(excerpt) "We believe in one God, Father the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth..." I was raised a Roman Catholic. I have painted my old Reeboks white so they look new; they're stiff as I walk downtown toward our apartment. The steeple from my school and the lake behind it disappear behind the run-together row of clapboard bars, hair salons, and the broken down apartment buildings. Lilacs are always pushing through the dirty fences and even they smell like cigarettes and beer. Gum all over the sidewalk; gum in my mouth. I look down. I'm nervous every day at age eleven. I am shy. I do what I'm told and I have manners. I pray. I pray for my mother. I pray for the holy force to make Joey Larson fall in love with me. My shoes are dirty from the day--in the sunlight I see you can tell they've been painted and I feel for a moment delayed embarrassment. One block to go and I pass the Cassaloma--the last bar before home. The red door is held open by a rusted ashcan and hot, smuggy air permeates from the dark. Bleach and smoke and beer. Stale heat flutters my white blouse and I'm suddenly hot. I take my ponytail out and peek behind my blond bangs, just to see. I always have to see. There's the glare from the chrome of the barstool once my eyes adjust, and I see the silhouette of the man who's there, every day,at 3:20. He doesn't move as empty ashtrays clang and spin across the counter as the bartender wipes them with white rags. The sun catches in his big glasses that always magnified his blue eyes. I want him to see me; I don't want him to see me. I mouth the word "dad" just to see how it feels in my mouth. It's just a fact--as my mother tells us--he has been an alcoholic since we before we were born. A heavy woman in a Mickey Mouse shirt leans back from her stool and stares in my direction. I can't risk her drawing his attention in my direction, so I walk away and wonder if Joey Larson saw my shoes in the sun.
I remember sneaking up on him, crawling across the nappy green carpet in my scratchy nightgown. Sometimes staples stick up from hidden ridges and prick my knees. The carpet is green and smooshed like fields after a storm, with mysterious, stitched rivers dividing the landmasses. I crawl to the end table that’s dull and sticky. Two owls with glassy, yellow eyes sit on their perch, holding up the dingy lampshade. A glass ashtray takes up the rest of the room. I watch his profile as he smiles and talks with his brother–my new uncle–who sits among empty beer cans on the other side of the dim living room. They’re talking with words I don’t quite understand. He laughs, so I laugh. I like his dimples. I like everything about this strange, new character. We’re learning how to spell his last name. He wants us.
He hears me laugh and slowly turns an annoyed, oily face in my direction. My hair is still wet from the tub. He puffs a large cloud of cigarette smoke into my shiny face. They laugh. I cough and laugh, too. They keep talking. It means go away.
A Kind of Daydream
Lady Day’s voice dips and drones and flattens the back of my throat as we open the summer together. I’ve waited a whole year for this. My car coasts so easily on the black road that climbs up and swoops down green hills, as if I’m not even driving but simply along for the ride. The heat comes in from all directions; it radiates through the glass and wilts the lilacs on the dashboard; it blows in the front windows and weaves out the back. I’m sweating but I welcome it as much as I welcome this annual tradition. Somewhere deep within the miles of trees, our cabins await us (along with about two dozen other family members) on clean, clear lakes just beyond Delta in Bayfield County.
White clouds and treetops scroll across the silver hood and up the window. Shadows dance across my arm as I steer the wheel. Through muffled static, the notes from the piano lightly dance up and down scales, and the trumpet sounds miles away –backdrop rhythm. The bass clarinet’s riff sways and blunts my spine, taps my sandal on the pedal.
…like a summer with a thousand Julys…you intoxicate my soul with your eyes…
Her voice is the long, velvety cord that laces all the different sounds together in a lovely, melancholy song. I reach to turn her up.
