Sailfish

“If we tip over, make sure you stay underwater and swim away from the boat.” 

My mom emphasized away with her left hand as she unconsciously maneuvered the rudder of our old SailFish with her right. I looked up nervously at the twelve-foot high sail, pulled tight and bowed to the breeze. I held onto a piece of rope she handed me at the beginning of our little excursion.

“Don’t let this go, alright? If I ask for some slack, give me some slack.” I nodded. 

 It was my first sailing lesson with her, and the most time I’d gotten with her that summer of 2002. She was a busy, up-and-coming real estate agent and most days were spent at Nan and Pop’s house by myself or with my brother until she got back from the office. When she asked if I wanted to learn how to sail I jumped to the occasion. It wasn’t more of a question, but rather, “Get in the boat or don’t but I’m leaving the shore either way.”

“If you do come up too close to the boat,” she continued, “you can get stuck under the sails and you’ll suffocate and drown because you’ll be panicking the whole time. Try not to panic, okay?”

I nodded cautiously as she squinted at the reflection of the sun as it bounced off the creek. I absorbed every warning she gave me – she did know best – and spent the rest of our sailing lesson in fear of the sails that could very well kill me. She gestured at me to move to the far side of the eighteen-foot boat and her hand relaxed on the ropes. Wind caught in the sails and all at once we pitched to one side. I braced my feet in the middle of the boat and held my breath. My mom sat in the back and effortlessly guided us through the strait of the creek, wind blowing her box-dye hair and messing up her usually tamed hairspray bangs. She had no fear in her eyes. In fact, they were closed. She had sailed the creek for thirty years before I joined her that day, so she didn’t need to see where she was going. She was the creek. She tilted her head up towards the sky and I watched her open up to the world and be in love with the moment. I felt myself ease my grip from the side of the boat. As the wind let up the boat slowed down, she looked at me and smiled, refreshed and new.

The creek was supposed to heal us. I believed it was magic for so many years because any time there was something wrong, the remedy was to simply go swim in the water. If there was too much sand on our feet, we’d dip them in and shake our legs around until it dusted off and floated gently home to the bottom of the creek. If our feet were scuffed up and calloused, we soaked them silently and patiently, and waited until tiny fish came up and ate the dead skin from between our toes. If we were injured while playing around the neighborhood, or if we stepped on a broken clamshell – or if we got splinters the size of posts stuck in our hands – Nan would send us away to the water’s edge.

“Go sit in the drink,” she said. “Go soak in the salt water. Salt water will clean it out.”

I took my cut up foot, or my splintered hand, and waded out into the brown-green drink, the drink that made the pain go away after a salty sting first met the wounds. And Nan was right – first the salt water would burn and then it would soothe. The cuts would turn white and after a few minutes of soaking I would study the depth of them and bake on the dock until my skin pulled tightly around me in a hug.

The water was iridescent on top and impossible to see beneath at a depth greater than a few inches. Sometimes I would cannonball off the float at the end of the dock, or off the back of the boat, and let all the air out of my body once I was submerged. I tried to remain tight and balled up, suspended in the black and the silence – away from everything except my thoughts and the fish below me. Then I’d pop back up eventually and break the surface, and stretch out on my back and float along the creek. I listened to what the water had to say, muffled and slow in my ears. I took in the drink. Calm and heavy from the salty thick water I paddled my way back to the dock and dried my skin again until it was too hot to sit still.

The adults floated in the drink, in different ways. Nan was self conscious so she would dip her toes into the water; I only saw her swim in a bathing suit a handful of times before she died. She had breast cancer and lost her left breast to a mastectomy. She stuffed the left cup of her bra with tissues or padding if she had to venture out into the world, or go to Bingo Tuesday, or go to church. The mastectomy scar was never visible in her bathing suit, but her radiation scars were tendrils that crawled out from underneath her straps and made themselves a part of her bold floral swimwear. When she did go take a dip in the drink she would go alone at sunset, as if she had a pre-arranged date with the water. Her intimate encounter left us kids as well as Pop in the house or on the deck so she could enjoy the solitude of the brine and converse with nature or the sun or God. She dipped under once or twice, a baptism. Pop didn’t mind sharing her with the creek – “My girl,” he always called her. He and Nan had been together since 1936, or 37 or 38, so he knew he’d never lose her to another.

Pop was unashamed of his body. His back was covered in broad white zig-zag scars from World War Two, and his belly was old but not fat, also folded over with many large scars that met at his belly button and went up and across, down and to the side, all from surgeries he had since he got home from Germany in 1945. He frequented his opened button-down shirt – or would forgo the shirt altogether – and place himself in front of an ancient oscillating fan. He sat quietly and patiently, his specialty. If he could no longer take the heat, he’d walk out to the dock until he reached the end like someone walking up the aisle of a church, and he’d submerge himself into the water – one dip – and dry off and come back inside. 

The adults took in a different kind of drink as well, and often. One of the first words I learned to read was Scotch, another Whiskey, another Bacardi, and another Glenfiddish, which I frequently mispronounced as Glen-fish and Glen-finch. It smelled awful to me, but Nan and Pop drank it everyday after dinner. A couple of ice cubes in a fancy crystal tumbler – it wasn’t a glass, it was a tumbler, I was told. Nan would mix hers with water and it reminded me of pee. Pop would sometimes mix his with water, or just sip it straight. They sat with matching drinks, in matching chairs, with matching coasters that were plastic and had green felt circles in the middle. The fan whirred between them, the tumblers sweating together. I never knew what time they went to bed even when my brother and I slept there; they were always frozen in those chairs, in my eyes. Relaxed, sailing along in the evening, healed. 

My dad rarely drank the liquor in Nan and Pop’s house. He was more of a beer person, with tastes varying from German to American, light or not. My mom, known for her room temperature glasses of blush-colored boxed Franzia wine, fancy in its long-stemmed glass and always accompanied by a cigarette, traded her pinks for a tall glass of Bacardi rum and Diet Coke. I was not fond of the smell of Bacardi either, and I didn’t entirely favor the taste of Diet Coke – but she drank from the moment she greeted my grandparents until my brother and I put our shoes on to go back home for the evening.

