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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Surfacing

December 4, 2020
wife

By Erin Jamieson

Lake Victoria, it is said, is what sustains life in Uganda.  The second largest freshwater lake in the world, it breeds the White Nile and the Katonga River. Transport cargos and ferries carry goods and passengers. Water is harnessed for electricity. Fisheries are established along the edges.

And yet, we cannot call it our own. The lake seeps into both Kenya and Tanzania. As much as we’d like to think so, it belongs to us no more than it belongs to them.

* * *

“So you are concerned with intimacy.”

My wife sits in an armchair beside me, stiff as stone. Her eyes do not meet mine when she answers.

“Yes.”

The doctor shifts in his chair. He is a balding man of maybe fifty or sixty, with narrow eyes the color of flint. “And what are your concerns, specifically? Is it frequency?”

My wife’s cheeks flush; we do not talk about such things, not in public or private. “We don’t at all anymore,” She whispers.

The doctor turns to me. “Has your wife expressed a reduced desire—“

“Not me,” She interrupts. He raises his eyebrows. It is rare for a woman to interrupt. She bends her head, humbled, “I mean, he does not want to. When I….he never…..”

“This is true?”

I stare at the doctor. On the wall behind him, a clock ticks like a heartbeat. I wish my wife would look at me, but I do not blame her. And the things I need to say I cannot.

“Yes. It’s true.”

* * *

Kampala is a haven in a world of chaos. Where once bombs shattered the earth, it is respite for the homeless. Day in and day out, Congolese refugees poor in like ants. We watch as tents rise across the outskirts of the capital. Desperate mothers and children with dirt stained cheeks and fathers whose eyes are clouded.

We came here because of my wife. She insists this is the only place we will be heard. Here, even though she is a woman, she can speak of such things. There a hospital instead of practices with thatched roofs. Here, there are therapists, they say, that can help more than traditional medicine.

What she doesn’t know is that I belong here. That even though we still have our home, I am every bit the refugee as the rest of them.

* * *

“Do you find yourself unsatisfied with your wife?”

I stare out the window, at the crystal blue sky. “My wife is beautiful,” I say.

The man clears his throat. “I understand you were in Congo.”

“I was studying there,” I say.

“Studying……”

“I am a professor at Makerere,” I explain. “My wife and I live just south of here. “

“I see.” He studies me. “You were taken by the rebels?”

I twist my hands in my lap. “I was…mistaken for a spy.”

“Is it possible the experience as prisoner has made it more difficult to be a lover?”

I glance up at him and see someone else. I see men without faces, whose breath smells of dust and sweat. I feel hands made of leather, forcing me still.

But I am a man. A man is able to fight, when he needs to. When he feels weak, he never shows it. A man endures pain as a woman does when she bears a child.

“No,” I say, “I don’t see how.”

* * *

My wife is a magician; though we have not always had money, she can always find ways to fill our plate, to pay our dues. Today she cooks matoke on an open wood fire. The banana peels form cocoons around the bowls of shredded chicken, cabbage and tomatoes, which she will make into a stew.

“It smells wonderful.”

Silently, she starts a kettle of water to boil. The steam rises in the air like a phantom. I let he finish, and when I join her at the table, the smell and warmth of the food makes me feel as if I might vomit.

“Do you know what they are saying? The women I see in the markets, the streets? They are talking about me. How my own husband does not desire me.”

I swallow a spoonful of the stew. It scorches my tongue, and maybe that is best, because my words no longer have any power.

“You don’t spend time with me. You don’t eat my food. Am I a bad wife?”

Her eyes are glistening with tears, and I know she is picturing the same thing I am; the son we buried three years ago whose skin was tinged blue and his head the size of my palm.

Then, we’d been told that God had other plans. But it was a burden my wife carried, to have her femininity questioned.  To feel the stares of women who’d been blessed with homes of seven, eight, nine children.

What I want to say is that I am much less a man than she is a woman. That, now, I know that probably was my fault, too.

And now. Now I do not know if we will have any children, ever.

It is the greatest shame, the greatest punishment anyone can imagine. And I have given it to the woman I love, the woman I labored for to produce a dowry of five handsome cows.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

Her eyes flash. “I wish that were enough.”

* * *

I change my pants three times before we leave for the appointment. The pain is almost unbearable today, but worse is what it reminds me of. The past three weeks I have hidden my soiled clothes, washed them by hand at night while my wife sleeps. That way, I can spare her from seeing the stains.

“We’re late,” My wife complains as we walk in. She strides beside me, self-consciously adjusting the collar on her dress. Since I became a professor, we have begun to dress the part, but I think we both miss the traditional dress. Western clothing is strange, stifling.

The doctor greets us and smiles. “So good to see you. Sit.” He folds his hands in his lap. “How has this week been?”

The room fills with silence. The air is suddenly too thick.

“I see.” He ruffles through the pages of a notepad. “If you don’t mind, I think it would be beneficial to talk to the two of you separately. “ He looks at me. “Is this comfortable for you?”

No good husband would leave his wife alone with another man—even if he is a doctor. A wife is sacred, treasured. Even more so for a man who only has one.

“Of course,” I say, when what I really mean is, I’m sorry.

* * *

“Now that we’re alone, is there anything you’d like to say?”

No.

“It would help me to know everything. Is there anything you haven’t told your wife?”

I think of my wife, her wide chestnut eyes, the dimples on her cheeks. “There is something,” I say.

The doctor leans forward in his chair. “Another woman?”

I shake my head. “She is the only one for me. It has always been that way.”

“There’s no shame—“

“It was…something….that happened to me.”

He studies me. I can count the number of breaths I take. “Tell me,” He says.

And when I speak, I already know that I am falling. Already, it is too late.

* * *

We were told to march. We were not told where we were headed, and we did not dare ask. We started in the chill of the morning and continued past sunset. By the fifth day, most of the men’s’ feet were bloodied, the soles of their shoes peeling off.

When we finally stopped, we were ordered to help build fires. We gathered in groups warming our hands as the rebels roasted meat and ate stale crackers. We were offered none, even though our stomachs were empty and our heads light.

The rebels placed us in groups. Mine was taken over a group of trees nestling the camp.

A rebel walked around us in a circle, a rifle strapped over his back. “Bloody spies,” He spat. “Do you know what we do to spies? Show them the same courtesy they’d shown us.” He smiled and looked at us, one by one. I lowered my gaze. “Drop your clothes.”

It was unthinkable. Stripping  a man of his clothes was taking his dignity. One man—the smallest of all of us, with squirrely eyes and breath that smelled of despair—dropped his britches quietly. The rest of us stilled.

“Do you need some convincing?” The barrel of the rifle, suddenly, was shoved into the side of my head. “Go on, take them off, or I shoot.”

Shaking, I dropped my pants. The others followed suit.

I looked up into the sky, where the dusk had fallen. The sun was the yolk of an egg, stretching across the horizon. My throat burned. What would I tell my wife, my friends, my coworkers?

I was thrust forward to the ground. I spat up dirt, craning my neck, but a hand held me down. I could hear laughter as my undergarments were torn away. A chill ran up and down my spine.

The rebels were singing witch doctor songs.

We lived on a diet of two bananas a day. Two bananas, and I don’t think any of us could have stomached anything more.

* * *

There is a beat of silence, and it is shocking to find myself back in the tiny room with the cozy armchair.  The doctor studies me for a minute.

“How did you come home?”

“There was….a skirmish among the officers. They were arguing about who would get the last of their supply of coffee. One of us…took a chance, reached for one of the guns. Shots went off….some died, some escaped.”

“So you escaped.”

“I guess I was lucky,” I say, not believing my own words.

“Yes.”

I shift my position in my seat. It feels as if I am sitting on thorns. I wait for him to ask how this has affected me, what it was like. How I survived. Instead he shakes his head.

“Have you told your wife?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Then I suggest you do.”

I swallow. “What do I tell her? That her husband is a weak man?”

The doctor doesn’t deny this. Instead he stands, and without looking at me, ushers me to the door. “Tell her the truth,” He says.

* * *

My wife is resting when I enter. She lifts her head, her dark hair a curtain around her face. “You’re home sooner that I expected,” She says, standing.

“Aye,” I say.

“Well?”

I meet her eyes. “Kabirinage. My love.”

“What is it?”

I step closer to her. Our faces are inches apart, and I can smell her scent: like sweet clover and freshly fallen rain. I curl my hands into fists at my sides, telling myself I must not touch her.

“I am sorry,” I begin. “I am so sorry.”

“You have decided to take another wife?”

I shake my head no. It is not in our religion to do this. I know many men do, but we were both raised Protestant. We do not believe in polygamy.

“You should know why,” I say. “Something happened to me.”

If she is surprised, she does not express it. She waits patiently.

“I was taken prisoner,” I begin.

“I know this.”

“But you don’t know everything,” I say.

“Tell me, then.”

And so I do the only thing I can; I do what the doctor proposed and have known all along I must do.

I speak, and plant the bitter seeds of truth.

* * *

When the police come, I only feel numb. It is a familiar numbness, the same numbness that came to me after nights of being compromised. It begins in my legs and arms and makes its way to the vital regions—my heart, my chest. It seeps into my body like a serpent, like venom. But it is that venom that I need. I need it, so I will not have to feel or think.

I let the officer guide me by the hands. He asks me to state my name and I do, feeling as if I am shedding my skin. I will never be able to use my name again. I am one of the despised; I am the roaches that lay eggs in dirt covered homes.

Before I am escorted, my wife casts one last glance at me. For a minute I stare into her eyes, but what I see I do not know. Hate. Fear. Maybe pity. But mostly hate.

And I know. She hates me because her name, too, has been shamed. She hates me because she will forever be the wife of a man who is not a man at all.

* * *

When a man is raped, he is presumed to be homosexual.

Engaging in relations with another man, in Uganda, is a crime.

A crime, if convicted, that can sentence a man to a sentence of fourteen years.

Fourteen years. In fourteen years you can build a home, a family, a career, a life. In fourteen years, the love of your life can forget you. In fourteen years, your skin can collect so much grime you cannot recall what it appeared before. In fourteen years, you can forget who you are.

And yet I know it will not be long enough. I know that every minute of those fourteen years, should they come, will be filled with nightmares. I know every minute I will relive the physical and emotional agony of those nights when I was stripped into something less than a human.

Worse yet, I know those fourteen years I will dream of her.

And I will fester in the shame I have brought upon both of us.

* * *

The day is cool and crisp, the sky an icy blue so piercing it hurts to look at. On our way to the holding cell, we drive past Lake Victoria. I can see it in the distance, eerily still, with a flock of birds swooping down to wet their beaks. These birds will rest and then fly somewhere else. But they will come back. Life has a way of working out this way.

The vehicle breaks down and I am told I must walk. I do not mind. I can breathe in the air one last time. I can look at the water and pretend I am swimming beneath the surface. I watch as a young man fishes at the shore. His line is silent and still as the lake, and he looks about ready to leave when suddenly the line jerks.

Letting out a cry, he winds it in, revealing a fat fish, gasping. I wait for him to set it on the shore and gut it, but what he does surprises me. He takes the fish in his hands, letting it flail until it goes still. And then, gently, he releases it back into the water.

With a sputter of motion, the fish leaps back in, under the water, knowing if it has been given a new lease on life, it has no choice but to continue swimming and without glancing back.

Erin Jamison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her writing has been published in over fifty literary magazines, and her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She currently teaches English Composition at the University of Cincinnati-Blue Ash College and also works as a social media specialist.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

beauty, Guest Posts, Self Image

Just For Me (No Lye)

December 2, 2020
hair

By Bella Reina

I look into a mirror and the first thing I see is hair. It is a big mess of curls that at first looks black, but up close is many different colors, like myself. My hair is large and bushy, but when touched feels like the inside of a teddy bear, a bit coarse and a bit soft, also like myself.

Hair–what a thing to hold significance. It can be cut, it grows anew, it is an extension of my body that is noticeable but holds no pain. That is unlike me. I’ve had a long journey with this hair and this body.

In my baby pictures I am chubby, with my grandmother’s American features peeking out from underneath a baby afro. Round. My nickname was bolo bolo, a Cameroonian word that means balloon, to fondly reiterate my roundness to me. Growing up, my mother never had to care for her own curls because she was forced to keep them short in boarding school. When I was around two or three she realised she cannot make beauty out of this growing, thick, baby afro mix, and relaxed it. Quickly I went from round to short and skinny, with lanky arms and knobby knees. My hair did also. Because of the chemical damage it never grew past my chin, and was always in braids with colorful beads hanging down my face that the little white girls in school would comment on.

I hated it. I did not want my skinny ribs or my braids, and so I went to the hair salon every week for years to have my hair straightened out, to make beauty of it, to make my mess fall in line. And always, my hair would be straightened and afterwards, as I looked in the mirror and people would tell me how beautiful I was, I still could not believe that the girl with the short straight hair hanging by her face was real. By the end of week my hair would always become big and frizzy again, it would no longer be beautiful, it would take up space, it would not fall in line. I could not fall in line, I could not straighten myself out.

Sometime in middle school, amongst my sadness that my hair would always curl no matter how much heat I pressed to it, my nanny (who did my hair) decided she would only keep doing it if I went natural. I stopped relaxing it, I went back to beads and braids, and tried to hold my head high when other girls commented on it, although it shamed me that bolo bolo was so easy to attack through my little girl braids and beads.

Finally, in the last two weeks of eighth grade, I cut off the ends and put my hair in twists. Before eighth grade prom I took the twists down, and curls, pretty, defined, corkscrew curls framed my face for the first time. I never knew my hair could be something I wanted others to see.

I went into high school and my mess of hair was the thing I became most identifiable for. I am still short, but womanhood has changed skinny and straight into softly curved, like my hair. My hair is long now and grows up to the sky, taking up space wherever I go, and I no longer try to make myself small.
The bushy mess, for the first time, brings community, as women on the train in the Bronx nod at me and raise a fist in recognition. A new generation of little black girls look at my afro as I walk by in Central Park and do not recoil at the sight, at the statement I make. They find beauty, and more importantly, themselves. With this community still comes divide, and girls still comment, adolescent tongues sharper than ever at my refusal to conform. Somedays, when I am tired of carrying the weight of myself, I am amazed at my hair’s ability to defy the gravity of these comments, to remain above when I feel low. That’s unlike me, but still like me in that I too have the ability to grow to be high. I find life in the insignificance of my big, secretly multicolored, curling, messy, paradoxical hair. I look into the mirror and I’ve become me.

 

 

Bella Raina is a rising senior at Notre Dame School of Manhattan. She has been writing since she was 8 years old and has written a multitude of different pieces in varying forms, ranging from creative non-fiction to poetry. Bella has performed her poetry in school, during the Notre Dame Christmas Concert. She hope to write in college as well. (We hope she she keeps writing, too!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Friendship, Grief, Guest Posts

Hogtied Heart

November 30, 2020

By Laura Zera

When I spun up a blues playlist this morning—T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters—I wondered why I’d let months go by since I’d last listened. I know better. If there’s ever a day where my feet aren’t planted or my heart is paining, which has been most days lately, the blues set me straight. Not by taking away the discomfort; by dropping me right into the middle of it.

The first time I heard blues played live I was 21 and too-soon worldly. But I was unprepared for how that particular genre of music could twist its way into soft tissue, seep into cells. I’d traveled from Vancouver, Canada to Phoenix to buy a secondhand Jeep CJ, a realistic hare-brained scheme back then. All it took was a brief meeting with a banker in his mid-20s (I think his name was Kai). “Yeah, I’m a student with a part-time job, but those jeeps are so rust-free. Can you throw in a bit extra to cover travel?”

With six-and-a-half thousand advanced for my mission, I rode Amtrak and stayed at the youth hostel. There I met Glen, an Australian goliath who had to step in for my singular 4×4 test drive when, inexperienced with manual transmissions, I couldn’t make it around the block, thanks to my shaking legs. The vehicle was a Toyota Land Cruiser because my price range turned up nary a Jeep. I switched my search to sports cars.

At the hostel, a German engineer with a beard (so weird for 1990) delighted in explaining Mazda’s rotary engine in extravagant detail and dissuaded me from buying an RX-7. Thorsten also left a note for me with the manager. I can still see myself reading it at the front desk, confused. “It says he’s fallen in love with me.” Her smirk told me that as camp counselor to the young and restless, she’d seen this trouble before.

