The God of Sluts

“I think about how Anabelle seemed to believe that sex was wrong for girls like us–and how just about everyone agreed, even the bible. But I am that kind of girl. And somehow, deep inside–in a place that has survived the shame that sets my life on fire every day–I know that they are all just full of shit. I just know that sex is okay, even for girls. And if god and the bible don’t know that, well then god and the bible are full of shit, too.”

 

 


The God of Sluts

By Chanelle Gallant

 

 

“Well, then I guess there’s no God.”

I decide this as I walk home from my best friend Anabelle’s house in the suburbs of Ottawa. I’ve just told her about my first consensual blowjob, with a boy named Julius. After he came in my mouth, I spat it out and said “no offense.” He laughed. I told her that part, too–how I was accidentally funny. She looked down at the ground under the swings in the empty playground where we were slowly swaying, her perfectly highlighted strawberry blond waves hanging around her face and said, “I didn’t think you were that kind of girl.”

Oh. Shit. Maybe not so funny?

Hot shame rushes across my face, the shame that accompanies every waking moment of being a fifteen year old girl.

On my walk home I think about what kind of girl I am. I think about how Anabelle seemed to believe that sex was wrong for girls like us–and how just about everyone agreed, even the bible. But I am that kind of girl. And somehow, deep inside–in a place that has survived the shame that sets my life on fire every day–I know that they are all just full of shit. I just know that sex is okay, even for girls. And if god and the bible don’t know that, well then god and the bible are full of shit, too. I choose blowjobs and joking with boys about their come over a god that would hate girls like me.

Fifteen years later on a bright August afternoon I’m sitting at a Prisoners’ Justice Day vigil at the Don Jail in Toronto. I’ve been going to protests and vigils and actions for years. This one, though, was the first time I’d ever seen a preacher speak: a tall, thin Black man with warm eyes and a white collar. He stands on a little patch of grass and motions to the jail behind him as he says, “The lives of people locked up matter because all lives deserve dignity. All life is divine.” I feel something old crack and move in my chest.

I’d only even gone to the event because I was hoping to see an ex girlfriend who I’d broken up with in the spring. Our short romance ended when I slammed the phone down on her after she stood me up for the last time–but fuck I still missed her. And now here I was on this little patch of grass outside the city jail trying to look unaffected while my eyes welled up. Quiet down now, heart.

But whatever steel wall I’d erected at fifteen to protect my slutty queer self from god’s Army of Slut-Shamers started to crack. Here now was a different kind of god, a god that apparently saw the value in us all and had bigger things to worry about than what I did in bed. Still. “I am an atheist,” I reminded myself as I left the vigil, a little horrified and angry at my tears. I held my head high, my kitten heels digging into the grass, so the ex would fully appreciate that any tears I had were not for her.

I didn’t give it much more thought until a few years later when I was in Laos sitting in the passenger seat of a jeep barreling down a gravel road, windows open, dust blowing in my hair. I was living in Thailand working with a sex workers’ organization and needed to renew my visa so I popped across the border to Laos, figuring I’d see some of the country before returning to Bangkok. I stayed with a friendly Australian ex-pat who kept his lechery limited to discreetly glancing at my tits when he thought I wasn’t looking. He put me up on his couch and offered to show me around. So that’s how I came to be driving through the rural roads of southern Laos in his jeep with a small piece of bamboo in my hand. We bumped and shook over the rough roads and waved back at the kids in school uniforms piled into the back of a truck ahead of us. It had been months since I’d seen any of my too-radical-for-religion friends. I looked down at the bamboo, noticed its minute and exquisite symmetry and thought: “God.”

That night, alone in my bungalow room near the border, I looked at the book I was carrying. Good god, could I have been any more earnest? It was Wayne Dyer’s Your Sacred Self. “I’m not religious,” I’d reassured myself when I bought it at the  second-hand book shop in Vientiane, “I’m just curious.”

Looking at the dorky yellow cover of that book, remembering the years I spent in Cathedrals (“I just find them comforting!”), and my original college major (religious studies) I realized two things: First, that I was a Christian and had been circling it for years, holding tight to my threads of denial as the evidence mounted.

Second, that I was a white woman from the Global North having a spiritual awakening in the  Global South. The horror: I was Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. I’m an intersectional activist, an abortion-loving queer lady of the night. Surely if god had any mercy, she would make me anyone but Elizabeth Gilbert discovering anything but her Christianity. In a Buddhist country colonized by a Christian one, no less,  all of this having started while listening to a Black Christian preacher whose faith communities were born in resistance to genocide and whiteness.

I whipped my copy of Your Sacred Self across the room in rage, crying as it smashed into the wall. I didn’t know what was more humiliating: being in my own personal Eat, Pray, Love or that I had been heading toward it for years and didn’t know it.

 

Chanelle Gallant is a writer, educator and long time activist in intersectional sex working and feminist communities. She has writing upcoming in Make/Shift and The Rumpus. You can find her at www.chanellegallant.com 

Flood

New Prose by Anna Doogan

People don’t seem to talk much about Vanport anymore. They razed the remains, put Delta Park there. Added a sports complex. . . The Black families in Portland these days are still pushed North by gentrification. They cling to the edges of the Albina neighborhood, Killingsworth, MLK Boulevard.

 

 

The weekend before Christmas, we take our kids to see the lights at Portland International Raceway, near Delta Park. A drive-through display of animated lights and holiday scenes. We know it’s a mistake once we get there.

“We should have come earlier,” my husband mutters as we swing into the line of cars.

We’ll sit in the line for two hours, three kids in the back bouncing up and down impatiently. In the dark, the line of waiting cars swirls and snakes, twists back to the highway and doubles around again. Bored volunteers wave us through the line with flashlights, pass candy canes through the windows.

We don’t seem any closer to the entrance, and the kids are getting restless, now wired on sugar. I stare out the window at the black fields and marsh of Delta Park, try to make out the shapes of frozen trees.

“This used to be Vanport City,” I tell my husband. He nods. He already knows. We stare out at the blackness of the land, listen to the Christmas carols on K103.

Vanport City was a cheap and poorly constructed attempt at a federal housing project in the 1940s. The largest housing project in the country, the second biggest city in Oregon.  A quarter of Vanport’s  residents were Black, unable to find  non-discriminatory housing within Portland’s edges.

When the Columbia River started rising, the Housing Authority told Vanport residents that they’d have ample warning before a flood hit. Time to move safely, time to prepare.

Instead, a 10-foot wall of water burst through Vanport later that same afternoon, destroying every building. Some killed, thousands permanently displaced. The entire city demolished by flood in one afternoon.

Displaced Black families moved to the North of Portland, Albina. The only area where Blacks could find affordable housing, redlined by banks as too risky for investments.

