Evolutionary

Evolutionary

We hovered our rear ends above the sand and waited until the tide went out, passing the time by making miniature teepees out of reeds and seaweed that our nana would toss in the garbage the moment they entered the house. Our ultimate mission was mussels, black-and-blue-shelled, oval little things that hugged the rocks, half-buried in sand. My brother and I spent cumulative hours ripping them from their oases — never taking more life than necessary for the work of bored, unsupervised creek children. We used the end of the private beach’s spillway, made of solid, jagged concrete, to line them up one at a time and bash them open with a rock. We’d use the meat to catch blue claw crabs off the edge of the dock to later cook and enjoy, or we’d toss them back to the creek for the fish — or we’d just leave them to the birds. No matter how many mussels were cracked open, I understood everyone was the same inside. I never felt guilty about ending their little lives because I don’t think I was old enough to understand that I was killing something over and over. My life still went on.

We experimented with building large, extravagant sand castles that had little moats which led to the water’s edge, designed with fiddler crabs in mind. We’d use our index and middle finger to penetrate the sand and push the crabs from their burrows before displacing them into a world of luxury. I preferred to find the female crabs because they lacked the extra large male claw that — to a child — was extra large. Once in my life the tip of my thumb was caught in between the might of an angry fiddler crab and I screamed and cried to my nana until she made the pain go away. The fiddler crab lost his claw that day from my writhing, and from then on I dedicated summers to sand architecture. Once the tide was right, my moat would push foamy water around the castle to protect the fiddler crabs; Sometimes, a bait fish would make its way in as extra muscle. Ultimately, the crabs would reject the abundance and disappear back into their holes under the castle.

I was told at an early age that jellyfish lived forever unless they had no salt water to keep them gelatinous. It was very rewarding to split them into thirds and toss them back into the creek. I felt like God. Moon jellies only, though — the ones who liked to hover close to the surface of the creek. If the moon wasn’t out we could sit in our kayaks on the inky-black water and watch them glow like fairies or ghosts of dead relatives. My sympathy ended for stinger jellies when I swam through a school of them and had red, burning stripes all over my body that seemed to never go away. They did, eventually, just in time for my growth spurt and for more red, uncomfortable lines all over my body that never went away. 

My legs grew longer, as did the rest of me, and I lost my penchant for smashing open mussels and propagating jelly fish. I spent more time on top of the creek than under its deep, empty, black-green veil. I traded salty skin for tanning oil, and gave up on crab castles. Broiling under the sun like a lobster in my nana’s stove, I spread my arms wide and beautiful like the wet creek loon sunning himself. My life went on and the creek stayed static, with probably a few extra shellfish. When it became too hot to bear, I ran through the sprinklers on my nana’s lawn; One time, I did it fully clothed in a light pink shirt. I looked down at myself and then to my mother. 

“I think I need to buy a bra,” I said. 

“Sure. Nan will come.” 

My nana wanted to buy me my first bra, and growing up as a creek child I was accustomed to bathing suits and towels, or choosing between the two. There was no store to acquire a bra, so we made the great excursion to WalMart, thirty-five minutes away. A whole to-do over my new body. I was becoming a woman, apparently. That meant new tops, new bathing suits, and new ways to show myself to the world. The male fiddler crab donned a large claw, but what did the female fiddler crab have? Certainly not cleavage. Maybe I should expose myself like a wet loon. 

“Your first bra should be modest,” Nana said. “Here.” 

She handed me a white training bra, and I took it obediently although the rows and rows of exciting, sexual, provocative ones sat dangled in front of me like bait on a hook. There wasn’t any fighting a woman of God like her. I said “thank you” and took the spoils home, where I’d forgotten to wear the bra two to three days a week for about six months, until I sat in gym class in a white tee and nothing underneath knowing my nipples were there. Woman nipples. Around pre-teen boys. I never forgot again. 

Holidays

Holidays

I had a dream about my mom last night. We watched old home movies on VHS tapes and put up a Christmas tree. It reminded me of my grandfather’s house and the too-large colored bulbs that hung in the covered porch. I found an old story I wrote that talked about my mental health and the importance of string lights.

I put up the tree for the warm light of an endless morning it gives off once it’s plugged in. All of the more attractive baubles hang in front to capture the eyes of whoever may grace my front door. From Black friday until January first, my gawdy beacon of holiday cheer stands in proud, statuesque perpetuity, all in the name of tradition. 

I welcome in the musty smells of forgotten decorations while “A Very Merry Christmas Vol.2” plays over my Bluetooth record player. I put my kettle on the stove and the smell of hot metal and boiling water transports me to my grandparents’ kitchen, where Nan and Pop fashion either Lipton tea of Foldger’s instant coffee. I, in my own kitchen, opt for a French Press with coarse ground Costa Rican blend from the local fair trade coffee shop near my house. I sit at my table while my coffee steeps, one foot in a past life that I sometimes struggle to recognize as one I lived. I hope the smells linger — the warm Christmas lights stay lit — and the memories don’t elude me again. 

Short of leaving my Christmas tree up year-round, I hang string lights tastefully around my condo to tether myself to a positive childhood moment. Growing up, my mom would spend an entire day expertly fluffing up the tree and stringing lights in between drags of her cigarette and gulps of blush-colored Franzia boxed wine, of course. She never let my brother and me string the lights for the fear of one or both of us fucking it up, but somehow he and I worked out other systems of placing ornaments — the same ones — each year. We would be furious if the other touched one of our respective balls, as if a rift would split all space and time and pull us through into nothingness for messing up the order — as if there was ever order in our house. 

And yet, in my condo kitchen over my French Press, I question if those memories are entirely true and honest with me. How authentic are the moments I hold onto? How true to the timeline are my childhood recollections? The flashbacks are more reliable when they tie into the memories of things like scents and feelings rather than cognitive pieces stitched together over various decades — little baubles I put at the front of my mind to distract from the garbage in the back. But even if those fond times aren’t entirely accurate, I hold them tight and keep them treading above the deep black-green of trauma in the form of booze and bibles. 

