Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Damaged Fruit

One of my only high school friends post-RED was a girl named Jennifer. We had more in common than I had with most people—for instance, we both liked superhero movies. And dogs. And…that was about it. I liked staying at her house because it made me feel normal, so I was perfectly happy to do whatever as long as we could hang.

She met a guy one day at the farmers market. He had a generic name that escapes me now, so we’ll call him Chuck. Jennifer wasn’t allowed to date, but she really wanted to get to know Chuck better. We were lying on her bed on our stomachs one night watching Ironman, and she said “Chuck has a friend named Chad. We could all, like, go to the movies or something and then it wouldn’t be a date but, like, a group?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Have you met this guy?”

“I mean,” she shrugged, “Chuck is fun? So Chad is too. Probably.”

I agreed to go to a movie with them the next day, my friend and her definitely not-boyfriend and his best friend. They picked us up in a big blue pickup truck, and what struck me first was how old they were. I was barely 17, but Chad was easily in his late 20s. Chuck had on a hat; I couldn’t get a read on him easily. It quickly became apparent that we weren’t actually going to a movie, but to dinner and bowling where we could separate and Chuck and Jennifer could do their own thing. Chad and I had been brought along as an excuse.

“Bye guys,” Chad said nonchalantly as they disappeared into the shadows. He sat across from me at our table in the bowling alley and fingered a french fry. “What now?”

I shrugged and tentatively reached for a fry from the basket, dunked it in ketchup. “I guess we could…bowl?”

“I hate bowling.”

“Me too,” he admitted. He took a long drink of his beer. “You want some?”

I nodded and took the green bottle from his outstretched hand. I held the liquid in my mouth for a second, the nasty weight of its flavor staining my tongue, before I swallowed it in one gulp.

“First beer?” he laughed.

I shook my head. No. It wasn’t. He wasn’t the first man to give me alcohol. I heard Jennifer laughing in the distance and I looked up to see her and Chuck attached at the lips in the farthest darkest lane of the bowling alley. He picked her up and sprung her around and then kissed her again.

“Do you wanna go outside?” The beer bottle made a hollow sound as he deposited it on the table.

“And do what?”

Chad tossed his head slightly so his greasy brown hair would get out of his face. “Sit in the truck? You don’t seem like you’re having much fun here.”

I wasn’t. “I guess?” I let him take my hand and lead me out to the parking lot, leaving the garbage all over our abandoned table.

He opened the tailgate of the truck and boosted me up before climbing in after me. “It’s a pretty night, huh?”

“Pretty?” I raised an eyebrow, but his lips were on mine before I could follow up the tease. I shifted slightly so my shoulder pushed against his chest, and we broke apart. “Hey now.”

“Too fast?”

I pictured Jennifer in the bowling alley being spung around, held, kissed. “Too slow.” I grabbed Chad’s shirt and steered him back towards me; my lips found his, tentatively at first and then more certain. Harder. I let him shove his tongue in my mouth but didn’t reciprocate, waited, analyzed, tried to find my opening. Lost in thought, I didn’t realize he was spinning me to be against the back window of the cab until I was trapped there and he was unbuttoning his pants. I broke my lips off his. “Stop.”

He kept going, his pants open, his state of readiness clearly visible.

“STOP,” I cried, louder, shoving him away.

“What? What happened?” He tried again to kiss me, but I turned my head and his lips glanced against my cheek. I pushed him off and struggled to my knees. “What the actual fuck?” He wrestled his pants back up. “Wait are you CRYING? What the fuck?”

I fumbled with the tailgate before giving up and hopping over to the ground. I touched my cheek. I was crying. When had I started doing that? I never cried. He was just another man, right? Right?

“Come on,” he called from above me, “what the fuck is this? Let’s just try again or something, don’t be dumb.”

I pulled my sweater tighter around me and walked across the parking lot, turned onto the dark country highway and walked along the shoulder back to Jennifer’s house, to my car. He didn’t follow. I cried quietly, the only sound the gravel I kicked up with my shoes. I can’t, I thought. I won’t ever be able to. I’m the damaged fucking peach and I need to go back to my god damn tree.

That was the last time Jennifer and I really hung out.

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What I Didn’t Say

I had never been to the baseball diamond in our town before. It was a night right before our wedding, and reaching backwards in memory, it occurred to me that I hadn’t been on any baseball diamond. Except for one time, in seventh grade…

His hand was in my pants.

In seventh grade, my gym teacher tried to teach our class how to play baseball. I couldn’t get past learning how to grip the bat, and I never hit the ball that year, no matter how hard I tried. I was that kid nobody wanted on their team; I was the one who got booed every time I went up to the plate.

He wanted me. His hand was in my pants, and I didn’t know what to do, and all I could think about was standing on that baseball field in seventh grade. He felt his way inside of my underwear. Yes? No? Other? I didn’t know what to say. I never knew what to say.

The more I got booed in gym class, the less I wanted to play. I sat on the bench behind home plate, and I cried because I knew my turn was coming and I would have to do what was expected of me, but I didn’t know what that was.

One finger grazed my skin, pressing down, and it hurt. I wondered offhandedly if it was supposed to. I did not say yes, but I did not say no. Was there something wrong with me? Had my childhood irrevocably fucked me up in terms of liking sex?

No, I knew what to do, I just wasn’t an athlete. Stand behind the plate. Plant my feet. Grip the bat, not too tight, not too loose. Swing. Hit. Run. I knew what to do, but I couldn’t do it.

He wanted to touch me, but I had no interest in touching him. I became certain that I was broken. I did not say yes, but I did not say no. I didn’t know I could say no.

I wanted my classmates to like me, but I wasn’t good enough and I never would be. I gave up. I took detention after detention rather than go up to that plate. I almost failed gym. I didn’t care.

“Why don’t you ever do it back?” he asked quietly. “Don’t you like me that way?”

I didn’t know what to say; if this was how love worked, I wasn’t sure I loved him back. But I needed to. I needed him to stay. So I did not say yes, but I also did not say no.

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The Hardest Thing

I did all the right things after I was raped. I drove myself to the hospital; I had a rape kit done. I tried to file charges. To this day, I don’t know how I did those things. Blind courage? A desperate carnal need to survive? To win, for once? It was not the first time I’d been raped; it was the first time I’d tried to fight back. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I lost.

