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The Honest Clown

February 26, 2021
balloons against sky, joe

By Shirley O’Shea

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

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

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

The thing was, Joe looked wretched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Relationships

Revenge Outfit

February 24, 2021
roger

By Amy Turner

“Always be dressed like you’re going to run into your ex” was a maxim a friend trotted out recently and I had an urge to fight it. But could also not help thinking about Roger. Roger was a man I dated. A stylish, bitter, brilliant man. A Goop kind of man. Which at a certain age, is appealing. Until there are too many lip balms and you want to be the vain one. The other thing he had was impeccable taste. So, when I began shopping, after we’d broken up, I’d stand in the mirror, looking at a blouse and think: would Roger like this?

It was awful. His ghost floated in the mirror behind me, squinting, the way he had during our relationship. Judging my taste, body, all of it.

Was this the height of low self esteem? Yes!  But sometimes the universe pinches with one hand and provides with the other. Because Roger had no qualms about buying the perfect thing. Whereas I was nothing but qualms, which resulted in piles of ill-fitting bargain dresses.

Until we broke up: and in a fit of rage, I spent money. I will never be superficial and unkind, I promised myself, purchasing a Marc Jacobs blouse. I wore the blouse to an editor’s fashion launch and when I was told I looked fantastic it was true.  Good silk did look fantastic. Previously, I would go to events like that, in a sad poly blend singing out in defense, I am an artist, I am not materialistic! Then I’d walk in and a wave of shame would render me mute. Which is not helpful for writers even if you do go to a lot of therapy.

That ex-boyfriend knew clothes were armor. He knew people thin slice. I remember asking him, why do you judge people externally? Saves time, he said with a laugh. I burned. What a garbage person. What an absolute cretin. But he had asked me to dinner five years earlier I was wearing a safety orange t-shirt, Levis, and combat boots.  So, unless he was turned on by highway maintenance workers, his theory needed work.

Thankfully, we broke up and my re-active era of fancy clothes waned. Sure, it felt nice. But it also felt like a bid for value.  I began looking around my world for a gentler person to put in my dressing room with me. I kicked Roger out and I decided on… my hair colorist, G. Good colorists are prime visual movers and I appreciate healthy tricks/support.  She’s a master of subtle improvements and looks like Los Angeles cool plus health. (If my hair salon doesn’t intimidate me, I’m not interested.) So, now I think would I go see G in this.  I know that if I would feel comfortable wearing it to see her, I’m keeping it.

The things I’m not keeping? The pile on the floor that says: You could wear that skirt to a luncheon, if you could find a matching sweater (What luncheon? Where is the sweater? Is Nixon president?). This dress is an Around The House Dress (Because the print is vile and it is okay to torture people in the house?). Those pants are not the right length but good for work. (Work is asexual, be a corgi! Who cares!)

It is how a lot of people shop. It is not bad, per see. But it leads to purchases that require justifying.  The way my relationship with Roger needed justifying. He is good at constructing drinks involving espresso and tequila. He is not good for going to your folks for Thanksgiving. He is good for making jokes. He is not good for revealing tender dreams. He is good for doing 60 down Beverly in a Bavarian twin turbo engine. He is not good if you want to feel safe. We had a lot of caveats in our relationship, namely I couldn’t talk about my feelings. It’s seemed all his feelings were funneled into the latest Paul Smith shirt he bought. Worn to coffee, the beach, and meetings. Until I ended things and he cursed me for longing for mediocrity/wanting to go the speed limit/feel safe.  But I could not place my heart in a shirt.  Fancy or otherwise.

Now, my clothes can be from anywhere. Zara, Target, or the vintage store on third where I got the Marant blouse that was still too expensive, but they must feel beautiful.  I would be happy to run into my ex in these outfits. Happy to have made it through mimicking his extravagance in my thirties, learning what I value. Which was not what he did.

The adage ‘women dress for women’ is more true for me now, despite being a woman who dressed to run into her ex-boyfriend for a few years. I’m not mad. It tamped out my I’m-a scrappy-art monster-who-will-never-invest-in-herself attitude.  But it’s a relief to not have him hovering in my closet.

Recently, we ran into each other on the street.  He looked me up and down, just like the phantom I’d imagined in my mirror.

When he asked me to dinner, I said no.

Which felt so good, I can’t even remember what I was wearing.

Sometimes, boundaries are the cutest.

Amy Turner lives in Los Angeles and writes in TV.

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

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Birds

February 22, 2021
paper

By David Simmons

We ran so fast I almost lost my schizophrenia papers. I hadn’t slept in days so my shoes were soggy and the footfalls sounded like wet sacks of chili hitting the sidewalk.

Chauncey yells out behind me, “Hold up bruh, you dropped your schizophrenia papers!”

I keep running, my sneakers splattering across the block. I bend the corner at 15th and Center Street, keep going, Chauncey catching up to me.

Americans are stupid. They’re stupid because sixty-four percent of Americans think schizophrenics have split personalities. I don’t have split personalities. I barely have one personality, but then again, I don’t actually have schizophrenia.

I just have the papers for it. They give them to you when you have nowhere to go.

Sometimes you can’t go straight home from prison, especially if you don’t have a home. If you can’t provide an address, they make you check in with the Department of Behavioral Health in that big, menacing, dystopian-future building on E Street. There’s this guy who works there, Tayvon Lancaster, Lannister, something like that. The guy’s got this big, swollen belly that sits like a bowling ball beneath his bird chest. Guy wears his slacks with the front pleats over his distended stomach, stuffs the bloated thing underneath the waistline of his pants. Then he gets one of those braided belts, like the kind Salvadorian children wear to church, and he wraps it around the whole mess. The whole get up makes him look like a tall humpty dumpty.

So this guy—Tayvon Lancaster, Lannister, something like that—is the one who does your orientation. He says community college criminology degree buzz words like “reintroduction” and “reintegration ” and how “it can be difficult for one to adapt to living with others after being institutionalized.” At this point you feel like if anybody is familiar with the social etiquette that is required for living with others, it would be you, so you tune the bastard out and eye-fuck his tumescent belly.

Tayvon Lancaster, Lannister, something like that; he takes you to the psych doc because you have to see the shrink before they can discharge you. The doctor looks like broccoli. She’s tall and shapeless, like two parallel lines drawn up into a grey poof of short, curly hair. Exactly like broccoli. She makes you do serial sevens, where you gotta count backwards from one hundred by seven.

She asks you what your ideal circumstances post-release are.

She wants to know if you have a poor sense of smell.

It’s difficult to answer the last question because how do you know if you have a poor sense of smell comparatively to anybody else? You can’t smell what they smell. And I can’t think of anything to tell her in response to the other question so I’m all, “I’d really just like a decent meal and a shower by myself.”

The doctor says, “What is your history of psychiatric hospitalizations? Have you ever been certified for treatment?”

“Yes,” I tell her.

“Do you hear things other people don’t hear or see things other people don’t see?”

“How could I know what other people don’t hear or don’t see? If I told you that I could you would say I was crazy for claiming to be a psychic. It’s lose-lose for me.”

The broccoli-looking doctor scribbles something down in her notepad.

“You wanna hear something that’s actually crazy?” I ask her.

She stops scribbling and looks up from the notepad.

“I totaled my first car three months after buying it with money I had saved up from working at Blockbuster and selling drugs,” I tell her. “It was a 1995 Lincoln Mark VIII. Midnight blue with the air suspension compressor. If that air ride shit ever broke, the repair bill would cost you more than the car was worth. After I crawled out of the sunroof of the vehicle, I looked up at the walls of the ditch I had crashed into. One by one, what must have been the lights in the windows of houses went on, surrounding me in yellow rectangles of light. One by one, a firetruck, an ambulance and a cop car pulled into what I soon discovered was a cul de sac in a residential neighborhood, meaning I had crashed my Lincoln into a ditch at the end of a cul de sac.”

“How did that make you feel?” the doctor asks.

“It was all very surreal. One minute I was on the highway and the next I was in a ditch or ravine or something. When the cop gets out of his car, the first he does is ask me if I like ice cream. He says to me, ‘Do you really like ice cream or something?’ He doesn’t even ask me for my license or registration. He just wants to know if I like ice cream. And I’m all like, ‘What does that even mean? Doesn’t everybody like ice cream?’ So then he’s like, ‘I just figured you really liked ice cream, you know, on account of your car and all.’ And I’m eighteen years old and disoriented from the crash and confused because this cop is asking me if I like ice cream. Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know why he would do that,” the doctor says. “Why do you think he would do that?”

“Well that’s just it, “ I say, raising my voice a little, “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I don’t know why he would do that. And what was it about the car I was driving that insinuated I liked ice cream? Was it the color?”

“Let’s move on. Do you feel that—”

I cut the doctor off. “Was it because I crashed the car into a ditch? I was barely an adult. I had just learned how to drive. And how does that relate to ice cream? It’s all I think about.”

“That was a very long time ago.”

“Time doesn’t change anything,” I tell her, sinking my body into the couch and crossing my arms. “Everything is inevitable. One day your parents picked you up, put you down, and never picked you up again.”

The doctor is writing something down on her yellow legal pad. I can see that she’s got a list of words in a vertical column going down the left side of the page. I can’t read the words but it looks like she’s putting some kind of symbols or marks to the right of the words. I decide to stop talking.

“If you see things people don’t see,” the broccoli doctor says, “are they in the periphery of your vision or in the center?”

I move my eyes from side to side and the top of my skull is electrified by a serotonin brain zap.

The doctor continues to vomit stock questions at me. “Do you see these things in daylight? Or only in the shadows?”

I tell her that everything I see is in the shadows and how the first time I smoked PCP with Chauncey I watched him cough up a piece of flesh. It was a slug-shaped thing, something pink and made of meat. She asks me if I’m thinking about hurting myself or others. I tell her how I picked up the slimy thing that Chauncey coughed up onto the street and put it in the fifth pocket of my jeans and saved it, in case it turned out he needed it. She asks me if I need any medication. I tell her how the skin of my hands are just gloves for my true hands. She writes me out prescriptions for Serequel, Risperdal, Lexapro, Zyprexa and some green papers with information about me that translates into a billable diagnosis or two for her.

And that’s how we ended up where we are now; Chauncey and I, running down Shattuck Avenue because we just robbed the Cheeseboard Collective; my schizophrenia papers flying out of the front pocket of my soggy hooded sweatshirt.

Schizophrenia papers. They give them to you with your medications. That way, if you get stopped somewhere by the police they don’t have as many questions for you. The papers explain it all. The papers are green and folded in half, then folded in half once more. The police still ask you plenty of questions, but not quite as many as they would if you were sans schizophrenia papers.

When the papers fly out of the front pocket of my hoody, they unfold, flapping in the wind like the wings of chartreuse birds. I spread my own wings and manifest thusly; spreading my blackened feathers across the sky as I take flight and disappear into the sinking California sun.

David Simmons paper

A portrait of the writer at work.

David Simmons spent his childhood within the juvenile justice system in various institutions and holding facilities. His work has been praised by D. Harlan Wilson, Brian Evenson and Snoop Dogg. He has been featured in the Washington Post, Prometheus Dreaming, 3 Moon Magazine, Across The Margin and the Washington City Paper. David lives in Baltimore with his wife and dog, where he is responsible for creating the colloquialism “Whole Time.”

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

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Converse-Station, Guest Posts, writing

The Converse-Station: Jane Ratcliffe Interviews Caroline Leavitt

February 21, 2021
coma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane: I love your husband.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Deus ex Machina

February 19, 2021
foggy road brenda

By Richard Weems

Steve and Brenda had come separately to the same conclusion: they both wanted out of their marriage, which they had honed over the last three years into a science of spending as little time alone together as possible. Steve had basketball at the Y, Brenda had spin classes. Never an argument when one stayed late at the office. Separate televisions. He kissed her on the temple when he climbed into bed. She squeezed his wrist. Movie nights always with friends. During sex, they focused only on their individual needs. No pets, not even fish. Nothing that couldn’t be easily designated as his or hers. When they planned poorly and were stuck having dinner together, she commented favorably on the bordeaux he’d researched and breathed properly; he hummed approval at every spoonful of her Grand Marnier souffle.

They had both decided to break the news during their annual drive north to her folks in South Greeley, the one place no one expected them to spend time together. She had her sisters and mother to giggle and drink mimosas with, her nephews and nieces to take out for ice cream. Steve discussed baseball with his father-in-law, who was a tiresome optimist about the Rockies, or volunteered for every errand so he could drive around Cheyenne and marvel at the ways it fell short of being a proper city.

But with a three and a half hour drive in front of them, each had to strategize the optimal approach to most effectively end their marriage. Brenda worried she’d back out once faced with Steve’s hushed anger, so she burned her boat, so to speak. As soon as they merged onto route 25, she asked Steve for the ETA. He pointed his chin at the GPS. “I’ll let them know,” she said, but instead she texted her sisters and mother, Big news, and refused to respond to their question marks and interrobangs, to force herself to blurt before they arrived: “Steve, I’ll stay in Greeley while you move out.” Maddy had long suggested, in less than subtle ways, that Brenda could do better (“So, Brenny, when you’re looking for your next man…”). Mom was a tougher read, but when Zabby, the oldest, once confided that she felt entrenched with Ken, her  know-it-all chiropractor who refused to go anywhere he couldn’t be the center of attention, Mom spoke into her glass:

“Not until Sid and Sylvia,” their twin teens, “start college, I hope.”

So Brenda wasn’t worried about her family’s reaction, but still, with every mile marker, she felt her resolve weaken, until she wondered what news she could drum up when Maddy reached through the car window and squeezed her wrist with expectation.