People don’t seem to talk much about Vanport anymore. They razed the remains, put Delta Park there. Added a sports complex. It has seven softball fields, nine for soccer. They put the Portland International Raceway there, host 5k runs and motorcycle shows. The annual  Christmas light exhibit. The Black families in Portland these days are still pushed North by gentrification. They cling to the edges of the Albina neighborhood, Killingsworth, MLK Boulevard.

Our car slowly inches forward in line. I suddenly feel sick, waiting here to see displays of twinkle lights shaped like reindeer, like Santa Claus. All I can think about is hats and shoes floating on water. Black mothers rushing children through flooding streets, back alleys. Brown hands sifting through cold water. Belongings left behind, forgotten.

My husband rolls down his window, forks over eighteen dollars to the waiting attendant so we can drive in to look at the lights.

Our children bounce in their seats, shriek with happiness.  Point out the glittering polar bear, the dancing elves waving in the cold air.

Underneath us, ghosts of parents and children and cities. Swallowed by rushing black waters, shoved far underground.

Guns in Three Parts – new prose by Amber Finn

 

“She wondered what a Lady would have needed a gun for and then decided she probably knew. ”

 

1

She thought carefully for a moment before choosing a gun. The faded red velvet lining of the box somehow made them both more dramatic and beautiful than it would have if it still retained its original scarlet, valentine hue. She knew he preferred the one with the black handle so her first instinct was to avoid it. As if touching it would some how alert him to her presence. When he’d first shown her the twin pistols he’d dismissed the mother-of-pearl stock as a “Lady’s gun” even though they were identical in size, weight and shape. She wondered what a Lady would have needed a gun for and then decided she probably knew.

She was relieved that she wasn’t afraid of them anymore. Having decided she wrapped her fingers firmly around the gun and then closed the box and hid it where she’d found it. She could never be sure that he didn’t use hairs or other invisible means to make sure drawers stayed shut. She’d found a few over the years and had been grateful that her blonde hair was fair enough to pass for his white more than once. He was more complacent these days or was too distracted to pay much attention to her. Maybe the sheer isolation of her situation made him believe she was incapable of trouble. She hoped so.

Backing into the hallway so that she could run to her room if she heard the front door knob rattle, she held the gun up to the light of the open window to check on the bullet chamber. It was full as she’d expected and she was relieved that she wouldn’t also have to go snooping for bullets. Already warm in her hands, the barrel and handle shone more like jewelry than death.   The sun darkened through the window and she hears thunder rolling in the distance. The afternoon monsoon is on its way and the moment passes her.  The gun now dull metal in her hands.  She runs down the hallway to her bedroom and she circles the bed before hiding the gun under the mattress on the side of the bed farthest from the door.  She is terrified and giddy and crosses over the threshold without feeling it..  She will look back for decades at this moment, at this choice and every time it will make her stronger. She is aware of simply not caring how this ends, only that it does now.

She will never know if the gun is what made the difference.  If he noticed it missing or noticed something different in her. Maybe it’s because she is almost thirteen and he is the one who changes but whatever the cause he stops coming into her room at night.  She waits in the dark with white knuckles gripping just beneath the edge of the mattress.  She is ready and determined to do whatever she has to but  he doesn’t come.

 

2

She felt a reassuring calmness spread through her. A new feeling she would have many more times throughout her life. It was the confidence of having made the right choice while bracing herself to act on it.

She reached the top of the stairs, pushed through the door and walked over to where she knew she would find it. It was heavy but modern at least and she double-checked the safety before going back downstairs.

The boy had shown up a few weeks ago. Snarling, on his bike, he chased kids throughout the complex and bruises and raw skin were the reward if he caught you. A few days ago he’d caught her best friend on the tennis court and had shoved her faced roughly into the ground. Her friend’s older brother saw the whole thing but did nothing and her heart felt heavy that someone big enough and old enough to stop this was too afraid to do anything.

No one would ever ask but she felt tired of this. Bullies were something she knew and they never stopped on their own.

He was still outside her house–gloating over the child next door and refusing to move body or bicycle from the stairs. He grinned at her return until he saw the dark grey shape in her hand. She really liked it when he stopped grinning.

“Go away now.” Her voice was much calmer than she had hoped. “Never come back here.”

“Shit! Put that away!”

He was already backing up, pulling his bicycle behind him. “Leave.”

The gun is as steady as her voice and she thinks she can see his eyes watering. This is fantastic. She suddenly didn’t care anymore what trouble would follow this.

“You’re crazy!”

She would take crazy if it meant that he was the one who was afraid this time.

“Don’t come back to find out.”

She can see the word bitch halt and tremble on his lips.  He’s too scared to let it tumble into the air.  She doesn’t lower the barrel until he is gone and only then does she see the same light now shining in her heart on the faces of the two smaller kids from next door.

“He won’t come back.” She tells them.  And he doesn’t.

 

3

The first time she goes to a gun range is on a late morning near the end of the short Washington summer. There is no one else there, just a few empty beer cans lined up at the end of a shale gravel pit and a few hopping ravens near a garbage can. The ravens scatter when the dusty flatbed pulls into lot.

They have been arguing all morning and she knows she’s lost this round but keeps hoping that something will happen to interrupt his plans.  She watches as he pulls two rifles from the gun rack in the back seat of the pickup. Her heart is pounding as he leans them on the fender and then walks to the end of the field to arrange the cans the way he wants them.  She thinks briefly that she could pick one of the rifles up and shoot him with it, end this all here.  But she doesn’t know if she can hit him and then what?  She will have still had to shoot one. Her mouth tastes like pennies.

Then he’s back.  “Can you see those ok?”

She wonders if he’s crazy.  “Sure.”

He unloads and reloads the first rifle for her, talking as he goes.  He reminds her of the kickback even though she remembers perfectly well the day he came home from bird hunting with a large gash on his nose because he had forgotten that one time.  Even her mother had giggled.  He holds the rifle up to the inside of his left shoulder and mimes shooting at the cans.  “Just like that.”

He holds out the rifle to her.  The dark opal ring on his hand glitters.

For some reason fear skips over some invisible line and suddenly she is angry.  She hates this.  She hates not wanting to touch his guns and not being given any choice.  He must be out of his mind to teach her to do this.  Why does he think she won’t use the knowledge against him?  Why does he think either of them will still be safe if she knows how to do this?  Like the times he pulls the truck onto an abandoned logging road and tells her they won’t go home if she won’t get behind the wheel.  They have changed homes enough times that he might be telling the truth this time but still she is so afraid that her teeth chatter and she pulls her school backpack into the driver’s seat  and sits on top of it so that she will be able to see over the dash better. She thought that nothing could scare her more than trying to control the truck and then this morning she finds out she is expected to take up shooting. She hates him.

