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nonfiction

Explication Of My Guilt by Jessica Pulver

Explication Of My Guilt | Jessica Pulver

I want to write about my guilt, so first I will say what happened. On the afternoon of February 19, 2011 in our white farmhouse in New Hampshire, I pushed our son Leo out of my body and onto the blue rug in front of the wood stove. The labor had dragged past forty hours. I’d sucked on supplemental oxygen to keep my strength up, and left the birthing tub to walk naked circles around the house to jostle my body along. Kathryn, my midwife, had pried her fingers up inside me to nudge Leo’s head this way, that way. Leo was descending – I had seen his dark hair in a mirror between my legs – then pulled back in again. Kathryn and her assistant had tried different positions, on the floor with my legs up. Every time they moved me it felt excruciating. Then, suddenly, Kathryn saw meconium — babies’ first poop which comes out before birth if they are in distress. If Leo took a gasp while still in the uterus and aspirated meconium into his lungs, it would lead to respiratory dysfunction. Kathryn reached and dialed 911. A minute passed, four minutes, I was breathing, we were waiting, not knowing for what. Just as paramedics filed into our living room, Leo dropped from my body with one tidal heave. He lay there gray, his eyes closed. He didn’t cry, he didn’t move. 

Other details survive. The smell of blood, of pads soaked in witch hazel. My husband Eric’s face, blank. The tug of the umbilical cord as they lifted Leo up, forgetting we were still attached. A glimpse of my rabbit, trembling in the corner of his cage, as they angled my stretcher through the narrow kitchen. The ambulance bumping on the frost heaves along the dark road to the local hospital. Wide glass doors sliding open. Nurses counting, clipboards, everyone rushing, no one saying what was happening. The sudden burn of IV pitocin when they realized my placenta was still inside me; the disappearing forearm of the woman who fetched it out of me when it was obvious pitocin was useless through my shock. A wail of agony. Being wheeled beside Leo: “You can touch your baby now.” Locking onto his dark eyes – for an instant we were familiar strangers, brought face to face from foreign worlds, and then they took him away again. Some time later, peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s Kiss centers my friend had baked, eating them and eating them, ravenously, insanely, not understanding how I could be in the car beside Eric as we followed Leo’s ambulance on its way to the NICU at Maine Medical Center. Rain on the windshield, Eric silently crying. Still knowing nothing.

Overwhelmingly, what I remember from that day is a distinct confusion, a lens that both sharpened my sensory experience and scrambled my cognitive experience. I witnessed events unfolding without any tether to a storyline. My voice arrived uninitiated. People I knew – loved – were like strangers acting parts. 

Guilt was the first way my mind offered up to make sense of the situation. In no way did I choose guilt; in fact, as a therapist, I knew the pitfalls of guilt from seeing them play out over years of work with my clients. Guilt uses trauma as a substrate – it is opportunistic and predatory. Guilt can be blinding, like an addiction. Guilt can be isolating and unspeakable, a recipe for profound loneliness. Guilt can be grueling and wear a person down to the bones. Guilt can be bossy, it can lead someone to try controlling everything. It can be vigilant, can steal sleep and rest and peace. It can also be beguiling, resisting resistance, a chameleon in the realm of rational conversation. All this I knew well and yet I was defenseless when it came to my own trauma and the way guilt grew from it.

Early in the morning of Leo’s second day, as I sat in the NICU rocking chair and held him in my arms for the first time, breathing and feeding tubes attached,  and sang him Edelweiss, guilt arrived without question. It lodged in my throat like a clump of dirt I couldn’t rinse down. It staked a claim on me that was as incontrovertible as the fact of my new motherhood. It said: you are responsible for this baby, and since you are responsible, his birth is your fault. You were reckless to plan a homebirth, candles, birthing tub; it was all foolish romance. You should have known your baby better, what he needed; you were hasty, began to push too soon. You should have taken fuller breaths on the living room floor to send the oxygen to him. You were naive to the stakes; even after they saw meconium and dialed 911, you believed he would be fine. You should have worried more.

Leo has Cerebral Palsy and it matters every day. He is in fifth grade now, and he has a hard time from the moment he wakes up. Extracting his limbs from under his quilt, walking to the bathroom to pee. He stumps across the floor, hobbled by spasticity, trying to balance on his bent left leg and right big toe. The entire right side of his body is more affected than the left, and the tightness pulls his right heel up so it doesn’t ever fully touch the floor. In the mornings he’s the stiffest; as the day wears on, his heel descends a bit. He leans on the doorknob. He leans on the sink and smears toothpaste across his PJs. He leans on the flimsy towel rack, forever overloaded by our family of five, and it collapses again. When he goes down with it, he slams his head on the tub, hard. But he doesn’t cry, he is used to falling down. He forms his stiff lips to call out, “I’m okay!” He even takes a deep breath first to project his weak voice so we can hear him from the kitchen where we are making coffee, bagels, a fire, and stick our heads out to the hall when we hear the thump upstairs. 

Thumps like those are the drumbeat of my guilt that has aged over a decade. In them, I hear reverberations of fears and shame. Like an echo chamber: Leo might not walk. Leo might not talk. Leo might not have a friend, a career. Leo might not be able to kiss the person he falls in love with. Leo might not be happy, might be in pain. And his pain is my pain because it is my fault. 

There is nothing special about guilt; it is common as a weed. From the beginning, when I talked with Eric about the birth, I could hear myself blame myself harshly. I cringed when I felt like guilt had become old and stale and almost self-indulgent in a masochistic way. Eric had his version too. On a date a few years ago, we were trying to relax by paying to soak in a hot tub. We got talking about Leo again, and Eric told me how he held himself accountable for allowing the labor to stagnate for so long and not insisting we go to the hospital. 

“All I said was, ‘How long are we going to keep doing this, guys?’” he said to me, and I could see the tears in his eyes through the steam.

Kathryn, my hapless midwife, stayed with me for the first few days after Leo was born, bringing me pillows and salves for my hemorrhoids, helping me clean the breast pump parts. Maybe she would have done so regardless, but it seemed like guilt was prompting her to linger. Then she took a few months off from midwifery to reflect on whether she could continue. My grandparents came to visit Leo when he was four months old and failing to thrive, unable to coordinate his mouth muscles to draw in enough breastmilk. Even they spoke ruefully at our dining room table of wishing they had tried harder to convince us not to have a home birth. 

Sometimes guilt gets turned around and the blame points outward at someone else. My mother and my mother-in-law do not have a lot in common, but they both gave cold shoulders to Kathryn when they saw her ministering to me in those early days.  It made me uncomfortable to see this. I felt fiercely defensive of her and said repeatedly that she had done her best for me. I was shocked, when I began to read Cerebral Palsy websites, how many parents sued their doctors for malpractice in their children’s deliveries. It’s true I spent a long time poring over the details of the labor, and the medical records from the weeks before. Some of the explanations were flimsy because there really was no way to know what exactly had gone wrong, but some were because Kathryn tended to be an inattentive notetaker and was often flaky about her agenda at appointments. It would have been easy to hold this against her but I concluded instead that I should have been a better judge of character or taken a more active role. I steered far away from blaming Kathryn because I needed to keep the blame for myself.

What does it mean, this haunting? Pain is at the heart of what I want to say about guilt. Because despite the fact guilt caused me to suffer at various times in all the ways I recognized in my clients’ lives, the pain it kept me from was worse: I did not have to face the idea that CP was not my fault. What kind of terrifying, arbitrary world would that imply? How would I know how to live if anything bad could happen to me, if I wasn’t exceptional, if I had no power? Guilt was working for me, soothing me in a haze of lies, so I didn’t have to surrender my entire worldview to a meaningless existence. So for a long time, I relied on guilt to fuel my denial. Guilt snugs up close to regret, as if reality were something we chose, as if it were something we could have controlled, as if it were something that shouldn’t have happened, wasn’t supposed to happen, as if it were something bad, as if it were a mistake. And a mistake has no meaning when it comes to Leo.

First, yes there was trauma, but also as there often is, great strength. Leo and I managed together to get him born in the nick of time, before the paramedics loaded me onto the stretcher and brought me in the ambulance down the long bumpy road to the hospital, a ride during which he would have surely died inside me. Eric has called it miraculous more than once. So we have Leo in the world, and who would he be apart from CP?  I love him immeasurably, and I mean I love all of him. I love his crooked lope across the baseball field. I love the way he starts laughing uncontrollably before he can finish telling a joke, and the laughter makes him drool. 

Also, CP slows us down, brings us together, gives us perspective, patience, and resilience. I am proud of the strength of our family, Leo’s siblings, our marriage. And last, there is the nature of life, which is that it’s complicated. Who can know what would have happened, if this, if that? How responsible can we ever be? 

I have learned it’s okay to hate CP sometimes and wish like hell that Leo didn’t have it, and still to find meaning, and even identity, even beauty in his disability. I have learned I can tell someone that Leo has CP because I had a homebirth, and in that sense I claim responsibility, but stop short of culpability. I have learned it’s important to try hard to make a good decision for Leo, but that trying too hard to get things right can lead to a place of arrogance or fantasy where it’s possible to live with only good outcomes. And that this way of life may feel safe but is constraining, is missing something. Pain. Discovery. Slowly, the contradictions of my world have settled into background mystery. I can’t really say how this happened. Time? And dipping back into the morass of memory, coming up sticky and swollen. By crying. By counseling. By writing in journals, walking with friends, screaming at the ocean. By waking up and loving Leo every morning.

These days, guilt still shows up in the form of doubt and an unending incantation of questions. Maybe we should stay upstairs with him every morning in case he falls. Should we bolt more handles to our walls? Maybe he should wear a helmet. We struggle to keep the routine of stretching him on the massage table before school, to loosen him up just a little. We grapple with possible surgeries – will they do more harm than good? Leo is eleven now; how should we involve him in the decisions? We visit specialist after specialist who dispenses contradictory advice. And how much difference does wearing his braces really make? But I like to think that guilt shows up somewhat guiltily now. It knows better than to come masquerading as something authoritative and scary. I have quelled it, if not vanquished it. I know that asking these questions is part of parenting Leo well, and that is work I am committed to excelling at.

Now, when hard parts of CP pop up, I have learned to say: this is not guilt, this is grief. Grief for his falls in the bathroom. Grief for when he can’t ride a scooter with the neighbors, ski with his cousins. Grief for when he cries out for me, brave as he is, when the neurologist injects him with Botox to take the edge off the muscle spasms. Grief for the toll that parenting Leo has taken on our marriage and the hurts we have endured in order to stay together. Grief lives on. It is hard, and heavy, and long. Sometimes it nudges guilt back alive, to distract from the pain. But the pain is the truth and the truth is brilliant. It’s not that I made a huge mistake by having a home birth and we all had to suffer the dreadful consequences. It’s that I made a choice that winter, and then we abided the rest of our incomprehensible lives.

At dinner, after a couple sentences about band practice antics, Leo gives up telling about his day because talking makes him tired and takes too long, and he has to focus on chewing so he can put in enough calories. Spasticity involuntarily contracts his muscles so he is constantly dumping energy. Just sitting in his chair at the end of the day is an effort. Still, he is amazing. Instead of talking, he smiles at me across the table, and his smile is like none other. A big part of me believes he would not have that smile if not for CP.

About the Author:

Jess Pulver is a mother, social worker, and aspiring gardener nestled in the woods outside Portland, Maine. She majored in Creative Writing at Swarthmore College over twenty years ago, but has only recently returned to the writing life. Her work is forthcoming in Literary Mama, Waccamaw Journal, and Kaleidoscope Magazine. She attempts to look deeply at the complexity of emotions, in her therapy practice and in her writing.

Categories
nonfiction

Failure by Lauren Davenport

Failure | Lauren Davenport

I work in a school full of ghosts and traitors. It is a failing school. It has the second lowest passing rate in the city–not a statistic the school cares to flaunt. The phrase, “This is my seventh principal,” is a badge of pride around here. The first person who said this to me said it with an extra curl in her lip because she knew that I’d joined this school at the behest of Principal Number Seven, my dear friend. Principal Number Seven believed (and still believes) that this school and the people in it can be salvaged. The place is littered with crinkled empty bags of Doritos, smashed Arizona cans, buzzing fluorescent lights, faulty door handles, and fragile hearts. Peel back the layers of chipped paint on the walls and watch the colors spiral down to the tiled floor. Perhaps Periwinkle Blue will save the place. Each coat of paint represents a promise, each layer calling on the indefatigable American desire for a happy ending or a fresh start. 

This place has a particular odor. Sure, all high schools are smelly places. Hormones and sweaty armpits, the stench of onions and bleach. Teenagers smell. Adults smell. Poverty reeks. But the smell here, on the Lower East Side, is something stronger still. It’s the odor that connects us all. It cuts through race, through class, and rests not just on the epidermis–the smell lodges itself in the soul. Imagine the smell like a universal perfume. L’eau de Failure. It smells like the water left from flowers after they’ve sat in a vase for a week. It smells like something that may have once been beautiful, but is now decaying. It is a cheap perfume. No amount can mask what is underneath. 

#HallDutyBlows

I do my best to clear the hallways. I tell the ghosts who are trying to cut class to go where they are supposed to go. But here comes one who has never stepped inside a class. He’s almost twenty. He’s told the staff that he’s transferring. He’s been saying that for months. At twenty-one, he’ll be released from roaming the halls and instead he’ll roam the streets. 

“Where are you supposed to be?” 

“Art.” 

“You’re cutting ART? I don’t get it. You are so artistic.” He truly is. I blink and picture this kid selling Tarot Readings to Upper East Side stay-at-home moms. 

“I am. But I don’t like drawing. I mean, the teacher, she helped me a lot but I just don’t like that kind of art.” 

“You prefer the stairwell for its artistic value.” 

“Exactly, Miss.” He gives me a hug. 

He’s at least twice my height but such a child. He is radiant. His brown eyes are so wide. His white teeth explode from his goofy smile. I worry that someone will want his gold chain. Or that the police will catch him if he jumps a turnstile or does something typically adolescent and foolish. He does the “nay-nay,” the latest dance, and rounds the corner. I ask a few other kids to go to class. They respect me enough to at least go to another floor and let me save face. I could write them up in our anecdotal database if I wanted to convince myself that the writing would have meaning. 

I smell weed from the stairwell. I open the swinging doors at the east exit to see if I can find the dealer. The ghosts are gone. What lingers is a wisp of smoke strong enough to make me lose my footing.

The ghosts take many forms. Some are names on my roster, marked absent day after day. These ghosts appear a few times a year to collect their free metro cards, or because the truancy officer showed up or a home visit was made, but they are apparitions. They float in, they float out. If I blink, I’m not sure they are real. 

Others appear more frequently but are so angry, hungry, tired, sick or depressed that their full forms are hard to see. They are might-have-beens before they ever had a chance to be. I see their families in their eyes. The broken promises of that horrible phrase “a better life”–a phrase scribbled on poorly written formulaic essays that I teach them to write in order to pass the state exams. I see their parents who once floated down these same halls discovering themselves, fighting to have a chance to just be and often losing. “My moms get ratchety when the teachers call home. They hate that shit. They don’t give a fuck. They don’t want to hear nothin’.” 

I love these ghosts. When I point out that the hallways are not actually where they should be, they laugh, shrug their shoulders and respond, “you right, Miss, you right.” I form cautious relationships with them because these ghosts hurt the people who love them. 

One ghost let me believe I was helping him. His progress was astounding until the day of the state exam he stayed home for. He hasn’t returned. I called home to say that it was ok that he skipped the test. He’ll be nineteen soon. He wants to join the army. 

Another ghost left after one too many suspensions. He’s out there somewhere and from time-to-time I think I see him on the corner when I’m walking to the subway. 

Then there’s the ghost who writes brilliantly when he isn’t shoving students into lead pipes in order to steal their weed. He says flatly that his actions are part of the hustle, the game, and he has to do “what he’s gotta do to stay up.” Common phraseology around here. After each suspension he comes back determined to stay on target. He’s on time. His hand is in the air ready with insightful questions and comments and if I let myself dream, I see him going to college and succeeding there. Three days later, he’s high with blood shot eyes, stuffing Jolly Ranchers into his mouth, putting his head down on the desk, drooling. 

There’s another who talks to me about Kant and Locke but won’t come to class because he says it makes him too anxious. There are the ones who are taking too many meds prescribed by so-called doctors. There are the ones who self-medicate. There are the ones who post too much on social media. The ones who can’t put their phones away. The ones who can’t stop talking. The ones who coat themselves in lip gloss during class. They are typical teenagers but they don’t have money or support to get them out of the holes they fall in. So when they fall, and they fall, they stay stuck. After a while, they don’t want to come out even when I extend my hand. There are the ghosts who hide in the library. The ghosts who go to counseling instead of class. There’s the ghost who has a cousin who abuses her. There are ghosts here that I can’t even see. 

#SparklyRainbowUnicornLove 

I’m an upbeat person. I smile a lot. I laugh. I’m earnest. Optimistic. Idealistic. I’m giddy when I learn a new teaching trick, or help a student discover something. I love teaching. I love observing the way teenagers see the world. The way they all hate and love their moms. The way they hate and love themselves. I love trying to keep up with them.

“Hey you guys,” I’ll say. “I got zo’ed for my pack of gum today.”

“You can’t say it like that Miss.” 

They love it when I try to speak their language. I score major points when I explain that Macbeth IS the original O.G., the Godfather of all the gangstas, the MAN. I lose points when I use the word telephone, when I say we should “videotape” their discussion. I love listening to them translate the academic into the street. I tell them I think they are much, much smarter than I am because they are apart of so many subcultures. They understand, on some level, how symbolic an education they are being offered. 

I am the Literacy Coach for the school. I teach four classes to the lowest performing kids in the school. I write the school newsletter, I help the school develop the curriculum, I run the weekly professional training seminars with the school’s lead teacher, and like everyone else, I put out umpteen unforeseen fires every single day. 

