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beauty, Guest Posts, Self Image

Just For Me (No Lye)

December 2, 2020
hair

By Bella Reina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Pay Me In Attention

November 27, 2020

By Francesca Louise Grossman

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

My thighs do not gap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When? 

Tonight!  

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

Ugh, I text.

Shut up you’re coming

You’ll owe me 

The text lingers. 

Like a party would kill you, he adds.

It might 

Crystal

OK fine what time? 

9:30. i’ll come get u 

Fine

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

 

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

Maybe working out would help. Maybe not. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do I mean to you?” 

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

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

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

“Which is what?”

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

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

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

“OK Walter,” I said. 

He took my hand. “I’m sorry.” 

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

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

 

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

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

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

“When are you home today?” she asks. 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Crys.” 

He waited for me. 

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

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

“Wanna walk me home?” he asks.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s this?” I ask.

“It’s silly,” Walter says. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s good, I promise,” he says. 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“When?”

“When we talk about love?” 

“Crystal, come on,” he says. 

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

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

“OK.” 

My mother texts me:

What time will you be home?

What do you want for dinner?

Crystal?

Hello?

Call me. 

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

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

“Yeah, alright, I’ll go.” 

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

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

 

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

“Boys should ring the doorbell,” she says. 

“It’s just Walter,” I say. 

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

“We’re just friends, Mom.”

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonight. Maybe he will change his mind tonight. 

We get to the party, park around the corner. 

Walter looks at his phone, chuckles.

“What?” 

“Just Annemarie. Nothing,” he says. 

The air hisses out of my heart. 

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

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

He does not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I leave through the screen door, letting it slam. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was it worth it?” I ask. 

“Annemarie?” 

“Obviously.” 

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

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

Walter sighs. 

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

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

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

I laugh, turn towards him. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Gravel

November 6, 2020
manya

Hi! Jen, Angela and I are thrilled to welcome you to Fiction Fridays!  On the first and third Friday of each month, we will feature fiction, so take a break from all the chaos and read a story or two as you head into the weekend. You’ll be happy you did, we’re sure of it.   TGIFF!  –Francesca

By Misty Urban

The wooden sign said Cabin Rentals. The letters had endured scorching heat, thunderous rainstorms, insect swarms, and the relentless bore of the salt breeze, yet there they stood, a stubborn etching, a well-worn shrine. The building showed quiet neglect. Planks of siding sagged into one another, furred with lichen and warped with moisture. The screen door hung aslant, large slashes tearing the mesh. Faded oaks trailed gobbets of Spanish moss over the toothed wooden shingles of the roof, gracious swag of eaves cupping the flat grey bowl of sky. Before, this had always seemed comfortable, a refuge. Now it was tired.

As she grasped her hand along the wooden rail of the stairs Manya felt a hard, dry splinter pierce her palm. She tugged at the projecting end and it broke, leaving a dark needle tucked beneath her skin.

Inside, the room smelled of seaweed, dark and salt-sticky. Out the window, small green brackenish things poked through dirty white sand.

Manya put the jagged splinter in the pocket of her jeans, smoothed her thumb over the reddening wound. “Hello?”

Maps tracing trail routes dripped from the walls of the rental office. Manya’s boots scuffed the dirty floor. Open brochures advertised prices for cabins and primitive sites. Firewood: four dollars for a bundle of finger-thin sticks. Across the street, Tuesdays and Thursdays, meetings for nature walks led by rangers from the state park. Manya knew them, eager and trained, their pressed brown uniforms with the Florida Park Service patch on the sleeve, a cross between a military rank and a Boy Scout badge. She studied canoe rental prices, restrictions on burning, a guide to the area’s venomous snakes. The small silver dome of a bell stared at her beside the cash register. The plunger made a useless click.

The woman who emerged from the back room had a robust glow that made the place seem quaint rather than shabby. Her cinnamon hair showed a margin of embarrassed blonde at the part. A cotton button-down shirt over a tight tank top, she had the sunburned look of a healthy, athletic woman who had never learned how to use cosmetics but slapped them on now as a barricade against advancing age.

Manya rubbed her stinging palm on her blue jeans. She should have put on a clean shirt. She should have combed her hair. She looked neglected, too.

“Reservation?” The woman’s voice held a rasp, from cigarettes or sea air. She glanced at the binder on the counter, flipped a page.

“Markova.” Manya placed her backpack on the floor and waited. Pages riffled. The woman’s look hit Manya on the chin, thin and narrow.

“Tourist?”

“Not anymore.” She shouldn’t need to explain this every time. The naturalization ceremony at seventeen, the tests and the solemn oath in the courthouse while the Girl Scouts dipped and swirled the flag. The university tried to charge her as an international student, though she’d lived in the country since she was five. She was tired of justifying her existence.

“Says here two adults.”

Manya smoothed her hand along the seam of her jeans. “It’s just me.”

“Same price.” She snapped open a receipt book. Manya looked at the golden wedding band on the woman’s finger. Tanned skin folded around it like protection. Beneath the metal, Manya guessed, the skin was stark white, like the underbelly of a sea-going creature that never saw light.

“The other . . . my . . .” She tried again. “He died,” Manya said.

That look again, a quick swoop, not quite to the level of Manya’s eyes. The woman’s voice dropped a pitch, thick as syrup. “You poor thing. I’m so sorry.” Her vowels opened at the end like wings. I’m so sorr-ah. The gull-eyes dipped to Manya’s left hand, bare of ring or markings. The cotton shoulders gathered in a shrug.

“Need linens?” she said, scratching the paper.

“Yes.” Manya bit her lip. She needed so many things.

“I’ll bring ‘em out before supper.” Her host tore off a receipt and held it over the plastic-capped counter. “You pore thing.”

“It was sudden,” Manya said. “No warning. Just like that.” She picked up her backpack and held the straps with both hands.

“Those are the worst,” the woman agreed. She pointed east. “Last one on the left.”

“You still have canoes for rental?”  Manya handed her cash.

“Oh, honey, there’s weather comin tonight,” the woman assured her, ringing open the cash register. “Didn’t you see that sky?”

Manya regarded the sky as she parked before the last cabin in the row and heaved open the hatchback. Sadie sailed out in a spatter of hot fur. The sheltie was just starting to lose her winter coat. She thrust her nose in the air, desperately sniffing. The sky was the color of the water was the color of the sea oats bending in the breeze. A watercolor by a troubled artist: Glowering Sky with Dog. Sadie charged into the gulf and kicked up a sheet of spray. The droplets sprang high and hung for a moment, turned slowly, then collapsed into the tide while the dog tried to bite them out of the air.

Manya had forgotten the sound of the ocean. That thrumming like an endless world-size heart, hurling the water onto the sand and then, repentant, taking it back.

The tent sat rolled in its factory sealed bag. Manya pushed it aside. They had talked, long ago, of tenting together, going deep into the woods. Interesting couples shared a hobby. Winter camping, trail camping, backwoods country wide open to just the two of them, tucked like turtles into their below-zero sleeping bag. He was a mountain boy, wind in the blood. He left the unused tent with her after that last calm discussion, when he walked down the long flight of stairs into nothing. He left everything behind.

