Tag Archives: writing

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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“Me” vs. Me

Three weeks ago, I was given the assignment to write two essays by Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving rapidly approaches—what are we, two weeks out now?—and if you think I’ve written essays, or even started essays, I’m going to laugh in your face. No, really. Open the window. You’ll hear me.

I’ve been in a weird head space. Call it the blahs, call it writers block, call it massive life regret; call it what you will. But I’m not writing. Someone important to me told me I was throwing a tantrum, that I needed to get out and try to publish the way I did when I was in undergrad, the way I stopped doing when I hit grad school. Did my uber expensive masters degree break me of doing the thing I love?

I started evaluating how I got here, to this place, to this weird balance of writer and dog trainer and New Yorker. I opened up my undergrad paper files, to the very first paper I ever wrote. It was an introduction for an English Lit class. I didn’t know how to write papers back then, not really, but I definitely knew how to write about myself. I knew what I wanted then:

“In all honesty, what I want is to become a writer. I like words. I am one of the few who can use a semi-colon properly; I have been writing practically since I knew how to form words. I participate in NaNoWriMo every year, the exercise of writing a 50,000 plus word novel in 30 days, just for fun. the last three years that I’ve done this, I’ve done it while working a 50 hour work week. Between writing an average of 2700 words a day and carrying my regular work load, there wasn’t a lot of time left for sleeping! I am very particular about every word that comes out of me, whether it be an ordinary conversation paper or the next great novel. there’s a small part of me that is uncertain whether the words i write are any good. However, there is a larger part of me that is beginning to realize that I actually do have a talent for this.”

It’s ironic that now, what, six years later, I have less confidence in my work than I did before I embarked on this journey. I see my friends and acquaintances with equally expensive degrees not using them more than they are, and I find myself wondering once again what the damn point was. To be clear, because I don’t want to sound like I’m taking a giant piss on my life, I am very happy where I am. I have some great relationships here, with people and dogs. I have a job I adore. I just … don’t write things. I have a super expensive degree that I paid *insert unspecified ridiculously embarrassing amount of debt here* for and it feels silly. I didn’t even do NaNoWriMo this year, and when I realized that, I promised myself I’d write in my journal every day, at least for November. Then I promptly left my apartment for a week and forgot my journal on my headboard shelf. So much for that idea.

In my prior writer years, when I was really on the ball and doing the writerly things I was supposed to do, I used to hassle my friend N about not making time in her life to write. I’ve since apologized, at least five times. I haven’t submitted an essay for publication in at least a year. I haven’t made the required edits that will make my thesis a book. I reached this great point in my writing where I had learned how to really articulate myself and my story and do it well, and I just STOPPED.

Why.

I wonder if, perhaps, I am afraid of what it means to go further. If I have broken every barrier I was comfortable breaking (and some I wasn’t) and that now I can go no further because I can never associate my story with myself in a greater public sense, with the people who were in it. If, for, as much as I tote around that I can speak, I can do these things, I can be this person who these things happened to and be more than her at the same time, that I really can’t—because to be more here means to be more back there. No more pen name; no more bottom shelf paperback. No more cloak of invisibility.

No more “me.” Just … me.

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You Can’t Sit With Us (Rough Draft)

When I was in seventh grade, the big project of the final quarter was to create a magazine. We’re not talking crayon doodles on construction paper bound with yarn here; we’re talking an actual magazine. The project stretched across all subjects. In English/Language Arts, we learned about writing articles and essays. In math, we were given Monopoly money to use for purchasing articles from authors, designing the layout, printing, advertising, etc. In social studies, we practiced analyzing current events that we could write about, and in art, we practiced drawing, both on paper and on the computer, as well as worked with layout. They wanted us to be well rounded, educated, individuals. The idea was that we would help each other; we would use the fake currency to buy articles, art, and other things for our magazine.

I don’t remember a lot of specifics about the project. I think the magazine layout board I turned in on the last day, when we all presented our projects, was neon pink? It may have been green. But at any rate, it was done. The articles on it? They were all mine. The art? That was mine too. When it had come time to buy things for my magazine, no one would sell to me. No one would buy from me.

I can’t say I was surprised.

*

A few weeks ago, I read about a dog named Hank. Hank was happily living with his family in Ireland, enjoying snuggles, squeaky toys, and long joyful walks, when the government seized him because he “looked like a pitbull.” They cited their local “dangerous animals law,” coining Hank as dangerous simply because of his looks. A simple Google search makes it obvious that Hank is anything but dangerous (unless you’re a stuffed toy!). Hank was a victim of his breed, his label. He’s not even listed as a pitbull—on paper, he is a lab mix.

Hank’s story has a happy ending. His owners went to bat with him, and after several weeks apart while Hank was quarantined in a shelter, he was reunited with his owners and they’re a family again.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story for many dogs.

