These Five Hours

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

Steve and I head to bed at the same time in the same room with our two dogs. We kiss each other goodnight, assure each other of our love, and close our eyes to attend to our thoughts and memories, our worries and eventually our dreams. Steve has worn a CPAP since I’ve known him because he suffers from sleep apnea, and if he didn’t wear the hose and nose pillow that pushes forced air into his system as he sleeps, he might stop breathing and die.

We haven’t always slept in the same room. Only in the last three years, since we moved into the new house, have we been able to manage it. In the old house, the sound of the CPAP combined with the white noise machine Steve required to sleep was too much for me. I slept in a different room, in what I thought of as my own bed. I tried not to notice that these arrangements were exactly like the arrangements my mother had with my stepfather. As an adult, I recalled the times my mother would go into Warren’s room at night for a spell and then come back out to the couch-turned-bed she slept in every night. It embarrasses me to remember those times, even now, thirty years later. What did they do with Warren’s wooden leg?

When Steve and I moved into the new house, we got rid of the clunky old white noise machine, which wasn’t actually a white noise machine but an air purifier, and replaced it with a small, more reasonable white noise machine. We got a bigger bed. We put a white noise machine next to my side of the bed. And somehow we made it work. We all four slept in the same room. And it felt right.

But in the last year or so, it has stopped working. Ever since Steve came home from the hospital after his gallbladder surgery, something about the CPAP machine has been off. The hissing sound it makes is unbearable. We’ll fall asleep at the same time, but inevitably, I’ll wake up around twelve-thirty or one to use the bathroom and when I return, the hissing sound makes it impossible for me to fall asleep. I say his name to wake him, scaring the shit out of him in the process. He tells me I’m going to give him a heart attack. I tell him he’s going to kill me with that goddamn hissing. “Just adjust the nose piece, please.” He adjusts it. I roll over in bed. Ten seconds later it’s hissing again.

I tell my friend Hillary that if I ever do end up murdering my husband, my entire defense will consist of me imitating the CPAP hissing sound in court while others are trying to speak. I will drive everybody so crazy that they’ll find me not guilty. Psssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh. Take a breath. Psssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh. Repeat until they set me free.

•••

More than once Steve has told me this story: when he was a teenager on vacation at Myrtle Beach with his family, his mom vetoed his choice in a tee-shirt shop on the boardwalk. He wanted one that said, “The Ayatollah is a Assaholla.” (This was in June, 1980, at the height of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, so Steve had good reason to believe in the Ayatollah’s Assaholla-ness.) Interestingly enough, his mom didn’t have a problem with his getting one that said, “Football players do it in the end zone.”

For years, until so recently that I’m embarrassed to tell you, I thought that tee-shirt was ridiculous because, really, what a stupid pun. Oooh, a play on the words do it. So immature. And then a week or so ago, we got back on the subject of that story and I said something along the lines of how silly this shirt was. “Remember, I was barely sixteen,” Steve reminds me.

“I know, but still. You mom thinks it’s perfectly okay to get you a t-shirt with a really juvenile reference to sex but not one about the Ayatollah, who really was an assaholla. And besides, what does it even mean: football players do it in the end zone? Do they run into the end zone and suddenly celebrate by doing it right then and there?”

“I think it’s more about doing it in the end zone, you know, like anal sex?”

Pause.

“Oh my god. You mean that end zone?” And the uncontrollable laughter begins. I’m dying. I fall over on the couch. I can barely catch my breath, but when I am finally able to, I manage to spit out, “Your mother let you get a tee-shirt about anal sex but not about the Ayatollah?”

“I don’t think she realized it was about anal sex.”

“Did you?”

“Not until a few years ago.”

My stomach hurts from laughing so hard, so I cannot reply. Minutes pass.

I never met Steve’s mother. She died years before I met Steve, but what I do know about her is that she was unhappy. She did not delight in being a mother, she did not delight in Steve, and she rarely demonstrated affection toward him. I do not think I would have enjoyed meeting her. His father, though, was one of my favorite people on this earth. Kind-hearted, warm, funny, empathetic, and unashamed to eat blueberry pie with each meal because otherwise I or Steve might get to it first.

Finally, I find my voice. “What made you realize it was about anal sex?”

“I don’t know. I think I was telling someone the story and it just dawned on me.”

I don’t know how to write laughter. I don’t know how to tell you that my stomach hurt so badly from my laughing so hard at the absurdity of it all. Maybe it wasn’t that the story was all that funny. Maybe it had been too long since I’d had that kind of full-body laugh. Maybe my body needed that kind of embodied emotional experience.

“You do realize, of course, that that tee-shirt could very well be interpreted as being about gay sex, right?”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t the Ayatollah.”

•••

When I crawl into the bed in the guest room, the one with the memory foam mattress, I always squint at the clock to check the time. It’s usually between one and two a.m., which means I have about five hours before I need to get up. These five hours, I think. These five hours have to get me through.

Lately I’ve been noticing when I adjust myself in this bed, rolling over onto my stomach, that my left hip hurts. When I get out of bed in the morning, I have to take an extra second or two because of the pain.

•••

The few times I can remember an adult asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I can remember responding that I wanted to be either a fireman (masculine pronoun) or Little Red Riding Hood. I clearly had a thing for running into, not away from, danger.

•••

I teach undergraduate courses in rhetorical theory and the personal essay regularly, and one of the things I find myself telling students outright again and again, even though I know on some level that it is something they must learn for themselves from experience, is that the louder a person declares their strength or their smarts, the weaker or the less intelligent they actually are. A person who is strong or intelligent doesn’t need to announce her strength or her intelligence, I tell them. Pay attention to the quiet ones. They’re the strong ones.

I do this because I want to give students the benefit of knowing what, for years, I did not understand. I believed that the people in my life who shouted the loudest, “I’m strong, I’m strong, I’m strong!” actually were strong, and that I, who could never declare such a thing about myself, was weak.

When I tell students this, I characterize it as one of Dr. Robillard’s life rules.

•••

At first I attributed the hip pain to all the walking I do with our dogs, Wrigley and Essay. I’ve always walked a lot, even before I adopted my first dog in grad school, and the daily routine with the dogs now is two walks a day. A shorter one in the morning and a longer one in the late afternoon. I probably mentioned the pain to Steve once or twice, but even I will acknowledge that I’m a bit of the girl-who-cried-wolf when it comes to pointing out problems with my body. Having grown up in an abusive home, I have low expectations for this life and I’ve long been on the lookout for the thing that will kill me young. A particularly tenacious pimple becomes, in my telling, terminal cancer, and an upset stomach that lasts more than a couple hours is surely the first sign of stomach cancer. It is not, I am always reassuring Steve, that I want to die, but that I expect to die. It is hard for me to imagine a future for myself that stretches out very far. I understand now that people who have been abused know exactly what I’m talking about, and people who have not do not. People who have grown up in secure homes believe that I am a simply a pessimist or a hypochondriac because that is the easiest way of categorizing my beliefs.

But then one Saturday, the pain got significantly worse. It hurt to stand, it hurt to walk, it hurt to simply exist. I could feel my left lower abdominal area throbbing when I lay my hand on it. Eventually I began to limp. Steve walked the dogs on Sunday. I told him that if the pain persisted, I would see if I could get in to see the doctor on Monday. I began researching ovarian cancer symptoms.

When I was twenty-one, I had a very large ovarian cyst removed. We had discovered it in April, but my doctor had told me it would be okay to wait until I had graduated from college in late May and moved back home to do the surgery. By that time, though, the cyst I had named Henrietta had become impossible to remove by laser surgery, so they had to cut me open once she ruptured. I was in the hospital, miserable, for three days.

Now, at the age of forty-four, I had all the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Abdominal bloating or swelling. Check. Quickly feeling full when eating. Kind of. Discomfort in the pelvis area. Check. Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation. Not really. A frequent need to urinate. Always.

On Monday, the pain was worse. My primary care doctor listened as I told her that the pain had been there for at least a month, but I thought it was my hip. I could hear myself, could feel the narrative forming around my words as I spoke. You waited more than a month to see a doctor?

I pointed out where the pain was and she smiled. “That’s not your hip.”

“Yeah, I’ve figured that out by now.”

She ordered a pelvic ultrasound and told me that it could be another cyst. But she wanted to get this ultrasound done quickly, this week if possible.

“And then,” I’m telling Hillary on the phone, “she starts talking very quickly about how it could also be an abdominal muscle strain, but we both know she’s just talking to talk so that she doesn’t have to say the truth that we both know. This is ovarian cancer.”

•••

There is a feeling I get that I’m not sure I can do justice to in words, when I or those close to me are on the cusp of something dreaded. Where others might wish to run away, I want to run in, for I am most comfortable, I think, in the midst of suffering and pain. I want to hear others’ stories of suffering and pain. I want to see how they deal with it, how they cope. I am eager to live through the drama, if only to emerge on the other side with more strength, even if it’s only vicarious strength. Surviving dreaded situations is the only way I know how to develop strength.

•••

The results of the pelvic ultrasound were delayed. My doctor was supposed to get the results that same afternoon, a Tuesday. I didn’t hear back from her office until Wednesday morning. During that time, from about noon on Tuesday, after the ultrasound—when the head of ultrasound took what seemed like hundreds of pictures of my innards, sighed deeply, and wouldn’t look into my eyes—until Wednesday morning, I considered how I might react to a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

And I surprised myself. I was actually afraid. I could tell that Hillary, the friend who has known me the longest, the friend who understands best my attitude toward life and death, the friend who also expected to be dead by now—she, too, was afraid.

