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).
Earlier this week, the following piece by Karrie Higgins ran on the Huffington Post’s blog platform; it was titled “Donald Trump confessed to sexual assault on tape and so did my brother, and here is what I know: a tape doesn’t change a goddamned thing.” A few hours after it went live, Huffington Post took the multi-media essay down, then later deleted Karrie’s account. She has not gotten an explanation for either action.
I saw this going down on social media. I thought her work was, as usual, masterful, and I wrote to ask if she’d like a new home for it at FGP. Full Grown People isn’t a magazine about politics. But, I believe that it is a home for work that tackles power and vulnerability, voice and dismissal—subjects that are inherently political. So, just a friendly reminder: the comment space isn’t a place to debate candidates, but if your voice has something to do with Karrie’s work, speak up! —Jennifer Niesslein, ed.
CW: sexual abuse, sexual assault, audio depicting a pedophile grooming and threatening his victim, Donald Trump audio, sexual abuse and rape apologists
If you are a victim of sexual assault in crisis, please call RAINN at 800.656.HOPE (4673).
By Karrie Higgins
When Access Hollywood leaked a recording of Donald Trump bragging about “grabbing women by the pussy,” I felt the same empty relief I get after a good puke. Finally, a misogynist with a history of violence and rape accusations would be unmasked for the predator he is. And yet, I knew deep down: a tape doesn’t change a goddamned thing.
transcript: “Honey, I did NOT … come, oh that’s crazy. Oh, my God, oh my God, I’m just sick. I can’t believe this shit. Oh my God. This is just, this is just bizarre. I just can’t believe this. I did not touch you sexually. I, if, if, you took that way, way wrong, my God. My dear, you, I’m trying to get as honest as I can with you, I mean, that’s way wrong. It’s just, tickling you or wrastling you or grabbing you. If that, if that’s what you thought I was doing, then that was just, that’s not right, I mean, I, that was not my intention whatsoever, my God.”
He didn’t know the call was being recorded. He didn’t know anyone else would ever hear him.
“I need you to tell the truth,” the girl said, over and over, until he broke down and confessed.
Confessed on tape:
transcript: “Well what we did was wrong. Well, when we were wrastling and doing all that, it was wrong. It was inappropriate. Obviously it was very inappropriate. And I did not mean to hurt your feelings or screw your head up, for crying out loud.”
Imagine that played to a jury. The charge: sexual abuse in the second degree of a child under twelve, a Class B Felony in the state of Iowa, punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
Nobody could ever call me a liar again, I thought.
Now I know better.
The humiliation of a man accused is always more important than the trauma of a woman assaulted.
transcript: I don’t want your mom to hate me. [crying] This is my life. This is all I have.
I watch as Trump’s victims come forward, say they feel vindicated.
He grabbed me. He’s a big dude, 6 foot 3, and at the time I was waif-like. He was like, ‘I’m tired, let’s lay down.’ So in this bedroom — I hate talking about this — he went for it with the kissing, he had his hands all over me, really pressing down on me, definitely had a hard on. I had worn pants strategically. I knew better than wearing a skirt around him anymore. It was a barrier of protection …
Harth said she feels “vindicated” by the tape. “I would love to get some kind of apology from anybody in that camp.”
Watching him relive his sexual aggressions on the video, she said in an interview on Saturday, “made me feel a lot better.”
“It was like: ‘Thank you. Now no one can say I made this up,’” she added.
I want to be happy for them, but I know what comes next.
Men in my social media feeds:
The timing is perfect. The Clintons still got it.
It’s fishy someone held onto that tape.
Crooked Hillary is trying to rig the election.
Trump campaign decal:
May 1983, eight years old: six weeks after the first time I had sex with my brother, opening weekend of Return of the Jedi. A neighbor boy pitches a tent in the tall grass of his backyard, says, “Let’s play Star Wars.”
“I’ll be Princess Leia,” I say, “in the costume where her boobies show.”
I crawl into the tent. The boy unzips his pants, sticks the tip of his penis through the flap in his Superman Underoos, and pees on me.
Later, he tattles to his mother: “Karrie said boobies.”
And she tattles to my mother: “I will not have her polluting my son.”
I stuff my wet clothes in the laundry basket and don’t tattle back. I am a bad girl. Zero credibility.
To my students, but especially to the boys: I want to be sure you know. What we have learned about Donald Trump and how he speaks about and treats women is not ok. It’s not ok for a 60-year-old man, its not ok for a 13-year-old boy. It’s not ok for anyone.
The same high school where a math teacher and coach grabbed my pussy. Not just any teacher or coach, but the Cedar Rapids version of Jerry fucking Sandusky.
I can still smell his breath when he said, “I know things aren’t right at home.” My body pulled close to his. His hands down my pants, under my panties. I know things aren’t right at home. Not concern. A threat.
On the day he died, my Facebook feed flooded with eulogies. Best math teacher I ever had. Best coach ever!
Friends changed their profile pictures to his face.
