Search results for

THIS CROSS I BEAR

Guest Posts, Mental Health, No Bullshit Motherhood

This Cross I Bear

March 10, 2017
sunshine

By Leslie Wibberley

I should have seen the signs, long before she fell so far and so hard. Instead, I just kept pushing. “You can do this, sweetie, just focus and try harder.” Seemingly innocuous words, I thought. Encouraging words, right?

Wrong.

I should have known better. After all, I’d grown up with a mother who suffered from clinical depression and had attempted suicide on more than one occasion. With that kind of family history, you would have thought I’d have seen this coming.

Well, I didn’t.

I grew up with a mother who lived in perpetual darkness, but also with a father who epitomized sunshine. For every storm cloud that gathered and dumped its torrents of rain across my mother’s sorrow filled shoulders, there came a gentle breeze filled with warmth, sunshine, and the music of song birds; my dad.

I like to think I take after him. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, pandemic, Relationships

Building Mom A Bridge: How To Cross Over Seas and Pandemics

August 12, 2021
mom

by Amy Challenger

Connecting has never been easy, my overweight rescue coonhound reminds me with his fervent stare. He once refused eye contact when I found him at a dusty Northern California farm nine years ago running in circles as if entirely disconnected from other beings. This disconnected feeling has become one most of us have suffered with this year. We’ve had to find a way out of our own little heads, seeking a thread to others in strange ways — squishing eyes over masks, staring through screens, and waving at mouthless friends in parking lots or at bonfires. I found a way to build a bridge to my sick mom and other women this year, all the way over the Atlantic, in a way I wouldn’t have imagined without the pandemic..

In March 2020 after lockdowns began in Switzerland, where I live with my husband and children— my asthmatic then 78-year-old mother coughed heavily on her couch in South Carolina. She struggled to breathe on Facetime causing even her fox terrier Harry to point his long nose to the side. I was petrified. I’d just returned from Northern Italy where crowds of masked passengers packed my train, and truckloads of dead bodies appeared on my Ipad screen. To me, the pandemic was no distant myth like it still was for many of my American friends. So when my mom hacked, I said, “Get tested.’’ Naturally, she brushed me off. I’m the family worrier, afterall, and people were still spreading the ridiculous myth that only those who’d traveled to China could have COVD-19. A week later, her symptoms had made her so weak she could hardly walk. So she finally got to the doctor who diagnosed her with pneumonia. And due to a lack of access to COVID test kits, she still didn’t know if she had the virus.

At that point, my mom and I started connecting daily face-to-face, online. I felt helpless watching her suffer in her floral patterned bed. She listened to me jabber about home learning challenges and the risks of spreading COVID. My father who suffers from Alzheimer’s roamed nearby, peeking at the screen.  Thankfully my mother’s friend made arrangements to stay with her, and my nearby sisters visited regularly, but I wanted to do something too. Even if I could afford to fly to the US, leaving my husband working from home with my three kids home-learning— travel was unwise especially with my flaring autoimmune condition.

So aside from sending my mom pizza dinners, Amazon gifts, and Facetiming regularly, I needed a more meaningful way to reach her. What about writing together? I thought. My mom and I are both painters and writers. And years before, she’d attended one of my creative writing workshops originally designed to connect women in crisis through writing. I’d been trained to lead these sessions by the New York Writers’ Coalition in Connecticut to serve struggling moms of neurodivergent kids. After my mom visited a workshop, she’d said she loved the method inspired by Pat Schneider, a poet who created a format for all levels of writers to gather and seek what Pat called “the original voice.’’

So one morning my dogs and I had an idea as my mom flopped like a five foot pale doll in her dimly lit Carolina bedroom with Harry perched nearby, his eyes pooling with worry. She’d just become breathless trying to fix breakfast.

“I might start an online writing workshop— to supplement my normal Zürich workshops,’’ I remember saying.… “Would you want to join if I do it?” I kept my tone casual. She might think my suggestion idiotic.

“I’d love it.” Her voice quivered. “You don’t know how much I could use that.” I think my mom needed more than connection. She needed a way to use her creative muscles to heal and find hope. The pen, if filled with the stuff of her powerful mind, could help with that.

And so we started meeting weekly online with a small group of women. My mom woke early, dialing in, along with several writers from Switzerland and some from the US. We gathered from bedrooms, Swiss lakes, and offices to write about feeling stuck, about growing, about finding wellness through dialogue we created in separate rooms, but together.  In these two-and-a-half-hour sessions, we greeted each other, then penned responses to my visual or verbal prompts. We scribbled our bottled up stories into our notepads, and then we shared verses that continued on, for that small moment, into the spaces of others. These connections bound us. Each week we became closer, and I felt more like I was really touching my mom.

“What’s strong?” I asked after a woman read her work. It was a question I’d learned from my former teacher Valerie Anne Leff a fiction writer whose voice I still hear if I try. She taught me to treat everyone’s original words like a newborn. I attended her workshops for several years during a crisis with my atypical boy. This question, what’s strong, was one I needed to repeat even in the midst of my child and family’s pain— to find meaning.  It was also a question I had to ask this year. To my children, my mother, my husband, and workshop attendees, I had to inquire, what’s strong in your words, your work— in you and in others? I needed to identify my power, as I fumbled through my own identity in a pandemic.  When I felt insufficient, I had to dig for strength. This habit was the bridge to my mom then to all the other women who wrote with me, virtually.  Through asking for strength in workshop sessions, I touched the space between my mother’s world that flowed into mine. Her tales of waking as a child in her victorian home in Big Rapids, Michigan; her views on mothering three girls; savoring shades of fern; meeting my naval officer dad— these powerful narratives brought her to me physically.

As she shared, our stories transcended internet boxes, oceans, and expectations. Common threads emerged in verses that had little to do with the prompt, yet pieced our strange pet stories, our favorite flowers, our lonely walks together. My mother wrote poems that slipped under my skin. Her narratives incorporated the feel of a forgotten Christmas ornament, the voice of my grandmother calling her home, the pine scent of my grandfather’s cabin beside a river. My mom waded for her strength like she was in the river fly-fishing with her father, and I saw her emerge healthy while reading her own mind. Eventually, after weeks of workshops, she dialed in from the couch— rosy-cheeked like the mother I longed for, even if still on a screen beside Harry’s twittering tail.

Almost a year later, my mom and I still write online with many of the same women. She and my dad have been vaccinated and are bearing well, all things considered. My cats’ and dogs have become so attached to me, after a year mostly indoors, that sometimes I think I’m a pet too. Though we’ve got scars, we’re closer and stronger than we knew. We’ve survived a pandemic, afterall.

This summer my husband, three kids, and I plan to finally visit my parents. When I’m physically there, I’ll feel their hands and arms embrace me in a way I wouldn’t without our separation and our storytelling over the sea. But in the meantime, I’ll celebrate the power of all the unpublished parts of each of us. In these narratives, if we listen, we’ll find ties that bind us together, even over seas and pandemics— and maybe forever.

Amy Challenger is a contributor at The Washington Post, Newsweek, Huffington Post, International Living, Poets Reading the News, and elsewhere. She completing a novel about an atypical boy and his mom trying to grow and find truth in a work that wants everyone typical. Amy can be followed online at amyaveschallenger.com.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

death, Family, Grief, Guest Posts

New York Times Crossword Puzzle Book #50.

January 18, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

By Sonia Greenfield.

Three summers ago I found myself socked into my grandmother’s bed with my infant son sleeping next to me in his Pack-n-Play. The old, dusty air conditioner churned and wept down the slumped front porch, but the room was cool. The groan of this window unit was the only sound, this and the click and scratch of my mechanical pencil as I filled in the book of New York Times crossword puzzles I picked up at the airport in Seattle. All around me I saw the sad accumulation of old age—pill bottles, ointments, stained sweatshirts, and a thick layer of grime—but underneath these mounds, if I dug deep enough, I could find the gold piping and flounce of my grandmother’s stylish years. This is why I felt socked in. Nothing was ever thrown away; it was just buried. The new on top of the old, which was really like the old on top of the less old. And this made my grandmother’s room, her whole house, a bit of a burial ground with nothing more than narrow paths to travel between the heaps of purses, VHS and eight track tapes, old make-up, shoes, costume jewelry, books, newspapers, diabetic snack bars, and so on. There was something about retreating from the emotional to the cerebral, something about shrugging off the weight of lost years, of lost youth, that made me fill each puzzle, turn the page, and start the next one. What’s a seven-letter word for “tremendous” beginning with m? The answer was massive.

I received the call— well, calls— a few days before. My stepfather who lived in the upstairs apartment with my mother found my grandmother unresponsive in her bed, which was the same bed I was, by necessity, sleeping in just a few days later. Even though I spent the last half of my childhood in the second story apartment with my immediate family, there was no room for me, for us, now. I got the call in Seattle from my brother’s cell phone while everyone was gathered in my grandmother’s room at Hudson Valley Hospital, and I was put on the phone with my grandmother, who could not talk or move most of her body, who could not swallow or smile, who could not respond when I began to cry in her ear. I was told, though, that tears ran down her face, and that she bit her lip on one side as I said how sorry I was that I could not help her. Even when you know that the cruel discomforts of old age will be alleviated, when you know that death is inevitable—especially for an eighty-three year old woman who has been in decline for years— it does not mean that when the time comes, a cool stoicism will settle on you. It does not mean you will feel relieved. What’s a six-letter word for “smooth” ending with e? The answer was stroke. My Nana had a massive one in her bed, and my baby and I flew out for what I came to understand was a vigil as we waited out the two long weeks it took her to die. My grandmother’s name was Rose. Continue Reading…

#metoo, Guest Posts

The Columbian

July 26, 2021
studio

by Linda Summersea

The first thing I saw upon entering my professor’s studio was a discarded tube of cadmium red paint. Its depleted remains lay in a trash bin atop a broken Kolinsky #12. The brush’s ferrule was rusty, its stiff bristles tipped in blood-red, coagulated paint. The room was quiet. The light was dim.

He was Colombian, my Drawing 401 teacher, and thirty-eight-years-old, although his beard and paunch made him appear older. If you had told me he was forty-five or fifty, I would have believed you. He was a respected artist, married, and had a well-known reputation for seducing students with his soft Latino accent.

My sandals flip-flopped across the hardwood floor to the table left bare for my work. The shades were drawn on a bank of windows, blocking the luminous north light. I placed my portfolio on the table, unzipped it, and turned around at the sound of a click.

I saw his hand drop from the deadbolt. Our eyes met, mine questioning, his confident. He strutted slowly and deliberately around the studio like a fighting cock awaiting his opponent. His machismo was on full display, preening as he pointed out his various drawings hanging on the walls. I followed him to where he stood before a charcoal and pencil nude in progress on an easel.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

I nodded. The nude female was almost life-size. His style was tight and sparse. Thin lines, sharp hipbone angles, nipples that were barely there on small, half-round mounds of breasts. A pubic area tight with wiry curls of brown.

“I want to draw you,” he said. “Like this.” He gestured towards the drawing.

“Today.”

Seconds later, he had laid a blanket on the floor, stood on it, and began to strip. Slowly, he unbuttoned the black cotton shirt that matched his curly black hair and beard. Dropped his jeans and peeled off his BVDs.

My eyes never left his. I stood horrified, lips sealed, as he stepped closer and proceeded to undress me, pulling my t-shirt over my head, slipping my blue jeans and panties from my hips.

Could this be happening? I was repulsed. It was as near an out-of-body experience as I have ever come.

Did he not notice my perplexed expression?

I told him I had my period.

He immediately reached down and deftly plucked the bloody tampon from between my legs. Thunk. It popped like a champagne cork, and he swiftly tossed it in the trash.

This man was not going to let a little menstrual blood get in the way of his conquest.

He reached out his hand. “Join me.” He gestured to the blanket on the floor.

I remained standing, motionless, a paper doll with parts unfolded, expressionless, in shock, passively observing his flaccid penis beneath the paunch of his bloated belly as he pawed at me. I was naked and vulnerable.

The ceiling fan circled overhead as I joined him in the slow dance of contenders facing off. I took a step backward. He took a step forward.     It was his lust versus my lack of passion, and it ended as quickly as it had begun.

“You are so cold.” He spat the words at me.

“You make a man impotent!” He was disgusted.

Seduction aborted, he retrieved his shirt, bringing the plackets together, each button sliding smoothly into its empty hole. All the while, blood trickled down my inner thigh.

I was wounded, but safe. I dressed and fled the room with my portfolio, not giving him the benefit of my thoughts. The last thing I saw was the tampon. It lay upon the discarded tube of cadmium red and the #12 Kolinsky brush.

My heart began to beat faster as I walked to my car. Once in the driver’s seat, I took some deep breaths, and thought about what had just happened. I knew I hadn’t done anything to encourage his actions, but still… There’s an unspoken communication between predator and prey. If I had not shut down his seduction with my disgust and passivity, would seduction have turned to rape?

I drove to the apartment, still upset, but shook myself off and went inside. My roommates were in the midst of preparing their dinners and I joined them to do the same. I didn’t have the courage to share what happened in the Colombian’s studio until now.*

***

*On October 16, 2017, Alyssa Milano created #MeToo following the exposure of widespread sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein. I wrote this chapter that day and read it aloud the next evening in Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Body of the Book manuscript class in Portland OR.

After earning a BFA and MFA in Art Education, Linda Summersea (pen name) enjoyed a long career as an art teacher and especially appreciated being able to work with Youth-at-Risk given her own background with neglect, abuse, and psychological suffering. She has published in NPR’s Tales from the South, and produced ArtBreak, an award-winning children’s art program on Community Access Television in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her current work in pre-production is a free-verse narrative regarding her husband’s Vietnam experience for Voice of Vashon Radio, Vashon WA. She’s a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and the EPIC Writers Group and is active on social media. She blogs about life, writing, and travel at www.LindaSummersea.com.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

The Expression of It

July 9, 2021
Blake

by André Narbonne

Blake stood on the wooden steps leading to our house, in plain view but away just the same. His clenched fist was covered in blood, my blood, although the fact hadn’t occurred to us yet. I was still stunned by the lunacy of his anger, astonished by the blow that must have come out of a desire to knock down not just his younger brother but something bigger.

The air was strangely comical. It chirped. Clouds fled the veranda exposing Blake and me to the naked glare of the sun.

I pulled myself up. I spat, “I hate you,” brushed the dirt and broken fingers of leaves off my jacket, became aware of the red stain on my shoulder and chest. Rubbing a hand against my face, I held out a thick streak of blood.

“There,” I said.

That opened him. He stared at me and he bit his lower lip, and I knew that he was aware of having hurt me.

It had never happened before.

Blake was four years older and he understood what that meant, recognized that being older was more a duty than an inconvenience. It wasn’t that we didn’t fight. We fought like brothers, which is to say almost daily. Whenever we ran out of words, we came out swinging, but Blake’s hardest cuts had a knack for missing. They were chivalrously errant. He fought like a friend, allowing me to lose by exhaustion.

So we were both astonished by what had happened, by the blow that was meant to injure.

We weren’t alone in our surprise. There was a third to our party. Mr. Bryant, who lived in the trailer across the street, stood on the edge of the lawn shifting his balance between clown-sized feet as though he were himself sparring with something unseen. Beneath a feral tangle of red hair his beet-red nose and blood-shot cheeks mapped with broken capillaries marked him as a heavy drinker. He was our father’s best friend (a fact that had never caused him to treat Blake and me with anything but contempt).

He bellowed, “You’re awful.”

Awful, what did he mean by that? Did he imagine himself watching theatre? “Both of you:  stop it now.” As if we hadn’t, as if the punch that threw me three feet hadn’t been conclusive.

I gather Blake still held some of his rage because he uttered a word I had never heard him speak before. He said, “Go fuck yourself,” and Mr. Bryant spun on his heel and headed across the street to his house, moving with the heavy, purposeful stride of a clown bent on retaliation.

When he was gone, Blake turned to me and asked in a trembling voice, “Is it broken? Let me see.”

“It hurts.”

He walked to me and touched my face, gauged its symmetry. “Nope, it’s okay,” he concluded. “I’m sorry, Matt. I don’t know what happened.  I lost it.”

I was crying, but not from pain. “You don’t detest me?”

“I don’t detest you. Let’s not talk about him anymore. You don’t understand.  Even if I told you, you couldn’t.”

He smiled a nervous smile. I returned the same. And then Blake went back to the house. The veranda creaked under his weight; the screen door pitched and then rattled back into place. And he was gone for real.

I heard the phone ringing. Someone was waking up Dad.

They were both my protectors, Blake and my father, although Dad was an uncertain presence in the house.

My father worked the graveyard shift and had a graveyard cast of mind. He seldom spoke except to command. During the week he allowed himself to be shirtless and unkempt until an hour before work when he shaved and made himself up. He was fit for forty but that was largely an accident of genetics, I supposed.  He lived for no other purpose than to make money it seemed. With that money the three of us carried on our indifferent lives in an isolated mining town that was on its last vein. I wondered sometimes whether it was the impact of my mother, Marlene’s, defection that had knocked him into silence, but the truth was I could not remember him living any other way. He was a silent man.

The year my mother left Blake was just fourteen. He was handsome, the most handsome boy in school, but he didn’t date. All his energy went into raising me. He was the family cook. He ordered the cleaning, demanded my room be neat and my laundry kept in its basket. He helped me with homework and bullies, even though he wasn’t big.  But something was wrong with him.

Blake had changed a lot even before my mother left, had gone into intolerable lapses of…what?—just lapses. He thought deeply about things I hadn’t considered. He told me once that he detested every person he knew at some time—but not all of the time. Even people he loved, he detested. The trick for him was not to act on his feelings. Even if he loathed someone he had to wait until he could find value in the person again or he knew he’d be friendless. He said that was why he didn’t have a girlfriend. He was too afraid of how he’d behave if he found himself in love with someone and discovered he detested her.  He thought it would make him hate himself.

“That doesn’t make sense,” I told him, confidently adding, “You don’t detest me.”

“No,” he shot back. “Never mind. I hope you never understand.”

The window was open. I heard my father’s terse, “Yeah.” There was a pause. I saw Blake at the living room window. He was closed again. He had that look. “Oh yeah, hi, Bill.” It was Mr. Bryant. He’d called to exact his clown revenge. I knew Blake could hear the conversation, too. He picked up the camping picture on the bookshelf, eyed it carefully as though for clues. It was the only picture of the whole family that was kept out, taken shortly before my mother left.

It framed our parents on either side of us, as far away from each other as possible while still remaining in focus. Blake and I had fish—were the glowing champions of something inconsequential. My mother’s smile encouraged interpretation.

Her departure, sudden and mysterious, was treated at first with supreme calm. Joined in purpose, my father and Blake cleaned the house. They scrubbed in silence for an entire weekend. I gathered they wanted to wipe away all trace of my mother’s presence.

It wasn’t just that she was gone. She would never return. They seemed to know that right away.

A tense silence held court in every room. I knew that something terrible was in the offing. I was frightened of the looks Blake and Dad manufactured for each other.  They were constructing hatred. That was the expression of it. They were both trying to be the adult in the house: my father by working himself to exhaustion and bringing back money to a home he was too tired to inhabit, Blake by working as an adult at home and by pretending that his lack of responsibility elsewhere had no bearing on his maturity.

It wasn’t long after Mom left that Dad warned me in a hushed conversation, “I want you to watch out for Blake. He’s not right. You can’t trust him.”

“Why not?”

“He’s a born liar. He says things. Don’t believe them.”

At first I didn’t understand. But then, one night, Blake lied to me in a way that proved Father right.

It was the beginning of a northern autumn and a wolf had gotten onto our island. Probably it had crossed the single bridge that connected our scrap of Precambrian Shield to the rest. However it arrived, two dogs were dead on their leashes in the morning.

In the evening, I couldn’t sleep. Animal noises in the dark, a single unrestrained bark in our narrow hall: it occurred to me that the wolf was inside.

I called for Blake but he didn’t answer so I clutched the blankets around my face.  Still those noises. Wolf anger. Animal contempt. It sounded muffled like the wolf didn’t want to be heard. Finally it ended.  Silence held the dark and the dark was an animal, too.

I was almost asleep when a soft squeak told me someone was opening the bedroom door.

“Blake?”

“Why are you awake?”

“I think the wolf was in the house. I heard him.”

More silence.

“Blake?”

“It’s not a wolf. I heard it, too. I checked.”

“What was it?”

“The pipes. Someone left the toilet running.”

I felt relieved. And then I remembered what my father had said. I couldn’t trust him. Trust him with what?

And even though there was no wolf in the house I wondered about the dogs on their leashes, facing an impossible beast.

And then I saw it, the anger Blake and my father held for each other and my role in their war. It came upon me stupidly, but I grasped it.

I hurt myself playing. I frustrated myself with a cap gun that had no pop. Despite the triviality of my trouble, I walked into the house with real tears streaming down my face. Blake and my father sat in opposition at the kitchen table. My father jumped up first. He said, “What’s wrong? Are you all right?” His concern had a dangerous quality about it; I detected fear.

“My gun doesn’t work.”

“Show me. Give it to me.” I handed him the gun. He checked the barrel and fired a dud round. I could see him considering my toy sternly when Blake reached over and tore the gun from his grip.

“I know about these. I’ll fix it.”

“Give it back.”

“I know about these. When was the last time you fired one?”

And then, as though in a comic ballet, they wrestled with the gun. I watched them in stunned silence, fighting over a plastic weapon that had become real in some way. Blake was agile. With a sudden motion, he slipped the gun out of my father’s hands and escaped the house into the woods where he remained until after supper. When he returned, he had no gun. I don’t know what he did with it, but I never saw it again.

