Shelter Girl

fairyhome
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Chareen Ibraheem

I hoped to say goodbye to it in 2015. But the year ended and I was still here.

So many factors revolve around being homeless. I can look at the factors all day long, and we as a society can engage and look at the factors all day long. But the truth of the matter is I can only look at myself.

I was always uneasy with looking at myself in the mirror, even as a child. But I find it even harder to do now. I may glance at myself for a minute to make sure my cornrows are neat and well kept, but when I look in the mirror—I mean really look in the mirror—I see the embarrassment of the adult I’ve become. I see an embarrassment to the little girl I was, who grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, New York. I haven’t been fair to the little girl who loved to create, create something, and create anything that would lead her away from the harsh reality of the projects. Her imagination was her key to unlock her way out, her creativity the strength to push open the door. To a world of possibilities, or so she thought.

I’m watching myself in the mirror, standing over a sink and trying to squeeze enough water out of my washcloth to quickly wash before someone in the church (where I will stay tonight out of the cold) needs to come in. I monitor the door and try to finish up, and I think about how I got to this point in my life. Especially with two college degrees. I didn’t think an A.S. in Theater and a B.A. in English were so great, but down here where I am located, it’s like a prize just to finish high school.

Someone bangs on the door and curses that they need to use the bathroom. Sighing, I turn off the water, dry off, and put fresh clothes on (especially underwear, since they’re scarce around here for women). Opening the door, I walk past a young guy who is looking at me all angry. I ignore him as I walk over to my mat, squinting my eyes in the semi-darkness. On several other mats, some people are whispering in conversation, others cough, and some have settled down for the night.

I finally spot my mat that has a small red blanket on it, and my heart soars with relief, thankful to be indoors from the cold. Except for the hardness of the mat, it’s okay. It’s much better than sitting in an airport, hospital, or stairway building all night. Removing my dirty sneakers that already have holes formed in them, I step onto the mat and lie on it, but not before trying to find a comfortable spot. When I do, I adjust my now-dirty cross bag like a pillow and lay my head on it.

Immediately my mind starts to wander back to a time—eight years ago, in another state—when I sat at a bar in a strip club. I don’t want to go there; I often pray I don’t. I fight hard to move on from that chapter of my life as well as other chapters, but the human brain is fascinating at recapturing things you don’t want to remember.

•••

This was not my first time being met with homelessness. You’d think after years of knocking on doors for jobs, jobs in my field, any kind of jobs, I would be settled by now. But, it hasn’t worked that way. I’ve run around town, dressed in my best interview clothes, and talked in my proper professional etiquette, and I’ve had years of experience working in corporate office setting. How many closed doors in one’s face can one take? No criminal background, no drugs, no illegal history of any kind. That would hinder me to getting that “dream” job that I dreamed since I was a child. Timing? Maybe. Years of inquiring, and still knocking, honing skills needed the best as I could.

I was weary. I fell into a deep dark depression, and I couldn’t see my way out of it. Usually I could, but this time, it was like a black hole that sucked me in deeper each day. Destructive habits were starting to resurface, ones I had long tried to suppress, work on, or pray about. But they found a way back, a door open, and a trigger. Growing up in a family full of destructive habits, it was easy to fall into the same pattern.

Not able to meet a motel room I stayed in briefly, I headed down to the local city shelter. It was place that was surrounded by all kinds of people that were destructive on many levels. Strangely enough, I felt at home. I felt a kind of high being there. This was my first time in one. Feeling alone and abandoned by family, church, and friends, I didn’t care. Old thoughts of sexual abuse as well as other abuse I faced as a child kept popping up in my mind. Years of trying to “let it go” had not worked for me. Suddenly it was like a gulf overtaking me, the years of rejection gnawed at me.

I guess it made sense—I was just rejected by a guy I was semi-getting to know a few weeks ago. I felt the need to prove myself and show him I was what he wanted.

All around me I heard bits and pieces of conversation about local strip clubs in the area. The idea to feel beautiful and sexy at the same time and become every man’s fantasy was alluring. Not to mention, I heard if you were “good” at what you did, the money rolled in rather quickly. Naive to this, I didn’t understand all of what “good” meant.

A woman who was a former stripper said to me, “You’re not ready,” when I asked her about it. She briefly schooled me on the basics of the “business,” and the more she talked the more excited I became. It sounded like a glamorous lifestyle. I was feeling desperation and a need for attention from this guy, so I took what I wanted from our talk and ignored the rest. After all, it was only one night. What would it hurt? I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t get any lower than where I was.

I had heard about amateur night at this local club everyone knew about, where all you wear is a bikini and dance for money. Sitting at the bar, I watched a nude woman with stilettos on stage dance, surrounded by colored lights. I was mesmerized by how this woman boldly worked the pole, dancing in sync to the hip hop and R&B music, moving in time with the music. Men threw money gracelessly at her feet. Excitement building in my chest, I wanted to be like this woman, who was not only attractive but had men falling at her feet. I felt self-conscious about my apparel: no bikini, but jeans and sneakers. Not to mention my puffed-out relaxer and slight odor from not being able to use the showers at the shelter that day.

I turned towards the bar and ordered a Hennessey and Coke. I took a sip, enjoying the way it tasted on my tongue. I wasn’t a drinker, but this was what I needed. As I sipped my drink, I causally chatted with a guy who sat next to me. I held onto my drink and watched him carefully. He encouraged me to get up on stage and said I could do it.

Insecurity settled on me like a familiar blanket, and I again scanned the room to see women in bikinis and thongs handing out drinks to guys at the tables. Their hair and makeup fixed in sexy styles, neatly done, they skillfully walked in stilettos. I kept wondering what was I doing there. These women were gorgeous. They had an art to dancing and working the pole that I would never master, I thought.

I ordered another Hennessey and Coke. I felt like I was inside a dream, a hazy dream. The pulse of the music sounded out sexual and raunchy things to be done. Time was going by quickly. I wanted desperately for the guy to call me back and say, “Shorty, I am on my way.” (He always called me shorty). But in the whole hour, his phone just kept ringing and going to voicemail. Left messages. No answer. Glancing at the door now and then, I still expected him to walk through the door. I was frustrated and hurt. I stopped calling. I imagined he must be laughing at me with his chick. Taking another sip, it went down my throat easily again.

A couple of drinks later, I felt myself loosen up as I relaxed and waited for them to call us new girls to the stage. All the while I felt myself falling into a deeper depression. If this was it for me, I at least wanted to enjoy the night. Death was on my mind. I felt it all around me. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to live anymore. Consumed with my thoughts as I listened to the music, a loud voice snapped me out of it.

“IT’S AMATEUR NIGHT LADIES! TO THE STAGE!” I looked up at a short guy with a booming voice. The guy in the seat next to me waved me on and winked. I grinned slightly at him. The music was lowered a bit. My favorite song by rapper TI—”You Could Do Whatever You Like”—was playing.

I asked the female bartender, “Is it time?”

My head felt woozy as my heart beat against my chest. I steadied myself on the bar stool.

“Yeah,” she said eyeing me briefly, before she gave the guy next to me a quick glance. I quickly jumped off the seat and followed behind a group of girls to a back room. I noticed everyone else had their bikinis on, and I didn’t have anything.

“Here.” A girl threw a bikini set to me. It landed easily in my hands. “Keep it.” Nodding, I rushed to the bathroom and tried to wash myself.

Doing the best I could with a small piece of soap and paper towels, afterwards I changed into the bikini, so small the thong part showed my butt cheeks. I guess this was supposed to be the desired effect. Adrenaline pumped through my veins—just the excitement of it was like drug.

Before I hit the stage, I tried to straighten out my semi-afro with my fingers and some water. I really wished I had found someone at the shelter to cornrow my hair for me. For free. Glancing at myself one last time, I looked down at my shoes. Church shoes, it looked like, with a heel. Not cool. But this was all I had. Everyone said it was okay. It was just “amateur” night. This was to see if they really wanted to keep you.

“Okay, ladies, let’s go!” a woman said outside the bathroom.

I took a deep breath, walked out, and headed to the stage with the other girls. At first, I danced with the other girls as a group, my nerves and fears getting the best of me.

It was different from what I had imagined. When it was my turn, I danced solo. My name was “Candy, and as I danced, I felt some money hit my leg and foot. Pleased, I kept moving until my turn was up.

Backstage, the lady who worked at the club grabbed my arm and said, “You gotta fix yourself up more, then you’ll have a chance.” I nodded and went to change. I knew I shouldn’t, but the wheels in my mind kept spinning as to who I could find to do my hair and coach me some more.

It was an early October morning and dark outside. I prepared to stay in the club until daylight when a big, built guy with glasses appeared in front of me and asked if I needed a ride. “Sure, thanks,” I said, uncomfortable.

“Come on.” He waved me outside. I followed as I tried to push away the advice the lady at the shelter gave me a few days ago.

I hopped in the black Jeep and slammed the door. He made small talk along the way. His car swerved the car a bit as we rode down the dark road. “I liked your dancing,” he said, taking turns eyeing me and the road.

I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in him at all. I laughed, smiled, and flirted a bit to try to buy time.

“You live around here?”

“No.” I shrugged my shoulders coolly. “With a friend downtown.” I held tight to the twenty-five dollars he threw at me on stage.

“I really liked what I saw. You’re sexy,” he said, staring at me in the dark car as we sat waiting for the light to change. We were almost downtown. My heart was doing flip-flops. I was for this ride to be over.

“Let me give you my number,” he said.

“Yeah, let me get it,” I said calmly, with a giggle in my voice.

We were finally downtown, and he quickly wrote down his number. “Call me.”

“I will.”

“Let me get a hug, shorty.” Expectation still lingered in his eyes.

I moved over and hugged him, and he squeezed as he hugged me. Smiling, I told him, “I’ll call you.”

We moved away from each other and I quickly grabbed the handle and got out of the Jeep. With one finally smile and a wave, I walked away quickly around the comer. Leaning against a wall, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I waited for my breathing to return to normal. Then I opened my eyes and walked the few steps towards Landmark Diner, my favorite diner. I went inside and ordered my favorite meal.

As I ate, I thought about the events that took place. I was happy I had tried this new thing. A surge of excitement passed through me as I quickly pulled out my phone and redialed the guy again.

He picked up. “I see you’re answering your phone now,” I told him. I was nervous about what he would say next.

“What happened?” he asked a little too calmly. I went over the details with him. We stayed on the phone briefly because most of the time I was jotting down information he was giving me. He seemed impressed by my “attempt” at stripping so far and gave me a club to go to the next day and he said he would meet there. Although I was doubtful he would, my hopes still soared. This one would at least be closer to the shelter downtown.

I left the diner and headed back to the shelter. Things were busy as usual there, people trying to get help with getting placed, men standing outside looking for a hustle. People on in wheelchairs, drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes, women with children, women with baby daddies by their side. Impatient, sometimes grumpy, social workers.

I walked into the nearest bathroom ready to take a shower after getting a paper pass to do so. All that ran through my mind was getting ready for tonight. I’d find someone to do my hair to make it look halfway descent and find a sexier bikini this time and find someone to do my make-up. The excitement was building, the attention, the need to make more money, the glamor of it all.

I was about to step into the shower when, all of the sudden, I fell. My right ankle slammed against the floor hard. Not noticing the pool of water in front of me, I started to get up when the ankle or leg couldn’t hold me and I fell to the ground again. I cursed aloud, and I saw my right ankle begin to swell.

A lady who came in the bathroom, said, “Don’t move, honey. Someone gonna call the ambulance.”

