the text, I drive her home. She’s still managed to keep the little house she bought in Larimer before the divorce and the drugs and the looking like a dead person. How she’s held onto it, I don’t know. Maybe a mom, some generous aunt, maybe her ex-husband keeps paying the mortgage. I buy us Thai food—green curry and thick noodles with syrupy brown gravy that I know she is too sick to eat. Her house is immaculately clean. Her paintings hang on every square inch of wall space. But it smells like dope seeping out of sick skin—a smell I wonder if I’ll ever really know how to find the precise words for.

I called my boyfriend before I went to pick her up. “I’m not going to give her money,” I said.

“Try to find something specific you can help her with,” he told me. “Ask her if she has an ID. She needs a current ID to get into a clinic.”

It turns out she does need an ID, but more than that, she needs dope, because we both know she’s not going to drag herself to the DMV or Public Health sick. I give her $60.

I know it’s probably wrong, but sometimes, I justify to myself, people just need someone to be kind to them even when they’re doing the wrong thing. Sometimes you need someone to help you get well without judging you for being sick. I remember all the times I was dope-sick. How humongous the kindness of strangers seemed, how powerful, when everyone crossed the street to avoid me coming. I still remember a woman who gave me her Yoplait at a bus stop; the nurse who quietly brought me a pencil during detox so I could write on the scraps of paper I’d found; the generous regulars at the bar who could look at me and tell I hadn’t had my medicine for the day, would just slip me a $20 before they’d even finished their first beer. These people live in an outsized glory in my memory. They are the heroes who saw me as human.

And so, $60.

The next night I get a text message that Lisa has overdosed in the parking lot of the Onala Club during a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

There. Disappeared.

When I went to Lisa’s house, I could feel the insides of my own body slowly and serenely disappearing. I was still a body, but where my person was, I don’t know. I was leaving my present-Sarah, and replacing her with five, six, seven different versions of me. I was a college administrator—responding phenomenally poorly to what was, in some sense, a work situation. And I was a woman in recovery, who wasn’t going to flinch at a little dope-sickness and desperation. I was a writer—and yes, now it’s material. And I was a teacher, and I was also a junkie.

What percentage of me went to Lisa’s house because I knew it was a place where maybe I, too, could get high? What percentage of me wanted to save the day, and get credit for it? And what percentage of me wanted to gaze at the disaster of a woman disappearing in front of me, and be grateful that I had somehow been spared? Gotten out almost scot-free.

Some of me was fifteen, and some of me was twenty-eight, and some of me was thirty-five, but at Lisa’s house, I remembered why, in some part, I keep going back to these places and meeting the people who share their stories with me. I felt it. I felt the draw of being a disappeared person, the syrupy allure of fading into a square of wax paper, a thumbprint of black tar. The seduction, the power to say: Here I am, but now, watch me, I’m gone. I am my own magic trick. Done disappeared.

 

Sarah Shotland is the author of the novel Junkette, and a playwright whose work has been widely produced. She is cofounder of Words Without Walls, which brings creative writing classes to jails, prisons, and rehab centers in Pittsburgh. She is a 2017-2018 fellow at Santa Fe Art Institute’s Social Justice initiative, and teaches in the MFA program at Chatham University.

Testimony

I wear my purple suit to testify against my father. Deep-hued and simply tailored, it masks my insecurities, costumes me in a longed-for confidence that I hope will belie my fear. I resist smoothing the brushed-gold buttons on the jacket, avoid fingering the garment’s knotted rayon slubs. Instead I worry the flat gold pendant around my neck that bears the Hebrew symbol chai, which means “life.” My grandmother gave it to me when I was born.

My sister, Jean, has decided to sue our father for sexual abuse from the time she was a toddler until well into her teens. She is thirty years old but the statute of limitations in Michigan is liberal and tolls as long as memories keep surfacing. Because the traumas flood her psyche like sewage backing up after a storm, the statute continues to run.

Jean’s lawyer wants me to provide corroborating evidence, state for the record what I observed between my sister and my father. But Jean and I are eleven years apart and I cannot corroborate with absolutes; while he was violating her I was at school, with friends, on dates, shopping, married. Or sequestered in my room, inhaling books and their alternative realities that, from the time I could read, sheltered me from the turmoil inherent in nine children attempting to navigate an environment forged by maternal alcoholism and paternal violence.

Although my own psychological septic system continues to overflow, I have no interest in suing my father: I have not spoken to him for more than seven years and feel safe in the silence. But I admire my sister’s courage. And because I know that speaking out will help my own healing, I can testify about how he sexually abused me.

“To help establish a pattern,” I tell Jean’s lawyer when he unexpectedly calls me at my job as communications director for a bar association.