I didn’t cry over its loss. It had occurred to me in a flash exactly what they were up to. They were protecting me from each other. That’s how they managed. They were both able to continue through this horrible disaster of which I was only dimly aware, the devastating consequences for Blake of losing his mother, for Dad of losing his dignity, because they had thrown their identities into the task of guarding me and of making sure I didn’t grow up to be like the other man or boy who pretended to authority.

“What!” My father’s voice thundered through the window. “He said what?”

I watched Blake slide the picture from its frame. Where was he? His fingers fumbled with the glass, which fell and broke on the floor. I thought I knew what he would do next.  I thought he would tear the picture into fragments.

He didn’t. He put it carefully into his pocket to save it from what was approaching.

Watching him in his quiet actions I was overcome with guilt. I had goaded him into our fight.  I was the one who told him to stop fighting with Dad. I told him that he was unfair, that if he just did what Dad told him to do instead of always fighting the house would be fine. It was his fault, I said, that we were in a perpetual state of turmoil.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know everything that goes on. I know how you two fight. I hear you in the morning when Dad gets off work.”

“Shut up.  You don’t hear anything.”

“I do.  I know everything.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s your fault. It’s always been your fault. You’re why Mom left. You’re always complaining and fighting with everyone.  Why can’t you just…”

Something happened then. He’d been bringing his hands to his ears, but they never made it.  Instead, he lunged at me. I heard the crack of contact, felt myself lifted into a sky that tasted like blood. Blake retreated to the steps, perhaps to protect me from himself. For a good two minutes, no-one moved.

“He did what!”

The hallway pounded back against my father’s steps. I saw how Blake waited, saw that he was afraid, and I understood.

I would be afraid, too. My father had a reason at last to lay a beating on his deviant son. I felt the horror of the situation. I discovered in an instant how pitiable we were: all three of us.

Even as I reached the veranda I could hear the first blow landing, that hideous consonance of fist on flesh. I tore at the door. It slammed open. Then I was between them, breathless. Blake was on the floor, his face already bloodied. My father stood with fists of steel.  His face was mottled red in his rage. “Out of my way,” he cried.

“No!”

“Get out of my way, Matt. He needs to know he can’t hurt you.”

“No!”

Blake struggled to his feet. He whispered, “It’s okay, Matt. Let him come.” He raised his fists weakly.

There were tears in my eyes. I turned on my father. “This was our fight. Not yours. I started it. You don’t have the right to do this when I’m as much to blame. If you’re going to hit Blake, you have to hit me, too.”

He seemed staggered by my words.

I lowered my hands to my sides deliberately. “Hit me,” I said. “I won’t let you do anything to Blake that you wouldn’t do to me.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Blake cried. “For God’s sake, don’t say that. You don’t understand.”

But my father did. His lower lip trembled. He began to shake.

“Do to me what you did to Blake.”

My father turned from me. A sound came from his mouth that I couldn’t understand, a wordless breath of horror. He fled the house.

My father came home late that night and held Blake in a hushed conference. After that day, they did not fight. My father seemed to guard himself against me as though I held the power to hurt him. Blake became more withdrawn. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday he left the house. A year later he left town. He wrote to me for a few years. He was a waiter in a Toronto hotel, but he lost the job to his drinking. I didn’t know he was a drug addict until his drugs almost killed him at twenty-four. He overdosed at a house party. He wasn’t dead but he looked dead, so his best friend dragged him out into the snow to hide the body. He died of exposure.

I had already left my father’s house for university two years before Blake’s death.  I would come back to visit on a monthly basis, then on weekends after the funeral, because he seemed to need me more. Even so, my relationship with my father was subdued and mysterious. I could not fathom his aloofness.

And I often wondered about my mother’s disappearance. I had not seen her since I was nine; she didn’t attend Blake’s funeral. Could I believe that she hated her life with us so much that she left forever, leaving everything behind? Or did she wonder about the fights between my father and Blake that made no real sense? Did she ever hear one of their secret fights, as I did, while playing spies as a child? They were at odds in the bathroom with the door locked. I never heard words, just noises, like their complaint wasn’t with each other but with themselves and their own natures. I can’t imagine what happened next if she did.

André Narbonne is a Windsor, Ontario writer. Since 2011 his writing has seen publication in Prairie Fire, The Dalhousie Review, The Nashwaak Review, FreeFall, Wascana Review, CV2, Antigonish Review, Rampike, Windsor Review, Numéro Cinq, and carte blanche.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click here for all things Jen

funny, Guest Posts, parenting

Drive Home, Leave Home, Wake Up

June 11, 2021
Johanna

By Dawn Urbont

My breast pump talks to me. Its mechanical sucking noise morphs into language inside my sleep-deprived brain. Vy-vo, vy-vo, vy-vo, drive home, drive home, drive home, it commands in two-four time. Drive home from where? I wonder. I’m already home.

“Did you say something?” Alex shuffles into our dining room turned pump station, where I sit hooked up and strapped in, eyes shut, head lolling to the side. He calls it the unamusement park ride.

“Did I?” the words barely make it past my too-tired-to-talk lips. I right my head and open my eyes halfway. He’s holding a bowl of grown-up cereal and a rolled-up New York Times tucked under his arm. He sports a thick layer of stubble, striped pajamas, a robe and slippers. He’s really going for the whole fatherhood thing. “What did I say?” I ask, unable to remember moments ago.

Alex shrugs and sets the cereal bowl and newspaper on our crummy thrift shop dining table. “Fuck,” he manages as he slumps into a chair and bows forward with exhaustion. The table tilts. Milk threatens to leave the bowl. “I’m tired.”

“You’re tired? Really?” I fix my gaze on him, and he glances at me. I am attached to plastic and valves and tubing and two collection bottles that grow heavy with every painful squeeze of my darkened areolas. Alex knows not to take my bait.

“No?” he replies. We sit at the table, quiet as a still-life. Porcelain Pitcher with Wilting Flowers. Somewhere in the house, our new baby lets out a tea-kettle cry.

Drive home, drive home, drive home…

“Good morning, Mommy,” Johanna, the live-in baby-nurse we hired for three weeks enters holding Mathilda in her thick, sturdy arms. The sight of M makes us smile. She looks fresh and alert with a clean diaper and a onesie that says Girl Boss. “I’m hungry, Mommy. Did you save any milk for me?” Johanna, in her breezy Trinidadian accent speaks for Mathilda as though she were a hand puppet, which I find utterly cloying. I cast a furtive glance at Alex, who remains expressionless. He inhales a spoonful of cereal, and I watch milk dribble down his chin, navigating his stubble like a plinko ball.

Hiring a baby nurse was my mother’s idea. In fifth grade I was cast as a flying monkey instead of Dorothy and reacted by drinking a bottle of rubbing alcohol. After the doctors pumped my stomach, I woke up and said, “Who cares? I’m fine.” And Mom said, “You know what fine means? Fucking In Need of Everything.” The seed of incompetence planted long ago, I ran the baby nurse idea by Alex.

“Hell no. You really want a stranger living with us? I won’t be able to fart in my own house.”

“That’s a pro, not a con.”

“Look,” Alex had said, “live-in’s are expensive. We can figure out our baby on our own like the fucking cavemen. Cavepeople. Whatever.”

“But what if we can’t? What if I can’t? What if you roll on top of M in your sleep? What if I drop her?”

Johanna turns off the pump. Its voice dies out like a short-circuiting robot. Time to feed my girl, but first I unequip. The collection bottles are attached to plastic shields held over my nipples by a garment that’s at once ludicrous and essential: the hands-free pump bra, a zip-up bandeau with two circular holes like cruise ship windows for nipples to—I want to say—look through. Picture the Madonna cone bra circa 1990, avant-garde, fashion forward, sexy. This is not like that. It’s the opposite and quite possibly the beginning of the end of my marriage, I’m thinking. How Alex can sit there and eat food while I pump is beyond me. Is he looking for a way out? Were the delivery room proceedings too much for him to handle? The blood, the excrement, the unshavenness of it all… If this is it, I won’t blame him.

I detach the bottles and fasten buttery yellow lids onto them. I unzip my pump bra and peel away the plastic shields from my damp skin. My breasts hang down like aged-out foster children, worse for wear but free. Three weeks ago, Johanna was a stranger in my house. Now she watches me in my most intimate of moments, all honest and raw. Some people find this act of motherhood beautiful, but I’m telling you, it’s disgusting. I should be embarrassed milking myself in front of a rando and the one person who’s supposed to find me attractive. But guess what? I’m not, and that’s what’s so crazy about motherhood! You just roll with humiliation, because you have to. Because if you don’t, either you won’t survive or your baby won’t survive and neither is okay. I mean, if you had told me I would be so constipated after giving birth that I’d be begging for a colostomy bag, because it hurt too much to crap with stitches in my taint, I very likely wouldn’t have gone through with the whole “having a baby” thing. There is no dignity in child-bearing and the weeks that follow.

“So. How did Bessie do this morning?” Johanna asks holding up a bottle of my “liquid gold” as she calls it. Bessie is not my name. It’s her idea of a joke. A lame one. Alex shoots me a side-ways glance. He knows I hate when she calls me a cow’s name. In my mind, I ask her how she would like it if I called her a genetically-modified-cud-chewing-ozone-destroying behemoth. In my mind, she laughs like I’m joking, and still in my mind, I ask her if it looks like I’m joking.

Then, somehow and without warning, the word cunt falls out of my mouth like a bite of rotten apple. My eyes go wide. Alex nearly chokes on his ancient grains.

“Excuse me?” Johanna says. My stomach tightens.

“My cunt—it still hurts from, you know, third-degree tears and everything.”

“I don’t like that word, Mommy,” Johanna/Mathilda says.

“Sorry,” I say as she transfers Mathilda into my arms.

My little TillyDillyChickenBug latches onto my right breast like a pro. Her sucking reflex is strong, but Johanna tells me that sucking doesn’t equal swallowing, and I worry that I’ve pumped out her entire breakfast.

“What if my funbags are empty?” I ask, my forehead creases deepening with anxiety. Alex explodes into laughter, and my head whips around in time to see bits of cereal splattering all over the newsprint. “What’s so funny?”

“Funbags.” He chuckles shaking his head side to side. My face hardens.

“You think they’re not fun anymore? You think I’m being ironic?”

“No, babe. If anything, they’re more fun now.”

“Then why were you laughing?”

“I don’t know. It’s a funny word.”

“It’s two words,” I snap. When I look it up later, I find out it’s one.

I’m about to cry. Anger, sadness, exhaustion, a body I don’t recognize, a helpless life that’s dependent on a mildly depressed person with a sleep deficit. This is nature’s plan? Is that smart?

“Don’t worry, Mommy. Those funbags are definitely not empty. Look,” Johanna motions toward Mathilda. I look down and see a tiny mammal suckling at my teat. I watch for signs of a swallow– the subtle up-down movement of her throat. Creamy straw-colored milk pools at the corners of her mouth, and my furrowed brow relaxes. “Ten minutes on each side,” Johanna picks up the bottles of milk along with my pump parts and carries them out of the room. In the mirror on the wall opposite me, I watch as she disappears into the kitchen. Alex and I turn to each other and break into huge grins, wide-mouthed and weighted with disbelief. We hear the opening and closing of the refrigerator followed by the rush of sink water.

“You called her a cunt,” he whispers.

“I know!”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know!”

The sink shuts off, and we quickly dummy up. Is this how parents behave?  I kiss my baby’s petal soft forehead and think to myself, We’re the absolute worst.

After the morning feed, I transfer Mathilda into her daddy’s arms so he can burp her; so he can be part of the process. “Don’t pat her back like you see on TV,” Johanna had instructed us during her first week. “Rub her back, soothe her, be gentle,” she had said. I watch Alex bounce around the dining room table, cradling Tils over his shoulder. He raps on her back like she’s a storefront window. Are you still open? Can I come in? I leap out of the chair ready to take her.

“That’s not—” I catch my reflection in the mirror. Who is that? My bottom lip droops, and I gaze at Her with the crazy bed head and squinting, tired eyes. Her with the deflated double D’s, the wrinkled belly fat and that hideous umbilical hernia. I want to burn my bikinis.

“What’s wrong?” Alex asks.

“I’m taking a shower,” I say and walk out.

I don’t make it to the shower. I can’t make it to the shower. My pits reek and my pussy smells like the monkey house at the zoo, but my need for sleep supersedes my need to wash away bacteria proliferating in the warm, damp nether regions of my flesh. Alex might see things differently, but Mathilda’s the one I’m trying to impress, and Mathilda could give two shits what I smell like. I am her warm body, and she loves me in my natural state. Half naked, wearing only pajama bottoms, I sink into my unmade bed and yank the comforter up over this hard to look at mother-thing I have become. As my head falls to the side, I suddenly remember what I couldn’t remember saying this morning: we have to pay Johanna. Tomorrow is her last day. Too tired to yell, I consider texting Alex a reminder, but the fog of sleep is rolling in, and I can hear those words. Drive home, drive home… My pump’s voice lingers in my head, lulls me to sleep. Machine and I, we are one.

At exactly 10AM, Johanna, her flip-flops slapping against the hardwood floor, enters my sunlit bedroom and hands me my baby. I arrange her in a football hold as I shimmy up wormlike against the upholstered headboard, shaking off my dream-drenched sliver of sleep. It doesn’t matter that I was in a sleep so deep I could have drowned peacefully and that my nipples are raw and fissured. This baby is on a schedule, and Johanna, for one thousand dollars a week, sees to it that she will eat, play and nap every three hours until her 7PM bedtime. While Johanna’s daily duties end there, I don’t get to clock out. Ten PM is my daughter’s dream feed, when I will prowl into her black-out shaded room, tip-toe my fingers around her swaddled little body and lift her to my chest ever-so-gently so as not to wake her. Then seated and slow-rocking in a toile-covered glider, I will insert my breast into her mouth as she sleeps. Once, during my freshman year of college, this frat guy, Brad McCarthy, tried to insert his dick into my mouth while I lay passed out in the basement of Psi U. Not exactly the same thing, but similar. After the dream feed, my brain will want to sleep until morning, but my breasts won’t let me. Should I test them, they will punish me with engorgement, hot, lumpy and hardened with milk. Instead, I will wake at 4AM and pump when the house is pin-drop quiet. In those pre-dawn hours when it’s just the two of us, my pump and me at the dining table, cast in the LED glow of my iPhone, and I’m holding my head in my hands, because my hands are free thanks to my hands-free pump bra, my pump speaks in window-wiper rhythm.

Leave home, leave home, leave home

There’s this optical illusion on the internet of a dancer spinning. Most people see her spinning counter-clockwise, something having to do with whether or not you’re left-brained or right-brained. For the life of me, I can only see her spin clockwise, and for the life of me, I can’t unhear my pump speak English. I try to listen from the other side of my brain, to hear machine noise, nonsense, onomatopoeia, but all I can make out is an electronic voice spitting out words. Drive home. Leave home. Last week it said Wake up.

Alex’s heavy footfalls grow louder until he’s hovering in the bedroom doorway. His wavy brown hair is wet from a shower, and he’s dressed in street clothes and sneakers.

“I’m going to the bank. Payday, babe. Johanna’s leaving tomorrow.” He pumps his fist triumphantly until he notices Johanna standing in the corner, where she waits while I nurse. He offers a closed-mouth smile, his hand falling loosely by his side. Johanna shakes her head and mutters a curse under her breath– not a curse word, but I’m pretty sure a curse she’s placing on Alex.

“Want anything from outside?” he asks.

“No,” I lie. I want everything from outside.

“Get a frying chicken for tonight. I’m cooking dinner,” says Johanna.

“A frying chicken?” Alex looks perplexed.

“It’s just a chicken,” I say.

“Make sure it’s organic,” Johanna instructs then turns to me. “Everything you eat, the baby eats.”

“Organic,” I tell Alex as if he didn’t hear. “Go to Whole Foods.”

Alex clasps his hands together tensely. Too many instructions. He can’t handle it. “Anything else?” He exhales audibly.

“Carrot and celery,” says Johanna.

“I should write this down,” Alex grabs a pen from his pocket. Clicking the end of it repeatedly, he scans for paper. The dresser is littered with old receipts, pieces of mail, ValPak coupons, and news clippings from my father-in-law, who thinks we won’t know what’s happening in the world unless he mails us a manila envelope stuffed with articles curated from a variety of print media he swipes from doctor office waiting rooms. Alex starts pawing at papers, sending articles, mail and receipts to the floor. Johanna and I watch as he begins to unravel, his breathing heavy and erratic.

“Babe, chill.”

“I’m very chill.”

“Here.” I find a wrinkled napkin on my night stand. He grabs it and tries to scrawl the shopping list on it, but the tip of his pen tears through it.

“Fuck!”

“Keep cool, Daddy,” JoTilda says.

“Forget it. I don’t need to write it down.” He walks out leaving me tethered to our baby, her caregiver sentinelling by my bedside.

I should be high now. Above-the-clouds high, legs outstretched behind me, airplane arms, head crooning crane-like and strung out on oxytocin, the feel-good hormone released naturally through breastfeeding to make mommies fall in love with their babies. Oxytocin, nature’s secret party favor, that love drug, that bonding glue, that country’s gone crazy glue. Instead, I feel pangs of something akin to road-rage. I’m not big on social media. I don’t put on blast that I ate a muffin, and I particularly loathe those “That moment” memes, but currently I’m having a “that moment” moment. I mentally update my status: That moment you realize you’re being held hostage by a baby.

“Alex!” I yell seconds before the front door bangs shut. I grab my cell phone, touch the facechat icon, and jab at Alex’s name. His oval head appears, moving against a blue sky backdrop.

“Alex—”

“What’s up?”

“You always get to do the errands,” I complain in a voice reserved more for a brother than a spouse. Alex looks at me with a blank stare and stops moving. “I haven’t left the house in weeks. I wear pajamas every day.”

“What are you saying, you don’t want me to go?”

“Go if you want to go.”

He starts to move again, and I erupt, “Why can’t I go to the bank and get a frying chicken?!”

“I’m coming back.”

We both hang up. Within minutes he’s in the bedroom doorway. “You’re in the middle of nursing!”

“I’ll be done in ten minutes!”

“Mommy, Daddy, calm down!” Johanna hollers without bothering to sound like a sing-songy puppet child. “Negative emotions poison my milk!”

“Shit!” I hurriedly slip my pinky between my breast and M’s little mouth. Unlatched, she starts to cry. “This is turning into a bloodbath,” I whimper, my eyeballs tightening as if being screwed deep into their sockets, saltwater tears rising.

“It’s not a bloodbath,” Alex assures me. “Take breathe deep ujjayi breaths.”

“I can’t breathe. There’s no air.” I grip my neck, panicked.

“There’s air all around us,” he says with a forced calm, then he turns to Johanna. “I think she’s having breakdown.”

“Let me take the baby.” Johanna plucks Matilda from my arms. She starts singing a strange little island song, cradling my daughter into a sea of serenity.

“Look at me,” Alex puts his hands on my shoulders.

“No. I’m gross,” I cry into my sweaty palms.

“You’re beautiful. You’re hot. Just, come on, babe, look at me.” I peek at him, certain my ugly-cry will to haunt him for years. “I’m sorry. I thought I was being helpful, but I was wrong. You do the errands.”

“I can’t.”

“It’ll be good for you to get out of the house.”

“You don’t understand, I’m on a schedule,” I sob. “There’s reading time and tummy time and music appreciation– we’re listening to Aaron Copeland today, then the one o’clock feed, and I need to drink thistle tea so my tits make milk, and what about my shower? I still haven’t had a shower, you took my shower!” I catch Alex and Johanna exchanging a look of grave concern. A pit forms in my stomach. What is wrong with me?

“Okay,” I sniffle. “I’ll go.”

As it turns out, anything you do alone by yourself after having a baby feels like a vacation. Taking a dump, sitting in traffic, waiting on line at the bank… these moments of solitude bring with them a sense of escapism for which I feel rescue-dog grateful. Who ever thought a trip to the bank could be exhilarating? I stroll back to my car with a thousand dollars cash for Johanna and a smile that feels involuntary. As I open the door and get into my Prius, I glimpse the words Lick Me etched in dust on the rear window. I look around. A sun-tanned, bleach-blonde homeless woman across the parking lot smiles at me. From a distance, her teeth look like rocks. Perhaps Lick Me was her little idea of a joke. I’ll never know, but as I drive past, I roll down my window and hand her a buck.

“That’s it?” she asks gruffly.

“Yup,” I roll up my window and drive away, delirious with freedom. Sky blue skies peek through the open moonroof, and sunlight warms the crown of my head. Thirty minutes later, there’s a four-pound organic chicken, a bushel of carrots and a bag of celery riding shotgun, and instead of driving home, I’m heading straight for the mall. Tilly’s next feed is in an hour, and I’m not ready to relinquish this intoxicating Me Time.

When we got pregnant, Alex became obsessed with the cost of college tuition in 2038 and started balking whenever I came home with items like re-usable ice cream cones or Gremlins on BluRay. He banned me from Target, where I could lose myself for hours and come home after dark toting bags of future Goodwill donations and a massive shopping hangover. When he found out how much Johanna would cost, a corkscrew-like vein in his forehead stuck out for days. He refused to fuck me for fear it would burst. If Alex knew I was mall-bound, he would have a coronary.