When I began working at the school last summer, I set up a Teacher Resource Room. I cleared out a space that had belonged to a beloved social work program for which there was no longer funding. I hauled out dusty books, swept away mice crap, chucked discarded shoes and shirts, recycled loads of old papers. I set up computers and networked a printer, filled a bookshelf with professional books on educational strategies and research for teachers to read and borrow. I sent out emails soliciting ideas, interests, suggestions. One person emailed to request that I please remove her from the email list. Another asked if the coffee would be free. 

I knew that transitioning from one school to another would take time, but my reception wasn’t just cool, it was frigid. 

#Call311 

3-1-1 is the catch all phone number for information and reporting in New York. In the world of ghosts and traitors, it’s an anonymous punch-in-the-gut. When I transferred to the school, I’d come from a place where teachers supported one another. No matter what. When one of the Tiffanys (I had three Tiffanys in my classroom one year, each notorious) was out of control, I’d take a piece of paper, write 3-1-1 on it, staple it, and send her to another teacher’s room. The teacher would hold Tiffany until class was over. We traded unruly kids constantly. It avoided the paperwork and most of the time, it helped the kid cool down.

A few months into the academic year at my current school, I learned about a different use for 3-1-1. One morning, my son was too sick to go to Pre-K and my babysitter couldn’t get him until lunchtime, so I had no choice but to bring him to work. The ghosts swooned over him. They fed him Skittles and juice. They kept him warm, they played along as he waved his toy taxi cab or drew circles with his green crayon. My son laughed and enjoyed seeing Mommy as a teacher. He told an unruly student to sit down and out of sheer amusement, the student obeyed. But the next morning, I was called into the assistant principal’s office because of an anonymous 3-1-1 call. A fellow teacher coerced a student into placing the call. She’d taught her what to say. I was told to just stay home if I couldn’t find a babysitter. I went to talk about it with the lead teacher. 

“They don’t like you. You are friends with the Principal. You haven’t proven yourself. You’re an outsider.” 

“I’m a teacher. We’re on the same side.” 

“Not to them.” 

#AtLeastShowUp

Hall duty again. A group of kids stand outside room 255. “Where’s your teacher?” I ask. “He’s missing, Miss.” I open the door. The room is empty. I check the library. He’s not there. I run downstairs, upstairs but the man is nowhere to be seen. Finally, I knock on the door of the assistant principal’s office. I don’t want to get the guy in trouble, but I’m starting to worry that he went out for coffee and isn’t coming back. 

I learn that teachers watch other teachers to make sure no one is late to work. Someone watches to ensure that each educator is teaching the exact same number of instructional minutes as every other educator. A teacher is watching to make sure that the assigned professional duties are distributed according to Union Regulations. Union Regulations. Union Regulations. Union Regulations. The traitors chant this phrase like a biblical verse. It is their truth. Their righteousness. Their Savior. The Union died on the cross for the administrators’ sins. Someone is watching. Someone is watching. Someone is watching. I need a cup of coffee. I ask my friend and co-teacher if she wants to come with me. 

“Let’s use the back exit through the other school,” she says. “Because someone might be watching.” 

Principal Number Seven tells me not to be discouraged. She insists I stay true to myself. She plasters the school with posters of inspirational quotes from Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela. She puts potpourri in her bathroom and fills her office with plants. She can make anything grow. She has superpowers. She is the greatest listener on earth. She hears every voice. I will not be discouraged. 

#OutSick

I have to cover for another teacher who is out sick. A ghost comes in floating very high and before I can say anything, she knocks over a set of bookshelves.

“I just smoked the fattest blunt, yo.” She opens a window. “This is cooling off my soul.”

I ask her to sit down. She laughs at me. She grabs a bottle of water and begins to spill the water up the center aisle of the classroom. She stops at the computer cart. I warn her that if she can’t pull herself together, I’ll have to call security.

“Suck my dick,” she says. “I don’t give a fuck.” 

A fellow student begins to play the popular “I don’t give a fuck,” song from her computer. Several students join in. I quash it. But the girl won’t leave. I have no choice. I call security. No one comes. I call again. Now there are two girls twerking in the front of the room. I thank the other ghosts for staying on task. The assistant principal comes in. The girl still won’t leave. Another teacher comes in. The girl ghost floats above us all. 

She says, “Can you help me find the fuck I don’t give?” She cackles. She has become a ghost-witch. A mash-up. 

The security guard arrives out of breath and perturbed. She shrugs her shoulders and says, “If that girl won’t leave for any of you, what do you think I am supposed to do?”

The ghost smiles. “She can’t touch me. None of you can touch me.” 

She sings her fuckless song. Time passes. The other ghosts pretend to work. This is their latest viral video. It washes over them. They seem to experience every event as though it is on repeat, through a transparent sheet masking any authenticity. 

The ghost girl walks to the door and says, “Right bitches, I’m out.” She leaves. 

The security guard tells me later that the ghost girl will likely receive a glass of milk and some cookies from Principal Number Seven. Principal Number Seven will tell me that in some ways the security officer is right. Too many suspensions will ensure that the school doors close forever. A failing school is under endless scrutiny. We must improve attendance, test scores, graduation rates. We have to have just the right number of suspensions and the right kind.

#EvaluateThisJargon 

We are supposed to supply rigorous academic content. Find complex, authentic texts to use. Apply flexible instruction. Support accountable talk. Ensure that the students know their daily learning targets. Recommend a growth mindset. Encourage the students. Mentor the students. Maintain high expectations. Scaffold student learning. Hold students accountable for their learning. Motivate students. Assess students. Provide students with rubrics. Leave students room for answering but not waste too many instructional minutes. Provide student-centered activities and avoid teacher-directed content. Deliver content through a gradual release of responsibility. We are not to teach to the test. We are evaluated by the test scores. We need word walls. We need recent examples of authentic learning that reflect higher order thinking. 

Evaluators come in and out of the classrooms to make sure we are doing our jobs. They snap pictures and shake their heads. Where are our call logs to prove that we are contacting parents? Can they see recent evidence of data-driven decisions? Why didn’t we differentiate this assignment to meet the needs of each learner? We are not good enough. We aren’t good enough. We aren’t good enough. They distribute memos. They issue proclamations. They giveth, they taketh away. 

In successful schools, administrators are learning partners. The most common phrase is “what do you need and how can I help you?” In this school, everyone needs someone to blame. The Superintendent points to the Principal who points to the teacher who points to the student. It’s a culture of failure. It’s cyclical. It’s insipid, malignant and possibly fatal. 

I ask a boy ghost to please move tables so that he can focus and get his work done. He refuses to do so. I try humor, guilt-trips, silence, peer pressure. He will not budge. 

It’s Wednesday. Time for our weekly full-staff professional training. I ask the teachers to move their seats so that they are sitting in departments. They refuse. I try humor, guilt trips, silence, peer pressure. They refuse to budge. One of the teacher calls across to her peer shouting, “what time is this over?‘” Another says, “how long do we have to be here?” Traitors. I feel ashamed to be a card-carrying union lady. I am developing TMJ. My migraines are getting worse. I start avoiding the Resource Room I created. It is windowless and stuffy in there and the stink will swallow me whole. 

#Filter 

Bulletin boards are due by 3 PM. Principal Number Three had them all painted lime green. She decorated the building as if it were her house. The lime has a great deal of yellow in it. Combined with the fluorescent lighting, it’s like an instagram shot with a filter. I watch a student slug another student who trips just under the poster reading “Recipe for Success.” For an instant I feel that I might vomit. The moment passes. I wonder if I have enough typed student work to cover the green. 

#I’mJustLikeThem 

I joined this school because I thought I could help. Everyone here seemed to be trying to escape from something and I was trying to escape from something myself. My marriage was floundering. 

A few years ago, my family moved to the West Coast in a futile attempt to escape my husband’s crippling depression. My two small children were on top of one another in our tiny space in Brooklyn. We were deep in debt. We thought we’d save money in Seattle. My husband needed a new job. Fresh air. More space. We thought that we could fix what was broken. We were tired of ten dollar orange juice and neighbors who bought into our housing complex in order to have guest houses or who bought from abroad and left them empty. We

were tired of watching our friends leave to be replaced by entitled, self-important assholes who hated noise. WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU MOVING TO BROOKLYN IF YOU HATE NOISE? We were ready to leave. 

But New York is its own kind of prison and recidivism is often self-induced. The escape plan didn’t work out. I missed the seasons. I missed the noise. I missed my friends. My husband was still depressed. I hated the grey. I hated large spaces. I missed our cramped little home. The holes in my life felt larger, darker. After three years, I came home with my two kids. My husband would look for work in New York. In the meantime, he would take care of himself. He would get some help. We would see what to do about our marriage. I spoke to Principal Number Seven. I toured the school with its lime green bulletin boards. I walked the hallways with the ghosts floating about. I shook hands with the traitors not seeing through their cracked smiles. 

I envisioned a team of teachers working together to turn the school around. I imagined the inspired students able somehow to overlook their hunger, their rage, their neglectful parents in order to learn about hypotenuse triangles and homeostasis. And I’ve always wanted to teach on the Lower East Side. The center of the American Dream, the place where there were once seventeen yiddish newspapers. Where tenements and skyscrapers shook hands. The place where entrepreneurs and dreamers carved sculptures from desire and desperation. Where the resourceful could dig themselves out sans shovel. I could dig myself out. I could start over. 

#T’wasARoughNight

Two ghosts stand up to leave my class. We’re discussing Macbeth. His ambition is his downfall. A student is annoyed that Macbeth is trying to “punk out” and not kill Duncan. I remind them that in the world of the play, fair is foul, and foul is fair. The world of this play is topsy turvy. It is twisted, ugly and full of lies. In the world of this play, things are not what they seem. 

“Why are you guys leaving? This is a class, you can’t just walk out.” 

“Sorry Miss, we have business.” Fair is foul. Foul is fair. 

Sometimes I think the place should be closed down. Get rid of all the traitors. Let the music teacher whose favorite song is the innuendo find something better to do with his life. Let the videographer go back to making movies. Let the science teacher with the unsatisfactory rating quit while he is ahead. Take a match to the place and start again. Let the charter school take over. They send their people over to measure the rooms anyway. They have their blueprints and their fancy flyers. They are ready to go. Let them have it. I’ll find another job. I’m not too worried about that. But I’m not sure I can just roll over and play dead. I know I can’t fix the school, but I’m not sure I can let it go either. Yet, I’m equally unsure of how long I can stay before becoming a ghost myself. 

#FailureIsContagiousButIsItUntreatable? 

I love these ghosts. Will the charter school love them? I take them back time after time, misstep after misstep. 

“I’m good today, Miss. Look at my eyes if you don’t believe me.”

I believe that these ghosts need a place to roam. 

“Miss, I’m going to pass this marking period. I’m on my A-game.”

I stink too, now, and the culture of failure is a part of me. When my very best earns an F, it gets harder and harder to want to try for an A. Somedays, I feel that I don’t want to try at all. I don’t see the point. This is a lesson my students have known their entire lives, but that I am just learning. The traitors in my school learned it long ago. With each passing principal they realized that nothing that they did would ever be good enough, and in time they believed that to be true of themselves as well. And so it became true. It is true. The ghosts are angry and so they hurt the traitors. The traitors are angry so they hurt me because I am powerless and these are street rules. Survival is all there is to hope for. We wander around half-living, half-doing, half-caring. We are all traitors. We are all afraid of our odor.

My son crawls into my bed almost every night to talk to me about monsters or vampires or some other invisible fear. My daughter cries when she learns I am the Tooth Fairy. My husband is not next to me in bed. Our lives are filled with illusions, half-truths, disappointments, failures. There are so many moments gone, so many candles blown out, so many wishes wished. Before I know it, I will be gone. I want to start over again. 

My husband is hundreds of miles away. He is getting treatment. He climbs mountains on weekends and sends me #SoHigh selfies. He is beginning to see how horrible it was for me in a grey city where he would stay in bed leaving me to the dishes, the kids, the bills. I am learning to treasure the moments when he feels like himself. I am trying not to dwell over the lost moments when he does not. I am not thinking about the person he used to be. I am trying to love the person he is. We are slowly finding one another again. I think.

I head to school each day and wonder which ghosts I will see, which traitors will be standing nearby, waiting to hurt me. I wonder if the copy machines will work. It’s Spring in New York but I no longer know what this means because it is snowing. Fair is foul and foul is fair. There are budding tulips, there is sunlight, and the smell of spring masks the failures I hide. A fresh coat of paint covers up a student’s graffiti spree. The new paint makes me wonder if just maybe, I’ll get that American ending. The ghosts greet me with questions, fist bumps, hugs, tears. I sip my coffee. Bulletin boards are due next Tuesday at 3.

About the Author:

Lauren Davenport writes fiction, creative-nonfiction, and some things in between from Brooklyn, NY. She is a proud NYC Public School Educator who has been serving high schools students since 2001.

Categories
nonfiction

Connect : Disconnect by Suzi Banks Baum

Connect : Disconnect | Suzi Banks Baum

I want to tell you what it felt like to grow up in a girl’s body with no touchable lexicon that made sense, that used words and references that reflected me as a person with a body and not as a conundrum cloaked in medical jargon or as a pure home for the Holy Spirit or as a temple of doom. I want to tell you how my sexual coming of age allowed me to explore the outer reaches of my good girl life, and how my body called me to burst out of those bounds and make my own way.

It will be years before I know about love and that my body has its own knowing that is singular to me. But long before love, before this holy knowing, I had an intense desire for connection and a fervent craving to experience what I grew up believing was entirely off limits. I was compelled into the un-worded territory of intimacy at a time when there was little to guide me and no one with whom to talk about it.

And so I begin:

I’m on my back, on an examination table at the public health clinic in Escanaba, a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I’ve stuck my heels in cold metal stirrups for my first pelvic exam. This visit to the clinic is supposed to be anonymous. I had set up this appointment from a pay phone, taken Mom’s car, told no one, especially not my mother. I’m naked under a cotton sheet on a winter afternoon.  I’ve been having unprotected sex for six months. No guy I’ve encountered wants to be inconvenienced by a rubber. They promise to pull out before they come. 

I have too little information about this place inside of me that everyone has words about. I cannot see this mysterious place within me, lamentably bloody at times, thrilling at others, a carnival between my thighs, the place songs I listen to on my transistor radio call heaven.

I have been raised with the threat that if I allow intercourse inside this place before I am married, I will go straight to hell. I am expected to live a chaste and decent life, obedient to God and my church and my country and my parents. But it is 1975 and all of these entities have either failed me or faltered horribly. I feel condemned and wrong in all the ways I am becoming myself.

There are people with assigned roles having to do with this hidden place inside my body, doctors, and a future husband to whom I will of course promise to be obedient. This part of my body is tied to a calendar which even the moon has something to do with. This part of my body feels oracular and full of sensations I want to read as messages—this body part is not a bottle, not a vial, but a container of something of which I want to be in charge. My body asks me to be obedient to it.

I don’t know the real words of sex yet. I hear people get called a cunt or a twat. It is a put-down to be called frigid, but also to have hot pants. Vagina is not a word I say. It will take me 20 years to say labia or vulva without grimacing. Down there gives the general direction of sex but includes other things. I want specificity. My time of the month is also called a curse, and I sort of agree with that. My best friend Amanda and I avoid all things vagina, but when we finally talk about it, neither of us knows how to pronounce the word. The way she says, “VAH-gin-ahh,” it sounds like a musical term. What do I know? My mother says crotch, but that describes where the seams of my jeans come together. 

For the purposes of this writing, I will refer to what happens in this place in my body as fucking. When I am 17, I do not make love, which people say because it conjures flowery romance which is what I do not experience. Having sex, like having anything—a cold or a car or even a baby—is not the right verb. I didn’t call it fucking then, but I will use that word now. When I am 17, I know that guys come. Jizz comes out when that happens. It squirts onto my belly or my thighs and hopefully not inside my vagina. Breasts seem important, but mostly the action is focused on this part of my body I cannot see. 

In the six months since I started going all the way, my body, which is neither celebrated nor spoken about, has become a generator of heat and attraction that calls into question everything I have been taught. 

I have no idea where I am going in my life except for out of this small town. Maybe I will go to college. In Escanaba, the wood framed houses have few windows. They stand situated to take the brunt of the harsh winter winds off the lake and endure the parching heat of summer. Up until now, my body has felt part of this landscape, capable of walking to school on early winter mornings in a short dress and pea coat, knee socks and fur-lined boots. Yes, my eyelashes freeze stiff, and my thighs sting red, but I thaw out during first period Econ.

I am not going to get married because no one here wants to marry me. Sex has proven there is more to life than waiting to do that with only one person. Neither my mother nor my church guides me with any sort of plan or suggestion, and my body has a strong desire of its own. My body wants to get me out of this town.

So here in this health clinic, I am looking for The Pill. That is a choice I have made.

But to get to the moment when my body and I first made a choice together, perhaps, I have to be on a metal-framed bunk in Old Shady Nook, the ancient clapboard two-story house at the edge of the birch woods at the camp where I work in the summer between junior and senior year of high school. The dining room aides sleep on bunk beds in small rooms. We tie our hair back with matching colored scarves which I collect and hang off the mirror in my room. The building is full of bats, which makes us all very jumpy at night. 

On this particular afternoon, I lay awkwardly on someone else’s lower bunk with a very cute boy from the maintenance crew during rest time. Miles is a year older than me. We paired up in the tidal swirl of magnetic attraction that shapes the social group of dining room aides and maintenance guys.  I have no recollection of the conversation we must have had while we took a walk around camp one evening when I admitted my virginity to him. 

I have never had a boyfriend. I don’t know how to do this part that comes before. I press my lips with shiny gloss before Miles sneaks in. I wear a halter top and cut-off army pants and one of those scarves. 

The weight of my virginity, which I have been led to believe is the sacred thing I will one day give to the man I love, tips on this precipice. At this moment, perhaps conveniently, I believe my virginity is something I can live without. And besides, who will know? More important to me in this moment is Miles, who is not supposed to be here. He shows no sign of fear, just a quiet steadiness as he pulls down the zipper of my shorts.

“It will hurt a little,” he whispers.

Losing my virginity right now, at this particular moment, has gained momentum. I couldn’t pull up my zipper if I tried. The mysterious heat inside my body is ignited by the combustion I feel between us. To stop feels undoable.