I noticed those nights, she looked different in her drink. We were mostly only at Nan and Pop’s house on Sunday night for dinner – maybe two or three more days a week during the summertime – but her eyes were not the same on those days. She didn’t have the slow, relaxed, cat-like glances with her shimmery green eyes peering the reflective black creek water. Instead she was foggy, frosted glass and tension. The wind was often either out of her sails, or too much in them and she would return home with us just to fall asleep curled on the couch, or become combative with my dad. I didn’t know this is what being drunk was, or that my mom often was drunk around me.

The adults were able to imbibe as often as they wished on the spicy-smelling drinks. Always with or after dinner – maybe it was for digestion, or maybe as a grown-up I would want a drink instead of ice cream. All I wanted to get my hands on was a glass or two of Coca Cola or off-brand Root Beer from the sale aisle, and I often had to wait for Sunday dinner to do so. For Sunday brunch, though, I watched with equal parts repulsion and intrigue as my aunt mixed together vodka – “Shhhmirnoff,” she joked – with tomato juice, horseradish, ice cubes…celery? Each pour was calculated, almost scientific. She stirred with the celery, licked the end and then took a large bite before placing the stalk back into the tall crystal glass. 

“What is that?” I cringed and looked at her as she took a deep drink of her beverage. I hated pulp in my orange juice, I thought as I watched her down tomato and vodka with horseradish. Horseradish pulp, I thought. I cringed some more. Horseradish was good with ketchup for cocktail shrimp. It wasn’t a drink.

“It’s a Bloody Mary,” she replied. She pursed her lips and then smacked them together as if the drink was not good but also necessary to her, like medicine. 

“D’you mean like Mary, Mother of God?” I was learning about these people in my Catechism class and Sunday school; we were Roman Catholics and it was generally taken very seriously. 

“Yeah, but Bloody because it’s alcohol.”

“So it’s a sin?”

“No, it’s vodka,” she said.

I thought about the Blood of Christ, wine we had to drink at Sunday mass (I wasn’t allowed to drink it, though), and wondered if a Bloody Mary was the home version of that. I then decided to stop asking so many questions and go drink my pulp-free orange juice and wait for things that were good, like bacon and Pop’s scrambled eggs. If we stayed long enough, my brother and I may have gotten in a glass of soda,  or an Oreo if Nan felt generous with her personal stash of cookies. On these mornings, my mom drank only coffee with sugar and milk. She told me she also thought Bloody Mary’s were gross. She also waited until a certain time to partake in things that were indulgent.

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.

Under the Oak Tree

I combed through the blades of grass with nubby fingers. A light breeze carried salted, marshy air up over the bulkhead and I sat at my mother’s feet and watched as the grass dusted grains of sand from my palms. She lay on an ancient chaise chair that was woven with plastic strips of different bright colors and had a permanent sag in the middle from too many rear ends taking a seat to watch the water. I could see, underneath the chair, how close her butt was to the grass. She lay still, watching me use earth to clean my tiny hands and I looked up at her. 

“Come over here,” she said, and outstretched her arms. 

Dutifully, I clambered up onto her lap, the plastic chair moaning in protest. Her legs were rough with stubble, and smelled like fruits and felt oily. Above us, an osprey flew circles. I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I woke up with my dark coiled hair matted to my face, the sun still shining. My mother was unmoved from her spot on the chair, still looking down at me. She smiled. I pressed my hands onto her belly, the slippery soft bathing suit giving way to my touch. The world moved around me as I craned my toddler neck around to observe the still-moving water, the busy birds, and the clouds that glided across the sky. Above us, an oak tree waved.

That was my first memory at the creek house.

The memories continued to follow me throughout my life and made themselves known, in the same way the salt came up off the shore – the same way the rain told us it was coming on a summer afternoon. Each time I’ve smelled warm coconut – or even the pungent decay of fish – I was reminded of my childhood on the creek. The scent of instant coffee and the familiar warm welcome of butter on a hot skillet bring me to quiet breakfast mornings shared with my grandparents in old wooden chairs. Sticky linoleum floors hold me now, just how they grabbed at our feet as we ran through the house and passed window after window, each with a view of the water just beyond the yard.

Years of turbulence and darkness led me away from the creek, lost not only in the world but also within myself. I was told I needed to find my inner child and make peace with her. I searched, but couldn’t find her. Months were spent driving down to the old creek house that was no longer mine, or to my childhood home on the farm. I wandered into the middle of the woods – and several times climbed into the bed of a stranger. She seemed gone. There wasn’t a milk carton to put her picture, nor a poster to make asking if she was seen. My life force and essence of who I was went missing; I tried to meditate. 

I’d think of the swingset my brother and I had in our own backyard where I’d pump my legs so hard in the hopes of stepping on a cloud. Or my mind would go to the trampoline we haphazardly used unsupervised; We broke every umbrella in the house trying to fly away like Mary Poppins. I thought of the spruce trees at the back of the farm and how I’d climb up the branches and sit for hours in the hopes of seeing something otherworldly. I remembered my deep bedroom closet that I cleaned out just for a space to hide. Those were my little girl’s memories, I told myself. That’s where she lived. She lived in fear and in shadows. She looked for unnatural things. She was never a little girl. 

Then one day I was talking about my earliest memories and it hit me as clear as that one afternoon I recalled. The little girl woke up under the oak tree. She rode her bike almost five miles each way over the summer and mixed the salt of her body with the salt of the creek. She dried off on the float of the dock, on her back and arms spread wide like the black loons that speckled the horizon and waterline from their bulkhead posts. Her body became freckled and brown and red and she didn’t care about her body on the creek, because the water always held her up above itself. 

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.

Dick and Jane

Jane sat across from Richard, a candlelit dinner between them.

“I’m sorry I’ve been taking things so slow,” Jane said. “I just haven’t been around a nice guy like you in such a long time, Richard. It’s taken me back a little.” She swirled her wine around without picking the glass up off the table.

“Please, call me Dick. We’re on our what? Fifth date already?” Dick flashed a toothy, charming smile at Jane. He did feel their relationship was a snail’s pace, but he hadn’t met anyone quite like her before. She was timid, but he found himself pulled completely into her orbit. 

“Well, alright, Dick.” Jane couldn’t keep her eyes from his. He mesmerized her.

Dick reached across the table and grabbed Jane by her hand. 

“I want to be with you, Jane. I really do. This feels right.”

She squeezed his hand in agreement and raised her glass of wine. With a delicate sip, Jane just knew Dick was the one. 