My spiritual advisor told me in order to achieve certain enlightenments — and pull myself from certain doom following years and years of horrible events — I had to lean into the things that once brought me joy as a child, because that little girl was starved for almost thirty years. He told me she needed to be nurtured and loved and forgiven. I realized then, around maybe my fourth move in the pursuit of anti-homelessness, that I left her for dead in an attempt to preserve my present state.

But my present state sucked. 

I was just so over the night terrors and the memories of my mom, wide-eyed and clawing for either God — or more time — that when I left the creek house for the very last time, I left my inner child in the front room watching me drive off as the walls consumed her. My mindset at the time was, in order to move on from that Past I had to either kill or abandon it all. Like an old diary, I bound the pages of my past life in layers of duct tape before throwing it in the trash, or hiding it in a drawer long enough to forget what I wrote. I tried so hard to snuff out bad memories and abandon all in a dark house where the walls scream so loud I couldn’t sleep towards the end. But the inner me — that little girl — knew just where to find me. Late at night, alone in a new house, crying for my mom, hugging our family dog — she’d creep up the stairs and watch me from the doorway and tell me to cry harder, to cannonball into the feelings I had in order to clean myself out. I hated her for it. 

But now I sit across from her and drink my coffee while she feeds on the lingering memories of a warm creek house kitchen that I didn’t know I missed until I was reminded. I could have gone the route of my mom and drank myself into oblivion while maintaining a shell of stubbornness so thick that only Death himself — and liver failure — could make me see straight. My inner child and I are proud of that — not losing ourselves under the sails, and alternatively not leaning entirely on an invisible higher power. Instead, I believe in my own abilities, and hold onto memories that made me.

Rule of Three’s

There are three more work days left until I start this new chapter in the second, third of my life. I’m getting on a plane and spending ten days at Maharishi International University to study with the David Lynch MFA in Screenwriting program, and eventually earn my MFA. It’s a low-residency, two-year situation, and I haven’t cried about it yet. In fact, I’ve felt nothing but an overwhelming sense of calm and expectation like yes, this is what I’ve been waiting for and it’s something I’ve always had, I just needed it to materialize. I say I’m nervous to a lot of people and it isn’t about the course itself, but nervous that I can prove to myself that I’m worthy of the things I’ve spent so many years desiring and working towards.

Just nine years ago I was home from college after graduation with the want to apply to Oxford University again after my study abroad success. I wanted to be a professor more than anything, before I wanted to be a writer full-time, before I thought I could be a career author – before I could write a full-length book in a month – I wanted to sit in front of a room full of students and help them navigate their passions in the literary world. When I was still in my first semester of my freshman year I switched my major to English from marketing. Macroeconomics, selling things, trends – it wasn’t for me. I agreed to pursue it when my parents told me, “that’s where the money is.” I just couldn’t do it, though. I called my mom and told her I switched my major to English because I loved it and it’s what I always wanted to pursue. “Where’s the money in it?” She wasn’t even mad that I switched majors – she was upset that I might go after a field where I wouldn’t be lucrative. I didn’t care, though. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents but there was a piece of me deep down in my core that didn’t want to disappoint myself, and she was a bit louder than my head. So I signed up for more English courses, and by my sophomore year, I decided to dabble in two classes back to back with the same professor in the same classroom. English was easy, I thought, but nothing prepared me for critical literary theory.

I was so confused about the philosophical connections of writing and the literary world, that I got a D on my first paper. My professor, who also happened to be my academic advisor, pulled me aside and instead of chastising my work she asked me what I didn’t understand. She asked if I needed help and if I was alright. I started to sob in the hallway, unable to give her a reason for the crying or my work. She told me to go over the material again, slower, and re-write the paper. When I did, I got an A. I am still unsure to this day if she did it out of pity or if I really improved to such an extent, but she definitely saw into my distractions, distractions that I wasn’t even aware of yet.

Next month marks ten years without my mom walking this earth. I have effectively survived a third of my life without her, and when I was sobbing in front of Dr. Smith outside of her husband’s office in the library I was sobbing for a woman who I didn’t know wasn’t going to survive long enough to watch me graduate college. At the time of those classes sophomore year, my mom was drinking more and more, and I was only getting these snippets of concern and drama from the immediate members of my family. I was three states away without any real way to know what was going on, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how she was spiraling out of control and I couldn’t control a thing. When Dr. Smith stopped me, she saw how much I was hurting, because crying over a D paper in college is laughable to me at this rate; I’ve been turned down by dozens of literary agents and it barely fazes me anymore. But a D paper in college with an alcoholic mom who was ready to snap at any moment felt soul crushing. I didn’t want to give her any more reasons to hurt herself, and I for some reason put that burden on my own two shoulders. Dr. Smith never asked about my home life, not right away at least, but she encouraged me to focus on the material in school, and try my best, and eventually I grew to love critical literary theory, so much so that it was my senior thesis and something I now use in a lot of my readings and writings. Dr. Smith showed me the kaleidoscope that exists in the world of writing and for that I’m forever grateful. It wasn’t just words on paper, it was why’s on paper, and how’s. I don’t speak to her much anymore, but I do speak to another professor regularly who passes on my messages and well-wishes to her and her husband. She pulled me from some sort of internal perdition I wasn’t aware of, and I don’t know if she was ever aware of the truths, but she just did what she did, and I survived.

The most unforgettable thing Dr. Smith told me after my mom died was, “You know, when I met you, you were very prickly.” She went on to tell me how she didn’t mean it in an offensive way, but I was walking around with so much hurt and sadness that I walked like I had thorns all around me to protect me from everyone and everything that could cause harm. But at the same time, those thorns kept out those who could cause good. We were sitting in her living room eating lunch, something she normally reserved for her graduate students, but for whatever reason, Dr. Smith and I became very close and I looked up to her a lot for my inspirations and aspirations as a writer. She helped me get into Oxford University for their study abroad program, and she fanned the flame that would become my passion in writing.