I wonder what he thinks as his dick grows hot and hard against my thigh. He slips his finger 

between the folds of my labia, asking if I am wet. This confuses me.

He spreads my legs apart and they don’t move so readily in this direction. He doesn’t whisper encouragingly. I let him push his dick into my vagina. 

I shrink back. This is a turning point, no return from this moment so swiftly arrived at, there, inside of me. There is nothing affectionate in his manner, nothing personal in his touch.

What I don’t see then I have never seen, how another enters this place inside of me.

While I have a high tolerance for pain, 46 years later I feel that first penetration, the sharpness still echoes in my sinews.

But now I am 17.  This is the moment I have longed for, maybe not this exact moment, but something of being chosen by a boy. Miles moves over me like a person on a mission. I am startled by how close he is, his bowl-cut hair. His maybe-beard grinds against my face. 

There is a shimmer once his dick is inside this place in my body, where I feel something entirely new. And this shimmer which feels jubilant–something deeply, quietly, personally, singly, mine-all-mine joyful–occurs at almost the same time that I feel utterly ashamed for letting this happen. I feel the collapse of all the promises and commandments I have ever spoken. But there is uplift too. I wonder for a second if this has something to do with love. The sin of this thing we have done and the exciting fun of it crash around inside me.

Miles does nothing to protect himself or me. Neither do I. This is another assigned role, a responsibility for the thing that could happen inside my body. Since it is my body, it feels like it is my job.

He comes with a grunt muffled in the pillow next to my ear. I wonder if I am supposed to do something else.

He slips out and lifts off me. My halter top coils under my chin, my shorts ring my ankles. As Miles straightens his sleeveless basketball jersey, his eyes meet mine with a sort of smile. I don’t know him well enough to guess his meaning. He zips his jeans. With a shake of his thick bangs, he leaves Old Shady Nook out the back door without saying a word.

I feel vivid and violated, even though I agreed to this. 

And then an equation assembles within me like a theorem in geometry class: When a boy and a girl intersect for sex, the girl will register many feelings, including pain. No such feelings, including love, shall ever be mentioned. 

I tug on a sweatshirt. My cheeks are red and raw from his beard. Embarrassed, I hustle back to work along with the other dining room aides. We are clear-headed, church-going girls hired by this camp to serve the campers and staff, and clean up in the dining room. I become a leader of this pack, all of us wearing those dumb scarves. I am good at serving.

As I walk among these girls, something new dawns in me because of Miles. My theorem expands: When a boy and a girl intersect for sex, a boyfriend is made. 

But Miles doesn’t act like a boyfriend at all. Miles does not want to be my boyfriend even though I believe that what we did on the bunk bed made that so.

We meet secretly at rest time in the apple orchard to talk. He is particular about my body, how I should sit on a picnic bench so my thighs do not spread out on the seat. How to not prop my arm up with my elbow locked. I coyly set my chin on my shoulder. He says this makes my arm look fat.

These things I never, ever forget. My young, soft, long-limbed body. How I walk around men. How much I want to be seen. Touched. 

Miles opens the gate. The rules about how I am supposed to behave conflict with that shimmery sensation that feels like mine. The rest of that summer, I flirt, but I don’t go all the way with any other guy. 

Before then, I didn’t know how to be with boys. My cousin, who is the oldest boy in a set of cousins we spend lots of time with, is one year older than me. Since his family moved to Ford River, we big kids play Rummy 500 and London Aire with our grandma. Over sparkly cat’s eye glasses tethered to her neck with a jeweled chain, she instructs us on how to deal and hold our cards. According to her, card-playing builds respectable social skills. 

My cousin teaches me to drive on county roads lined with cedar and birch that run straight to the horizon in his friend Darren’s Corvair. In winter, he teaches me to skate on hockey blades. He skates up behind me to nestle my hips so our ankles touch. I feel the way his blades strike the surface of the ice. He is a good teacher. My cousin is super cute and funny. My crush on him makes a hot feeling rise in my chest when we go to their house. I get dizzy. We have so much fun laughing together and playing with all the little kids.

During my junior year, he teaches me how to make out. We sneak into his bedroom evenings when we are charged with babysitting the combined crowd of our siblings. While the television blasts in the living room downstairs, the kids cartwheel off the couch. Behind his locked bedroom door, I learn things that cannot be done on ice skates. 

But my cousin cannot be my boyfriend.

I have a pang to know boys. They move through the world with apparent ease. Girls bake biscuits in home economics and take dictation in typing class while boys learn to weld, or fix cars in auto shop, or set type in print shop. 

Boys at church are busy. They get to be acolytes in special robes. They light the candles set in the candelabras that the Altar Guild ladies polished to a high sheen. I watch them carry the long candle snuffer which they use to blink out the flames at the end of the service. They run the control panel for the radio broadcast of our Sunday 10:45 a.m. service. Girls help with the children’s choir or take care of babies in the nursery during the service. I sing in the adult choir when I am in high school, which means I sit under the stained-glass gaze of Jesus in my black rayon twill choir robe that weighs a silky heaviness on my thighs. 

I study that panel of colorful glass opposite the choir loft which depicts Jesus just after his resurrection. He stands in bare feet on the rock-strewn ground in front of the cave where he was buried on Good Friday. His hand rests on the boulder which had been moved away by angels or some undocumented force. He is calm and collected. In a few minutes, Mary Magdalene will discover him. But she is not pictured in stained glass. 

Under the stares of the lock-jawed Lutherans in the congregation I feel bored, static, unchosen, and unruly.

Boys in theater classes are more available. They listen to different music—Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, jug bands. Some of them do sports. But we need each other to put on musicals and dramas. I sew costumes, learn stage makeup, and paint muslin-covered flats. We play charades in acting class, but the books and movie references are things I have never heard of, like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or Trout Fishing in America. We give each other back massages during rehearsals. I practice-kiss with smoky-mouthed actor guys by the water fountain outside the auditorium. 

High school expands my world exponentially. But like scenery in a show-stopping musical, the walls of my familiar life of family and church are whisked away, and a baffling wider landscape appears. I don’t know who to talk to about this. My best friends are as confused as I am.

Here, there is no gradual way to acclimate to boys, a slow on-ramp to liking someone who likes me back. I watch couples form and do romantic things in the hallways between classes. I feel the weightiness of my girl’s life—the social pressure to look a particular way, family pressure to behave a certain way, expectations at church to be a certain kind of person. This place in my body feels magnetic and repulsive, indecipherable. On the outside I am pimply, and hot, and gullible.

I need a beginner version of a boyfriend like I need lessons for driving on ice-slick roads. But fucking catapults me past all that. Fucking grows me up quickly, outstrips my ability to make good decisions. My body throbs with inevitability. But how can I reconcile the power I feel rising in me with the expectations of a morally upright life? Where in this expanding equation am I?

I do not have boyfriends in high school. I am never once invited to a dance or hold a sweaty palm of a quiet, smart jock like Donny, the doe-eyed boy I’d kissed behind the ice shanty in sixth grade. No one pays one bit of interest to me unless they need my notes from English or to help them learn their lines for a play.

I feel untouchable. No twirling my fingers in the phone cord, leaning on the kitchen counter talking to a boy far past bedtime. No love notes passed in Algebra class. No making out in the shadowed ends of the hallways at school. I doodle boy’s names in the margins of my chemistry notebook, but I don’t wear anyone’s letter jacket. No one picks me up in their car. One time, because of a mistake at a service club meeting, a chubby football player with a big old car gets stuck taking me to a school function. It is sort of a date. He says he’ll pick me up. At the appointed time, he honks his horn in front of our apartment but my mother forbids me to go downstairs, saying either he comes up to meet her or I don’t go out. He honks a few times and then hits his accelerator and roars off.


What I do with Miles in Old Shady Nook happens a hundred miles north of Escanaba, so no one but Amanda knows. From the beginning of our senior year, I am the loyal senior class president, making announcements about class business on the PA system from the principal’s office before the 3:45 dismissal bell. No one seems to notice that I am buzzed. Amanda and I get out of school at 2:30 since we are on the early schedule. We smoke part of a joint walking home, then eat a packet of graham crackers slathered with peanut butter at my house. We glug down cold milk, then walk back to school so I can make the announcements. Then we go to play rehearsal. 

Boys in our high school are not at all interested in either of us. We hang out with older guys after community theater productions or at cast parties. The parties are always at someone’s house where there are bedrooms with doors that close or couches in dark rooms where fucking older guys is brisk and daring. I wear dresses, so easy to hike up. We are groupies of a popular blues band in town. They play at Civic Center dances. We do wild things with the band, Amanda and I and our other friend Tru. Sex becomes currency. A fuck here. A fuck there.

I do not attend a single homecoming dance though I plan the floats, help build them, and order the corsages and boutonnieres for the homecoming court. I pin their flowers on, straighten their bowties. I beam at the girls shivering bare-armed in elegant dresses and crowns, the guys in suits and sashes out on the edge of the football field. They smile radiantly, past me and up into the football stands filled with their adoring fans, these glamorous chosen ones of my high school.

I go to prom with Simon, one of my best friends, who is gay. We’ve known each other since fifth grade. We don’t want to miss our senior prom, dry ice fog pouring from under that stairway to heaven we’d built. We both wear white. He drives his sister’s powder blue Mustang, and we fuck in the bucket seat. We figure everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn’t we? 

It takes some gymnastic arranging, but since we are friends, we talk in full sentences to each other. We are parked right in front of the house of the party we are going to out on Portage Point. The porch light fixture illuminates the interior of his small car. I think this is his first time with a girl. We have fun.

At Escanaba Area Public High School, girls who wear heavy black eyeliner and tops that show cleavage, who smoke in the bathrooms and go all the way with boys in cars out in the F-section parking lot are called sluts, or easy, or cheap. They are also called greaser girls because they are often attached to the boys in auto shop. 

I am not a slut.  But the sex I have with older guys never leads to what I thought sex was supposed to lead to–being someone’s girlfriend, the someone you talk to over a single order of hot fudge cake you share in a banquette at Big Boy restaurant on Ludington Street. Someone who dares to walk up the backstairs to our apartment to meet my mom. 

My geometry/sex theorem requires an amendment: When a boy and a girl meet for sex, they will not necessarily form a unit. In the case of me, no pairing shall result from this intersection.

Amanda worries about me, how wild I am. I have gone from nothing to everything. She is ticked with me too because I fuck guys who don’t care about me. Her anger does not slow me down. I think she is as wild as me. What I don’t see, I truly don’t know.

Amanda’s glamorous older brother comes back from Los Angeles to Escanaba for a few months. He wears his jeans differently than anyone I’ve met in town. He has a way of getting me into bed that is both funny and exciting. After we fuck, he fills my lap with books and my head with visions of life beyond our small hometown. He talks about movies that have never played at the Delft or the Michigan theaters on Ludington Street. He teaches me to smoke hash. 

Reggae songs by Bob Marley and the Wailers teach me and Amanda how to dance differently. We think the wildness we have found is different from what everyone in our high school does at beer parties out in the woods. We believe we get away doing the dangerous, stupid things we do with guys, drinking Sloe Gin Fizzes at bars even though we are under-aged, slipping into beds with people we barely know. We go to church with our families on Sunday mornings. We are members of the National Honor Society. 

Fucking ignites a freedom in me, a part untethered to my mother and my sisters. I am solely in charge of sex most of the time. I could not care less that I don’t fit the skinny, blonde, straight-haired cheerleader type that is the beauty standard at Escanaba Area Public High School. I know now that the secret power of sex does not make me smart, but I crave the sweet sensation of being desired in the hot wrestle of fucking.

In the winter of senior year, I face what scares the shit out of me. This is, as my mother threatened when she first had a sense that I might be doing things I shouldn’t, “a problem I have brought down on my own head.”  While I don’t conform to type, I am smart enough to know I play with more than fire with all this fucking. 

In 1976, abortion is legal in Michigan, but I have no clue where I would go to get one, or who I could talk to about that. I am ignorant about how to purchase rubbers or what to do with them. A few girls get pregnant in senior year. They wear smock tops until they “go away” for a while. I want to take birth control pills. It is the best way I figure to protect myself. At home, sex is never, ever discussed. There are no other options. The filmstrip from Kotex sanitary pads in Junior High taught me about menstruation, but that is the limit of explanation about the changes my body is going through. 

I discover a copy of Women: Our Bodies, Our Selves on a shelf in the living room, put there by my mother, I guess. She doesn’t mention its presence. I read it cover to cover. The book becomes my arbiter of worldly knowledge. The photograph of a young woman folded onto her knees in a pool of blood, dead from a self-administered abortion with a wire coat hanger in black and white sears into my brain.

I figure The Pill is my only choice if I want to keep fucking. I make an appointment at the free health clinic out by the community college. It is on that table under the sheet with his fingers examining my vagina, that the doctor asks if my mother knows I am there. He is her doctor, too.

I tell him no. He discovers a cyst on my right fallopian tube that he says has to be surgically removed. So while I make the choice to go to the clinic, it is Dr. Nyquist who breaks the news to my mom where I am, what I came there to get, and that I need surgery. I hunch deep in my parka in his office while he is on the phone with her. I am sure she is polite with him on the phone, but I have no recollection of what happens when I get home.

My sexual adventures stall while I don a modest ankle-length robin’s egg-blue corduroy robe and have surgery at St. Francis Hospital. I don’t understand exactly what this surgery is about, if it will affect my ability to have babies, or what else might result. The long cut across what the doctor calls my “bikini line” surprises me. I have a large mound of bandages under my robe.

A few guys come to the hospital to visit. One brings me green grapes. He sits at the foot of my bed in a suede bomber jacket. He is a graduate from a university downstate. He writes short stories in a cabin out in Wells. He plays with my toes while my mother fumes in the hallway. He speaks in a low voice, wants to know what is the deal with my hospital stay? We talk about books until my mom kicks him out. 

Maybe you’re reading this and words like promiscuous or loose or whore run through your head. Such a nice girl I was. Such a nice girl who discovered the thoroughfare of her vagina and once that gate opened, did not stop looking to exchange her currency anywhere.

Really. Everyone wanted into my body.

Guys who barely knew my name, who did not know where I lived. Did not know my family. Or guys who did, who looked like they might be a steady thing, but fucking never, ever led me to anything steady. It only led to more fucking.

Maybe sex did not happen like that for you. Maybe you had a sweet gentle entry into touch with a person who cared and wanted the best for you. Maybe you planned the whole thing and didn’t get raped on a beach by a maybe boyfriend. Maybe all those hickeys on your neck were the story of a heavy make-out session where the guy stopped, who actually said no, this is not what I want to have happen here. Maybe you never had bruises on your pelvic bones where that jock you’d helped with his lines for Spoon River Anthology humped you so hard, both of you in zipped-up jeans on the floor of someone else’s wood paneled basement rec room, that you could not undress in front of your sisters for a month, that song by the Raspberries blasts while you let him feel you up, “Please go all the way…” 

Maybe you are my neighbor Diane, who, when a new boy named Paulie moved in one street and a block over, you matched up with him like dominoes. They are still a couple 50 years later. They married during college and the rest is their life of jobs and houses and kids, joy and tragedy, snowmobiles, and sailboats.

I tossed my choice like a lifeline across a chasm of despair to have physical connection, the need to join in, in, inside my body. But I would not exchange my life for Diane’s or anyone else’s. That early wildness does not ruin me in the ways I’d been threatened it would. I move forward in my small town, on fire by the power of fucking, and hungry to get out.

About the Author:

Suzi Banks Baum builds community wherever she goes. Her work dwells at the crossroad of literary and visual art. A writer and book artist, her devotion to daily creative practice is the super-food for her signature teachings. Suzi travels to Gyumri, Armenia to teach the book arts to women artists. Her book, An Anthology of Babes gives voice to 36 artist mothers. Published in Kerning literary magazine (2021), The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory by Anchala Studios and the Walloon Writers Review, her piece, Shoal, won third prize in the Hypertext Literary Magazine Doro Böhme Memorial Contest in 2021.

Categories
nonfiction

Backwards and Blind by Helyn Trickey Bradley

Backwards and Blind | Helyn Trickey Bradley

Grief has made me a morning person. It shakes me awake at three a.m and whispers with a hoarse voice into my ear. 

I’ve begun rowing with my grief. Tipping its pale face to the slow sunrise. This is not a metaphor. In April, I joined a local rowing club. I made my gawky start in the smallest boat imaginable in the calm morning waters of Oregon’s Willamette River.

It’s odd how much the geese in the early dawn mimic the high keening of my heart, or how the splashing of a sea lion rolling around near me in the inky waters, its whiskery face catching the morning light and a silver fish with equal ease, can bring me back from the brink of despair.

I’m grieving the slow loss of my mother from Parkinson’s disease. The affliction has shriveled her body and withered her brain. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, I was barred from seeing my mother in her memory care facility for more than a year. I talked her through crying jags and confusion and paranoia on the phone, while she wondered aloud why no family ever visited her. I told her why every day. She kept forgetting.

Now that I can see her in person again and hug her slight shoulders, I’m both relieved and grief-stricken. She’s declined so much in the year we were physically apart that I felt my chest tighten the first time I saw her again. She is a birthday balloon, three days after the party. 

“I’m so angry,” Mom says when I finally can visit her in her room. “My ideas keep falling out of me.” She looks helplessly at the floor. “And I can’t get out of this damn chair.” Mom pushes weakly on the cool metal of her wheelchair, but she can’t move her body an inch. 

Balancing in the boat on the Willamette, I feel the tension between trying to stay upright and adding strength to my stroke. Don’t tell my rowing instructor, but I’m on the water for the peace and the grace, and don’t care much about form. But she does, so I pretend. My instructor calls to me through a blue megaphone in an adjacent boat to slow my stroke, to wait half a beat in the release position before rolling my head and then body and then legs forward in one liquid motion. I perform this action clumsily and it nearly has me gulping river water. “Feather your oars!” she calls. This instruction will save me from a dunk in the cold water. 

“I’m so scared,” my mother says to me one evening when I arrive at The Springs Memory Care to tuck her into bed for the night. She’s been having night terrors and I hope my presence at bedtime might help.

