On Saturday night, October 10, around 11:45 PM, I almost became Trayvon Martin.
After a pleasant evening enjoying decadent cheesecake in Midtown Sacramento with my friend Nicole, she drove me back to Woodlake, where I have stayed with friends for over three years. She parked her bright yellow car across the street from the house.
I have lived in this middle class, predominantly Caucasian neighborhood since April 2012, staying with Caucasian friends while I looked for permanent employment. As we sat in Nicole’s car, I told her about the apartment that I had looked at in another part of town. I mentioned that I had never felt comfortable in Woodlake and had always felt like an unwelcome outsider. We talked and listened to music, prolonging our nice evening. A Mustang drove by and pulled into a nearby driveway. We continued to talk while the young male driver got out of the car and walked into the house.
While we continued to talk, the young man came out of the house and stared in our direction. “I wonder what he’s looking at,” Nicole commented. A calico cat sat on the sidewalk near him.
I wondered if he was watching something that the cat had caught. Sometimes, the friend I stayed with walked around the neighborhood at night, looking for grubs for her turtles. We watched as the man went back into the house.
A minute later, he came out of the house again, this time with a large baseball bat. He started coming toward the car. “What are you doing here in my neighborhood?” he shouted at us, holding the bat aloft menacingly. Nicole quickly rolled up the windows and locked the doors. We were getting scared.
“I live here!” I shouted through the closed door, but he continued to come toward us, holding the bat as if he planned to break windows of the car—and maybe continue with our heads.
“I’ve never seen you,” he responded. Hate dripped from his voice like sweat. An older man came out of the house and stood in the yard watching. Was he going to hurt us too?
Nicole called the police on her cell phone. “Someone is threatening me and my friend with a baseball bat. We are sitting in my car on Fairfield Street. We are terrified. My friend lives here, but she is afraid to get out of the car.”
I called the friend that I stayed with and told her what was happening. She had lived in the neighborhood for over twenty years and knew everyone. She could vouch for my right to be there. She came out of the house a few minutes later and walked down the sidewalk to talk to the older man.
Nicole and I watched as they had a heated discussion and the young man was convinced to move away from the car. Finally, I felt safe enough to get out. My friend brought the older man over to us. He said that his son thought that someone was threatening the neighborhood, as several cars had been vandalized recently. I told him that I had lived there since 2012 and he said that he had seen me but had never met me. “Do you have to meet every one who lives on this street?” I asked.
He admitted that he did not. He said that his son had anger issues and that they were “working on it.” He said that he would have stopped his son before he “went too far.”
Too far? What would have been “too far”? Breaking the windows? Bludgeoning us to death? I thought of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Like Zimmerman, this was a young Hispanic man claiming that the term “Neighborhood Watch” gave him the right to take action against any unfamiliar face, especially if the face was black.
But we were not Trayvon Martin. Instead of a lone teenage boy, we were two adult women. Nicole was the supervisor of a nearby branch of the Sacramento Public Library. In September, she was featured in a full-page profile in Sacramento Magazine. She was very active in the community and had made presentations to the Woodlake Neighborhood Association. I’m a social worker for Sacramento County, working with victims of domestic violence and assisting people in danger of becoming homeless. I am also a freelance writer. Last year, Nicole and I were commended in the Woodlake neighborhood newsletter for a tour of the Del Paso Boulevard murals that she had organized. I assisted her by giving a dramatic reading of the poems incorporated into each mural.
We were two well-educated, professional women enjoying a Saturday night. But all that the youthful vigilante saw was a black face in a car. A black face can only mean one thing—a dangerous perpetrator, a foreign, dangerous presence. Perhaps an escapee from the “other” side of Arden Way. Like George Zimmerman, he only thought of violence. He did not see two harmless women—one black, one white—who could have been his librarian or his social worker. He only saw a black face, reason enough to take lethal action.
Once I entered the house, my friend tried to say that the incident wasn’t racially motivated. But Nicole and I knew better. If it had been a lone white woman in a car, I doubt if the young man would have come outside brandishing a weapon. Fear caused adrenaline to course through my body for several hours. Neither of us could sleep and we texted back and forth for an hour. We realized that if the young man had picked up a gun instead of a baseball bat, we would have been killed. We would have been like Trayvon, additions to a long time of victims killed because of their color or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It only takes an instant to end a life, even in Sacramento. Even in Woodlake.
I sure hope that I get that apartment.