Of course, I didn’t end up going back to Oxford to become a professor. My dad was against me leaving again and projected a lot of his unresolved grief on my life choices during the first couple of years following my mom’s death. That made me resent him, for a long time, and I never told him I resented him for telling me I couldn’t go back. But I have come to believe that everything happens for a reason and now, almost ten years later, I see that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I wanted the Master’s and the Doctorate because I wanted not only the titles, but to gift the passion Dr. Smith showed me to other students. I saw the light in writing and where it could lead, but instead, with no other graduate school back-up plans, I turned into a dark place, and had dark thoughts, and wanted to be gone. Maybe not dead, maybe not alive either, but where would I go if I couldn’t go back to school?

I went in. Instead of dying, I wrote. I wrote when I was angry. I wrote a lot of nasty, harsh things about people, about myself, about my dead mom. I journaled and threw every emotion I had into Microsoft Word for weeks until one day I stopped mid-sentence and realized I just wasn’t angry anymore. I didn’t know what I felt, but it wasn’t anger. All of the anger was saved on my laptop. Writing saved my life. It felt as if I cleared away years of garbage, as if a hoard was removed and all that was left were the bones of the house and a dirty floor. Thus began my internal reno project.

I continued to write. Hundreds of poems, tons of short stories, dozens of book ideas, two crappy, ranting memoirs, and blog posts. So many blog posts. Only in the last three years can I say that, with writing, I’ve effectively pulled myself from the darkest places in my mind. I spent seven years wandering on hot coals and through the dense fog of my emotions trying to resolve the unspoken scenes of my past, and only within the last three – truthfully – can I say I am looking towards the sun again. And in just the last two years, I’ve written three books, I’ve turned thirty, and I’ve survived a third of my life without my mom here. In three work days, I’ll be on a plane.

Perfectly Horrible & Unspectacular

Perfectly Horrible & Unspectacular

I wrote my mom’s eulogy before she died. Well, technically, she was brain dead, and I sat on the hospital bed next to her and penned what I thought were the appropriate things to say about a dying woman. She heaved her breaths — no pitter patter — more like a see-saw with cinder blocks tied to each end. Or like two men in the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s, sawing down the mighty sequoia at a pace not unlike the amount of time it took for the tree to grow. And I sat beside the heavy, small woman and wrote on my phone’s note taking app about science projects, real estate, and how her favorite saying was that she was “sparkling,” in reference to her mood. I cried with guilt that evening, as if I sealed her fate for her; The eulogy is written, no turning back. Even though she was already brain dead.

And after she died, in a church she never went to, under a God she never confessed to, I held the hand of the brother I didn’t get along with and talked about science projects and who Patricia was, or at least how I wanted her to be remembered by the masses. I wanted the rows filled with mourners in black and blue to leave with tears in their eyes and the happy memory of Patricia doing paper mache science projects the day before they were due. What a perfectly horrible intention. What an unspectacular woman.

I left the church with knots in my stomach and watched the hearse take her back across the street in a non-procession to be cremated and split between several small containers and be kept forever, so each time I returned home I could look at the physical minimization of the personality I shrunk in church for the fear of being too real. Too true. I imagined for weeks that she was looking down at me, mumbling and cursing as she often did when alive because I blotted her existence under the guise of good intention. It ate me up inside, consumed my thoughts that I failed to speak the truth on her behalf.

Until I did.

It took several months of denial and only two beers on a ferry across the sound — my academic River Styx — the gateway between the horrible truths of my home and the fluffed up ideals of undergrad. I wrote about the hospital. I wrote about driving through state after state, and taking a boat, and driving some more to see a woman with egg yolk-colored eyes and matted hair stare into my face and say, “What the hell are you doing here?” I wrote about how lucky I was to select a school only a hundred miles away just in case Patricia decided she didn’t want to live anymore. That yes, in my senior year of college, my choice to pick the school I already invested three years in finally proved itself to be the best decision, because my mom finally pushed herself over the edge and I could make it home in only a few hours.

That was my truth. And her truth. The woman who left me on the see-saw with my legs dangling in the air was an alcoholic. During much of the wake and funeral, my dad told everyone she was simply ill, or that she had liver cancer, or that her kidneys failed — all in an attempt to escape the taboo of a successful small-town business woman drinking herself into oblivion. The whispers would have been too great for him to bear alone, and I never blamed him for it. But while she lay in the closed casket for two afternoons and two evenings, I felt as if I was staring into a deep well of secrets that would follow her to her grave. I couldn’t allow that, so I wrote. I described the hidden bottles of vodka around the house, and I wrote about her throwing me into a refrigerator in a blackout. I mentioned the afternoon, just months before she died, when I talked her back from committing suicide. A couple of weeks after that, I went and studied abroad at Oxford. She sent normal emails, happy emails, don’t worry emails.

Then she left.

She was an expert at science projects. She always said she was sparkling. Those were truths. She was also unbelievably troubled, but Patricia was far from unspectacular. Never in my life have I seen another woman drum on the steering wheel of a 1984 Toyota Camry hatchback with the vigor of John Bonham, nor have I ever witnessed a middle-aged woman rap horribly albeit passionately to Eminem’s Curtain Call album. I never saw someone talk into a phone with such a commanding voice that she practically ruled the world of real estate in our town, standing on the shoulders of egotistical men in cheap cologne that was drowned out by the scent of her White Diamonds perfume. Never in my life — still never — have I witnessed someone as hard as the liquor she hid from view soften to the needs of childhood friends and feed whoever sat at our table, no questions asked. Patricia wore a name tag that said “Slut” on it for an entire day of work. She made a very detailed paper mache penguin, she taught me how to drive; She didn’t want to live. And she left me alone in the worst way.

But I shared her truth.

I shared it with friends, literary agents, strangers on my blog — the universe. I feared the responses. I feared taboo and stigma, addict non-sympathizers, etc. I also feared that my writing was garbage and that I was no more than the ramblings of my childhood diaries. So when the overwhelmingly positive responses came through, I found myself in shock coupled with pride — and most of all — humbled at the amount of people who told me they could relate. They felt less alone. They wanted to share their stories as well. They felt less horrible in their grieving.

