Oppa Hit Me

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sylvia Kim

It’s the summer of 2007.

My body’s immersed in the warm bath water. But instead of feeling relaxed, I’m in pain. The pain throbs across my body, eats up my mind, but mostly, pierces through my heart.

I replay the images from last night in my mind—flashes I desperately want to forget.

The rage in his eyes, so unfamiliar. As if I were staring into the eyes of a stranger and not the eyes of my brother. My brother—a pastor, my role model, the spiritual leader of an entire congregation. My brother who has known me and, although imperfect, has loved me my whole life.

Lips curled in fury, his face unrecognizable. And then the chokehold. Flying across the room. Hitting the wall. Feeling my body land in an unnaturally distorted position.

Looking up from down below, everything was out of focus. Upside down.

When he came to me while I was still on the ground, I knew right then and there that nothing would ever be the same again.

I was right. Things have never been the same.

•••

In Korean, “Oppa” means “older brother” from a girl’s perspective. The perspective of a little sister.

These days, “Oppa” is commonly used as a flirtatious term popularized by k-pop and Korean dramas.

But when I was growing up, “Oppa” was a serious term of respect. I was never allowed to call my brother by his given name.

Oppa and I learned to grow up fast as children of first-generation Korean store-owner immigrants. After a successful stint as convenience store owners, my parents would often leave us at night to go work at their clothing factory—a new business venture they were exploring. Oppa would go through my bedtime routine, put me to sleep. He would guard the phone at home. Three rings, a pause, another ring. That was the code my mother taught us so that we would know when to pick up the phone.

Left at home, too often by ourselves, we had a love-hate relationship; we fought viciously, made up, fought again and made up.

We couldn’t live with one another but couldn’t live without each other.

My childhood memories are entangled with images of his face, his expressions, his mannerisms, his lectures, his embraces.

Growing up, he was the closest person to me in my life.

•••

There were signs, of course.

His flashes of rage. The holes in the wall from his punches. We placed calendars over each hole and excused every outburst as teenage angst.

When Oppa went to high school, he struggled with his weight and consequently, his self-confidence.

Although I had my own personal angst, something about him, his vulnerability, his sensitivity made me feel protective.

Likewise, Oppa personified all the tell-tale behaviors of an over-protective older brother.

There were years of miscommunication and distance.

By the time Oppa went to college, we had re-kindled our friendship. By the time I went to college, we were so close that he gave me The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and told me that he would always be there for me.

He was the one I turned to over and over again with each dramatic incident of my teenage years, for each critical decision I made in my years as a young adult.

He was truly my Giving Tree, and the most influential person in my life.

•••

In the summer of 2007, I was visiting California to meet my boyfriend’s parents. We were planning to get married.

I had been visiting California since Oppa attended Fuller Theological Seminary. Oppa was now the Pastor of an English-speaking ministry at a local Korean American Church. My boyfriend attended that same church.

That morning, Oppa and I had a big fight. He was complaining I wasn’t spending enough time with him, that I was spending too much time with my boyfriend.

He’d become so angry, hurtful, since I had started dating my boyfriend.

I came home early that evening. I was staying with Oppa and my sister-in-law in their two-bedroom apartment. The fight from the morning seemed inconsequential. I was ready to make up.

But that night, something snapped.

I saw true rage in Oppa’s eyes. Was it really because of my boyfriend and Oppa’s over-protective stance as an older brother? Was it because I was about to launch my legal career and Oppa had always wanted to go into law but hadn’t? Was it because my parents already loved my boyfriend and were considering him as their son when Oppa had always struggled with self-acceptance as the eldest son of a traditional Korean family?

Is there ever a reason or justification?

This time, there is no making up.

•••

I’ve always prided myself on being an advocate. I consider myself a woman of action. I protest. I march. I fight.

I’ve always loved arguing, the heat of debate. In law school, I specialized in criminal litigation and international human rights—always one of the few Asians in my classes.

I’ve always been told how “non-Asian” I am; how I break the stereotype of a submissive, quiet, well-mannered Asian woman. I am loud. Confident.

Never would I have imagined myself to be so submissive…so Korean…so silenced.

I’ll never forget the panicked look of my sister-in-law as she forced the phone out of my hand when I was trying to call the police. I’ll never forget the sound of my weeping parents begging me not to call the police. Instead they told me to roll an egg on my bruises to make them go away faster.

I underestimated the power of my subconscious need to obey, to comply, to help my parents in sweeping this messy incident under the rug. The driving force to save our family’s reputation was also clouded by my internal voices of justification. This was my brother, after all. He loved me; I loved him. Surely this was not something I could send him to jail for, ruin his entire career, ruin our entire family. I felt forced to do nothing.

Me, an English-speaking lawyer-to-be with a background in advocacy and activism.

I’ll never forget the self-loathing and shame I felt as I retreated within myself, my voice silenced. Oh, the hypocrisy. And I called myself a lawyer? An advocate?

To this day, my father claims that what happened that night was not a big deal. So an Oppa hit his dongsaeng, little sister. He’s always wondering why I’m being over-dramatic. We were family. We loved one another. Why couldn’t I just get over it and move on?

So, I did nothing. I moved on.

•••

That night, my boyfriend picked me up and took me to a nearby hotel. He held me as I sobbed. He gently placed ice packs and eggs on my bruises.

He also went, the very next day, to hear my brother preach.

He, too, is Korean.