I was afraid but I was resolved. I would do what I had to do. Steve offered to take time off from work to come to the doctor with me if she called and said she needed to see me (she had told me that she would only call me in only if it were bad news). I told Steve that he should save his time off for later, when things got real.

When things got real.

I think it’s time to get real. Rebecca Solnit, one of my favorite writers, says that “liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”

It feels dangerous to admit that I enjoy my life and I want to continue living. It feels like I am being unfaithful to my story to acknowledge that I can imagine a future for myself. I want so badly, I have for so long wanted so badly, to look straight at reality rather than squeezing my life into the narratives our culture offers us. Narratives of overcoming or narratives of triumph. Bullshit narratives. I cherish the personal essay because it insists that I run right in. Jonathan Franzen writes that the essayist “has to be like the firefighter, whose job, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, is to run straight into them.” I can do that! I can look at the ugly, the shameful, the painful. I know I can!

But can I change the story? Can I acknowledge that I want to continue to live?

•••

Steve’s mother didn’t want to buy him a t-shirt that simplified a complicated political situation, so she let him get one with a juvenile sex joke instead. Who knows what her intentions were? It’s easy enough to change that story.

I’m forty-four years old and I’m just now realizing that maybe I want to continue to live. I’ve been afraid of admitting this because I’m afraid it will be taken from me. So much safer to say that I’m not afraid of dying, that I’ve got nothing to lose.

I’m coming to see that all this time I’ve been saying that it’s okay if I die young, that I don’t want or expect to live a long time, that I am not afraid to die, I was voicing my actual fears of dying in ways that could be heard and responded to by others. Maybe what I’ve been saying all along about the people who proclaim the loudest that they are strong actually being weak has been true of me all along, too: my proclaiming for years that I am not afraid to die and that I don’t expect to live a long time is evidence, in fact, that I am afraid.

Somewhere along the way I began to expect things from this life. And I allowed myself to accept that I expect things.

That is risky.

•••

Steve is easy to buy for. Lately I’ve taken to buying him tee-shirts with funny sayings on them. If it were up to him, he would wear shorts year-round, so I bought him a tee-shirt that says, “If I have to put on pants, then NO.” For Christmas one year, I bought him a tee-shirt that says, “Please don’t make me do stuff,” but he is dismayed that when he wears it, I still ask him to do things. And one of my recent favorites is the one that says, “I was told there would be cake.” I tell him he can wear that one whenever I make him go somewhere he doesn’t want to go. He can just point to his shirt and look around the room expectantly.

There’s a part of me, a part that is steadily atrophying, that believes that I deserve pain. Or rather, a part that believes that I don’t deserve good things. I’m beginning to understand that these beliefs are vestiges of an old story, one that began so very long ago in other people’s pain, but one that I now have control over. That control is not simple authorial control, the kind that allows me to open a file on a computer and delete a few words here, a couple paragraphs there and, voila, a new story emerges. Rather, the control comes in the willingness to reinterpret the stories that have been fossilized, the ones we think we know.

The pelvic ultrasound found uterine fibroids, but they aren’t causing the pain. They’re relatively small, but I didn’t know that right away. From Wednesday, when I learned about the fibroids, through Friday morning, when I learned that they weren’t the cause of the pain, I imagined a huge red slimy fibroid about to rupture on my left side. I could feel it throbbing. I was afraid to bend over to pick anything up for fear it would rupture. Once I learned that the biggest fibroid is only three centimeters and that the pain is probably coming from a pulled muscle, I could no longer feel the throbbing. I walked the dogs more carefully, holding both leashes with my right hand instead of my left.

The last time I ordered Steve a tee-shirt for his birthday, I ordered one for myself, too. “I just want to pet dogs and throw the sexists into the sun. Is that so much to ask,” it reads. It’s really not so much to ask.

I think I expect more.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD teaches writing at Illinois State University and essays regularly for Full Grown People. She and her husband are the guardians of two special mutts, one named Wrigley Field and one named Essay.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

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When the World Bends

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

Content warning: suicide. —ed.

By Amber Wong

Before the big splash, Elizabeth and I eased our sculling shells into the water and breathed deep the cool morning air. Fifty-four degrees, no wind: perfect Seattle weather for a Fourth of July row. Perfect timing, too. We’d be on the water at six-thirty and back before eight, so we’d beat the rush of pleasure boats—and their butt-soaking wakes—as they crowded into Lake Union for the night’s premier event, the 2017 Seafair Summer Fourth fireworks show. Up at Gas Works Park, where grassy mounds hid tons of hazardous waste that few Seattleites knew about, people would already be spreading out blankets, ready to wait out the day.

Overhead, high clouds began to blur and fade, turning blue skies even bluer, while freeway traffic rumbled across the Interstate-5 Ship Canal Bridge. Just beyond our dock, the narrow bend of water linking the lake to the bay smoothed out like a fan, rippling lightly at the edges. Conditions couldn’t be better, I thought, as I settled into a shell barely wider than my hips. My fingers tripped lightly along the dock edge as I readied to launch.

“To the Cut?” Elizabeth called out above the traffic din, and I nodded. The Montlake Cut, a crucial navigation link between the fresh water of Lake Washington and the salt water of Puget Sound, is the gateway to the University of Washington’s crew training course. Along the way we’d pass under two drawbridges that carried car, bike, and pedestrian traffic.

As I slid into the shadow of the Montlake Bridge, I felt my chest tighten. I stared at the stern of my boat, refusing to watch the parade of feet and undercarriages undulating overhead. My shoulders tensed when something—water? bird poop?—dripped on my cap. But I kept my hands loose. The moment I emerged back into sunlight, my lungs reopened. I gulped at the fresh rush of air.

Even after eight years, rowing under bridges still spooked me. I could almost ignore the steady drone of tires across the University Bridge’s steel deck grate, but not the teeth-clenching ka-chunk ka-CHUNK under the Montlake Bridge. The irregular thump of tires hitting uneven bridge joints, amplified by the concrete walls of the Montlake Cut, thundered in my head like a runaway train. But Elizabeth and I had an understanding. Over the years she’d talked me through enough rough water that I trusted her implicitly. In her encouraging banter—Relax your grip, I’ll never let you fall in—I heard a deadly serious promise.

Legs pumping, I pressed hard, pausing briefly to enjoy the blue heron standing, in perfect profile, on a rock outcrop. Overhead, our resident bald eagle—his light and dark plumage unmistakably outlined against blue sky—circled slowly, fishing for his next meal. When I reached the mouth of the lake, I lifted my oars and glided next to Elizabeth. We spun our boats and reached for our water bottles.

“Mountain’s not out today,” she announced, nodding to the south. Mount Rainier sat cloaked in clouds. A typical day.

Water traffic was picking up as we headed west back to the boathouse. As we approached the Montlake Cut, two motorboats overtook us, kicking up a wake. “Slow down,” we yelled, and in a rare bit of courtesy, they did. Emerging from the Montlake Cut, we skimmed past a cluster of rowers awaiting instructions from their coach. When we cruised into home stretch, we pulled to out of the boat lane and angled our boats south toward the dock. Under the roar of the bridge, we watched for east-west cross-traffic and waited for our turn to sprint the last forty feet across the waterway.

Elizabeth went first. Dashing south between a westbound motorboat and an eastbound eight-person shell, she approached the dock, then slowed to let another woman in a single scull and a standing paddleboarder cross in front of her. I watched over my shoulder, waiting for my opening.

Suddenly, just off the corner of the dock, I saw a huge splash. Heard a deep WHUMP. Waves burst from that point like an underwater depth charge, rebounding off the dock, colliding in a wild interference pattern. Barely five feet away, the sculler and paddleboarder struggled to keep from capsizing. Elizabeth, caught in the erratic water, quickly braced her oars.

What was that? I scanned the shoreline for clues. It was too big and too loud to be a coxswain, who by tradition gets tossed off the dock by teammates after a race. Even a hefty dog would never plunge that deep. As a dark, motionless blob slowly broke the water surface, I bit my lip to keep from gagging. Here was a person, prone and still, and the only place they could have come from was the Ship Canal Bridge, 182 feet overhead.

Disbelief paralyzed me. A suicide jumper? Here? Amidst the fractured waves I strained to see signs of life while my thoughts bounced like a rain squall on granite. They’re blocking my way to the dock! Can I slip by and not try to help? But if I take my hands off my oars I’ll flip over. Without a life jacket I could drown! Must I risk myself for a stranger who is trying to commit suicide? What’s my responsibility here?

Frantic shouts cut the terrible silence. “What was that? Some fireworks?”

“A cherry bomb? Who threw it!?”

“Oh my god, it’s a person! Who knows CPR?”

“I do,” said Elizabeth. “But…”

“Jump in and do CPR!”

A coaching launch zoomed by. I took a few strokes closer and saw no movement, then lost courage and gave the blob a wide berth. The launch slowed and stopped, drifting in the water for what seemed like minutes. Suddenly it made a tight U-turn and roared in close. Had the rowing coach seen something fall? Had she quickly deduced the horror of what had happened? Alone, on her knees, she leaned down to drag the limp body aboard but couldn’t get enough leverage. Still she held on, struggling to keep the person’s head above water.