County E slopes into County H and disappears behind a wall of oaks around a bend. This is where the road begins to wind and zigzag throughout the countryside, taking its sweet time to reach Delta. A series of sharp angles skims us past Benson’s Horse Ranch, where horses graze fearlessly close to the fence, barely looking up at the flash of chrome and blaring trumpets. Another turn and we ease parallel with a grove of maples and pines behind the familiar old fence that is becoming less and less visible in the overgrowth of bramble and daisies. I wonder if it all looked the same sixty years ago. I wonder if someone drove through here in a shiny black 1940s Coupe –my dream car –listening to Billie Holiday crooning out of the radio. I imagine the reflection of leaves rolling over its rounded surfaces, the quiet whir of the white-walled tires, my fingers curled around the slender wheel.
…all of me…
Everything is alive and bursting green. I drive well below the speed limit; I am in no rush to get there. I have carried the same thought every year since childhood –the faster we get there, the faster the long-awaited week of camping will be over. But now that I’m older, the drive has become one of my favorite parts.
Pavement gives way to fine rocks and ruts, and we are swallowed up by the national forest, hidden from the sun beneath the canopy. I look in the rearview mirror and see my toddler sound asleep. Her plump cheeks are pink from the sun, and the gentle breeze that floats through the open windows cools her skin. Strands of golden hair wisp this way and that around her face, which has lolled to the side of her car seat. Life is good. If I could choose my heaven, it would be this drive, unending through this country on a bright summer day, just Emma and me.
…I see your face in every flower…
We reach the sun-bleached “Fresh Farm Eggs 4 Sale” sign, and I know we are almost there. The car rambles across the bridge Read More
The basement is everywhere. A corner houses shelves of limping cardboard, labeled by some thin marker zigzag that can’t be read because there’s no light bulb over there. We call this the dungeon and sometimes it’s where Barbie goes when she’s mad. I give the pink corvette a push and she sails into the scary shadows. In the corner by the steps, old sheets and sleeping bags are weighted down on ledges and chairs, some twisted and knotted around the metal poles to make forts and rooms. I see all the lace and concrete finery in the Snoopy sheets; in little padded nooks, my lipsticks and mirrors shine. Pink high heels swallow my feet to the ankles and jewels hang heavy in my hair. The space where we couldn’t get the sheets to reach is the gap between worlds. Above the webbed ceiling sits dad in his rocker, chain-smoking to Deep Purple. But down here anything could come at us–monsters, princes, Johnny Castle from Dirty Dancing. The trees from where the wild things live loom over us in colored pencil scratches.
Listen to Jason Mraz–Details in the Fabric:
Drop Your Shame at the Door
The mirror above the sink is made of metal or tin, like a baking sheet flipped over, bolted to the wall. I don’t resemble much in the scratched reflection. There is this pointy, hollow, puffy-faced woman with black circles around her eyes. I see a physical creature, held hostage. Far, far away I think I remember her, at least a trace, for a moment. And a deep saddness fills me–fills me up to the jagged edge of sweaty palms, a burning stomach, a fluttering in the chest. ‘Stop!’ the word careens through my mind ‘Jesus stop!’, up and down the roller coaster in my head. I think maybe I have to stop getting so close to that girl, because it brings out my disease–makes me nearly quit breathing–or I want to quit breathing. It makes me run for the nurse, who’ll give me a blanket to hold and lay me down on a heating pad and softly speak to me about the facts of PTSD. Facts calm me down. I won’t be able to breathe when I first lay down–I’ll close my eyes and scratch at my face for the blindfold I feel wrapped around my head. Then I’ll feel blood, hot and sticky, coming from some kind of hole on my cheek. She gives me a pill. I’ll smear the blood away and look at my hands at the peak of the flashback, and not see red fingers; no blood. And I can see; no blindfold. It’s all just my mind, like a dream. I’m shifting in and out of different planes of reality if I’m not dissociating. I have no control. The monster never reveals himself, just the shame arises and I am naked everywhere inside-out;skinless. I’m a little girl. Just another little face that cowers before a perverse hand and leaves this place. “Fear is not your monster. Don’t give it a name. We are here to show you that it’s not your monster, it’s your teacher.” I wash my hands. I am nauseous. I can’t get it away–this blood of mine on my hands.