•••

I did nothing. In 2007 nor in all the following years.

But there were moments of clarity, of progress.

When I found out I was giving birth to a little boy, I cried. I was anguished that I should give birth to a little boy that could become a man who could potentially hit another woman. But I found strength in my husband, a good man, in knowing that we could raise our son differently.

Within a year after my son was born, I joined the Board of Directors for a specialized clinic for women experiencing violence. In my application to join the board, I shared, for the first time, openly about what my brother had done to me.

It was cathartic. Empowering.

I now have a daughter. And with the dismal statistics of women experiencing domestic violence in North America today, I want her to know that she can have a voice. She needs to have a voice. I need to raise her so that she, unlike me, will not be silenced.

•••

I get out of the bath water, unsure of what to do next.

I look in the mirror. I don’t even recognize her—such uncertainty in her eyes. That can’t be me.

When I look up close, at the bruises, she’s even more unrecognizable. I take out my makeup bag. I cover up my bruises. I put a smile on my face. I meet my boyfriend’s parents.

A year later, we get married.

•••

I won’t go into the details of my depression and journey of spiritual healing and revival after the summer of 2007.

I won’t go into the decade-old disappointment towards my brother and my beloved well-intentioned parents who have never acknowledged the criminality of what Oppa did to me.

It wasn’t until recently that I finally found the strength to publicly share my story.

Surprisingly, this strength came in the form of an unexpected phone call from a police investigator conducting a background check for my brother who had applied, of all things, to become a police officer.

As I shared my story, ten years later, to this random police officer, I did feel a refreshing sense of vindication. Oppa should have never become an ordained pastor, an American citizen, a Navy Chaplain. He should have received court-mandated counseling. I should have received a restraining order.

Then he wouldn’t have dared to threaten me again. Which he did, five years later, causing me to cut him off completely.

And my parents, first-generation immigrants. To this day, condoning my brother, asking me to be the bigger person, to think of the family’s reputation. To this day, asking me how they can choose between Oppa and me.

They don’t realize that by choosing to protect my brother, they gave up their daughter. The broken trust and abandonment I felt in my deepest moments of pain have never left me.

I know what I experienced is nothing compared to the unspoken tragedies of domestic and family violence in too many households across North America. But that’s why I need to tell my story. This story.

I loved my Oppa. I love my parents. But Oppa hit me.

•••

SYLVIA KIM is a lawyer and human rights advocate currently residing in Southern California. Although it took her much too long to publicly share this story, she hopes this will encourage other women, particularly from cultures where domestic and family violence is highly stigmatized, to share their stories as well. Sylvia is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and usually writes on international human rights issues, racial justice, and politics.

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Life and Death and Dark

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Carly Bergey

Is it weird to anyone else that so many of the processes of our body occur in the dark? In my mind’s eye, I’m watching things happen the way they would in an educational film in high school science. Everything: digestion, oxygen exchange, salivation, ejaculation, menstruation.

I mean picture it: a woman releases an egg, it travels down the fallopian tube, if no sperm find it, it dies and passes through the body with the rest of the uterine lining. If it’s fertilized, that egg changes, grows, and moves into the uterus and usually embeds in the right spot. Now imagine that in the dark. How the hell does this happen?

Hormones. Temperature. Luck. All regulated by biochemistry and stuff I can’t see at all. Why do I care? Is it because I’m logical and scientific? Is it because I run a little anxious?

The corpus lutem is a little watchmen that waits for any sign of a fertilized egg implanted in your body. It’s the part of the ovary that the egg bursts out of. It waits in the dark for a wave of heat—estrogen—to signal that the uterus should hold on to its lining if you are pregnant. You know the rest: the mystery of life and really if you think about it, death. Something happens and cells thrive or something happens and cells die and it all happens inside us.

It’s embarrassing how hard I tried to have a baby. How badly I waited. I thought I would be laid back and spontaneous. Finally, we can just have sex and not worry. Like Sally Albright, I thought we’d bang on the kitchen floor whenever we wanted but the truth is, it really is a cold, hard, Mexican ceramic tile and super uncomfortable. I really did take the fun out of it.

In every month, you spend three weeks waiting to find out. Waiting to ovulate, waiting to find out if you are pregnant and waiting to start again.

I had months and months of starting over. I wasn’t medically outside of normal limits. We were told that getting pregnant within a year of trying is normal. I absolutely break for people who endure this for years.

After six months and eight cycles, I woke up in the middle of the night. I felt like I was riding the tiniest tidal wave of heat. I felt a vibration—like a buzzing, happening in me. I sat wide awake in the dark and smiled. This was unusual enough, chemical enough, that I absolutely knew I was pregnant.

I was right. The next day, a few days before my period was due, I took a pregnancy test and yep, two lines, that little heat wave was the start of a baby.

I rode other waves too. Like the nausea wave. That is no joke. I texted my Dad who had recently stopped chemotherapy for what we had just learned was terminal throat cancer. We joked about puking first thing in the morning, how much we puked, how gross it is, all the different weird words for it: Puke, barf, vomit and his favorite an onomatopoeic RAAAAAALPH.

But at my first OB appointment I found out, I would be starting over again. My baby had no heartbeat.

It’s a thousand tiny deaths … all those steps from there to here. Cell death. Death of what you thought would happen. The death of your father.

When they showed me the tiny form on the screen, all I could think was that it was dark inside my womb. I didn’t want my baby in there alone and unseen when they turned the monitor off.