My partiality was for Nick, a pensive Brit who later came up to Vancouver and explained he hadn’t been himself in Phoenix. In the last part of a spell in Mexico, he visited a river with two other English travelers. They wanted to swim at a waterfall, and, feeling apprehensive, he stayed further downstream. A day later, Mexican authorities called on him to identify their bodies. He got the hell out of there, and when I met him, he’d just called the boys’ parents.

I don’t remember any women from the hostel, which fits perfectly with my dear friend Jill’s one-time remark that I always noticed the men in the room. She was right, of course. It wasn’t until 2018, when I interviewed Jenny Valentish about her book Woman of Substances, that I connected this habit to earlier sexual assaults. Yes. I always notice the men in the room.

At the time, Jill, Welsh by origin, was working illegally as a caregiver to an old Iranian woman on a ranch near San Diego. She caught a Greyhound to Phoenix and together we road-tripped through America in the car I eventually bought: a hot little Datsun 280ZX. Aside from being conned out of fifty bucks in San Francisco by a hustler who promised tickets to a fictitious mega concert and then disappeared, the trip was a smash hit. I dropped Jill in Seattle because she couldn’t cross the border, for reasons different than the circumstances of today.

But back to the music. A group of us from the Phoenix hostel found ourselves at a tiny club called Char’s Has the Blues. I stood for eons in front of the stage, beer in hand, C-PTSD undiagnosed, and felt that music like it was pouring out of me, instead of into me.

I looked up Char’s online today, the first time in 30 years I’ve checked to see if it was still around. A month ago, it was put up for sale, a casualty of COVID.

Jill died from cancer in January.

A kid today with some miles to travel and living to do cannot in good conscience hang out, shopping for well-preserved Jeeps by day and finding their soul at night.

I was in Phoenix for all of five days.

Thank the Lord, we still have the blues.

Laura Zera’s essays have been published by the New York Times, the Washington Post, DAME, Full Grown People, Catapult, and others. She is a mental health advocate for The Stability Network, has completed a book titled Jump: A Memoir About Skating and Survival, and is working on a novel set in South Africa.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Forgiveness, Grief, Guest Posts

Forgiving Mom…Finally

November 29, 2020
day

By Fredricka R. Maister

“Sorry, girls, but the car won’t start so I can’t drive you to the pool today,” Mrs. Gilbert told Joanne and me that hot summer morning. The date, forever rooted in my memory:  August 8th, 1961.

I may have been a clueless 12-year-old kid, but I instantly suspected Mrs. Gilbert was lying.  I didn’t believe for a second that her car had mechanical problems.  Besides, she could have used her husband’s car.  Dr. Gilbert was working in his home medical office, his car sitting unused in the driveway.

I don’t know why, but I could just feel that something catastrophic had happened or was about to happen, something unspeakable. Why else would Joanne and I have had to stay cooped up inside all day, cut off from the sunny outside world?

Strange as it may seem from today’s vantage point, my dread-filled focus and feelings that day centered on nuclear annihilation, World War III, the end of the world. As a baby boomer growing up during the Cold War, I could not forget the  “duck and cover” drills we regularly practiced during the school year. Crawling under my desk, my arms covering my head, I would silently wait,  contemplating what death would feel like in a nuclear blast while still hoping for the “All Clear” bell to sound.

Even though I never heard any news reports or air raid sirens warning us to seek refuge in a fallout shelter, that doomsday consciousness haunted me all day at Joanne’s.  Of course, I kept my thoughts to myself; Joanne would have laughed at me had I told her we were going to be blown to smithereens.

I had slept at Joanne’s house the night before, the latest in a succession of sleepovers at friends’ houses since my 54-year-old father had suffered his first heart attack three weeks before.  While my sister, who was four years younger than I, stayed at home with Mom, I was passed around “like a hot potato” from friend to friend.  I couldn’t remember when I last slept in my own bed; I sometimes wouldn’t see my mother and sister for days.

Physically ousted from my home, I was kept out of the loop on the latest medical updates about my dad’s condition. On the rare times I was there, I would eavesdrop on my mom talking on the phone with family and friends.  That’s how I found out my dad had suffered two heart attacks and was still in the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital.

I once cornered my mother in her bedroom, my need to know the truth about my dad trumping any upset I might cause her. “Is Daddy going to die?” I blurted to which she responded with an evasive “We hope not.”  I never asked again.

For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone and abandoned, but no one seemed to notice or care. I found myself pretending that my home life was normal, and that my dad would soon be discharged from the hospital.  No one ever sat me down and explained just how precarious his medical condition was.

I recall Leslie, another friend I stayed with during my father’s hospitalization, telling me one night before we went to bed, “Let’s pray for your dad.” I didn’t comprehend why we needed to pray when his condition didn’t seem life-threatening.  The possibility that he might die eluded me then and during my stay at Joanne’s house.

In retrospect, I don’t think I consciously connected the dots between Mrs. Gilbert’s “lie” and my father’s health status.  I was too obsessed with being obliterated by an atom bomb.

Joanne and I passed that endless day playing board games and Solitaire.  I kept watching the clock for the hours to pass, but time stood still as my anxiety spiked.  I needed to be with my mom and sister when the bomb was going to drop, but I had to wait until Joanne’s parents could drive me home that evening.

***

An ominous quiet filled the car.  Although I looked forward to seeing my family, the anxiety and dread that had surged inside me all day only intensified.  When Dr. Gilbert didn’t turn the car into the street leading to my house but proceeded to my uncle’s home where Mrs. Gilbert said the family had gathered, I felt my heart sink into the pit of my stomach.  Why was my family gathering anywhere?  Why weren’t my mom and sister at home?  I suddenly realized that the end of the world I had anticipated had been nothing but a figment of my imagination.  All my foreboding had related to an inexplicable inner knowing that my father had died.

By the time we arrived at my uncle’s home, I could no longer deny my new “fatherless” reality. As I raced up the steps to the door where my uncle was already waiting for me, Mrs. Gilbert called out, “ Honey, be strong.”

Finally, privy to the truth, I learned that my father had died at 8 o’clock that morning.  His nurse had just turned on the television. When she turned around to say something to him, he had already succumbed to a massive heart attack that ended his life.

And, just as I suspected, Mrs. Gilbert had lied about the car.  She and my mother had spoken after Dad passed that morning and decided I should be kept away from the pool to avoid running into someone who might say something about his death.

***

That fateful August day back in 1961 has left an indelible impression on my memory and my psyche, more so than my dad’s funeral the following day, which I barely remember.  A few days after his funeral, my mother sent me away, not to mourn but to have fun at the Jersey Shore where my cousins had a bungalow. I was never asked if I wanted to go; I know I would have preferred to stay at home. For over a week as I rode the ocean waves and biked the boardwalk, I, the expert at the “pretend” game, acted as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary had happened.

Unresolved feelings of anger and abandonment associated with the weeks before and after my dad’s abrupt passing followed me into adulthood with an emotional vengeance.  Even now, more than 50 years later, my emotions often feel raw and palpable and I can’t seem to let them go.  Whenever I hark back to those feelings in sessions with my therapist, she tells me that their grip on me keeps me stuck in the past, unable to embrace the present and move forward into the future.

She reminds me that the intentions of family members and friends like Mrs. Gilbert were all well meaning.  In the 1950s and 60s, the priority, as a society, was to shield children from the trauma of a loved one’s death.  There was little recognition that children were emotionally sturdier than they appeared and could handle the truth.

***

I recently had an honest talk with my family about that turbulent time and its emotional impact on my life.  As I expected, my sister justified my mother’s decisions.  “I was in day camp then.  Mom was at the hospital with Daddy all day.  She couldn’t leave you alone at home to fend for yourself. You were only 12-years-old.  As a mother, I would have done the same thing.”

I assumed my nephew, whom I call “my soul child” because our emotional temperaments are usually in sync, would be more sympathetic to my side in our family drama.  Instead, he told me that although it might be cathartic for me to tell the story from my “angry” perspective, I should put myself in “Grandma Bea’s shoes at that time.”

The need to empathize with my mother, who bore the brunt of my anger, has not been a new concept for me. I just never felt motivated to re-visit that part of my past without the resentments and bitterness I’ve been dragging around for decades.  However, since my heart-to-heart sharing with my family, not to mention the emotionally mellowing and wising up that seems to occur as one ages, I’ve felt a shift in attitude, a possible readiness to extricate myself from all that psychological baggage.  To that end, my nephew’s words “to put myself in Grandma Bea’s shoes at that time” resonated, flashing me back in time.

I see my 45-year-old mother, grappling with the reality of sudden widowhood, alone among her friends dealing with the death of her spouse and the father of her young children.  Unlike today, there were no how-to books, self-help articles or support groups; as a woman conditioned to hiding her innermost feelings, seeking professional help was never an option.

Unsupported by the 1950s-1960s culture bent on protecting children from parental illness and death, my mother was muddling through as best she could.  In fact, when I eventually confronted her decades later about her “hurtful” behavior, she apologized, explaining  “I was just doing what I thought was best for you.” I had no doubt that her remorse was sincere, but I still held onto my grievances, unable to cut her some slack.

Despite the blame and anger I have felt towards my mother, now deceased for over a decade, I have never ceased to stand in awe of her strength and resilience in surviving the death of my father.  His sudden passing not only left her a widow but a widow without money.  Our family’s financial status took a sharp downturn to the point of bankruptcy.  My mother sold our lovely house and we moved into a cramped rental apartment she could only describe as “indescribable” in another part of town where my sister and I had no friends. Mom had to go to work immediately.  She had nursing credentials, but the pay was low and the shifts long.

In a matter of a few months, I watched my mother morph from a dependent housewife into a struggling breadwinner who would single-handedly raise two daughters—no mean feat for a single mom.  I might add that those two daughters, despite the trauma of losing a father at a young age, matured into high-functioning, responsible and independent women.  For that, I credit my mother and am most grateful.

***

I have always been a firm believer that people, places and things appear in your life, when the desire to heal is greatest. Such was the case when I came across this quote in an inspirational book I read each morning:  “Forgiving is not about forgetting, it’s letting go of the hurt.”

I’d never encountered that quote nor heard of its author, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) who, according to the National Women’s History Museum, “…became one of the most important black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders and government officials of the twentieth century.”

The timing could not have been more appropriate as the quote matched up with my growing willingness to let go of the hurtful emotions of my past. Had Mary McLeod Bethune’s inspiring words caught my attention for a reason? After more than 50 years, could it be time to finally forgive Mom?

THE END

When I finally was ready and able—emotionally and creatively–to address my dad’s death in my writing some 15 years later, that fateful day back in August 1961 became the inspiration for my poem, “To My Father.”

TO MY FATHER

Bells of doom

rang in the day.

World War 3, I thought

being a child of the 50’s.

Something was out of tune

silencing all gay songs.

Even time trudged by

like dead weight falling

each plunge—

a dirge of doom.

Why a shroud

over the sun

this day—

until,

Grown-ups’ tears

later revealed the truth to bear:

The bells had tolled for you

at 8:00 am

while my eyes were just opening

to the prospect of a new day—

your doomsday.

Fredricka R. Maister is a freelance writer, formerly of New York, now based in Philadelphia, whose personal essays have been published in a variety of print and online publications, such as The Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, New York Jewish Week, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, the Forward, Big Apple Parent, The Writer, OZY.  She has also appeared in the anthologies, ‘The Man, Who Ate His Book: The Best of ducts.org, Volume II and Wising Up Press’ View from the Bed/View from the Bedside.

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Pay Me In Attention

November 27, 2020

By Francesca Louise Grossman

My eyes are too far apart. My skin isn’t rosy or olive, the two options on the online makeup matching quiz. My hair is mid-length and curly. Sometimes frizzy, but I can usually get that under control with some of the expensive hair gel I steal from my mom. My lips are thin. My eyebrows aren’t thick enough. My lashes are nubs. 

My thighs do not gap.

I stand in front of the mirror in my attic bedroom and look at myself. My mother says at sixteen this is the best I’ll ever look, so I should cherish it, but if she’s right I might as well shoot myself now. Thankfully she’s not right about most things. Except the hair gel. 

If only I were pretty. It’s such a lame thing to think, but I can’t help thinking it. If I were pretty, I would be able to walk down the halls in school without slouching. I would be able to raise my hand in class without worrying that my classmates will see my pocked face. I would be able to get my best friend to fall in love with me instead of treating me like a friend with benefits. 

But I’m not pretty. And I know that. And so does he.

I hear my phone buzz. I scan the room and zero in on a pile of sheets on the floor from when I kicked them off last night in the heat. Summer is so gross in New England, and my parents still haven’t put in central AC in our house. They say I can use a window unit if I want to go back down to my old room on the second floor, but I set up my stuff in the attic three months ago and no way I’m moving back downstairs. For now I will fry. 

It’s worth it to be two whole floors away from my parents. They aren’t terrible, but it’s too hard being an only child. Why they stopped at one is anyone’s guess because my mother’s suffocation is enough for at least three daughters.

I shake out the sheet and my phone bounces on my makeshift rug, a bunch of beach towels laid out on the floor because my mother said I was not to bring my shag rug from my old room up into the dusty unfinished attic. I scramble to pick it up. 

Where are you? It’s my best friend, Walter, the very same one with the benefits. We have to go to Annemarie’s party!!!! 

Last thing I want to do. I love hanging with Walter alone, just the two of us, but as soon as we’re around other people, he forgets I’m alive. 

When? 

Tonight!  

I’d so much rather just hang with Walter at home. 

Ugh, I text.

Shut up you’re coming

You’ll owe me 

The text lingers. 

Like a party would kill you, he adds.

It might 

Crystal

OK fine what time? 

9:30. i’ll come get u 

Fine

I throw the phone onto my bed, an old cot that my mother put up in the attic for when my cousins come for Christmas. It’s covered with some couch cushions from a springless loveseat that’s pushed in the corner.

 

I go back to the mirror, turning this way and that, trying to ignore the pimples that have ravaged my cheeks, squeezing my stomach to approximate flatness, trying to see myself as maybe a sixteen year old boy could see me if I could just look a little bit better. 

Maybe working out would help. Maybe not. 

 The truth is I actually don’t really care about most of the sixteen year old boys who might see me. I only care about one. I’m as cheesy as the 80’s movies my mom makes me watch with her when I’m sick and can’t refuse. I am desperately in love with Walter, and I have been all my life. It ripped my heart out when he told me he didn’t feel the same way about me.

It wasn’t long ago. A few weeks. I thought things were going well. I thought we were both on the same page. We had been hooking up for a couple of months, nothing major, making out in his room or my attic. He had his hand up my shirt. I was sitting on his lap. And then I made the mistake. 

He was kissing my neck, making his way up to my ear. His palm lay flat on my boob, like he was going to squeeze but was waiting for something. He stopped, took a breath and looked at me. For a minute neither of us spoke. Then he smiled, kissing my nose. 

“I love you,” I said. It slipped out. 

Walter coughed. In my face. He coughed in my face and I swear he laughed, just a little. 

“Crystal, you know what you mean to me,” he said. 

“What do I mean to you?” 

“Don’t do this, don’t screw with this, you’re my best friend.” 

“But that’s it,” I didn’t want to say it, but I couldn’t help myself. He was still so close to my face, his hand was still up my shirt. I could feel myself starting to sweat. 

“I don’t want to ruin what we have,” he said. 

“Which is what?”

Walter took his hand from my chest and scooted up to the top of the bed. He ran that very same hand through his hair and looked at the ceiling. 

“I’m sorry Crystal, I just don’t feel that way about you.” 

I should have been mad. I should have yelled at him for taking advantage of the situation, told him I wasn’t an object he could play with. I should have thrown him out. But this wasn’t just some guy. This was Walter. He was my very favorite person in the world, my best friend. And he hadn’t promised me anything. 

“OK Walter,” I said. 

He took my hand. “I’m sorry.” 

Me too. I thought, but this time I kept my mouth shut.

Later that night, after Walter had gone home, I lay in my cot staring at the ceiling. What would I have to do to get Walter to feel the way I did? What would it take to make him see me like that? How could I make a change?

 

That was weeks ago, but I feel the same. Rejected. The next morning, I do my face for school. I put as much foundation on as I can, slathering concealer over the hot red bumps that cover my cheeks. I line my lips with a brownish mauve, dabbing a little gloss in the center as the YouTubers have taught me. I line my eyes in black flicking it out a little from the corner of each eye. I brush on mascara and powder my whole face. Hopefully everything won’t melt off in the heat. I look ok, passable.

I go downstairs to the kitchen, walk to the pot and pour myself a cup of coffee. 