She rushed out the bathroom. I sat there silently in shock, upset. My plans to self-destruct weren’t exactly working out as I had hoped. All I thought about was the guy I wanted to impress and how I wanted to be in his arms again. Really be in his arms, not some quick trip seeing me at a hotel room and that was it. I wanted to be his ride-or-die chick. I wanted to have his baby—I told him many times.

But I guess that wasn’t going to be. These thoughts went all around me, and that was more devastating than that my dreams of becoming a dancer were over.

I didn’t hear from the guy anymore. And when I did call, it was brief and or voicemail or a female who answered.

I wanted to die. I wondered why God had let me live. I hated my life. Not only was I homeless, but I was in a boot, walking around in crutches. I was reduced to nothing; the women in the shelter called me “Crutch.” What‘s up, Crutch?, You doin okay, Crutch? or Go, Crutch, as I struggled down the hall.

•••

As time went on, I stayed at different shelters for my ankle to heal—in the snow, rain and sleet at times—going out, to get clothes, documents needed, as well as information. That all basically led to nowhere. I was worn out, tired, hurt and confused.

People didn’t understand—that I would expect them to—that I wasn’t just homeless to be homeless. It was a reason behind it. I was struggling in life to get my life together. I was thankful I wasn’t in a corner of a shelter, rocking back and forth in a seat talking to myself, or receiving disability, or waiting for it to come, or waiting on child support. Or drug addicted. These were real problems to the shelter system people.

Not some woman who was clearly educated and so they thought she was trying to take advantage of the system. What was I to do when I pushed myself for years to get a better job more stability?

I still was with family until now. I don’t know, but maybe it wasn’t important. Maybe it wasn’t a big thing that my grandmother lived in a senior building, and for years the manager has been harassing me and her because the only people are supposed to be there are seniors. It doesn’t matter if I help her or go shopping for her, and still look for work and a place to stay for myself. It doesn’t matter that each day, I am on my grind. Doing what I have to do. Doesn’t matter that they threaten her if I continue to stay overnight with her. Where I have to try to sneak in and out just to have a place to stay. And after a while I am told I have to leave.

I guess it doesn’t matter or mean anything that I can’t stay with my mom in the projects I grew up in because the front door always locks to keep drug dealers and users out. And the only people who have the key are the people on the lease. Maybe it doesn’t matter that my mom has kicked me out of her apartment (if did get inside) and cursed me out and yelled at me and has physically put her hands on me.

Maybe that doesn’t matter to people because I am a grown woman and should be on my own. Not their problem. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the rest of my family doesn’t care. Again not their problem. I don’t know.

Maybe it doesn’t matter that I’ve traveled to another place to make a better life for myself and people seem kind at first, but then there is no money rolling in from you, and they tell you to leave. Or you return to their place at after looking for work all day and you can’t get in the house, or the key they gave you doesn’t work.

But in order get “help” from one of the shelter programs, you have to be literally homeless. If that was the case, then why couldn’t I get help when I was sitting in a chair in the airport, or sitting in the city hospital all night, or sitting in a stairwell of a building hoping no one would catch me just so I could be off the streets for the night? Then to go back to the local woman’s shelter to shower and eat lunch, but at three p.m., I have to leave, only to do this all over again until the shelter program for the week at a church opens up. Where I can lay on a floor on a mat. It wouldn’t bug me so much if I wasn’t still dealing with this right now in my life.

Yes, I am still dealing with this.

I am grinding every day to find work, more than temp that I’ve done many years now so I can at least secure a steady place to stay of my very own. I have to catch myself many times.

That child that once dreamed in the projects of Brooklyn still resurfaces a lot especially times like this. I have to tell that child, you’re an adult now—stop fantasizing about winning that Oscar and having your favorite actor by your side as you receive it. I try not to think about how I want to complete this novel I’ve tried to work on for years so I can make my grandmother proud. That how she took care of me most of the time was not in vain. I try to tell that little girl on a day like today when depression sets in, and I know she’s crying inside of me thinking about the abuse she suffered and the physical violence she witnessed and experienced. I tend to her for a minute—just for a minute—because if not she’ll want to live in the past and this is not the time or day to be stuck in the past.

This is not for people to feel sorry for me. I don’t like that. It’s to know and try to understand that not all homeless people are the same. But as I’ve sat, eaten, and slept with the homeless, I see that I have things in common with the women. The need to be loved and cared for, broken pain now and in the past, needing to get our lives together.

The only difference is I can say I am here because of God. No other reason. Why, I don’t know. But all I can do is stay on my grind one day at a time and hopefully make something wonderful happen out of all this pain and suffering. Maybe.

•••

CHAREEN IBRAHEEM is a writer living in Portsmouth, Virginia.

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Go That Way, Very Fast. If Something Gets In Your Way, Turn.

chippedhouse
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Erica S. Brath

I was on my way home from a writers’ conference. I was about to get on the highway when I noticed it was a three-lane parking lot. So I kept going, That’s when the GPS started freaking out, trying to turn me around. I put my turn signal on, until I realized it was taking me back to where I’d started.

“No! I will not turn around. I will not go back.” I was white knuckled, jerking my father’s pickup truck around unfamiliar roads in the middle of Ohio. I clicked off the screen, tossed the phone in the console, and started looking for a place to pull over to consult a map.

“Damn it. I fucking hate Ohio!” I screamed in frustration as no shoulder wide enough to keep a Dodge Ram safe from passing traffic appeared.

I’ve been in these situations before, unsure of where I am, just driving forward, fear growing in the pit of my stomach. It rises to just below my ribcage and sits, nagging, anxiety pushing my pulse higher no matter how many times I count to ten.

“When you find yourself in a situation that causes you stress, take a moment to stop, find your center and breathe,” the yoga instructors always say, calm, peaceful, so fucking Zen you want to push them over and hit up a pastry shop.

Which may be why I have never actually been able to find that rock-solid island in the middle of adrenaline- and coffee-fueled chaos.

But for some reason, as I started to feel the blood pounding behind my eyeballs, I simply stopped. Not literally, because I was still cruising through cow-infested verdant fields of summer green, dotted now and then with absolutely adorable farmhouses, many with hearse-like black buggies next to cherubic boys in dark pants, white shirts and wide-brimmed hats, standing like tiny undertakers all in a row.

But for a single, blissed-out moment I didn’t care if I was lost, or where I was going. The truck said I was going east. That was good enough for me, because I needed to be in Ithaca, New York.

The fields sped by in my peripheral vision. Farmhouses, barns, buggies all started to look the same; I worried I was just going around in circles. I thought about life: Just because the scenery changes doesn’t mean you’re going forward. Or anywhere at all.

Was I going anywhere? What the hell was I doing anyway?

•••

I’d spent nearly a decade taking dozens of road trips with my husband, Sean. We’d driven between Pennsylvania and Virginia more times than I could remember, the most epic when we headed south pulling a newly-purchased twenty-nine-foot travel trailer. This was before either one of us had smart phones―maps and calls to my mother-in-law had to suffice for directions or information on where to get a half-decent cup of coffee―and well before our best efforts at making a life together imploded.

Now, he was in Philadelphia in a full-blown crash and burn―the countless calls and text messages I’d received over the course of the conference confirmed that. He was broke, out of work, homeless, and battling addiction. He blamed me, his mother, and anyone else who, in his mind, had let him down over the course of his life.

I know the fairytale grown-up world I thought existed when I was in my teens , where my―of course, British―rock star husband provides me with enough disposable income to chase whatever creative muse might flit by. I’m cool with working my ass off in conjunction with an equally driven partner. But that’s not how things had turned out.

We’d gone to hell and back during the recession, but we’d managed to finally eke out a somewhat decent existence. He’d returned to masonry with a small company outside Charlottesville, Virginia, and I had lucked into a job as a screenprinter—finally utilizing my BFA—after nearly a year working retail for eight dollars an hour. I’d also found an amazing group of creative, talented friends. I’d never imagined anywhere below the Mason-Dixon could feel like home, but it was tolerable, considering I was northeast born and bred.

“I can’t do what I want here,” he’d started saying from almost the moment we moved to C’ville. “No one here plays the kind of music I do.”

His musical talent is unmatched, so I was sympathetic. I don’t feel that way because I married him―I wouldn’t have married him had he been mediocre. Cold, yes, but if I were going to fully support his creativity, I had to believe in it. He was the real deal. I wanted to see him succeed.

“What do you want to do?” I asked with some trepidation when his misery finally reached a fever pitch three years into our foray in the south.

“I need to move back north.”

He’d made several weeks-long trips to Philadelphia that year to practice and play with his band, which consisted of the same guys he’d been in a previous band with before I met him. He’d handed me their CD shortly after we met―I put it in my car’s player knowing that if it sucked I’d have to break up with him. They were amazing, with the kind of chemistry that doesn’t come around often.

“Well, so, what do you want to do?” I repeated. “What’s your plan?”

It seemed straightforward enough: He’d move back to Philly, where we’d met and lived before the recession kicked us south. I’d stay in Cville and continue working, providing a steady stream of income, stability, and health insurance. He’d get settled, and then I’d pick up stakes and move north.

It fell apart almost from the get-go. He said he couldn’t hold it together without me, and he sank into addiction. I found myself repelled by his neediness. I saw my life with him as a trap. So instead I moved further north. It wasn’t a plan so much as a reaction.

•••

I felt like an asshole, like I’d somehow abandoned him. The guilt still burned red hot as I navigated the winding Ohio roads a full year after he’d packed up a rented van and driven north, away from our cramped, aged camper and onto a completely different life. He wasn’t my kid, he wasn’t a child—he was a full-grown man who refused to take responsibility for his actions. His mother and I had spent countless days and dollars to keep him afloat until it became obvious no amount of assistance would ever be enough. Yet I still felt like a jerk, and I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t know if the guilt would ever go away.

And I was sad. I knew in my heart that, in the end, we’d go our separate ways, but it’s not that I didn’t care about him. It didn’t stop me from feeling paralyzed, plodding through life’s motions under a heavy weight. It felt like just another failure, another way I’d managed to veer off life’s path, whatever that was supposed to be.

In many ways the hardest part was the external judgment, which just added to my uncertainty about what I was doing, or should be doing, or should have done. It was almost like the second Sean fell down, those around me headed my way with knives out. They’d been holding back, barely, their disdain, but all bets were off. I found myself putting up walls, forcing my own disdain at what had been, so completely, my life, as if by swearing it off I could convince the world—and those around me—I wasn’t like him.

“I always knew he was bad,” they’d say. “What were you thinking?”

And I’d nod my head in agreement—“Yeah, what was I thinking?”—afraid that if I defended him, they’d judge me harshly, too.

Thing is, he wasn’t actually a bad person. He may have looked like your typical bad boy, and he most certainly embodied the stereotypical rock and roll persona. He was tall, thin, his body angled in sharp lines from hard living and hard labor. He smoked like a chimney, swore off whiskey and the rages it put him into, and sported one—intentionally—amateurish tattoo: a skull and crossbones with the words “fuck off.” He was wholly, unabashedly, loudly uncouth. But he was also a voracious reader and a constant questioner of the kinds of things most people just accepted as fact, which the journalist in me found a kinship with.

When the financial sector collapsed and everyone I knew turned their backs while we struggled, we only had each other to rely on. Losing my ally, my—albeit damaged—champion was like another floor dropping out. He may have been alive in the corporeal sense, but I wasn’t sure the real Sean was ever coming back. And if I waited to find out? How many second chances could I give him before it was too late? I hated myself for even thinking this way, and I hated him.

He’d dropped out of school at sixteen, lived wherever he could find a place to lay his head and was, for the most part, married to music, his second wife. I was his third. Drugs were, and always had been, his first.