His face. In my Facebook feed. The man who grabbed my pussy.
I vacillated between nausea and a low boiling rage: Look how he helped those students. Look what he did for everybody else.
My Kennedy High School transcript, senior year:
I never enrolled for the final trimester.
I went to my counselor’s office. I said, “I can’t take it anymore.”
He said, “You’re college material. This place is holding you back. Let me get this taken care of and get you out of here.”
And he did.
I remember my last day of school. It wasn’t anyone else’s last day of school. I ran my finger along the tile walls as I walked down the hall. I needed to feel them, needed to feel that I was there, because I was about to disappear, and nobody would even notice.
My mother forced me to attend graduation. I showed up in my cap & gown. Nobody said, “Where have you been?” Nobody asked. Nobody noticed. It went exactly how I knew it would. I was glad.
I never submitted my senior picture to the yearbook.
Poof! I was gone. Like I never even happened.
That’s what sexual abuse and assault do to you. That. Like you never even happened.
The Weekly Standard: So if you grab a woman by the genitals, that’s not sexual assault?
SESSIONS: I don’t know. It’s not clear that he—how that would occur.
I write my hometown paper. I tattle on that teacher. I say, “Do you want to help me tell this story?”
I call my favorite high school teacher, the one who wrote get thee to a nunnery in my journal when I confessed to having the hots for Hamlet, the one who saved my life without even knowing it.
When I tell him Mr. _______ grabbed me by the pussy, he gasps. An OH SHIT YOU’RE IN TROUBLE kind of gasp. Not because he doesn’t believe me, but because that teacher is a mini Jerry goddamned Sandusky.
“The faculty all thought he was a god.”
Why now? Why now? Why now? People ask.
But it wasn’t just now.
July 25, 2015:
I panic about being grilled for the details. I panic about being accused of making it all up because I waited so long.
“What if I get a detail wrong?” I ask my husband.
They are going to attack my partial deafness and auditory processing disorder, accuse me of mishearing. They are going to say my bipolar makes me hysterical. Unreliable. They are going to say my memory is bad because of the seizures. They are going to say epileptics are liars.
“It’s the same story you’ve told me since undergrad,” my husband says. He means back in the 90s, not long after the coach assaulted me. “It will be OK.”
What do you want? Money?
Cedar Rapids Public Schools called the principal’s post “political.”
They are wrong, but they are also right.
My brother’s Airborne buddy:
Well how would you like to have the job of searching the internet on multiple sites if your job is to locate underage participants? That’s a real job. I had to do that once, took me a week to find the videos of the youth involved. It was with her step father and they were live on camera. He was a soldier. Not anymore.
Your brother was the best. He was the best of the best. He ended up getting fucked over hard. Fucked over hard by a woman.
Choosing sides is always political.
My brother was a god, too, a sex god drag racing his GTO through the streets of Cedar Rapids before I was even born. Everybody loved him. Every girl wanted him:
My brother’s Airborne buddy, when I contact him for stories and photos, 7 years after my brother would have faced trial, if he hadn’t swallowed morphine, methadone, diazepam, gabapentin, and desmethyldiazepam, and died in the fetal position in front of his couch:
All I see in your profile pic is a skinny girl with tattoos. I mean, where are the boobies? You’ve got my cell number. I want to see what you got.
transcript: I want you to get your head squared on straight, but at the same time, I’ll be darned if I’m gonna be humiliated by some court of law.
They wanted me to surrender myself to the same jail where they locked up my brother for his last Christmas on Earth. They wanted me to submit to a grope for illicit recording devices. They wanted me to sit in an interrogation room, maybe even the same one my brother did. They wanted me to play the part of my own molester.
Protecting the other victim, they said, even though I asked for her voice to be redacted.
The police know the rules of the game: the victim guards the secrets, the victim guards the secrets, the victim guards the secrets.
I told them I was partially deaf, that listening once would not be enough.
I told them my epilepsy and neurological conditions make travel an undue burden, that I didn’t have the money to get to Iowa, that even if I could get there, I would be stranded at the airport with no way to get to a small-town sheriff’s office in the middle of nowhere. I can’t drive, I said.
They were violating the spirit of open records law, I said. Violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The sheriff never responded.
I am a disabled sexual abuse victim of a man he wanted to put behind bars for sexual abuse, and he did not respond.
The Fraternal Order of Police is endorsing a man who makes fun of disabilities.
I started to see conspiracies in the telephone call transcript.
I played Mad Libs. I filled in the sentences with all the best defenses.
What did the cops not want me to know?
They made my play the part of my own molester:
transcript: Karrie reading the line “This is my life” from her brother’s taped police phone call transcript in three different ways (argumentative, crying, scared).
From the settlement in Karrie Higgins v. Poweshiek County Sheriff:
Injuries and damages:
I sued the sheriff who arrested my brother.
They made me play the part of my own molester.
They made me mistrust the very same cops who should have been my heroes.