From way too close a megaphone voice boomed, “Get out of the way!” I looked up in alarm as a crew team and its coach rounded the corner and bore down on us. Couldn’t they see the coaching launch? I couldn’t flag them down so I yelled for them to stop. They didn’t. I wasn’t lined up with the dock, but I took a big stroke so they wouldn’t hit me broadside. Someone on the dock reached out, grabbed my oar, and reeled me in. I cursed at the coach as he raced by.

Sirens wailed from both shores and from mid-channel, growing louder and louder, finally converging on this spot. Blue police lights flashed on the far shore, red fire truck lights on ours. Medics came running to our dock as a speeding Seattle Harbor Patrol boat cut its siren and pulled alongside the rescue launch. Within a minute the Harbor Patrol moved the body to the dock on the opposite side. Three—or was it four or five?—Seattle police officers stood ready. We crowded the edge of our dock but by then the rescue was shielded from view. Behind us, unsuspecting rowers carried their shells out of the boathouse and slid them into the water. The world had bent in a handful of minutes.

What else could we do? Nothing made sense. In a fog we wiped down our boats, put away our oars. As Elizabeth and I left the boathouse fifteen minutes later, another rower approached with an update.

“He’s alive. His eyes were open and he was breathing.”

Elizabeth and I sighed in relief. But I hated myself for my gut instinct for wondering, for how long?

“He was swinging a hatchet on the I-5 freeway. Drivers yelled at him to stop. He lost control of the hatchet. It dropped just before he did.”

•••

At sixteen I was an Explorer Scout, a division of the Boy Scouts. In 1972, Explorer troops were supposed to be all-male, but my friends and I exploited a loophole to start a co-ed troop of Medical Explorers. We scheduled lots of lectures and field trips because several dads, including mine, were doctors with connections. We even got to volunteer in our hospital’s emergency room. During one evening shift, I pressed fist-sized wads of sterile gauze on a motorcyclist’s leg as he lay moaning on a hallway gurney, then watched a doctor pull glass out of a screaming kid’s foot. I peeked around nurses and doctors as a silent Code Blue was whisked in and pumped for an hour before being wheeled to the morgue.

When the hospital pathologist invited us to watch an autopsy, I thought, oh, just another activity. But when I asked Dad to sign my permission slip, he shook his head.

His eyes were steel. He growled, “I don’t recommend it. That’s not something you want to see. Not at your age.” I was still hopeful, thinking, that’s not a flat denial. As if he’d read my mind, he continued, “I’m warning you for your own good!” His tone dropped ominously. “Because once you see it, you can never unsee it.”

•••

Two hours later, Elizabeth texted me. Feels a little surreal, huh?

I was home drinking coffee, eating a bagel, deciding whether to try to remember or try to forget. Turns out that’s a false choice.

I texted back. Yes. How are you doing?

Feels odd to just go on with your day. Concerned for the person of course. But it was a really close call for all of us. Need to just sit a bit.

Exactly. I’m still sitting.

Alone in my sunlit kitchen, I set down my coffee and choked back the sour in my throat. Elizabeth’s comment put me on edge. Right after the awful splash, my thoughts had flown to the jumper: How can I help? Will he survive? But in the silence of home I focused on me and my tribe, the rowers on the water. In one blind moment we could have been killed. We were open and unprotected. Any heavy mass from 182 feet—an errant chunk of concrete, a thrown backpack or garbage bag, a one-hundred-sixty pound person—would crush like a cannonball. The aftermath would have been gruesome as a bomb explosion. A war zone. I’d never seen one, but my husband and stepson had. Never would they unsee the horror.

I sipped the last of my cold coffee, tried to still the ache in my chest. Repeating the salient, immutable fact—none of us got hurt!—I walked to the kitchen window, away from mental carnage that didn’t exist. Below, the yard was drenched in shades of green. Beyond my neighbors’ rooftops I saw a glimmer of Lake Washington.

I imagined the view from the Ship Canal bridge deck: the 182-foot drop, the flatness of the water, and the vast three-dimensional space between. Images could get distorted, narrowed, especially through desperation’s lens. With boats large and small, from barges to sculls, did we move like targets in a video game? Factor in wind speed—after all, I’m a civil engineer—and the open water below the Ship Canal Bridge could constrict to a pinpoint. If the jumper intended to avoid us, he chose the slimmest margin of error. If not, that same margin of error was our salvation.

Would knowing the jumper’s intent have sharpened or blunted the horror?

Each day we live with incalculable risk. Animate and inanimate objects fall from the sky. Meteorites fall. People fall. No one really noticed, but hatchets fall too.

•••

“So did he die?”

Sitting around the kitchen table a day later with my mah-jongg group, four women I’d known well over twenty-five years, I lifted my glass of wine and felt a gnawing unease. Everyone’s first question was always about the jumper. Why did his presumed death garner so much sympathy? If he’d survived, would the tragedy seem more equal, both of us escaping death by inches? How does his willful jumping—and my sheer vulnerability—factor into the equation?

I gritted my teeth and shook my head. “I don’t know.” I’d searched the news but turned up nothing, so there’d be no resolution. As their voices grew louder, each person positing the jumper’s fate, I signaled “timeout” and interrupted. “The Seattle Times’s policy is not to write about suicide jumpers. Unless a lot of people witnessed it, that is.”

“Did a lot of people witness it?”

Tersely, “I don’t know.” Why did it matter? I had.

“How long was he in the water?”

“Ten minutes?” Why this unnecessary detail? My temples pounded in frustration.

“So how close was he?”

Finally. Like a fever breaking, a welcome relief—someone acknowledged my trauma, my anxiety over the random fragility of life. As I gestured across the length of the table, my voice turned unnaturally shrill. “About ten feet. He was so close! If he’d hit us, he could’ve killed us!”

There was a moment’s silence, followed by a quick chorus of retorts. Clearly my words hadn’t had the intended effect. Instead, I felt like I was being scolded.

“Whoa, you sound angry!

“It’s wrong to blame him. Of course he wasn’t aiming at you.”

“Think of his horrendous mental pain! It must have been overwhelming!”

What I heard was this: What’s your problem? Don’t you have a heart?

•••

Four days later, Elizabeth and I eased our shells into the water. Earlier that morning I’d debated with myself—Get back on that horse! Or not…—but the weather promised to be perfect, a promise that Seattleites are unable to resist. I was kneeling on the dock securing my oar riggers when a motion high above caught my eye. My head jerked up. Elizabeth saw my reaction and glanced up too. On the bottom deck of the I-5 Bridge, a cherry picker bucket was slowly lowering two men just below the bridge deck. I sighed in relief. In their hard hats and orange vests, I pegged them as state highway inspectors, likely testing for loose concrete. The bucket stopped with a light bounce. I tilted my head, visually measuring their relation to the water. They were about ten feet south and twenty feet below the spot on the upper deck where the person must have jumped. I stared a little too long.

Elizabeth knew exactly what I was thinking. If they fell, would they hit us? With a forced laugh she said, “Well if it’s your time, it’s your time then.” I could hear the thinness in her voice.

I frowned. I didn’t want Fate to be so lazy. Nervously I snipped, “Nah, I think they’re okay.” As soon as I spoke I was sorry. Why was I so rattled? Was I truly afraid they’d hit us? Was I ashamed to be caught thinking only of myself?

Or was something submerged now coming to boil? Was I reacting to the suicide jumper, how furious I was at him for terrifying me, yet how constrained I felt about expressing that anger? Four days of talking to my husband and close friends hadn’t helped—their comments felt way off the mark, strangely off-putting. So because I was alive, physically unhurt, I was expected to stifle my rage, ignore my feelings, and cluck sympathetically about his plight? How much empathy could I muster? Was it better for me to think of him more like a falling chunk of concrete—an object with no agency—than a suicide bomber who launches himself with intent to kill? Must I absolve him at all? Even if he wasn’t trying to kill us, the fact remained: he terrorized us. I felt like screaming, “There’s more than one victim here!”

Could I never unsee that concussive splash just ten feet from where I was kneeling?

I rose to kick off my shoes and heard the gentle lap of water. Shielding my eyes from the sun, I looked out beyond the dock to the west. There, at the wind-induced open water line between chop and calm, was a sharp demarcation drawn by the form of the land, the bend of the water, and the face of the wind. A warning: do not cross this line. So we’d go east then. I scanned the familiar scene across the channel: the white ferry, the concrete bridge supports belted with graffiti, the row of boats comfortably tucked in their berths. Ivar’s outdoor dining deck, its red and blue table umbrellas snugged down for the night, its dock empty now. All as it should be.

Absently I pulled on my cap and threaded my ponytail through the hole in the back. I stretched my arms wide, felt the air fill my lungs with cool deliciousness. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to get to look for our eagle again. I grabbed my oar handles, centered myself down on my seat. As I pushed off the dock, an involuntary glance—up at the men in the bucket, and from there, to the upper bridge deck. The railing was empty. But from now on I would never stop looking.

“Annual inspection for bridge cracks?” I started at the unexpected sound of Elizabeth’s voice right beside me, her boat so close that our oars almost touched. I couldn’t mistake the drollness in her tone.

As her words slowly registered I began to laugh. She’d caught me looking up at the bridge again, searching for ghosts. Nested within her seemingly benign engineering question was a deeper concern: Are you okay?

Until that moment, I hadn’t quite realized how not okay I was. My feelings sat like a jumbled weight on my chest. Like Elizabeth, I’d always prided myself on my ability to stay calm and reason things out, yet these days I felt so roiled, so defeated. Silently I ranted, Why can’t I just get over this?