It was a less-than organic gathering of overworked thirty-somethings that brought Dick and Jane together. Modern dating found itself stifled by the need to make end’s meet in the city; it was easier, more feasible, and fiscally responsible to make a profile online and wait. Jane was a self-proclaimed bookworm – and proud of the fact (If you don’t like slow mornings and getting lost in novels on a Sunday, this might not work out). Dick was an avid book collector and seller, specializing in antiquarian pieces. He reached out to Jane and asked her what was the oldest book she ever read. He then asked her out for coffee. 

“I prefer tea. I hope that’s alright.”

“As long as we can talk about books,” he replied. 

Their first encounter was awkward, as expected. Both admitted they hadn’t been on a date in quite some time. Dick was dreamy – tall, strong jaw, the opposite of what Jane imagined an antiquarian book collector to resemble. He found her elegant, soft, mysterious – like a book he was yet to read. They seemed to feed off of each other and after almost three hours of talking books they planned a second date. Then a third, fourth, fifth. It was seamless. Their tale perfectly bound, each page turn more exciting than the last. 

After their fifth date Jane took Dick home to her apartment. It was small, although the layout was just as he expected – large windows where multiple houseplants had a front row view to the busy street below. She had several small bookshelves scattered about her living room and he busied himself with the titles while he waited for Jane to put the tea kettle on. Mostly romance novels, some horror, a handful of memoirs – Jane had a decent assortment of reading material and that pleased him. 

“See anything you like?” She entered without him noticing. She sipped her tea. 

“I only see one thing I really like,” he said, eyes on her.

They made love in her apartment regularly after that night. Dick loved the smell of Jane’s hair, her pillows, everything. He drove to clients and auctions with her moved into the front of his mind, next to the 1607 copy of Aristophanes’ Divine Comedies he was about to sell. He wanted to move her into his home, he decided. He couldn’t be without Jane. 

At first she was hesitant, “Well, it’s a great idea and I’m flattered but,” she paused. “I guess you would find out anyway.”

“What is it? Tell me,” Dick pleaded with her.

“I haven’t dated in so long because – well, because my last relationship ended with a lot of… bruises.” She looked looked down at her feet, embarrassed. 

Dick took her hand, “I am so sorry. I understand. But I’d never hurt you. I just want to be with you. If you don’t want to live with me then I won’t make you.” Jane knew he was sincere. 

“Let me think on it?”

“Of course.” 

They spent the night at Jane’s apartment again, the smell of her steaming tea kettle warmed the rooms. Jane felt at ease – and while Dick slept beside her – made her decision to move into his home. She closed her eyes and let out a deep exhale. Her story was finally getting its happy ending.

It only took a short time to pack the contents of Jane’s apartment. Her books and plants took up the majority of the moving truck. When it came to her bed, “Throw it away,” she said. “We’ll just use yours.” She smiled wide at Dick. He nodded and smiled back. Dick noted how few things Jane had to begin with, and as he helped her pack he realized he didn’t even need to rent a truck for the move. 

“Did you move around a lot?”

“My last relationship caused me to get out as fast as possible. I only took the essentials, really. And the tea kettle.” She laughed. Dick was pleased. It wouldn’t take too much effort to have Jane with him always. 

The couple settled into a natural coexistence. Jane’s romance and horror novels blended in with Dick’s extensive antiquarian collection. Jane took note of how large his library was in comparison to her little shelves strewn about her old apartment. He had an entire room dedicated to beautiful, rare, expensive works. 

“Be careful in here,” he warned, “these are my prized possessions. No food. No tea. Sorry.” 

“Oh, well alright.” Dick had several rules for Jane to follow: she was to remove her shoes when she entered the house; Squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube; Place the toilet seat cover down when finished; Turn the lights off when leaving a room. He had a lot of little rules that she wasn’t aware of when they first began their romance, but she didn’t mind. He was nicer than any man she dated, and he was so willing to have her live with him. His beautiful house was better than any apartment she hurriedly inhabited years prior. 

She grew accustomed to all of Dick’s little rules and one Spring afternoon in their backyard, after only a year of dating, Dick proposed. 

“I am enchanted by you. My life is better because of you. I want you, all of you, to be with me. Forever.”

Jane accepted without hesitation. The couple planned for a small gathering, family and only a couple of close friends. She wanted to get married in their large backyard, “Right where you proposed. A perfect ending to our love story.” 

Dick was not persuaded, though. He insisted on a ceremony away from their house, although still small. “I mean, we’ve never been married before. I want it to be classic. Romantic. Special.”

“It’ll be special as long as it’s us, right?” Jane couldn’t sway her new fiance. He planned to pay for the ceremony, regardless. Eventually she relented. She wouldn’t get her backyard wedding.

Almost immediately after the couple exchanged vows, Jane learned she was pregnant with their first child. As her belly grew, her temper shortened. She lashed out at Dick for little things, and he grew impatient with her forgetting to shut off lights, or when he found her reading one of her horror novels in his library with a cup of tea. 

“You know there’s no food in my library,” he scolded.

“It’s our library, Dick. And I’m pregnant.”

He felt his anger swirl in his chest and left the room. He couldn’t do anything to a pregnant woman. 

When little Nell was born the problems between Dick and Jane subsided. There was a perfect, cherub-like little girl before them who needed constant attention and love, and there was no space for arguing over toilet seat covers and shoes worn inside. Dick had the woman he wanted and now, a child. He got everything he wished for. 

Nell could do no wrong in her parents’ eyes. She was precocious and curious about everything. Dick thought about the day when he would teach her all about antique books, but for now – he decided – the library was off limits to the toddler. 

“No no, that’s Mommy and Daddy’s room. Someday we’ll let you in there. But it isn’t for play, sweetie.” Dick took Nell by the arm and guided her out of the room. She let out a whine.

“Why can’t you let her play in the library, Dick? It’s her house too.” 

“I’m not allowing a baby to play in a room full of paper, Jane. Especially paper worth as much as that collection.” 

“They’re fucking books, Dick. I swear you love your collection more than this family.” 

Dick was taken aback by Jane’s words. He never heard her curse before; She said shit when she stubbed her toe maybe three or four years earlier. 

“How could you say something like that? What’s your problem?” 

Nell began to whine more.

“Oh great, and now you’ve upset the baby. Give her to me.” Jane put her hands out and Nell flopped into her mother’s arms. “There, it’s alright now. Daddy is just being mean, baby.” She looked at her husband with disdain, a look Dick never saw on his wife before. He didn’t recognize her eyes. 

