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.

 

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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

The Stars Are Not for Man

space guy
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Joelle Renstrom

“All the earlier changes your race has known took countless ages. But this is a transformation of the mind, not of the body. By the standards of evolution, it will be cataclysmic… It has already begun.”

—Arthur Clarke, Childhood’s End

 

On New Year’s Day, I huddled next to a space heater on the porch as snow piled up on the windowsills. It was four p.m., that dead time between day and night. The utter lack of change blanketed everything, much like the snowflakes that dropped from the sky, unhurried and sticking fast, piling up like days, weeks, and years. It had been a year and a half since Dad died, since I moved back to my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Eighteen months seemed like an arbitrary measure of time; I had been there forever—perhaps I had never left.

I spent some time that day putting together a syllabus for a class I’d be teaching that winter called “The Evolution of Science Fiction.” One the works I most looked forward to teaching was Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End. In the book, a mysterious alien race called the Overlords descends upon earth and eliminates famine, war, and crime, ushering in a utopia. The humans don’t know the Overlords’ ultimate objective, but it becomes clear they’re trying to prompt an evolutionary leap in the human race—a leap that the Overlords themselves cannot make because although they’re technologically superior, they’re otherwise limited, or, as Clarke puts it, “trapped in some evolutionary cul-de-sac.”

“Evolutionary cul-de-sac” described my feelings about Kalamazoo. I’d already lived nineteen years of my life there, and when I went to the grocery store or to work, I ran into people who’d known me since I was a kid. Even though everything was different now, it was hard to escape the powerful orbit of history. On New Year’s Day, my thoughts solidified into a single goal: I needed to leave Kalamazoo. I needed to continue evolving. The stakes were immeasurably higher than the first time I left home, college-bound, still a kid. In a few months, I’d be turning thirty.

I started a blitz, applying to jobs from California to Cairo. I sent out at a dozen applications each week, waiting for the tiniest nudge in any direction. None came.

Toward the middle of February, we started reading Childhood’s End in the science fiction class. Another line echoed ceaselessly in my mind, an admonition from the Overlords: “The stars are not for man.” I seemed to be sending my CVs into a black hole—most of the time I didn’t even get the courtesy of a rejection. Is the universe telling me that the vast expanse out there isn’t for me? I wondered.

The day Arthur Clarke died, I spent hours in my dad’s office, sometimes spinning around slowly in his desk chair. The shelves were almost empty. I hadn’t yet taken down the pictures that showed us the way my dad had seen us: backlit against a campfire, laughing over a board game at the table, stuffing our faces with chocolate while dressed in soggy Halloween costumes. The family on the wall seemed unfamiliar, as though it could have come with the frames. In the third drawer of Dad’s desk, I found a stack of my own poems. I read them all, as though I’d never seen them before. If I concentrated, if I pushed my brain back through the quicksand of time, I could picture who I had been when I wrote them. That person was gone, yet like the family on the wall, she haunted any space still open to the past.

Clarke’s death felt like an omen. The death of a visionary felt to me like the death of a vision—the death of my vision. I’d expected the job search to be rough, but I hadn’t expected to be still entirely unacknowledged almost four months into the process. Unless I went to a random place on a wing and a prayer, I might not go anywhere at all. Come late May, contracts for the next academic year here in Kalamazoo would arrive; what if I signed one after the other after the other? I envisioned another year, or five, or ten, of unlocking the door of Friedmann Hall’s third floor and entering the same hallway that smelled of sneakers and White Out and microwave popcorn. A universe folding under its own weight.

The months rolled by. Kalamazoo was the last place I’d expected to be when I turned thirty. I still had no leads on a job or a new place to live, no indications of the change I’d been pursuing with increasingly frantic abandon. Was it okay that at age thirty, I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, that I was as clueless as a child? Even though I was back at the starting point of my personal history, I felt way off the map. On my thirtieth birthday, I drove to a cabin in the middle of the woods even though I knew my life and everything I wanted to leave behind would find me in the end.