Steve played the audiobook of a spy thriller to pass the time, but they had barely passed Colorado Springs, a third of the way, when he could no longer stand the reader’s tiresome lilt during the so-called action sequences, where another smartmouthed operative with yet another weapon speciality showed up every twenty minutes on the dot. He had planned to start his speech when they’d reached the halfway mark (“Brenda, you know I love you and I’m glad we got married…”), to give them time to work through the emotional guff and have things arranged rationally when he dropped her off in front of her parents’ and headed back on his own. He hated when she cried. He always felt duty-bound to comfort her, and being the cause of her tears could be too much for him. Every minute of silence felt like they were back to dating–another moment of fear about taking the plunge and saying what he thought (five miles ago) he should have started saying by now. She was even on her phone, scrolling and grinning at someone else.

***

The first sign of trouble was the oncoming traffic with their headlights at full blast, their hoods and tops glistening, their wipers clearing bactrian humps on the windshields. The forecast had called for a forty percent chance of storms, but that was typical for July, especially in this humidity.

In the sun, the oncoming cars gleamed with relief.

“Something’s up ahead,” Steve muttered. Brenda looked up from her phone and squinted as though there was something to see beyond the next overpass.

And suddenly, there was.

It was the kind of storm that generated sudden exclamation points on the doppler–wind, hail, and was that a bump of rotation in the cloud?  That turned the sky green, pelted a path across the highway, and had timed its manifestation when there wasn’t another overpass in miles. Steve settled into a new kind of silence, that of survival, his focus their best hope against the wind that was already nudging their top-heavy jeep. A prefatory lightning bolt elicited a close-mouthed gasp from Brenda as she gripped the oh shit handle on the ceiling. Steve reverted to Driver’s Ed days and clasped the wheel at 10 and 2 as they plunged into the fierce weather.

At the smack of wind and fierce ice, Brenda expected to see a Brahma bull out her window. Their Wrangler leaned, but they will disagree to what extent by the time they get to South Greeley: one will say they were a hairsbreadth from permanent disfigurement, the other no worse than a Disney rollercoaster. They will hold hands as squish together in the living room chaise longue and tell her family their conflicting accounts. They will talk over each other, correct each other rudely, kiss and laugh while kissing. They will continue to argue the whole ride home with nary a silent gap and alternate who squeezes whose thigh.

When the cloud released them and the wall of hail ambled to the east, Steve watched it go, unable to unclench his fists, his fight/flight system dialed to eleven. Brenda released the ceiling handle so she could jackhammer her fist into the paltry padding above and scream,

“Again!”

Richard Weems is the author of three short fiction collections: Anything He Wants (finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize), Stark Raving Blue and From Now On, You’re Back. Recent appearances include North American Review, Aquifer, 3Elements Review, Flash Fiction Magazine and Tatterhood Review. Richard lives and teaches in New Jersey.

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


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

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Activism, Guest Posts

A Non-Black Body

February 16, 2021
BLACK LIVES MATTER PROTEST

By Joelyn Suarez

I watched the 8 minute, 46 second video of George Floyd’s murder with my brother-in-law. He propped his cell phone against a centerpiece of fake, white orchids on his dining table. We scooted our tufted chairs together near the round, glass tabletop. There’s a confrontation between two males, one who looks more like my brother and the other who looks more like me. My brother: Black male, 34 years old, 6’2”. Me: Filipino woman, 29 years old, 5’3”. George Floyd is pinned on the ground by the knee of a white officer against his neck. He cries for help, I can’t breathe. He calls out for his Mama.

“Why won’t he get off of him?” I ask, frustrated. My brother shakes his head. We try to shake what we just watched in order to tend to our mixed kids playing nearby.

*

I carry guilt in this non-Black body. I can tell by the way that strangers willingly approach me that they deem me to be less threatening. Petite. Asian. Female. I’ve known my brother-in-law since my teenage years. He’s always been much more reserved than my siblings, and me, who can be raucous and confrontational.

What kind of privilege affords us the comfort in confrontation without being considered a threat?

My guilt weighs heavy in the realization that the fate of George Floyd would more likely be my brother’s than mine.

My guilt weighs heavy in the realization that someone may actually hear my cries for help, because of my race.

My guilt weighs heavy in the realization that my white husband may serve as my voice, the only audible voice, in such a situation.

What kind of privilege affords us the feeling of guilt over the hunted?

*

As a country, we indulge in the success of Black athletes. We show up to games, we root for our teams, we parade the streets after championship wins. We analyze sport statistics with the utmost conviction, and marvel at the athleticism of the Black body.

Until we don’t.

As a country, we are told that a Black body should be mourned, but briefly. Thoughts and prayers. Period. It was only one bad officer—or four—in a sea of honorable ones. Don’t be so angry. Don’t be unreasonable. How many Black bodies do we lose before our collective anger is reasonable?

When, as a country, will we defend a Black body as much as we defend a shopping center?

*

Exactly one week later, I’m back at my brother-in-law’s dining table and we are celebrating my niece’s promotion to middle school. My sister, an activist at heart, is not with us—with her daughter to share in this moment—because she is out organizing protests and bailing protesters out of jail. Every cell in her body is shouting: BLACK LIVES MATTER. DEFUND THE POLICE. She tells me she’s tired, inspired, and reluctantly hopeful for change. She tells me she has to get back to work. Our celebration seems so small.

*

In his last moments, George Floyd called out for his Mama—for the kind of protection that is loving and unwavering.

I’ve spoken to friends and family, white and minority alike, who see this as a time for self-reflection and action. We talked about how we are accountable, how we are privileged, how we can forcibly change course.

We are at the beginning of a different kind of movement. This movement isn’t polite or passive; it does not use the Black body as a shield to protect other targets, other non-Black bodies. It will call out racism wherever it lives in this broken system. It will manifest the guilt of all non-Black bodies into societal change.

Take in this moment. Let it sink in, and turn from guilt and grief to utter outrage. Then, let that compel you to move.

Joelyn Suarez is a writer from San Diego, CA. She has been published in The Rumpus and Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.

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


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

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Relationships

How to Fix a Bluey Heart

February 14, 2021
blue heart made of napkin time

By Dustin Grinnell

By my mid-thirties, most of my college friends had moved out of Boston to other cities. Many were married and starting families. While they bought homes and built families, I focused my time and energy on writing essays and fiction, trying to become the best writer I could be. I wasn’t making new friendships and I didn’t often see the friends I had. Devoting all my spare time to pursuing my goals, I dated casually, avoiding commitment. These were productive years for me, but I was disconnected and lonely.

Tragically, I didn’t see a problem with this dynamic. Not only had I forgotten the value of friendship—once asking a psychologist to “sell me on friendship”—but I also thought my happiness didn’t depend on others. This attitude came from growing up with my father and brother in a hyper-masculine household. In my father’s home, a “real man” is self-reliant. A “real man” pursues his goals without help from others. A “real man” doesn’t need support from friends or loved ones. If you’re dependent, you’re vulnerable, and a “real man” is never vulnerable. It took me years to realize that this was bullshit. Now I know that everyone needs care and support to flourish in life—yes, even men. Without nurturing, without love, we can wither. And I had been withering.

When I met Sam at 35, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted from a romantic relationship—to marry, build a family, live in the suburbs—but I knew what I needed. Casual dating had run its course, providing less and less fulfillment. I knew I needed someone who could satisfy my emotional needs, not my sexual desires. I needed someone to offer support. Someone to listen to me and validate my ideas. I needed someone to care.

Sam and I met in Boston, at an MFA program in creative writing. We hit it off right away at one of our program’s ten-day residencies, where all the students came to campus for workshops, classes, readings, and more. Since then, we’ve been inseparable. Together, we have visited beaches, parks, and bars all over New England and beyond. We edit each other’s work. We’ve met each other’s families. We constantly joke and laugh. Early on, I realized that Sam was the best friend I desperately needed.

We’re perhaps an odd pairing. I’m in my mid-30s from the mountains of New Hampshire who was living in Boston at the time. She’s in her late 20s from the beaches of Florida who had been living in New York City at the time. I studied science, she studied theater. I write science fiction, she writes young adult. But we’re similar in many ways. We both grew up lower-class. We both see the world’s absurdity and mock it. And we’re both writers—hungry to find our voices and make our marks on the world.

As a preschool teacher, Sam has the unique gift of being able to comfort tiny humans who can’t always tell her where it hurts. It’s a superpower she often uses on me. If I’m stressed or frustrated, Sam senses it. She listens to me when I’m disappointed. She tolerates me when I’m mad. And she does all of this without my asking for help from her. This is important because—due to my upbringing—I never ask.

Though I was already working , on it in therapy, Sam was unwittingly helping me reform my decidedly “jock” origins. Regrettably, in high school and college, I displayed a fair share of toxic masculinity. A “never show weakness” attitude in the halls and classroom. Ignorant jokes in locker rooms. Tough-guy behavior with friends. Anything else was wimpy or weak.

To be fair, my interpretation of masculinity was like most of the males who came of age in my generation. A man of my era never showed softness. A man of this time didn’t admit fault. A man of this time didn’t ask for directions if they took a wrong turn. We were adept at pushing away emotions and soldiering on during tough times. Therapy helped me unlearn this programming. But women also played a large part in my reeducation—working with them, loving them, sometimes hating them. Yet, it was Sam’s caring and nurturing that allowed me to drop the macho facade and be vulnerable, thereby helping me build a less repressed, more sincere view of myself and manhood.

It wasn’t just my dad who had predisposed me to having a troubled relationship with my emotions. During childhood, my mom could be emotionally distant and wasn’t adept at understanding my emotional needs. When I was upset, she struggled to understand the cause of my distress and didn’t always know how to take away the pain. I don’t blame her because it wasn’t entirely her fault. I’ve always sensed that my mom doesn’t quite know how to label her own emotions and console herself when she’s distressed. Instead, she avoids vulnerability and talking about her feelings, and often busies herself in distracting activity (or drinking). I also knew that in her teenage years, my mom went through a traumatic event that drove her further away from her own feelings. And so, in addition to inheriting my dad’s macho attitude, I got my mom’s habit of avoiding emotions, negative ones in particular.

It was Sam who helped me overcome this tragic handicap. First, she tunes into my emotional state. Then she gives me the nurturing I am too afraid to—or don’t know how to—request. She then holds space for me to be vulnerable—a medicine my parents didn’t seem to have.

To help illustrate Sam’s powers, it’s best to show and not tell how she works with children. Recently, Sam was babysitting an adorable six-year-old who grew upset when her parents had to work longer than usual in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Sam could tell that the little girl was feeling ignored. Knowing this “sweet little nugget just needed some lovin’,” Sam delivered a prescription of snuggles while the child wept in her lap and explained why she was sad. An hour later, they were on the playground and the nugget was crossing the monkey bars with confidence.

This is Sam’s gift and it’s been working its magic on me since we met. Her secret is what might be called “extreme empathy.” She feels everyone’s pain and is often willing to take it on to help. One of Sam’s favorite books to read to her students is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. She relates to the apple tree in the story that gives a little boy everything he needs while he grows older. Over the course of the boy’s life, the tree gives the boy parts of itself—apples, branches, and its trunk to make a boat—until the tree eventually becomes a stump. The boy returns to the tree as an old man. Only a stump by this point, the tree can only offer the man a seat. “The tree was happy.”

Like the Giving Tree, Sam often feels that she gives pieces of herself to others to relieve their suffering. When Sam wakes up in the middle of the night, more often than not, it’s because of her extreme empathy flaring up. Worrying about others, she sympathizes with a problem I’m having, thinks about how she can help her struggling sister, or how scared her students are at having to go back to school during the pandemic.

Like the Giving Tree, Sam gives pieces of herself to the people in her life and lets them empty themselves out in her presence. It’s what she did with that child she was babysitting and it’s what she’s done with me many times. Sam lets you vent if you’re frustrated or pout when you’re down. I can share an insight from therapy, an idea for a story, or a dream I had the night before. And when I empty myself, I feel full.

Early on as we got to know each other, I told Sam about a previous long-term relationship I had with a woman I’ll call Paige. With Paige, I felt like a lottery winner. I had found someone who satisfied my emotional needs and my desires for sexual fulfillment. We broke up six years ago and I told Sam that my heart had been “bluey” ever since. I had been dating casually but was emotionally unavailable for romantic partners. I had also developed the unfortunate pattern of looking for sexual fulfillment from women who I knew wouldn’t satisfy my emotional needs. It’s a painful trick I often play on myself. If I pursue someone who’s a poor fit, the relationship will ultimately fail. And when it fails, I don’t get hurt because I knew it would never work anyway.

Sam helped me patch up my bluey heart.

Spending time with Sam helped me realize I wasn’t reflecting on my relationship with Paige. Comparing Paige to Sam, I had overestimated how intimate I’d been with Paige. Paige wasn’t as attuned to my emotional needs as I had thought. The night before she moved to the west coast, we attended a Red Sox game. Distraught over her departure, I broke into tears on the subway on the ride home. Paige rubbed my back awkwardly, not knowing how to comfort me, as my mom might have done when I was a boy. Also, in looking back, Paige wasn’t much interested in my writing goals either. To be fair, it’s not that she didn’t care at all about my dreams. Rather, she was in her mid-twenties and didn’t have the bandwidth to focus on my self-discovery and evolution because she was learning and developing who she was at the same time.

As I spent more time with Sam, the loneliness and disconnection I had been feeling began to lift. It was a tremendous boost for me to talk about writing with Sam. Together, we stoked the fires of each other’s passion for the craft. We listened to each other’s ideas, helped nurture them into reality, and read and edited each other’s work. It’s not uncommon for one of us to text the other about a compelling premise for a story and then send a screenshot the next morning of the first page we’ve written. Sam was my sounding board for story or article ideas.

