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becoming

Guest Posts, sisters

The Seeker and The Artist

January 3, 2018
books

By Cassandra Lane

It was 1984, and parachute pants and Jordache jeans were all the rage at DeRidder Junior High School. My Seventeen magazine-reading peers poked fun at my daily attire: dresses that hung loosely on my thin frame before flaring at the hems to reveal my knock-knees. My legs itched to pull on some Jordaches, or even Lee’s, but Uncle Junior, who led my family’s small church, preached that a britches-wearing woman was a sin, and we women and girls under his leadership obeyed.

“Sanctified Lady,” my junior-high peers would sing as I boarded the bus each morning. My eyes stinging, I’d shoot back: “I am not sanctified,” though when I was with my family in church or prayer meetings at home, sanctification was a state I craved.

My sister Dena, a grade lower, didn’t carry the burden of trying to be good, nor did the kids mess with her. Maybe it was because she didn’t look as gangly in her dresses. She was thin, too, but athletic and spunky. And she had what I didn’t: attitude. The way she held her small, diamond-shaped face halfway to the sky, swished her skinny hips through the hallways, and was quick to bark: “Whatchu lookin’ at?”

She was smart enough to torment other kids before they could get to her. They remembered, too, the day she beat up our neighborhood bully—Sheldon Mazieke. By the time Grandmama came on the porch with her broom to shoo Sheldon away, he was retreating to his mama’s house, blood trailing his torn white t-shirt.

Dena stood in the middle of the street, screaming at his back, veins straining in her scrawny black neck.

She wanted more.

~

Before sixth grade, I didn’t belong to the world and didn’t know how to act in it. I’d seen an angel, traced God’s face in the clouds, manifested the Spirit in church.

In church, Uncle Junior told us how to have a relationship with God, how if we didn’t we’d surely die and forever burn in the Lake of Fire, but he didn’t teach us how to have relationships with each other. The relationship between Dena and me was pocked with enmity, without a shred of sisterly bond beyond the blood we shared through our parents who, unsurprisingly, despised each other. While I spent my first few years trying to ignore my sister, eventually, I stopped wanting to be set apart. I watched with envy the ease with which she became friends with neighborhood children and interacted with our cousins. I started reading my Bible less and stopped praising the Lord publicly during church services. Mama cried about my sudden turn, asking Aunt Mae Helen, Uncle Junior’s wife, to pray for me, and the church did, but I stood there, stony and unyielding. I replaced my Bible reading with an obsession that would have been an abomination had Uncle Junior found out about it: astrology.

“It’s a sin to try and read the stars,” Uncle Junior had once boomed in church. “We’re not supposed to go around asking God why this and why that.”

But I was bursting with questions.

Why, if I were saved, did my body tingle whenever I saw Kenny St. Romain, the boy who lived down the street? His skin was the color of camel hair and his slanted black eyes were pools into which I wanted to dive.

And why had God created the Earth only to destroy it? Did he know we would be doomed as he lovingly crafted us into being? Did he cry as he molded the mud, breathed life into his first creation?

I wanted answers, and was drawn to Mama’s closet again and again to read passages from her romance novels and Reader’s Digest books on science and the body.

Waiting until everyone was preoccupied—Mama at work on the Army base; Dena hanging out with friends; Grandmama catching up with neighbors; Papa snoring into the worn green leather of his recliner—I’d put aside my Nancy Drew and tiptoe toward my grandparents’ room.

Peering around corners fist, I slinked into the cool dimness. Holding my breath against the reek of mothballs and Sulfur8 Hair and Scalp Conditioner, I picked up Papa’s magnifying glass with a piece of toilet tissue (real sleuths never left their fingerprints) and headed for Mama’s bedroom. Adrenaline stirred my bowels, but I’d come too far to allow a bathroom trip to interrupt my investigation. I folded my lanky frame into Mama’s closet and opened the flap of a box way in the back. As dust sprayed my face, my eyes and nostrils burned, but I held in the sneeze.

The boxes were filled to the brim with geography books, romance novels, Shakespeare plays, road atlases. Beneath it all lay a plain, jacket-less book. It was bright red— the same color of lipstick Dena wore once she passed her tomboy stage. That cheap Wet n’Wild brand of red that didn’t come off until she wiped her mouth hard with a wet, soapy rag. Even then, you could see the red residue trapped between the cracks of her chapped lip skin. Which is why Mama, who was home early from work one day, popped Dena right in the mouth when she got off the bus and came traipsing through the house.