Focus. I stop spinning in my head by saying aloud the word Focus. I can focus for about a minute. Sixty seconds of bliss as I touch the objects around me and describe them, which should supposedly help me from sliding off the ledge into dissociation. I stare out the thick window, I stare at my cot, my twisted white sheets, my balled up blanket I hold close at night like a teddy bear, my plastic pillows, my untouched books, an old journal that looks at me during the long afternoons. Then I’m speeding up, frantically saying as I grab at random “soft, smooth, hard, cool, squishy, solid, rock, concrete…” and my pace is what scares me back into a panic and I feel myself step away–in one, loud thunder-step she’s gone, leaving me empty again. I don’t stand a chance here, I think, the only place where there is help. And I sit and cry in an empty shell.
Days pass in what feels like a month. Happy New Year I laugh to myself. Just days, I say, just some days and I went so far. How do I travel so much in a few days, locked in one building, the mirage of help where the nurses sit in their glassed-in office, watching us, laughing, sharing chocolates and Christmas cookies and new diets. How many shifts went by for them? I’ve become dependent on Nurse Jo; she’s the one person I choose to show my absolute bottoms to, and she brings me back to the room in the quiet building under the street lights that reveal showers of snow, gently, outisde. At night, after supper, I stare out the glass door by my room. I stare at the soft knolls of rounded snow, imagine the buzz from the halogen street lights, the crumple of weightless snow singing to the ground. I can’t go out there and touch it. I think of the recycled generations and VIP’s that have spent the same kind of nights here. I cry (that’s about all I can do). Hard. I cry because I’d wanted someone to carry me, carry me like water–as Saenz says. But I’d run through their fingers. I cry because here I am trying to carry myself, and I’m just so tired; I have no faith left inside. No faith in tomorrow, or even the coming night when it gets bad. I realize how alone I am and that I’m falling with nothing to catch myself on. Am I destroyed? Did I blow it? Will I get her back? I stop crying and stiffen up. I’ll find her. On my own, dammit. I’ll get her back. I won’t carry myself. I’ll push myself. I’ll fight for her, because she was once so lovely. And I cry again, because it all just hurts and I have no defenses left.
A palm reader told Nikki that you were caught in Limbo. I listened to her guilty cry from the other end of the line and imagined you in a hazy purple space where only your eyes existed—looking away, stirring with something. I imagined you in this blank, vast nothingness without form, waiting.
The night you fell and died on the floor of a bar, I was dancing in another city—wasted. You used to pull us behind the tractor—us three bouncing in the wagon around and around the old farmhouse. Grandpa sat at the kitchen window drinking Old Style, staring at the humming birds. You breathed beer in our faces as you put band aids on our scrapes or shushed us until we forgot our hurts. I searched for treasures in the dirt driveway—round beer tabs, pennies—beneath the pink blossoms that fell like snow from the apple trees. You climbed one of them and roped a swing around one of the branches as we stood below, catching the petals on our eyelids. I sat on your long lap of faded denim while you let me steer the old mower. I held onto the skinny wheel, arms spanning its perimeter.
On the weekends that you had us, we’d wake you up on Sundays, jumping on your bed. You were fresh smiles and morning kisses, reaching for us and laughing. An itchy, beige blanket divided the one room we shared on the second floor of the farmhouse; it glowed in the sun that filtered through the yellow shade. You were the kind of dad that waited until we were in the tub, covered in bubbles, before you came in to wash our hair. I brought you a cassette tape of me singing Patsy Cline—I was five and knew all of her songs by heart. You said you loved it and played it every time we came. You took us out on a country ride in the brown boat of a car. Nikki and I sat up front, Jodie sat in the back. You held a beer and my door swung open when we drove through a pothole that made my feet hit the dash. Gravel and green blurred by; Nikki held onto me and John Denver sang. At dusk we’d walk through the fields where the broken barn fades and we’d weave around the hay bales high as mountains, taking turns holding your hands. These were the years that sopped and soaked into your memory. These were the girls you knew us by—toddlers clinging to your knees.