Two days later, I returned to my regularly scheduled life, already in progress. I spent the day hidden behind a curtain of hair and a ratty gray sweatshirt hood. I thought that everybody knew, that everybody could see me. I didn’t want them to see me. I didn’t want anyone to see me. Yet I wanted to scream it, I wanted one person to hear me, truly hear me, to understand. I wanted to know I wasn’t alone, I wanted someone to tell me it would be okay, that I didn’t have to cut it, cut him, out of me. 

But I screamed nothing. I said nothing. I was nothing. No one would ever understand; no one would ever feel the magnitude of the weight I was carrying.

A friend put a notebook and a pen in my lap. She looked at me, tried unsuccessfully to hide her tears, and told me to write it out.

Write it out.

I had never written much by way of nonfiction before then; I didn’t think it was a craft I could master. I’d written stories, sure, but all fiction. Writing about myself, my real self, was different. I found myself there, again, with that paper and pen. I made a decision to cry my tears and then stuff them inside and not talk about it, but I wrote about it. No one would hear me, but I knew that people would read. For me, writing was talking. In many ways, it still is. But I found it hard to write, to say, rape. It’s such a powerful word. I’d see it and my hands would start to shake. My breath would grow stuttered. My body would grow cold.

But rape is just a word. A noun. I decided to look it up, to take it back. To make it mine, in the only way I could–by writing it down. Webster Dictionary has several definitions for said noun, including:

  1. Unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will
  2. An outrageous violation
  3. An act or instance of robbing or carrying away a person by force

Rape is also a verb.

  1. To commit rape on
  2. To seize and take away by force.

And at its best, an agricultural term:

  1. An Old World herb of the mustard family
  2. A plant related to mustard that is grown for animals to graze on
  3. Rapeseed; bird food
  4. The pomace of grapes left after expression of the juice

That last definition is my favorite; the idea that the use of the word rape as a sexual assault term came from the concept of squeezing a grape so hard that you force the literal guts out of it.

The grape didn’t ask to be raped.

I didn’t either.

Once upon a time, I wrote a story about a coyote and a little woodland creature. A rabbit, maybe? I can’t find it now, but it was your basic fairytale–the rabbit happily ran through the forest with all of its rabbit friends, oblivious of the existence of the coyote. The coyote loved the rabbit, so he followed it everywhere, always careful to stay at a distance. One day, the coyote tried to eat the rabbit. The rabbit got away, survived, but it always remembered what the coyote howled after the rabbit jumped from its gaping maw: Say nothing. Trust no one.

It’s obvious. The coyote is my rapist, and the rabbit is me. But I couldn’t say that then. I can say it now. Because rape? It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s a thing that happened to me, but not a thing I asked for. Not a thing I deserved.

I have written so many pages of material on being raped, about rape, about surviving. I will never grow tired of writing about it, because I think that the issue needs to be talked about. The most important thing I’ve learned through my writing is that I need to make myself show up. Not just be physically present, but really show up, let my walls down, present myself, my story, with no apologies, and be there to be with it. To sit with it. To own it. Because that’s the most important part of my experience–not how well I write it, but how well I own it. How well I use it to help others over feeling sorry for myself.

Every time I’ve kept silent, hidden myself, my story, every time I tell myself I’m not worth as much as other people, every time I think about giving up, I am giving my attacker what he wanted all along. I am letting him own me. I am letting him win. It’s important, I think, to own the word and therefore the experience, to draw the map of that violation on our bodies, to write and speak our stories to reach others who share our stories so that we all know that we aren’t alone.

We aren’t alone.

I learned that being abused was normal. I learned that my attacker had the power, that I had none of it. But the word rape belongs to me now, and I own the power over all of these experiences. Someone important to me told me today: “We have to wrap them up and store them and start over. Consider it like moving. When you move from one place to another, you pack up what you need and want to take with you and leave the rummage behind for the pickers. LEAVE IT BEHIND. It is a mental choice to move forward, and it is the hardest thing you will do.”

It took me a long time to find one person who truly understood who I was, what I’d been through. One person who I could be myself with, no apologies. I found that friendship through writing. I kept writing, and suddenly I had two people. Two people who understood. And then more. I don’t know where I’d be without them now, and I wish that everybody could have this. A safe space. People to talk to, that they trust. This week, I stopped using my pen name. I started being myself. I wrote my experience, I owned my experience. I put my name on that experience and I sat with it and proudly said, “Yes, this happened to me. And I survived it.”

I want to create that safe space, here. Together, we write. This is how we speak. And as we speak, we pack things up. We command them, we control them, we bend and shape them to our will, and no one else’s. And then, emotionally, we leave them behind. We write, we move forward. It is a mental choice, to move forward, and it is the hardest thing we will ever do.

 

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The Bite

I can still feel the dog’s teeth hooked into my calf, can still hear the sound of huffed breathing through his snout intermingled with the weirdest most inhuman growling I’d ever been privy too, can still smell blood. It doesn’t smell like you’d think. When I close my eyes, I remember what it felt like, that moment when I realized that he wasn’t letting go, when I realized that this job I had only just realized was so truly important to me could actually kill me.

I remember the sound his head made when I hit it with the fridge door, the clunk of skull against metal as he reset and grabbed my boot. I remember the blood that trickled down, that still stains my right boot two months later, remember the rip up the jeans leg of the pants I had just purchased two days before.

I remember going back in, after, to see the dog’s tail wagging, but the instant I moved, his eyes regressed back into whatever aggressive mode had overtaken him. He’d forgotten me. I slammed the door on him; I tried to forget him.

I can’t.

He has left me afraid.

I remember thinking why me, back then. I think it now. Why did I move across the country, why did I come all this way into this job that I loved only to be scared of it? And I can talk about it until I’m blue in the face, for lack of a more creative expression, but people don’t get what it’s like to default to a state of fear. To see a dog running at me with its teeth out and automatically assume it’s going to eat my face. I would have been different, before. I would have turned my back, dropped into a neutral position, taken that possible nip on my fingers when I offered my hand. But everything is different now. I am different now. Now? I freeze. And dogs sense that. They seize on it. I’ve had more bites in the last two months than I have had in nearly four years.

