On Being Me

In first grade, I got a Totally Hair Barbie for Christmas from my grandma. She was the best Barbie I owned, with brunette hair all the way down to her toes. After holiday break, I brought her to school, and I remember sitting at my little kid desk combing her precious long locks as she sat in my lap during snack time. Did I enjoying combing my own hair? Nah, not so much. But I did enjoy combing hers. So much so that the girl in the desk next to me who lived on my street, the one I’d been secretly hoping to befriend, noticed my joy.

“What’re you hiding?” She pointed towards my lap.

I wasn’t hiding the Barbie, per say. It was snack time, and I was allowed to have her out. But did I want to share her? No. Then I thought about it harder. Did I want this girl to be my friend? Yes. Yes I did. I brought the still-to-be-named Barbie out and plopped her on the desk, where I continued gently pulling the comb through her hair as it spilled across the wood.

“Oh, she’s pretty.” Leaning closer to my desk, she reached for the doll. “Can I try?”

Mind you, this was the girl who had snapped my strawberry crayon in half at the beginning of the school year. Why I wanted her to be my friend is largely beyond the scope of my adult brain. I should have known better, but I passed her the Barbie anyway. “Careful combing her hair. Don’t tangle it.” My own fine hair tangled all the time and it hurt. Couldn’t have Barbie feeling the same.

After a minute of dragging the comb through Barbie’s hair, the girl grew obviously bored and held the doll up for a closer inspection. She clutched the long locks around her fist and swung the Barbie, then let her drop back down to the desk. I tried not to yell at her; I definitely knew better. But then she said, “I think Barbie needs a hair cut.”

Now the whole point of the Totally Hair Barbie was her hair. Totally Hair—hair all the way to the butt. Cut her hair off, and what was left? Just…Barbie. I was against this proposed hair cut with every fiber of my being, but instead of voicing my dissent, I instead whispered, “Okay.”

I really really wanted this neighbor to be my friend.

I wanted it so badly that I watched her hack off Totally Hair Barbie’s lustrous locks in a really terrible asymmetrical bob without uttering a single complaint. I wanted it so badly that when questioned later as to what had happened to my brand new Barbie, I said I’d done it myself. And I took the punishment for it myself.

Eventually, my neighbor did become a friend. Adult-me realizes that this girl was more trouble than she was worth, but child-me just wanted someone to walk to school with, maybe hang out with to escape my own house. I gave this girl what she wanted, and then she liked me and became my friend. It was that simple.

Since the revelation that I struggle with codependency (CODA), I have tried to fit the whole concept into a box. I like to put things into tidy boxes—makes them easier to deal with. But I’ve been batting this around with my therapist since we started talking three years ago, and I’m finally just beginning to understand that maybe it doesn’t all fit in one box. Maybe not every single aspect of codependency applies to me. Perhaps the time I let my potential friend do a hack job on Barbie’s locks was the most innocent of my CODA origin examples.

My therapist said it best, actually:

“Maybe that is something you write about how abuse does this to a person too that this is what you are left with also – some sick parting gift for making mistakes that all children make but having [adults] that made you pay for it instead of being patient and teaching you…It was like you never had any other choice in life ever but to people please and now that you want to find your own self, you find yourself not wanting to disappoint those who actually love you and care about you. it’s like you don’t know how to differentiate.”

I wrote about this in the beginning of my book, but I didn’t fully understand what I was writing then. So let’s put it here:

When I was five years old, my grandmother’s boss gave me a pink My Little Pony Paradise for Christmas. I was too little at the time to realize what an expensive toy this was, simply choosing to love it for all of its sparkling pink pony hospitality. The dream house stood around two feet tall, with one main section and two eaves that folded out when I wanted to see all the rooms and closed to make it look like an actual house. Each of the side sections had four rooms—two on the top floor and two on the bottom—while the main section was just composed of two long rooms, one on each floor. There was the bathroom of course, which contained a rose pink claw foot tub for the ponies to bath in, a vanity for them to groom in, and a sink for them to wash their hooves, like all good ponies did after going to the bathroom. There were two sitting rooms, the contents of which rearranged daily depending upon what I most fancied. The house came with a plethora of pink televisions, chairs, couches, tables, and loveseats, all similar in shade to the bathtub, that I moved at will without stopping to consider how silly it was to think that a pony could sit in a chair. I still had my imagination then; the world was still moldable. There was the kitchen, which was comprised of an entire wall of counters, a small pink fridge, a pink sink, and a pink stove; right next to the kitchen was the dining room, which just a table and a lamp. The ponies did not sit to eat, because who had time for that? The other three rooms were all bedrooms. They had beds inside big enough for ponies to lay on, four hooves to the wind, as well as dressers and lamps. One even had a bookcase. All in pink, of course, because ponies only got furniture in pink. It didn’t occur to me then that my boy ponies may not have approved of all the pink—I wasn’t of the age yet where I had learned that gender was societally assigned.

Scattered all over the dreamhouse were the pony accessories. Every pony came with something, and these came in many different colors, from white to green to blue to pink. Pony clothes, pony shoes, pony hairbrushes, pony dishes. Ponies needed a lot to live in their dreamhouse, almost as much as I needed.

I steadily accrued ponies for most of the year. My favorite pony was Butterfly; I got her for my sixth birthday. She had purple bows on her little green butt, not butterflies, but the name seemed to suit her somehow. She fit in well with all the other My Little Ponies: Spike, with his hunter green hair that I crafted into a Mohawk with my purple safety scissors; Princess Lillian, who had a golden tiara tattoo around her forehead courtesy of my magic markers and a sparkling gray and white main so long it wrapped around her hooves; Daffodil, who sported sloppy flowers on her legs handpainted with my silver nail polish; Skyhopper, Elizabeth, and many more. I was always original with my name choices, and I took my time getting to know each and every pony. I cared very deeply for them.

One pony was bigger than all of the others. I named him Phillip. He was several inches taller than the others, some sort of blue giant super pony, and as such he frequently took the role of boss towards the female ponies. He was Princess Lillian’s boyfriend, as she was the tallest and most beautiful of all the ponies; he kept her tightly to him. Butterfly was Princess Lillian’s daughter, and Phillip’s property by association.

Phillip had a short temper fuse. He would blow up over the smallest of things, sometimes lashing out at Princess Lillian. It was Butterfly, however, who was his favorite victim. She would frequently find herself in dangerous situations with Phillip—hanging from the edge of my bed by her tail or mane; falling through the gap between my mattress and headboard, or pinned beneath his hooves in one of the many dream house bedrooms. Every once in a while, Princess Lillian would rescue Butterfly. But more often than not, she didn’t—Princess Lillian much preferred to sit in the background and watch, hiding behind her mane of glittering hair, her abnormally large eyes open and staring. Sometimes Phillip would give Princess Lillian things—money, food, presents—for his time with Butterfly. Butterfly was nothing more than a commodity, an object, a lesson which she would carry well into her adult years.

Book-writer me understands the concept of play therapy/psychology and what I wrote here. This section is actually one of my favorite parts of my book, and I will forever remember the response of the first writer’s group that workshopped it. But what about what I didn’t write?

When Phillip asked something of Butterfly, she did it. If he wanted to pull her hair, she offered it him. If he wanted to play bad games in the bedroom, she let him. If he said jump, she said how high. Butterfly was a pony pleaser to the extreme, and it kept her alive and in a relative place of safety.

If it wasn’t clear, she’s me. I am Butterfly. And I learned to people please pretty much from birth. If I was quiet, people might leave me alone. If I cooked, if I cleaned, if I did the right things, it could mean a day without being hurt. Doing what other people wanted of me helped me to be safe. I learned this behavior in the most extreme of situations, and it bled into every aspect of my life.

Major life decisions are forever paralyzing. Friend changes, job changes, life changes. I struggle to make a decision without thinking of the other party. I never learned to put myself first. I learned that my wants and needs don’t matter. I learned to be a chameleon and pretend to be the person who best fit a given situation. My therapist and I were talking about who *I* really am this week, and I realized that I don’t know. I have an idea, for sure. But to just answer that question right off the cuff without someone to give me the answer? Holy crap.

I’m told that I can change these behaviors built by 30 plus years of learning, but it also feels like a monumental task. Like I’m too old, like I can’t start over that way. I’ve started with the smallest of things: Do I want to take a new job? It became a yes/no line chart in my head but honestly, it’s the best choice for ME. Choice number two. Do I want to write about these things? Yes. Yes I do.