“Morning Hun,” my mom says, coming over to hug me. I don’t want to mess up my face so I pull away, something she misinterprets as me not wanting to be close to her. She thinks I hate her, which just makes me hate her. 

“When are you home today?” she asks. 

This question. If I answer it, she’ll be waiting for me, and get upset if I’m “late.” If I don’t, she’ll think I’m hiding something. 

“Text me later and I’ll tell you,” is as much as I can give her. I grab a banana from the bowl on the table, and make my way to the bus. 

 

About an hour later I’m in math. I touch the grooves on the old wooden desk. Years of teenagers have scratched the surface with points from a pencil, a protractor, a ruler, a pen. Teachers can see if we’re writing something, but they never notice us etching, slowly and silently, at the pace of a math class.

I stare at my desk to avoid looking at Walter. Watching him from the back, out of the corner of my eye, even though I know he can’t see me, I notice him squirm. I can make out his waist between the wooden slab and metal rungs that keep the chair upright. I can see how the fabric of his faded tee shirt follows the curve of his sides, grazing him, almost meeting the waist of his jeans. That inch of skin. It is so pale, and so smooth, I can imagine, without much effort, how it might feel, how it might taste.

Today Mr. Parker is talking about sines and cosines in the faint background, but my thoughts are far away from anything resembling Trig. I trace my gaze upward, landing on the back of Walter’s neck. His dark brown curls reach his earlobes and I wonder if they tickle him. I’m jealous of his hair for getting to be so close. 

The bell rings. Mr. Parker looks directly at me as he says, “We’ll have a quiz on this on Monday.” His look suggests he knows I wasn’t paying attention. I hide behind my hair, and

gather my graph paper, completely blank, following  the herd of sophomores out of the classroom. 

I squeeze past kids clogging the hallway, stumbling, and there he is. I tuck my hair behind my ear and smile. My heart beats too fast. My hands get too sweaty. This is my best friend. I know him. He knows me. I don’t understand why my insides don’t know this. I have to be cool. 

“Hey Crys.” 

He waited for me. 

“Hey Walter,” I say, and I can’t help it, my stomach flutters. I have told myself a million times to let it go. But look at that hair, those eyes, his smooth cheeks. 

Truth is, I’m pretty sure he loves me too. He just won’t admit it. I’m the one he calls when he needs a pep talk. I’m the one he texts to go out when his parents are fighting. I’m the one who knows he’s afraid of the dark, and sleeps with the TV on. 

“Wanna walk me home?” he asks.

My pulse speeds and I nod, my voice failing me. This happens all the time. My brain forgets. It makes new realities that I believe. 

Walter hooks his arm through mine. It’s almost summer and our arms are bare. A shiver runs up to my shoulder from where our skin touches. 

Walter leads me to the big double doors that go out behind the high school. His house is on the far side. We walk slowly, making our way to the other side of the wide set of fields, where the younger kids have their soccer games and the JV girls play field hockey in the fall. 

Walter is telling me things like the party is going to be epic, they should make a pact to drink only two beers so they don’t get out of control, should he wear jeans or shorts? but it’s the thick arm hair in the crease of his elbow that I’m focused on, so unlike my own smooth crease it feels almost pornographic. 

 

When we get to the edge of the first field, Walter pulls me towards a large oak, one side covered in a florescent green moss. He leans me up against it, taking me by the hips. Why does he do this? Doesn’t he know what this does to me? 

One of the many problems with the situation is that Walter is more than willing to fool around in secret. This should infuriate me; and I sort of wish it did, but I let it happen because, in a way, it thrills me. If we hook up in secret then I’m a secret, and if I’m a secret I’m worth keeping secret. Right? Could that be a good thing? 

I wish that I believed that. I wish that were true. But I think Walter wants to hook up with me when we’re alone in the woods because he doesn’t want anyone to see us. That kind of secret is not the nice kind. 

Walter puts a palm on my shoulder. Our chests brush up against each other. Sparks fly up my leg and land between them, but I don’t flinch. I don’t want anything to stop what is about to happen. 

“Should I stop?” Walter asks, trailing one finger along my collar bone. 

“Yes, no, yes, stop,” I answer, even though I know in my mind this is all crazytown. Teenage boys are obsessed with sex, my mother would tell me, it doesn’t mean to them what it means to you. Be careful with your heart, Crystal. 

 

He looks at my mouth and I can’t look away. The small woods are quiet. I can barely hear school letting out through the trees. 

I’m aware of how I must seem to him at this moment, sweat pouring down my back, the sides of my head wet behind my ears. My foundation must be dripping down my face in globs. I am not a polished girl. I know girls like that, of course, who somehow never sweat, whose shirts are never wrinkled and whose hair is never mussed. Walter could have any of them. He could have anyone. But right now he’s here with me, and that has to count for something. I glance back at school. It seems so far away, a canopy of trees guarding us against all of the possible teenage eyes and gossiping mouths. 

A soccer ball comes bounding through the trees and hits Walter in the leg, dissolving our sun dappled moment. A freshman comes jogging to retrieve the ball and stops short when he sees us. He lifts his eyebrows, waits a beat and winks. Walter stands up and passes the ball back to him. “Nothing to see here,” he says. 

“Thanks, man,” the kid replies, chuckling to himself as he jogs back to the field.

The moment lost, we walk to Walter’s house, hand in hand to the basement entrance and into his room. His space is totally private, he took it over when his brother moved out. 

“You’re still up for hanging later tonight?” I ask him.

“Yes! Annemarie’s, it’ll be epic” he says, and he kisses me on the forehead. Epic. Awesome. Forehead. 

I take Walter’s hand. It’s so big, my fingers fit so nicely inside it. How does he not see how perfect this is? 

 I look at him. Walter dresses like a typical parking lot boy, low-slug jeans, tee shirts; in the winter a cracked leather jacket he inherited from his older brother. He wears faded black converse, low tops. When he smokes, which is not as often as people might think, he lifts his face towards the sky like he is praying. 

Walter walks like he carries a huge weight on his shoulders. He’s tall, almost six foot two, and he stoops, but not too much, just enough to remain mysterious. His hair falls delicately over his hazel eyes and I love nothing more than pushing the shock of it back off his forehead with the palm of my hand. Without the bangs in his face, Walter looks younger, fresh, maybe even innocent. His long black lashes are the envy of everyone, myself included. 

Once we toss our backpacks on the floor I pick up the book on his nightstand and finger through the pages. The cover of the book is ripped off so I can’t tell what it is. 

“What’s this?” I ask.

“It’s silly,” Walter says. 

“Is it for school?” I flop back on his bed, lying face up at the ceiling, turning the book over in my hands. 

“No.” He swipes it from me and tucks it in the back pocket of his jeans. The pages re-form their ripples, like they belong there. 

“What is it?” I lunge for him and Walter shimmies out of the way, arching his back away from me. I dive onto him and grab the book out of his pocket. The corner of his grey fitted sheet comes loose. 

“It’s embarrassing,” he says, flushed. “It’s nothing. It’s a book.”

“What book, asshole?” Does he think I’m not smart enough for it?

“It’s a bunch of short stories. Raymond Carver. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Oh come on.” I roll my eyes, though secretly I’m swooning.

“It’s good, I promise,” he says. 

This is one of the bazillion things I love about Walter. His mushy side. Most people don’t see it. They see a brooding bad boy with a wallet chain. But I know the real him. The deep one. The one with the soft palms. The one who reads love stories. The one who pays attention. 

 

“Look, don’t make fun of me. It’s great. It’s not what it sounds like.” He smiles. 

I grab the book from his pocket. It’s ripped up on the edges. I put it up to my nose and smell it, the thin paper scent going directly to my head. It smells like the library and cardboard and laundry detergent. And Walter. 

I put the book softly down on the bed and look up. Walter sports a sheepish grin but I can tell he isn’t really that embarrassed. 

He reaches for me and pulls me towards him. Our bodies align front to front. 

“What do we talk about, then?” I ask. 

“When?”

“When we talk about love?” 

“Crystal, come on,” he says. 

We have talked about this. I know. But I know he must feel it too. He has to. And my mind gets all muddled up between what happens and what he says. 

“I know. Don’t worry,” I say, even though I don’t mean it. 

“OK.” 

My mother texts me:

What time will you be home?

What do you want for dinner?

Crystal?

Hello?

Call me. 

“Ugh, it’s my mom, I have to go,” I say and look around for my shoes. 

“You’re coming with me tonight, though, right?” Walter asks and I sigh. I know what will happen at this party. I will go with Walter, he will stand by me until Annemarie or one of her swan-like friends walks by with their long necks and big boobs and bouncy hair and then he will leave me in the dust. I’ll know no one else there, and I’ll have to call an Uber to get home before midnight. 

“Yeah, alright, I’ll go.” 

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I can make him see me like he sees the swans. I can try, can’t I?

After dinner with my parents, I run up to the bathroom and lock myself in. I shave my legs, I scrub my face, I wash my hair with coconut shampoo. I do my face, slick my hair with gel, pick my outfit, spray perfume. I avoid the mirror, hoping that my imagination of what I could look like will catapult me into a reality in which I do. I pull on my blue halter top, tuck my racerback bra in so the straps don’t show. I put on cutoffs, ones that barely cover my butt cheeks, and I tie a sweatshirt around my waist to cover the shorts until I’m outside. As I run down the stairs to meet Walter, I catch a glimpse of myself in the windowpane. I look good. Not Annemarie good, maybe not even her swans good, but good enough for me. 

 

Walter picks me up at 9pm, which my mother thinks is “an outrageous time to go out.” He beeps the horn. 

“Boys should ring the doorbell,” she says. 

“It’s just Walter,” I say. 

“He’s a boy, right?” My mother is typing on her laptop, but his eyebrows lift up and over the screen. “I know it’s not PC for me to say,” she starts, “but do you ever think of pulling back a little from Walter? Let him come to you?” 

“We’re just friends, Mom.”

“You never have to settle for being good enough Crystal, I hope you know that,” she says. 

“What does that mean?”

“It means, my love, that there is something to be gained from letting him wait a little, letting him want more.” 

I roll my eyes but there’s a part of me that thinks she’s probably right. I know the old he chases you in the playground because he likes you and you always want what you don’t have might be antiquated and unpopular unfeminist tropes but they’re sayings nonetheless. And there’s always some truth in a saying. “Maybe,” I say, I’ll give her a maybe. She smiles, appeased. 

 I let her kiss me on the top of the head. 

“Be safe,” she said. “Home by midnight.” 

I nod and run outside, jumping into Walter’s car before my mom can say anything else. 

“You look hot,” Walter says, and kisses me on the cheek. 

I smile. I have put myself together in the best way I know how. Something that looks effortless, but took me over an hour. 

Tonight. Maybe he will change his mind tonight. 

We get to the party, park around the corner. 

Walter looks at his phone, chuckles.

“What?” 

“Just Annemarie. Nothing,” he says. 

The air hisses out of my heart. 

We go in the back way into the kitchen, where kids are lounging on the counter and playing flip cup at the table. Walter heads to the keg, pumps and pours us a beer each, mostly foam. He hands me one. 

“Thanks,” I say, leaning into him. I want him to smell the coconut, a scent I know he loves. But I want more than that. I want him to lean in towards me and kiss me. I want him to take my hand, show this kitchen of kids that I mean something to him, that we mean something to each other. 

He does not.

Annemarie appears in the doorway, a golden fairy, one hand on the doorframe, a waterfall of bronze curls tumbling down her back. The room hushes just from her presence. Annemarie is beautiful, but it’s more than that. Her face is flawless, not one red bump, not one scar, and not one smear of cover up. She wears a low cut top, red and white polka dots. The outline of a black lace bra is clear underneath. Her shorts are low on her hips. Annemarie has a raspy, breathy voice and when she clears her throat we all wait to hear it. She always sounds like she was just laughing. Like she just finished something that took her breath away. A run, a dance party, a cigarette, sex. Somehow this evokes a sense of urgency, a sense that you should pay attention to her, before she’s off again. If I’m invisible, she’s the show.

I see the change in Walter. He is no longer easygoing. He straightens up, breathes more heavily. I can almost smell him start to sweat. 

“Hey Walter,” Annemarie breathes, and I know I’ve lost already. 

“Hey wassup,” Walter says, handing Annemarie his beer. 

“It’s new,” he says. “I’ll get another.”

“Thanks Babe,” she says, taking a sip.

“I’ll be back Crys,” Walter says and follows this breathy fairy into her backyard.  I know he will not be back. 

 It feels like my belly button bumps up against the back of my throat. I take a sip of the foam in my cup just to have something to do and it goes down the wrong tube. I cough and run to the sink, leaning my head to the faucet. I see my foundation streaming onto the plastic cups already discarded. How I could think I’d be able to keep Walter away from Annemarie is now completely beyond me. I can’t compete with someone like her. 

I put my cup on the table and wipe my chin.  I’ll walk home. I’ll be back way before midnight, and my mom will be thrilled. 

I leave through the screen door, letting it slam. 

I can see Walter and Annemarie sitting on the edge of her pool, their feet dangling into the glowing aqua water. He has a hand on the small of her back, she’s stretching, exposing her midsection. He splashes at her. She laughs in a trill. I don’t know how to trill like that. 

I’m a glutton for punishment. I know this, but I can’t look away. I sit down on the grass far enough away that they won’t see me. I stare.

Walter goes inside and gets them more beers; when he’s back they lean into each other and laugh. I see him touch the curve of her spine with one long finger. 

I lay back, I can’t watch. But I can’t leave either. I close my eyes, mortified that I thought even for a minute that Walter would choose me.

I’m not sure how it’s possible, but I fall asleep there in the grass, and don’t wake up until Walter kicks me lightly on the thigh. 

“Crystal,” he says, “Come on, it’s late,” his voice is slower than normal, like he’s dragging it through honey. 

I don’t move, and he lays down next to me. 

“Was it worth it?” I ask. 

“Annemarie?” 

“Obviously.” 

“Don’t do this,” Walter has turned so that he is facing the sky, one of his arms up and behind his head, the other resting on top of my hand in the grass. 

“Don’t,” I say, pulling away. “Someone might see us.” 

Walter sighs. 

I want to be mad. I want to shove his hand away, get up, walk home like I planned. But I can’t be mad, I can’t move. I know that I’m not his girlfriend. I know the deal. 

“I think I can hear your heartbeat,” I say. 

“Oh weird, I think I can hear yours too,” he says. “Do hearts beat louder when you drink beer?” 

I laugh, turn towards him. 

I let him choose. He could easily turn away. Or he could scooch his way up and let me listen to his heart. Or he could scooch down just a little bit and face my face. 

Our heartbeats amplify while I wait. Maybe it’s just mine. The crickets buzz and the grass is wet on my side and the beer is stale in my mouth. 

Walter touches his lips to mine, gently at first. I don’t react and he kisses me harder, pulling my face toward his with his hands. He parts my lips and kisses me more deeply. As he finds my tongue, I push him softly away, our mouths staying pressed together as our bodies part, holding on. 

“Wow,” Walter says. All I can do is nod in agreement. 

Walter places a hand on the underside of my chin. Right before our lips touch again, I feel a trickle of sweat roll down the side of my face. I pray it doesn’t end up in his mouth. If it does he doesn’t say anything. He just kisses me more. Walter’s lips are cool. And soft. They taste like ocean water mixed with malty beer and just a little bit of honey. 

I know he is doing this because he’s drunk. I know he probably kissed Annemarie this same way just a few minutes ago. I know she’s the honey I taste. I know that on Monday I will still just be the best friend, and his guy friends will be asking what it was like to be with Annemarie on Friday night. I know that I should stand up for myself, tell him he needs to choose, that this isn’t fair.  Tell him I have to protect my heart. 

 

But I don’t do any of those things. I kiss him back. I pretend that this moment is all the moments. I pray someone will see us, so that our whatever this is will be out in the world. If it is out in the world then it’s real. I imagine myself with long honey hair and a see through tee shirt.I imagine the choices I might have. We sometimes have to live in the moment in front of us. We sometimes accept second place because it is so much better than losing everything. 