Slowly at first, and then all at once, I realized I was meant to be a storyteller. I learned the value of truth and the importance of telling it to others. I felt an honor inside of me to tell the truth of my mom — someone plagued with demons — while maintaining her humanity. It inspired me to tell the truths of others, like my grandfather, and his struggles in the war. I turned it into a screenplay as well as a book, and an online series on my website for good measure. Then I received a text telling me, “Yeah, I think you’ve found yourself in the right place.” There is no need to hide the truth of others, to make them unspectacular. It’s a secret that festers and holds overhead like a specter, unwilling to leave until it is let go with reality. My mom was so dynamic, three-dimensional — human. Her story was multifaceted and something that many people may not have directly lived, but the crevices of her persona, the events of her struggles — the feelings of her life — are what brought my readers to common ground. I am most passionate about writing truths, and presenting them in such a way that shows the beauty of people without demonizing them for being human. I will spend my life telling stories, and I will spend my sometimes perfectly horrible life speaking the truth.

Sinner Excuses

Religious paraphernalia snaked throughout Nan and Pop’s house as well as my own. There were wooden crosses of varied sizes and patterns in the doorways; my grandma – Dad’s mom – hung a rosary over my bed because she told me she felt an evil presence sit on her chest in the middle of the night. I was in elementary school, maybe eight or nine years old. I sat in horror at the thought of a demon existing in my bedroom. How long was it there? Was it a he or a she? My grandma just assured me the rosary would keep it away but “there’s… something… in that room.” My mom only exhaled from her cigarette and nodded her head in agreement. She knew this whole time too? I felt betrayed. 

Nan and Pop’s house had prayers written out on plaques and placed around the creek house. There was a framed photo of the Pope addressed to them for their fiftieth or sixtieth wedding anniversary in the living room, flanked by a painting of the woods that Nan retouched, and a horrifying painting of a clown that she did herself. In their bedroom was a large, gothic-looking painting of the J-man himself. Jesus sat high in the room, with its cathedral ceiling, and watched over their bed. His hand was positioned in the typical forefinger and middle finger fashion, thumb out – the human and the divine. That painting scared me more than the clown. 

Nan was superstitious as well as a devout Roman Catholic who wouldn’t let me take the lord’s name in vain but also told me it was awful luck to put shoes on a table, open an umbrella indoors, cross paths with a black cat, step through a ladder; most importantly if salt was spilled it had to be thrown over your left shoulder in order to blind the evil. If you sneezed – or heard someone else sneeze – you had to say “God bless you” to help keep their soul inside of their body. But we had to be cautious of sinning, because we always sinned but were forgiven for it. We were told we couldn’t help but sin because that’s just what people did, but we should feel bad about it on some level – but as long as we apologized to God or to the priest in confession, it was okay. The sinners sinned deep, but they were sorry for them all.  

Catechism was where all the Catholic children in my class spent one day a week after school in the church basement up the road to learn about how Jesus died for our sins. I lacked patience for church. I owned a black cat named Fuzzy who brought me dead mice and sat in my lap. She couldn’t have been bad luck – I found her as a kitten behind our barn and hand fed her when I was four years old. She was a helpless baby black cat, and even if she grew up to be bad luck, at least I was on her good side. 

I wasn’t good at understanding the ins and outs of religion but I was decent at memorizing prayers and hymns and being harmless-looking in class. A small, round, olive-skinned child with big dark curls and a slightly fidgety nature was no threat to the nuns who spent their days rooting around for sinner and misbehaving youth. During mass, my brother and I often sang the wrong lyrics to things like, “Lamb of God, you take away the skins of the squirrels,” as opposed to “sins of the world,” and our mom glared down and ground her teeth at us because she knew she couldn’t crack us in the heads in a church pue. In Catechism though, I sat in the front; I knew the words to everything and didn’t dare try to change the lyrics. I wanted to act out and be a goofball but I felt that if I did it in front of a nun I would either be smacked or I’d get an express ticket to Hell.  

I didn’t understand how one large being was able to create everything around me, and see everything I did, and judge me. If he was nature and he made the birds and made the creek why did he let things be killed? I wanted to know why people hurt each other. I didn’t understand why his son had to be murdered for something other people did, but I knew I felt guilty for it. The whole concept seemed fishy to me. Nan and Pop were still alive and well though, and they were good and didn’t sin. To rationalize religion seemed impossible and to not go to Sunday mass was unthinkable. I simply grew accustomed to ten o’clock services with a trip to the local diner afterwards. 

My motivation was the food. Eating the body of Christ was not enough to sustain a child in a morning weekend mass, and it didn’t matter what time of year it was – either summer vacation, or the only days to sleep in during the school year – Sunday mornings were inconvenient. The saving grace, though, was the promise of chocolate milk and silver dollar pancakes at eleven when the doors finally opened and I was forgiven and saved for another week. It was always pancakes and chocolate milk; My parents grew critical of pancakes and chocolate milk. 

Coke on the Sink

My grandparents were less proud of their property and more pleased with being able to afford a small home on the water for my family to enjoy. The farmhouse was where I lived but we didn’t own it. We rented it from the neighbor next door who knew about the lightning tree. My parents lived in a condo until I was about a year old and then they decided they wanted to raise us closer to Nan and Pop and in a better school district. I remembered the moving truck that took us east, and I recalled helping my mom paint the interior of the coat closet before we left.

“Like this,” she said, as she moved her wrist up and down in gentle, dramatic sweeping motions. 

I took my little paint brush she gave me and tried but ended with swirling the brush in haphazard, rough circles all over the place. She took the paint brush back and told me to go play and that I could try some other time. I was awful at interior painting, but I couldn’t have been more than two at the time.