But with that laugh, that loosened eddy of air, the atmosphere suddenly changed. My internal smog cleared enough so I could see that she was troubled too. In our exclusive club of rowers-who-barely-missed-being-hit-by-a-suicide-jumper, we were virtually the only ones who could reassure each other, You’re not crazy, I was there, too. We had much to discuss. I would soon talk her through her fixation on the hatchet’s trajectory—I heard it splash, did it land right behind me? It wouldn’t fall blade first, would it? I’d feel her first flash of anger when she thought someone was throwing fireworks, trying to scare us. She’d wade with me through my swamp of guilt. Together we would reshape the story into something we could understand, something we could only arrive at after dissecting every detail and every “what if,” hailing our luck again and again, until the day lost its power to haunt us.

•••

AMBER WONG is an environmental engineer in Seattle who writes about culture, identity, and her firsthand knowledge about risks posed by hazardous waste sites. Recent work has been published in Lunch Ticket (Summer/Fall 2017 featured essayist), Slippery Elm, and Metaphorical Fruit, and her short piece, “How I Learned to Write,” won the Writer’s Connection essay contest. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford University. She is working on a memoir.

Rescuing Adrian

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Naomi Ulsted

I got the call at ten-thirty at night. It was typically dramatic, as my family was at that time. “They found him,” said my mother. I hung up and shook my boyfriend awake. I let him know I needed to drive to California with my mother tonight. I was meeting her at midnight in the parking lot of the House of Pancakes in Salem, Oregon. We were going to get my brother.

Adrian was twelve and his face could be found on cartons of milk with the giant words “MISSING” on them. He’d been listed as a kidnapping victim since my stepdad (Adrian’s real dad) had driven off with him eight months ago. He’d actually been gone for a while before that, but these were the questions I imagined the police asking my mother.

He’s with his father?

You had custody?

You had custody but you allowed him to live with his father?

You’re not sure of the date he actually went missing?

You’re the one who left the marriage?

You have how many children? Five?

Said or unsaid, these questions delayed the process. Officials put that file on the bottom of the pile.They were questions I still had myself. The weeks had gone on. My mother began taking anti-depressants. I was in college, reveling in books, falling in love and pretending that I had a stable family who didn’t kidnap each other.

•••

My oldest son, Logan, is telling me a very long story that has something to do with Minecraft. As I put away the dishes, I listen to him with about twenty-five percent of my brain. I say, hmm mmm and yeah, and that’s funny, when I realize that he’s just told me something that’s supposed to be funny, although I have no idea what it was. With my remaining seventy-five percent I’m planning what to put in the kids’ lunches and preparing for the eight-thirty meeting I have at work. Adrian used to talk about comics like Logan talks about video games. When Logan finishes his story, he looks at me expectantly. I laugh, hoping that was the appropriate response. He wraps his gangly arms around me for a spontaneous hug, which is something he does still, even though he’s nearly twelve. I run my hand through his thick hair, which needs another cut. He is almost as tall as I am.When he was younger, I sometimes called him by my brother’s name.

•••

My mother had custody of Adrian, but rather than force Adrian to move with her and his three younger sisters into a two bedroom apartment with new stepbrother and stepdad, he was allowed to continue living with his dad and me in our mobile home in Camano Island, Washington. My mother was choosing her battles. I was just starting my senior year in high school, so my mother, thankfully, had left me there as well. Adrian and his dad wiled away the days eating ice cream from the carton and watching Tron. I tried to drag Adrian out of bed so I could drive him to sixth grade, but he was too big and stubborn for me. I gave up, leaving them both sleeping. This went on until my stepdad and Adrian moved to their own apartment and I was the only one left at home, finishing high school. I went to school, worked at the grocery store, sautéed mushrooms for dinner and listened to the silence of the house, telling me it was time to go.

After my first semester at college, I spent Christmas with my brother and my stepdad at their apartment. We ate pizza and they both fell asleep early on Christmas Eve. I stayed up reading Adrian’s X-Men comics, carefully replacing them back in their plastic sleeves when I was finished. Shortly after that Christmas, my stepdad quit his job passively, by not showing up, stopped paying his rent and disappeared with Adrian.

•••

Last summer, Logan went to an overnight camp for a week. He had been excited when we signed him up, but the week before it was time to leave, he insisted he didn’t want to go. His stomach hurt. He couldn’t sleep. I showed him videos from the website of kids around the campfire smiling broadly. I talked about camp games, bonfires and horseback riding. I assured him he was going to love it, so he reluctantly rolled up his sleeping bag. But the camp rules didn’t allow phones and as the week approached, I tried to stifle my own fears. What if some of the kids were cruel to him? What if something horrible happened and he didn’t feel like he could call me? Outside of the letters I wrote ahead of time for him, I would be unable to reach him. By the time a handwritten letter from him arrived in my mailbox, he’d be home. While he was gone, I dreamed when I went to pick him up, he wasn’t there. Kids were reuniting with their parents all around me, but no one knew where he was. I tried to call the police, but over the line the officer said things like you left him there in the woods with a bunch of strangers? and he didn’t want to go, but you pushed him into it?

•••

I left my car at the House of Pancakes. As I climbed in next to my mother, she handed me a thermos of coffee. We pulled onto the freeway. She was all business, filling me in on the way. They were in a small town in northern California. The policewoman who called her had suggested that she just go back to sleep and come get him tomorrow. Adrian was fine so there was no rush. My mother said she’d been looking for her son for eight months and he’d been found, so how could that stupid woman tell her to go back to sleep? She’d come and get her son right this instant, thank you. Adrian wouldn’t have to spend one more night with that asshole he had for a father. I sipped my lukewarm coffee, extra sweet like my mother always made it, so it tasted less like coffee and more like a melted candy. I wondered how we got to be so dysfunctional. I was in a small, private college that I’d bullied my way into with good grades and multiple phone calls and I didn’t see anyone around me with families like mine. I was nineteen and not yet done being embarrassed about my entire life up to this point.

We drove into the night, up through the curving hills of the pass, often silent. I knew I was supposed to be helping my mom stay awake, so I tried to talk about my classes, my friends, my boyfriend, but she didn’t ask many questions. I knew her focus was elsewhere. As we pulled into a lonely open Chevron in the Southern Oregon town of Grants Pass, she said, “I should have never left him with his dad.”

“How were you supposed to know he was going to take off?”

“I should have known. But I’m getting him back now. He’s going to be part of our family again.”

I didn’t mention that her new family with my second stepdad was not my idea of our family and probably wasn’t Adrian’s either. None of us kids knew what our idea of family was anymore. She gripped the wheel tightly as we drove south and the shadows of the trees flew past.

Eventually, she told me to go ahead and lie down in the back. The back seats had been turned down so there was a space large enough to curl into. I pulled a blanket around me. Adrian had never called while he was missing, causing my mother to go frantic with worry. I had figured he was safe. My stepdad had never hurt him. Not physically anyway. However, I also knew my stepdad was a broken and twisted man, one with dark wounds inside. I couldn’t be totally sure of anything about him. Before he disappeared, he’d written me letters describing the futility of life. He was giving away what meager things he had left. I watched the darkness through the window and wondered why my brother had never called. When I woke three hours later, the sun rose over the mountains of northern California.

•••

Logan complains loudly and frequently about school. He tells me he’s bored and he’s learning nothing. In the morning I wake him and he rolls over, whining do I have to go? As if I ever tell him anything different. Yes, you have to go. If he were allowed, he would eat ice cream out of the carton and watch Tron all day. I make him go to school. I get dressed, make lunches and make myself go to work. I don’t call in sick to stay home reading all day and watching bad movies for hours, complaining that going to work is just buying into the system and letting corporate American run your life. I am not my stepdad. I am my mother, who forced herself to finish her last term in college while Adrian was missing, made lunches for my sisters every day and tried to create a family, as complicated and exhausting as it was.

•••

I took over the driving and a couple hours later we rolled into Ukiah, where my brother had been living for the past few months. My mother had closed her eyes, leaning her head against the window, but she had not slept. I longed to grab coffee, but my mother was not stopping. We pulled into the police station parking lot to get Adrian. I wondered if my dad was in jail and if I’d have to see him there.

Inside, I was unnerved by the police officers and the official feel of everything. It was as though I was in a world where I didn’t belong. My mother told the attendant at the front who she was and we were asked to wait. Nobody seemed to be in much of a hurry. After a while, a man came out to shake our hands, introducing himself as an officer. He led us back to a small room where we sat at a round table.

“Where is my son?” my mom demanded, embarrassing me with her aggressive voice.

“Adrian is just fine,” the officer said in a placating voice. “You can get him shortly. I just need to go over some paperwork with you.” In the conversation, the officer said things like, just needed to get away for a while, didn’t mean to cause a big problem and were just getting on their feet. When he told my mother that Adrian had been allowed to go back with his dad yesterday to their apartment for one last night, my mother flipped her lid.

“You allowed what?” My mother had that hysterical tone she got when she was about to throw something. I hoped she wouldn’t. My mother had thrown glass plates, laundry baskets and toys, although generally not at any person. Once she threw a plastic Sesame Street mug so hard it chipped the Formica counter, leaving a vivid reminder to stay out of the way of her wrath. My mother pounded her fingers on the paperwork, stood and slapped her purse down on the table, demanding to know why, when my brother had been kidnapped and missing for so long, he was allowed to go home with the person who kidnapped him. I wondered if I should move the stapler out of her reach.