With more attention and dialogue around my passion, the quality of my work began to improve. So powerful was having someone interested in my ideas, it gave me the confidence to take creative risks in my work. During my MFA, I changed my style of fiction from a commercial to a literary style—from Dan Brown to Edgar Allen Poe. My writing went to another level and publishing opportunities started to roll in.

Meanwhile, if I ever became frustrated or confused, Sam held space for me to be vulnerable. It was the first time I had ever relied on someone and it felt good to be supported. When my head is in the clouds, musing over concepts or philosophizing over theories, I can neglect the mundane tasks of daily living. If I’m preoccupied, Sam steps in to remind me to update my iPhone. She’ll grab a broom and sweep the floor if it’s been neglected. She’ll help diagnose a computer issue if it’s driving me crazy. If I have a demanding workday approaching, Sam will deliver an iced coffee to my apartment.

In therapy, I continued to explore my failed relationship with Paige. It took a while, but at last I figured out why our breakup had destroyed me.

When I was about five, my mother left our family for a year or so, which confused my younger brother and me. For us, it was the incomprehensible nature of her leaving that was most traumatic. Another inexplicable loss occurred when my grandmother died of cancer when I was seventeen, which re-triggered the loss of my mom in me. So when Paige moved across the country, I once again felt abandoned by a woman for reasons I didn’t grasp. But I knew Sam wasn’t going to leave and that was good medicine for a bluey heart like mine. I once asked Sam where she thought she’d be in five years. “Wherever you are,” she said.

Over time, I recognized that though I had loved Paige, we met at the wrong time in our lives. I knew that if I didn’t follow her to the Pacific Northwest, I would lose her. And I did lose her. Selfish as it may seem, I didn’t follow her because I needed that time to focus on my writing. A young artist needed time—years of intense study. Misguided or not, I felt if I didn’t give everything to the craft in my thirties, I’d never become who I wanted to become. Again, perhaps this is self-centered, but writing gives meaning to my life and I’ve made sacrifices for it. I sacrificed someone I loved.

Two years into meeting Sam, I got the closure I needed with Paige. I got in touch with Paige and apologized for not moving across the country with her. She expressed her regret as well. She admitted that she knew I needed that time and that she wouldn’t be able to fulfill that supportive role that was essential to me. She needed that time to transition as well—to continue learning and understanding who she was and find her place in the world.

The medicine for trauma isn’t just talking, reflecting, and shedding cathartic tears. It’s also humor. Sam can be lighthearted and playful, and she sometimes giggles at my “serious” ideas about life and death. Without invalidating my ideas, Sam can make light of my criticisms about mindless careerism, the irresponsibility of the media, and the shortness of life. When Sam pokes fun at my seriousness, it lightens me. It reminds me to stop thinking about life and focus on living it. I became sillier and more fun-loving, especially with Sam. I’m still just as dedicated to my work, but I take the journey less seriously now. Thanks to Sam, I take myself less seriously.

Now, I would be remiss without revealing that Sam loves me hard. The love and affection that Sam shows me pales in comparison to anything I’ve experienced in previous relationships. Her love is so intense, it can’t be avoided or denied. I’m staggered and inspired by it. But are we “together”? Are we dating? It’s the question everyone asks. It’s a constant hum in the background of our companionship. I often think of Sam as my best friend, but she’s much more than that.

In the beginning, Sam expressed her desire for physical intimacy, but I have been holding that part of our relationship back. It’s not just that Sam doesn’t quite fit my “type,” which motivates how I choose sexual partners; it’s that our relationship provides something more vital to me. I wasn’t opposed to the possibility of these desires developing, but when they didn’t, I started to believe that we could continue our unique dynamic forever. Who cares if weren’t “boyfriend and girlfriend”? Given how emotionally satisfying our connection is, I could do without the erotic part.

Eventually, this logic broke down. I went on dates with other women and concealed them from Sam. Even though Sam and I aren’t in an official “relationship”, I felt disloyal when seeing other women. Whatever dating I did was short-lived anyway. I always came back to Sam because I enjoy her company the most. I have the most fun with her. I’m most fulfilled by her. I love her. And so, I stopped going on dates.

But this still didn’t address Sam’s desires. So I tackled that conflict by doing what Sam always gives me space to do: be emotionally vulnerable, a skill that took me years to learn and one that all men would be wise to learn in the 21st century. I divulged that I cherished our connection and intimacy, but was still uncertain about my desire for sexual fulfillment. I told her that our deep emotional connection is more important than the passing pleasures of physical intimacy, at least for now. I questioned whether our connection needed to be defined. Could we just keep caring and supporting each other with a label?

During this conversation, I confessed that meeting her was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I said that she had helped dissolve the disconnection that had found its way into my life in my thirties. I cherished the fact that she watched out for me and wanted the best for me. I had found someone I could laugh with, write with, and go on adventures with.

I had thought I won the lottery with Paige, but I struck gold with Sam. Meeting Sam helped me realize what was missing in my relationship with Paige. I was broken after Paige and Sam helped put me back together. Sam fixed my bluey heart. Now I know how to love again, and, in doing so, how to live again.

Dustin Grinnell’s creative nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, New Scientist, Vice, Salon, Hektoen International, and Writer’s Digest, among others. 

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


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

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Little Buddy

February 12, 2021
creature

By W. T. Paterson

The chill in the air settled against the fading blue sky as Porter lugged an ancient wooden storm panel around the side of the house. The cold sand shifted under his boots turning each step into an arthritic nightmare for his knees. It felt like the end of an era. The summer house that once teemed with life now sat empty and cold leaving only the rat-a-tat knocking of a pesky woodpecker that wreaked yearly havoc on the panels. Buddy, his son, had always helped with the end-of-season board-up, specifically shooing away the bird, but the boy had moved to the big city for a fancy hospital job and Porter was lucky if he got a phone call every other month. Minnie, his wife, took over their Massachusetts house after her therapist suggested a trial separation now that Buddy had grown. Minnie agreed before Porter could weigh in and all but exiled him to his family’s seaside cottage in Maine for the winter. A quarter-century worth of marriage dissolved like a cruel magic trick. One moment things were fine, and the next the veil lifted to reveal the great absence of a used-to-be.

The wooden panel slid into the de-screened slot and hooked into place with rusted latches. Porter rested his sore shoulders and aching back and looked out across the empty beach. The calm ocean barely rippled, more lake than tidal beast roaring with surf. With the summer crowds gone, the small town barely stirred. A part of him believed that being holed up in the place for the winter would bring some clarity to the situation, that the isolation would do him good until the rat-a-tat started up again.

Porter wiped his brow and then slapped the boards. The thick panels shook, and the knocking ceased.

He stepped outside and around the house toward the bulkhead for the final panels, and that’s when he saw it; the creature hiding near the cement foundation of his neighbor’s place. A baby dinosaur, a dilophosaurus by the looks and no bigger than a housecat, watched with cautious curiosity. Its yellow skin with red-striped belly sniffed the air through a long, ridged snout. The creature gave Porter a weak warning growl to reveal a curved row of small, jagged teeth.

“Monsters,” Porter said under his breath, and shook his head at the wealthy summer goers like the Hartwells who loved to buy exotic pets in the spring only to decide they didn’t want them come fall. Instead of heading to proper shelters, they stuck the creatures outside to fend for themselves and left town without so much as a second thought. One year, animal control wrangled a Chupacabra after reports of missing cats piled up, and a few years later, the carcass of a tiger was found in the snowy dunes frozen and starved. Finding the small dinosaur was, unfortunately, par for the course.

Porter closed the rusty bulkhead and went inside even though he wasn’t finished. He held his fingers under warm water to melt the stiffness in the joints and considered phoning the town. From the kitchen window, he watched the dinosaur sniff around and make chirping noises, neck craned and eyes large as the shadows of the houses stretched over the dunes and onto the empty beach.

*

The dark autumn sky swallowed the day. No one at the town hall had answered when he called, so Porter left a voicemail requesting that someone collect the dino. Poor thing won’t survive the cold, he said. It’s their blood. They need the heat. Porter wasn’t sure how he knew this, but he knew it to be true. Leftover details from his childhood fascination with predators perhaps, or something pulled from Buddy’s picture book filled with sharks and crocodiles and yetis and wolves.

That book was still upstairs, he was almost certain. They read it together every summer until Minnie complained that Buddy should turn his interests toward more sophisticated prose and came home with books about the anatomy, and physiology, and medicine. She tucked the book out of reach where it collected dust and rendered the sturdy pages fragile.

What an odd thing to remember at a time like this, Porter thought as he sat on the well-worn and sun-beaten couch. The muted television glowed with his favorite trivia show as static crackled across the screen. He waited for the phone to ring. He watched in quiet until the contestants shouted with glee as a big-money gamble paid off huge. They danced and twirled and pumped their hands up and down like they had just gotten married, like they had a few glasses of fine wine and a belly full of prime rib and sauntered to the dancefloor still believing the person they married was who they believed they were, that an office job wasn’t built to turn a man inside out, that unconditional love could actually heal a person, that paying hand-over-fist for a future that benefited everyone but themselves was a noble path. “Dreamers,” Porter said, and tried to will himself into a nap. That type of happiness made him uncomfortable. It was exhausting, a game for the young. It was why those trivia shows never cast anyone over thirty, because anyone older knew the that the world was a limited path with nothing but forced naps that wouldn’t come in a cold and empty house inside of a town that only lived for a single season.

When the evening news came on and the weather forecasted only cold days ahead, Porter went into the kitchen to scrounge up some dinner. In a cupboard was an unopened box of Rainb-O’s cereal, buddy’s favorite. He purchased a new box every year in the hopes that his son would visit and they could both share a bowl like the old days. He didn’t want to open the box, just in case.

In the back of the freezer, he found two steaks so frozen and frostbitten that they could hammer a nail. He took one out and ran it under the faucet resigning to finish installing the panels in the morning. Over the hiss of the tap, he could faintly make out the lonely wail of the baby dinosaur somewhere outside.

“Poor thing,” Porter said, and against his better judgement, filled an unused bamboo salad bowl with water and walked outside. At the base of the front steps, he put the bowl on the ground and whistled for the creature. The long, gravel driveway wound around sleepy dune grass, cut through overgrown lawn grass, and intersected with a paved road lined with tall pines. The neighboring houses stood like vacated caverns. Crickets pulsed in the chilly air like the slow breath of a sleeping giant. A moment later at the edge of the shadow, the dilophosaurus poked it’s head out from a patch of cratered dunes and sniffed the air. Porter clicked his tongue and pointed at the water. The small creature took hesitant steps and growled a curious growl.

“Atta boy,” Porter said, and watched the creature approach. “Don’t get used to it, though. Done enough charity for this lifetime.”

The idea turned him sour. Why did he always have to do things for the benefit of others? Why was it his responsibility to fix things? There was that time at the restaurant where Minnie had a little too much and started in.

“We should call and check on Buddy,” she said.

“He’s an adult, Min, he’s fine,” Porter said, feeling the night balance on the edge of Minnie’s fragile mood.

“People can be adults and still drown in the bathtub, Porter,” Minnie said, cupping the wine glass with such ferocity that it was a miracle the thing didn’t shatter.

“Ok. We can go,” Porter whispered, and put on his winter coat. He tossed an extra-large cash tip onto the table in an unspoken attempt to smooth things over with their server – a college girl with large eyes and full lips.

“He thinks money will buy you,” Minnie said, stumbling through the slurred words as the server picked empty plates from the table. “But he’s not your type, is he?”

The server went flush and smiled politely, and something about the reaction made Minnie go ice age. She didn’t talk to him for the rest of the night.

In the morning, she knew she had done something, but couldn’t remember what.

“Jog my memory,” she pleaded, rubbing her head. “You’re upset, and I can’t change if I can’t remember.”

“Said some things is all,” Porter mumbled, and twisted the gold wedding band around his finger to let the feeling go extinct.

A chill ran Porter’s spine, so he turned suddenly to go back inside. It startled the dinosaur and the creature reared back on its small hind legs. A scaley umbrella-like mane shot out from the sides of its head. It rattled like a snake, an unmistakable warning.

“Oh please,” Porter laughed. “Been married for nearly three decades. Know what that does to a man? Teeth don’t scare me, pal.”

He chuckled his way up the cold and creaking steps and closed the door inside. As he turned the porch light off, he watched through the glass as the small dinosaur retracted its mane, approached the bowl with curious eyes, and gulped down the water.

That salad bowl was a wedding gift, Porter thought. What an odd thing to remember at a time like this.

*

Just past sunrise, the rat-a-tat returned—a crude wooden alarm to usher in the rising coastal sun. Porter pulled the thinning comforter over his eyes and tried to ignore piercing rap, but the tapping pushed awake-ness through his eyelids like the slow drip of a hangover. His bones ached, the fossilized remains of a great used-to-be. Once a man so sturdy he could board up the home by himself breaking a sweat, he now struggled to sit upright in bed. All those years in an office behind a desk staring into sheets and memos and computer screens left little behind, and what remained had eroded into sun damaged skin and liver spots.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter slid out of bed still in jeans from the day before and shoved his wool-socked feet into tired work boots.

“I’m up,” he grunted, and wiped the last bit of sleep from his eyes. He put on the same flannel as yesterday and walked downstairs. The bones of the quiet home creaked with every thumping step, the arthritic walls wailing and moaning too. With day old coffee sitting cold in the cloudy glass pot, Porter poured the thick mass into a mug and tossed it into the microwave. A single spotted banana stared at him from the fruit bowl and he considered the possibility, but instead watched the digital seconds count down until the ding produced a steaming cup of bitter jet-fuel. After one sip, he knew it had turned but he finished the mug as to not be wasteful before heading outside to finish the job.