“What are you scared of Mama?”

She looks dehydrated, so I hand her a glass of water, but her arms shake violently, and her hands can barely stand the weight of the glass. I hold the back of her head steady as I tip the  glass to her mouth. She takes a sip and peers into my eyes like a newborn.

“I’m frightened of what’s going to happen to me next,” she says. I nod and we say a prayer together, the same short sing-song prayer that she taught me to recite at bedtime as a little girl and that I say now with my own daughter every night: “Now we lay us down to sleep and pray the Lord our souls to keep. …” Mom and I hold hands all the way through.

My body needs to be out on the river in the weak light of early morning. I need to see the sun come up again and again, to be reminded that darkness does not last forever. All I want is to be out on the river, moving forward. 

Except rowers move backwards. 

Honestly, it never occurred to me that I would be sitting backwards and flinging myself and my impossibly light boat behind me with each pull. I think I was imagining kayaking when I signed up. I never thought about how weird it might feel to fly fast and light and backwards! But backwards I go, and I feel like a fledgling who has caught a lucky draft, adds an easy tipping of its wing, and is soaring.  

I’m also rowing blind. I can’t wear my glasses easily; they fog up with each breath I take. So, I row through this holy, early world as Monet must’ve wandered his gardens at Giverny: a blurry landscape made that much more astonishing without the finer details. It’s dreamlike and cold until I get going so hard and fast that I wish I could peel off that extra shirt I put on this morning without capsizing my boat. But I can’t. I don’t have the dexterity or confidence yet. So, I slow my row and glide backwards through the still, black water and see the blurred lights in the homes that line the shore flicker on, one by one, like lightning bugs.

“Be brave and be strong,” my mother told me a few weeks ago when I could finally see her face to face. I knelt on the carpet beside her wheelchair, my face mask brushing up against her cheek. She knew who I was, recognized my eyes even with a mask covering my nose and mouth. I felt her weak fingers twine their way in between mine. Where will I ever find enough bravery and strength to live through losing her?

The Willamette is chilly this morning. Ribbons of steam rising like ghosts off the glassy surface. I am in a quad. Four strangers in a boat. It’s my first time as stroke seat, the position that sets the pace of the boat and establishes a rhythm. The four of us sit rigid, our oars feathered on top of the water. We don’t even remember each other’s names, we’re so new to one another.

“Watch each other’s shoulders!” Coach yells. “When the rower in front of you is peeling their shoulders back, yours should be in perfect sync.” I feel the boat wobble as someone behind me tightens their shoe grip. I might as well be on a Saltine cracker, I think to myself.

The stern pair, me and a woman whose eyes have been wide with fear all morning, starts rowing. Arms first, then back, then legs. Catch! A smooth motion. But we’re not in sync, so the boat teeters so far to the right that someone yelps in fear before we steady ourselves and try again. I try to establish a rhythm, but the inertia of the rowers behind me is disorienting, and I find myself galloping hard across the water. “Slow down, stroke seat!” someone yells at me from behind, and my cheeks flame, but no one can see my embarrassment except the coach motoring along beside us. Later, in the dock house after we have together lifted the quad over our heads and placed it gently in its cradle, I will apologize to my fellow rowers for going so fast, for giving in to the rushing momentum, for not numbing my brain out with the mantra: arms, body, legs, catch! Arms, body, legs, catch!  

“There are only two kinds of rowers,” our coach will tell us. “The kind who have been in the water and the kind who will be in the water soon.” So, you see, there is no getting around it. No matter what, the cold, dark is going to swallow me up. The only question: Will I resurface?

I ask Dad if he wants me to make the call to hospice. We are standing outside the entrance to Mom’s facility. His fists are jammed in his dress pant pockets, rattling change.

“What happens if your mother has a heart attack or something?” he asks. “We’d still rush her to the hospital, right? For something so serious.”

I shake my head. “No. We’d call her hospice nurse, and they would make Mom as comfortable as possible, but they wouldn’t try to save her life anymore.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, that’s how it works. No more visits to the ER. We just do everything we can to make her comfortable through whatever happens.”

Dad looks away at something in the middle distance. “But we can always cancel hospice if we don’t like it, right?”

I hesitate. “Why would we, Dad?” I feel the sudden weight of my own lungs as I take a breath. “She’s never going to get better no matter what we do. We’re only prolonging her death.”

Dad’s eyes are glassy windows in an old house. “Boy, I never thought it would come to this.”

Hospice is a boat made for four. My brother, mother, father, and I barely balance in its hollow belly. Mom sets the pace. The rest of us watch her rail-thin shoulders to know when to lean in and when to rest. But we’ve never done this before, been so eye-to-eye with the imminent death of one of us. How do you turn off the urge to rush in and save a life when it’s all we’ve been doing for so long?

When it happens, the hospice meeting is surprisingly pleasant. Our social worker, Rachel, has nice eye contact and a sweet voice muffled only a little by the pink mask covering the lower half of her face. I believe Rachel is pretty because her eyes crinkle nicely around their edges.

  My brother, father, mother, and I are cozy together, sitting in Mom’s gently lit room with a large picture window overlooking a garden budding with small, green pumpkins and the beginnings of apples on a tree. The four of us together feels so familiar we could erase twenty years and still be here, talking about the new neighbors, how the traffic is worsening, or how the Edwards’ German shepherd Max has been overturning trash cans up and down the street again. It’s always been the four of us, slowly rowing through our days together. Even the presence of my mother’s new metal wheelchair with its levers and springs and fancy tilt-a-wheel capabilities doesn’t jolt us out of our well-worn comfort with each other; even the quiet presence of a hospice nurse and a social worker doesn’t break this odd spell.

I take my mother’s familiar hands in mine and tell her we’re having this meeting to make sure she’s cared for in hospice. We hold our breath. We have no way of knowing how Mom will react to the word hospice, whether she will throw up her hands and give up. We watch her shoulders for some indication of the way forward.

“Good,” she says. “I was wondering when this tea party was going to get started.”

Afterwards, the conversation turns to the weather, and Rachel tells us that during the unseasonable hot spell several weeks before, where temperatures in Oregon rose as high as 113 degrees, Rachel laid wet bed sheets on her lawn for the squirrels who scrambled down from the trees to lie flat on the cool sheets and lick them. I think to myself, yes, this is the kind of person I want helping my mother, the kind who will lay cool sheets out for squirrels. I’m still thinking this when Rachel takes me aside in the hallway and asks whether we’ve thought of final arrangements for Mom.

“Do you know what her wishes are?”

A lump in my throat. I’ve swallowed a fish. I shake my head.

Rachel presses a card into my hand. “When you’re ready, I can help you make arrangements. I know a good crematorium if you want to go that way. Don’t delay, though. This gets really hard if you wait too long.”

Mom’s night terrors are getting worse. Often, she believes she has been abducted by a murderer who has hogtied her and is now going after the rest of her family before returning to kill her. She says she can feel the rope burns on her wrists from trying to get out of the hold. Sometimes she believes she is being raped. Mom screams so loudly and for so long that her suitemate cannot sleep and is relocated to a couch in the lobby for the night. My brother, a doctor, works with Mom’s neurologist to try different drug cocktails in hopes of mitigating the terrifying hallucinations that often accompany Parkinson’s related dementia. We’re hoping to level out her fear because she still has some good days. But the meds are failing. Andrew tells me we are running out of options.

“What are we going to do?”

My brother screws his mouth up, and his eyes slide to the right. I’ve seen him make that face a thousand times. Finally, he throws up his hands. “Snow her with morphine? Not ideal. It’ll zonk her out completely.”

I show up at bedtime to tuck Mom in. Tonight, she’s wearing the blue china pattern cotton pajamas I bought her last fall. They match her eyes. She searches my face, trying to place me. “Wimma,” she says using my childhood nickname. Beneath the covers, her hands tremble so violently that they resemble twin racing hearts. I cover her hands with mine, and her involuntary shaking travels up my arm.

A mother duck and four ducklings paddle out alongside me in a line. I’m on the Willamette in a single scull and grateful for the solitude. An early morning light gilds the tops of the leafy trees standing quiet at the shoreline. I love the glide of my boat, the ease of pulling myself through the water, the surprise at the animal-like movement I can make in a boat by myself. I think this must be what it feels like to be a skimming bird or maybe a flashing fish underneath the waves. My eye catches a movement just feet above my head and to the left of my small boat. A bald eagle making large circles, its bright white head catching fire like a match in the light. I stop rowing and hold my breath, taking in the majesty of this bird, its control as its circles grow smaller and the eagle begins a descent. One more easy circle over the ducks before a controlled, blurry dive, a last-minute squawk and fluttering of wings and a duckling life lost. I open my mouth, but the killing is so fast and graceful I don’t have time to make a sound.

Later, as I pull my scull from the water and dry dock it in a sling, I catch sight of the mother duck. She’s crowded the three surviving ducklings under a corner of the dock and is shielding them with her body and one splayed wing.

“I can’t call the fucking crematorium, Andrew. I can’t make myself do it.”

“That’s okay,” my brother says over the phone. “Maybe it can wait.”

I’m walking circles in my front yard, pacing the dead yellow grass that didn’t survive the surprising heat of the summer.

“I can’t even call the social worker who put the wet sheets out for the squirrels,” I tell him.

“I can call,” he offers, but his voice is weary. My brother has spent the last year watching people die of COVID-19 in his ER, helpless to save mothers, fathers, even children gasping for air.

“No,” I say, pacing the yard. I’m trying to gather courage with each step. “I can do it. The social worker said we shouldn’t wait, that it just gets harder. How can it possibly get any harder?”

“Oh, I think it can get harder,” he says. His voice is far away. He’s driving in for another hospital shift, his seventh in a row.

“I prayed to God that He would take Mom, that He wouldn’t let her suffer anymore.” I make the confession so quietly I’m not sure my brother has heard what I said. “I want to take it back,” I cry. “I’m not ready for her to leave yet. I’ll never be ready.”

The phone crackles and I wonder if I’ve lost the connection. “It was a loving prayer,” he finally says. “And we’ll never be ready.”

The mornings on the Willamette River are cooler now. Overhead, rusty-throated geese fly south, sweeping the sky clean. Soon, it will be too cold for me to row. Soon, the threat of falling into the freezing black water will keep me tethered to shore. All winter I will dream of a warm day and the promise of a perfect stroke.

My grief says get in a boat. My grief says pull the oars through the cold water, using my legs to add power. My grief says fly over the water alongside the honking geese and be glad in the movement, any movement, even if it is backwards and blind.

###

About the Author:

Helyn Trickey Bradley is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest with her patient husband, three children and one dog of questionable character. When she is not on deadline, Helyn tries to find zen in the general chaos by reading in coffee shops and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. She writes essays and articles for national publications including Oprah Magazine, CNN, PBS, and The Oregonian. Helyn has an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University, and she is hard at work on a novel. 

Categories
nonfiction

Identify Your Triggers: Whole Foods Parking Lot by Cassie Burkhardt

Identify Your Triggers: Whole Foods Parking Lot | Cassie Burkhardt

I’m with my two-year-old at the grocery store today, truly the most demoralizing place for stay-at-home mothers when you haven’t showered, your stomach is grinding coffee beans in your sleep and you feel the exact same color as the uncured ham slices lying flat and helpless. My cart is piled high with chicken breasts, boxed broth, tomato sauce, jumbo cartons of berries, organic bananas—of which the two-year-old’s eaten two— the ripped-open peels an upside-down, stringy version of what used to be whole. It’s a food pantry in my cart and it will probably only last us half the week. My two-year-old is climbing out of the cart, trying to help me by lobbing pears onto the conveyor belt at checkout, dangling an egg carton as I sweep in to save it. I’m sweating and my winter coat stinks in the armpits, I’m the boring age of thirty-seven, dressed in some sort of stained, Luleisure combo, frantically searching for the Amazon Whole Foods app that will save me $2.41 on my $280.00 purchase. My daughter is shrieking that she wants to do everything herself, pressing buttons and licking the handlebar on the cart, screaming, “Cookies!” and then taking her shoes and socks off, her little mullet flipping back off her forehead as she thrusts off the flamingo print Gap sock.

The elderly couple behind me smiles, waving and cooing, just beaming because they remember the time and it goes so fast and, “You can have her!” I yell. Chuckle chuckle. Luckily, the cashier is unphased by my existence, lets me struggle alone, his nails are blue, he doesn’t even look up, I am pineapple two-for-one and what is this green stick? Lemongrass? A manager in a bossy green apron struts by to coach one of the drones who collect groceries for the rest of society when we catch his eye. He is terrified that my daughter, now standing in the part of the cart where she is supposed to be sitting, will fall mullet-first to chalky, lavender death in a bucket of bath bombs or worse, sue him. “She’s my third, she’s got this,” I tell him. He winces and motions to me to restrain her, accompanied by gasps from several other customers who are on their way to the fifteen items or fewer aisle. I stare longingly in the direction of that line, the breezy way the man in chinos walks by with his salad and a single tangerine to pay. What I wouldn’t give to have a lunch break, to be the mandarin in his palm… Hello little satsuma. It floats by, so cool, bursting with flavor underneath that skin, already undressing…

Beep beep beep, my daughter has taken over control of the credit card machine and is en route to planet Please Stop. I remove my daughter from the cart and place her before a wall of novelty magnets she can knock over or bite. One says: “I should’ve partied harder in 1999” and “Just another day of pretending I’m fine!’” and “You’re awesome” (It’s Bill Murray pointing at me) and thank you Bill, these are actually making me laugh for a second in the midst of this sweaty bagging nightmare, so I slip one in my coat pocket and don’t tell anyone, just because. Oh whatever, it’s fine. I deserve this, right? Are we done yet? The cashier is mixing everything up after I told him not to, when I quickly had to save my daughter from imminent grocery cart death. Perishables and pantry items are being tossed together into a beef-juice-animal-cracker-soup and somehow he didn’t use half of the tentlike, soft cooler bags I brought and he’s taking two decades to do it, but I’m too bored and flustered to care. I just want to be home. I want to rip off my clothes and burn them in the backyard or maybe move to Australia with my three kids, live in a thatched-roof hut where “beach” is written in chalk on a piece of driftwood or maybe just sit on the toilet and stare into my phone at home. Clothes on Shopbop. Clothes. Pretty clothes. Pretty clothes to wear one day to make-believe party. Art. Pretty abstract art in frames, swirly pastel mess contained on a canvas. Bench. Pretty velveteen entry bench, pretty bench where I will never sit but looks nice. Friend. Pretty friend on pretty cliff-laced lagoon in Europe I want to choke for jealousy. Like. Like. Like.  Sweet little dopamine feedback loop. It’s already happening before it’s happening, like some Black Mirror episode I can’t get out of. I heave a bag into the cart and the handles pop right off.

“Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommeeeeeee!” Here, Coco, shake these and do this! (mints and magazine rack to dismantle while I pay) and what? My receipt. Hell no! Keep it! My gift to you! We’re done! Hallelujah, let’s get the F outta here babe! Let’s push this bitch! I practically need a mule to get me to the elevator, but no, I’m fine, please leave me alone everyone. Oh wait, no one gives a shit. No one even asks me if I need help. No one says hello anymore. No one says goodbye. Only the disabled man by the disinfectant wipes in the dark garage says, “Thank you for coming!” but he is talking to someone behind me. It’s fine. I can muscle my way through this experience, move the scooters and helmets, heave cases of sparkling water and paper towels into the trunk the way I pushed three kids out of my poon. I got this. (Ok, two out of three came out the poon, the first one was an emergency C-section.) Anyways, snap out of it, unlock the car you idiot. Garage. Darkness. The carseat, click, phew. Child is restrained. Collapse into my seat, Exhale. I practically weep in the driver’s seat. Life is so impossible and mundane. 

And this is it, right? This is motherhood. Stinky armpits and “put cookie monster song on!” and clementine peels everywhere and a dented minivan, some vacations in between, some odd jobs teaching yoga on Zoom or helping a friend write something clever for something important, but mostly this grind. Oh geez, it’s all coming out of my head now. Anyone can do it for a day, a week, but: Every. Single. Day. I know, you are telling me, “Order your groceries online! Get a nanny! Go on a yoga retreat!” But that would be missing the point. That would be to misunderstand the feeling, the universal ache of the mother entirely. That ache that has nothing to do with how much help you get or manicures you treat yourself to and everything to do with feeling trapped, invisible, robotic, burdened by responsibility, and fueled by love, yet ambivalent about every decision you make trying to keep the web together. Yearning for freedom yet clinging to routines. Feeling like life is over yet hasn’t begun, starving, but I just ate, fuck me but don’t touch me, unreliable with basic tasks and pediatrician’s appointments, but completely in tune with the children’s every need, food, sleep, poop, and whose tiny underwear is whose, and constantly obsessing that we should be eating more vegetables. Exhausted, but I can’t stop, a ghost in a suburb getting gas, cleaning up Magnet Tiles, buying balloons, stirring broth, then staring into my phone at 11:48pm standing up in my bathroom saying I should really get some sleep. I am not alone, but I am so alone. 

How can something so universal feel so singular, so isolating? I’m life-threateningly useful to four people and useless to the rest of the world, invisible even. I haven’t watched the news in a hundred years, but I’m wiser than a goddamn-baby-whispering-sage. Why do I push friends away yet crave connection? How can I be the person I was meant to become? What is a writer and am I one? Who will be my huckleberry friend waiting round the bend with a ukulele and a wink? Unfortunately, it’s not my husband. He’s on call! And my mom is on a cleanse with my dad in Puerto Rico, so I guess it has to be my own goddamn aging self. And look at her! She’s pale and hollowed out like an avocado shell, her hair looks like it’s been licked by a camel. This is the person I have to confront?! This person in the rearview mirror?! Is she the writer? The question and the answer? What can I whisper to myself in the dark of this parking garage to validate this soul-crushing experience of life? The oddity of this mothering experience, this complete crapshoot I’ve launched myself headlong into. And will I die before I figure this out? Or worse, give up? 