“Exactly,” he says. “I’ll send you an affidavit to sign. You’ll be deposed some time after that.”

Shaking, I hang up the phone and call my therapist.

“Of course, you’re scared,” she says. “But you’re ready, you’re safe, and you’ll be fine.”

I remind myself to believe her and attempt to finish a press release about lawyer community service. But instead, I stare at a window washer riding up the side of the parking garage across the street. He stands on chrome scaffolding, brushes against the orange cyclone fencing that keeps him safe. Cables dangle from his perch, yellow and black ropes that sway like pendulums over the garage walls. I want to reach out and grab one.

Several days later, I receive the affidavit. Written in legalese, it is a jumble of words that says everything yet nothing; that what happened to Jean happened to me, and so help me God, I’m telling. A vacationing panic attack returns and reminds me of the prohibitions against speaking out, of my father’s threats to kill me if I do, his promises that no one will believe me anyway. My psychiatrist increases the dosage of my medication.

“The affidavit is too broad,” my own lawyer says. “We need to make it as detailed as possible. Tell everything. Convince the judge that you’ve nothing to hide, that your father’s a monster.”

In the weeks following, I try to remember what I was wearing when I answered the telephone and volunteered to testify, which suit I will donate to Goodwill so it won’t betray me again.

*     *     *

Although my own psychological septic system continues to overflow, I have no interest in suing my father: I have not spoken to him for more than seven years and feel safe in the silence.

I am the family golden girl. Intelligent and restless like my father who, in his thirties, returned to school to become an English and drama teacher. Quiet like my mother who, between drinking binges and depressive episodes, wrapped herself in the living room drapes and peered through the plate glass at our cats padding across the front lawn, at the crazy people entering and exiting the home office of the psychiatrist across the street. My father liked me that way and I didn’t want to trigger his rage; my sister and brother had that responsibility. He brought me books, gold charms to add to the bracelet he bought for my birthday, a corsage for my piano recital. When I met his friends and students he smiled, said, “This is my dumb one.” He pointed to my beautiful sister Naomi. “And this is the ugly one.”

My mother lived her days in captivity, her slurred words and erratic behaviors raging through our lives like a squall.

“She’s nuts,” my father said, and nodded toward where she lay curled on the living room floor, weeping and muttering. “Look at her. Crazy.” I turned away.

My father worked at his typewriter in the basement where there were witches, he said. We’d better listen to him or he’d throw us down there and they’d get us. In the kitchen he sliced rotting mangoes and pears for chutney. We’d better listen to him or he’d chop us all up into bloody pieces.

“I hate you!” my sister said, and punched him. He bloodied her nose.

“Cock sucker,” my brother said. My father lunged at him with a knife.

I stayed safe in my room with a book.

When I was in second grade, my father came to my bed at night, wrapped his arms around me, reached between my legs and rubbed. He taunted me with the consequences of telling. “They’ll say you’re crazy, too. Lock you up, throw away the key. Then the spiders will eat you.”

When he went to the bathroom or across the hall to my sister or fell asleep, sated, I crept downstairs. “Daddy’s bothering me,” I said to the tangle of sheets that was my mother.

“Go back to bed. You’re having a nightmare.”

Years later, my cousin told me that my father called me his rose. I think of the deposition, wonder if my father now calls me his thorn.

*     *     *

Jean, my youngest sister, is the eighth child. When she was four years old and our baby brother was born, her imaginary friend, Jane, moved in with us. Jean carted Jane everywhere, talked to her, bathed her.

“See,” my father said. “The only people who like you are invisible.”

Three years later, during my first semester of college, I came home for a visit. Jane was gone, replaced by a real child from the neighborhood. As Jean dressed to go play, I noticed her arms. Scabs covered them. Fresh and bleeding. Old and crusty. I smoothed my hair back and remembered seventh grade honors English, the double class periods where, as I listened to the silence of others working, I carefully peeled brown crusts from my scalp.

“What happened to Jean?” I asked my mother. She lit a cigarette, told me how my sister picked at the skin on her arms, then the resulting scabs. She raised an eyebrow, blew out a thin line of smoke.

I approached my father, suggested that they take Jean to a counselor. “Aren’t we little Miss Psych 101,” he said.

In the sixth grade, Jean threw her desk and the district transferred her to another school.

“She just wants attention,” my mother said about the requirement that Jean go into therapy.

After several sessions with a social worker, Jean ran away. When she returned, my parents sent her to a home for delinquent girls and, later, committed her to a local state hospital. She ran some more, got pregnant a few times, had abortions. Pregnant again at seventeen, she married the baby’s father. The marriage lasted less than a year.