A familiar dull pain pulled at the muscles between Porter’s shoulders as he lugged another wooden panel from the bulkhead to the side of the house. Two more, and then he could shelter without worry of those winter storms.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter shoved the panel into the sand below an open slot and huffed. He wanted to confront that damn bird, the constant pecking and relentless picking, but what good would that do anyone? No matter what he felt, the bird always came back and the rat-a-tat became a wooden, mocking laughter. At least with Buddy around, the boy could chase the bird through the cool and crunching dunes until he got tired, or bored, wanted to help with the panels. But Minnie always came outside demanding that Porter do something about the incessant, belligerent, ridiculous racket.

“It’s fine, Minnie,” Porter would say.

“Some people come here to relax. Some people need quiet reflection,” she’d say, and flap back inside chirping about how she married the only man in the world who couldn’t stand up to a bird. Buddy would watch from the dunes with large, confused eyes until Porter explained that it would have been Uncle Marius’s birthday.

“Oh,” the boy would say, and spend the rest of the afternoon quietly chasing birds, and bugs and while his father boarded.

Now, as Porter turned the corner of the boarded-up porch, he saw the small dinosaur crouched in the grass watching the gnawing woodpecker.

“Get!” Porter said and swiped at the bird. The dinosaur tilted its head. The woodpecker did a quick loop in the sky and swooped back onto the sill with an anarchic rat-a-tat. Porter’s blood boiled and his ears went hot.

“I said…” he shouted, and the bird took off again. This time, as it swooped over the dunes, the young dilophosaurus expanded its scaley mane and spit a dark glob of venomous, paralyzing phlegm, which wrapped the bird and brought it crashing out of mid-air. The woodpecker landed lifelessly in the nearby sand. The baby creature trotted over and ate the remains with big, proud bites and then looked at Porter with glistening, hopeful eyes.

“Not bad, little buddy,” he said, and though he couldn’t be sure, it looked like the creature smiled at the compliment.

For the rest of the morning, the dinosaur walked along the sand and dunes chasing away seagulls, butterflies, and crickets that came too close as Porter fixed the final wooden panels into place.

At lunch, Porter cooked the other remaining steak, but something chewed at his wandering thoughts. The spotted banana eyed him from the fruit bowl, and Porter knew that sometimes cooking for one was really cooking for two. He slapped the steak onto a Corelle plate and popped outside. The dino poked its head out from between long blades of dune grass.

“Eat up, you done good today” he said, and balanced the plate on the bottom step of the stoop. The creature sniffed the air, eyed Porter, and scampered out to devour the cooked meat. Porter peeled the yellow banana back and ate the sweet fruit—though he didn’t enjoy it—happy to be able to lend his talents to an appreciative crowd.

“If I let you in, you gonna be good?” Porter asked. The dinosaur looked up and continued chewing. “You gonna be good? If you come inside? You’ll be a good boy?” The creature pondered the question like it understood, and finally chirped as it stepped toward Porter’s knee. He gave it a gentle head-butt. Porter reached down and rubbed the top of the scaley head with his tired, heavy hands. “You’re a good boy.”

The baby dinosaur leaned back and sneezed. A tiny fleck of black, venomous phlegm landed on Porter’s knuckle and burned the skin with a terribly, fiery pain.

“Sweet mother of mercy,” he said, rubbing his fist on his jeans. The creature shrank with alarm when it realized what it had done, eyes wide with a different kind of hurt. “Ain’t your fault, boy,” Porter said. “It’s just how you are.” He stood to walk inside, and then whistled. The dilophosaurus perked up and followed, trotting next to Porter’s knees but never crossing in front.

*

Porter started to suspect that something was different that evening. Not wrong, but different. The dinosaur took a wheezing nap against the electric baseboard heater of the thin-walled coastal home. Upon awaking, he watched Porter as though trying to communicate something.

“You hungry?” Porter asked, and the sound of his voice seemed to put the creature at ease. The young dinosaur rolled to his feet and tip-toed over to the couch and placed his scaley and unusually heavy chin on the top of Porter’s thigh. Porter smiled and rubbed the creature’s rough and uneven head. He noted the retracted mane on the neck like wrinkled skin and wondered at nature’s design. The dilophosaurs relaxed into comfort, but the type of comfort that stems from concern and, he wasn’t sure how, but Porter could sense it like a light left on in a room he was no longer using.

When he moved his leg, the creature stepped back and followed him into the kitchen where the man pan-fried a chicken breast and put it in a ceramic cereal bowl – the big one that Buddy always filled to the brim with colorful Rainb-O’s but could never finish, until the year that Minnie insisted he switch over to something more nutritious like sausage and hash browns.

“A growing boy needs protein,” she said. “You keep giving him this, he’ll stay small forever, and be fragile, and his bones will be weak.”

“Ok,” Porter said like a deflating balloon, because every fight with Minnie was an unwinnable task. She fought with the fury and guilt over her wheelchair-bound brother Marius who drowned in the tub as a teen while she took a brief nap. What could he say to curb venom like that? Nothing, and Porter absorbed every last bit until there was nothing left.

The creature chomped at the chicken breast and pulled it apart with a ravenous hunger until everything was gone.

“You’ve got some appetite, lil’ buddy,” Porter said, and opened the cupboards to try and find something else to feed it. All that remained was the unopened box of Rainb-O’s. He rattled the cardboard and the dinosaur tilted its head. Porter popped the top and poured into the ceramic bowl. The creature sniffed the sugary O’s, looked at Porter, and then slowly lapped up the bits with his dark tongue. It only made it halfway through before walking away from the bowl, back into the living room, and pushed himself against the heater.

“How about a bedtime story before the sun goes down?” Porter asked, watching the young dino give in to heavy eyelids and long, strained breath. He knew just the book, it had to be here still.

Upstairs in the closet tucked in the very back of a shelf was the picture book of predators, the thick and sticky pages the same as they ever were. He remembered nights going through the pictures watching his son’s wide-eyed wonder at sharks, and coyotes, and lycans, and felt the venomous sting of a used-to-be erode the sides of his heart.

Downstairs, he sat on the couch and whistled for the dinosaur. The creature lifted its head and walked with a sleepy limp over to Porter, who opened the picture book and read aloud the simple prose. With each picture he pointed to, the creature seemed to smile and drift further into the clutches of sleep, seemingly happy to hear the man’s voice.

*

Porter’s worry began to peak. The creature asleep at his feet sounded like it was having more trouble breathing, and it kept twitching with miniature seizures. He didn’t know if this was natural, or a cause for alarm, so he pulled the phone from his pocket and wondered if his son might take a call in the big city. Wondering things such things made him feel insignificant, burdensome, left behind.

“Hey Pops!” a voice answered, which startled Porter. He hadn’t been aware that he even dialed, and it sounded like his son was at a restaurant, or a bar, or out with friends being social.

“Hey Buddy, it’s your father,” Porter said.

“I know. Call ID. What’s up?”

Porter wasn’t sure where to start, or how to even ask. Stuttering through ideas, he blurted out the only thing that sounded plausible.

“What do you think about having a dinosaur as a pet?” he asked, and then held his breath for the reply.

“Nah, you don’t want a dino. They have to have their own feeding space because they need to eat live meals. Birds, goats, sheep. Lot’s of blood and entrails, pretty heavy cleanup. Only raw food. Their micro-gut biomes are so strong that cooked food doesn’t get transferred into nutrients and they’ll starve to death. No people food. It makes’em sick, like dogs and chocolate. A lot of work, too much work, Pops. Why? You, uh, you doing ok?”

“Oh yes, yes. Just daydreaming is all,” Porter said. Dread rose from his chest into his throat as the creature kicked out again, writhing in some sort of pain. Porter did what he could to mask the anxiety. “How did you get so smart, anyways?”

“Years of mom forcing me to read books about how bodies work. Go figure,” Buddy said. “Hey, can I call you back in the morning? The firm just got a grant and we’re out celebrating.”

“Of course, son. Sure thing,” Porter said, and wheezed out a half-hearted, lonely laugh.

He hung up the phone and bent over the creature. The skin didn’t feel right. He wasn’t sure what right should have felt like, but this wasn’t it. Dry, too dry, and far too warm in the head, while the yellow belly with red stripes felt too cool.

“Don’t do this to me,” Porter said. “Please, I’m doing the best I can.”

The creature opened its eyes and chirped, but it was a distant noise. The pupils irised like a dimming bulb.

“I didn’t know any better,” Porter said, taking the head into his arms and cradling. “I did the best I could with what I knew, with what I had! I’ll try harder, please!”

The dinosaur began to shake and froth. Porter couldn’t look away even though the sight physically pained him, this creature in so much helpless, needless pain. Had the little dinosaur been like this all summer? Slowly starving to death?

A rattle began in the creature’s chest, which forced the remaining air from its lungs like a tea kettle coming to boil. Porter physically felt the life inside the dinosaur diminish, and he broke down into tears.

“I could have done better, I wasn’t ready for you, but I’m thankful we had this. Know that I’m thankful we had this,” he said. A small spark of life came to the young dinosaur’s eye and for that brief moment, they saw each other in the cold room. Porter wasn’t sure how he knew, but he knew that dinosaur loved him in their short time together.

And then, as the sun dipped over the horizon, the remaining light turned to darkness, and Porter was alone.

*

Porter barely slept, if he even slept at all. After carrying the creature into the basement and deciding to bury it in the woods later, he couldn’t shake the image of the dinosaur’s last moments and how this all could have been prevented with a little attentiveness and research.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter wasn’t in the mood. Of course another bird had come. Of course.

Then he realized it wasn’t a knocking, but a ringing. His cell phone vibrated against the wooden night table with an incoming call from the town offices.

“Heyo, Porter, it’s Len from City Hall. I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“No,” Porter said, and sat up.

“Anywho, got a call from the Hartwells asking if we’d seen a small dinosaur. Said it escaped as they were packing up last month. I told’em you’d called with a sighting, and they said they’d swing by. Wanted to give warning.”

“Thanks Len,” Porter said.

“Ayuh,” Len said, and ended the call. The morning sun forced its way through the thin drapes with blinding reminders. It didn’t seem fair that days got to start and end.

Porter sat up and put on his flannel, the same as the day before, and noticed a few places where venomous phlegm has burned small holes through the fabric. He ran his thumb over them and felt the immediate, pressing absence of a used-to-be.

Work-boots on, he limped downstairs with cold and tired knees as a shining car with New York plates blasting loud, electronic music pulled up the drive. He saw a young man and woman in their early twenties in the front seat, dark sunglasses pulled over their eyes, hair styled like they had just come from a fashion magazine’s photo shoot.

“You the guy?” the woman asked as she stepped out of the car in high heels.

“Len said you’d seen our dinosaur. Tricky bugger snuck out while we loaded the car.”

“Over those dunes,” Porter said, pointing away from the house. “I was boarding up. Saw’em hiding near the beach.”

“Is he still there?”

Porter shrugged and shoved his aching hands into his pockets. The woman rolled her eyes and whispered to the guy that she couldn’t walk in the sand with heels, and that he should go, and that he better be quick because she wanted to get back to the city by nightfall.

“We have a buyer, you see,” the guy said. “Top dollar.”

Porter didn’t move as the Hartwell boy traipsed into the dunes and whistled, pushing aside long blades of grass to look for any sign of the creature. He walked near the beach, deep into the grass, and then back again before returning to the car.

“Anything?” Porter asked.

“It’s a baby, how far could it have gone?” the woman said, annoyed. She leaned against the car and scrolled through her phone.

“Maybe you should have kept a better eye on it,” Porter said. He took his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms.

“Excuse me?” the guy said and took off his sunglasses. He stepped into Porter’s personal bubble.

“You left this town two months ago. Never once came back looking. You can’t treat things that way, can’t abandon something just ‘cause you’re bored. You have to love it. You have to try at least and sometimes stand up for yourself, even when it’s hard, and you have to commit to working through tough times. Otherwise, anything that matters goes extinct and everyone ends up alone.”

“It’s just a dinosaur, dude,” the guy said. He held up his hands like he was trying to ward off a charging bull.

“Let’s just go,” the woman said. “We’ll tell Franco it was hit by a car or whatever.”

The woman opened the passenger door and sat down as the guy stomped around to the driver’s side cautiously eyeing Porter. At the end of the road, a familiar car turned into the drive. The car with New York plates turned around and sped out of the gravel drive as the other car—Buddy’s car—pulled in. Buddy parked and stepped out into the slowly warming day. He stood with large shoulders, a yellow and red striped sweater hugging his frame. Though he hadn’t been away in the city for too long, Porter couldn’t believe how much his boy had grown.

“Hey Pops,” Buddy said, holding an overnight bag. “What did those clowns want?”

“Something they shouldn’t have,” Porter said. “What’s the occasion?”

Buddy shrugged.

“Talking to you last night, I dunno, thought you might enjoy some company.”

Porter hugged his boy and welcomed him inside. With the wooden panels up along the porch wall, the inside felt cavernous and dark, but Buddy brought a certain light to the rooms that hadn’t existed in quite some time. They chatted in the kitchen about life in the city, about Porter’s move to the seasonal home, about the split with Minnie and how situations never stopped evolving.

“It’s good to see you, though,” Porter said after a while.

“No way, is that a box of Rainb-O’s? Haven’t had those in years. Don’t tell mum, but…” Buddy said.

“Say no more,” Porter said. He went into the cupboard and pulled out the recently-washed bamboo salad bowl.