She glares at him and grabs the other rifle. Not the one he wants her to take but the newer one still leaning against the truck. It is warm in her cold hands, the opposite of what she expected. She lifts it heavy to her shoulder and closes one eye while she tries to make herself steadier. She wants to close both eyes.  Instead she breathes in and she fires. The sound is worse than she expects and her ears are ringing even though she can still hear the last few echoes of the shot in the distance. There is a hiss behind one of the cans as the bullet buries itself in the shale hillside. She fires again  The middle can makes a thok sound and falls over. She can hear him start to congratulate her but she keeps firing until all 8 rounds are spent and five of the cans are knocked down. Her shoulder is sore like it’s been punched a few times in the same spot and she rolls it around to try to get some of the sting out. She leans the rifle up against the truck again and climbs into the cab and shuts the door. She can still smell the sulphur in the hot air. She doesn’t watch as he gathers up the shells and puts the guns back in the rack.  Instead she runs her fingernail through the dust on the window sill of the truck and turns over the feeling of having won something though she can’t say exactly what it was.

Amber Finn is an urban farmer with culinary training. After spending the ‘90s in Portland as a prototypical pierced and tattooed lesbian barista, she packed up her wife and two children to return to her homeland of British Columbia. She lives on the edge of the Salish Sea amid many progressives who value sustainability but still manages to find people who piss her off. When she’s not herding chickens, she is increasingly active in local politics.

Call Me Home

Excerpt from the new novel Call Me Home by Megan Kruse

Megan Kruse is a young writer of raw and fearless talent and Call Me Home showcases all she can do. She writes here of harrowing lives — of a family bent and broken by violence, where each person is desperately trying to somehow grow toward light and liberation. In the process, she offers a most unlikely tale of hardness and hustle, of grace and loss, of painful love and tough breaks and the unimaginable paths we must all eventually take toward survival.

— ELIZABETH GILBERT, author of Eat, Pray Love

 

Jackson

Silver, Idaho, 2010

The belated Easter party was to be held that Saturday night at A-frame A, the most complete of the new houses. Just a few beers, and then the Longhorn, according to the much-circulated plan.

 

Who had an Easter party? Jackson didn’t care. He was going to see Don. He hadn’t seen him since Honey brought him to the East side on Tuesday; each day that Don’s truck didn’t appear, Jackson tried to pretend he wasn’t disappointed. Now he shaved in the pocket mirror, the one he’d stolen from Lydia, and put on a clean shirt. He did everything slowly, meticulously. He drank the rest of the bottle of wine. What a girl he was. He thought again about the lock of hair he’d given to Chris. In his imagined, more perfect life, he discarded sentimentalities. Into the trash with the birthday cards, faded photographs. A better Jackson would scorn them all.

 

It was a little past seven when he made the walk to A-frame A. Already the light was draining away; he hadn’t remembered a flashlight. The lake was lapping against the shore, a dark, bright line that curved like a knife blade in the dim evening light. The clouds had lifted, and the faintest web of stars was beginning to stretch over the water. There were crushed cans along the path. When he got to A-frame A, there was already a crowd. Jackson was a little late, because he hadn’t wanted to be too early, but now it seemed like he shouldn’t have worried. He could hear Jay Donahue and Bill inside, shouting and laughing, already drunk. The floor was still not sanded, but the windowpanes were up, the electrical wiring coursing through like veins. Someone had set up a card table and filled it with bags of chips, open plastic cartons of donuts, and cupcakes. There was a group of men sitting around it, drinking from a small cityscape of open bottles. Don was nowhere in sight. He had the feeling of walking onto a stage.

 

“Jack!” Bill flagged him over. “You gotta hear about this. Tell him, Jay.”

 

The whole room smelled of men – a different smell from the high school cross-country locker room, which had appealed to Jackson in another way – wispy, ephemeral slips of running shorts, clean sweat, shampoo. The men in Silver smelled dirtier. Beer sweat, sawdust. No one had touched in the locker room – all of the runners were virginal, clean, and of themselves, communal only in their dedication to noble pursuits: a second shaved from the half mile, a lighter pair of running shoes. The Silver crew touched with beery, cheerful abandon, and Jackson was one of them. Their meaty hands palmed him. Was it possible they weren’t thinking of sex? All of the things that had marked him in Tulalip, in Portland, evaporated. It seemed like no one saw. Then there was Don, he thought. Don saw or he didn’t. Jackson looked around for him but he couldn’t see him. Josh, the crew leader on the north side, was holding up a pen, one of those naked lady pens, and laughing loudly. Jackson laughed loudly, too, slapped his own skinny leg – A broad! And her top falls off ! Was it really this simple? Men and their simple wants. Josh turned the pen and the woman’s top slid down again.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Jackson saw Don climb the steps to the open house, knocking his boots against the doorframe. Don was wearing a red sweater that pulled against his stomach, his round shoulders hunched forward. He was carrying a case of beer and smoking a cigarette.

 

Don didn’t look at him. He gave a wide, encompassing smile to the room, and Jackson concentrated on an open fifth of Early Times. He took a long drink, and then another. One of the guys slapped him on the back. “Good man!” he said, knocking his own bottle against Jackson’s.

 

Amy

Women’s Shelter, Alamogordo,

New Mexico, 2010

 

The New Mexico sun was a flat disk, the clouds high above in the hard blue sky. The house was the same as all of the others in town – a brown stucco box, bleached to a bone color in places. Inside was a long hallway with six doors and part of a family behind each one. The mailbox was always empty, and it bothered her the way the mail car drove right by. Wasn’t it a giveaway? It seemed like an obvious thing to overlook when you were trying to make a building look like a home, like a place that held any whole family instead of six or seven approximations: what was left of families, after. The backyard was a scrabble of dirt and rock, where Lydia sat with a little boy against the tall wooden fence while Amy was inside talking to the caseworker.

 

“You can’t blame your son,” the woman kept saying to her. “You can’t blame him, and you can’t blame yourself, but you were right, you needed to go without him. You couldn’t take the chance that it would happen again.” The woman’s eyes were watering, in danger of spilling over. “This happens with teenagers,” she said gently. “They get angry at their mothers. They want their fathers’ love, and their fathers manipulate them just like they manipulated you. You had to make a decision for your safety and your other child’s safety.” She waited, but Amy didn’t say anything. “Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

 

Her head felt thick. The woman didn’t understand. Who would? The idea of trying to explain made her feel like she was trying to walk through thick mud with aching, bone-tired legs. He was safe, she knew that. Jackson was always the self-sufficient one, the big brother. But that was the problem – he rarely seemed to need his mother, but he needed Lydia, and Lydia him. From the time Lydia was an infant he’d watched his sister, held her, fed her, protected her. Amy had at times almost resented their closeness, Jackson’s hovering, for the way it implicated her, proved what Amy knew: that Gary was dangerous. In some ways, Amy thought, Jackson considered Lydia to be his, and she couldn’t blame him for it.

