Browsing Tag

growing up

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Wildfire

July 30, 2021
regan

by Holly Easton

Shortly before he left my mother, my brother, and me, Daddy gave me a copy of Heidi for my eighth birthday. He wrapped it in glossy red paper and left it on my bed. Before the year was out, he was gone.

I see him again the summer I turn 12 and Lukas turns 16. My mother screams into the phone, then click, and she tells us we’ll be spending three months with him in the Rockies. I kiss her even though I know she’s mad about it. Daddy’s been bouncing around these last few years, but whenever I asked, he said when he had a place of his own, we’d get to visit. Now it’s finally happening.

I got my braces wire tightened just before we left. I spend the flight placing balls of wax over the metal brackets in my mouth. I ask Lukas if he thinks Daddy will have goats, like the grandfather in Heidi, but he’s writing out guitar chords to whatever’s blaring on his headphones. He lets me rest my head on his shoulder though, which is progress since he swore off talking to me when I snipped all the strings on his guitar a few weeks ago.

My mother wants to buy me a training bra but I keep refusing. My chest is throbbing though and when we land, I hold the new triangular growths in my hands while we wait for Daddy, but then I see him and I drop my arms.

This Daddy has rough fur, instead of the prickly pear face he had when I was little, but otherwise, he’s the same. I run to him but then I see Regan, like The Exorcist, next to him. Regan’s his “life model.” She gives both me and Lukas tight hugs, leaving Lukas breathless.

“My chauffeur,” Daddy says, patting her scapula and we load into the car. I had forgotten that my mother used to drive him everywhere.

***

Regan wears her hair in a black braid that goes down to her hips and arrives a little before dinner almost every night. Lukas hangs onto her every word, although she is parsimonious with her speech. After dinner, she and my father lock themselves away as Daddy works on what he’s calling his “experimental phase.”

Lukas tells Daddy the altitude gives him headaches, so he spends most of his time in town drinking slushies and chatting with tourist girls. I’m too pimpled and my chest is too sore to be seen, so I stay on the cliffside with my Dad and his cans of turpentine.

I have no memories of him painting before he left, but remember having the notion that he was ‘known’. Parent-teacher conferences with his uneven stubble and my mother’s polished suit; his exhibits rather than my comportment, teachers ignorant to the brandy on his breath. I didn’t mind then. I misbehaved a lot.

“Stevie at the diner says he’ll teach me how to cook if I help him serve the lunch crowd on the weekends,” Lukas tells us over dinner. He gets loud whenever he talks about his new job at the diner.

“That’s good, a man should know how to cook,” Dad says, pointing the prongs of his fork at my brother.

“Stevie says,” gulp from Lukas, “he says the ladies love it.” Dad looks over at Regan, who meets his eyes and pours him some more wine. I keep staring at him in case he decides to share the secret exchange with me too. He doesn’t. I start to clear the dishes.

“Stevie’s probably right, but it’s still a bit early to think about that, son.” I pile them in the sink and reach out for the dish soap, but Regan’s hands stop me. I flinch because they’re cold, but her eyebrows soar up and her head shoots back like a concerned chicken.

Lukas shrugs his right shoulder and stares into his root beer, “yeah, but still, cooking’s better than just wiping tables and stuff.” I plonk down in my chair and Dad knocks my elbows off the table and flips through the day-old newspaper.

After dinner, Lukas locks me out of our loft. I can hear the twanging of his guitar through the door.

***

Because Dad is nocturnal in his work and he often retires for the day around eleven in the morning, leaving me alone on the mountain with no older boys to flirt with, and no younger girls to chase. It’s too quiet when Dad’s asleep, so I carry around the small radio I find in the loft. We only get the CBC on the mountain and even then, it’s fuzzy. Still, it’s better than silence.

I catch Lukas before he heads out one morning. “Can I come with you today?” I ask, even though I don’t really want to, I’m just bored.

“I’m working all day,” his thumb and forefinger stroke the fluff above his lip as he gives himself a final look in the mirror.

“I could come watch. Read, or something.” He spits in his hand and flattens his hair.

“You can’t sit in a diner re-reading Heidi all summer, Daisy.” I hear Dad send him off and I roll over and go back to sleep.

***

CBC starts its hour of classical music just as I hear my father crawl into bed. I turn it off because I can’t stomach another concerto. I want to run and scream, but the peaks of snow in the distance scare me off, I’m afraid my voice will boom and start an avalanche. Instead, I find myself in Daddy’s studio.

The door creaks only slightly, but it’s so quiet that I’m immediately on edge. His studios, his gallery openings, his work has always been off-limits. I was too young, it was too dangerous, the work was too precious. Standing there, for the first time, I see the brilliance that has driven a stake through my family. The colours of his passion refracting against itself and rolling over.

Regan puts her hand on my shoulder and leads me out.

She stays late to make me lunch. I tell her it’s too hot for soup, but she puts some on anyway. “He’s teaching me to draw,” she says, drying the mug he uses for his brandy. My face is dewy with sweat as I eat. She stares at me and I flush tomato, like the soup. I feel the bumps on my forehead or the new wires on my chin more pronouncedly. I think, maybe if I focus hard enough, they’ll retreat back into my face. She leans closer towards me, our noses level and almost touching. She traces my features with her eyes. She reaches for her sketchbook but pulls her hands back. Instead, she grabs her purse. “Do you want me to show you how to pluck your eyebrows?”

Leaning away from her, I smash my elbow into my bowl of cold soup. The clatter echoes out because there’s so little noise, so little else, on the hill. “You have a beautiful natural arch,” she says, reaching out to stroke my brows.

“Does it hurt?” I ask

She smiles, tucking my hair behind my ears. “You get used to it.” Her fingers brush my skin so gently, they smell like cocoa butter. “Besides, I think Jack– your Dad– would like it if we had some Big-Girl bonding time.” She smiles and then collapses her lips into a pout as she searches through her purse.

I hold my breath as she brings the tweezers to the first hair. “Ow!”

“Did that hurt?” Regan pulls back.

“Of course it did, you ripped my hair out!” I snap. She gets up and I think she’s about to leave, but she just goes to the fridge. The crack of the ice tray and she wraps ice cubes in a paper towel to numb the skin.

She shapes in silence, pulling back to look at me or tilt my chin as she sculpts and paints my face with the contents of her purse. I wonder if this is what my father does to her in his studio and suddenly I remember I hate her. “My daughter would be a little older than you,” she says.

I don’t ask what she means. My neck starts to ache from supporting her canvas and I straighten out. I hate her for staring at me. I hate her for making me untimely soup. I hate her for taking my father’s time. And I hate her most, in that moment, for acting like a friend, or maybe a mother.