She’d reserved the luxury cabin, the biggest they had. One broad room, a fireplace flagged with attractive grey stone, a deep couch facing the window facing the sea. A sink and more counter space than a restaurant. A door leading to the closeted bathroom, and stairs circling to the loft overhead. The smell of sawdust, motes drifting through the pine-damp air. A quiet mold on the inside of things, like regret.

Manya stood in the center of the room, falling into the forgotten pulse of the ocean. She listened for her heart, for what it was doing deep in there, but had no sense of it beating. Nobody thought about the heart and its steady work until, of course, it stopped working. She wondered who had helped him, who had come around the corner of the locker room to find him stranded on the cold tile, one hand to his gasping chest. The shut row of metal doors slanting down around them. The email sent out to everyone said he hit his head on one of the wooden benches. The coroner’s report noted the contusion, not contributing to death. She imagined his hands clenched into the fabric of his sweaty T-shirt, or perhaps covering his throat. And the person who found him thinking, oh shit, oh shit, this is the end of my nice normal day.

She wondered who had called Jeannette. His wife.

She stood yet in the center of the room, watching the clouds like a layer cake billow from west to east, when a sharp knock blew the door open. Upstairs, a thump as Sadie threw herself off the bed and slip-slid down the narrow stairs.

“Thought I’d bring em now. I got time.” The cabin keeper wore grey slacks and a pair of muddy boots.

“Oh.” Manya held out her arms for the bedsheets. The woman moved past her and set the folded items on the couch. Her eyes moved along the room, looking to see what Manya had brought to the place. Luggage, extra blankets, candles wrapped within them. Hardly any food.

“Y’all right?” Her eyes were grey, too, like the sky. An effect of living too long next to the ocean, where the wind could be cold through the winters. storms drawing the color out of everything, the idle boredom, the visitors leaving, always leaving.

“I’m all right,” Manya said.

“What was it, then?” the woman asked.

“What was what?” Manya put a hand on the stack of linens. Already they bore a fine sheen of sea salt.

“Your husband. You said it was quick.”

“Oh,” Manya said. “Aneurism. Heart.” Had she said he was her husband?

The woman put her hand on her chest, just as Manya had when she first heard the news. Checking. She’d held it there for the most of that day, skipping the class she taught, calling in sick to the testing site. She imagined Jeannette, now a widow, doing the same thing, perhaps right this moment at the wake in the funeral home, holding an arm across her chest as people filed by and collapsed against her. Tomorrow, during the funeral, there would be eulogies from astounded friends. He was so young, they would all say. He ran marathons. He had a strong heart, a many-miled heart. It should have gone on pumping in all its electro-hydraulic splendor for decades, millions more beats left in it.

From the beginning, he called Manya once in a while, late at night. At first she didn’t answer. In the messages it sounded like he was crying.

The storm hung in the sky all evening, waiting. Manya took Sadie for a walk.  She remembered more sand, more wildness, more beach, but there was only a strip of nubbly gravel shielding the water from the bristle of sea oats along the embankment. Shells and pebbles swatched the sand, a tiny crunch beneath her feet. The musty smell like a basement, moisture so thick the air was viscous. She remembered the breeze clean and sharp.

Insects grated from the trees, rising and falling like waves. The sea moved toward her and the sky away, a dappled grey tabby streaked with dust. Sadie’s hair stood straight with electricity. The thunder sounded like distant traffic, the dim row of cabin lights strung like pale bright shells along the shore. The sand was light oatmeal, shale spotted with bits of red and blue, stretching away into a moist fog. Any moment he might walk from it, arms full of driftwood for a fire, stepping from another world where his heart was still beating, a world where she had said yes.

A red, raised nimbus circled the tiny jag of wood in her palm, working its way in. He told her on their first date that he had gravel under his skin. Boyhood accident, a header over the handlebars of his bike. The road peeled layers from his hip and leg but his elbow hit first, driving small rocks deep under the epidermis. His parents, Christian Scientists, saw no need for doctors to tell them the debris was safe to stay there. It was earth-made material; the cells, living and dying, would push the foreign matter out.

But the elbow scabbed, then healed, and a bumpy, bubbly patch remained. Manya had liked the strange texture of it, the terrain of an alien planet. Skin beneath her fingers, but something else terrestrial deep beneath that. She was no biologist; she studied geophysics, the land with its features and fields and inevitable forces. She understood electromagnetics, thermometrics, the hydrology of his sweating body, the moving plates of his bones. The meteorology of their combined atmosphere, with its strange and unmeasurable currents.

Manya paused as Sadie sniffed a spot on the beach. The trees fretted, tossing up their branches. The rustling wind sounded like rain. Small leaves and bits of moss revolved through the air. The chant of the insects grew monotonal. The dog lifted her sandy muzzle and whined.

Manya grabbed a loose stick and pried at the small dome of sand. The scissored claw of a crab emerged first, then its body, upside-down. With the stick she flipped it over. It clipped to the side, leaving small mounds of sand in its trail, then paused, resting. It must have been suffocating, trapped in the small space it had fled for refuge.

He’d planned adventures for them, safaris in Africa, canoe trips down the Amazon. It was she who said they should date other people. He grew heavy in sleep, throwing his arm across her chest, pressing her deep into the blankets. His hands started to clutch. On the wall calendar he outlined in black marker the weeks she was gone for conferences or research. The gravel under his skin itched.

Jeannette was Catholic. She believed in insurance, checkups. His voice on the messages had the tone she’d heard when he called her name in his sleep. Deep in nightmares he muttered the Russian phrases he learned so he could phone her parents. Hello. How are you. I am well, thank you. May I speak to Manya? Is Manya there?

The storm broke when she was still half a mile from the cabin. The trees raged with wind and loose leaves swooped like bats. Tendrils of lightning struck and shimmered, magnified. Thunder rattled her teeth. Sadie streaked for shelter as the first cold drops fell and goosebumps blossomed on Manya’s arms. The rain whirled to meet her, blurring the world like a dusty mirror. Raindrops bounced off her shoulders, her calves, the back of her neck, places that for a long while had been touched by no hand but her own. The rain dotted her skin in frantic code.

Manya closed her eyes and lifted her face, listening to the message being tapped into her. She was alive. The ocean swelled and roared as raindrops patterned its surface. She’d forgotten how it felt, the ragged desperation of it, the joy that caught in the chest. The man she had loved was dead, and she was alive.

At the cabin, she toweled off and filled the kettle with cold water. Visiting hours were over. The room would be empty save for the chairs and flowers, the poster boards of pictures, his marathon medals and track trophies, the dried corsage from their wedding. Manya had been on a research semester in Brazil but she mailed a leaded glass cocktail set as a gift. A few weeks after the honeymoon, she received a thank-you card embossed with the wife’s new initials. Graceful handwriting expressed their gratitude for the glasses, gave their new address. Much later Manya realized neither of them drank.