Why did the police have to become my enemy? Why couldn’t there be one goddamned hero?
The week of the Democratic National Convention, I got word from my attorney: the Poweshiek County Sheriff had produced the audio.
Validation. Corroboration. On its way to me via first class mail.
On the television, Hillary’s campaign theme:
It’s not my kind of music. I’m a Nirvana girl, a Prince girl, a Cure, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Smiths girl.
A Bernie Sanders girl.
Hillary’s presidential campaign and my lawsuit victory collapsed into one event. Hillary’s theme music became my theme music, the only salve that made anything OK.
I listened to it on repeat. I bawled.
I wanted tosee my brother be brave. I wanted him to let the words fall out.
transcript: It just, get better because I love you and I’m so sorry. It happened to me too when I was younger, but it was not right, but I’ll tell you about that another time, I mean that has nothin’ to do with what happened with me and you whatever, but I love you- and I don’t, I don’t want to destroy our family over this.
Just locker room talk, just locker room talk, just locker room talk.
The presidential election and my abuse collapse into the same event.
I can no longer distinguish between the Trump campaign and sexual abuse. I can no longer distinguish between the past and the present.
based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.
barely, by a little; very recently, the immediate past
I can no longer distinguish between tattling on my hometown’s Jerry Sandusky and voting for Hillary.
I am going to talk to that reporter. I am going to name names. I am going to say what I want to say. I am going to let the words fall out.
And even though I was always voting blue no matter who, even though I backed Hillary from the moment she won the nomination, #ImWithHer more than ever. I am more excited to vote for her than ever.
one of Hillary’s campaign theme songs
“You rush in where others won’t go,” my favorite high school teacher said on the phone.
I am going to rush in, and I don’t really care if nobody else believes. If Mr. Kline is going to be censored, I am going to blow up everyone’s favorite pussy-grabbing coach.
I might only have one match, but I can make an explosion.
A tape doesn’t change a goddamned thing. A tape changes everything.
KARRIE HIGGINS is a writer, magician, performance artist, ink-maker, forger, seamstress, disability activist, and rebel theologian without a faith living in Boulder, Colorado. Her writing & Intermedia art have appeared in Black Clock, DIAGRAM, The Manifest-Station, Quarter After Eight, Western Humanities Review, Rogue Agent, Deaf Poets Society, Cincinnati Review, The Los Angeles Review, LA Times, and many more. She won the 2013 Schiff Award for Prose from the Cincinnati Review and her essays have twice been notables in Best American Essays. She is too hardcore for the Huffington Post. karriehiggins.com
“What do you mean there’s something happening to you? You’re watching TV. You’re fine.”
I curled tighter into a ball, drawing my knees up to my chest as the room tilted back and forth. All of a sudden nothing could be trusted—gravity wasn’t working, at least not entirely, not consistently; the lights and colors of the television warped and stretched beyond the limits of the frame; there was no oxygen, very, very little oxygen. When I tried to get a breath, the breath wasn’t there. I peeked my head up from my knees for a second but could only see through a narrow tube of normal. Everything around the edges had gone dark.
“I think I’m having a heart attack,” I told my husband. I didn’t really think that, but there was definitely something happening to me, and my heart was racing violently, frighteningly.
“You can’t be having a heart attack,” he said. “You’re not even moving around. Something just scared you.”
I did feel scared; I was terrified. But we were only watching American Idol. Nobody was fighting; there’d been no loud noises. There was nothing very serious even happening in my life.
And then the whole thing was over.
The dark perimeter of my vision began to lighten around the center tube of clarity, and then it continued to lighten outward until everything looked normal again. The lights and sounds of the television retreated to within their assigned borders. The room steadied and the walls straightened up perpendicular to the floor again. I still couldn’t breathe quite right, and my heartbeat was still too fast, but these were left over, just aftershocks.
By the next day, we laughed about it.
“Hey, maybe I had a panic attack. Maybe I’m one of those people who has panic attacks.” I decided that’s what it had been—“just” a panic attack. I’d heard of those people, read accounts of such things, but I’d always assumed the descriptions were exaggerated. It turns out they are not, and they’re pretty terrible. Still, though, it had really only lasted maybe ninety seconds, and then it was over, and I was fine. I wasn’t particularly concerned about having another one. Now that I understood what it was, I figured I could just ride out any future attacks. No problem.
The previous summer had been tough, with all the kidnappings. Elizabeth Smart had just been found, but the details of her abduction released in its aftermath proved to be far more terrifying than the relative comfort of allowing her to remain a face on a milk carton—one-dimensional, forgettable. The news channels reported endlessly and exhaustively on two more children abducted from their own homes that spring and summer. President Bush signed The Protect Act of 2003 into national law, making Amber Alerts mandatory for all states.
So, clearly, there was reason to be concerned.