Regan moves the ice over my pimples. “The cold will help them heal,” she says. My parents had to evacuate their home the day after I was born due to a forest fire. When they returned, the fields were already germinating with flowers, daisies, and trees that had been scarified into growth. The surface of Regan’s face was smooth like pulled toffee. I imagine the ice putting out the little fires burning under my skin. I lean into her hands.

My father shatters his coffee cup when he sees what she has done to my face. She’s traced my eyes like an Egyptian queen. I’m done-up like a, he struggles for a word, choking before he spits up “an inappropriate” and storms off into his studio. Regan tries to follow him.

“We’re just having fun,” she says, but he slams the door in her face. I ask if I can keep the lipstick she put on me.

***

 

Wearing Pomegranate Persuasion, I return to the studio every morning after that. Regan doesn’t linger after her sessions with my father anymore, so there’s no one to stop me. With the door shut, the studio air is damp in my throat. Every step is muffled by globs of oil streaked across countless canvasses. Every day I push in a little further until the colours don’t make me dizzy anymore. Then it’s the texture I absorb.

I run my finger pads over the peaks and ridges, feeling how they expand after every sleep. The landscapes are vast and uninhabited. The newer works scattered around the easel have been hybridized with Regan’s form. Her guitar-shaped body as mountains; her black hair as waterfalls, her eyes as valley basins. Oil takes a long time to dry. I push in from tip to first knuckle, squishing Regan’s curves. The paint parts around my finger, tarnishing my glitter nail polish.

I’m not allowed in the studio anymore after that.

Instead, I’m sent down the mountain with Lukas. Dad waits at the kitchen table with his mug in the morning to ensure we leave. He doesn’t say anything to me when we do. On our way down, Lukas splits the slushie money with me, waving at everyone we pass. “I’m going down to the quarry with the boys. If I’m not back here for 5, just head up without me, okay?” He says, sticking his too-long thumbnail between his front teeth to get out a fleck of toast. I pull out Heidi from my back pocket and spend the day reading at the bus stop.

“What the hell are you wearing?” It’s after 5. Lukas is still at the quarry and I’ve come home on my own. We go through this every day. My summer clothes from the year before hadn’t quite fit when I packed them, but it’s been getting worse as the days go on and grow hotter. My shorts ride up the back or bunch in a V at the front. My shirts are too short as I’ve grown a good few inches since my eleventh. My mother’s promised a shopping spree for my twelfth, but that’s just before school starts. And, of course, I’m with my father until then.

“They’re just shorts, Dad.”

“They’re inappropriate.” There’s something else “inappropriate” every day. His concerns are more than just fit. The colours, the patterns. When I dress, I make-believe a theme for the day. The light-up sneakers with my cupcake dress (celebration). These butterfly shorts and the inappropriate unicorn top (things that can fly). Dungarees and Dragons (that one’s self-explanatory). It all bothers him. He still hasn’t forgiven me for defacing his work.

“What’s on your mouth?” Pomegranate Persuasion. I stay quiet. He shakes his head so slowly.

“Everyone wears it– ” but I’m wiping my lips into my palm.

“My child will not.” He sniffles with a summer cold and wipes his nose with the back of his hand. I edge towards the loft. I’ve got my hand on the stair railing, “and you’re wearing those clips again.”

My daisy clips. He hates them most of all. The daisies come in every colour with smiling faces in the pistil. “Take them out.”

“They’re my favourite.” I reach up to touch one of the smiling pistils with a finger.

“Why do you never listen?” The mug pounds onto the table.

“I can just stop wearing them, Daddy.” He’s looking away from me. I climb a few stairs.

“You need to learn how to dress your age.” If he means I looked too young, or too old, I never know.

Regan brings shepherd’s pie for dinner, but Lukas still hasn’t returned and she and my father don’t eat with me, so I listen to the CBC. It’s been a dry summer and fires are burning along the west coast. After dinner that night, I find the clips, the plastic cracked through the pistil, in the bathroom garbage.

***

Marvin, who sells the slushies in the village, calls one afternoon. My father yells at everyone that night. Regan leaves in tears before their session. He tells me he doesn’t need to be woken up by concerned citizens telling him his daughter is “whoring about with boys on motorcycles.” I tell him they were mountain bikes. He’s not consoled. I don’t tell him they only asked me for directions.

The next day, he piles up his old painting clothes and Lukas’s hand-me-downs on my bed. But after a night of bridge at the cottage with Marvin and a few of his pub buddies, he bans me from going into the village altogether.

The village is unsuitable, but I’m still not allowed in the house. Instead, I throw a pack of Oreos in my backpack and walk halfway down the mountain, to the pasture, with Lukas. My beaten-up copy of Heidi was growing more insipid with every read. So I bring the radio too, but the reception is even worse in the pasture.

The radio tracks the fires as they move across Alberta. It’s all anyone seems to talk about. The sun beats down on my back and I lie in the grass staring into that speaker like it’s a face. They interview people who’ve lost homes, people looking for their pets, firefighters, and climate scientists. Sometimes they’d ask people to call in with their stories.

“We’ve got Daisy on the line,” I imagine.

“Hello,” I say, “No fires here yet, but my brother Lukas says the village is booming with tourists.”

“Really?” Roger’s voice is like dark chocolate and whole milk.

“Oh yes, Roger, they’ve been pushed out of Jasper and Banff by the flames.”

“So that must mean there are lots of kids around for you to play with Daisy.”

“So many, Roger! You wouldn’t believe. I might even get a boyfriend before the summer’s out.”

“Aren’t you too young for that, Daisy?”

“I wouldn’t kiss him or anything, he’d just be mine.” And then Roger would laugh, or invite me to be his co-host, or send me undercover on special assignments. But sometimes we didn’t talk about the news or the fires at all. And sometimes they’d just play music, and then I’d lie on my back with Heidi as a pillow, counting clouds and wondering if like Clara and her wheelchair, I could push Regan down the mountain.

***

The fires leave a grey cloud on the horizon that’s visible even at night. It’s hot and I can’t sleep, so I go outside to watch the smoke. Being outside at night feels against the rules, although it was never strictly mentioned, and I get that bubble of fearlessness in my stomach at the thought of being free and in charge. “Trouble tummy” my mum had called it after she caught me stealing chocolate bars from the Mac’s Milk. I crawl underneath the open window to my dad’s studio.

“You don’t know what she’s like,” he says, his voice startling me by how close it is to the open window.