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, The Manifest Station, Ed Week, Drunken Boat, Word Riot, and The Huffington Post among others. She runs writing retreats and workshops internationally, and leads an annual intensive workshop at The Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University and a Doctorate from Harvard University in Education. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband and two children and is currently working on a memoir and a novel.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Family, Guest Posts, pandemic

I Could Have Run a Railroad

November 25, 2020

By Alisa Schindler

I have always loved the rain. The quiet of the sky. The soothing drone of a million hearts beating overhead. The deep grey seeps into my bones like a drug, slowly calming, and telling my brain to shhhh. There is nowhere to go; no bright and tempting sun guilting me with its happy warmth, pressing me forward to run, skip and laugh. No open, welcoming day beckoning me with possibilities. Now it is alright just to breathe and embrace that feeling where pressure simply evaporates. There is only a moody somberness, a gentle drum lulling me into peace.

When I was younger, my father used to chasten me about the bubble I surrounded myself in and accuse me of complacency. “Don’t be another boring housewife,” he’d say and gift me books by Ayn Rand hoping to inspire. “You’re a Dagny.”

I’d roll my eyes, but take the books, devouring them in private. Deep down I heard him, his message taking root in the brain I was busy ignoring, although I refused to give him the satisfaction of acknowledgment. It wasn’t like he had the right to judge, I thought. He had done nothing of substance. He was a man with huge romantic notions of the world and no follow through, all about the ‘big ideas’ and being one of the ‘beautiful people’.

To be fair, he was beautiful. Strong and masculine, with crystal green eyes that mirrored my own and thick wavy hair that had prematurely grayed. He was a legend on the ball field and the racquetball courts. With his charismatic smile, easy laugh, and love of a good party, both men and women gravitated towards him.

Even with erratic work habits, his charm, good looks and intelligence helped him survive and, at times, even thrive, in his vocation as a salesman. But that was in the 70’s and 80’s when no one looked too deeply. If they had they would have seen an addict who moved from one sad, dirty, cluttered place to another, often sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Someone who lived from paycheck to paycheck and visited his kids on the weekends at their new home with their new family out in the suburbs. Still, he always came bearing gifts and smile.

For a time.

By my twenties, his alcohol and recreational drug years were behind him, but his struggles were just beginning. I made the mistake of moving in with him after college after a failed back operation led to dependencies on pharmaceutical opiates. It didn’t take long to realize I was trapped. He needed me to shadow him as he staggered around on pain medications. He needed me as he seesawed between the lows of depression and manic bursts of energy and enthusiasm. Some days he couldn’t leave his bed, other days we played tennis. Some days I wrestled car keys from his hand; his glazed unconscious eyes in complete opposition to the strength of his anger and grasp. Other days, we sat side by side watching episodes of X-Files or Star Trek eating Tupperware bowls filled with cereal, finding moments of ridiculousness and laughing till milk came out our noses.

It was the inconsistencies of health, mental and physical, that kept me tied. The highs that reminded me of his sparkle and my childhood adoration and the lows that overwhelmed and obligated me. He had no one else. I was his sun, his moon, and his savior. But when he talked to me about stepping outside my bubble, I could see nothing but his need and my potential floating away.

Like a good first-born child, I took to my martyrdom like worker bee to queen. I dove in and let it define me; using it to separate myself, to hide, to solidify the bubble into armor, until there was only me and my struggle with his struggle.

As the years passed, I finally found a way to move out and leave him – I got married. Had babies, boy one, two and three. Created a life filled with privileges and pleasures. But through it all he was there, an umbilical rope of need and devotion connecting us.

As he aged and weakened, he softened his view of me and the world. Dagny Taggart wasn’t all that anymore. He excused my complacency and decided to extol my virtues instead. “You’re a great mom,” he’d say. “I understand why you like your bubble. The world is crazy. Your bubble is good.”    

My bubble was better than good – a wonderful husband, beautiful children, the house in the suburbs, endless books to read, writing to keep me satisfied and sane and good friends to laugh and cry – but with him attached I remained, as always, harnessed. Stuck to the ground, rooted, never taking flight. No longer sure I even wanted to.

And then, he died.

Something that was ‘a long time coming’ and should have happened decades before, took me by complete surprise. I was suddenly free from his tortuous, desperate need. I could float in the sunshine of my family, meander in and out of marshmallow clouds, drift through the lazy rainbow days of baseball, baking and boys. I could write. Or run a railroad.

Yet, the relief everyone talked about didn’t come. I missed the burden. The insanity. The ridiculousness. I missed him. The man who dreamed I could be Dagny Taggart but whose everyday life careened off the rails. The man who laughed without limits but also cried without restraint. The man who opened my eyes to the joys and horrors of the world, but also made me turn inward and away. The man who was one of the ‘beautiful ones’ who became disabled and deformed.

Maybe it was always my nature. Maybe I gravitated toward a life heavy with a responsibility that allowed me to stay shielded, my purpose small but mighty. My world limited but loved. My heart soaring in words but my feet on the ground.

I’m okay with the bubble. The smallness. The calm. The nothing.

I always loved the rain.

Alisa Schindler is a freelance writer whose essays have been featured online in the NYT, Washington Post, Brain, Child, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and The Well at Northwell Health, among others. In her spare time, she writes sexy, suburban fiction. Find out more about her at alisaschindler.com.

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Find My

November 23, 2020
phone

By Abby Frucht

I’m in bed under the covers, my phone in my hand, my eyeglasses on, locating you. The little bullseye thing twerking I invent a way to feel it in the palm of my hand, green throb with slow glow, the map of back roads and main drags so near to my face I might trace them with my tongue, disentangling them. In my hand your route stabilizes, agitates anew, then blurs to a stop at the dead end curb where that couple once parked to have sex in our yard. In a blend of moon and lamplight they stumbled out of their car and knelt on a spot of grass to fuck. It was three in the morning, just like now, so I sat naked at the window and cranked it open to watch them going right at it, their limbs paler than worms, half in and half out of Bermuda shorts. Undisturbed by their cries, you twitched in your sleep, dreaming of tennis. Later you were grateful I didn’t rouse you to join in spying on them, and so was I. It would have been like the two of us watching a movie, one I liked but you didn’t. It was way too predictable, you would say. It took forever to get there but you knew all along what was going to happen.

You’ll turn seventy three a week from this morning.

You like to joke about death, especially now, including me in the bargain.

“G’night,” I might say. “See you tomorrow.”

“Hope so,” you’ll say.

“Let me know what we should order for curbside pick-up.”

“Bones,” you’ll say.

The little cursor reconsiders and makes its way to your parking place in our driveway. To see it blinking there fills me with panicked rage. My own pulse climbs, as it did last night and the night before. My feet turn cold. I don’t like to be tricked. I don’t trust this app. There are all sorts of ways for someone smarter than me to make fools of the rubes on the opposite end of it. Even if I get up and prowl barefoot outside to see your truck where it belongs, I won’t believe what I’m seeing. I’ll feel cheated, let down, since you’re not out and about in the midst of this scourge, so I can’t stalk you any longer, follow you around. Instead I shut down the phone, then turn it back on and start the whole app up all over again, provoking myself, stoking my adrenaline in preparation for catching you clicking shut the truck door, backing out of the driveway, gliding away.

Locating… the phone confides.

It works more quickly this time, more confidently.

Oshkosh

Now

Careful not to make a sound, I snake my arm through the blankets to set my glasses and phone atop some books on the night table. My head still undercover I shimmy sideways until one of my feet meets yours. I jerk it away, then slide my whole leg nearer and sneak my toes between your ankles to get them warm.

You keep on snoring.

You in our bed.

Our bed in our room in our house on our street in this town in this world.

Now.

Abby Frucht is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and most recently, poetry. She has been published at Narrative, Virginia Quarterly and in Brevity. Her writing has received a Best of the Web citation as well as the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. She has published nine books, the most recent of which, Maids, is a collection of poetry.

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When the Mothers Are Gone, When the Mothers Return

November 22, 2020
Navajo

By Nicole Walker

Kit Carson and his men scorched the earth after they forced the Navajo people off their land, toward Bosque Redondo. Where the men destroyed peach trees the Diné had tended for three centuries, not even stumps remain. Some tamarisk mark their impossible green against the red cliffs and the red ruins, but the original life-sustaining fruit trees are gone as are the churro sheep whose fat the People rubbed into cuts left behind by pruned branches.

*

My mom calls to tell me about how she and her new boyfriend visited with her new-found son at his house for the first time with his kids. She’d given her son up for adoption before I was born. My husband teases me that now I’m no longer first-born child. This new son is very tall. I don’t think it’s fair he got the tall genes and first-child status, both.

I ask her how the visit went. She says, “well, really well. My, is he glad I didn’t abort him. He keeps telling me.”

“That’s not how abortion works. If you’d had an abortion, which you couldn’t have had, legally, he wouldn’t know he didn’t exist. It’s like every masturbated sperm complaining that it didn’t to impregnate an egg. You’re not alive until you exist.”

“I know, but he’s still really, really glad.”

“I bet,” I say. She knows I’ve had an abortion. She seems to think she’s done something right. She’s not quite telling me I did something wrong, but maybe she is. I try to feel bad about it but then I’d have to feel bad about all those misdirected spermatozoa. That menstruated egg that didn’t get her chance to replicate.

*

Kit Carson and his minions may have cut down the original orchard of trees, but the People replanted. High desert, Colorado-Plateau growing is not easy work but there is a reason the Navajo survived as long as they did where they did. There are tricks to growing and the People have been here for centuries. The Hopi, who received peach seeds from the Spanish, who live also in the high desert but further east, and who not always friends with the People, still gave peach seeds to the Diné, as a gesture toward future friendship. And although Canyon de Chelly has thick red walls of de Chelly sandstone, unique for its horizontal deposit, green things grow. To the left grows grass. To the right, Utah Juniper. In between? A mixture of pines and yucca and cactus.

Canyon de Chelly is a complicated life zone. To grow peaches here might be a miracle. Or to grow peaches here might be a logical extension to growing olives in Spain. Isn’t the Mediterranean its own kind of semi-arid climate? What is not obvious, at least not to me, is the idea of a planting trees from seeds. I am so wrapped up in horticultural bondage, I’ve only grown fruit trees from grafted rootstock. And even those have turned out first stunted, then dead. And I am lucky enough to own a hose that stretches from hosebib to rootstock. Canyon de Chelly growers must rely on spring water and rain to get their fruit trees to grow.

*

“He’s just so glad I didn’t have an abortion,” she tells me on another phone call.

I try to tell her about Schrödinger’s cat. The cat is both alive and dead inside the box. It’s only when you look that he turns out dead. “Don’t look, mom,” I tell her.

There is a lot more genetic matter in the world than there used to be. There’s a one in 420 trillion chance of you being alive right now. We are all equally lucky the world is full of green and equally cursed that the world is running out of water. The planet is getting hotter. Our genetic material swarms like a virus. The planet has a fever. Perhaps the fever will burn us off.

*

Kit Carson and his Army burned the peach trees. They also killed the Churro sheep. The Churro sheep are a strange breed. Unrefined, some say. But the women who weave prize the wool the sheep produce. The weavers tried merino wool once but it didn’t possess the sticky fiber’s tug that the Churro’s twisty follicles produced. Without peaches and without sheep, Kit Carson expected that moving The People to Bosque Redondo would be permanent. What did they have to return to?

But The People knew how to grow peach trees from seeds. They just had to wait out Carson’s savage obsession. Once he moved on to different kinds of destructions, Canyon de Chelly’s soil and water would still offer what it gave when they planted the seeds the first time. Perhaps the Hopi would gift them again on their long walk home.

*

It is my fault my mom has a new son. His wife messaged me on Facebook to say, “Hello, my husband just received a notice from Ancestry.com that your mom is his mom.” I’m pretty easy to find and open on social media. I told her to hang on. I’d be in touch.

When I told my mom about the message, I replayed for her the advertisement on Pod Save America where Jon Lovett says, “Try Ancestry.com. Find that brother that you never had. Ask you dad, hey, dad, is there something you wanted to tell me?” My mom didn’t find the joke funny. Since my sisters and I had known about her new son, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. But what do I know about the loss of children?

When I asked my mom to remind me why she told us about him, she said, “I didn’t know how your father might weaponize it during the divorce.”

The Facebook message didn’t come as a shock then. More of an opportunity to tease my mom about the benefits and drawbacks of Ancentry.com. “What kind of ancestors do we have anyway?”

“Same as we thought before. Mormon all the way down.”

*

Stephen C. Jett published an article in a 1979 issue of Economic Botany describing the cultivation of peach trees in Canyon de Chelly. “The trees in some orchards appear to be of uniform age; in other orchards, mixed ages. None of the trees attains a very large size.” Hill noted that well-cared for trees bear after 3-4 years.

As Hill observed, “a planted tree remains the property of the planter, even in the event that he abandons the land and someone else assumes the care of the tree. Trees are often planted by a father and given to his children.”[i] Children may inherit trees from their fathers, but from their mothers, they inherit animals who help trees grow. The Churro sheep supplies the women with wool. The Churro sheep supply the whole community with meat. The connections between sheep and tree are integral. Rendered fat from the Churro sheep is pressed into wounds left behind by cut limbs. Sheep fat is rubbed on seeds to help them geminate. Rams’ horns line the edge of the orchard or even hang from the branches of trees to strengthen the trees.

To build bodies in the semi-arid climate requires a wide network. The thread of the sheep fat and wound looped into a weave. The ram’s head calcium plaited into the dirt. The rendered fat interlaced between the peach pit’s rivulets. This cross-species blending orchestrated by the matriarchs since long before the Spanish brought their peach pits to the Hopi. That existed before Kit Carson rounded up the women and children and marched them to Fort Redondo.

*

I am trapped at home with my 14-year-old daughter during a virus outbreak. This pandemic is forcing us on lockdown but we aren’t as quarantined as our Navajo neighbors to the north. Because the virus spread so quickly on The Nation, I don’t imagine this will be the last pandemic we’ll suffer. As the climate warms, I imagine the melting ice releasing all kind of novel viruses. The swine flu hit just a few years ago but the corona virus is first pandemic where we’ve been told to wear masks and to stay away from public places.

My daughter, Zoe, is beautiful, hilarious, athletic, and brilliant. She’s also a pain in the ass while we’re waiting for everyone to develop an immunity to a disease we’ve never known. I ask her to come plant some pea seeds with me. The package says, plant these 6-8 weeks before the last frost. I think it’s late in the season but maybe I’m on target. It’s hard to tell with climate change. Maybe we’ve already seen the last frost. Maybe it will snow another two feet at the end of April.

She declines my offer to come plant. I talk Max, who is 10 and less of an automatic-no, to press the pea seeds into the garden box filled halfway full of store-bought dirt that we got lazy and ran out of money to fill to the top of the wooden frame. The garden box 4 feet wide by 8 feet long by 3 feet tall. We can’t grow in the regular ground. The dirt is poor. The deer will eat whatever we plant if we don’t plant it in this box that’s wound with plastic, protective fencing. Whose peas will these be?

I look at Zoe’s skinny frame and cannot imagine either the sex or the zygote reproduction. Or rather, I can imagine. With too many folds and body parts, too many lips, I gave her a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves like my mother gave me. My mom did not ask me to plant peas with her. I don’t know if it was because she preferred to plant alone or just didn’t want to hear the automatic no of the 14 year old species. I take solace is Zoe’s resistance to planting. Not interested in owning or being owned, she is not into boys and not into peas.

*

The pandemic has hit the Navajo Nation hard. I was talking to the teacher-fellows in the Diné Institute.

“It was The Gathering,” Carol said.

“What gathering?”

“Oh, every year in New Mexico. The New Brotherhood Church holds a gathering. Everyone from churches all around gather.”

“They should have canceled it,” Maria argued.

“I didn’t go.”

“I didn’t either.”

The Navajo Times reports the number of cases every day. Today, 3465. 100 deaths.

A lot of families on the reservation live closely together. Some don’t have running water. It’s hard to convince yourself to sing Happy Birthday two times if you have to drive to Flagstaff or Shiprock or even Tuba City to fill your tank. No one wastes water on the reservation. Even the peach trees know to inhale water from the air.

*

I always thought my mother was militantly pro-choice. She drove me to the abortion clinic for my first abortion. The nurse hurt her feelings when they made her stay in the waiting room instead of holding my hand through the procedure.

It was for the best that she hadn’t heard the doctor tell me not to have sex so young. I wanted to tell the doctor it wasn’t my idea, the sex, the abortion. I think my mother would have yelled so hard at the doctor, he may have rather sucked his own ear drums out. I can imagine him taking the doctor by the shirt collar to the neighbor boy who was supposed to be my babysitter and say, “Tell him about how young she is.”