I step into the parking garage elevator cast in its moony glow, my excitement rising with every floor, and step off into a high-end department store, a perfume scented bistro of style and luxury. Drifting through a gallery of oddly-shaped statement shoes, floating up the spiral staircase, running my hands over iconic and classic and iconoclastic fashion stories, I feel electrified. I’ve come back to life. Old me is back, I can feel her, she’s here. I pluck a colorblocked asymmetric plissé dress off a rack, hold it up to my body, twist left then right, the ochre and berry skirt swishing side to side. Suddenly, my phone buzzes, a text from Alex. He wants to know when I’m coming home. Before I can text back, I hear a thin, buzzsaw-like voice behind me, “So, where are you going? What do you need it for?” I turn to find a waif-like salesperson, a genderless “they/them” dressed all cool in black and navy.

“Oh, I don’t need it,” I say.

“That’s the best time to buy, when there’s no occasion. Shopping under pressure gives me a silent migraine.”

“I’m just looking.”

“Oh,” they rub their lips together and part them with a popping noise. “Okay.”

“I just had a baby,” I add, suddenly feeling the need to offer an excuse. “I’ve been going stir crazy. I had to get out of the house.”

“I used to hate babies…”

I smile and wait for them to continue. “But now?”

“Now what?”

We look at each other, decades between us, only to be interrupted by another text from Alex, this time a picture of M with a pouty bottom lip followed by a picture of Alex, eyes closed, hand to forehead as if to indicate some kind of spiritual distress. Drive home. My pump’s voice echoes in my head. Drive home, a portent impressing upon me that wherever I go, I cannot be. Drive home.

“Can I get a dressing room?”

This was dumb. A post-partum body under dressing room lighting in a three-way mirror is the rudest awakening. Cellulite and skin tags and melasma, oh my fucking God. I don’t belong here. All I wanted was to look around, feel like my old self again, but here I stand, staring at stretch marks and the bulge of a sanitary napkin in my panties, while a sumptuous dress on a shiny hanger taunts me. Put me on, bitchDon’t keep me hanging on. Pun intended. A dress with an attitude, I like it. I slide it off the hanger and hold it against my body. The silk feels soft against my skin, and for a moment I feel gratitude for little white worms spinning threads as fine as a baby hair. “I’ll be home soon,” I whisper to no one as I slip the dress over my head, the material parachuting down around me. In the time it takes for a camera to flash, I glimpse who I was before I split in two.

My cell phone rings. Alex’s name comes up.

“What?” I answer abruptly.

“Did you get my texts? M is losing her shit. I think she’s hungry. I don’t know what to do.”

“Where’s Johanna?”

“She’s packing. Should I give her a bottle?”

“Are you crazy? It’s not time yet. I’ll be home soon.”

There’s a knock on my dressing room door. “How’s it going?  Do you need a different size? Bigger?”

“Who’s that?” Alex asks. “Where are you?”

“I gotta go.” I hang up, but not before a glass-shattering wail pierces my phone and hooks me like a trout. My stomach lurches and fills with molten lava. Every cell in my body begins to weep. My baby needs me, and I’m at the mall trying on a criminally expensive dress I have no intention of buying.

“Is everything okay in there?”

Is anything okay in here? I want to fake nibble baby toes and breathe in corn starch air. I want to sing about twinkly little stars and blow raspberries on a teeny tiny tummy. Another knock. Reluctantly, I slide the door latch and show myself. My salesperson looks me up and down with a quizzical expression, mouth twisted to one side, perhaps slightly amused. What does this face mean?

“Someone’s buying a dress today,” they announce before I have a chance to look in the mirror. I shake my head no.

“I’m just trying it on for fun.”

“Well, now you kind of have to buy this dress.”

Have to? I look that good? Suddenly thoughts of my infant daughter turn into a fine mist and get sucked into the ceiling vent. That a piece of clothing without an elastic waistband could look good on me three weeks post-partum makes me think perhaps my stealth detour wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I feel lighter, taller. I turn this way and that, allowing the corners of my mouth to curve into an I-feel-pretty smile. I actually say, “Weee,” as I spin around. “This is such a…” and as I step toward the mirror, my smile fades, “…let down.” My breastmilk has let down. My breasts have let me down. Two wet circles of mother’s milk expand in the silk over my nipples.

The salesperson is sucking in their lips, which I take as their way of preventing their thoughts from reaching my ears. “I’ll be over by the register when you’re ready,” they say and walk off.

I speed change in the dressing room and pay for the dress with cash, the cash meant for Johanna. Alex can never know about this. I can just picture him, eyes bugging, the corkscrew vein popping. You went where? And spent how much? Is that even legal? He gets so crazy, he makes me crazy! With a pounding headache and a dress I now despise, I race down to the garage, jump in my Prius and floor it back to the bank, breasts engorged, nipples leaking and twenty minutes past my baby’s one o’clock feed. As I park, I spot Rock Teeth loitering in a new, more strategic location by the bank entrance.

“What happened to you?” she studies me as I brush past. “You look like horseshit.” I pause and glimpse my reflection in the bank’s tinted glass doors: it’s Her. Her, now an adrenalin-fueled, wide-eyed, wet-chested train wreck looks back at me with an unrecognizable grimace and a plastic hair-clip hanging limply from stringy tresses. When did I even put that in? I turn back to the homeless woman and feel slightly jealous. She can rock this look and get away with it.   

“Wait here.” I hasten back to my car.

“Like I have somewhere to be,” she calls after me.

Moments later I return with a sleek black shopping bag and hand it to her. She takes it without so much as a thank you and begins digging away at the white tissue paper to see what treasure lies beneath. I have no time to wait for a reaction. I don’t need the thanks. To give is thanks enough. I run inside the bank and withdraw five hundred dollars to make up for the cost of the dress, and as I’m rushing back outside, stuffing bills into my purse, I see the sidewalk littered with white tissue paper, the silk dress lying in a puddle of itself, Rock Teeth nowhere in sight. What the hell? Where did she go? Why would she leave this stuff in the street? The questions fly at me like a cauldron of bats, which is what a group of bats is called, and I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Something must have happened. Something awful, and I don’t have time for a mystery. I scan the lot, whipping my head left then right. I hear a car peel out and look toward the far end of the lot. That’s when I see her perched in her encampment transferring indecipherable belongings out of a tattered plastic grocery bag into the sleek department store shopping bag. That’s all she wants? Just the bag? I really don’t have time for this. I snatch the dress up off the ground.

“Hey!” I yell across the lot to get her attention. “Do you have any idea how much this dress cost me?!” I march toward her, my heart hammering inside my chest, my baby’s lunch seeping through my tank top. She doesn’t hear me or chooses not to, her eyes focused on inspecting each item as she transfers it. “Hey!” I call louder. “Woman!” She finally looks up, and I find myself waving the dress in the air like a lost hiker trying to flag down a rescue helicopter. “Not my style!” she yells back then resumes her affairs. This triggers me. I don’t know why. I toss the dress at her, but it’s so light, the mild September breeze carries it down to my feet. I try again, this time twisting it into a rope and lassoing it into the air. It unfurls in the wind. Stretched out like a sail, flapping, dancing, it collides with a moving Subaru, spreading across the windshield in shapeless abandon. The Subaru swerves and hits a parked SUV. A horn blares, a car alarm goes off.

Beep, beep, beep, beep, flee, flee, flee, flee…

People within earshot start to gather, and I can feel something like soapy bubbles rising up inside me, filling my mouth, oozing through my parted lips. Only it’s not soapy bubbles. It’s laughter, and it keeps coming and coming and coming.

Originally from New York City, Dawn Urbont has worked as a television writer of both sit-coms and dramas for over fifteen years. She holds a B.A. in English and Film Studies from Dartmouth College. When she’s not writing, she is an incredibly underpaid chef, chauffeur, teacher, doctor, personal shopper, and event planner for her kids. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two boys, and an Airedale Terrier named Acorn.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts

The Haw Eaters

April 23, 2021
greg

by Bruce Meyer

My college roommate, Greg, kept a box of papers in the bottom drawer of his desk. He opened the box one night and told me his entire life was made of paper. There was an adoption record – no former names, Christian or surnames, stated – and a newspaper clipping from the Toronto Star where a sad-looking child, his eyes fixed on the floor in front of him was featured as ‘Today’s Child.” That was Greg.

He stared at the neatly snipped rectangle, yellowing and growing brittle with age, and said simply, “That’s the only picture I have of my childhood. You see? My white family took the trouble to scratch out my real name. They wanted me to be their Gregory. They wanted me to be someone else. And so, I obliged them. It was better than going back to the residential school.”

I wondered how he could go through life, at least to this point, a high achiever on both athletic and academic scholarships, someone with a big ‘He’s-going-to-be really- someone’ sign hanging around his neck, yet remain humble, fun to hang out with, considerate. He’d become the sort of guy who brings you chicken soup when you have the flu.

Yet for everything he is, he had no idea who he was.

I wanted to feel his pain, but I couldn’t fathom what that pain could be like. My grandparents and parents had gone to the same college at the university. I was simply falling in step, as was expected of me. I was not merely part of a lineage: I was white privilege.

“How did you…”

“Cope? Stay sane? I had to live with it. Hard as it is, I figured what is just is. I didn’t know a different life. I knew mine was mine no matter what they called me.

“Imagine,” he said, “if someone came into your house when you were four or five and ripped you from the arms of your mother or grandmother. How would you have felt? At night in St. Bartholomew’s School I’d lie awake in the dark and listen to the other children in the rows of white iron cots as they sobbed into their pillows. Sobbing was a good sign. It meant you still had something to miss, something to live for. Those who stopped sobbing would be found hanging in the basement of the school or frozen in the forests beyond the school’s grounds.”

“Do you have any idea where you’re from?” I asked him as he folded the clipping, set the papers in order, and put the lid on the box.

“Not a clue. I have memories, though. An old woman. I can’t even see her face clearly. She is standing beside a lake and she’s staring at an island across the waters. It isn’t a large lake, and the island in the middle of it isn’t all that big either. It could be anywhere. This whole frickin’ country is made of lakes and islands. I keep going back there in my dreams. I keep trying to talk to her, to ask her questions, but because we only meet in dreams, the sounds won’t come out of my mouth. She does speak to me sometimes, but it’s in a language I don’t understand, and that makes her seem farther away than she really is. I’d love to know who and where she is. She is old in the dream and has probably passed on by now.”

Everything in Greg’s dreams, he told me, happened by moonlight. He couldn’t see where the light was coming from. Then he’d get playful and ask, “Who the hell lights our dreams? I mean, is there a gaffer pulling cables and setting the blue flood just right so we can see where we’re going and not bump into the more solid illusions?” He’d laugh, but I could tell that the laugh was masking a very deep pain. It wasn’t a happy laugh.

Greg was my closest friend at university, my spirit double, if there is such a thing, someone for whom I’d be honored to be a shadow. We’d talk about anything, but mainly about how we know or don’t know who we are. Greg knew what he wanted to become. He was fascinated by the law. He’d ask me why it was legal to kidnap a child, and I’d tell him I had no idea, and that I thought all kidnapping was illegal. He’d agree. What was wrong was wrong, he’d insist, and he’d say that someday that wrong would have to be undone.

He got accepted into law school.

“I’m not as happy as my folks.”

He never called them his family, only his “folks.” He said he never felt completely a part of their lives but was more of a good deed they felt they were doing, a project that was coming to fruition like pulling the last thread and watching a ship pop up in an empty bottle, the way he described it.

“I’m going on to law school because it is another step on the road back to where I need to be.”

After graduation, we lost track of each other until I ran into him as I was going into one of our old lunch haunts near the campus and he was coming out. We talked for a few moments. When he said, “family law,” there was something emphatic about the word ‘family,’ as if he felt that the law was a means of turning back the clock to find what he had lost. In the chapters of parliamentary acts and statutes, there was a blood connection he was seeking.

He asked me if I had a week off this summer. I did. “We can do the buddy thing and drive north and look for the island.”

“Good luck in that,” I said.

“No, I mean it, man. Besides, I don’t have a license and you do. The Griffiths told me I had to earn a car, and I can either have wheels or I can pay my fees. There’s more future in my fees. Besides, I need you to be Tonto to my Lone Ranger. You can sense your way to the lake with the island. I trust your instincts.”

When I picked him up at his apartment in the stillness of the pre-dawn damp I told him we were going to start with the biggest island and then work down to the smallest. It seemed logical.

The biggest island on a lake is Manitoulin, a belt of limestone that rises out of the waters of Georgian Bay and defines the meeting point between the three Great Lakes of Superior, Huron, and Michigan. It is the Niagara Escarpment after it has drowned off Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula and risen to life again to the north.

I’d read a travel magazine in a dentist’s office where the writer said the island had been destroyed by an enormous forest fire around the time Shakespeare lived, and that after the War of 1812 it had been resettled by indigenous peoples who remained loyal to the British and got the raw end of a treaty. The writer described Manitoulin as a Chinese puzzle box of islands.

“Imagine,” said the traveler, “the largest island in the world on a freshwater lake, and one that island is the largest freshwater lake on an island, and in the middle of the lake is the largest island on the largest lake on the largest island on the largest lake in the world.” Once I sorted out the knot of that sentence I felt that the best place to search for an island in someone’s mind is to begin with an island of dream-like anomalies.

As we drove north following the shoreline of Georgian Bay where we stopped every twenty miles to look at islands only to have Greg shake his head and say, “Not that one,” we arrived in Rainbow Country. We didn’t see any rainbows. Greg shrugged and looked out the window. “Just a lot more rocks and trees,” he said. “I feel as if we’re trapped in a Group of Seven painting.”

But as we turned along the North Shore and headed west toward the Algoma Region, the hard, rugged terrain of marshes and mountains, the landscape became the dream-like terra incognito described by the magazine writer. Granite outcrops rose up from drowned pockets. Bulrushes and beaver lodges emerged from glistening rivers that snaked between sharp granite clefts. We passed through the White Fish Nation and Greg said he was feeling strange, as if something in the pit of his stomach was trying to make him ill. We pulled over and he threw up into a ditch or marsh marigolds that are commonly known as Urineworts because they bloom like lotuses in stagnant water.

“So what hit you?” I asked.

“I feel a lot better. I don’t think it was anything I ate because you ate the same coffee and doughnuts back in Parry Sound. I think it was something I feel I had to get rid of, something in my gut that wanted to come out. I’ve never had a feeling like that before.

“Up ahead,” Greg said, “just on the edge of the res, there are rocks. They are stranded on flats where the granite becomes a road of limestone.”

“That’s a good start,” I said. “More where they came from, I’ll bet. How do you know there are rocks?”

“I don’t know. In one of my dreams the rocks were singing. Weird, eh?”

“Yeah, weird. I’m driving you around to look for an island that could be any island in a country that boasts several million islands and you remember singing rocks. Remind me again that you never dropped acid.”

“Man, I know it’s crazy, but they’ll be there.”

Within a few miles the topography changed again to low, flat limestone, and on the exposed bedrock surface sat enormous blue stone boulders and nothing grew around them. They looked as if they had just dropped from outer space.

“That’s them!” He shouted. “Those are the rocks!”

And electric sign by the side of the road announced that the iron swing bridge to Little Current on Manitoulin Island would only remain open for another ten minutes. If the single-lane span swung open, it might remain open for an hour or more to let the sailboats of wealthy Americans pass from Manitouwaning Bay to the North Channel above the island. I explained this to Greg.

“Good you’ve done your homework.”

“Just read a map and a guidebook,” I said. “Do you want to stop at the rocks?”

He looked at me as if I was daft. “I don’t feel up for a sing-along.”

“You really are sure they sing, eh?”

“It was just a dream. You can’t get blood or a good tune out of a rock.”

It was ten a.m. when we arrived in Little Current, the biggest town on Manitoulin. A policeman waved us off the main road to a detour and as we turned he halted us and leaned in the car window.

“Parking’s over there for the festival.”

I pulled into the first empty space.

“Wanna go to a festival?” I asked.

Greg shrugged. He didn’t care one way or another and because we were driving nowhere in particular he got out and we walked back to the highway into town. A parade of floats pulled by red an orange tractors was inching its way toward a field at the end of their procession. Girls on the floats were waving and shouting to the crowd. A high school marching band, off-key, with a very noticeable glockenspiel, tramped by. On another float the local Junior B Hockey team was pointing to the crests on their jerseys and raising index fingers to tell everyone they were number one. The end of the parade was a cortege of Provincial Police cars, an ambulance, a firetruck, and the Mayor holding up a fluttering town flag as he sat on the back shelf of a red convertible.

“Canadiana at its finest,” I said.

An old man in a red and black bush shirt walked up to us and handed us each a palmful of red berries.

“Be a haw-eater!” he shouted.

There was a woman standing next to me. Her white hair was pulled back behind her head and fastened by a leather barrette with a stick through it. Her shirt was embroidered with a dreamcatcher – a stick bent into a circle and woven with gutting and beads on the threads to catch the sad and insane imaginings of a sleeper as they pass from the conscious world to the inside of a dreamer’s head. I’d seen dreamcatchers for sale in one of the occult shops near the campus and had thought of getting one for Greg but didn’t when I thought he might think I was joshing him about his nocturnal habits or his indigenous roots. I asked the woman what the berries were.

“Hawberries. They only grow on the island, and appear only during a July full moon, a time when the face of the old woman shines down on Turtle Island. Food of the Great Spirit,” she said and smiled.

The hawberries were about the size of Saskatoons which I’d tasted out west in a golf course parking lot in a coulee near Regina. But the hawberries were softer like blueberries and blood red. They were as sweet as blueberries but with the aftertaste of pomegranates. I was about to tell Greg we should buy some to eat in the car, but when I turned away from the woman to speak to him, he was staring into the berries in his hand.  His eyes were wide as if he had discovered a wound in his palm.

He picked up the first one, rolled it in his fingers, and set it in his mouth. He didn’t hear me when I said his name, but just stared at them as if looking into a clear lake and trying to see the rocks on the bottom through the ripples of the surface. Then he ate another, and another, before he sank to his knees, and began to weep and beat the ground with his other fist.

“I need more,” he said.

I found another lady who had been selling small baskets of them on a table by the road, and I bought her last pint. Greg was now bent over, grabbing at handfuls of dirt on the shoulder of the road and tossing them in the air. He was freaking me. People were standing around him, kneeling, asking him if he was all right. Someone wondered if he was having a seizure. He couldn’t reply. His shoulders were heaving as he sobbed.

“I need to find my grandmother,” he said, looking up, his eyes full of tears. “I need to find the old woman. These berries are the taste of her spirit.”

The woman who sold me the berries bent down and laid a hand gently on Greg’s shoulder.

“I think I know why you are here. You are one of the searchers, aren’t you. You are one of the lost who has come home. I know it. I see it in your face and in your eyes. I can see through your tears. The Truth and Reconciliation Report called to you. It awoke old dreams in you, dreams that you thought you had buried or had lost on your journey. You are coming home, though you are not all the way there yet.”

Greg looked up at her. I could see in his eyes the suffering pouring out, a terrible pain he had kept bottled up inside. This was not the Greg I knew, the Greg who always had a quick quip, a good story, or a ‘you gotta see this’ experience he found on the web. He was a dream caught in an invisible dream catcher, the prey of a tormenting spider into whose web he had stumbled. This Greg was someone else – the person I had heard talking in his sleep, the person who woke, weeping, and asking for his grandmother and trying to describe the island he had seen in the distance of those dreams.

The berry woman put her arms around Greg and began to rock him as if he was a child. Then she spoke. And what she said startled me. The words were those I had heard Greg speaking in his restless dreams, the words I wished I had recorded and played back to him the next morning.

She looked up at me and said, “Can you take him to Wiiki? I mean, Wiikwemkoong?”

She explained that part of Manitoulin had never been ceded in a treaty and remained an independent nation within Canada. I had no idea such a place existed, a place within the nation that was not part of the country.

“Go down the highway. When you get to Manitouwaning, turn off but don’t go all the way into the town. There’s a road that will take to you Wiikwemkoong.”

“What will we be a looking for there?” I asked.

“Someone who might be able to help him. I’ve been whispering Anishinabek to him and he understands what I am saying though he can’t reply in the language.”

The woman and I helped Greg down the road to the car.

“Are you sure you’re up for this, bud?” I questioned. Greg nodded though he fought in his throat for every word.

“Yes. I want to go there now. It isn’t far.”

I thanked the woman for her kindness. She said it was not kindness but what family does for its own. I asked if she was related to Greg, perhaps a cousin or an aunt, and she shook her head.

“We are all brothers and sisters,” she replied and turned back up the side street to the main road where she vanished..

As we drove past the outskirts of Little Current I asked Greg what the hawberries had done to him.

“It’s not what they did but what they said. When I was a little boy, before the scoop, the old woman fed them to me. I ate them from her hands and when her hands were empty I walked up to a bush and ate them fresh off the branch.”

Down the highway, we saw the sign and the turn off for the Unceded Independent Nation. The sign told us we were leaving Canada and that the nation had its own police force. It advised us to drive carefully.

“I know this place,” Greg said as we approached a small building with a shaded porch out front. In one corner, a woman listening to a radio was seated in front of a sign offering bannock for $2.00. An old woman sat at another table. When I approached the bannock seller, she pushed a pamphlet toward me that listed all the things we could do in Wiikwemkoong – the theatre, the ruins of an old residential school, selected places to fish if a license was obtained from the band office, and a map showing where the road became a dotted line and vanished into the bush. “Drive slowly,” she said.

Then she looked at Greg and put her hand over her mouth.

“You, you look like my grandfather. You stand like him. You have his eyes. My sister had a grandson who was taken. We all have known those who were taken. My sister and I were taken but we returned. She was old enough to remember who she was and where she was from and the first chance we had, we came back. Oh, if you are who I hope you are, you have come a great distance and learned great strength to be here. I can see it in your face. But do you know who are you or are you among those who only remain here in their dreams?”