*

Middle school was pretty much the worst. Things went along fine, and I did pretty well socially, all things considered, until about fourth grade or so. Fourth grade was the year that practically the entire school got head lice, myself included. Rumors circulated that I had started the head lice epidemic (I had not), and I tried to discourage those rumors by saying that I hadn’t had lice at all (I had), and that my itchy head had been from an allergic reaction to shampoo. After that, not only was I the head lice queen, I was also a liar—the entire school was at lunch the day the school nurse marched me out of the building to meet mother to get my lice treatment. Everybody knew.

The cafeteria each day was a nightmare. I would take my tray on the days I got hot lunch, or my little brown bag on the days I carried something from home, and stand on the outskirts of everything, staring. Wondering where to sit. Dreading going to my so called friends’ table and finally hearing “You can’t sit with us.” I was constantly waiting for the day when they would see me the same way that everybody else did, for the day when there would be no more chair for me at the table. I elected to lunch in my English teacher’s room each day so that I could read rather than negotiate middle school politics and try to be something I wasn’t.

*

BSL, or breed specific legislation, is a set of laws that restrict and/or ban certain dogs because of their appearance, or because they’re commonly thought to be a “dangerous” breed. Breed restrictions can require owners to muzzle their dog in public, spay or neuter, contain them in a kennel, keep a leash of specific length or material, maintain liability insurance, and post vicious dog tags and signs on both their property and the dog itself. Breed bans are even worse. A breed ban will mandate that all dogs of the specified breed have to be removed from the area. After the “by-when” date on the ban, any dog not removed can be killed by animal control.

These laws simply look at the dog as they are on the outside, without consideration for things like the way they were raised, trained, and handled by their owner. These laws do not look at the actual behavior of the dog in question, rather, they look at what they imagine that dog to be, the worst case scenario.

BSL has a lot of issues. For one, it’s prejudice. There is no such thing as a bad dog. Bad owners? Yes. A dog is the result of how it is raised. Dogs want nothing more than they want to please their people. BSL does nothing to improve safety; it punishes people who are responsible dog owners and does nothing to hold irresponsible owners responsible. It requires that each and every dog have a label, a breed, something is pretty much impossible to do accurately. Dogs that are targeted become more desirable to irresponsible people simply because of the bullseye on their back. Dogs of any breed can be great dogs. Dogs of any breed can be dangerous dogs. BSL is the worst. I don’t understand it.

And yet, I do.

*

High school was better for me. There were still people who dropped the usual insults—“Her cats pee on stuff,” “She smells like fish,” “Her clothes come from Walmart,” but I was old enough to better know how to deal with it. My haircuts when I got them weren’t cutting edge. My sneakers actually came from Kmart. I didn’t do brand names. I didn’t mind. I liked who I was, but the world told me not to.

I was in an acapella group with (I think) seven other people. They never wanted me to be part of the circle, and I struggled to stick up for myself even though I was just as good a singer as the rest of them. It was such a little thing, but so telling. I let them circle by the piano; I let them whisper about me. I always stayed slightly behind.

*

We have to talk about Lennox. Hearing his story was the first time I really became aware of BSL. It was 2010, I believe. Lennox, a lab/bulldog mix was five years old and happily living with a family in Belfast. (The same area where Hank is from…hmmm….). Lennox did nothing wrong; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time with a head that made him look like a “pitbull type.” The government went so far as to measure the size of his snout in order to declare him a pitbull, and then they seized him and sentenced him to die. His family fought for two years to get him back, to save him, or even to send him to America where dogs who look like pitbulls are allowed. But when all of their appeals expired, Lennox was put to sleep.

Lennox, the bulldog/lab mix, was put to sleep because he LOOKED like something else. Lennox, the family dog, a child’s pet. A good boy. Dead.

*

I walk a dog now named Tubs. I see almost every day. She’s grown a lot since I first started walking her. In the beginning, we couldn’t even walk in the direction of the dog park without Tubs displaying crazy aggressive antics. Tubs was never socialized with other dogs, so they were a terrifying prospect. Now though, after over a year of training and love and many, many walks, Tubs can walk by a dog on the path in the park and not care. That dog will never come over to her. She will never be friends with it. But the dog can exist and not be scary.

Tubs is a pocket pitbull. She is the sweetest pitbull with humans and wants nothing more than to sit in your lap and cover your face in slobbery kisses. But when we’re walking on the street, people move out of the way as we come close. They cross the street. They avoid her, just because of her breed. Because of what she looks like. And if she barks at another dog, it’s all over. “Look at the pitbull,” they say. “She’s so mean.” No. She’s not.