“She’s just a little girl, Jack.” It’s Regan, but she’s using her other voice, the one she only used with him. It’s higher, smoother. “She’s curious. She didn’t– ”

“She knows what she’s doing.” There’s a pause. The sounds of Regan shifting on the stool, and the lick of a brush on a palette waft from the window.

“I think she misses you.” I hear as I lie down and close my eyes, warm from the summer air wrapping around me. My father’s snoring when I come back inside to brush my teeth.

***

“I like it here,” Lukas says after meeting me in the pasture so we could march home together. “It’s a simpler way of life.” We stop near some bushes out of eyesight from the cottage so I can put on the windbreaker and jeans my father has deemed more weather and age-appropriate than my tee-shirt and shorts. I rub Pomegranate Persuasion off on the sleeve of the jacket.

My father’s in a good mood when we get home. He slings his arm around Lukas’s neck and ruffles my hair. “My babies!” He yells, but not an angry yell like I’m used to. We eat dinner as a family because Regan isn’t coming tonight. My father even puts off his work for a few hours to hear all of Lukas’s exploits. I gather and start to wash the dishes and watch as my father leads Lukas into his studio. They don’t come out before I’m in bed.

Their snoring wakes me up. They’ve passed out cold on the couches and there’s an empty bottle of wine between them.

“Celebrating,” says Regan’s voice from behind me. We haven’t been alone together since the afternoon she plucked my eyebrows, the regrowth of my messy brows as evidence of the month that’s passed. “Jack called me last night, so I came up this morning to congratulate him. I guess I should have known he’d be asleep.” She turns to the sink and starts re-washing the dishes I did the night before. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?”

I don’t know what’s exciting, so I don’t answer. Locking myself into the loft, I block the door with the wicker chair so Lukas can’t stumble into bed. The loft is so sparse and dark and the only evidence of home is Lukas’s guitar in the corner. I flick on the CBC, but the radio sputters and the batteries die, leaving only the muffled sound of water running over already clean dishes.

When Lukas finds his guitar, the neck is tucked into bed, and the body has been launched from the tiny loft window, smashed against a weathervane. He spends a week with Stevie from the diner. My dad even goes down to the village to be with him. When Lukas agrees to come home, he doesn’t look at me anymore, which I can handle. But he packs up the rest of his stuff only a day later and moves it to Stevie’s. Dad starts having dinner with him in town every night. Being alone in the loft is like being trapped in the brain of a zombie. Everything is muffled, grey, dead. If the house burned down, no one would know I had ever been alive.

***

As the days grow shorter, Regan’s nights with my father get longer. The day of my birthday, she hikes a rainbow sprinkle cake up the mountain for me with my father’s bridge buddies. I blow out my twelve candles and my father uses real wine glasses, not just a paint-stained mug for his booze. I don’t get any presents because I’ve been bad, but they teach me to play bridge and for one night, forgive me. I pour their drinks and laugh at their loud jokes, even if I don’t understand them. My father lets me have a small glass of wine.

As Regan brings me to bed, my head is foggy from the early hour and the cigarette smoke flooding the house. I hear Marvin downstairs. “She’ll be a heartbreaker one day, Jack,” He’s got a heavy wheeze caused by his belly or maybe his smoking. Regan shuts the door behind us before I hear my father’s response.

“Happy birthday, Daisy,” Regan says, handing me a little box. I don’t take it at first, because I don’t really understand. “Don’t tell your father.” Inside is a bracelet with tiny beads of jade and a small silver flower charm. “The green brings out your eyes.” She takes the bracelet from my hand and slips it over my wrist. “Oh, and I made you this.” Regan reaches into her pocket and pulls out a piece of heavy sketch paper.

It’s a charcoal portrait. My eyebrows mid regrowth, with the smiling faces of my daisies in my hair. She doesn’t have my father’s skill, but her hand is practised. I touch a finger to the pistil of the daisy. She lifts my duvet for me to slip into bed. Her touch is gentle as she pulls the blanket up to my armpits.

“Regan?” I ask, and she looks at me straight in the eyes. “Thank you.”

“You’re almost a young lady now.” Her eyes are on mine until I break away. “Good night.”

They’re all still there when I wake up, asleep on the couches and kitchen chairs. My father’s bedroom door is open. He and Regan are naked, covers kicked off in the heat. The mountains, the valley basins, the waterfalls of Regan’s body, encircled inappropriately in my father’s arms, his face discoloured from alcohol, buried in bunched, patterned sheets.

I walk past them into the studio. It feels tighter. The colours have melted with the heat and the oil is spiking off the canvasses, reaching out to press into my skin. I dry heave from the stale air, the bottom of my lungs filling up the way they had when I blew out my cake the night before. I think about my birthday candles.

***

The crack of the fire wakes my father when I’m only halfway through the masterpiece. The ash from the pasture has darkened the clear mountain air. I’m sure he’s yelling, but his paintings burn so loudly, air pockets trapped under oily prisons exploding from the heat, that I can’t hear him.

My mother arrives later that day, but Lukas stays through the school year. We have our shopping spree, as promised. She lets me buy whatever I want.

Holly Easton has a degree in archaeology that has proven to be just as useful as her parents said it would be. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in science history. Holly is a volunteer science communicator at a local museum where she teaches guests about evolution and ecology. She enjoys meeting and chatting with neighbourhood cats.

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


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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

Can’t

July 16, 2021
christine

By Lauren Anton

You’re turning thirteen tomorrow. It’s time to act like it.

She looked around her pink and white bedroom. Pink: her favorite color. Her journal, also pink, with a picture of a pretty little girl on it, surrounded by flowers. She had gotten her period, as if on cue, the day before. When she went to tell her mother, she had handed a pad to her, unceremoniously. Her dad had hugged her for no reason that morning.

It was all pretty awkward. But still. She took the event and her upcoming birthday as a sign that things needed to change.

No more being loud. No more tomboy. You need to be quiet and pretty.

She thought back to the times when she would hang out with Natalie, prowling the mall for guys.

At least that’s what Natalie was doing.

“Did you see that guy?”

Never.

“He’s so cute! I think he was looking at me.”

According to Natalie, they always were.

They would then follow the guy (or guys) around, while she became increasingly more anxious, when she would eventually duck into a bookstore to read magazines, not books. She was trying to figure out how to be a pretty girl who attracts boys. She would stand there for an hour, waiting for Natalie to be done with her guy-hunting, reading magazines like Seventeen, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan not for enjoyment, but for the task of research.

It didn’t seem to sink in.

No matter how many quizzes she took, she didn’t naturally have the eye that Natalie – and all the pretty girls in her class – had.

