In Need of Repair

I followed him up a narrow, wooden staircase and wondered if this was a bad idea. I hadn’t gotten high since I graduated college more than two years ago. Blonde fur collected at the corners of the stairs. As James unlocked his door to reveal the inside of his apartment, I considered making up some excuse to leave, but when the door opened, I followed him inside.

James was a non-traditional student at the state university where
I was enrolled to start my MFA that fall. He’d done ten years in Iraq in the
military and now he was getting his degree in political science and living with
Kai, his service dog, off campus. We’d met one week earlier while I was filling
out hiring forms for my teaching assistantship. James’ apartment was flanked by
a church on each side and it looked like it could have been an old bank, two
stories high with small windows close together.

I was never sure what I wanted with men or from them. On some
level, I liked the attention they gave me, the distraction for my everyday woes
and anxieties that seemed to plague me at every turn. Friday afternoons were
the peak of my nervous tendencies. I’d dream up what felt like thousands of
different scenarios for my weekend and then be hard pressed to choose one. The
state of indecision was a mental place of sweet torture and one I chose to
inhabit often. So when someone invited me to do something, took some agency
over my plans, it was a relief. I could simply say yes to whatever they
proposed and that released me from my suffering for a moment.

In the case of James, I couldn’t discern my desire from my fear,
so I crossed over his threshold knowing where going into his apartment would
probably lead. There were sexual places in myself that I hadn’t explored much
as a teenager and which I wanted to understand now. I was missile seeking
whatever didn’t feel like home.

James’ walls were adorned with framed military awards, electric
guitars, and art. A psychedelic wave swallowed a dark silhouette in a swirl of
color. Pepper licked Kai’s metal food bowl so it rasped across the kitchen
floor and James invited me to sit down. I chose a black chair at the edge of
the living room which was also the kitchen and bedroom. Next to me was a table
with some rolling papers and a bong. James sat on the futon and lit the bong
for me, told me to hold the glass to my lips and suck in. I took two hits and I
felt fine. James took a turn and then gave it back to me. I took another hit.
And another. Then everything started to disintegrate.

We went for a walk in the nearby woods where we held hands and
Pepper got sprayed by a skunk, so we had to come back and wash her. Time started
slowing down and that made me sweat and do lots of nervous yawns and check my
phone even though no one was messaging me.

The summer night blossomed,
heat pushing its way in through the window screens and causing the tapestries covering
them to billow subtly inward. After washing Pepper, James joined
me on the black futon. His flat screen TV loomed in
front of us and I thought I heard the rustle of leaves from a nearby tree.
Everything felt eerie and dangerous and I wanted it all to stop, but I didn’t
know how to make that happen.

If I could talk to my younger self, I would remind her that she
had legs. She had strong legs that could move her up off that couch and away
from intimacy with James. I would give her a small lesson in quantum physics,
tell her that nothing is real until you look at it. Your perception brings
things into existence. What was I changing by continuing to look at the TV
screen in front of me instead of looking at James? His parents were from Korea
and he had jet black hair with a round face. He was taller than me, but so were
most men. If I’d looked at him more that night, would I have been able to
change things? I don’t know.

In other universes, other things happened, but in the universe I’m
conscious of, I stayed on James’ futon watching a terrible comedian on Netflix
until James took off his tank top to reveal the ripples of muscle on his chest,
his tan skin, a map of his body in front of me. He noticed that I was shivering
and draped his wool poncho over me. I snuggled up to him with my head resting
on his tattoos. He rolled
a joint and after he smoked it, he rested his fingertips on my inner thigh. I
played with the soft edge of his board shorts and then he moved to touch me
under my dress.

That’s when my phone started buzzing. My sister was calling, and I
went to the bathroom to talk to her in private. She was in Vermont and called
to catch up. I told her I’d gotten way too high and was at some strange guy’s
place and didn’t know what to do.

“Wait it out,” she said. “You’ll be okay.”

I hung up and stared at myself in the mirror. My skin was covered
in salt from the ocean. I moved my mouth to make sure it was attached to my
face and I was still living in my body. All the wires appeared to be connected.
I wondered how I’d become the kind of person who hung out with random guys and
smoked weed. Before, I’d always protected my ladylike presentation at all
costs. A lady would never get high. A lady would never have a one-night stand
with a military man. I didn’t know what else to do, so I walked out of the
bathroom and sat back next to James.

“Let’s go to the bed,” he suggested.

Kai slept below us in her den and I thought about her being there,
not watching but feeling the walls of her den press a little closer onto her
under our weight on the mattress above her. James decided the bed was too hot,
so we got in the shower. The falling droplets of water all around created the
atmosphere of tropical rainforest and I imagined how peaceful a place that like
that might be: with large roots and tree trunks triple my size, the echoes of monkey
calls from above and leaves bigger than my face. That sounded like home. The
sex wasn’t pleasant or unpleasant, but neutral. I couldn’t open my eyes due to
the water streaming down, and eventually the pounding stopped.

We stepped out of the shower and toweled off and when we got our
clothes back on, we resumed our places on the futon. I found my phone blinking
with a new message. Taylor had come to pick me up and she was waiting outside.
I told James this and we walked down the stairs, my hair still soaked and
dripping down my back. The clouds had become so heavy and dense that they
couldn’t hold on to their wet cargo any longer. James and I hugged on the front
lawn of his apartment. I got in the passenger seat of Taylor’s lime-green
two-door.

Two weeks later, I’d find needles in his apartment in the cupboard
under the gecko tank. I’d wonder if he was a junky and be afraid to ask. I’d
sit on his front lawn while he read J.R.R. Tolkien in a lawn chair while
smoking another joint and get the feeling that he probably wasn’t a junky but
that I wanted him to be. If he were a junky, then I would have a reason to stop
hanging out with him.




Breaking Bread with the Pomaks

With each passing kilometre along the E55, my hopes for picturesque
Pomak villages nestled in the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains became snarled
up in the plastic debris that littered the fields and riverbanks of the valley.

Earlier, after breakfast, we’d checked out of our accommodation in
Xanthi, a small Thracian city in North-Eastern Greece, jumped in our hire car
and headed in the direction of the Bulgarian border. Touring conditions looked
good; empty roads and a blue sky; but within minutes we were snaking along a
valley of small, tatty farmsteads.

The area seemed poor and neglected; the buildings looked makeshift,
shreds of polythene hung from skeletal poly-tunnels or had tangled themselves
in shrubs or the branches of stressed trees. Empty fertiliser bags seemed to
have found their way to wire fences and any inner corners the wind had licked.
Used plastic bottles lay in the sun on the riverbanks, especially around the
high watermark. It looked as if some great storm had swept down from the
mountains and scattered this debris, but more likely the farmers and labourers couldn’t
even be bothered to burn the stuff. But where were these keepers of the land?
There wasn’t a person to be seen.

“Daddy, I’m bored, I’m hungry,” said Georgie.

I glanced into the rearview mirror and saw our young son gripping his
embargoed Nintendo; he caught my eye with a pleading look. I tapped my husband
on the thigh and glanced across at him.

“How far, Baba? I fancy a coffee, maybe a snack.”

He looked down and traced a finger across a vague map in the guidebook.

“Five minutes to Echinos then about half an hour to the baths at
Thermes; we could even nip over into Bulgaria if you wanted; it’s just a few
kilometres further.”

“Maybe. Let’s have a coffee first.”

*

The valley opened out into a plain, and I saw a white village up ahead,
climbing the hillside. A minaret pierced the sky, its tip gleaming electric
blue against the evergreen firs of the foothills.

“Echinos is one of the few Muslim villages in Greece,” said Baba.

“What does the book say?”

“Not much. Inhabited by Pomaks, a Slavic Muslim minority in Western Thrace da-da, less than 40,000 people in all, scattered mainly across a group of small villages near the border da-da exempted from the 1922–23 exchange of people between Greece and Turkey. Pomak is an oral language, not written. Listen to this, movement in and out of this area was restricted until the mid-1990s.”

“Sounds complicated. I wonder how different it will be?”

As we approached a long low bridge across two converging rivers in front
of the village, I saw a large open cemetery to my left which seemed to cover
more space than the village itself. I thought to pull over and take a closer
look, but then I noticed a couple of police or army vehicles parked either side
of the entrance to the bridge and a couple of uniformed men standing in the
middle of the road.

“Who are they, Daddy?”

“Police, I think. It’s OK.”

I slowed down and scanned the bridge ahead; it was clear, though I could
see more parked vehicles and uniformed men on the other side, near a church. I
felt my stomach muscles tighten and a dull ache in my fingers as I held the
steering wheel. The two uniformed men, carrying automatic rifles, stepped out
of the road and waved us through. As I drove past, I gave a small nod, forcing
my eyes to fix on the way ahead, not them.

As we crossed the bridge Baba took photos, Georgie stayed quiet for
once.

“Don’t take pictures of the men or stuff,” I warned Baba.

As we reached the other side, it became clear that something was going
on at the church. The Greek flag, and what I guessed was the Greek Army flag,
flew from the flagpole next to the chapel. There were more guards around, and a
couple of higher-ranked officers stood near a military bus that had parked up.
I noticed civilians in the church grounds. The guards looked bored and
thankfully uninterested in us; they waved us through and down the road away
from the church.

“Do you still want to stop here?” I asked, unsure of myself.

“Yes, it’s on the itinerary. It’s meant to be pretty,” said Baba.

We parked up and walked back past the guards towards the village. When
we passed the church, everyone seemed to have gone in, so I was none the wiser.
I led the way and took us up the first road to the left, and as the church
disappeared from view, I concluded that what was going on there seemed to have
nothing to do with this mainly Muslim village. I turned to Georgie,

“You look out for a baker, I’ll look out for a cafe.”

*

As we walked along the small streets of mainly whitewashed houses, I saw
crumbling boundary walls and cats warily stalking across old roofs. Here and
there, parked cars and mopeds, but not as many as I’d seen in other villages in
Greece. Even allowing for the fact it was only just after ten a.m. on a Sunday,
the streets were empty of people; no children, no women, no men, not even old
men. I saw one dog chained up in an earthen backyard, but also it skulked
around in silence.

There didn’t seem to be any centre to the village, and my hopes for
coffee were fading fast. Baba lagged behind, stopping every few metres to take
photos. Maybe it was time to give up and drive on. I took one more turning
uphill, and as Georgie and I rounded a tight bend, I whistled a short, coded
refrain so that Baba would know where we had gone. The road widened, and some
small mostly unsigned shopfronts came into view. We stopped at one with a stack
of logs out the front and next to them a row of large square tins with circular
openings at the top.

“What’s going on there?” I said.

“And what’s that?” said Georgie, pointing to a blackened long-handled
shovel.

I could smell woodsmoke and then bread. I was just about to speak when
the door of the shop swung open, and a tall, hefty man in dirty grey trousers
and a white vest burst out onto the pavement. He grinned as sweat ran down his
face and he prowled around the street as if he had just thrown another wrestler
out of the ring. I smiled at him and held out my camera in the direction of the
shopfront. He smiled back, nodded and started to talk in what I thought was
Greek and then not. He pointed to the shop.

“Hlap.”

I looked at him and shook my head.

“Psomi,” he said.

I nodded. It was the Greek word for bread.

I made a kneading sign with my hands, and he laughed, nodding.

Baba caught up with us and came over and touched me on the elbow.

“I’m going to walk on and take some photos. You going to get a snack?”

“Sure, leave it to us. See you in a minute.”

I saw the baker looking the three of us over, taking us in, trying to
work us out, read our story. Georgie pulled me closer to the row of the tins,
and I saw that they had been filled with charcoal. The baker came alongside us
and gestured to a gap, less than a metre wide, between the bakery and the
building next door. He pointed from the logs then to a closed metal door in the
wall halfway down the gap.

“Fire,” he said.

He pointed back to the tins of charcoal.

“I sell too.” He laughed.

As I explained this to Georgie, a middle-aged man with a tidy moustache
and wearing a smart, patterned brown jumper came out of the shop carrying four
white plastic carrier bags of bread. He walked over to a green moped propped up
against a wall and hung two plastic carriers on each end of the handlebar. He
stepped through the frame of the moped, eased his backside onto the saddle and
turned to us.

“Do you want any help? Translation?”

I shook my head. “Thank you. I think we’re OK.”

The man turned the handlebars to one side, released a catch with his
foot and began to freewheel silently down the hill. I turned, and holding
Georgie’s hand stepped into the baker’s shop; I heard the baker mumbling behind
me.

Inside, a youngish woman wearing a beige cardigan and dark hijab stood
behind the small counter. I found myself immediately drawn to the open, empty
oven. I stepped closer, crouched a little and peered in; the ashen interior
looked like it could hold maybe a hundred loaves. I straightened up and looked
around. A table next to the counter was piled up with white carrier bags
containing bread, but the small glass display case was empty, and I couldn’t
see any display shelves behind her. I pointed at my chest.

“Psomi?”

She shook her head, pointed to the carrier bags and waved her hands
around as if to indicate the village around us.

I turned to Georgie.

“I can’t see any snack things, can you?”

His head dropped as he shook it.

The woman must have seen the look on Georgie’s face because from under
the counter she produced what looked like a couple of sesame-coated
breadsticks, wrapped them in a sheet of white paper and with a small smile
passed them to him. I took out my wallet, but she shook her head. I nudged
Georgie.

“Effaristo,” he said, looking down at the floor.

The baker, who had followed us in, laughed. I took a picture of the oven
but felt too shy to ask to make a portrait of him and the woman. He talked to
the woman over my head as we said goodbye and left.

*

We found Baba sitting on a bench at the bottom of a marbled flight of
steps leading up to one of the mosques. As Georgie showed Baba the white
package from the bakers, an older man in a smart grey suit and taqiyah came
past and made a small smile in our direction as he set off up the steps.

As Georgie unwrapped the sticks of bread, the rustle of the paper echoed
around the general silence of the village. Georgie passed a whole stick to Baba
before breaking the other and passing one half to me. The breadstick felt
warmer and softer than I’d imagined. I inspected the dough and the soft raisins
it held; it looked like it had been platted in some way, certainly twisted or
twirled. I took a bite, it tasted sweet but with a savoury hint of tahini.

As we ate, we heard the sound of a moped moving around the village, then
getting nearer before appearing from around a corner. It was the man we’d seen
outside the bakers, but now the handlebars of his moped were clear of carrier
bags. He slowed and stopped in front of us next and switched off the engine.

“Ahh, you got a little something. Good.”

“Yes. It’s delicious,” I said.

“I’m sorry I interrupted before. Emin, the baker, was talking Greek and
Pomak before; you know, the language we sometimes use around here.”

“Pomak?” said Georgie, before taking another bite of the bread.

The man smiled at Georgie.

“Yes, Slavic Muslims. Some say ‘we were born when Greek and Turkish
souls got tangled together. Psomi is bread in Greek, but the baker used the
word hlap; that’s a Pomak word.”

“They don’t speak Turkish?” asked Baba.

“Only at home.”

“Are you the bread delivery man?” asked Georgie.

The man laughed.

“Yes, no. I’m a teacher, but I also deliver the bread to the old people
on Sundays. It’s not a job.”

“Do you deliver all the bread?”

“No, people will come out and start heading up to the shop in a short
while.”

“It’s a good thing to do. Delivering bread to those people,” I said.

He blinked slowly and lowered his head a touch.

“I have the time. My wife died a few years ago, and my eldest son works
in a boat-repair yard in Germany. He’s away at the moment, as are most of the
younger men in the village. He’ll be back in a couple of months, but his wife
is still here bringing up their two sons, one is about your age,” he said,
pointing to Georgie.

“Why wasn’t there any spare bread?” I asked.

“The baker knows every order for his customers. Very few other people
stop in this village, and if they do, they go to the smart cafe at the top of
the village, it also has a bakery and sells cakes. It will be open soon.”

Then the man looked at us, Baba in particular.

“Where you all from?”

“We live in the UK,” I said.

“I’m British, but originally from China,” said Baba.

The man smiled and seemed to think for a minute.

“My youngest son, he’s at university in Bremen. I think he will stay
there permanently after he completes his studies, if he can.”

He looked between Baba and me and then Georgie.

“I think he would like you guys.”

I smiled.

“Where now for you?” he said, readying himself to start the bike up
again.

“Thermes,” said Baba

He pressed the starter on his moped, and it came to life.

“Ah good. Have lunch in the main restaurant there; it will be roast goat
and potatoes today.”

He turned the throttle towards himself, slowly pulled off up the hill,
and waved without looking back.’

We meandered back down the streets towards the riverside and where we’d
parked the car. Every now and then we passed a white carrier bag of bread
resting on a ledge or an upturned box near a front door; and finally, a wicker
basket hanging down from a balcony on a string, holding today’s loaf.




Fire and Smoke

Picture Credits: M C

Most of the time, new submissives saw the same roster of longtime clients who rotated through every new hire. Those clients would make appointments, and we would be counseled on their particular proclivities before they arrived. So it was unusual that my second session was a random walk-in, a thirty-something, fairly attractive guy who wanted to meet all the girls working that day.

To my surprise, he picked me.

*

The client, Jason, chose toys from the wall behind the front desk and handed them to me to carry. Leather paddles, floggers, a long, slender riding crop. I could sense it even before we made it to the room: the quiet authority with which he handled the toys, the way he ran a finger along one strand of the flogger, examining it in the same deliberate manner he might brush a hand across my flesh. I knew this session would be different from my first, and again, my pulse beat as if it were trying to escape the confines of my veins, my muscles, my bones.

But did I really want to escape?

*

We sessioned in the other upstairs room this time, the Athena room with its less medieval and more exotic decorating scheme, leopard prints and tiger stripes on all the blankets and pillows and even the carpet. To my immense relief, I remembered the location of the intercom; I pressed it and heard Mistress Amber’s soon-to-become-familiar response of “Thank you.” Then I stood and waited, silent, with my arms clasped behind me. I did my best to appear calm, yet my heart still shuddered like some strange caged creature inside me.

Jason told me to get on the spanking bench, which looked very different from the low, squatting behemoth in the Venus room. I approached it slowly, carefully, in the hopes I would look like I knew what I was doing. Days earlier I hadn’t realized spanking benches existed, and now I was discovering they had nuances. The one in the other room felt masculine, thick and solid, while this one was feminine and almost delicate, curved like the arch of a back. From the center of the bench, two leather-padded armrests extended like wings, and behind them and slightly lower were similar pads for calves and knees. Once I’d climbed up on the bench – fumbling despite myself as I did so – I was hovering three feet off the ground with my ass protruding, ready to be smacked.

Jason didn’t smack my ass right away, though. He circled the bench, and I observed what I could of him while keeping my eyes cast downward: a slightly stocky frame, a purposeful stride, the dark, close-cropped shadow of a beard when he inclined his head toward me. I barely registered his facial features; in fact, my first year at the dungeon, I’m not sure I ever looked a client in the eye. I knew them by their smell, or the way they walked, or the cadence of their voice.

Jason wasn’t giving off much of a smell, or maybe my breath was too shallow to pick up on it, my unease still so great that taking in oxygen was only a secondary concern. But his movements, his voice, the way he touched me – every action emitted a confidence that tugged a response from deep inside me. It was as though some coiled, knotted ribbon of desire buried in the pit of my stomach was beginning to unwind. Or as if that tiny flame that had smoldered within me for so long, the one ignited by Story of O and Belle de Jour, was being stoked back to life.

Jason trailed his fingers up the side of my thigh, flipping up my skirt so my ass was exposed. He continued moving past my ribs to my chest, where he pulled one breast free of my little tie-front top. He acted as if my body belonged to him – no asking permission, not even ordering me to take my clothes off myself, just grabbing what he wanted as though I were an object made for his amusement.

That ribbon of desire inside me unraveled a little further.

And then he spanked me for the first time.

I had received a few swats on the bottom from hookups over the years, and a few more during my interview at Medusa’s. I’d even tried to spank myself a couple of times, attempting to see if it really hurt the way the books and movies and websites portrayed it. But I’d never experienced a hard, purposeful spanking from someone who really knew what he was doing.

It was just a slap against my bare butt. Just the hand of a man I didn’t know, and would never see again, connecting with my skin.

So why did it feel like such an immense relief? This wasn’t pain, but the release of pain, the jolting free of everything that was tight and heavy trapped within my flesh. The swats kept coming, harder and harder, and the blood rushed through me and my heart beat yes, yes, this is where you belong, and the ribbon of desire inside me unfurled and caught on fire, it smoked and burned away so that my desire became Jason’s desire, became my dominant’s desire, and I lost track of what was mine and what was not, of what I wanted and what I did not.

Smoke is hard to hold on to. It changes its shape, it adapts to fit its surroundings. Smoke can be submissive.

That fire inside me turned to smoke. It filled my lungs and I breathed it out and it settled around me, clouding my senses, warping my vision and altering the way it felt to touch, to be touched. But it was so subtle – odorless, colorless, tasteless – that I didn’t even realize it was there.

Jason kept on spanking me. He used the paddle with its impact that reverberated across my backside, the riding crop that stung with a small sharp pain radiating outward. He stopped and rubbed my ass and asked me how hard it hurt, on a scale of one to ten. It was a seven or eight, but I said five. I wanted to seem tough. I wanted him to hit me harder.

“Five?” he said, and the intonation, the rise in his voice at the end, made me hope he was impressed. But perhaps it was all in my head.

The session went on, so many fantasies fulfilled for the first time that I couldn’t absorb them, they passed over me like waves, I floated along with them and let them take me where Jason wanted to go. He pulled my hair and slapped my face, twisted my nipples and hit my ass again, as hard as I’d hoped he would. Then after the spanking, he ordered me to crawl on all fours to the back corner of the room, where a little leather couch was set in an alcove. Somehow, I knew not to tuck my breast back inside my shirt before I made the trip.

He sat on the couch and I waited on all fours before him, my left side facing him, my gaze still instinctively downward. “You’re a true submissive, aren’t you?” Jason said quietly, stroking my hair and then giving a tug. “This is what you dream of. This” – he jerked my hair harder – “is where you belong.”

They were words I’d hear dozens if not hundreds of times over the next few years, words that, eventually, I’d consider worthy of nothing more than an eye roll; but at that moment, Jason’s words sang through me like truth.

*

When I try to picture this scene as it happened, I see Jason only as a shadow. I remember the sensation of his eyes on me, a weight and expectation that lit fire upon my skin. I remember that strange tangle of need and desire and hope and fear within me all at once. So much emotion, how could it do anything else but combust? But I keep coming back to the one thing he lacked: a smell. I would learn the smells of so many men, in the weeks and months to come. Sweat and cologne, Speed Stick deodorant, musty clothes; and arousal, always arousal. But with Jason, there was nothing, and Jason never returned to the dungeon, as far as I know.

Was he real? Could he have been some phantom, conjured from my mind to keep me here, in this strange space where fear and pleasure, distasteful intimacy and the possible answer to all my dreams, combined to form a trap I wasn’t sure whether to welcome or escape? I know he was real, but I like the idea of him as apparition, animus, minor deity, walking briefly into my life to ensure I continued on my new path.

*

Jason tugged on my breast again – that was real, that I remember – tugged it like he owned it, and then he said, “I’m milking you like a cow, aren’t I?”

A small portion of my brain, one that hadn’t been clouded by smoke, registered how ridiculous the statement was. But the rest of me whispered, “Yes.”

“I’m milking you like a cow.” He pulled harder, and everything inside me snapped taut. “So moo.”

Moo?

“You’re awfully quiet.” Another tug. “Moo.”

This wasn’t a part of my fantasy, not like the hair pulling or face slapping or crawling along the floor. But that didn’t matter anymore. “Moo,” I whispered.

“What?” he said.

“Moo?” I tried again.

“Pathetic.” His hand clamped down on my breast, spreading a kind of warm, constant pain through me, different from the sting of a slap that was there and then gone.

“Moo,” I attempted once more. He squeezed harder.

“Moo.”

Harder.

“Moo. Moo. Moo!

In my mind I was crying out, yelling, moaning, but in reality my voice was probably still quiet. I was a quiet girl, that first year at Medusa’s. But it seemed to be enough to satisfy Jason. He released my breast, caressed it so softly I might almost have imagined his touch. Then he reached up to stroke my hair. “Good girl,” he said, and if I hadn’t already caught on fire over that past hour, the words would have been enough to make me melt.

Soon after that, the session ended. Jason left quickly – many of the men would do that, I’d come to learn, slipping out the moment I turned up the lights and began cleaning the room. For them as for me, Medusa’s was a place of fairy tales, a glamoured version of reality where anything could be possible, and beautiful, for an hour. They had to hurry out before the illusion faded, before the dust in the corners of the room started to show and thoughts of their own work and families intruded. Reality had no place in the dungeon.

Jason left without tipping, too, and after Thomas, that should have been a disappointment. But I couldn’t bring myself to care. I didn’t have any more sessions that day, and I spent the rest of my shift in a daze, drinking cup after cup of the terrible Maxwell House coffee we brewed in the dungeon’s kitchen area, trying to keep my mind from going blank. Yet no matter how much caffeine I ingested, I couldn’t seem to wrest myself from the big leather chair in the break room, where I sat with my legs tucked under me, staring at the wall as the hours passed like minutes and the minutes passed like hours. Even when I took off my collar and schoolgirl outfit, put on my ordinary dress and sweater and found a seat on the bus home, I couldn’t free my mind. I lacked the energy to pull the book I was reading from my purse, much less to look at the words and translate them into meaning. Instead I gazed out the window at the concrete twilight, the world turned blurry and unreal. I wasn’t reliving what had happened with Jason, not exactly, but simply sinking into a peculiar peaceful longing, peaceful because even as I was desiring, waiting, I knew that more would come.