“A growing boy needs his nutrition,” Porter said. Buddy sat at the kitchen table like a happy child while Porter popped the top of the cardboard cereal box. He poured the colorful O’s until the bowl had nearly filled and the box had all but emptied, and sat with his son in a warming house as daylight spilled through the cracks of the ancient wooden panels illuminating the presence of an always-will-be.

W. T. Paterson is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and is a graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 80 publications worldwide including The Saturday Evening Post, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Delhousie Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Fresh Ink. A semi-finalist in the Aura Estra short story contest, his work has also received notable accolades from Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Lumberloft. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to “Get down from there!”

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Abortion, Guest Posts

Automatic Failure

February 10, 2021
know

By Bethany Petano

The automatic toilet flushes, mistaking projectile vomit for human movement. The backsplash hits me in the face. I vomit again at the thought of public toilet water mixed with my own throw up dripping down my cheek. Again, the backsplash hits me in the face. This continues until I am emptied. At the sink, I fill my hands with water and bring them to my face, scrubbing it dry with a paper towel, avoiding my reflection in the mirror.

Only six more hours before I can finally go home and crawl into bed. If I hadn’t already missed one class–I wouldn’t be here. The attendance policy for the Saturday Program at Bay Path College is severe. Missing two classes out of a six-week course means automatic failure.

Automatic failure–I was already one of those.

At least class gave me something to think about–besides overwhelming waves of nausea and the cramps gripping my abdomen in a steely vice. After my third sprint from classroom to bathroom, the women in my class exchange knowing looks.

“Does someone have a touch of morning sickness?”

Grinning faces blur as I blink back tears.

“Just a stomach bug,” I mumble. Pointedly turning my attention back to our professor.

A stomach bug I caught six weeks ago, on Valentine’s Day, one that I felt almost the instant it was created.

***

“You don’t look so good, Doll.”

My friend Amina is leaning against my cubicle partition ready to go on our mid-morning coffee break. We’ve been friends for years both in and outside of work.

“I don’t feel so great. Can’t keep anything down.”

“Ginger ale and saltines.”

“I know, I’m on it.” I lift my warm can of Canada Dry in a mock salute. “It’s super weird though, like–I can smell everything. It’s not helping.”

“Girl.”

“What?”

“I could smell everything the instant I was pregnant with Khi.”

“What?”

“You need to take a test.”

***

I call my primary care physician and make an appointment. In addition to measuring and weighing me, I am given a specimen cup to pee in. When the doctor enters the room she is beaming.

“Congratulations! You’re pregnant.”

I immediately burst into tears.

The doctor is visibly taken aback. This is not the response she expected.

“If that’s not necessarily good news, there are options we can discuss. Of course, we do not provide those services here.”

“Okay,” I manage to get out.

“I’ll give you a moment to get dressed.”

I cry the entire time I put my clothes back on. Finally, after countless deep breaths, I pull myself together. I do not stop at the desk to check out, leaving the practice without settling my co-pay.

Who the fuck congratulates an unmarried woman who isn’t trying to get pregnant?

***

The smell of eggs sends me running to the bathroom. Amina and I are at Friendly’s, explaining my situation to our buddy Johnny. His friend, Chris, is the partner-in-crime for my current predicament. We had only just started hooking up. Fucking for the first time after the Anti-Valentine’s Day Party I threw, and then again after a sub-par dinner date. At first, Johnny doesn’t understand the complexity of the situation, until Amina eludes I may not want to simply make this “problem” disappear.

Somehow, by violating the first rule of casual hook-ups (Don’t get pregnant!), we had reverted to a middle school era social construct with our appointed representatives negotiating the terms of our deal. Only this time, there is more at stake then holding hands during lunch.

Johnny contacts Chris, explaining the situation. It’s agreed, Chris and I will talk later that afternoon at Forest Park.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

We start walking, shoulder to shoulder, not touching. The March air is brisk but small bursts of pale green signal signs of Spring.

“Why don’t you want to? We used a condom every other time for a reason.” He looks over at me.

“We didn’t use a condom on Valentine’s Day?” I ask, looking up.

“The first time. The second time you climbed on top of me and went for it. I just assumed you were on the pill,” he shrugs.

“I used to be. I don’t remember that. I just… Never thought… I would, you know?” I’m doing my best not to cry when I realize my feet have stopped moving.

“Do you not believe in it?” he asks, gently touching my shoulder.

“No, it’s not that.” I turn to face him. “I just always thought I would have kids someday.” I look past him, staring at nothing.

“Right, someday.” He ducks his head trying to catch my eye.

“But I’m twenty-eight…” I look him in the face.

“I’m only twenty-three. I’m not ready to have a kid.”

“I don’t know if I am either,” I admit softly, looking away.

But, what if this is my chance?

“So don’t,” he says softly.

The words hang between us. The meniscus of tears welling in my eyes finally spills over, falling down my cheeks. Chris pulls me into a hug. The wool of his grey pea coat scratches my face.

“I’m scared,” I mumble into his chest.

“I’ll be there with you,” he says, looking down at me.

There is a gentleness to the desperation screaming in his eyes.

“Can I think about it? We have time.”

“Of course.”

He keeps his arm around my shoulder as we walk back to our cars. This was not how I imagined this moment would go. Not how I imagined starting a family.

What if I had it anyway?

Would Chris help?

Would he hate me?

What would we tell the kid?

Could I do this alone?

Do I want to do this alone?

What does that even look like?

I don’t know.

I don’t know. 

I don’t…

No.

“Okay,” I say when we reach the parking lot.

“Are you sure?” he asks.

“No.” My body releases a sob/shrug/laugh.

He wraps both arms around me. His embrace is warm but feels somehow wrong now.

I pull away.

“I guess I’ll call and make an appointment.” My eyes don’t quite meet his.

“I’ll pay for everything and go with you. If you want me to?” He touches my arm, leaning down, trying to make eye contact.

“Umm sure, okay, I’ll let you know when.” I turn, walking the rest of the way without him.

“Thank you,” he says emphatically, staring at me over the roof of my Honda Civic.

I can practically see the relief pouring off him.

I drive home. Not seeing the road through my tears. Not caring.

***

I think we will never talk again, but for months after, he checks in on me. The Facebook messages feel intrusive, but I understand his need to “do the right thing.” I don’t know what that looks like for me yet. It is awkward and uncomfortable to think about, so I put it all in a box and drown it with vodka.

I think about writing and sharing my experience. Maybe it will help others feel less alone. Maybe it will help me feel less alone. When I tell my mother, she cautions me, “Do you really want your father or grandfathers to know about that? I don’t.”

Shame wraps me in a heavy, black blanket, tucking the emotions I had almost processed back to bed. I made her a mother, as she birthed a daughter. Neither of us lives up to the other’s expectations.

At first glance, on the surface, you would not look at me and think of anything other than “pretty white girl.” Except maybe, loud-mouthed pretty white girl. That is a privilege I have become startlingly aware of recently.

Because my mother is blond and light-skinned, she has never been identified as a “spic.” A word she forbad us to use. I remember as a child having dinner at my father’s parent’s house. We were eating hot dogs and beans so it must have been a Saturday. I’m not sure how old I was, probably eight or nine. Gramps was on a racist rant about “spics and niggers.” Such comments were commonplace but on this occasion, I was paying attention. A realization hit me-I was probably a “spic.”

“What about me, and Mom, and Grama Gloria? Are we “spics,” too?”

The clattering of silverware ceases as silence fills the room and the adults look from one another communicating without speaking.

The silence is broken as my grandfather clears his voice, “Ahem, uh, you’re different,” he says ending the discussion.

That was the only explanation I received about my question of race. But, never again did I hear my grandfather speak that word. I sincerely doubt he stopped using racial slurs all together but he had at least developed a sensitivity as far as his granddaughter was concerned.

Identifying as Puerto Rican wasn’t something that ever occurred to me until filling out college application forms. It seemed logical that I checked the box next to Hispanic. And, even though, at the time, you weren’t allowed to check more than one box, I also checked the one next to white. I was both, wasn’t I?

When I came up with the phrase “Quarter Rican” to explain my racial identity my mother was horrified. At first, I thought this was because she equated the phrase to a racial slur. Then I found out–my mother only checks one box–white. Is that why she said nothing to her racist father-in-law?

Growing up my mother was teased by classmates–for her mother had an accent she didn’t hear. That doesn’t seem like a deep enough wound to deny one’s heritage. But, before I judge someone else’s trauma too quickly, I wonder, is that what my mother’s shame looks like? A tiny Puerto Rican lady I recall mostly through hazy memories of other people’s stories.

My shame–she takes many forms. She’s crafty like that. The day I told my mother I was pregnant drenched blue with shame. Even March in Connecticut couldn’t cool the red hot burning humiliation of also admitting I wasn’t quite sure who the father was. There were only two options but shame stood on the coffee table and screamed, “Whore!” I had no recollection. The night was a blackout. One of many. Disgrace filled me with darkness.

After he begged me, “please, don’t have this baby.” I again went to my mother and told her my news. My shame turned cold and gray. Like the sky on the March day he sat in the waiting area while I was counseled, poked, and prodded. I found it ironic the vaginal ultrasound wand looked exactly like a vibrator. Maybe I wouldn’t have ended up there if I’d just taken care of myself.

***

That was 2009, a decade before, “you know me,” would become a trending hashtag on Twitter. Hell, it was before most people even knew what a hashtag was. In May 2019, on her talk show “Busy Tonight,” host Busy Phillips shared facts and figures from a study published in the American Journal of Public Health. “The statistic is one in four women will have an abortion before age 45,” she said. “That statistic sometimes surprises people, and maybe you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t know a woman who would have an abortion.’ Well, you know me.”

Phillips followed up her on-air insight with a social media post, creating the hashtag #YouKnowMe. The response was instant. Thousands of women shared their own abortion stories. Scrolling through Instagram, I came across Phillips’s post. The pinprick of tears surprised me. I was certain in the last ten years I had processed my feelings about my own abortion. It turned out I was wrong.

Reading post after post of women publicly sharing their stories cracked something open inside me. Tears streamed down my face. Shame can’t live in the light. Busy Phillips shined a bright hot light on abortion and women everywhere stepped into it. I tried to step into it too. Typing and re-typing my own post. Trying to find the right words that would eradicate my shame. I couldn’t find them. I hadn’t realized yet that inherited shame isn’t a gift you have to accept. There is, in fact, a return process for other people’s judgments—even from family. It starts with boundaries and it ends with the truth. I had failed to protect myself from unwanted pregnancy but I was not a failure. #YouKnowMe

Bethany Petano grew up and still resides in New England. Her work has been published in the literary journals Weatherbeaten and Meat for Tea. She has an M.F.A. in Creative Non-fiction from Bay Path University.

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Kindness, parenting, Self Love

Golden Repair: A Disfigured Mom’s Quest to Raise a More Loving Child

February 8, 2021
god

By Melissa Akie Wiley

She looked at my face with disgust. My infant daughter cooed. I had just placed the baby into a shopping cart when the woman first approached. A stranger. She came too close. Staring at my daughter.

“Your baby is perfect,” she said. “She looks like a doll.”

I thanked her and pulled the cart away. Then the woman looked up at me and froze. She was silent and scurried to her car, as if I might run after her. I stood in front of the grocery store with my daughter. The automatic doors opened and closed but I didn’t move. My baby smiled. Too young to know that she is beautiful but her mother is disfigured.

My daughter is 2 years old now. She has round blue eyes and blonde hair. Her face inspires joy. My face is lopsided and scarred. It was a dog attack. I was five. I am not afraid of dogs. People always seem more concerned about my feelings toward dogs than they do about me. I have had over thirty surgeries and they helped. But my face is instantly noticeable. And the world is bothered by asymmetry and imperfection. I am also part Japanese and part white. My skin is too pale and my hair is too dark. People tell me that my daughter is perfect and then they say she looks nothing like me.

I have never looked like anyone. Bi-racial and disfigured is a cocktail of isolation. In childhood, I left my hometown of Boulder, Colorado every summer to visit my Japanese grandma in Tucson, Arizona. One summer I begged her to take me to a crowded shopping mall to buy doll clothes. I was 7 years old.

“Did you see that disgusting girl?” a woman said then.

She was talking to her daughter and looking directly at me.

The girl met my eyes and glared. Her hair twisted in a tight braid. I dreamed of ponytails but didn’t dare wear my hair up. I looked at the girl’s flawless appearance and sank into shame.

“So gross. I can’t believe she even came out of her house. She’s going to give me nightmares. She’s a monster,” the girl said. She was my age and already this callous.

The mother hugged her daughter and shot my grandma a scowl.

Then she said, “I’m so sorry, sweetie. People should know better but she’s clearly with some immigrant nanny who probably doesn’t even speak English.”

We stood in silence with our doll clothes. I felt devastation that my grandma should suffer due to my deformity. I tried to wedge myself behind stacks of toys to prevent further commentary. My grandma adjusted her glasses with shaky hands.

“I am sorry I don’t speak good English,” she said.

That day she bought more doll clothes than she could afford. She had worked as a hotel maid and saved tips in the form of crisp dollar bills. She set this carefully preserved money aside for me. When we approached the counter to pay for the items, the cashier said, “what’s wrong with her face?”

“Nothing wrong with my granddaughter,” she said, in broken English.

Once I asked my mom if she was mad at God. We were sitting in my grandma’s backyard in Tucson. Looking at the night sky. It’s easier to talk about God’s failings in the dark.

On the day of the dog attack, she had only looked away for a minute. Long enough to drain noodles from a boiling pan. When she turned around, the yard lay covered in blood and my face was gone.

“No,” she said. “Because you are extraordinary. You have shown me what it is to live next to suffering and become truly beautiful.”

People ask how I survived. The answer is my mom.

