Playing House

There was an abandoned house a few miles from where I grew up. It was out on Mt. Mica Mine Road, past the egg farm, past the little cemetery that held just a few toothlike stones, up a big hill and then down the other side. If you did it right, if you let the earth take you, giving yourself and your bike over to gravity, you could plunge down that hill and coast about halfway up the next one. And halfway up the next one was where the abandoned house stood.

My brother found it. He was always finding things in the woods: quartz crystals, cow skeletons, birds’ nests. A long sandy drive clogged with birch and poplar trees stretched from the road to the house. For some reason, we always walked our bikes down the drive, as if we didn’t want to approach too quickly. As if we needed to listen keenly, muffling our steps as our sneakers squeaked against the sand.

The house had once been painted white, but the paint had faded and chipped so that now the gray of the wood beneath formed the dominant color. A few black shutters clung on, looking like a drag queen’s false eyelashes after a long night.

Here’s the thing: this was and was not a house. It didn’t have to behave—we didn’t have to behave—by the rules of “what it means to be a house.”

We’d prop our bikes against the big trunk of a mostly-dead maple tree and then we’d hop up onto the porch—the front steps had long since disappeared. I can remember being little enough that I had to push myself up onto that porch, like you’d lever yourself out of the deep end of the swimming pool, shimmying on my belly, getting a splinter through my shirt. The front door still stood in its frame, and so we would walk around the porch to where a window had been broken, and we’d step through—one leg, then the other—into what had once been the dining room.

We certainly could have gone through the front door. But it was more fun to go through the window. Here’s the thing: this was and was not a house. It didn’t have to behave—we didn’t have to behave—by the rules of “what it means to be a house.” We could go in through the window.

Inside, wallpaper hung in loose scrolls or had been torn off in rough patches. On a few walls, someone had spray-painted pentagrams in drippy black. The chandelier dangled askew. Across the front hall, through a double door surmounted by a graceful arch, stood the living room. I liked this room best. The floor had rotted away in the middle. But the edges of the wood floor were still intact, forming a rim maybe three feet wide all around. In the center, nothing. A hole. The dirt floor of the basement was visible below. I liked to walk around the outer edge of this room and imagine how it had happened. How the floor had sagged slowly, drooping and drooping, until it just gave way. It looked to me like a volcano. This hole was not one of emptiness but of latent power.

Along one wall of the living room, there was a built-in bookshelf. The volumes had long ago been pulled from the shelves, but many of them still lay strewn across the floor, mostly paperbacks with big, water-swollen pages. They looked like ticks that had enjoyed a nice long feed. I liked to kick them; I liked how I knew books—real books—were solid, but these books—which weren’t quite real books—were squishy.

There were no tales of the house being haunted. My brother never tried to scare me with ghost noises. But, even so, the house terrified me. My brother would climb the stairs up to the second floor; only once did I have the guts to follow him. Actually, I didn’t have the guts, but that day I was more scared to stay downstairs alone than I was to see the upstairs.

I don’t know what scared me more, the emptiness or the not-quite of the emptiness. The fact that some rooms still had curtains in the windows. A few carpets, threadbare and rotten, still covered the bedroom floors. It was enough that it felt like someone not only had lived there, but, in a sense, lived there still. They weren’t quite gone.

Moreover, I just didn’t understand it. Why would you let a house decay? Why wouldn’t you take everything with you when you went?

I loved that house. Well, love is a strong word. You know how when you lose a tooth, you kind of can’t help your tongue from just going right to that gap and feeling around and around, even though it hurts a bit and is kind of gross? That’s what I felt towards that old, abandoned house.

    *     *     *

As a kid, as a little girl, I spent a lot of time “playing house.” I would go to my friends’ houses and we would drape a sheet or blanket over a table and then huddle underneath. As the tomboy of the group, I was always cast as the father, Amanda or Ann would be the mother, our Cabbage Patch Kids or teddy bears would be our children. We played other games, too. We spent sunny days climbing trees and chasing each other in endless games of tag or hide-and-seek. But on rainy days, we played house.

That house was beautiful and horrifying. It had the logic of dreams. It contained those beautiful little things that as a five-year-old I would have desperately wanted in a house.

In the semi-dark, under the sheet-draped table, we would overturn a cardboard box and settle our stuffed offspring around it. Amanda would set plates and teacups on the table. She’d shoo me out and tell me, “You have to come home.” And I would crawl outside of the sheet and sit for a moment on the living room rug, blinking, back out in the boring real-world, the larger house in which we had no interest, which we only wanted to recreate on our own terms. “Okay,” she’d say, “Come home now.” And I would crawl through the sheet and into the dark, orderly place we’d created. This was house.

But this abandoned place, this gaping wounded thing, was also house. House was future. House was hope. But house was also past. House was history. House was memory and decline and decay towards nothing.

No one could play house in this place my brother had found. But someone had. This was a possible outcome of the game. House with hole in the floor. House with squirrel poop in the kitchen. House with pentagram on dining room walls.

I remember walking around and around that thin parapet of living room floor, circling the hole in the middle, trying to be tomboy bold, unafraid of falling in. Unafraid of this place, the mystery of it, its seeming inevitability.

    *     *     *

Years later, I ended up (as one does) working for the Forest Service in Wyoming, in the Shoshone Forest, just outside the eastern gate to Yellowstone National Park. I turned nineteen while I worked that job—my title, wilderness interpreter, implying much more romance than it deserved: I explained the campground regulations to visitors, especially how to store food in grizzly bear country.

That summer, that nineteenth birthday, marked two years of my living as a guy. Two years of being out as transgender. When I had come out to my parents—sitting them down at the kitchen table, telling them I wanted to be Alex, not Alice—they had been upset, confused, sad. Again and again, that day and in the weeks and months that followed, they worried that I had thrown my future away. That I would never be happy, never be loved, never be successful.

I hadn’t been kicked out of anything, not formally, not except for one grandmother who said she didn’t want to see me again. But it felt as if my world had slipped away. It was a strange feeling, a mixture of both elation and fear. After I came out to my parents, I went up to my room and gathered an armful of skirts, dresses, blouses, stuffing them into a garbage bag and setting them aside to donate. I took the jewelry box my aunt had given me and brought it to my mother’s room, returning to her the ring and necklace she had presented me on my sixteenth birthday. It was like handing my future back to her. If I wasn’t going to be this girl, this daughter… What was I going to be?

It was my brother who brought me bits of conversation, who relayed what it was my parents were struggling with. They spoke to him when they couldn’t speak to me. “They’re worried that you won’t fit in. That no one will hire you, that you’ll never get married or whatever.” I worried about this, too. I tried to embrace the queer community, the idea of radical queerness, of turning my back on social expectations: Who needed marriage? Who wanted a conventional job? But some part of me, rooted and formed in that sheet-over-the-table place, wanted, needed that house.