And then what? His wife would go home to the house they bought together. His parents would return to their hotel and pray. Jeannette would ask her high school friends to stay with her, the same women who had been her bridesmaids. She was not the type to spend nights alone. She would press her dress for the funeral the next day, set out her shoes, put Kleenex and aspirin in her matching purse. She would stay up late weeping, or staring dry-eyed at the ceiling, into a darkness so complete it silenced the terror.

Manya built a fire and unrolled the sleeping bag on the sanded floor. The kettle boiled. She wasn’t required to fast, but she would anyway. She draped a cloth over a driftwood side table and set out her icons, her rosary, her prayerbook, the candles she had lit for him every night since the call. The air was too thick for thought. She watched the fire climb the stiff currents, bend itself in a plunging ballet.

He thought her work, her research came between them. He thought reasoned arguments would bring her back. In her family they arranged marriages, daughters matched with the nice sons of childhood friends. As mates they were kind, respectful, polite. They did not produce tempestuous declarations, tears and longings. From that first kiss outside out dorm room, the hurried embraces in the halls of her lab, she knew there was no way they fit together, him sweaty from basketball practice, her hands smelling of copper. He was a cowboy and she was Russian. They lived on different tectonic plates.

The phone on the wall rang. Manya dropped her rosary. She’d turned off her cellphone, no service. Who knew she was here?

The phone rang again, and Manya approached slowly, surprised the power had not been knocked out. She lifted the black receiver. “Hello?”

“Call for you,” the rental woman said, and Manya heard a series of clicks, then an uncertain voice, a woman’s. “Hello?”

“Jeanette?” Manya said.

“Manya?” She sounded confused. Manya imagined her looking at the phone, frowning. She’d had a tiring day and would be fuzzy-headed from weeping. “You’re at this number? I . . .” She trailed off. They never knew what to say to one another.

“How are you?” Manya whispered.

Jeannette started to cry. The sounds were quiet beneath the wind pounding the window, but Manya heard the small gasps for air. She felt a needle in her heart and wondered if that was what he had felt, except larger, a swell like the tide and then the startling burst.

“Are you coming tomorrow?” Jeanette asked between hitches.

“I hadn’t planned to,” Manya said.

A gulp, then a small high hiss, like the cry of a bird. “He would want you there.”

Manya looked at the prayer candles, the three flames dipping and dancing in the currents of air. “I’ll come if you want me,” she said.

“It’s so awful,” Jeannette sobbed. “I had to buy him underwear. I bought my husband new underwear to bury him.” That high, steady whine again. It sounded like a gale blowing in from the gulf. “His mother complained about the coffin I picked. She didn’t like the silver handles. And he—Manya, it doesn’t even look like him. They put him in so much makeup.”

Out the window Manya watched the lightning streak between the upper banks of clouds, bands of dark holding the blinding flash. Manya pictured him in his navy suit, his face old beneath the embalming, all the clever tricks applied to dead flesh. He would not look like someone either of them had known, had touched every inch of.

“Everyone keeps talking about how young he is. How sudden. Looking at him to figure out—what I did to him. What I did wrong.” Jeannette lost herself in sobbing.

In the fire a stick snapped its fingers, and Manya jumped. Outside, the trees howled and threw up their hands.

After a while, Jeannette quieted. “I found this number in his work planner.” Manya heard her hoarse breathing. “He said he was going away with a friend.”

He’d come here often with her, their getaway while she was in graduate school, he in training at the law firm. He’d proposed to her in a canoe on the river trail, the vessel rocking slightly as he knelt. The summer heat had itched her skin and tiny black flies tacked to her eyes and her sweaty neck. She closed her mouth when he asked her. The words knocking at her lips were nonsense rhymes her baba had sang to her, games she had played in the preschool of a village that no longer existed. He’d left and she’d stayed, with her lab and her St. Olga cross and her dreams in Russian, and she didn’t have to go to races or office parties or American ball games anymore.

“I come here this time every year,” Manya said. “He must have remembered.”

A long silence, while the wind whined. “He’s been calling you?” The voice tiny, spoken through a small point, far away.

Manya rubbed the raw swell of her palm over her heart. “Once or twice,” she said. “Just catching up. You know he is good—was good—at keeping in touch.”

She stumbled over the tenses. Waited for Jeannette to piece things together, catch her in the lie.

“I don’t understand any of this,” Jeannette said, her voice faint, thin, weary. “Nothing makes sense. I feel gutted.” A pause. “You should be there. For him.”

Manya looked at the red furrow in her hands. “I’ll come,” she said.

She fixed lemon tea and stoked the fire and thumbed her rosary, stroking the old beads, the weighted tassels. The thunder roared and hurled itself across the gulf to the distant lands beyond. She understood what was required. Penance. A final goodbye. Confession, witness, and absolution, so Jeannette believed things were over. Would never know she had almost lost her husband again.

Morning dawned light as a pearl. The sky held the same white tint as the sand, the sea grey as the sea oats. Manya found the crab. It had pulled its body a few inches from its hole and anchored its one claw into the sand, holding against the tide. With her foot Manya bunched sand around the carcass and wondered why no other animal had disturbed it. She couldn’t have known it was dying.

She placed the stack of linens on the plastic counter at the rental office, floral side up. The woman wore the same button-down shirt. The blonde roots showed a wider margin, already reclaiming their own. She patted the top sheet gently.

“Storm keep you awake?” she asked.

“No,” Manya said honestly.

“I guess everybody grieves different,” the woman said. Her sharp eyes fastened on Manya’s left ear.

“I found a crab on the beach last night,” Manya said at the door. She stopped and looked up at the faded map of the Florida Gulf coastline. “It had one claw.”

The woman watched her. “Stone crab,” she said, as if she could still hear the foreign accent, as if Manya knew nothing about the United States, nothing about the deep and secret workings of the earth. “That’s how they harvest them. It grows back.”

“This one won’t,” Manya said.  “It was dead this morning.”

The man’s shirt fluttered as her shoulders rolled, the ring on her finger winking. This woman wouldn’t know how the heart could swell from all that was stuffed into it, hurt and anger, guilt and neglect, growing so fat and gluttonous and engorged that its burst open. What had he thought about in those last seconds? His wife, and his lie to her? Maybe it felt like pitching headfirst over the handlebars, that fiery burn as the blood rushed everywhere, spinning weightless in a moment of space, far from the safe warm hands of prayer.

Manya didn’t have an answer. Why she had told him the date, made the reservation. Why, after all this time, she’d said yes.

A swallow-tailed kite dipped past the window, giving its lonely cry.

“It’s not something you’d wish on anybody,” the woman said.

Manya pulled the door shut behind her.

Sadie leapt into her seat in the back of the wagon and settled on the unused tent. Next to it sat the jar holding her real wedding present from Brazil: rainforest soil, for that trip they’d never taken. In five hours she would be there, file into St. Mary’s with everyone else in their quiet shades of black. There would be beautiful words, tears and flowers, solemn ritual to surround the magnificent blankness of death. Manya would stand with Jeannette next to his grave and say the words she’d owed him for a long time. They would fall the way the rain pockmarked the ocean, brief and then disappearing, bubbling like gravel under an elbow it had once been hers to kiss.

