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Grief, Guest Posts, Self Love

Hair Is More Than Serious Business: It’s Identity

June 26, 2022
hair

Long ago a friend handed me a book called Five Sisters: memoirs by five 19th-century Russian anarchists whose fierce idealism, at the cost of tremendous personal sacrifice and a certain cold-blooded willingness to commit murder, helped bring about the assassination of Tsar Alexander I in 1881. It was full of photos of these young women, dark-eyed and intense, with masses of dark hair. “They remind me of you,” my friend said. I was young, but no revolutionary—I couldn’t even watch violent movies. Still their single-minded, fearless gaze, conveying pure refusal, struck a chord. Even more: all that hair.

In 1958, my mother had made me cut my hair. I was twelve, about to enter seventh grade and, said my mother, to be grown up. I had gotten my period and begun wearing a bra, and she was following the rules of her time, place, and class, which decreed that becoming a woman meant cutting your little-girl long hair short.

I resisted—I liked my shoulder-length hair, straight but with a slight wave, and very thick—but she was determined that I be properly inducted into womanhood. She dragged me to what was then called the beauty parlor, where a peroxided stylist gave me what was known as a bubble cut, and I joined the ladies of the hair roller brigade under the dryer.

I was so miserable, hating my new bubble head, that behind my back my mother asked my friends to tell me it looked great. (They did in front of her but ratted her out later.) The worst of it was that I couldn’t grow my hair back and have what I had before, since after that cut it stopped being straight and became bushy and unmanageable. I had been inducted not only into womanhood but into a long struggle with pincurls, rollers, and hair spray, and later straighteners and French braids, none of which could tame it. I didn’t know that this change in texture was due to normal hormonal changes of puberty and would have manifested eventually anyway, so it felt doubly unfair.

In college, I learned from Glamour magazine that now, in the liberated sixties, a “girl” no longer had to cut her beautiful long hair when she joined the workforce, as long as she kept it perfectly polished and groomed. My hair was long again but it was too late. Hairdressers didn’t know what to do with it. Over the years I went from long to short to long again, always trying to make it behave against its nature. I fought my hair for decades.

In cutting it off, my mother was obeying the precepts of a faith practiced by women of a striving immigrant middle class. She revered Eugenia Sheppard, an enormously influential fashion columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, and her temple was Loehmann’s, a famous discount store where the labels were ripped out but discerning shoppers recognized quality brands by the linings. Her scripture was the laws dictating how a woman should be and dress and look in the 1950s and early sixties.

My parents, children of Russian Jewish immigrants, had made it out of Brooklyn into a spanking-new Long Island suburb, and like many others at the time, my mother wanted more than anything to be American. “Immigrants emulated what they considered to be upper class,” social historian Carole Turbin told me. My mother’s rules “related to class and assimilation, wanting to be a lady and be respectable.” A lady dressed formally (a dress, nylons, and in the summer, white gloves) when she went into the city; never left the house without makeup on; wore a girdle so her backside didn’t jiggle; and kept her hair cut and controlled. During a family road trip around 1960, we were stuck in Lincoln, Nebraska, for a few hours, wandering around downtown while my father took the car to be fixed. My mother fretted the whole time because she and I were wearing shorts, which according to her creed were inappropriate for a city street. How you dressed was who you were—not that you chose your clothes to express who you were, but that by following the rules you defined yourself as existing within specific boundaries. Parading through a city in shorts put us outside those limits.

She pressured me relentlessly to match her notion of how I should be. We fought over clothes she wanted me to wear: a lemon-yellow spring coat; a silk party dress whose bodice she had altered to be so tight that sitting down was uncomfortable. When I tried to refuse that coat she got really angry, and I think now that she was frightened by what might become of me if I didn’t fit the template. Like the Russian anarchists, I was rejecting rigid social constraints. But unlike them I had no philosophy pointing me toward an alternative vision.

My mother had sewn me beautiful dresses when I was little, and probably to imitate her, as little girls do, I started sewing on her basement machine, beginning with simple gathered skirts and progressing to complicated outfits. Like her too, I knitted. In college I knitted an entire dress while reading Jacobean drama from a textbook large enough to lie open on my lap. After college I got married, as so many girls did, largely because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. Living in Chicago the next winter, I went to Marshall Field every Saturday to join the yarn department knitting circle whose instructor helped me knit a tweed suit with cardigan jacket and pleated miniskirt. I still wear that jacket but every time I put it on I think of those afternoons when I could have been doing something else, and feel a vague discomfort.

But only recently did I seriously ask myself why I did all that sewing and knitting.  For I had no vocation for making clothing. I didn’t even particularly enjoy it. What I did have a vocation for—though nobody noticed, including me—was writing. My very first published work, around age 13, was a letter to American Girl magazine responding to a story they had printed. I had studied the published letters and deliberately imitated their gushy tone and quirky comment at the end. It worked, although now I ask myself why I didn’t just write in my own voice. Probably it never occurred to me that any voice I might have was worth listening to. But I date the origin of my writing career before that, to the moment I “flew up” (as the transition was called) from the Brownies to the Girl Scouts and decided that the writing badge was the only one I wanted. While I was too impatient (and still am) to be really skillful working with my hands, I have no trouble rewriting a sentence fifty times to make it perfect. So why did I spend all those hours at a sewing machine instead of a typewriter?

I want to say, because she cut my hair. Because in my mind hair, clothes, and the Russian anarchists are mixed up together. They’re all about identity.

*****

“If you are a Black woman, hair is serious business. Your hair is considered by many the definitive statement about who you are, who you think you are, and who you want to be,” writes novelist Marita Golden. And in different ways, hair was and is about identity for women of all skin colors. Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837­–98) was renowned for her extraordinary beauty and above all for the thick chestnut hair that fell below her knees. “If I were to have my hair cut short in order to get rid of an unnecessary weight,” she confided to Constantin Christomanos, who tutored her in Greek during the two or three hours required each day for her hairdresser to construct her heavy crown of braids, “the people would fall upon me like wolves”—as though her hair were what made her their empress.

A teenager I know created an Instagram self-portrait that began with a photo of her magnificent Afro puff. “I love my hair,” she explained. “That’s who I am.” Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein writes, “As a child I already knew that I possessed long hair that was trapped inside a short cut. I also figured out, as I got older, that I was a freethinker trapped within Orthodox Judaism, a feminist trapped in paternalism, a novelist trapped in the rules of my own rigorous academic discipline. My hair’s struggles have been my struggles.” Some women liberate themselves by cutting long hair short. Google “cutting my hair freed me” and you find many testimonials to this effect. But I say, with poet Honor Moore, “My power resides in the length and thickness of my hair, and I will never give it up.”

Many cultures see hair as a conduit of energy with magical and spiritual potency: thus Samson’s oath to God not to cut his hair gave him extrahuman power until Delilah tricked him and had it cut off. Marita Golden notes that for Black women, hair “is an expression of our souls.” Kelissa McDonald, a Rastafarian, told Allure, “For me, locs are almost an extension of my crown chakra energy. They act as antennas, you know? My hair helps me to discern the intentions of people, actually.” Melissa Oakes, a member of the Mohawk tribe, explained that her hair was waist-length because indigenous people “are the roots of this land, so these are our receptors that are connecting us with the land. It’s an old saying: The longer your hair, the closer connection you have to the earth.” No wonder twelve-year-old me didn’t want a haircut.

Empress Elisabeth also complained to Christomanos, “I am afraid that my mind escapes through the hair and onto the fingers of my hairdresser. Hence my headache afterwards.” I know exactly what she meant. I’ve always had the notion that my hair is so thick and unruly because I think so much. But unlike Elisabeth, I got headaches because my thinking energy stayed stuck inside my head. In any case, cutting the hair interrupts that life force, as happened to Samson—and, I would say, to me in that beauty parlor, just as the sexual and psychic energy of womanhood was waking up.

In her pioneering feminist book The Female Eunuch, whose central claim is that women have been effectively castrated, Germaine Greer defines castration as “the suppression and deflection of Energy.” In exactly this way cutting my hair severed my connection with my own identity and deflected the energy that could have been focused on writing into those hours at the sewing machine. My mother tried in myriad ways to force me into the mold of the perfect fifties female, but this one is the wound that left a scar. Unable even to imagine what I might choose to do, I fell back on what the culture and my mother were telling me I ought to be doing. While writing this essay I read and heard numerous stories of traumatic haircuts inflicted by mothers on daughters, motivated largely by wanting the daughter to fit into the cultural constraints required of females—the girdle we all wore.

***

My mother’s girdle mostly lived in a drawer because it was so uncomfortable she rarely wore it. But she never stopped trying to justify flouting the girdle rule, and her rationalizations never quite satisfied her. Probably this was why she never made me wear one. But for years I wore a mental girdle. The Russian anarchists went beyond refusing the limits that bound women in their time; they tried to destroy the stifling social order that oppressed everyone, in order to create a new society. I think I also perceived in them, dimly, a determination to achieve an authentic identity. And today I understand as well that refusal isn’t enough: one must go beyond that. For me it took years. When I saw their photos and felt that kinship, I was still at the beginning of an evolution. I had managed to flout my mother’s expectations, getting divorced, living alone, and working freelance. The moment I left my husband, I started to write. It didn’t end the headaches, but it got some of that stuck energy out of my head. I discovered that writing is when I feel most essentially myself. But it took my hair a while to catch up.

***

Unruly, wild hair disturbs people, especially on a woman’s head; thus Medusa was a monster who had to be slain by a hero. So the only thing most hairdressers I handed my hair over to could find to do with it was cut it off, so short that it couldn’t curl much—until I found Rose, a hairdresser unafraid of curls. I was still in thrall to the idea that my hair could only be managed if kept fairly short, but it now curled as it pleased all over my head.

In spring 2019, I let it get longer than usual because I was too busy to go for a cut. But it looked ok. Time passed and it still looked fine, so I let it slide a few weeks more. Then I asked Rose about keeping it long. “What you want is a curly shag,” she said, and gave me one. It looked fantastic. Just as important, it felt fantastic. I went home and let it grow some more.

Several inches later it dawned on me that I had my original hair back—my heavy, unruly mop—and that I loved it. I loved the feel of it—not just its weight, but the visceral sense that weight gave me that I was completely me again. Representative Ayana Pressley perfectly describes that experience in her video revealing that she has alopecia. About five years before, she says, “I got these Senegalese twists, and I feel like I met myself fully for the first time. I looked in the mirror and I said, ‘Oh, there I am!'” For me it was mystical: I felt solider, stronger, braver, that I had attained a deeper level of being me. And it still looked really good. I saw that my tough curly hair only worked when it could be itself, and I had freed it to do that. It was a revelation to discover how happy I was to have it back, even though it took quarts of shampoo to get clean and half a day to dry. Rose’s cut was so excellent that my hair usually looked good no matter what I did with it. And if it didn’t, I didn’t care.

That, at least, was my theoretical position. Then the coronavirus put it to the test. The lockdown hit just before I was due for a cut. The hair salons closed. So for a while I had more hair than I ever bargained for. I retrieved hairstyles from my past: pony tail! French braids! Twists! What’s now called a “messy bun”—the only kind I could ever make, lucky for me it’s now an actual style. I unearthed my hoard of old barrettes and went to buy more, only to discover that they’ve mostly given way to clips. Ok, I got clips. And I found antique barrettes on eBay.

Then my partner and I needed masks, but masks were still hard to find. I never sew anymore, except for occasional utilitarian repairs, but I still have fabric scraps left over from garments I made long ago—not to mention my mother’s sewing cabinet, a neat little piece of furniture dating back at least to the 1940s that still contains some of her sewing leftovers. So I rifled through everything and came up with enough fabric and old bits of ribbon and ancient packets of seam binding to make two masks. True to form, I was impatient, so they looked rather slapdash, but they did the job. I took a certain satisfaction in retrieving those old skills, plus the whole process resurrected a weird feeling of connection to my mother—the past returning into the present, but on my terms.

When the salons reopened, I returned to Rose with still more hair and told her how much I loved it. So we kept it long, and I went home and watched it grow more, until its weight pulled barrettes out of place and and gave me a headache. Eventually we settled on shoulder length, manageable though not particularly neat. I no longer mind it sticking out wildly, though. The imperative to look “good” has slipped still further away, and I’m left with just the satisfaction of having my hair back—and owning myself.

Stephanie Golden is a book author and collaborator, book doctor, and journalist in Brooklyn, NY. Her books include “The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelessness” (University of California Press, a finalist for the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award) and “Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice” (Harmony Books). She also wrote 7 books in collaboration with experts, mostly on fitness and health. Recently she’s been writing essays.

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Relationships

When Suffering and Appreciation Walk the Dog

June 22, 2022
walk

My husband usually does the first walk, standing at the door, holding out the leash and grumbling, ‘Ready to walk, Dummy?”  Dummy is Rocky and he takes no offense because my husband doesn’t mean any. He loves the furry beast and the fresh air, but this morning the job is mine because my husband has gone off with our three teenaged boys rafting down the Delaware river. I bowed out of the adventure – an activity we did once before when the kids were younger, and the memory of sunburned, miserable wailing along with the impulse to hit my husband with a paddle still haunts. Instead, I stay behind to hang with my cousin who is battling cancer, an entirely different kind of nightmare.

It’s hazy and overcast, the damp of last night’s rain still clings to all the green underfoot and around me. Rocky likes it, considers it a fresh morning salad and we stop every few feet for him to sniff, piss or chew. Typically, I distract myself on these walks with texts, phone calls or even an episode of the latest Netflix show I am obsessed with (Offspring!). With my weak ankles and uneven sidewalks, it’s a middle-aged mom’s rebellious walk on the wild side, but today my phone rests in my pocket. I want to notice the ripe green of the landscape, the peeking sun warming my skin, the orange and black butterfly dancing along a neighbor’s bursting landscaping.

I left my cousin back at Sloan yesterday for yet another complication related to her cancer. It seemed like only a minute ago that her life was full. Overfull. She worked hard when it was work time and played hard when it was playtime with no time or interest in stopping and smelling the roses, or in my case now, the daisies. She is in a bed, where she has mostly laid for months now. Her life no longer her own; at the mercy of her disease and the doctors who (kind of) care for her.

She is emaciated. I run to Carvel to bring her favorite thick shakes or some special treat that she desperately wants to eat. Watching her struggle to finish three bites of anything before the food overwhelms her bloated, distended stomach or makes her nauseous is heartbreaking, somehow making me linger and savor my nightly ice cream sundae but with a guilt that has nothing to do with calories.

The walk is relaxing me, except when Rocky spies a bunny and almost pulls my arm from its socket. “Rocky!” I yell, holding the leash forcefully. “No Bunnies!” His soulful eyes look up to me in remorse, but it is more likely for a consolation for his lost bunny. Sighing, I toss him a treat. Our walk resumes and I go back to focusing on the neighborhood homes and the blooming flowers and not on my cousin who hasn’t had the strength to walk her neighborhood in months. Not that she liked to walk her neighborhood, but that is beside the point.

My cell rings. It’s my youngest son secretly calling from the car to report that he does not want to go rafting, although I already know this. “You are going to have fun,” I reply brightly, even as the memory of his wet and terrified five-year-old face flashes in my brain. “And I’ll have a special treat waiting for you when you come home.”

“Yay, mama!” he says and my heart expands and breaks. He is now thirteen. My cousin’s daughter is only eight.

I turn the corner and pass ribbons of blue and orange roped around the trees. They appeared a couple of months ago in memory of three young lives (two of them brothers) taken the next town over when a car crossed a divider and crashed into them head on. I have thought obsessively about them and their families, and the randomness of a tragedy too much to bear.

It’s everywhere. This suffering. Mixed in with the underappreciated joyful mundane. A typical dog walk. Flowers bursting all around. My friend’s voice on the other side of my cell, relaying a story that has us both cracking up. Gifts beyond measure.

