Elegy for Our Home in Detroit

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m sorry if I seem a little scattered since the invasion of Detroit; I’ve lost a few things, and if you can find them, will you send them my way? Two peach trees, one pear tree, one plum tree, five rose bushes, one fairy door, one swing set, used, one play scape, pirates and adventurers since moved on, one mural, one door frame with ten years of my daughter’s growth marked in pen, and yes, what I really want back are those years. It was all eternity, but now we have been displaced.

In the house that you live in, in the city you declare bankrupt, in the school system you have dismantled, you have stolen our memories.

I miss my home. I grieve the house we lived in when the children were small, the rooms they pulled their stuffed animals through by a long ear or a string, the marks on the door frame to show how they’ve grown, once a year in pen, because we were never going to leave.

Here are the rooms of the nine hundred square feet and the happiest days of my life: hardwood floors, high ceilings with crown moldings in a fleur de lis pattern, stained glass windows and a crystal chandelier. We painted the front room blue, the color Nereida chose. “Blue like my dress, Mami. Azul! Azul, Mami!” She runs up to me on the couch saying her name is Esther, and that she will crown her big sister the queen of all the Cheetahs.

The neighbor girl, Iztlali, painted the dining room a soft green and it resembles a room from a magazine, with the bronze chandelier and the long white curtains, but then I put in the toys, and art supplies and a rug. It becomes a place of ever-changing landscapes, and there Maria and Nereida spend hours; they sing, dress up, marry each other, and their stuffed animals become involved in long fairy stories from bright picture books.

The best days are the days after the trial when Cesar has been released and has already gone away to Honduras. Those moments are the sweetest, when the evening is hushed.

Soon, it will be time to lay Maria and Nereida down in their toddler beds, in the room with the mural that Itzlali painted. Fairy creatures from Mexico come alive at night and bring the girls into a nighttime world populated with one-eyed birds and bright colored flowers the size of their heads. “Mami, sing us another song,” the girls say, and I do, the one about the coyote.

And perhaps snowflakes fall from the sky, and Detroit quiets; my bedroom looks out onto the backyard, where the snow covers the play scape, the fruit trees, the garden fence.

Maybe I hear the back door open and shut, and the family that lives upstairs pop their heads in through the kitchen door; Patrice and her two children, Juan and Salome.

“I’ll get the kids up to bed,” she says. And soon my housemate and friend from the old neighborhood comes down the stairs, and we share coffee, or a drink, and whisper plans for our children, dreams for things we are going to do. She shows me her timeline to quit the Detroit EMS and become a midwife; I promise to look into classes to get my teaching certificate. Maybe we can get the kids into that new art school.

At night the Detroit sky still flames red in brilliant sunsets from the upstairs back porch, and the trees grow peaches and pears and plums in the summer, and the roses the Lithuanian woman planted wind through the fences in a pink, white and red barricade. I pick two-dozen red roses on the last day of school in the Migrant Center where I am the teaching assistant, and give each graduating mother a rose for completing the ESL course. But at the end of the year, we are all laid off and we have to re-interview for our own jobs.

I wear my mother’s clothes to the interview, a long, two-piece sweater dress with low-heeled loafers. I miss her. They still smell like her, lavender and fresh sheets. I resemble a round owl with tortoiseshell glasses, not even curvaceous, just round.

As I walk in I feel a chill invading my body. The principal interviewing me is an iguana, his tongue slips in and out of his moist lips. The union representative at the meeting exchanges a look with the principal, lifts his eyebrows. When I leave, past the large glass windows of the interview room, I can see their heads bent together. The secretary, a woman my age dressed in a tight leather pantsuit and 4-inch heels walks into the room. The men smile at her. She asks a question, or says something, and they laugh. I don’t get the job and everyone in our center is replaced by a Teach for America Volunteer.

I find a job where I fit in. I work at Wendy’s; the smock is blue and white, and it makes me look slimmer. My coworkers don’t look down on me, and because of my freckles, some of them even call me Wendy. I’m one of the fastest cashiers, they say. “That’s pretty good,” I say. There is no history, just me, tying on my blue and white headscarf in the bathroom at Wendy’s hamburgers.

I can make change by counting backwards, so I know if the computer is wrong. I never needed a calculator to do math. I can just open the cash register with a key and count out the change; since I can do math fast in my head it also means I get the best shifts. When the line is nine deep, I like to catch someone’s eyes in the back line, see their hungry look, and watch their surprise when they get all the way up to the front in no time. It also means I get to talk to whole football teams, people who would never talk to me when I was in high school–they are filled with gratitude when they get their orders.

Square beef slabs, pink and plump, stacked on their paper squares line the walk-in shelves until it’s time to carry them over to the grill. I know how to work every station, the register, the grill, the Frosty machine, the fryers, and the cleanup stations– pots and pans, mopping, scrubbing the bricks, vacuuming. Window washing. My apron is caked with grease when I work the grill, and when I close the restaurant I have sweated and cooled down so many times throughout my shift I feel like an athlete, both spent and high on endorphins.

The giant stainless steel lettuce chopper is the only machine that I edge away from. I told my bosses all those shiny little blades were too much for me. I wanted to see what my arm would look like chopped into little squares; I’ve always liked blades. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that out loud. Maybe that’s why I’ve never made Manager, even though I said, “Just kidding!”

How do I lose the house? It happens in stages. Wendy’s doesn’t pay that well, and Cesar is back, and in and out of the house; I can’t get him to move out. Then, one night, Cesar starts a fight in the bar; two guys drag him outside, throw him down on the ground and start kicking him in the head. His cousin stabs one of the guys, and is arraigned with attempted murder. His cousin saved Cesar’s life; I take the money out of the house to pay for the lawyer and his cousin’s freedom. But I am finally able to tell Cesar to go to hell, and he mostly stays away. I think he’s met someone. Zubayda. They move back to Cesar’s family farm in Honduras. That’s what I hear from his cousins.