Nell grew, and so did the couple’s tensions. The little nitpicking fights turned to cursing and fists slamming the kitchen countertop. Dick felt as if he was losing his mind in his own home. Jane became overprotective of Nell. She insisted he install nanny cams around the house to keep an eye on her. She told Dick she didn’t feel safe. 

“I don’t understand,” Dick said, “how can you not feel safe?”

“I just don’t. What if Nell falls, or if someone tries to break in? Would you install the cameras?” Jane mentioned to Dick that she told her mother about her concerns, and her mother agreed. Dick relented and installed cameras in the library, the front living room, and the kitchen to satisfy his wife. 

A month passed. Dick grew angry. His house no longer felt like it belonged to him. He sat in the front living room, reading, when he heard a thud from the library. And then another. And another. Dick jumped up. Someone must be stealing my books, he thought. He heard Jane walk out the back door into the yard, but not return, so he picked up the bat he kept by the front door and slowly made his way upstairs. The door was shut. His muscles tightened along with the grip on his bat. Dick slowly turned the knob and threw the door open, weapon overhead, to see Nell – alone – ripping pages out of a novel from 1843.

“What the fuck!” The baby began to cry. Dick dropped the bat and scooped her up in his hands. He heard Jane walk in through the back door, panicked. 

“What’s wrong!” 

“You left the baby in the fucking library alone? What is wrong with you?” Dick was screaming at Jane, the baby in between them, crying. 

“Stop yelling! You’re scaring her!” Jane reached to take the baby from his arms. 

“I’m losing my goddamn mind!” Dick turned around and picked up the bat.

“What are you doing?” Jane took a step back.

“I feel like I don’t live in this house anymore. You don’t respect my rules.” Dick held the bat at his side. 

“Dick,” Jane started, “put the bat away.” 

He exhaled. Dick walked past Jane and crying Nell back to the front room and put the bat back where it belonged. He grabbed his coat and left. He needed some fresh air.

Later that evening, from the library, Dick heard pounding on the front door. Muffled yells were overpowered by Jane, hysterical.

“He’s upstairs! In his library! He was so mad!” 

Heavy footsteps climbed the staircase to the closed door. Dick stood frozen and confused when two police officers came in and ordered his hands behind his back. 

“You are under arrest for assault,” one officer began.

“What? What are you talking about? I’ve been upstairs this whole time!” Dick’s heart began to race. He didn’t struggle. They had to be wrong. 

As the officers led Dick down the stairs, he saw Jane, bruised and bloodied, baby asleep in her arms. 

“What the… what the fuck?” He stared at her eyes, wet with tears. “What happened?” 

“I can’t even look at you!” Jane turned away as Dick was taken outside, through the front living room, past the empty space where the baseball bat belong, and into the squad car. 

“Don’t worry, ma’am, he’ll be locked up for a long time. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“No, that’s alright. Thank you for responding so quickly. I’ll just wait for the restraining order – and divorce papers – to come through.” Jane shut the door behind the officers and put Nell in her crib. The house was finally quiet for once. 

She sat down in her office and opened the family computer. Jane clicked through the nanny cam files and found the kitchen camera. She opened it. There, Jane cringed through footage of her, hitting her own face with Dick’s baseball bat. It fucking hurt, but it was all she could do to get him to leave. His stupid rules weren’t going to get him put away. His squeaky clean record wasn’t going to get her his expensive book collection, or his beautiful house. She deleted the history on the camera – Dick must have shut off the camera before he beat me. I knew I didn’t feel safe for a reason – she decided on her alibi. When she was finished, Jane closed the computer, picked up her cup of tea, and went into her library. 

“Meanwhile, things go on.”

Charles Bukowski – poet, novelist, alcoholic, lover of all things women and sex – lived his life how he wanted, how he thought he deserved to live, and died in 1994 of Leukemia at age 73. Could he have quit smoking? Sure. Could he have quit booze? Of course. But he didn’t, because that wasn’t Bukowski. He lived his truth, however sad it may have seemed to his readers, critics, and lovers alike. Bukowski – to me at least – is someone who lived until he died, and died many times while still living.

To die over and over (and over) again is something that many of us experience but not many of us recognize. Most recently, for me, my relationship of over a year with a man I was very much in love with ended in a fireball of lies, manipulation, and the discovery (and introduction) of a woman who he had kept a secret relationship with for three months while I was walking through burning hot coals with the death of my dog, and the hospice care and death of my grandfather. Throughout all of this I maintained my life with him – made sure he was alright, listened, and still kept myself afloat the best I could under the circumstances. Unfortunately – and to my utter surprise – he took my independence (and lack of codependency) and ran away with that (and fell into other women).

When he revealed to me that he had constructed a secret relationship including but not limited to very strict date schedules and days of the week, two separate Instagram accounts, different names saved into phones, etc, I knew I would never take him back. I felt a crushing pain within me that was different from any death I ever felt – not my dog, my grandpa, or even when my mom died in 2011. It was a feeling of ultimate betrayal nestled into sheer confusion and embarrassment to know he was playing me like a faithful fiddle while his roommates (and his mother) knew what he was doing; he later tried to defend his roommates to me, saying they “encouraged” him to come clean, but honestly obligation towards one another as people comes from moral standings in my book, not longevity or proximity. AKA if you’re acting like a piece of shit I will not hesitate to call you out on it; no one deserves to live their life thinking they have nothing to worry about when the same hands that hold them at night held someone else just as passionately only hours before.

What’s crazy about all this is I did forgive him. I didn’t forgive him in the sense that, “It’s okay, we’ll work through this together.” Oh no. It was a more, “I never needed you. I cannot help you. This is unhealthy. You betrayed me beyond any repair. I can’t hate you because, honestly, no one hates you more than you probably hate yourself. Best of luck, mate.” He sobbed (I sobbed much, much later once I got over the shock and nausea that the man I saw as a potential soul mate was lying to my face).

It hasn’t been very long at all since I last saw him – since we lay together on my couch crying, watching the clock until he had to leave for work on the morning he brought me back my house key. It hasn’t been long at all since our last kiss, since he rested his head on my chest and his tears burned straight through to my fucking soul. “I love you,” he said as he turned around and grabbed me to hug and kiss me one last time in the doorway. I wanted to tell him he didn’t love me, that he didn’t know love, but I know better than to assume that someone doesn’t know what love is just because they aren’t capable of loving with the same capacity as I am. He loved me (maybe still does love me) with his perception of what it is to love another. The fatal flaw is he doesn’t love himself – that he may be a little bit of a sociopath – that he compartmentalizes things to such an extreme extent that when he walked out of my house I probably no longer existed, but when he looked at me after telling me he had been cheating he burst into tears.