I was indeed left with a “sick parting gift” to quote my therapist. It has never felt like I had any choice but to please people, even in my most innocuous relationships. But in a way, this is a true gift as well. I listen very well; I can read people better than almost anyone I know.

I learn. And I adapt.

I think the biggest thing with me and the CODA behaviors is that I’ve felt alone in them. I felt like it was something broken inside me, something deeply defective and wrong. And yes, while something may be broken, it wasn’t broken by any fault of my own. It only took me this many years to figure that out. But now that I have, doesn’t that make each new day an opportunity?

Maybe I don’t have to be Butterfly anymore. Maybe I can just be…me.

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Let’s Talk About Babies

My internal baby factory has been taking hits from all sides this year: friends having babies, my impending 37th birthday, societal expectations that I marry and reproduce (or just reproduce somehow miraculously), and possible early menopause. The biological clock is ticking. Plus the me pressure. Always the me pressure. My therapist coined that term, not me.

When I was 25, I lost a baby almost at full term. Stillborn, no explanation. Babies die, and I know that better than many. I’ve learned to not be fully excited about upcoming babies until they are physically here in their mother’s arms—but I have also learned to keep that concern to myself, because it’s the right thing to do. I am a statistic. A low statistic. But a statistic. It’s changed the way I think about the world.

My therapist and I have been conversing lately about babies. Makes sense. My son would have been 11 years old this past Friday. I picture him a lot. Carter. We didn’t name him until we held his body. It was my now-ex husband who wanted to wait—I wanted to name him Jace, a name I fully attribute to The Mortal Instruments debuting while I was pregnant. My ex wanted to name him Carter, and my ex won. I was too preoccupied holding a baby that would never cry, and honestly, I didn’t hate the name.

At 11 years old, he’d be in…fifth grade. In a pandemic. In the state of Wisconsin, which largely doesn’t seem to care as much about said pandemic as other parts of the country. He would be tall for his age, I think. Light brown hair, hazel eyes. When he was younger I pictured him in suspenders, but now I see a boy with torn, grass-stained blue jeans, a kid that likes to play sports but also likes to draw—dragons, wyvern, and all types of fantasy creature. He likes to read comic books more than regular books, but has a special love for Harry Potter. He’s on safety patrol, looking forward to the annual Wisconsin Dells trip come end of the year (we won’t tell him that’s cancelled on account of Covid!) And he goes to Sunday School and loves God, because that is what he is supposed to do.

If I had an eleven year old, I would possibly still be married, in a marriage that was never right for me for a myriad of reasons, and I would possibly still be in a church that wasn’t right for me. Because those are the things that were expected of me. Those are the things that I was supposed to do. I have always done what I was supposed to do.

What I was supposed to do didn’t work out. It feels like trying to fit myself into the box of every expectation to ever exist NEVER works out. And yet, for some reason, I keep putting myself back into boxes. I’m supposed to find a relationship. I’m supposed to have kids. I’m supposed to have a stable career. I’m supposed to, supposed to, supposed to. What do I WANT?

Ever since Carter died, I think I’ve felt like I HAD to have another baby. That feeling started from outside sources, a conversation had by the pool Memorial Day weekend right after we lost him. When were we going to try again? We were going to try again, right? It was God’s will that we try again as soon as possible. Those words brought to you by my then mother-in-law. Of course, my sister-in-law was already pregnant with her first by then, and I was just a failure. After the divorce, a much-necessary occurrence, I told myself maybe babies would happen for me in a different way. They haven’t. Is that okay? My mother-in-law’s words ring in my head, and my love and desire for Carter hangs there too.

A revelation occurred to me this year, courtesy of many hours spent messaging with my therapist. I’m not sure I actually want a baby. Do I want Carter? Yes, absolutely. But I am well aware that’s never going to happen. My therapist asked me to think about why I want a baby and honestly…I don’t know. None of the reasons I’ve come up with have come from inside of ME. Another baby wouldn’t replace Carter; he can’t be replaced. And just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I HAVE to have a baby. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. I just don’t know what I want. Perhaps I’ve never really known before what *I* want.

I guess that this, our year 2021, is the year in which I figure out all the things I actually want. Whether those wants contain babies remains to be seen, but I do definitely need to reevaluate where I am in my life.

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When the Dream is Just a Commodity (Or, Let’s Talk About Sex)

Even though I never had a family example of a normal, healthy marriage, I knew pretty much from the get-go that something was wrong with mine. We were en route to Canada for our honeymoon and we went through the McDonalds drive thru. I ordered a quarter pounder with cheese, but I don’t remember what he ordered. What I do remember is when he turned to me with the strangest look in his eye.

“That’s all the money you get to spend on food today.”

I didn’t understand what I’d done. After all, he’d ordered McDonalds too. But I did understand the look in his eye–it was one I’d seen repeatedly growing up, and it meant that there was an expectation present that I somehow had not fulfilled. When he ordered dinner for himself, I got nothing. I was a failure. And in my relationship, I thought the failure traced back to sex.

Sex has always been…sex to me. A bad word. Dirty. Something that people take from each other without giving anything in return. I know it’s referred to as making love in the movies, but it’s never been about love for me. And honestly, I’ve never understood it beyond the base of what I learned from childhood–big men exert power over little women and tell them not to cry or they’ll be sorry. A month before the wedding, I saw the gynecologist for the first time to get birth control. I was quite honest with her, a rarity for me, and I laid out that I worried I would never have any intimate feelings because of the abuse I’d been through as a kid. I told the doctor I felt damaged, broken. I’d heard the religious metaphor of the bruised fruit one too many times by then, and I was certain that what was taken from me when I was younger would never be returned. How would I satisfy my soon-to-be husband if I felt…nothing? And he was definitely needy. It started early in our relationship, in the dark basement den of his parents home on the couch to the side of their enormous tv; he would take a blanket and cover us up, no matter the weather, so his hand could sneak into my pants outside his family’s notice. Pleasure never came from this secret we held between us. His fingers hurt against my skin. They’d wander, struggling to find the right place and never locating it. Sometimes he’d dig into my labia under that blanket like he was holding it hostage. My parts for his; my happiness for his. If I think about it hard enough, I can still feel his fingernails grating against me.

He asked me one night why I never touched him back, oblivious of his family sitting right there watching the movies with us, but I didn’t have an answer that satisfied him. I could never satisfy him. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to save myself until we were married, whatever parts of me were left that could be saved.

The gynecologist addressed none of my concerns. “All women are nervous before their first time,” she told me, a slight laugh escaping her lips. “You’re young and healthy and beautiful, and you will certainly satisfy him. You’ll orgasm too.” It wouldn’t be my first time. She hadn’t listened to a word I’d said.

Our honeymoon commenced immediately after the reception, at the fanciest room in the Knight’s Inn, so that we could, as he put it, commence with the sex festivities prior to the long drive to Canada. We took that fancy room with a giant Jacuzzi tub, and we absolutely could not wait to get our clothes off–him for the whole “finally gonna consummate our relationship for real!” aspect, and me for the fancy tub. Sex won.

That night was my first actual, consensual sex, but I remember so little of it. Nothing of the actual act, not really, but many of the surrounding details. My dress was white; his mother bought it the week before when we were together at the mall. It had a zipper that ran from my neck past my butt, and she joked it would be easy for him to get me out of–I cringed. His shirt was blue, and his jeans were the fancy not-denim kind. He made me unbutton them and slide them down his legs. He made me take everything off. I did what he said because I thought it’s what I was supposed to do. Sex had never been about love, but rather an act, a commodity, an arrangement. The sheets were scratchy, cheap hotel sheets, no pattern, but my underwear had brightly colored flowers–I had neglected to wear anything sexy for the special moment. He told me I moved wrong and to just lay there, so that’s what I did. I found out years later he had learned what to do via porn. I’d learned via childhood. So in retrospect, the request made sense.