Even I could tell my stepdad had gotten to this officer. I’d only just recently begun to separate myself from my stepdad’s manipulation and to recognize it for what it was. It was just a year ago that I’d secretly arranged a visit between him and my three younger sisters, against my mother’s wishes. He always seemed so sad, such a victim of circumstances, such a victim period. Nothing was ever his fault. Emotional wounds. Neglect. He twisted things to where I found myself forgiving him, feeling sorry for him, blaming someone else. Sometimes myself.

My mother was having none of it. The officer looked at her as if her hostile behavior proved everything he had suspected. I wished I had slept more. I wished I had coffee. I wished I was at home eating breakfast with my boyfriend. I had a philosophy paper to write. I wished I was anywhere else but here. The officer finally broke in. He told my mother that Adrian could be picked up now. However, he suggested strongly that my mother shouldn’t go, since she was obviously volatile and would likely upset the household. My mother looked like she might upset the entire police force in about five seconds. “I’ll go, Mom,” I said quickly. “I’ll get him.”

•••

Logan and I read together every night, still. He knocks on my bedroom when he’s sick, his lanky form a shadow in my doorway. When he’s in trouble with his dad, he brings his tears to me. When he is pushed or punched at school, he eventually confides in me. He curls his thin body against mine when we watch Harry Potter. I can’t imagine him being without me for eight months. I can’t imagine what I would do or say. What I would throw.

•••

The apartment was one in a row of one-bedrooms on a street with cracked sidewalks with tufts of struggling weeds in the yards. My stepdad opened the door when I knocked, giving his small, sad sigh. “Sorry,” he said, “that you had be here.” He kicked a few empty Chinese food cartons out of the way as he shuffled to the kitchen. His dark hair flopped in his eyes. He wore jeans and a ripped tee-shirt. I doubted he was working. Probably doing advertising copy for the local paper occasionally and calling himself a writer. My brother came in from the hallway, lugging a box of comic books.

“Hi, Nomes,” he said. His hair was greasy and unkempt and he was distinctly taller than I remembered, with ankles showing under his too short jeans. He smiled at me awkwardly, then looked at his dad.

“I’ll get your bags,” my stepdad said, heading down the hallway with a hangdog look.

Adrian and I put his comic books in the car. “Can I have a hug?” I asked and he leaned in. He needed a shower. As we separated, I felt the weight of the trip, my mother sitting back at the station, steaming mad, the months of waiting. As we looked at each other, I crumpled into tears. “Why didn’t you call?” I asked, covering my face with one hand, the other gripping the trunk.

He looked at me, surprised. “Dad said we might as well wait to call until we got our apartment and knew where we were going to be. And he said if I called then I’d never be able to see him again.” He leaned over to pat my arm as I continued to cry. “It’s no big deal. I was fine,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.” He repeated it, “It’s going to be okay, Nomes.”

•••

My mother and I took Logan to the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. It’s an incredible museum full of twists, turns, nooks and crannies. Kids climb up in a tube through the walls and into the ceiling to spy on the people below. Dark and sneaky spots lurk throughout. I thought Logan was right ahead of me, but I lost him. I tried to keep calm, telling myself he was just in one of those dark corners, sorting out a spy code, looking over a watch with a secret blade. I had left my mother choosing her spy name. I walked quickly back through the entire museum, scanning all the crowds. I hurried through the rest of the exhibits, not noticing anything but the fact that he was not there. When I reached the gift shop a second time, I counted back. He’d been missing maybe twenty-five minutes. If he’d been taken, he’d be twenty-five minutes down the road now.In some unmarked van. A lot can happen in twenty-five minutes. I found a security officer and trying not to look like I was hysterical, I described Logan. He radioed out to the other staff and we began walking back through the museum. Thirty minutes? Thirty-five minutes? My breath shortened as I realized that this could actually be happening. The thing that terrifies every parent.We turned the corner to see a different security officer standing with Logan. “Hi Mom,” he said. I started crying. Surprised, he reached over, patting me. “It’s okay,” he said, “I was fine.”

•••

What I remember is Adrian arguing with my mother on the long drive home. He hadn’t been to school the entire time he’d been with his dad so he’d have to repeat sixth grade. Adrian’s protests went on and on as the miles distanced us from California. Insisting he didn’t want to go to school. Demanding his own room. Informing her that his stepbrother was jerk. His stepfather was a sellout to society. My mother tried to reason with him until she finally argued back, in frustration. He was twelve years old, she was his mother and by god, he would be living with her and following the rules of her house. That’s what I remember.

My mother remembers none of that. She only remembers being so grateful, so relieved, so happy, as the road took the three of us back up north through the long afternoon and into the night.

•••

NAOMI ULSTED is a fiction and memoir writer. Her work has been published in Salon, Narratively, and Luna Luna. She is currently working on a middle grade urban fantasy, with help from her son. She lives with her two boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, where she is also the director of a Job Corps center training program for at-risk teens.

Read more FGP essays by Naomi Ulsted.

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).

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.

Diagnosis

pills
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer Young

September 2003

“There’s something happening to me.”

“What do you mean there’s something happening to you? You’re watching TV. You’re fine.”

I curled tighter into a ball, drawing my knees up to my chest as the room tilted back and forth. All of a sudden nothing could be trusted—gravity wasn’t working, at least not entirely, not consistently; the lights and colors of the television warped and stretched beyond the limits of the frame; there was no oxygen, very, very little oxygen. When I tried to get a breath, the breath wasn’t there. I peeked my head up from my knees for a second but could only see through a narrow tube of normal. Everything around the edges had gone dark.

“I think I’m having a heart attack,” I told my husband. I didn’t really think that, but there was definitely something happening to me, and my heart was racing violently, frighteningly.

“You can’t be having a heart attack,” he said. “You’re not even moving around. Something just scared you.”

I did feel scared; I was terrified. But we were only watching American Idol. Nobody was fighting; there’d been no loud noises. There was nothing very serious even happening in my life.

And then the whole thing was over.

The dark perimeter of my vision began to lighten around the center tube of clarity, and then it continued to lighten outward until everything looked normal again. The lights and sounds of the television retreated to within their assigned borders. The room steadied and the walls straightened up perpendicular to the floor again. I still couldn’t breathe quite right, and my heartbeat was still too fast, but these were left over, just aftershocks.

By the next day, we laughed about it.

“Hey, maybe I had a panic attack. Maybe I’m one of those people who has panic attacks.” I decided that’s what it had been—“just” a panic attack. I’d heard of those people, read accounts of such things, but I’d always assumed the descriptions were exaggerated. It turns out they are not, and they’re pretty terrible. Still, though, it had really only lasted maybe ninety seconds, and then it was over, and I was fine. I wasn’t particularly concerned about having another one. Now that I understood what it was, I figured I could just ride out any future attacks. No problem.

•••

The previous summer had been tough, with all the kidnappings. Elizabeth Smart had just been found, but the details of her abduction released in its aftermath proved to be far more terrifying than the relative comfort of allowing her to remain a face on a milk carton—one-dimensional, forgettable. The news channels reported endlessly and exhaustively on two more children abducted from their own homes that spring and summer. President Bush signed The Protect Act of 2003 into national law, making Amber Alerts mandatory for all states.

So, clearly, there was reason to be concerned.

I slept lightly most nights, playing games with myself about how early was okay to get up and make sure my little boy was still in his bed. Every day it seemed to me rather unlikely that he’d have made it through another night without getting snatched. Every day he was there, though—five years old and perfectly safe and curled up in Batman pajamas—and I’d fall back into bed, relieved and exhausted. This did not strike me as abnormal. Nor did it ease my mind.

I’ve always been worried about things. Spiders, crowds, people who talk too loud, basements, hurting someone, burning the house down. Blimps. More than one person has asked me, “Why are you so worried about everything?” And I want to say, “Why are you not? Have you looked around? Have you heard of CNN?”

I wrote this journal entry in early August: There’s something wrong with my hands. They feel… nervous. My hands are nervous. They don’t really hurt, I mean sometimes they do hurt, but I think it’s just because they’re so tense. I think there’s maybe something wrong with my nerves in my hands. They’re not working so very well a lot of the time now. I can do “big things,” like move the laundry from one machine to another, but not “small things,” like paint my nails. “Medium things,” like holding a cup of coffee, I’m borderline. I tried to play cards with my little boy the other day, but the cards are so, so thin. It’s nearly impossible to hold them. I’m having a hard time changing the channels with the remote, because that muscle between my thumb and forefinger is jumping all around; I can see it from the outside now. My brother and his wife are about to have their first baby. Probably, I’m just feeling some sort of deferred anxiety. I am pretty sure I’ll feel better once that baby is born all right.

The weeks went on like this. I made little changes to my routines around the new condition of my hands. No more reading books in bed at night, because the position required to hold a book open while lying down exacerbated the tightness and twitching that continued to increase. The finer details of makeup application—eyeliner and so forth—had to be abandoned.

My little boy started kindergarten at the end of August, and I smiled bravely as I put him on the bus that first day. But then I followed it—on foot—until it got to the school. I had to go for a run anyway, and hey—isn’t that an efficient use of time? To get my run in and make sure my kid got to school safely? It only made good sense. It was difficult to get around the side of the building to the kindergarten rooms unseen, because the windows of elementary school buildings are low. But I managed it, and I really only had to bend over a little bit to stay out of sight. One quick peek over the ledge and I was able to verify that he’d made it. He was sitting at his desk with all the other children, looking perfectly calm. Amazing. So everything was fine.