But Dena continued to wear the lipstick when she was away from the watchful eyes of home. She wanted to be a model.

Mama said, “No, you’ll end up a prostitute,” but she couldn’t tame, at least not right away, Dena’s desire to break away from the restrictions of the family.

And I was breaking away, too, quietly. The astrology book’s title, Your Guide to Astrology, Your Guide to Life, was etched in gold lettering. It promised insights into career, love, family and friends. All one needed to know was a birthday to unravel mysteries that had previously befuddled them. I held Papa’s magnifier over the list of astrological signs and birth dates, looked up my birthday and the birthdays of people I knew. And I read.

I couldn’t wait to take my new treasure to school.

The next day, when the bus driver pulled up to DeRidder Junior High, I descended the steps with a smile on my face and no fear of stumbling. Squeezing the hardcover underarm, I eased it from its warm spot only after my nearsighted eyes focused on my two friends huddling in the courtyard.

We cracked open the book, turning hurriedly to our respective sections: Taurus for me. Leo for Melanie. Libra for Loretta.

My chapter described me in a way the outside world obviously had not yet realized: sensuous, earthy, romantic. Hip-heavy. Leos, Melanie acknowledged as true, were leaders. Smart, showy, self-centered. Loved and worshipped by many. Loretta’s pretty face and peaceful demeanor were detailed in her chapter.

Sometimes, I allowed those who were not part of our circle, but were not our enemies either, to skim the book. Sensing their time was short, they flipped the pages quickly, seeking for clues of who and why they are.

I never offered to let Dena read the red book.

Like Loretta, she is a Libra, but in her case, I had to disagree with the description of Libra as a peacemaker. She hated me and had been attacking me since we were toddlers. I was the oldest, the holder of the birthright, the quiet one who could be trusted with information and tasks, but Dena knew that I was not nearly as innocent or special as the adults seemed to believe.

One morning, she stood over me as I sat reading.

“Why you always got that stupid book?” she asked, wrinkling her nose. She waited. I could feel her breath on my forehead.

“You barbarian,” I hissed, but my voice shook a little, and she laughed.

I closed the book and willed myself to stare into her eyes without blinking.

“Hmph!” she finally said. She threw me a menacing look as she flounced away.

Afraid she’d try to steal the book and parade it in front of the grown-ups, I started sliding it under my feather-stuffed pillow at night. Over the years, the book’s hard corners softened, the pages browned, and the cover started to fade.

~

I lost track of the astrology book after going off to college. A year after I graduated, Dena met a soldier and ran away with him to Georgia. They married, and her soldier became a police officer who beat her, a police officer who pulled his gun on her. Watching his father, their three-year-old toddler did the same, except his gun was make-believe, and he would call out to her: “Mommy, I’m gonna kill you.”

With her wildness and fight siphoned from her, my sister temporarily forgot who she was and what she wanted out of life. Her apartment was decorated in black leather couches, white shag rugs and black-and-silver striped wallpaper—somehow stark and drab at the same time. Much like her face back then: strikingly beautiful but etched in dull lines. Many miles away, I dreamt of her, feared for her. Helpless. How many bloody lips would it take, how many broken wrists, how many calls to 911, before she left him?

More years of worrying for her safety passed before she laid claim to what even she did not know was there: her artist self. First, she began to paint – a black-skinned man in emerald-green slacks and a yellow shirt on a canvas the color of red clay. A wood pipe dangled from his lips. Her images dredged up Haiti and Louisiana.

Next, she bought tools and slabs of wood, her fingers curling around her new utensils as she carved lines and smoothed out grooves, giving birth to the prominent bone structure of an African woman. If I can make this, she told herself, I can make furniture.

If she could craft furniture out of mere planks of wood, she could leave the man who kept trying to break her. And if she could leave her abuser, she could create a life, a style, that looked nothing like her current reality.

And she did.

And she did.