You became persistent and sidetracked when, a short time later, we got a new last name. You were being replaced. We stopped calling you daddy. We trailed behind you in the garden giggling your name “John, John, Daddy John”. It was the only time we saw you mad and we giggled even harder. Then we started seeing you every other weekend. Then it was once a month. Then maybe Easter. They told us you were “slow” and “simple”. We didn’t know what that meant; we knew you were like one of us, and you quietly did whatever we would say. We knew you loved us. You showed up crying and pleading after a few months had gone by, begging to take us for the next weekend. They gave you another try, and we waited in our pretty dresses by the front window. Mom watched us as the time slipped away “Goddamn him” and we went upstairs to change. We were told what was wrong with you, “He’s…an alcoholic.” “He’s…mentally slower than…” “He’s…stuck.” I had wished you would’ve understood what was wrong with me. I wanted to crawl in your lap and tell you our new dad was the monster under my bed. I’d imagine what you’d do—the look that might’ve flashed through your big blue eyes, the fall of your sheepish posture, broad shoulders sinking—you with your helpless hands, embarrassed; passive hands, scared, your brain slowly mushing into a sponge. I learned you could never save me. You slinked away to the bars for good, every day, at ten a.m..
At fourteen I sought out your apartment on one lousy Sunday. I knew you had been living out of your car but then moved in with your brother. You didn’t know my face when you opened the door. “You looking for Francis?” you asked politely. Well it had been seven or eight years. Frightened and nervous after I said my name, you offered me a quick seat at the little kitchen table. I stared at its gray, marbled top and at the laundry and boxes and rotten food strewn about. You caught hell though I didn’t really want to give it to you. I had mixed up all your intentions and put them under my bed.
Weeks later, I broke into your house in a fever. I dashed up the stairs and found your bedroom where I rummaged through your things, not caring to put anything back. I was disappointed to see you hadn’t thrown our things away. Our pictures covered the cracked walls and the letters we’d sent you over the years lay in neat piles around a bare mattress. You still had the cassette tape of me. Auntie Carol later told me you played it all the time—in those lost years. I knew that smell of you—I still do. If filled the dank, yellow house with the lonely hallways. I wanted you to come rushing for me. You would’ve repeated things you’d heard like “there’s no such thing as monsters” and I would’ve persisted like a child that there was. You’d be drunk. You’d never fill that void. I wanted to cry for you when I stole out the front door.
We were in our twenties when we looked over at you in the funeral home. Your lashes were long and waxen. Your eyes bulged beneath their lids. Your large hands with the bitten finger nails were gray. Random thoughts shot through my mind in that cold room where they released all of the alcohol from you. As your children, we were to go through your house and choose what we wanted. They gave us your address and it took us to a different side of town, near the lake. This place was hollow and empty aside from the trash. No food, no laundry basket, no towels. Old Style sat warm in the refrigerator. The same clothes you wore when we were little still hung in the closet, reeking of you. I kept a shirt. An old, beige blanket was nailed up over the window. Letters were found here and there in the laundry and newspapers across the floor. I searched for treasures—keepsakes. Beer tabs and pennies.
You called me Salt because of my white-blond hair. Nikki was Pepper. Jodie was Paprika. “I love yous’, I love yous girls” you used to always say. You never tried to teach me to be tough—you always let me cry until I was better. So alone, so alone, and did you realize that in the end? Did you feel it in those short hours before you were drunk again? Did your brain sop all that away? The bartenders said you carried pictures of us three in your wallet and showed us to them every day, bragging about where we worked and how we were doing. Somehow you kept up on us. Nikki can’t stop holding your shirts. She shouldn’t have paid the five bucks to the gypsy.