Then the storm rips half of the roof off, and the house loan pays for the contractor that fixes the roof, but he doesn’t fix it. Kent threatens to kill me when I try to get my money back. Don’t ever use Kent’s roofing in Detroit. Fuck you Kent. Your dad is rolling over in his grave for what you did to his business, you mother fucker.

“Your kids like to play in the backyard, don’t they?” he says. And the next day, the back gate is missing from the yard. And so the house loan pays for a new gate, and bars on the window, and another guy, a neighbor to slap some tar on the roof to hold it together for the winter, and a floor and ceiling for the upstairs kitchen, ruined by the roof that Kent built. It’s like Stephen King started writing nursery stories and implanting them into people’s yards in Detroit, and you can’t return the book back to the library, because the library’s been burnt down.

There’s always a place for money to go, until I start having to buy the food with the credit card again, because one thing about Cesar being in Honduras, is that he’s in Honduras, not here, and the girls need shoes and winter coats.

So we get behind, and then we get behind some more. Patrice, who rents the upstairs rooms, gives birth to Emma, and then Patrice moves out to the east side into her new boyfriend’s place. Things just fall apart little by little. My house goes to someone with 17,000 to spare. I’m not allowed to buy my house for 17,000, but someone can. The couple is bright eyed with glee. The woman laughs and takes a picture of the sales price. “You have to post that, they won’t believe what a steal they can get here,” he says. He didn’t pronounce the ‘r’; they’re not from around here. They barely glance at me.

I start selling the furniture little by little. The one-bedroom apartment we can rent in the town just north of Detroit doesn’t have room for all of the bookshelves and dressers. I keep the table from the house I grew up in, the one we made with dad, and the girl’s bunk beds. I keep mom’s blue mixing bowl, and the girls’ art supplies and dress up clothes. As I pack the last box in the truck, I sniff new adventure too.

The girls are bewildered by the silence in the suburbs. They learn how to cross the street. They learn how to ride their bikes. They are ten and twelve when we move out of Detroit, and their babyhood is gone, forever in the house on Larkins Street, on the dead-end block where we climbed down onto the freeway with jugs of water for the truckers the day the traffic stopped and the power grid went out on the entire Eastern Seaboard.

I want to write a new history for myself. I do not know the name of my great-grandmother. It is as if a giant hand deposited us here, lifted from the nothing, a myth of a place over the ocean; always within a few miles of the narrow place in the river called Detroit.

Michigan, from space, is in the shape of a mitten; it is a left hand. Left handed like me, and the narrow strait of Detroit curves around what would be the thumb joint, the rest of the state is filled with trees and people who are sure that Jesus is white and wants us to bomb the infidels. The talking heads on the TV say that what happens now is what matters, and what came before is nobody’s fault who is alive today, and we should forget it.

I look in the mirror to see if there are answers to the history written there, but I see nothing. If I stare at myself long enough my eyes will start to scare me. I believe there is something you can see in eyes, and that is what we see into other people, but myself? I keep seeing an attic room behind me filled with trunks and boxes, things of value peeping out: velvet, wooden, and silver, entire rooms, lifetimes of treasures, carried over from other places and other times, carried in the hold of ships, treasures stolen from the manor houses, traded in exchange for safe passage to another place. This room is full of stolen pickings.

I would have lost the house anyway; I am glad that the one peach tree still bears fruit. The new couple that lives there tore down the playhouse and built a fire pit. I drove through the alley just to see; it was dusk. They took the pear tree out too, and laid cement down. I stepped out of my car and I could hear laughing. I peered around the garage and the new bike shed. I smelled a strong odor of weed. They have painted over the graffiti on the garage, and the tall grass and the grape vines are gone. I wonder what would happen if I introduced myself to them. If I told them that they are standing on hallowed ground; it used to belong to us, and we to it. I know that this story has happened to people over and over again in history, that the owners will never see who I really am, through the smoke of their campfire. But there is a bigger universe than I can see, and what happens down here doesn’t alter that. The change has already happened, and there is enough to remind me of this under the moon, and in the morning below the day blind stars. But, I miss my home. I miss the baskets of peaches in the summer, and the long days on the back porch, when my children were small.

New issue of Hip Mama!

The cute FedEx guy just brought me so many boxes of this beautiful new issue of Hip Mama. Subscribe and I’ll send you one right away.

This issue features an inspiring interview with the super-pregnant Michelle Tea, personal essays on parenting young adults, getting knocked up DIY style, talking to our kids about racism, and so much more. There are yummy potato recipes, etiquette from Punk Rock Miss Manners, and a genderqueer paper doll no family should be without.

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Milcah Halili Orbacedo Interviews Wendy C. Ortiz

 

Wendy C. Ortiz’s searing new memoir of growing up in Southern California in the ’80s and ’90s, Excavation, unearths the complicated legacy her five-year relationship with her charming and flawed teacher 15 years her senior. Her teacher — now a registered sex offender — encouraged her passion for writing while making her promise not to leave any written account of their dangerous sexual relationship. Excavation is just out from Future Tense.

You could make multiple twitter accounts from the different voices you use in your writing. In the business world, lacking a singular voice makes one less marketable. What drives you to write in your multiple voices when writing in a more singular voice may promote more traditional success?

If I stuck to one voice when in reality I contain a multiplicity of voices I wouldn’t feel like I’ve maintained the integrity of my work (and possibly my identities). Writing memoir specifically, it feels essential to me to unleash as many of the voices as possible (the ones I have access to, anyway). I also prefer a world where our multiple identities are given free range—which flies in the face of a singular voice and making one’s self “more” or “less” marketable. (The 28 year old in me is reading this going, Just how “marketable” have you ever been, and has being marketable ever really motivated you? for example.)