Cassandra Lane is a former newspaper reporter and high school literature and journalism teacher who has published essays, columns and articles in a variety of newspapers, magazines and anthologies. She is an alum of Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA) Foundation and A Room of Her Own (AROHO). She received an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. A Louisiana native, she lives with her family in Los Angeles and is the managing editor of L.A. Parent magazine.

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Guest Posts, memories, Women

Over-The-Counter Medicine

August 31, 2016
pharmacy

By Monica Drake

There’s no place more optimistic than a well-stocked pharmacy. Gleaming clean and rocking the high blast and buzz of fluorescents, everything on the shelves is there to save your life while it cushions your vanity. Crowded, tidy aisles scream, You can be healthy, strong and beautiful! When I was young enough to never need anything beyond an occasional shot of nighttime cough medicine—that sweet, Kool-Aid purple nurse in a bottle—but old enough to be out on my own, I had a job dusting cures, ringing up sales. We carried Epi-pens for anaphylactic shock, because even slight allergies can go seriously wrong. I read trifold pamphlets during the slower retail moments, making myself a student of human health. I learned that it can be the first exposure to an allergen, the tenth, or the hundredth time your body processes some unknown ingredient, in a kind of secret internal roulette, but every single second of the day there exists a slim chance: your immune system could kick into high gear and shut down your throat. It might start with an itch around your eyes or in your sweating armpits. Your blood pressure will drop, silently, and painlessly. That drop in blood pressure has the potential to undermine and weaken your brain’s decision making skills. Some people grow so cold they can’t stop shaking. It’s like a ghost has landed in their bones, when shock sets in. If you have it bad enough, your face can swell to twice its usual size. Then your cheeks sag into jowls and your eyelids get fat and you’re fifty years older than you were ten minutes before. Your skin will lump up in hives.

An allergic response can clog your lungs with fluid and swelling and then constrict your airways, cutting you off from your own life. This happens every six minutes, to somebody. If you’re fast and lucky, one jab with Epi-pen turns the whole mortal disaster around. You’ll be back in business! An Epi-pen can save your life. It’s a brilliant invention. A pharmacy has what you need.

Want to get high? It’s in the bins, drawers and vials. Time to sleep? That’s there, too. Continue Reading…

Binders, Forgiveness, Guest Posts

Friending the Dead

July 22, 2015

By Suzanne Roberts

When the friend request comes in, the mind’s rolodex immediately places the name with the pinkish face, red hair, and tooth-gapped smile.  With a shaky hand, I click over and see it on his wall: RIP Kenny Williams. A cousin, or perhaps one of his children, saw we have mutual friends. Maybe my name came up in the drop-down menu under People You May Know because we went to the same junior high, listed the same hometown. Alive on Facebook, but dead.

There’s relief and something approaching happy. What’s wrong with me? It’s been more than 30 years since I’ve seen him.

***

The junior high classroom is arranged by last name, so Mr. Ballard, the ancient Life Sciences teacher, can remember who’s who.  R gets seated next to W. And we are required to share a worm, a frog, and a fetal pig with our partner during dissections. My partner, Kenny Williams, is far more interested in scrambling the frog’s guts, pulling out the fetal pig’s heart to mash between his fingers, and seeing if the giant worm will stick to my curly hair.

And that’s the best of it.

Between botched dissections, Kenny whispers, “I bet you don’t know what a blow job is?”

“Yes I do.”

“Do not.”

“Do too.”

“If you know what it is, will you give me one?” he asks.

“Sure. Why not?”

And with this, everyone in my seventh grade class will be told, by Kenny Williams himself, that I want to suck dick. That’s when I learn what a blow job is, though at first, I don’t believe anyone would put a penis into her mouth on purpose. I have yet to be kissed and have no idea that a blow job is in the repertoire of the possible.

By the middle of the year, Kenny passes me notes:

I know you want to fuck me.

Your tits are hard. Thinking about me?

Nice jeans. I can see your coozie.

We are eleven years old.

I gather the courage to ask Mr. Ballard if I can move seats, but he tells me that we don’t always get what we want in life, and my last name begins with R, so I am to sit at the back of the room. He can’t go around moving everyone who doesn’t like her dissection partner, now can he? I would have to learn to work with other children, no matter the differences. And besides, Kenny’s just teasing.

