Sex Matters

“Are you a slut, or are you just plain thoughtless?” I heard Mother shout from the top of the stairs. I was in bed. On the landing, just on the other side of my bedroom door, Mother was not visible to me, but I could see her clearly in my mind’s eye, clad in a nightgown, hands on hips, glaring into the dark below as the creaky front door inched open. Mother was a light sleeper, and, until all five of her children were accounted for, she roamed the house like a ghost. She had taken her post on the stairs in order to intercept my sister, Charlene, who had now missed curfew by several hours.

My sister, I knew, had spent the better part of the night with her boyfriend. Recently, sitting cross-legged, knee-to-knee, in the middle of her canopied bed, Charlene had confided to me the story of her first sexual experience. This being my sister, I did and didn’t want to hear. Five years her junior, I knew little about sex, but I was curious. I wanted to know about sex, just not her sex. But I’d have to take what I could get. “Mark,” she whispered conspiratorially, “when I saw that thing pointin’ at me, Lord, I thought something was wrong with it.”

Erections, it seemed, had escaped my sister. Growing up with four brothers, how had she missed this basic physiology, I wondered. I tried to picture the scene, even as I tried not to picture the scene. This was the late 1970s, and toe socks with brightly colored horizontal stripes were in fashion among teenage girls like my sister. I could see Charlene’s toe socks spread eagle above her, her boyfriend, his dick at attention, striding across the room in her direction. Her socks, my sister explained, had played a key role in the encounter. “I’m keeping them on until I get married,” she assured me.

* * *

For Boys Only is the sex-ed guide Mother gave me when I turned thirteen. Written by Dr. Frank Richardson and published in 1952, this yellowed volume must have been a book my grandmother had given my uncle Allen, when he had become a teen around the time of its publication. As the tattered dust jacket explained, “It is written by a doctor in easy, plain everyday language that doesn’t try to ramble around or moralize over the facts that are a perfectly natural and necessary part of this startling but fascinating process of growing into manhood.”

And it was startling and fascinating. Framed as talks delivered in a high school chapel to a group of boys, with names like Jack and Harry and Tom, Dr. Richardson’s book explained the facts of life. As his narrator, the “Doc,” put it, “I talk to the fellows for a while, and then they pop any questions at me they want to, and I try my best to answer them. Some of them are really humdingers with no holds barred.” Jack and Harry and Tom were boy’s boys. They weren’t timid, sissy boys like me. With words like “gee,” and “golly,” they spoke with easy candor to each other and to the Doc. I’d never witnessed such openness, least of all among other boys.

But as a confirmed sissy-boy, I understood that I was not, nor would I ever be, Boy Scout material. My interest was not in nourishing my spiritual and moral character through love of the out-of-doors and an earnest vigor in working for God. Rather, I loved to accessorize.

My father was mostly mute about sex. His version of the facts of life was so indirect that I missed the topic altogether. Before my first middle school sweetheart dance, he asked with some solemnity, “So, is there anything you want to ask me about?” My immediate thought was, “Yeah, can I have twenty dollars?” It took me several minutes to realize that he was asking me to ask him about sex.

It was different with Doc Richardson. He was direct. “You remember I told you that the testicles make these sperms and store them in the body, floating about in a thick whitish fluid called semen,” he explained. “Whenever the storage tanks get too full, they empty themselves. Sometimes they do this at night, when a boy is dreaming about sex matters. Sometimes they do it without any sign at all except that the night clothing or bed clothes may be wet or discolored. This may happen several nights in succession, or as seldom as several weeks apart, or, in some boys, hardly ever.”

Huh? What can happen when you dream about “sex matters?” I was certain that if I had not read about nocturnal emissions, I never would have learned about them. With growing curiosity, I read on and waited in hopeful anticipation for my first wet dream.

I wondered, too, if my older brother John knew about this yet. He wasn’t much of a reader. When I asked if he had received the same book from Mother, he confirmed that he had, but he didn’t seem to have found it as startling or fascinating as I had. “I read the chapter about girls,” he grunted. That was all he would say on the subject.

About being gay, Dr. Richardson had nothing to say. There was no mention in For Boys Only of men having consensual sex with other men. There was only an opaque caution about illegal “monkey business,” of adult men corrupting young boys. When Tom said, “What I can’t understand is what makes older fellows, and sometimes even men that you’d think were decent people, try to get boys to let them do things to them that they know they ought not to,” Doc didn’t use the word pedophilia, but that’s what he seemed to be talking about. “It would take too long to tell you,” he demurred, “why some men get their satisfaction out of ruining young boys, and getting them started doing the same sort of thing with other youngsters. They are mentally ‘off,’ of course, and they really ought to be taken away for treatment.”

* * *

That one might be taken away for treatment was a genuine threat in the house where I grew up. We were unruly children, who often frayed our mother’s patience. “I’d pay to have you sent away,” she fumed whenever we misbehaved. Then she would pile us in the back of her Country Squire Wagon to visit a terrifying place in town called “The Last Stop.” This was a crumbling Gothic mansion, painted garish shades of purple, turned home for wayward children. Presumably, it was “the last stop” before one was sent to the Regional Youth Detention Center. When Mother was really angry, with no other reason to travel to the remotest outskirts of town, she would drive us to the YDC. Gripping the steering wheel in a trembling rage, she’d slow, just long enough for us to get a good look at its menacing razor-wire. As we took in the scene, Mother would glare at us in the rearview mirror. “Some day, you’re going to end up there,” she’d threaten.

Eventually, Mother made good on her promise, sending my oldest brother, Joe, to the YDC after he was caught stealing a neighbor’s mail. Afterwards, he made a tour of residential treatment homes, hospital psychiatric wards, and state mental institutions, before being housed at the Anneewakee Treatment Center near Atlanta. “Annewakee,” we were told, is a Native American name meaning “land of the friendly people.” But Annewakee was anything but friendly. Years later, long after Joe’s release, news reports detailed how its director, a one-legged pedophile named Dr. Poetter, encouraged sex between staff and patients because he believed it was “good for the boys.”

While stealing mail may have been the catalyst for Joe’s detention, Mom was motivated by a darker fear. She worried that Joe might be gay, and worse still, that he might turn her other sons gay too. One afternoon after Joe was sent away, she took me aside for a solemn chat. “Has he ever touched your . . . privates?” she asked. I didn’t understand what she meant. Did she mean my “private possessions,” like the miniature Swiss Army knife I hid deep in the pocket of my Billy the Kid jeans? Like Granddaddy, who was never without his pocket knife, with its beautifully iridescent mother-of-pearl handle, I guarded this tiny red treasure. Even so, I wouldn’t have minded if Joe touched it. He and I shared everything. As far as I was concerned, he could borrow anything of mine. Just as his privates were mine, so my privates were his, just for the asking. I considered Mom’s query, but I could not remember a time when Joe had borrowed my knife. “No,” I told her, I didn’t think Joe had touched my privates. But he could if he wanted to, I added, anytime he liked.

* * *

Like Mother, my father was vocal in his opposition to homosexuality. Not long after returning home from Annewakee, Joe was thrown out of the house for good. Then my father sat me down and gave me a good talking to about the fiery torments of Hell that awaited a “known homosexual.” He instructed me to call the cops if Joe stepped foot in the yard. My father’s homosexual anxiety, however, had deeper roots.

Roaming the yard in search of something to do one August afternoon, I was knocked unconscious when the better part of a Loblolly Pine fell on my head. After a visit to the emergency room, Mother offered a stop at Toys “R” Us. There she bought me my first doll, a handsome Boy Scout named Steve. Now I was not a Boy Scout, nor did I wish to become one. I didn’t even know any Boy Scouts. All I knew was that they liked to go camping, something else I did not wish to do. Sleeping under the stars, in the woods, with bugs, snakes, and who-knows-what other creatures held no interest for me.

What captivated me about the Boy Scouts were their accessories: The ubiquitous Swiss Army knife and the endless assortment of colorful patches, insignia, and emblems. The tooled leather belt with the antique finish. The animal tracks bandana, with illustrations of common woodland footprints. The felt Campaign Hat with leather hatband and chinstrap and Universal Boy Scout Emblem Hat Pin.

My father was mostly mute about sex. His version of the facts of life was so indirect that I missed the topic altogether. Before my first middle school sweetheart dance, he asked with some solemnity, “So, is there anything you want to ask me about?”

At eight years old, I could not have understood Scouting founder Robert S.S. Baden-Powell’s ideal of “muscular Christianity” that joined physical fitness with moral rectitude at the end of the nineteenth century. But as a confirmed sissy-boy, I understood that I was not, nor would I ever be, Boy Scout material. My interest was not in nourishing my spiritual and moral character through love of the out-of-doors and an earnest vigor in working for God. Rather, I loved to accessorize.

Sporting a swath the size of a dollar bill shaved from my scalp, and a dozen fresh prickly-black stitches, I held Steve Scout in my arms for the first time. Along with Steve, came several accessories: A Scouting Booklet, badges, an Official Scout Uniform, shoes, a jaunty red neckerchief. But this would be only the beginning. Steve would need a tent, a sleeping bag, the Steve Scout First-Aid Backpack, the Steve Scout Campfire, and, come winter, Steve Scout Snowshoes.

When my lesbian Buddhist aunt arrived from LA on Christmas Eve, I was certain that Aunt Jean would bring an exciting new Steve Scout Adventure Set from the West Coast. It would be one we could not find at our local Midtown Mall, where the anchor establishments were a Post Office at one end and a Laundromat at the other. Aunt Jean’s Christmas gift would be as exotic as she was. And she was. That she was from California would have been enough, but, to a boy growing up in the rural Deep South, that she was both lesbian and Buddhist was intoxicating.

What’s more, Aunt Jean worked as a DJ, announcing song titles on the in-flight radio station for a major airline. Her voice was smooth, with a hint of smoke, washed clean of the Southern accent of her Georgia kin. Her dark hair and eyes, her sharp, square chin, these could have been my father’s. But there the resemblance ended. Unlike her country relations, whose fashion sense was dictated by the Sears catalogue, Jean was sophisticated, glamorous. In her rich, ginger-colored Ultrasuede shirtwaist dress and black knee-high boots, to me, she was like one of Charlie’s Angels.

Not only, according to Mother, had Aunt Jean burned her bra, but she and her girlfriend, Barbara, also burned incense, much to Mother’s dismay, in Grandmama’s Wedgwood egg-cups, while they chanted before a makeshift altar in the guest bedroom: “Nam myoho renge kyo, nam myoho renge kyo, nam myoho renge kyo.”

My father embraced his little sister with jaw-clenching Christian duty. He was visibly unnerved by Aunt Jean, grinding his teeth and clearing nothing from his throat whenever she spoke. “Uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn, uuuhn.” At the same time, he welcomed his sister’s return home as a chance to coax her to Christmas Eve services at the First Baptist Church. If he could just get her in the door, then maybe the Holy Spirit would lay a hand on Jean. Maybe she would give up girls and The Eightfold Path. Maybe she would cancel her return flight to Sodom.

Just as she feared my brother Joe’s corrupting influence, Mother was certain that Aunt Jean would poison us all. When Barbara leaned in to receive a chaste peck on the cheek from Aunt Jean after the Christmas dinner blessing, I watched beneath the table as Mother’s nails dug deep into my father’s thigh. Later, I heard angry whispers in the kitchen: “I won’t have my boys exposed to her and that Barbara making out at my dinner table.” Whenever Aunt Jean came to visit, the air in our house was charged, and I eagerly drank in her electricity.

My heart sank on Christmas morning when all Aunt Jean pulled from her tiny carry-on, her only piece of luggage, was a small, shrink-wrapped basket of dried apricots, with a gift tag addressed to “The Hall Family.” Seeing my disappointment, Aunt Jean explained that Buddhists don’t give Christmas presents. Then she added quickly, “It won’t be a Christmas gift, but you and I could go to the mall tomorrow.”

The next morning, Aunt Jean borrowed my father’s red VW Bug, and we raced to beat the crowds of post-holiday shoppers. When she offered, “You can choose one toy, anything—anything you want,” I made a beeline for Bob Scout. But when I laid his box on the counter, Aunt Jean hesitated. She seemed to be doing a quick calculation in her head. I thought of the paltry dried apricots. Maybe I had overshot. I could feel Steve Scout’s emptiness in my own stomach.

“It’s only $12.99,” I pointed out. “You said anything.” But Aunt Jean was not searching her wallet. She was making a different sort of reckoning. Aunt Jean recognized that toys like GI Joe were “action figures.” Steve and Bob Scout were not. They were dolls, just like Barbie dolls and Ken dolls. Aunt Jean could also plainly see that Steve Scout was white and Bob Scout was black. Not only was her Deep South, white, sissy-boy nephew playing with dolls, but now he wanted a black doll.

“Are you sure that’s the one you want, Sweetie?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve already got Steve. I just need Bob so he’ll have someone to camp with. I’ve got the forest fire observation tower all set up.” Aunt Jean looked uncertain. She tugged at her crocheted vest.

“Well, you get Bob, then,” she said, “and let’s put out some fires.”