No. No, for me there is pressure. I’m ambitious, I went to NYU, I ran a marathon, I survived an eating disorder as a child. I can do this! I must keep putting mascara on and doing push-ups and going up to the attic to write. I will not rest until I create art out of this despair. I cannot stop trying, stop noticing, collecting, recording the details, ideas, images like food for winter. Some images and scenes I’m collecting lately: My heart is a carbon monoxide detector that keeps chirping long after the batteries have been taken out, my children’s hummingbird heartbeats keep fluttering even in sleep and I swear I can hear them from my room, their Micros scooters in blue, purple and pink keep working even after I’ve accidentally run them over a couple of times. Resilience! A dinner of apple skins and toast fragments, ham rinds and dry pasta pairs well with an expensive Sancerre, I am a diamond that can bust out of the prongs at the stroke of twelve, but still be home to make their lunches for tomorrow. 

The ambivalence stuff: the weird joy I feel that when I run after my kids at the playground, pretending to be a wolf, that horrified look of delight in their eyes when they ask me to do it again, again, again, then after the fifth time screaming “no more!” and sulking on a bench with my phone wishing I were at a dark party on the lower east side, so low it’s underground and only Chloe Sevigny and I know about it. Another one: Lying in the sand with all of my children on top of me late into the evening, sticky with ocean and sweat and wind and we should really be getting home, my husband is worried about us, but lingering longer because we can, I’m the mother bear back off, and we love squeezing the last drop out of a beach day, dancing in the dunes. Two seconds later, my daughter chucking sand in my mouth and the baby pooped in her bare bathing suit and no one helps me carry anything to the car, but oh well. I’m happy/miserable. Reading stories cozy in bed, relishing the purr of my own voice, the smell of the kids’ shampoo, then two seconds later my daughter sneezes and snots all over the book and everyone is yelling and I just can’t anymore and I tell everyone to get out. Moments like this stacked up every day. Do you know what I mean?

I start the car. 

Blazing through yellow lights and careening through the familiar, winding forest roads, we are on our way home. I look and feel exactly like Cruella DeVille— when she didn’t catch the dalmatians and had to get herself out of a lump of snow— and that’s ok. I’ll come out on the other side of this. I have food for my family, my daughter is click-clocking her tongue and I have my images in my head like friends that flicker off the dashboard into my brain. She is just a child. I am her mother. A woman, a flawed human headed home. I am reminded that creativity can only exist in times of uncertainty, that art is born when opposing feelings collide, rub up against each other, start a dialogue. Loneliness can be celebrated, or at least renamed “solitude” which sounds more romantic. Anger is really fear and my worst fear is losing myself. 

I pull into the driveway and my daughter is madly sucking her finger and sniffing her little blankie. In two hours I have to pick up the other two kids, but now it’s naptime. The story about Curious George making pancakes will calm us both down. I’ll sing her my made-up, weird songs she loves and hold her hand, smell her head, her pure, sweet scalp that gives me hope. It’s going to be ok. Is it going to be ok? Write it down. For god’s sake, run up to the attic once she’s asleep and write this all down before you forget.

Winter Star by Andrew Jordan

About the Author:

Cassie Burkhardt is a poet from NY, currently based in Philadelphia. She has three children and is working on a collection. Her poem “Study Abroad” recently won Rattle’s Ekphrastic Poetry Challenge, Nov 2021.

Categories
nonfiction

Swimming: A Meditation by Lynne Golodner

Swimming: A Meditation by Lynne Golodner

When I was little, I rode on my father’s back while he swam the length of our neighbor’s pool in one breath. My legs gripping his sides, my arms waving in the wind, I tilted my head back and laughed as he pulled me through the water. The pool seemed impossibly long, and I could not imagine holding my breath the whole distance the way my father did. He carried me from the depths to the shallows, where I climbed off and he rose out of the water like a great whale’s tail, shaking drops from his face, his grin as wide as mine. I believed he could do anything.

Four years ago, after my father was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer, I sought the pool as refuge. When I sat at home on the couch, silent tears trailed down my face and I shuddered into the angsty anticipation of a world without him. In the pool, I couldn’t cry. Once, tears overcame me in the middle of a swim, and I fought to breathe, stopping mid-lane and treading water to regain control. Crying ruined my rhythm and made me choke on chlorine, and I lost count of how many laps I’d completed.

My father swam backstroke at Mumford High School in the 1950s. One year for Halloween, I wore his robin’s egg blue and burgundy varsity sweater, and all the parents smiled when they saw me, sharing memories as they dropped candy into my plastic pumpkin. I didn’t think about my dad as an athletic star until he was dying though, when we had long conversations in his hospital room about the places he’d been and the things he’d accomplished. We hadn’t swum together in years and we no longer could (with the port in his chest for infusions, a public pool could have killed him), so I settled for collecting his stories.

*

I’ve always found water soothing – being by its side, watching its tempestuous emotions, immersing in its cold embrace. The big gusty gales of Lake Michigan. The swift current of the Detroit River. The mirror-like surface of my old next-door neighbor’s pool, ready to absorb our summertime squeals and childhood energy. The ocean more powerful than what I imagine God to be, its strong hands reaching up and out, slapping the sand and peacefully retreating. Our bodies are mostly water, even our bones. We need water to survive and, in a way, it needs us too. We begin floating and throughout our lives water symbolizes purity, fertility, life and renewal.  But equally as much, water has long been a symbol of wisdom, power, grace. Essential for existence and cleansing, water has the power to change us and to bless. Some ancient cultures saw water as chaos, but I see it as deliverance. As much as its power can overwhelm, it gives me power that I desperately need.

Water is beautiful. Its movements, its elegant glow, its translucency, the rainbows it inspires when interacting with light at the right angles. I love to watch a rain drop on a blade of grass or a river cascade over rocks. I love the sound of water. I love the way it feels when I am in it, the way it holds me, allows me to be lighter than I am on land.

But I didn’t always seek reassurance in the waves. I am not a lifelong competitive swimmer, nor a person home-birthed into a tub. I come from very mundane and ordinary roots. The pool only became my refuge when I was divorcing the father of my three children who were aged four, three, and one at the time. My work was imploding— the economic downturn caused so many of the magazines I had been writing for to halt publication or shutter completely. I went from earning six-figures as a freelance writer to desperately searching for people to hire me to write for a few hundred dollars at a time. And I wouldn’t be getting much from my soon-to-be ex-husband, an Orthodox Jewish musician whose earning potential was limited because his faith prevented him from performing on Fridays and Saturdays.

A week after we signed the divorce judgment, my ex moved his boxes and suitcases out of our house. I sat on the carpeted steps while my kids watched Sesame Street in the family room. The big house was all mine with its stone façade and two-car garage, my daughter’s pink bedroom, the 1960s blue-tiled bathroom, the oak-floored living room, the 1980s kitchen with Formica counters and laminate cabinets, the basement that flooded in a hard rain. We had bought it at the height of the market and now at the housing industry’s lowest point, I couldn’t even sell the house to pocket the proceeds. I was stuck with a mortgage to pay, lights and heat to keep on, a refrigerator to fill. For months, hoping to leverage my skills into a career pivot, I’d been looking for companies to hire me to write press releases and blogs. Some had signed on, but the CEO of my biggest client, a family-owned grocery chain, said my business idea was stupid. I wondered how I was going to make it.

Months later, when I had three clients and income to cover the mortgage and utilities, I scraped together enough money to join a health club with outdoor and indoor pools. Many afternoons I took the kids to the club, leaving them in childcare for an hour so I could swim laps alone, then picking them up and swimming with them until they grew tired under the sun. The laps grounded me and reminded me to breathe, assured me that I could float in choppy waters. The time splashing with my children in the zero-edge kiddie pool showed me that I could work hard and have time to play. We would keep each other afloat. Those sun-lit days playing in the water with my children, I felt lucky. I was forging a path for us and I even had time and space for fun on a hot day. Once, as we carried buckets and pool toys and bottles of sunscreen from the car to the club, my older son Asher asked why I had to swim alone before we could all swim together. I couldn’t tell him that if I didn’t swim, I might crumble in front of him. Instead I said, “It makes me a happier Mommy,” and that answer seemed to suffice.

*

I never worried about money until I became a single mother. Then, I needed a safe car large enough for three car seats, clothing, winter coats, and sturdy boots for my children. They outgrew everything within months and their hearty appetites demanded three nutritious meals a day, plus snacks, and sippy cups full of juice. One day in the not-so-distant future, they would need thick textbooks, sports equipment, SAT tutors, college tuition. 

The money was a literal need, but it became a symbolic one too, representing my value, my success. No matter how much clients paid me, it was never enough for me to feel secure. In the year after the divorce the notion of enough grew big and scary, a monster in the night looming over me as I tossed in bed. I called my father at least once a week asking for advice and seeking reassurance that I would land enough clients, that I could keep them. My father had created a company when I was ten. At the time he had three young children too, but my mother stayed home to raise us so he could go out and build a name for himself in the scrap metal industry. I had no fallback, no one to keep the home front going while I went out into the world.

“Take the money and do the work,” he said. “It’ll all work out.” A simple truth, that if I completed the work in front of me, I’d always have work to do. His advice was tangible and immediate. A job well done was the best way to ensure more jobs. Focusing on an unknown future took me out of the moment and away from delivering on any project. It tied me in knots I had a hard time climbing free from.

I loved the sound of my father’s voice when he answered the phone and realized it was me: “Hi, Lynnie!” he’d exclaim, as if my call was a highlight of his day. It certainly was for me. He didn’t say much about the specifics of my fears, just reassured me that if I kept showing up and doing well, I’d be ok. He never worried and his voice calmed me, like the undulating waves of the pool do now. After he was diagnosed, I started saving his messages so I could listen to him long after he was gone.

*

My company grew and I gained more clients, developing a niche in the yoga world, where I helped studios and yoga personalities build brands, land TV interviews, and create social media content. Before I made the pool my sanctuary, under the guidance of one of my clients, I tried mindfulness meditation. I bought a Back Jack chair to put on the floor and left my desk twice a day to close my eyes and breathe in and out through my nose. I’d stare at the place where my third eye was supposed to be, trying to escape the papers cluttered around my computer, the oversight my employees required and the ongoing worry of whether I could retain clients while trying to attract more.

Meditation worked for a while. I grew calmer about managing my small staff and less concerned about money. But I fell out of practice. In the midst of work and home, too many demands competed for attention. I had to leave the scene of chaos to step into calm.

In a Michigan winter, it takes effort to drive icy roads, face the biting wind, peel off my clothes, and plunge into waiting waters. But still, I go. On a busy day, when there are more demands than minutes to devote to them, I go. When my children pull at me, beg me to sit with them on the couch, I promise to sit later, after I swim. The water beckons and I respond. My anchor, my sustenance

I love the equanimity of swimming. The water welcomes me, like a lover, and I give myself over to its embrace. For the first fifteen laps, worries clutter my mind, shouting: my contract might be threatened, that client isn’t happy, will any publication take my writing? Tick-tick-tick: looming deadlines and endless to-dos. Soon, they will leave and silence will settle in, the rhythm of my body in the water, the peace of the pace. With every stroke I am reaching for the inevitable calm.

I fill my lungs and push off from the wall. I part the waters, my legs fluttering. My hands are cups filling and emptying. I point my toes and tap my heels to complete a stroke. There’s no place like the pool. Focusing on form lets the worries bubble up and float away. I breathe out of my nose, my skin pulses.

In breaststroke, my arms extend like eagle’s wings before coming together at my heart and pushing forward. Back stroke and free style are long-limbed and reaching, exposing the heart. Even butterfly, which I rarely swim, is an open-arm hug before an elegant crashing into the water. In swimming I become expansive, open to everything, full of love for this moment, full of understanding for all the complications in and around me. I become an observer, not a judge.

*

In high school, swim class was mandatory for ninth graders. The gym teacher handed out brown, starchy swimsuits that were washed every night in abrasive industrial detergent. We clipped the straps together with a barrette to keep them from falling down. When my oldest son Asher was in high school, he swam against my alma mater, and my mother, father, and I watched from the bleachers. The pool seemed half the size it was in the 1980s. In my memory I treaded water, staring up at bleachers that rose like mountains of creaking seats the gym teacher traversed, shouting instructions. Asher was not a fast swimmer, but he took whatever the coach threw at him. Once, forced into the 500, the longest and hardest event in the competition, he finished last. I watched with a knotted stomach, nervous that all eyes were on my boy. I admired his resolve to plow through one lap at a time, as if no one were there, immersed in the water’s lulling support. The natatorium shimmered with cheering. After, he and my dad commiserated about what it felt like to compete in the pool. Although all eyes were on them, they lost themselves in the rhythm of the strokes. It was as if the rest of the world fell away. I knew exactly what they meant.

*

With every length, my worries have less energy and I have more. Twenty lengths in, my mind quiets. Until I reach my rhythm, I negotiate with myself to keep going: Another ten lengths. If you want to quit at thirty, fine. But I never quit. Once I am submerged, I stay. After thirty lengths, it’s all freestyle, long and gliding. Worries are little birds flying away without sound. Safe travels, little creatures – go find light and warmth.

*

I spent two years watching my father die. When his life finally ended on a dark, windy day, I thought, I spend my life waiting and then death comes to the door. There is no better time for anything. 

I’d been wanting to visit the Keys for years. I yearned to leave the gray cold, short days and ice-crusted streets for slow beach strolls, an unlimited horizon and the cool reassurance of a shimmering pool, a kiss of sweet air on my skin. I drove lonely, two-lane roads under bright sun, crossing long and narrow bridges stringing islands together until I arrived in the tropical refuge of a seaside resort. I chose Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada because it had a lap pool. I could swim in the milky dawn counting lengths by the clicking of insects

Breathing in the winter can be painful – each inhale burns and harsh wind bites exposed skin, turning it red and raw. I needed to be in a place where it didn’t hurt to breathe, where I could bare my skin and feel the sun seep in quietly, kindly. It was more than a literal winter that February. The weeks after my father died were the darkest time of my life

I loved those early mornings flip-flopping across asphalt, past the golf course where sprinklers switch-switch-switched, all peaceful silence and reverence for the rising day. The air was cool, like the water. I was the only one in the pool that early, the morning whispering reassurances like my father used to. With each lap, I felt more certain that I could continue on without him, even if I didn’t want to.

*

The water and I, we are close. I push and it pushes me back. I glide and it holds me. It molds around my body and I let it comfort me. I breathe out as long as I can until there is no air left. I am a buoy in a constant current. I cannot sink no matter how hard I try.

When I finish the longest part of my set, steam rises from my skin and I duck under to cool my face. The drumbeat of music in the speakers is as rhythmic as the waves. I can’t make out words and I don’t really want to. Children squeal and splash, old people float in the shallows, a marathoner in the next lane pounds up and down the lane. Everything is happening around me and the worries I brought to the pool have long since floated away. Everything that felt heavy, draining, is simple in the haze from the water. The world is an unimportant blur.

My main set done; I proceed through my last twenty-two lengths to hit my mile. I alternate strokes, slow my pace. In my water cocoon, I watch bubbles become blinking stars in a night sky.

I’ve swum three or four times a week for more than a decade now and I sought refuge in a pool long before that. But only in the past few years have I realized that, in the pool, I find the comfort and support my father gave me. Swimming infuses me with strength, clarity, and determination like my conversations with Dad. I no longer need to hear his words to know everything will be alright. In the absence of his voice, I listen to my own.

I finish every swim with side stroke, a kindness to my weary self. Goggles off, I lay my head in the water as if it is my father’s palm. My hands and legs scissor in opposite directions. Water gurgles in my ear. And when I rise from the pool, sparkling drops drip off of me, my hair shaking out from its cap molding. I am the great whale’s tail, inhabiting the space my father used to occupy with his single-breath strength – I am carrying the little girl to safety.

About the Author:

Lynne Golodner has an MFA in Poetry from Goddard College and is the author of 8 books and thousands of articles. She works as a writing coach and professor and is the host of the Make Meaning Podcast. Lynne lives in Huntington Woods, Michigan with her husband and four teens. Learn more at https://lynnegolodner.com.

Categories
nonfiction

The Smock by Betty J. Cotter

The Smock | Betty J. Cotter

My mother’s maternity top has had at least three lives – maybe four, as I am wearing it now: a loose cotton smock covered in a gaudy pattern of blue roses and daisies. For a while I thought it was homemade; it has no tag and some hand stitching in the seams. My mother could sew, although she hated to; in fact, she won a Necchi sewing machine in one of the many jingles contests she loved to enter. But just the other day I found the top on page eighty-seven of the Sears Roebuck Spring & Summer Catalog. “Look pretty while you’re waiting,” Sears advises above the model, who has paired the shirt with blue pedal pushers.

My sister would have known the smock wasn’t hand-sewn. But Andi has been dead for four years, and when we pulled the shirt out of a trunk after my mother died, I did not think to ask. Because Andi was not examining the needlework or waxing nostalgic over the pattern. “I remember that shirt,” she said, “because she slapped me right across the face one day when she was wearing it.”

This would have been 1959. I was there only in utero, but when I picture the scene the camera of my eyes hovers just behind Andi. I imagine the blur of blue flowers, my mother’s enraged face, and her right hand striking with rapier speed. The vision is as real as a memory. But that is all: I don’t recall why my mother slapped her (Had she spilled something? Made a smart remark?), but after all the child is not responsible for the parent’s anger. My mother was nearly forty years old, unexpectedly pregnant, probably hot, hormonal, and irritated at something that had nothing to do with her eight-year-old daughter.

In the 1950s, only pregnant women and painters wore smocks. In fact, although the style would become fashionable twenty years later, no definition in the dictionary explains this article of clothing or women’s relationship to it. The word derives from the Anglo-Saxon smoc (Middle English smok), meaning a loose dress or chemise, or “an overgarment of washable material” – a sort of workman’s apron. The 1977 Webster’s New Collegiate labeled the chemise definition archaic, but made no note of the smock’s evolution that decade into a fashion trend. Even in the 1998 edition, its principal dictionary denotation was as a cover-up for workers. The shirt’s identity as maternity clothing or Baby Boomer styling went unremarked; dictionaries were still written primarily by men.