Or, maybe she wouldn’t have. There are things that are said in girls’ bedrooms between mothers and daughters and things that are said when the boys are around. Perhaps she would have agreed with the male doctor. I mean, I agree with the doctor. No one should have sex that young whether they want to or not.

*

A woman takes a peach pit and rubs Churro fat into its folds. While the male members of the tribe might own the branches, she owns the dirt below. She tucks her hands into dirt. Later, she tucks her hands into wool. Women are hand tuckers. They press their hands within the dirt, through the hair, into the birth canal. They can bring out life in the form of a plant or a blanket or a baby. They can bring out a different kind of life that may look like a disorganized skein but this unwoven fetus is woven into a different story.

Kandace Littlefoot for Truthout writes, “As a Diné woman raised by my maternal grandmother and my sisters, I know that respecting someone’s right to make their own reproductive health decisions is a value deeply rooted in our sovereign Indigenous communities. In our matrilineal society, women have always had direct autonomy over our lives and our reproductive health care decisions. Historical accounts show women and pregnant people in our society have engaged in some form of abortion over generations. I support abortion access because of my Indigenous matriarchal values and traditions — not in spite of them.

Shí éí Kandace Littlefoot yinishé. (I am Kandace Littlefoot.)

Tséníjiíkinií nishłį, Kinliichíinii bashishchiin, Tsédeeshgizhnii dashicheii, dóó Táchii’nii dashinalí, ákót’éego Diné Asdzáán nishłį. (I am born for the Honey Comb Rock People/Cliff Dwelling People, born to the Red House People, my maternal grandfather is the Rock Gap People and my paternal grandfather is the Red Running Into the Water People; in this way, I am a Diné woman.)[ii]

From what I understand, the Diné aren’t more or less conflicted than anyone else about abortion, but some members of the Diné Nation do go on record to say, in a report entitled Indigenous Women’s Reproductive Rights: The Indian Health Service and Its Inconsistent Application of the Hyde Amendment, written in October of 2002, that “Traditionally, in Native American communities, matters pertaining to women have been the business of women. All decisions concerning a woman’s reproductive health were left up to her as an individual, and her decision was respected. Oftentimes a woman would turn to other women within her society for advice, mentoring, and assistance concerning reproductive health. Within traditional societies and languages, there is no word that is equivalent to “abortion.” Traditional elders knowledgeable about reproductive health matters would refer to a woman’s knowing which herbs and methods to use “to make her period come.”[iii]

But then there is strong resistance to abortion from some members of Native American communities that, because of forced sterilization and reproductive control by the US Government, Navajo women shouldn’t have abortions. Elizabeth Terrill, writing a guest column for The Navajo Times, in January 2020, writes, “Precisely because of our history of being discarded and disdained, we have an obligation to stand for those who are today being denied the rights that we have fought so hard to obtain.

Today, unborn Native Americans are the most vulnerable among us and they are under assault from many sides. By our culture we know the importance of our children. Our children are our future, and our children are the heart and soul of our families, clans, and tribes.”

Are you a peach pit or are you a sheep? Do you need a little pruning or do you sacrifice yourself for your community? Some Diné women rub the fat into the peach pits. Some of weave blankets. Some work at Walmart. Some turn arid ground into peach trees. Some trees need pruning, some seeds need fat, some wool needs to be pulled and tugged rather than shorn.

*

When the pandemic hits, my mother is living in her rented condo with the owner of the condo. It worked out when my mom was single but now she has a new boyfriend. They’re supposed to move in together but the pandemic seems to hold them up.

“Mom. You guys were supposed to move on January 31st.”

“He wants to finish the floors. We’re almost done painting.”

“Mother, you are 73 years old. You shouldn’t be painting.”

“I think I’ll move into your sister’s for awhile.”

“Are things not working out with Bill?”

“They’re great. I just don’t want him to get irritated with me.”

“Valerie will get irritated with you,” I told her.

“Yes, but she can’t get rid of me. I’m her mother.”

*

I put a land acknowledgement at the bottom of my signature line. I walk on the land that the People and their ancestors walked on before me. It’s not just their land but the water we take, pumping from Red Lake under the reservation to our pipes in Flagstaff.

I add the land acknowledgement but that is words and it’s really my body that’s taking place. My body is taking up space. It is space my body doesn’t need to take, but I don’t know where to put my body.

*

My mom texted me to say, “Have I told you lately that I love your smile.”

My mom never texts me.

“What made you text me that, mom?”

“I just saw the pic of you, the hat, and the cat. Hug emoji.”

Women build bodies through the telephone. Women build through the furniture they move, or don’t move. Through their clothes. Their hair. Their weavings. Through their menstrual pads and IUDs, and their kids. They tell stories through the plants they grow and the water they carry to the plants from the spring over half a mile away. They cook the lambs. They strain the broth. They take the fat skimmed from the top and rub it into peach pits. Those lines on the peach pits they recognize as bark on the tree, as the knot of a cervix, the pleading lotic of a son she’d always wished she’d had. I can’t regret abortions because the strings of this horizontal story pulled me one way and another. I am just a cat in a box. It’s unfortunate that a man owned the box. My mom used to swear men were nothing but trouble. But that tall son of hers is made something out of nothing, like all good children. He is full of flesh and he looks just like my mom.

When I met mom’s new son, my sister wouldn’t join us. She called me, “I don’t know, but this whole thing just makes me cry.”

“This whole thing is just weird. But think of it this way. Now we have a bigger family. We’re growing like spider webs. Walker blood everywhere.”

“Mom’s last name wasn’t Walker when she had him. Neither is his.”

“She’s not going to love him more than us,” I try to console her.

“You’ve seen how she is with her grandsons. They can do no wrong.”

If there is one magical force in the world, it’s making something out of almost nothing. Sperm and egg, so small.

I remember the book my mom and dad read to me about how babies were made. A pencil dot, almost invisible, for the egg. Sperm even smaller than that. But some electric connection between the two leads to replication after replication. All that mitochondrial DNA doubling and doubling.

My mom’s new son is very tall, I tell you again. Six foot three at least. I am a foot shorter. He probably weighs as much as me and my sister combined. So much mass in the form of a really nice guy. It is possible my mother will love him more than her daughters.

*

The miracle of mass is not necessarily miraculous. Replication for the sake of replication isn’t automatically impressive or useful. Yeast grows. Plants grow. Fetuses grow. But so grows the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The amount of fossil fuels burned. The temperature of the plant. The number of people dying from the pandemic. The number of species going extinct. Growth for the sake of growth doesn’t a mother make. If a seed doesn’t germinate, even with sheep fat scrubbed into its crevices, only shows the planter, the soil, the sun, the rain, and the sheep understand the nature of seeds.

*

The planet doesn’t need more mass or more people. Some climate scientists say that if we planted a trillion trees, we could cancel out a decade’s worth of greenhouse-effecting-carbon. Donna Haraway, in her book Staying with the Trouble likes the slogan, “Make Kin Not Babies.” Then someone said, well, it might not work. Then, someone else said, there is nowhere to put the trees. Then someone said, the oceans absorb 50% of the carbon. Then someone else said, if they planted them on ice, they’d actually make the planet hotter, since white ice reflects yellow sun heat.

But some Indigenous People, like the Swinomish in the Pacific Northwest, are planting trees right now. Mass is the measure that makes women choose to direct their lives non-child-wise. It’s not the fear of roots or becoming rooted. Planting 8 billion trees won’t save us. Planting 8 billion trees won’t not save us. It’s the verb rather than the number that matters.

*

When I meet my mom’s new son and his wife at a restaurant, I am as short as ever. My family’s one gift is to try to make strangers feel as comfortable as possible at the very first meeting (and then pull that rug out from under by the end of the meeting) so my mom’s new son is happy to follow my mom’s lead to tease me about my height. There’s the using my head as an elbow rest. There’s the ‘can I reach that for you?’ There’s the, ‘oh sorry I tapped your foot with my foot. I didn’t know your feet reached the ground.’

There’s the picture of my mom and my mom’s new son. Their faces match. I can’t if they look more alike than me and my mom or if it’s the newness that makes them look surprisingly identical.

I don’t feel anything. My stomach is not in knots.

There’s something body-less for me in this moment. I don’t know what to order from the menu. I can’t tell if I’m hungry or not. I look to my mom to give me some advice on what to order but she’s busy trying to talk her new son into sharing a Reuben with her.

Maybe in revenge, I will become a vegetarian. “Want to come over for dinner, mom? I’m making ancient grain bowls.”

That will teach her.

*

When the Diné returned from Redondo, when they found their peach trees burned, their sheep slaughtered, they took turns collecting peach pits hidden between blades of grass in what was then, at least still, a fertile valley. They found old ram bones to mark the rows. Without any sheep fat to moisten the seed, they didn’t have a lot of faith that anything would grow. But they planted the seeds anyway and waited for three years for the seeds to germinate. Now the Diné living near Canyon de Chelly have new peach trees that are just as beloved as the old ones. They have found some new sheep. The children, even the female ones, have inherited a few trees, some rendered fat, and a puff of wool—not too much but possibly enough substance to sustain their bodies another three centuries or more, if the rain comes back in time.

[i] Jett, Stephen C. “Peach Cultivation and Use among the Canyon De Chelly Navajo.” Economic Botany, vol. 33, no. 3, 1979, pp. 298–310. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4254079. Accessed 3 Apr. 2020.

[ii] https://navajotimes.com/opinion/essay/abortion-is-not-a-solution-for-native-women/

[iii] http://prochoice.org/pubs_research/publications/downloads/about_abortion/indigenous_women.pdf

Nicole Walker is the author of Sustainability: A Love Story (2018) and the forthcoming collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet. (2019). She has previously published the books Where the Tiny Things Are (2017), Egg (2017), Micrograms (2016), Quench Your Thirst with Salt (2013), and This Noisy Egg (2010). She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story (2019) with Sean Prentiss and Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (2013) with Margot Singer. She is the co-president of NonfictioNOW and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award and a noted author in Best American Essays. She teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ.

 

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November 20, 2020

By Cameron L. Mitchell

She didn’t know he was such a troubled sleeper until after they moved in together.  He’d had a problem with sleepwalking for as long as he could remember, he said.  Even on the best of nights, he tossed and turned.  She slept like a rock, on the other hand, drifting off almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.  They had other differences, of course, like any other couple, but they felt hopeful, like they could overcome anything.  Before long, she couldn’t imagine her life without him, though she worried about the sleepwalking issue when he brought it up.  He made light of it, but there was an edge to his voice she didn’t trust.

At first, the incidents seemed minor, occurring only occasionally.  She’d wake alone in the early morning, figuring he was in the bathroom.  Instead, she found him asleep on the couch, and he looked surprised when she finally woke him – and unable to recall how he got there.  Another night, the blaring sound of the television woke her, hours before dawn.  She walked into the living room to find him kneeling before the screen like a child mesmerized by his favorite cartoon.  But his eyes were closed and his face was blank; she found it unsettling, the way he was clearly asleep, sitting up like that, his face set aglow by the light of the screen.  She switched the TV off but didn’t try waking him, having heard it was dangerous to disturb someone in the midst of a sleepwalking episode.  Carefully, she nudged him down to the floor, taking a pillow from the couch for his head.  The next morning, he’d returned to his place beside her in bed.  When she told him about the night before, he laughed, saying it was ok to wake him.  She would remember next time.

And there would be a next time.

There were also long periods when everything seemed fine.  He wasn’t much for spooning since he rarely stayed in the same position for long; yet, when their bodies intertwined as one, it was a treat – even if he later pushed her away, hard enough to wake her.  Sorry, he would say the next morning with that guilty look upon his face that made her think of him as a child caught doing something wrong.  It was that look of unyielding innocence that made her love him.  She loved so many things about him.  The way he quickly averted his gaze and blushed when she caught him staring at her from across the room.  The way he made her feel like more than the sum of her parts, never less.  The way he leaned on her, the way he needed her.  The way she saw herself reflected in his wide, blue eyes, dotted with specks of green and brown – she could get lost inside his ocean of delicate colors.

But were there things she missed?  In bed one night, while gazing up at the ceiling, he said a funny thing.  Do you ever wish you could be someone else?

What do you mean?

I see people on the street, on the trains, and I imagine their lives, he continued.  Their past, the way I can’t see it on their faces, whether it’s good or bad.  They aren’t dragging it around like this big, heavy piece of luggage, you know? 

She thought about it for a moment.  Maybe falling in love is like being another person.

How?

Being able to love someone, to make room for them when you weren’t sure you could, she tried to explain.

He turned to her, smiling.  How’d I get so lucky?  He kissed her on the forehead.  Soon, they fell asleep – she fell asleep, anyway.  He struggled the way he always struggled.  She now wonders why she didn’t ask more questions to see if she could pry loose those secrets he held so close.  Things might have turned out differently if she’d tried harder.

The sleepwalking episodes came to feel like games of hide-and-seek.  He’d quietly disappear from bed, and then she’d search the apartment until she found him.  They laughed about it.  But as the incidents occurred more frequently, they also got stranger.  Despite sleeping so peacefully herself, she woke one night with a gasp, turning to find him gone.  It’s like her body sensed his absence and responded before her mind was able to catch up.  She found him in the bathroom, scrubbing the floor with his toothbrush.  He pulled away from her touch, mumbling in protest.  She gripped his face with both hands, urging him to stop.  No, he insisted.  Not until it’s done.  With more determination than she’d ever seen in him while awake, he continued scrubbing, getting down between each tile to clean the dirt away.  She eventually gave up, returning to bed without him.  The next morning, there he was by her side, smiling.  She told him about the scrubbing, and he laughed at the absurdity of it all.  They laughed together until it almost felt ok.    

Another time, she couldn’t find him anywhere.  Again, she woke with a start, keenly aware that the weight of his body beside her was gone.  Throughout their apartment she walked, calling his name.  He wasn’t standing in the dark living room corner like last time, nor was he sitting on the cold bathroom floor, scrubbing away.  When she pulled the shower curtain back, he wasn’t there either.  Back to the bedroom, she checked the closet, she checked under the bed – nothing, nowhere.  Roaming back and forth through the apartment, she started panicking.

And then a small sound came from the kitchen, a rustling that might have been a mouse beneath the sink.  She raced in and pulled the cabinet doors open.  There he was, crammed inside.  She yelled for him to wake up and started tugging at him when he wouldn’t.  She gripped his shoulders, yanking until she finally pulled him out.  He hit the floor with a heavy thud, waking immediately.  Again? he asked, startled.   

Again, she answered.

Huddled together on the floor, they soon broke into laughter, marveling over the fact that he’d somehow managed to fit himself inside such a small, cramped space.  She carefully checked him over, running her hands across his chest, his back, his arms – it didn’t seem like he’d gotten anything hazardous on him from all the cleaning products and insect sprays.  She found a few scratches on his back, but nothing else.  Still, he went off to shower, just in case.  She went back to bed.  She didn’t fall asleep again until he returned to his place beside her, his hair damp, his skin warm.  Even then, it took her much longer than usual.  She was beginning to understand what it felt like to be a troubled sleeper.

Not as troubled as him, of course.  With the sleepwalking episodes escalating, so were the nightmares that often accompanied them, though he claimed he couldn’t remember the dreams at all.  He said he’d never been able to remember his dreams, which struck her as odd.  She recalled her dreams in such vivid detail she sometimes wasn’t sure if something had really happened or if it had just been a dream.  This was made worse by the fact that her dreams were so dull.  If they were more outlandish, it’d be easier to distinguish them from reality.  But most of her dreams involved everyday events, like maneuvering through passengers while riding the train to work – or just being at work in general, warming her lunch up in the staff break room.  His dreams were different.  Dark and terrifying, they left him sweaty and shaking, but he could never recount anything beyond the vaguest of details.  Someone after me, he might say.  Or something from his childhood, a period of time he never spoke of, though she gathered clues here and there – something about a father who hit, something about a mother who hid.  She had her theories, but he never offered any confirmations or denials.    

The two of them laughed together less and less.  More sleepwalking, more nightmares, all occurring more frequently.  With each incident, it became clearer that something was happening.  Something big, she felt sure.  He seemed lost and only half-present most of the time, desperate to find something – solace, perhaps, or maybe just a good night of sleep.

You know me better than anyone, he said in bed one night, staring up at the ceiling like he could see something she couldn’t.  But what does that mean?  Does anyone ever really know someone else?  Can they see through all the bullshit, deep inside another person’s heart?   

He sounded angry.  His questions were big, and she didn’t have answers.  She didn’t think anyone would.