The farmhouse had small bathrooms. Tile ran halfway up the wall and was pink, then black tile separated the pink from the wallpaper. I couldn’t reach much, but everything was aligned on the sink – Dad’s razor, Mom’s reusable toothpick, the toothbrushes, her hair brushes – everything was on the sink. I was fascinated with her toothpick. It was metal and had a rubber pointed end and it looked like something far too important to be used for getting things out of teeth. It should have been a magic wand, I thought, or something of importance. She found me with it more than once and scolded me the same each time.

“That isn’t yours,” she said, and tore the metal pick from my grip. My magic was gone again, until I went back into the bathroom and stole it from the sink.

Nan and Pop didn’t have golden-colored magic wands in their bathroom. They had large, heavy brass ducks all over the house, and Nan had a large collection of colored glass jars and bowls and vases. 

“Cranberry glass is my favorite,” she said. When she babysat my brother and me she took us to the church-run thrift stores in search of her treasured glass. She could tell the difference between cranberry glass and a fake, but anything red and glass I found I brought to her anyway just to be sure. 

I was less interested in the glass and more interested in the metals. The brass ducks were barely movable but they were shiny and solid, strong and smooth. I ran my hands over the heads and bodies and tried to figure out how they were made. I speculated that the ducks just came that way, duck-shaped, and Nan found them in her journeys like the cranberry glassware. 

My dad kept his razor on the sink. It was heavy and metal, and I spent many mornings watching him shave his face in the mirror before work. He filled the sink halfway with hot water and carefully released a palm-sized amount of foam from a can. With his left hand, he dabbed white all over his face and then used his pointer finger to scrape the remainder into the sink where it floated on the warm, murky surface like the foam on the creek. Effortlessly, he dragged his razor along his face, removing the white and leaving smooth olive skin. I loved the scraping sound the razor made. He left a little bit of hair around his mouth and under his nose, to cover a scar above his lip. I asked where he got it and he told me Mom was giving him a piggyback ride and Nan sprayed them with a hose on the walkway. He slipped on the slate and landed on his face. 

When he finished shaving, he released the drain plug with a loud gulping sound and the foam and cloudy water disappeared with it. He replaced the razor back on the side of the sink and finished getting ready for work. I stayed for a moment to marvel at the razor. 

I couldn’t get the vision of the razor out of my mind and returned to it that evening once my dad was home from work and he and my mom were watching television in the living room. I went into the hall bathroom, just off from the kitchen and turned on the light. The razor waited for me. I couldn’t reach the can of foam, or the faucet to get the hot water to fill the sink, but I thought my dad would be impressed with me nonetheless for showing him I could also shave my face. I figured out the proper way to hold the razor – it only took a couple of moments since I saw my dad do it so many times – and brought the blade to my skin. A sharp pain hit my chin. The blade dug into the flesh just between my bottom lip and the top of my chin bone. I looked down and saw no white foam in murky water, only hands covered in warm red. Warm red on the blade and on the smooth white sink. I screamed and ran to the living room, razor still gripped tight in my palm and my parents both jumped up at the sight of my face. 

Pop hid his razor from me, or at least I decided he was intentionally keeping his razor from my grasp. He stored it high up on a shelf I couldn’t reach so I wouldn’t try to shave my chin again and instead shave off a piece of it. When my brother and I went for a sleepover, the sink in their bathroom was cleared off. Nan made sure we thoroughly brushed our teeth and then tucked us into the old bed in the spare room adjacent to hers. 

“Goodnight. I love you,” she said, and kissed us both on the forehead. “And if you get thirsty in the middle of the night, I left a glass of Coke for you on the bathroom sink.”

Nan was no stranger to the sweets. I woke up the next morning to see the Coke untouched, since both my brother and I slept through the night. I went to the bathroom and took a couple of deep, cool swigs of flat soda and made my way to the kitchen where Nan and Pop were already seated. The smell of instant coffee – very distinct from a drip coffee –  filled my nose. It was mixed with the scent of hot bacon and scrambled eggs. Pop made scrambled eggs in such a way that I only dreamed to duplicate for myself. 

Nan and Pop rotated their breakfast. Every other day they had bacon and eggs, and the days in between were filled with cold cereal or oatmeal. Regardless of Nan’s main course, though, she finished strong with two cookies. Always two. Mallomars or Oreos, neatly placed on a folded napkin on the upper right corner of her plate or bowl, waited for her to put down her utensils and dunk them for a sweet ending to a nice meal. 

I followed suit more times than not. She tried to enforce good eating habits when we were there, especially when my brother and I spent a couple of summers gaining an unbelievable amount of weight (our babysitter at the time took us to McDonald’s anywhere from three to five days a week for lunch. She was fired). One afternoon Nan replaced what would have been my normal lunch – grilled cheese and tomato soup, her specialty – with a small dish of creamed spinach.

“You kids have to start eating healthier,” she warned. 

How could I possibly want to eat healthier when the second drawer down to the left of the sink was filled with ginger snap cookies and Oreos and Mallomars and graham crackers? How could I stray from a cookie with breakfast? How could I avoid the giant dish of Hershey kisses, placed obtrusively on a table between the kitchen and the main hallway? She asked the impossible of me, surely.

The sweets were my drug. Ice cream floats and warm backyards were perfect for each other, and Nan couldn’t tell me otherwise. Nighttime Coke on the sink was expected, not anticipated. I looked forward to maybe having to get up and relieve myself in the middle of the night for the promise of sweet, flat soda in the bathroom after I washed my hands. The lackadaisical observation of my movements by my two favorite senior citizens; it freed me up to grab a cookie or two, or three on my way out the door. I was outside all day, I justified. Two cheeseburgers were not uncommon for a child who spent all day kayaking against the currents. Root beer was in the fridge because it was on sale, not because it was healthy, and my two Depression era companions never said no. They said, “I love you,” and sent me outside to play some more.

I baked in the sun until my shoulders turned purple and I felt myself shrink and shrivel up. The salt air made its way into my mouth and left me with a desert thirst all over as my skin tightened and stretched on my bones. I crawled onto the boat to jump off of the bow into the water. The creek was like a bath and I disappeared under the cloudy top and hung for a moment, suspended where she held me. 