I slept lightly most nights, playing games with myself about how early was okay to get up and make sure my little boy was still in his bed. Every day it seemed to me rather unlikely that he’d have made it through another night without getting snatched. Every day he was there, though—five years old and perfectly safe and curled up in Batman pajamas—and I’d fall back into bed, relieved and exhausted. This did not strike me as abnormal. Nor did it ease my mind.
I’ve always been worried about things. Spiders, crowds, people who talk too loud, basements, hurting someone, burning the house down. Blimps. More than one person has asked me, “Why are you so worried about everything?” And I want to say, “Why are you not? Have you looked around? Have you heard of CNN?”
I wrote this journal entry in early August: There’s something wrong with my hands. They feel… nervous. My hands are nervous. They don’t really hurt, I mean sometimes they do hurt, but I think it’s just because they’re so tense. I think there’s maybe something wrong with my nerves in my hands. They’re not working so very well a lot of the time now. I can do “big things,” like move the laundry from one machine to another, but not “small things,” like paint my nails. “Medium things,” like holding a cup of coffee, I’m borderline. I tried to play cards with my little boy the other day, but the cards are so, so thin. It’s nearly impossible to hold them. I’m having a hard time changing the channels with the remote, because that muscle between my thumb and forefinger is jumping all around; I can see it from the outside now. My brother and his wife are about to have their first baby. Probably, I’m just feeling some sort of deferred anxiety. I am pretty sure I’ll feel better once that baby is born all right.
The weeks went on like this. I made little changes to my routines around the new condition of my hands. No more reading books in bed at night, because the position required to hold a book open while lying down exacerbated the tightness and twitching that continued to increase. The finer details of makeup application—eyeliner and so forth—had to be abandoned.
My little boy started kindergarten at the end of August, and I smiled bravely as I put him on the bus that first day. But then I followed it—on foot—until it got to the school. I had to go for a run anyway, and hey—isn’t that an efficient use of time? To get my run in and make sure my kid got to school safely? It only made good sense. It was difficult to get around the side of the building to the kindergarten rooms unseen, because the windows of elementary school buildings are low. But I managed it, and I really only had to bend over a little bit to stay out of sight. One quick peek over the ledge and I was able to verify that he’d made it. He was sitting at his desk with all the other children, looking perfectly calm. Amazing. So everything was fine.
Except my hands, which by September were becoming increasingly claw-like and useless. I sat down at the computer and typed “hand muscle spasms.” WebMD suggested a litany of horrors: MS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s. I spent the entire day in front of it, ruling some factors in and some out. After an exercise in list-making and charting that’s both too tedious and too embarrassing to retell, I determined it was most likely ALS.
I felt so, so bad. I had all these things I was supposed to do, a child to take care of, the pets… I wasn’t going to be able to do any of it. The guilt was crushing. I did a lot of simple math. The average time between diagnosis and death for ALS patients is about six years. My son was five now. That would get him to eleven, which is a lot better than it could be, because he’d be out of the formative years, which end around age eight, according to UNICEF. I know that now, because I looked it up. So that was a comfort. But still, heartbreaking.
It was hard for me to look at him for several days. I spent many more hours playing with him that fall than I normally would have. He accepted those hours unquestioningly, happily, because he didn’t know. I waited a while to tell my husband the bad news, because he had a lot going on at work and I didn’t want to throw him off. He listened carefully, looking sideways at me, and he spoke slowly and gently. “There’s really no way you can know that, though, right? I mean, you haven’t even been to a doctor.” He didn’t understand, but how could he? I stopped talking about it.
For the rest of that fall, I survived by throwing myself into graduate school and household chores. Typing was difficult with my claw-hands, but I managed by changing my typing style and by staying wrapped in blankets with a heating pad draped around my neck and shoulders while I typed. I had become shivery most of the time, and I reasoned that staying warm would relax my muscles and allow me to use my hands better.
Despite all this, I was weirdly efficient, and probably appeared mostly fine to most people. I just had to hide my hands, but it was winter and there were pockets and mittens and it wasn’t hard to do. But then my face started twitching. I could see it if I looked closely in the mirror, but it had to be really close, so I figured it would be okay if I just didn’t get too close to people. This created some mild social problems. Once I had to walk out of class when the professor insisted everyone participate in some ridiculous group activity (in her defense, it was an Interpersonal Communication course). Another time I unexpectedly ran into a former professor at a cafe. I was so mad at him, jumping out at me like that. I was sitting in the café, so I sat on my hands and smiled and nodded a lot until it was over.
One of the first snowy days in December I answered the door to find my dad standing on the other side of it. He lived over an hour away. “What are you doing here?” I said.
“I’m taking you to a doctor.”
“We think there’s something wrong with you. It scared us when we first saw you at the birthday party last week, but we didn’t want to say anything in front of anyone. Why didn’t you warn us about how much weight you’d lost? Mom thinks you might have something wrong with your thyroid.”
I went obediently to the doctor, who also noted the change in the scale. I told him I’d been running a lot, which was true. I told him I was having trouble sleeping, which was also true. I did not tell him about my hands. He listened to my heart and took my blood pressure and drew some blood for thyroid tests. It all came back normal. He suggested sleeping pills, maybe an antidepressant, should I decide things were getting too uncomfortable. I never went back or followed up.