I wish you could know some things, he continued.  Things about me.

What things? she said, her voice cracking.

Nothing, he moaned, covering his face with both hands.  It’s no use.   

He was so frantic and upset.  She tried soothing him, but she feared this not knowing that he spoke of – she feared he was right.  There might be things they couldn’t overcome no matter how well they worked together.

As he got worse, so did her dreams.  They became nightmares, haunting her long after they ended, ruining her once peaceful slumber.  He appeared regularly, always at a distance.  In one dream, she was lost in some dark, cavernous place, dusty and devoid of life, the air thick and stifling.  All was deadly quiet.  When he appeared, she called out to him, but he turned away, fleeing.  She followed, stumbling over rocky, uneven trails that looped around, leading nowhere – leading back to where she started, again and again.  Until she rounded one corner and almost crashed into him.  He stood before her, staring at her with dark eyes she didn’t recognize.  He held his arm out, insisting she take a look – all across his forearm, there were cuts that opened up like little mouths crying out in pain.  He clenched his fist, pushing his arm closer, like he blamed her for the wounds.  But he would never do that in real life, when he assured her she was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

In the dream he shook with anger, opening his mouth and screaming in silence – sweat dripped across his brow, the veins at his temples throbbed with each beat of his racing heart.  She woke so startled it took a few moments to catch her breath.  This time he was there beside her, twitching around in his sleep.  She pushed back a thick strand of hair that was stuck to his sweaty forehead.  She checked his arms for new cuts but found none.  Only faded scars from the self-inflicted wounds from another time, long before they met.  He’d admitted that he cut himself during a particularly rough period right after college.  He said it was something he’d never do again, explaining it was never about wanting to end his life.  It was just a release – or did he say relief?

Just then, his hand reached out in the dark and grabbed her arm, gripping it hard enough to frighten her.  The next day she’d discover a ring of bruises.  She tried pulling away, she tried to wake him, but he held tight.  For a moment, she wondered if she was still lost in her nightmare.  With one more heave, she managed to escape his grasp, stumbling back.  He remained in place, eyes closed, arm out, his hand waiting to clutch her again.  She watched his fingers slowly open and close around nothing.    

Eventually she turned away, deciding it’d be better to sleep on the couch.  The next morning, that’s where he found her.  I think I owe you an apology, he said, bending down before her.

For what?

I don’t know.  He looked confused.  He averted his gaze, catching sight of her arm.  What happened?  Where’d you get those bruises?

I don’t know, she answered.  Did he know he was the one responsible for leaving her marked?  Was he apologizing for that?  Or was he apologizing for something else, like the way he’d behaved in her dream, blaming her for all his pain?

That was ridiculous, she told herself.  He probably felt guilty for driving her out of bed in the middle of the night.  Her dreams and nightmares weren’t some shared experience.  They belonged only to her.

Always waking to find him gone left her exhausted.  One night, she chased after him in yet another dream, though the setting was different this time.  He was on the other side of a green meadow surrounded by trees.  Between them, the tall grass gently swayed in the breeze.  Birds chirped in the distance, and a pleasant, sweet scent filled the air.  The greenery surrounding them was almost too green; it gave off a faint luminescent glow, subtle but mesmerizing.  The colors of this particular dreamscape had a depth unlike anything she could find in the real world.  Lush and alive, this place was so unlike the dusty landscape of her previous dreams that she thought it symbolized a breakthrough.  It felt like the answer to a question neither one of them knew how to ask.  He casually waved at her, just like he would in real life, happy to have spotted her.  Before turning around, he waved again, beckoning her forward.    

She followed but couldn’t quite catch up.  No matter how quickly she moved, a steady, even distance stretched between them.  Out of the meadow and into the woods, he led her up a hill towards a dark hole in the ground – a cave, its opening obstructed by large rocks.  He didn’t turn back but walked on, determined to discover whatever waited inside that deep black void.  He tried pushing one of the rocks out of the way, but it wouldn’t budge.  He shoved his arm and leg inside, trying to enter, but he couldn’t quite make his body fit.  Hanging there, half of him was no longer visible.  She wanted to scream for him to stop but found herself paralyzed, unable to move or utter a single word.  Darkness filled the sky as heavy drops of rain started to fall, pelting her face and arms.  The sudden downpour washed away the vibrant colors.  She lost sight of him as the world turned black.    

She snapped awake, convinced she still had work to do.  She had to stop him.  It came as no surprise when she looked over and saw he was missing yet again.  She pushed the sheet away and jumped out of bed, ready to turn the apartment upside down to find him.  But she tripped over something before making it out of the bedroom.  Turning around, she found him lying in the floor at the bottom of the bed, half his body burrowed beneath it.  She backed up to the wall near the door, slowly dropping down until she was sitting on the floor.  Unable to stop herself, she started laughing.  The wild, maniacal sound was loud enough to wake the dead, but he remained in place, sound asleep.  Her laughter quickly gave way to a bout of uncontrollable sobbing.  The hot, wet tears falling down her face released the immense pressure that had been building inside her head.  She calmed down, pulling herself off the floor to sit on the bed.  She stared down at his leg still sticking out and felt a sudden urge to kick him, hard.  That small flicker of rage disappeared before it could grow into something dangerous.  I love you, she whispered, no matter what you decide.        

The next morning, she woke to his smiling face, hovering over her.  I had the best dream last night.

She rubbed the sleep from her eyes.  What was it about?

His gaze shifted up towards the ceiling.  I don’t know, but it was good, he said in a light, airy voice.  Like I finally figured things out.

He offered no further explanation, and she didn’t feel the need to ask for more.  A few peaceful weeks drifted by without a single sleepwalking incident.  They traded places – he slept easily, she didn’t.  The dark circles left his eyes and reappeared beneath hers.  Each night, she found it harder to sleep.  She couldn’t relax, she couldn’t let her guard down for a second.  She wouldn’t allow herself to be lulled into a false sense of hope that their troubles were over.  She felt it coming, their day of reckoning; it lingered around every corner, poisoning the air she breathed with an unmistakable sense of doom.  She imagined toxic fumes rising from the depths of that cave in her dream.  That dark place was still calling out to him, even if he seemed happier than he’d ever been.  She knew better, so she kept watch over him, waiting.

And then it happened.  He disappeared.

She knew it as soon as she woke to the emptiness beside her.  When she’d fallen asleep, he’d been there, his presence a palpable thing – all she had to do was reach out and touch him.  She could rest her hand across his chest, feeling the way it moved up and down.  With the weight of his body against the mattress, she knew he was there without having to touch him.  It was an undeniable fact.  But his sudden absence was just as absolute.  This time, she knew he was gone.  She could feel it deep down, on a cellular level – she was alone in the apartment they shared.

Still, she searched for him, just to be sure, flipping every light on along the way.  First she looked under the bed and in the closet, then she started her walk through the apartment.  He wasn’t in any of the corners he’d been in before.  She didn’t find him sitting on the bathroom floor, nor did she find him hiding in the tub.  Nothing in the kitchen either, not even in the cramped space of the cupboard.  In the hallway closet, again, nothing.  She dragged out the small step ladder to check the storage space above the closet – it was large enough to fit a body, but she didn’t find him there either.  She’d done all this before, searching for him, except this time, there was no tremor in her heart, no secret rush that came with the anticipation of finding him at last.  This time, she knew she wouldn’t find him.  The search was largely perfunctory, yet she repeated it, checking every possible space, over and over again.  It was like doing load after load of laundry and expecting something other than clean clothes at the end of each cycle.  Actually, it was worse than that since her efforts yielded nothing at all.

She collapsed across the couch, wondering what to do.  Nothing came to mind.  Her mind, in fact, was totally blank.  After a few moments, she looked over at the hallway leading to the front door.  She leapt up, rushing over.  It was locked – even the chain lock had been latched into place.  She’d been in the habit of using it ever since his sleepwalking started getting worse.  She opened the door and peeked out, but the eerie silence of the hallway felt like a warning; at this late hour, the air was different.  She didn’t belong to the world out there, yet she took a few hesitant steps forward anyway.  The floor felt icy cold against her feet.  Where are you? she whispered, calling out his name.  She knew he wouldn’t answer, just as she knew he hadn’t left this way.  With a shudder, she backed up and shut the door, locking it.  Glancing over at the kitchen, a new thought struck her, one that had never occurred to her before: the fire escape.

She ran to the kitchen, stopping at the window.  It was covered by a retractable gate that couldn’t be opened without first removing the padlock.  She pulled open the drawer where they kept an assortment of odds and ends, looking for the key.  Frantically, she yanked the drawer out, spilling its contents across the floor – the sound of everything falling and clanging together was harsh and loud, destroying the uneasy silence.  The noise made her want to run through the apartment, shattering each light fixture with a hammer and screaming until someone answered.  Instead, she searched through the mess, finally finding the key.  She unlocked the padlock, removed it, and opened the gate.  As expected, the window was still locked.  Even if it hadn’t been, the fact that she found the key proved that he hadn’t left by way of the fire escape.  Though improbable, he could have climbed out the window, reaching through the gate to put the padlock back in place, but then he wouldn’t have also been able to lock the window from the outside.  And as far as she knew, there was only one key to the padlock, which she held in her hand.

She went through the apartment checking all the windows, just to be sure.  The one in the bathroom was too small to fit through.  One of the windows in the living room had bars over the outside, and it was locked anyway; the other one held the air conditioner.  In their bedroom was the last window – the last possible means of escape.  She found it unlocked, but the screen was still in place.  She pushed the window open, seeing if she could slide the screen up.  It wouldn’t budge.  They lived on the fifth floor of a walkup, so he couldn’t have leapt from the window and survived.  Besides, she would have heard him if he had gone out the bedroom window.   

Now she knew for sure.  Somehow, he’d found a way out that couldn’t be explained.    

She spent the rest of the night in a fugue-like state.  By morning, she saw that the mess in the kitchen had been cleaned up, though she didn’t remember doing it.  She called the police – eventually, she filed a missing person’s report, but no one seemed to take her seriously, especially when she insisted that he disappeared by unnatural means.  They told her people up and left all the time, that she must have been mistaken about the chain lock being in place when she woke that night.  Despite everything that had happened, she didn’t feel sad, exactly – she felt drained.  It would take a while to muster the energy for sad.

In a follow-up, the police asked if he was suicidal.  No, she answered in a quiet, dispassionate voice, remembering the scars along his arms, how they opened up and screamed at her in a dream from what felt like so long ago.  As far as she knew, he wasn’t suicidal, but, over the sleepless nights since his disappearance, she started doubting herself more and more.  Could the chain lock have been unlatched that night?  She held the image of it locked in place like a snapshot in her mind, but with the lack of sleep and growing anxiety, the picture became distorted.  Dreams seeped into reality, days were hardly discernable from night.  When she managed a few hours of sleep here and there, the one thing she couldn’t bear was the fact that he had gone missing from her dreams as well, which quickly became as empty as her reality.  After disappearing, he never made a single appearance in any of them.  She waited for him there on the other side, hoping he would give her a sign.

During the day, she carried on, though she couldn’t manage to leave the apartment.  They’d stopped calling from work.  Friends had stopped calling too.  There was no one left – no one but the delivery boys who brought her what she needed to survive.  One can order anything, she discovered.  She ordered cases of wine, guzzling entire bottles down at night as she stumbled though the apartment, talking to him.  Talking to no one.  She took pills to fall asleep at night and drank entire pots of coffee to wake up each morning, laughing at her new routine.  She didn’t have to leave the apartment at all, though she knew things couldn’t go on like this forever.  The only thing that kept her going was the need to find him.  There was a hunger in her belly, urging her on – like a deep, bottomless hole, it swallowed everything else.  She couldn’t resist, even if she wanted to.

She studied lucid dreaming online but couldn’t make it work.  She thought of sleepwalking and how that might lead her to him, but it wasn’t something you could just force yourself to do.  She thought of him all the time, longing for the way things once were, when she slept so easily and they laughed about the things they couldn’t control.  She spread out across the living room floor, letting her mind wander.  She pictured herself walking down a long, dark tunnel, musty and damp, going on for miles and miles, twisting this way and that; long after losing track of time – walking so far that time ceased to matter – she imagined that tunnel opening up at last, revealing a light so bright it was blinding, though its warmth was strong enough to set her free.

Alone in their apartment, she imagined all sorts of things.

Out of boredom, she took the step ladder and climbed into the storage space above the hallway closet, finding that it really was big enough to fit a body.  Her body.  She crammed herself inside, pulling the doors shut to welcome the darkness.  She waited in silence and isolation, hoping to slip away to that secret place where she could find him.  In minutes or hours, she fell asleep, floating along in the darkness that held her.  Sometime later, she woke with a mind so clear it seemed like a miracle.  She had her answer at last, so she kicked the doors open, letting in the faint light.  She crawled out of that space, ready to find him.  She’d go looking for that tunnel, and that tunnel would lead her to where she needed to be.  Never had she been more certain of anything.        

A night had passed in that dark space, so she had to wait for the day to fade again to get started.  Once evening arrived, she lined up the bottles of pills he’d collected.  There were natural remedies, prescribed medication, and over-the-counter sleeping aides.  He’d tried everything.  And so would she.    

It would take the deepest, longest sleep to find him.  She needed help getting there, so she took a handful of the pills and washed them down with a glass of wine.  She had to go further this time.  She had to go further than she’d ever gone before, because he was worth it.  Being together again was worth it.    

As she started nodding off, a shadow of movement flickered across the room.  Its shape looked familiar.  Though it disappeared in an instant, she smiled anyway, feeling perfectly content.  She knew he was nearby, waiting for her to follow.   

Cameron L. Mitchell is a queer writer who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Queer South Anthology, Literary Orphans, Gravel Literary Magazine, and a few other places. He lives in New York and works in archives at Columbia University. Find him on Twitter: @CameronLMitchel

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Grief, Guest Posts

Sleep Training

November 18, 2020
dreams

By Lindsey Abernathy

“Mommy, you disappeared in the dark,” you say, as I turn off the bedroom light. Though you are three years old, we still have not mastered the fine art of independent sleeping. Each night I curl up next to you as you tell the mole on my stomach good night with a gentle pat, the glow of the lamp fuzzy and blond like your head.

I shiver at your words. This is how I lose my own mother, in my dreams.

You do not understand, yet, that I had a mother. She has been gone more than half your life, dead 26 months this March. If my grief was a child like you, son, it would be cutting second molars, maybe experiencing fear of strange places, possibly having difficulty pronouncing “l’s” or “th’s.” “My how time flies!” the parenting websites exclaim.

When you were littler, and Daddy put you to bed, you came looking for me sometimes, wailing “mommymommymommy,” a woeful pitch so pleading that it could wake the dead.

If only.

You don’t know this important thing about me, but some days it seems you are the only person who understands. You have known the inside of me more completely than anyone ever will.

The dreams ebb and flow, coming usually around the time I start my period. You don’t know what a period is, but it is the time of month when I beg you to give me privacy in the bathroom. You don’t understand privacy just yet. Sometimes you scooter in, full speed ahead. Sometimes you sit on my lap. You are so young that you say “poop,” when you see the dark stains.

They are always bad, the dreams.

Sometimes, I am a child, older than you but still little. Vacation has ended; we are sunburned and my scalp is an itchy layer of sunscreen and sand; it is time to go home. I search between the legs of aunts and uncles for my mother, but it seems she has left without me. I scream for her, but my cry is not strong like yours. My mother, she does not come back.

Sometimes she is the child. The teenager from that palm-sized, rounded-edge photo I keep on our bookshelf near your fall daycare picture, the one of you holding the white pumpkin. In these dreams, she is scared and lost. I take her in my arms and I tell her she will die, and we cry together.

I had not called my mother “mommy,” like you call me, for more than three decades, but I called her that as she died. We were all children at her death. She wore mesh underwear, the same kind the hospital gave me after you were born, and said “tee tee” when she needed to use the bathroom. I dropped her, that last day she was alive, there in the bathroom. I worried so much about dropping you in those early months, and here I had lost grip of my mother.

I got my first mammogram this year because I will do anything so that you do not dream like me. A mammogram is where nurses take pictures of breasts, to make sure they are not sick.

Afterwards I waited, shirtless, for the doctor but the doctor didn’t come. A nurse finally opened the door. “Doctor says everything looks normal,” she said. “For a 32-year-old breast.”

I took my 32-year-old breasts and left the clinic. A clogged milk duct, it turned out, I learned that night in the shower, though you have been weaned for more than a year.  You did not want to wean, still tried to catch my nipples in your mouth months after.