I will never know if the sobs and wailing were from genuine guilt or genuine displeasure at being caught. I’ll never know how deep his love really ran (although I don’t think it was too deep regardless of his claims). I won’t be able to see inside of him to believe the things he told me in earnest. But what I do know, is that things go on. I died that day, but I died a lot of other days too. I died when my mom died in front of me. And I am grieving now, like I did with my mom, but the waves are different. There is no linear movement to grief, that I know. I just know it’s happening. And even with the sadness, I tell myself, “I survived worse.” I still wake up everyday in my own two-bedroom house. I have eight, very happy houseplants. I have a book collection that only continues to grow. I have groceries, a job, and I don’t stop writing. And again, after all this, I am living how I think I deserve and I am dying and will die again and again until I die and don’t wake up. Until then, though, I will reinvent myself, I will live, and things will go on.

Rule of Threes

Another one of the superstitions that floats around my family to this day is the saying, “Everything happens in threes.” Death, engagements, babies, luck of the good or bad kind, doesn’t matter. I’ve had times of my life where I was set to go on vacation, won a vacation, and took a side vacation within a vacation. Conversely, I’ve had rules of three that make me want to die and forget the number ever existed.

The significance of threes comes from the Creator, Redeemer, and the Sustainer. It’s supposed to represent some sort of omniscience, some kind of karmic circle where a situation will come around to provide a lesson that wasn’t learned with the first action. Mix the rule of threes with Murphy’s Law – what can go bad, will – and you have a spicy concoction of misery.

After convincing my parents that I was, in fact, straight, I began to reflect on my track record of zero boyfriends, zero romantic encounters, infinite times of unrequited love. Sure, I liked plenty of guys in school, but they never liked me. When I was in ROTC, I asked a boy to the military ball and when he told me he wasn’t going, I thought nothing of it. He later said hello to me at the military ball with his date. And that’s pretty much how my entire high school career went, pining for boys who never wanted me, but still trying. I received my first kiss at 17 on a beach at a pre-college part with kids from my graduating class. Then, two weeks into my freshman year of college I got drunk at a dorm party and made out with an Irish exchange student who – at the time – I thought was very cute. When I was sober that following afternoon I discovered I was wrong, and that he was nine years older than me.

Aside from the boy I loved for ten years who later came out as gay, I had an unrelenting crush on my brother’s best friend. A typical teenage movie scenario, he spent an awful lot of time at our childhood home, and I grew more and more fond of him as the years went on. I knew I could never – would never – have him, though. He was tall, athletic, very handsome, uproariously funny, and I was frumpy, fat, and his best friend’s sister.

He went on to join the military and I forgot about him until the December of my freshman year of college when my brother’s girlfriend threw a welcome home party for him. He had just finished a tour and was visiting for two weeks before getting deployed again. As a group, my brother’s friends and I were bad news. We smoked a lot of weed, drank a lot of liquor, and did a lot of dumb things. This night in particular I was drunker than usual, and high, mostly because I was nervous of seeing my brother’s friend. I eventually became too bored and drunk to stand around and found solace in a bed in my brother’s girlfriend’s house. I crawled under the covers and prepared to fall into a rum-induced sleep.

My brother’s friend seemed to have the same idea and came into the bedroom shortly after me, first not noticing my presence and then acknowledging me and getting in bed but on top of the covers. We sat there laughing at the fact that we both had the same idea of finding a bed. Suddenly, the lights turned on and it was another friend, who exclaimed in shock that we were both in a room, alone together and he heckled us until leaving and shutting the lights off again.

Years of bottling my feelings were loosened by alcohol and I rolled over to face my brother’s friend and tell him that I had a crush on him for years. He said, “Really?” and laughed. I was embarrassed. He was laughing at me.

Then he kissed me.

We were both drunk and kissed horribly and touched awkwardly and eventually sexed haphazardly; sometime in the middle of the night, I drunkenly lost my virginity to my brother’s best friend in my brother’s girlfriend’s parents’ bed, only to find out he too was a virgin who had never been kissed. I was shocked by that.

Was this supposed to be love? We had a not special, special moment together in a forbidden situation that could have been improved from literally every angle, figuratively and literally speaking. We didn’t use protection, so I had to buy Plan B the next morning which he reimbursed, and suddenly I felt like a sex worker. This wasn’t how I wanted to have my first sexual experience with someone I knew for almost half my life. After he paid me for the Plan B, we never spoke about that night again. It wasn’t until 2014 that he reached out and apologized for how it all went down, but at that point, what was the point?

I went back to school and sunk into a deep depression. I didn’t feel fulfilled in the slightest in regards to how I thought sex was supposed to feel. I was mad at him for being able to forget me as easily as he did – but it was easier for him anyway, considering he left for Bahrain shortly after I returned to Massachusetts. Even though the Plan B worked, some deranged paranoia within me was convinced I was pregnant, because I had this looming sense of dread that – of course – something else bad was bound to happen. Murphy’s Law, I thought.

A girl from my English 102 class invited me to a party at her house in the middle of February, and I decided to go because a couple of my rugby teammates would be there and I figured it would be healthy to socialize. She said it was a pajama theme, and my naive self assumed actual pajamas. I showed up to her house in flannel pants, a tank top, sweatshirt, and slippers only to be greeted by girls in brightly colored, sexy negligees and onesies and matching top and bottom sets. I immediately went to the fridge for a beer and realized, once again, I was out of my element.

The night grew more awkward for me when I reached for my second beer and was questioned for taking them.

“Caity told me I could help myself to the Natty in the fridge, because I don’t have a connect.” They shot that down quickly and I was resolved to stay sober for the night. Within an hour or so of being there, though, I felt incredibly light-headed and weird and decided to not finish my second beer. Instead, I went out back where the smokers were and lit up a black and mild that I had in my pocket; I was in my experimental phase with inhalants, and liked black and milds because they tasted like vanilla.

The group smoking cigarettes left, leaving me with an unassuming guy. He asked me for a light and I just gave him my black and mild, re-lit it for him, and as I put the lighter back in my pocket he stopped me and asked my name.

“Kaitlin.”

“I’m Jake,” he exhaled up and away from me and leaned in to kiss me.

