I found out I was pregnant while I was completing my training at a bourgeoisie swim school in the Presidio, a wealthy residential neighborhood in San Francisco. I was in my early twenties, fierce with rejections from graduate programs, and sleeping with men that weren’t my boyfriend.
After my final interview at the swim school, I walked back to my car with stacks of training homework, a complimentary tee-shirt, and a tight black one piece. I could feel the reality of my body, quickly taking on its new purpose despite my denial. My period: late. My infidelity: coming to the surface. There was a deep longing in my abdomen, a glow on my face. My body knew what it was doing and it didn’t care if I caught up.
During my lunch breaks at the swim school, I was always feeding myself like a starving animal. Salt and bread. Sour cream. Sauerkraut. Sourdough. On my way to the pool I’d stop and get myself Greek food, hummus and tahini cascading over the steering wheel. Sauce on the front of my complementary work shirt and in the seams of my front seat. I had an insatiable hunger. No matter how hard I tried, I could never be satisfied.
Why should I indulge myself? I’d ask myself during these moments of ferocious feeding. Guilty at the grandiose amounts of food. When I took a pregnancy test in the Walgreens bathroom near my house, I immediately decided I didn’t want to have it. I wanted an abortion. I was too hungry and restless to have a baby. I was too unsure of my relationships with men and relationship with myself. Despite my upcoming abortion, I decided to finish up the month of training at the swim school.
Each day I’d thread my ankles and thighs through the slick black suit, one leg at a time. I’d touch the acne on my face. My breasts felt raw and vulnerable under the spandex. My hair always smelled like chlorine, which caused me to retch in the bathroom next to happy whales painted on the walls and step stools for toddlers to reach the sink. The weight of my body was an anchor in the water.
During the lessons when I had to teach the kids to dive into the deep end, sometimes I just felt like sinking. In newborn swim training, they’d place plastic baby dolls in our arms. Treat them like they’re real, they’d say. Their plastic hands were reaching out to touch our faces, their backs curved in a perpetual cradle. In a circle, we would practice our songs, hand positions, and methods for dipping infant heads under the water without getting any in their noses. They told us babies are born natural swimmers. They told us babies learn to be scared of water as they get older.
Softly, I would take my doll through the water. I’d watch it while the waves bounced off of plastic hair rivets. The smell of plastic and chlorine on my skin was so overwhelming, it made me hungry and sick at the same time. It reminded me of being at the Little Rock public pool, where I’d swim for hours and devour anything I could get my hands on after I was through. Microwavable pizza. Half cooked hot dogs. When we were finished with the dolls, we placed them back in their coordinating bins.
During my first lesson away from an experienced instructor, I held the newborn, chubby arms afloat as the babies would try and paddle their malleable legs to the soft lullaby in my voice. I sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Sea Star”, matching my tired eyes to their curious ones. Their gazes were intoxicating. One parent would be in the pool as the other took photographs. I’d cup the back of their patchy haired heads and gently ooze them under water. In a second they’d emerge, delicate eyelashes sprinkled with pool water. Then I’d lead the fresh-faced infant back to the dad in the navy swimming trunks where he’d plant wet kisses on baby cheeks, cooing congratulatory words.
I was a stranger, a pregnant stranger, holding their baby just above the surface of the water. Would they have trusted the instructor in her sleek black swimsuit if they knew of insecurities of motherly instincts or lack thereof? Would they have judged her in the same way she was judging herself?
I couldn’t help but think of my own mother during this time. The instance she saw me take my floaties off at the public pool in Little Rock, eventually jumping in after I sunk to the bottom.
I took my instructor’s manual with me to my procedure. I held it over my face while a priest called me a murderer. It rolled off his tongue the same way cheater had when spoken by my ex-boyfriend. The priest’s clothes smelled like frankincense, and I remember it burning in the cathedral when I was young. Father Henry, the father I would see daily at my church school, had the same potent, peppery smell on his clothes.
My mentor at Planned Parenthood had a six year old child in my swim program. We just want to get him to the green ribbon, she said directly after the procedure was over. My voice trembled when I responded to my mentor. Her name was Sophie. She held my hand tightly when I’d welp in pain, sick from my stomach contracting. She rubbed my hair and put a heating pad on my back. She didn’t call me a murderer or a cheater. She was a woman, a person, who understood.
Tell him he has to move with his breath, I said as I threaded my ankles and thighs back into my underwear, one leg at a time. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was going to quit once I got home. Sophie led me to a chocolate brown recliner. My weeps sounded like whispers. I felt lonely. I felt relieved. The curtains separated me from the other girls. I could hear them breathing slowly in between sips of water.
Back in the waiting room, I sat in another section for my antibiotics. When Sophie handed me my brown paper bag, I could hear the music as doors opened and closed. Familiar hymnals were playing at full volume out of an old portable stereo. Songs I knew by heart. We had to sing at my Catholic grade school. Somewhere deep inside of me I still knew all the lyrics, which prompted only admiration for what it is to know beautiful words, but also frustrated for making me feel I had to be a certain kind of woman when I was only a girl. A woman who only wore dresses in church and never thought about sex. A woman who can’t know anything bigger than her unless she does those things. A woman who should feel bad about her decisions and mistakes.
The surface outside was glowing under the Mission District sunlight. The man who had harassed me earlier leapt from his chair to yell into my ear. He followed me the entire way down the sidewalk, shoving pamphlets of how to heal, how not to go to hell, how it’s not too late for me. I threw the pamphlets in the trash.
In the distance I could hear the hymnal was at its chorus again. I thought about how it wasn’t too late for me. I thought about how I could still be a mother when it felt right. I thought about how I could still be spiritual even though I wasn’t religious. I thought about how kind strangers can be despite others who want to make me feel as bad as they do. I thought about the way water works to carry people onward to new beginnings and how this time I wasn’t going to let myself sink.
LIZ LASITER was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. She moved to the Bay Area in 2011 to complete her Bachelor’s in Philosophy. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California. She currently works and resides in San Francisco.
I’m from Iowa, but I lived in New York because I was in graduate school. I didn’t love my day job, but I loved and respected my boss. The company rented space in an office building near Penn Station, ten or fifteen floors accessible only by elevator.
After work one summer evening, I got on the elevator at the third floor, even though it was quite full. A group of nearly a dozen men from another business offered jovially to step aside for a lady. The oldest man closely resembled KFC’s Colonel. The majority were middle-aged men who looked ahead from under their shiny, tanned foreheads. With them rode a small handful of young men, maybe college or even high school student interns. Maybe it was Bring Your Kid to Work Day. Watch and learn, sons.
All of the men were white. All wore work-casual attire.
There was a feeling of levity in the air of this tightly closed space. Maybe it was Friday. I seem to remember something about golf.
When I stepped onto the elevator, they laughed, miming exaggerated gallantry and pretending to be my escorts to the ground level, rather than a crowd of strange men in a small space. I laughed along, even as the man standing behind me took the joke to some planet where it felt fun and funny for him to put his hands on my shoulders. He gave me a very real, very unwanted massage as a joke in the series of Jokes About Men as Protective Escorts and Not Predators. The punch line here was something like Relax— you’re safe here.
I kept laughing as I wriggled free, but I did not turn around.
The doors opened on the second floor, and jocularity spilled forth onto one of my coworkers, who waited for the elevator with his bike. My wide eyes registered his surprise. He seemed confused: What great fun was happening, and how did it involve me? He didn’t join us.
The doors closed again, and I began to realize what had happened, that I wanted to tell the man behind me that it’s wrong to give a woman a backrub when she hasn’t asked for one. But before I could speak, the men had flooded past me, off the elevator and out onto the sidewalk.
I stood a stupefied moment, then walked swiftly toward the door to catch them. But they were already gone—across the street or dispersed in all directions. They looked like everyone else on the sidewalks.
I walked downtown without a destination, and my horror grew: everyone in the elevator saw what happened, and no one stopped it. I couldn’t report the guy if I didn’t know who he was. Anyway, it was my fault. It couldn’t have been wrong if I’d laughed with him. Maybe I had asked for a backrub.
In the days that followed, I told a coworker who told my boss—a man. After reviewing the security tape, my boss took me to breakfast and asked me, in all seriousness, whether I’d feel better if the man who gave me a backrub in an elevator lost his job.
I talked it over with a friend who was my superior in the workplace. She couldn’t believe I would even consider taking this guy’s job. This stuff is dumb, she conceded, but it happens, and I should put it behind me. He probably had a wife and kids. Don’t ruin his life.
I let him go unpunished.
A few months later, my partner and I traveled to the Midwest for the wedding of one of his old friends. It was fall, and I wore a fabulous midnight blue dress with a ruffle and puffy sleeves. I wore some equally fabulous hose—pearly and translucent with thin, black, vertical stripes.
After some dancing, we headed to the bar for a refill. My partner chatted with the pastor who’d married the couple. While I awaited my drink, I overheard the pastor congratulating my date on my “naughty-girl stockings.”
I wished that my partner had told him off, but instead he moved me away from the bar before I could douse this man of God with his own drink. I was deeply embarrassed. I wanted to speak up to the pastor or his wife, but my date stopped me, and his face was pained with that decision. This man was a minister, and I was the bride’s distant friend’s plus-one. What would people think? There was no need to make a scene.
When I later found the pastor on Facebook, I drafted and deleted message after message. I wanted to tell him, “I know what you said about me. I know what you say when you are not speaking to a congregation. I know how you really are.”
I wanted to tell the newly married couple about him, but my partner and close friends advised against it. I would cheapen the newlyweds’ vows, sully their wedding memories, and help myself not at all. I stayed quiet.
Before the elevator and the wedding reception, I went to a clinic on the Upper West Side. I’d been in the neighborhood numerous times for work or to visit the American Folk Art Museum, and it had never occurred to me, not once, that I might be in danger there. Drivers, pedestrians, tourists, businesspeople, hot dog vendors, and wealthy New Yorkers everywhere—too many witnesses.
Buzzed in through the clinic’s locked door, I followed the nurse to the exam room with artless walls and rude fluorescent light. She pointed to a table covered with a white paper sheet and said that I could either remove all of my clothing from the waist down, or remove just my shoes and underwear and pull up my skirt. Either way, I was to cover my legs with a paper blanket and sit down. The doctor would be with me shortly.
I tucked my underwear into my purse and sat on the table with my skirt puffed at my elbows.
I turned when I heard the door open. A short man wearing navy blue scrubs entered the room, followed by a nurse. The doctor had dishwater hair, blue eyes. He shook my hand—I noticed his bandaged thumb—and we exchanged smiles. He confirmed my name and that I’d come to the clinic for IUD insertion.
The doctor asked how I was doing, and I told him I was a little nervous.
I expected to hear, There’s nothing to be afraid of. Instead, he said, “Who are you having sex with?”
He asked how long I’d been with my boyfriend, and I made up a figure. “About four months?”
His voice was hard. “Are you sure?”
“About which part?”
“Well, you know why I’m asking, don’t you.”
I didn’t. “Because this is a long-term solution?”
“Well, yeah. And four months isn’t very long.” His face suggested that he shouldn’t need to explain this.
He asked, “Do you know what happens if you get an STD with one of these things?” Before I could answer, he said, “You’re screwed.”
I looked down at my hands clasped in my lap, thumbs twiddling, then gripped the sides of the table. I was half naked and covered with a big paper towel. I rubbed my feet together. The paper crinkled.
He went on: “I mean, you catch gonorrhea or chlamydia and you’re infertile. You’re completely screwed. So I’ll ask you again: Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” and my voice was annoyingly timid. I cleared my throat, “I’ve known him a long time, like, from before we were dating … and even before that, I wouldn’t, I’ve never been … in a non-monogamous, I just, I’m not worried about that.”