Some days I entertained the notion that I might not be dying, but by that point I was so worn out that I didn’t really take any interest in living, either. I’d heard people say that their lives had lost color, but I always thought they were speaking figuratively. That really happens, though. Things gray out. The days and nights ran into each other and then divided into two flat empty plains. On the one, I knew I was dying and felt marginally regretful, in a numb and passionless way. On the other, I was afraid I wasn’t dying, that it might go on like this, forever.
And my hands. Most days, my nerves were on fire. Other days were not so bad. One day, for example, in the week or two after New Year’s, I ate lunch.
Around Valentine’s Day I ran into my former boss on my way out of a restaurant. “What’s wrong with you?” he said, instead of “Hello.”
“That’s not a very nice way to greet me,” I joked. “You haven’t even seen me in a year, and you’re opening with insults.” Our relationship had always been frank, and I actually felt relieved to be confronted so directly. Everyone else was sort of working around me by that point.
“I’m serious. What’s the matter? You’re emaciated, and your face is twitching.”
So I told him. I told him I didn’t know what was wrong, except that something clearly was. But the collection of things surrounding it, I couldn’t put them all together: the hand spasms, the chills, the weight loss, the insomnia. I’d tried yoga, meditation, journaling, sleeping pills, cutting caffeine, cutting sugar, herbal supplements, running to the point of physical exhaustion. Nothing worked. I couldn’t tell whether it was my body or my mind and I wasn’t sure it even mattered anymore. I just wanted it to stop. I wanted to stop.
“I get it,” he said. “You know, you’re not crazy. This is in your head, but it doesn’t mean you’re crazy.” He told me he’d had these attacks, that he understood what they felt like and how terrible they were, that sometimes his wife had to just hold onto him while he shook until they were over. For a time he was unable to go in shopping malls because the crowds and open spaces terrified him. Unexpected loud noises, even still, could trigger an attack.
“Yeah, but you fought in Vietnam,” I said. “You’re having flashbacks, right? I was raised in the suburbs and nothing’s ever even happened to me.”
He allowed that the flashbacks were part of his equation, but said he thought it would have happened to him anyway. “It’s chemical. And there’s a ‘type.’ And you’re it. I know you.”
It had been almost nine months. Time enough to grow a baby, to finish a school year. It was time to face it down, whatever “it” was, and I knew it. I went to two more doctors. The first diagnosed me with anorexia and encouraged me to recognize my issues with myself. I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t that I was trying not to eat, I just couldn’t eat. She wasn’t buying it, so I didn’t go back.
The second doctor, a young man, listened quietly while I talked about my hands. He held them and turned them over. He could see the muscles tensing and twitching. He was gentle but straightforward: “The symptoms you have,” he said, “they don’t make sense when you put them together. The problem with your hand muscles, coupled with your age, could indicate MS, but you don’t have other typical symptoms. Plus you’re telling me that you feel nervous, that you can’t sleep or eat. I think, and I don’t mean this as flippantly as it sounds, that this is probably in your head. I’d like you to try taking an anti-anxiety drug for a few weeks and see if anything changes.”
I did not in the least expect it to work, but I agreed to his plan because I assumed that when it failed it would prove that he was wrong, and then we could get on with figuring out what was really the matter with me.
It worked. Within two or three weeks, things began to release. It happened so gradually, that I didn’t notice feeling better so much as I noticed the absence of feeling terrible. It had been so long, I’d forgotten. One day I saw a squirrel outside my window and I thought, “That’s a cute squirrel.” And then I realized it was the first optimistic thought I’d had in several months. And then it kept happening. My husband, whom I’d not told about the doctors’ visits or the medication, returned home from several weeks overseas for his job. He walked in the house and looked at me and said, “Oh my God. You’re better.” My face, he said, had changed, and now it was changing back.
Psychotropic drugs don’t fix anybody’s problems. They don’t actually make life any happier or less frightening. What they can do, though, is open a little bit of space in which we can learn to navigate the earth in a way that’s not so painful and terrifying. They can purchase entry through small doors to small rooms of respite and recovery.
In those rooms, I had to come to terms with the fact that life is inherently scary. It’s risky, or nothing at all. I spent nine months as a black hole in the galaxy of my life to really internalize that. I can’t say it was worth it. I’d like to come to some sort of conclusion about tapping into the world’s pain or recognizing that everyone we encounter carries something heavy we cannot imagine. I’d like to say I’ve stopped cracking Prozac jokes or mocking self help books, or that I’m at peace with myself or the Universe or whatever. I really can’t say any of those things, at least not honestly. What I can say is that I’m a little more careful with people, a little less likely to take much credit for any particular good fortune. There’s a lyric in a song I like that goes, “I guess we’re all one phone call from our knees.” I think it’s true, and that it applies to the calls from within us as well as to those from without. And I think that probably the best we can do is try to appreciate the days between rings.
