Tag Archives: memoir

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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The Stain

My students were a rowdy bunch, a consequence of teaching drama–and not a bad one, just one that tried the patience sometimes. Especially when I had to drive them places. The youngest was eating pomegranate seeds that Thursday night that resembled reddish purple unpopped popcorn kernels. It became a fun game to squeeze them between his second finger and his thumb so that the juice would drip out into his mouth, sometimes missing and gracing his chin, his coat, my car seats. Pomegranate juice seemed small in comparison to the rotting pumpkin I’d once kept in my car trunk for over a year, but it bothered me for some reason–which is how I found myself in the garbage the next day, on my hands and knees, scrubbing the backseat of my car with Lysol wipes and hoping the dumb stain would come out, but knowing it was already set.

It’s funny, really, how quickly stains work sometimes. They hit the fabric and it’s sink or swim; either in or out. And if it’s in, god pity that fabric. The fabric didn’t ask to be stained. It didn’t ask for that pomegranate juice to spread slowly and mingle in with the gray threads. And yet there it was, a stain I hadn’t gotten to fast enough because I’d been driving that had now permeated and completely altered the makeup of my backseat. I thought about replacing the fabric, or buying covers for the seats. I never did.

I asked him, once. What I’d done to make him hate me so much. He told me I was a stain, that I had brought my blackness in and ruined everything. When he bled me there, when he ripped me apart in that backseat, the pomegranate stain was the least of my concerns. There it was, this bigger, darker stain, and I stared at the pomegranate blotch and it stared back at me and I felt the change within me, the volta, as I ripped apart and came together. His stain bled into the fabric that made me me, and I came out different as it permeated and completely altered my being.

There was a bigger stain now, darker, one I had no hope of ever erasing. The game then became living with, managing, the stain. I had to live with the stain, as you do, because there would be no replacing, no covering, no changing. You can’t reverse when it’s your true self that’s stained. But you can grow. Grow, and change, and own the stain and make it a part of you. Find others with the stain, stand together, make a union and be strong until it’s not a stain at all, but just a thing that is carried.

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Dear Sara Friend

Dear Sara Friend,

You’re my best friend. I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual. But don’t tell your other dogs. It would make them sad. Honestly, we all know I’m the best. But it’s okay to love other dogs too. Just none more than me. I was your first pittie love, after all. Okay, I mean, there was that OTHER pittie. But I am your first REAL pittie friend.

You always know how to make me smile. I think that we’re a great fit, you and I, because we’re the same really. Really fun, super caring. Massively socially awkward with others of our kind. I couldn’t ask for a better walker.

I might not like dogs, but I live to make my humans happy. In fact, nothing makes me happier than to see you all smile. All I want is to sit in your lap and give you hugs and get hugs back. You give the best hugs, after my mom and dad, of course.

I love it when you come way before my walk and spend all your extra hours with me. I love when you teach me new things, even though I sometimes forget them by the next week. (Sorry about that–I try really hard!) I love helping you answer emails and make all your work phone calls. I love when you read me books, especially when you read out loud and I love how you understand that I understand what you’re telling me even when other people just think you’re a dork. I would never call you a dork. I love that you spent hours and hours making me a sweater with big paw holes because I’ve always been a big jerk about having my paws touched. (Sorry again. Kinda.) I love that you taught me about aliens and zombies and everything scary, and I love that you didn’t laugh at me the first time we watched The Walking Dead together and I hid my face in my paws.

You’re my best friend.

You’re my best friend because you see when I am sad, and you always figure out how to make me less sad. If there’s a scary noise outside, you turn on the tv for me–you get that I’d do this for myself if I just had opposable thumbs. When my mom and dad go away, you make sure our slumber parties are epic and fun so that I forget how sad I am that they’re gone. You give me hugs and long walks with my tennis ball. You bring me fun stuffed toys to merrily slaughter. You keep my attention outside when there are other dogs. If I have a problem, you want to fix it.