Greg began to sob. I put my arm around him. The woman came around to the front of the table and opened her arms and embraced him as I stepped back.

“I don’t know who I am,” he said, fighting back the tears. “I only know that in a dream I am standing by a lake with an old woman. The moon is full. The light is breaking on the water, and she feeds me hawberries. I had forgotten how they tasted until an hour ago when a woman, her grey hair pulled back and a dreamcatcher on her shirt gave me some to taste, and the taste brought back the pain, the pain of leaving, of being torn away from my grandmother’s arms.”

“Are there any records?” she asked.

Greg said no. All he had was a clipping, and the name in the clipping from the newspaper had been scratched away because his new family wanted him to forget who he had been.

“I want you to be my guests for the night,” the bannock seller said. “I have a place just down the road. Not much of a place. If you have bedrolls you can spread your gear on my floor. I’ll have some friends over and you can talk about what you’re going through because they’ve been through it, too.”

We ate a huge dinner. I was hungry. After eating I thought I’d never have to eat again. Everyone brought something. Greg and I fell in love with cedar tea and we emptied several jugs of it. Fresh salmon from South Bay. Venison. Fiddlehead greens someone had frozen two months before when the ferns were tight. They’d been cooked in butter and wild sage.

I didn’t want to say much. I wanted the evening to be about Greg. He had so many questions, yet they had so few answers. I could feel their empathy for him. Empathy was something I’d never know in those proportions from my own family. I envied him. I marveled at the love they expressed for him. It had nothing to do with duty or traditions or keeping up the family name. They spoke of the spirit.

An old man turned to me and asked what I knew about ‘Indians.’ The gathering laughed and slapped their knees when he said the word ‘Indians.’

“You know, he said, the people. What do you know about the people? We’re not from India. We’re from these parts.”

“I’m just the driver,” I said. “I’m driving my friend to look for an island in a landscape of islands as he searches for his past. It’s the least I can do for him.” Greg grabbed my knee and shook it and smiled.

“But you must have had some experience with the people,” the old man said. “We’re here. We’re not invisible. We don’t just live in movies.”

“Well, this isn’t much of a story,” I said, “but when I was a teenager, I wanted to be a hockey player. I found out there are two types of hockey players: good ones and bad ones, and I was one of the awful ones. I got invited to a hockey college out west, just south of Regina in a little town called Wilcox. The college is Notre Dame. They produce guys who go to the NHL. The college gives them a solid education, but when I got on the ice with players who really were hockey players, who you could point to and name the team that would likely draft them, I was out of my depth. I didn’t get accepted and it was probably a good thing because my family kept telling me they weren’t going to buy me new teeth. Part of the experience, though, was when the coaches took a van load of us up to a bison ranch in the Blue Hills about ten kilometers south of the school. I looked at the hairy, fly-infested bison and they looked back at me, and I thought, ‘so what.’ Then I wandered off.”

“At the edge of the ranch, on a promontory of the hillside, the ground was covered in wild sage and fell away steeply on three sides. I could see, spread out before me, Estevan, Weyburn, Moose Jaw, and Regina way off in the north, and the small towns of Avonlea and Wilcox at the foot of the Blue Hills. It was breath-taking. I was amazed how far I could see, how the whole world, perhaps even the universe spread before me, and when I looked down, I realized I was standing in a medicine wheel.”

“The wheel had a center stone of domed white marble, a polestar, and round it was a ring of other white stones set in constellations – the Big Dipper, the Great Bear, Orion’s Belt – the whole the sky was laid out in stones. I was standing in the center of the universe, maybe in the heart of eternity, and I felt as if I existed yet didn’t exist because I was part of everything around me as far and maybe farther than I could see. The wheel was a map of forever. Then I thought, I’d better get out of this. I felt as if I was violating something sacred without realizing what I was doing.”

Everyone at the gathering nodded, especially the elders. The old man spoke up, “You ought to take your friend Greg here to Dreamer’s Rock tomorrow. If you came in by the Swing Bridge you probably drove right by it without realizing it. If you saw the Bell Rocks you went too far toward the island.”

“The Bell Rocks?” Greg asked. “Are those the singing rocks? I have recollections of them from my childhood.”

“If you tap one with a piece of hard stone all the others will ring. They are made of the same stone as that Stonehenge thing over in England. I saw that when I was stationed in England during the war. I wanted to tap the Stonehenge but a man there said I couldn’t.”

“I said, ‘why not,’ and the man said, ‘because you will break it.’”

“What is Dreamer’s Rock?” Greg asked eagerly. “I’ve come this far to find the old woman who lives in my dreams. Will I see her if I go there? Is it a place to dream?”

The old man was silent for a moment and folded his hands.

“Maybe you are just looking for the lake of the old woman, Mindemoya. Good haws grow there. But Dreamer’s Rock? To go there,” he said, “means a person has been called to find who they really are. It is a place of the spirit quest. You must climb as high as you can go, and then go higher, ascending the bleached white skull of the world, and then lie down in a hollow made in the shape of the people. Only you can go there,” he said, looking at me. “I mean, you can go along to make sure he doesn’t fall off the slope on his way up and land on his death, but the final height is something only he can attain.”

So the next day, I drove Greg to Dreamer’s Rock and made the long climb up with him. I went with Greg as far as a natural vestibule near the top where white rock formed natural benches. He took off his shoes and socks, removed his belt, and set his wallet and pocket belongings on the stone shelf. I saw him scramble up the side of the dome and for a moment stand at the top, teetering and looking as if he was dizzy. He called down to me that there was no perspective up there, nothing but clear blue sky above him while below he could see Lake Superior to the west, Lake Huron to the south, Georgian Bay to the east and the tip of Lake Michigan to the southwest. Then he lay down in the niche the old man had told him about and I could not see him.

When he came down, sliding on the rock face as if he had just been born out of the sky, he said everything had changed for him. He said he lay down in a hollow. The natural dip in the white stone was the length of a person’s body, a cradle. As he lay there, all he could see was the blue, cloudless sky – no treetops, no horizons – only the emptiness of eternity, the place a mind goes when it holds nothing. It was like being catapulted into forever. He told me he left this world as the sky embraced him and drew him up.

“I’d always known there had to be a better world somewhere, and the old woman from my dream was waiting there with her arms extended. The old woman had to ask a question, but the only one who could answer it was a spirit on the island in the lake. The Great Spirit lived there. She shouted and I couldn’t hear. So she whispered, and the Spirit answered her.

I was there. I was there with my grandmother. And I understood what she said.  She called me by the name I thought I had forgotten and I know who I am now and where I come from. I could see the faces of people I knew long ago, the elders, the loved ones, returning to me as if out of the moonlight breaking on the lake. And when I asked the old woman who she was she answered and took my hand and led me into the fire circle with the others who were waiting for me to join them. We watched the embers rise up and fill the night sky with stars. She took my hand and I felt her life flow into mine, and told me we’d always be one blood.”

Bruce Meyer is author of more than sixty books of poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and non-fiction. His stories have won or been shortlisted for numerous international prizes. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Autism, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Ordinary Lives

April 16, 2021
risa

by Marlene Olin

Margaret hears the sound of cabinet doors slamming. When she walks into the kitchen, her heart lurches. The walls are splattered, the floors crunchy.  But her daughter’s happy. Tomato sauce spackles Risa’s hair and her glasses. On top of a pot, steam billows.

“Dinner’s almost done,” says Risa.  A tornado of arms and legs, she whirls from the sink to the stove. “By my calculations, nine minutes tops.”

Once again Margaret glances at her kitchen. Risa has created a workspace like she’s been taught. The counter is covered with newspaper. The ingredients lined just so. Bay leaves. Garlic. Onion. Oregano. The measuring spoons and cups. The mixing bowls and slotted spoons. Not one dish will be cleaned until after dessert.  Order is everything.

“Looks great, sweetie. It’s such a help when you cook dinner.” Then Margaret mentally makes a note of the post-cleaning required long after her daughter has cleaned and gone to bed.

But there’s no denying that Risa’s happy. There’s a lift in her step and she hums while she works. When she’s finished, she walks up to Margaret. Most people would leave an ample amount of space between them. But space is subjective. Space is a loose and wobbly entity that one intuits. Instead Risa lines up toe to toe with her mother and waves a finger in Margaret’s face.

“One more step on the road to independence, Mom.”  Then she remembers her smile cards and creases the corners of her mouth.

***

Three hours later, they are lying down. Risa’s bedroom has looked the same for decades. The sheets are soft and flannel, the shelves lined with her collections. Stones. Crystals. Shells.

As always, Margaret picks a book of poems and reads. Dickinson tonight. Perhaps Browning tomorrow. Outside the window the moon waxes and wanes. Inside the words fall like waves. It’s the sound that matters, the lilt, the lull, the up and down. Meanwhile Margaret stifles yawn after yawn. Her day can’t end soon enough.

“Do you know that a giraffe just needs 1.9 hours of sleep?” says Risa.

While she turns the page, Margaret listens to the quiet of her house. A TV drones. A dryer rumbles. Somewhere her husband is lurching. Hunched, his hands clenched, his eyes darting.  A lost soul, her husband. A Victorian ghost. A daguerreotype, grayed and grim, save for the waistcoat and watch.

“Do you know that sharks have to keep moving?”  says Risa. “Do you know that sharks never sleep?”

“Never sleep?” says Margaret.

Despite herself, Margaret savors the moment. For she knows that moments like these will soon be come and gone.  This is the year that Risa’s turning forty. With the proper supervision and support, Risa will be getting her own apartment. Her bags will be packed. The house will be emptied. The shrinks, the social workers, the experts all say it’s time.

On the ceiling are Day-Glo constellations. As soon as the lamp’s turned off, they grab the light. Margaret closes her eyes. In seconds she’s transported to 1980’s. They had just moved to Miami for her husband’s new job.

  “Spring has sprung!” said the banner. Bunnies and egg-lined baskets.  A chain of pastel construction paper crisscrossed the room.

The teacher kept her voice to a whisper. “I have twenty children in my kindergarten. Twenty children and two aides. But Risa’s the one we watch. She runs with scissors. Walks into the seesaw. The other day she followed a stray dog out the school and down the block.”

What was her name?  Miss Susan or Miss Sarah. It was mythical the way she saw into the future. Like some sort of blind seer. Back then there were no catchphrases. No spectrums. No labels. Nothing to hang your hat on but despair.

“Her IQ is sky high. That’s obvious. And her knowledge of trivia endless. But she flinches at the slightest touch. She’s terrified of hugs.”

Instead of friends, Risa had pets. No dogs or cats. Margaret’s husband was allergic. To the hair. To the dander. To the pollen on their fur. Instead they adopted an ever-changing zoo. A guinea pig that kept them up all night. A savage hamster. A gerbil that found its way into the dryer duct. Saltwater fish. Freshwater fish. One morning they’d be fine. Then the next they’d be floating, a lifeless eye staring toward the light.

A fitful sleeper, Risa tosses and turns while Margaret inches closer to the edge. Of course, her daughter has no idea what awaits her. Noisy neighbors. Nosy landlords.  Butt crack plumbers. Pervs. But what Margaret fears most is the loneliness. She can see it now.  The hours of bone-crushing silence, the kind of quiet that screams.

Margaret’s dealt with pitfalls and potholes. And now an old familiar panic starts to grow.  Margaret’s learned to trust her instincts. Her instincts rarely fail her. But all she envisions are red lights and stop signs.  Risa’s own apartment? All she can hear is her voice shouting no!

Meanwhile Margaret’s bullied right and left.

From her son, the lawyer in Washington, the one who will one day bear the burden. Each rebuke is spewed with fear: “You’re not getting younger, you know.”

From the shrink. Good or bad, inspired or idiotic, the meter keeps running:  “What’s the worst that can happen?”

From the professionals in their air-conditioned offices, sweatered in smiles, gripping their coffee cups, glued to their screens: “It’s time to cut the cord, Mom.” Like Margaret’s a fucking stereotype. Like there’s an instruction manual she somehow missed.

Only her friends can she count on. In darkened rooms, she sobs while they sip Chablis. “She’s going where?” They say. “You’re doing what?”

But her daughter is insistent. She’s like a dog with a bone. Pulling. Tugging. The whole world has narrowed to this one theme, this one topic, this one road.

Margaret lowers her voice, taps into some patience, and slips a mask of calmness on her face. It won’t be as easy as you think, Margaret reminds her. The words coil like an undercurrent, slipping into every conversation. You’re too kind-hearted. Not everyone is as trusting and as kind-hearted as you.

But no argument chips the concrete. Instead Risa rolls her eyes. Then she reminds her mother of her accomplishments. The 3.3 average in college. Her job at the library. Plus she’s cooked dinner for three nights straight!

***

They make apartment hunting more of a pastime than a project. Marilyn, their realtor, is a friend. Blonde, bronzed, roped with jewelry, she carves out time in her busy busy schedule. She has known Margaret and Risa since forever.

Every Sunday, it is now part of their routine.

Marilyn points out the window. Beyond the pool is Biscayne Bay. “The condo is vacated,” says Marilyn. “Its owners just fled. Tax problems. Immigration problems. Who knows?  A bedroom and two baths plus lots of light.”

Margaret struggles to find fault but finds herself tongue-tied, stumped.

“I like this place,” says Marilyn. “There’s a nice view. Incredible amenities. A party room plus a gym!”

While Margaret follows the swoop of her hand, Risa has disappeared.  They find her checking out a spider down the hall.  When she joins them, her face is vacant, her eyes glazed. Security deposits. Down payments. It’s all too much too absorb.

“Do you know that living rooms were once called parlors?” says Risa. “When you died, they laid out your body on a table. Then all your friends and relatives dropped by.”

“Really?” says Marilyn. She is listening and not listening. Punching her phone.

“Really,” says Risa. “Then one day death became a business. Morticians took the bodies, cleaned them up, and moved them to funeral parlors. Then people started calling their parlors living rooms. Get it? Living rooms.”

“Is that a fact?” says Marilyn.

“Do you know that after mating,” says Risa, “the male arachnid dies?”

It was eighth grade. All the kids in Risa’s private school were supposed to perform community service. The voices in Margaret’s head said no. The voices yelled and screamed, are you insane? But Risa pleaded, all the kids were doing it, here’s the list of places we can go.

The plan was to drop her off at the animal shelter every Saturday. Margaret insisted on her version of a hazmat suit. Long sleeves, long pants. Covered shoes. They gave Risa all the jobs no one else would do. Clean bird shit from cages. Clean dog shit from crates. Every afternoon Margaret would pick Risa up, drive her home, and direct her straight into the shower.

Still the first month went smoothly. No chore was too vile. Risa would rake her fingers through a dog’s fur and instantly decompress. She’d stroke a cat and shudder as it purred. It was the second month that proved a disaster.

A staff member named Timmy started hanging around. A scruffy beard to cover up the acne. Torn jeans and checkerboard teeth. He’d wash a dog and spray Risa with the hose until her clothes clung. Then he’d warble, look who’s got titties. He talked her into wearing white tee shirts, the more to gawk at when they clung.

Then one day he asked her along to pick up a litter. They took off in his truck, his hand slipping on and off the gear stick, digging in the space between her thighs.  You working out, Risa?  She sat up straighter, startled. You seem tense, he said. I can feel your muscles clench.

She took a shower for two hours that night. Then she plucked out all her eyelashes. Clean couldn’t get clean enough.

But Marilyn’s not on the program. While Margaret wants to press the pause button, Marilyn’s programmed to make a deal. It’s almost Thanksgiving when she finds the perfect apartment. Fully refurbished. Fort Knox Security. The place is only two miles from their house.

“I’m sending you a lease,” says Marilyn. “We’ve got to jump on this one fast.”

The three of them had just finished eating a quick dinner in the kitchen.  Margaret. Her husband. Risa. The family response is all too easy to predict.

The husband retreats to his den.

Margaret gulps an antacid followed by an Ativan chaser.

Risa puts her hands on her hips. Then she lectures her mother theatrically like she’s seen people do on TV. “Everyone has their own apartment. I’m the only person in the world without her own apartment. This is your problem, Mother. Not mine.”

“But Risa,” says Margaret scrambling for words.

Next her daughter lifts her chin toward the ceiling and starts bugling like an overgrown toad.  When she’s finished with her performance, she turns once more to Margaret.

“Do you know,” says Risa, “that a Panamanian gold frog has no outside ears? It can even ignore its own voice.”

The days slog by. Marilyn texts every hour on the hour while the three of them gnash their teeth. But the more Margaret vacillates, the more anxious Risa becomes. She gives up sleep altogether. She bites on her lips and chews on her hands, gnawing her nails to the quick.

If only there were a guidebook, thinks Margaret. A primer for extraordinary people who crave ordinary lives. The problem is so much more than geography. There’s a hole in Risa’s heart that she can’t identify let alone fill. Though Risa’s life is consumed with routine, it’s shockingly empty.  Sure she has contacts on social media. But they aren’t true connections. They aren’t real friends.

And while Risa stays stuck, the rest of the world has moved on. Her brother has married and has two children. Even her younger cousins have families, too.

Is this something you can imagine? Margaret once asked her. Is this something that you want? When you look into the future, is this something that you see?

No, says Risa. I really can’t.

It’s a reality that Margaret has difficulty accepting. At night, she dreams of happy endings.  She pictures satin wedding gowns. A handsome groom and a multi-tiered cake.

But there’s no cooing infant in this picture. There’s no strolling down an aisle festooned with baby’s breath and ferns. Instead, Risa envisions a menagerie, a home for the lost and the neglected. There are no playpens and Pampers. Instead there’s meowing and barking. Chirping and cheeping. Room after room of flying feathers.

Her husband hides. Her son yells. Her realtor nags. And like mercury in a thermometer, her daughter’s stress shoots up. Meanwhile Margaret walks on tiptoes and speaks in whispers. It’s like living with a volcano that’s bound to explode.

“I hate you, Mother,” says Risa.

“They want signatures,” says Marilyn.

But Margaret shakes them off. There are and will be other apartments. This is another roadblock they can overcome.

She spends hours on the computer. Then she locates a special organization in Wisconsin that sells trained dogs. They aren’t service dogs. Risa would have to wait years for a service dog. But they know forty commands right off the bat.

The family response is all too easy to predict.

Risa’s eyebrows nearly jump off her head. Then she bounces up and down like she’s on a trampoline, waving her hands and wiggling her fingers. “I’m getting a dog! I’m getting a dog!”

The husband starts sneezing.

The son whines. “I always wanted a dog. We never got a dog before. Now Risa gets a dog?”

By January, the two of them are in Madison. The temperature is below zero and everything’s white. The rental car passes frozen lake after lake, the air’s still, the sky crisp. A few crazies are ice-fishing. Convenient stores sell cheese balls, cheese curds, cheese soup. Churches scream, Save Your Soul! Their laps are littered with road maps while their phones prove useless. Heading into the woods, they drive clean off the grid.

After two hours, they locate the kennel. Ten acres, a barn, and a house. A lumberjack kind of guy opens the door. Six feet tall, he’s a Paul Bunyan look-alike.  Flannel shirt. Workman boots.  Jeans.

Soon their efforts are rewarded when twenty Labrador Retriever puppies greet them. Black. Yellow. Brown. Licking. Yapping. Pawing. Deciding is impossible. Ridiculous!  With tears in her eyes, Risa becomes enamored with each and every one.

Finally, as the sun sets, a gold-colored dog picks Risa. She is sitting on the floor when a two-month-old ball of fluff waddles over, lies in her lap, and falls asleep. Smiling, Risa gives her a name. She looks like a Milly, don’t you think? Then they say their goodbyes and leave the puppy in Wisconsin to be trained. After a five-month gestation period, they’ll fly back. Then they’ll pick up the newest member of the family.

In the meantime, they get ready. They sign a lease. Purchase furniture. And every few weeks they’re emailed photos of the dog. Risa forwards them to everyone she knows. Like any proud parent, she diligently records milestones. She carries a brag book. To strangers on the bus she says, Have you seen anything cuter? To her mother she says, You’re the best.

There are commands to learn and supplies to buy. Leashes. Crates. Rawhide toys. Could Risa register for gifts at a pet store, Margaret wonders? Can I send out an announcement when our latest addition arrives? Sure, she tells her friends. Getting a new dog doesn’t have to be this hard. But when is learning to love ever easy?

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, PANK, Catapult, and The Baltimore Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee twice for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Pregnancy

Yellow Coat

April 4, 2021
cyrus

By Samina Najmi

This is an essay I don’t want my son to read.

When Cyrus first arrived at the daycare center, a handsome two-year-old with dimpled cheek, he refused to take his coat off. For weeks the battle raged. Even when he could be persuaded to walk into his classroom and sit at the communal table, he would not permit anyone to unzip his puffy yellow coat or slide the hood from his head. His teacher, a no-nonsense young woman concerned about the hazards of overheating, insisted. Cyrus would back away, clutching at his chest as she approached, but stronger hands than his pried his fingers away and retrieved the shrinking arms from the yellow sleeves that cocooned them. He’d crumple in the corner, then, his body hiccuping with sobs.

By the time Cyrus was four years old, he was already a staunch creature of habit. Every morning he climbed down from the top of the bunk-bed, one careful step at a time, with a plush animal or two ensconced under his arm, and at the end of each day he gathered his critters and climbed back up the ladder to bed. No matter how late the night or how tired his legs, Cyrus never left his critters behind.