I shivered under my birthday moon and pulled the drawstrings of my hood until it was a small circle around my face. I thought about how Arthur Clarke gave a clipping of his hair to a company that sent it on a three-week suborbital ride to space and then returned, ready for another mission—perhaps a longer, more permanent one. Clarke’s DNA has and will travel to places he wrote about; theoretically, an alien civilization could reconstruct his genetic code. Either way, the stuff of Arthur Clarke could exist indefinitely and infinitely. Could the idea that one’s DNA can be perpetuated far beyond one’s physical body explain the many times I’ve felt Dad’s presence, sometimes uncannily enough to prompt me to look around?

If they have the ability, the sentient races in Childhood’s End evolve to a transcendent state in which they join an infinite consciousness, the essence of all things—the Brahman. When they do, they transcend reason, corporeality, time, and space. When I first read the book, I wasn’t sure what to make of Clarke’s fusion of spirituality and science fiction. Later in life, he ceased believing in what he called “superstition,” but I found my trajectory to be just the opposite.

What if life and death as we think we know them are only two stages of existing? What if spirits or essences can exist in an infinite number of forms not limited to corporeality or to conventional conceptions of an afterlife? Between what we think of as life and death, there might be countless planes of existence or realms where anyone departed from earth could dwell, neither alive nor dead, in some form unrecognizable or unconceivable to us. What if there are actually seven dimensions, or eleven, or twenty-eight, and what if some of them are places or spaces we go when we die? What if Dad, or Arthur Clarke, lingered in such interstitial spaces, uncategorized and uncategorizable, defying nothingness? What if the sense that he’s around me isn’t just me unable to accept that he’s truly gone—what if it’s me sensing his particle waves, the way one senses that a radio is on in an adjacent room?

•••

After my birthday, I redoubled my efforts to move, keeping in mind Arthur Clarke’s second law: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” My dad’s diagnosis and death had thrust me into positions I never would have chosen for myself: caretaker, custodian of information I didn’t want to possess, watcher of death. Everything felt impossible, and in some ways still did. But as I became a person I didn’t want to be in a place I didn’t want to be, I also became something I’d had no need to become before—the architect and guardian of hope.

If the universe gives us what we need, rather than what we want, then the story of my life—or at least my perspective on that story—changes. There had to be a moment that changed everything. There had to be a place to leave, a life to leave, a me to leave in order to go back to Kalamazoo. And there had to be a Kalamazoo to leave in order for me to rebuild and evolve. There had to be a time and place for me to decide to make my life about something other than Dad’s death.

•••

At the end of May, I got an email from Emerson College about an adjunct teaching gig. I booked a ticket to Boston and sent my resume to every college and high school in the city. A week later, I got on a plane and then spent five days lugging a suitcase to job interviews and to apartment showings. I put all my eggs in that basket. One doesn’t make it to the stars by playing it safe.

Dad would have been excited at the prospect of my moving to Boston—he had taken us there on a family vacation when I was nine. I allowed myself a brief fantasy of walking down Massachusetts Avenue with him, past Harvard and MIT, pausing on the bridge to look at the sun glinting off the State House. Whatever place I next inhabited, he would never visit me there. That thought slayed me, but at the same time, I felt curiously liberated. For the first time since he died, I felt like a real person with hopes and dreams and a future that made my stomach buzz with excitement. Was it possible that after all this time dizzying myself with the unanswerable why, Dad’s death could take on meaning if I looked at it as a catalyst for evolution?

Childhood’s End depicts the evolution of children into something beyond human. My evolution wouldn’t be that dramatic, but I had the distinct sense of being catapulted beyond my parents, especially my dad. And ultimately, isn’t that the point? Aren’t our predecessors supposed to pave the way for substantial movement, for progress? I hadn’t merged with the Brahman, but I was no longer the person I had been and was afraid I’d always be.

The day before I moved to Boston, where three part-time jobs and apartment awaited, I finished cleaning out Dad’s office. I boxed up the pictures and slid the nameplate out of the holder. The empty office seemed not to belong to this world, as though it was a place in limbo, waiting to be filled. It wasn’t clinging to my dad, his belongings, or his memory. It was time for Dad to inhabit some other place, and it was time for me to do the same.