 

She hadn’t chosen one over the other, she told herself now; she had not. It was the right thing to do. Jackson had a life ahead of him that shabby Tulalip, Washington, could not give him, and she knew with as much certainty as she knew her own love for him that he would leave that town, that he would make his own life and see his father for what Gary was. And to take Jackson – to bring him to this new life, when he was supposed to be starting his own – wasn’t right.

Bridges

New prose by Shari Winslow

“This is what happens when you teach high school,” she said. “You connect if you can, and you love them even when you hate them, and you just care so damn much. And then they’re gone in some way or another.”

 

I saw her on the street. First Avenue, on my way to the bookstore. She’d cut her hair; instead of her long, thick braid she sported a choppy bob, her dark blonde edges brushing the top of her collar. Her black pea coat was the same, though. One arm hung loose against her side. For awhile she’d tried wearing a prosthetic arm, but she hated that. She’d gone her entire life without a left arm, and trying to fit one into a space where she’d never missed one before made her feel even more self-conscious.

“Hey,” I said. “You changed your hair.”

She turned and smiled.

“Yeah, well. It’s almost the only thing I can change. So why not?”

Snowflakes drifted in the damp, gray air, swirled in the glow of the Christmas lights still on the trees, but didn’t land, didn’t stick. It was early January. She had been dead for nearly a year.

She walked away.

I saw her everywhere. Not every day, not all the time, but everywhere: in the produce section at Fred Meyer. In the food court at the mall. Striding down Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma, towards Union Station. But of course it never really was her. She would turn around and look right through me with a stranger’s face. Her perfectly functional right arm would clutch a purse, her left arm swinging free.

In late February of the previous year, the head of the English department at the high school where I taught said, “Did you hear? Bethany killed herself.” Her eyes gleamed with the juiciness of the gossip. She loved being the one to break the news. She had taught Bethany for one semester of IB literature, but Bethany was in my sophomore class the entire previous year. Halfway through her junior year she asked to be my TA after she dropped calculus. Most of the time she sat at my desk and read while I walked around my room, gesturing wildly at my sophomores. Sometimes I caught her smile when I paused in front of a kid’s desk and said, “The life you save will be your own!” or “You might think this is just a notebook for English class, but this is the essence of your soul!” She entered grades into my green spiral grade book with the vinyl green cover. Her handwriting was perfect.

She borrowed my copy of The Awakening and spilled coffee on the cover. Just a corner. It barely warped, and it didn’t matter. Of course it didn’t matter. But she couldn’t stop apologizing.

I didn’t count the number of times I walked her up to the counselor’s office. I didn’t ask how she managed to cut her right wrist when she didn’t have a left arm. I just watched as she sipped from a styrofoam cup of water, and when she finished, she used her perfectly manicured thumbnail to shred that cup into a perfect spiral, her jaw clenched.

Her counselor was short, feisty, warm, with a Peruvian accent. I can still hear the way she said her name: Bay-thany.

Bethany shredded her yellow paper hall pass next.

Her counselor called her mother. Again. Bethany already saw a therapist, already took medication, but her counselor explained to her mother that she was sitting there in her office, sobbing, with fresh cuts.

Her mother wanted to know how her math grade was.

I wrote Bethany’s letter of recommendation, because she was brilliant and because I wanted her to get out. She lasted one semester at Mount Holyoke.

My department head said, “I heard she was sexually assaulted and just went crazy. She didn’t even go back to school second semester.”

I walked back to my classroom. My sophomores arranged their desks in a circle for their Socratic Seminar on All Quiet on the Western Front. What is worth fighting for? I half-listened, trying to take notes. My kids glanced at me, trying to see if I was writing when they were whispering and giggling and having chatty side conversations. I looked at my paper. The only thing I could write, sitting safely and miserably in a circle of sophomores, was a single sentence: Bethany killed herself.

After lunch the counselor called me up to her office.

“I wanted to make sure you’re okay,” she said.

“I’m okay,” I said, but I cried, and so did she.

“This is what happens when you teach high school,” she said. “You connect if you can, and you love them even when you hate them, and you just care so damn much. And then they’re gone in some way or another.”

You lose them all eventually, in so many ways, so many ordinary ways.

And then you lose some because they die, because they drink too much and drive on the wrong side of Peasley Canyon Road. Or they slip and fall when they’re hiking on Mount Rainier on a family vacation.

And you lose some because they kill themselves.

You lose one because she jumps off the Aurora Bridge on an ordinary day in February.

They call it the Suicide Bridge; I read one article that claimed a person died each month. Sometimes bodies land on the pavement, or on cars. The dot-com employees working below the bridge talk about grief counselors being brought into their offices.

Sometimes the jumpers land in the water, and they might not die right away.

Bethany landed in the water. Bethany. Bay-thany.

But I didn’t hear anything until afterwards. After she died, after the funeral. My department chair’s eyes gleaming with gossip. The counselor’s eyes closed with grief. You lose some. You lose some.

The last time I saw her, really saw her, she was visiting one of her friends on campus during her Thanksgiving break. They hugged each other, smiled, giggled. I caught her eye and waved and thought that maybe she’ll be fine.

Shari Winslow writes and teaches English in the Pacific Northwest.

Christmas Lost and Found – by Margaret Elysia Garcia


“Our worst fights have always happened during Christmas. I have always bought my own Christmas gift and wrapped it and set it under the tree pretending it was from him. He has spent all of our Christmas’ retiring early to bed. Disengaging. Or drunk.”

 

When he was in elementary school, my husband’s mother took him to his aunt’s house for a Christmas party—and then left him there without a word, without so much as a change of clothes, for months. His aunt had four kids and a superior attitude of a sister with a green card, a husband, and a mortgage. He could stay and be a grateful eight-year-old. He could watch her kids open presents. He could have left over toys already half broken from their birthdays and other Christmases. He could unwrap the present that was wrapped for unexpected guests during the holiday season. Cheap women’s cologne you buy at the drug store. A badly scented candle. A weird toy from Avon.

He asked Santa in a mall for a Star Wars action figure. He wanted a Millennium Falcom but knew better than to ask big. He’d settle for a Han Solo—even a knock down made in China and sold in Mexican swapmeets where the face of the doll didn’t quite match up to where the machines placed the eyes and the hair so everything looked slightly off and slightly cheap and slightly Mexican swapmeet.

At school, where he was trying desperately to keep a low profile and to fit in with American kids despite his lack of English and his clothes that reeked of fresh over the border (black dress leather cowboy boots and button down shirts and big belt buckle like he was some mini weekend brown cowboy ready for Sunday school or norteno singing). The white teachers got stuff ready for the Christmas program. In the nativity scene all the angels were white, Mary, Joseph, the baby doll stand in for Jesus, the shepherd, even the wise men from the Orient—all white. It was someone’s bright idea to make the brown kids in the ESL class sing “Feliz Navidad” like they must have sung it in their home country. My husband had never heard it before and they made him sing and dance at the program, singing it to the little white kids—along with Cambodian refugee kids and other brown kids, because that seemed like the perfect spot for the other kids in the Christmas program.