Somehow, I made it home and walked my dog and showered and fell asleep, and by the next morning I was in possession of my mind again. Later I would learn this strange other-state was subspace, an altered mentality that often followed an experience of submission. This was the kind, gentle subspace, the one that screened you from the world as though you stood behind a swirl of smoke, where nothing was sharp or sudden and your breathing turned soft and slow.

There was a cruel subspace too, a place that was like an empty, endless gulf. A place you could lose yourself for good.

But I had a ways to travel before I would encounter that darker part.




Lessons from a Homeless Man

I kept my head down on the way back home whilst immersed in my thoughts. I walked past Daniel’s spot hoping he wouldn’t notice me, and even ignored the first few times he called my name. But when I did turn around, and he saw my face, he insisted that I sit down with him for a moment.

It was obvious that I was lying when I told him that I was fine and that everything was okay. But it didn’t take long before I told him all.

*

Having spent my entire life in a classroom, I finally graduated from university in 2015. In the final months leading up to the end of my Business Studies degree, I had decided that before I settled on a career and pursued corporate progression, I had to travel.

My life was too unbalanced. The majority of my knowledge came from lectures, textbooks, teachers and seminars. I had zero real-life experiences and jumping from a classroom straight into an office just didn’t appeal to me.

After having graduated, and having spent a few months saving, my high-school friend Imran and I eventually bought a one-way ticket to one of the four corners of the world: Australia

The high in starting a travel of this nature – with no fixed end date or no real plan other than where to go – was fuelled further by a week-long stay in Singapore, prior to heading to Australia. It was a sort of celebratory holiday before the real adventure began.

And celebrate we did. Probably a bit too much.

Landing in Sydney, our financial situation could be described as “tight”. Fast forward to Melbourne, a few weeks later, and our financial situation could most definitely be described as “broke”.

It didn’t take us long to realise that all the advice we’d received about how easy it was to find jobs in Australia was wrong. And zero prior planning, due to a blend of stupidity and naivety, resulted in the need to find one being increasingly urgent. But a combination of desperation and persistence meant that I managed to land a waitering job in Melbourne’s iconic Federation Square.

I remember bursting through the doors of the hostel we were living in, with my arms in the air shouting, “I’ve got a job!” (Not even “the job”, any job would do at that point), and Imran hugging me as we both celebrated ecstatically the change in our fortunes.

But that job turned out to be an experience I won’t forget for very different reasons. And though on the surface it was a very negative experience, it actually turned out to be the catalyst for an encounter I will always remember and value. While the job also gave us some much-needed money, it also gifted me with yet another opportunity to add to my portfolio of racist encounters.

This one, like many others, was one of a very passive aggressive nature. Nothing so direct or concrete, so it could safely fall under the category labelled “alleged”. The “alleged” villain in question being one of the supervisors.

With no hard evidence, you can’t prove anything. It’s your word against theirs. It’s a very murky area where all you have to go by is your instinct and intuition, but in the world of facts, that doesn’t count for anything.

It started on the very first day and lasted around three weeks, eventually ending with a back-and-forth row in which the supervisor claimed the real issue was that I didn’t “smile enough”. The ridiculousness was too much. I quit the job and walked out.

*

From where Imran and I were staying to Federation Square required a walk along the city’s Yarra River. On one side of it was Melbourne’s Central Business District, the enormous Crown Casino and a very impressive riverfront full of gourmet eateries, high-end retail stores and tourists from the world over.

Directly opposite to the river – around this part at least – was pretty much nothing. There were no bright lights or a melting pot of people, just the distant sound of traffic, depending on the hour, and usually silence. So more often than not, it would be my route of choice. A handful of benches were sandwiched between the water and a bridge where I would occasionally sit and admire the city’s skyline; a view I would share with the city’s homeless and junkies who took up residence under the bridge. For me, it was a great and literal representation of the divide between the rich and the poor.

It was on that bench one day, that I got called out by a voice behind me. My vision led to a short man with messy hair and stubble. Perched up against the wall, half-covered by a sleeping bag and sitting on a cardboard box, he met me with an honest smile. He proceeded to politely ask me if I happened to have a cigarette.

I’m not sure why I reacted the way I did. Well, it was probably because of the pressure Imran and I had put ourselves under, but I bluntly told him “no”.

That encounter bothered me for days after. Not just because of how I had said no, but also because I actually had a spare cigarette on me and it was very out of character to react as bluntly as I did.

The next time I saw him, I walked up to him with a cigarette in hand and reminded him of the encounter that had happened a few days ago and gave it to him. He looked at me confused, but said thank you and accepted it. From that moment on, whenever we would cross paths, we would say hello. It was not too long after that the homeless man taught me the type of lesson which marked my journey a success.

*

After I quit and left the restaurant I was full of emotion. I was angry at what had just happened but more than that, I was upset. Being racially judged and stereotyped – rightly or wrongly – is something which comes with the territory of being a Muslim in the modern world. But to effectively lose your job because of something you have absolutely no control over was so difficult to accept.

It was on this walk home that I tried to avoid Daniel, failed to do so, and ended up telling him everything.

He listened silently as I recounted the details of everything that had happened. How Imran and I had gone against most people’s advice by travelling to Australia. How we had absolutely no money, no idea where to go and how to get there, and I had just lost the only job that was supposed to support the both of us.

And what if it was my fault? What if no one was racist and it was all in my head and I was being paranoid. What if the problem actually was the fact that I just wasn’t smiling enough, which, in a customer service job, is a necessity? What if my ego was the main suspect? And what was I to do now. It was the first time I had ventured out this far from home and in that moment, it felt like all was falling apart.

To add to all of this, I was in the middle of Australia. You really have no idea how far away that country actually is, from pretty much everything, till you go there.

I let everything out. I dumped all that I had been carrying for weeks on him. And he listened. Finally, after feeling so much lighter, feeling relieved, I asked him the question which led to the answer of which I learnt so much from.

“So what’s your story man? How did you end up here?”

It had been two or three weeks since I’d had my first encounter with Daniel, but I had never asked him any questions about who he was, and why he was there. I guess I felt it was a little inappropriate as it clearly wasn’t a very happy story … you know, with him living under a bridge and all. But now I had shared with him, and it only felt right that I learnt something about him in return. Though it was not just that, I was genuinely curious.

It had always seemed a little unusual to me that he was in the situation he was in. Unlike many of the people who were homeless, at least those who lived under that particular bridge, I had never seen him under the influence of any drugs. I had never even seen any evidence like syringes, pipes or bottles even suggesting an intoxicating habit like you would find elsewhere along the underbelly of the bridge.

More often than not, when you entered that area as a visitor in passing, all of your senses were hit head-on by the realities of that world. You could smell the smoke and the burning of drugs, you could hear the sniffing and inhaling. Most of all, you could see. You could see the vice of choice in effect, in motion, taking over them.

Whenever you walked past Daniel however, all you were met with was a genuine greeting, a smile and politeness. Something Imran had noticed as well. I guess sometimes you can sense the kindness in a person.

*

Daniel came from somewhere in New South Wales. At thirty-five years of age, he found himself in Melbourne because the city was the birthplace of his wife. Before, he had made a good living for himself by learning a specialised skill and becoming a cabinet maker. But unfortunately for him, those hands – as well as the rest of his joints – began a painfully long losing battle against arthritis that started in his mid-twenties. Cruelly ironic for a man who earned his keep by using his hands.

But in true Australian fashion, he carried on with his life and work without making a fuss, as the arthritis adopted the same strategy, and silently went to work.

It was during this period, still in the early and manageable stages of his struggle, that he met and fell in love with his future wife, Laura. From not just what he told me, but the manner in which he conveyed it, with sincerity and genuineness, I believed him when he said he had everything he wanted. And it was because of his relationship that he had learnt to accept the disease his body was fighting against.

When he initially contracted it, after the shock of it, he was angry. To be diagnosed with such a crippling, lifelong disease at such a young age was highly difficult to handle mentally.

What helped him the most in dealing with it, was the fact that if it wasn’t for his arthritis, he never would have met Laura, who was a radiologist. As their relationship grew stronger, his body got weaker, and eventually, at Laura’s insistence, he stopped working. He was a proud man and went on working for as long as he could, but finally he knew she was right. Plus, she had a good job and a long, stable career ahead of her and earned enough to support the both of them.

He told me that it was one of the reasons why he proposed to her. He explained that in this day and age, people just don’t do that for others. So when you find someone you genuinely love, one who so clearly loves you back, you act upon it and make her the mother of your children.

They got engaged, he stopped working and she did everything she could to take care of him. Even though he was in constant pain, they were content and happy with the life they had, “Because life,” he told me, spreading his arms out to highlight where we were, “Can be a lot worse.”

Laura had analysed and studied thousands of x-rays throughout her career. She observed, in black and white, broken bones, growing tumours, and cancers of various kinds spreading throughout people’s bodies. Slowly creeping and taking over, fulfilling their purpose day by day.

The cruel irony was that this time the x-ray she was holding up was her own. Watching as the poison surged throughout. But just as Daniel had done before her, she kept it to herself for as long as she could. Still taking care of Daniel’s needs while trying to get her own “problem” taken care of with the help of her colleagues and friends in the hospital.

She tried protecting him and all of her loved ones for as long as she could. However, once it was confirmed that the cancer was malignant, she broke the news to him.

He told me that as devastating as it was for them, it sparked something in him. It had given him purpose. Now he had to take responsibility to ensure he was always there for her. To be right by her side throughout the whole process and remind her, whenever she needed it, that she was too strong as a person to give in to her cancer. That they were too strong as a couple for one of them to perish without a real fight.

You would forgive him for being angry and cursing his fate. Finding a job he loved, before having it taken away. Finding the woman he loved, and the risk of having her taken away as well. Surprisingly, he told me that although they were the hardest times of their lives, he was never bitter about what they went through.

“Something inside of me just always knew, throughout the entire time, that we would win. That she was going to live with me for a long time and that I could go back to being the one being taken care of and not the one doing the caring. Jesus, mate, at times it felt like the blind leading the blind.” Funny guy.

Even when she got scarily close to the end, and he married her, as they promised each other they would if the time came to it, he still believed. Even as she deteriorated and all one by one, began losing hope, his remained true. “I knew with absolute conviction that Laura was going to go right up to death’s door, and then come straight back to me.” Heartbreakingly, he was wrong.

*

She survived for almost two years from when she found out she was sick, till when she passed. And in that time, they spent and sacrificed everything they had in order to keep her alive. Towards the end, he sold off the house and whatever else of value they had, but all that did was land him under a bridge. He told me that Laura was mad at him when she found out that he had sold their house and she worried about what would happen to him if she were to die. “But I’m still here, mate. Still smiling.”

I’d rarely come across a person who has gone through so much yet was still so positive and grateful.

What shocked me the most was when I’d asked, he told me that she had only died six weeks ago. It meant that the first time I interacted with him, his wife had been dead for two, maybe three weeks. He broke my train of thought and the deep silence that had befallen me by telling me not to go anywhere, and that he would be back soon.

He left. I thought about everything he had just told me. His highs and lows and eventual loss. Not only had he lost the woman he loved in a long, protracted, painful and mentally draining battle. He was now broke and homeless. I thought about all of these things… and then I thought about my own “problems”.

If ever I needed another perspective to realise how lucky I am.

The one thing that stood out, and has stayed with me since, is that though he barely had anything, not the health nor the ability to live a good quality life, his attitude and spirit was one which I fail to see in the richest of people I know.

The manner with which he shared with me what had happened in his life, was the exact same way in which he had listened to mine. Barring one or two moments where you could sense his pain, his body language, expressions, tone of voice, all remained even. Consciously balanced. It made me curious. I mean, the man who only just lost his wife, sleeping under a bridge and is crippled displays not a hint of bitterness or guilt or justifiable self-pity. None. How?

When Daniel returned, he was holding a box of Domino’s pizza.

“I only had a fiver, mate, so I hope you don’t mind sharing.”

I tried saying no, but he told me that I had had a bad day and so he insisted. A homeless, heartbroken, sick man had just spent the last of his money on food to share with me because I had a bad day.

What more can I say.

*

While we were eating, I asked him about the thoughts which had been brewing in my mind. How I could not comprehend the way in which he remained so calm when re-telling his story.

His reply was, simply, acceptance.

“If I don’t accept all that has happened in my life. My past. My present. I’ll turn bitter. I’ll forget all of the amazing things I’ve had, and just focus on the bad things I’ll end up joining Laura a lot sooner than I should.”

We finished our dinner; I said goodbye and went home.

When I had left the restaurant I was hurt, confused and angry. By the time I got home though, those emotions had subsided considerably. I was mentally drained but I was a lot calmer. My sit-down with Daniel had forced me to stop and take a step back. To analyse my situation but this time with perspective. Yes, what I was going through was not ideal, but look at what he was going through … and he was still smiling.

When recounting all that had happened that day to Imran I spent most of my time talking about Daniel. I went through the confrontation, quitting and what should have been the most important topic; the financial implications. But I did so as an obligation, so that I could get to what was more important.

From time to time, I wonder where he is now and hope that he hasn’t joined Laura just yet. It’s not often someone in a position such as Daniel’s, a victim of circumstances and homeless, proves to be such an inspiration.

But then again, it’s not often we as a society give them the chance to do so.




Love, Santa

I wasn’t sure how it worked: if I could clasp
my hands and pray to Santa or if one had to actually write letters to the North
Pole to get a wish granted. Not that, at twelve, I believed in Saint Nick, but in
my desperation I wasn’t above begging for a miracle.

And yet, when I woke that Christmas
morning, I knew it was too late for any wish, prayer, or even bargain with the
devil to prevent my father from ruining Christmas.

As I watched my pajama-clad half-sisters,
dad, and stepmom giggle and rush down the staircase, I knew there was nothing I
could do but hope that when I got downstairs, I would not see a horse in the
living room.

*

I always knew that I didn’t fit in with my
dad’s new family.

While Dad and his new wife, Susan, loved
hunting, fishing, and cooking their kills, I was a vegetarian. While my
half-sisters grew up rowdy, loud, and tough, I was never happier than when I
was inside, alone, with a book. And even though Dad was passionate about his
horses, owning two and riding them daily, I always preferred fuzzy, lazy cats.

Such differences were small, however,
compared to our conflicting opinions on Christmas.

Call me a Scrooge but, growing up, I never
liked the holiday.

I simply couldn’t understand why anyone
would want to drag a full-grown tree indoors. Putting up snowflake decorations
in 80-degree Southern California weather, I decided, should be considered
court-accepted evidence of insanity, not proof of having a “holiday spirit.”

Plus, even from a young age, I hated the
idea of Santa. I could never convince myself to look forward to the prospect of
an old, unshaven man shimmying down my chimney. It sounded like a story from a
late night episode of Dateline
– not a tale found in children’s picture books.

Sure, I liked the two-week break from
school and I loved those seasonal pie flavors at Denny’s, so I never thought of
Christmas as a complete failure. But Dad and his family were strangely enchanted
by every last thing about the holiday: from the tallest inflatable front-yard
snowman, to the smallest piece of stupid tinsel.

Every year, Dad and Susan counted down the
days until Christmas. They hung too many lights and watched It’s A Wonderful Life until the film
from the VHS came out. They blasted Christmas songs from the CD player, proudly
displayed their A Christmas Story leg
lamp, and covered the house in Santa-and-his-reindeer themed anything.

So it was unfortunate that my parents’
post-divorce visitation schedule landed me at Dad’s house every Christmas morning.

From the beginning, Dad knew that I’d
never be one of those darling children who dreamed of snow or magic elves. He
wasn’t dumb. He knew I was never going to send letters to the North Pole, asking
for a pony or a rocket ship.

But it didn’t matter once my half-sister, Allison,
was old enough to sit on Santa’s lap. She danced around the house whenever a
Christmas carol came on the radio and her young life revolved around the ABC
Family holiday marathons. She covered her curly blonde hair with a cotton
ball-tipped Santa hat to celebrate the season and even wrote letters to the
North Pole in July.

She loved Christmas so much, she
practically had cranberry sauce running through her freaking veins.

And coincidently, Allison seemed to
naturally share a lot of Dad’s other interests, too. Even as a baby, Allison
loved going on the family fishing boat and she adored Dad’s horses.

The year I turned twelve; Allison was six,
and our youngest sister Avery was three. Like every other year, the house was transformed
into a winter wonderland by October. There were Christmas trees in almost every
room and light-up reindeer animatronics on the front lawn. Bits of holly hung
from the stair railing and the whole house smelled like pine. It was festive. It
was wintery. It was jolly.

I hated it.

As a non-believer in Santa, I was allowed
to listen in on the adults’ Christmas present conversations every year
– as long as I didn’t accidently tell my half-sisters what
gifts they were getting. Late one night, after Allison and Janine went to bed, I
sat with Dad and Susan as they talked about going “all out” and buying Allison
a pony. Dad’s blue eyes lit up as he explained how it was the perfect way to
combine Allison’s love of Christmas and horses. Susan, wearing her bathrobe, her
brown hair still wet from a shower, added that it was a practical gift, since Avery
would be old enough to ride the pony in a couple years, too.

“A pony? You’re actually going to get her
a pony?” I asked. “A live, literal pony?” I was convinced they were kidding. Dad
was known to play a joke every so often, but Susan was serious to a fault. They
both nodded at me, grinning like the elves at Macy’s.

They continued to brainstorm, talking
about how they’d bring the pony inside early on Christmas morning. They’d lead
it into the living room right next to the tree. He pony would have a bow on its
head, and a note, stained with tea leaves to look old and more official, with
large, ornate lettering spelling, “Love, Santa.”

This was the stupidest gift idea I’d ever
heard of. “Being given a pony on Christmas,” I explained, “will ruin a
six-year-old for life. You’ll spoil her.”

They didn’t respond. Instead, Dad watched
as Susan furiously scribbled the idea down onto a yellow pad of paper.

As if shecould forget to buy a pony.

I argued against the gift idea, explaining
that Allison would never remember to feed or walk the pony, and the duties
would fall on the three of us. I added that presenting her with a big present now
would make her expect an even bigger one next year, and the year after that. “She’ll
be the only second grader with a car.” I said, “The only seventh grader with a
space ship.”

Unmoved, Dad and Susan continued
brainstorming.

When I finally started up the stairs to go
to bed, I could hear them still planning in the living room. “It’s just like finding
a puppy under the tree,” Dad said.

Yeah,
a big puppy,
I thought. With bigger poop.

When mom picked me up Sunday night, I told
her everything.

“A pony? Like P-O-N-Y? Pony?” she said.

“Like a small horse.”

Mom said they would never do it, but I
wasn’t so sure.

Weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Mom dropped
me at Dad’s house after church, as usual. I hadn’t heard anything else about
the pony, so when I went to sleep that night, I still didn’t know what Dad and Susan
decided to do.

The next morning, Allison gathered Dad, Susan,
Avery, and me, leading us all downstairs. I held my breath as I walked into the
living room, and noticed one thing immediately: the room was absolutely
pony-less.

Apparently, Dad and Susan had decided
against the pony. Good. I quietly saluted their wise decision and watched as Allison
danced around the Christmas tree, giddy with excitement, ignorant of the pony her
parents had denied her.

The morning crawled on, and I slowly realized
Dad and Susan had actually skimped on Christmas this year. There were plenty of
presents, but they were all small toys or things that we needed, like pajamas
and socks. Generally, I liked more practical gifts: I always welcomed a new
sweatshirt or beach towel. But I tried to hide my disappointment when I ripped open
a gift labeled “To Jillian, From Santa” and found a bottle of body wash, men’s body wash, with white beads
floating inside. By
the way the liquid didn’t quite reach the top of the bottle, I could tell it
had already been used.

I looked at my dad, waiting for him to
say, “Oh, woops, how did that get in there?” Or maybe, “You should have seen
your face! Soap! For Christmas! Wasn’t that funny?” But he said nothing, just
reached for another present.

Only then did it become clear to me: this
wasn’t a joke. Dad had probably taken the shower gel from his bathroom and
wrapped Christmas paper around it.

Did he think I smelled? Was this a very
direct hint that I needed a more vigorous scent and a “20% more free” size
bottle to handle my new, pre-pubescent smells? Or was this something else?

I looked down at the bottle of blue gel, then to my sisters’ piles of
dollar-store dolls and plastic hair barrettes, and suddenly I felt sick. My
throat dried out as if I had just eaten gingerbread cookies with no milk.

It was obvious now that Dad and Susan probably
hadn’t officially decided against the pony. They just couldn’t afford it. Here
I was, afraid Allison would get a too-extravagant gift when clearly, the family
was having financial trouble. That was why they’d dropped the pony topic so
suddenly.

As I watched Dad hand Allison another
gift, which she happily unwrapped to reveal a new shirt, I understood then that
I didn’t actually care about the pony. I was just jealous.

And I wasn’t jealous of the possibility of
Allison getting such an impressive gift. After all, I wouldn’t have wanted a
pony for myself. I was envious of the bond Allison and Dad shared. They were
close and I wanted a relationship like that with him too.

Perhaps, I thought, I was just going about
it the wrong way.

Maybe Dad and I didn’t have that much in
common and maybe I felt like I didn’t quite fit in with the family
– but I could fix that. I decided, right then and
there, that in the new year, I’d stop being jealous and find a way to bond with
them all. I’d make a better effort to do the things they liked to do. I’d willingly
go on a camping trip, even help plan one. I’d try to be more interested in
things like horses and fishing, and I’d try harder to like Christmas. It would
take some work but eventually, my relationship with my dad and his new family
would be stronger and I’d fit in.

When all of the gifts had been opened, Dad
looked around the tree, playfully itching the spot above his temple with one,
hooked finger.

“Well, I thought Santa had one more gift
left,” he said.

“But everything’s opened,” Susan said with
an overly exaggerated shrug.

Dad pulled a large, white envelope out
from under the tree skirt and gasped. Allison’s eyes lit up like twinkle lights
and she hurried over to him, Avery toddling behind her. Dad held the piece of
paper up to the light, as if he were having trouble reading the words.

“Don’t do it,” I heard myself say under my
breath.

“Dear Allison,” he said slowly. I cringed.
“Look outside for your last present. Love, Santa!” He said the last words with cartoonish
emphasis, drawing out the words as his eyes got wide with mock surprise.

Before I could even get up from the couch,
Allison, Susan, Avery, and Dad were opening the front door. From my seat, I
heard Allison squeal with excitement in the yard. Dad laughed as I, too,
hurried to the front porch.

“We knew it would all be over once she saw
him,” Dad said. He stood in the doorway, talking to me over his shoulder. “So
we had to save the big present for last.”

I looked past him and saw it
– a brown and white Christmas pony, with a red bow on
its back.

At first, I crossed my arms over my chest
in protest, but as I looked out at the yard, watching Allison hug the pony and
pet its mane, I felt happy for her. I’d dreaded the idea of Allison getting a
pony for Christmas, but somehow, I wasn’t upset. I don’t know if this was due
to the fact that, just moments ago, I’d decided to make more of an effort to
get along with the family, or if seeing Allison’s wide smile softened my mood. Either
way, I was happy that my sister would always have this memory of getting a
real, live pony for Christmas.

And then, I remembered: Santa didn’t bring
her this pony, her parents did. As it turned out, there weren’t money problems
as I’d imagined. Dad and Susan got Allison a pony, and for that very same
Christmas, they’d given me used soap.

I didn’t know what to say as we all stood
there on the lawn that morning, so I just watched as Allison climbed onto her
Christmas present. We all stood there, together, and watched as the present
slowly began eating the lawn.

Later that morning, we had breakfast, and Dad
loaded everyone in the car to take the pony to the stable. I stayed home, waiting
for my mom to pick me up. Finally, she did.

As was customary for Christmas day, Mom drove
us to my grandma’s house. On the way, I told her the story, leaving out the
part about the soap. I made jokes about how crazy Dad and Susan must be to
actually buy a pony and I smiled when I talked about how surprised Allison was.
I wanted to sound like I was happy about the whole thing, but by the time I finished,
I felt my throat go dry again, and I didn’t know what to say.

Looking back now, I know I wasn’t old
enough to be able to describe, or even understand what I was feeling that day
in the car. But as we drove, I had the distant idea that maybe it wasn’t my
fault that Dad’s family and I had never been close.

I remembered the times Dad left me home
alone because I didn’t want to go fishing with him. About the times Mom drove
me the hour to their house, only to find that they went on an out-of-state
camping trip without bothering to tell us. I remembered all the times I felt
left out or unwanted or forgotten. I understood, in a small way, that it wasn’t
our different interests that were the problem. That the problem between me and my
dad was maybe, just – my dad.

After that year, I spent every Christmas
with my mom. I still visited my dad’s house every other weekend for years, but I
decided that I was old enough to make my own holiday plans.

And while I’d never liked Christmas before,
the holiday felt different after that year. Mom and I made our own traditions:
making waffles on Christmas morning, buying matching sweaters to wear to Grandma’s
for dinner, and stopping for second helpings of pie at Denny’s on the way back home.
Suddenly, I was happy, even jolly, during the holidays, like a child who got
exactly what she wanted for Christmas. Maybe because I had.




The Orphanage

In her corner office, Sister Modesta Cuma opens a notebook and considers a list of boys and girls under her care. She knows the story behind each name.

Lucera, 10. Mentally disabled.
Lives in her own world. Here five years.

As
director of Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello, a Catholic orphanage for HIV-positive
children, Sister Modesta is responsible for forty-five youngsters ranging in
age from a few days to fifteen years old. The orphanage stands beside a dirt
and stone road that wends through a dense jungle of leafy trees in the village
of Sumpango, about fifty miles outside Guatemala City, Guatemala, and near the
town of Antigua, once Guatemala’s capital and now a popular tourist
destination. Nuns with the order of Small Apostles of Redemption care for the children
behind high walls that shut off the trees and the road and the noise of traffic
converging on Antigua. Within the compound an orderly world of classrooms,
dormitories, a chapel, and a playground, replete with basketball court, swing
sets and slides provide an alternative universe of calm and safety in which
nuns occupy the roles of parent, teacher and protector.