But then his mother accepted a tenure-track position in the English Department at Fresno State. During the five months in which our family of four had to pack up our lives in Massachusetts and move to California, Cyrus sorrowed for what he was about to lose: the bedroom lined with bookshelves that he shared with his older sister, Maya; the swing-set in the sprawling backyard with grass that his father mowed on a mini tractor, sometimes with Cyrus sitting ensconced between his knees; the above-ground pool he would venture into only with a yellow float that resembled a lifejacket; his preschool friends and teachers who had been part of his world for fully half his life–in a word, everything he knew.

I helped as I knew how: by buying children’s books on the subject. Together we followed the Berenstain Bears’ move from mountain cave to tree-house and Tigger’s move to a new home; we read about a human family’s sudden accumulation of cardboard boxes from the perspective of their dog, Boomer. In fact, I discovered scores of stories about animals whose families were about to relocate. The one Cyrus asked me to read most often featured a little boy mouse and bore the title:  I’m Not Moving, Mama!

Ten years later Cyrus would have to move again, this time within Fresno, following his parents’ divorce. I’ll worry about its effect on him, but though he’ll be more tentative about the condo than his sister, he will be surer of it than I. At fourteen, the relief of not having to water backyard trees or skim a pool, and the coolness factor of having the boutique drinks of Dutch Bros nearby will outweigh any sense of loss. This time it will be our four-year-old cat Winnie who’ll spend the first months after the move huddled in a cardbox box in our new garage.

But back then as we packed for the transcontinental move, Cyrus refused to part with any of his belongings, so we paid to have them all–not just the stuffed animals but every building block, every monster truck, every long-lost board-book, old socks, and worn shoes–we paid by the pound to have all of them driven three thousand miles in a big moving truck that sported the word Atlas on a blue wave across its breadth.

On the six-hour flight from Boston to San Francisco, Cyrus sat somber and resigned, like a kitten in a carry-cage that had stopped meowing but couldn’t be made to purr. An enthusiast about every mode of transportation, he allowed himself to be distracted only briefly by the airplane’s wing or the terrain below it. Often I’d look up to find his eyes holding the tears that would neither quell nor drop.

A single photograph captures the moment of Cyrus’s arrival at Fresno airport: he stands with his older sister at the top of the downward escalator in the terminal, a giant “Welcome to Fresno” sign visible above their small frames. Maya looks around her with bright, inquisitive eyes and a smile forming on her lips. Cyrus, on the other hand, wears a wary expression and a navy blue t-shirt with BOSTON in big red letters across his chest.

That first year, in addition to my new tenure-track job, the family had to adjust to the fact that dad was no longer working from home. This was especially hard for Cyrus. “I wish Daddy didn’t have a job,” he said more than once. (Until, within the year, his wish came true.) I arose at 5:00am to prepare or overprepare for my classes and get myself and my children ready for the day. I’d drop Maya off at Malloch Elementary and Cyrus at Kiddie Kare–the preschool he had picked over the more prestigious Fairmont on account of the quality of its playground (and yes, I gave him the choice because he had so few choices). Then I made my way twenty minutes east to Fresno State. I was teaching new courses and adapting to the rhythms of a large public university where the culture differed significantly from the small private colleges I had taught at until then. I was being tested and I didn’t want to fail.

Cyrus added to the challenges of my first year on the job by dragging his feet every morning. The day would begin pleasantly enough. He’d be the first person to awake after me, and as soon as he did so, he’d climb down from the bunk-bed with the stuffed toys du jour and come looking for Mama in the family room. He’d find her predictably reading on the couch, pen in hand. Our unspoken ritual dictated that I set my tome aside for a few minutes while he rested his head on my lap, and together we listened for the birdies. I didn’t know then how abruptly such rituals end or how often I would return to that morning communion between us when the teen years came. There are days now when my son will emerge from his bedroom and walk at brisk, preoccupied pace right past the living room, unseeing. But back then I would have to say, “Time for us to get up now, love.” And somehow as soon as the moment of idyllic stasis was behind us, as it came time to get dressed and head out of the house, the morning demanded some combination of coaxing, humoring, arguing, and reprimanding to get Cyrus out the door on time. Somehow, we managed.

Until one day, six months into the new school year, it got to me. And it was the morning of Cyrus’s fifth birthday.

He had come looking for me in the living room that cold February morning, his footsteps soft against the Mexican tiles of the hallway. But instead of bounding toward the couch, he paused at the threshold with smiling eyes, clutching Pinkie, the plush poodle, in one hand, his slender body wrapped in the fleece robe his grandmother had made him for Christmas. I went up to hug him before we returned to the couch together. That morning at the breakfast table he laughed at everything, the Birthday Boy, his dimples deep with the giddiness of turning five.

I don’t know when it began or how it escalated, but an hour later, the scene had shifted. Maya was dressed and ready, as was I. Also ready to go was a half-sheet marble cake for Cyrus’s classmates with strawberry filling and a miniature Lightning McQueen parked atop the icing. Then Cyrus was protesting–was it about wearing a sweater? putting his shoes on?–and I was trying to reason with him. Next thing I knew I was shrieking at him in a voice I couldn’t recognize as my own. It wasn’t even the worst of his procrastinations, but I couldn’t scale back. My words, whatever they were, bounced off the dark Mexican tiles and resounded throughout the high-ceilinged house. Maya stared. Six months of practiced patience at home and nervous diligence at work had erupted in unaccustomed volume that terrorized the five-year-old boy before me. His shoulders shook from the force of his sobs.

I like to think I didn’t let him cry for long. That I recovered my sense of proportion, abandoning whatever had seemed important to insist upon a few minutes ago. I held him until the sobs subsided, led him to the bathroom to wash his face and pat it dry, my fingers smoothing his dark hair.

I load the Lightning McQueen cake into the minivan. We drop Maya off at Malloch and within five minutes we have arrived at Kiddie Kare. As I reach for the sheet cake on the backseat, I wonder if Cyrus is a tad too quiet. The teacher takes the cake from my hands and assures me that the children will enjoy it. “Cyrus makes everyone laugh,” she says.

My husband and I had gone all out for our son’s fifth birthday, his first one in Fresno. We even colluded in buying him the big, red motorized All Terrain Vehicle he could only imagine owning. After Kiddie Kare, there was Pump It Up, an extravagant space where brother and sister bounced their hearts out together. The following day we hosted Cyrus’s four close friends from preschool, all of them boys who displayed good-natured envy of his new ATV and took turns driving it around our backyard. Photographs show Cyrus and his playmates with exuberant expressions, intent on their fun. All evidence suggests a happy birthday.

So why has that morning been on my mind these past few weeks of summer? Cyrus and Maya appear to have no memory of it. Does that mean it didn’t happen? That I didn’t ruin the day–didn’t make my son cry on the morning of his fifth birthday?

Moments after that moment, six-year-old Maya had said quietly, “He wasn’t really arguing with you, Mama. I don’t know why you got so upset with him.”

Maya has always been communicative–to a fault, her teachers might say. “Why not try to sit with silence?” I’d ask her at the kitchen table sometimes. “It’s not the same thing as nothingness, you know.” Now, in her last summer at home before leaving for college, she does yoga and we hang out at cafés together, as comfortable with quiet as with our chatter. Our conversations move across varied terrains. She’s my window into contemporary pop culture as shaped by artists of color–Solange Knowles, Childish Gambino (whom I once recalled as “Childish Bambino,” much to my children’s mirth). I can’t get into the macabre crime shows she loves, but Jane the Virgin reels me in with such vehemence that within weeks I’ve caught up on all eighty-one episodes available on Netflix.

Maya was a junior at Edison High when Cyrus entered as a freshman. Many in his class looked up to his sister as part of the cool set, one of those tweeting upper-classmen who have their fingers firmly on the pulse of their times. She made a formidable opponent in debates at Model United Nations conferences and performed in Edison Tiger Theater Company’s productions of The Wiz and The Lion King. She’s also a freelance journalist for The kNOw Youth Media and Fresnans have seen her pictured in The Fresno Bee among a small group of young people speaking up for their right to meaningful sex education in Fresno Unified schools. Maya has an opinion on most things, including high school robotics, which her brother loves.

Robotics. Cyrus’s freshman year, robotics became the wall between us that I couldn’t scale. He’s been loyal to soccer and piano since he was little, but neither of those shut me out like robotics, perhaps because sports and music make room for an audience. By contrast, the robotics club at Edison High gathers in an extension of the lab that is a warehouse–a metallic room cramped with tools that I can barely name, let alone use. This unbeautiful space fires my son’s imagination. During the six weeks of Build Season, he and a few other hardcore robotics students like him spend at least as many hours in the wareheouse after school as they do in class. There they feel the rush of the hands-on, head-on thrill of designing and building a robot that can compete at the prestigious First Robotics regional, national, and even global competitions. A tireless mentor stays with them, including parent-mentors who have both the time and know-how to make themselves useful.

I am not one of them. But sophomore year I spend more money than I should to tag along to Houston when Edison’s team, Mindcraft 3495, is invited to the World Competition, sponsored by major tech companies, including Google. Their robot’s unique four-bar arm design, which Cyrus had worked on with a senior, had won the Engineering Award at the Central Valley Regional and caught the attention of the First Robotics judges. They didn’t win the global tournament, but they were there. And cheering them on, I felt for the first time that I understood something of First Robotics culture, if not of mechanical engineering.

Still, the mother seeks traces of the little boy who loved his stuffed animals and never failed to scoop them up at the end of the day.

Is the boy who held on to his yellow coat there in the sixteen-year-old whose teammates trust him not only to design and build their robot but to drive it in the tense, adrenalin-charged arenas of a tournament?

Maya has her own take on her younger brother. With the vantage point of a graduated senior, she casts a suspicious eye on “STEM kids” as likely robotic themselves. And as an enthusiast of psychology, she has been known, half-seriously, to call her brother a sociopath–as distinct from psychopath, she tells him; more like the profiles of CEOs. I recoil from the noun and admonish her for typecasting. What does she know of Cyrus’s capacity for tenderness, his vulnerabilities, and his loyalties? Mine is the memory.

Perhaps the memories of Cyrus’s early years press on me now because Maya is about to leave home. I have spent the past few years anticipating what her absence will mean for me, for Cyrus, for our home life. We’ve moved twice before, but as a family; now Maya will be moving out. She will be moving on. For the first time in our world, it will be just my son and me. We’ll have only each other to greet first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Until, in two years’ time, Cyrus moves out, too.

As the harsh hand of change reaches toward me, I shrink into my yellow coat. I want to be the critter who won’t be left behind.

Samina Najmi teaches multiethnic U.S. literature at California State University, Fresno. A Hedgebrook alumna, Samina’s essays have appeared in such publications as World Literature Today, The Massachusetts Review, The Rumpus, and Entropy. Her essay “Abdul” won Map Literary’s 2012 nonfiction prize. Daughter of multigenerational migrations, Samina grew up in Pakistan and England and lived in Massachusetts before moving to California with her then-young family.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Special Needs

The Art of Acceptance

March 15, 2021
jessica

CW: This story contains outdated, culturally insensitive references to individuals with developmental disabilities. Prior to the 1990s, the term ‘’mental retardation’ was used to describe individuals diagnosed with low IQ.

By Cathy Shields

“Your daughter Jessica is profoundly retarded.”

The string of words yanks like an invisible chain, back to that moment in 1988 when the doctor made his decree. Those five words launched a journey I struggled to navigate for twenty-four years. Today I face what awaited at the end of my passage.

I stand in the middle of Jessica’s bedroom. Everything appears the same as yesterday; the same, but different. An assortment of posters hangs on the wall above her bed, most of them, images of the band, the Backstreet Boys. In one photo, the five boys lean forward, arms linked. They smile, and for a second, I imagine they can hear me. I whisper the words like a well-kept secret.

“We moved Jessica to a group home today.”

I turn my attention to the posters Jessica told me to bring. My fingers tremble as I grab the edges. I wonder whether my heart will crack into a million little pieces, like the broken keepsakes she has refused to throw away. Jessica often followed me around the house and repeated the same questions. “Mommy where we go today? Mommy, what we do? Mommy? Why you no answer me?”

What if we made a mistake moving her? Thoughts teeter like a seesaw. We should have waited. What if she doesn’t like it? What if she thinks we’ve abandoned her?

“You’re making that face again.” My husband Chip stands in the doorway. “I can tell what you’re thinking. The staff at the group home said they’d call if there were any problems.” He folds his arms across his chest. “We were supposed to wait a few days. You’re going to call anyway, aren’t you?”

I shrug. “Sorry, I have to.” I grab my cellphone and dial. Two rings later, Nina, the house manager, answers.

“Hi, it’s Jessica’s mom. I know you advised us to wait a few days to call, but can I speak to her?” The words leap from my mouth as if they possess a mind of their own.

“Yes, Mrs. Shields, but we want her to adjust to the new environment. Can you wait? I promise she’s fine.”

A long silence follows. I’m not sure whether to wait or hang up. When I don’t respond, Nina sighs. “Okay, I’ll get her.”

Seconds tick by until I hear Jessica’s voice.

“What you want Mommy? When you come here?”

“Um, I’ll come soon. In a few days.”

“You forget my posters? You say you bring them.”

“No, I didn’t forget. I started taking them down.”

“Okay Mommy. I love you. Bye.”

I hang up the phone and stifle an urge to cry.

“So do you feel better now?” Chip uncrosses his arms, a tiny smile peeking through his graying beard. His green eyes are like beacons calling me home. “What are we making for dinner? It’s getting late,”

“I’m not hungry,” I murmur. “Go ahead and grab something. I might be a while.”

“Are you still worried? Nina just told you Jessica’s fine.” He waits for me to respond and when I don’t answer, he says, “Okay, fine. Do whatever you have to. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

A rumpled pink bedspread covers Jessica’s mattress. I sit, pull her pillow close to me, and inhale. Faint traces of her vanilla-scented shampoo remain. Chip doesn’t understand. He didn’t spend years worrying about how to make Jessica normal. It seemed easy for him to accept. Why couldn’t I?

Stacks of empty video boxes, loose CDs, magazines, and crumpled pictures are scattered over the top of Jessica’s nightstand, and when I straighten the hodgepodge of items, I spot my favorite picture, a photo of me and four-year-old Jessica. In the photo, we smile at the camera. Her saucer-like blue eyes sparkle with childlike innocence. Silky bangs frame her face and her blonde hair cascades like a waterfall of curls. People often said she should be a child model. If things had turned out differently, it could have happened. My finger traces the curly lines of the embossed silver frame. I had insisted Chip take that picture. To mark the occasion.

I slide the photo from the frame and turn it over. In blue ink, I had written the date. April 5, 1988.

Dr. Morgan, the neuropsychologist who headed the program, met with us. He made his pronouncement. My mind reconstructs the scene. Snippets of details; the cold room, the red leather chair, the click of a pen, the tears. The meeting ended. Chip clasped my hand and led me away from the shards of broken dreams. I remember the way Dr. Morgan rose from his seat as I swept past him and headed into the hallway. For one split second, my mind had conjured an entirely different scene. What if I could change the ending? Then Chip opened the door to the children’s activity room. Jessica saw us. Her eyes lit up. She pointed and beamed at us. “That my Mommy.”

The woman beside her, clad in pink scrubs, laughed as Jessica tugged on her hand. “I’m Carol,” she said, “one of the nurses here. Your daughter is so sweet and adorable.”

A second nurse sidled up and stroked Jessica’s hair. “She certainly is. She’s angelic.”

I nodded, barely able to look at Jessica. Perhaps I would never see her the same way again. What then?

Carol touched my shoulder. “Oh, please don’t cry. So many kids come to our center, but your daughter is special. Perhaps she arrived in your life to help you. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

I hated it when people said that. It sounded so condescending. Jessica held up both hands. “Up, Mommy. Pick me up. We go home?”

“Yes. Daddy and I will take you home.”

I remember how I held Jessica, pressed my face against her cheek, and inhaled the fragrance of her skin. A precious, heartbreaking moment. How could I live with the fact there was no cure for her irreversible brain damage?

*

Chip pokes his head through the bedroom doorway. “Didn’t you hear me call you? You’ve been in here for over an hour. Dinner’s ready. Come and eat.”

I steal one last glance at Jessica’s photo before I return it to the nightstand. It might take the rest of my life to learn the art of acceptance.

Cathy Shields is a retired educator with an M.S. Ed in Exceptional Education. She is a member of the South Florida Writers Association and a member of the Memoir Writers Circle. Her short stories have appeared in Ariel Chart International Literary Journal, ’45 Magazine Women’s Literary Journal, Flash Fiction Friday, A Story in 100 words, Spillwords and Variant Literature. Her work “The Phantom Ovaries” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2019. Cathy resides in Miami, Florida where she and her husband raised their three grown daughters.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Guest Posts

The Honest Clown

February 26, 2021
balloons against sky, joe

By Shirley O’Shea

Joe the Moper walked from the entrance to his apartment building across the parking lot to a narrow space between the Dumpster and the recycling bin and lit up a cigarette. This was where he smoked when he was at home. It was cozy.

It was a foggy September morning in upstate New York.  As Joe exhaled, the smoke drifted, dispersed and became part of the cloud that had settled all around the neighborhood, which sat on top of a hill which overlooked other round, sleepy hills that Joe could barely see.

Joe liked his morning smokes because few people were about. No one passed by him, looking away. Joe was tall and skinny, with a head of thick, wiry salt and pepper hair and skin that seemed to be stained a tint of grey by his years of enjoying tobacco. In the early evenings, after work, Joe would go to the Dumpster to smoke and sometimes people passing by pretended not to notice him. Occasionally someone would give him a small smile and mutter a greeting. Joe, however, would widen his mouth into a melancholy smile and say, “Hi, how are ya,” almost invitingly, even though he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to have any kind of conversation.

The thing was, Joe looked wretched.

His clothes were hanging on him, and they seemed to have the same grey patina as his skin. His cheeks were hollow, and his chest was caving in. He wore a jacket in all weather. His eyes were slightly sunken. It wasn’t good.

He’d moved to the apartment complex after the tire outlet, at which he worked in customer service, had cut his hours, making his mortgage payments unmanageable. His wife, Mary Jean, had been philosophical about the loss. “It’s always boom or bust in this country,” she’d said with a sigh. “At least we have a roof over our heads.” She’d then rolled over and fell asleep. Their daughter, Christina, fifteen, had immediately begun to think about how she would set up and decorate her new, smaller bedroom. She was creative, and welcomed challenges.

Although Joe was a conscientious and, despite his appearance, energetic worker, helping the residents of Blacksville and its surrounding rural villages choose the most suitable and economical tires for their vehicles, he considered the job an avocation, the means to support his real work, which was entertaining and enlightening people as a clown.

Now that fall had arrived, he would have fewer clown gigs. He thought about this as he flicked an ash to the ground. He had to find a way to get as many apple and pumpkin festival gigs as possible because 

The cloud-fog was lifting, and Joe looked up at the emerging patches of cerulean. In the northern sky he saw the waning gibbous moon, white-grey and bluish where the craters and valleys were, sensual like a pregnant belly and as full of secrets.

“Hey, moon, can you line up a few gigs for me? I really need them,” Joe said plaintively. His cigarette was smoked almost down to the filter. He threw it to the ground and let it fade out.

He reached into the pocket of his blue flannel shirt and drew out another smoke. He’d been a clown for almost twenty years. The best times were during the summer agricultural festivals, which took place every weekend all over the local counties. Dairy fests, garlic fests, blueberry fests – they always wanted a clown or two to make balloon animals and tell ridiculous, innocuous jokes as they did so. And to perform a few magic tricks. Now that it was autumn he’d get called for the festivals at the waning of the year. It seemed to Joe that the revelry at the autumn festivals was all the more intense because of the shortening of the days.

Despite his reputation for being somewhat unconventional, Joe the Moper got calls regularly to perform at these country family hootenannies. There was inevitably at every festival two or three people playing a guitar or fiddle, occasionally a banjo or mandolin, and singing songs that were playful, mournful, spiked with wisdom, because it is a musician’s duty to sing or strum or bow the truth in a way that compelled the wandering, meandering folk at the fair to stop and listen carefully, if only for a few moments. Even during the Dairy Princess crowning or the awarding of the blue ribbon to Best Rooster in Fair, every soul on the fair ground hungered for an uplifting moment of truth.

Joe figured it was for the best that he would not be getting too many more calls to play the clown. He was weakening in almost every way; even his jokes with customers at the tire outlet were deflated and rueful. The tumor that had begun in his right lung had grown upward, encircling his esophagus like a snake or a choking vine, and made it almost impossible for him to swallow solid food. Mary Jean had demanded that he go to the doctor, who knew Joe smoked and had ordered a CT scan which revealed the reason for all Joe’s physical suffering. He had told Mary Jean nothing, putting her off by saying that the doctor had ordered some tests but wasn’t very concerned, that he results were not available yet and it was probably something gastroenterological.

“Well, what tests? Why are they taking so long? You look like a scarecrow.”

Joe shrugged. “You know there’s not a lot of doctors around here. Everything’s slow.” Joe couldn’t bear to tell Mary Jean that he would begin radiation treatments in a week. Until then, he would smoke as he always had, slowly, thoughtfully, considering the great gift of tobacco that the Creator had made to humanity and its almost supernatural ability to calm the agitated and arouse the lethargic.

If Joe could have smoked when he did his clown gigs, he would have. After all, he’d seen a number of photos of artists with a cigarette balanced between their lips as they worked. He thought of Jackson Pollock smoking while he drizzled paint all over one of his canvases. And Joe’s favorite was an elegant portrait of Tennessee Williams seated before a typewriter, a nimbus of cigarette smoke swirling about him like a muse. There were more addicted artists than anyone could count, Joe often thought. It was an unfortunate but necessary pathology of the creative urge. It was probably why he smoked three cigarettes after he made love to Mary Jean and she drifted off to sleep.