As an American teenager, he often spent it alone or with a bottle on Santa Monica beach looking out on the ocean, thinking about disappearing. By that time, he’d been adopted by West Side jews and did Hanukah instead. It didn’t hurt as much and he was happy to eat Chinese food on Christmas.

When December rolls around my husband becomes increasingly hard to live with. He usually refuses to partake in any of the festivities. I’ve never seen him put an ornament on the tree and usually I’m the one who does Christmas. I do the shopping, I do the baking, I do the Christmas cards, and I do the singing in choir and the decorating of the house.

Our worst fights have always happened during Christmas. I have always bought my own Christmas gift and wrapped it and set it under the tree pretending it was from him. He has spent all of our Christmas’ retiring early to bed. Disengaging. Or drunk.

I’m the one who puts water in the tree to keep it fresh. He’s the one who volunteers to chop the tree up for kindling afterwards.

I insist on keeping the tree up ‘til Epiphany. I put up my grandmother’s nativity scene despite not having any religious affiliation anymore. I put the three kings on the opposite side of the living room and slowly move them over to present their gifts to the baby Jesus.

I have no problems with myths; I thrive on creation.

Our children are 10 and almost 12 and still believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, leprechauns, the Easter Bunny. Anything really—except Jesus. I’m floored by their belief, as I have felt so very little. But I do believe that people can change. Perhaps their belief comes from me.

Our tradition has become me overcompensating for his under achieving holiday spirit. But this year, I couldn’t do it. My mother had been sick. And then I had been sick. And I had no energy to find the Christmas boxes in the storage shed nor energy to buy a tree permit and go chop one down in an area that needs thinning as is the tradition for mountain folk living in a national forest. I couldn’t really bake cookies. I didn’t send any cards. The most I could do was sit catatonic on the couch and occasionally order something online while watching sitcoms on huluplus. It was already the second week of December and there was no hint of red or green in the house.

The children started to worry and I started to cry. My husband offered to do the thing that would send most mountain people into an uproar of protest: he offered to go buy a tree from in front of Rite Aid from the Boy Scouts. My kids were beside themselves. Buy a tree?! Buy a tree?! No one buys a tree. You put hot cocoa in a well insulated thermos and you put snacks in the cooler and you borrow someone’s 4WD vehicle , go up into the mountains with a saw and determination and you cut down your tree. This is what I get for fostering a tradition with my children.

I started to cry in front of them. Something I try hard never to do. And then we were all crying. And then I went to lay down for awhile.

When I woke up, they were back from Rite Aid with a tree. They’d found three of the five boxes labeled ‘Christmas’ in the storage shed and had begun to decorate the living room and the tree. They only found one string of working lights and they didn’t get a Charlie Brown Christmas tree like I usually get when I chop one down, but instead a bushy, perfectly symmetrical cone shaped tree. The perfect kind, that you buy.

The kids did an abysmal job of decorating the living room and the tree. The ornaments all seemed to cluster towards the top, the lights somewhere around the middle and the bottom of it was completely bare. They put it in a precarious place by the corner of the living room and kitchen which would make sitting in the dining room that much more difficult from branches jutting out. They cluttered the living room with all the decorations that other people have given me that I never put out but feel to guilty to throw away.

My husband bought Christmas presents to distribute among the four of us—and the ones that come from Santa. No cards were mailed. Nothing got baked. Someone sent a box of Sees. He bought some store bought goodies. He made us drinks. He helped plan the menu and he went and picked up my friend from college who joined us. Somehow, in the absence of my well spirit, he found his.

Margaret Elysia Garcia blogs at taleasofasierramadre.com

New Work by Cynthia Bostwick

FISHING

by Cynthia Bostwick

After I turned fifty I got braver, and when she says, “Your grandfather was a good man,”

I say, “No, mom, he was an abusive son of a bitch.”

My mother’s memory of that night must be vivid. As she’s gotten older, she tells it more often. She awakens in the night, in her upstairs bedroom, to find her father in her bed. He’s drunk. She’s a teenager. She says the worst thing was he threw up on her new bedroom rug.

My sister and I share a glance. What the fuck was her father doing in her bed? Drunk? So drunk he threw up? The story is endlessly shocking, even on repeat telling, because it always ends the same way. My mother gets a far off look in her eyes, and she giggles a little, “I really liked that rug. I was so mad.”

I was so mad. But she was never mad when he kicked her, breaking a rib. Or when he broke a date’s nose when she got home half an hour late. Or when he called her a bitch in heat and made her smoke a cigar with him. After I turned fifty I got braver, and when she says, “Your grandfather was a good man,”

I say, “No, mom, he was an abusive son of a bitch.”

My mother shrugs. “Well, he was strict,” and she looks into the distance, “but he loved me.”

I have never told her about him exposing himself to me in a rowboat, with my brother. Well, I must have told her when it happened, unless my brother convinced me I shouldn’t. I never told her about the recurring nightmares I had about that time, how I would never again go fishing with my grandfather, how my dreams had me getting hit in the head with a rock, and my grandfather telling me not to tell my mom, because I had gotten blood all over my blouse and she would be very, very mad at me. I no longer know, clearly, what part is the dream and what part is real. But I know what I saw, and I know my brother said, “Grandpa, your snake is showing.”

I am awakened by a mooing sound outside my bedroom window. I know it is my grandfather, and we are going fishing today. I am six, maybe seven. My parents had a party the night before, and it was pretty loud. They are still sleeping. I get dressed. My brother is already in the kitchen. He hands me my straw hat. We walk down the front lawn to the lake, and there is grandpa, with his khakis, his old cotton shirt, a burning cigar, and our poles. He has a grownup version of my hat on. His wire-rimmed glasses are perched on his nose. In the boat is a cardboard cylinder, I know there are squirming worms inside.

My grandfather waves his cigar, motioning us into the boat, and he steps in. The boat rocks a bit, next to the dock. He stumbles a little, and we take our seats. Me in the bow, my brother rowing, and my grandfather in the stern.

The sun is low, below the trees, the summer day is just beginning. My grandfather unwraps biscuits, cut in half, buttered and put back together. I can smell my grandmother’s Estee Lauder perfume on the handkerchief he has them wrapped in, the sun shines through the soft cotton. The water is still, just the ripples around the oars as they dip into the water, in rhythm. The galvanized catch pail sits waiting. He tosses a biscuit to me, and I catch it with one hand. He eats one, smiling at me.

We’re out just before the weeds, over the bluegill beds. He puts the biscuits back in his pocket, and take a pole from the seat. He lifts it up, and lets out a little line to unhook the line and sinker from the rod. Reaching back sideways, he casts the line over the beds to catch a fish. The red and white bobber sinks slightly, then rights itself on the surface. I bite into the biscuit, the warm butter drips out the side of my mouth. My brother tucks the oars into the boat and readies his line. There’s no rod for me, I am just along for the view. A pair of mallards swims into the reeds.