The house was quiet that afternoon as Steve toured Bob around the campsite, artfully staged under the Christmas tree. The only voices in the house were theirs, from a backpack filled with prerecorded camp-talk, activated by a pull-string. “Let’s make camp, here,” Steve and Bob Scout repeated again and again. “I’ll roll out the tent, and sleeping bags. You cook the fish.”

Later that evening, I overheard more angry whispers in the kitchen. Afterwards, Aunt Jean told us, as she and Barbara quickly gathered their things, that their visit would have to be cut short.

Soon after Christmas, Aunt Jean sent me a note. She inquired about Steve and Bob. In San Francisco, in a neighborhood called the Castro, she explained, there were lots of nice guys like Steve and Bob. When I was older, maybe I could visit her and Aunt Barbara to see for myself.

* * *

In my early teens, I had no notion of “gay,” and so I wasn’t looking for Doc Richardson to discuss the subject in For Boys Only. In retrospect, I understand that long before then I had had feelings for other boys, but I didn’t think of those feelings as romantic. Rather, I thought I just wanted to be like the cute, confident boys I admired at school. They were not my friends, only distant, mysterious objects. What I thought I felt for other boys was envy, not attraction.

I had much the same feeling for the boys who appeared one month in National Geographic World magazine. This was National Geographic for children, so the articles were about kid stuff. For a long time, I was captured by one story in particular, “An American Gymnast in the U.S.S.R.” “Few Americans have had the chance to train with Soviet athletes,” the story explained. “But thirteen-year-old Caleb Daniloff, of Washington, DC did.” In the article, Daniloff is pictured with classmates in a Moscow gymnastics school. Photos depict the young gymnasts in various poses. There is nothing sexual about the pictures. But there is a physical intimacy among boys that was foreign and strange to me, wholly unknown, and deeply captivating. One photo showed a boy in a perfect bridge pose. His hands and feet flat on the floor, his head and neck curving behind him, he thrusts his waist toward the ceiling. Another boy, his fingers spread wide and pressed firmly into the first boy’s abdomen and chest, is doing a handstand, his legs a rigid V in the air above his partner’s bridge. Their bodies are lean and taut, exposed in tiny shorts and tank tops. Pictured behind this pair is the American, Daniloff. He stands side-by-side with a Soviet boy. Each balances on one foot, the other foot, leg stretching up, up, held tightly in an outstretched hand. Their arms reach toward the ceiling. The two boys maintain their balance by holding hands with each other. I’d never touched another boy with such familiarity. At the time, I had no idea why I was so drawn to this image. But I could not take my eyes off it.

* * *

At the end of the winter break of my first year of college, I drove to Florida to pick up my friend Marcia. She needed a ride back to school. Our plan was to travel to my home in Georgia, stay the night, then return to campus near Atlanta the following day. In the car together, we did what we always did: We got high and sang along to Marvin Gaye and Lou Rawls.

I was twenty-one before I had my first serious boy crush. His name was Ethan. He had a beautiful, unruly mop of blond hair, which I suspected had been highlighted. His doe eyes were green as grapes, his smile electric.

The private college we attended was filled with well-to-do prep-school kids. They were high achievers, accustomed to excellence, entitled to it. They had credit cards and drove flashy cars. They had drugs of every description. These students, I was surprised to learn, studied as hard as they partied. The unofficial center of our small campus social life was a notorious club whose members were required to maintain a 4.0 GPA, even as they binge-drank and Hoovered up great piles of cocaine. At their parties, they doled out ecstasy like Skittles. In my small-town public-school experience, one could either be a top student or a drug fiend, but not both. It had never occured to me that the two aspirations might be successfully combined. I was intrigued. And so I studied diligently, and, to fit in, I bought a bong and a coke spoon.

Like me, Marcia didn’t belong. She was a scholarship kid, as unpolished as I. But she was smart and driven and always available to get high. Together, we studied and wrote papers late into the night, then drove the miles of deserted country roads that surrounded the tiny college town, smoking weed and singing “What’s Going On” and “Love is a Hurting Thing.” Marcia was unlike the genteel Southern women of modest, understated grace I’d grown up with. She was loud, brash, and direct, with a raucous laugh that filled a room. I was enthralled. But when she arrived at our house after Christmas, one look from Mother told me that she didn’t care for Marcia. The next morning, as soon as I made my way down to the kitchen, Mother looked over my shoulder and asked, “Where’s Marcia?”

I glanced back too, toward the stairs. “In bed, still asleep.”

Mother’s eyes narrowed. “That will not go on in a Christian home!” she shouted.

It took me an instant, as I shook off sleep, to understand her flash of rage. Mother had arranged for Marcia to take my sister’s now-vacant downstairs bedroom. My room was upstairs on the opposite side of the house. Mother imagined that we’d shared a room so that we could have sex. This was strictly forbidden. But I had no way of explaining why she was mistaken. Nothing could have been further from my mind. Yes, we had slept together in my bedroom, Marcia in one twin bed, I in the other. After a late-night ride around town, we were high as usual, and forgetful of the house rules regarding the sleeping arrangements of unmarried couples. Our infraction was, at any rate, less intimate than Marcia and I were accustomed to at college. There we often bedded down in my dorm room in a single twin bed. But it wasn’t what Mother assumed. Sex between Marcia and me was inconceivable. After all, she was dating my friend Steve, and they couldn’t get enough sex with each other. I was the friend to study with, get high with, and then fall asleep with. But not sleep with. Besides, Marcia had been telling me, almost since we met, that I was gay. I didn’t know what she was talking about. “Just because I like Patti LaBelle, that doesn’t make me gay,” I insisted.

“Since when did this become a Christian home?” I shot back to Mother. Marcia and I loaded the car in silence and made a quick exit. Mother didn’t speak to me again until sometime after Easter, when my father phoned and begged me to apologize. “Apologize for what?” I insisted. I wanted him to say what he thought I’d done, that I’d had sex under his roof—with a woman.

* * *

I was twenty-one before I had my first serious boy crush. His name was Ethan. He had a beautiful, unruly mop of blond hair, which I suspected had been highlighted. His doe eyes were green as grapes, his smile electric. Men and women alike pursued him. Everyone who met him seemed smitten. But Ethan was aloof, unavailable to all. Whether he was gay or straight was uncertain. Some days I would observe him sunbathing in the courtyard of our dormitory. I longed to stroke the angry purple scar, which marked the exit of his appendix. One evening, I surprised him at the sink in the communal bath on our hall. He was applying mascara. I wanted nothing more than to become that brush.

Just beginning to take my first tentative steps out to gay bars, I was elated one night to see Ethan in the same Midtown dive, Burkharts. He was leaning against a wall, drinking a seventy-five-cent draft beer, observing the scene, just as I was. Afterward, we began to talk and to acknowledge one another on campus.

As summer approached, I learned that Ethan had gotten a job at Cafe Intermezzo, an upscale coffee shop and bar, but he did not plan to start until after he returned from visiting family at the close of the term. Ethan didn’t know I knew about his new job. To be near him all summer long, while he was away, I too applied for a job at Cafe Intermezzo. I’d get hired and begin right away, while Ethan was gone. Then, when he started at the cafe, I planned, it would appear that he was following me, rather than the other way around. By then, I’d already know the ropes, and Ethan would depend on me to help him get acquainted in his new position.

In the meantime, I moved out of the dorm and into my first apartment. It was a tiny two-room basement flat in the home of blue-haired widow from Derbyshire, England. She had a vicious German Shepherd who pursued me every time I stepped foot out the door. But I chose this particular apartment because it had a fireplace. Whatever its drawbacks, come winter, I could imagine how romantic it would be, my first boyfriend on the futon in front of a blazing fire.

Cafe Intermezzo was opened late at night, in the heart of Buckhead. It was the last stop for posh crowds concluding a night at the theatre or out on the town, with fancy desserts and cocktails. Wait staff began early in the evening and worked until 2:00 a.m. After unwinding at the bar over drinks of our own, Ethan and I would go out to nearby dance clubs until dawn. If I was lucky, Ethan might suggest sleeping over at my place. As we spent more and more time together, my crush deepened. But so did my shyness. Whenever Ethan stayed over, I kept to my twin bed, while he slept alone on the futon, just feet away, by the empty fireplace. In the dark, I felt a deep ache as I listened to his slow, even breathing.

* * *

Thanks to Doc Richardson, I understood the mechanics of sex, but I could not imagine how it all got started, exactly. In my teens, I sometimes overheard conversations among peers about having sex. Some couples in high school behaved like old married folks, they’d been fucking for so long and with such regularity. But how did they get together initially? I couldn’t guess.

When I finally did find myself in bed with a woman for the first time, I was as surprised as she was. Sarah had visited the college writing center where I worked as a tutor and confided in me about a boy she had a terrible crush on. She was invisible to him, she lamented. His name was Ethan. While I did not reveal my own love-sickness for the same Ethan, I shared her palpable ache. Somehow we ended up at the newly-built Ecolodge near campus. While the encounter was fumbling and awkward, I was relieved. I was having sex with a woman. In spite of the insistence of friends like Marcia, this was clear evidence that I was not gay.

Not long after that, at a sprawling dance complex called Backstreet, I met a boy visiting Atlanta from Minneapolis. I watched while other men stalked him around the club. They shared my opinion of his handsome good looks. I would have to act if I was to be the one to capture his attention. Too shy to introduce myself, I sidled up next to him at the bar, making sure my bare arm lightly brushed his. My knees nearly buckled at the spark. Without turning toward me, he flashed a wry smile at the mirrored wall behind the bar, his eyes mischievous behind long, thick lashes. When Daniel introduced himself, I fell in love with his voice. Unlike my Southern drawl, Daniel had the polished Midwestern dialect of a television news anchor. I could have listened to him talk all night long. As he unspooled the contours of his life, I learned that Daniel had been a child gymnast, and later, an Eagle Scout. I’d never kissed a man before, but that night on the dance floor with him, I seized the opportunity. His lips remain vivid in my memory. They were full and insistent, his tongue curious. We kissed for hours. As the music thumped in our chests, we were so involved that other patrons gathered round several deep to watch. I’d never been kissed like that. This, I understood crucially, was what Doc Richardson had left out of his sex-ed guide, For Boys Only.

Daniel was slight, a few inches shorter than I. Looking down into his dark eyes made me feel tall, confident. I was delighted by this new sensation. Holding his face between my hands, I kissed his eyelids, gently plucking them up with my lips. In the early hours before dawn, after he’d stepped away for a moment, Daniel slipped up behind me, wrapping his arms around me in a fierce embrace. He was small, but powerful. I felt an opening inside me, like a taut spring had been released. The feelings of comfort and security were overwhelming. I was on the verge of something, which was a great mystery to me, even as I was about to enter into it. Although I never saw Daniel again after that night, for the first time, the romantic touch of another—a man—felt right and natural to me. With certainty, his lips, his embrace told me who I was.

 

Mark Hall is a professor of rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies at the University of Central Florida, where he directs the University Writing Center. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Flashquake, JMWW: A Quarterly Journal of Writing, Chelsea Station, and The Timberline Review.

Photo Credit: Nkosi Shanga

Counting the Beats

I slide a pinky beneath the leather band of my love’s watch and feel his humid skin. I love this virgin bracelet around his wrist, the manacle of tan line where he unbuckles the hours and becomes master of our time together.

We divide one moment from another with embraces, laughter, kisses, breath. My body is a timepiece wrapped around him, the moments gaining speed with our rocking.

Scientists have demonstrated that two living heart cells placed in a petri dish together will gravitate toward one another and their beats will synchronize. I haven’t worn a watch since I was eighteen, wary of anything that outpaced my pulse. A ticking watch might confuse my blood: which is the true heart?

My life has gentler cycles, beginning with the journey of the sun. Sundials are more human-paced; they cast lazy shadows and measure days by half hours, give or take. Before village bell towers, the sundial was king. Shadows slid off the sides of buildings—evening’s laconic striptease.

We once lived in a 400-year old cottage in Buckinghamshire near a parish church that tolled the hour at precisely twenty-three minutes past the hour, every hour. You could set your watch by it. I smiled when I noticed; a village clock set to my own obliviousness.

I tell time by statues, too—each stone shadow morphs and lengthens. Every evening as the sun sets, a muse of lyric poetry leans slowly, darkly, from her rooftop plinth on the Oxford skyline and bends across an alley, slinking onto a medieval wall. By nightfall half of her body has climbed into a window of a student dormitory. When the window is lit, her shadow disappears like a cat thief and all that’s left is her heavy half standing sentinel over the Bodleian. It takes just a second to arrest her movement after hours of progress toward that room.

Last year in a watchmaker’s store window display on via Romana, near Boboli Garden, I saw a still life of a disassembled pocket watch that appeared to float—invisible threads holding each minuscule component mid-air; wheels, cogs, spokes, screws and coils suspended in space as if the watch had been photographed in the act of explosion.

The anatomy of a second.

I can’t think of anything I’d like to do inside of a second. A kiss, even a blink, would fall outside the lines of that seismic tick.

In August I didn’t have to miss the reassuring punctuations of family life: doors opening and closing, laughter in an adjoining room, smells from the kitchen, wet footprints on the bathroom floor. My girls were with me.

In the time it takes to conceptualize a second, or pronounce its syllables, it’s gone. Loss comes soon enough. How thin can you slice a minute? What is its smallest atom?