You are one of the people who helped me to trust people again. When we walked by that greyhound today, I didn’t bark at it because I was looking at you. You helped to build my confidence. You always remind me I am a good dog, even when I forget and bark or go crazy and then feel bad. No matter what, I am a good dog. And you are too, Sara Friend. Well, not a dog. Obviously. But you know.

I never gave up hope that I had a place out there. When I found my real, forever mom and dad, or rather, when they found me, I was the happiest I’d ever been. And then you started coming to walk me, and everything was perfect. You all taught me how to fit. And because I fit, you fit too.

And so, dear Sara Friend, you must finish writing your book. I’ve taught you a lot, just like you’ve taught me a lot, and you should use that. Be brave, and find your own place in the world like you helped me to find mine. I will be here every step of the book writing AND editing process, including when there are cheese snacks. Especially when there are cheese snacks. Because what is writing without your favorite pittie to drool on your leg at every page?

Love, Tubs

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Sex and Power

My first real kiss happened when I was sixteen years old, in a dark basement coffee house by the flickering light of an ancient Coke machine. He was tall, blonde, a bit sleazy so far as high schoolers go, and he had a bit of a reputation for “getting around,” as people call it.

I did not kiss him because I liked him; no, I kissed him because I wanted to know I was capable of feeling something when I kissed a boy. But I wasn’t. I felt nothing. It wasn’t anything he did, wasn’t the atmosphere of red and white blinking lights; it was me. There was something wrong with me because I did not like that boy.

High school told me lots of conflicting things about sex:

  1. Don’t have sex. You’re too young. You need to wait until you’re married.
  2. Have sex with everyone. You only live once.
  3. Have sex when you’re ready, when YOU want to.

I opted for a cross between one and three. I did not have sex, but it wasn’t because I was too young, or not married. It was because I wasn’t ready, because I just didn’t want to. Sex was never about love for me, you see. It was a power thing, a thing that other people took from me. And once it was mine to give away, I found I wanted to keep it, just for a little while. Just to hold onto some of that power when I still felt so small.

Even once I was married, I had zero interest in giving it up. For our honeymoon, B and I made plans to go to Niagara Falls. We made a pitstop on the drive there at the Knight’s Inn in the next town over—it would take too long to drive to Canada and he wanted the sex asap after “I do.” We took their biggest, fanciest room with a giant jacuzzi tub. We absolutely could not wait to get our clothes off—him for the whole “finally gonna consummate our relationship!” Me, for the fancy tub. Sex won; I said yes because I was supposed to—not out of desire, out of obligation.

I guess that was the start of it, then, my compulsive need to keep B happy. For a beginning, it’s super cloudy when I try to remember it. My first actual, consensual sex, and I remember so little. Nothing of the actual act, not really, but many of the surrounding details:

I remember 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.

I remember 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 I was supposed to.

I remember the sheets were scratchy, cheap hotel sheets, no pattern, but my underwear had brightly colored flowers. I hadn’t cared enough about my wedding day, about this moment, to wear “sexy” underwear.

I remember I moved wrong, so he told me to just lay there. I found out two years later that he’d learned via porn. I’d learned via childhood. So in retrospect, our arrangement made sense.

I remember that 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 bubbles lined the wall in a coordinating rainbow of pastel colors. I chose the bubble one that smelled like strawberries without asking his permission, and I tipped the bottle over under the running 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 all in a huff. I bent down to the bubbles to discovered 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 picture Niagara Falls.

It didn’t even occur to me that the things I was feeling weren’t normal. I thought that if I kept doing the things I was supposed to I would eventually feel the things I was supposed to, and I didn’t realize that I didn’t have to love the man if I didn’t want to. I thought he was my only shot, and I wanted to make him happy, so I let him take my power–and I let him keep it. I didn’t understand then where it came from. I didn’t understand then that it was my choice to make.