JENNIFER YOUNG is a writer and English professor in Ohio. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Great Lakes Review and previously in Full Grown People, and she has essays forthcoming in The Offing and 1966 Journal.
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.
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.
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.
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 Magazine, Brain, Child, The 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.
I didn’t actually think I was going to be eaten by the wild, but you never know. For the past fifteen years, I’d been living in Hamtramck, Michigan, where the “natural” landscape consisted mostly of pigeons and broken streetlights. An abandoned axle factory. Railroad tracks. But I’d recently moved to western North Carolina to take a teaching position at a small college in the mountains, and, here, in Swannanoa, Mother Nature touches everything. The fairytale-like shadows of infinite forests. Kudzu crawling up the sides of farmhouses.
Out here, there are seasons possessed by swarms of one strange insect, followed by seasons possessed by swarms of another strange insect. And then there are the black bears, which in this part of the state are seemingly everywhere. They’ll rip through your trash at night. They’ll climb trees to take down bird feeders. (They love birdseed). They’ll block traffic when they lumber down the road. I have a friend who even saw one walking through the Target parking lot. If you don’t see them, you still know they’re there. The darkness of the western North Carolina night is immense, and when you peer into that darkness, you can only imagine what thunders through it. I tend to imagine things with teeth and claws. They prowl behind the shadows, just beyond the small perimeter of light that circles my house. Or maybe they watch me from afar charting my movements and recording my actions on a clipboard. Or they clean a grill in their backyard, look over recipes, and invite guests to an exclusive dinner party.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment I had to make was not to the actual presence of the natural world, but to people’s attitudes toward that world. I think bears are terrifying, but this is not a widely-held belief in these parts. Anthropomorphization is the act of assigning human-like qualities to nonhuman entities, and it’s fairly common for people to do this with animals. Regarding the bears of North Carolina, I’ve heard people say, “The bears, here, are so friendly” and “they have such gentle spirits” and “they are beautiful and peaceful souls” and “it’s possible to be their friend—they really like people.” I appreciate these ideas. But I don’t really believe them.
In his stand-up special, Oh My God, comedian Louis C.K. says, “I don’t know if we fully appreciate the fact that we got out of the food chain. That is a massive upgrade. Because for every other living thing, life ends by being eaten.”
I don’t know why I imagine bears hunting me with poison-tipped spears, while other people imagine them burning incense and dancing through a massive drum circle of love, but one of my favorite things about working at a college is that I’m surrounded by people who are smarter than me. People with knowledge about the world. People who know how things really work. Perhaps someone here can explain the true nature of animals and—you know—tell me I’m right.
I bring my query to the science department, where Dr. Jessa Madosky, a conservation biologist, says, “Strict animal behaviorists might say we should never anthropomorphize animals and claim they have feelings. I tend to be more generous in my thoughts about that, but there are a lot of images in the media that can give people the wrong impression about animals. There’s one commercial that has polar bears drinking bottles of Coke, wearing scarves, and acting like human families.”
And I say, “So you’re saying they don’t do that?”
And she says, “Yes, as far as I can tell,” then laughs, but cautiously, and I secretly wonder if she’s trying figure out how it’s possible that we could both be employed at the same institution of higher learning.
Speaking of polar bears, whether they’re drinking cola or not, they’re not exactly affable and kind. They’re carnivorous, known to be aggressive, and not only kill people, but occasionally eat them as well. In other words: they’re dangerous. But in 2009, a woman had to be rescued from a polar bear attack at the Berlin Zoo after jumping into their enclosure and swimming toward them. Occasionally, when bears aren’t acting like people, they act like bears.
Even the panda (undisputedly, the most adorable of all bears) is still a bear. In 2006, in Beijing, a panda named Gu Gu ripped apart a man’s legs when the man jumped into the bear’s enclosure. Reportedly, the man wanted to hug the bear. In 2008, a panda named Yang Yang attacked a student at another zoo. The victim was quoted as saying, “Yang Yang was so cute and I just wanted to cuddle him.”
We got out of the food chain, but it’s possible to apply for readmission. No cover letter, CV, or letters of recommendation are necessary. Your materials will be processed quickly. Look: they’ve already completed the paperwork. Congratulations, your application has been accepted.
There’s a black bear in the poem “Twilight” by Henri Cole. The speaker of the poem sees a bear in an apple tree and says, “Come down, black bear,/ I want to learn the faith of the indifferent.”
“Indifferent” might be the best description I’ve come across. Despite my tendency to imagine bears as vicious hunters and my neighbors’ tendency to picture them as joyful hippies, there’s the possibility that bears actually don’t give a damn. They’re animals who just want to eat berries and roots and occasionally fish. And then be left alone. Still—
I too want to learn the faith of the indifferent. To eat what I want and not care. To be left alone because I’m the swiftest, most powerful animal among these trees. At night, I go to the grocery store. It’s open twenty-four hours and everything shines in neat little rows. I’m the strongest thing in the wild. I buy onions, potatoes, and jalapenos. I take it all home. There’s a skillet. There’s a flame. There’s always salt. Everything is fine, I tell myself. I eat what I can, because I still can.
