A Running List of Things Learned Today:

Syreeta McFadden

The songs of birds are call and response.

Woodpecker rhythmically answers a hummingbird’s song.

Kindness is dropping a leaf onto an earthworm’s back to shield it from sunlight.

Quiet is as loud as a bird’s call.

Adrienne Rich was haunted by a line in an Elizabeth Bishop poem: “Love should be put into action!”

Tonight is the 50th anniversary of the film, To Kill a Mockingbird.

A friend tweets of murders in Tulsa from a funeral. This will likely send me down a rabbit hole. The blindspot? I think Tulsa has a history around race riots. I know I read this somewhere, years ago. I’ve been re-reading Adrienne Rich’s essays because of a conversation I had with Jon two weeks ago. We think things are getting really real now. Rich asks: “Love might be put into action by firing a gun, yes—but at whom? In what extremity?”

The path in the woods is desolate. I am walking it alone, in daylight. In Brooklyn. My love of nature pushes me forward. I live on the south end of Prospect Park, where there is a lake. A sizable lake. I walk deeper along the trail, away from the birdwatching couple (their banter is vapid and uncute). I try to find the woodpecker in the trees. I can hear him. The two birds are talking. I don’t know what they want me to know. I hold my phone so that I can upload a photo so that someone will know where to find me should I become lost.

*

“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I can keep it all away from you,” Atticus says to Jem.

Later, I watch a baby black girl’s lesson about love come from the hands of an angry father. He pops her potbelly three times. He doesn’t use words to tell her that her jerking from his grip as they crossed Ocean Avenue scared him to death.

The essay I reread today is entitled “The Hermit’s Scream.” It’s a line from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem. True to form, I emerge from the rabbit hole to uncover a fact: 90 years ago this season, the worst race riot in American history was in Tulsa.

Beyond the nightmare, there is still dream.

*

‘I write to make my own sound,’ the author told me when I asked, why write this story now? The story is hers; her voice is a birdsong. We had this conversation two years ago.

But this dude making figure 8s around his chest right now on the C train, though … Does anyone else see this?

He’s wearing nylon, so the compulsion is loud. Like corduroyed legs in motion in an empty hallway. I can hear him through the subway breaks, mumble mouthing some prayer to his god. He beats his chest. Squeezes his eyes. What penance do you seek, Sir? That cannot wait for you to do this work from the comfort of your own home? His twisted face of agony. What menace do you pray abated? Your most fervent prayer rumbles and rattles like this train.

*

You’re not hearing me. Perhaps I’m coming at this all wrong. The child’s name is Finch. A type of bird. Catherine once gave us an exercise, pay attention to the conference of birds. Where I lived before, sparrows would roost outside my window. When I encountered dead sparrows in the Spring of 2002, I’d bury them. Could that be love in action? I see everything out the corner of my right eye. I’m mindful of small things. An example: Bees seeking pollen on my walk to the train on my old block crushed by thoughtless pedestrians. They didn’t see them. They just wanted to get the pollen from the tree blossoms. You didn’t know I see all these things, did you? I can’t help myself.

*

There’s more: I don’t think I understood fully Rich’s haunting from the Bishop poem. The dreaming mind got it though. The poem begins: “Alone on the railroad track / I walked with pounding heart.” I walk through the park today, along the shoulder of the lake, to a deso-late part. Men are fishing and as I come upon them, they look startled. I clench my phone, they don’t speak English. I am alone in the questionable parts of Prospect Park. I am a black woman. I am alone. No one really comes looking for me.

*

Later in “Chemin de Fer”:

The hermit shot off his shot-gun
and the tree by his cabin shook.
Over the pond went a ripple
The pet hen went chook-chook.

“Love should be put into action!”

Those are the words of the poem’s hermit. “Across the pond an echo / tried and tried to confirm it,” sticks at the tip of my nose. My body knows what this poem means, but my head has a harder time wrapping her arms around it. The dreaming mind? She knows, she goes for a walk in the woods, follows a path, listens for the echo.

*

Rich’s essay goes further though. She talks about June Jordan’s and Audre Lorde’s visceral responses to unjustifiable deaths of black boys. These poems predate our current conversation about Trayvon. I don’t have the words to write about any of that yet. I have a nephew who also wears hoodies.

*

“The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
yourself
instead of your children.”

That’s a line from Audre Lorde’s “Power.”

*

I’d probably categorize myself as a loner. The hermit enters the woods, seeks enlightenment, draws within, listens to the conference of birds. Love is action. What action shall we manifest? The echo, the call, the response.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Cover Image: Nowinski, Maggie. “Abductions Series III: Leviathan.” 2015. Pen and ink on paper, 29″ x 41.5″.

The Jacket

Sasha LaPointe

an excerpt from her memoir, Little Boats

Six years after my name was gifted to me, my parents moved us to the Swinomish Reservation. There was tribal land in the family and my parents saw an opportunity for an easier life. I saw a dark forest and a lack of ocean. I thought I’d be close to mermaids if I could be close to the water. As a young girl, I wanted the world of mermaids to be real. I learned to hold my breath underwater at the community pool, unafraid. This was especially difficult because I am an asthmatic; breath has always been a powerful and terrifying thing to me. The idea of drowning without water, of choking on nothing, of suffocating simply because your body forgets a basic function, has haunted my nightmares since childhood. I have always wanted gills.

Mermaids, according to Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Disney, have always wanted something. They want it so desperately they will sacrifice anything to get it. Most often the thing is escape. They want legs. They want the ability to leave. They want a prince. They want anything other than what they’ve got.

My first day of school after moving to the reservation, I stepped out into the dim, blue light of morning. It felt like something was wrong with my legs. I was nine years old and this was my first time boarding the bus that would take me to La Conner Elementary School. The move from city to woodland was frightening for various reasons. Mermaids—those half-women, half-fish—represent the ultimate half-breed, an obvious kind of duality. A neighbor would never swim up, poke Ariel in the chest while eyeing the scales of her fin, and say, “Hmm, you don’t look part fish.”

There was no tribal school to attend on the Swinomish reservation; instead all the kids were shuttled across the channel to La Conner to attend the mostly white school. Here was a pool of strictly fish and strictly non-fish, corralled together, and here I was, a pale person in a hand-me-down pink windbreaker. In my shabby floral print leggings, oversized denim button-down, and K-Mart brand sneakers, I inched out. I looked back at our trailer, at my new home as it stood against the trees. My parents’ bedroom light glowed orange in the dark. I wanted to turn back. I studied my outfit as I crunched the gravel of our driveway beneath my sneakers. The only new things were the cheap magenta knockoff Keds and the plastic barrette in the tangled mess of my brown curls. I inhaled shakily, my chest sputtering, and then exhaled. The doctors at the tribal clinic would later inform my parents of my asthma, but this morning the stifled breathing was still a mystery.

The yellow school bus streaked through the cedar trees. I swallowed air and quickened my pace. Climbing up the big steps, I moved past the bus driver with her sunken face and stared out at the columns of strangers. Fingers of panic closed around my throat and I reminded myself to breathe.

I saw Starters jackets with shiny zippers cutting through the brightly colored sports logos. I saw jerseys on the kids from the rez, Polo shirts and name brands on the kids from La Conner. I looked down again at my collage of hand-me-downs. I shuffled to a seat and stared out at the wall of trees zooming by. Groups of kids huddled together, laughing at jokes I didn’t understand. Whispering and sniggering came from faces, brown and white and all unfamiliar. The only other native kids I had ever been around were relatives. The only white kids I had been around were my peers at the inner city elementary school I attended before my parents decided to move us here.

“They’re just curious about you,” my mom would say each afternoon when I’d return home, complaining that no one had talked to me again. “They’ll come around.” I told myself she was right. I was new and from the city, and I let this strange confidence root itself in me.

One afternoon, a girl in the third grade finally approached me. Her name was Anna and she lived three stops ahead of mine on Indian Road. She usually sat in front of me on the afternoon bus rides home. I watched her golden head rest against the vinyl seat. It bobbed and bounced when she laughed with the gaggle of girls that surrounded her, and when she’d flip her blonde locks over her shoulder I smelled strawberries and sugar, a cloying aroma that seemed to belong in shampoo commercials on television. She beamed around to face me unexpectedly one afternoon.

“Hi!” she said brightly. “You’re in Mrs. Middleton’s class with me, right?”

I nodded, a feral instinct tugging me further back into my seat. Unabashed, Anna launched into a barrage of questions. She wanted to know what Seattle was like. She was confused when I shrugged at her question, “But you’re a white girl, right?”

“No. I mean, yes. But I’m also Indian,” I began, but she laughed and cut me off.

“So,” she smiled, “you’re only part Indian?”

Part Indian. Like only half of me was bad. I shivered a little. Anna glowed with a kind of cleanliness I would never know, not even on the mornings after my family’s weekly trips to Thousand Trails Campground. In those days, we didn’t have running water on the property. The nights my brothers and sister and I enjoyed the luxury of hot water, shampoo, and soap always felt decadent. I’d go to bed those nights huffing my perfumed hair, feeling clean and proud, but there wasn’t enough berry scented Herbal Essences shampoo in the universe to make me as squeaky clean as Anna.

Before her stop came up, Anna smiled, showing teeth. “You know, that first day you got on the bus, I kind of just thought you were some ugly girl. But you’re nice.” She flipped her hair, perfume strawberries splashed me in the face, and I watched her glide off the bus.

I decided to invest some time and energy into my appearance. Climbing up on the toilet to reach into my mom’s makeup bag on the shelf was the first step. I wanted to transform, but I thought I’d better practice first. One Saturday morning, I spent the better part of an hour tugging my hair back into a scrunchy and applying my mom’s makeup to my face. I wanted to look more like her. People always talked about how beautiful she was. I surfaced from the bathroom to the roaring laughter of my siblings. Even my parents chuckled. My mom’s foundation was about three shades darker than my own skin, and I looked like I had rubbed my face in dirt. I scrubbed my face back to its natural state and swore off makeup forever. I went back to my normal routine of life on Indian Road, afternoons spent in the woods with my brothers and sister, hunting salamanders and poking around in the depths of decomposing logs.

Tara was my first real friend at school. I met her walking across the blacktop at recess one morning. I saw her first. Her brown hair fell to her shoulders; her eyes disappeared when she smiled a big smile. But what really caught me was her light blue denim jacket. It was a perfect fit, definitely not a hand-me-down. Its sleeves weren’t rolled up into ridiculous little cuffs around her wrists. There were no stains, no burn marks or holes, and the jacket fell right to the waist of her blue jeans. I had never seen a jacket so new. Most importantly, the back was adorned with a giant, sparkling decal of The Little Mermaid. Painted in glittering colors, Ariel posed, her ruby hair floating in the sea of that jacket. I was bewitched and stood back observing Tara. She jumped off the monkey bars and chatted with the girls around her. Then she walked right up to me.

“Hi!” Even her freckles sparkled. “What’s your name? Do you wanna come to lunch with us?”

I must have looked like a wounded animal answering her questions. I was worried at each new inquiry that Tara’s face would drop, but it never did, not even when I told her where I lived. Tara wasn’t fazed by me living across the channel, on the rez. She kept chattering on, smiling and telling me about her mom’s house out in the farm flats and her dad’s house in town by the channel.

The jacket became an obsession. I coveted it so intensely that I dreamed of strutting around school with it, only to wake and find the same pink, thrift-shop windbreaker in its place. I begged my mother to take me to the mall, to the Disney Store where I knew the jacket lived.

My mom came home late every night after the long commute back from the native group home where she worked. Exhausted, she’d ask us kids if we’d eaten, throw together a box of macaroni and cheese, and check on chores and homework. One night, she leaned against the sink, still in her work clothes—a burgundy pencil skirt and white blouse—doing dishes. I paced around her excitedly. I described the jacket in all its detailed glory. I explained to her that Tara and I would have matching jackets. My mom put the last plastic bowl on the wooden dish rack.

“Who is Tara?”

“Tara is my new friend,” I beamed. “She lives in town!” My emphasis on in town caused my mother to look up from the dish towel she was patting her hands with. Her lips pursed the way they always did when she was irritated.

“In town, huh?”

“Yeah.” I circled back to the jacket.

My mom frowned. “We’ve already done the back-to-school shopping,” she snapped. “And regardless, we certainly can’t afford to just buy all you kids fifty dollar jackets. It’s absurd! The one you have is fine. Enough about the stupid jacket!” She asked about my homework, looked at the clock, kissed me, and said goodnight.

The jacket was more than just status though. Ariel and I had a history. When I was six, my mom had taken me to the Cineplex, bought me a cherry Coke and a bucket of popcorn. This was a magical luxury—the neon lights, the smell of butter, the rainbow assortment of treats displayed behind glass. There was something extravagant about that first march down the dark theater aisle, holding an armload of candy boxes and sucking on the plastic straw of my soda cup. I felt rich. This is how kids on television went to the movies. The animated fairy tale exploded from the big screen in a world of color: singing fish, talking crabs, an evil sea witch, a handsome prince, and of course, that iconic redheaded merprincess, longing for a better lot in life. The Little Mermaid had a bunk deal and I identified with that.

The ocean became my biggest fantasy. Ariel was hellbent on trading in her fins for a pair of legs to walk on land, and I was her opposite. I longed to wake up one morning to find webbing between my toes, to slowly morph into half-fish and disappear beneath the surface. I knew I was just like that fiery and mischievous mermaid, only instead of a sea cavern full of treasures, I escaped into the forest behind our trailer. I built forts and talked to trees and daydreamed about leaving. That was always the Little Mermaid’s deepest desire—leaving.

My mom catered to my mermaid fantasy when she could. We couldn’t afford the jacket, so she tried to make up for that by throwing me a mermaid-themed birthday party. There on the table was a giant cake in the shape of Ariel. Her green tail, peachy torso, purple seashell bra, and crimson hair were all accurately portrayed in frosting and sprinkles. In the kitchen was a mess of pots and pans, different shapes she had used to sculpt and cut out my mermaid-shaped cake. I was horrified as we began section-ing her off into chunks, carefully serving up squares of green fins, the belly button, a serving of purple seashell, her pink mouth. But as I watched my girlfriends around the table in their triangle party hats smile, as streamers fell in purple and green ribbons beyond their heads and they enjoyed their personal portion of mermaid, I swelled with pride.

On ferry rides out to my grandparents’ property on the peninsula, I squinted hard through the waves. I was determined to catch a glimpse of the shining scales of mermaid fins. During family camping trips out at the beach property, my great grandmother and grandfather would get up at sunrise to take the ladder down the cliff to the ocean where they would spend the morning digging for clams. I’d explore the beach’s early morning tide pools while they watched for the squirt of geoducks in sand. I played out entire mermaid scenarios in my head as they filled their buckets with the clams we would eat for dinner. I’d carefully climb out over the rocks, squint to the horizon and wish hard that the merpeople who lived beyond the breakers would come back for me.

My great grandmother was a storyteller. I would sit perched on the edge of my stump during the nighttime campfires as the fire cracked and lit her face in the dark. The lines in her brown skin were faint and, though she was past sixty, her cropped hair was a dense black to match her eyes that glittered dark against the firelight, the cracks around them moving as she spoke. My great grandmother told the stories in our tradi-tional Coast Salish language, Lushootseed. I hung on each Lushootseed syllable, eager to hear it repeated in English to make sense of the story. When she told stories, the whole family quieted to hear her words amid the crackle of cedar burning. Desperate to impress her one afternoon after a long morning of clamming and fishing, I sat down next to her as she cleaned and gutted a fish. I decided to test out my own skills as a storyteller. I sucked in a deep breath and launched into a play by play of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I left nothing out. I even sang the songs. My mother had taken me to the Seattle Public Library, and I had educated myself on all things mermaid. I knew it was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” and I had seen the picture books and watched the animated film, discovering to my horror that the mermaid princess doesn’t marry the prince in the original but tragically turns to sea foam at the end. I proudly gave this epilogue after I’d finished my performance. My grandmother graciously listened. She smiled and nodded. She praised me when I was finally finished.

“You know,” she said that afternoon at the beach. “Your ancestors have their own sea princess.” I nearly fell off my stump. I listened intently as my great grandmother told me for the first time, the story of “The Maiden of Deception Pass.”

The story tells of a maiden who lived with her people down by the water’s edge. How one morning while gathering clams with her sisters the maiden stepped into the ocean and felt it grip her. She heard a voice as the ocean spoke to her, reassuring her he only wanted to look on her beauty. Each day she’d return to the beach to collect oysters and clams, and each day the ocean spoke to her. He beckoned her to come live with him; he pled for her to be his bride. One morning, the voice did not come, but a man emerged from the water, tall and handsome. He walked the girl through the village and asked her father for her hand in marriage. Her father refused, unwilling to part with his daughter and certain she would die in the ocean. The ocean left but warned the village that if the girl could not be his bride he’d bring on a drought. True to his word, the rivers dried up and there were no clams or fish for the maiden’s people to eat. The maiden’s father finally refused to see his people go hungry and agreed to the marriage on the condition that his daughter be allowed to return to her village once a year, able to walk on land and be with her people. The ocean complied, and the two were married. Below the sea the maiden was happy. She was in love and enjoyed her new home, but she knew her people missed her and soon enough it was time to return home. Each year that the girl returned home it became more difficult for her to walk on land. She returned each year covered in more bits of the sea. On the last year she returned, her father saw the barnacles on her face, the sea kelp that was her hair, and heard the difficulty in her breath. He told his daughter he couldn’t bear to see her in such discomfort and released the ocean from his promise to return the maiden to her people each year. The people of the village lived happily with their abundance from the ocean and knew that each time they saw the long streaming pieces of sea kelp floating in the narrow waterway of Deception Pass, that they were seeing their maiden’s hair and that she was still with them.

The Maiden of Deception Pass didn’t just disappear into the ocean; she became the ocean. She sank into the sea to save her tribe from starvation. She returned each year like Persephone. But unlike Persephone, she went willingly into the depths, that underworld. This empowered her beyond the other sea maidens with whom I had become so obsessed. Mermaids were always bargaining with the sea witch in order to trade their fins for legs. Their motives were usually selfish and usually resulted in their demise.

Selkies were a different kind of tragedy. Like mermaids, the half seal women of these Scottish folktales always sacrificed their life beneath the sea to be with human men, to be on land. The men often tricked the selkies, hiding their seal coats from them so they couldn’t return to the sea. The selkies became depressed. They missed the ocean and their seal lives. They were captives. Unlike mermaids and selkies, this sea-maiden of Deception Pass wasn’t a victim but a warrior, willingly braving the deep sea to save her people and find happiness.

I begged my great grandmother to tell and retell the story as often as she would. I ran along the beaches with new enthusiasm and pride. The ocean and I were practically related. I hopped along the stony shores, ecstatic each time I’d see the rubbery shine of sea kelp on the surface. I’d scoop large bits of the maiden’s hair up in my arms, cradling its slick weight.

Hearing the story of the Maiden of Deception Pass only intensified my mermaid obsession. Like Ariel, I felt her in me. The only problem was there were no Maiden of Deception Pass Barbie Dolls or backpacks. I was stuck with hoarding all the Little Mermaid objects I could get my hands on.

I had a Little Mermaid lunch pail, thermos, sleeping bag, night-shirt, and all the dolls available. Each birthday or Christmas brought a new Ariel artifact into my life, some new talisman that I could tote around. But the jacket was the next level. It wasn’t some silly doll or nightie. This was fashion. This was grown up and somehow was sure to elevate my status from new girl who lived in a trailer, who wasn’t white but also wasn’t Indian, to Tara’s new and popular best friend. Still, my mother refused. “We can’t afford it.” She said it so often that it began to sound as regular as breathing. Inhale: We can’t. Exhale: Afford it.

One Sunday morning, my mom brought home a surprise. She had gone out for errands and returned with a giant bag from the craft store. She worked well into the evening, tracing and painting. By the time the sun set, she called me into the kitchen to show me what she had made. She held up a Levi’s jacket. It fit perfectly. If it was second-hand, you couldn’t tell. And on the back was a near flawless replication of Tara’s Ariel decal. I burst into simultaneous tears and laughter. I jumped up and down. I quickly put the jacket on and tore it off again to admire the shimmering painting of Ariel. It looked like the real deal.

My mom pointed to the display of fabric paints strewn across the kitchen table.

“Do you want to add something?”

I nodded. She left the room as I scooted up to the table and picked out a pearly, sea foam green paint. I concentrated hard. I bit down and chewed on my lip. I wanted my lines to be precise. When my mom came back into the kitchen I was sitting cross-legged in my chair, waiting for it to dry. “Oh,” she smiled sympathetically, “It’s l-i-t-t-l-e, dear.”

I looked down at my drying paint: The Littel Mermaid stared back at me, already drying in its pearly finish.

We scrubbed with wet towels and dish soap, but the damage was done. Littel was still visibly clear through a cloud of pale green paint, hovering above my mother’s pristine replica. My mom reassured me it was fine.

“No one will notice honey. Your hair will cover it.”

The jacket did look pretty good. I put it on the next morning and shook my hair over the collar. Maybe it did cover the horrible, puff-paint typo. I held my head high as I boarded the bus. I sat in my usual seat, kicked my legs back and forth, and hummed. I wore my jacket through first and second period. I wore it into the cafeteria at lunch time. Sitting next to Tara I ate my lunch and she smiled. “It looks so good,” she said. “Your mom did such a good job.”

Anna and a group of girls sat one table over and as I bit into my PB&J on wheat, I began to feel their eyes burning into my denim back.

“Oh my god,” Anna squealed across the cafeteria. “Is that a hand painted Little Mermaid jacket?” She had gotten up and was standing behind me now. I nodded, still holding onto the pride of my mother’s fabric paint masterpiece. I sat in the silent wake of what came next. I thought of The Little Mermaid, The Maiden of Deception Pass. I thought of sea kelp moving on water. The wave crashed. Anna’s laughter was a shrill and stinging thing. “Well, whoever did it is STUPID,” she announced. “They spelled little wrong! You should take it back.” She walked away, just like that day on the bus. Only this time there was no question. I was just some ugly girl. Worse. I was now just some stupid girl, too. I trembled a little and stared at my plastic tray.

Tara smiled her sympathetic smile. “It’s really not that noticeable, I think it looks nice.” I recognized her kindness, but it was too late. I was already broken apart, like sea foam.

I walked slowly down the gravel driveway towards our home that afternoon. The coat, a bundle of shame tucked under my arm. I pulled the metal door to our trailer open and bolted down the narrow hallway. I glanced at my mom, who sat chatting on the telephone before I slammed the door to my small room shut. I hurled the jacket into the closet and sobbed. I wouldn’t ever wear it again. I heard my mother outside the thin walls of my room and sucked in a ragged breath.

The trailer started to shrink around me. Things felt smaller and I spent more time in the woods. I started pocketing my lunch money, skipping meals or shamefully sneaking the bland peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that were free in a large plastic crate next to the food line. I didn’t dare remove the jacket from its crumpled pile. I shoved my saved-up lunch money between my box spring and my mattress, waiting until I had enough to go to the mall, to buy something new to wear. I just wanted to look like everyone else. I’d come home and take off my pink windbreaker, open my closet, and try not to look at the denim coat in a pile in the corner of the small cupboard. If I looked too long, I’d see the glittered lines, so careful and precise. Ariel’s face would appear, distorted in some fold of fabric, and I would see my mother, carefully bent over our folding table, patient and steady handed.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Cover Image: Nowinski, Maggie. “Untitled Adaptation (Anthropocenic Torque)” 2017. Pen and ink on paper, 27.5″ x 41″.

Valentine’s Day: A 14-Point Meditation on Love & Other Fiery Monsters

Sayantani Dasgupta

1. My husband and I don’t really celebrate Valentine’s Day. If we remember the date, we might splurge on chocolates or a nice meal at a restaurant (usually, breakfast or lunch because dinner reservations for that night must be made five months in advance, which neither of us remembers to do, plus it costs as much as the blood of a baby unicorn). If, however, Valentine’s Day falls on a weekend, we make the 75-minute drive to our nearest big city of Spokane, WA, from our current hometown of Moscow, ID. We check ourselves into a nice hotel downtown, the Spokane Club, which began its life in 1890 as a historic “gentlemen’s club.” The first such clubs were set up in 18th century Britain by upper class men and they were not accommodating in the least when it came to the gender, race, or social status of their members. Meaning, back when it opened its doors, neither my husband nor I would have been admitted inside Spokane Club on account of our race, and in my case, also because of my gender. Which is why, when we stroll through its august corridors, I imagine the ghosts of all those long-dead white men staring down at us from sepia photographs and oil paintings. “Look at those monsters,” I imagine them hissing, as they fume at our insolence, at our metaphorical middle fingers pointed toward them, at the loss of everything that was once good and pure and right.

2. The year I turned twenty, I wrote an article about Valentine’s Day. From my pulpit of recently gained adulthood and heightened righteousness, I called it silly and pointless. To my absolute delight, one of the biggest dailies in the country, The Pioneer, published it in their New Delhi edition. The morning it came out, I dutifully scanned it and emailed it to my then boyfriend, a PhD student at Ohio State University. He loved it and emailed me a dozen sappy e-cards. I bristled a tiny bit at the irony and my own hypocrisy, but I loved them all because at age twenty, that romance felt real and everlasting.

3. In India, Valentine’s Day wasn’t a thing when I was a kid. Sure, it was still the country of the Taj Mahal and the Kama Sutra, but in cinema as in real life, romance often assumed prudish forms. For example, in the Hindi films of the 1950s and ’60s, two flowers playfully smacking into one another meant, well, you know what. In later decades, seduction played out on the screen against the backdrop of heavy rains and a smoldering fire-pit in the room, forest, or barn, wherever the boy and girl happened to be. This fire-pit was everything. Either the boy and girl chased each other around it, or they danced facing it or the camera zoomed into the orange-red flames indicating that all manners of love were about to be consummated.

4. But the mid 1990’s changed it all. I was a teenager when India opened its doors to economic liberalization. Now we all wanted to be cooler and hipper, meaning… American. And that’s how Valentine’s Day entered our lives, and each year it grew a little bit bigger. The first casualties were the roses. They popped up, juicy, fat, and red, ready for sale at street corners and traffic lights, inside shiny new malls, outside multiplex theaters, and at the grocer’s next to the egg cartons. It was as if we’d let red roses take over our city and shame the other flowers to admit defeat and close in on themselves.

5. Or did it begin with the cards? In New Delhi, if your boyfriend didn’t buy you a card from Archie’s, the stationery and gift store with multiple locations all over the city, he didn’t love you enough. If the card was just regular-sized, he loved you just so. But, if it was five times the size of your head, he was going to love you forever.

6. There were also the balloons—lots and lots of them, red, upbeat, and always, heart-shaped.

7. In addition to the cards, the roses, and the balloons, what if your boyfriend also bought you a teddy bear? There was only one answer to this question. This man was a keeper.

8. Because Valentine’s Day was such a small thing to begin with, the first protests against it were also on a proportionate scale. They claimed such open displays of affection were evil Western imports that were destroying Indian values, specifically Hindu values, as if values are tangible like dry leaves on a fall day, rakeable and tossable into a fire. Today, however, in a country of more than one billion, these protests are neither small nor a laughing matter.

9. Most often, the protestors are saffron-robed men. Saffron, because it’s the color deemed sacred by Hindus. It pays homage to the sun and to Agni, the God of Fire. To a good Hindu, Fire is everything. It represents virtues such as honor and sacrifice. It marries us to our partners. It cremates us at the end. Its flames carry our prayers to the heavens. For the protestors, however, it aligns them to extremist, right-wing political parties.

9a. On the morning of February 14th, if they are mildly annoyed with life, they burn cards and tear down celebratory banners.

9b. If they are more peeved than that, they attack flower shops and trample meticulously arranged bouquets beneath their feet.

9c. If they haven’t slept well for a few nights in a row, they fan out in search of couples in public places. They accuse them of shaming the country, of dishonoring their respective families, parents, culture, community, and everything else in between.

9d. If they lead truly shitty lives themselves, they vandalize restaurants that seek to profit from this Day of National Shame (Special Valentine’s Day Dinner! Couples Get One Free Appetizer or Dessert of Their Choice!). They break windows and furniture, throw out celebrating couples, and sometimes carry out their threats of bodily harm.

10. Each year, I read about these protests. Each year, I wonder, how have these protestors lived until now without knowing about the Sun Temple of Konark? Built in the 13th century in the eastern corner of India, the Sun Temple is counted today as a World Heritage Site. But its antiquity alone does not make it unique. It’s what’s on its walls: detailed, lavish carvings of couples in passionate kisses, embraces, and more, inspired by the Kama Sutra, itself written in 2nd century India.

11. I wonder how these protestors claim to be “expert” Hindus without knowing about Kamadeva, Hinduism’s own God of Love? Like Cupid, Kamadeva too wields a bow. His is made of sugarcane and the string is composed of honeybees. His arrows are ornamented with five different kinds of flowers—Ashoka, blue lotus, white lotus, jasmine, and mango. He prefers the colors yellow and green, symbolic as they are of spring. When he strikes men and women with his special arrows, they have no option but to fall in love.

12. Back in Spokane, or Moscow, or anywhere else in America I happen to be on February 14, I hear about gifts and cards schoolchildren exchange inside classrooms. I see magazine covers promising life-changing wisdom, such as “33 Ways to Capture Your Man’s Heart and More.” I walk past store windows gloriously done up in pink and red, all trussed up for the occasion before they too must accept defeat, and fold in on themselves to make room for the green of St. Patrick’s Day.

13. But not once do I pause my celebrations (or the lack thereof) to worry about hapless threatened couples in India.

14. It is only the next morning, while reading The Times of India that I remember them, when I come across headlines such as “Fourteen Cities in India to Celebrate Valentine’s Day: Arranged from Least Safe to Most Safe.” I look at pictures of destroyed property, of massive bonfires devouring red-hearted cards, of angry mobs shouting slogans and holding up puny flags to save a three-thousand-year-old faith, as if it needs their saving. I see girls hiding their faces behind scarves to avoid being captured on camera, and the hunched shoulders of their boyfriends accepting what I assume is a mix of shame and resignation. I wonder why these girls and boys set out to celebrate Valentine’s Day in the first place? Why do they leave the security of their homes, knowing full well they are courting harassment and far worse? Do they do so to be modern Romeos and Juliets and celebrate love for love’s sake? Because they foolishly believe they will be allowed to be themselves in their own city and country? Or do they thrill in being monstrously insolent, in sticking metaphorical middle fingers to all those saffron-robed men lamenting the loss of everything that was once good and pure and right?

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Image: Nowinski, Maggie. “Abductions Series I (Float).” 2015. Pen and ink on paper, 22” x 30”.

The Waist That You Are From

Caroll Sun Yang

There’s a Korean word, Han. I looked it up. There is no literal English translation; it’s a state of mind; of soul, really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still, there’s hope. — Josiah Bartlet, “The West Wing”

 

 

Profile: DOB 1974/USA/Female/Korean

Developed Disorders: Generalized Anxiety, Bipolar, Panic, Borderline Personality, Emetophobia, Excoriation, Body Dysmorphic, Depersonalization, Derealization, Agoraphobia, Obsessive Compulsive, Social Anxiety, Premenstrual Dysphoric, Irritable Bowel, Hypochondriasis, Art.

Inherited Disorder: Han¹

Childhood Onset (Citations):

· I withered, becoming teary and knot-throated when merely asked my name.

· I obsessed for long hours each day over a set of art books (Book of Art I, II, III) that a door-to-door salesman charmed my usually pragmatic mother into buying. My life and those pictorial lives fused. I explored grotesqueries, narratives, sickness, freedom, oddness, composition, heaven/hell, woods, torrents, sins, saints, crosses, fruits, bugs, geometries, colors, passion, moods, tones, and all of the mesmerizing power of the object/image and inevitable language. In that house with so few books, no instruments, and welcomed neglect — did the ambitious peddler know he would change my life, that in a sense he helped make me?

· I spent many nights scanning the sky, imagining that distant aircrafts and the night’s first stars were UFOs. This activity usually occurred while my skeleton was cradled in a yellowing beanbag, while I urgently probed my private parts with Barbie’s head.

· I experienced crippling nausea at the sight of other Korean daughters excelling at ice-skating, piano, tennis, and swimming — all manners of tricks that this little pony did not have access to. Other children’s confidence further eroded mine. I could hold jealous vomit all day. Clapping and cheering, but not for me.

· I watched movies about Cinderella and Snow White while gnawing my fingers bloody and wondered how to be like them, without knowing why it seemed better. I later imagined a Disneyland of misfits, a place where we peculiar ones fit. The red, brown, yellow, black and — did Jesus really love us, too? How precious were we in his sight? What color is a private Jesus standing in the corner of a room?

· I experienced my inaugural panic attack while bearing witness to father striking mother again, and suddenly becoming cognizant of the danger in it, when before the beatings only amused me. The physical abuse that once seemed filmic and separate from me, the way a brutal episode of Popeye feels, were finally too real. So adult. I think that moment of recognized violence answered the question that starts with what do you want to be when…?

· I believed aliens abducted me. They circled my bed and inspected me, bone slate hands lifted me from my rosebud littered canopy bed (a rare luxury purchase my parents splurged on to get me to sleep in my own room) and took me somewhere, then delivered me back feverish, paralyzed, with a bloodied nose and no memory of anything.

· Most nights, I crawled like a carpet soldier into my parents room and slept under their creaking bed for fear of death via stabbing by a male intruder wearing a black ski mask. The most I ever saw was something like a guardian angel that unfurled from head to toe, glowing like an ectoplasmic scroll of the Statue of Liberty, hovering by the bed and beaming.

· I sunk in the deep end of a lap pool at a wedding reception, met my own smiling ghost wearing my favorite pale pink dress. She and I breathed water in sync for what seemed like eons packed into blank-faced dice, and when the tuxedoed man pulled us up from under, witnesses say I only smiled as hot urine streamed down my legs. I never coughed up that water.

· One night at my father’s best friend’s home, I stole a wooden rosary, binged on canned lemon frosting when no one was watching, and coveted my friend’s Lite-Brite. Later, I hid behind a dresser, trembling and fearing notice, while my dad’s drunken pal angrily vomited into a trashcan, his wife scolding him. The next day I stuffed the rosary between my mattresses and left home to ride my bike as fast as I could, trying to outspeed my guilt, repulsion, jealousy and strange new fears that blossomed in the alien-filled night.

· I never shook any of it.

Treatment: Paxil. Writing. Waiting (tables and time).

Base Notes:

I am Korean. Poor Korean. There is a difference. Childhood places my mother planted us always gave heed to affluent whites. She would have no less, believing that you are whom you run with. Because of this, I was a double anomaly in all my habitats—poor and brown. They called me karate girl, math girl, china girl, mute, alien, blind, chingchongdingdong (it’s okay, you can laugh), brown girl, dime-slot eyes, chink, Jap, twinkie… They cited my eyes by squinting theirs. They bowed aggressively. They karate-chopped the spaces in front of my face and body. They preyed on my timidity. Little boys chased me, forcing their hard kisses until I cried in shame. All of it felt like my fault. So I swallowed hard, dammed up tears and learned to sputter a chronic lie—Well, I have a big blue pool in my backyard. What did Small Me believe that proved to anyone?

If my mother wanted to assimilate me into what she believed was a superior condition—the condition of being wealthy, white (ish) and Christian—she failed. Or she might say I failed. Because I think I learned the most important things in my life from poor, many-colored (even a lot of white) agnostics/ atheists, and it is their influence that has shaped me the most. From a young age I was attracted to people from the “unsavory” classes. Those who were orphaned, promiscuous, addicted, riddled, cunning, irreligious, drunk, defiant, emotive, shunned, nuts—all whom possessed superior bullshit meters. My radical angels saved me. They didn’t give a damn. I didn’t want to.

On Aesthetics:

A) I was born in perfect health:
·Brown – first defect.
·Monolids – second defect.
·Rickets – third defect.
·Wide nose – fourth defect.
·Flat head – fifth defect.

B) I was born again:
·Skin paled – first correction.
·Eyelids creased – second correction.
·Legs straightened – third correction.
·Nose shaped – fourth correction.
·Skull rounded – fifth correction.

Today, from head to toe, I feel defective. Even my insides scream “Wrong!” I have this “flaw” (common in Asian body types) that I share with another girl; it is that my waist is too long. Like the waist of the terrified Vietnamese girl in that famed Pulitzer Prize winning photo, you know exactly which one. I feel we are disposable. Does she feel it, too? Are we both frozen in a colorless freeze frame, our arms reaching out for something, a mouth shaped like an O that traps a kind of soundless howl? Life, at its best, is a state of constant hoping with sporadic encounters with beauty but in my blood, and probably hers, streams also a kind of persistent dread. In the mirror, we flinch from the belly button to the pubis.

“The Waist That You Are From”, Digital Image 2012

Mother mated with a Korean man bearing western features. She says her family did not approve of this fortuneless and hard-partying man, that it was a faulty arrangement. But she begged to have him. She wanted to live in America, with this suave human, where things seemed wide open, full of every opportunity. She wanted a home with choices, not strictures. So she came to him, because she was a white-hot fire, and her family submitted. My father took her with his enormous eyes, model cheekbones, strong-bridged nose, lean build, and mafia-style alpha swagger. She owned her features, too. Ideal pearl skin, silky black-brown waves, bedroom eyes and shapely legs—all that served well in California. Father used his looks and his gender to be spoiled by women, lord over non-alphas and be hired at swank white establishments. Mother worked hers to weasel out of traffic tickets, clinch jobs that “less attractive” immigrants were denied, flirt down prices with her coquettish smile, swindle social service departments… my bearers must have believed that America plus attractiveness could equal power. When there is no wealth or natural born privilege to be utilized, there are equally fleeting devices. Can you see, it’s about beauty + race in this family.

Who could blame us?

My late teen years saw me bloom into my face bones and my body turned solid, less like a dark fragile stem with an erasable head, and people began to ask half-white? My mind expanded in conjunction with strange new powers, a kind of “passing.” My breasts bloomed into firm mounds, my hair was a wild chestnut beacon. Coal rimmed eyes and flaming lips became my signature. Boys began to tease me in new ways. Young men and middle-aged men and geriatric men and divorced men and widowed men and men in traffic and men in gyms and men in bars and men in school and men in markets, women too… asked for my name and more. I didn’t cry or lie to them about pools. I could swim now. I could speak. I could curse. I could throw a hit back. I returned kisses hard. I had control. I had a thin skin of Han protecting me, and now I could make you cry.

But I still cried a lot too. Do.

Self-Care/ Antidote:

I lured many men to bed, nearly all white as beautiful lambs. Did I sacrifice them or did I sacrifice me? Who was exotic then? And if we both were, did it negate the negative aspects of that condition? Sometimes prostitution, stripping and escorting seemed viable career paths, a rejection of the proper mode (remember the wealthy, white, Christian standard?), an embrace of the romantic stereotype of war-ravaged love between lonely soldiers and Asiatic angels. All of these ways to feel good and not sleep alone, they beckoned me. I heard I was good at it. That reputation spread. I did it for free every single time. There was cheering and clapping, for me.

But what war?

Whenever radiant whites courted me for more than one night, I was pleased. They took me under their wings and their rides were wild. With them, I felt as though I was in an important movie, as the reliable sidekick—rarely the star, but better than the extras. I desired them, their easy legitimacy. Words unspooled from their mouths, full of humor, secret dialects, deep meaning, information and flagrant stupidity, too. Their confidence was noted. Paths widened for them. They drove with one hand on the wheel. Smokes tucked behind ears. When they laughed, they did not cover their mouths. They bared their teeth, and puffed up like heroes, cowboys, and rebels. I touched their beards. I ate their ears. I rode on their backs. I sat on strong laps. I shared their clothes. I learned their music. I flipped their covers. I ate their food. I read their books. I watched their movies. I changed their stations. I took their heat. I watched their play. I greased their backs. I comforted the drunk. I nursed the sick. I danced their dances. I sorted their mail. I drank their brews. I smoked their plants. Every little thing they did was magic. Every bone they threw, I crawled for. And when I learned how, I started throwing bones, too.

The pool is full of our bones.

Instead of aborting, I produced two Hapa children. One male and one female, from two different white men. One man left, and one stays true. My parents prize both children, as if they themselves bore them, viewing them as superior specimens with their large clear eyes, their snowy white, fluttering lashes, their soft olive complexions turning opaline in winter and that cool, confident American air. They got good ass! Pure Asians crane their necks to see them, smiling and cooing, searching our faces to understand something. These children are intriguing and exotic, the way hybrids can be. Just the way a kaleidoscope shifts its arrangement, so do the children remain in a mesmerizing flux—a white and Korean flux. In some way, I hope I have negated a lingering curse handed to me by my Korean legacy and by their father’s white history. Stopped it in its tracks, through the children. Will he not beat her? Will she not cower? Will he not feel faulty? Will she not feel inferior? Will they not retreat? Will they not invade? Will they take no slaves? Will they flee from guilt? Where is their Han? Where has it gone? Did I absorb it for them? Will I? Just let me.

Every day I ask myself, who am I?

And the answer depends on who you are. So here I am. Trying to write myself brave. I spin myself into a notable character. I appear benign but I feel dangerous. I am transparent as a thousand jellyfish, fitfully electric because under this crass bohemian authorial exterior is a person who dared raise her hand and was not noticed. She opined, but was not heard. She was viewed suspiciously, even by her own race. She was a mere curiosity, a heartless thing under glass. Her ethnicity boggles her mind. Happily doomed to a life of waiting tables, in a state of forever smiling servitude, an ultramodern geisha, a mealtime concubine, and a cultural anomaly. Are there many poverty-line-straddling, mid-life, neurosis-riddled, agnostic Korean waitresses who practice authoring? Isn’t it abhorrent to her kind? But then, what is her kind? Does she need a kind? Does anyone?

Let me cling to Han. Han is wildness. Han is action. Han is poetic. Han is disorder. Han is temper. Han is intuition. Han is ingrained. Han is heritage. Han is energy. Han is fits. Han is woman. Han is myth. Han is riding bikes in the sky, with nothing chasing us down. Han is a forever packed into blank faced crystal dice. Han is equalizing. Han is an orgy. Han is monochrome, yet a fluorescent rainbow, too. Han is the thing we ALL possess and the thing that dies when we die. Han is a glimmering sky-blue pool in a celestial future of equally visible/invisible beings. Han is the beginning, middle, and end of each of our own onsets, the memories of the scary, divine remembrances that make us who we really are and show us where we are going.

So I ask, will all of your pretty aliens, ghosts, and words swim with mine?

Desired Outcomes:

¹ Han is a concept in Korean culture attributed as a unique Korean cultural trait, which has resulted from Korea’s frequent exposure to invasions, by overwhelming foreign powers. Han denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of insurmountable odds (the overcoming of which is beyond the nation’s capabilities on its own). It connotes aspects of lament and unavenged injustice.

The minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong describes han as a “feeling of unre-solved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_(cultural)

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Cover Image: Nowinski, Maggie. “Untitled Adaptation: Drupleted(Image from Drawing in Progress)” 2017. Pen and ink on paper, 22″ x 30″. 

Slum Night: An Essay

Hallie Goodman

The Crazy Lady groaned up against the bad side of I-35. It wasn’t much from the outside—a squatty, stucco lump of a strip club, perched perilously close to the interstate edge, its façade ground smooth by relentless traffic grit. This was where Austin girls went when they’d been fired from the clubs with valet parking and three-drink minimums, or when they weren’t pretty enough to get hired there in the first place. The Crazy Lady marked the official end of the line in the titty-bar world, full of dancers who flinched at things that weren’t there and muttered manifestos into their handbags.

Her home club was Sugars: the crown jewel of the local smut scene. But every so often, she liked to work at the Lady instead. That afternoon, over chips and queso at Magnolia, she’d talked her two best stripper friends, Christie and Natasha, into meeting her there and making a night of it.

We can look like day-old shit at The Crazy Lady, and still suck up every dollar in the room, she said. We can get completely fucked up and no one will yell at us.

Both were true. Officially, working at The Crazy Lady was about letting herself coast. It was about taking a break from the brutal competition of the top-tier girls, and the tedious rules of the top-tier clubs—gentlemen’s clubs they called them, though only ex-cons used words like gentlemen. At The Crazy Lady, no one cared if she showed up for a shift on time. No one insisted she wear a sparkly cocktail dress, or coat her tattoos with the thick, smelly foundation made for burn victims. She loathed the body makeup. It darkened over the course of the night, giving her tattoos the look of bruises, which she guessed Texas gentlemen preferred.

Unofficially, The Crazy Lady called to her for reasons harder to name. There was something raw and menacing about the Lady that made every one of her nerve endings hum. The place felt cinematic and unreal, as if every tawdry detail were part of an elaborate show staged just for her. As if it were a curated stop on some kind of depraved safari.

Stepping in, she felt a familiar rush, her pulse a hot growl in her ear. The heavy hydraulic door pressed closed behind her, squeezing out all that bleached Texas sky. She waited in the icy blackness, willing her eyes to adapt. The sticky, sweet powder of fake smoke snaked into every hollow. Then, as her vision simmered on, the whole room seemed to breathe with her. Movement everywhere, a synchronized shimmy. Look where she wound up, she thought, narrating her own docudrama.

She knew there were guns, knew there were drugs. Every drug. She did not know, could not explain, why this brought her such comfort.

The club was darker than the others. Darker than anywhere. She felt certain that pitiful, furtive sex was being transacted in the blackened corners. So what? She was good at minding her own business. She’d steer clear of the perimeter. She’d be vigilant about keeping her bare ass from the upholstered furniture.

Vaguely, somewhere in the back of her brain, she knew she preferred to be surrounded by people more fucked up than she—people her junior high therapist would have termed “lower companions.” But trying to arrange that was like chasing the dragon.

Not so long ago, Sugars had done the trick. As a newbie stripper, she’d seen the posh club as a trapdoor into an underworld. And for a while, it had fed the fable: that she was some kind of waylaid heroine, just rolling through. That while her coworkers might be lifers, she was touching down from somewhere else. Somewhere higher. That she was not really of this.

She knew better now. Some of the dancers at Sugars were earning master’s degrees or wrapping up law school. She’d watched as one planned a trip to Mexico and then took a trip to Mexico. She’d noticed one coworker squealing out of the parking lot in a jacked-up F-150, with tinted windows and chrome rims; heard another say that of course she had health insurance.

She didn’t give two shits about healthcare, or tricked-out redneck rides, or even higher ed. That they knew how to do these things. The thought made her seasick.

She did not know what to call any of this. Only that it must be outrun.

Natasha and Christie tumbled in, sinuous and glowy from a long, liquid dinner. They were top earners wherever they worked. Both had glorious boob jobs and pouty, girl-next-door faces. Both knew how to keep banter breezy and light, how to tune down to make the men shine smarter, wittier. She did not know why they let her boss them around.

The three settled into the dressing room, the compartments of their yawning makeup kits accordioning out and out and out. Christie fluttered pale pink glitter nails at a hunched over cocktail waitress, who was somberly reloading her breasts into a push-up. Hon, Christie trilled, we’ll take six Cuba Libres to start.

Later, when her lashes could not structurally bear the weight of another mascara swipe, she knew it was time to hit the floor. She tried to gauge her own level of drunkenness by squinting into the mirror. Standing up would be the moment of truth and she hoped the scale hadn’t tipped too far. She hated barfing or being too smashed to dance. But just shy of that? Heaven. If only she could keep her motor skills and lose everything else. There was something about her face that looked different. But what? A hardness around the eyes. Rum probably.

As a final stall, she tried on a pair of Natasha’s colored contacts. They were lavender or they were turquoise. They were not human-looking (that part she remembers). They had little clear spaces where her pupils were supposed to go, but she couldn’t seem to make them line up. Maybe her pupils were bigger than average. Even under the glare of the vanity bulbs, she could barely make out the sparkly blob that was Natasha.

She stood, shakily, and stumbled around laughing.

Out on the club floor, she dragged each platformed foot along the industrial carpet an inch at a time, feeling her way along. Silhouettes appeared and receded in time with the bargain basement light show. Purple, then dark. Green, then dark. Then, a throb of dingy white. She smelled rivers of spilled Long Island Iced Teas. She smelled vomit and Tiparillos and Ivory soap and Old Spice.

Her fingers raked the worn-down arm of a club chair, and she blinked hard against the viscous dark. By the time she could pick out his fuzzy outline, she was inches from the man. He leaned back in the chair, legs splayed, a bouquet of bills choked in his fist, his face an anonymous smudge. It felt as though a thick veil hung between her and everyone else.

It should always be like this, she thought.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Image: Nowinski, Maggie. “Untitled Adaptation (Cactisis)”. 2016. Pen and ink on paper, 26” x 40”.

Hourglass

What made Marilyn Monroe so alluring? While you may say it was her tousled blond locks or pouty red lips, science stacks it up to her curvaceous, hourglass body shape. Your body shape acts as an unconscious cue to others, signaling health, fitness and fertility levels. 

—You Beauty: The Science of a Beautiful You

 

As a child in confirmation class, I am instructed in the holy math. “Seven is the number of completion,” our pastor says. “It took seven days for God to make the world, so seven days became the length of our earthly week.” He speaks to us as a single mass, the cloud and not the snowflakes, separate and unique.

“But you know that a seven can be made by adding together other numbers. One and six. Two and five. From God’s perspective, the most important of these are three and four.” Pastor John writes 3+4=7 on the green chalkboard; I copy this problem on the first page of my standard-issue St. Paul’s of Shorewood Lutheran Bible. “Three is a heavenly number,” the pastor says. “God is especially partial to three because God exists in three forms. Who are the three members of the Trinity?”

“God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost,” we recite in unison. No wonder he thinks of us as a single person.

“Good! Three represents Heaven, and four represents Earth. When you add them together, they equal all there is.”

Waving my hand, I ask him, “Why is four the number for Earth?”

“Think about it,” the pastor says. “There are four directions on the compass: north, south, east, west. There are four corners in a room. We have four limbs to balance our bodies—two arms and two legs. We even have four chambers in our hearts.”

 

That now was then. This now is later. Every magazine I open, every screen I scroll down, makes similar promises. At YouBeauty.com: Take this quiz to determine your contours. You’ll get specific health, eating, and exercise advice, plus fashion tips to flatter your figure. The human snowflake, it seems, also comes in four forms. Using a science-based tool, created by YouBeauty and reviewed by our experts, discover whether you are an apple, a spoon, a ruler, or an hourglass. And all this time I had been thinking I was a woman.

 

In ninth grade, I start Catholic school where books are bought instead of borrowed. One of the sisters instructs me to stand in the far line by the window.  “You’ll need to purchase a Bible,” she says.

“But I have a Bible, several Bibles. NIV, King James—”

“You’re Protestant,” she decrees. How did she know? How could she tell? If I protest, I will only confirm her claim. “At Holy Names, we require a Catholic Bible.”

 

The first afternoon, outside on the lawn, I open my new Bible, compare it to the old. There are seven more books in the Catholic Old Testament—what we will come to call “Easter eggs” in the era of DVDs. For now, they are a bonus track at the end of a tape, extra footage after the final credits roll. I circle their titles: Tobit, Judith, The Book of Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, First Maccabees, Second Maccabees. I will have to inquire about these tomorrow.

 

Sister Ann Cornelia is our school librarian. I figure she is the best one to ask, since her spiritual vocation and her earthly occupation both involve books—notably, the Bible.

“You’re thinking like a Protestant,” she says, hands folded on her broad desk, face like a freckled child’s despite her chimney-smoke puff of white hair.

“What do you mean?”

“Listen to the difference. A Protestant asks, ‘Why are there extra books in this Bible?’ A Catholic asks, ‘Why have these books been omitted from other Bibles?'”

“Well?” I prod.

“Well what?”

“Isn’t it the same answer either way?”

“Oh, no,” she says. “The way you phrase a question determines entirely the type of answer you’ll get.”

 

FOR THE APPLE: You are, by definition, round. You have the body people want to cuddle up to. You are not easy to dress, but have pillow-soft breasts and divinely sculpted ankles. For you, it’s all about bringing focus to the top half, up and away from your tummy. Start by loving yourself enough to invest in a decent bra. Cap sleeves help to broaden your shoulders. Look out for tailored trousers that have no bulky pockets or protruding zips. Avoid clunky shoes—your body shape sits well atop a dainty wedge.

 

The encyclopedia is a way to avoid phrasing questions, to skip instead directly to answers—or at least to information. More and more I see how the attribution of meaning will come to rest with the reader. In this way, among others, I am becoming a Post-Modernist.

From dictionaries and encyclopedias I piece together a brief history of the Old Testament: The Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches all recognize the same 27 books that make up the New Testament. There is a disagreement, however, concerning the books that constitute the Old Testament. The Catholic Bible has seven books and parts of two others in the Old Testament that are not found in Protestant Bibles. Catholics refer to these books as Deutercanonical while Protestants refer to them as apocryphal.

 

Deutercanonical v. apocryphal, I sketch in my notebook. A Catholic answer and a Protestant answer. Both can be right, and both can be insufficient at the same time, I marvel. Without the seven chapters the Catholic Bible adds to the Book of Esther, it bears the distinction of being the only book in the Protestant Bible that never mentions God—not even once. And one of the Catholic chapters in the Book of Daniel includes a dragon, which I think we all know opens the door to fairies and unicorns.

 

FOR THE SPOON: Your woes lie around your saddlebags. But your top half is hard to fault. The name of the game is broadening your shoulders to balance those saddlebags. You are relatively flat-chested so you can get away with higher-cut tops. A slashed neckline helps to give the impression of coat hanger shoulders. Or use puffed sleeves to add vital inches. Your legs are short in comparison to your body. Wearing trouser hemlines to the floor is essential to maximize leg extension. A strapless dress is a wonderful thing for a Spoon. The stiff, flared skirt does an excellent job of disguising wide hips.

 

“Hello, Sister,” I say, finding her on a stepstool dusting the shelves. She has cheesecloth in one hand, furniture polish in the other.

“Yes?”

“How are you today?”

“We both know that’s not the question you want to ask.” There is something both vexing and admirable about her ability to read my mind.

“What is the difference between Deutercanonical and apocryphal?”

She corrects my pronunciation and then replies: “Catholics believe the omitted texts from the Protestant Bible comprise a ‘second canon’—that they are Deutercanonical. Protestants believe the texts added to the Catholic Bible contain valuable, historical information but are not divinely inspired; as a result, they cannot be considered part of the canon.”

After a pause, what in poetry I will learn to call a caesura: “What do you believe, Sister Ann Cornelia?” It is a risky question, as I am sure nuns are expected to uphold the party line.

She looks down at me, a sly smile parting the plump flesh of her cheeks: “I tend to favor more information,” she says. “Not less.”

“Even if it’s controversial?” I press.

“If you think about it, really think about it, what information isn’t?”

 

FOR THE RULER: You might find it difficult to find enough length in a sleeve or trouser leg, but being mostly tall, Rulers can carry clothes well. You have lovely long legs, lithe arms, and not too much flab around your girth—your only downfall is your need for shape. The most useful way to counter that is to break up your outline. A single button jacket will always concentrate eyes on the center of your torso. A long A-line skirt pushes your waist upward, giving you a more womanly shape. Kitten heels add delicacy and curve to your straight figure.

 

At the first mass of the new school year, I am intercepted on my way to communion. “It’s OK,” I whisper to Sister Mary Annette. “I’ve already been confirmed.”

“Not in the Catholic tradition, you haven’t,” she replies. I stare into her face, the spider webs around her eyes. “Protestants don’t believe in transubstantiation.” My lip quivers at the sound of the unfamiliar word, another piece of a rapidly enlarging puzzle.

The other girls move past me now, their ponytails swishing.

“The bread and wine carry different significance for Catholics,” Sister explains, one hand pressing down on my shoulder, holding me sessile as a plant—a word we have just learned in biology class.

“What should I do?” I whimper.

The other girls stand before the priest. He places the small moon of the wafer directly onto their tongues instead of laying it, Protestant-style, in the center of their open palms.

“There are two choices,” she says. “You can cross your hands over your heart, and the priest will bestow a blessing. Or—if you prefer—you can simply kneel at your pew while the others go forth to receive the Eucharist.”

Eucharist?

The other girls remain before the priest. He lifts a giant, silver goblet—a chalice I think it is called—and they sip from it, each after the one before her, as if they were not afraid of germs, as if they had never even heard of them. No one chooses her own small glass from the wheel of glasses, the round tray passed from penitent to penitent. The priest wipes the common cup with a white cloth, which is bound to stain. Later, I learn this is real wine and not grape juice, making them under-age drinkers, every one.

Eucharist,” she repeats. “This is a sacrament in our faith. In yours, it is only a ritual.”

Now the other girls step aside and pause (caesurize) before the altar. They cross themselves before the twin statues of Jesus and Mary. But then I realize—I am the other girl. They are not the others. They are the ones, the chosen ones, who know the words without even looking at their songbooks, who know as if by instinct when to stand, where to sit, and when to drop to their knees in synchronized supplication.

A brief history of the Eucharist: For Catholics, the sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, involves transubstantiation, meaning the substance, or essence, of the bread and wine changes—in a real, fundamental, ontological way—into the substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The word transubstantiation means that this change of substance is complete: The Body and Blood of Christ are not contained in the bread and wine, nor do they exist side by side with the bread and wine, as in consubstantial doctrines. The bread and wine are gone, completely replaced by the Body and Blood of Jesus. For Protestants, who most often adhere to the doctrine of consubstantiation, the bread and wine are symbolically, rather than literally, transformed by The Words of Institution.

 

Transubstantiation v. consubstantiation, I sketch in my notebook. A Catholic story and a Protestant story. Could they both be right? Could they both be insufficient? I had taken communion since I was eleven, never considering there might be different interpretations of what we were doing at the altar. Confirmation was the affirmation of baptism. This meant that, since I couldn’t remember being baptized as a baby, I had consented of my own preadolescent volition to become a dutiful disciple of Christ. The perks were wafers and grape juice during Sunday service and my own personalized offering envelopes, which came in the mail for all official members of the Church.

 

FOR THE HOURGLASS: Your body is the very essence of what makes a woman womanly. The key is to show it off. It is always difficult for an hourglass to look convincing in weekend clothes. Your shape is too ultra-feminine for trousers. Every item in your wardrobe should work clearly to define your curvy silhouette. Your waist is short and your crotch is long. The bluffer’s way to longer legs is to find a top that is long enough to stop just below your crotch, fooling our eyes into not knowing where your legs end and your butt begins. Beware big loose bat wings or kimonos that will merge your chest and arms into a solid mass. 

 

At my grandmother’s house, my father and his sister are playing cribbage while my grandmother prepares a stew.

“I have a question for you,” I announce, folding my hands on the table to convey the seriousness of the matter.

“Oh, no,” my father jokes. “How much is this going to cost me?”

“It’s nothing like that. It’s about religion.”

My grandmother, knowingly, over her shoulder: “What did I tell you would happen when you sent her to Catholic school? First come the questions, then come the doubts.”

But I already had doubts! They had been with me long before Catholic school. If I was honest, they had been with me long before my first communion.

“Julie, don’t believe a thing you hear at Mass,” my Aunt Linda instructs. “All that pomp and circumstance violates the First Commandment.”

“Well, I wanted to take communion at Mass—”

“Oh, God no!” my father exclaims. “That common cup alone is an invitation to the Plague!”

“They wouldn’t let me,” I murmur.

“Good. We don’t need them. We have our own communion on Sundays.”

“But here’s the question,” I say, feeling my frustration pooling in my palms. “When you take communion—each of you—what are you doing?”

“What do you mean what are we doing?” Aunt Linda leans in close to me, her green eyes narrowing.

“What do you believe it means when you eat the wafer and drink the juice?” I don’t know how much more plainly I can state the question, and my feet tap the floor impatiently beneath me as I wait.

“We believe we’re receiving Christ’s body and blood,” my grandmother says. She wipes her hands on her apron and turns to face us at the table.

Literally, or metaphorically?”

“Well, it’s not literal,” my father says. “We’re not cannibals.”

“See, Julie dear, it’s a ritual.” My grandmother pats my head. “We’re remembering the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross.”

“That’s just what Sister Mary Annette said. She said Protestants believe it’s a ritual, but Catholics believe it’s a sacrament.”

“It’s a sacrament for us, too,” Aunt Linda replies, her voice soft now, slow and deliberate. “Martin Luther named only two sacraments for Lutherans, as opposed to however many they’re concerned.” I frown to convey that this detour isn’t useful to me.

“What are they?” I press. “The sacraments?”

“Baptism and Communion. These are holy events in a person’s life—and they are literal,” she says.

My father sighs. “C’mon, Linda, what are you talking about? You’re just going to confuse her.”

I believe that the bread and wine are altered when the minister blesses them. I believe the Holy Spirit comes into them and changes them so they are no longer ordinary bread and wine.”

“You mean to tell me—” he leans forward now and pushes the cribbage board away. “You mean to tell me that you believe we’re eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ? That’s ludicrous, Linda! The minister can bless it all till Kingdom Come, but put it under a microscope, and you’ll see that nothing’s different. Nothing’s altered.”

“Linda,” my grandmother murmurs, “where in the world did you get such a notion?”

“It’s what I’ve always believed,” she replies, rising to her feet and pushing in her chair. “Faith doesn’t look through a microscope, Bill. Faith defies the laws of science. And now, if you’ll excuse me…” She disappears into the hallway, and in a moment, we hear the door to her bedroom close.

“Well,” I say, to no one in particular. “If Aunt Linda wanted to take communion at Catholic church, I don’t think anyone would have any reason to intervene.”

 

In World Cultures class, Ms. Curran prints the word CATHOLIC on the green chalkboard, then underlines it once for emphasis. “Who can tell me what this word means?” she inquires.

The room falls silent. A few girls turn to each other, arch eyebrows, shrug shoulders.

“OK. Let’s try it this way. How many of you in this room identify as Catholic?”

All the girls except the tall one in the corner, the one with chlorine streaks in her curls and a bottom lip prone to quiver, raise their hands. “So—Erin, Emily, Somebody—tell me: what does Catholic mean to you? You must know what it means if you’re going to claim it as part of your self-definition.”

Ms. Curran is not a nun. Ms. Curran is a married woman who chose not to take her husband’s name, who also chose not to have children. She represents to me a small fork along the monolithic path of possibility, that which is rarely mentioned when a girl is assigned her uniform and the first draft of her life itinerary. Perhaps Ms. Curran too felt like an other, slicing her coffee cake in the faculty lounge between the long line of sisters, wedded to Jesus, and the short line of Mrs. So-and-Sos with their many babies and their battered mini-vans.

“Do you mean…like…Roman Catholic?” Emily clarifies.

“Well, that’s a good point, Emily.” Ms. Curran is invested in the snowflake view. To her, we are never just a cloud. “Roman Catholic implies a certain set of convictions, of religious beliefs, doesn’t it? But the word catholic all by itself, uncapitalized—it’s an adjective. Does anybody know?”

I shake my head, but my notebook is open, my pen is poised.

“It means universal, or inclusive, or all-embracing,” she says, mingling among us, passing slowly up and down the aisles. “In some translations, it simply means whole.”

“Is that because everybody’s supposed to be Catholic?” Colleen asks, but when she glances in my direction, she blushes and turns quickly away.

“You probably all know that the Roman Catholic Church was the first Christian church, so at one time, if you were catholic, you were part of the whole of Christianity. That isn’t true anymore. You can be Christian but not Catholic. The challenge for those of us who identify as Catholic is not to forget that spirit of inclusiveness, not to treat other Christians as—”she studies the red maple outside our window, searching for the right word—”as ersatz Christians.”

“What does that mean?” Erin wants to know.

Imitation,” I say, clearing my throat. “Like a poor copy of an original.”

That now was then. This now is later. I remember Ms. Curran with gratitude, her sincere desire to honor all traditions—she who taught the theology credit that no one else had wanted to teach. World Cultures was code for all the others of the world, all the other ways of knowing, and coming to terms with the unknowable, that had been dismissed, that had been considered ersatz, less than.

How hard it is not to hold humanity to one standard, in all respects—religion, family, beauty. Catholic is a linguistic door that swings two ways: an impulse to include and an impulse to convert, depending on your interpretation of its meaning. The fraught imperative to accept yourself exactly as you are—whole, complete—and to do your best to conform to exactly what is expected of you—universal.

 

From “Slim Waist Holds Sway in History” at the BBC news website: The common historical assumption in the social sciences has been that the standards of beauty are arbitrary, socially determined and in the eye of the beholder. The finding that the writers describe a small waist as beautiful suggests that this body part—a known marker of health and fertility—is a core feature of feminine beauty that transcends ethnic difference and cultures.

 

Sophomore year we take Art Appreciation with Sister Janice. She is Catholic, as in Roman, but not lower-case catholic, not like everyone else. She even belongs to a different order. Sister Janice is what might be termed sui generis, a Latin expression meaning “of its own kind,” unique in its characteristics. She is the only Dominican sister at Holy Names, the Snowflake’s Snowflake, the Oddball Extraordinaire.

I like Sister Janice on principle: her rosy, age-defying face, her close-cropped, peppery gray hair. She is a no-frills, no-gimmicks kind of woman, a fast talker, fast walker, ambidextrous artist and calligrapher. She also doesn’t own any dresses, as far as I can tell, only white knee-high socks, colorful Capri pants, and Hawaiian shirts that billow at their too-big sleeves.

“The goal of this class isn’t to teach you what to think about art,” she says, skittering across the room like a stray marble. “It’s to teach you how to think about art, questions you can ask, methods you can use.”

Most of the students don’t take Sister Janice seriously. They yawn and laugh, pass notes under the art room table. She is all whimsy on the surface, true, but I sense that sadness fuels her restlessness, that loneliness lies behind the neon flash of her smile.

“How many of you have seen this painting before? Show of hands?” She projects a painting of three women standing naked together in a circle, their arms linked in partial embrace. All around the room: small eruptions of nervous laughter.

None of you? None of you have seen this painting—by Peter Paul Rubens, the Peter Paul Rubens.” Sister Janice uses italics in her speech just as I do. “The great Flemish Baroque master?”

Finally, a few girls concede, nodding: “Yes, we’ve seen it,” Therese sighs, speaking on behalf of her friends.

“Observations? Remember: art history, art analysis, and art appreciation all come from the same place. They all start with seeing more clearly what is right before our eyes. And—”she whirls around—”being able to articulate what it is that we see.”

I raise my hand and watch her face come to life like a candle flame. I start to say, “They aren’t wearing any clothes”—which is the first thing I notice—but am superseded by Katie, who declares in a loud, exasperated voice: “They’re fat!” Now her whole corner of the room rocks and roars with laughter. “What?” she snaps. “They are.”

Sister Janice looks crestfallen, but she recovers by pacing to and fro in front of the open window, fingers laced behind her. “Well, fat is a pretty subjective term. What one person calls fat someone else might call robust, heartywinsome even.”

“They have big, dimpled butts,” Therese says, emboldened by her friend’s candor. “And rolls of flab.”

“And cellulite,” echoes a tiny voice in the back.

“Our task here is to try to understand what Rubens was doing, why he wanted to depict these subjects the way he did.”

“I guess he liked big butts, and he couldn’t lie,” a transfer student whispers behind me.

“It’s quite easy,” Sister Janice continues, “for us to confuse observation and interpretation. The brain, almost as soon as it registers an image, begins to interpret that image, and all interpretations contain judgments. We bring a lot of baggage to our interpretations, ideas about what our culture has taught us is beautiful.”

When no one responds, Sister Janice projects a second image on the screen. “This is a painting by Renoir. It was completed more than two centuries after the painting by Rubens. What do you notice?”

She is so hopeful, her body swaying from side to side, her eyes scanning the room for some sign of engagement: hands about to raise, lips about to part. “Anyone?”

I want to offer an insight. I want to make Sister Janice jump with joy and send her, like a wind-up toy, spinning around the classroom. But my tongue turns to sawdust in my mouth, and my ears burn red at the sight of so many bodies.

“The woman in this painting is less fat,” Katie sighs. “Her skin is smooth by comparison—but she still has enormous thighs.”

 

“Slim Waist Holds Sway in History”: Dr. Singh, from the University of Texas, has spent years examining representations of women through history—in one study, he measured the waist-hip ratio of hundreds of statues from different eras. In the most recent research, he looked at how “attractive” women were depicted in literature, analyzing more than 345,000 texts, mainly from the 16th to 18th centuries. There was a trend for slightly larger women in the 17th and 18th centuries—a trend typified by the paintings of Rubens—but demand for a slimmer waist was generally constant throughout the centuries.

 

Thinking is long, and knowing is slow. This is what I have come to realize. Over the next two years, I return often to the distinction Sister Janice made between observation and interpretation. It was hard to have a pure thought.  It was harder still to describe something without evaluating it. Looking at paintings in art class wasn’t so different from flipping through Allure or Vogue or Marie Claire. Art and advertising were rife with women’s bodies—all of them in varying states of undress. The viewer’s eyes were reliably drawn to their cleavage, their midriffs, or their long, supple legs. Faces were rarely the focus, as portraits were less important than studies of physical form.

 

“Niki Taylor is everywhere,” Jasmine complains, back pressed against her locker, studying the newest issue of Elle like there will be a rest tomorrow. “I swear.”

“Don’t you like her?” I ask.

“She’s just so boring: blond hair, blue eyes, slender body, beauty mark…blah, blah, blah. We get it, you know. We’ve seen it all before. If you want to be really beautiful, try being a little different, a little less cliche.”

This was the old snowflake theory, but it seemed safer to me to stay in the cloud. “Tell me something,” I say. “Doesn’t it strike you as strange that girls spend so much time looking at pictures of other girls? I never see anyone with a men’s magazine—not even men—but everyone stares at Cosmo in the check-out line.”

“I’m not gay, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Jasmine replies, sliding the magazine back in her bag.

“I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean that.” Why was everyone so defensive these days? “I’m not even sure we’re meant to look at all these women in a positive way.”

Jasmine frowned at me. “Are you going to get all valedictorian about this and have to scrutinize it from every angle—because you know that gets on my nerves.”

“I know. But—” she raises her eyebrows, as if to say this better be good—”just think about it: don’t we mostly look at magazines to cut women down, to find the thing that’s wrong with them? She’s too this, or she’s too that, or not enough of this, or enough of that—it’s all I ever hear.”

Jasmine takes out her Walkman, slides her earphones into her ears. This is her way of letting me know the conversation is over. “It’s like a Where’s Waldo game,” I insist, “and we’re always looking for the flaw.”

 

Mrs. Korkowski is our math teacher. She is a tall woman shaped like a bell with beady black eyes, pallid cheeks, and a large, braided bun balanced atop her head like a knitting basket. Once a year, on Halloween, she lets her bun down, but the hair is so coarse and snarled and gray that everyone wishes she would pin it back up again.

 

Though she is a wife and mother and not a nun, Mrs. Korkowski is one of the few women I have ever met who seems entirely unconcerned with appearance. I suspect that even in the check-out line, she would be too consumed with quadratic equations or analytic geometry—whatever problem she was solving in her mind—to even consider which newest bathing beauty graced the cover of what glossy magazine.

 

I like numbers, but I have a hard time with math. Unlike words, I don’t relate to their practical applications.

“That’s nonsense,” Mrs. Korkowski says in our one-on-one review session. “You count every day, don’t you? You measure things without even thinking. You follow recipes. You divvy up space in a drawer. Math,” she repeats.

“But that’s easy math. I’m talking about the hard stuff.”

“It’s all hard to begin with,” she replies in her cut-and-dry way. “But once you know it, you know it, and there’s power in that.”

“I do like the language of math,” I tell her cautiously.

“For instance?”

“Well, this word asymptote. I like the sound of it.”

“Me too,” Mrs. Korkowski says. “There’s a poetry to math that most people miss entirely. Now tell me what the asymptote is.”

“A line which is tangent to a curve at infinity,” I repeat.

“Yes, yes, you’re very good at memorizing, but what does that mean?”

Haltingly, I confess: “I think that’s what I’m here to find out.”

Now Mrs. Korkowski makes a snorting sound that is either a laugh or a sneeze. “Well, then. Let’s try to get a handle on this, shall we? Let’s interrogate the asymptote, figure out what purpose it serves. Any idea?” I want to say, to make my life more difficult, but instead I hold my tongue and shake my head. “All right. Try this: asymptotes convey information about the behavior of curves. We use them to assess the nature of a curve.”

This I understand. This I can grasp like a rock-climbing hold on the treacherous cliff of calculus.

“So, break it down. What do we know about curves?”

That they’re beautiful. That they’re feminine. That you need them—but not too many or too much—for men to fall in love with you.

I flip through my notes. “That a curve can come close to a line without actually touching it?”

“Quite right—and you’ll like this,” Mrs. Korkowski says, with an almost-smile. “Asymptote is from the Greek for ‘not falling together.’ We assume that eventually the line and the curve will merge, but it’s important to remember that in this context, the line and curve are idealized concepts.” Aren’t they always? “Their width is zero.”

I write this down. “You know what other word I like? Parabola.”

“No tangents, please!” But then she laughs, in spite of herself.

 

“Slim Waist Holds Sway in History”: Dr. Piers Cornelissen, a psychologist at York University, says that the sexual attractiveness of the curve between slim waist and hips may be due to a liking for well-fed women rather than a subtle sign of fertility. His work uses mathematical equations to separate the amount of “curve” between waist and hip which is due to simple fat deposition, and that due to other factors such as bone structure and the effects of sex hormones. He said: “When we break apart that ‘curviness,’ it is almost impossible to find an effect for waist-hip ratio that is independent of effects such as body fat percentage.”

 

That now was then. This now is later. I have passed calculus, as in earned a grade above failing and also moved beyond it. (Or so I thought.) In my grown life, I have become an asymptote of sorts, one who appraises the function of curves: curve balls in baseball, learning curves in classrooms. I live now in the era of Curves, the largest fitness franchise in the world, with machines designed especially for women.

 

A curve was once called a curved line. At some point in time the curve and the line became separate, unique, making the curved line an oxymoron. Like gay straight—a contradiction in terms, an expression you never hear. I wonder about the place where a curve becomes a swerve: to turn or be turned aside from a straight course. I know what it means to swerve, suddenly, at the last possible moment—to avoid a collision (two or more moving bodies exerting forces on each other for a relatively short time). In other words, men and I have not fallen easily together. Tangentially, Curve is the nation’s best-selling lesbian magazine.

 

Interlude

From Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”: My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still, / And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill / Beside it, and there may be two or three/ Apples that I didn’t pick upon some bough. / But I am done with apple-picking now. 

 

We are not done, no matter what we tell ourselves. Not with diets, not with counting calories or measuring with spoons. Quotidian math: the math of preparation, proportion. Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons. We measure ours with artificial sweeteners: Splenda (as in splendid), Whey Low (as in weigh low!)

 

From Denise Duhamel’s “Spoon”: John Updike’s image stays with me—his male character admires a slender / young woman whose collarbones strain toward each other and almost meet / in a dip where he envisions placing a teaspoon. I can’t help but think / that this lovely girl could not let herself eat whatever was once in that spoon / on the spoon rest of her throat, whatever was cooking in her body that became / a willowy stove.

 

I want to be the apple of your eye. But really, I want to be the spoon that rests between your collarbones. (Watch out for those dreaded saddlebags!) But really, I want to be the equal in your life—or at the very least, the Equal in your coffee, your tea. I want to be the fruit of your fall, Eden worth forfeiting for me. I will spoon-feed you the best of my shiny red heart. I will be golden and delicious. But really, I want you to love my ass—or at the very least, to love my aspartame.

From Chris Albani’s “Unholy Women”: But of course these poems are / about men, / which we become by defining how / we are not women / and / so becoming / a shadow devouring the light to find the limits.

 

But really, I want to be your asymptote—to graph the function of y=f(x)—in which y=man and x=woman and f=faith that something will change. As things stand, a man equals a woman and then some. Plato says, The measure of man is what he does with power. What kind of ruler will he be? (She: a Ruler who carries clothes well.) But really, a ruler is a stick made of numbers and lines. If sticks and stones will break my bones, what will words do to me?

FROST: For I have had too much / Of apple-picking: I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.

DUHAMEL: No matter how much I suck air into my throat, I can’t / make a hollow place for a spoon on my neck.

ABANI: And of course there is God / and its problematic relationship to light / not to mention the question of permission / who builds the box, the shape?

Time has a shape. It is an hourglass. Beauty has a shape. It is an hourglass. (Or is it?) Her skin is smooth by comparison, but she still has enormous thighs.

 

Women had power in Catholic school. They were our teachers, our principal and deans, our former graduates who came back to brag about their good jobs on Alumnae Day. They comprised our student body. When we chose a leader, it was a given that it would be a girl.

Women were also our intercessors. In Lutheran church, you could only pray to God in his various forms, but in Catholic church, you could pray to all the saints, many of whom were women, and the most important of whom was Mary (Holy Mary, Mother of God). True, Mary did become a saint for reasons that seemed mostly beneficial to men mostly beyond her control. For instance, I wasn’t impressed that a twelve-year-old girl had managed to remain a virgin. God could have singled out any number of girls with compliant natures and unoccupied wombs to give birth to his son, but I did wonder why he chose to separate this snowflake in particular from the cloud.

On March 25 each year, we celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation, in honor of the day the angel Gabriel appeared to the virgin Mary and told her that she would conceive a child who would become the Savior of the world. The event was sometimes called “Lady Day,” and every girl wore a floral dress and brought her favorite kind of flowers to place before the statue of Mary at the altar. Even Protestants were allowed to participate.

 

“You want to do what now?” my mother asks. Now she’s studying her JCPenney catalog like there will be a test tomorrow. Before I can answer, she holds up a picture of a woman in a long, low-waisted dress with frill sleeves and a sash trailing off to the side. “What do you think of this? Do you think I’m the right body type to pull this off?”

Aware of the thin ice beneath me, I tell her cautiously: “I think you should wear whatever you like, whatever feels comfortable.”

My mother laughs wryly. “The two do not always go together.” Asymptote, I muse—beauty and comfort, a line and a curve.

“It’s the Feast of the Annunciation today,” I say, clearing my throat, “so I need to bring flowers to school. I was hoping I could cut some lilacs from the side of the house. They’re so beautiful, and they always smell so good.”

“What’s this Annunciation business all about?” she demands, suddenly suspicious.

“It’s just a holy day at school. We have it every year. Remember?”

I follow her into the kitchen where she rummages through a drawer for her gardening shears—the small set with electric-orange handles. Unlocking the back door and stepping out into the sun, my mother squints as she begins to snip the fragrant lilacs from their boughs. “You’re not getting in too deep with this Catholic crowd, are you? I hope your father and I have made it clear that their entire religion is based on superstition and blasphemy, and their interpretation of the Scriptures is not to be trusted.”

“I like mass,” I say softly. In a weak and perhaps also a shallow moment, I confess it: “Mass is prettier than Lutheran church. The singing, the language, the look of things—it’s almost magical.”