I want to tell her that I am not mad at God because he gave me her, and a good mom is worth more than a pretty face.  I am thankful I learned this lesson in youth. When I still have more years on the earth with my mom.

Tragedy in childhood is a spiritual offering. Early redemption creates a fast track toward a more meaningful and grounded life. I shed the frivolousness of appearance, money, and status like a butterfly discards a cocoon. Because when the world rejected me, I sheltered only with the tender hearted and my own soul. And if we’re lucky, that is where we all eventually end up anyway.

My daughter will grow up with a disfigured mom.

On my daughter’s first day of Kindergarten, middle school, high school, and college, I will take photos of her and children will stare. After I am gone, they will ruin these moments of childhood by asking what’s wrong with her mom. I know this because these moments were taken from me, too.

I will want to stay in the car to spare her. But I will not. Instead I will show up for everything. And when we hear the comments, I will tell her that the Japanese have a word, Kintsugi, which roughly translates to golden repair. It is the Japanese art of taking broken pottery and patching it with gold so that the imperfection is illuminated instead of disguised. I will tell her that my mother’s love was the glue that made my flawed life golden. And my love will hold her together, too.

This pain will make my daughter kind. It will teach her that the world is unduly harsh because we are all more broken than whole. And she will learn that love is restorative and the only thing of true beauty. She will inherit this wisdom in childhood. When we are both still young enough to walk the earth together.

And when people ask, I hope she says, “There is nothing wrong with my mom”.

Melissa Akie Wiley is a public servant and fierce local government leader by day and a mother and writer by heart. She strives to infuse joy into all aspects of service by living with authenticity and resiliance. After overcoming a disfiguring childhood dog attack, Melissa committed to a life of repair and love. She holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Pennsylvania and lives with her husband, daughter, and dog in Denver, Colorado. She is the director of the nationally-recognized, Denver Peak Academy and is currently working on her memoir.

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, memories

How To Feel Iranian

February 7, 2021
iranian

By Maryam Keramaty

In 1978, I left 4 Padidar Street and boarded an airplane to the United States. When the wheels left the runway in Tehran, it seemed like the end of one chapter, and as an eight-year-old I didn’t look back. Now, at fifty, I do. I retrieve memories and feel longing for home. Longing to speak fluent Farsi, savor homemade rosewater ice cream, and eat plump, fresh-picked mulberries with my father. But there was a revolution and Iran vanished. I cannot seem to bring that richness, that life, back.

I want to be that eight-year-old again. The girl who has friends in a bilingual school, picnics on the river rocks with my parents, sister, and family friends, and day trips on winding roads through Alborz Mountain. I want to be the four-year-old who curiously watches tadpoles in the mucky backyard pool, plays with many cousins at large family gatherings, and sleeps under mosquito netting on the back porch. I want to be the young girl who is still Iranian.

Life in Medford, Massachusetts, is different now, but I still remember, remember enough to ache. The school bus driver who adored me, the majestic weeping willow tree in the front yard, and kesh, a schoolyard game I played with friends. The richness of the life I left is palpable. I want to see noon e sangak, stone bread, come out of the oven at the neighborhood bakery, smell sumac on my beef kebob and basmati rice, and taste the soft, sweet figs picked in our backyard. These memories come only in drips, as if to quench my thirst for only a moment. Can I ever quench this thirst? Can I retrieve Iran?

***

Seated at the kitchen table I share with a roommate, I open a gold wooden box, one that holds treasures from another time. I reach into the box and pick up my small perfume bottle from a “make your own perfume” kit. The bottle is no more than two inches high with a flowery round sticker: “Persian Spice.” I take a sniff, with hopes the scent will evoke memories, but there is nothing. It has been over four decades, after all.

I jingle the tarnished tribal Iranian necklace passed down to me from Grama, my American grandmother who visited Iran when my sister and I were born. Small spear-shaped trinkets dangle, and red and blue stones are embedded in silver shapes. I put the necklace on, half hoping I will be transported to a place, and the feeling of home. Nothing.

I stand to spread a small square cloth on the kitchen table and run my hands over the tan and beige paisley pattern and the hundreds of white tassels that hang from the edges. The texture is worn, with coarse, thick cotton threads. It doesn’t take me back. It feels like just a tablecloth to me. No memories, again nothing. My hopes for Iran to come to me are dashed.

These objects don’t bring my Iranian identity back to me, but now I remember spontaneous encounters with Iranians do. The interactions bring a feeling of surprise and generate warmth in my whole being. My heart opens; emotions swell up in me.

One sunny spring day on the community bike path, I notice a perplexed man who seems to be looking for something. It is Seezdebedar, the thirteenth day after Noruz, the Iranian New Year. The green clump of wheatgrass in his hand is the giveaway that he is Iranian. He is looking for a body of water to throw the wheatgrass in for good luck. Salam, Ayde shoma mobarak. Hello, and Happy New Year, I say. His name is Balash. I feel Iranian.

Babak owns the Iranian grocery in Watertown. I introduce myself, hesitate with my words, and tell him my dilemma with the language. When his customers come in, they choose from the tea, rice, dates, halvah, and chickpea cookies, and I hear Farsi here and there. I purchase lavooshak, dried fruit leather, dried mulberries, and dried squash seeds for my father. Ghodafez. Goodbye. I promise Babak that I will come back to practice my Farsi. I feel Iranian.

I crave to feel Iranian again for more than a few moments. I want to feel a grand reawakening, to feel fully alive, to feel Iran coursing through my blood. When I try to bring back this culture, my place of belonging, a culture that was mine, that was me, I’m not sure if it is retrievable. It may be futile; I may not be able to completely reclaim that part of myself.

***

The day my father returned from a trip to Iran, I sat in anticipation, kneeling in front of his suitcase on the rug in the living room. My father brought gifts, gave updates on family property there, how his siblings were, and when he could bring our Persian rugs back to the States. With relatives speaking in Farsi and my mother passing golden-colored tea around the room, I felt Iranian. But when I flipped open the top of the suitcase, the smell of my childhood home completely overwhelmed me. I was transported to Iran. I was there. I wept visceral tears that went unnoticed. Ache. Longing.

This experience stayed with me. The smells from the suitcase brought me closer to Iran. Now I decide a journey through my sense of smell in the kitchen might be a place to feel Iranian. I gather pomegranate sauce, walnuts, chicken, and rice. Tea, rosewater, and saffron. Sumac. Yogurt, seltzer, and mint. I have chosen a five-part menu: polo, rice; fesenjoon, a pomegranate and walnut dish; doogh, a beverage; sohan asali, saffron and honey candy; and chaee, tea.

I cook what I know and have seen family members cook. But, unlike my relatives, I rely on recipes. I regret not paying attention to my father and my grandmother, Maman, as a young adult when they cooked. Both have passed. My experience cooking Persian food is close to none. For these dishes I rely on an Iranian woman’s blog, a New York Times clipping from my mother, and things my father has told me.

1. Polo

I check on the basmati rice still soaking from yesterday. I empty it into a colander and rinse one more time. I measure eight cups of water in my big pot, turn the heat up to high, and set the basmati rice next to it on the countertop.

Basmati rice and tadik are staples of the Iranian diet, eaten at lunch and dinner. Tadik is the crust of cooked rice on the bottom of the pot, up to half an inch thick, made with vegetable oil and often with thinly sliced potatoes. When it’s cooked right, the bottom becomes crispy and golden orange. Perfect tadik has not come easily to me. I remember Maman’s secret was to use a lot of oil.

As children, the most sought after item at family dinners was tadik. My younger sister, cousins, and I scrambled to it, drawn to its color, crunch, and flavorful oils we would lick off our fingers. Going back for seconds was allowed, but then my mother insisted we get a plate and eat some of the main dishes. My father, my aunts, and Maman perfected tadik. I regret not paying more attention when they cooked.

The rice goes in the pot. Next, I add two tablespoons each of olive oil and butter. I pile the rice in a pyramid, away from the edges of the pot, and poke some holes in the rice with the handle of a wooden spoon. Then, I wrap a dishtowel on the lid and knot it on top to trap the condensation. I allow to steam for thirty-five minutes, then remove the lid, face down into the steam, and feel the droplets on my face. In the steam from basmati rice, I feel Iranian in whiffs, in wafts, in ephemeral swirls.

The warm house, the steamy kitchen, and the fragrance of basmati rice cooking on the stove transport me. The smell is breathtaking and brings me to Maman. Her great care and love in preparing meals for her family is memorable. For example, to make sheereen polo, or sweet rice, she carefully laid slivered orange peels on paper towels, and with short fingers, and much patience, rolled the ground beef into tiny meatballs. Little did I know the smells in her kitchen were planting memories for me.

2. Fesenjoon

This, a favorite dish in my family, is made with pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and chicken. My mother found the recipe in the New York Times, and I pasted it in my recipe binder. I realize the need for a good Iranian cookbook.

As I toast the walnuts in a pan over medium heat, I imagine my grandmother patiently chopping walnuts with a knife; I feel unauthentic but use a food processor anyway. Then I add two cups of water and a cup of pomegranate syrup, and simmer with the lid ajar for forty minutes. The pomegranate syrup is the sourest thing I’ve ever tasted and is strangely sweet as well.

Next, I saute an onion in a heavy pot, add a quarter teaspoon of turmeric and four chicken breasts until cooked on all sides. In go the pomegranate sauce and walnuts, and I cover the chicken, adding water if necessary; add sugar to taste; leave out the dash of cinnamon because it sounds strange. I put my nose in the pot: steamy, warm, sweet, and nutty. I inhale and exhale. Inhale again and feel transported to Maman’s small apartment in the States, cozy and Iranian. Iran smells like a blend of saffron, sumac, and rosewater. Saffron to color the rice, tart sumac to spice the beef kebobs, and rosewater to flavor baked goods and ice cream.

3. Doogh

Next, I make doogh, a concoction that perfectly complements Persian cuisine. It is one of those Farsi words Americans can’t master; it is nearly impossible for them to make the rolling “gh” sound in the back of their throats. When I do it, I feel Iranian. Doogh is found bottled in Iran and here at the Iranian grocer. It is a healthy drink with a sour flavor, a tickly bubble, and a salty zing. I pour a glass of club soda, spoon a few tablespoons of whole milk yogurt into the glass, and stir vigorously. Then, salt to taste. I crush mint leaves between my fingers and sniff in the refreshing and bright scent. Add to the doogh and taste. Authentic and pure Iran.

I imagine my father pouring me a glass on our table by the patio in Iran. It doesn’t seem like a drink a child would enjoy, but my memory wants to tell me I did. I imagine my father teaching my mother how to prepare the drink in her adopted home. I imagine my younger sister tasting it and not liking it. These speculations are one way I stay connected to my Iranian identity. I am playing with memories, using imagination to fill the empty spaces. For as long as it takes to drink the doogh, I feel Iranian.

4. Sohan Asali

Next, I make sohan asali, saffron and honey candy. I put sugar, honey, saffron, and slivered almonds in a small pot over medium heat. The recipe says to stir often until the sugar is melted. My grandmother’s sohan was a smooth, dark orange and very hard candy with crushed pistachios on top. Sohan reminds me of family parties, where there were more desserts than my eyes could see: chickpea cookies, fried dough filled with honey, and delicate fried hexagon cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar.

I turn up the heat and stir; then I turn down the heat. As I really have no idea what I am doing, I just keep stirring. The sugar remains granular and white. Maman could tell me what to do; my father would know what I’m doing wrong, probably not being patient enough. I resign myself to the state of the sugar mixture and drop it by tablespoons onto a cooking sheet lined with parchment paper, knowing it is wrong, all wrong. I sprinkle crushed pistachios on top and allow to cool. This sohan is white, granular, and soft. I deem it an excellent effort though I feel like a fool. I missed the chance for my father to show me how it’s done properly.

5. Chaee

I prepare authentic Persian black chaee tea. My father used premium Ceylon tea, which is similar to English Breakfast. Today I use tea in a maroon and gold box. I take in the familiar earthy smell of the tea leaves. Then, I add two tablespoons to a small white teapot on the stove, pour in the hot water, and allow to steep for five to seven minutes.

You could not visit someone in Iran without being offered a cup of tea and then a second cup, and a third. In fact, visits get quite long because of lengthy goodbyes, because of the chaee and tarof. It is a ritual where a host insists you stay in their home, and you say you must leave. And the host will insist you stay. You could be offered more fruit, dessert, and tea. Even if the host has run out of time, or is tired, or really wants you to leave, tarof reigns. It applies to everyday negotiations as well, like paying for a taxi, or buying a meal, for example. This can go on for three rounds, the hostess insisting and the guest resisting. The rituals of chaee and tarof my relatives continue to use today make me feel Iranian.

I pour the tea over a tiny sieve into a mug, because I am ill-equipped; Iranians use an estakan, a glass about three inches high and an inch and a half in diameter. The estakans in my memory are rimmed with gold and come with a small white saucer. The color of the tea matters. Depending on how long it steeps, I may need to add hot water to make it lighter.

I put a sugar cube in my cheek, sip the tea as the granules melt and coat my mouth. Today, I don’t have any gaz, a sticky white candy with pistachios and powdered sugar that pairs perfectly with chaee.

Next, I cue up the Iranian music, press play, and turn up the volume. The crisp and vibrant strums of the setar transport me to my late aunt Mehry’s living room. The finger picking energetic and alive. A small drum provides a steady beat. I felt Iranian when the setar, my relatives, and a spirit of celebration filled an entire room. Now I do too, if only for the length of the song. I sway my hips, raise my arms in the air, and rotate my wrists in that seductive Iranian way. I become one with the strings and feel the movement in my belly. My breath quickens. I regret I can’t understand the words in the song, Chaharmezrab, Mahur. Not understanding touches an emptiness inside of me, of not quite belonging. I feel Iranian for the length of the song.