*     *     *

In spring 1986, I was thirty-four and in therapy for the fourth time: I had recently returned to my marriage after a five-month separation that I’d initiated without understanding why. During treatment my memories started surfacing, then consuming me. As panic suffocated me and dizziness spun me to the couch, my husband, a full-time graduate student, assumed most of the parenting responsibilities for our young sons. Each night I lay in his arms in bed, sweating and breathless, trying to convince myself that he was not my father, that I was safe. “He’ll kill me,” I said, and sobbed, shook.

My husband clutched me tighter, kissed the top of my head.

My father worked at his typewriter in the basement where there were witches, he said. We’d better listen to him or he’d throw us down there and they’d get us.

During the day, I sold furniture in a shop near our home. As long as I went to work, I could pretend that I was fine, I was capable, I was calm. But even when business thrived, traffic in the store was light. So in between chatting with my coworker about his social life or my kids or the inanity of what we were doing, I wandered around the showroom from bookcase to bar stool, stopping at a dresser with a mirror that showed me, when I dared to look, that even if I was a ghost, I was a visible one.

One night that summer, I was washing dinner dishes while my husband read to our boys. The telephone rang. I turned off the water, dried my hands. “Hello?” I said.

“Hi, Leah,” my father replied. “You feeling any better?”

“I don’t want to talk to you!” I slammed down the receiver and returned to the sink, where I turned the water back on, twisted it off, stared out the window, shook my head. With my teeth, I tore the nail from my pinkie.

*     *     *

After Jean files her lawsuit, she calls me frequently. Our mother is named codefendant, she says, and, several months later, in June 1992, our mother calls me, enraged. “Doesn’t she have enough attention already?” she says. “What’s she doing this to me for? The money? That’s it, Leah. It must be the money. Doesn’t she know Dad doesn’t have any, he’s a teacher?”

Jean pleads with me to make it stop, the nightmares that wake her, the day terrors that stalk her, the clattering chaos of her kids being kids as she huddles in the corner of her living room, knees bent, head tucked, arms clutching her gut. As she whispers and sobs, I watch the air from the vent on my kitchen floor ruffle my calendar, separate yesterday, today, tomorrow.

My lawyer asks me to write about how my father abused me, what I observed in his relationship with Jean, with my other siblings, the general chaos and violence in our house. From it, he will prepare a detailed affidavit. I flush twelve pages from my system in little more than two days, amazed at the ease with which the truth escapes. His finished product annoys me. Though the facts are mine, the voice, the verbose writing, the disorganization belong to him. Still, I sign Leah Joy Silverman Gales and affix a date. I choose a judge to notarize it, a woman who is a vocal supporter of efforts to stop domestic violence.

As the months pass, my sister’s telephone calls ebb and flow. I talk to her out of love, out of a sense of responsibility and duty as the oldest. We rant about our father, deplore his actions in our pasts, his antagonism toward her now. He raped us both, the sonofabitch, asshole, slime. It doesn’t matter how, when, where, how often. We don’t talk about the other ways he abused us, so certain are we of the similarities in trespass, in violence. So much is family lore, anyway. The “tickle tortures” we accepted so matter-of-factly, the “Indian burns” he twisted into rawness around our forearms. The feel of his tongue in our ears, his fingers pinching our buttocks, groping our crotches. Didn’t all fathers walk around the house in boxer shorts, flaunting belly and balls like trophies? Or adorn their suits at election time with pins proclaiming, “Mike Hunt for President?” We fantasize how we’d like to slice him crotch to throat, let him bleed, see how it feels to be split open. We wonder about why, absent one short letter, he doesn’t try to find out the source of my anger, the reason his golden girl has cut him off. Jean is crazy, everybody knows that. But Leah? The smart one? The good one?

*     *     *

When my mother dies in early 1993 from emphysema and probable lung cancer, the lawsuit is well underway. I attend the funeral in California. Jean stays home. She doesn’t want to see the brother who offers her $10,000 to shut up, the sister who tells her to “just let go and let God.” Our father, though divorced from our mother for almost twenty years—nearly as long as the two of them were married—will certainly be there. It’s an event; he’s a director.

Six of my siblings attend. All have a relationship with my father, know that I’ve cut him off too, pretend that I haven’t. “Jean’s a bitch,” they say. “She’s crazy. Fuck her.” They study me as I enter my brother’s California contemporary home, wait for my father to return from viewing my mother’s body.

The front door opens with a squeak followed by a collective but quiet gasp. “Hello!” my father says to us all.

I am silent.

He’s upbeat but emotional, this man who cried through Pollyanna, and works the room like a politician desperate for votes. “How are the kids?” he asks me jovially.

My sibs look at one another as I mumble, turn my head, sit on the piano bench with my young nephew and begin to play something, anything.