Now my mother holds the lilacs in her hands, not quick to surrender them to me. “Beware the seduction of beautiful things,” she warns. Who was she kidding? “So often they are not what they seem.”

“But what are they then?” I have felt excluded at Mass before, restricted to my pew, resigned to my blessing, but I have never felt, even a little, deceived.

“What do you mean?”

“If things aren’t what they seem, then what are they? What is it you think is going on?”

“Oh, come off it, Julie! All that hocus pocus with the priest and his ball of smelling salts. Not to mention—praying to women, worshipping Mary.”

“It isn’t worship exactly,” I reply. “It’s recognizing that we can learn from other people’s experiences, that they might be able to help us along the way.”

“They’re dead!” my mother snaps, letting the screen door slam shut behind her. “They can’t help you. Only Jesus can. The very idea…” And her voice trails off as she soaks a paper towel and begins to wrap it around the lilac stems, after which she will add a layer of foil.

Today I am feeling the opposite of Mary, not compliant at all—defiant, bold in my new opinions. “How is it any different—” I argue “this so-called worshipping of women we do in Catholic church—from the way we praise famous women every day?” My mother turns to look at me like I am a prophet bearing ominous news. “The secular culture worships women, too, and mostly for their bodies alone. Not even taking into account their virtues.”

“How much more of this am I supposed to take?” Her cheeks crimson, her eyes filling with tears. “On top of everything else, are you going to tell me you’re a Catholic now?”

“No. But I do say the ‘Hail Mary,’ not just the ‘Our Father.’ And I like the idea that women are though of highly enough to be worth talking to. It isn’t only about the men.”

Now my mother—the most powerful person in our family, the clear matriarch—throws the lilacs into our cereal bowls and runs screeching through the house, calling for my father. “Bill! Your daughter has gone over to the dark side!”

 

But in mass, my uncertainty resumes, grows back again like a weed or a flower—depending how you interpret it. Women couldn’t be popes or bishops or priests; they couldn’t pronounce the blessing over the bread and wine that may or may not become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus. Tabloids reduced women to their bodies. It was true, I reasoned, not just an interpretation: Julia Roberts stuns in gown with plunging neckline! Cameron Diaz looking svelte in designer bikini on romantic getaway! Madonna fans will be dazzled by her post-pregnancy weight loss glam! But when I thought about the women revered in Catholic church—really thought about them—weren’t the most virtuous ones those who guarded their bodies like treasure? And almost as virtuous as nuns were the ones who surrendered their bodies to men and gave them children who bore their fathers’ names? In Mary’s case, she was a surrogate, a means for God to accomplish something he wanted, not truly an end in herself.

As my mother sometimes crassly said: “For men, having a child is ten minutes of fun; for a woman, a lifetime of pain and varicose veins.”

 

Now the priest reads to us from the Book of Luke: “And in the sixth month the Angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came unto her, and said, ‘Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou amongst women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying…”

I pictured her there, a dreamy girl, tall and sturdy with dark brown hair and a bottom lip prone to quiver; a smart seventh grader with no high school in sight, whose marriage to Joseph had already been arranged. But what if she didn’t want it, any of it? What if she was a poet in her secret heart—the words falling on her tongue like the first soft flakes of winter snow—falling all the while as she scrubbed the floors, ironed the clothes, helped her mother prepare a meal? (Holy Mary, the artist, the prodigy, or was she always destined to be—Holy Mary, the little Ash Girl?) What if she later scribbled those words on the Stenopad beneath her bedside table, read them back to herself late in the night while a lone candle continued to burn?

But now here’s this angel, intruding on her solitude, cutting into the few quiet hours of her time between school and supper: “Fear not, Mary, for thou hath found favor with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be called great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest…”

What if she had simply said No thank you and gone back to her chores? What if she had told the angel the name of another girl just down the road who had been saying how much she’d love to have a baby—someone who actually aspired to be a teen mom?

Instead, Mary acquiesced. She did as she was told. I thought of her leaning into that curve, turning, being turned, from her course.

Was canonization really worth it? Was intercession simply another chore? Think of the poems Mary could have written if she dared.

Soon, Sister Rosemary beckons to me. “It’s your turn, dear—to take your flowers to the altar.”

I clasp the lilacs tightly in my palms and will not release them.

 

That now was then. This now is later. A morning. A library book with an ominous name: The Dead and the Living. “Death of Marilyn Monroe” by Sharon Olds begins with the “ambulance men” who carried Monroe’s body from her apartment. Olds imagines how the fantasy lives of these men likewise came to an end with her death. They seemed to marvel that anyone so beautiful could die. They seemed to marvel that anyone so beautiful could relinquish so much of her beauty in death—could be “flattened by gravity,” could become “ordinary” at last. As a consequence, Olds tells us, “These men were never the same.”

Their lives took

a turn—one had nightmares, strange

pains, impotence, depression. One did not

like his work, his wife looked

different, his kids. Even death

seemed different to him—a place where she

would be waiting.

 

And one found himself standing at night

in the doorway to a room of sleep, listening to a

woman breathing, just an ordinary

woman breathing.

 

The poem is an elegy. In reading, I reflexively bow my head. And when I raise it again and gaze out the window toward the red maples, I find I am thinking of Mary. It’s not such a great stretch, is it—from Mary to Marilyn? The women intersect, parabola of heavenly light and not enough time. There is no asymptote in the world that can save them.

From “Secrets of Marilyn Monroe’s Hourglass Figure Revealed in Receipts” at The Telegraph: As the world’s most famous sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe had to look after both her creamy complexion and her hourglass figure. Marilyn Monroe’s diet has been revealed in a clutch of grocery store and meat market receipts. One substantial delivery was made two days before her big even of singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK. It’s interesting to speculate why Monroe was buying so much food at this time, especially when she knew she had to be sewn into the gown she’d be wearing.

From “Mary—Her Beauty” at Catholic News Agency: Mary’s body never knew sexual pleasure because her soul excluded it for the love of God and mankind. She always exercised, as soon as her reason was able to understand, the virtue of chastity—that is a rational and voluntary control over her entire psychosomatic human sexuality. Through her chastity and virginity, Mary consecrated to her Creator, in a total and absolute way, her human sexuality. She recognized the supreme dominion of God’s absolute and eternal Being over her body, over the thoughts, desires, remembrances of her soul.

Two women, embodied—whose bodies were not their own.

 

When I read the poem again, several years later, I discover I have remembered it wrong. It begins with the men, the “ambulance men,” the ones Olds tells us are “never the same.” (Beautiful Marilyn, Mediatrix of All Grace! What was it they had needed you to be for them—so they could go on living in the old way?) To see her dead, to feel her four limbs heavy and cold, her breasts “flattened by gravity” was to see her becoming human again. (Your body is the very essence of what makes a woman womanly.)

There is no scriptural record of Mary’s last days on earth. Some traditions claim she went to Ephesus, where she met a peaceful, painless death (dormition). Others claim she remained in Jerusalem and was taken to heaven without succumbing to death (assumption). In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared this latter belief official Catholic dogma. Why? Because they could not bear to see her dead, not even in dormition. Because they did not want to bear the “nightmares, strange/pains, impotence, depression” that come after such a death.

 

y=f(x)—in which y=man and x=woman and f=faith that nothing will change

 

Bless them. Bless them to the four points of the compass, to the four corners of the room.

In an unfinished letter to Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe writes: “If I can only succeed in making you happy I will have succeeded in the biggest and most difficult thing there is—that is to make one person completely happy.

Bless them, I say. Bless them to their beautiful, four-chambered hearts.

In response to the annunciation of the angel Gabriel, Mary says: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

But bless her, most of all, for she is all of us: that ordinary woman breathing.

 

Under and Over Promiscuity — Rome (II)

Recently, men have asked me to be their slut. And during the sex act, they say, almost universally, “You’re just a slut, aren’t you?” The mere idea of my promiscuity stiffens them. To them, it is hot and sexy.

~

Walking through Villa Borghese, I find three depictions of Leda and the Swan. Leda’s skin is more radiant than the whiteness of the swan, brighter than the grandeur of the god of gods. Therefore, he takes her.

~

Whereas women, myself included, say with derision, “Slut.”

~

I am a serial monogamist—or, I was. Since I was twenty, I have propelled myself from one long-term relationship to another, never staying single for more than six months. But I am getting older now and the trauma of my last relationship leaves me prudent of men and their intentions. They are untrustworthy and ruthless.
And so I adorn their behavior: fucking in thongs of floss.
Translucent strings of protection.
But for me, those strings of attachment remain, even when thin and invisible.

~

Rape or desire. The parameters of consent should always be obvious.

~

I insist I am not a slut. I say, “Your slut,” and he repeats—they repeat—“Yes, my good little slut.”
I say, “Slap me.”

~

Earlier that day, Leda’s husband fucked her. Later that day, so, too, did a swan. Two men in one day: gods and beasts being interchangeable terms.

~

I am a monogamist who believes that polyamory is the purest form of love. It’s trust, mostly, and it is allowing one’s partner the full spectrum of desire and connection.
About my previous partners I now wonder, did I not love them enough or were they not worthy of my trust?

~

My first time in Rome, I hook up with the Economist. He has a PhD from UC Berkeley, but he is Roman. We fuck in my hotel room, and he leaves because he has dinner plans with his friends. He does not invite me along.
Of the men I slept with on my first tour through Europe this summer, he was the least likely candidate for a second encounter, but I have seen him every day since my arrival this time.

~

This is the longest I’ve been single since I was twenty: eight months and counting. Eight months and without visible end.

~

Barely two hours after I arrive in Rome, a guy from Tinder knocks on the door of my friend Gian’s flat. He’s back in the States to promote a new book he’s published. I have his incredible and huge flat to myself.
Arbitrarily, I tell the guy that I don’t fuck on first meetings. I say, “Nothing below the belt.”
He tries three times to take off my shorts, but I let him cum in my mouth anyway. Later, when he texts, I don’t respond.
He texts again and again. Ten times a day. For days. Later, because I am feeling lonely, I write back.
He invalidates my feelings of disrespect, and I agree to meet him for coffee.

~

The only reason I don’t have penetrative sex with the Philosopher on first meeting is because he doesn’t have a condom.
I had fucked the Economist on first meeting.
I give the same rule about not fucking on first meet to another guy from Tinder because he works at the post office and that isn’t impressive enough for me. “It is very stable employment,” he says.

~

Although no longer a Catholic, I light a candle in every Roman basilica. I kneel and tell God I love Him. I ask Him to let me believe. I pray for my parents and my nephew and my dead sister’s soul and, lastly, for myself. My prayers for my family are specific, but I don’t know what I want God to do for me. My knees are sore from sucking so much dick, and I am ambivalent about the whole concept of a soul.
My only real sin is sex. I am a very ethical person.
And my only real fault is being a woman. Otherwise, sex wouldn’t be an issue.

~

The Economist wants to watch another man fuck me. “When he leaves, I will fuck you again,” he says. But he is not opposed to joining in, too. He says, “You are such a good slut,” and again, I correct him, “Your good slut.” He smirks.

~

My old roommate bragged that he’s slept with probably three hundred women, give or take. Even though he is a notorious liar, I believe him. He is neither slut nor whore.
He’s dominant, manly, a goddamn stallion: “keyed in,” as he likes to say.

~

I swipe left more than right. I find a handsome guy and ask if he will let a friend—the Economist—watch. He writes, “Not the first time. First time, just me and you. Then I will make you an orgy.” He has a PhD in Philosophy and is, like me, a professor. Because he didn’t bring a condom, we pleasure each other with our mouths, and then I use a sex toy and he cums in his hand. He tells me he will throw me a sex party before I leave. He is a Heideggerian. We talked for an hour before undressing and talk another hour afterwards, naked and touching skin. I like him very much. My insecurity tells me he will not see me again.

~

Because we cannot find a third, the Economist suggests role-playing a rape fantasy. Only a minute before he cums in my mouth, he remembers there should be a safe word. I release his dick from my mouth and say, “Watermelon.”

~

I text my friends in the States that I am over this promiscuity business. Then, I add, “After Europe.” They LOL.

~

Dorothy texts, “You’re trusting an Italian, LOL.”

~

Just another one night stand, Zeus and Leda.

~

I have been in three long-term relationships, one of which was a disastrous marriage, and all three men had requested group sex. I refused them the male fantasy of two women at once. I am too insecure to watch my partner desire another woman more than me, and even the suggestion destroys me, offends me that I, alone, am not enough. I don’t tell any of them this and let them think I am prudish. Maybe I am.

~

I feel a hunger for group sex with the Economist. I am so submissive that his desire for it becomes mine. Or maybe I want two dicks at once and am too entangled in gender norms to approve of that desire as my own.

~

“You are good at chess,” the Philosopher says.
Although he had not framed it as a question, I nod to indicate that I am. “Saturday night, then, we will play chess but with humans. I will be king and you will be queen and we fuck the pawns we capture.”
His metaphor is a disaster, so I smile as though he has said something clever. “Pawns are only good for fucking. But you,” he says. He looks at the high ceilings in Gian’s flat.

~

To speak of double standards would be too obvious, but yeah, obviously, right?

~

This summer, I have fucked more men than my previous thirty-five years combined.

~

During my first tour through Europe this summer, I bed a series of very impressive men. They all have doctorates and jobs and they seriously know how to fuck. They make American men seem pedestrian with basic brains, wholly common.

~

In Leonardo’s “Leda,” she is either caressing or choking the Swan. Two voyeur cherubs watch.
It’s just a copy though, and I find myself disappointed in the Borgheses.

~

I leave for Florence in twelve hours and still no word from the Philosopher. Rejection always hurts.

~

An imitation, not unlike my Imposter Syndrome.

~

For the past four nights, I have searched through Tinder while the Economist obsesses on Grindr. He refreshes his inbox again and again. His determination excites me, but I am also disappointed.
This is as much my fantasy as his. I think this is a true statement, but it might be that I’m just trying to convince myself.
When he isn’t there with me, I don’t even open the app, even though new matches keep appearing.

~

Walking through Villa Borghese, I think, “It’s no Versailles.”
The way I compare my body to other women’s and find myself at fault. My sexuality, too.
I feel like a list of wrongs.

~

Four days in Rome and I have engaged in sex acts with five men. I am desirable. I disgust myself. I send the Economist pictures because he cannot be there, because the other men do not want it.

~

I had assumed that the men I’d fucked on my first European tour would be one-night stands, but they have kept in touch, all of them. When I appear in repeat cities, they come see me—to cum, again. I am satisfactory; I satisfy them enough that they want more of me.

~

Ignoring the corruption completely, those Borgheses’ loved to fuck, too.
Papal power: misogynistic hegemony: ah, but that was way back in the day.

~

They don’t buy me dinner, but they also don’t disappear. That means something: like I’m hot enough to fuck but I’m not worth their Euros.

~

Also, that I’m a slut.

~

Because I am careless at Villa Borghese, I don’t know who made the other images of Leda, even though I photographed them from many angles.
It is the Modernist in me, wanting to turn an object, to compress time and space. Or, to simply better understand.

~

At the Keats-Shelley House, I have a long conversation with a girl who works there. She isn’t the curator, but she loves museums. She tells me about the Carpet Museum— although I can’t remember where it is, somewhere in Great Britain—and I talk about the use of technology in museums. She says it can enhance the experience. I tell her I prefer to remain ignorant of the details in order to better understand the space with the whole of my body. And so I regret not knowing the facts: at the Keats-Shelley House and at Villa Borghese.
Because Keats died ten years younger than I am now, his papers are valuable commodities that scatter through the world. I am disappointed that the locked shelves of books lining the walls were not his. “But they’re old,” she says, “dating back to his time.” She points to a red book in our periphery. “That’s Byron’s copy of The Odyssey,” she says. I want to tell her I’m an academic, a researcher—which is and isn’t true—I want to ask her what it would take for me to touch the book, feel it. I want my fingers to touch his mania and genius. But I just let her ramble on.

~

The Philosopher plans me a journey through Rome. He stars the important locations on Google maps, and I make it to all but two. The Museum of Criminology is closed, perhaps permanently, and although I walked through the doors of the Goethe Institute, I don’t walk up the stairs to the exhibit because I am tired and have seen enough culture for one day.

~

All of the letters are encased in glass: to and from Keats, Shelley, and Byron. Their cursive is barely legible. The ink from their quills pools through the parchment, and they made a lot of mistakes, lines drawn through text. I put my face very close to the glass.
Later, even though I am attempting to save my money because I still have two weeks left in Europe, I buy a t-shirt, their first names in Helvetica. I wonder if anyone other than my nerd academic friends will get the reference.

~

“You like to be told what to do,  huh,  slut?”  the Economist asks.  The question is rhetorical, so he demands, “Now suck my dick,” and I do.

~

“Do you want to see old Rome or very old Rome?” the Philosopher asks. He clarifies that old Rome is still 15th or 16th century.
He goes on and on about Roman history and its determined role in the creation of civilization.
I listen carefully and then I say, “You make it seem like there is only the West.” “The United States has no history,” he says.
Whereas I know I have won this one, I say timidly, “There is an entire East too, you know.” It comes out almost as a whisper that he can ignore.

~

A marble statue of Leda. The Swan’s mouth on her nipple; a cherub touching her arm. She is all skin: bestiality and pedophilia: her expression is not one of fear but desire.

~

“I will take pictures and send them to your boyfriend,” the Economist says. “Please, no.”
He slams his hand over my mouth. “Shut up.” I squeeze my legs together.
“Open.” He forces my legs apart and touches me. “You’re all wet, you dirty slut. You want my Roman dick because your Asian boyfriend’s dick is so small.” “Say it,” he commands. He releases his hand from my mouth. “I have never seen such a big dick,” I say.
Because this is only role-playing, I lie to him without remorse.

~

Now, in my mid-thirties, I am becoming slovenly. I attempt to hide it in cute clothes more apt for someone a decade younger than me. I try to make myself feel better by fucking. I need the validation.

~

I text my friend Sarah, “What drives promiscuity? Empowerment or insecurity?” And quickly, before she can respond, “Binaries are so 1980s. LOL.”
We are both feminists.  I don’t want to expose what a hypocrite I am.  It’s embarrassing because I feel like she’s the real deal.
She writes back, “I think both and not necessarily either. Can be other things too.
For me it’s about feeling connected, feeling alive.”
I ask her to FaceTime because I’m feeling super neurotic and insecure and I need someone to give me permission for my sexuality.

~

When I fuck men, I don’t feel empowered, but I do feel validated—and that’s a good enough motivation for me.
Or justification.
I hardly know the difference.

~

In another imagining of Leda and the Swan, she is fully clothed in rich scarlet and gold. Her hair is styled and curled. The Swan’s beak hovers right below her lips, waiting. Her eyes are turned away, shy eyes, and she is smiling.
Because she wants it.

~

The male equivalent of slut is stud.

~

Because my sexual prowess shames me, I am writing about it.

~

Since eighteen, I have been diagnosed bipolar by several psychiatrists, but I insist that they’re wrong. I know myself and I know the DSM-V.
But: for months at a time, I thrive on two or three hours of sleep. Instead of sleep, I create. I make. Then, the times I cannot make myself leave the house. I force myself to go into work, and even though I only work three days a week for office hours, I cancel and worry that my secretary judges me.
Another symptom of bipolar disorder is sexual promiscuity. Compulsion.
Impulsivity.
My rejection of the diagnosis shows my lack of self-knowledge.

~

Prowess or desperation for validation? Or do I simply need a tour guide? Or am I lonely?
All of the above, inclusive of contradictions.

~

Like, I only understood that I’m an extrovert recently. Within the last six months.
I want to be an introvert because that’s more fitting of a writer. I want to fit the profile.
I strive for verisimilitude.

~

In W.B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” he describes her as not only as “staggering,” but also “helpless,” “terrified,” and “mastered.”
I tell men I want them to use me.
It is not a master-slave relationship. I’m just a sub. And I have rules.
Most people misunderstand the sub-dom relationship. Subs have the power. In relationships that are trusting enough to practice sub-dom, the sub can halt everything at any time. Otherwise, rape by any name remains rape.

~

The Philosopher says, “I want to eat you now.”
I tell him I have just finished my period. My femininity is gross to me. Afterwards, he says, “I love the way you taste.” His kiss charms me.

~

During anal sex, I often whimper, “It hurts.” I beg, “Please, hurry.” The guy, whoever he might be, first asks me if I want him to stop. Then, he pounds away, harder.
I’m never lying about it. Anal sex often hurts me, but I also want him to think his dick is big. I validate his masculinity.
Usually, there is blood.

~

I hit up three basilicas in an afternoon. I drop Euros into the dark wooden boxes and light tea candles. I pray, but not for forgiveness. I pray for hope.

~

The Philosopher calls me “baby” when he explains that he can’t meet up with me. Later that night, he texts pictures of naked girls in ecstasy. I write back, “Very busy.”
He hasn’t responded to my last six texts, two of which contained embarrassingly sexy pictures.
I feel as rejected as jealous. I feel bad about myself.

~

During sex, I like to be told what to do. I am a complete sub and yearn for violent sex. This is dangerous with strangers.
It’s dangerous in relationships, too.

~

“I don’t like the way that guy looks,” the Economist says. “It’s not safe, you know? You’re a woman. It’s just a feeling.”
Even though he never spends the night with me, I get it that he cares.

~

In The Ethical Slut, the authors contend, “Sluts share their sexuality the way philanthropists share their money: because they have a lot to share, because it makes them happy to share it, because sharing makes the world a better place.”
Although I am an optimist by nature, I don’t believe in altruism. I think everything has a hidden motive, even if it’s just to make yourself feel OK.

~

From the Swan comes the ultimate slut: Helen and her splendid beauty and epic war.

~

Rather than sex, I convince the Postal Worker to have a threesome with the Economist. He’s very nice and I know he wants me. He’s really hesitant about it, asks repeatedly if the other guy is a good guy, says he’s insecure. “Can’t it just be us?” he asks.
He asks, “This is what you want?”
When the Economist shows up, he immediately slaps my face and tells the other guy that I’m just a slut. “Such a slut,” he says. “It turns me on.”
As I deep throat the Economist, the Postal Worker gets dressed. He shakes his head, apologizes, says, “This isn’t right.”
The Economist says some stuff in Italian, which I can’t understand, but the other guy is unconvinced. He moves to leave and I apologize repeatedly.
When it is just the two of us again, I tell the Economist that he was a nice guy. “You came on too strong. I should’ve warned you.”
Always apologetic.

~

I used to teach Intro to Women’s Studies at an all-girls’ college, and I challenged my students to go twenty-four hours without saying, “I’m sorry.”
They all fail. I do, too.
Reflexive femininity; enforced femininity.

~

I want to impress all these men with my body. I want them to think I’m hot.
And if that is not enough, I tell them my occupation: professor. “La professora,” I say. And then I tell them I’m a novelist. And then I show them my Amazon page.
I am impressive, I tell myself—because I am.
And yet, I know they’d fuck me without any of my accomplishments and accolades. I like to imagine them bragging about me to their friends later.

~

An old grad student of mine texts, “Didn’t we already reclaim slut?”

~

“You’re very handsome,” I tell the Philosopher, “and smart.” Correcting me, he says, “I’m a genius.”
“Sure,” I say in agreement.
“But it’s easy to be a genius because my family is wealthy and I can do whatever I please. I just read books and think.”
“So why are you on Tinder?”
He reaches into his shirt to scratch his chest, undoing another button. “I’m a sex addict,” he says flatly. “I need to fuck every day at least once.” I believe him but am not scandalized.
“I’m kidding,” he says. “I like to practice my languages.”
I’m not completely stupid. This one I don’t believe at all. I say, “I almost never understand sarcasm. If you tell me something, I believe you.” Like how he’d told me he likes to smoke cocaine—except that rather excited me. I’d hoped that one was true.

~

I haven’t smoked weed in about a week and am beginning to feel desperate.
I have an arsenal of intoxicants with me—Xanax, Adderall, Oxy, Percocet, magic mushrooms, and maybe three or four doses of GHB that F— gave me in Barcelona—but I can’t find any weed.
“LOL,” I text my friends in the States. “I guess they don’t need it because they live in MF-ing Rome.”
Indeed, the city makes me high, but not high enough.

~

It’s the easy way out: to blame my excessive drug use and promiscuity on being bipolar.
And my non-existent self-control and impulsivity, too.
My mental illness swipes away my bad behavior, gives it a genesis, infuses me with self-loathing.

~

I only go to Villa Borghese because the Philosopher commands it.

~

When I tell my Roman lovers I am a novelist, they always ask me what kind of novels. “Romance?” they ask.
I am offended every time. “No, like literature. Like art. I write art.” “Oh,” they say, but they don’t understand.

~

A couple weeks ago, in New Hampshire, I get a matching tattoo with some writer friends of mine. We get little envelopes on our wrists, and mine is hot pink. The Philosopher points to it, says, “A scarlet letter,” and licks it.

The Hollow Places of the World

The ores of divine providence
are everywhere infused, and
everywhere to be found.
St. Augustine, De Doctrina Cristiana

The margins of the world surrounded me—at least in the physical sense—for hundreds of miles in every direction: a no-man’s land of semi-arid deserts; middles of nowhere; and solitary mountain ranges. I lived in this no-man’s land, in the small town of Elko, Nevada, and worked in its middles of nowhere during the last two years of high school and the first two of college. I spent summers searching for gold in the remote mountains and hills of Nevada, assisting geologists from Newmont Exploration Company. We hiked rocky hillsides covered with gnarled brush and pungent with the smell of juniper and sage. We scoured long-abandoned mining towns and uninhabited landscapes searching for hidden traces of ore. We crisscrossed rugged terrain far removed from towns and highways, accessible only by dirt road or no road at all. When the land became too steep or rugged for a four-wheel drive pick-up, we hiked in with pack mules. The mules hauled our gear: tents, sleeping bags, shovels, metal placer pans, canned and freeze-dried food, water jugs, and rifles. I scooped soil into small canvas bags, labeled them by location and soil type (gritty, loamy, clay-like), and loaded the bags onto the mules. The geologists carried compasses, maps, and binoculars with which to orient us in the vast open spaces. It was big country, country to get lost in, scorched in, or find oneself in.

~

Nevada, western Utah, and southern Idaho comprise a region known as the Great Basin, a semi- arid region in the western United States encompassing some 206,000 square miles, of which 190,000 are desert. The region is bounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the west, the Wasatch Mountains of Utah on the east, the highlands of the Sonoran desert to the south, and the Columbian Plateau to the north. Its rivers and streams have no outlet to the ocean—they flow into one of many salten lakes, where the water stagnates, evaporates into the air, or sinks into the earth, leaving behind alkali flats hostile to life. The mountains and highlands once encircled a small ocean teeming with life. Fifteen thousand years ago, a breach in the land in southern Idaho caused the ocean to drain away through a massive flood with a volume three times the flow of the Amazon River at its mouth. The basin is now dry, silent, and empty, with shrub growth maturing slowly and with difficulty.

Geologists refer to the region as “Basin and Range” due to its intermittent series of mountain ranges running north-south, separated by wide valleys covered with sagebrush, cheatgrass, and Russian thistle (tumbleweed). Author and photographer Stephen Trimble calls the basin a “sagebrush ocean,” stretching boundlessly across the silent uninhabited spaces. The mountain ranges tower over this sagebrush ocean like enormous islands, just as they once rose
out of the watery ocean as real islands.

The region is geologically active. The movement of tectonic plates has stretched the earth’s crust throughout much of the basin, creating hot holes, warm ponds, geysers, steam rising through fissures in the earth, and volcanic seepage. The surface appears calm—serene even—but not far under its crust seething, turbulent energies seek to rise through its attenuated skin. Those intense energies have created a molten brew in which heavy metals such as gold and silver get separated out from other minerals.

Geologists at Newmont were certain gold lay hidden in the hills and mountains of northeastern Nevada, even though prospectors discovered and removed most of the principal veins of gold and silver ore in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In those earlier times mining boom towns sprouted throughout Nevada. They had populations of between 500 and 10,000 people, and were home to opera houses, churches, hotels, newspapers, hardware stores,
grocers, schools and, of course, saloons and whorehouses. Once the ore gave out, the populations dwindled, turning the once-bustling towns into ghost towns. Only a few decaying buildings and mine tailings—the waste ore dug from the mountain side—remain.

Although miners extracted the principal veins of ore, plenty of gold remains hidden in microscopic flecks diffused over a broad area. Newmont hired my friend Warren Hardie and me to help look for it. And we found lots of it, without ever seeing it. Only special assaying can detect it and, until recently, no one knew how to extract it profitably.

Just west of Elko a vein of gold runs northwestward by southeastward through northern Nevada, dipping deep underground at places, rising near the surface in others. The gold is dispersed widely so it is not really accurate to call it a vein; rather, geologists refer to it as a “trend,” the “Carlin Trend” to be precise, named after the small town nearby. The trend does not run in a straight line; it twists and turns as it dives and rises. Around 1960 geologists from Newmont Exploration Company discovered where it rises near enough to the surface to extract, and one of the country’s most profitable gold mines—the Carlin Gold Mine— sprang to life.

During the summer after my freshman year of college Warren and I worked at Bootstrap, a site fifteen miles north of the Carlin gold mine, and the home to a small mining operation in the early twentieth century. Prospectors had followed and extracted a vein of gold that ran horizontally through a large hill that stood alone in a great, broad valley. The tunnel, carved through solid rock, remained. Newmont bought the mineral rights and began assessing its gold
content.

I did mostly grunt work and heavy lifting, but the pleasure of trekking the backcountry of Nevada made the hard work and scorching daytime heat worthwhile. We worked in shifts around the clock throughout most of the summer. I volunteered for the graveyard shift, from 8:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., to avoid the scorching sun of day. At night the temperature in the high desert dipped to 50 degrees Fahrenheit—jacket-wearing temperature—contrasted to the mid 90s during the day. Bootstrap was about an hour and a half drive, each way, from Elko, so Newmont provided a
small trailer for us to live in during the week. The trailer had no air conditioning, though, so the night crew could not sleep in it during the heat of the day. Instead we slept on cots in the old mining tunnel, where it was cool, dark, and silent. A heavy wooden door at the opening sealed the tunnel enough to keep critters out. Only the howling of distant coyotes broke the silence. Sometimes the coyotes came close enough that we could hear their yap-yapping near the door. We were safe within the tunnel, but we kept loaded guns within reach, just in case. The interior of the tunnel presented us with both a temptation to explore and a fear of the unknown. The fear kept us near the opening; none of us ventured into the darkness.

I worked on a drill rig that bored deep into the earth. The rigs used 20-foot steel poles, about five inches in diameter, with a hollow center, to drill down. A steel drill bit was attached to the lower tip of the pole, a bit designed for scouring rock and turning it to dirt. As the drill bore into the ground, an air compressor forced air through the hollow tubes of the poles, blowing the loosened dirt up the shaft to the surface, where I collected it in a tub. I took samples of the soil at five-foot intervals, placed a portion of the dirt in a canvas bag, labeled the bag with a number and, on a separate note pad, noted the depth, color, and consistency of the soil. Once the pole drilled down 20 feet, we attached another to it and continued boring. Each drill rig carried thirty or forty of these poles, so we could drill down 500 to 600 feet if necessary. When the lead bit hit a very hard layer of rock, it wore down, forcing us to raise all the poles out of the ground, one at a time, and replace the steel bit with a diamond one (diamonds are the hardest mineral and can cut through almost anything). Normally we drilled down several hundred feet before moving onto another site fifty yards or so away.

Based on the assay results, geologists created a composite map of the mineral content underground. I marveled at human ingenuity, at the ability to investigate nature, to test, explore,and discover what is beyond the range of our five senses.

I worked with an assistant geologist named Fred Buechel, a gruff, overweight man in his mid-forties. Beuchel had worked for several mining companies before, but had not been promoted to any supervisory role. He was a crank, a heavy drinker, and socially inept. Most of the summer employees disliked his sarcasm and cynicism, but I liked the way he used geological terms as cuss word intensifiers, which I suspected he picked up from reading Mark Twain’s
accounts of Mississippi riverboat pilots. Given his profession, it suited him well. He called prominent land forms by anatomical names (tits, pricks, thumbs, elbows), and sexualized references to digging and drilling into the earth. His language had color. He was once married to a Russian woman he found through an advertisement in the back of some magazine. After receiving her citizenship papers, she divorced him. After that, he despised women. His sole contact with them now was an occasional visit to a whorehouse, which one could find in every town in Nevada. When he went to town for “business,” we knew which one.

~

Warren and I hunted rattlesnakes on occasion (one of the drill rig operators said we could sell their venom for cash because medical researchers used it to produce anti-snake venom). The snakes denned in the cavities of rock outcroppings about 10 miles north of Bootstrap. We took poles made of cut tree branches, about six feet long. The tips, sharpened with our pocket knives,formed a Y-shaped fork that looked like your index and middle finger when you spread them. On our initial hunt we came across the first rattler on the road to the outcropping. It crossed the road in front of us. We jumped out of the pickup and grabbed our poles. The snake, sensing danger, slithered up the embankment on the side of the road and coiled itself into a small cavity near the top. We poked at it with the tips of our poles, arms stretched—a good-sized rattler can bite through a pair of leather boots, so we kept our distance. The poking made it angry and its rattler buzzed frenetically, but it soon slithered off to escape the annoyance. As it crawled, Warren forked it right behind the head, the pointed tips stuck in the ground. With its head immobilized the snake couldn’t strike. The rest of its body writhed, trying to get free, but it couldn’t. Warren grabbed the squirming body with his left hand to hold it still. With his right hand he firmly grabbed the neck just behind the head as I held the Y-prong tight. I removed the pronged stick so he could lift the snake up. I placed a small glass jar up to the snake’s open mouth, its fangs on the inside of the jar and its lower mouth on the outside. The pressure against the fangs forced the snake to secrete its venom into the jar.

We milked five more snakes that day, then let them go. Their venom wouldn’t be replenished for some time, so they weren’t dangerous. Before driving back to Bootstrap, Warren suggested we take a rattler back for Buechel. I knew just what he had in mind. We caught, milked, and killed another snake and took it back to the tunnel. While Buechel was in town “on business” that evening we coiled the snake up inside his sleeping bag, then waited up for his return.

As he got into the bag, he recoiled in panic. “Holy crap! There’s a fucking snake in there!”

When he heard us snickering he cursed up some graphic geology words, which grew in number of syllables as he went.

“Goddamn sons of bitches! I’m going to fire your paleozoic asses! Fucking carboniferous potheads!”

In our spare hours, when we weren’t hunting snakes, we played cards and drank beer. Beuchel shot at wildlife, mostly lone coyotes and jack rabbits. His rugged temperament seemed just right for these places—places for men in dusty boots who broke rock with handpicks and penetrated the earth with drill rigs and bulldozers. Men who passed the tracks of cougar and deer, and kicked away the shed skin of snakes and bleached antlers, without wonder, seeking no
messages, wishing only for a gun. They extracted the gleaming substance of earth, stripped away its mystery, without reverence. I was comfortable among them.

I found solace in the vast, silent spaces, too.

~

The more time I spent in the wide-open country, the more I noticed an austere beauty that awakened an inner recess of my psyche that I had not known was there. Like a long, dark mining tunnel, forbidding but also mysterious, I felt lured to explore its depths. Something subtle drew me, though I barely recognized it at first. A sense of the land’s awesomeness, even sacredness, filtered gradually into my mind. I had no words to describe it at the time, and even if I had, my co-workers, especially Buechel, would have thought me “touched.” Treasure of a different kind, I slowly discovered, can be found in out-of- the-way and unexpected places, even in this seemingly desolate region.

While contemplating the vastness of the landscape, I began to detect something like a primordial power in nature—could I call it Spirit?—that seemed to permeate the countryside. And Spirit is a stealthy hunter. It does not gather in packs to surround you, like coyotes. It does not remain downwind lest you detect its presence. It rides the wind and filters through the grasses, suffusing the quiet, hollow places of the world.

During lunch hour—which for the night shift came around midnight—we shut down the drill rig for an hour. While the other workers took naps in the pick-up trucks, I took solitary walks over the hilltop. I lay on the ground gazing at the stars and listening to the night sounds. I carried a flashlight and a rifle, but on many nights I didn’t need the flashlight; moonlight illumined the way. The distant hills and valleys gleamed like quicksilver. Sometimes I thought I sensed a kind of in- and exhalation of the earth, something living, yet invisible. Is the earth alive? Breathing? Is that possible? It seemed such a mystery, like when you lean over to hear an infant’s soft breath, to detect whether it’s still breathing. When you realize it is—what wonder!

One morning, in the tunnel before we fell asleep, Buechel asked,
“Where the hell do you go during your lunch breaks? You got a coyote sweetheart out there or something?”

I laughed. “I just wander around. Have you ever really observed the country out there in the moonlight? You can see so far. And it’s so quiet. It’s eerie, but beautiful.”

“Beautiful! This desolate place? There’s nothing out there but dust, sagebrush, and coyotes.”

“Yeah, but not just those,” I protested. “There’s beauty, too.”

“Yeah, well what’s that stuff covering your boots and pant legs every day? And what are those thorns in your socks, beauty incarnate?”

I knew just what he meant. The land got so dry it turned powdery. With every step we made, the ground belched a miniature dust cloud that settled on our boots and pant legs. The little burrs from cheatgrass seeds clung to our cotton socks and irritated the skin. We had to stop occasionally to pluck them out.

“But seriously,” I said, “there’s something mind-boggling out there, something mysterious, you know?”

“Oh, Jesus!” he said. “All I see is a bunch of dirt and weeds. Mysterious! You get some
sleep so we can go out tomorrow and find more gold. Then you should go invest in Newmont
and be rich as hell. They’ve found a rich lode, for sure. That’s why they’ve brought in more
workers—to work the drill rigs around the clock.”

“We kind of are already, aren’t we?” I said before he finished speaking.

“Kind of what?” he asked.

“Rich. You know, with all that—I don’t know.” I paused to find the words. “With all that spiritual beauty out there.”

Beauty. Spirit. Nature. All kind of mingled and interwoven in ways that were inexplicable to me, as hidden as those flecks of gold, unless you knew how to look for them.“You’re full of it,” he said as he turned over on his cot. “The earth’s just a lump of inorganic stuff with an itty-bitty covering of organic stuff, that’s all.” I intuited otherwise, but did not have the language with which to express my emerging awareness.

~

I brought my mountain bike to work, and began riding in the evenings before my shift began—wandering aimlessly along dirt roads and cow paths. One weekend I didn’t return to Elko with the others.

“You’re staying here all weekend?” asked Warren. “Alone?”

“Yeah.”

He looked at me, puzzled. “What about Jan? Aren’t you seeing her this weekend?” Jan and I had dated since high school and usually went out together on weekends. “What’s she going to think?”

“If you see her, just tell her I’m working through the weekend.”

“Just tell her he’s a weirdo!” interrupted Buechel, “that he’s got a breccia brain—you take a handful of jagged little rocks and squeeze them together with cement-like mud, and you get a brain like his that doesn’t think too keen. If he wants to stay here and commune with dirt, let him.”

The next day I biked on a gravel road leading northward. After half an hour I reached the top of a rise where I caught sight of a vehicle about ten miles away, heading in my direction—not really the vehicle, but a cloud of dust billowing upward from a moving point on the road. The dust formed an elongated cloud held aloft by air currents before gradually spreading out and floating back to the ground. I did not want to eat that dust, so I left the road and biked over the untrodden countryside: across creases in the land, through tall sagebrush and Russian thistle that scratched my legs and ankles. I stopped at the edge of a narrow ravine and climbed down it, wondering if I could discern something of its history. Had it formed from the waters of ancient streams, or had the earth cracked and split like wood drying too fast? I rode from one rise to another, horizon to horizon, criss-crossing the valley in a general northward direction, just to see how far the unbounded space could go before I reached something human—a fence, a ranch house, an east-west road, anything. Such a boundless land. An inner void, filling slowly with something I didn’t know, opened as I gazed on the ever-receding horizon. A void at once frightening and comforting. I couldn’t explain it.

I came to a large rock outcropping surrounded by brush. One side of the outcropping had a large overhang about six feet up, creating a shady spot—a good place to crawl into and have lunch. I wriggled through the brush on all fours until I got under the ledge, and sat with my back against the rock. It was utterly quiet except for a breeze whispering through the brush. A few bird feathers and bones of small animals were scattered here and there. A hawk must use this place for lunch, too. Good choice. I wondered if any other human had sat here. Probably not. As I drank water from my canteen, I imagined this recessed nook as a kind of sacred space, and thought this: around the hollow, sacred spaces revolves the busy world that, uneasy with a presence unseen, refuses to know its own quiet center (or at least some inchoate thought that I later translated into those words). I sat still in the nook, listening. The wind whirled about, raw and pure; it filtered through the brush, gently, rhythmically. The place was lonely; severe; comfortable.

During my walks and bike rides I began collecting the sheddings and remains of animals: deer antlers, snake skins, golden eagle and hawk feathers, and dry animal bones bleached by the sun. I hung them from the timber just inside the doorway of the tunnel. I hung the jar of snake venom, too (we never bothered to find out where we could sell it). Buechel pretended to scorn my decorations, but I knew he liked them because on one occasion he brought me a badger skull to hang.

“Here’s something for your freak art show,” he said, and tossed me the skull. A few days later he brought a coyote tail he’d cut from one of his kills. I hung it with the rest.

One day Warren and I were assigned a double shift—all night and the next day. We gouged soil samples from the wall of a ten-foot deep trench dug out by a Caterpillar. After a few hours in the mid-July sun we needed a break. I sat in the last sliver of shade against one wall of the trench. A hard, pointed rock, barely above the surface and hidden by a layer of dirt, jammed into my tail bone. Unwilling to give up the only shady spot around, I began to dig it out. It was firmly lodged. Digging further, I discovered a horn-shaped object extruding from a large boulder below. It was of a different material than the rock, yet encrusted to it. Could it be the petrified horn of some ancient animal? It was too thick to be a deer or antelope antler; more like a bull’s horn. Yet if buried ten feet underground it must have been deposited there millennia ago,long before cattle came to this part of the world. Perhaps a buffalo horn? No, it had spiral-like wrinkles around it. It didn’t look like any horn I’d seen. I chipped off the extrusion from the rock with a hand pick and stuck it in my ruck sack. In the evening I showed it to Buechel.

“Do you have any idea what this is?” I asked.

He turned it over a couple of times, spat on it, then wiped off the wet dirt with his shirt tail. His facial hair showed several days of growth. He wiped sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief, then examined the object with a magnifying glass.

“Coral,” he said. “Coral rugosa to be exact.”

“Coral? Here? I thought coral grew on the ocean floor, in the tropics.”

“It does. Hundreds of millions of years ago, this place used to be under a tropical ocean.”

“Oh, come on. You’re pulling my leg.”

“No, I’m not,” he said. “The slow movement of tectonic plates shifted the continent way up here. That’s a piece of coral, all right, probably from the Devonian period.”

“When was that?”

“About 400 million years ago, give or take a few years.” Buechel was a crank, but he knew his geological history.

“So was this thing alive at the same time as the dinosaurs?”

“Earlier. About 150 million years earlier.” He paused a while. “If you go over to the Toquima Mountain Range, you’ll see plant fossils that are 600 million years old. And I’ll tell you something else. Someday the valleys in the Great Basin will be filled with ocean water again. This entire basin is stretching and expanding, just like the Atlantic basin did after North America separated from North Africa. Eventually the stretching will open a breach to the Pacific Ocean—maybe in southern California, maybe in northern California— but when it does, this will be ocean again and a big chunk of California will be an island. The Humboldt River and all the smaller streams will have an outlet to the ocean instead of emptying into alkali flats. That’s inevitable. Probably not before we get the gold out of this hill, though.” Beuchel, it seemed, knew something about the geological future, too. How could someone who knew the deep history of this land not see beauty in it?

I held the coral up to have a close look. “So this thing lived 400 million years ago?”

“Yeah. Maybe only 398 million.”

“Ah, so it’s not very old, then.”

“Nah. Not much older than your mama,” he said.

“Your mama, maybe,” I said as I tied a string around a wrinkle of the coral and hung it along with the coyote tail, deer antlers, and other items. I pondered my decorations.

“Could any of these animals hanging here have descended from this coral? You know,
maybe the coral evolved into an animal and one of these things is its descendent,” I said.

“Probably not, but you might be, with that fucking precambrian fossil brain of yours.”

~

It was the night of the full red moon of August. We had finished our work at Bootstrap several weeks earlier. We knew it was time to move on when the big yellow earth movers started arriving. Mining engineers, geologists, and surveyors wandered the hillside, surveying, calculating, pointing things out to one another on maps and drawings. Newmont would soon blast the hill with dynamite and shovel loads of earth into the giant trucks, which would haul the ore to the Carlin Gold mine for crushing and heap-leaching.

In a typical heap-leach operation, miners remove tons of ore from hillsides or open pits, crush it into dirt, and pile it onto clay or plastic liners. They then spray large quantities of cyanide solution over the ore. As the cyanide percolates through the layers of dirt, it draws microscopic flecks of gold and extracts up to ninety-seven percent of it from the rest of the ore. This “pregnant” solution concentrates at the bottom of a drainage system, where the miners distill and process it further. We completed our work without seeing a speck of gold. Buechel had predicted Newmont would find a rich lode; the increased activity and earth movers confirmed it.

Newmont sent Buechel and me to the Prospect Mountains in central Nevada, just south of Eureka—a nineteenth-century boom town now turned into a lethargic community of around 350 inhabitants. As we drove through town we noticed a handful of old-timers sitting on benches in front of decaying buildings.

“What do you think these old guys do all day long?” I asked.

“They probably reminisce about the old days and hope a new deposit of gold gets discovered so the town can spring back to life with saloons and whorehouses.”

Buechel and I explored the region surrounding Prospect Peak, the highest mountain in the range at 10,400 feet, and the site of significant mining operations in the 19th century. Extensive tailings fanned out from the mouth of several tunnels. Tons of dirt had been removed, so the tunnels went in deep, perhaps forming honey-combs inside the mountain. We planned to spend two weeks there.

I collected soil samples at 100 foot intervals while Buechel analyzed rock outcroppings and applied drops of chemicals to the dirt I dug up. He smelled and licked chips of rock he broke off with his hand pick, tasting for hints of certain minerals. We worked our way gradually over a nine square mile area, with frequent stops, side trips around ravines, and slow climbs up the mountainside. Because of Buechel’s weight, he had to take it slow. We pitched a tent alongside a spring, and in the evenings gathered firewood, and cooked our meals. We hunted cottontail or grouse for dinner.

The alpine terrain, well above the sagebrush zone, boasted rich grasses, berries, pinyon pine, wildflowers, and springs—good country for sheep-grazing. We chanced upon a flock almost daily. A Basque sheepherder made a point of visiting us regularly, glad for human contact. He spent nights alone in a metal-covered wagon stationed near the bottom of the canyon. He rode up the mountain on horseback each day to check on the flocks and share wine with us
from a leather bota. He spoke little English, so we conversed in pidgin and by gesture.

One morning Beuchel and I discovered two dead sheep lying in the brush. We walked over to have a closer look. As we approached we saw others. Three. Four. Five. Then many others, twenty-three in all. Dead sheep strewn everywhere.

“What the hell happened here?” I asked.

“Dunno,” said Buechel. “Maybe they ate some poisonous plants clustered in the area.”

Later that day, we met the sheepherder and pointed out the site to him. On the following day rangers from the Fish and Wildlife Service came to inspect the scene. They determined a lone mountain lion had killed them, not for food, but for sport. None of the sheep—not one—had been eaten.

Buechel and I did not sleep in the tent that night or out in the open, knowing a killer was
on the loose. We slept in one of the mining tunnels on the side of Prospect Peak. Its shabby
wooden door closed well enough. We kept our loaded rifles nearby.

~

The night witch set loose by the full moon forbade me sleep. I lay for a long time on the cot, pondering the great expanse of geological time and our minuscule span of life within it. Though just a microscopic fleck within its enormity, I felt a strange kindredness toward it. I wanted to walk about, but dared not because of the cougar. I decided to explore the tunnel instead. I put on my boots, grabbed a flashlight and rifle, and walked into the darkness.

I shone light on the walls and felt the layers of earth, one upon another. How old are these rocks? If an ancient coral fossil ten or twelve feet below the surface was 400 million years old, how old was this rock deep inside the mountain? A billion? It boggled the mind.

The tunnel went straight into the mountain for at least a hundred yards, then branched off in three directions. I took the branch on the right, the wider one. After another hundred feet or so,the tunnel descended steadily, deeper into the darkness. More branches. Then cross branches. Again I took the larger one, reasoning it would be the main branch. By following the larger tunnel consistently I should be able to find my way back. After a time, the air became tight. It grew warmer. Another branch veered to the left.

I began following a rise. The vein of ore must have trended horizontally, then twisted downward before gradually ascending. Walking became labored, breathing more difficult, though I was used to climbing hills. I stopped frequently to catch my breath. Altitude sickness? I felt a momentary disorientation. What if I got lost in this maze of passageways? Would Buechel think to look for me here? He was accustomed to my nighttime walks; he would assume
I had gone outside; would look for me in the morning, and wonder if the mountain lion had dragged me off to its lair.

What would happen if I died in here? Would they find me? If not, I imagined two endings. One was this: if Newmont found gold, they would tear down this mountain and my remains would end up in a heap-leach pile, dissolved by cyanide. The second was less dispiriting. The earth’s movement would close the tunnel and fuse my bones with Devonian or Ordovician rock. Some geologist would discover them ten million years from now and place them on exhibit as an example of a primitive hominoid form. Viewers would speculate on what thoughts I might have had, and what dreams and promises I never fulfilled. Would they be able to deduce from DNA that I had thoughts and dreams? Could scientists, by then, recreate my memories—such as bike rides toward a boundless horizon? Could they recreate the wonder and mystery of that?

I continued along the passageway. If I got lost I could shout for help from Buechel—if he could hear me, anyway. I imagined him banging on a placer pan repetitively, and I would follow the sound back. That image led to a curious question, given the circumstances. Would I even want to shout for help from Beuchel? Would death be any worse than the smirk on his face when I found my way back? I could hear his words, “Hey, Tonto, did you find some creature back there with an Archaean brain like yours?” Yet, I knew he would worry.

Soon I noticed a musty, acrid smell. And foul. Was it the odor of death? It grew stronger. Soon I entered a widened chamber, a small cavern of sorts. I shone light all around. There were bat droppings agglomerated on one side wall. They spread onto the floor, rank and hot, the outer layer still moist. Ghoulish stuff. I started to turn back, but then noticed there were no bats. They must be outside, hunting insects. There had to be an opening somewhere nearby. How else could they get out? I continued past the chamber. Soon a hint of outside air mingled with the musty, stale air of the tunnel. As the outside air became stronger I perceived a soft light up ahead. It came from an opening above, right where the tunnel came to an abrupt end.

A wooden ladder, old and decrepit, rose to the opening. Why did the miners use this opening? They couldn’t have hauled ore out through here. An escape route, probably. Two of the ladder’s rungs were missing, others were creaky. I pressed against it, shook it, pulled on the rungs within reach, stood on the bottom one. It was usable. I carefully ascended.

Outside, the full moon glowed fiery orange, not far above the eastern horizon. I walked to the top of Prospect Peak to get the best view, and peered over what seemed the edge of the world. To the north a few dim lights from Eureka shone in the distance. In all directions the sky extended limitlessly and the earth seemed to stretch out with it. The great valley below waited expectantly, like a womb, to be filled with glory. There was a mountain range thirty miles beyond, and another, ninety miles, stretching like millennia over the vast empty spaces. The moon’s light bathed the earth in a soft amber sheen like the lustre of the ocean just after sunset,or before sunrise. Yes, yes, Spirit hovers over these boundless spaces. Seeps in and fills them. The great valleys are like lungs through which it breathes in and out, rhythmically, glacially. The moonlight was gold, space was infinite, and Spirit rested patiently, everywhere. I knew this, though I was unschooled in things spiritual. Something broad and expansive filled me. And I intuited this, too: the long decades and distances between saints are too much. We no longer expect to hear, out of those silent spaces, a word that will bless.

The Chevra

chevra kadisha (Hevra kadishah) (Aramaic: קדישא חברא), Ḥebh’ra
Qaddisha
Jewish “holy society” for thepreparation of the dead for burial

 

1.

I want to write about my mother’s life as if she is alive again, as if she never died. But I have not seen her in over twenty years. I have forgotten the way she used to hold her lips, the way she bent to retrieve small items from the floor, the way she looked at me when I had done something wrong. She’s been dead a long time.

She was very tall, more than six feet. By the end of her life, she weighed no more than eighty pounds, but even in the good years, she was thin. She could run faster than anyone I knew. She smoked cigarettes. She had long fingernails and wore stilettos and she made all her own clothing, including the bras.

When I wrote to the man with whom she had a long-term affair, several years after she died, he denied ever knowing her. When I confronted him with photographs, with his nickname, Fishface, he admitted knowing her just a little. She led a “very alternative” lifestyle, he said. He said he liked the mini dress she wore that had large lime green spots on it.

My mother made that dress for my grandfather’s funeral. Everyone else came dressed in black. My father would have loved this dress, she said. She was barefoot. Her black hair touched her bum.

She was angry that her father died so young. I am angry that my mother died so young too. At least she got to go to the funeral.

I have put in my order, with God, to live until I am ninety-seven.

 

2.

I work for the Chicago Chevra Kaddisha, washing elderly Jewish women who have died without relatives, getting them ready for their burial.

I think of this as my pact with God. I’ve got your back. Make sure You’ve got mine.

The time in the rooms with the dead is quiet time, without minutes. The clock never moves. In those rooms, the presence of the dead hangs like a swollen purple mid-summer cloud, ready to burst at any moment. I look up as I work, expecting to see raindrops coming down in huge wet splats on my face but instead there are those appalling industrial tiles, the kind with thousands of dusty holes that are said to absorb unwanted sounds.

The dead make sounds. They don’t mean to. But the processes of the body do not need a brain to tell them what to do.

Sometimes, when I work, I do not need a brain to tell me what to do either.

For a long time after my mother died, my brain lay down and went to sleep, even though I continued, on the outside, to look like an ordinary teacher or a librarian or an artist or a mother or whatever it was that I was being (not knowing) at that moment.

 

3.

The phone rang in the middle of the night. Never answer a phone that rings in the middle of the night. That sorrowful screaming on the other end of the line is not meant for human ears.

My brother was a teenager. He lived in a drug house at the edge of the city. His property had been repeatedly stolen from him. He forgot to pay whoever needed paying. The house was demolished soon afterwards, to make way for a highway, but at that time, at the time when he called me in the middle of the night to tell me that my mother was dead, the house wore a condemned notice, and the boys who lived there lifted a corner of the iron sheet that had been stapled over the back door and slipped inside.

I said NO. I said No and no and no no no, but it didn’t change anything, this disagreement of mine, because my mother didn’t stop being dead.

 

4.

The Chevra Kaddisha does not get paid for their work. The phone call comes in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning or just as you are about to give birth and an anonymous voice on the other end of the line asks you if you are available to help and if you are, if you aren’t pregnant or menstruating or divorced or generally otherwise occupied, the voice tells you where to go and what time to get there and then it hangs up and now you have a dead person to take care of, someone you have probably never known and definitely, now, will never know.

Two other women meet you outside, and you all look sheepish, because you are about to do this thing without words, and knowing that, it’s hard to say anything at all, even before.

You put on plastic coats and gloves and booties. You fill buckets with water. You find combs and orange sticks and make-up remover and rubbish bins.

You glance at her paperwork:

No known relatives

You glance at her arm:

Blue numbers

I don’t go to Australia when my mother dies. I sit on the floor and cry every day. I miss the funeral. My brain is asleep so I don’t care that no one writes to tell me what the funeral was like. It’s less than three weeks since I returned from Australia, I was told that my mother had at least six months to live, I have her ethical will in my pocket and it says that I should choose kindness over beauty, pain over deceit. Seven months after she dies, my brother will send me her diary and there will only be one entry in it, on July 16th. The year isn’t indicated.

In Katanning, the locals thought I had an affair. I was boarding in a home in the town while I did my student teaching. They thought I was screwing the husband. It wasn’t true, but you can’t convince small towns of anything.

Twenty years after my mother dies, my brother will casually tell me, as if I have always known, that the love of my mother’s life was a woman who had a home at the edge of the glittering Swan River. I will be sitting outside, in my car, on a moonless spring night and I will have just told my brother that I am seeing a woman who I think might end up being my wife. In the tender velvet darkness, I will remember going to the river with my mother, every Tuesday evening, and feeding the swans with stale bread while she went inside to talk with her friend.

I would like my mother’s love back. There has only ever been one person who knew all of me and loved me anyway.

 

6.

On May 5th, 2000, I give birth to my daughter, Chana. It is the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death.

It was hot in my bedroom as I was labouring. My husband was away in Spain. The midwife sat in the second rocking chair, saying nothing. Time didn’t pass. At one point, I said I was exhausted. I said I don’t want to do this anymore, and Kay, the midwife, said Excellent. Looks like we are having us a baby.

The phone rang and it wasn’t my husband. It was the Chevra Kaddisha, looking for a third woman, to help at a Tahara. I was engaged in my own struggle with death/life/breaking/opening. I said no, because I say no to almost anything that comes over the phone.

I wanted my mother to be there with me. I wanted her to meet her eight grandchildren and love them. I thought about her story of how I was born, on a Saturday afternoon near a football field, and how she had thought the cheering was for her efforts to push me out. I had not been home in ten years. I had never visited her grave. I was afraid of it.

 

7.

Once, it was not an old Jewish woman lying on the wooden boards, but a young girl, a child, with black and blue marks around her neck. The Chevra do not speak. We cannot. If we need something, we indicate it with our hands or our eyes. But that time, with that child, we spoke, because our eyes were full.

Sometimes people die holding things in their hands and their fingers close over whatever it is. We do not bury people with anything except their naked skin and simple linen shrouds. If they die with something in their hands, we warm up the flesh with a towel soaked in hot water, and then gently uncurl the fingers and remove the item.

My mother died with a photograph of me under her nightgown, clutched against her heart.  They took her down to the morgue, not knowing the photograph was there, but somehow, the photograph fell out of her hands and cracked on the floor. I wouldn’t have known this except my cousin, who was a medical salesman, went into the morgue at that hospital and saw my photograph, with a crack running across my face, on the wall. That’s Goldie, he said. What’s she doing here?

My daughter Chana was born with the cord around her neck twice and a true knot that threatened to strangle her. Her neck was black and purple before it faded to green and then to yellow. Pant, said the midwife, while I get the cord off her neck. No bloody way, I said. You’re not getting this train to stop.

 

8.

My Auntie Roz called me from Australia to wish me mazal tov on Chana’s birth. Oh and by the way, she said at the end of the conversation, you are going to have to come and pick up your mum. She’s been out in my shed with Rob, but I’m planning on moving. Don’t blame your brother, Roz said. Pete wasn’t up to burying her. I haven’t found a place for Rob yet either.

Uncle Rob died a few months after my mother, also of cancer.

Roz lived up on the Darling Range, outside Perth, in a house Rob built with his own two hands. Once, the bath he’d installed fell through the floor with Roz inside it. It fell down about twelve feet, landed on the rocky mountainside and skidded down to the waterfall at the bottom of their block. Roz was forty-eight when that happened. She was forty-nine when my mum and Rob both died. Her best friend, who was also my mum’s best friend, Bev, died the same year, a horrible year, also of cancer.

“What do you mean, my mum’s not buried?” I asked. I worked for the Chevra Kaddisha and one of the principals of Jewish burial is that we get people into the ground within about twenty-four hours of the death. At the time, my mum had not been buried for over ten years.

Your brother is a procrastinator, Roz said.

 

9.

I went to Australia then. The place my brother lives is considered to be the furthest place in the world from Chicago. It’s famous as the most isolated city in the world, and after I arrived, I was planning on driving out into the bush for another three hours, to bury my mum.

I put your mum under some roses, my Auntie said and though I pictured a beautiful garden with wisteria overhead, and the scent of lemons on the wind, mum was actually out in an old shed in a box underneath dozens of shattered roses that must have been there the entire ten years.  Uncle Rob was in the box on the trestle next to her. He’d have had a slightly more advantageous view of the loquat tree if he still had eyes.

I tried not to think that in that box was my mum, because, of course, my mother wasn’t really in that box.

 

10.

We start at the head. The woman is covered, always, with a clean sheet, and the Chevra lift only enough of the sheet to gently wash the body. The water is warm. The cloths are soft. The movements are slow and quiet. I wash the woman’s hair and comb it out. Each hair that becomes tangled in the comb is removed and put into a cloth bag. If there is blood on her body, we will remove it with a small piece of damp cotton fabric and this too will be placed into the bag and the bag will be put into the aron, the plain pine box that stands in one corner of the room, waiting.

A Tahara begins, though, with a wish. I wish that everything I do will be done with kindness and respect. When this thought leaves my mind, I stop whatever I am doing and refocus my intentions.

Her right side is washed first and then the left. Head, arm, hand, torso, leg, foot. Each small section of her body is dried with squares of cloth before being covered again. When I come to her hands, I hold them within my own, for a moment longer than necessary. This is the last time someone will hold these hands. When I lift the body for the purification, I become the last to hug this woman, the last person who will know the exact shape of her in this world. The dead are as light as birds. They almost lift themselves and fly up to the ceiling.

The last time I held my mother’s hands was in Perth airport, on Sunday, April 16th at 10:20 in the morning. I had been told it was safe to fly back to the United States, that my mother would live for another six months. She had pushed me to go spend the Passover holiday with my new husband and yet, even then, I knew. I was completely certain that I would never see my mother again.

Her hands were large. Her skin was soft, as soft as a warm summer night. The bones within her body felt like old roses and they were as fragile. I held her hands for many moments longer than necessary. I could not make myself let go. The flight attendant called my name again and again. My brother touched me on the shoulder and said You can come back.

My mother put a letter into my pocket. She told me it was her ethical will. She told me not to read it until the plane had passed Adelaide. Goodbye, she said. I love you, she said. I will always love you, she said.

 

11.

The midwife told me that if I ask my children what they remember from before they are born, sometimes, if asked young enough, they say extraordinary things.  I asked my son. He said he remembered a warm beach and a beating red sun. He was three. I asked my daughter and she said she remembered her twin kicking her. She was two and a half.  I asked Chana, when she was three years old, and she said I was your mother and you were my little girl and I used to take you down to see the boats.

Until that moment, I had forgotten that my mother used to take me to watch the ocean liners leaving Fremantle Harbour. They come back, she said, but I only ever saw them leave.

 

12.

My brother, Pete, met me at Auntie Roz’s house, to load Mum into the back of the car. You are angry at me, he said. No, I’m not, I said. I am sad. So very very sad that Mum has been here all this time and I didn’t know.

My brother picked loquats for us to eat while we waited for my uncle to bring the small piece of marble he’d carved for Mum’s grave. He held the fruits out to me in his big scarred hands. Nespole, I said to my brother, because I could think of nothing else to say. In Italy, these are called nespole and you can buy them in the open-air markets in the south. The juice, sour and flesh-coloured, ran down my chin and small droplets fell onto my shirt, saturating the fabric. I wiped my chin with my hand and then I wiped my hand on the back of my thigh. I did not have gloves. I did not have small squares of clean soft cloth for this process. I did not have my book of prayers. All I had was my intention to remember, the wish to do everything with kindness and with respect.

Mama. In Italy, the small children cry mama mama in the streets and women come out of their houses and kiss these children and lift them up and hold them. In Italy, when a death is announced, the newspapers have a thick black border, and in the rural cemeteries, fresh candles are placed on the graves and lit, every evening, and they burn through the night, illuminating the graveyards with the most mysterious and shifting of lights.

 

13.

When my mother died, I stopped calling her mum and began to call her mama.

Mama mama mama

 

14.

We fill three buckets with warm water. We pour the water in a single, continuous stream, from the head to the foot, first on the right, then on the left and then in the center. The woman on the wooden boards, briefly, looks as if she has just been born, fresh and wet and new, and then we dry her again and she returns to being a dead person. We dry from her head to her feet, from the right to the left. When she is fully covered, we lay out the tachrichim, the shrouds in which she will be dressed.

The dead wear the same garments as the High Priest. They wear the same fine linen pants and the same fine linen shirt and the same apron and the same hood. The best linen, when you touch it, is cold.

 

15.

Pete and I drive in silence on the way to the Wongan Hill Cemetery.  My brother’s car cannot be put into reverse or it blows a fuse that controls the air conditioning, the power windows, the radio, the lights and all of the engine gauges. When we stop for petrol in New Norcia, Pete forgets and reverses away from the pump. Fuck, he says, and he hits the steering wheel. I am so fucking sick of this bloody car. He pulls out the ruined fuse and tosses it onto the floor where there are at least a hundred other blown fuses, but then he can’t find a replacement. Well, that’s the air-con, he says. Carked it. Shame we can’t even roll the windows down, he says, though the bloody temperature has got to be in the nineties.

In the heat, the box in the back begins to emit an odour, and now we are both sure that we can hear something that sounds like chopsticks, the faint tap of bones, one against the other. Jes-us, Pete says and then he looks at me. Sorry, he says. It’s your fault, I say. Why didn’t you bury her?

In response, he stops the car, yanks open my door and breaks out my window with mum’s marble headstone. There you go, he says. Fresh air.

He’s not a violent man. He does all this quietly. Calmly. Respectfully. I really am sorry, he says. Mum hated getting hot, he says. I know, I say. In the back, the bones continue to click together and now, more than anything, it sounds as if someone is knitting back there. Neither of us wants to turn around.

 

16.

My mother said that human lives are divided into three sections. The first twenty years are the years of learning. The second twenty years are the years of family. And the third twenty years are the years of exploration.

She said that when she retired, she would get a ticket to China and she would walk, barefoot, from one end of the country to the other. For a woman who prepared for everything, it is strange that she did not have a Chinese phrase book in the bathroom, a map of the Great Wall above her bed.

Right before she was diagnosed with lung cancer, she sold her business and went to live in the far north of Western Australia with a man who had one eye. He mined for gold. She planted tropical palms and wrote letters to me, with drawings of parrots around the edges. When I called home, I had to first radio the Royal Flying Doctor in Port Hedland and ask for Nine Whiskey Echo Victor.

She didn’t get twenty years for exploration. She didn’t get twenty years to walk across China. She got less than a year of drawing parrots and planting palms. And then she got ten years in a shed at the bottom of a garden with my very shy uncle.

 

17.

When the tahara is finished, the chevra stand next to the coffin and they silently ask the dead woman for forgiveness.

I didn’t mean to forget you, we say. I didn’t mean to hurt you or shame you or be unkind.

Please forgive me.

 

18.

We take turns digging a hole in the hard red dirt for my mother’s box. We can’t dig deeper than three feet because below the red dirt there is hard red rock. There are no trees to shade us. Blood-coloured ants scuttle across the disturbed earth. A magpie sits on the top rail of the cemetery gate and says something that sounds like quardleoodlardloo. My uncle’s marble stone has been engraved with the wrong date, or maybe it’s the wrong name. Something is wrong about it, and we stand there and stare at the stone for a very long time before Pete jams it into the dirt. What a fuck up this has been, my brother says.

Typical bloody mum, he says. Terrorizing us in the car. She’d get a kick out of that, I say. Knitting the whole way up here, she was, he says. Another blanket, I say. For when the weather drops into the eighties. You reckon this grave thing will be orright, Pete asks. We’re screwed if she doesn’t like it, I say. Remember when she said she’d prove to us there was a world to come, remember? That’s all we need, an angry spirit chasing us down the track. Flinging bloody knitting needles after us.

Before she died, my mother said that if she could, she would prove to us that there is a world after this one. She said she was smarter than average, and she’d leave us a sign and Pete and I had both laughed. Yeah, we said. As if.

But then there was one morning soon after she died when it was raining, and I, in the United States, was walking next to the river, feeding the swans some bread, and talking about how my mother loved to walk next to the river and fish, and there was a bush covered in honeysuckle and that was my mother’s favourite flower, and then a cloud of hummingbirds flew out of the flowers. Oh, I said! Oh! My mother would be so happy to be here this morning. When I got home from the walk, Pete was calling me from Australia. I just had the most beautiful walk, he said. Next to the river, feeding the swans. It was raining, he said, and I talked about how mum loved to fish. And there was a bush, he said, covered in honeysuckle, and a cloud of hummingbirds flew out of the bush, and oh! Wouldn’t Mum have loved that?

We told that story standing at the edge of a fresh pile of dirt with a bit of marble stuck into the top. One edge of the box stuck up out of the ground and Pete mashed it down with his boot. He bent and patted the crushed box. Sorry Mum, he said. I’m so bloody sorry. Ten years, I said. Can you believe she’s been gone for ten years? She was a good mum, Pete said and we both started crying. And of course the wind picked up and pelted us with tiny sticks and bits of bark and tattered leaves from the years before, and then the wind dried our tears to salt tracks on our dusty faces. Yeah, I said. She really was.

 

What is There, What is Missing

I am The Weird Girl. The Freak. The Barfy Little Feeb. I have glasses and thin white hair that drizzles over my shoulders like dandelion fluff.

I am the smallest kid in the 5th grade.

I stand in front of the mirror that used to be my mother’s mirror, and I can see her: With her long dark curls and frosted pink lips, swiveling this way and that, admiring herself.

“When I was your age,” she likes to say, “I had lots of friends.”

I guess my mom thinks this is helpful. That hearing about the great times she had as a kid will inspire me to create my own great times.

Either that, or she wants me to hate her.

I can’t decide.

~

I pull my hair down over my forehead, looping it around in a U-shape.

I want bangs.

I want thick caramel-colored bangs like Sarah W. Soft yellow wings like Sarah B. Wisps, straight and light as matchsticks, like Sarah M.

Of course, my bangs won’t be like the Sarahs’. They’ll want to break rank and divide down the center. They’ll want to curl up over my forehead and disappear like smoke.

But that’s okay. I couldn’t be like the Sarahs, even if I tried. I’m shy. I’m quiet. When I’m not paying attention, my features seem to arrange themselves in a scowl.

This has nothing to do with my brother dying – it’s just my face.

~

The Sarahs stand around in skintight jeans, performing complicated maneuvers with great masses of shiny hair.

They wear candy-colored lip gloss and matching gold charm bracelets that say “Best Friends Forever” in big bubble letters. If you want to get to the bathroom, you have to pass their table.

They talk in whispers, but their laughter is sharp and dangerous, like broken glass.  

~

I sit against the back fence with the Fat Girl.

We are not “Best Friends Forever.”

We are not really friends at all.

We are like flies caught in the same web, pretending we are not flies and that there is no web, all while furiously plotting our escape.

I hate the Fat Girl.

I hate how she cries when Peter B. calls her Pushin’ Cushion.

I hate how she smells like baby powder.

I hate the frilly pink ribbons in her hair, and how her eyes look like two blueberries pressed into dough. I hate how she fakes being sick so she can stay home from school. When she’s sick, I have to stand at the fence alone.

I hate that most of all.

~

For reasons she cannot quite explain, my mother is totally against the idea of bangs. She meets my repeated requests with a steely resolve that makes her mouth turn down at the corners, like dead-end roads.

“Absolutely not. You have a lovely forehead.”

“Everyone has bangs, Mom. Everyone.”

She dismisses this argument with a wave of her hand. “Those girls at school are just jealous.”

My mother is a former beauty queen from a city in the Northwest. She lives on another planet, where girls like the Sarahs secretly kneel by their beds at night and pray that their moms will buy them tomato red cords and furry purple jackets, so they can be friendless little pukes. Like me.

~

I make my first cut and then watch as the hair explodes into the space in front of me; a constellation of tiny white stars that almost makes me smile.

These scissors do not make the airy whir-whir sound of hummingbird wings. Not even close. Instead, they creak and stick at weird intervals, and then at the last instant, fling open, nicking the side of my hand.

Unfortunately for me, these are the only scissors in the house. My mother shops all the time, spending money with the kind of manic glee familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a game show, but you could drive a truck through the blind spots. Like, say, if you want to brush your teeth with actual toothpaste, or wipe your nose on anything other than your sleeve, well then, you’re out of luck. But if you’re crazy for junky old tins or busted wooden chairs or antique typewriters with missing keys, then this place is a freakin’ goldmine.

Meanwhile, I take baths in a tub so gritted with dirt, hair, and human scum that I imagine another kid will just rise up out of the tub one day, fully-formed, ready to take my place.

Open our fridge and you’ll find half-eaten strawberries swimming in globs of spaghetti sauce, carton after carton of curdled milk, chicken drumsticks with tight green Afros.

Fleas, mice, dust bunnies the size of feral cats. I try to help – no one notices, but I do. I’ll scrub the bathroom or do a half dozen loads of laundry, but the next day there is just another mess and more piles of laundry, so I guess I am with my mother on this one: After a while, it’s just kind of hard to see the point.

~

My dad says I would make a good spy because I keep things locked up tight: my diary, my smile, my heart.

I think I would make a good spy because I can listen to that stupid pie-faced teacher’s aide, Miss Hybarger, talk about her dead grandmother, and how she still cries for her sometimes (“Because crying is a good thing…a really good thing!”). And I can smile and nod, while I am secretly driving a stake through that sad crease in her brow, the one that says, “I care about you,” and “How are you feeeelllinnnggg?”

Ha. A dead grandmother. Give me a freakin’ break. I could take a hundred dead grandmothers. In polyester and pearls. Stacked up like kindling outside my door.

Anyway, I am sure it would disappoint Miss Hybarger to no end, but I don’t cry about my brother. I don’t talk about him, either. In fact, I try not to think about him at all.

I dream about him though.

I dream I am walking up the hill to the place where he died. The hill is very steep and very long, and there are trees on all sides, standing should to shoulder, like angry giants blocking out the sun.

Halfway up, I see my brother’s yellow Schwinn leaning against an old shed. I stop to run a finger over the cracked seat, the broken bell, the dark blue license plate screwed to the handlebars that reads, “KELLY.”

I consider riding the bike home, but then decide against it. The handlebars are too high and I can barely reach the pedals. And besides, I am pretty sure they don’t want me playing with his stuff anymore.

So I keep going, even though the whole time I am walking I am really, really scared because I know what I am going to find. And at the top of the hill, under the low cradling branch of a sycamore tree, I find it: in blue Converse high-tops and a red flannel button-down. My big brother.

Blond head smashed in like a melon.

~

I cut and cut but it’s not bangs, or wisps, or anything at all really. Just a few short pieces sticking out over my left eyebrow, like tiny little exclamation points shouting, “Surprise!”

I’ve already used up everything in front, so I pull a fistful of hair from the top and another from the sides. My bangs are just going to have to start a little further back, that’s all. This is because my hair is, “super, super fine,” which is really just my mom’s way of saying that it’s thin.

According to her, my brother got the best hair.

Also, the best skin, the prettiest eyes, and the sweetest disposition.

Which, if you do the math, doesn’t leave a whole lot left over.  Not that I have to do the math.

~

Sometimes I hear my parents discussing me.

My mother says, “She should talk more. Take an interest in other kids. Ask them about their hobbies.”

As if 5th grade was some giant cocktail party, and I just needed to work the room a little more.

My dad says, “It’s a tough time,” and “Those kids don’t know what they’re missing.”  

I love my dad. I love him so much, too much, like my life depends on it, that’s how much. His words are like lifeboats tossed out on a raging sea, and when he looks at me, I know he understands.

Anyway, I was quiet before, too. But no one seems to remember that now.

~

My room is blue. Blue walls, blue rug, a dark blue comforter.

At night I like to curl up on the floor and pretend I am on a sailboat, any one of the dozens you can see from the bridge on Saturday mornings. Red, blue, white – a swirl of colors, rolling like marbles out to the Pacific.

I love the bay. I love the bridge. But when it comes right down to it, I don’t really want to be on a boat, and certainly not on the shark-infested bay, the Golden Gate Bridge swaying like a drunken soldier over my head.

But a lot of things are like that, I guess. Just better in your dreams than they could ever be in real life.

~

My bed is a bunk bed, or at least it was, until my dad took the top bunk away. I guess it made my parents sad seeing both beds. But now the posts are too high, and there are all these holes where the screws should be, so as far as I’m concerned the bed is still in two parts – what is there, and what is missing – so most nights I just drag my comforter into the closet, pull the door shut, and wait.

I do not sleep. I read.

I read my dad’s books, my mom’s books, books I’ve read a dozen times before. I read school books, library books, cookbooks, phone books, and the manual to the 1972 Triumph Spitfire propped up on blocks in our driveway. I read until my eyes feel like bruises, and the words swim like fish across the page.

My mom lets me stay up for as long as I want. I know she worries that I don’t get enough sleep, but I think this might be the one thing about me that she actually understands. She spends hours every night in front of the TV, watching show after show, until all four channels turn to fuzz. And then she just sort of lies there, half asleep, watching the fuzz.

~

When I am through cutting, I stand for several seconds, just staring at the girl in the mirror.

She is me, but also not me. Or rather, she is me, but she is also something far, far worse than me.

These are not the Sarahs’ bangs.

They are related, in that they both involve hair, but not closely related. All of the hair that used to be on the top and sides is now in front. The bangs, if you can even call them that, are ragged, and jagged, and wildly crooked. These are Jason F.’s bangs, the slobbery retarded kid who fondles his wiener under the slide.

I am in so much trouble.

~

My mom is off the phone now. I can hear her moving about the living room, not cleaning (she does not clean), but drifting around in distracted circles, picking things up and then putting them down again. She will come in here soon – she always does.

Actually, it’s not my mom I’m worried about. My mom can scream and throw things, and then a little while later we’re in the parking lot outside the 7-11, tossing back Cokes and handfuls of M&Ms. She is like a bomb set to go off every ten minutes or so.

Sometimes, when she’s really mad, she kind of swats at me. But she always misses.

“Hmm,” I’ll say. “Is it windy in here?”

This only makes her madder, but honestly, I think she misses on purpose.

Because my mom never touches me anymore. Not even by accident.

~

I dig my fingers in to my scalp, and watch the hair skitter across my knuckles in every direction, like hundreds of crazy white spiders.

The Fat Girl will leave me now for sure.

Of course, that’s been in the works for months, ever since she found her mom’s stash of diet pills. Cheekbones, sharp as tiny knives, have started to poke out under her blue eyes. And the big flobbery boobs she’s had since 3rd grade are looking more like real boobs now – the kind everyone wants.

Ten more pounds and I’ll be at the back fence alone, chucking acorns through the chain-link and wishing I could be a different kid altogether.

Like the kind of kid who doesn’t care about bangs, or friends, or school, or clean sheets, or parents.

Or dead brothers.

Or better yet, the kind of kid who doesn’t care about anything at all.