I was surprised at first, but willing. This was my first real house party and a guy was kissing me even though I was dressed like a sack of potatoes – maybe he was repaying me for giving him my black and mild? I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I pulled back from kissing him to get a good look at his face and, while still a little woozy, I could tell he was attractive. Without saying a word, he pulled me back in – hard – and began to aggressively grope me. I pushed away and told him to slow down, to take it easy – but I was so inexperienced with sexual encounters that I didn’t really know what was supposed to feel right and what wasn’t – and I was still a little woozy.

Instead of slowing down, he pushed me up against a green, metal dumpster which in February felt twice as hard and twice as cold. He forced his hands down my pants and with equal force of the dumpster push, fingered me.

Instantly I felt danger, but I didn’t know how to approach it. I didn’t know what he was capable of, but I knew I didn’t want to be in the dark with him.

I pulled his hand away from me and he resisted me doing so, and I told him I didn’t want to do whatever he was trying to do. He apologized, at first, and as I made my way towards the driveway, towards the flood light, he followed me and shoved his tongue down my throat again, this time up against the house.

“Let’s go in that car,” he had a hand on my arm and was pulling it towards the end of the driveway. I resisted, “No that isn’t a good idea.” I pulled back up towards the light and hoped someone would come outside; to this day I don’t know why I didn’t yell.

He grabbed me hard again and I felt immobilized and utterly powerless. Everything was going hazy and I had tunnel vision and I could feel my heart racing but it was so cold outside I couldn’t feel my fingertips. Again, he grabbed me, but this time it was the back of my head and at some point in these moments he pulled his dick out of his pants and forced my mouth onto it. I choked and pushed myself off him and tried to go towards the front of the house. At that moment, someone walked up the driveway to which he pulled me into him to conceal himself and said, “What’s up man?” The guy nodded and looked me in the eyes and I was so upset that he couldn’t see me screaming inside my head. Once the guy went into the house, I turned to follow towards him and was again pulled back, “Let me fuck you in this car.”

“No,” I felt the adrenaline rushing to my head. I had tunnel vision even worse.
“Well let me fuck you on top of it then.” He shoved me backwards onto the hood of the car under the floodlight, the back of my head touching the cold metal. I thought to the people inside laughing and drinking, and why I could barely function off two beers, and who was this guy? Suddenly he ripped my shirt and sweatshirt up at once to try and put it over my head. For some reason – the cold on my stomach, adrenaline, repressed rage, I wasn’t sure – I snapped. Whatever made me feel woozy wasn’t enough anymore, and I absolutely snapped.

I screamed, “No!” and threw my arms forward, catching him in both his shoulders. Backwards, backwards, I kept pushing – open hand, fists, just back until he fell into a bush. I saw him, then, for who he was. I saw a weak, scared boy. He put both of his hands up as if I was holding a gun to his chest.

“Woah! Woah! Woah! Okay, sorry, sorry.” He kept walking backwards, the bush now the only thing separating whatever was coming out of me from ripping him apart. I fixed my sweatshirt, eyes fixed on him, and ran into the house. When I found my friend, I asked her to drive me home. She asked me what happened as soon as she saw my face and I burst out sobbing. I told her everything and she rubbed my back while I sat with my head between my knees, wondering what the fuck just happened.

She took me to my friends. I went into the bathroom and noticed I was bleeding from how hard he fingered me; I still felt him in the back of my throat. Nothing came of it – when confronted, his friends defended him. He belonged to a fraternity, and apparently I was dressed like a whore.

I felt absolutely wretched. My GPA was at the point of just above academic probation. I could barely eat, I slept all day, and I hated myself. When I looked in my mirror I was completely disgusted with what I saw. I told my roommate what happened; I wouldn’t dare tell my parents. They already wanted me to go to Stony Brook and if I brought up being sexually assaulted there was no doubt in my mind they’d pull me from the roster. I didn’t believe what happened actually happened after a week, either. With no one who was at the party believing me, I felt once again like I was just providing some service. A man used me and got away with it, so what did I matter?

My roommate tried so hard to lift my spirits for a few days. She and I were very opposite in terms of lifestyle – me, a rugby player and she, a natural party girl. Eventually in the end of February, she convinced me to go out with her and a couple of her girlfriends.

“Come on, it’ll just be the girls. No boys, and we’ll all be together. It’ll be fun, please?” I said yes, let them make me over, and followed them to a party in one of the varsity sports houses directly off campus.

Immediately I was put off. The living room was packed out with undergrad girls grinding on each other for a camera. I found the bar and we stashed our drinks, but I held onto my lemonade and vodka to avoid what happened two weeks prior. The point guard for the basketball team offered me a hit of his weed and I accepted it, because he smoked it first and he had a reputation to uphold on campus. I let myself sink into drunkenness and wandered the house, looking for faces I might have recognized. I found one of my teammates who wasn’t at the party earlier that month and when she asked me to walk back to our dorm together, I jumped on the opportunity. I wasn’t having fun and I was with a friend.

We were both drunkenly stumbling back to campus, only stopping once to pee behind trees next to the science building. The thin, cold, Massachusetts air made me feel worse off than I was, and I wandered into the freshman dorm carrying my lemonade and vodka, obviously diluted and donning a black Kahlua cap. The security officer stopped us and asked me what was in the bottle. I told her the truth, because I knew if I lied she’d make me open the bottle anyway and I was clearly drunk as it was.

“You girls bringing alcohol into these dorms?”

“No, all me. Not her.”

She let my friend go back up to her room and I asked her to meet me at the police station, because I was about to get arrested.

I was read my rights, cuffed, taken out back and placed in a cruiser. The seats were hard plastic and incredibly uncomfortable, as if I deserved some sort of treatment for being a fucking idiot. We came to the station at the edge of campus, and I was put into holding, handcuffed to a bench, all my personal belongings taken from me.

That was when it sunk in.

I started to cry. “I’m an English major – I never even went to the principal’s office in high school. What the fuck is happening to my life?” My proclamations were to no one in particular, but my arresting officer looked over at me with sympathy. “Do you want to call your parents?” My eyes lowered, “You haven’t met my dad.” She cocked her head, “Hey, aren’t you on the rugby team? I love you girls, always helping with the rape defense classes.”