The body works along, without our consent whether living or dying.

I endured a few very hard weeks hoping for a natural miscarriage and, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I scheduled a D&C.

I found myself really curious about how the D&C procedure is performed. I asked the doctor to explain the approach in detail to me. Why does a physician go in blind when they remove the fetal tissue? Wouldn’t it help to have the procedure guided by ultrasound? Why do you do it in the dark? Why can’t you see?

When I asked the OB these questions, a lady I had never met but had already spoken to on the phone, she seemed offended and sort of scuffed when responding. “Um, I’ve done this before. We don’t use an ultrasound because we don’t. We know how to do it.”

Is it so much work to educate a patient about your methods, about the risks? I pressed on. “How are your outcomes? What are the risks?”

Again, annoyed and terse. “They’re good. There is a small risk of puncturing your uterus and therefore of bleeding, of hysterectomy, and, of course, even death.”

“So I could wake up without the ability to have children?”

“It’s possible, but what else are you going to do?”

She actually said that to me.

The first nurse couldn’t get an IV in. Another nurse came in and got it. She offered her condolences to me. The office was plastered with pink and red hearts. Fresh roses sat proudly at the nurses station. It was Valentine’s Day, after all. My husband offered a thankful nod and the nurse left. He held my hand and waited with me, assuring me it would be okay. He was an ocean of calm.

A small-framed man walked in, the anesthesiologist. We pulled his chair close to mine and started with this:

“My wife has sat where you are sitting five times. We joke that we have two only-children because there are nine years between our first and second living children.” He had kind eyes and a friendly energetic voice. “I’m going to talk you through the risks of anesthesia. The procedure involves sedation, no intubation or ventilation but there is a risk, less than a lightning strike, that I would need to intubate you, okay? It’s safer to do this than to drive home. You could have a bad reaction to the medication but again, these are old meds, very well studied and I am an excellent doctor.” He went through a few other risks, including the tiniest risk of death, which he said was like suffering two lightning strikes in the same day and told me I’d wake up a little groggy.

He consistently addressed me before addressing my husband. He put his hands on mine and said he was so sorry I was suffering and he wished me well, hoping that I would fare better than his wife. As he was leaving the room he turned and said “After this, you can start over and try again.”

I wrote him a thank you note later. That man is why I let them wheel me into the room, let the somewhat rude OB scrape the baby out of my body without even looking.

He was right. I did get another chance to start over. Two months later, they peeked again and saw a strong heartbeat and a tidal wave of heat with their machines. I was ten weeks along when Dad passed away in the dark of morning. And the mystery of that baby growing in the dark accompanied the grief, the way the sun rises even if you didn’t sleep great. I had a daughter that December, she has my Dad’s curls.

I got to try again two years later and have a son. We named him after my dad. He was born as fast as a lightning strike into a unlit hallway of the birth center. The midwives turned on the lights later and we all laughed at the trail of blood I left from the lobby to the spot he emerged. “That looked a lot better in the dark,” the midwife said. That was true. When I play the video of his birth in my head, I see nothing. I don’t need to see it. I had gone through enough life and death by then to trust what I can’t see.

I feel the power of his body moving through me. The weight of him leaving me, the people bustling around me, I hear myself yelling out, I hear splashes of liquid hit the floor. A nurse tells me to squat, which I ignore and deliver him standing up. I don’t even see him yet, he is just pressed against my abdomen screaming. I hold him to my belly. I feel his squishy shoulders, his tiny frame. At that point, we didn’t know it was a boy. I did have to move out of the dark hallway to confirm that.

•••

CARLY BERGEY is a Speech-Language Pathologist, singer, and writer currently crafting a memoir about her work as a voice therapist. Her creative and academic writing has been published in Intima, Pulse, the ASHA leader, ENT Secrets and CHEST. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her family.

The Consequence of Losing My Damned Mind

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

By Eze Ihenetu

I knew that he’d emphasized our similarity so that he could disarm me.

“We are both Igbo,” he’d said, through a forced smile.

My thought response: So what.

Despite our shared heritage, he and I were still adversarial strangers because he had gone back on his word. This “brother” of mine was one of the people responsible for my extended confinement to the psychiatric ward. I was not in the mood to extend any form of good will.

I positioned my wheelchair so that I was directly in front of him, and I slowly looked upward until my eyes met his. Arrogance wafted off of him like the heat from my rusted bedroom radiator.

I made ready to make my demand.

“What did I do to make you think that I should spend more time in this place?”

I waited for his answer, radiating irrational anger. I was still under acute influence of my disease, and I was still in denial of this truth.

I lost my patience when he failed to respond, which precipitated the relinquishment of my remaining composure. I bellowed up at him, “You told me that I would only have to stay here for a period of two days. That is what you said to me, right? Now you are telling me that I will have to stay here for two weeks! Two weeks?! Why are you unable to keep your word?!”

He pursed his lips. Then he folded his arms without speaking a word. Was that going to be the extent of his response to my question?

I slammed my right hand down on the wheel of my chair and said, “Promises were made to me and I should expect that you would make sure that these promises will be kept!”

I knew that arguing with the doctor was probably useless, but I needed to say my piece. One of the only positive offshoots of my disease was that I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind. I was standing up for myself in a way that I never had before. Why had I suddenly become so outspoken and brave? Because I was more than certain that I was in mortal danger.