Fernando, 8. Both of his parents are addicts. He has absorbed all of their problems. When he started walking, he would throw himself against walls. He couldn’t be left alone. His parents are now dead. They lived in Zone 18, one of the worst neighborhoods in Guatemala. Fernando’s uncle was shot. He’s hiding somewhere. Drugs, violence, gangs. It’s in his blood.

Sometimes,
when a mother visits the orphanage, her son or daughter does not recognize her.
The child cries and the mother gets angry. She doesn’t understand that the nuns
have replaced her.

Gustavo Ramirez, 11. He has no
family other than an aunt but she rarely visits. Just recently, however, she
took him for a few days.

All
the children were born out of tragedy. More often than not, their mothers
became pregnant after having sex with an HIV-infected man. Some of them worked
as prostitutes. Others were raped. Still others injected drugs with dirty
needles and continued using after they were pregnant. Then doctors and police
get involved. Then the courts refer the children to Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello.  

Despite
having the HIV virus, the children impress visitors with their joy and laughter
so much so that a few visitors leave refusing to believe the children have any
health issues at all. However, Sister Modesta knows better. A three-year-old
died in 2014. He was so sick when he arrived that no amount of medication could
save him. The children of Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello live with the threat of
death every day.

Ignacio Bachub, 14. Came to the
orphanage when he was eight years old. He has an uncle in the U.S. but no close
relatives in Guatemala.

Sister
Modesta could never have anticipated that her life would lead here when, as a twelve-year-old,
she told the nuns in her hometown of Santa Maria de Jesus, Guatemala, that she
wanted to join the church. She had been impressed by their stories of traveling
to Africa and other faraway countries. Many of her teachers had degrees in
medicine, economics and other professions. Their knowledge impressed her.
Unlike her mother, they could read.

The
nuns told her she would not understand the call to Christ until she turned eighteen.
Sister Modesta, however, was undeterred. How much does a habit cost? she
demanded. It’s expensive, they told her. Too much for a twelve-year-old. Still
she persisted. Because of her commitment, or stubborn persistence – she
can’t be sure which, although she leans toward the latter – the
nuns relented and she began her studies to live a religious life in 1982 when
she was seventeen. As a novice, Sister Modesta worked in Colombia and later in
El Salvador. She also earned a nursing degree. In 2015, she was assigned to
Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello.                  

Abimael Chilisna, 11. He is
allowed overnight visits with his family. However, they forget to give him his
medicine or feed him a proper diet. They work all the time and leave him alone.
When they return him to the orphanage, Abimael won’t take his medicine. His
family didn’t make him take it, so why should he take it now? he asks. The courts have
been informed of the problem. The next time his family asks for him, the courts
will decide whether he goes or not.

Every
year, Sister Modesta knows, a child will leave Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello. Their
families take them back. The courts transfer them to another facility. They
turn eighteen and are no longer considered children. The sisters hope God will
help them. They pray that the children get through the difficulties of entering
into a world far different from the one they’ve known here.

Heidy Herrera. There are some
things about her life she does not know. She does not remember her mother and
that is probably a blessing. When her mother learned Heidy was HIV- positive,
she locked her in a cage inside the house. Her older siblings took her to her
grandmother’s house and then called the police on their own mother. The courts
placed her here. Her grandmother and uncle visit but not often.

Sister
Modesta closes her notebook, digs into the pockets of her vest to warm her
hands, and sighs. Discharges can end badly. Recently a girl left and began
dating a bad boy and they eloped. Her grades went down. She stopped attending
school and taking her medicine. Eighteen years old. Gone, never heard from
again. Sister Modesta still prays for her.

*

The playground at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello, an orphanage for HIV-infected children in Sumpango, Guatemala.

Heidy
Herrera sits alone on steps that lead into the playground and watches a handful
of children shooting hoops. Their shadows climb walls, shrinking and expanding
as they run. Heidy pulls a sweater around her shoulders against the evening
damp air and the far-off reverberations of thunder. She does not know her age.
The nuns have told her she is fifteen and she accepts that but because she did
not know herself she doesn’t know how to feel about it. She knows she’s getting
older and that she can’t live at the orphanage forever. She does not remember
when she came here, or who brought her. She got really sick while she lived
with her grandmother, or so she’s been told. Her grandmother didn’t understand
the problem. Then the police took her to a hospital where she received tests
and then she ended up here. Her earliest memories belong here.

Heidy
understands HIV can’t be cured but with the right treatment she can live a
normal life. Without medicine, she understands HIV would develop into AIDS. She
feels at ease, tranquil about her diagnosis. She can live with it. She has for
a long time. She is the oldest child in the orphanage. She knows the time for
leaving nears. Thoughts about her future preoccupy her. Her older sisters have
agreed to take her in but they live far from Sumpango. The nuns are her family.
Will she see them again? She does not think so and the thought saddens her and
her eyes well with tears.

She
remembers an older boy who moved out. He was eighteen. He was friends with
everybody. All the children were sad to see him go. When he visits he plays
with everybody. He lives far away and doesn’t come often. When he goes, it
feels like the first time he left.

 Nuns also leave. At the end of each year one or two get new assignments. Sister Sandra Flores left in 2014. She took care of all the kids and was really affectionate and playful. Every now and then she drops by and Heidy embraces and holds onto her until she gently pulls her arms away. It seems to Heidy it’s always her favorite people who go. She gets nervous at the end of each year wondering who will tell her goodbye.

*

Sister Flor Ramirez, a teacher at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello.

Sister Maria Chub stops by the clinic to look in on two infants: Kendel, eighteen months old, has a heart condition and doesn’t gain weight. Selvin, eight months old, came to the orphanage because his HIV-positive mother refused to seek medical treatment for herself and him. She fed Selvin water and nothing else. He was horribly malnourished when he arrived.

Sister
Maria sees love in the faces of the mothers who visit their babies but in most
cases they continue living the life that got them sick. Sister Maria doesn’t
judge. These mothers must eat. They are poor and care for themselves in any way
they can. If you don’t feed the body, you can’t feed the spirit, she reminds
herself.  

Still,
she gets angry. One year, the mother of an infant boy Sister Maria had grown
very fond of appealed the court order that had removed him to the orphanage.
The mother got the boy back but did not give him his HIV medicine. The boy got
sick and the court returned him to the orphanage. His mother appealed again and
won. This time she gave him his medicine but it was no longer effective because
he had gone without it for so long. Doctors said he needed stronger drugs
unavailable in Guatemala. The boy died. Just five months old.

The boy’s death broke Sister Maria’s heart. Her anger at the mother knew no limits even with prayer. The mother had an opportunity to help her son but chose not to. The boy looked normal but he was sick inside. Had he been allowed to stay at the orphanage he would have received his medication. He was family. He was so cheerful despite being sick. He really liked it here but his mother wanted him. He was so small. He cried when he left. All Sister Maria can do is pray for his soul now. She weeps with fury and frustration and asks God’s forgiveness of the boy’s mother and herself.

Sister Modesta Cuma, principal at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello .

*

Twenty-three-year-old
Floridalma Perez sits in a park about a mile from Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello,
where she once lived and now volunteers. She watches her three-year-old son,
Alex, play on a slide. Men and women walk in and out of a convenience store
nearby. Discarded bags of chips blow in the wind and Alex picks up one and
Floridalma tells him to drop it. The wind carries it away beneath a gray sky
warning of rain.

—Be
careful on the slide, she cautions him.

When
Floridalma was five years old, her mother died. Her father sexually abused her
for many years and infected her with HIV. She told her older siblings about the
abuse but no one believed her.

When
she started getting sick, her father left her at a hospital. The hospital staff
contacted the police and she was referred to the orphanage in 2006. She was thirteen.
She never saw her father again until she turned twenty-one when he asked for
her forgiveness.

—No,
you have destroyed my life, she told him.

At
Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello no one told her she was HIV-positive until she turned
seventeen. Until then, she took medicine but never understood its purpose.
Perhaps the nuns thought she wouldn’t understand.

At
eighteen, she left to live with an uncle in San Marcos, Guatemala, where she
was born. However, he didn’t want her to stay with him so she rented a room and
worked as a maid in a wealthy man’s house. He raped her and she became pregnant
with Alex. When she told him, he said, Go away. She doesn’t know if she
infected him with HIV. She didn’t know then that HIV was transmittable through
sex. The sisters had never discussed sex with her.

When
she was seven months pregnant, Floridalma called the orphanage and told the
nuns what had happened. They invited her to return and put her on medication.
She stayed at the orphanage until Alex was born free of HIV. Thank God he is
healthy, she often tells herself, thank God. She rents a room near the park
now. The nuns continue to give her food and medication.

Floridalma
wonders, Why is there so much suffering? She worries for the children when they
leave Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello and face a world so different from the one
they’ve known. She says, Hi, how are you? and the children smile a greeting in
return. She doesn’t have a relationship with any of them or with anyone else
for that matter other than her son. She wants him to stay healthy. She wants
him to have the childhood she didn’t.

*

Daily Schedule:

5:30
a.m. wake up, administer medication

7:00
a.m. breakfast

8:30
a.m.–2:45 p.m. school

1:00
p.m. lunch

1:30
p.m.–4:00 p.m. homework, chores

4:00
p.m.–5:00 p.m. recess

5
p.m.–6 p.m. church

6
:00 p.m. dinner

8:00
p.m. bedtime

*

Sister
Aleja Ocox paces the playground as she presides over recess. She took her vows
in 2001 at the age of nineteen. She can’t say why exactly other than she
attended parochial school and, besides her parents, knew only nuns as a child.
As a young woman, her options were limited: join the church or get married. She
knew no boy she wanted to marry so she decided to enter the religious life.

On
this evening, she watches two boys chasing one another in a game of tag. They
both have kidney problems as a result of HIV. One of them, eight-year-old
Fernando, has lived here since he was a baby. He does not remember his
drug-addicted mother. He puzzles Sister Aleja. He steals from the other
children. Why is he like this? Perhaps because his mother was a drug addict and
Fernando was born with crack cocaine in his blood. He sees a psychologist once
a week. He can turn violent. He gets very aggressive and then calms down.
Sister Aleja doesn’t know what to think of him.

Sister
Aleja worked at the orphanage in 2006, was transferred to another orphanage and
then returned in 2014. When she was here the first time, the orphanage didn’t
have a clinic. If a child got sick, they had to be driven to Roosevelt
Hospital, the public hospital in Guatemala City, more than an hour a way. The
clinic has been a big help. Now, if a child falls or gets hurt in some minor
way, they have a place to go within the orphanage. Poor things. They panic so
if they bruise themselves. Sometimes even Sister Aleja panics. The slightest
thing, even a sneeze, makes her worry they might get sick and die.

Sister
Aleja especially keeps an eye on the little ones. She reminds them to take their
medicine before they go to bed. Don’t catch cold, she warns them, don’t get
wet. When the colder weather comes, wear a sweater. She worries all the time.
Please God, let them stay healthy.

About
once a week, Sister Aleja drives a van full of boys and girls from the
orphanage to Roosevelt Hospital for routine checkups. She awakens the children
at four in the morning so they can make their seven o’clock appointment. She
maneuvers through the congested traffic of the capital with the impatience of a
seasoned commuter. The gray-stone hospital rises above a parking lot filled
with beggars and fruit vendors. Sister Aleja parks and hurries the children to
the front doors, passes a security guard, and follows a hall that takes her to
a row of examination rooms. She registers the children with a receptionist and
then herds them together as she finds chairs for them all. They wait until
Sister Aleja hears her name called. Standing, she takes the children to a bare
room with charts of the human body tacked on the wall. A nurse seated behind a
desk beckons each child forward.

Angelica,
12: Pointing to a spot on her left arm, she tells the nurse she knows where her
good vein is to draw blood. Steady, the nurse tells her, so I hit the vein the
first time. The last time I didn’t need lab work, but today it’s my turn,
Angelica reminds her. The nurse nods as she inserts the needle. When she
finishes, she asks Angelica to stand on a scale. She is still underweight, the
nurse tells Sister Aleja, but she has always been a little underweight. Her cholesterol was high the last time
we ran blood. Is she eating oatmeal to lower it? Yes, but she doesn’t
like it, Sister Aleja says.

Nelson,
9: The nurse measures his waist, biceps and arm length and checks his weight.
He watches her as she adjusts the scale. Look, up, look straight ahead, the
nurse tells him. He gained two pounds since his last visit and grew 1.2
centimeters, she comments. How have you been behaving? she asks him. You have a
look like you’ve been misbehaving. He giggles. She considers his chart. Viral
load untraceable, good. White blood cells normal. Kidney, liver very well. Have
you been sick? No. You’re so quiet, guapo.
Why don’t
you say anything? He smiles.

Josue,
9: He gained two pounds since his last checkup and now weighs fifty-five
pounds. He grew one centimeter. Has he been ill? the nurse asks. No, Sister
Aleja says. He’s gained weight, the nurse continues, that’s good. White blood
cells normal, but his fatty acids are up. Give him Omega 3.

After the children have been examined, the older ones who know what it means to be HIV-positive meet with a counselor. The counselor tells them they’ll be OK if they take their medicine. You have limitations but do the best you can with the life you have. Give an example of how you can respect yourself. Do you brush your teeth, shower, eat every day? Yes, a boy answers. Those are things we can do to show our bodies respect and love, the counselor says. Every day you should do something that shows you love yourself. Every day, the boys says, I drink water. Good. What else? I take my medicine. Yes, the counselor agrees, that’s also good. If you take your medicine every day, you’ll be OK. From your blood work, I can see your medicine is working. How does the medicine help you? It doesn’t let the virus hurt me, the boy replies. What’s the difference between contracting and transmitting? If I use a needle, he says, I’ll contract it. If someone sneezes will you contract? the counselor asks. No, the boy replies. If you share a cup of water? No. What about sexual relations? Yes, the boys says, unless I use a condom. Very good, the counselor says.

Sister Modesta Cuma in the orphanage clinic.

*

Dreams.

Gustavo
Ramirez: I dream about my family. I dream about going home and spending
Christmas with them. In my dream I see my family. Everyone is happy.

Abimael
Chilisna: I dream of being with my family. They come and pick me up and take me
to swimming pools. I feel sad about leaving. I’ll leave my friends. All my
friends are here but I’m a little happy because I’ll be with my family.

Floridalma
Perez: I have dreams for my son. I want him to have what I didn’t. I know this
will be difficult because I still don’t have what I want him to have, a home
and safety. I don’t have dreams for myself. I have nightmares. One positive
dream out every ten nightmares. The good dreams are of a life that is not
difficult but once I wake up everything falls away. My nightmares are all
related to accidents, car crashes or in a bus. I’m afraid of something
happening to my son and me.

Heidy
Herrera: I dream of living a normal life without medicine.

*

Social
studies class. Third- and fourth-graders.

Today’s
lesson: de la violencia a la paz. Violence versus peace.

—Take
out your notebooks, Sister Modesta tells the class of eight- and
nine-year-olds. The boys and girls shift in their chairs, rummaging through
shoulder packs, rocking the small desks on the concrete floor and the damp air
made damper from a lingering morning fog clings to the room and the children
rub goosebumps from their arms.

—Give
me some examples of violence, Sister Modesta tells the class.

—If
one boy punches another boy.

—If
one boy says I’m better than you that is violence.

—If
siblings fight for the love of the mother.

—One
at a time, Sister Modesta says.

—When
they drink, people become violent.

—Brothers
and sisters fight for the love of their mother.

Sister Modesta writes their comments on the board. She has chosen this topic because she knows some of the mothers of these children were raped. The children themselves have experienced physical abuse and social exclusion. She wants them to see this behavior as wrong and not repeat it themselves when they become adults.

Sister Modesta Cuma.

*

After
class, Ignacio Bachub approaches Sister Modesta.

—I’d
like to be a chef, he tells her.

—Whatever
makes you happy, she encourages.

Maybe a chef working in one of Antigua’s many restaurants would come and talk to him, she thinks. Perhaps even apprentice him. Why not? These children should be loved as much as anyone and have the same opportunities. They complain that they’re not like other boys and girls. Don’t feel dejected, she tells them. You will outgrow these disappointments, but she doesn’t know if she believes that. With each child she feels the vulnerability of her ignorance of God’s will. She prays for their health and welfare and then waits as uncertain as the children under her care for what the future holds.

The medicine cabinet at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello, an orphanage for HIV-infected children in Sumpango, Guatemala.




Circumventing the Crowds in the City of Dreaming Spires

Picture Credits: kooikkari

A New NIMBYism

Autumn has descended, and with it, a fresh wave of overenthusiastic university
students upon the city of Oxford. They do not fill a vacuum, but readily occupy
the place of the some 16,000 tourists, day-trippers and student “edu-tourists”
who visit the city every day during the summer travel season. The passage of
time has mercifully dulled my recollection of my own student years at Oxford
University, but I still remember the unceremonious jostling and daily
turf-battles that took place between tourists, townies and students in the
beleaguered city centre. As a final-year student, I reluctantly gate-crashed
many a pristine photo of the Christ Church, or “Harry Potter”, dining hall in
my bid to reach the Examination Schools on time (although, as I was donning a
curious combination of hijab and “subfusc” at the time, I hope the tourists
didn’t feel too short-changed for their photographic efforts).

Oxford is just one of many destination cities that is beginning to suffer
the effects of “overtourism” – a term that hit the headlines in 2017, and has
only gained in traction since then. The term implies not only overcapacity in numbers,
but also the unsustainability, even undesirability, of the associated tourist
culture. Local inhabitants and environmental organisations have led the
backlash against global tourism, particularly in European cities, from the
banning of food trucks and selfie-sticks in Milan, to the recent announcement of
a new tourist tax on day-trippers to Venice. Nevertheless, travellers remain
unabated, continuing to make use of low-cost flights and cheap accommodation
options in their quest to witness, photograph and publically demonstrate their
presence across the globe. Many of us have, by all counts, brazenly severed
ourselves into a dichotomy: both vigorous defenders of our private spaces, or “locals”,
and bold venturers into unfamiliar places.

We might refer to this contradictory reality as the new NIMBYism: one
that exemplifies the many double standards of the human condition. The
backyards that we occupy, with their distinctiveness dulled to our senses, are
now an endless source of fascination to others, and prime opportunities for Insta-“grammable”
moments. En route to Venice in 2016, alongside the twenty-seven million other
visitors who made the same trek that year, one guidebook that I read sagely
cautioned its discerning readers to “walk in the opposite direction to the
crowds” if they wanted to experience the richness of the city. This reassuring
veneer of self-respectability shields us from being identified as part of the “crowd”,
even when we patently are.

Oxford has long witnessed its fair share of “set-jetters” and visitors eager
to absorb the city’s air of historic enlightenment, but a rise in tourism has
left the city centre unnavigable in the summer months, except to those
well-versed in the skill of crowd avoidance. As I transitioned from a student
of the University to a resident of the city, my own NIMBYistic tendencies have
been unleashed. I now watch in dismay as coaches carrying day-trippers block the
cycle lines in Oxford’s cramped quarters, and the tourists shuttled therein
tend to leave after only a few hours – increasing the flow of traffic without
making any contribution to the city’s independent stores. I bristle as I walk
past the £440m Westgate shopping centre, which opened two years ago, and has generated
ghost-town effects on other parts of the city, including the closure of my
favourite coffee shop haunt, Combibo’s. The owners of this shop made no effort
to conceal their chagrin at the establishment of the Westgate centre, affixing
a statement to the shop door in which they proclaimed that “Oxford is a shadow
of the place we all fell in love with” (even I haven’t quite reached that state
of disillusionment). Cornmarket Street, a major pedestrian precinct in the
city, is increasingly inhabited by souvenir shops that sell marginal stylistic
variations on Oxford-emblazoned hoodies and mugs.

To residents and visitors alike, there are bleakly comic undertones to the
growth of tourism in Oxford. University students commend the most creatively
fictitious tour guide anecdotes (one favourite being the “Bridge of Sighs” as
named after the disheartened students who shuffled underneath it in a spirit of
post-exam malaise). One elderly friend, struggling to navigate the crowded city
centre using her walking aid, has confessed to simply using it to mow down
large groups of stationary language tourists. There is even something wryly
amusing by the recent opening of “Britain Heritage” [sic], a souvenir shop that
has confidently taken its place next to Boswells department store, which has been
trading modestly for its part since 1738. In the meantime, retail bulletins and
city councillors alike commend the rise in “footfall” in the city: an indication of the need to scrutinise the
statistics peddled out in support of the travel industry, as well as the
desirability of “footfall” as an end in itself.

In the past, it has been customary to praise or condemn travel chiefly
for its effects on the mind. For Mark Twain, it is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry
and narrow-mindedness”; for D.H. Lawrence, it is “an exercise in disillusionment”.
In contrast, the bullish character Mr Thwaites, in Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, had “further
narrowed his mind by a considerable amount of travel abroad”. And yet, the
unregulated growth of the travel industry over the preceding decades no longer
permits us the luxury of viewing tourism solely through the lens of discovery
and self-fulfilment. We now need to find a more sustainable way of seeing the
world – one that channels both the accountability of the travel industry and
the conscientiousness of individuals.

The conversation has yet to shift significantly in these shores. This
past summer, the UK government cheerily announced the creation of five new “tourism
zones”. Oxford, of course, was granted the privilege of being one of them. With
a prickling of my conscience, I bemoaned this news while descending upon the
city of Bath, seeking welcome respite in its familiar unfamiliarity. In my
defence, I departed the city rejuvenated by its mineral springs, but mug-less
and hoodie-less. This I consider to be no small victory.




Waylaid in Bucharest

Picture Credits: Gerhard Gellinger

The airport
in Bucharest was open-aired in the nineties, the walls were glass from the
floor up about fifteen feet, with the last five feet or so open to the outside.
Guards patrolled the hallways in pairs, wearing furry Russian hats, swinging
long rifles as they walked, sometimes holding the leash of a German Shepherd.
To me, they were like the soldiers who guarded the Wicked Witch’s castle in the
Wizard of Oz, and I was afraid of them.

My boyfriend
and I landed in Bucharest on a November afternoon during a snowstorm, for a
short stop to change plans on our way to Bangkok. We had saved $600 on airfare
by using the Romanian airline, Air Tarom, rather than something more
mainstream, and were happy enough with the older-yet-solid jet that flew us
from Istanbul, where we’d been staying, to Bucharest. At some point while we
were in the air, sipping an orange beverage that tasted like Tang and sharing a
giant bar of chocolate, the pilots of Air Tarom went on strike, and when we
arrived there were no pilots willing to fly any plane anywhere.

They told us
the news as we exited the plane. Rather than getting on another, we were to
wait at the airport “until arrangements could be made.” I didn’t understand
when a dark-haired official confiscated my passport, while everyone else on the
plane seemed to get theirs back. When I asked, he looked through me like I was
a momentary shimmer in his peripheral vision, and turned to the next person in
line.

Adaptable as I am, I was not used to being ignored, and not ready to be dismissed. I looked for Erol, who’d gone through the line in front of me, and saw him on the other side. I watched him tuck his French passport into his shirt.

“I need my
passport back,” I told the man. A small woman in a neat blue suit appeared next
to me and informed me that they must hold the American passports, and that if I
wanted to enter the airport, I had to surrender my passport. Those were the
rules, there were no exceptions.

“Only
American passports? Why?” I wanted to know. But my questions were not their
concern, and they took my passport and hustled me along.

My passport
and I had journeyed together across many experiences in the past five months.
My most guarded possession, it provided me with the means to move freely in the
world, yet tied me back to home. It was an extension of my body, strapped
against the skin of my waist in a small canvas belt that had moved with me for
five months. I left it behind, my sense of security amputated from my psyche. I
had no choice.

I entered
the airport and noticed the guards right away. They moved in twos, always
chatting in loud Russian-sounding voices, gesturing at times with their rifles.
Shops and food vendors lined the hall, none of whom could take a credit card
for foreign currency, except for American dollars, which were welcome
everywhere. I had a few American dollars, just a few, and was relieved that I
had the means to buy a hot sandwich, which I did as the first order of
business, and Erol and I sat on the floor to eat it.

As soon as I pulled out my American money to pay for the food, I attracted a crowd of Romanian peasants that I hadn’t seen before. They gathered around me with their bare feet and sad eyes, begging for some American dollars, demanding that I pay them something for their misery. I was a rich American, and they had nothing. One young woman was especially persistent, saying over and over “please to give me some American dollars, my brother is so sick, we are so poor. Please to give me some American dollars.” I wished I could help, but didn’t carry extra money. I was guilty of being American and not living in poverty, but I shut off the awareness, it was too intense, and I had nothing to give.

Snow swirled
through the open windows, mingling with the air in the terminal to fall down on
us. In our T-shirts and sandals, the snow soon became an onslaught of ice
bullets. We were freezing. The only source of heat I could find was a small
space heater in the women’s restroom, and I huddled next to it, leaving Erol to
fend for himself. But one can only spend so much time hunkered down in a busy,
dingy bathroom, and I wasn’t there long before I needed to leave.

Cherie!” Erol called to me from down the
hall, striding up to me with a big grin on his face. “I got this from one of
the guards. Let’s drink now to be warm!”

He held out
a bottle of Russian vodka for me to see.

It was a
cheerful bottle, and a drink sounded pretty good, so I squashed the faint
intuitive nudge that vodka might not improve our bodies’ heat retention before
it could turn into a full-fledged thought.

We found a
dark corner where the snow didn’t reach and sat with our bodies mashed as close
as we could get with our clothes on, and swigged vodka from the battle,
chatting with a couple camped near us, sharing our vodka with them. Before long
we were warmer, and for a couple of hours we had fun, and laughed drunkenly at
the expense of Air Tarom and Bucharest.