At home, I fill my cup with dark, rich coffee and sip leisurely. Not too long ago, my cousin loved her extra large coffee, light and sweet, but cancer has stolen that pleasure as well, changing her taste buds, giving her reflux and basically making many of her beloved foods and drinks abhorrent to her. I look down at my cup in disgust. How can I enjoy when she cannot?

Sighing, I take another sip. What good will denying myself do for my cousin? Doctors can’t seem to do anything for her? Being a good person hasn’t made a difference. It’s just coffee, I argue. Just like it was just a dog walk. But really, they are what make up a life. The simple pleasures. The stuff we take for granted is of course what matters most.

I will see her in a couple of hours. Sit on the floor by her bed and entertain her with meaningless stories that hopefully bring a small smile and distraction. I will offer her food and treats that she might take a bite or two of before her stomach decides it can tolerate no more. We will talk about the Netflix show I encouraged her to watch (Offspring!) and escape into that world for a while. I will listen to her fear and worry and do my best to soothe. I’ve been told it’s not my strong point. My own worry has a way of leaking into my face, but I am practicing in front of a mirror just like her best friend instructed.

There are no answers, small comforts, and a lot of pain for the sick and suffering. Life loses all its flavor and sparkle as loved ones watch helplessly. Angrily. Miserably. But with no choice in the matter, we must keep going. Listen closely. Hug tightly. Laugh freely. And love fiercely.

While my boys traverse the waves, riding the choppy and the serene, I continue to sip my coffee and think about my cousin as the more turbulent waters rush all around.

Alisa Schindler is a mom of three boys and wife to Mr. Baseball. She schleps children, burns cupcakes and writes essays that have been featured online at the New York Times, Washington Post, Kveller, Good Housekeeping and Northwell Health’s The Well, among others. In her spare time, she writes sexy, twisty fiction novels. Find out more about her at alisaschindler.com.

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“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Gratitude, Grief, Guest Posts

I Say Goodbye and You Say Hello

June 19, 2022

“When it comes time for you to leave, try to just slip away without him noticing. Do not make a big deal out of saying goodbye which could confuse him, especially in the beginning.”

That was the advice the nurse manager gave to my family when we moved my dad into a memory unit once his Alzheimer’s became too much for my mom to manage at home. The thought of leaving without saying goodbye made my heart break, but I wanted to do the right thing for my dad so I would visit and then wordlessly walk away, wondering how soon or if he ever noticed I was no longer holding his hand and walking the hallways alongside him. Soon I missed the bear hugs that were always a part of our farewell ritual, so I would begin our visits with them instead. “Dad, I’m going to leave in a little while,” I would say, hugging him when I first arrived. “This is me saying goodbye now in case I don’t have the chance to later.”

One time, about six months into my dad’s stay, I tried to slip away, but he kept following me. I could not make myself leave while he was standing there watching me. A member of staff noticed and tried to redirect my dad, but my dad, who by now rarely spoke out loud, stood his ground and said to her, “leave me alone, I just want to say goodbye to my daughter”. That was all the permission I needed to rush into his arms for that familiar hug, look into his eyes and say “goodbye for now, dad,” which I did at the end of every visit after that.

I said my final goodbye to him as he was taking his last breaths, grateful to be able to be with him in spite of the pandemic. Or at least I thought I said my final goodbye. Minutes after my dad passed away I had to call the funeral director. Saying out loud, for the first time that my dad died felt like I was saying goodbye all over again.

The conversation with the funeral director was just the beginning. The next morning I had to call the rabbi and the cemetery to make burial arrangements. There were uncles, aunts and cousins to be notified. Each call, each time I had to repeat the words ‘my dad died’, was like re-opening a goodbye wound that was barely beginning to heal. I began to wonder if it ever would.

Once I came home from the funeral I had to tie up my dad’s affairs, calling his bank, insurance, credit card and several other companies to tell them my dad died. Over and over again I found myself saying goodbye to my father for what I thought was the last time and each time was as painful as those early days in the assisted-living memory unit and the day he died.

For the first few weeks after my dad passed, I experienced pop-up grief that would come as I was driving to the grocery store or gassing up my car or making dinner. A flash memory of my dad – teaching me to check the oil in my first car or standing by the stove chopping onions for his famous home fries – would hit me and instantly tears would flow. And with each time, I felt another painful goodbye. Desperate for help, I finally asked my dad to send me a sign to let me know that he was okay and that I would be okay, and maybe my pop-up grief and ‘goodbye’ pain would stop.

In early January a friend sent me a calendar she made to celebrate the new year. As soon as it arrived I looked through and noticed she added a little saying to one day of each month.  On January 1st she put ‘Happier New Year’. On February 23rd, ‘It’s a glorious day’. I skipped to June to see the message for my birth month, and saw ‘Someone is missing you’ on the 17th, which happens to be my dad’s birthday. And there he was, popping up to say…hello.

Devra Lee Fishman is a writer and long-time hospice and hospital volunteer, in awe of and fascinated by death, life and all the experiences in between. Her essays have been published in The Saturday Evening Post, The Manifest-Station and Laura Munson’s summer guest blog series. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia.

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“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Fiction, Guest Posts, Self Image

Lavinia

June 17, 2022
Lavinia

Maybe she had really made it all up, just the way a bratty, superficial snob would.

It was like all those times she’d walked from her parent’s house to the nearest little train station, one train every hour, for the commute into Sydney for uni. All those obnoxious car horns as she walked the main road from home pissed her off, not to mention the rabid, unintelligible catcalling voices out the windows. They struck her from behind, sharp and jarring, without any warning, before fading away into the backwind and exhaust pipe fumes as the cars carrying them sped off.

Lavinia just had to take it as she walked, even if it meant that despite her physical fitness, she’d more often than not arrive on the station platform with a stabbing pain in her chest from all the unpredictable, shock noises that had stalked her along the way. She could have changed her route off the main road, down along the bike track and along the waterfront lined with mangroves, but it would have added at least ten minutes to her walk. Besides, she’d been determined that she shouldn’t have to be the one to change her routine, her behaviour. It was a matter of principle.

It didn’t stop her from complaining though. The whole thing pissed her off.

“I hate it here. Why did you have to choose to live in a place like this? So many gross bogans screaming catcalls out of cars. I can’t go anywhere without it happening,” she spoke sourly to her dad as they sat at the dining room table over coffee. One hand held a macadamia milk cappuccino halfway to her lips while the other rifled through the new Louis Vuitton monogrammed bag she’d just dropped three months of Christmas casual retail wages on.

“Drop the attitude. It happens everywhere,” her dad cut across her, firmly dismissive.

Ironic, that the whole ‘it happens everywhere’ cliché is always the go-to dismissal for problems like this; completely ignorant of the fact it actually hits the nail right on the head. It happens – everywhere.

Maybe Lavinia had lashed out, scapegoated a bit. Maybe her reactions were immature, superficial. But despite still lacking the right words to express herself, the eighteen-year-old still seethed at the idea that she was the one who had to be nit-picked at, she was the one put on trial for not complaining in the right words, when all she wanted to do was walk to the station in fucking peace.

The whole thing made her feel small, embarrassed and awkward, so she probably did put on an attitude to compensate.

At least now Lavinia was gradually growing into her looks and her style, shedding the puberty fat. It meant most of the street harassment could technically be interpreted as enthusiastic compliments. Not like two years ago. Sixteen, and on a family daytrip a bit further up the coast – ordinary but generally overpriced fish and chip shops and cafes along the sunny beachside esplanade.

Ah yes, who could forget that year? If Lavinia had been American maybe it would have been ‘Sweet’ Sixteen? But maybe that was just something in movies. In any case, for her it had meant fatter thighs, acne and a weird kink in her hair.

The previous year she’d been on her first overseas exchange trip – to Japan. And now, on this outing with her family, she’d decided to wear a dress she’d bought cheap with some pocket money back in Tokyo, Harajuku specifically, where she’d been out shopping with her host sister. It was a borderline cosplay of the sailor-style school uniforms for girls in Japan – much more fun than the boring uniforms she had to wear in Australia – and it had a short hem.

“Oi!” A loud, jeering voice sounded a little way across from her as she walked with her mum along the paved esplanade, carrying a cardboard tray of take-away coffees. In the corner of her eye she saw a man in board shorts, a t-shirt and sunglasses, standing beneath one of the navy blue outdoor umbrellas in front of the cafe they’d just come out of.

“Cover up ya fat slut!”

It was true her thighs were a bit fatter than they’d been before, and maybe the dress didn’t suit her that well either, at least technically. Maybe it was a bit weeb-y, for anyone who even knew that word. But who the fuck cared? She was just a kid, for god’s sake. The man who yelled at her, very conspicuously so everyone knew exactly who he meant, looked maybe about forty. But it was from a distance and what sixteen-year-old can really tell in detail anything above twenty-five or so?

The whole thing was humiliating and it cut the day short. It was awkward with that short hem, walking up the sharp incline of the hill to where the car was parked.

“This is why I told you not to wear that. Why do you have to do this to yourself?” Her mum grimaced as she walked alongside. Lavinia’s dad and younger brother were walking directly behind, snickering as she kept trying to tug down the hem over the most hideous part of her thighs. They hadn’t been there to hear the stranger scream the words ‘fat slut’, but they must have been aware something had happened to upset Lavinia, something to set off a teenage girl tantrum.

The snickering didn’t stop until Lavinia’s mum turned around and snapped irritably: “Enough already, she knows!”

Lavinia still couldn’t bring herself to speak. Why couldn’t they just read the room for once and at least stop walking directly behind her on that steep incline, where anyone could so easily get an accidental, and presumably grotesque, glimpse up her dress? The dress she had no business wearing and now felt silly and over-exposed in.

Amidst the self-loathing, guilt and embarrassment though, some part of Lavinia still managed to think: what about the forty-year-old bloke screaming sexually explicit abuse at a sixteen-year-old girl? Why doesn’t anyone get annoyed at him? Surely he has to be grosser than my thighs.

“Fuck off!” Lavinia turned and yelled at her brother and dad. But the male pair just looked at each other with humorous, knowing glances as if to say, “chicks…”

She carried the residual echo of that day ever since. She simply had to learn: protection whether you wanted it or not, but you don’t get to choose the terms. Somehow it felt like being a sports car, sitting in the garage while its owner one-sidedly negotiated deals for theft, vandalism and whatever-else insurance. Because it was a car. Why would you ask for a car’s thoughts on anything?

She didn’t want that to be her life.

***

Now at twenty-one, honours student and a committed member of the university’s karate club, she was starting to feel like at last she was finding her feet.

Although very recently there’d been a slight…hiccup, you could probably say.

A new guy had come and joined the club. He was maybe just a little bit odd and awkward, but nothing she’d thought much of at first. It was when he started the harassment and stalking, the groping her during drinks at the rooftop beer garden then throwing his drink in her face when she’d pushed him away, that she began seeing him as a problem. Of course, they’d all been a bit drunk that night at the beer garden and the drink in the face had just been an accident; the angry, baiting texts for days afterwards meant for someone else, clearly.

Lavinia was the uptight, superficial snob. The other, cooler girl, (Sarah?), who looks kind of like her said she’s a bitch too. See, it’s not just him. What the hell was she trying to prove taking a stupid old Louis Vuitton bag to drinks in Redfern anyway? She’d better stop being such a bitch if she wants boys to like her. He’ll be waiting for her after nighttime training, sometime next week, but he hasn’t decided what day…

Lavinia’s stomach turned, but then the sickly, churned contents started to simmer. She may have eventually caved and changed her walking route to the station when she was eighteen, but there was no way she was going to let this random creep just turn up and elbow her out of her own club; something she’d put so much sweat, blood, vomit, searing muscle pain, and self-actualising, borderline-masochistic determination into. The next day she filed an official complaint with the university – somewhat underwhelming and anti-climactic of an experience, but still.

And to people’s credit, they offered her lifts back to Central Station after night training, asked her if she was okay and if there was anything else they could do. She even got a few: “I thought he was a bit weird too”-s. The creep kept out of her way, with surprisingly little controversy, at least to her face. Eventually he faded out of the club altogether. But still for a little while after, Lavinia kept accepting lifts in the cars of those who drove, usually the same two or three people.

One night though, someone else made an offer, someone who up until now never had. Garry was a few years older than Lavinia, in a masters programme. He was one of those people who you never quite knew where you stood with, and who seemed convinced everyone should be concerned about where they stood with him to begin with. “Hey, I’ll give you a lift,” he waved her over, more of a directive than a suggestion, but he had his nice-guy voice on, so despite her gut, Lavinia complied.
She slung her sports bag onto the back seat then sat up the front next to Garry. At first no words were exchanged as they trundled down the dark streets of Annandale where the club had recently relocated for Monday nights due to the on-campus fitness centre being over-booked. Footpaths were lined with turn-of-the-century bare brick warehouses, motorbike shops and no-frills ethnic eateries that had been there for decades, now sharing with a consistent scattering of gentrified cafes and burger bars.

Inside the car was silence. Garry did this sometimes; called someone over only to then just sit mute, watching them squirm in the awkwardness of trying to work out what he wanted and whether or not they should already know. Lavinia unconsciously gripped the hem of her skirt, balling the fabric tightly in her fist. She knew what this was and she regretted her decision to get into his car. But no matter what, she refused to give him the satisfaction of being the one to break the silence.

Although it was dark, she could still make out his face, flashing intermittently into view for a few seconds at a time whenever they bypassed a streetlight. She saw the brief flicker of confusion in his eyes and the corners of his mouth twitching hesitantly. This clearly wasn’t going according to his plan and Lavinia relished in the satisfaction, even if it was destined to be only a small, short victory.

“So, you’ve been the topic of some of the club exec meetings…” Garry finally deigned to break the silence himself. He spoke in a soft, somber tone, as if delivering news to someone guilty and shameful, someone who needed to come clean already and stop causing so much unsightly mess. For all of Garry’s attitude, for all the clever subtlety he thought he had, for all the blank faces he pulled when he played dumb, there was still an overwhelming stench of sleaziness about him – like a glut of sewerage creeping up the pipes and oozing just a little bit over the drain grate in the shower or the kitchen sink.

“Look, you’re an attractive girl.”
Shit. He took her off guard with that one.

Lavinia was ashamed that she felt just a bit flattered and pushed the feeling down, hoping none of it had showed up on her face. At least it was still dark enough along the back roads heading towards Central Station.

“Will you let me tell you what I think?” Garry continued, the question, of course, being basically just a piece of arbitrary punctuation, leading into what he’d already decided was going to come next. “I think you have trouble relating to people. But I promise, you will find some close friends.”

What the hell?

A strange knot pulled itself tight in Lavinia’s stomach with a single, heavy-handed jolt. She felt the heat of her face flushing.

What the hell would you know?
I’ve definitely got more real friends than you, dickhead.

The words were in her head but they caught in her throat as she struggled to find her bearings in this bewildering situation in which she was a captive audience. She stared deliberately out the window, watching the grainy, shadowy outlines of terrace houses and shop-fronts go by. But Garry wasn’t about to stop. Clearly he’d rehearsed this.

“As a senior club member I have a responsibility to tell you that throwing tantrums isn’t a good look. Maybe the guy upset you, said something you didn’t like, I don’t know. But sensei and all us execs have enough on our plates without also having to deal with your personal problems.”

They were out on the main road now, middle lane, with lots of cars on either side. The lights of the CBD were small but discernable in the distance.

“Think of it this way,” Garry’s voice never rose. No sharp barbs or jutting edges. Just a consistent, unbroken flow that gently snuffed out anything else that tried to break its way in edgewise. “There’s really no such thing as gender equality,” he said. “But what we can do is create an environment of equality. That’s what sensei and male seniors in the club like me do for you girls, whether you recognise it or not. So I’d like you to try putting things into perspective and being a bit more mindful of how good you really have it.”