Except my hands, which by September were becoming increasingly claw-like and useless. I sat down at the computer and typed “hand muscle spasms.” WebMD suggested a litany of horrors: MS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s. I spent the entire day in front of it, ruling some factors in and some out. After an exercise in list-making and charting that’s both too tedious and too embarrassing to retell, I determined it was most likely ALS.

I felt so, so bad. I had all these things I was supposed to do, a child to take care of, the pets… I wasn’t going to be able to do any of it. The guilt was crushing. I did a lot of simple math. The average time between diagnosis and death for ALS patients is about six years. My son was five now. That would get him to eleven, which is a lot better than it could be, because he’d be out of the formative years, which end around age eight, according to UNICEF. I know that now, because I looked it up. So that was a comfort. But still, heartbreaking.

It was hard for me to look at him for several days. I spent many more hours playing with him that fall than I normally would have. He accepted those hours unquestioningly, happily, because he didn’t know. I waited a while to tell my husband the bad news, because he had a lot going on at work and I didn’t want to throw him off. He listened carefully, looking sideways at me, and he spoke slowly and gently. “There’s really no way you can know that, though, right? I mean, you haven’t even been to a doctor.” He didn’t understand, but how could he? I stopped talking about it.

For the rest of that fall, I survived by throwing myself into graduate school and household chores. Typing was difficult with my claw-hands, but I managed by changing my typing style and by staying wrapped in blankets with a heating pad draped around my neck and shoulders while I typed. I had become shivery most of the time, and I reasoned that staying warm would relax my muscles and allow me to use my hands better.

Despite all this, I was weirdly efficient, and probably appeared mostly fine to most people. I just had to hide my hands, but it was winter and there were pockets and mittens and it wasn’t hard to do. But then my face started twitching. I could see it if I looked closely in the mirror, but it had to be really close, so I figured it would be okay if I just didn’t get too close to people. This created some mild social problems. Once I had to walk out of class when the professor insisted everyone participate in some ridiculous group activity (in her defense, it was an Interpersonal Communication course). Another time I unexpectedly ran into a former professor at a cafe. I was so mad at him, jumping out at me like that. I was sitting in the café, so I sat on my hands and smiled and nodded a lot until it was over.

One of the first snowy days in December I answered the door to find my dad standing on the other side of it. He lived over an hour away. “What are you doing here?” I said.

“I’m taking you to a doctor.”

“Why?”

“We think there’s something wrong with you. It scared us when we first saw you at the birthday party last week, but we didn’t want to say anything in front of anyone. Why didn’t you warn us about how much weight you’d lost? Mom thinks you might have something wrong with your thyroid.”

I went obediently to the doctor, who also noted the change in the scale. I told him I’d been running a lot, which was true. I told him I was having trouble sleeping, which was also true. I did not tell him about my hands. He listened to my heart and took my blood pressure and drew some blood for thyroid tests. It all came back normal. He suggested sleeping pills, maybe an antidepressant, should I decide things were getting too uncomfortable. I never went back or followed up.

Some days I entertained the notion that I might not be dying, but by that point I was so worn out that I didn’t really take any interest in living, either. I’d heard people say that their lives had lost color, but I always thought they were speaking figuratively. That really happens, though. Things gray out. The days and nights ran into each other and then divided into two flat empty plains. On the one, I knew I was dying and felt marginally regretful, in a numb and passionless way. On the other, I was afraid I wasn’t dying, that it might go on like this, forever.

And my hands. Most days, my nerves were on fire. Other days were not so bad. One day, for example, in the week or two after New Year’s, I ate lunch.

Around Valentine’s Day I ran into my former boss on my way out of a restaurant. “What’s wrong with you?” he said, instead of “Hello.”

“That’s not a very nice way to greet me,” I joked. “You haven’t even seen me in a year, and you’re opening with insults.” Our relationship had always been frank, and I actually felt relieved to be confronted so directly. Everyone else was sort of working around me by that point.

“I’m serious. What’s the matter? You’re emaciated, and your face is twitching.”

So I told him. I told him I didn’t know what was wrong, except that something clearly was. But the collection of things surrounding it, I couldn’t put them all together: the hand spasms, the chills, the weight loss, the insomnia. I’d tried yoga, meditation, journaling, sleeping pills, cutting caffeine, cutting sugar, herbal supplements, running to the point of physical exhaustion. Nothing worked. I couldn’t tell whether it was my body or my mind and I wasn’t sure it even mattered anymore. I just wanted it to stop. I wanted to stop.

“I get it,” he said. “You know, you’re not crazy. This is in your head, but it doesn’t mean you’re crazy.” He told me he’d had these attacks, that he understood what they felt like and how terrible they were, that sometimes his wife had to just hold onto him while he shook until they were over. For a time he was unable to go in shopping malls because the crowds and open spaces terrified him. Unexpected loud noises, even still, could trigger an attack.

“Yeah, but you fought in Vietnam,” I said. “You’re having flashbacks, right? I was raised in the suburbs and nothing’s ever even happened to me.”

He allowed that the flashbacks were part of his equation, but said he thought it would have happened to him anyway. “It’s chemical. And there’s a ‘type.’ And you’re it. I know you.”

•••

It had been almost nine months. Time enough to grow a baby, to finish a school year. It was time to face it down, whatever “it” was, and I knew it. I went to two more doctors. The first diagnosed me with anorexia and encouraged me to recognize my issues with myself. I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t that I was trying not to eat, I just couldn’t eat. She wasn’t buying it, so I didn’t go back.

The second doctor, a young man, listened quietly while I talked about my hands. He held them and turned them over. He could see the muscles tensing and twitching. He was gentle but straightforward: “The symptoms you have,” he said, “they don’t make sense when you put them together. The problem with your hand muscles, coupled with your age, could indicate MS, but you don’t have other typical symptoms. Plus you’re telling me that you feel nervous, that you can’t sleep or eat. I think, and I don’t mean this as flippantly as it sounds, that this is probably in your head. I’d like you to try taking an anti-anxiety drug for a few weeks and see if anything changes.”

I did not in the least expect it to work, but I agreed to his plan because I assumed that when it failed it would prove that he was wrong, and then we could get on with figuring out what was really the matter with me.

 

April 2004

It worked. Within two or three weeks, things began to release. It happened so gradually, that I didn’t notice feeling better so much as I noticed the absence of feeling terrible. It had been so long, I’d forgotten. One day I saw a squirrel outside my window and I thought, “That’s a cute squirrel.” And then I realized it was the first optimistic thought I’d had in several months. And then it kept happening. My husband, whom I’d not told about the doctors’ visits or the medication, returned home from several weeks overseas for his job. He walked in the house and looked at me and said, “Oh my God. You’re better.” My face, he said, had changed, and now it was changing back.

•••

Psychotropic drugs don’t fix anybody’s problems. They don’t actually make life any happier or less frightening. What they can do, though, is open a little bit of space in which we can learn to navigate the earth in a way that’s not so painful and terrifying. They can purchase entry through small doors to small rooms of respite and recovery.

In those rooms, I had to come to terms with the fact that life is inherently scary. It’s risky, or nothing at all. I spent nine months as a black hole in the galaxy of my life to really internalize that. I can’t say it was worth it. I’d like to come to some sort of conclusion about tapping into the world’s pain or recognizing that everyone we encounter carries something heavy we cannot imagine. I’d like to say I’ve stopped cracking Prozac jokes or mocking self help books, or that I’m at peace with myself or the Universe or whatever. I really can’t say any of those things, at least not honestly. What I can say is that I’m a little more careful with people, a little less likely to take much credit for any particular good fortune. There’s a lyric in a song I like that goes, “I guess we’re all one phone call from our knees.” I think it’s true, and that it applies to the calls from within us as well as to those from without. And I think that probably the best we can do is try to appreciate the days between rings.

•••

JENNIFER YOUNG is a writer and English professor in Ohio. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Great Lakes Review and previously in Full Grown People, and she has essays forthcoming in The Offing and 1966 Journal.

Read more FGP essays by Jennifer Young.

Two A.M.

blurredchild
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kimberly Dark

In my dream last night, I was raising a child in some kind of low-class addict’s crash-pad. She was a toddler. After I woke up on a mattress on the floor to the sound of some guys setting up a keg on the front lawn, I found her in the bathroom. She’d crawled up onto the sink for a little bath and had her clothes ready to put on. She couldn’t have been more than three. She was doing a good job looking after herself.

I realized I didn’t know what had happened, or if I’d tended to her at all the day before. She was happy to see me and my misery was deep. You should’ve seen the carpet in that place.

•••

Look, I didn’t fuck it up. Not in real life. It was just a dream.

That parenting gig, I didn’t fuck it up even remotely. My son didn’t spend a minute in a place like that. Not a minute. And I wasn’t high when I was pregnant, nor when I was raising him. His dad was getting high a lot when I met him, but by god, he picked right up. He was already picking himself up by the time I got pregnant—okay, we didn’t plan that part—but there was no way we were going to mess up something so obviously meant to make us better people. There was just no way. We loved that kid fierce-like from moment one. Then we sent him to college. Follow-through like a medal of honor. I was always grateful to my son’s father for seeing things like I did when it came to loving our kid.

Recently, my son told me that his father and I consulted him more often on family decisions than he and his partner ever consult their son. They just tell him what’s what. We treated him like he was the Prince of the Place. We gave him choices, asked for opinions, provided opportunities as fast as most people change the TV channels. We weren’t perfect, but we gave the task our attention, our care, that’s for sure.