~

I hate to admit it, but I guess my mom was right. Not about me having some amazingly awesome forehead – as far as I can tell, it’s just regular – but about the bangs. They’re just not for me.

I take a deep breath and pick the hair up by the roots, working the scissors down and in, until I feel the cool zing of metal against my scalp.

I have to get rid of these things. The sooner the better. The scissors squeak and complain, but the hair falls to the floor without a sound.

~

I can hear the clock in the living room. Six chimes. My dad will be getting off the ferry soon. I can picture him walking towards his car, his sun-browned face and silvery hair, his expression tired and a little too sad.

Most of the time, when I do something weird or wrong, my dad just sort of shakes his head and laughs.

“Kid,” he’ll say, “you’re one of a kind.”

Even if he doesn’t laugh, even if he only shakes his head, you can see the smile he’s holding back: it’s in his eyes.

Other times though, like when I fight with Mom, he lets the silence in. And seriously, when my dad gets quiet, it’s the worst. Hours, days, sometimes whole weeks will go by where he just stares past me, his eyes cold as a grave. When this happens, it’s all I can do not to throw myself at him.

To scream, to cry, to beg for mercy.

Honestly, I wish he’d just haul off and hit me. I know that sounds terrible, but I do. Because yeah, sure, it would hurt for a bit. But then it would all be over. And we could just get back to the business of being friends.

~

I must have some rare form of mental retardation.

Seriously, I am starting to wonder.

How else to explain that the whole time I am cutting off my bangs, it never occurs to me that there will still be hair. That you can cut and cut, until the scissors scrape against your scalp, but the bangs will not go away. Not really.

Rather, the hair will simply move through a series of positions, until it is short and springy, like freshly-mown grass.

I have a bald patch now. It is large and rectangular, and stretches across the entire front of my head. Like a big white billboard, advertising a product no one could possibly want.

It’s horrible. It really is.

But here’s the thing – it’s also kind of funny in a weird way. Because now I can finally see how my hair works. It’s like cursing a television for its crappy picture, only to look behind it one day and see a giant ax lodged into the back. My hair grows in zigs and zags – every which way but straight.

Bangs or no bangs, it was never going to be like the Sarahs’.

I can see that now.

It was always just going to be me.

~

I hear footsteps in the hall. The slow slip-slide of my mother’s sandals outside my door. For once, I feel surprisingly calm. There is nothing to fix. Nothing to do. I might as well have tied myself to a rocket and lit a match. I am way beyond the fence now. Beyond the Fat Girl and the Sarahs. I am in the stratosphere.

I don’t think I’m coming back.

Catch Me, I’m Falling

I found out I was pregnant during rock-climbing season. The weekend before the test showed positive, I was clinging to the stone faces that flank central Oregon’s Crooked River. That weekend, like most weekends in the late spring and early fall, my husband, Stefan, and I climbed in the high desert landscape, where outcrops of terracotta-colored tuff weather in the shadow of the Cascade Range. This is where we met and courted, where we—literally—held each others’ lives in our hands at the end of a rope.

Stefan and I had just started trying to get pregnant, so in a way the news didn’t come as a surprise, but the timing did. We knew from friends and books that it could take months or, in some cases, years to conceive and were unprepared when, after only a few weeks of trying, the pregnancy test signaled we were going to be parents much sooner than we’d anticipated. Had I known that that pregnancy test would mark the end of my climbing for almost two years, I might have paid closer attention to the last routes we scaled that weekend. I might have better appreciated the way a slim lip of stone can support your weight, the way your body is made longer by turning into the wall and reaching up on the diagonal. I might have taken more time to notice the rough scrape of the rock’s surface against my hands and paused longer at the top of each climb to admire the view of undulating spires. If I had I known that weekend that something timeless was taking shape in me, I might have taken greater care in observing the minute characteristics of the climbs—the pockets, rails, and shallow dishes, the edges I gripped and pushed off of, and the ones I skipped. But I thought I would have plenty of time to relish each route because I had planned on climbing to the end of the season.

Some women climb through their third trimester; they make special harnesses for pregnant climbers, ones that loop over the shoulders and under the belly instead of cinching around the waist. Because climbing demands keeping your hips close into the rock face and engaging the core muscles of the belly and the back, I imagine a swelling middle and spreading pelvis requires a pregnant climber to learn to work her hands and feet in new ways to compensate for an altered center of gravity. A pregnant climber needs to avoid falls that exert sudden force on the abdomen and take special care when belaying. But no special harness could have swayed me from what I felt was a primal, protective instinct: When the body is weighted with new life, it shouldn’t be drawn up off the ground. Deciphering what you can and can’t do on the rock is always an individual decision; it’s a negotiation of strength, tenacity, and risk. This triangulation of concerns is no different for a pregnant climber, who must also factor in possible harm to the baby. But as soon as I found out I was pregnant, I needed no time to calculate potential hazards or shop for a special harness. My choice was simple: I decided to alight, not ascend.

The weekend before my attention turned inflexibly to my belly, I rehearsed the moves on Vomit Launch, a beautiful climb with an unfortunate name that combines balance and finesse on the lower section, and tops out with a long series of strength moves to the final anchors. Each season, in addition to climbing a variety of routes on top rope, I selected a few challenging ones to lead. The difference between top roping and leading is the difference between hazarding a short, harmless sink into the rope and taking a long, mid-air drop that can result in hitting the ground. On top rope, the climber is part of a closed system in which the rope is threaded through anchors at the top of the route and the belayer takes up the slack to keep the climber on a tight line. But it takes a lead climber to get the rope to the anchors in the first place. When leading, a climber ascends the route with the rope trailing behind her, clipping into bolts for protection along the way. If she comes off the route while on lead, she’ll fall the distance to the nearest clipped bolt below and then past it that same distance. When a leader falls, she is dependent on her belayer’s immediate reaction to block the rope in his belay device and halt her mid-air descent. It happens at the speed of instinct.

The most challenging section of Vomit Launch—its crux—was a graceful balancing act of footholds. If I peeled off the rock at the crux, I would drop until the slack in the rope pulled tight between Stefan and me, and set our harnesses biting across our middles and around our thighs. In that breathless moment tumbling through the air, I would have a split second to calculate the distance between my fear of hitting the ground and my faith that Stefan would brake the rope and catch me. Then coming to an abrupt stop, panting and blinking, I would look up to measure how far I’d traveled, pausing only for a moment to consider the spectacle of dangling mid-air at the end of a rope. And then I would try the moves all over again. Because I had an acute fear of long falls, I first practiced moves on top rope to get them “dialed in” before trying the climb on lead.

In the back of every climber’s mind is the fear of a ground fall. I had seen many climbers come loose from routes and drop into the spring of the rope, but I had never seen anyone hit the deck. However, one day when Stefan and I were climbing in central Oregon, a Life Flight helicopter circled and landed to rescue a climber who had fallen thirty feet to the ground and lay in a broken pile. Remarkably, he regained consciousness and talked calmly to a small group of friends as they waited for the medics to come and carry him out. But all along he was bleeding into his belly and lungs, his organs shaken and split.

“I don’t understand it,” someone told us later in the parking lot. “He was awake. He seemed fine.”

But really he’d been slowly dying before everyone’s eyes.

“We got him to the helicopter and it seemed like everything was going to be fine.” He stared at the ground as he spoke, as if he were looking for something he’d lost.

Although I’d decided to temporarily give up climbing and stay grounded during my pregnancy, I kept active—biking and hiking—for the first twenty weeks. But sometime at the beginning of my second trimester, in a manner both painless and surreptitious, something started to go wrong. I would have stopped biking if I’d known there was a problem. I would have stopped hiking if I’d known the baby was in danger. And I certainly wouldn’t have flown alone across the country to visit my family for Thanksgiving if I’d known I was risking a miscarriage.

“They found something wrong,” Stefan said over the phone from three thousand miles away, the morning after I arrived at my parents’ Manhattan apartment. I took the call in the kitchen and leaned into the receiver, trying to bring his voice closer. I had had an ultrasound just a few hours before boarding my flight and went straight from the doctor’s office to the airport before receiving the test results. Because the ultrasound was part of a routine check-up and there had been no prior signs of problems, Stefan and I didn’t consider that the test might suggest a reason to cancel my trip. But while out for a walk the morning after I arrived, a volley of phone calls started—from the radiologist to the obstetrician, the obstetrician to my husband, and then finally, from my husband to me.

“But I feel fine,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “You can either stay there until the baby comes or come home.”

“I mean, I really feel fine.”

“I know,” he said. “But it could be dangerous for you to fly back. We have to decide.”

In those brittle moments of our phone call, I anchored my focus on Stefan’s voice. One of the most important elements in climbing is the communication between climber and belayer. When I told my parents I’d taken up climbing, my mother’s greatest worry was that the rope might snap. But rarely is equipment the cause of climbing accidents; most often it’s human error, and at the root of most of those errors is miscommunication between the climber and the belayer. In climbing it is important, although not always possible, for the belayer to see and hear the climber; visual cues and verbal commands help guide a safe ascent. When a climber reaches down to pull rope to clip a bolt or calls “Slack,” the belayer responds by letting out line. When a climber’s legs start to tremor, or when she says, “Watch me,” the belayer responds by bracing his body and narrowing his attention. But these are only the basics. Any two climbers who have logged long days together learn to read the subtle signs of stress and confidence without exchanging a word or glance. When I belay Stefan, I am sensitive to an almost imperceptible quiver in the rope. If I look up, I might see that his body is still, and yet there is a quaking in the line, as if his core muscles are vibrating. It is almost always a prelude to a fall. And when he sees me quietly, almost unconsciously, whispering to myself, he knows that I am starting to panic. “You’ve got this,” he’ll call up after me. “You’ve got this.” After so many years and so many routes, we know by the way we hesitate, shake out our arms, or charge up without resting, what is needed. This intimacy of signs and signals was on my mind as I tried to imagine being away from Stefan for the remaining twenty weeks of the pregnancy.

“I can’t do this here,” I said. The line went still as we listened to each other breathing. “I want to come home.”

We hung up so he could arrange a flight back for me on the following day. After I set down the phone, I curled up on the living room couch, holding my belly. I had only just begun to really show. My mother brought me a cup of tea and sat beside me. She stroked my hair and reassured me that everything was going to be all right, but her words rose in a swirl like the steam coming off my cup and faded into nothing. I didn’t tell her that I had decided to go home, because as far as she was concerned, I was home. Instead I told her that I thought it would be better for me to see my own doctor right away and not waste time trying to find a specialist in the city. Her first reaction was adamant: “You should be here, home with your family.” But when I repeated my decision to fly back to Oregon, this time with a quaking voice, she softened her tone: “I just want you to know that we can take care of you.” She kept stroking my hair but stopped lobbying her point. We sat quietly for a while, and then she helped me pack.

 

~

In the years after college, when I moved and settled in cities and moved again, home had always been my parents’ apartment. Even when my brothers and I flexed through relationships and marriages, my parents’ apartment was where holidays and birthdays were celebrated; it was where we played competitive Scrabble, watched weekend championship tennis, and sat around the kitchen table arguing. During the handful of years when my brothers and I had our own apartments in New York City and lived less than a mile apart, we rarely visited each other, instead running into one another a few times a week at my parents’ place. The two years that I lived six blocks from my parents, my mother visited me exactly once to bring me bread, salt, and matches—traditional symbols of bounty, light, and flavor. She arrived at my door two months after I had unpacked my last boxes because she hadn’t been able find the coarse, pink sea salt she liked. When I called to tell her to just get any salt and come over, she told me she’d think about it and that I should remind her the next time I came home. Home can be defined as place of residence, but its real meaning is far more personal and subjective. So in telling my mother why I was risking the flight back across the country, it didn’t seem the time to explain that her apartment, the place where I’d grown up and always returned to, no longer felt like home. Home was now three thousand miles away where I was building the promise of my own family and living a life very different from the one I’d grown up with.

My decision to move to Oregon had mystified my parents, who didn’t understand a seemingly sudden desire to reside in a small town with vistas of wide horizons. But they had either missed or chosen to ignore the fact that, over the course of many years, I’d moved to increasingly smaller locales with stronger connections to the outdoors. It was in one such place that I met Stefan, climbing for a weekend in Oregon’s sage-strewn high desert. I was a beginner climber when we met and spent most of my time belaying him on lead and climbing on top rope. I learned quickly that a good climbing partnership takes a dual sense of faith—faith that the climber will reach the anchors and faith that the belayer will catch any fall. It was a lesson we would learn over and over as we expanded the boundaries of our relationship and eventually married.

While I had no doubt that my parents and brothers would have done everything in their power to find the best doctors and make me comfortable through the second half of my pregnancy had I decided to stay in New York City, I worried that by being away from Stefan my state of mind might kink and unravel without warning. In the years when the apartment in New York City was the center of my universe, my parents and brothers had known me better than anyone in the world. But when I moved to Oregon, when my life began to rotate around new landscapes and new interests, I changed faster than my family was aware. My mother knew that I now liked to rock climb, but she could only imagine in the abstract a vision of me scaling stone towers. My husband, on the other hand, knew, based on how often I dipped my hand in my chalk bag, if I was nervous about making the next sequence of moves on a route. It was similar to how he knew by the way I would clasp and unclasp my hands that I had made a decision—about a project for work, a vacation itinerary, a new haircut—but still needed time to commit to it. He was privy to my quiet ways and quirks, which was why, with our first child on the way, I didn’t want to lose precious time explaining myself. When Stefan and I climbed together, he could sense when I was about to let my body tension slacken. “You’ve got this,” he’d shout, answering my unvoiced questions about whether I should give up and come down.

 

~

 

When I arrived back home in Oregon the following day, Stefan met me at the airport, and we drove straight to the hospital. The doctor explained in detail what Stefan had only been able to outline over the phone. My cervix was too weak to sustain the pregnancy; miscarriage was inevitable without surgery to stitch the cervix closed. The doctor described how my body could not contain the downward pressure of the baby and drew diagrams to illustrate the suturing technique he planned to use. I tried to focus on the details, but little penetrated the dull hum in my head. No matter what the doctor said, all I could hear was that I had failed, that my body had failed, and that because of these failures I’d almost lost the baby. I turned to Stefan for comfort and was alarmed by how frightened he looked.

Because we had discovered the problem so late, the surgery held a higher risk of pre-term delivery. And if the baby came early, it could be born with any of a number of lifelong physical or cognitive disabilities. There was a lot to consider.

“If you don’t wish to take the chance with the surgery, you could opt to abort the pregnancy,” the doctor said.

I must have looked dumbstruck because he quickly clarified his meaning.

“That is, because we are now aware of the problem, with another pregnancy we can deal with it earlier and better.”

I tried to remain absolutely still to prevent any small movement of my face or hands from being interpreted as a response. I held on to the sides of the chair.   

The doctor left Stefan and me alone to discuss our options. Stefan found my hand and took it in his. I couldn’t look at him because I knew I would see in his face what he thought we should do, and I worried we weren’t thinking the same thing. Finally I turned to him with tears and said, “It’s our baby, and we’ll try.”

“Yes, and we’ll try.”

In that rudimentary call and response, we decided to schedule the surgery immediately. I settled into the calm of the decision, not because I was sure everything was going to be all right, but because I knew that whatever came, I wouldn’t have to face it alone.

A Nigerian proverb says: “The world is a pregnant woman.” It means that the world, like a pregnancy, is full of unexpected events whose outcomes are unknown. Some babies are male, and others are female. Some are healthy, and others are sickly. Some labors are easy, others are difficult; sometimes the mother dies, sometimes the child. All the books tell you that things can go wrong in a pregnancy, but the language of caution always seems remote when you are in the bloom of expectancy. You convince yourself that those other women, the ones who have complications, are not like you. Your pregnancy is going to be textbook perfect. You’re going to have the innate strength to do what women have been doing for ages. But that kind of self-confidence has its roots in fear, not arrogance, because it is too terrifying to think that we might tumble from the grace of nature.

After asking a few logistical questions, Stefan and I signed the consent forms, and I was in surgery by the afternoon. In the operating room I was laid out on my back with my feet in stirrups. The table was set on an angle with my head down and all the pressure of the pregnancy pushing toward my diaphragm. It felt like I was suddenly carrying the baby in my throat. Stefan sat beside me dressed in a sterile gown and mask, and held my hand in his.

“Tell me a story,” I said.  

He looked flatly at me.

I knew that look. It was the same look he gave me when I would ask him if we could drive back to the house because I wasn’t sure if I’d shut off the oven. It was the look he gave me when he wanted to say no. I started to get a small headache from the incline of the operating table. I couldn’t see much of what was going on around me, but could make out what sounded like a scene of activity as the nurses and the doctor prepared for the surgery. Despite the bustle, Stefan kept his eyes fixed on me.

“Then tell me all the moves I have to make to lead Vomit Launch,” I said. “Tell me over and over until the surgery is done.”

I saw the small creases of his forehead lift, the way they do when he’s smiling.

“Lean into the bowl, off the deck,” he said slowly. “Take the side pull and scramble your feet up.”

“Okay,” I said, closing my eyes.

“Can you see it? The light stripe running along the good foothold?”

“I see it.”

“Now reach out high and right. Don’t forget to swap your feet.”

I remembered this early set of moves. The bowl was slightly overhung and I always wanted to move quickly to get on to the vertical face of the climb.

“Just a bit higher and you get a good rest.”

Before moving to Oregon, I never imagined I could be happy anywhere other than in the anonymity and chaotic press of a big city. But the volcanic grit and high desert sage captured my imagination the first time I ventured to the east side of the Cascade Range. With my eyes closed, the holds on Vomit Launch materialized one by one, and I rebuilt the landscape a body length at a time as I ascended the climb in my mind. I didn’t look down. My breathing slowed. My grip on Stefan’s hand softened.

I managed to stay focused until the sound of clinking metal broke my concentration. When I looked over my curtained knees, I saw the doctor reaching for an instrument; it pulled me loose from the image of the climb, and I landed rudely in the here and now, laid out on the operating table. Deep in the center of me needles were turning; a series of carefully placed knots and stitches were keeping the baby from falling from my grasp. I felt dizzy and sick. I was losing my grip. I wanted down off the table; I wanted to leave. The spinal block they’d given me made it impossible for me to move my lower torso and legs, but I started to shake my head from side to side, pinching my lips and crying.

“It’s going to be fine,” Stefan said, squeezing my shoulder to get my attention. “Don’t look around. Just watch me.”

When I turned to face him, I saw in his eyes a willed calm.

“Let’s keep going,” he said. “You’re almost past the bowl and then you come to the good holds and a rest before you get into the real business.”

He talked me through Vomit Launch’s sequence of moves a dozen times, adding more detail about the rock and the scenery with each ascent—the coarse sand of the high desert stone rubbed into our hands and knees, the intoxicating fragrance of juniper and sage radiating from the surrounding hills, the views looking down on the lazy wind of the river.

“It’s so beautiful up here,” he said.

When the surgery was done, the doctor came around to the side of the table to explain how everything had gone. He gestured casually to illustrate how he had pulled and stitched. His gloves were covered in blood, beaded in patches on the latex. My first thought was that the blood was my blood, and then it flashed through my mind that it might be the baby’s. I felt weak at the sight of his hands, red and working in the air. What if, after all of this, we still lost the baby? What if I carried him a few weeks longer and he was stillborn? Or what if he came so early that he was sick all his life? Or too sick to survive? A shaking fright came on. My throat pursed. Stefan, still with his hand on my shoulder, stood up to focus on what the doctor was saying. I took in the conversation in pieces: The surgery had gone well; the prognosis was good. But I couldn’t distill the details and struggled to steady my thoughts. I felt myself falling, unable to find anything to hang on to in the sterile, whitewashed operating room. So I shut my eyes again and pictured the sun-burnt stone in my hands, and imagined the caress of hot desert wind on my skin. I envisioned the climb, starting the sequence of Vomit Launch’s moves from the ground. I remembered that a good climber stands up more than pulls up, setting strong feet and pushing with the legs; a good climber keeps hips close into the wall, running fingers and palms along the rock surface in search of pockets, cracks, and edges. I was a good climber. I told myself to stay focused and took a deep balancing breath. Stay focused and don’t look down.

I gently rested my hand on Stefan’s hand but did not interrupt him as he continued to talk to the doctor. I needed him to find out everything he could now, while it was fresh in the doctor’s mind, because we would need those details later to reassure us that the surgery had gone as well as it possibly could have. I knew that the information he was gathering, the questions he was asking, would be important on the nights when I woke in a cold sweat, worried that every small cramp was a sign that the baby was in distress. I tried to remain absolutely still and prevent any small movement from being interpreted as panic. “You’ve got this,” I told myself over and over, working hard to believe it, “You’ve got this.”

 

Junk Food Killer

The memory hits me like hunger: sudden pangs, gnawing edgewise. First it’s just a headline and the torn edge of a story. A nutrition professor. His gruesome murder. Fast food strewn all around the apartment. Junk food shoved down his throat. Food smeared on his body. The professor choking, asphyxiating, on junk food. Struggling to free himself of it, but drowning in it.

 

I’m visiting Gainesville, Florida, where I attended college thirty years earlier and where my mother now lives. On my way in, I drive by the Wendy’s that was on the outskirts of town in the early 1980s but is now just another bead on a string of fast food restaurants extending far beyond city limits. That’s when the smell of charred, grease-coated French fries fills my mouth and nose even though the car windows are closed, the scent-and-taste memory triggering not physical hunger but a more nebulous need to unwrap the Junk Food Professor story packed up in my unconscious.  

It was the start of fall semester, 1982, my sophomore year at the University of Florida. The Equal Rights amendment had just failed to be ratified, Ronald Reagan was eight months into his presidency, and Anita Bryant served orange juice flavored homophobia across Florida. At nineteen years old, I’d just moved into the honors dorm, and was about to struggle through organic chemistry, my major. I’d study the molecular structure of cholesterol and the process of hydrogenation that turned liquid oils into saturated fats along with partially saturated cis- and trans-fat by-products. On the personal front, I’d discover Pink Floyd and the Talking Heads as alternatives to Michael Jackson and Madonna, and I’d hear the first rumors about a new “gay cancer.” Later in the eighties, after I’d left, the “Gainesville Ripper” would rape and murder five female students matching my description—petite Caucasian brunettes—before being caught, and the University of Florida would be ranked a top party school by Playboy magazine. But in 1982, it was not rape, murder, drugs, or alcohol that posed the greatest threat to me. It was food.

~

1982 is as good a year as any to mark the time when food got truly scary, not only for me but for U.S. culture more generally. That year, the FDA published its first “red book” on the safety of color and other additives in food, signaling a new era in which food was now synthesized in an industrial chemical plant. “It was in the 1980s,” Michael Pollan has written, “that food began disappearing from the American supermarket,” to be replaced by processed edible “foodstuffs.” Known as “the decade of consumption,” the 1980s was the decade in which sugars in soft drinks were replaced by high fructose corn syrup and in which aspartame was first marketed, quickly colonizing diet soft drinks. Supermarket food was cheaper than ever, and junk food junkier, more processed, and sweeter and richer than anything nature on its own could provide. New packaging technologies and preservatives allowed fast, “one-hander” foods to migrate beyond supermarkets into drug stores, gas stations, and vending machines. The new microwaves could create instant meals around the clock. Convenience foods were suddenly everywhere. Foodstuffs became unnaturally ubiquitous and, as the ad went, “magically delicious.”

Food advertisements, too, proliferated, along with fad diets, Jazzercise franchises, and ever- skinnier models. The messages invaded. Have it your way. You deserve a break today. It’s finger lickin’ good.  Bet you can’t eat just one. Everything around me said “Eat!” Everything around me said “Don’t eat!”

~

My memory jolt about the Junk Food Professor’s murder recurs at a Gainesville Starbucks, where I’m rewarding my caffeine addiction amid students snacking before laptop screens. Coffee is my fast food now. Back when I was a student, there were no Starbucks cafes, no laptops or even computers. Instead, I dawdled in fast food restaurants, huddled over thick books while trying to make my salad last. Three decades later, dawdling over a venti dark roast, I take out my own iPhone and google. I quickly realize that I’ve misremembered the incident in significant ways.  

Howard Appledorf really was a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Florida. That much I’d remembered correctly. The rest of the memory spent too long submerged in my unconscious, creating its own slant truths.

According to newspaper reports in the Gainesville Sun and elsewhere, Appledorf met at least one of his killers in June of 1982, when he attended a soft drink convention in San Francisco. Appledorf was known as an apologist for the fast food industry—hence his moniker “the Junk Food Professor”—and he allegedly received financial support for his work from the National Soft Drinks Association. More diplomatically, the Special Collections library of the University of Florida housing his papers says of him that, as “[a] national spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists, he argued that ‘fast foods’ are of high nutritional value.” In professional papers as well as on national television talk shows, such as the John Davidson Show, Appledorf defended the nutritional value of franchise foods. He analyzed such meals as a fried chicken dinner and a burger-shake-and-fries, and found their nutritional value to be at least “adequate,” sometimes “pretty good.” He himself did not like the term “junk food”; he wrote in a 1980 paper entitled “Marketing Nutrition in Fast Food Operations” that fast foods suffer from “an image problem” and that it “is disturbing to see fast food referred to as ‘junk food,’ particularly in view of the wide variety of nutrients found in foods sold in fast food restaurants.”  That same paper condemns the “food activists” and “food purists” for their “politicalization of nutrition,” and implies that eating healthily is ultimately a matter of individual responsibility.

While overt about his controversial, much-maligned support of fast food, Appledorf was in the closet about his sexuality, and seems to have led a double life. In an era just before AIDS outed gay men on a mass scale, forcing a visibility to gay identity undreamed of before, it was far more disgraceful to be homosexual than to be a scientist-shill for the fast food industry. But out-of-town conventions seemed to offer Appledorf opportunities to explore his other life. On his San Francisco trip, Appledorf , who was then 41 or 42 years old, met Paul Bown, 21, on Polk Street, and the two went to Appledorf’s room in the Hilton. There they split a $75 bottle of champagne, and, according to Chery McCall of People magazine, Appledorf “reportedly contracted for sexual services for two nights for $200. Later, he bought clothes for Bown and gave him another $200 before returning to Florida.”

But what happened in San Francisco followed Appledorf back to Florida. In the third week of August, Paul Bown, along with his friends and fellow prostitutes Paul Everson, 19, and Shane Kennedy, 15, showed up at Appledorf’s condo in Gainesville. During their stay with him, Paul Everson stole a check from Appledorf’s checkbook and forged it for $900. Appledorf first wanted to press charges, but when Everson contacted a local television reporter and claimed that Appledorf had molested him in exchange for the money, Appledorf dropped the charges under the condition that the three men leave town.

~

That may well have been the same week that, on campus across town, I entered a bathroom in the Reitz student union building. It was the week before classes started:  rush week. Just as I slipped into a stall some sorority girls entered the bathroom. One was talking to another about purging. I’d heard about this new illness called bulimia in magazines, but didn’t know anyone who did it. “Everybody does it,” the sorority sister said.  

I knew about anorexia, of course, and had already dabbled in it. In high school, during the Bo Derek era, I’d eaten only boiled chicken and vegetables to keep myself under 100 pounds. Over the summers I’d restrict my caloric intake to 800 a day. But such severe energy restriction was hard to keep up in college. While fraternities posted signs saying “No Fat Cows,” I was, according to my hallmates, “porking out.” I could now feel my thighs brush against each other as I walked. I tried a fellow chemistry major’s diet of freeze-dried coffee and nothing else, but couldn’t handle the jitters on top of the hunger. Special K ads asked, “Can you pinch an inch?” For the first time, I could.  

“You just stick your finger down your throat,” the sister said. “It’s hard at first, but it gets easier the more you do it.”

~

On September 2nd, Appledorf left for New York to lecture on nutritional trends at the Good Housekeeping Institute. That’s when the three itinerant young men returned to his home, broke in the back door, and camped out. They pawned some of his gold rings, threw food and clothes around, ate his food and drank his alcohol in front of the television. Before his expected return on Tuesday, September 7th, they bought three Subway sandwiches.

~

Perhaps that was the same morning when, eating my breakfast of Special K in the student cafeteria, I looked up from my newspaper to see a girl from last year’s freshman dorm joining me. I remembered her as a party girl. “I should be eating like you, she said, “instead of this egg muffin. I’m getting so fat. I can’t stand it. Look at how many inches I can pinch. I swear. I wish I could make myself vomit. That would solve everything. But I just can’t do it. I try. I stick my fingers all the way down my throat, but I don’t have any gag reflex left.”  She spoke with such infectious longing, as if bulimia would make her life complete. She assumed I would understand. I did. She sighed and added, “Sometimes when I drink I can make myself vomit. So when I’m drunk I get to eat anything I want.”  

That monologue has remained with me so clearly all these years that what I’ve recreated above has got to be an extremely close approximation, if not verbatim. But even more than the words, I remember the longing, and its flip side of despair.

~

On September 7th, Appledorf returned home. Upon entering, he saw the three men and the state of his house. An argument ensued. At one point Appledorf tried to leave but was blocked. That’s when Paul Everson struck the professor’s head with a frying pan. Appledorf sank to the floor.

At least two of the three men bound Appledorf’s hands, feet, and knees with his own ties and belts. They gagged him, and then put a sheet over his head and a bag over the sheet. Everson bounced on Appledorf’s chest until “the air went out of him.” Bown continued to strike Appledorf’s head with the frying pan until the handle fell off. When one of them put a cigarette out on the exposed skin of the professor’s stomach, there was no response. That was when they realized they’d killed him. An autopsy would determine that Appledorf suffocated. He was not killed with junk food, as I’d remembered.

In dispute is the level of involvement of the young Shane Kennedy. Some reports have him either in the bedroom or outside through much of this, sick to his stomach and vomiting.

~

One day early that semester, around the time of Appledorf’s murder, I passed through the student union, hungry as usual, and the smell of French fries, saturated in grease and lava-hot, overtook me. I bought a carton from the cafeteria and ate. One after another, until they were all gone. Then I went to the bathroom, the same one where I’d heard the sorority sisters talking, and leaned over the toilet. I didn’t even decide, I just did it. It was easy. I didn’t even need to use a finger. Just tightening my abdominal muscles did the trick. And then I was ethereally empty.

After that, food beckoned, always. Everything forbidden was now possible. Food appeared everywhere. It was no longer connected to its natural role of nourishment and became a drug. The cravings went wild. A nutrition professor might have been able to tell me that with each purge, the blood sugar level drops precipitously while electrolytes—which help regulate heartbeat and neurological function—get way out of balance. Such nutritional crashes can mimic a drug addition.

Eternally hypoglycemic, I’d sit in class thinking about my next meal. I was either stuffed or starving. I couldn’t get off the Ferris wheel. In lecture hall one day, light-headed with hunger and hypoglycemia. I felt my fingers tingle, then curl into claws. I didn’t know how I’d manage the lock on my bike when I couldn’t move my hands. Was I too faint to walk home? Could I make it back to the dorm? Or would I have to stop at the vending machine and get those crackers with the synthetic cheese or peanut butter. But at 300+ calories, along with the neurological panic and elevated heart rate such a caloric jolt would instigate, I’d have to start the cycle all over again.  

And again and again. When the Appledorf murder happened, I was the one choking on the food shoved down my throat.

~

  After they realized Appledorf was dead, the three men staged the crime scene to look like a ritualistic murder. They arranged four plates in the room, three with the remains of their Subway sandwiches and one empty of food but bearing a note saying, “HOWARD, I wish you could join us.” Inspired by the movie Times Square, they wrote “HOWARD, we love you sincerely. The slez sisters” on the wall, and, inspired by The Shining, added “murder” and “redrum” in red ink. Everson scrawled an insane, unsigned confession on a steno pad. Then they fled north in Appledorf’s Pontiac Firebird.

Appledorf’s three killers were caught fairly quickly, thanks in part to the cooperation of New York’s gay community, and prosecuted for their crimes.  

~

In retrospect, Appledorf’s story, despite its role in my memory, is more about the era of the closet just before AIDS. I see it now as an illustration of the harm that the closet can do, and, relatedly, an uncanny preview of the rapid movement of the AIDS virus from San Francisco to New York with many stops in between. Food in this drama was merely a decoy, which the killers used to both reveal and conceal their real pathologies. In the next decade, psychologists studying eating disorders would similarly say that these pathologies, too, aren’t really about food per se; food is the correlate at hand, in this culture of abundance and consumption, through which to ineffectually express/displace harder-to-articulate problems. Cultural critics would argue that eating disorders express not simply individual anxieties but societal conflicts. They are a kind of “compromise formation” through which young women negotiate their culture’s impossibly mixed messages about gender and consumption.  

At any rate, my memory of Appledorf’s murder fell for the murderers’ decoy that the story was about food, when it was really about things like the closet, class, power, and complicated systemic problems I didn’t know how to recognize, much less analyze. My memory metamorphosed the Junk Food Professor’s story into my own.

~

If my deceptive psyche projected my own crisis onto the Junk Food Murder story as it unfolded, and allowed my own unconscious needs to shape its narrative, then it performed a well-recognized displacement. Sometimes memory works like a dream. I would learn in a literature class that semester that, according to Freud anyway, the psyche reveals by concealing, offering truths through myth and metaphor, containing unacceptable desires in those bright, diverting wrappers. Like so many dreams, my false memory—or nightmare—may be truer than the true version, at least for me.  

~

I was lucky. I got chest pains, and rushed to the clinic fearing a heart attack. The pains turned out to be only a chest wall muscle spasm—probably developed from the strain of vomiting—but when the doctor saw my potassium level results she read me the riot act and scared me straight. I immediately gained ten pounds and settled into a more conventional self-disgust.

Still, I’ve been fighting dual impulses—fear of fat and longing for calorie-rich processed food—ever since. Even now, here in this Starbucks, a middle-aged woman, I sit with my coffee, longing for and loathing the turkey panini, whose warm, greasy smell overtakes the scent of charred coffee beans. I’m as consumed by this savory sandwich I’ll never eat as by my return-of-the-repressed memories.  

I say I’m lucky because I could have died from my disorder. Up to 30% of bulimarexics do. Another third recover. The final third linger on, bound and gagged by unnatural appetites. It’s not merely the extreme eating disorders (like bulimia and anorexia) that make up the death tolls of our junk food era, though, but also diseases resulting from what even Howard Appledorf called “the malnutrition of affluence”: the increased Type II diabetes incidence, the heart and circulatory conditions, the cancers correlated with dietary and body fat, and other diet-and-lifestyle-related illnesses. It’s these low-level but widespread food and consumption disorders that ultimately kill us culture-wide.

~

So maybe the story is one of Junk Food Killers after all. Ever since 1982 the junk food industry has taken our collective national metabolism captive to the point where we’re choking on overconsumption. As a culture, we now need tracts like Michael Pollan’s bestseller Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual to re-teach us how to eat in the most basic of ways. “Eat food. Not too much.  Mostly plants,” is his most famous, overall guideline, but he also offers sixty-four additional common-sense guidelines, such as “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.” Perhaps it was not 1984’s Big Brother but the food industry that loomed over us and invaded our most intimate spaces, inducing us to pinch our inches and discipline our bodies even as our collective food desires got more and more out of control. 1982, the year the Junk Food Professor was murdered, may well be the year we began to develop the national eating disorder we’ve been struggling with ever since.  

Nocturne in the Key of We

 

Five o’clock a.m. on a morning last fall, in the Walgreens of an affluent suburb on Chicago’s North Shore, where I have gone to buy batteries for my flashlight on my way to the beach to watch the sun rise, and where the only other customer, a man in his early twenties with a thicket of curly blonde hair, approaches me. “Excuse me,” he says, his deep set brown eyes singing a song that should be accompanied by a twelve-string guitar. “Do you know of anywhere that I could maybe get a cup of coffee at this hour?” I direct him to the Dunkin’ Donuts over on the highway, and what I notice as soon as he leaves is that his loneliness remains behind, staining the too-bright air in the pharmacy’s aisles between the Advil and the Band-Aids and the Nyquil and the Crest like the afterburn left on a retina when a camera’s flashbulb has gone off.

Later, when I’m ankle deep in sand with my back against the lifeguard chair and Lake Michigan a tapestry of moonlight and mystery spread out before me, I find myself thinking about that moment and about that man, and about how, if I had looked out the store window just after he left, I would have seen his taillights etching their red scribbles across the darkness and then dwindling into the distance; and about how, if I had driven past the Dunkin’ Donuts soon after that, I would most likely have seen him sitting there, beyond the neon pink and orange OPEN 24 HOURS sign—on a stool at the counter, maybe, or in one of the beige vinyl booths—a solitary figure fossiled within the amber of the fluorescence and framed by the blackness of the night, while, outside the windows, the eighteen-wheelers would have whistled past, swallowing the highway up into the speedblur beneath their tires.

I know a woman who worked the overnight shift at that Dunkin’ Donuts for a time, who walked there every evening after night had set, and walked back home before morning had broken, to the room at the top of a splintered, sagging stairway, up above a bowling alley, where she lived with her five children, in a tiny town nearby that has become home to immigrant and migrant laborers. I asked her once if she was afraid of the darkness she had to walk through for what took her nearly half an hour, and of the highway she had to cross, and the shrug she offered me as an answer needed no translation. What choice did she have? it said. I think that, if she had had the words, she also would have said that she has so many fears, in so many shapes and sizes, that she keeps them all close to her and wears them in layers, like sweaters, knowing that any she peels off and leaves lying around will be snatched up by her children, who will wrap them around themselves and button them up to their chins.

“Do you know if my mom is working tonight?” her eight-year-old daughter asked me one Saturday morning when I was driving her to the library to get some information for a school project she was working on, and I told her that I was pretty sure she wasn’t, that I thought I’d heard her mention that she had this weekend off. “Good,” she said, turning to the window to watch the train tracks that bordered the road we were traveling on slip past, and I heard her release a sigh that made its way forward to hover beside me.

I glanced in the rearview mirror and she turned to face me, our eyes meeting midair. “When she’s out at the night?” she said, shrugging a shrug that echoed the one I’d seen her mother give. “My heart keeps jumping around inside me and counting the minutes until she’ll be back.” When she sighed again, though, it was with satisfaction. “Did I tell you? She’s teaching me how to make flan? Maybe she’ll teach me tonight again even. I love it when Mami stays home.” It was the third room they had lived in in as many months, one from which they would be forced by fire a few weeks later, but that’s what she called it: home.

That’s what that man in Walgreens could use, too, I find myself thinking on the beach that morning. Not a place to have a stranger pour him a cup of coffee, but a place to have someone he loves teach him how to make flan. Strangers with coffee pots are easier to find, of course, I know, envisioning all of them out there across the land. All those pink and orange OPEN 24 HOURS signs aglow all through the night—on the street corners of New York City, where the windows of the high rises are punching rows of yellow squares out of the darkness up above, and in coastal towns in Florida, where the parking lots in front of them are fogged with ocean mist, and in hamlets far out in the middle of the prairies of Wyoming and Montana, beneath stars that are clustering into bouquets that purple the dark.

I see them in smokestacked cities up north, and in the farming villages of the quilted midwest, and in southern towns that twitch with restless heat, and I see them out in Las Vegas, surrounded by zippers of sequined marquees that are working overtime to prove that loneliness lives elsewhere. All those pink and orange OPEN 24 HOURS signs and all those people sitting at all the booths and counters beyond them, waiting for the morning light to paint a new day onto the face of a world they wish felt more like home. And then I find myself envisioning all the people behind those counters, too, pouring coffee into Styrofoam cups and tucking doughnuts into white paper bags, all the time thinking of their sleeping children, who, in fact, aren’t sleeping at all, but are tossing and turning on top of their covers, waiting for the sound of the key in the door that will let them know they can breathe evenly again.

And I even find myself envisioning those truckers in the driver’s seats of all those eighteen-wheelers whizzing past, and wondering what images (of what lit windows in what waiting houses or apartments or trailers or rooms, on what streets in what neighborhoods in what towns in what states) they might have hung from their rearview mirrors or pasted up beside the moon beyond their windshields, like a night light plugged into the loneliness, to guide them through until dawn.

Standing there in the sand, with the first screes of the gulls and the first bass notes of the ducks just starting to intertwine with the shhshhing of the waves against the shore, I’m almost certain that I can hear the clacketing of those tires on all those highways, and even more certain that I can hear the litany of longing within it, the way the jazz composer Dave Brubeck once heard the embryo of a riff within the galloping of the hooves of the horse he was riding. Ba da dump, ba da dump, ba da dump, he heard, as he explained in an interview years later, and there it was, a syncopated symphony in 3/4 time, writing its blue notes across the lead sheet of his mind.

There would be more than enough time, I imagine, for a trucker motoring at 75 miles per hour in the general direction of whatever loading dock he’d been instructed to head to next to start giving thought to what it means to have a permanent place in this world. So that, somewhere along the way, out there in the vastness of a nameless, starless distance, as he’s being devoured by the dark and then rebirthed by each light post he passes, only to be devoured again as soon as he moves beyond the outer reaches of the range of its glow, and as he’s twirling his radio dial and diving into, say, KAGH’s pool of listeners in and around Cressett, Arkansas, and then shooting out its other side, toweling off its music and diving right on into KHMB’s pool of listeners in neighboring Hamburg, and as he’s slicing past lit billboards that shout out to him like preachers from the pulpits of their stilts in the grass along the highway, to REFRESH ON THE COCA-COLA SIDE OF LIFE and to MAKE AN APPOINTMENT FOR A HUNGERECTOMY WITH SNICKERS and to TAKE STOCK IN AMERICA WITH U.S. SAVINGS BONDS, and as he’s ghosting past or around or sometimes even straight on through sleeping towns that will never guess he’s been there when they wake in the morning, it’s possible that he might start working out the algorithms of the algebra of absence and the geometry of goneness in such a way that will leave him feeling homesick for a place he’s never been. A place, he might start to speculate, that could exist just past that not yet illuminated point where the land will meet the sky once day arrives, or even, who knows? just around the next bend in the highway.

Or maybe here, you might be thinking, in this suburb on Chicago’s North Shore where I’m now standing just beyond the glistening ruffle of the waves upon the sand, shawled in the sapphire dreamlight of almost-morning, but don’t be so sure. Because here, when I drove through the silent, charcoaled streets on my way to this beach, past houses with porch lights on and curtains drawn, I saw televisions and computer screens flickering in upstairs windows, and couldn’t help but think about all the separate stories being played out, side by side, within those houses’ walls, and about how you don’t have to be sitting at a counter beyond a pink and orange neon sign to know that longing is OPEN 24 HOURS, and so is fear.

So that, even right here, swaddled in the middle of a suburb in the middle of the country, several layers above the uppermost tier of the upper middle class, when you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, it wouldn’t take much for you, too, to start reciting the basic tenets of the algebra of absence to yourself: If x = what if the deal doesn’t go through? or what if the promotion isn’t offered? or what if the bid isn’t accepted, or the meeting comes to naught? and y = what if one of us gets sick, or one of the children gets into trouble, or the marriage doesn’t last, or all this luck just runs out? then wouldn’t x + y = you, tossing and turning on top of the covers, or bleary eyed at your computer, searching for iwantguarantees.com, or propped on the couch with the remote in your hand, flipping from a man in a green apron touting the virtues of the Veg-O-Matic, to a documentary on the mating habits of the Tanzanian wildebeest, to a rerun of Roseanne and back, waiting to breathe evenly again?

We’re all proficient in the algebra of absence and the geometry of goneness, I think. All aware of how hard we have to fight to find a place in the world, and then of how much harder to keep it from slipping away once we do. Remember that song sung by the eyes of the man who approached me in Walgreens? Forget about setting it to the accompaniment of a twelve-string guitar. It’s probably better to imagine it as a choral piece, with parts for all of us, instead. Soprano, alto, tenor, bass, it really doesn’t matter which we choose, as long as we’re all lending our voices to the mix; as long as we’re all harmonizing our hunger into a communal composition that, sung tutti, all together, as a drumming of desires, can’t help but thrum with solace when it echoes back to us.

 

 

These Things Should Not Happen

 

We took a walk this evening as we often do. My husband pushed my daughter in her stroller as I walked alongside. There are things I notice each time we pass them—the morning glories a block down that wind their cursive tendrils round the fence posts, the fat yellow cat who glowers after us from the makeshift throne of her lawn chair, the Cape Cod nearly hidden beneath the weeping of a funeral party of willows. In one yard a thicket of blackberries. In another a bed of cherry tomatoes. Standing sentry at the park the orange-leaved tree that warns us of the coming cold.

 

Yesterday on my kitchen radio I heard about a woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo whose child was cut from her arms with a machete. I should say I saw one woman and child in my mind, but there were actually hundreds. Hundreds of women and children hacked to death by machetes. Other children in the vicinity were tossed down wells. I can’t remember why. Afterward I squeezed my daughter so hard and long against my chest that she began to cry. I didn’t think it should frighten her to be loved so.

 

When I was twelve, my friend’s father Chet was crushed to death by a semi while he raked tar on the side of the highway. I knew him from church services and church picnics, from volleyball games and sleepovers I shared with Emily, his 12-year-old daughter. His son Jordan and I had begun a secret romance a couple of months before Chet died—the sort where you slip each other notes, speak infrequently on the phone late at night, and glance at one another across the pews when you think no one’s looking. I suspect Chet knew of our longing; I imagine it amused him, brought him joy.  

 

Sometimes I take my daughter to the library, other times to the park. We sit on a blanket in the grass, and I blow bubbles. They mystify her. She stretches her whole body after them. When they pop, she studies the empty air with a furrowed brow as if to say, these things should not happen.

 

I attend a talk at the university. A man from the Democratic Republic of Congo describes how in his country rape is used as a weapon of war. After the militants break the women, he says, their husbands cannot forget their powerlessness. In this way, the people’s spirits wither and die. Then it is easy to sweep the broken families from the rich land like so many empty husks.

 

A woman in my hometown dresses her goose. It is plastic, white with a yellow beak, about three feet high. It stands at neck-stretched attention on the front porch next to a line of boxy yews. I pass the goose on the way to and from my parents’ house, and each time it sports a new look – always seasonally inspired. A Santa costume. A raincoat with matching bonnet.  A pinafore of hearts. A sundress. Striped Uncle Sam suspenders and a top hat. The dour black cloak of the sober pilgrim.  

 

Back when I was eight years old and the center of everything, I suspected that the world was designed for the express purpose of testing me. Everyone was in on it, even my mother. The stories that were too dreadful to be true – stories of kidnappings and murders and war – were actually untrue. My only responsibility was to react with appropriate horror and disbelief so that onlookers would admire my empathic spirit. Also, so that they would not know that I knew they were lying.

 

This morning I smooth down my daughter’s curls and find a lump, hard and inescapable, the size of a chickpea beneath her ear. I’ve noticed it before, but it was smaller and soft—the doctor told me not to worry unless it changed. So I call the office and request to speak to a nurse, who tells me it may well be nothing but suggests I bring her in to make certain. The appointment is in two days. Tonight I will forget to eat dinner. Somewhere out there a woman is dressing her goose.            

 

Most would have thought Chet rough at first glance – he was bearded, spoke in a gruff voice and wore a working man’s flannels. But with me he was as gentle as a baby. And he noticed things. He noticed when I had something to say even though as shy as I was, I wasn’t likely to say anything. He noticed when I didn’t feel well or when life was weighing heavy on my mind. It wasn’t that I ever made a fuss. I sat where I was told to sit and did what I was told to do, but Chet could tell. I know because of how he looked at me, his large brown eyes the eyes of a vigilant deer, and because of how he mixed humor with hope. Sometimes I accompanied the congregational hymns on piano, and after service in the church lawn he’d softly box my shoulder. “You keep playing piano like that, you won’t even make it to junior high. They’ll just pull up in a limo and whisk you straight off to New York City.” He looked and saw and understood all at once. He remembered how the world can deluge the young, how it can surge the shore and suck them under. So Chet built his own floating harbor, his stack of sandbags. I wanted to marry Jordan in part because I cared for Jordan but in part because then Chet would be my father, too.

 

In the DRC, combatants pitch a 15-year-old girl into a pit and rape her daily for three months. Her friend, also in the pit, dies 6 weeks in, about the time the 15-year-old girl realizes she is pregnant. She spends the next six weeks watching her friend rot. Inside her girl’s body, life anchors its obstinate root.

 

Chet died August 5th, 1993, at approximately 11:00 a.m. After his death I asked my mother for the precise time and wrote her answer in my diary, then looked up the word approximately and wrote that down as well: “Near or approaching a certain state, condition or goal.” It’s 11:00 and Chet is approaching the state of death, is oblivious to its swift pursuit as he scrapes the tar rocks over the asphalt seam just ahead of the roller with its hot black wheel and engine whine that drowns out those horrific seconds when the other men leap into ditches and shout one another’s names. It’s 11:00 and the sun shifts imperceptibly, the clocks align and a trucker spills hot coffee on his crotch or fiddles too long with the CB or simply succumbs to the hypnotic white line he’s traced since Atlanta, since midnight or Sunday or was it maybe even July he wonders and is still wondering in that warmly blissful near-sleep of eyes rolled back, lids lightly closed when a horn bleats, the ground beneath his wheels crunches and dips and a deafening wrench of metal jerks him awake.

 

At the university, the Congolese man says, “If we tell people what is happening to the women, they will stop listening. They cannot bring themselves to listen.”  

 

If my calculations are correct, the woman has been dressing her goose for nearly twenty years. It gawks on. The other day it boasted a black jumpsuit with golden studs. A large, glossy pompadour was fastened atop its small head.

 

August 5th, 1993. Soon after 11:00 our phone rings with a cheerful chirrup. My mother answers, hangs up, climbs the stairs, news of death in her throat. I blink for a minute, shake my head, walk past her, jog down the stairs, sprint out the side door past my father, who is locking the carcass of a turkey in the smoker, the scent of which will haunt me for the rest of my life but especially on that day as I run, as I ride my bike, as I climb the maple, as I try to read, play piano, watch TV – one thing after another after another until I find, at long last, that it’s approximately one o’clock in the afternoon, and I am approaching the state of grief, have exhausted all possible distractions when it rams me, annihilative as a semi, and I lie down on my bedroom floor and weep.    

Later that afternoon, we bring the family a platter of smoked turkey muffled in Saran wrap. Emily and I lie across her bed. That morning, she tells me, her father woke her up to kiss her goodbye – not a typical gesture. He knew, she says. He should have stayed home. Jordan sits in the living room and stares calmly at the wall. I say hi, and he sends me a puzzled smile. When his mother told him the news, he closed himself in the garage and beat the wall with his fists. He has washed them, but they still trickle blood. The bruises across his swollen knuckles are already beginning to purple.

 

Now twenty years later when I visit my parents, I drive past Chet’s cross where it stands nestled in the long grasses on the side of the highway. Several minutes later I pass the goose. I scan the roadside intently lest either of these objects slip past unnoticed. First, the white wooden cross with its sash of faded pink satin roses and his name, Chet Weller, nailed across its arms in black capitals. Second, the goose trussed up in its new ensemble – inscrutable, undying, attended. Why I must acknowledge them I don’t quite understand except that to be acknowledged is their purpose – to remind me that good people die randomly and young, yet there are other threads woven throughout the tapestry of life. For example, there is the comic, the slightly zany. There is the ubiquity of the ridiculous.

 

I scrutinize my daughter for signs of distress. Is she unusually tired? Is her appetite diminishing? Has she forgotten anything she once knew? Each of her actions is an occasion for observation, each storybook an exam. Beneath the high-pitched sing-song of my voice runs a current of urgency. Where’s the kitty? Can you point to the kitty? What does the kitty say?

 

Once when I was eleven years old and drifting off to sleep, I was struck by the certainty that my life would end that night. I was not sick or suicidal, just perfectly sure that I would not wake the next morning. I cried at the thought of my bereft mother and father, my brother and sister, my friends. I cried as I imagined my funeral. I cried that I would never again play piano or read a book. After tiptoeing into my parents’ room and trying without success to convince my mother of my imminent death, I returned to bed and cried myself to sleep. But then the unimaginable happened. I woke up the next day in perfect health, dressed, ate breakfast and caught the bus to school. At least, one version of myself did. In someone else’s universe, however – in someone’s universe who could bear the pain – I was convinced I had died. The school principal’s universe, perhaps, or the universe of a second cousin I had played with a handful of times. In this way, I thought, death would always be distant. Death would renew my appreciation for life, my gratitude for life, but it would not come close enough to crush me.  

 

I envy the woman who dresses the goose. The act betrays something that often escapes me. Frivolity, I think. Aimless enjoyment. Pleasure in the mundane.  

 

For a couple of years in my mid-twenties I worked with SXI (severely multiply impaired) kids from ages three to nine. One evening near the end of that era I found myself chasing a double dose of Vicodin with a six-pack of beer. A student I loved, Cece, a mere nine years old, had been slowly dying all year – since I had met her – though in truth they’d forecasted an early death from the day she was born. She had lost her ability to walk, then to stand, then to use her hands. Her seizures became longer and more frequent. She was fine-boned and thin with snappy brown eyes and freckles and a glossy black page-boy haircut. She was goofy and sweet. She loved to play little tricks on her classmates and ride therapy horses and visit her friends in other classrooms. Her coffin was small and white. I wore a skirt she would have loved. I never met her brother, who had died a few years earlier of the same disease. After the funeral, her parents wrote me a thank you letter. With it they enclosed a picture of Cece standing outside. Her eyes glow brightly, as if her head is full of sunlight. I cannot bear to look at the picture for very long. Her eyes shame me for reasons I can’t quite grasp. I was a little afraid of her; she was so delicate and so brave. She understood something crucial, something that she could not tell me, something that I do not, cannot know.

 

After the talk at the university, I approach the Congolese man and ask him what can be done to help. He directs me to a booth at the back of the room. I scrawl my signature on a petition for the U.S. government to suspend all non-humanitarian aid to Rwanda, whose government is arming and funding the rebels currently ravaging the DRC. I pick up a few fliers about activist groups and a fundraising hike.  

 

My daughter’s appointment is tomorrow. Today I sit her down so that I can chop vegetables for dinner, and she clings to my knees and screams. Eventually I give up and sit with her on the floor, build block towers that she, with the vehemence of a spiteful god, knocks over again and again and again.  

 

After Cece had left school to die, I visited her at her home. Her mother let me hold her like I used to do in class when she wasn’t feeling well. This time she felt smaller, emptier inside. Her skin had turned a pale grayish green, and her face had swelled, lips and cheeks and eyelids thick with fluid. She shook violently. But she seemed to remember me. She couldn’t use sign language anymore, but I think she remembered me. Her body still leaned against mine with its queer, familiar heft. When I handed her back to her mother and said my goodbyes, Cece fixed me with the same intent stare, urgent now, desperate to communicate something her failing body could not.    

 

Sometimes the goose is an opportunity to roll my eyes and wonder. Has the goose’s growing wardrobe demanded an entire closet? Does the woman organize the outfits according to season? Color? Holiday? And does she sew them herself, or does she order from a store? Could there be entire catalogues of goose costumes? Could there be a human being whose job it is to dream up new outfits for plastic poultry? To account for their short legs, their long necks, their substantial middle girth? To use these unique measurements to an advantage?       

 

Weeks later, I find the Congo fliers in the back of my car. They’re wet and the ink has smeared. I slip them into the recycling discreetly, as though I am being watched.  

 

I bought the six-pack on the way home from Cece’s. The bottles had barely begun to sweat when I popped the first cap and poured the dark bitter beer toward the two white pills already leaching comfort at the back of my throat. I stood in the middle of the kitchen, shoes on my feet, purse strap over my shoulder, sweater smelling faintly of her home, her soap, her souring skin. I tilted my head back and drank and drank.  

 

Though I’ve thrown out the fliers, the lecture continues to haunt me, so I find the Congo Activists of Michigan online. I register for their hike, sign up for their updates. I send out impassioned e-mails, raise three hundred dollars, walk five miles. I collect my friends’ used cell phones and computer parts and donate them to an organization that helps youth in the DRC set up social networking cells. I attend Congo Week at the university student center where I help catch people as they are passing and ask them to sign a letter to the Secretary of State. Send a postcard for peace in the Congo? Some say yes. Most say no, thank you, or they tell me that they are in a hurry. One girl pauses reluctantly. She is weary but willing. “What exactly do I have to do?” she asks.  

Two or three have heard of the crisis. They thank us for our work. The rest we give yellow half-slips of paper with a short summary of the conflict and a link to a documentary. When I leave the student center, I find one of the yellow sheets. The wind has blown it against the post of a bridge. It sticks there for a moment before slipping off and floating down into the dry bed of what used to be a stream.

 

Doctor Marla tweaks my daughter’s tiny nose before tiptoeing her fingers back beneath my daughter’s ear. I swallow hard, study the floor, think how this might be the moment I will recount years later, the moment when everything changed.  

 

Since 1994 the deaths from the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo are estimated at a little over six million. Such numbers are difficult to comprehend. Think Holocaust.  Think Rwandan genocide times seven. Think two Chicagos, think two Arkansas. Or if that doesn’t work, think a driveway of stones, think a field of wheat with its waves of ripe, golden heads. Or think of Chet and his children. Think of the woman who dresses the goose, of Cece, of my daughter. And then think of yourself and how precious you are. Think of your lover and your parents and your siblings and your children and the women you have loved and hated, and the men, and your teachers, and your coworkers, and all the men and women you have seen standing behind cash registers, and all of the people you have passed in cars, and everyone you have passed on the sidewalk; think of the children who have made you smile, and the children who have made you laugh, and the children who have cried when you were flying in a plane or shopping for groceries or just trying to read a book in a coffee shop, and the children who ride their bikes up and down the sidewalk in front of your home, and the children who you see riding up and down other sidewalks, and the children you have seen at the beach in summer running into the sea, and the children you have seen in the winter sledding down hills. I stress the children because mortality studies on the DRC conflicts report that three million who have died have been children, young children, children not even strong enough to lug minerals out of mines or to shoulder guns – children under the age of five. One Chicago of dead children under the age of five.    

 

I have seen the goose woman once or twice puttering about her yard. She looks as I expected her to look – short and solidly built with a stiff, gray hairdo. I have seen her watering her peonies in the mid-morning, sweeping leaves into tidy rows in the afternoon, but I have not seen her dressing her goose. I think perhaps it is part of her daily routine. She wakes, say, at seven o’clock. Dabs morning cream under her eyes, fishes her partials out of the water glass. Then she remembers the goose, and her heart quickens a little, reminds her of when her children would wake from naps and cry to her from across the house. Their voices were always so sudden and ardent that wherever she sat immersed in laundry or paperwork she would gasp a little and run to the nursery and stand a moment at the door with her hand on the handle, basking in that voice that called for only her. No, the goose is not the same, but as ludicrous as it is she still feels like she is taking care of someone – not the goose but maybe Mr. Henry, the neighbor five houses down, who always passes by dutifully at 8:30, behind his golden retriever. Or maybe her widowed Aunt Edith who visits when her rheumatism permits. Or maybe even someone she has not met, a young girl, a woman who drives past and cranes her neck for a brief glimpse of the goose’s new ensemble. A woman who thinks often on sad things. A woman for whom the goose, though she may not know it, is a relief.

 

Cece’s gaze still haunts me. I fear she was saying, “This never should have happened.” Or maybe, “Don’t forget me,” or, “Where is your anger?” or, “Don’t despair. When you die, I’ll find you, and we’ll talk.” Worst-case scenario: she was trying to tell me just how much she hurt, just how much she was afraid.  

 

Before I left my work with the handicapped children, I took pictures. Pictures of Julio dancing as he hummed the tune to “Twinkle Twinkle,” his right hand raised in its constant salute. Pictures of Janelle shooting me her trademark sideways smirk. Pictures of Harry carrying his lunch tray, a skill we had mastered over several months. Pictures of Micah lumbering to the office, the attendance sheet clenched in his determined grasp. Pictures of Meredith turning toward my voice with her sunniest smile.

 

“That’s a swollen lymph node,” Doctor Marla says. “We see them all the time, especially at this age. I hope they didn’t bring you in just for this.”

 

In the DRC, Dr. Denis Mukwege repairs women’s fistulas after rape or childhood pregnancy has torn their bodies apart. One evening, rebels invade his home. He ducks the gunfire, but his security guard is shot and killed. For the safety of his young family, he flees to Belgium. But he is haunted. Who will sew the women up now? Who will stitch their delicate organs back together? Certainly not me with my fundraising hikes, my postcards, my meager collection of outdated cell phones. Certainly not me, who scans articles from the safety of my home while my daughter naps on her soft mattress or patters from room to room, raising a toy in her fist like a dictator claiming a country. A few weeks later, Dr. Mukwege returns to his hospital in Bukavu. Further north, militants once more take the town of Goma. Refugees flee. One man, an article tells me, sprints from the city gripping a Thermos. He carries nothing else. In another article there is a picture of a father pushing his two children from town on a bicycle. Beneath their two thin frames, sacks bulge over the crossbars. The mother follows behind, bent forward under the bags on her back. She has hooked them over her head that she might use the strength of her neck, which bows forward so heavily she has no choice but to stare at the ground.

 

I showed a friend the pictures of the handicapped children, wanted to share their dear faces with someone I loved. I had only clicked through two or three shots when she stood up from the couch.  

“You hungry? I’m hungry,” she said, directing her gaze out the window.  

I tried another friend. The same thing happened – the silence, the shifting, the change of subject. Before meeting them, I would likely have done the same, would have been struck mute and sorrowful at the sight of their crooked faces, twisted limbs. I would have seen Julio’s thick eyebrows and missing fingers, Janelle’s wayward eyes, Harry’s milky stare, Micah’s giant helmet, Meredith’s wheelchair straps biting against her torso. I too would have been keenly aware of the tragedy and oblivious to the triumph it underscored – that life had carried on, despite its imperfections, and gifted the world these wonders, too.  

 

For a short time after the doctor’s news, relief dizzies me, makes me giddy. I whistle as I tug my daughter’s arms into her sweater. I skip out to the car as she bounces along on my hip. But the relief quickly fades. Yes, we have escaped death’s specter, but it will undoubtedly return. If this is some trifling exception, it is also a harbinger of the loss to come. One of us will bend over the other’s body after she has died, one of us will mourn and mourn and find little comfort.  

 

In the fall there are the orange and red warnings of cold. Chet’s and Cece’s bodies rot into velvet pillows under six feet of dirt. In the winter there are red berries capped with snow, cedar boughs that smoke green in the fire. Julio sings his favorite song. My daughter laughs whenever the cat walks into the room. In the spring there are days so suddenly warm and happy you feel like you are ten years old. A sixteen-year-old mother dreams of pits and screaming. In the summer I believe the green will never end; it is always a surprise when it does. A father pushes his whole life on a bicycle. A woman wakes up each morning and dresses a goose, smoothes a jogging suit over a white plastic back, slips on the matching headband thoughtfully outfitted with a nylon strap that promises to hold fast no matter the wind or the rain.   

CROPPED Lovett. Rainbow Cattle Co. 53

Bloodsport

Richard, a Filipino tricycle motorbike driver, agreed yesterday to drive us from Alona Beach, where we are staying, to the Sunday afternoon cockfight just outside of Panglao. He’s a quiet man, but patient with my gaggle of questions. I take to him right off the bat. Are there snakes here? Have you lived here always? There are and he has. Are you Catholic? Do you have children? He is and does. Do they like the beach? Who taught them to swim? They do and he did.

Richard is youthful, but not young. When he smiles, wrinkles form tributaries at the corners of his eyes, betraying his boyish brown face. Like the tires on his bike his hair is inky black except for the salt and pepper gray beginning to overtake his eyebrows. Richard doesn’t drink and declines my offer of a beer when I return from the convenience store, though back on the road he points out the Tanduay rum posters we keep passing.

“You like to drink? It’s very good,” he tells me.

I imagine a younger, childless Richard, hanging with the boys, barefoot in the street, passing a soccer ball—and maybe a bottle—back and forth as daylight wanes and the salty breeze picks up. Though my friends and I offer to pay his way, Richard refuses to join us at the fight.

“I don’t like the fighting,” he says as he lays back on his bike, positioning his head in the shade. A ball of guilt like a thought I’ve bagged, weighed down, tied, and sunk to the bottom of my gut drops in my stomach. The beer doesn’t chase it away, but I move on. The four of us—three boys and I—agreed before we came to the Philippines that we wanted to see a cockfight. Our reasons were varied, but mostly boiled down to the fact that cockfighting is a little like forbidden fruit. Cockfighting was outlawed in my home state when I was fifteen years old. We indulged a thirst for adventure, something we could excuse by being in another culture. So off we go for hours while gentle Richard snoozes in the shade, feet on the handlebars, a bony arm hooked over his eyes.

The Panglao Cockpit Arena is set back from the road, obscured from view by hundreds of motorbikes and a mess of shrubbery and trees. If it weren’t for the signage noting its location, passersby would have little idea what goes on there past the rickety wooden fence and through the homemade turnstile. After paying a nominal admission fee, visitors—mostly locals—move through the gate and into a courtyard lined on both sides with wooden stalls. Everything here is built of wood stained with years of rain, blood, and dirt and smells damp, with a hint of mildew. In the stalls where women sell coconut juice, fried breads, beer, Cokes and single cigarettes, the wood is worn, a dingy dark grey.

Crowing cocks call out from opposite corners of the arena, each cry hails louder than the grunts and bawls of men. The winged creatures are everywhere, every which way—tied to posts, wandering the grounds, blocking the path to the bathroom, in between legs, in men’s arms. Not one cock is caged. Here, the earth is moist. Dirt, dark and damp and soft, sparsely covered by splotches of grass and scattered drops of blood. Filipino men and boys carry the gamefowl like women carry toy-sized dogs—the birds’ ribcage resting on the forearm, the hand cradling the breast. And like women with small dogs, these men talk to their pets, stroke them, pamper them, clutch them like a beaked purse. These cocks, bred to fight, are more like the pit bulls of U.S. animal fighting lore. Affectionate and loving even to their masters, these pets turn carnal in a second, revealing a ferocity and a hidden strength. Men examine each others’ fighters with eyes made larger and brighter and more intense by the burnt sienna brown of their skin and the golden, purple-black, deep red feathers of the cocks.

At the back of the courtyard sits a vaulted open-air barn. Palm tree trunks serve as pillars to a rusting, corrugated metal roof. Visible through the slats of wood, men stand shoulder-to-shoulder on bleachers, waving their arms placing bets, flicking their hands back and forth, exclaiming words and numbers rapid-fire, as indecipherable as the cocks’ crows. One makes his or, in my rare case, her way into this roofed structure through a small doorway on the courtyard end or by climbing over a railing at the back. Sunlight seeks whatever gaps it finds and falls onto the raised dirt floor of the cockpit. Sweat glistens on the men in the ring; light turns their grey hair silver and black hair hematite. Rays of light and spokes of darkness alternate like keys on a piano; jagged lines of faces are illuminated throughout the arena. I push through the crowd of shouting, smoking men to find a place to stand, elbow-to-elbow, front to back, knee to knee. A slight breeze chills the beads of sweat on my neck. I raise my head, still working my way through the congregation, and come to a bit of a clearing. The arena floor comes into clear view. In this instant, the shouts of men and cries of roosters swirl together with perfume of tobacco and blood, rum and sweat. The afternoon air seethes with sharp impressions of life and death, of an urgency made more immediate by startling each sense.

A fight is about to begin and I am bewitched. Forget that I’ve lost my friends, forget my sunburned skin and the sweat trickling down my back, forget Richard on his bike, my family across the world—there is nothing else at this moment but the vibrating surges of excitement lighting up this small patch of dirt in Panglao.

The handlers each grip their respective fighters by the hackles while the referee also secures them. Because the cocks wear a gaff—a razor shaped like the blade of a scythe—attached to the back of one ankle the handlers are careful to hold them at arms’ length. The referee says something indistinguishable and the handlers shove the birds towards one another headfirst, close enough that a strike could peck the opponent’s eye out. Their wings—so richly colored they might be paint—flutter and the crowd’s collective voice dies down to a hush, enough to hear the whoosh whoooosh of feathers. A crow erupts like a battle cry if I’ve ever heard one, as if the bird has picked up a bugle to sound its aggression. The handlers drop them to the floor and they rage. Puffs of dirt are kicked up as the birds flip over one another. Light glints off of the gaff—glittery and tragically beautiful. Their wings slash and I hope one might get away but then remember cocks don’t fly. Instead, those wings swoop and slice through the air and dust, boomerangs sailing through the leafy crown of a tree. The sight is both brilliant and bleak: a flurry of feathers, streaks of red and yellow and black. I find it impossible to keep an eye on just one bird as they lash out relentlessly at one another, aiming for a kill zone.

They will kill or be killed; theirs is a stark and simple existence.

And then it happens.

I hold my breath.

The loser—now only a bird in form, no longer a tumble of color—shudders, stumbles, and spits up blood. The gaff penetrated his lung beneath the wing. His neck lurches forward, his head follows, lilting to the side, and he falls limp to the floor—a lifeless, feathered pile that, despite the heat, will quickly turn cold.

I had never seen a living thing die before, much less get killed, and I wonder again at that dull feeling in my stomach, at the human delight in obvious suffering. Voices pro- and anti-cockfighting sound off in my head, but I hush them, take in the scene: the men huddled over fences, watching from bleachers, arms waving, faces zealous, bets placed, cries bursting forth. This could be the cocksure horde on the trading floors of Wall Street; fight night at the Coliseum. When the bird lands that fatal blow to the other—the blade piercing a kill zone, which might mean the heart, a lung, a slash through the neck—and the loser staggers, goes limp, twitches, it’s the ultimate show. Nothing commands an audience like a killing. To behold life leaving the body is like watching someone you love drive away—growing smaller and more remote with each heartbeat. It is water gone down the drain; it is downy dandelion wisps floating away with the wind.

Cockfighters talk of destiny. They say cockfighting fulfills what a cock is born to do: fight to the death. And, possibly to the envy of some men, the gamefowl meets its destiny head on. Cocks lack both doubt and reservation; their presence and intent in the here and now are unadulterated. They don’t tax themselves with thought of money or career or of right versus wrong. They are bound by no sense of time beyond this heartbeat—no past, no future; there are no meetings to attend or dates to uphold, only this one which is happening now, thus receiving full attention from the little being. Indeed these are qualities to admire—and they have been admired throughout the sport’s nearly 3,000 year-old history. The Greeks used cockfighting to engender bravery and vigor among soldiers before battle. Soothsayers warned Marc Antony of Caesar’s power, citing the fact that Caesar’s cocks always beat Antony’s. A spectator feels the breath of history raise the hairs on his neck when he views a cockfight, old as history itself.

But how can we ever really know what something is born to do? A cock is born to fight because we control its upbringing. Might we also say it is born to laze about the yard and welcome the rising sun, surrounded by a brood of hens pecking at scattered seeds? Or is it born to strut about proudly and serve as a symbol for handsomeness, dignity, and a no-fear attitude?

A man in torn jeans and sandals lifts the dead bird by its feet. The head flops, no longer working against gravity. Blood drips onto the floor and death, with its peculiar energy, fills the air. A boy looks on, perched in a tree outside of the arena. His eyes meet mine and I am overwhelmed by his stare.

My thoughts take leave of the arena and the repeated deaths of these flightless birds. They go to Richard napping in the shade. Was he born to drive a trike and wait on wide-eyed tourists? “Everyman’s work,” wrote Samuel Butler, “whether it be literature, or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.” But a portrait is very different from purpose—it is an observation rather than intent. I can look at a bird and essay a portrait. I can look at Richard and see a gentle man waiting patiently for money to take home to his wife and children—the children he taught to swim in the ocean—the ocean which engulfs this tiny island where men play at life and death in different ways.

After several hours we leave the cockpit and return to Richard for the ride home. He looks refreshed and smiles at us. From the time we come into his view to the time we reach him, he stretches a smile full of grace that cleanses the world for a moment and brightens an already vivid afternoon. He seems genuinely happy to see us and his smile makes me self-conscious at the same time it comforts me, like when someone loves you and you’re grateful for it, but feel a bit undeserving.

“Did you like it?” he asks.

“Yeah, it was fun,” I say, but as the last word leaves my lips I know I did not get it quite right. Gripping, might have been a better word. Intense, even. We drive back over the dusty roads that have baked all day in the sun that is now setting behind us, and home to the rest of our group and dinner.

___

Just over a week later I am in another town on another island having a glass of beer with strangers. My friends and I walk into an open-air bar and we are each immediately greeted and grabbed by different groups who want us to sit down and have a chat. I watch, sort of bewildered, as my friends are divvied up as if the bar crowd had divined our arrival and chosen who they wanted where. I am the last to be invited to a table and it is one made up entirely of men. They are jovial; most have great big bellies that heave as they laugh, which they do immediately after their friend summons me and I accept. Certainly they are as surprised as I am. The man to my left asks for a cup with ice and he pours me some beer. He teaches me words in their dialect of Tagalog and writes them in my journal.

“You should come teach English in the Philippines,” he says. “You should marry him, he’s an architect,” he tells me, pointing at the man across the table from me. “You should visit Dumaguete again and come to one of our cockfights.”

“Do you raise fighters?” I ask.

“I’m the pit manager.”

“I went to a cockfight on Panglao.”

He tells everybody at the table. They are surprised and laugh again. And I understand their surprise, but my appreciation of the event is no less real, no less awakening than theirs. Their world of cockfighting is, most often, a world separate from women. Like many cultures and communities, that has changed some, but for the most part cockfighting is a man’s domain. This was apparent when I entered through the wooden gate in Panglao and took my place standing among the men in the bleachers. Light and dark cast the same shadows on my softer features that it did on theirs. I may have winced more, but I never shut my eyes. What these men are dealing in—basic matters of life and death—cannot be separated by gender.

We have more beer and conversation and when I try to excuse myself from the table to leave, he asks me to give him something so he can remember me. I sit back in my chair and look down, trying to think of a thing to give. I pull off the only accessory I have—a small bracelet made of wooden beads carved in the likeness of skulls.

“Here,” I say. “You can have this.” He puts it on, pulls it near his face and peers at it through squinted eyes in the dim light.

“What are they?” he asks, maintaining his puzzled expression.

“Skulls.”

His big shoulders move sharply and quickly at an angle away from me.

“Why?”

“Well, I guess to remind us that we will die, but we are alive now.”

“I don’t like it,” he says with shake of his head and flick of the wrist. I look at this man and smile slightly, unsure what to say, what to think. That he is more disturbed by my style than I am by his lifestyle will strike me only later.

Perhaps jewelry is a woman’s domain. Or perhaps this man, surrounded by death daily, carries around enough reminders.

 

Rainbow Cattle Co. 51 by Evie Lovett

Letter to my Son Jacob on his 5th Birthday

Mimi 1

 

It was a frigid New England February day, much like this one, when we were first introduced. Of course, I imagined that I knew something about you beforehand, by the way you moved and kicked and somersaulted in my belly — by your satisfied silences and painful protests. The only ‘real information’ I had was that you appeared to be healthy, and that you were a girl.

I prepared your sister and our home for your advent: Another crib with attractive floral bedding, matching dresses, spring bonnets in duplicate and coordinating bathing suits for the summer. Your dad protested all this unnecessary expenditure, but I slyly reasoned that birthdays a half year apart meant that hand-me-downs would be seasonably unsuited. And so I dreamed, and I clicked, and adorable and trendy confections in pink and purple and mint and magenta arrived at our doorstep. It was folly but it was fun.

When we finally met you were momentarily silent. You took a pause to adjust to your surroundings before announcing your presence as I anxiously strained the only autonomously movable part of my body, my neck, to catch a glimpse of you around the blue curtain where the surgeon had extracted you from my womb. The surgery had been painful, the anesthetic insufficient, but all that was forgotten as every fiber of my being was focused on your unseeable presence. And then I heard you. You didn’t whimper, you didn’t cry, you didn’t squall. You ROARED: “Here I am!” Soon after, as you lay swaddled near my head in a white towel with pink and blue stripes, I was able to gaze into your eyes through a happy haze and introduce myself in return.

“Hello Princess,” I said, “I’m your Mama.”

Mimi 2

Your dad often recounts the moment he held you first. Your hearty, solid body, your pumping fists and legs and the surprised thought, “This one is a different model,”comparing you to your dainty sister. In the weeks after, we would share all the funny and not so funny moments with our friends: the attempted VBAC, the insuing complications and that hilarious moment when the anesthesiologist, from her poor vantage point at the head of the gurney called out, “It’s a boy!” Hilarious, because you were not, most definitely not, a boy.

What you most definitely were was a spirited little thing. As you grew, you had a way of fearlessly barreling around and into things that earned you the nickname “honey badger.” For mild plagiocephaly (flat head), you wore a bright pink football helmet for several months before your first birthday. We assigned your audacity to the fact that the helmet protected you from the consequences of most of your escapades.

mimi 3

 

Mimi 4

You had a curiously deep voice and a blithely cheerful personality. As our second child, you benefited from the benign inattention of more relaxed parenting. However, despite its charms, your ‘knock about-edness’ began to concern us as time went on. You lacked coordination, constantly falling off and into things, sometimes seeming to deliberately throw yourself into the couch or floor. We contacted our local Early Intervention specialists and after a lengthy assessment you received services for Sensory Perception Disorder, a minor hiccup in an otherwise pristine medical record.

When your baby sister came along you were still in diapers. You welcomed her with generosity, with no significant jealousy or displacement. You three were so close, so affectionate to each other. Our family was complete. Three healthy, bright, beautiful girls: we had spun the wheel of fortune and won the jackpot. There were no clouds on the horizon and the sun shone in perpetuity. Of course I exaggerate. There were tussles and tiffs, bumps and bruises, reflux and influenza, terrible twos and tormentuous threes. But for the most part, I was grateful beyond measure that our lives were so lovely, so ordinarily good. I enjoyed posting pictures of my darling daughters, now dressed in triplicate, to Facebook, and I reveled in the compliments we received.

Mimi 5

 

As you crested the middle of your second year you developed a curious habit, a persistent routine. You started to change your clothes repeatedly, maybe 10–12 times throughout the day. I reacted with both annoyance and mounting concern. Your pile of sartorial rejects meant exponentially more laundry. Goodbye matching dresses. My concern was that your habit was tinged with compulsion. When you woke up crying at 2am one night begging to be allowed to change into a new outfit, I called your pediatrician. Since you did not display other signs of compulsiveness we associated your desire to change with your general sensory seeking behavior. You were changing clothes in order to feel the fabrics rub against your skin. Children with a sensory deficit often seek sensations because they do not experience them to the full extent that the rest of us do in the ordinary course of our day.