And then we
were cold again. Very cold. I no longer noticed my teeth chattering – my entire
body chattered uncontrollably. Delirious with cold and vodka, I thought of my
passport, and whether it was a drunken stumble or a brilliant leap in
intuition, I suddenly knew that our entire future depended on getting my
passport back at once. “I want my passport!” I announced.

“Yeah,” Erol
slurred, “go get fucking passport! Why they take your passport?”

I marched
over to the dark-haired woman.

“Excuse me,
I want my passport right now,” I said. My voice shook.

She turned
toward me, faced me squarely, and stared.

“My
passport?” I said again.

She
continued to stare. Her entire body seemed to have turned to stone, except for
her eyes, which followed me with a scientific detachment, as if I were a wild
beast exhibiting an interesting behavioral trait.

And perhaps
I was.

“Give me my
fucking passport!” I screamed. What was up with this cold Slavic bitch, who
expressed as much emotion as a blank piece of paper? Who the hell did she think
she was? But wait, this woman had a temper, I knew. Because I’d seen her throw
a hissy fit several hours ago, when she went off on a male airline employee,
shrieking and stamping her feet in fury, her heels crashing onto the concrete
like exclamation points. She was not without sharp edges. How could she stand
there and ignore me?

“Hello?!” I
shouted. “Are you going to answer me? I’m a human being standing in front of
you! I’m a customer of your airline! I want my fucking passport!”

She didn’t
move a muscle; her face registered no response to my anger. I didn’t know what
to do, what to think. How was it even possible? This would never happen in
America, I thought, and planted a seed within me for a new appreciation of the
U.S.A.

But I wasn’t
in America on that cold night in November, I was in Romania, freezing and
starving, trying to squeeze my passport out of a statue. What could I do?
Nothing, I realized, and shrank, my hysteria dying with my hope. I stumbled
back to Erol, who seemed to have reached the edge of panic himself.

“We’re in
trouble, cherie,” he said, his eyes
wide. “Come on, we need to keep moving or we’ll freeze to death!”

We linked
arms and jogged sloppily around the airport, exhausted and shaking, our minds
foggy. It was now four in the morning, and we’d been trapped for twelve hours
in this cold, dark place, stripped of the means to keep warm or rest or eat.

But our
nightmare was to end, we were soon told, by the same statue woman who had
repelled my questions so effectively, because “arrangements had been made,” and
we were to be transported to a local hotel until a pilot could be found to fly
our plane to Bangkok. Our baggage, previously impossible to provide to us,
appeared miraculously, and we lined up to wait for our ride.

Erol and I
were third in line, waiting for our bus, ecstatic at the prospect of escape
even though I was still not allowed to have my passport. Erol suddenly laughed.
I looked at him, and he pointed to the people’s bags next to us. White tape
with the Air Tarom logo was splayed across the sides, with the words “First
Class” written in bold red writing. It was one of the funniest things I’d ever
seen, and I couldn’t help laughing. The owners of the luggage looked abased
when they realized why we were laughing, but then they too started in, and the
four of us laughed a long time. It was painful laughter, strung out and
desperate, but it felt good.

The bus, as
it turned out, was a tiny shoe car with three gears, and it carried us two by
two to the hotel, whirring and shuddering as its driver pushed it to its
maximum capacity. I fully expected the little car would revolt and seize up,
but we were dropped off at a decent hotel with no problems, anticipating a hot
shower and warm bed. But we soon learned this was not to be, as all water and
electricity were shut off at night until nine a.m., due to the National Energy
Crisis. We were shown to our room, which had a comfortable bed with a warm
comforter. We burrowed in at once, relishing the comfort as a thing of wonder –
a gift from God.

That
afternoon, the airline found a plane for us and we were called back to the
airport. I was warm, well-fed and clean when we walked into the terminal, and
excited to be headed out once again for our trip to Thailand. As we entered our
departure gate, an attendant handed me my passport. Erol looked at me to see
what I would do, but I had burned off all of the feelings allotted to me for
passport drama, and I took it without comment. We headed toward the plane in
good cheer, until Erol paused and started muttering in French. He didn’t like
the looks of the plane, which turned out to be military, an army transport
unit. Apparently a large part of the Bucharest International Airport was used
by the Romanian military, and somehow they had arranged for us to go by army
transport to the U.A.E., where we would change to a 757 and fly to Bangkok.

The details
of this plan alarmed me. How likely was it that a Romanian military plane would
be shot down when it flew into Iraqi air space? What about all those other Arab
countries that seemed to be always at war? I cursed my inattention to news and
geography.

In the end,
the concerns we had over this new flight arrangement didn’t outweigh our desire
to get the hell out of Bucharest, and we decided to take our chances with the
army plane. We boarded and figured out how to get strapped into our jump seats,
the propeller engines whirred to life, and the old plane huffed down the
runway. As she picked up speed and approached the end of the concrete, I
squeezed Erol’s hand, and prayed to any deity that might be listening to please
hoist this plane off the ground and take us onto our next journey.




On Going Fast

It’s easier going fast. Even now, as I write
this, I’m on 36 mg of Ritalin, drinking my second coffee of the day. Black with
one shot of espresso. Usually I order a cold brew, but Starbucks was all out.
When I pointed at the cashier and called him a sinner as a joke, he did not
laugh.

I love the chemical aid. The charge of energy
that keeps me alert – eyes open, mind going. Heart pumping. Dreams running. The
quickening of the keys beneath my fingertips, an ethereal rainstorm pouring
down a world of thought fueled by Speed – bolts of energy. But the question
that always haunts me is if I truly need the stimulants. If I ever did.

In America’s fast-paced, career-driven, competitive
and creative society, one must always be sharp. On point. Ready to go-go-go! Maybe it’s more up in New
England, something in the college-saturated water. But we all feel it to some degree, as humans. The pull towards ease.
Towards what’s convenient. Towards going fast. And as I grow older, nearing thirty,
I find myself loving efficiency more and more. I find myself wanting to take
the shortcut.

Drugs are good for this. My old man has ADD,
always had it along with dyslexia, which led him to drop out of high school and
join the Marines. My brother was given Ritalin probably too early on, and – due
to its less glamorous side effects – quit the drug. He became a C student, a gifted
hockey player, a lone-wolf skateboarder, and now plays video games
competitively. His eyes wide-open staring at the screen into the wee hours of
the morning. So the learning disability is in my genes, I guess, but I never
remember taking an official test at the doctor.

About a year ago, my husband took me to the Boston
Museum of Science as a celebration for completing my MFA program. We sat down
at a station with a bulky screen that lit up with a test telling you not to get
distracted by random objects that would pop up. Cats! Purple cats! Trees!
Storms! Street signs! Ghosts! Ghosts? Gorillas! I oohed and awed, my score
plummeted, the screen buzzed, and my husband walked away laughing his face off.

Online there are quizzes you can take to measure
if you have ADD. According to one site, if you score a 34 & Up, it’s likely
you have adult ADHD. I score above 40 every time. But the part that doesn’t
make sense is that if I’m on the medication, shouldn’t I be scoring better on
these tests? If I have ADD, shouldn’t I go slower on the meds? The validity of
my diagnosis has always been questionable. What came first – I wonder – the
problem or the panacea?

I began taking Adderall illegally in high school
and quickly became addicted to amphetamines. I got A’s before taking the drugs
and I got A’s after. In college, I’d take my smart pills alongside my
successful peers. Pop shortcuts on huge projects off the palm of my hand.

Then one day, during my sophomore year of college,
I quit all drugs cold turkey. Butts. Pot. Pills. Even my anxiety meds. I
started seeing tiny blue demons on the vacuum cleaner at work. I also wasn’t
able to read books very well, my English grades starting to slip. My doctor
decided to put me on Ritalin as a safe, happy-medium between my addiction and deficiencies.
And to keep the demons at bay.

Nearly ten years later, I still take the drug. And
even though I’m thankful for the help it provides – for the time it saves – I
wonder now what life would have been like if I never got on the stimulants. How
different things would be. I wonder why I was always so afraid of going slow – why
I’m still afraid.

I think it’s the hardship. The humdrum of life. The
stuff silence says. The limitations one feels when losing help. The challenges life
brings when one slows down enough to face them.

And when that naked day comes, I’ll write about it. But for now, I don’t mind going slow.




Canvassing for School Board in a State with Struggling Schools

I parked my car and worried about leaving it and worried about the privilege of being able to leave it. I worried about my own worrying about it, and what it says about me – my doors never used to lock. Conscious of the tenderness of knuckle and how I knocked – did it sound like the cops? – I wondered if I should even think this or if its impact transcended trope? (I should not have to rehash for you the catalysts of the Black Lives Matter movement.) When I knocked, I made its noise into a sort of music, so its rhythm wouldn’t sound alarming: tat-tat tata-tat-tat tat-tat. Even when coming from loved ones, a knock is never welcoming; its thuds excite or concern us more than they calm us. The sounds are alerting. Alarming. An issue to be dealt with.

In
this Baton Rouge district, some of the houses had no doorbells. Sometimes, the
doorbells were taped over with blue masking or black electrical tape.
Sometimes, the outer coverings were broken so that the light shined behind, but
I wouldn’t press them for fear of being shocked. Sometimes, a second doorbell
with a small camera had been added. These doorbells were black and lit up blue as
they rang and they sang a small, sharp tune and surely watched me. Sometimes,
the doorbells didn’t make a sound, so I pressed my ear to the door to listen
and knocked after and felt the tenderness in my knuckle again. So many of the
doorbells didn’t work or weren’t there that a knot formed in my knuckle.
Sometimes there was a camera above the door and sometimes in place of the
camera there was a piece of paper that said, “Smile, You Are On Camera” or “We
Are Videotaping You Steal and Will be Sharing with the Police.”

Some
of the doors had second, outer metal doors over them. These were a pattern of
strips and rods through which I could see the real door and through which my
hand sometimes fit to knock on the real door. Sometimes I had to knock on the
steel frames, which made a low sound that people barely ever answered to, and
sometimes I had to knock on the mesh patterns between the frames, which made a
loud rattling sound which startled even me. Sometimes near the door there were
signs that said, “KNOCK LOUD” or “Leave packages around back.” Sometimes the
house had a gate that I could walk through to get to the door and sometimes the
gate was locked so that I had to slip the flyer on the gate and say hello and
hope that someone was home.

*

The
sidewalk broke away and gave to grass, the yards to rock and mud. A Styrofoam
sonic cup pooled its remaining blue wastes of sugar juice. I told you that I
parked my car and left it, and as I walked, I watched a man enter shirtless
into his house – he was taller than me with broad shoulders and a bald head.
His skin shone pale and white and flexed black tattoos on his back and arms. I
walked past his home, since it was not listed on the canvassing app on my phone,
and I knocked without answer at his neighbor’s door. As I moved along, a small
pickup truck idled at the street-edge of a driveway a few houses down. The
truck was white, with a rust-red fender, and the woman inside watched me. She
had been watching every house I knocked on. Her hands rested on the
steering-wheel as I approached.

“Hello.
I’m just here canvassing for the upcoming school board election.” She wore a
white shirt with no logo, not bright but not torn. Despite leaning all the way
back in the seat, her stomach pressed into the steering wheel. Her eyes, wide.
Her hair, stringy. Even though she was not on my list, in order to defuse her I
talked about the candidate I was canvassing for and about how the incumbent had
been on the job for awhile despite the fact that the schools keep
underperforming. It was my standard spiel.

“Me
and my mother have been here twenty years and watched it go to shit,” she said.
“It’s disgusting. See that man over there?” She pointed to the white man with
the tattoos. “He’s the biggest drug dealer around. And down the street, Mrs.
X’s daughter has special needs. The blacks use her as a sex toy.” I nodded.
There was nothing more to say to this woman, really. She drove off with her
truck clunking and my knuckle tender from knocking.

*

Further
down the street, I knocked on another house. The couple that lived there were
in their eighties, and so I waited awhile longer, laid a flier on the door, and
left. As I walked across the street, I heard a door opening and a man, voice
measured and low, muttering hello behind me. “I saw you leave something on my
door.”

The
man stood shorter than me, and I am a short man. His body drew thin at the
shoulders and wrists, the way older people can. He held a rake and covered his
head in a sun hat with a wide brim. Suspenders supported his tan khakis. I gave
him another flier since he did not bring the other from the door. I asked him
who he planned on voting for. I talked with him about the schools’ poor performance
in the entire city, not just in this district. He looked over the photograph of
the candidate.

“At
my age,” he said, “I’m not against anyone.”

Okay.
Wait for it. Try to smile.

He
continued, “You can’t be against anyone at my age.” He held an expression of
half hope, half fear, anxious about whether I would judge him.

“But
really, what can you do?” he said. “They’ve only made it this far and been
around this long. How much farther can we expect them to get, really?” His hand
was shaking, slightly. I suspected from age and not nervousness. I tried to
smile. I tried to tell him about the candidate’s platforms. I asked him if his
wife was available to speak and I asked him if he would like some help raking
his yard. He told me no thanks and that he would look over the flier and
consider voting for my candidate.

*

I
know that my being white allows me the privilege of being patient with a man
whose culture has engrained in him a racist worldview and an inherent bias against
minorities, women, and other ethnicities. But I also know of Daryl Davis, who dialogued
with Roger Kelly, the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Maryland, for so long that the
two men became friends and Kelly eventually quit the Klan and gave Davis his
robe. This greatly diminished the presence of the KKK in Maryland. To be clear,
I am not advocating for anyone to speak with Klansman. No one should speak with
Klansman. Davis is lucky he isn’t dead. But it worked. On the other hand, I
also remember an image from Facebook. In the picture, a young and thin black
man holds a sign at the Woman’s March. The sign read, “We’ll See All You Nice
White Ladies At The Black Lives Matter Rally, Right?” I know that the issue
requires both patience and pressure.

This
is an essay on canvassing and the state of schools in Louisiana. But the essay
is also about race because every essay ever written in the United States is
about race. If you don’t realize that, you’re part of the problem.

*

When
clouds covered the sun, and a slight drizzle, so thin it almost formed in fog,
pearled the screen of my phone, I tucked an umbrella into my armpit and grew
thankful that the heat had abated. Some days the temperature made me sweat in
places that people living in the north never realize you could feel sweat in.
And this was fall, mind you. This wasn’t even summer.

I
knocked on the outer security grate of a red brick house and no one answered.
The doorbell either didn’t work or made a sound inaudible behind the door. As I
turned, I looked across the street to the end of a lawn with no sidewalk where
someone had piled tires, broken or shattered windows, an old printer, and a
couch. The couch was leather, black with the front faded and ripped to grey.
The house behind it was tan with a black roof shaded umber by leaves and dirt.
On the roof, a grey satellite dish pointed towards the constellations above
this very down-to-earth property where someone may have resided or someone may
have abandoned.

I
snapped a picture on my phone, and as I turned around the block, since the
house sat on the corner lot, I heard men behind the fenced-in yard, not visible
from where I stood earlier. “You’re on camera, too.”

“Excuse
me?” I didn’t think anyone was home, since no one answered.

“We’ve
got picture of you, too. You and the Feds.”

In
the yard, three men huddled. The one calling me out sat in the driver’s side of
a newly restored Lincoln with bright rims. Beside the car, two men stood, one
with a small glass bottle of gin in his hand. It was before noon.

The neighborhoods in this district wavered from run-down to classic suburbia. Tall, weedy grass to manicured lawns with carefully carved hedges. On one street, I saw a house with plasterboard for windows. Someone had written in chalk on the plasterboard, “For rent, call 225…” On another street, I saw a bonsai tree larger than any I’ve witnessed outside of museums. White stone lions pillared each side of one driveway. Several broken-down cars were the statues in another driveway. One house held a large banner written in black and red paint. The font varied in styles from cursive to gothic. It read, “Happy Birthday,” “We Gain Johnson,” “Asia Kim,” “Love Won!” and “Engagement Party.” I couldn’t quite make sense of it. At another house, a sign beside the door listed in orange marker the prices of meals. Patrons could get several “Breakfast 4 Champions” platters, such as a grits, eggs, and sausage plate with coffee for $5. A fish, shrimp, or crab poboy, also $5. Hamburgers or cheeseburgers were $2. That was not a typo. Desserts ranged from pecan candies to bundt cakes. At the top of the menu, the owner had written out proverbs 3:5–6, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thine ways acknowledge him and he shall direct thy paths.” Their slogan read, “Where every bite is like a slice of heaven.”

*

In
Louisiana, students in grade school take the LEAP test every year, which assesses
their skills in English, Math, and Social Studies. The test is scored through
five levels: advanced, mastery, basic, approaching basic, and unsatisfactory.
In order for a student to be prepared for the next grade level, he or she must
meet the level of mastery. However, for the last three years, little progress
has been made. In 2018, only 34 percent of third-through-eighth graders met
this requirement. When high-school students were added, only 43 percent of the
students scored mastery in English, and only 33 percent of the students met
this benchmark in Math, according to The Advocate.
In U.S. News and World Reports’ “Best
States for PreK-12” rankings, Louisiana comes in at 45. Wallethub, whose study factors in funding, class size, instructor
credentials and safety along with performance, rates Louisiana at 50 (out of
51, since D.C. is included).

Aware
of the poor state of their schools, the citizens I met voiced concern. One
woman who worked at the post office wanted to know what the candidate would do
about the LEAP Test. She worried that the state’s requirement that students
pass the test by a certain try held kids back and shaped the way teachers
interact with kids in the classroom. Another woman wanted to know what the
candidate would do to better the lives and working conditions of support
workers like bus drivers and janitors. Everyone talks about the teachers, she
said, but they aren’t the only ones working with these kids.

As
I answered a nineteen-year-old’s questions about her polling place, one of her
relatives, who didn’t live in the district, swayed and proclaimed that
politicians promise anything but never deliver. She said she’d called her
senator about burying her husband, but no one would help her.

Some
people didn’t answer the door even though I could hear them watching television
or talking or moving around. Sometimes the door would be open and I could see
them through the inner screen door, watching TV and ignoring me. Most yelled,
“Who is it?” through the door. Some shouted “Get off my property,” or “Not
interested” without ever knowing why I was there. Some said, “We don’t vote,”
or “I’m going to vote” in a tone as if I’d expected them not to participate. A
few teenagers told me with pride how they were going to vote for the first
time. This district resembled most districts in the U.S. Some people were
involved in their community and some weren’t, for reasons both personal and a
product of our national culture. Some held hope, while others had given up or
never cared.

*

I
knocked on the house of a middle-aged white man who burst through the door. He
said, “Is yours the candidate who said he wanted to create more opportunity for
black males?”

“What
do you mean?” I asked. The way he spoke showed his disproval of this idea.

“Last
night at the debate, one of the candidates said he wanted to create more
opportunity for black males. It did not go over well with the female
candidates.”

I
told him about the candidate’s desire to create equality for all schools and
students, but I also told him about how the highest drop-out rates are among
black boys. He may have been addressing this. The man held the flyer at eye-level
against his brick wall, squinted at it, and told me he would consider my
candidate. He remained undecided.

Later
I stopped to admire a woman’s garden. A raised bed burst with foliage and food.
On the side of her house, tomato plants dangled from hanging pots. In her yard,
a sign supporting my candidate stood. The woman appeared in her fifties, tall,
with grey hair, brown skin and freckles. She joked about the sign, as if I hadn’t
seen it. She offered me water before I left.

*

I
saw lizards, wasps, roaches. The glass covering of a porchlight contained a
graveyard of moths. Four dogs basked in the sun of a house with an eviction
notice. A woman told me the people had left them when they moved. In someone’s
driveway, a cat meandered around a turtle with a spiked tail. No body of water,
not even a culvert, was close.

*

I
met my supervisor, a young woman who worked the rest of the year for a
consulting firm in D.C., at an upscale, fairly-new Market in Mid City. The White
Star Market has coffee shops that sell cold-brew, nitrogen drips. Gov’t Taco
serves a single taco with coffee/chile rubbed beef, avocado crema, hot sauce,
and pickled red onions and jalapenos for $3.50. Chow Yum Phat serves a ramen
bowl with broth, seared pork belly, ajitama, woodear and shitake mushrooms,
enoki, mayu and scallions for $12. When my supervisor said that these neighborhoods
barely ever get canvassed, I told her that the main obstacle I was running into
was the citizens’ wariness of a young white man in their neighborhoods asking
them about voting.

As
African-Americans make up the majority of the district, its citizens
reluctantly trusted me – a white person walking into their southern
neighborhoods to ask them who they planned on voting for. Often, I got, “I’m
not going to tell you that.” “That’s my business.” “We don’t talk about that.”
Even though the picture on the flier showed that the candidate I was canvassing
for was black, these citizens were still aware of Republicans’ ongoing voter
suppression efforts. Shortly after inauguration, Kris Kobach, appointed by the
Trump Administration, headed a committee secretly aimed at creating data to
justify oppressive voter ID laws. In North Carolina, Republican senators in the
state legislature attempted to eliminate the final Saturday of early voting in
state elections. Black voters routinely show up to the polls on this day. In
Georgia, secretary of state Brian Kemp, running for Georgia Governor against
Stacey Abrams (who would have been the first black governor in US history),
used an exact-match signature system for absentee ballots. This system put the
registration of 53,000 voters on hold. When Abraham recently conceded that her
candidacy held no viable path to the governorship, she noted, correctly, that
“democracy failed Georgia” and “eight years of systematic disenfranchisement,
disinvestment, and incompetence had its desired effect on the electoral process
in Georgia.” Similarly, in Randolph County, election officials attempted to
close seven of the nine polling places. To justify these closures, the election
officials stated that the polling places do not properly accommodate Americans
with disabilities. Sixty percent of this county is black. In North Dakota, the
states supreme court upheld a controversial bill which required a street
address to be listed on state IDs. Many native peoples living on the
reservations in North Dakota use only P.O. Boxes. The examples go on and on.

Voting
is the foundation of our democracy, or our democratic republic, if you want to
get technical. This is something your high-school civics teacher will tell you,
and it’s true. Any attempt to disenfranchise Americans right to vote borders on
treason. If you don’t understand this, you’re part of the problem. So, when
people were skeptical to admit their voting intentions, I understood, and
simply told them abut my candidate, answered any questions they had, and gave
them a flier. I marked “No Response” in the app.

Near
the end of a long day, a woman peeked through the blinds and asked me who I was
and what I was doing at her home.

“My
name is Jesse. I am canvassing for the upcoming schoolboard election, ma’am.”

“Who
are you?”

I
repeated myself. I asked if X was home.

She
slightly cracked the door. “How did you get my name?”

When
I told her that both parties have voter-registration data that helps them
target supporters, she told me that she doesn’t like that her private information
is open-access. I understood her concerns. I really did. The app that I used to
find the addresses of potential voters also included the person’s name, age,
telephone number, and political affiliation. Eventually she stepped outside and
we talked not only about the candidates but also about the ability of political
parties as well as corporations to mine and database American’s personal data.
Somewhere, someone is getting paid to monitor and store records of your life – what
websites you visit, what words you type into search engines, what you purchase
and who you vote for. It’s terrifying.

At
the next address, I spoke with a woman who leaned into the half-opened door. As
I started to talk about my candidate and the state of our schools, the woman told
me that everyone in her family attended private schools. Apparently, it was not
her concern. I responded by telling her, in a way that felt almost cliché but
is still true, that the public schools are the life of the community. They are
a reflection of but also shape the values, economics, and crime-rates of an
area. These students graduate or they don’t. They go to college or they don’t.
They start businesses or they don’t. They get good jobs or they don’t. They buy
houses right beside yours or they don’t. But first, they attend our schools.

I
left the woman’s house. As it started to set, the sun abated the heat and allowed
some of the sweat on the middle of my back to dry. When I rounded a corner, I saw
a boy and two girls, probably in their early twenties, standing in the driveway,
talking. The house was not on my list, but I talked with the boy about what
happened next door. On the lot, the carcass of a house stood. Its brickwork,
painted white, stacked upwards to a burnt-away roof. Half-scorched boards leaned
into a grey carport. Parts of it were cindered and toppling over. I asked the
boy if he saw the flames. I asked the boy if anyone lived there. I asked the
boy if anyone died.

The owner was asleep inside its walls as it burned.




The Left-Handed Phenomenon

Picture Credits: Daniel Dudek

“Lower than
pigs and dogs,” shouted Robert Mugabe.

“More deadly than
all natural disasters put together,” hollered Yahya Jammeh.

“Death! Death!”
yells the law of northern Nigeria.

“Life
imprisonment!” screams the laws of Uganda, Tanzania and Sierra Leone.

“Decapitate
them, lynch them, set them ablaze and destroy their properties.”

With this kind
of denouncement from our leaders one would think they are targeting child
molesters or terrorists. One could even be forgiven for thinking that this bile
is being flung at green-coloured aliens, with big heads and short legs, from
Mars; aliens who have come in giant saucer-shaped space ships to colonize earth
and harvest our organs.

But this kind
of hostility has been hurled at a nurse who spends her days delivering babies,
and a teacher who dedicates his time to pouring knowledge into young minds. Despite
the positive things they do for their communities, they are being hunted down
like rabid dogs. Simply because of the people they love and desire.

Homosexuality
is a hot button in Africa today. Much of the fervour, however, is fuelled by
demagogic politicians who want to distract their subjects from the real issues
that matter, like runaway corruption and nepotism. Many politicians today are
in office because they are riding high on the rampant homophobia they’ve
created.

Not long ago it
used to be tribal politics: us against
them
. If they take office they
will steal our cattle, land and wives and make us wear shorts. If they take office,
we will be carrying them on our backs to and from work – so as a tribe we
needed to pull together to curtail them.

Today, tribalism
is highly frowned upon, on the surface that is. Publicly denouncing another
tribe can be considered hate speech. Therefore, our leaders have found a new
target, another group that we can all hate. A people we need to see as less
human, a common evil that will galvanize and mobilize the masses. It was Anton
Chekhov, the short story writer I most revere, who said that love, friendship
and respect do not unite a people as much as a common hatred for something.