I’m convinced that, like Tubs, the world set me up to be in the place I ended up. Christianity told me that I had to be married. My social education told me that I would never be married because no one would love me because of how I looked and who I wanted to love. I learned to shut up, be quiet, do what I was told.

I ended up in a adult relationship that clearly didn’t fit me. I came away more demolished than I came in. But I don’t think I would change it. Trying to fit the mold made me realize that the mold isn’t real, that it’s a cat eternally chasing a tail it will never catch. I had to be in the mold to break the mold, and I wonder if that’s not my job here as a writer—to break the mold. To show there is no normal. To dismantle our own human forms of BSL.

I was bullied as a kid, and I let that define a lot of who I was for a long time. I’m a lot of things, but I’m more than what you see when you look. I still don’t wear brand names, but that doesn’t make me bad. I like it this way. I don’t always brush my hair, but I walk dogs all day and there’s really no point. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have enough to live and have a little fun. I don’t talk a lot, but I want to make what I say matter. I’ve been hurt, but it doesn’t last forever. I’ve been raped, but I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor. The world says I should look a certain way, that I should be broken. I say differently.

As I try to find more ways to write about my life, I’m realizing that I am more than my surface appearance. And so is Tubs. And so is Hank. And so was Lennox.

So let’s end all BSL, okay? Both the human and the dog forms.

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There is No Normal

I’m not a huge believer in attending social functions. People frequently get annoyed with me because I don’t go out when there are large groups; often I SAY I will go and then find a reason to back out at the last minute. Large groups make me focus on all of the ways that I’m different rather than the ways I fit in or the things I have in common with the people around me. I don’t know how to be a person when I don’t have a predesignated topic of conversation. As a shining example, any time I do anything that has to do with dogs, I am confident. I know dogs. I know their behaviors and their motivations. I’m learning their fears. I know how to discuss them in a way that people can understand, though, quite frankly, I would rather spend time just me and the dog. I can also play well as a teacher, a manager, a friend. But groups are hard. I don’t know how to be a person sometimes; it’s a skill that was taken from me that I’ve never quite gotten back, the ability to not be judged. There’s this wall between me and the world that I’m not sure how to negotiate in a crowd; I don’t think I can be more than one thing at once. I don’t think I can let go. Not completely.

*

Pedro is such a handsome boy. He’s gorgeous—tall and black with little specks of white—but spends most of his time with his tail tucked, his majestic head stiff and his eyes alert. Watching. Pedro is one of the few dogs I’m not completely comfortable walking. Not because I can’t control him; I can. More because I understand too well what other people refer to as his unpredictable nature. I don’t find him to be unpredictable at all. Pedro just doesn’t know he’s a dog. To Pedro, dogs on the street are all big and scary, while, to most other dogs, dogs on the street are all potential friends. Each week, Pedro finds a new things to be scared of. Man in a white van? RUN!!! Woman with a rolling grocery cart? BARK!!! A LOT!!! Tiny chihuahua off leash? BE FEROCIOUS WITH ALL SIXTY POUNDS OF MIGHT!!! Pedro’s mission is to scare the world away before it can scare him.

*

The first time I went out, after, and I went to a bar with some friends. Two friends? Manageable. All of the other people in the bar who wanted to touch and talk to me? Less so. I wanted to be the little woman hiding in a box as we came in. She had a reason to be there, a cash box in her lap, a special hand stamp in one hand and a light in the other. I identified more with her than the friends I was with in that moment. I wanted nothing more than to hide in that little black room. Give me the cash box, give me a job, give me anything but having to be the person that I was. Anything to keep from thinking those words. Instead I kept quiet, observed the room around me. The people dancing in gray metal cages, the multicolored lights that crisscrossed the stage and bled up the curtains. If it hadn’t happened, I thought, that could be me out there. Taking shots. Dancing. I leaned against the counter. But it happened. He raped me. He took everything. I spent the night holding up the counter.

*

I’m a fan of redirection commands for dogs over negative reinforcement. Pedro is not the type of dog who will ever find the world to be not scary. However, he can learn to associate the scary with food. “Pedro, look!” TREAT! “Pedro, let’s walk!” MORE TREATS!!! Dog walks down the sidewalk? ALL THE TREATS EVER!!! The scary things are still scary, but there are good things that come with them that make the scary easier to deal with.

*

I let my friends get my drinks for me so I wouldn’t have to converse with the bartender. I didn’t want to answer any questions about myself. I wanted to be anonymous. People were dancing, flamboyantly waving their arms in the air as they shoved themselves against each other, an act which had never been my thing. I was never free enough to dance before. I was certainly not free enough after. Two men circled the edges of the crowd, and I named them Green Shirt and Gray Shirt. Green Shirt was a grinder; he kept coming up behind women and rubbing himself against them, but none of them seemed to mind. Gray Shirt was different. He hopped over the counter and wandered behind me, towards the DJ booth. My friends were off, dancing, as his hand found my back and slid down, down, down…I elbowed him and fled to the bathroom, far away. My friends didn’t notice I had left. I sat in the stall and I wondered if I had imagined him, if he had touched me at all, or if I was remembering the hands of someone else. Of Him.