I can clearly label them, the squares that make up the quilt that is my fear, and I use them to hide behind so I don’t have to make myself be better.

I see a knife against my throat in the backseat of a car, feel a seatbelt in my back, smell the scent of garlic, feel the winter cold on my naked lower half as this man I hate presses hard against me; this is every time a man gets too close on the sidewalk, on the train, every time a man even looks at me strangely. I feel less than for being afraid.

I see my dead son, any time I try to get close to someone, because I know that eventually everything ends. Everyone dies, and we go in a fridge, and that is the end of that. I fear relationships, so I treasure the ones I do have.

And I see this dog, this damn stupid dog, at a time in my life when I thought I conquered all the things. When I thought I was not afraid.

I’ve been challenged to publicly demolish my fears, to tell myself that one bad event doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, doesn’t mean I deserved all the events, doesn’t mean I should be afraid. I think I owe this dog a thank you, honestly, that I need to look at what happened as a reminder that I can actually handle a lot of bullshit. Because name a major traumatic event, and I’ve probably survived it. And I can survive more. I can survive divorce and child death and abuse and rape and I can survive being mauled by a dog because I am absolutely more than all of these things.

So the next time a dog runs at me, or a man sits weirdly close to me and leers creepily, or someone I know has a baby, I will make a choice–a choice to not be afraid, a choice to remember that my personal quilt actually makes me better, stronger. I know I won’t always be successful at this. But I will try. And that’s enough.

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Then Again, Maybe I Won’t

We were sitting by the pool, draped on a set of decrepit matching white beach chairs—me, B, B’s mother, B’s sister. I was covered in a towel so no one would see my pathetic body in my bathing suit. It was June; the baby had died the end of February. I hadn’t felt much like exercising, and I wasn’t ready to be in a bathing suit, or, rather, I wasn’t ready to see myself and be seen. 

“Have you thought about it?” B’s mother asked. “Having another?”

She said it so nonchalantly, like it was nothing to her when it was everything to me. I couldn’t replace my son just like that, couldn’t snap my fingers and create another, a baby to take his place. Couldn’t? Or wouldn’t? 

B’s sister slipped away, into the pool, completely removing herself from the conversation.

When I didn’t answer, B did it for me, “We didn’t go back on birth control, so if it happens, it happens.”

I thought of them in my purse, the birth control pills I’d refilled but not told him about, the tiny round dots in their little plastic slots; I thought of the endless times I’d said I was on my period over the prior months rather than submit myself to the process of baby creation, baby replacing. I thought of the doctor, and how he said we had to wait six weeks before we could try again, and how we did wait those six weeks, and how we did try again, and again, even when I didn’t want to, even when I said no. 

B’s sister was pregnant, due in the middle of the summer. She was in the pool no problem, paddling slowly back and forth completely unashamed of her round body. She would have the first child of the family, not me. 

Not me. It was like my son had never existed. Everyone was moving on. 

The thought of what I didn’t have, the hole left by my unmentioned dead son, made me brazen in my speech in a way inappropriate for my gender. “We did.” I never talked back. I knew better.

“We did?” B’s brow furrowed.

“Go back on birth control.”

That’s a marriage, isn’t it? Telling each other the difficult things? We were supposed to tell each other the difficult things. 

B’s mother produced pamphlets from her pool bag and started dropping them onto my lap one by one. How to Know When to Have Another Baby. A Women’s Place in the Home. Raising Your Family After Grief. Yadda yadda yadda. I opened none of them, but I saw all of them. “It’s your job to raise a family,” she told me. “Your job to be a mother. You can’t just turn away from that. It’s God’s plan that your son died, and it’s God plan that you have another.” 

I fumbled the keys to our condo out from under my chair and stood up, the towel firmly pressed around my middle. “If it’s God plan that my son is dead, that is not a God I want. I don’t believe God would want me to replace him.” 

B said nothing; he did not speak up for me, but instead chose to follow his mother into the pool to splash around with his sister while I fumbled back to our condo as the sun passed over. He said nothing all afternoon, went to dinner with his parents where I was not invited, and then came home and said nothing all night. But he stood behind me in the bathroom, me at the sink, him with his arms around me and his hands as fists against the counter, while I poked the pills out of the package one by one and let them find their way down the open hole of the drain. Each disappearance another black strike of dishonor to my son. 

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The Difficult Miracle of Being Human

She knew she was pregnant before the stick said she was pregnant. It wasn’t fetal movement or anything like that, because no baby moves that early. It was more of a feeling, a sense of being together with someone, finally, in a way she had never been together with the husband.

She did not tell the husband. Not right away. She waited until it was “safe,” until there was “less chance to lose it,” and then she peed on a stick to confirm the beautiful thing she already knew so that she could take that stick and tap it against the doorframe of his office while waiting for him to notice her. He turned around, removed his all-encompassing soundman headphones, and flashed her a quick eye roll that he completely intended her to see. “What is it?” 

The husband did not like to be disturbed, but clearly he hadn’t seen the stick. She waved it a little closer, a little closer. Still nothing. The husband moved to turn his chair around. “I’m pregnant,” she blurted, just to get him to stop, pay attention. It wasn’t how she’d planned to tell him.

“Are we ready for that? A baby?” His words were fast, sharp. To the point. He wanted to get back to work. 

“Who’s ever ready for a baby?” The stick hung limply in her hand, unseen. Wasn’t he supposed to want to see it, to celebrate? At least, that’s what she had thought, hoped would happen. She shoved the stick into her pajama pants pocket, because what else was she supposed to do with it? 

“It won’t fix things. With you. Us.”

It was always her that had to change, never him. But she wouldn’t dare say that out loud. “Don’t call the baby an It; the baby can hear you.” 

The husband didn’t respond.

When the husband turned around to go back to work, she went back into the bathroom and cried. She didn’t need him. She had a baby now. Or she would, in several months.

She did what she thought she was supposed to in the months following. She went to the doctor, let him confirm what the stick had already confirmed. She took vitamins. She read websites: What size was the baby today? What was developing? Growing? Changing? Did they have fingernails yet? Or rather, would she feel them if they did? She thought about what weird things; she pictured the baby clawing her insides as they waited impatiently to come out and meet her. 