In bed, tonight, you grab for me, small hands frantic in the dark. “Mommy, where did you go?” I extend an arm to you and you nestle into me. I know that later my arm will go numb from the weight of your neck, that I’ll have to roll you gently onto a pillow.

“I’m still here, baby,” I say, and you sleep.

Lindsey Abernathy is a mother, daughter and writer from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Abernathy studied journalism at the University of Mississippi and has worked as a writer, editor, and sustainability activist in higher education. Her most recent work was published in the Bitter Southerner.

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Guest Posts, Humor, memories

The Curious Case of Russell Wilson and the Toilet Ambush

November 15, 2020
russell

By Mike Schoeffel

I

There’s no way to say this without it sounding downright strange, so I’m just going to come out with it. Russell Wilson, husband of Ciara, Super Bowl-winning quarterback and potential future NFL Hall of Famer, once ambushed me while I was sitting on a toilet in a Florida hotel. We were 13 years old. The TV show “Jackass” was popular at the time, so I’m assuming Russell was doing his best Bam Margera impersonation. Most millenials out there know what I’m talking about: Bam did this recurring bit where he’d rush into the bathroom while his dad was dropping a deuce and slap him, hard, all over. Bam’s dad would holler and cuss. It was chaos.

Cut to today. Bam is, well, Bam. Russell is the highest paid player in the NFL. I’m a freelance writer in Western North Carolina, hardly getting by. I do, however, have an awesome dog. I know this is a lot to take in.

Russell’s attack was harmless. Just a stupid teenage thing. He didn’t rip off my shirt, like Bam often did with his father. The ambush lasted a few seconds, at most, yet it’s given me a story to tell at weddings and get-togethers for the rest of my life. It’s an untoppable story. Other people talk about their kids. I reminisce about the time a multi-millionaire benignly walloped me while I was on the John.

It’s so strange and ridiculous as to be unbelievable. Yet it’s true. I know I can’t objectively prove that it happened. Unlike Bam, Russell didn’t record the incident in question. But I know that it happened. I even wrote a terrible poem about it, back in my early 20s, during my cringe-worthy Bukowski years. It’s called “i was once shoved off a toilet by a guy who went on to become a super bowl winning quarterback.”

To wit:

ok

so

the title

pretty much sums up

the first part of the story

so i’ll just pick up

at the second half

this guy

who shoved me off a toilet

in pensacola, fla

when we were 13

and teammates

on an aau baseball team

is set to make $20 million

in the very near future

he’s buddies with obama

knows drake

has shared a stage

with jessica alba

i mean, shit

his lookalike

that fills in for him

during commercial shoots

makes six figures a year

for heaven’s sake

and here i am

eating campbell’s tomato bisque

(79c per can)

three nights a week

picking my boogers

and sleeping in til 11 a.m.

trying to get by

on $1,200 per month

if i was smart

i’d had given him

a swirly

but instead

he pummeled me

on a toilet

and i still haven’t

gotten back

on my feet

Jeez.

II

Perhaps I should provide some background. I could start by explaining why my 13-year old self was in a Florida hotel with a kid who eventually became one of the most famous athletes in the world. It’s simple, really. At one point in my life, I was good at sports. Not great by any means, but talented enough to receive an invitation to play on an AAU baseball team (as mentioned in the above so-called poem) known as the Capital City Riverdogs.

This team was filled with kids who mostly lived in richer areas than I did. Russell, for instance, eventually graduated from Collegiate, perhaps the most prestigious private school in the Richmond area. Many of the players on the team knew one another somehow, but I was an outlier, raised in podunk Powhatan, a county of about 29,000 people, most of whom don camouflage and harvest deer in the fall. I wasn’t into that. Not because of high-minded morals or anything. I just wasn’t into it. I preferred hitting things with aluminum sticks and throwing stuff. My nickname was Chico, because I tanned so darkly during middle school baseball tryouts that one of my teammates thought I “looked like a Mexican.” Racist, I know. But we were young and stupid.

The Riverdogs were a talented group. In addition to me and ol’ Russ, there was also a kid on the roster by the name of John Austin Hicks (or “Jazz,” as he was known back then). Baseball fans may recognize the name: he’s now a catcher for the Detroit Tigers. If memory serves, he wasn’t even our starting catcher most of the time. He earned a lot of at-bats, sure, but catching duties were mostly reserved for Daniel Astrop, who went on to play football at Davidson. Jazz was kinda gangly back then, not yet into his own. He certainly is now. Likewise with Russell.

At any rate, us Riverdogs were decent enough to reach a national tournament held in Pensacola, Florida. It was a big trip for me. I’d never traveled that far from home, and we drove the entire 12 hours, from Richmond to the panhandle, in a small white pick-up truck owned by the father of the only other Powhatan kid on the team: Derek Starr. Derek, I’ve heard, went on to become a world-class Halo player. But let’s stay on track.

I remember a few things in particular about that Florida journey. Being crammed into that small pick-up is chief among them. We played N64 on a small TV powered by a cigarette lighter in an effort to make the close quarters more bearable. I also recall pond alligators at the hotel and a team from Cuba destroying us by 20 runs. Then there’s the horrible ear infection that besieged me during the 12-hour ride back to Virginia. I was curled up in the back, in one of those half-ass seats that small trucks often have, reeling from the pain.

I also have movies in my mind of Russell swatting dingers at the tournament’s home run derby. Then he swatted me like a heavy bag, with my pants around my ankles. I’m not sure which one happened first. But I remember it, Russell. I remember.

III

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed in July of 2018 when I came across a video that caught my eye. It was of Jazz hitting a towering home run against Justin Verlander, down in muggy Houston. Gone was the gangly kid of Riverdogs fame. In his place was a physically-imposing man, a lumberjack in uniform: 6-feet-2, 230 pounds. He seemed so comfortable in his body, so sure of his movements. He’d just taken one of the greatest pitchers in MLB history deep, and there he was, rounding the bases as though lazily jogging through the park. I saw this clip at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday. I was working from home, still in my underwear. An over-medium egg popped in the pan, so I got up to flip it.

There was more to that clip than just an old teammate of mine homering at baseball’s highest level. What most people wouldn’t know, without doing some research, is that Jazz and Verlander graduated from the same high school: Goochland, the only high school in a county of the same name that’s perhaps more podunk than Powhatan.

A years before that home run, when Verlander was still a Tiger, Jazz had an opportunity to catch him. A battery from the little Land of Gooch, a county of 23,000 people. Who would’ve thunk it? In fact, Verlander played on the same American Legion squad — Post 201 — that I did, though he did so years before I donned the uniform. One of my former high school coaches coached him during legion ball. That coach used to tell us a story about how Verlander, as a sort of parlor trick, would stand on home plate and hurl a baseball over the center field fence, some 350-plus feet away.

It’s a Paul Bunyan-sized tale. And like the Russell Wilson toilet incident, there’s no way to prove this happened. But I like to believe it. Because it’s a helluva good story.

IV

Brushing shoulders with greatness before that greatness has manifested itself is a funny thing. At the time, there’s no way of knowing that what’s happening will one day become the stuff of legend. One moment, Russell is Richmond’s All-Metro Player of the Year. The next he’s winning a Super Bowl. How did he get from Point A to Point B? How many people who start at a similar Point A end up at a vastly different Point B? Selling insurance? Working construction? Freelancing from home in their underwear? Not making $35 million per year?

In 2006, Russell won All-Metro POY, he threw 33 touchdowns and led Collegiate to a state title. I was second team All-Metro quarterback that year. I’d thrown 29 touchdowns and led my team to a gut-wrenching defeat in the state semifinals, which ended when I tossed an embarrassing interception on a two-point conversion at the end of the game. The receiver was wide open in the back of the end zone, but I threw it directly into the chest of the defender in front of him. I remember thinking, right before that fateful throw, “Jeez, he’s wide open.” We lost 20-18, and I collapsed on the turf like a sad sack.

The All-Metro reception that year was held at a fancy hotel in Richmond. I sported a truly awful Beatles-esque du on steroids. It was 2006: cut me a break. Russell gave a speech that night. I have no recollection of the specifics, but I recall feeling that he was something special. Well-spoken, smart, talented. Even so, I don’t think anyone in the room believed he’d become this big.

Fast forward to the following spring, 2007. Baseball time. We hosted Collegiate in a non-conference game early in the season. Russell came on in relief during the later innings. I faced him once, and he struck me out on three straight 90-plus MPH fastballs. No movement on his pitches. Pure power, plain and simple. I was used to facing kids throwing in the upper 70s, kids on teams that could barely field rosters. I wasn’t ready for Russell.

These are the memories: subjective, unverifiable. Yet there is some documentation. Check out the Richmond Times-Dispatch record book. It’s available online. Look under most passing touchdowns in a season. There’s Russell: 40 in 2005, 33 in 2006. And there’s me, the very last name on the list: 29 in 2006. Right below some guy named Lee Bujakowski.

V

It’s August 2019 and Bam Margera is in trouble. After being in and out of rehab for years, the former Jackass star reportedly is thrown off an airline flight for being too drunk. The following day, he posts a string of videos on his Instagram page pleading for help from Dr. Phil, of all people. “The only person that I will believe on the planet is Dr. Phil,” he says. The Good Doctor agrees to meet him, and the two apparently talk about filming an episode.

Who knows what will come of it? Bam’s apparently had a string of misfortunes, some self-induced, others out of his control. He was arrested in Iceland for beating the hell out of a rental car and refusing to pay for damages. He was assaulted with a baseball bat outside of his bar, The Note, after apparently calling a woman the n-word (“I called her a crazy bitch and an idiot, but I definitely didn’t use the n-word,” he told Philly.com). He was held at gunpoint in Colombia, which purportedly caused him to relapse into alcohol abuse. These are, apparently, the facts.

Bam is 40 now, no longer baby-faced. He’s chunky and grizzled, with heavy bags under his eyes. He looks defeated, and I feel for him. Every time I see a new picture of the guy, he looks more and more like his dad, more and more like the guy he used to terrorize in the bathroom. Things apparently have been going all right for Papa Phil, though. He lost 41 pounds on VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club: down to 312 from 353. I don’t know if he’s kept it off, but if so, good for him.

VI

In February 2014, Russell plays a solid, but not great, game. Thankfully, he doesn’t have to be transcendent. He completes 18 of 25 passes for 206 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. A picture of serenity on one of sports’ biggest stages: the Super Bowl. His Seahawks blowout the Broncos, 43-8. It’s the third-most lopsided final in the history of the Big Game. Russell, then 25 and in his second season, has outplayed Peyton Manning, maybe the second greatest quarterback in NFL history. The former Collegiate star has fulfilled his potential, reached his Point B. The special kid has become a special adult, on top of his game at the game’s highest level.

Michael Strahan interviews Russell after the historic win (it is, after all, the Seahawks’ first championship). The Lombardi Trophy gleams between them as navy blue and bright green confetti rains. Strahan, who won a Super Bowl of his own with the Giants in 2007, asks Russell a question:

“A lot…has been put on your back, and you handled it like a veteran player. What does it say about you and the team to come out here and perform on the biggest stage…?”

As Russell responds, it’s 2006 again. He’s a thin teen, but well-spoken, modestly accepting an award in front of the best football players in the Richmond area that particular year.

“My teammates are just incredible,” he says. “We’ve been relentless all season. Ever since we lost to Atlanta last year in the playoffs, I remember having that good feeling of ‘man, we’re going to go to the Super Bowl.’ It all started with the championship off-season we had, going into training camp and having that mentality. Tonight was unbelievable.”

He says a few more things, thanks Seattle’s fans. I’m seeing all of this unfold on TV from my wife’s grandpa’s house in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Another podunk town, though not as much as Powhatan. It’s the first year of a new family tradition, one in which we eat an unhealthy amount of seafood and watch the Big Game in the Bluegrass State. The following year, I’ll move to Austin, Texas, for 24 months or so, to work in a coffee shop and freelance. I’ll never hit a home run in the MLB or throw a pass in the NFL. Nor will I enter rehab. My life isn’t glamorous. But I like making eggs in the morning and walking my awesome dog up the hill in the afternoon.

The night Russell helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl, right around the time he was lifting the Lombardi Trophy skyward, a childhood friend texted me.

“Well, Chico, can you believe the guy who shoved you off a toilet is a Super Bowl champion?”

I couldn’t. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine a universe in which anything else is the case.

Mike Schoeffel is a freelance writer based in Western North Carolina. His work has been published in THE USA TODAY, The Austin American-Statesman, The Richmond Times-Dispatch and numerous other publications. He has also won several Virginia Press Association and North Carolina Press Association awards. Additionally, Mike works full-time as an Asheville firefighter. You can find more of his work here.

 

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Gratitude, Guest Posts

Perspective

November 13, 2020
think

By Erica Hoffmeister

Don’t think about how much you hate parenting. Not being a mother, not mothering, not your children—you love those, you do, really, you do—you just hate parenthood. The menial, daily, repetitive tasks that send you into a spiral. So, tell yourself it’s natural to hate sweeping the floors six times a day. Tell yourself no one enjoys doing other people’s dishes for zero wages or applause. Tell yourself hating these things does not make you a bad mother, does not make you love your children less. Don’t think about how much you often hate breastfeeding, the constant tug and pull and smothering of your skin and parts. Don’t think about how much you’ve actually always hated the company of children, even as a child, how you find them overall insufferable and annoying. Tell yourself your own children are excluded from this blanket opinion. Tell yourself you will do crafts with them tomorrow, like your mother did with you, like your husband’s mother does with them. Tell yourself you’ll build a fort with them, play dress up, teach them their letters and numbers by singing to them, banging on a ukulele. Remind yourself these things are supposed to be fun, not annoying. Not a chore. Look on Pinterest for ideas, plan a social media post to keep yourself accountable. Don’t check that friend of yours that became an “affirmation coach” and don’t think about how stupid you think all of that garbage is. Don’t think about lighting a candle and doing it yourself. Tell yourself you don’t need positive thinking. Tell yourself you’re a realist.

Don’t think about how much you miss not having children. Not being someone’s wife or mother. Not belonging to anything but the earth. Not being anyone’s every or any need. Don’t separate those feelings by dividing memory by before and after so you miss yourself before. Don’t think about how wonderful it would be to see a movie alone, whatever movie you want at whatever time of day. Don’t think about all the times you’ve cried cathartic in the back row of a movie theater because you didn’t have to share the popcorn or the drink or wave little toys around a child’s face or walk a toddler back and forth from the bathroom twenty-seven times, distracted through every important scene. Don’t think about how much you want to get in your car like you did when you were twenty-three and drive down the highway until your gas bleeds half dry, then drive back just for the hell of it. Don’t think about the fact you no longer own a car, how you traded your first in for your husband’s city bike and drive a family car now that only gets 10mpg so you can’t afford spontaneous highway drives, anyway. Don’t think about the hours you’d spend as a teenager locked in your bedroom staring at the ceiling, how much you loved silence, no one touching you, or speaking to you, even before you understood the value of boredom. Don’t think about the unread stack of books in your nightstand. About your chewed finger-beds that bleed into rounded stubs, years from your last manicure.

Don’t think about the guilt imbedded in all these fantasies. Tell yourself this guilt is proof you love your children. Don’t try to pinpoint the guilt’s genesis, when it starts in your life along the timeline of regret. Don’t think about regret. Don’t think about the hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt you are. Don’t think about your useless degrees, your nonexistent career. Tell yourself you’re taking this time to raise your children. Tell yourself this is your choice, that you chose this. You chose this. You chose this. You chose this. Don’t think about countries that have paid maternity leave or affordable childcare. Don’t think about your credit card debt you lived off of because you are not a citizen of one of those countries. Don’t think about how it’s really not the country’s fault you drank and snorted your way out of grad school and then didn’t write a single thing for six years. Don’t think about the karma you earned in that fruitless interim. Tell yourself it wasn’t fruitless, that no experience means nothing as a writer. That it was all for the greater good. Don’t think about how you made all the same mistakes the second time around. Don’t consider choosing your husband over everything else a mistake, think about how you should have prioritized yourself and your career and your future over him when you met instead of falling in love instantly, and rearranged everything to be with him. Don’t remind yourself how many times you’ve done that in your lifetime. Don’t think about how you aren’t published yet. Or at least not enough. How much you hate yourself for wasting your kid-free years not banging out fourteen novels, or something, because now you write in the lost corners of some morning hours,  lucky to get even ten uninterrupted minutes and you really think that whole story about how Stephenie Meyer wrote the Twilight series by the pool while watching her kids swim is a goddamn lie. Remind yourself that you have, in fact, published a lot, and that not it’s not profit, but the act writing that makes you a writer. Don’t think about how you are going to stretch fifty-four dollars for a week’s worth of groceries because being a low-level technically-published writer means still working in a bar. Don’t think about the men that hit on you while you serve tables. Don’t think about how you are still, after seventeen years, still serving tables. Don’t think about why. Tell yourself it’s nice to get out of the house. Tell yourself it’s nice to talk to adults. Tell yourself anything while you do it so no one can see the pain and regret and annoyance and hatred on your face so that you still make at least 20% in tips a night.