Manya turned the car north, toward the highway, toward the priest and the quiet confession. Behind her the horizon of sea stood empty, blank and still. She looked at her hand and saw that the skin of her palm had closed over the splinter, encasing it as in glass. She would carry it with her, a memory made flesh. If she could not be forgiven then at least she, too, would be marked.

Misty Urban is the author of the story collections A Lesson in Manners and The Necessaries. Recent stories have appeared in Fiction Attic, District Lit, Sweet Tree Review, Literary Mama, and from Write Out Publishing. Find her online at mistyurban.net or femmeliterate.net, a website for women in/and/of books.

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chronic pain, Guest Posts, Hope

The Shame of Pain

October 24, 2019
pain

By Francesca Louise Grossman

I have tried 46 different times to launch myself out of chronic pain. I know this because every time I try something, I write down what I have done, what it feels like, what it costs, whether it’s covered and how worth it is in a small purple book. No one knows I do this. I scribble in it like I’m confessing to my sixth grade diary. In it is the same kind of anxiety about the future that I had in sixth grade, just not about Andy Apstein and whether he was going to kiss me or ignore me. Instead, it is about the treatment or therapy I try, and whether this one will be the one to finally help.

I opened the book the other day to pen a possible 47th.

The book is chronological, of course, but I put it in alphabetical order for clarity. I flipped through.

It starts:

Acupressure: December 2010 – Feb 2010 – dull pressure, not much change, $120/hr not covered – not worth it

Acupuncture – July 2002 (on and off) until March 2018 – sometimes painful, usually calming, blood flow, lasts less than a day but is relief $75/15 mins – sometimes covered – worth it but has to be ongoing

Acetaminophen – When needed – does nothing – over the counter – $9.89 a bottle of extra strength – not worth it

Bioelectric Therapy – October 2016-April 2016 – possibly dulls pain a little – for about an hour $165/hr at office – not covered by insurance

Cupping – February 2014 – one time, hurt like hell, not worth it. $85/30 mins – not covered by insurance.

Codeine – March 2009 – April 2009 – numb, good, not a long term option – covered by insurance $20 copay

Craniosacral Therapy – September 2000 – October 2001 – When in conjunction with other body work  – Myofascial etc – decent relief but dizzy – lasts a couple of days maybe $200/session – sometimes covered by insurance

Cryotherapy – June 2018-October 2018 – feels great right after, like putting ice on a knee. Lasts a couple of hours, heart races. $60/3 min session. Not covered by insurance

And on and on—and on.

The book is 24 years old. The same age as my chronic pain, more than half my lifetime, all of my adulthood, eons.

This book exists because all this time I have had a continuous faith that there is a valve for this pain; that I can escape it, or, more accurately, it can escape me. For all these years I have I known this to be true. I will find it. I will heal. I am a warrior, a survivor; tough, strong, and able. People have told me that pain is weakness leaving the body in all different scenarios, with all different motivations. I don’t have this recorded as studiously but I wish I did.

I have other lists I don’t love revisiting, but help to explain the pain. In my twenties I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an illness of the intestines that leads to violent pain and an urgent need to empty your bowels. I developed Colitis later, a more general type of the disease that bloats my stomach to look four months pregnant. I have had surgeries for my stomach, some of which were determined later to be unnecessary. I had thyroid cancer through out my twenties, finally treated when the tumor on my neck was the size of a ping-pong ball. I developed arthritis along the way, both as a peripheral malady and also it’s own disease. My body is gouged from piles of polyps removed from my insides, and (usually) benign tumors removed from my outsides. My neck doesn’t turn all the way to the right. My hips need forty-five minutes before letting me walk in the morning. I have an unidentified liver problem that swells without notice and bends me in two. If the saying is to be believed, there’s a lot of weakness in there, and it seems to be stuck.

*

When I was twenty-nine, I had surgery to remove my thyroid. The overnight nurse was a doozie of a lady.  Opera singer large, big calloused hands that vice-gripped onto my shoulders. Thighs thick as trunks that she used to pin me against the side of the bed so she could administer my catheter without “so much squirming.” She was brutal and brutish. A small silver peace sign sunk deep into her cleavage, drowning in flesh.

She had a hard time getting the catheter in, and as she struggled, she noticed my twisted face.

Pain is weakness leaving the body, my love, she said, repeating it over and over like a command until I could actually pee.

This is an extreme example, but at least once a year, often as much as once a month, this phrase earworms into my psyche. Related to illness and chronic pain or not, this saying has appeared like a subtitle again and again at the bottom of the screen of my life. When I was a weak child? A coach. A teenager who could not stomach even occasional beers? A boyfriend. A young woman unable to go to a bar without scoping out the bathroom situation ahead of time? A roommate. A thyroid cancer patient: a nurse. Doctors, PA’s, med techs. Physical therapists, friends, masseuses, acupuncturists, pharmacists, bosses, guy on the street.

*

I went to the doctor a few weeks ago and a delicate med tech took my vitals. She asked the normal questions, made the normal small talk, took the normal introductory tests. Her thin fingers flew across the keyboard, recording my responses. She asked me if I had any pain.

I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly.

“You mean right now?”

“Yes,” she smiled softly.

“Nothing acute,” I said.

“So no pain?”

“No. I mean, yes, I have pain, the same pain I have all the time.”

“What would you rate it, 1-10?”

How do you rate pain on a scale made for people with no pain?

“I don’t know, 4?”

She nodded and her hands took off. That was the wrong answer. I knew this, I knew that anything under 5 wasn’t worth her noting, that saying 4 was like saying I had a dull headache, or a splinter in my toe. But what should I have said? 7? Wouldn’t that be alarmist? Especially when that pain had been a relative constant for over twenty years? Especially when I knew from decades of experience that the litany of potential remedies for that pain were not going to help?

*

My husband stepped on a quarter inch wire sticking out of the ground near the beach in Fire Island this summer. The metal went a good inch into his flesh, and when he pulled it out blood sprayed mercilessly all over the sand and sidewalk. He howled. He made noises that I have never heard him make before and I have been with him through a lot of painful things. He was pale and sweaty, teeth gritting, eyes rolling back, that kind of pain.

Later that night, his foot gauzed up and iced, still throbbing, he looked at me and said “I’m so sorry you are in pain all the time.”

I didn’t know how to respond. This wasn’t about me, he was the one in pain, and yet a part of me felt smug at his discomfort. Now you know how I feel, was a momentary thought, I’ll admit it, and not one I’m not proud of.

But it got me thinking about pain and the way people relate to it. It is very hard to relate to pain if you aren’t in pain. Which is why I have such a hard time with the 1-10 scale.

Instead, for chronic pain patients, they should ask what kind of sharp thing is in your foot. Splinter? Pushpin? Nail? Quarter inch wire? Razor blade? Glass shard? Burning glass shard?

Nail. I would have said. Occasionally glass shard.

But instead I said 4 and she smiled.