Could what Garry just said be true? Even just a little bit? The truth was she hated being a victim and honestly felt embarrassed to be the focus of any controversies, or even just mild annoyances for people. So maybe she should consider: had she exaggerated out of anger in the moment? It wasn’t as if she’d been dragged into an alley, pinned down and raped. Maybe she’d accidentally mislead by doing something that was meant as a recourse for actual victims. Yeah, the new guy had disturbed her, but she hadn’t been in active fear for her life or anything like that – it hadn’t occurred to her to be, at least not at that point.

Maybe she had really made it all up, just the way a bratty, superficial snob would.

They were getting close to the back end of Central Station by now, but to Lavinia the road felt like an endless treadmill, so close to the place where she could finally get out of this car, yet so excruciatingly far. Only the traffic surrounding them seemed to be going fast.

But still, Garry wasn’t done:

“You’re not entitled to anything. Not even to live. I could steer this car right into all that traffic in the left lane and kill you. It would be that easy.”

Wait, what?

The knot synched itself tight once again in Lavinia’s stomach. Was the air-conditioning on a really cold blast or was something else, something terrible, crawling all over her skin and tingeing her fingernails washed-out purple?

Discreetly she stretched her pinky finger out and hooked it under the door handle. Maybe she had enough physical strength and agility to roll out of the moving car, like in an action movie. In any case, she had reasonable confidence she could do it if she had to without dying, even if it meant getting scraped and possibly lacerated by the tar and gravel.

But when she made a little tug at the handle with her pinky, it was only to find the passenger door had been locked from the driver’s side. Garry’s hands drifted, maybe a centimetre, up off the wheel and Lavinia’s eyes widened…

Then the car stopped. They were parked at the back entrance to the station; yellow sandstone illuminated in the now stagnant, unmoving streetlights, and in contrast with the glass and stainless steel downward escalator that ran parallel to the original marble stairs. When Lavinia heard the dull, plastic-y sound of a lock on the passenger’s side finally click open she clambered straight out, almost forgetting her gym bag, which she grabbed at the last second with a hurried swipe of her arm into the back seat.

Garry sat stationary in the driver’s seat, face almost expressionless except for the corners of his lips, turned faintly upward in a look of calm satisfaction. “Homework,” he stopped her abruptly just as she made to close the door, now safely out of the car and with her gym bag slung over one shoulder. “Go over our conversation just now in your head and see if you can think about the concepts a bit more deeply. Make notes if you have to, and I’ll look over them if I have time.”

Lavinia just closed the door without a word and he drove off.

Descending the escalator into the station her head began to clear and all the things she should have said came flooding in. Why the hell did she just sit there and take that? Because he was threatening to kill her? Sort of?

Part of her considered whether the whole thing was something to go to the police over. Did what just happened actually count as anything though? Garry had probably been right in his own semi-incoherent, delusional and juvenile way – the guys were the ones still setting the terms. It had been that way when she was ‘fat slut’ at sixteen, and that way still when she was ‘uptight, superficial snob’ at eighteen. So why should now be any different?

Garry was still a dickhead though.

Katie-Rose Goto-Švić is a Croatian-Australian emerging writer living in Japan. She writes fiction in both English and Japanese. She studied a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences with an additional major in Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, and now works in business development for renewable energies. Her crime/psychological fiction manuscript ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’ was selected as a finalist for the 2021 Page Turner Writing Award. She also has a piece of prose about the treatment of words over social media, entitled ‘Ballad of the Preacher, the Poet and the Psycho’, scheduled for publication in the ‘New Contexts: 3’ anthology by Coverstory Books. 

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“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

exercise, Guest Posts, Humor

If Virginia Woolf Had a Peloton

June 15, 2022
Peloton

Last week at the New York Public Library I saw Virginia Woolf’s walking cane displayed among other artifacts of the literary world. The cane shows her to be a real person, who walked regularly and needed support.

I used to only think of her scribbling in a solitary room, and her call for other women to have “money and a room” in order to be creative thinkers. But she was also a person in motion, who sought the means to move independently, something as rare for the women of her era as a room of one’s own.

A dark brown curve of bamboo, the cane bolstered her after she wrote a note to her husband and headed to the Ouse river, picking up stones on the shore to fill her pockets, and then deciding to breathe water instead of air. Leonard Woolf found her cane floating in the river. It was all the evidence left until her body washed up three days later.

The cane was unremarkable. When my son leaned in to read the card about it, he quickly moved on. If it had been Tolkien’s, he might have lingered. At nineteen, he’s lucky not yet to need to think of frailty or ways to find stability in a rocky world.

Seeing the cane, I recognized my own search for a merger of movement and mental space. Lately, I find it on a bike that goes nowhere.

On my Peloton, I leave without leaving. I climb switchbacks in the Alps from a corner of my home that used to be part of the garage. Over the last five years, I’ve pounded away hundreds of miles without fear of falling or being smeared on the asphalt by a careless driver. I lose myself in the steady rotation, in the music, and often in the encouraging guidance of an instructor who gets me to push that little bit further. These wheels of my own give me an immense sense of freedom for something so stationary.

If Virginia Woolf had a Peloton, I started to imagine walking down the library’s massive steps, she could have let herself sweat. She’d have had a bike of her own to push back at the heavy world, one pedal stroke at a time. “An immense pressure is on me,” she wrote in The Waves. “I cannot move without dislodging the weight of centuries.” With a Peloton, she could have spun a fifty-pound wheel with her own two feet. She’d have watched the miles, and those burdensome centuries, roll off her shoulders with digital ease.

If Woolf had a Peloton, she would have ridden it in the room of her own she built onto Monk’s House, the sixteenth-century country cottage that was her escape from London. To her specifications, the room only had a door facing to the outside. So if she had a Peloton, she never would have disturbed Leonard if she rode without headphones and belted out “Minnie the Moocher” or crooned like Fred Astaire to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” during an Epic-Sing-Along ride.

Even with Woolf’s infirmities, she could have built up strength, starting slow with low-impact rides. After a time, she’d conquer high-intensity intervals and hill climbs. Perhaps she could have freed herself from that cane altogether, never allowing it to have been the vehicle that supported her on her way to the riverbank that day.

And if Woolf had a Peloton, the exercise endorphins could have mollified her moments of extreme self-doubt. Endorphins are far superior to the barbiturates and force-feeding she endured, a more natural balm for the horror she internalized. Some Woolf scholars claim she didn’t suffer from mental illness but that she failed to find a way to cope with a world gone mad or find a place of calm within it.

Any dispiriting feelings Woolf might have had of failure or mental exhaustion on a Peloton ride would end simply with calories burned rather than a conflagration of her soul. And she had so many possibilities for an awesome Peloton leaderboard name — ToTheFuckingLighthouse, WoolfWhistle, InSheepsClothing, WoolfPack, RedRidingWoolf.

Though she didn’t live to see it, I think Woolf would have found this bike that goes nowhere far preferable to a bike that goes somewhere. Though many of her peers likened the bicycle to an optimistic element of the modern world, Woolf called it one of the “common objects of daily prose” – along with her distaste for the ever-present, noisy and gas-belching omnibus. The bike was not fit for poetry, she chided.

Woolf preferred long walks. She only cycled to and from the train station for convenience.

But if the quotidian bicycle was too proletariat for the queen of the modernists, then surely she would have embraced the Peloton, with its four-figure price tag and its air of privilege. (One also needs a permanent residence, wifi, cycling shoes, and dare-I-say padded cycling shorts, the likes of which can cost a hundred bucks if one doesn’t want seams that chafe, and Woolf certainly would not have wanted seams that chafe). Even at the Peloton’s cost, Leonard could have supported it to save her from dangerous solo wanderings.

Peloton rides are both solitary – and not. I can be motivated to climb on the bike by the connection to a community of other cyclists doing the same thing in rooms across the globe and by the inspiration of a favorite instructor. But more often what keeps me pedaling is the quiet ability to listen to my breathing. I enter the roads of my mind, the miles spilling out like a Jackson Browne ballad.

I can ride full of joy, shaking my shoulders with Lizzo or swinging a sweaty ponytail to some throwback Van Halen. But in these last several years I am more likely to unburden the kind of raw emotion that sweat and adrenaline release. Freed from the cacophony of the other minutes in my day, and even from concern over balance itself, I let myself blubber on a tough hill climb to that song from the Pretenders that makes me ache for my dead mother in a way no other combination of chords can. When the song and the guided ride ends, I press down on the red lever to halt that fifty-pound wheel. I wipe my face, feeling stronger in all ways, and better able to consider Woolf’s challenge. We have to “face the fact,” she wrote, “for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone.”

I dare to counter that in our era we need rooms of our own and rooms of connection. And if we need to cling to an exercise machine – well, dammit, let’s cling. We need bikes that can carry us to trains to ride into the larger world – and ones that are stationary, that exercise the wheels of our psyche as much as our physique.

If Virginia Woolf had a Peloton, I think it could have been one small way to free herself from the cage of her mind and strengthen her body from the inside out. If I were her contemporary, we could have given each other Peloton high fives while riding intervals to swing tunes from Guy Lombardo or Bing Crosby. We could share in that particular freedom I find when I pedal furiously on a bike that carries me forward, even when it actually goes nowhere.

Deborah Claymon, a recovering business and technology journalist, is working to crack the code on her own fiction projects. She’s a reader for Zoetrope: All-Story and her work has been published in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Mercury News, Salon, Forbes, National Public Radio and more.

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“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Black Holes

June 12, 2022
light

My son and I stand on the driveway bundled in blankets and staring at the sky above us. It is the Blood Moon Eclipse. Astronomers tell us an event precisely like this has not been seen in 580 years. He set an alarm for 3:30am to watch it happen and opened the door of my bedroom to pull me from the edges of fuzzy sleep and stand here alongside him. Our feet are cold on the concrete, and we stand side by side. We are alone with no one else awake at this hour to watch. The edge of the moon is bright like a crescent, the rest of it shaded a deep red. I stare at the shadowed shape beyond nearly empty November branches. I let the silence settle around us, and “Wow!” is all he can say, eyes wide. “Mom, just look.”

My son is twelve and obsessed with all things science. He reads biographies of famous scientists, watches YouTube explanations of scientific concepts, and has his own laminated copy of the periodic table. Among this fascination for science lies an overwhelming attraction to the cosmos. The swirling galaxies of stars and planets, the little we know and the long list of things we don’t yet understand. I wake with him at 3:30 to see the eclipse because I have learned through his eyes to see the phenomena as he sees them, vast and mysterious and endlessly interesting.

I have a photo of my own father when he was my son’s age. Freckles scattered across his nose like stars, a chip on his tooth as he smiled, eyes shining through the veil of the glossy, sepia-toned paper and across the stretch of decades between this moment and that one. Like a scientist, I look for clues connecting his DNA with my son’s. Their eyes, their hair, their searching spirits stretching backwards and forwards and through the blurry hands of time. I wonder if the two of them can somehow find each other across the swirling cosmos.

We talk about the universe, the stars, the moon, and the space in between. At the dinner table, driving down the road, packing lunches, as we place piles of folded laundry where they belong. My son asks me what I think about these unknowns, explaining to me what he believes and the connections he makes between all of his reading and watching. Last year, his favorite topic was black holes. By the end of the summer, he knew more about them than I’d ever cared to know and would prattle endlessly at me explaining as I half-listened, getting lost in his wordy explanations and listings of facts. “Did you know, Mom, that black holes can be millions of times heavier than the sun? Black holes are born when a star dies and explodes on itself, and then the hole just grows bigger and bigger.”

I watch him grow bigger, too. His shoulders broaden and he grows taller everyday. I watch the baby cheeks fall off his face and the jaw become more defined. I watch him reading his science books in the living room with his long, bony legs folded up beside him on the couch. I watch him as he begins to understand sarcasm and laugh at the same jokes that I do and as he begins to spend more time alone. I watch the space between us change shape and become larger as he grows.

I chop vegetables at the kitchen counter while my son explains again the process of exploding stars creating black holes. I make piles of red peppers, onions, and tomatoes, organizing them in separate stacks, while he tells me about what cannot be categorized or fully understood. “Black holes are invisible,” he explains. “But scientists know they exist because they can bend light, and then in space, people can see the light around them.” He leaves me thinking about exploding light and expansive voids, and my imagination finds itself squarely back in 1986. My father, with his unexpected accident like an explosion on the constellation map of my life. His end wasn’t the slow fade of a long life well lived, but instead a human star eclipsed in a moment of cosmic surprise. Not a gradual end but an explosion of light like a firework, a flame folding in on itself over and over until you cannot see it anymore. A gravitational pull, my father’s short life has bent the light around it for decades so that I know it’s there even as it isn’t.

When I held my son for the first time, the veil was especially thin, though I wasn’t ready for it. A moment that felt heavier than the sun. Studying his face, which was entirely new to me but somehow also entirely known, the light bent around us. We fell into some place, the two of us, squarely in this hole that I have been swimming in and out of ever since, the place where I stand as a binding thread between a boy and the grandfather he never met. As my son grows through ages and phases, I swim with the current of what could have been, wondering what they’d think of each other, what they’d say if they were to meet.

Months ago, I took a quick snapshot of my son on the morning of his elementary school graduation. He wasn’t ready for the camera, so I didn’t get a posed smile but instead a glance somewhere beyond where I’m standing. He looks solid and true and squarely in the middle of that space between boyhood and manhood, galaxies before him and unknown paths ahead. My older cousin saw the photo and sent me a message. Wow. The first thing I thought about when looking at this photo is your father. I see traces of your dad in him here. I see him here. I just wanted to tell you that.

I swallowed the knot in my throat and did the exercise I have done a million times before, put their photos back-to-back in my phone camera roll and flip repeatedly between them. Dissecting the faces. Eyes, nose, hair, mouth. Nothing is precisely the same, yet there is something there, the star folding in on itself. He asks me, “Did you know black holes don’t even have a surface, but the gravitational pull is so powerful that nothing can escape it, not even light? It’s like they are just emptiness, but they are powerful.” And when he sees my concentration on something else or my thoughts far away, he’ll add, “Mom? Are you listening?”

I’m listening. My father is not here to see us standing on the driveway with our sleepy eyes and bed hair, huddled in blankets, staring at the shadowy moon. But then again, he is. The light bends in a way I can see with my heart if not my eyes. I have so few things of his, but I do have his old copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a work I cannot read cover to cover because it is as overwhelming to me as the cosmos. It tells me death is as sure for that which is born, as birth is for that which is dead. Exploding stars don’t return to nothingness.

There is so much I will never understand, both about the cosmos and the small and particular life I was given. As we stand on the driveway, bundled in blankets and staring at the sky above us, I marvel at the moon and the sun, the golden November leaves hanging on the branches, stars, fire, memory and time, the oldest trees, rolling mountains, the deep ocean, the infinite space in front of us, how small we are but these lives are all we know. Maybe my father is there somewhere, watching us across the stretch of space and time, or maybe instead he is right here in the space between us where the light bends. I feel my cold toes and folded arms, the weight of silence as we stare. I watch my son’s bony frame angled to the sky, his hair resting on his forehead, his searching eyes, the pull of empty space holding the whole universe together.

*this piece appeared previously in Braided Way Magazine

Katie Mitchell is an English teacher who lives in suburban Atlanta with her two children. Her work has previously appeared in Yellow Arrow Journal, The Appalachian Review, HerStry, Braided Way Magazine, and Huffington Post, among others. She is endlessly curious about the ways the natural world mirrors our internal landscape.  A seventh generation southerner, she is currently at work on a memoir about grief for both people and places that are long gone. You can find her occasionally on Twitter or Instagram @mamathereader.