Even if she did attract a boy, she didn’t know what to do. She liked her guy friends in class, but never seemed to like the guys that she was told were “looking” at her.

She felt that she had been left behind in fifth grade, when they had “Family Life” – sex ed in Catholic school. She had hidden behind her book when they learned about “intercourse,” lest she make eye contact with any other human being.

“Intercourse” was defined as “a man placing his penis in the woman’s vagina, with the hopeful outcome of conception of a new human life, within a loving marriage.” The book went on to say that it was a “precious gift from God” and was to be “held with the deepest respect.”

Meaning never done outside of marriage.

The daydreams, as she called them, started when the “Family Life” classes started. She would spend hours fantasizing about being a boy in a relationship with a girl, having sex with her, getting married, having a family. Her imagination was expansive, which was important, as she didn’t know that girls could masturbate.

She thought only boys could do that.

In fact, the book had been so centered on the penis and ejaculation (and other words that made her want to die when she heard them), she didn’t realize girls could have an orgasm and that there was something called a clitoris.

She had no clue about her own body.

And so the daydreams where she was a boy having sex with a girl continued for over two years.

The penis was all she knew.

Her pen hovered and then drove into the paper.

You need to stop these daydreams.

Her sexual fantasies that she called daydreams because she didn’t know what sexual fantasies were or that she could have them.

She didn’t know why she had the daydreams. She just knew she couldn’t stop and found her mind on them, not even realizing how long she had been thinking about it. She just knew they were bad and had to stop. She had to find a way.

She remembered what happened two years ago in her pink and white room on her frilly twin bed. Her cheeks burned with the shame.

They had just started “Family Life” and her friend Christine had come over to spend the night. It had been a normal visit, nothing noteworthy. Dinner, playing games up in her room, talking, until her mother had told her it was time to get ready for bed.

When the lights were off, they continued to talk, as ten-year-old girls do, in the dim light of the nightlight.

The topic of “Family Life” came up and how embarrassing it was.

But she wasn’t feeling embarrassed.

She was feeling…like she did in the daydream.

“We should practice.”

Christine was nervous about this so she offered that they could leave out the kissing. She was secretly bummed by this but realized that compromise was needed.

And so, she lived out her daydream in her pink bed, in her pink and white room. At ten years old.

She didn’t know she could float, but she did.

When her eyes were woken by the sun shining through the split in the curtains, she looked over at her friend, still asleep. She shifted to her side to watch the ray of sun creep up Christine’s body under the covers, her blonde hair in wisps around her face, until at last the sun reached her eyes. She blinked herself awake.

“Morning.” She smiled.

“Hey.”

Christine immediately got up, taking her change of clothes in the bathroom. Her stomach had a tiny pang of fear which she quickly shoved away and instead got dressed, taking her cue from Christine.

When Christine came back in the room, she sat on the edge of the bed, her gaze on the floor. She sat beside her, a respectful three feet away. Her body sent off alarm bells.

“What we did last night was wrong. We should never do it again.”

There was a moment when she couldn’t really see and her stomach dropped to the floor. She thought she was going to faint.

Christine looked at her, expectantly. Waiting for her response.

The right response.

“Yeah…yeah…” She trailed off, her head nodding slowly.

“OK. Yeah. Let’s never do it again.”

You can’t do that. It’s disgusting.

Her pen dug into the paper of her journal, almost ripping it.

Turning thirteen would need to involve an entire personality overhaul.

And her sexuality would be the first order of business.

Lauren Anton is a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders by day and a writer by night. She is a mom to her beautiful 8-year-old son, who is a constant teacher of what it is to be in love with life, feeling everything so, so fully. She enjoys hiking, yoga, piano, and her little rescue poodle, Bernie.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Surviving

Rewriting Scars

August 9, 2019
trash

By Rachel McMullen

When the city started charging for collection, my family started to burn our trash. We didn’t even dig a hole, we just tossed a white plastic bag full of mixed garbage on a grass-less part of the backyard and poured enough gasoline on it to start a fire with a huff. We would watch the flames struggle to dismantle the various materials, melting them down into a colorful liquid that simmered with viscosity. As any child would be, I was curious about this unintended chemistry experiment: like a bonobo probing the earth for a protein reward, I poked the blue of the fire to return the plastic syrup cooking within. I dropped down crossed-legged in the dirt and lifted my prize eye-level, admiring the aquamarine ooze of a what was once a toothpaste tube. Bubbles popped in the muck as huge drops curdled from the end of my stick and fell back onto the edges of the still-burning refuse. Suddenly, my skin sizzled as melted plastic tore through my left leg, breaking down each layer as if it weren’t even there. I remember thinking that tin cans were stronger than my own body. As a knee-jerk, but still delayed reaction, I ripped the now hardened drop of plastic away from my skin faster than a Band-aid, ripped it away with all the now-dead skin underneath, ripped it almost hard enough to not feel the pain before the blood came. And when it did, when it cascaded down my leg and ran toward the fire-torn earth, it drew my blood away toward its dusty innards. I sat in quiet meditation, bleeding but transfixed by the mirrored shape still hot in the palm of my hand: a figure-eight, a bowknot without its tails, infinitely emblazoned in discolored tissue. A symbol of our trash, of my body, burning hot in the backyard. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, memories

Enlightenment at Cross Town

May 14, 2019
town

By Brian Michael Barbeito

All the orange crates are scattered, at the Safeway Supermarket in the rain.
–Van Morrison, St. Dominic’s Preview, It’s too Late to Stop Now.

I didn’t have a mind then. I should have perhaps had a mind by then. I was in kindergarten. I went to a school called Our Lady of Fatima, which as I think about it, is nice enough, because later I became on my own terms a sort of Marian devotee. There was a church adjacent to or very close to the school. At midnight mass I would look up and there was for some reason I can’t discern, a ceiling painted with noodle designs, like macaroni and cheese before the cheese is added. I just stared at the noodles. For more than an hour. Midnight mass, which means Christmas Mass for the uninitiated, is longer than an hour. Or at least there is it ran longer. A feeling of depth or spirit was around, but it didn’t have so much to do with the church. Or maybe it did. I didn’t call it ‘A feeling of depth or spirit,’ because I didn’t know what those words meant, and I hardly, if ever, really spoke. They thought a bit earlier on than that, that I was deaf, or partly deaf, and that maybe that was why I didn’t speak. But I was tested by the doctor, and came out all right. So it wasn’t a physical thing. Before that, I had an apgar rating of 9, which is not bad. And a slight heart murmur, not unheard of either. So I checked out. Who is to know? Who can see the whole of any of us, cosmically speaking? One time they took me to a daycare or after school place, and I remember someone saying, He doesn’t talk, and the lady that ran it said in a kind but confident response. He will learn to talk here, as he will have to, because there are other kids and he just will.