    *     *     *

The Shoshone National Forest contains over 1.75 million acres designated wilderness: rhyolite cliffs, towering buttes, foaming rivers with hot springs in their midst. When I arrived out there, I may as well have been dropped on another planet: the place bore no resemblance to rural New England where I’d grown up. And beyond the landscape, I was preoccupied with trying to be a boy, with trying to convince the dozen other rangers and firefighters at the station that I was just plain old Alex, just another guy. But in the midst of all this, there was one thing I noticed in particular, one thing I couldn’t ignore.

On the highway that led from Wapiti, Wyoming, to Yellowstone, maybe six or eight miles away from the ranger station, stood a large and strange house. It was set back from the road and up a slope so that it was readily visible. No big trees grew to mask it in that high desert.

I noticed it the first time I drove by. It was clear that the house wasn’t really done. The wood was still raw—no shingles, no paint, just bare wood and, in places, only the frame of two-by-fours. At first, I thought the house had some sort of scaffolding on it as it was being finished. But what I thought was scaffolding turned out to be part of the house: a succession of staircases and ladders and platforms and outgrowths that the builder had begun but never finished.

I took to watching the house—it was untouched. No workmen ever swarmed it. No cars were ever in the drive. No lights were ever on. And so, I waited for a full moon and a clear night, and then I went to that house.

I stepped over the chain that dangled across the driveway, with its sign in the middle: no trespassing. I walked right up to the base of the structure. From the bottom, it started off normal enough. A few steps up to a wrap-around porch. Two bow windows. A front door, firmly closed, but with the lock torn out—just a big hole where the bolt had been.

How to describe this house? I walked all over it that night, and it is the strangest place I have ever been. Moonlight makes anything eerie, with its unforgiving shadows. But this place would have been eerie even in full sun.

There were doors in the rooms that opened onto solid walls. There were other doors in the rooms that opened onto thin air. There were staircases that led up from hallways and ended abruptly against a wall or a ceiling. And there were stairways that went up and up, through a roof, and kept going, ending with a step with nothing beyond it.

On the first floor, there were rooms of normal proportions and then, in the middle of the house, one room of precisely half scale. When I walked around the porch, I noticed a tiny window of thick plexiglass and, when I peered through, I could barely make out a cozy little room—the only spot in the house that was furnished—a couch, a fireplace, a little side table, a book. Perfect. But when I went inside, I couldn’t find the room. I walked around and around, before realizing that the room had been built without a door, just a hermetically sealed-off space.

I walked all over that house. It was so strange, so inexplicable, that—in the years since—I have often wondered if I dreamed it all up.

The next day, I asked my boss at the ranger station if he knew anything about the house. “Oh, sure,” he said. Two brothers had bought the land and were going to open a cattle ranch together. They started building the house, but one day during construction, one of the brothers had fallen and died. The other one tried to carry on building on his own, but the grief must have unhinged him because that’s when the house went all crazy.

There are parts of ourselves we can escape, defy, or reinvent. There are parts of ourselves that are unavoidable, hard-wired.

I asked the clerk at the store nearest the house—what’s the story? She told me that a man had come out and bought a bunch of land to open a ranch and was building a big house for him and his new wife. But then his wife left him and he went crazy. Wouldn’t leave the house, even though it wasn’t done. Had his groceries delivered, even, right from this store, and just went on building and building. Loads of lumber would come in and he’d cobble on another room or another staircase. Take potshots with his rifle if any strangers came up his drive. Then just disappeared.

That summer, I heard various tales of what had happened, but the basic contours were the same: man begins building, man suffers loss, man continues building.

That house was beautiful and horrifying. It had the logic of dreams. It contained those beautiful little things that as a five-year-old I would have desperately wanted in a house—a ship’s mast with a crow’s nest growing from the roof!—but that made no sense in the world of actual houses that served actual functions. Trapdoors to secret chambers: such notions had delighted me as a child, but in this house, the secret chambers were stuffy and claustrophobic, prisons as much as safe zones. It was hard to tell whether this was a dream house, spun from fantasy and desire, or something much darker.

Yet, this was house, too.

    *     *     *

That summer, as I lived in an old coal cabin, built by the Work Progress Administration during the depths of the Great Depression, I thought a lot about that house. I thought a lot about the abandoned house of my childhood, the destruction and decay there. I thought even more about the draped sheets over the dining room tables. Odd, that these should seem to be the most real of all. These make-pretend places, where I was the dad, where my friends recognized something in me that I couldn’t see, couldn’t put words to.

I wondered, what place did I have now?

I suppose it is a question that many almost-nineteen-year-olds ponder. At that age, many are confronting the idea that the next house they have will be one they will build themselves. Perhaps not in the sense of build it with hammer and nails, but construct it of their own will, their own selves.

Every time I drove past the crazy house—that’s what I took to calling it—I would slow down and stare, at its spires and ladders and jutting platforms. Who could have dreamed what shape it would take when it was begun? Who had thought, as they set the rugs on the floor, as they hung curtains on the windows of that house in Maine, that someday the living room would collapse in on itself? And who is to say that these fates aren’t beautiful? Who is to say that the original intention is the correct one?

There are parts of ourselves we can escape, defy, or reinvent. There are parts of ourselves that are unavoidable, hard-wired. I had always known I was a boy, and my earliest houses, those sheet-draped tables, had welcomed me home as a make-believe dad. My parents, understandably, set a different table for me. Their daughter, who would one day marry and who would wear necklaces and earrings and dresses. To them, I had abandoned this self, abandoned the idea of house and home that they had constructed for me.

Transgender felt like a crazy word. A wild idea. A renunciation of all that they had intended for me. Queer people went off to the margins, lived at the teetering edges of society, in artists’ colonies and hippie style cooperatives, crazy cobbled-together chaotic places. Abandoned or forsaken by others, we queer folk were meant to gather together in some sort of outcast solace.

House as past, house as future. House as self. I learned that summer in Wyoming, that though I liked living as a guy, I was transgender, and hiding that part of myself did me no good. I could do it, but only at a cost. I came back to the East Coast. I told almost no one about the crazy house I’d seen. I’d taken pictures of the rhyolite cliffs, the snow-capped mountains, the rushing rivers. The house remained only in my mind.