•••

I wasn’t sure about moving north, but winter was coming fast and the camper was falling apart. I had to make a decision. I had family in Ithaca, but for all intents and purposes I was broke and alone, save for my two terriers. I was forty-four, not a single possession worth calling my own. Even my own truck, which I’d left for my dad to drive if needed when I headed to Ohio, was a slap in the face: I had a car I loved somewhere along the east coast, which I’d been forced to leave after its water pump quit. Sean was supposed to drive from Philly to Virginia to get it after I moved, and we’d trade in the spring―I’d headed north driving what had been our tow vehicle, our Behemoth, a ’97 Suburban. I had no idea where my car was, or whose dubious possession it might be in, along with the rest of my belongings. So I was limited to very local trips considering the advanced age and state of disrepair of the tow beast.

Which is how I wound up driving more than four hundred miles each way to Ohio in my father’s pickup. I’d attempted to rent a car, but was turned away when it was discovered I was a nomadic ne’er do well.

“My dad’s going to pay for everything,” I said sheepishly, handing over my driver’s license at the rental counter. I was, after all, well beyond the age of my father paying for anything. But he’d offered, and I was in no financial situation to say no. I’d taken a part-time job in Ithaca with the same chain store that had plucked me from jobless perdition in Virginia just to make sure I didn’t go without work. But the pay and hours provided little more than spare change in the adult world I had once been accustomed to living in.

I’d spent thousands of dollars on this particular car rental company; I had no reason to think there would be a problem. They’d gained my loyalty when the engine of my Volkswagen Golf self-destructed in 2010, melting to a puddle of oily, metallic goo on the side of Route 495 in Delaware, leaving me, Sean, and our puppy stranded as traffic zoomed by. Their gimmick was they’d come get you. We’d needed a car. I’d wound up renting from them for well over a month.

So it was a shock when they rejected me.

“If you don’t have a major credit card, we need proof of income and residence,” the woman behind the counter said. “And you’ll have to pay for everything yourself. No one else can pay for you.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked, still not comprehending the situation. “Why can’t he just rent the car and add me on as a second driver?”

“Because we need the same information from all drivers, so even if you’re a second driver and you don’t have a major credit card, you still need to prove income and residence.”

My cheeks grew hot, my pulse started to race, and my favorite feeling―enraged embarrassment―took over. I could prove my pittance of an income but not residence. I hadn’t had an actual, legal address in years. By federal law, even as a full-time RVer, I was considered homeless.

“This is outright discrimination,” I stated, digging my fingernails into my palm. “I do not have proof of residence, and why, exactly, do you need proof of income?”

As if I didn’t know: Because if you’re on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, you’re a lazy, shiftless thief. Because people without credit cards don’t work. Because being chosen to hold credit certifies you are an actual citizen in the eyes of the rest of society. That’s what matters―money. Anyone who doesn’t have it is scum and banned from normal activities. Like renting a car to attend a conference. Because lazy impoverished scumbags don’t go to conferences. They’re too busy collecting welfare and doing drugs.

It makes even the strongest-willed person want to crumble. Which is why I can almost understand Sean’s compulsion to numb himself no matter the consequences. Almost.

It’s no secret: I bought into the lie that as an educated person I deserved to live a life of comfort, free from things like being turned away when trying to rent a car. But the life I’ve lived and its choices—some made by me, some hoisted upon me—have shown me that there’s really no escaping the mess that is life.

But I was neither a total failure nor the victim, but something in-between. I loathed working retail and the pittance I earned, but I also hated working seventy-hour weeks in uncomfortable shoes so some CEO could feel impressive and buy something else. I’d been given the chance, an existential Scrooge story in reverse, to decide what, exactly, had to change. Would I keep pushing forward until I found my way? And if it all went to shit, if the traffic stopped moving, was I agile enough to veer off and figure it out without crashing again?

I figured I needed to find the fine line between living in the moment and looking at the long-term ramifications of what I was doing. I’d been cruising along for decades, certain I’d always find another on-ramp and everything would work out for the best. There’s merit in that approach, but also some nasty potholes. Getting hitched in the basement of a bland, brick apartment complex with no witnesses and celebrating afterward with a cup of Dunkin Donuts might have been a place to start thinking about the path I’d been on. But I hadn’t. I needed to find balance. I dreaded becoming stuck, but the other option—full-on hedonism—was also something I couldn’t even bear witness to, let alone indulge.

With the conference behind me, and its amazing writers inspiring me to just get to fucking work, I had to accept I was alone, wandering on the eastern edge of the Midwest. The guilt, the hurt, and the anger still burned in my gut, and probably always would. But was anyone else’s happiness my responsibility? Was it okay to put myself, my ambitions, first?

I’d been taking the most circuitous routes my entire life, but they were mine. I owned them. The writing conference was just another start, a way to meet people like me, wake the muse up and keep going. It wasn’t fucking up so much as it was just life. Could I cut myself some slack? Should I? And more importantly, could I stop feeling sorry for myself and everyone else and do what needed to be done?

“Aha!” I hollered as I spied a sign for the highway. I could see it off to my left, cars and semis flying along. “So there!” I exclaimed, slapping the wheel in triumph, shaking off the melancholy.

•••

ERICA S. BRATH is a non-fiction writer currently living in Ithaca, New York. She works as a graphic designer and editor, and has written for publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, and Men’s Health. She is currently working on a nonfiction book detailing her experience living full-time in a travel trailer during the Great Recession. Her website is esbrath.com.

Read more FGP essays by Erica S. Brath.

Behind the Clickbait

By Ruth Hartnup/Flickr
By Ruth Hartnup/Flickr

By Sarah Broussard Weaver

 

She Stopped Taking the Pill—but What Happened Next Shocked Everyone!

She and her husband wanted a child—a “little-Nick-and-Sarah-baby.” She stopped taking the tiny daily pill. Nothing happened. Her body, young and healthy, refused to ovulate more than three times a year— a practice of inadequate irresponsibility it had begun with Menstruation Number One, when she was almost sixteen. She worried, a lot. She could become one of the women forced to smile through tight teeth. The mouths sing-songing, “We’re trying!” “Whenever God blesses us!” “Someday!” The ones who cry to see blood on the soft, snowy cotton, those who stare surreptitiously at the lucky. The experts on aiming a bad-news-bearing pee stream on a plastic stick, the minds trying to will nothing into a pink line.

 

After Months of Suffering, She Made an Amazing Discovery That Would Change Everything!

In the end, her body would fail for only a little over a year. The worry had eaten away at her for no reason. She could have saved the tears for something better. When she felt her way to the gray dawn bathroom and she vomited into the bowl, she knew it must be true and it was. It was a bad time—they had just moved across the state—and they had stopped actively trying, wanting to get more settled in their new city. But she hadn’t started using birth control again; she’d been lulled by their failure thus far. Now they were, at the same time, happier and more worried than they had ever been.

 

The Appalling New Ways in Which Her Body Betrayed Her!

She should have spent those worry-months picking up extra waitressing shifts. When the sickness came, she wasn’t ready. Her body failed her in a new way now. Her blood rushed harder through the highways. Her doctor, bony and cruel faced, the only female doctor who’d accepted Medicaid, berated her for gaining weight—it was too much, too quickly. She’d thought only a woman could understand what she was going through, but she saw no sympathy in the stony eyes, just disgust. The prescription for high blood pressure—get off your feet and stop eating so much. Her worry over her inability to conceive morphed quickly into another worry, as her body struggled, as the money quickly became not enough.

 

Groundbreaking Research Uncovers the Top Five Things to Avoid When Pregnant!

She needed to keep waiting tables—they couldn’t pay their bills with only his tips. She left her restaurant and he left his, so they could get a new restaurant together. This way, he could carry her heavy trays. Sinking into their sofa after midnight, after working a double shift, her feet and legs rebelled. They tingled, ached, screamed at her as she held onto the stove for support. She stirred canned soup and heated hot dogs—all against doctor’s orders, but they were quick, cheap, and she was too tired to deal with more. They sat on the green sofa with the Southwestern design—ugly but free—and binge-watched episodes of Friends he had downloaded—illegal but free—as they fueled their bodies with salt, sugar, and fat. These nutritional sins were the only luxuries they could afford so they savored them. They went through all 236 episodes in that dark apartment. She doesn’t think Friends is funny, anymore.

 

They Had Nowhere to Turn—and Then, an Unexpected Phone Call!

They had to choose which bills to pay. The apartment’s rent was the most important, of course, the truck payment second. All frivolities had already been cut, and all bills were already in or past their grace periods. The truck insurance was allowed to lapse, which meant they now were in danger of their only vehicle getting repossessed. One chilly night, his parents called him. They weren’t rich, or even super comfortable, but they had read between the stress lines in foreheads and the pauses in phone calls. They offered to share what they had. They offered to make room. She threw everything in cardboard boxes, nervous and relieved about the offer. He used their last dollars to rent a U-Haul, and they drove it, along with their uninsured truck. They drove from Dallas to the Hill Country; from the cold apartment complex surrounded by strangers to the warm house surrounded by family.

 

The Aging Effects of Stress—Doctors Say You Can IMPROVE YOUR MENTAL HEALTH by Letting Go of Unrealistic Expectations!

The stress wasn’t over, but it was lesser. It was now the stress of preparing for childbirth, of two women sharing a kitchen, of heads butting, of chore parceling, of packed cardboard boxes in the garage with no plans to unpack them anytime soon, and of feeling beholden by the knowledge that this graciousness could not be repaid. It was no longer the stress of unpaid car insurance, eviction, and having to choose cheaper food over healthier food. She still couldn’t bring herself to care what the scale said—she’d deal with it later. Her new doctor-who-accepts-Medicaid was a man; she felt that she could accept the advice that resonated in her and release the rest as “something he knows nothing about.” He didn’t mention her weight—either he was more compassionate toward her feelings or too busy and uncaring to take the time. Either way, she was grateful to ignore it for now.

 

The Shocking Aftermath of Her Life Choices!

She gave up canned soup, doctors with cold eyes, waitressing, and Friends. She gave her body her blessing to grow their baby girl for the remaining three months. His parents gave all they could spare to the preparations for their granddaughter’s arrival. She and her husband felt the relief of release as hope returned to their eyes. It wasn’t the perfect start for a young family, but it was a safe and loving one. They accepted it gladly.

•••

SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER lives on a hill in beautiful Portland, Oregon. She is a senior at University of Portland. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Eastern Iowa Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Mulberry Fork Review among other journals. You can visit her at sbweaver.com or tweet hi @sarahbweaver.

4×6, 5×7, 8×10

photos
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kathleen McKitty Harris

My father doesn’t want the pictures anymore. When he finds them in drawers or old shoeboxes, he passes them on to me—in used mailing envelopes bearing his new address, or in secondhand shopping bags printed with the names of retail stores long defunct, with curlicued fonts that spell names like “Bambergers” or “Gimbels.” When he does so, I am struck by the incongruence of my childhood memories, grouped together in no particular order.

The pictures usually make me cry when I take a moment to look at them later by myself. They guide me back to living rooms in houses long since packed up and sold, to the feel of scratchy rompers and dresses sewn by my mother from McCall’s patterns, and to the smell of my grandmother’s Chanel No. 5 perfume, cloying and comforting on hot July days in Brooklyn backyards. They return me, quite viscerally, to the freedom of childhood summers, to the comfort of love and acceptance craved by an only child and bestowed by a dysfunctional—albeit well-meaning—extended family, to days when what has become would never have been foreseeable or possible.

My parents divorced ten years ago, after more than thirty-five years of marriage. They were high school sweethearts, who amassed decades of memories between them. These pictures are markers of what once was and what never should have been, of what cannot be fixed, and what will never return. So they’re put aside, someplace dark, and tucked away.