I’d rather wear an hourglass around my neck than a watch on my wrist. My body is an hourglass, anyway, in shape and function. It tells me what time it is; its hungers and exhaustions toll bells in my mind. I wind my body by curling in a circle and letting my mind replay the day over and over, till I fall asleep.

I write this in January but illustrated nasturtiums still bloom above August on my wall calendar. I’m months behind the days. I sleep with a hot water bottle but refuse to acknowledge winter.

My calendar is just as nostalgic as I am.

If it’s still August, that means my daughters are still here in Florence celebrating my birthday with me and not back starting new lives in the states. They’ll be by my side here, no big deal, acting as though it’s normal to have a mother in exile. We’ll play out our old family routines as best as possible, turning blind eyes.

In August I didn’t have to miss the reassuring punctuations of family life: doors opening and closing, laughter in an adjoining room, smells from the kitchen, wet footprints on the bathroom floor. My girls were with me.

From September to January I curled up in the memory of August and refused to enter autumn; refused to be alone again, in a foreign country, an immigrant jumping at the doorbell and the immigration police that might be waiting on the other side.

In my thoughts I followed my daughters’ wet footsteps across the bathroom floor again and again, in a house many countries away, a world away, a world that I’m deported from, not allowed to enter.

Funny the things we remember. I used to worry about slipping on their slick footprints and cracking my head on the floor. Ever since August I’ve prayed their slippery pathway wouldn’t evaporate, like I’m chasing them, and if I hop from step to step I’ll eventually catch up. I’ve teetered along the elegant arcs of their insteps, carefully, fitting my whole self in each wedge as if I might fall off the cliff of their memory and drown in bathroom tiles.

Another family inhabits that house now. I lurk at the windows, looking for hints of my family.

The Gregorian calendar ought to be a procession of Augusts. I’m not interested in the following months, of a future alone after twenty years with my family, of autumn and its evergreens. Even the word “ever” is a lie, as if green is invincible. Everything browns, rusts, sags, turns. Turns away.

But time moves slower than we imagine.

My timepieces are organic: the sun traveling from my ankle to my knee as I write this, my daughters turning away from my affections, the somnolent nod of tulips on my dining table during my divorce, and the limp in my dog’s leg that led him to the grave – these are the things I orbit, the timepieces I wind over and over in my thoughts.

 

Jalina Mhyana is the author of three poetry collections, one of which won publication in the Pudding House competition, as well as Dreaming in Night Vision, an illustrated hybrid book of prose. Her work appears in or is forthcoming from The Southeast Review, The Cincinnati Review, CutBank, The Roanoke Review, and others. “Counting the Beats” is an excerpt from her memoir about immigration and displacement, for which she is seeking representation. Learn more at http://www.jalina.co.uk.

Never

Yoga

I have bad memories of ballet class, and isn’t yoga like dancing in a way, teaching the muscles how to lengthen, how to lean, how to turn elastic as rubber bands? All my springs are coiled tight for bouncing. My love even calls me Tigger sometimes. I watch her step out of the studio from my warm perch in the coffee shop across the street. Steam rises from her body. Steam rises from all the yogis’ bodies in unison, in pseudo-cirrus reverie. They are shrouded. They are turning to clouds. They wrap scarves around their long, exposed necks, all of them, thin and elegant. They tuck their bony feet deep inside fleece-lined boots. I only have eyes for one of them, but I am watching all of them. Icicles dangle from the eaves, pointing down like arrows as if to say, See here: these bodies have melted into their most fluid selves.

I am solid. I hold a latte in my hand, which I have just ordered so it will be hot for her when she steps inside. The little bell above the door tinkles softly. Her cheeks are still burning from the heated room and the fire that yogis are taught to stoke inside them. I want to kiss her right here, right now, always, but she is not like that—not one for spectacle or display. She is always water flowing away from a scene. I am still land, of course, still solid, but I follow her everywhere with my eyes and with the secret compass lodged inside my throat.

Eventually, I follow her to yoga class. She doesn’t have to ask. People have crossed oceans for love, scaled mountains for love. Why is a mat my mountain? I notice, and then try not to notice, that when I hollow out my back in Cow and raise my chin, my clavicles still sink into my skin. No sharp crescent-moon rises out of the flesh. I notice, and then try not to notice, that when I lift myself into Wheel, there is nothing of the full circle about me. I only creak and cringe.

But there she is on her mat, doing beautiful things with her body. In a small way, we have scaled this mountain together. I feel so grateful and so vulnerable at once. What to do now? My sternum is full of suggestions, that hard ridge above my soft heart. Stop anticipating. Stop analyzing. Just breathe. She touches my hand in Savasana—only a light brush of her fingers, but it is enough. I lie supine and gaze at the stars.

*     *     *

Song

I have bad memories of singing. Not the earliest, not the baby song or the toddler song—nonsense burbling as echo from the womb. Nor even the kindergarten song—sitting crisscross applesauce on the worn carpet, pudgy hands clapping a beat, the wheels on the bus going round and round. But shortly after. When the world began to scowl. Hands clamped to ears. Sidelong smirk. So I shut up after that. Whispered and lip synced whenever singing was required.

But here I am, somehow, in a roomful of women, on a summer Tuesday evening, making strange noises with my breath. We’ve trilled Yoo Hoo! to each other in British accents, and held our hands to our soft bellies while murmuring yum… None of it feels like singing, so we’re able to let go and laugh—yet all of it is singing. It turns out singing begins in the body, becoming aware of the body as an instrument of sound.

And since the body is the instrument, we grow powerful and vulnerable at the same time. When your body is the instrument, any wrong note, any discord, feels as though you, yourself, are wrong. Singing is all about tuning your body, attuning to the slightest shift of posture: the lift of the ribs, the well of the pelvis, the slight rise of an eyebrow. You need to become liquid with song—not the ordinary solid cage of muscle and bone.

We’re in a room with a piano, a small stage, and rickety chairs. It’s the Bellingham Academy of Arts for Youth, and any minute now, children are going to stream in to rehearse The Music Man. I remember watching that movie with my parents and bouncing in my seat, leaning forward and aching to sing: Till there was you… vowels warbling up into the stratosphere.

I am not allowed to fail. I gather other people’s expectations like daisies in a field. I weave them into plain but respectable garlands.

In a few months’ time, I’ll be performing with some of those children in a recital. The youngest will go first, singing the Tigger song, and then the 8-year-olds, and then me: so nervous in my cowboy boots and twirly skirt. But there will be no stopping it: I’ll stand up to the microphone, and my teacher will sit at the piano, smiling her encouraging smile. I’ll launch into it, diving, as my teacher says, into the song that already exists in the air.

Oh, give me a home… And then the lesser known verse: Oh give me a land, with its white diamond sand, and the light from the glittering stream/ where glideth along, the snowy white swan, like a maid in her heavenly dream… And though I know my pitch is in flux, every round “o” floats from me like a bubble (so many songs, it turns out, rely on that long “o” sound, a vowel that opens the back of the throat so music can rush in). Then the audience will join me on the chorus, raucous and alive: and never is heard, a discouraging word, and the sky is not cloudy all day

But for now I’m just humming, deep in my belly, feeling the way the core muscles support every sound. I’m holding my hands at the side of my ribs to feel the way they can expand, and stay expanded, on their own. I feel the stickiness of my lungs as they adhere to the ribs in order to hold more breath. I’m standing on one foot—wobbly, unbalanced, laughing—to ignite the muscles of song.

*     *     *

Failure

“No environment could be better for young women who have feared it all their lives,” Sister Ann Cornelia says as she writes Failure with a flourish on the board. Here I am, somehow, in a roomful of others like me: all of us soon-to-be freshmen, soon-to-be fourteen, future Valedictorians and National Merit Scholars. Or so we’ve been told. All of us promised since infancy that we were fit to be Ivy League.

“Most of you have never been pushed to your fullest potential.” She faces us now, chalky hands pressed against her middle button firmly. She is small and round and sure of herself. Her clothes are dark with white smudges like a winter sky. “But the day will come when your best won’t be good enough. You will fail at something here, for once—I promise you that—and you will be better for it, forever.”

Not me, though. I am not allowed to fail. I gather other people’s expectations like daisies in a field. I weave them into plain but respectable garlands. At Holy Names Academy, my first year, there are only flowers, and I keep collecting them, the way I have learned to do—not stopping to smell them anymore, only bending to pluck, then tuck them in my temperate bouquet: A after A after A. But the next year, there is chemistry. The next year there are numbers doing things I don’t quite understand. There is also Bridget who shares the lab desk with me: Bridget who writes poems on graph paper, Bridget who braids her own hair, Bridget who wants to go to alternative school in British Columbia.

I have chemistry with Bridget. Any way you say it, the statement is true. We start tie-dyeing shirts together. We start writing and casting a play. Soon, I am borrowing hats with crush velvet flowers that flop carelessly over my eyes. I forget I am a Virgo and pledge my devotion to a less exacting sign.

When it arrives, the F appears almost neutral, like a fingerprint that hasn’t been scanned yet—just a lone blue letter centered at the top of a page. It is both unexpected and entirely deserved. I cannot argue with it, this F I have earned through relentless non-attention, and yet I have to lean against the wall to keep from tipping over. My legs are wobbly now, my joints unhinged.

“So what?” Bridget says. “It’s just a letter. Let’s tear up our tests and make streamers!” But alas, I am not the kind of girl who can part ways so quickly and completely with convention.

My lungs are sticky as I try to steady my breath, as I lean over and somberly whisper: “I don’t think we should see so much of each other anymore.”

*     *     *

Success

It’s ridiculous, really: A PhD. A “Doctor of Philosophy.” In my family, doctors (real doctors) are revered; we submit to their authority and do anything they say. And of course, the unspoken Jewish expectation: you’ll meet a nice boy, a doctor maybe, why not? It’s expected of young girls, young women. Sure, you can go to college, but don’t make a habit of it.

I’ve met nice boys, but they’re not doctors or lawyers or shrewd businessmen. They are novelists, poets, teachers, carpenters. None of them are Jewish. Their beliefs fluctuate from day to day. We drink lots of coffee and take long walks. We hold hands. We walk along rivers and mountains and lakes. We walk to funky cinemas with disco balls rotating in the ceiling, making everything sparkle.

Philosophy, in Greek, means “love of wisdom.” So I suppose I’m about to become a “doctor of wisdom,” or a “doctor of love.” But I’m neither of these things. I’ve stumbled into graduate school in complete ignorance, as if I’ve been sleepwalking, inching slowly backward down a dark alley. It’s only now, minutes before my oral exams, that I’ve begun to wake up, take my bearings, turn on the lights. How did I get here? Where am I?

I’m sitting in a windowless classroom, waiting for my professors. I’ve brought a bouquet of irises and tulips; I’ve brought pastries from the groovy shop downtown. Are these bribes? Perhaps. I’ve dressed like an adult, in a nice skirt and shoes with a heel. I’ve even put on lipstick. But my fingernails are bitten down, and there’s a big pimple on my chin. The seams in me always show.

I’ve been studying, spending long hours in the library with Montaigne and Hazlitt and Lamb. I know Didion and E.B White as if they’re old friends. I’ve made flash cards. I’ve memorized quotes. I’ve constructed arguments about representations of the self on the page. But success seems unfathomable, unthinkable, for a girl who’s never had any idea where she’s going. At this moment I feel blank as a new notebook. Nothing has been inscribed.

*     *     *

Manicure

I had dressed like an adult since I was a child, a miniature version of my mother. At eleven, she gave me a tube of lipstick just her shade, rouge, mascara, and powder. She said people might mistake us for sisters and smiled at the thought. By the time I was twenty-one, I was weary from a decade of make-up and polish—the way my mother insisted we must make up for something, the fact we were not “natural beauties.”

No more high heels, I vowed. For another decade at least, not even a dress, not once. I cut up my stockings. I kept my hair short and my face bare. Perhaps others assumed I was marking myself and my love affair with a woman. Perhaps they even inferred that I was “the man” in our relationship. Evidence: hadn’t I also purchased a Pierre Cardin tie, a blush-worthy impulse buy? But I think it was adolescent rebellion at last, years overdue—this stalwart refusal to gussy.

The day before our wedding, also years overdue, my beloved suggests we get a manicure. Our best friend is with us. She knows a place. “It might be fun,” she laughs, “to do something girly together for once.”

Now the most important women in my life are sitting side by side, having their nails done, chatting softly and choosing a color. They are lesbians. They are feminists. They are not worried about the implications of a little gloss and tint on their hands. So why am I? “This your first time in nail salon?” the man at the counter asks. I nod, sheepishly, but still I linger near the door, resisting the chairs and magazines. The seams in me always show.

“Your turn, Miss,” a young woman beckons. Her face is an open door. This is my chance to be normal, to be one of the girls, to participate in the rituals of femininity that have so long eluded me. This time, I can even do so on my own terms.

I place my hands in hers, gingerly, the way I will place my hands in my beloved’s tomorrow, when we stand before the small crowd to exchange our vows. “Your nails are very short,” she observes, a diplomatic alternative to ragged or gnawed. “I will soak your hands first, then push down your cuticles so we can see the moons. Yes?”