I ran back across the dock planks to the float so I could repeat my dive. I placed my foot on the bow of the boat once more and it shifted away from where my other foot was planted. I slid forward into a split until I couldn’t hold on any longer and plunged between the boat and the dock. I felt a sharp burn as my back scraped against a rusty nail. My head went under for a moment only to see the side of the boat come back towards the dock. I scrambled out of the water and ran into the house, screaming for Nan. 

She took me into the bathroom and pushed aside the empty plastic cup that once had Coke in it, and replaced it with a bottle of clear liquid. 

“Hold still this will clean it out.” 

I turned my back to her, the space between my shoulder blades pulsating. Then came a cold touch of the liquid followed by an immediate burn, as if she went outside, found the rusty nail, and put it into my back. I screamed and ripped the curtains off the bathroom window.

“What is that?” I began to cry.

“Rubbing alcohol,” she said, panicked at my reaction.  

I sniffled and dried off, unable to see the damage she had done but certain the wound on my back was massive. My grandpa came into the house and sat down, his old man belly proud and shirtless, his knees sticking out from under khaki shorts and his feet decorated in white calf-high socks and loafers. 

“What’s the matta!” He put his arms out to me and gave me a hug. 

“I cut my back on a nail and Nan put rubbing alcohol on it and it hurts!” I was a pathetic mound in his arms. 

Pop shuffled me off his lap and stood up. “Oh wow! Is it like my back?” He pointed his thumb over his shoulder and turned around to show me his back. Although old and faded, I could see the deep white, jagged lines – scars. My injury was nowhere near as bad as his. 

“How did you do that?” 

“I had to jump out of a plane in the war. I was in a B-17. Do you know what a B-17 is? It’s a big plane. And I jumped out because it was going down and I got injured by shrapnel. Do you know what shrapnel is? It’s big pieces of metal. And then I landed in a tree in Germany. And then the Germans found me.” 

My story seemed much less interesting. I listened to Pop tell me about the plane crash for a while longer, then found Nan and apologized to her for making such a scene. She forgave me, of course, as she always did. 

“Here,” she said, and handed me a hard butterscotch candy.

Zombies

Zombies

I didn’t know that people could be empty. Every vampire movie – every soul-sucking, weirdo zombie flick – I finally felt like I was on the same level as those creatures. Empty of blood, of soul, of life. How could I be alive if my entire being felt cold and dead like my mother?

Patricia was on the opposite side of that spectrum, actually. She requested to be cremated. She requested a closed casket, too. No one got to see her in the state she was in; partly because we didn’t want people to remember her bloated, yellow and diseased, and mostly because her bangs were flat and she would have never stood to be in public with her hair in such disarray. Naturally there were comments on how a closed casket must have meant she looked awful. But really, what dead person looks Instagram worthy? On the morning of the funeral we stuffed her shirt with childhood photos to be burned with her and headed to the church. From there, she was carted off to a crematorium, incinerated, and placed in a jar on the mantle of the house she almost died in to serve as a reminder that we were alone and addiction was real.

“Mm, the casket is closed. It must have been awful,” whispered one strange man to another strange woman. I sat in a high-back chair against a wall in the middle of the funeral home and observed them. I observed everyone. Each passing face, each person who I didn’t recognize but said to me, “Oh you have her smile! You look just like her!” But I didn’t look just like her. If they could have only seen what she looked like under that rented casket they’d have different opinions. 

“How did you know my mother?” I glared up at them from my throne. I was the one mourning. I had the power.

“Oh, well, uh, we didn’t. We’re friends with her sister.” 

“Well my aunt isn’t here. So you can either stay or go home.” 

They left.

I felt like a wild animal, protecting a dead pack leader from the hoards of scavengers, all sniffing around for a part of her name to shred off. It was kill or be killed. I couldn’t believe that even in death there were comments about how she probably looked – how she probably died. What did it matter? She was dead. Period. We just had to ride it out, collect the flowers that would also die, and go home. 

The house plants were certainly neglected back at my grandfather’s. Fall took an express lane to the backyard and everything that was once flourishing now hung skeletal and ominous. The dahlias I got her for Mother’s Day, Nan’s geraniums, and the hydrangeas were all limp; Grandma’s peace lily from her funeral in 2008 was also down to one, measly leaf. I didn’t have the heart to toss it so I just kept watering the same shitty greenery inside and hoped for the best. It drowned a little more each day but I didn’t know where to put my need to care for the dying. I had spent the first 20 years of my life trying to prevent Patricia from killing herself and, in my mind at the time, failed miserably at that. I felt selfish for going back to school, like I didn’t deserve to grow away from her. I was alive, and that wasn’t fair. 

I wandered campus, juxtaposed between the pressing social lives of my friends and the isolated void that my mind became. My priorities included meeting with professors – all of whom were wonderfully understanding that my situation was tragic, unplanned, and unfair. In particular, kudos to my social work professor who didn’t require me to shadow a hospital for six weeks following my residence at my mother’s bedside (although, I might add, she gave me a C for the semester for not shadowing a hospital, and it was “favoring” me by giving any more lenience). Post traumatic stress disorder was something I believed to be limited to soldiers and victims of national tragedies; I didn’t know it applied to my own personal disaster until the project announcement sent me into a panic attack in the middle of class.

My friends greeted me in varying levels of sympathy and awkward comments of reassurance, because none of them experienced consoling a friend who lost a parent to addiction. Anthony, in his usual silent manner, brought me in for a long albeit soft eyeball-to-nipple embrace. Most friends were silent, and simply hugged me, which I appreciated more than the words. One friend in particular, though, unsure of where to grasp condolences told me, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re back already; If my mom died I would have killed myself by now.” He meant well, and I found it pretty laughable after the exchange because I didn’t know how to react to a statement like that as much as he couldn’t control the backhanded sympathy dribbling from his mouth. 