BEATRICE M. HOGG is a writer and social worker in Sacramento, California. A coal miner’s daughter from Western Pennsylvania, she has a MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BA in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. Her novel, Three Chords One Song, was published as an eBook by Genesis Press in 2012. She writes a monthly column, “Financial Graffiti,” for the online publication The Billfold. Her blog, “Marvellaland,” can be found at www.marvellaland.wordpress.com. She is currently working on an essay collection about her experiences with long-term unemployment and homelessness. She got the apartment.
My bio-brother says his father was in the movie business. He says his father played piano. His father, my bio-brother says, was an amazing piano player, long fingers, a real natural.
Bio is what my brother and I sometimes call each other to make sense of things. It’s hard to find language for what we are and how we feel about it, so sometimes we don’t bother at all.
I’m forty by the time my brother and I meet. He’s a few years younger. When we’re together, my brother and I like to compare hands. We press our palms together, measuring. Our hands are big, long-fingered.
“We get it from the old man,” my brother says.
My brother and I weren’t raised together. His mother gave me up for adoption before he was born. His father abandoned his family for Hollywood years ago.
My brother’s mother is my birth mother, but when I say mother and father, I mean the parents who raised me. I say “real.”
When my brother says mother, he means the mother who raised him, a woman I’ve never met. When my brother says father, he means a stranger.
My brother asks if I play piano.
I tell him I do.
He says he hopes I’ll play for him some time.
I tell him I will.
Soon my brother and I will be together in my basement, and I will play songs on the piano I learned on as a child. The piano is over thirty years old, an upright Kimball, but the keys are good. My mother, the mother who raised me, kept the wood polished with oil soap so it still shines.
I do my best to keep it up.
I polish it when I can.
I play my brother “Begin the Beguine,” my father’s favorite song. My father, the father who raised me, was a singer, before the war, before the mills, before he got bitter and sad and stopped singing.
Once he won a contest and got to sing on the radio in Braddock, Pennsylvania, and for a while everybody knew him as the boy who sang on the radio.
Then they forgot what song it was he sang.
Then they forgot it was him who sang it.
Then they forgot my father’s name and how to spell it.
Then they forgot my father ever sang at all.
The song he sang was “Begin the Beguine.” The story goes, my father cut a record that day as part of his prize, but I never saw a record. No one did. My father must have kept it hidden or destroyed it.
Or maybe there never was a record. Maybe that was just a story. Maybe there was just that one time in the radio studio, one take, the D.J. picking his fingernails, saying, “This is it, kid. You got five minutes.”
My father always thought the song’s title was “Begin the Begin,” as if any minute his life would start over, as if any minute it would be good.
I tell my brother this and laugh, even though I think it’s sad.
It’s one of the saddest stories I know.
I play my brother another song—“Somewhere My Love,” my mother’s favorite, the theme song from “Dr. Zhivago,” a sap story set in the Bolshevik Revolution.
I have always hated this song.
My mother would make me play it over and over for guests.
I tell my brother this story, too.
I tell him about the time my mother made me play it for her cousins, Dick and Stella.
“Dick was a bastard,” I say.
“I know a lot of bastards,” my brother says.
“Me too,” I say.
My brother says, “I know that’s right,” and puts a hand up for me to high-five.
I’m sixteen, and Dick and Stella have just pulled up in their paneled station wagon. They’re staying for the weekend. I hear Dick say, “Jesus fucking Christ,” and I hear Stella apologize three ways.
I’m hiding out in my room when I hear my mother call, “Oh, Lori baby. Come say hi to Dick and Stella. Come play ‘Somewhere My Love’ for us.” It’s her sing- song, welcome-to-my-perfect-home voice.
My mother watches a lot of old movies. She’s spent a lot of money on me—piano lessons, dance lessons, doctors, clothes and food. What she wants every once in a while is to impress people—in this case, Dick and Stella. What she wants is for me to come out and be, just once, a perfect daughter. What she wants is a lacey white dress and pigtails and for me to say “Oh, yes, Mother dear.”
What she wants is for me to skip.
Most times I try. We keep our fights between us. In front of other people, I want her to be proud of me. I love my mother. I want to prove I haven’t been a complete waste.
With Dick and Stella, though, there’s a problem. Dick is nasty. He’s also a drunk. He beats Stella. I do not know how often or how bad, but she is always nervous and he is always rough, and everyone in the family knows this and no one says much about it.
“You know how men are,” the aunts say.
“They have a lot of passion between them,” the aunts say.
“Dick has an artistic temperament,” the aunts say, that word again, temperament.
I think Dick’s name suits him. I tell my mother this.
“You will be respectful,” my mother said before Dick and Stella arrived. “They’re family,” she said, as if that explained anything.