This theory held water for only so long, for soon after you started preschool at 2.9 years, you became attached to one particular garment — a short-sleeved cornflower blue turtleneck sweater with a brown dog on the front which you wore for the next six months with few exceptions. You wore your ‘doggy sweater,’ day and sometimes, if you won the battle, night. You wore it over your tutu to ballet class, and over your holiday dress to see Santa at the mall. I ordered several more on eBay. Again, I cursed silently as I increased the frequency of my laundry to accommodate your needs. Since the weather was chilly we had a temporary reprieve from having to figure out how the doggy sweater would work on top of swimwear. I decided to fight that battle come spring. But by the time spring arrived our struggles over the doggy sweater would seem trivial compared to something new and far more alarming.

Mimi 6

 

Mimi 7

 

In the interim between the advent of the doggy sweater and your third birthday you set a stake in the ground and declared yourself a boy. At first we bantered with the word “pretend.” We explained, and you acknowledged, that you were pretending to be a boy. At preschool you tentatively assigned yourself to the male faction of the class and you were told that you were pretending, and that pretending was fine as long as it didn’t interfere with the workings of the school day. When I was told that you were told that you were pretending, I nodded and acquiesced. It made sense. This new thing was foreign and it was troublesome and above all, it seemed unhealthy. Another obsession. Another whim.

Whim or not, our home soon became a battleground over gender with you constantly pulling me, your dad and your older sister into unwilling skirmishes. You would glare at us with your huge defiant brown eyes and say, “I AM A BOY,” and I, a great believer in the principle of the inverse proportionality of parental disapproval to a child’s sedition gave little protest. I would sigh: “That’s fine sweetheart. You can be what you want to be in our home.”

I kept your sister off your back when she protested your apparent disregard for basic biology (which we explained to you). We started to have discussions about the narrow-mindedness of gender expectations: pink and blue, dolls and trains. We assumed that you were stating a preference for things un-girly. We couldn’t comprehend that you could even conceive of what gender was when you had barely begun preschool. So we told you to go ahead and wear boy clothes, and that gray was a perfectly acceptable favorite color for a three year old girl, and that yes, if it was important to you, we would call you Jackson, or Max or Jake or whatever the nom du jour was.

Mimi 8

Mimi 9

 

You never asked us to call you anything but Mia, your birth name, in the public arena. But our soothing acceptance never seemed to be enough. You became watchful and guarded at school and in public. At home, there were many occasions that you let go, hitting, kicking and punching, wailing and screaming: “Don’t talk to me!” “Get away from me,” and frequently, “You ruin everything!” Your anger seemed atypical, in excess of the ordinary emotional vicissitudes of being three.

You had always been jolly and loving as an infant but now I was the only one you would kiss and hug — you frequently exploded if anyone else tried to show you affection. Sometimes, even with me, if I casually brushed your hair with my hand or gave you an unsolicited hug you would recoil and bark angrily at me. And that was another thing — your new, quite unsociable habit of pretending you were a dog when people addressed you. You would lope around in a circle, as if chasing an invisible tail, tongue hanging out, “Aarf! Aarrrf!!” leaving us to explain your odd behaviors. To be fair, we had many peaceful moments and it wasn’t all bad. Sometimes you relaxed and your beautiful happy nature shone through. Those moments were a blessing, a dream — and I cherished every one, bracing for the next upset.

I knew that being ‘as a boy’ was important to you. I knew little of the word “transsexual.” I had first encountered it as a young adult, riveted to the dark thriller Silence of the Lambs, in which the antagonist, “Buffalo Bill,” skinned his victims in order to create for himself a ‘woman’ body suit. I was aware that there was a newer term — transgender — and that, in my way of thinking at the time, younger people could be ‘afflicted’ with this too. It was weird, it was beyond the pale, it was, to my current shame, slightly grotesque. I did not truly believe that it applied to my beautiful, round-faced, bright-eyed, innocent preschooler.

But then one day in the late fall of your third year I attended a routine parent teacher conference. Your teacher expressed her concern in hesitant tones: “You know, Mrs. Lemay, has it ever occurred to you, is it possible — that Mia may actually believe she is a boy?” You had just learned how to write your name, all jumbled letters and fat precious pen strokes. We were so proud of you. You however, did not share our pride. Apparently, when required to write your name you would comply, but then immediately cross it out. This obliteration of the marker of your given identity spoke volumes about how you perceived or rather, refused to perceive yourself.

Reality, which had been hovering just out of conscious reach, struck. My stomach churned. I tasted the ash in my mouth (I never understood that expression before). Tears stung as they welled up in my eyes. I tried to stem the flow out of embarrassment, wiping my eyes and nose on my sleeve, standing in the middle of the bare auditorium, no box of tissues in sight. Not my little girl. Not happening. Please wake up.

I stumbled through the next days in a painful haze. We were a few weeks shy of winter break and I reached out to a friend of ours, a therapist who had worked with at-risk LGBTQ youth. As we stood doling out cheddar cheese bunnies and pretzels to our raucous offspring on a play date she confirmed my fears — we should consider that you might be transgender.

I pressed her to tell me what that meant. Not the dictionary definition, but what the implications were: to your future, to your physical and mental well-being and to our family. I heard words like “outcomes” and “high-risk” and “medical intervention” and statistics like “over 40% attempted suicide,” and my world started to unravel. She tried to temper these dark things with words of encouragement and moral support, however it was impossible to process any further. The blood was rushing too strongly in my head as my heart was being carried downstream with the vestiges of my fantasy of a wonderful life for you.

I freely write about the negative emotions that the possibility of your transgender nature evoked with regret, but no shame. By now, you know how proud I am of you, how happy I am to be your mother, and how I perceive your unique nature as a precious if puzzling gift. At the time though, it was a devastating blow.

I began to grieve, waking up in the early morning hours biting my pillow to silence the sobs, my sheets bathed in the stink of bad dreams. I was losing you, my precious daughter. You were in the room next to me in peaceful childhood slumber, but you were most assuredly slipping from my grasp, hurtling into a void of social rejection, physical mutilation and suicidal depression. I felt helpless. I began, as many parents do when faced with a child that has unique needs, to ask, “What is the treatment?” by which I meant: What is the cure.

I called the Gender Management Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital, and although you were too young for the program they referred me to a therapist who had experience with transgender youth. She was not covered by our insurance at the time but was willing to speak with me at length on the phone. She advised me that many children — up to 70–80%, who present as gender-non-conforming (running the gamut from tomboy/effeminate to truly transgender) revert to their assigned, or ‘born’ gender upon reaching puberty. Oh phew. What a relief. “Keep things fluid,” she further advised, “Try not to box your daughter into making a choice either way. Just show support.” All good advice and I was temporarily buoyed by the hopeful news. To my desperately seeking ears, this meant you might well be going through a phase. How wonderful.

And so we left things. You asked to cut your hair and we gave you a sweet pixie cut. Keep it fluid. It was all about compromise those days. Slowing your inexorable march toward all things boy. For your dance recital, your instructor graciously allowed you to wear a tux with a bright pink bow-tie and cummerbund to match the sequined tutus your classmates wore. Your wardrobe was by this time mostly boy clothes. I say mostly, because I snuck in girl clothes in dark colors…they had tiny embellishments, embroidered hearts and bows that reminded me that one day, you could be my little girl again. In my eyes, they also served to ward off the questions I imagined I would have to answer about your appearance to those who knew you as a girl.

Mimi 10

 

For a while you tolerated this deceit, but you soon became quite canny at the subtleties of gendered clothing. You would reject the white Peter Pan collar in favor of the crisp button-down. A-line shirts and ruched sleeves disappeared from your drawers, along with velour and Lycra. Hanukkah and Christmas came and went and you received superhero action figures and matchbox cars from us and your wonderfully perceptive Grammy and purple pajamas and pink pencil sets from well-meaning loved ones who didn’t understand the extent of your preferences. You jumped for joy with the one and wrathfully rejected the other. Even I still clung to the belief that if you could only see the gray areas between the pink and blue you might find yourself at home somewhere in between. Hence the Katniss Everdeen doll that made its way into your heap of Christmas loot. I still recall your look of utter disdain.

Mimi 11

 

It was soon February again and we celebrated your fourth birthday. And you grew taller, wiser and accomplished many things. Over the winter break I had tentatively broached the topic: Would you be happier with a boyish/unisex name at school? You categorically refused. Your answer gave me a covert thrill of hope. I dared to dream that you were not fully committed to being a boy, and that you would be one of the preponderance of kids who ‘figured it out’ because their parents didn’t make a huge deal out of it. For use at home, you settled with us on a name which sounded similar to your given name in order to avoid the confusion of the daily merry go round of arbitrary boy names. We urged you, and you accepted the name Mica.

It was your dad who came up with a brilliant scheme — when you went to school, you could add an apostrophe, a little sickle on top of the “I” in Mia that would stand in for a letter “C.” This would mean you were writing Mica, not Mia and therefore you needn’t cross it out. We all giggled at the subterfuge and it was enough, for a while.

But I knew in my mother’s heart that you were not truly happy. Not like your sisters. Not like the unburdened joy that I thought you ought to have felt coming from a warm loving home with plenty of affection, positive experiences and toys galore. There was an un-childlike, persistent sadness that lay about you like a pall in those years which should have been so magical.

Mimi 12

 

You see, I believe that what had happened while I was wasting my energy hoping that you would make peace with your biology was that we had become unwitting contributors to your fracture into two different people: “Mica” and “Mia.” Home and school. Boy and girl. Unguarded and guarded. Open and shut. Reality (yours) and role-play (ours).

On the home front things were most certainly getting ‘better,’ or should I say, ‘easier?’ Your tantrums subsided as we managed to convince you that we were truly OK with you being a boy and that we believed that what you felt about your identity and your expression of it was your choice. Your sister had become a huge support in this regard. Not many five-year-olds could act with the grace and compassion that she did (and still does). She stopped teasing you about not being a ‘real boy’ and accepted our mantra that “what you are in your heart and your mind is far more important than what you are in your body.” The hard knot of your anger started to dissolve. We all basked in this momentary detente.

In the early spring of your fourth year we went on a glorious trip to Disney World where you were the only kid we saw in a Prince Charming costume. You glowed when strangers stopped and remarked, “Isn’t he adorable!!” and “What a handsome little man!” and we didn’t correct people, because we knew how much you enjoyed being ‘mistaken’ for a boy. The status quo was an OK place to be.

Mimi 13

 

But back at school, activities and in our community at large you remained markedly withdrawn. Our reports from your teachers were that, if prompted, you joined in group activities. You rarely, if ever, engaged your peers in free play. The day you hugged your teacher for the first time brought her to tears. I believe you occupied a special place in her heart and that she felt protective of you. I am so grateful for the good people in our lives.

Despite the fact that you were beginning to relax in the classroom, you continued to erect walls between yourself and others. The barking and loping persisted, and always there was the hood that would come over your eyes that said: shutting down now. In my ignorance I even wondered at times whether you were touched by a mild form of autism, but it seemed incongruent that this behavior turned on and off as if by a switch.

It was that playdate at Papa Ginos that shuttled me right over the edge from keeping it fluid to the time is now. To be truthful there were many small fissures forming in the Theory of Status Quo as I have now come to see it. There was your tearful sister begging me to force you into a dress so that “people will treat her nicer.” There was the sweet little girl at a birthday party that asked me about you: “What is that? Is that a BOY or is that a GIRL?” There were the burgeoning signs of dysphoria (“What’s wrong with my body? Why did God make me like this? Is he stupid?”).

But what finally broke me from my unhappy trance was nothing more complicated than a post-last day of school pizza party where I got a chance to see you interact with your classmates outside of a structured setting. Everyone was there, the boys, the girls, and most of the moms. You sat down at the edge of a gaggle of girls and tucked into your slice. No one jostled you in friendly banter, no one yelled, “Come on Mia! Let’s run to the end of the restaurant and back!” The happy little bodies were in constant locomotion, stepping around you and over you as you sat staring at your pizza. Then you looked up at a group of boys being disciplined by their frustrated moms for running amok, “Sit down Jack! Behave Grady!” and the expression on your face skewered me. It was a hunger that I had never seen before. You weren’t confused. You knew where you belonged. You just didn’t know how to get there. What if it was I who was responsible for showing you the way?

School was officially out for the year. You were signed up for the next year. Another year, deposit down, of living two lives. Open-shut, boy-girl. I watched you carefully during the next week while you enjoyed a camp run at your preschool, and I thought and I weighed, and I deliberated and I doubted until a million possible futures nearly drove me to distraction. What if? Your dad and I talked long into the evenings after you had gone to bed and in the mornings before we emerged from ours. A video had gone viral in the weeks before. A slideshow of a transgender boy, not much older than you, whose loving California family had supported his public transition. We wondered if seeing the pictures of this boy who was so obviously happy in his ‘new skin’ could make you believe in the possibility of your own fulfillment.

It was Friday, June 13, in the evening after your last day of preschool camp when we called you upstairs into your Dad’s office. We told you we had something for you to see and so you sat, engulfed in your dad’s big black swivel chair as he cued the video on his laptop. I translated the words into ‘kidspeak’ as they began to flit across the screen, accompanied by wonderful, endearing pictures. You viewed intently and solemnly as young Ryland Whittington was transformed from a beautiful little girl with golden locks into a handsome smiling boy in a buzz-cut and tuxedo. When the video ended you asked to watch it again. Then you sat staring at your hands. We asked you what you thought about the boy and you shrugged, stone-faced. The walls you had erected were made of hardier stuff than we expected. But the moment was now. All three of us in this room, your palpable pain, the resolution we needed to help you find.

So I got down on my knees and took your soft, still baby-like little hands in mine. I asked you to look at me but when you lifted your beautiful gaze to mine, I was momentarily speechless. I rallied: “I believe you,” I said and I didn’t bother to wipe the tears with my sleeve this time. “We believe you. All we want is for you to be happy, but you need to help us understand what will make you happy.” Your dad knelt down next to you too. “Do you want to be a boy all the time like that boy we showed you?” he asked gently. Your eyes filled immediately. “I can’t,” you responded with a quivering lip. “I HAVE to be Mia at school and Mica at home.”

So we told you. We told you about the choices, any of which you could make — or not. We told you that these choices were yours. Among which, you could continue at your school as Mia. Or, you could go there next year with any new identity and finally, more radical yet, we could find you somewhere to start anew, to simply be the boy you had insisted for so long that you were. You paused a long while. I didn’t know if you could do it. I didn’t know if you had the faith in us to tell us what you truly wanted. I didn’t know if you could imagine a future where you were whole — one identity: body and mind. You broke the silence. “I want to go to a new school. I want to be a boy always. I want to be a boy named Jacob.”
Mimi 14

 

Mimi 15

 

Jacob, my love. It’s been nine months and change since that fateful Friday and so much has transpired to make us believe that the journey we are taking together is the one we need to be on. It’s been tough, make no mistake, and solving your more immediate identity crisis did not resolve all the latent feelings of shame and sadness that you have suffered. But the powerful effect of your transformation was almost immediately felt by all who knew you and loved you.

Within days of beginning life anew as Jacob you began to stand up straight and look people in the eye. You stopped barking like a dog and running for cover. In allowing your transition, we were only hoping to help your spirit survive. We did not expect the seismic shift in your personality that we experienced. You cracked your first real joke within a week, took a fresh interest in learning your alphabet (ironic since school was out) and so much more. You started to cuddle and kiss, laugh and sing —and the dam just broke. You talked and talked and talked as if someone had taken a muzzle off your mouth. You took up hobbies, collecting anything and everything you found that piqued your interest (mostly detritus: scraps, stones and screws you picked off the street to my chagrin). That summer, the world opened up its treasures to you.

Your dad and I were astounded, delighted and profoundly gratified. These positive experiences were crucial for us, because those early days were laden with fear. We were always double, triple, quadruple guessing our decisions, approaching each “re-introduction” with trepidation. It all seemed so fragile. We fretted: Who would break your trust? Who would clip your wings? Who would sneer or giggle or laugh, sending you running back for cover? But you were strong, not fragile. You were brave, not weak.

Together we weathered the firsts. The first time we wrote your name — yours, a triumphant experience, mine, accompanied by a floodgate of tears. The first time I asked someone to call you Jacob, and finally, the first time that you did. Your first Christmas acknowledged as a boy. You confessed afterward that you had half expected Santa would forget and bring you Mia’s presents. Oh baby. The first public announcement, followed by a deluge of love and support from beloved family and friends — their support carried us and continues to carry us. The first week of the new school (you were obsessed about the bathrooms for the longest time) and the first time we ran into someone from your old school (it was awkward, we survived).

Mimi 16

 

Mimi 17

 

Jacob, my love, it is you that have transitioned us to a life less ordinary, and so much more meaningful than it ever would have been. Thank you deeply for your sacred trust. The mystery that is you may never be amenable to a full resolution. I don’t know what’s beyond the next bend in the road but I am no longer afraid.

I believe in the goodness of people. And I believe in your ability to dispel much of the ignorance and intolerance in those you may encounter. I look at how fine a human being you are becoming— far beyond my meager original intentions — and I know that the future is bright for you. I am no longer afraid.

And it is because I no longer fear: the outcomes, the medical interventions, the bigotry, that I will not be filing this birthday letter in a box in our attic with those of earlier years. Rather, momentarily, I will set these words free — relinquishing my control over their trajectory and destination. Their intent is to provide comfort and strength to another mother or father with an aching heart. To provide the message: It doesn’t get better. It gets awesome.

For I have seen and wish to share remarkable things. In those early days as Jacob, I saw the most authentic parts, in the deepest reaches of you, begin to unfold. I saw you take your first huge breaths. I saw the clouds above your head scatter and run. At first there was a silence, as you paused to take in the new world around you, and then you roared: I AM HERE!! It was then that I realized that we had indeed met before, but that truly I had not recognized you that first time. It was then that my grief began to depart as I knew in my soul that you had always been my son, Jacob.

And so always, my love,

Mom

SWEAT_1000x700 by toby gonzalez

Stuck

“A million freemen may yet inhabit those counties which, while their wealth lay hidden, were disregarded for more fertile parts, but which, when developed, will furnish forth the wealth of an empire.”

–Charles Walker,
The History of Athens County, Ohio 1867

I walked through the double doors of the plasma center at eleven a.m., right behind a man who looked like he’d just spent the night in his car. His hair pitched awkwardly atop his head, and his loose T-shirt hung low beneath the trim of his bomber jacket. I stood behind him in line at the reception desk and looked around the room. I had imagined a rusty, back-alley nightmare of cracked linoleum, flickering fluorescents, stained lab coats, and crumpled dollar bills—the grime beneath the folds of Darwinian capitalism. Instead, I was greeted by starched lab coats, bleached teeth and ponytails, waxed floors, and a computer-automated check-in system—the highly polished face of a multi-billion dollar industry. I waited in line and watched the receptionist give instructions to the man at the counter. Then she waved me forward.

I read waivers and signed forms and stood for my picture. She took my weight on a digital scale, and then led me to a touch-screen computer console where I answered a long questionnaire, mostly concerning my history of sexual contact with drug users and prostitutes. I pushed the “no” button over and over, except after the questions, “Are you male?” and, “Are you feeling healthy and well today?”

After I completed the questionnaire, another young woman in a white coat pricked my finger, measured my iron and protein levels, my blood pressure, and my temperature before sending me to the nurse for a physical, where a woman in blue scrubs checked my balance, asked about tattoos and drug use, and lectured me briefly on getting plenty of protein and fluids. Then she led me to an empty place in a row of brown, vinyl reclining beds situated at the rear of the donation center.

My fellow donors, already prostrate and hooked to donation machines, were distracting themselves with magazines, paperbacks, and other reading material. One donor held a portable DVD player in his lap. Another had his face buried in his phone, and another just lay there with a vacant expression on her face, one arm in her lap and the other at her side, her forearm turned upward to expose a vein. A single crimson tube draped low from her elbow toward the ground and then arced back up into a machine that clicked and beeped at her side.

“Lie down,” said the young woman in the white coat, but with the sweet Appalachian twang of her voice, I could have sworn I heard, “make yourself at home.”

 

Once upon a time, Southeast Ohio had the largest coal deposits in the world. At its peak, the coal industry extracted more than 55 million tons of coal a year from more than one thousand mines around the state. For decades, coal from the region fueled American industry and brought thousands of immigrants to the Appalachian countryside. They settled in small villages that grew up around the mines, and breathed life into a region of the country long overshadowed by more promising territory to the west.

Of course, Melissa and I didn’t know any of this when we moved to Athens, Ohio, a college town built on the western edge of the Appalachian range. We’d both grown up in Oregon, less than two hours from the Pacific Ocean, and we went to college in northern Utah. Droughts and endangered salmon and BLM land and wolf packs were a normal part of our local-news reality. East of the Mississippi might as well have been East of the Nile.

What I did know about Ohio came from memories of my high school history books and those large pull-down maps that hung above classroom chalkboards. I could picture Lake Erie and the great dipping curve of the Ohio River, and I knew that the land in between had been the nation’s first notion of a western frontier, but that’s about it.

As for Appalachia, I knew even less, mere caricature: Hatfields and McCoys, trailer parks and drawled speech, kids named Billy Bob and family trees that didn’t fork. For us, coming to southeast Ohio was nothing more than a means to an end; a brief stop for graduate school on the way to somewhere better. I never once thought about the people who’d come before me, or why they might have chosen to stay.

 

Reclining in my donor bed, I watched Jason, the phlebotomist, move from machine to machine with a grace and offhandedness that surprised me. As he checked meters and unwrapped tubes, he rattled off the details of the donation process. Plasmapheresis, he called it, explaining that he would insert a needle into my arm and the blood would start flowing into the large, almond-colored machine standing beside my bed. He explained that the plasma would be separated from my blood in a centrifuge and that the residual red blood cells would be pumped back into my body. He warned me that I might get a metallic taste in my mouth, that I must keep pumping my hand or the machine would stop working, and finally, that despite blinking lights and warning systems built into the machine, there was a slight chance that air might enter a vein, which could make me terribly sick or maybe even kill me. Then he placed a clipboard in my hand and said, “Just sign here that you heard me explain that.”

 

The first white settlers came to southeast Ohio in 1787, led by a Revolutionary War veteran named Rufus Putnam. He had the ear of President Washington and the entire Northwest Territory to choose from, but instead of the fertile Miami River Valley to the west, or some economically strategic location closer to Pittsburgh, or Lake Erie, Rufus and his men chose the tumbling, rolling countryside of southeast Ohio. Other settlers thought Putnam and his company was crazy, but Putnam had a vision for the region and dreams of a bustling metropolis on the banks of the Ohio River, an economy fed by rich farmland and a thriving fur trade. His advertisements described a “delightful region…of a much better quality than any other known to New England,” and for that first exhibition, he signed up 60 men. Still, Ohio was a hard sell for most would-be immigrants. Even after treaties were forced on the natives, even after forts and mills were constructed, even after plans for a university were introduced, only the most desperate and adventurous settlers would take the risk.

 

I had not planned on donating plasma in Ohio, but the impossible math of a graduate student stipend divided by Melissa, me, and our two boys inevitably added up to a visit with a financial aid officer, the small hope of a big loan, and the curious anxiety of mortgaging one’s future for a chance at surviving the present. Add the specter of Christmas on the horizon and you get a perfect formula for fatherly desperation. After just a few months in Athens, I saw a poster for the plasma center hanging on a wall at school. “Save a Life,” it read, and it promised $240 a month. I was sold.

 

During the last decade of the eighteenth century, a slow drip of immigrants arrived in Ohio from the Northeast—families signing on a few at a time for a chance to test the region’s potential. And if that pace had held, Ohio might have remained for many years a sparsely populated forest of fur traders and subsistence farmers. However, shortly after the turn of the century, those farmers and fur trappers began taking notice of the coal. And then the industrial revolution turned that coal into black gold, and by the 1850s large mining interests were laying out a system of railroads to carry immigrants and equipment into the hills, and cartloads of coal back out. Labor came from England, Wales, Scotland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and elsewhere, and by 1884 there were more than 20,000 miners and their families scattered around the region. A man whose children might have starved in the old country could swing a pick underground in Ohio for a few dollars a week, chipping away at a vein of coal so deep and so thick it would take a legion of men two lifetimes to remove.

 

I have good veins, the kind inexperienced phlebotomists dream of at night. Protruding from my forearms “like garden hoses,” according to one employee, they make easy targets for even the shakiest hand. Thankfully, Jason didn’t need the extra help. “Don’t worry,” he said, as he held up the needle. “I’ve been doing this for years.” He tapped my arm, slid the needle under my skin, and just like that, I was a donor, plugged in and pumping away.

While the machine processed my plasma, I read from my book, kept my fist pumping, and occasionally looked up at the other donors around me. The man with the DVD player was still watching his movie, the man with the cell phone was still texting, and the woman with nothing still stared blankly into space. Our machines hummed along, and every few minutes a finished donor and a pale orange bottle of plasma would leave, and a new donor with an empty bottle would fill the void.

After about an hour, I’d donated my quota and my left-over red blood cells were pumped back into my veins for a final time, followed by a 500 ml chaser of saline that was supposed to boost my blood volume and keep me from fainting. On my way out, a nurse handed me a debit card loaded with twenty dollars and told me I could come back twice a week, for as long as I could stomach it.

 

Mining in Ohio was good work, if you could handle it. Small towns near remote mine entrances all around southeast Ohio were full of immigrants who thought they could. The towns had simple names like Coal Run and Buckhorn, and family names like Murray, Buchtel, and Mudoc, and optimistic names like New Philadelphia, New Lexington, and New Pittsburgh: places where people could start fresh, chase the dream of getting ahead, and, in reality, spend a lot of time just hanging on. Companies built shack housing and paid employees in scrip—play money that was good only at company stores. The hours were long and the system parasitic—the success of the mine sometimes determined less by the amount of coal extracted from the ground and more by the dollar value of scrip that never left company property. Many mining families lived on site, worked on site, shopped on site, and if the town lasted long enough, died on site.

 

Just across the street from the plasma center was a Wal-Mart. It wasn’t the only shop in town, but sometimes it felt that way. Sure, Athens had a Kroger, a BigLots!, a Lowe’s, and a few other smaller stores, but no matter how we tried to avoid it, we ended up at Wal-Mart at least once a week. Light bulbs, Band-Aids, diapers, milk, cereal, paint, shoelaces—they were all cheaper at Wal-Mart. And its proximity to the plasma center made shopping there that much easier. More than a few times I finished donating only to pull across the street to the Wal-Mart and drop everything I’d just earned on a few groceries. And there, at Wal-Mart, more than anywhere else in town, I ran into employees from the plasma center. On the way to work, or just getting off, they too made the requisite Wal-Mart stop. Sometimes we waved, or exchanged silent nods, but usually we just kept our heads down, closed up in our own little worlds.

 

Coal mining was not for the claustrophobic. It meant working in dark, low tunnels hundreds of feet underground for long hours with nothing but your partner, your light, and the rats to keep you company. It meant tight quarters and an ever-present fear that a fire might break out, a pillar might snap, and a shaft might seal itself off in a crumbling cloud of dust and rubble. On a Friday morning in April 1856, the pillars of a mine shaft near Blue Rock, Ohio, collapsed, trapping four miners beneath several hundred feet of dirt and rock. Fellow miners dug for days, and, near the end of the second week, they heard voices coming from beneath them. By the time the men had been pulled to safety, they’d spent more than fourteen days buried alive, trapped in an underground air pocket with nothing to drink but a bit of murky water collecting in a pool on the floor of the mine shaft. I imagine the entire town heaving a collective sigh of relief when their men emerged from the mine, but what could those men do but dust themselves off and go back to work?

 

 

Once, during my pre-donation screening, while the attendant was checking my protein levels in a microscope, I asked her if she’d ever seen any accidents at the clinic.

“What do you mean, ‘accidents’?” she said.

“You know, something goes wrong with a donor?”

“Sometimes we have people pass out,” she said. “A few times a year.” Apparently, a majority of problems occur while a person is simply reading about donating. They turn white in the face, get shaky, vomit, and sometimes lose consciousness altogether. One woman became so frightened by the sight of an unwrapped needle that she swore, “Oh my God,” and ran out of the center.

Later, while lying in my donor bed, my machine began to beep. It was a familiar sound. “Just an air bubble,” said the phlebotomist. Two or three times during a donation, the plasmapheresis machine detects the presence of air somewhere in the blood line and it shuts down until a phlebotomist comes and pushes a few buttons to purge the system.

“I think I can handle an air bubble,” I said. The phlebotomist gave me a funny look.

“You think you can handle air bubbles?”

“I mean . . . I can handle the beeping,” I said, and she stopped at the foot of my bed.

“Well,” she laughed. “The nurse tells me it takes at least 10 milliliters of air to kill you.” She said this in a voice that was, I think, supposed to sound reassuring.

 

Families in mining towns lived at the mercy of the companies they worked for—the steady flow of coal their only reassurance against poverty, hunger, and cold. If an accident or strike or dried-up mine rendered a town unprofitable, the company could pack up and go, leaving the men and their families to find other ways of making do.

In 1920, a coal processing structure burned to the ground in San Toy, a small mining town northeast of Athens. More than 2,500 people had moved to San Toy since its founding in 1901. The company town boasted a theater, a baseball team, and a hospital, but instead of rebuilding after the fire, the Sunday Creek Mine Company shut down one mine and eventually withdrew from the city completely. Within eight years the town was empty. What equipment could be salvaged was distributed to other nearby mines, and the hundreds of displaced workers had little choice but to pick up and follow the equipment, leaving behind a ghost town, a tiny scar on the hillside stitched together by vacant rail lines fading slowly into the undergrowth.

 

After I’d donated plasma a few times, I showed my scars to Melissa: two red dots on the insides of my elbows.

“Yuck,” she said, and turned away, unwilling to look. This is the response I got from most people who found out what I was doing. Sure, needles and blood make people squeamish, but it was also the stigma of donating itself—an act that lies on the socio-economic spectrum of desperation somewhere between not being able to pay your phone bill and stealing money from a roommate. People understood why I did it, but most couldn’t imagine doing it themselves.

Melissa never liked to hear me talk about it, and she constantly apologized, as if the whole thing was her fault. She worried about my health, that months of donating would cause irrevocable damage to my body, that for the rest of my life I’d wear a solitary track mark on each forearm, my small badge of courage, a pair of misplaced stigmata—a sign to be sure, but of what?

Rattling around in my mind was a foggy awareness that mixing needles, blood, and money was dirty business, but I didn’t know the details. For instance, in 1971, a Time article reported that more than 100,000 people donated plasma regularly in the United States, most of them “Skid Row bums and drug addicts,”—impoverished, desperate men and women who infected the plasma pool first with Hepatitis C and later, in the early 1980s, with HIV. For decades, the unregulated industry allowed cash-strapped junkies to donate several times a week at multiple locations without any screening or testing of collected fluids. The industry then turned that plasma into anti-coagulant medicine for hemophiliacs, and blood volume boosters for trauma victims. According to some estimates, nearly 20,000 hemophiliacs contracted HIV from tainted plasma, not to mention the thousands infected by hepatitis C. The federal government eventually stepped in and set up proper regulations, but by then the plasma industry had secured its reputation as blood pushers, and donors as the industry’s blood whores.

 

Coal miners were rough, dirty, wild, and ignorant. Or so the mythology says. Going down into the mines branded a person and gave permission to those on the surface to simultaneously pity and revile them. Underground five or six days a week, in a saloon or at a card table at night, coated in and coughing up black dust, miners did not live genteel lives. It’s easy to see how the stereotypes got their start. History books from the region overflow with photographs of miners, almost always sitting atop a mining cart, or posing by a piece of equipment, or squatting on their aluminum lunch pails, their faces stained, coal dust darkening the crows’ feet around their eyes and deepening the wrinkles in their foreheads. Theirs was a life of overalls and boots, of headlamps and thick denim, of grime and whistles and black phlegm. Almost universally, they look tired in the high-contrast of old monochrome photographs; and the way they lean elbows on knees, or lift hands to their hips, one gets the impression that these men were busy, that in the backs of their minds they knew there was coal to be loaded and the day wouldn’t be over until the carts were full. I imagine that a miner, stuck with a company tab to pay off and a family to feed, had little time for worrying about public image.

 

Stick is the verb of choice among phlebotomists, as in “I stuck 15 people today,” and “You can choose who sticks you,” and “Who stuck you? They did it all wrong.” The word choice always seemed so unfortunate to me—the one with the needle sticking out of my arm, the one stuck in the bed for an hour, the one feeling like a stuck cow attached to a milk pump. But I don’t think they meant any harm by it. I often told my phlebotomist I could never stick a needle into someone else’s arm. And maybe that’s why they talked about donors like we were pin-cushions; to dehumanize us, if just a little, to steel themselves against the reality of what they were extracting all day, and from whom.

 

By the late twentieth century, more than 3.4 billion tons of coal had been extracted from Ohio soil. At its peak, the coal industry employed 50,000 people in the state, but by the early 1990s, advances in technology had changed coal mining so much that fewer than 5,000 employees could keep the entire industry running. Today mines are safer, cleaner, and more efficient, but they are also emptier. Appalachian boys whose fathers grew up to be miners because their fathers had grown up to be miners have had to come up with new plans for the future.

 

Since the early 1990s, the plasma industry has worked hard to transform the donating process into the reassuringly sterile experience I endured in Ohio. There are now more than 300 certified plasma donation centers in the United States that collect roughly 15 million liters of plasma every year. The process is, for the most part, streamlined, safe, and secure. In fact, it feels as routine as, say, a trip through Jiffy Lube, with someone guiding you through every step of the process, minding the fluids and hoses while you sit and read a magazine. Plasma donation is a fundamental part of the global medical machine, and while it’s safer and more reliable than it has ever been, the donor pool is still made up primarily of the poor and underprivileged.

Here in Athens, that means the hard-knock locals like the small family I noticed one day as I was leaving the center. A couple was standing in front of the computer kiosk reserved for checking debit card balances and scheduling appointments. Their children had apparently been in the “supervised waiting room” watching movies while mom and dad donated, and now they were all preparing to leave. One child stood in front of mom and another sat on the floor chewing on a drawstring that hung from his father’s coat. The father held a third, smaller child in his arms, a little girl that kept trying to take off his hat. I wondered what the money would mean for them—the extra $120 a week.

I knew what it meant for me—a temporary buffer between my family and the end of my monthly teaching stipend, an excuse to get dessert at Applebee’s, an extra gift under the tree, and gas money for a trip to Cleveland. We needed the money, to be sure, but the poverty I felt was a somewhat artificial one. We had a little money in the bank, more student loan options than I knew what to do with, and I was working on a graduate degree. Donating was never an act of true desperation. I came here to Ohio for school, and school would be my ticket out. Those children huddling around their parents at the donation center, if they’re from Appalachia, will probably want to go to college, but, statistically speaking, they’re just as likely to drop out of high school as earn a bachelor’s degree. They are the grandchildren of miners and farmers and craftsmen, the children of Wal-Mart clerks and construction workers, and, while it’s not impossible for them to break out of the poverty they grew up in, the current system doesn’t offer them much hope.

 

In the spring, Melissa and I took our boys to see the old train depot in Murray City, a defunct mining town tucked back into the hills north of Athens. The drive took about twenty minutes on narrow winding roads that cut through green-leaf forests pocked by the occasional trailer or farm home. Murray City itself emerged from the woods first as a series of small houses, and then a new fire station beside a park, and finally as a few larger brick buildings, including a boarded-up high school, a convenience store, a bar, and an Elks lodge. Beyond that were clusters of small houses and, at the end of town, an old train depot recently converted into a small mining museum. Beside the depot sat a large red caboose that helped complete the picture of a little train stop in the middle of the woods. We parked in a gravel lot next to the depot and climbed out of the car. Across the parking lot was a long narrow greenway that I could tell had once been the train line.

The mines around Murray City were once among the highest yielding coal mines in the world, and that success meant great things for the growing town and its more than two thousand citizens. There were schools, churches, banks, retail stores, a newspaper called The Murray City News, a labor union, and four trains a day that steamed through the small depot. One dollar and twenty-five cents could get you to Columbus for the weekend, but why would you want to leave? Wake up on a Saturday morning and you could visit the doctor, take your kids to the park, and pick up some produce at Lunt’s Groceries, all before lunch. Then you could get your haircut at the barber’s shop on Locust street and still have time to see a show at the theater or watch the Murray City Tigers wallop a neighboring town on the grid iron. At night you could buy a friend a drink at one of twenty-three saloons, and on Sunday morning you could catch a sermon from five different pulpits. The coal brought the people and the people built the town and the town became the center of life for hundreds of miners and their families for nearly half a century.

Looking through the museum’s old photographs of parades and marching bands and city councilmen in sharp bowler hats, it was easy to imagine a happy life in Murray. And it was easy to see why some residents would resort to violence to defend that life. The first labor strikes occurred at the Murray mines in 1884. Locals wanted better pay and companies wanted more output, and that tension broiled up every few years for decades. Striking miners set fires, destroyed company property, and even fired shots at foreign scabs brought in to work the mines. But, amid all this, Murray managed to survive. Even after World War II, when strip mining was rapidly replacing underground operations, and Murray’s mines began to close, the city didn’t fold. Not completely. Even when the last picks and shovels were hauled away, a few people stayed put, deciding to commute to whatever job came next, rather than sell their land and look for something new.

Today, about 450 people live in Murray City. There is no bank, no newspaper, and no grocery store—and all but one of the churches has been shuttered. All the children in town are bused to schools in other cities, and those adults who are not elderly or retired must commute to Athens, or Nelsonville, or farther, for work. Other than the depot and the grassed-over rail bed, the only hint of the city’s mining past was inscribed on a plaque in a park built over an old mine entrance.

My boys poked around the museum for a few minutes, asking questions about old photographs and train tickets and a large bucket of coal in the corner, but they grew restless. We went outside and let them climb on the red caboose, snapping photos as they posed against the overcast sky. When we pulled up to the museum that morning, I wondered aloud to Melissa why anyone would live way out in such impossible quiet. But the quiet my boys sat in as I took their photo was not the quiet of a ghost town. The forests around us laid benevolent siege to the little village in the way only an Appalachian forest can, and I felt both secluded and nestled in a strange way. In that moment, the silent, wet world of the woods was enough of a reason for Murray to persist. Before we left, we climbed inside the caboose and sat on the cracked seats and looked out the window at the tracks below—tracks that had been restored just for this little memorial: two beams of oxidized steel coming in from nowhere to hold up the bright old caboose, and then quitting just beyond the car’s front coupler, a heavy steal question mark that seemed to punctuate the town’s only question: “Going so soon?”

 

One day at the plasma center, a young couple walked through the door as I tapped out my questionnaire on the computer. The man wore a pair of vintage Air Jordans and jean shorts with the words mi raza embroidered down one leg. Tattoos wrapped around both his forearms and around both calves, and he spoke loudly on his cell phone in a thick West Virginia drawl. The woman had blond, curly hair, and a strip of her midriff peaked out beneath the hem of her white tank top. They couldn’t have been older than twenty. I watched as the woman stood on the scale and then heard the attendant give her the bad news.

“Hundred and eight,” she said. “You have to weigh at least one-ten.”

The man rolled his eyes, and I heard him explain the situation to the person on the phone—he had been cleared for donation, but the woman would have to wait out front.

A few minutes later I was all plugged in, and the man on the phone sat a few beds over, still talking loudly.

“A house and a double wide,” I heard him say. “We only pay utilities.” He paused for a moment and then raised his voice: “That’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “Appalachian Ohio is the poorest place in the United States, man.” He raised his voice again, and continued: “’Cause there ain’t no jobs!” And he went on for several minutes about his struggle to find work, his hopes for starting a business, his affinity for good pot, and his frustration with the cops who wouldn’t leave him alone. “Its like no one’s free up here!” he yelled. But then his voice softened, and he said, “But it’s beautiful, dude. Come up here in the summertime. It’s beautiful.”

By then I’d been living in Ohio for more than a year, and men like this still surprised me: men for whom Appalachia was home in the deepest, most sentimental way possible, men whose families had lived in the region for generations—who knew what it took to put down roots, and also what it meant to pull them up. I have, more often than I care to admit, been guilty of the easy, patronizing conclusion that men like this are simply victims of circumstance, products of their region’s own troubled history, stuck as much by geography as genealogy. And sure, you might call what I heard in his voice anxiety, maybe even a little desperation, but when he said, “come up here in the summertime. It’s beautiful,” his voice hinted at something else—less fear of what a place might take from him, and more faith in what it might have to offer. It was a voice that trusted in the hidden promises of a sleepy Appalachian hollow, a voice he might have heard first from his father, or his father’s father, a voice that sounded that day like an invitation. And perhaps it was something like that voice that called us out to Ohio in the first place, that got me into that donor bed and selling myself a few hundred liters of plasma at a time, a voice from beyond history that calls men and women to settle strange lands and offer their own pound of flesh for a chance at life; a voice that says “come and stay a while—see what happens,” a voice that has echoed in those hills for a very long time.

 

White Space

1.

After my death, no one will find in my papers (this is my consolation) the least information about what has really filled my life, find the inscription in my innermost being which explains everything… once I take away the secret note which explains it. –Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), 1843

 

2.

Søren Kierkegaard and I ought to have been allowed to live in the same century.

In the best-known sketch of Kierkegaard, he is facing the viewer. His hair is wild and sweeps up away from his high, gentlemanly collar. He has a narrow face, high cheekbones, and an expression of placidness that borders on either boredom or sadness, depending on one’s mood when one looks at the image. His eyes are made of black ink, and the only thing that gives them the spark of life is white space—a lack of ink, an absence in the place where his eyes reflected the light. This is the spark of emptiness that locks with my gaze and watches me bemusedly.

White space is relief. It is balance. It breathes life and graciously gifts color and darkness with power. It provides room for the viewer to notate or revise. It is easy to forget that white space has its own shape and purpose. In crafting any kind of visual design, forgetting about white space is a mistake.

The white space in Kierkegaard’s eyes is easy to overlook. It takes time and close attention to notice it, appreciate it.

I never tire of this sketch.

 

3.

This same Søren Kierkegaard is the queerest bird of those we know: a brilliant head, but extremely vain and self satisfied. He always wants to be different from other people, and he himself always points out his own bizarre behavior. –Caspar Wilhelm Smith in a letter to his mother, 1841

 

4.

Søren Kierkegaard lived at the same time as Hans Christian Anderson. He was a philosopher whose trouser legs seemed to never be even. The Danish king kept trying to convince Kierkegaard to take a governmental position, but Kierkegaard got a particular sort of pleasure in turning him down. He would make fun of people to their faces and they’d never know it. As such, he was known for being egotistical and irritating. He was a Lutheran (I’m a Lutheran). He avoided the sun, even if it meant awkwardly cutting short a stroll with a friend, or moving from one side of the house to the other at various points throughout the day. He often wrote under pseudonyms, making his already complicated works more difficult to understand. It was never clear whether his works truly reflected his own thoughts or whether they were just mental exercises. Kierkegaard’s mantra: “Believe by virtue of the absurd.” That is, faith cannot be logically defended, or else it wouldn’t be faith.

He was engaged for a year to one Regine Olsen, with whom he then broke ties, and though society at large assumed he’d led her on, we can assume from his writings that he rather felt unfit for a life with her. He was too melancholy, too lost in his own worlds, destined for a life sustained by words and ideas, and not flesh and blood at all.

He has been called the Father of Existentialism.

 

5.

Once I ate at his house every day for five weeks. Merely providing nourishment for his hungry spirit was also a source of unending bother. Every day… coffee was brought in: two silver pots, two cream pitchers and a bag of sugar which was filled up every day. Then he opened a cupboard in which he had at least fifty sets of cups and saucers, but only one of each sort, and said: “Well, which cup and saucer do you want today?” It was of no consequence, but there was no way around it; I had to choose a set. When I said which I would take, he asked, “Why?” One always had to explain why, and then at long last we would be finished and get our cups. (He also had an astounding number of walking sticks.) Next he filled the cup with sugar over the rim and then poured coffee on it. It amused him to no end every day to see the sugar melt. –August Wolff in a letter to Hans Peter Barfod, relating remarks by Israel Levin, 1870

 

6.

Though he is considered its father (and so postmodernism’s grandfather), Kierkegaard never used the word “existentialism.” Perhaps he would even have disagreed with its 20th century champions—Sartre, Camus. Existentialists see the world as chaotic and indifferent. One’s place in it, then, is an unanswerable question; the thinking, breathing, isolated individual is free to interpret the world as one pleases, and is also responsible and bound to that unique interpretation.

I have a coffee mug, a gift from my grandmother, which says “Lutheran Church Basement Coffee,” with a picture of a mug sprouting wings and covered with a halo. Below the picture, the words: “It’s heavenly.” On the other side of the mug it says, “Pray, and let God worry,” which is a quote from Martin Luther. Except a piece of the printing got chipped off, and now it says, “Pray, and let Cod worry.”

When I, a twenty-something-year-old, choose this mug to drink from, it is for no better reason than that I am feeling particularly “unique” and “isolated” at that moment.

Interpretations begin from the position of uniqueness and isolation.

 

7.

Kierkegaard’s nicknames:

The Fork. When Søren was a child, between being teased and cheating on tests, he was asked by his sister what he wanted most to be. His response: a fork. Why? Because, he said, then I could spear anything on the dining table.

Hunchback. He wasn’t actually a hunchback, but he had some unknown back ailment. And he slouched often, probably from spending too much time over his desk.

The Crazy Student. When he was at University, and chambermaids came into his room, he scared them just by the way he looked at them. He would sit stone-like and gaze at them with steam and intensity. He maintained that lewd thoughts should be avoided, but “daring expressions” were acceptable.

Choirboy. In school, he always wore the same, dark tweed clothing—oddly cut, short tails, always with shoes and woolen stockings.

Søren Sock. His father was suspected to have previously been a hosier.

The Other One. Regine was later heard to say, “Oh that [my husband, Schlegel] could ever forgive me for being such a little scoundrel that I became engaged to the other one.”

This, more than anything else, cuts me. To some, Søren is the Father of This and That, and to Regine, the only woman he loved, he was The Other One. Though he sent her a note years after her marriage that read, “You see, Regine, in eternity there is no marriage; there, both Schlegel and I will happily be together with you.” Kierkegaard never knew that towards the end, when she was frail and white-headed, she’d begin talking about her husband, about his goodness and their happy marriage. But she always, always ended with Kierkegaard. He was always the last name behind her teeth, in the back of her throat.

 

8.

To Søren:

Lately, I live in a basement that I rent from a single man with a child. His wife was diagnosed with stomach cancer when she was twenty-four years old and five months pregnant. The pregnancy had hidden all the signs, and they delivered her child early so that she could begin chemotherapy. It was too late, of course; she died the same year her son was born. Sometimes I wake up to the boy screaming in the night (he is one year old now), and I hear his father go to him and sing. His voice comes down to me through the floor. I am surrounded on five sides by earth, and little creatures with hair-thin legs crawl into my bed and along the walls. I listen to my landlord’s voice through the ceiling and imagine he is singing to me. But when his sisters come over with their husbands and new boyfriends, when his parents or in-laws visit, when they all gather around the table to eat, when I smell their candles and baking ham, I quietly slip out the door and into the night, unsure of where to go, but knowing I can’t stay there.

Søren, I know this has little to do with you. I know that our lives are wildly different, but I think in other ways they are the same. Søren, your egotistical rants don’t fool me for a second. Søren, I would have led you into the sun, and you would have let me. Søren, I believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and I believe in you, and I understand that this, too, is irrational. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be called faith.

Love, Me

 

9.

The shape of his body was striking, not really ugly, certainly not repulsive, but with something disharmonious, rather slight, and yet also weighty. He went about like a thought that had got distracted at the very moment at which it was formed… There was a sort of unreality about him. –Meïr Aron Goldschmidt, 1879

 

10.

It did not take long after Kierkegaard’s death to turn his biographies into an industry, especially because he left so much room for interpretation. It seems most of what we know of him has passed through the filter of others’ perceptions. Everything about him is a shadow of a shadow. A voice in a voice. This is no way to know a person, and yet it’s what we try to accomplish, and we do so without apology. These self-proclaimed biographers excuse themselves. As did Kierkegaard’s acquaintance, Israel Levin: “He never managed to understand himself… It was enough for him to form a conception: he ‘poetized himself’ into every kind of existence.”

 

11.

This is how I poetize him into existence.

I think of the slash through the “o” in his Danish name. I am at a bar with my friends, trying to explain Søren to them. And I tell them everything about him is enticing. The sketch of him is enticing. The slash through his “o” is enticing. I’d like to put a slash through his “o.” I want to peel apart his pockets of words, like pulling apart slices of an orange. I want to open him and watch his organs thanklessly perform. Blood, push. Lungs, grow. Heart, a machine—jerk, convulse.

 

12.

Existentialism sprang from the seeds of Kierkegaard’s conception of the “single individual.” The problem: if I align my life with external norms and codes, I lose my individuality, but if I fail to do this, my actions and thoughts are meaningless because they lack a way of being interpreted.

If the Abraham of the Bible had not been stopped by an angel, killing his son Isaac would have made him both individual and incomprehensible to philosophy. And God’s command to Abraham that he kill Isaac was a command given to an individual, not meant to extend to others. To us, this is a paradox. To Kierkegaard, this is the point.

The idea that the ‘quest for the individual’ overrides external moral codes is inherently dangerous, especially if one uses such reasoning to justify crimes. Despite this, the idea presents the question: am I only “meaningful” in relation to the external? Or can I have meaning apart from this?

 

13.

To create meaning, I create logical patterns of thought and construct arguments out of sine cosine tangent, or is it sign signifier? Language is my limping Siamese twin. Though I did not create it, I only know myself through this filter and can’t help but wonder if this is a real knowing, or a real self.

And Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard, you poor soul. Once he said, “Next to taking off all my clothes, owning nothing in the world, not the least thing, and then throwing myself in the water, I find most pleasure in speaking a foreign language, preferably a living one, in order to become estranged from myself.” The world is shaped differently, and one turns it over and over in unsteady hands, suddenly unsure whether it is the same world at all.

 

14.

In the words of others, I am a solid individual. I am “put together.” In control.

 

15.

For a time I thought I was in love with Gene Kelly, with his smiles and tapping feet. He danced with newspapers and his voice was frail, but he sang and sang and was the first to swing around a lamppost in the rain. Gene Kelly was suave. Gene Kelly was immortalized in movie after movie, never tired of the limelight.

I consider him a childish crush. I realize now, instead, how deeply I love Søren. I puzzle over Søren’s obscure, patchy journals and feel this strong urge to laugh at his witticisms, to duly, simultaneously weep and tell him that our love, like one’s belief in a divine being, is utterly absurd, and is therefore the truest form of belief.

 

16.

I want to chide Kierkegaard for never submitting himself to immortalization via the daguerreotype (photography in its earliest days).The only images that have survived were sketched by his brother. His brother confessed that the sketches were incomplete and only a weak reincarnation, a skeleton of an idea.

There in the annals of stuffy philosophers with squiggly beards and wrinkles, Søren is a breath of clean air. He is rows of swooping, slanted Danish words with generous margins—margins for comments and revision and the relief of white space on a page. By accident I imagine those History Channel documentaries where they get low-budget voice actors to read quotes from historical personas, as though in doing so they bring said personas to life, when really they create cartoonish characters. I picture a harsh voice spitting out Danish, pretending to bring passion into a quote like this: “I have just come back from a party where I was the life and soul. Witticisms flowed from my lips. Everyone laughed and admired me—but, I left, yes, that dash should be as long as the radii of the earth’s orbit ——— and wanted to shoot myself.”

I then imagine a frail Gene Kelly voice saying that, for no other reason than that I have always liked the sound of that voice. This is how I poetize Kierkegaard into existence.

 

17.

Thank god history has known, probably, countless like me, like us. Søren, you’ll pardon the “us”?

 

18.

He seemed to be someone who could understand everything, all worry and sorrow, and who could utter words of counsel, but could not share in that sorrow. Of course this could well have been an illusion that would have disappeared if one followed him into his private little space, but who could have known this, and how much do we humans really trouble ourselves about one another before it is too late? As a rule, we are preoccupied with our own egos, and we accept the prevailing opinions. –Meïr Aron Goldschmidt, 1846

 

19.

Kierkegaard said of Regine, “She did not love my shapely nose, nor my fine eyes, nor my small feet, nor my good mind—she loved only me, and yet she didn’t understand me.” Kierkegaard said, “People understand me so little that they fail even to understand my complaints that they do not understand me.”

 

20.

White space.

 

21.

This is actually becoming a problem. I resurrect the man, and I am troubled. Because now I find myself wondering, after all, what his hands would feel like. What his eyes could do to you. Those who knew him talked a lot about the looks he could give.

What looks would he give me?

 

22.

I’m trying to be reasonable about this. Kierkegaard was a man, and after all, what do men do? They eat. They sleep. They shit. They masturbate. Kierkegaard died a virgin. I can only assume this, given his aborted engagement and theological ponderings. It is said that when a man loses his virginity, he becomes a real man. That after entering a woman, he is re-born and emerges from her, made full. I am reminded of what Goldschmidt said about Kierkegaard: that he was shaped like a wayward thought, half-formed, incomplete.

 

23.

I am sitting in Sarah and Ty’s apartment. They live on the top floor of the house where I live, but they are in Germany, and told me I could come upstairs and use their apartment while they are gone. They know I live in the basement, and they know the only furniture I have is a bed and a toilet, and that sometimes I sit on the closed toilet with my computer on my lap when I can’t afford a coffee—a coffee that is really buying me a hard chair to sit on, something people take for granted. So here I sit, surrounded by their married-life clutter. Unread mail. Half-empty jars of peanut butter. Dirty coffee cups. On the wall above the table is a large framed poster, a painting of a bar. The bartender is reaching under the counter to get something for the couple leaning against the bar. This man and woman are standing close enough so that it is clear they are together, but distant enough that we question their relationship. Close enough that their hands, resting casually on the bar, are touching. Distant enough that they are distracted by other things—he, by the bartender, she, by her nails. His eyes are shadowed by his hat. She is pink and orange and red—her hair, her dress, her skin.

The only other person at the bar is sitting with his back facing us. He is alone. Half of his body is in shadow.

 

24.

Imagined conversations with Kierkegaard:

Why, Lissa, what a lovely dress. You are a vision.

Thank you, Søren. I picked it especially for you.

Ah, darling, you shouldn’t have.

Actually, dearest Søren, I’ve been meaning to ask you what you meant when you wrote that “subjectivity is truth, and objectivity is repelled by it by virtue of the absurd.” It seems to me that given the plethora of subjective viewpoints, there would then be a plethora of truths, which denies that there is any one single truth.

My love, your questioning is to be applauded. I could attempt to go on a quest to prove, rationally, that the Christian god is The God. But that runs counter to the point of faith, just as an established church is counterproductive. There is no logical reason for faith. I cannot “convince” you to believe, even if I may want to.

And then he would compliment me on the asparagus and perhaps how my hair looked that day.I might offer to repair his trousers since they seemed uneven. And he might, as usual, gently refuse.

 

25.

Let’s talk about tragic: The tragic, Kierkegaard said in passing (to Israel Levin, who told it to August Wolff, who wrote it to Hans Peter Barfod), is not the act of pain, or blood, or violence. It implies permanence. He described evening in a cemetery and a girl crying to a grave. “Ludwig, Ludwig, are you asleep? I gave you everything. I gave you my honor. Give it back to me.” And then, Kierkegaard added, she throws herself onto the grave in desperation.

That’s his description. To me, this is tragic: a coffee shop, a cup of coffee, a computer. A girl is frantically running her fingers across the computer keys, imagining a dead philosopher’s eyelids, and his probably quite long eyelashes.

 

26.

I imagine and re-imagine people. I swallow their ticks and twitches until the day that I pull them out, like a party-trick—impersonations to impress all my friends. A particular turn of phrase, tone of voice, tensing of the jaw, squinting of the eyes. The intent is not to damage. It is an acknowledgement of the physical casing they have received for this time on the earth, and we are all at the mercy of our casings, after all. There is a bitter humor in it, if we allow ourselves to see it. We are all at the mercy of our real-time manifestations, and we are all at the mercy of what others perceive in us and the language they use to communicate such. It is profoundly terrifying to be earnest in the way we portray ourselves, to attempt confidence, or attempt to “own” who we are, because then we are made vulnerable.

Kierkegaard chose to hide and attempted to control himself in the hands of others by giving out, like seeds to ravenous birds, pieces of ideas about himself. In the end, he emerged victorious. A lot of good that did him. A lot of happiness that brought him.

 

27.

In the end it’s all a question of ear. The rules of grammar end with ear—the edicts of law end with ear—the figured bass ends with ear—the philosophical system ends with ear—which is why the next life is also represented as pure music, as a great harmony—if only my life’s dissonance may soon be resolved into that. –Søren Kierkegaard, in reference to Hegelian thought, 1836

 

28.

I say I am in love with him because it’s safe to say that I love him. Safe.

 

29.

People make broad assumptions about me or my identity. “I think you are a perceptive young woman,” or, “You are not willing to take things at face value, you question things, you are curious.” I don’t believe anything I tell myself. Only by hearing about myself through others’ mouths do I crawl my way into reality. Then I know what I am, and I am temporarily at rest. I end with ear.

 

30.

I imagine Kierkegaard’s tongue—a pale pink. Imagining his tongue resting in his mouth—warm, cozy, nestling behind his teeth—it’s easier to imagine him alive. We never see tongues in pictures. We see hardened teeth. We see things that people try to control, things that can shift with the time and the style—hair, the arrangement of the hands across the lap. But to imagine flesh and life, it’s easier to imagine the tongue, warm, wet and cloistered, hidden in the mouth.

 

31.

Dear Søren,

You end with ear, and I have no complaints.

I love you into reality; I grip you into existence. We “hit it off” and are “compatible.” In my mind, you’re sitting at the table across from me, grasping a pen firmly between your thumb and forefinger, and these muscles, along with your tongue, are the strongest muscles in your body. I explain that I actually picked the coffee mug about the Cod by accident—is that allowed? You allow it.

I think you’ll allow me a great many things. I think you won’t waste my time. I think you’ll make observations about the color of my earlobes, and I think you’ll look at me ravenously, like you are about to make fun of me, or like you are about to eat me—“fork” me, so to speak, true to your nickname. Yes. Like you are about to spear me.

 

 

_________________________

NOTES

 

Impressions of Kierkegaard in italics above were chiefly drawn from Encounters with Kierkegaard: A Life as Seen by His Contemporaries, collected, edited, and annotated by Bruce H. Kirmmse and translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse and Virginia R. Laursen.

Passages in Kierkegaard’s own words were drawn from his journals as collected with commentary by D. Anthony Storm (sorenkierkegaard.org).

Kierkegaard’s discussion of the sacrifice of Isaac is found in Fear and Trembling: A Dialectical Lyric published under Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes de Silentio.

El Pañuelo

I tug the fabric spanning my forehead, nudge the knot at the nape of my neck, smooth the tails of my headscarf. Only when I’m sure I’ve covered every hairless spot on my scalp do I fold my hands across my lap and flash a smile. Lista. Ready.

The dark-haired photographer lifts his eyelids in slow motion, first taking in the brown leather buckles crisscrossing my dangling feet, then the breathable khakis, loosely bunched at the knees and pouched over my stomach. He takes in my white layering tank, thick, opaque, cut between crew and scoop neck, simple and modest per Peace Corps recommendations. My face he gives a quick once-over, just another pale-skinned Gringa among the many he will photograph today. But instead of aiming his sizable camera my way, he fixes his gaze on my bandanna, a white, rust, and navy patterned cotton, Aztecan in appearance, a donation from my aunt’s hippie days, or maybe from Mom’s camping days, back when our family’s idea of a vacation was piling into the station wagon and trekking to a nearby national or state park, hiking waterfall trails, sleeping on air mattresses, roasting marshmallows over a fire, and masquerading unkempt hair with paisley cotton squares. The photographer’s eyes narrow, whether in critique or curiosity, I can’t tell.

I shift my weight on the stool. Had I known I’d be posing for an ID photo that I’ll carry everywhere I go for the next two years, I would have set aside a more flattering outfit: the burgundy knit dress I wore the first day of training in Miami or the fuchsia button-down I chose for last night’s bienvenidos fiesta with our Honduran host families. I’ve always put thought into my appearance for identification photos, a triple coat of mascara to widen my eyes, a douse of peach gloss to plump my lips, a final hair check in the rearview mirror before entering the DMV. But when I said hello to third world adventure, I said goodbye to a ready supply of makeup, hand mirrors, even my wig. I have no hair to fluff or flatten. Even if I had known about today’s photo session, I wouldn’t be equipped to enhance my appearance. So I pose, in shapeless hiking attire, raw and unembellished, for an ID card that’s supposed to represent who I am in this new land. Maybe that’s the idea, one of the many reasons I joined the Peace Corps at thirty-five, fifteen years into a professional marketing career: to shed my Corporate America image.

The late July air is thick and wet with humidity. I swipe my hand across my forehead, lick the organic lip balm made of beeswax and natural oils. The minty flavor bites more than soothes, but I run my tongue across the salve over and over again, a childhood habit I’ve never been able to break. I scan the room for any sign of comfort but find only obstructions to it—dark curtains blocking natural light, undecipherable Spanish sayings on wall posters.

Finally the photographer breaks the silence, hurls harsh, mysterious syllables at me. “Quítese el pañuelo,” he says. He talks so fast, not like my patient host mother, who enunciated every word while guiding me through her hillside home yesterday afternoon.

Repita?” My eyes squint into the blinding light of a high-powered, fluorescent bulb.

El pañuelo,” he says, louder this time, and slower. “Quíteselo.”

My mouth gapes, I’m sure I can piece this together. Pan as in bread? Quita as in quit? Quit the bread, fatty? I stifle a laugh. Gorda I do know, and he did not say gorda. Though from what I’ve read, a stocky woman like me can expect to hear her share of gordas in this country, where the blackest gal in town is called La Negra, the guy with the squintiest eyes is called El Chino, and the most undernourished sticklet is called La Flaca.

No comprendo,” I concede. I have no idea what you’re saying, Big Guy.

The photographer taps his head in beat with the words. “El pa-ñue-lo. Quí-te-se-lo.”

We lock eyes, my soft baby blues and his black stones. I halt all movement to concentrate. There’s a woodpecker gnawing on his skull. No, wait. On my skull. I’ve got wood for a brain. Or a stain. On my bandanna. Crap. Not bird shit? My hand flits to the knotted scarf.

The photographer raises a caterpillar eyebrow and nods.

I feel streams of lava oozing through my body, the burn of comprehension as it reaches my head, my heart, my belly. El pañuelo. The headscarf. He wants me to remove it.

Yo soy.Yo tengo…”I start to explain, but I have no words. I am what? I have what? For eight years my alopecia, the autoimmune disease that causes my body to attack my hair, has been a topic I’ve been unable to broach, even with many of my friends. Under the scarf, ash blonde tufts dot my scalp. But Alopecia Christy isn’t someone people know. She’s been hiding under a human hair wig, unwilling to display the hair loss, unable to confess it, as if losing her hair is an offense, the result of something she either did or failed to do, a source of great shame.

Quíteselo.”

I’ve just let go of the wig. Must I surrender the scarf, too? Again I scan the room, but this time I don’t see curtains or motivational posters or even the scowling photographer. I see the Fancy Hair on a wig stand in my parents’ guest room in North Carolina, sixteen hundred miles away, seven hours by plane, much too far to save me now. I purse my lips and blink back tears, determined to maintain my composure. But in the glare of the spotlight, my body betrays me. My hands tremble. My eyes well. I thought I was ready to bare myself. I thought that once I was far from everyone and everything I’ve ever known, I would automatically open up. I thought I could embrace Alopecia Christy. I was wrong. I do not untie the scarf.

No puedo,” I say. “No puedo, no puedo, no puedo.” I can’t.

 

Do Not’s (For Her) and Do Not’s (For Him)

Do Not’s (For Her)

Do not drink alcohol: this may hurt the baby. / Severe learning disabilities, physical abnormalities, and disorders of the central nervous system may result. / Do not drink caffeine (or maybe not too much; it is okay to sneak a sip, / here or there, if careful, she-of-the-morning-two-cups will argue). / Increased risk of miscarriage during the first trimester is associated with elevated caffeine intake. / Do not eat soft cheeses. Brie, Gorgonzola, Camembert, goat, feta, queso blanco will assuredly have Listeria. / (This, she finds toughest; no more / baked goat cheese dinners with him / to warm their wintered stomachs.) / Do not eat deli meat: again, Listeria. (She is vegetarian; this will be no problem.) / Do not eat fish / high in mercury: no swordfish or tilefish; no King mackerel to finish / roasting in the oven after a kiss / on the grill; no seven-spiced shark steaks or shark kabobs, / absolutely no shark fin soup when they eat high-priced Chinese. (Again, no problem.) / Do not eat uncooked fish or shellfish, / Which goes without much saying, he thinks, wondering what / the world must be coming to if that needs noting. / Do not drink unpasteurized milk or cider; Campylobacter, E. coli, Listeria, or Salmonella. / Do not eat salads / made in a store (Listeria, one more time). / Do not eat at salad bars, sayeth the March of Dimes, for fear of, / yes, Listeria. / Do not lick the spoon or tongue away / the chocolate batter from the beaters’ twisted metal / after making cookies or cake. Do not think / pregnancy is excuse to Eat for two; this is myth. / Do not panic; do not worry. Babies happen / every minute. Do not think / this list is complete, ma’am: / there will be more trouble soon enough.

 

Do Not’s (For Him)

Do not drink alcohol in front of her, / especially not beers, sun-kissed Hefeweizens or bitterly persistent pale ales. She will ask / for a sip, she will beg for a half-glass. / Say no and be strong: remember, this will hurt / only the least important person of this new three. / Do not drink caffeine. A long night’s sleep will never come / easily again; take advantage now. / Do not eat what might turn / her stomach; roasted salmon, a salami sandwich, too-heavily-garlicked spaghetti. / (At least brush your teeth before / trying to kiss her glowing, or faintly shimmering if it’s early on, self.) / Do not rub her belly and sing, I wish I had a watermelon, I wish / I had a watermelon. It is crass. / Do not force her onto a roller coaster. (Sudden stops can harm the baby.) Do not / suggest taking a sauna or dipping into a hot tub. (Raised core temperature is a no-no.) / Do not go for a long, romantic bike ride. (Her center / of gravity will have been wrecked.) Do not propose / a celebratory skydive. (This deserves no explanation.) / Basically, do not openly enjoy anything / she cannot do. Do not seem pleased / this list is shorter and more ridiculous. She will be carrying / the weight for as long as this marriage lasts, / for as long as this child is alive. And if she ever feels / terrible, broken-down, needing to unburden herself and says, / You did this to me, / do not, do not, do not say anything. Take the punishment / like a man.

What the Body Holds

Meditate lying down. If it’s the afternoon, and the house is quiet, meditate on the red couch in the family room, and hope that it will lead to a little nap. Meditate with your dog. She’s always up for some Zen time, and often curls herself around your bare feet. You cannot be in the same vicinity without touching; your affection for each other is so completely and unconditionally mutual.

Practice Yin yoga. In Yin you hold postures and twists for 5 minutes. You hardly sweat and yet parts of your middle-aged body gradually soften, like frozen dough left on the countertop to thaw. Blocks and blankets and variations are encouraged. Anything goes. During Savasana place your legs over a bolster and cover your body with a blanket. Although you are in a roomful of people, notice how surprisingly peaceful this is.

If it’s the morning, meditate in bed. Stack some pillows against the headboard and semi-recline. Allow yourself breaks to sip coffee: Peets, Major Dickason’s Blend, steamed milk whipped up with your hand-held frother, one small tap of organic cinnamon, the Impressionists mug with flowers painted outside and  in. As always, include the dog. She is accommodating. The dog will meditate at any time of day.

During yoga, when you are in postures that open the heart—a backbend or lying over a bolster positioned along your spine—you are often overcome with loneliness. It bubbles up from your belly and comes to rest under your sternum. It feels deep and old. After a while it passes, but makes you wonder what else your body has held onto over the years. Maybe your body is in possession of every single injury, every emotion you have experienced. Your dislocated shoulder, the argument with your co-worker in 1987, childbirth, the death of your father, may all be tucked away, folded meticulously like origami and stored away in your joints, under the sheaths of your muscle fibers, bundled around your kidney, blocking the right ear that you can’t hear out of anymore. You imagine all of your disappointments coiled snake-like into your intestines. Your fears—of heights, being held underwater, losing a child, being locked in a steam room, falling off the edge of the Grand Canyon, speaking in public, being poor, traveling out of the country, contracting ALS—all free float through your bloodstream, circling through you constantly, relentlessly, seeping into every cell.

When meditating, one is not supposed to think. But of course, the harder you try not to think, the more persistent your thoughts. Do not berate yourself for having thoughts, just observe them, notice them, and let them float by, like a slow-moving cloud. Even so, sometimes the entire act of meditation is one big frustration—some worries refuse to pass cloud-like, and instead meat hook to your brain and you’re doomed. Have a mini panic attack. Check the timer. Ten minutes of concentrated worrying is an eternity. The dog has no such difficulties. She might adjust her position, twist on to her back, for example, in hopes of a belly rub, but unless the UPS guy rings the doorbell, she’s already achieved nirvana.

Get a massage. When the therapist asks if anything in particular is bothering you, jokingly say everything. But soon after she places her hands on you, you realize it is true. There isn’t a place on your body that doesn’t feel acutely sore under her pressure. You hurt in places you didn’t even realize. You allow her to mine your pain. She digs it out between the vertebrae of your neck, underneath your scapula, in the joint capsules of your hips, hidden beneath your quadriceps. She finds all of it. When she kneads the web between your thumb and first finger you nearly leap off the table. What is that? Energy, she says, and works and works it until she feels it release. You wonder what she means by energy. You imagine this is where all your failures lie, large and small, woven into the pad of your palm.

You suspect your body has absorbed the good along with the bad. Somewhere hidden among your organs must be joy. There must be contentment, and brief flashes of peace. The fleeting but perfect moments, like the morning you drove across the Palm City bridge and the water below sparkled while Neil Young played on the radio. You had just driven through for coffee and hadn’t yet taken a sip. But you could smell it. You could anticipate the hot, bitter taste. Or how about that night flight to Boston when the girls were small?   As soon as the plane lifted off they each leaned into you from their seats and fell asleep, and you closed your eyes too, and thought, if the plane went down into the Atlantic it would be ok because of the heaviness of their bodies, their warm weight against you, one sweet head in your lap, the other fitting exactly tucked into your chest. The exquisite perfectness of that was almost too much to bear.

Ask yourself why. Why do you make yourself sit still, to twist into shapes of loneliness, to allow someone else to touch your life experiences? You don’t know the answer. You only know that in the past you’ve distracted yourself—alcohol and sex and that tiny phase involving recreational drugs. You have eaten too much. You’ve eaten too little. You kept going when your body begged for rest. You’ve ferreted away feelings meaning to take them out and consider them later, another time, and then avoided the task or simply forgot. And so now you feel as though you owe it to your body, these small gestures. These acts of kindness. This is why you do what you do. To make room, to clear out a space, to unwind the tight loops of clutter so a memory of a long ago plane flight has a place to stay.

The Ultimate Troll: A Confession

My name is Isabella Tangherlini, I am twenty years old, and I used to be an internet troll. It sounds like something you’d hear at a group therapy session with a twelve-step program, or maybe an episode of Dr. Phil. Either way, it’s not a very good way to introduce a person, or an essay. The word “troll” conjures an image of a short, hairy imp with pointed teeth and a penchant for lurking beneath bridges. And this negative imagery is absolutely on point when it comes to the business of online trolling. Many have a simplistic view of Internet trolls—but trolls are more than simply anonymous bullies. Trolling is a bastardization of culture jamming, itself already a form of anti-consumerism with roots in anarchy and subversion. Trolling takes this anarchy to a different level, an extreme form of schadenfreude. Trolls basically weave through the online universe creating conflict and discord as they go. The terminology and culture are complicated and extensive, with many ins and outs and bizarre rules and caveats. The basic idea is simple: trolling exists for trolling’s sake. The vitriol, dissonance, and bedlam left in a troll’s wake is the point. Nothing is sacred, nothing is off-limits—everyone and anything can be trolled.

My career as an internet troll began in the library of my high school six years ago. I was a fourteen-year-old sophomore on lunch break with two friends: Michael, who owned a full-body camouflage suit and loved airsoft guns, and Robert, who once set my jeans on fire in Chemistry with a torch lighter. We were discussing our impending sophomore research paper and brainstorming potential research topics. After a while, Michael, bored, asked me, “Would you like to see some kittens?” Michael logged into his school account and brought up the web browser. “Here,” he said, motioning to the keyboard.

“I thought you were showing me kittens,” I said.

“I’m feeling a little lazy. Type in encyclopedia dramatica dot com slash kittens,” Michael said. I heard Robert snigger and cast a knowing glance over at Michael. Frowning, I followed Michael’s instructions and hit “enter.” I was greeted with an entire page of the most viscerally graphic images I’d ever seen. Stillborn children with horrifying birth defects. Rows and rows of mutilated genitals afflicted with venereal disease. A man who had attempted suicide via shotgun, and failed. Bizarre illustrations of fetish pornography. “What the hell, Michael?” I whispered, quickly closing the page.

“That’s kittens for you,” he replied, laughing.

This morbid experience might have turned a person off the internet forever. ButI was intrigued. Although the images were gruesome, I was more interested in the reactions to the pictures recorded in the comments area. No one seemed particularly perturbed by the images. If anything, the commenters were glad to think the pictures would disgust other viewers. This strange website with its flippant disregard of society’s taboos piqued my interest and I wanted to know more. I went home and returned to the website, and one of the links at the top of the page was simply titled, “4chan.” But what is 4chan?

4chan is, officially speaking, an image-based internet forum. You post a picture, people reply to it, and discussion happens. 4chan is organized into dozens of different boards that cater to different interests. Do you like cars? There’s a board for that. Video games? There are at least four boards dedicated to them. Grown men discussing which animated pony in a show for little girls is the most sexually appealing? Yes, there’s a board for that, too. 4chan is almost completely anonymous, and keeps no archive of the thousands of threads and pictures that are posted to it daily. Once the thread reaches its post limit it disappears forever. Maybe because of the anonymity, or the lack of archives, there’s an aura of mystery around the website.

The most famous board on 4chan, whereall the worst horror stories and tall tales come from, is /b/. /b/ is the “random” board of 4chan, where a user can start a thread about virtually anything. For whatever reason, /b/ attracts more trolls than any other board, which explains its harsh reputation. I was fascinated by /b/. On it, nothing was sacred. My heart pounded as I waded through images that felt secret, forbidden. I was privy to the very things society tells us to close our eyes to. What was hidden from almost everyone, was laid bare for me. I found dozens of threads featuring dead and mutilated children, terrible war crimes, and amateur snuff films. There were also discussions on why the Holocaust was almost certainly a hoax, and what seemed like a veritable ocean of white supremacist theories. And yet, despite the serious tones of the conversations, a muted tone of sarcasm ran throughout the whole place. Somehow, I understood that this was the ultimate “Just kidding!” Yes, the jokes were awful. The humor was off-color to the extreme. But these people were largely harmless. I didn’t believe the anons I came across on /b/ were genuinely bad people. I thought of /b/as a place where we could participate in the unfiltered, honest conversations that only took place in real life after a few drinks.

But some of us, an inner circle of people, had different intentions. Most people who trolled on /b/ were trolling the other boards as well, like /o/ (the automobile board) for example, and posting irrelevant content to anger the regular posters. Like, they liked cars, so we’d find really awful porn of dragons having sex with cars and post it in one of their threads talking about BMWs. Sure, it was nasty, and at the end of it all I had a collection of weird images saved on my laptop, but to this day I find that stuff  harmless.

The real trolling took place off-site.

Back in 2010, there was a series of truly epic flame wars taking place in the comments section of YouTube. If you’re at all familiar with the comments section of YouTube, you know it is the ninth circle of comment hell, dripping with personal, often vicious attacks. Flame wars were an everyday occurrence then, as they are now. But what set the flame wars of 2010 apart from today’s wars were the participants. On the internet, spread across many sites and forums, are a group of fetishists known as “Furries.” Furries are people who are attracted to anthropomorphized animals. Members of the community vary in terms of their level of outspokenness. But, like any fringe community, the loudest members are often the worst. And on YouTube, the loudest furries were beginning to grate on the nerves of /b/. To /b/, furries represented an extreme fringe community even they didn’t want to accept. While furries rallied for acceptance and normalization of their behavior, /b/ lashed out against them.  I took part in those 2010 flame wars between /b/ and the many furry-centric YouTube channels and users. Any prolific furry user whose channel we found out about, we attacked. Posting nasty comments, flagging their videos for no reason, making parody videos of their content—it was all-out war. The furries retaliated. They would post furry pornography on /b/, or make videos of themselves in their animal costumes ranting empty threats. In retrospect, I don’t think I fully know why /b/ chose to target the furry community. But I latched on to this dislike and made it my own, even though I’d never felt personally offended by furries. I wasn’t in any school clubs and had few friends. I felt a greater sense of companionship with the faceless, hateful, politically incorrect horde of /b/ than I ever did with any of my classmates. And the feeling that I could say or look at whatever I wanted online gave me a greater adrenaline rush than anything I could do as a high schooler with limited freedom.

The thing about being an internet troll, though, is that eventually who you are online and who you are offline start to blur together. And when you post on places like 4chan, those two personalities meld into something uniquely unpleasant. To be short, I was a really mean high school sophomore. I would openly bash my Jewish classmates. Despite being a member of the LGBT community myself, I freely used the word “faggot” in everyday speech. Once I was sitting with Robert in our chemistry class, and instead of taking notes we drew the popular memes of 4chan in the back of my notebook—Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift at the Grammy Awards, Rick Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and Advice Dog, the puppy who gave questionable counsel. I saw nothing wrong with what I was doing or who I had become. For me, everyone was in on the joke. It wasn’t my fault if they couldn’t detect the sarcasm in my voice, or tell that I wasn’t really anti-Semitic or racist or homophobic.  As far as I was concerned, the uninitiated were beneath my notice—4chan was like a secret club that only a few people could join, despite the millions of users worldwide who posted there.