*

If I could be inside Pedro’s head, I imagine it would be something like this: “Another day. More time spent in the shelter. At least I have my bed. Oh, wait. I hear something. Keys?!? It’s my friend! My friend is here! She’ll play with me. Oh, wait…I have to go outside. I don’t want to go outside. Don’t make me go outside. But, wait…I have to go to the bathroom. I have to go outside. I can do it! Here we go! IS THAT A DOG?!? Wait, she said look! I should look at her! I’m looking at her! I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing it! Dog? What dog? My friend is smiling. I’m doing this right! I’m gonna do it again!” And he does. His new training program is working amazingly well. Two minute walks became ten minute walks became thirty minute walks. Storming the shelter window barking when a dog walks by is now grabbing a squeaky toy and running to get in bed. Baby steps for Pedro. Small doses. Being in the world to learn how to be in the world.

*

I don’t often admit the real reason why more than one on one or two on one is hard for me. It’s that I don’t know who I am yet, that I might never know, that I don’t always know how not to be afraid. How many people are there? Can I see the exit? Can I get to it? Do I need to? Who is that person behind me? Has he had too much to drink? Have I?

Does it matter?

Sometimes, I’m lost. More often than not lately, though, I’m not lost at all. I’ve been going out more, in small doses. One on ones. Two on ones. Building relationships for group situations. Giving myself “rewards” for milestones. Working up to staying 45 minutes. An hour. Two. Being in the world to learn about being in the world. I may never be “normal,” but there is no normal, really. And if I don’t work with what I have, I will never have anything more. It’s not enough to simply survive, to say “I survived,” if I’m not any better for it. 

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An Exposition of Death (Revised)

His name is Graham, and he smells of death. Not the “rotting in the ground” type of death, but rather the “impending cloak of doom” type of death. What happened wasn’t his fault. You can tell he doesn’t understand as he stares off into the yard through his sealed doggy door with a slap-happy smile on his face, a single stream of drool leaking from the corner of his mouth. The eyes that stare at you only project love: love for people, and love for you specifically.  This is why you love dogs; the way they look at you as if they see only you and nothing else.

His tail swishes back and forth almost silently behind him. He desires to be a part of the real world again.

You know that won’t happen, because this is it for him.

Death row–there is no going back.

*

“People think that pitbulls are bad. And they’re really not. It’s all in how they’re raised. A lot of people just make awful assumptions.” Laurie fingers the silver wire of one of the many dog cages lining the animal shelter hallway, her hands traversing up and down the triangles but not really seeming to feel anything. I watch while looking down, unsure of where my eyes should actually be. On him? On her? On nothing at all? Her gaze shifts sideways, drifts over the beige red nosed beauty of a pitbull within the cage before focusing on something over my shoulder. “You don’t hear about all of the good dogs, the good pits, that are out there,” she tells the wall, not looking at me. “You only hear about the bad ones, the ones that fight, the ones that get into trouble. Pits are such devoted dogs. And they’re so smart. They’ll do anything for you, if you just ask. But they need to be trained right. I wish the shelter could find people to do that.”

I nod quietly, unsure of what to say.

“So, you know the Great Lakes Pet Expo? We brought some dogs there last weekend.”

I’m not sure that I do. But I quickly realize that she’s going to take me there.

*

You look around the room. The Great Lakes Pet Expo is busy; lots of people, lots of pets. You realize this shouldn’t surprise you. It’s a pet expo, so it’s expected that pets will be there.

Graham is ready. Sitting. His tail swishes back and forth almost silently behind him, sweeping the ground and showing that he is ready to spring to action at a moment’s notice. The first person who comes to them will be greeted and licked into happy oblivion.

The dog next to him is ready too, but in a different way. You remember Nosey, from previous outings. He strains against his leash, stretching his handler’s arm out like that character from The Fantastic Four movies. Where Graham is waiting for people to come to him, Nosey is out and about in everybody’s business.

Graham hates this, you can tell. He wants attention, and he’s trying to be patient. His people say be good, so Graham is good. He just wants to make people happy, but no one will come close to him because they don’t want to come by Nosey. Patience is not Nosey’s strong suit; he’s too pushy. They will never find a forever home this way.

Nosey is ruining everything.