All at once, years of longing and fear and other feelings I don’t quite recognize are streaming from my eyes. I blot them quickly before we begin. “You are all right, Miss?”  I want to say how my mother isn’t coming to my wedding, how my mother doesn’t believe in my love. And I want to say how sad I am to be so relieved that she won’t have a chance to ruin everything. But instead, I nod my head, less sheepish this time: “Yes, please, I want to see the moons.”

*     *     *

Highlights

I lean my head into her hands and instinctively nuzzle them, like a cat. My eyes close and I hum quietly—a resonant yum—while she massages my scalp with lavender oil. These days, I get touched like this only by professionals: my hairdresser, my massage therapist, my chiropractor. My skin tingles at their touch. I feel a quick flush of shame at my pleasure.

She lifts one lock of hair, then another. I feel the gentle tug on my scalp, but even when I open my eyes, I can’t see what she’s doing; without my glasses I’m a blur in the mirror, a faint outline of head and shoulders draped with a black cloth. I know she’s pondering what to do with me today. My hair is at the in-between stage where nothing seems quite right.

How about highlights? she muses, almost to herself. Highlights? My hair has always been what I call “chestnut”: brown but with an undertone of red. At certain angles, it’s had a sheen to it, though my bangs get frizzy or oily, depending on the day. Most often they hang in one lanky bunch above my eyebrows. I’ve managed to arrive into my fifties without dyeing my hair, the gray strands barely noticeable until they spring up like coarse wire. I’ve never wanted to get caught in the hair-dyeing cycle, roots showing like flags of age that must be quickly hidden.

But lately, the gray hairs have been accumulating—quietly, like radicals gathering for subversion—and so I now suddenly see wide swathes of them when I brush my hair or push my bangs back with a headband. I see them, but I don’t see them, averting my eyes. It’s not a stylish wing of gray, like Susan Sontag, or a silver sheen like Helen Mirren. My gray is unruly, dowdy, stripping my hair of whatever vital spark it once possessed.

We’ll do it subtly, very natural, she says, gazing at me in the mirror. I can’t see her eyes, but she’s smiling. Her hands cup my shoulders, firm but gentle, as if she’s about to steer me the right direction on a trail. Yes?

How can I resist her, this woman who has examined every inch of my head? This woman who washes my hair and smoothes it against my scalp, who is always happy to see me, who wants only to make me lovely? We’ve talked about everything and nothing. But if I say yes—if I agree to be highlighted—will I still be myself? Will the highlights announce themselves, tell the world I no longer trust my own body to act in its best interests?

She’s waiting for my answer. The phone rings, and I hear the snip of other scissors, the roar of the blow dryer. The sound system is playing Hallelujah, a song I’ve been hearing lately everywhere: …love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah… This song always makes me both sad and happy at the same time; it’s a prayer of longing and not-quite-forgiveness. It’s a voice that wants to shout in jubilation to the heavens—you can it hear it straining to find its pitch—but finds itself hobbled by the failings of an earth-bound body.

It’s a song I’ve been singing my whole life.

Without speaking, I say yes. I nod, and she claps her hands, hurries off to get the foils and dyes. My blurred self and I wait quietly for her return. I know she’ll gently lift each hank of hair, carefully paint each strand until it shines.

*     *     *

Infidelity

Follow your heart! the poets exhort. I shrug my shoulders: What else would I follow? These are the lyrics I’ve been singing my whole life: songs of love and longing, passion and devotion. If I am anything, I am loyal. My eyes never wander. My feet are invariably warm.

But in college, when I begin to listen to radical folk singers like Ani DiFranco, I’m surprised, then riveted by lines like these: We’re in a room without a door, and I am sure without a doubt, they’re gonna wanna know how we got in here, and they’re gonna wanna know how we plan to get out. The song is called “Shameless,” and I play it hour after hour, the repeat button set on my small dorm stereo.

What I can’t get over is how candid the speaker is about covet[ing] another man’s wife. This is the first time I have ever heard a woman express such unabashed desire for another. I flush every time DiFranco’s voice dips low, slices through study time with a guttural moan: Then I get to see how close I can get to it without giving in; then I get to rub up against it until I break the skin. If my roommate walks in, I plunge for the pause button. I consider investing in a pair of headphones.

I once thought I’d have a daughter, a baby I could sing to sleep. I once thought I’d have a husband who would hold this baby lightly in the crook of his arm.

Little do I know that in just a few years I will find myself promised to a man. I will say Yes, OK, to marrying him, No, I’d rather not to the suggestion of a ring. He laughs at me. “You’re never about the bling, are you?” But he knows he can trust me, even with my bare left hand. He knows I’m not one for shirking my commitments. I always call, even if I’m only running a few minutes behind.

So I will not be able to name this. I will not be able to explain this. When I finally pick up the phone, days too late, I will wince at his fury, though I will know it is what I deserve. Shameless, he says, a snake in the grass. Later, in a letter: Men don’t choose a woman like you because you’re the hottest. They choose a woman like you because you’re the safest.

Why I didn’t call him first, why I didn’t sever one cord before I tied another—I couldn’t say. I was raised with Captain Von Trapp telling Baronness Shraeder on the Austrian terrace, You can’t marry someone when you’re in love with someone else. This he does before he kisses Fraulein Maria in the gazebo by the water, before they sing together about having done something good.

My heart, strange Geiger counter, is sending signals only my body can read. Perhaps the gazebo is the room without a door. Surely it is the glass house from which I must never throw stones. I am alone with the woman I love by a lake in darkness. It is spring, and our bodies are acting at last in their own best interests. My place. Her place. It hardly matters where we go next. I can’t even slow this down, let alone stop this. The night is a stringed instrument. The future an encore. We cannot top this, even if we tried.

*     *     *

Fidelity

The root word of fidelity means faith. As in devotion or belief. An infidel is one who has lost her belief. And, as with any faith, doubt comes into play. Doubt, the philosopher Paul Tillich stressed, isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Or, to put it more lyrically, from Sylvia Plath: I talk to God but the sky is empty.

Fidelity also means accuracy, exactitude. As in fidelity to the facts. Or it means the quality of sound: high fidelity, as in a record or a film—each note clear and true. So many meanings for one word that, on the face of it, seems so simple and steadfast.

When I think of fidelity I think of my dog. Though her name is not “Fido” (a name that must, I hope, have the same origin), she keeps me always in her sights. She arranges herself in ways that seem meant to guard me from whatever, or whoever, might take me unaware (at the moment, for example, she has curled up behind my chair, blocking the doorway). She often has her eyes closed, but her ears twitch and she can be on her feet in a flash. She’s a small dog—only twenty pounds, with a foxlike face and a white plume for a tail—but her bark is that of a Great Dane’s.

She will bark at mailmen and anyone who delivers a package to my door. She will bark at the jingle of another dog’s collar in the street. She will bark at things invisible to my eye and ear, anything that might be a threat. She will bark to alert me, too, of friends arriving, wagging her tail so vigorously it’s a blur. Her pant becomes a smile, says: look who’s here!

She’s been my dog for almost ten years now, though I dreamed of her long before plucking her from the listings on Petfinder. She came to me as a puppy—all legs and nose and eyes—and I often felt at a loss, consulting my Puppies for Dummies book constantly, memorizing the steps for potty training, leash training, socialization, hygiene. She poked her head out of the cat carrier I’d used to pick her up, tongue lolling, eyes rolling from side to side. I could hardly speak, sure that anything I did might cause irrevocable harm. I touch her flank while we sleep, feeling her slow steady breath. I kiss her snout when we wake, nuzzle her under the chin. We make a full circle.

I once thought I’d have a daughter, a baby I could sing to sleep. I once thought I’d have a husband who would hold this baby lightly in the crook of his arm. I once thought my home would be filled with voices at all hours, a family working together at the mundane tasks—dishes, homework, puzzles—that make up a life. I believed these were facts, and anything else a poor imitation, inaccurate.

But, as it turns out, it’s just me and my dog. We are faithful to one another, and to this house that does not seem to mind its sparse occupancy. My dog roams the backyard, ears alert for any intruder; she comes inside and watches my every move. I stretch into downward dog, crocodile, cat and cow under her scrutiny. I sing to her the songs I’m learning, and she listens, sighing, stretching to make herself long as pulled taffy. Our sky is not empty, oh no. The night is a duet; it teems with a thousand stars.

 

Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016). She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University, and associate faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her website is www.brendamillerwriter.com.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose, most recently Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2018). She is also the co-author, with Denise Duhamel, of The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose (Noctuary Press, 2019). Wade is an Associate Professor of English at Florida International University in Miami and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus.

 

Reflections

“First I use the curry comb.”

Rachel’s in the passenger seat. Outside the window, the sky’s clear while the Tetons hover. The day’s so bright it hurts.

“It’s important to comb against the grain,” she says. “That removes the dirt and grit. Then I use the brush. They love the brush. That’s more like a massage.”

Her hand swipes the air as if the horse’s coat were still within her grasp. Driving, I nod. Yes, I tell her. Yes, I remember. Yes. Yes. Yes. Our conversations are achingly familiar, repetitions circling on one big loop. I finish her sentences, me and my daughter. Years ago, when I was younger, we used to bleed in sync.

“You can tell the horse likes it. Ears forward. Eyes closed. Hocks up.” Then she perfectly replicates a horse’s whinny. Though her face is blank, I can tell that she’s happy. Happier than she’s been in a very long time.

*     *     *

For the last twenty-five years, our family has dodged the Miami heat by vacationing in Jackson Hole. And ever since that first year, Rachel has spent her mornings visiting the ranch. But this July is different. The days stretch from one to the next as we scratch out blocks on the calendar. My husband Michael and I give her what she needs for however long as she needs it.

All families develop a dynamic. Ours has always revolved around Rachel. Born with an open spine, my daughter’s a success story. Corrective surgery at birth. Early intervention. But the problems that surfaced down the line were not the ones doctors warned us about.

That night, she wanders the cabin like a lost soul. Her hair’s damp from her shower. She’s wearing a long cotton nightgown with thick wool socks on her feet.

Rachel’s thirty-eight years old and has Asperger’s Syndrome. Not the new and improved version. Not the everything’s fine if not for a few charming tics. The most mundane multi-tasking stumps her. Driving a car. Riding a bike. Even ordinary chit chat is a challenge. The listening. The processing. The jiggering of words to form just the right reply. Conversation, after all, is a two-step dance. She’s a college graduate and library assistant. Still, we take nothing for granted.

The latest crisis: her marriage, somewhat of a miracle in itself, hit the tenth year mark and sputtered. This is the first time in many years that she’s come to Wyoming alone.

The signs of sadness were there for me to read. A voice registering in all black keys. A perpetual slouch. A dullness where there should have been a light. My daughter’s calling it a “time-out,” but I know different. Though she can’t tap the feelings, her very smart brain digs deep. Lately each conversation, no matter where it starts, ends up in the same place. Her eyes water as she gazes into the distance. A few cows are ambling near the road.

“Ken’s used to me,” she says. “He’s comfortable.” Wiping her cheek with the back of a sleeve, she quietly mumbles. “I’m like an old shoe. I’m broken in. I fit.”

Rachel’s a sucker for romance novels and movies with happy endings. And she’s savvy enough to know how the plots will enfold long before the story’s over. She was hoping, I suppose, that real life follows suit.

“I feel empty,” she says. “Shouldn’t I feel full?”

Animals have always soothed her. We bring apples with us wherever we drive and pull over when the impulse calls. In Wyoming, pastures are everywhere. Sleepy-eyed horses stand stilt straight and nod over open rails. I press down on the brake and stop the car. Then I wait in the shadows while she pets and pampers them. To Rachel, horses are merely overgrown dogs. My heart pounds and my pulse races, knowing they could kill her with a kick.

“Did you know their stomachs are too small for their bodies?” she says. “That’s why they graze. Just to survive they need nourishment all day long.”

Fearlessly, she runs her hand between the bulging eyes then lets it slide toward the muzzle. Teeth the size of dominoes gnash and gnaw the apple’s skin, seeds, core. Then they perilously march up and down my daughter’s arm searching for more. Rachel inches nearer. Close isn’t close enough.

“Did you know their lips are prehensile?” she says. “See how they reach out and grab?”

*     *     *

After the tumult of college, Rachel came back home to live. Though her days were structured with activity, she was lonely. A friend set her up on a blind date with someone who was lonely, too. He was an inch shorter, bald, and almost fifteen years older. Rachel’s blond, blue-eyed. Pretty. Most of the boys she had dated were nothing more than groping hands and thrusting tongues. This guy was different.

On the way home that first night, his fingers clenching the steering wheel, he serenaded her with Broadway tunes. And for the finale, when he pulled up in front of our home, he turned to her and crooned “On the Street Where You Live.” His face was lit by a street lamp, the tune a cappella and off-key. Still he plowed through all five verses. Looking back, it was a sort of a test, I suppose. And Rachel passed with flying colors.

“His voice isn’t very good,” she confessed. “But boy does he like to sing.”

*     *     *

Wyoming’s the yin to Florida’s yang. Our cabin in the woods is perched at an elevation of 6000 feet. The air’s dry. The wind scours your skin. We get home that afternoon tired and thirsty and head to the kitchen.