The jacuzzi was amazing. It was shiny white and big enough for two people. There were two faucets and eight jets, four on each person’s side. An army of different soaps and bath salts and bubble baths lined the wall in a coordinating rainbow of pastel colors. I chose the bubble bath that smelled like strawberries without asking his permission, and I tipped the bottle over under the open tap. The tub filled quickly; the bubbles covered my naked body. I had to encourage him to get in; he seemed afraid of the water. When I teased him, his cheeks turned rose pink and he slipped into the tub in a huff. I bent down to the bubbles and they smelled like the hard strawberry candies I used to steal off the counter when I was a kid. I slipped down within their grasp until I was buried up to my mouth. I knew the instant we came out, he would want more sex, and I did not want to come out. He told me that I smelled like a fruity pebble and tried to nuzzle me up and out of the tub. The faucets made me think of Niagara Falls. But I did come out eventually, and I did try.

The man who married us said prior, and I remember verbatim because it felt so important at the time, that he would “never marry a couple that would end in divorce,” so we had to stay together forever to keep his record spotless. To me, sex had been an opportunity to make up something that I’d lost. To him, sex was nothing more than a commodity, a prize to be taken.

I had dreamed of a special experience to erase all the bad ones. He had dreamed of fucking a porn star.

As we sat in the McDonalds drive-thru though, I knew I hadn’t played that part. I hadn’t been good enough. But I swore to myself in that moment that I would learn.

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Payphone

I am going to where I last remember seeing a payphone, a route I know well. The library. Books are my home and always have been. But I get there, and the phone isn’t in its corner under the tree. I spin, confused, but I keep walking. I don’t want to know what will happen if I stop moving.

His stain is on my t-shirt. I pull my coat closer around me, trying to hide the dumb baby cartoon shirt and its accompanying mess as I start to run. Faster, faster. My sneakers smack against freshly fallen snow, but I’m too cold to even recognize my once favorite weather, my fingers freezing as I stumble my way through the buttons. My jacket is not meant for this weather, but I didn’t have time to find a better one. It shouldn’t have even been my job.

I’m only 11 years old. I am 11 years old and my sneakers still have velcro and my shirt has my favorite cartoon and my hair hasn’t been washed in a week. But none of it matters.

I’m completely drenched, rain, snow, everything wet, by the time I find a laundry place. No one is inside, thank god, though several machines spin and whirl at top volume. Where’s the phone where’s the phone where’s the phone, there. In the corner. I am a different kind of scared. Calling will change everything. Everything.

I stand beside the phone, staring down at my jacket. At the buttons I didn’t do properly because I’d done them on the run. I had to do everything properly. Everything. But this time I had to fasten on the run, my fingers slipping on the buttons as I bolted. I watched myself in the glass casing around the phone as I fumbled with the buttons and tried not to panic. They have to be right; they have to be right; they have to be right.

I could go back. Already the idea is pulling at me. I should go back.

I finally fix the buttons. I still feel panicked, like I need to tear out my hair. So I reach up and I pull out a few pieces. Normally it helps, but I still don’t feel any better.

What if I told her? I could tell her. What had happened. What he’d done. But what if she doesn’t believe me? Worse, what if she tells me to just deal with it? Because that’s what I should do–deal with it. I should be able to deal with it.

I’d been scared so I’d said yes, and now I’d bled for it. 

Had I been saying yes to everything?

To giving up everything?

To having it taken like this?

I don’t know.

I don’t know anything.

I do know some things. I know that he was big and I wasn’t, strong and I wasn’t. I know that he wanted to make me scared, that he did make me scared, that I wasn’t supposed to be scared and would get in so much trouble.

I’m so scared.

I fumble in the pocket of my coat for quarters and pump them into the coin slot on the payphone. My fingers tremble as I pluck out the number I memorized back in third grade that my teacher gave to me and told me to never give to anyone else. I try to tell myself that this isn’t a betrayal, that I’m protecting myself, that it’s okay to not do what I’ve been taught because maybe what I’ve been taught wasn’t the right thing.

The phone rings and rings and rings and just when I get ready to hang up, I hear her say hello. The words send me crashing to reality so quickly I can barely focus on the picture I built in my head as the rings chimed–me living with her family and her kids in their perfect house with their perfect life.

She says hello again, asks who it is, while a man talks to her in the background. I didn’t even think that there’d be a man there. I couldn’t live there. I wouldn’t fit in. I could never be…ordinary.

I mess everything I touch up, and I don’t want to mess her up too. I claim wrong number. And then I hang up the phone and disappear back into the cold.

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Headspace (Not the Meditation App)

Let me just start off with the statement that this has not been a great week, for a lot of reasons. Not that that is an excuse for anything that is about to come out of my mouth—just don’t say you weren’t warned. I’ve stared at this screen for hours, trying to decide how to say what I want to say. Or if I even can.

When I was in elementary school, I think fourth grade, I wrote my first book. I actually still have it, this 8.5×11 masterpiece hole punched and bound with blue and yellow yarn called Dare to Dreamer. Yes, Dreamer. And yes, that was supposed to be Dream. I clearly paid attention to my work even back then. But I digress. This story, written and illustrated by me, was about a girl named Kris (I took the spelling from my then-favorite video game) who wanted to play baseball with boys. (Ten year old me was apparently ALSO about smashing the patriarchy??) In order to join their team, the boys put Kris through this bizarre initiation that somehow ended up with her falling off a bridge and dying. (And we wonder how I ended up in the “special” program…)

When I was in sixth grade, my mother had a boyfriend who owned a computer. And that was the greatest thing ever to me, at least in the moments he allowed me to use it. I had my very own folder, and I wrote stuff. It never occurred to me he would read it, that my mother would read it. That I was wrong and dumb and stupid to write the things I had written.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I wrote my next book. An actual real, full length, non-fiction, what I now know to be memoir. That I have never shared with a single soul. Ever. It’s called The Rest of Us, a nod to the under-appreciated tv show “Freaks and Geeks,” and it is, quite literally, about what high school was like for “the rest of us.” I talked about problems at home, with my mother, her boyfriends. I wrote about how I knew I needed help and struggled to ask for it. I wrote about the beginnings of my eating disorder, and the weird religious woman who tried to “cure” it. This was the first successful NaNoWriMo I did. It was not the last.

When I was a junior in high school, I wrote a short story that got the end of the year school literary magazine censored. Literally, as the magazine went to press, they had to halt everything and rip my story from the bindings. The advisor slipped me a copy with the story still inside, and it is my understanding that all files the school had were destroyed. I have the only copy.

I didn’t write for a long time after that. Not for real. I had said everything I needed to say. Occasionally I’d pump out a short story or something, effortlessly. My teachers loved me and my writing. One even wrote me an end of the year letter that I still treasure to this day about how my words will always be my words. (He said it much better, and it is in a frame on my wall. He’ll never know how much it means to me, unless, of course, he reads this. I’m not sure I’ve ever even thanked him.)

And then I REALLY didn’t write for a long time. I did NaNoWriMo every year, and won every year except one. But they are largely craptastic manuscripts when I go back to them. No one wants to read them. I don’t even want to read them. I had a gift; I lost the gift. I spent ten years doing bogus other things.

And THEN I went to college.

I stumbled around my first year thinking I was a great fiction writer. Truthfully, I was. I ran circles around my first creative writing class, including a girl I called out in my draft notes for plagiarizing. I thought to myself, oh hey, I could be a writer again. So I became one. I battled my way through undergrad, ten years later than “normal,” working on two degrees and a LOT of personal baggage. I discovered creative nonfiction, in a wonderful class taught by a wonderful professor, with a lot of wonderful writers. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I found a voice that had been kept from me for so long. I started this blog. I kept UP with this blog. I got followers that made my future agent proud. I wrote an entire book, a REALLY real one, that I am embarrassed to share with ANYONE for what was done to it.

Then grad school happened.

When I was in grad school, I let all of the voice I had found get taken away. I remember a few weeks after I earned my MFA sitting in a coffee/wine shop with the editor of a magazine who had offered to give me personal feedback on a draft—and she really hated what she read. It was stiff, she told me. And I don’t even remember the rest of the feedback, but I grabbed for another essay I had recently published, one I’d written at the beginning of my grad school journey, before I broke. It was the same essay really, same topic. But it was ME. She took it, and she read it right in front of me while sipping wine. Clear as day, I remember the moment when she set down her iPad, still open to the publication, and said to me, “This. This is your voice.” I knew grad school had been bad for me in a lot of words, but it wasn’t until that moment in that cafe that I realized how much I was broken. By the voices that told me again and again I wasn’t good enough, but then wanted to tote me around as their prized poodle when my manuscripts were great (after rewriting them of course). That told me I couldn’t give feedback to people properly because anything I told another writer would always be colored by my own experiences but then wanted to dump every struggling thesis writer in my lap. It broke me.