LISTEN & READ: 05 – 4am
The Panic of Peace
Flat affect. What a depersonalized symptom to give the hider. Yes, let’s play, you seek. You seek out your DSM and professional books among the cranberry-colored spines with gold writing, or solid, knowing, black fonts. And inside pours out six. Six disorders I have because I fit the criteria like a glove. I was better off not knowing. Yet it was something, a list, I could point to, aim the finger away from me. I wanted to say “of course I have flat affect, I’m fucking stunned that somebody with six disorders can hardly be funny anymore.” No I’m not dissociating at these times. I’m very real when I am angry or crossed or hurt or doubted. It’s when I’m scared or set by a sound or smell or the mind spins manically in and out over itself, that I calm down to dissociate, where I sit so terrified that they say “flat affect” and I’m so scared I don’t know what’s on my face. I dissociate when I panic that I am calm. That’s how messed up this body is. I’ve stowed away inside again, that’s what we do, us big kids. We’re an army– an army given cheap guns, yet known to be armed to the teeth with devices that a soul shall never ever pass, and they never will. Security lock down—it’s a brilliant defense, this dissociation, but it comes back for ya. You have to pay for it. It comes back when you’re almost thirty and thinking about a diet and reading the classics and going to school to become to become to become. And then, wham, shot down. It’s the early-on, unknowing that is most terrifying. I was sure I fucked myself up beyond repair, that back in the day, I’d done some irreparable damage and I was going to die. I saw death. I breathed my grandmother’s name and practically ran to mental health holding my head, to stop the black images popping up with red eyes. To catch my short breath, and the taste in my mouth…it was coming…the flashback. Blindfolds, blood, and sex. I’m a five year-old in heels, smashing my makeup on the ground, crying in the corner, banging on the locked yellow door.
So that’s the beginning, or shall I say, my first day, of PTSD. Drove my ass right to the bin. It was my first time but I always figured that I’d show up there some day. I don’t know why. I’m not one to prod my weird thoughts. That’s asking for mayhem. They shot me in the ass with meds and I cried all night and day after day. I remember thinking that this was it, that it wasn’t so bad, they’d fix me of course, and I’d never be back again. That was the baby version of PTSD, when the “psychotic episodes” or flashbacks were so minute they barely counted and I always came out of it squeaky clean, like it was a bad, dirty dream. Soon, after my stay there, these “episodes” began to creep into my mornings, I started dissociating more when the panic rose when triggers were set off, my legs went numb, I tasted rubber in my mouth. The flashbacks or episodes were lasting forever, on and off, at a moment’s notice. Strange, scared thoughts and ideas whipped me around on a fucking roller coaster and flung me out of its seats at the peak of the ride. Nothing was real. I called to my fiancé who seemed like an oil painting and we were all dissolving and he’d never reach me. “Talk me down. Help me. Talk to me.” I’d demand with my voice in total control. I couldn’t let anyone see that helpless chaos on my face. It was like seeing your own death. Yet you believe death would be easier. You don’t trust yourself in the tub with the pretty pink razor. What?! You’re screaming what to yourself because now the suicidal thoughts listed in the “DSM” are scrolling off the page and into your ears. Oh shit. The book. The stigma. You think as you sink “I’m one of them”. Depersonalization disorder, dissociative amnesia, panic disorder, PTSD…there’s one more (besides the bipolar) but I can’t remember. At this brief interjection of a strange paragraph I’d like to say “Gee, thanks. Thank you step-father. I have seen the light; the dark; and now I can’t see anything but exist as this open wound because of your own tormented soul. Thank you for the lesson, thanks for not beating this one into me. My flesh could’ve handled it better than my head, but could you have known?”
Anyways, death. Death. But what’s left? It got worse. They couldn’t help me. I was seeing things, feeling things, things were lost, demanding their recapture, and I couldn’t see them. I’m five years old, sitting in the crook of my fiancé’s arm, with flat affect.