My father asks if my husband, a professor, has tenure yet, how my job is going. I mutter an answer and get a bagel from the dining room, a hug from a brother, return to the piano. The phone rings. “I’ll get it,” my father announces. My brothers and sisters relax. I sigh, brush some poppy seeds from the skirt of my deep purple suit.

That night, a brother who regularly welcomes Grandpa’s offers to babysit the granddaughters says, “I know Dad’s an asshole, but you could at least talk to him. He feels bad.”

I stare at him.

A few months later, the judge assigned to my sister’s case orders both sides into non-binding mediation. My father now has two lawyers: his personal lawyer and the one from the insurance company that, if my father is found guilty, will be responsible for any settlements.

After the mediation, my lawyer calls me. “The mediators found in your sister’s favor,” he says. “Four hundred fifty thousand dollars worth.”

“Really?” I say. “That’s fantastic. It’s over, right? I don’t have to testify.”

“Assuming your father accepts the mediator’s recommendations,” my lawyer explains.

“I’m not giving her a fucking penny of my money,” my father tells my brother.

*     *     *

Jean and I continue our long-distance hand holding and hugs. She sails through her deposition, she says, proud that she’s healing, anxious to put all in her past. Pregnant with child number five, she asks if she and her boyfriend can visit over Labor Day weekend on their way to Tennessee. I can’t wait to hold her, see that she’s okay. Have concrete proof that we’ve both come this far.

We fantasize how we’d like to slice him crotch to throat, let him bleed, see how it feels to be split open.

In August, I attend a five-day Outward Bound course for women survivors of violence and, at its conclusion, collect the pin that reminds us of all we’ve accomplished. Though my panic attacks are diminishing, memories still steal my breath and remind me that I’m enmeshed in a process that most likely won’t end. But my children are healthy, my marriage stable, and every weekday morning I dress in a suit and pumps, drive downtown and publicize the good deeds of lawyers. I’m proud; I’m tough. Like a biker chick, my friends tease, and say that I’ll soon want a Harley.

The lawyers schedule my deposition for November, in Cincinnati, where I live. My sister’s and father’s lawyers will attend, as will my lawyer and my therapist. My father, playing coward, will stay home.

Except when it’s already tomorrow, time drags. I spend it in therapy and on hold with my lawyer, calculating his fees. When I travel to professional conferences, my pumps, purses, and pearls share space in my two-suiter with Charles, my ratty stuffed panda and confidante.

Finally, the week before Labor Day, I call Jean about her impending visit. Her telephone has been disconnected. The sister who lives in the area, who often takes Jean’s son for weekends, doesn’t have the new number, tells me Jean’s probably run again. I hear her chuckle softly over the phone, see in my mind the smirk, her self-righteous nod. “She’s nuts, Leah. You really think she’s going to hang around for that court case?”

Neither my nor Jean’s lawyers has information on her whereabouts. In extra therapy sessions, I vacillate from worrying about her safety to raging about her disappearance. She’s using me, I tell my therapist. She doesn’t need my testimony, hers is enough, she gets off on the idea of our father writhing even more. She wants our siblings to rally around her, thinks having me on her side will make that happen. I’m freaking out, I tell my therapist, while Jean’s laughing hysterically.

“Who are you doing this for, Leah?” my therapist asks repeatedly.

And always I answer, “Me.”

*     *     *

On the morning of November 5, I ease into my black-silk shell, step into my purple skirt. Before putting on my jacket, I lightly moisten my left upper arm and slip a temporary tattoo onto the skin. “Born Free,” it says. “Harley-Davidson.” I attach the Outward Bound pin to an inside jacket seam and, around my neck, fasten the chai necklace.

At the law office where my deposition is scheduled, I seat myself at the conference table and smooth my skirt. Around me sit the lawyers, my therapist, the court reporter. On the floor beside me, Charles the Bear scrunches inside my briefcase.

We make introductions, chatter mindlessly about the weather or the bar association or college football. My lawyer shuffles the pile of legal folders on the table in front of him, clears his throat. He reminds me that the court will seal the record, asks me if I am ready to begin.

“Yes,” I say, and nod.

The court reporter’s fingernails click codelike against the keys on her miniature keyboard. Do you solemnly swear? she says. The record needs to know.

Again I nod, then, “Yes.”

I take a deep breath and speak.

 

Leah Silverman writes in part to help raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual abuse in the Jewish community. Her fiction, which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has been published (under the name Leah Silverman Gales) in The Carolina Quarterly, Meridian, and Web del Sol, and is forthcoming on JewishFiction.net. Her nonfiction has appeared in River Teeth. A metropolitan Detroit native, Leah holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She currently lives in Durham, NC, where she is writing a memoir and making abstract art.