It. BROKE. Me.

Honestly? I’m not sure I’ve ever found that voice again, never in the same way. Writing has become something that is stiff and up in my head and marred by my overarching life fear of being dumb. Instead of being a writer who walks and trains dogs, I became a walker/trainer who writes sometimes kinda maybe when she wants which isn’t often. I let it all go, the books, the drafts, the essays. I’ve published only twice (soon to be thrice though) since grad school, and they’re things I wrote before. When I knew who writer me was.

I don’t know who writer me is anymore.

I don’t even know that she is still here. Hell, with Covid, half the time I’m not even sure DOG worker me is still here.

And if she’s not, with as big a part of me as she was, do I even know anything at all?

If you’ve gotten this far, thank you. If you’re a writer and you want to leave advice, I will definitely take it. And with that, I bid you adieu.

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In Which a Contemporary YA Novel Teaches Major Life Lessons

I just finished a book. Nothing unusual, if you know me; I generally read at least one a week. But This Will Be Funny Someday, by Katie Henry, struck a weird chord with me in that I’ve never read about a main character so positively codependent. Mind you, the author never identifies the protagonist as codependent (CODA). But holy crap, she most definitely is!!! I found myself checking all sorts of boxes as I went along, drawing parallels between myself and this fictional high school student:

1) In a relationship with a boy who is emotionally and borderline physically abusive because she feels like she needs to take care of him when no one else will.

2) Allows other people to talk over her in conversations because their thoughts are more important than hers and therefore obviously right.

3) Gives away the true parts of herself in order to display the parts of herself that she thinks people around her want to see, whether those parts are real or not.

4) Does not allow herself to take up any space for fear of making other people mad or upset.

Me, with my therapist (Lisa) of nearly three years after our third time reading The Four Agreements: “Oh no, none of this applies to me, I am most definitely not CODA.” None of that book will ever make sense to me. I am much too black and white.

Me, upon digging into and then finishing this young adult contemporary fiction novel: “Oh….Sorry, Lisa.” Because this book makes sense in a gray way that The Four Agreements never hit for me.

1) I stayed with my ex for YEARS because I thought I could fix him.

2) I actually don’t tend to voice my opinions very often, because if everyone else is right I must automatically be wrong, right? I don’t like making black and white statements, even though I myself am very black and white, because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or provoke an argument.

3) I honestly am not sure who I am. And I’m learning from Lisa that that’s okay, that I’ll figure it out at some point. But I’ve spent so much of my life doing for others and constructing myself the way I thought they needed me to be that when asked who *I* need me to be, I am generally at a complete loss.

4) I feel like 4 and 2 are the same thing here, but also not? If someone hurts my feelings, I don’t tell them. I eat it. Because it must be me who was wrong, right? I don’t have a right to have hurt feelings. I don’t have a right to be anything at all but who they need me to be. Hell, I apologize to people who run into ME on the sidewalk. Like I don’t even have a right to walk down the street???

The Covid pandemic has been a great lesson to me in that it has helped me learn quite a few things about myself and my life. First being that absolutely none of my relationships are what I thought they were. The people I thought most important and the people I thought least important in my life have both moved into shades of gray. I actually don’t have many in person relationships like I did when I lived back home, so there’s not much to miss in that regard. But even in my online relationships, the things I thought most important simply…aren’t. In that knowledge, I’ve made some new friends during the pandemic, but I’ve also lost some. And I guess that has to be okay.

Second, I thought that my work was everything, but it’s not. It barely exists anymore. And I gave everything to my clients (still do, to those that are left), despite the time and space that I needed/need. I used work to hide, and now I don’t generally have that barrier because…work does not exist.

Third, I failed at graduate school socialization because, not only did my program suck (it absolutely positively did, and I’m sure I’ve blogged on that at some point), but so did I. I let grad school take my voice as a writer and turn it into someone I didn’t even know, and I didn’t stand up for it. And then I couldn’t even make friends because everyone was so different than I was used to, so open, that I didn’t know how to function within their circles.

Fourth, I am always telling myself that I can’t do things. That I need to say less. Be less. Take up less space. That everyone else goes first and I come last. That I can’t be who I really am because I’ll lose people. But in the end, the only thing that’s really lost is me, and the people I’ve lost quite simply weren’t worth my time anyway.

This is not me saying I know how to fix this, by any stretch of the imagination. Just me saying that I’ve played so many different roles and worn so many different hats for so long that I don’t know which is right, that this story about a fictional girl made me realize that I do want to find me again. Wherever that might be.

Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

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The Dream House

When I was ten or eleven, I wanted a Barbie Dream House more than anything. If you were a kid in the 90s, you know the one. It was big and pink and just this perfect mansion example of a life I would never have as an adult. But my Barbies could have it. I was a wrecking ball of determination; I clipped the ads from the toy book, pasted them everywhere I could think of, and made loud dramatic comments from my corner of our tiny apartment about how my Barbies had nowhere to live. I even included it in my list to Santa. I already knew that my mother was Santa by that point, having located the presents hidden in her closet a year or two before wrapped in “The Santa Paper.” But I dared to dream anyway.

I wasn’t quite old enough to realize that a Barbie Dream House wasn’t something we could afford. I knew that we were different than the couple friends I’d managed to make, that our apartment wasn’t as nice as their houses and that I didn’t have the same toys. I knew that my friends had moms and dads. I knew that my mother was gone all of the time, in more ways than one. But I decided that the dream house was one thing that I could have that everyone else did. (Did everyone else have it though? Because I don’t think I ever played Barbies with friends so who knows why my twisted kid brain thought this.)

When Christmas came, there was a indeed a very large box under our Tigger “tree,” and I could barely contain myself as I ripped into it. A dream house?? Finally?? The first glimpse of pink poked through…and it was a house, but not a dream house. It was something else, a generic brand I didn’t remember. I was sad for a moment, but then forgot as we put it together. It was just as tall, and had MORE rooms than the dream house, which didn’t even seem possible. And sure, the Barbies had to sit in those rooms because the ceilings were too low to stand up in. And sure, some of the plastic wasn’t the most stable. But gosh, I loved that house. To literal death, as I recall. I loved it so hard that it essentially disintegrated from old age.

All this to say, I think my mother did the best she could given our circumstances, and she loved me the best way she knew how.

I’m 36 years old now. 36, it’s November 24th, and my mother has been dead a month. My feelings about that are long and twisted and too many to tell. A little angry, because the hospice worker saw fit to tell me she was violating privacy laws telling me my mother’s condition had deteriorated because my mother told her NOT to tell me; more angry that they told me she passed in a VOICEMAIL. Scared, because I’m going to die at some point, at right now it looks like I’ll have no money to my name or family to speak of in terms of marriage or kids; more scared, because who will take care of me when I die? (I know how much this costs now. It will only cost more by the time it’s my time, hopefully many many years from now). Frustrated, because Wisconsin has dumb legal rules about death and all its friends; more frustrated because of Covid and the fact that I can’t have the memorial service that she wanted right now.

Furious, because I found my sperm donor of a father this year and he wants nothing to do with my existence. I looked him up on Facebook, and he has another family and…doesn’t seem like someone I want to know? But he should WANT to know me. There’s an expectation there and he has failed.

Lonely, because all of my friends live in Wisconsin and I’m in Manhattan. Good thing I was already skilled at video chatting before Covid.

Lost, because my career is absolute shit amid Covid. I’ve been working to build things up on the dog training side, and now we’re heading for another shutdown.

I have all these complicated feelings, yet I’m thinking about a dollhouse? For the last month, I’ve continually been thinking “write about the dollhouse. Why write about anything else?” The dollhouse? It wasn’t what I thought. And 2020? It definitely hasn’t been what I thought. I guess these ideas play better in the sandbox together than I thought.

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CampNaNoWriMo; The Twelve Chapter Two

Ask and ye shall receive, my fellow quarantined friends. Enjoy!