I never said a word while I was there.

 But the school and the playground and Cross-town. There isn’t much I remember, but there are some things. There was at the playground races to the fence and back, and there was a kid named Johnny who used to run it pretty well. I did okay, but was in the middle of the pack. He was always first or second. I said in my mind, If Johnny can do it, I can. And I kind of trained myself to get better and better. It worked you know. Man. I really got up there through the time. I could lie and say I beat Johnny, and I was a hero or something, but that didn’t happen. I do know I tied him once, and it wasn’t that anyone really noticed, but I showed myself some inner and outer stamina.

I always remembered that.

Somewhere, anyhow.

Years later I changed high schools, from a wealthy area, all the way back to that area, which was not affluent but not poor, but a kind of middle-regular place. That as they say is another story. But when I was there this guy called me over to a table a little time in, and he was with this pretty girl, but the girl was not to become a good friend of mine, but an acquaintance. And the guy a sort of friend, just a bit on past an acquaintance, but not a friend-friend-friend. So I say, What? And the guy comes with this,

I and my friend are having a bet. She seems to think that she remembers you from Kindergarten class, and I say maybe, but aren’t sure. I know this sounds funny but she brought in our class picture and we were discussing it. She says yes, that this person here is you, and I say maybe. Could you tell us if you went to school with us?

So I looked at the picture and saw myself. I said that it was me. And the thing was that he was Johnny, and I told him so, and he remembered that. I had no recollection of the girl, who would be considered gorgeous. It turned out that she spotted me in the picture, but also spotted me for a Big Mac combo at McDonalds one day, and I promised to pay her back. But days went on, though four out of five days I had money in my pocket, it seemed like the days she reminded me to pay her, were weirdly on the exact days I had no money. She became angry, but contained, and thought I was a kind of player or something. Since she didn’t really know me, there was no way to have her know me. So she just began to see me as a liar, which I was technically. But I am not like that. A few years ago I ran a writing group and this poor guy kept coming and so I bought him, (you can’t write this as they say, I know I can’t), a Big Mac Combo each time afterwards, and the other person that ran the group never ever offered to pay. Technically the bill could be split. Gurdjieff has a saying; Nothing shows people up more than money. But yes, the friendship didn’t work out with the girl. She was more mature though the same age, but it also affected her, as in if someone says, She is pretty, and the other person says, Yes, but she knows it.

Going back to kindergarten. I waited after for my grandfather to pick me up. It always seemed a bit overcast, with opaque clouds making up the firmament, and the world seemed grey also. It couldn’t have been like that every single day. But the days I remember were. There was kid with dark hair, and he was singing the lyrics to We Will Rock You, by Queen, and not the chorus, but the beginning lyrics. I remember this. I would much later become a fan of Queen, but at that time I had no idea what the hell he was saying, and he was so intense about it. He was clear and enthralled and intent, sitting on a swing swaying back and forth just a bit while he sang,

Buddy you’re a boy make a big noise
Playin’ in the street gonna be a big man some day
You got mud on yo’ face
You big disgrace
Kickin’ your can all over the place

I think that song must have just come out and he had an older brother or father that had to have played it over and over. The other kid I remember was blonde, and I can picture him perfectly, but don’t know why. He wore a jean jacket with something yellow on the shoulders, like an intentional patch, and he said it was a disco jacket. He was very proud of this. I for certain didn’t know what disco was. Already the very few people I came into contact with knew much more than I, if even about anything at all.

I just stared into space and waited.

For something.

Then.

I guess for my grandfather.

And in high school.

For what I don’t know.

And even now.

For what I certainly absolutely don’t know.

Because my grandfather is long dead.

But I am still trying to get to Cross Town as it were. At least here. See…sometimes my grandfather when he would arrive (I think he was a little bit late sometimes because he moved slowly), would take me before going home to his house, to a set of little stores at the intersection just down from the school and the church. From what I can remember, I have to bet these were places where they had cheap wares, but good things still. Plates, forks, knives, spoons, cloths, cups, saucers, blankets (not a high thread count but not terribly low either), a set of napkins, a holder for a hardboiled egg, some old pictures of pastoral scenes and a blue sky and a white whimsical cloud and a red barn and maybe a stream and a big boulder there, of course little key chains and maybe there was a guy that cut keys in the back and maybe not.

But I didn’t then see these things like some great or even good observer. I couldn’t register them. I was just there looking at dust motes in the air, or maybe the reflection of light on a counter. And many people are like this, especially in childhood. It is nothing so special. It’s just that that is where we were, in Scarborough, instead of say, Illinois, or St. Petersburg, China, Bahamas, The Yukon Territories, Switzerland, Morocco, South Asia (where the DNA science says I am really from), Key West, Africa, or anywhere else the universe could have placed us.

Quietness inside the door and the store, inside of me, even though the soft sound of winter traffic passes by on Victoria Park, or from St. Clair, the intersecting street.

Windows somehow more on the side of dirty, run-down, but not disgusting or dangerous.

I want to think of cloth, fabrics, and utilitarian items and artifacts.

A worldly person knows what things are for and what they do.

To me, they are then if anything, just worlds of metal, copper, some colors, ceramics, frames, maybe plastics, – yes plastics, there are plastics there somewhere,- red, green, maybe they are parts of cheap umbrellas or rain jackets.

All this under a vague light yellow and a dull light that comes in from the windows.

It’s always like late dusk sad there in a sense, no matter what hour a clock would say.

The world is before night, about to blink off, but it never quite does.

I sense now I think also that something tragic is about to happen,- as if we are on the edge of a car accident, or receiving bad news, witnessing or being in a fire, a flood, a war, even a death of some kind.

But nothing really happens like that and one step is taken then the next and the world goes on.

Nobody ever bought me anything then, like a toy car, a key chain, – something, anything, – but I never wanted anything or thought of it. I was a simpleton, a visitor that didn’t really appreciate the wares one way or the other.

The street soon, – and the signs, and so many cars by the dirty, dirty snow with bits of mud and old leaves. Newspaper boxes, people. The world is so normal to everyone it feels like an alien planet to the young boy.

He doesn’t know lyrics, disco, exactly where he is or what he is.

I looked and looked then back at the stores at Cross-town. I was, not because I was special, but because I was not interfered with or talked to that much, in touch with something. It wasn’t a vision of an angel. I wasn’t a message. It was just Source. There is something when there is no mind yet, and that is what the search for full blown enlightenment is after, that nothingness and everything-ness that is there, always there, that we are, but that is obscured by the mind, even though the mind is by definition part of it because it is all One-Thing never begun and never ending. I smelt it, but not with my nose. Maybe it’s like touching the toe nail of God.