*

I have fought against my pain and weakness for a very long time. I have tried, often unsuccessfully, to be like my friends. In my twenties I tried to stay out all night, I tried to ski, I tried to walk down the street without doubling over. I worked, I played, I drank, I sat as still as I could so that no one would notice the aftershocks. In my thirties I had children, pregnancy an event that paused my pain for a while so that when it came back it felt like a tsunami. Like many mothers of babies I didn’t sleep and then I had severe postpartum depression; I found having small children so physically demanding I came undone. I’m forty-one now and I am very often a prisoner in my house. My stomach bleeds, my liver pulsates, my head spins. Not all the time, but enough.

From my teens until today, this minute, and all those in the foreseeable future, there is pain. At least nail in foot pain. Sometimes glass shard. Never pushpin. A splinter would be welcome. In fact, when I think back on my childhood and that which was difficult – most sports, endurance, gym class, partying, anything else that required my body to function – I think it’s possible that I have been in pain all my life. Back then I never considered that my resting state was anything less than normal, but now I know better. Most people do not live with nails in their feet.

I hurt. I hurt in the morning when I turn over to get up. When I walk, when I carry groceries, when I turn my head to the right to reverse in the car. My stomach burns, my joints swell, my liver rejects everything I eat and drink.

I don’t talk about pain very often. I tell myself it is because people don’t want to hear me complain but it is more than that, I can admit that. I’m ashamed of my pain. I’m ashamed of my weakness.

What is it about pain that is so shameful?

We live in a culture in which wellness equals strength. People my age do cross fit and triathlons, women have babies without drugs, are lauded for their tight abs, their thick skin, their ability to play tough. I have never been strong like this. I have tried, but I have failed. I was never scrappy. I don’t think I will ever be. I am soft. My belly, the place of much of my pain, is squishy. Distended, bloated, doughy, depending on the day. I’m sensitive. I cry at pop songs.

Our society’s greatest hero story is about overcoming obstacles. We love a fighter. We love an underdog who comes out on top. We love triumph and happily ever endings. We love to fix a hoarder, intervene and send someone to rehab, remodel a decrepit house. We love treatment. We love survival. We love hope.

But hope is complicated. After all of these tries, this list of 46 different treatments and therapies, I no longer have hope that things will get better. I have hope that things will not get worse, which is not the same thing. I have a hope that feels a lot more like mercy than it does like faith.

When I ask myself this question about weakness and shame I hear a quiet hum suggesting a better question: why am I fighting so hard?

In my experience, pain is not weakness leaving the body. I realize this is a trope, and any mantra is nothing more than a slogan. But slogans have power. They convince. And I’ll admit I have always believed this – that the suffering I endure might one day let me free.

When I was pregnant and exhausted, a friend of mine told me that of course I was tired, I was making a person in there. Though not the same, pain sometimes feels like that too. Of course I’m tired, I’m fighting against myself all the time, trying to quell the pain so that I can live my otherwise fortunate life.

I’m not delusional about this. I know I live a charmed life in almost every way. I am educated, from a family that loves me – even when I behave idiotically. I am not from a country ravaged by war. I have a husband who cares for me, does not abuse me, even dotes on me sometimes. I have two healthy children whom I adore. I am from a privileged minority, I have more than I deserve. I can walk, breathe and think to exist in my daily life. I can afford therapy, eastern medicine, treatment outside of insurance sometimes, to do part time work. I can try 46 things. In short; I’m lucky. Unfairly so. And yet.

Here’s the whole list, abbreviated to just the titles:

Acupuncture, acupressure, acetaminophen, alcohol, aleve, aromatherapy, bioelectric, CBD creams and oils, cupping, chiropractic, chanting, codeine, cranial sacral therapy, cryotherapy, dairy free, hallucinations, gluten free, guided breathing, fasting, fentanyl, flotation, ibuprofen, oxycontin, marijuana, massage, meditation, myofascial, quell, reflexology, radiation, salt baths, saunas, steroids, sugar free, sodium free, sound bathing, surgery, swimming, percocet, physical therapy, psychotherapy, psychiatry, praying, vicodin, xanax, yoga.

Everything helps a little. Nothing helps enough to be worth the life altering work and piles of money it takes to keep it up.

Here’s a truth: the things that actually take the pain away feel a lot like addiction. They don’t remove the pain, that’s the trick. They numb. And they are delicious. But they don’t last and they unleash other pain, often more severe that the original. It’s never worth doubling the pain tomorrow to have numbness today, no matter how attractive the reprieve.

So the pain is there. It’s always there and most likely it will always be there. I don’t know how it got in. Maybe the pain was waiting for me when I came into this world. Maybe it comes from my ancestors, my DNA, my parents’ tragedies, my childhood bullies, or little or big assaults. Maybe I am sensitive to the world for some reason, and it simply hurts to be here. As woo-wooey as that sounds, that’s the one that feels the most accurate, the most likely.

I think it’s actually softness that makes us strong. It’s not skin made of iron. It’s showing the underbelly. It’s not bracing for the storm, it’s putting a kite up in the wind. It’s the willingness to see the world as a series of experiences some of which are going to hurt like crazy and the ability to just keep going anyway. It’s vulnerability. It’s asking for forgiveness. From ourselves as much as from others. It’s mercy.

Mercy is an open palm. It’s the meaty bit. Curling your hand so that your knuckles face the world is so much easier. But a fist to heart feels quite a lot different from a palm to heart, resting square on your breastbone, staying there, the heel of it pulsing the same rhythm as the heartbeat on your chest, marching your body along in a long trek to some sort of quiet absolution.

My husband’s foot healed in a few days. He stopped limping. The knowledge that he would get better permeated and defined the experience – the faith that this would be over soon.

Therein lies the difference between acute and chronic pain, of course: in how we define hope.

So what kind of hope can I have? What if I looked at my years and piles of pain and perceived weakness not as a failure but as a step towards becoming who I am? What if I forgave myself the years of fighting myself and sank into the deep cool water of acceptance? How would it feel down there?

I do not mean that I should give up. I’ll try things if they look promising. 47, 48, that’s fine. But what if instead of fighting so hard I allowed the pain to be part of me? What if, for a while, instead of the restrictive eating and the therapy and the medicine and the exercise and the planning and the trying (and the failing), what if I just stopped? Even if it hurt? Even if the pain never left? Could I recalibrate to “0”? Could I see that as the most radical act? Doing nothing at all?

For now I’ll put the little purple book in the drawer. I’ll cap the pen and sit quietly. I’ll let what’s in me stay put. I’ll put my feet up, expecting and accepting the pulse of the nail that might be forever lodged there.

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor based in Newton, MA. Her work includes contributions to The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, Word Riot, Drunken Boat Literary Magazine, xojane, Kids in the House, Ed Week/Teacher among others. She is currently working on a memoir and a novel. 