When Joe did his clown jobs, he wore black, head to foot, What he believed was most impressive about his clown costume was the long black tunic he wore over black trousers, and the black bowler hat he’d purchased from an antique shop. He believed the get-up made him look like a Victorian clergyman. He painted his face white, of course, but he took special care when applying his mouth paint. It was a dull carnelian, with just a hint of an upturning at the corners. The great circles about his eyes were violet, and his dramatically arched eyebrows were a ponderous black. He looked like he was someone who was almost shocked, but not quite.

He placed a rubber rat beneath his bowler, and when he introduced himself as Joe the Moper, he bowed and removed the hat and feigned mild surprise that a rodent had hidden itself in his favorite topper and wanted to launch a career of his own as a comedian.

Joe wore black because he wanted to tell the truth, like a good priest in his black robe would while sitting with an anxious seeker. Joe knew that humor came from fear, desperation, isolation. Like a seasoned clergyman or a Buddha, one faced it all with a slight smile of equanimity, and Joe vowed to himself, and his audiences, that he would do the same.

“You can stay in here and mind your own business,” Joe the Moper said to the rubber rat as he slipped it into the pocket in the side of his tunic. “Or maybe I’ll enter you in the beauty contest! You’d make a great ambassador for locally made cheese.

“Oh, you wanna be a clown, huh? Well, you didn’t pay good money to go to clown school, like I did. I am a highly educated clown, like some of our most illustrated politicians – oh, I’m sorry, folks, I meant to say illustrious politicians. Although most of them seem to be cartoon characters. Oh, there I go again! Better get to the balloons.

Joe made nothing but birds with he balloons. “Why d’ya think owls have such large eyes?” he asked the small crowds gathered around him.

“Because they hunt at night!” someone, usually a child, would call out.

“Precisely! Very good!” Joe said, and pulling out a white balloon, he fashioned into something that looked very much like an owl. He twisted the head three hundred sixty degrees and then a wind always came, caught the owl out of Joe’s slightly trembling hands and bore it away. This happened with every owl, hawk, and woodpecker balloon Joe huffed and puffed and twisted into existence. The children and most of the adults strained to capture the balloons as they soared overhead.

“You can’t get them – no one ever does,” Joe called out. “I don’t know where the magic comes from. I just tell lame jokes. And I didn’t go to clown school. At least, not in the usual sense. But I think we all go to clown school. You all think about that. The balloons are always out of reach because the wind wants them. Have a wonderful day. Wow! Look at this sunshine!” Then Joe would walk with long, gangly strides to the back of the agricultural pavilion to smoke a couple of cigarettes.

Now, this morning, watching the uncanny amorousness of the swollen gibbous moon, which had remained in the morning sky while Joe smoked four cigarettes meditatively, he felt like the moon was his wife, and he was impatient for her to give birth. He thought of Mary Jean just over fifteen years ago, and the impossibly round protrusion of her belly, all amniotic fluid and placenta and baby. Mary Jean had begged him to give up smoking the moment she had found out she was pregnant, and he’d said he’d try, but he was less than sincere. He knew he’s smoke more than ever. Between the two of them, there were barely able to make their mortgage payments. The anxiety grew in him, and some mornings, before getting up to dress and have coffee followed by cigarettes, he curled up in a ball and prayed.

Growing up, he’d listened as his mother instructed him to pray everyday, throughout the day. He and his brother, who was now an insurance sales rep in the Midwest, and their parents has attended a fire-and-brimstone church which had only served to set Joe’s nerves on fire. How could the pastor say that God is Love and be so eager to send poor, foolish human beings to hell? When Joe, still in grade school,  had asked his mother, in desperation, why this was so, she’d shake her head and tell him there was nothing to worry about. And when he’d brought up his fears with his brother, his brother had shrugged and said, “That guy is crazy. Sneak a book into church and hide it in the Bible. I do it all the time. I think Mom and Dad know, but they’ve never said anything to me. They just pretend …”

But Joe continued to listen to what the pastor said, because there was some kind of terrifying logic to it. Then he went off to college and let the bond between himself and church dissolve. But the fear lived on in his body without abatement. He studied sociology and was a competent student – some of his professors even told him he had talent – and returned to upstate New York and ended up in retail.

Because Joe still had the demons, he liked to make jokes. They purified the air around him and drew people to him. He considered finding out what it took to do stand-up, but he knew he would get so nervous before performing that he would probably die. So he decided to be a clow. No birthday parties or school character education gigs, just the local seasonal festivals when he could be outside, twisting balloons into birds.

His first gig had been a spring festival with a medieval theme. A man in green velvet played a lute while a lady with a ring of artificial flowers in her hair and a purple gown sang songs with little ribald jokes, to celebrate fertility. Morris dancers stomped on the cold earth, to awaken it. The sun had shone brilliantly on that day, and the air was almost hot.

Joe had studied books on balloon animal shapes and practiced for dozens of hours before the full-length bedroom mirror, making cats and poodles and alligators. But now that he was here, in front of a curious audience, made all the more enthusiastic by this burst of light and warmth after an upstate winter, he froze. All he could think of was birds. He’d found some shattered robins’ eggs on the ground that morning, as he had brought his boxes of uninflated balloons to the car, and the pale blue of the fragments made him pause and he exhaled forcefully enough to ruffle the feathers of a hatchling that lay on the ground, forced out by its mother, Joe thought. Then he drove to the fair.

And as Joe drove, he began to feel light-headed. When he arrived at the fair and saw the Morris dancers pounding the sodden ground, he thought of the shattered eggs, the doomed hatchling, and the fact of the perpetual changing of the seasons caused his heart to race and his breath to quicken. If only his life could be one unchanging winter or summer, without the interruptions of the seasons of emergence and withdrawal, that disoriented him and filled him with such grief at their brevity and their blatant declaration of the impermanence of things. He thought that perhaps his entire performance should be blowing air into balloons and releasing it, slowly, so that the kids would laugh at the flatulence-like sound. But then he came to himself, realized all of this was stage fright, and drove on until he reached the Blumenfeld Vernal Fest on the top of a hill that overlooked other gently curving hills transforming into verdancy under the kindly sun. Spring was, perhaps, not quite so disorienting, Joe thought, as he parked his car and began to unload his boxes of balloons.

The parking area for vendors bordered on a stretch of woodlands, and Joe heard the calls from the cardinals and robins as he lifted the boxes from the hatch of his car. Then he stopped and pulled out a cigarette. He had been so deep in thought about how this gig was going to play itself out – how he would play himself out – that he hadn’t even thought to smoke. This was passing strange. It was as if he were keeping the air in his lungs pure and strong before forcing it into the balloon toys he was about to make.

Joe took one last drag on his cigarette, crushed it on the ground and then put it in an empty coffee cup in the car.

So, now he would find out if he could do it. He stacked the three boxes of balloons – much more than he would need, but best to be prepared – and walked to the information kiosk to find out where he should set himself up. The lady at the kiosk – round, grey-haired and amiable – told him he would be near the petting zoo, which was about one hundred fifty yards west. Joe looked up at the sun to determine where west was, and followed, glancing upwards every few seconds to keep his bearings. Some fair goers looked at him and grinned, others looked with slight consternation – a clown, in springtime, should not be wearing black. And his smile should be wider, freer. Joe had the feeling these people considered him a clown with an ungenerous spirit. And what was the point of that? A clown gives himself completely, divests himself of all dignity, and even self-respect in order to entertain. Joe didn’t feel a vocation to be quite that kind of clown.

The balloons and the wind – they stole the show. The creatures Joe intended to make resisted creation – dogs, giraffes, monkeys. They all twisted themselves into birds, and the moist spring breezes lifted them away. The children jumped up and tried to grab them, but they soared out of reach and the audience let out a groan. It seemed as if the wind grabbed the balloons out of this strange clown’s hands. But Joe pretended that was exactly what he’d wanted to happen. “Well, folks, thanks for stopping by. Remember, I’m Joe the Moper. Weird and inexplicable things happen whenever I’m around.”

So it went with all of Joe’s performances. But the people didn’t come to listen to his mordant humor, his absurd imitations of celebrities, and the few magic tricks he had learned to broaden his appeal. They came to see the bird balloons. And how impossible they were to hold. People in the audience believed that Joe the Moper and the wind colluded to let the bird balloons ascend into the heavens.

Joe looked at the moon again and thought of how his daughter was growing, so awkward and lovely, and he knew the Mary Jean would give her all the love she would need. That didn’t mean Joe the Moper didn’t intend to fight this serpentine tumor with all the strength, sarcasm and something like faith that he had in him. But he knew how these things went. The radiologist wanted to shrink the tumor, get him some time.

For much of his life, Joe, with his easily rattled nerves, had felt that time could not pass quickly enough, so that night would come and in the darkness he could feel unseen and uncalled upon to be anything but what he was – a confused and congenitally frightened man. All the sardonic jokes that he threw out into the air, to his wife, the guys at the tire shop, to his bemused audiences, did nothing to protect him from his terror. And now that he finally had something to be beside himself about, he felt gentle and quiet and somewhat remorseful about his jokes. And he felt gratitude for the balloons that had all taken flight and left his audiences in awe.

That night, as Mary Jean slept fitfully beside him, Joe knew he had to tell her about the tests, the tumor, the treatment. He began to shake and feared he would have a sleepless night. Well, all right then. He remembered the angels that the pastor of his youth had described in more than one sermon. The angles in the Book of Revelation were monstrous – immense, with countless eyes and wings, wings, wings flapping and concealing and then revealing those eyes. There was no place one could hide from them, and that was why Joe wanted an angel to pay him a visit. He prayed, “God, let one of those hideous and holy angels come and look at me. I want – need – something now that’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. I’m not afraid of being afraid – at least not now, not of that.”

But as Joe lay awake, no angel came. Well, perhaps it’s invisible, Joe thought. Even without the angel’s help, he would tell Mary Jean that …

While he was in a deep sleep, a great golden balloon, as round as the sun, drifted down to Joe, as he sat in a meadow overlooking the round, verdant hills in upstate New York, someplace where he’d visited as a child and had been very happy. The gold balloon had one great eye that looked on him with mercy. It extended a wing and enfolded Joe, who was now in the realm beyond speech. He was in the air, the golden air and with the balloon floated higher and higher and he could see himself far below, where a crowd had gathered, and he could see himself at the center, as his black tunic fell off and he stood denuded before the audience laughing until they cried.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer and full time mother living in upstate New York. She has worked as a paralegal, elementary school teacher and small town newspaper reporter.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Converse-Station, Guest Posts, writing

The Converse-Station: Jane Ratcliffe Interviews Caroline Leavitt

February 21, 2021
coma

My first introduction to Caroline Leavitt was several years ago in a private writers’ Facebook group where members were raving about not only Leavitt’s chops as a writer, and her generous wisdom as an editor, but the seemingly boundless magnitude of her heart. I was intrigued. Slowly I began reading my way through her work and was spellbound by the precision of her language, the propulsive thunder of her plots, her vivid, particular insights, and the way tenderness haloed every cell of her worlds—even the tough stuff.

All of this carries through in her latest novel With or Without You. On the brink of a comeback, rock musician Simon encourages his girlfriend Stella to celebrate a little too hard. Stella, a nurse who knows better than to mix drugs with alcohol, does so anyway, driven by a yearning to revive a love and life that that had long been lost to her. Rather than a revival, Stella first slips into a months-long coma and then comes the other side with a whole new set of yearnings, ones that surprise her, along with a staggering artistic talent that forces her to honor this new version of herself even if it means she has to leave behind things she loves.

Leavitt is no stranger to comas. After giving birth to a healthy baby boy, a rare blood disorder caused her to hemorrhage so severely she was put into a medically induced coma for three weeks and underwent numerous extensive surgeries. Given memory blockers to ease the trauma, Leavitt spent several more months in hospital before finally returning home to her husband and son with her dramatically altered body.

This isn’t Leavitt’s first time channeling her experiences into her work. 2003’s Coming Back to Mes Molly’s experience more closely aligns with Leavitt’s. Slipping into a coma after giving birth, she too remembers nothing. Leavitt found this novel actually fed her triggers rather than provided any solace. So Leavitt decided to write about a woman whose experience was the opposite of hers; a woman whose life was actually improved by the coma. And hence Stella was born.

Caroline Leavitt and I chatted over Zoom about quantum physics, the miracle of our bodies, and what it means to be healed. As it turns out, the rumors were true, her heart and wisdom do seem to know no bounds.

 Jane: Like Stella, you were in a coma for three weeks. As you were coming out of it, you had the distinct impression that “This is like The Matrix and my other life was a lie.”  Stella also wonders if “everything she had lived before was a fake world.” I found that really fascinating. Could you could talk about this experience of these dual realities?

Caroline: Quantum physics says that time is a man-made construct, and that eventually it’s going to stop. I remember when I woke up in the middle of my coma, I had this sensation that everything before this was not real. And this is real. I felt that I was in a high glass, steel and concrete building. I could hear a laugh track and I thought, I’m in a TV show and there are people walking around. It was very vivid. As vivid as me sitting here and talking to you. I just felt I can’t move but I have to. This is a nightmare and I have to get out of it. And I didn’t know if anybody from my other world was going to be with me. I was terrified. And then a woman came over to me, I guess she saw that I was awake, and gave me a shot. I went under again.

For Stella, I wanted it to be a little different. I did want her to move away from her past world into a new world. But I didn’t want it to be as traumatic as it had been for me. So I did a lot of research. I talked to Joseph Clark at the University of Cincinnati and he told me that when people are in coma your brain is firing and rewiring, and things are changing. He said they don’t know exactly what happens, but some people come out with totally different personalities. Angry people can come out very peaceful. And a lot of people come out with sudden new talents. There’ve been cases of people who’d never spoken a language and they’re speaking fluent Mandarin. There was one woman who asked for a violin repeatedly. And her family said, “Why? You don’t play violin.” They finally got her one and she was a virtuoso and started playing concert halls.

They don’t know where that comes from. It could be from cellular memory from generations ago. Or it could be changes in the brain. Whatever it is, I thought, that’s incredible. And it made me wonder what else the brain can do. We construct our realities and we live in those constructed realities. But what if there’s something different?

Jane: Stella doesn’t go back to her former life. Did you return to your former life?

Caroline: Not totally. It’s very funny for me to say but the coma was a kind of gift to me because it really changed me in a lot of ways. I used to be a very shy introvert, and I became much more extroverted. I still was on all these funky meds for a year and they made me look really bizarre. I was on massive doses of steroids. I was huge, like a circus lady, and my hair fell out. My skin turned gray; even if I put makeup on, makeup on gray skin is very weird. We had no money and our medical bills were in the millions. My husband had lost his main gig because he was spending too much time with me and our baby. I had a friend who worked for Victoria’s Secret and I used to write catalog copy. I called her and said, “Do you have any work for me? We’re so desperate.” With those catalogs you can get ten or fifteen thousand just for writing about blue sweaters. So she said, “Yeah, I have a project for you. Come on in.” And I said, “Look, I can’t come in because I’ve been really sick. I’m okay now, but I look a lot different.” She laughed, and said, “Don’t worry about that, that doesn’t matter.”

So I wear a muumuu, that was the only thing that fit me. And I put a kerchief around my hair. You could tell something was wrong. I tried to put on makeup and it looked terrible. I got on the subway, and immediately there were four teenage girls all highly fashionable, and they were snickering at me. I got to Victoria’s Secret and everybody there is twenty-years old and beautiful, with rivers of hair and glowing skin and tight little dresses. And here I am in a muumuu and kerchief. As my friend came out, I saw her face drop. She walked over to me holding work in her hand and said, “I’m so sorry, I cancelled the project. I should have told you, but best of luck and blah, blah.”

I remember walking out and my husband, Jeff, was waiting for me. I was really upset. And Jeff said, “You know what, fuck them.” We were walking by a store and there was this skinny, little sundress. And Jeff said, “Do you like that dress?” And I said, “Yeah, but I can’t wear that. My arms are too big.” And he said, “Yes, you can. I bet you’ll look great in it.” So he talked me into going in there. And I bought the dress. And I wore it. And every time I said, “My arms are flapping,” he’d say, “no, they’re not. You look fine.” When people looked at me, he would look at them and they’d back off. That changed me. It’s really hard not to be sucked into what people look like especially in New York, but after that day I pulled out of that. I began to realize not only doesn’t it matter, it’s wrong.

What I started to do is when I would walk in the streets, I made it a point of finding someone who looked like they really needed a compliment. Usually, it was old ladies who had taken the trouble to dress nicely. I would walk by them and say, “Oh, you look really nice.” And they would get radiant. And I thought, well, that’s much better than walking around worrying about whether you’re wearing something that the New York City fashionistas are going to approve of.

The other way that the coma change changed me is I have a real sense that any moment anything can happen. It can be something good. It can be something bad. So I’ve told myself that the moments that I have left, I’m going to be the kindest I can, work as hard as I can, be as loving as I can. And not worry about the stuff that I’ve always obsessed about, things like fame, and who likes me and doesn’t like me. All this kind of stuff that I feel is ridiculous now. And I’ve become calmer. I used to be upset about everything. In that way, it’s been it was a real gift for me.

Jane: Did your experience leave you a more empathetic person? It sounds like it did. Or did if it leave you more fearful in anyway?

Caroline: No, I’m not afraid of anything anymore. I used to always worry about what should I say and if I say something wrong are people going to think I’m stupid or whatever. When people are showing me that they’re sad or something’s terrible, in the past I would try to rush in and fix it. Now I rush in to listen. I think a lot of times people just want you to bear witness and just be there.

Jane: Both you and Stella have the experience of feeling disconnected from your bodies. What is your relationship like with your body today? Did the coma strength it or weaken it?

Caroline: When I was in the coma, they didn’t know what I had, they just knew I was filling up with blood. So they did these five emergency operations. Nobody thought I was going to survive so they really made a mess of my stomach; they cut muscles, my belly button that was over on the right. I have scars up here. And scars across here. And I’ve indentations from the drains. When I got home, I had to learn how to walk and do all this stuff. But I was so happy that I was here, and I had survived. And there was my baby. So I began to look at my stomach differently. I could never wear the tight clothes I’d worn before because my stomach is sort of triangular. But I began to see it as a medal of honor.

A few years passed and the doctor said, “If you wanted to repair your stomach, you could.” And I thought about it, and I realized I didn’t want to because this is the body that got me through what it got me through. I look at these scars and I see badges of honor. My husband has been great about it. He will look at those scars and say they’re beautiful.

Jane: I love your husband.

Caroline: Oh, he’s wonderful. Even when I was bloated and had no hair, he always made me feel beautiful and desirable. And that things were going to be okay. And that that helped a lot.

Jane: America is living through such tumultuous and traumatic times now. Has what you’ve lived through provided you with any particular coping skills for times like these?

Caroline: It has actually, because I know that feeling of fear and worry over what’s going to happen next. And I have learned that you have to stay in the moment and not project too much. I had a nurse I loved when I was in the hospital. She came in when I was panicking because they wouldn’t let me go home; they kept saying you have to another three weeks and then another three weeks. And this nurse came in in the middle of the night when I was really upset, and she said, “I’m going to give you a gift. What you have to tell yourself is start small. Do you think you can get through the next ten minutes?” And I said, “Yeah, probably.” She said, “Okay, so that’s all you’re going to do. You’re going to take life at bite sized and once you get through the next ten minutes you going to acknowledge that and then get through the next ten after that.” So that’s what I do now. I don’t want to ruin the moment I have now, by going into a fantasy about what it’s going to be like, if I or someone I love gets COVID.

I’ve had enough terrible trauma in my life that I know what can work and what can help. And I also know a little bit more about how to help others. As much as people don’t want to go through these terrible things, it really helps to be a better person in a lot of ways.

Jane: You wrote an essay about being in a coma for The Daily Beast, at the end of it you write: “And in the end, creating her [Stella], writing her experience, made all the difference for me. In the end, that was what healed me.” Can you talk about how this happened? And what does being healed mean to you?

Caroline: Well, that’s another great question. The first novel I wrote about my coma, which was directly after the coma, was very much based on me. It was sort of dark, because I was feeling dark at the time. There wasn’t a lot of hope at the end of the book, it just ended with Molly, the woman who was like me, not knowing if she was going to get better. And I didn’t feel better after writing that book.

When I wrote Stella, because she actually was better in so many ways, I just felt like thanking her, because her journey made me feel a whole lot better, and made me feel that tragedy is not always tragedy, because there were things that come out of it, that can give you better things and richer things. And I just loved her so much. It really felt to me like she was leading me by the hand saying, “look, this is okay, now. You went through that, but there are new things, and let’s move on and look on to the future.” When I finished the novel, I felt like, Oh, I don’t have to write about coma ever again. And that was kind of a nice thing, because it made me feel Okay, I’ve processed that. Now I can write something else.

Jane: So is that what being healed feels like to you, that you don’t have to keep processing that experience anymore?

Caroline: Yes, because I would keep processing and processing and thinking about it and worrying about it. And things would set me off. If I saw a soda that I had when I was in the hospital, I would panic. And now, the only vestiges of the coma that I have left is that I don’t like going to sleep. I’m very afraid of that.

Jane: Well, that actually ties in with my next question. Stella develops an understandable fear of going to sleep because she’s afraid she won’t wake up again. I think post-illness PTSD is more common than we realize. Do you have thoughts on this?