The doctor turned away from me as I spoke. I was still stammering when he cut me off, “Okay, if you have any reason—any reason—to believe your monogamy has been compromised, that you’ve been exposed to an STD, you come in here immediately. Do you understand me?”
I was taller than him from where I sat on the table, but I felt as if I were looking up at him.
“I’m going to do this for you anyway,” he conceded. “I’m going to do it because you’re affluent.”
“You’re affluent, and you look smart. You don’t look like some sixteen-year-old on the street who just wants an IUD because she’s bored of taking the Pill.” He mocked this hypothetical girl and meant to compliment me for being unlike her, for having insurance.
He sat down on a wheeled stool and gestured for me to put my feet up, but he was still talking to me. I spread my legs from the knees down, not wanting to expose myself while he seemed, for some reason, angry. I sat propped up on my hands, with my knees stuck together but my feet apart, heels in stirrups.
He put on latex gloves. The nurse handed him a blue kit full of scissors and other shiny, sharp tools. He pointed to a small black lamp next to him, positioned it to shine light between my legs, and said, “We had a woman used to work in here, black as this lamp, five-foot-nine, thin, just beautiful. I mean this woman was put on this earth to make babies because it would make us all a more beautiful race—heh-heh—but you know what? Her reproductive organs are worthless. Like sacks of pus inside her body. You know why?”
I answered the question to prove I had read the brochure: “Because she had an IUD and it got infected?”
“Yep. Sacks of pus, just worthless.” He shook his head to reiterate the tragedy of the beautiful, infertile woman, then noticed that I was still upright. His face conveyed annoyance.
“All right now, lay back.” He tapped my knees and instructed me to let them fall to the sides and relax.
“Scoot forward. Yeah—to the edge of the table. Now we’re doing the Mirena, right? Not the copper kind?”
I said yes. I could only see the top of his head.
“Good,” he said, “The other kind sucks.” He laughed like we shared the joke. “But you know who loves it? Hispanics, the Mexican-American women. They come in here asking for it by name.” He said women who speak Spanish prefer the copper IUDs, which, I’d read, were perfectly effective and lasted ten years to Mirena’s five, because they were a “knock-off brand.” He trailed off into a chuckle and I felt compelled to do the same, seeking safety in the muscle memory of a doctor’s orders routine, even though this did not feel familiar.
I turned my head to the right to see the nurse, herself Latina, arranging tools on the counter, facing the wall. I failed to stand up to the doctor seated between my knees.
“Okay, you’re going to feel a cold mist. That’s an antiseptic,” he warned, and his voice was suddenly gentle. “And then a bit of a pinch and pressure. That’s a local anesthetic. It’ll make the rest a lot more comfortable.”
While he warned me, I worked to believe that I’d been misreading him. Really, he must mean well. He was a doctor.
The antiseptic spray was cold.
He asked me where I was from, and when I said Iowa he threw his head back in laughter. “Oh! So you’re out here chasing your dreams, are you? Did you follow your dreams to New York City?”
There was a sudden pressure from inside of me, and a pinprick. “That’s the anesthetic,” he said.
Rather than defending my home state, I added that I lived abroad last year. I wanted to impress him with Dubai. (A dull push from inside my abdomen. Odd pressures, something moving inside me.)
When prompted, I coughed, and he slipped something into me, fast.
“But Dubai sucks, doesn’t it?”
I heard myself say that I would not like to live there again, a true statement that, in this light and this air, sounded like betrayal. I said I was glad to come home, that it felt better to live where food grows naturally. He approved of my explanation: “You’re funny.” I hadn’t made a joke.
He said Dubai seemed like a worse version of Las Vegas to him. “I’ve known a lot of people who have moved to Vegas, and you know what they always do?”
He waited, forcing me to ask him, “No, what?”
“They come crawling back.”
He shoved his stool backwards from the table, smiling triumphant. “Would you believe that’s it?” He removed his gloves. I sat up immediately.
The doctor boasted, “Now what was that, like three minutes?”
“I had an attending physician in med school who took twenty minutes to put in an IUD, and it hurt, you know?”
“Yeah, but that didn’t hurt, right?”
“Right. You wanna know the secret? You numb ’em up. It’s that local anesthetic. You numb up the cervix and you can—” He saw horror spread across my face. “I can do whatever I want.”
He went on to tell me warning signs to look out for after the procedure. “But right now?” he said. “It’s beautiful.” He laughed like he’d won a game.
He shook my hand again, and I said slowly and clearly, “Thank you.” I looked in his eyes. I meant it.
Some days later, I printed paperwork from the state of New York to report this doctor. But I didn’t send it. Instead, I felt tremendous guilt and shame, internalized all fault for the things he’d said to me, thought briefly about killing myself, and found a therapist.
He can do whatever he wants.
I am a smart woman with a good life. I have a good job and kind friends, a supportive partner and a safe home. I am in good health. I enjoy privileges I did nothing to earn.
Nonetheless, my life would be better if I had not been assaulted in my workplace, abused while seeking medical care, or reduced to a sexual object by a man who teaches morality.
My neighborhood in Brooklyn was full of people of many races and social classes. There were small children in strollers. High schoolers stood self-consciously in circles. Drunken men hung around outside the liquor store. There were many languages in the air. Cops walked the beat. From my bed I heard loud parties and midnight basketball games. I even heard a gunshot once. I was surrounded by things I’d been taught to distrust and fear. Nothing bad ever happened to me there.
The only men who have abused me are men I was taught to trust without question. They are men who know no consequences, men whose inner goodness is implied by their career choices, their age, their affluence, their skin color.
Time and again, these are the men who have caused me to think that perhaps I was not good or smart or worth my own life. Although I was allowed to speak up about their missteps, and people may have even listened to me if I’d done so, social pressure made me think better of making a fuss.
If the businessman’s employer or the church or the New York State Office of Professional Medical Conduct had issued some reprimand for these men, traditional wisdom told me, I would undo their lives of otherwise perfect service: These men do not deserve a second chance; they deserve a never-ending first chance.
My silence came from the supposition that these men were as good as it gets. If these men were not our businessmen, our doctors, our pastors, we might just have to do without commerce, without care, without God.
I now understand my decision to over-pretend at normalcy, to thank the doctor, to keep quiet: It seems this doctor has been elected president. So has the pastor. So has the businessman.
Years ago, Donald Trump said into a microphone that he cannot resist kissing women he thinks are beautiful, and that he can do this without the women’s permission because he is famous. He can “grab them by the pussy.” He can do anything he wants.
When asked about these statements in a debate, Trump shrugged off all criticism. “Don’t tell me about words,” he said.
Americans hold dear a sweet trope about childhood: When you grow up, you can be anything you want. You can be a farmer or an actor or a teacher. You can be a doctor. You can be a pastor. You can be a businessman. You can be the president. It’s hopeful.
Trump heard this promise and thought he understood, but he needs someone to tell him about words. When he was promised you can be anything you want, it seems young Donald heard you can do anything you want.
This essay used to be confident and indignant. It used to declare, if you want to be the president, you must do service for the people you wish to govern and treat them with respect. It is best not to do things that amount to sexual assault and brag about these activities. If you do that—let me tell you about these words—you cannot be the president.
I was wrong. This man is the president. Each day we awake to the new horrors his reign has brought, and we punch as if blindfolded. More crises will come, but I do not know just what these will be.
I do know that to speak of men’s abuses of power is more important today than it was before the election.
I know that my silence about such abuses means harm to those whose identities render them mute to the ears of those in power. Even when I am not the direct beneficiary of my own actions, I am responsible for the world around me. We share everything.
I know my own family, people who would never identify as racists or sexists, voted for Trump nevertheless. I try to hold up the fact of Trump’s election and get a good look at it. I know it’s gravely important that we work to understand. For unknown reasons, this is most difficult in the mornings.
I’ve made the strange decision to throw myself at gardening. I planted bulbs in my rented front yard despite the fear that many would be dug up by squirrels or eaten by rabbits before they could bloom in the spring. I set paperwhites in the windows all around my house, inspired by their ability to bloom without soil, to bloom especially when I needed them most, as snow flew outside and the whole world seemed dead. In the darkest days of winter, I bought a houseplant that is a carnivore. This plant nurtures itself by eating its pests. I found its hunger beautiful, and I hung it in my kitchen.
Despite bruised hope and disillusionment, the end of this essay remains:
My great-great-grandmother sent a song down through the generations. In a mock-operatic voice, the women of my family have used this song to goad our brothers and husbands: “Let the women do the work, do the work, and the men lie around, around, around.”
LAURA FULLER is an Iowan and a pie enthusiast. She lives in Wisconsin, where she teaches English and writes essays. Her work has appeared in Misadventures and various other publications and has been featured in performance at Lincoln Center. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from The New School in New York.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been making your phone calls, being kinder to strangers in public, and shutting down people who don’t show you respect. (It’s really not the week to mansplain to me. Ask a couple guys on Facebook.) I’m not running a new essay today because I know you have other things on your minds.
My own mind keeps coming back to courage and fear, and the inequalities in the U.S. that gives too many people extra helpings of fear—and will require the courage of all of us to change it.
I believe in the power of truthful story-telling. Today, I want to revisit some of the essays that had an impact on me.
New York, 2007. My hand pulls at the plastic ring attaching me to the subway rail. My wrist grows sore with each tug as the train lurches, burping noisily, without rhythm or apology. It couldn’t be more disinterested in us, this mass of bodies, compacted and caught, willingly. My palm and fingers slide along the grimy ring, the plastic soiled by countless hands, each leaving their oily imprint. I curse myself for forgetting my gloves, necessary not for warmth but for cleanliness and peace of mind. I’m from Bangladesh, and I loathe the cold. But as much as I dread winter, I welcome the layered protection of the season’s attire.
The man standing behind me pushes his crotch against my lower back. I’m grateful for my thick coat. Among all the clubs, predators have the most inclusive membership. They come in all forms: businessmen, lawyers, students, electricians, construction workers, old, young, white, black, brown, and everything in between. This one burrows his hard nub into me. The pressure makes me recede far as possible, which is scant given our cramped quarters. He knows this. He revels in this, sucking it like juice spilt from a ripe bite. I turn to glare at him. He feigns nonchalance.
The doors open. A mouthful of us spit onto the platform. We scurry, spread, each person in a different stage of gritty swift. It’s rare to find a born-and-raised New Yorker. Most of us have come here with a fervent purpose, arriving on the wings of a wish. We plunge into the flow, weave our narrative with each other’s, and move as one pulsing organism.
I emerge from underground. The crisp evening envelops me in a gulp. I don’t need to check my bearings. My pace matches the quickest foot. A few loiter, drag their feet, second-guess their direction. Not us, the urgent ones.
I make it home, now in my fifth sublet, and on the good nights (and tonight counts as a good night, as the man on the subway decided not to follow me and is now of the past), I exhale with relief. Another day closed, and thankfully, safely. I hang my coat.
The months fly like pages thumbed by an uncaring examiner. Then, one mundane Monday, I stumble into an old colleague. An actor like myself. A friend.
“What a great surprise!” he says. “We have so much to catch up on. Dinner? Friday?”
“Sure,” I reply.
We met a few years ago in the summer between my sophomore and junior year, while working at Williamstown, a renowned theater festival. He was a bit older than me, in graduate school at Brown. We became quick, close friends the way everyone does in a community of artists.