She wanted to start registering for baby things. She convinced the husband to let her find out the sex so that she could pick better items. It was a boy! She thought the husband would be more excited to have a boy, but the husband didn’t respond. She took the 3D ultrasound picture, with it’s grainy whites and browns, snapped a picture with her own phone, and sent it to everyone she had ever known. She showed the registries to the husband that night while they watched tv, the show on display was meaningless in comparison to the excitement of picking her child’s future. Bottles, pajamas, toys, diapers, a crib, a stroller, she registered for anything and everything that any site told her a baby would need while the husband sat next to her, supposedly helping but really somewhere else. “Winnie the Pooh,” he scoffed at one point, “isn’t that a little young?” 

She had always loved that cuddly yellow bear, and the husband certainly hadn’t helped her pick things out. “What would you rather ask for?”

The husband didn’t respond.

She worked hard, saving money for when the baby came and she would need to take off. The husband stayed home, or worked at the church, or did whatever sound career thing it was he did with his day. She came home after ten, twelve hour days and made him dinner, cleaned. He told her she didn’t do enough, so she threw a potholder at him and called him an asshole.

The husband didn’t respond. 

She pictured life after the birth of their son, and how she wished and hoped it would change, when she really knew that nothing would change at all. That she would work a 50-plus hour work week and then have to take care of a baby at the end of the day. She said nothing to the husband. It would do no good. She kept plugging along; she kept getting ready. She cleaned the backseat of her car to get ready for the carseat. 

It came time for the baby shower, a mixture of cakes and presents and balloons—cute green and blue-for-boy balloons that she loved but couldn’t bring home in case the cats decided to eat them and then died from choking on string. She asked the husband to help bring home gifts; they lived up a steep flight of stairs and she didn’t want to carry everything. 

The husband didn’t respond. 

So she did it herself. She carried each and every thing up the stairs, and then she took a nap with the cats on the couch while a Lifetime movie played on the tv. A few weeks, just a few weeks, she would meet him. And everything would change then, when her son was born.

And just a short time later, at 37 weeks, when she called the husband to tell him the baby’s heart was no longer beating, well, he didn’t respond then either. 

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The Dead are Cold (And Other True Facts)

My son is beautiful. He is seven, almost eight years old. Tall for his age, with a head full of brown hair that he refuses to let me cut because he likes it long. His eyes are greenish gray, and they stare right into me with an understanding much beyond his years. He is an avid piano student, but some days he hates playing. He reminds me of myself in that regard—when I was a kid, I told my organ teacher that my hamster had bit me in the finger so I couldn’t play, but then I went home and played what I wanted to play instead of what I was supposed to. 

My son is kind. His favorite toy is a giant stuffed brown bear. He still sleeps with it at night, but he will also share it with other children when they are sad. I worry for the day when he will decide he is too old for toys, that I will cry. His favorite color is blue, and his favorite clothing item is his tiny pair of blue overalls where the straps are so worn that they slip off of his shoulders. 

My son is smart. He’s already in third grade. He went from pre-K straight to first because he already had the fundamentals down cold. They said he was “smart,” and “needed to be challenged.” He brings home a new book almost every day, but he prefers to read it to me rather than the other way around. I only help him when he asks, and he rarely does—and all his books are far above grade level. He can’t draw though. He comes home from school with stick figure drawings that have graham cracker crumbs stuck to the edges, but I am proud of them.

My son is proud of me, and of my writing. Or, at least, I like to think so. 

My first major, national publication was for a parenting magazine called ‘Brain, Child: A Magazine for Working Mothers.’ I wasn’t horribly enthused about it, and I didn’t tell that many people. One I told, a professor in my graduate program, replied, “Oh, are you a parent?” I didn’t know how to answer that question. I never do. 

My son is dead.

*

The first dead body I remember seeing was when I was eighteen years old. I was a new youth leader for a local teen coffee house. It was New Year’s, and Renee and Stephanie were riding home in the back of a station wagon with one of their families—Stephanie’s, I think. A drunk driver came down Highway 120 and plowed right into the driver’s side of their car; everyone inside was killed instantly. I attended Renee’s funeral as both a representative of the coffee house and a friend; we were not that far apart in age. Because she had been on the passenger side of the vehicle, Renee was, for lack of a better term, more intact than Stephanie and thus had an open casket. I waited to see her for over an hour, listening to the people around me cry. By the time I got up to the casket, the line behind me wrapped around the funeral home. I stared down at Renee, her eyes closed, her skin the pasty white of overdone makeup, her hands with fingernails still lacquered in solid black gently folded across her stomach. Her dress was white, and I remember thinking that Renee would not have worn a white dress. I remember reaching out gently, to touch her cheek that was completely devoid of the normal pink color. I remember how cold she was. I remember nothing else until I sat in the driver’s seat of my cherry red Camaro, smacking the steering wheel over and over with my fists and bawling my eyes out because this “little” girl was dead and there was nothing I could do about it. 

And she was cold.

My entire life, I’ve been afraid of dead things. When I came home from work one night to find my goldfish Herman floating in a u-shape above the pretty purple castle inside of his glass bowl that I kept on top of my television cabinet, I called B, my then-boyfriend, to come and scoop it out for me. When my cat Tigger died, I couldn’t look at the body and had to go in another room while someone else took it away. When my grandma’s dog Max died, I had to cover it in three different blankets so that I wouldn’t feel the body as I helped her put it in the car to take it to be cremated. I couldn’t touch them or be involved with any of it, because I couldn’t accept that they were dead. My son was different though. His tiny body was still somewhat warm from being inside of me. Stiff though from being dead for many hours, at least 22, but as many as 30; we would never know exactly. When I held him, it was amazing to me how light he was. I don’t know what I had expected; at four pounds, he was substantially lighter than my jumbo-sized 22 pound cat, and he felt like he was floating in my arms. At the same time, I felt like I was floating above him, like it wasn’t real, and I took in every detail—the tiny bit of hair scattered across his head, the way his fists were clenched and how hard it was for me to wrap his dead fingers around mine, fingers that were long and just perfect for playing an instrument. It didn’t seem right that my son could be there, that he could be whole and still be dead. It didn’t seem right at all. 