Caroline: Your body definitely remembers. I had gone to a therapist, and I felt like my mind was okay, but my body kept reacting and reacting and reacting. There’s muscle memory. It’s not like your mind; you can’t talk it away. So then it just becomes a question of how I was going to handle it. Writing about Stella helped a lot. And as I said, the only thing that I’m still not quite sure what to do with is the whole thing about going to sleep. I’m very afraid that I’m going to go to sleep and I’m not going to wake up. The only way I get around that is if I can make myself so exhausted, I will sleep. I don’t want to take sleeping pills. I tried melatonin. It didn’t really work. I tried wine that didn’t really work. Plus, I woke up feeling terrible. So it’s a process. I always think everything has a cost: happy things, sad things. The happy thing is that, okay, I’m alive. Nobody thought I would live. Twenty-four years later, I’m fine. And I’m healthy. And if the cost is that I have to grapple with this fear of being asleep, then I’m going to deal with it.

Jane: Growing up, Stella’s parents had been “bohemians” and hadn’t provided her with much security, often not having enough money for the electric bill. As an adult, Stella became a nurse because “she had never wanted to be that scared again.” Yet, of course, she is that scared again; possibly more so. What are your thoughts on safety and security? Are such things possible? If not, how do we stay sane amidst the fluctuations?

Caroline: That’s a really good question. For me, it comes down to stopping the panic before it starts. It’s actually something I learned in cognitive therapy. You can’t catastrophize. Say you don’t have money for the rent. And you say, “Okay, I’m going to get a job to make sure I have steady income.” And then that job fails. You can start catastrophizing and think, “I’m never going to get another job, and I’m never going to be happy.” I try to be in the moment and say, “Well, has that happened yet?” The answer is usually no. “Has it ever happened in your life that you’ve never been able to get a job and that you are on the verge of being homeless?” No. “Do you have skills?” Yes. “So you could get a job if you wanted to.” Yes. It’s a series of practical questions that I ask myself so I don’t fly off the handle.

Jane: Libby, Stella’s friend and doctor, ruminates about a plane trip where a man had suffered a severe asthma attack. She rushed to help him, only to be pushed aside in favor of a male paramedic. And during her hospital rounds, she faces daily misogyny. Despite strides forward, this is a common experience for women in most professions. And now during the pandemic, with so many children home, women are having to set aside their careers to keep the home front running. What was it like to write a character like Libby who is brilliant and capable and yet undermined simply for being a woman?

Caroline: I loved writing Libby. I talked to a lot of female doctors because I wanted to be sure that this still happened and they had story upon story upon story where every female doctor has to be twice as good as their male counterparts. A lot of people would say, “I want a real doctor,” when a woman doctor would come in. The women would say, “I am a real doctor. Do you want to see my credentials?” It didn’t matter whether they had gone to Harvard med school. People always preferred the males.

It’s in every profession. It’s less so in the literary profession, but it’s still there. If you write about a domestic drama, then it’s women’s fiction. But if a man writes about a domestic drama, then he’s Jonathan Franzen and it’s brilliant and look how well he knows women. And he doesn’t know women at all. It’s just a male version of what a woman is.

I think it’s a constant battle for women to keep saying, “you’re wrong, and we’re going to keep going forward and sooner or later, all these bad, stupid feelings will die out and women will prevail.” It’s terrible in medicine. Women doctors are not given the opportunities that male doctors are. People who are the chiefs of staff are male, male, male, male. I wanted to write about that.

Jane: Listening to you, I’m thinking how we’re so thrilled about Kamala, and it is thrilling. But we haven’t even had a woman President yet. We’re thrilled just to get to Vice President.

Caroline: I know, I know. The scary thing is when you think of somebody like Hillary Clinton, who could have been president, there were a lot of women still who weren’t ready to accept that. My sister and my mom, both did not like Hillary. And I kept saying, “Why not?” And it boiled down to, she’s too strong. And I said, “Well, don’t you want a strong woman?” Or they’d say, “She’s not nice.”

Jane: Look who we ended up with! Not nice! Ugh.

Caroline: I know. It’s so bizarre. So there’re a lot of women who do not help that at all. I got to know the nurses really well at the hospital, and I loved them. And a lot of them would tell me that they were the ones who really knew the patients. And they were the ones that really advise the doctors. I would say, “Well, do the doctors listen to you?” And they would say, “if it’s a woman doctor, always. If it’s a male doctor, they would get upset, ruffled feathers about it.” And I thought, Wow, that’s really ridiculous to have that going on now, but it does.

Jane: The more Stella embraces her new talent of painting, the more her psychic abilities awaken. Do you think we all have these abilities and have lost touch with them?

Caroline: Because I believe in quantum physics, I don’t think there’s anything really woo-woo about talented psychics who have intuition, or can read things, or can tell certain things. I truly think that thoughts are energy, thoughts are out there in some form, and talented psychics can pull that out and see it. And I didn’t want Stella’s talent to be seen as anything woo-woo. I wanted her to be seen as, well, her brain has changed and maybe she can go into a parallel universe and tell what’s going on, or she’s just more intuitive. People don’t listen to their intuition. There’re a lot of times when you have a gut feeling about something and you don’t follow it, but if you do, then that can be opened up.

I’ve had moments in my life where I’ve known things. When I was really young, I was engaged to this guy, and I used to tell my friends. “I know he’s going to die.” And they would say, “Oh, come on, what are you talking about?” I knew he was going to fall off his couch and die. My friends would say, “You’re ridiculous.” The night before he died, I had a dream that was really disturbing, and I told him about it. He said, “Oh, you’re just nervous about the wedding. We’re getting married in two weeks.” And the next day, he died. He had a heart attack and fell off the couch. So I kept thinking, How did I know that? I mean, that seems like a little close. But maybe it was in the atmosphere, and I was able to pull it out.

Jane: Even as Stella evolves into a more independent, creative, and true-to-herself woman, she longs for who she used to be, who, in part, was someone living her life to please others. It’s almost as if she feels guilty for leaving behind the people who weren’t truly supporting her. I think women in general struggle with this, even if it doesn’t involve an illness.

Caroline: You know, as soon as you said that, I thought, oh my god did I do that and then I realized I most certainly did. I grew up in a family where I was the people pleaser and the fixer of the family. I was the Pollyanna and it was really important to me that everybody be happy, and everybody be loving, everybody liked each other. My sister had this terrible personality change when she turned seventeen. She became very hostile to me to the point of viciousness. I went to my therapist said, “What can I do for her? What can I do for her?” And the therapist said, “Well, you know what, you might have to do something for yourself, which is to separate yourself from that viciousness. Just say something like, I love you, I’m here, but I’m going to live a happy life. And now the happy life might not include you.” And that’s what I’ve had to do. It was a terrible decision, but I feel much better, because I’m not getting screaming phone calls. I’m not getting things that I’ve sent her returned to me all ripped up. But I do feel a yearning that like, Oh, if only I could help her because that’s what women are trained to do. But sometimes you have to realize that you have to save yourself and live your own life. I’m not harming her life. I’m just saving mine.

Jane: The novel ends on such a positive note. Toward the end, Stella says, “We all have multitudes inside of us, each of them young with hope. Any moment, something amazing can happen.” Do you share Stella’s optimism?

Caroline: I do. Because I have seen myself change. It wasn’t easy. I grew up intensely shy and fearful. I would never tell anything dark or any secret. When I went on book tour, I had to learn to speak to people. I began to carry talismans. I had red cowboy boots, because I thought any woman who wears that is kickass and brave. And when I wore them, I felt that way. And I began to experiment more. I would tell people deep emotional truths that embarrassed me just to see what would happen. I learned that people opened up more to me when I did that, and I became more and more emotionally honest.

I started writing more essays saying, this is what happened to me; this is this is the truth of it. And it felt so freeing, because my mother would always say, don’t talk about family, never say anything bad about your sister or your father. And I thought, well, how can I heal if I don’t mention that? And I found that writing about it made me feel more connected to the world. And I also feel that’s the way I want to live. And I don’t know what else I’m going to do or be, but I love the feeling of being brave. I do feel that we can change. We can have these amazing lives. It does take work, and it does take pain. But it’s like in writing, you learn to sort of like the pain because of what it can teach you.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Cruel Beautiful World, Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Modern Love, among others.

Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in The Sun Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Creative Nonfiction; Longreads; Guernica; Vogue; New England Review, and The Believer; among other publications. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in Michigan with two cats and a dog.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Verge, by Lidia Yuknavitch, is out in paperback. These short stories will grip your heart and mind.  The writing is sharp and the empathetic portraits of broken people will stay with you long after you finish the collection.

If you haven’t already, pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Transfer

February 5, 2021
tom

By Voyo Gabrilo

Little flecks of cheeseburger clung to Tom’s mustache as he stretched out, asleep, on the couch. The rest of the cheeseburger rested on his stomach, on top of the wrapper, and it fell to the floor once the phone rang.

“Y’ello,” he said, some of the cheeseburger sticking to the phone as he pressed it close to his mouth. “This is he… Of course, I understand… Thank you. I’m on my way… You have a good night as well.”

Tom was already half-dressed. His black slacks had a sandy appearance from the salty fries he had wolfed down on his way home earlier. He never cared for his cheeseburgers to be hot, but if the fries got cold, then they were history. He brushed his slacks until they recovered their blackness.

Before he made his way upstairs to get a clean shirt, he sat back on the couch. He picked up the cheeseburger from the floor, inspected it for hair or dust, then finished it. The cheese had hardened and got stuck in his throat. He needed something to drink.

On his way to the kitchen, Tom stepped on one of his kids’ nerf footballs and it caused him to lose balance and stub his toes on the piano. The piano had been there since before Tom’s wife, Peggy, moved out. It made itself house-inventory quietly.

There was not much left in the fridge. A couple of cans of beer. Tom reached for the last carton of milk instead. He stood a moment longer to see what he would need to buy on his way home, then went upstairs to get his clean shirt. He checked in on his twin boys, Rex and Royce, on his way back downstairs.

He looked around to see if he was missing anything when his eyes found the drink that came with his cheeseburger and fries. He rubbed his eyes, then took the drink with him and left, making sure to leave the sign on the inside door handle for the boys.

“Can I help you?” the receptionist at Regional Oaks Care asked Tom as he entered the facility.

“Yes, hello, I’m Tom Jacobs with Fitzgerald-Hill Funeral Homes,” Tom said.

“Oh, yes. Thank you for getting here so quickly. Ms. Hamps is in room G-11. So that’s this wing down this way. If you’d like to pull your car around that way, it’ll be easier access to her room.”

“Yes, thank you. Should I meet you…?”

“Yes, of course. I’ll call for someone to open the door and meet you outside there.”

“Thank you.”

The receptionist mimed ‘thank you’ with her lips and sat back down. Tom paused for a moment to get his bearings. He had been to Regional Oaks Care before, during the daytime. Now, at night, half the lights were turned off and the halls were empty.

Tom backed his van just up to the east entrance. The door was locked. He went back in the van to doze off before someone came and opened the door.

“Hello, sir,” a nurse said as Tom got out of the van.

“Hello. It’ll be just a moment.” Tom started getting out the cot from the back of the van. The nurse waited just inside the east entrance doors until Tom was ready, when she unlocked the doors and opened them.

“Thank you,” Tom said as he passed her, pushing the cart inside.

“You’ll turn left up ahead,” said the nurse, letting the doors close behind her as she followed Tom.

Room G-11 was four rooms down the hallway. Tom found the family inside, huddled together around the bed. One of the cot’s wheels squeaked as he brought it to a stop. The family turned and looked at Tom. The nurse made her way inside the room.

No one spoke for a couple of minutes. Tom bowed his head. He liked to give the families as much time as they needed. After some more time passed the family began to move slowly away from the bed. They whispered goodbye and some blew soft kisses to the newly departed.

They all left the room in single file, looking back at the bed. The nurse walked back in after having stepped out to let the family out. She asked Tom if he needed any assistance and left when he said no.

Tom paused to look at Ms. Hamps. She had a nightcap on top of her head that matched her beige gown. There were too many lines on her face to count and her neck had already turned grey. Tom unfolded the blanket from on top of Ms. Hamps and gently pushed her arms to her sides.

He moved the cot to the side of the bed. He looked over his shoulder and saw the family huddled together outside the door in the hallway. They peered into the room. Tom shuffled along the floor and closed the door, bowing his head to the family.

The cot had moved away from the bed while Tom went to close the door. The wheel that squeaked wasn’t locked properly and began to rattle as Tom moved it back to beside the bed. After another couple attempts, Tom took a tissue from the nightstand and placed it underneath the squeaky wheel that wouldn’t stay put.

Tom got Ms. Hamps onto the cot in one movement. He folded the blanket back over the now-empty bed and pushed the cot out of the room. The family inquired where Tom would be taking their loved one. Tom replied that she would be well taken care of at the chapel and that he would contact them in the morning after everyone’s had a night of rest.

“There Stands The Glass” was playing on the radio as Tom turned the van out of Regional Oaks Care and onto the road. Fitzgerald-Hill was a five-mile ride directly down the road. Tom looked out his rearview mirror to see if the family would follow him. When he saw that no one had followed him out of Regional Oaks Care, he turned the song louder.

He widened his eyes, lit a cigarette, and opened his window to let the early-morning breeze hit his face. It was still dark outside that headlights were needed. The road was uneven and Tom relied on his lights frequently so that he could swerve around a pothole or slow down when a squirrel presented herself in the van’s path.

Just as he pulled into the Fitzgerald-Hill parking lot, Tom lit a second cigarette. He parked the van in its spot, around the chapel’s entrance, let it idle, and continued to smoke. The sun faintly began its rise. Tom sat up straighter to look at himself in the rearview mirror. He played with the bags under his eyes, poking at them like they were filled with fluid. The smoke that emanated from his cigarette carried up to his eyes as he peered into the mirror and they began to redden; he squinted in order to continue to peer.

Checking his watch, Tom lit a third cigarette.

“You’re the lucky one,” Tom said. He looked into the rearview mirror once more, only this time his gaze was turned to the back.

He dropped the third cigarette into his drink and listened for the fizz. Then he got out of the van and wheeled the cot into the chapel.

~

Eight days after Tom did Ms. Hamps’s transfer, the family sent an eloquent letter to the funeral home relaying their gratitude for “the respectfulness that exuded from Mr. Jacobs.” When Louis Fitzgerald III, the grandson of the funeral home’s co-founder, read the letter aloud to everyone in the chapel—everyone being only Tom in addition to Nancy, the only other director besides Tom who was not an owner, and the receptionist—Tom didn’t move a muscle. Fitzgerald-Hill had received innumerable letters of the kind, and Tom was a non-fussy man.

“‘Furthermore,’” Louis continued reading, “‘we wish to request the services of Mr. Jacobs should our beloved father meet the same fate as our mother. He is, like our mother, ill and his time left with us is sadly coming to a close. We sincerely hope that Mr. Jacobs will endeavor to oblige us with his graceful attendance.’”

“Looks like you’ve got yourself a fan base,” Nancy said once Louis finished.

“Put it with the collection,” Louis said, handing Tom the letter.

Tom smiled and pocketed it. It would be shredded, like the rest of them, once he got home.

“You know, I’d really like to do a transfer with you one of these nights,” Nancy said. “All of your letters come from overnight transfers. You’re a real midnight magician. What do you do, make love to the bodies so that they look like they’ve had a good lay once they’re coffined?”

“Sorry, Nancy,” Louis said, “but we don’t need two of you on overnights.”

“You’re more than welcome to take the overnights,” Tom said.

“And leave the busy daytime?” Nancy asked, spreading her arms out across the empty room.

“Tom, don’t even think like that,” Louis said, getting serious. “You’re my overnight man. That’s you, Tom.”

Tom smiled. His stomach began to rumble and he excused himself for lunch.

On his way to the diner that had the golden pancakes he liked, Tom’s phone rang. He almost capsized his car retrieving the phone from his breast pocket.

“Y’ello,” he said, managing to touch the button and put the phone on speaker just before it slipped from his hand and fell on the passenger’s seat. “This is Tom Jacobs … Who is this? … Oh, yes, yes. How are you? … She what? … I see … Yes, I will come immediately. Thank you for informing me.”

When he arrived at the hospital, he had to circle around a couple of times after forgetting he was not there on a transfer. He had to park in a spot and walk in through the entrance.

The emergency room was hardly occupied. A woman and her daughter sat in a corner, with the daughter’s arm in a makeshift sling. There was a man standing by the entrance, swaying back and forth as if in prayer. Tom sidestepped the praying man on his way to the desk.

“I’m here to see Peggy Jacobs,” he said to the man behind the desk.

“Relation?”

“I’m her husband,” Tom said, looking over the counter.

The man looked at his computer for a minute more before turning back to Tom.

“Please have a seat, sir. Someone will call you in a moment.”

Tom decided to stand, but away from the praying man. He moved across the waiting room, closer to the woman and her daughter.

When after ten minutes his name had not been called, Tom went back to the desk.

“Do you know how much longer it will be?” he asked.

But before the man could answer, the doors to the corridor opened and a woman came out in a hurry toward Tom.

“Dolores, where is she?” asked Tom.

“It’s okay, I can take him back with me,” Dolores said to the man behind the desk, before turning to Tom. She didn’t wait for an answer; she grabbed Tom by the arm and dragged him through the doors.

Tom had to pick his feet up quicker as Dolores clutched his arm and led him down the corridor. They mostly passed vacant rooms, save for one that had a man keeled over on the floor next to his bed. Tom slowed down a bit as they passed the man’s room to get a better look, but Dolores pulled him forward.

As they approached the second-to-last room on the left, Tom’s stomach rumbled like thunder. He had skipped breakfast when he discovered his sons had eaten the last of his favorite breakfast pastries. They had been out of eggs for days, and he hadn’t found the time to restock, so he allowed Rex and Royce to each have a pastry, which had quickly turned into them finishing the rest.

“Before we go in there,” Dolores said—she positioned herself in between Tom and the doorway—“I need you to be calm. She has been heavily sedated and is just coming back to, so arguments or the like won’t help her at all.”

“I understand.”

Dolores stepped to the side and let Tom go in first. He brushed past the curtain that was covering the doorway, followed by Dolores.

The room was cold and bare. There was a harsh white light that illuminated only half of the room. The bed was in the corner off from the door, and the machines next to it were all working rhythmically.

Tom walked to the bed. Peggy’s eyes were closed. Her stomach rose and fell with her breath, and Tom stared there for several minutes. Dolores stood by the door and watched.

“How did you get notified?” Tom asked Dolores, without looking away from Peggy’s stomach.

“The police picked her up. Luckily she hadn’t taken her wristband off yet and they were able to identify her and call us right away.”

“She still smells like alcohol,” Tom said, turning around and walking to the door.

“I heard that.”

Tom turned back round. Peggy had opened her eyes and was staring up at the ceiling.

“It’s fine. You can go,” Peggy said to the ceiling.

“I’m going to find the doctor,” Dolores said in a hushed voice to Tom.

After she disappeared behind the doorway curtain, Tom walked to the side of the bed. The machines were louder than before. Tom looked down at Peggy. The space around her eyes were a dull grey, and her short hair looked uneven to Tom.

“What happened to your hair?” he asked, still looking at it.

“Do you like it?” Peggy laughed which quickly turned into a cough. “I did it the other day. Was getting sick of my goldielocks.”

Tom looked at Peggy’s arm. The veins were all protruding and several of them were stuck with I.V.s.

“Okay, Tom. You can tell I’m fine. I didn’t die, yet. So will you just leave now. I’m pretty wiped out from all this.”

Peggy turned on her side away from Tom.

“Can’t you just tell me what happened?” he asked.

“What difference does it make?” Peggy responded, back still to Tom. “It’s the same song and dance anyway, Tom. Don’t worry, I’m going back to the center. It’s safest there anyway.”

“Safest there? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’ll be safe from myself, you know.”

Tom almost walked around the bed to see if Peggy had rolled her eyes.

“Peggy,” Tom began, but Peggy had turned around and stopped him with a glare.

“Don’t you ‘Peggy’ me, Tom,” Peggy said with as much energy as one could muster after having been on a bender and having her stomach pumped clean. “I’m a grown woman. I can handle my mistakes on my own. I don’t need you condescending to help.”

“I’m not condescending. I care about you, Peggy. You’re Rex and Royce’s mother—”

“—Stop it! Don’t say their names. Don’t even bring them in here now.”

Peggy turned back around away from Tom. The mass of tubes that stemmed from her forearm turned with her, and Tom watched the machines slide across the floor.

“I just want you to get help,” Tom said and turned for the door. He waited a moment for Peggy to reply, but when she began to breathe heavily, he walked out.

~

Rex and Royce were playing shoot-em up games in the living room when Tom got the call. It was for a transfer up near the county border, about eighty miles. He told the boys he would be gone for several hours, and that they had better be asleep when he got home.

The transfer was for a Mr. Staed who had died while resting in his home. Tom had gone to school with a Jack Staed and wondered if that could be his father. But it was only a glancing thought.

Tom found out it was Jack Staed’s father. Jack came out to the van as Tom pulled into the driveway. They exchanged nods and Tom unloaded the cot. Jack went back inside and Tom followed.

The deceased’s wife was waiting for them inside. She was kneeling on the floor praying near Mr. Staed’s body, which was lying on the bed near the home’s central piece, the piano. Tom looked around momentarily. It seemed Mr. Staed had been dying for some time. Tom pushed the cot beside the bed.

Jack moved to help Tom, but Tom gestured that it was all under control. Tom saw that Jack’s eyes were bloodshot. Jack stepped back, almost bowing. Mrs. Staed got up from her knees gingerly. She leaned on the piano bench, rolled her torso with her straightening leg, then heaved to a stand. She disappeared into another room.