Throughout
history, humans have sought to other groups
we need to blame for all the problems in our society. If drought is upon us,
it’s because of the homosexuals. If there is an outbreak of disease such as
cholera, it’s because of them too, and if your child is failing at school, why
not? For Hitler’s Germany it was the Jews. For the Hutu it was the Tutsi. In
Myanmar it’s the Rohingya Muslims. In America it started with the Native
Americans. Today in Trump’s reign it’s everyone who isn’t a White Protestant.
In Europe it’s the refugees; that’s why the British voted for Brexit.

During the two
world wars the British found it difficult enlisting fighters and carriers from
their African colonies. Africans were not too jazzed about fighting another
man’s war. The British found a quick solution by painting the Germans as
cannibals with big jagged teeth, long forked tongues and horns. The British
claimed that if Germany won the war, they would come over to Africa and butcher
whole villages for meat. Thus, many African men enlisted to save their
families. But once the men reached Europe, they realised they had been tricked.
The German was so similar to the English man they could have been brothers.

This is the
same kind of propaganda being peddled today by our political and religious
leaders. But this time, it isn’t about wars or tribes, but about whom people
are allowed to love. These so-called leaders stir a hornet’s nest with their
speeches. One of these vilifying speeches snakes its way one afternoon into a
dingy bar where it finds a bunch of loafers and shakes their hands.

“I tried
chatting up Awinja the other day,” one says, “but she thinks she’s too good for
me.”

“Who is
Awinja?” another asks.

“She’s that
long-legged close-shaven girl who lives near the pork butchery.”

“Oh, but I hear
she likes girls,” yet another says.

“That’s because
she’s never been with a real man like me,” boasts another.

“Girls like Awinja need to be cured of their disgusting lesbianism and hatred for men, just as our MP says,” says another. “What do you say, boys?”

The gang seeks
out Awinja to cure her by brutally raping her; they are doctors and that is the
remedy. As she cries out, one informs her that bitter medicine works best. When
she reports to the police, nothing is done. She is a “misfit” who got what she
“deserved.”

“Un-African” – this
is how much of the hate speech against homosexuality is justified. “White man’s
disease,” it is called, brought in by ship when the white men colonized our
lands. Dismissing homosexuality like this, though, is hypocrisy of the highest
degree. Almost on a level with the hypocrisy of the African Union, which claims
to advocate for democracy and human rights and in the same breath elects
chairmen like Idi Amin, Mugabe and Teodore Obiang.

Today not much
of us or our lives can be described as “African.” An urban African wakes up in
a house with indoor plumbing, toasts their bread, fingers their smart phone,
clad in suits/pantsuits and boards a matatu or an okada to work. Let’s not
forget that many of us favour Western names over our own, opt to speak in
Western languages, as that way one is deemed progressive and educated, and
prefer wigs over our African hair, and even bleach our skins.

Homosexuality
is not new in Africa. It didn’t come with the white man during colonisation as
some people would want us to believe. Many African cultures have a name for
homosexuality as old as the cultures themselves. Unlike the new words that have
recently cropped up in African languages like feminism, ambulance and catch-22.

Individuals of
many communities across Africa have practiced homosexuality in one form or
another. The earliest recorded homosexual couple lived about 2400 B.C. in Egypt
during the reign of the sixth pharaoh. These were royal court manicurists named
Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum. Their love for each other was so strong that when
they died they were buried in the same tomb. Other classic examples are the
cave paintings of the San of Zimbabwe, thousands of years old, depicting
homosexual acts between men. In fact, homophobia was bred by the missionaries
who curtailed most of our sexual practices, calling them savagely and demonic.
For instance: No sexual relations during the day, and lie with your wife only
once in a night and only in the missionary position.

Another line of
argument against homosexuality is referring to it as taboo. Any worthy
sociology student will tell you that what is taboo today will not necessarily
be taboo tomorrow. In many cultures it was taboo in the past for women to
divorce their husbands. A woman with a violent husband had to endure his fists,
kicks and vile tongue till the end of her days. Today marriages are dissolving
without raising eyebrows, and battered women are taking their husbands to
court.

Interracial
couples were once taboo, and for the young generation it’s almost unfathomable
to visualize that tattoos and women wearing pants were as well. The last
example is one I know many shy men are grateful for. Today it’s common for a
woman to ask a man out. In the past women wouldn’t have dreamt of such
forwardness, because they were socialized to believe they would appear
desperate and sluttish. The cogs of time are moving fast.

Many Africans
are of the inclination that homosexuality is against their religion. But in
truth, mainstream religions in Africa such as Christianity and Islam cannot in
all honesty be called “our” religions. These are religions that are heavily
laden with Western and Middle Eastern practices and are highly critical of
black people. White Christians have quoted verses from the Bible to justify the
chaining, enslaving and oppression of black people. Colossians 3:22–25 states
that slaves should obey their earthly masters in everything, and do it with all
their hearts as if working for the Lord. In so doing they will receive an
inheritance from the Lord as a reward.

Many religious
Africans have the tendency of taking everything religion says at face value;
and this has proved to be highly problematic. That’s why it’s common for
demented persons to misinterpret the doctrines of these religions: An African
will slaughter another, or blow himself up in a crowded market over these
imported religions. When I was a teenager we lived next to a staunch Christian
woman who had three small children. Her husband worked in the city and didn’t
come home for months at a time. Because her church believed that people who die
young, before they reach the age of accountability, are given a free pass to
Heaven – she drowned her poor kids in the local dam.

In Africa one
is Catholic or Protestant or Muslim mostly because that religious group reached
their village first before any other during the scramble for and partitioning
of Africa. In my village, Njogu-ini, in Central Kenya, it was the Presbyterians
to reach it first at the turn of the twentieth century. My paternal great
grandmother was a little girl then. She was baptized and christened Tabitha.

Since then my
family and the entire village at large has been Protestant, passed down from
generation to generation. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been
like if it was the Muslims or the Buddhists who reached our village first. I’m
greedy by nature so I would have relished the opportunity to marry up to four
wives, or to put aside the heaven or hell teachings for the power of
reincarnation.

I once had a
homosexual friend who was in the closet for most of his young life. Kamara (not
his real name) and I were as close as brothers. Many found him a bit strange.
As nursery-school kids I noticed he loved to play mother when we played house.
As the years progressed, I noticed he was acutely conscious of his image. I
remember constantly rebuking him for spending too much time in front of the mirror.

We went to the
same boarding boys’ high school. He made the rest of us look like a bunch of
greasy mechanics. His clothes were always cleanest and he took a shower daily.
He had long polished nails that always got him in trouble with the teachers,
and he loved to plait his hair on weekends. Sometimes when he walked you would
think he was cat-walking. Some boys hated him at first but gradually came to
like him for his uniqueness.

When we talked
about girls he seemed quite bored. When one of the boys managed to smuggle a
dirty magazine to school, Kamara was never among the hordes fighting to get at
it. In form three Kamara and I were appointed dorm captains. He was the Batian
and I was the Lenana captain. Every Saturday we did general cleaning of the
dorms and there was a competition overseen by teachers on duty to see which
dorm was the neatest and tidiest. Batian almost always won among the eight
dorms.

Being a dorm
captain came with benefits. Our school had a policy of random locker searches
by our teachers. Dorm captains were exempted from this degrading ordeal.
(Nothing is more uncomfortable than your chemistry teacher feeling your
underpants checking for contraband.) Therefore, many students would hide their
illicit goods like marijuana, snuff and the dirty magazines in the lockers of
dorm captains, for a small fee of course.

Dorm captains
were entrusted with making duty rosters and some rich students did bribe us
handsomely to be exempted from duties. Kamara was the only upright dorm captain
who didn’t condone such criminality. Even on Wednesdays when one piece of meat
was thrown in our boiled and badly cut cabbages, he shared the meat equally
among his subjects. The other captains, I included, piled our plates high with
meat till some students missed their one piece.

As I chewed my
bowl of meat I would contemplate: Kamara will make a brilliant politician in
future – incorruptible, altruistic, neat and organized.

Kamara and I
attended the same college and shared a room. That’s when I knew my best friend
suffered from the “white man’s disease”. Seeing how he had no game in wooing
the female species. I went out one evening to a party and came back with two
tipsy voluptuous ladies, one for me and one for him. Kamara broke down in tears
and I had to kick the girls out. He made a clean breast of everything.

“Why on earth
would you choose to be gay?” I asked.

Kamara looked
daggers at me. “You tell me, why would anyone choose to be gay?” I didn’t have an answer. So I kept mum and paced
about the room, arms akimbo.

“Being gay in
Africa is like living with leprosy,” he said. “Why would I wish that on myself?”

“I just don’t
get it,” I said. “We were brought up in the same village, attended the same
schools. Where did you lose a step?”

“I didn’t lose
a step anywhere. I have always been this way,” Kamara said. “Think about it.
Who would choose to be a homosexual and go through all the hatred, danger and
ridicule that comes with the tag?”

Seeing that
Kamara was somewhat making sense, and remembering all the odd mannerisms he had
since childhood, I did my research in the coming weeks and came to realise what
a fool I had been. I apologized profusely. Condemning one for being gay is as
illogical as condemning one for being left-handed, I learnt. Science says
homosexuality is natural. Religion calls it an abomination. Remember it is science
that saves lives in hospitals, not the hundred hands clasped in prayer.

I sadly read of
how doctors in the past had subjected homosexuals to cruel practices, trying to
“cure” them. Men were castrated and women had their wombs removed. Other
doctors, thinking it was a mental illness, cut into patients’ brains and
submitted many others to session upon session of electrocution. Nothing worked
of course.

After college
Kamara and I were scattered by the winds in pursuit of bread but we talked
regularly over the phone. In his mid-twenties Kamara’s parents began pressuring
him to settle down. This Christmas do not come home without a lady in your
arms, his mother would often say; and if her belly is protruding, all the
better.

When I visited
the village from time to time and happened to bump into Kamara’s mother, she
would whisper into my ear. “You have been friends with my son since childhood.
You know how shy he is in the presence of ladies. Why don’t you introduce him
to some of your lady friends, my child?”

“I will, mother,”
I’d lie. I knew she would cry out that demons had possessed her son and roll in
the dirt and pull at her hair if I revealed to her he didn’t swing that way. I
would try dropping clever quotes to defend him; like how heterosexuality is not
normal, it’s just common. That homosexuality is neither a sickness nor a
choice. It’s innate and unchangeable. But I held my tongue in her presence. It
wasn’t my place anyway to shove Kamara out of the closet.

A week before
Christmas 2016, Kamara’s boss got wind of his sexual orientation and fired him.
Kamara went home without a woman in his arms. Everyone was disappointed, but
not as much as when he told them it was because he was gay and was tired of
living a lie, and hoped they would accept him as he was.

His father
shouted it was better his mother had given birth to a frog than to a son like
him who brought such shame to the family. “Get out and never come back!” his
father screamed. “The day you hear me call you my son again, take my name and
give it to a dog.”

Kamara hung
himself on New Year’s Eve 2017 in a cheap motel. On that day, Africa lost a
gifted young man. He would have made a noble leader – something that is greatly
needed in our dear continent.
But alas, the prevalence of homophobia has robbed us of his talent.

Homosexuals are
like poetry. They are hated simply because they are not understood. Anyone
should be able to love and be loved by a member of whichever sex, as long as
they are two consenting adults. It should be a fundamental right, a civil
right.

In this modern
era, homophobia is reminiscent of racism in Jim Crow America and Apartheid
South Africa; when restaurants had posters outside shouting – DOGS AND BLACKS
NOT ALLOWED. A racist dentist then would not pull out a rotting tooth from a
black person. Today a homophobic dentist will act similarly when presented with
a known homosexual patient. I once overheard a dentist swear he’d rather stick
his hands in a street dog’s mouth.

In those
unfortunate days, two black men sauntering joyously along the streets bothering
nobody would invite a beating from white men; the same treatment would be visited
today on a gay couple walking the streets holding hands, but by black men.
White men raped black women to humiliate them, show their contempt of the black
race and enforce racial domination. As shown above, black men are today raping
lesbians to show their contempt of the woman’s orientation and to try to shame
her into heterosexuality.

In 1954, the
United States Supreme Court decreed a law desegregating public schools. Three
years later nine African American children became the first students to be
enrolled in an all-white high school. The school was Little Rock Central High
in Arkansas. What followed is the Little Rock Crisis: The local white community
rose in revolt taking it as an insult that their children would be sharing the
same classrooms with black students.

There was a
mighty showdown between the Arkansas Governor, Faubus, and the American
President, Eisenhower. The Governor deployed troops at the gate to bar the
children from entering the school. The President assigned the federal army to
escort the nine children through the gates of the school; as parents and
students pelted them with rocks, spat at them and called them all manner of
names.

In class, these
nine students still got hit, abused and had their hairs pulled. At meal times
hot coffee and ketchup was poured on their heads and the washrooms had graffiti
that bore lines like “Monkeys go back to Africa.” The teachers turned a blind
eye to all this. Actually if one of the nine fought back, he or she would be
punished by the teachers. After classes, rope-carrying lynch mobs would patrol
the streets trying to get at them.

Journalists
took photos: Of members of the rope-carrying mobs, and of the white parents and
students yelling and throwing acid in the faces of the black students. Being a
racial bigot was cool then for white people, but the times have changed.
History has not been kind to those white students featured in these historic
photographs. One of the snaps features a girl named Hazel Massery. The rain
started beating her in the 1980s. She and the other white students are now seen
as the outcasts, members of the Ku Klux Klan. They are now elderly but the
photos are still fresh. A few of them, like Hazel, out of shame apologized to
their victims in the Oprah Winfrey show in 2011. The nine African American
children grew up to be educators, journalists and human rights activists.

Below is an
iconic photo of one of the Little Rock Nine, fifteen-year-old Elizabeth
Eckford, as she tries to enter the school. The girl shouting behind Eckford is
Hazel Massery. The photo was taken by Will Counts, a photographer of the
segregationist newspaper Arkansas Democrat.

Today the trend
is of bashing homosexuals and denying them their civil rights. But the wheel of
time is turning, and soon, those who condemn homosexuals will be
viewed as poorly as the
parents, students and teachers of Little Rock High.

I have a dream
that one day homosexuals in Africa will no longer be treated as second-class
citizens. That they will be permitted to go about their lives as freely as
heterosexuals: not hide their sexuality from their employers and landlords, to
walk hand in hand in the streets, run for elective posts, get married and start
families. Let the cogs of time find you on the right side of the track. Don’t
be a Hazel Massery.




A Minute with Zack de la Rocha

Picture Credits: Alexis Gravel

On
the day I met Zack de la Rocha, I made a conscious choice not to be tear-gassed.
Some people were tear-gassed that
day, the anarchists and hard cases who showed up in DC with actual battle plans
and gasmasks slung over their shoulders. They were down the block on F Street
taunting the police at the barricades. I was on E Street, on a more
domesticated path, walking in a slow, orderly parade of 30,000 demonstrators
who were trying without much success to muck up a big meeting of the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund.

That day – April
16, 2000 – would be remembered as “A16” in the annals of the anti-globalization
movement. I had driven to DC from New Jersey the night before with Jake, a
journalist friend. We stayed in a Holiday Inn downtown, and in the morning, we
walked over to the Mall, jumping into the demonstration at 10th Street. The
march was already underway, a big slow-moving parade headed down E Street.

Already
this protest didn’t feel like others I had attended. There was an edge to it, a
whiff of violence and unhinged possibility. In those days, the style of Leftist
street protest was carnivalesque – a potent form of edgy performance art
that was part block party, part Mardi Gras, part Red Brigade street action. At
the center, you would find a peaceful street festival with giant puppets, drum
circles, and floats, but around the fringes, the anarchists and hardcore
revolutionaries were prowling, searching for weaknesses in the State’s armor.
Often the boundaries between these two demonstrations were fluid, but on this
day, the organizers had managed to literally channel them down different,
parallel streets. The street party followed the police-approved parade route on
E Street, pulling most of the demonstrators behind it in tow, but one block
away on F Street, where the barricades were actually set up, the anarchists
were fighting a running battle with the police.

If
you had asked me that day in Washington why I was there, I would have shared a
few David-and-Goliath stories about Indonesian labor organizers and Central
American campesinos standing up to global corporations. Like many American
liberals after the Berlin Wall fell, I was finally waking up to the great
circuit board of connections linking me to people throughout the world.
Globalization was forcing liberals like me for the first time to stare down the
long supply chains that stretch from our supermarkets and big box stores back
into steamy tin-roofed places where children work fourteen hours a day in a
textile mill and labor organizers end up in a ditch with their throats cut.

I
glanced over to the left, and there was the lead singer of Rage Against the
Machine, the poet revolutionary of ’90s rock music, walking abreast of us in
the crowd. In my wildest fantasy of meeting Zack de la Rocha, I could not have
pictured this more perfectly.

I am of that
generation that cares about authenticity in popular music. As a proud son of
New Jersey, I had grown up on apocryphal stories about Bruce Springsteen
materializing in the crowd at some honkytonk bar in Arizona and then jumping up
on the stage to play with the house band. At a U2 concert in the mid-’80s, I
had cheered as the band brought a teenage boy out of the audience, strapped a
guitar around his neck, and let him play along to their cover of Dylan’s
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” To see Zack de la Rocha on the street in a hoodie
marching against global capitalism – just one of the proletariat – confirmed
everything I believed about the power and potential of rock music.

He was so close I
could reach out an touch him.

At that stage of
my life, I could count the celebrities I had met on one hand, so in my naïveté,
I formulated a plan that in retrospect was quite silly: We would pretend not to
know who he was, start up a conversation, and then hang out with him all day.
But before I could say a word, Jake was pushing up to Zack to ask for his
autograph.

The moment was
spoiled, of course. In the end, despite the hoodie and the prince-and-the-pauper
routine, Zack de la Rocha was a rockstar and we were fans, and no amount of
political solidarity could erase the uncomfortable wall separating us. He
quickly scribbled his autograph and then disappeared into the crowd without
uttering a single politically significant word.

*

Seventeen
years later, I am watching a YouTube clip of Rage Against the
Machine’s first public performance, in an outdoor pavilion on the campus of California State University on October
23, 1991. There they are, fresh from the womb and already a perfectly formed
rock band. Zack is bolting around the stage like a pinball in play, wearing a
long-sleeved sweatshirt. Tom Morello leans into his blistering guitar riffs.
Students and teachers are walking past the stationary camera, mostly ignoring
the band, but a few students are facing the stage, obviously aware that
something epic is popping off in front of them. For everyone else, it’s just another
day on the quad.

In the mid-’90s,
I thought that rock music was wildly incongruent with the zeitgeist, so I was –
and continue to be – mystified by the mass appeal of Rage Against the Machine. There
we were, in the midst of unprecedented prosperity and a genuine technological
revolution, but our popular music was awash in angst and suffering and
impotence. Whatever the mass psychology underlying the “nu metal” movement,
Rage was trying to both harness its political potential and monetize it for consumer consumption. Their very existence in popular
music seemed unsustainable to me.

Rage was always
overestimating the political commitment of its audience. You can hear it in
Zack’s rhetoric in the 1990s, in his tendency to regard his fans as an untapped
ocean of radical political energy. “We’re not going to play to the [mainstream]; we’re going to
hijack it,” said De la Rocha, in a 1997 Rolling
Stone
article. “The tour is going to incorporate everything which the rich,
wealthy classes in America fear and despise. Each of the 20,000 people in the
audience will be reminded of their independent political power.”

Did he actually
believe that effective political action could cohere in a mosh pit? He seems
unaware (though how could he be?) that many of the kids who bought tickets to see
Rage and other nu metal bands in the ’90s were on a more visceral trip. This
was made obvious to the world in July of 1999 when the Woodstock ’99 concert
ended in a flaming riot. Earlier that day, Rage played a “blistering” set and
lit an American flag ablaze. At the end of the concert, the mostly male
concert-goers torched big piles of garbage and trashed the place. Some women
were raped in the ensuing melee. People were beaten up. The police were called
in to restore order.

Rage could never
escape the marrow-deep contradictions of its devil’s bargain with Big Music. It
didn’t matter how stridently they campaigned for justice for Leonard Peltier or
Mumia Abu-Jamal in between songs, they would always be the band for upper middle
class white kids who fretted over their sweatshop t-shirts and Nikes. The money
from millions of record sales would always flow out of that sea of disposable
income from the most privileged and affluent society in human history. There
would always be Rage fans who grabbed ass and kicked ass at their concerts, whose
politics were smashy smashy.

After I finish
watching the video, my wife reminds me that it’s Monday – Trash and Recycling
Day. I sort of drift out of the house on autopilot, and before I realize it, I
am standing on the curb in brown crocs and blue-and-white-checkered pajama
bottoms holding the blue recycling bin in both
hands. In the moonless dark, the cul-de-sac looks like an ancient Stonehenge
circled by giant stone monoliths, a place of solemn ritual. I am deep in the
priesthood now, with my Ph.D. in English and my academic career and my slouchy
dad bod, and my eight-year-old daughter asleep in the house behind me – a life
like the one my parents had, but with a lot more plastic crap and stress.

I am thinking,
what was it about that period from 1999 to 2001 that so captivated my sense of
idealism? Why was I, at 34 years old, marching with anarchists and Guatemalan
campesinos and the Socialists Workers Party?

It is difficult
for me to resurrect the feeling I had on that day. The early 2000s have already
sunk into a hazy miasma, in part because 9/11 so decisively divided my sense of
personal history into before and after. Ideology decompiles our
experience of time and then reassembles it according to new hierarchies of
importance. From somewhere, I learned that whatever we were anxious about before – Y2K, the Dot.com bubble
bursting, Saddam Hussein, the thoroughly fucked-up 2000 election, the Battle in
Seattle – all of this was trivial when measured against the shadow of those
falling towers and what happened after.
I do remember believing that we could make a crack in the endless dream of
consumer capitalism. I remember being gripped by a persistent uneasiness. I
knew something was wrong with the world, but I couldn’t quite name it yet.

And here I am, nearly
twenty years later, standing at the curb, still wracked by the same anxieties.

In quiet moments
like these, the angels of my repressed desires step forward out of the
darkness. Sometimes it is Tyler Durden, who wants to whisper prophecies in my
ear:

“In
the world I see – you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around
the ruins of Rockefeller Center,” he says. “You’’ll wear leather clothes
that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu
vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny
figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of
some abandoned superhighway.”

This
is what happened to
some of us, the last-wave Boomers and first-wave Gen Xers who only
halfheartedly embraced the lifestyle our parents bequeathed to us; who moved to
the suburbs with our irony still intact; who somewhat reluctantly took jobs
inside the vast interlinked bureaucracies of corporate-academic-government
power; who feel aggrieved by our rampant consumerism and tormented by our long
commutes; whose true politics are still formless, still without a name or a
party; who now find ourselves struggling to recall lines from late-’90s cinema
in the dark to find metaphors for our lives. We fell asleep, but only halfway,
and we keep trying to wake up.

Sometimes it is
Morpheus, in his beautiful black trench coat and those cool stemless
sunglasses:

“You take the
blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you
want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you
how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Do I really want
to know how deep the rabbit hole goes? Somewhat. Yes. I want to know.

Our fathers dreamed
about being John Wayne and Neil Armstrong, but we fantasize about tearing down
the system, or what it will be like after it falls on its own. For us,
patriotism is dead, eviscerated by the zombie apocalypse. It’s all dystopian
downhill from here. Post Skynet. It’s as if we are stuck inside of a
never-ending fracture, like a windshield struck by a big rock – after Watts,
after ’68, after Watergate, after the fall of Saigon, after the Great
Recession, after the never-ending culture wars and the never-ending War on
Terror, after the city-busting hurricanes and each heart-wrenching school
shooting. The web of tiny fractures grows and grows.

Sometimes it is
Zack de la Rocha, performing in front of a choir of angels, if angels singing
sounded like a chainsaw cutting through sheet metal.

Tonight it is
Neo, who flies stealthily out of the darkness like Superman and is suddenly
standing there in the cul-de-sac, dropped from the sky. He has a message for me:

“I didn’t come
here to tell you how it will end,” he says. “I came here to tell you how it
will begin.”

Despite everything I know – despite all of the
compromises I’ve made along the way – I still so badly want to know how it will
begin.




Some Sunken Cities

Picture Credits: Michael Gaida

On the train to New Orleans an Amish couple, Esther and Ray from Ohio, say they are going on west to El Paso and a shuttle bus to a Mexican clinic. Low-cost cancer cure for Esther using cyanide from apricot pits.

Train horn signals (= indicates long horn, O short horn)
= Train stopped.

Esther and Ray
tell a story: they were in a friend’s car and he hit a deer. The airbag hit Ray’s
face. The patrolman took them to a motel. It was called The Dead Deer Lodge.
Their guests all came from deer collisions. They had a tea and aroma therapy
lounge for PTSD. The sign had a deer in a casket.

= = Train releasing brakes and proceeding.

In the observation
car a slender young woman with glasses who looks like a middle-class college
student tells the stranger next to her that she knows he isn’t a criminal,
because all her brothers have been in prison or killed someone or run drugs.
That’s what she’s doing now, on the train, for her boyfriend. You could come in
on it if you want. But I see you’ve got something going there, she says to the
guy, looking down at his crotch. I’ve got a condom if you just want to go in
the bathroom and do it.

OOOO Request signal, or give signal.

When they return
one of the porters approaches them. I had my twenty dollars of tips on the
table back there, he said. The money is gone. You’re the only people who have
walked through there.

OOO Train stopped, is backing up.

She says, are you
saying we took your money?

The porter says,
yes.

= = O = Approaching a public crossing.