I was thirty-five, in my own marriage for nearly ten years, as I witnessed the dissolution of my parents’ union. The small, lacquered coffee table, the Pfaltzgraff dishes, the Christmas ornaments, the kitchen chairs with cane seats—all once merely functional items—were now essential to my mother and father, after passing through their lives largely unnoticed. They were life rafts, and my parents clung to them, alone and adrift, as they became unmoored from the weight of their married life. It was jarring to visit each of them in their makeshift apartments and see the physical objects of our former home, now unmatched and without their counterparts. Tables without chairs. Couches without pillows. Cherished collections, now halved.

The photographs, however, were largely left by the wayside. Who wants the wedding album from the marriage that didn’t survive? Who needs the box of Kodachrome slides from the honeymoon in late-sixties-era Kauai, that Christmas in the first apartment in Manhattan, the first ride in the new car, or the time we went on that trip north to Vermont and stopped along the way for fruit pies to take home? Who wants to remember that there was good there, even if it was only as bright and brief as the flash of light capturing it? Who wants visual proof of the dour, cold faces, the spark gone from someone’s eyes, the distant body language, the signs, all the signs—long before the other had awakened to it?

Most of our family photographs remain in a storage unit that my mother has rented for too long in Connecticut, because she still can’t bring herself to sort through everything. When her promised dates of delivery come and go unfulfilled, I don’t press her for them, out of kindness. My father has a few in his possession, and he offers them to me when he thinks of it. When he does, I discover moments I’d forgotten, or that I had never been cognizant of, given my age in the photos.

There are familiar memories, new to me again from alternate angles of relatives’ cameras. I sift through shots of birthday cakes and party hats, cellophane-wrapped Easter baskets, tricycles with streamers, toys long since lost or sold at garage sales, presents stacked under tinseled Christmas trees, and every-day moments on outerborough summer streets and in backyard pools. There are blurry ones, many poorly framed, with ripped edges and creases. They were captured with cameras that we no longer own — my parents’ old Instamatic with the blinding flash bulb box, from my uncle’s old Nikon, or from the Polaroid we kept for a while around the house.

Sometimes, they humble me as I realize how little we had—and how much there still was to go around. We all lived in close quarters, seemingly on top of each other, in two-family houses and apartments and row houses. We were together. Often. This explains why several relatives often usually weren’t speaking to each other, my desire to have borne my husband more children, and why I yearn for a houseful of people yelling and clattering together on any given holiday.

One photograph will never be returned to me. It’s a vertical shot of me in cap and gown, bearing a broad, white smile, at my college commencement. I’ve taken my glasses off, for vanity’s sake, which ironically worsened my look with the tight squint of near-sighted eyes. I can sense that my father is there somewhere before me, squeezing the shutter button, but I’m not exactly sure of anything except his shadowy shape.

I was the first woman in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from college, and the first person to go away to college at all. My parents were proud of my accomplishments, and of their numerous sacrifices to get me there. After my graduation, my mother had a large print of the photograph framed to suit the decor of my father’s office. It matched the cherry credenza behind his desk, and he displayed it there for several years in his midtown Manhattan office.

When my father’s company moved downtown to the World Trade Center in the mid-nineties, he brought the picture to adorn his new office on the 92nd floor. On September 11, the day the towers fell, he survived because he was simply late to work that morning, and had not yet arrived at his desk.

In the weeks that followed, I thought of the photograph’s journey and wondered what its fate had been. Had it fluttered out to the murky Hudson River? Had it incinerated in the collapse? Would it be recovered in someone’s backyard in Brooklyn, clinging to a chain-link fence and wrongly labeled as the photo of a 9/11 victim? The thought process was my irrational way of distancing from the physical horrors that had occurred. The thought would surface when I could only focus on the chaotic flight path of flimsy photo paper, unable to humanize the abject pain and fear that took place on that day.

Photographs are small truths. They house our past. They help us to remember who we once were, when we have strayed so far from our beginnings.

•••

KATHLEEN MCKITTY HARRIS is a writer and native New Yorker, living in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children. Some of her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, Literary Mama, Brain, Child, and McSweeneys. She has also been named as a Glimmer Train Press short story finalist and as a three-time finalist at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival Story Slam. Her website is sweetjesilu.com.

 

A Lonely Dude

man on beach
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Noah Renn

Leslie had been deployed nine months when Troy tried to grab my dick. He lived in the apartment next door, and I would go over there when Carmen went to sleep for the night. I would bring the baby monitor so I could hear if she woke up while Troy and I drank Dominican rum and smoked cigarettes. He was a flight attendant and would be gone for weeks at a time, but when he returned, he was always looking to hang out. His place provided brief moments of relief from the loneliness of our apartment. I always felt guilty, like I was doing something dangerous or neglecting my kid, but she was a good sleeper. Once she went down for the night, she wouldn’t wake up until the morning. Plus our building and apartments were so small; in his kitchen, I was literally two rooms away from her crib.

He was a nice guy but kind of a weirdo. Overly cheerful about his obviously isolated life. Overly enthusiastic about his one year in college at Colorado and his choice to drop out and follow Phish for a couple years. He was a rambler, jumping from subject to subject, not ever really allowing or needing me to get a word in. A bit spaced-out in his explanations about the beauty and connectedness of things, like he’d dropped too much acid in his twenties. Troy was also a close talker, always leaning in my face or ear as he talked, as if he were divulging something important and as if I were the only one he made privy to that information, though he probably told those stories to anyone who would tolerate them.

His stories always had to do with him on vacation. As a flight attendant, he got free trips to the places on his airline’s routes, so on his breaks, he would take advantage and travel. It seemed these free rides were pretty much limited to the eastern seaboard or the Caribbean, and appropriately, so were the settings of his stories; this limited his stories to places less exciting than I’d like to hear about.

“Where else have you been?” I’d ask.

His favorite place was the Dominican Republic where he would always describe lazy beach days and wild nights clubbing with a woman name “Tamia” who he called his girlfriend. I always found his relationship with her suspect. How could he spend enough time there to not only find someone but become romantically involved? It’s not like he was visiting every week. He could only take off a couple days a few times a year.

Another thing always in the back of my mind when he described Tamia was that a couple of neighbors who had lived in the building long enough to know Troy more than I did had indicated that he was gay.

Adam, in the unit directly below mine, said that Troy tried a little too hard to hang out with him all the time. That Troy was “trying to put moves on him.”

Ashley, in the first floor corner unit, outright asked Leslie about Troy. “He’s gay, right?”

Gay or straight, his life paralleled my own. We were both guys who lived in small apartments. Our partners were far away from us. This, besides the fact that he was generous with his booze, was one of the reasons I liked hanging out with him. We shared a similar struggle. He would sometimes ask me about Leslie, and what is was like for her to be in Iraq while I was taking care of our one-year-old.

That night he added, “You have a beautiful family. You’re so lucky, dude.”

I took a deep breath and said, “It’s not that hard.”

This was how I responded to most people in my life:

“Seems like I’m able to handle it.”

“Sometimes it’s easier than when she was here because there’s less conflict.”

Or: “I get to make all the decisions”

Even though I felt that way sometimes, it was mostly that I wanted to come off strong to my friends, coworkers, and family members. I didn’t ever want to be someone who needed sympathy or help. What was I going to do? Wallow in tears because my wife was in a war zone? I was in grad school, writing poetry while she was off driving tractor trailers over the Tigris River. Stereotypical gender roles were reversed. I was trying to be tough and macho.

Other times I had to admit to myself that parenting is hard, especially for one person. And for all the stories I heard growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the largest Naval Base in the world, about military wives recklessly spending their husband’s money, letting the house go to shit, or sleeping around on them, I came to realize it’s not easy to be alone with the kids for so long. When a spouse is so far away, so close to death and destruction, to war, the absolute worst thing in the world, so near the possibility of being killed or maybe even worse— having to kill—there’s a certain longing for recklessness back at home, even though it seems everything in our nature should guide us toward the opposite of that, to comfort, stability, and safety.

I was thankful that family gave me great support. My mom, who lived close by, would take Carmen any time she could. And every once in a while Leslie’s parents would come down from Winchester and take Carmen for a week or so. We called it Camp Grandparents. These week-long breaks allowed me to catch up on the overwhelming amount reading, writing, and grading I had piling up, and gave me a chance to live momentarily as a carefree bachelor—kind of. I would have no child to take care of and no wife to answer to, more or less, so I would try to go out and have a good time. But there was something odd about having a good time in public when my friends knew my wife was deployed. So mostly, I found myself not doing much. I wouldn’t really go out or spend a lot of money. I mostly just drank some beer by myself and went to sleep earlier than I would when Carmen was there. This, I thought, was probably more relaxing than calling my single friends and hitting a bar. So I didn’t regret it.

One morning when Carmen was away at Camp Grandparents, I ran into Troy in the hallway. He’d just returned from a two-week trip. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so we agreed I’d come over that night. I could drink and smoke, and at least I didn’t have to do it alone.

That night as we settled in, he picked up a framed picture of him and Tamia standing at a hotel pool. He shoved it in my hand and looked at it with me.

“She’s so beautiful, isn’t she? We are in love.”

In it she was wearing a server or staff uniform and looked like she could just be an employee who agreed to take picture with him. There was no indication of romance.

I gave a general response like always. “That’s nice. She seems great.”

He took it back and stared at it longingly before putting it down on the table. I could imagine he needed someone or something in his life that he could say was permanent. Flying around and staying at hotels for weeks on end would probably compel most people to latch onto any connection they might make—whether it was real or imagined.

We shot rum and chased beer. I lit a cigarette and feigned laughs as he told me work stories.

The buzz provided a moment of clarity. I was putting on a front. Some of my strength and resolve at that point in my life, like Troy’s relationship with Tamia, was just imagined.

He put on a cassette tape of some Pink Floyd, closed his eyes, and swayed. He was drunk. I was drunk. Realizing it was time to go, I pointed to the clock.

“It’s pretty late, man. I should roll out.”

Not ready to end our “chill session,” he swung around me in the narrow, galley-style kitchen, reached across my chest and shoulder into a top cabinet, and grabbed a bag of weed and a pipe.

“I can’t smoke ’cause they’ll test me, but you should smoke some. It’s so good.”

His eyes were just slits. His grin curled.

I was reluctant, but I relented even though I knew it would mean I’d have to hang around even longer. I couldn’t just smoke a dude’s weed and leave. He said he wanted to close the door, so I didn’t smoke out his whole apartment. I thought this was odd because he didn’t have a problem with chain smoking Camel Lights in every room. Breaking up the nuggets of weed and loading up the pipe took me back a couple years—back to undergrad when I worked in bars, before I was married, before Carmen.

When I found myself making stupid decisions during the time Leslie was deployed, I chalked it up to the fact, that as a country, we had found ourselves tumbling recklessly into a war we should never have started, so I could justify letting myself tumble recklessly into something stupid, into places I should have never found myself. I was a stateside casualty of war. The terrible foreign policy decisions that got my wife deployed begot any terrible life decision I could make. This was a lame excuse, and I knew it.

I lit the pipe. Troy flipped the tape.

An hour or two later, the bottle of rum was empty and the kitchen was starting to turn at a carousel pace. I needed out. I made my way to the kitchen door.

“All right, Troy-boy. I gotta go.”

He snapped out of his musical trance and hurried after me. “Just drink one more beer.”

I turned so my back was against the door, the fridge to my right. Before I could respond he had opened up the fridge and was grabbing two more beers. For a second I was pinned between the two doors. He emerged and dropped a can at my feet. As he bent down to grab it, his hand didn’t move toward to floor. It stayed at crotch level and his body lunged forward. He was right on me. He went for me. I opened the door and moved back and out of the way. On one knee now he looked up at me. He suddenly seemed completely sober.