The one thing I didn’t look at when I held my son was his eyes; I don’t know the color of his eyes. I never will. It seems important somehow, like a fact that I should know, and it kills me that I don’t. A mother should know what color her son’s eyes are. Were.

I’ve begun to forget his face. It’s harder every day to remember what he looked like. I never heard his voice, his laugh; I won’t ever know these things. He was burned, his remains put into a little box the shape of a heart that fit into my palm and later scattered somewhere unknown to me. His things are gone; he is gone. I have no part of him left, nothing physical of him to hold, to see. I have no proof of his existence; he only exists in my head now. When I miss him, it feels like I’m being gutted. There is no way to make it okay. There is no part of him that remains. 

*

The first time I saw my son, he was nothing more than an image on a screen. A strange mix of brown, sepia, that produced a recognizable image—a nose, eyes, even tiny fingers. A human. A baby. It was hard for me to reconcile the image on the screen with me, to believe that I was really growing a baby inside of me. When the technician asked if we wanted a copy of the ultrasound, I eagerly took the picture. I scanned it in with my new iPhone and sent it to essentially everyone I had ever known. It was the first time B, the husband, was at all excited.

The ultrasound spurred me to clean out my junk-mobile of a car. I had the messiest car ever, and I had for years. It started when my commute time to work doubled; I would eat food driving both to and from work and then throw the wrappers into the backseat. The more I traveled for work, the more things appeared—an extra coat, random shoes, pants, shirts, books. For all I knew, there was something alive back there. The pile was so high that it surpassed the center console in height and threatened to spill over into the front. It got to the point where it was just too overwhelming to even consider cleaning. Of course, this meant that now that I needed to install a carseat back there, there was a lot of work to be done. I didn’t dare ask the husband to help me. It was my fault, my mess, and he never even rode in my car anyway. 

I pictured my son while I was cleaning. I imagined that he would grow, grow up, grow out of the carseat. Sit in the front with me after he turned twelve. Starting driving at fifteen and a half. Many times during the cleaning ordeal, I had to wander away. Out of the garage, down the block, getting air. I wasn’t sure how I had driven so long with the car in that condition; I suddenly understood my need to drive with the windows down as at least five bags of trash made their way to the dumpster, with several more bags awaiting their end destination of Goodwill. Exhausted, I never bothered to clean out the trunk. I worked hard enough during my day job that I didn’t want to do anything more than I had to.

I was a merchandising manager for Party City while I was pregnant. Halloween pack-up was well underway, which involved a great deal of ladder climbing and frequent sitting on top of rolling ladders when I got tired—which happened all the time. People worried that I was working too hard, but my doctor supported me. The level of work I was doing was in the same league as what I had been doing pre-pregnancy. Since it wasn’t a new routine, it wasn’t a problem. I almost wished it would be. Ten hours on my feet while pregnant made an extremely long day.

By the time I got home most nights, I was too tired after an entire day of work to do anything else. B had a specific list of daily chores for me: dishes, cooking, cleaning, vacuuming, anything pet related, and anything the husband didn’t want to do. I never got to the dishes or the cleaning or the vacuuming. The cats were like my children, so I took care of them. I cooked meals because I was hungry, but frequently grumbled in my head that the husband should cook for me once in a while. When he bitched that things around the apartment weren’t done, I chucked a pillow at him and called him an asshole. He wasn’t the one working fifty hours a week while growing a human being inside his body. He wasn’t working at all. 

“Do you want to quit your job then? Is that what you’re saying?” He leaned on our breakfast bar.

“I didn’t say that. I just said that I’m tired and need a little rest every now and then. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.” I bit my lip. I was crying, again. Damn hormones. 

“I do everything around here,” he replied snidely. “I pay the bills.”

That was all he did. He didn’t have a real job. I was the breadwinner, but I couldn’t quit—I held the medical insurance policy. The husband was wrong, I was sure, but I nodded slowly and got up to make him dinner; I imagined that someday soon I would be cooking for both me and my son, and it didn’t seem weird to me at all that B wasn’t in that picture. 

*

B and I didn’t name our son until we held him. I had just finished The Mortal Instruments, and I was absolutely in love with the name Jace. The husband was in love with naming him after his grandfather and the slew of men on his side of the family who carried the name Erich. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the name Erich; it was just so old fashioned. We argued back and forth about it, electing to waiting until the baby came to decide. Somehow then, February 26th, 2010, I looked into my son’s eyes and held my finger in his tiny fist, and I knew his name was Carter. I conceded to Erich as a middle name, because I didn’t have the energy to fight. It didn’t seem to matter anyway.

*

When you are expecting a baby, especially your first, people find it helpful to fill you in on all the little facets of pregnancy and birth. The first thing they tell you is that childbirth will hurt. A lot. They aren’t lying. I’ve heard it referred to as taking your lower lip and stretching it over your head, and though I haven’t tried this particular activity, I can’t imagine it even comes close. I don’t know of anything that does. The pain will go away though, they tell you, once you hold your baby in your arms. Now this is a lie, as it does not take into consideration those who do not get a living, breathing baby; for us, the pain does not vanish. The next thing people tell you is that stretch marks will eventually go away—another lie. Sure, they fade and turn a freaky white color, but they never disappear, not completely. Yet another thing I remember learning is that you burn a lot of calories when you breastfeed, and that many women lose baby weight in this manner. I’m fairly certain this is true, based on research I did pre-pregnancy. For me, however, this was yet another lie. 

Some things people just don’t talk about. For instance, they don’t tell you that one percent of pregnancies end in stillbirth, which is defined as death after twenty-four weeks. They don’t tell you that things won’t always go the way they’re supposed to, because they only prepare people for the best possible outcomes. No one tells you that babies can die. They don’t tell you that your body postpartum will be irrevocably changed. 

A stillbirth baby, especially at full-term, is such an unexpected and sudden loss that people often forget you have gone through the birthing process and need to recover just like any other woman. You might receive pain killers, but no one tells you what they are for. They don’t tell you that you’re going to hurt like hell as your womb shrinks back to its normal size and shape; they don’t tell you that you might need help with simple physical tasks; they don’t tell you that you will bleed for weeks after and that you cycle will change forever. They are more concerned with handling your grief than with handling your body, since the baby is dead. All of the little details go by the wayside in favor of making sure that you are “okay” and that you are not going to leave the hospital and promptly throw yourself in front of a bus. 