My brother casts, and I duck—he is close enough to hook me and I am dreadfully afraid of fish hooks. Last week, my brother hooked Andy, our neighbor, as they were casting from the shore. The only way to get the hook out of his back as to push the barb through his skin and cut the barb off with a pliers: Andy tried to be tough, but in the end he cried as the barb pushed through his pale skin and my father clipped off the barb.

I right myself and look at my grandfather. I see that his penis is hanging out of his open fly like a long sausage. My brother sits between us and I poke him. He looks at me, and I point. My brother laughs. “Grandpa, your snake is showing.” I giggle. My grandfather looks right at me. It seems like forever, but finally he tucks it back inside his baggy khakis, the ones he always wears fishing.

That night I have a dream, the first of my many recurring instances of the dream. My brother and grandfather walk me up the shore to our house. Blood streams from my head, and I am wearing my favorite blouse, a white and blue sailor’s blouse, what they called a “middy.” It’s soaked in blood. I cry. My brother tells me to be quiet.

“Mark threw a rock out of the boat and it hit me in the head,” I sob. My grandfather orders me to take the shirt off, and he puts it in the catch pail. I go to my room. No one else is there, and I am still bleeding. My brother tries to wipe away the blood, and my grandfather says I can’t tell anyone what happened.

“But my middy blouse,” I sob, “Mom will be so mad.” He says he’ll get the blood out, but I think how can he? My blouse is soaking in the fish pail with hooked bluegills.

Years after my grandfather died, I ask my brother about this dream. I tell him I’ve had it so many times, and ask if he remembers anything. We’re both high from the joint we’ve shared. “Never,” he says, “that never happened, Cin.”

I tell him not to call me that. I hate that nickname. He looks shocked. “But we’ve always called you that,” he says, incredulous.

“I know, but I am not a Cin,” I say. I feel the fear and sadness rising. “I am not a Cin and I don’t want to be called one.”

He holds his hands up, as if to fend off a blow, “OK, sure. No worries.” I pass the joint back to him. I never have the dream again.

A couple of years ago, I asked my mother about the events in my dream. “Mom, I have this memory of getting hit in the head with a rock Mark threw and bleeding all over my middy blouse. Do you remember that?”

“You loved that blouse. I loved you in that blouse,” my mom says.

“I did love that blouse,” I say. “But did that ever happen? Do you remember that?”

“Your brother was always throwing rocks,” she says, “and you put your hand through two windows,” she says.

“But do you remember if he ever hit me in the head with one? I think we were out fishing with Grandpa.”

“No, I don’t remember that. I do remember Daddy coming and mooing at your window to wake you up to go fishing,” she says. “He loved you kids.”

And that’s the end of it.

*
Cynthia Bostwick lives and writes in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she learns new lessons everyday from her ten year old son, her spouse, Linda, their dog Henry and the sad and angry people she meets in her day job as a lawyer.

Midlife Teen Mama Trauma

Mid-Life Teen Mama Trauma
By Nina Packebush

 

Last night a text came in from my girlfriend’s ex-wife saying that their 13-year-old daughter was in the ER with difficulty breathing.

Of course my girlfriend went into Mama Panic Mode and prepared to head straight to the hospital 30 minutes away. She went into our bedroom to grab her shoes and wallet.

I followed and, as I opened my drawer and pulled out a clean, long sleeved shirt to hide my tattoos, I reminded her to change her clothes. I made sure my jeans were reasonably clean, free of holes, decently fitting and that my Chuck Taylors were the newer ones, rather than the tattered, dirty ones.

My girlfriend was wearing Friday-night-in-a-partnership comfortable clothes, meaning she was a little sloppy. The colorful Vans she chose weren’t the right shoes for an almost 50-year-old woman.

She turned to me with confused irritation. “I’m not changing my clothes. We need to go. It’s just the hospital.”

It’s just the hospital.

I looked back at her with anxiety building; my mind trying to figure out the best course of action. She was stressed and frantic, but she looked sloppy–cute queer sloppy for sure, but certainly not respectable and well-kept. I didn’t want to insult her or tell her what to do, but I was genuinely confused. The hospital hasn’t been just a hospital to me since I was eighteen-years-old and went in for my first OB appointment.  I was assigned a social worker and was counseled about the wisdom of giving up my baby for adoption. When I shyly told them that wasn’t an option I was assigned a nurse to visit my home after the birth of my baby. I didn’t realize until after the fact that the purpose of this nurse visit was to determine if my home was safe for my baby and to observe my parenting. As I navigated doctor appointments, playground politics, ER visits, and even everyday trips to the grocery store I learned that I wasn’t the right kind of parent. I looked away when people stared.

I learned to laugh when the pediatrician joked, “So you know how this happened, so it won’t happen again, right?” while he weighed and examined my infant at his first well-baby check-up.

I pretended not to care when people asked me if my son was my little brother.  I quietly answered when complete strangers asked me how old I was and “Is the dad still around?” It didn’t take me long to learn that presentation mattered. Words mattered. Image mattered.  A lot. And it especially mattered in the presence of authority.

I’m a queer mama with three children; 28, 24, 17, and I’m co-raising my eight-year-old grandson with my middle daughter, who also happens to be a teen mama. I have spent my entire parenting life as too young while navigating different levels of broke, poor, or lower-middle-class, and most of the last thirteen years queer single parenting. My girlfriend, on the other hand, is a 49-year-old mama of a 13-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son. Her son is essentially the same age as my grandson.  My girlfriend has spent the majority of her thirteen years as a parent partnered in a solid lesbian relationship, living a solid middle class life.

My girlfriend and her ex-wife had been diligent and intentional on every step of their parenting journey. They had picked out sperm donors and paid for insemination. They had a house, financial security, and a stable relationship before they started their family. My family began on one of several drunken nights collecting sperm the old fashioned way from my spandex-wearing, wispy mustache toting, heavy metal boyfriend. My pregnancy brought tears, canceled abortion appointments, subsidized medical care, and not one second of preplanning. Her journey into motherhood included celebrations, fulfilled dreams, and genuine happiness.  Our parenting experience was night and day.

I was quiet on the way to the hospital that night.  I rubbed her neck and I reassured her that everything would be fine, but that brief exchange standing in front of our dresser was heavy in my mind.  Of course I had always felt that teen mama was an integral part of my identity, but until that moment when I stood face to face with my girlfriend, I hadn’t fully realized just how deeply that identity and experience had shaped me.  I’m 47 years old, in the beginning phase of menopause, have adult children, and am a doting granny, but I’m still a teenage mother. Teen Mama will be an identity that I carry for the rest of my life, right alongside the scars and tools for survival that the experience gave me.