My grandson has opportunities too, but it’s different. They decide a thing and lay it down. He goes along. That kid’s happy. My son was happy. Sure, he had troubles; it’s life. And now he’s exhausted; they’re parents. They seem like good parents but they’re not precious about it like his father and me. They were both raised in households where nobody was drunk or hitting them or trying to have sex with them when they were kids. Okay, I yelled more than I wish I had, but I didn’t belittle him. I apologized. I provided. Lots of things, including lasting love. Maybe that made some difference.

•••

I was up at two a.m. before falling asleep again to have that dream with the little girl who was probably hoping I’d get cleaned up, too, and go to the grocery store. Before I had the dream, I was awake and reviewing conversations in my mind with colleagues, with ex-lovers, reviewing things I wish I could say now. Mostly those “can’t we just take a look at ourselves?” kind of things that help people have a laugh, re-connect in a loving way, and get on with feeling fine. Damn it, I can’t stand not being able to just get on with it. I forgive everything. I mean, I do. I may not trust a person again in the same way after things get shitty. Or I may even decide to trust again. People aren’t all one way or another. People have to do what they have to do, be who they are, work out their own stuff. That includes me. I definitely want someone to cut me some slack, keep loving me even if I fuck things up. Mostly, I get back what I give in that regard. Mostly I’m still loved. Mostly.

So, I was up thinking through past conversations, as I do at two a.m. Sometimes I’m reviewing how I’d like to give someone a piece of my mind, but usually it’s not an in-your-face kind of piece of my mind. It’s more like, why can’t I get you to understand me? Jesus, will you just listen? It’s like that. I hate being misunderstood worse than most things, and somehow as soon as people are attracted to each other in some kind of big way, the possibility for misunderstanding skyrockets.

But even when I’m trying to get someone to understand me, it’s usually so we can just have a little look at ourselves, have a little laugh and get on with it. I value ease. I value intimacy.

Here’s what I don’t do at two a.m. nearly as often as I used to: pick up the damn phone and call the person. Send an email. Text or message them looking for a response.

So, at two a.m., I was thinking through what I would say to whom, if only there was someone listening. But even though my mind gets going enough that I can’t sleep, something’s still all right in there. My mind’s not all evil-carnival-at-midnight and goodness knows it can be. I’ve gotten into deep shit in my own head after dark. But not so often anymore. My mind can get going, and still, there’s that witness part of me that stands off to the side of those head-conversations and offers gentle observations and commentary. She never used to show up at two a.m. I used to have to go find her during meditation, or on a long walk, or in the calm after a good workout. This feels like progress that she’s with me almost all the time now. Not always, but hey, she even shows up at two a.m. on occasion and she was with me last night.

She was saying, wow, look how much you still want to be loved. Look how much you are still playing out the programming of your childhood, in which you longed to be valued and understood, no matter what you looked like. You felt so different and you just wanted to be known by a few people who got you. You didn’t want to feel used for someone else’s pleasure or pride or to soothe another’s misery. It all makes sense. Look at you now, trying to get the love you want. Good for you, not trying to use others to soothe your misery. Good for you. Good you. Good.

See how that works? The mind that wants to explain something to others and make me seem lovable again? It may still do that, and now explains that stuff to me too.

Look, it’s been decades since I’ve spent any time at all in those misery-hovels where people are broke and getting high and neglecting their kids and eating Taco Bell for dinner again. Holy shit, I recall thinking once. That guy’s eaten nothing but Taco Bell for, like, thirty years. How is he still alive? I mean, that was never, even remotely going to be my life. The witness in me knew it wasn’t going to happen and yet, I stood on that carpet enough times. Carpet that’s been puked on and dried up and scrubbed every few years by somebody’s new girlfriend, and worn through and plywood’s showing underneath and who could give one shit because the landlord never—I mean never—comes to even have a quick look. In my dream, I looked down at my feet on that carpet, and the scent of piss came back like it was yesterday. I still look down at my feet on that carpet and it feels like something I deserve. Sometimes I feel a rage when that happens. Sometimes I just feel small.

My god, when I saw her giving herself a bath in the sink and realized that I had fucked up, the pain was almost unbearable.

In the waking hours, the real time, the day-living in which all of the actual things happen, I don’t fuck things up. I don’t let people down. I’ve done things lovers didn’t like; I’ve left. But I’ve never lied about fucking around or disappeared or stolen from someone I loved or made the slightest vindictive move toward anyone when I’ve felt wronged. I’ve felt wronged and I’ve yelled about it. I can ride a sarcastic tone off into the sunset, but yippee-i-ay, I always hope someone comes looking for me there, sitting by my campfire sobbing, sarcasm sleeping in the sagebrush.

Sure, there may have been times when I could’ve done more to keep a friend from going off with that guy who raped her or to talk someone out of an abusive relationship, but that’s hindsight stuff. That’s in the probably-wouldn’t-have-worked-anyway category of things that might’ve been. I always did my best. I always pulled up out of my own pain on behalf of others.

Sometimes I didn’t even take the drugs so I could look after the wasters in my company. Like that time I pocketed a hit of acid at the last minute when everyone else dosed because wow, traffic. It’s like we were dropping acid in the middle of a racetrack. I was stoned but then that wore off and I acted as babysitter for the next eight hours and no one walked into the headlights on my watch. That’s just how I was. How I am. Always thinking it through.

Even still sometimes, I’m afraid. I’m afraid I could still be to blame for something. Two a.m. me is particularly suspicious. Maybe I think I have it together, but I really don’t. I want to be better than everyone else. (Because let’s face it, how easy will that be?) And I also want to learn to let it rest. It’s tiring. I do okay. And it’s tiring.

At two a.m., the witness asked me, “Will you always be trying to prove you’re worthy of love? Or can you just accept love?”

And I paused, in whatever review-of-the-pain I was conducting and said, “Shit man, I don’t know.”

That witness, she’s kind. She’s patient. No matter what.

Then there was enough spaciousness in my head to allow sleep. But that dream came. And when I woke, I shed a few tears, shook my head and thought, wow. The fear of forgetting, the fear of fucking up is long and wide and deep and maybe sometimes useful. It’s like a wound that doesn’t close. A long, beautiful blood-lake you could sail under the light of a full moon. Like a tear in the earth after a volcano erupts, making new land.

•••

KIMBERLY DARK is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who wants you to remember that we are creating the world even as it creates us. Read and gawk and learn at www.kimberlydark.com.

Neighborhood Watch

By Tom Reynolds/Flickr
By Tom Reynolds/Flickr

By Beatrice M. Hogg

On Saturday night, October 10, around 11:45 PM, I almost became Trayvon Martin.

After a pleasant evening enjoying decadent cheesecake in Midtown Sacramento with my friend Nicole, she drove me back to Woodlake, where I have stayed with friends for over three years. She parked her bright yellow car across the street from the house.

I have lived in this middle class, predominantly Caucasian neighborhood since April 2012, staying with Caucasian friends while I looked for permanent employment. As we sat in Nicole’s car, I told her about the apartment that I had looked at in another part of town. I mentioned that I had never felt comfortable in Woodlake and had always felt like an unwelcome outsider. We talked and listened to music, prolonging our nice evening. A Mustang drove by and pulled into a nearby driveway. We continued to talk while the young male driver got out of the car and walked into the house.

While we continued to talk, the young man came out of the house and stared in our direction. “I wonder what he’s looking at,” Nicole commented. A calico cat sat on the sidewalk near him.

I wondered if he was watching something that the cat had caught. Sometimes, the friend I stayed with walked around the neighborhood at night, looking for grubs for her turtles. We watched as the man went back into the house.

A minute later, he came out of the house again, this time with a large baseball bat. He started coming toward the car. “What are you doing here in my neighborhood?” he shouted at us, holding the bat aloft menacingly. Nicole quickly rolled up the windows and locked the doors. We were getting scared.

“I live here!” I shouted through the closed door, but he continued to come toward us, holding the bat as if he planned to break windows of the car—and maybe continue with our heads.

“I’ve never seen you,” he responded. Hate dripped from his voice like sweat. An older man came out of the house and stood in the yard watching. Was he going to hurt us too?

Nicole called the police on her cell phone. “Someone is threatening me and my friend with a baseball bat. We are sitting in my car on Fairfield Street. We are terrified. My friend lives here, but she is afraid to get out of the car.”

I called the friend that I stayed with and told her what was happening. She had lived in the neighborhood for over twenty years and knew everyone. She could vouch for my right to be there. She came out of the house a few minutes later and walked down the sidewalk to talk to the older man.

Nicole and I watched as they had a heated discussion and the young man was convinced to move away from the car. Finally, I felt safe enough to get out. My friend brought the older man over to us. He said that his son thought that someone was threatening the neighborhood, as several cars had been vandalized recently. I told him that I had lived there since 2012 and he said that he had seen me but had never met me. “Do you have to meet every one who lives on this street?” I asked.

He admitted that he did not. He said that his son had anger issues and that they were “working on it.” He said that he would have stopped his son before he “went too far.”

Too far? What would have been “too far”? Breaking the windows? Bludgeoning us to death? I thought of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Like Zimmerman, this was a young Hispanic man claiming that the term “Neighborhood Watch” gave him the right to take action against any unfamiliar face, especially if the face was black.