The biggest thing that no one told me when my baby died was that my breasts would still produce milk. It wasn’t really anything I thought about once he was gone, not until it happened. My body didn’t understand that there was no baby anymore; it’s not like I could explain it to myself and make the natural process stop. I called my OB right away, and they had me wear a sports bra two sizes too small that I stuffed with cabbage leaves. They apologized for neglecting to inform me, but it meant nothing. To add insult to injury, not only did I not have a baby, I stank like cabbage. My body had betrayed my mind. As a society, we are largely concerned with how we look, and here I was with the body that comes post-baby and no baby to show for it—a ring of pudginess around my middle that had never been there before and a plethora of stretch marks. No amount of exercise would make those things go away, not completely. I was shaped differently, inside and outside. I was different, and this went unacknowledged.

March 2010 was the time that they took the population census. I did not fill out the form when it came in the mail the first time, and I didn’t fill it out when it came in the mail the second time. I never filled it out, instead choosing to rip it into pieces and stuff it in the kitchen garbage like it had never come at all. When May rolled around, the census workers started coming to people’s houses. One rang my doorbell. I went down the stairs into the entry hall and pulled it open. 

“Hi.” It was an older woman with hair like my grandmas and a bright red vest that identified her as a census worker. “I’m here because you didn’t fill out your census form. I just need to collect your information.”

I tried to shut the door, but she stuck her foot in it. “It will only take a few minutes.” She was very persistent, and I left the door open just enough to see her face as she asked, “How many people live in your household?”

“Two,” I said to my feet.

“And they are?”

“Me and my husband.” I tried to push the door closed then, but she wouldn’t move her foot.

She was scribbling on her clipboard. “And how many children?” She didn’t even look up as she asked. 

“None,” I snapped. “None. My son is dead.”

I slammed the door in her face.

*

I constructed a world in the months after Carter died. A world inside my head where the imagined was real and the real was imagined. In that world, my 37 week OB appointment never happened. I was not an hour early. I did not stop at the store for apple juice. I did not leave my coat in the car even though it was the middle of February. The nurse never hooked up the heart monitor; I never heard her say the baby’s heart wasn’t beating. I didn’t watch an ultrasound screen where the baby didn’t move. This world where the nurses asked about what I did for a living and shoved Kleenex in my face and distracted me while we waited for the doctor and the husband; this world where the doctor told us he was “so, so sorry,” where he gave me the option of going home and waiting for labor to happen naturally or going into labor artificially; this world where I laid in a hospital bed in labor for 22 hours to give birth to a dead baby. This world is not the real world, and I know that. 

If I think too hard, what I’ve constructed completely unravels. 

My son is beautiful.

My son is kind.

My son is smart. 

My son is dead. And cold.

Two years after Carter’s death, I purchased a memorial brick by the lakefront. The city planted a tree as a memorial to “all the dead children,” and it sits twenty feet from the shoreline; it’s small, with spindly branches, and the leaves are few and far in between. It didn’t seem to grow much, and I was struck by the idea that a memorial for children that will never grow up would never grow—the stunted tree surrounded by bricks surrounded by flowers was the perfect tribute; clumps of purple and red and pink that took away from the fact that each brick was all that was left of a life.

Every year, tiny growths appear between the bricks. Weeds, or perhaps flowers. Signs of life that will be gone come winter, because everything dies. Winter brings snow and ice, coating the ground and making it impossible to remember him. I visit the tree on the anniversary of his death every year I am in the state, to place my hand on his brick and be able to touch him. A simple reminder. If it’s winter, I can never make headway in the frozen-over snow. I can get down on my knees and claw with my fingers, but I only ever break through to ice. Carter is sealed away behind a wall I can’t break through, an event I cannot penetrate. Death.  

On the anniversary of his death, I will never locate the brick. I will never be able to break through. I will never find him.

It’s too cold. I am cold. 

The dead are cold.

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We All Make Mistakes

I can still remember when Corey and Topanga broke up. I’m guessing many from my generation can. Boy Meets World; TGIF; quality thank goodness it’s Friday television programming. Topanga was crying; her family was moving to Pittsburgh, away from her childhood sweetheart, and what was the point in continuing a relationship when they couldn’t be together?
I had middle school play practice the next morning. Eighth grade, so it was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. So and so had kissed so and so. So and so had gone to the movie with a bunch of so and sos, all of whom shall remain nameless I remember so vividly though because it was the start of something for me–my friends were talking about real boys, and I was talking about Corey and Topanga breaking up as if they were real people, because, in a way, they were. 
I’ve written stories in my head for as long as I can remember, intending to inscribe them for the masses but never being motivated enough to publicize my fiction. Samantha and Rebeckah were (are; let’s be real, I still write them in my head as I fall asleep) my favorites. Both had terrible lives marked by notable happy endings, followed by more terrible, followed by more happy. Every bad is met with its match in good. And in my stories, they always met a boy, and that boy was what saved them. Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that meeting a boy would save me too. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step one: Evaluate all possible choices. 