“Aww, come on… What’s wrong, man?”

It was like he knew his move didn’t work, but he still had some hope that something might happen. I turned my head at him in confusion.

“I’m leaving.”

When I got back to my bedroom, I noticed how messy it was. Clothes on the floor. Baby toys scattered around Carmen’s crib. Disorganized changing table. I don’t think I made the bed once since Leslie left. I had escaped, but Troy was still just two rooms away.

I couldn’t give much more thought than that to what just happened—I didn’t really want to be sure that it did, but there was an awkward feeling, a sense that this dude had just tried to grab my crotch, molest me. I tried to rationalize. Maybe he was just falling or not paying attention. It was an accident. He couldn’t have really…

But I knew. When he moved at me, it was like the way I had moved at girls in high school—I’d be ready for things to escalate, to get under their shirts or in their pants. The way I moved away tonight was like how those girls might have moved away from me. Okay with staying close but not ready for that kind of touch. I felt creeped out that I had made someone feel the discomfort I now felt. It was that discomfort that let me know his move was real. That he was going after something. And what if I’d let him? What if I didn’t move away? What did he think was going to happen? What was his end game? This I still don’t know.

As time went on, I tried to avoid Troy as much as possible. It was pretty easy since he really wasn’t home much. When I ran into him weeks later outside the building, I just gave a passing nod and said, What’s up? There wasn’t any bad blood or even real tension. It was just that we both knew we weren’t going to be hanging out anymore. We went back to being our lonely, isolated selves. I could consider my loneliness and isolation as a lingering effect of war. Something that absolutely affects every military spouse, something that isn’t calculated with cost and casualties. But if they can’t even provide proper treatment for soldiers with PTSD, it’s understandable why a depression like this often gets pushed to the side, forgotten about. But I had Carmen, so I wasn’t really alone. Right? Troy was still alone. Leslie was still alone.

The next day when I Skyped with her, I told her about it. She seemed as surprised and confused as I was.

“Oh man,” she said. “I’m glad you got out of there.”

It became a joke between us, and we thought that any questions we had about Troy’s sexual orientation were answered.

“Well, Adam was right.” I said. I even joked that now I knew I was desirable to men.

“Don’t you cheat on me,” Leslie joked. We could make light of it, but when she would bring up the guys she was deployed with and how they would constantly say how horny they were, how they objectified the women, their fellow soldiers, I got worried.

What if something like that happened to her? That was the one and only time anything like that had happened to me, but women in the military are more likely to be sexually abused or raped than to suffer injury or be killed in combat. The abuse often occurs during periods of deployment. The majority of women who are sexually abused don’t feel like they can report it. Out of those who do report, large numbers have faced worse repercussions than the men they accuse. She’d have no door to escape. She’d have no apartment to hide in. I couldn’t imagine what she would do if she found herself in that situation.

Another part of me was scared of the possibility that she’d want someone to make an advance. She could in be in a such a state of isolation and fear and trauma that intimacy would be the one thing she needed—that so many of the those lonely, horny men would be willing to provide.

I’m not mad or weirded out by the thought of what Troy did. I do wonder what would have happened if I had gone super-hetero on him, punched him in the face, and said terrible things to him. How dare he do some gay shit like that? But I don’t fight. I’m not macho. My wife is the warrior. I write poetry.

I can understand that his attempt at having something, even just for a moment, to feel like someone wanted to be with him, to touch another human, wasn’t necessarily something so terrible. I can say that during that year Leslie was gone I don’t know how I might have reacted if a woman made the same move. I may have been just as vulnerable and desperate as he was.

I woke up the morning after, sore in the head and body. My eyes peeled open to the messy bedroom, Leslie’s side of the bed and Carmen’s crib, empty. First the bells, then the lyrics from Pink Floyd’s “Time” rushed into my blurry mind, “Ticking away, the moments that make up the dull day… “ It would be three more months before Leslie came home. Before I could touch, be touched by her.

•••

NOAH RENN is writer and teacher living in Norfolk, Virginia. His poetry and nonfiction has appeared in The Virginian-Pilot, The Quotable, Undressed, Princess Anne Independent News, and Whurk, among other journals. He is a 2015 Pushcart Prize nominee. He teaches composition and literature at Old Dominion University, and he leads a poetry workshop at the nonprofit organization, The Muse Writers Center.

 

Something

bandagedheart (1280x1262)
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Penny Guisinger

I held his hand as we crossed the street from parking garage to hospital. The black-and-white lines painted on the asphalt guided us to the automatic door that whooshed us into the building. He was eight years old, and his fingers felt sticky from breakfast, sugar, and sweat. I let go of him only for a moment so I could check my watch. We were on time. Neither of us wanted to do this, though I had tried my best to spin it as a grand adventure.

“You’ll get to see a cool video of your own heart,” I had told him at least two hundred times leading up to this day.

“I know, Mama,” he had come to say. “I know.”

“Don’t you think that will be cool?” I had said it again that very morning at the Dunkin Donuts.

He had plucked a sugar-covered chocolate donut hole from a bag, and said, “Yes.” He popped it in his mouth and licked the sugar from his fingertips. “Very exciting.” He was like this all the time. Even his understatements were understated. He endured me.

I had known what would happen when I told his doctor what Owen was regularly saying. “He says his heart feels like it’s beating funny, and sometimes his chest hurts.” You can’t say those words to any responsible medical professional and not set this chain of events in motion. Though our doctor had said all the appropriate “I’m-sure-it’s-nothings,” she ordered an x-ray, EKG, and an echo, and referred him to a pediatric cardiology practice no fewer than one hundred and ten miles from our rural home.

“Oh, look,” I said, finding the name of the practice on a directory. We had entered the cool and quiet of the medical building. The floor glistened beneath our sandals. “We need to go to the fourth floor. We get to take the elevator. Want to press the buttons?”

“Yes,” he said, scanning the length of the hallway. “I do.” He was carrying Tiny White, the floppy, dirty, white bear with a blue hat and scarf that Santa brought to our house many holidays ago. The bear didn’t exactly go everywhere with us, but he was pressed into service for special events.

In the elevator, he reached up and pressed the four button. The doors dinged and closed and the floor started to rise. Owen smiled. “I like elevators,” he said.

To call our area “rural” doesn’t quite capture the experience of living over a hundred miles from the nearest Starbucks, airport, shopping mall, or franchised restaurant without a drive-up window. In easternmost Maine, we all drive to Bangor to do anything much of anything. We grocery shop, do our banking, and fill our prescriptions locally, but if we need running shoes, jeans from someplace other than Walmart, a roller rink, or to see a medical specialist, we all make the trip across Route Nine, through the dense, endless wild. So to Owen, an elevator was a relatively big deal. A trip to Bangor was a celebration, and I was determined that our day would include some fun to underscore that this was nothing.

We found the right door and let ourselves into the waiting room. The receptionist gave me a clipboard and a pen, and Owen flipped through a Lego magazine while I wrote his name and birthday on at least nine different pieces of paper. Then we waited together in side-by-side chairs with wooden arms and scratchy upholstery. I ran my fingertips across the surface of his back, scratching him through his tee-shirt. He had picked out a Lego Star Wars shirt especially for today. With his tee-shirt, Tiny White in his lap, and the Lego magazine opened across his knees, he looked exactly like who he was, and it was my own heart that assumed an irregular rhythm.

In the first room, where they did the EKG, he told the nurse or the PA or whatever she was that he had an irregular heartbeat. She nodded, looked at me, and said, “He’s right. He does.”

I thought about how our family doctor had looked at me and said, “I’m sure it’s nothing,” and for the first moment since she said that, I doubted. This doubt would not linger past the appointment’s end, just an hour later.

•••

While we waited for the next room, for the next nurse or PA or whatever she would be, I said to him, “Let’s do something fun after this.”

He was looking at something. What was it? The Lego magazine? A book? The television? The floor? I have no idea, but I know he said, “Okay, Mama. Like what?”

“I don’t know,” I answered, trying to think of something we could do in Bangor, something fun, something different. It was summer in Maine. There has to be something.

Something, yes, but this was nothing. It would be nothing.

The echocardiogram was, as predicted, incredibly cool to him, but only for the first ten minutes. “Is that my heart? How is that my heart?”

The black and white, fuzzy images on the screen, constantly in motion may as well have come from a probe on the moon or from distant Tatooine, so unlike were they from any images we understand of the human heart. It was not pink, not red, not even heart-shaped. No black outline, no arrow through it. Its valves opened and closed the way a praying mantis lifts and lowers its legs, and the cross sections were bell-pepper-shaped.

“I don’t see how that’s my heart,” he insisted once more before drifting into the spell of the cartoons on the television high on the wall, strategically placed for viewing from the table. Then he added, “These aren’t very good cartoons.”

The echo tech did her job by not interpreting anything. She didn’t share any reassuring commentary. It was like the ultrasound I had when I was pregnant with my oldest, Abby. Because of her positioning in my uterus, I had a lot of ultrasounds throughout that nine months, and most of the techs were like tour guides of the baby, pointing out toes, elbows, her heart, her little space-alien movements. But one tech was wordless throughout, creating an absence of sound that was louder than any noise I had ever heard. She spoke only at the end when she said, “Do you have an appointment with your doctor this afternoon?” Panic set in, and I went to that appointment already in tears, prepared for a terrible piece of news that was, of course, nonexistent. It was just a tech doing what they are supposed to do: collect, not interpret.

There, next to my son, who was complaining about bad cartoons, I listened to the silence of the tech. She was clicking on her keyboard, capturing measurements, snatching images of Owen’s heart doing various tricks. And I knew. I knew it was bad. I knew it the way I know that there is gravity and that the sun sets and rises each day and the way I knew that I too would eventually die. The scenario spun out in my head—he would need a transplant. This would be our life now. That very day, everything would change and whatever fun thing I thought of to do that afternoon might be the last moment of fun we would have for years, or for months, or maybe forever. This news sank into my bones like a cold front. I checked my watch again. I interpreted, then misinterpreted. We had been in here too long.

•••

It gets hot in July, even in Maine, and it was a day too warm for go-karts. But go-karts were what we decided to do. I drove us across the bridge from Bangor to Holden, following a rush of summer traffic; tourists heading to Bar Harbor, heading to the coast. Owen sat behind me in the back seat, and together we watched for the signs for the go-kart track I had found online. I spotted it. “Is this it?” Owen asked, leaning forward against his seat belt for a better look out the window.

“Yes!” I almost shouted. “Let’s have some fun!” My emphasis on that last word was, perhaps, much more enthusiastic than the situation called for. But he was eight, and I was his mother, and we were going to have some fun.

It was about ninety degrees, and the go-kart track was in full sun. The young attendant who sold us our tickets asked how many minutes I wanted to ride. Rides were sold in seven-minute chunks of time, so I bought three. I looked down at Owen and said, “Let’s ride for twenty minutes the first time. We can go again after that if we want.”

He looked across a grassy expanse that sloped down to the fenced-in go-kart area. A fleet of small vehicles, with lawn-mower-style engines, was lined up, ready to go. Not a single other driver was on the track. We had the entire, squiggly-shaped road to ourselves.

Owen was too small for his own kart, so we were assigned a two-seater. The attendant showed us how to buckle ourselves in, how to steer, and how to brake, then he pulled on the start and the engine noisily fired up. I pulled onto the track, got a feel for the quick, tight steering. With hot wind now blowing through our hair, I stomped on the accelerator, and the kart responded by quickly coming up to racing speed, but there was nobody to race.