THE TWELVE: CHAPTER TWO

The Great War exploded the year before my mother died, when I was six. I only know of the war what I have learned in my church history classes; I barely remember my life before. Government debt in the states had spiraled out of control. The then-President was sending the military to countries where our country had no business being. The leadership of what was then The Sect thought that they could handle the country better. The Great War ensued, where the The Sect leaders eliminated those who were not supportive of the good of the country as a whole. The people, rising up behind the The Sect because they favored a decrease in debt, gave The Sect the forces they needed to propel their plan forward. When the government fought back, it was slowly eliminated; this resulted in the disintegration of many cities that refused to cave in to the new way that was taking over. The population of the country greatly decreased. The loss of the government as the country had known it resulted in the creation of The Sect, the front arm of The Sect and a governing force over all of the citizens of the basin. The last remaining survivors of our species.

The Sect resides in what used to be Estes Park, Colorado. Prior to the Great War, it was the base camp for the Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a village, but one that catered to resort life and mountain adventures. It was a large tourist attraction, surrounded as it is by mountains. But now it is nothing more than a mountain headquarters, a place for The Sect to be secluded, yet still able to maintain control. Their leadership expands from our main headquarters of The Sect all the way across the Estes Park basin. Many small settlements litter the mountains, but I never leave The Sect. I have no reason to.

Our school is located in a big hotel that used to be called The Stanley. It was the set of a movie once where a man killed a lot of people; this is not a movie we would ever be allowed to see. People would come from miles around to take ghost tours through it. I have never seen a spook, not once in ten years, or at least not one that wasn’t toting The Book. The complex is surrounded entirely by trees with no view of the surrounding area down below. Our classes are held in rooms throughout the building; all of the children of The Sect stay in dormitory like sections within the hotel. There is a large playground in the back yard with a view of the mountains where the childcare women take the children to play. After today, I will be one of them. I will be graduating from the program.

“Good morning.” Beaty tapped her desk with a pen as I entered the classroom.

“Good morning, ma’am.” I had learned from the beginning how to behave properly. How to answer right away, and more importantly, speak to my elders and to men only when spoken to. I had always been a fast learner; Beaty told me that frequently.

I took my place among the other students. There were twelve of us in all. I was the last one to arrive.

Beaty stood up and walked around to the front of her desk, slapping her pen against the palm of her hand. “Now that we’re all here,” she said with a pointed look at me, “let’s begin.”

I checked my watch—I wasn’t late. I was two minutes early.

“Today, you will be graduating from the program into adulthood.”

We exchanged looks but remained silent. She was not directly addressing any of us in particular.

“At graduation, you will receive your assignments for your function within our workforce. In one week, you will attend your Combining, and will learn who your rest-of-life partner will be. I have faith that you have all studied well and will be positive assets to The Sect, both in propelling our society forward and helping to spread our good word to those who still remain outside of it, as few as they may be.” She looked at each one of us in turn. “The most important thing that you can do now, as adults, will be to uphold the tenants of The Book and of The Sect, and to make everything you do for the glory of our society.”

Beaty went into the coat closet and rolled out a rack of white graduation gowns. “These are one size fits all robes,” she explained. “You will wear them through the ceremony to signify that your purity and your dedication to The Sect.” After a pause, she added, “Does anybody have any questions before we get ready?”

After glancing around the room at each other, we all shook our heads. We got up as a unit and went to the rack, each of us taking a white robe and pulling it over our clothes.

“Can you help me fasten the back button?” my friend Maria asked, turning to face away from me. I obliged, and then turned so she could also fasten mine.

“Thank you,” I said.

She nodded back at me and turned to see where Beaty was. Upon noticing she had stepped into the hall, Maria whispered, “Who do you think we will be Combined with? How do you think they choose?”

I shrugged, my eyes on Beaty’s back as I whispered back, “I’m not sure that’s for us to know.”

She nodded in understanding and turned to help another girl with her robes. Once the twelve of us were all fully gowned, we formed a line at the door and stood in silence as we had been taught since kindergarten. We followed Beaty down the hall, our white robes trailing along the red carpet, down the hallway and down the stairs. In the main room of the building, in front of the old gray stone fireplace, were lines of folding chairs filled with students. Only the youngest were talking, sitting in the front and swinging their legs back and forth against the chairs as they were shushed by their teachers. The twelve of us took our seats facing the other students and folding our hands quietly in our laps while we waited.

Beaty greeted the room from her podium, and teachers and students alike fell silent. “First, the boys will become men,” she said. The six boys stood up, and when she called their names they crossed the stage to stand beside her. “Brandon Bane,” Beaty called the first name.  “Construction.” I stopped paying attention and missed the other five; before I knew it the boys were finished. The audience applauded politely and the boys returned to their seats. Beaty moved on to the girls. “Alana Fischer. Culinary. Maria Samuels. Mending.” Three more names, and then it was finally my turn. “Melanie Johnson. Childcare.” I stood up and took my place beside the other girls before my brain could stop me. Children. Childcare. I had never been fond of the little ones, but it was my place to do what The Sect dictated without question. The six of us stood together, girls becoming women, while our fellow students and former teachers applauded our achievement. We took our seats and Beaty closed the program with the same words we had earlier about how we would be good, pure disciples of The Sect and uphold all of the rules established by The Book. I had heard it all so many times, I had to pinch the inside of my arm more than once to stay awake. She closed by directly addressing us: “Tomorrow, you will join the workforce. Tomorrow, you will do us all proud. Even more so than you have today.”

#

As I stared into the small pool of children sitting in the math classroom that day, Beaty’s words from the day before rang in my head. I wasn’t so sure this was for me, childcare. I had reported to the childcare center that morning to find out that I would be responsible for the four and five year olds. I wasn’t the only one in the room; they were not only my responsibility. But it still felt like a lot. I wanted to be successful, but I was uncertain as to my skills or to the level of devotion I could provide to the task. I wasn’t sure I wanted it enough, or that I would even be a good leader. But it was where I had been placed, so it was where I would be.

“Hello.”

A tiny little boy with blonde hair was staring up at me. I knew that the appropriate response was to tell him he needed to wait to speak until spoken to, but he was too cute. I simply replied, “Hello.”

“I’m five.” He held up his hand and spread out his fingers to make sure I could see them all clearly. “One, two, three, four, five.” As he counted out loud, he folded the fingers down into his palm.

I smiled, unsure of how to answer him.

He continued, unaware of my discomfort with our conversation. “Do you know what that means?” He was bouncing up and down on his toes, so I assumed it meant something good.

I sank down into a squat so that I was more on his level. It seemed like the natural thing to do. “I don’t,” I admitted.

“That means I get tested today. Well me and my friends. To find out how smart we are and where we place.”

“That sounds…fun,” I replied after a moment’s hesitation. It didn’t really. But I didn’t know what else to say.

There was a knock on the open door behind me. I rose and turned around to see Beaty behind me. “Good morning,” she nodded to me.

“Good morning, ma’am.”

She said good morning to the other two leaders in the room and then turned back to me. “I’ll need you to help escort the five year olds up to the testing room. Today’s the day we will place them into their new class, provided that they pass their tests. Would you gather them please?”

I nodded, never finding myself more uncertain than I did in that moment. I didn’t know who was five among the children in the room, other than the little boy I’d spoken to. I hadn’t been in the room long enough to even know how many children were in it. If this was a test for me on my first day, it was a test I would fail. “I…” I stumbled.

“Here!” The little boy I had spoken to earlier beamed at me as he waved over eleven other children. “We’re here!”

I raised my hand, trying to appear more authoritative than I felt, and gestured for them to get into a line. They did as I asked without question, all of them seeming as excited as the little boy I had met when I first arrived. “Follow me,” I commanded. They fell in like little ducklings directly behind me as I walked ten paces behind Beaty.

When we arrived in the testing room, they seemed to know what to do without being told. Each of them took a seat, filling up the twelve desks. Beaty stood in the front of the room by the chalkboard, and I folded awkwardly into the corner by the door, unsure of where else to stand. Beaty thrust a stack of papers at me. “Melanie, please distribute these packets to the students.” As I took the papers, I noticed the large stopwatch that was hanging around her neck. “Place them upside down on each desk.” I walked up and down the aisles, doing as I was told, while she addressed the children. “Today, you will take a math test. This test consists of fifty questions to gauge how much you have learned over the course of your beginning education. It will be timed. You have thirty minutes to complete it once the timer begins. You may not ask for help. You may not look at anyone else’s paper.” I returned to the front of the room. “When you are done, turn your paper over and put your head down on your desk.”

The little boy from earlier raised his hand, no longer bouncing.

“Yes?” asked Beaty, pointing in his direction.