How would I explain that to the pretty girl, who bought me McDonalds and thinks I am simple moocher?

I can’t even remember her name anyways.

I wonder if her Grandfather ever took her to Cross-Town.

Brian Michael Barbeito is a Canadian writer, poet and photographer. His recent work appears at Fiction International from San Diego State University, CV2 The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, and at Catch and Release-The Columbia Journal of Arts and Literature. Nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and one Best of the Net Award, Brian is the author of Chalk Lines (Fowl Pox Press, 2013, cover art by Virgil Kay). He is currently at work on the written and visual nature narrative titled Pastoral Mosaics, Journeys through Landscapes Rural.

https://www.amazon.com/Being-Human-Memoir-Waking-Listening/dp/1524743569/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1539219809&sr=8-1

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emily retreat

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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aging, Guest Posts

Thirty-Three

November 26, 2017
thirty

By Tatyana Sussex

The perfect age, you decide, when a colleague confides, “Yeah, it’s a bit late to marry at thirty-three, but you know, I’ve had time to myself, to build my career—it’s worked out well.” And just like that: You claim thirty-three as the perfect age for you to marry, too.

Instead, thirty-three is the age you permanently leave New York—the second time, after the second relationship ends, and you’re still mourning the first. You make a pledge to a new adventure: to grow roots, right here, in your hometown of Seattle.

Thirty-three, the birthday on which you wake up to a carpet of snow, stay home from work and talk to the lingering ex-boyfriend about his new daughter, his wife, then go out for a dinner of ribbon pasta and braised rabbit at a romantic restaurant with your best girlfriend, Mary Jane. Your parents call in a bottle of champagne.

The last birthday you will drink champagne: November 19, 1996.

This is the year you run into the bewildering streets to worship the Comet Hale-Bopp that sparkles overhead like a winking god. The year you and Jeanette go roller blading on the Burke Gillman trail one dusky evening and are stopped in your tracks by an unexpected eclipse yolking right there, just for you. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Young Voices

The Lonely Soda Can

July 19, 2017
soda

Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station. This is part of our Young Voices Series for Girl Power: You Are Enough. We are always looking for more writing from YOU! Make sure you follow us on instagram at @GirlPowerYouAreEnough and on Facebook here.

By Daniella Pozo

The other day I was waiting for the train, minding my own business and worrying about my hair. It was puffy and frizzy and I was convinced that everyone was judging me for me. Hell, I was judging myself for it. After I gave up on trying to make it seem like I didn’t just wake up, I started looking at the people around me on the platform as I usually do.

There was a man in a colorful jacket, glasses and short cropped salt and pepper hair. He looked lively even in his old age and I guessed that he was listening to jazz in his ear buds. There was a little boy and a woman with him. He had on a black coat and a hat with cartoon characters on it. I could tell he was a sweet boy because he kept smiling and going on about how much he loved the women accompanying him. There was a woman with wet curly hair and a black bag in her hand, concentrating hard on her Snapchat stories and selfies.

When the train came I sat next to the Snapchat-crazed women and her annoyingly loud videos. I popped in my headphones and started listening to The Killers. I stared at the nose piercing of the women in front of me. Mentally comparing the nose ring size and shape to that of my sister’s. Continue Reading…

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…

Gratitude, Guest Posts

A Good Man

August 19, 2016
man

By Ruth Dawkins

I stand in line at the bookstore. In one hand is Gould’s Book of Fish; in the other is The Sound of One Hand Clapping.

“Which would you recommend for someone who’s new to Flanagan?” I ask.

“I love Gould,” says the assistant. “It’s a really beautiful book, but not easy. Clapping is good too, it’s more accessible.”

I keep weighing the two books up in my palms; I’ve read neither of them, so have nothing to go on but the blurbs. Which one best encapsulates Tasmania? Perhaps I should buy Narrow Road to the Deep North instead, but it feels like a predictable choice and all the award publicity means there’s a stronger chance he’ll already have it.

“I’ll go with Gould,” I say eventually. “It’s for an English teacher, I’m sure he can handle it.”

Later that day I stand in line again. I’m at the post office this time, holding a brown cardboard box that contains the book, a bottle of whisky small enough to escape the attention of customs, and a short, handwritten note. At the last minute I almost throw in some kids’ candy, and add a line to the note saying my son helped me pack the box, but I decide not to. Making up a cute story about my five-year-old’s involvement will make the whole exercise feel more weird, not less.

I reach the counter, pay forty dollars to send the parcel to Scotland, and then I wait.

A month passes. There is nothing. Then it’s two months, and I try to stop thinking about it, but I can’t help myself. It’s possible that the parcel has gone astray, but it’s also possible that I’ve made a spectacular misjudgement. Perhaps he hates Richard Flanagan. Perhaps he’s a recovering alcoholic and sending whisky is the worst possible thing I could have done. Perhaps he just doesn’t like to hear from former pupils, especially those who used to be in love with him. Continue Reading…

Binders, Guest Posts, Sex, Sexuality

The Near Miss

July 19, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Lindsay Miller

When I was in high school, I dated an appalling-in-retrospect string of men five years or more my senior. I met most of them at the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was where my friends and I spent our adolescent Saturday nights. The twentysomething men who hung out there treated us like adults, or what we imagined that to mean at fifteen: they smiled and nodded thoughtfully when we spoke, leaned in as though our every stray thought was fascinating. They made us feel respected, intelligent, mature.

I knew, abstractly, that older men who dated younger women – not women but girls, high school girls, girls not even old enough to drive – were creepy and better avoided. But for some reason it never occurred to me that that applied to my own life. The guys my friends and I dated made it seem like there was nothing strange about men in their twenties sexually pursuing teenage girls – after all, we were so old for our age. We were so wise. They had never met girls like us, girls who knew so much, girls who understood them so well. They told us this over and over, every one of them, like reading from a script: You’re so cool. You’re so different from all the others. When I was young, I didn’t understand that as an insult, lifting girls up in the singular while putting us down in the plural. I was dying to feel older, which I accomplished by wearing impossibly short skirts and sky-high platform shoes, carrying a tiny knife disguised as a tube of lipstick in my purse and feeling sly and dangerous. I wanted to feel desired, and the men I met were more than happy to comply – to tell me I was beautiful in my Hot Topic bustiers, breasts hiked to the collarbone, boots laced up to the knee.