Owen gripped his seat. “Mama, I’m not sure you should go this fast.” He was like this all the time: a worried, middle-aged little man in dark-rimmed glasses.

I leaned into a tight turn, felt the tires grip the track. “We’re okay, Owen,” I reassured. “Are you nervous?”

He nodded but was grinning a grin that I took as evidence that I was being an awesome mom in the face of a hard day. We were having fun. His expression proved it, even though his little knuckles were ivory-colored and he had that edge in his voice when he said, “I think you should slow down so we don’t crash.”

I eased off the accelerator and slowed as we took a turn. The breeze stirred up by our forward motion fought the heat. We settled into a comfortable speed, and I steered the vehicle around and around the track. Owen’s body seemed to lighten as he relaxed into the activity, though I did not sense any actual joy. He watched the scenery pass by—the entrance gate, the parked row of karts, the booth where the attendant sat, the highway, the entrance gate again—over and over and didn’t say anything. I sped up and slowed down and leaned over and yelled over the noise, “Isn’t this fun?”

He met my eyes with his, grinned, and nodded, then went back to watching things go past us. His heart, I knew, was beating its irregular rhythm under his Star Wars tee-shirt and moving blood through all the veins in his small body. It ran through the small veins in the fingers he was using to grip the sides of his seat, though his grip had become less fierce. His small heart—how small was it? They say the adult heart is the size of a fist, but perhaps that is an adult fist. Perhaps his heart was the same size as his little, seat-gripping fist that was given its gripping ability by his irregular little heart. Perhaps it was my adult-fist-sized heart that made me grip him this tightly.

Another family appeared at the ticket booth, buying some turns in the go-karts. I thought that this was good, that it would be more fun if there were some obstacles, some challenges, some easy, fun competition. I navigated two turns while watching the group walk to the gate. They waited there. The attendant did not make a move to let them in. I wasn’t sure how many minutes we had been spinning around these arcs, but it seemed that we had a lot of time left.

The other group watched us through the chain link fence, and I felt obligated to pick up the pace. Owen’s knuckles grew white again, but he didn’t say anything. Members of the other group shuffled their feet, glanced at their wrists or their phones, the sun hot on their bare heads. We flew past them, past the parked fleet, past the attendant, letting the hot July wind blow across our bare heads.

“Are we almost done, Mama?” Owen asked me, but I couldn’t hear him over the din of the engine, and he had to say it again. If he had been wearing a watch, he might have checked it.

“I think so,” I shouted back, then added, “This is fun, isn’t it? Do you like it?” I reminded myself to stay in the moment, to experience this summer-in-Maine joy, to stop interpreting and do some more collecting. In a few weeks, Owen would start fourth grade. Summer was short. And here we were, with this new clean bill of health—he did not need a transplant. “A lot of kids have arrhythmias like this one,” the cardiologist had told me. “He’ll grow out of it.”

He will, I know, grow out of all of this. He will grow out of summer and Lego tee-shirts, and go-karting with me. I should be grateful. We should finish this joyous ride in triumph, then go inside the pizzeria next door and order the largest one they make with whatever toppings we want. We should drive home with Owen’s favorite band, The Beatles, cranked all the way up and with both of us singing. We should be awash in summer-healthy-heart joy. I pressed the gas pedal and took a turn as fast as I could. The g-forces pressed Owen into my hip. The wind flattened his hair against his forehead, and he squinted up at me, still hanging on tight to the seat, and I thought, “This is something.”

•••

PENNY GUISINGER’s first book Postcards from Here, published by Vine Leaves Press, will be released on February 16th and is available for pre-order on the 1st. In 2015, one of her essays was named a notable in Best American Essays, and another was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine, the Founding Director of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. To learn more, visit: www.pennyguisinger.com.

 

Meeting

By Khashayar Elyassi/ Flickr
By Khashayar Elyassi/ Flickr

By Seema Reza

There is a visiting writer scheduled to visit the military hospital where I lead writing sessions with recovering Service Members. I’ve been planning his visit for months. The patients have read some of his stories and are looking forward to this opportunity. Some have even bought their own copies of his book. I was informed, as I was leaving the end-of-the-year elementary school parent social, that the class play was scheduled for the same day as his visit. A few of the mothers were leaning over the granite-topped island in the gleaming kitchen, becoming wine-affectionate with one another. I came in to say goodbye. Thank you so much. I’ll see you next week. Is the play at 5:30 or 6? There is an exchanged glance (I may have imagined this).

The play is at 2:30, Alisha Stoneman tells me, eyebrows raised. That was definitely not imagined.

There had been about thirty minutes of conversation over white wine about how best to simulate a boulder on stage, about whether fake blood would traumatize the children. The husband and wife parent team that sews the costumes for nearly every school play—they are an adorable couple—has been discussing their plans. They both work. They both have important, high-profile jobs. I’m the asshole who didn’t know when the class play was.

Which means I will have to make a choice: class play or veterans. This is how my choices always unfold: birthday party or veterans. Sick day or veterans. Rollerblading, swimming pool, elaborate home-cooked dinner or veterans. I make a plan to have it all: I will leave early, see him through the workshop with the patients who are in the partial hospitalization program, the session I have to be there for, and have a colleague cover the other writing workshop which is open to the entire hospital, including staff.

He’s generous and honest with the group of twelve or so service members in the workshop I attend. Each of them writes about their military experience, even those who are openly angry whenever they are assigned to my writing group. Each wants to share their work. The group is supposed to end at 1:50. I planned to run to my car at 1:55 and make it to the play, which starts at 2:30. It is 2:00 and they are still reading and waiting for the writer’s comments, which he offers slowly and thoughtfully. I can’t leave before I’ve asked them to applaud and thank him, before I remind them to take their work, if it stirred something that will not settle, to their respective mental health providers. I jiggle my leg impatiently, clench my hands and then relax them, remind myself that my job is to maintain calm in the room. When finally we close, it is 2:05. I thank the writer, shake his hand with both of mine and run to my car. It is summer, an afternoon storm has begun, and my drive is delayed by a downpour that limits visibility. I enter the church basement just as the final applause has broken out.

I stand in the back, soaking wet, a halo of frizz forming around my head, and join the clapping. Other parents turn to look at me sideways, sympathetic and judgmental. Glad they are not me. My plastic hospital badge is still clipped to the collar of my dress.

In the third row, my older son Sam is sitting with his father and a woman I recognize (from light social media research with my cousins) as Karim’s girlfriend, who lives with my children half the time, in the house I raised them in and left behind two years ago. Who I have not yet met. Her hair is straight and brushed and dry. She is carrying a Burberry bag and looks more like the other private school mothers than I do.

One of the teachers—who just last week began reading my blog and sent me an email saying she is proud to know me, that Zaki brags about me—leads me to the makeshift backstage, puts her hands on my shoulders, and tells me that Zaki only had three lines, the play was short, that she is so sorry.

You’re better than this, Seema, she tells me while I cry. I wipe my tears, thank her, and face the room of parents milling about.

Zaki is showing Karim and the girlfriend his schoolwork, which is laid out on a table for parents to peruse. Karim is dressed in a blue button down shirt tucked into salmon colored trousers. He is wearing yellow alligator loafers. He glances at me briefly when I approach. He has new glasses that do not suit him. This is a small gift.

Hi, I’m Seema, I say, reaching forward to shake her hand. We haven’t met. I’m Sam and Zaki’s mother. This comes out harsher and more pointed than I meant it to; the emphasis on mother sounds jealous and territorial.

Her smile is nervous. Yes, I’ve heard so much about you. Nice to meet you.

I turn away to make small talk with some of the other mothers. Alisha Stoneman is serving punch. What I need in this room are established allies. What I really want to do is hang out with kids. When I’ve made some loose promises to definitely get the kids together sometime over the summer, I go play with the kids, who are high from the combination of unsupervised cupcake eating and post-performance exhilaration. We are having a dance party on the part of the blue-tiled floor that had been used as the stage. After a few minutes, a teacher comes over to tell the kids to calm down. I don’t know why you think this is a way to behave indoors, She tells them sternly without looking directly at me. You should know better than this. I want to flick her off as she stomps away. I shrug at the kids, who roll their eyes and giggle.

It’s Tuesday, so the boys will be going home with Karim. He and Sam come to where I’m standing and the crowd of children disperses. The girlfriend is sitting in a chair looking at Zaki’s new yearbook, which I purchased, and so should be going home with. The order form came to both of us. If Karim wanted a copy for his house he should have ordered one. This is petty of me, and I know it. I turn to Sam and ask him to just make sure the yearbook makes it back to our house, which, while still petty, seems less so.

This infuriates Karim. Just because you’re standing on a stage doesn’t mean you have to be so dramatic. He walks over and snatches the yearbook out of the girlfriend’s hands and pushes it at me. He turns on his alligator heel and walks toward the door. The boys give me quick hugs and the girlfriend offers her hand. It was nice to meet you, she says before quickly following after him.

She has such nice manners. Where is her mother? Shouldn’t someone warn her?

That night in a lover’s bed, the heat of his body wrapped around mine disrupts my sleep and her face rises again and again.

•••

SEEMA REZA is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, DC, where she coordinates and facilitates a unique hospital arts program that encourages the use of the arts as a tool for narration, self-care and socialization among a military population struggling with emotional and physical injuries. An Alumnus of Goddard College and VONA, her work has appeared or will appear on-line and in print in The Beltway Quarterly, Duende, Bellevue Literary Review and Hermeneutic Chaos among others. When the World Breaks Open, a collection of essays and poetry will be released by Red Hen Press in March. Pre-order the book here.

 

Read more FGP essays by Seema Reza.

This Is My Blood

By Ben Barnes/Flickr
By Ben Barnes/Flickr

By Linda L. Crowe

I gave blood for the first time at age fifty-four. I’d wanted to give before then, but at less than one-hundred-ten pounds—the minimum weight required to donate blood—I was too scrawny.

I came from a blood-donating family; both my parents were periodic blood donors. They went about it faithfully, though without fanfare. They felt the same way about giving blood as they did about voting. It was a privilege—as well as a duty—of citizenship. When he hit his fifties, my father had to give it up. He’d faint, or come close to it, after his appointment with the needle because of his low blood pressure. My mother gave blood well into her later years. My sister and her husband both donate when the bloodmobile rolls around.

Over the years, I’d attempted to slip past Checkpoint Charlie, always to no avail. Once, in South Carolina, I even wore my steel-toed boots at the weigh-in, but the nurse—she must have worked in a prison at one time— was on to my tricks. She slapped a consolation sticker (I Tried to Give Blood Today!) on my chest and marched me back outside.

As middle age crept up on me, so did my weight. One fine day, I stood on the scale and looked down. One hundred ten. Opportunity presented itself in the form of a sign at my former church: Blood Drive Here This Thursday. 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The Methodists: “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.” Open veins, too, it would seem.

When separated into its components (red blood cells, plasma, platelets, and cryoprecipitate), one pint of blood can save three lives. The goal for this church on this day was thirty pints. Or, potentially, ninety souls.

•••

How appropriate that my first blood donation would happen at a Methodist Church. My father came from a long line of Methodists. His grandparents were Methodists in Sweden before they immigrated to Massachusetts in the late 1800s. Daddy attended a Methodist Church Camp as a boy during the Great Depression. Even his middle name was Wesley, after John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church.

My parents met at the Methodist Church in Hopewell where my mother sang soprano in the choir. I was christened there as a baby, attended before my earliest memories. I was married there when I was thirty-seven. But by the time I turned eight or ten, Mom no longer sang in the choir. She and Daddy attended only sporadically, making special appearances on Boy Scout Sunday, when Dad’s scout troop marched the flag in, or if I played my flute for a special hymn. Sometimes, not even then. By the time of their divorce when I was nineteen, my father was an absentee on the membership roles, and my mother was a self-declared atheist.