The doctor looked as if he was staring down at a cockroach. He made ready to squash the unpleasant thing that was waiting him to answer.

“Your condition has been deemed more severe than we first thought. And we need more time to observe you,” he said. His accent was thick, more pronounced than the one my father spoke with.

“But I don’t want to have to stay here any longer. I’ve already spent two weeks at this hospital. I need to go.”

“You have been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a very serious psychological condition. We have to treat you and see how you respond. You will be released when we are confident that you are showing progress.”

My heart sank.

While still within the psychiatrist’s purview, I conducted a quick reconnaissance of the dreary, monochrome, and cramped ward. It was divided into two corridors, with the nursing station acting as the point of demarcation. A half dozen uniformed police officers roamed the two corridors and manned the exits. Any attempts to cross the established border that linked the two sides would be dissuaded by the officer who acted as the border’s sentry. The police officers were obviously there to assist the clinical staff with maintaining some semblance of order, but seeing so many armed members of law enforcement cobbled together in such a constrained location rankled my nerves.

The hospital’s inmates walked among these officers, most of whom had spent almost the entirety of their lives existing on society’s edges; a portion of them had spent some time in the New York City prison system. There was a charge that ran through this place. And it could be ignited by anyone here, and at any time.

Prison stints and extended stays in hospitals had not been a part of my past. Why transfer me to this place? If the hospital would have performed some research they would have discovered that I was a graduate of the Boston University School of Business, a trained professional actor, and came from a good family. Every member of my family had either graduated from college or was planning on matriculating into a university. I knew that I didn’t belong in this place, but the gatekeepers who held the keys to freedom obviously thought differently.

“Whatever,” I said, shaking my head.

Now he was looking at me as if he was ashamed. I wanted to dig my fingernails into his sand-colored face and add a few more divots to the hundreds that had already ruined it. I steered my wheelchair away from the doctor in a huff instead, making sure to hold my breath as I passed by the open door of the room that stank of urine and cigarettes.

•••

When it was time for sleep, I lay awake on my hospital bed instead, my diagnosis bouncing around my head.

To his credit, the psychiatrist had tried to take away some of the sting of this life-long sentence when putting forth his diagnosis, saying that I was susceptible to periods of mood instability and mania, and that I was not the only one who was suffering from that particular disease. That explanation was lost on me though, for all I could focus on was the word “schizoaffective” and all of the horrific images that my mind was associating with the term.

Momma had always said that I was the special man in her life. I’d thought that I was special too, believing at one time that I was gifted with a special insight into the whims of others. The psychiatrist had taken the wind out of that sail by handing down the life sentence. If I were to believe the doctor’s words, then it would mean that my extra-sensitive perspicacity was a stain instead of a gift. This fact alone had a shattering effect on my confidence. The diagnosis, in addition to the fact that I was the only person on the unit who was sporting a cast around a recently repaired broken leg, made me feel very vulnerable. When the pain from this realization became too much I stopped resisting the pill, and downed the twenty milligram Zyprexa for the first time.

•••

I awoke later than usual the next day, unable to raise my head from the pillow. I attempted to move my limbs but was unable to because it felt as if the muscles and bones had been filleted from the inside of my skin. My mind was covered in a fog. After a few minutes I was on the verge of tears, thinking that I was going through the first stages of my death.

By early afternoon I realized that I’d overreacted in the morning. My condition was improving slightly with the passage of each subsequent hour. By late afternoon I was sure that I was going to live, though I would remain mired in a Zyprexa-induced stupor for the rest of the day. I went to bed on an empty stomach in the early evening—I’d been too tired to eat anything during that day—vowing never again to ingest another Zyprexa pill before closing my heavy eyelids.

I was myself again the next morning, although still a bit groggy from the day before. My roommate, who stood at an imposing six feet three inches and weighed two hundred fifty pounds, was still soundly asleep in his bed. He had been a docile fellow during the time I’d known him, a fact for which I was extremely grateful.

I exhaled a breath before I sat up and swung my legs from the bed onto the hospital floor, an action that required an inordinate amount of exertion. I encircled the circumference of my wrist with my hand and gasped in surprise—my wrist was replete with bony protrusions. Distraught from my extreme weight loss, I slid down from my bed until my butt hit the floor, then got down on all fours and started some push-ups. I maxed out after ten repetitions and stayed on the floor for few minutes, exhaling deeply. After catching my breath, I pushed myself off from the floor and got to my feet and used my good leg to hop on over to the foot of my bed, where my wheelchair was waiting for me. The light from the corridor was spilling into the open doorway. I steered the wheelchair towards it.

•••

Mental illness is defined by its abnormalities and vicissitudes; the functioning of the mind and body is thrown into complete disarray. One clinician’s proffered reason for this instability was an ongoing “disconnection” between brain cells. His words felt abrasive and accusatory. It was “you” are this and “you” are that. I bristled at the explanation. He had basically asserted that I was the only one responsible for my condition. He’d made no mention nor alluded to other factors that may have been contributed to my behavioral inconsistencies.

When allowed to thrive, the mental illness makes it almost impossible for the afflicted person to establish and adhere to a routine. The people who ran the psych ward made establishing a routine a vital component of the patient’s recovery. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served at the same times every single day—my favorite times of the day. Psychotropic medications were distributed at the same time in the mornings and evenings. There was an activity room where the groups were held, although I preferred to watch movies on cable instead of talking about my issues.

