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.

Reflections on Grief

It’s all utterly hopeless. All I could hear was breathing and if I listened harder I thought I could hear other people’s thoughts. My mind was looking for an escape route, because the images and scenes playing over inside of me left no room for thoughts. It was like my eyelids were stapled open and I was being forced to watch a terrible movie over and over again. I wanted to scream but I cried instead. But really, how many people can you cry to until you get sick of listening to yourself?
Eventually I realized that tears wouldn’t save someone who didn’t want saving, and obviously didn’t, and frankly I was sick of getting headaches. I felt like by this point I was digging around in my tear ducts for whatever they would give up, like I was addicted to the salted droplets streaming down my face. I exhausted my abilities and natural rights, even, to continue sitting in the dark and crying over someone who would never come back to me in physical form. I tried to see my friends and be social, but there were still so many days when I would sit in my cotton cave of blankets, perched in the corner where my bedpost met the wall, watching Netflix and hiding in the dark. I would lay under my down comforter and hold it like a baby’s safety blanket, thriving off of the warmth that it provided to the cold hollow self I had become over the course of those few months.

After the first month mark of my mom dying I called my social worker, Lisa. She told me to reach out to her immediately following everything but I couldn’t bring myself to extend my hands to anyone, considering I missed a week of school and had to get my academic life back on track before anything else. I was so incredibly distracted in what was going on that I forgot who Lisa was, I forgot that I spent the past few weekends moving out of the house I grew up in, and I forgot that my mother was gone. Then one random day, I picked up my cell phone, and I called Lisa.

How are you feeling?

Surprisingly, I’m feeling OK.

That’s impressive, but you know, it’s just beginning.

Yeah, I’ll be fine.

We spent almost an hour talking to each other and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized, moments after I hung up with Lisa, that I wasn’t fine. I became very reclusive over the next few days, and I began to sink into this dark pit within the pit of my apartment. Nothing sunk in, and the emotional gunshot wound I received was becoming tangible at last. I was assessing the damage of what happened to me over the past month and I realized that I wasn’t going to die, but it sure hurt like hell, and that made me wish I were just out of my misery.
You get a purple heart for injuries protecting others and sacrificing your body. But when the person you’re trying to protect doesn’t want help, and they hurt you emotionally, that just gives you a stone heart, weighing your chest down and pushing you back into bed when it’s time to get up. The stone heart makes you teeter and totter on the edge of your emotional stability. You shakily walk a tightrope, hoping you don’t slip and hit rock bottom. I kept my chin up and kept looking forward, disregarding the danger and blatant signs of depression around me. But, like walking a tight rope, there’s no telling what would put me over that edge… until it happens.

I was sitting in the back of my sociology class, minding my own business and clearly not taking notes like the professor advised. I wasn’t in the right mind that day, and I knew it. My rope was feeling a bit on the unstable side but I went to class anyway. My teacher put up the same drab PowerPoint slides except, today, it was about death and taking care of the last wishes of your family.

How many of you have lost a parent?

I was the only person who raised my hand. Oh you’ve got to be kidding me. Her eyes darted straight in my direction and with that a cue was given to every other of the twenty-eight or so students to look behind at me.

Anybody else? No? Alright, then.

The first thing I thought was how could this woman do that to me? Just earlier that week I was sitting in her office, telling her about the pains I was going through and discussing the work I was going to make up, and she takes such a bold poll question like that. I blamed her for making me raise my hand like that, and then I thought again to myself. A probing, horrible digging inside of me like the dirty fingernail of guilt forced me to begin blaming myself for all of the horrors that happened to my mother. There was no preparation for the death of her, like the professor said, however the death that she faced was so seemingly preventable. I began to cry silent tears down an unquivering face that went unnoticed by the room of people who were staring at me shortly before. I buried my face into my scarf while the slides clicked one after another, methodically reminding us of how to prepare for death when I was already beyond that point. She emphasized on comfort and insurance and not blaming ourselves. I couldn’t stand the thought of preparing for anything other than the unknown yet ever-impending torment and fears that would return to me regardless of how prepared I was for it.
I glared down at the chicken scratch notes on the poor-smelling paper and began to question everything. What was I even doing here at school? All of my friends were right, saying what they did when they saw me. Maybe I wasn’t as strong as I thought.

Oh my god it’s so good to see you back. I can’t believe you came back; I would’ve never come back.