In the performance arts, we cultivate closeness through specific practices. For weeks or months, we do exercises crafted to foster trust and loyalty. We divulge achingly personal stories. We spend long hours rehearsing, suspended from reality, in the studio, onstage, and on the road. Therefore, by the time we perform, the audience believes we are family, siblings, lovers, or best friends. It’s our job to communicate intimacy. Once two artists have worked together, we’re allied for life. We’re part of a larger, loving tribe, generations deep. It is understood that we don’t dishonor this.
Now, years later, he and I have run into each other in the city, the way most of us do and will. We caught sight of one another in the waiting room of a studio, the way most of us do and will. We hug with the easy affection all actors who have worked together do and will.
Dinner is wonderful. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans. I’m wearing a short sundress and ballet flats. We share stories and laugh. My apartment is around the corner. I invite him up for tea. We talk and feel the attraction. He kisses me. I kiss him back. It’s all delightfully harmless.
It’s getting late. I walk him to the front door, adjacent to my bedroom.
“Good night. Thanks for a great time.”
He wants more.
He kisses me again, harder. He pushes me against the wall, my five-foot-four, one-hundred-five pounds feeling pitiful to his five-foot-eleven, one-hundred-eighty pounds.
“You have to leave now.” I keep my voice light but persuasive. He tries to push me onto the bed, forcefully, not remotely playfully. I hold my ground.
“No. You have to go.”
“No,” he says, grinning, his teeth glowing in the darkness. “I’m not going anywhere.”
The air has thickened like blood clotting. Dread curls around the edges of the room, like the scent of rain before the sky slits open. He comes towards me. I back away. I breathe slowly through my nose to calm my lungs and pace my heart. My mind sifts through every case study and self-defense lesson I’ve memorized over the years. I bolster myself with tactics, ready to use them: Place one hand on each side of his head, poke hard into his eyes with my thumbs. Knee him in the groin. Bite, kick, scream. Urinate. The shock and disgust might unsettle him, letting me run.
He grabs me again. I steel my body against his. I try to take his hands off me, twisting my arms and torso the way I was taught to do with assaulters. My teeth and hands tingle, eager to bite, to claw, to obey my orders.
The vile truth, as bitter as bile: He is much too strong.
I fight with all my might, flaying like a fish caught on a hook. He keeps his hold on me, and the tussle flings us onto the bed. My left cheek is pressed against his shoulder and turned towards the wall.
My room is pink. I painted it this way, pink with a daisy-yellow trim. Growing up, I always wanted a pink room. There’s a Benjamin Moore a block down from my acting agent’s office. The day I signed with him, I gave myself a pink room. I’ve been trying to create something soft for myself within the black and gray bruise that is New York.
Life is surprising. Just as crayons fail to taste like their names, paint on a wall will be much brighter than paint in a can. I envisioned a light, blush pink but ended up with pink as vivid as flesh, sliced open.
Now, I’m inside a mouth.
Lining the flesh-pink walls are stacks of books, arranged in a way I think is pretty. My bedframe is lovely too, black wrought-iron in a delicate pattern of leaves and flowers, much like the tattoo on my ribcage, tucked into the small spot between my breasts. I chose that area for its sweet privacy, believing no one would see it unless invited. I found the bedframe on Craigslist. It didn’t come with a bedspring so I balance it on plywood boards.
I haven’t stopped fighting. I am still trying to wiggle out from beneath him. He’s pinned my wrists above my head, first with both his hands and then, only one hand to hold my wrists down. With the other hand he’s undone his jeans and hiked up my dress. Now, he knees apart my legs, and enters. As he jams in, I order myself to imagine what I’m feeling is an inanimate instrument, like those in a gynecologist’s office which, at twenty-three, I’ve been to only thrice. Now, he grunts, and grunts, his upper lip, forehead, palms, and torso growing clammy with sweat, saturating the room with his scent, musky, male, yet acutely his own. Cracking like lightning, the wooden boards beneath my mattress break from our combined weight and exertion. The mattress tilts down like a split bone. It juts into the air at an awkward angle, shaking with each thrust. The broken boards scratch my flesh-pink walls.
“You’re just too beautiful,” he hisses between groans. Astonishing, the power of the human word. Through a meager handful of sound and suggestion, I feel guilt for being myself and fury for having it used against me. I wish to be anyone but myself, to be anything but attractive, to disappear and remain hidden, indefinitely. I wish these things and hate him for it.
I’ve looked left, right, down, so now, I look into him. His sounds, scent, and desire have filled the room full of him, yet he’s completely left. His pupils have dilated so deeply, his entire eyes look black, dulled of light, dead of any humanity. I’m still repeating, “You have to go, you have to go, you have to go,” though I don’t know whom I’m referring to anymore, him or myself. I’d be grateful for either one of us to vanish. I switch to saying loudly, “No, no, no!” spitting the words like seeds that won’t take.
Here we are. This. Is. Happening.
The horrifying certainty hits me like raw steak slamming a chopping board. Maybe because he too believes this is a secured success, his hold on my wrists slackens. His moment of sloth is all I need. I slip my wrists out from his hand, press the heels of my palms on his shoulders and push with all my might.
“No,” I yell. The sudden volume and physical force are enough to shock him backwards. He comes at the same time he falls. If this weren’t rape, if I weren’t terrified, if my voice weren’t hoarse from being ignored, I’d be embarrassed for him.
I scoot back until I’m against the headboard, hugging my legs to my chest. My throat is chapped. I taste blood. I must’ve bitten my tongue. It’ll hurt tomorrow. He puts on his clothes, swiftly, silently. I say it once more:
He does. After his sentence—“You’re just too beautiful”—he hasn’t said a word.
I don’t call anyone for help. I sit in the dark for fifteen minutes, listing my options and weighing the costs of each. To negotiate any legal retribution for rape is a brutal ordeal. I’m here on my OPT visa, my agents will sponsor my next visa, and if I accrue enough professional credits, I can obtain a green card. I devote every minute and penny to the next meal, audition, job, and rent check.
I’m working so hard to live here. I’m concerned that if I press charges against him, the legal process will be even more grueling than if I were a citizen. The fine print of my immigrant status claims I’m not to be treated any differently than an American woman but often the fine print fails to inform reality. Similarly, the minutiae behind immigration include nothing to suggest pressing charges against a rapist would compromise my status here, or when I file for a green card. But all it takes for is for my case to land in the hands of that one immigration officer who finds pleasure in turning the innocuous into injury.
I cannot harm my chances at staying here. I love America beyond words. I haven’t a place in Bangladesh. But here, I’m allowed to pursue the life I want, to be a voice for those without one. The irony is acutely painful. I won’t press charges. I have to be quiet now to be a voice for others later. The hardest fact to reconcile is that my silence allows him the wicked freedom to do this to other women. This thought of hypothetical others brands me with guilt.
Get him off you.
I take a shower. Scrolling down and along the walls like the stock exchange are statistics and stories I’ve learned and lived as a girl and student. What a twisted joke. I feel the inertia of tears build and with them, my heartbeat, sounding like the decisive march of soldiers, resolute and incoming. So immense grows my panic that it drowns the sound of water and sucks in my breath. I begin to choke.
I breathe. This is anger and self-pity, two faces of fear. Fear, another luxury I cannot afford.
My story. He is but one page. One character. It doesn’t occur to me for a second to feel small, dirty, or somehow damaged. This wasn’t sex; this was assault. He is neither a man nor all men combined; he is one predator. He is a scab and Momma taught me not to pick scabs. Especially if they are human.
Under my makeshift waterfall, I speak these words. They bloom then distill into one sentence: Only I author my life.
I step out of the water.
Now the wrecked bed. I return the wooden slats to their precarious balance, angling them on the thin lip of metal, making sure they don’t succumb to gravity. I lift the mattress. I smile, not from the strength of my arms but from the lack of trembling in my hands.
The next day I have an audition for Gossip Girl. Gossip Girl is presently the most coveted job for women my age. More often than not, I’m asked to read for the exotic vixen. I don the requisite tight black dress and five-inch heels and negotiate my mouth around the vapid script. No one in their right mind will believe me in these roles.
“Be less intelligent,” says the casting director.
I’m certain there are brilliant actresses who can achieve such feats. But I’m a mediocre pretender. Some things I cannot act.
I take the subway to my hostessing job, clock in a few hours. I mute my brain, play pretty, let everyone believe what they need to believe. Afterwards, I babysit for a family I met a few weeks ago. The Mama is a Broadway star and Daddy a tennis icon. He is as steadfast in person as he is on court. She sears through life, blazing with the audacious confidence of an enduring flame. The family resembles idyllic American characters I have read about, never believing they might actually exist. The first time I enter their apartment, a wondrous warmth spreads through me like ink spilling into water. So this is what it feels like. Home.
I balance the baby on my hip and look into her eyes, blue as the skies in sonnets. We are safe in one another. All she wants is for me to be present. I fill with a love so authentic it arrests my breath.
Mama and Daddy return home, I to my pink room. Another day arrives, followed by another. The days form into months, months into years. I don’t hear from him but I will run into him. I will run into him over the years because we are both actors, and our world is tiny, and because life has a harsh, wise way of doing what she does. She will give us things as provocation to die quicker, or, grow. I will read about him in the Times. I will see him at auditions. One time, I will sit across from him on the subway.
“How are you?” I’ll ask, looking him in the eye. In response, he’ll move through every shade of pale and burn. He will sputter and shake. I will refuse to break eye contact. I will smile. I will wonder, Have you become more than your past self?
Is that possible? For all our sake, I have to believe it is.
Over time, I will meet an uncanny number of men like him. With each person, I grow better at sensing the volatility beneath the sheen. I feel it like incoming rain: he holds the dormant capability to inflict pain. Tally the encounters and I run out of fingers and toes.
The idiom Everything happens for a reason, has never sat well with me. One cannot blurt Everything happens for a reason to a person who’s just lost a loved one, been raped, or been diagnosed with cancer.
I assign my experiences their reasons.
I choose to believe the reason for this one evening wasn’t to lose my faith in men, life, or my instincts. The purpose behind this night was it proved my resilience. My beauty and youth will fade. People and money will come and go. But my ferocious passion to live is mine evermore.
Startling. Realizing this lights something within me. For the first time in my life, I like myself.
My father visits the city for a conference. Time has softened him like butter left on a table. He says the city terrifies him. The pace, scale, crowds, remarks. A terrain dotted with magic unlike anywhere else, but otherwise cacophonic, putrid, and obstinately gray.
“Don’t you get scared?” he asks.
Life is masterful at being fearsome. But listen and receive, the landscape will provide every wisdom. Like the days, each train arrives only to make way for the next. I stand on the platform with my fellow travelers. The doors open. I step into the maw.
REEMA ZAMAN is from Bangladesh and was raised in Hawaii and Thailand. She holds a BA in Women’s Studies, a BS in Theater, and a minor in Religion from Skidmore College. She worked as an actress and model in New York for a decade. Now, she writes memoir and personal essays, residing in Oregon. She is represented by Lisa DiMona of Writers House and Reema’s first memoir, I Am Yours, is presently being circulated to different publishers. She also writes for Dear Reema, where she responds to letters sent in by readers. Her work has been published in The Huffington Post, Shape, and Nailed. Reema is the creator of You Are the Voice, a talk on resilience, self-ownership, and empowerment that she performs in colleges and other venues nationwide. This piece, The Pink Room, is an excerpt from her memoir I Am Yours. For more, www.reemazaman.com.
A mechanism that enables a pair of wheels to rotate.
At 4’8’’, my grandmother, or paati as I called her in Tamil, was just a few inches taller than I was at age six. It was my paati, sixty-nine years old at the time, who taught me how to ride a bike. Why did she decide to teach me? Because this was something I needed to learn to do. Besides, paati was holding on, so I’d be fine.