When we got to the hospital nobody looked twice at my girlfriend. She was a mama who had rushed out the door to be with her kid. She was the right age, the right socio-economic background, her kid had private insurance. While I sat alone in the waiting room that night I noticed a sign that read, this is a safe place to leave your newborn. In my exhaustion and stress I had to fight back the tears. I know what it’s like to be young, pregnant, and afraid. I can imagine the scenarios that would drive someone to make the choice to drop their infant off with strangers. Yes, adult women sometimes drop infants off, but the average age of a mother relinquishing her baby to an Infant Safe Space is nineteen. I took a picture of the sign, and when I got home I showed it to my daughter.

She shuddered, “This makes me so sad. I can’t even imagine…but I can.”

And that’s the thing, we can both imagine because we have both felt the shame, confusion, marginalization, and loneliness that being a teen mama is. We have both faced judgment and we have both had our parenting questioned for no other reason than we were too young, despite the fact that we are damn good moms.

I said to my daughter, “You know I can imagine being eighty years old and still reaching for the long sleeve shirt and clean shoes before going to the doctor, the ER, the hospital.” She nodded.  She knew exactly what I was talking about.

Becoming a mama before I became an adult shaped who I am, and although there are a lot of scars associated with that, those scars make me who I am today. Those scars are evidence that I’m damn strong. Those scars have left me with a deep empathy for other people and an ability to creatively survive and thrive. I’m a queer. I’m a writer. I’m a granny. I’m a wanna-be-urban farmerand an unschooler. I’m a lot of things, but mostly I’m a teen mama and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, not even a good credit score and the ability to go the hospital in rumpled sweats and a tank top.

Nina Packebush is a rad, queer, zinester granny living in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared in a variety of alternative publications and websites including Hip Mama Magazine, Mutha Magazine, The Icarus Project, Literary Kitchen, and the anthology My Baby Rides the Short Bus. Nina is currently working on a young adult novel. You can find more of her writing and some of her audio at: thegrannychronicles.com

 

On Suicide, Sex, and Therapy

THIS IS THE WORK
New prose by Megan Jennifer

Suicide is cocky. “Yeah, it’s like a revolving door around your office these days. Everyone wants to talk about me.” Suicide is pleased with itself . . . Suicide doesn’t care that it’s hard for me. Suicide looks at me through shifty shark eyes, eating up my anger and all of this attention. “What’s so hard about it? Isn’t that your job, to talk to people about me?”

Full and Empty

Tonight at women’s group, we check in by answering the questions: what are you full and empty of right now? It is meant to be a brief jumping off place, to gather a sense of where everyone is and how the night could unfold. My answers flash across my mind instantly. I am full of anger and overwhelm. I am empty of comfort and release.

After each of us has spoken, Erin invites us to expand on our check-in headlines in action. I stand up from the bright orange, sectional couch in the far corner of the office and move into the wide-open expanse of hardwood floor at the center of the room. When it’s my turn, Erin asks me to pick a prop from the assortment of scarves, stuffed animals, hats, and trinkets, and to show my anger without using words. I choose a medium-sized stuffed shark from the shelf and take two small steps towards the middle of the group. My hands grip the neck of the shark as I raise it over my head and hurl it at the ground in front of me as hard as I can. The thump is satisfying, but not sufficient. I eye it there, on the floor at my feet, then kick it across the room. Watching the grey and white shark fly through the air makes me laugh. I notice that I can breathe again, my chest is already less constricted from harboring my anger.

Later that evening, the shark and I meet again. I set the stage for a dialogue with suicide, the source of this week’s anger and overwhelm. Erin, our group leader, volunteers to play suicide, an edgy and challenging role to enact. She usually directs any psychodrama work we do, but no one else wants to attempt this, so she steps in. It’s almost hard to imagine Erin, this sweet, intuitive therapist with a musical voice in such a villainous role. To cast her as Suicide, I drape two sheer scarves, royal blue and black, around her shoulders, pulling her long brown hair out of the way, and I hand her the stuffed shark. This way we can clearly tell the difference between when Erin is herself, and when she is representing the embodied concept of suicide.

I set up two low, armless chairs, facing each other. One for Suicide, one for me. Constructing the scene myself is part of this work. The minute I sit down across from Suicide my anger spits forth. “I’m fucking livid at you, Suicide. You’re sneaky and you won’t stop sending people to my office, who need to talk about you. I hate it, I’ve had enough.”

Suicide is cocky. “Yeah, it’s like a revolving door around your office these days. Everyone wants to talk about me.” Suicide is pleased with itself.

“Yeah, and they want my help. They want me to educate them about you, tell them it’s OK, that it isn’t their fault if someone they love dies because of you. Or they need me to reassure them that it isn’t their job to keep someone safe from you. I’m sick of it. I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s too hard.”

Suicide doesn’t care that it’s hard for me. Suicide looks at me through shifty shark eyes, eating up my anger and all of this attention. “What’s so hard about it? Isn’t that your job, to talk to people about me?”

I keep ranting. “You know damn well what’s so hard. You took my sister, you took my cousins. Stop taking the people I love. Enough!”

“Yeah, you just can’t escape me, can you?” Suicide taunts me. “Even here, one of your safest places, you aren’t immune to me.” Suicide is smug.

Back and forth we argue. I rage against the injustice of multiple losses. I voice doubts about any responsibility I hold for my sister’s death. I rail against having to be the calm, grounded therapist with clients who are spinning out with their own fears about suicide – for themselves, or their loved ones. “Where do I get to wail like my clients do? Where do I fall apart?”

This especially gets Erin’s attention. She’s still in her role as Suicide, but she sees this as a way to invoke more intense self-care into my days. “Where do you fall apart? Why don’t you cry like that? Where do you allow your anger to be seen?”

My voice is small, not as fierce as I’d like. “I bring my anger here, to group. I take it to therapy. I let it out in the scenes I do with the woman I am playing with. I write it. I am wading through this grief and anger the best ways I know how.”

This is where we close the dialogue, as good a place to end as we can find. To escort Erin out of her role as Suicide, I remove the scarves from her and put away the shark. I choose a bright orange scarf from the shelf and wave it all around Erin. I look into her eyes and say, “You are no longer Suicide, you’re Erin.”

I take my seat back on the couch with the four other women in my group who observed this conversation. They each share what they noticed in my work or how it affected them. I am told I am brave. It doesn’t resonate with me. Brave feels like something one chooses. I didn’t choose this relationship with suicide. And I have no choice but to live my way through this.

The group shifts focus to another woman’s work. I take one of the purple pillows on the couch and rest my head, letting myself fade out of attending to the voices around me.