•••

Fearful that I could add even more time to my original sentence, I set out to be the good patient, going out of my way to prove that I was quiet, affable, and well behaved. I adhered to all of the standardized rules that had been set, except for the ingestion of the psychotropic medications. I’d hide the pills below the base of my tongue before making sure they met their ultimate fate at the end of each evening: circling down the drain of the bathroom sink.

I was the only patient who roamed around that wing of the hospital in a wheelchair. So I strove to avoid getting into any type of confrontation with the other denizens of this crazy place. My leg always drew attention to me though—the entire bottom half of it was encircled by a neon green cast. The others couldn’t help but be curious about what happened.

When the other patients asked what had happened to my leg I responded to their questions with most of the truth, one that was in direct contradiction to the story that I’d relayed to my care team. I’d told my care team that I’d tried to kill myself because I thought it was what they wanted to hear, and because I was trying to escape being branded with a more severe diagnosis.

Killing myself hadn’t been an option because I was afraid of the consequences. Although I wasn’t a devout Catholic, I was cognizant of the fact that taking my life would result in my being transported to hell for an eternity. And for a man who had been walking along the path that God had created for him, suicide was not a viable option.

•••

What were the actual events that had led to my hospitalization?

I’d locked myself in my room during the last few days of December, 2003, my brain on fire with delusions of persecution and conspiracy. I would try to douse the fire by spending time alone in the darkness, removed from everything and everyone. But the conflagration in my mind would only become more incensed.

My bedroom became a dark cave. The air in the room became stale, but I was content to breathe it in. During those two days I hardly shifted positions while supine in my disheveled bed, staring up into the darkness, while the paranoia, anger, and sadness gripped me. My bedroom, a shambolic mess, was the embodiment of disorganized thoughts.

Mom, Dad, and other family members kept on calling. Their calls brought short stints of reprieve from the loneliness and isolation and provided me with a temporary reminder of who I was. I wouldn’t return their phone calls though. I’d ignore my roommate’s entreaties about my health and eschewed the phone calls of the friends I’d made. I suspected everyone that I knew was working for my enemies.

After I decided that it would become untenable for me to remain in my room for perpetuity, I devised a plan—it was emblematic of my desperation. I jumped up from the bed to dress and gather everything that I could carry, then entwined three sets of sheets together, creating a makeshift rope. I tied one end of the rope to the radiator, parted the curtains, and opened the window. I adjusted my eyes to the sun and threw the makeshift rope through the open window.

I looked down the length of the sheet as it swung to and fro and against the brick wall of the four story apartment building. There were three stories separating me from the concrete floor below, the makeshift rope spanning the length of about two of those stories. No problem. I would scale down the first twenty feet of rope before attempting to jump the last ten.

I was still three stories above the ground when the rope snapped, leaving me to fall the rest of the way. When I crashed down on the cement street that had been made harder and colder by the sub-freezing temperatures, the wind escaped from my lungs. I couldn’t make a sound, but my entire body was screaming from the pain.

When I regained my wind from the fall and the wracking pain had morphed into dull and persistent throbbing, I took inventory of my current situation. The paraphernalia that I’d been hauling on my back was strewn all across the alley way, but my body seemed to be intact at first glance.

My mind was still feverish, and I desperately needed to get away. I thought I could miraculously walk away from this catastrophic fall; I started the process of gathering my things together when I noticed that my right leg was bent back awkwardly. There was also a rip in my jeans, from which escaped the calcified bone of my knee. Blood was upwelling through the hole that had been made by the exposed knee bone, and spilling down the sides of my jeans.

I burst out crying at the sight of my new deformity before desperately flagging down a startled passerby.

“Can you please help me?” I said, sobbing. “Please, please help me.”

•••

I told the story of how I arrived at the facility in Daniel’s room. Daniel, a bearded and excitable young man who had spent a significant amount of time in hospitals, rolled his eyes after I had completed my tale of woe.

“Come on, man,” he said. “That’s nothing. One time I got fucked up so bad that I had to spend four months in a hospital bed.”

Geoffrey, a large man with two missing front teeth, was sitting next to me. Like my roommate, he was a gentle and calm; a smile came easily to him. His wide grin and kindness were gifts of welcome respite from a continuous flood of despair. If you were to run into Geoffrey on the street, you would never have guessed that he was a schizophrenic who had spent six years in a real New York City prison facility.

•••

Geoffrey was with me when my father arrived for his visitation. Dad’s wide eyes revealed his absolute shock at my appearance: I’d sustained a nasty shiner in addition to the broken leg and weight loss. His reaction upon first seeing me in the hospital distressed me, though it wasn’t a surprise. Nothing could have prepared him for the sight of his first-born being confined to a wheelchair, body broken and spirit twisted by demons both real and imagined.

My father’s visit proved to be my saving grace. His presence provided a temporary uplift for my spirit and acted as a precipitating event. A few of the ward’s employees had developed a fondness for me during my confinement; their eyes practically lit up at the sight of the family reunion. The hospital staff knew that my father—dressed in a plaid jacket and carrying a briefcase—would act as my responsible guardian, which placated their concerns about my well-being when I was eventually released from the hospital. There was an up-swelling of hope within me that felt foreign, which contributed to the ward feeling a lot less dreary and depressing on that day.

Dad’s visit had the opposite effect on Geoffrey, though. We were hanging together, watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie—the best of the five—in the activity room when he let out a sigh and said, “That’s cool that your dad came out all this way to see you. My family lives right here in the city and ain’t none of them came out to see me.” I could only respond to my friend Geoffrey with silence because I was too absorbed in my thoughts and situation to really consider what he was saying.