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Have you pre-ordered Thrust


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Fiction, Guest Posts, Marriage

Detour

June 10, 2022
eyes

I leaned my bike against a rotting tree colored with chalky gray lines and walked along the high blond grass and thick weeds that carpeted the land. With my Nikon, I snapped a shot of the tree. I loved the curiosity that photography unveiled. I had just biked around Lake Waramaug, taking in the sparkling water, the well-manicured lawns and large mansions, the red-painted farmhouses with their attending cows and horses grazing, the empty Adirondack chairs  – some wood, some colorful green or red plastic – lounging on the front lawns.  The docks that held kayaks, canoes, oars, a trampoline in the water nearby, yellow and purple wildflower fields that held the promise of joy.  Everything so pretty and tidy, and then I noticed an old-looking, dilapidated gray wooden barn that stood out in its austerity, its tiredness.  It was set back and surrounded by tall grass, but not the ornamental, landscaped kind that grew on some of the other properties.  Why was this barn here?  Without my camera, I wouldn’t have seen it.

I was finally doing this again: focusing on my photography. I hadn’t taken pictures in years. When I gave birth to my oldest child, I swapped taking candid shots of people and birds in Central Park for close ups of my daughter’s face, her eyes, feet, and hands. It felt more worthy of my time. And I didn’t have to get a sitter.  But over time, as my kids grew older, my Nikon gathered dust on the top shelf of the closet, behind my old hats and pocketbooks.  Having a free summer without work when my three girls preferred their friends’ company over mine was the perfect opportunity to get back to photography. And David went to work that day; I was finally alone.

I walked along the tall grass that led to the barn.  Foxtail grass and dandelions were scattered throughout.  I listened to the cicadas sing.  I breathed in the scent of honeysuckle and asked myself — for the 100th time— why I never plant them.  The barn had a rusty tin roof; I snapped a few shots of it.   It was nice to finally dream again.  That’s how I felt when I took pictures – like I was in a dream, fully sensing my surroundings without being distracted by my to-do list, my daily worries and concerns.

The door to the barn had a brass padlock that looked ancient.  I snapped shots of the padlock and hung the camera’s strap around my neck. I wondered if I should go in.

Snapping pictures reminded me of Brian – Professor Walden. I tried to push him from my mind. Brian was my photography professor from college on whom I had had a crush.   He was smart, confident, unabashed.  He had tried to give me direction when I was a senior feeling lost with my impending graduation.  I knew he liked me, and I was attracted to him. But afraid of him too.  He was sure of himself and unafraid. He knew who he was when I was lost.  My mind drifted back to that spring afternoon when we reviewed my portfolio. He said how much he liked my photo of a sunset: my favorite photo.  I had waited many long minutes for the orange and yellow to blend into a burnt pink.  I took hundreds of shots until it was ripe. Just the right pink.  I cared. When I had never truly cared about my studies.  I studied because it was what you did.  I made good grades so I could make good grades, get a good job. Whatever that meant.  I just kept going without stopping to think or care. But I loved photography. He saw my work; he got it.  When we looked at the photograph together, me leaning in to see it better, he touched my arm as he emphasized the beauty of the photo’s lighting. And he left his hand there.  I didn’t want him to move it.

He asked me to join him for a hike in New Paltz the following morning. It was supposed to be a beautiful day. Told me to meet him where he parked his car on Broadway at 9:00 a.m.   But my fear took over. It felt like a foregone conclusion.  I wasn’t the type to sleep with my professor. I was a straight, good, responsible girl.  It was flattering, of course. But really!  So I never showed. I stopped visiting him during office hours.  After a couple of weeks, I regretted it, but it felt too late.  Like I had dimmed a light switch that then became stuck. Now, sometimes when I felt conventional and dull, a typical suburban middle-aged mom, I imagined the scandal we could have caused, my friends reactions, the whispers and stares, my parents shock that I was dating someone their age, the inevitable hurt feelings and insulted egos to the guys my age with whom I hung out.  What if I would have just let go and fought the fear? That nauseating lump in my throat that guided most of my decisions. What would have happened?  Where would I be?  Who would I be?

I approached the barn door, and it dared me to enter.  “Real photographers take chances,” Brian had said to me when I marveled at the danger some photographers endured to capture the perfect shot:  a tiger’s teeth, the 100 – foot waves in a hurricane, a Colorado avalanche.   Now, my life was so safe, hardly risky at all.  What types of shots would I capture in my suburban town with its manicured quarter- acre lots?

The padlock was not locked.  No voices behind the door.  The rough wood splintered my finger as the door creaked open.  The barn’s single room smelled musky, mildewed, with a hint of lavender. Light streamed through an open window. A mattress with a single blanket and pillow lay on the floor, and a battery-operated fan and a box of tissues sat next to it. A wooden table and chair stood in the middle of the room.  Someone had placed a bowl of blueberries on the table. I took several shots of the blueberries’ cloudy coating, a close up of the grains of wood on the table.

To be behind the lens – to be the one looking out – also jived with my new sense of being unseen, invisible. Over the last couple of years, my attractiveness had faded.  First with the few gray hairs that sprouted at my roots, shining with their defiance. Then, slowly with the extra weight I put on around my stomach, despite my daily exercise.  But it really hit me when I stopped getting catcalls while walking in Manhattan past construction crews.  A final hit of reality came when my male students looked right past me without the slightest bit of flicker in their eyes.  That was a big change from my early teaching days when one of my students casually placed a DVD of “The Graduate,” at the edge of his desk on top of his textbook, daring me to acknowledge it.  When I would keep my door open during conferences with male students just in case.  At first this change sucked. I didn’t know who I was without my looks – something that had been a big part of my identity since I was about thirteen.  Not until my beauty dissipated did I realize how men had favored me and treated me well. From the clerks at the checkout counter to my colleagues at work to the dads from my kids’ soccer games.  But a part of me embraced this shift. Liberated and safe, I could do whatever I wanted without asking for trouble, being a tease, leading someone on. I was almost invisible in this new identity.

I sat on the floor and leaned against the wall, the silence enveloping me.  Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. The sun hit my chest and warmed me.  A peacefulness settled. I could stay there forever. There were berries and a place to sleep, shelter should it rain. Who lived here?  I couldn’t remember the last time I just sat and listened.  Always running. . . .   I drifted off to sleep.

“Who are you?!” I jumped from surprise, and my heart raced.  I stood up.

A man stood above me. His brown, grayish hair was long, hanging until his chin. He was barefoot and wore a white undershirt and blue jeans.

“I’m Janet. Janet. I was biking around the area, taking photographs, and was curious about the farm, I mean the barn.”

“Well, I live here,” he said as he sat on a lawn chair in the corner of the room.  He took a leash off a white fluffy dog, who approached me and began to sniff my groin.  I pushed her away.

“I’m sorry.  To have just come in.” I fidgeted with my watch. I looked back at the door, ready to dart out. But my legs didn’t follow.

I noticed there was an Atlantic magazine on the floor near the chair. He wore black wire reading glasses. I stared at him for a minute and felt calm in his presence even though I should have been afraid.  For some reason, I was not, just intrigued. Who was he?  How on earth did he pull this off?   There were several books on the floor next to his chair. A biography on FDR, a collection of works by William Faulkner, a “Spanish for Dummies.”  Several newspapers also rested on the floor, a Litchfield Review’, a N.Y. Times.  The pages looked puffy, like they had been leafed through, touched, read, and reread. Next to the newspapers was a battery-operated radio. There were no outlets, lamps or other sign of electricity.

“I’m  . . . I’m Janet Sullivan. From Westchester.  I love the area and was biking around. I used to  . . . rent a house here in the summer when I lived in the city.” I was talking too fast, sounding too guilty.

“You mean Manhattan?”

“Yes,” I laughed.

“Why do we all do that, call Manhattan the city, like there are no others?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true. Um . . . Did you spend time in the city?,” I asked.

“I didn’t spend my entire life in this dilapidated barn if that’s what you’re asking me.”

“No, I didn’t mean. . . ,” My palms felt damp.

“I did live in Manhattan for five years, then it got too expensive for me, so. . . “ he shrugged.

“Yes, us too.” I forced a laugh.

“You have a family?”

“Yes, I’m married with three kids.”

“Nice. That’s the right thing to be when you’re young.”

Another forced laugh.

“Take a seat,” he said and pointed to a folding chair next to him.

Sitting felt like too much.  I glanced at the door, and I knew I could just walk out, get on my bike, and never come back to this place again.  But the danger enticed me, made me dizzy.

Seriously.  Make yourself comfortable.”

The tone of his voice—daring me to just let go—reminded me of Brian.  I was back on a field trip my photography class took to an urban farm where they grew citrus fruits. There were ripe lemons and limes at the near part of the garden, and the group of students all took  close-ups of them. I noticed a single small, blooming, bright orange on a tree at the far side of the garden.

“Go ahead. Focus on what catches your eye, on what attracts you the most,” Brian said.

There was no clear path to the orange tree, and tractors were parked in front of it, blocking my chance for a close-up.

“But, how—”

“Just try to get as close as you can then zoom in on it.”

I walked ahead, scratching my legs against the tall vines.  I jumped over some shovels, stopped just in front of the tractors, and zoomed in on the stray dangling orange burst.  It was the best photograph I’d ever taken.

Now, the metal seat felt cold against my butt. I didn’t know what to do with my hands.

“What do you do?”  I wished I hadn’t asked that. I didn’t even care.

“Well, I was a lawyer for many years, and now I’m reading and walking and not spending money, but existing.  I robbed a bank a while ago, so I have enough money.”  He folded his arms.

I studied his face. He wasn’t smiling, and he looked me in the eyes.

“You’re kidding.”

“No.  How about you?”

“I’m a teacher. Sixth Grade.”

“Well, that’s noble.”

I couldn’t imagine him with a past or a future.  He just was.  He had deep laugh lines around his eyes and wrinkles around his mouth. His hair looked a little greasy and his clothes looked soft and faded, like they had been washed hundreds of times.  He had light blue eyes.

“Want to take a walk? My dog needs lots of exercise or she gets restless and jumpy.”

I recalled my failure of nerve with Professor Walden.  The nagging regret.

“That would be great.”

His dog was resting on her belly, her paws spread out in front of her. She looked at me, and I smiled at her and looked away. When I glanced back, she was still looking at me.

“I’m Jon.” He put out his hand to shake mine. His hand was rough and warm.

He got up and put the leash on the dog. I followed him outside the back of the house to the yard that led to a path in the woods.  It felt like a dream, an alternate world I had created only in my mind.  Despite the shade from the trees, the path grew lighter. Colors were brighter:  the yellow dandelions looked neon; the pale blue sky was now turquoise.

We walked along the path, the dog sniffing something on the ground every couple of yards. After a few minutes of silence, I aimed my camera to snap a shot of Jon against the backdrop of these bright woods.

“Hey!  What are you doing?  Stop that. I don’t want anyone taking my picture.”

I jumped from his shout and awoke from my dream. The colors faded.

“Let me ask you something. How did you get the guts to just barge into an empty house?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t  . . . ”

“I guess you felt it couldn’t matter too much. Nobody too threatening can be in a dilapidated house. Not in this neighborhood with its fancy homes and lawns.”

Something inside me said to run.  But Jon smiled at me, and it didn’t feel like a threat. His blue eyes were kind, the eyes of someone who might appear to be brusque, but was good inside.

“Listen, honey. You don’t know me. But you took a risk.”

“I guess I did,” I said as I forced a smile.

He spoke louder. “You sure as hell did. There are crazies everywhere you turn. But you weren’t afraid. You burst into my house.”

Should I leave?  Was I dramatic in thinking I might be in trouble?

“So, what are you looking for?  Most people don’t just do what you did. What’s missing in your life?”

He stopped and stared at me.  I’ve seen many movies where you want to scream at the stupid girl to run away.  But I wasn’t afraid. I could stay with him in the woods forever and be okay.  I wasn’t attracted to him, but I wanted to be near him.  He was the alternate door, the one I usually avoided.  And who knew what was beyond this door?  How much adventure and excitement I might have been avoiding all this time?

“Maybe purpose, meaning. I feel . . . less relevant.”

“Why?”

“My kids are growing up fast. They don’t need me so much anymore.”

“Why does that matter? Being needed sounds like a burden to me.”

I thought about that question. Why does it matter?  Why does being needed feel so satisfying?  Why, when I think back to when my girls were little, all the snotty noses, dirty diapers, and tear-streaked faces, do I feel so tender towards my children and my old role?  Full and content.  Now, an emptiness.

“I don’t know . . . I guess it’s been my role for a while. Part of my identity. And I’m getting old. I feel I’m changing.”

“A reverse metamorphosis? . . . But look where you are!” He waved his arms up and around.

The smell of wet leaves filled my nostrils.  Tiny bugs flew in front of my face, and it was cooler in the woods.  Damp. No passing cars or voices.  It was a silence I had not heard in so long. The absence of noise like cell phone notifications, phone rings, the humming of air conditioning, distant trucks, beeping cars, sirens. I was finally away from it all.  I just was. I was simply existing.

He stepped closer, and a crooked grin spread on his face, enhancing the deep wrinkles in his cheeks.  A nakedness in his eyes made him look lost. I wanted to hug him.

He leaned into me and kissed my lips, mouth closed, his lips like peeling paint, like he needed to put on Vaseline. His scruff felt like steel wool against my sensitive skin. Still, I told myself, this is happening, I’m kissing another man.   I really wanted to be into it, aroused.   But I wasn’t.  It was just awkward, kissing this old, washed-up guy in the middle of nowhere.

My husband David didn’t even glance away from the T.V. or his phone when I undressed at night.  He hadn’t initiated sex in months.

“You are a beautiful woman. You ought to know that.”

He moved a strand of hair out of my eyes.  It all felt like a movie or a soap opera.  But a bad one that you fall asleep to.  I felt I could almost laugh aloud at the predictability of his comments.

“What a gift you are. What a nice surprise,” he continued.

I wanted to leave right then.  I felt nothing, but a little repulsion mixed with a tiny bit of flattery.

I forced a smile. “Thank you.”

“Are you okay?  You seem . . .  not.”

“No. I am. Just . . . I’m wondering if I should call home and check in.” I started to take my phone out of my leggings’ pocket.

“Well, you won’t get cell service here.” He laughed.

He stroked my cheek with his warm hands, and it comforted me, like everything was going to be okay.  He smelled surprisingly nice. Like soap.

He tried to kiss me again, but I flinched.

“What’s happening here?”

“I don’t know. Let’s just  . . . .  I’m just getting tired. That’s all.”

He sighed and shrugged. The birds chirped around us.  He looked up at the trees, the sky.

And then, with an abundance of energy and some resolve, he spoke with what sounded like forced good cheer.

“Okay, well, let’s pick berries.  You can take some home with you. A souvenir of your day. Your detour from the grind.”  He patted my arm.

I followed him. “Okay, great. Thanks.  Um. . . how do you know which berries are edible and not poisonous?”

“By the color and surrounding plants. These are okay,” he said and pointed to a nearby bush with small red berries.

I picked a berry off and put it in my mouth. It tasted tart, maybe a bit unripe.

“Good?”

“Yes.”

He looked at me as if he was daring me to eat more. I picked a few more berries and popped them in my mouth.  He laughed aloud.

“What’s funny?” I asked.

“Life. This. You woke up today not knowing you’d be snacking on berries with a stranger and his dog in the woods. And you’re here. Aint life grand?”

We walked in silence for a few minutes. I followed his lead.  It was so quiet, nothing but the sound of our sneakers hitting the ground. Some birds chirping.

“So, do you like living out here?”

“Yes, I do. That’s why I’m here.” He turned around and smiled, but not kindly.

“It’s peaceful, free. Incredible really,” I said.

“It is, isn’t it?”  Something had shifted.

“Yeah, no burdens or responsibilities,” I added.

My stomach felt queasy, and I was dizzy. Sweat dripped down my forehead.  As we walked, I tried not to focus on the rumbling in my stomach, the nausea.  But it quickly became unbearable.