“What if I need a pencil?”

“You have two pencils on your desk,” Beaty snapped back, her voice illustrating a loss of patience.

“But what if I need more?” he protested.

Beaty shot the little boy a look that could only be described as condemnation. He was instantly quiet, his chin going down to his chest as his hands folded upon his flipped over test packet. I finished distributing the tests and returned to the front of the room as Beaty held up her stopwatch, clicked the button on top, and called “Begin.”

The children flipped over their booklets, ripping the testing seal off the side, and began frantically scribbling. The timer hung around Beaty’s neck, glowing orange, and I watched the minutes tick away. Thirty minutes didn’t seem like much time for fifty math problems, especially not for a five year old. I wondered what types of problems were in the test book, but I didn’t want to ask to see it unless Beaty offered it to me first. It didn’t seem right; I was not her equal. I didn’t remember taking this test. But maybe I hadn’t. I was not five when I came to The Sect.

“Fifteen minutes,” Beaty called out.

The scratch of pencils against paper increased. A little girl in the front pressed down so hard that her pencil snapped. She quickly threw it to the floor and grabbed a new one with barely a pause in her frantic writing. I looked at the little boy, the only one I had met. He was sitting quietly, no longer writing, but his head wasn’t down. Did that mean he wasn’t done? Or was he simply not following directions? I took a step forward to check on him, but Beaty held out a hand to stop me. When I looked over at her, she shook her head. I stepped back to lean against the wall and wait. The time dwindled down. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

“Time. Flip your booklets over and put your hands behind your head.” Beaty nodded in my direction, which I took to mean I was to collect the books. I stepped forward and went down the aisles grabbing papers while the children held their arms up with their fingers interlocked behind their heads as if they were in trouble. When I got to the little boy, his hands were still folded on top of his test book, not behind his head. I tried to take the booklet, but he wouldn’t lift his hands.

“Brian,” Beaty said from the front of the room. “Please remove your hands from the test booklet and put them behind your head.”

As I watched, his chin began to quiver, but he continued to stare straight ahead without lifting his hands.

“Now, Brian.”

He still didn’t move. I collected the remaining tests booklets and placed them on the desk in front of Beaty, looking to her to figure out what I should do. After dismissing the rest of the children, she crossed the room and slid the booklet out from under his arms. As she flipped through the pages, she noted, “Most of this is blank.”

Brian’s jaw was hard, his teeth ground tightly together, none of the joy from early remaining in his features.

“Why is it blank? You had thirty minutes.” Beaty’s eyes bore into him like knives.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Beaty clutched his booklet in her hands. “You will answer the questions.”

Brian looked at me uncertainly as his fingers tightened around the pencil that was still in his grasp. “Is it too late?” The tremor in his voice broke my heart.

Beaty produced a thick wooden stick from her back pocket and slapped it against her palm. “You will answer the questions,” she said against, emphasizing each word with a whack against her palm.

Brian looked back and forth between Beaty and I.

“Nineteen times two,” Beaty barked.

“I…I…” Brian stammered.

Thirty eight, I willed him to say.

“Thirty six?” It was obviously as the words left his mouth that he knew they were wrong.

Before I could even take a breath, Beaty had struck him across the hand with the wooden stick. Bright lines of blood laced across his knuckles, and he burst into tears. “Nineteen times two.”

He shook his head, tears streaming down his face. He tried to get up, but Beaty ordered me to hold him down in the seat. I complied, placing my hands upon his shoulders. I tried to make my grip as gentle as possible, but he still squirmed underneath me.

“Nineteen times two.”

When Brian didn’t answer, she hit him across the hands again and again. After the first time, he didn’t try to move. He didn’t try to run away, or hide his arms. He seemed to understand that there was no hope. While I watched, his knuckles split and cracked blood ran freely. Brian sobbed so hard that tears and snot streamed down his cheeks and he was gasping for breath.

And then, just as suddenly as it had began, it stopped. Beaty took a step back, her fingers clutching the fabric of his jacket. He stood up and followed her silently out of the classroom while I sank into one of the desks, alone. When I closed my eyes, it hit home that this would be the rest of my life. Forever.

That night after dinner, as I sat alone in my room, I flipped through The Book and searched for some sort of sign, an answer. A reason why. But there was nothing. No magical glowing neon sign that made what had happened to Brian okay. I was used to opening The Book and seeing the answers. But not this time.

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I Lose People, I Lose Myself

Sun came in the windows for a brief moment today. There’s been a lot of gloom. I’m used to being outside. I went from buzzing around all day every day to sitting on my butt in a nest of blankets and pillows playing video games and reading the occasional book. And writing. Sometimes. I’m supposed to be writing. I’ve written some, every day of quarantine, but I’m trying too hard and I know it. I need to work on something else. I need to write but I want to be outside.

The weather is reflective of my mood, though I can’t think of a metaphorical way to say that. It just is what it is. Perhaps the sun too fears the virus; it hides behind clouds and peeks out sporadically to see if the coast is clear. I am reminded of a professor long ago who used to joke about English majors being ready for the zombie apocalypse. When I look outside, when I go outside, that’s what it feels like. The few people who are out wear masks, and those who care queue up six feet apart to enter their destination. They’re talking about creating mass graves in the city parks to deal with the overwhelming number of dead. I never imagined the world would really be like this, despite an upbringing of disaster and horror films. The back of my head echos with thoughts of who the first to zombify will be. As a result, I don’t go outside much. We aren’t supposed to anyway. Stay at home. Social distancing. I’m an introvert, yes, but it still sucks. I miss it. I want to walk and run and breathe fresh air and, for lack of better imagery, frolic in the tulips. Divorced nearly ten years, I find myself in a place mentally that I can’t define, a void where I can’t go out and I can’t see friends and I can’t work. And I can’t go outside.

It feels like my marriage.

My ex-husband wasn’t too keen on the outdoors normally. He was a pretty boy; he spent more time in the mirror getting perfect every morning than I spent in an entire week. He didn’t like to sweat. I’d camped with my grandma a lot as a child, but the ex wasn’t into that. He was, however, into ultimate frisbee. To this day, I don’t know why. The park surrounding the college near where we lived had an amazing frisbee golf course. He called me after my merchandising shift one night to tell me to meet him, and his family, there. He and his brother and his mother and his father and his sister and her maybe by then husband would be playing the entire course. I wasn’t in the mood after a ten hour workday to battle bloodthirsty mosquitos in near darkness when I hadn’t even had dinner yet. But I went. I had to. I was driving his car to work after my recent accident, and I knew he’d want me to drive him home. So I changed in the work bathroom into something more presentable.

The then-husband took my hand when I got there, wove his sweaty fingers into mine and soaked my palm. I could tell by the way he squeezed that I had pleased him. It wasn’t often that he gave me that feeling. I breathed in the dark air, the unidentifiable-to-me tree scents. I took all that for granted back then, when I could go outside whenever I wanted. The most important thing to me then was that the husband was happy. He wrapped an arm around me to pull me in, whispered “I’m winning.”

“I know,” I replied. It seemed like the only thing to say. Anything else that hinted he might not win didn’t feel right. I was in enough trouble. I had to be careful.

I crashed my car on a Sunday afternoon, a few weeks prior. 

The husband and his family were at a concert by the lake in the city where I lived then. Normally I loved concerts. When I was a kid, my grandma would take me to see big band concerts, jazz, symphonies, and the like. But on that particular weekend, sitting in a green camping chair under the white temporary tent, watching the husband press buttons and sliders and try to make the band sound good while everyone praised him for being such a wonderful Christian example and starting his new sound engineering business, it was all too much. I had always thought that because he was a Christian he was good. I didn’t know then that those two ideas weren’t necessarily married, but I was beginning to get an idea. I feigned a phone call from work that urgently needed my attention and promptly got in my car and took off. 

I drove towards the store, fully intending to go there so he’d see me on the GPS. I remember the soundtrack to a “A Walk to Remember” blaring as I opened the car windows to enjoy the 80 degree day, not caring in the slightest that people could hear me singing along with Mandy Moore. It was a straight shot down the rural highway, a maybe twenty minute ride. 

At the third stoplight, a Ford F150 slammed into me from behind. My singing stopped instantaneously as I tried to rapidly process what had happened. The thoughts came quicker than I could hold on to them:

Was this my fault? I was stopped at the red. He smashed me from behind. The husband is going to kill me. Oh god, he’s going to have to leave the gig. What am I going to tell him? How much is this going to cost us? 