I browsed and posted on 4chan daily until I was a freshman in college. And then….I stopped. I was a sophomore in college when I realized that trolling, this culture of nastiness, wasn’t who I wanted to be.  4channers call it “troll’s remorse”—the sudden moment of clarity when you realize that being mean to another human being for no adequately explored reason is kind of awful. And troll’s remorse hit me hard when I remembered the longest-suffering victim of 4chan’s efforts, Christian Weston Chandler. Christian—abbreviated on 4chan to Chris-chan or CWC—was a 24-year old, high-functioning autistic man who made videos on YouTube about his fan-made comics and figurine collections. He posted a video venting his rage at not winning a contest, which caught the attention of many viewers—including some 4channers. From that point on, Chris-chan was trolled mercilessly for nearly five years. He’s been hacked, had his personal information leaked, he’s been harassed, and mocked for being sent to jail and suffering the death of his father. Chris-chan’s life has been thoroughly tainted, if not completely ruined, by trolls. When I came across Chris-chan at the age of 15, it was via his entry on Encyclopedia Dramatica. The entry itself was expansive, with many links to chat logs and screenshots. It was all dedicated to Chris-chan and what had been done to troll him. I read the entire entry and its links. In a few hours’ worth of reading, I found out nearly everything about Chris-chan’s life—where he went to school, how many girls he’d dated, where he lived—even where to find his amateur sex tape. He was hilarious. He was pathetic. He was homophobic, unhygienic, and completely backwards. He deserved to be trolled, I thought. I was delighted when I read about the things that’d been done to him: the deception, the fake accounts pretending to be girls interested in him, the dozens of pizzas ordered to his house. At the time, it was hilarious. I’d show my friends his YouTube videos, where he’d be ranting and raving at the camera, laughing my head off while they looked on with mild interest.

“Isn’t he funny, in like a pathetic way?” I’d say, grinning widely.

“Isn’t he retarded or something? That’s kind of mean,” my friends would say. I’d just shake my head and roll my eyes, thinking, He’s just autistic.

Either way, I wanted in on it. I wanted to troll Christian Chandler myself. He was growing harder and harder to find as more and more people trolled him, and the only place I could reach him was through Sony’s PlayStation Network. I found his PSN ID through the Encyclopedia Dramatica entry and clicked the “Add Friend” button. I waited nearly a week for his response. When he accepted, I was ecstatic. “Is this really Christian Chandler?” I sent in a message to his account. “I am the one and only Christian Weston Chandler,” he replied. At that point, my options seemed infinite. What would I do? How would I troll him? Just go the usual route, and call him out for his various online misdeeds? Threaten to call his parents? Maybe try to phish the password for his account?

Honestly? None of these things happened. Once I’d typed out the perfect nasty message and sent it to him, he promptly deleted me and never replied. It was all very underwhelming. Mine was probably the umpteenth nasty message he’d received that day, and definitely not the worst message or the last. My fascination with CWC ended very quickly after that, and I didn’t give him—or my own delight in hurting him—much thought for the next four years.

I was taking a sociology course my sophomore year in college, and one of my friends was commenting on his autistic brother and the stigma he faced in society. I’d had many, many conversations about autism, and heard plenty of stories about autistic children and family members, but for some reason it all finally clicked in that classroom. Trolling Christian Chandler, reading about his whole life and laughing about it on Encyclopedia Dramatica, trying to add to his misery—it was awful. Suddenly I didn’t understand myself.  Everything that I’d found hilarious as a high school sophomore wasn’t funny anymore, four years later. Christian Chandler was an autistic man raised by uneducated parents in a low-income neighborhood in Virginia. He certainly hadn’t had the same advantages that I had. I grew up in one of the richest towns in Connecticut and had the luxury to sit in a sociology classroom in a private liberal arts college. Who was I to laugh at Christian? Who was anyone to laugh at Christian? Rich or poor, autistic or not—why did we laugh? And why for so long? Suddenly everyone seemed pathetic to me. The poor guy who’s been harassed and victimized for years and the people who have nothing better to do than type angry words on a keyboard all day. It suddenly seemed so obvious: It’s not fun to laugh at disabled people or tell furries to kill themselves.

It’s been more than five years since Christian was “discovered” by 4chan. I checked on his Facebook page a few months ago, and he still gets nasty comments on his statuses from trolls who won’t give up the game.

I like to think that I wouldn’t fall into the same pattern of behaviors I displayed all those years ago, and I haven’t. But can an internet troll be reformed? Am I really a retired 4channer? I still browse and post on the chans occasionally. My sense of humor remains sharp and off-color. Images of disaster and victims of violence still don’t faze me. Have I really managed to separate my online persona from my offline persona? Or have they simply consolidated neatly into a low-empathy, high-functioning human being?

Maybe this essay is what they’d call the “ultimate troll.” A literary confession on memes and 4chan. You’d never think that the same culture behind the hacking of Sarah Palin’s Yahoo! account would have any place in the digital space of a literary journal, but apparently it does. Haven’t I just trolled you? Reformed, indeed.

MENTOR & TORMENTOR

He’s been sober now for decades, but in the early days of his teaching career, when I was his student, he was deep into the destructive work of booze. It was a time when the ampersand was intentional & historical, Beat shorthand for every slow, tired “and” anchored to old times. It was 1974, Fort Collins, Colorado, my first year of grad school & lots of amped-up ampersands. Wild West creative writing program, not yet legit, not MFA’ed. Refuge for renegades & green writers. I was green as could be.

Back east in the Green Mountains (an undergrad at UVM), I’d made a very small dent in the literary canon –white men, many stodgy, some thrilling, all of them dead. I’d read nothing modern, nothing contemporary. Yet, I wanted to be a writer. I’d jumped ship a few times – pre-med, to psych, to eastern philosophy, to literature & one creative writing course. That was all. I loved Shakespeare, Keats, & Yeats. That was all. And on that shaky basis, I was admitted to CSU, provisionally: within the year, I must demonstrate I could write or be out on my ear.

Bill Tremblay was my teacher, my mentor. Wild Bill. Like me, he’d grown up in Massachusetts mill towns. Like me, he loved jazz. That’s where the resemblances ended. Bill was second generation Beat, influenced by Ginsberg & Kerouac. In 1974, he ran workshops in the bars as often as in the classroom. Fledgling writer that I was, Bill took me under wing. Writers drank, he said. I drank. I drank a lot. Bill read Tarot fortunes without the cards. Bill juggled seven conversations in the air without dropping one. I tried to be a minor fortune teller & hipster & failed. Bill was jazz & drugs & booze & all night binges in the bars & post-bar 12-packs in his car parked somewhere on the eastern Colorado plains, watching chain lightning run up & down the sky or watching a red sunrise bleed in the east. I watched a lot of lightning with him, watched a lot of sunrises, eyes bloodshot. I drank hard, well into my second year, until one night, I wanted to stop.

A claque of grad poets gathered around bottles of mescal, shoved at us by Bill. Drink, drink up! We swigged & swigged. At some dizzying point, I rejected the bottle. He shoved it back at my face – Drink, drink up! I turned away & then he was on me, wrestling me to the concrete floor. My mind blinked: I was wrestling with…my professor…over a bottle of mescal, wrestling with an angel & demon wrapped in one body, mentor/tormentor…But I’ve gotten ahead of myself…

In my first, green year, Bill pushed poems on me: You absolutely MUST read this… some new blast by Ginsberg or Bly, Lowell or Sexton. Bill pushed me to write poems I didn’t know I could. His voice charmed. He could read the phonebook & make it sound like a list-poem. When he ordered a burger or a beer, it sung like a haiku or jazz lyric. He did performance art before performance art. I couldn’t tell if his poems were good, blinded by his charisma.

Bill had given me two semesters to turn my game around, so I started to write like Bill, long associative phrases strung together, slightly surreal, full of fire & keening & dissociative moments that either stung like a tarantula or petered out like sawdust on a barroom floor the morning after. He gave me some Confessional advice: read Lowell’s Life Studies. Write about your family. I wanted to write love poems, nature poems. Fuck love, fuck nature, Bill said. Write about your family. & make it hurt.

I wrote six short poems & hit a wall. Somehow, I moved the wall & wrote a dozen long poems I called “The Father Poems.” They were about my father. & not about my father. The more I revised them, the less they were about him. The more I wrote like Bill, the more they sounded like Bill. My father did wild, preposterous things: danced in jazz bars till dawn, blanked out the names of his kids & wife, blacked out, woke in strange beds or on the skid, wrestled Vietnam vets out of their PTSDs, went blind as Homer, recited by heart like the Homeridae & went 100 mph round & round the brain circuitry.  Soon it was obvious who “The Father Poems” were about.

Each week I took new drafts to his office. Bill loved them like a son. He praised their style, wildness, fresh riffs on this sonuvabitch of a father. What a monster, said Bill. What a horrible, horrible man! he moaned. Now I understand you, he said. What you’ve suffered. I winced, I cringed. How could I tell him the horrible truth. Mentor & Tormentor. Mon frere, mon semblable! Had I read Baudelaire, I’d have had the words.

Eventually, Bill sent “The Father Poems” to a state-wide, grad school writing contest, Richard Hugo the final judge. 1st, 2nd, & 3rd place winners were not me. In that most abominable of categories, Honorable Mention, appeared my name. At the awards ceremony, Hugo spoke briefly about the winning poems, then turned his attention to “The Father Poems.” He called them heartfelt, full of wild energy, drunken disintegration, desperate longing for integration & acceptance, desire to be healed by a father’s blessed hand. I was very glad the poems were that good, proud for myself, & prouder still for my secret mentor & tormentor, Bill Tremblay.

In Montaigne’s Shadow

There was always Montaigne. “Of Cannibals.” “Of Drunkenness.” “Upon Some Verses of Virgil.” The stranglehold of imperialism. Books. Thumbs. Dead fathers. He is the sixteenth-century headwaters of the essay, the textual meanderer, the French progenitor of Emerson, Shakespeare, and Descartes. Montaigne haunts us all, more momentousness here than torment. I dwell on his death as much as the death of my own father, a writer, like me.

A recent article dubbed Montaigne the “godfather of blogging.” His pioneering style seems to have anticipated, among other things, the anxieties now arresting nonfiction. Montaigne made the most of his century’s science and philosophy, freely copying from Horace, Virgil, and other ancients, and going un-fact checked. It was not the generation of thoughts but their recording that was his business.

I have trouble being so brazen. I am more like my father in this way, with whom I share a face, outward friendliness, crippling insecurity, and book-ardor. It was he who stacked novels on the mantel, made it seem less strange to squirm behind a desk, wanted me to write.

Near the end of my father’s life at a Dallas nursing home, where kind-lipped West African nurses cared for him like a newborn, he repeated confessions of wasted youth, his thirties spent carousing and womanizing, lost in a pinball mind. At fifty, he packed up and trucked our family to Lubbock, Texas, to start his own journalism business, to write about football.

But his work was never a success. My mom floated him on her teaching job. And then Dad grew a tumor that, when he was fifty-nine, swelled and crowded his brain, stole his ability to write.

Everyone wants what is lost. Sixteenth century Europe: Constantinople sacked. A re-appropriation of the classics. Montaigne fit in. His father, trying to fashion nobility, ensured his son’s first language was Latin. He was a pampered child of the classics, but his Jewish mom’s poor family was burned in Spain. He later entered parliament, believing government at odds with justice. “How many condemnations have I seen that are more criminal than the crime?” he wrote.

He was a man broken in his time and out of his time, sensitive but elitist. There was an unaccountable, contradictory storm in his personality. “Essays were designed to record the flux and flow of his daily existence,” writes his biographer Donald Frame.

“I portray passing,” Montaigne explained.

While Dad labored as a sports journalist, he wrote nonfiction essays. They were endearing and candid in their way, monographs he had printed and bound at the copy center. I remember him leaving one there, saying, “Someone will want to read it.”

Growing up, I assumed he owned a playbook that told him how to write, but I see now that he was charming fate, waiting for a break. Maybe he was enabled by my supportive mother, and his sportsaholic friends to compile football narratives, and mostly ignore what was lurking in his consciousness, along with that tumor — the engulfing need to explain himself.

By most accounts, the greatest impact on Montaigne’s life was an ugly man named Etienne de la Boetie. To Montaigne, he and Boetie were “two halves of the same soul.” Boetie gave Montaigne his skepticism and his ideas about beauty. They carried on “the most remarkable of friendships.”

Boetie died four years after their meeting. On his deathbed, he sent his wife away, and passed his final moments with Montaigne, murmuring his name over and over and over, his loss giving Montaigne a reason to create art.

When my father died, I felt only a quiet numbness. I had eleven years to prepare for his death, but it still left me frozen. It took me three more years to learn what he’d taught me: that every letter counts, and so do the spaces between them.

The death of Montaigne feels more visceral than the death of other writers, the silence not of the loon but of the wilderness. He was aware of multidimensionality, the contradiction of existence, of laying bare his bifurcated humanity. “My history must be adapted to the moment,” he wrote.

Montaigne fretted constantly about kidney stones. They’d killed his father, and he searched Europe for a cure. In the end, he died from a severe case of tonsillitis at fifty-nine, the age at which my father stopped writing.

His is a lesson I’m trying to learn, that I cannot reduce Dad to a sentence, nor to a period after which my life begins.

With Boetie gone, Montaigne’s essays filled “a vigorous need to communicate,” his biographer Frame suggests. Montaigne wrote to talk to the dead.

His work to me is a force of nature, not a story, an is that emanates from his need to analyze himself. “I try to give knowledge not of things, but of myself,” Montaigne wrote. And by that I believe he means Boetie too, the way I write to talk to my father, the person whose DNA and mind I am woven from. Like Montaigne, when I direct my gaze inside, I hope to find that mentor, father, friend who seems to have left his fingerprints. And until the last word falls, I’m looking for a way to recover that once entwined personality that left a space for me to fill.

Murderer’s Bread

Whatever time it is—morning, noon, or long into the night—our neighbor lady is always three sheets to the wind. Maybe four.

We’re out in the front yard trying to dig a hole in the rock-hard ground to plant our first rose bush. A week ago my wife and I moved from our over-priced, cramped—enough already with the hypodermic needles on the sidewalk—city apartment into an underpriced, large—god, is that a raccoon in our garbage can?—fifties rancher in a foggy coastal town. The rose bush is our attempt to beautify the place. Every day fog barrels in from the sea, damp sheets of the stuff that wrap around every leaf, limb, post, and give the neighborhood a gray, dingy look. It gives us a gray, dingy look too but we aren’t complaining. The crummy weather is what makes the houses in the area affordable. No one with any real money would want to live in this constant chill.

I hear a front door slam and look up to see the neighbor lady coming our way. She’s weaving a bit as she crosses the street, still in her nightgown, a coat thrown over her shoulders. The cigarette between her fingers trails smoke behind her like exhaust from a tailpipe. When she reaches our side of the street she grabs hold of our fence as if the sidewalk is the deck of a ship on a stormy sea, as if at any moment she might fall overboard.

Even from a few feet away I can smell the alcohol. She is off-gassing Jim Beam or maybe Wild Turkey. She offers no Good morning, no How’s it going? She just stands there for a moment, watching us dig.

Then she says, “I sure am glad a gay couple had the guts to move onto this block.”

It takes a second for that to hit, to register.

How did she know we’re gay? Sam and I could be two short-haired sisters who are very close, very, very close, and can’t stand to live apart. We could be very good girlfriends who decided to pool resources and buy a house together in a less than liberal neighborhood while we waited for Mr. Right to come along.

“Do you think that will be a problem?” Sam asks.

“Oh, no, honey,” says Three Sheets. “There’s a black family that lives three houses down.”

~

In my mother’s day there was something called the Welcome Wagon. Every neighborhood had ladies whose job it was to welcome a new family to the block. The ladies would be right there at your door—before the paint dried on the walls, before the boxes were unpacked— carrying a loaf of banana bread or zucchini, smiling sweetly while nosing for a glimpse through the door at what kind of housekeeper you were.

Sam’s reaction to our emissary from this neighborhood’s Welcome Wagon is to plant with even greater fervor: hydrangeas, lavender, more rose bushes. My reaction is to be extra vigilant. To keep watch. There’s:

The guy who stands in the open doorway of his house in a wife beater t-shirt

and pajama bottoms, a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck, who gives us the evil eye every time we walk by.

The boy I catch in the act of writing ‘bitch’ on our fence with a green felt pen.

When I ask him what in the hell he thinks he’s doing, he says, “I’m just copying over the letters that were already there.”

The man who mock-whispers “AC/DC” loud enough for us to hear when we go to put out our garbage cans for pick up. When he’s sure he’s got our attention he pulls out his johnny jump up and pees in the street.

The family that launches bottle rockets towards our yard on July 4th, our grass—due to the ongoing drought—as dry as a bone and ready to catch any spark.

I am sure we’ve made a mistake moving here. I tell Sam I am frightened. The truth is I’m terrified. We don’t belong here. Our neighbors are making that clear. I wonder out loud if it isn’t too late to move back to the city.

“We’re stuck here now,” she says as she digs a new hole for another freaking rosebush. “I don’t know why the rose petals are rusting. Maybe I should spring for some Miracle Grow.”

~

Six months later a new kid moves into the house directly across from ours. Three Sheets gave us the history of this house, how the old lady who lives there was very, very busy in her youth and had seven sons by seven different men. All of the sons are adults now and rotate in and out of their mother’s house whenever one of them loses a job or comes back from rehab. The new kid is one uncle’s progeny and the old lady’s grandson. He looks to be about nineteen, short, stocky, with a build that indicates he works out at lot.

He doesn’t seem to have a job. As my desk window looks straight across at his bedroom window I begin to take note of his daily routine. Every afternoon he emerges from his house as if he’s just gotten up. He stands in his driveway wearing sweat pants and nothing else, his bare chest puffed up and out like a little rooster. Facing our house he reaches down in his pants and fiddles around, then spits, then fiddles some more. I’m sure he’s sending us some kind of message.

Things start to heat up. A gang of young toughs begins to congregate on his front lawn. Sometimes there’s a fistfight. Sometimes a neighborhood car gets keyed. Sometimes we hear gunshots in the night. From behind my blinds I notice a string of guys who begin dropping by the kid’s bedroom window at odd hours. He opens up, someone palms him something and, in return, he hands back a paper sack. I tell Sam that the neighborhood just got a new Drug Barn with a convenient walk up window.

One day he comes home with a pregnant pit bull. White, stocky build, set jaw, ears clipped and close to her head. In a funny way he and the dog look a little alike. And they both look ready to spring.

Before long the dog has puppies. Five tiny pit bull puppies. I overhear the kid tell one of his buddies that he’s planning to train them to fight.

Sam has always been more generous than I. Too generous. Before I can stop her she hauls our big plastic doghouse from storage—the one our dogs used when they were pups but have since outgrown. She drags it across the street and asks if the kid would like to borrow it. Sure, he says and takes it with him into his backyard. I know we’ll never see that doghouse again.

That night in bed I hear the puppies crying. Their small yips and whimpers, their sad song, fills the air. Even huddled together in that doghouse they must be so cold out there.

I pull the covers up higher but can’t get back to sleep. The puppies, in unison, start up a high-pitched howling. They’re keening in the night, wailing now. I turn to Sam, can tell by her shallow breathing she’s awake too.

“You know, the real reason he’s raising them is to sell,” I whisper. “Pit bulls to support his bully pulpit.” The kid is very charismatic. There’s no denying he’d developed quite a following. He’s a punk evangelist. He’s the Elmer Gantry of this hood.

“Why in the hell did you give it to him?”

“For protection,” she said.

After that he gives us a quick nod of the head whenever we come out to brush the mold off the roses.

~

Didn’t we see it coming? This is what people ask us, after the fact. Or is it after the facts, plural? Facts that pile up and up and up until you can no longer ignore them and there’s no broom big enough to brush them under the rug.

Here they are, fact after fact after fact, scattered on top of the rug, scattered all over the place:

After a few months he acquires a girlfriend. Acquires, as in gets, as in needs to have one, as in picks one up. The girlfriend either has a well-paying job or rich parents for she drives an expensive car. A new Mercedes, no less.

One afternoon, the car needs gas.

She and the kid drive to a nearby gas station. He is sitting shotgun. He doesn’t have a driver’s license but I also think he likes being ferried, likes having a girlfriend chauffeur. The gas station isn’t far from our house, is owned by a man from India. He and his son operate the station and are known to run an honest garage. Once they helped me fix a flat tire, no charge.

While the girlfriend’s car is filling up the kid must say he has to pee. He probably says I gotta take a piss but other than the girlfriend no one is there to record his actual words. What is recorded later is what a bystander sees.

The bystander is the father’s son.

The kid gets out of the car and walks over to the restroom. He tries the door handle, finds the door locked, then turns and walks over to a flowerbed. There he unzips and starts to pee.

The flowerbed is the kind you now find at a lot of gas stations. Along with the flags and bright, cheerful signs like, “Pay, Pump and Bolt,” the flowerbeds are meant to beautify, to dress up the place, to give the illusion that you’re pulling into a pretty little landscaped island. The planted meridians of daisies or daffodils or tulips are there to make you forget that what we’re dealing with here is crude, bubbling crude, the kind of Texas Tea that made Jed a millionaire on the Beverly Hillbillies. To make you forget that gas—regular, unleaded, supreme—is stored in large underground tanks and is flammable, very flammable. With one shaker the whole shebang will blow and take you and your nice downscale neighborhood along with it.

When the station owner sees the kid doing his business in the flowerbed he rushes over and says, “Please don’t do that there. I will get the key. I will open the restroom for you.” But the kid ignores him and keeps peeing. The owner’s son hears the commotion and runs over to help. He yells, “Stop or I’m going to call the police.”

There’s an altercation. The kid pushes the son. The son—taller, bigger, more muscular—retaliates and pushes back. Hard. That’s when the kid runs. As he’s running away he yells that he’ll be back. No one sees where the girlfriend drives off.

He said he’d be back. He’d given his word. That night, as the father and son are closing up, the kid is hiding inside the service station garage. No one knows how he got in there. When the father comes into the garage to lock up the kid takes out a gun, takes aim. With one shot he puts a bullet through the father’s head.

~

A tall white man wearing a rumpled dark suit and a serious demeanor comes to our front door. Big belly. Tired eyes, as if he’s seen it all. He says his name is McCool. Detective McCool. I’m about to say, “You’ve got to be kidding,” but can tell by the way he scowls when he flashes his badge that he isn’t.

We welcome him inside. He tells us what happened, what the authorities have pieced together about the murder, tells us how the arrest went down. The police came to the grandmother’s house and found the kid in bed, with the covers pulled up over his head. Shivering, I picture him shivering. God. How did he end up like this?

I say something about how I can’t believe someone so young could do something so heinous. McCool says the kid isn’t that young. Then he asks if we had any idea he was up to something. He wants to know if we think the act of shooting the station owner was premeditated.

“Listen,” Sam says. “He was just a kid, a neighborhood punk. How could we know he had it in him to do something like this?”

“What makes you think he was just a neighborhood punk?”

Later that night, in bed, in the quiet of the neighborhood—how quiet it is now, just the soft, muffled sound of the fog blowing in, the gang gone, the puppies gone—Sam turns to me and says, “Maybe I wanted to think he was just a neighborhood punk.”

He gets 25 to life and is sent to San Quentin. I look on the prison’s website to see where he is going to be living for the next 25 years. Up pops a photo of that famous hellhole on San Francisco Bay with its weird Knights of the Round Table castle façade. The grounds are beautifully landscaped to make you forget it’s a place that can blow at any moment. Off to one side of the front entrance is a rhododendron in full bloom. On the other side: three anemic-looking rose bushes.

The website has an article about a new prison program for model prisoners: the Prison Garden Project. The purpose is to create, “a non-segregated organic garden to soften the San Quentin prison yard.” If the kid is on his best behavior maybe he can get involved and when he gets out he can show us a thing or two.

~

The first holiday season after he is sent up Sam starts baking. Holiday bread. Pumpkin bread and zucchini bread and gingerbread, studded with dried fruits or chocolate chips or nuts. The loaves rise in their silver foil loaf pans, puff up like his chest puffed up when he was out there in his driveway. As the loaves sit out to cool she dusts each loaf with powdered sugar, crowning the tops with what looks like fresh snowfall to add a little extra sweetness. Then she wraps them up in foil and starts out on her rounds. To the boa constrictor house. To the bottle rocket house. To AC/DC’s house. Then across the street to the old lady’s house where an uncle or six still live.

When she gets back home she tells me what happened. She crossed the street and rang the bell. From inside one of the uncles yelled, “Who’s there?” “Your neighbor,” she replied. He opened the front door and she saw it was the uncle we call the Chauffeur. He has a part time gig driving a limo with a license plate that reads, “ SWINGRZ.” Three Sheets says the job is part of a court order to make him pay back alimony.

“I handed over the loaf and said ‘Happy Holidays.’ He just stood there. Then he ripped off the foil, tore off a piece of the bread and put it in his mouth. ‘Alright,’ is all he said. Then he shut the door.”

~

It becomes a holiday tradition. Year after year she bakes and bakes and bakes and delivers and delivers and delivers. I can’t cook, can’t bake so the onus is on her to carry on. One of our friends asks if there is a secret ingredient in her holiday bread. She says no, nothing special, then adds, “I call it murderer’s bread.”

The friend asks her what she thinks all those deliveries will yield. She says it isn’t about yield. Still, there’s no denying the loaves have had an effect.

Over the years, I’ve kept a tally.

Someone knocks on our front door. I look out of the peephole and see one of the neighbors from down the street, the guy who looks like a serial murderer; long grey beard, straggly hair. Dirty camo jacket. He stands there, his hands held high above his head in a “don’t shoot” position. When I open up he tells me he works maintenance at the local racetrack and has a whole truckload of horse manure in the back of his truck. Asks if we want some for our garden. “It’s good for the roses,” he says. He brings over a wheel barrel full of horseshit and dumps it in our driveway. The roses respond as if they’ve been waiting all their starved lives for just this miracle, grow full, bountiful.

One night a deep fog rolls in, heavier than usual. A woman knocks on the front door to tell us one of us have left the lights on in our car. Then she asks, “Did you hear about the recent robbery?” We have. Someone busted in the back window of the house four doors down and stole all the electronics. I say, thanks anyway, thanks for letting us know. She says, “Hey, you’d do the same for me.”

There’s a series of rapid, tiny knocks on the front door. Standing on the porch are two young kids, a boy and a girl. I recognize them as the offspring of the boy who once wrote on our fence with the green felt pen. The boy with good penmanship. They giggle and quickly hand me a sack with a ribbon tied to the handle. Inside, there’s a bottle of wine and a blank card with no note, just a signature. The Trunzo family.

It’s holiday time again. Somebody rings the doorbell. I open the door. AC/DC stands there holding what looks like store-bought baked goods covered in plastic. Something from Safeway. “Here,” he says and hands it over. Then he turns and walks away.

~

The other day we heard what happened to the kid from Three Sheets who said she heard it from one of the uncles. The kid killed someone else. In prison. I wonder if the prison guards saw that coming. They’ve transferred him and now he’s in a new maximum maximum security prison. State of the art incarceration. McCool is long gone but if he were still around I bet he’d say, “See? What’d I tell you?”

The only way the kid’s ever going to get out now is if someone bakes him a loaf of bread and puts a file inside.

Years go by. Some people never change. Some do.

I still don’t know how to bake. And the kid’s not a kid anymore.

~

Tonight I get out of my car with a load of groceries, two overfull bags. I barely make it inside the house and just as I drop the bags on the kitchen table I hear someone pounding on the front door. Dammit. Who is it now? Maybe it’s the Christian fundamentalists again, who’ve taken to blanketing the neighborhood. The last time they came around I made up a quick reply, announced, “We’re gay Buddhists,” before they could even start their spiel. I thought that would put an end of it, but no. One of the women stood her ground and asked if I knew whether or not I was going to heaven. I looked her straight in the eye and said, “Lady. My ticket’s been booked.”

I look through the peephole. Instead of someone waving a pamphlet I see the Chauffeur standing there, fog swirling around his head in the gauzy porch light. He’s holding my wallet in his hand, holding it up high so I can see it through the tiny peephole. I open the door and he hands it over.

“I think you dropped this,” he says. “It was on the street, right outside your car door.”

When Sam gets home from work I tell her how I would have laid bets I’d never see that wallet again. How the uncle smiled a sheepish smile. How he had a sweet face. How maybe I’ve misjudged him. Him and everyone else on this block. AC/DC. The kid with the excellent penmanship. Three Sheets.

She gives me one of her generous smiles. The kind she hands out like candy.

“Welcome to the neighborhood,” she says.

Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road

AUGUST 19: NORTH CAROLINA

 

Elliot Mazer won’t work with me. The music producer has been in the business for decades, so he knows what language my funders want. But every time I bring up copyright he changes the subject back to himself and his past glories. In fairness, however, he does this with every other question I ask him as well.

I thank him for the interview and imagine the edited version. I’ll include some discussion about how he’s produced many of Neil Young’s seminal albums, but perhaps—because viewers might think him arrogant—I’ll leave out the part where he says the singer and guitarist wouldn’t be where he is today without Elliot’s expertise with a sound board. I’ll include discussion of his life now, here in Reidsville, North Carolina, just south of the Virginia border. How he’s converted the stately dining room of this grand old home into a state-of-the-art studio. And how he’s using that studio in his semi-retirement to produce albums for clients who find him online.

I’m okay with this interview being a disappointment, because I have another one to shoot, here in this home with his wife, Diana Reid Haig. Elliot and I leave the high-ceilinged front parlor and walk down the home’s front hallway, across the worn oak floors, past the antique brass gas-style wall lamps, below the dental plaster molding framing the pressed tin ceiling. Halfway down the hall he slips into his studio and I keep going. As I enter the kitchen a wooden floorboard creaks under my foot. Marisa, seated with Diana at a small round table, slams her sketch book shut. One of the pencils Colleen Doran gave her yesterday rolls off the table onto the parquet floor.

“Oh here, sweetie, let me get that for you.” Diana slips gracefully out of her chair and retrieves the pencil as she stands. She reaches down and presses straight the skirt of her blue sundress. Marisa takes the pencil from her.

“Thank Diana,” I say to Marisa.

“Oh, that’s not necessary. Your daughter is so charming and polite,” Diana says, as if boasting about a favorite granddaughter. She’s describing the Marisa I once knew, not the teenager I live with now. I decide to celebrate the fact that Marisa did not alienate our host during the hour I was interviewing Diana’s husband. “How did it go with Elliot?”

“Great,” I lie. “Are you still up for an interview?”

“Oh, why not,” she says with a smile.

When it was decided I would interview Elliot first, Diana immediately volunteered to “entertain” Marisa in the kitchen. Elliot clearly won’t be playing the same role during my interview with Diana. I recall how quiet Marisa was during my interview yesterday with Colleen, and how much she seemed to get out of being present for it. “Marisa, do you want to join us?”

Marisa looks down at her notebook, and then shakes her head no.

Diana places her hand gently on Marisa’s right shoulder. “I think she probably just wants to keep working in her sketch book. She’s a brilliant artist, Patrick. You should see the still life she just did. Show your father, Marisa.”

I step forward. Marisa would in the past show me some of her drawings, but the person she most wanted to share with was my mother. I don’t know who she shares her art with now, or even what art she is producing. I’ve had opportunities to peek at her work—like everything else she owns, she leaves her sketchbooks all over the house—but I’ve resisted. It isn’t the same if she doesn’t show me. I’m not sure this counts, with Diana insisting she do so. But I’ll take the opportunity nonetheless. I see on the page the fruit bowl centerpiece. Two bananas, a peach, and an orange emerge from the blue ceramic bowl. The fruit is depicted accurately, but there’s more to it than that. It’s as if Marisa has added some spark of life to the display. The banana in the foreground appears to be calling to me to choose it over its bowl mates.

“Marisa, that is quite good. Diana is right.”

“Oh, your daughter is so talented. She told me all about her love of drawing, and especially of photography. And she’s so thrilled you’re taking her to Savannah to tour the art school there. She’s lucky to have a father like you.”

Now my discomfort level matches that of my daughter. I nod to Diana to join me in the hall.

“Marisa,” Diana says as we leave the kitchen, “don’t forget that I’m sending you two on your way with blueberry muffins. I won’t take no for an answer.”

We return to the front parlor. I had seated Elliot in a wing-back chair, but I want to film Diana in a separate part of the room. She suggests the bench in front of the upright piano.

“You said this house dates back generations in your family,” I say as I set up the camera. “And I can’t help but notice that your last name is Reid, and the town’s name is Reidsville.”

Diana laughs. “Yes, I am local royalty, if you will. But my branch is the black sheep. My grandmother built this house at what was then outside of town. We’re still viewed as the splinter line.”

I nod knowingly, but don’t inform her I also grew up with black-sheep parents. We begin the interview. Diana discusses her early career as a songwriter in New York, Nashville and Los Angeles. She grew up surrounded by music, and it was in that professional world that she met Elliot. She turns and places her left hand on the keys behind her. “I remember when I was young, my piano teacher, at this very piano, told me that when I play, I’m putting my hands in the same position as that composer’s hands. That made the music come alive to me. It’s like a living link to the past, stepping into someone else’s shoes.”

“That’s not unlike the books you write.”

Diana has written a series of travel books that guide the reader along the same paths followed by famous people in their cities of origin. If you’ve ever been curious about where Napoleon or his wife Josephine passed the time in Paris, her books will take you there. I’ve been reading a fair amount of travel literature as I’ve prepared for this trip, and I didn’t come across any other works that are so original in concept.

“Yes, you’re right, although I’ve never really thought of it that way. I just am really obsessed with history. You know, that first book about Napoleon grew out of a personal obsession. I love Paris, and when I was there I’d seek those places out. Often they’re very hard to find, so I’d jot down directions to share with others. But believe it or not, I found the people I knew, in the music business, weren’t that eager to talk about Napoleon. I’d bring him up and I could see my friends kind of back away and say, ‘Oh there she goes again.’”

That’s my experience when I try to share with Washington lobbyists my passion for antique maps. With these books, Diana found a way to convey her passion to like-minded readers. A perforated ulcer laid her up in bed for close to a year, she tells me, so to keep busy she compiled her travel notes into a book. It didn’t take long for her to find a publisher, and she’s since written more books about Paris. Her new project is a book about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ lifelong love affair with New York City. The Kennedy family has given her access to some of the former First Lady’s personal records.

I tell her about meeting Michael Swanwick in Philadelphia, and how he turned a personal obsession about a poet into a published biography. Then I ask what her friends in the music business think of her books.

“It’s been very interesting to see how people perceive different forms of creativity, the songs I’ve written and my books. It’s a different reaction. It seems to me that people really admire it when you can make something up, like with my songs. But I love writing nonfiction. It’s my passion now. It’s what I think about when I wake up in the morning. You just need to find your own compass.”

I like that metaphor, and not just because I love the artistry found in an antique map’s compass rose. I picture Diana, an artist who reinvented herself late in life, gliding along the cobblestones of a tucked-away Parisian lane, sunlight glistening on her copper hair. I see her bursting with excitement, a skip in her step as she explores, then her stopping to pull out a notebook from her purse so she can jot down her latest discovery.

We discuss the mysteries of the creative process some more and then I wrap up, not distressed that we haven’t really discussed copyright law. I secure the camera in its bag. Diana remains on the piano bench, a mischievous gleam in her eye.

“I assume you’re writing a book about this trip, right?” she asks.

I feel as if she’s caught me stealing a banana from her bowl. I realize now that my subconscious has been toying with the idea since that first day in New England. My resistance stems from the fact that I can’t figure out how to write a book about my travels without putting me in it. I think of other road-trip authors like John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac and William Least Heat Moon and Robert Pirsig. They invite you to join them in their journey. Steinbeck, an old crank longing for an America he feels is lost. Kerouac, living without fear of consequences. Heat Moon, learning and healing from those he meets along the way. And Pirsig, who slowly reveals his struggle with mental illness. That last one hits perhaps too close to home.

“You absolutely must write this story,” she says. “What you’re doing is so, well, different. I’d love to be Marisa, to ride along with you, even if only for a few days.”

We head back to the kitchen. Rain pelts the bay window over the sink, a barrage of liquid bullets. Marisa and I will have to brave a run across the street to the car. Diana offers us umbrellas, a gesture I immediately dismiss. I don’t mean to dismiss Southern hospitality, but we’d have no opportunity to return them.

Elliot remains in his studio, but Diana offers us a farewell. She thanks me for the interview before I can thank her. Then she gives Marisa a full-body embrace. I watch for my daughter to flinch, but she does not. Her arms go up, and her red sketch book wraps around our host. Then Marisa and I dash to the car. Once safely inside the vehicle, only moderately drenched, Marisa says, “Um, Dad,” and points out my driver’s side window.

Diana is rushing across the street, a bag in one hand and a red umbrella in the other. I lower the window.

“You forgot the muffins,” she says over the sound of the sheeting rain bombarding the umbrella’s nylon.

“You didn’t have to do this,” I say, but I take the muffins.

“I wouldn’t let you leave without them,” she says. “It’s the least I could do, after your gift of letting me talk about my creativity.”

Diana heads back to her family home, I close the window, and then turn to Marisa. She’s smiling and shaking her head.

“What the hell was she thinking?” Marisa says. “That is so nice, and so ridiculous.”

“You know,” I tell her, “I’ve stopped being surprised by things on this trip.”

~

We slice west through the rain toward Asheville, North Carolina. I’m taking Marisa tomorrow to the Biltmore Estate, a summer home for one of the Vanderbilts. It seemed like a good place to give Marisa a tourism experience and, perhaps, make up for having done so little with her during our family vacation on the Jersey Shore. To justify the drive, I booked an interview with an artist nearby.

Marisa and I chuckle over how sweet Diana is. She then tells me that Diana spent most of their time together in the kitchen encouraging Marisa to pursue her passion for art. That was unnecessary. Art is the only thing that motivates Marisa to apply herself. Then Marisa falls silent, and I see her eyes are focused on a highway sign. It tells us we have forty-seven miles to go before we reach Asheville. But it also says we are one hundred and sixty-three miles from Knoxville, Tennessee. Marisa emits a low growl, puts her ear buds back in, and then flips open her sketch book.

I didn’t realize that this highway could lead me to my parents’ home. I consider the possibility of pushing on to Knoxville for a surprise visit with my parents. Perhaps that is the way to mend this latest rift. I ended the last one, after all, by calling them with news of Marisa’s impending birth. Maybe this time having Marisa in tow would do the trick. Since we left their house in the middle of the night a year ago, Marisa has finished her first year of high school. She’s knocking at the door of womanhood. But my mother knows that without me visiting. That call fifteen years ago delivered news unknown to her.

I almost drove another route to Knoxville in January of this year. I was attending a conference hosted by one of my funders at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville. While seeking a quiet moment under a palm tree in the resort’s glass-enclosed garden conservatory, my mobile phone rang. It was my mother.

“Your father’s having a hard time breathing. I’m taking him to the hospital now.”

Somehow I had been expecting a call like this. And here I was, I thought, back in Tennessee for the first time since that August night five months earlier. “I’m in Nashville, Mom. I can rent a car and be there in two hours.”

“I doubt your father would want to see you, but hold on. I’ll call you from the hospital.” And she hung up.

I felt as if the marrow had been drained from my bones. I made my way to a hotel bar, a dark, low-ceilinged establishment that cocooned my fear. An hour later the phone rang again. I quickly put down my scotch and answered.

“He’s fine. False alarm.”

“I’m glad. I can still come.”

“I don’t know why we’d want you here.”

I took a sip of scotch. How often had I held this conversation in my mind? Hundreds, probably. Each time I tried a different approach. The only commonality was that each ended disastrously.

“Mom, I think we should talk.” I forged ahead. “The last time we found ourselves like this, Marisa’s birth brought us back together. Well, Marisa and Parker still need grandparents.”

“She’d have to apologize first.”

Already I was thrown off-script. “You mean Marisa? What would she be apologizing for?”

“For starters, she defriended me on Facebook.”

I placed the phone down on the bar, careful not to disconnect the call. I needed a moment to process my mother’s demand, and the reason for it. My motion caught the bartender’s eye, and he pointed at my near-empty glass. Ordering another round had not been my intent, but I nodded.

Two weeks after the kids and I returned from Knoxville last August, Laura took me to a psychologist she trusted. I wanted to better understand my mother, to learn how I could repair this latest rift or, at a minimum, discuss what had happened with my children. It didn’t take him long to assess my situation. He mapped out our relationship on a whiteboard. Various boxes represented me, Laura, Marisa, Parker, my mother, and my father.

“Your mother is a classic narcissist. This is how she views her world,” he said. He drew circles that placed all of the boxes in orbit around my mother. “She is basically frozen as a child, the center of everything and all drama magnified. Perhaps some trauma when she was young locked her into that mindset. It’s an appealing place to be, the center of attention and no responsibilities. You’ve empowered her mindset your whole life, and it sounds like your father began to do so when she let him back into her life all those years ago.” He then erased the circles and drew straight lines connecting various boxes. Only one line extended from my father’s box. It connected with my mother. Laura, Marisa, and Parker were all connected to me via dry-erase marker strokes. These two clusters–my parents and my nuclear family–were joined by a single line between my mother and me. I couldn’t reach my father separate from my mother. And she couldn’t reach my children separate from me.

“You’re the nexus, Patrick,” the psychologist said.

“I don’t want to be.”

“It’s not a matter of want. If your children are to have a relationship with your mother, it has to go through you.”

In that Opryland bar I took a sip of my new glass of scotch and thought of that whiteboard diagram. Before that night, my mother had a line connecting her with my daughter. It was social media. Marisa had erased that line, and I knew she had no interest in re-drawing it. I picked up the phone again, assuming the responsibility I was evading. “Mom, I hear what you’re saying. But I think Marisa would want something from you as well. Not an apology,” I said quickly, anticipating an objection to my mother to a word she associated with surrender and defeat, “but perhaps an explanation. You could explain to her you didn’t mean some of the things you said, some of the things she heard you say.”

“What? That I wanted to keep her safe from her crazy father, who could snap and hurt her in a heartbeat?”

There are a number of fathers who could have been in her mind at that moment other than me. My father, who never physically harmed me but had on several occasions committed significant damage to inanimate objects such as drywall and bathroom doors. My mother’s biological father who, like mine, left when she was young, but unlike mine did not return. Or her stepfather, of whom my mother spoke with an unsettling combination of love and disgust. I couldn’t know where my mother’s mind was at that moment–I never knew such things–but what was clear was that she had spent the last few months completely recasting in her memory the events of that night. She was the saint who had struggled valiantly to protect her grandchildren from a demonic father. I knew my father would have retained a memory of the evening’s actual events. But the only box he was connected to on the psychologist’s whiteboard was my mother. I could not expect him to support a more accurate version of events. He would do everything he could to keep from having that solitary line erased.

I did not drive to Knoxville that day at the Gaylord hotel. I stayed in that bar. I do not recall how many drinks I had, but it was not enough to fill, for even a moment, the places where my marrow had been drained.

We pass the highway sign directing us to Knoxville and I look over at my daughter. I’ve never told her about that January call with her grandmother. I consider acknowledging the sign, using it as a way to get her to talk to me about that night, and about the loss she has suffered the last year. She’s trapped in the car now, no way to walk away from my questions. But I’m feeling a connection with her that is rare and refreshing. I don’t want to ruin it by bullying her into confronting a pain she is actively avoiding.

As I reach the outskirts of Asheville I develop another plan to engage her. When I booked the interview with percussionist Paul Babelay, he told me he lived in a wooded area on a steep mountain slope, and the road that led up that mountain was extremely hard to spot. The GPS tells me I’m getting close. I hand Marisa printed directions provided by Paul. “Marisa, I need you to play navigator.”

Marisa removes her left ear bud and takes the paper. “There’s supposed to be a turn on the right,” I tell her, “but he says it will be hard to find.”

The road I’m on hugs a cutout of mountainside. On the GPS screen it appears as a solid patch of green, no black lines penetrating the block of color. Marisa leans forward, squinting.

“There it is!” Somehow her artist’s eye has perceived a thin break in the pines. I come nearly to a stop, then wonder if it was wise to lose the car’s momentum. The slope is steep and the road isn’t paved. I press the car forward. As we move under the tree canopy, the sound of pelting rain is replaced by pings of gravel kicking up against the car’s undercarriage. My distress is lessened when I see the smile on Marisa’s face, a rare sight in the last year.

“Marisa, that was fabulous. I never would have spotted that on my own.” My compliment has the added advantage of being sincere. As we climb, we pass one mailbox, then another. Thin strips of clearing extend left and right past each one. Then I see Paul’s house, tucked away in the pines. The main floor extends out off the mountain into space, with a basement level supporting the right half of the house. A wide porch extends the length of the home in front of us, then turns a sharp left to extend along the drop-off. We step out of the car.

“You just missed a bear. Tiger is still a bit freaked out.” A thin man about my age places a fat tabby down on the wood. The cat shakes slightly, it looks directly at Marisa and me, and then walks off, tail erect, the tip twitching slightly. We head inside, and I interview Paul in his living room in front of a massive stone fireplace while Marisa sketches. Her subject is Tiger, who stares at us through a glass door. Paul discusses his choice to pursue a musical career here in Asheville rather than Nashville. He and his wife have built a good life here for their children, and he is willing to take the work he can get so as not to disturb that life. I can relate. When I was a single father I turned down reporting jobs that would have had me covering Capitol Hill debates long into the evening because it would have caused havoc with my custody schedule.

Paul says his life choices have not prevented him from exploring his true passion. It’s called a vibraphone, which he says is similar to a xylophone but more compelling. I ask him to elaborate but fail to listen to the response. It’s as if my mind is being tugged out of my head, pulled west into a different orbit. I am in my mother’s office in Knoxville. I am in the Gaylord bar in Nashville. Boxes and lines swirl on a whiteboard. I look again at Marisa. Somehow Tiger has re-entered the house and is now on Marisa’s lap, forcing her to hold the sketchbook in the air above him. She doesn’t appear distressed by this inconvenience. What terrible act would Marisa have to perform that would lead me to cut her out of my life? What harm would she have to inflict to have me turn my back on her, a person I have dedicated my life to fostering? I come up blank.

Marisa has been unwilling to speak of that Knoxville night with me. But what have I really said to her? Have I shared with her the depth of the pain I feel at losing my parents? No. Because I haven’t fully admitted it’s there. I have been performing the family tradition of denying what is right in front of me. Sabra Field told me the art-committed life is a difficult one, and many choose the easier path. The easy road–in creativity and in family dynamics–is one with which I am all too familiar. I know without looking at the camera’s diagnostic display that I have enough footage. It’s time to leave. It’s time for Marisa and me to spend a little more time together, to search out dinner and the hotel in our respective roles of parent and child. I’m eager to do so.

 

AUGUST 20: NORTH CAROLINA AND SOUTH CAROLINA

 

I am content. Marisa is not. This library fills me with warmth and comfort despite its cavernous size. The Biltmore Estate tour guide tells me the 40-feet by 60-feet room holds 10,000 books written in eight languages. It is the largest privately owned library in the country. But what speaks to me is not the volume of books. It is the reverence in which the room holds them. The tour guide focuses on the ceiling painting, an Eighteenth Century mural by Giovanni Pelligrini that George Vanderbilt actually paid to relocate from a palace in Italy. But my eyes are not drawn to gods and cherubs dwelling in a cloud. Nor are they directed to the massive fireplace that runs the length of the two-tiered room, its black mantel blending in with the dark walnut bookcases running on both levels. No, my focus is on the multitude of books, leather-bound with gold-lined spines. Did Vanderbilt realize that by creating the grandest possible private library, the room itself could serve to humble him, showing him as just one man surrounded by the mental output of thousands? Whatever the answer, he is long gone, but the books remain.

Marisa fell into a funk once the tour began and the docent said no photographs were allowed indoors. As we’ve entered each room, I’ve watched as her hand flicked to her camera bag then slowly lowered, as if the bones in her arm had liquefied.

The docent tells us that Vanderbilt owned nearly 30,000 books in all, three times what we see here. I understand the challenge of being able to display all of the books you own, even the modest number I’ve accumulated. In fact, I came close to solving that problem once by intending to rid myself of most of them. It took nearly three years for my ex-wife and me to resolve our custody battle. I managed to secure three nights a week with Marisa and Parker. To approximate as closely as possible a family experience for them, I moved us from my bachelor apartment to a three-level, three-bedroom detached home in a quiet northern Virginia suburb. In what I now recognize as a bout of manic spending—always a risk for someone with my diagnosis–I furnished every room. But the legal cost of securing that custody schedule produced unanticipated debt. After a year I couldn’t afford to keep renting the house. I knew things needed to change when I found myself acting out a cliché, actually digging under couch cushions for loose change so I could buy bread and milk for my children. I did in fact produce enough change, and ignored the fury of the woman behind me in line at the supermarket as I slowly counted out what I owed.

The only way to begin the climb out of debt was to relocate to a small apartment. That meant nearly all of the furniture I acquired had to go, but I hoped to make a little cash by selling it at a yard sale. I gave the kids the apartment’s one bedroom, yet it was still too small for their two beds, so I sold them at a severe loss and bought a bunk bed. Marisa played the older child card and took the top bunk, but Parker seemed to like the cocoon-like environment formed underneath when Marisa’s sheet hung down over the side. I placed my bed in the living room in the space meant for a dinette set, something else I had sold. I purchased a collapsible card table and folding chairs that I would set up by my bed for meals. My first year in the apartment the custody agreement had the children with me for Thanksgiving. I gathered up a number of my coffee-table books of antique maps and placed them on the bed. Each held one of the sides– mashed potatoes, peas, candied yams, the fruit ambrosia my mother always made for that meal– and my nightstand held the turkey.

I found a use that day for books I ended up not selling. When I conducted the yard sale— a key element of what I called The Simplification, the initial caps visible in my mind even now– most of my books were on display, from suspense novels bought on impulse at airports to firstedition biographies acquired through extensive explorations of used bookstores. The books were of course cheaper and more portable than a 7-piece dinette set or a set of beds, and began moving quickly. As a customer brought to me for purchase a cherished biography of the English clockmaker who made possible the calculation of longitude at sea, I realized there are only so many sacrifices that are acceptable in life. About thirty minutes into the official time of the sale, I covered the books in sheets to ensure they were off-limits. They traveled with me to the small apartment, but were not displayed in two-story walnut bookcases. Instead I stacked them on any free section of floor. My display aesthetic may have been lacking, but my reverence for those books was no less than Vanderbilt’s was for his.

We are ushered out of the library to make room for the next tour group, and soon enough we are back outside, walking down the wide stone steps to the gravel drive in front of the mansion. I squint, adjusting to the sunlight after an hour spent in near-darkness. When my vision clears I see Marisa has already removed her camera. In front of us is a large expanse of green lawn. To the right lie acres of flowers and fountains we had darted past on our way to the mansion. Marisa looks at me, I nod, and she is off to the garden.

I catch up with her a few minutes later. She is shaded under a vine-covered trellis, standing precariously several feet up on the edge of a fountain. It appears she’s trying to capture a close-up of a cherub pouring water. She’s resting her left hand on the wet stone behind the cherub, and I imagine several scenarios that have in common a disastrous ending.

“What are you doing?” I call out.

“I’m trying to freeze a drop of water against the contours of the stone behind it,” Marisa says without looking. “It’s tricky with this camera, I’m stuck with the built-in lens, there aren’t a lot of settings and it seems to have been designed by chimps. But I’ve struggled with it enough to sometimes fool it into getting the exposure level I want with the focus range I need.”

I rush to her side while she takes a few more photographs. Then she permits me to support her by the arm as I guide her back to the ground. She turns instantly to her camera’s screen to examine her handiwork.

“Can I see?”

She pauses, then turns the camera display my direction. I see an image too real to be real, a glistening drop of water broadcasting a hint of rainbow from the morning sun. The photograph’s tranquility momentarily washes away the scorching August heat.

Marisa’s latest passion is photography, and for her fifteenth birthday she had asked for a something called a digital single-lens reflex camera, or DSLR. They turned out to be pretty expensive, nearly as pricey as the laptop I’m using to edit these films. I couldn’t pull the trigger on such an expensive gift. So after I said no she gathered up her cash and bought this camera used. It’s not a true DSLR, but apparently she’s spent the last few months trying to figure out how to get it to do what she wants anyway.

I like to think I have done my part to foster her creative development. But that has mostly been through encouragement. As Colleen Doran said two days ago, an artist needs the right tools. But Marisa’s will to create trumps her technical limitations. And perhaps it is will that is the most important thing. I no longer sleep in the living room of a one-bedroom apartment. I cut expenses and took on extra work, and clawed my way out of debt. My parents helped with that, in part by adhering to my request to honor my birthday and Christmas by making donations to college funds I had set up for Marisa and Parker to which I could no longer afford to contribute. I remain grateful for their assistance, even if the amount they provided has continued to balloon in my mother’s mind. Then, after I knew I would not be a financial burden on a partner, I remarried. Two years ago Laura and I purchased a three-level, three-bedroom home in a quiet northern Virginia suburb. We bought Marisa a new bed, but Parker insisted upon keeping the bunk bed. He still sleeps on the bottom, and keeps a sheet on the unused upper bunk, which I sometimes find hanging down, cocooning him. It’s good that Marisa experienced that life arc, seeing her father fight his way out of a personal setback. I suspect she has focused a fair amount in the past year on what genetic inheritance she may have received from her grandmother, both artistic and mental. I don’t know what questions she asks herself about genetic hand-me-downs from her father. She overheard my mother that night. She knows I have struggled with bipolar disorder. She knows I impregnated a girl as a teenager, and paid for it to be aborted. But she has also seen something in both her father–and her grandparents–that should hearten her. Resiliency. Or perhaps stubbornness. My mother has always demonstrated an unwavering determination to overcome obstacles through sheer force of will. I have never ceased to admire that about her. Perhaps unwavering fortitude is part of Marisa’s genetic destiny.

~

As we leave the Biltmore estate a road sign informs us that turning right leads to Charleston, South Carolina. A left brings us to Knoxville, Tennessee. I glance at Marisa, who smiles in agreement as I make the right turn. As the driver, I control the car speakers, so I fire up my portable music player as I start down the interstate. After a minute of not hearing any music I glance down at the player and see the screen is frozen. I fiddle with it, turning it on and off with my right hand while my left holds the steering wheel. Such multitasking is reckless, I know, but I am compelled to bring this device back to life. It is unthinkable that I am facing three weeks of lengthy drives with no recorded music to distract me. I filled this player specifically for this trip, hundreds of hours of rock, blues, and gospel to provide energy and classical to wind me down. My record-label and music-publisher members would be pleased to know that all of the music was acquired legally. But now that is all gone.

Thoughts race. Bile rises in my throat. I hear my doctor’s voice reminding me of the importance of staying calm in the face of the unexpected. I do not feel calm. I want to take this thin metal contraption with its brand name frozen on the front screen and hurl it out the car window. I want to whip the car into a violent U-turn and thread through the oncoming traffic so I can smash the unfaithful plastic player under two tons of unforgiving steel. Instead I glance at Marisa. Lost in her own music, she has not detected my growing rage. Nor do I wish her to. I focus on the road ahead, counting the white highway dashes whizzing by on the left the way I used to count letters when I would pyramid as a child. The repeated flicks of paint dance across my mind in a rhythmic staccato. My heartbeat synchronizes with the beat, then my breathing joins in harmony.

When my father knew he was on the verge of a manic outburst, he often fled to his car. My mother and I would wait, sometimes for hours. When he returned, he was back to his calm, medicated self, and we would all pretend that life was normal. I am approaching an approximation of normalcy now, at least well enough that I can fake it with my daughter. I point to the music player on her lap, then speak loudly.

“Do you want to play that through the car speakers?” She pulls out her left ear bud, I repeat the question, and she smiles.

“Really? You don’t mind?”

“I’d like to hear what you’re listening to.”

For the next three hours she flicks through her music library, informing me of when she discovered this song or that artist while explaining how her musical tastes have developed. I tell her what I like about what she’s playing, as well as what I dislike. I’m surprised at how much of it I enjoy. There’s a darkness to a lot of her music, minor chords and lyrics dripping with pathos. It is a stark contrast to the music popular when I was a teenager, bouncy pop tunes by Boy George and Cyndi Lauper. But then again I didn’t listen to those artists. Some of the music from my childhood is on that dead music player, including moody works by Pink Floyd. And, from what Marisa tells me, her music isn’t what is popular now.

“Oh, you’ve got to hear this song,” she says, repeatedly pressing a button. “It’s a giveaway tune that was already on the player.”

An acoustic guitar opens to a wholesome male voice.

“The world… is made of energy. And the world… is electricity. And the world… is made of energy. And there’s a light inside of you, and there’s a light inside of me.”

The dark complexities that have filled the passenger cabin are washed away by this sunshiny folk tune. I wince, and begin to seriously question my daughter’s musical taste. Then I hear it, rising above the music. Marisa is actively suppressing laughter. I glance at her and see those blue eyes squinting as a smile extends upwards from the edges of her mouth, the same expression she had a year ago as we watched that dancer on my mother’s television.

“What a lovely song,” I say. “I can see why you like it so much, Marisa. It’s so moving. So insightful. And so true!”

Marisa’s laugh finally explodes.

Music was central to our time together when she was young. When I first moved out of her mother’s house I bought her a pink cassette player. She would fall asleep to Disney soundtracks. Of course, kids that age can listen to the same music over and over again, at least as much as I listened to Dark Side of the Moon as a teenager. The tapes weren’t just her bedtime accompaniment. They’d play in the car when I drove her to school, or at the table when I fed her dinner. Those tunes burrowed into my brain without invitation, and sometimes I would snap. Unlike my father’s pre-lithium explosions, I instead embraced a more creative response. I would make up lyrics and sing them loudly over the Disney talent.

I find myself doing that now: “And the world… is made of angry bees. And the world… is made of nasty fleas. And the world… is full of underpants trees. And there are leafy shorts on you and there are leafy shorts on me.”

Now she’s bent over, gripping her side. Apparently she didn’t mind that the word “underpants” has too many syllables to perfectly parallel the song’s meter. Then she pulls out her phone and begins to text. I had her, for a moment, but now she’s fallen into her virtual world, a place without fathers. Yet, after some frantic typing, she resurfaces.

“I just got a text from Brian.”

All I know about Brian is what little intel Parker has provided me. Brian is one of Marisa’s classmates. From what I gather she is fond of him, but he is like many boys in his early teen years, not fully focused yet on girls. I am very pleased with this and hope he stays that way for some time. But she has never spoken his name around me.

“Brian,” Marisa says, “wrote that any dad who imagines underpants trees has to be the coolest dad there is.”

I fix my eyes on the road so Marisa can’t see how close I am to tears. “Text Brian that he is an excellent judge of character.”

Before I know it I see a sign reading CHARLESTON 18 MILES. But my focus is on the sky above, which has turned black as night even though we’re still a couple of hours away from sunset. We’re scheduled in an hour to interview John Smoak, a jack-of-all-trades photographer. He wants to be filmed outside his home on a small island in Charleston Harbor. I question the wisdom of that desire when a clap of thunder rips over the car. Traffic slows. Moments later we are under assault.

“Is that… hail?”

Marisa’s right. It’s August, in the South, and yet, somehow, frozen rain is pelting our car. I hand Marisa my phone. “Could you find John Smoak’s number and give him a call? We’re probably going to be late, and we’ll have to film him indoors.”

Marisa takes the phone, flips through my directory, and calls. I don’t know where the shy girl is who sat quietly on Colleen Doran’s rug two days ago. I only hear her side of the conversation, but they talk as if they’re old friends.

“Dad, he says he’d like to do the interview tomorrow morning, say around nine. It’s supposed to be clear then, and we could still shoot outside.”

I run the math in my head. Tomorrow is all about Savannah. We’re meeting Meghan Woodcock, an instructor at the Savannah College of Art and Design, in the early afternoon. But the drive from Charleston isn’t that long. “Okay, Marisa, tell John that’s fine.”

The exit ramp drops us onto the edge of old Charleston. I find myself driving through flooded streets. The water level rises on either side of the car.

“Oh my God,” Marisa says. “Can we get to the hotel?”

We’re only three blocks away, but it’s a reasonable question. This rental is a basic sedan with no ground clearance to speak of. And it’s a hybrid. I know little about these kinds of cars, but it’s generally not good to get batteries wet. I refuse to fail, however. This day has been perfect, and I’m not letting a literal freak of nature–frozen rain on a hot summer day–destroy it. We press forward, deeper into the water. Marisa squeals, I believe more in delight than fear. Waves erupt from both sides of the car like a crystalline angel’s wings. And then we’re clear, the road rising just enough to allow us to emerge.

The motel parking lot is a lake. At least three dozen parked cars soak in water, the tires very nearly submerged. I locate the highest ground, far from the building, and park. I offer Marisa an umbrella but she declines. Instead she leaps from the safety of the car and runs straight into the lake, kicking the water with her sandal-covered feet. “Come on, Dad!”

She’ll be drenched. She must know that. Now Marisa runs in circles near the entrance of the motel. I watch her, experiencing the secondary buzz of her joy, soaking it in the way I do the creativity-driven enthusiasm of my interview subjects. I’m still holding the umbrella. I’m still safe and sound in the car. And then I’m not. I leave the umbrella behind. Rain soaks my shirt as I run to join her. My pace slows as the water level reaches my calf, then my knees. Then I reach her. In one smooth motion she guides her arm down to the water and then up again, splashing toward my face. I smile and return the favor. An older woman with well-coiffed hair glares at us through the lobby window. Let her judge.


This piece is an excerpt from Patrick Ross’s Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road, published by Black Rose Writing in 2014.

Meeting Tracy

I meet Tracy because she has a fuckable brother, according to Kristen. Tracy and her brother Trent go to Bishop Lynch. Kristen and I go to Liberty. They wear uniforms and study Theology. We wear whatever we want and don’t know what Theology is. At least I don’t, and I’m embarrassed for not knowing so I don’t ask.

Even though we don’t go to the same school, we live in the same neighborhood. Some of the Liberty boys play basketball at Trent’s house. Eddie Johns. Arun. Kenith. Mark aka “Skin.” Mark aka “Meat.” Brandon. Lonnie. Brendon. Chris. Chris. Matt.

Looking at Trent you might wonder why he’s dating someone like Kristen. But once you get to know Kristen you figure out pretty quickly why Trent’s dating her. Why most guys date her.

Because Kristen has that come-hitherness about her, people ignore the razor marks she wears like jewelry. They look the other way when she scrapes one of the scabs off during Texas History and squeezes the blood out onto her notebook. For some reason Kristen likes me so I run with her and she teaches me things. Bad things.

We get drunk and play Candyland, end up sticking the plastic gingerbread pieces in our vaginas, making Kristen cackle. This is just a sampling of how we entertain ourselves.

We are 14.

A few weeks before the Sadie Hawkins dance, Kristen grabs me by the atrium lockers and says I have to come with her to Trent’s house after school.

“Why?” I ask. “Watching you and Trent have sex isn’t really my thing. You know that.”

“Har, har, smart ass,” she says. “I mean you have to come with me to look at dresses with his sister.”

“You’re wearing a dress? Say no more,” I say, because this I gotta see. “Can we smoke out first? Like we always do before watching scary movies?”

Kristen punches me in the arm. I don’t flinch but I bite the inside of my lip, taste blood.

“No dum-dum, the dresses are for Tracy. Eddie Johns asked her to the dance. She doesn’t know how girls dress for dances here. She wants my advice on what to wear.”

“Is she a retard?” I say. Kristen shoots me a look that could almost pass as hurt. I fall for it. “Okay, I’ll go but only to warn her that taking advice from you is suicidal.”

“Why do you think I asked you to come, dipshit?”

She pivots on her mismatched Converse hightops, makes the kiss sound and then slaps her own ass. I roll my eyes and sigh. Then, suddenly, it hits me.

“Wait a minute!” I holler. “Eddie Johns? For real?”

Rounding the corner into the cafeteria, she turns and shrugs, and then I think she grabs her crotch, but I’m not sure.

Eddie Johns is actually in my next period so I stare at him, puzzled, trying to figure out what kind of girl would date him. He’s an odd one, even in our circle of odd ones. He’s scrawny and giggly and walks with a strut that looks more like a limp. He wears denim from head to toe, drawings on the back of his jacket, not good ones. His hair is mullet-y. His teeth buck out. I certainly wouldn’t want to kiss him. It looks like it would be dangerous, with those teeth.

Given all that, when she opens the door I’m surprised to see that this Tracy is drop-dead cute as can be.

She invites us in and asks if we want Kool-Aid. I’m thinking, “Yeah, if it’s got Jack in it.” She has curling-ironed bangs wisping out of hair that’s otherwise pulled back in a bow clip. Her pleated, plaid skirt swings over skinny, bowed legs. She’s smiley and perky and a cheerleader, of course. I don’t loathe her, though, which is odd because it’s my hobby to hate cheerleaders.

Tracy’s house is a mess of Legos and loud TVs coming from every direction and high-pitched voices shouting about this or that thing. I’m an only child. No cousins I’m close to or anything, so I don’t know much about kids. I have no idea how old her brother and sister are. Maybe five or six? Seven or eight? They lurk. The sister eyes us from behind a door and the brother doesn’t even look up.

I’m in awe of Tracy. I’m in awe of this house. Kristen’s all whatever about it but that’s normal. She’s Kristen.

There are some older sisters too, I find out once we get upstairs to the mountain of dresses laid across Tracy’s bed.

“How many sisters and brothers do you have?” I say.

“Five,” Tracy says. “There’s six of us.”

“Your mom had SIX KIDS!” I say. I can’t even imagine how awesome it would be to have three sisters and two brothers.

When I was a kid, every year on my birthday I’d use my wish to ask for a brother or sister. I quit asking when my parents split up, when mom got her own education and career and new—but definitely not improved—husband. Now when it’s my birthday, I wish for something meaningless. Like, losing five pounds or getting asked out by a boy.

We stand side by side, surveying the hot pink taffeta, the Like-A-Virgin bows, the Snow White sleeves. There’s a cassette playing somewhere in the room, perhaps in my head. Prince. Van Halen. Motley Crue.

It’s 1985.

“Don’t spill wine on my dress,” a flash of girl says, passing in the hallway outside Tracy’s room. Tracy holds her middle finger up to the empty hallway as footsteps thunder down the stairs, the sister gone. I see only tenderness in the exchange. I ache with jealousy.

Tracy shows up to the dance in the dress I recommended. It’s all bunchy in the back, flaring out her frame and accenting her 5’1” cheerleader body. She’s all powder blue, from dress to bow to dyed-to-match flats. It’s a little over the top, I think. I didn’t recommend the shoes and the bow, but it works because she’s tiny and cute.

I always wanted to be tiny and cute.

Because I’m trying to be fancy, I wear heels. I’m a head taller than her anyway and now I’m two heads taller and feel awkward standing next to her, even though it’s my school, not hers. If she feels awkward, I can’t tell.

Trent and Kristen leave to “buy cigarettes” and never come back.

My date is Tony Gonzalez, who goes by the nickname Taco. I asked him to the dance after P.E. one day and for some reason he said yes.

I’m not really attracted to Tony (I can’t bring myself to call him Taco), but I like him. There’s something shy and sad about him. He’s sweet. And I like boys with darker skin. My Dad is American Indian, but most people think he’s Greek. Dark skin is familiar. Tony’s not. We spend about five minutes drinking punch together after he attaches my corsage to my dress and then spend the rest of the dance casually smiling at each other from across the room.

Whatever.

I stand along the edge of the dance floor with Tracy, who is waiting patiently for Eddie Johns to show up. When the waiting grows tiresome, we dance. I have this wild spinning move that I do where I thrust my body around one way, then I stop with a hard pivot and thrust my body the other way. This move works best to that song by Romeo Void that goes “I might like you better if we slept together,” though it can be done to any song with a dance beat. Tracy tries to copy my move, fails, and then moves on to her own private school dance which is basically a step together, step together kind of thing that would put me to sleep, but to each his own. Right?

Eddie Johns never shows up.

I feel kind of panicky for Tracy. I can’t imagine the horror of being stood up at a dance when you don’t even go to that school. I mean, how embarrassing! But she is remarkably chill about it so we try to have fun anyway.

After we dance for a bit, we stand around with our arms crossed, talking. I point out people that I despise and make fun of them while Tracy just nods. She’s way cooler than any cheerleader at Liberty. She’s on student council and drama club, which sounds dorky to me but she wears dorky well. We go outside to smoke. Her braces shimmer off the lights from the football field. Without hesitation she pulls a mason jar of Jack Daniel’s from her purse. That’s my poison, too.

We are instants.

Sneaking next door to the Elementary School, we settle on the swings and swig Jack. She chain smokes, lighting one Virginia Slim off the other, before stubbing the butt out with those shimmery flats. I smoke a lot, too, but I’ve never seen anyone smoke as much as Tracy.

“Aren’t you upset that Eddie didn’t show up?” I ask her.

“Eh,” she says, blowing smoke into the February air.

“He probably got arrested or something,” I say.

“He does a lot of drugs, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah. I guess so. It depends on what you mean by a lot.”

We swing and swig and puff and think. Even though we’re a track field away, we can still hear the music coming from the dance. Muffled Spandau Ballet. Tears for Fears.

After the dance, we catch a ride with someone’s older sister to TGI Friday’s. It’s where everyone’s going so we go there, too. Tony is there but we don’t really talk to each other.

This is dating at 14.

Normally, I wouldn’t have come. TGI Fridays makes me rashy. But I feel like it’s my duty to make sure Tracy has a good time, and I don’t know if she’d have a good time slummin’ in alleys drinking bottles of wine we stole from our parents. Which is what I’d normally be doing.

Even though she doesn’t know anyone but me, Tracy seems to have a blast at dinner. People bombard her with stupid questions about Bishop Lynch, like they’ve never seen someone who goes to private school before. She doesn’t blush once. She scrunches her curling-ironed bangs from time to time, but that’s probably just the Shaper hairspray wearing off, not her nerves wearing thin. She eats more potato skins than I’ve ever seen a human eat in one sitting. I say, “Damn girl, where you plannin’ on putting all that food?”

She shrugs with a mouth full and flicks her index finger out. She laughs at everyone’s jokes like they’re not inside jokes from another school at all. She seems right at home, at ease. So I study her. How is this done? This feeling-comfortable-in-your-own-skin thing that she does. It’s weird. I don’t get it.

We find out on Monday that Eddie did, in fact, go to jail that night. He got arrested for smoking pot while he was walking to the dance and then got a Minor In Possession ticket and hauled into juvie because it wasn’t his first offense. These are the kinds of people I hang with.

Tracy is an escape. An oasis in my dried-up rock quarry of delinquency. But when I begin to hang with her more, I learn that while I want to be more like her—little Miss Private School girl with saddle shoes and a uniform skirt—she wants to be more like me, more who-gives-a-shit-what-people-think-of-me and who-cares-what-the-rules-are-I’m-breaking-them, so there.

Because I can’t be who she is, she comes to my side of the cafeteria, so to speak, and we start breaking rules together and we start sneaking out of each other’s houses together and we start sleeping with boys in cars. Together. We start stealing our parents’ liquor and we start smoking pot and we start puking in alleys and holding each other’s hair back and we come a long, long way from those puffy sleeves and those taffeta bows.

We never cut ourselves like Kristen does, but we act like the kind of girls who would if we weren’t so concerned with being pretty. We have nice skin. We know it. We want to keep it that way.

I spend time at Tracy’s house and lather myself in the bath of that chaos. She spends time at mine, and soaks in the silence. We are different as midnight and dawn.

Trent and Kristen break up. Kristen and I stay friends, but Tracy has moved in to my heart. Kristen and Tracy don’t have any reason to be friends. Kristen is too wild for Tracy. She isn’t elegant. Which, neither am I, but Tracy sees something in me that I can’t see in myself. She laughs at jokes I don’t realize I’m telling.

I can be a bit of an Eddie Haskell so while Tracy’s mom seems skeptical of me at first, she eventually takes a liking to me and I become another sister in their house. It feels nice, being included, being listened to.

Tracy’s dad is kind of an alchy so he lets her smoke in the house. I show up one day and Tracy is just plopped in front of One Life to Live with a gigantic, tinted-glass ashtray on the floor beside her, blowing smoke rings into the air. I’m thinking her parents are going to kill her, but when I get all the way into the living room I see that her dad is already sitting there, tucked into his velour chair in the corner, smoking his own filtered cigarette, his other hand on a tumbler of scotch. When they see me, both are completely unfazed. It’s the most exotic thing I’ve ever seen, and Tracy becomes more goddess to me than ever that day.

My mom would be in awe of Tracy, too, if she were ever home when Tracy was hanging out. She works long hours so Tracy and I are alone a lot, usually bouncing or sunbathing on my trampoline in the back yard. We lay out in our ruffled bikinis that span across our protruding hipbones and talk about boys we’d like to mess around with. I don’t know the boys at her school, but she knows the boys at mine because they all play basketball in her driveway.

Trent has actually been through several of my friends, and even tried to feel me up in a hot tub one night at Kim Jenkins’s end-of-the-year party, and truth be told, I made out with him for a few minutes, but I haven’t told Tracy that yet and I hope I never have to. I think it might ruin our friendship. She might think less of me and I don’t care what anyone thinks of me usually but when it comes to Tracy, I care.

Her eight-year-old sister Kendall hates me. Every time I come over she rolls her eyes and looks at me like I’m dog shit on her shoe. It kind of bugs me. Then again, I don’t know what it’s like to have a sister you idolize, who you spend all your time with, who suddenly leaves you behind when she moves on to hang with friends her own age. I don’t know what that’s like so I don’t know what to do with the dirty looks. Just as Kendall doesn’t know what to do with the pain of watching her sister walk away from her with someone she doesn’t like or trust.

One night we get busted sneaking out with Rhonda, another of my Kristen-esque friends. I tell my mom I’m staying with Tracy, Tracy tells her mom she’s staying with me, and Rhonda tells her mom she’s staying with me, too, but then Rhonda screws everything up because Rhonda is supposed to call her mom when she gets home at midnight, which is our curfew, but Rhonda forgets to call her mom so when her mom calls my mom and asks where’s Rhonda, my mom’s all, “what are you talking about?” and her mom is all, “I thought Rhonda was staying there tonight,” and my mom is all, “I thought Stef was staying with Tracy tonight,” and Rhonda’s mom is all, “who’s Tracy?”

We are fucked.

My boyfriend who’s gay but I don’t know it yet calls me at Chris Crenshaw’s house, where we’re all smoking pot and getting felt up by boys, and says, “You better call your mom, she’s looking for you, she just called here wondering where you are.” Where I was was in the game room getting my boob fondled. Which I am just realizing is fucked up as I tell you this because I have a boyfriend at the time and even though he’s gay and I don’t know he’s gay yet, I’m cheating on him and that’s wrong. But like I said, I’m high and everybody knows there is no right or wrong when you’re on drugs.

Rhonda and I leave immediately and go to my house because we know we’re screwed. It takes us a while because we have to walk. We are only fifteen and still too young to drive. At least we don’t have to worry about getting DWIs. And there’s no law against staggering home on foot. Or so we think.

“You smell like a brewery,” my mom says, arms crossed, wide-awake.

“You smell like a bar room floor,” she continues.

“You’re drunk,” she says.

I’m too drunk to realize how redundant she’s being or how flair-for-dramatics she is so I just say, “Nu-uh.” Then I blush. My lie is that ridiculous. I can feel myself swaying in front of her. I can hear her toe tapping on the carpet. I can see her hands on her hips gripping so hard her knuckles are white.

She calls Rhonda’s mom.

“I’ve got them, Nancy. They smell like a brewery,” she says again. She likes this metaphor. This is not the last time I will hear her refer to me having this particular scent.

Rhonda’s mom comes to get her and while we’re waiting it occurs to my mom to wonder, “where’s Tracy?”

“Ummmm,” I say.

Tracy didn’t think it was necessary to come with us because her mom wasn’t the one who had called mine and therefore didn’t know what was up. But my mom manages to ruin all that by driving me over to Chris Crenshaw’s house to fetch Tracy.

When we get there, Tracy is cross-legged on the couch looking barely alive. When she spots me and my mom, her slits for eyes are shocked open. My mom whisks her away and lectures us the whole drive, not realizing we’re too stoned to listen that fast, then continues her march to Tracy’s front door where she leans on the bell. It’s 3am. Helloooo, don’t you know they have half a baseball team living under that roof? Ugh.

Even though I’m horrified, Tracy’s mom seems relieved that there’s another mom  embarrassing her daughter for a change. Tracy’s mom is from Ohio so she’s got nice-as-can-be in her DNA. It’s the first time I see where Tracy gets her positive nature. Apples don’t fall far, they say.

I’m grounded for a month. It’s July. Life sucks for what seems like an eternity. Do I learn a lesson? Sure I do.

I don’t invite Rhonda to spend the night again.

Tracy and I go on to get driver’s licenses and sneak out to share boyfriends old enough to buy us liquor. I go to her prom with a boy from her school and she goes to my prom with a boy from mine. She flips her car and nearly dies one night and I’m one of the first to arrive at her side in the hospital, laughing at her chipped tooth and pulling her out of her depression because that’s what friends are for.

Later I get into some harder drugs and Tracy doesn’t like it but I’m sucked into it and so in love with the way it makes me feel that even Tracy’s disapproval can’t stop me. She has power over me but cocaine is more powerful than love. So is Ecstasy. And acid. And more gay boyfriends. And a lesbian drug dealer. And almost flunking the 11th grade because I don’t give a fuck, fuck you!

That’s me while Tracy’s voted Homecoming Queen at Bishop Lynch. Through it all, we are still close as two can be who are like midnight and dawn.

Maybe we mesh because Tracy loves me in that rare, non-judgey way. And maybe because of that acceptance, I actually survive high school. I get it together my senior year and write for my high school newspaper. I graduate and get accepted to college. I turn into someone who’s not half bad on most days. Which is a miracle, if you believe in that kind of thing. Which I don’t, of course. But I do believe in birthday wishes and now that I think about it, that one about wanting a sister?

It came true.

The Chevra

Chevra kadisha (Hevra kadishah) (Aramaic קדישא חברא, ebh’ra Qaddisha

Jewish “holy society” for the preparation of the dead for burial

1.

I want to write about my mother’s life as if she is alive again, as if she never died. But I have not seen her in over twenty years. I have forgotten the way she used to hold her lips, the way she bent to retrieve small items from the floor, the way she looked at me when I had done something wrong. She’s been dead a long time.

She was very tall, more than six feet. By the end of her life, she weighed no more than eighty pounds, but even in the good years, she was thin. She could run faster than anyone I knew. She smoked cigarettes. She had long fingernails and wore stilettos and she made all her own clothing, including the bras.

When I wrote to the man with whom she had a long-term affair, several years after she died, he denied ever knowing her. When I confronted him with photographs, with his nickname, Fishface, he admitted knowing her just a little. She led a “very alternative” lifestyle, he said. He said he liked the mini dress she wore that had large lime green spots on it.

My mother made that dress for my grandfather’s funeral. Everyone else came dressed in black. My father would have loved this dress, she said. She was barefoot. Her black hair touched her bum.

She was angry that her father died so young. I am angry that my mother died so young too. At least she got to go to the funeral.

I have put in my order, with God, to live until I am ninety-seven.

 

2.

I work for the Chicago Chevra Kaddisha, washing elderly Jewish women who have died without relatives, getting them ready for their burial. I think of this as my pact with God. I’ve got your back. Make sure You’ve got mine.