I turned heavily into baking for some reason. Almost weekly, I ventured into town and bought dollar boxes of brownie mix, or dollar cake mix – whatever was on sale. I’d concoct delicious, although dangerously sweet, experimental desserts that my five other roommates loved and I loved eating. I thought to myself, if I wasn’t the only one eating a Kit-Kat filled brownie with melted peanut butter swirl then it was fine, right? Baking seemed almost cathartic at the time too. There is a preciseness to baking that doesn’t come with cooking meals. Baking is measuring cups and scales, whereas cooking is based off of feelings like, is this enough garlic or do I want it more garlicky? The answer is always more garlic. But, for me at the time, my feelings were so fucking catastrophic that I needed some regimented direction. Baking was a win-all – I had to follow steps and had control, and I could eat my feelings surrounded by friends who wouldn’t dare tell me I was spiraling out of control. For me there was no spiral; I was long gone. 

The isolation began to extend from within my head to my circles, especially my social work class. 

“Who here has lost a grandparent?” My professor raised her hand by example to the 28 of us, all of who raised a hand – almost proudly – in response to the question. “Alright, all of you. Makes sense. Everyone in here is over 18. Now, who of you has lost a parent?” She kept her hand down.

All of the kids kept their hands down. I felt hot and cold at the same time, like a fever. I also felt like for some reason she was challenging me because I had an ace in the hole to get out of the final project. Everything about my being was sensitive and vulnerable and I resented her in that moment. I raised my hand from the back of the classroom and her eyes met mine. Like magnets, all of the students’ eyes turned to see who she was staring at. I was the only person who raised my hand. I picked up my notebooks and walked out of the classroom.

That was the first time I really wanted to die. 

I thought, if I just surrendered to the pain I felt then maybe it would overrun my body and my heart would just stop, and that would be the end of it. I barely made it a month and I wasn’t ready to face the world without Patricia. She was the strongest person I knew and all of that shattered when she died – when she proved to everyone around her that she didn’t want to live anymore. I was so angry when she died I blurted out a couple of times that she killed herself, because I couldn’t understand the hold alcohol had on her. And I was angry with myself for saying it because I remembered how fucking terrified she was looking at me the night before she went into a coma. She knew she fucked up. She knew there was no going back. The end of her life came at 51 years old and I saw her trying to undo years of abuse in her mind for a second chance that she would never receive. 

I thought back to that summer, a month before I left for Oxford. I came home on a lunch break to find her in bed, blinds drawn, dog beside her. I lay down next to her and I asked her if she was sad. 

Three words. Are you sad? She immediately began to cry – the first time I saw her show any emotion other than anger in a year. I didn’t ask her to explain herself; she didn’t owe it to anyone to feel sad. I was just relieved that she finally opened up to me. Eventually I coaxed her out of her room and we stood in the kitchen. She lit a cigarette and took a long, personal drag.

“Maybe I’ll just kill myself,” she said passively through a cloud of smoke.

I took that statement so seriously. I offered to call out of work, take her somewhere – just the two of us. I didn’t want her to be alone.

“We don’t have to tell anyone,” I said.

“No,” she said, “I won’t kill myself.” 

No, I thought, I won’t kill myself.

Sober September

I’ve chosen to challenge myself to a Sober September. I am not an addict, nor do I feel myself heading down a path of dependency on substance. I do, however, feel like I need to clear my mind, body, and soul. And one of the easiest ways to do that is to eliminate things such as alcohol. Admittedly I have been experience a bit of anxiety and stress that leads me to look forward to my days off – more for the socialization than anything, but IPA is almost always involved. In my head, I don’t want to condition myself to start subconsciously associating days off-with-friends-with-booze. I should also make a note that I don’t get drunk every weekend, but I have a deep-seated insecurity that forming a habit involving a substance will turn me into my mother. September 26th will be eight years without her already, and I’d like to bring an awareness to the importance of healthy, conscious decisions.  

It all comes down to simply clearing my soul. It feels cloudy right now when I close my eyes and try to look at myself. I’m not a fan of that – not going to lie. I feel like I’ve been trying so hard to do everything at once that I’ve forgotten what to be grateful for. I kicked up so much dust and then complained that I couldn’t breathe, that I couldn’t see. When I went through my break-up this winter, and all the funerals, I went into serious overdrive by applying myself to whatever my desperate little tentacles could grab. 197 job applications (no joke. Wish I was joking. Not joking.), constant travel, minimal downtime; an injured animal wildly throwing its body around at whatever unseen force it senses in a last-ditch attempt to scare the being away. The being in my situation was (is) life. I got sloppy. I never stopped once this summer to think that maybe the thing in front of me was just my life, and my healing. I kicked around whatever I could as if I could outrun myself. I just assumed that life wasn’t good to me for a while so I was going to make it worthwhile on my own terms, and as a result I forgot about all the good that’s already there. I have been “self care” button mashing for months and it’s gotten me nowhere except gifted me more anxiety attacks. Self care is a slippery slope, because sometimes the things that are best for us don’t feel so great. Sometimes you need to stop and acknowledge you are hurt, that you are scuffed up, and that you’re only going to hurt yourself more if you don’t let the wounds be for a while. 

For September, I wrote down what I’m grateful for: 

  • I have a roof over my head that I’ve sustained on my own for over three years.
  • I have a wonderfully goofy, giant, loving puppy who challenges my patience and also forces me to socialize and exercise.
  • I have a job that pays me money regardless of how little each month I get to toss into savings.
  • I have passions like writing, painting, and collecting old books.
  • I have been able to be a good friend, and I have good friends.
  • This year alone I’ve traveled to three states, gone out of the country, and have a trip booked for my birthday week at the end of October – something not everyone is able to do. 
  •  I did not become my mother, and used her tragic loss and my experience with addiction to share my story and help others.
  • I’ve been in love, even if that love hurt me. 
  • I’m a damn good cook.

I am equal parts cynicism and hope.