Sometime in the 1970s, I discovered the loose shirt in my mother’s drawer and asked if I could wear it. Smocks were in. On Simplicity patterns and in the pages of Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines, models like Barbara Minty and Colleen Corby wore them loose or tucked into jeans. Andi and I combed through our FBS (French Boot Shop) catalog, from a retailer in New Rochelle that sold trendy clothing for modern women. Here the term “smock” became a catch-all for peasant blouses, India-print shirts, and short tunics. There was the “dude smock,” the “absolute smock,” the “gauze smock,” the “scarf smock.” The descriptions paid homage to the shirts’ origins: “The easy going smock is really a Mexican’s work shirt with a mandarin collar, front pocket”; another was “made from real peasant scarves in prints of the provinces.” Were there actual Mexican workers or peasants behind these creations? In 1975, no one cared. The models flaunted these shirts in third-world countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic, giving them a certain native cachet. I wanted to live like the women of FBS, who summered in exotic locales and carried sisal bags with flowers poking out of the top, who played tennis and strode down cobblestone streets, whose tall, lean bodies had never been pregnant and surely never would be.

What happened between my mother’s maternity smock and the tops of the 1970s? For one thing: Elizabeth Taylor. In the 1966 movie The Sandpiper, she plays a bohemian artist living on the coast of Big Sur in California whose wild young son is sent to a conservative private school run by a British headmaster (Richard Burton). It doesn’t take long for the buttoned-up Dr. Edward Hewitt to fall for the free-living Laura Reynolds, and the best parts of the campy movie consist of location shots of Taylor painting on the beach, dressed in, you guessed it, floaty artist’s smocks over tight pants. By the time Laura and the minister sneak away for a picnic in an isolated cove, she has shed everything but that smock, her legs emerging provocatively as she entwines herself around him.

But in 1975, I did not question how a garment that had once served as maternity clothing became a fashion statement. Why would women want to wear smocks if they weren’t pregnant? I had no answer for this at fifteen, and I put on my mother’s blue-flowered maternity top hoping my friends would not make the connection. I had no intention of getting pregnant, then or ever.

My mother never slapped me. She did pop me on the bottom once, when I was older than Andi, maybe ten, because I was teasing her about her middle name. Hope. What kind of a name was that? Hopie, Hopie, I heckled. She was infuriated. The smack did not hurt, not really, but her rage was incomprehensible. Why so sensitive? She would have these sudden fits, dissolving into tears, threatening to go to bed or never do our laundry again. Menopause, we blamed. Always there was some female condition responsible for her anger. But did pregnancy really make her slap Andi? Were hormones behind her fury about her middle name? My mother was angry. I suppose she had plenty of reasons to be, but she would have denied all of them. She did not like to admit my arrival was unplanned. She dismissed the resulting end of her teaching career with a shake of the head; she wasn’t healthy enough to continue, that was all. Women of her generation wore smocks to cover up their condition, and my mother was a master of subterfuge. One never really knew the full story. It was true she had hemorrhaged badly after I was born, and the pregnancy left her with some unpleasant physical issues, but it’s also true that she petitioned for a year’s leave of absence and the School Committee denied her appeal. Only then did she cash in her retirement fund and stop working. So, which was it? Was she relieved to stay home and be a full-time mother? Or was she papering over the truth, that she would have preferred I hadn’t been born at all?

My mother quit teaching school as soon as her pregnancy showed. It was considered unseemly for visibly pregnant women to be out in public, as though young children might be corrupted by the sight of them, as though the condition were contagious. It was only a few years before my birth that the wildly popular TV show I Love Lucy was enjoined from using the word “pregnant” on TV. Lucille Ball, as Lucy Ricardo, dressed for TV much as she did in real life: in stretchy pants and balloon-like maternity smocks. The tops were so expansive that you never saw the belly lurking beneath; that was by design. A woman who was pregnant was the subject of lame jokes about pickle cravings and mood swings. Pregnancy was a temporary and charming spell not to be broken by the actual word or a real belly bulge. It was a state of euphemism: “Look pretty while you’re waiting.”

As it happened, I was named after another pregnant woman on TV. “Betty Jean” was a character on the CBS soap opera The Edge of Night, whose husband was having an affair. One night he brought her ice cream to make up for an argument, but he left it on the counter to melt. At least, that is how my sister remembers it; in the plot lines of 1959, Betty Jean and her husband Jack are indeed estranged, but they already have a child, Bud. Andi may have been recalling an earlier episode: She would have seen enough of them in her preschool years, when she lived with my grandmother during the week. In any case, you might wonder why my mother would name a child after an unhappily married woman. The answer is she didn’t – my grandmother, who was devoted to her “stories” as she called the soap operas, picked out “Betty Jean.” My mother wanted to name me Caroline. She probably changed the spelling to “Jeanne” to give it a little pizzazz.

My mother’s pregnancy was more The Edge of Night than I Love Lucy. She would have been wondering how they were going to fit a third child into their two-bedroom house (the answer: a crib in the kitchen), how they were going to get by on my father’s meager earnings as a sawmill operator, and what it would be like to take care of a child full time. My grandmother, her mother-in-law, had raised Andi and Mary Jane while my mother taught school; they only came home on weekends.

So, I can’t really blame her for that slap. It was a momentary fissure in her composure, a cry for help even. My mother was overwhelmed. I know how she felt. One evening, one of the many nights when my husband was working and I had three children seven and under to corral, I lost my temper. It may have happened twice, although I only remember once: I slapped my eldest across the face.

During my three pregnancies, from 1989 to 1995, maternity clothing was still loose and camouflaging. It was unheard of to wear tight knit shirts that clung to one’s belly like plastic wrap on a bowling ball, as women do today. I started out in polyester pantsuits until they became too tight, and graduated to loose dresses and jumpers. By the last weeks of each pregnancy, hardly anything fit. I remember one summer when, as the birth of my second child approached, only one sundress accommodated my girth. Somehow I did not think to borrow my mother’s smock as I had in the ’70s.

Like my mother, I was working full time. But all these years later, the choice she made – to leave her children in someone else’s care from Sunday evening to Friday afternoon – shocked me. We cobbled together babysitting between my aunt, a day care center, and my husband’s split shift. I wanted my children to sleep in their own beds at night. I wanted to see them, cook them supper, bathe them, play with them. We had a routine, and most of the time it worked out fine. But some nights it was all too much: the boys running amok, refusing to settle down, my baby girl disinterested in sleep. I snapped. The slap, sudden like a thunderclap, stopped the commotion. The sad thing is it worked.

Years later, I confessed to my eldest that I still felt guilt for striking him. He just laughed. Unlike my sister, he had no memory of being hit at all.

The smock was the only maternity clothing that my mother saved. She did not intend to have more children. Why did she keep it? Did she, too, imagine wearing it while writing? The only other clothing she stowed away was her college sweatshirt. Not even her blue wedding suit survives, but the smock and sweatshirt were folded carefully in a drawer, along with our snowsuits and my father’s Army uniform. She never wore either one again, but they must have represented something to her: She had graduated from college. She had borne three daughters.

I think of my mother in that hot kitchen, unable to bear one more trial of motherhood, smacking my sister in a rage. I don’t know if she felt deep shame later, as I did for slapping my son, or whether she even recalled the incident that had embittered Andi. She liked to hide behind forgetting, and cited Andi’s memory as though it were a character flaw: “Oh, your sister. She doesn’t forget a thing.” When I appropriated the smock as a teenager, I was innocent of its history. What did my mother think about her youngest parading around in it? I wonder now if women in the 1970s donned smocks precisely because they could: freed by the birth control pill and the women’s liberation movement to control their fertility, they transformed a maternity shirt from a garment of camouflage to one of allure. It seemed only fitting when my daughter, another generation, took an interest in it. Enchanted by its bright blue flowers, she made the smock into 21st-century chic by adding a leather belt.

Today I see my mother’s smock as something sacred. Whether you are painting a picture or making a baby, the smock is a sign you have something gestating. I put it on now to write. Although it is weighted by its history – by the lives of my mother, my teenage self, my sister, my daughter – it feels light and loose; not confining, but not tent-like either. It was well made. After sixty-two years, the smock has held up – its colors a little faded but its stitching tight, its lines true. And I suppose mothers are like that. We are not perfect. We are stretched and stressed by the demands placed on us, and sometimes we snap in ways that are unforgivable. I wear the smock to remind myself that if I judge my mother, I must judge myself. That if I empathize with my sister, I must not forget to atone for my son, even if he did not hold onto the memory. The smock, that garment that was supposed to hide so much, continues to reveal: our humanity, our creativity, our potential. Its story also is a cautionary tale. It reminds me how quickly we can turn from loving to cruel. But it also carries with it the possibility of forgiveness. Like the smock, my mother was more than maternal; she was a teacher, a writer, and a flawed human being doing the best she could. And the smock, like my mother, has transcended its maternity function into a garment for the ages.

About the Author:

Betty J. Cotter is the author of the novels Roberta’s Woods (Five Star, 2008) and The Winters (which earned her a Fiction Fellowship from the R.I. State Council on the Arts). The first chapter of her novel Moonshine Swamp was selected for the premiere issue of Novel Slices (2020) and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A Rhode Island resident, she holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Categories
nonfiction

Here, Gone, Again by Sarah Lass

The 2021 Honeybee Prize for Nonfiction; Selected by Marco Wilkinson:

Here, Gone, Again | Sarah Lass

It is late May in a quiet corner of New England. I sit on a hill that tumbles towards a pond in two definitive slopes: the first precipitous drop from the quiet street above empties into an inviting grassy expanse before dropping off again towards the water. Two edges, two drops, separated by the fleeting respite of horizontality. Green flesh whispers softly to green flesh. Every so often, the water shivers. 

It isn’t warm. Summer is tentative. Evening slinks across the lawn, bringing with it a more assertive chill. Above, an echelon of geese parts the sky. The formation circles, circles again, and then descends. Two wings stretch out from each plump feathered body, doming elegantly over unseen supports. The approach to the pond’s surface is met with increasing exclamation and outcry. “It’s happening,” they shout—vehement, uncertain, alarmed, ecstatic. “We’re landing! It’s happening!”

The next day, I’m back at the pond, but this time in the dance studio nestled on its banks. I stand with my back pressed against the wall, the generous expanse of the studio floor spilling out from my toes. These are trees underfoot: oak. Two bodies move a few yards away, beginning their exquisite play of weight and tone and rhythm and reference and space and relationship and and and; they listen, they offer, they listen. Light drapes across limbs like a soft, indulgent fabric, continually redoing its weave on their bodies. We have begun. We are improvising. I could reach the two bodies in a few steps if I wanted, but I stay on my edge, simultaneously dilating myself open and extending myself outward into the action. The brew of that meeting place—between my attention and their movement—will tell me something about what’s happening. This is how my body can begin its strange calculations, etching emergent formulas across and through itself. There will be no resolution or conclusion, only the narrowest of windows into revelation: now. Enter now. All I can do is be ready to answer the call—whenever, whatever, however it emerges. Attachment, in this circumstance, is impediment. 

The moment arrives and I go. I don’t decide to do it, but suddenly I am in it. I arrive into the free-fall of composing. I trip and stumble (sometimes literally, more often figuratively). I’ve released myself from the demands of logic, but I am still involved in sense-making, just with a more expansive understanding of what that means and how it happens. Occasionally, in this regard, I find a fleeting foothold. What are we doing? I know from experience that if I look at the question directly, I’ll have no hope of answering (and answering is not even of primary concern). More reliable (and more interesting) is a mantra: this is happening. The unblemished spread of oak, the generous emptiness of the room, the landscape of light and shadow—it all gives the impression of controlled conditions, the circumstances of laboratory work. But in addition to this winnowed focus, the world goes on. We are in it. It is in us. Conditions are anything but controlled. Even though we experiment and question, improvisation is not a laboratory—it is a garden and an unruly one at that. 

More dancers arrive, forming a loose cluster nearby. They are clouds gathering before a storm. They are the unruly chorus of instruments that greets the arriving orchestra-goer, all tuning towards whatever lies ahead. They are the scattered chants that ultimately build into protest. I don’t think these things there in the studio, in the moment of perceiving them. Naming them in this way will slow me down. I will miss things. More perilous still, if I name them and require that they meet and maintain whatever moniker I have assigned them, then they cannot become anything else. No—they are all of these things and none of these things. They are people moving together—here, now—and I know what they’re doing just like I know how the clouds gather and the orchestra prepares and the chants build. 

I drop into a peculiar rhythm as I travel around the group, feeling a syncopation of my right toe, tail bone, and left shoulder. To say I feel it isn’t quite right, though. I don’t simply feel it—I feel into it, like when I stretch my hand into a glove and reach around for the fingers. I excavate the sensation. I am active inside of it. I commit myself to the rhythm even as (or especially as) I wonder about it. On the opposite side of the group—itself wrapped up in some imprecise geometry of embrace—another body loops about languidly. She is a moon in orbit. She shifts her pelvis this way and that, flirting with momentum as she falls in half-circles, her limbs trailing, ribbon-like. My rhythm cedes into increased muscular tone; I begin to feel desire. I want physical contact. I want pressure. A body brushes up against my own, spilling into me from my left hip up to my shoulders. It is warm, steady, reliable, and still moving. The fleshy surface offered dips gently downward. Here is support, if you want it. I do. I fall into it. I am carried—delivered from my location on the periphery into the tangled mass. I feel what it is to share my weight with another; to stay active without leading; to experience a shift. I feel what it is to be moved. This is happening. 

To say our dance is collaborative is true. Since we don’t know what will happen or how it will come about, our primary commitment is to being together. However, being together does not mean agreeing. In fact, in order to discover anything at all we have to challenge one another—a little, a lot, just enough—so that we all have the sense—no matter where we are or what we’re doing—of being on the brink and at our limits. I remember the playful contests of childhood. I bet I can make it to the fence before you. Whoever does the most cartwheels wins. Let’s see how fast we can go. The game is proposed not so much to bring about the outcome, but rather to engage the players. We hold hands (or arms or legs or feet or all manner of imaginative ephemera) at the lip of a precipice. We step into it together.

I think of the geese. Webbed feet splay in readiness, stretching into the rapidly closing space between palmate and pond. Wings beat with new desperation and bleating voices reach a chaotic zenith. Feathers fan, their tips reaching out and up like the ends of paintbrushes dragged from upper canvas to lower. Water welcomes ample bellies and breasts with fanfare, sloshing and spraying in jubilation. This has happened before and yet, it is somehow still surprising. A few final exchanges and expletives amplify the excitement, and then the urgent discussion is over. Quiet returns. The water parts gently just as the sky did above. Fine lines of disruption trail each perky tailfeather, the ripples extending into a ghost of the V-shape marked, when airborne, by fellow fowl. The geese land, but glide on, the voyage not ended, but altered. 

I don’t know that luck is responsible, but it always feels lucky, coming upon that thing on the other side of composing—that thing that we’re hoping to reach through the act of composing. Whatever it is, it doesn’t feel like we’ve made it; authorship is not absent, but it’s also not the point. Whatever it is—that thing—it emerges. It catches us. We land in it. 

I am tempted to say that our dance crystalizes. This is not the wrong word to use, but it is also not the right one. There is certainly a coalescing and a clarity. There is a kind of undeniability of structure and form (no matter where the dance falls on the spectrum of those terms). And yet, the dance does not solidify. It is not immobile. It is not set. Perhaps we could say this: it goes from being many things to not being many things. Or, similarly, it goes from not being some things to not being most things. Or we could liken it to the experience of hiking up a mountain, of finding one’s way through trees and brush, looking through shaded density, winding and weaving through foliage, possibly losing one’s way any number of times, and then, finally, emerging into the clearing or onto the mountain-top lookout and feeling the accompanying quieting and stilling, the sense of wide-eyed arrival. 

I describe this because of the feeling—the quieting, the stilling, the wide-eyed arrival—but landing in that thing on the other side of composing is, truthfully, nothing like hiking to the forest clearing or the mountain lookout. It is more like wandering the tundra, without commitment to route, to destination, or even to eventual return; it is like setting off with the commitment only to go, and then—on the way and in the midst—discovering a mossy stone, which you bend down to caress with complete devotion for a time; and then, later, looking to the sky to find a bird accompanying you from above, tracking it and you for a while as you move in an unlikely duet; it is like when, later still, you become transfixed by the crunch of your feet in concert with the chirp of an insect. One thing about the thing on the other side of composing is this: the mossy stone leads to the bird, and the bird gives way to the crunch and the chirp. The clearing leads, once again, to the woods. The thing we’ve found—precious and specific—keeps moving, slipping away, becoming something else. In other words, the grassy expanse drops into the next hill. The hill empties into the pond. The geese take flight again. 

Over the course of two quiet afternoons in July 2020 I read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. I finish it sitting on the hill by the pond. My back leans against its first sloping incline, my legs sprawl out into the grassy field. The sun has lain down across my skin like a warm, gentle body wrapped intimately around my own. A breeze picks up, toys with becoming a wind, and then decides against it. Flowers bloom. 

“There’s so many of us,” the ghost Richie says in the book’s final pages. Though he has discovered the circumstances of his death, there is no redemption for Richie, who had hoped that the knowledge might help him “cross the waters,” “be home,” “become the song.” There is no redemption for the countless other ghosts, who Jojo, the novel’s young black protagonist, encounters in the story’s final pages. “They perch like birds but look as people” on the branches of a great tree in the woods behind Jojo’s house. The ghosts—men, women, the elderly, and the newborn, those who lived two hundred years ago and those who lived last week—look out at Jojo from their crowded branches in the gathering dark and tell him about their deaths with their eyes, each one singularly horrific. That these ghosts might know their own murders and still have no peace intimates that such horrors remain unresolved, remain present, remain alive. “The ghosts don’t still, don’t rise, don’t ascend and disappear.” Even when Jojo’s little sister Kayla commands them to go home, they stay. There can be no ascension—no resolution—while the horror continues. And it does. It goes on and on and on.