The time in the rooms with the dead is quiet time, without minutes. The clock never moves. In those rooms, the presence of the dead hangs like a swollen purple mid-summer cloud, ready to burst at any moment. I look up as I work, expecting to see raindrops coming down in huge wet splats on my face but instead there are those appalling industrial tiles, the kind with thousands of dusty holes that are said to absorb unwanted sounds.

The dead make sounds. They don’t mean to. But the processes of the body do not need a brain to tell them what to do.

Sometimes, when I work, I do not need a brain to tell me what to do either.

For a long time after my mother died, my brain lay down and went to sleep, even though I continued, on the outside, to look like an ordinary teacher or a librarian or an artist or a mother or whatever it was that I was being (not knowing) at that moment.

 

3.

The phone rang in the middle of the night. Never answer a phone that rings in the middle of the night. That sorrowful screaming on the other end of the line is not meant for human ears.

My brother was a teenager. He lived in a drug house at the edge of the city. His property had been repeatedly stolen from him. He forgot to pay whoever needed paying. The house was demolished soon afterwards, to make way for a highway, but at that time, at the time when he called me in the middle of the night to tell me that my mother was dead, the house wore a condemned notice, and the boys who lived there lifted a corner of the iron sheet that had been stapled over the back door and slipped inside.

I said NO. I said No and no and no no no, but it didn’t change anything, this disagreement of mine, because my mother didn’t stop being dead.

 

4.

The Chevra Kaddisha does not get paid for their work. The phone call comes in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning or just as you are about to give birth and an anonymous voice on the other end of the line asks you if you are available to help and if you are, if you aren’t pregnant or menstruating or divorced or generally otherwise occupied, the voice tells you where to go and what time to get there and then it hangs up and now you have a dead person to take care of, someone you have probably never known and definitely, now, will never know.

Two other women meet you outside, and you all look sheepish, because you are about to do this thing without words, and knowing that, it’s hard to say anything at all, even before.

You put on plastic coats and gloves and booties. You fill buckets with water. You find combs and orange sticks and make-up remover and rubbish bins. You glance at her paperwork:

No known relatives

You glance at her arm:

Blue numbers

 

5.

I don’t go to Australia when my mother dies. I sit on the floor and cry every day. I miss the funeral. My brain is asleep so I don’t care that no one writes to tell me what the funeral was like. It’s less than three weeks since I returned from Australia, I was told that my mother had at least six months to live, I have her ethical will in my pocket and it says that I should choose kindness over beauty, pain over deceit. Seven months after she dies, my brother will send me her diary and there will only be one entry in it, on July 16th. The year isn’t indicated.

In Katanning, the locals thought I had an affair. I was boarding in a home in the town while I did my student teaching. They thought I was screwing the husband. It wasn’t true, but you can’t convince small towns of anything.

Twenty years after my mother dies, my brother will casually tell me, as if I have always known, that the love of my mother’s life was a woman who had a home at the edge of the glittering Swan River. I will be sitting outside, in my car, on a moonless spring night and I will have just told my brother that I am seeing a woman who I think might end up being my wife. In the tender velvet darkness, I will remember going to the river with my mother, every Tuesday evening, and feeding the swans with stale bread while she went inside to talk with her friend.

I would like my mother’s love back. There has only ever been one person who knew all of me and loved me anyway.

 

6.

On May 5th, 2000, I give birth to my daughter, Chana. It is the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death.

It was hot in my bedroom as I was labouring. My husband was away in Spain. The midwife sat in the second rocking chair, saying nothing. Time didn’t pass. At one point, I said I was exhausted. I said I don’t want to do this anymore, and Kay, the midwife, said Excellent. Looks like we are having us a baby.

The phone rang and it wasn’t my husband. It was the Chevra Kaddisha, looking for a third woman, to help at a Tahara. I was engaged in my own struggle with death/life/breaking/opening. I said no, because I say no to almost anything that comes over the phone.

I wanted my mother to be there with me. I wanted her to meet her eight grandchildren and love them. I thought about her story of how I was born, on a Saturday afternoon near a football field, and how she had thought the cheering was for her efforts to push me out. I had not been home in ten years. I had never visited her grave. I was afraid of it.

 

7.

Once, it was not an old Jewish woman lying on the wooden boards, but a young girl, a child, with black and blue marks around her neck. The Chevra do not speak. We cannot. If we need something, we indicate it with our hands or our eyes. But that time, with that child, we spoke, because our eyes were full.

Sometimes people die holding things in their hands and their fingers close over whatever it is. We do not bury people with anything except their naked skin and simple linen shrouds. If they die with something in their hands, we warm up the flesh with a towel soaked in hot water, and then gently uncurl the fingers and remove the item.

My mother died with a photograph of me under her nightgown, clutched against her heart. They took her down to the morgue, not knowing the photograph was there, but somehow, the photograph fell out of her hands and cracked on the floor. I wouldn’t have known this except my cousin, who was a medical salesman, went into the morgue at that hospital and saw my photograph, with a crack running across my face, on the wall. That’s Goldie, he said. What’s she doing here?

My daughter Chana was born with the cord around her neck twice and a true knot that threatened to strangle her. Her neck was black and purple before it faded to green and then to yellow. Pant, said the midwife, while I get the cord off her neck. No bloody way, I said. You’re not getting this train to stop.

 

8.

My Auntie Roz called me from Australia to wish me mazal tov on Chana’s birth. Oh and by the way, she said at the end of the conversation, you are going to have to come and pick up your mum. She’s been out in my shed with Rob, but I’m planning on moving. Don’t blame your brother, Roz said. Pete wasn’t up to burying her. I haven’t found a place for Rob yet either.

Uncle Rob died a few months after my mother, also of cancer.

Roz lived up on the Darling Range, outside Perth, in a house Rob built with his own two hands. Once, the bath he’d installed fell through the floor with Roz inside it. It fell down about twelve feet, landed on the rocky mountainside and skidded down to the waterfall at the bottom of their block. Roz was forty-eight when that happened. She was forty-nine when my mum and Rob both died. Her best friend, who was also my mum’s best friend, Bev, died the same year, a horrible year, also of cancer.

“What do you mean, my mum’s not buried?” I asked. I worked for the Chevra Kaddisha and one of the principals of Jewish burial is that we get people into the ground within about twenty-four hours of the death. At the time, my mum had not been buried for over ten years.

Your brother is a procrastinator, Roz said.

 

9.

I went to Australia then. The place my brother lives is considered to be the furthest place in the world from Chicago. It’s famous as the most isolated city in the world, and after I arrived, I was planning on driving out into the bush for another three hours, to bury my mum.

I put your mum under some roses, my Auntie said and though I pictured a beautiful garden with wisteria overhead, and the scent of lemons on the wind, mum was actually out in an old shed in a box underneath dozens of shattered roses that must have been there the entire ten years. Uncle Rob was in the box on the trestle next to her. He’d have had a slightly more advantageous view of the loquat tree if he still had eyes.

I tried not to think that in that box was my mum, because, of course, my mother wasn’t really in that box.

 

10.

We start at the head. The woman is covered, always, with a clean sheet, and the Chevra lift only enough of the sheet to gently wash the body. The water is warm. The cloths are soft. The movements are slow and quiet. I wash the woman’s hair and comb it out. Each hair that becomes tangled in the comb is removed and put into a cloth bag. If there is blood on her body, we will remove it with a small piece of damp cotton fabric and this too will be placed into the bag and the bag will be put into the aron, the plain pine box that stands in one corner of the room, waiting.

A Tahara begins, though, with a wish. I wish that everything I do will be done with kindness and respect. When this thought leaves my mind, I stop whatever I am doing and refocus my intentions.

Her right side is washed first and then the left. Head, arm, hand, torso, leg, foot. Each small section of her body is dried with squares of cloth before being covered again. When I come to her hands, I hold them within my own, for a moment longer than necessary. This is the last time someone will hold these hands. When I lift the body for the purification, I become the last to hug this woman, the last person who will know the exact shape of her in this world. The dead are as light as birds. They almost lift themselves and fly up to the ceiling.

The last time I held my mother’s hands was in Perth airport, on Sunday, April 16th at 10:20 in the morning. I had been told it was safe to fly back to the United States, that my mother would live for another six months. She had pushed me to go spend the Passover holiday with my new husband and yet, even then, I knew. I was completely certain that I would never see my mother again.

Her hands were large. Her skin was soft, as soft as a warm summer night. The bones within her body felt like old roses and they were as fragile. I held her hands for many moments longer than necessary. I could not make myself let go. The flight attendant called my name again and again. My brother touched me on the shoulder and said You can come back.

My mother put a letter into my pocket. She told me it was her ethical will. She told me not to read it until the plane had passed Adelaide. Goodbye, she said. I love you, she said. I will always love you, she said.

 

11.

The midwife told me that if I ask my children what they remember from before they are born, sometimes, if asked young enough, they say extraordinary things. I asked my son. He said he remembered a warm beach and a beating red sun. He was three. I asked my daughter and she said she remembered her twin kicking her. She was two and a half. I asked Chana, when she was three years old, and she said I was your mother and you were my little girl and I used to take you down to see the boats.

Until that moment, I had forgotten that my mother used to take me to watch the ocean liners leaving Fremantle Harbour. They come back, she said, but I only ever saw them leave.

 

12.

My brother, Pete, met me at Auntie Roz’s house, to load Mum into the back of the car. You are angry at me, he said. No, I’m not, I said. I am sad. So very very sad that Mum has been here all this time and I didn’t know.

My brother picked loquats for us to eat while we waited for my uncle to bring the small piece of marble he’d carved for Mum’s grave. He held the fruits out to me in his big scarred hands. Nespole, I said to my brother, because I could think of nothing else to say. In Italy, these are called nespole and you can buy them in the open-air markets in the south. The juice, sour and flesh-coloured, ran down my chin and small droplets fell onto my shirt, saturating the fabric. I wiped my chin with my hand and then I wiped my hand on the back of my thigh. I did not have gloves. I did not have small squares of clean soft cloth for this process. I did not have my book of prayers. All I had was my intention to remember, the wish to do everything with kindness and with respect.

Mama. In Italy, the small children cry mama mama in the streets and women come out of their houses and kiss these children and lift them up and hold them. In Italy, when a death is announced, the newspapers have a thick black border, and in the rural cemeteries, fresh candles are placed on the graves and lit, every evening, and they burn through the night, illuminating the graveyards with the most mysterious and shifting of lights.

 

13.

When my mother died, I stopped calling her mum and began to call her mama.

Mama mama mama

 

14.

We fill three buckets with warm water. We pour the water in a single, continuous stream, from the head to the foot, first on the right, then on the left and then in the center. The woman on the wooden boards, briefly, looks as if she has just been born, fresh and wet and new, and then we dry her again and she returns to being a dead person. We dry from her head to her feet, from the right to the left. When she is fully covered, we lay out the tachrichim, the shrouds in which she will be dressed.

The dead wear the same garments as the High Priest. They wear the same fine linen pants and the same fine linen shirt and the same apron and the same hood. The best linen, when you touch it, is cold.

 

15.

Pete and I drive in silence on the way to the Wongan Hill Cemetery. My brother’s car cannot be put into reverse or it blows a fuse that controls the air conditioning, the power windows, the radio, the lights and all of the engine gauges. When we stop for petrol in New Norcia, Pete forgets and reverses away from the pump. Fuck, he says, and he hits the steering wheel. I am so fucking sick of this bloody car. He pulls out the ruined fuse and tosses it onto the floor where there are at least a hundred other blown fuses, but then he can’t find a replacement. Well, that’s the air-con, he says. Carked it. Shame we can’t even roll the windows down, he says, though the bloody temperature has got to be in the nineties.

In the heat, the box in the back begins to emit an odour, and now we are both sure that we can hear something that sounds like chopsticks, the faint tap of bones, one against the other. Jes-us, Pete says and then he looks at me. Sorry, he says. It’s your fault, I say. Why didn’t you bury her?

In response, he stops the car, yanks open my door and breaks out my window with mum’s marble headstone. There you go, he says. Fresh air.

He’s not a violent man. He does all this quietly. Calmly. Respectfully. I really am sorry, he says. Mum hated getting hot, he says. I know, I say. In the back, the bones continue to click together and now, more than anything, it sounds as if someone is knitting back there. Neither of us wants to turn around.

 

16.

My mother said that human lives are divided into three sections. The first twenty years are the years of learning. The second twenty years are the years of family. And the third twenty years are the years of exploration.

She said that when she retired, she would get a ticket to China and she would walk, barefoot, from one end of the country to the other. For a woman who prepared for everything, it is strange that she did not have a Chinese phrase book in the bathroom, a map of the Great Wall above her bed.

Right before she was diagnosed with lung cancer, she sold her business and went to live in the far north of Western Australia with a man who had one eye. He mined for gold. She planted tropical palms and wrote letters to me, with drawings of parrots around the edges. When I called home, I had to first radio the Royal Flying Doctor in Port Hedland and ask for Nine Whiskey Echo Victor.

She didn’t get twenty years for exploration. She didn’t get twenty years to walk across China. She got less than a year of drawing parrots and planting palms. And then she got ten years in a shed at the bottom of a garden with my very shy uncle.

 

17.

When the tahara is finished, the chevra stand next to the coffin and they silently ask the dead woman for forgiveness.

I didn’t mean to forget you, we say. I didn’t mean to hurt you or shame you or be unkind.

Please forgive me.

 

18.

We take turns digging a hole in the hard red dirt for my mother’s box. We can’t dig deeper than three feet because below the red dirt there is hard red rock. There are no trees to shade us. Blood-coloured ants scuttle across the disturbed earth. A magpie sits on the top rail of the cemetery gate and says something that sounds like quardleoodlardloo. My uncle’s marble stone has been engraved with the wrong date, or maybe it’s the wrong name. Something is wrong about it, and we stand there and stare at the stone for a very long time before Pete jams it into the dirt. What a fuck up this has been, my brother says.

Typical bloody mum, he says. Terrorizing us in the car. She’d get a kick out of that, I say. Knitting the whole way up here, she was, he says. Another blanket, I say. For when the weather drops into the eighties. You reckon this grave thing will be orright, Pete asks. We’re screwed if she doesn’t like it, I say. Remember when she said she’d prove to us there was a world to come, remember? That’s all we need, an angry spirit chasing us down the track. Flinging bloody knitting needles after us.

Before she died, my mother said that if she could, she would prove to us that there is a world after this one. She said she was smarter than average, and she’d leave us a sign and Pete and I had both laughed. Yeah, we said. As if.

But then there was one morning soon after she died when it was raining, and I, in the United States, was walking next to the river, feeding the swans some bread, and talking about how my mother loved to walk next to the river and fish, and there was a bush covered in honeysuckle and that was my mother’s favourite flower, and then a cloud of hummingbirds flew out of the flowers. Oh, I said! Oh! My mother would be so happy to be here this morning. When I got home from the walk, Pete was calling me from Australia. I just had the most beautiful walk, he said. Next to the river, feeding the swans. It was raining, he said, and I talked about how mum loved to fish. And there was a bush, he said, covered in honeysuckle, and a cloud of hummingbirds flew out of the bush, and oh! Wouldn’t Mum have loved that?

We told that story standing at the edge of a fresh pile of dirt with a bit of marble stuck into the top. One edge of the box stuck up out of the ground and Pete mashed it down with his boot. He bent and patted the crushed box. Sorry Mum, he said. I’m so bloody sorry. Ten years, I said. Can you believe she’s been gone for ten years? She was a good mum, Pete said and we both started crying. And of course the wind picked up and pelted us with tiny sticks and bits of bark and tattered leaves from the years before, and then the wind dried our tears to salt tracks on our dusty faces. Yeah, I said. She really was.

 


I remain haunted by the rich, absorbing description of the Australian countryside and of the sacred rituals of washing the dead. This is a tender story filled with awe and mystery and told with absolute precision, every sentence carefully shaped and set in place.
—Dinty W. Moore, 2013 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judge


What the Bell Says

A little bell is called tintinnabulum; a small shrill bell, squilla; a big one in the shape of a wide-brimmed hat, petasius; codon for a hand bell; nola for a bell that swings on the necks of dogs and the feet of birds and the houses of horses; nolula and dupla for a bell in a clock; campana for a large brass bell; signum for a bell in a tower; lebetes for a bell that’s really a cauldron.

At dawn, I imagine waking to the bellow of a bell outside my window. Its toll knocks my eyes open, spreads me evenly with vibration, hums in my finger and toe tips until the next toll knocks me open again. I crawl out the window and into the tower, pulling my body up into the body of the bell. There’s dew on the cold metal, on my hands, on the bare scoop of skin between my shoulder blades. I curl like a comma in the bell, duck my head in the small of its crown and wait for the next hour to arrive.

There is no belfry in my neighborhood, no tower’s strike at break of day or bellman marking hours upon the street at night. Even with the windows cracked open or an ear to the ground, time does not call us here but is kept by us. We wind the dials and push the buttons until the numbers match the corner of our computer screens and the bottom of our TVs. We try and fail to stay in sync with time, losing seconds by worn batteries and wasted eyes, in rounding and estimation. We end up deviating tocks and ticks, minutes apart. Between us, by this loss of seconds, some break in correspondence, too.

This is why I’ve been thinking of bells. I’m tired of the winding and the pushing, tired of deciding when to go where to do what for how long. I want to rise and fall out of duty, according to custom or by decree like a rooster or a monk. I want to synchronize, to move by swell and hum through the day with you and you and you.  

 —

Clock is related to the Latin word, cloca, meaning bell. The clock, the bell, and their meanings still share the same word in several languages, the same shell. Theirs is an ancient coupling. Plato had a clock with a striking bell to signal the beginning of his lectures at break of day, and the Egyptian inventor, Ctesibius, made water clocks with pebbles that resonated against gongs and bell jars that, when submerged beneath the water, clamored and rang. Not long after man first held the hours and watched their minutes pass, he pushed and prodded time to speak, made the bell its voice.

My desire for bells has everything to do with my desire to be ceaseless: to move forward as time does, to go with purpose from one second to the next in some greater agreement.

A couple hundred years ago, on any given day, the bell said to the child: wake up, pray, breakfast’s ready, school’s started, lunch is served, school’s out, it’s dinnertime, past curfew, time for bed. It told the man: wake up, pray, breakfast’s ready, the newspaper’s here, the train is coming, the factory’s opening, it’s lunch time, work’s out, dinner’s served, put the fire out, go to bed. And to the woman: wake up, pray, it’s breakfast time, there’s the muffin man, school’s started, there’s the postman, it’s lunchtime, there’s the ragman, school’s out, the train’s arrived, it’s past curfew, gather the children, it’s dinnertime, put the fire out, go to bed. A bell was made for telling. And it’s a relief to be told.

 —

Satis N. Coleman, a music teacher and scholar, writes that our earliest ancestors must’ve worshipped bells as the voice of God and invested them with “sacred character.” We have no way of knowing how exactly the bell first came to be or where, but there’s evidence from China that bells have existed for at least forty-seven centuries. Scholars believe the discovery of the earliest forms of the bell happened far earlier, by cavemen and women, and during that insoluble time beyond proof. They imagine that some happy accident, like a knocked stick on a stone or log or piece of metal was responsible for that first rich, sonorous sound.

I imagine the discovery was made by restless, not bumbling, hands; the hands of some earthly adventurer, some explorer of matter and lover of form; hands that would rather traverse a stone than a continent and preferred the shape and weight of a thing to the surrounding expanse; hands that settled upon the kind of catch or find they could carry; callused and curious hands that struck the thing to see its matter resist, bend, or break open; trembling hands that held, in the substance of the bell, an instrument and sound that did all three.

According to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the bell’s sound owes its godliness to its complexity and its complexity to its varying frequencies. These frequencies may or may not be harmonious with one another, but it’s the sound of the upper partials that gives the bell’s timber the “vibrant attack” that arrests us. Whether we are the ringer or receiver and no matter how many times we’ve heard a bell before, its note enters and covers us without warning; we’ve no choice but to submit to the second and the sound.

Certain pitches, tones and harmonies have always satisfied us the way food or sex does. Not by aiding our survival or reproduction, but because we long to be spoken to. Some days, the earth must have spoken to our ancestors often, in the howling cave bear and cracking lighting, in the echo of the screeching bat, in the river rushing. Other days, the earth’s air would have been quiet and its creatures still. It must have been a day like that when these men and women, bodies aching, asked the hollow wood to speak, felt the answer humming in their limbs, accepted this primal reward.

The gush of pleasure, the sighing relief, the looming quiet, and the humble desire for more. If the sound satisfied them, it must have been the sound repeated that brought them comfort. For when they struck the substance of the bell once more, its tone was there like the night and more beautiful. And unlike lightning or thunder, the substance of the bell was theirs for the taking. While its tone appeared unearthly, the bell’s singularity relied upon a mortal refrain.

 —

If I had bells to myself, I would harbor them: slip them in the shoeboxes beneath my bed and put them in the drawer of my nightstand with all my unmentionables.

I would put some in the creases of the couch and on the top shelf of the linen closet, tuck one behind the oatmeal and behind each of the salad dressing bottles and between the spaces of my toes.

I’d stow them in best hiding places in my childhood home: under the hats of the dolls in the china cabinet and on the ledges of the laundry chute and ceiling fan panels and under the rocks in the crawlspace, and I’d hide enough that I could forget about some.

I’d keep the dearest ones close: in the palm of my hand and under my tongue. Between my breast and my ribs, behind my eyes, stacked between the vertebras in my back.

I’d show my nephews how I could pull them out from behind my ear, left and right, and from my sleeves.

I’d put the littlest ones in the tops of my pens.

And my dog would swallow a bell.

And never mind the shape. Never mind the consequences.

My dog would swallow a bell, and everyone would know she was on her way.

In the earliest records, bells were worn. Moses wrote of “bells of gold” that dangled on the robes of high priests. When the congregation heard them, they knew the priest had reached the sanctuary. Another record tells of bells attached to the clothing of ancient Hebrew women, virgins, and boys. Persian royals wore bells. Bells were fastened to the necks of horses and donkeys and decorated the hats of fools.

Ancient Greek Warriors held bells in their shields, and mystics and babies held them in their hands. In the Life of Brutus, Plutarch wrote that when Xanthus was attacked, its people dove into the river in their attempt to escape and were caught with bells. Their enemy’s nets were lined with them, and every capture was an announcement. Medieval falconers tied bells to the legs of birds that, if lost, might then be found again. Bells announced that the train had arrived, that an heir was born, that a war had begun. For centuries, curfew bells extinguished light and fire in every home in England.

In some parts of Europe, bells were placed at the bedside of a woman giving birth. These bells were an aid to delivery: the woman’s girdle set atop the bell and struck three times to transfer its power to the girdle and then to the woman through vibration. The bell also asked the neighbors to pray for the woman in pain. Other prayers were placed onto bells by the touch of a hand and traveled outward with the sound.

Men and women returned to the body of the bell when their own figures failed them. Legend had it that if a bell was placed on the head of a mad person and she drank a potion, she’d be well again. The bell appeared indomitable, with its hulking, shining body and its clamoring, far-reaching voice. At the bed of the sick, men and women lifted the bell, steadied the hammer, pressed its smooth, round mouth atop the patient’s head and held both as the potion went down.

A few years ago, I was making my way down the aisle of a church in Texas when I noticed a slight woman in motion near the exit. She was reaching up and pulling down on a thick, white rope. Over and over, her body was stretching toward the ceiling, grabbing the rope and tugging down to her knees, which were bent and inches from the ground. She was smiling and I was smiling. She looked every bit a woman designated to supplicate in prayer. By the might of her tugs, all of Austin heard.

The total movement of the bell is called its duty. And this duty is of the ringer. The body that moves before the body of the bell. Each pull of the rope like a link and an opening.

I listened for the sweet assault, strained my ears and craned my neck and held my breath. All I could hear through the thick stucco walls, though, were the people in front and behind me, intent on one another. No one, I suspect not even the slight woman, could hear the bell ringing from the inside. The walls were built to keep outside sounds out and inside sounds in. They weren’t made for the sounds between.

To cast a bell takes careful preparation. First, the founder builds the core, a foundation of bricks coated in clay and grease, and sets it on a spindle to dry. Next, the founder makes the false bell with plastic wax and places it on top of the core. He or she greases the false bell to keep the next layer from sticking then smoothes some fine clay over the grease to fill in any holes. After that, the founder spreads a coarser, thicker layer of clay and smoothes it until the cope forms.

When the core, the false bell, and the cope are dry, the founder sets a fire beneath the bricks and bakes the mold until it hardens. While baking, the grease falls away with the steam and leaves two thin contours of air between the core: one between the false bell and the core and the other between the false bell and the cope. In these tight spaces, the founder loosens and lifts the false bell out from between the core and cope, leaving a fat empty curve. He or she takes the bell metal, a mixture of copper and tin, and pours it through a hole at the top of the mold to fill the bell-shaped hollow.

If the core or cope is wet or the wrong temperature, if there is too much tin or the bell-metal is not hot enough, if the gases cannot escape, if the clapper is too heavy or the ringer too clumsy or boisterous, the bell can crack. Once a young girl was swept off the ground by the weight of the bell and the force of the rope she was swinging. The girl, who was not a skillful ringer, fell on the floor of the bell-chamber and died. The cracked bell, though, was likely recast—broken into pieces and set on fire. Poured into the shape of a bell again.

In the end, better to be the bell—the instrument, the tool, the vessel—than climb one or keep one or ring one.

Years ago, I went to a doctor with a bad case of nerves. When I sat down, he asked me to close my eyes, to think of a liquid and warm it up. I saw gold and melted it in a kettle in a cave in my mind. Then, he filled me up, toes first, with the molten stream. The liquid pooled in my toes, rose to my calves and up my thighs. It moved bit by bit to my abdomen and chest, spilled into my arms and into the tips of my fingers, surged in my throat and lips. By the time it reached my cheeks, I was replete: solid and sailing, backward and forward, backward and backward again.

 


Finalist  in 2014 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize

The Relative Nature of Things

1 roomful of antique white wicker furniture. 3 crystal vases, Waterford. 1 hollow-base chrome sailing cleat, never used. 1 Afghan rifle, circa 1900. 1 unopened condom, packaged to look like a matchbook, circa 1947.

“We have to stop,” Margaret says.

“Why?”

“Because I haven’t gotten anything I’ve wanted.”

It’s the autumn after our father’s death, and Margaret, the oldest daughter, is fretfully brewing coffee in our parents’ New Jersey kitchen, which is equipped with a 1970s percolator and three dozen aluminum foil pie plates, testimony to our mother’s addiction to apple pie in the last years of her dementia. There’s also evidence of our father’s valiant efforts at cooking: three cans of chicken gravy, a half-dozen open jars of mustard.

Margaret burns her hand and drops the kettle. She’s been up all night, she says. She’s been bulldozed and rushed, she says.

Always attuned to stress, Carrie, the middle daughter, stops eating.

This is unfair, Margaret goes on. This is moving too fast.

Carrie expresses sympathy.

Then: silence. Our microclimate—this weird, insular, dorm-like experience living together in a house we haven’t lived in for years—has suffered a microburst, and the mood is suddenly dark and ravenous.

I’m surprised. For five days now, we three daughters have genially walked through our four-story, four-staircase childhood home with colored dots, marking the things we want. When two of us want the same thing within a category (furniture, for instance) we’ve negotiated: “I really want this chair. If I give up on the armoire, could I have the chair?” When negotiation failed, we’ve flipped a coin. I’ve given a number of things up to Margaret in negotiation—an 80-inch antique plank table, for instance—and I’ve lost a lot in coin tosses, paintings mostly, and the shell of a giant Channeled Welk.

We have just 36 hours left to empty this 4,000 square-foot house. We can’t let this eruption slow us down.

“Listen,” I tell Margaret, “What do you want? If there’s something I’ve gotten that you want, take it. I’m fine with that.”

“I won’t go back,” she says, brown eyes intense, slender body nearly shaking. “I want to change the process going forward.”

“But if not getting something has kept you up all night, and I’ve got that thing, then take it.”

“I won’t go back,” she says.

Was it the matching brass candle holders that kept her up all night? I wonder. Was it the Eames chair? The cheap little Santa with the extra long beard? “I can’t stand the idea that some thing that I’ve gotten has soured—”

“And you can’t make me talk about this,” she interrupts. “I’m an introvert.”

The fact that I too am an introvert appears to be irrelevant.

I can feel us swerving dangerously toward a cliché. I’ve heard it a thousand times: “She took the fill-in-the-blank (wedding ring, grandfather clock, string of pearls) even though it was promised to fill-in-the-blank (her brother, son, grandchild) and they never spoke again. Never.”

I won’t do it, dissolve into a pointless argument about things, not for a World War I saber, or a 19th century dental drill, or my great grandmother’s tea lamps, or the books we read as children. Not for my mother’s flatware. Not for an antique ship’s clock. I won’t.

Pause. Okay, I realize this argument is about more than things. It’s how we perceive those things and value them. And even more than that: it’s the meaning that is created as we three construct our own collections, as we choose the props of our own evolving narratives, as we toil, conscious curators of our own stories. For we’ve reached a turning point, an inescapable moment when this living archive that our parents kept intact for 60 years—these photos, scribbled drafts of sent letters, cookbooks, yearbooks, matchbooks from places we’ve never been—will disappear, just as our parents have.

And when the archive is no longer intact, what is left is merely unaided memory.

Maybe we’re actually fighting over memory?

No, we’re fighting over wealth. I bet it’s the Eames chair that’s pissing her off.

~

6 shillelaghs. 13 ceramic beer steins from 4 nations. 4 carry-on bags of travel brochures, 1960-1975. 2 quart bottles of paregoric, a controlled substance, bottled during the Kennedy administration.

Some people don’t believe in having things. Recent pioneers of simplicity have pared their lives down to 2,000 objects, 417 objects, 288 objects, 100 objects, a daring 72 objects, even a spare 50. (One woman apparently reached an angelic 47, but she has since disappeared from the blogosphere.)

These minimalists are more diverse than you’d think. They’re driven by myriad motivations. Adam Baker and his wife were motivated by the $18,000 in consumer debt they’d incurred by buying too many things; they pared themselves down to 400 items and took to the road. Tammy Strobel was driven to promulgate a philosophy of personal empowerment; she now lives with 72 objects and her husband in a 400-square foot apartment, where she blogs with a tone best described as incorporeal happy talk (“February’s focus: noticing life’s lovely details. Sign up for my daily photo and note!”).

Different minimalists also count differently. For instance, Joshua Fields Millburn (288 things), counts the category of food as a single thing, whereas others count each can of creamed corn as a thing. Adam Baker doesn’t count food at all, and Joshua Becker, who is nearly as famous, doesn’t count at all.

But the minimalists do share compelling themes and an irrepressible energy that borders on the evangelistic. And I’m intrigued. They talk about the complication and intrusion of clutter; they talk about finding personal peace in owning only what needs to be owned in order to do what needs to be done. Some are concerned about the health of the planet, some about the spiritual integrity of their lives. They are, all of them, wading through waters of meaning—some are in fairly shallow waters; others, such as adjunct professor Dave Bruno (100 things), who teaches at Point Loma Nazarene University, are neck-deep in questions of purpose, necessity, and the divine. In this light, there’s something endearingly ambitious and compromised in their literal counting; they may be anti-consumerists whose way of life could topple the largest economy in the world if they were to prevail—but at heart they’re still competitive, capitalist Americans. And, being competitive, capitalist Americans, many of them sell products—books, workshops, courses.

Things, by any other name.

~

4 copies of Tuesdays with Morrie. 1 copy of The I Hate to Cook Book, 1962 paperback edition. 1 copy of Diet for a Small Planet, never used. 1 copy of the book Vicktor Frankl conceived during his time in a concentration camp, Man’s Search for Meaning.

If there is a guru of the new American minimalism, it’s probably Leo Babauta (100 things), who claims not to be a Zen master, but whose blog is named Zenhabits.net. Glance at Babauta’s “short list,” and the tactics for achieving the blessed state of few possessions seem simple:

1. Identify what’s most important to you.
2. Eliminate everything else.

It’s his “long list” that snags me. It contains seventy-two tactics, some of which seem obvious in the world of Zen habits. Number 10, for instance, is Get rid of the big items, by which he means boats, vacation homes, and unused appliances (none of which I have). But to be fair, the list also includes Number 4, Simplify work tasks and Number 6, Learn to say no. Most of the 72 tactics have articles and sub-tasks associated with them—it’s a complex system. I guess this is why minimalists end up writing books.

Yes, some of this does appeal to me. When I left graduate school I moved everything I owned (except the books) a thousand miles in a Honda Civic. Marrying late, I didn’t acquire the spoils of a typical wedding: silver, china, duplicate Crock-Pots. I got my first microwave at forty and still brew coffee in a pot bought before Starbucks was a gleam in Howard Schultz’s eye. But this simplicity is only partly intentional. It’s also two parts circumstance and two parts temperament. Its momentum—or maybe its stasis—lies in who I am and what I’ve done in life, and I’ve never thought much about why I’ve wanted more, and thinking about that now feels foreign and potentially superficial.

~

5 laughing Buddhas, 1 in jade. 11 complete and incomplete sets of specialty glasses, including 3 sets of shot glasses; 2 sets of crystal wine goblets and 1 set of crystal brandy snifters, 8 in each set, Waterford. 1 funeral Mass book for Leo Reilly Sr., our grandfather, d. 1957.

The wealth that we’re disassembling here in our childhood home came quickly to our parents, and I think our father never really trusted it. He carried scars from early homelessness, an abusive and alcoholic father, a mother who was maddeningly forgiving, and the charity of the Catholic church, which came with strings of epic length attached. Scars deeply embedded, our father benefitted from an accelerated college education, the GI Bill, and the post-World War II suburban boom. He was dashingly dark, with eyes the color of fresh celery. He was smart, talented, and intense in all matters.

And also profoundly untrusting of his luck. He consumed widely and deeply—cars, boats, sports equipment, international travel. But he rarely bought a piece of clothing voluntarily. He opted for the cheapest version of almost everything he bought. And he periodically retreated into doubt. When I was 10, I discovered a secret room in the attic, and a Chock full o’ Nuts can containing $14,000 in small bills, stashed there in case of a stock market crash.

His father was rarely mentioned in our presence, and as we disassemble the house, we find only two photos of him.

~

1 leather-bound copy of the Alcoholic Anonymous Big Book, 1971, gift from a friend. 3 brass bed warmers, 19th century. 3 knife sharpeners, 1 of them electric. 10 kitchen knives, none of them sharp.

In the last years of his life, our father mounted the steps by crawling, and, irritated by the cost of heat, confined himself to two or three drafty rooms. When we tried to get him to move to a less precarious place with a bedroom on the first floor, he resisted.

“Why?” Carrie asked. “Now that Mom’s gone, why do you want to stay here?”

“I want to be with my things,” he said.

Those things he treasured are mostly in the family room, I think. Certainly it has always been the heart of the house and the core of the collection. Along the fireplace wall: the antique bed warmers, copper pots, fireplace tools, ski-scapes painted by his cousin, a spy glass frozen in one setting, and the Afghan gun. On an adjacent wall: an antique set of bells of the kind used at high Mass and a couple of Spanish swords.

In these last five days, we’ve heartlessly broken his collection, corrupted the exhibit as he left it: We’ve carted in paintings from all around the house, piled all the candle snuffers in a corner, emptied out a huge cabinet full of 78- and 133-RPM vinyls, arrayed all the ceramic beer steins found in other rooms. The story he saw as he sat in this room is adulterated. I want to be around my things, he said. All the things in this room as he left it? Some of them? Or was there comfort in unseen things too, in the objects stored in cabinets and corners and under beds, things that testified to his wealth? Or to his life story? Is it possible that without these things he would have come to feel deserted, unrecognizable, as if his life had not in fact happened in the brilliant colors and leaps of fortune that he remembered.

I have no idea. He swore by Man’s Search for Meaning, which he read after breaking his neck in a sailing accident. He also swore by Morrie and sent multiple copies to each of us.

~

2 pairs of skis, 2 bowling balls, 2 sets of golf clubs. 2 index-card boxes of family recipes. 1 salon-style bubble hair dryer in working condition.

Maybe he wanted to be around his things because the collection reminded him of our beautiful mother. Endowed with Katharine Hepburn cheekbones, a prickly wit, and a nascent feminism, she was an adored woman, and he spared her nothing. The house speaks of her tastes and life experience: the silk curtains, the multiple sets of serving dishes, the figurines from France. Wherever she traveled, she acquired exquisite things: real kimonos and silver jewelry, simple watercolors painted on a Portuguese beach.

After her death, our father obsessed over her jewelry, particularly a string of pearls bought in Japan forty years before. He claimed that the home health care workers had stolen them. But we knew that our mother had begun moving her things around relentlessly, hiding them and losing them, finding them and hiding them again, or throwing them out deliriously. For months, under Dad’s hyper-critical eye, we tried to retrace our mother’s actions. He insisted the loss was our fault; we were the rubes who’d hired hourly workers and failed to secure the valuables.

Eventually, Margaret found the pearls, absurdly packed under some winter hats, and Carrie had them assessed. Twenty-five dollars. Our parents had been fleeced all those years ago in Japan.

See how little the assessed value matters? I tell myself. Both parents enjoyed the fake pearls for forty years. And look at the unnecessary angst. The excess anxiety. The accusations. How silly!

Or maybe not. These things, phonies or not, are an expression of real hungers. Now, walking through rooms, I have to wonder about our mother’s hungers. She is the art director of this house, the prop manager who expertly arranged these artifacts to our father’s satisfaction. Even now, even in disarray—muddled with half-packed boxes and swirls of bubble wrap—the house has the feel of a well-designed stage set. Well-designed and tasteful, and yet the hungers expressed here are surprisingly expected; they’re the desires of a class, not a person, and I feel sadness toward my remote and lovely mother, and find myself staring at a quirky collection of primitive pottery pieces made during the one art class she took back when she was probably 50 or 55. What hunger was that?

Or this: a large, framed, hand-colored photograph of her father and his big brother dressed in overalls at ages three and four; they’re standing next to a child-sized wagon on a dusty road. This was the father who essentially disinherited my mother and her sister, giving all of his considerable fortune to his three sons. Yet it fell to the girls to empty their father’s house, and when they sifted through the basement, my mother found postcards addressed to herself as a 10-year old, 12-year old, 13-year old, from far away places, Batista’s Cuba, Miami Beach, Tucson. All of the messages were instructions for making sure her brothers got to school, her sister got to dance lessons, the baker got paid. None of the cards said love you or miss you or even thank you. My mother didn’t cry, sitting in her father’s basement. She threw the cards out and never mentioned them, and then she brought the haunting photograph of her father-as-child home to this house, where it has hung ever since.

And what about this thing? A large replica of a painting, three long-haired girls dowsed in impressionist pastels sitting peacefully on a pleasant hill. Our mother loved this piece. But none of us want it. It’s only a copy, of course, and none of us wants to deal with the sentimental wishfulness of it.

~

6 pieces of slab pottery, made in a beginner’s art class. 3 fur coats. 1 cherry dining room set. 14 hand-carved decorative duck decoys. 1 duck-hunting shotgun, last used in 1962.

The last cogent, in-person conversation I had with my father was about burying my mother. He was hanging out of a second story window and I was sneaking away in a mushroom dawn, trying to make a 7 a.m. flight.

“Wait!” he said. “I want to say something.” He paused to catch an elusive breath. “I realize that if you weren’t there to do it for us, we’d all still be standing in the bay.” He was referring to the day before, when the family stood waist-deep in water, my frail father, wracked with congestive heart disease, clinging to an old foam surf board. We each of us had spread a handful of my mother’s ashes and then stopped, unable to go on. It was decided that I would spread the rest of her. So I walked alone into the outgoing tide, moving toward the channel, toward pleasure boats and fishermen, and I spread my mother and she sank slowly, the way a heavy snow falls, disturbingly easy in the melting. No longer a person or a thing.

Thank you, my father said through the window.

He has been dead five months, and now, standing in the kitchen, the three daughters are renegotiating. Here are the categories we have already dispatched:
Angels (31)
Art (40)
Bells (28)
Books (uncounted)
Boxes/trunks, antique (4)
Brass candle holders (13)
Christmas (65)
Candle snuffers (5)
Duck decoys (14)
Fish weights, antique brass (5)
Furniture (uncounted)
Hats (9)
Recipe books and recipes (uncounted)
Spoons, antique collection (16)

Through all of this, we have shared long meals over red wine and our father’s Scotch, and stories we’d never dared tell each other before. Margaret has talked about afternoons spent leashed to a tree as a toddler. Carrie has admitted to remembering nothing before the age of eight. Margaret and I have reminded her of the late-night raids when exotic punishments were meted out. We have all agreed that the discipline—erratic, private, humiliating—produced three very well-behaved little girls.

It also produced wariness: In adult life, we’ve been occasional friends and frequent adversaries—there have been missed weddings, manipulations, silences spanning a half decade and more. It was in the face of our mother’s dementia that we formed a fragile and respectful alliance of care, which has persisted unevenly. Yesterday morning, before a 13-hour day of carrying, categorizing, and climbing all four staircases, up and down and up and down, we danced to the Dixie Chicks. The song was “Long Time Gone.”

Now we’re arguing.

But what about? Not memory, which Carrie doesn’t have and Margaret fears so profoundly that huge events have been submerged in her mind, available to her only with prompting. And not wealth, because many of the most contended items are not the most marketable items. The small painting of a lighthouse. The tea lamps owned by our great grandmother.

Maybe we’re arguing about the categories themselves, the way items have been arranged, forcing negotiations and choices within shaped universes. Should the angels have been part of the Christmas category perhaps? Should the antiques have been separated from the furniture? Would we have valued, compared, and chosen them more carefully?

Identify what’s most important to you, Babauta writes with the kind of confidence that comes with extremism, or godliness, or maybe simple-mindedness. Eliminate everything else.

What is worth arguing about? Why do I care about wicker furniture?

~

Rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens/ Brown paper packages tied up with string/These are a few of my favorite things.

Fleeing from the house in my father’s beat-up Maxima, it occurs to me that most of Maria Von Trapp’s favorite things, as reported by Oscar Hammerstein, are not things at all, but images. Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes.

What things do I care about? What are my favorites? What am I willing ship from New Jersey to Chicago? Stuck at a stoplight, I’ve got that la-de-dah song stuck in my head and I’m getting annoyed. Hammerstein was a romantic. Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings are downright un-American. For Americans, favorite things are by definition eBay-able, more on the order of brown paper packages tied up with string than silver white winters that melt into springs. And while I’m at it, let me just point out that Frank Sinatra did not really have plenty of nothing, nor was plenty of nothing plenty for him.

The majority of the American economy is consumer spending—a giant portion of it for things that the minimalists count and then eject from their lives. It’s true that in the Great Recession, Americans did more (canoeing, gardening, reading) and bought less in the way of toys, electronics, and clothing. And a number of social entrepreneurs started organizations that help Americans borrow yard tools and other things from their neighbors, rather than buy them, thereby minimizing the number of things everyone owns. Nonetheless, Americans were still buying millions of microwaves a year and brides were still registering—the average bride asked for 151 things at the height of the Great Recession. That’s 50 percent more things than Babauta owns.

More startling: even if Americans are not buying as many eBay-able things today as we used to (as poverty among children soars and joblessness remains rampant) we are still storing things—in 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space. Which we pay for. We Americans pay to store trillions of favorite things we never see. Shoppers by birthright, hoarders by culture, we are curators of the superfluous.

In the UPS store, the lady says, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

And the loss is immeasurable and also indefinable. And the things—what they are, whatever they mean—are likewise. And I start to sob, and the UPS lady watches me with a look of recognition.

~

3 vintage political buttons: Goldwater, Nixon, Clinton. 1 Swiss cuckoo clock. 16 reel-to-reel tapes, once little audio postcards of childhood events—Easter evenings, birthday parties, kids’ plays mounted in the backyard—now taped over with our father’s Orpheus Club concerts, the Christmas concert, the Spring concert, the Christmas concert.

The new rules for choosing are: everything. Look at everything and choose, round robin. This category-free universe includes all the rooms, the yard, the garage: It is a mall without stores. There are antique sleds, vintage noisemakers for New Year’s, garden rakes, brass carriage lamps, Cannon cameras, hundreds of candles. The visual center to this universe is the dining room table, covered with platters and serving bowls, hotel matchbooks, hand-crafted cheese boards, the family silver, playing cards and poker sets, magazines, three sets of salad dishes, the World War I saber, a ceramic tray for surgical instruments retrieved from our father’s dental office.

Once when we were very young, the elderly couple across the street announced they were moving. They invited us children to come over and circle a table very much like this one, choosing anything we wanted from it. Heartlessly, I never asked where they were going. I took a cut-glass candy dish. Their name was Lang, I think.

My mother said, “Good lord, what do you think you’re going to do with that thing?” She had a point. In our dental family, candy was consumed exactly twice a year.

No, this experience is bigger than that. I am Ozma of Oz, a character from one of the original Frank Baum books. In the book, Princess Ozma must identify which objects in a huge menagerie are actually people, transformed into baubles and statues by the Gnome King. Each of the enchanted objects has an intrinsic meaning—a life. But which are enchanted and which are just, well, things? Ozma fails. Dorothy fails too. Only by cheating do the two heroines, with the help of a talking chicken, win.

No wonder I’m having trouble.

Carrie takes a brass sconce hanging in another room. Margaret chooses the family silver. My turn. And it’s only now that I get it. We’re arguing about relationships. In the old category system, we had to talk, to publicly struggle with memory and loss, want and need; we had to value and compare, respect each other even while competing with each other. We had to share our parents with each other. Now all we have to do is buy.

~

1 suitcase, 1 canvas bag. 2 blankets. 1 tarp. 1 can of peaches. 1 flare gun. 1 pistol. 1 bullet.

These are the things the man and the boy have at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, which I’ve been reading at night in my childhood bedroom. The list is not very different from the supplies I packed in a Grand Union shopping bag when I was seven and ran away to the woods at the bottom of the street.

It’s still my turn.

I came wanting three things. I wanted the hand-colored photograph of my grandfather as a child; an antique dry sink, one of my mother’s proudest possessions; and a brass cowbell she used to call us home when we were kids. I have those three things. No one else wanted them. So how can I still be wanting, taking: now it’s the saber, and now antique sleigh bells, now the political buttons. What am I doing?

Is there a constant meaning to things? Throughout The Road, things always mean survival. In Ozma, things mean lives rescued and reanimated. At a certain stratum in America, things mean comfort, wealth, cultural coolness: They are our public collections, physical affirmations of our personal brands. And seeing this collection I’m creating—comprised of shards of choices our parents made, constructed of an economic status I will never acquire on my own—I feel as if I am not myself. Now: a set of crystal brandy snifters. Next: a Waterford vase. No, that one didn’t feel like me. Back on track: a 1943 TIME magazine, Hitler’s Henchmen. Then: wine glasses—no, not wine glasses—the bag of vintage matchbooks and the ancient, cleverly packaged condom instead. Then: my grandmother’s potato masher.

Carrie calls an end to the session. If we take too many things, the lady who is running the estate sale will complain. We have two last rounds. The dental tray for surgical tools. A pottery candleholder my mother made in her one art class.

We stop. We pack up. More bubble wrap, and that awful tape that sticks to itself so tightly that I throw a roll of it across the room, narrowly missing an unclaimed angel.

Still not myself a month later, I’ll see the things I’ve chosen in my living room. And my grandfather looks out of place, and the saber is invisible, stashed on a high shelf, and the dry sink feels heavy and dark. Did I ever really like that watercolor of the barn?

A month later: there is no narrative to my collection. But the cowbell will give me transient comfort when I retell the story of three little girls, so free in a leafy suburb that their mother’s voice wasn’t loud enough to call them home for dinner.

And a month after that: I’ll serve Cognac in the crystal brandy snifters, self-consciously; and yes, I’ll have to explain their existence, because they’re so glaringly out of place alongside the juice glasses we use for wine.

And then, some time after that, when I’m not thinking about the things at all, I’ll discover that almost everything we three daughters left behind that day ended up in a New Jersey landfill, deemed worthless and tossed. It’s all likely in a trash heap called HMDC 1-E.

~

10 pairs of men’s leather shoes, 3 pairs of men’s shoe-trees, oak. 1 dining room set, cherry. 4 bookshelves. 2 full sets of pewter dishes, 2 sets of pewter goblets. 1 sewing machine, circa 1960. 100+ books, mostly popular history. 27 antique bells. 1 pine liquor cabinet, circa 1955. 1 Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. 5 pieces of assorted pottery, made by a beginner. 1 string of Japanese Akoya white pearls, 8-millimeters in diameter and luminous, and also fake.

1 impressionist print of three girls on a hill.

 


In “The Relative Nature of Things”, a woman comes to terms beautifully with what is left of her parents through an elegiac, and heartbreaking catalogue of her their possessions. She finds meaning through a graceful and eloquent telling of the process of sifting through her childhood home for an estate sale with her sisters. The author traverses the history of the minimalists and then arrives brilliantly back in her own living room, enlightening the reader on what is important to take with her. In her moving study, she has shown us that true value is not in material objects, but the memories they bring.
—Anthony Swofford & Christa Parravani, 2012 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judges


South Omaha From the F Street Exit, JFK Freeway

We stop at the red light even though we don’t really have to.  There’re no cars coming; a few, maybe, if it were Saturday when the little men and ladies sally from their wooden houses, making their way to vigil mass at St. Bridget’s, a semi truck maybe lumbering up the hill from the warehouses to the freeway, but we’d hear him.  There’re no cops either.  They are busy elsewhere.  But we wait anyway, my husband and I, under the red light and the sign that tells us to wait for green to turn right.

That building in the distance—the blocky, brick one with the fire escape stuck out the back like a spine, the only tall building peeking its head from this low, little landscape—that’s the Stockyard Exchange Building.  It used to be offices and boutiques and barbershops back in the 50s when Omaha became the largest stockyard in the world, but the stockyards are closed now, the building converted with thermostats and sub-floors and cabinets to low-income apartments where the adjuncts from the community college live beside low level drug dealers and immigrant families come to work in the packinghouses.  But they’re pretty apartments: all brick and window, the names of old businesses still stenciled on the doors.  The arched windows up top—those are ballrooms, a north and south ballroom where my brownie troop once won the gold metal in a talent competition for a song about housekeeping.  I got to toss the stuffed cat off the stage as we sang.  There’s a Polaroid of the moment somewhere in my parents’ house.  What I mean to say is that the ballrooms survived the other closings and changes.  A catering company in the suburbs owns full rights to them now and rich people drive into these old parts to get married and celebrate.  We couldn’t afford the fee—not even for the cheese and crackers buffet.

From here to there: all train track and decomposing cow shit where the pens used to be.  And Johnny’s restaurant, where Jack Nicholson filmed a scene for a movie in which he played a lonely and pathetic old man.  We all rushed to the theaters, to see our Johnny’s lit on the big screen, but came away quiet—the restaurant looking as lonely and pathetic as Nicholson’s widowed character.

The light turns green and we turn right.  My husband shimmies in his seat, a wiggle that begins in his hips and moves through his torso and shoulders and head.  I know that shimmy.  It speaks.  It says, “Thanks for not offering to drive, Dan,” and it says, “Here we go,” to the popped-spring mattress we’ll sleep on for two nights, to the constant nagging of my nephew to play, Chris, play, to the odors of dried blood and creosote, and to the clanks and bangs of the cars backfiring and the slaughterhouses waking that will call us from our weekend sleep before the sun rises.

We cross the bridge over the train tracks and the industry: the warehouses and the lots of the trucking company, the storage piles of loose asphalt, the byproduct processing plant that smells like dog food. This is the bridge of my dreams.  It appears often, sometimes grand and gold like a national landmark, and disappears just as often, once in patches as I light-stepped across it, toeing each section before committing my foot, should it crumble before me, and when it did, moonlight coming through the holes, inexplicably from below.  Once it was gone completely—simply no bridge—and I found myself sprinting at the great gap, ready to jump across the pit, launch my body into the smelly air, until my sister stopped me, yelling at my back and, when I turned around, pointing to a jet liner waiting to ferry me across.  The next morning over cereal, I couldn’t recall whether I was trying to get in or out.

We drive past Vanivar, where the train tracks split and angle into a yard ringed with chain link, where liquid cars sit filled with hazardous waste.  When one year the maples starting dying, people pointed towards Vanivar and whispered leak.  The city sent inspectors and we watched ours trees for other signs of unhappiness, scratched our fingernails at the bark and pulled the lowest branches down into our faces to smell the leaves.  When the report came back clean, we were left to wonder from where else the death might be coming.

The houses climb up the hills and sit atop the little canyons carved out by the tracks.  They are small and pale and dusty and have shutters decorating the sides of the windows and metal swing sets in the yard.  A thin, blonde brick steeple sits above the neighborhood, like a dunce’s cap.

The bridge descends steeply and Chris steps on the brakes early to stop at the stop sign below.  After sunset, we might not stop here—“Just don’t even bother,” my mother used to tell me when I first began to take the car out alone and late—but since it’s not quite dark, we behave.  The left headlight of our little car, which has been out for over a month, flickers on as we slow. We both stare dumbly through the windshield at the street illuminated in front of us.  “Magic,” I whisper.

Chris rolls his eyes at me and steps hard on the gas. We pass the power station and the empty lot where they’ve torn down the condemned house, we pass WC’s Place and Cheepo’s Mechanics, who have painted their garages cobalt blue.  We pass the sign requesting us to report odors to this telephone number.

Not far down the tracks is the slaughterhouse, hunkered down in sheet metal among the other buildings, surviving still, churning out meat and muscle, hide and bone, exhaling into the air over the neighborhood a melancholy cloud of cow souls.  At five p.m., a worker showers the ground with a fire hose, washing from the lot a day’s worth of death into the sewer where it courses under the city or into the road, where car tires dampen with it and trace it through the streets.

“People live here,” a college friend said to me—the first one I ever invited home for a weekend.  “Sure,” I said, leaning away from the steering wheel and over her, pointing out the bicycles lying in the yards, the flowerpots and uncoiled garden hoses, “people live here.”  She sat on her hands and stretched her legs out straight.  “Why?” she asked.

~

My parent’s house is a big yellow shoebox with a green-shingled roof and gable scrolls that my mother ordered from a catalogue.  The picket fence that lines the yard is warped and worm-eaten and swallowed here and there by bean vines, morning glories, moonflowers.  There’s a cowbell hanging from the front gate, jingle bells hanging on the back.  There’s a bear standing in the fountain at the side of the house, his feet glued to bricks so that he’s harder to steal.  My father calls him Guido.

Two garages sit along the back alley, slowly covering themselves in trumpet vines.  The small one is old, original, swallowed also in front by a dense cloud of wisteria, and my parents stopped bothering to open the gates and move the toys and wheelbarrows to park in there a long time ago.  It’s filled now with sawhorses and old cans of paint, bags of cement mix and broken lawnmowers: leftovers and remnants from the transformation from shoebox to home, evidence of work and work and more work. I learned to play tennis against the garage’s door, until I shattered all the windows and could hit the ball hard enough to crack the rotting wood.

The big one is new, doublewide for the ping-pong table and radio, a line of rusting lawn chairs along the wall, punctuated twice with stacked milk crates, tables for spectators’ beers.  A set of stairs stained mustard yellow and decorated with super heroes leads to the Boys’ Club, a space wedged between the ceiling and the roof where my five-year-old nephew conducts secret meetings with my father, my brother, and my husband.  They make exclamations like horseshit (which might be the Boys’ Club password) and talk boobs until the plywood floor pushes slivers through their jeans.

An airplane propeller noses out from the peak of the roof, spreading dual blades into the evening air, and spins along at a clip so fine the garage might just lift from the ground.

My father built the new garage—his therapy after he was shot delivering his mail route between the park and grade school.  He slept for two days after the shooting, emerging from his bedroom for only minutes at a time to watch the still-endless news footage of himself post-incident, the newscasters never saying gang-related, his head and neck a blaze of red where the pellets skimmed across his skin.  He holed up in the living room another three days, tired and teary, waiting for someone to come finish the job.  No, no, no, the detectives said, a random act of violence.  Freak occurrence.  Fuckhead kid.  And then he seemed finally to hear them.  He put pants on and stepped outside into the afternoon and built a garage.

I’d been looking at myself in the hallway mirror when the call came from my sister: “Dad got shot in the face or something,” she said.  Four weeks later, we had a new garage, an unpainted, hulking plywood shell in which my father offered to host a party for Chris’s and my upcoming wedding. Our already cheap plans I knew were a certain affront to Chris, whose personality tends toward pomp and ceremony: he attends every possible wedding, baptism, and graduation and celebrates his birthday like an annual astrological festival.  My father looked into Chris’ genteel, small-town face, as round and honest as a pumpkin, and said, “Pizza.  Ping-pong.”  And no one will tell a recently shot mailman no, so.

We park in the alley next to an electrical pole posted with the red, white, and blue sign of the Burlington Road Neighborhood Association.  Violence in South Omaha has increased in the past few years and the shootings and beatings and stabbings are pressing in on even the oldest and quietest neighborhoods, renewing their immigrant-era reputations as places of blood and bruises.  A local state-senate hopeful stepped up and that’s when these signs made their advance onto every streetlight and electrical pole within ten square blocks.  “For the kids,” the crusader said, we needed friendship, unity, and so we got a name like a suburban subdivision—we are Burlington Road.  The sign says “KEEPING THE NEIGHBORHOOD ON TRACK.”  It is dented and sticky with something someone threw at it.

Ahead of us, the alley extends a lunar landscape to 36th Avenue, pockmarked and potholed with cavities that swallow tires whole and fill with water when it rains and become a great chain of lakes.

The dogs come running, chewing at each other’s throats in excitement, and sniff at us through the fence—the grey-eyebrowed beagle bays into space, the mutt, a foxy, slinky animal with only half a brain, puts his paws on the fence and whines.  Bagel and Lyle.  Gustavo, the Mexican immigrant next door, calls them Beggar and Liar.  He edges his sidewalk with a steak knife, just as my mother taught him when he was new to the neighborhood, and calls to Beggar and Liar to shut up por favor as the two idiots yap at him while he does his yard work.

My mother pokes her head-full of hippie-gray hair out from behind the big garage and waves her plastic broom in the air.  Chris nudges me away from the overfilled laundry basket that I’m wrestling from the backseat.  “Go see your mom,” he says.

She’s walking toward us now, thin-limbed and covered, as always, in paint and dirt and grass stains, dragging the broom on the ground and talking and talking and talking.  I catch snippets of her conversation through the cry of the dogs: didn’t know to think before dark or after, need to call my sister, pizza for dinner, good god how much laundry.  We meet at the gate and she grabs my head with both of her hands, pressing the broom handle into my cheek, pulls my face to hers, and kisses me.  I taste Vaseline on her.  “I have a surprise for you,” she says.

“It’s a surprise for you too,” she yells to Chris, who’s lugging the laundry basket towards the gate.  He reaches us, balances the basket on the line of picket points, and she kisses him on the lips, leaving a shiny smear.

She glances past us to our car, the leaky and stuttering two-door glowing green in the last light.  Then, with all the sternness she can muster, she looks me in the eye and says, “Oh, you washed it.”

We wash the car each time before we visit my parents.  I take it the day before we leave and hit it with the spray gun and foam brush.  Sometimes I try to wax it, but I can’t get rid of the white marks from when we got sideswiped or the rust starting to grow out from the wheel wells, so I’ve stopped.  I vacuum the insides though, even the trunk, so that if my dad peeks in, he’ll know that we take care of things.  “That’s why I wash the car,” I tell my mom, but each time we pull up in the alley, she chides us for wasting our time and quarters.  “The cow dust’ll come tonight,” she says, “and muck that pretty thing all up.”

Two blocks away—closer even if you walk the diagonal path over the train tracks—is the slaughterhouse, where thousands of cows moo and poop and sweat and bleed awaiting their entrance into the low door of the cattle chute, where the air gun pops and reels and delivers fate.  Until then they breathe and belch methane, flank to flank, their massive and collective body agitated and respiring in its concrete and metal yard.  A living cow seems to me all fluid: piss and perspiration, watery rolling eye and liquid sadness.  Even before death they are rising like steam into the atmosphere, a humidity that mingles with the dust shaken loose from trains, the brown exhaust of semis and the sharp curses of their drivers.  And in the morning, they descend with the dew, coating the world like a black pollen.

We wipe the cow dust away with paper towels and the pages of yesterday’s newspaper because the dust is also greasy.  Glass in the neighborhood shows smears of rainbow when the light hits it just so and the dogs go radiant and slick when they roll in the grass.  My mother spends her weekends power-washing the house and the car, hanging her body half out open windows with a rag and a bottle of diluted vinegar.

I live a state east now.  In a city busy with farmer’s markets and film festivals, Friday night jazz and poetry readings.  The people there use words like probiotic and drink tea imported from Japan and darkened with clouds of bacteria, which they explain to me is good for digestion.  They go to yoga classes and stretch into downward dog in their offices over lunchtime.  They can palm the floor from a standing position.  “You never use pesticide,” a friend once explained to me as she talked about the challenges of gardening kale among vines of creeping jenny and clumps of dandelion.  Chemicals are a strict no-no.  “Bleach?” I’ve asked.  No bleach.  “Bug spray?”  I’ve asked.  No bug spray.  Embrace the weeds, the bacteria, the bugs—all natural, people explain to me.  All good. I go to Pilates classes now, and I know what beets taste like and that they taste excellent.

It is like heaven in my new city and I am flexible and well-nourished and blessedly regular.  But South Omaha has its meat hooks in me. It is in my bones, my blood, my teeth: the chemical, the crap, and the cow built into me as I developed in the womb.  The head bone is connected to the slaughterhouse.  And to the baseballs knocked solid onto the train tracks by boys, to the beer, and to the bright foam coozie that protects my father’s hands from the dampness and chill.  It proclaims in orange letters that THESE ARE MY DRESS CLOTHES.

The graffiti is pressing into the old neighborhoods, artless tags on a shed, a fence, a lamp post, un-love letters to people and rivals announcing: someone will scare you, someone will hurt you, don’t dare tread here.  And sometimes when we get home from a weekend at my parents, I want to smear at the cow dust stuck to the hood of our car, get my hands all good and smudgy with it, ring all my neighbors’ doorbells, and raise my oil-black hands to them, say, “Smell.”

~

My mom has told me before that she has a surprise.  Once, it was a flower opening at night, her first moonflower, escaped from the casing of its tough and unfriendly seed, unwinding itself into a blossom as broad and white as a paper plate. Another time, it was a pint of orange sherbet waiting for me in the freezer, and another the neighbors across the street, blinds up, lights on, fighting and eating and kissing, their bright picture window our theater all evening as we sat on the porch and drank beer.  “You’re selling the house,” I guess as she slides open the backdoor for us.  She pushes air through her lips at me.  “No,” she says, “no.”

I look for the surprise all evening.  We eat the pizza reheated in the microwave with mismatched forks bought from Goodwill—“Isn’t that a cute one?” my mom asks as I raise a bite to my mouth.  I look at the fork, the scallops on the handle, and nod.  We whack away at the florescent orange ping-pong ball with paddles worn to their sandpaper faces and listen to the Blues Brothers.  We play the song “Rubber Biscuit” because John Belushi trills that last note so high and ridiculous and my nephew laughs deep and long from his full-moon belly, so we play the song again and again.  My mother tours me around the yard pointing out new blooms and where she’d like to plant a tree.  But there’s no surprise.

We watch the evening news together and I wait to see a picture of a high school friend during the Most Wanted segment, which was once another of my mother’s surprises.  “Remember when Joe Jaworski robbed Radio Shack?” she asks.  “Remember how big his ears were?  That’s how they knew it was him.”  The anchor reports another execution-style murder, a man shot kneeling in front of his TV, a video game playing and a child upstairs.  “That’s on your dad’s route,” she says, nodding at my father asleep in his robe on the floor, spread-eagled and with a hole in his longjohns.  The anchor reports on the local campaign to save the old ball stadium and my mother grumbles non-committedly.  Then she falls asleep in her chair, head back, mouth open, her nightly bowl of popcorn half-full and cradled in her lap.

Upstairs, Chris pulls the sheets down the mattress I slept on as a child.  He stares at it, the lumps of spring and cotton pressing upwards underneath the flower-printed linen and asks without looking up how I possibly ever slept on this thing.  I bump the door with my hip until I hear the latch catch and shrug at him.  “I thought it was comfortable,” I say.

At home, we sleep on a five hundred dollar mattress and box spring, a happy co-habitation gift to ourselves after we’d spent our first week together crashing on the floor amid paint cans and balls of used edging tape as we turned our apartment the pale yellow of lemonade.  So when we got the mattress home—after a saga of cross-town trips, bungee cords, twisting staircases, and doorways—we spread new polka dotted sheets down and turned out the light.  But I tossed and rolled and left bed three times for a glass of water.  “What’s wrong with you?” Chris asked, rightfully irritated.  “Nothing,” I said.  “It’s too soft, isn’t it?” he said.  “No,” I said, not lying—it was the best thing I’d ever laid my body on—“It’s just,” I downed the third glass of water, “I sleep on a nicer mattress than my parents.”

Chris sits on his haunches in his sweatpants, then crawls reluctantly into the bed.  It’s too small for him, too short for his giraffe body and he has to lie diagonally to fit.  So I drape my legs over him, make us into a lopsided X on the bed, reach behind me and turn out the light.

In the dark, I think that I can see better the splotches of water damage spreading through the white paint on the ceiling.  The headlights from cars driving up the hill outside trace blue arcs across the walls and I’ve never liked this room.  I’ve never liked the sheet hanging as a curtain in the closet doorway or the baseboards nailed crooked into the drywall.  The fan makes clicking sounds inside its engine.

I feel afraid in this room, these peachy walls where I once pinned concert posters of Fleetwood Mac and Huey Lewis to the flowered wallpaper, the strips of pattern so carefully lined up, to the A-frame ceiling that folds guests so intimately in.  My husband begins snoring gently beside me and I roll him onto his side.  I am too old to be afraid.  There are no ghosts here, just a moneyless, dirty desperation that grips at the throat of some, fierce and relentless, until they pick up a gun or knife with which to beat it off.

It’s been bad since the day Dad was shot.   Only a boy, the police had reported, who’d decided that morning that he was bored, that he was out of options, that he would feel what it felt like to kill.  He walked into the neighborhood and pulled the trigger in the face of the first person he found—the mailman.  He had sawed the shotgun too short, and so the pellets spread wildly, grazing my father’s bald head and searing his ear before tucking themselves snug into the gray siding of a garage.  But such a nice boy, people would say of the shooter.  But not an S.O.B.—a South Omaha Boy—my father would say, the refrain of his convalescence, his return to the living, taking peace in the kid’s cross-town address, as if that made it okay, as if it didn’t mark our neighborhood as the city’s playground for its lost and violent.

I heard one morning, five steady times, a pop pop pop pop pop.  The sound bore me from my sleep into the gray predawn, the time when the cow dust settles silently to the earth.  I rolled to look at Chris and found him already looking at me.  “Fireworks,” he whispered, “Or someone slamming a gate,” I offered back, rolling over and patting his arm as if to say, silly boy, nothing to worry about here.  But downstairs, the snap of the bathroom light switch, the angry snap of the old, stuck toggle: my father waking for work.  I tried to sleep but the glow under the door grew brighter as he flipped on other lights—hallway, kitchen, living room, staircase, where he fumbled around the coat hooks finally for his jacket.

I caught him halfway out the back door.  “I heard gunshots,” I said to his back.  His body jerked in surprise at the sound of my voice, and he turned back into the house, closed the door behind him.  “What?” he said.  I rubbed my face, beginning to burn with embarrassment already, knowing, and stepped in front of the heater vent to keep my legs warm.  “I heard gunshots,” I said again, “I think.”  My mother appeared in the living room in her floral night pants.  “What?” she said also.  “Gunshots?  That was the neighbor’s car, Dan.  Not gunshots.”  She pursed her lips in that way that suggests she’s tolerating stupidity, but barely.  I sat on the couch and my dad came over to pat my back.  “Oh,” he said to my mom, “she’s just worried about me.”  He landed his palm flat on my back a few more times and bent down to kiss me goodbye.  “Well thanks,” he said into my face with sincerity and pity.  Then he left.

My mother came and sat on the couch beside me, at an arm’s distance.  Outside the window, an old Buick popped and rolled down the street and she nodded.  “You’ve got to get over this,” she said.  “I am,” I said.  “You’re not,” she said.  “And we’re not moving.  This is your home, little girl.”  We sat together a few moments longer, both of us pissed and tired.  “I should have never told you about the Pilates class,” I said.

~

In the morning, the hoarse bark of Zeus, the angry chow-chow next door, wakes me up.  Zeus is part lion, tearing raccoons limb from limb and rabbits as they shriek, pinning Gustavo’s Chihuahuas to the ground with his massive teeth.  He nips at Deb, his owner, and winds himself into fits that send her into the house screaming and swearing.  There’s a look on his face, a promise to eat you.  The clock says seven something and I try to fall back asleep, but I hear my parents’ alarm go off, and then the sink and the toilet and the long whistle that issues from the pipes after a flush.  A shade snaps open, then another and another, six times.

A rooster crows.

I’m only a few steps down the staircase when my mom yells, “You heard it!”  She must be watching my feet come down the stairs, watching my body appear from the bottom up.  I stop halfway and sit, looking down into the living room, where the early morning sun pours in through the open windows.

The rooms are bright white like heaven.  The walls are white and the curtains are white and my mother’s hair is white and glowing.  There is so much light.  Six tall windows in this room alone, the selling point when my parents bought it decades ago, dusted over and shining.

The rooster crows again and my mother looks at me expectantly.

I look at her and she says, “It’s a rooster!”

“You bought a rooster?” I say.

“No,” she scoffs at me. “It lives down the street in Mr. Swinarski’s pigeon coop.  And it crows all the time.  Surprise!”  She stretches out her fingers like fireworks and in the kitchen the skillet pops as my dad spoons grease over the eggs and rolls the sausage around the pan.

Mr. Swinarski is dead.  He had serial numbers from his time as a prisoner in Auschwitz tattooed across the backs of his hands and kept homing pigeons that flew to New Jersey and back again in a chicken wire coop against his shed.  “They always come back?” I asked.  “They always come back,” he said.  Even the one, he said, that blew off course and looped around Costa Rica.  Of course, why they came back wasn’t in question.  I felt the answer even then, resting in my leg bones: training and love and fear kept them coming home and sometimes they bonked into our picture window, breaking the afternoon stillness and scaring the dogs.  We scooped them blinking and flapping from the porch and returned them home wrapped in rags marked with bleach and grease.

I look out the window at his house, the peach awnings still sagging over the windows but a different car in the drive.  It is the Buick that pops like a gun.

The rooster crows again.  Chris comes down the stairs and asks if that’s actually a rooster crowing.  “Surprise!” my mom yells again and my dad sets a plate heaped with fried eggs on the table with four forks.

I step outside to hear it better, to feel what it feels like to stand in the city and hear a rooster let loose in the morning sunlight.  I grab the railing of the porch and stretch my body backward like a cat, a move I learned in Pilates class.  The railing is covered in cow dust—everything is covered in cow dust—everything covered with dirt and rainbows, my hands, the green shingles of the roof, the leaves of the maples and the bean vines, the telephone poles tagged anew each weekend, the bells on the gates, and it strikes me this morning that should anyone intrude into this yard, whatever pain they might bring, we would know first, by the tinkling of the bells that it was coming. I look at the car and think that we should have waited to wash it.

It’s Saturday morning and still the slaughterhouse chugs along, making the cows at one end into the packages of meat at the other.

My mom walks out and stands next to me, stares at the car glinting oily in the sun angling through the branches.  “I told you,” she says.  I nod.  “A good surprise though,” I say.  She nods.

Across the alley, Gustavo’s back door squeals open and he emerges sideways carrying an old boombox, inching the door open with his elbow.  He sets it on the sidewalk and waves, then bends to fiddle with the machine.  Music starts and stops: garbled guitars and drumbeats and piano, pieces of noise as he winds the knob through the frequencies.  Suddenly, voices speaking in Spanish come from the speakers and he turns the volume up.  My mother and I stand there, listening.  The music starts and it sounds like polka.  She smiles.  “I like this music,” she says.

Her ears are large and uneven, shiny saucers stuck to the sides of her gray head.  I want to grab them and shake her.  The music is not just polka.  It is a narcocorrido, a drug ballad about power and protest, death and don’t fuck with me.  There is tar in her hair from resealing the driveway this week and she screws up a smile at me.  When she dies, she says cremate her.  Then toss the ashes into the garden and turn her into a cleome.

The music is lovely.  It is wonderful, in fact.  Loud and fast.  Dancing music.  And for the moment, I decide that I don’t care.  I grab my mother’s hands, and we do a quick two-step across the porch.

 


The author’s compelling use of sensory, metaphoric imagery brings the reader into a fully realized, evocative, and particularized place. I felt as if I lived in this neighborhood, on this street, in this house. The urgency of the language grabs you in the first paragraph and doesn’t let go.
—Sue William Silverman, 2011 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judge


Blackout

I didn’t think white people got jobs the way Latinos did, just by talking to each other. But they do, and that’s how it happens for me. My first big job as a writer.

It’s the end of a journalism class at New York University. The room fills with the familiar cacophony of a class ending: chairs scraping floors, students unzipping bags, murmurs about lunch and papers due. The professor, a thin, white woman, fastens her eyes on me.

“An editor at the New York Times is looking for a researcher for a book she’s doing on women’s history,” she says, matter-of-fact. “I thought of you. You write about feminism.”

I smile politely, uncomfortably. I’m twenty-five and writing for Ms. magazine but I don’t consider myself to be someone who writes about feminism. That sounds like work other people do, people who are rich or famous or smart. I’m not a boba though. I have spent enough time around white women to know it’s better to not argue with them.

When I meet the editor, I like her immediately. She’s unpretentious and direct but warm in that “do you want water or tea” sort of way. I have no idea that she’s the first woman to run the editorial page at the newspaper. What I do know is that Gail is going to be the first (and only) lady who pays me money to track down what indigenous women used as menstrual pads back in the pre-tampon days. That’s my first assignment and I set off, gathering phone numbers for anthropologists and historians, generating a spreadsheet to track my interviews and library reading, and returning with my final report. (They used rags. The natural kind.)

Months later, I e-mail Gail an opinion piece I wrote for an online wire service and she shoots back: “Oye, you should apply for this internship here in the editorial department.”

She doesn’t write “oye,” but she might as well have because the way she emails with such ease is how a woman on the bus tells my mother, “Oye, there’s this factory down on Hudson Avenue that’s hiring.”

Oye, and just like that I send my resume, which now includes research on indigenous maxi pads, to the editor at the Times hiring interns even though I have no idea what an editorial is. That’s right. I am twenty-five, I am writing for a national magazine, I have been in journalism school, and I do not know what an editorial is.

I want to say that it’s never come up, that no one has ever talked to me about editorials. But they probably did and I didn’t know what it was and as I’ve been doing since I was in English as a Second Language classes in kindergarten, I acted like I knew what they were talking about and promptly forgot it.

Now I walk around the block to the Greek deli. I pass the women and men waiting at the bus stop, buy a copy of the Times and flip the A section over. A friend has told me to look at the left side of the last page, at the short paragraphs stacked on the page likes shoe boxes in a closet.

The writing carries no byline. It’s monotonous, and I realize why I don’t know what an editorial is. I’ve never made it past the second line.

My feelings though are irrelevant. This is the New York Times. They have Maureen Dowd and stringers all over the world including countries I have to find in the Britannica encyclopedia. If I get the internship, they won’t actually let me write.

But they do.

~

My summer internship begins on the tenth floor of the New York Times building on 43rd Street in Manhattan.

The first days are heady: the large, revolving doors at the main entrance, the elevator racing upward, a massive desk of my own, the thick solid wooden shelves in the library filled with old books and newspapers and magazines. It’s nine months since Sept. 11 and Howell Raines is the executive editor. He supposedly has a penchant for the visual, which is why, a staff reporter tells me, the corridors are now filled with large scale reproductions of photographs that have been in the paper. My favorite ones, the ones that make me pause, are the aerial photographs of New York City, the tops of skyscrapers like the closed beaks of birds turned toward the sky.

I’m taken to lunch that week, shown how the computer system works, told to wait a minute while an editor, a white man with sharp eyes, answers a call and laughs about how India and Pakistan need to get it together and play nice. I’m told how to put editorials in a queue, how to see what other people are writing for the next day or the weekend edition, how to answer my editor’s questions online. I’m told to join the editorial board for their meetings in the morning.

The meetings take place in a conference room. Inside are a long wooden table, large heavy chairs, and a television in a cabinet. Men show up in stiff white shirts with cups of coffee in hand, notepads and pens, and the day’s paper. The women show up in slacks and button-down shirts with notepads and pens and the paper. They file in one by one, welcome me, make jokes about this and that, and it begins to dawn on me that they are regular white people.

I’m not sure what I expected them to look like but I figured that writing for the New York Times would turn a person into something close to God, or at least Oprah Winfrey. I expected that they would look different somehow, more beautiful, more pristine, that they wouldn’t have to read the day’s paper because they would have a secret telephone they could pick up and hear about what was happening in the world.

What’s not surprising is that they are white.

It’s about a dozen people and they’re all white except for one black man and one man who is white (blond actually) but Mexican. I sit at the table terrified that I’ll say something stupid and more terrified that I won’t be able to say anything at all.

The meetings begin with Gail saying, “Let’s get started.” They go around the table, pitching ideas, shooting down ideas, bantering. A writer with a head full of white hair, a man who could be a grandpa on an after school TV special, says, “Now I have an idea you’re not going to like…” and everyone grins. There’s much about which to have opinions—the war on terror, Bush, stem cell research—but this man wants to write about pollution, about the Superfund sites everyone else wants to forget.

Assignments are made. One writer sighs. “Yes, I guess I’m the one to do it,” he says. Then they retreat to their offices to make phone calls, conduct interviews, and write opinions.

~

My first idea for an editorial is straightforward, a no-brainer really. I think the New York Times editorial board should urge President Bush to grant Colombians political asylum in the United States. The issue is clear: the U.S. funds the war in Colombia and the people deserve relief.

To back up my idea I start making phone calls and I quickly learn that people will talk to me. The words “New York Times,” in fact, produce the most spectacular effects on people. Local advocates return my calls with eager voices. Government spokespeople chat me up with fake smiles. A number of people bristle at the name; others ask to have lunch with me. Me. An intern.

By the time I call an advocate at Human Rights Watch that summer, I am brimming with the confidence of the arrogant. I announce that I’m phoning from the Times but when I pause for effect, the woman snaps, “Which Times?”

I bite my lip, sure this woman has, with female intuition alone, figured out that I’m only a summer intern. “The New York Times,” I answer doing my best to control the pitch of my voice.