On Wednesday nights at the Boston University observatory, I look through telescopes at Venus, Mars, and sometimes Jupiter and Saturn. I imagine Arthur Clarke’s DNA on an endless voyage. As I look at our solar system, a tiny parcel of space, it’s clear that time and space have only as much sway as I allow them. They, like everything else, can be modified and adapted. Arthur Clarke is right—death can beget life, and extinction can be evolution: “There lay the Overmind, whatever it might be, bearing the same relation to man as man bore to amoeba…Now it had drawn into its being everything the human race had ever achieved. This was not tragedy, but fulfillment.”

In this universe, my dad still exists. In this universe, there is room for the me that is six years old, still sitting on my dad’s knee, the me that tangles with the transition between life and death and back again, between then and now, and the me that believes that three dimensions are only the beginning.

•••

JOELLE RENSTROM is a freelance writer based in Somerville, MA. Her collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published in August; a version of this essay appeared in it. She maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen, about the relationship between science and science fiction. Her work has appeared in Slate, Cognoscenti, Guernica, The Toast, and others. She teaches writing with a focus on sci-fi, AI, and space at Boston University.

Read more FGP essays by Joelle Renstrom.

How to Trail Run in Bear Country

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By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Mallory McDuff

During bear season in the mountains, try to run on the trails with a friend. Talk loudly. Speak with candor about your students, your children, and even your sex life at a high volume, so bears run from your voice. (Remember that if a friend tells you something confidential, even at a high volume, the info stays “on the trail.”)

If you are alone, clap your hands several times before you come around a corner. Attempt to reconstruct the details of the email that ecologist Dr. Lou Weber used to send to the college community, with tips for random encounters with black bears.

Did she instruct you to stand your ground and yell—or to be quiet? Recall a video posted on Facebook of one of your running buddies, the education professor, screaming like a crazy lady at a bear in her backyard, while her spouse yelled, “He’s hissing, honey, he’s hissing!”

As you run, ponder why you can never remember the details of information that actually matters—like how to stand your ground with a bear—but you know when your favorite authors stopped dying their hair. Question if you will ever get highlights again, now that your stylist of a decade has moved to be closer to her aging parents.

Smell the bouquets of white and pink rhododendron. Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

Say a small prayer for the beauty of this college campus where you live and work, where a run can give you a jolt of adrenaline or a hit of dopamine. Realize that you didn’t notice the rhododendron yesterday, when you ran with the Spanish teacher, because you both were venting about your teenagers. (But that felt good, too).

Recognize that it doesn’t matter if you get highlights or not since you haven’t had sex or even seen an attractive man in six months. And you don’t have the patience or the time to cast your net on Match.com. As a heterosexual female living in the most gay-friendly town in the South, you can go grey in peace. Hell, men go grey everyday: the look is distinguished.

Give up your dream of looking like Lauren Bacall when she was featured in her late sixties on the cover of the JCrew catalog, with her blond highlights and slight gap between her front teeth.

Plan to visit the JCrew distribution outlet in Asheville, since you haven’t bought clothes in at least four years. Pride yourself on your new uniform of a tank top and cardigan, a look stolen from another friend who wears the same outfit as her established style. Remember that she is from Connecticut and you are from Alabama. No one wears cardigans in the Deep South because it’s too damn hot.

Continue running on a trail called Suicide Ridge, a steep incline that you’ve run (or walked) almost everyday for fifteen years. This run is like your cardigan of trail runs. It’s a routine. Observe that the signage for the trail features the new name Broyles Ridge, a substitution for the more ominous Suicide Ridge.

Think about the horrific suicides of a college student and two children of staff members at the college over the past decade. Resolve to tell your children, yet again, to call someone they trust if they ever want to kill themselves, even though such admonitions mean nothing in the face of mental health crises. Remember your teenager’s last response to this plea: She rolled her eyes and said, “Why are you telling us this again?” Give a prayer of thanks for your own drugs that help to tether you to sanity every day.