Step two: Evaluate all possible outcomes. 
*
It was hot in the church on the afternoon of June 2nd, a few years after I graduated high school. I sat in a pew, my annoyance marked with my traditional silent eyeroll that I hid from B with my then-long bangs. Just a few more things, they kept telling us. Just a few more, then we could go. It turned out wedding rehearsals were harder than they looked. It was a bunch of go here, do this thing, do that thing, go there, sit. Move. Wait. 
We were poor, so our after-rehearsal dinner consisted of a bunch of meat thrown on the grill on the backyard deck by B’s dad, who had left the rehearsal early to commence the cooking festivities. So far as we knew, everything was fine. Until the phone call: “So everything is fine.” Nothing is fine that starts with that phrase. “There’s just been a small fire on the deck.”
It was another event in a string of events that shaped a loud and clear broadcast stating it was wrong to marry B. We lost our church, our free catering, our pastor, our wedding counselor, all in the weeks before the wedding. But we kept plunging ahead. Or rather, I kept plunging ahead, because I wanted the happy ending I knew existed. I thought. I knew it was a mistake. I made it anyway. This one mistake set in motion many other events, many other mistakes, much more unhappiness. I kept thinking that I had done the thing I was supposed to–I had gotten married–and that this would be the thing to save me because it was always the boy that would save the girl.
That night, after the dinner, I sat on my bed, my last time without B in my apartment, and I painted my toenails with sparkly silver nail polish while my good friend sat across from me and told me not to do it. Not to go through with it. Not to marry B. But I did it anyway because I thought I was supposed to. Girl meets boy; girl marries boy; girl produces many children and stays home to take care of the family for all eternity. I wanted to do the right thing. 
But I made a mistake; my life was none of these things. When everything disintegrated, despite looking for someone else to save me, I had to be the one to save myself. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step three: Choose what you think is the expected outcome, the one that everyone else wants. 
*
I know this great dog who shall remain nameless, since that’s how the rescue game is played. She came to the rescue with her mother and two sisters from a backyard breeder in New Jersey that saw what was amazing inside the mommy dog and used it to make himself money (it’s no wonder I wanted to adopt the mommy dog then…). This puppy was my first real placement of a dog I loved. I drove her to the house, I dropped her there. I celebrated when she stayed, and I lived for the picture and video updates and the times I got to visit in an era of my life when I wasn’t seeing many rescues doing well. When so many dogs would act out or bite or never leave and sit Saturday after Saturday not finding a home, it was nice to be reminded that good homes did exist, that all dogs have good inside somewhere, and that they all have a place, like we all have a place. But then this dog made one mistake, and she came back to the rescue. Her return was the right thing for everyone, but right or not didn’t make it suck any less for any of us. The mistake was too colossal, too all-encompassing, to come back from, a permanent black mark on an otherwise impeccable record, and a black mark of the biggest sort. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step four: Do that thing that everyone else wants. 

Step five: Watch the results and know that you’re screwed. 
*
I think it was pack instinct that drove this dog to do the thing she did. “I must protect the pack, because the pack protects me/because the pack loves me/because the pack has brought me my happy and I must return the favor.” It’s impossible to know for sure though. But what I do know, both from my own life and the lives of those around me, is that we make the biggest mistakes trying to live up to the expectations of those around us. We make the biggest mistakes when we’re genuinely trying to be the best we can be. It doesn’t make us bad; it doesn’t make us unworthy; it just means that we have not found our place yet because we haven’t learned to define ourselves outside of other people’s expectations. 
Doesn’t this make us all just like dogs? We want to please so badly sometimes without a thought to the consequences that we plunge headlong into situations we can’t come back from. If you stick to the norms, follow the expected commands to their given outcomes, and don’t step out of line, everything will be fine. Right?
*
How to make a mistake:
Step six: Do not repeat; learn from the thing you’ve done. 
*
Queue the after-hiatus Boy Meets World Cory-without-Topanga episode that ended with Topanga outside the door in the rain, her hand pressed to the glass and her long brown hair slicked against her skin as she declared she was moving back to live with her aunt and would be together with Corey forever. I wish all decisions ended so happily. I am too old, have wasted too much time, to make the wrong ones. Writing stories, living with and in characters, does nothing when they always have a happy ending, because those endings do not exist through others–and it’s a mistake to believe they do. We write our own stories. We make mistakes we can’t take back. We live. We learn. 

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If I Could Go Again…

I didn’t come to New York thinking I would write the next great manuscript.

That’s a lie, actually. I think I did come here with that in the background, whether or not I acknowledged the existence of the thought. I’ve been in a slump since I finished my thesis draft, which is a full length manuscript; if any of you are counting, that was over a year ago now. It’s a full length memoir, and it’s ready to do things that manuscripts do when they become real things. It even has real author blurbs and everything. But I’m not pushing for it. It’s sitting. I’m sitting. I’m dragging my feet on my edits. I’m not responding to emails. I’ll write about dogs, I tell myself. I’ll write about dogs and people will want to read it, and I’m with them every day, and I’m learning every day, and I SHOULD write about dogs. 

And the not uttered thought:

Damn it, but writing’s not fun anymore now that it’s work. 

I graduated a year ago last weekend. And it seems to me that my actual grad school got me nothing. I learned more before grad school. Yeah, I learned some stuff there. But I feel like I spent a lot of time teaching my peers too, like I came in to the program with the knowledge we were already getting. I’m not being conceited with that statement; I was simply taught very well by my undergrad professors. I left my graduate program with no real friends from the school, just a smattering of great acquaintances, due to a combination of things–lack of social ambition, lack of people skills, lack of…connectability? I made the wrong choice in program, and I know that now. I think I knew that when I got here, the first semester when I turned in a paper that accidentally went over people’s heads. I never fit in my program. I wasn’t driven to attend school functions, at least not until the very end when they suddenly wanted me to read, everywhere. I came early, but I came early to write, by myself usually. I left right after class. It was nothing like undergrad, and I was disappointed in myself, in the program, for what I could have had elsewhere. 

I may have left the program with nothing, with no writing community (anyone out there want to adopt me to theirs? No really. I’m serious–message me.), but I did leave with New York. I am a New Yorker.

New York? Well, that got me everything.

See, I’m a different person in New York. I’m not scared to be out in the world. I’m not nervous navigating the subway, going to new places, exploring, being out and about (within reason, of course.) I like experiencing new things (again, within reason). I get coffee with people sometimes; I go to movies; I go out to eat. I sit at home with my cat and read books and play video games (and write when I wanna), and I don’t feel ashamed about the alone time. I do things for me and I don’t apologize, not anymore. I claim my story and I own my work and there’s no more “sorry this is hard for you to hear/read (even though it happened to me and not to you and I deserve to write about it).”