On Saturday nights in high school, my curfew was five a.m. I told my parents that I spent those early morning hours hanging out in a diner with my friends, girls a year or two older than me who would drive me home. Some nights that was true. Some nights, though, I caught rides with men I’d never met before, circled the city endlessly or found places to park where the streetlights didn’t reach. Or my friends and I ended up back at someone’s house, one of those horrible shared houses that all men in their twenties seemed to live in: broken furniture, cigarette butts in beer bottles, nothing in the refrigerator. We sat awkwardly on lopsided couches making tense small talk while one girl or another disappeared into a bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom, giggling, hand in hand with a man five, seven, ten years her senior.

When I was fifteen, I dated a man named Michael. He was twenty-three and already divorced, had fled the state of Texas to get away from his ex-wife, who he said had broken his heart so badly he didn’t know if he could go on living. I found this tragically romantic, imagining I might be the one to heal his wounded soul. On Valentine’s Day, he gave me a rose, already wilting. He offered to buy me a cell phone so that he would be able to hear my voice whenever he wanted.

Later that year there was Steven. I don’t remember exactly how old he was, but he must have been at least twenty. The night we met, he pulled me away from my friends, around the dark side of a building into an alley where he pushed me up against a wall and kissed me so hard it made my teeth hurt. In the gray early morning hours, he took my friend Jocelyn and me back to his apartment, where we sat on the edge of a filthy couch watching Steven and his roommates smoke cigarettes and complain about their jobs. I can see now that their lives were small and grimy, with little joy besides driving fast and listening to loud music, playing pool in bars where the very air felt gritty and making out with girls too young to know better. But to me, back then, it seemed glamorous and important. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts

Secrets.

March 11, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88

 

By Maryann Gray.

I was 13, in 8th grade, and my mother had enrolled me in the John Roberts School of Charm, which was around the corner from the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Every Saturday, I rode the train by myself from Scarsdale to Grand Central Station, took the Madison Avenue bus uptown to 59th street, and devoted the hours of 9:00 a.m. to noon to classes on make-up (called “make-down” in JRP), wardrobe, figure control, and something called “poise and personality.” After, I went to lunch with the girls in my class and then we wandered around the Upper East Side until it was time to go home.

There was something about the ride from Grand Central back to Scarsdale that brought out the melancholy in me. The train started in a long black tunnel, and then emerged into daylight somewhere in Harlem to roll by tenements and housing projects. They were so close to the tracks I could see anemic houseplants reaching for sun on fire escape landings and window curtains fluttering in the breeze. There was something pathetic and brave about these small efforts to prettify urban grit. Gradually the city gave way to the Westchester suburbs, where I could catch glimpses of a stream running alongside the tracks and see the back sides of houses, with their swing sets and cement patios. They were further away from the tracks than the tenements but close enough that train noise had to be a fact of life. I felt sorry for those families – the only houses they could afford were the ones that no one really wanted. The closer we got to Scarsdale, the denser the trees alongside the tracks became.

The train ride home was both comforting and lonely. My day had been devoted to the hope, or maybe fantasy is a better word, that I could be beautiful, self-assured, and popular. Now I was returning to my real life, uncomfortably aware that charm school was not going to fix me. I stared out the window and wrapped myself in depression like a big cozy blanket.

I carried a notebook with me on these days, so I could take notes at JRP. Moisturize before applying foundation, I wrote. Use a sponge. Always stroke upwards. I made shopping lists — eyelash curler, lip liner, good tweezers, natural bristle brushes, a magnifying mirror. I recorded my homework assignments. Walk with a book on my head for ten minutes every day. Do twenty side bends, twenty toe-touches, and twenty twists every other day. Once a week, apply an egg facial. Let the egg come to room temperature. Separate the white from the yolk. Smear the yolk all over your face, except the eyes and lips. Don’t forget under the chin. When it dries, apply the egg white right over the yolk. When that dries, gently wash your face. Pat dry, never rub.

On one of those rides home, tired and morose, I tore a corner off a page in the notebook, and in neat rounded letters wrote, “Help me please.” I folded the scrap, then folded it again, and slipped it in the thin crack between the window and the metal frame.

Even as I did it, I knew I was being adolescent and overwrought. I hadn’t been kidnapped and held as some maniac’s sex slave. I wasn’t dying a tragic death from a rare and painful disease. I was healthy, loved, and heading home to Scarsdale, where my mother would pick me up at the train station and take me to Lord and Taylor, so we could buy eyeliner and maybe a sweater.

But as soon as I tucked that note into the window frame, I longed for someone to find it. I wanted them to wonder about the girl who left it there (they’d think “girl” because my handwriting was pretty obviously feminine). Maybe it would be the conductor, cleaning up the train at the end of the line, a couple of hours away in Connecticut. Maybe he would read the note and remember the quiet girl in the blue dress, and maybe he would be extra nice to me the next time I rode the train. Or perhaps somebody’s father would read it, a businessman on his way home from work. He would feel badly for the mysterious unhappy girl and wish he could find her and give her a hug. Or maybe another girl about my own age would read it, and she would understand. “Help me, too,” she might write before slipping the note back where she found it. Or maybe some cute boy would find it and feel touched by the note’s raw vulnerability. He might start riding in that carriage every Saturday afternoon, studying the passengers until he noticed me and knew right away that I was the author. Maybe someone, an old lady perhaps, would find the note and call the conductor over. “Do you think we should call the police?” she might ask. “Someone on this train needed help.”

What was most likely, I knew, was that no one read it. It probably got plucked from the window and tossed in the trash, along with gum wrappers, cigarette butts, soda cans, food bags, and other notes from other lonely girls.

But it was at least possible that someone read it, and that was enough. The note became my precious secret. I thought about it all the time – while waiting to be excused from the dinner table at home, struggling with pre-algebra homework, and watching other kids flirt on the playground while I sat on the bleachers and pretended to read.

I thought about leaving a note on the train every week, but that first one said it all. I had written down my prayer, although I didn’t call it that at the time, and sent it into the universe.

***

A few months after graduating from JRP, I made up a boyfriend. That summer, instead of going back to sleep-away camp in Maine, I signed up for a teen tour and spent six weeks traveling across country with 30 girls and 5 chaperones. We started in Denver, made our way west, drove up the California coast, and then flew to Hawaii. We stayed in luxury hotels and traveled to fancy restaurants in a fleet of limousines. We had to wear dresses, and we weren’t allowed to chew gum or date. Everyone complained about missing McDonalds, but I only pretended to miss it because I’d never been permitted to eat there.

The cliques formed quickly. There were the losers – the girl with the badly repaired harelip, the one who was maybe just a little bit retarded. There were the sophisticates – an impossibly thin girl who hid from the sun because a tan would hinder her modeling career, a girl whose last name placed her in one of the wealthiest families in the world, a girl who was going to boarding school in France after the teen tour. Then there were the girls with attitude. They couldn’t believe they had to wear a pastel dress and spring coat to sit in a box seat at the Hollywood Bowl and listen to stupid classical music while their friends back east were on their way to a rock concert somewhere in upstate New York. They sneaked onto their hotel balconies late at night to smoke joints that they scored from boys on the street. They scowled at the chaperones, broke the rules every chance they got, and were staunchly unimpressed by things like museums or even the marble bathrooms in the I. Magnin department store in Beverly Hills. They preferred to hang out by the pool and flirt with boys.

Iris Bishop was the center of this clique. She had long red hair and big breasts. She was as sultry as a 15-year old can be. Everyone knew that Iris had a boyfriend back home in Philadelphia. He sent letters to each hotel on our itinerary, and she was constantly bumming stamps for letters and postcards back to him.

I wanted to hang out with Iris and her clique. I wanted to be one of them, unafraid of adult condemnation, a little contemptuous, ready for adventure. At first, they wanted nothing to do with me. My clothes were too conservative, my manners too deferential. I was a goody-goody, afraid of breaking the rules. To solve this problem, I invented a boyfriend, telling Iris all about him on one long bus ride from Denver to Aspen. His name was Robbie, he was three years older than me, and I met him through my cousin. We had to sneak around because his parents were poor and mine were rich. We hadn’t gone all the way, but we had made out on the bed with most of our clothes off. I loved him, but had broken it off just before the summer because I was going to college and he wasn’t, so we really had no future together.

Iris became my friend. We spent hours trading stories about our boyfriends, and she picked me to be her roommate at each hotel. Under her tutelage, I learned to ignore instructions from the chaperones and flirt with boys just for the heck of it (because I was still in love with Robbie and not ready for another relationship. In Hawaii, I stole a golf cart one evening and we careened around the resort grounds laughing hysterically until hotel security stopped us and the chaperones threatened to send us home. It was the highlight of the entire trip, much better than the 17-mile Drive or Hearst Castle. On the last night of the trip, Iris and I vowed to stay friends forever. “I used to think you were so straight, but that was before I knew about Robbie,” she said, and we both laughed and laughed.

I never told anyone that I lied to her. It was my secret, private information. I didn’t feel guilty about it; if anything I was proud of the way I’d figured out how to make friends. The girl who was in a passionate but troubled relationship with Robbie felt more like the real me than the girl who took notes on make-up techniques at the John Robert School of Charm, spent her weekend evenings baby-sitting for the neighbors, and had never been kissed. She was the false self, all wrapped in anxiety and ambivalence. The real me was bold and sexy, and she would emerge as soon as I shed the cocoon of family and childhood that still encased me.

I had another secret that summer, too. The secret was that I couldn’t stop thinking about killing myself. I had no intention of actually doing it. When Iris and I paraded to the beach in our bikinis, shared tokes off a joint after escaping the chaperones, or traded stories about our boyfriends, I felt happy. But as soon as I was alone for any period of time, my thoughts turned to death, specifically suicide. Often this occurred on our bus or car rides, when I felt the same sad sense of dislocation that came over me on the train. A few years later, when I read about anomie in sociology class, I had a label for what I felt, a dull depression that put me at a distance from everyone and everything. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to cry as that it seemed like my smile muscles were permanently frozen.

In Los Angeles, I dared myself, knowing I’d never do it, to fling open the door of the limousine carrying us to Universal Studios and jump out onto the freeway. A few days later, as we drove up the Pacific Coast Highway in a chartered bus, I tuned out the chaperone’s lecture on Cannery Row and wondered what it would feel like to run to the edge of a cliff and jump. Would I reach the water, or land on the rocks below? Would I be scared? Would it kill me? During our surfing lesson in Hawaii, I had the strongest urge to just keep paddling out to sea, until I was out of sight of our group and the shoreline receded and all I could see was water.

I had these impulses everywhere we went. But then I’d hear Iris’ throaty laugh, or someone would poke me or ask me a question, or the chaperones would hand out treats, and just like that it was over. I could smile, I could talk, I was a normal girl again.

Months after the teen tour had ended, my sister eavesdropped on a telephone call I had with Iris. “I heard you,” she said as soon as I hung up with phone. “You made up a boyfriend, didn’t you? That’s so pathetic.”

I hated my sister that day, for listening in and discovering my secret and then for exposing me. Most of all, I hated her for confronting me with my lies. I wasn’t the person that Iris thought I was, or the person that I could believe myself to be when I was with her. I was just me, flushed with shame and full of impotent anger.

 

***

When I was 22 years old and had largely but not entirely quit making up lies, I accidentally killed an 8-year old boy named Brian who darted in front of my car. News about the accident spread rapidly in the small Ohio college town. The son of one of my professors played on the same little league team with the boy who died; the department secretary belonged to their church. The local newspaper ran a story about the accident including my name and address. For months, I couldn’t not talk about it. The accident totally dominated my attention; it was all I had room for. I told the story over and over again, to friends, to my therapist, to the lawyer, to the insurance agent. It was an edited story, though, a story that left out some details. I didn’t do this as part of some master plan. I simply had no vocabulary for certain aspects of the experience. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Letting Go

Summer in Canaan Valley.

November 15, 2014

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By Jean Kim.

On an early summer day in 1988, PJ, our neighbor’s cat, went on a rampage.

Earlier that morning before the rampage, I had seen an adorable baby bunny frozen with fear, on the ground near our front door and next to some blooming azaleas. I’d never seen one so tiny, a fuzzy brown bundle you could fit in your hand but perfectly shaped. Its dark eyes were as still as its body, as they stared out in bewilderment.

The air was fragrant with June blossoms; it was the first truly warm day of the year, and it seemed everyone and everything in our suburban neighborhood was rousing to life. I had turned 14 a couple months earlier. Mom was gardening and said she’d seen another baby bunny.

Our amusement quickly turned to horror. PJ, a golden tabby, often strolled across the street to our yard. We noticed him darting around more quickly than usual. I heard my mother suddenly yell at him and try to chase him back. She waved a shovel. But it was too late.

Mom told me to wait in the open garage. (Overprotective as always, she still thought of me as a young child.) She scurried about the yard and was carrying something in her arms. She came over, and I saw she was holding two of the bunnies.

She said, “They’re the only ones left. There were more, but he ate them.”

Continue Reading…