But we were not Trayvon Martin. Instead of a lone teenage boy, we were two adult women. Nicole was the supervisor of a nearby branch of the Sacramento Public Library. In September, she was featured in a full-page profile in Sacramento Magazine. She was very active in the community and had made presentations to the Woodlake Neighborhood Association. I’m a social worker for Sacramento County, working with victims of domestic violence and assisting people in danger of becoming homeless. I am also a freelance writer. Last year, Nicole and I were commended in the Woodlake neighborhood newsletter for a tour of the Del Paso Boulevard murals that she had organized. I assisted her by giving a dramatic reading of the poems incorporated into each mural.

We were two well-educated, professional women enjoying a Saturday night. But all that the youthful vigilante saw was a black face in a car. A black face can only mean one thing—a dangerous perpetrator, a foreign, dangerous presence. Perhaps an escapee from the “other” side of Arden Way. Like George Zimmerman, he only thought of violence. He did not see two harmless women—one black, one white—who could have been his librarian or his social worker. He only saw a black face, reason enough to take lethal action.

Once I entered the house, my friend tried to say that the incident wasn’t racially motivated. But Nicole and I knew better. If it had been a lone white woman in a car, I doubt if the young man would have come outside brandishing a weapon. Fear caused adrenaline to course through my body for several hours. Neither of us could sleep and we texted back and forth for an hour. We realized that if the young man had picked up a gun instead of a baseball bat, we would have been killed. We would have been like Trayvon, additions to a long time of victims killed because of their color or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It only takes an instant to end a life, even in Sacramento. Even in Woodlake.

I sure hope that I get that apartment.

•••

BEATRICE M. HOGG is a writer and social worker in Sacramento, California. A coal miner’s daughter from Western Pennsylvania, she has a MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BA in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. Her novel, Three Chords One Song, was published as an eBook by Genesis Press in 2012. She writes a monthly column, “Financial Graffiti,” for the online publication The Billfold. Her blog, “Marvellaland,” can be found at www.marvellaland.wordpress.com. She is currently working on an essay collection about her experiences with long-term unemployment and homelessness. She got the apartment.

Something

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

By Penny Guisinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

 

Car Troubles

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

By Jody Mace

I was run over by a school bus once, but it was the best-case scenario for getting run over by a school bus.

I was sitting in my Honda Civic in a school parking lot, waiting for my son’s bus to show up, and a different school bus was right in front of me. Then it started backing up. When a school bus starts backing up into you, it’s a little surreal because your mind doesn’t understand it all at once. It can’t. School busses don’t just back up and run over your car.

So everything felt like it was in slow motion. I laid on the horn, released the parking brake and started backing up to get away from it, but there was no escape. That school bus was dead set on running me over. When I finally was able to pull away I heard a noise that sounded like the ripping of metal. It turned out to be the ripping of metal. Something was hanging off the back of the bus and I thought, “That must be part of my car.”

But when I got out of my car and noticed that it didn’t have a hood anymore, I was still a little bit surprised. The entire hood was attached to the back of the bus. It was such a clean break, like peeling the lid off a sardine tin. Nobody was hurt. That’s what made it the best-case scenario for getting run over by a school bus.

When I retell this story, friends always ask if it was scary. It was not. As soon as I heard the bus come into contact with my car, I knew that my day had just gotten a lot more complicated. I knew that my evening plans were in jeopardy. I knew that I’d have to deal with a repair shop, with the police, with the insurance company. I knew it was going to be a pain in the ass. But it wasn’t scary. Not then.

In general, I like when things happen. I like things to be interesting. Zoos, for example, are boring to me unless something goes wrong. I don’t want things to go too wrong, but maybe a zebra could escape. Or two chimpanzees could copulate in front of a group of children on a church preschool field trip. Or a gorilla could throw his excrement at the Plexiglas wall and glare at the onlookers. Otherwise, what’s the story? It’s just a zoo.

So during the school bus incident, a part of me realized right away that something unusual had happened, that it was a story, and I began collecting details:

  • The fact that, since I didn’t expect to get out of the car, I was dressed in clothes that could be mistaken for pajamas. (But which were not pajamas.)
  • The way the middle school children on the bus thought the accident was the greatest thing ever and also mocked me as I walked past them in my clothes that could be mistaken for pajamas.
  • The fact that they pissed me off and I said something to the effect of “You think this is fucking funny?”
  • Which made it funnier to them.
  • The way the school safety officer assured me that the school district has good insurance because the buses get into accidents all the time. It’s true, too. All the time. Ever since this happened, I’ve noticed that.
  • The way the police officer was surprised that, when he arrived, the hood was still hanging off the back of the school bus. “You didn’t get it down yet?” he asked. “No, I left it there,” I said. “For your investigation.”
  • There was no investigation.
  • This fact that I learned: It’s legal to drive a car in North Carolina without a hood, as long as it has two working headlights and one taillight. My car had a taillight to spare.
  • The way that after a minute of driving without a hood, you kind of forget that your car doesn’t have a hood. It’s a little loud but you can’t see the engine from your vantage point behind the steering wheel. So you stop thinking about it. It’s surprising, really, how quickly you can get used to something like that.

The silver lining of things going wrong is that there’s something to talk about. I don’t like being bored, so I’m always grateful when there’s something to talk about. It’s a break from the ordinary.

And getting run over by a school bus actually wasn’t that big of a deal anyway. The car got repaired and insurance paid for the work. I drove a Hyundai SUV while the car was in the shop, which I thought was fun because I’d never driven an SUV before.

But as part of a bigger picture it was a little unsettling. It was the second of three car accidents members of my family were in with very large vehicles within an eighteen-month span, and the only one that didn’t result in our car being declared a total loss by the insurance company. In the first accident an eighteen-wheeler swerved into my daughter’s lane and pushed her VW Beetle down the interstate for some distance before she was able to steer to the side of the road. She was fine. Later, she said that she absorbed the power of the truck, superhero-style, and it made her stronger. But the Beetle was history. In the third accident, a young woman turned in front of my husband, lost control of her SUV and spun out and hit him twice. He was driving my Honda Civic (with a brand new hood) and that was the end of that car.

The problem is that when enough things go wrong, like members of your family being run over by large vehicles, you start wondering what the ordinary actually is. Is the ordinary state of the universe such that at any moment someone can make a thoughtless decision and put your life in jeopardy?

Actually, it is. We’re trusted to navigate massive pieces of metal at high speeds in close proximity to hundreds of other people doing the same thing, sometimes within just inches of each other. Think about how little you have to move the steering wheel to effect a significant change in the direction of the wheels of your car. That’s mechanical advantage happening right there, aided by a bunch of magic engineering stuff that I don’t understand. The margin of error is too small and we are too powerful. In the best of situations it seems insane to drive a car on a road.

Add to that the distracted, intoxicated, and impatient drivers. And the assholes. And the kids who haven’t quite learned to judge time and distance yet and don’t have the life experience to know to be afraid. And the elderly driver whose middle-aged offspring are debating if he should still be driving, and how to stop him if he shouldn’t, while right at this very moment he turns the key to his Buick to drive to Publix and buy a loaf of rye bread and ice cream sandwiches. And the school bus drivers who are so annoyed and beat down by snotty, defiant middle-schoolers that all they can think about is getting through the day and working enough years so they can retire. It’s not being dramatic to say that we’re putting our lives in these people’s hands every day. Maybe we are some of these people.

Our trust in each other’s judgment, attention, and adherence to the law is an amazing social construct. Our safety is a flimsy fiction. Yet we put ourselves in the path of this potential disaster every day, because if we don’t, then what? This is the world we live in. Driving to work without fear requires the suspension of disbelief.

The danger is real.

It becomes even more real when my own kids drive. I may be able to inflate my confidence in my own driving, my ability to out-maneuver the cars gunning for me, but I don’t have that same confidence in my kids. Not enough anyway, not when measured against the potential loss. They’re seventeen and twenty but I’m not sure it would matter if they were thirty-seven and forty. No matter how competent they are, I remember the times they got their heads stuck in the bannister or busted their lips by trying to fly off a stool. It’s not fair, I know.

So every time they leave with car keys in their hands, I tell them to be careful. They’ve stopped replying, “I’m always careful” or “Do you think if you don’t say that I won’t be careful?” because they’ve learned that I won’t stop. The words are a talisman I hand them as they step out the door. Like a coin I slip into their shirt pockets as they prepare for battle. As small as it is, it might absorb a bullet. I say it every time.

I don’t leave it as just “be careful.” Every time, I try to impress on them the specific dangers of that point in time.

“Be careful. With the change to Daylight Savings Time, people are tired.”

“Be careful. It’s the last day before a holiday weekend. People won’t have their minds on driving.”

“Be careful. The roads are wet.”

“Be careful. People were up late watching the Panthers game. ”

“It’s Saturday night. Every single driver out there is drunk. Be careful.”

Sometimes I can’t think of anything specific dangerous, so I say, “Statistically, today is the most dangerous day of the year for driving.” I say that several times a year.

The fear of your kids getting hurt is a cliché, but that’s only because it’s true. It’s the one truest, deepest thing that all parents share. It’s a fear so real that letting the thought percolate in my head for even a minute causes a stabbing pain in my gut.

Things are going to happen. They will have stories to tell, which is good, because I like to be entertained. But parts of their life narratives will be awful, and there’s nothing I can do about it. All I can hope for is that when they’re run over by metaphoric or real school buses they’re okay enough to tell the stories and that the stories are eventually funny, or at least bearable. I hope that their hoods always come off clean.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O MagazineBrain, ChildThe Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Jody Mace.