MATTHEW OLZMANN is the author of two collections of poems: Mezzanines (Alice James Books, 2013), and Contradictions in the Design, which is forthcoming from Alice James Books in November, 2016. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Necessary Fiction, Brevity, Southern Review, and elsewhere.
This is one of my earliest memories: I am three or four years old, scrabbling for a hold on a fallen tree while a river repeatedly pulls me under. I paw at the bark. The water is cold, moving fast and strong. It churns along with my other memories: the overturned Coleman canoe beating against the tip of the log, my father’s orange cap as he reaches out to pull my mother’s arm. When he has her, she lets herself drift to the sucking water that tries to drag us under the tree. She encircles me with her free arm, holding me above the current. My older sister has been balancing on the log, trying to reach me.
“How old?” I ask my sister Sasha. She is in California, sunny Santa Cruz. I am in dreary, garbage-scented Boston.
“Well, maybe you were two,” she says. Running water and the clink of plates tell me she’s washing dishes. “It was the guy they asked for directions from. They wanted to take us canoeing on the Madison, but he gave them directions to the Jefferson. It was a lot wilder.”
“So the canoe turned over in the rapids and we all caught onto a half-submerged tree, and…”
“Papa got pushed to the bottom several times before he got up. I climbed up the end, but Mama lost her hold of you and both of you were going under.” If I was two at the time, she would have been seven or eight. It surprises me, that this half-figment of half-memory—was my father wearing an orange cap?—is real to someone, that my sister remembers me half-drowning with clarity.
“How awful,” I say, as if the accident had recently happened to someone else.
A few years after that conversation my husband and I are in France for a wedding, in a small town between Nice and Monaco. The small, scruffy beach is next to placid Mediterranean water of such clear, bright blue it feels unreal. No matter where you swim, the water is never murky, and the bottom looks immediate, like a hologram.
My husband wants to dive from the floating dock a little ways off, so we swim towards it, he, the stronger swimmer, in front.
Halfway there I stop swimming. The water is clear. I can see the bottom. The dock isn’t far away. I try to convince myself to keep going, but my heart pounds, terrified of the water, of the depths, of the powerful, gentle-looking mass of a sea that is just longing to pull me under.
I turn around and head back to the beach, crawling onto the sand like I’ve been saved from a wreck, not caring what I look like in my very American one-piece suit and ridiculously pale, freckled skin that’s slathered in sunscreen. I long to be in that beautiful water, but I’m terrified of it. I know it wants to take me back.
It’s not just deep water. I’m afraid of the dark, too, and ghosts, and the monsters under the bed. Frisson-filled, gut-freezing fear that tells me these things are real. It’s their reality that terrifies me—ghosts drifting through my house, creatures beneath my box springs, the dark night as a monolith of unknowable worlds seen through acid trips. Other things that keep me lying in bed, staring into the dark and unable to move: the weeping angels in Doctor Who, ruthless alien races that might someday invade from another star system, a future like that in I, Legend, where most of the surviving human population has mutated into zombie-like beings due to pharmaceuticals gone wrong (I consume a lot of science fiction). And, ever since I read Stephen King’s book Lisey’s Story, mirrors.
Fears of pain, nonexistence, and the unknown. Water holds all of them. To die in water can mean one’s body slips out of sight, taken below on bright, sunny days of children’s laughter bouncing into jet skis’ obnoxious roars. Arms overhead, legs kicking, and then fear itself winding around the ankles to pull gently down. Hair floating upward to greenish light as the body is forced to lie among the muck that ancient glaciers left behind. My phobia makes this end feel like fate. A lingering death, a cold one, leaving not even footprints, just the water and sunshine, laughter and jet skis.
In Babylonian mythology, Tiamat is the goddess of the ocean. Her mate, Abzû, is the god of fresh water. Tiamat is the embodiment of primordial chaos. Or she is the embodiment of harmony, uniting salt and fresh water for all of creation. She is a serpent, an early form of dragon, or a goddess who made dragons filled with poison. She was killed by other deities, who created the world and heavens from her body. Her tears formed the mightiest rivers.
I’d love to connect my water phobia to ancient creation stories, to turn my human life into sensical narrative. But I do not believe in mythologies. I do not, in fact, believe in anything I can’t see or feel or sense or prove. I believe in mathematics. I do not believe in ghosts or the monsters that lurk in dark lake bottoms.
Why, then, am I terrified of them?
The word frisson describes a thrill of fear or excitement, a sense of foreboding that defies precision. The word’s very existence is proof of our fears. It acknowledges that we are terrified of things we cannot see or sense or know. Our minds are frightened of what our bodies can’t feel—or is it the other way around? Is it the mind’s fear and the body’s reaction, or the body’s fear and the mind’s reactions? Where does the experience of that wild river, the log, my family’s terror, reside in my body? Why does my mind insist there is something down there, in the non-empty spaces of dark matter between rocks and silt and sightless water?