I think the biggest difference between New Yorker me and Wisconsin me is confidence. Confidence in myself, in my thoughts, in my body. My best friend, E, came to visit recently, on break from her own graduate program in Texas. We went to a jazz show on her second to last night here (a bar atmosphere I actually enjoyed, mind you), and I was digging in my closet prior to the show as I tried to decide what to wear. In the very back, on the last hook, was a little black dress. I bought it in 2009, pre-pregnancy, and I wore it a few times back then. Always with a tank top underneath to cover my chest, because the neckline was super low and my ex decidedly did not approve. Post-pregnancy, I didn’t wear it again. It never fit, and it always felt weird with a tank top underneath anyway. But on a hunch, on jazz night, I pulled that dress out and slipped it on–no tank top. Not only did it fit, it looked good. It showed a LOT. But it looked good. I wore it out in public with only a mild amount of concern that I might have a Janet Jackson-esqe moment (I did not). I needed no one’s approval but my own, though I most definitely did tell people how excited I was to no longer carry baby weight around and to wear something I haven’t worn in eight years (screw you, Ex). 

E and I haven’t lived in the same vicinity for almost four years now, but it was like we had never been apart–it definitely helps that we FaceTime pretty much every Sunday. I think that I used to largely be a follower just because I didn’t know what else to be. I make no claims to NOT be a follower now, but what I noticed when E was here was that I followed a lot in searching for new experiences, for things I might not see or want to see because my own views and experiences limit me. I am the same while also being different. I am the same, but my motivations have turned. Like with the dress. I wore it not to cover myself up and not for anyone else, but to say I am comfortable with my body and it is mine. Fun times were had while E was here, (her words when I asked if I could mention her visit, but I agree!), and they reaffirmed my love for this city that I only had the courage to come to because of my grad school program. 

It’s time for that yearly question: if I could do it again, would I still do grad school? Honestly, for the writing and MFA aspect? No, absolutely not. I did not need it. I have a lot of debt because of it that I think is largely the reason I’ve been too scared to try and do my own thing; I owe money to the world and I doubt my ability to raise that on my own when I have no connections in the writing community that I didn’t have pre-grad school. My undergrad professors taught me so well; I was really spoiled by that education (and shame on Scott Walker for trying to destroy the institution), and I received guidance and education and connections there that helped me to publish so much more than I did in grad school. I was a writer before I was a grad student, and I did not need a masters degree to tell me that. I HATED grad school. But I love this damn city. And if I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t be comfortable with myself. 

So again I ask, if I could do it again, would I still do grad school? Would I still get my MFA? Yes. Yes I would. My MFA got me New York, got me me. And maybe the key to writing again is accepting that my writing is different now, is being open to telling stories, all the stories, not just the major ones. 

“Why this story? Why this piece, when it is all the pieces, all the stories? Everything is important.”

I am different now. Confident. A dog walker, and trainer. An animal lover, and rescuer. Still a follower, but an open follower. A friend. More, someday. And maybe I don’t define myself as a writer, but she’s still there too. She’s just different–but different is fun too.

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The One; The All

The hardest part of working in animal rescue is that I cannot save them all, no matter how much I want to. When it comes to animals, I open my heart way too quickly, too easily. I let them in too fast, and I let them stay for keeps. I can’t help it, and I can’t turn that part of me off. I’m not even sure I want to. I’ve saved a lot of animals over the years, but I’ve also had some misses. Those are the worst ones, the ones that stick. 

The thing about me is that when I “fail,” it becomes easy for me to forget all of the successes. Right now, my head is all about a little black and white puppy with a genuine open heart and some really pointy teeth, and the fact that I let her down. That I took her out of her foster home, that I drove her to our rescue, that I left her there, her nose shoved between the bars and her squeals piercing the closed doors of the car down to my soul as she tried to pry her way out of her run and catch me before I ran away and left her behind. It felt, it feels, like I made her what she is–she came to us when she was seven or eight weeks old, abandoned at our weekly adoption drive, and the instant we knew she was food aggression and she was “red level,” I made her my project. I fed her from my hands. I taught her to take from me; I taught her to give back to me. I took her into Petco for at least an hour every week we sat together and let her pick out a toy and a bone, and then we would go into the park and practice exchanging one for the other. We practiced drop it; we practiced sharing without biting. I wanted to show her that she was going to find a time when she wouldn’t want for anything, when she would have a world just for her. I wanted her to know that people could take things from her but that she would always get things back. I taught her to fall in love with me; I fell in love with her right back. That’s what you have to do sometimes, to reach a dog. I let myself give her too much of myself, too much time, and I thought she had benefited from it. Maybe she did. But right now, it doesn’t seem that way.

This has been a week of constant phone calls, emails, texts, and more dealing with people than I generally do in a month. More people have seen me cry in the last two days than have probably EVER seen me cry. More people have told me that I’m great, that I did my best, that there are so many other dogs. But for me, right now, in this time, she’s The One. And she’s happy where she is. She has new animal best friend, and she gets to run around all day and play outside. But it’s not where I thought she’d be. It’s not what my heart wanted for her; it doesn’t feel right, even though it is. And in a way, that’s selfish of me. I am selfish. I am selfish for being sad when she doesn’t know that things woulda coulda shoulda been any different, for fighting for this dog, for crying, when she is probably perfectly fine–even if her definition of fine is not the same as mine. 

She is the piece of the puzzle that makes me want to throw the puzzle away, the end of the 1000 piece box when you discover that the most important thing is gone. SHE was my most important thing. But quitting means giving up a purpose that it took me a long time to find, to build. Quitting means that I’ve wasted even more years of my life.

I was asked today why rescue is so important to me, why I stay in it even during the weeks it sucks. The answer is simple. I stay because I was voiceless, just like the animals are. I was voiceless for so many years, and no one deserves to be that way, not even animals. I want to stand in the gap for them, I want to help them, because I can connect to them in a way I never can interpersonally. I am not closed off to animals in the same way I am to people; without that part of myself, I would never have made friends here. I can’t imagine a day where I don’t hug an animal, where I don’t fall in love, where I don’t give someone with four paws and a tail the absolute best parts of me–because my energy, that giving, that heart, that IS the best part of me. I am a good person, a genuinely good person, more than my ex and his family ever saw. More than his words that still play inside my head on the bad days. Worth something, not worthless. A survivor, not a victim. Passionate, invested. A do-gooder. When I don’t see that, the animals do–and seeing them see it helps me to see it too. 

So I won’t quit. I won’t stop trying for that little black and white puppy. I won’t stop loving her. But the rescue net is more than her, it’s not just for one. It’s for all. 

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