At the end of my first driving lesson, I was sore for a full two days after. It turned out I’d been clenching every single muscle in my lower back, neck, and shoulders for the entire two hours I was behind the wheel, driving through downtown Chicago.
At age twenty-six, well past when most Americans complete this rite of passage, I enrolled in driver’s ed. I was determined to get over my fear of operating an automobile and get my U.S. driver’s license, once and for all.
Paati had an arranged marriage when she was sixteen. Her last formal year of schooling was the seventh grade. Despite the abrupt end to her education, she loved to learn so much that she would secretly read her older brothers’ math, science, history, and Tamil textbooks in the attic, when they would discard them at the end of the school year. When paati’s son was in college, she began to teach herself how to read and write in English. Paati stayed with my parents several summers ago, well into her eighties at this point, and proceeded to read the Encyclopedia Brittanica, in English, cover to cover because it was there to be read.
At the start of every driving lesson, I would find my heart starting to race, terror steadily rising from my knotted-up stomach and my dry mouth to my norepinephrine-flooded brain, my fight or flight response kicked into full gear. Every single time.
As a middle-schooler, about a week into summer vacation every year, I would build a paper chain that hung from my bedroom ceiling to the floor. A paper chain to countdown the days before I could go back to school and start the new school year.
Harvard Graduate School of Education (n)
I spent a year drinking from a firehose of ideas, wisdom, and inspiration, before graduating with a master’s degree in how and why people learn, fired with the idealism and drive to change the world, one student at a time.
After my thatha passed away last year, paati morphed into a completely different person. My aunts and uncles claimed it was dementia finally settling in, which led her to ask to her daughter-in-law one day, “Are the elephants going to stay for dinner? They’ve been sitting quietly in the living room all afternoon.”
I bring her the good chocolate when I visit. She hates the sugar-free chocolate-for-diabetics crap.
A few weeks before I left Bombay for college in the States, I got my Indian driver’s license. I didn’t use it again until the following summer. I bravely volunteered to drive my father and two cousins back home from the park, a five-minute drive, acknowledging that I was probably a little rusty. I didn’t account for rush hour traffic. I didn’t account for a six-lane intersection. I didn’t account for what happens when you stall a manual transmission car in the middle of a six-lane intersection during rush hour traffic.
The angry yells and indignant honks should have jolted me into action. But I froze. For the longest fifteen seconds of my life, I blocked out all sound and effectively blacked out. Accompanied by the rising panic in my father’s voice, I finally restarted the car and got us home in one piece.
I didn’t get behind the driver’s seat for another seven years, until I enrolled American driver’s ed.
It was my last driving lesson before the road test. My left turns were a mess, I couldn’t figure out how to place my three-point turns, and I failed to notice stop signs in neighborhoods we’d driven through for weeks. I noticed every mistake three seconds too late and cursed myself for being so stupid. “Stay calm, you can do this,” I told myself. It was when I started to doubt myself that I’d make mistakes and with every mistake, desperation and fear piled on top of the doubt.
It didn’t help that it was Friday evening, after a rough week at work, and my road test was twelve hours away. My instructor was not at his best either. “Can we just stop?” he finally snapped at me. “You’re not getting any better—you’re just getting worse.”
I’ve done the big milestones. I’ve graduated high school, secured an Ivy league degree, landed my first job, christened my first apartment, claimed my first promotion. I’ve moved halfway across the world, navigated the murky waters of immigration paperwork, and learned how to survive in America on my own.
Yet somehow every driving lesson felt like a step closer to a much more momentous life event.
North Carolina (n)
Paati rarely left the confines of their neighborhood in Bombay and had never dreamed that she would leave the country. When paati was in her forties, her third daughter—my aunt—was diagnosed with cancer. My aunt, who’d been living in the States with my uncle for several years by then, was admitted to the Duke University Hospital for treatment. Their son was just a toddler.
That summer, paati left India for the first time. She put her carefully collected self-taught English to use with strangers for the first time. She navigated airports and boarded planes, when until then she’d only ever been to the market down the street unaccompanied before.
I still don’t know how she did it. She says she doesn’t know how she did it either. But she did. And she was okay.
“I had to do what needed to be done,” she would later tell me. “My daughter and grandson needed me. And this was something I needed to learn to do.”
From a young age, I was told that I was a fast learner. I love savoring every “aha!” moment that follows a difficult concept that I’d unlocked for the first time.
I’ve never had to retake a test, repeat a year in school, or re-do an assignment for work because I didn’t do a good enough job the first time.
Every night after dinner, whenever I’ve visited paati or she’d come to stay with us, I’ve asked for a story. When I was younger, there were the stories of the clever crow and the greedy crocodile. As I grew older, I would stay hooked on her tales of kings and warriors and monsters slayed. In my twenties, while my cousins—all much older than me—had stopped asking for stories a decade ago, I would get out my iPhone and hit “record” before settling in for an evening of crocodiles and warriors alike.
After every driving lesson this summer, I have burst into tears.
I last saw paati in late December of last year. It had been four months since thatha passed away. She slept for twenty hours a day. She refused to shower and had to be coaxed to eat meals. That was the first time in all my life that paati wasn’t able to tell me a story.
The morning of my driver’s license road test, I resigned myself to the very likely possibility that I would be standing in the DMV line again in a month. I mean, my own instructor didn’t seem to think I was particularly competent.
When the examiner told me I passed, I didn’t believe him. “Really? Are you sure about that?” I asked him incredulously.
My paati gave me the courage to take a leap of faith, when she taught me how to ride a bike twenty years ago. She held onto the back of my bike as I started to pump the pedals and told me to keep saying out loud, “Paati’s holding on, paati’s holding on.” Certain that she, literally, had my back, I whispered under my breath feverishly until I realized that paati no longer was holding on and that I was doing just fine all on my own.
Everyone says my cousin Sandhya looks just like paati did when she was younger. Same round face, same big eyes, same kind smile. I like to think I’m a Xerox copy of paati’s temperament.
The paati I’ve known my whole life may or may not return. My heart aches when she turns to my mom, after I’ve waved hello to them both over Skype, and asks, “Who was that?” But I will always cherish her for who I’ve always known her to be: my paati, my favorite person in the world.
Getting behind the wheel of a car asks me to take a leap of faith, every single time. I’m invited to have faith not in the machine, not in the rules of the road, not in the civility of other drivers on the road. Driving asks me to have faith in myself.
At some point, I’m sure I’ll stop whispering under my breath, “Paati’s holding on, paati’s holding on.” But until then, I’m going to keep trying to push through the hard things in life, because she wouldn’t have it any other way.
SUNANDA VAIDHEESH is a millennial immigrant. She was born in India, grew up in Indonesia, went to college in Iowa, and has moved houses twenty-one times to date. She explores the identity politics of transnationalism in her writing and loves a good scavenger hunt. Sunanda lives in Chicago and can be found online at sunandavaidheesh.com.
Earlier this week, the following piece by Karrie Higgins ran on the Huffington Post’s blog platform; it was titled “Donald Trump confessed to sexual assault on tape and so did my brother, and here is what I know: a tape doesn’t change a goddamned thing.” A few hours after it went live, Huffington Post took the multi-media essay down, then later deleted Karrie’s account. She has not gotten an explanation for either action.
I saw this going down on social media. I thought her work was, as usual, masterful, and I wrote to ask if she’d like a new home for it at FGP. Full Grown People isn’t a magazine about politics. But, I believe that it is a home for work that tackles power and vulnerability, voice and dismissal—subjects that are inherently political. So, just a friendly reminder: the comment space isn’t a place to debate candidates, but if your voice has something to do with Karrie’s work, speak up! —Jennifer Niesslein, ed.
CW: sexual abuse, sexual assault, audio depicting a pedophile grooming and threatening his victim, Donald Trump audio, sexual abuse and rape apologists
If you are a victim of sexual assault in crisis, please call RAINN at 800.656.HOPE (4673).
By Karrie Higgins
When Access Hollywood leaked a recording of Donald Trump bragging about “grabbing women by the pussy,” I felt the same empty relief I get after a good puke. Finally, a misogynist with a history of violence and rape accusations would be unmasked for the predator he is. And yet, I knew deep down: a tape doesn’t change a goddamned thing.
transcript: “Honey, I did NOT … come, oh that’s crazy. Oh, my God, oh my God, I’m just sick. I can’t believe this shit. Oh my God. This is just, this is just bizarre. I just can’t believe this. I did not touch you sexually. I, if, if, you took that way, way wrong, my God. My dear, you, I’m trying to get as honest as I can with you, I mean, that’s way wrong. It’s just, tickling you or wrastling you or grabbing you. If that, if that’s what you thought I was doing, then that was just, that’s not right, I mean, I, that was not my intention whatsoever, my God.”
He didn’t know the call was being recorded. He didn’t know anyone else would ever hear him.
“I need you to tell the truth,” the girl said, over and over, until he broke down and confessed.
Confessed on tape:
transcript: “Well what we did was wrong. Well, when we were wrastling and doing all that, it was wrong. It was inappropriate. Obviously it was very inappropriate. And I did not mean to hurt your feelings or screw your head up, for crying out loud.”
Imagine that played to a jury. The charge: sexual abuse in the second degree of a child under twelve, a Class B Felony in the state of Iowa, punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
Nobody could ever call me a liar again, I thought.
Now I know better.
The humiliation of a man accused is always more important than the trauma of a woman assaulted.
transcript: I don’t want your mom to hate me. [crying] This is my life. This is all I have.
I watch as Trump’s victims come forward, say they feel vindicated.
He grabbed me. He’s a big dude, 6 foot 3, and at the time I was waif-like. He was like, ‘I’m tired, let’s lay down.’ So in this bedroom — I hate talking about this — he went for it with the kissing, he had his hands all over me, really pressing down on me, definitely had a hard on. I had worn pants strategically. I knew better than wearing a skirt around him anymore. It was a barrier of protection …
Harth said she feels “vindicated” by the tape. “I would love to get some kind of apology from anybody in that camp.”
Watching him relive his sexual aggressions on the video, she said in an interview on Saturday, “made me feel a lot better.”
“It was like: ‘Thank you. Now no one can say I made this up,’” she added.
I want to be happy for them, but I know what comes next.
Men in my social media feeds:
The timing is perfect. The Clintons still got it.
It’s fishy someone held onto that tape.
Crooked Hillary is trying to rig the election.
Trump campaign decal:
May 1983, eight years old: six weeks after the first time I had sex with my brother, opening weekend of Return of the Jedi. A neighbor boy pitches a tent in the tall grass of his backyard, says, “Let’s play Star Wars.”
“I’ll be Princess Leia,” I say, “in the costume where her boobies show.”
I crawl into the tent. The boy unzips his pants, sticks the tip of his penis through the flap in his Superman Underoos, and pees on me.
Later, he tattles to his mother: “Karrie said boobies.”
And she tattles to my mother: “I will not have her polluting my son.”
I stuff my wet clothes in the laundry basket and don’t tattle back. I am a bad girl. Zero credibility.
To my students, but especially to the boys: I want to be sure you know. What we have learned about Donald Trump and how he speaks about and treats women is not ok. It’s not ok for a 60-year-old man, its not ok for a 13-year-old boy. It’s not ok for anyone.
The same high school where a math teacher and coach grabbed my pussy. Not just any teacher or coach, but the Cedar Rapids version of Jerry fucking Sandusky.
I can still smell his breath when he said, “I know things aren’t right at home.” My body pulled close to his. His hands down my pants, under my panties. I know things aren’t right at home. Not concern. A threat.