Later, when the
train can’t continue due to flooding, the bus driver says her first husband
killed himself drinking cyanide from a coke bottle. She says “SIGH-nied” and
drives with two fingers while texting and drinking coke over the twenty-four-mile
Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, longest continuous, she says, veering a little to
point out a gator slumbering under a green mold trestle. She wears Elvis wraparound
shades with rhinestone crosses on the sides and takes two unscheduled vape-breaks
to selfie with passengers, feed the diabetics and “take a piddle.” The first
stop is to Buck-Ees, which boasts “world-famous bathrooms” and caramel corn, knives,
pepper-spray, jerky and energy drinks, and then the Tiger Stop, with a video
sign that reads, LIVE CAMEL. They used to have a LIVE TIGER, she said, but the
tiger died and they got the camel. The store also features knives, jerky,
pepper spray and energy drinks, and the live camel, in a stinking pen outside.

Alma Twohig
Nobles Salvant
Ruck Bulloco, and the whole company of Jefferson Home Hook and Ladder No. 1.

The next bus has a
more sober-seeming driver, but she turns on a heavy-metal radio station and
plays it loud enough for the passengers to hear. At a stop for new passengers,
someone leaves a purple bag with a keyboard case outside the luggage hold on
the sidewalk. Is it coming, or going? Over the intercom the driver says, if you
are a passenger on this bus with a purple bag and keyboard case, please come
forward so I can load your luggage.

Will the owner of
the purple bag and keyboard case please come to the front so we can load your
luggage?

Who has a purple
bag and keyboard case on the sidewalk?

There is a purple
bag and keyboard case outside the bus.

I am going to
leave a purple bag and keyboard case on the sidewalk.

A purple bag and
keyboard case.

A purple bag and
keyboard case.

A                     purple              bag                and           a               keyboard              case

The door wheezes
shut and the bus lurches away. A young man runs to the front and the bus stops.
He seems affronted, shocked. Even amazed. He says, I didn’t understand it was
my purple bag.

They load the baggage.

Ellen, consort of J.G. Rogers
Elise Blaise
Catherine Huth

Downtown is the
Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, with a display called The Underground
Gallery:

“Visitors to the
Richard C. Colton Jr. Underground Gallery shrink to the size of an insect with
gigantic animatronic bugs, oversized exhibitry and surprises around every turn.
Feel what its like to be the size of an ant while learning about the huge impact
bugs have on the environment we all share!”

It is dark, and
cool. Giant mechanical bugs lurch out of holes. Human footsteps thud overhead.
It does not convey an insect’s view as much as a child’s in a funhouse. Or a
very particular adult experience, perhaps that of a serious actor acting a role
on the set of a low-budget monster film from the 1950s (Them, or It Conquered the World, or Invasion of the Crab Monsters):
a determination to be a professional, play it for real no matter how fake it
seems. There was always the hope that on film, it would all come alive.

The house across
the street is tilted like in a fairy tale. The landlord is working hard to paint
the front porch bright white. He will rent it immediately for eleven hundred a
month. The desire to stay in New Orleans, even as the next storm bears down, is
strong. Not just visit, but live there, in that crooked house. Be that serious
actor in a low-budget horror movie about the end of the world. Maybe it will
all come alive on film, or as a story. Be remembered, like those movies, as a brave
crazy thing, hopeless at the time.

Down the block,
names on the tombstones in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1:

Coashtie Dark
Amelia Siren
Sande Shurnway

The air is thick,
sweet and peppery. Everything has a touch of green mold. A green gecko or
chameleon on pink brick. Mardi Gras beads on trees and powerlines. Grackles
with vertical stabilizers like planes, that swoop and screech over several tarnished
syllables.

Telesphore Bourque
Rene Clerc
Davis Herrod
Aurora Arceneaux
Elizabeth Wolfaith
Mantin Shutard
Annetta Bouintine
Regis Chandris

At the Voodoo
Museum dollar bills are rolled into tubes and inserted into wooden spirit dolls
to satisfy wishes. Weeks later that area will be flooded again. Everyone knows
it will happen again, and again, but still are affronted, shocked and amazed
when interviewed on TV.  Oh my god, one man
says at the rapidly-darkening sky. The olive-green street cars plow through
waist-deep water. They run on electricity from overhead cables. The seats are
wood. At the end of the line they flip over to face the other direction. The
driver walks to the controls at the opposite end and goes back again. Is there
one named Desire.

Edwin
Given                       

                                            
Eule Prytania                               

                                                                                                            Kendal
Keyes

                                                                                    Marguerita
Freudenstein

        Praeger Fontaine         

                                                
George Mekas                          
Aaliyah

                      M. Koenig                 Regis Chandris           

                                                                                       Nicholas
Dominique     

                                                                                                                  
T.J. Earhardt

James
Hederbon                                         

                                                                                           J. Tarbato

                                            
M.K. Karschendiek

The New Orleans
Home                                                                               
 

for
Incurables




The little story that haunted for a very long time

Can a story haunt you? I don’t
mean one that spooks you a little, even one that makes you keep the lights on
after reading. I’m talking about a story that leaves a scar, an invisible scab
that you return to weeks, months, and years after you’d read it. “The Girl in
the Mirror” did that to me.

Not that I could even remember
the exact title. I knew it was in a collection of ghost stories and there was
skeleton on the cover. I would have been ten, in primary school, wooden desks
and inkwells still there from earlier generations. In that final year we were
given plastic ink pens. We invariably smudged both our books and hands as we
wrestled to insert the thin cartridges. Crappy ink pens that would never be
used again, that you had to pointlessly master, and would be punished for misusing:
that sums up my 1970s education.

Other things though were quite
miraculous. Obviously the free milk was gone, and in the next decade they would
take our jobs, but that other source of sustenance, the public library, was
still in its pomp. The mobile version would park outside our tiny rural village
school (thirty pupils); we would line up and take it in turn to step into its
cave of treasures. The chosen books would be placed on a shelf in our classroom.
I can remember the L-shape of shelves, the large map of the world above. The
books from the library were placed in a special area so as not to mix them with
the school’s own books: many of which had been in the schools for decades. This
was the school that my grandparents, parents, uncles, and cousins had all
passed through.

The library service was the only
way to get modern books – not that I ever knew when books had been published.
I’d worked my way through my mother’s Enid Blyton, published thirty years
before, but I knew some books were easier than others to understand.

Who could be haunted by a story?
Not a novel, just a story a few pages in length. I don’t think I was
particularly sensitive as a child. Sensitivity isn’t a big advantage on a farm.
We always had plenty of books though. Not only did the library send its mobile
to the schools, it would also stop at the end of my parents’ farm lane so we
could walk down and get books. It would make this stop just for the two or
three families on that lane.

The library books borrowed by my
family were placed in a special place so they wouldn’t get confused with the other
books in the house. They were placed on a chair in the spare room, and had to
be returned there. My mother didn’t want to search our rooms for them when the
library next made its call. Lord of the
Flies
found its way there one week, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick up
the book because of the gruesome cover. Perhaps I was sensitive, but not to real life and death. That pig skull on
the cover was somehow more unsettling than the bone fragments scatted over our
farm, jaw bones a thin boot-crunch beneath the surface. Death was ever present.
Piglets crushed by their mothers, chewed or sickly. Cats drowned in sacks.
Chickens torn apart by foxes. Stillbirths. All part of the mix.

Right now, there is much talk about how reading novels generates empathy in the reader. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? The perfect synthesis of silver bullet public-health promotion, and evangelism. No need to learn from life, from loving, from hating, from being hurt or hurting. No need for anger in this sparkling new century. Just read from this list of books. Perhaps that’s why certain books are frowned upon – if it’s so easy to bestow empathy via books, then surely other, darker emotions can be conjured by the act of reading. And perhaps they should be.

When my son was around eight I
read him The Tiger Rising (by Kate
Dicamillo). A wonderful book, but (spoiler) the tiger dies. The ending takes me
by surprise too, but he’s old enough to deal with this, isn’t he? The real world
doesn’t always run smoothly.

Not all stories have happy endings,
I tell my son, nestled on the bed beside me. Surely, that was right. Wasn’t it
fair to warn him?

His bottom lip quivers. His eyes
are huge. My heart drops through the floor. What
have I done?

“How many don’t?” was his very
reasonable question.

How could I possibly answer that?
My brain raced through all the stories with less than upbeat endings. Too many.

“Three,” I squeak.

“Then we won’t read those,” he
said.

And that was the end of the
matter.

Had I told my son a story that
would haunt him?

I’m happy to report he seems
undisturbed as a teenager, and quite relishes a less-than-happy ending. The Tiger Rising, a book that deals with
rage and injustice, which let me introduce Blake to my son, is also a book
about a beautiful tiger that is killed.

What was it about “The Girl in
the Mirror” that had it slipping round and round in my head for years? I didn’t
have the book. I never went back and reread it, but it never left me. I have
more memories of thinking about that story, dreading it, then I do of reading
it. Books weren’t a thing for conversation. We could talk about comics. What superhero
could beat another, etc. – and then, later, all our talk was of music, never
stories. Who would have spoken about such a thing? If you read, you kept it to
yourself.

As the years passed all I had was
my memory of that story, and the ghostly horseman on the book’s cover. I also remembered
the first story in the anthology was called “Pride Comes before a Fall”
(actually it wasn’t, but I had the memory that it was). That cover, that title,
and the story of “The Girl in the Mirror”niggled at the edge of my brain for years.

Decades go by, and the Internet
is here. In the intervening years, I have looked for the book in second-hand
bookshops, but mostly it has faded to a memory of something not-quite-right.
When I do mention the story (by now I know people I can talk about books with) it
sounds almost Freudian. A time-travel story. Two girls switch places through a
magic mirror. One girl, rich and lazy, is from the present; the other is a
hardworking girl on a Victorian farm.

The rich girl wants to swap
places, live on a real farm to ride the horses. To avoid detection they will
leave their clothes behind for the other. The rich one goes through the mirror
first, meets the brutal parents, and of course is trapped there. It’s that image
of nakedness, vulnerability, and being trapped in an alien world that unsettled
me. The girl from the Victorian farm slips into the future and is never seen
again. Smart girl. When I told my partner about this story that had so freaked
me she thought it probably didn’t exist. That it was something I’d created. After
thirty years of films, comics, books by the thousand, how many could remain
with you? My psychedelically enhanced synapses had embellished and transformed
something I’d heard, read, or seen into a memory.

It is a time-travel story, not a
ghost story. One person is trapped on a farm forever. Perhaps this story,
lodged in my brain, influenced my decision to refuse the farm when offered a
few years later. But that’s hindsight. We create a coherent narrative after the
events, refusing to believe that life is random.

But that story was real. I was sure of that, despite having had the experience, several times over my life, where things I “remembered” have been disproved by family, or myself. I’ve learnt that memory can’t always be trusted. I might not remember something, might think I’d locked a door, or sent an email, when really I hadn’t, but my brain was unlikely to create something as elaborate as“The Girl in the Mirror” to haunt myself with.

The story that haunted me for so
long is short and not collected in other anthologies. It is no classic. Its
author, Margot Arnold (born 1925) is still alive and has spent her life writing
books such as The Officer’s Woman, Marie, Voodoo Queen, and Lament for
a Lady Laird
.

It wasn’t through the Internet
that I tracked the book down. I searched and found the Armada book of Ghost Stories, the one with that cover, and ordered
it. When it arrived, there was no “The Girl in the Mirror”. It did have “The
Skeleton Rider”,in which a character
is warned “Pride comes before a fall”.

I didn’t doubt the existence of
the mirror story, but clearly my memories were jumbled. For decades I’d assumed
if I just found that book with that cover, I would have the story. There were
other books in that series, and other similar anthologies. I bought a couple at
random but none had my story. I got on with my life. Moved house again. Back
into the countryside, though Shropshire rather than Yorkshire.

Here I could make paper boats and
float them in the stream with my son. You needed to make your own entertainment
here. It was perfect for wandering. I expected my son to have that anchorless
roaming existence I had had, but there was no dog, and he wasn’t constantly
being told to get out of the house, so never developed the habit. People in the
village muttered about child snatchers, men in white vans. I thought of my
childhood when Hindley and Brady had prowled and preyed. That had never stopped
any of my parents’ generation telling their kids to get out and get fresh air –
get out of their house. The Bogey Man only gets you if you stray from the path.
In the twenty-first century there is no safe path.

One afternoon, we are sitting by
the river, and there is the inevitable church stall of bric-a-brac, junk,
books, and food. I checked out the stalls. You can see the ending, can’t you? And
it’s true, there it was: The 8th Armada
Ghost Book.
There were several of the series. I picked them up, knew
immediately which one held “The Girl in the Mirror”, recognised the black and
white illustrations, the seventies hairstyles.

To be honest I felt quite sick
finding it again. Motion sickness, as if the world had lurched the wrong way. I
tried to force myself to read the story but something wouldn’t let me. The
words remained black letters. It was enough that I had the story, the book.

And it sat on the shelf for a
couple more years, until I finally picked it up and read the story through. It
is short and exactly as I remember it. There is no reason that story should have
lodged so tightly in my brain. I have read so many ghost stories, horror
stories in my life – have a whole collection, but that fairly crappy one stuck
in my brain, and in some small unseen ways changed my life.

We are not empty vessels. We cannot accurately predict what reading one book or story will achieve. Or that we will get the same results each time. These are not laboratory conditions. We are not rats. We are readers, and have our own stories.




The Familiar Absence of Words

Picture Credits: congerdesign

My grandma was a widow: she lived
alone for thirty years. My grandma never spoke of the loneliness, never
mentioned her loss. These unsaid things: these silences run in the family. My
mum inherited this trouble with talking and I have a knack for being silent too.

*

The day before my grandma died
she couldn’t speak. The front door was unlocked when I got to her house. It
always was now because she couldn’t be alone. My grandma spent over thirty
years alone but for the last months of her life she was solitary for only a few
hours. Carers would come every few hours to feed her, bathe her, to wash
nightclothes and sheets. My mum was there more or less constantly.

When I arrived Mum was
cleaning: bustling about. Movement helps when you’re waiting, when you’re still
hoping that there’s hope. I entered the living room, which a few months before
had become grandma’s bedroom. The curtains were partially drawn against the sun
and the room was cool and still. I’d taken my shoes off at the door and the
carpet felt soft and thick beneath my bare feet. I kissed grandma’s cheek and
sat down on her bed. Her hand was resting on top of the sheets. I slid mine
beneath her palm and felt her soft skin in my fingers.

Grandma opened her eyes. This
was the last time she recognised me and the final time I saw her smile.

She hadn’t eaten for a while
now and today she couldn’t swallow. I understood that this meant she didn’t
have long, that in a day or so she would be gone. I watched grandma as she tried
to talk: as she failed to form the words. And I leant in closer in case there
was a whisper I could catch. She didn’t have enough breath, though, and her
voice never came. I squeezed her hand tighter and wondered if there were some
weighty words I should say to her silence. I swallowed. If there were I didn’t
know them and couldn’t guess. Instead I talked about how it was spring outside and
about the snowdrops I’d passed on my way there. I told her that I loved her. I
hoped it was enough.

*

I stayed with grandma for most
of that day and read from a poetry book. The words were soothing. Love and loss
are easier on a page: less ragged than real life. I read in bursts to the noise
of grandma’s rasping breaths and paused during the worrying silences in between.
I read with intensity: I held the book like a bible.

*

My grandma died on the 16th of
March 2017 and it was a hot day. I spent most of that Thursday with her in the
room where she died. It was cool, mostly silent and still. Her breathing was
quieter by then. The nurse had visited early in the morning and given her an
injection of something that made her breaths smoother and less laboured.

Sometimes the silence was too
oppressive, though, and the watching too much. I needed movement because momentum
seems to help when you are waiting. Every so often I would walk barefoot into
the garden. I remember the textures beneath my feet changing as I left the room:
the flattened carpet of the well-trodden hallway, the gritty, cold slabs beside
the back door and then the springy sun-warmed grass below the arch of pink roses.

There were no clouds in the
blue sky, but there were birds. And a yellow kite fluttering from a string a
few gardens away. On one visit outside I found Dad there already. He’d slipped
in quietly sometime during the afternoon and nobody had noticed. He stood
against the wall of the house, steeling himself in the shade before he could go
in to see grandma. I watched him light a cigarette and inhale. He pursed his
lips and blew the silver smoke from his mouth. The cloud swirled for a second
and then vanished into the air above him. I pointed to the kite.

“Look,” I said. He nodded but said
nothing, in his usual brooding way. My dad is particularly good at silence. In
moments of sadness and tension he’s an expert of noiselessness.

A few hours later he left for
home. He was tired and needed to rest.

*

“They wouldn’t let dogs suffer
like this would they. Look at her.” It was getting to dusk outside now and I
was back inside. I watched as my aunty Susan gestured towards grandma, then
looked away and sat down on the settee at the side of her bed. I nodded. I
didn’t disagree, though the alternative was complicated and had its own horror too.
I wondered if grandma could hear: it was difficult to tell if she was asleep. Grandma’s
arm felt soft as I stroked it and her skin thin like lace. We were all ragged
and tired from the waiting. I nodded silently but didn’t speak. There: the
silence that my family is so good at again.

*

Later, Mum was pacing: couldn’t
keep still.

“Why don’t we go for a walk?” I
asked. “We can watch the sunset. We’ll only be a few minutes, half an hour at
the most, and you can get some air.” We put on our coats, said goodbye to
grandma and left Susan sitting beside her bed.

The walk was slow and
soothing, the sunset fierce and bright. We stood on the pavement and watched
the orange ball slowly slip from the navy sky and then disappear. It only took
a few a seconds.

We arrived back at grandma’s
house at the same time as two of her carers. We paused at the gate and said
hello. It was John and Annie. I ushered them in front of me and followed behind,
unbuttoning my heavy coat.

Inside it was dim and
grandma’s room was lit with a lamp now. I peered around the door.

“Hi, Grandma,” I said. Susan
nodded hello and stood up. Mum, Susan and I headed into the kitchen. Annie and
John stayed with Grandma to wash her and change her nightgown. In the kitchen I
pulled up the sleeves of my cardigan, wiped the sweat from my top lip. I was
hot after the walk.

A few minutes passed and then
the kitchen door slowly opened. Annie stood in the hallway and her face looked
grave, worried.

“I’m so sorry, but your mum
has passed away,” she said.

Seconds later I was behind Mum
in the living room. Mum was kneeling on Grandma’s bed.

“Switch the bright light on,”
she said, “she can’t be dead. I need to check.” Annie clicked the switch and
the room filled with white light. I watched as mum searched Grandma’s face for signs
of life: willed her to breathe.

“Someone get me a mirror,” she
said, “I need a mirror.” I didn’t understand at first and it took a few seconds
for me to realise why she wanted one. She wanted to hold it up to Grandma’s face:
to capture fog on the glassy surface and prove that she was still alive. Except
that she wasn’t. For a second there was silence.

“We’ve been trying to wake her
for the last few minutes, Christine. I’m so sorry but she’s gone,” said Annie. I
leant forward, touched Grandma’s shoulder, touched her face. She already felt cool
and I was surprised. I’d never seen a dead person before. I’d never touched
another human like this.

I realised then that the
carers must have hesitated when they’d realised she was dead. Maybe they’d
never seen a dead person before either. And how do you tell someone that their
mother is no longer alive? What words do you choose and how do you say them?

“We’ll leave you alone for a
few minutes,” said John, and then they both left the room.

Grandma hadn’t eaten much for
months and I could see her hips protruding through her nightgown. Her legs were
just bones now. In their panic the carers had forgotten to cover Grandma up
again. I lifted the duvet, pulled it over her and tucked her in like she was a
sleeping child.

Mum was sat on Grandma’s bed
now. She hugged Grandma again and held her arm.

“I thought I’d be frightened
to touch her. I thought I’d be really frightened to touch her when she was
dead, but I’m not, Hannah, I’m not.” She turned around and looked at me. It was
strange to hear Mum say something like that. It was so straightforward, so unguarded
and clear. I touched her shoulder and was silent, stunned by the honesty and
unusual directness of her words.

Maybe this would be the start
of something: the beginning of a time where words could be shared without
difficulty, where Mum understood that I wasn’t a puzzle to be wary of or worked
out, but a straightforward human that she just needed to talk to.

Susan sat down on the settee
at the back of the room. She was afraid to touch Grandma now she was dead and didn’t
want to be too close. I understood. Grandma was suddenly so unfamiliar: too motionless,
too still.

A few minutes later I stepped
outside and telephoned Dad. I told him that Grandma was dead. I told him to
drive safely and to take his time because, well … there was no rush now. I
ended the call and stood silently in the garden. It was dark but overhead the
stars were silver and bright.

Dad arrived in less than half
an hour. I watched him kiss Grandma’s head and silently say goodbye.

Soon the doctors came and
certified death.

“We’re very sad for the loss
of your mother and grandmother,” one of the doctors said. “You have cared for
her at home very well and she died surrounded by your love.” It was an awkward,
stilted speech but well meant. It was late now and maybe he was tired too. The
doctors shook our hands and quietly left.

*

In the immediate aftermath of
grandma’s death there was such precision to how we all moved around each other:
how we hugged and held hands was so careful, so considered and calm. There was a
clarity to how we communicated too. There was no room for artifice or
awkwardness because my mum thought she didn’t understand me. We were all just
there, experiencing a death together and wondering how you live in the
aftermath of loss. My mum, my dad, me: I felt straightforward in the trio for
the first time ever. I hoped that it would last.

*

Later two undertakers came to
collect grandma’s body. I watched them remove grandma’s rings and the chain
from around her neck.

“Mum can keep them with her
tonight,” Dad said, “you know, so she can still feel close to Grandma.” I
waited in the hallway as they placed her into their black shroud. Then they
carried her through the front door and she disappeared in to the darkness.

Grandma had died in her own
home, in her own sheets, and that’s what she’d wanted. She was gone now. It was
over.

*

A week or so passed and it was
time to plan the funeral. I went with mum and Susan to see the funeral director.
It felt so surreal to talk about the cost of human-sized wooden boxes and what
clothes to put on a dead body. There was a lot to discuss and so many questions
to answer.

We decided what Grandma should
wear, what type of wood the coffin should be and what songs they should play.

“At the end of the service,”
the funeral director said, “we usually draw a curtain around the coffin. It
signifies a final goodbye.” Mum looked at me, suddenly worried.

“It’ll be too difficult,
Hannah,” she said. “I don’t think I could bear it, I really don’t.” Her voice faltered
and the funeral director handed her another tissue.

“That’s okay,” I said, “then
we’ll leave the curtain open. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

‘Absolutely not,” said the
funeral director, “the service will be exactly what you want it to be.” Susan
nodded: whatever Mum wanted.

“There you go,” I said. Mum
smiled at me and so it was agreed.

*

For the few weeks following my
grandma’s death there was a straightforwardness with my Mum that I’d never
experienced before. The openness and clarity in the way we communicated was a
relief. And I was grateful. There was no tangle of misunderstanding. For a
while Mum ceased to find worrying meanings in the way I just went about living
my life. There was no room for that: the aftermath of loss was all consuming.

On the day of the funeral we
met at grandma’s house. The funeral parlour was on the same street. It made
sense that the shiny black procession cars would come to collect us there. We
gathered in the living room where grandma had died and made small talk while we
waited.

The crematorium had big
windows and sun streamed through the glass. It’s tradition that close family
members arrive with the dead person. We got out of the cars and in convoy walked
behind the coffin as it was carried down the aisle of the crematorium. The
other mourners were already seated and they watched as we walked towards our
seats at the front. Grandma’s coffin was placed at the front of the
congregation and a man in a black suit and hat placed a photograph on top. It
was Grandma smiling. Next he laid some flowers and then he bowed.

I remember thinking that these
were all such strange rituals. Weeks had already passed since she’d died. Weren’t
we too late? I’d already said goodbye to my Grandma: I’d already watched her
leave.

Soon the celebrant started his
speech. He told the story of Grandma’s life: read out the specific details that
make people who they are, or once were. Then there was music and, for those who
wanted to pray, there were prayers.

I looked out of the window and
waited for the service to be over. I waited for the celebrant to conclude, to
direct us to stand and for us to leave the crematorium. I waited to walk past
the still visible coffin, to pass the smiling photograph of my Grandma’s lovely
face and out into the cool spring weather.

Instead the celebrant paused
after his prayer, said something about goodbye and pressed a button. I watched
as the curtains in front of the coffin began to slowly close. I looked at my
mum who sat in front of me. I waited for some big or small sign from her that
this was not the plan, that this was too upsetting, that watching the curtains
close was not what she wanted. Except no sign came and we left the crematorium
in silence.

Outside the sun was bright and
the air was crisp and cool. I breathed in and watched curls of white breath as
I exhaled. The crowd gathered to look at the flower wreaths and it took me a
few minutes to find Mum.

“Mum,” I said, “are you okay?
They closed the curtain.”

“Yes,” she said, paused and
then, “Oh, I changed my mind about that. I told them to close it when I
finalised the plans.”

“Oh, right,” I said, “it’s
just I didn’t know.” She looked at me quizzically, impatient to mingle with the
growing crowd.

“I didn’t know I should’ve
mentioned it,” she said. And suddenly there it was again: the distance between
us. It had taken just a few weeks for the fragile openness to falter, for Mum to
lapse back in to the awkward, opaque sentences I’d grown so used to since
childhood.

We stood there for a second longer,
the familiar absence of words hanging between us. Then she turned and we moved
separately into the group of mourners.




Things My Mother Failed to Tell Me – About Ageing

Picture Cfedits: Carlos Eduardo Du

Mother never said that
there would come a time when Spanx and control-top pantyhose would be my best
friends. Trusted close-knit companions you can rely on. My mother failed to
tell me I would embrace the push-up bra I cursed in my twenties, since it left
red welts on my skin, with enthusiasm in my fifties when everything goes south.
I never saw Mother naked. Never saw her blemishes and wounds of experience. I
have scars. The back of my hand reminds me sixteen-year-old girls are more
comfortable with a potato peeler than a paring knife. The faint discolouration
on my ankle showcases my first attempt at shaving my legs. Mother never
enlightened me on waxing. Her idea of waxing was a can of lemon scented furniture
polish – ideal for keeping the dining table shiny. No, Mother never promised
personal grooming would get easier with age.