“I feel like I’m about to throw up. I’m going to find a private spot.” It was hard to get the words out.

“Ah, sure.  We’ll promise not to peek,” he said with a wink.

I ran ahead and vomited behind a bush.  The berries came up in a red paste.  Again. I fell to the ground.  I heard light steps approaching. The dog was running toward me, barking, like it was trying to tell me something. I wanted privacy and still felt nauseous.  I wasn’t yet done. But I pulled myself up and followed the dog.

Jon was laying off the path with his eyes closed, resting his hands against the back of his head.

“Peaceful out here,” he said. “Your stomach still bothering you?”  There was an edge to his voice.

“Yes.”

“It’s probably just the berries. I thought they were okay, but I may have been wrong.”

“What?”

He looked at me sharply.  “Don’t worry about it. Worst case, you’ll keep vomiting it out.  This will pass.”

“Shit.  You said the berries were fine!”

“I know. I thought so. They might be.  Now I’m a little tired. Just like you.”  He winked at me and smiled as he closed his eyes.

A hot wave of nausea hit me, and my face burned.  I needed a cold compress, like I used to give my girls when they were sick.  They would lay there with the washcloth on their heads as I held their hands.  So precious when they were little. Their skin and hair so soft, their eyes wide.  Couldn’t get enough of me. The light broke through the trees, and I noticed how beautiful it looked hitting the green leaf, how the leaf turned light, like a piece of lime.  I lay down and rested my head on a nearby tree stump to admire the light some more.  The light flickered in and out, and each time the leaves brightened up from the sun, so beautiful. I told myself to hold onto this moment and remember it. It kept flickering.  I drifted off to sleep, mesmerized by the lime.

Then footsteps on the fallen leaves near me.

“Sweet Dreams.”  It sounded like Jon.

Wait, I wanted to say.  But I was too weak to speak.

A dog barking, more lime, churning stomach. Dog barking louder. Louder. The footsteps moved further away.

My body was limp and the acid from the vomit burned my throat.  I could fall asleep and disappear, feel nothing forever. I lay there, my stomach gurgling, my heart pounding.  I stared at the limelight.  And then I smelled the tree stump against which my head rested.  Wood mixed with soil.  The smell of Time.

They say the rings in the bark of a tree tell its age.  The thick tree stump that supported my head had witnessed generations of people, their joys and woes. Thunderstorms and droughts. Its thickness was its strength. I had to get thicker. I was not done.  I willed my gurgling stomach to stop.  I had to stand up to get thicker.

First, I sat up and stared at the top of the trees to steady myself.  I couldn’t be too far into the woods.  I only had to get to the street, flag down a car, get reception on my phone to call for help.  My camera—I must have taken it off before laying down—was on the ground just out of my reach.  It suddenly appeared much larger than it had been, and its metal glittered in the sun. I leaned forward and grabbed it with all the strength I could muster.   I dragged myself up and shuffled to the direction of the barn. I worried Jon would see me, but it was the only way I knew to get out.  My legs moved ahead without asking for my permission. My reliable, thickening body would get me out of here. My legs that walked three miles a day, that drove me here and then biked here, my stomach that nourished me, my womb that carried my babies, my breasts that fed them, my hands that gripped and grabbed and wrote and held and carried and worked and played.  My body would get me out of here. Back to Time.

Tamar Gribetz’s short stories have appeared in The Hunger, Rumble Fish Quarterly, Poetica Magazine, and Manifest Station. Tamar teaches writing and advocacy at Pace Law, where she also serves as the Writing Specialist. She lives in Westchester, New York, where she is at work on other short fiction and a novel.

***

Have you ordered Thrust yet? 


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, memories

April and Eternity

June 8, 2022
tom

At the water aerobics class where I follow my doctor’s orders for low-impact cardio, the instructor plays music we used to dance to, the beats perfect now for my aging limbs.  “I Ran (So Far Away),” blares while we do a Suntan-Superman reaching out on our backs and then flipping to our stomachs, working arms and abs while splashing chlorinated water, salty from the ocean breeze. I remember back when you and I tried to find hidden meaning in the lyrics, stretching our minds beyond our South Phoenix neighborhood and parochial school education.

“Were they really saying, Iran’s so far away?” we asked each other.

In the hormonal, smokey and boozy haze of those years we were also figuring out that we didn’t belong together.

René, I remember your powder blue Chevy truck, the front seat long and vinyl, unsectioned so I could slide in the middle of the three of us, you, Michael and me, sometimes Tom too, my college brothers taking me out every Saturday night. You showed off your new sound system, turning up the thumping New Wave until we couldn’t tell the music from the outside traffic as we glided along Mill Avenue, next to the sprawling university that occupied our lives then. The music and the weed we smoked lifted us into our own planet. A blaring siren made us jerk our heads around as if the cops were pulling us over, but it was the sound that enveloped us, time-traveling in your truck.

I’d gotten so drunk at one party and tried to take a boy home with me, but you and Tom hid my purse so I couldn’t leave. You had heard this boy talking about me by the keg, anticipating the night he would’ve had if not for you, you and Tom. I hated you and loved you like the brothers I needed then.

I only wanted that boy that night to show Tom I didn’t care that he fell hard in love with my roommate, the petite and serious Janis, who shared her mother’s care packages from Hawaii with me. The smoked eel came in tins with a key to fold open. Janis would spoon steamed white rice into bowls, add the eels and sprinkle sesame seeds on top. We ate it with chopsticks, which she taught me to use. There were also boxes of macadamias, something I’d never tasted, covered in chocolate. Janis laughed when she saw me one day squeezing out every last bit of toothpaste from the tube. She had never brushed with baking soda.

After I introduced her to Tom, he didn’t see me anymore. Their blossoming took over our apartment, fragrant and wild. My escape was extra work hours, not for the money, well, always for the money, but to spare me their vibrancy and happiness.

That party, where I got drunk and you hid my purse, that was when I knew you would never want me either. Why it all came to me that night, I don’t remember all the details now. You asked me, as I tried awkwardly to put my arms around you, “What are you doing?” You stopped me and my breath left me. You would never want me like I needed you to then.

We kept our friendship, you and I. Of course we did. We had known each other since fifth grade, when we hid from the nuns behind oleander bushes in the playground at St. Catherine’s. We always thought we were in trouble, a symptom of our guilty consciences from having too much fun when we should have been suffering. Or praying.

We kept our friendship through college as we worked our way into our futures, sharing an  apartment one year until I got a summer internship in Tucson and you felt abandoned. I should have given more notice, but I didn’t know how things were supposed to work then. I was still learning and I knew you wouldn’t stay mad at me forever.

One year later, after college and in our adult jobs, I was living in Colorado and you bought your first house. You stopped returning my calls and ignored my letters. I didn’t know it then but you’d done that with all our friends. You’d gone deep into your secret life, the one I had one hint about when we were still at ASU, when you got arrested late one night in downtown Phoenix. You told me and Michael about it, a weed-induced confession but then you said you never wanted to talk about it again.

After another year had gone by, still in our adult jobs, you called one morning. I was at my job at a small newspaper in a small town where I’d moved not knowing anyone, like a rattlesnake that sheds its entire skin, leaving room for the new. I wrote about schools, sometimes police and courts and really everything else too. It had been so long since I heard your voice, so immersed in this new job and life, that when you said my name, it took me a few seconds to connect it to you, my long-lost friend.

“René?” I asked. “Who died?”

And then, no joke, you told me about the plane crash.

Phones rang in the busy newsroom as deadlines loomed, but the pinprick of an image of Tom falling from the sky shaded my vision. The news of the crash had already run on our front page, but I didn’t know any of the passengers then, not until you called and told me I did. Snot ran down my mouth and tears soaked my blouse as I printed out the passenger list of the Northwest Airlines flight. And there he was, our beautiful Tom Barberio.

I went to stay with Janis where she was living in LA after Tom’s funeral. They’d gotten engaged after I lost touch. Now, just a month after his death, she had started to see him in other men until the poor suckers fell in love and couldn’t be Tom for her anymore. She believed that Tom was guiding men to her, loving her from beyond. I tried gently to bring her back to the permanent reality of his death. I felt like the lowest creature in the desert, a red ant crawling for miles carrying a dead leaf only to be thwarted by a gust of wind, or a human.

“Tom’s dead.”

I felt a sliver of selfish relief that he had not fallen in love with me after all but instead chose her. My grief couldn’t come close to hers.

I heard she moved back to the island, abandoned her graphic design practice and became a teacher, Tom’s passion.

Five years ago, René, you told me you’d die on April Fool’s Day and I thought you were telling me something you already knew. It was one of those things you used to say at the end of our long talks when I’d visit Phoenix from wherever I was living, Tucson, Los Angeles, Long Beach. You’d say it casually, sometimes waving your hands, like swatting a gnat.

You came to my father’s funeral and my eyes widened suddenly when I saw your normally full, round face was now gaunt, skin sagging at the jowls and gray. Your eyes seemed tired but you told me it was nothing to worry about.

But then I learned you had multiple diagnoses, so far gone on the cancer stages and another diagnosis that was too far along. Throw HIV in there as well. Why not?

It was September when you talked about dying and April and Eternity were so far away but the following spring you kept your promise.

And now you’re gone too. You and Tom, my college brothers who made wild poses for my 35 mm camera like runway models on our balcony as I slid the film with my thumb to the next frame and the next, holding steady through my belly laughs. Your secret is no longer a secret to those who loved you and who flamed near the light that was you all those years ago.

This morning, once again in the pool, a mallard, his head more deep purple than green, flew onto the pool deck and plopped into one of the swimlanes with his plain Jane brown and gray partner, delighting the whole class.

The instructor wasn’t distracted. “Now do crunches with a twist!” she ordered while we watched the pair pick at each other and then climb over a lane divider, then another and another. I turned to them as they swam, flailing my arms and legs in the cool deep, the sun beaming through clouds, my heart racing up to the aurora that you created, a swirl of another life that you left for me all those years ago.

Mary Anne Perez has worked at newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and California as a reporter and edited websites. In the last four years she has written freelance articles for local newspapers and did a short stint interpreting legal recordings for an attorney. She is currently working on a family memoir, and other creative endeavors, including a fairy tale.

***

Have you pre-ordered Thrust yet? 


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Abuse, Guest Posts

The Adults We Couldn’t Trust

June 5, 2022
sex

I spent the spring of 2020 sewing masks when I was supposed to be teaching teenagers to resist sexual coercion.

Feeling immobile and useless, I would have done anything that seemed like helping.  I learned to make masks from an online video. In it, the smiling CFO of a hospital chain in the Midwest shows us how to stitch two six-by-nine pieces of cotton together and make pleats so the mask follows the shape of a face. There’s a man in the video whose only job, it seems, is to ask what she’s doing at each step of the process and express his approval. The CFO sounds happier than a person who works in a hospital should be. I imagine people on ventilators just down the hall. Her perfect pleats and bright patterned fabric are ridiculous. And comforting.

***

I teach self-defense. I missed the groups of teenage girls who came in expecting to fight off a creepy stranger with kicks and punches out of an action movie. Instead we’d teach them to resist coercion and assault from a guy they know and like. My co-instructor, a man dressed in 50 pounds of protective gear, would portray that guy—the one at the party who invited her to go somewhere quiet. To listen to music, he said. All night he made her feel special, getting her drinks, ignoring other girls’ flirtations.

But when they get to the upstairs bedroom, all he wants is sex. He’s charming the first time she refuses. Telling her she’s beautiful, and it’s not a big deal. When she refuses again, he yells. He could have any girl at the party, and why did she make him waste his time? We teach her to get up to leave. He blocks the door and grabs her wrist. We teach her to break the grip; to yell, “Let me leave!”; to strike the head or groin.

My co-instructor’s protective gear makes it possible for students to practice defending themselves by striking him with as much power as their bodies have. He is trained to portray that guy, every coercive word and gesture, every abusive rant. That way she our students feel scared or angry or immobile in all the ways they would if this party were real, and they learn to access their power in the midst of all those feelings.

***

Instead of telling hard truths I spent most of 2020 piercing my fingers with straight pins, taking seventeen tries to thread a needle. Every part of the process is tedious. Lining up the fabric, stitching around the edges. Still, making something out of thread and fabric reminds me of home. My grandmother sewed. My mother made needlepoint pillows. Every stitch was as tight as the clench of her jaw when my father made an inappropriate joke.

I haven’t sewn since I was in high school and on costume crew for the fall musical. I joined because I didn’t get cast, and that’s what all my friends who didn’t get cast were doing. We met in the basement below the auditorium. We sat in a tight circle and talked about how not to get caught sneaking out of your bedroom, or the tragedy of having small breasts. About how pretty I would be if I let one of them do my hair and makeup. But mostly the girls on costume crew talked about sex. About what they would and wouldn’t let their boyfriends do. About giving hand jobs to theater guys who took forever to get excited, guys I now realize were probably gay. The intimacy almost made up for not being upstairs with the kids who did get cast.

One day, in an isolated corner of the basement, a girl who was blonde and pretty told me and she’d been raped by a family friend. She didn’t tell her parents. They were already disappointed in her. There was no adult at school that any of us thought we could tell. All the adults ever wanted to talk to us about was drugs. And they loved to talk to us about drugs. They showed us film strips about teenagers who thought they were just experimenting but wound up ruining their lives. They held all-school assemblies where recovering addicts spoke to us, as if living embodiments of ruined lives would hit us harder than the films. There was a counselor whose job it was to pull kids out of class and tell them not to be influenced by their peer groups. Though the football team was using as many drugs as anyone else, she only came for the kids who wore all black and listened to punk bands.

It wasn’t true that they never talked to us about violence, but violence was for poor people—and the poor people in our imaginations were almost always Black. We read The Color Purple, and no white teacher helped us untangle Blackness and poverty from rape. From their silences we learned that violations like rape lived in the parts of the city our parents wouldn’t let us visit.

***

Some of the scenarios we teach begin with girls lying on the gym floor, as if they’re sleeping. My co-instructor pins their arms. With some, he plays an ex-boyfriend who insists she owes him sex. With others it’s an acquaintance, drunk, not stopping when she tells him she wants to sleep. I kneel at each girl’s head, talking over the verbal abuse. I remind each girl to breathe, to focus on finding a way out. In order for this assault to proceed, he has to move bed sheets or clothes. In each of those moments, she could get a hand or foot free, and use it to strike a vulnerable part of his body.

They can do it in a classroom. Pretending to sleep on a wrestling mat, other girls cheering for them the minute they start fighting back. But using your body to stop another person from harming you is a complicated calculation, especially for a teenage girl. When the difference between intimacy and violence is not as stark as it’s supposed to be, most people are left with painful choices. “If it was a boyfriend or a family member, I would feel bad about hurting them,” one girl wrote in response to an anonymous survey of students who had taken our class. “The idea of hurting someone you love is difficult. It’s kind of sad if you think about it because someone I love is hurting me,” wrote another. In that same survey, one young woman responded that she slapped her now-ex-boyfriend in the groin after he didn’t stop when she said no.

 ***

In high school I was the confidant of girls who were having sex, living vicariously through the blow jobs they gave or hated. I loved getting to be part of someone’s erotic life without the pressure of having one of my own. It was disappointing not to be desired, but also a relief. I didn’t have to balance my own wants with those of a boy who’d been taught all his life to be entitled. I didn’t have to listen for the sound of a garage door, and then rush to throw on enough clothes to fool a parent into thinking we’d been watching TV.

I worked hard to avoid the reality of my body. I wore mismatched socks and loud patterned clothes that were always a few sizes too big. One day I wore a Kleenex box on my head. Another day, a toy sailboat. The fact that I’d declared war on my body went unnoticed, because my rage was expressed with mismatched floral patterns. My clothes were my protest. Or they were my strategy for how to feel special without getting the kind of attention that could lead to sex.