Excavation: a Memoir was just released this summer by Future Tense Books. Your next book, Hollywood Notebook, will be published by Writ Large Press in fall/winter. Will you offer readers of Hollywood Notebook a voice similar to Excavation? What should we expect next?

Hollywood Notebook takes place in Los Angeles after I’d spent eight years in Olympia, Washington in two separate serial monogamist relationships. I landed in my studio apartment in Hollywood, single, living alone for the first time in years. The voice spans the ages of twenty-eight to thirty-three and is very much influenced by the books, people, music, and experiences of that time. I call it a prose poem-ish memoir, as it contains eighty-some short chapters in the form of paragraphs, lists, and stream-of-consciousness passages.

After Hollywood Notebook I’m interested in returning to other works-in-progress: a book of music-themed essays, poetry centered on my mother and grandmother and our entwined relationships, a memoir based on my Modern Love column, and a memoir about the period in Olympia between the ages of 20-28 which I think of as a long gestation, and some other secret things.

If you could blend two of your voices together from any of your works (On the Trail of Mary Jane, Excavation, your essays at The Nervous Breakdown or Specter, etc.) which two voices would complement each other the most? Do you have a masterplan to eventually merge all your voices? Or you do enjoy the compartmentalization?

I’m fond of the voices that find themselves in my fiction (like “Black Car Land” in Specter, and some other fiction I’m working on)—there’s a starkness to the voices I feel both comfortable and very uncomfortable with. In some ways I blend the voices together when I put two stories next to one another, as I’m doing now with some fiction. The themes start to emerge from placing the work together and paying attention to whether the voices are complementary or not. The only master plan I have to is to see where the voices go, any of them, all of them.

No matter the voice, your writing is always very corporeal and visceral. You are very generous when it comes to material and emotional details, and it balances out very well. What are the physical drives that take you to the corporeal and visceral in your writing? What about the body and the emotions it manifests inspires you to write in such a way?

As someone who has struggled, then learned, then forgot, then remembered to stay in her body most of her life, focusing in on the corporeal and visceral feels necessary. It’s also what I enjoy about some of my favorite writers, how they bring me back to my body with their texts.

What would you say is the over-arching theme of your writing, the heart of your work?

I hesitate to say there’s one over-arching theme. If we think of a heart, the human heart with its four chambers, I might say abandonment (from others, of others, and of self); embodiment (of identities that help one to survive, however ‘survive’ is identified); exploration and troubling of the idea that there are only two sides to every story (which I don’t believe—I think there are many); and transformation. (It’s important to note that this is what I think today; if you asked me this yesterday or ask me tomorrow, the answer might differ. It’s not always static.)

My Religion

New Prose by Jenny Forrester

I wanted to be good, and I wanted life to be fair.

Mom and I sat on the porch, and I told her how I thought things should be.

“You know how Joseph Smith created a whole new religion based on the idea that white people had been to this place before and that the Indians and white people had lived together before, long ago, but the white people all died out and left this great religion, etched into tablets and buried it all for the return of the white people to America.”

I reasoned that I could write a religion that allowed women to be equal to men.

I said, “Women could have multiple husbands.”

Mom said, “I don’t want even one husband.”

We laughed as the sun set over the chalk-colored hills and the great mesa in the distance and the mountains behind us became dark giants.

“What are you laughing about,” my brother wanted to know, his hair shuffled on his head, no t-shirt over his rib-ragged chest.

“Oh, nothing,” my mom said. She shushed me with her gaze.

This was one of those conversations that wasn’t for my brother Brian’s ears.

Later, mom said, “You can have children without being married.  If you get married because you’re pregnant, you’re making two mistakes instead of just one.” But she looked me in the eye and said, “You, of course, don’t have to worry about any of that yet.  Not until you’re much older.”

When I told her that there were girls in this town having sex already, she said, “Well, that couldn’t be true.”

And then she said, “If they are, they’ll ruin their reputations.”

I would have to learn how to navigate mixed messages.

*

Jenny Forrester was the 2011 recipient of the Richard Hugo House New Works Competition award and has been published in a variety of places including Nailed Magazine, Penduline Press, Hip Mama Magazine, and Indiana Review. She and Ariel Gore co-edited the anthology The People’s Apocalypse. She’s the curator of Portland’s Unchaste Readers Series.

Back Curved Like a Swan, Arms Free

New memoir excerpt from Bastard Child of a Renegade Nun by Laura Green

Day
“I can’t believe you have this book in your apartment.”

From where I’m sitting on the floor by the bookshelf I can only see the leaping crest of Tara’s bangs over the couch’s cat-shredded arm.

“Oh my god, it’s porn.”

Is that bad? I can’t tell, which makes me want to grab The New Our Bodies, Ourselves from her hands. Or knock her out. Or stay very still.

Sex is dangerous. Sex is all-you-can-eat at my favorite restaurant and everything’s free but half the food’s poison. I’m starving all the time but I don’t want to be the first to sink a fork in.

I thought I was safe with Tara. I thought she was just as grease-stained and drooling as I am, because a few weeks ago she showed me three condoms and a thick pink rod in her mom’s nightstand. The rod had a turn on switch. It was splayed and nubbed at one end like the nose of the star-nosed mole I saw at the Museum of Science. Tara said I couldn’t touch anything in the drawer because her mom would know, but I think Tara touches that rod.

Is twelve too old to like the Museum of Science? I worry that going there’s something I shouldn’t admit to. Especially going there with my mom. Twelve. Twelve is too old, isn’t it? To kneel by the egg-shaped chick incubator? Hatch, chicks. Hatch before I move on.