On the day he died, my Facebook feed flooded with eulogies. Best math teacher I ever had. Best coach ever!
Friends changed their profile pictures to his face.
His face. In my Facebook feed. The man who grabbed my pussy.
I vacillated between nausea and a low boiling rage: Look how he helped those students. Look what he did for everybody else.
My Kennedy High School transcript, senior year:
I never enrolled for the final trimester.
I went to my counselor’s office. I said, “I can’t take it anymore.”
He said, “You’re college material. This place is holding you back. Let me get this taken care of and get you out of here.”
And he did.
I remember my last day of school. It wasn’t anyone else’s last day of school. I ran my finger along the tile walls as I walked down the hall. I needed to feel them, needed to feel that I was there, because I was about to disappear, and nobody would even notice.
My mother forced me to attend graduation. I showed up in my cap & gown. Nobody said, “Where have you been?” Nobody asked. Nobody noticed. It went exactly how I knew it would. I was glad.
I never submitted my senior picture to the yearbook.
Poof! I was gone. Like I never even happened.
That’s what sexual abuse and assault do to you. That. Like you never even happened.
The Weekly Standard: So if you grab a woman by the genitals, that’s not sexual assault?
SESSIONS: I don’t know. It’s not clear that he—how that would occur.
I write my hometown paper. I tattle on that teacher. I say, “Do you want to help me tell this story?”
I call my favorite high school teacher, the one who wrote get thee to a nunnery in my journal when I confessed to having the hots for Hamlet, the one who saved my life without even knowing it.
When I tell him Mr. _______ grabbed me by the pussy, he gasps. An OH SHIT YOU’RE IN TROUBLE kind of gasp. Not because he doesn’t believe me, but because that teacher is a mini Jerry goddamned Sandusky.
“The faculty all thought he was a god.”
Why now? Why now? Why now? People ask.
But it wasn’t just now.
July 25, 2015:
I panic about being grilled for the details. I panic about being accused of making it all up because I waited so long.
“What if I get a detail wrong?” I ask my husband.
They are going to attack my partial deafness and auditory processing disorder, accuse me of mishearing. They are going to say my bipolar makes me hysterical. Unreliable. They are going to say my memory is bad because of the seizures. They are going to say epileptics are liars.
“It’s the same story you’ve told me since undergrad,” my husband says. He means back in the 90s, not long after the coach assaulted me. “It will be OK.”
What do you want? Money?
Cedar Rapids Public Schools called the principal’s post “political.”
They are wrong, but they are also right.
My brother’s Airborne buddy:
Well how would you like to have the job of searching the internet on multiple sites if your job is to locate underage participants? That’s a real job. I had to do that once, took me a week to find the videos of the youth involved. It was with her step father and they were live on camera. He was a soldier. Not anymore.
Your brother was the best. He was the best of the best. He ended up getting fucked over hard. Fucked over hard by a woman.
Choosing sides is always political.
My brother was a god, too, a sex god drag racing his GTO through the streets of Cedar Rapids before I was even born. Everybody loved him. Every girl wanted him:
My brother’s Airborne buddy, when I contact him for stories and photos, 7 years after my brother would have faced trial, if he hadn’t swallowed morphine, methadone, diazepam, gabapentin, and desmethyldiazepam, and died in the fetal position in front of his couch:
All I see in your profile pic is a skinny girl with tattoos. I mean, where are the boobies? You’ve got my cell number. I want to see what you got.
transcript: I want you to get your head squared on straight, but at the same time, I’ll be darned if I’m gonna be humiliated by some court of law.
They wanted me to surrender myself to the same jail where they locked up my brother for his last Christmas on Earth. They wanted me to submit to a grope for illicit recording devices. They wanted me to sit in an interrogation room, maybe even the same one my brother did. They wanted me to play the part of my own molester.
Protecting the other victim, they said, even though I asked for her voice to be redacted.
The police know the rules of the game: the victim guards the secrets, the victim guards the secrets, the victim guards the secrets.
I told them I was partially deaf, that listening once would not be enough.
I told them my epilepsy and neurological conditions make travel an undue burden, that I didn’t have the money to get to Iowa, that even if I could get there, I would be stranded at the airport with no way to get to a small-town sheriff’s office in the middle of nowhere. I can’t drive, I said.
They were violating the spirit of open records law, I said. Violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The sheriff never responded.
I am a disabled sexual abuse victim of a man he wanted to put behind bars for sexual abuse, and he did not respond.
The Fraternal Order of Police is endorsing a man who makes fun of disabilities.
I started to see conspiracies in the telephone call transcript.
I played Mad Libs. I filled in the sentences with all the best defenses.
What did the cops not want me to know?
They made my play the part of my own molester:
transcript: Karrie reading the line “This is my life” from her brother’s taped police phone call transcript in three different ways (argumentative, crying, scared).
From the settlement in Karrie Higgins v. Poweshiek County Sheriff:
Injuries and damages:
I sued the sheriff who arrested my brother.
They made me play the part of my own molester.
They made me mistrust the very same cops who should have been my heroes.
Why did the police have to become my enemy? Why couldn’t there be one goddamned hero?
The week of the Democratic National Convention, I got word from my attorney: the Poweshiek County Sheriff had produced the audio.
Validation. Corroboration. On its way to me via first class mail.
On the television, Hillary’s campaign theme:
It’s not my kind of music. I’m a Nirvana girl, a Prince girl, a Cure, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Smiths girl.
A Bernie Sanders girl.
Hillary’s presidential campaign and my lawsuit victory collapsed into one event. Hillary’s theme music became my theme music, the only salve that made anything OK.
I listened to it on repeat. I bawled.
I wanted tosee my brother be brave. I wanted him to let the words fall out.
transcript: It just, get better because I love you and I’m so sorry. It happened to me too when I was younger, but it was not right, but I’ll tell you about that another time, I mean that has nothin’ to do with what happened with me and you whatever, but I love you- and I don’t, I don’t want to destroy our family over this.
Just locker room talk, just locker room talk, just locker room talk.
The presidential election and my abuse collapse into the same event.
I can no longer distinguish between the Trump campaign and sexual abuse. I can no longer distinguish between the past and the present.
based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.
barely, by a little; very recently, the immediate past
I can no longer distinguish between tattling on my hometown’s Jerry Sandusky and voting for Hillary.
I am going to talk to that reporter. I am going to name names. I am going to say what I want to say. I am going to let the words fall out.
And even though I was always voting blue no matter who, even though I backed Hillary from the moment she won the nomination, #ImWithHer more than ever. I am more excited to vote for her than ever.
one of Hillary’s campaign theme songs
“You rush in where others won’t go,” my favorite high school teacher said on the phone.
I am going to rush in, and I don’t really care if nobody else believes. If Mr. Kline is going to be censored, I am going to blow up everyone’s favorite pussy-grabbing coach.
I might only have one match, but I can make an explosion.
A tape doesn’t change a goddamned thing. A tape changes everything.
KARRIE HIGGINS is a writer, magician, performance artist, ink-maker, forger, seamstress, disability activist, and rebel theologian without a faith living in Boulder, Colorado. Her writing & Intermedia art have appeared in Black Clock, DIAGRAM, The Manifest-Station, Quarter After Eight, Western Humanities Review, Rogue Agent, Deaf Poets Society, Cincinnati Review, The Los Angeles Review, LA Times, and many more. She won the 2013 Schiff Award for Prose from the Cincinnati Review and her essays have twice been notables in Best American Essays. She is too hardcore for the Huffington Post. karriehiggins.com
I used to beg to go to McDonald’s. I wanted my Happy Meal. My fries. I wanted lime-green pickles stuck to the bun. Little onion pieces poking through ketchup. The smell that made my mouth cry. The cardboard box. The toy.
Of course, the toy. It was the distraction, the reward, and most important. Mom was sure they were going to be worth a lot one day. So when everything was wrong, when I felt alone, or sad for some reason I didn’t know, I at least had it. Usually, the girl one was what I wanted: a mini-Barbie, a Catwoman, a pony. Other times not. But if it was, I geared myself up to say it. Despite the scary feeling, taught myself to say:
“Hey, Mr. Person?”
The man behind the counter would turn around. Four- or five- or six-year-old me, blue eyes with curly brown hair, looking up.
“Can I help you?” he’d ask.
“Um, can I have the other one?” I’d say, holding out a car, a Transformer, a rocket.
Then the worker, the adult, the Santa-for-now, after some thought, but not much, would reach under and swiftly come back up.
“You mean this?” he’d confirm. Or she. (A little cheer in the voice if she.)
And nodding my head, it was understood that indeed I did. I wanted this, and I’d give back the other in its plastic, knowing suddenly, with things right, that the day would be good.
School and other kids weren’t there. Home and fighting weren’t there. Confusion wasn’t there, and I could now sit down with my toy and my food and purely think to myself:
I’m a happy, normal boy.
It’s four in the morning and I want a goddamn burger.
I knew this would happen. I knew I should’ve eaten before, but I never learn, do I? Every time I go hunting for my one-night white knight, it’s the same sick story. Now, if I stop to eat, it’s going to take a million more excruciating seconds to get home, and I’ll fall asleep on the express bus, ending up at the ass-end of New York City, never to be seen again.
I’m starving, though, so there’s really no choice. Just like there was no choice in spending that much money at the bar. In circling it and three others round and round for the past eight hours. In going week after week, searching for some ridiculous validation, some salve for the years of suppression/oppression/depression from this dismissal, this doom they say is supposed to “get better,” but not all better, just not-as-bad statistic better, or law passed by the skin of its teeth better, or Brokeback Mountain in faintest rear-view, better.
But all right, that’s enough self-pity bullshit.
Where’s the fucking McDonald’s? I wonder.
Barely for a moment though, because of course the golden arches pop up almost immediately and I hurry inside. I don’t even mind the fluorescent blare because the lights tell me to wake up. To convey my order with words from my throat, and that if I do so, I will be served, like anybody else. Served, and grateful, and complete.
Should I order a Happy Meal? It’s really the cheapest way to get a burger, fries, and a drink—all my necessary items, plus maybe even get the cute—
“That’s not what I ordered!” a shout suddenly rings out.
I look at the counter where an old man is irate. The scene looks wrong as a green-skinned orange.
“Don’t you know the difference between chocolate and vanilla?” he continues, gesticulating madly. I want to cover my ears. I want to crouch down and shout, “Shhhh!”
“Here you go, sir,” the man behind the counter says, all ready with the replacement milkshake. I can’t help but be proud of his swiftness—a sense of déjà vu.
“Oh, there you go, finally!” the old man reacts. “Now, was that so hard?”
The worker is heavy-lidded, accentuated by the cornrows pulling slightly at his temples, but clearly alert. “No, it wasn’t, sir,” he says back. “Have a nice night.” This kind of thing must happen a lot at this hour, I realize.
I watch as the customer goes to the condiment counter for a straw, and glad the episode is over, I go back to looking at the menu. Sucking air into my cheeks, and still feeling the acid from the alcohol, I decide on a Number 2 meal. I bargain that it’s essentially a Happy Meal with an extra burger, and that maybe I can even—
“You’re not really a man, are ya?”
My throat clenches when I hear it. I feel chilled.
Am I standing with my hands on my hips again? I thought I took care of that habit. Or did someone, somehow, hear my voice? I look slowly to my left and see the old man again, fiddling with his straw.
“Look at you, stuck behind your counter. You’re not a man!” he shouts. “I can say anything to you and nothing will happen!”
At first, I’m relieved—that it’s not about me, that I can stay hidden. But the feeling dissipates quickly as I look back at the worker and see it: the unmistakeable pain and confusion in his eyes. The rest of him stays stoic, strong, and polite, hands holding the register. I know that move too well, though; I feel the break. The crush of having an idea that venom is coming your way, yet still be struck when it happens.