My mother, who followed most rules, always told me she was proud of me when I left the house. Some mornings, at the kitchen table, I saw tears she could not completely stifle, as she told me how glad she was that I had the courage to be myself. I didn’t know who that self was any better than any other teenager, but because I was voluntarily different, most adults assumed I did.

Every bright green tutu I wore took me further away from having to become a sexual being. When I did fall in love, it was always the same drama. The boy never loved me back. He was distant and unkind, but only because he was so tortured. Sometimes I was his confidant, the only person he could trust with his suburban teenage demons. Eventually he’d start dating another girl, someone thinner than me, with shinier hair and better makeup. He’d ignore me until they had a fight. Then, he’d call me at a too-late hour to tell me that I was the only one who understood him.

***

There were too many things we called sex when I was a teenager. One of my friends cried hard the Monday after her first time. Her hip-length hair was oily, her whole body smelled like bad breath. She wore a sweater a couple sizes too big, though it was almost summer. She pulled me into a stairwell. Her whole body shook as she told me that her boyfriend wanted it but she didn’t. He was thick and tall, and he heaved and sweated on top of her as she lay pinned to a couch. Her mother had found out, and told her she was selfish. A pregnant teenager would ruin her father’s career, and how could she be so careless?

I couldn’t believe how white and weak my friend looked. She, the most outspoken girl I knew. She played  the lead in the spring play and didn’t care that she intimidated her co-star. She was my protector too. In the hallways, when kids mocked me for my outfits, she yelled at them to shut up.

***

I had only one boyfriend in high school, and our relationship lasted three weeks. He called every night and asked me questions about myself. At a cast party in someone’s parents’ basement, he tongue kissed me. I opened and closed my mouth, trying to follow the rhythm of his lips. I felt like I had no choice but to kiss, though nobody forced me. And maybe he could tell that everything but the shell of my body was gone. And maybe that’s why he didn’t try to touch me anywhere else.

***

I have a special kind of anger toward men who give women safety advice that has no basis in evidence. I have a special kind of disappointment, too, in women who fill up the seats at lectures given by these men. Who nod solemnly as the man, who is usually a police officer, tells a packed classroom that if we get attacked it’s because we weren’t being smart.

Here are some examples of the advice these men give: If you live alone, put a pair of men’s boots outside your back door. Do not change clothes in front of an open window. Don’t wear a pony tail; it’s easy for an attacker to grab. If you live in an apartment building, don’t do laundry alone. (That one comes from the NRA’s Refuse to Be a Victim Course, which also advises us not to use a public bathroom alone.) If a creepy man is walking behind you, get on your phone. Pretend you are calling your boyfriend (say a man’s name loud enough for the creepy man behind you to hear). Pretend you live in one of the apartments you are walking past and that you can see your boyfriend through the window. Say loudly into your fake phone call that you’ll be home soon. Pull the fire alarm. (Every rapist is afraid of firefighters and apparently will wait until they show up.) Don’t go out alone after dark. (That one came from the police in stereotypically liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts. A woman had just defended herself against a man who grabbed her from behind, a detail not mentioned in the press release the police issued. Also, it was winter in the northeast so five o’clock is after dark.)

Too often when men tell women how to be safe, it’s about limiting our lives and depending on them. The good guys will keep the bad ones away.

***

Here’s what the research actually shows. Criminologist Sarah Ullman analyzed the National Crime Victimization Survey as well as several other studies. She separated the ways women resist rape into four categories: forceful physical resistance (kicking, punching, hitting), non-forceful physical resistance (pulling away, fleeing), forceful verbal resistance (yelling), and non-forceful verbal resistance (crying, pleading, reasoning). Of these, the strategy least likely to stop a sexual assault is non-forceful verbal resistance. Everything you learn when you’re taught to be a woman—to plead, concede, do nothing and pray he won’t hurt you worse—is the exact opposite of what works.

The self-defense programs that have been shown by research to decrease sexual violence have some things in common. They are explicitly feminist and invite young women to challenge gender socialization. They give women the chance to practice recognizing and resisting coercion, and they have young women define what they want out of sex.

The reality that rape can be stopped by ordinary strength is not common knowledge. Maybe because women resisting rape unsettles so many. What would men who inhabit traditional ideas of gender do if the women they love didn’t need their protection? How would feminists ensure that the responsibility for rape stays with the perpetrators and the culture that creates them? Being capable of stopping rape doesn’t make you responsible for it, but that nuance is too often lost.

***

A girl in my English class wrote a short story about rape. The teacher responded by talking about grammar and sentence structure. Reading it made me feel hollow and alive at the same time. I wanted to crawl inside the typed pages and live there until I understood something about my own life.

I spent my adolescence in a state of numbness, walking into walls and rows of lockers. I couldn’t concentrate. I drew flowers on my math homework and looked at the ceiling instead of the teacher. So they sent me to reading specialists and speech pathologists but never asked if anything was wrong at home. And what would I have said if someone did ask? My experience, like smoke, was not solid or substantial enough that I could touch it. And, like smoke, it was suffocating me.

Sometimes when I teach, I look around the room and try to guess which girl is me. The one whose father’s violations are so subtle that she’s not sure they count. The one who feels desired in a way that shreds her, who lives on the receiving end of intimate attention that feels thick and heavy, like hairy hands covering her mouth, making her gag. Does she—like I do—gag at almost anything? Does she struggle to trust intimacy or attention?

Trauma fragments memory. For some, it overwhelms the nervous system to the point where the cerebral cortex—the part of the brain that forms linear memories—shuts down. When this happens, people are left with shreds of images, nothing that can be narrated as a series of events. Instead, the abuse lives in the parts of the brain that don’t have language. Implicit memories, they’re called. Physical sensations and strong emotions that hit people at unpredictable times. Offering clues about what happened, but usually not enough.

I have taught hundreds of teenagers, and I still can’t imagine what it would have been like to be seventeen and learning I could protect myself from a person I love. I know I wouldn’t have picked up the physical skills as quickly as most of my students do. I might not have been strong enough to hit or kick as hard as they do. I probably couldn’t have projected confidence by standing with my head up and my shoulders back. Or maybe I could have. And maybe if I’d been taught I could interrupt rape with my body, I wouldn’t have spent so many years in a state of numbness.

I interrupt hundreds of rapes a year. Rapes that are simulated and choreographed enough to be safe but also real enough that the lower parts of my brain experience a true threat. Every day I inhabit this newly constituted body. Fierce, physical resistance has become as instinctive as breathing. I can’t remember what it felt like when I didn’t think I was powerful.

***

In high school, most of the girls who told me they’d been raped had reputations for being sluts. I’ve gone to enough conferences where experts in the room talk about “risky behaviors” and ways people put themselves in harm’s way because sexual abuse broke them and they’re not yet fixed. I have no doubt that trauma breaks people, but it troubles me how quick we are to understand sex as a form of self-harm. I can’t help wondering if there’s another reason the girls I knew in high school chose to have as much sex as it takes to be called a slut. If they did it again and again until they made it their own. If that was the way they made their bodies to feel powerful.

Maybe that’s why I still think about the girls I used to know. Because there is something still unfinished about my own relationship to sex. I want to be the kind of person who believes that sex and pleasure are as important as power and resistance. I want to stop pretending the erotic is frivolous, easily cast aside to make room for the next social justice struggle. I want to be as free, ecstatic, sexy, and bold as a teenage girl who has given up on trying to win other people’s approval.

Meg Stone is the Executive Director of IMPACT Boston, a nationally recognized abuse prevention program. Her writing has been published in HuffPost Personal, Newsweek, Boston Globe, Dame, and Ms.

***

Have you pre-ordered Thrust? 


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts, moving on

The Man With the Dog

June 3, 2022

It wasn’t until he reached a town called Hempstead, Texas, just west of Houston, that Miles Paley realized Miss Snickerdoodle, his ex-wife Tara’s aging cockapoo, whom he had dognapped just a few hours earlier, had a serious flatulence problem. The eggy smell filled the cabin of his Jeep Cherokee with surprising speed, and when he opened the windows for the first time since they they’d left Austin three hours earlier, when the pre-dawn dew had obscured his side mirrors, the dog nearly leapt out to what would have been its certain, horrific death at 70 miles per hour on Route 290 East. One of the countless Ford F150’s that surrounded him blared its horn. The driver was a corpulent, pig-faced man, to whom he’d swerved so close when he’d grabbed Ms. Snickerdoodle by the scruff, he was able to make out the chaw that flew out from between his cheek and gum as he cursed wordlessly behind thick autoglass. The hate in his eyes shook Miles, so that his heart raced, and he pulled off the highway at the next exit.

“Easy, Hildy,” he said to the dog, more to reassure himself than it.

Hildy was short for Broomhilda, the name he’d wanted for the dog when she was just a pup they’d paid way too much to acquire from a breeder in Marble Falls. Presently, it was trembling, and letting out a sound that was somewhere between a cough and a dry heave every few seconds. Because the decision to take Hildy with him on his move to Florida was a last-minute one, there was no harness or leash, no treats, no food, and no water bowl. Miles picked up the animal and held its shaking body in his arms as he went into the Texaco convenience store.

“Hey there,” said a heavy-set and very pretty woman who resembled the actress Pam Grier, whom he’d had a crush on since seeing her on “Miami Vice” when he and his college roommate would do bong hits and watch that sort of thing.

“Morning,” answered Miles.

“Nice fur-baby you got there.”

“Yeah thanks.” Miles thought he saw something in the cashier’s eyes. A hint of hunger or loneliness, maybe. Were it not for his current situation, with this dog he’d stolen and with which he was planning to cross state lines in a couple more hours, he might have done his best to turn on the charm. Now, though, he felt perverse, like a drifter with a bad past, someone who ought not stay in one place for very long.

“What’s his name?”
“He’s a she. It’s Miss Snick – Hildy.”

Pam Grier eyed him with suspicion. “Hildy, huh? Why’s she shaking like that?”

“Little carsick, I think. Do y’all have leashes? Like for dogs?”

“Yeah I figured that’s what you meant. Let’s have a look-see.” She came out from behind the counter, and gave Miles a little sideways smile as she shimmied past him with a “Scuse me.” He followed her down the aisle, watching the little Santas on her seasonal yoga tights dance, and imagining her in a hotel room, disrobing slowly for him.

“Not sure we’ve ever had any leashes, but if we did they’d be over here, with the pet stuff,” she said.

Miles indiscriminately grabbed some dog food and some treats, as well as a couple of plastic bowls that had pawprints on them.

“Thanks,” he said, motioning for her to go ahead of him. The egg smell rose from the dog, and he could tell Pam Greer caught a whiff of it.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “It’s part of the carsickness, I guess.”

“Hers or yours?” she teased, with a backward glance over her shoulder that made Miles shake his head.

“You’re bad,” he murmured.

“Can be,” she smiled.

She made her way back behind the counter, and before he could ask her name, which would have been the clear next move, the dog heaved out a gob of bile that fell short of Pam’s yoga pants and landed squarely on the plexiglass, obscuring some scratch-offs and an ad for Skoal chewing tobacco.

“Oh shit!” Miles said, holding Hildy at arms length and away from the cashier.

“It’s okay, baby,” she said, deftly wiping up the mess with a wad of paper towels. “We good here.”

“I’m so sorry,” added Miles, the rejuvenating tingling in his groin now gone, replaced by sheer and utter mortification.

The Pam Greer lookalike shook her head and waved her hands in front of her, the paper towel dripping with mucous. The sexy glint in her eye was no more.

“We good,” she repeated.

“Here,” said Miles, awkwardly dropping a five dollar bill on the still wet counter.

“That’s not – okay. Bye now. Hope your baby gets to feeling better.”

After an awkward walk around the garbage-strewn parking lot, Hildy at the other end of the extension cord Miles purchased as a makeshift leash and knotted around her collar, Miles and the dog returned to the Cherokee.

“Nothing, huh?”

The dog was panting; even though it was mid-December, the heat and humidity from the Gulf were formidable. Miles felt it too, and as he mopped his brow, checking himself in the rear-view, he shook his head with a little laugh. During his brief flirtation with the cashier, he’d been picturing himself at 21 – slender, tan, with shoulder-length, feathered hair the color of sand dunes. This man, balding, paunchy, and perspiring, was a far cry from the Don-Johnson-in-Training he’d once imagined himself to be.

“Okay, well, we’re off,” he said to Hildy, who gave him a good-natured look, or so he thought. He’d felt they’d had a connection back in her puppy days. When she fussed, it was Miles who could calm her, by holding her close to his heartbeat. Tara had never had that skill with her, and he could tell she resented it.

“Don’t be jealous,” he said one night as they sat drinking wine under blankets, their back yard firepit warming them. Miss Snickerdoodle, as the pup had come to be known by this point, was nuzzled under Miles’s cover, her snout tucked under his arm.

“What?”  Tara was tipsy; Miles always knew. It was something in the timbre and tone of her voice. Not slurring exactly. It was almost like her speaking voice went down an octave. He’d always found it weird, but never said anything.

“It’s not something you should take personally. See dogs always imprint on an alpha.”

“Oh so you’re the alpha, then?”

“Damn right,” Miles said, appealing then to the sleeping puppy, in that goo-goo ga-ga voice people use with dogs. “Isn’t that right, HIldy?”

“MIss Snickerdoodle,” Tara corrected in that lower register of hers.

“Yeah right,” said MIles, ending the conversation there.

“Alpha. Ha,” said Tara, getting the last word.

It was snippy conversations like this one, often witnessed by the pup, that eventually led the couple to agree that their marriage had become loveless. They tried counseling, which only served to underline what was already obvious to them both: that a $2,500 dollar Cockapoo, though undeniably adorable, was not a substitute for the child they could not have together. Neither Miles nor Tara wanted to blame the other, but it was impossible to avoid. In the end, which came not long after Miss Snickerdoodle’s entrance into their lives, they went their separate ways. Tara kept the dog, and Miles moved to a rented cottage just off South Congress. Only a few miles away as the crow flew, but they rarely saw each other in the fifteen years since.

Miles’s phone dinged just as he merged onto I-10 East. It was Tara. The contact came up as “Maybe WIFE.”

“Oh Jesus,” Miles said aloud. Hildy, who’d been asleep in the passenger seat, swaddled by one of Miles’s dirty t-shirts, opened one eye and regarded him. The other eye appeared glued shut by a reddish film of some kind. It made Miles uneasy, and he looked back at his phone.

hey sorry to bother you but were you here this morning? early?

Miles gripped the steering wheel tighter, as he found a good cruising speed. Did she have one of those Ring home surveillance systems that everyone (except him) seemed to have these days? He didn’t see one. He certainly checked.

weird question i know. just had this feeling. now can’t find miss sd

A feeling? Okay, okay. A feeling is fine. A feeling won’t hold up in court.

A feeling.

Before he could finish telling Siri to text “WIFE,” his reply that he was driving and couldn’t talk, the phone rang. Almost by instinct, he hovered his thumb over the green “accept” button. (They’d made a pact never to let the other go to voicemail, and had kept that particular promise religiously.) He stopped himself, and let it ring instead. A minute later, the phone indicated a voicemail message, followed by a new text.

call me. please

About an hour and a half later, Miles found a Petco that wasn’t too far off the highway, and he bought the dog a proper leash and harness. He didn’t feel right tugging it around by the neck, especially not with an electrical cord. She was an old lady, after all. And for a short while, thanks to the harness, which actually fit correctly and was not unattractive, with a stylish black and white floral print, Miles felt at peace. He walked Hildy on the sands of a beach on the shores of Lake Charles; knowing he was officially no longer in Texas also lightened his heart considerably. Hildy moved slowly, but her other eye was now open, and she’d managed to groom herself free of the gunk that had been keeping it shut earlier. Even the unseasonable heat felt less oppressive here. This, he knew, was in his head, but still he took the moment to sit in stillness, enjoying it.