Except for a brief time in college, and despite my parents’ religious apathy, I’d gone to a Methodist church all my life, even attending as a girl when my parents had stopped. I was a pious little thing back then, though I’m not sure where it came from. I loved the hymns, the advent wreaths, the Easter cantatas. But after all those years, did I still buy the whole bit about the magic baby, forgiveness, resurrection, life after death? For that matter, did I ever?

When I lived in South Carolina in the early 1990s, I attended a tiny rural Methodist church. One Sunday in May, a young college-aged woman stood up to testify. “If a man came in this church right this minute with a gun and threatened to kill anyone who was a Christian, I would stand up and say, Jesus Christ is my risen Lord and Savior.” She continued in her heavy southern accent. “And I wouldn’t be afraid because I believe in life after death.”

Wow, I thought. I wanted to have that kind of faith. It would make things so much simpler. Maybe I just needed to try harder. Pray more. Just keep showing up. Which is how I arrived at Nelson UMC in 1996, after I married and moved to Nelson County. I liked this small church immediately. The choir seemed overjoyed to have another alto. The congregation took on meaningful projects. The men worked on Habitat houses. The women knitted prayer shawls for cancer patients. The members of the church collected school supplies, coats, mosquito nets for communities in need both near and far. Most of the congregation seemed heavily biased in favor the Virginia Tech Hokies (always a good thing in my book). I had found a new church home.

When my mother died in 2008, I took what I intended to be a temporary leave of absence from church. She’d lived two hours away in Hopewell and during her six-month illness, I traveled down there a couple of times a week. Combined with my more-than-full-time job, I was away from home a lot. Sunday had become the only day I had to relax at home with my husband, do laundry, help him with projects, maybe cook supper.

During this time, I missed seeing people in church, and I missed singing in the choir. But Nelson is a small county. I ran into folks in the grocery store, the library, the farmer’s market. “When are you coming back to church?” they’d ask. “When things settle down,” I told them. I would return to Sunday morning worship when things got less hectic.

Worship. Who was I kidding? When you sing in the choir, you don’t have time to actually worship. Right off the bat, you’re looking at the bulletin to see what hymns you’ll be singing that morning, then marking them in your hymnal. Even during the pastoral prayer, you can’t really concentrate because you don’t know exactly when it’s going to end and when it does, you’ve got to chime in with the Choral Response. Will it be the three-fold or the seven-fold Amen? You lean over to whisper to your fellow alto, trying not to make a spectacle of yourself, but because you’re sitting right up front near the altar, you’re doing just that.

There were other problems for me as well. In my mind, a lot of what came after Christ’s life, and always in the name of Christ, didn’t seem consistent with Christ’s message of acceptance, tolerance, and non-violence. In the Methodist church for example, homosexuals are welcome in the congregation, but not in the pulpit. With all the starving and homeless people in the world, why the focus on homosexuality? The Bible makes some references to it for sure, but it is even more clear on topics like adultery and killing, as in Thou Shalt Not. Methodists’ open minds, it seemed, opened only so far.

When we sang “Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War. With the Cross of Jesus, Going on Before,” I used to wonder, “Why not Marching as to Peace?” After September 11 and the wars that followed, I couldn’t sing that hymn anymore. I would stand with my hymnal in hand and not even mouth the words. I could barely stomach it when the minister read Psalm 137, ending with “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” Jesus must get himself stinky drunk when he sees the twisted ways we’ve interpreted the Bible. Thou Shalt Not Kill. Were there some exception clauses that I missed along the way?

My Sunday school teachers taught me that Jesus is love. The ministers all along the way explained that when Jesus died, he became part of the Holy Trinity— the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. God is omniscient, they said, and omnipotent to boot. I thought about the on-going world condition that included genocide, poverty, and violence. If God was all-knowing and all-powerful, I reasoned, then he wasn’t all good.

I did not return to church immediately following Mom’s death in June of 2008. Dad’s Alzheimer’s had worsened, my sister and I had moved him into an assisted living facility, and I was on the road more than ever. Yet the following Christmas Eve, I attempted a re-entry.

I’d always loved the quiet excitement of the midnight service. Candles lit, poinsettias on the altar, the evergreen scent of the Advent tree. But now a large projection screen hung from behind the altar. Suddenly something like a comet swirled across the screen as though from another planet, and at the end of the tail lay a baby in a manger, as a large deep voice boomed, “And Unto You is Born This Night, in the City of David, A Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.”

“Christ in a bucket!” my mother used to swear when exasperated. Christ on a comet, I thought now. It was too much. I slipped out the back door before the end of the service and drove back through the night toward home.

Life is full of inconsistencies, but here was the real question for me. Could I worship someone or something I wasn’t sure I believed in to begin with? Christian faith. After a lifetime of looking for it, practicing it, even faking it, I had to admit it. I just didn’t have it. What I did have finally was the required poundage, and now another cross beckoned. The Red Cross.

•••

It was raining when I arrived at the fellowship hall to donate blood. The workers were still setting up, and three or four donors were ahead of me as I filed past the greeting table manned by church volunteers. “Given before?” asked a friendly-faced man I didn’t know.

“This is my first time,” I said.

“Good!” said Dawn, a woman from the church I’d always liked. “You’re mine!” She peeled off a sticker and wrote the number 1 on it. She handed me some reading material, and I took my place in a row of seats to wait.

I looked around. This fellowship hall had been built since I’d last worshipped here. Gleaming acrylic floors replaced dull tiles. Brass chandeliers brightened the room, providing cheerful contrast to the gloom outdoors. Though they’d been stashed away for today, I could picture the folding tables and chairs that usually filled this space; could almost smell the fried chicken, garden vegetable side dishes, and vanilla-wafered banana pudding that adorned the counter during the many covered dish dinners I’d enjoyed here over the years. Now this busy place prepared to give sustenance of another kind.

Sanford Shepard, a rising senior at Nelson County High School was seated in a chair beside me, tapping away on his iPhone. He was a babe in arms when I’d first come to this church, seventeen years ago.

“How did your soccer season turn out?” I asked. His picture had been in the paper more than once that spring.

“We lost 2 to 1 in the regional semi-finals,” he said. “Lost to a Northern Virginia school though, so that’s not too bad.”

“Not bad at all,” I agreed. Little Nelson County High School had just graduated one hundred seventy seniors. The Northern Virginia school would probably graduate ten times that number. Then I asked something else that was on my mind. “Have you given blood before?”

“Oh, yes, ma’am,” he said politely, then returned to his phone.

I was impressed. You can start donating blood when you’re sixteen years old, with a parents’ permission. Here he was, maybe seventeen, with multiple pints under his belt.

The Dalai Lama says that kindness is his religion. I’ve been giving that a try, but constant kindness is harder than it sounds. The Bible, the Buddhists, even the Boy Scouts entreat us to be pure in thought, word, and deed. As difficult as it is to constantly do good deeds, that’s the easiest one of the three. Followed by words. I curse and sometimes take the Lord’s name in vain. Even when I try not to, I slip up. If someone swerves into my lane, the first thing out of my mouth is “shit,” which may well be the last thing out of my mouth someday.

But thoughts? How is it possible to maintain integrity in thought? I’m working on it, but it seems an insurmountable task. Mostly I’m thankful that people aren’t mind readers. I remind myself that each day offers a new opportunity to make a new start. To work harder. To try to be better. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.

For me, it was one step at a time. One thought at a time, one word at a time. And in that fellowship hall, I’d joined others who were doing their good deed for the day.

After a bit, a uniformed woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties, and who sounded exactly like Whitney Houston when she spoke, led me behind a small curtained enclosure for a “mini-physical.” If I passed it, I could advance to a questionnaire. If that went well, I’d “get the chair.”

I passed the physical—great temp, super blood pressure—but nearly balked at the finger prick. I hated those things worse than I hated needles. It’s practically impossible to sit calmly while someone jabs something sharp into your oh-so-sensitive fingertip. You never know exactly when they’re going to do it, so you try not to anticipate it and pull back, but you do anyway. It’s just dreadful.

I thought of my son, who needed surgery on his arm when he fell off a ladder. And of my other son, who climbs tall trees with chain saws. I thought of my nephew who recently joined the Marines at a time when the nation is at war. And of his brother, who joined the police force at a time when Virginians have never been more armed and dangerous. It is better to give than to receive.

I survived the finger prick.

I breezed through the questionnaire, which contained everything from where I’ve lived over the years (might I have been exposed to Mad Cow disease in England?) to questions about my sex life. I was escorted to a comfortable lounge chair. Whitney Houston swabbed my left arm with brown liquid, waited thirty seconds, then did it again. This time she made Van Gogh swirls until the crook of my elbow looked like an abstract painting, suitable for framing. “My artwork,” she said with a Mona Lisa smile.

I dreaded what came next, that horror of a needle. I made myself look elsewhere.

Elsewhere happened to be where young Sanford reclined, blood flowing from his athletic arm to a bag, nearly full. A boy’s blood.

All the ways young men can and do lose their blood— often in great quantities— flooded my mind. Car crashes, athletic injuries, plain old foolishness. I saw chainsaws, mortar rounds, bullets. Blood everywhere.

“We got it,” Whitney said, and I watched my own blood fill the clear tubing like tomato juice through a crazy straw.

There is no substitute for human blood, and in the U.S. and Canada, we need a lot of it; one person or another needs blood every three seconds. Patients use 43,000 donated pints each and every day. Shortages of all blood types occur during the summer, and winter holidays.

•••

A few years ago, I dreamed about Jesus. He was the Caucasian Jesus presented to me in childhood, fair-skinned with long reddish-blond hair and beard. He was seated under a tree, beckoning small children to come unto him. I don’t remember what else happened except that when I awoke, there was no doubt in my mind—none—that Jesus Christ was the risen Lord and Savior. I had the feeling that I’d found what I’d searched for all my life. The whole deal, it was all true. I retained this assurance, and with it a feeling of joy, throughout the morning.

Then the doubts began to set in. Jesus wasn’t a white man bedecked in spotless flowing robes. He was a roaming Middle-Eastern man who bore more resemblance to Osama bin Laden than the Jesus of my girlhood. My dream must have been more of an aspiration than a visitation. Had Jesus really taken time out of his busy schedule to appeal to my skepticism? My certainty faded. Did I not have the strength to believe, or was it all in my mind? I prayed for the vision to come again, but it never did. Was it a visitation, or was it just a dream? I didn’t know. But over time, I’ve gained clarity on what it is I do believe.

I believe that there are more people who claim to have spoken directly to God than who actually have. I believe that Jesus is among those who actually have. I believe that his practice of embracing the poor, the sick, those disenfranchised by society, showed us a way to be good in the world. I believe what we do here and now is more important what comes after this life.

And what I was doing here, was giving blood. While my bag filled, I recalled so much time spent in so many hospitals. My mother’s cancer surgery, my father’s heart valve replacement, my husband’s adrenalectomy. Our sons, our friends, our families. All those operations. All that blood lost and replaced. It was always there and I rarely gave it a thought.

But I saw it now. My mother and father in a blood mobile in Hopewell. Big city people in line at collection centers. Rural people in country churches. This is my blood, shed for you.

Twenty minutes after I started, I joined other freshly bled people in the recovery area, drinking juice and chatting. Sanford was back with his phone.

I should have asked him how many pints he’s donated in his life thus far. All I knew was that I had some catching up to do. That day, I made a start.

•••

LINDA L. CROWE lives in Nelson County, Virginia, with her husband Kevin, big-hearted dog Tem, and mean-spirited cat Mildred. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Virginia Forests Magazine, Slaughterhouse, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Full Grown People, NPR’s Open Mic, and Studio Potter.