 

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eating disorder, Eating Disorders/Healing, Guest Posts

The Hilly Place

September 13, 2017

By Carolyn Getches

After one week in Guanajuato, Mexico I could make it home from school without a map. My favorite route took me down the grand sandstone steps of La Universidad de Guanajuato, past the serene bronze statue at Plaza de la Paz, and through the colorful and carefully tended Jardín de la Unión. As I walked along the narrow streets, I saw a young man standing in front of a symmetrical red stucco building with royal blue trim. A small crowd was gathered in front of him and a boombox played Bob Marley near his feet.

He was holding one stick in each hand and using them to toss a third stick in the air, one that was flaming on both ends. The muscles in his ropey arms tensed as he caught the fiery stick between the other two. His dark brown dreadlocks swayed back and forth with his choreographed movements, tapping his tank top and catching on his layered necklaces.

He threw the stick up in the air again. This time, he fumbled the catch and the lit stick fell to the ground. I’ve never had the constitution for embarrassment, mine or otherwise. When I was in the seventh grade, I walked straight into the large glass door of a movie theater. My forehead and nose struck the thick sheet of glass, and a loud thud echoed between my ears. I stood still for a moment as I pieced together what happened. Then, I turned around and sprinted into the parking lot, abandoning my friend who was already at the ticket counter. She found me twenty minutes later, hiding behind a car with snot and blood covering my upper lip. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Self Image, The Body

I Know What You’re Staring At- Teeth and Class in America.

September 30, 2016

By Celeste Gurevich

The scene goes like this: you are chatting with someone, somewhere, and because you’re half deaf in your right ear, you’re standing pretty close so you don’t lose the ends of words. You’re right there in the conversation, and then that thing happens. That jolt in your body when you see the person’s eyes looking a little bit crossed and aimed lower down, and you realize that they’re not looking you in the eyes anymore, but not quite at your chin either and somehow their gaze is both loose and locked.

And then, like every time, that stomach melting wallop of shame. It blasts into your nerve endings and makes you want to cry. Or run. Bolt stage left, and crawl under a rock.

Because that crossed eyed dip of the eyes south means they are staring at the crack in your front tooth.     Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Shame

Ancestry of Shame

September 25, 2016
shame

By Elloa Atkinson

I am a descendent in a lineage of shame.

I grew up in a house and a body filled with shame of various colours and flavours, from mild blush pink to angry blood red. The generations who came before me passed the shame along from parent to child, wrapped carefully in the folds of pivotal childhood memories like it was a precious family heirloom.

The shame was toxic and suffocating, yet never spoken aloud.

To name it would have provoked dismissive scorn and mocking tuts, whispered judgements of being “over dramatic,” “ridiculous” “selfish” or “stupid.” Those messages — messages which are as intense as I am — reverberate around inside me even as I write about it.

The first time I remember feeling uncomfortable in my skin was when I was very young. I’ve thankfully remembered over the last 14 years of personal inner work that there was magic in me, but there was also strangeness too — a wariness, a watchfulness, a mistrust in the world and the people in it, a belief that I didn’t quite fit, that I didn’t belong.

By the age of seven, I had begun to feel distinctly awkward in my skin. Stick thin and lanky, I was all bones and angles. I had experienced the gut-wrenching heartbreak of begging my alcoholic mum not to go to the pub, pouring my tiny heart out all over the floor, and her not staying. I had experienced head lice that made mum shriek in disgust, and had been at the mercy of my awkward, jangling limbs kicking a football the wrong way up the pitch at school, prompting my classmates to get angry with me.

I became inwardly rigid, scared and nervous and watchful around other people. There eventually came a point when all this stuff couldn’t just keep building up anymore; it needed somewhere to go.

From the age of around 11 onwards, my life was like a chaotic cocktail of anorexia, social anxiety, uncontrollable blushing, binge drinking, blackouts, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, perfectionism, achievement, chaos, stealing, under-performing, over-functioning, bingeing, spending, self-harm, recklessness and fear.

My body became the enemy, especially when I entered puberty.

It betrayed me on a daily basis, as inescapable as prison. I was powerless. Things kept happening to it, things I couldn’t direct or make sense of. My friend Jenny’s boobs appeared out of nowhere but mine were nowhere to be seen, unless you count the tiny ‘breast buds’ that promised so much and delivered so little. Instead, my body cut countless stretch marks into my inner thighs, then my bum, then behind my knees and even onto my calves. When mum told me they were irreversible, I was so horrified I nearly vomited. How could this be happening to me?

It wasn’t just my body that I hated though; it was me. I hated the way I behaved around my friends. Desperate to fit in, yet never feeling like I really did. Wishing I had the cool, calm confidence of some of the girls at school, yet knowing that the only time I ever felt like that was when I was intoxicated and even then, I couldn’t avoid making an idiot of myself. Aching to feel something other than the perilous uncertainty I felt when I turned the smooth round doorknob of my tutor group classroom each morning, never knowing what would greet me on the other side. Just like at home. Never knowing if the kitchen door would be open (meaning mum would be there), or if it would be closed (meaning the wine would have already started and the monster would be there instead).

On and on it went, layer after layer of shame building up within me like grease and grime accumulating on a kitchen counter until one day you can no longer tell the original colour and texture of it.

I didn’t know back then that I had been born into a family that had, for generations, produced functioning alcoholics, mother-daughter abandonment, secrets and abuse. I knew the odd story here or there about certain family members, and knew about the abuse my mum had experienced as a child, but I had no idea that I was sort of predestined to have a bunch of ancestral crap land on my shoulders, crap that would become beliefs, which would lead to behaviours, which would shape a whole way of life.

Recently I learned that the egg that was to become me was inside my mother’s body when she was inside her mother’s womb. The pioneering work of epigenetics is shedding a whole new light on the concept of multi-generational transmission of trauma. To think that what my grandmother was experiencing when pregnant with my mother could have a direct impact on me is quite astonishing.

Of course, as a little girl I didn’t have the words or concepts to begin to understand what I was experiencing. It leaked out through stories and drawings and phobias and feelings: a crippling fear, a haunting sense of being fundamentally flawed, the sick feeling in my tummy and my bones that something was terribly wrong with me.

For a long, long time, I didn’t know that anyone else on the planet felt like this. I thought it was just me.

And then, aged 18 and three quarters, I hit my first real rock bottom and entered recovery.

Recovery taught me a new language. It was the language of connection, identification and belonging. The relief of discovering that there were people — a lot of people — who felt the way I felt, was incredible. I listened intently and poured my heart out in darkened church halls, the tears never seeming to end. The first twelve months were the hardest, but each stage brought its own challenges and rough seas.

I learned about this strange new thing called “boundaries” from Melody Beattie, Pia Melody and my therapist. I cried thousands of tears in workshops and groups run by Clearmind International Institute. I stepped up into leadership within that organisation, learning how to hold the space for others to process their childhood wounds. For a number of years, my relationship with my family grew distant as I did the daily work of coming home to myself — work which I will write more about in the next three posts. There were months, years even when I barely spoke to my mum. There were times when I felt greatly misunderstood by my family, times when I felt desperate to get away from them, and times when I longed to connect even though I didn’t fully know how.