What the printed, sacred documents of the doc’s don’t tell you is that there is something very key to survival…as they end their chapters in comorbidity and the morbid–suicide rates. They fail to mention the elements of two things that will save you: hope and love. Now why would a book about the mind involve such artificial, baseless tones to their story? You gotta figure it out for yourself, because each persons’ fate is different. These two elements cannot be captured, their purpose lays in secrecy as they fill us all with blessing. Hope is that last shred of light you see; it’s that part of your brain that drives you to the hospital for help, instead of into the tub. Hope makes you wake up and face another day, giving you clues and signs everywhere that there is more, so much more…to life. And in those signs beams love. The love of the fiancé who holds you to his chest and waits for you to get better, knowing more than you do that you’re going to make it. The love of the mother who doesn’t even have to speak, but sits at your side until your episode is over and you can look her in the eye with gravity. The love of the sisters, who allow you to wail out your fear and struggle through your belief that there is no future, just nothingness and death. They cry too, and you feel love because you’re not breaking alone. And the love of a friend, a long-ago best friend—agent of dreams—who tells you as you sit back in the bin again that you’re not alone, she said “tell her I am with her.” And she was. This intricate web of hope and love has shown me something not many people get to see—just how undeniably soulful it is to have each other, and to love each other—unconditionally. There is a greater purpose that must be so simple we can’t see it, but sometimes get a taste of it. It’s so simple that your heart becomes light and made of pink love that streams through your blessed body that heals; it’s so simple that the mind can find a moment where it is at rest and calm and knows peace. It can’t really be written—the love I’ve seen.
I wanted part of my soul to shine with that purple gloss of independence like hers did. I’d wait around after relaying my young thoughts or invocations for her eyebrows to arch over her large, grey eyes. I was originally drawn to her indiscrete way of telling everyone what was cool. She had balls. I wanted balls. I figured if I stuck around enough, she’d rub some of that purple off on me.
She was charming in a way all her own. She was no sun-kissed bee charmer in white cotton sundresses and dandelions, but close enough that I could catch a trace of the faint scent of honeysuckle and soap. She did put daisies in those thick blue mason jars, and she did wear dresses, though they were hand-me-downs of thinning rayon and polyester prints of puce flowers. She’d race ahead of me down the back slope to Bay City Crick. Through her eyes I did see jungle vines thick as pythons, crystal water bubbling and weaving around hundreds of skinny trees, tall as the sky. Rocky nooks and deep, green pools filled her eyes with glitter–we were on a secret, desert island, or deep in a lush forest of oak and elves. I felt the water. It was numbing and dirty. Black plastic bags and Styrofoam and shoes hung from branches or were lodged in the sand beneath the current. The ravine was about three blocks wide, between two overpasses that rained rock and oil and grit over their edges.
I quickly learned the difference between independence and disconnection–still struggling over whether there is such a thing as a balance of the two together. Disconnection was a kind of freedom that coursed through her system in ribbons. We would sit silent on our banana seats, watching a storm roll in over the fields beyond the tracks. We both waited for the cool raindrops to touch our tanned arms before we would race toward town. I needed my connections thick as bones–no–I longed for those connections thick and solid. And I didn’t understand how to encompass independenc
It came in the night. We were all sleeping in the house and I woke to it lifting my sheets; it made my nightgown bleed. My doll saw it all so I ripped out her eyes the next morning before breakfast. Then it started coming in my dreams, and I thought there was a monster beneath my bed gathering my dolls and things. On the scratchy carpet where the sun comes in, it branded my skin with its tongue, so I gave it my voice. Mother and father swallowed it up.
They found me in corners and closets and they didn’t hear their words running from my mouth. I didn’t know so I swallowed the words whole; they fed me spoonfuls of throbbing aches that echoed deep in my belly, burning my insides until it dulled and smoothed over.
I began to sweat them out my pores like a broken fever. I washed and raked my skin. Something curdled and clotted the mainstreams of my heart as I took their pieces and ate them. I choked and spewed out a doll that didn’t have eyes. Her messy dress had burned away so they stitched her a new one and kept it inside and I ran away, hungry.