I got out of the car. I’d never had an accident before; I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to. My chest, face, hurt where I’d slammed the dash, but the injuries my car had sustained were much worse. The enormous back truck had crunched its way over the truck of my Oldsmobile accordion style. Glass from the back windows was all over the highway.

The truck was driven by an off duty police officer who summoned his coworkers before I really understood what was going on. He claimed I had failed to signal a lane change before stopping at the light, despite the fact that my signal was on. By the time the husband showed up with his entire family in tow, I had been issued a citation for failure to signal and a tow truck had been summoned to remove my totalled vehicle from the road. 

He wasn’t mad. Somehow, he wasn’t mad. We went back to the gig in the family van and packed up all the sound equipment, headed home, and watched “A Walk to Remember.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t my favorite movie anymore. But for the following weeks, he made me pay for my transgression in different ways. A sideways look here. A changed channel there. An off putting comment about the dinner I’d cooked or the long hours I was working, that I couldn’t always go to church on Sundays. He wasn’t working by that point; his budding new business had taken over all of his time yet produced minimal income. He was jealous of me, but I didn’t see that then. 

That felt erased as we stood on the path in the middle of a bug-ridden unlit woods, searching for the next frisbee hoop. He pointed with the frisbee. ‘Think I can make it?”

My answer was automatic. “Of course.”

He didn’t make it. The frisbee bounced off and got lost in the darkness, but I plunged after it without a second thought. Into the bushes I went, scraping my arms on prickers.

“Do you see it?” He made no effort to follow or help me.

As I plunged further in, a branch grabbed my untethered hair and pulled, eliciting a yelp.

“What’s the matter? See a ghost?”

I kept my mouth shut, my fingers closing around the blue plastic disc. Gently disentangling myself from the wooded bark fingers, I slipped back to the path and handed him his treasure. “Try again,” was all I replied. “You can make it.” And he did.

He was the victor of his family unit, and we left the woods hand in hand. He was happy I’d come, happy I’d played along. He liked when I–

A blast of light greeted us in the face as we emerged from the trailhead to the parking lot. Headlights. I’d left his car headlights on. Did he blame it on the ten hour work day, the lack of breaks or food? No, he blamed it on my ever-present idiocy, a fact he drove home without speaking as his nails dug into my palm.

“Let us drive you both home,” his mother insisted when the car wouldn’t start. We lived around the corner from them then so it wasn’t inconvenient.

I knew when he said no that things wouldn’t end well. I feared what would happen in the dark as we waited for the tow truck to arrive with jumper cables. I was right to fear.

I was right to fear then, but am I right to fear now, fear that I can’t go outside, that I might get sick, that the not-real zombies might get me? The fear is different now, but it feels the same today as it did back then, fear of this virus that waits in the unknown, fear of the husband that cracked in the dark. And I don’t know what that means, if my life is any different now than it was then, if I’ve come so far to be the same person I always was, trapped inside without friends and unemployed. I watch an episode of a zombie show where one of the survivors gets the phrase “I lose people; I lose myself” sharpied onto his forehead with permanent black marker. I realize how much I miss a life it took me so long to rebuild, a life quarantine makes me feel like is being erased. I try the words on my tongue, “I lose people; I lose myself.” I hold my furry best friend a little tighter, and I count the days till life might resume again.

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CampNaNoWriMo!!!

I will probably not share all of this, as I would ideally like to edit this old neglected novel for publication, but here is a little taste!

The Twelve, Chapter One

There’s an old saying I heard oncepeople in glass houses don’t throw stones. I never really understood what it meant. Until the day I held that stone in my hand.

“You’re so different now. Someone I don’t recognize.”

I took in Ashley’s face and realized that she too was someone unrecognizable. It had been years since I’d seen her. Nearly ten, to be precise. And suddenly she was here, in front of me. But she wasn’t the little girl with the pigtails that I remembered. “I don’t know you either.”

“That’s exactly it. We were best friends, Lanie. Best. Friends.” Ashley twirled a long strand of hair around her finger and sighed. “I miss you. I miss hanging out. I miss going to school together. I miss all the things. I sneak up here all the time, wanting to see you, to talk to you. And this is the first time I’ve gotten you alone.”

“We could still hang out,” I replied, but it sounded lame even to my ears. And I knew it wasn’t true.

“The Sect has changed you. Ever since you left, you’ve been someone else. I’ve been watching you, this person I don’t know anymore. And I don’t want to know her. I want the old you.” A single tear trickled down her cheek.

I turned away, unwilling to watch but unsure how to defend myself. “It hasn’t changed me. It hasn’t.” My protest sounded weak even to me.

“You were never a follower. The Sect made you one.”

I could feel the eyes on the back of my neck before the person spoke. “There is nothing wrong with that.” Beaty’s voice was calm, authoritative. She placed a hand on my shoulder and forced me to move so that she stood between Ashley and I. “Absolutely nothing. Lanie is an upstanding citizen within The Sect. About to graduate from the education program. A strong future leader. And you, young lady, would be wise to follow her example rather than force her to follow yours.”

Ashley didn’t cower away from Beaty as I would have done, but rather, drew herself to her full height and looked Beaty straight in the eye. “I’m not the one forcing her to do anything,” she spat. “That honor belongs to you.”

I could see the fire in Beaty’s eyes as she grabbed Ashley around the arm and dug in her nails, pulling her forward. “I’m not sure you know who you’re talking to.”

Ashley kept her chin up, defiant. “I know exactly who I’m talking to. We all know who you are.”

“Then you know that women in The Sect should remain silent unless spoken to. Unless told to speak. You are out of line.”

I remained silent, in the background.

Beaty’s nails dug deeper into Ashley’s skin, but Ashley didn’t move an inch. “Fuck. You.” She spat at Beaty’s face.

Beaty took her free hand and swiped it angrily at her cheek before hauling Ashley, against protests, down the pathway towards the square. My mouth suddenly free, I jogged after them crying, “Wait, she doesn’t know any better, I can handle this, I can help her, I can

Ignoring me, Beaty chained Ashley to the stockade. “It’s too late for this girl, Lanie. You can’t save her.”

I shook my head, confused. “But God can save anyone. That’s what you taught me.”

“Not this one, Lanie. She’s different.”

Ashley hung limply, but her eyes still breathed fire. They bored into mine.

“I don’t understand.”

Beaty placed a stone in my hand. “She needs to be taught a lesson. She needs to know that she can’t go against The Sect. She needs to know that what she said is not okay.”

I looked down at the stone in my hand and then back up at Beaty. “I don’t understand,” I said again, weaker this time.

“Speaking against The Sect is a crime that can’t be tolerated. This girl will be stonedand to prove your loyalty, you will be the first to throw.”

I felt the weight of the stone in my hand, more emotional the physical. Beaty took a step back, but I could still feel her breath on the back of my neck, her eyes boring into my skull. Ashley locked eyes with me, and for the first time I could see a flicker of fear behind the fire.

When my stone struck her flesh, that fire died. After the first stone it was easy. I found myself picking up stone after stone after stone as her flesh became bloody and raw. For her disrespect. For her disloyalty. For her anger. For going against The Sect. For going against me.

I didn’t stop throwing until I felt Beaty’s hand on my shoulder. “Good,” she whispered. “Well done, faithful servant.” With a step around me, Beaty moved forward and cut Ashley down. The fire inside her extinguished, Ashley crumbled to the ground and did not move. My hand dropped to my side, and I realized that I was the only one who had had to throw a stone; I had thrown so many, been so consumed, that no one else had joined in. I had faced my temptation and proved my loyalty all by myself. I was once again good in the eyes of God.

I turned around and walked away proudly, not waiting to see whether she lived or died, and went back to my hut and the life that I had earned, knowing that I had proved myself for one more day. I knew that I would never see Ashley again.

I didn’t know then to feel shame.

#

I became a part of The Sect when I was not quite eight years old.

Back then, Ashley and I were best friends. We were in the same class, shared crayons, alternated weekend sleepovers at each other’s houses, the like. That day as we headed home from school, we drifted past the park like we did every other day.

“Let’s go swing!” Ashley grabbed me by the arm and dragged me towards the swing set. She didn’t really give me a choice.