This is part of life. It may even be a part that makes you stronger. But this is not the place, I decide. And a young McDonald’s worker? A young, black McDonald’s worker? No… that is the wrong goddamn person.
I plan. There’s only a smattering of people sitting around behind—no one will catch the damage. All I need to do is dart over, take the milkshake, and pour it all over the old man’s head. “Nothing will happen to you, huh? Can say whatever you want, huh?” I’ll taunt while dodging his flailing arms. Then I’ll quickly bounce the cup off his decrepit face and run out the door.
I’m still tipsy and brave, but my breathing gets heavy. My adrenaline begins to rise as I prepare. Meanwhile, I can faintly hear the old man laughing through the ringing in my ears, “Fifteen dollars an hour you think you should get? What a joke. What a joke you are. You and all you little fast food babies.” I look around and see I’m still the only one paying attention to the worker who’s staring into the middle distance. The old man then relishes in slurping his drink, practically daring me with it.
I exhale heavily out my mouth to activate my parasympathetic nervous system, like my therapist said to do when my anxiety is up. I do it again and again. Then I move my feet like they’re in mud up to my calf. I step steadily and with great purpose.
And soon enough, with a few more steps, my feet turn away and hit the cement out the door, leaving the situation totally behind. Leaving it having nothing, at all, to do with me.
It’s an eerily smooth bus ride back to my home where I still live with my mother, where I’m a comfortable grad student, able to quit my fast food job after one teenage summer. “You did the right thing,” my ex-boyfriend texts, when I tell him what happened. “It wasn’t worth the trouble.”
But I know for a fact it was worth the trouble. I know it would have simply been correct to have the old man’s reaction result in an equal and opposite reaction. Worth anything to have that employee, eternally dumped on, know he is appreciated for doing his job and for doing it well. That he’s definitely a man and should never, ever be made to feel ashamed. Sure, there’s the possible slips, injuries, and arrests that may have ensued from my retaliation—but I know deep down nothing would really happen to me. After all, don’t I know the difference between chocolate and vanilla?
Fine, maybe it was for the best. Perhaps the worker would be embarrassed, feel patronized. Maybe he just wanted the problem to go away, or it was all a projection; I can’t know completely what it’s like. Still, the sound of silence is a horrible one I can’t shake. Because now, not only was the young man behind the counter perhaps deprived of his special prize, of some sense of support in a vulnerable moment, but also I’m forced to open my drawer—the one full of McDonald’s toys—and know that despite what my mom thought, and despite how much good they’ve done for me once upon a time…
They’re worthless now.
MICHAEL NARKUNSKI is working on his MFA and book of essays at Stony Brook University. His writing has appeared in Out, Narratively, The Advocate, Hippocampus Magazine, and on stage in NYC. You can follow his constant existential crisis @lampshadenark
It is, in my experience, impossible to meditate on a paper cut.
When something hurts, it hurts, and that’s actually just life in the goddamn moment.
What do you do when you get a paper cut and it really hurts? You curse. I mean, I spent years trying not to curse, because kids. Plus, cursing is negative and profane. But you know what? I think it helps me to curse. I decided to go with what works and I made one of my New Year’s Resolutions “curse readily.” When it hurts, I just let it out now. I don’t keep my curses bottled up inside.
“Mommy’s hair is gone because she has cancer,” Winnie, age five, informed me.
She was at my house to play one Saturday morning. “Do you miss her hair?” I asked.
She nodded, tearing up. “Girls are supposed to have hair,” she explained. Her big blue eyes widened for emphasis.
“Mommy’s hair will grow back,” I said. My friends were counseled to talk about the periods Mommy wouldn’t feel well from chemo treatments as brown days. “Mommy’s having a brown day,” I said, as if Winnie hadn’t noticed.
Brown days. Brown crayons. Breaking crayons.
I hugged her. Winnie wanted to be included by the bigger girls, who did not want to play with her; she wanted to get seconds to get thirds to get hugs to get reassurance that everything and everyone will be all right. She wanted to ban brown days forever, to break every single brown crayon.
When he first called from the hospital waiting room about his wife M’s breast cancer diagnosis, still without stages or numbers or treatment plans, it loomed instantly, amorphous and unknown, like a threatening storm cloud. “Out of the blue” is an odd phrase, and yet it worked, except I remember that day was cloudy. Stunning bad news doesn’t fall from gray skies. Stunning bad news fit the foreboding scene, though. Dampening clouds pressed in with a stranglehold. I couldn’t promise any damn thing, obviously. I listened. I hurt with him. To love friends sometimes means to hurt with them, and to hold onto that hurt.
My feet gripped the hilly sidewalk. I sent her a text. M texted back, seriously WTF right? That became the mantra: WTF. It was the correct mantra.
What I really wonder though is what helps, what really helps. You get into big-ticket problems and everyone tells you what you should do. Cancer is about as big as it gets. Everyone has an opinion about meditation or drugs or environment or the messed up way we don’t care for ourselves and really? You are in brown days with kids who need play dates. You are neither an environmental warrior nor a sudden yogi.
Anyway, other things seem (maybe are) smaller. Hangnails. Stubbed toes. Paper cuts. Splinters. Knotted neck muscles.
Things I’ve cursed in recent years include but are not limited to cancer:
High school administrators
The sham our country calls health insurance
Political arguments on Facebook
Snow and winter
Staff development days
January crowds at the gym
Other health crises
Poor administrators of all stripes,
And laundry—I have cursed laundry, which isn’t really what I curse when I curse laundry. Laundry is shorthand, metaphor. What I curse is how burdensome the freight of everyday responsibilities can feel. Sometimes, what’s most crushing is the place where the mundane and looming converge—and I often happen upon it with a laundry basket between my arms. I know the angle my arms need to bend to carry that sucker as well as I knew how to hold my babies through interminable nights.
Laundry is also why I sprained my ankle on a snow day. Because we were stuck inside the first and second days post-winter break, I tackled the laundry in the bottom of the hamper, the long neglected, overdue, already outgrown laundry. That’s when I tumbled. My breath was gone; my ankle flipped—searing pain in one nanosecond. I was twisted on the inside, and I screamed. I knew I was in trouble. Three days with ice and ibuprofen and elevation and longer in an ace bandage, which I MacGyvered with a pair of red tights I plan never to wear again—not that I’d worn them for.
In the midst of so many bigger things I cursed myself for freaking out about my stupid sprained ankle. I laughed at Lisa Kudrow’s absurdity in Web Therapy and felt only slightly less pathetic as a human. Fuck the sprained ankle. Fuck cancer. Fuck the big things. Fuck my family for freaking out about me lying down for three short days.
At the time I’d been doing yoga for about two years. I waited a few weeks to return to yoga class. Even after I could walk and work out, it turned out that my ankle hurt the most during yoga class—during the warrior poses and anything that had me sit with the top of my feet on the floor, which is to say my ankle hurt during yoga class, a lot. Ostensibly, the ankle is why I stopped.
It wasn’t just that, though. After those three days to elevate and ice my ankle nonstop, I realized that simply to sit with everything felt terrible. Take the ankle pain away from the yoga equation, it still felt terrible to be there with all that silence and stillness. However good it was for me, however much I should sit with what was hard, I felt terrible in that pristine space. So, I stopped.
I still wonder sometimes whether yoga or meditation would help more than cursing. I drew the conclusion that for now, cursing works better for me, and I haven’t wanted to take a yoga class since.
When things are hard, rather than fight, go with the bad—ride the current because you can’t swim against it—but when things are easy, go with the good. The hard stuff showed me this. If I’ve changed my tack, it’s that I aim for comfort a little more, challenge a little less. I like peanut butter and I like carrots. I always have. Like Frances of Bread and Jam For before she began to eat everything, I appreciate that comfort foods exist because we take comfort in the beloved.
A year later, M and I still curse over text. Now, we just complain about the husbands and the kids.
It was May 22 when Alan died last year. Everyone around me was amazed by how well I managed, but that’s because they didn’t know the whole truth. By June, a little man had set up shop inside my chest. To be clear, the little man doesn’t live in my chest—he doesn’t have groceries in the refrigerator or put his feet up on the coffee table at the end of the day. To say he works there would be more accurate. The most surprising part of it all is when I look in the mirror: My husband is gone, my body harbors an invader, and I hardly look any different for it. I can see why people might think I’m fine.
I have never heard the little man say anything, not even a sigh, but I feel him. He’s the busiest when I miss Alan the most. I don’t know what his full job description states, but I have a good idea. His job is to ensure I feel everything I can’t show: the homesickness for a place I can never return, the crushing weight underlying the finality of it all. To get his point across, he launches intermittent campaigns throughout the day—“grief attacks,” I call them. Sometimes the attacks are big and violent, forcing me to crumple onto my couch, blinded by tears. Sometimes they are small, squeezing all the air out of my lungs. At first, living with the little man frightened me, but over the past nine months, we’ve learned how to co-exist. When he wages his attacks, I can only let him.
I alluded to the little man in the very beginning, back when people were still dropping off casserole dinners. They nodded with their mouths turned upside down and tried to imagine what it must be like. But after a while, everyone went back to their normal lives. I couldn’t blame them. I tried to, too, but nothing felt normal anymore. People stopped asking about the little man wreaking havoc in my chest. They wanted to know about my vacation plans, work, my new haircut. I brought him up less and less until I eventually stopped talking about him.
This morning, the little man is very busy, making it hard to get out of bed. My body feels twice as heavy as normal, as if long, lead bars now occupy space in each of my limbs. The bars don’t take up all the space in my arms and legs, but they don’t rattle around either. They’re heavy, after all. The little man shields his eyes with his hand, looks up, and frowns. Dark clouds are in the forecast, threatening rain. They’ve been brewing in my head over the last couple of days. I roll over onto my side, summoning the energy to get ready for work, and feel the lead weights follow a second later.
I work at a mid-size tech company in Mountain View, California, where I do B2B marketing. Mostly that means putting together PowerPoint presentations that the sales team use to pitch solutions to clients. It sounds straightforward enough, but somehow my days are full of back-and-forth email exchanges, meetings, and rough drafts. Everything takes longer and involves more people to complete than you’d imagine. For instance, this morning I am in a meeting with eight people to discuss logo designs and venue possibilities for an upcoming event. Two people present in the meeting, one person makes the decisions, and the rest of us are just along for the ride. The meeting eats up an entire hour of everyone’s day. Normally, I would get antsy thinking about the other things I could be doing in that hour, but it’s hard to care with the little man going on as he is.
It’s strange being at work in the middle of one of his violent attacks. All my Alan memories, the sad ones reserved for when I’m alone at night, bubble up dangerously close to the surface. I look around the room in a slight panic, but no one is paying any attention to me. All eyes are focused on the screen at the front of the room. I sit back in my chair and try to focus on the presenter’s explanation of this particular logo’s type treatment.
After the meeting, I go back to my desk, and, in an attempt to keep the grief attack at bay, I scroll through the endless emails that have poured in over the weekend. I delete the ones that are spam, ignore ones that require nothing of me, and flag the rest to respond to later. Some emails are marked with an exclamation mark to denote the urgency of their contents, but after reviewing them again, I decide they can wait and begin making my list. Every day I make a to-do list. First, I write down each task that I need to complete. Then I go back through the list, writing a number next to each item according to its deemed priority. Priority assignment is based on the project requester, the deadline, and the number of people depending on it. These are just loose guidelines, though. Sometimes I’ll assign a task a higher priority just because I feel like working on it at the time. It’s funny because they’re just numbered items on a piece of paper, but as soon as I finish making it, I can focus. Without it, the fear that I’m overlooking something else more important that I should be working on creeps in and paralyzes me.