*

“We send a lot of these dogs to foster homes for whatever reason. Like, if we want them get more social with people or dogs, or just get some love or whatever.” Laurie sticks her fingers through the holes of the cage, despite the big red sign that says she shouldn’t. I watch as Graham’s tail action increases, swishing back and forth behind him. I can almost hear the words coming out of his mouth: Love, love, love, love, LOVE!

“We do a lot of handling on the Pit Crew. I’ve worked a lot with this dog a lot. Sweetest dog ever.” She points into the cage. “This one handler named Tim took another dog, Nosey, home with him. They had this dog for a while, but nobody checked on exactly what they were doing with the dog. He had a lot of problems.”

*

You watch as the man on the other end of the leash yanks Nosey back on his prong collar. You should never choke a dog that way; it only makes them pull more as they try to escape the pain on their throat that they don’t understand. You want to free Nosey, but you don’t. You stay back. Graham’s handler takes him a few steps away and makes him sit again. Graham follows every command like a champ, and his tail swishes back and forth in anticipation of what’s to come. The more Graham’s handler smiles, the happier Graham becomes.

Nosey growls at a passing dog. Someone yells at the man to take him home, he doesn’t belong there. Not when he’s aggressing towards other dogs. You imagine that Graham is laughing. If Nosey goes away, Graham will be adopted—of this, you are sure. The man says no, he can handle it, he can handle it. You watch. You aren’t sure that he can handle it.

It looks bad on the shelter, someone tells him once no one is watching. Nosey obviously doesn’t want to be here. You agree. But your two cents don’t belong in this situation, so you remain silent. The handler insists on staying, insists the dog is fine.

Both dogs stare into the crowd of people, or, rather, the sea of legs and knees and scary shoes that come a little too close. No one stops; no one bends down to introduce themselves. Everyone moves very quickly past Nosey’s growls, so quickly that Graham worries he might be kicked. He stands up on all fours, as still and majestic as the lion statue you passed in the entryway; the white stripe in the middle of his beige back prickles with static as his nerves overtake him. Graham tries to keep a smile on his face, his big, fat, red tongue dangling out as he looks for a human to match his smile. But there are no faces at all. Only legs. Graham shifts backwards, his butt slowly lowering to the ground and his mouth closing, the orange pattern above his eyes that passes for human eyebrows knitting together in concentration.

Graham eyes Nosey as he strains again against the handler. You can see the wheels turning in Graham’s head. Why can’t Nosey just sit down already? Why can’t he be nice? Didn’t his mother ever tell him that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar? Doesn’t he want to be petted? ‘Cause Graham wants to be petted. Very much.

His tail swishes back and forth, back and forth.

He waits.

You wait.

*

“Nosey had a lot of problems. Like, he would act aggressively towards other dogs. Not biting aggressively. But aggressive. Growling. Personal space. Very reactive.” Laurie looks at Graham. He waits for her to open the cage door, to come inside, but she can’t. It’s apparent that he doesn’t understand this as he shoves his snout into the wire again and again, his tail swishing back and forth behind him as her fingers graze his nose.

“Nosey jumps up, and gets over aggressive and just….not good with people or dogs. But he was getting better….”

Laurie loves Graham, and Graham loves her. I can tell.

*

Nosey’s bark is booming, and echoes over the sounds and excitement of the Expo Center. You watch and you see the moment when Graham can’t take it anymore. He’s still sitting, his tail is still going back and forth, but he lets out one single bark.

As you watch, Nosey turns and hauls his handler right back over to Graham. Nosey is barking. Graham barks again and turns his head to the side as Nosey comes too close, a clear cut off to Nosey that he should stop. Nosey doesn’t listen. Graham’s ears press so low to his head that the blush inside is no longer visible; he’s mad; he doesn’t understand Nosey, and he wants no part of him. This is as plain to you as day. You wonder why the handler doesn’t see it.

Nosey barks. Repeatedly.

Graham barks.

And suddenly Nosey latches on to Graham and they are rolling back and forth on the floor of the expo center. They are latched on each other, growling and snapping and biting. The sound of jaws snapping and spittle flying fills the air. You can see that Nosey has Graham by the neck and that he has absolutely no intention of letting him go. You are frozen, but other people are scrambling. What to do, what to do? When a pitbull locks its jaw, it doesn’t let go until it wants to let go. There is nothing TO do. The handler sticks his hand right in between the dogs. You want to smack your forehead with your hand; you know to never stick your hand in the middle of two fighting dogs. It’s all completely asinine. Everything freezes.

*

“Tim, in his infinite wisdom, decided to stick his hand in between the dogs to try and break them up. What kind of moron sticks their hand in between two fighting dogs?”

I would really like to know the answer to that question, but I say nothing.

Graham’s tail swishes back and forth as I reach out and pet his nose, even though I’m not supposed to either. It seems that he would like to know the answer to this question too.