“I need to tell Mommy I’m not coming home. I’m supposed to go straight home. I promised, when she told me I could go to school by myself.” I planted my sneakers in the ground and drew her to a halt.

“Come on,” she whined. “Just for a little bit.”

I looked at the swings and then back at Ashley. I knew Mommy would be mad, but I couldn’t resist. I let my backpack slide off my arm to the ground and joined Ashley on the swings. We were quiet, our legs pumping back and forth.

“Do you think we can touch the sky?” Ashley asked after a few minutes of silence.

I pumped a little harder. “Maybe?” Each time I swung up, I imagined that my feet were touching the clouds. The sun on my face, I closed my eyes to pretend I was bird and pumped and pumped and pumped my legs. I drove myself so high that chain went limp for just a second and I was in free fall. I squealed, and then, picturing that I really could fly, I jumped from the swing.

I was disappointed when my feet hit the ground. There was a minute there, when I was in the air, where it felt like I would go up instead of down. I sank into the dirt as Ashley landed beside me, giggling.

“That was fun!” I laid on my back in the dirt and she laid beside me.

“It was,” she answered, still laughing.

We joined hands and made snow angels in the grass. After another few minutes, I reluctantly admitted, “We should go home. I’ll bet Mommy’s worried.”

“Yeah.”

We sat up slowly and then crossed back to the sidewalk where we’d left our backpacks. I slid my arms into the straps of my bag much more slowly than I had taken them out and we trudged down the sidewalk, suddenly less eager to go home.

“We should do this every day,” Ashley said as the park disappeared behind us.

“That’d be fun. But I’ll have to ask Mommy. To make sure it’s okay.”

“Me too.”

It was much too soon when we found ourselves standing in front of our houses. “So, can you come over tomorrow?” Ashley asked. “We can watch ‘Flash Forward’ and eat popcorn and stuff.”

“Sure!”

We said goodbye, and I jogged up the steps. When I tried the front door, it was locked. I didn’t understand; Mommy was always home when I got home. I tried again, and then leaned over the railing into the bushes to look inside the front window. Everything was dark. I felt around my neck for the key that always hung there. I had never had to use it beforeMommy was always home. I was worried it wouldn’t work. But when I stuck it in the door, the knob turned right away.

“Mommy?” The lights were off as I stepped inside. “I’m home!”

There was no answer.

I flipped the light switch by the front door and dropped my backpack on the ground by the coatrack. “Mommy?” I tried again. “I’m sorry I’m late.”

When she didn’t answer, I decided she wasn’t home. I wondered where she might be, but I wasn’t really worried. I took off my shoes and then went into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. Peanut butter and bananas and a little dab of sugar. But only a little. Mommy would be mad if I had too much. I sat down at the kitchen table and ate my sandwich slowly, trying to remember if I had any homework I was supposed to do. When I was done eating, Mommy still hadn’t returned from wherever she’d gone. I went to the fridge and poured myself a glass of milk and then downed it in three gulps. Still no Mommy. With no homework, I could read my new book; it was about a boy wizard and some sort of stone. Everyone at school was talking about it, but this was the first time I had been able to find a copy in the library. I went to get the book from my backpack and then trudged up the stairs. I was looking forward to snuggling in under my blankets and reading into the night. Or at least until Mommy came home. Then she might read to me, which was fun in a different way. She would give the characters different voices and make them come alive. It was my favorite part of the night.

I got to the top of the stairs, took a few steps, and found myself squishing into the carpet. I wrinkled my nose and took a step back, touching the carpet with my toes again. It was wet. The carpet wasn’t supposed to be wet. As I opened my mouth to call again, to see if Mommy was around, I heard water running in the bathroomMommy was home. Another step forward sent water up around my toes and soaked my socks. “Mommy?” I called, confused. I knocked on the bathroom door. “There’s water everywhere, Mommy.”

There was no answer.

“Mommy, open the door!” I knocked several more times, and then finally just opened the door. It was dark inside the bathroom. So dark, that I didn’t see at first. Mommy was in the tub, and the water was running, running over the sides and onto the floor. It was over the tops of my feet and still sloshing. “Mommy?” I whispered. “You need to shut off the water. You always tell me not to waste water.”

When she didn’t answer, I turned on the light. And then I could see, suddenly, and everything was much too bright.

Mommy was in the bathtub, but her arm was flopped over the side. Open. Red. There was bright red everywhere. The rug by the tub was pink where it used to be white. Red streaked the sides of the tub in the places the water didn’t flow. I reached out, slowly, to touch her. She didn’t move. “Mommy?” I shook her, softly at first, and then harder. Harder. Her head slipped from its resting place into the water, and I had to grab her to keep her from going under. “Mommy, I don’t know what to do!” I was crying as I shook her, again and again. “Mommy, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do,” I said over and over.

And then I remembered. In an emergency, you call 911. I dropped her into the water and ran down the hall into her bedroom, where I normally wasn’t allowed, but I was sure that she would make an exception this time. I dialed the number, just like they had shown me in school.

“911. What is your emergency?”

“It’s my mommy,” I cried, “she won’t wake up.”

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” the woman on the phone said. “Can you tell me your address so we can send someone to help your mommy?”

I told her the address, but I knew that it wasn’t okay. I didn’t know how she could say it was. I dropped the phone onto the bed and ran back into the bathroom. Mommy’s head was under water, her hair streaming out like seaweed. I lifted her head up and pressed my face to hers, willing her to wake up, willing her to make bunny noses with me, willing her to do anything. But she wouldn’t. She didn’t.

I reached out with my free hand, the hand that wasn’t behind Mommy’s head, and shut off the water. As I let her go and sank down onto the rug, I realized that the book I had been waiting so long to read was on the ground, in a puddle. Ruined.

 

I don’t know how long it was before the men in uniforms showed up. It could have been a few minutes; it could have been a few hours. When they did come, I thought they would make her wake up. But they didn’t. And it was only after they had pulled her out of the water and laid her down on the ground that somebody thought to take me out of the room. The man led me downstairs and set me down on the couch, and then he started talking on the phone. I remember sitting there for a really long time, uncertain as to what to do. People went in and out all around me, and then I looked up and there was a woman standing in front of me. She was tall, her dark brown hair wrapped on top of her head like a schoolteacher, and she peered down at me in front of her over the top of her glasses.

“Hello,” she said, shoving her glasses back up her nose.

I blinked up at her without answering.

“When an adult says something to you, you should respond.”

I blinked again silently, my eyes following the men in uniforms as they pushed a big bed on wheels behind the woman, a bed with a black bag on it. A body? Mommy?

The woman staring at me cleared her throat. “Let’s try this again. Hello.”

I watched as the men pushed the bed out the door and it shut behind them. The house was suddenly much quieter. I wondered where Ashley was. I wondered if my Mommy was ever coming back, if she would ever wake up.

The woman grabbed my chin and made me face her again. I cried out in surprise. “I said hello,” she repeated a third time.

“Hello,” I whispered.

“That’s better.” The woman perched on the edge of the chair across from me and folded her hands in her lap. “I’m Elizabeth Beaty.”

“Okay.”

“I see your manners need some work,” she muttered under her breath. I flinched, but she continued, “I need you to pack up your things. Only the most important ones. You can take one suitcase.”

“Why?” I asked. “Where am I going?”

“You’re going to come live with me. At the home for children who don’t have homes.”

“I have a home,” I protested. “I live here.”

“Not anymore.”

“I can’t leave! I have to stay here for when Mommy comes back!”

I tried to hide behind a couch pillow, but she took it away from me. “You don’t have a choice, child.” She checked her watch. “You have five minutes.”

I could tell from the look on her face that she wasn’t lying. I scrambled up the stairs, my already soaked socks slipping down around my ankles, and skidded into my room. I started throwing random things into a duffel bag I found in the bottom of my closet. A few books, pictures, pants and shirts. Underwear. My toothbrush. The thing I grabbed last was my teddy bear, a worn old stuffed animal that had spent every night on my pillow since I was two. Jamming him on the top of my other things, I forced the zipper closed and made my way back through the flood to where Beaty was waiting by the front door. She checked her watch and gave me a nod, the sort of nod a teacher gives when you do something right.

She took my hand and led me out the door and down the path to her car. I saw nothing around me but the black haze, the overwhelming knowledge that my mommy was never coming back. That I was never coming back.

I belonged to The Sect after that day.

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