Maybe Tara’s never touched the rod. Maybe she would never even think of it.

“It’s, like, a medical book,” I dodge. There are medical things in the book, but – come on, who am I kidding? It has a chapter called “Sexual Pleasure and Enthusiastic Consent.” Enthusiastic.

“It totally tells how to do it.” Tara sounds triumphant. Why? What has she found out? I’m sure it’s worse than I’ve feared. I should run. What should I grab? What should I cover? Her bangs quiver like antennae in a buffeting wind.

It does tell how to do it. The New Our Bodies, Ourselves tells about all different ways to do it. It tells how to do it if you’re in a wheelchair. In one place it even tells about ladies doing it to each other.

“Really?” I try to sound surprised. My spine is prickling. “Gross.” Is it gross that I have this book in my apartment? Is it great? Is this book more dirty than condoms and star-nosed rods? Is it dirty in a worse way? I can’t know from just Tara’s bangs.

One time, weeks ago, I rubbed lotion that smelled like peach-scented plastic on Tara’s puffy breasts. She’s covered in freckles, but not in places the sun’s never touched. Those places were pale white with blue veins. It doesn’t mean she couldn’t turn on me.

And one time we pretended I was Mr. Harrison, our woodworking teacher with whom Tara’s in love. Tara lay under me while I struggled to get my hand so my fingers could reach inside her. I needed to do it without breaking the belly-to-belly sex position I think Mr. Harrison would employ.

She was soft and warm down there; inside she was slick and pillow-y. I didn’t expect it to be so slick, almost pleated. It was different than I am inside, I think. Was it? I was so afraid while it was happening I could only hold on to every third or fourth thought. I wanted to change positions so I could slide my whole finger in, but that’s not how sex works.

After a while Tara said she was going to be Mr. Harrison and we flipped so Mr. Harrison could press herself against my thigh.

We were just practicing, though. It isn’t like I thought that was a real thing. Tara and I aren’t like the homos in The New Our Bodies, Ourselves. Is that what she thought I thought? Was she mad about it? Is she here to get evidence? But she did it too. Will anyone believe me?

“Don’t act like you haven’t read it. You’ve totally read this a million times.”

Of course I have. At least a million, which is why it’s so strange I’ve never seen the little red journal before, just three books over from Our Bodies Ourselves. Its spine is no thicker than my pinkie. It says RECORD in shiny gold letters. There’s a shiny gold box around the word and smaller boxes all up and down the spine. The other books in the bookcase are soft-covers with cracked bindings mashed to just white paper at their corners. This is something different.

“What time does your mom get home?” Tara asks, tipping her head back so I can see her pink forehead and the end of her flat, speckled nose.

“I don’t know, like, five-thirty?” I’ve sunk into matching positions with her. Head against the wall, back against the floor, knees tenting up in front of me. Book balanced against my legs.

“What time is it now?” Tara voice is still sharp, it could be a trick. Her questions could mean anything. What time is it now. What does that mean?

The journal’s cover is slightly bumpy. When I hold it at an angle I can see it’s etched with a pattern that looks like the residue of thousands of tiny bubbles, popped. It’s marbled like an Easter egg. It’s as light as an egg. I crack it open.

The pages are measured out in tightly spaced baby blue lines running horizontally with one pale pink vertical stripe at their left edge. My mother’s handwriting slants along the blue lines in dark blue pen. Neat and even like a lake being blown by a steady breeze.

In the open space at the top before the measuring begins she’s written, June 13, ’75. Three months before I was born.

Here you are, six months old already and I’ve talked with you so many times. When I found out you were with me a warm feeling came over me, which has never left–not even for a moment. It’s like having all my hopes and desires of a lifetime fulfilled.

I close the cover quickly. My heart feels too near my skin. This is from when I was not separate. This is from when I was only imagined. From when everything was still furled tight and I might become a thousand different people. Now so much set and unchangeable. My throat feels stretched, like I’m trying to choke down all the years.

The bend in my neck and the hard knot of time in my esophagus make it hard for blood to get through. I can feel it struggling below my jaw. I can hear it.

“Hey, what time is it now?” Tara corkscrews her body and pushes herself up so her head is propped on the arm of the couch. “What’s that?” she asks, pointing her chin at the journal.

“Nothing. For homework,” I improvise. “Four? Prolly?”

My mom from long before. Here in this book. Talking to me. It’s toppled me so completely I forgot about navigating Tara. I forgot the perils on the couch right in front of me. The thousand different people this moment could turn me into.

“Wanna read it in your room?” She thumps the thick book filled with sex that’s wedged between her chest and the couch. Relief. It washes away the knot. I swallow it. We’ll read the book and practice stuff. It won’t fill all my brain. Worry will still chatter in the background, but it will be a mumble, not a howl.

I lead the way. Another step further from being curled tight and perfect, another step I won’t be able to walk back.

I don’t put the journal on the bookshelf. I take it with me. It was written to me. It’s mine. I close the door to my room, my door. Lock my lock. I have a lock. It feels like just another thing that I’ve made up, but I pinch and twist – I feel it click. The knob won’t turn now. What if my mom comes home early? What if, like God, she’s always watching me? I need to close her out. I need to keep her close.

Under my bed there’s a Converse shoebox where I hide my diary. It’s a gigantic box for the gigantic men’s high-top leather sneakers I make my mom buy me. I like them in a size that exceeds my feet by inches. I’m too tall for my age, I have breasts and hips and my period already, and I hope maybe no one will notice. Maybe no one will see it–me.

They do, of course. Once a boy called me Green Giant. Jolly Green Giant. Do they all call me that? All of them. All of them do, but despite it, I intend to grow. The giant shoes make me trip climbing stairs and I have to take them off to run or to walk on anything but perfectly flat, well swept terrain. My mom thinks it’s weird and hysterical that I want them, but I need them. I need the extra space. There’s more of me, I’m sure of it.