•••

A week and a half had passed without my having been involved in some major incident on the floor, another fact for which I was extremely grateful. And I was actually starting to get used to life on the ward. I had settled into the prescribed ward routines and had made a few friends/acquaintances. With only a few days remaining until my release, I was thinking that I might escape this place without accruing any additional scars.

And then my roommate lost his shit one night.

He took offense to something that was said by a visiting nurse, cursed her out, and then spat at her face from a supine position on his bed. One of the officers on duty rushed to the aid of the nurse who’d just been assaulted. I was thankful that the roommate seemed to calm as the dreadlocked and bulky cop firmly established himself at the nurse’s right flank. As I watched the situation quickly unfold, I felt as if I’d experienced whiplash. What would possess a usually docile and gentle man to assault someone in a manner that was vile, and in a place where immediate repercussions would be meted out?

The incident with my roommate, the loss of my job and girlfriend, and other things weighed on my mind when I went before the clinical team/parole board to discuss my progress as a patient. My fellow Igbo man had been given a seat at table. His inclusion in that group would have made me clam up a few days ago. I became a puddle a tears and snot on that day, though, oblivious to the judgments and affirmations of the people who watched me in that room.

•••

It wasn’t until I was given access to my clothes and phone again that I became truly secure in the fact that I was finally leaving the hospital that had been my home for the past month. I found Geoffrey in his room so that I could say goodbye. When I reached up to shake his hand, he said, “I don’t ever want to hear that you have come back to this place.”

I responded firmly. “I promise that I won’t.”

•••

Thirteen years have passed since I left the hospital. I remain a healthy, contributing member of society, who seems to have discovered the perfect formula for managing a chronic precondition—lower doses of psychotropic medicines are an important part of this formula. I’ve secured a master’s degree in health administration, and I’m up for a promotion with the employer with whom I have enjoyed my longest tenure. Those dark days from thirteen years ago have faded to the rearview of my life’s journey, but I still think about Geoffrey every single day.

I hope that he has been able to carve out a life for himself, though I am not optimistic that he has. He and I may have been two mentally ill individuals who’d gotten to know each other for two weeks in the same psychiatric ward, but I was blessed with certain advantages that would make it easier for me to regain the life that I’d nearly lost. Education, a loving family, and the absence of a criminal record all worked in my favor. Geoffrey would have to make his way in the world absent of the advantages that I had. And given the fact that he was a black man, which is a state of being that diminishes one’s prospects for success in society even when you are educated and healthy, his situation is very precarious.

I wish that there were some way to find out that he is all right.

•••

EZE IHENETU is a hospital worker and freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. Once a teacher and an actor, Eze is confident that writing will be the last stop on his long professional journey. He is currently working on a memoir about his time as an elementary school teacher. You can reach him on twitter at @Eihenetu.

Going to Ground

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

By Sarah Einstein

Like a good citizen, I call my senators at least once a week these days, but their aides are brusque. They tell me that Alexander and Corker support the President’s education agenda/healthcare reform/immigration order or whatever I’m outraged about on that day. In the first few weeks, they’d thank me for my call. Now they simply say, “Your objection is noted,” and hang up as quickly as they can. Once, as if caught off guard, one said, “Are you sure you live in Tennessee?”

I carry my passport with me everywhere these days.

I’ve begun to sort that which is precious and from that which is not. I make a small pile of the things I’d pack in the night, a larger one of the stuff I would leave. Everyone is insisting we’re just one Reichstag Fire away from fascism. On the news, I watch a steady stream of black people murdered by the state for their blackness, and I think it’s more likely that we’ve already had the Anschluss.

When I travel, I wear an inherited diamond I feel silly wearing at home. I remember being told when I was younger that a Jewish woman should always have enough jewelry on her body to bribe her way over a border. At the time it seemed quaint. Now it seems key. For the moment, the diamond ring’s still on my finger. I wonder if there will come a day I’ll need to sew it into the hem of my coat.

Over coffee, my friend Meredith talks about joining the resistance in a way that suggests we’re headed for a war she thinks we can win. I talk about going to ground, about building false walls for hiding people waiting for fake passports and safe transport. We scare ourselves and then laugh at ourselves, but even after the laughing we are still scared.

Meredith wasn’t always Meredith, and there is a passel of bills in our state legislature designed to make it impossible for her to be Meredith now. I tell her I will hide her in my hidden rooms, if it comes to that. She says she won’t be hidden, but she might move to Atlanta.

My coffee these days is chamomile tea. I’m jittery enough as it is.

If we flee, we will go to my husband’s family in Austria. The irony of this is not lost on me; there are Nazis in the family albums. They assure us that we’ll be safe there, should it come to that, and I believe them. They’ve clearly learned lessons that we have not.

My husband has stopped talking about becoming an American citizen and started talking about being an anchor relative.

My friend Jessica is spending all her vacation time in Israel this year, establishing the Right of Return. I’ve stopped questioning the politics of this; refugees go where they can.

This Hanukah, I will give my niece and nephews passports if they don’t already have them. If they do, I will give them whatever they ask for. I’ve lifted my moratorium on war toys. Maybe they should know how to handle a gun.