In fairness to Mr. Ballard, I don’t tell him that Kenny Williams said he wanted my coozie. But what if I told Mr. Ballard exactly what was happening to me? Would I have suffered the blame? Even today I think I might have. I didn’t have it in me at eleven to doubt the inviolable alphabetized seating chart, to see Mr. Ballard as the accomplice he was. How many teachers are ignoring it while children are being terrorized at the backs of classrooms?

I know that eleven-year old girl is not to blame. But there’s still that girl buried inside of me, something of her that feels like maybe it really was my fault. Because of my silence? Because of my confusion about my own burgeoning sexuality? Because though I found Kenny’s advances terrifying, I also felt something bordering excitement? Like getting sick on the Tilt-a-Whirl at the fair—a scary but thrilling nausea.

By the end of the year, Kenny not only passes me dirty notes, he snaps my bra (hard), snatches at my early-developing breasts, and reaches for the crotch of my purple Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, which fit tighter as the year wears on. And when he grows a hard-on, which is often, he grabs my hand and tries to put it on the lump of his OP corduroy shorts. He says You’re such a tease. Because of you my cock’s hard.

“I’m telling,” I try.

“I’m only teasing,” he says.

I am the first of my friends to get her period, wear a bra, and by the seventh grade, I already fill a C-cup. I believe Kenny Williams’s advances are my fault for developing early. I start wearing tops with frills along the front and long dresses, as if I am auditioning for a part on Little House on the Prairie. And at lunch every day I eat a chocolate shake, chocolate chip cookies, and French fries. I gain 20 pounds in a year, and my face blooms with acne. My breasts and my butt only get bigger. There’s no hiding, not even under a layer of pre-teen fat and prairie dresses.

I had been in the Popular Crowd since the fourth grade when I moved to the suburbs from Los Angeles. Being “in” is a benefit I enjoyed without thinking twice about the possibility that I could so easily be out. In the complicated politics of junior high school, you can go from Popular to Misfit overnight, and that’s exactly what happens to me. The popular girls are slender with clear complexions. They don’t wear glasses, and they have the right jelly shoes, the kind my mother says are too expensive, and to her credit, they are made of plastic.

I start getting crank calls from the girls who previously wanted me to wear the other half of their BFF necklaces, girls who passed me notes with hearts over every I and j. Now the notes read:

Fatty four-eyes. You are so fat. How do you fit through the door?

Slut. Everyone knows you want to suck Kenny Williams’s cock. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Young Voices

Becoming

July 21, 2015

By Melissa Black

You can find out a lot about yourself when you pay attention to what makes you cry.

Sometimes I’ll see something or hear someone say something that literally hits me so hard I break down right there, with no warning and no immediate explanation. I just start to heave, tears pouring down faster than I can make them. I start sobbing because something in me has been recognized, something that I’ve probably been ignoring or swishing away with my hand.

I watch and listen to a lot of interviews. There’s something almost addictive about listening to other people talk about life and how they live it; I want to know how people overcome themselves and learn to be alive without driving themselves crazy. Other people, particularly older and wiser women, seem to be infinitely capable of handing me pieces of myself that I didn’t know I’d lost. During one interview, the first I can remember that made me sob fiercely and unexpectedly, a phenomenally successful women shared with the audience what she would’ve shared with her sixteen-year-old-self if she had had the chance: Don’t worry, I’ve got this. You’re too young to be worrying about how it’s all going to pan out. Go have fun, go live, be carefree. I’ve got you. A powerful sadness erupted from me. I’d wished in that moment that someone would say that to me and mean it.

In a different interview, another woman expressed the most significant thing she had yet learned, she shared with us what she would have shared with her younger self in all of those years of searching: That voice in your head that tells you you’ve not done enough, you’re not good enough, you’re not enough of this or that, isn’t God. It isn’t Divine. It’s the critic in your head that never can tell when things are good and when a possibility of peace and self-compassion exists. I covered my eyes with my hands and I wept.

The most recent incident regarding this intense and sudden emotional outburst wasn’t from an interview, but from a lecture. This woman is so inspiring to me that she’s become intimidating – she’s like a phantom of a personal guru, always there to kick my ass into shape when I’m off chasing the tails of my fears. She spoke about forgiveness, belonging, home. My eyes are welling up at the mere thought of these words, the inner movement upon me before my fingers finished typing them out. Continue Reading…

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