There’s plenty of room in their box for this book. I drop it in. I take out the peach scented lotion.

“The person reading gets a backrub. You read first.” This is one of the ways to start. She lies on a pillow on my rug.

She points at a drawing, “Gross! Who’s that hairy?!” I push up her shirt. She reaches around and arcs like a swimmer, then it’s over her head and off.

“Gross,” I agree. In the twisting my pillow moved. I can see its flowered case between her legs.

“Lips,” she reads in disgust. “Our lips.” She laughs and laughs. I laugh.

We both know this food is poison but we’ve skipped so many meals and you can die from hunger too.

I tug on the waistband of her stirrup pants. She lifts her hips so I can pull them down.

Night
My mom fell asleep before I did.

If I fall asleep while she’s still awake and the house is lighted, while she’s still tending things and taking care of us and moving, then I’m okay. Mostly. But if I’m still awake when she turns out the lights in the living room and kitchen and the only light left is the one by her bed and then if she snaps off even that yellow bit of consciousness–if I’m still awake then–I’m doomed.

Because of the Museum of Science, I know this sort of magic trick. You stand in a doorway and open your arms to the sides like wings. The doorjamb stops them, but you have to keep pressing against it as hard as you can for a slow count of 60. After enough time your arms re-calibrate. They accept this new intense and specific gravity and resign themselves to live under it forever. Then, just when they start to forget the press of the world they came from, you step into the room and your arms fly from your body like snipped balloons. That’s what nighttime is, but instead of my arms it’s my whole being flying away.

Don’t be such a baby, I coach myself, You’re twelve years old. What are you, scared of the dark?

It isn’t the dark. It’s the space.

Where am I? Where are my edges?

I sit up and reach for the wooden dowel folded into the bottom of my shade. I tug it and it springs up, unlatched, from my hand. The pink haze of the streetlight near my room shines in, but weakly. It isn’t enough to pin me in this moment, which is gone already.

I try praying. Dear God, please make me believe in you. If you exist make me believe in you. It instantly makes me feel guilty. If God exists he should be spending time saving babies with no lips and holes in their spines and women trapped in lagoons by scaled and yellow-eyed creatures. I’m just one girl in one moment in endless, sprinting time. One tiny flick of girl. I’m sorry , I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Small and selfish. Pompous. Presumptuous. What kind of God would notice me?

If I get up and walk the ten or twelve steps from my room to my mom’s room I can climb into her bed and that will be enough, but I’m twelve. I swore off sleeping in my mom’s bed when I turned nine and again when I turned ten. Eleven. Don’t be a baby. You just need to stop it. STOP IT. But I can’t. I need something outside of me to make me stop. I hang myself over the edge and pull out my box, slide the lid off and pull out the red journal.

July, 31 1975 Today I’m worried about you. The doctor said you were small for your age. Up until two weeks ago you were big for your age. What happened to you? Aren’t you eating well? Please, please grow big soon.

I will! I do! I’m fine, pregnant mom. I turn out fine. For a second it’s comforting to know how it turns out. Then it’s just horribly sad that it’s always turning.

August 2 Today you had the hiccups! Or at least I think you did. Maybe you were just kicking with rhythm. You’ll have to try out different instruments!

September 1 You’ve been so active lately. I hope you’ll always be this energetic and happy. I have so many things I should be doing but I spend hours just marveling at you. You’re not even born yet and already I can’t concentrate on anything but you.

This is the God I need. Who can make me and carry me and still think that I am the miracle. That I’m reason enough.

But she isn’t a god, and someday there will just be this book. The thought makes hot fear pool in the base on my brain. Or cold – the kind of cold that burns your skin clean off.

October 1st. I’m born. You like to lie in the opposite direction of the fetal position with your back curved like a swan and your arms free. My darling, I hope you’ll find the freedom you seem to want, and that, in some small way, you’ll make this world a freer place to live in.

But I didn’t want to be free.

I wanted to be held.

Laura Green lives in Portland, Oregon. She’s working on a memoir tentatively called Bastard Child of a Renegade Nun (plus half-Mexican and gay). Please contact her if you have an elegant way to work it all into a title.

I’m a Liar

“Is it even ethical to write a memoir as an amnesiac?”

 

by Avery Cassell

I want to die in the present, not the past. Will that happen, or will I be buried beneath the weight of my wispy past, my past that smothers me, yet when I try to write it down runs away, leaving me with only smokey remnants?

My memories are brilliantly glimmering, yet fleeting. I don’t feel strong enough to make this gift for you, this gift of possibilities and deliverance. And I wonder, is it even ethical to write a memoir as an amnesiac? It isn’t that I don’t remember being a child, however all I remember are odd snippets, with my family almost completely removed from my stories. My reputation inside of my family was that of the overly dramatic, habitual liar. Add a dollop of secrecy and dissociation bred by incest, growing up in Iran where paranoia ran hand in hand with Savak, and you suddenly have a child who felt it was safer to stow memories away tightly. I am the scurrying secretive one that everyone avoids in the lunchroom for fear of contamination. I’m the different one even now, bearing the scars of my past like stigmata. I want you to like me. I want to tell you a common story about watching Gunsmoke on television, eating McDonald’s hamburgers, bullied at school for being queer, and avoiding my senior prom. I want to tell these stories so that we can bond. I cannot. Mass burial pits, Savak, dinosaur bones, chamber pots, roasted baby camel, my father’s hand on my thigh. . . and I’m undone, floating through life alone at age five.

Is this a dream, or is it real? I was always the one with too many stories, the liar, the daydreamer in the back of the classroom, smelling of chalk dust and cobwebs, and doodling in my notebook with my dry heart wandering. And is this another tale from the prodigal daughter? The child that returns over and over looking for love, only to be sacrificed, head down and splayed like an insect.