My husband’s sitting at the table, his fingers clicking his laptop. Meanwhile Rachel ducks her head into the refrigerator.

“It’s my turn to cook, Mom. Remember? It’s the least I can do. You and Dad have done so much.”

Though she and her husband live just fifteen minutes away, so much of what transpired stayed hidden. New habits developed that are just starting to surface. Extraordinary amounts of sleep. Slippage in the hygiene department. And for the first time in her life, my daughter, my child who has never ever lied, is mildly dissembling.

“I’ve got some great new recipes. You’ll like them. You really will.”

Rachel loves to cook. Cooking is therapy. The whir of the Cuisinart, the stirring, the spreading. But unlike me and Michael, she’s a strict vegetarian. If our meals were Venn-diagrammed, rarely does anything in the Rachel bubble intersect with ours.

“I’m thinking a Greek moussaka. Do we have lentils? Or how about some sloppy Joes? I make them with walnuts and cremini mushrooms. You got any eggplants lying around? You’ll like it. You really will.”

I close my eyes and see the beginnings of a grocery list. In a few hours, my kitchen will look like a crime scene. Sauces will fly, grease will drip, a tornado of foods will splotch the walls. While on vacation, my husband and I like to eat out. Why can’t we eat out?

When she looks at the windows, she only sees her reflection. She has no idea that I’m watching her. That the world is watching her. That beyond the protective boundaries of her mind, strangers hide and danger lurks.

“I cook farm to table. Aren’t you tired of eating all those steaks and hamburgers? I mean look outside. What do you see? Cows. Bovines with big brown eyes and swishy tails. It kills me, really. It’s like we’re driving a knife into their hearts.”

This is an argument I cannot win. Rachel knows exactly what’s entailed from the moment a cow leaves the barn until it ends up on your plate. Plus, she’s anxious. First, her husband didn’t return her phone calls. Now, he doesn’t return her texts. When she’s anxious, flexibility flies out the door.

“Sounds great,” I tell her.

Michael, his fingers still clacking, shakes his head and rolls his eyes.

“There’s no harm giving it a try,” I say. “Sure. Why not?”

That night, she wanders the cabin like a lost soul. Her hair’s damp from her shower. She’s wearing a long cotton nightgown with thick wool socks on her feet. Finally, her options narrowed, she wedges herself between me and Michael on the sofa. Though the TV’s on, she ignores it. She’s half asleep when she lays her head on my shoulder, shudders.

Rachel’s always been our early riser. The next morning, the sky is crayon-colored when I’m woken by noise. I blink my eyes and face a clock screaming 5:15. Then I hear Rachel rattling around in the kitchen. She’s making herself oatmeal from scratch. I check the outdoor thermometer and see that it’s forty-five degrees. Even though I’m shivering in my fleece bathrobe, she’s still wearing the thin nightgown.

Except for the clanging and banging of pots, the world is eerily quiet. Our cabin is tucked into a forested subdivision. We leave the windows cranked open, curtainless. I gaze outside looking for wildlife and am startled to see a person power walking down the street. Expensive hiking poles, spandex pants, the whole shebang. It’s no doubt one of my neighbors. Half the homeowners in Jackson are crazy fitness addicts, usually transplanted from LA.

Then I look at Rachel. In her mind, rules are rigid. One setting’s no different from the other. Her home in Miami has shutters on the windows and a six-foot-tall wood fence around the yard. It’s like living in an air-conditioned cave. The windows stay closed. The temperature’s steady. No one sees in and no one sees out.

“Look,” I say. “There’s a guy out there. Racking up points on his Fitbit.”

Rachel doesn’t flinch. She’s stirring the oatmeal, her head slightly swirling with the spoon. Only when she’s satisfied with the oatmeal’s consistency does she look up.

“Do you think we can go to the supermarket today? I have a great recipe for vegan cheesecake. Tofu. Vegan cream cheese. Vegan margarine. You’ll like it. You really will.”

*     *     *

A few hours later we’re back at the ranch. She’s grooming another draft horse. He’s big and brown, a barge on four legs. She has decided that this Percheron is her favorite, sturdy and dependable. On the way home, she once again provides a running commentary.

“Buster’s eighteen hands. Can you believe it? They say he weighs a ton.” Her voice is dreamy, her arms tired, her body lax. The horses, as always, have worked their magic. “The farrier was in today. I got to clean the hooves.”

Most of our days follow a routine. After lunch, we usually take a two-mile walk. Sometimes we foray into town and check out the shops. But today Rachel wants to spend the afternoon in the kitchen. Her husband has finally returned a text. He’s looking for an apartment, he tells her. She spends hours concocting a tofu turkey with a chestnut stuffing plus a ratatouille casserole even the dogs will ignore.

Later, after she’s fed us, when the kitchen’s clean and her work done, she again wanders the house. Though the socks have changed, the nightgown’s the same. I’m reading. My husband’s upstairs working. She turns on the TV only to shut it off seconds later. It’s around ten o’clock and the sun is setting, washing the valley in purples and blues.

“Can someone take out the trash?” My husband yells.

We always forget. The truck just shows up on Fridays. And you need to roll the bin uphill around fifty yards for them to see it. I could use the fresh air and jump at the chance.

The exercise feels great as my elbows strain. The temperature has dropped. And when I get to the top of the driveway, everything’s seen from a new perspective. The fir trees. The sky dotted with stars. It’s so quiet I can hear our tiny creek rippling. When I glance back at the house, it’s blanketed by shadows. Only the windows are lit.

Like a ghost, Rachel is roaming from room to room, her curvy figure silhouetted in her nightgown. When she looks at the windows, she only sees her reflection. She has no idea that I’m watching her. That the world is watching her. That beyond the protective boundaries of her mind, strangers hide and danger lurks.

I leave the bin and about-face. Then I formulate more lists. Lentils. Russet potatoes. Almond milk. I suppose we need to call a divorce lawyer. Do we know a divorce lawyer? An eggplant. Some soy yogurt. A tin of nuts.

In a week’s time another Thursday will roll around. A zucchini. Cauliflower rice. A little anise. We’ll ask Rachel to take out the garbage. Then I’ll stand by the window in my cotton nightgown. Perhaps I’ll find a pair of wool socks. A can of capers. A sprig of parsley. A fake Brie. And afterwards, if the mood is right, we’ll have another conversation. One which we’ve had before and which I suspect we’ll have many times again. One person’s view is different from another’s, I’ll remind her. A bag of apples. A jar of honey. A quart of juice.

  

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, EclecticaThe American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart as well as the Best of the Net Prizes, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize.

Hear and Release

(All frags reported herein are genuine, heard in Oak Bluffs, a town on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, USA, captured here for this publication only)

Nothing like a good long walk, exercise and meditation in one. Two birds with one stone, though I hate that image. Who throws stones at birds? Cavemen and nasty ten year olds. When I have errands, I cluster them and walk into town the long way to the post office, the market, hardware store and packy. A long walk, on curvy one-way streets, past big old Victorians, little Gothic cottages. People on porches. Wind chimes. Gardens neat and not. Ocean here and there. Serene.

Then around a sudden sharp corner into raucous. Cars and bikes, outdoor bars, racks of tee shirts and pink rubber beach shoes. Families of six clogging the sidewalks, ice cream, fried clams, chowder. All of it perfect frag collecting territory.

Frag is short for fragment, of course. A small chunk of overheard conversation, an incomplete sentence or two caught as you intersect someone else’s orbit on a stroll. A few words broken off in passing, truncated by a boat whistle, interrupted by seagulls, wind or waves.

“…would that be normal for me……?”

“…my boyfriend’s favorite price point…”

“…price of a bacon doughnut…”

They fall out windows of passing cars, drop off bikes. Ellipses on one end or the other or both.

“…how about fishing college?…”

“…abandoned house or not….”

“… make it a national agenda…”

Elusive and intriguing. Like a dragonfly at the edge of your vision, a whiff of charred steak next street over. Sparking a chuckle, a wise nod, total bewilderment.

“…no extra seat in the bathroom…”

“…time to notify our people…”

“…found it in dystopian history…”

I don’t actually collect frags. Hear and release. Trying to hang on to them closes your ears, changes the experience so I rarely write them down. Once in a while a phrase pops up in a notebook margin when I’m looking for something else. The other day I came across

“…a legend so reductive…” from July 2012 on the fishing pier. No wonder I wrote that one down. I also admit I sometimes call my sister to report a great frag and we’ll imagine a story, speculate on a context, analyze the speaker. An old family game. “… all shaped by iniquity,” the most recent.

I used to be a collector. Cardigans, white rocks, Ferris Wheels. According to the dictionary, a collector is:

  1. a person who collects things, professionally or as a hobby, as in art collector, stamp collector, coin collector
  2. a person who collects something in their job, as in garbage collector.

I fell somewhere in the middle. The dictionary then told me to “see hoarder.”

I appreciate the urge to collect. The families who rent our house in the summer leave shells and dead crabs lined up on the porch railing, having forbidden the children, I imagine, to take them home in their little backpacks. Collecting is fun at first. To love something, search for it, make space for it. Arrange and re-arrange the objects of your obsession until there’s no place to put any of it. Friends and family, happy to give the perfect gift, give you more. Clutter ensues.

Frags take up no space and they’re everywhere. Hear and release. My route today was around the corner and through the park,

“…an insignificant branch of the family…”

“……ants dropping from the sky….”

across the park to the water side,

When you first begin to hear frags on a walk it’s tempting to categorize, mentally order and file them–domestic, metaphysical, illuminating. Let that go. It’s just serendipity to get two fishing frags in the same afternoon, we’re surrounded by water after all.

“…first time in my life I’m tired of taking pictures…”

north toward the harbor,

“ …you go over there girl and you drive that Mercedes….”

along endless ocean and endless horizon,

“…not an actual bed with an actual mattress…, “

past the ferry dock, a flood of arrivals,

“…where’s the sea serpent at?”

“I heard that on a Garfield episode…”

along the boardwalk and down to the tie-ups.

“…wouldn’t let me go fishing so I ran away from home…”

When you first begin to hear frags on a walk it’s tempting to categorize, mentally order and file them—domestic, metaphysical, illuminating. Let that go. It’s just serendipity to get two fishing frags in the same afternoon, we’re surrounded by water after all. No organizing is one of my rules. You can make your own. No lurking is another. The more you hear of a conversation, the more it makes sense, therefore not a frag. Too much attention and focus, too much grasping turns it ordinary. Ears open, never searching. No changing direction either, no following just to listen, that’s eavesdropping. That’s creepy.

Past the bars along the harbor,

“…amazing to get it done without standing…”

“…so stupid they don’t know how ignorant they are.”

where a tour group waits for the boat to Nantucket.

“….the kids just blew up…”

“…sombre et orageux…”

Up the side street, sounds but no words. A young woman on her porch strums a ukulele. A boy on a skateboard whizzes past, arms outstretched, followed by, I realize, not an origami bird but a small, humming drone, three feet above and right behind him.

Through the musical din of the carousel,

“…more than once is boring…”

up to the crowded post office.

“ …peculiar scouting mission…”

“I choose to be not alone ever since…”

I head home with the water bill in my pocket, past the brew pub and the house with the sail boat trim, across the park to the water again and turn right.

“My nose is not that big and my butt’s not that small…”

“…one Lexus dealer in a hundred miles has that color…”

Along the sandy beach,

“…vodka smells nothing like kombucha…”

“…they don’t want you to know where you’re going…”

then home through curvy one-way streets with people on porches where I hear my last frag of the day.

“ … pickled in his own mess..”

Frag season is winding down. Porches empty, tour groups gone. Dead leaves in the gardens. Frags forgotten. When orbits intersect off-season you usually know the other person and stop. Conversations are real and complete and meaningful, springing from a bedrock of shared time and space. Still counts as a walk but you can meditate at home in front of the fire.

 

Wendy Palmer is an ex-social worker who lives on an island. Her work has appeared in Rosebud, New Millennium Writings, Nimrod, Confluence, and Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. She is shopping a novel about Ferris Wheels and working on a novel about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 19th century radical feminist, described at the time as hysterical and overly absorbed by the woman question.

Photo Credit: Susan Helgeson

Crabbing

Equipped with our net, bucket, raw chicken and roll of string, we trekked from the ragged graveled patch where we had parked the van. Glassy-skinned frogs hidden in the thick marsh grass croaked in a languid manner; they paused when we were near and resumed their song after we passed. All was still dark when we reached the water. My sleepy body stumbled onto the nondescript, wobbly wooden dock to which a handful of simple rowboats were moored, bobbing and pulling with the current like willful creatures. Our flashlights lit the way to the water, but they could not cut through the layer of mist over the bay’s surface. Our family split up into two boats. While appointed rowers quietly transported, others tied up chicken legs with string. Once the dock became the size of my hand, we carefully but powerfully threw out the legs and listened to the distant thunks as they struck the water. Then we sat and waited, dark stones rocking back and forth, without a word or move lest we frightened off the easily spooked crustaceans with the echo of our voices or a knock against the wood.

Women pulled down on their skirts, men examined the leather on their shoes. Nowhere was it as bright as it was in there, during that time of repentance and prayer.

My maternal grandmother lived in Seabrook, Maryland, a town I fondly remember by the fishy smell and icy climate of a Korean grocery store where we ate red bean popsicles, the low metal fences bordering each house and the sidewalks that were so deeply and widely cracked we had to keep our heads down and watch our feet while walking. My mom never talked warmly about that town; there were too many robberies and assaults. She deplored the shabby character of the neighborhood, but my brother and I loved that place growing up. We watched rated R videos from our uncle’s VHS collection, attended jesa for our maternal grandfather and played with the sprinkler in the backyard where our grandmother diligently grew tongue-tickling kkaenip and brow-sweating gochu. We especially looked forward to the pre-dawn crabbing trips out on the Chesapeake Bay. Around three o’clock on a Saturday morning, my mom would shake my brother and me out of bed. Still mostly asleep, we dressed, brushed our teeth and crammed into an old caravan with our parents, grandmother, two aunts and two uncles. Being awake at such an early hour and squeezed into the back of a van, with heat building from mashed bodies and omnipresent humidity, induced wave after wave of nausea. I would sit, hunched over the large white bucket meant to hold caught crabs, dry heaving and tracking little starbursts in my periphery. It was impossible to try and catch some more sleep during the ride. My uncles and aunts were raucous, joking and drinking hot coffee from 7-11. The van would bump up and down as we made our way to the bay.

*     *     *

I recently attended Sunday service at the church I grew up in, after decades of exodus. Because of the growing number of congregants over the years, the church had built a brand-new campus half an hour away from the original sanctuary. The new campus was massive and modern, complete with enormous hundred-foot bay windows, tasteful stone exteriors and sparkling linoleum floors. Similar in ambience to a shopping mall or airport, the cavernous complex comfortably accommodated its three thousand churchgoers. There were separate sanctuaries for English speaking ministries and Korean speaking ministries, TVs broadcasting sermons in the lobbies for parents cradling crying infants, a stylish cafeteria selling espresso and kimbap, an enormous gym for kids playing volleyball and basketball and a fully staffed day care center. I attended service in the sanctuary for young English-speaking adults. The back wall of the sanctuary was a brilliant, Crest whitening strip shade of white and textured with small, undulating waves that gave the sense one was on a boat out at sea, or high up on a plane among the clouds. The space was beautiful. It was also discomforting. The overhead LED lighting shined down on us with an interrogating radiance, exposing every crease on every face, every grain in the wood of the smooth pews. Women pulled down on their skirts, men examined the leather on their shoes. Nowhere was it as bright as it was in there, during that time of repentance and prayer.

The church of my childhood was a small, white-brick building. The top floor held the single sanctuary and the dingy cafeteria-cum-gym was underneath. I grew up crawling under the pews, kicking up dust from the plum-colored carpeted floor. Every Sunday we sat with our parents as the reverend proclaimed the gospel to a packed house of recently arrived Koreans. The sermons, which tranquilized us children with their tedious and repetitive verses in a language we only half understood, nourished our parents not only with its message of salvation, but with its plodding and familiar mother tongue. The occasional Amens en masse punctuated the tonal rise and fall of the reverend’s preaching. My mom would pinch my father’s side whenever he began to nod off.

A large, plain wooden cross hung on the wall behind the reverend. The reverend was an older, soft-spoken man with wavy black hair and small, delicate features. His slightly stooped back and slow pace of speaking reminded me of a tortoise. When I saw him recently at a relative’s funeral, for the first time in twenty years, he softly took my hand and greeted me by my full Korean name and English name, telling me in his same slow manner that he was still praying for me.

As kids, my friends and I would sneak into the sanctuary after service to play tag and hide-and-seek in the dark. The thick, drawn curtains blocked out most of the sun, but thin slices of light would peek through gaps here and there and reflect off the polished brass candle holders behind the podium. The reflected light would blind us at random moments as we ran away from each other. Although we could have run around in the gym downstairs, we always preferred the dark, stale sanctuary. The quiet, drawn-in atmosphere of the room was alluring, mysterious. The smell of our parents lingered there; dust motes floated listlessly in the lines of light. The man named “yeh-su” hung in wooden agony as one of us counted to ten. The way the room both muffled and echoed our stomping feet and laughter afforded the illusion of absolute separateness from the rest of the world—from overworked, distant parents or abusive ones—and from the perpetually fragmenting self-awareness we were scraping together as not-quite-Koreans and not-quite-Americans.

*     *     *

This was before girls I knew would vomit in the car after an abortion, the shame refusing to come up in the heaving; before girls I knew brusquely narrated stories of assault and rape between sips of coffee; before misogyny became routine and mundane as toast in all of our lives.

One minute we were inside of the van rocking with thick laughter and heat and the next minute out on the water, where we were induced to silence and stillness. This was my favorite part of the trip: settling in with my family under a blanket of cold mist, unified for once in our anticipation of the catch. We were almost meditative: our breathing slowed, our postures straightened and our eyes focused on the little waves running in from the horizon. Crabs were sensitive, skittish. The chance to catch a crab demanded all of you. Although my brother and I were young, we never once felt the urge to fidget—the world conspired with us, in its pull to still us for the greater reward. We all sat and looked out across the gray expanse, the rowdy and boisterous behavior from before diminished into faint memory. Blue herons flew just above the water and fish broke the surface with their open-shut-open-shut maws. My grandmother would always pick up on the nibbling first. She would feel the tug in her hand and somehow she would always know that that tug was the right one, and not one from a stray fish or current. She continued to hold the string between thumb and pointer with such caution and delicacy; the string was a baby bird’s neck, a keen open blade, a precious life. Her eyes skimmed out to a spot on the water. And then, ever so slowly, and only when she was ready, she began to reel in the string in excruciatingly smooth segments. And here was when the stretches of time became delicious—because of the unknown events occurring beneath the salty brown. Because I could have waited for eternity. At first, the opaque water was dark and fungal, but in the next moment, a phantom appeared—a mere shape that seemed only imagined. While your brain attempted to catch up to your eyes, it was and was becoming. Then suddenly there it was, as real as the wood we were floating in: a crusty brown alien latched to a chicken leg that was softened and disintegrating in the saltwater. The possibilities of what the water held and offered was something to be relished, cherished. While my grandmother eased the crab closer to the boat, my aunt or uncle quietly took hold of the large green net. As the crab continued to attend to the abundance in front of him, the net became merely a hanging bough of a tree for a suspended moment. We held our breaths in unison, our world hushed and sealed off from any other existence. Then in one quick exhalation, the bough transformed into a predatory bird, broke the surface of the water and scooped the crab and chicken into its gullet. Salty droplets freckled my face and arms, some landing on my lips so I would taste the same salt as the crab had. The disoriented crab instinctively gripped onto the green net and its tiny mouth emitted small bubbles of air, creating a mask of froth. We tossed our haul into the same big white bucket my head was hovering over just a moment ago. His chepelids tapped against the bucket and from his foaming mouth came a hissing sibilance.

*     *     *

In eighth grade I walked out of Sunday service for the first time. Reverend Lee was our youth group’s new leader. He had a pale, hairless face, wire-rimmed glasses and a perfect, straight part down the center of his hair. He would pace restlessly from end to end of the stage with his microphone, the serpentine cord never once entangling his feet. Like everyone else, I submerged into daydreams during his sermons. After innumerable days of hide-and-seek, after thousands of verses and prayers and Amens, all sermons melded into one sermon, so worn that no deeper mark could be made. We now fidgeted in our seats more than ever before since pubescence was budding in bodies that were no longer familiar. It was not home anymore. Looks were hooded; laughter was crafted. We were now painfully conscious of acting out a script of which we knew very little. But we knew it existed all the same. We knew with certainty that we had to play it out. During that particular service, I wore a sleeveless knee-length black dress with tiny periwinkle blue flowers. I remember picking at the stitched buds on the skirt hem when my ears caught something from the podium. I don’t remember what first caught my attention, but as I broke through my reverie and attuned my ears to his speech, I heard Reverend Lee talk about something I had never heard anyone talk about up on that stage before. I thought I had misheard. He was yelling about how we women must remain vigilant and steadfast—that if we went down the path of sexual immorality we would be faced with pregnancy and the sin of abortion, the path to assured damnation. I looked around, discreetly at first, seeing if anyone else was splintering like I was. Everyone I saw was facing forward, motionless—you could barely tell they were breathing. The story Reverend Lee was fingering on us, while his spittle landed on the first row, bled through my brain and out my nostrils. If I didn’t leave the room soon, I was going to rip my dress and scream so hard my mouth would split open. I could not articulate why my body shook so. This was before girls I knew would vomit in the car after an abortion, the shame refusing to come up in the heaving; before girls I knew brusquely narrated stories of assault and rape between sips of coffee; before misogyny became routine and mundane as toast in all of our lives. That Sunday, a hand from the depths simply tugged an unnamable, soft bit of me and drew out salted blood.

I got up, walked to the back of the room and turned around at the entrance, yearning to spot just a hint of opposition, any lick of discomfort, a slight cough or questioning tilt of the head. I waited with my hands at my sides, holding my breath and praying for something—anything—to break the surface. But nothing came forth; the lake of bodies remained still and silent and unresistant. I hurried to the bathroom and looked at my pale, hairless face. No one else was in the bathroom hunched and seething in front of the mirror, trying to make themselves clean and whole again. No one was stifling a jaw-breaking scream. Everyone was dead and burning in their seats.

*     *     *

When we brought the catch back to my grandmother’s house, my youngest uncle placed a cutting board on the kitchen counter right next to the stove. A large, dark blue pot rested above the stove light. The white bucket was on the floor next to his feet. He swiftly selected a crab, laid it on its back on the cutting board and stabbed it right in the center of its stomach, above the apron. The blade was small but very sharp. He was precise. As I watched, some stopped moving almost immediately, while others continued to slowly wave their claws. I imagined if I leaned down close enough to their mouths, I could hear their faint, salty gasps. My uncle then tossed the crab into the pot. I stood very still at the kitchen’s entrance behind him, my back to the raspy newspaper being laid out on the dinner table like new linen. My face, colored by the dim yellow of the kitchen light, observed the killing without expression. Once they were all in the pot, my uncle turned the heat all the way up and left the kitchen. Did I continue to hear the tiny clinking of claws against the sides of the pot? I strained to hear it. I hovered over the pot, wanting to lift the lid, wanting not to lift the lid. I would relent every time, lifting the pot by its handle just a bit and peering into the darkness and heat to try and see if there were any signs of struggling persistence, any waving or skittering, any bubbles frothing from orifices.

When the crabs were done, they were piled into a red orange heap at the center of the newspaper-covered table. Nutcrackers, little steel forks and wooden mallets were scattered about for shared use. My brother and I watched and replicated how to open up a crab correctly. My grandmother and mother always got the most meat from the bodies as they had the nimblest fingers and quietest hands. I flipped the crab on its back and opened and removed the apron; then with thumb and pointer, I pried the shell off the rest of the body, uncovering the meat and organs. I used the utensils to crack open the legs and claws and either pulled or sucked out the meat. Our fingers were marred by cuts made from the sharp bits of broken shell. We sprinkled Old Bay seasoning over the precious white clumps, sucking our teeth and then ignoring the stinging when the Old Bay made contact with the open wounds on our hands. My lips would swell and sting too. The only sounds during the meal were the splintering of shell and the slurping of flesh. None of the darkness that had held me during the crabs’ slow death in heat remained over the breaking of fast.

 

Helen Park’s work appears in The Flexible Persona, Sleet Magazine, Inertia Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Cactus Heart Press, Hamilton Stone Review, Eclectica Magazine, Visitant Lit, the Asian American Female Anthology, Yellow as Turmeric; Fragrant as Cloves (Deep Bowl Press, 2008), and others. Read more about her work at https://helenparkprose.wordpress.com/

Area of Concern

As Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’m hugging a mammogram machine. “Okay, we’ll take four pictures on the right, and two on the left,” says the bubbly tech with the blond bangs. “Oops! I mean, four on the left, two on the right. Sorry! Haven’t had my coffee yet.” It’s odd to hear a medical professional apologize to you as she maneuvers a beige device the size of a small car.

“Then, an ultrasound,” she informs me. “Standard procedure, whenever you have a spot.” I instinctively pat the lump where I’d placed the small metal sticker she’d given me to better highlight the area of concern on the x-ray.

*     *     *

I’ve had this spot checked twice before. First, seven or eight years ago, when a duct in my left breast started leaking a substance that looked terrifyingly like milk. Then again, about two years ago, when I was lactating for real, and that duct had hardened into a painful lump that wouldn’t go away. The previous tests indicated no cause for alarm. It’s gone down, but it’s always there, as much a part of me as the scar on my knee from falling off my bike in fourth grade. Or was it fifth—or sixth? The memory of picking gravel from my bloody skin is no less vivid because I can’t pinpoint the year.

This time, the spot on my breast feels different, and leaks again for no apparent reason. It’s worrisome enough to stop unpacking from our recent move for a diagnostic mammogram, on the advice of my new ob/gyn. Thankfully, I find a place that can fit me in before the annual rush in October, though I forget to schedule around the news cycle.