My closest disabled friends and I swap lists of medications and start to horde the things one or some of us need against the day we lose access to them. We read up on actual expiration versus labeled expiration dates. We refill prescriptions before we need to, just in case.

I have six boxes of Plan B in my closet, even though I’m long past child-bearing years. On campus, I spread rumors about a shadowy network of old women who will help younger women with travel and money for abortions if they can’t get the healthcare they need in their home towns. I call all my old woman friends and build the network. I keep their names and numbers in handwritten lists and hide them away.

I refuse to let my husband put a “Stop Trump” bumper sticker on our car. “That’s just foolish,” I say. I let him keep the Cthulu fish. For now.

A young woman cries in my office, afraid that if she comes out to her parents they will disown her; she’s still dependent on them. I tell her that she doesn’t have to come out to them now, or ever, if she doesn’t feel safe doing so. She looks shocked. It breaks my heart to have been the first to suggest the safety of the closet to her; I wonder what she is coming out of, if it had never occurred to her to remain in.

I’ve stopped going to protests and started going to meetings for which there are no flyers or Facebook event notices. To find them, you have to know someone who already has. We talk there of things I won’t write here. At first, we turned off our phones. Now, we leave them at home.

And yet still, like a good citizen, I call my senators at least once a week. Their aides are brusque. In the first few weeks, they’d thank me for my call. Now they hang up as quickly as they can. I haven’t yet given up on the dream of America, but I’m making contingency plans.

•••

SARAH EINSTEIN teaches Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Sun, Ninth Letter, Still, and others journals, and been awarded a Pushcart and a Best of the Net. She is the author of Mot: A Memoir (Univerity of Georgia Press, 2015) and Remnants of Passion (Shebooks, 2014).

Surface

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

By Liz Lasiter

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.

The Men Who Won the Presidency

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

By Laura Fuller

 

Gentlemen of the city, what surprises you?

That there is suffering here, or that I know it?

—Annie Dillard

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 nodded.

“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.”

A pause.

“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 blinked.

“I had an attending physician in med school who took twenty minutes to put in an IUD, and it hurt, you know?”

Blink.

“Yeah, but that didn’t hurt, right?”

Silence.

“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.”

Yes, let’s.

•••

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.

Courage, Lovelies

By Jennifer Niesslein

Well, hell.

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.

“A Tape Doesn’t Change a Goddamned Thing” by Karrie Higgins

“Neighborhood Watch” By Beatrice M. Hogg

“Shelter Girl” by Chareen Ibraheem

“Go That Way Very Fast. If Something Gets in Your Way, Turn” by Erica S. Brath

“Transference” by J. J. Mulligan

“Stranger Interlude” by Terry Barr

And a love story, because why not? “How Gender Works” by Alex Myers

•••

JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the editor of Full Grown People. Her latest work, on joy (!) and why we write, is at Creative Nonfiction.

The Pink Room

woman parts
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

Content warning: rape —ed.

By Reema Zaman

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.

But.

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:

Leave.”

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.

What now.

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.

Stop.

Breathe.

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.

I sleep.

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.

“Sometimes.”

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 PostShape, 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.

Learning to Leap, From A to Z

By Daniel Novta/Flickr
By Daniel Novta/Flickr

By Sunanda Vaidheesh

 Axle (n)

A mechanism that enables a pair of wheels to rotate.

Bicycle (n)

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.

Clenching (v)

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.

Drive (v)

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.

Educated (adj)  

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.

Flight (n)

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.

Garland (n)

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.

Inquisitive (adj)

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.”  

Jubilant (adj)

I bring her the good chocolate when I visit. She hates the sugar-free chocolate-for-diabetics crap.

Klaxon (n)

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.

Lethal (adj)

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.”

Momentous (adj)

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.

Okay (adj)

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.

Purpose (n)

“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.”

Quick (adj)

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.

Repeat (adj)

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.

Stories (n)

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.

Tears (n)

After every driving lesson this summer, I have burst into tears.

Unrecognizable (adj)

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.

Verify (v)

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.

Whisper (v)

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.

Xerox (n)

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.

Yearn (v)

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.

Zealous (adj)

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.

A Tape Doesn’t Change a Goddamned Thing

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.

December, 2007: my brother, talking to a 16-year-old girl being coached by the cops:

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.

Jill Harth:

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.”

Temple Taggart:

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.

Gold diggers.

tweet by @realDonaldTrump 8 Oct 2016: The media and establishment want me out of the race so badly – I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE, WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN! #MAGA — Donald J. Trump

___

____

Trump campaign decal:

Google image search results showing numerous images of Calvin pissing on the name “Hillary”

___

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.

___

In my hometown: Kennedy High School Principal Jason Kline forced to delete a Facebook post denouncing Trump:

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:

scan from my high school transcript stating “Early Grad”

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.

___

Trump endorser Senator Sessions:

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.

tweet from @karriehiggins 10 Oct 2016 “ICYMI: I had to explain the mechanics of “pussy grabbing” to a man who wants to control my uterus.”

 

___

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:

Facebook post dated July 25, 2015 by Karrie Higgins: “A widely beloved figure from my hometown died, and I am watching everyone eulogize him on Facebook, while all I can think about is this one time we were alone, and he touched me in an extremely inappropriate way, then pulled my body to him, and said right up in my face, “I know things aren’t right at home,” not like concern, but like a threat. As if to say: “You’re already a lost kid. Nobody is going to care.” I’ve been waiting 25 years to be able to tell the story, and watching all these eulogies and these heartfelt memories of him in my newsfeed is making me sick to my stomach … that queasy feeling you get when you know that — once again — you will not be believed.”