I’m sitting in Tartine Bakery eating a coconut tart, searching the Friday morning crowds for the most gullible one. I’m going to give you my story. I’m the nicest girl, the one with lush crinolines and an Easter bonnet looking at you slyly from beneath my curls.

This prologue is a scrawl upon a coffee-stained notebook written in the last row. It is a nothing–a fable invented by the worst child imaginable. An incorrigible brat, a fire-starter with one hand on a blade held to her forearm, and the other clenching a bottle of Turkish vodka. I’m the evilest girl; we all know this daughter, the one with her sly eyes cutting whomever she sees to shreds.

This is the story I tell over and over, polishing the details. I dissect it into piles of truth, possible truth, and you-must-be-nuts. No, really. I toss each tid-bit onto their stack grimly. I’m going to catalog this day into a linear narrative that shines like a row of cobalt blue glasses on a window shelf in the sun. Just send this beauty into me like a sliver of glass, straight into my cunt; I’m crucified for your secrets. This day will become a nothing day, just like the day before it and the day after.

I was a boy. I was a boy on that day. I became a boy on that day. I became an artist on that day. Boyhood has nothing to do with pissing standing up, or trucks, or sneakers, or baseball. I know what being a boy means; being a boy is all tender lips opening, bent over at the waist, and soft assholes opening with a grunt and the sharp waft of come. I slip through time, and I change over and over. Not really. I’m lying because that is what I do best. I lay around, a louche who’s up to no good, full to the top of my devious head with dreams and escapades. Please don’t believe me. Walk away. Turn your little head and leave.

Make this story into a hat, and then turn it inside out. Hide the words twirling in the crown and ending in the brim. Full stop. Punch it out. Punch it out of me, until it spurts from my mouth, a gush of black bile. Remember, this is all a lie.

I keep on reinventing myself to get away from my lies, but they sniff me out every time. That tingling in the crock of my left arm, the brilliant shining green grass, the hexagonal quilting pieces, the tall cool pines. . . and I’m lost once more.

My father said that I was a liar. Am I a liar? I know that everything after age 14 is true. Everything after my father stopped fucking me is true. I was cast out of the family several times starting at age 17, and if anyone else had told me this story of family bickering and disownment, I would have been quick to defend the child. Someone has to be the devil around here, and I’ve been a sacrificial victim for so long that I have the role memorized and mesmerized to a nanosecond. I want my father to be good. I want him to be blameless. I want him to be loved. I’ve been researching details for this memoir, and have discovered that I’m not a pathological liar. This is momentous to my personal and family mythology. The truth of my past places me on a desolate plain, surrounded by pain and beauty.

I have an idea. I’ll tell you my biggest lie and you can keep it. It’s my gift to you as a gracious host, wearing a grey woolen smoking jacket and wobbling in the twilight. I’m holding court, dispersing my past like so many bitter licorice whips. This is a confessional–a sprinkle of spit upon my bowed head and I’m absolved, freed. Don’t you fucking look at me.

Avery Cassell is a writer, painter, and cartoonist. They live in San Francisco and are currently working on their memoir, a children’s picture book about a transgendered boy and his family, and an erotic novel. www.averycassell.wordpress.com

The Day Before Maya Angelou Died

By Ky Delaney

It was a Tuesday late in May. The early Southern summer haze pressed down, locking the humidity in, a barrier between us and the sun. But a light from the heavens shone down on us that day when a judge cleared Mr. Jimmy Jones’ criminal record of the first degree murder and rape charge for which he’d wasted two decades behind bars. DNA proved he didn’t do it and the white man let him go. But the crime stayed on his record, keeping him unemployable.

Two years we’d been working on getting Mr. Jones’ record expunged. The district judges convened. Even though the rape and murder occurred in the 1950s, the killer was never found. Now it might be one thing to let Mr. Jones out of prison, but erasing those words from his record meant that woman died without anyone known to blame. It was one thing not to have enough proof to support a charge of guilty, but quite another to not have a person accused of the crim. And that didn’t sit easy with folks in a small southern town. Once the district judges agreed they sent the case to the state-level judges for another stamp of approval. They signed the expungement papers and then sent it back to the county for one final hearing, just to be sure. Sure of what nobody was saying, but everyone knew. They had to make sure they weren’t letting a black man off the hook for raping and killing a white woman.

That day when we told Mr. Jones that finally his name was cleared of criminal charges, he reached up from his wheelchair and hugged me. He was seventy years old and wouldn’t be filling out another employment application, but he thanked us with exquisite grace. “Never had white people help me. Sent by God, you two were.”

My contentment of working at a job that changed lives made me stay an extra fifteen minutes at the park pushing my toddler on the swing. As I pushed him higher, it sunk in that Mr. Jones, perhaps for the first time in his life, believed a white person had seen him as an individual, not a statistic based on his skin color. My son and I stopped at the ice cream store before heading home for dinner, splurging on chocolate cones with sprinkles. I fired up the grill and turned veggie kabobs over the grey charcoal while my son played with his train set. After his bath, I opened the windows to let the evening breeze cool off the house. The evening was perfect, right down to the end when he went to bed after one book without a struggle.

Then I made the mistake of checking Facebook and saw a news release reposted by many local friends. “A single mom was raped in her home at approximately 5 a.m. yesterday morning. Her young child was in the house. The suspect is a very dark-skinned black male, with short dreads, facial hair only on his chin, and wearing overalls. Report all suspicious activity to the police.”

I called my best friend who tried to reassure me. “She lives on the other side of town – the bad part.”

Google maps showed the rape occurred less than two miles from my own house.