*

Unfreeze. The handler is missing his thumb. From the tip to the first knuckle. It’s just….gone. You watch in horror as the blood seems to go everywhere. The dogs are separated. Nosey is in a cage, Graham is in a cage. How did they get there?

Panic.

The handler is bleeding.

God. That’s a lot of blood.

Graham’s tail swishes back and forth, back and forth, but it’s different now. His head is down; his eyes aren’t looking out. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he’s afraid. You can see he wants reassurance. He wants someone to pet him. To love him.

Nobody but you is paying him any attention.

The handler screams, over and over. He’s sitting on the floor, holding his hand. People are swarming everywhere like bees on a hive. Someone wraps his hand in a towel.

God. That’s a lot of blood.

*

Laurie is an excellent storyteller. I shake my head, trying to clear the images out of my mind.

“When a dog bites someone, it gets placed in this sort of quarantine.” Laurie trails her hand along the big red sign that hangs from the cage, the sign that states the bite quarantine restrictions. She still doesn’t seem to really see it. “It gets a permanent black mark on its doggy record. Now it’s an animal that bites. Nosey had bit before, but Graham had never bit anyone. He was so sweet.” 

I am struck by her use of the past tense as I watch her, at a loss again as to what to say. “What happens to them?”

“Well, they could get put down. It depends on whether they have bitten before, how reactive they are in the quarantine area, if there’s any available no-dog homes for them to go to. ‘Cause once they’ve bitten, they can’t really be adopted to a home with other dogs in good conscience. You know what I mean?”

Graham’s tail swishes back and forth as he sits otherwise perfectly still in the middle of the cage. His nose grazes the bars and his head tilts to the side as he studies us, still not understanding why we don’t open the door. I wish that I could explain it to him.

“Graham bit back. So now he has the black mark. They both might end up being put to sleep. And it’s hard to see. It makes me really sad. I hate to think about a good dog being put down just because it got in a bad situation.”

After a moment of silence, she turns to go. Graham stands up, his tail cutting the air as it swishes side to side. I can almost hear his voice: You’re leaving? You didn’t come in! You didn’t play! Come onnnnnn, I wanna play!”

“Thanks for letting me vent.”

As she walks away, I stay for a moment and watch. Graham sinks to the floor of the cage and lies with his head between his two front paws. He desires to be a part of the real world again, but maybe he is beginning to realize that this probably won’t happen for him.

He thinks she doesn’t love him anymore. There’s no way to explain it to him. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he’s probably going to die. And he has no idea why.

I wish it wouldn’t happen, but I accept that it probably will. I wish that I could just let him out, just let him run away. But I can’t.

This is it for him.

Death row.

There is no going back.

His tail stops wagging back and forth.

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On Memory

I remember A, remember hanging out at school and sleeping over at her house on the weekends. She and her twin lived down the street from me, and I remember being one of the only people who could tell them apart. I didn’t think it was that hard; they didn’t look alike at all to me. I remember that A was involved in the first real lie I ever told; I said I was going to park by myself when I was really going to the park with A; I don’t remember why, but I wasn’t supposed to play with her. I remember being grounded for two weeks and thinking it was the worst thing ever, that I was going to die. I didn’t die, but it certainly felt like torture.

I remember when A died, though, for real. She was barely 21 and fell asleep behind the wheel driving home from a music concert. I remember thinking of A’s sister and how terrible it must feel to lose a twin. I didn’t reach out to her because I was too afraid. I don’t remember the last time we all spoke; I don’t remember seeing them after seventh or eighth grade, even though they still, to my knowledge, lived in the peach house down the street. I remember wanting to go to the funeral but intentionally not going; death scared me, and I didn’t want to see my childhood best friend that way.

I remember the first funeral I ever went to, for my grandfather. I remember that the coffin was closed and I couldn’t see him, so my little kid brain didn’t think he was really gone; why would he be sleeping in a big wooden box in the dark? When my goldfish died, we flushed him down the toilet. I remember wondering if dead people also got flushed down the toilet. I remember saying that out loud and getting shushed repeatedly by the embarrassed adults around me.

I remember the next funeral I went to. I was a youth leader at the time, and it was for a student who had been killed in a drunk driving accident. I was sixteen years old; she wasn’t much younger than I was. I remember that the body was pale and glassy white like wax, and I remember bursting into tears and fleeing the funeral home as quickly as I could, hiding inside my mother’s red Camaro before collecting myself and going back inside.

I remember that, when my son died, I discovered that dead babies get kept in the fridge of the hospital because the morgue drawers are too big; when he died and the nurse took him from me, she suggested I spend as much time as I could with him while he was still warm. I remember understanding why everyone shushed me at my grandfather’s funeral when I asked if dead people got flushed down the toilet, suddenly embarrassed for my little kid self after years of forgetting.