I Broke up with my Therapist

Jodi has been my email therapist since my break-up in February. It was when I was still sleeping fourteen hours a day, not showering, not eating, not leaving my house that I realized it was probably best to reach out to someone. I stopped recognizing myself and that frightened me, because I spent so many years trying to get to know me better. Suddenly, I wasn’t there anymore. It wasn’t being in the dark – it was being the dark. 

The break-up was the breaking point, I guess. There were the deaths before that; the stress of the relationship before it imploded and then released an amalgam of lies and cheating and false identity. It amazed me how repulsed I became by someone I loved so deeply, and the true root of it was he didn’t know who he was – he never got to know himself. He couldn’t face his past in a way that allowed him to grow upwards out of it, rather, he rolled around in the filth and tried to play himself off as polished.

Polished shit is still shit.

I just didn’t think I was able to have my heart broken further than it already was. I didn’t think anyone could hurt me after seeing the hurt I had been through for sixth months prior. But that’s what’s funny with people – selfish people – they do what they want, oftentimes devoid of conscience. And I still loved him for a time after. I wanted him to be alright because I knew I was stronger than him and I honestly thought he broke himself in the process. I knew he didn’t break me, because I already know me. I just became afraid of myself in the end. That’s when I reached out for someone to talk to. 

My counselor was at the tips of my furiously typing fingers for months. I was reaching out to her multiple times a day, lost and wandering around in the shell of myself. I had zero guidance and for the first time in my 28 years I truly was unable to figure out how to unlock my torment. Things came out of me that I thought I cleansed years prior; moments and experiences that unfolded like a flower and I realized that no, I was not completely OK to begin with. But that was OK. I needed an unbiased third party who I could tell my darkest secrets to without having to look them in the eyes. It was critical for my healing to say things that I never said to anyone, for some weird Catholic fear that I’d be punished if the words existed in the open. I whittled myself down – once again – for the sake of un-becoming the dark that I took on in the winter of this year. I realized too, unfortunately, how many awful things I’ve endured in my life. I know I’m not the only one, but there were so many moments that peppered my youth that I thought at one point were normal. The stupid saying panged the back of my head, “God only gives you what you can handle. Remember that!” I chose to remind whoever that I can also handle an abundance of good. 

Therapy made me question if I’m truly grateful for the things I have, or if I’m selfish for constantly wanting more. It helped me to establish for myself a boundary point of striving beyond my means and living beyond my means. I have felt less materialistic in the last few months. I haven’t tried to reach out for disingenuous connections with men who couldn’t care less that I’ve seen death or that my youth molded me into a person who is hardened while maintaining an unbelievably sensitive core. Therapy made me look at myself in a way I wasn’t able to alone. 

Then I woke up today and realized the last email I sent my therapist was a four-month progress photo of my rescue dog, Randall, who I took into my home this April. That was twelve days ago. My mom’s eight-year anniversary is coming up next month and I don’t feel overly anxious or depressed about it like other years.  I am no longer ashamed to say that I resented my mother – not for who she was – rather, for the choices she made that destroyed who she was. Her reliance on alcohol fueled her belief that she could not function as a human without ether as a catalyst. Booze was her God and her Devil – her Heaven and her Hell – and she just existed somewhere in the middle. And while I don’t find myself reliant on booze to be someone in the world, it scares me to be like her one day. It’s why I ask for help even if I’m embarrassed or afraid because, yeah, sometimes we can’t handle it all on our own. That’s when we get sloppy and selfish in a way that is detrimental to ourselves as well as those who care about us. 

I emailed Jodi and I thanked her for her help. I told her that I’m me again. I’m not the dark anymore – not completely enlightened either – but I’m balanced. I unfolded upwards and I look down at all the dirt I came out of, and I am appreciative of how the mess below me nurtured me to be the person I grew into – someone my mother would be proud of, more importantly someone I’m proud of. 

Trunk space

I’ve lived with anxiety and depression for the majority of my adult life. Rather than say, “I’ve struggled” with either, I’ll take away any controlling factor and simply state, “I have lived.” They are like annoying roommates who mostly keep to themselves and then one of them clogs the toilet and doesn’t say anything, so it just overflows until I find it and then I’m stuck with the mess. I use the analogy of the toilet because a clogged toilet both makes me anxious and also a little sad. Feel free to insert whatever analogy works for you.

When my anxiety creeps up, I want to impulse eat. I want to yell. I want to run away. When I feel depressed, I want to hug my dog and live in my bed under the covers until dark and never come out. Luckily for my dog, I have extreme issues with guilt and an overwhelmingly responsibility to take care of others so it never lasts long and he inspires me to go outside, or for a trail walk, or to play fetch.

Tonight was a little different, though. I just really wanted to take a nap. I really wanted to drift off for a couple of hours and wake up a little less drowned in my own thoughts. This didn’t happen, though. The universe – and nature – decided a flash flood would be scheduled for 7 PM and I was woken with what sounded like a tornado running down my street. My dog and I both shot up and I heard my phone going off to the emergency alert system. I looked out the window and saw my neighbor Joan’s car parked with the trunk wide open.

Joan is elderly. She’s sweet, the right amount of nosy that any old woman should be, and my dog is her number one fan. She always forgets to close her trunk. Her husband had major surgery recently and she’s been inundated with helping him. There have been nurses and family members in and out of the condo next to mine in order to make sure Joan’s husband has the proper care. It makes me think of my grandpa and how rough the medical care was on the family and him for the last few months of his life. Her husband has improved, though, which makes me happy to hear.

So back to Joan’s damn trunk. I don’t even think about it, just say, “Dammit, Joan!” I throw on some pants and a tee and run outside like a mad woman and slam the trunk before the rain gets too bad. I don’t tell her. I don’t make a scene; just prevent a soggy trunk and run back into the house. When I closed the door it hit me – no matter how stuck I feel, regardless of how fucked up things may seem, I (or you) always have a purpose. There is always a purpose to do even the smallest thing for an unwitting person. I (you) always have a place in this world, even if it’s just closing some old lady’s trunk in a flash flood.