“So ugly that rape happens. All I can think about is a big black man towering over me. I don’t mean to be prejudice or anything, but imagine being raped with someone like that. The woman probably knew him, it wouldn’t happen to us,” she rambled on in an effort to sooth my nerves.

Someone like what exactly, I wondered. I reread the description of the man. None of the details really mattered except for one. His short dreads could be cut, his facial hair shaved, and he could take off the overalls. But his dark skin could not be hidden. He was a faceless, nameless Black Man.

And I wondered what or who kept me safe. I’d been acting like I lived in a bubble ever since buying the house two years ago. I never locked my doors. I strolled around the neighborhood with my son in his stroller wearing sundresses and fip flops.

That night I bolted my doors and locked my windows for the first time. I picked up my sleeping boy in my arms and carried him to my bed, whispering into the soft nook of his neck, “you’re going to sleep in mama’s bed tonight.” If someone broke into my house, I wanted to have him close, even if I didn’t know how I was going to protect him. I locked my bedroom door and barricaded it with a chair, sleeping with my iPhone next to my bed, 911 pressed on the number pad.

I didn’t sleep that night, getting up to peer out the windows, looking for the Black Man. How stupid to leave my kayak paddles outside, to give the Black Man a weapon he could use against me. I tossed and turned, half wanting to go grab them but then too afraid to get out of bed. If I had a man, I’d be safe, I thought. The Black Man found the single mom home alone with her child. I worried I’d never feel safe until I found a man, any one would do. That night I craved a body to protect me, mostly from my own thoughts.

Maya Angelou died the next day. I read her poem, “Still I Rise” for the first time. I thought about the rapist, whether he could just be a black man instead of the Black Man or every black man. Whether I could look at each black man I passed that evening as I pushed my son in a stroller to the park, look into his eyes and smile, seeing his individual features and the contours of his being. And whether I could rise enough to unfurl my single-mama heart and press love into the withered and wrinkled parts the way Mr. Jones had managed to do despite decades of being falsely imprisoned. Maya Angelou challenged me to rise and find security in the abundance of kindness instead of clinging to prejudices and lingering in the shadows of blame. “And still I’ll rise.”

Ky Delaney practices law at a grassroots legal aid office and solo parents her two-year old son  in Asheville, NC. Her website www.kydelaney.com provides links to her writing and blog.

 

Flatlands

New Prose by Laurie Jones Neighbors

Sherilyn sat cross-legged on her bathroom vanity, her hair wrapped in a towel as she picked dead skin off of the bottom of one of her feet. Her mom was crying in the kitchen. The sky was turning rosy, and something about the light streaming through the bathroom window made me suddenly aware of my sour, stale odor. I picked up a bottle of Jean Naté and sprayed myself head to toe.

Late last night, Sherilyn had tapped on my bedroom window. I pulled on a flannel shirt and 501s, laced up my red high-top sneakers, and snuck out the back door of my parents’ house. We shuffled across Melanie Park, our arms filled with cans of Schlitz from my dad’s stash in the garage and a pack of unfiltered Camels I’d pulled from a carton in the kitchen pantry. I had a yellow Bic lighter in my pocket.

We’d sat on the swings, the velvety West Texas sky surrounding us, drinking the beers one after the other, smoking the cigarettes, then pumping our legs and swinging high into the arms of Andromeda, Perseus, and Cassiopeia. When the sky started to turn from black to blue, we walked down a side street then slid through Sherilyn’s front door, sleepy and thirsty.

Sherilyn’s mother stood at the kitchen island, translucent as onion skin, her bald head powdery in the yellow light coming from under the range hood, holding a piece of dry toast in her hand. I stopped, tried to stand up straight, and couldn’t help but look away from her sunken, red-rimmed eyes. Sherilyn kept walking, not even glancing her mother’s way, heading to the bathroom. I turned and followed.

Sherilyn’s mother called after her. When she didn’t get an answer, she’d appeared in the doorway. “Where have you been all night?” she asked. Her voice was high-pitched, trembling, but her face was flat.

“What the fuck do you care?” Sherilyn said as she unscrewed the cap on a bottle of conditioner. Her mother left, using the hallway wall to steady herself as she made her way back to the kitchen. Sherilyn poured conditioner into her hand and started to rub it into the dry tips of her hair. “My ends need extra conditioning,” she said.

When Sherilyn had rinsed her hair under the sink, she wound a towel around her head like a turban, tucking the tail in at the back of her neck and climbing up on the vanity. “She pukes all day and night,” she said. “It’s disgusting. She stinks. The whole house stinks.”

I took a long drink of water from the bathroom faucet, then slipped out the front door and walked back home as the sunrise burnished the sky. By the time I got there, it was daylight. Through the screen door, I saw my dad in his bright blue terry-cloth robe reading the sports page. He caught me over the top of his horned-rimmed glasses, looking at me like I was a loose dog limping along on the side of a busy highway, then returned to reading the newspaper.

Wiping the grit out of my eyes, I made my way down the hall, wishing that he’d said something to me. I paused at the first door on my right. This was the room where my mom slept, curled up on a daybed in her sewing room with a portable black-and-white TV going all night. Intermingled with the punched-up voices of the local weather forecaster, I could hear her soft, husky snoring.

I imagined my mother on the other side of the door, asleep on her back with her beige robe knotted loosely around her waist, the lace trim of her mastectomy bra peeking out, the sad, deflated pocket on the left-hand side. And beside her, on the bedside table—a full ashtray, her cigarette case, a bottle of red nail polish, and her silicone breast form.

As I listened, she coughed, struggled for a few moments, and then sighed and rolled over.