 

Fierce Compassion

(Post-scene reflections for Ma’am)

I was so nervous, fearful of falling apart as I knelt before you. A chill ran through me even though the room radiated warmth—red walls of exposed brick, black leather furniture, a plush orange blanket draped across one chair. Your touch, your hand over my heart, your eyes on mine reminded me that I am safe here. “It’s OK to let go, your emotion is welcome. In fact, you’re not allowed to hold it in, give it over to me.”

I needed your words more than I could articulate. When I closed my eyes to the intensity of your gaze, you commanded me back, made me look at you and breathe. That moment conveyed such fierce compassion and care I almost couldn’t bear it. Yielding to your feet kicking my ass, or your fists on my back, even your hand in my cunt is easier for me to breathe through than that moment, eye to eye. 

Tonight was the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever experienced. One layer of intensity after another, pounding down around me like giant waves breaking over my head, pushing my body to absorb it and let it move out through me. My throat is raw from grunting, growling, yelling. My body is already sore and will be even more so tomorrow. But for now it feels blissfully worn out. I am spent, used, exhausted both physically and emotionally. I feel relief and release. I am grateful—to myself for making this scene happen, for giving myself permission, and to you, for taking me to these places with such skill and attunement. 

I cried many times tonight from the impact, from the rush of emotion pouring out of my body as I processed the physical pain. I cried for the way my body took what you inflicted on me, incorporated it, kept my breath moving and let it pull the tension, sorrow, rage and fear from me. 

There are marks across my belly and my breasts from whips I got to watch you throw, each movement full of concentrated grace. It is breathtakingly sexy to watch the spark in your eyes and your smile as you focus on your next move. At that distance, the length of the single-tail whip you wield, the eye-contact is less intense, I can tolerate it more easily.

Tonight was different in that I concentrated on giving you my pain, let myself release the tension and hurt and sadness I’ve been lugging around. I felt your fists strike it out of me. It is a profound relief to let my body do some of the hard work of this grieving, to feel the intensity on my skin, in my muscles, to experience the thrill of pushing my limits, and the release of letting go.

I like that my tears are welcome here, that all of my emotion is. I adore that I am seen here, really seen as who I am. I can be afraid here and I don’t have to hide; I’m not allowed to hide. You are here to witness, to honor the grief I am pushing through, to help me navigate decades of shame and oceans of loss. 

This time I really noticed your eyes, robin’s egg blue fading to a faint hint of sky. They twinkle. They write compassion all over my body. They can hold whatever I need to bring here. I am safe in your eyes. 

 

This is the Work

It is a relief to have a sense of what’s coming. We’ve only ever done EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprogramming) one other time, and in that session I cried so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. Tears poured out of me as I gulped for air. But it felt like it shifted some piece of my grief towards healing so I was willing to try it again.

I’d try just about anything Gayle suggested at this point. She’s been my therapist off and on for fifteen years and knows me more intimately than almost anyone in my life. Before this session, I sent Gayle an email listing headlines of things that I’d been weathering since we last met. With EMDR we don’t talk much, so I knew I wouldn’t get to process these details, but I needed her to hold the context. We spoke briefly when I arrived about how difficult the previous week had been, how stress and anxiety had ran rampant through my days. I reiterated that I was calmer so far this week.

We scoot my chair close to hers, so we’re sitting across from each other about a foot apart. The chair is one thing I dislike about EMDR. Lately at Gayle’s office I only want to sit on the floor, either with my back against the wall if I’m coping well, or at her feet with my head in her lap if I’m fragile and need to cry. But for EMDR we need to be eye-level to each other, so I have to sit in the chair.

When instructed, I close my eyes and pay attention to what is happening inside my body and mind. I notice any emotions or thoughts drifting through my consciousness. Gayle invites me to share what I notice and we talk back and forth a little until we land on something that feels significant. When that happens, I open my eyes. She holds up two fingers on her right hand, and waves them back and forth across my line of vision. My job is to follow her fingers, like one of those creepy cat clocks where the eyes shift sideways rhythmically. At the end of twenty or thirty passes in front of my face, Gayle brings her fingers to a stop in the center of my field of vision, and asks me to close my eyes. We repeat this cycle many times throughout our session.

At one point, with my eyes closed, I hear myself say, “Everybody leaves.” Gayle asks me to stay with that, to notice how my body feels when I focus on the statement that everybody leaves. My stomach begins to swirl inside. I feel nervous and scared. My chest tightens and my breathing goes shallow. I am angry and I want to yell. I report all of this to Gayle with my eyes still closed.

Gayle has me put one hand on my belly and one hand on my chest. My desire to yell intensifies. I hold that position for several moments. Then she asks if I want to yell with my eyes open or closed. As I consider this, I notice the energy shift inside me. I breathe the intensity down, calm it through my breath and swallow the yell. I no longer want to yell, I don’t want to speak this anger.

This is where Gayle gets really clear and instructive. She tells me that moment, right there, is a major piece of our work – learning to cross that chasm of not swallowing down my emotions, of not shrinking away, of giving all the parts of myself a chance to speak, to yell, to emote, to exist and be seen, heard, validated. I can feel the passion in her voice, hear the depth of her tenderness towards me. Her dark brown eyes and warm smile emanate love and acceptance.

Somehow I find my words to ask, “Now can I sit on the floor? Are we done yet?”

“Yes, of course, we’re finished with EMDR for today, but we’re not out of time.” I push my chair out of the way and settle myself on the carpet in front of her. My arms are folded across Gayle’s lap and I let myself lay my head down, waiting for the tears to flow. She puts one hand on my shoulder to soothe me.

In that moment, I am struck by how much overlap there is in the work I am doing in each realm of therapy. I notice the way these pieces are knit together within me. With Gayle I feel compelled to use my voice in a big way, and then I swallow it down. In scene with Ma’am, I’m encouraged to sound more like a lion and less like a mouse. I get praised for making noise there, both to speak my desire, and to process the intensity of impact and sensation I am experiencing. At women’s group, I talk back to suicide, and speak openly about being angry.

In all of these places my work is the same – to learn how to be in my body, to find and amplify my voice, to show up and be seen, to cultivate genuine presence. The venues are so different, and yet they aren’t. It is all therapy. It is all self-work. It is all part of constructing the authentic life I want. The work tangles in and around itself as I move between these connections. These are the primary places my body receives touch. These are the places where I get to be an embodied emotional creature. These are the places I am seen and held. This is where I am learning to heal.

Our session ends before I have time to voice any of this to Gayle. We’ve been sitting in silence, connected through touch and shared emotional experience. I stand up slowly, checking to make sure my feet aren’t asleep from sitting cross-legged. I ask for a hug and she holds me tight. When we pull away, I start to thank her but she gets there first. “Thank you for letting me in this far. This is powerful, core work we’re doing. I’m honored.” My words fall silent but a shy smile crosses my lips as I step away and walk out the door.

 

Megan Jennifer writes memoir about grief, love, identity, family, therapy and tangled relationships. Her work has been published in two anthologies and she is working on her first book.

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.