Get out of the box

There isn’t much to be said about this bullpen. It’s plain, encased in brick, and unassuming. The ceilings are illuminated by OSHA regulated fluorescent lighting, and the only windows I open are on one of my three computer screens. There are constant echoes of doors opening and closing all about the building, like industrial breathing. Our standardized morale boosters come in the form of a free popcorn maker and complimentary bulk-bought coffee. The walls are a uniform blue-grey that seem to gain inspiration from Orwell’s 1984 (the two minutes of hate scene in particular) and I sit here until 7AM, observing a symphony of airplanes as they cross the Atlantic airspace.

My commute to work is laughable for someone who lives on the island. Before moving to my current residence in 2016, my drive averaged a very, very long-feeling 25 minutes, which is still modest compared to the rest of the populous; my father drove an hour or more each way for my entire childhood. I remember seeing him leave before sunrise and return well after dark donning a sullen, angry look on his face that showed his unwavering need to be a workhorse and keep food on the table. He had strained, sunken eyes with dark encapsulating circles – sometimes a frown, sometimes not. Every night he would retire to a La-Z-Boy recliner with the television remote and eventually slip away into sleep, HBO playing dully in the background; my brother and I learned young that it was important to invest in a decent recliner. After a couple of hours, he’d make his way to bed where my mother already lay in a drunken slumber, harboring an unbearable snore that made the bedroom smell of stale cigarettes and wine. As a result, my father would resort to spending most of my childhood on the couch. He would wake to the sound of his 5AM alarm and the smell of preset coffee, prepare his belongings, and trek once again into the darkness of morning.

As of 2016, the average car commute time for Long island was 33 minutes. For train, an hour. But 33 minutes, each way, five days a week undoubtedly beats down the human spirit. That’s 33 minutes of creeping traffic, skipping music, spilled coffee, and maybe a little road rage. For me, 11 minutes on average (six if I don’t hit any lights) gets me to my gate at work. That’s 22 minutes of less stress, fewer distractions, and generally zero coffee spilled.

The drive home is equally zen. Where I live, most commuters head west. I, however, miss all of the congestion and essentially reverse commute – facing the sunrise. Driving towards the sun each day as it rises has given me an appreciation for the varying colors, intensity, and energy is expresses, especially in contrast to the box I crawl out of each day. It shows me that my job may be the same, but every morning begins differently. I go to bed around 7:30, eventually tackle my afternoon, and make it in again well after night falls over the east coast to check in on my orchestrated airplanes.

Each night, tiny green triangles crescendo and decrescendo along calculated global routes, and suddenly the earth looks so insignificant. I monitor different sectors to ensure everyone is going where they need to go, while passengers sit oblivious to my existence. Sometimes, I’m technical when asked to describe my current profession; other times I refer to it as glorified babysitting. Either way, I watch thousands of lives cross the water, like a modern Charon. They are hopelessly unaware of my job, and I am continuously reminded of how important and how equally miniscule I am in this world. Each person is visiting, returning, working, or escaping. They all carry their own personal agendas and reasons for travel – they all have their own mini missions of life.

Since the Spring of 2015, I have been an overnight shift worker. I don’t mind shift work – it’s actually the only real type of work I know, minus a year-long stint as a Monday through Friday secretary in an insurance agency. My uniform is street clothes, except for pants with holes in them or flip flops (for whatever reason). I report at 11 each night and make it to my front door a little after seven each morning. My days off rotate; my social life has kind of taken a toll in regards to making plans and going out. If anything, working overnights has given me an appreciation for naps and breakfast at three in the afternoon. Living my life like a vampire – while detrimental if I don’t take care of myself properly – frees me up to write in a more relaxed, almost library-esque setting during the twilight hours. I also have a greater appreciation of my personal health, knowing that if I don’t listen to my body, take my vitamins, and eat relatively healthy I will suffer more over than someone who works during the day. And while the job can be boring or monotonous, it gives me times to reflect.

Generally when the traffic dies down, and 3AM rounds the room to tell us that it’s time to kick the chairs back a little further, crack open a book, and unwind, I begin to reflect and record the events of my life. For years, I tried to run away from everything. I recall attempting an ass-backward approach of making it out of my own life – well – alive. This lasted about six years before I realized everything I had endured up until this point was a test of strength and mental stability, and I somehow managed to survive while maintaining a crippling fear of ending up like certain members of my immediate family.

My childhood revolved around a sense of urgency and busy-body activities that kept me either out of my often turbulent household, obligated to my computer in my bedroom, or absorbed in a book. I had goals, and academic mile markers to not only prove to myself that I was worthy of great things, but also to give my mother and father one less thing to fight about.

At the age of seven, my school deemed me developmentally disabled, because I had a tendency to play pranks and wrote with my notebook on an extreme angle. After taping my books down to my desk proved ineffective, I was pulled from class and placed in a remedial room with coloring books and children on the spectrum. My mother was not notified of this, however, and when she discovered that I was doing “just wonderful” in my new environment, she cursed and screamed and had me pulled back out and put into the “regular” class. I was explicitly warned to stop playing pranks, and I feared making my mother that angry in academia ever again.

The ultimate drive became college, and when I was accepted to several universities in 2008 I thought things would eventually calm and settle at home. Being one of the only people in my extended family to receive a bachelor’s degree gave me a great sense of pride and a pedestal with which I could be better seen by my parents. This only improved in the summer of 2011, when I prepared to go to the University of Oxford and leave New York for a little to study English Literature. I remember it being something I wanted since my junior year of high school after hearing a story by my English teacher, Mr. Stahl, regarding him being accidentally locked inside the walls of one of the colleges while visiting a friend. He went on to describe ancient stonework, the smells, the stars at night hanging over old chapels and perfectly manicured grass. I fantasized for years, and when I finally got in, I told my mother to the response of a sigh and, “That’s going to be a great bill to get in the mail. Don’t tell your father yet.” I was determined to make her proud that summer; she died two months after I returned home due to liver poisoning from extreme binge drinking.

2012 onward was an era of attempting to find myself by essentially giving up and losing who I was entirely. Like people who gain wisdom by admitting they know nothing, I learned who I was by reflecting on the idea that I spent the first 20 years or so of my life not really having any sense of identity. I don’t mean “identity” as in what I wanted to do with my future; I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I stuck with my major all throughout my college career, and knew in my heart of hearts that I was a storyteller. Rather, I had no identity in the sense that I lived my life in a mode of survival for so long that I never looked at anything (with the exception of writing) and reflected upon it from an internal standpoint.