Run past more rhododendron. Listen to the knocking sound of a red-cockaded woodpecker pounding on a tree trunk. Pause to pee on the side of the trail and remember when your friend Susan peed on a run, and a hiker walked past her.

“Well, this is awkward,” she said with a gracious Southern smile from her squatted perch on the ground. Reflect that all your friends pee more on your runs than they did ten years ago. Feel grateful that you can run.

Jog past the river, as the trail meanders by two older men throwing rocks into the water. Sneer at a dog owner who refuses to put his dog on a leash, even when the wet dog shakes water all over your leg. “He just wants to be friends,” the owner says.

“I’m allergic to dogs,” you respond, because someone has to be the middle-aged runner, irritable because of a dearth of physical intimacy or because of a full life with a teenager and a nine-year-old in a nine-hundred-square foot home.

Continue past the college farm and wave to the milking cow and the sheep. Since no one is around, call out “BAHHH! BAHHH!” and marvel at how good that feels. Just for the hell of it, call out “MOO!” to the cow. Turn to see one of your students walking out to milk the cow. Smile and wave with the pleasure of being fifty years old and for once, not giving a shit what someone thinks. Wonder how long this elated feeling about aging will last.

Notice the shades of pink and red in the eastern sky, as the sun rises over the farm.

Inhale the smell of the new day. See the yellow pollen floating in the morning air. Resolve to show more empathy for the students who may not be prepared for today’s assignments.

Turn left up a steep trail that leads to Christmas Tree Hill. Resist the urge to walk and continue running to the top of the hill and slow to a jaunt around a bend.

Stop to realize that there is a couple having sex—that’s right—having sex with full penetration in the middle of the trail.

Lose all sense of empathy, as well as balance. Glance behind to ensure you are not in some documentary, a college assignment to film people’s reactions when confronting outdoor sex. There are no cameras.

Realize that you could turn around, retrace your steps, and remove yourself from the situation, as your mother always advised. But fifty-year-old trail runners don’t run away. They stand their ground.

Observe that the male is on the bottom, lying on a blue tarp. His face is toward you, while the women is on top, with her bare back and booty facing you. (Feel a pang of remembrance for the comfort of that position.) Resolve that you are going to continue on the trail, but there will be an encounter. You will not go quietly, as you now recall that Dr. Lou Weber’s instructions about bear encounters indeed advised making NOISE.

Watch as the girl twists her torso to talk to you, just a few yards away. Recognize her face from the college library, as she helped you to check out two educational psychology books last week; now you are checking out her sexual acts, without invitation or desire to do so.

Realize that this young couple has no intention of changing their positions. You are like a phone call put on hold until you hang up. You are in their outdoor bedroom, and you have to walk past their bed to exit the door.

Explain in your most grown-up voice that you have to pass by them: This is a trail used by many runners and hikers, including children, you say.

“Oh that’s fine, you can go right by,” she says.

Feel awkward, much more awkward than encountering a hiker while peeing. And the most awkward part of the whole experience is that they don’t feel awkward at all. It’s like cognitive dissonance on steroids.

Run.

Continue running on beds of pine needles, a soft cushion to your pace. Wonder why you did not say something funny to them like, “Watch out I may ‘come’ again.” Remember that’s not your style. Imagine that they are still going at it, with much more endurance than many middle-age men. Feel your heart race and your face flush, and not from the running.

Start laughing as you run all the way home, to your simple duplex with an expansive view of fields and forest. Feel another wave of gratitude and reach for the best drug you know, a phone call to a female friend, who answers on the first ring.

Stand outside and drink long gulps of cold water while you tell the story to your friend. Listen to the peals of your own laughter, echoing across the valley. From your description, the friend actually recognizes the two students, who had disclosed their plans to camp in that exact spot.

Resolve to forget their names, as quickly as you forgot the tips for bear encounters. Before you hang up the phone, make plans to run the trails again tomorrow morning, at the break of a new day.

•••

MALLORY MCDUFF teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, where she lives on campus with her two daughters. She is the author of Natural Saints (OUP, 2010) and Sacred Acts (New Society Publishers, 2012). Her work has been featured in publications including The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, USA Today, Sojourners, and Huffington Post.