Again the phone rang, and the words “Maybe WIFE” appeared on the screen. As before, he let it go to voicemail. Then he pressed the playback button. The first message was a verbal version of the initial text. She sounded almost chipper: “Hey, I know this is weird, but did you come by early this morning? Just had a feeling. Call me. Thanks.”

He then listened to the message she’d left moments ago. None of the feigned friendliness remained, replaced by hysteria that put Miles right back to their early days in Texas, where they’d moved to raise a family. He hadn’t heard anything like it since the third time the IVF treatments failed, and the team at the fertility clinic provided them with materials about adoption as a next best option. In the car on the way home she wailed like a banshee. The sound of true, elemental, primal sorrow. Plain and simple. Their relationship couldn’t survive it. Nothing could.

“YOU’VE GOT MY FUCKING DOG, MILES! I KNOW YOU DO! I DON’T KNOW HOW I KNOW IT, BUT I DO! GIVE ME BACK MY FUCKING DOG! GIVE HIM BACK!”

Miles raised an eyebrow and traced the leash to the shade of a bush where Hildy lay on her side, looking more peaceful than she had the entire trip. It seemed as safe a time as any to do what he did next.

“Okay, Tara, okay. Take it easy,” he said over her screaming. She’d resumed it as soon as she picked up his call.

“TAKE IT EASY? Okay, I’m calm. Okay? But I know it, Miles. I just know it.”

“Slow down and tell me what happened.” Miles was being condescending, and he knew it. He also knew that Tara would have to back off of her assertion, because of how crazy it sounded. (Never mind that it was true.)

“She’s gone. Miss Snickerdoodle. I can’t find her anywhere.”

“Maybe she’s run off to the golf course, like that one time, remember? When they let us ride around on a golf cart looking for her?” That day, although forged in the same panic she was experiencing now, had actually turned out to be a good one for Tara and Miles. They bonded on that ride around the course, and felt pure joy when they found Miss Snickerdoodle, covered in mud, on the banks of one of the water hazards, a mangy looking mutt twice her size there beside her.

“What? No! She’s old, for god’s sake. She’s not going anywhere.”

Tara was no longer accusing Miles. She was asking for his help. Miles cupped his hand over the phone as Hildy stretched languidly, letting out a contented yawn.

“Listen, Tare, I’d love to come help you look for him, but I’m actually in the process of moving,” said Miles.

Tara was silent, and after a few seconds, Miles added, “I was going to tell you. I just…”

“No, no,” she answered. The forced cheeriness had returned. “End of an era, I guess, right? Where you moving to?”

“Florida.”
“Florida?”

“Of all places, right?”

More silence. This time it was broken by Tara.

“Our governor not crazy enough for you?” she joked.

“I think Florida’s got him beat,” Miles replied.

Satisfied that she’d given up on her intuition about the offense he’d committed, Miles suggested she might call one or both of her brothers for help.

“We don’t talk much anymore,” she said, sounding sad and lonely. Her tone made Miles feel guilty. He knew perfectly well that she and Jack and David were estranged. Mutual acquaintances had kept him in the loop over the years. He’d invoked them on purpose, to make her feel bad, and now he was sorry for it.

“Anyway, Tare, I gotta get back on the road if I want to make it to Florida by nightfall,” he said.

He heard his ex-wife sigh, her loneliness accentuated his own. “Right. Safe travels, and it was good to hear your voice after all this time.”

“Yours too,” he said, supposing he meant it on some level.

Hildy yelped loudly. Miles’s thumb was on the red “hang-up” button, which he pressed at that very moment. He cursed loudly, then bent down to tend to the dog, who held her paw gingerly off the ground. She yelped again when he pulled the barbed sandspur out of her pad. He gathered the dog up in his arms and carried her back to the car, where she drank some water from one of the bowls he’d purchased back in Hempstead. Miles’s heart was racing again, this time wondering whether or not Tara had heard her dog cry out in pain as they had hung up the call. He sat with his hands on the steering wheel, not going anywhere, waiting for her call. Five minutes passed, and he figured she’d likely have called him right back had she heard the yelp. Hildy settled back into the nest of Miles’s dirty laundry, and the two set off eastward towards their destination.

Thanks to light traffic, favorable weather conditions, and only one pitstop for gas and bathroom, the GPS guided them into Pensacola Beach just as the sun was setting over the gulf. The causeway lights came on as he was crossing, which felt to him like a good sign, like this move he was making would be a good one.

That changed when he saw Hildy. After having finally arrived at the hotel, and trying to rouse her from her nest in the passenger seat, he saw that she was trembling – spasming, more like – every few seconds, and that both of her eyes were now shut, and the rheumy stuff that sealed them formed a thick, leaky film.

Miles got back behind the wheel, and got directions on his phone to a 24-hour veterinary hospital that was a few miles away. It was dark now, and he made his way with caution down the unfamiliar roads. He had opened the windows, because the eggy smell had returned. The dog’s breathing had changed, and she appeared swollen somehow. The coughing dry heaves Miles had noticed coming from the dog way back in Hempstead were protracted now, so that the dog seemed almost to be moaning.

“Come on through,” the receptionist at the vet’s office said, as she made her way to open a swinging door that allowed Miles to carry the convulsing dog behind the counter. “We’ll get your paperwork later.”

The young woman, nondescript and professional in hospital scrubs and rubber shoes, led him through a door and into an examination room.

“It’s okay, baby,” the receptionist said as she stroked the dog’s head. “What’s her name?”

“Hildy. Or Ms. Snickerdoodle. She answers to both.” Miles felt ridiculous after he said this, and not just for the obvious reason: that a dog having two names is unnecessary and stupid. The other reason he felt idiotic was that this dog was clearly not going to answer to any name, in the condition she was now in.

“Okay sir, well you stay with…with her, and the doctor will be right in.”

Hildy’s body, though convulsing every few seconds with terrible tremors, as if an electrical charge were going through her, was otherwise still, flat as a bearskin rug on her belly, her four paws splayed in four directions. Without thinking about it, Miles  reached for his phone. The words “Maybe WIFE” appeared as the most recent call. She was so joyful the day they drove up to Marble Falls to bring Miss Snickerdoodle home. The dog, too, seemed overjoyed, but that could have just been due to the fact that she was a puppy, and puppies were joyful by nature.

The doctor was a large, handsome man with graying red hair and a Scottish accent.

“Oh you’re a sweet old girl, aren’t you?” he said in a melodious voice full of an otherworldly empathy that touched a chord in Miles Paley, who began to weep quite unexpectedly.

“I’m so sorry,” Miles said, as he reached for some tissues to wipe away the tears and snot that came suddenly and with force.

“Doc’s got it from here, sir,” the young woman, who had returned to the small room, said, taking Miles gently by the elbow.

“It’s okay, Linda,” the doctor said. He had a gloved hand on the back of the dog’s neck and was rubbing its scruff gently. “I don’t want this gentleman to have to wait.”

“Yes, Doctor,” the receptionist said, leaving the two men alone with the dog.

The doctor asked Miles a number of questions about the dog’s medical history, none of which he could answer, aside from the age. He chalked it up to how upset he was, and the vet said that he understood.

“Listen, I want to speak plainly. May I do that, please?” he asked.

“Of course,” said Miles.

“The swelling you’re seeing is severe edema. Her organs are failing, and she’s in a great deal of pain.”

The vet described treatments they could try, but Miles knew from the tone of his voice where the conversation was headed.

“I couldn’t tell you how close she is to passing naturally. All I can say is that however long it takes, it will be unpleasant for her, even with pain meds. It’s entirely your choice, of course,” said the vet.

Miles chose euthanasia. When the vet asked him whether or not he’d be staying in the room, Miles reflexively answered that no, he would be leaving. But just before he left the little examination room, through the door the vet was now holding open for him, he said, “No. I’d actually like to be here for her.”

The vet’s eyes brightened, and a smile came to his face.

“It makes a difference. To the animal. Seems silly, but I know that it does.”
“Yessir,” Miles said

The doctor explained that the procedure would be painless and humane, that Miss Snickerdoodle would lose consciousness very quickly, and would feel nothing other than the release from the immense pain she was currently in.

“Is it alright to hold her?” Miles asked.

“Of course,” the doctor said. “Just mind the tubing.”

MIles leaned over the chrome table, covering the dog like a blanket. Carefully, gently, he tucked her snout under his arm, as he had when she fussed as a pup. Now, as then, the dog settled. The trembling ceased, as did the dry moaning breaths.

With the doctor’s gloved hand on his shoulder, Miles stayed that way, draped over the dead animal for a few minutes. He was glad to have been there for this creature in her final moments. He was proud of himself for staying.

“Thank you,” he told the veterinarian, as he stood and reoriented himself to the changed world around him. “Thank you for everything.”

Dan Fuchs has published short stories in the Syracuse Review, TeachAfar, and Free Spirit. He lives with his family and a sweet, old German Shepard mix named Ally in Orlando, Florida.

***

Have you pre-ordered Thrust


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Therapy

I Can’t Remember His Name

June 1, 2022
chart

Something made me think of him; for days now, it has been bothering me: I can’t remember his name. I can recall many of our conversations, the gentle character of his voice, and the resignation in his eyes, but not his name. I’ve wracked my brain. I saw him almost twenty years ago for almost a year in twice weekly sessions. He was a former prisoner who had served stints for everything from petty larceny to armed robbery. I was a young intern working in a city hospital.

In prison, they strip you of everything: first your name, then your identity, and finally your humanity. You become a number in a brutal system. Except for him, this process had started way before he had landed in prison at 19. And now I, who cared for him deeply, seemed to have erased him too.

Mandated by the court to enter therapy, his chart had a red notation at the top I didn’t recognize: “Violence/aggression risk.” His diagnosis was “Schizoaffective disorder,” and the chart noted he had a long-term substance abuse problem. Reading on, I saw he had gotten out of prison two weeks earlier.

Though the notation gave me pause, I was afraid to say anything. It was the second month of my internship, the training year before getting my doctorate. I was at the very bottom of the psychiatry clinic hierarchy, and to put much faith in my own misgivings, not to mention voicing them, was more than I could risk. The first time we met, I made sure it was during daylight hours.

Eyes downcast, his large frame filled the doorway of my closet-like office. He had rich, dark skin, heavily pockmarked cheeks, and sat with a restrained intensity. I clutched my hands tightly while he began speaking so softly I had to lean closer to hear him, our knees almost touching.

“Do you have any trauma in your past?” I asked. Remaining silent, he cast his eyes around the office landing on an old globe tucked onto one of the upper shelves.

“What is that?” he asked.

“Oh, just an old globe. It’s probably very out of date.”

“Can I look at it?”

Unsure what to do, I took it down and placed it in his lap. Gently, he spun it around—his acorn-colored eyes lit up.

“That’s a gorgeous thing, huh?” he said. The whole world-right here.”

He spun the globe and landed his finger on a spot, “Vietnam?” He sounded out.

“Oh, it’s very beautiful. I was there last year.”

“What?” His head spun back toward me. “What is it like there?”

Before our session ended, I returned to my question: “Can you tell me about your trauma history?”

The light in his eyes doused; he almost whispered his response: “I’m a very bad person. I did something really terrible when I was a kid. And I’ve been paying for it ever since.”

I didn’t press him for details–our time was up.

After that, we began every session by spinning the globe and an exploration of the country his finger landed upon. He was always curious about the food. “Man, that sounds good,” he teased me one day after our imaginary journeys took us to a place where fried crickets were a popular street food. His trilling laugh filled the room.

When he was nine, on an unusually cold day in his small North Carolina town, he and his six year old brother climbed onto a frozen lake to explore. Halfway across, the ice cracked. Though he managed to scramble to safety, his brother fell in, disappearing in the pitch black water.

Afraid of being punished, he hid in a nearby forest for two days until–ragged, hungry, and numb with cold–he returned home.

“My father beat me with a switch this long.” He held his hands out to show me. “I didn’t feel a thing. I knew I was bad. I knew I killed him. I wanted him to keep beating me.”

After his brother’s funeral, his father barely spoke to him again. At 13, he was sent to live with relatives in Manhattan where, after nine months, they took him out of school, so he could work full time in their shop. His first arrest was at 19. Over three decades, he had never spent more than two years outside of prison.

“I just get a feeling, you know. I can’t take it. It builds up, and I know I need to go back.”

“But why?” I asked.

“I deserve the punishment,” he said, his eyes suddenly vacant.

One of the first things I did after meeting him was call his doctor, a grizzled veteran of the psychiatry ward.

“He’s delusional,” he said, off-handedly.

“But what delusion?” I had seen no evidence of this.

“Hang on, let me look it up in his chart.” I could hear him crunching something as we spoke. “Oh, he endorses hearing voices. You understand what that means right?”

I swallowed tightly. “Of course, I do.”

I brought it up at our next session.

“He asked me if I ever hear voices. I told him I do—it’s like… well these echoes in my head sometimes. Like if I get sad, I start remembering my brother’s voice.”

I stared at him. “You understand that’s not an auditory delusion-it’s a very normal reaction to having experienced a terrible trauma.”

“I didn’t experience trauma, my brother did,” he shrugged.

I called his parole officer, eager to understand the danger warning on his chart.

“Who?” I could hear the papers shuffling. “I have no idea about him–I just make sure he’s not breaking the rules, doctor.”

I began seeing him twice a week, prompting the officer to call me: “You know he’s supposed to come only once a week, right? And what is this about a job training program you have him in? You’ll see—he’ll be back in jail long before he’s ready for a job.”

At one point, I asked him about his substance abuse. “Your weekly urine tests are always clean. When did you stop using?”

“Oh, I don’t use,” he smiled ruefully. He explained that he had to snort coke to give him the courage to commit his crimes, which he pulled off using a plastic handgun. Of course, he tested positive after every arrest.

“But how can this be? Not only are you not an addict, you’re not psychotic. I’m going to change your diagnosis in your chart. And we’re getting you off these anti-psychotic meds.”

I was indignant, eager to have something to fix. I stopped mid-sentence because he was looking at me curiously.

“Why are you so worked up?” he asked.

“You shouldn’t have to live with the side effects–the dry mouth, the nausea, the headaches,” I responded, furious. “You shouldn’t have ever been on these medications!”

“It’s really ok-I swear it is. Change the chart, ok, sure, but it doesn’t change anything for me,” he replied, softly smiling, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

I changed his diagnosis to PTSD. His psychiatrist changed it back a week later.

He always greeted me with a huge smile as I met him in the waiting room, but as soon we began down the hallway to my office it was suddenly gone. I commented on it once as we sat in my office: “You always greet me with a smile. Then when you stand up, it’s like a light goes out. Why is that?”

He waited a second: “I’ve learned to walk like I’m invisible.”

“You’re… crying?” He looked baffled. “About me?”

“You’ve been dropped by so many people. It isn’t fair,” I blurted. We sat together in a thick silence, his eyes on the floor. After a while, he spun the globe, this time landing on Sweden.

“Wouldn’t it be great to go there someday? I bet there are big mountains of snow.” He grinned.

I nodded, wiping away my tears. “It really would. But I hear they eat smelly fish. Yuck.”

“Yuck,” he agreed.

One day, he came in looking depressed. “I don’t want it to be a surprise to you–I’m getting that feeling again.” I knew exactly what he meant but we both pretended I didn’t. The next week he missed his first session.

I wanted to change his circumstances, to make an inequitable system take note of him. I look back now and wince at my frenzied efforts—all that time I should have just been listening to him better. I didn’t want to believe that a trauma he experienced at age nine could mark him indelibly, or that the world could take a vulnerable kid and rub him so raw through racist, punitive systems that the only place he thinks he belongs is in prison. He tried to tell me that is exactly the world in which he lives, but I so wanted it not to be true that I disbelieved him.