The music continues and I sit in my chair. I gaze at the patterns of the tablecloth and drink my tea. The meal was a half success, just like me, half Iranian. If my father were still alive, he would surely say the fesenjoon was watery. I say it is very tasty and authentic, the big triumph of the day. The sohan asali, unfortunately, was a complete failure. My future as a successful cook rests on learning from my relatives, finding the best Iranian cookbooks, and following the recipes my father told me from his memory. The items on the to-do list were to get estekans from my father’s house, ask my aunt for a good cookbook, and though I lost my chance to make sohan asali with my father, maybe my aunt Nahid will show me. I will need to buy more chaee, sugar cubes, and gaz.

The cooking is done, and those trickles of Iran, well, they’ll have to be enough for now.

With many relatives passed, I wonder, will I carry Iran for the rest of us? My intention is to retrieve Farsi, the Iranian language. I promise myself to do more than just celebrating Noruz once a year. I intend to share Iran with my teenage nephews so they know their rich heritage.

Will I carry Iran for all of us? Will I return to the country one day and stay with my second cousin, Fereshte? I imagine sightseeing in Tehran; would I weep at the sight of the architecture, the sound of the language, and the taste of the food? It has the potential to be an emotionally challenging experience, or would it be comforting to be home? Furthermore would it feel like home?

Would I feel Iranian?

Is Iran—and feeling Iranian—something that always needs to be chased? Seeking or crafting an experience is not the same as feeling Iranian naturally. That chapter has closed.

This is the way for now: sometimes feeling Iranian.

Maryam Keramaty received her bachelor’s degree in communications and journalism from Simmons University and a graduate certificate in public relations from Emerson College. Currently, she is a student at Grub Street in Boston, where she is studying the craft of writing the memoir and personal essay.

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Transfer

February 5, 2021
tom

By Voyo Gabrilo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, thank you. Should I meet you…?”

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checking his watch, Tom lit a third cigarette.

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Relation?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dolores, where is she?” asked Tom.

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

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

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

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

“I understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I heard that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peggy turned on her side away from Tom.

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

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

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

“I’ll be safe from myself, you know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Tom,” Louis said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy poured the three of them coffee.

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

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

Louis drank his coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Therapist Notes from Coronavirus: It is OK to fall apart.

January 31, 2021
need

By Jillayna Adamson, MA, LPC, LMHC

2020.
Listen to all these people struggling! Are you getting this? People who have never before been able to admit to overwhelming defeat or depression or loneliness are talking about it. They are talking about it on Twitter, on Facebook. They are admitting to it in text messages and on the phone. People are checking in—people are calling and texting each other, they are reaching out. They are expressing understanding of struggle! Forgive my excitement, but are you seeing this widespread empathy? There is openness, understanding! Neighbors are saying to each other, “times are hard and how can I help”? My neighbor made me a latte! (sadly, I couldn’t actually drink it…because, you know- the virus). And with less judgement and reservation. Because they get it. We are getting it.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to every situation, and of course, the world is still full of lots of hatred and cruelty and stupidity—I know. But, I am also seeing this interesting surge of empathy and understanding within people. People are reaching out to each other, talking and opening up more than they previously were. Publically, even! The open communication and expression of such mental strife is a psychotherapist’s dream! We are struggling, don’t get me wrong—but we are also a little bit ecstatic.

The new culture of the coronavirus times are upon us. And there are so many ways in which it has been so painfully difficult. It is truly a new life. There are memes about it. And Tik Tok videos. There are cartoons with people disheveled, in bathrobes, their hair wiring out of their heads. There are calendar memes, a person slowly losing their composure. How their sanity has slipped from March to April to May to June to now… There are parenting how-to’s and mask-making how to’s and cooking how-to’s. There are articles reminding people that everyone is trying their best, making the best decision for their family. Reminding parents not to judge or shame one another for back to school decisions, to spread kindness or teachers and school personnel.

It is hard and it is stressful and some of us are barely hanging on—and wait! We are all talking about it! We aren’t quiet about it, we aren’t asking for anonymity. We are getting on Facebook and posting out our SOS to the world.

It just became okay to rest, to need to re-group. To need time on a deadline. To fall apart, just like humans do—pandemic or not. It just became normalized to outwardly admit to struggle, defeat, loneliness and not knowing. We have found ourselves thrown into an awful situation, but one that is also giving everyone the OK to be human. Never before have I heard so many people of a variety of backgrounds openly admit to and discuss struggle amongst one another— whether loneliness or depression, boredom, financial need, hunger, exhaustion. And I am talking about outside the therapy office. And never before have I heard so many platforms right there to normalize this, to join together. People who may have never struggled with their mental health before are learning the value and impact of some of our basic needs. They are saying “Wow, people really DO need other people! I always heard that, but I never quite believed it until I was living in my own pajamas and hadn’t seen another human in two months!”

A now-homeschooling parent tells me that she has “absolutely nothing left to give in the world” and is sure something is wrong with her emotional daughter. A woman calls to ask my advice, stating she has no idea how to even make the usual decisions anymore. “Is it possible I just need someone to decide things for me now? Can you do that?” she asks (I cannot). I know people regularly taking their children’s temperatures, checking for rashes, unable to sleep. I have read posts from people dealing with deep loneliness and isolation, overwhelm, depression. People from all walks are putting it out there, and others are sending them hearts and hugs and commenting that they get it. That they are struggling too. That it’s hard. That they are HERE!

We are being ravaged, and we are struggling. And 2020 has truly kept it coming. But we are showing up too. (You know, online, or with masks)

What we know about surviving difficult times is that we need to hold onto the aspects of hope, adaptation, and support. In hope, there is often some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. An idea of when this might end, get better, or at least moderately improve. We need to know that things will get better again. In adaptation, we make radical changes to our day-to-day and lifestyle to allot for the vast changes that have come at us. Of course, these have to be successful, positive adaptations. New routines, and activities, ways of socializing and being. New ways of thinking and seeing are all part of this adaptation. And then finally, we need to know we have support. Community, the knowing that we aren’t alone. That we have people we can talk to, help of some kind.

We recreate these things regularly. The cleaning adaptation. The TV isn’t really that bad adaptation. The Maybe I really could homeschool adaptation. The Let’s get a puppy and have something new to love adaptation. The hope of declining numbers, of successes in other countries. The hope of an evening walk or a relaxing bath, or a manageable day. Facetime and Zoom chats, new constant texting regimens, Facebook community groups. Drive-by-birthday parties, for gods sakes. Social distance kickball with masks and a mom doling out sanitizer.

The people are adapting. And continuing. As exhausting and overwhelming as it is, all you can do is keep going, right? With the awareness that some days will be write-offs. Some days you’ll need mental and emotional rest more than anything. The kids will watch tons of TV or play on their tablets. Everything you eat will be microwaved. Other days you might feel vague spurts of capability, and others you might feel good and able to take in positives in the change in pace. Some days, the best thing about your day will actually be ice cream, and you should absolutely have it. Actually, though—this is not that different from pre-Covid life. But Covid life brings it out, makes it right out there in the open—okay, normal. Productivity in our day to day lives, mental-emotional wellness, as well as social and community needs seem to have entered a new realm of understanding.

Before the virus hit, it was actually already okay to fall apart. To need and ask for help. To sometimes be a total disaster. But so many people struggled to believe and accept that. To allow themselves to wear the face of a person really freaking losing it. Mental wellness has really entered in as an every-human component of discussion and not just one for people with mental illness or specific diagnoses. That we are all struggling right here out loud may not seem like the silver lining anyone would be hoping for. But in the world of mental wellness, the opening up is a magic in and of itself, and the very foundation for change and reform.

The new habits of giving grace to ourselves and to others, of checking in, of loving, of being open about our struggles– could be so huge if they continued for our distanced culture. Imagine if we kept it going. Imagine a post-covid world where we are talking, where we are opening up, showing up—but in person, too. Maskless! When we can hug and touch each other on the arm casually! When we can care and fall apart without a pandemic background, and still let that be okay.

Jillayna Adamson (said Jill-anna) is a mother, psychotherapist and writer. She loves all things people, connection and culture, and is particularly interested in identity development and mental wellness within the psychosocial implications of the modern western world. Jillayna primarily writes personal essays and narratives, and writes often about the motherhood role and identity. She is a Canadian transplant currently living in the US with her partner and kids, and is a firm believer in letting your freak flag fly. She can be found at www.Jillayna.com

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Not Down this Road

January 29, 2021
water

By Jack Clinton

Although she said she didn’t approve, Anita was there on the dock, in the grey light, slipping a touring kayak into the green water, loading it with a fly rod and bags.  She like the richness of estuaries, so she didn’t complain, and it was not like there was a morning chill. It was tropical, and the cool of dawn was the only reasonable time of day.

Anita had her binoculars in hopes of spying rare birds flying out to hunt.   Always the dedicated husband, Tom watched birds with her for a few days, excited that she had seen some rare species like the roseate spoonbill and the anhinga, the snakebird.  He was glad she had seen them, and enjoyed birding with her.  But, he wanted more of a conquest than birding, so he came looking for game fish.  He wanted either tarpon or snook, and he had hooked both, but none were quite right— too small, or too many spectators.

“Well, that’s fine,” she said.  “It will give us another day.  I believe there are night herons in the mangroves and I want to be sure they’re not bitterns.”

“No hurry,” he said,  “The fishing is good, and all this takes time.”

“I know he’s an old friend, but Charlie isn’t stringing you along?”

“No, he has all the money he’s going to get.  He’s no choirboy, but he does what he says he’ll do. He told me to get my cast together, or he’d dump me and return the money.”

Anita gave her thoughtful grunt and said, “Well, you trust him, and I trust you.”

“You won’t lose the house to him.”

Anita snapped her head to retort, but it never left her lips. Instead, they stood quietly, one leaning against other in their identical sun shirts and broad-brimmed hats, turning as they heard the boat.  Tom could see it through the morning mist, running without lights. Charlie stood in the tiny cockpit, and Andy on the bow with a short bight of rope in his hands, surly, with a cigarette in his mouth. Charlie was Andy’s antithesis, with a warm smile, bright blue eyes beaming in the haze, saluting with a traveler of coffee in his free hand.

Charlie made eye contact with Anita, and she held his gaze as he brought his skiff to dock, both nodding mutually.  Andy looped the pier deftly and cinched the boat in smoothly.

“Tom?” She said with a catch.

“I know,” he said. “I know… all the discussions are done.” His voice hitched.

Tom kissed her, Anita clung for a moment, then he was aboard. The line slipped free, and they headed out with the tide.  Tom waved and put one palm to his heart.

“Tom,” Charlie shouted above the engine, “we’re going to the edge of the mangroves, the small barrier islands to fish for snook in the backwater.  We’ll only have an hour or two before the sun’s too high. Then we’ll probably go for tarpon along the drop-offs and flats, or we’ll go look for baits further outside.”

Tom knew it’d be a while, and so he took a seat out of the wind, on the cushioned bench behind the helm.  Andy was already in the bow working on the leaders and tippets for the quiver of fly rods. When he was done, he reverently slipped each rod in the plastic tubes fixed to the squat spotting tower above the cockpit.  Charlie was an excellent Capitan, and his boat was spotless and his gear very good.  Tom had seen better, but every piece of Charlie’s equipment simply fulfilled its function.

Tom watched the birds along the tidal river, wishing Anita could see them.  Egrets and herons rose from their roosts in the mangroves, and he saw an enormous wood stork and petite ibis pecking for fiddler crabs in the tidal mud.  Occasionally, quick clouds of gulls, terns, and pelicans dove for pods of baitfish that leapt and skittered across the swirling water.  Charlie pointed at the activity and shouted, “It’ll be a good day.”

As the boat ride lengthened, Tom remembered similar rides in his dad’s open skiffs, out where feeding fish sent anchovies and silversides leaping into the beaks of wheeling birds. His father was from a commercial fishing family in Maine, but he had come south after earning a degree in engineering. His mother had his sister, Cloe, but Tom was forever his father’s accomplice. He often worked with his father, rebuilding and selling used boats or painting houses. Tom loved listening to his father’s lively banter while bartering for parts and prime boat lumber, his father squeezing every dime when he found himself between jobs.

Whether in New York or Delaware, they always lived within a few blocks of docks or piers, where Tom grew up renovating and maintaining their modest sailboats and fishing skiffs. He waited all spring and early summer, watching for shivering skitters of bait fish on the glassy surface of the estuaries. He listened to fishing reports and harbor gossip for news of bluefish and striped bass coming close to shore.  That was the only time his dad would be “sick” from work, or even quit one job for the uncertain prospects of another.  Tom and his dad would always be there though, out with the frenzied shoals, in screaming clouds of herring gulls, casting plugs and live baits into the swirls of blues and stripers.

 

“Here,” Charlie said, rousing Tom blinking from his reveries.  “This is a good island. Cast along the current and then strip it through the dead backwater.  Let it sink to the dark blue.”  Tom could see it was good water.  His father would have been magnetically pulled here from miles away.  “Fishy water,” his father called it.

Andy passed the rod to Charlie, who inspected the leader and tippet rig, nodded and passed it to Tom.  “This is the place.”

Tom stretched as he clambered to the front of the boat and took his place on the casting platform.  Andy had tied on a standard streamer, green on top, white on the bottom, long and weighty.  He flipped the streamer forward and paid out a length of line, made a few false casts until he could feel the flex and action of the rod. He shot the streamer out to the nearer end of the current, stripped in a few feet of line then made a longer cast to the point of mangroves.  He saw a flash on one retrieve and then hooked up on the next.  It was a good fish.  He played it, and Charlie laughed, “This is gonna be a day.”