Why the protests that surged across the nation in the spring of 2020 gained such momentum and garnered such widespread involvement will likely be the source of research and discussion for decades to come. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery ignited the wave of outrage, but the murder of black and brown people by white police officers was not and is not new. What was it about that time in particular that, more than any other in recent history, made inaction—especially within white communities—finally unconscionable? George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. These were the names shouted out in call and response in the gathering heat of approaching summer—these names, these singular people, murdered in singularly horrific ways. And yet. There’s so many of us. Standing in a city street in May, facing a police precinct lined with unmoving, armed officers, I added my voice to the chorus, shaping the names to summon the people and I felt how many, many more arrive. 

It is one thing to know of racism—to know it is present and operational and monstrous—and it is another to know racism. The ability to experience a distinction is a privilege afforded by racism. It is one thing to perceive the motor of white supremacy—to hear it, to feel it, to see its gears and pistons, well-oiled by systemic and systematized hate. It is another to discover oneself an operator of this motor and a benefactor of its machinations; it is another still to find its wiring extending into and through one’s body, to feel it ignite when picked at, to become intimately acquainted with its unoriginal methods of trickery: deflection, disguise, disassociation. The spring and summer of 2020 felt to be characterized, in some ways and some white communities, by this profoundly overdue realization. Now. Enter now.

Posts proliferate. Emails are sent. Books published years ago and long available are suddenly out of stock. Solidarity is professed and action steps, communicated; racial violence and injustice of every guise is condemned, vehemently. I lose count of the number of posts I see. I am part of the problem. I have not done enough. I have been complacent. I have been complicit. I can see now. Newsfeeds repurposed as confessionals host hoards of penitents, all piling in with the requisite contrition and the necessary disclosures. The noise, the commotion, the fanfare— here is a landing of sorts.

The net of bodies into which I’ve been deposited continues knotting and unknotting itself. Those involved dart through empty pockets of space, which balloon open between moving masses and then pop closed, punctured by continued action. The speed at which they appear and disappear thrills. The moon—that dancer flung outward from the ensemble—seems to have metabolized the loping circles which carried her wildly through space moments before, that unruly curving and carving now traveling through the interior of her form, buffeting her from the inside-out.

Though there have been a couple of spatial reconfigurations and though a number of seconds have now elapsed between what was happening and what is happening, the facts of the dance remain largely unchanged. And yet, in the midst of it all, I perceive a kind of sharpening, as if we all, having entered an unfamiliar room without glasses and having stumbled about there for a time, have now found and donned our much-needed eyewear. This is happening has led us to this, this, this. Moss. Chirp. Bird. Attached as this may be to them, it is also more than them; dependent upon them, but also irreducible to them. This swells beyond its facts—exceeds them—lifting off from them the moment it lands in them.

I remember another dance, from years earlier. “What if attention is the dance?” Jennifer Monson called out from a corner of St. Mark’s Church on a hot afternoon in July 2017. We had turned off all the lights, perhaps in an attempt to trick ourselves into believing the space was cooler than it actually was, or perhaps in order to better facilitate the score we were exploring—something about light and shadow. I was at the back of the church, at the perimeter of the wood floor that blankets it, surrounded by the thirty or so other dancers participating in the workshop. I was a couple of feet from one of the poles that supports the church’s second-story balcony, which now provides office space for a couple of arts organizations but which ones, I discovered while reading a New York Times review of choreographer Reggie Wilson’s work, served as a slave gallery.

I was pouring myself into and out of an ill-defined corridor of light which beamed down from the west side of the building to the east. I had been doing this somewhat aimlessly for a few minutes, winnowing my focus to the prompts offered so that I might be led—via the confluence of my activity, imagination, and curiosity—into expanded presence. I had been largely unsuccessful until Jennifer Monson’s provocation. The question materialized in the air like a sculpture. As we danced, we moved around it, surveying it from various perspectives so we might come to understand something about it. 

Upon hearing it, I suddenly perceived my own form as nothing more and nothing less than a landscape of light and shadow—one which was contiguous with the landscape of light and shadow around me. I tracked the estuary of these light-based landscapes—my own and the room’s—and I discovered that I could be moved according to the refraction of the room’s light through the various fleshy densities of my form. Dark matter meets warm light, splinters and scatters, eddies, pools, pours back towards darkness, tends to itself there, meets more shadow, commotion, agitation, uproar, light spreads, shadow beckons. This. The landing was not in movement, exactly—not in the compositional particulars of time, space, gesture, effort, though all of these were certainly present and happening; it was instead in a way of attending to what was already happening. 

If the dance is not, in fact, its facts—if it is not the moss or the chirp or the bird, not the movement that takes me into and out of that corridor of light—but rather a matter of attention in relation to these facts, then I wonder if the dance isn’t always, already happening, if it isn’t perpetually underway. If this is the case, then there is nothing to make, but rather everything to find. The missing element—the element that shepherds us, ultimately, to this—is attention, which is not to be confused with awareness, a related but by no means synonymous term. As we have seen, we can be aware of something without attending to it; I can know of something without knowing it.

In an episode of the podcast Code Switch, hosts Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby question why white people showed up and spoke out in the summer of 2020. “Some major shift appears to be happening with a large cohort of white people. But why now?” Meraji and Demby ask. After posing that very question—“why now?”—to their many new white followers on Instagram, a theme emerged: white people saw other white people speaking out. Whereas previously it had felt conspicuous to discuss and post about racial injustice and violence, it now felt conspicuous not to. There was both pressure and permission in white communities to say something, Meraji and Demy explain, but regardless of the specific rationale, action arose due to dynamics between white people. “Few people who responded to me said that they had become activated because of social proximity to black people,” Meraji continues. “So, while much of the conceptual space and groundwork for this moment was laid by black organizers, these messages suggest that much of this political foment among white people is happening because of contact with other white people.”

I try to remember who it was, that dancer who transplanted me into the tangled mass of bodies, carrying me from the periphery into the fray, to that place where, eventually, we came upon the dance? Does it matter that I know who it was who carried me? Absolutely. It matters that I am here, certainly, and it also matters how I came to be here. If I know who it was who moved me, I can call upon this as the composition continues. It matters because it tells me something about how I might attend to the dance now—in this new moment—and now—in this one. The dance doesn’t stop, and if I do, I am no longer a part of it. It is important to be here, to have landed, but it is most important not to stay here. There are countless clearings to reach. 

The geese float across the surface of the pond. Their journey appears calm, but I know it’s a ruse. Just below the water’s surface the webbed feet that trailed them like rutters in flight have been repurposed as motors. They paddle themselves forward in flurries of undisclosed activity—a few seconds of quick, insistent kicks at the water around them, a few seconds of rest. Repeat. They remind me that stillness is a myth, simply a slowing of perpetual, though sometimes imperceptible motion. They reach the center of the pond and then, responsive to some impulse or stimuli unknown to me, they cry out to each other. They beat their wings with a muscularity that seems to alarm even them, hoisting themselves from the water with heroic though inelegant effort. Their transition to flight seems most difficult in the intermediate space between pond and sky, the horizon, its underneath riding the seam of the earth and its top indicating with a peculiar clarity (considering the imprecise nature of the term) that realm we describe as “above.” The work is arduous, but eventually, the geese gain the sky. How strange and beautiful—to watch momentum increase in an upward trajectory. They circle, collecting themselves and each other, and then set off across the treetops which surround the pond, heading towards the mountain a few miles away. They disappear behind the trees. I do not know where they’ll land.  

I wonder what it’s like on the other side of revolution. I wonder who I am there. I write this because it’s true—I do wonder—but my formulation is misleading. I am already happening, already underway. So, too, is revolution. Instead of wondering, then, I continue. I activate and inquire in the intermediate; I ready myself for engagement; I enter before I’m ready; I fall; I commit without commentary; I lose and am lost; I marvel: I embrace: I let it all go: I delight and exclaim with each arrival; I expect departure; I attend; I attend again; I attend differently. 

One might say I am made and re-made over the course of things. One might say I am undone, over and over. Which of these is more correct is, perhaps, not the most interesting question. It is not that we are remade or undone, but simply changed—here, and then elsewhere, this and then this.

Bibliography

Ward, Jesmyn. Sing, Unburied, Sing. New York: Scriber, 2017.

Kourlas, Gia. “Review: Connecting Dance and Worship With Poetic Imagination,” The New 

York Times, (New York: NY), Jan 8, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/08/arts/dance/reggie-wilson-review.html.

Demby, Gene and Shereen Marisol Meraji. “Why Now, White People,” Code 

Switch. Podcast audio. June 16, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/16/878963732/why-now-white-people.

About the Author:

Sarah Lass is a Colorado-raised, Massachusetts-based dancer, writer, and educator. Her current book project, Small Dances, is a collection of essays which connects the work of dance to the work of building a more tender, more compassionate, and more joyful world. Her essay, “Ephemeral Does Not Mean Impermanent,” was recently published in the 2021 issue of The Briar Cliff Review. Lass received her MFA in Dance from Smith College in 2018 and graduated summa cum laude from Kenyon College in 2013. She has taught dance courses at Smith, Hampshire, Marlboro, and Keene State Colleges.

Categories
nonfiction

Fences for Neighbours by Rebecca Davey

Fences for Neighbours | Rebecca Davey

*Pseudonyms are used.

“We’ll do it quick,” I say. “So quick, they won’t even know it happened.” 

I’m trying to convince my husband and father-in-law to knock down our decrepit old plaster kitchen wall. The goal is to beautify the wall as well as put up new layers of soundproofing—all in the space of a weekend while my neighbours are away. My husband acquiesces and picks up the sledgehammer. Boom. Right away we discover (as is the way with renovations) that this quick and dirty job is not at all quick, and is exceptionally dirty. With the knocked down wall comes many layers of plaster dust, along with a thick layer of black charcoal. Who knew the wall was covering up a chimney?

“Will some of that black stuff land on their side?” I ask my father-in-law as he reaches for the broom, his body covered in soot.

“A little,” he says. Which means A LOT. Dread creeps into my belly as they dig around in the wall muck, feeling the implications of our rash act. Indeed, the neighbours come home to their entire kitchen sprinkled in a black dredge that has settled on both sides of the wall. I know this because when I put my ear to the fresh drywall, now adorned with a triple layer of insulation, I can still hear the upswing of Jeff, my neighbour.

“What did they do?” he asks, at which point the terror starts to course through me. How is it possible that I can hear him more clearly than before? The triple layer of soundproofing was supposed to fix that. Now it’s as if there’s no wall at all.

My fraught relationship with my neighbours—Jeff and Mandy—has taken up many years of brain space—eight years to be exact, as I try and guess what they’re thinking, wondering constantly if I’ve upset them, if they like my bangs, how I could bring up the sharing of the cost of porch paint. 

“You’ve always been like that,” my friend Sarah says, “a little obsessive.” We are sitting in her backyard eating bran muffins as I try to pick her brain for memories of me. Is this who I am, I wonder. Obsessive? I’m tempted to defend myself, but it’s true, certain people do take hold.  

It’s another Sunday and the service has just ended. Everyone is milling about the way it happens in evangelical churches. I see my childhood friend across the sanctuary. She has long wavy hair and just discovered she has a long-lost dad who’s also an actor. She also has a singing voice like vanilla pudding, which makes me totally jealous. I too want to be an artist but only consider myself a solid medium. Nice church people like Thomas and Ruth and Renfrew Bently—all come up to shake my hands. People are friendly and interested in my life here, but I’m only half listening to everyone because I have one eye on my friend and who she is talking to. Who is the person that is interested in her life? Whose orbit is she moving into next, and will I be excluded? I want to be her. 

“Sam was another obsession,” Sarah says. “You pursued him with an unwavering focus too. Remember all those letters?” 

“I signed them with a star instead of a heart.”

“Sounds like you. You just weren’t particularly interested in the odds if you wanted something.”

 I think it’s a family trait this intent focus—animal-like—compelling us to seek out our prey, but with soft loving hearts. 

Jeff and Mandy move into the Victorian row house next to ours a year after us and I’m instantly enamoured. She’s in fashion and wears surprising combinations like sky blue shorts and a yellow t-shirt with brown leather loafers. Her hair is cut into a sleek bob and sometimes she ties it all together with bright red lipstick, setting off her perfectly imperfect front teeth. I can’t take my eyes off her. He makes high end shoes from scratch and sometimes wears a smoking jacket. I tell all my friends that my neighbour makes shoes. I feel cool to be orbiting so close to them, the same wall. 

It’s ludicrous the proximity—practically incestuous—sharing the same wall. I think about how with the right tools I could cut a hole in the wall like they do in movies and walk right through. If I put my ear to the wall in our kitchen, I can hear their banal conversations, but I listen anyway. Until their voices start to make me feel sick, from the over extension of my neck! Why am I standing there? What am I hoping to find?  

One time, Jeff sends me a text in the middle of the night. I was in Winnipeg, staying in an unglamorous dorm room with my family during a weekend break from a summer course. There were no students in the dorm because it was the summer, so we had been running the bland halls with our toddler. My older daughter, who we had unfortunately trained to love fancy things, found the dorm disappointing. The duvets weren’t cozy and the bathroom didn’t have a TV. She acted disgusted the way I felt inside. Plus, the only take out we could find was less than average. We ate it on the bed, and nobody thought it was delicious. My toddler managed to slurp the occasional piece of noodle; the rest getting ground into the industrial carpet. 

“It’s a full moon tonight,” he wrote, taking me by surprise. I was just getting up to go to the bathroom when I saw my phone flash. I took my phone into the bathroom to read it a couple more times. My heartbeat accelerated. Up until now we hadn’t spoken more than five words to each other alone. I didn’t even know I registered on the radar of the dapper man with the homemade shoes, so specific in his taste and moments of kindness. So, a sudden text at night about the moon? I’m making headway. 

“Yeah, great moon from Winnipeg,” I wrote back. I wonder if he thought I was on the other side of the wall that night. I sat on the toilet and waited for a response, but nothing came. 

It takes me a while to accept that Jeff and Mandy are actually terrible neighbours. Their intimacy is inconsistent, always on their terms. She texts me when she needs something: an onion, ice cubes (it takes them three months to return the trays), a lemon, ketchup. I keep telling myself we’re in the building stage. This is us getting to know each other as I give her my last egg. He texts me when he’s bored, starting the conversation with, “Hey. What are you doing?” which dupes me into thinking he really wants to know. It takes me a while to learn what he’s really after. 

When she says at a porch party early on in our relationship that we should go to Cape Cod together as families, I’m ready to go inside and start packing. But the next morning and every other time we meet it never seems to come up again. Even after she blows off our early morning yoga date, our park date, and our wine date, I continue to dream about Cape Cod—a symbol of what could still be. 

   “Are you mad?” is her constant text refrain. 

Of course, I’m effusive about saying how not mad I am. I don’t want conflict. Plus, I have reciprocated a few texts to her husband. I’ve stepped over a line. Good people–neighbours aren’t supposed to do that. I have no moral ground to stand on and the quality of the ground beneath my feet has always been a concern for me. I’m a church girl after all. I have been trained to worry about others. Especially my neighbours. To think about my output. Now everything is getting marred. The pristine leather shoes are covered in scuff marks—some of them mine.  

Once there was a pair of narcissists who lived right next to a naive Christian girl, who was wracked by guilt for receiving their attention. Or was their attention more like ignoring? More likely they were too busy staring at their reflections in the kiddie pool in their backyard while she obsessed about her ranking on the scale of good to very, very bad.

  If you climb into our attic, you will find that it is completely open across six houses, meaning, if you don’t slip through the floorboards to your death, you can run from one end to the other. I imagine avoiding near death and climbing down on their side. I will find them at the dinner table, “Surprise, it’s me! Remember me? The neighbour you dangle like a cat toy.” They will look confused because they don’t have a cat, but my point will be made.

I make a short film in our house and get caught up in the moment of the scene. I let the actor sing her climactic aria over and over ending in a high-pitched squeal. This is my first time directing and I love every second. Again! Again! More squeal! It doesn’t occur to me until Jeff knocks on the door in the middle of the scene that the actors’ voice has been breaching our shared wall for hours. 

Maybe that’s when they decide to go to Cape Cod by themselves. I imagine them walking around Commercial Street in matching salmon pants and chewing on saltwater taffy. I feel left out because there was that one night of drinks where she said we were going to be best friends, two cool couples living side by side in a Victorian row houses. Also, I love the chewy tang of saltwater taffy. I thought they knew. 

Jeff leaves a vase of lavender on our porch for Mother’s Day one of those years, which feels like an olive branch, but then they don’t look at us for the next four months. That typical push and pull that reels me in over and over—the sucker that I am—disappointed by their stabs of kindness. Puncture, then a jab. 

Somewhere along the line, I stop responding to his texts. Maybe it’s because my mind is full of grief? We have just received the news that our baby will be born with a heart defect requiring open heart surgery at six months. I’m grieving in my usual obsessive way—constantly, a writhing sort of agony—at which point the NEIGHBOURS deign to have a party. I make Sam go over to knock on their door and put an end to their music that is echoing through the walls. (Did they install a speaker system along the stairwell? My god, they’re satanic!) Jeff tries to divert Sam by inviting him in for some chocolate fondue, but Sam stays strong, 

“My wife is weeping upstairs because of your reverberating bass.”

 Boom. Boom. There it is again.

We each build up our grievances, like an osprey building its protective nest. Stick after stick. It’s easier to hate than love. Jeff tells me that he despises opera. I leave them an expensive bottle of wine to apologize. They never say thank you. 

It’s around the time that I stop texting that I start listening avidly at the walls. I want to know if I’ve been found guilty. Also, to see if they are drinking my wine. I am certain that they are talking about me and I need to know what, precisely, they are saying. I have to listen a lot—every chance I get—to confirm my suspicions. It’s making me ill. The knot in my stomach is constant as I strain my neck to press my ear flat. The cup technique is a ruse. I can only ever make out a few words but it’s enough to keep me coming back for more. One time I hear them say “Emily.” And more than once I hear “her.” Her. I am her. For a while I think I might die when I come in my house because the neighbours are so close. I can hear their front door open and close. I can hear their footsteps on their staircase, their lives on the other side of the wall. 