When he left my office the last time, nothing much had changed–his chart still held the red notation, the vocational program had failed to place him, and those charged with watching out for him–the harried parole officer, the indifferent psychiatrist–still had no idea who he really was.

But he had changed me. Gone was my naïve faith that a wise and beneficent system would catch those who tumbled into its waiting arms. Now I believed otherwise: that I couldn’t even break his fall.

A few weeks later I received a slim, slightly crumpled, letter in the mail, addressed to the clinic. The return address was a correctional facility. I waited to read it until I got home.

“Please don’t think this is your fault Dr. G. And remember: you gave me something I never thought I’d have–you gave me the world.”
Years later, that letter sits in a long-forgotten file somewhere, one of the items that has done the most to disillusion me, but also make me a better therapist. Despite his impact on me, he too has slipped from view, like a dream that dissipates upon waking. I can’t even remember his name.

Sarah Gundle a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University. In addition to her private practice, she teaches courses on trauma and international mental health at Mount Sinai hospital.

***

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“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Trauma

Toodie

May 29, 2022

My father’s mistress was dying of vaginal cancer and my mother went to see her.  I can imagine how disarming Mom was when she entered the hospital room of her rival.  I’m sure she stopped to check her make-up under the harsh fluorescent lights of the hallway, and dabbed Ooh La Pink lipstick over a smile she’d rehearsed in the car’s rear-view mirror. She would have pulled up her girdle and sucked in her stomach before entering the sterile room with a vase of American Beauty roses from our garden.

Mom would have posed the bouquet on a table with the largest blooms facing the bed and paused to admire the flowers. With the same gentle hands she would have touched the shoulder of her rival’s once voluptuous body, now flaccid, rank and shrouded in blankets the color of her parchment skin. My mother probably held Liz in her arms while she cried and begged forgiveness.

The story goes that Liz said God was punishing her for the way she had lived her life,  and Mom said she knew Liz never meant to hurt anyone and only wanted a little happiness for herself, and God wanted us to be happy, and fun and laughter were gifts from God.

They’d shared the body of a man who could not love them, like all the men they’d known who told them what to do, who to be, and never saw who they were. To Dad, they were just “Broads makin’ a comeback.” Defeated by the prize-fighter who had to win each round, the mistress and the wife, the floozy and the saint, probably rolled their eyes and laughed at their lousy taste in men.

I know my mother thanked the mistress for making my father happy and giving me a Madame Alexander doll.  I’m sure Mom kissed the once strawberry-red crown of hair. Liz died one week later.

All hell broke loose. Liz’s death and Mom’s mercy were the talk of the town. Someone gossiped. I bet it was one of the fishwives at church or a customer from Dad’s bar, who derided Liz’s confession and Mom’s benediction.  I would like to pause here and tell the gossips about the upshot of their slander. Fifty years later, I want them to know, my bond with my mother was forever broken.

One night, there was a crash, a thud, a whimper and I ran from my bed to the living room to shield her from him. One of my parents must have said the name that must not be spoken.

The words “No Daddy No,” choke my throat.

Mom screams, “Toodie Toodie Toodie,”

A shadeless lamp lies sideways on the carpet among Mom’s books. The dog yelps in the corner. Dad must have kicked it and a pane of glass from the French door.  My feet might be cut but there is no blood. There is a rip in the frill of my Peter Rabbit nightgown but I keep screaming, “Please don’t hurt her anymore.”

Mom wraps her arms around my fat tummy. There is blood on the yoke of her nightgown.  Dad must have shown her the back of his hand. His brick-red knuckles bulge through leathery hairy skin. My father’s face is demented; a snarling werewolf with vicious hazel eyes stares down at me.  I meet his stare, and love the way my ten-year-old body feels. This is the ugliest part of me. How much I love my own anger.

“Toodie, Toodie, Toodie,” Mom yells.

***

Today, when I replay this memory, my knees still turn to jello. I gasp for breath and do not understand why she used to call me Toodie. Perhaps it was from a limerick or refrain that soothed her like a blessing that became my curse. Toodie never Clare, or any of the other names on my birth certificate, Sharon, Lynn, Hermine. Toodie was an apparition only Mom could see. I was exiled for seeing the truth.

Call it trauma, but either way the wound made me go sideways through life. The sounds of violence revved my amygdala into overdrive. The weight of shame lodged in my gray matter. Call it the curse of the ancestors, passed down in grandmother’s amniotic fluids, but we all know that when the truth hurts—the mind and the body go blank and the soul flash freezes.

Mom spun our response to the scandal like a Public Relations pro, with a stiff upper lip.

She decreed that boarding school would be an enriching experience. Being educated by nuns and living with girls like me would make me strong. After all, Mom had been sent away to British boarding school during her formative years.  I was sent away to protect me from gossip.

The taillights on Dad’s Cadillac disappeared down the driveway of Saint Joseph’s Academy.  I stood beneath the statue of Mother Mary and touched her outstretched palms and prayed to her for her protection. The Blue Lady did not shimmer or speak. Her heavenly dress was faded by the sun. Her smile had faded too.  Our Lady of Grace could not comfort all the sad sad girls who stood at her feet and shared the secrets of their hearts. The Blue Lady did not bless me. I could not feel her touch or the love in her heart for me. I could not feel my breath.

The Mother was mute.

“Stop pouting,” Sister Alice, my fifth grade teacher said, “You should be grateful to be here.”

I had escaped my parents’ marriage. Outlaw classmates taught me to pilfer frosty bottles of chocolate milk from an ancient vending machine, and penny-candy from the nuns’ closets. I was initiated by broken girls like me, who got angrier and fatter each month.We all woke up sobbing at night, and sought salvation in pancakes and deceit.

The rush of escape was an adrenaline high as potent as free sugar.

 

Clare Simons is aging gracefully in Portland Oregon and awaiting further instructions from the universe.  She has been deeply loved by a Guru and by a great man, and has come to understand that those loves are one in the same. Her memoir, Devoted explores faith, doubt and food.   

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“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Fiction, Friendship, Guest Posts

Three Majors

May 20, 2022
majors

He is dead. Remember that as you read on. I’m telling you this now, instead of later, for a reason. Perhaps for several reasons. But one reason is more important to me than any other. This story will have no surprise ending. Its events did not take place in The Twilight Zone. Don’t suspect that Three Majors will be around at the end. This is page one, and I’m confirming that he remains dead.

Three Majors fell asleep at the wheel and was killed in a car-crash the night he left for Christmas vacation. He was nineteen.

The first time I saw him for any longer than it takes to pass in the hall or on the street was when he was in my room about half-way through fall term. He was helping Peter, my dorm roomie, catch up on a few weeks’ worth of back math assignments before the mid-term exam the next day. Peter and I played several games of penny-ante cribbage while Three Majors wrote out the relevant solutions (with commentary) for the more difficult “story problems.” When he had finished, when he had handed over the spiral notebook with page-after-page of impeccable Palmer-method handwriting (for both letters and numbers), Peter smiled and said “Merci, Three Majors, I owe you one.”

“You’re welcome,” said Three Majors, waving his hand and sliding a pencil into his shirt pocket. “It was elementary.” He nodded at Peter, at me, and strode rapidly from the narrow room, his tan walking shorts revealing two of the skinniest legs I had ever seen.

Wherever he went, Three Majors always moved as fast as he could. Like those Olympic race-walkers who toss their rears out of joint making their legs move so speedily. But he didn’t seem to have any rear, at least not that you could easily see.

And he always carried a battered cardboard-and-vinyl black briefcase with yellow-lettered AGE EIGHTEEN VOTE bumper stickers on each side.

He was called “Three Majors” as an insulting nickname (at least at first – for some, it would take on relatively respectful resonances). Many in the dorm disliked him for being so conceited. Whenever anyone asked what his college major was, his standard answer was complicated but concise: “Math, physics, and chemistry. I’m going for a doctorate in each.”

He was engaged to be married to a young woman named Norma, who at the age of fourteen had written a long novel about Madame Curie. Or so she claimed. No copy was ever provided as proof. She was the first person Three Majors had ever gone out with on what he called “a two-person social occasion.” A date, in other words. He told us he had proposed marriage after three hours and twelve minutes. He said she answered “yes.” She said she would marry him as soon as he graduated. She made that statement three quarters of the way through his first year of college.

He arranged to take a special test right away to earn fifteen credits in biology. He passed. In December, at pre-registration for winter term, he signed up for courses worth twenty-seven credits (with special permission from an academic advisor). I recall that he came back to the dorm that day and worked up a chart, done in blue felt-tip on white butcher paper, outlining his future program. If all went according to schedule, he would graduate with three degrees in two and one-half years. We all knew he couldn’t pull it off.

Some people who especially disliked Three Majors roughed him up in the third-floor communal shower one night because he refused to trim his sideburns. They were raggedly unattractive and looked decidedly un-cool. A couple of guys claimed he was giving the dorm a bad name. One kept turning a battery-powered barber’s clipper on-and-off and thrusting it back and forth, threatening to dispose of those sideburns, while another held Three Majors’ arms behind his back. There was no water running, everyone there was fully dressed (even down to their shoes), but something-or-other seemed naked that night.

He died wearing those sideburns, all mousy gray and scraggly – not stubbly – and not even close to full. He had a certain form of guts.

Peter made a B+ on his math mid-term.

He got up early to do the assignments in each of his three majors; but he stayed up much of the night doing the same thing, so waking up on time for class was a constant hassle. He solved the problem (sort of) by making his own alarm device. Made it out of an old tape-recorder and an old clock radio, two objects Norma sourced for him from a shabby second-hand shop down by the railroad depot. He recorded first the noise of three garbage cans toppling over in succession, then re-recorded that sound over a snippet of a bugler blowing reveille. This blasted on at an incredible decibel level every morning at five. This made some people mad.

The night before he left for Christmas vacation, he told a bunch of guys in the dorm lounge area that he opposed the war in Vietnam and was a pacifist. Somebody slapped him in the face. “Even now?”

“Of course,” Three Majors said.

Slapped him again. “Even now?”

“Certainly so,” Three Majors said.

Three Majors weighed between one-ten and one-twenty or so, and was just over six feet. Usually wore a white shirt inside the dorm, with a red, zipper-front sweatshirt over it when he went out to class. Normally went around in tan cotton trousers, very baggy, or in walking shorts on hot days. White, low-cut Converse basketball sneakers. Dark, ankle-length socks.

Peter heard it on the radio and rushed into the lunch-line to tell everyone who was still around. Somebody said: “Well, taking the philosophical view, it’s probably better for Norma – in the long run, of course.”

“Maybe,” somebody else said, “taking the philosophical view, Three Majors was too beautiful to live in a world like the one ours seems to be turning into. In the long run, of course.”

“What? Beautiful? That weirdo?”

I hit him hard in the face and he didn’t hit back. I wish he would have. I owed some pain to someone.

Raised in a bowling alley on the rural coast of Oregon, James Joaquin Brewer currently shelters in West Hartford, Connecticut while working on a novel about travel experiences in Beijing, China.

Published fiction, poetry, and essays are in (among other places) The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Write Launch, LitBreak, The Hartford Courant, Aethlon, Jeopardy, Rosebud, The Poetry Society of New York, Closed Eye Open.

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Eating Disorders/Healing, Guest Posts

Yoga Mat Battlefield

May 17, 2022
yoga

I used to love pouring Elmer’s glue on the palms of my hands to the very edges of my fingertips. I’d let the goo ooze over the skin of my hands, sliding into the lines and crevices as I sat patiently waiting for it to harden. The glue slowly transformed from opaque to clear, from the outer edges inward. I waited, feeling the damp turn crisp before it was time to peel. I had to learn the hard way a few times to make sure the glue was completely dry for ultimate removal satisfaction.

It’s funny how I’d find this sense of gratification from adding a layer and instantly removing it. It was like removing a part of myself. My one-of-a-kind fingerprints, the divots and crannies that belonged only to me. If only another layer below could be removed. My real skin. Maybe layer after layer I could peel it off, again and again, all the way to the bone, and soon there would be a fragment of me left.

There’s something so indulgent, so satisfying about the removal of sorts. You know. Taking off your bra at the end of the day. Wet socks. Letting your hair down. Breaking up with a toxic boyfriend. A stubborn coffee stain on white t-shirt. A scab. Sand from the bottom of your shoes. The deep, earnest, withdrawing exhale after breathing in deep. They say that we inhale the deepest when we are nervous or on edge because we are inherently predisposed to be ready to run. Like the running and exhaling become symbiotic with one another. Is removing and exhaling the same as running away? If you would have told me that the exhale directly correlated to losing weight or to shedding another layer, I’d forget how important the inhale was too. I was constantly ready to run. I was constantly wanting to shed.

So maybe that’s why I loved peeling back the artificial layers of glue. That this child’s play was really just a subconscious desire to not be in this body of mine. That I hated how it was my representative, my identity– a tiny cloak of impression that tucked behind the layers beneath. Why can’t we just be glimmering stardust, a fraction of matter floating about a vast, open space? Just little dots floating, all the same. Instead, I had this meat suit. Instead, I had this body. One that I didn’t want to live in.

When I decided that I might have to actually accept the fact that I should possibly start to enjoy this body I inhabit, my therapist pushed me back to my yoga mat. “This is the next step of recovery”, she said. To get into my body, and not be my body. Yoga was a tough subject. It was a practice I had used to elongate myself, yet another tool to modify the body I had been given. Actually practicing in the way the practice was intended to be practiced did not concern me. Mindfullness, being in the body, even peace, was not what I cared about. I just wanted to morph into a gazelle-like creature with long legs and a slender torso.

This time, I wanted to get better. I’d try to re-frame, give this whole “just being” thing a try. So I went back to my yoga mat, 15 pounds heavier than the last time. I parked myself straight into the corner of the room slightly away from the ability to catch glimpses of myself in the reflection of the mirror. I felt proud and safe in my internal, non-reflection cocoon—and then I looked up. I saw bodies with abs and minimal belly fat, skintight Lululemons and thin faces with sunken eyes. I saw my former self in them.

I still wanted to be them.

Not this 15-pounds-heavier recovery body. And so began the reunification of the internal battlefield of me and the yoga mat. Me vs. the necessary 15 pounds. Me vs. the new, growing cellulite. Me vs. a self that was no longer consumed by hunger. Me vs. a body that I never thought I’d be able to live in.

While sweat started to seep out of every crevasse of my body, I wanted to remove that extra layer yet again. I stood there in Warrior Two with my front leg bent, hips square, back leg straight and arms in a horizontal line extending from my shoulders– and imagined myself peeling of this extra layer like I was Elmer’s glue. The extra layer I had not embraced, hated even. I made plans and yet another contract to get back to overexercising, dieting, restriction, no carbs or sugar or even joy. I could not handle the layer.

I went back to my therapist and told her about my plans to relapse, venting about my experience on the Yoga Mat Battlefield, and she said something that I still reach for when I’m struggling in my body.

“Who’s voice is that, on this what do you call it? Battlefield? You, or your eating disorder?”

I still witness others in their own version of the yoga mat battlefield. I see them suck in their bellies—not because the posture asked them to but because it’s a more tolerable view. I wonder how hungry they are. Still, I let my belly go. I hold the pose.

I will not let the yoga mat win, which is really just the eating disorder. It’s my voice that wins. The real and true one. The one that holds the pose and could care less about the reflection in the mirror.

The resistance I choose to create starts with me on my yoga mat, with Elmer’s glue dried on my palms. This time I won’t peel it off.

Amanda Blackwell is former professional figure skater who is now just an ordinary but not-so-ordinary 30-something ditching the status quo, and living in Hawaii away from the corporate hustle and rat race. A recovered Eating Disorder survivor, passionate about Mental Health and wellness, Amanda likes to write about trauma and pain and finding meaning within it all. When she’s not over-analyzing life or writing about it, she’s surfing, drinking coffee, cooking and enjoying a mellow existence.

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“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change