A year or so after that, when my parents were preparing to sell the house I’d grown up in, I took my bike out for a ride on the Mt. Mica Road. Past the egg farm, now closed, and the cemetery, unchanged, up the big hill and down the backside. I kept my hands off the brakes, though the speed seemed unsafe. I let myself coast, slowing mid-way up the next hill. I hopped off. I couldn’t find the driveway. I propped the bike against a tree and walked higher up the hill, then lower. The brush and saplings grew thick and even along the road. I found a stone wall and followed it into the woods, pacing back to where I thought would be even with the house, and walked around. Nothing.

Perhaps it had been torn down. Perhaps I mis-remembered its location. I should have brought my brother with me. But he had already graduated college, had no more summer vacations to spend idly. I picked up my bike and began to pedal back. There were boxes to pack and rugs to roll up and another family waiting to move in.

 

 

Special Guest Judge, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich:

“Playing House” drew me in with its unexpected, evocative metaphors and descriptions—its language just slightly off-kilter, as alluring and evocative as the abandoned houses that drew in the narrator and their brother. As I read, I found myself underlining line after line. From its almost haunted opening, to a moving reflection on the houses we find and the homes we make for ourselves, this is an essay that stayed with me.

—Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, named one of the best books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Audible.com, Bustle, Book Riot, The Times of London, and The Guardian. A finalist for a New England Book Award, a Goodreads Choice Award, and a Lambda Literary Award, it will be translated into eight languages. Marzano-Lesnevich’s essays and reviews appear in The New York Times, The Mail on Sunday (UK), Oxford American, and many other publications. They have received fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, as well as a Rona Jaffe Award. They have taught at Harvard and in the fall will become an assistant professor at Bowdoin College, teaching creative nonfiction.

 

Alex Myers’s essays have been published in Hobart, Salon, Good Housekeeping, and River Styx. He also writes fiction, and his debut novel, Revolutionary, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. Find more at alexmyerswriting.com.

Polar Nights

It’s Monday at the top of the world. It’s morning, but the sun hasn’t risen in weeks. The elementary school where I teach is a fifteen-minute walk across the tundra and past the lagoon where Arctic swans glide during the brief summer season. In the fall, snowy owls fly overhead in the dusky morning hours hunting the swift aviŋŋaq who burrow and tunnel in the tundra grasses. But this morning, we are deep in the heart of winter. Wind buffets my parka and tears at my backpack as I stumble through uneven terrain. Lifting the goggles that protect my eyes from icy gusts, I squint into the darkness, searching the sky for familiar constellations or the phosphorescent river of the aurora borealis. I didn’t know what I was seeing the first time I saw the aurora. I was new to Alaska, running to my apartment through the night. Stopping at the door to find my key, I looked up and froze. A jagged green scar flickered atop the stars. The universe ripped apart, I thought, slow and shocked, gasping in the frigid cold. The next day, I discovered that what I had seen was the movement of charged particles flung from the sun, crashing into Earth’s atmosphere. This morning, like most mornings, clouds obscure the sky. No stars or particles shine through the thick coverage. I blink away the ice coating my eyelashes and shove the goggles back on my face, carefully tugging down my hat and pulling up my scarf. I have seen skin black with frostbite and take no chances. Arriving at school, I remember I should have scanned for polar bears.

I moved to Utqiaġvik, the northernmost community in Alaska, following a failed engagement and the miscarriage of an unwanted baby. My almost-husband and I met in a post-baccalaureate program in laidback North Carolina town, both working on our teaching credentials. In a required young adult literature class, we batted eyelashes across the table while discussing psychic wounds in To Kill a Mockingbird, conversations that carried over to coffee shops and porch swings. Later, he charmed me with a re-writing of William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say.” (I had no idea, then, all I’d be asked to forgive.) Those late summer days merged into fall, and he sparkled in the clear mountain light. We shared dreams of traveling, and Alaska was to be the first of many teaching adventures. With shiny, new teaching certifications in hand, we signed contracts to teach in a small Alaska Native village at the tip of St. Lawrence Island in the middle of the Bering Strait. Extensive searches on his computer revealed pictures posted by adventurous birders making pilgrimages to the island for bucket list Arctic birds. We researched winter gear and bought tickets that carried us north to Anchorage, then to Nome, the famous site of the Iditarod, before bringing us to Gambell, a subsistence community of a few hundred Siberian Yu’piks.

By the end of the school year, our relationship had collapsed under the weight of the pregnancy we never talked about, the stress of being new teachers, and the isolation inflicted by living thousands of miles from friends and family. We had promised to support each other, but that promise was too big.

As our nineteen-passenger turboprop bounced to a stop on the gravel runway, I panicked, hit by an unexpected wave of claustrophobia. What the hell have we done? I thought. We remained in our seats as the pilot unloaded sacks of mail and cases of soda for the local store. Finally disembarking I was struck first by the wind and then the expanse of gravel stretching to the crashing waves of the Bering Sea and the base of a mountain rising behind what I would soon learn was the village school. Our principal and her husband met us at the runway with their ATVs to ride us and our baggage to our apartment, furnished and generously subsidized by the school district. “We weren’t sure if you were getting off,” our principal said after introductions. “Some people don’t get off the plane?” I asked. “Yeah,” she laughed. “They take one look around and fly back to Nome.” That’s an option? my brain screamed. But I was committed. Committed to my job with a signed contract, committed financially by going into debt to finance the move to Alaska, and committed to my partner. Rather than flagging down the pilot and climbing back onboard the tiny aircraft I flew in on, I perched on the back of the ATV and rode in stunned silence to the old school building that had been converted into apartments for teacher housing. I remember wearing barefoot style shoes without socks and my feet froze in moments. It was early August, and the temperature hovered in the 40s.

Two weeks later, I discovered I was pregnant. I tracked my fertility by diligently taking early morning basal temperature readings. During the fertile periods of my cycle, identified by a subtle increase in temperature, we used condoms, but there had been a day before the trip we had chanced it. Now, an alarming spike in my readings soared off the graph paper used to monitor and chart each cycle. It’s because of the move, I told myself. More days passed, resulting in a missed period. Stress, I said. When we flew to Anchorage for an orientation for new teachers, I purchased two pregnancy tests. I didn’t need the second. The double pink lines were vivid, even brighter than the image on the front of the package. The claustrophobia I felt landing in Gambell rushed back with an urgent need to get the baby out of me. I suffocated in my own skin, fear tearing the breath from my throat. We scheduled an abortion for October, and knowing that I had to spend six weeks carrying a baby I didn’t want drove me to the internet where I read everything I could find about naturally inducing miscarriage and home abortions. Articles about toxic herbs and tiny vaginal vacuums filled my browser history. Stumbling across a few blog posts about high doses of vitamin C successfully preventing pregnancies from taking hold, I ordered pills so large that I had to take them with food in order to swallow them, and maybe it worked because the day we flew to Anchorage for the abortion, I miscarried the baby in the staff bathroom at our school.

By the end of the school year, our relationship had collapsed under the weight of the pregnancy we never talked about, the stress of being new teachers, and the isolation inflicted by living thousands of miles from friends and family. We had promised to support each other, but that promise was too big. We faltered. We stopped having sex, and my green-eyed, soft-lipped boyfriend began secretly fooling around with another teacher. When I found out, I met with my principal and sobbed in her office while she arranged for me to transfer to another village, an Iñupiaq village further north, for the following school year.

They held my broken heart together with their sticky hands. Weekends were a horror. I slept as much as I could, rising late, going to bed early, crying myself to sleep.

Not quite finished disappointing one another, we made the misguided decision to try again over the summer and even got engaged at the start of the next school year. We planned a wedding and made it through with a few well-timed visits, but the relationship felt hollow, forced. Our voices echoed in the emptiness of the miles between us. At the end of May, we flew to Anchorage from our separate homes to reconnect before continuing on to see our friends and family in the weeks preceding our June wedding. The second night of the trip we lay, not touching, on the polyester spread covering the bed in our Anchorage hotel room watching a Coen Brothers’ film. “There’s something I have to tell you,” he said. Tears soaked into his beard as confessed that he was in love with someone else. “I’ll still marry you,” he said, voice wavering and shoulder trembling. “No, you won’t,” I answered, dry-eyed. I moved to the second bed in the room and froze more swiftly, more solidly than had arctic winds gripped me. I can’t feel this now, I told myself, packing my heart in ice. Numbness got me to the airport and on a plane the following morning. Frozen wounds don’t heal. He married that other woman almost exactly one year later. On stronger days, I tell myself that I hope they’re happy.

I needed a fresh start, somewhere I could begin again anonymously. When offered a position teaching kindergarten on the North Slope, the northernmost school district in Alaska, I decided I’d go for one year to gather myself and plan the next step. Two years have passed, now, and I’m still here. There’s no mall or movie theater or bar. No mountains or trees interrupt the vast expanse of frozen tundra. Wifi and cell reception can be spotty, but my life moves in familiar rhythms set by the environment and my role as a classroom teacher. Despite the challenges of waiting weeks for packages sent via two-day shipping and living two months of the year in complete darkness and two months in perpetual light, it’s difficult to imagine leaving. Insulated by hundreds of miles of arctic tundra and polar ice, I am remote, I am isolated, and I am safe.

This year I looped with my kindergarten class to first grade. As kindergartners, they brushed my hair, kept track of my coffee cup, and made me endless of bowls of imaginary soup and plastic sandwiches.

“Is it vegetarian?” I’d ask my subsistence-living students as they handed me an empty plastic plate while I sat at the child-size table.

“Uh-huh,” they’d nod, smiling. “But soup’s very hot.”

They held my broken heart together with their sticky hands. Weekends were a horror. I slept as much as I could, rising late, going to bed early, crying myself to sleep. But the long hours of the weekend felt impossible to fill. My loneliness, my emptiness, my sorrow reflecting off the snow, off the sky, off the bare white walls of my apartment. Monday mornings were a gift.

“It’s Monday,” my fellow teachers would groan as we passed in the hallways.

“Yep,” I’d beam back at them, gratefully rescued from the abyss of the weekend.

This year, my students and I are in another wing of the school for first and second-grade students, and we’ve left the play kitchen behind for the new kindergarteners to use. We have moved to a new room with yellow cabinets instead of orange and a view of the outdoor playground instead of the parking lot. Our procedures and classroom routines have stayed the same, though. We focus on community and kindness and group work. We live in an Iñupiaq village, but we come from all over the world. In our class, we have students from Polynesia and Southeast Asia, as well as Alaska.

In our classroom, we take each other seriously. We gather each morning to discuss the daily schedule and share our thoughts about what excites us, what makes us cry, or whatever happens to be on our minds. One student is moving into a bigger house where he will have to sleep in his own bedroom. Another is newly living with her mother. When it’s my turn, I share my dream from the night before. Looking down at the multi-colored carpet, I say, “Last night I dreamed that my friend didn’t want to be my friend anymore.” Immediately, the squishy bodies on either side of me lean in, molding themselves against me. A boy on the opposite side of the circle looks at me with dark, steady eyes and answers, “We’re your friends.” I smile and say, “I know” because I do, and then it’s the next person’s turn to share. I rely on them too much, I know. But in this icy darkness, sadness gains too strong a foothold in my heart, and my students help to lessen it. I forget myself when I’m with them. Our days are full of fun and learning, and even if the world is dark, our classroom is bright. Even when my home is quiet, I know the classroom will be frothy with excited voices pushing back the darkness. One student is obsessed with Godzilla movies from the 1970s and shares facts with his table group, while another vividly describes a recent hunting trip. Zombies and the ongoing debate of heroes versus villains vie for space and choke out the spread of the pernicious whisperings of self-doubt and self-hate that linger in the shadowy places of my heart.

In our classroom, we gather around wounds. I provide bandages for paper cuts, scabbed knees, dry skin, bruises, and ingrown toenails. Even a sore throat. It can take nearly half the class for a bandage to be applied. The moment the injury is announced, six-year-old medics rush from all corners of the classroom to assess the damage.

“It bleed already,” one expert notes.

“I got one like that,” another nods.

Yet another early responder will rush to the desk drawer where the first aid supplies are kept and deftly rip open the package, releasing that comforting and sterile smell of latex and gauze. The injured party receives a chorus of ooohs and ahhhs while one or more students gently rub her back and the bandage is wrapped securely around the wound. Among us is a survivor of childhood cancer. His scars run from his knee to just beneath his hip. At their widest, they span over an inch of skin. The scars twist like gnarled vines over his knee cap and thigh, trailing delicately up to his pelvis. Eight metal pins hold his femur together. On days when his leg is sore, he, too, will steer his tiny, red wheelchair to my desk. Projecting a confidence I do not feel, I gently press the bit of latex and gauze to his skin and send him back to his book box stuffed with early readers that tell of bike rides, animals that live in ponds, and messy baby brothers.

It’s not the bandage so much as it is what it represents. I understand this more perfectly when one night I slip into a new friend’s apartment to celebrate my first published essay. We are strangers brought together by proximity. We toast to the future as we inch closer to one another on the overstuffed couch. Switching from wine to whiskey, I am drunkenly determined to shove an oversized ice cube into a half-pint mason jar when the glass shatters in my hand. Blood slides down my arm and shards fall to floor. I gather the fragments as she searches for the first aid kit. When she comes to me, I hold out my bloody hand. She gives me the bandage and walks away. The warm glow of the night turns cool. I could never love her, I realize.

During read-alouds, I sit in my chair on the classroom carpet and prop the book on my knee to share the words and pictures. Students press against me to idly touch the parts of me they can reach in that unconscious, free way that kids do. They trace the veins in my feet, rub their palms against the stubble on my legs, alternately pull off and push on my ballet flats. When I join them on the floor, they rest their heads on my shoulder, run their fingers through my hair, lean against my sides, or, if they’re very tired, curl up in my lap. It’s not uncommon for there to be spontaneous group hugs in the middle of a math lesson. They remind me that love doesn’t have to hurt.

Despite the darkness and freezing temperatures, the drum teaches my heart to beat again, deep and strong in my chest.

Friday afternoons drummers occasionally visit our school with their round wooden framed drums with the liver membrane of bowhead whales stretched across the frame. We walk down the hallway from our classroom to the gym in a jiggly line. Not everyone in our group will dance, but four or five students will bounce and stomp vigorously until the buses arrive to take them home. The drummers sit in folding chairs on the stage and the three Iñupiaq language teachers, women from the community, stand before us. Uvlulluataq, one greets us. Good afternoon. We do a mix of motion dances and fun dances. The motion dances have specific moves that I strive to imitate by watching our Iñupiaq teachers and my students, some of whom practice in local dance groups with their families. Fun dances don’t have specific movements, women and girls bounce and move one arm at a time in the air in front of their bodies. Men and boys stomp and whoop with their legs spread, knees bent, and arms stretched wide and strong, as if pulling back a bow and arrow.

Perhaps the first song will be “Tiŋŋun,” the airplane song. “Where will we fly to?” the Iñupaiq teachers call out. “Anchorage!” “Hawaii!” “The Philippines!” young voices cry back. The drummers splash water on the membranes covering their drum frames and set the rhythm, holding the drum in one hand and striking it with a long, thin stick held in the other. A sharper sound when the drummer strikes the wooden frame, a deeper heartbeat sound when they strike against the membrane pulled taut. Water droplets bounce to floor at the feet of the drummers.

They add their voices, and we begin. Together, we make the motions that tell the story of the song’s creator riding in an airplane for the first time. Looking out the windows as she flew through the air and her relief when the plane landed and she kneeled down and pressed her hands to the ground. The songs are short and are repeated twice, and I slowly improve with practice. I stand in a small cluster with my students and we smile and dance together. These motion dances tell stories of Iñupiaq culture. Some celebrate the return of the sun or tell the story of Mother Eagle and the coming of the new year, others celebrate religion or important moments in Iñupiaq history. During a cultural training for teachers, an elder explained that these dances pass along Iñupiaq culture, but also bring people together during the long winters. It’s true, I realize. Despite the darkness and freezing temperatures, the drum teaches my heart to beat again, deep and strong in my chest.

But this place is not my home. I may have eaten whale, but I’m a vegetarian. I may know some Native dances, but I will never be Iñupiaq. I can look at the tundra and the frozen ocean and feel awe, but I will never feel as enmeshed in the landscape as the people who have lived here for thousands of years. I attended a talk in which a local man smiled and sighed and said, “I love the smell of good ice.” No matter how many years I spend in the Arctic, that will never be me smiling and sighing and saying with my whole heart that I belong here, that I am of this place. I will never step from the plane and press my hands to the ground, so thankful to have returned.

 

Megan Donnelly is an MFA Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, she lived and taught for six years in rural Alaskan communities. More of her work can be found at megandonnellywrites.com.

Betrayed by Blood

In 1973, the Squirrel Cage was just another scummy go-go bar on a street filled with businesses that paired well with scummy go-go bars. It’s gone now, of course; replaced by an above ground pool company—almost an elbow-to-the-ribs attempt at baptismal humor.

The Squirrel Cage sat at the crossroads of Austin Highway and Walzem Road in San Antonio, Texas. In the distance, like a siren’s song, was Interstate 35 luring cars north to Austin. I was almost thirteen then, living with my family in subsidized housing a very short distance from the Squirrel Cage. When I told adults where I lived, they looked away.

There were two playgrounds at the Austin Arms Apartments. One was for real kids—the ones who wanted to swing and teeter-totter and scream a lot; the other was the hang-out for older kids, the ones who sat on the swings, lounged on the monkey bars, and whispered plans for future trouble.

His eyes said he’d been betrayed. Betrayed by blood.

My “because of proximity” best friend was a thirteen-year-old named Liz who stood nearly six-feet tall. Her mother ran promotions at a local radio station. Liz always gave me inside information, like times to call in to a radio show so I could win prizes, but I never made any of those calls. When I saw her mom coming home from work wearing blouses with built-in bows at the neck, I couldn’t see a woman who would jeopardize her job to help a preteen cheat a contest.

“You know so little about the world,” Liz told me over and over. “Winners only win because they know people.”

The older boys at the playground were probably not considered winners by Liz, but they knew a lot about how our small world worked. I listened while they talked about things like the ice house on the corner where you could pay an extra fifty cents to get a six pack of beer without showing any ID. Judging from the number of beer cans littering the sides of the playground, I believed the story.

“You can also say you’re getting cigarettes for your mom and they’ll let you buy them,” Kenny, a regular on the playground, said to a new kid I didn’t know. Kenny’s hair was so blonde it was closer to white than yellow. People said his father was in prison for stabbing a truck driver in Fort Worth. Liz whispered about the knife collection Kenny had in his room, but that information made Kenny seem more sad than dangerous.

“Where is this place?” the new kid asked.

“Right across from the Squirrel Cage,” Liz said. “On the other side of Walzem. Marty’s Ice House.”

The new kid nodded silently.

“Naked girls dance at the Squirrel Cage,” Kenny said, in a hushed voice like he was giving up an answer to a test in school. “They dance in gold cages.”

“Cages? Like bird cages?” Liz asked. She walked nearer to Kenny, making him shield his eyes from the sun as he looked up at her.

“Sure,” Kenny said. “They hang the cages from the ceiling so everything shakes real good when they dance.” He gyrated his hips and cupped his pecs. His tongue stuck out the side of his mouth as he shook.

The new boy laughed.

Liz rolled her eyes and walked away. “You don’t know anything.”

“I do too.”

“Well, I know the girls aren’t all the way naked,” Liz said, looking at me as if we’d won Jeopardy. I went up a rung on the monkey bars. Liz could come across as a know-it-all sometimes.

“They got these little star things over their nips,” Kenny said. “And go-go boots. Otherwise, they are naked.” He paused, waiting to throw out his trump card. “My brother works there.”

“He does?” I said.

“Is he in a cage too?” Liz laughed.

“Nah, but he could probably get you a job there,” Kenny said, staring at my breasts. From my perch on the monkey bars, I crossed my legs.

The next week I went to Solo Serve with my mom so she could buy some new tops for summer. I waited until she went into the dressing room to try on clothes, then I walked to the shoe department. There was an entire rack devoted to go-go boots. I picked up a pair of shiny white boots and hid behind the coats to try them on. The boots were a cheap plastic, not leather at all, and smelled odd. Before I had the second boot zipped, my first leg began to sweat. Still, when I stood up and felt the silky material reach over the top of my knee like an unfamiliar hand, I stuck out my chest and sucked in my stomach.

Before I walked back to the dressing room, I stuffed the boots behind the men’s work shoes, hoping they’d stay hidden until I could figure out a way to buy them.

*    *     *

That night, my brother and I sat in the bedroom we shared, listening to my mother plead with my father to calm down. They were in their bedroom with their door shut, which was never a good sign. Occasionally we heard a slap or a fall or a sharp cry. We didn’t look at each other though, only at the Mickey Mouse rug beneath our feet.

When their bedroom door finally opened, my mother came straight into our room. She was wearing a light blue robe. There were drops of blood around her collar, like she had sewn tiny roses around the neckline. Her right eye was already swollen.

“Let’s go,” she said, reaching for my brother’s hand. He was nine and skinny, like something that could easily be broken in a move.

“Now,” my mother said looking at me and pulling my brother toward the door. I followed.

The three of us ran down the two flights of stairs in harmony, as if we had trained for this event. When we pushed open the hall door, a neighbor opened her door, then quickly shut it. Outside, the cool air surprised me. My pajamas were light cotton. My brother had on short pajama bottoms and tube socks with green stripes. I was barefoot. It had been warm when we dressed for bed.

“Hurry,” my mother said. “Andiamo,” she said in Italian, as if those words were magic carpets that might make us move faster.

I tried to run without stepping on loose rocks or tabs from soda cans. Once we ran past the porch lights, I was glad for the dark so I wouldn’t see what my feet were headed for.

I followed my mother’s robe as she ran toward Austin Highway. When we got to the highway, she abruptly stopped and held her arms out to each side like a human cross. It was as if we stood on a precipice. The wind and noise from the cars sounded like an ocean far below us. My mother looked to her right, toward Austin and the Squirrel Cage, then ran to the left down the side of the busy road. She wore thin slippers and hobbled occasionally when her foot stepped on something sharp. She was not used to hot summer days and bare feet like we kids were.

We ran past tattoo parlors and bars and motels that seemed abandoned but weren’t. I finally saw the shopping center where my mother must have known she’d find a phone booth and safety. The Piggly-Wiggly was already closed for the night, but there were employees inside the store sweeping up and stocking shelves. I looked at the three of us and wondered if someone would call the cops. No one did.

My mother picked up the pay phone and dialed “0” for the operator. “I want to make a collect call,” she said, giving the operator a number. “Marie,” she said a few seconds later. “Ho bisogno di aiuto.” I need help.

While we waited for Marie’s husband Carlo to arrive, my mother went into mother mode. She found a planter box beneath a bright light with a wide ledge where we could sit out of the wind and get off our feet.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said, checking the bottoms of our feet. “Marie has milk for you and then we’ll all go to bed. Tomorrow will be a better day.” My mother’s bottom lip was cracked, but the blood had dried a strange orange color.

It didn’t take long for Carlo to arrive. He was a short, chubby Sicilian man with a thick head of hair he would keep well into his eighties.

“Valli,” he said, hugging my mom. “Let’s go, huh? Hi, kids. Go ahead and get in the car.” We slid off the planter and into his massive Cadillac.

As Carlo drove toward his house, I looked out the window and watched the neighborhood change, like I was a character in one of those movies where people’s fortunes rapidly shift. As we crossed under Interstate 35, lighted coffee shops began to appear along with gas stations and restaurants and fancy furniture stores. When we got to the corner full of churches, I knew we were almost there.

This wasn’t our first late night visit to the Presti house. It wouldn’t be the last. In the driveway, I saw the curtains in the front window open a bit. We walked to the front door and Marie opened it wide. “Vieni dentro,” she said, leading us all gently by the shoulder, like refugees you see on the news at night. Come in, come in.

“Hey,” I heard from down the hallway. I followed the voice and went into Nina’s room. She was two years older than I was; beautiful and thin with a car she couldn’t even drive yet waiting for her in the garage. “Same old, same old?”

“Yep,” I said.

Nina sat back in her canopy bed and patted the other side. The whole room was white and lavender and gold, like something I figured French aristocrats set up for their daughters. “So what’s new?” she asked.

“I tried on some go-go boots the other day.”

“What?” she said, stopping in mid-yawn. “Where?”

“Solo Serve. My mom was in the dressing room. Over the knee,” I said, showing her where the boots had hit my thigh.

“Heels?”

“No,” I said, suddenly disappointed in my choice. “I mean, little block ones. I guess that’s easier to dance in, right?”

“At the Squirrel Cage! Those boots are the first part of the job interview. Boots? Check. Boobs? Check. You’re hired!”

We laughed, then talked about some friends we knew until she fell asleep. It was good to feel normal, like this was any other sleepover with a friend. I had known Nina my whole life. Our mothers met in Europe when we were babies. Both husbands joined the military and ended up in San Antonio. Even though Carlo was an officer and my father was not, we never talked about that difference, or any of the other ones.

While Nina slept, I planned. I figured if I babysat every weekend for a month, I could buy the go-go boots. My breasts were already larger than most girls my age. Maybe, with makeup, I could get a job at the Squirrel Cage. Maybe I could make enough money so we could leave my father behind.

In Nina’s bathroom, I took off my pajama top and found some Band-Aids in the medicine cabinet. I taped my nipples and shook my body up and down and side to side. There was some good shaking going on beneath the Band-Aids.

Taking them off was a different matter. When the adhesive ripped away from the tender area around my nipples, tears sprang to my eyes. I ran a washcloth under cold water and held it to my breasts to stop the pain. I knew so little about my own body, but I had big plans for it anyway.

The next morning, Carlo drove us home. My brother and I got ready for school. My mother cooked breakfast. Their bedroom door stayed shut.

It wasn’t easy to concentrate in class that day. During lunch I took my sandwich to the library, ate it in the bathroom, then grabbed a study table and planned. I wrote down the following:

Money:           + $32.00           saved in the bank
+ $40.00           possible babysitting money for weekends through March
– $29.99 boots
– $40.00?gun

In the light of day, I’d realized that getting a job wasn’t going to be enough to save us. Over the years, I’d heard my father threaten to kill my mother if she ever left him. Sometimes he even said he’d kill us kids first then leave her alive so she would have to live knowing we were dead because of her. There was no simple getting away from him. We would live in fear as long as he was alive.

I was willing to fix that.

My dad worked all night delivering bundles of newspapers to boys on bicycles so they could deliver papers to their smaller routes. When he came home, he slept on the couch almost all afternoon. If I could get a gun, I would come home from school while he was asleep and solve all our problems.

Until that episode aired, I’d never seen a man hit a woman anywhere but in my own home. It felt like a shameful secret we just lived with.

After he died, I would go to school during the day and work at the Squirrel Cage at night to help with bills. We would be a happy family then. My mother was still beautiful. What if she met a nice man who could care for us all? There would be no more late-night trips to the Presti’s, no more neighbors calling the police, no more sleeping on my stomach so I wouldn’t see it coming.

I felt like a hero in the making.

This plan consumed my thoughts for months. I fixated on how to make sure my father would be asleep when I walked in the door. Like a director, I blocked and re-blocked the scene over and over, imagining every possible pitfall. I wanted to avoid hitting a noisy step and causing the dog across the hall to bark. If I dropped the gun or my book bag or my keys, or miss-timed the departure of the postman who always said hello in a too loud voice that echoed in the hallway, my father might wake up. I needed my father soundly asleep when I walked through the door because I knew if he looked at me, I couldn’t kill him.

I spent weekends at the public library researching social security benefits my mother and brother could get from my dead father. I wasn’t sure I would get them too, since I was the one who killed him, but I had the phantom job at the Squirrel Cage anyway. I read about trials where children killed their abusers and were set free or placed in detention centers for a short time. I learned what I was doing was called parricide, the killing of a parent, and I hoped the outcome would not be living in a detention center, but a conviction of manslaughter, probation, and the right to live at home.

I kept notebooks filled with details of the plan. The notebook was my confessor because there was no one else to talk through my plan with. There were no conversations about things like abuse on TV or on the playground or in our kitchen. After a night of beatings, my mother would tell us that my father had just been tired, or worked too hard, or didn’t feel good.

“Everyone has something,” she told me one night. I was suspicious of everyone after that.

I babysat every weekend in March and ended up with $47.00.

“Hey Kenny,” I said, surprising him at school one day when Liz was not around. “Where do people buy guns?”

Kenny shrugged his shoulders. “Why are you asking me?” I raised my eyebrows. “The flea market maybe?”

“Ask your brother for me, okay? Also, ask him how I can get a job at the Squirrel Cage.”

“Sure,” Kenny said, but he looked at me like I had once given him a gift and was taking it back. “My brother doesn’t even have a gun.”

“Just ask him, okay?”

Kenny nodded.

*    *     *

In June of that year, my father surprised us by buying a house. My mother was happier than I’d ever seen her. “I told your father I wanted a house before I turned fifty,” she said, as if she had stumbled upon a winning lottery ticket. “And here it is. I can’t wait to invite Marie over for coffee.”

My plan died there. If I killed my father now, there would be no house. I would no longer be the hero. I let go of the gun, the boots, and the Squirrel Cage, and concentrated on the new house and the new version of our family instead.

In September of 1973, in the living room of our new house, I watched the season two opening episode of the TV sitcom Maude. The show began with lots of references to drinking. The night before, a drunk Walter made obscene phone calls to Maude’s mother, slow danced with his friend Arthur, and fell asleep on the living room floor. The audience laughed as each exploit was recalled. Boys will be boys.

The next morning, somewhat shamed by the night before, Walter and Arthur decide to stop drinking. By lunchtime, Walter is already spiking his Shirley Temple. By dinnertime, Walter is so drunk he ruins his nine-year-old grandson’s birthday cake. The whole time, laughter from the audience. Drunk is funny. Bea Arthur is funny. Hey, she’s drunk too.

Then things turn dark. Maude tells Walter he’s mean when he drinks. Walter tells Maude he drinks because all he sees when he looks into her eyes is how much she resents him.

Then he hits her.

In the face.

Hard.

The laughter stops. You can hear the audience’s collective intake of breath. Walter looks appropriately shocked by his own actions.

Then he cries.

“You didn’t hurt me,” Maude assures Walter. MAUDE ASSURES WALTER. Her tag line on the show was, “God will get you for this, Walter,” but she didn’t utter it this time.

In the morning, Maude sits at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee and a black eye. She tells her daughter she walked into a chocolate donut. Laughter again.

Until that episode aired, I’d never seen a man hit a woman anywhere but in my own home. It felt like a shameful secret we just lived with. And Maude playing it off reinforced what my mother taught us—don’t let people know, pretend it’s all okay, be better so we look better.

The episode wasn’t a total waste though. It taught me to blame everything on alcohol. Though I never saw my father take one sip of alcohol in my entire life, from then on, when neighbors called the police, I had a ready excuse. Thank you, Maude.

We were in our house for a year when I heard my parents arguing through my closed bedroom door. The fight was unusual because it was daytime and because things had been calmer since we’d moved into the house. I walked toward the kitchen and passed my brother sitting on the floor of his bedroom playing with GI Joes.

“What’s up?”

He shrugged his shoulders, not taking his eyes off the action on his floor.

In the kitchen, my father had my mother by the throat. Her head was against the brick wall. The pistachio colored bricks were her favorite part of the new house. I saw blood on her forehead and on the brick.

“Stop it,” I screamed. “Stop it, you asshole.” When he turned toward me, I slugged him, close-fisted, on the mouth. A tooth must have hit his lip and the blood began to flow. He reached up to his face, looked at his hand, then at me.

His eyes said he’d been betrayed.

Betrayed by blood.

While he walked to the bathroom, my mother yelled for my brother. We all ran to the garage, into the car, and back to the Presti’s. None of us said a word until we hit Austin Highway. At the stop light, my mother sighed. “Tomorrow you’ll tell him you’re sorry.”

“No way,” I said. “I’m not sorry.”

“You hit him,” she said. “What did he do to you?”

I’m guessing there is a feeling people get when they realize they are completely alone in the world. It feels like you are drowning from the inside out. The instinct to hold your breath is almost involuntary, like a gift to keep you from speaking or crying out or taking in something that will prevent you from ever opening your mouth again.

We passed the Squirrel Cage and I remembered how that place had once been the church I sent my prayers to. Now I knew that if I had gotten a gun, if I had killed my father, my mother wouldn’t have taken my side. I imagined her in court, talking to the judge, “He never did anything to her. He was a good father.”

I was the one betrayed by blood.

I also became bitter and resentful and keenly aware of how much my mother seemed to best love the ones who hurt her the most. But, like most things in life, we adapt to our roles.

When we returned to the house the next day, the door to my bedroom had been removed. I knew it was part of my punishment, but I couldn’t figure out how. Over the years it became clearer. I could no longer try on clothes for the school week posing in front of the mirror that once hung on the back of my door. I couldn’t dance to records and pretend I was in a Broadway musical, or read plays out loud, acting out each of the parts, or shut out the noise when things got bad.

For the next five years, my father refused to speak to me. All through high school, I was into theater. He never saw one of my productions, not even when we won the State UIL competition. He missed my high school graduation, seeing me go to proms, and taking part in any plans for the scholarships I received to colleges.

For five years, we never ate a meal at the same table, watched TV in the same room, or looked at old family photos. My brother and mother and father still did all those things together. I was the excommunicated one.

At least once a week my mother would come to me like a temptress in a fairy tale: “Just say you’re sorry. Then he will talk to you.”

“I’m not sorry.”

“You don’t have to be sorry. Just say it. Then we can go back to normal.”

There is a long list of things I am not proud of in my life, but not giving in to my father is not on that list.

At the end of my freshman year in college, my mother’s sister and her husband arrived from Switzerland to stay with my parents for the summer and take a tour of the USA. I loved my Zia Armida. She’d confided in me that she’d left Italy at fifteen to become a maid for a family in Switzerland just so she wouldn’t have to stay in Italy and marry an Italian man. In her mid-twenties, she met my Zio Jean-Pierre, a native of the French part of Switzerland. He was a watch engineer and mayor of their small town. My father adored my Zio. He called him his brother.

I was living with my friend Lisa for the summer. Her parents went to the beach every June and July, so living together was a good solution for both of us.

When I drove up to my parent’s house, my Zia was sitting on the front porch wrapped in a blanket.

Così freddo dentro,” she said to me. It’s so cold inside. It was June in San Antonio. It had been hot for so long, we’d already stopped complaining.

“They don’t like air conditioning,” my father said to me. And just like that, we began to talk. I knew it was so he could save face in front of my Zio, but I played along.

My mother hugged me when my father went back into the house.

“See? Everything is good now.”

“Mom, everything is the same. We’re just talking again.”

“Good,” she said. “That’s how it should be with family. Forgive and forget.”

*     *     *

My father finally got too old to be mean, then he died.

My mother lived another three years after his death.

As a child, her family left Italy and moved to France after her father found work in the coalmines. When she was twelve, and World War II began to escalate, they fled France, where the coalmines were being bombed, to return to Italy only to find Russian armies occupying their family land. My mother went through puberty hungry and scared, but entered adulthood strong and cunning.

She picked me as the child to count on because she knew how to survive. When the chips were down, when my family was in crisis, I contacted doctors, lawyers, bankers. I put all the pieces together for all the cracked eggs after all the big falls.

I also became bitter and resentful and keenly aware of how much my mother seemed to best love the ones who hurt her the most. But, like most things in life, we adapt to our roles.

When I talk about my mother’s final days, I talk about her strength and courage. I tell the story of how my husband held her face after the nurse gave her what I always suspected was a larger than usual dose of morphine and said, “Mom, if you can, come back and let us know you’re okay.” She nodded and expelled her last breath. It was a breath of force and finality. She’d made up her mind to go.

A few years after my mother died, my sister died as well. Her kids struggled with their own grief and guilt. They also had to turn to me for help. When my niece texted asking for $350.00, I told my husband I was going to say no.

“We just gave her money a few weeks ago,” I said. “And she never thanked us. She never calls to check on us either. I’m done.”

Before I could finish my text to her, the postman rang the doorbell and handed my husband a certified letter from State Farm insurance.

It was that dramatic.

In the envelope was a check for $349.83. The refund was from a six-year-old audit they had completed of my mother’s insurance policy.

I texted my niece and told her she could have the $350.00. Could there have been a clearer sign from my mother that she wanted to help my niece?

*    *     *

Later that day, I drove to Brackenridge Park. I sat on a concrete ledge facing the green water of the San Antonio River and watched the ugly hybrid ducks swim by. Across the river, families played loud music and sat on blankets in the grass. It seemed appropriate I was on the other side of the divide.

“Sorry,” a woman said as her dog began licking my leg. She grabbed his leash and pulled the dog away. “Do you teach at Northwest Vista College?”

I nodded.

“Miss Tolan?”

I nodded again.

“I had you for Comp II,” she said. “About eight years ago. I loved your class.”

I said I remembered her, but I didn’t.

What I did remember was going to the grocery store with my mother a few months before she died. We’d run into an Italian woman I had never met before.

“This is my daughter,” my mom said to the woman.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you, Olga,” the woman said to me.

“I’m Denise, her other daughter.”

“You don’t work for the basketball team?” she asked. My sister was a temporary usher for the San Antonio Spurs since a back injury and a drug addiction made it impossible for her to continue working as a hairstylist.

“No. I’m the teacher.”

“A teacher?” she said. “What grade?”

“College. I teach English.”

“Valencia,” the woman said to my mom. “You never told us you had a daughter who was a professora.”

I felt a rush beneath my feet. It was what I’d always imagined an undertow might be—something grabbing you by the ankles and pulling you along so fast you wouldn’t have time to breathe. I was drowning from the inside out again.

She’d never even mentioned me.

The story I don’t tell about my mother’s death is from right before my husband took her face and asked her to give us a sign from beyond. I sat by her bed and stroked her arm, hoping she would feel me and know she was not alone. But when I touched her, she scrunched her eyes as if biting down on something distasteful and pulled her arm away. It felt intentional, not reactive, almost like she’d recoiled from something awful.

I never told anyone this happened. I felt shamed by her reaction and stupid that I had ever believed I was anything more than the child who was necessary for her survival.

So when the check from State Farm came—when my mother finally gave a sign from beyond, I wasn’t completely surprised it wasn’t for me. She just wanted to make sure I’d take care of my sister’s kid.

I’d been betrayed by blood.

Again.

 

Denise Tolan has published work in journals such as Lunch Ticket‘s Amuse-Bouche, Hobart, Apple Valley Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. Tolan’s piece “Because You Are Dead,” first published in Lunch Ticket’s Amuse-Bouche, was included in 2018’s The Best Small Fictions. She was also a finalist for the 2018 International Literary Award’s Penelope Niven Prize in Nonfiction.