I have only prioritized about half of my tasks when I can feel my resolve crumbling at the edges. I catch myself slipping and hope the little man doesn’t notice. The little man, however, doesn’t miss a beat and seizes the opportunity to make inroads on his attack. He pulls me in, and I am helpless to stop it.
I am back in our living room on that last day. Alan is lying in his hospital bed, next to the fireplace. He’s moving his arms and muttering words under his breath, as he has been for the past week. This morning his lips are the slightest shade of blue, his breathing has changed, and his knees are purple. Everyone else had missed it when they’d left for my sister’s college graduation that morning. But I saw it. I knew everything was about to be different.
I call hospice and talk to the nurse manager, explaining the changes in his condition. When I mention his purple knees, she pauses. Purple knees, I learn, are a sign that your time together is almost up. I ask the million-dollar question we’ve been asking ever since he was first diagnosed: How long? The nurse manager tells me she’ll send someone who’ll be able to assess the situation and give me a better timeframe. I hang up the phone. I don’t know what to do, so for the moment, I do absolutely nothing. I have never known Alan’s knees to be so telling.
After I gather myself, I break apart again, crying in the chair next to Alan’s bed. I’d been preparing for this moment, but I’m not ready. I don’t even know if now is the right moment. If he has hours left, I should say goodbye now, but if he has days left, shouldn’t I wait? The silence settles over us like a heavy layer of dust. I decide to say goodbye now, just in case, but everything that comes out sounds stupid. My voice isn’t my own.
Finally, I lean into his ear and whisper. It sounds better when I don’t have to hear that voice that isn’t mine. I tell him how much I love him, that I’ll be okay, that he can go if he needs to. I read in one of the booklets hospice gave me that it’s important to “grant permission” for your loved one to let go. I don’t believe myself when I tell him I’ll be okay, but I hope they might be the magic words to bring him comfort. I sit back down and stare into his face, convinced I’ll see something register. But if it does, I can’t tell. His expression is unchanged, his arms still moving—
A steady stream of people walk by my desk. I look at the clock in the corner of my computer screen. Lunch is fifteen minutes late. It’s normally served at eleven-thirty, and if it’s not served within ten minutes of that, people go crazy. That’s a slight exaggeration but not by much. Fearful that we might never eat again, people begin lining up in the cafeteria as if somehow that might help. I check the lunch calendar I keep pinned to my wall. Today we are having lunch from a restaurant named Pizza?. There is an actual question mark in the name.
The food finally arrives, and I can hear the soft roar in the cafeteria from my desk. After enough people walk past me with salad and pizza slices piled high on their plates, I walk to the kitchen to see what’s left. I place two slices of veggie pizza on a paper plate, fill a cup with water, and head to the lunch table where I usually eat with the rest of my team. At the last second, I think better of it and make a beeline for my desk. I don’t have the energy to make conversation today.
It makes people uncomfortable when you just sit and listen. Most people need to fill the empty space with some kind of noise. In my experience, it’s only a matter of time before people run out of things to talk about. They start asking questions they already know the answer to or bringing up inconsequential topics. I find myself repeating things I already said or feigning interest. Short of wearing a tee-shirt that says “I don’t feel like talking, but I like sitting with you,” the only thing I can do is watch more movies. Whole worlds unfold in front of me, and I don’t have to say a word. And sometimes, though not always, movies can make me forget the little man’s even there.
My favorite movie genre is science fiction, especially those of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic variety. People think it’s somewhat strange, but when your husband dies at thirty-one, the idea of everyone else dying en masse, holds a romantic allure. Almost every night, I watch a movie—sometimes even two or three. A part of me wonders if I’m abusing them, like an illicit substance. I’m sure a psychologist would ask if my movie-watching negatively affects my everyday life. I suppose it doesn’t really, except it irritates me to participate in conversations when I would much rather have them play out in front of me like on a movie screen. That might be one negative impact. But you never hear about movies ruining someone’s life, do you?
If I could only watch a movie right now, it might help me deal with the little man. But, being alone at my desk with only my veggie pizza to occupy me, I know he won’t let me off easy. As I chew, he taps around my right lung like he’s testing the quality of a cantaloupe. When he hears a sound that pleases him, he uses one hand to mark the spot and, with his other hand, removes a tiny straw from his back pocket. He raises it high above his head, then swiftly brings it down, puncturing a hole in my lung. I let out a small gasp. It’s a small straw, but I can feel the air escaping through it.
I wonder if this is how it feels to have a collapsed lung. I know two people whose lungs collapsed: my friend Sue and a co-worker’s boyfriend. Neither of them even knew it had happened. Sue found out during a check-up the day after getting a lung mass the size of a golf ball biopsied. She says she didn’t feel a thing. The co-worker’s boyfriend was in college at the time, partying at a hotel in Mexico. He fell off the third-floor balcony and, if you can believe it, was picked up and carried back to his hotel room where his friends tucked him into bed for the rest of the night. It was only the next morning, after he’d been taken to an American hospital by medevac, that his collapsed lung was discovered and a steel rod was placed through his body. Still, I think the average individual would feel something if his lung collapsed. Shortness of breath to say the least. So maybe it’s like this: You feel a collapsed lung, unless you have bigger things to worry about. Like the possibility of lung cancer or a broken back.
Speaking of bigger things, the little man has finished with the straw, content with its placement, and is walking around with an Allen wrench. I’m impressed by how much he’s able to store in those tiny pockets of his. I watch him scramble around, kneeling down to tighten screws in three separate places, knitting my ribs closer and closer together. When he is satisfied, he slips the wrench into his back pocket where it disappears with the rest of his toolbox contents. He wipes the sweat off his brow and admires his handiwork. The tightness in my chest is even more pronounced now. I swallow my last bite of pizza and it settles like a lump in the back of my throat. The combination of the straw in my lung and the bolts in my chest makes it incredibly hard to sit up. I want to writhe around, to shake the little man loose. Or at the very least, I’d like to lie down.
Maybe I will just keel over and die. You hear about that, don’t you? It happens all the time with older couples: After years of marriage together, one dies and the other, perfectly healthy, save for the usual creaks and aches that old age brings, follows shortly after. I used to think maybe I could be so lucky. I’m sure my friends and family worried for a while that I might do something stupid to harm myself, but I’m afraid of pain and suffering. I’ve seen enough of that. However, if I could somehow relay the message to my heart to just stop beating one day, that wouldn’t be such a bad deal. Nice and neat. To pull off such a feat must require a tremendous amount of trust and coordination between organs, the kind that only comes after spending a lifetime together. That’s the only way I can explain why only older people die of a broken heart. Young people just aren’t there yet with their anatomy. Even if they tell their hearts to stop beating, there’s no way for their hearts to know how serious they are.
Sitting at my desk, I can’t move around too much or lie down, but I need to do something or else I might implode. I could cry. I’ve cried at my desk before, the kind of tears that are hot and silent. But I don’t trust the character of these tears today. I feel them swell inside me, a water balloon the little man has filled too full. It threatens to burst at any minute. I throw the rest of my lunch in the trash and try to get it together.
“Sobrina?” My boss Lisa calls me from two desks away.
“Yeah?” I look up. The little man pauses.
“Can you come take a look at this?” Lisa asks.
I get up and walk towards her. Because I don’t know what else to do with it, I bring the water balloon with me, gingerly carrying it in my hands.
She whips around and smiles at me. I nearly drop it.
“I thought that meeting went well today. Do you?” Lisa asks.
“Yeah, I thought it went well, too,” I say.
The water balloon is shaking. I look down and realize my hands are trembling. I want to tell her everything—that I can hardly breathe today, that the water balloon might pop at any minute. I open my mouth, but before I can get a word out, she turns back around to face her computer screen.
“I’m just recapping the discussion in an email to the group. Am I missing any next steps here?” Lisa asks.
I swallow hard. The water balloon in my hands creates a space between us so I lean in closer to read her screen.
“I think you got it all,” I say.
“Thanks.” She smiles warmly and goes back to finishing her email.
I have one more meeting before the day is over. This one is with my marketing communications team, a sub-group within the larger marketing department. We meet once a week, usually on a Monday, to provide status updates on our projects. Sometimes we’ll show each other what we’re working on. We go in a circle, one by one. I try to focus on what my teammates are saying, but it’s hopeless. I sit quietly, taking shallow breaths in an attempt to keep everything inside.
“And how about you, Sobrina? What are you working on?” Lisa asks, pulling my attention back into the room.
A lump rises in the back of my throat.
“This week…” I trail off. I look down at the to-do list I’ve been working on all day. Just read off the list, I tell myself. “I’m working on the positioning for the new media product.”
Lisa nods and jots it down in purple ink on her clipboard.
I shift in my seat.
“And I’m working with the design team to finalize the retail brochure,” I say.
The water balloon has stopped quivering quite as much. I place it on the table next to my notebook so I can read through my list faster. I’m surprised that it stays put and doesn’t roll off the edge.
“I was hoping to share our editorial ideas with the PR team this week. Did you get a chance to review those?” I ask Lisa.
“I’ll make sure I look at those,” Lisa says, circling a note to herself.
“And that’s it,” I lie. I need to get out of the room. I can feel the little man boring holes in my chest, and I’m certain everyone can see my discomfort. When I look up from my list, though, everyone is buried deep in their laptops. Lisa retracts her pen and places it back down on the table, concluding the meeting.
Nobody can see the little man like they would a scar on my forehead. But he’s there in my chest all the time. So it’s just me and him. Me and him and the lonely thought that Alan would know but will never know. He would understand in the same way that he understood when we watched the movie about the retired couple visiting Paris. They go away together in the hopes of sparking romance in their tired marriage. It’s just a movie, of course, but watching them wandering through the cobblestone streets, arm in arm, made me feel a terrible pinch inside. I wanted to be in the middle of all those lights, walking on those streets, feeling Alan’s arm wrapped around me. I wanted all of those things I thought we would have. I hated the old couple.
I looked at Alan asleep next to me, his face and body a shadow of what it used to be. He looked so peaceful, even though I knew seething pain waited for him just around the corner. The tumors in his pelvis ate away at his sacral bones, and physical activity as simple as shifting his weight had become a burden. It hit me that we would never adventure to a new city again, at least not in this life. Bitter tears rolled down my cheeks in disciplined silence. I was Alan’s cheerleader, his eternal optimist—that was my job. He could never know about my fears and doubts.
As I cried, hating that old couple—hating all old couples—Alan’s hand reached out for mine. I turned, surprised he’d woken up, to see his blue eyes fixed on me. I tried to stop crying, but I couldn’t. He held onto my hand, patiently waiting.
After a minute, I told him, “I just always wanted to go with you.”
“I know,” he said softly.
SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley.
“What do you mean there’s something happening to you? You’re watching TV. You’re fine.”
I curled tighter into a ball, drawing my knees up to my chest as the room tilted back and forth. All of a sudden nothing could be trusted—gravity wasn’t working, at least not entirely, not consistently; the lights and colors of the television warped and stretched beyond the limits of the frame; there was no oxygen, very, very little oxygen. When I tried to get a breath, the breath wasn’t there. I peeked my head up from my knees for a second but could only see through a narrow tube of normal. Everything around the edges had gone dark.
“I think I’m having a heart attack,” I told my husband. I didn’t really think that, but there was definitely something happening to me, and my heart was racing violently, frighteningly.
“You can’t be having a heart attack,” he said. “You’re not even moving around. Something just scared you.”