My mother had been in and out of the hospital all year with pneumonia. The last time, I hadn’t wanted to visit her, but my dad insisted. I flopped onto the cracked vinyl seat in his gold El Camino and slammed the heavy passenger’s side door shut, rolling the window all the way down for fresh air even though it was freezing outside. I knew my dad kept a bottle of vodka under the seat, and I wondered if it was calling out to him as he drove the two miles to the hospital. I could never forget about it.

Walking through the automatic doors and down the slick hallway, my tongue had swelled in my mouth from grinding my teeth. I couldn’t stop pulling my fingers. My dad led me to my mom’s room. She was awake when we walked in, pale and afraid, an oxygen mask strapped to her face. I wanted to run back out the hospital doors and keep going. But there was no place to go. My dad sat down and picked up a magazine. I just stood there, looking around the room at the familiar objects: plastic water pitcher, bedpan, blood pressure gauge, barf bucket.

My molars ached. Turning my back on my mom, I walked into the bathroom, clicking the door behind me. I stood in front of the sink, looking at myself in the mirror. Greasy hair, swollen acne, bags under my eyes. Fat. Dirty clothes. Ugly. I was disgusting. Enough time passed that my father came and tapped on the door. “Can we go home now?” I asked him when I came out.

My mom pulled the oxygen mask away from her face. “For god’s sakes, Laurie,” she sighed. “What’s wrong with you?” Her eyes filled with tears. Her face was yellow.

I looked at her, knowing, as I always did, that she could die any minute. My chest hurt. “I hate you,” I said. She turned her face to the windows, weeping quietly behind the oxygen mask. My dad ushered me out and back to his truck.

Now, outside her door, I listened, my hand flat on the dark wood as if on her bony chest. I wanted to open the sewing room door, wake my mother and beg her to forgive me for being such an awful, ungrateful daughter. I wanted to open the door, find that it was finally over, that she’d finally died. I wanted to open the door and find her there, sitting at her sewing machine in jeans and a sweater, a bright red lipstick smile and her hair twisted into a chignon.

The last photo of Laurie and her mother together.

I thought, When she dies, I’ll die too.

I wanted to walk through my mother’s door, but instead I turned, went into the bathroom, stripped off my sour shirt and cruddy jeans. I climbed into the dirty shower and stood under the hot water for a long time, my forehead resting against the tile, then picked up a bottle of shampoo from the corner of the tub and started to wash my hair.

Laurie Jones Neighbors lives in San Francisco. “Flatlands” is excerpted from her memoir-in-progress about growing up adopted, being an adoptive mother, and finally figuring a bunch of stuff out.

Portland Writing Intensive

Portland Writing Intensive with Ariel Gore

Ariel is teaching her first in-person workshop in ages… and it’s in Portland, Oregon…

May 18 – 20

May 18: 4 to 8 pm

May 19: 4 to 8 pm

May 20: 4 to 7 pm

 

Three evening of inspiration, writing, feedback, food.
$195
Produce powerful new writing, vanquish creative blocks, revitalize a half-done project or start something brand new.
Appropriate for beginning and experienced writers—and all of us in between.
We’ll feed you a light dinner each evening so you don’t have to worry about anything but your words.
Ladd’s Addition area.
Class size strictly limited, so please sign up early.

Owning Me

By Megan Jennifer
You could’ve made a safer bet, but what you break is what you get.
You wake up in the bed you make. I think you made a big mistake.
You own me. There’s nothing you can do. You own me.
—Mark Berninger of The National, Lucky You

 

Owning me was written into the game but not like this. Not my splintered heart. Not brittle distance. Not unmet longing.

 

I wasn’t supposed to fall in love. 

 

I want to read a book that he hasn’t written yet. The one that explicates the poem of us–that explains why he finds me irresistible, how I got under his skin in ways he doesn’t usually allow. I want to read his clever prose that pretends disdain for my verbose devotion, but that belies the truth that he loves every syllable. I want details of his compelling desire to walk away from this connection because he craves simplicity, but how he knows he would miss me. I want to read his descriptions of our interactions, hear his internal dialogue about the emails I send him that he refers to as novellas. I want to read all the responses he crafts in his mind while reading through my wordy, overly-analytical messages. I want his reflections on the scenes we did together, scenes he crafted every bit of, delivering them upon me with exquisite creativity.

 

I want to read the book we would write together, exploring the intersections of our words and bodies, of power and attunement, of submission and silence.

 

I’m waiting for patience, for inspiration, for the words that convey the convergence of emotions gurgling within me. Sadness, slippery and solemn, sings a lonely song in my soul. Anger is acutely aware of his absence. Curiosity crackles within my consciousness. What keeps him from clearly communicating when he claims to still want connection with me? Amusement always has an angle and something clever to say. Like, “Hey! How’s that good reply coming? I’ve known people to write their thesis in a month – all I’m waiting on from you is an email…” Waiting to hear from him has been excruciating on so many occasions I have lost count. Minutes bleed into hours, hemorrhage into days, flood into weeks.

 

I’m waiting, waiting, waiting to allow myself to stop waiting, to close the chapter myself, to let what we had be just that – a collection of memories in the past tense. I am waiting to see how long I can wait. I am waiting, still, again, always.

 

The weight of waiting wears on me.

 

He is withholding and guarded. Distant. It wasn’t always this way. In the beginning were the words, oceans of words spilling from two directions. There was intrigue, interest, inspiration, and intention. There were rules of engagement. But my heart doesn’t follow rules. 

 

The wrong part of me is owned by him. I am ready to buy it back. It will cost every ounce of courage I can produce. I will pay for it with every pore of worthiness I embody. I will need to remember that a broken heart is not the end of anything, it is a beginning.

 

 

Megan Jennifer writes to connect with herself and to understand the world around her. Her writing has been published in two different anthologies and she is working on a collection of memoir pieces she plans to self-publish. Meg holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is a licensed professional counselor in private practice, working primarily within LGBT communities.