In the last few years, learning a bit about my family history has played a huge and pivotal part in my journey of coming home. I’ve discovered a family I never knew I had, both in terms of actual people I had no idea about, and in terms of the people I thought I knew but didn’t: both my dads (biological and my dad who brought me up); my mum; my five amazing half-siblings; my grandparents.

I’ve learned that the generations that came before me had their own great triumphs and breakthroughs, but also that my family history is full of loss, sadness, pain, and more loss — as are many people’s families. The endurance of the human spirit is truly astonishing.

Studying my family history for a genogram presentation (essentially a family tree — births, marriages, deaths — plus losses, addictions, neuroses, abuse, dreams, hopes, wishes and relationship patterns) during a counsellor-training program gave the experiences I’d lived through context.

The study helped me see that everything I lived through as a little girl and a young woman, right through to today, did not occur in a vacuum and was not solely of my own making. That in turn helped me forgive myself (something which I have found is both a process and a series of events).

Learning about my mother’s childhood, and her mother’s childhood, and catching a glimpse of her mother’s before her helped me integrate the realisation more deeply that I am truly not alone. Learning about the abandonment on my father’s side of the family helped me understand why he had left my mum when she was pregnant with me.

Gaining the awareness that I am part of a great tapestry of interwoven human lives has paradoxically given me enormous freedom from the bondage of what I inherited.

Today I feel connected to all the women and men who had come before me, and right there, in a state of true connection, is the one place where shame cannot survive. As I uncover the secrets in my family’s legacy, I come to a deeper understanding of the places in my own life where I was driven to secrecy through shame.

And as the days, weeks, months and years pass, I continue on my path, deepening my connection to myself. For me, that also means deepening my connection to my family, coming to see that what is not an extension of love contains a cry for it. I understand and respect that many people cannot be in relationship with their family of origin. For me, being an active member of the system is the right decision. It is one of the gifts of adulthood to be able to exercise the right to make this decision. Today I choose to be part of a new legacy and a new lineage, breaking the chains that bind.

I no longer identify as being “in recovery.” Today this is simply how I live: as consciously, honestly and lovingly as possible. And bit by bit, I continue to learn how to come home to myself.

Elloa_Atkinson-Elloa_Atkinson_-_High_Res-138

Elloa Atkinson is a life-changing coach, an inspiring speaker, and a writer whose work has been featured on the home pages of the Huffington Post and the Good Men Project. A certified life coach, Elloa also has over ten years’ experience of assisting, supporting and leading emotionally intense personal development work. She is a long-term student and teacher of A Course In Miracles and believes that we are all inherently whole, innocent and worthy of love and that our core problem is that we have forgotten that. Connect with her at elloaatkinson.com and via Facebook: facebook.com/elloa.atkinson.miracles
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Join Jen Pastiloff in Tuscany Sep 17-24, 2016. There are 2 spaces left. This will be her only international retreat in 2016 and is her favorite retreat of the year. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com asap. More info here. Must email first to sign up.

 

Join founder Jen Pastiloff for a weekend retreat at Kripalu Center in Western Massachusetts Feb 19-21, 2016. Get ready to connect to your joy, manifest the life of your dreams, and tell the truth about who you are. This program is an excavation of the self, a deep and fun journey into questions such as: If I wasn’t afraid, what would I do? Who would I be if no one told me who I was? Jennifer Pastiloff, creator of Manifestation Yoga and author of the forthcoming Girl Power: You Are Enough, invites you beyond your comfort zone to explore what it means to be creative, human, and free—through writing, asana, and maybe a dance party or two! Jennifer’s focus is less on yoga postures and more on diving into life in all its unpredictable, messy beauty. Note Bring a journal, an open heart, and a sense of humor. Click the photo to sign up.

Join Jen Pastiloff at her Manifestation Workshop: On Being Human in London Oct 1st and Dallas Oct 22. Click the links above to book. No yoga experience needed- just be a human being! Bring a journal and a sense of humor. See why People Magazine did a whole feature on Jen.

 

Check out Jen Pastiloff in People Magazine!

Check out Jen in People Magazine!

Binders, Guest Posts, Hearing Loss

Owning—And Rocking—An Invisible Disability

September 10, 2016

By Caroline Leavitt
Shortly after I have my son, I am mysteriously ill with a rare blood disease for almost a year. The meds they give me are toxic, some of the treatments are experimental, (a surgeon uses a robotic arm to glue my veins shut, letting me watch it all on a big screen), and when I finally begin to get better, the doctors tell me there might be lasting side effects. I might bloat out and look obese. (I beach-ball out so my comfort fashion is mumuus, but after a year, I can slide on my skinny jeans again.) I might lose my hair. (Chunks roll off my head and onto my baby, but it sprouts back curlier and stronger than before.) My skin might turn gray. (It does so that people on the subway bluntly stare, but it, too, comes back to normal). And I might lose some hearing and that wouldn’t come back. Sigh. That happens.

At first, because I’m so busy getting well, and taking care of a brand new baby, I don’t notice I lost anything. Not until another six months later, when I’m a giving a reading with two other novelists in front of a packed audience, and one of the other writers nudges me. “They asked you a question,” he says, nodding towards the seats. Panicked, I search for a person standing up, head tilted, waiting. I haven’t heard a question at all, and lucky for me, the person repeats it loudly. Still, I feel my cheeks fire with shame. I can’t look at the other writers, and even though they ask me to lunch afterwards, I make up some excuse.

I tell no one about that day. Instead, I begin to be hyperaware of my hearing and I sink into despair. I’m deeply ashamed. I don’t know anyone who has a hearing issue except for my mother-in-law, who is in her 80s. Comics make fun of hearing loss. People think you are being deliberately stupid. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, self-loathing

The Opposite of Mean is Human

May 13, 2016

By Meredith Broome

I am sitting at the dinner table at my best friend, Annemarie’s, house. Annemarie and I are in the third grade and have been best friends since kindergarten. Tonight we are eating spaghetti and meatballs with her mom, dad and two little sisters, and I remember a joke my father told me about balls, which seems relevant to the meatballs we’re eating. I stab a meatball onto my fork and hold it up in the air in front of me as a prop, not understanding that the ‘balls’ in the joke refer to testicles. I clear my throat and shout over the conversation.

“Speaking of balls…” I tell the joke, hit the punch line and look around, expecting a big laugh. Instead, Annemarie’s mother and father are frozen in what looks to me like fear. Then Annemarie’s mother’s face reshapes itself into steeled hatred, and she points it at me like a sword.

“Get up from the table,” she hisses. “You are excused.”

Nobody else moves. Annemarie’s ears turn red. She doesn’t look up from her plate. Shame weighs me down like a hot blanket as I walk heavily into the living room and sit down on the couch. I wait for what seems like hours listening to Annemarie’s family finish their dinner in silence. I can hear forks scraping plates. I try to listen even harder, until I think I can hear the sound of a cloth napkin being placed on the table, or the sound of Annemarie’s father, finally blinking his eyes. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts

There Is No Normal.