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Everyone Deserves an Ordinary Day

Those who know me well know I am a creature of routine. I eat the same things each day; I walk dogs in the same order each day; I walk the same ways each day. I’ve got one dog, a little miniature pinscher, that lives in Tribeca (South Manhattan). Every day that the weather’s nice, we walk to Hudson River Park. We cross the highway from her house. We cross the bike path. We walk along the river, we meet up with our puppy friends, and then we walk back along the bike path to her building. 

Yesterday was just an ordinary day. We walked along the water and met up with our more reluctant walking buddy. My dog stopped to play in some fall-tinted leaves at the corner of Chambers and West, and I had to urge her along so that our friend would make it home in time. I promised her we’d come back and play after we left our friend, and we did. She pranced through the leaves with her long tan legs, kicking them everywhere and somehow getting them stuck to the Velcro of her purple windbreaker. I peeled off the foliage, scooped her up, and took her home. 

As I was leaving the tiny pup in the care of her moms, a man in a Home Depot rental truck jumped the curb off the highway, accelerated over the bushes, and crashed down onto the bike path. He mowed down some pedestrians almost immediately, a group of Argentine tourists, and then proceeded to speed south towards World Trade Center. He sped past the dog park where my dog and I stop to train, past the benches where we sometimes hang out, past the skate park where she sometimes stands and barks. He mowed down people biking, someone on skates, pedestrians. He crashed his truck into a school bus a few minutes later. 

On the corner of Chambers and West. He crashed on the corner of Chambers and West. Where I had literally just been. Where I had stopped. Where I had loitered. Where we had played like it was any other day. 

We (New Yorkers) thought at first it was a shooter. This wasn’t true. The police had moved to intercept him, and after he crashed into the school bus and exited the truck with what turned out to be a paintball gun, they shot him and stopped his rampage. It last around 12 minutes, from what I can ascertain. 12 minutes. Had I been late yesterday, even by a few minutes, my pup and I may have still been at that leaf pile. Who knows how that might have ended. I don’t want to answer that question. I shouldn’t have to. 

All the social media seems to be focusing on is that this man, a man I won’t name because he gets no fame from me, “planned his attack for weeks in the name of ISIS,” that he was a foreigner who wanted to kill people to glorify this regime. I don’t think his race even matters; he could have been anyone. What matters is that he did this here, in my city, where I work. My city that I love. Had I been earlier, I would have been going about my ordinary day just like the 11 people were that no longer have an option to do so. And that doesn’t sit well with me. 

This man is a coward. He planned a cowardly attack on innocent, everyday people just because he could. And I’m angry. I’m angry for the people who won’t wake up today, for the families that have to go on without them. I’m angry that I now have to look both ways before crossing the bike path because I’ll always wonder if it could happen again. I’m angry that I’m not sure I want to walk there anymore. 

I’m angry that someone has made me afraid. 

I will never understand how some people get off on causing fear in others. By being afraid, aren’t we just giving these people what they want? Because there are more people like this man out there. They want us to be afraid. But we shouldn’t have to be. 
Everyone has the right to have an ordinary day, to go about their business and to do their work and to have their fun without worrying about a rental truck barreling off road down the bike path and mowing them down. There are 11 people today who no longer have that privilege, who can no longer appreciate the simple things because that coward took their lives away. And for what? The glory of living on forever in the media? Was it worth it?

I want to say that I have answers. I don’t. Clearly. But what I do know is that we have to appreciate even the most ordinary of days. Because we don’t know when those will end. It’s not fair, but we will never know. I am grateful for today, for the pittie sitting in my lap while I write this and for the sun (that hid behind the clouds, but who cares). And I am grateful that I was on time yesterday, that I was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am grateful to play fetch and to get hugs and to appreciate every single bit of this ordinary day. 