I curse the age spots. As a child, I embraced my freckles. A connect-the-dots story, Mother said. Her fingertips brushing against my cheek made me giggle. I’d bury my head in her shoulder. A whiff of her Evening in Paris perfume was comforting. Today, I scold myself for baking in the sun during my twenties. Once upon a time, society envied golden girls for their beachy exuberance, their tan lines were badges of honor. Mom never suggested a sunscreen with a high SPF rating. I lathered baby oil with carefree abandon. My daughter wouldn’t dare skinny dip in a vat of oil, baiting the Sun God to burn baby burn!

I wear progressive
lenses, a tell-tale sign of maturity. Women my age resist squinting lest our
peering be mistaken for a cougar-like glare. Channeling my mom-voice, I direct
the adolescent grocery boy to my car. He sees an older woman with yogurt tubs,
bags of granola and ripe bananas. I see army supplies, intending to battle with
my fluctuating weight. The specialty toothpaste is designed to lighten the
agony of sensitive teeth. He’s too young to deduce the box of pantyliners in my
cart is incriminating evidence of my easing into menopause. I’m too old to be
embarrassed by personal grooming products.

As a woman, I want
respect, with my years of experience valued as wisdom. Yet I constantly
camouflage. Monthly hair salon visits hide my roots. I’m seduced by promises to
conceal my wrinkles and astonished the drug mart legally sells snake oil. More
lotions and potions sit displayed on my nightstand than are found in the school
chemistry lab. Give me time and I’ll create a spike in Proctor & Gamble
shares. We respect, even nurture, the aging of wine and cheese. Yet you won’t
find me tattooing my date of birth on this old crate. I’ve lived. Survived the
terrible twos, endured teenage angst, and trudged through mountains of
adulthood. Financial woes, career challenges, and family drama are all etched
in my creases and folds. The support of loved ones boosted my immune system.

Mother failed to
mention mishaps and mayhem bring your personality to life. A surgery scar is an
emblem of family togetherness, when everyone, little kids included, helped
around the house while I recuperated in bed. There were family vacations where
we laughed so hard that we should have taken some Depends. Smile lines are
easily read by a skilled fortune teller. Remembering the stumbles of my youth,
I look back and laugh. Applying for positions I wasn’t qualified for led to
long-term employment. Going outside my comfort zone broadened my skill sets.
Learning on the job I didn’t age, I matured. Capabilities were stretched.
Responsibilities gained. A career wasn’t defined by the number of years worked.
I balked at the word “senior” in my job title. When a role shriveled up, I
dusted off the interview clothing and put my best foot forward. Defeat was not
an option. Male colleagues are often graded as distinguished as they aged. A
woman is seen as being well preserved. Why are we stacked differently on the
shelf?

Time is a precious
commodity. I’ve passed the route marker where the road ahead offers more
funerals than weddings. Traditions and customs suggest we maintain a rosy
complexion, the casket on display. No amount of rouge can return us to our
youth. I held my mother’s hand during my father’s funeral. Our chests of
memories are deemed more valuable than the contents of our jewelry boxes. I’ve
offered her aged bones a boost when climbing into my family van. Despite her
advanced age, she is sturdy. Fragility isn’t to be confused with helplessness.

Mom’s a first-generation
immigrant who navigated the cultural differences of a new frontier. Her first
year in Canada came with no how-to-manual. It never occurred to me that cooking
a Thanksgiving turkey was such an ordeal. Mom told me a neighbor came to her
home and gave her step-by-step instructions. Without her help, Mother admitted,
that she’d have cooked that bird with a bag of giblets inside. Dressing fowl
was as foreign as purchasing a winter coat, but she adapted. Weathering the
frost of Alberta, she embraced new traditions. Mom never hid her heritage, age,
or her eagerness to try something new. I shared my first dish of frog legs with
my mother. When my own teenage daughter had the opportunity to taste the item,
I encouraged her.

“Go ahead, take a
bite,” I said. “You might discover you like the flavor. Maybe it’s not for
everyone, but my girl channeled her adventurous side. Truth be told, the froggy
appetizer tastes just like chicken.

My mother failed
to tell me that the weight of childhood teasing is tough to shed. Taunts and
ridicule nestled beside love handles. As an adult, I’ve learned to balance when
someone kicks me in the shins. I propel myself forward, springing back up like
the kiddie inflatable punching bag. Mom never spoke of my exclusion from the
cheerleading squad because the white uniform looked different on a brown girl.
She skipped the explanation why the neighbors hesitated to let me hang out in
their daughter’s playhouse, merely suggesting that I’d understand when I got
older. I’m older now, yet I fail to understand.

I’ve inherited arthritis,
alongside the aches and pains of teenage adolescence. When picked last for the
dodgeball team, I crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head. Every
joint hurt, even my heart ached. No cure found in the Farmer’s Almanac. My mother
had travelled across the world, with four young children, not knowing the
landscape, the currency, or the customs. If she could survive without friends,
so could I. She told me that growing pains came with adolescence. It might hurt
at the time but I’d forget all about dodgeball when I was older. Resilience is congealed
in our bone marrow.

Exposure to the
world expands my mind. Yet mother forgot to point out that we shrink as we age.
Perhaps not enough to be cast in our own TLC television program, or in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, but
sufficiently smaller that we see the world from a different perspective. Energy
depleted, I concede I don’t have the fight in me to bark at the salesclerk who
asks where I’m from. I’ve heard the question so often that it feels routine,
much like someone asking whether I’m paying withdebit or credit card. Do salesclerks quiz the second-generation
fraulein from Germany or the mademoiselle from France? Their creamy complexion is
several shades lighter than my own. My aged ears suggest judgment by something
other than my shopping habits. Mother’s parenting words encourage politeness. I
resist the urge to have a cougar fight at the checkout stand, among the Made In India accessories.

Mother encouraged
good posture. Stand tall she advised. Looking back, I realize she was resisting
more than my juvenile slouches. She was giving me a push. I suspect my teenage
swagger thought my flared jeans were cool. Yet Mom’s notes about good
presentation remained in style much longer than those threadbare flares.

I’ve embraced my
mum jeans, my hips reminding me that I earned my curves. My children are the
best accessories investment I made. I avoid telling my daughter what she should
or shouldn’t wear. She’s far more sophisticated than I ever was at her age.
Confident in her body image, she’s without need for her mother’s advice. Three
generations of women displayed, our choices repositioned and recycled, adapted
and repurposed. Mother never told me it would take fifty years to be
comfortable in my own skin. She forgot to mention style is about personal
choice. The threads we wear are an extension of our creativity, our character.
Regardless of what we choose to mask or hide, the wrinkles of experience, the
creases of laughter, and the comfort of our past can be worn with panache.
Mother should have told me – there’s nothing more attractive than a confident
woman.




Dead Sites

Alvaro Enciso

In
the early hours of a Tuesday morning, an old man drives a Jeep out of Tucson
and onto Highway 286
toward the Arizona desert and the first of three sites he’ll visit where the
remains of migrants were found. He has made this trip once a week for the past
six years. Three crosses four feet tall and two feet wide, each one a different
color, blue, blue-green and rust, rattle in back. Heat from the sun warms the
windshield and a woman in the passenger seat, Alicia Baucom, cracks her window
to shrieks of air still cool from the night. A second Jeep carries a man and
two women who, like Alicia, have volunteered to help plant the crosses. Flat
land covered with cactus and scrub juniper slanted by wind unfurls into
distant, bare mountains peaked against domes of blue sky slowly revealing
itself two hours after dawn, and as the Jeeps rush down the highway, also known
as Sasabe Road, the old man, 73-year-old artist Alvaro Enciso, asks Alicia the
names of the dead migrants.

—The
one found in 2006 is unidentified, she says. The man discovered in 2015 has a
name, Valentine Guzman Flores. Thirty. Found December 29 near Three Points.
Skeletal remains. Death unknown. The third was found in 2017. His name is
Felipe Vargas. Also thirty. Found near Sasabe on June 8. Hyperthermia. Dead
less than a day. Coroner said he was fully fleshed.

—The
first two could have died long before they were found, Alvaro says.

He
hunches over the steering wheel and makes no further comment and Alicia doesn’t
speak either. She has been helping Alvaro just five months, replacing another
volunteer who broke down after he and Alvaro found a migrant’s body nearly a
year ago. The volunteer sought counseling. It was one thing to hear about
people dying in the desert but it was quite another to see a body.

Alvaro
collects information on dead migrants from the Pima County coroner’s office.
Last year, the medical examiner recorded the remains of 127 dead migrants.
Before 2000, the bodies of fewer than five migrants were found
each year. However, in 2001, the number soared to 79 and then to 151
the year after that. The number of annual migrant deaths since then has
remained well above 100.

As
he follows the highway, Alvaro notices workers laying asphalt, shoveling it off
the back of a truck, the air stung by its sharp odor as a roller inches toward
them, and two border-patrol agents lean against pickups and watch the men work.
They are either chasing someone, Alvaro says of the agents, or they’ve given
up. They don’t move as he passes them, heads down staring through dark
sunglasses at the steaming asphalt.

Alvaro
often encounters border-patrol agents. A few times he’s tripped a sensor and
they converged from nowhere to check him out. He explained his purpose and
showed them his crosses and they were cool. He had no problem with them and
doesn’t now. They have a job to do; some are good and some are bad. If they see
someone in the middle of nowhere, they get suspicious. Alvaro understands that.
He shoots the shit with them, complains about the heat. Many of them aren’t
familiar with deserts because they were raised outside of Arizona. They’ve seen
earthworms but nothing bigger and worms don’t bite. Rattlesnakes do. They worry
about snakes.

Alvaro
recalls the spring of 2017 when the border patrol could have been a problem. He
and some volunteers found a man in the desert walking south toward Mexico. He
was delirious and thought he was headed north to Phoenix. He had no food or
water. Alvaro considered his options: he could call the border patrol, give the
man something to eat and drink, or leave him to his fate. He could not,
however, transport him. If the border patrol stopped him, he could be charged
with harboring. But the man needed medical attention. How was he to say I can’t
help you, to a desperate man? Sometimes, he reasoned, laws have to be violated.
The volunteers had their own car and drove the man to a safe house. Alvaro
doesn’t remember his name but he was told later that he ate eleven pancakes,
three sausages, three cups of fresh fruit, two glasses of orange juice and five
pieces of toast his first night. He had come from Honduras and it took him two
weeks to recuperate. When he left, the staff gave him directions to Phoenix but
he didn’t make it. The border patrol picked him up.

*

Alvaro
had been unaware of migrants dying in the desert when he moved from northern
New Mexico to Tucson in 2011. He started walking migrant trails and imagined
himself crossing borders on foot. The idea appealed to him as something
romantic, people entering the United States seeking the opportunities he had.
He noticed all sorts of debris, rusted cans of sardines, sausages, beans and
other food migrants had brought with them. He collected the cans and
accumulated a huge mound to use for his art. Every can told a story of the
person who ate from it. He didn’t know if the story had a happy ending but the
can was there for him to imagine a life.

Two
years later, he took a four-hour orientation with Tucson Samaritans, a group of
more than one hundred volunteers who go into the desert seven days a week to
assist migrants. The presenter showed a map of southern Arizona covered with
red dots. Each dot represented a spot where a migrant’s body had been
found. From 2001 through 2018, the remains of 3,011 migrants
have been recovered in southern Arizona. No estimates have been offered for the
numbers not found.

Alvaro
wondered what happened to those people. He searched those locations for
anything that gave substance to those who had died. He lay on his back and
stared into an unrevealing desert sky and felt only the emptiness of his
surroundings, its nothingness that had absorbed suffering and death.

Alvaro
felt a bond with the dead through his own sense of not belonging. He was not a
gringo but he didn’t consider himself Hispanic, either. He rarely hung out with
Spanish-speaking
people, and
when he did, he assumed a different character than when he spoke English. Who
was he? He had been born in Colombia. He had left everything he knew, his
family, his country, to live in a place that was and was not his home. He began
contemplating how, as an artist, he could convey the quandary of his existence
with the experiences of dead migrants caught between the countries they were
leaving and their visions of America.

As
a first step, Alvaro snapped photographs of what he called dead sites, but a photo could not
capture the absent bodies of migrants. He hired a woman and had her wear a
black dress and drove her to the desert to be photographed. He shot beautiful
pictures of her against the sparse landscape but a woman in a black dress, a
strikingly mournful figure, said nothing about the people who had perished. He
made sculptures of red dots but they weighed too much to transport to the dead
sites. Next, he sprayed red dots on the ground like graffiti but the dots alone
conveyed nothing.

The
idea of building crosses came to him as he combed through books about Roman
history. The Romans, he read, crucified many people, not only Jesus. They left
them exposed to the sun and elements until they died. The same, he believed,
was happening to migrants. Through its immigration policies, the U.S.
government was forcing them to follow the most difficult routes north to kill
them. Where the two pieces of a cross intersected formed the nucleus of an
encounter between poor peasants of the south and the American giant of the
north and the encounter was fatal. Goliath won.

Alvaro understood that not everyone would agree with his overtly political analogy. However, he was not seeking approval but laying a philosophical foundation to buttress his ideas to mark the dead sites with crosses. Absent politics, a cross would also have meaning, not as Christian symbol (—Forget religion, Alvaro tells the volunteers. Death is very democratic. Death has no interest in faith.), but as a secular, geometric one. A cross consists of vertical and horizontal lines. Alive, people stand erect. Dead, they lie flat. Life and death existed in the same image.

*

As
a child, Alvaro had learned to accept absence. He grew up in a shanty in
Villavicencio, Colombia, a frontier town where men earned a living raising
cattle and selling marijuana. He did not wear shoes his first five years at
school. In the evenings, he gathered dead birds from cockfights for his mother
to cook, or he would walk to the slaughterhouse and collect blood to eat with
his rice because they could not afford meat. His mother had few soft edges. She
warned him against daydreaming. Dreams, she said, won’t deliver him from
poverty.

Alvaro
never saw his father. He was married to another woman and considered Alvaro’s
mother his mistress. In 1996, when he turned fifty, Alvaro returned to Colombia
and tracked him down in Honda, a village not far from where he grew up. His
father owned a big house near a cemetery and had a little store and everybody
who went to the cemetery stopped there for food and flowers. He assumed Alvaro wanted
money.

I
don’t need your money, Alvaro told him. I’m not angry with you. I have no
feelings toward you. I just want to know who you are.

They
spoke for a short time. His father appeared indifferent that Alvaro, his only
son, the result of a one-night fling, had appeared out of nowhere. It was
like looking in a mirror, Alvaro reflected afterward. His father’s disinterest,
his lack of empathy, were characteristics Alvaro shared. A woman he had dated
in New York told him, “You
don’t ask about my life or daughters. Your interest lasts only one night.” He
received her words as a revelation and on his flight back to the states he
thought of them again and decided that it although he felt bad his father was
the way he was he did not have to be like him.

They
never saw each other again. Blind, sick and unable to walk, Alvaro’s father
died two years later.

*

When he was a boy, Alvaro’s watched Hollywood movies at a theater where
his mother worked. On screen, actors smoked long cigarettes and ate in
restaurants. He saw dashing detectives and strutting cowboys. That was the life
he wanted. In 1967, when he was almost twenty-one, an aunt in Queens offered to
fly him to New York. She didn’t have to ask twice.

New
York made an impression. The tall buildings, the busy streets, the stores with
all the elegantly dressed people. He loved the seasons, especially winter. That
something could fall from the sky and turn him white left him amazed and a
believer in miracles. He thought pizza and canned foods with decorative labels
the most wonderful of meals. He sorted through trash, an odd assortment of
junk: high-school sports trophies, beat-up bowling balls, picture frames and
other garbage. Get
this out of my house,
his aunt scolded, but he continued adding to his collection. He had never had
these things. Ownership represented the promise of America. With his aunt’s
help he applied for citizenship and received his green card. He also registered
with the selective service without fully understanding what that meant but he
felt he was on his way.

However,
Alvaro soon faced difficulties. His aunt’s American husband disliked him and
kicked him out of the house two months after he arrived. Homeless and fearful
of returning to Colombia a failure, he went to a church and prayed. God, he
begged, you need to cut me a break. I’m screwed here. Any bone you can send my
way, I’d appreciate. You’re the guy who’s supposed to help.

Two
months later he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. Having no skills,
he joked, they put me in the infantry. It was not the divine intervention he
had sought but it got him off the street. His commanding officers trained him
to hate the Vietnamese and kill them and he did. Today, he doesn’t see a
connection between the person he was then and the man he is now. He was young,
naive and stupid. He lacked compassion. He believes that with each cross he
puts up today he atones for his actions in Vietnam.

*

After
his service, Alvaro returned to New York. He visited an Army buddy in New
Mexico and fell in love with the desert, awed by its immense limitlessness, and
promised to return and live there some day. Back in New York, he drove cabs,
mopped the floors of a peep show and working as a photographer’s assistant. He
attended college and graduate school and earned three master’s degrees in
anthropology, Latin American Studies and Contemporary Hispanic Studies. In
1980, he took a job with the Department of Health and Human Services and stayed
for almost twenty years before he got tired of the nine-to-five grind and
decided to pursue an artistic career. He had always liked to draw. His savings,
pension and veterans’ benefits would support him. With art, he rationalized, he
didn’t need credentials.

In
1999, he moved to Placitas, New Mexico, an old hippy town north of Albuquerque,
and bought a house. For two years he read books on philosophy and art
criticism. He built boxes with cutout figures representative of the American
West. He took large canvases and painted layers and layers of the same color
paint in varying shades and made frames for them. It’s not bad, he thought, but it may not be
good art.
Over the years, however, people bought his work and he felt their approval in
the money they paid him and that in turn gave him the impetus to do more
serious work that would encompass his ideas of being an outsider. After more
than ten years in Placitas, Alvaro felt the need for a more urban environment.
Albuquerque was close by but he wanted a city with a better reputation for the
arts. That led him to Tucson.

*

A
hawk flies above the Jeep as Alvaro drives deeper into the desert, the sun
higher but the air still cool although he feels it warming. Gusts rise off mountains
sweeping the air ahead of it, fanning dust. Alvaro pulls off the road and parks
near the spot where the remains of the nameless 2006 migrant were found. He had
put up a cross for him last year. A migrant sleeping nearby awoke, startled to
see him. Don’t worry, Alvaro said, I’m here for a cross, nothing more.

Alvaro
doesn’t know what happened, but a short time later someone destroyed the cross.
Hunters have used his crosses for target practice. Other people break and
remove them. He went to a swap meet one afternoon and saw one for sale. The
cross he had placed here looked like it had been hit by a sledgehammer.

Stepping
out of the Jeep, Alvaro stands stoop-shouldered and adjusts his cap. He wears
jeans that pool around his ankles and a long-sleeve shirt with triangular
patterns that restrains his paunch. Gray hair falls to his neck and he removes
his glasses and rubs his eyes.

—Keep
talk to a minimum, Alvaro says. We’re going to a location where someone died.

He
takes a blue cross from the back of the Jeep. Slivers of tin cans decorate the
wood. A red dot on another piece of tin fills the center. Friends give him
paint, off-white, beige, bland colors he brightens with whatever he has on hand
in his shop.

The
volunteers unload a shovel, bucket, bottled water and a bag of cement and
follow Alvaro. The noise of their steps breaks against small stones and the
scraping sound tears at the air like a ripped sheet.

Alvaro
moves cautiously between jumping cholla cactus, whose stinging thorns collect
like burs and can easily penetrate clothing. Blankets, shoulder packs, worn
sandals, plastic water jugs and other supplies discarded by migrants litter the
ground. They may have camped here. They may have been picked up by family or
border patrol. Their abandoned possessions offer Alvaro no hint of their fate.

He
searches the ground for bones. In 2017, a man driving home from a casino
stopped to piss and saw a human skull. The skull belonged to forty-four-year-old
Nancy Ganoza, from Peru, who had disappeared in the desert in 2009, cause of
death unknown. A DNA sample found a match in New Jersey where her two daughters
and husband lived. Her family flew to Tucson and Alvaro built a cross and they
joined him to raise it where her skull was found. Her husband propped a photograph
against the cross below a red dot. She had black hair down to her shoulders and
a winsome smile and she squinted as if she was facing the sun. Five candles
surrounded the base of the cross and a white rosary with a crucifix hung
loosely from it, and a circle of prickly pear cactus threw shadows beneath the
twisted branches of velvet mesquite. Alvaro had planted dozens of crosses for
people by then. Sometimes he knew their names but he did not know them. Until now. The
intimate presence of Nancy’s family brought him to tears.

Nancy Ganoza’s cross

It’s
so sad, Alvaro thinks now. All of it. Each death haunting. All of
them tragic, some beyond tragic. Not too long ago Alvaro built a cross for a young man
who had died from hanging, a suicide, the medical examiner concluded. Alvaro
could not conceive the agony and utter hopelessness that he must have
experienced. Knowing it was too much to go on. Deciding with what strength he
had left to take his own life rather than die of thirst,
starvation, heatstroke, hyperthermia, or madness.

The most disturbing moment for Alvaro, however, occurred last August when he found
a body in the Roskruge mountain range, a remote area close to Tucson. Five
miles from a paved highway, four miles from some houses but still in the middle
of nowhere. He had just put up a cross and was following a stone path back to
his Jeep when he disturbed two rattlesnakes and his heart was racing from
surprise and fear, the sound of their rattles still in his ears, when he saw a
dead woman. For a moment, his reaction was similar to entering a room and
encountering
someone he
had not expected.

A
sharp odor rose from the corpse. The bones remained intact and her clothes lay
around her, possible torn off by animals. A T-shirt and blue jeans and a cell
phone. She had a pair of yellow-and-pink sneakers that looked new. Very
feminine and small. At first, Alvaro thought she was a child. He called 911. An
autopsy revealed she had suffered hyperthermia and had been dead about two
weeks. She had documents from Guatemala but no identification.

Days
later, Alvaro marked the location with a cross. Was she a mother? he wondered.
Did she leave children behind? What was she running from and to? In the
following weeks he returned and looked for ID but found nothing. He lay on the
ground and traced an outline of his body with flour. He stood and looked at the
image like something from a crime scene. It was his way of sharing himself with
her. Had his life been different, had his aunt not flown him to New York, he
might have died as she had, or like the migrant he is about to acknowledge this
morning, dead without a name.

*

Alvaro
sets down the cross, takes the shovel and digs a hole. He tosses dirt to one
side and when he stops to catch his breath, silence settles around him and he
raises his head to listen to it. He asks Alicia to mix the cement. He watches
her shake it into the bucket, add water and stir it with a stick.

—That’s
enough, Alvaro says.

He
inserts the cross into the hole and holds the top of it as Alicia distributes
the cement. Alvaro asks her if it’s straight and she nods. He continues holding
it as she and the other volunteers collect rocks and stack them in a small
mound around the cross. Once it’s secure, Alvaro steps back and ponders it
within the vast solitude of the desert. Stalwart, like a sentry, unaware that
soon it will be alone and appear quite small, dwarfed by the limitlessness of
its surroundings.

Alicia
removes a flute from her shoulder pack.

—I’d
like to play “Amazing Grace.”

—Play
“Down in the Valley.”

—I
don’t know that one. I hope I can get through this without crying.

—That’s
OK. Someone died here. Crying is what we do.

She
begins playing and Alvaro bows his head. He has put up nine hundred crosses in
six years but has no idea how many still stand. They last five, maybe ten years,
eaten by termites, beaten by weather, turned to dust. Some nuns in a church in
Cochise County heard about what he was doing and designed their own crosses.
They did not place them where migrants died but, as far as Alvaro was
concerned, where it was convenient. Their crosses have no relation to anything.
The word got out that an old man was making crosses and the nuns wanted a piece
of it.

He
does not consider himself an activist. At home, he likes to read, go to
restaurants and play with his dog. He paints pictures with red dots in
fragmented circles and lines to represent a splintered border and the ruptured
lives of those who cross. He only wants the integrity of his project respected.

What’s
happening, he tells himself, is that instead of mellowing he’s becoming
cantankerous in his old age. How does he tell nuns they’re screwing up? They
have a divine license to do what they do. They have God. How does he argue with
God?

I’m
an infidel,
he reminds himself.

As
Alicia plays, the plaintive notes drifting with the wind, Alvaro considers his
own life. With each cross, he commemorates his journey as an immigrant and its
inevitable end. His weekly desert sojourns have become a form of meditation in
which he grieves his own losses, two failed marriages, the death of his mother,
his time in Vietnam, his absent father. He is his father’s son but not his son.
He does not conceal his emotions. He empathizes to the point of tears. He can’t
control what other people do with his art but only what he seeks to achieve
with it: recognition of the dead, solace for himself.

The
struggle of migrants, he knows, will outlive him. More will die today, tomorrow
and long after he has died. He’d like to paint three thousand red dots in a
Tucson gallery but he doubts that will happen. Galleries don’t appreciate art
that won’t sell. He will never build enough crosses.

—That’s
all we know, right? It was a male? Alvaro asks Alicia when she finishes
playing.

—That’s
correct.

—Does
anyone want to say anything?

—I
hope he finds peace, Alicia says.

Alvaro
lets her comment linger. The wind whistles and carries the sound of a semi and
the volunteers shift and twigs break beneath their feet. When the noise of the
truck fades, Alvaro speaks.