September 30, 2015

By Millie Mestrill

There are things in the past that hold us with shame. These things embrace us deeply and after much time we reflect and cannot believe our actions. We go on an endless array of questions, “Why did I react like that? Why was I so hard on this person? What triggered that situation? Why was I so insensitive?” The questions spew out like a machine gun with self-destruction and embarrassment. We move forward, but sometimes when witnessing the wrong we once did ourselves, the guilt arrives with full force. It’s then that we are reminded to really let go of the past.

A week after my four year old son arrived from Romania, I noticed something in him. I already had two sons I raised alone, and they were typical boys: they played outside, played ball, rough housed, grinding in skateboards, and spent countless hours on video games. But, this sweet soul with a strong Eastern European dialect just wanted to fold clothes, clean house, wear his sister’s skirts, play with her Barbie dolls, and wanted nothing to do with boy stuff.  The more I insisted, he act like his brothers the worst the temper tantrums became.

I come from a strong Hispanic community. I never had gay friends (none that came out during the 80’s). To make matters worse my ex would come down on me for being too easy on him. “You are turning that boy into a homosexual.” I would grind my teeth, shamefully not knowing what to do with this sweet soul who was trying to find his way into our lives. His difference became the elephant in the room. The harder I tried to force him to be like his brothers the worst he reacted. These are the things that now, many years later, I am embarrassed and ashamed for even entertaining. Standing on this side of the timeline, I don’t even recognize that woman. I was a total asshole without any excuse for my stupidity. Today, I am a huge supporter of homosexuality, transgender and humanity for that matter. I have friends from all walks of life. They say ignorance is bliss. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is a stupid and it’s our human right to educate ourselves in those things that are not part of our inner circle.

Continue Reading…

Binders, feminism, Girl Power: You Are Enough, Guest Posts

What I Am Thinking When You, a Stranger, Shout “Hey Baby You Look Good”at Me When I Walk By on a Crowded Street

August 26, 2015

By Amber Sparks

Should I smile?

I should smile. That was a compliment – it’s polite to smile. It doesn’t take any effort.

God, I hate that other people are looking at me now. I feel like I have to respond. Are they trying to figure out what looks good? Are they judging me? 5 out of 10 stars? Nice ass, softish stomach, teeth need work?

Maybe just a little smile. A no-teeth smile. A thanks but stay away smile.

I smile too much. That’s what the women in my life tell me. Stop smiling so much. You don’t owe that smile to anybody. Stop giving it away.

I can say I have a husband (true) and a baby (true). I can say I’m taken.

But that’s bullshit. I don’t belong to any man, including my husband. I’m not “taken.” If you respect me because I’m wearing a ring then you’re just respecting another man’s property. You’re not respecting me. I should say this. I should make this shit known.

But I don’t want them to think I’m a bitch. What if they were just being nice? I was raised to be a nice person. Polite. It doesn’t hurt to smile.

I do look good today. I like this dress. I’ve lost some weight and my hair looks good. I did my makeup today. They’re just seeing that, you know? Seeing the effort I put in. I should be validated, right?

But this effort is for me, not for other people. This is just for me.

Am I a bitch? Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, motherhood, Women

On Wishing Things Were Different

August 14, 2015

By Jessica Zucker

I.

Mourning is hard for her. She’s loathe to sink into the anguish of that time and what it means about the woman who raised her.

Mother.

II.

Rather than feel the grief, she has spent the better part of her life gripping onto hope—an emotional contortionist—thinking that if only she were different than maybe her mother would treat her better, love her constantly, see her. Be there. These are the details that coarse through her unconscious mind day in, day out.

Anxiety.
Loneliness.
Shame.

After repeated emotional mishaps and arduous disappointments, history collected in her psyche, hardening her once soft edges. The antithesis of a wellspring of support, her mother’s behaviors left an indelible mark on her daughter, cementing her impression of what relationships are made up of, and what they are not.

III.

As a child she felt alone. She was alone. She turned her longing for connection into mock group therapy sessions for her stuffed animals, lined at the foot of her bed. “So, elephant”, she inquired, “what do you think about this story? How do you think the characters felt at the end of the book?” This type of playfulness exhibited her imaginative inner life and gave birth to an intimacy and connectedness she yearned for in actuality. Otherwise, in the context of the real people in her home, she felt stranded. Her house was missing key elements that she desperately needed to thrive: attunement, curiosity, reflection, unfettered fun. Continue Reading…

Abuse, Binders, Guest Posts, healing

Palms Up

June 16, 2015
Book Girl Power: You Are Enough now! Space is limited. Sep 19 Princeton! Sep 20th NYC. The book is also forthcoming from Jen Pastiloff.

Book Girl Power: You Are Enough now! Space is limited. Sep 19 Princeton! Sep 20th NYC. The book is also forthcoming from Jen Pastiloff.

By Telaina Eriksen

“I’ve noticed you’ve gained weight. I mean, I haven’t been staring at your body…”

“A lot of weight,” I say.

“I just mean to say… I just want to encourage you… I’m not saying it right, but you deserve to be thinner and healthier.”

I feel the tears spill out of my eyes. So much shame. Ancient shame that I have carried with me ever since my mother slapped my arm repeatedly for salting a saltine when I was four or five years old. Good people aren’t fat. Fat people are ugly and bad and lack control and self-discipline. Men do not like fat girls and if men don’t like you, they won’t marry you, and if you aren’t married, if you don’t have a man, what good are you? The Gospel According to My Mother.

“It’s how I deal with things,” I tell my friend, oversimplifying.

“This fall, I think I know how you felt. I gained a lot of weight, was very heavy for me. I remember thinking, ‘why not? I’m happy with myself’… I’m not saying it right… but I love you. I want you to be happy.”

I am so huge, I require an intervention. I love my friend but I feel like sobbing. Doesn’t she think I know? Doesn’t she know that I always know? Maybe I am naïve enough to believe that some people just accept how I look and aren’t secretly judging me.

I get into my minivan after our conversation. I reach down to feel my stomach, feel the exact proportions of my shame and worthlessness. The exact dimensions of my failure as a woman.

***

As near as I can figure out and remember, I was sexually molested off and on from the time that I was about four to when I was about nine. When I was nine years old, I had my tonsils out and due to complications, almost died. I was without oxygen to my brain for not merely seconds, but minutes. It felt easy to blame my fragmented childhood memories on that illness.

The feelings I remember most from my childhood are terror and anxiety.  Nightmares plagued me. During the daylight hours I constantly sought attention, distraction, love. At night I sucked my thumb and tried not to wet the bed.

***

Here is a list of the things I need to be doing at this exact moment:

cleaning the house

baking my son’s vegan birthday cupcakes

walking the dog

placing the new boxes of tissue around the house (it is cold and flu season after all)

turning in my grades for the semester

mailing the Christmas box to my siblings in another state

scooping the cat’s litter box

cleaning off the top of my desk

loading the dishwasher

wrapping my son’s birthday presents

doing laundry

losing weight

being a good friend, wife, mother and daughter

being Zen (while also being understanding, charming, evolved and happy)

making time for the important things

reducing my social media time

reading more

gossiping less

achieving perfection. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts

Secrets.

March 11, 2015

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By Maryann Gray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

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