I call my new insurance company, but I can’t determine whether this facility is in network, or that I’m covered at all. After forty-five minutes on the phone, I’m so angry that I politely decline the request to complete a brief one-question survey about the experience.

*     *     *

I slip my right shoulder out of the robe first. The tech guides my breast into the machine that seems to have been designed for someone a foot taller and molds my skin like clay with her cold hands, for which she again apologizes. She follows the diagrams and numbers printed on the clear plastic plate that are comprehensible only to her. The machine whirrs, and the plate tightens, pressing and pressing and pressing my flesh, not just my breast, but parts of my shoulder, my ribs, my armpit, until it cannot possibly go any further, then one smidge more. “Take a deep breath in, and… hold it,” the tech says as she captures the image. Briefly, I’m free. She asks me to hug the machine another way, and another, for scans at different angles: 37 degrees, 90, two 180’s.

Part of being a woman: having your story fact-checked against a man’s. Either way, you lose.

Then, mercifully, it’s over. In the waiting room—design concept: spa on a budget—I chat with my mom, braless in public for the first time since my last mammogram. The rough threads of the starched robe scratch against my nipples. I sip a diet cranberry juice box, the least worst of the all-diet beverage options available. We gab like we’re getting manicures or something, like we’re anywhere but a waiting room. I pull out my phone and check every app except for Twitter, whose quick dopamine hits seem lately to have been spiked with something more toxic than usual.

*     *     *

The documents released before the hearings catapulted me back to my small, private high school. Nestled on a tree-lined campus in a rural area of a red state, it occupied its own quirky orbit, far removed from the elite schools of the country’s power centers. Instead of a football team, we had laid-back Episcopalian chapel services in which we sang “Drop-Kick Me, Jesus” and the “Cheers” theme song. Still, the demographics were similar. In the student parking lot, I’d navigate my old station wagon with its ripped seats and broken air conditioner around hand-me-down Beemers and brand-new Range Rovers. Every year, a handful of graduates moved up to the Ivy League. The doctors’ and lawyers’ children who were my classmates are now the next generation of doctors and lawyers.

Seeing that page scanned from private-school yearbooks reminded me we’d had those, too. Dot-dots, we’d called them. Each of the fifty-two seniors in my graduating class got a half-page to say whatever we wanted—to fill up space, I suppose. My dot-dots included a quotation from an obscure Beck interview and a handful of inside jokes with my girlfriends that mostly originated while tipsy on hard lemonade at sleepovers.

At least, I think that’s what’s there. I haven’t read mine, or anyone else’s, in seventeen years. I’m sure they’re in a box, somewhere, in our new house, where all of our belongings are together for the first time in months. But I don’t look for them. I’m afraid of what I’d find in certain entries, like the boy who gave me my first kiss at a party before disclosing he’d been dared to. Or the boys who teased me incessantly about my height, using my shoulders as armrests; the boys who knew the best places to park so we could steam up the windows for a while before my curfew; the boys with legendary alcohol tolerances who ended up in rehab; the boys who, when asked to give a persuasive speech on any topic, argued they should be allowed to, as eighteen-year-old seniors, take eighth-grade girls to prom.

*     *     *

Before I can help myself to a second diet cranberry juice, my results are ready. Despite my unusual symptoms, there is, thankfully, nothing wrong. The radiologist tells me, “Like many women, you have an abundance of breast tissue that is very responsive to change.”

They’re not fat cells, though I have plenty of those, too. But fat doesn’t care when you’re stressed, say, or when you’ve just moved with your family across the country, or when you spent too many weeks in a short-term rental with a painted toilet seat your son started calling the psychedelic potty, or when you reward yourself for unpacking all your dishes by compulsively reloading an app with the latest iterations of collective trauma. Everyone is talking about the woman who’s preparing to testify on a national stage against a man who seems with each new anecdote like someone who, if you’d gone to school together, would have made fun of you, or worse. This kind of tissue soaks up hormones—stress and otherwise—like a sponge.

The radiologist performs a cursory ultrasound. She apologizes for the cold jelly, then confirms that what I’ve experienced is normal. “All part of being a woman,” she says, as she snaps off her gloves. I feel like I’ve wasted her time.

*     *     *

Part of being a woman: being one, or zero, degrees away from someone who’s experienced sexual trauma. These are the only two numbers available.

Part of being a woman: feeling the impossibility of writing about such topics without detailing your own traumas—as though without such validation, no one would believe you.

Part of being a woman: feeling like your rage has swelled out of proportion to what you’ve experienced personally.

Part of being a woman: feeling like you should probably apologize to someone for something, but you’re not sure what.

*     *     *

In the hospital atrium, my mom and I hug, then dodge plump drops as we sprint to our separate cars. On my local NPR station, the hearing’s still underway, but on a break. The commentators fill the downtime by replaying earlier highlights. When I hear the clip, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” I start to cry. The tears sting as I compare my pain to hers. What I endured was nothing. My morning experience was a momentary, private discomfort that ended in good news. Her morning is a waking nightmare. She’s received death threats. She can speak her truth in a such a way that no one will believe her, or they’ll believe her and yet not care. What good, if any, can come of her bravery?

Rain falls on my windshield in sheets.

Later, the man testifies as I drive to preschool pick-up. At a red light, I smack the steering wheel with my palm and scream as he plays coy about those old yearbook passages. He portrays himself as a good boy, an all-American jock who loves God, his country, and beer. As though a man whose colleagues insist he’s super nice cannot possibly have a dark side.

Continuing to listen, no matter how historic the proceedings, feels like picking at a scab. I turn the radio off and retreat into my Spotify playlist of high-school angst, one of this week’s only comforts.

Listening to Tori Amos’ “Precious Things” for the first time in years feels like trying on an old, well-loved sweater and discovering it still fits.

He said you’re really an ugly girl
But I like the way you play
And I died
But I thanked him

During college, I stopped listening to Tori. Her total lack of irony made her deeply uncool. She needed to get a grip, have a sense of humor about it all. Sometime senior year, a cute boy told me he was forming a metal band. “We’re calling ourselves Torn Anus,” he said. “You know, like Tori Amos, but…not.”

“That’s hilarious,” I remember telling him. He was a nice guy and, later, a good boyfriend. We occasionally like each other’s Instagram photos. But I no longer find his wordplay hilarious.

*     *     *

Part of being a woman: having your story fact-checked against a man’s. Either way, you lose.

Part of being a woman: convincing yourself what happened was nothing at all.

Part of being a woman: considering yourself to be one of the lucky ones and looking back with fury anyway.

*     *     *

As I drive home with my kid in the backseat, the remainder of Little Earthquakes now playing at an imperceptible volume, I think of the two young men who stood at a lectern, picked at the crotches of their uniform khakis, and bragged about wanting to ask tweens to prom. Even then, I knew it was awful and walked out of class in protest.

Other events take years to reveal their shadiness, like the fact that the person who bought us all those hard lemonades at our sleepovers was usually my friend’s older brother, who was in his early twenties. Only as an adult do I wonder why a grown man would want to purchase alcohol for a bunch of teenage girls, though, as far as I can remember, nothing bad ever happened. But looking back makes me question everything.

I’d forgotten that the aspiring eighth-grade paramours were both part of a crew of dudes who’d use our free period to bench press in the gym’s weight room during freshman, or maybe sophomore, year. Then they’d come outside, where us girls were chatting, or finishing our geometry homework on a picnic bench, and find us.

Part of being a woman: convincing yourself what happened was nothing at all.

Not all of us—just the more petite girls, or the ones who, in some subtle way, seemed to be asking for it. Anything that made it easier for the boys to stick their hands under our armpits and lift us up in the air, without warning. They particularly liked to place our small bodies in one of the cylindrical black plastic trash cans that dotted our campus. We’d yelp and kick in protest, with no teachers in sight to rescue us, but we didn’t fight that hard. It was male attention.

I enjoyed my share of it, especially from one broad-shouldered boy already north of six feet tall. He could have been a linebacker if our school had fielded a team. I’d have preferred that he ask me out instead of hoisting me into garbage, but still, there was that feeling of weightlessness, of helplessness, the sense of my body as an object that someone stronger could pick up and put down at any time. Without question, I accepted that being female meant tolerating lowkey degradation.

It’s okay, I remember rationalizing. They always make sure the trash can is empty first. Later, it would become the punchline to a story I’d tell about something funny that used to happen to me in high school. I don’t think it’s funny anymore.

*     *     *

Part of being a woman: wondering whether these stories will suffice for you.

Part of being a woman: intuiting how wide I need to open the vein for you to care.

On a scale from one to five, where 1 = completely dissatisfied and 5 = completely satisfied, please rate your satisfaction with the information presented here. We’d like to know how to make this topic more appealing for you. If something more explicit would better suit your needs, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

*     *     *

Part of being a woman: cells at the ready to absorb what life slings your way.

Part of being a woman: carrying it around in your body, long after it’s over.

*     *     *

Predictably, Kavanaugh is confirmed. Life moves on, but it’s difficult to accept that I can’t walk around every day quietly seething, as I did in high school. My new therapist encourages me to work on putting those old books, metaphorically speaking, back on the shelf where they belong. “Or I could just keep them in moving boxes for months,” I offer. I thought that was a good solution.

These precious things
Let them bleed
Let them wash away

Like every other woman who grew up in America, I spent my formative years marinating in a culture that empowers and excuses the actions of a privileged class of young men. It’s okay to be angry if you experienced something like what Dr. Blasey Ford went through. It’s okay to be angry if you didn’t. We should all be angry about what recent events remind us about the worth of women in this country. We should channel our rage into action, and fight to transform our culture.

When it happens, I know where I’ll feel it. I’ve been told it’s very responsive to change.

 

Colleen Rothman is a writer based in New Orleans. Her essays have been featured in The Atlantic and Mutha Magazine, and her short fiction has appeared in Jellyfish Review, Okay Donkey, and Chicago Literati, among other journals. You can find her on Twitter @colleenrothman or colleenrothman.com

Photo Credit: Jacob Rothman

The Right of Way

At the intersection of the six-lane highway I live on in Washington, DC, I waited for the light to turn green and for the little white man to appear above the numbers—starting at twenty-six—counting down how long I had to cross the street. I looked carefully to make sure no cars were going to make a right turn; vehicles infamously whip around the corner as if it’s a race track with right turns instead of left. No cars were coming. I stepped out into the street.

After that, my memory slows down each second, moment by moment.

*     *     *

I first learned that anger is synonymous with evil from my father. It was his life’s goal to become a preacher and, by the time he did, my mother had left him, partly because of his horrible temper. The memories of my childhood that feature my father most prominently are ones in which he is angry: his voice booming so hard I swore I felt the walls shake; his eyes bugging out, determining who would be the target of his wrath; his veins swelling from his arms so I thought they would jump out of his skin; his hands reaching for one of my sisters, to throw her against the wall.

My mom struggled with clinical depression for years during and after her marriage to my father. With therapy and medication, she began to feel like herself again, the self who could smile and laugh, not just stare blankly at the walls. When I showed signs of sadness or anger, my mother was on guard. She didn’t want me to be depressed, so she ensured that I always displayed happiness. Emotions other than joyful ones were looked at with suspicion. If I became angry, I could behave like my father, losing control and physically lashing out.

When I was ten, my cousin pushed me and I scraped my knee on the curb. So, I pushed her into the dirt, ruining her all-white outfit.

“Vonetta, why did you do that? You know not to do that!” My mom chided me as if I’d killed the girl, using the same tone she used when my father hit my sisters. Her equating my behavior with his frightened me.

Despite him physically abusing them, my father was hopelessly devoted to my sisters. The children from his first marriage, they occupied a different space in his mind and heart than me. He loved them obsessively. He refused to let them get their driver’s licenses until after they had graduated from high school, so he was the only way they could get around. He defended them against his wives’ complaints about their disrespectful behavior.

My sisters often didn’t speak to me even when we lived in the same house. As an eight-year-old, when I wanted to laugh with them, watching television, they stopped laughing the moment a sound came out of my mouth. They left the room when I entered. They rolled their eyes at me when no one was looking. My sisters were angry that I even existed.

I didn’t know what I’d done to make them so mad that they treated me with such contempt. Years later, I learned that our dad was still married to their mom when I was born. Their mother decided that she hated me. In a way, I couldn’t blame her, what with my being walking evidence of my father’s infidelity. But she groomed my sisters to hate me, too. I guessed they never thought to question why they pointed their ire at me; I hadn’t chosen to be born.

 

Sometimes, when I was at home by myself, I cried silently, my body seeking even just the smallest bit of release. But then I swallowed it all again, immediately put my face back on, and marched back into line.

After my mother left him, Dad didn’t try to stay in touch with me. My mom pressured me to call him periodically, and each time I spoke with him I became more and more aware of how much he didn’t think about me.

“I’m so proud of you,” he said in a voice that sounded so close to genuine.

“Thank you,” I squeaked, trying not to let on that I was moments away from bursting into tears. I knew he was lying.

Subconsciously wanting my father to love me, or at least to make him look like a fool for abandoning me, I decided that I would make good grades and follow all the rules. I was a quiet, shy kid who liked to laugh, so I took all of the anger I felt toward my dad and sisters and let it fester at the base of my belly.