—In
2006, thirteen years ago more or less, a man came here looking for the American
dream. He didn’t find it and all of his plans ended here. And those plans and his
dream left a lot of suffering behind with a family that perhaps was hoping for
him to be the person who would send checks back home for them to survive. But
this all ended here. We don’t know his name, but he had a name, a family, and
he had dreams and hopes, he had everything. That’s why we do this, to give this
person presence. To honor this person. But there will always be an empty space
at the dinner table for this person and that takes a long, long time to go away;
in fact, it never will. He’ll always be missing in some way.

At
a loss to say anything more, Alvaro stares at the ground. He wonders how much
longer he’ll mark dead sites. His knees are shot. In the old days, he’d start
at seven, walk three hours to a site and three hours back, up and down
mountains, sometimes not getting home before nightfall. These days, he seeks
clusters, areas where several bodies have been found, so he can put up crosses
without walking too far and adding mileage to the Jeep. It’s old, too.

He picks up the bucket and shovel. The two other sites are close by. He expects to finish before noon, an early day. Next Tuesday, he will return and carry more crosses into the desert and give presence to the anonymous dead with a marker no one will see. Art without a viewer. He considers their shortened lives part of the American myth. Dying for a dream.




Writing, and Chaplin

Picture Credits: Engin akyurt

Any
story, Chaplin said, can be told without human voice, with only a fork and a
spoon, at a dinner table. And, invited to many dinner parties, Chaplin, they
say, could prove it.

What
makes writing not good? The same things which make people not good. An
unawareness of their dishonesties, their entrenched imitativeness; a writer who
has spent too many years in front of a television will spend many years, if he
or she is trying to be a writer of some goodness, discharging those memories of
dramas on televisions. Half of his/her writing is vomiting them up, sick of
turning them around in one’s stomach all those years, feeling the sound of
their words as if in a tin can, never able to fully absorb them, aware of some
pervasiveness of death of honesty in them, death of innovation. Yet only half
of the writer/artist is re-wounded by this repeating what was seen and heard
there, by this disgorgement; a good half of the writer/artist is healed through
catharsis.

Flatness
is bad. Too much too even calm. Unless it is calm with an eeriness, while
terrible things go on, to show that everywhere there is a pond, there is a lily
pad, there is a frog ready to leap. Sometimes the narrator must be all calm;
sometimes descriptions of places must be all calm, to lull the reader into a
somniance. Before things begin.

But
not too much constant agitation. That will create only the need and wish for a
dark blue sleep.

The
layers and meanings of words. The writer who does not understand the double and
triple-speak of words can still fool anyone into almost anything, as can
societal attitudes. But a writer who approaches words with an already-ready
sense of suspiciousness can rule them. So intelligence, x-ray vision, are
paramount: mind you, these are unusual traits, the traits of superheroes.

But
most of all, more than dishonesties, or too much from television to disgorge,
or too much flatness or agitation, or too little wise suspicion of common words
– most of all, a writer is bad if he or she cannot self-generate heat, power.
We are, as writers, the solar collector, the hybrid engine: we take energy from
what surrounds us or our remembering of surroundings; but we must also, through
the rhythm and placement of our speech, with the jabbing moving dance or battle
motions of our ideas woven through whatever is written, make energy: that is
the writer’s job. Each writer infuses what he finds with his own needs and
medicine of response: he shows the inert reader that he or she can be offended
or delighted by what she sees, but the dedicated human brain deeply wants to overcome
danger, and, with enough resolve, can often overcome obstacles, peril. In
dwindling summary: the writer always is the fairy tale riddle-solver, the one
fate has brought, somehow entering the story already knowing what is needed
–  or by end of story or novel does.

What
the writer needs may be only an understanding of inevitabilities, and a way to
accept and even find beautiful the inevitabilities. He or she can try to make
change, and he or she does not necessarily need to succeed.

Around
an oval table, writers can read stories about finding a large Canadian goose
nesting on their roof, staying there till summer, her five goose-eggs laid and
lined up in a row, ready to hatch; they can read a poem while jazz is played;
they can read a story filled with cursing words. A woman can go to a French
enclave in Canada and meekly submit to the rudenesses which people inflict upon
the unFrench outsider and endure it for twenty-five years which then become at
least twenty-five chapters. A giant, in a story, can work his way into a house,
laugh, destroy things; people can live in a society where their minds are
boundaried and controlled, and never have the wish, let alone the need, to have
courage enough to escape; someone can decide the most loving embrace they have
ever felt is the clasp of a seatbelt on an airplane, loving the stewardesses
nagging him about being buckled in. A writer can write in one whole book about his
proud love for his religion, about the comfort like home it gives him.

But
what is underneath? The American writer about the woman in French Canada may be
realizing now the court is hers. The writer who thinks he is in love with his
religion may be realizing as he writes that it is the setting sun he looks to
each day and adores, not the people or rituals or stories in churches; and that
sun travels – everywhere. The writer who loves the buckling ritual on the plane
may be secretly wishing for the courage to unbuckle on another country, or
continent, and somehow stay. The person writing about people over-controlled in
a society may be really in love with that control, though everyone thinks the
purpose of the written piece is to lash out against the control. The giant? The
giant may represent the author’s jealous and inflamed heart, his memory of his
own displacement, of being made small; he wants all to experience his displaced
heart. And the woman with the goose on her roof may be stating that she is
feeling the authenticity of “impostor syndrome” – the truth that all of us are
frauds, compared to our child selves, when we were new and we knew the greatest
love we will ever know, our early love for our mothers, and school, and sleep.

And
the writer who reads his writing while jazz is played by a certain player? He
by the time he is finished realizes his writing is jazz, too, that the musician
whose recording he used was only his five delicious minutes of using him the
magician as a crutch. Taking courage from the original players of jazz who found
their genius footing in a country which mocked them, the writer is borrowing
footing from the ones who defeated the undefeatable odds: on a European
civilization’s instruments, they outdid them, without their instructions or
rule books, tuition, without their composers. In one generation.

How
else does a good writer be a good writer? She or he admits they know just what,
even though it is unnamed still to them as they write, they are seeking. Yes,
they are greedy. Yes, they have an overarching and ridiculous need to have
something they might not win or even deserve: and they insist on an almost
ridiculous excess of dignity. But they admit their humbleness, that they are
lacking. And from that comes humor, or sardonicness; you’ve admitted, as a
writer, need.

Declared
mortal, vulnerable: already wounded, soft white belly even more vulnerable,
because you have pulled aside your shirt to show the wound. But admired; you must
be strong to be so reckless. Only strong can dare the fates this way: such brave
display.

Writers
have a music a music class or tutor cannot give. As great singers must have
deeply felt the feel of notes in their silent throats through earliest childhood,
writers resonate with the music of the books they have read. Neither music nor
novels come from class. As a tree turns in the wind, as water rounds edges of
boulders; music logic has a fall of gravity. Writing logic has an even sharper
gravity – the rise and fall of necessity. You the writer prove you see, or saw,
an unendurability before you.

Consider
Chaplin. Chaplin takes his sad little too-large hat, his eyebrows like piles of
dark-burned ash, shoes which yes are shoes but obviously like his dreams
oversized. His cane which is to reassure, remind him, that the wisdom of the
old man is with him, though he is young. To town. His eyes like coals, he
wanders, overflowing with dreaming. Dreaming he can rise above the poor and the
poorly-placed and win the lovely girl, who will see the fervor and the delight
of his heart, and is the symbol of his prize.

Chaplin
improvises with each turn of the story; he is willing to do anything, to win.
Arrogance of any type he can both mock and envy, absorbing as he simultaneously
pushes away. The airplane Chaplin realizes is full of people who have forgotten
what the adventurous meaning of life is. To them the seatbelt is an empty,
unloving ritual: to them it is an annoyance. Chaplin would see a goose on a
roof is a sign he is lucky to be human; the goose must be there to make him
think of fairy tales, a sign he should understand the goose and gander, brave
and nesting and valiant, there to lead the way for the next generation of
nesters; the goose should make him long for family around him, too, to guard him
and give him an increased feeling of strength (Chaplin in his last, fourth
marriage, in Switzerland, fathered his last set of children: eight.)

Bored
groups of people are really the audience Chaplin dreams of, who are waiting to
see how he sets himself free from dull repetition and attitudes; an audience
waiting almost eagerly to be awakened. They’ve forgotten, or maybe never
learned well enough, the special art of making themselves the fool. Or how to
watch for the jealous giant who is everywhere, because the jealous giant is in
each of us. When we are on the plane, Chaplin knows, we need instead of pulling
down the airplane’s tiny plastic beige window shades when the glare of the sun
is on us, to let it shine on us and diffract us. For the sun, the shining sun, is
the base of, outdoes, all religions.

After
Chaplin, where is the impostor? How do we find him? Chaplin would have us
recognize the great impostor also is always in us. Acting and actors are
half-complete impostors. They might wear the Chaplin hat: an admission that to
up-end any impostors, you must admit first you are one, too.

As
Tolstoy said, all of writing is about the stranger who comes to town, or the
trip a man makes to the strange town. So: writing then is startlement, introductions,
rejections. The fairy tale riddle-solver seeing the problems before him.

And
what do you find? That a person has both badness and goodness; that a town
does, too. But you as a writer are a force of control, self-comfort, movement;
you are a painter at an easel, looking for something or someone beautiful,
wanting to record something startlingly, bravely true, something no one has
recorded before. You gain something by meeting a stranger, also, by meeting a
strange town.

The
people in the strange town? They never travelled your trip, never heard anyone
call out to you watch out for that step
which is their way of saying it is their house and they know that step is
theirs, not yours, you are but the awkward visitor, so clumsy you would likely
fall. (What is dressed up as a welcome is really their comment on how awkward
they expect you to be.) The writer says thank
you
but beneath the polite thank you
he knows the real intent of the admonishment: almost a wish that he would fall,
or full credit for having saved clumsy him, the invading guest.

Oh, do you think I’m
clumsy
, he calls out, all
grace.

Or
better, like Chaplin, tips into a neat double set of cartwheels, landing almost
exactly at his chair at the table, smoothing his hair, raising and lowering his
eyebrows, settling his cap, leaning his cane against the table to neatly,
precisely, hang his hat from top of its crook, that deep crook very much like a
goose’s or a gander’s neck deeply bent, attentive. Chaplin sits now alert at a
supper table where all the bored guests are set, as neatly as silverware, as
rows of seats on a plane; waiting, they are, for the one who will save them
from their boredom, show them something they have never seen on television: Waiting
for Chaplin. Chaplin, ready, maybe, to tell a story: with one spoon and one fork.




What Happens When Your Psychiatrist Pretends He’s Mick Jagger

Picture Credits: Gerd Altmann

Everything in this story
is the God’s honest truth; especially the parts that seem exaggerated. When my
twins, my only children, were applying to colleges, I told them that they couldn’t
go west of Connecticut. I raised them in Rhode Island. While they currently
live on campus, the bus that takes them to and from the university they attend
passes by our new house, the one my husband and I downsized into so that we
could pay for their college education and not have to work until we are Orrin
Hatch’s age. The move was a sacrifice: from one of the most secluded
neighborhoods on Aquidneck Island where everyone has a golf cart for trick or
treating, to a house off the highway, so close to the busy road that when I’m using
the bathroom, I have to brace myself if a truck drives by. Actually, if I open
my front door and then sit on the toilet with the bathroom door open and I time
it right, I can wave to my sister Jeanne who passes by every morning.

Six months before our
daughters left, I thought I would buy them the dog they’ve always wanted, so in
the spring of the girls’ senior year of high school, we googled “Dogs that
don’t bark and don’t like to walk.” We ended up with Harry, an English bulldog.
I flew from Providence, Rhode Island to Columbus, Ohio in an afternoon to pick
him up. When I met a representative from the breeder and was handed a small
brown animal with long ears, I thought I had been conned and wondered instantly
if I had just flown to Ohio to pick up a rabbit.

I had never had a dog
myself so for the first nine months I treated him like a toddler. He had
scheduled nap times, a pink stroller, an air-conditioner in his room and a
sound machine. Eventually he went off to doggy day care, which is more like a
preschool, where he still goes every day, where they throw birthday parties and
give out cake, and encourage the dogs to play on plastic cars and slides. When
he was three months old and had completely exhausted us with his puppy antics,
my husband, a medical doctor, was convinced Harry had rabies. I just thought he
was mentally ill and that he also had a fondness for women’s underwear.

I had read on the
Internet that English bulldogs are susceptible to all sorts of health
conditions. Before he was ten months, Harry had suffered from a seizure,
chronic skin infections, respiratory infections, conjunctivitis, and tear ducts
that underproduced. I grew concerned that the veterinarian might start to blame
me.

“Do you think the vet is
going to think I have munchkins disease?” I asked my husband.

“If you mean Munchhausen
syndrome by proxy, then no. Although he may think that there are other things
wrong with you.”

Unquestionably, my
husband was right; there were and still are many things wrong with me. On top
of my empty-nest crisis and puppy training, I live with chronic pain. Not
root-canal-without-Novocain pain, but hourly, daily, pain. In early November
2016, on a Saturday night, I took a lot of pills, not a Heath Ledger dose, not
even close, but enough to end up in the ER and by Monday morning we, meaning my
Dr. Husband and I, were off to see a psychiatrist. I took a combination of
drugs to help relieve the pain I had been experiencing, but secretly I’d been
hoping for a spiritual revelation. For the last twenty years. And one afternoon,
a few weeks before the ER visit, I was sure that I was on the verge of one while
I was meditating.

I had taken up meditation,
which for me involved sitting up in my bed wearing a sleeping mask and a
bicycle helmet. Just before I reached a pretty impressive level of relaxation,
I had a tendency to fall asleep and hit my head on the headboard. The helmet
became a natural part of my meditation practice. On one particular afternoon, I
thought for sure I saw a sign directly in front of me: a beautiful ruby red
light, an indication of some sort of spiritual awakening. For about three or
four seconds, I actually got nervous and questioned whether I was prepared for
this type of experience: the light, the Truth, the whole thing. I even wondered
if, braless, I were dressed for the occasion. I felt I might be seeing living
sparks like Hildegard of Bingen or a red flowering tree sheltering all children
like Black Elk. But it soon became clear that my desire for an awakening was
just that my sleeping mask was on crooked and the red light was coming from the
cable television box.

The experience that led
me to the ER that cold November night was nothing short of terrifying but the
only way I know how to describe it is to say that I had inhabited a universe
made of Swiss cheese and every minute or two I slipped into one of the holes
where time and space were incomprehensible. Trying to hold a thought together that night was like trying
to hold smoke between my fingertips. A friend of mine who grew up in the Sixties called it
a “bad trip.”

In the end, my
psychiatrist said that my experience might have been the best thing that ever
happened to me. When I asked him to explain, he said, “Sometimes you don’t
always get what you want, but you get what you need.” We drove ninety minutes
to hear him quote Mick Jagger.

I had been on a strict
Paleo diet for thirty days, but on that morning, on our way back from seeing the
doctor we headed to Dunkin’ Donuts where I got two large raisin bran muffins.
On the way home, we took a different route. The thought occurred to me that
maybe my husband was taking me someplace to commit me and my second thought was
I hope he had enough sense to send me to a place that had Netflix since I had
to finish Stranger Things and Luke Cage and for the love of God, I
thought, I hope he packed my mascara and foundation. It turned out my husband
just took a wrong turn and we were lost.

The following day when I
returned home from picking Harry up at school I went into a full-fledged panic
attack. Once I had unlocked my front door and was standing in my kitchen, I was
convinced that someone was in our house. I called my sister who lives four
minutes away. When she came into the house she could tell that I was on the
edge, and she demanded I take a lorazepam before I even told her what was
wrong.

Ever since I moved out
of my parents’ house in 1985, I’ve had an irrational fear of men hiding in my
closets, under the bed, in the basement or in the attic. For the past thirty
years, wherever I’ve lived – in a studio apartment in
Santa Cruz or in a large house on the coast of Maine – if
I came home alone, I compulsively checked between every pair of Gap jeans and
as I got older and fatter and went through menopause, I checked between every extra-long
tunic, and behind every door. By the time I was middle-aged, my husband and I
were living in a house with twelve closets and checking each one and then
checking the basement and the attic turned out to be a work out.

That night, standing in
the kitchen with my sister I said, “I need you to check the closets.”

“What am I looking for?”
my sister asked.

“Men.” I told her.

“Any particular type?”
she asked.

My sister, who is
usually bold and unstoppable, slowly opened the pantry door and peered into it.
And then she closed it as quickly as she could, holding her breath she said, “I
think you’ve called the wrong person for the job.”

But still she carried
on.

Eventually we headed to
the attic. Harry took the lead, hauling his little bulldog ass up the stairs. When
my sister opened the attic door, Harry made a beeline for the eaves. I managed
to catch him but not before he put something in his mouth and swallowed it. I
had suspected it was mouse poison and my mind raced back to the night I
accidentally fed my twin ten-year-old daughters hot dogs laced with bright blue
mouse droppings. Well, technically my husband fed them the hotdogs.

“Daddy, these hot dogs
have blue spots on them,” Zoe said.

“Eat the hot dogs. They’re
fine; I just bought them,” Dr. Husband replied.

“No, Daddy, they have turquoise-colored
dots on them,” explained the future art major.

Having overheard this, I
dashed into the kitchen and discovered flecks of tainted mouse poop in the
cupboards and in the frying pan. I immediately called poison control and began
quizzing the person on the other end of the line. He explained to me that my
daughters would have had to ingest grams and grams to be, how shall I say,
poisoned. My husband had to put me in a hot bath that night and give me a sedative.
When I was sure he was back downstairs with the girls, I climbed out of the tub
and called poison control back, this time disguising my voice and using my best
manly British accent.

“My daughters, who weigh
about 80 pounds, just ate hot dogs that had blue spots on them, the color of
turquoise,” I said.

There was silence on the
other end.

“Hello, did you hear me?
My daughters ate hot dogs that were cooked in a pan that a dying mouse shit in.”

“Ma’am, I’ve already
told you…”

Regardless of how he
tried to assuage my fears again, I really couldn’t wrap my mind around what a “gram”
was so I spent the night looking up grams of cocaine, grams of sand, grams of
loose tea.

The morning after my
sister searched in vain for a human intruder, Harry had what appeared to be a
seizure. He was lying on his back, paws up in the air, like he was dead. I
carried him to the car in a state of panic noticing dog chewed wrappings of a
Dunkin’ Donuts raisin bran muffin. I didn’t know what caused the seizure: the raisins,
which are known to be poisonous to dogs or mouse poison he might’ve gotten into
the night before.

By the time we got to
the vet, Harry appeared perfectly normal. Well, that’s if you consider licking the
wall normal. Sitting on the floor with him in an examining room, waiting for
the vet to come in, I contemplated weighing myself on the giant stainless steel
hydraulic examination table that also served as scale. Naturally, I would have
to strip to get an accurate reading of my weight but I wondered how I would
explain myself if the vet came in and saw me standing there in my underpants.

The week of Harry’s seizure
and my own visit to the ER, I was so worked up that all I could manage to make
for dinner was cereal. By the end of the week I called the fish market.

“Hi. Do you recognize my
voice? I’m a middle-aged, overweight woman who comes in and orders three pieces
of wild salmon with the skin on.”

“There’s a lot of women
that fit that description,” said the fish man. “How can I help you?”

“Well, my dog Harry had
a seizure the other day and I don’t want to leave him alone. Do you think I can
order my salmon from the car and then just toss you my credit card from the doorway
because I’ve seen that your sign reads ‘No dogs allowed’ and for the last four
days I’ve been eating cereal for all my meals and we live in this new house
where the bathroom is close to the road. Well, I really don’t want to go into
the specifics but do you think you could help me?”

The fish-market man
tossed me my salmon like he was pitching to a ten-year-old nearsighted kid.
After my attempt at tossing my credit card to him from the front door, which
was six feet away and over a five-foot counter, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind
coming out from behind the counter. I thought if I could just get him to stand
at the same distance as the starting point for a good old-fashioned egg toss,
we would have been successful.

*

Around the same time, Harry
and I each had our own respective visits to our dermatologists. As long as we
wipe his paws and the multiple folds of his face with medicated pads every
night and keep his anal pocket clean and his anal glands expressed and he stays
on his restricted hypoallergenic diet, he’ll be fine. My own visit was a little
more anxiety-provoking as I had been experiencing intense itchy nipples which
my high school friend who is now an oncology nurse had convinced me was a sign
of advanced breast cancer. Once in the examining room the medical assistant asked
what my chief complaint was and I told her.

As she typed, she spoke
to herself like she was taking a deli order. “Well that’s two itchy nipples.”

When she was done typing
she looked up and told me to undress but leave my underwear on under the medical
gown. I was little embarrassed.

“I’m not wearing any
underwear on account of my vagina.”

“What’s wrong with your
vagina?” she asked.

“It itches, too. I think
it’s old.”

Turning back to her
keyboard she typed, “That’s two itchy nipples and one itchy vagina,” as if she
were confirming my sandwich order.

Given her tone, it
wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if she had followed up with, “Will that
be all?” And had she, I might have been tempted to tell her about my trip to
the ER, Harry’s seizure, and the imaginary men hiding in my closets.

It turns out that Harry
and I both just have sensitive skin and are prone to dermatitis.

As November passed by, I still had not
accepted my friend’s interpretation that it was all just a bad trip. I wore
sunglasses on foggy and rainy days and wept in public, convinced that I was
slowly losing my mind and that feeling of not being in control and not being
able to speak would reoccur, unannounced, and unwanted like my new neighbor who
knocked at my door at 10:30 at night and asking me to help locate her runaway
rooster.

But then I remembered something that my
psychiatrist said. He suggested that I look for signs of change that might
occur as the result of the “bad trip”, particularly positive changes in the way
I felt towards others. This resonated with me. That fall, I had just finished
reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and I had become completely obsessed with Father Zosima’s display ofunbridled compassion and his deep understanding of the
interconnectedness of all life. I wanted that desperately. I had begun to
pray every day – a simple prayer: God
make me less of an asshole.

Years ago when I learned researchers at
Johns Hopkins were the first to use psilocybin to treat existential
anxieties of terminally ill patients, I was kind of jealous that I didn’t
qualify for the study. They reported that participants had come to terms with
dying and felt one with the universe. I wanted that too, minus the terminal
illness. So I conceded and thought maybe my psychiatrist was onto something. Perhaps
that terrifying night wasn’t the type of spiritual experience that I wanted,
but one that I needed. Following my doctor’s advice, I looked for subtle changes
to see if I felt more connected to others. I ended up bonding with a lot of
dogs on the beach that winter.

Maybe if I live long enough I’ll be diagnosed
with cancer and then I’ll have a legitimate reason to investigate the effects
of drugs like psilocybin. Now researchers have opened up the studies to
garden-variety depressives and people prone to anxiety like myself. As ironic
as it sounds, I think a cancer diagnosis would make me brave enough to
experiment with drugs that promise life-changing experiences – experiences that
might mitigate my pain and allow me to ignore the strangers in my closets. Until
then, I’ll just hold on. Sometimes I’ll simply hold onto Harry, steadying myself
like those moments when I’m on the can and my underwear is down around my
ankles and a Mack truck drives by the house. I just hope that one day a truck
doesn’t drive through the wall of our house and my colleagues and high school
friends end up reading that I died on the toilet.




On Love

There
is a picture of me and my father and a dead deer hanging above the fireplace.
My skin is red and tear-stricken. The deer is lying limp, its head held up by
its ears by my father. The gun is strung across his back, the barrel pointed
proudly at the sky. I am eight years old in the picture. I had never been close
to a dead thing before.

Later,
he’d make me gut it. He’d hang it by its legs from the rafters on the ceiling
and I would learn what the insides of a body looked like. The pool of glowing
crimson collecting under it, traces of the life my father had taken, stained
the floor for months. It was an art, he said, as he stripped the fur back to
reveal the raw fuchsia flesh that looked more alive than skin did. I placed my
fingertips against it, half expecting but mostly wanting to feel a pulse of
life. Of course there was nothing. Just a cold dull mound of something that
used to exist but no longer did. Ten years later, I would learn to call
something like this a vessel. I would think that it was poetic.

Now
I think of the deer as a tragedy. I think of it as childhood. I think of my
father’s hands and the way they take and the way they give and how, sometimes,
I can’t tell the difference.

My
mother hates the picture. I am not entirely sure why she doesn’t take it down.
But then again, I am not entirely sure why she hates it. I am not sure if it’s
because there is a bloody carcass, or because my dad is smiling, or because it
was from a time where we lived in separate houses. Whatever the reason, she
holds her breath for a second when she sees it.

He
brought the picture when he came back home, along with a few cardboard boxes
and a promise to be better. I don’t know why he brought the picture. It wasn’t
even an impressive deer. After we found its body we realized it was only a baby
– a button buck, my father said. I could see the little beginnings of antlers
peeking out from the fur. That was when I cried.

I
don’t know why he was proud that he killed the creature. Was it about power?
It’s always about power, it seems. At least that’s what my therapist said when
the childlike version of me asked her why my dad hit my mom.

I
know it’s said when you love someone you must love the bad parts of them too,
but people have said a lot of things. And I am not really sure how that applies
here. I guess it begs the question if there are limits to love. And if there
are, then if once we pass them can we ever go back?

Maybe
it is possible for love and hate to coincide. For them to inhabit the same
space. I am convinced of this because there are days where I can’t even tell
them apart. Where they are so intertwined or so far away, from a distance, they
look the same. If I were to make a metaphor here I would say that sometimes I
walk into the living room and see Love and Hate sitting on the couch together.
They are having a conversation of sorts. Love is flailing her arms and Hate is
doing the same. They are never indifferent. They are always yelling. But I am
too tired to make a metaphor. By this I mean I am too tired to try to
understand.

So
instead I say that there is a picture in my house that is hard to look at. That
in a way I was never, and that I am always eight years old. And that there are
things that my father’s hands are capable of that we don’t like to think about.