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?

tweet from @karriehiggins 12 Oct 2016: “Regarding that high school coach/math teacher I outed for sexually assaulting me: I want his baseball field blown up by a nuclear bomb.”

___

Cedar Rapids Public Schools called the principal’s post “political.”

They are wrong, but they are also right.

tweet from @KellyannePolls (Kellyanne Conway) retweeting @HillaryClinton: “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” Kellyanne asks: “Does that go for Juanita, Kathleen, Kathy and Paula? #girlpower @karriehiggins reply: How ya like that #girlpower now? with attached screen grab of @realDonaldTrump tweeting: “100% fabricated and made-up charges, pushed strongly by the media and the Clinton Campaign, may poison the minds of the American voter. FIX!”

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:

___

tweet from @karriehiggins 14 Oct 2016: Because I thought (was taught) I was so ugly that nobody would believe a man would sexually assault me. #WhyWomenDontReport

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.

___

The Fraternal Order of Police endorses Trump. The Fraternal Order of Police endorses Trump. The Fraternal Order of Police endorses Trump.

Fraternal: of or like brothers. 

___

 

Letter from my attorney to the Poweshiek County Police: “I represent Karrie Higgins to assist her in obtaining her requested audio recording from your department. The Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office previously asserted that it will not release the recording based on Iowa Code Section 22.7(5) allegedly in an effort to protect the victim’s confidentiality. Section 22.7(5) is inapposite where, as here, there is no expectation of confidentiality or privacy. Hawk Eye v. Jackson, 521 N.W.2d 750, 753 (1994). The telephone conversation, already made public, lacks any expectation of confidentiality. Furthermore, the victim’s identifying information, ________’s identifying information, is also already a matter of public record. Regardless, and in any event, Ms. Higgins will accept an audio copy of the conversation which redacts the victim’s speech rendering the alleged privacy concern moot. If necessary, Ms. Higgins will pay a reasonable fee to redact the recording, although we would ask that you please first provide us with an estimation of the cost.”

___

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.

___

 

email from the sheriff to me: “Ms. Higgins, I have shared your request with Poweshiek County Attorney Rebecca Petig and the issue was discussed at length. Ms. Petig and I share concerns with releasing the audio recording of the phone call between your brother and the victim. We feel that although the written transcript and the audio recording contain the same information, the actual recording is obviously more personal in nature and we feel that when the victim made the recorded call she would have had the expectation that the recording would not be released to the public. Additionally, we would have no control over what happened to that recording once it was released. In light of your relationship to the people involved, we would allow you to listen to the recorded call in person, here at the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s office, if you would like to arrange a time to do so. However, no recording devices would be allowed. Hopefully this provides you with an opportunity to put this matter to rest. Sincerely, Joel Vander Leest, Chief Deputy.”

 

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.

a checkerboard of all the instances of the word “inaudible” as it appeared in the taped 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:

text from my settlement with the Poweshiek County Sheriff: Plaintiff in consideration of providing a copy of the redacted audio recording of Mr. Greg Higgins from 2007 does hereby release, acquit and forever discharge Poweshiek County, the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office and its elected officials, employees, and Chief Deputy Joel Vander Leest (hereinafter designated collectively as “the County”) and all of the County’s employees, officers, directors, agents, the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool, American Risk Pooling Consultants, Public Entity Risk Services of Iowa, together with their employees, officers and directors and all other persons, firms, corporations (hereinafter collectively designated as “Other Released Parties”) from any and all liability, injuries, or damages whatsoever for the claims alleged in the Lawsuit and any and all other causes of action she may have against the County based upon the County’s response to her request under Iowa Open Records Law pursuant to Iowa Code Chapter 22.
from my settlement with the Poweshiek County Sheriff: “Plaintiff in consideration of providing a copy of the redacted audio recording of Mr. Greg Higgins from 2007 does hereby release, acquit and forever discharge Poweshiek County, the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office and its elected officials, employees, and Chief Deputy Joel Vander Leest (hereinafter designated collectively as “the County”) and all of the County’s employees, officers, directors, agents, the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool, American Risk Pooling Consultants, Public Entity Risk Services of Iowa, together with their employees, officers and directors and all other persons, firms, corporations (hereinafter collectively designated as “Other Released Parties”) from any and all liability, injuries, or damages whatsoever for the claims alleged in the Lawsuit and any and all other causes of action she may have against the County based upon the County’s response to her request under Iowa Open Records Law pursuant to Iowa Code Chapter 22.”

 

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 Fraternal Order of Police STILL endorses Trump. The Fraternal Order of Police STILL endorses Trump.

___

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 to see 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. 

screen grabs of the word "just" as it appears approx. 51 times in my brother's taped phone call, arranged in a grid/graphic representation; at bottom, two larger fragments, one that says, "Fuck you, I'll just call ______ and tell her I'll just go to the God damn cops" and one that says, "And don't just fucking go and involve ..."
the word “just” as it appears approx. 51 times in my brother’s taped phone call, arranged in a grid/graphic representation; at bottom, two larger fragments, one that says, “Fuck you, I’ll just call ______ and tell her I’ll just go to the God damn cops” and one that says, “And don’t just fucking go and involve …”

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.

just, adj:

based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.

just, adv:

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

Read more FGP essays by Karrie Higgins.