I remember my son’s “funeral,” in the basement of my in-law’s house. It was dark down there. I remember thinking my son was in the dark too, just like I was, as I set up rows of tan metal folding chairs and stuck a box of Kleenex at the end of each row. I remember that people were late, and I thought that if he was alive, they might be on time; I remember wanting to start without everyone there and then shutting myself in the bathroom until those invited all finally appeared.

I remember that everyone at my son’s funeral cried but me. I remember feeling like I should cry, a good, ugly, ridiculous cry, to just hash it out, but I didn’t, because i don’t. I have never been a crier.

I remember my grandmother’s husband coming up to me after the funeral and telling me that my son was in heaven, but that it was okay because he was going to die soon and would be there to take care of my son. He swore up and down that he would be the first member of the family to be reunited with my son, and he was right. I remember I was teaching a piano lesson when they called to tell me he had died at home in the condo he shared with my grandmother. I remember my fingers freezing on the suddenly cold piano keys, my student staring up at me as I sank into guilt over not visiting him. I remember that I didn’t visit him because his dementia made him forget everything, forget my son was dead, and it hurt too much to re-explain that every time I saw him.

I remember that memory is funny, that thinking of one thing can lead to another to another to another, and I wonder how my grandmother’s husband’s memory went the way that it did, and if mine will go that way someday too. I remember, and I write everything down.

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Welcome to After the MFA

Honestly? I never thought about life after the MFA. It was a means to an end, and getting in was a goal to get me through a time in my life that I didn’t know how to muddle through on my own.

I remember the first conversation I had about graduate school:

  • Me: Tell me what to do to get into grad school.
  • T: Well, start by looking up programs. Figure out what you need, what you want, who will pay you. Don’t go if they don’t pay you.

I started looking in an almost passive manner. And then, after everything went to hell, I became more manic about it.

  • Me: (paraphrased) I need a thing. I have a hole and I need to fill it.
  • T: You can take time off if you want; the choice is yours. I’m behind you whatever you decide.
  • Me: (paraphrased) I need a thing.
  • T: Research graduate schools, and report back what you find.

So I did. Her advice worked. I was rejected by some schools; I was accepted by others. I read the books of all of the advisors of my possible programs, and I settled on The New School. I had all of these grand plans of what it would be like to be a writer after the MFA.

  1. write book
  2. publish book
  3. have glamorous writer job

After the MFA is none of these things.

  1. I’m a dog walker/trainer. As previously established, I love this and I’m great at it, but it’s not what I thought I’d do. I’m okay with it, and I’ll keep doing it, because it works great with writing. But, again. Not what I thought I’d do.
  2. I wrote a book. It’s being read by people. But, as my past endeavors have taught me, it’s not good enough. And it’s not ready. It will be soon though. Actually, I lied; it’s pretty great.
  3. Publish? Under my real name? Say WHAT? Publishing has the following issues:
    1. The book is all true.
    2. I still haven’t settled on the pen name issue.
    3. He’s out there, today.

It’s here, this thing in my life I never accounted for, this thing I knew would happen someday but I didn’t let myself think about. Grad school was a means to an end, but now it’s done.

Getting my MFA bought me time. Question is, was it enough to break away? Did I buy myself enough time; have I become the person that I want to be apart from him? I am 32 years old. Do I know who I am now, at least enough to be that person? My person?

Are my words enough? My book? Am I invisible? I want to be. Do I want to be?

Question: Am I enough?

Answer: Who we are is what comes out when things go bad. You can’t tell anything about a person when things are great. You only really know someone when everything’s gone to hell.

Answer: I have to be.

Welcome to after the MFA.

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Pedro (On Wrestling With Our Ghosts)

As part of the more boring managerial aspect of my job, I commute in to the doggy daycare a few days a week with my laptop to do my staffing work in the presence of fluffy canines and people who don’t really give a crap what I do as long as things get done. I bought a laptop bag solely for this purpose, a sixty dollar messenger bag laptop carrying wonder that rests across my body and tucks under my armpit for safety. As an added bonus, it has a small zipper pocket on the outside of the front panel that’s just the right size for my transit card. I made an offhanded joke to my roommates when we started working out of the daycare that I needed this close-fit messenger bag so my laptop wouldn’t get stolen.

I didn’t actually think it would.

Fast forward less than two months to a Monday on the F train. (It’s always the F train. Don’t ride the F train). I was sitting in my seat and NOT playing on my phone for once, which is unusual for me, when the man came up and stood in front of me. I didn’t look up. I assumed he was looking at the subway map on the wall behind me. He wasn’t. He told me to give him the bag.