“If you don’t say that I can’t possibly know,” the woman answers, adding that there is the L.A. Times and Time magazine. But I hear it in her voice. The nervous laugh. The slight faltering, the retreating.

The paper, I begin to learn, is not a series of pages bound together. It’s not even the people themselves, the ones sitting at the conference table three times a week or the ones reporting the news. It’s something else, an idea that produces tension in people or flattery. It has the power to agitate people. It’s kind of like God but not in the way I expected. It doesn’t feel good.

The other discovery I make is about white people.

One of the editors, a skinny man who I’ll call Mr. Flaco, listens to my initial idea for an editorial about granting Colombians asylum. “Why Colombians and not another group of people?” he asks, smiling, patronizingly. “If you open the door for them, do you open the door to every other country with internal conflicts?”

Mr. Flaco’s questions are good ones, rational ones, but they also feel odd somehow—the proverbial shoe that doesn’t fit. I mull them over for the rest of the day. I board the bus for Jersey still thinking about his questions and the feeling that something is not quite right.

In Jersey, I step off the bus a few feet from the Greek deli and Chinese restaurant. The street is littered with candy wrappers, the trash bin filled to capacity with soda cans. I walk past the long line at the bus stop, wondering who there is a salvadoreaño with political asylum and who is Honduran and Guatemalan. They wear, all of them, jeans and jackets and baseball caps. They’re waiting for the 165, the 166, transfer tickets and bus passes in hand.

Do you open the door to every other country with internal conflicts?

It falls into place somewhere in me. It’s true that Colombians are not the only ones in need of asylum. It is every group from practically every country where the United States and Europe have at some point staked a claim on land. From the perspective of here, which is to say from the perspective of the United States, of this skinny editor, of people who have power, Colombia is not as devastated as Rwanda or even as Salvador was in the eighties.

Colombians are suffering, yes, but not as much.

There is a hierarchy of pain and it is no longer confined to the pages of my books about political theory. It is here in Mr. Flaco. Pain in and of itself is not enough. It matters how many are dead, how many wounded, over what period of time, how much public outrage there is in the West. The pain has to be significant in relationship to those in power.

Realizing this doesn’t depress me or even bother me. I actually call one of my closest friends radiant to report this discovery because it does feel that way, like a discovery, like I have entered the collective mind of white people with political power everywhere and managed to see one of the strange rituals by which they reproduce.

This, I can only imagine, is how Darwin must have felt.

I call Keely, who is herself white but a lesbian and liberal. It’s not that they’re bad people or even weird, I tell her about Mr. Flaco, about all white people. I’m talking now as fast as I can. “They are just seeing everything in relationship to the power they have. They’re afraid to lose what they have.” By contrast, we (here I mean my family and the men at the bus stop), we are free to make demands, to share outrage, to know solidarity.

I pause to catch my breath and find that Keely is not as impressed with my discovery as I am. But I don’t care. The world looks different to me now, rocks back and forth in all its strangeness.

~

Because it’s the beginning of summer, NPR has an obligatory story about how more girls are going to tanning salons. I listen to this while lying in bed next to my girlfriend, who frequents these salons. Biracial, Cristina is a little sensitive about not looking Latina enough. She once put her arm against mine and declared, “I’m darker than you.”

With my idea for getting Colombians political asylum stalled, I suggest writing on the evils of tanning. Mr. Flaco loves it. Of course he does. White men can always be counted on to agree that girls do crazy things in the name of beauty and that they need to be chastised. Who better than to scold teenage girls than a young woman herself?

I put these thoughts aside and sit at my computer monitor in my office on the tenth floor writing the best little opinion piece I can muster. Although the topic is one that slightly depresses me (I could be writing about the impact of the civil war in Colombia!), I nevertheless find myself humming and tapping away at the keyboard, having the experience that comes whenever I write: a rush of joy through my body. I feel energized, happy, strong even.

At the end of the day, I get on the elevator exhausted, my face slightly flushed. I am living a life I could never have imagined, even if it is just about sun tans.

~

At the Times, people spend their days writing and then get paid every two weeks. It happens even if you disagree with Mr. Flaco or if you write a bad piece that needs tons of editing. You still get paid.

So convinced that this life can’t be mine, I insist on taking my intern paycheck to the bank every two weeks and cashing it. Each time the black teller hands me the stack of hundred dollar bills, I feel that I am real and this is really happening to me.

It is a lesson I learned from my mother.

On Fridays, if she had been paid at the factory, my tía would take my sister and me to meet my mother at the bank where she would be waiting on line with a check, that precious slip of paper in her hand. She would take the money from the bank teller in one swift move as if someone was going to steal it from her and then she would move over to the side and count the bills, slipping them into a small envelope the way she would place a pillow in a pillow case. Those dollars were freedom. We could afford an evening meal at McDonald’s.

Although I can now afford a navy suit and a briefcase, I refuse to spend the money. Without knowing it, I am hoarding. I don’t believe this is going to last so I need to keep every penny for when I wake up from the dream.

~

Several times a month, people visit the editorial board. Sometimes they are invited; sometimes they have lobbied to meet with the board. Sometimes it’s the person’s chance to talk about their issue; sometimes it’s the board members who have asked to hear their perspective.

Cookies and coffee are served and we show up with notepads and pens. If it’s an extremely important person like the head of the FBI or an academic who wrote a new book about the economy, lunch is served.

It is during one of these visits that I find myself meeting Mr. Alvaro Uribe.

For months now my mother’s kitchen has been plagued with Mr. Uribe’s name. Colombians in Jersey and Queens and Florida and other areas of the diaspora were able to vote for him in the presidential election and my aunties have been anxious. Will Mr. Uribe be able to do anything, however small, to end the civil war that’s plagued Colombia since the sixties? The answer, of course, is no. It takes a movement of people to end violence, not a lone man, but people being people and aunties being aunties, they fantasize about being rescued.

Mr. Uribe comes from a wealthy family. Young and educated at Harvard and Oxford, he’s promising to be Colombia’s Rudy Giuliani. He is vowing law and order in a country known for drug cartels, magical realism, and the kidnapping of gringos. His own father was killed by the so-called rebel groups who are now better described as drug traffickers and Mr. Uribe is rumored to have ties to the paramilitaries, the privately funded armies who massacre civilians.

But in the editorial conference room on the tenth floor, Mr. Uribe hardly looks like someone privy to murders. He could be one of my uncles, a small man stuffed into a suit and not permitted, for the moment, to drink whiskey or curse in front of company. He proclaims that the coffee is not very good and then he makes a little speech about his Giuliani-style plan and takes questions. It dawns on me that he is here because he has to be like when my mother and tías would force me to leave the books in my bedroom and meet their friends in the kitchen.

“Many Colombians in the States are hoping for temporary protection status,” I note. “Will you take up that issue?”

“They voted for me so I have to ask for it.” His lips curve into a small sneer.

Later in the day, it occurs to me that for the first time I met someone who may be responsible for the murders of many people and I asked him a polite question.

~

It is a custom in Latino families like mine that you live at home until you marry. Even if you go away to college, which I didn’t, you still come home when you are done.

I have already broken this rule once, going to live with a boyfriend at nineteen. But the moment the relationship failed, about a year later, I returned home. Now at twenty-seven, I am ready to leave. This time permanently. I just have to deliver the news.

In the kitchen, my parents and tía are watching the noticias. It is evening and everyone is done with dinner. My father is drinking his beer. The window shades are still drawn and the world outside is dark. The voices of children playing in yards and on the streets come up to our windows in bursts of little firecrackers.

“I’m going to live in the city,” I announce.

Everyone turns their heads toward me. No one speaks. Then my father looks back at the television and my mother and auntie do the same. I wait for some questions but they don’t come. Not then. They come the next day and the one after that: Is it a safe place? Are you sure? You’ll be closer to work, yes, but…

They want to argue with me but they can’t. I have married the best man I could possibly find—the New York Times—and we all know it.

My mother and tía go with me to buy spoons and forks, a Brita water filter and curtains with flowers. They help me set up the apartment, a tiny studio on the Upper East Side that’s about the size of the bedroom I shared with my sister growing up in Jersey. When they leave, I am left with myself in a way that feels new. I am on my own for the first time in my life. My very own place. I have the sensation of having escaped a burning building. I have a job. A good job. And my own illegal sublet. I am paying my rent and groceries and not doing it by working at a factory or cleaning toilets.

~

The New York Times building has windows like a cathedral’s: tall, large, indulgent with how much sunlight they permit indoors. I walk up to the fourteenth floor one afternoon and stare out a closed window, mesmerized that Manhattan can actually be reduced to a miniature city, that the millions of feet and voices cannot be seen or heard from here but are nevertheless in perpetual motion.

I love the quiet here, the space to contemplate how quickly perspective can be changed, to wonder how a man like Uribe who loses his father makes peace with grief, to think about what a man on the editorial board said to me: “I bet no one else has written for this editorial page whose parents didn’t speak English.”

In a few weeks’ time it will be the first anniversary of Sept. 11 and with it will come the rush of memory, of women and men who—hundreds of feet above the city—stepped into the sky that morning to escape the heat and the twisting metal and the violence of not choosing their last moments.

But before the anniversary, about two weeks before, a white man from the Times, a business editor, will look out a window like this one. He will be up one more flight of stairs and maybe he will wonder about the sky and the city and perspective. Or maybe not. The pain by then will be squeezing at him too much. He will prop open the window, place his face to the city air, and step into the sky himself.

~

Mr. Flaco is curious to hear what I might want to write about a new report showing that boys are being left behind in education. Nervous, I stumble through my pitch about how it’s not all boys. It is black boys and teenagers. “Racism,” I begin, “has, you know, shaped the expectations the kids have of themselves and that teachers have of them.”

“What’s going to be your recommendation?” he asks, a smile at his lips. “Tell teachers to raise their self esteem?”

I force a smile and stare at the carpet. He continues.

“What’s remarkable is that when you look across socioeconomic levels, black boys consistently do badly in school. It doesn’t matter if they are living in Westchester or Harlem.”

The air around me grows thin, choking.

“By comparison,” he says, “Chinese kids do well in school even when they just got here yesterday.” He chuckles. He grins. “It’s like it’s genetic.”

I glance at him to make sure he is really here in the room with me, that he has actually said those words. I don’t expect to see the smiling face of the skinny man I have known for two months. Surely his words have distorted him, have made him into something ugly and horrible, a monster.

But no such thing has happened. He is still the same man with the skinny face and a high-up job at an important institution. A Mr. Uribe. He smiles at me.

~

In Times Square, the taxis blare, the trucks screech, the tourists squeal and position themselves for photos. It’s August and the air is thick with humidity and the grease of hotdogs being sold by street vendors. I stare at the crowds of tourists pointing their cameras at each other and then up at the billboards. They have come from all parts of the country and the world to be here under these towering ads and bright lights, and as I watch them I begin to consider that maybe I don’t want to be here.

It’s not because of Mr. Flaco the Racist. Or Mr. Uribe the Killer.

It’s not about them as individuals. It’s about…here my mind pauses. The streets vibrate with people, too many people, and the billboards tower over us with white faces, white smiles, white summer cotton, and I find that I don’t have the words. All I know is that as much as I want to leave, I can’t.

This is my big opportunity, the moment I have been preparing for my whole life. People like me, from the community I come from, we don’t just get to work at the New York Times. Rosa Parks sat down, Martin Luther King Jr. stood up, and my parents paid for Catholic high school so I could be here. Whatever I do, I can’t say no. I have to say yes, yes, and yes again.

When Gail asks if I want to pursue this journalism business, I say yes and I find myself with a year-long internship on the third floor reporting for the metro desk.

~

Newsrooms are set up like mazes.

It is an endless series of desks and television screens and everywhere you turn is another white man. You are meant to be the intern who gets lost and can’t find the elevators, or at least I am. Looking out across the third floor, I see only receding hairlines, white foreheads and bushy eyebrows. Somewhere in that I am supposed to find an editor with a name like Bob or Jennifer. Locating my new desk amid the clacking of keyboards and droning of television news, becomes my accomplishment that first week.

It doesn’t take long though to see that I am missing a crucial asset: a talent for talking to white men.

I have a good deal of experience with white women. I learned their mannerisms right alongside lessons in English, algebra, and chemistry. If I count my entire schooling starting with kindergarten, that’s nineteen years of studying white women. It’s easy now to make small talk with them. I nod sympathetically about children, inquire about their favorite movies, commiserate about the morning commute.

But white men are different.

After two weeks in the newsroom, I see that talking to white men boils down to a crude combination of cracking jokes about children and the morning commute, referring to sports teams and events at random, and imparting snide comments about this book or that article. It is especially impressive if you can comment on something buried deep in a news story since everyone knows that no one actually reads the story to the end. Talking to white men then has a pattern, a set of rules, but try as I might, I can’t learn it. My mind blanks when they joke with me. I find myself nodding, forcing a smile and looking the other way, hoping they will leave me alone.

What’s worse is that I have absolute no instinct for reporting. None.

“Here’s a news release,” an editor tells me. “I need copy by three.”

I nod, sit at my computer, and look at the paper. Something about a food-borne illness. I stare at the words and wonder what I’m supposed to do.

Writing an opinion, even a stiff editorial, comes easily to me. My mind immediately reaches for questions, important points, people to interview. But reporting produces in me a condition akin to stage fright. My body freezes, my mind stares at a blank white wall. Even though I’m doing exactly what I would do on the tenth floor with the editorial department, here on the third floor without the option of forming an opinion, I have to remind myself of what to do: make calls, summarize, send to editor, wait.

After that first story, I’m sent to get quotes from people on the street about an increase in subway fares. Then, I’m sent to get quotes from people on the street about the mayor’s new idea to ban loud noises. Then, I’m sent to Brooklyn where a fire has killed a black child. Then, the governor’s going to show up at a Latino event and I’m sent to get a reaction. Eight hours become ten, eleven, twelve. The copyeditors call at seven, eight, even nine at night.

In the morning, I board the subway exhausted. I spot that day’s paper in someone’s hands. A small thrill comes into my heart. Someone is about to read one of my stories. But the woman scans the headlines, flips the pages, and then folds the paper and puts it in her bag.

That’s it. Twelve hours of work—by hundreds of reporters, stringers, editors, copyeditors, designers, and delivery men—were considered for a total of five seconds by a white woman on the number 6 train.

I meet humility for the first time and I hate it.

~

One of the young reporters at the paper decides that we need to meet with veteran reporters for informal conversations about the trade. This is her code for “I’m trying to move up in the paper,” and the rest of us agree that it’s a good idea. Someone from the powers-that-be at the paper says we can meet on the fourteenth floor where the big private events happen.

I arrive early. I want to enjoy the quiet here, the cathedral windows, the sense that the city and even the newsroom with its ringing phones and chatty television screens are at a distance.

The veteran reporter steps into the room. He’s an older man with a kind voice and gentle smile. We say hello but then his eyebrows furrow. He’s staring at a door off to the side of the room. “Is the stairwell through there?” he asks.

“I think so.”

He’s lost now in his own world as he walks over and props the door open. I follow him. In the stairwell, he pauses at one of the windows, mentions the editor, the white man who killed himself, and grows silent.

The window here is dusty, viejo, and yet a golden light filters through the pane. It’s late in the afternoon and the light bathes the parapets of the building, the stairwell, and even, I suppose, the place where the man met his final moment. The older reporter stares out the window, inspects the window frame, sighs deeply, and I begin to understand that I believed the TV shows I watched as a child. I believed bad things didn’t happen to white people, not in places like this. But now here is the window, the man grieving, the light golden and punishing.

~

While I’m reporting for the Times, my father is spending his days in the basement where he’s made a little home for himself apart from the family. He has his beer, his radio, even a mattress so he can take naps. He has set up a shower for himself.

Somewhere in this basement are letters from Cuba, probably still tucked in their envelopes with murmurs from relatives of how difficult things are there, of what size shoe so-and-so needs and the prescription for someone’s glasses. Here too in cardboard boxes are the orishas hidden. My father does his praying here in the basement and his drinking too. At night, he joins my mother upstairs for the evening news and dinner.

I am afraid of finding him dead in the basement one day.

Already, the basement has been the site of accidents. It is here that too drunk to stand up, my father fell and cut his head open and we had to rush him to the emergency room. But there is no use trying to get him out of the basement. It is a blessing that he leaves it for visits to have Doctor Goldstein check his blood pressure.

During one such visit, my father asks me about the New York Times, how I am doing. I brave a moment of intimacy, confiding that I am not enjoying the work. He stays quiet and looks at the gray floor. He’s sitting on the exam table, dressed in his usual dark jeans, construction boots and flannel button down shirt over a white Hanes T-shirt. I am sitting in the chair reserved for parents or partners and I figure Papi is not going to say more. He’s a man of few words. But just then he says, “¿Tu piensas que a mi me gusta mi trabajo? A mi no me gusta mi trabajo. Tu mama tampoco.”

That is what I record in my journal that night: “Do you think I like my work? I don’t like my work. Your mother doesn’t like hers either.”

When Dr. Goldstein comes in, I begin moving back and forth between Spanish and English admonishments: stop drinking, stop smoking, eat more vegetables, more fruits, like maybe oranges.

“Oranges?” my father exclaims in Spanish. “No, that’s all I ate in Cuba, only oranges. No oranges.”

The doctor and I look at each other. After so many years of working in our community, Doctor Goldstein knows like I do that there’s no use in arguing against memory.

Neither do I disagree with my father about whether or not a person should have work they enjoy. But the next morning, I notice I have a hard time getting out of bed. Not an impossible time. Just a heaviness about me, as if the air itself were an open hand holding me down.

~

It’s a cool night in November and I’m walking on the Upper East Side, past doormen and women in three-inch heels hailing cabs and men in their fifties walking dogs the size of pillowcases. I am, as usual, lost in my inner world. I am contemplating a conversation or rewriting an article or wondering about the origin of three-inch heels. I am acutely aware of the streets in Manhattan, of the way darkness never wins here, not even at night, but is always kept at bay by street lamps and the bobbing headlights of taxis and limos and buses. The city is a blitz of lights and sounds and smells but I have learned to shut it out, to be in my own quiet place.

Tonight, however, is different.

Tonight, I turn a corner and the city yanks me from my inner world in one swift moment. Fifty feet up in the air is Kermit the Frog and Charlie Brown and Barney and Dora the Explorer, their bellies nearly touching the top of the street lamps, their fingers reaching to tap the windows of high rise buildings, their inflated balloon bodies covering the stretch of the Manhattan street.

It’s the night before Thanksgiving Day and the balloons are being prepared for their annual walk in the Macy’s parade. It’s the sort of the thing that can only happen in New York, not the balloons but finding them around the corner, the way they make even this city feel small, insignificant. It feels magical, bizarre too, how the world can contain all of this, the plastic smile of a green frog, the memories and the oranges, the dead white man.

~

Editors were invented for several reasons, one of which is to torture interns.

It’s a metro editor who decides that interns will spend time on the police beat helping to cover New York City’s homicides, rapes, and robberies. The work mostly involves chatting with white police officers in charge of information they won’t give you unless the two of you get along and they consider you something of a person they’d want to have a beer with. To say that I’m terrible at this would be putting it kindly.

The rest of the work, at least for me, involves watching a veteran reporter with reddish curls call the families of crime victims and say in a mournful tone, “I’m sorry for your loss. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”

I stare at him the first few times, and when it’s no longer polite to stare, I pretend to read online while listening to him. He sounds genuine and compassionate during every phone call. He modulates the tone of his voice and I note how his English is comforting the way a hand-rolled cigar feels, as if the earth has been gathered up, made compact, held steady. His voice reaches out to the other person, yes, but it also allows for mutual silence and then directs back to the questions, the information that’s needed, the interview.

Then, the call is over, the moment has passed, and he’s on to other calls, detectives, cops, higher ups, and he’s issuing orders because another paper caught a piece of information we didn’t, and I’m off to the Bronx for a story about a young man named Buddha who killed a boy on the twelfth floor of an apartment building.

The hierarchy of pain has nuances.

Buddha’s killing and his arrest are a story because the victim was a child. If the child had been a few years older, if he had been not a child but instead a young black man, the editor would have said, “Victim and perp knew each other,” which is the preferred way to explain that black men killing each other is not news.

But Buddha murdered a child and he did so three days after Christmas, on a day when the news was slow.

He’s in jail. Buddha. It’s his mother I am after. Me and reporters and stringers for local newspapers. I interview the neighbors, note the holiday decorations (Peace and Joy), listen to the speculations. The district attorney’s office will verify that the young man was called Buddha because he was tall and fat, that three days after Christmas, Buddha was bruised, not his body, but somewhere else. His heart or his ego. Another man, another tall, fat black man, had teased Buddha. Words were thrust back and forth between them, threatened to erupt into fists, into gunshots, but the women stepped in. The girlfriends. And the air grew if not calm then at least hesitant.

It didn’t last. The hesitancy.

Buddha followed him, not the tall, fat man, but the man’s little cousin, thirteen-year-old Brandon. In an elevator, Buddha towered over the youngster, and while boasting of how he planned to hurt the other man, his mirror image, Buddha thrust little Brandon against the wall of the elevator and shot him in the head.

The elevator reached the twelfth floor. It was after midnight. The door must have opened then, mechanically, indifferent.

Now the elevator door creaks open and Buddha’s mother steps into the narrow hallway. She’s pushing a shopping cart off the elevator. It has two six packs of beer. She refuses to talk to us as she opens the door to her apartment. She’s a heavy black woman with colorless eyes and deep lines set in her face and my first thought is that no one is going to tell her story, the story of how she probably falls asleep at night in front of the television with a can of beer still open, just like my father, how she raised a family here so many hundreds of feet above the Bronx, how she mothered a boy nicknamed Buddha. I wonder what stories she tells herself.

There are also the other stories, the ones about how these neighborhoods were set up, how white men decided where black families should live, how it came to be that Buddha grew up in a place where you carry a gun to come and go from home and kill a boy who looks like a younger version of yourself.

I don’t have words for these other stories, just the feeling of them inside of me like pebbles piled at the corner of a child’s desk.

~

There must have been more than one. I can’t remember the other one, but there must have been at least one other black reporter in the newsroom at the New York Times besides Jayson Blair. When I think back to that time though, to the spring of 2003, I can only see Jayson.

He had been an intern once like me. Now, he is writing front page stories for the paper. Stories about war veterans from Iraq. I haven’t figured out if he’s quiet and withdrawn because he’s brilliant or if something is wrong with him. The fact that he wears long sweaters instead of shirts and ties unsettles me. It isn’t the sort of thing a white man would do, let alone a young black man. I keep wanting to tuck his shirt in. I tease him once or twice about being short. He’s polite but clearly not humored and I leave him alone.

It turns out though that he has good reason to keep to himself. Jayson is drinking, lying, and plagiarizing his stories. Front page stories.

“Did you hear?” another intern asks me.

I nod. “Crazy.” I figure the paper will run an apology and move on.

But there isn’t an apology. The story unravels. The anxieties of white people, the ones kept behind private doors, burst and the other newspapers report them: Jayson only got as far as he did because he’s black. A fellow intern comes up to me, irritated. “Why are people thinking it’s okay to say racist shit in front of me?”

She’s holding a cup of coffee. We both glance across the newsroom, across the cubicles, the tops of people’s heads. I have no way, none really, of knowing who in the room is a Mr. Flaco, and this is part of the agreement I made by working here, that people of color make over and over again when they enter PWIs (predominantly white institutions). We don’t know who in the room is an idiot. We don’t know who harbors doubts about our capacity to think and work and write.

Jayson, meanwhile, is rumored to be shut away in his apartment, and as a friend of mine puts it, the white people do what they always do when they get nervous. They call a meeting.

~

The meeting is held on 44th Street, in a theater. I get in line along with hundreds of white reporters and administrative staff and editors. The executive editor and managing editor and publisher sit before us on a stage. They’re going to explain what happened.

Sort of.

There isn’t an easy way to explain that someone who was mentally unstable managed to get a job at the world’s most recognized newspaper and snuck lies past more than one or two or even three editors. I sit in the audience and inspect my identification card. I don’t like sports where a person is put in a ring to be beat up. Besides no one is going to talk about race. Not in an honest way.

But I’m wrong.

The executive editor has the mic. He’s from the South, he reminds us, a place where a man has to choose where he stands on race. “Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama with those convictions, gave him one chance too many….”

I wince and I pray that he won’t go there. I pray that he won’t go there because if he does it will not be pretty. It will not be understood by the hundreds of white people in the theater.

But he goes there.

Did he, as a white man from Alabama, give a young black man too many chances?

“When I look into my own heart for the truth of that,” he says, “the answer is yes.”

I walk out of the theater.

~

It’s been eight years since that day in the theater and I’m thinking again about the hierarchy of pain, about a white man admitting to his own people that he cared about the black community, that he thought he could single-handedly change a hierarchy. I’m thinking about the whiteness of the news organization and how that whiteness reproduced itself with every hire, every promotion, but how that is not a scandal.

He left, the editor. He was fired and the metro editor—a white man who once told me that community-based organizations, the ones helping poor people of color, were no longer relevant—was hailed as a savior because he had tried to stop Jayson from writing for the paper.

~

A week or so after the theater meeting, I meet the Jourdans.

The Jourdans are Haitians. They came to New York City one by one over the course of thirty years: Patrick, Paul, Cosner. They knew that life would be easier the closer they lived to white Americans. They earned their money; they sent it back home. They brought another brother, a sister and a young cousin. Together, some of them with spouses, they shared the basement apartment and second floor of a two story home in Brooklyn.

They learned to have familial love by telephone calls. Like my aunties, they probably bought the wallet-size phone cards and used pennies to scratch the personal identification numbers. The Jourdans probably called the 1-800 number and an automated woman’s voice asked them for the PIN and then told them how much money they had to call Aquin, their home town, how much time they had with the people they loved.

Maybe that’s what Cosner Jourdan did on Saturdays. He walked the neighborhood most days, making friends and talking. At sixty-six, he had diabetes and had retired from factory work. He had been in Brooklyn for ten years and he took care of two trees outside of his basement apartment. He had friends, people who loved him. Cosner was a hero of the everyday variety.

On the night of May 29, 2003, however, a fire breaks out around three in the morning. It rips through the basement apartment. The smoke spreads to the other floors and the brothers, their spouses, sister and young cousin flee to the streets. But not Cosner. He dies in the basement from smoke inhalation.

Because his death happens on a day when the news is slow, the story catches the attention of my editor and I am sent there along with reporters from other papers. We all scribble the pertinent facts: Cosner’s age, the names of the brothers, the cause of death. The other reporters leave the scene in a matter of minutes having deduced that there is no news. I see the same thing but something keeps me in place.

Perhaps it is the basement.

Layers of soot cover the basement, including a bicycle and shopping cart. Hours after the fire, it feels uncomfortable to breathe inside the building. I sit with the Jourdan brothers on the front stoop as friends and neighbors come by. They speak in Creole about the night and Cosner’s death. I listen mostly. I ask a few questions from time to time. I watch the sadness on the faces of Cosner’s brothers and the people who loved him.

The day is hot; sweat coats my back and drenches my button down shirt. In his last moments, did Cosner dream of his father, of his homeland? Did he wake up and think it was his father’s birthday that day, that the old man was turning ninety-eight and what would he say when he received the news? His son dead.

~

Remembering now that day with the Jourdans, I think: we were not meant to be here. We were not meant to die underground engulfed in smoke. Not Cosner, not any of us. The death of a Haitian man is not some accident in the middle of the night but that is how it is reported. It’s how I reported it.

I wish I had saved my reporting notes from that day, but I threw them out. I discarded them because it was perhaps that day sitting in the thick heat of a Brooklyn summer with the Jourdans that I began to feel a cracking inside of me.

I had first read that word “cracking” in an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay called “Crack-Up.” I didn’t know much about his writing, only that he had become a writer and earned a lot of money and did not live in basements. Everyone had told me as a child that I would be like Fitzgerald one day without the booze and early death. I would do more with my life than work to pay the rent. I would write and in writing I would help people.

But sitting in Brooklyn surrounded by the somber faces of Haitian men and the smell of soot, it begins to seem that things are not going to turn out as people said they would, as my parents hoped for, as I wanted. At least not at this newspaper, not now. I need time away to find words for what I am seeing, for the grief and the killings, for the whiteness of the third floor and the tenth, even for the people who wake up each day and help to keep a hierarchy in place because they are afraid.

~

The bravest thing a woman can say is “I don’t know.” That’s my answer when my family asks what I am going to do with my life if I am leaving the New York Times.

I don’t know.

They give me blank faces and some of my friends give me sympathetic looks the way you do when someone is about to file for divorce and you really liked both people in the marriage and you feel sad and wonder what it says about life that two good people couldn’t make it work. I force myself to smile, eat dark chocolate, and say, I don’t know.

~

My last months at the newspaper are a blur of reporting and long hours. When a blackout hits that August, the city is without cell phones or computers or subways and Manhattan turns into a small town. People start walking home. They laugh and curse and eat ice cream at the deli before it melts and I interview people at the Lincoln Tunnel trying to get rides to New Jersey. An old man hollers, “East Orange! South Orange! Any Orange!”

I find myself smiling. Maybe it’s perfectly acceptable to not know what’s going to happen next in life. I walk back to the office in Times Square, where editors are frantically shouting into phones and I file my story on the man and the oranges. It’s after eight or nine when I start the walk home to my little studio on the Upper East Side.

Times Square is silent. It’s not an absence of sound but of color, of lights. The darkened billboards loom like empty picture frames. I squint my eyes to adjust to the dark. At Grand Central Station, I can barely make out the grown men in suits stretched out on the sidewalk, their heads on their brief cases, fast asleep, because they can’t get trains home tonight. The only lights are from the taxis, from the city buses which groan past me, their doors open, people teetering from the steps.

There is comfort in walking through Manhattan when it has been flung into darkness. There is humility, some brief quietness, and I find that I am not afraid or confused or maybe it’s just that when those feelings rise up, I am focused on my feet, on where the sidewalk ends and where it begins and on the headlights of the buses which help me make out the street signs and find my way home.

 


As in the best creative nonfiction, the author of “Blackout” casts an unwavering eye on personal experience, and, by doing so, comments on a wider world – in this case that of racial politics. This essay never preaches; instead, it reveals its universal message metaphorically and, by the end, with grace.
—Sue William Silverman, 2011 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judge


I Got So Much Love, I Don’t Know Where to Put it

Taken from the ancient city of Pompeii

(In the basilica): Let everyone one in love come and see.  I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins.  If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club?—Anonymous

 (On the walls of a tomb): Greetings to Primigenia of Nuceria.  I would wish to become a signet ring for no more than an hour, so that I might give you kisses dispatched with your signature.—Anonymous

(House of Orpheus): I have buggered men—Anonymous

~

My name is written on a bathroom wall at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, Illinois. I put it there. The words appear in blue highlighter (earlier attempts with a ballpoint pen were unsuccessful, the numbers and images wouldn’t take to the surface, not to mention the thinness of the marking, the lack of visibility). The image is the focal point of the otherwise unmarked wall—this stain, this unauthorized addition, commanding attention among the Muzak piped in through the speakers in the ceiling, the immaculate tile and faux-gold fixtures.

My name is written on a bathroom wall at an Oasis rest stop: highway overpass turned Mecca of convenience, souvenirs, greasy food: a necessary break from traffic, a place to stretch your legs while standing over eight lanes of interstate, spreading and distributing its passengers into the tributaries of suburbs across northern Illinois. The stall is constructed in metal sheets overlaid with a diamond pattern, making writing next to impossible, meticulously designed to obstruct this type of behavior. I keep at it long enough to make the words stick. It is beautiful: the reflective material holding the ghost of color; my design taking on the criss-cross characteristics of the uneven terrain, words illegible against the stainless steel finish.

My name is written in black, though sometimes green, sometimes both. Wherever I go I leave a trace: an image, a casual obscenity, a message to anyone. Lately, I’ve been fighting the desire to get increasingly personal, to write my email, my phone number, my home address.

~

I am collecting photos of my favorite latrinalia. The term, a shorthand for the study of graffiti etched onto bathroom walls, was coined by folklorist Allen Dundes when shithouse poetry didn’t quite encompass the content outside of verse or poetic form. The best among them are pre-meditated works: the type where the stall occupant has the foresight to bring a marker or other device, puts the necessary time into thought and composition. Think of the elaborate drawings that must have taken minutes to create: I’ve encountered intricate murals throughout the art buildings at the university I attend, Melville quotes next to Afroman lyrics in the English department restroom, the compulsion to draw or compose or argue politics unchanged as I venture across the campus and disciplines. Some phrases are written on the stall door or high on the wall: content not created while the creator is using the restroom, but composed before or after or even without ever using the facilities. Consider location, the increasing risk of being caught in the act: words above open area urinals or sinks, places where the writer could easily be spotted. Consider instrument: those among us who don’t have a writing utensil but actually scratch their words into paint. Such a serious commitment to the written word—even if the word is a poorly etched “SHIT” where the rounded curves of the S are constructed in straight lines and corners.

I usually stick to text: revision work or quotations from books or poems. Occasionally I go for anthropomorphization: a door handle mouth, a coat hanger turned into the nose of a poorly drawn face. If I do draw, it consists of a single image, the only thing I’m capable of sketching with any real consistency: the image of a cartoon snail. I’m trying to place it everywhere, hoping others pick up the design and begin using it themselves.

There’s value in these images and words, and in the unknown writers who make them. I get the feeling that these writers, like the art they are creating, have little chance of gaining any real recognition.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find a case of famous latrinalia. Other than the “Here I Sit” variations, there isn’t a singular symbol for the genre, no Kilroy appearing inside countless airplane fuselages, no iconic Banksy and his more accepted street graffiti. Street grafitti brings up a different set of emotions because of its connection to gang territory and the defilement of larger, more communal spaces. Reactions are more forceful when the vandalism can be shared with a large number of people, when outrage or admiration can be accumulated into some kind of action: anti-graffiti alliances or a neighborhood watch, the ban on spray paint sales to minors that was easily circumvented in my teenage years.

But when the same image or message is encountered in the bathroom, in a brief moment of privacy in public, during the loneliness that comes when we’re most vulnerable, there’s no outlet for expressing disgust or amazement. Instead, your thoughts and responses resonate in the mind; the ideas are given a more serious consideration, a mounting head of steam. Or you release it: take to the wall, revise or augment, the art becoming communal—a vandalism of a vandalism. You are drawn into this pre-wiki conversation. What other writing has this kind of power?

~

In Dundes’ article, “Here I Sit—A Study of American Latrinalia,” he puzzles his way through the psychological motivations that could explain the craft: the author’s desire to participate in the taboo, both in the act of vandalism and the messages themselves, which often include subversive language or reference subversive acts. As the article progresses Dundes gets increasingly Freudian, suggesting a primitive smearing impulse from our anal psychosexual stages, meaning that we are losing filth and therefore must create our own to sustain homeostasis; that, in the case of men, there is an ever-increasing pregnancy envy, that our inability to produce life drives our masculine desires to always be producing, creating legacy, writing or drawing something that allows us to leave our mark or stain upon the world.

We want a space that appears to be clean, that we can pretend has not been used before. We like hygiene, cleanliness. But latrinalia reminds us that someone else has put this space to use in a way we don’t often discuss. It creates a trace of use, a history, a new space for publication and expression. It creates a space where we may never be alone, where our companions are unknowable.

A study of restrooms at an unnamed west coast university concludes that the main themes of latrinalia are sex, relationships and drugs.  More often than not the writing comes across as angry, confrontational. We know that thousands of people out there are so desperate to let out some kind of thought they must scrawl it on the side of a bathroom stall. Location matters, particularly to this kind of writing: the stall minimizes the risk of getting caught, a rare instance of public privacy, a crime that can be safely committed and widely noticed, which is to say that it’s pretty fucking great. Names are sometimes attached, taking away from the anonymity, the classic “X Wuz Here,” though there’s no possible way of knowing that X actually wrote anything. The anonymity of the act means it cannot be trusted and is therefore liberating. There’s no baggage connected to the work, no history or biography outside of what appears on the wall, no fact checking or calls for a second draft. The absence of authorship makes it democratic, somehow less offensive than it would be in a more public context. You can (and I would argue, should) write anything here.

~

My name is written on the walls of a Caribou Coffee, on the walls of a hundred coffee shops across the Midwest. All lined in tile—the smell of antiseptic cleaner, of roasted grounds.

~

I spent a significant amount of last summer writing researched articles on cosmetics and skin disease. Each article was written with a contractually obligated inviting tone, with clear and casual language that can be easily understood in a single reading, with sentences that are not overly long or riddled with clauses or unusual punctuation. These articles—the product of most of my writing time and creative energies—do not bear my name, nor the names of my fellow writers on the project, but are ascribed to a person who does not exist.

Ghostwriting requires a skewed sense of authorship. It allows us to disconnect from the words we compose, to attribute them to someone else, to no longer worry how the work reflects on us as authors or people. While David LeGault may know nothing about scabies, my alias John Barrymore certainly does.  In my case, the job allowed me certain liberties that I don’t encounter in my creative work: a disregard for the beauty of language and sentence structure, a specific set of topics and talking points to explore in a paint-by-numbers template, an editor to take care of the grammatical pitfalls I so often fall into. It was publication without pressure, a fictional persona inserted into the nonfiction form. What’s not to love?

Most writers I’ve questioned disdain the form: they say that authors writing trashy romance novels under pseudonyms lack integrity, that celebrity memoirs aren’t written so much as dictated. They don’t like that mediocre writing can gain more attention or acclaim based on a well-known “author’s” name. They don’t want to read three new Danielle Steele novels every year; they’d rather read a Tom Clancy novel than a novel from “Tom Clancy’s” series.

But I believe there’s more to it than that. Ghostwriting strikes at the author’s deepest insecurities: the writer feels threatened because it’s clear that what we believe to be a unique style or voice can easily be faked or emulated. That a good deal of writing can be broken down into formulaic patterns of sentence structure and organization. That, just maybe, our words are not as profound as we had hoped.

~

My name is written in the Masonic temple in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Such storied history, such lovely architecture! O, what it means to take my place in this impressive structure, this inner most sanctum!

~

Or maybe this is another case of me making everything about words and their necessary weight, me spending too much time thinking about nonfiction, its implications of truth and infallibility. Because all stories, even those based on fact, are sliced and shaped and structured out of the greater whole of reality. More simply, we live in a world made out of more than words, so how could words possibly represent its entirety? Heat can be described, but not felt, not on the page. A description puts an image in the mind, one that may even move and inspire, but it’s still an image, a reality that does not exist outside of the self. At best, our literature is a chipped-away imitation of the truth, a vandalism of sorts.

So when someone writes “I’m Gay!” on a wall, and another hand writes “Me too!” underneath it, can I believe these words, the world they inhabit? May I call this memoir? Fiction? Does it even matter?

All writing, especially nonfiction, calls to mind the avatar: a character representation, a constructed persona that (sometimes) approaches truth. It’s liberating, really, to understand there’s no way to represent every thought or memory. I can’t even adequately present all of my thoughts surrounding latrinalia. All the photos in the world couldn’t give an accurate account of the genre or of this narrator without omitting something from the frame. The persona is nothing more than a technique, a way to communicate a part of myself to you.

These issues don’t come up in fiction, at least not with the same type of intensity: as readers we allow our focus to shift from the realness (which we understand to be hopeless) to the story itself, to the beauty of language, to the ideas and characters. We may get caught up in a particular writer’s style or character voice, but we don’t require the same scrutiny or verifiable fact we ask for in nonfiction. We separate story from the person writing it.

If we want to better connect with our literature, we must separate the words from both person and persona, find truth in ideas and not their source, bask in the anonymous. And what better model for this than the bathroom wall?

Latrinalia is rare in that it exists completely outside of our typical definitions of genre: its truth-factor cannot be verified, would not pass any Wikipedia test of credibility, so it’s processed in the way that makes the most sense to its audience. The audience experiences a sense of joy that comes when interacting with the unknown writer: we could literally be connecting with anyone. We could be reading confessions, stories, or lies. Maybe this is crazy, but for me, there’s love in this potential relationship with everyone around me, the possibility of infinite kindred spirit.

~

 Amy’s phone number is (715) 790-6339, written on the wall of a Cenex gas station men’s room somewhere in the long stretch of highways crisscrossing northern Wisconsin. Here’s what we know: based on area code, Amy could conceivably live anywhere in the northern half of the state. We know Amy has a friend or enemy (presumably male) who wrote her name and number on the wall, unless of course she wrote it herself. We also know that when we call this number, it goes straight to voicemail, where a message tells us “Hey it’s Scott. Leave me a message,” then we hear a beep and quickly end the call. Here’s where we ask ourselves: Is this really Amy’s number? Did the writer give us the incorrect digits? Does Amy share a phone line? Is the whole thing a hoax? Is Amy Scott’s girlfriend? Wife? Daughter? Does Amy even exist?

My guess is that the number was written by one of Scott’s friends, trying to piss him off if and when anyone calls for Amy. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Amy changed her number and I’ve waited too long to call.  Maybe Scott is lonely, longs for the ringing of his telephone, and puts Amy’s name because more people will call for a woman. Maybe Scott feels constricted by who he is, by the choices he’s made or continues to make, creates new selves as a temporary escape. Maybe Amy is an alter ego, a persona or performance he likes to enact. Maybe Scott is into role reversals, gender ambiguity, something kinky. This is the mystery of the wall, the necessary disconnect between the written word and reality, the imagined possibilities more powerful than anything Scott or Amy or I could ever provide.

~

In a different realm of creation and legacy, new technologies are constantly emerging, impeding the efforts of potential latrinalia artists: specially engineered paints and polymers forming chemical bonds that don’t allow graffiti to dry to a surface; wall partitions overlaid with stainless steel diamond patterns that resist paint and scratching; chalkboards that offer a simple, erasable alternative to ink and wall. Imagine, as you read this, there are engineers at American Polymer, U.S. Coating Solutions, countless other businesses of patriotic chemistry, designing paints that seal away our porous walls! That make the ink of your Sharpie bead like a Rain-X’d windshield! And these innovations aren’t exclusive to the restroom. There are countless products designed to prohibit inappropriate use: I’m thinking of the thin strips of metal bolted to nearly every railing in my city’s streets and parks that prevent skateboarders from grinding the surface, the metal angles welded to the concrete under overpasses to discourage the homeless from sleeping in the relative cover.

It’s worth mentioning that all of these technologies exist to deny privilege or access, and in the case of latrinalia prevention, it may be actively preventing a person or entire subset of our culture from expressing opinion or any kind of communication to a larger audience. At its core, latrinalia is a form of self-publication: an expression of the powerless. Latrine artists express frustration, anger. They long to send a message, and do so anonymously because their names do not matter. To the world they are ghosts, and I worry what will happen if these voices speak no more.

I don’t think I need to worry, though. The performers of latrinalia are committed to further subversion. I recently encountered a chalkboard in a restroom where, rather than using the chalk, someone scratched the word FUCK directly into the granite, which must have taken a serious amount of time and effort. Perhaps the latrinaliast writes precisely because it’s not allowed, because of the power inherent in the act. Graffiti subscribes to that pry-my-gun-from-my-cold-dead-hands mentality that we all occasionally possess. We like control, at least the illusion of it. We want to be part of a powerful minority, to mark our territory by repurposing the otherwise ignored wall. By being the first to mark a wall, we make it our own. By being the second, we challenge the authority of the first. This is probably the same reason we try to guess user passwords online, the same reason we climb over chain-link fences and through broken windows. The same reason I recently purchased a key for the switchless lights used in so many school buildings and shopping malls, the reason I sometimes can’t resist the urge to fill these spaces with darkness.

~

CHEAP SEX can be acquired by dialing (507) 401-6891, according to the second stall in the men’s room of the Eau Claire Travel Center in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. When I call, an operator tells me this number does not exist.

~

Or maybe latrinalia is a dying form: the powerless voice finding new outlets in Internet anonymity: the message board, the avatar, the ability to take on a persona, attached to a name that is not our own, and write whatever shit we want. Sites like 4chan and Wikipedia pride themselves on their democratic models: allowing anyone to include or modify their content anonymously, making every voice as powerful as the next, taking reputation out of the equation.

The online self is just another model of created persona, a username that becomes a person in itself, an identity with its own kind of reputation—our Wikipedia accounts becomes increasingly credible with every successful edit or revision; less scrutiny is placed on a user with a registered ID and profile. And even unnamed posters are tied to an IP address, leaving small bits of personhood and location that can be traced back with enough technology. Unlike latrinalia, we’re still held accountable for the things we say when we believe no one’s watching.

The Internet identity is more closely aligned with the nonfiction writer. Readers look to the writer (or the writer’s persona) for a sense of context; our narrator’s age, gender, race, religious background, and countless other traits influence our reading of a text, especially when it comes to memoir. It’s much easier for a registered Wikipedia user to make false edits after a few authentic ones, just like it’s easier for Margaret Jones to find an audience for a south-central L.A. gang memoir when they believe her to be a dark-skinned, Ebonics-writing member of the Bloods (she is none of these things). There’s a contract between the reader and the writer, though the writer is more aware of this fact. The nonfiction writer uses their persona to direct the audience, to take advantage of the reader’s expectations. This is why we get so upset with the false memoir: we put too much stock in the author’s authority, and we lose the value of the story being told.

~

An Incomplete List of Known Personas/Identities/Avatars:

David LeGault, Dave LeGault, David Arthur L, dleg, DL, DAL, electricorgan4, daaaaave, legaultd, lega0044, Livejournalmatt, Kid Shazam, {Wnt}Daaaaave, Techno Dave, Super Dave, Big Wave Dave, The Georgia Homeboy, Nomenclature, Anonymous, Anonymous, Anonymous, 3934984, Paul Legault, John, Kevin, Kristen, Sir, Professor, Current Resident, Tara, Mud Turtle, Lobes, The Weed Man, Crazy Charlie, Mr. LeGault, Anonymous, leggomyeggo, Guy, pixie_bubbles, yeahright@noway.com, 123 Fake Street, Sarah Siddons,  John Barrymore, Anonymous.

~

Even the best repellants leave ghosts on the wall.

~

My name is written so frequently that it begins losing meaning. Despite countless signatures and pleas, no one has ever called me back. I hoped that by sharing my information I could reach out to the anonymous audience, but no one believes or trusts the information enough to reach out to me.

Maybe this is why, despite my love of latrinalia, I still find myself writing essays like this, work attached to a name and contributor’s note. I hate myself for wanting my words to be taken more seriously—my need to be recognized makes this whole essay one big hypocritical mess. My name on a wall doesn’t have the same effect as it does on the page: For a good time, my number is (616) 204-7962. My address is 5226 Irving Avenue North/Minneapolis, MN/55430. My locker at the University of Minnesota field house is M-2111 and the locker combination is 38-16-26, my bike lock has remained for years on the factory pre-set – – – -. Giving this information here, where my words will (hopefully) be taken more seriously, may have some real-life repercussions depending on what you, dear reader, decide to do with it. I hope that you use it in the spirit of latrinalia: step into a different persona, one that cannot be traced back to you, and use that freedom to write something true without the fear of recognition. Perhaps by using my name, there’s the added bonus that I could some day come across it, discover things I never knew about myself.

~

The blank wall, this accumulation of paint. It’s geometrically perfect: square beside square, fine lines of grout trailing up to down and left to right, a grid pattern of white on white. Yesterday this space contained obscenities, my name and phone number, several manifestos. Now, this perfection surrounds us, consumes us, forces clean air into our lungs. Like a brand new car, the flawlessness is nearly overwhelming, how we try to protect that perfection for as long as possible, how even the littlest scratch or dent or dirt would free us all at once. Here, the world seems so simple, so full of order that we want to believe in it. But the world I know is not that simple. It is the opposite of this place: impossible to process, full of chaos, at times so disgusting that I can’t even breathe. But in that dirt and grime we find a certain understanding, one that we can help to create or revise, uniquely ours in the surrounding sea of white.

 


Latrinalia (graffiti written on public restroom walls) might seem an unlikely subject for an essay. However, through a sophisticated exploration of form – that of a fragmented narrative – as well as through the use of fine irony, the author tells a personal story while also seeking deeper meaning in society.
—Sue William Silverman, 2011 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judge


Breathing Room on Judgment Day

1.

Years ago, on an employee retreat for a publishing company I worked for in my twenties, I met a magician who levitated.  A group of us stood before him and watched as his body rose a foot off the ground.  My first instinct was to suspect conspiracy.  Was there a trick camera somewhere?  Did the magician have a protégé perched in the bushes, shining a mirror at another mirror, creating an illusion in some explainable way? It was possible.  But I was so close to this man, talking with him about the sunny day in the most usual of terms, aside from the fact that he was floating.

I return to this memory sometimes because it is unsettling.  I don’t believe that Moses parted the  Red Sea.  I doubt that Jesus really turned water into wine.  (Though I admire the idea.)  If I can dismiss these scenarios as ludicrous, how can I believe that it is possible for a magician to levitate through mind control, that it is possible, in theory, for anyone to do the same?

I know the mind has some power over the body.  Sometimes, a burning heat generates in my abdomen, caused by (I am pretty sure) a combination of meditation, yoga, and a sleepless night.  I know that thoughts can cause the heart to race, the breath to shorten. I once nearly fainted in an optometrist’s chair when the phrase “possible blood clot in the main artery that goes into your eye” was uttered.  I needed a cup of water and a wet towel on my forehead because of words.

Who knows how thought inspires action?  It is murky, and personal.  Sometimes, a thought lingers, dominates, but then recedes.  And sometimes a thought morphs into an emotion that propels the body to move.

On an evening far removed from the day I may or may not have witnessed levitation, I may or may not have levitated myself.  I wasn’t floating above the ground.  No one who witnessed me would have said anything magical was taking place.  And whereas the magician’s levitation, if genuine, probably occurred by way of some cerebral power he could channel, some way he could think his body to rise, the thrust to my body—a peculiar, acute force—seemed unpremeditated.  A certain combination of words spurred my body forward, away, out, as if my legs were being commanded by some invisible remote control.

“Dear Father, Let us pray for the children.”

How eight words can contain such power eludes me.  For the disciple, these words fuse the mortal to the divine.  For the nonbeliever, however, these words don’t soothe the soul.  These words, when uttered in a public sphere, torpedo like a war missile set to destroy your conviction that religion is a private matter, and not to be practiced in a government funded institution.  These words ignite emotions that launch your body away, without your mind’s consent.

On the evening I witnessed prayer in my daughter’s public school, my body rose without forethought.  The moment of silence began and I stood.  Filed through rows of parents and teachers on a mission for the exit door.  It wasn’t until I was outside the school building that my mind was able to process what my body has just done.

Adrenaline is underrated.  We have all heard stories about impossible feats, like the five-year-old who lifts a car to save his sister trapped underneath.  When I was in high school, a classmate of mine crawled one hundred yards away from his car after a crash, despite the fact that his legs had been crushed.  People move on instinct all the time.

I had always assumed that instinct and intuition were the same, until I became a mother. At the start of first grade, my daughter, Colette, was redistricted to a new school, and although my intuition said she would fare better without me hovering, my mother’s instinct—to protect—prevailed.  In retrospect, my attempt at joining the P.T.A. was a peculiar kind of helicopter parent defense mechanism, but at the time I was thinking, I should be preemptive:

“Mom, Haley says you’re bad if you don’t believe in God,” Colette says to me after her first day of school.

“You’re not bad,” I reply.  “Haley is wrong.”

The sacred can sense the secular.  Colette’s new girl status had elicited several invitations for her to attend Bible studies classes and church.  And a better me would have seen these overtures as simply the good intentions of others wanting to spread their love of Christianity to us.  But I was aggravated by the moral litmus test I was forced to take and, with my inevitable declinations, bound to fail.

Of course, I admit I am an alluring target for those who seek to reform.  I radiate have not seen the light.

I only went to church twice as a child and so my cumulative knowledge of Jesus is that he was an immaculately created, bearded carpenter.  I have but one lingering memory of Sunday school: a foggy image of an elderly woman encouraging me to place stickers of important religious people (whose names I did not recognize) onto a worksheet.  Those empty shapes on the page, outlined in black, like the tracings of dead bodies at crime scenes, held more promise for me left as is.

Growing up in the heartland of America (Iowa), feelings of exoticism were rare.  I hung from willow trees, vacationed at the mall.  Seekers of the diverse never stopped by my house on their pilgrimage to San Francisco.  My lack of experience with religion left a void, but the void was what I had faith in.  It was the mystical force.  My family’s eventual agnosticism meant my total circumvention of religion.  Religion’s absence was as habitual for me as other kids’ regular church attendance was for them.

On Sundays, the kids next door would cram into their wooden paneled station wagon as they set off for church, and I would spy on them from my perch on my bike at the top of my driveway.

Susie’s gussied up, but seems unhappy.  Looks like her white Mary Jane’s pinch.

Once they leave, I descend my driveway.  At first, I coast along the sidewalks, blissful.  But then, as I circle the neighborhood, I discover the brilliance of the absence of people.  The driveways are desolate.  Garage doors shut.  I am young and independent with all this breathing room and freedom to think.

If church is everybody’s Sunday routine, faith in God must be really common.  Why am I the only individual in sight?

˜

If what happened the night of the P.T.A. meeting had not, I still think I could have managed a full year’s membership.  If I were in another environment, I dare say I could have even enjoyed it.  Maybe if I were living in Vancouver, or Vermont, I’d be comfortable as parent volunteer.  Maybe somewhere there was a school where I could encourage kids to learn about things like global warming, media literacy, the danger of high fructose corn syrup.  Maybe there existed places, even in America, where questions could be asked in the open, even taboo ones, like what the United States was doing in Iraq.  But here I was in the Bible Belt.  Here I was in a gymnasium of adults with a commonality I not only did not share but also found oppressive.

2.

The P.T.A. meeting is about to begin.  Hundreds of dutiful parents are perched on hard-backed metal chairs, arranged in straight rows facing the gymnasium stage.  Exalted there, select parents and school officials shuffle notes and speak in quick whispers.  I choose a seat on the edge of a row, where I have myself a streamlined exit, should the need arise.  On reflection, my seat choice does reveal a premeditation to resist full compliance.  (Perhaps I was looking for trouble with the P.T.A., despite my efforts to be nonjudgmental about those who join, particularly since I was now one of them.)

It is dusk.  Light is filtering in from high windows, exposing a layer of dirt and hair, the tracks of over six hundred students.  The school is overcrowded, under-resourced and institutional, but I am trying to support it.  I attended public schools throughout my education and was never inclined to stray.  The academic expectations were always within my reach and the social interactions gritty enough to satisfy me.

I had forgotten the painted cement walls, the way they try to conjure school spirit by concealing the décor of a prison.

The P.T.A. president takes to the podium.  I am waiting for the first item on the agenda.  The candy bar fundraiser?  A call for volunteers for the book fair?  But from my position in the back of the gym, I bear witness to a phenomenon.  The individual heads, moments earlier bobbing this way and that, now unite and drop in unspoken knowing unison.  My own head remains upright.  I am the only one left unbowed.

“Dear Father, Let us pray for the children.”

I rise.  Begin a pilgrimage to the exit door, my legs taking the helm.  I am conscious that I am moving, but I also feel detached—floating.  And despite the group’s commitment to praying, my unorthodoxy does not go unnoticed.  There’s Colette’s teacher, mouth agape.  She seems less grandmotherly now, the benevolence of her apple sweater vest compromised by her scowl.  Until now, I have repressed my discomfort about the Bible she keeps on her desk, spine out.  I have buried my memory of her leading the class in a chorus of “The Lord’s Prayer” before lunch.

By the time I reach the door, I have been branded:

Godless.  Liberal.  Non-Christian.  Likes tofu.

So I brand them back:

Southern.  Conservative.  Evangelical.  Like pork rinds.

˜

Looking back, I can see that leaving the P.T.A. meeting was not only a social blunder, but also a financial mistake.  My husband was finishing graduate school, looking for administrative positions in the area, and he had established a nice rapport with Colette’s principal.  His anarchist wife interrupting the P.T.A. members’ conversation with God—while it would certainly set him apart from other assistant principal candidates—might also stamp him as unique in the wrong light.  That night, however, I was preoccupied with the fusion of church and state.  Was praying in the gym even legal? Should I protest further?  Wouldn’t that be truly patriotic?  What if a Jewish or Muslim family moved to town?  Shouldn’t someone begin to pave the road for them?

Although my reasoning was hyperactive now, it had been AWOL when I’d left the meeting.  It was as if my body had sensed, if not an illegality, than a threat to the purity of my ideology.  It was as if my body had been the vessel to transport my stance to safety, to the green zone of my beliefs.

Or maybe my reaction to prayer in a public place was a conditioned response, not so different from the others’ conditioned response to pray when told.  Maybe I risked acceptance involuntarily.  Maybe a body just goes its way.

3.

One thing is for certain: I have been trekking into territories for which I have no compass.  I had tried (for what I also thought was Colette’s sake) to serve as one of her Girl Scout troop leaders, but I had failed here, too.  My inherent need to examine conventions anew had resurfaced, inspiring me to inspire them to question everything, to think outside the Thin Mint box.

Meetings were held in a cottage behind the local Methodist church, where the girls often practiced their volunteer skills, planting bulbs and cleaning up the grounds.  Whenever I entered the church, I was confronted with a world that left me disquieted: the pastor’s expectant salutations, the deferential arrangement of the pews, the unfamiliar figures in the stained glass windows; I could look for meaning in those shards of colors but all I ever concluded was that it was representational art and I didn’t know the stories.

The Girl Scout house was less destabilizing.  Here Colette and I were always greeted with ebullient bouncing girls.  The other leader and I allowed time for their exuberant rendezvous, but soon the tenor would change.  We’d shape them into a circle.  Tell them to join hands.  It was time for the Girl Scout pledge.

“On my honor, I will try
To serve God and my Country
To help people at all times
And to live by the Girl Scout law.”

I liked the part about helping people, but, in light of America’s occupation of Iraq, it was hard to cede more power to country.  Serving the triumvirate of God, America, and now, the Girl Scouts, seemed overzealous.  Teaching young girls to relinquish more power, to serve yet another authority, seemed another impediment to their own thought processes.  What about serving a point of view?

One night, our troop was to assemble a care package for one scout’s father who was in Iraq.  Soldiers were in our midst.  We all lived near the Camp Lejeune Marine base in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where I taught a community college writing course twice a week.  Tonight we were going to put the words “to help people” into action.

After the pledge, we moved into the kitchen where an empty box waited.  The girls placed their offerings into the box, valuables from America the soldier had wanted, like bags of Twizzlers and Doritos.  On top went handmade cards with messages of “God Bless You!” and “God Bless America!”  These were supposed to buoy me, but I was sinking.  Was I to accept that sending candy was enough for our soldiers?  Was this all that we would teach tonight, that dying soldiers in big war + prayers and candy = everything was going to be okay?

To me, the night’s lesson was “How to Numb Ourselves from a Deeper Truth.”  Although I too wanted relief for the soldier, there was this hollow throbbing place to explore: our government’s role in putting the soldier in Iraq in the first place.  I wanted to pose questions to the girls.  Do you think that some people think the war is wrong?  Do you know that our president and vice president have ulterior interests in the Middle East? But then upon the landscape my politicizing would plant a field of social land mines.  In the end, Colette and I quit, citing “time constraints” to the other scouts.  To myself, I cited “irreconcilable differences with the group,” honorably discharging ourselves.

4.

Driving to Jacksonville on the nights I teach, I often share the highway with convoys of military jeeps on their way back to Camp Lejeune.  Sometimes trucks sporting “Semper Fi” stickers or “United States Marine Corps” sidle up to my car and I decelerate to let them pass.  Who am I to butt in front of frontline men?  Who am I to be driving to my superfluous job where my bravest effort of the evening will be to try to sell the beauty of a well-defined thesis statement? I have a fervent antiwar stance, but only when tucked safely inside my car.

In class, I attempt a delicate balance: how to encourage my students, who are also Marines, to consider the illegalities surrounding the war when their ability to endure the mission depends on their conviction that the United States is fighting the good fight.  I want them to question their government’s motives.  They just want to forget.

I try to understand their perspectives, but war is beyond me.  I live in a world of theory.  I assign them readings like The Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense while they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.  One student stutters.  One announces her (unplanned) pregnancy.  Another, the wife of a returning soldier, quits class and moves to Pennsylvania (upon my urgent recommendation).  She tells me she is scared of her husband’s behavior since he returned from Iraq, how he has been “roughhousing” with their son, who is nine months old.

One of my students, Jim, has seen more death at nineteen than his young face can express.  I’ve never seen him outside of class, especially in a war zone so, to me, he embodies innocence.  He shows up for class, seems interested in what I say, wants to learn how to write.  From my teacher perspective, he seems so sweet, so malleable. A self-proclaimed born again Christian, Jim often writes about his role model, Jesus.  He says he will return to Iraq to defend Christianity against radical Islam.

I want to teach him that it is not weak to respect those with different beliefs, so I conduct an experiment.  I ask each student to bring something to class that will evoke our senses.  We will write descriptions of each student’s offering in order to see how subjective individual sensory perception is.  One student brings a favorite dessert.  Another brings a perfume.  Jim brings a Christian love song.  As we listen to lyrics linking the love in Jesus to the romantic love between a man and a woman, Jim closes his eyes, mouths every word, as if speaking in tongues.  When the song ends, he cries.

I have no reaction to the song itself and this is what is disconcerting: How can I be so removed from my student’s emotional response?   Why do our approaches feel so inaccessible to each other?

Maybe our beliefs are really just forces of our habits—safety zones that lock in our ignorance—  disguised as devotions or creeds.

After class, I thank Jim.  I confess to him my lack of religion and attempt to draw a parallel: “My lack of faith is as permanent as your faith in God.”  He listens, but seems puzzled, his expression similar to my own whenever I see a group of people entering a church.  I’ll be driving to a bookstore or on my way to yoga class and here are these people filing in to worship.  I get it in theory, but it is still so foreign.

˜

A stranger on an airplane once asked me if she could pray for me when she learned I wasn’t Christian.

“No thank you,” I said, with surprising unapologetic certainty.

“You won’t be saved,” she declared.

Without physical mobility, I reverted to my thoughts.  How can I be unworthy of being saved if I dispute the legitimacy of being saved as an actual happening?  I don’t predict harm on her due to her beliefs.  Why does she get to land me in hell for mine?

˜

If, after this life, I find myself in the awkward position of not being dead and also not being saved, then maybe I will understand why I should suffer for my agnostic sins.  But for now I am willing to take all the risks.  Because what if the mystery is what’s sacred?  What if respecting the unknown is the point?

˜

I am just getting accustomed to telling the truth about my religiosity.  Recently, two women clutching Bibles ascended my walkway and knocked on my door and, in a sudden shift of behavioral pattern, my first instinct was not to hide and sign to my children shhhhh.  My first instinct was to just answer the door.

“Hello,” they say in unison.

I size them up.  Jehovah’s Witnesses. Thoughts ensue, like loss of female rights.

“We know you weren’t expecting us,” they say, offering a pamphlet.

“No,” I interrupt, “and actually, I’m off to a yoga class.”

I don’t know what the word yoga will conjure in the minds of Jehovah’s Witnesses but my intuition tells me that this one word will propel their movement away.

“Oh! Yoga…” they sputter, as if I have just announced I am late for alien croquet.

“Okay,” they continue.  “Have a nice day.”

Inside my house, I am taken aback.  Speaking my truth did not produce a curt reply.  I had expected these women to pass judgment, to suggest a wrath coming my way, but they responded with civility.  Now I am remorseful.  And curious.  Through the shutters in my son’s room, I spy on them.  They are at my next-door-neighbor’s house, and I can verify that she is being her reliable, southern, friendly, good Christian self, but their conversation remains a mystery.  Are they really discussing Jesus?  Are they affirming their common life paradigms? Then I slink away.  It is not for me to know.

˜

I only consider religion at moments of fear, like when a noise convinces me that there is a killer outside or when an airplane I am riding on has a possible mechanical problem.  And even during these moments, I am not so much praying as repeating a regret fueled mantra, please don’t let me die, please don’t let me die. I still doubt that a man in the sky is assessing my right to live.  Really, I am just heightening my appreciation for life, promising not to abandon this awareness once the plane lands or the sun reveals no murderer on my front porch, pre-kill.

˜

In hotels, I open the nightstand drawer to see if the Bible is there but not because I am going to read it.  I just need confirmation that whoever makes Bible decisions for hotel chains is still being given this authority.  It seems antiquated, 1950’s-ish.  With no personal attachment to the Bible, I find its consistency in hotel drawers diminishes its holiness and its allure.  It becomes just another middle class American standard, like the continental breakfast included, the pool, the infinite channels.

5.

In the afternoon, I am a prompt chauffeur, carting my son Miles in his wagon to Colette’s bus stop.  Once there, we peer down the pavement with our eyes prepped for that big yellow and black wheeled monster that carries Colette home in its belly.  Soon, the bus ejects her like a staple from a stapler and she is my responsibility.  She will absorb everything I say until her eyelids submit to the dark.  Today, Miles pounces on her, but she peels him off, insinuating there is something more pressing than brotherly love.

“Mom, if God invented the world, who invented God?”

She asks with a strange hybrid of interest and nonchalance, as if the art of soliciting serious information from me depends on her delivery.   As we glide along together, I struggle with an answer.  I am ill-equipped for such profundity, having spent the last eight hours answering Miles’ questions, which are also frequent and exhausting, but of a much simpler nature, as in, “Mom, what chair needs fixing?”

All day, he has been my two-foot high carpenter, donning his yellow construction hat, a hand-me-down from his older cousin and two sizes too big.  All he needs is a little business.  All I am required to do is flip over a chair, point to the screws and wonder aloud if there are “Any good carpenters around here?”  He’ll dunk into his toolbox.  Emerge with a hammer.  Be good to go.  Colette’s questions are no longer this simplistic.  Her question—who is responsible for the creation of the universe—requires too much circumspection for a Wednesday afternoon.

I am relieved that Colette has not yet been programmed to consider this question off-limits as a topic of friendly conversation, at least with her mother.  I am also relieved that she is seeking my advice.  But I am wary of the origin of such an inquiry.  I know that her friends talk about Jesus and God.  I have not prepared her to respond.

I cast out an offering, a palette of potential ideas ranging from Buddhism to polytheism to reincarnation to the blunt idea that we will become worm food.  That we may want to consider our time here, heaven on Earth.  I encourage her to consider everything, all religions, none.  I remind her that she is young and independent.

“Go ride your bike,” I say.

˜

It was only a matter of time before religion would enter Colette’s cauldron of emerging inquiries.  When she was just five, on Christmas morning, she asked me to “level with” her by confirming her suspicions about Santa.  While children across America pried open toys mummified in plastic, Colette remained unconvinced.

“Mom?  Why is my guitar from Santa wrapped in the same wrapping paper as the presents from Grandma?  This is strange, mom.  There’s a “Made in China” sticker on the back.  Was it made at the North Pole or Target?  Mom, I want the truth!”

I had a developed distaste for Santa, for Christmas, since becoming a mother.  I’d had to weigh my lack of religion with my disdain for consumerism and fold in whatever level of adherence I had to American tradition in order to come up with some justifiable reason for participating in Christmas at all.  Our government said it was fighting Islamo-fascism, and patriotism seemed necessary.  But shopper-as-patriot seemed insane.  As did the concept that giving one’s offspring more stuff represented love.

We could celebrate the winter solstice, but that seemed too barren when juxtaposed with Santa.  But if I just continued on autopilot, shopping and spending to the ubiquitous Christmas music, without ever questioning the source of the products I was buying or considering the less festive atmospheres in which they were being made, or what the people (children?) who were making them were thinking of us Americans as they endured the assembly line construction of toys we wanted cheap, I’d be surrendering to the power of corporatist covetousness.  That didn’t seem healthy for anyone, or in keeping with the supposed meaning of Christmas.  In fact, it felt antithetical.  What transpired was often a blended but watered-down approach to the holiday that preserved some traditions, abandoned others, and totally confused us all.

I can see how Colette went from questioning Santa’s existence to questioning the existence of God.  Both are figures of goodness explained to you by trusted adults and both offer eternal happiness (or at least fun toys to last until January).  Both also judge your behavior. Have you been naughty or nice? Where will you spend your afterlife?

Whether Colette’s inquisitiveness is just in her nature or exacerbated by my constant questioning is hard to know.  What is clear is that she has found a snag in the process of her personal logic.  Truths of the world are emerging, but the truths emerging at school are often inconsistent with the truths emerging at home.

Colette’s home truths are gleaned from her parents’ reactions to the news.  These truths, like the political event preceding her investigation of Santa that Christmas, swirl around her house in the form of open conversations between mom and dad.

“Mom, who did Santa vote for, Kerry or Bush?”

I don’t remember my exact response, but I am sure I drew a direct connection between Santa and Kerry.  I am sure I ascribed antiwar tendencies to the man who rides the sky rewarding only children who are good.  I am sure I projected my political views onto a make believe entity as a way to indoctrinate my child.  I used a loaded image to justify what I believe.  I fudged the evidence.  I buried the truth.  Because I put Bush’s second “election” in  huge dubious quotes and determined it a colossal breakdown of awareness that would extend the war, I was compelled to embark on another breakdown: an explanation of how fear conjures things, like votes, and war, and death.

“I wish you hadn’t been born during a war,” I say to Colette, as I tuck her into her heart-patterned comforter.

“Why, mom?”

“Because you’ve never known a time of peace.”

˜

On the surface, I know it’s not right to tell children horror stories, even if they are true.  But against the backdrop of war, nonfiction seems vital.  If my daughter is going to spend her entire childhood hearing about Iraq, and now Afghanistan, I want her to know some realities—both good and bad—beyond the symbol of Old Glory.

Books like Good Night, Sleep Tight and A Sleepytime Rhyme are shelved.  Instead, I freelance story time, weaving endangered American concepts, like individual rights, into stories about America’s formation.  I create child-friendly chapters on Freedom of Speech and Freedom of and from Religion.  I conjure visual images, like a tree with branches named “Executive,” “Legislative,” and “Judicial.”  I plant seeds, then kiss her goodnight.

One night, we come to the story of September 11th.  I try to use good judgment in the details I disseminate, focusing on the aftermath of the attacks and how the tragedy brought me to her. It’s selective storytelling and we all do it.  We all extract only the details that help us make sense out of the nonsensical.

“You were at preschool,” I begin.  “I was writing at this coffee place across the street.  When I heard the news, I picked you up and drove us home right away.”

What I don’t recount to her is the nightmare I had on the night of September 11th.

That story begins with the Twin Towers ablaze.  I am asleep but semiconscious, aware that although I am only a witness to this disaster, I am still close to the rush of fire and smoke.  The danger is real, as is my now erratic breath.  On some level, I know I am only dreaming, because I have the sensation that, here in my bed, I am whimpering aloud.

The worst part comes next.  I see them.  Human beings are on ledges of burning buildings, frozen between two paths to death.  When they start to fall, one by one, I realize I am watching, for the first time ever, people choosing death.

Or am I?

I wake up, eager for that relief that comes with morning, but it has performed a supreme disappearing act.  What does remain is the enigma of Americans jumping to their deaths, which is as strange and disturbing a reality as in my dream.  I cannot rationalize it.  The act of jumping seems both instinctual and incongruent with the human need to survive.  On one hand, it seems involuntary, human beings responding to stimuli.  Repelling fire is natural, right? But I can’t shake my sense that some of the people paused before they jumped, as if deciding what to do.  That some of them might have been thinking seems plausible as well, especially for Americans, for whom choice is inherent.

Were the Americans who jumped from the Twin Towers making this decision: should I stay and risk the fire or should I jump and risk the fall? Or did we bear witness to something more spiritual?  Were these brave Americans somehow blessed with a power to trust the universe?  Did their spirits rise from their bodies?  Did they take a leap of faith?

6.

What do we say?

My yoga instructor, Michael, is sitting in lotus position, facing me.  He bows to the floor and whispers, “Namaste.” I now know the spiritual meaning of “Namaste”: the God in me recognizes and honors the God in you. But in my early practice of yoga, I thought he was saying, “No mistake.”  I’d sit cross-legged, spine erect, only to have my balance disrupted by my thoughts.  No mistake?  Seems too rigid for yoga. No mistake summons the word rigid.  But Michael is the herald of flexibility. I pursue positive interpretations of “no mistake,” but the only one I can find is no matter how much you screw up this week, you have made no mistake in the eyes of those who are spiritually aware.

I have been breathing through the tightness, but no matter how often I search for balance, search for that third eye that is supposed to exist somewhere on my forehead, my forehead remains crumpled.  My first wrinkle appeared there, from all my years spent worrying over stupid things, and now it reminds me whenever I look in the mirror that I am a typical American woman, bound by generational ethos.

In the downward facing dog position, I close my eyes and center on my breath.  Scan my body for rigidity.  Where does it hurt?  Where is it hard to breathe? My hamstrings signal first so I stretch them until whatever is concealed is unleashed.  In level time and depth, I inhale and exhale, until the force and pattern of steady breathing creates some weird rhythmic canyon into which no new thoughts are permitted.  I hold this position, breathing without an active thought, but with the low drumming hope that clarity resides in the crevices of my muscular system.  Then my thoughts return.

Will I ever achieve actual meditation or am I just wasting my time on another misbegotten happiness pursuit?  If I could only soften the interior parts of my body, if I could only, through the mix of breath and mind control, elongate and relax everything within me, I would be happy and calm and ageless. I breathe like my life depends on it, like I will die if I cannot control my thoughts, then I surrender.  I am too American, the self-made yogi.  I just assume that enlightenment is here for the taking, that I will obtain it.  Just because I covet what it might bring.

Part of me laughs at the irony of the benchmark mastery of yoga.

Part of me recoils at the irrepressible quest.

Enlightenment, when paid by the hour, is fleeting.  Practice ends.  Any sense of peace I have gathered in the last hour will diminish as the evening wears on, but an unexpected image will remain.  I open my eyes to the classroom, to the other eager disciples.  And there in front of me, attached to me, is the fact of my hands in prayer pose.


Winner of the 2010 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize, judged by Melissa Febos

Birds Have Eyes

A dead bird is impossible.

It is impossible to feel my own death before my own death. The dead bird, my own death, is impossible to touch, to pick up, to hold.

Yet, as a child, I often found dead birds completely intact, lying at the base of a building or under a tree as if frozen in time. Their feathers were still oiled and smooth, their glassy eyes were still open, and their tiny claws were still outstretched, reaching for something.

I discovered the strange borderlands between wild and house by hearing birds hit windows: their light bodies and tiny beaks dinging the glass in an unmistakable tone. I would later see some of their small, broken bodies on the ground below the window.

When standing before a dead bird, it became difficult to move or to turn away. How familiar and yet how foreign, this most beautiful being, this thing so impossible to catch and hold still while alive, now waiting there stagnant and hollow and within reach. But since I wasn’t meant to touch it, since it wasn’t my task in the world, I managed to back away from this death into my own life.

There were many birds I left behind. Later to discover, that someone else had taken them away. Whose task was it to usher these beings away? I deduced it was my father (just like a local fox or owl): the one who took out the trash, the one who took in the mail, the one who ushered things—life, and money—in and out of the house. I imagined he knew a special burial ground for them. For in my father’s world, everything had a place.

And after all, it was my father who had marshaled me in and out of nature; it was he who had led me to the edge of house and pushed me towards wild, saying, “Go on, go ahead.” And I’d enter the woods, the marsh, the lake, the field, as if the universe had opened its hand up especially for me. My father would sit outside with me sometimes on the periphery, smoking a cigar in a lawn chair, watching me and the birds move across the horizon. Wild was my other house—my solace from the human dramas contained between the walls of our Massachusetts colonial on Pond Street.

When I went outside to play at my childhood home, I would begin and end my adventures laying on the ground, as still as I could, only listening and looking. I wondered who the land was, and what it would tell me if it could talk. At first, it all seemed so dead under my living, breathing body. I was hot and it was cold. Or I was shivering and it was stable. But after a few minutes, we would synch up, and I could feel it breathing too. Our temperatures would align, and we became extensions of one another. I even thought I felt the world slowly spinning, both of our bodies in the universe whirling in one large inhalation. Sometimes I would close my eyes and spin in darkness until the movement became too fast and centrifugal. I would open my eyes, gasping for stillness, with my hands grabbing at the earth. Out there in the darkness, in the galaxies behind my eyes, things broke and spun out of control all the time, but there was room for that in there.

Whose body was this?—where birds hit the window and fell to the pavement leaving a bloody streak and a beak mark on the glass; where the hedgehog burrowed in the soft soil beneath the tool-shed; where the wild blueberries and the last of the lady slippers mingled with the new tropical flowers; where the snapping turtle blocked traffic; where the shouts of my parents could be heard up in the treetops and roused the birds out of their roosts? What a messy dream-head hurling through the cosmos.

I went outside not only to connect with the world, but also to get away from the inside of my house, so far away that I could no longer hear the arguing of my parents.

When their fighting became too much to bear, often past dusk, I would run into the yard, then to the threshold of the woods. Breathing in the sharp, cool air of evening, my body palpitated with emotion. In this place between our house and the woods, I could still faintly perceive the exhausted shouts of my parents. As my eyes adjusted to the blackness, the forest seemed far less primitive and frightening than the primal anger and cruelty that filled the building called home. I’d run outside for safety, knowing that the knots in the birch tree were eyes; that the moon had eyes. The world had eyes made for watching over me that did not belong to God. And this was an important distinction for me, even as a child. No matter how unknown I was to myself, these wild things would always know me. They could always see me and know me, and I could always see them and know them, and we would honor one another’s existence. And we didn’t have to say a word.

In summer when I ran outside, the sounds of night creatures flared around my ears, blaring out all human noises. Wilderness slowly replaced the phantom sound-memory of screaming that appeared in my head like tinnitus. There at the threshold of the woods I would wait, at the place where the lawn met the path, where the white dogwood tree created a flowery arc, like a doorway, glowing under the moon. This was civilization: here in the land of badgers, mud, and night-crawlers. Here in the woods was a balanced kingdom of kings and queens all—not the zoo of oppressed people clawing at each other behind closed doors.

Sometimes, I’d go to my own little house that my father built. It was a special place just for me, a miniature replica of our colonial. I thought it was a secret, the solace I found there. He could not know how fierce my loneliness was, though he had built the place for it to live.

It smelled of sweet pine sap inside my little house, because I kept a small apothecary. I’d wait in there, to slow down life, breathing in the smell of the wood and my mixtures of organic matter. I had blended my tinctures and crushed my herbs in the bronze mortar and pestle that once belonged to my Grandmother Agnes. I stored the potions in small glass bottles and bowls on the shelves inside. When other children hurt themselves at play, they would come to my apothecary. I would clean the wound, put a salve on it, and wrap it in soft rabbit-ear leaves that I tied with twine. We would rest together in the cool shadows of the little house and then I would remove the cure, rinse the wound clean, and tell them to let the air heal it.