I did feel scared; I was terrified. But we were only watching American Idol. Nobody was fighting; there’d been no loud noises. There was nothing very serious even happening in my life.
And then the whole thing was over.
The dark perimeter of my vision began to lighten around the center tube of clarity, and then it continued to lighten outward until everything looked normal again. The lights and sounds of the television retreated to within their assigned borders. The room steadied and the walls straightened up perpendicular to the floor again. I still couldn’t breathe quite right, and my heartbeat was still too fast, but these were left over, just aftershocks.
By the next day, we laughed about it.
“Hey, maybe I had a panic attack. Maybe I’m one of those people who has panic attacks.” I decided that’s what it had been—“just” a panic attack. I’d heard of those people, read accounts of such things, but I’d always assumed the descriptions were exaggerated. It turns out they are not, and they’re pretty terrible. Still, though, it had really only lasted maybe ninety seconds, and then it was over, and I was fine. I wasn’t particularly concerned about having another one. Now that I understood what it was, I figured I could just ride out any future attacks. No problem.
The previous summer had been tough, with all the kidnappings. Elizabeth Smart had just been found, but the details of her abduction released in its aftermath proved to be far more terrifying than the relative comfort of allowing her to remain a face on a milk carton—one-dimensional, forgettable. The news channels reported endlessly and exhaustively on two more children abducted from their own homes that spring and summer. President Bush signed The Protect Act of 2003 into national law, making Amber Alerts mandatory for all states.
So, clearly, there was reason to be concerned.
I slept lightly most nights, playing games with myself about how early was okay to get up and make sure my little boy was still in his bed. Every day it seemed to me rather unlikely that he’d have made it through another night without getting snatched. Every day he was there, though—five years old and perfectly safe and curled up in Batman pajamas—and I’d fall back into bed, relieved and exhausted. This did not strike me as abnormal. Nor did it ease my mind.
I’ve always been worried about things. Spiders, crowds, people who talk too loud, basements, hurting someone, burning the house down. Blimps. More than one person has asked me, “Why are you so worried about everything?” And I want to say, “Why are you not? Have you looked around? Have you heard of CNN?”
I wrote this journal entry in early August: There’s something wrong with my hands. They feel… nervous. My hands are nervous. They don’t really hurt, I mean sometimes they do hurt, but I think it’s just because they’re so tense. I think there’s maybe something wrong with my nerves in my hands. They’re not working so very well a lot of the time now. I can do “big things,” like move the laundry from one machine to another, but not “small things,” like paint my nails. “Medium things,” like holding a cup of coffee, I’m borderline. I tried to play cards with my little boy the other day, but the cards are so, so thin. It’s nearly impossible to hold them. I’m having a hard time changing the channels with the remote, because that muscle between my thumb and forefinger is jumping all around; I can see it from the outside now. My brother and his wife are about to have their first baby. Probably, I’m just feeling some sort of deferred anxiety. I am pretty sure I’ll feel better once that baby is born all right.
The weeks went on like this. I made little changes to my routines around the new condition of my hands. No more reading books in bed at night, because the position required to hold a book open while lying down exacerbated the tightness and twitching that continued to increase. The finer details of makeup application—eyeliner and so forth—had to be abandoned.
My little boy started kindergarten at the end of August, and I smiled bravely as I put him on the bus that first day. But then I followed it—on foot—until it got to the school. I had to go for a run anyway, and hey—isn’t that an efficient use of time? To get my run in and make sure my kid got to school safely? It only made good sense. It was difficult to get around the side of the building to the kindergarten rooms unseen, because the windows of elementary school buildings are low. But I managed it, and I really only had to bend over a little bit to stay out of sight. One quick peek over the ledge and I was able to verify that he’d made it. He was sitting at his desk with all the other children, looking perfectly calm. Amazing. So everything was fine.
Except my hands, which by September were becoming increasingly claw-like and useless. I sat down at the computer and typed “hand muscle spasms.” WebMD suggested a litany of horrors: MS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s. I spent the entire day in front of it, ruling some factors in and some out. After an exercise in list-making and charting that’s both too tedious and too embarrassing to retell, I determined it was most likely ALS.
I felt so, so bad. I had all these things I was supposed to do, a child to take care of, the pets… I wasn’t going to be able to do any of it. The guilt was crushing. I did a lot of simple math. The average time between diagnosis and death for ALS patients is about six years. My son was five now. That would get him to eleven, which is a lot better than it could be, because he’d be out of the formative years, which end around age eight, according to UNICEF. I know that now, because I looked it up. So that was a comfort. But still, heartbreaking.
It was hard for me to look at him for several days. I spent many more hours playing with him that fall than I normally would have. He accepted those hours unquestioningly, happily, because he didn’t know. I waited a while to tell my husband the bad news, because he had a lot going on at work and I didn’t want to throw him off. He listened carefully, looking sideways at me, and he spoke slowly and gently. “There’s really no way you can know that, though, right? I mean, you haven’t even been to a doctor.” He didn’t understand, but how could he? I stopped talking about it.
For the rest of that fall, I survived by throwing myself into graduate school and household chores. Typing was difficult with my claw-hands, but I managed by changing my typing style and by staying wrapped in blankets with a heating pad draped around my neck and shoulders while I typed. I had become shivery most of the time, and I reasoned that staying warm would relax my muscles and allow me to use my hands better.
Despite all this, I was weirdly efficient, and probably appeared mostly fine to most people. I just had to hide my hands, but it was winter and there were pockets and mittens and it wasn’t hard to do. But then my face started twitching. I could see it if I looked closely in the mirror, but it had to be really close, so I figured it would be okay if I just didn’t get too close to people. This created some mild social problems. Once I had to walk out of class when the professor insisted everyone participate in some ridiculous group activity (in her defense, it was an Interpersonal Communication course). Another time I unexpectedly ran into a former professor at a cafe. I was so mad at him, jumping out at me like that. I was sitting in the café, so I sat on my hands and smiled and nodded a lot until it was over.
One of the first snowy days in December I answered the door to find my dad standing on the other side of it. He lived over an hour away. “What are you doing here?” I said.
“I’m taking you to a doctor.”
“We think there’s something wrong with you. It scared us when we first saw you at the birthday party last week, but we didn’t want to say anything in front of anyone. Why didn’t you warn us about how much weight you’d lost? Mom thinks you might have something wrong with your thyroid.”
I went obediently to the doctor, who also noted the change in the scale. I told him I’d been running a lot, which was true. I told him I was having trouble sleeping, which was also true. I did not tell him about my hands. He listened to my heart and took my blood pressure and drew some blood for thyroid tests. It all came back normal. He suggested sleeping pills, maybe an antidepressant, should I decide things were getting too uncomfortable. I never went back or followed up.
Some days I entertained the notion that I might not be dying, but by that point I was so worn out that I didn’t really take any interest in living, either. I’d heard people say that their lives had lost color, but I always thought they were speaking figuratively. That really happens, though. Things gray out. The days and nights ran into each other and then divided into two flat empty plains. On the one, I knew I was dying and felt marginally regretful, in a numb and passionless way. On the other, I was afraid I wasn’t dying, that it might go on like this, forever.
And my hands. Most days, my nerves were on fire. Other days were not so bad. One day, for example, in the week or two after New Year’s, I ate lunch.
Around Valentine’s Day I ran into my former boss on my way out of a restaurant. “What’s wrong with you?” he said, instead of “Hello.”
“That’s not a very nice way to greet me,” I joked. “You haven’t even seen me in a year, and you’re opening with insults.” Our relationship had always been frank, and I actually felt relieved to be confronted so directly. Everyone else was sort of working around me by that point.
“I’m serious. What’s the matter? You’re emaciated, and your face is twitching.”
So I told him. I told him I didn’t know what was wrong, except that something clearly was. But the collection of things surrounding it, I couldn’t put them all together: the hand spasms, the chills, the weight loss, the insomnia. I’d tried yoga, meditation, journaling, sleeping pills, cutting caffeine, cutting sugar, herbal supplements, running to the point of physical exhaustion. Nothing worked. I couldn’t tell whether it was my body or my mind and I wasn’t sure it even mattered anymore. I just wanted it to stop. I wanted to stop.
“I get it,” he said. “You know, you’re not crazy. This is in your head, but it doesn’t mean you’re crazy.” He told me he’d had these attacks, that he understood what they felt like and how terrible they were, that sometimes his wife had to just hold onto him while he shook until they were over. For a time he was unable to go in shopping malls because the crowds and open spaces terrified him. Unexpected loud noises, even still, could trigger an attack.
“Yeah, but you fought in Vietnam,” I said. “You’re having flashbacks, right? I was raised in the suburbs and nothing’s ever even happened to me.”
He allowed that the flashbacks were part of his equation, but said he thought it would have happened to him anyway. “It’s chemical. And there’s a ‘type.’ And you’re it. I know you.”
It had been almost nine months. Time enough to grow a baby, to finish a school year. It was time to face it down, whatever “it” was, and I knew it. I went to two more doctors. The first diagnosed me with anorexia and encouraged me to recognize my issues with myself. I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t that I was trying not to eat, I just couldn’t eat. She wasn’t buying it, so I didn’t go back.
The second doctor, a young man, listened quietly while I talked about my hands. He held them and turned them over. He could see the muscles tensing and twitching. He was gentle but straightforward: “The symptoms you have,” he said, “they don’t make sense when you put them together. The problem with your hand muscles, coupled with your age, could indicate MS, but you don’t have other typical symptoms. Plus you’re telling me that you feel nervous, that you can’t sleep or eat. I think, and I don’t mean this as flippantly as it sounds, that this is probably in your head. I’d like you to try taking an anti-anxiety drug for a few weeks and see if anything changes.”
I did not in the least expect it to work, but I agreed to his plan because I assumed that when it failed it would prove that he was wrong, and then we could get on with figuring out what was really the matter with me.
It worked. Within two or three weeks, things began to release. It happened so gradually, that I didn’t notice feeling better so much as I noticed the absence of feeling terrible. It had been so long, I’d forgotten. One day I saw a squirrel outside my window and I thought, “That’s a cute squirrel.” And then I realized it was the first optimistic thought I’d had in several months. And then it kept happening. My husband, whom I’d not told about the doctors’ visits or the medication, returned home from several weeks overseas for his job. He walked in the house and looked at me and said, “Oh my God. You’re better.” My face, he said, had changed, and now it was changing back.
Psychotropic drugs don’t fix anybody’s problems. They don’t actually make life any happier or less frightening. What they can do, though, is open a little bit of space in which we can learn to navigate the earth in a way that’s not so painful and terrifying. They can purchase entry through small doors to small rooms of respite and recovery.
In those rooms, I had to come to terms with the fact that life is inherently scary. It’s risky, or nothing at all. I spent nine months as a black hole in the galaxy of my life to really internalize that. I can’t say it was worth it. I’d like to come to some sort of conclusion about tapping into the world’s pain or recognizing that everyone we encounter carries something heavy we cannot imagine. I’d like to say I’ve stopped cracking Prozac jokes or mocking self help books, or that I’m at peace with myself or the Universe or whatever. I really can’t say any of those things, at least not honestly. What I can say is that I’m a little more careful with people, a little less likely to take much credit for any particular good fortune. There’s a lyric in a song I like that goes, “I guess we’re all one phone call from our knees.” I think it’s true, and that it applies to the calls from within us as well as to those from without. And I think that probably the best we can do is try to appreciate the days between rings.
JENNIFER YOUNG is a writer and English professor in Ohio. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Great Lakes Review and previously in Full Grown People, and she has essays forthcoming in The Offing and 1966 Journal.