Tom brought a nice amberjack to the side of the boat.  Andy was there with his pliers and tugged to hook free and the fish disappeared into the deep blue.

“Good fish. Maybe we’ll keep a bigger one,” Andy said, slapping him on the shoulder.

“Good fish, Tom,” Charlie repeated, “a bit deeper on the retrieve.  The snook will already be looking for darker water.”

Tom worked the eddy line, letting his fly drift deeper before his retrieve.

He caught a small snook after a few more casts and then the water went dead.

They wasted no time pulling the anchor, motoring off to find another island with swirling waters and a good drop.

“The last hurricane really carved up these islands and dug some good trenches,” Charlie said.  “The island ahead was cut completely in half.  I’ve never fished it, but I noticed there’s deeper water. Sit and relax until we’re there.”

“It’s all good to me,” Tom said with his toothy grin.

They swung in downstream, and Charlie quietly dropped anchor, letting the skiff drift while Tom took his stance on the deck. Charlie hand-hauled the boat up the anchor line until they were within casting distance.  On Tom’s second cast he was into a great fish. Charlie and Andy were there beside him. “This is it, Andy, this is the one. Easy Tom, play him, let him run, use the rod, give him line! He’s heading to open water.”

Charlie pulled up the anchor to follow the fish.  Andy hung close behind Tom.

The snook came to the surface twice and they could all clearly see its great size. “I’m saying fifteen pounds!”  Andy spoke into Tom’s ear.

“It’ll do,” Tom shouted over his shoulder.

Charlie had his eyes on Andy.  “Lower the transom deck, “ he said with an air of gravity.  The fish was in the air once more, throwing spray across the sun, as Andy unfolded a tiny platform off the stern so Tom could bring his catch to hand.

A motor roared out in the glare of the morning sun, and shouting came from the starboard side. A rabble of tourists gave hoots and thumbs up from the deck of a bouncing charter heading to the deep water outside the islands.

Charlie and Andy rose from their crouched positions, shocked to have missed the motor in the silent morning.

“That’s it, Andy… That’s it…  We’ll go for another fish a little farther out.”

Tom was still whooping, lost in his moment as he stood on the transom platform, water sloshing up over his canvas shoes.

“Jesus,” Charlie said.  “That’s a big damn snook.”

“I haven’t seen many bigger,” Andy said, handing Tom his skinny hook pliers.

Charlie quietly supervised as Tom brought it to hand and worked the hook free,  stnding aglow in the early sun as the fish swam lazily away, stunned from the exertion it spent.

“That was perfect, just perfect,” Charlie said shaking his head.

“Charters,” Andy grumbled.

Tom turned, smiling, “No worries Boys, it’ll be a good day.”

 

Tom had turned pale from the exertion, sweat beaded on his brow and ran from his temples.

“Take some shade, Tom, there’s water in the cooler — eat some fruit.” Charlie moved to his side. “Easy,” he said with a hand on Tom’s elbow, “you gotta last all day.”

“Sure, I’ll take some shade,” he said to quietly to himself, ducking under the canopy, handing the rod to Andy.

Tom sat and thought of Anita and his father as the boat skimmed and bounced on the open water.  His father would’ve liked the diversity of the fish and birds, and the topography of the water.  The New England coast was so limited, and the fish were either Blues or Stripers, and the birds were either gulls or terns, and they never expected anything different.  But when surprised by the occasional heron or ibis, his father would stop and look up reverently, “Will you look at that, Tom! I’ve never seen one of those around here.”  That was the last thing his father said to him in the hospital, looking up from a nest of tubes and wires that sucked away his life, his savings, his house, and dignity.  “Will you look at that!” his father said.

That was the same fatal day his father told him, “I wouldn’t go if I were you Tommy, not down this road.” And then — like father, like son, there he was, fifteen years later, with his father’s cancer.

Instead of hospice, Tom was riding along on the deck of a small skiff, hiding from the sun, waiting for the next patch of good water.  He reached for his insulated lunch bag, resting its coolness in his lap. He pulled out the ice pack and settled it against his stomach for relief, and opened his pill organizer, swallowing a few of each.  Anita would be watching and counting if she were there.  Andy eyed the box hungrily, and Tom gave him one of the big, powerful painkillers, which Andy swiftly stashed in his shirt pocket.  A moment later Charlie was looking over his shoulder from the wheel.  “Go easy, Tom.  Don’t get goofy on me now.  There’s still a lot of water ahead.”

“Just staying even, Charlie.”

“Good.  Stay cool and drink water – A breeze will come up soon, maybe some cloud cover later on.  It’ll be cooler outside the shoals and mangroves.”

“Why are we going outside?”

“Because there’s good baits and birds.  Plus, the fish outside won’t be as picky as tarpon and snook.  Andy and I are gonna bottom fish a bit, put some in the hold to sell.”

“It’s all good.”

“The rods are all strung up, just stay cool till we find a good patch of water.”

Andy stood on the bow with binoculars in hand, watching intently, and then went up the tower.  He shouted down to Charlie, and the boat swung hard to the north.  Tom could tell it was north, even with his eyes closed.  He could feel the angle of the swells, the angle of the wind, and the angle of the sun.  All of them said north.

“Ok, Tommy boy, this is you!  They’re skipping on the waves!”

Tom opened his eyes and stood too quickly.   He swooned and staggered, falling hard against the hold.  Andy was there, concerned with the tumble.  Tom felt the sweat on his brow, and he saw blood on his knuckles.

“Give me a second.  I just got up too quick.”

Andy held Tom’s belt as he washed the blood from his hands in the sea, and splashed water on his face.  Tom focused on the water and saw the seabirds screaming and plummeting to the sea.  Pelicans dove off the bow and terns plucked smaller baits right off the surface.

Charlie was beside him on the deck, pushing the rod into his hands.  “This won’t last all day, Tom.  Come on, just start casting! Were right in the middle of ‘em!”

Tom was surprised by the size of the swells and the deep blue of the water. He was amazed at the boiling, slapping and snapping as larger fish pushed baits up into the mouths of waiting birds.  A large fish randomly launched into the air and cart-wheeled head over tail across the waves.

Tom was casting and Charlie yelled at him to keep it away from the birds.  He landed the streamer at the edge of the boiling water and felt the shuddering surge of a striking fish, and there was a tuna skipping across the water.

“Ho, ya got a Tunny.  Yeah, that’ll keep ya busy for a while.”  Andy shouted above the screech of the birds and the whine of the reel.   Charlie pursued the fish with the boat, careful not to crowd the feeding school.

Tom swooned with nausea in the open sun; its rays pierced him through and through, but fighting the fish was like holding on to lightning. He could feel every pulse of its tail and every thrust of its fins.  Tom shouted and whooped every time it came up tail-walking across the waves.

The birds had attracted other skiffs, and Charlie grew morose watching them approach.  They landed the fish and Tom gave his consent to have it dumped in the hold.  “Release three, keep one, that’s not bad.  That’s a bonito!  It’ll sell and keep Andy in beers tonight.” Charlie winked.

He took the rod from Tom and sent him to the shade of the cockpit.  Andy stowed the rod in a tube and they headed off away from the crowd.  When they found some space to themselves, Charlie anchored in deep water and handed out sandwiches and chilled fruit from the cooler. Andy bottom fished for a couple of hours, filling the hold with a grouper and several large snapper, which made them happy.  “That’ll all sell well,” Charlie said.

 

The sun was now in the west and Charlie stood on the tower.  “Birds are all gone.”  He said, lowering his binoculars.  “Those damn charters are just thick today.”

“I thought that bonito was it,” Tom said, standing, stretching, feeling better after food, rest and water.

Charlie and Andy looked at each other, considering his words.

“Well, let’s head back to the islands to fish the evening.”

Tom went up to sit in the cool wind of the tower, watching for dolphins and sea turtles as they plowed the chop on their way back towards shore.  He wondered where Anita had gone and worried if she had found any shade in the heat of the day.  Tom closed his eyes and pretended that his father was at the helm.  He thought of the white yarn and Christmas tinsel streamers his dad had tied to troll for the smaller blues that came up into the estuaries.

He remembered his dad standing on a skiff’s bench seat, telling Tom to take the helm while he fought a huge striped bass, the thick rod doubled to the water, the wind in his hair, flapping his shirt. “Come on Tom, we gotta chase this one!”

As they neared the green islands, Tom came down from the tower and took up his rod.  He looked at the tippet and the knot attaching the streamer.  He ran the line through his fingers to feel for nicks or abrasions.  He was happy with it and had finally shaken the residual miasma from his last chemo treatment.

“Tom, we’re gonna on keep moving.  I’ll pull within casting distance of the mangroves and let the engine idle as we drift by.  You know the water you want.  If you don’t get anything in a couple of casts, we’ll move on.”

He had good sea legs and cast well at any water that appeared to hold fish.

At the third island, he hooked a great snook and worked hard to keep it from tangling in the oyster-crusted mangroves, then it ran with the reel screaming.  Andy ran up into the tower and Charlie put a hand on his shoulder, “This is it, Tom, this is the one.”

“I know,” Tom laughed, “I know it is, Charlie.”

Tom whooped as the fish dove; the tip of the impossibly long rod dipped to the waves. “Let it be the last.” He laughed between deep breaths, “My arms are tired. My legs are tired.  I’m tired.”

“How is it out there Andy?”

“Were good!”

“Well, Tom, this is all you,” Charlie said dropping the small transom deck.

“Yes, this is me,” Tom said, but he wasn’t listening.  He had the reel resting in the palm of his hand, breaking against the long, steady runs, laughing like a child at the wild tail-walking leaps.

The fish turned and headed back to the Mangroves.  Tom held the rod high and palmed the reel hard to stop the run.

Finally, from the transom deck, he knelt panting and sighing beside the exhausted fish and he slid his hand under it.  He guessed that it was twenty pounds.  He got his hand firmly on its lower lip and pried up a bit to paralyze it while he freed the hook.  Some baits shimmered on the surface a few feet away and a tern floated just above the water to pick at them.  “Will you look at that!”

The two quick pops of Andy’s .22 were no louder than firecrackers snapping at the endless, darkening sea.  Tom floated face down in the water, a rose-colored halo spreading out from his gray hair.  Charlie hooked his belt with the fish gaff.  “That was great, Andy.  That was perfect.”

Andy flung the small, black pistol out into the blue water and then slid out of his t-shirt and deck shoes, dropping quickly into the warm water with a length of netting in his hands.  He wrapped Tom in it and cinched it down with short cords he had clenched in his teeth. Charlie fed Andy a length of heavy chain, to wind tightly around Tom’s waist, passing it tightly through loops of netting.  He pulled the last few inches snug and fixed it to a middle link with a length of wire. Then Charlie handed down an old thirty-pound anchor, which Andy fixed to the chain.

He hauled himself up back on the transom deck as Charlie pulled the body tight to the skiff with the fish gaff.  “Good job, Andy. Nice work.  That’s how it has to happen.”

“I know. That tern, just hovering right beside him…, kinda religious.”

“Could’a been,” Charlie said, passing the gaff to Andy.  “Hold him alongside ‘til we get into to the current of the trench.”

Andy nodded and surveyed the empty horizon, looking into the low, western sun, wondering if it had ever seemed so encompassing.  Charlie eased the boat until it caught the current of the green water and then into deep, deep blue, well past the tidal cut. Charlie nodded and Andy slipped the gaff from the netting.  Tom sank quickly in a subtle spiral, losing color and then definition, disappearing into the depths.

Andy held Charlie by the shoulder as he raised the transom deck.  Charlie nodded and crossed himself and then swung a bucket into the sea to swab the decks.

 

They motored up the tidal river until they reached the mangrove bay to pick up Anita who was sat unmoving in Tom’s sea kayak.  She stared straight ahead as they pulled alongside.  Andy dropped the transom deck and helped her aboard.  Her legs were stiff as she struggled while climbing over the stern.  “I had to wait quite a while.” She fought to control her voice.

“I know.  I ‘m sorry, Anita,” Andy said.  “It just takes as long as it takes.”

She patted his hand, which was still linked through her arm.

“It was beautiful, Anita.” Charlie said. “It might have been the best thing we’ve ever done.”

“I know that Charlie – I know that.  I know that it happened just then… Tom trusted you, and considered you a good friend.”

Charlie nodded silently, his forehead furrowed.  Andy looked west at the gold edge to the purple clouds.

She squeezed Andy’s hand at her elbow. “Thank you, Andy. You were so patient.”

“It was a pleasure Anita,” he looked timidly down at the water, avoiding her eyes.

 

The motor purred along at slightly more than an idle, moving the boat quietly, without running lights, towing the kayak to the drift of the falling tide. Andy tangled the fly line to a tiny deck cleat and dropped the rod in the cockpit with Tom’s life vest.  Anita took a vial of painkillers from Tom’s insulated bag and handed them to Andy, who then cinched the pack down to the kayak’s tiny cargo deck.  They considered the tiny boat for a moment, as if it were a manifestation of Tom. Charlie flipped it and let go of the line, letting the current take it to open water.

“Now I have to report him missing,” Anita sobbed a few times and wiped her eyes. “I have to go back home without him.”

After a long silence, she said, “I would like to see the colonies of glossy ibis some time.” Anita was nodding her head to agree with herself.  “Charlie,” she said, fixing his gaze, “I would like to see them come in to roost. If I were sick, you would take me? Would you do the same for me?”

“Of course, if there is the need,” Charlie said nodding. “When you call.”

Jack Clinton lives in Montana. He has written on environmental issues and has also on two fiction awards at a state level. Jack published my first novel, Clovis, which won the best LBGTQ novel at The American Book Fest.

 

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