˜

One June morning, I rose at dawn to the sound of my father raising a ladder against a tree. The sun strained to burn off the ground-fog that lingered over the dew-wet grass. I went to the window of my bedroom to watch my father climbing his ladder. It was fifty feet to the highest bird box. His right hand nodded with the tiniest paint brush, touching up the cranberry red sides of the little bird house he had built, an even smaller version of my own little house. He rested his body against the ladder that now and then wobbled under his slight movements. A tinkling of metal came and went from his keys clanging against the aluminum rungs.

I could almost see the strain in his face, his brows tense and knotted and his mouth tightly pursed. Now and then he grabbed at a red handkerchief that ruffled out of his back pocket in order to wipe his brow. When finished painting, he placed the wooden brush in his mouth, holding the handle between his teeth as he slowly descended the ladder. When he arrived at the bottom, he lowered the ladder down, carried it under the porch, and then emerged again with a hammer and nails. So began the first thump and reverberation of the work being done on our big house—only after the place for birds had been perfected.

˜

He had begun to pack before the rest of the family had even started to think about it. My parents separated when I was ten, and my father would move to Norwood, returning to the same house in which he had been raised. I wanted to go with him, but when the lawyer asked me who I wanted to live with, I knew the most practical thing would be to stay with my mother—the one who’d be best able to care for me as I grew into a woman—though the boy in me wanted go where dad was going, where I knew wilderness was always accessible.

Even before I knew what to call my father’s drinking, I had forgiven him, for I believed he was the innocent one—that he had the broken heart. I layered my heart onto his heart, and cast out my mother as the wrecking-ball. In reality, it was a mutual breakdown. All was good and all was evil, all at the same time.

Flawed though he was, my father had been the one to unwittingly provide me with a place to go when I could not bear him or my mother, or the monster they created when they were together. It became easy for me to shut my eyes and leave behind the inside, because the outside, the wild, would always be able to adopt me. So I had to forgive him, for he had given me an out.

˜

The house had formerly been strewn with my father’s things, his collections of Audubon prints, paintings, nature books, and bird decoys. He had collected miniature hand-painted lighthouses, model ships, blue glass bottles, oil lamps, and more. I had learned about the outside from the inside first. I had learned about him, by looking at his things. I remember sometimes even being frightened by the realistic dark stare of the fiberglass trout mounted on the kitchen wall, its limp mouth hanging open so perversely.

I saw my father pack all these things gently into boxes, wrapping them in newspaper and masking tape as we prepared to leave. The antique cobalt-blue glass bottles were the last things to go for some reason. They sat on the bedroom windowsill, bright clean tokens in the emptying house.  I imagined that I too would someday start my collection of blue bottles when I was old.

He eventually packed them carefully on the last day. I asked him if I could have one and he said no with a scoff. But I replied with a smile, “Can I inherit it when you die?”

He looked at me over his glasses. “They’re all coming with me to the grave.” Then he laughed and said, “Already thinking about when I’ll die?”

Smiling, I replied, “Yup, just counting the days at this point.”

We talked about dying often, always with laughter following our words. Did he want to be cremated and have his ashes scattered, or did he want to be buried, and if so, where? He changed his mind every time we talked about it. At first he wanted his ashes scattered into the Atlantic, and I liked that idea very much. I said I would do it for him. But as the years passed, less laughter followed our words when we spoke about our dying, and he became more inclined to being buried next to his parents, Agnes and Eldon, in Norwood.

I told him if I died before him, I wanted to be buried in a pretty white dress, and that I wanted my body put directly into the soil, with flowers all around me. Then I wanted him to plant a tree over my grave so that I would decay amongst the roots, and the roots would grow through my skeleton. I would live another hundred years in the form of a tree. A tree where birds could live. He laughed and said, “Is that so?”

I had thought so much about our dying. It was almost easy to do.

˜

It was summer, and I went outside to find my father, but instead I found a dead black-capped chickadee lying on our driveway beneath the bay window of our dining room. I stared at it, and I could not move. Chickadees were my favorite bird. Its little boot-black eyes reflected my face, white and watery. As I looked at it, I wondered what that little bird had seen in its short life. It had probably seen more life and death, more violence and more joy, than I had ever seen in my whole time on earth. And I wondered if it knew what it saw. And as I knelt down to touch it, I saw a trail of ants snaking in and out from its broken wing, and I knew that it had known and understood everything it saw and more.

I looked up to the glass window, seeing as the bird had seen: the reflections of the white pines shifting in the wind across the way. Our house almost occupied an invisible veil in that shifting light, in that certain place. Anything, even I, would kill myself unknowingly, to get to the other side of the forest.

My father had either not seen the bird, or had neglected to hide it away. His mind had been preoccupied, I knew, and his attention had turned to caring for the remaining aspects of himself at our house on Pond Street: painting the shutters on the house, tending to the bird boxes, neatening up the landscaping for curbside appeal. We were, after all, planning on selling it to another family soon.

As I looked down at the little bird, I felt perhaps it was my turn to be the undertaker. But how do you bury a bird? Do you build a small coffin out of a shoe box? That seemed irreverent. Do you leave it for the hawk, fox or coyote to eat? A dead bird—where did it belong? Surely not on the hot black pavement of a summer day where it would swell and burst and beckon flies.

Where to let it rest in peace?

On that hot summer day, I chose to take care of the bird myself. Its migration would not end on the pavement. I put on my father’s gardening gloves, picked up the bird in my hand, light as a feather, and carried it to my apothecary. There I treated it as I would any wounded child, wrapping it in rabbit-ear leaves, tying it up with a string. At dusk, I took it to the pond behind our house to let it be at rest in the water. I sent it off like a tiny ship sailing on vacant bones. I watched it float towards the center of the pond, stop, bubble, and sink as it became saturated with the brown pond water. Nearby, a snapping turtle popped its head up, creating rippling circles on the surface. The peepers sang, chiming like little church bells. I sat on the mossy bank trying to think of some prayer. But of course it was not God watching us, but the trees, and the moon, and the other eyes of the world who understood I drowned my child-self that night. There was no judgment, only infinite patience. That was what the world gave me that I could not find in people: unhurried time. I promised them all that I would return.

When my parents officially divorced, we sold the house to a young happy family. The day we left I had to say goodbye to the places I loved at our house. I had to say goodbye because I had to acknowledge I had been known and I had known. I had to say I love you. Naming and knowing the parts of the place that I loved was like naming the parts of myself that I loved, and seeing them as dying living things that all one day would fall apart and go.

I said goodbye to the mossy hill that sloped into the pond where I had sunk the bird, and to the soft decaying logs en route to the hill that were hollowed out and cold inside. I said goodbye to the teepees I had built, tall cones of long branches that remained unchanged through the seasons, even as the nearby vernal pool rose and fell. I said goodbye to the black swamp covered with skunk cabbage, the creek, the pond, the swing-set that gave me splinters. I said goodbye to the edge of the forest, the crossing-over point where possibilities emerged for me.

I said goodbye to those red maples whose leaves were so purple they looked black as old blood; and to the Japanese cherry tree that was slowly corroded by caterpillars, its black oozing scars creating gnarled scabs—for all these natural forms were once appendages of my own body, humps on my back, moles on my skin, hair on my head.

I said goodbye to the two blue spruces in the front yard. My father had planted each one to represent the births of my sister and me. I said goodbye to my birth and my sister’s birth. I said goodbye to the soggy wooden steps that led up to the front door from the driveway, and to all my imaginary medicines that fermented into wine on the shelves of my apothecary. I said goodbye to my father, and I did not stop. I said goodbye to my father every night he was not there.

˜

My little house smelled of rot the day I left. I cleaned out all the plants and salves and potions I had made there, scraping and pouring them onto the gravel underneath our porch. But still that little house would not be empty of me and my wild cures for weeks to come. I cleaned it the best I could. Then because there was nothing left for me—of me—I had to leave my mark of territory. I had once reigned in this kingdom of loneliness—and it was mine, and it was wild.

I stretched out my claws, and opened wide my boot-black eyes.

I carved my name in the threshold. On the wooden beams of the ceiling. On the panels in the door. I carved my name in nearly everything I could.

 


“Birds Have Eyes”… demanded to be read.  By this I mean that I read it early on and was moved…then I put it aside and read the others over a week.  But my mind kept returning to this one.  Then after I finished reading the others I took “Birds Have Eyes” again and headed downstairs to give it another look.  I didn’t even make it downstairs.  I stopped halfway down the stairs, mesmerized once again by the simple beauty of this piece, and then I sat down on the stairs and by the end, I’m a little embarrassed to say, tears were flowing.  I’m not particularly sentimental and this writer isn’t sentimental either.  But she knows how to tap into raw grief and lyric beauty all at once and just sucker punch you.  I’m still moved by this piece and will be for a long time.  I want to read it again.
—Robin Hemley, 2009 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Judge


Afterlife

Nearly every day, seventy-seven-year-old Yoshida Katsuji drives across the city from his modest home to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.  Always early, Yoshida moves through the museum corridors and office hallways with ease, greeting each staff member with an energetic “Good morning!” and a slight bow of his head.  As the museum lobby and sidewalks outside become packed with students lining up for tours and presentations, Yoshida stands at the information desk talking and laughing with the staff person there.  Once his group arrives, he enters the lecture hall just off the main entrance, stands before a hundred or more visiting school children, and tells them his story.

“I look out at them,” Yoshida tells me, “and the little girls look at me like this.”  He raises his eyebrows and mimics an expression of shock and horror.  “Instantly, they begin to cry— because I’m so incredibly handsome.”  Yoshida laughs—a huge upper body laugh—and waits, eyes wide, for my reaction.

I hold his gaze.  A large black patch covers the right side of his head, secured by a black elastic band that runs underneath his chin, up the other side of his face, and across the top of his nearly bald head.  Scar tissue covers his face and neck, and his left ear is shriveled.  When he smiles, his mouth is crooked, revealing severely misshapen teeth.  Behind large framed glasses, Yoshida’s eyes are uneven, one higher than the other.

“I’ve gotten used to it,” he says, as if to reassure me.  “I tell the audience, ‘I am as good looking as Kimutaku’—a famous actor.  When I spoke in Chicago, I was DiCaprio.  In Japan, I am Kimutaku.  I tell them this to make them laugh.”

Yoshida leans back and laughs again.  Then he sighs and covers his mouth and nose with the palm of his hand to wipe tiny beads of excess saliva from his lips and face.

˜

In a small conference room tucked away inside the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall, I interview Yoshida for the first time.  In my research for a book about the Nagasaki survivors, I had read his brief testimony of the days and weeks after the bomb, and had asked my contact at the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace to set up this meeting.  Yoshida is wearing black slacks, black suspenders, and a beige dress shirt with thin blue stripes and a narrow Nehru collar.  He leans in, ready for my questions.

“Is it all right to begin by looking at this map?” I ask in Japanese, turning the map around so he can read it.

Yoshida quickly scans the map, finds the atomic bomb’s hypocenter, and points to a neighborhood on the other side of the mountains.  “This is where my house was,” he replies in Japanese,   “Uma-machi No. 65.”

Yoshida studies the map further and indicates an area just north of the hypocenter.  “My school was here.”

“That’s so close,” I say.  Few survived at that proximity.

“Yes,” Yoshida says, “it was very close.”

˜

In 1945, Yoshida was a thirteen-year-old student in the shipbuilding course at the Nagasaki Vocational School.  But classes had been cancelled for more than a year, so Yoshida, one year too young for mandated student labor in military factories, dug air raid shelters, joined bucket brigades to extinguish fires caused by Allied bombing, and made bamboo spears for use against the Allies in the anticipated land invasion of Japan.

“When you were a child,” I ask, “what did you think about the war?”

“Us?” Yoshida says, speaking with immense energy and intention.  “We thought Japan would win for sure.  We had to endure until we won.  That’s how it was.”

Yoshida

“Did you want to fight in the war?”

“Everyone did.  We longed to.  We wanted to become soldiers and fight; we were educated that way starting in elementary school.  We were brainwashed, so we didn’t think it was possible for us to lose.”

Yoshida’s words are hurried, upbeat.  “A portrait of the Emperor hung at our school.  He was considered a descendent of God.  We bowed to the portrait when we passed it to pay our respects.

“But during the war, the situation in Japan was bad, you know?  Gradually, we were being defeated.  Everything was rationed.  The amount of food we were allowed each month got smaller and smaller.  We got two go (just under a cup) of uncooked rice per month.  One loaf of bread.  That’s how it was.”  Yoshida looks at me intently.  “My stomach was empty.”

˜

By August 1945, Allied forces had firebombed and incinerated sixty-six Japanese cities.  Hundreds of thousands of civilians had been killed, and the country’s infrastructure had crumbled.  Nagasaki, however, was on the short list for the atomic bomb, so the United States had not implemented full-scale bombing on the city.  Instead, Nagasaki had experienced limited targeted attacks on docks, shipyards, factories, and the central railway station.  U.S. surveillance planes flew over Nagasaki every morning and evening, prompting air raid alarms across the city that interrupted work, school, and agricultural routines.  The city was on constant alert.

At about ten o’clock on the morning of August 9—three days after the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb used in wartime over the city of Hiroshima—another round of air raid sirens wailed in Nagasaki.  Adults and children throughout the city scurried to the tunnel-shaped air raid shelters built in factories, hospitals, schools, and into the sides of hills all around.

Yoshida points on the map to the shelter where he hid that morning.  “When the air raid alarm sounded, my friends—”

“There were six of you?”

“Yes, six friends, plus me—seven total—we went to the air raid shelter near our school for protection.  But teachers and employees had priority, so we didn’t go in.  Instead, we escaped to an air raid shelter in the woods to hide from the enemy.

“We crouched there until the ‘all clear’ sounded.  This meant that the enemy planes were gone, and we had to leave the shelter and get back to school.  If the ‘all clear’ siren hadn’t sounded, we would have stayed in the woods, and we wouldn’t have been so close.”

Just before 11:00 a.m., the people of Nagasaki emerged from hiding.  The sun was hot, and the high-pitched, rhythmic song of cicadas vibrated across the city.  Crowds filled the streets.  At an altitude of thirty thousand feet, Bock’s Car, the B-29 carrying the second atomic bomb, arrived undetected.

“It was summer—right?”  Yoshida says, speaking so fast I can hardly understand him.  “We wanted some water.   So when we came down from the mountain, we stopped at a roadside well shared by two farmhouses.”

Six miles above, Captain Kermit Beahan, Bock’s Car’s bombardier, activated the tone signal that opened the bomb bay doors and indicated thirty seconds until release. Five seconds later, he noticed a hole in the clouds and made a visual identification of Nagasaki. “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” he yelled. Within seconds, the instrument plane accompanying Bock’s Car discharged three parachutes, each attached to scientific equipment that would measure heat, blast, and radiation effects. Then Beahan released the bomb.

On the side of the road, Yoshida was lowering the bucket into the well when he looked up to his right and saw two parachutes about a half a mile away, falling between a crack in the clouds.

Rakka-san, they were called back then,” he says.  Descending umbrellas.

“What did you think when you saw them?”

“I just thought that they were regular parachutes, that maybe some soldiers were coming down.”

“Did you say anything?”

Yoshida shrugs.  “Just, ‘Hey, look! Something’s falling!’  We all looked up, using our hands to block the sun.  The parachutes floated down—saaatto—quietly, with no sound.”

Then Yoshida noticed a large dark object falling through the clouds.

“There was just a split second, then…BAN!” he says, his voice loud and fevered as he recalls the thunderous detonation of the five-ton plutonium bomb.  Yoshida jumps up from his chair and moves to the white board behind me.  At high speed, he scribbles the mountains around the city, marks where he was standing when he saw the bomb, and draws an “x” for the hypocenter—the point five hundred meters above the ground where the bomb exploded.  “My body was hurled into the air,” he says, drawing a line from one spot to another, “and blasted across a field, a road, and an irrigation channel.  I landed here, in a rice paddy.”

One millionth of a second after the bomb exploded above the city, the burst point reached an estimated three to four million degrees Fahrenheit.  All the materials that made up the bomb vaporized into an ionized gas, releasing electromagnetic waves that, when absorbed by the air, ignited a fireball approximately fifty-two feet wide, with an internal temperature of over 180,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  In one second, the fireball grew to about 750 feet in diameter.  The demolition force of the blast blew people off their feet, crushed them beneath houses and collapsed buildings, destroyed steel structures, roofs, and walls, and moved an iron bridge twenty-eight inches downstream.  Near the hypocenter, the heat instantly carbonized human and animal bodies and vaporized their internal fluids.  Within three seconds of the explosion, infrared rays from the heat of the blast caused severe and fatal flash burns on the exposed faces, arms, and legs of tens of thousands of people.  Unprecedented levels of radiation penetrated deeply into the bodies of people and animals, initiating cellular mutations that would lead to death, disease, and life-changing medical conditions.

As the mushroom cloud billowed three miles overhead and darkened the city, Yoshida lay in a muddy rice field more than 130 feet from the well where he had seen the bomb.  His entire body was burned.

˜

Yoshida moves back to his chair but does not sit.  “We should go to the museum,” he says, “I’ll show you the photos of me there.”  I follow him through the long corridors of the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall, into hidden hallways that connect it to the Atomic Bomb Museum, and downstairs to the below-ground entrance to the exhibits.  The museum staff wave Yoshida through, and we bypass the turnstiles that visitors use to enter.

The first room is a small passageway with oversized black-and-white photographs of Nagasaki from the 1940s.  Set into trees and foliage, wooden homes are clustered in small neighborhoods across the city.  Staircases ascend into the hills, leading to shops and tile-roofed houses huddled close together.  Streetcars wind through the city on tracks, their wires connected to cables strung between electrical poles along the side of the road.  Women wear kimonos, and men wear Western clothes – suits, shirts, slacks, and sometimes hats.  Workers transport their goods with hand- and horse-pulled carts.  In one celebratory photo, thousands of people are standing on the docks of a shipyard next to a battleship, waving their fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles off to war.  In another, students at bayonet practice stand in lines on the dirt field of their school.

The next room is cavernous and nearly dark.  All around are actual and recreated ruins of the city:  cracked archways and crumbling sacred statues from the Urakami Cathedral, melted metal beams from bridges, and fractured cement staircases from schools and factories.  Video screens alternate black-and-white photos of factories reduced to mangled steel skeletons, vast stretches of debris and dust where the city once was, scorched bodies, and people wandering dazed through the rubble.

We move into the main exhibit room, past a timeline of the Manhattan Project and the development and delivery of the bombs, and weave through a crowd of junior high school students toward a wall of photographs relating to survivors’ injuries.  Behind us to our left stands a life-size model of the Nagasaki atomic bomb, ten feet eight inches high and five feet in diameter with an orange-red band around its middle like a belt.

Yoshida points to the glass case in front of us.  “The top photo is before my surgery,” he says.  “The bottom one is after.”

I stare at the top photo trying to understand what I am seeing.  Except for the outline of his head and neck and his thick black hair on top, it is hard to tell that this photograph is actually a side view of Yoshida’s face.  The entire right side of his head—from behind his ear to the middle of his nose, and from the top of his head past his right eye, cheek, and down to his neck—is a mass of charred, blistered, crusted skin.  His right ear is a swollen glob of melted flesh.

We stand together in silence.

“The left side of my face healed on its own,” Yoshida says, “but on the right side, the burns were more severe.  Even though my skin grew back, the flesh beneath it didn’t.  I was in the hospital for fifteen months.”

Yoshida

“How many surgeries did you have?”

“Three.  Two of them failed.  They took skin from my left thigh and grafted it onto my face, but infections grew beneath the skin and pus would pour out.  When the infections healed, the skin scabbed over, as hard as a cast.  That was really, intensely painful.  After the third surgery, I gradually healed.”

“What about your right ear?”

Yoshida touches the black patch covering the right side of his head.  “After a while,” he says, “the swollen part rotted and fell off.  So there’s no ear here.”

“Nothing at all?”

“No.  Just a hole, alone.”

The bottom photograph shows Yoshida’s face a year later, after his final surgery in late 1946.  It is difficult to see much of a difference, except that both the blackness and the swelling are somewhat reduced.  By then, Yoshida was nearly fifteen.  His eyes are frozen in terror.

˜

“Let’s go upstairs,” he says, turning to leave.  I dash after him, barely keeping up, past artifacts of the bombing:  melted coins and glass; scorched rice in a schoolgirl’s melted metal lunch box; and a military helmet found near the hypocenter, with part of the soldier’s skull still attached on the inner surface.  We enter the last exhibit room, filled with paintings and poems created by survivors.  To the right, three small television screens are mounted on the wall in front of cushioned benches where visitors can sit and watch videotaped testimonies of individual hibakusha (“bomb-affected people”).

“My video is number 21,” Yoshida tells me as we race by.

“Number 21?” I say. “I’ll come back when it’s not crowded.”

“Yes,” he replies.  “I hope you will.”

We ascend the spiral walkway to the museum lobby.  In the span of three minutes, Yoshida seamlessly interrupts his conversation with me numerous times to bow slightly and say ohayou gozaimasu—good morning—to every visitor who passes.

“When did you start speaking in front of others?”  I ask.

“It was about twenty-two years ago,” he says.   That’s 1987, I calculate, forty-two years after the bomb.  “Many survivors spoke a lot, but I didn’t until then.  I was shy to be in front of women.  Everyone looks at me like this—” Yoshida grimaces.  “I didn’t like it.”

“But you don’t feel that way now?”

“No, no.  I don’t.  Right now, my schedule is very busy.  High school students, junior high students, elementary school students.  When I speak to elementary school students, I have to use language they can understand.  It’s hard.

“This is what I say to children,” he continues.  “‘Have you ever looked up “heiwa”— “peace”—in the dictionary?’  They never have.  They’ve never looked it up because we don’t need to know what peace is during peacetime.  ‘Let’s look it up together,’ I say to them.”

We continue up the walkway.  “Our greatest enemy is carelessness,” he says.  “We need to pay attention to peace.”

In 2005, Yoshida traveled to Chicago to speak at several universities and at the Chicago Peace Museum.  “Audiences were generally receptive,” he says, “and they always asked about Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.  I told them that I think it was wrong that Japan started the war, and I apologized for that.”

“Telling your story over and over again,” I ask, “it’s not overwhelming?”

“No, I’ve gotten used to it.  In the past, whenever I went to speak somewhere, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s too much.’  Now, I think that we should prevent war at all costs, so I should tell my story.  Being shy is not a good reason to not speak for peace.”

We enter the lobby of the museum.  On every wall hangs artwork, most made of colorful origami cranes representing peace, from school children across Japan and the world.  Dozens of other pieces lean against the walls, overlapping one another.  A group of students in uniforms waits for Yoshida in the lobby.

“An hour isn’t long enough to tell my story,” he says.

“No, it isn’t,” I reply.  “I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

We bow to one another and I thank him.  Then he turns to greet his group and lead them down the hall to the assembly room.

˜

The next day, I meet Yoshida at the information desk and follow him as he zips through the hallways toward the elevator.  Suddenly he veers right to the staircase.  “The stairs are better for you!” he says, ascending them at fast speed and laughing as I hurry to keep up.  We head into the second-floor conference room with a large window overlooking the city.  As I try to catch my breath, Yoshida holds out his hand.  “This is for you,” he says, giving me an individually wrapped lemon cake, “in case you didn’t have time for lunch.”

We settle into chairs across from one another, and Yoshida quickly returns to his memories immediately following the atomic explosion.  “I’d been hurled back into a rice paddy, right?  At some point when I regained consciousness, I could feel the coldness of the water, so I stood up.  My body was covered in mud.  I didn’t feel any pain.”

“You were in shock?”

“Yes.  My entire face was burned.”  Yoshida’s voice is animated. “The skin on my arms had peeled off and was hanging down, and blood—I had no skin, so blood was pouring out of my flesh.”

He points to his ribcage and looks at me.  “I broke two ribs, and they’re still bent, even now.  The doctor said the bones had healed in that bent position, as they’d been broken.  Now, mostly, it doesn’t hurt, but when I play baseball, I can’t swing the bat further than this.”  Yoshida mimes a baseball swing that stops short because he can’t turn his body at the waist.

“After the bomb,” he continues, showing me his hands, palms upward, “my hands were tight, like this.”   Yoshida curls his fingers into fists.  “The doctor told me to put sand in a bucket and hold it with my fingers so that my fingers would eventually open.  The bucket was pulling my fingers down.  I couldn’t hold it for five minutes because it hurt, like my hand would break.  It took thirteen years before I could do this.”  He spreads his fingers open.  “In winter, it’s still really painful because the tissue underneath my skin always seems to split open.”

All six of Yoshida’s friends survived the initial explosion.  They found each other and lay wounded in the grass next to a small river, hoping to be rescued.  Field workers and others began staggering down from the hills, injured and dazed.  “Tons of people,” Yoshida says.  “People whose skin was falling off and hanging in strips from their bodies.  Some had body parts that had been blown away.  Some were almost completely naked and so badly burned I couldn’t tell if they were men or women.”

“People were moaning and crying,” he says, his voice higher—younger, it seems, as if he is still there.   “I saw one person whose eyeballs were hanging out.  And people who were burned black all over, like us.  Everyone begged for water.”

Yoshida leans forward, his eyes holding my focus.  “Some mothers came down from the mountains and were crying, and we started crying, too, even louder.  We joined them and headed toward the city, past dead bodies, some burned to ashes.  As we got closer to the hypocenter, the whole city was on fire.  Our skin was peeling off, and our flesh was swollen.  Leeches from the rice paddy had attached to me, and at some point, we turned around and went back to the embankment to wash ourselves off.  We placed uncharred leaves all over our bodies to cover the areas without skin.  Then we crouched down in an area where the ground was depressed.  ‘Hang in there, okay?’ we said, trying to encourage each other. ‘Gotta keep going…do our best…’

“By late afternoon,” he continues without pausing, “the leaves that we’d put over our open wounds began to dry out and crumble from the heat of the sun.  When they fell off, the sun was beating down on our exposed flesh.”  Later that day when the sun fell behind the mountains, the boys felt visceral relief.  “At that point,” Yoshida says, “we thought we were saved.”

Yoshida’s story races from his mouth.  “My face was so swollen that I couldn’t open my eyes.  I couldn’t see anything, but whenever anyone passed, I called out to ask if my neighborhood near Suwa Shrine was damaged.  I heard their voices reply to me, ‘The whole city is destroyed!’

“I lost consciousness that night.  One of my friends, Tabuchi, who could still see out of one eye, left to try to make it over the mountain to our neighborhood.   He arrived home the next morning, and his mother went to my house to tell my parents where I was.  Because of that, I was saved.

“My mother and father and two neighbors walked seven kilometers, all the way from Uma-machi.  The streets were still burning, you know?  Their feet got so hot, they couldn’t bear it.  Many houses were crushed and the water pipes had burst, so water trickled out.  They ran to the water and got their feet wet and then kept walking.  That’s what I heard.

“My parents were ira-ira—desperate—to find me, and walked through the ruins of my school where a member of a relief team had taken me.  They called out my name, ‘Katsuji!  Katsuji!’  But everyone looked the same, right?  And everyone answered to everyone else’s call.

“‘We won’t be able to find him,’ my mother said to my father.

“‘If that’s the case,’ my father said, ‘then we need to lean in close to their ears and say his name in a small voice.’  I don’t know how many dozens of people they did that with, but when they came to me, they suddenly knew it was me.”

“Did they carry you home in their arms?”

“They placed me in an uba-guruma—a baby carriage—and pushed me through the smoldering ruins and across the mountains to our home.”

“When did you regain consciousness?”

“Not until mid-December.  Four months.  My mother laid out a futon and put newspapers on top, and then a kind of wax paper to protect the bedding from the pus oozing out of my wounds.  She lay me down on top of that and hung mosquito netting.  My mother was especially cautious about flies, but they landed on her and she carried them through the mosquito netting to me.  They laid eggs all over me.  She tried removing them with chopsticks, but the eggs were too small, so she heated the scissors and scraped my flesh—even though it was rotting.  By doing that, she removed a lot of eggs and later maggots that had hatched in my wounds.”

“What about the friends you were with that day?”

“The first one died on August 21st.  Then one by one they died in the weeks following the bomb. I’m the only one left.  As for my other classmates, we stopped having class reunions for my vocational school because everyone in my class had died.

“It’s because of my mother that I am alive,” he says.  “She never slept, and any food she had she gave to me.  My face was so badly burned that I couldn’t open my mouth, so my mother used a stick to feed me.  ‘Kuu, kuu,’ she said softly, to encourage me to eat.”

˜

In December 1945, still unconscious, Yoshida was transported to the Omura Naval Hospital north of Nagasaki and received medical treatment for the first time.  After three skin graft surgeries, he was discharged from the hospital in January 1947.  Yoshida, then fifteen, walked alone into the Omura train station, and when he entered the waiting area, the room fell silent.  Yoshida’s still blackened face drew everyone’s gaze.

“I bowed my head and cried,” he says.  “After the train left the station, I thought I would have some peace, but at each stop people got on and off, and everyone stared.  So I kept my face down and cried all the way to Nagasaki.

“I’m okay now, but then I was completely messed up.  Such a handsome fellow that I was,” Yoshida jokes.  “I was totally disfigured.  I couldn’t show my face.  After I got home, I never left my house.”

“How long did you stay inside?”

“For two or three years. There was a barbershop within fifty meters of my house, but I wouldn’t even go that far.  At some point, my mother asked the barber to come to our house on his day off to cut my hair, but instead, he said I could come to the shop in the morning before it opened.  In the middle of my haircut, it came time to open the shop.  I looked up into the mirror in front of me and saw a customer looking at me.  Our eyes met in the mirror.

“Immediately the customer looked away,” Yoshida continues.  “He looked at me again. Human nature is amazing—once you’ve seen something, even if you turn away, you want to see that thing again.  At that moment, I became very sad and began to cry.

“Later, my mother came to me and asked, ‘Have you ever thought about getting help so your face would be less difficult to look at?  Why don’t we contact the doctor in Omura and ask him what to do?’  She did that, and I got cream to apply to my face.  I’ve applied lotion to my skin every day since then.  Even today,” Yoshida teases and laughs, “knowing I was going to see you, I applied lotion on my skin!”

˜

By 1949, four years after the bomb, Yoshida had finally recovered enough to begin working at a grocery wholesaler.  Eventually he married.  “I was pretty lucky,” he says, speaking about his wife.

“Was she a hibakusha, too?”  I ask.

“No, my wife wasn’t injured in the bomb.  She died ten years ago, from cancer.”

h

“Did you discuss your experience with her?”

“We didn’t talk about it much.  But ten years after we were married—we’d had two children in ten years—my wife told me how she’d felt at first.  ‘We were sleeping together back then,’ she said, ‘but I couldn’t look at your face because it was so black.’”  Yoshida clasps his hands.  “I had a wife who couldn’t look at me.”

“What about your children?”

“For years, when my sons were little, I instructed them:  ‘When someone asks what happened to me, don’t hide the facts of my experience.  Right away, tell them that your father was injured in the atomic bomb.’  I told them this over and over.  But three times my young sons brought friends over to the house, and when the children looked at me, they said, ‘Your father has a black face!’ But my sons didn’t say anything.

“Then one day, we were at sports day at my son Tomoji’s school.  During the lunch break, everyone from the same class sat together in a circle on the ground—on woven grass mats.  Parents and children together.  Some of the children looked at me like they were shocked.  They were still children, so they said what they were thinking without hesitation.  One of the children said, ‘Tomo-chan!  Your father has an awful face, huh!’

“‘Oh my God!’ I thought, ‘It would have been better if I hadn’t come!’  But this time my son spoke up for me immediately.

“‘My daddy was hurt by the atomic bomb,’ Tomoji said.  That saved me.  I felt grateful to my son.

“Now I go to my grandchildren’s school and anywhere I can.  The children of Kyushu’s elementary schools treat me like Kimutaku.  I sign my name ‘Grandpa Yoshida,’” he says and laughs.  “Then I write in parentheses, ‘Grandpa Kimutaku.’”

˜

The following morning, as I leave the museum library, all the school groups have already entered the exhibit hall, so the lobby is quiet.  Outside the main entrance, Yoshida is standing on the sidewalk talking with the ice cream cart vendor, an older woman, slightly bent over, wearing a long white apron and white kerchief on her head.

“Good morning,” I say, bowing to both of them.

“Good morning!” he says, his voice strong and vibrant.  “My group is late.”

“Ah,” I say, nodding, remembering that Yoshida himself is always early.

“Would you like some ice cream?” he says, smiling broadly.  “It’s very delicious!  I’ll treat you!”

“No, thank you,” I answer, laughing.  Yoshida laughs, too, and then turns back to continue talking with the woman as I head down the hill.  Behind me, I hear voices of students chattering as they approach the museum from the other side.  I glance back to see Yoshida greeting the head teacher.  He races ahead of the students and holds the museum door open, urging them inside until the last student has entered.  Yoshida follows quickly behind, on his way to the lecture hall where he will face more children’s stares, ease their fear with jokes about his dashing good looks, and tell his story once again.

 


Runner-up in 2009 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize, judged by Robin Hemley.

What You Can Tell from My Childhood Heroes: Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers

I thumb through a pocket-sized pink book, rediscovered amongst multiplication tables and half-finished watercolor still-lifes from art class in fourth grade. I can see that it used to have a lock but doesn’t anymore, this dime-store diary that must have been a party favor. I turn the pages slowly, mesmerized by the loops of my h’s and my cursive b’s, by handwriting that is both mine and not mine simultaneously. Handwriting, like a rediscovered childhood photograph can seem at once distant and startlingly familiar. I recognize my letters on the page, but are they really my letters? I still slant my lower-case l’s like that. How strange—I used to cross my z’s.

As a bizarre and bookish eleven-year-old, I had addressed my diary entries to my heroes. In my world, where girls walked through wardrobes into enchanted forests, it was easy to imagine that my idols (living and dead) could somehow peek at my most private thoughts. “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt” began the first. I begged her to forgive my meanness to my younger brother. “Dear Ingrid,” I had written, in another. “If only I were as pretty as you were in Casablanca.” I complained to Alice Paul that I was not very good at soccer. I confessed to Jennifer Aniston that I was worried no one would ask me to dance next year at cotillion—had she ever been afraid of that?

It went on. Clearly, I had changed heroes like most middle-school girls change nail polish colors. People say you can tell a lot about someone from who their heroes are, but what, from these pages, can you tell about me? What do sitcom actresses have to do with militant women’s rights leaders, and what do either have to do with me? They are all women, yes, but only some, it seems, are women’s heroes. Eleanor Roosevelt is a fine role model for a young girl, but Ingrid Bergman played Ilsa Lund in Casablanca, perhaps one of the weakest female characters in cinematic history. What the hell had I been doing, dreaming of being her?

Feminism was not a word I learned, consciously, until my 20th century history elective in ninth grade. It was strange to discuss its definition, to think of it as a movement—and a controversial one—because it was something that for so long I had taken for granted. I think the definition my history class agreed upon was something vague and open-ended, like “a celebration of womanhood.” I remember wondering then who did not celebrate womanhood.

My eight years at an all-girls school had been a zealous celebration. Each year, we took women’s history. In April we dressed up as various women’s rights pioneers for the annual “Famous American Women’s Tea.” No one offered us dolls in kindergarten. We read books starring female heroines, beginning in kindergarten with reworked fairy tales with titles like The Real Cinderella (in which she doesn’t even need a fairy godmother!). We analyzed Elizabeth Bennett’s defiance of social norms and admired Jo March’s pluck. In later years, we attended workshops that focused on “The Female Experience,” intended to demonstrate the ways in which women were objectified and oversexed. We watched Covergirl advertisements and then tore them apart. We wore uniforms that included ties. Make-up was not permitted under any circumstances.

It was only when I was in my fall term of coed high school that I came to understand that this was not part of a “typical education.” Indeed, my grade school’s philosophy was part of a movement, an ism just like communism or atheism. I had been schooled as a feminist, though no one had ever asked me if I wanted to be one.

The history class where I discovered all of this was also the class where, for the first time, I was tested as a woman. There were twelve of us: me, one quiet dark-haired girl, and ten boys. These were the boys I had been told I was as smart as, or smarter than, throughout my childhood. And I was. I liked the sound of my own voice. Overeager and a little vicious, I said what I thought. I learned how to lean back in my chair and move my hands in such a way that people would listen. I learned how to say, “No, I disagree with that,” rapidly but quietly, and how to wade through lines of text for that one word I wanted. But I learned other things in that class as well.

I learned, for example, that when talking to boys, I ought to lean in just a little bit and run my fingers through the ends of hair. I learned how to arch my back just so. I learned how to laugh so that boys would laugh with me, a little higher than usual and a little softer. I learned how to walk out of class, with my hips, and what to wear to dances (not a dress, but tight, colored jeans) and what to wear the rest of the time (button-downs undone to the third button). I learned how to smile with a kind of half-smirk.

Most of it was subconscious, these strange shifts in attitude and dress and manner, picked up from girls around me, or the result of some kind of natural instinct I never knew I had. I recognize it now as a desire to charm and be adored and even objectified. I liked to hear that boys were talking about my body, or that so-and-so thought I was “hot,” or, even better, “banging.” I began to underline my eyes with soft black pencil.

I liked the way eyeliner smelled, waxy and synthetic and a little bit like wood. It reminded me of my mother. There had been no occasion for me to wear makeup throughout my younger years, so I associated make-up only with her as she prepared for parties, evening light splattering her mirror like white fire. I used to think it was the light that tasted like violets, but it must have been her perfume. She would dab it with two fingers on the back of her neck, twisting her back to smile at me. Her blonde hair was usually swept up so that her cheekbones jutted out, and the pins must have dug into her scalp, hard, but I remember someone (her?) saying that pain was beauty and beauty was pain. I liked to watch her reflection, distorted, warped by refracted rainbows.

When she was gone, out dancing, I would copy her sometimes. The light was purple and I would smear on bright red lipstick, missing my lips most of the time, and licking them repeatedly. It tasted like chalk and chemicals and my mother’s kisses. I felt like a lady.

Feminists speak of the moment when one becomes a woman. Simone de Beauvoir said it first, perhaps. I vividly remember a quote of hers from The Second Sex that I read on a pink Post-It note in my sixth grade French teacher’s classroom. On ne naît pas femme, on le devient. One is not born a woman, but becomes one. When, though? Did I become a woman in front of my mother’s mirror, trying on her face and feeling feminine, without even knowing the word for it? Or was it in my fourth grade class when I starred as Victoria Woodhull in a play, declaring my intentions to run for president in 1872, and feeling something like proud?

It seemed, that ninth grade year, that despite my education in feminism, it was still the early moment that had shaped me more, that moment when I felt for the first time the raw physical desire to be beautiful. It began to define me, the pursuit of beauty. I ate less. I became obsessed with the “Hot Lists” I knew were being made in the basements of boys’ dorms. Where would I fall? Would I be picked at all? Always the competitor, I compared my legs to my friends’. I compared my eyes and hair and lips and butt and cheeks and smile. I burned through a series of boys, quickly and without much success. No one seemed to like me quite as much as I liked them. Always, when it didn’t work out, I blamed it on my looks. I was too pale. I was too fat. I cried in front of the mirror, and then cried harder at the sight of my blotchy cheeks. I wrote a lot of bad poetry. I still talked in class, perhaps too much, and did my homework diligently, but my mind was consumed by thoughts of boys and, as a result, my body.

In tenth grade, an older dark-haired boy broke my heart. I use the cliché of a broken heart because that is what it was. Everything I thought and did might have been a scene from a bad movie, or lines from a Taylor Swift song. I refused to understand, as usual, why he had rejected me, attributing it to my freckles and bumpy nose. But this time, for some reason, as I stuffed myself sick with ice cream (and then squeezed my stomach, self-conscious) I got bored. I couldn’t stand myself any longer. I resolved that I wouldn’t cry any more, and I didn’t. I began to hide in the library, even skipping meals and dances to work on papers. I swore off boys. I didn’t brush my hair, some mornings, and I started wearing my thick glasses to class other days. It wasn’t that I stopped caring about my appearance that winter. It was simply that I tried a new approach, or an old one. I made an art of not trying. I tried to, anyway. I woke up and buttoned my flannel shirt and told myself, to hell with it. I don’t care.

I don’t care. It’s still the first lie I tell myself in the morning, and often the last as I climb into bed. I bend like a broken lily in front of the mirror, trying to find some shape of my body that pleases me, and then I shake my head and tell myself that it doesn’t matter. I don’t care.

These days, I wear no make-up and I like saying that out loud. It’s the truth, strictly speaking. Mornings, I run my fingers through my hair, yanking at knots, before stumbling naked-faced out of my room. I guess I take some kind of pride in the purple circles that underline my eyes, the blackhead blooming near the corner of my unpainted lips. Look at me. I don’t care. Not about what dress I’m wearing or the curve of my hips. Not about whether she looks better than me in those jeans (she does) and not about whether he notices that she does (he must). I don’t care about who whispers what when I walk by, or my place on this list or that. I don’t care. Look at me.

I like watching girls sweep bronzer onto their cheeks with butterfly hands. I like watching them straightening their hair, strand by glossy strand. I like half-smiling in my superiority. I am a strong woman, and this is “The Female Experience.” I’ve read de Beauvoir and Nancy Cott and even some Virginia Woolf (though I didn’t understand much of it). They haven’t.

Meanwhile, I’m sneaking sidelong glances in the mirror. The truth is that not caring is as thick a mask as two pounds of La Mer foundation. The truth is that I do care, that I am confined by my body as much as any other girl. I’m trying desperately not to try. And there is still a guilty part of me that is obsessed. I google fad diets and natural ways to lighten my hair. I like to stare at pictures of 50’s movie stars. I buy Cosmopolitan and I devour articles with titles like “How to Make Him Fall in Love.” Then I shove the magazine behind piles of paper, or under back issues of The Paris Review.

I am not the exemplary graduate of the Sarah Dix Hamlin School for girls. I am not a pure feminist in the spirit of de Beauvoir, but I suppose that I would still consider myself a feminist of some kind. I can think of no overarching definition of the movement, and perhaps my history class was right to be ambiguous. I celebrate my womanhood as much as I struggle with it, but in any case my womanhood extends beyond my intellectual achievements and convictions. It includes my femininity, and my body, the very thing that makes me female. I want sometimes to dance provocatively, to lean on a boy’s shoulder with all my weight. I want to eat Ben & Jerry’s and watch Mean Girls just as much as I want to flip through volumes of Carolyn Forché. I want to win prizes for my history papers, but I also want to be on the top of whatever “Hot List” is being made. Sometimes, I do like the empowerment of pulling on my sweatpants and leaving my hair limp. Other times, I think that beauty is worth endless pain.

These are a few of the things that I would never say out loud. I like my mask of intellect and haughtiness; it’s less messy than make-up, and more consistent with the woman I was taught to be. If I were ten years old, though, I would record these small and bothersome truths in my diary, and try to make some sense of these inconsistencies and conflicting desires that plague me and define me. Depending on the day, I might address the entry to Dianne Feinstein, my living example of feminine power. Or perhaps I would write to my mother, a blonde beauty with smooth skin and wide eyes, the first woman who I ever tried to be.

Dear Mom, I might write. The smell of your perfume makes me both giddy and nauseous. I feel compelled to hate it, but I am drawn to it now just as much as when I was six years old. I can still taste the light in your dressing room. Did you know, Mom, that I tried on your lipstick and then rejected it? Everything’s a paradox as far as I can tell. I am trying desperately to be like you and not like you at the same time. I wish you could just tell me if I should dress up or down, whether or not I should read fashion magazines, how I should smile at boys. I wish you would tell me what to do, though I’m not sure if I would listen if you did. I love you.

 


An excellent essay on gender empowerment, conflicting expectations and the natural adolescent preoccupation with fitting in. The diary to heroes would be an intriguing device to develop into a novel or larger collection of essays.
—Cynthia Leitich Smith, 2011 Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers Judge


Fefe Naa Efe: Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers

“To find a place that fits. Where past and present coincide. Where the landscape feels like a version of the self. To walk out into such  a place, so at home in its vocabulary that you don’t need words. Memory eased, exonerated. The mud-covered streets of the heart so prosaic they promise a life of their own.”

–Judith Kitchen 

The sound of this country is the cowbell. That same five beat refrain:

ding ding ding      DING DING,

The background for beer as well as church, the pulse underneath the red earth. Everything is in the dirt here, the body, the blood and the Holy Ghost. Forget the stars, though once you get out of the city, out of Accra, out of the exhaust they are quite beautiful. In the city there are no great astral beauties, just great hacking coughs, rust colored spittle settling into the corners of mouths, wet burgundy drying deep into the cracks of ashy toes.

And here you are, in the midst of  harmattan, the season of Saharan dust settling over the city, the sky a flat, lifeless brown, sneaking out of school to buy fried yams with your friends. Here you are dodging traffic and security guards to make it five feet from the school gates, slide stained money out of your pocket and hand it to the sweaty braless woman manning the dull silver pit of grease. You later find out her name is Happy, which seems fitting, considering the face she makes every time you hand her a 5,000 cedi bill.  Here you are, stuffing your face with sticks of yellow yam and orange sweet potato until your face shines with grease. Here you are, sticking your hand into the accompanying bag of red and black pepper sauce, running your finger around the edge, flipping the bag inside out, placing it in your mouth, sucking out the juices. Here, you are taking it all in.

You drive everywhere or rather, are driven everywhere in this country. You never get anywhere on foot unless you’re stumbling down Oxford Street, dodging the outstretched hands of beggars and men of dubious intent. And even then, sometimes you smack the wrists away from the safety of the interior of your taxi. You forget sometimes there is a natural world, being a city girl through and through. The closest you get to wildness is the goats wandering down the middle of the street, the memorable image of chickens falling into open gutters, a mushroom cloud of white feathers and feces molded green.

There are still times where you get back to the wild. Back, because it’s where you are from. Back because your veins and the soil are sisters. On a Habitat for Humanity trip in eighth grade you spend all day carrying plastic buckets of water up and down a hill. The buckets are green and give the water a pale tint, the color of celery. The second day you mix huge batches of concrete, grey and mealy. A boy named Derek Achampong splashes some of the watery mixture onto one of his shoes, exclaims “Hey yo! These are hundred dollar kicks.” He doesn’t even have the decency to look ashamed, doesn’t even have the decency to look around at the villagers, their eyes large with the sum of $100, of more money than they will ever have at one time.

You first come to know nature when you move to Michigan, not outside, but fittingly, in the pages of a book; in the story “Making Love in 2003,” by Miranda July. It’s a story of a girl who sends her longing out into the world, who wants so much for love that she can’t help but pray to everything, to the linoleum beneath her feet, and deeper. The world answers her call, gives her an amorphous black mass that makes love to her every night; that fills her.

This idea, that the world can answer your prayers, that the idea of heaven could be not above but all around, in the oxygen you breathe, in the food you eat, is everything you’ve wanted to hear. You don’t know how to adequately express your wonder but you try to tell your best friend one day at lunch. “Isn’t that the most fucking amazing idea ever?” you say, searching her eyes for some sense that she understands. And she does. This is a girl, after all, who spends hours in the woods, crawling on all fours, who comes to your room scratched and smelling of white pine and says “I have a poem I want you to read.”

You resolve to spend as much time as you can stupefied, to open yourself to the world completely. You find yourself wanting to absorb the world, to take on people’s sadness, their love. You become a vehicle of consumption and you want nothing more than to unhinge your jaw and swallow the world whole, contain all the horror and beauty within yourself. You write lots of bad poetry.

When the snow falls that winter, your second winter, you find yourself depressed. You have come, in this winter to know sadness, to find a place inside yourself that is larger than you will ever grow, that is rooted deeper than inherence. Your sadness is not dark and cavernous but dazzlingly white and never-ending. It is months long and well lit but ill formed at the edges, blurry at the horizon and soft, easy to get lost in. You think maybe if you stop moving it will go away but you start to go numb, lose your train of thought.  Like the snow, your sadness is seemingly unaffected by salt water, the warmth emitted by your body, your sibilant prayers for the world to stop spinning. And like your sadness, the snow is a constant reminder that you are not in control of much.

As time wears on you find yourself no longer a citizen of any land. You still cannot walk on ice but the heat in Ghana makes you break out into a rash. You have never really had a sense of belonging to any one place except this galaxy, but this loss is sad for some reason. There is fodder for poetry in this nomadic existence at the very least. You find yourself doing this a lot lately, trying to quell your pessimistic urges, thinking ‘there’s a poem in there somewhere.’ And if there is something strong enough to bridge the gap then it is this, finding beauty in the red smears your shoes leave in the snow.


“Fefe Naa Efe” also relies on incredibly concrete details worked into a half-seen scenario – in this case, a childhood divided between Africa and the States.
—M.T. Anderson, 2010 Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers Judge


Believers

The house we stood in front of had a stained glass representation of the birth of Christ as a picture window. I put down one of my cases of beer and looked at Robert, my college boyfriend. The New Year’s Eve party was here?

“It’s cool,” he said. “We’ll be downstairs.”

Inside we saw that his friend’s parents were having a party of their own, a party that involved a nun sitting at the kitchen table with handful of small children in fancy dresses and Happy New Year tiaras. The nun was in full gear—habit and all—and the parents were cooking, listening to what sounded like a cassette tape of hymns. I said hello and followed Robert downstairs.

The furnished basement was filled with white Midwesterners in untucked flannel shirts drinking and dancing to Tom Petty. I made small talk with the girls. Robert changed the music to ska and started dancing in a corner. The beat was haphazard and Robert danced unselfconsciously, lifting his feet like he was running in place, elbows flailing, his glasses hardly staying on his face. I stood watching him and felt proud, like I was somehow responsible for him.

~

Our parents and professors were hoping we’d get married. Part of me was, too. We both came from über Catholic families. Robert’s father was a deacon who taught at the local Catholic high school, and his mother directed Religious Education. Robert was raised on family trips to the seminary and Catholic Trivial Pursuit (yes, it’s real).

I was just as interested and invested in my faith. I was a religion major, a volunteer hospital chaplain, a member of a parish retreat team. Both Robert and I had our struggles with faith, but we were working through them together. We were both believers. And this was how it went, I thought: I was twenty-one and believed myself to be an adult, and adults had serious relationships and went to church.

But there was a problem. While I loved Robert, I knew something was missing. There was no passion. Originally I thought this was a good thing because it made us similar to other role models in my faith life—people with solid marriages and loving families who were rarely physically affectionate. When Robert and I found ourselves along a similar path, I took this to be a good sign. We were doing exactly what we were supposed to.

~

Robert and I had started dating the spring of my sophomore year. The next fall I was studying abroad for the year in Ireland. We made a deal: if either of us found someone else, an opportunity, we would take it—but we would tell each other if it turned into something serious. And when Marlaine started staying over, I called.

Marlaine was born in Puerto Rico, raised in Germany, and went to college in Colorado. She was on my same exchange program and was in the same position I was— in an open relationship, in a new country—and we spent our time together. She would slip letters into my coat pockets, quoting Alice Walker: Don’t you know any kind of love is all right? I’d help her lug the groceries home (she always bought too much) and get her in and out of her bright red coat. We held hands in public places, and I’d proudly watch people stare. She would crawl into my bed while I was writing and fall asleep there, waking up and asking for a story when I curled in next to her. When I had dated men, I felt in control. I called the shots. With Marlaine, regardless of what we were or weren’t, I wasn’t in control. I felt reckless, inspired. This is love, I thought, terrified. This is what people were talking about.

Robert was understanding and, towards the end of our conversation, encouraging. In January he traveled to France for a one-month language program, and we met in Paris for a weekend. We sat in a run-down café, and he ordered for us in French. Robert said he worried he might be gay—he wasn’t dating anyone, but he’d been having these erotic dreams that left him feeling confused, and aroused. I was relieved, thinking we could help each other through this. But Robert thought otherwise: “I don’t want to be a homosexual,” he said. “I’ll just get over it. It’s probably just something I’m going through.” We didn’t talk about it again.

When I returned to Ireland, I realized that as romantic as Marlaine and I were, as invested as I’d become, she didn’t feel the same. We’d go to bed and I’d put my arms around her, and she would just squeeze my hands. She didn’t let me touch her. One night in her room I found a letter she was writing to a friend back home: “I wish I could love her the way she loves me. But I can’t.”

I moved back to Iowa. I started going out to bars, meeting men, because I wanted something safe and predictable. I wanted to be back in control.

Finally I went to see Robert in his hometown, and we spent New Year’s Eve with a nun.

~

Robert was beautiful—petite, with delicate fingers and prominent cheekbones, skin the color of wet sand. We were happy to see each other again. He gave me a tour of his folk’s house: a charming, typically-Midwestern home except for the stairwell, which was packed with Jesus figurines and icons. “This is the Jesus room,” Robert explained, taking the railing. “Hey Jesus, what’s up.”

We went for a walk around the neighborhood. The wind was bitter and whipped snow in our faces. He gave me his arm, and I held him close. It was late when we got back, and his parents were already asleep on the main floor. We were supposed to use separate bedrooms upstairs, so Robert mussed the bed in his room before coming over to mine for the night. We curled together, soft and warm beneath the covers. We kissed goodnight.

We fell back into our old roles that winter; it was easy to play the part of a well-adjusted young couple. We played cards with his parents. We went grocery shopping. We held hands at mass like we were everything we were supposed to be. And at night when we were curled up, his bare, bony chest against my back, his arm beneath my breasts, we talked in hushed tones of what it would be like when we met that someone, that one person, and really fell in love.

firstkiss

James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, and the Ethics of Anguish

 “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.”

James Baldwin, “Faulkner and Desegregation”

 

In July 1957, after having lived nine years in Paris to escape an intolerable American racial climate, James Baldwin returned to the United States.  He had just written “Faulkner and Desegregation” in the winter of 1956 while still in Paris, and his biographer James Campbell believes that this essay marked a turning point in his commitment to civil rights and put him on a path of activism.  Back in New York, according to Campbell, Baldwin spent the summer brooding, visiting family and friends, and plotting how, with little money and no car, he could travel South to participate in the growing movement.  Both Baldwin’s mother and stepfather were Southerners, and Baldwin, a Harlem native who had never travelled south of Washington, D.C., frequently referred to himself as a Southerner.  Over the next six years he took multiple trips South:  in 1957 (a journey which produced “A Hard Kind of Courage,” and “A Letter from the South:  Nobody Knows My Name”), May 1960 (“Why They Can’t Wait,” “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King”), and 1963.  The period between 1957 and 1963 was a tense time in American history when many southern states resisted the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against segregation in the public schools.  Author Randall Kenan sees that Baldwin’s “eyewitness experience” of the South, at this moment of huge cultural change, “deepened, enriched, and focused” his writing voice.  Writing about the South as an anthropologist would, or as a foreigner or journalist, Baldwin holds the mirror up to southern whites, who perceive themselves as good and honorable people, in order to expose as dishonest their self-professed innocence and denial of racial injustice.  “In all his southern trips,” writes Baldwin’s biographer David Leeming, “his novelist’s instincts . . . gravitated to the white minds behind the racism he observed.”  With an unflinching eye he gives numerous descriptions of white people in his southern essays:  the white principal in “A Hard Kind of Courage,” the white Southerners who speak of love and heroism between white and black in old South at the end of “Nobody Knows My Name,” the white lady greeting her black chauffeur, as well as the white student believing in the effectiveness of the police to protect in Tallahassee in “They Can’t Turn Back.”  Two experiences which complicate his role as interviewer or observer of white Southerners may also provide him with a unique power:  his family history in the South, and his sense of anguished ethics regarding his commitment as a writer.  Where should he place his priorities—in his fiction or his activism?

 

I.

En route South for the first time in September 1957, Baldwin stopped in Charlotte, North Carolina, where four black schoolchildren were seeking to integrate the public school system.  “A Hard Kind of Courage,” the first essay to be published as a direct result of this trip, came out in Harper’s Magazine in 1958.  It was later renamed “A Fly in the Buttermilk” for the collection Nobody Knows My Name (1961) although I think its original title is more revealing of the  unassuming role Baldwin takes in order to probe the courage demanded from all sides in the small drama unfolding in Charlotte.  In some ways this essay is unremarkable in comparison to some of his other essays, like “Nobody Knows My Name” or “Notes of a Native Son,” because Baldwin remains so restrained (with some slips of sly sarcasm), but this very restraint displays how even in his prose writing Baldwin retains the sensibility of a novelist who listens quietly, straining to understand the inner lives of his characters.  What he refrains from saying to his interviewees is as important as what he does say.  The essay is divided into two parts:  in the first part he interviews G., a fifteen-year old black student and his mother; in the second part he interviews the white principal of G’s school.  In conversation with both parties, Baldwin extends the same attentiveness and presence of mind and lets his interviewees speak for themselves in their own voices without too much explicit judgment.  However, by juxtaposing the two contrasting points of view, of the black family and the white principal, Baldwin exposes the so-called innocence and graciousness of the white principal as morally corrupt:  an evasion of G’s humanity.

Baldwin first interviews G. and his mother, examples of those King would soon call (in “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”) the “real heroes” of the civil rights movement, with the hopes of learning on the ground level about their inner lives and feelings.  Baldwin is impressed by the quiet dignity of G. and concludes that he remains so silent in part to “rescue” his mother from the pain of knowing about her son’s harassment at school.  When Baldwin asks about what motivated her to send her son to a previously all-white school, she replies:  “Well, it’s not because I’m so anxious to have him around white people,” the mother laughs.  “I really don’t know how I’d feel if I was to carry a white baby around who was calling me Grandma.”  This little joke elicits the first laugh from her son, and the mother, feeling Baldwin’s unspoken solidarity, shares her frustrations about the whole situation.

Baldwin then turns to the white principal of the same school, someone who sees himself as a good person with Christian values, and his sense of solidarity shifts.  “He was a thin, young man of about my age,” Baldwin writes, “bewildered and in trouble.”  Baldwin often uses “bewildered” or “baffled,” words he charges with sarcasm, to describe the demeanor of white Southerners still reeling in the face of desegregation. Baldwin does have evidence that the principal is a “good” man, “very gentle and honorable”:  on several occasions he has escorted G. through the halls as a kind of bodyguard, and he probably was the reason why a white student who tripped G. and knocked him down later offered an apology.

Baldwin pursues the journalistic equivalent of King’s non-violent protest, or non-violent witness, in order to create tension and provoke a crisis in the principal’s conscience.  When Baldwin asks why G. is the only black student at the school (in effect, the “fly in the buttermilk”), the principal responds, “I don’t think it’s right for colored children to come to white schools just because they’re white.”  Baldwin in turn says, “Well. . .  even if you don’t like it. . . ,” The principal interrupts Baldwin before he can finish his sentence and begins to talk, in a defensive tone, about the idea of integration.  Baldwin reports:

And then he explained to me, with difficulty, that it [integration] was simply contrary to everything he’d ever seen or believed. He’d never dreamed of a mingling of the races; had never lived that way himself and didn’t suppose that he ever would; in the same way, he added, perhaps a trifle defensively, that he only associated with a certain stratum of white people.  But, “I’ve never seen a colored person toward whom I had any hatred or ill-will.”

 

Baldwin’s strategy is to get the principal to verbalize his views out loud, baldly, in front of a witness.  “His eyes searched mine as he said this and I knew that he was wondering if I believed him.”  Baldwin does not comfort or judge the man, and he refrains from using some of his signature sarcasm.  He refrains, too, from mentioning the little inside joke about the white grandbaby shared with G. and his mother.  “There seemed no point in making this man any more a victim of his heritage than he so gallantly was already.” Baldwin’s choice of adverb here sharpens the edge of an already ironic statement; one does not immediately think of a perpetrator of benign racism as the victim.  This statement functions as a kind of inside joke with the reader.

In Baldwin’s eyes, the principal is, like Faulkner in his public views on desegregation, “guilty of great emotional and intellectual dishonesty.”  To break through his denial, Baldwin applies some psychological pressure by playing on the principal’s desire to see himself as a “good” man:

“Still,” I said at last, after a rather painful pause, “I should think that the trouble in this situation is that it’s very hard for you to face a child and treat him unjustly because of something for which he is no more responsible than–than you are.”

 

The eyes came to life then, or a veil fell, and I found myself staring at a man in anguish.

 

Here Baldwin, who had theorized about the white Southerner in his essay on Faulkner, is face to face with a real man in anguish.  At the start of the interview the principal fails to face the reality of the situation:  he used the phrase “excellent” to describe the race relations in his city; he called the white students’ blocking G.’s entrance to school an act of kidding; and he even omitted the fact that white children in his own school taunted him with the phrase “nigger lover.”  By the end of the interview, his eyes are full of pain.  To precipitate this change, Baldwin twice accents the pronoun “you.”  Normally one turns to the second person pronoun to accuse the other party, but Baldwin uses “you” to sympathize with the principal.  He understands on a very human level that the principal hopes to retain the respect of the white students, parents, and teachers with whom he has a long relationship even as he does the right thing by G., protecting him against harassment regardless of his personal feelings about integration.  By recognizing this genuinely difficult leadership position, Baldwin acknowledges the principal’s humanity. In return, Baldwin calls on the principal to be accountable and acknowledge publicly the humanity of the black child.  As a leader inside the white community, the principal–more than any black leader–has the power to change the hearts and minds of the white students and parents at his school.

Baldwin’s emphasis on “you” suggests to the principal that the “Negro problem” is, in fact, his own problem, a white problem—a problem of accountability.  (He pursues this theme with increasingly angry clarity in many of his later essays, including “The White Man’s Guilt.”)  Baldwin manages, through the pressure of his measured conversation that climaxes with this gentle moral punch, to bring about a breaking up in this man’s euphemistic point of view.

Confronted with his own contradictions, the white principal, like G. and his family, must draw on a “hard kind of courage” as he begins to examine, however tentatively, his own values and attitudes.  He has experienced what Flannery O’Connor readers would recognize as a moment of grace.

II.

 

“No I can’t see James Baldwin in Georgia.  It would cause the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion.  In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not.  I observe the traditions of the society I feed on–it’s only fair.  Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia.  I have read one of his stories and it was a good one.”

Flannery O’Connor to Maryat Lee, April 25, 1959

“About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing, prophesying, pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind.  Very ignorant but never silent.  Baldwin can tell us about what it feels to be a Negro in Harlam [sic] but he tries to tell us everything else too.”

Flannery O’Connor to Maryat Lee, May 21, 1964

 

In a letter written to her friend Maryat Lee in April of 1959, Flannery O’Connor refuses to meet James Baldwin in Georgia.  “Might as well expect a mule to fly as for me to see James Baldwin in Georgia.”  In the same breath, she adds, “I have read one of his stories, and it was a good one.”  However unwilling O’Connor is to break with tradition and see Baldwin in person, as a writer she admires Baldwin’s fiction, probably the story “Sonny’s Blues.”

Five years later, in May of 1964, O’Connor changes her tune about Baldwin the writer.  In another letter to Lee, a Kentucky native who then lived in Greenwich Village and had directed street theater with black youth in Harlem, O’Connor says she can’t stand a certain type of Negro, the “pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent.”  Her language is shocking to read today:  in letters to Lee–who poignantly understood the southern code of manners O’Connor was living under but chose to rebel against the code rather than respect it as O’Connor did in her daily life– O’Connor regularly and gleefully assumes the persona of a southern redneck racist.  In the 1964 letter, for instance, she probably intentionally misspells the word “Harlem” to indicate such a person’s level of education.  Yet, O’Connor may be reacting to Baldwin’s changing priorities as a writer, his shift away from writing fiction to essays, a shift she would criticize as a concession to the times and a sacrifice to one’s art.

Between 1957 and 1963, Baldwin traveled extensively (including four trips South), gave countless interviews and speeches, and met with politicians, including then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, over civil rights.  In 1963 The Fire Next Time was published, and articles about him appeared in Life, Times, and Mademoiselle.  According to his biographer James Campbell, to understand Baldwin before 1957, you read his letters; after 1963, his interviews.  Somewhere between 1957 and 1963, Campbell states in a tone of reproof, James Baldwin the private person became Jimmy Baldwin the civil rights celebrity.  In his own eyes, Baldwin saw the civil rights activism as central to his role as witness; even though he always thought of himself first as a novelist, in practice his choice of genre took a back seat to that moral imperative.

O’Connor would probably have disapproved of Baldwin’s decision to write essays on “topical” issues of the day.  Consider the case of Eudora Welty’s “Where is the Voice Coming From?” a story based closely on the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers which appeared in The New Yorker in June 1963 just days after the event.  About the story, O’Connor comments on September 1, 1963 to her friend Betty Hester, another Southerner:  “The more you think about it the less satisfactory it gets.  What I hate most is its being in the The New Yorker and all the stupid Yankee liberals smacking their lips over typical life in the dear old dirty Southland.  The topical is poison.  I got away with it in ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ but only because I say a plague on everybody’s house as far as the race business is concerned.”

Baldwin’s play Blues for Mister Charlie, dedicated to Medgar Evers and based in equal parts on his assassination and the murder of Emmett Till, opened in New York in April 1964 just weeks before O’Connor wrote her letter to Lee about Baldwin’s “pontificating.”  Reviews of the play appeared in New York papers, which O’Connor may have read or heard about from Lee, a playwright who had met Baldwin several times.

O’Connor may thus have perceived Baldwin as an “outside agitator” interfering with uniquely southern affairs, and in this respect, she shows herself to be a member of her own generation, a white Southerner, like the principal Baldwin interviews, who perhaps believes in integration in theory but does not actively seek to change the status quo.

However, even though she crassly expresses dislike of Baldwin in her letter of 1964, around this same time O’Connor herself shows evidence of a crack in her own point of view that is not unlike the changes Baldwin is undergoing.

As writers Baldwin and O’Connor are witnesses to what essentially “good” people say and do in a morally corrupt system, and they each take their role as witness to be an ethical imperative.  Confronted with the gracious manners of white Southerners, O’Connor the fiction writer is as unflinching as Baldwin the essayist in what she records.

 

Maryat Lee, who first met O’Connor in 1956, sees O’Connor’s late story “Revelation,” written in 1963 (in what turned out to be the final year of her life), to be evidence of a “crack” in her point of view regarding the civil rights movement: “The story is dear to me because it reveals I think the crack that finally developed in her own point of view which even three or four years ago she never expected would happen.”  The main character, the middle-aged Ruby Turpin, who thinks of herself as a good woman with Christian values, is a version of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953).  In fact, “Revelation” can be seen as a sequel to “A Good Man.”  In it O’Connor explores what might have happened to the grandmother–how her perspective might have widened–had she, after having been granted a moment of grace, been allowed to live.

In “Revelation,” O’Connor clearly models Mary Grace, the Wellesley College student who returns home to Georgia over the holidays, after Maryat Lee, also a Wellesley graduate.  (Lee later studied at Union Theological Seminary, where she wrote her master’s thesis under Paul Tillich.)  “You can have half interest in Mary Grace,” O’Connor writes to Lee in the same 1964 letter as she disparages Baldwin.  In an understated way, O’Connor thus acknowledges the influence of Lee, the very person who calls her out on issues of race and civil rights, for inspiring a story where a key character talks back to power.  Lee delighted in violating the southern code of manners on her trips South–she changed her name from Mary Attaway to distance herself from her upper-class upbringing–as does Mary Grace, the “ugly girl,” who resorts to violence in her role as listener, radical interventionist, and witness.

The object of her scrutiny is Ruby Turpin, a middle-class pig farmer with the aspirations of a lady, who is filled with racist and classist clichés, which Mary Grace silently perceives as vacuous and morally corrupt.  In a crucial scene, when her mother tries to pull her daughter into the conversation, Mary Grace explodes, throwing a book at Mrs. Turpin.  She growls out a menacing curse:  “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”

If “Revelation” were modeled after “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the story would end here.  But the story continues, and it is in the second half of the story that we see the “crack” in O’Connor’s point of view.  Ruby Turpin, emotionally shocked and physically bruised by the book Mary Grace throws at her, cannot let go of the verbal insult, which she ponders over as if it were a message from God.  She returns home to the safety of her husband and farm, and alone, goes out to feed the pigs.  There, in the privacy of a pigpen, she confronts God in a fit of fury: “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too? . . . . Why me?”  She cannot wrap her mind around the fact that Mary Grace singled her out.  Ruby suffers a crisis of faith as we hear her rail against God:

“You could have made me trash.  Or a nigger.  If trash is what you wanted why didn’t you make me trash?  . . . . I could quit working and take it easy and be filthy. . . . Lounge about the sidewalks all day drinking root beer.  Dip snuff and spit in every puddle and have it all over my face.  I could be nasty.

Or you could have made me a nigger.  It’s too late for me to be a nigger, . . . but I could act like one.  Lay down in the middle of the road and stop traffic.  Roll on the ground.”

In a similar position as Baldwin vis-à-vis the white principal, O’Connor as writer/witness holds the mirror up to the gracious southern lady and keeps it there; she turns the tape recorder on and lets her epithets fly.  It is not a pretty scene.  Finally we hear the raw, racist, and uncensored stereotypes spew from Ruby’s tongue.  Her dislike for black people is trumped by her disdain for “white trash.”

Curiously that blasphemous crisis of faith cracks open to a moment of calm:  Ruby Turpin is finally wrested from her self-preoccupation and begins to worry about her husband Claud, whose truck she sees disappearing on the horizon:  Will he be safe?  Will a bigger truck smash into his?  Then her concern for her husband opens up to the larger world.  By story’s end, in a scene that Brad Gooch, author of the biography Flannery, calls the fictional equivalent of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Ruby Turpin sees a vision of “a vast horde of souls” marching up to heaven:  “whole companies of white-trash,” “bands of black niggers,” “battalions of freaks and lunatics.” These are precisely the characters that pop up in all of O’Connor’s stories–those without power, the poor, the non-white–and often such a character, a freak, plays a key role in bringing about a revelation. Ruby Turpin joins this parade of freaks.  She and Claud are bringing up the rear of the parade, after all the poor “white trash” and “niggers.”  The rigid categories about race and class to which she held fast at the beginning of the story are turned on their head.

As with the white principal, however, the crack in Ruby’s perspective may only be slight. The principal gives a strained laugh at the very end of Baldwin’s interview that suggests a reversion to his former self.  “I’m a religious man, . . .  and I believe the Creator will always help us find a way to solve our problems.”  He falls back on religious clichés, and the veil returns.  In her vision when Ruby Turpin sees the respectable white people bringing up the rear, she refers to them, as reported by the narrator, as “a tribe of people . . .  who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right” (654).  Ruby Turpin, always a witty woman, still sees herself and her kind of people as being exceptionally blessed by God.

 

“I read one of his stories, and it was a good one.”  By the time O’Connor wrote this letter in April 1959, only two of Baldwin’s stories had been published, “Come out of the Wilderness” (published in Mademoiselle in 1958) and “Sonny’s Blues.”  I suspect O’Connor is referring to “Sonny’s Blues,” which came out in the summer of 1957 in Partisan Review, a journal she would have read.  O’Connor would have admired Baldwin’s use of flashbacks, his keen ear for dialogue, and especially, his attention to the details of place.  Although we have no record of O’Connor’s views on Baldwin’s work as a whole, she probably would have admired his stories and novels set in Harlem where the mystery and manners of Baldwin’s childhood–the language, music, and rituals of the streets and the Pentecostal church–are vivid and sharp:  Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), as well as many of the stories in Going to Meet the Man, including “Sonny’s Blues” (1958) and “Previous Condition” (1948).  After reading Go Tell It on the Mountain in the summer of 1959, Maryat Lee wrote to O’Connor, “You two have more in common that [sic] I had any idea.”

Both Baldwin and O’Connor were admirers of Henry James.  O’Connor quotes James often in her essays in Mystery and Manners, and Baldwin, called the “Henry James of Harlem” by Irish writer Colm Tóibín, left behind an unfinished essay on James and manners.  Yet, they seem to take away different lessons from the importance James placed on manners.  Baldwin and O’Connor were keen observers of the politics and rituals of manners in everyday social encounters, but O’Connor believed that paying close attention to manners was incompatible with writing about the topical, including the directly political; Baldwin, on the other hand, who could not separate the personal from the political, was, according to Leeming, fascinated by analyzing what Henry James called Americans’ innocence and sincerity, and critiqued the “innocence” he encountered among white Southerners.  In many of his essays (“Stranger in the Village,” “Nobody Knows My Name,” “A Fly in the Buttermilk”), through his technique of juxtaposing the two perspectives, white and black, on a given topic, Baldwin exposes white sincerity for what it is­–an evasion of the Negro’s humanity, as well as a denial of the role of power in American and world history.

O’Connor connected morality to a writer’s staying true to his craft.  Of Henry James she writes, “the morality of a piece of fiction depended on the amount of ‘felt life’ that was in it.”

In her essays on writing, O’Connor reveals how it is always through the concrete details of the local that a writer arrives at universal truths, which for her are also spiritual truths; a writer who cuts himself off from the people and place where he grew up–the fabric of his home community– is in danger. O’Connor stressed the importance of writing from inside a community, that is, being grounded in the language and manners of a specific place.  She mistrusts when a writer slips into abstractions, and she seems to associate the “topical” with a move away from the concrete and specific to the abstract and general.  In “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” she writes:

What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth.  The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is.  What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.

 

By saying that Baldwin “pontificates,” O’Connor may be referring to the kind of statements in his essays where Baldwin extrapolates from specific examples and goes on, in the preaching style with which he is familiar from being the youth minister in the Pentecostal church, to give general, somewhat oracular, statements about the history of racism in the United States. From O’Connor’s perspective Baldwin betrayed the limits of fiction by turning to prose essays in an attempt to mold reality.  In the process he loses his humbleness “in the face of what-is.”

For Baldwin, however, the topical seems absolutely to be connected to the specific language and manners of his childhood.  In “Down at the Cross,” for example, when he writes about his memory of being frisked by the police, the details of the incident are vivid and real; he is not merely slipping into abstract statements about police brutality.  Even his “pontificating” passages are expressed in the roaring language of the black ministers he knew intimately from his early days.  Whereas O’Connor may read about topical issues connected to racism in the newspapers from an abstract and emotional remove, Baldwin knows them firsthand, as part of the social fabric of his home community.  For Baldwin the topical is personal, and the personal is political; he cannot separate the topical from the politics of manners unfolding in the streets of Harlem.

In response to O’Connor’s saying that writing on the topical is “poison,” Baldwin might have shot back that O’Connor, with her cultural capital as a white Southerner from a certain class, has the luxury to avoid the topical, and he often uses the word “poison” in his essays to indicate the degree to which black families have no such luxury.  Near the end of “Notes of a Native Son,” reflecting on the elders attending his father’s funeral, Baldwin writes:  “It was the Lord who knew of the impossibility every parent in that room faced:  how to prepare the child for the day when the child would be despised and how to create in the child–by what means?–a stronger antidote to this poison than one had found for oneself.”  Baldwin concludes this passage by suggesting, “Perhaps poison should be fought with poison.”

III.

 

In “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (1963), Martin Luther King, Jr., expresses his  “grave disappointment” with white moderates, especially white ministers in the South.  King believes that they, as spiritual leaders inside the white community, have the moral authority to change the hearts and minds of the members of their congregation and are thus vital allies to the civil rights struggle.

My father, Richard Adams Harris, Jr., as pastor of Westhampton Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, from 1957 to 1968, was one of those moderates.  He felt challenged by King’s call to commitment and doubted if he was taking his commitment far enough.  In June of 1964 he gave a sermon entitled “This Is My Father’s World” in which he asked the question, “How can we be redemptive agents in the current racial crisis?”  He offered five guidelines to his congregation.  In guideline number one, he recommended that his congregation “keep things in perspective” by giving a “thoughtful evaluation” of both sides. On the side of the Negro, he recommended reading John Griffin’s then recently published book Black Like Me, as well as Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.”  On the side of the status quo, he suggested reading Carleton Putnam’s Race and Reason (Putnam is a bestselling segregationist author), or any editorial in the Richmond Times Dispatch. “Neither side,” wrote my father, “has a monopoly on right as neither side has a monopoly on wrong.”  King was endlessly frustrated by the middle of the road approach–as was Baldwin in his essay on Faulkner–which he saw as a way to evade taking a moral stand.  My father was “reasonable”:  by recommending reading seriously a segregationist article and weighing its merits against King’s letter, my father did not squarely take a moral stand.

He inched toward taking one, however, and in those days that already demanded a lot of courage.  He urged his congregation to feel, in King’s words, “the stinging darts of segregation” and put themselves, for example, in the place of a Negro parent.  “‘How,’ one such parent recently asked me, ‘do I tell my 6 year-old son that there are certain places he cannot go because his skin happens to be black?’”  As another example he reported that some members of the church who volunteered across town at the Negro Vacation Bible School had noticed that during picture-coloring time, “many of the black children positively insist on leaving faces white.  Is this not a tragic symptom that even their young minds have come to realize their own black skin represents a stigma?”

He spoke of his soul searching:  “Lately I have felt an increasing indictment on my own life:  what am I doing personally to redeem the situation that we are all so concerned about? I am convinced that I am doing far less than my Christian commitment calls me to do.”  He confessed that he knew a lot of Christians who, by joining the demonstrations, were more dedicated than he was, and he had yet to join one.  By publicly sharing his doubts, my father was working through something for himself regarding his responsibility. At the same time, he was making an appeal to the segregationists in his congregation.  They, too, had the power, and the duty, to examine themselves.

On October 6, 1968, my father delivered his last sermon.  One month earlier he had handed in a brief resignation letter.  The deacons, as well as the members of the congregation, were shocked that their beloved pastor would leave.  In his statement he said simply that he had doubts about his calling.  From as early as 1962–the year Baldwin wrote The Fire Next Time, the year Faulkner died, the year of my birth–he had wrestled privately with the meaning of his vocation:  was he worthy to be called a pastor when he had so many doubts about his faith?

Many years later, when I was in my forties, my father confessed to me that at an early age he had compared himself to the Cosby boys, Bev and Gordon, with whom he had grown up on Boonsboro Road in Lynchburg, Virginia.  They had been the ones who had encouraged him to go into the ministry in the first place.  They had each founded their own church (Gordon the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D. C. and Bev, the Church of the Covenant in Lynchburg) based on the principles of radical Christianity.  Each church was comprised of a small band of disciples who would dedicate their lives to social service and justice, as King outlines in his letter when he talks about the early Christians.  Bev and Gordon were visionaries who clearly had a calling­ and chose a prophetic stance in their respective communities, and my father did not see himself as a visionary.  He did not feel himself worthy to be a minister.  He confessed to me in the same conversation that he had suffered debilitating depression off and on throughout his life.  He fell into a depression just ahead of his decision to leave the pastorate.

The pressures on my father to lead the members of his congregation during this tumultuous time put a subtle strain on my parents’ marriage.  In 1961, shortly after Nigeria gained its independence from E