Don’t think about the guilt or the shame or regret. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t make new friends and don’t maintain old friendships so you won’t risk spilling it all out over coffee, or a more likely, few drinks.

Don’t think about how the world is ending anyway—stop reminding people of this in person in general. They know. We all know. Stop feeling guilty for having children and helping the world end faster. Stop trying to de-age in general. Stop thinking about all the things other people your age have done in comparison. Don’t think about your empty passport pages, your children’s hand-me-downs, your WIC card. Don’t think about your mom, and how she’ll never retire, or how she takes out credit cards to pay for Christmas presents. Don’t think about how poverty is a cycle, is insidious. Don’t think about how you may have escaped it, but now how everything tastes like Shit on a Shingle.

Think about this instead:

Wrap yourself in the memory of how the sun felt pouring through an open window while driving down Highway 1, feel this sensation when your baby snuggles beside you, her big eyes swallowing the sky whole. Or, the first time you witnessed your toddler perform on stage, exuding more confidence than you’ve had in your entire lifetime, how she unabashedly shares her mind, and how you think of her when you’re scared to tell the truth in public spaces.

Think fondly of before:

The lowlight of city sidewalks on an October afternoon as you hazily held the hand of a new lover and made him your whole life. How you repave entire cities and worlds to find your own path, how unapologetically courageous it is to head into things straight-on, even in the hard times, when you crave stillness. Seek for stillness in the long nights, the tufts of the baby’s hair between your fingertips, your husband’s toes between the arches of your feet to keep them warm. Imagine how your spaghetti sauce tastes only to your daughter, how she’ll spend the better part of her college years missing it with such fierceness, she’ll visit you twice as often—don’t tell her your secret, that it’s canned tomatoes and jarred garlic—so that she’ll keep coming home to ask for it.

Think about your smallness, your bigness, of the impossibility it is to have known it all before, just to have it all then.

Think about Paris in wintertime, the streets slack with moisture, the sound of your heels clicking across cobblestone the night you turned thirty. Think about how that memory will never fade, never disappear into the disintegrated soapy sponge, worn from overuse, how your sense of self has not really been suckled dry by breastfeeding your children, how your abs are still there, below the torn muscle from giving life. That your skin still glows between stress wrinkles, and by God, that your talent for cooking dinner is unmatched, and how no one does that for their families every night anymore but you.

Think of your own mother, the way she looked so tired and faraway, and yet, still held your hand in a gentle squeeze, still rubbed the back of your hand when you were sick, still loved you before and after all her past lives gelled together into yours.

Think of the universe, and stardust, and blackholes, all the shades of green that grass blades can be, how Montana’s horizon looks like a curved earth when it swallows sunset at 10p.m., or the skin of a ripe plum off your childhood tree. How nothing, and everything is just as hard as it always was—how nothing and everything is still inside you, no matter how many times you’ve swept or neglected to sweep the kitchen floors on any given day.

Erica Hoffmeister teaches college writing across the Denver Metro area and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019), but considers herself a cross-genre writer. She has had a variety of short fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and essays published in several journals and magazines, earning several accolades. She’s obsessed with pop culture, horror films, cross country road trips, and her two daughters, Scout and Lux. You can learn more about her at: http://www.ericahoffmeister.com/

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Guest Posts, Patriotism

American Flags

November 11, 2020
flags

By Eric LaFountain

Today in downtown Coronavirus Miami, a frayed American flag stands atop the Alfred I. du Pont Building. The flag changer has likely been sent home, and since you cannot replace a damaged flag remotely, here it is—such a rare, odd sight. In my hazy memory, the last frayed American flag I saw was nearly two decades ago during G.W. Bush’s iconic 9/11 bullhorn speech, when he dismissed his security team’s warnings and stood amid the rubble, loose and full of swagger, his arm brotherly draped around a Norman Rockwell painting-looking white Irish NYC fire chief. It was the one and only time I felt respect for that fake cowboy.

In my hazy memory, I left school during G Block study with my wolfpack, stellar students that we were, to perform our ritual: smoke weed, eat scrambled eggs, watch Jerry Springer, and partake in those glorious, freewheeling teen talks I so wish I had the foresight to record for future enjoyment and analysis. But of course, the ritual was disrupted that day, and on TV was our flag, flying wild and tattered from cold, naked rebar. (It’s possible my memory has it all wrong, that the flag was pristine and new, placed there specifically for the good photo optics). Nonetheless, the channels eventually skipped from the flag and G.W. to a clutter of talking heads, and in this part of the memory there is no haze. Each one was singing the same song, which I heard like this: mumble mumble Al Qaeda Afghanistan bin Laden mumble mumble Al Qaeda Afghanistan bin Laden.

Their song was accompanied occasionally with a grainy video of this new character, sitting cross-legged, an AK resting by his feet as he held aloft his long finger in emphasis, reciting what I assume was his call to arms, his declaration of jihad. He had doe eyes and a feminine face, almost pretty, and my stoned teenage self knew instinctively that this was an important character, that Afghanistan was an important country, and that I knew absolutely nothing about the world around me. The thin paper dome surrounding my sheltered world began to shred, and as the rip widened, I stuck my head through and looked around. What a vast, complex world I’d just woken up to! What incredible ignorance I possessed! My down feathers still covered me, fuzzy and soft, but on that day, a few fell off and I felt myself take a baby step out of adolescence, into my adulthood.

Eric LaFountain lives and teaches in Miami. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including *Potomac Review*, *Jabberwock Review*, *Hobart*, and *Pleiades*. He’s currently working on a YA novel about an abandoned boy and abandoned cat. You can follow him on Instagram @eric.lafountain.

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Guest Posts, healing, reconstruction

Remaking Bodies

November 8, 2020
one

By Lisa J Hardy

I am a gruesome puzzle.

I sob in front of the mirror and then throw it into the hallway where it breaks into 6 pieces that I step over for days. It’s just a body. It doesn’t matter. Only it does. I was reconstructed. Gentrified. My torso is created like new construction. 2x4s and tax abatements. My veins were harvested to feed fat flaps. My waterways, re-routed. Lymph nodes are trying to connect again. Subterranean regeneration.

*

I pushed blues and greens together on my paintbrush. My dorm room always smelled like art supplies. Oil paints and linseed oil all over my hands. Intertwining our bodies into liquid snakes and sculptural poses outside of the dorm window, Meg and I were the sun and the moon. Everyone watched. We were so young.

*

Mammograms are torture devices. Psychopaths should have them in basements. They could put their captives in shuffling paper gowns and tell them, “Don’t worry about the radiation. It’s as much as an air flight.” But I love to travel, and these things add up. Why don’t they understand this simple math? After, I exit the lab holding a $2000 invoice and clutching my bruised and bleeding breast. BI-RADS five. She was positive the squishy bump was bad. It was reaching tentacles out into the surrounding tissue to look for its own blood supply, eating me.

*

Patterns on my skirt like deserts and rivers. I close my eyes, my hair spinning around my head. Music festival. 20. Thousands of us, perfect, fragile, connected beside trees and streams. I spin free in a shirt and purple stockings. A tall man with long hair and rough teeth curls himself toward me. “I know what that’s from,” he sneers. I reach back and feel the rough quarter where a single vertebrae scraped against a floor. Dylan, my boyfriend, lifts me up and spins me onto his shoulders where my trip begins again.

*

A surgical team scrapes it all out and replaces it with an expander made from someone else’s parts. Weeks later while on a trip to the ocean a hole opens. I can see into my own darkness through the hole. It has to be removed. The plastic surgeon swaps parts and builds new ones then sends me emails asking if I want to plump my lips for Valentine’s day or lift my butt for New Year’s.

*

On the other side, tree limb nerves wind through like remains of Body Worlds, signaling to all the other nerves. Touch moved from insides to tingling edges. Opening dandelions. Every cell connected to memories. My constructed side is numb and cold. I want the original lands before bulldozing and excavation.

*

The second reconstruction. A surgeon attaches central beams and skylights. My chest swallows belly fat. My familiar appendectomy scar is relocated over my heart. I think of a thin fishing line between two wooden dowels, cutting through a slab of clay.

*

In college I make bodies. Life-size busts made by smoothing latte-colored clay over wire armatures. I create the perfect softness by mixing powdered dirt, mica, and grit with warm water in buckets and then press my hands and arms all the way in. I carve naked busts large enough to embarrass everyone and joke by stabbing them in the heart with a clay knife. My favorite artist is Janine Antoni, whose Lick and Lather show consists of seven soap and seven chocolate self-portrait busts she washes, soaps, and devours.

*

After college I travel the country yelling “stop!” to various lovers. I jump out of the car and run down soft riverbeds or up sides of blue-grey cinder hills collecting earth that I mix myself. I stick my hands in muddy streams and press pink silt into my skin. I make little pinch pots with my fingers, polish them with shiny stones, and fire them in trash cans.

*

Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforators surgery or DIEP flap. Two surgeons cut through and roll back my belly like a weighted blanket. Slice four lines through abdominal muscles to remove veins. Sever and sew. The surgeon locates a nerve. He twists and sews and attaches it back together. Everything else is tossed. Contaminated dirt beneath a city. Illegal movement of a toxic brownfield. Watch out for the peripheral dust.

*

In junior high I hold skinny arms up over my purple swimsuit. Too-thin with a concave midriff, knobby knees, and curves. I hide myself under clothes that don’t protect me.

*

Once, on the plane alone, a man pulls a blanket over his lap and holds it in my direction, doing something vigorously. Lowering the blanket when the flight attendant passes by. I tell my seventh grade friends at the lunch table while they eat grey-brown meat on yellow buns. At 14, my best friends sit on a concrete planter. A dull man approached quickly, grabs a breast, and walks briskly away.

*

After losing, I get on with life. I use my body to make a point. An embodied protest of the for-profit healthcare machine under whose gaze bodies are revenue and healing is not profitable. I take off my shirt to have a friend write “pre-existing condition” in black marker over my skin. She stops, marker in air, and holds back her disgusted gasp. After that, I cover up.

*

I live on a mountain. I see a shooting star nearly every night. I trade the darkness of feeling mangled and broken for a gentle stillness under the sharp shape of the moon.

*

High school hallway chats consist of each one of us standing in front of the mirror one-by-one. “Your boobs are too big and you’re skinny,” everyone agrees. After graduation, my best friend Ginger and I drop acid in Nantucket and go walking around. Ginger tells me I shouldn’t wear white shirts anymore. I looked down to find my giant breasts leading the way down the sidewalk.

*

I collect hungry glares. They look back at me after they pass as though we share a secret. Sometimes they approach me on the street with phone numbers or propositions. I’m not safe. I go to sleep staring at the light under the door, wondering if a shadow of two shoes might appear, always aware of the location of the phone and mace. But, in bedrooms I am not afraid. Getting to the bed with the clothes off becomes a goal I pursue with unyielding desire. After my first questionable biopsy, a friend-once-lover texts me to say that there is no way I had breast cancer. “They’re too perfect,” they quip. “It’s not possible.”

*

I tried and tried to became a model patient. One who advocates, but not too much. One who is not meek but not assertive. Just like I used to mold my body into small spaces to make room for men, I molded my person into acquiescence, waiting for instructions. My boobs, and my life, depended on it. New construction on the way.

*

Two surgeons drew lines and rearranged parts. Two trips to the operating room, 12 hours, and the placement of four drains. Flexible tube tails of these drains wound through my abdomen and chest collecting and suctioning blood and fluid out into bulbs at the end. My once thin stomach had transformed with medications into what my daughter called “mommy belly,” a soft lumpy pillow that children and pets liked to sleep on. Soon it would be flat and smooth as a two-dimensional magazine spread of stomachs, with a jagged line running from past one hip to right past the other. A hastily stretched drum.

*

Once I decided to have this surgery, I joined an online community too-full of too-many women who had had or were going to have it. They told me and each other how to be a proper patient. We must trust our surgeons. He (they were all men where I went) will make the perfect choices. “And he’s also not bad to look at,” one of them said. He knows. He’s an expert. Over bodies. I wondered what he thought the perfect boob would like. It takes six weeks to heal but everyone said, “Not you.” If I was good enough, behaved, I would heal faster. I was new construction.

*

Instead of moon phases I chart emotional circles by distance from medical appointments. My doctor hollered, “You’re overdue for your mammogram.” What about my radiation dose? “Well,” the nurse said as she repositioned me into the cold machine, “you live at 7,000 feet. You get radiation every day.” The nurse found something in there, in my one healthy breast. Probably nothing. Probably debris. I return later that day for a biopsy, my dog waiting in the car.

*

Nurses came every hour after surgery with pocket dopplers to press and see if fat flaps had heartbeats. Red, pink, and orange liquid drained out of me. Some of the drains got skin in them. One had a bloody worm-like-thing sitting at the bottom that I kept squeezing through the flexible plastic to make sure it wasn’t alive.

*

I clipped stitches, ran an alcohol pad over, and pulled 14 inches of tubing out of my skin. It leaked and gurgled and then it was gone, leaving a little hole.

*

Worth should not be contingent upon economic functioning, but if not typing or reading or speaking, I wondered what I was at all. In a burst of anger I threw forks and spoons that wouldn’t fit into the drawer all the way down the hall where they stayed, arranged in a bizarre obstacle course, which I was unable to pick up.

*

No one will ever know the me before. The one that loved all-night sex with the lights on. The one who had smooth lines and a mother’s belly. Now, I’m just covered in scars. The marks of illness and staying alive. Reconstructed “breasts” that, as one friend says about her own, “look like a drunk four year old made them.” A body doesn’t matter. But it does.

*

My acupuncturist told me about a contractor patient whose shoulder surgery failed, leaving him without a livelihood. I responded that this was a good reminder because “my boobs don’t do anything anyway.” We laughed as she said, “Yeah it’s not like you say to them, ‘can you go clean up the house?’” She pantomimed her boobs running around and picking up the trash.

*

After five weeks I had energy to go on a friend trip. We left early in the snow. Stars were not visible, and the roads were slick. Stitches wound underneath incisions where I had been cut and sewn back together, snaking across my torso and breasts. The car slid and I grabbed the seat. My veins felt rubbery and fragile, insecurely attached. Once I pulled too hard on an exercise band and the handle flung off. I could hear the pop. Rivers, moved. The car spun. Would the walls of this quickly-built replica fall down on new sidewalks? Skin stapled and sewn. I imagined everything opening up and insides spilling out onto the road. I imagined running around and collecting all of these parts like chocolate or cheese spilled from a delivery truck, and putting them back into the spaces where they belonged. In my imagination there were zippers instead of sutures and I put the parts back in, zipped them up, and got back into the car. We turned and turned over a median, up a hill, and came to a stop facing the highway.

*

When the swelling subsided, I realized that it’s kind of amazing to be Frankenstein’s creation. Relocated. Reconnected. Skin sewn to skin. This is my house. The old lines and trails are red purple fascinations winding across. Nothing looks the way it should.

*

In a dream I was walking on a white sand beach. I felt something under my feet and dug my hands down into the fine sand and pulled up an old, ornate sapphire ring. Flowers and leaves were carved delicately around the edges. I knew the ring was a family heirloom that had been my great grandmother’s connected by something to another gem. On my knees I pushed my hands through sand, uncovering family gem after family gem from generations before. I pulled each one out and looked at it in the sun, leading toward sea, remembering whose it had been. When I reached back down, I saw that the thing connecting each of the jewels was a long, sinuous string. It was the nerve my surgeon cut and tied reaching through the sand to connect me.

Lisa J Hardy is a medical anthropologist. Her creative work appears in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Entropy, Bird’s Thumb, Riggwelter, and elsewhere. She is Associate Professor of Anthropology and the editor of the journal Practicing Anthropology in northern Arizona where she lives with her tween daughter and menagerie of pets.

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