*     *     *

I saw that cars were waiting to turn left. I made eye contact with the driver of the first car, a black SUV. I saw him, so I figured he saw me. I thought he was slowing down.

But then, I realized that he wasn’t slowing down. In fact, he appeared to be speeding up. Since facts from my high school honors physics class were permanently burned into my brain, I knew that he was going too fast for me to continue without contact and that I did not have time to jump backward, out of the way.

*     *     *

When I was in eleventh grade, one of my classmates took to bullying me. He was a big dude, a star of the varsity football team. I usually brushed him off, ignoring his taunting about my glasses and crooked teeth because I didn’t want to dignify any of it with a response. Until one day.

I can’t remember what exactly he said, but it enraged me. It was as if I stepped outside of my body and was replaced by a sensationally bold girl who looked exactly like me. Very calmly, but very quickly, she picked up a ballpoint pen with the cap on, and poked the guy—hard—in the back. She didn’t want to hurt him, just for him to leave her alone. How much damage could a capped pen do?

He immediately took off his shirt. The pen had ruptured a small hole in his flesh, the size of the pen head. It had gone through the plastic cap and into his skin. A dot of ink spotted where blood should have been.

My eyes shot open as I dropped the pen, the plastic skittering across the floor for a second.

“I am so sorry,” I said, immediately panicking as I anticipated his retribution. He could literally crush me, and I was sure he was going to at some point.

He was speechless as he left the classroom to go to the bathroom. I followed him out the door and down the hall, almost going into the boys’ bathroom, repeating, “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

When I told my mom what happened, she looked at me through squinting eyes. “Maybe we should get you in to see a counselor,” she said.

She knew I’d decided to stop speaking to my father and quickly made the connection between the two situations.

“I know the boy probably made you mad,” she continued, “but you can’t go around hitting people. You know what the Bible says about being angry.”

The Bible said that one should not sleep on one’s anger, implying that anger rotted your insides during your slumber. I always assumed that it meant that being angry was a sin: totally wrong, a moral failing against God. My outburst confirmed this for me.

My mom never followed up on therapy, so I went along suppressing my feelings.

My bully never hit me back. Instead, he made me do his vocabulary homework for the rest of the year. I intentionally put down some wrong answers, so the teacher wouldn’t suspect someone else was doing it. I learned the words “surreptitious” and “diatribe,” among others, and as a result, I did remarkably well on the verbal portion of the SAT.

I decided that I would never be angry again. I wanted to be righteous, and there was no room for failure.

*     *     *

As the SUV hit me in the left knee, I screamed. His tires screeched, striking up the smell of fresh asphalt. Both of my knees buckled, sending me onto the ground. My sunglasses fell off my face and skidded a few inches away. I caught myself on all fours, my knees scraping the ground.

My jeans better not be torn, I thought. They were my favorite: straight, dark Lucky Brand jeans it took me months to find.

*     *     *

For college, I went to Georgetown. Just being around so many rich white kids produced an annoying amount of jealousy in me. But the insistence that their opinions were more meaningful than mine was most infuriating.

Once, in a leadership class, a white guy insisted that Black people just hadn’t worked hard enough to gain economic equality to whites.

“You’re ignoring the existence of institutional racism,” I said, trying to be kind and explain the issue in objective terms to help convert him to common sense. “Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how hard you work; you just don’t gain as much if you’re Black.”

“You need to look up Robert Johnson,” he replied, assuming I was unfamiliar with the owner of the then Charlotte Bobcats and his inspiring—though highly uncommon—rags to riches story.

My heart started to beat faster and my cheeks began to flush. “I’m from Charlotte!” I said, not quite yelling, but making sure he could hear me.

His eyes widened and his jaw clenched, but the conversation was over. After class, we apologized for getting so heated with each other. I knew I’d done the right thing, but I was ashamed, convinced that he would have listened to me if I had not gotten angry.

*     *     *

On my hands and knees on the pavement, I felt no pops or snaps. No sounds of shattered bones. No rushing sensation of torn muscles or ligaments. My books were on the ground. My purse was on the ground, dangling from my shoulder. I picked up the books, adjusted my bag, then stood upright.

At the same moment I realized I was okay, I realized that I had been hit by a car while walking in the crosswalk, with the right of way.

*     *     *

In my early 20s, I dated a guy who prided himself on his extreme liberalism. Even though I disagreed with nearly everything he believed, I asked him questions and listened earnestly to his reasoning because I liked him and that’s what you’re supposed to do with someone you like. He said he liked me, too, but he didn’t bother asking me any questions about how and why I came to the conclusions I’d come to.

After a couple of months, he texted to tell me that he hated my conservative-leaning centrism so much that he couldn’t be with me any longer. He followed up with a pages-long email detailing everything he thought was wrong with me, mostly that I was an impostor, in his opinion. He appreciated my respect for his views, though.

Standing on a friend’s deck outside of a raging house party, unable to choke back tears, I lamented on the phone to a friend, “I accepted him. Why couldn’t he do the same for me?”

*     *     *

When I went to business school, I was one of few women and the only Black person actively participating in the student investment fund. During my stock pitch, a few of the guys asked for information about the inventory levels of the company I was presenting. I hadn’t looked at the balance sheet that closely, because no one ever looked at it that closely.

When I said I didn’t know, one guy said that a few of them just met with that company’s CEO a few days ago, a meeting to which I was not invited. The CEO had confessed that inventory was problematically high.

I blinked, wondering why he would ask me a question whose answer he already knew, why he would embarrass me in front of the whole club.

My ears and eyes grew hot, but I exhaled, cooling them.

*     *     *

Standing in the middle of the street, I inhaled, my lungs filling with a sharp gust of wind that I could not stop from making its way out of my mouth.

*     *     *

During my job after business school, my Latina coworker and I met with the “HR” partner at our firm to report some racist things our bosses had said to us. She scribbled down notes and made her face look distraught.

“I’m sorry, girls,” she said, shaking her head. “But don’t worry, we’ll look into it. And don’t be afraid of retribution because there will not be any.”

My coworker and I gave each other grateful, relieved looks.

 

Forgiveness starts peace, but an apology completes it. The acknowledgment of an offense, and remorse for it, rounds out the sharp edges of wrongdoing. It doesn’t make the bad action disappear, but it helps it to fade.

 

Over the course of the next year, my coworker was given poor performance reviews and I was not given any new projects, even after begging for work. During my year-end review, the company president told me, “You’re not as engaged—we need you to be engaged.”

My ears set on fire. My jaw clenched. I balled up my fists under the table. I released my fingers and pinched my thigh through my dress pants. I was not going to be an Angry Black Woman. I was not going to lose control.

Sometimes, when I was at home by myself, I cried silently, my body seeking even just the smallest bit of release. But then I swallowed it all again, immediately put my face back on, and marched back into line.

*     *     *

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? DIDN’T YOU SEE ME? I HAD THE LIGHT AND EVERYTHING!”

I pointed to the walk signal, where the little white man still stood over the countdown, which had gone down to ten. The white man turned into a red hand and the numbers flashed: nine, eight.

“WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU DOING?”

My knees were throbbing, my hands were shaking, my heart was blasting, and my voice was raw. I screamed every word from the deepest depths of myself.

It was as if I was screaming at every person who had ever hurt me.

*     *     *

I wanted to know why they had hurt me. I had followed the rules, done what I was supposed to do—be born, be smart, be a team player, be accepting, stay in the crosswalk and walk only when the white man is there—and they hurt me. I was holding up my end of the bargain, bringing my contents to the table, but they had all chosen to turn the table over and discard my contribution. Righteousness never mattered—people would hurt if they wanted to hurt, if they held themselves in higher regard than me.

*     *     *

Just like after I pen-stabbed my eleventh-grade bully, my heart nearly stopped. I had just screamed at a person. I wasn’t supposed to scream at anyone.

The driver had stopped, and the passengers in a few of the cars on the other side of the street looked on. At the sound of my bellowing, the driver got out of his car, in the middle of the lane. He was an older Black man. He wore a tan three-piece suit, a straw trilby, and brown rimless sunglasses that kept me from really seeing his face.

“I’m sorry, sis.” He shook his head faintly.

I am not your sister, I thought.

I considered apologizing for screaming at him, but I quickly reasoned that I was not wrong here. And the way the man shook his head and looked down told me that I was safe. He looked nothing like my father; he was an age my father would never reach. And unlike my dad, this man wasn’t going to attack me if I said the wrong thing. So I continued to let it out.

“WHAT WERE YOU DOING? I HAD THE RIGHT OF WAY!”

“I had the right of the way, too,” he said, holding his sun-spotted hands out.

“NO, YOU DIDN’T! YOU DIDN’T!” I started to add, “I’M MARRIED TO A LAWYER, I KNOW WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT.”

But before I could, he said, “Yeah, I know. Pedestrians have the right of the way.”

“You scared me, too!” He continued, his hands trembling.

I looked at him as if he’d just called my mother stupid. I’d never said that he had scared me. Sure, I had screamed—because that’s the appropriate reaction when an SUV rams into your knee. But he had not frightened me at all.

“Do you want my insurance information?” The driver asked.

Insurance information seemed irrelevant. What was relevant was why he had chosen not to follow the rules. I had been following the rules and he violated them. His lack of regard for these boundaries resulted in my being harmed. Rules keep us from hurting each other because we are capable of causing so much pain.

On the sidewalk, an old Black lady yelled, “You ain’t supposed to get up! You ‘sposed to stay down on the ground until the police come! You know better than to get up when you get hit by a car!”

I realized then that we were in the middle of a highway at almost five o’clock in the evening. Traffic stretched out behind us for what looked like miles, but, miraculously, no one was honking. It seemed that they knew what had transpired and were going to wait for us to figure things out, but not for much longer. I was in the way, and I hate being in the way because I hate when people are in my way, and you do unto others as you would like to be done unto.

I asked him for his business card. He said he didn’t have any on him, but he wrote down his phone numbers and asked me for mine. I hesitated to give him my number, but then I thought he might want to check on me later, to see how badly he’d hurt me and to try to make recompense.

“Where do you go to school?” He asked as he scribbled.

“I’M NOT A STUDENT. I’M A REGULAR ADULT.”

My hair was in a ponytail, so perhaps that made me look younger than thirty-two. If he was trying to flatter me, it wasn’t going to work—I was not going to let him subvert my power by delegitimizing me because of my youthful appearance.

“Miss Young,” he said, peering at me through his sunglasses. “I am truly sorry.” He took the paper and offered his other hand. “I am truly sorry.”

Still infuriated, I looked at his hand.

Something deep inside, below my belly, below all the crevices where I’d stored all that anger, whispered to me, “Forgive.”

*     *     *

The best explanation of the difference between forgiveness and bitterness was told to me by the anti-trafficking activist Christine Caine: “Bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

Forgiveness liberates you, not the perpetrator.

I couldn’t say that word in the moment. If I forgave him, I would have no recourse to funds if something did actually go wrong with my body. People always said they felt worse after an accident the next day. I felt fine in that moment, aside from the trembling hands, scraped knees, and inability to speak with an inside voice. The word “forgive” seemed too potent for what had just happened and what could happen if my body happened to fall completely apart in the near future.

But that thing inside, over the course of only a second or two, told me that it was the right thing to do.

*     *     *

“I accept your apology,” I finally said, in my normal voice, at my normal volume. I shook his hand firmly and looked in his eyes, which I still couldn’t really see.

“Thank you, sis,” he said.

He got back in his car and I huffed, then crossed the street with the red hand and numbers flashing nine, eight anew.

The old lady yelled at me again as I walked away. I shook my head, wondering if she really would have blocked traffic on a busy road during rush hour. By the stoop in her shoulders, I was certain she would have. But I didn’t need the man’s money. The only thing he owed me was an apology, which he gave me, multiple times.

*     *     *

My therapist once asked what I wanted from my old bosses.

“The same thing I wanted from my dad and my sisters,” I said. “An apology that I will never get.”

Forgiveness starts peace, but an apology completes it. The acknowledgment of an offense, and remorse for it, rounds out the sharp edges of wrongdoing. It doesn’t make the bad action disappear, but it helps it to fade.

*     *     *

As I walked toward the library, I noticed that my breathing pattern had changed. The air went deeper into my body and came out fuller, more completely.

It was relief.

It was like I’d been carrying a boulder for miles and had finally dropped it.

I had been angry, but I hadn’t lost control.

It took being hit by an SUV to create a safe space for me to feel this emotion and dispel almost thirty-three years of pent up anger, guilt-free.

Everyone told me that I’d feel worse the next day, and I did, a little. My knee was sore, and my hip felt a little gimpy. Yet I felt the strongest sense of peace, almost like sitting in the relaxation room of a spa after a massage.

The driver never called to see if I was okay like I’d fantasized about him doing, being what I felt a good man would be. I decided to let God handle the justice angle, if there was one. I’d done my job: learned that anger isn’t evil when it’s done the right way.

 

Vonetta Young is a writer living in Washington, DC. Her essays have been published in/by Catapult, Past Ten, Blavity, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, Levo League, and The Billfold, among others. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up with an absent father who was a preacher with a black belt. Follow her on Twitter at @VonettaWrites.