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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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The Beginning, Part Two

I didn’t come to New York City to be a dog walker. I came to be a writer. In my fantasy of Manhattan life, I imagined I’d work in a book store and write in my spare time, which I did for twelve weeks, until that book store fired me and I spent two months after in the city with no job and eleven dollars in my bank account. Desperate, I turned to Craigslist and followed up on an ad for a dog walking coming; I never expected to hear back, but somehow, three weeks later, my employee trainer was placing my first leash in my hand—Delano, a six month old tan and black Shiba Inu puppy.

“You absolutely can’t go left on Wall Street,” my trainer informed me as we reached the first intersection. “Something must have happened to him there, because he freaks out and cries if we try to go that way. Oh, and he’s stubborn, because shiba, so he probably won’t walk for you.”
I took the leash, seriously doubting my skill and ability to handle the adorable little miniature fox at my side. I had always loved dogs, but to walk and train them in the middle of Manhattan was an entirely different story than playing ball in a fenced in backyard in the suburbs. Delano stuck to me like glue and trotted next to me all the way down to the Staten Island ferry and back without issue. I remember my trainer being greatly impressed and slightly jealous that he had never walked that well for her. She told me I was a natural. I decided then and there that maybe I was. You see, I understood Delano; he couldn’t go down Wall Street because he was scared. There were a lot of places that I could never go because I was scared. We were the perfect match.

Fast forward nearly a year. I stood on the corner of Union Square at the weekly adoption drive I volunteered for, the leash of rambunctious orange-y red pit bull Georgie clutched in my hand, when one of the organization board members approached me.

“I may have a client for you. I’ve been told you’re great with this one.” She pointed at the dog sitting at my feet, his eye focused on mine. She didn’t have to say it—Georgie was crazy. “Do you remember Thumbelina? Tubs?”

I remembered her vaguely, remembered how she had always been kept at the complete opposite end of the drive from Georgie and I because we keep the reactive dogs apart, remembered that she barked at ALL the dogs, remembered that I’d never actually gotten to meet her.

“I remember.”

“Her foster parents want to adopt her, but they’re worried about managing her dog aggression. They’d need a strong walker every day. Do you think you could fit her in?”

Less than a week later, I found myself on a living room floor in East Village, a black and fawn pit bull slobbering all over my face and balancing her two front paws on my crossed legs. We were instant best friends, Tubs and I. She whipped me with her red rope toy, and we played tug in the corner while everyone talked about the logistics of her adoption. And then we went for a walk. I took the leash, completely confident I could handle whatever she threw my way. We walked down the street towards Tompkins Square Park, me on the lookout for any dogs. I wanted to see what Tubs would do. The first one approached from about ten feet out, and I decided not to push my luck with three people standing, chatting, pretending not to watch. I took a piece of chicken jerky in my left hand and turned Tubs attention away from the dog.

“Tubs, sit!” I commanded. She did immediately, as her eyes followed the treat up to mine. She held my stare and paid no attention to the black and white lab mix behind us.

Everyone was quiet, until her potential mom broke the silence. “Wow,” was all she said.

I steered them all intentionally towards the dog park. I wouldn’t dare go in, but I wanted to see what might happen if dogs got too close. I pushed Tubs’ challenge line, repeatedly asking for sits and looks, seeing how close I could get before she barked. The reaction was ferocious when it finally came, but easily contained when we backed off. She was scared, but she already understood even in the first hour of our relationship that I would keep her safe. Safety was priority one; we feel comfortable when we feel safe. I had so often felt unsafe in my life that I zeroed in on precisely the thing that would break through to Tubs—my open heart, my willingness to connect. These were the things that people had used to help me, and I, in turn, could use them to help Tubs. I could make myself new by making her new.

Her mom and dad signed the adoption papers when we got back to their apartment.

I didn’t come to New York City to be a dog walker. I came to be a writer. But I knew in that moment that I was taking a different path, that I was precisely where I was supposed to be.

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