By artistic, the aunts mean Dick is a musician, a barroom pianist, and a good one. When he plays, Stella sings along, like the terrified little lab mouse she is.
Dick is not trained, like me. He reminds me of this each time we see each other.
Trained pianists, Dick says, are like trained monkeys. Real musicians don’t have to be taught how to run a scale or play the blues any more than real monkeys have to be taught to swing from trees and fling shit.
“You’re either born with it or you’re not. Me, I never had one goddamn lesson,” he says now as he settles into my mother’s good wing-backed chair.
He’s wearing Hawaiian shorts and a tank top, black socks and sandals even though it’s October, even though there’s frost coming. He has a can of Iron City in one hand. The other hand keeps time to some music only he can hear.
I think Dick is like a dog in this way. He’s always hearing things.
He taps out those rhythms on the arm of the chair. He rolls the beat through his fingers, like they’re already on the keyboard, like they never can rest. I watch his fingers, how thick they are, how big and hard his hands seem.
I imagine him hitting poor Stella, those fingers coming down again and again in a slap. I can’t imagine what she’d do that would make him so mad.
“My sweet Dick,” she says, and her voice warbles and clicks, like a cotton candy machine filled with pennies. “He plays like an angel.”
Maybe it’s something awful and simple.
Dick the angel-playing pianist can’t bear the sound of his wife’s voice.
“I’m a natural,” he’s saying. “I play by ear. Have since I was this high,” Dick says, and he takes his rhythm hand down low, an inch above the carpet, to show he’s been playing since he was a fetus.
Stella’s tweaking, a Pekinese on the Fourth of July. When Dick tells her to get up to the piano, when he tells her to sing along to what I am about to play, she jumps like an M-80 just went off in her shoe.
Poor Stella with the horrible voice sings when Dick says sing, even if he’ll slap her for it later.
I play my best for my mother, who wants to be proud, who wants to show me off, her well-trained and talented daughter. My mother sings along with Stella. They smile at each other as they sing. They hold hands, like singers do in those movies they watch.
The two of them could torture dictators into giving up their countries, their families, their stashes of fine cigars, their own ears, they’re so beautifully unimaginably off-key.
When it’s over, Dick just sits in his chair.
“Well aren’t you two the bee’s knees,” he says to my mother and Stella. He doesn’t smile. His fingers thrum their invisible keys. He’s quiet, then he says to me, “I can see you’ve practiced that one a lot.”
I nod and think for a minute he’s going to praise me.
He says, “You’ve been taking lessons for how long— three, four years now?”
He says, “How about I give it a go?”
He hoists himself out of the chair and walks to the piano like a linebacker. He sits down on the bench and it creaks under his weight. He rolls one wrist to loosen it, then the other.
Then he plays.
I’d like to say he’s terrible. I’d like to say he hits the keys with a jazzy rendition of chopsticks. I’d like to say he thumps the keys like the brute he is.
But he plays beautifully. His fingers don’t even seem to touch the keys. His whole body becomes part of the instrument, the music. There’s no separating it.
Dick is a beautiful pianist and the world is worse because of it.
“There,” he says when he is finished. “That’s how a piano’s meant to be played.”
Weeks later, I’ll get a letter from Dick, who will tell me I have the technical skill to be a concert pianist but not the heart. I have the physical ability but not the soul. I should give up and not waste any more time.
“I figure I should tell you now for your own good,” he says. “You are not a born pianist.”
It’s a crushing thing.
“You’ll thank me,” Dick writes.
I didn’t thank him that day. I didn’t thank him ever. I wished him dead more than once. I wished Stella would kill him in his sleep—a pillow to the face, a stove left on, something easy like that.
Still, Dick was right. I wouldn’t become a pianist, though all these years later I still play, and one day I find myself sitting in the basement of my childhood home, playing the piano Dick once played, the very same piano, for a man who is my brother.
“You’re really good,” my brother says. “Just like my old man.”
Maybe I wasn’t born a pianist.
Maybe nobody’s born anything, though Dick thought he was.
“I know a lot of dicks,” my brother will say. “My father was one most of the time.”
I won’t know if my brother’s father is my birthfather.
I won’t be sure if it matters or not.
“Do you know any Bruce?” my brother will ask, and he’ll mean Springsteen.
LORI JAKIELA is the author of the memoirs Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe; The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious; and Miss New York Has Everything, as well as a poetry collection—Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point, 2012). She teaches in the writing programs at Pitt-Greensburg and Chatham University, and co-directs the summer writing festival at Chautauqua Institution. She lives outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, the writer Dave Newman, and their children. For more, visit lorijakiela.net.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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 McSweeney’s. 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.