Tom hesitated another moment. He glanced from Mr. Staed to Jack. There was a resemblance but it wasn’t loud. Tom folded his arms in front of him. Jack bowed his head and left the room, following his mother. Tom unfolded the blanket from on top of Mr. Staed and gently pushed his arms to his sides.

Tom got Mr. Staed onto the cot in one movement. He folded the blanket back over the now-empty bed and pushed the cot out of the room, out of the house, and into the back of the van. Jack came outside. They shook hands.

On the way to the chapel, it crossed Tom’s mind whether Jack knew who he was or not. In the end, it mattered little. Tom’s stomach growled. He turned off the expressway when the sign showed a food stop. He had planned to buy the twins a treat since he knew they wouldn’t be asleep, but it was still too far away from home. But he could eat twice. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast, which was only a granola bar.

He ordered a couple value meals. He finished the first one just as he arrived at the chapel. There were shreds of lettuce and some tomato seeds that fell from his pants as he got out of the van. He stopped in his tracks. There was a light on in the chapel.

Tom left Mr. Staed in the van and went in the chapel alone. Louis and Nancy were walking around the chapel. Louis was counting the chairs that were laid out for the next day’s service. Nancy was taking note of everything on a legal pad. Tom coughed audibly and Louis and Nancy froze.

“Oh. Tom,” Louis said.

Tom looked to Nancy. She looked back at him. Tom was immediately startled. Nancy’s eyes were bloodshot in the same way Jack’s had been earlier. Tom looked back to Louis. His eyes were white.

“I put a pot of coffee on. I think I hear it,” Nancy said.

Tom didn’t hear anything. He watched Nancy leave the chapel for the back office.

“I’ve got a transfer in the van,” Tom said.

“Bring it in. Bring it in. I’ll help you with it.” Louis shook his head vehemently.

Tom walked out of the chapel, turning his head a couple of times back at Louis. He unloaded the cot from the van and wheeled it in. Louis was waiting at the door. He held it open for Tom and nodded as Tom walked by into the chapel.

As soon as they were both inside, Tom stopped pushing the cot.

“Alright, what’s going on?” he asked Louis.

Louis closed his eyes for a long moment. Tom’s stomach growled, but Louis didn’t flinch. Tom wondered how he could still be hungry. He was about to go back to the van for his second value meal when Nancy came back into the chapel with the coffee on a tray.

“Great! The coffee!” Louis said. “Let’s have a seat and some coffee and talk.”

Nancy poured the three of them coffee.

“Look, Tom,” Louis said. He mixed some milk into his coffee and licked the stirrer before putting it down. “We just got a call for another transfer, but I’ve decided to call Nancy in to do this one.”

“Okay…” Tom looked to Mr. Staed. He should have put him away and not left him in the middle of the chapel.

Louis drank his coffee.

“I should get going on the…on the transfer,” Nancy said, standing.

“No!” Louis nearly spilled his coffee. “I mean, um, you can’t leave just yet. Let’s finish the coffee you just made. The transfer is just across town.”

“If it’s local, why did you call Nancy in? I would’ve finished in time to get a second one done,” Tom asked.

Nancy sat back down. She looked at Louis as if she was waiting for him to speak. Louis was only interested in his coffee. Tom decided to put Mr. Staed away. Whatever was so secretive could wait just a little more to be told.

“Tom,” Louis put his coffee down and looked Tom in the eyes, “the reason Nancy is going to do this transfer is because I got a call earlier that something terrible happened to Peggy.”

Tom, who had been standing, nearly fell as his knees gave way. Nancy helped him back into his seat. She shook her head at Louis as Tom was staring at the velvet-covered bier at the front of the chapel.

“I understand,” Tom said. He stood, went to the cot, and pushed Mr. Staed out of the room.

“Where’d he go?” Louis asked, then got up to follow Tom, but Nancy grabbed him.

“Let him be for a minute, will you.” She shook her head again. “It can’t be easy for him to find out like this.”

“You think this is easy for me?” Louis asked.

“This isn’t about you, buddy,” Nancy said. She was about to say more, but Tom walked back into the room, pushing the cot.

“I’d like to do the transfer,” he said. Tom looked again at Nancy. Her eyes had cleared some, but not completely. Then, looking at Louis, who again had interested himself in his coffee, Tom said again, “I’d like to do the transfer.”

Louis looked up at Tom from his coffee and nodded slowly. Tom nodded back, then moved his nod across the room. The chapel felt dead for the first time.

~

Tom sat in the first row of the chapel for the first time at the service. Rex sat next to him, and next to Rex was Royce. Peggy’s parents sat behind them, and when it came time for anyone who had a remembrance of Peggy to speak, the parents of the deceased would mutter to themselves the question Tom had heard muttered during all the services he worked: why.

The cemetery was on the town’s west-end. They drove through town, and Tom looked at the back of the hearse. He tried to spot some scratches he knew to be on the bumper, but it was too far and moving.

The procession of cars didn’t take very long to all get into the cemetery. Peggy’s plot was on the second piece of land over from the entrance. Tom recalled Louis saying his family had plots on the same piece of land.

Tom stayed silent graveside, like everyone else. All was said that could be at the chapel. The opened earth, where Peggy would descend, was enough talking.

Voyo Gabrilo is a writer at the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and novellas.

  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


We love this book for so many reasons! The writing is incredible, the story is important, and seeing what life looks like when you survive the unthinkable is transformative. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Sanctuary, by Emily Rapp Black. Purchase at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Self Care, Self Image

Resistant as F*ck, part 1

January 13, 2021

Photo credit: Peak Pilates

This is part one of a two part essay.  Read part two here

By Melody Greenfield

My body is a masterpiece.

Sacred.

A pièce de résistance.  

An amazing doer of all the gerunds: twisting; bending; reaching; rounding; arching; fucking; praying.

But for so long I didn’t regard it as such or even so much as respect it. As a pre-teen and teen, I deprived my body of food. I chided myself for the way I stored fat on my cellulite-ridden thighs. For the way I resembled my pear-shaped, chef-mother. The photos, however, tell a different story: I was thin enough to slide through a fence; I was simply developing faster than other girls my age. What I thought was fat was actually just my new womanly shape (hello, hips!). What I thought was cellulite could only be seen under a microscope if I pinched and squished and otherwise manipulated and contorted my skin. I exercised compulsively (if there was an informercial for it, I owned it), then went through rebellious periods where I was completely sedentary. This pattern continued on into my twenties, when I doubled-down on misusing my body—sleeping with too many men, often unprotected. My type (aside from tall, dark-haired, bespectacled, and Jewish) was whatever was new. Fortunately, my body was resistant…to STIs.

My heart did its fair share of resisting too—always looking to dodge suffering. My childhood babysitter once told me, on a walk around the neighborhood, that I had walls up all around me. I was about seven at the time. Even then, I was suited up in armor to resist hurt and heartbreak. I think she was trying to warn me that, later on, if I continued to keep my guard up, it would be hard to form lasting relationships, which was exactly the point. I pictured a brick structure when she spoke. Think: the indestructible third house in The Three Little Pigs. Impenetrable. Resistant to wolves. I wore those walls proudly for decades because change is hard and scary, hence my resistance to it. The walls kept me safe. If no one could get in, no one could leave, either. Likewise, if my body never changed, I would never become my Jenny Craig- and Weight Watchers-going mother. May Mom never fit into my pants was a secret mantra of mine that I recited even at her thinnest when, on occasion, she tried (and failed) to borrow my jeans.

Judaism teaches that each morning when we wake, we should take the time to appreciate our bodies, aloud. In reciting the Birchot HaShachar blessing, we thank God for the miracle of our bodies—these complex machines that work so hard to keep us alive. If only I could have conjured this prayer to mind all those evenings that I willingly went to bed hungry, ignoring the empty feeling in the pit of my already-flat stomach. If only I could have conjured this prayer to mind all those times that I exercised obsessively—doing jumping jacks on the school yard and then coming home to pop workout videos into my parents’ VCR. Two favorites were The Firm Aerobic Workout with Weights (Volume 3) and Kathy Kaehler’s Strong Legs; she was Michelle Pfeiffer’s personal trainer, and my hope was that she’d make my legs not only strong, but also skinny and cellulite-free. If only I could have conjured this prayer to mind all those nights that I treated my body as so much less than a gift when I gave it away to men who didn’t care, who wouldn’t stay. Your own father doesn’t love you, or so I believed. Why on earth would they?

Since taking up Pilates nearly a decade ago and especially since teaching it for the past six-plus years, I’ve learned to love myself a bit more. To treat this God-given vessel, this container that expertly stores my equally-worthy insides, as something special. To show it a modicum of respect. To celebrate its splendors. Interestingly, in Pilates when we work with the apparatus—complex machines (like our own bodies), designed to stretch and strengthen the limbs—we are often resisting the springs, pushing back against them. Take the Leg Springs series on the Cadillac: We push our legs into the straps, and the attached springs try to bully us—woman versus apparatus—but we don’t let them win. We are the machine. They’re strong, but we’re stronger (especially after years of that Kathy Kaehler routine). Other times, we’re asked to lean into the springs. We allow them to give us feedback. To support us. Take Airplane on the same piece of equipment: We press our feet into the straps and our hands into the metal poles behind us in order to sail through the air. The springs help us levitate. This is how I see my body now—as this magnificent structure that quite literally soars. But what a journey it’s been to get to that place. For far too long, rather than lift myself up, I was the damn bully-spring, fighting myself.

***

December 2013: North Hollywood, California

It isn’t my body but the road I’m focused on as I rush, in my bite-sized electric Chevy, to meet Drew—my date. We’ve been texting for several weeks since both swiping right on Tinder, and tonight we’re meeting face-to-face at a dive bar in North Hollywood, which I’m speeding to straight from a bad day at work. I’m in a new job as an admissions assistant at a small private school, just down the street. This is our busy season with prospective parent tours, so no more leaving the office when there’s still daylight to burn. Stealing a glance in my light-up sun visor, I confirm—to my horror—that my hair, which I’ve deepened for the fall, is having a worse day than I am, even resisting the quick finger-combing I gave it. I also confirm, via the car clock on my dashboard, that I’m seven minutes late for our date. Crap. It always embarrassed me as a kid when my mom ran late, so I try my hardest to value other people’s time.

With the help of street lamps, I can make out a tall, lean Drew—his back against the bar’s entrance—from my parking spot across the street. He’s dressed for the occasion in dark denim and a button-down shirt, which makes me suddenly self-conscious of my own attire: wrinkled corduroys and a sweater that isn’t as figure-hugging as it was when I put it on early this morning. Aware that he’s been waiting for me, I quickly touch up my burgundy lipstick, blot with a tissue from a to-go pack in my purse, check the mirror once more to make sure no tissue bits have stuck on, then dart across Magnolia. The air is brisk in that LA-winter way that feels more like East Coast fall, and I go in straight for the hug (remember those?), hoping to warm up. I’m also convinced that physical contact is the surest way to make my date warm up to me, and it seems to work, too. He pulls me in close, surprising me; so close, in fact, that I can smell the musky cologne on the nape of his neck. When I take a step back, I can see that his pleasant face matches his profile pictures. Delicious, I’m still thinking as we take our seats. I’m drunk on the idea of him—heady and dizzy and floaty-feeling—and this is all before I’ve taken so much as a sip of booze.

Sitting across the table from him, I can finally inspect Drew, close up. He’s thirty to my twenty-nine and six feet tall to my five foot seven. He has even, honey-colored skin and a warm smile. He’s put together, well dressed and groomed. His voice is sexy and soothing, as deep as it is gentle. I find myself admiring his strong, capable hands and the way he effortlessly strings words together. I love an articulate man. What holds my attention most though is not his vocabulary or the timbre of his speaking voice but his eyes. Even in the dimly-lit bar, I can tell there is something off about them—I just can’t quite put my finger on what.

Just then, our waitress whizzes by, creating a brief breeze, and I catch another whiff of that yummy musky man-scent that got my juices flowing and made my head all spinny a few minutes ago. When she swings back around the corner again, I order a glass of Pinot Grigio, then another. Just be normal, I say to myself. Quit staring. I try to distract myself by prattling on nervously about my crappy work day. I’ve had so many of them in this new role, and I’ll have many more before I’m eventually laid off in June, which, I learn, is Drew’s birthday month. Typically, Gemini men and I don’t mix, but I already find myself hoping: Maybe he’ll be the exception. Incidentally, Drew will soon be let go too, only neither of us knows this yet. Nor do we know that sixteen days after his June 9th birthday, I’ll surprise us both by moving in with friends across the globe in Toronto.

In between crisp, fruity sips, I explain that my boss makes me feel incompetent, which, in turn, makes me act incompetently (the ol’ self-fulfilling prophesy at work); I’m worried that too many more days like today—when I was admonished for alphabetizing the touring parents’ nametags in rows instead of columns and slicing the bagels unevenly—and I’ll be sent packing. Of course, I’m right to suspect as much, but Drew does his best to reassure me. Isn’t it possible you’re being too hard on yourself? It’s probably not as bad as you’re making it out to be in your own head (except that it is). I divert his question with humor—“No non-Jewish person should ever correct a Jew when it comes to handling bagels. Am I right?”—then deflect by asking about his job, instead. As it turns out, he’s been a glove designer at the same company for eleven years now.

“Holy shit,” I say. I tell him I admire his ability to stay put and wonder silently if this means he might stick around with me, too.

“I’m blind in one eye,” Drew blurts out. Talk about a non sequitur. “I’m sorry to cut you off. I just needed to say something.”

Crap. He must have noticed me staring. “That’s okay,” I assure him, both about interrupting me and being part-blind. “If you’re willing to share, I’d love to learn more.”

“Well, I wasn’t born blind, but I didn’t get the care I needed, not soon enough anyway. It was too late to save my vision by the time I finally saw a doctor. Please don’t feel bad for me,” he says in response to my doe eyes. “That isn’t why I told you. I just sensed you were wondering about it. It’s no big deal that you were curious. Everyone is.”

I’m ashamed to admit this, but rather than go to a place of empathy or outrage over his negligent upbringing, my mind goes instead to a place of curiosity. To him, I may look concerned, wounded, even horrified, but I’m actually determining where to affix my gaze—that intense look that gets me into exactly the kind of trouble I seek. I’m also worrying that, in staring at his one eye all night, I’ve failed to send out those come-hither signals with my own. I take his hands in mine, tell him I’m sorry about his sucky vision, his suckier parents, and my blatant staring, then invite him back to my apartment to make it up to him.

 ***

Comfortable on my own turf and emboldened by the liquor (which I’m not as resistant to as I like to believe), I begin to kiss Drew. Like my car, the kissing is electric—all tongue and lips. It’s the kind that leaves you lightheaded and that happens when two people either really like each other, have an undeniable physical connection, or both. Hoping for option C, I run my fingers through his hair voraciously. I’m hungry for more of him, greedy for the high that sex brings.

Drew unbuttons my blouse, as I likewise busy myself removing his clothes. This is a man who works with his hands, I think to myself as he expertly undresses me. I am startled, but not revolted, by his many tattoos—a tiger on his chest (my husband has a nearly identical one in the same spot); a symbol of some kind on his left shoulder; a star below his waist; and a quotation written across his ribs—In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king—he tells me later. Gently, Drew licks and breathes on each of my nipples until my entire body warms and responds. He holds me close, and his intoxicating scent—part man, part cologne—fills my nostrils once more. Tenderly, he makes his way down my torso and in between my legs, licking me softly, then sucking on me more aggressively, drawing a figure eight with his tongue.

“Mmmmmmm. You taste so good,” he says, as he reaches his left hand out for my larger breast, and my legs begin to quiver. I pull on his hair, and my body unfolds, submitting to him, wholly. Finally, the build-up becomes too much to bear. I’m cumming!” I shout for the first time that evening but not the last. Before I know it, I am tasting my own sweetness in his mouth and putting his hard condom-less penis inside of me.

“Oh my God,” he says, his hood gently massaging me. “You feel amazing.”

“Yeah?” I ask innocently. I’ve heard this countless times before but never tire of it. Compliments are my crack. I grab onto his firm butt cheeks, moist with perspiration, as he holds onto my face, seeming to see all of me, if only with one eye.

“You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever been inside of,” he whispers sensually in my ear like he knows it’s a portal to my soul. “Your body is perfect,” he goes on as he slides himself in and out of me more gently than any one-night stand has before. Men always praise my physical form—my hourglass figure—but I’m still a few years away from believing that what they say is true.

It does occur to me, for an instant, that Drew is being genuine, but the thought is fleeting, my inner-skeptic loud. I force myself to quiet the noise, to stay present. I kiss him hard, and the shock I feel courses through us both. “You feel amazing too, baby” I tell him, and I mean it. In this moment, as I glance up at him, and we move in sync together, we are utterly connected. It’s like he was made just for me.

“I love fucking you,” he tells me as we near climax, but I hear what I want to hear instead, mentally subtracting one word from his sentence. He is making love to me; he can love me. I am sure of it. In fact, touching me in ways no one ever has before—brushing the wispy, chocolate brown tendrils from my too-pale, too-trusting face; cupping my head with his gentle hands; tickling the tops of my ears; looking deep into me, his thumbs against my now-messy brows—he already is loving me, or so I reason.

Drew places one arm under the small of my back and pulls me in close as he hardens and contracts inside of me. Together, we surrender to the building sensations. I feel hazy and clear-headed all at once. In control and out of it. My heart and groin clamp onto him with equal intensity and, magically, our bodies shudder in unison. He moves to pull himself out of me just then, but I reach for his penis and put it back inside of me, as a rush of semen fills me and makes me whole.

I know it’s dangerous, which is part of the allure. It gives me the kind of stomach-dropping thrill that roller coasters used to until I became terrified of them, without warning or reason. I’ve been on birth control since before my seventeenth birthday, so pregnancy isn’t my concern, but there are diseases out there that, HPV aside, I’ve been lucky enough to dodge. (Thank you, resistant body!) But that’s just it. Taking chances—even big ones—is habit at this point, and I am hooked on it the way I’m now hooked on this beautiful man. On the way he strokes the soft spot behind my ears and uses the tips of his fingers to trace a line from my jaw down to my neck. There is no denying that this is different. That he is different.

We fall into a blissful sleep: Drew’s stomach against my back, his hands wrapped around my small waist (a family trait). Some hours later, he turns towards me—our bodies two crescent moons making a full one—and softly kisses me. It’s late, or rather early, and my date has to leave on account of his pit bull Rowdy. I turn to look at my nightstand and see that the green numbers on the alarm clock read 4:03 a.m. That means his dog has been alone for at least nine hours, and now I’ll be alone, too. He kisses me again on the lips, and this time, it means goodbye.

I don’t feel contemplative or regretful about our night. I’m on autopilot. Groggy and still naked, I take out my list of sexual partners, which by now is thirteen years old and several pages long, front to back. Even in the dark, I can see that my lopsided C-cup breasts are also thankfully round and perky (another genetic win). My nipples, quarter-sized and peachy-pink, harden as my bare feet touch the floor. I’m grateful for the faux marble, which I’ll take over ugly apartment carpeting any day. When I stare down at myself, I don’t love how I look, but when I’m standing upright in front of my closet’s (slimming) full-length mirror, I don’t hate the curves I see, either. Yesterday morning I weighed in at 130.5 pounds—half a pound more than I’d like. I’d jotted that down on a Post-it Note. Now, grabbing a pen from the kitchen, I neatly write Drew’s name down beside the number eighty-five on my ever-growing list. (May my body not follow suit!)

85) Drew M.

I like the way this distinct combination of letters and numbers looks on the page—round and clean—and how his initials, DM, like direct messaging, remind me of the way we first communicated: with words instead of bodies. I like the way committing this act to paper feels—the “8” in 85 conjuring to mind the figure eights he drew on me with his tongue a few hours ago (word-play always makes me smirk), and how writing it down solidifies the experience, makes it real. This really happened. He really happened.

As a teenager and young adult, I kept detailed food journals, cataloguing everything I ingested. A page from seventh grade might have looked something like this:

 

Weekday:

Breakfast: Half a plain bagel and 1 pack of Sour Punch Straws (blue raspberry) from the food truck

Snack: 3 Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies from the vending machine – gave the rest away

After-school: Half a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (blue box)

Saturday:

Breakfast: 2 bowls of Life cereal with nonfat milk

Lunch: 1 Yoplait yogurt cup (peach)

Dinner: Half a chicken tender and a Shirley Temple at Michael’s bar mitzvah

Then, with equal precision, I kept track—am still keeping track—of the men I put into my body: 7 Mikes, 6 Adams, 5 Matts, 5 Jon/John/Jonathans, 4 Dans, 3 Jeffs and a Geoff,

3 Joshes, 21 J-names, 15 M-names, 60 Jews, 40 men from the Interwebs. I like that there’s never been another Drew—just two Andrews and a Dru surname. As I play the night’s happenings back in my head, I shiver. I need socks, and another dose of this man.

To Be Continued…

“MELODY GREENFIELD” has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing (CNF) from Antioch University Los Angeles. The LA-native and Pilates instructor has been published under this pseudonym in The Los Angeles Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and forthcoming in HOOT. Her work can also be found under a different name in Brevity, Lunch Ticket, Annotation Nation, and Meow Meow Pow Pow. She enjoys reading CNF, furthering her Pilates practice, and occasionally curling her hair and getting out of stretchy pants to enjoy this pandemic-life with her aforementioned husband. Melody can be found here on Facebook and as @melodygreenfield_writer on Instagram.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen