Browsing Tag

memories

Guest Posts, Relationships

Temperance

May 31, 2024
nick

I was two weeks from starting house arrest for DUI’s, also pretending to be blonde, when Nick and I officially met. It was Halloween and I was dressed as Marilyn Monroe in her Seven Year Itch white dress. We were at a bar whose name has changed so many times it’s not worth trying to remember what it was called at the time. I was wearing a blonde wig and red high heels, the whole shebang. I had seen Nick around the bars of Downer’s Run, but I had never considered him romantically before that night. That night, the strobe lights cavorted in slow motion in my peripherals when he danced into my line of vision.

My first thought was, “He’ll do… for now.”

I slept with Nick the first time he came over. After two months, he moved in. By then, I had moved out of Aunt Marnie’s for the second time and into my own apartment on the Avenue. I picked Apartment Z because of its proximity to bars. Ten bars within walking distance and I still managed another DUI.

As my second charge, the judge ordered counseling and sixty days of house arrest. It was brought to my attention late, like day fifty-seven, that incarceration doesn’t technically begin until the first full 24-hours of imprisonment. So, for sixty-one days, I wasn’t allowed to leave. I had work release. I could grocery shop. I did leave, but when you’re stuck inside, legally not allowed to leave, house arrest feels entirely different from any self-imposed isolation. It fucks with your head.

Especially when your live-in-boyfriend is hiding full beers in the couch cushions.

Apartment Z was shaped like a crooked letter Z: the hallway connecting the two rooms was one diagonal line. During a nap, a second room appeared. A new room through a new door on my living room wall. How had I lived here for so long and never known this room existed? Why hadn’t the landlord told me I had this room? I was paying good money for it, too, I thought. Then I woke up.

My interpretation: there were new parts of myself I was about to discover.

A year after Nick moved in, we were lying in bed, and I embraced him. He was snoring, obnoxiously drunk, and yet, I loved him almost impossibly. I prayed to the universe to bless us. To please, please, please, take care of us. I could feel energy surrounding us like an ethereal blanket. Love, pure love, is the secret to magic.

Three months later, Nick won a poker tournament for over three-hundred thousand dollars. He proposed to me next to a slot machine. He told me I was the biggest jackpot and went down on one trembling knee.

“Yes.” I said, “Of course, yes.”

The only thing I could think was, “Would you just get off the floor?”

With his winnings, we bought a little house with a little yard. One night, he came back to the house after his shift at the restaurant, his face pink and shiny from the booze. He was cheery and blubbery. Liquor always made him emotional.

He squished me in an embrace and told me that I tricked him.

“I had never planned on loving you. I just planned on moving into your apartment. Using you, until I found something better.”

He shook his head like there was no way I could possibly understand.

He went on, “You got me stuck. I fell for you, hard.”

His bearded face smiled at me, blinking back tears. He genuinely believed he was utterly romantic. A week later, my sister Rebecca delivered me a pregnancy test. I was smoking a blunt while she and I awaited the results.

Rebecca was gentle with me. “It says here, a plus sign, no matter how faint, is a positive test.”

I remember dramatically squishing the burning weed into the ashtray. I texted Nick right away. I swiftly typed, “Hurry home. I have a surprise for you.”

I took a pea from a bag in the freezer and left it on the windowsill and waited.

When Nick arrived, hours later, he was beyond drunk. His cheeks not jolly pink, but red like rouge. The pea had softened to mush.

He walked through the back door straight to the refrigerator.

My heart was pounding. The words had burst from my mouth, “That’s how big our baby is right now.”

I was pointing to the windowsill as the refrigerator door closed.

He cracked a beer in response.

“Whaaat?”

Maybe I should’ve waited until he was sober, though my words seemed to have processed because his face widened.

He bellowed, slurring one long sentence, “We’rehavingababy!”

He kissed me. Hard. An assault of liquor and beer permeating beneath the sweat and grease of working over a fryer with little ventilation. I felt suffocated.

“We have to celebrate! I need cigarettes and I’m going to get us lottery tickets.”

Nick grabbed the keys, even though the gas station was half a block away. After all, he had just walked from the restaurant. He turned for the door.

“Wait, Nick.”

I stumbled over my words. “Hey, you know, over the next nine months, you’re going to have to slow down drinking… Just cut back, I’m not saying stop completely… if I can’t party… it’s going to be harder than house arrest was… watching you drink.”

He turned on his heel and kissed my cheek. “Baby, you knew I was an alcoholic when we met,” as though it were the sweetest sentiment. “You know that’s not ever going to change.”

He left the backdoor open as he strode to the driver’s seat. I listened over my heart as he started the car and left.

For the next twenty minutes I stood by myself in the kitchen. Visualizing my belly growing. Six months pregnant. Eight months. Holding a baby. Chasing a toddler. In every visualization, I saw myself alone.

I saw in my mind, kids playing in the background as I answered the phone. It was the police calling, he was at the station, and needed a ride. The phone rang again, this time to tell me he wrecked the car and was in ICU. There the police were, knocking on the front door in the middle of the night, there to tell me he was dead.

When I discarded the pea, something inside of me changed.

Gina Moriarty is an emerging writer who earned her MFA through Chatham University in Pittsburgh where her thesis was the recipient of the Katherine Ayres Award. She’s mostly a nonfiction writer but dabbles in poetry. Typically, her work covers the themes of addiction, heartache, and coincidence beneath an umbrella of hope.

Her nonfiction has been published by Permafrost Magazine, the AROHO Foundation, the Braided Way Magazine, and 3 AM Press. Upcoming by Marrow Magazine and Purple Ink Press Bimbo Feminist Anthology. Her poetry has appeared in the Brief Wilderness, the Ekphrastic Review, and the Classical Poets Society. Find Gina online here

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Looking for your next book to read? Consider this…

Women, the exhilarating novella by Chloe Caldwell, is being reissued just in time to become your steamy summer read. The Los Angeles Review of books calls Caldwell “One of the most endearing and exciting writers of a generation.”  Cheryl Strayed says ‘Her prose has a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.”  With a new afterward by the author, this reissue is one not to be missed.

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Our friends at Corporeal Writing continue to offer some of the best programming for writers, thinkers, humans. This summer they are offering Midsummer Nights Film Club: What Movies Teach Us About Narrative. Great films and a sliding scale to allow everyone the opportunity to participate. The conversation will be stellar! Tell them we sent you!

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Guest Posts, memories

Walked (and Found) in a Strip Mall Drugstore

May 17, 2024
store

Most Christmas Eves, I worked the night shift in a small-town drug store tucked, not stuck, at the end of a suburban 70s-era strip mall. The store was located a few yards from a major highway, its exits and on-ramps always growling. Dinner consisted of a tuna sub with extra relish (ordered from the pizza shop next door just before its early close, owner’s treat), a full-sized candy bar (typically Twix) that I’d make last until twelve, and a bottle of cola (typically Orange Crush). I’d select the candy bar from the drugstore’s front display and the Crush from the ice box cooler, then count out my coins at the register. 

 

The stacks of leaning pennies, nickels and dimes would be anchored by a single quarter. In the towers, I’d imagine bright lights and big cities. I’d wonder if the holidays were celebrated similarly. My hometown went all in, with lights and carols, though my family, small – just my father, a goldfish, and me — rarely noticed. My father worked nights at the local hospital and took on extra shifts whenever allowed. I knew he grew up in what he called “the projects”, but I had always understood that to mean that we made something out of everything, and nothing went to waste. I saved extra earnings (tipping strictly prohibited, all register drawers carefully checked at shift changes and closing) for gifts come Christmas morning. I had them pre-picked and on layaway. 

 

While my tag proclaimed by official title – clerk, I embraced the role for all its unknown worth. I always felt at home in the store’s aisles. I thought of my job as service oriented. Christmas Eve, I adopted an even more universal attendance. I was as determined as Rudolph when it came to ensuring all customers left with a heartful of holiday warmth.

 

I manned the front of the store and the register – a manual machine with hand-stamped numbers and letters. One more soul in need of Christmas dough worked the store’s back wall. I’d eat just before eight. Then, I’d buy a pack of Life Savers (butter rum or cherry) and wait. Last minute shoppers were my pride and my forte. 

 

On one side of the storefront, there was concrete. Hard, unforgiving. A reality. On the other side of the chimed door, the wall-to-wall carpet was dark. Unnoticeable. Like me; I could blend right in. The store was more than a destination for pain relief; it was also a home to a new way to see. The shelves were stocked of items brimming with possibility. From Aspirin to Band-Aids. Clorox, Deodorant, and Eyelashes (fake). Gnomes from the 1940s. Hallmark cards and ice cream treats. I don’t remember the lighting, pot lamps I believe. There was a single camera, tucked in the back with the pharmacy and its mysterious bottles. It provided an aerial view of what, I believed, was a homemade Disneyland. Each day, and especially Christmas Eve, we created real-life manifestations of dreams.

 

Our customers were as varied as the store’s collection. Slumped shoulders in plaid overcoats. Construction workers in high-top boots. Suits and heels. After-doctor visit details. Those for whom we had to raise our voices to be heard. Others with whom signing to cross language barriers was the only path forward. Singles. Double. Triples. One of my favorite aspects of the chimes above the door was the unpredictability of who’d come into the store. 

 

Hello, I’d say. Welcome to Bluestones!

 

Most would turn, nod, then carry on. I’d designate characters as I watched. Jane Eyre, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Nancy Drew all shopped with needs to fill. Except for Christmas Eve, when all hearts were open and varied needs morphed into visible displays of need. A last-minute invite, oversight, oh my! Of sorts. Customers would enter the store, the chimes still on, and then take a hard stop. Like a deer (sorry Rudolph) in headlights, the 3000 square foot artificially lit box was a lot.

 

I’d get right to work.

 

“Merry Christmas! Can I help you find something?”

 

“Yes, please” was the most likely response.

 

I’d field requests for babies and bouncers. Grandparents and ghoulish neighbors. For first loves and final visits. Forgetful spouses. I’d lead and they’d follow. I had gift ideas from every aisle.

 

In between customers I’d take stock in preparation for the late-night, last-minute flock. I had patterns, as did they. While last-minute shoppers would typically start to wander in around eight, my work began days prior. I was anywhere from fourteen to eighteen. Dressed in black combat boots and spandex leggings. I wore my hair straight. A group of local boys liked to come in and giggle. “She’s Elvira,” I’d hear them say. They couldn’t bother me, as much as they’d try. Not on Christmas Eve. 

 

I’d curate mental notes of curious collections. Stationary, toys, cosmetics. I knew all the hidden sales. I prepped for all budgets (with most sales under $5), reminiscent of my own days at elementary school holiday shops and book mobiles. Cash in hand. Hurry, Transactions in demand. I helped process rebates (answer this, sign here), shared coupons (clipped and cut), and spread holiday cheer.

 

The gifts were as varied as the shop’s stock. Sock puppets, Sweet and Sour Mixes. Boxes of Red Hots, Jawbreakers, and L’eggs plastic hose. For the readers — three recent paperback releases (from Harlequin romances to Stephen King’s trances), tie-dye reading glasses (powers of 1.5, 2, and 3), and a case of Kleenex. Matchbox cars for adventurers. Jean N’Ate, heart-shaped box of Whitmans, and an I Love You sticky notes for first-timers. For the love struck: a small teddy bear, cranberry lip gloss. For the movie buff — five pre-selected dollar store flicks, microwave popcorn, and a fleece blanket. A traditional — 12 candy bars – one for each of the 12 days of Christmas. For the bird lover: dove soap, red robin hand cream, and hummingbird-shaped mints. Kodak keychains, rolls of film, print-while-you-wait images. Baby reveals and sounds of music.

Plastic recorders and handwritten dinner orders in a spiral notebook with a promise to clean and cleaning supplies. About faces – makeup bags for night’s in. 


I helped teens find gifts for working parents. I helped working parents find gifts for their support networks. One year, Christmas Eve coincided with a fiftieth wedding anniversary. We packed ten packs of Juicy Fruit (five sticks each), a soft teddy bear Beanie Baby, a faux rose for old time’s sake, and three packs of pop rocks. Love sizzled bright. For a builder — Potato Sticks tubes and letter blocks. The alphabet from A to Z. Toothpicks and marshmallows. For the word lover — word searches and a can of Campbell’s soup, all for two bucks.

I’d study the card aisle and I knew what overstock was in undershelf bins. I’d color coordinate all pickings — A $100,000 Grand bar and ten pouches of Pop Rocks for the guy who planned to propose a life of big dreams. Big League Chew and soda pop for an impromptu gathering of a baseball team.

We offered gift-wrap services for no extra charge. I knew how to tuck corners and apply invisible tape with no marks. As I wrapped, I’d listen. Visibly relieved that their shopping needs were met, the customers would inevitably want to chat. Some told tales of loss – a first, second, third holiday without someone or something. Each of them had a tale and, often, wanted to tell it.

 

I’d consume stories of sugar plum fairies and red brick houses. Three-tiered cakes, decorated with spice. Drops of candle wax, gold bands (engagements to be) and American Bandstand (nostalgia always sprouting like seeds). Carrots and walking sticks. Fountain sodas with two straws. Drugstore aisles stocked of final desires waiting to be shared or salvaged. One year, an elderly man was desperate to replace his wife’s scent. She had recently passed, and he couldn’t recall the name of the perfume she’d wear. The next year he returned in need of gifts for a newborn grandson. For some, the holiday was a blend of the beauty in the world and the terror of being alone. 

 

Sometimes, customers paused and took pity on me. “You poor thing,” they’d say. “What are you doing here on Christmas Eve?” At the time, I simply smiled. Truth is, even now, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. I’d return tomorrow if I could. But the local shops are mostly closed. 

 Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, works, and writes in small spaces in and around Philadelphia.

We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.

Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.
Friendship, Guest Posts

Confidentially

May 2, 2024
Jill

At the checkout counter of the produce store near campus, Jill slipped a copy of The Star into her basket along with the apples, oranges and blueberries she’d picked out.  I was right behind her with three containers of flavored yogurt in hand.  A professor who taught logic, ethics and women’s studies, Jill relaxed by reading celebrity gossip, horoscopes and outlandish tales of alien visitations.  She took a moment to tuck The Star’s screaming headlines underneath the fruit in her brown paper bag, out of sight so no other colleague might glimpse her clandestine vice.

*  *  *

I was fantastically lucky to be paired with Jill for team teaching my first year as a college instructor.  She demonstrated how to lecture in a competent, unflappable tone while leaving space for students to express doubts, incomprehension or challenges.  Whenever I asked her how to resolve a problem with a student, she offered sympathy and common sense.  Despite the age gap, our rapport quickly ripened into a friendship closer than sisters.

Slightly taller than me, with fluffy white-blond hair and a trim figure, she dropped the professional air outside of the classroom.  Over lunch at the Faculty Club or out to dinner downtown, she would primp her hair while her eyes roved around the room, trying to pick out men who might represent prospects.  Jill was divorcing her husband, whom I never met because he ran a particle physics lab halfway across the country.  “It wasn’t the commuting that doomed the marriage,” she confided.  “He didn’t want kids but wouldn’t say so, and now I’m almost over the hill to have a baby.”

*  *  *

Jill often started conversations with me with “Don’t you dare ever tell anyone, but…”  Yet she loved to dish about colleagues – both those she’d known for years and those who started at the college when I did.  “What do you think Mona’s secret is?” she asked me, for instance. “I’m studying her.”  Mona, a new sociology instructor, had two princely professors plus an old boyfriend vying for her affections.  Intensely friendly, Mona had green eyes, springy yellow hair, a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks, and an eight-year-old daughter from a failed marriage.

“It’s not a matter of technique, Jill,” I told her.  “And remember, if you’re looking for someone willing to be a father…”  She nodded before I finished the sentence, but she kept preening and interviewing with her eyes any single or divorced man in the vicinity.

*  *  *

That Thanksgiving and Christmas, I celebrated with Jill’s family.  My own parents had just moved abroad.  Her father, who taught at a nearby university, said grace at a festive table with Jill’s fairy-tale-sweet mother and her three brothers and their wives – all highbrow professionals whose crosstalk, kidding and in-jokes never stopped.

The following Thanksgiving, when I went into her parents’ room to add my coat to a pile on their bed, a framed photo on their dresser caught my eye.  Lined up from Brian, the youngest brother, at about eight, to Jill, the oldest at seventeen or so, were Matt, Michael and a girl I didn’t recognize.  Matt walked in then with jackets in his arms, and I pointed at the photo.  “Who’s the other girl?” He set the jackets down, replied simply “Oh, that’s Sandra” and left.

*  *  *

Jill didn’t find attractive any of the barely employed, artsy men I dated.  So we could natter like teen pals of different sexual orientations about our romances, flops and crushes.  I confessed that I’d had fantasies about a professor I met with weekly for an independent study course back when I was a sophomore.  This mustached guy with dirty blond hair that often seemed literally dirty had been in her graduate student cohort.  “Dan?” she hooted.  “Did you ever notice his crooked teeth?”

“Listen, if I tell you something about Rob’s sexuality,” she said one day – Rob being her physicist ex-husband, “do you promise never to put it in any of your books?”  Jill knew my writing ambitions backwards and forwards and brought them up this way a lot.  I wouldn’t promise, and though she seemed bursting to spill this revelation, she held it back.

*  *  *

On a snowy night when Jill and I were relaxing at my apartment, I finally broached the mystery of the photo in her parents’ bedroom.  “Who’s Sandra?”  I asked.  Jill paused for many moments before answering.  “My sister,” she said, as quiet as a prayer.  “She killed herself when I was in graduate school.”  In the moment, I didn’t know what to say, realizing that the boisterous family that had warmly taken me in actually held an aching gap.  I never learned much more than that, though I got the impression that Sandra was why Jill had been in therapy for years.

Another winter, Jill called to let me know she was on her way home early from a conference because her mother was desperately ill with pneumonia.  Looking for her mom in the hospital, I bumped into a classmate from college who’d become a lung specialist.  When I told him who I was there to see, he looked down at the floor.  Despite the savvy signified by his white coat and stethoscope, he couldn’t save her.  Another secret surfaced when I asked Jill where the funeral would take place.  “The Mormon church near the university,” she told me.  I blinked.  She’d never mentioned that she, her brothers and sister had grown up Mormon.

*  *  *

Apart from academics, we peered into the window of Eastern spirituality together.  Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki gave us catch phrases that we sprinkled into our gabfests.  “Keep don’t-know mind,” I would intone when Jill bemoaned again not having a baby.  “Don’t serve your thoughts tea,” she would quote me when I was wrestling with a housemate problem.  When Korean Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi visited the college, his riffs of snappy, ironic paradoxes left me awestruck.  Jill gravitated more to a hushed Tibetan tulku, the scholarly sweetie of a friend of hers.

I introduced Jill to Est, an Americanized version of Zen that engineered a two-weekend enlightenment in a packed hotel ballroom.  Though we went through the Est training separately, we jointly attended follow-up seminars.  We furiously scribbled in stapled lined notebooks lists of issues we’d never resolved and goals for the next one, five, ten and twenty years.  For me the golden orb was my novel published to critical acclaim, while for Jill a “little bitty baby” was the fervent dream.

*  *  *

Through an improbable series of events, my new husband’s sister, a doctor, delivered a baby that the mother left in the hospital and that Jill adopted and adored.  Jasmine grew from a picture-cute baby and toddler to a reticent schoolgirl to a defiant teen while Jill juggled single motherhood and teaching.  Over the years, junk piles multiplied in their apartment, consisting of stockpiled cans and toilet paper, knick-knacks purchased on a whim, every draft of papers Jill struggled to finish writing and every book Jill ever bought.

My husband and I now lived 100 miles apart from Jill and Jasmine, but we got together often.  Since their place had too much clutter to host guests, we met at a nearby home-style Chinese restaurant, with high-spirited chatter and fun distributing shrimp, broccoli and scallion pancakes to everyone’s plates with chopsticks.  At our house in the country, Jill would duck out to a meditation center for the afternoon while Jasmine complained about mosquitoes persecuting her when I took her out for a hike.

*  *  *

By the time lung cancer made Jill weak and almost housebound, her hoarding left just skinny paths in their hallway.  Only Jasmine, when she flew home from college, Jill’s brother Matt and I were allowed in the apartment.  My husband wanted to visit Jill with me, but she refused.  “He’s too critical,” she explained, meaning critical of the mess she’d never managed to tame.  I gave her a skeptical look.  “He never said so,” Jill returned fiercely, “but I could see it clearly in his eyes.”  I’d kept to myself my worry that her home was a fire trap, as well as a burden for Jasmine.

Jill and I had once talked about the physiology of dying.  My father died while my mother, my siblings and me were cocooning his bed, and afterwards I gave Jill an hour-by-hour description.  “There really is a death rattle, and I swear I saw his soul leave his body,” I told her as she listened, intent, to each detail.  “One moment he looked like my dad, and whoosh, the next moment whatever made him him was gone.”  Though I never learned whether her wishes were followed, Jill left instructions for passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead she wanted read aloud just after she died to help her detach from this world and enter the next.

*  *  *

Early in her career, Jill wrote about a logical puzzle posed by Bertrand Russell.  Is the present King of France bald?  Since 1789, of course, there has been no King of France.  According to the sacrosanct Law of the Excluded Middle, for every statement, either it or its negation had to be true.  Yet neither “The present King of France is bald” nor “The present King of France is not bald” seemed correct.  Jill critiqued the complicated theory of descriptions that Russell invented to smooth away this intellectual crinkle.

Now that Jill has been gone for almost fifteen years, I wrestle with a similarly knotty dilemma.  Considering her secrecy and her touchiness about criticism, I wonder: Do I hurt her by writing about her?  She’s a character not just here but also in a memoir I’m laboring over.  Alive, she would detest having her confidences and secrets disclosed, despite my having changed names.  The whole time I knew her I wasn’t even sure of her age – a fact she staunchly kept locked up.

As with the present King of France, though, there’s no “her” now that I can hurt.  I don’t believe Jill exists now in a spiritual realm or is waiting someplace to be reborn.  In my mind, I’m clear of betrayal.  But as Jill’s idiosyncrasies showed, not everything in life is rational.  It comes down to this: I loved her and I knew her quirks.  And I miss my friend.

The author of 17 nonfiction books as well as essays in the New York Times Magazine, Ms., Next Avenue and NPR, Marcia Yudkin advocates for introverts through her newsletter, Introvert UpThink (https://www.introvertupthink.com/). She lives in Goshen, Massachusetts (population 960).

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Your voice matters, now more than ever
We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.
Guest Posts, writing

On Lists and Women Named Lucy

December 5, 2023
lists

The attic was long overdue for rigorous sorting if not deep cleaning. An oversized walk-up with easy access that was rarely assessed, the attic space had become a default location for anything (and everything) without a designated place. Earlier this summer, I spent an unseasonably cool afternoon sorting through boxes of clothing, mostly outgrown, with few fabrics worthy of much contemplation, and stacks of papers from a time before our world was fully digitalized.

As I sorted, I stumbled across school reading lists that I don’t remember saving. I’ve always been a fan of books, lists, and writing; truth be told they’re my love language, but that’s too close to home and overly sentimental. While saving the list may have been intentional, the act was more likely nothing more than an effort to move never-ending clutter. I never gave much thought to how simple it was to add more stuff to the attic’s heart (and warmth). The attic’s availability and familiarity opened up an opportunity for both delayed and default reactions.

I’d regularly store undersized coats, oversized toys, and unused stacks of most anything (Peanuts figurines and crib mobiles, for example), always saying I’d sort and recycle when I had the time. The attic made it easy to defer all decisions, even those in list form, of worth, relevance, and currency. But now, with sorting on my weekly to-do list, an old reading list caught me by surprise, as book lists often do, and I paused my, until then, semi-automated routine. Books, including in list form, had always been that for me – a reminder to be and to believe in possibility.

When my children were young, we’d review summer reading book lists religiously. We’d check all titles and reconcile those for which we had copies and those which we’d need to borrow or renew. Like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, we were in perpetual states of readiness to consume — words as delivered, school assignments as listed, and comic strips as written. Charlie Brown and Lucy Van Pelt, along with my children, were regular sidekicks. We’d read the Sunday morning cartoons, delivered to our doorstep early mornings, religiously.

As my children are, now, nearly grown, I’m much less likely to know what they read. I don’t know when the bookshelves turned to dust-collectors, but unless my kids order something from our shared Amazon account or happen to mention a book club pick or a surprise find in a free library (a Peanuts collection a recent swap), we’ve stopped, somehow, regularly sharing the words and writings that inhabit our coat pockets. I hadn’t realized until the book lists knocked.

That afternoon, I cleaned in an empty home. I flipped through the newly rediscovered book lists and became less eager to refresh the space and more nostalgic for passed days. As my eyes scanned the titles, I was struck by just how similar the contents were to each other and, also, how male-dominated. Somehow, the distance and the change in circumstance prompted me to re-see what I had regularly consumed as ordinary. Suddenly, I felt a bit like Lucy Van Pelt.

Lists had always been something I’d receive and then treat as sacrosanct – at doctors’ visits, school check-ins, and other socially constructed things. When my children were young, I don’t know if it was that I was too busy to question or still too unsure of my own place in the world. I didn’t believe anyone would pay five cents for my opinion. I also did not think of school-sponsored lists as something which I could, or should, co-create. Now, I’m not any less busy, but I am much less trusting of authority.

Suddenly, the same lists I had previously treated as a guide to stay on track began to look different to me. I thought, too, of how different each of my four children’s interests were (and remain). Yet over a span of over eighteen years, they were largely assigned the same summer readings. The lists maintained remarkable consistency. Works like Several Short Sentences About Writing were a regular a bookend to classics like All the Kings Men, The Outsiders, and Call of the Wild. Each appeared yearly on lists with male voices, perspectives, protagonists, and plot directors, at the center.

At one time, in the hustle and hustle of a household on steroids, I might have shuffled the pages and continued. Now, something, something had changed. As I reviewed recycled lists (World History, Psychology, and English Lit), I saw patterns I hadn’t before recognized. Why weren’t more women authors short listed and why had I not before realized?

Alongside the lists, there were doodles formed of my daughter’s careful loops – squiggles of butterflies in beds, smiling pigs playing baseball, and talking dandelions. What I had before seen as idle sketches I now saw as a voice. Some of the sheets had tallies with my children’s initials at the top. Reading was as much a shared camaraderie as a condition. At the time, the school required all minutes to be tracked. There were also signs of distractions, a few rounds of Tic-Tac-Toe and Hangman.

A small game of Hangman, Charlie Brown’s Lucy Van Pelt sketched and penned in a right margin, prompted more unexpected reflections. How come we rarely read about Lucy’s in real-world form? I thought, for example, of Lucille Ball, the first woman to head a TV production company and activists like Lucy Burns and Lucy Stone. Instead, All the King’s Men, presents a single type of Lucy – Lucy Stark, wife to Willie, who repeatedly sees her opinions ignored.

The lists’ hand-drawn doodles made me think of Nina E. Allender, an artist, cartoonist, and women’s rights activist. Allender popularized new ways of seeing women and reimagined what it means to be a girl. Allender was a leader of the National Women’s Party, alongside others like Lucy Burns and Lucy Gunner Branham.

I studied the cartoons penned by my children. Where I’d once seen a butterfly, I now saw interlocked questions and cocoons in the past tense. I wanted to know why Nina Allender and a whole host of Lucy’s and women like them were not on the roster.

I’ve since run some fresh searches. In the cooler air of my kitchen, I’ve learned that little has changed. The site domains are updated yet the book rosters are largely the same. Much like the attic had become my default, the lists themselves had become static. Even now the assigned readings posted on my local district’s website are surprisingly uniform. Our district is not alone. Quick research reveals striking similarity and sustainability across years, lists, and titles. The Wayback Machine confirms. The book list persists as an easily scalable and sustainable device and tool to perpetuate the same.

How had I not recognized the consistency in and across lists over time? Default reactions denied, I had been on autopilot, focused on getting through each day. I readily consumed and complied, all while doing my best to meet all trains, planes, and automobile deadlines – Oh my. The lists, and their patterns, were as much in need of sorting and deep cleaning as the attic, yet, as expectations associated with required readings were school-authorized, I had relied on their expertise. Why?

It’s taken me years, but I’ve finally begun to understand the meaning of voice, including my own, the power of writing to make meaning, and the importance of making sure all lists are marked by more than consumption. As my kids grew, I drafted (and regularly checked) lists for everything – meal prep, carpool, who needed new socks. But the school’s recommended reading list, I left untouched. I accepted the canon rather than questioned it. Not until my children were all nearly grown, and I was cleaning out an attic did I begin to appreciate the dangers of as-is conditions.

As my children have grown, I became increasingly curious about pedagogy and curriculum. I went back to school and now teach full-time. I’ve also found more space to pursue my own interests and writing, and, with time to reconsider default reactions, I’ve found many of my choices and reactions surprising. I wish I had questioned sooner and questioned more. How had I not known?

Thankfully, I never lost my love for reading. Reading led me to teaching and teaching led me back to writing. Mothering has been an integral part of it all. Like the Lucy’s I came to know through their written words, I joined a movement to more deeply engage in the question and meaning of education and change. Over the past year, I’ve been reading and writing about lesser-known women’s suffragists. Suffragists about whom I knew very little. Suffragists like Lucy Burns, Lucy Stone, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, and Nina Allender. Lucy Burns endured more jail time than any other suffragist. Lucy Stone was a prominent orator, abolitionist, and suffragist. Amelia Jenks Bloomer was the first female editor of a newspaper. Nina Allender created more cartoons than any other. Their names and their stories, along with so many more, were neither on the recommended book list nor in the school-issued textbooks.

In my own reading and writing, I am less interested in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution than the lives of women subject to it. This past Spring, I joined an online writing group. I submitted a draft in progress, a novel following the life story of Lucy Burns, the most-jailed suffragist, and my writing teacher expressed surprise at the character’s strength – “I never knew,” she said, then added, “That’s what writing is for.”

For years the only writing I did was signing quarterly report cards. Now, I write daily across genres – poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and more. Writing has been a way for me to engage, to learn, and to inform. It’s a form of social activism, in forms I understand. That’s one of many reasons why I’m drawn to novels in verse (a quiet act of rebellion against form, pomp, and circumstance) and Nina Allender’s work. As a cartoonist, Allender used images to say what others couldn’t (or wouldn’t).

Motherhood changes lots of things. I don’t believe I’d have ever become a teacher if not for motherhood. I also don’t believe I’d have understood the depths and breadth of the challenges of being a teacher without the experience of raising my own children. Now, I believe that part of my role as a mother and teacher is to help write new stories and ensure less-known stories are told.

Most of all, motherhood has been the most powerful reminder of the continued importance of engaging with lesser-known stories and lists yet-to-be-written, I thank suffragists, Lucys, and others like them. As I continue to sort through boxes, prior lists, and telling markings, I hope my students and my children find their Lucy. I also hope they write new lists and write bravely.

Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania.

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Our friends at Circe have launched an anti-advice column and it is fire!

Circe

Find details on how to ask Gina and Emily for advice and let us know what you think!

***

Looking to jumpstart your writing? Need to reignite your creativity? 

Paulina Pinsky has reopened enrollment for her year-long The Artist’s Way course.

Designed to transform your creativity from stuck and frustrated to unblocked and an endless source of inspiration, for any creative journey you can dream of.

Click below for more information and let Paulina know we sent you!

Guest Posts, Sexual Assault/Rape

Numb

September 25, 2023
grade apartment friend

Shortly after my C-section with my twin girls, I went in for a check-up. There, the OB informed me that my uterus was atrophied. Or was it my vagina? Either way, I felt a little ashamed as if I should have been doing something to make it…not…atrophy. I mean, I was working pretty hard breast-feeding and managing twins plus an older son, all the while recovering from surgery. But apparently the deepest, most cavernous place within me somehow – collapsed.

My parents divorced when I was six. And I spent every other weekend at my dad’s apartment. It was in that apartment that my dad asked me to sleep in his bed. I didn’t think much of it. But I do remember how furious my mom became when I told her that sometimes, “When he hugs me while he’s sleeping, I can feel his penis.”

For my 4th grade school photo, I wore a mint green Izod shirt with a collar and a headband with a bow, proudly displaying my newly pierced ears. I gave a print to my dad to which he promptly replied, “You look developed.” I had no idea what he meant but I was uncomfortable as he failed to explain. But, what about my earrings?

During 5th grade, I was sleeping on the L-shaped couch at my dad’s apartment, my brother and his friend on the other side. Tucked in sheets over the beige suede pillows, swaddled in my long Tina Turner nightgown, I woke up to my brother’s friend kissing me. I never told anyone.

In 6th grade I walked home from school alone – it was the latch key era. One eventful day as I’m singing a Madonna song, I notice a beat up car following me. At the wheel, a bearded man with no pants, drives with one hand. He turns down my cul de sac looking for me side to side, like a rifle to a doe. I hide behind a car until he loses patience and I watch him drive away.

Vacationing with a friend in 7th grade, we are swimming at a hotel pool all day. We dive down to the bottom, laughing and adjusting our boobs and wedgies. With pruny fingers and the setting sun, a polite man comes over to us. He just wanted to inform us that the pool is connected to a bar. And the bar has a huge window where men folk sip their drinks while admiring all the little mermaids.

In 8th grade that same friend of my brothers makes another appearance, though now it’s at my dad’s “80s big money house.” This time he’s in my bed pulling down my underwear. I try to get away but he keeps following me. I slip away to my bedroom closet and wake up alone on the berber carpeted floor with the closet door locked from the inside.

In high school, I’m waiting to get picked up by my stepdad. A boy who has an obsession with me, finds me sitting on the gas station curb. He is talking. I look away. Blah blah, conspiracy theory, Jim Morrison and hey maybe you can pose for a photo shoot. He then says matter of factly, “You know, if your boobs were any bigger they’d be grotesque.”

In college I awaken to a man trying to break into my apartment early one morning after a late Halloween night – his green truck still idling in the parking lot below. He was hoping us college girls forgot to lock the door.

Twenty years ago in San Francisco, I was married on the hottest day of the year. Honey drenched sun poured in through the windows, my heart full in a custom made satin dress. A friend walked up to me (let’s call him John Douschebag) and whispered, “I never knew you were so stacked.”

Several years later, now with three kids in tow, I’m at the airport preparing for a trip across the country. I’m reeling from an early morning of logistics and I had just gotten my period. I come out of the bathroom disheveled, with heavy boobs and cramps, walking towards my family. A man thrusts himself in my path and asks, “Why don’t you smile?”

My body – my boobs –  have never felt like mine. Rather, they are simply an art piece: for men to contemplate or admire, to reflect their longing and loneliness, their grief, their tension, their aggression or their misunderstanding.

How can I own something that’s never felt like mine? Even the jarring physical sensation of childbirth – I didn’t own. Rather, it was something for doctors to drug and extract from. I’ve delivered children both ways and I can say: the “natural” of the two ain’t natural – and I’m still numb from where they cut me open.

I’m still numb—

where they cut me open.

Nikki Levine is a photographer, painter – and writer. She has been enthralled with image making since she  was a teenager. Having the power to stop time while capturing the raw emotion of a moment is as compelling now as it was then. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her  husband, son and twin girls who all keep her inspired, appreciative and joyful.

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Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, memories

April and Eternity

June 8, 2022
tom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“René?” I asked. “Who died?”

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

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

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

“Tom’s dead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Have you pre-ordered Thrust yet? 


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

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts, Marriage, moving on

In the Airport

April 15, 2022
lisa

When Lisa saw Dan her heart throbbed so fiercely she almost toppled over and out of her chair. She hadn’t seen her former husband for nearly forty years and certainly wouldn’t expect him to be waiting here, like her, for a plane’s arrival. He was standing before the large screen with its information about departures and arrivals. He shouldn’t have been in Portland. On the last envelope she had received—enclosed with a child support check—it had been postmarked in Houston. But that was back in 1983.

He’d be seventy-two in three months, May 9. She remembered the date: after all she made him a party nearly every year of their marriage—seven years altogether. No doubt he forgot the next day was her birthday. He probably forgot about her. He was tall and lanky, not quite as well built as in the past, and stooped slightly. His hair had been brown but was now white peppered with gray and swept back away from his forehead. He was clean-shaven but that didn’t surprise her. He had shaved off his mustache and beard soon after their marriage. He was nicely dressed in a corduroy jacket over jeans. She wished he wasn’t still handsome.

He turned away from the screen and she feared he’d choose a seat near her and maybe recognize her. She ran her fingers through her silver hair, which she hadn’t dyed in nearly a decade. It had been a natural auburn until she was forty, when her first gray strands appeared. She also gained twenty pounds since he last saw her. He remained standing at a distance, and fortunately a large family, including a man in a wheelchair, blocked him from seeing her.

Over the years, she was committed to hating him but when she’d look at the one photo she kept of him she’d be stirred with longing—even at her age. At UC Santa Barbara, girls had always turned their heads to look at him. Even the child she tutored back then had said, “He’s what we call guapo.” No doubt he remarried.

***

Lisa met Dan Hennessey while they both volunteered in the Children’s Project, sponsored by the university’s graduate school of education. She had first seen a notice about it on a kiosk near the student union. The project called for volunteers to tutor children in the near-by town of Carpinteria. They had come with their families from Mexico a few years earlier. She was an English major and hoped someday to teach on the college level but she believed she could effectively tutor a young child in reading and writing. She was idealistic and wanted to do something valuable in the community. She removed a pad from her handbag and wrote down the phone number.

From the apartment she shared with three roommates, she called the number. A girl with a perky voice gave her instructions about attending an important meeting. She would join other prospective tutors in Parking Lot Ten on Friday at three p.m. where there would be a van to transport them. Sure enough on that day Lisa saw a VW bus, with a sign Children’s Project in one of its windows.

As they traveled south on Highway 101 she saw the glimmering Pacific Ocean on one side and on the other, dusty brown hills dotted with sagebrush and chapparal. When they turned off the highway, they drove passed an orchard of avocado trees and a scattering of plain stucco houses in various colors and into the little downtown, the street lined with palm trees and Torrey pines. The van parked in front of a stucco building with a sign by the door, Carpinteria Community Center.

Parents crowded the room, all sitting on metal folding chairs that faced a podium. The front row of chairs was left vacant for the student volunteers. When everyone was seated the mayor, wearing a suit and tie, spoke about how much the community appreciated working with the university to help their children succeed in school. He then introduced Dr. Ed Franklin, a professor at the graduate school of education. He was a short, round man, wearing a too-tight striped jersey top over bell-bottom jeans. He looked like he should be swabbing a ship deck rather than discussing academics. He gave a quick speech about how happy he was that the university and the graduate school of education in particular could contribute to the community. Then he introduced the student coordinator for the volunteers.

That was the first time she saw Dan, who stepped up to the podium. He towered over the professor and the mayor and she noted he was stunningly handsome. The features of his face were perfectly proportioned and his neatly trimmed beard and mustache suited him. His brown hair was long, flipping slightly above the collar of his flannel shirt. His big dark eyes showed a seriousness of purpose. Lisa was riveted to his eyes.

The volunteer who sat next to her elbowed her and whispered by her ear, “He’s cute. I’ll do my best to bump into him.”

“He probably already has a girlfriend or maybe a wife,” Lisa said. “He seems so serious he might not even be interested in dating.” This possibility came to mind because she was reading Euripides’s Hippolytus at the time in her Seminar in Classical Literature. And Lisa felt like Phaedra—struck with instant love.

At the podium Dan explained that each volunteer would be assigned a child and would work with that child for the length of the college quarter. “This way you’ll get a chance to bond, which is essential for success.”

The following Friday afternoon the volunteers returned to the community center to get their assigned child. A graduate student, in a peasant blouse over a long sweeping skirt, was in charge and introduced Lisa to a small girl with long coffee-brown hair pulled back with barrettes and wearing a white blouse tucked into a skirt with ruffles, white ankle socks, and patten leather shoes. “Lisa, this is Clara Gutierrez, who’s eight and in the third grade,” the graduate student informed her.

Lisa showed Clara a wide grin and said, “I’ll remember your name because my sister’s name is Claire.”

Clara brought Lisa to her home, which was in walking distance from the community center. It was a simple stucco house, with bougainvillea creeping along a wall on one side. Rosebushes with withered roses lined a picket fence, and a drooping sunflower stood on the parched front lawn. When they stepped inside they entered a room with a massive oak dining room table surrounded by several oak chairs, which occupied most of the space. Many people probably lived in this small house.

Clara’s mother greeted them and offered Lisa iced tea. She accepted not just to be polite. It was a hot day and she was thirsty.

They then entered a living room with a sofa and several stuffed arm chairs. Lisa also saw a bookcase packed with books in Spanish. This gave her an idea. “Why don’t you read a favorite story in Spanish before we start a book in English?” she said.

Clara giggled. “You won’t understand it.”

“I might. I took five years of Spanish in school—mi escuela. I even read Don Quixote. And if there’s something I don’t know I’ll ask you.”

They sat together on the huge velvet sofa. Clara opened CenicientaCinderella. The illustrations were familiar: pretty stone houses, the relevant castle in the distance, and the usual depiction of Cinderella—or Cenicienta—with long blond hair.

Afterwards, Clara asked if she could show Lisa the beach just a few blocks away from her house. It was such a warm day Lisa agreed. After all, they would have many opportunities to read books in English and this would help them to bond.

Another way to bond was to allow Clara to be Lisa’s tutor as well. As they walked on a road without sidewalks Lisa said, “Please help me improve my Spanish. We’re going to la playa, right?”

Si, la playa.” Clara giggled.

She pointed to her blouse. “This is a camisa, right?”

Clara shook her head. “No, that means shirt. Blusa is the word for blouse.”

Lisa noticed Dan entering the road with a small boy. They were only a block behind her and Clara. She forced herself not to be distracted by seeing him. “Okay, let me try again.” She tugged at her pants. “These are pantalones.

This time Clara nodded. Then she pointed to Lisa’s big leather handbag. “Tell me what this is called.”

Lisa noted that Dan and the boy were catching up to them but she smiled at Clara and said, “I don’t know. Please tell me.”

Bolsa. It’s your bolsa.” She lifted her small pink vinyl handbag and said, “This is my bolsa.”

Suddenly Clara’s face brightened and she waved at the boy. The two were walking on the other side of the street, now parallel with them. “Luis, we read Cenicienta today,” Clara shouted to the boy.

He merely shrugged.

Dan and the boy approached them while Lisa did her best to subdue the fluttering of her heart.

He extended his hand to shake Lisa’s. “Hi, I’m Dan Hennessey, as you probably already know.”

When their hands touched his was pleasantly warm. “Lisa Turner.”

“Thanks for becoming a tutor, Lisa,” he said.

That same Friday just as she was about to step into the VW bus to return to the campus Dan rushed over to her and said, “Let me give you a ride back. I have my car.”

They dated every weekend since then and occasionally she slept with him at the apartment he shared with another roommate. She wondered why he chose her. Dan was often encircled with attractive grad students at UCSB who doted on him. Not only was he good-looking and charismatic he was the creator of the successful Children’s Project. Perhaps he was attracted to her—her roommates assured her she was pretty. She needed assurance.

One night while she lay in his arms after sex he said, “I’m excited about my chosen field, Lisa. I’ll make a difference to kids. I’ll help them achieve their goals in life.”

It was dark but she imagined that serious glow in his eyes as he spoke of his vision. She was in awe of him and said, “You’re amazing.”

Yet she wished he’d be more serious about her interests.

“Don’t expect me to read some boring as hell guy from the nineteenth century!” he had said to her when she suggested he read her favorite author, George Eliot. She didn’t bother to tell him George Eliot wasn’t a guy. Once she dared to read to him a poem she had written but afterwards he kissed her forehead and said, “No offense, but I’m not into metaphors. I only understand straight facts.” She never shared her poems with him again. Besides, her pursuits were frivolous compared to his.

On the Thursday morning of Thanksgiving, he called her at home in Glendale to invite her to dinner at his parents’ house in West Covina. “They want to meet you,” he said, “So they told me to ask you to come Saturday night around six. Please come, Lisa.”

“Sure, I’d love to,” she said but she dreaded going. They’d be accessing her, deciding if she was a fit girlfriend for their special son. She feared they’d be disappointed.

For the rest of that day, she was so jittery in anticipation of meeting his parents that she could hardly enjoy being with her relatives, including her cousin Judy, who arrived from Cornell, and meeting her sister’s new boyfriend, Brian. After she and Claire set the dining room table for the big meal, she grabbed her sister and brought her into her bedroom so they could speak alone. “Dan invited me to dinner at his parents’ house on Saturday,” she said. “I’m dreading it. They’ll expect me to be perfect—like Dan. They’ll be disappointed.”

“Don’t put yourself down, Lisa,” Claire said. “Dan’s lucky he met you: you’re adorable, you’re intelligent, you have a great sense of humor, and most of all you’re sweet and kind. What more can he want? Besides, I doubt he’s perfect. No one is perfect.”

“You mean not even you?” Lisa asked to be funny.

“Especially me. But I’m right about this. Stop putting him on a pedestal. You’re the one who should be on the pedestal.”

Nevertheless, Lisa had grandiose expectations about Dan’s family as she drove east on I-210 from her home in Glendale toward his in West Covina. She imagined a mansion on a slope with a view and a large backyard swimming pool. They’d be elegant and erudite people with an enormous library, packed with classics. Yet as soon as she drove through his parents’ neighborhood her notions altered: these were all modest tract homes. She pulled up in front of a plain ranch house, stucco with red brick trim. The lawn was mowed and in front of it were two squat palm trees.

As soon as she entered the house, his family didn’t dazzle her, which surprised her. His father was rod-thin, tall, and slightly bent. Like Dan, his sister had inherited his height and was a head taller than her rotund boyfriend. Dan resembled his mother yet her appearance was bland. Perhaps it was the clothes she wore: a beige jersey top over brown polyester pants and no jewelry. She showed only a slight grateful smile when she took Lisa’s gift, a box of See’s candy. His father gave Lisa a broader smile and said, “Nice to meet you.”

For her benefit, the main dish was vegetarian lasagna. She appreciated that Dan had told his parents she didn’t eat meat. She had feared she’s be forced to eat turkey leftover from Thanksgiving or maybe roast beef or pork chops.

His sister, named Amy, giggled with her boyfriend at one end of the table and they seemed preoccupied with each other. Amy had blond hair with brown roots and wore makeup too thick on her eyes, which were an icy blue. Her boyfriend had thin blond hair and lambchop sideburns that looked silly across his full cheeks.

Lisa braced herself for their many questions but none were forthcoming. Dan’s father stared at her but said nothing. Then his mother began, “We’re so proud of Dan and his accomplishments. Aren’t you, Lisa?”

“Oh, yes,” she said and smiled at Dan.

“He’s going to be called doctor by this summer. His grandparents and aunts and uncles are all so happy. Isn’t that an enormous achievement?”

“Oh, yes, it is. And his project in Carpinteria has done so much for the kids who live there.”

His mother brought a forkful of lasagna to her mouth then dabbed away sauce with her napkin. “Really?” She turned to her son. “What kind of project, Dan? I haven’t heard anything about it.”

Lisa was surprised that he hadn’t told his parents before about the important project. When they were back at school she said to him, “Why didn’t you tell your parents about the Children’s Project?”

He shrugged. “I didn’t see the point. They only care that I’m a success—that I’ll be called doctor.”

That June a new world was open to them. They both graduated, Lisa with a B.A. degree in English, Dan with a Ph.D. in Education, specifically in Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology. While they celebrated dinner at their favorite restaurant, Arnoldi’s Café, in Santa Barbara, Dan proposed to her and she accepted. Dan wanted the wedding to be small and Lisa agreed: they were poor, still without jobs, and couldn’t expect their families to splurge on their behalf—though Lisa’s mother wanted a big celebration and was willing to pay for it. They invited only immediate family and were wed in a small chapel in Pasadena. Dan’s community involvement strengthened his resumé so Lisa wasn’t surprised that he quickly acquired a position at Portland State University to teach at their education college, starting in the fall. She immediately applied to the university’s graduate program in English and was thrilled to be accepted.

They packed up their belongings and headed for the Northwest. Nearly two years later when she was finishing her Master’s degree, she discovered she was pregnant and they both were excited about having a baby. But in her third month she had a miscarriage. She was depressed for weeks but Dan was depressed for much longer. She had failed him.

***

Claire had to convince Lisa that she did take good care of herself while pregnant and she didn’t fail Dan. Claire had made the emphatic point that the opposite was true: he failed her. This thought renewed Lisa’s anger. She should pop up now and stomp over to him, shout for everyone around them to hear: he failed her—and their daughter. Yet at this late date she’d gain nothing by humiliating him—and herself.

A group of travelers were coming through the terminal doors. Claire’s plane wasn’t due for another twenty minutes. Lisa had checked about forty minutes earlier and discovered then that the flight would be delayed for an hour. But maybe it arrived sooner than expected. She dared not check the screen and have Dan see her. Yet now that she looked at the passengers, she noted that they were tan, several men wore bright shirts with blazing prints of palm trees and hibiscus flowers, and both men and women wore leis around their necks. These people obviously arrived from Hawaii. She hoped that whomever Dan was waiting for had been a passenger on that plane and then they’d be gone and he’d once again be out of her life.

But that wasn’t about to happen yet. As the group dispersed, she saw him sitting in a chair on the other side of the big screen. She could hardly breathe.

***

A year after her miscarriage Lisa was happy to discover she was once again pregnant. Dan was cautiously happy and kissed her. Then he said, “This time you might consider eating more protein. At least fish.”

He could never reconcile himself to her being a vegetarian. She had been a vegetarian since she was a high school senior. Her friend, Karen Ridley, became one first and had given Lisa a book about the horrors of the slaughterhouse. After only reading a few pages, she announced to her parents she’d no longer be eating anything that walked, flew, or swam. Her mother, a great cook who prepared a meat dish for dinner almost every night, wasn’t happy about this but said, “Then you’ll be cooking your own meals.”

Which Lisa readily did and learned from vegetarian cookbooks how to make tasteful dishes with tofu, various other bean sources, and nuts. Family members predicted this was a mere phase that would end, but they were wrong. During her first pregnancy Dan had made her ask her gynecologist if being a vegetarian was harmful to the fetus and the doctor had assured her it was fine as long as she ate nutritiously, balancing protein with vegetables and not eating too many fats and carbs. After the miscarriage she had called the doctor and asked, “Did it have anything to do with my vegetarian diet?”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I believe it had to do with your cervix. It’s what we call an incompetent cervix, which means it opens too early in the pregnancy. We’ll have to watch over it during a future pregnancy.”

Something about her had been incompetent but it hadn’t been her diet.

Lisa was nervous throughout her second pregnancy and times when she spotted blood sent her and Dan into a frenzy of worry. She was glad she had stopped teaching at Portland Community College. She spent much of the time off her feet either reading or watching television. Dan had even bought a stereo unit so she could listen to her favorite records.

Just as she began her seventh month of pregnancy she went into labor. She gave birth to a tiny baby girl, pruned faced and jaundiced but still beautiful. She was immediately placed in an incubator. Lisa hated leaving the hospital without her baby, whom she and Dan had named Jennifer Marie. That same night they returned and watched tiny Jennifer in the incubator and Dan moved close to Lisa and folded his hand over hers. She smiled at him gratefully.

When Jennifer was eighteen months old the pediatrician told them she had cerebral palsy. This didn’t surprise Lisa. The child couldn’t stand yet, dragged one foot when she crawled, toppled over when she sat, and thrust her arms out for no reason. She drooled and had trouble saying mama. She could not say dada.

Yet when the doctor had put the diagnosis into words this stunned Dan and he paled.

With tears in her eyes, Lisa said after the appointment, “I know how painful this is to hear, Dan, but Jenny is lucky to have you as her father. In your field, you know all about kids like her and how to help them.”

His dark brown eyes showed despair that troubled her and so did his silence.

When Lisa found placement for Jennifer, at aged three, in a special program for young handicapped children at Portland Child Growth and Development Center she called Dan at his office on campus. “The director is really enthusiastic and very supportive. She gave me a tour of the center. It’s an amazing place. They’re all special kids under the age of six. They’re being potty trained and learning to eat by themselves and how to do say words and do simple puzzles. They also have a staff physical therapist and speech therapist who will work with Jenny. You’ve got to see for yourself. Anyway, the exciting news is Jenny can start this Monday morning.”

His reply surprised her. “Don’t make me dinner. I’m working late tonight.”

After she had fed and bathed her daughter and put her to bed she sat on the living room sofa and sobbed. Her relationship with her husband was strained by this child coming into their lives. Maybe it was her fault—an incompetent cervix or her no meat diet. Yet she loved pretty little Jenny, who looked like her father, except that she had Lisa’s red hair. They could still be happy.

He gave her no eye contact when he arrived home that night. A somber look was on his face and he went straight to their bedroom. She remained on the sofa, a novel unread on the coffee table. She couldn’t follow him into the bedroom, as if a heavy weight pressed down on her. A sense of doom overwhelmed her and she felt chilled. She finally forced herself up and left for the kitchen to boil water for tea. She was pouring the water into her mug when she heard him say, “Lisa, please come in here.”

She returned to the living room and was shocked to see that he held a bulging suitcase. She trembled so badly she grasped hold of a side table to steady herself. “You’re leaving us?” she managed to say.

“I can’t stay here any longer. I’ll send papers for you to sign. And money. Please don’t contact me.” In a softer voice he added, “This is just too much for me.”

Through blurry eyes she looked up at him. “Don’t you love us at all?”

“I … I can’t deal with it.” He turned and left.

Stunned, mortified, and scared Lisa knew she needed to call her sister. Through sobs she managed to tell Claire what had happened.

That weekend Claire left her home in Canoga Park and her husband, Brian, and toddler son, Justin, to be with Lisa at her time of despair. “I’ll hunt him down and kill him!” she said that evening after Lisa put Jennifer in her bedroom to sleep. In a slightly calmer voice she added, “You’ll get the best divorce lawyer and make him pay up—the bastard!”

Lisa sank onto the sofa and sobbed in her hands. “He’s left us—me. And it’s my fault!”

Claire plopped down next to her and grabbed her chin. She lifted Lisa’s face and their eyes met. “This is not your fault. Never ever say that again!”

Claire was her savior over the years, even though they remained living at a distance. She visited when she could, especially during summers while they both weren’t teaching. Sometimes Brian and Justin came too. Brian would walk through the house looking to see what he could repair, rewire, or repaint and Justin would make some effort to entertain Jennifer.

Fortunately, Lisa received help with Jennifer from school and community programs so she was able to work fulltime, teaching at the Sylvania Campus of Portland Community College, not far from her home. The money was needed: Dan had stopped sending money after three years. As far as he was concerned, she and Jennifer no longer existed. Then Jennifer died of pneumonia when she was fifteen. Lisa’s parents and Claire and Brian came to her funeral. Lisa was crushed and only her sister and brother-in-law had saved her from driving her car off a cliff.

***

Claire was coming to help Lisa celebrate her sixty-eighth birthday. Regrettably, Brian wasn’t joining her. He had suffered a mild heart attack a few months earlier and explained apologetically on the phone that his fear of flying might trigger another.

It occurred to Lisa that if Claire spotted Dan she might rush up to him and slap his face—but she’d prefer to strangle him. Lisa would get some satisfaction.

Yet, so much time had passed since that day he left her and their daughter that there was no point in trying to punish him now. It had been a long time since she felt exhausted from caring for Jennifer and also teaching. Then for years she mourned the loss of her daughter and struggled with loneliness. She dated but never lasted in a relationship. She enjoyed her friendships and participated in a writing group and went to poetry readings. She continued to write poems and had managed to get a few published in literary journals. That was her life.

Her hands were sweaty and she felt so agitated she couldn’t remain in her seat. Besides, she no longer cared if she came face to face with Dan. She stood and headed toward the Starbucks next to the terminal doors. She could easily see passengers arriving.

She was standing on line to order when she heard, “Lisa?”

She recognized the voice. This triggered the heavy beating of her heart. She was about to turn to face him but then the barista said, “Ma’am, what can I get for you?”

“A twelve-ounce coffee, please,” she managed to say. Then she faced him. That serious glow in his eyes was gone and he managed a smile. Perhaps he mellowed over the years.

“How are you?” he had the nerve to ask.

With a trembling hand she gave the barista a five-dollar bill for a $1.85 coffee and told him to keep the rest. She forced her hand to hold her hot cup steadily. “Fine,” she answered, deciding this exchange was absurd.

He stepped out of line and followed her to the counter where she poured half and half into her cup then stirred it and stirred it again and again.

“I didn’t recognize you at first,” he said.

“It’s been a long time,” she said, not looking at him. “What are you doing in Portland?”

He let out a nervous chuckle. “I missed the wet weather so I came back. Actually, I live in Lake Oswego.”

That was an affluent suburb. He was doing well. “Which plane are you waiting for?”

“The United flight from LAX. My wife went to visit her mom in a nursing home in Long Beach. We’re going to have her move up here so we can keep a better eye on her.”

This information about his wife made Lisa’s stomach twist even though years had passed. No doubt he had a family, with healthy kids and grandkids, too. She didn’t want to know about them. “She’s on the same plane as my sister.”

“That must be Claire. How is she?”

“Fine—just like me.”

He didn’t mention the unmentionable.

These moments were unbearably toxic and she had to flee. She glanced toward the exit doors and saw some passengers coming through them. The plane had arrived. Claire would be here momentarily to save her— once again. She tossed the cup full of coffee into a trash bin. She glanced at him for the last time and said, “Your daughter died a number of years ago.” She rushed by him and toward the doors.

When she spotted Claire, pulling a carry-on suitcase, she ran to her and hugged her. “Dan’s here,” she said by her sister’s ear.

Claire hugged her tighter then released her and said, “It’s too late for murder so I have a better idea: let’s go to dinner and order an expensive bottle of wine. It’s your birthday so it’s my treat.”

“Yes, I’d like that.”

Hillary Tiefer has a PhD in English and has taught at various colleges. Her short stories have been published in Descant, Red Rock Review, Mission at Tenth, Blue Moon Literary Review, Gray Sparrow Journal, Poetica Magazine, Poydras Review, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, JuxtaProse, The Literary Nest, Smoky Blue Literature and Art Magazine, Five on the Fifth, and The Opiate. Her stories were finalists in contests for Folio, Hidden Rivers Press, Homebound Publications, and Glimmer Train. Her novel, Lily’s Home Front, was published in October 2018 (Moonshine Cove Publishing). Her essays on the author Thomas Hardy have been published in scholarly journals.

Guest Posts, Family, Trauma

Duality: A Generational Story of Discourse

April 7, 2022
one

“I don’t know what he talks about in there. He won’t let me go in with him,” my mom said to me once while I was visiting my parents as an adult, “but I’ve seen he has tears in his eyes sometimes when he comes out.” While catching up, dad’s newfound and uncharacteristic attendance of counseling was a pressing topic. “I know he doesn’t want to go back. I know the therapist told him it was one of the most horrific cases of child abuse they had ever heard; and that they had heard a lot.”

“What would make her so mad?” dad told me once they asked him in his therapy sessions at the Veteran’s hospital. “Didn’t seem like it took much of anything to make her mad,” was his answer.

“She used to keep a butcher knife under the couch,” he once said with a catch in his throat. “She would take it out and show it to me. I was only six years old.”

That was all he said on the subject.

***

She had red hair we would casually mention sometimes when talking about grandma. “No,” someone would inevitably say, “It was piss-orange!” and we’d all laugh because that’s what she used to call it herself, the bright brassy color she so despised.

***

When the boxes would arrive, I would be elated. Often five, or six, maybe more within a single shipment. These boxes only ever contained one thing, and they were always for me. We would tear them open and marvel at each Beanie Baby to add to my growing collection. My dad built a wooden display shelf that wrapped around my entire room, one foot from the ceiling. Carefully my mom and I would put the little plastic tag protectors on each one and set them in just the right places on the shelf. Over time I amassed nearly one hundred of them. As a tween in the mid-nineties this collection was the epitome of cool.

“You must be spoiled rotten!” the UPS woman quipped once as she mock sniffed near the inner part of my shoulder and neck. She was so nice, it tickled and was funny, but she smelled like cigarettes.

Once, in the bottom of one of the boxes there was a black t-shirt with a racecar and some outlandishly bright logo I didn’t recognize, haphazardly included. It was too big for me, and obviously a boy’s style. There were never any letters included with the packages, no well wishes or explanations of their contents, and this being no exception had no note to offer any information on the oddly outplaced addition of the t-shirt.

“Must be for Jeremy,” my mom reasoned, confounded.

“Looks like a freebie,” my dad grumbled.

“I’m just surprised she sent me anything at all,” my older brother, Jeremy said.

***

“Oh shit!” I said, apropos of the milk I had just spilled across the dinner table at the tender age of two. My mom was furious. My grandma doubled over at the table and lost her breath, unable to contain her laughter. I’d apparently learned it from her, and it wasn’t just that I had blurted it out, but that I had done so, in such expert context.

It was her favorite word, everyone remembers.

***

“Grandma wasn’t always nice like she is today,” my dad would sometimes mention both casually and cautiously when talk of her arose, like summoning an omen to what I didn’t know.

“Well, she’s nice now” I blithely sing-songed in all the knowing of my nine years on earth, and all the unknowing of the information I had purposely been sheltered from.

***

She was a nurse. “When she worked at that children’s home, she’d tell stories of taking those kids and mopping the floor with them,” my mom explained in remembered horror. “I think she liked doing it, too,” she added, shuttering with a brow furrowed in consternation.

***

Once at the Edgewater hotel in Seattle she sat up all night watching the ferries slowly gliding back and forth across Elliott Bay. All night, staring out the window across the sound. She just sat there mesmerized by the crisscrossing of the boats against the water. Dad was elated. He knew he had made her happy.

The Edgewater, as the name suggests is built literally onto the edge of the shore and out into the Puget Sound atop numerous wood pilings. My mom and I giddy with joy, handed pieces of white bread out the window to the seagulls who flew by taking it from our hands. My dad and brother baited hooks and dropped their fishing lines into the water right out of the hotel window. I waved at one of the passing ferries. “We’ve got a little girl waving at us,” I heard the captain say over the loud-speaker and the entire ferry full of people waved back at me. I beamed.

***

“Grandma doesn’t like boys,” was the common refrain, but no one ever knew why.

***

“One day I came home and made a mayonnaise sandwich,” my dad said. “There wasn’t any meat. Just mayonnaise folded over itself on a piece of Wonderbread. I wanted another one so bad, but I knew I would be taking away from the family,” he continued sadly reminiscent, weaving his way through a fog of memories, each as clear as the day they
happened. Each still stinging forty years later.

“When there were cornflakes for breakfast, if you crushed yours up it would look like less in your bowl and you would get more,” he explained when I snickered and asked why he dug his hands into his cereal to crush it into dust before he poured on his milk. It was one of those old habits that died so hard. It was an act of survival.

“Here we were. Couldn’t even afford enough food to live on, and my uncles, every one of them, were millionaires,” he helplessly laughed to himself. “I promised myself that when I had a family, they would never go hungry,” he continued.

A promise made ostensibly from love and determination, but conceived in mental anguish, and one that would eventually play itself out in an obsession with stockpiling food and lead to morbid obesity.

***&

“I don’t know what happened, but they came and took those two boys away. She hurt one of them,” he offered, but it was all the information he knew. “When they took in those boys, I thought they were going to be my brothers, but then they took them away.”

I could tell how desperately he had wanted a companion. Someone to commiserate with, someone to conspire with, but not someone to endure what he was enduring. He felt sorry for them, maybe even more so than for himself.

***

“She bought out the entire dress store,” my mom recalled. “It was a little store in town that was going out of business and she bought every single dress they had,” she told me.

“Well, one thing’s for sure, Janet,” my grandmother told my mom, “she’s going to be the best dressed girl around.”

“I had so many dresses they didn’t even fit in your closet, my mom exclaimed! I had them all lined up, organized by size. I didn’t buy you any clothes at all for the first year!”

***

“I was riding a tractor at eight years old, all by myself” my dad would say. “By twelve I started working at the veterinary clinic. From then on I could buy my own food.”

***

“One time my grandparents came and took me away when I was young,” he explained. I went to live with them for a while.” He didn’t know why. It was never discussed. “They just drove up and said, ‘Clarence is coming with us’. No one put up a fight about it.”

***

His father died at the age of forty-two, when my dad was only seventeen. It was emphysema. Two packs of Camel Studs a day. Dad’s ear drums ruptured when he was only five years old. It was the fifties. Everyone smoked around their kids.

“Face me when you talk,” he always says. I’m hard of hearing, but I can read lips. “

***

“Once she put a hot iron on my leg one time he said as he launched himself down the rabbit hole of pain and remembrance. A spiral that often lasted an hour or more. I had a scar from that for a long time, my dad remembered hesitantly. “Another time she locked me in a scalding hot shower.

“Get in and wash up, she commanded. You’re filthy.”

I was only five or six. I tried to scoot as far as I could into the corner so the hot water wouldn’t touch me. Then it turned ice cold. I was in there over an hour. I was twelve when I told her she couldn’t hurt me anymore. Right in the middle of her bloodying my nose. I told her it didn’t matter what she did to me, she couldn’t hurt me anymore, ever again.”

***

“I think my whole life could have turned out differently,” he said recently. “I could have been a better father, a better Christian, even more successful in school and life if things had been different when I was young.”

It was a sad recognition of unresolved trauma, decades too late. What he still fails to realize is that we, his children were lucky to always have, enough food to eat, a roof over our heads, and the unconditional love of not one, but two parents. That in his breaking of the cycle of trauma, abuse, and neglect, his life was the ultimate success.

duality

Becky A. Benson’s work has appeared on Salon, Modern Loss, Modern Mom, The Manifest Station, Brain, Child, Scary Mommy, Grief Narratives, Months to Years Lit Mag and beyond. She has written and spoken for the Center for Jewish Genetics in Chicago, and Soulumination in Seattle. She holds a degree in psychology and works for the National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association serving families of terminally ill children as the organization’s Conference and Family Services Coordinator.

She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family and beloved dachshund. Her passion is for helping families endure the loss of a child, spreading awareness for genetic conditions, advocating for adoption, and providing a voice to the marginalized in society. These things, above all else continue to intimately shape her writing.

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

Circe is offering: Crucible – A Year-Long Writing Cohort 

Let by Gina Frangello and Emily Black, this cohort is designed for writers seeking to spend a year deeply immersed in writing or revising a book length work.

Cohort Includes:

  • Once monthly class meeting over Zoom
    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
  • Every other month individual/private meeting with Emily or Gina over Zoom (participants will have a chance to work with both)
  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
  •  100 manuscript pages read and reviewed by Emily and Gina

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, healing, memories

The Revisionist

April 4, 2022
jacket

I found my leather jacket yesterday, the one that reminds me of you. It was in a box, folded haphazardly beneath a pile of scarves, tucked behind old paint cans. It doesn’t fit anymore. I’m much rounder and softer now.  You weren’t there on that weekend trip to Rome when I found it at a market and fell in love with its scent. You weren’t there, but I can’t extricate you from its worn and faded lining.  I wore it to vineyards and piazzas and smoky bars, and each time you declared it belissima.