*

I have a new dog friend, Pedro. He’s five or so, a pit/lab mix with a secret passion for brightly colored toys that squeak and sticks he can destroy, but also with an intense burning hatred for dogs. He doesn’t just bark when dogs pass—he squats and lunges, jumps up in the air and spins around as if the passing dog means the end of the world as he knows it. When we pass a place where he saw a dog before, he reacts as if the dog is still there, reacts to the ghost of the dog.

Do dogs get PTSD? Certainly seems that way. I wish I could reach back into the past and see what he’s seen, be where he’s been. I wish I could bend down and tell him that I have PTSD too and that it’s cool because we can figure it out together. But I can’t, because those words aren’t words that a dog would understand. I don’t even understand myself the way my brain works, the way a single stupid moment can take me back to another stupid moment and another and another until they all blend together.

I lead Pedro away from his ghosts.

*

Give me the bag.

I hold on to words more than I hold on to anything else. But I also hold on to places, actions. My brain works in such a way that a thing happens and I latch on to the smallest of details. It’s not a thing I’m proud of. It’s an unpleasant aftereffect of being assaulted, of being abused, of life. Once a thing is marked for me, I don’t do it anymore. Headphones. Seatbelts. Shopping carts. Brooms. Knives. A purple stain in fabric. Backseats. The smell of garlic. The words I love you.

I love you.

iloveyougivemethebagiloveyouifyoutellanyoneillkillyou

newcarsmellandtheseatbeltinmybackandthesmellofgarlicandthepurplestainontheseatasidiginmyfingersandihateyouandfuckyouandgivemethebaggivemethebag

Give me the bag.

*

I am good at what I do because I see the inside of the dog’s brain inside my head, because I feel the pain that they feel from their pasts even when I don’t know what those pasts are. Pedro didn’t really care about me at first. He had a lot of dog sad—he was rescued four years ago by the great organization that I volunteer for. Sick, confused, and scared, his skin was mottled with malnutrition and scars from whatever had happened to him before his rescue. His diet and nutrition were easily fixed, but his spirits weren’t. Then, somehow, a special woman came along and adopted him. Three years later, she got very sick and he was returned to the organization. And now here we were, Pedro and I. Me in the hallway of the cat shelter where he has to live because even the sight of another dog sends him into hysterics, him inside the closet where he lives now because he has no home. Eye to eye. He challenged me to understand him before laying back in his bed in defeat. You don’t understand my sad, he told me. No one does.

I laid down on the floor of the cat shelter where everything smelled deeply of cats. I waited for him to come back out, to circle me and sniff me and get all up in my business. I waited there, completely still, until he laid down next to me and shoved his face into my armpit. You might understand, he said, so you can pet me. And I did.

*

My entire life is on my laptop. This is not to say I don’t back it up. Of course I back it up. But that’s beside the point. My left hand tightened on the strap; my right hand crawled its way into my pocket. There is no electronic device in the world worth dying for, but my laptop is the closest I’d come to it. His hand grazed my chest as he latched on to the strap; I sprayed him in the face with my pepper spray. I got lucky. He ran away crying like a starving baby and I was pretty damn proud of my accomplishment.

I’ve already forgotten what he looked like, which is unusual for me. This happened three days ago, and I didn’t write it down, so he’s gone. He was white, dirty. That’s all I know. And it doesn’t matter, because he’s just a small insignificant thing in the grand scheme of my life and I’m already past it. But I won’t sit in that spot on the train again. I will stay away from the doors.

*

Week two with Pedro, I had some extra time and took him to the small backyard of the cat shelter a volunteer had cleaned up for him. I sat on the porch and he sat at the foot of a tree on the end of his ten foot leash, staring off into the distance. On a hunch, I bent over and picked up a stick tapping it on the porch. “Hey, Pedro.” Tap tap. His ears flickered. “Wanna play?” He turned around slightly, his big head resting on his shoulder as he eyed the stick and hesitated for just that one moment. And then he pounced like a cat. I threw the stick across the yard and he brought it back again and again and again. I was instantly good people in the eyes of Pedro. I didn’t get it, or him, totally, but I was trying and he liked that. Connecting to Pedro is about finding the sparks that aren’t ghosts, about not wrestling because he’s not there yet. Connecting to Pedro is about being with him. 

I went to see him yesterday, and he ran out to greet me with a happy wagging tail. I came back for him; I hadn’t forgotten him. I won’t.

I think I found my calling. Maybe I screw it up sometimes, though I think everyone screws up at some point, but I know that these are the dogs I want to work with. I want to rescue. And, just as importantly, I want to tell their stories.

(If any of you lovelies are interested in sponsoring, fostering, or adopting my special friend Pedro, here’s a link to his information: http://www.mightymutts.org/pedro.html . You can also follow his quest to find his forever home on Instagram: @findpedroahome).

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