I spent so many years in chaos and alertness that when I moved to my current residence in 2016 – realizing no one at the time knew my address – I broke down crying. For the first time in a long time, I was completely alone. Not lonely, just alone. I was given the chance to be selectively introverted, and to answer to only myself since the day I watched my mother die in 2011 and, quite frankly, I didn’t know what to do. I imagined it’s what retirees felt when they finally didn’t have to wake up to an alarm clock after 40 some-odd years of answering to another; it was equally freeing as it was crippling.

It can be quite baffling to spend so long living a life of chaos – of constant emotional turmoil – and then to come up from the bunker one July morning and see all is calm, not knowing if you’re in the eye of the storm or if the storm itself has finally passed on. I like to think of my childhood as being raised in a life of coins, where every situation and family member had two completely opposite sides. My family grew up in the suburbs, yet under the roof lay an active volcano. My father was a man I idolized and feared. My brother and I shared the same sense of humor but ultimately grew up to be fundamentally different people. And then there was my mother – the woman who became my first friend, and my first bully.  
I only recently came to the admittance that my mother put me down in a very memorable way. For me, there existed a line I didn’t want to cross for the fear of insulting or demonizing someone who was unavailable to defend herself. Saying something like, “My mother was responsible for my compulsive overeating,” places an air of blame but – ultimately – the truth, and when the truth is put out that way, the power is taken from the things once feared. I however, was afraid to take away power from someone I idolized so much when all I had to go on were memories. I had to know in my soul that admitting to my mother’s harshness on me was a projection of where she thought she failed. She only wanted me to be a better version of myself but never conveyed it properly due to her horrible self image. The projections were magnified, of course, by her decades-long battle with alcoholism. Her ups and downs of affection peppered with vocalized disappointment of how I looked moulded a self image that became the two sides of my own coin: Mentally excelling in almost any subject, while never mastering myself. To learn who I was – to chase me down and finally meet myself – I decided to record the happenings. I began to write my life down. Writing, for me, became cathartic in the way that I was able to see everything I’ve done, gone through, or felt, and grow from it. After sharing some of my writings, I learned I wasn’t alone, and chose to be a storyteller, rather than hold my words to my chest.

Possessed – Essay Inspired by Poem

          I remember thinking she was possessed. I remember looking at her, arms flailing wildly around the kitchen, spitting as she spoke, eyes unblinking and intentional. Thinking to myself, this isn’t her. It did something to me that night in 2010, while she screamed at my father in the kitchen, and I witnessed through the glass pane door, all the transparency and spite that flowed from her being. My brother was restricted to the couch, having come home from the hospital after knee surgery, and just yelled and cursed over his head while my mother, unflinching, continued on her rampage into the summer night.
          It was other-worldly. I grew up knowing that alcohol was a normal part of my life, my upbringing, and my mom without a glass of something in her hand usually indicated she was feeling ill. There was never an attempt to limit or eliminate her intake; she became more skilled in hiding her demons. This night, however, something came out. She emanated a nuclear reactor, doubled over in rage and hurt that poured from her lips like a poison and I witnessed it fill the kitchen and seep under the living room door. I anxiously chased my own thoughts and uncertainty up and down the stairs between my bedroom and the living room door, glancing in at the beaten down silhouette of my father and the unrelenting storm my mother became. My heart crept up into my throat as her yells persisted and, at this point, it didn’t matter why she was shouting, only how was I to get her to stop? A beast had taken over her body; her unkempt, graying hair climbed from her roots, lifted from her like static electricity and no one could escape. She raged and threw her arms as if to conjure bolts of lightning to stop my father dead and exact whatever blind revenge she was expelling from her body.
          This wasn’t my mother. This wasn’t my mother. I kept telling myself over and over while my breathing continued in erratic rhythm, maintaining silence and restless feet as my brother continued to yell through the door and react in a way that only stoked her fire further. He began to holler and curse at me to do something as crippling panic grounded me to the living room floor and he painfully forced his body upright to climb the stairs to his own room, justified in his absence of the situation with pain medication and a fresh incision. There was so much pain in that house and I felt it tear through my body and catch my hair while my eyes watered from confusion. My internalization was cut short by her threatening in a coherent tone that she was to call the police, for whatever reason she thought acceptable.
          I had to react. Move, Kaitlin. The anguish it took me to free myself from where my feet stay cemented was quickly forgotten as I pulled open the door between the kitchen and living room to a flood of hot, angry air that intoxicated me on contact and filled my head with a mix of cigarette smoke and anguish. I witness her thumb through the phone book while my father remained glued to the kitchen chair, duffel bag beside him and pleading eyes glued to his devastated face.

“Mom, you can’t call the police. What is this even about? What’s wrong? Just talk to me, please.” My voice cracked as I tried to pierce the thickened air to reach her. I knew she wasn’t there. She was looking for the number to the police for Christ sake. I found myself incapable of holding an air of authority over a the creature that stood before me, eyes unblinking and enraged, in a bathrobe, forehead moistened with sweat. She grabbed for the phone and I reached out and pulled the phone from her shaking hand.

“What the fuck do you want from me?!” She screamed like a threatened wild animal as I begged for her to just calm down – to just listen.
          Again, she reached for the telephone and this time I reacted. I grabbed her shoulders while my father remained seated, immobilized, scared. My eyes met hers and it was at that point I realized I was not staring into the eyes of my mother. I was staring into the eyes of someone possessed, wild, erratic, and unstable. She caught my gaze and I felt it shock through my body like a punch. My jaw went slack once I confirmed this unfamiliar face.

“Get the fuck off of me!” She roared in my face and grabbed my wrists to thrust me backwards. While I flung back into the refrigerator I questioned if it was her screams or her raw adrenaline strength that forced me away. In that moment, like the silence following a nuclear explosion, her arms released to her sides and her eyes lowered. What is going to happen.

“This isn’t about you. Go.” In one short moment, I gained sight of the human I never wanted to confront in such a way. I never wanted to hurt her, but she hurt me. “Go.” She turned back to my father, my eyes followed suit. He gave me a nod to leave. I grabbed my keys from the kitchen table and removed myself to the driveway, where I turned my car radio onto old rock to drown out the screams coming from the house. I sobbed on the steering wheel and looked over my hands, where my wrists ached like burns from where she grabbed me – where she threw her hurt into me, where she momentarily regained humanity in the face of her daughter.

\That evening, in and of itself, was the beginning of the end for my mother.