I credit you with my quick grasp of Italian. Before arriving in Siena, I knew a handful of words I gleaned from a phrasebook. I’d been looking for a semester abroad to shed the skin of my first heartbreak and seek the adventure I’d been craving. This is what one is supposed to do at twenty, yes? I wanted to see the Duomo and sit in cafes with cappuccinos while pretending to like coffee. I met you three weeks into my semester in a club whose name eludes me now.

My intensive Italian classes give me the courage to falter through a conversation with you as we lean in at the bar. My drinking resume is limited.  I order a tequila sunrise because it’s one of the few drinks I’ve heard of. Wine still feels too grown up, too sophisticated. You speak no English, not a word. Four drinks in and it doesn’t matter. We find a corner and you slip your hands inside my jacket, and I murmur in agreement when you invite me to a party at a vineyard.

On the walk to your car, I pull my jacket snugly across me as as I push down my mother’s voice whispering, This is how girls get murdered!  My new roommate and I grip hands as we follow you and your entourage aimlessly. We quietly assure ourselves that this is the adventure we signed up for. Nothing bad can happen if we stay together. We’re not stupid. Twenty minutes later, we pull up to a dark vineyard. Maybe you work here. Maybe you just know someone who does. The details are unclear, but you are funny and charismatic, and your English speaking friends help translate the gaps as you continuously fill my glass with wine. It’s bitter and I hate it, but I don’t let on. I choke it down, swallowing the nerves until my eyes burn and the room refuses to sit still. I’ve never been this kind of drunk before.

There’s a bedroom in the guest house. Of course there is. You lead me there so I can rest and recalibrate. I squeeze my eyes shut and lean back against a pillow as I wait for the room to hold still, but it refuses to do so. I’m veering on the brink of sleep when I feel you unzip my pants.  I jolt and twist.  No, no, I mutter as I push your hands away.  Just let me sleep.

Your face contorts, not with rage, but with disbelief and frustration as your voice raises and you say things I don’t understand. I shrink into my own skin as guilt shrouds my body. This is my fault. Of course it’s my fault. What did I think you were bringing me here for? My shame and stupidity leak down my cheeks as I struggle to translate your indignation. And because I won’t find my voice for another few years and because I don’t yet know my own worth, I acquiesce and let you fuck me. I am limp as I stare at the patterned ceilings, recalling the one and only other person I’ve ever been with. Crying is futile by now, but it doesn’t stop me from doing it. You aren’t looking at me and don’t seem to notice. When it’s over, you slide your body off of me and grin as you program your number into my little, blue Nokia phone. The night air is damp and I feel it through the sheet as I lie there rehearsing what I could have done, should have said.

I don’t allow myself to be angry with you. I can’t. I can only wrap myself in the humiliation of my own naivety. And when you call me a week later, I will let you take me to dinner, because dating you is a better story than the way we could have left it. We will spend the rest of my semester together, exploring the parts of the city I would have never otherwise known. I will pretend to tolerate the smell of your cigarettes, and I will rewrite our story and call this chapter the exotic Italian fling of my youth. It has a much nicer ring to it, don’t you think?

But when my daughter finds the jacket in a Goodwill pile and asks why I would get rid of something so beautiful, I tell her that I don’t want a story full of half truths anymore. She’s too young to understand, but I’ll tell her when the time comes. She deserves a story that needs no revision.

Emily Corak has spent the last three decades in the Pacific Northwest and now resides outside of Portland. A mom to two kids, ages 4 and 7, Emily has been an educator for the past decade and is now taking a break to see what’s left of her identity outside of teacher and mother. She is now going back to school for her MFA in creative writing after deciding she had more to offer the world than breast milk and unsolicited grammar advice. When the world allows, she spends any spare cash on plane tickets, and she lives for books, tea, and all things Top Chef. She occasionally writes about anything and everything that comes to mind, and you can find her work here: https://offbrandmusings.blogspot.com/

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

Circe is offering: Crucible – A Year-Long Writing Cohort 

Let by Gina Frangello and Emily Black, this cohort is designed for writers seeking to spend a year deeply immersed in writing or revising a book length work.

Cohort Includes:

  • Once monthly class meeting over Zoom
    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
  • Every other month individual/private meeting with Emily or Gina over Zoom (participants will have a chance to work with both)
  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
  •  100 manuscript pages read and reviewed by Emily and Gina

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Family, memories

Whatever Will Be

March 19, 2022
flowers on table time

Which scene should I begin with?

The time I threw coffee in her face to shut her up? Fortunately, it was a cold cup of coffee and we laughed about it. I haven’t the foggiest idea what we were arguing about.

Or the time she sat across from me and told me about a man who was dying of cancer who forgave and embraced his lesbian daughter after disowning her. I asked her what that had to do with me. (I, too, had cancer.) She said, well, you could forgive your daughters for not shaving their arm pits. (I think she thought she was being funny.) I gave her my most evil stare and said, “Never.” I was serious and she knew it.

How about when I sat all my girls down in the kitchen nook that looked like a diner with its red vinyl booth seating and told them what they needed to hear: that their father was a terrible man, a drunk, an alcoholic, who probably didn’t love them. She was 10 years old. She smiled, sort of a confused smile, and looked out the window and then asked to be excused.

I called her to ask her to come take care of me after my upcoming surgery to have my varicose veins removed. I told her that she should be the one to take care of me because she didn’t have anything important going on in her life. She refused.

She did come at a different time, when I really did need her. She stayed for a week while my husband, her stepfather, was away. I was very sick, bedridden. She asked me if I was afraid of dying. I said no, giving her my famous dirty look. I told her I was afraid of suffering. I made her read to me. I mean she was happy to read to me until we came to this pornographic section of the novel and she said she wouldn’t read it aloud to me and I made her.

When she was in college and needed money, I would sigh deeply, expressing deep disappointment, and tell her to ask her father.

Or how about the time she announced she was dropping out of college, in her last year. I was so angry. I told her I had always wanted to drop out of college but no one let me. Then I screamed at her, what about all that wasted money?

When a son-in-law I couldn’t stand and who I refused to talk to died, she was visiting me. My response to his accidental death: Well, that ends that argument. My response to his large funeral: Well, if you die young, you get a big turnout. I was with her when her father died, my first husband. My response: It is for the better.

She gave me a book that she said changed her life and she thought I would like. It was called, Women Who Run with the Wolves, all about women and creativity and psychology. I could not stand the book. I told her it was a bunch of baloney. I hate goddamn character-building experiences.

I took their father back to court for more child support. The judge laughed at me. My daughters were grown women. He still owed me money, I said. I don’t care. I was right.

I refused to see any of my children at the end. I didn’t want them to see me in my weakness. I refused to accept the fact that I was going to die. If I let them come visit me, I would be admitting defeat. I didn’t want their pity or their new-age, hippy ideas to comfort me.

Someone sent me a guardian angel pin. I opened it and it was broken. I showed it to her. See? I said. See the damage of this guardian angel shit.

***

When I called my stepfather to tell him we were coming, he said we were too late. She died 20 minutes ago. When I heard the news, the first thing that popped into my head was the song: Ding, Dong the witch is dead. I would like to wipe that from my memory.

We sat with a minister my stepfather had brought to their house. The man began by saying, “I never knew your mother.” Of course he didn’t. They weren’t churchgoers. Why was he here? To talk about the funeral service and to be of help in this sad time. I piped up: “That’s it. That’s all there is? That’s her life? It’s over?” There was some awkward silence and I looked around at my siblings and her husband, a bit apologetic. I’m certain the minister thought it was grief speaking but it wasn’t. What I meant was: No goodbyes. No final I love you. No final shared memories or laughter or forgiveness. No nothing. That’s it. It’s over.

This is what I will do. This is what I will try to do. I will go back to the time before.

“There is a time in our lives, usually in mid-life, when a woman has to make a decision – possibly the most important psychic decision of her future life – and that is, whether to be bitter or not. Women often come to this in their late thirties or early forties. They are at the point where they are full up to their ears with everything and they’ve “had it” and “the last straw has broken the camel’s back” and they’re “pissed off and pooped out.” Their dreams of their twenties may be lying in a crumple. There may be broken hearts, broken marriages, broken promises.”   – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves

I will remember a houseful of women, giggling daughters and a divorced suburban mom. She was in her early 30s. Our dancing together to ‘Shall We Dance’ and ‘I feel Pretty’.  I will remember her as the actress she was and that the roles she played, from Rumpelstiltskin to Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I will remember her joy at seeing me on stage and calling me a ham. (Was she jealous of me? Wait, don’t go there.)  I will remember her loyalty to us and her involvement in our school lives. And how we laughed as we imagined the men in our neighborhood as possible boyfriends for her.

When the memories of my bitter, angry mother overwhelm me, I will go back to the time before, the time before she succumbed to a resented life with no regrets. The time when we would sing together, off-key, ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, the futures not ours to see, que sera, sera’.

time

J. Courtney Reid is a playwright, with two produced plays, Don’t Leave Me Just Yet for the Unchained Theatre Festival in Long Island City and Still in Prison, performed in venues in the Capital District of New York, under a New York State Artist Grant. She is an essayist. Published pieces include Learning Through the Ages in the Oxford Journal of Public Policy, and Sarah Orne Jewett in Maine Life Magazine. She has been a Features Editor for a small newspaper in NH and a bookstore owner in Saratoga Springs, NY. An emeritus Professor of English from SUNY Adirondack Community College, she was awarded the President’s and Chancellor’s Award in Teaching. She has, astonishingly, discovered a new love of painting. (Proof is above.)  Follow J. Courtney online at her blog, Opening Up the Valves and on Twitter: @JCourtneyReid1

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.