I read a poem recently called “In Praise of Pain”—it seems relevant to those fanatical years, where I returned to the discomfort again and again.

The obsession seems to wane on both sides when we have kids, but I’m still a little too interested in what they think, still hoping that Cape Cod can happen—the symbol of what was gained and lost in a matter of minutes. Let’s chalk it up to my faith-based naiveté. God can move mountains. Noone is irredeemable. 

We are no longer filming shorts in our houses or throwing chocolate fountain parties because now we are doing other annoying things, like sanding our floors at odd hours of the day and night to save money. We don’t give the neighbours any warning because it takes too much effort to talk to them, to deal with their inconsistencies. It’s also our histories that prevent us from speaking clearly. When Jeff is feeling empty inside, he still sends me a random text. He finds me when I’m rocking my baby to sleep, when I am just about to get into the bath. I listen at the wall to see what he might be doing when his voice pierces through the drywall interrupting my life. I listen for the ice cubes clinking into his glass (he must be drunk!) or the snorting of cocaine (he must be high!). 

And yet I have envied how Jeff and Mandy look at each other, able to shut the whole world out, while I am clawing at the walls trying to find a hole so I can see what they’re doing over there. Just like I looked for my friend across the sanctuary. Always longing to be somewhere else, to be someone else, convinced that “there” was better than “here,” “she” better than “me,” even if I know I’m staring at people who don’t deserve all this time and energy being expended. 

I forget which particular construction project is the last straw for Mandy. Is it the charcoal detritus or the sanding of the floors? Or is it Sam asking to see the plans for their basement excavation? Definitely our contractor coming to cut a single piece of wood for a window trim is the catalyst to let it all out. When his jigsaw rings we receive a sharp text saying,

“From now on we need 24 hours’ notice for ALL work.” 

We’ve never sent these kind of acrid texts; we’ve never spoken our disdain out loud. Something has been unleashed. The walls become hot to the touch and I don’t even dare listen. I’m afraid of burning my hands, my ears on her wrath. But the world conspires and we run into them in the park that same day. For 45-minutes Mandy yells at Sam about our insensitivity and bad behaviour. The floors, oh how she put up with the sanding of the floors at every hour. And the random banging without warning. And our happy times too—they rubbed her most of all! I watch the scene play out from across the park, unable to move my body over to where they sit and support my husband who is graciously taking the fall. I watch human behaviour—petty and wounded—spread itself out like the chalk markings of a dead body. 

“Good fences make good neighbours,” says Robert Frost in his poem “Fences.” The inverse is also true: no fences at all and a shared wall make for bad neighbours especially if you’re a masochist who gets enamoured with people to the point of obsession and can’t find relief even in your own home. Also probably true if you’re just a normal group of humans causing normal levels of irritation. A lack of boundaries, aka, human beings sharing the same wall is a recipe for danger. Messed up humans. Full of good and so much bad, full of holes we think texting about the moon will fill up. Thinking we are doing a good job loving because our families are okay, but forgetting to spread the love just five metres to the right.

The first time I remember eavesdropping was in grade three. I had won a hands-free phone from “Jump Rope For Heart” and discovered that the flimsy phone, when plugged in, could listen in undetected on all my mom’s calls. I heard her cry with my aunt about my dad who wouldn’t talk to her, the genesis of my worrying about their marriage. Another year, I “eavesdropped” on all my Christmas presents, unwrapping and then subsequently rewrapping each one. None of them were what I wanted. Merry Christmas, Emily. 

Curiosity kills the cat. 

Curiosity feel like a restless hamster rooting around in my belly. 

Curiosity, what some might call obsession, has been my nemesis, even before I met Jeff and Mandy.

Now that we’re forty and mellowing with every year, texting is boring. We each have a few failures under our belt. We’re getting a little more body fat that we can’t get rid of which makes us humble. Our kids have exposed our inconsistencies, our parental inadequacies for all the world to see. They have heard me yell. I have heard their repeated door slams. It also helps that Mandy has quit her high paying job in the fashion industry and started listening to Tara Brach. She posts about the environment now and how she lets her children be sad when they need to. I am mixed about the changes I see in her—not sure if this new better person will extend any of that grace to me, her neighbour. I still brace when I get a text from her, knowing she probably needs my penultimate lemon.

But even still, I am tired of slandering them to anyone who will listen, “My neighbours. God, my neighbours!” 

Sometimes I try to cross the expanse between us by chit chatting about the things I know she cares about now. In my mind I imagine also talking about the things I still care about: Remember when you didn’t come to yoga? Remember that interminable yelling session in the park? Remember when you took three months to return our ice cube tray and as payback you offered to fill them up with water first? I would accompany these questions with the beating of my breasts. I would confess that I have texted her husband. I would invite her to church. I would say “I love you” and “I’m sorry” at the same time, which would sound like another language, “I slorry.” 

Maybe we could laugh about how good fences make good neighbours, but we share the same wall! The joke is on us!

I don’t want to feel that anger toward my neighbours anymore. I don’t want to feel that anger toward myself. I want compassion and empathy in my life, to transform myself like psycho Carol who returns to the Netflix show “Superstore” dramatically as the “empath.” I want to be this empath, to take long slow breaths with my back to our shared wall and wish them well. A long inhale and an even longer exhale. I think if I must put my ear to the wall, it should be to listen for something to pray for. What if I eavesdropped in order to pray more specifically? I’ll have to see what my God thinks about that idea. 

This morning I still crawled out of my bed when I heard them talking on the street—just to see what they were wearing. A compulsion in my body that I haven’t quite evacuated. Obsession is a habit. I have considered moving to get away from them. But I know that I will just find other neighbours to problematize. Relationships are always quandaries because they are dictated by broken people. If you interact with another human, you are at risk. Relationships, half-relationships, waving from across the street—it’s all risky. Exposing ourselves a bit or a lot. And doing it with shared walls? It’s going to be hell. Sometimes at least. Unless we stick it out until we’re seventy, at which point maybe our conversations start to resemble heaven?

But I can also feel myself backing away from the drama. Will she disappear completely, the youthful me who could get swept away by a text, who could fall in love with a shoe man for a few months without worrying where it all might go wrong? I have seen and experienced too much. I have lived through a pandemic along with the rest of the world. I have woken up too many times to the news of ten more deaths in a mass shooting. Today the victims are in Boulder, Colorado. 

With these newer older eyes, I see the dapper man’s fuller humanity. Cocky, a bit narcissistic, but also just a human, made in my God’s image, getting more and more normal with each passing day—especially in his new dad costume: running shoes and the same drab vest. Just an average man wanting to blend into a crowd. Not the decade ago shoemaker man who texted me about the sky. Who were we then? Where did we get that energy to love and hate each other? From the upstairs window I can see Mandy walking with her dog. Her hair is thinning and she badly needs a haircut, like everybody else. Also, a hug. 

Unearth a rusty nail here, tighten a screw there: we are all works in progress, under construction, full of charcoal dust if you dare to cut through a layer.

About the Author:

Rebecca Davey is an actress, writer and producer and founder of Ceres Productions Inc, a multi-media company which fills its expanding creative universe with diverse projects big and small. She has written several web series including Running With Violet, which has garnered over thirty awards and nominations and is available on OUTtv and Amazon Prime. She has a Masters of Creative Writing from the University of British Colombia and is working on her first middle grade novel. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters, but is actively discovering what more time in nature brings to her creative work.

Categories
nonfiction

Picking Up Where We Left Off by Amie Heasley

Picking Up Where We Left Off | By Amie Heasley

I lifted a woman off the bathroom floor in an Italian restaurant. The twenty-something hostess didn’t know what to do, or maybe she just didn’t want to do what clearly had to be done. I’m no EMT. I’ve run almost twenty half marathons, but I have a bad back and wouldn’t say I’m particularly fit or strong. I am definitely not heroic. 

The door was locked. I shimmied under the stall, my middle-aged hands and knees pressed to the dirty tile, my face up close and personal with (fill in blank with bodily fluid). The woman used a walker, but had misjudged the distance between her ass and the toilet. Happens to the best of us after a couple, I thought.

I avoided direct eye contact; yes, because I’m shy, but also to protect this woman’s dignity. Her pants were crumpled around her calves. She had on a sagging Depends. Her pale and papery skin reminded me of my late grandmother, who my mother and I helped care for those last months in the nursing home. “Helped” meant putting on Grandma’s bra when the CNAs had too much on their plates. Or placing another pillow behind her head. Or telling her it was time to throw out the leftover fried chicken my mother often brought her. (Grandma liked to stash it in the drawer next to her bed.) Or loading her and her oxygen tank into the car so she could attend my dad’s—her youngest son’s—funeral. 

And yes, lifting her. 

We lifted my grandmother a lot. Sometimes from the bathroom floor and onto the toilet, like this woman in the restaurant. By some miracle I managed to get her on the John without breaking her hip or mine. She thanked me. Then I left her to take care of her business and headed back to the dining area to rejoin my husband and daughter for family-style lasagna or pizza or whatever non-authentic Italian dish we’d ordered. My husband wondered why I’d been gone so long, but not enough to come after me. We’d been together since we were teens, and until a few months earlier, I had fully expected to grow old beside him. For better and for worse, in continence and in incontinence. 

#

Whatever awaited us, I’d likely have to be the one to pick up the pieces. I’d already had to pick myself up and dust myself off from his midlife-crisis floor. 

#

I’ve lifted him. Years ago when my husband had thrown out his back and had to recline in agony on a wooden booth in this place with fantastic pizza and terrible service. We shared a love affair with this specific pizza joint. Our passion reached all the way back to our freewheeling twenties. 

At forty-seven, I hoisted him out of a hospital bed. This time following his surgery for L4-L5 disc trouble, mere months after he’d enlightened me about his trouble with us. He was unhappy and squarely pinned his unhappiness on our marriage. Maybe we weren’t compatible, he suggested. He wasn’t invested in my humor, he said. I wasn’t comfortable enough in my own skin. He loved me, but wasn’t in love with me. 

During his recovery from back surgery, I picked up his socks, phone, irritations, underwear, wet towels, eyeglasses, grievances, keys, prescriptions, frustrations, receipts. He wasn’t supposed to bend or twist or lift anything over ten pounds for several weeks. He’d dropped the worst kind of bomb on me, and here I was, bending, stooping and twisting to collect and give him whatever his heart desired. 

#

A lot of people swear they’ll never own a minivan. For me, it’s a pickup (no matter the color, make or model). 

#

I wouldn’t have the first clue how to pick up anybody in a bar, or elsewhere really. My husband has spent a lot of time in bars, alone on barstools, drinking whiskeys and cokes and chatting with people. He’s a breezy chatter. He likes chatting up women better than men, I think. But could or would he fuck another woman given the right opportunity? I’m pretty sure I know the answer. What I don’t know is if that’s what it would take for me to wave the white flag. 

#

I’ve picked up plenty of bad habits in my lifetime. Most recently I’ve begun to smoke with my neighbor. I’ve never been addicted, but I used to smoke in college, especially at the bars and when writing term papers. I gave up even the occasional cigarette when we were trying to have kids in earnest. Besides the prospect of conceiving, mixing nicotine and tar and God knows what with the fertility shots and medications could prove harmful to me, even deadly. I should probably care more about my mortality now. Yet sometimes all I give a shit about is the headrush brought on by that first American Spirit. 

#

My self-esteem required a little pick-me-up. My husband bought another house across the street from a lake, his goal of residing near water at last realized. He bought a new couch, a new bed, a new refrigerator, a new metal roof, a new garage door, a new air fryer. He held the prospect and the promise of a new and separate life, wherever that new and separate life led him. 

Tit for tat, I bought a new knockoff version of Invisalign. I bought new jeans and new boots and new dresses. I bought a new hair color. New glasses and new eyeshadow. New earrings. New perfume. New vitamins reportedly good for my old skin. 

I’ve never been a big spender. I waited for my breadwinner of a husband to challenge my spending—he who’s never been one to tighten the purse strings—knowing full well he wouldn’t. Who was I trying to attract, impress, piss off, placate? Why was I focusing all of my energy on my appearance in order to feel better about myself?

That void though. Who was it that said, “The surest cure for vanity is loneliness?”

#

My husband is no stranger to picking up the tab. I’m no longer certain this gesture is only about altruism.

#

It was oppressive that morning, or at least I remember how the heat made me queasy. Or maybe it was the anti-depressant I’d been taking since my husband informed me he no longer wanted to be married, a couple days before the government shutdown over a global pandemic. Whatever the reason for my nausea, I’d forced myself out for a jog. 

Was it June? July? COVID-19 had at least blessed us sheltering-at-home Michiganders with fair summer weather. I rounded the corner into our neighborhood and that’s when I heard her. 

“Excuse me,” the postal worker said. “Could you give me a hand?” 

She wasn’t wearing a mask and neither was I, but the comingling of our respiratory droplets wasn’t why I considered running by her. Despite any outward appearances, I was a physical and mental train wreck and, on a good day, I have a hard time interacting with people I don’t know. (A “social burden” my husband had said in our first couples’ therapy session.) 

The postal worker held the bony arm of a man who’d propped himself on a rickety white-picket fence. She’d seen him fall in his driveway during her delivery route. The man had recently undergone a spinal procedure and said he wasn’t supposed to leave the house: a rule enforced by a woman upstairs fast asleep. 

Mercifully, I had my phone. The postal worker and I didn’t think we could carry or navigate this frail older gentleman back inside. I dialed my husband. The call went to voicemail. He was probably on another Zoom or Google Meet or Go-To. COVID-19 had heightened the fear of losing his job, fear of his employees losing their jobs, and worst of all, fear of losing the one thing he had control over—his beloved career. For months he’d been immersing himself deeper and deeper away from our life and closer to his work life. I texted and told him the address.

Thank God he’d replied. Lately he blew off, unintentionally missed or delayed responding to my texts. Not very long ago I wouldn’t have read anything into this lack of or slow response. Flash forward to the present day and the threat of separation and divorce made me pine for my husband’s attention. No emoji was too pathetic or sentimental. (How I longed for him to send me the winky-face blowing a kiss in the shape of a heart.)

I didn’t have a clue who I was supposed to be anymore, and yet, I was still that woman who picked up people—those I loved and those I’d never even met.  

Another neighbor arrived with a portable wheelchair in her trunk, followed by my husband and the doctor who lived across the street from us. I insisted the postal worker carry on with her mail route. The men managed to guide the man into the chair and wheel him into the house, but not before bending the already bent and battered screen door. 

Once inside, I tried not to fixate on the surroundings. The ripped-up carpet revealed stained floorboards. The kitchen was dark and dank. The smell danced between cat piss and spoiled milk. I worried for this man and this woman (now awake) standing before us, and after she discovered her ruined door, I worried for myself, too. 

My husband and the doctor had already left. The neighbor with the wheelchair and I discussed calling 911. Was it safe for this man to keep living here? Could this woman take care of him? Were they related? Husband and wife? Was any of this our concern or business? The decision became clearer when the woman started screaming, not about the state of the man’s health, but about the door. “Who the fuck broke my door? Fuck, shit! Goddamn it! My fucking door!” 

I slipped outside, dialed 911, went through the standard list of questions and waited with the neighbor from up the street. We listened to a continued stream of obscenities and insults. The sun beat down on us from a sky of hopeful blue. Funny how we women sat tight for the ambulance and the firetruck to arrive while the men bolted as soon as they wheeled the old man over the threshold. Funnier still, my husband and the doctor were likely at fault for causing further damage to the screen door. 

After exchanging a few solemn words with the paramedics, I made my way back home. Home, the shelter that contained and confined our family: me, the brokenhearted, my husband, the heartbreaker, and our daughter, the one we’d both die for in a heartbeat. 

#

Once upon a time we hiked up a mountain in Squaw Valley. We peeked over the lip of the Cliffs of Moher, faraway specks of white birds dotting and floating around the rocks. We attended every single home football game at Spartan Stadium, and the home team won every single football game that season. We drove from Seattle to San Francisco in a green Mustang convertible. We rode to the top of the CN Tower in a narrow glass elevator, despite my husband’s fear of tight spaces and heights. We tattooed our skin with the monogram from our wedding, his on his arm, mine on my back. We sat on barstools drinking syrupy pink martinis and won eight-hundred dollars playing Keno the day before we found out we would finally become parents: a baby girl born in Southfield, Michigan. This is a brushstroke. A first blush. A kaleidoscope glance. 

Does he remember any of the good times spanning our relationship of three decades? Why can’t we seem to pick up where we left off?

#

Of course, there was the daily lifting of our daughter from age zero to about three, sometimes off the floor and out of the grocery store while she punched and kicked and wailed.

#

When tidying up around the house, I’ve rolled my eyes at my husband. Tidying has included gathering and redistributing toys, throw pillows, Yahtzee dice, half-completed crossword puzzles, hairballs, Christmas ornaments destroyed and discarded by our new puppy. 

In our third and final couples’ therapy session, my husband called out this eye rolling. He said it made him feel like I couldn’t stomach his very existence. While this was far from the truth, I admit I should’ve been more direct about asking him to help me pick up. 

Did you know they have genders for bolts and screws? This should be the beginning of a bar room pick-up line. 

#

My husband has picked up a lot of his belongings and moved them into his new house. I guess you’d call this a trial separation. If we don’t make it, I don’t know what he or I will do with the rest of his stuff. His fingerprints are all over the home we shared together, the one that’s in my name only now. Yesterday, on our twenty-third wedding anniversary, he invited me over to help him with a home improvement project, a guard rail he hoped to build for his loft space. 

Our daughter can’t wait to occupy that space. She’s nine and the last thing my husband or I want to do is pick her up from a great fall.  

About the Author:

Amie Heasley received an MFA in fiction from Western Michigan University. You can find some of her recent work online or in the pages of Fleas on the Dog, The Boiler Journal, Juked, Fiction Southeast, Stoneboat Literary Journal, Monkeybicycle and Literary Orphans. When she isn’t writing fiction and creative nonfiction, she’s a freelance marketing and advertising writer, and blogs lovingly but not often enough at chopperchronicles.blogspot.com. Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo—it’s the place where Amie was born and still proudly calls home.