Read more FGP essays by Linda L. Crowe.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Naomi Shulman

1986. I was sixteen, and I was spending the night alone with my boyfriend, M. We were at his house, but his parents were gone. His father was dead, actually—he’d died several years earlier of cancer. He’d been forty-two, which sounded old to me, but everyone remarked on how young it was. It’s younger than I am now. His mother was out of town with his sister. My parents were divorced, and I was playing them against one another; each thought I was with the other, and their inability to speak to each other without shouting was, for once, working to my advantage.

So we were alone. And young, and inexperienced, but safe. His house was on a dead-end dirt road and no one was around for miles. It was summertime in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The August evening air was already crisp, and we were snug in the tree-hidden house at the end of the drive. No one knew what we were doing. Not even us.

M had shoulder-length hair and spent the summer in bare feet; his soles were calloused. He had ice-blue eyes and a quick, wide smile. He was skinny and a little nerdy; I was a sucker for smart and funny. That never changed. He loved comic books and the Beatles; a homemade Beatles cassette was on constant play in his car, a red VW Rabbit that he drove barefoot, and where we spent hours parked. The White Album. Revolver. Sgt. Pepper. We leaned over the stick shift and put our hands in each other’s shirts, longing for more privacy, more space. Now we had it. M also loved old movies, which is why we were watching The Man Who Fell to Earth when we first got completely naked with each other.

In 1986, VCRs were still kind of a fancy thing to have in the rural place we lived. Neither of my parents’ households had VCRs. But they were mainstream enough that there were plenty of movie-rental joints, including one at the arthouse cinema, which is where we found the David Bowie classic. I had been in first grade when it was originally released; a lifetime ago. It was still early evening when we popped the tape into the VCR, but the sun was setting. It was late summer in Vermont and the crickets were just warming up, reminding us that soon school would start, soon our parents would get wise, soon we wouldn’t be sixteen and seventeen anymore.

I was surprised to see what Bowie looked like, white and redheaded and young, his eyes fierce. He’d recently made his comeback in popular culture, and in 1986 he seemed so old to me, so grownup in his suits and his dress shoes, doing his improbably debonair dancing on MTV next to Madonna and Bruce. Bowie was younger in the eighties than I am now. But in The Man Who Fell to Earth, he was younger still, and looked more like me and my seventeen-year-old boyfriend—smooth, pale, unlined. Newly emerged, on a strange planet.

I remember almost nothing else about the movie. Shortly after the opening credits rolled, M traced my arm, starting from the spot where my collarbone connected to my shoulder and slowly making his way to the tip of my index finger, and my insides turned upside down. I hadn’t known a single touch could do that. I rolled over to face him and melted into what we were really here to do, which was to find our way in new territory. And the movie played as we removed one article of clothing at a time, exposing bare expanses of taut young skin, smooth and warm.

By the time the movie ended, we were both fully nude and it was time to do what we were pretty sure it was time to do. M began unwrapping the condom. I was shaking head to toe. I wanted to and didn’t want to. I couldn’t look M in the eye, suddenly aware and embarrassed of my youth. And then M gave me an out. “I think this may have expired,” he said. “It may not be safe.” The condom.

“Maybe we shouldn’t do this, then,” I said slowly.

“Maybe not,” he agreed. And then I could look into his ice-blue eyes again. It wasn’t just me who needed the out. Neither of us were ready. I was a little disappointed—I hadn’t yet arrived where I thought I was headed. But mostly I was relieved and grateful to be in a safe place with a nerdy boy who was content to kiss and touch and laugh with me for the night.

That night I looked through the skylight at the moon, round and unusually red, and thought I could never be so happy ever again, never feel so much again. I wouldn’t lose my virginity for a couple more years, but something had shifted nonetheless. My heart drummed in my chest, strong, insistent, never-ending, ever-expanding. But I was sixteen, and I didn’t know anything. M and I broke up shortly after school began, several weeks later, off to explore new lands, gaining fluency. And now Bowie is gone, also cancer, leaving the world decades older than M’s father did, but now that seems too soon to me, too. My parents found a way to speak to each other again; my father visited my mother on her death bed last fall, also cancer. And I am older than I ever imagined being when I was sixteen and had just fallen to Earth and had so many roads open to me and so much time that I could pause a while before deciding which one to take.

•••

NAOMI SHULMAN is a freelance writer in western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Cognoscenti, Yankee, and on New England Public Radio, as well as the 2014 anthology The Good Mother Myth. Follow her on Twitter: @naomishulman.

Apadravya: How I Got Stabbed in the Penis

By Bill Smith/Flickr
By Bill Smith/Flickr

By Chad Haines

My story starts the way so many do: with getting my nipples pierced. I heard from a friend that it would increase sensitivity and I wanted my nipples to be at least a little more sensitive than my elbow skin. My nipples have a history of looking like they have never been less amused. So I had them both pierced and—voilà!—new lip-biting sensations!

But wait. If these little barbells can do this for my nipples then what can they do for my (ahem) … member? I’m not desensitized down there by any means, but I definitely feel the opposite of the two-pump-chump. Sometimes it just takes me too long to climax. I know it’s too long because I reach a point where I stop having fun and start looking at the clock and think, “American Horror Story is on in ten minutes. I hope I can wrap this up.” Sometimes I even wonder if I could get away with faking it.

So I started doing my research. The most popular penis piercing is the Prince Albert. Allegedly brought to fame by the same royal family member who popularized the Christmas tree, this piercing is a ring that goes through the underside of the penis and comes out the pee hole. I can barely even look at the pictures of the Prince Albert without sucking air through my clenched teeth, so when I read that you have to sit to pee because urine sprays all over the place I decided that the PA was an emphatic “no” for me. That’s when I stumbled upon the apadravya.

The apadravya goes through the underside of the penis, just like a Prince Albert, but rather than detouring out of the urethra it keeps on going until it emerges out the top of the penis. This is the one I wanted—just a straight-forward, no frills barbell. I wanted it to be a tasteful penis piercing, and you know what isn’t tasteful? Spraying pee all over the bathroom like my dick heard a hilarious joke and just couldn’t keep it in any more.

I knew just where to get my tasteful genital piercing too. I had a trip to Seattle coming up and what better place in the world to do something so anti-establishment than the birthplace of grunge music and Starbucks (because what says “damn the man” better than a seven dollar mocha with soy milk even though I’m not lactose intolerant?)

Once in Seattle, I was anxious to get this done and over with before my anxiety mounted to the point where I no longer wanted to do it and left Seattle with a major case of intact penis regret. So I whipped out my phone and pulled up directions to Pierced Hearts tattoo and piercing parlor in the University District. A few short minutes later and I was parked and walking inside. There was a guy behind the counter talking to two girls about, I don’t know, tattoos, I guess.

I started flipping through the giant posters of tattoos mounted to the wall when a second guy walked up and asked if he could help me. I immediately thought, I don’t have to do this. I can pretend I just came in for a tattoo, get a random tattoo, leave, and no one would be the wiser, but I quickly decided that was slightly more absurd than my true intention so I blurted out, “Do you guys do apadravyas?”

The guy behind the counter said they did apadravyas. But he didn’t just say it. He said it kind of slowly and curiously. He answered me with the same emotion and expression that you would have if your grandmother asked if you moved your bowels that day. He must’ve thought that I was there to do a report or something. It could be my innocent face, or maybe because I don’t know proper piercing parlor protocol. What does one say when entering a piercing parlor? Is it “I’ll take one apadravya, please!”? Because that’s what I did. Like I was ordering movie tickets. So the guy just looked at me and asked if I had any questions.

I didn’t. I had done enough research, and I knew that if I heard any gruesome anecdotes, I would definitely chicken out. I mean, I almost got a tattoo rather than ask about the apadravya. The guy behind the counter introduced himself as Chris and had me fill out paperwork because Frank (the guy dealing with the sorority girls) was using the piercing room to pierce one of the girl’s nostrils.

After I filled out the forms and promised I wasn’t drunk, diseased, and had in fact eaten that day, Chris went back to prep the piercing room while I looked at more tattoos. At this point, you could have told me anything in the world and I wouldn’t have heard you. I was way too busy panicking and trying not to show it. I wanted Frank and Chris to think, Yeah, this is probably just like any other day for this guy. This badass guy.

When Chris came lead me back, I think I finally realized that I was past the point of a suave escape and I just went with it. He had me sit down in a chair that reclined all the way back so that I was laying down. Then he had me undo my pants and pull them down just enough so that he could access the canvas with which he was to work.

Having another guy touch my flaccid penis is absolutely not just another day for this badass guy. Chris explained very thoroughly what he was going to do. At least I think he did. I saw his lips moving, and I kept nodding my head but really all I heard was my inner monologue saying, “You’ve about to be stabbed in the dick” on repeat. Chris told me he was going to have me breathe in and out a few times and then ask me if I was ready. So he cleaned me up again, had me take some deep breaths, and asked if I was ready. I MOST CERTAINLY AM NOT READY, but I somehow said that I was. That’s when I felt the needle on the underside of my penis, and I thought “This really pinches! This—”

And that’s when it went from a pinch to ungodly searing pain and I couldn’t keep quiet any longer and started to let out a heartfelt “FFFFUUU—” but was cut short when Chris told me I did a great job. It’s over? But I didn’t even get to finish my expletive! Chris is a miracle worker!

He finished by putting in my jewelry (the classiest of penis barbells) and had me look at it. I loved it. Loved it. This was now more than just an experiment on obtaining a new sexy-time sensation. This was physical proof that I was tougher than I thought I was. Chris wrapped my penis up in a surgical glove so that the oozing blood could pool somewhere other than my pants. Then he told me to stay seated for as long as I wanted. No. I wanted to get my beautiful penis out into the world! So I went out into Seattle. (Side note: You may laugh at the glove, but it worked! If it hadn’t there would be a trail of dick-blood stains leading up to the snack bar at the top of the Space Needle.) I called my sister. Because who is probably going to be the most excited? My married-with-twins-and-a-house-in-the-suburbs sister.

That night I carefully cleaned my penis before carefully tucking it into a nice clean pair of underwear and climbing into my hotel room bed. When I woke up the next day, I was surprised to see how much blood had continued to ooze out overnight. It was high time for a shower and new pants so I jumped out of bed and into the shower. When I came out and dried off, I caught a glimpse of the sheets. Had someone just killed a family of small animals in my bed with a shoe? Well, I had no choice other than to check out of this hotel before the sun comes up and they discovered an amount of blood that falls somewhere between “menstruation” and “slit throat” on their sheets.

Over the next few days the bleeding got lighter and lighter, and I now took better care to protect hotel room sheets. (You’re welcome, Portland!). The pain was incredibly minimal most of the time. The exceptions were when I’d get nighttime erections. I had no idea how active my penis was when I wasn’t looking but as soon as I’m asleep it’s up and at ’em! It may secretly be training for a marathon.

One thing I can say is that now it will look extra impressive crossing that finish line with a barbell.

I learned so much from my apadravya. I learned that the penis bleeds a lot; I learned that Chris and Frank are delightful people; I learned that my will is stronger than my fear of needles going into my penis. I’m not saying that I recommend everyone going out and getting their genitals pierced. I’m just saying sometimes you’re not the person you thought you were and sometimes that can be pretty cool.

•••

CHAD HAINES is a zoologist for various institutions across the country. When he’s not tending to animals or explaining to people why he mells the way he does, he writes for publications like Soundings, Forum, and other academic publications that reach tens of people every year. He is currently working on a series of essays about his time as a zookeeper. Follow him on Twitter @chadchaines