I can see it now, in this barely-lit room where my children are sleeping. It’s sifting around the pine trees and the rustling aspens outside, a nameless something that awakens very real fear. Can you feel it?
An unfinished book sits in my drawer—or, not in a drawer but in a file on my laptop, our new drawers. It’s only partly written, set aside after a cross-country move and a year of living in someone else’s home while adhering to an exhausting work and parenting schedule. I touch the thought of returning to the book and feel wary. I say I don’t have time, and it’s true, I don’t. Not the kind of long, luxurious hours that extended writing demands to achieve any kind of depth. The lack of time I have is crushing. It’s its own being, monstrous and impenetrable like the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A weighty horror.
I fear drowning under the lack of time. It holds books that I will never write. In that space is where I will cease to exist, fade away. And yet, why should I feel that way? Why must our names be etched in more than our immediate lives if we are to feel real and whole? Are we so terrified of being forgotten?
(Yes. We are.)
But caution also keeps me from diving into it again. A book is a long, sustained effort. It requires stamina, willpower, a certain quality of fearlessness to keep going when it feels your words have landed you in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been there before; this is the fifth time I’ve headed into those wide-open, unpredictable waters.
I fear venturing out there this time, kicking off again, not sure when I’ll get to the other side, and the petrifying thought of what’s lurking beneath the surface. Writing a book can lead to dark, unexpected places, once you let the words start to flow. What if I get to the middle and run out of energy, and the monsters snake around me as I try to tread water? What if I disappear?
It’s so much easier to stay in the shallows near the shore, penning smaller things, where I can see others’ faces, hear their laughter and splashes, even jump in deep sometimes and come straight back to shore.
My husband and I went scuba diving once on the Great Barrier Reef, back when we were living in Australia. A tour boat scooted us and a dozen or so others out from Port Douglas and the guide gave a perfunctory ten-minute lesson in dive symbols: up, okay, help, shark. I was the only person who had never even snorkeled.
“You a water baby?” he asked me in that brisk Aussie twang. “You love the water?”
“Yes.” I do, I really do. I grew up in Montana, where my family hiked all the time, preferably up into the mountains, where ice-cold lakes sat in tiny dips of valleys. Any hike where I can’t jump into a lake or at least soak my feet in a river at the end of it felt pointless. I would swim in a lake every day if I could.
When he toppled me in, wet-suited and oxygen-tanked, I took a few moments to get used to the mask, and ended up hyperventilating, heading towards panic, until I figured out how to breathe all the way out as well as all the way in. A thirty-second lesson with more impact than years of yoga.
Then I followed the group down, arms at my sides to keep down oxygen use, and I wasn’t scared. Nearly forty feet below the surface, where the monsters supposedly lived, I had no fear. The colors were just as bright as in photos—blue, orange, yellow corals and fish; big feathery growths of red; strange, enormous clams that closed as our shadows passed over. “Don’t put your hand in one of those,” he’d warned us before we left the boat. “You won’t get it out again.”
The water was cold, even through the wetsuit. I emerged hungry for lunch and eager for the afternoon dive. There was so much beauty there, none of the dark mystery that haunted the lakes of my home state.
I’d like my fear of deep water to be about something else, to turn it into a metaphor—for writing a book, for example, or for life and the risks we do or don’t take. But the near-drowning of my two-year-old self and her family, the sucking, surging power of that swift-moving river, were very real. When I long to swim across a lake, and flinch back because the water has become too dark and the monsters are waiting to get me, it’s not about taking risks in life and venturing into the unknown. It’s because I’m afraid of being pulled under and drowning.
We humans, we’re always seeking meaning. We want our suffering to have purpose, our fears to shape into Jungian explanations, our gods to exist. We are storytellers, symbol-makers. We find it hard to accept that not everything can be about something more.
You almost drowned because of our stupidity, says my father.
I almost lost you, my mother says to my sister and me.
The town I live in is built on a lake, and in the summer we take advantage of that fact several times a week. I swim out to the lake’s floating dock with my kids safely lumpy in life jackets. We climb up the dock and my son jumps off and climbs out again, over and over until he can barely keep his head above water. He’d do this until the stars pricked out overhead and the water became frigid, if I let him.
My daughter doesn’t want to go under. After years of swimming lessons, she’s still afraid of submersion and doesn’t like getting her face wet. It’s okay, I tell her, you don’t have to. I sit on the dock and stretch my legs out. She slides down them, gripping my hands, the life jacket keeping her cork-bobbing in the water.
I never learned to dive, so I stand at the edge and jump straight in. Underwater, the tiny bubbles I’ve made fizz around my ears, and I bob to the surface and swim to my kids, listening to the ripple-rill of water over my shoulders. I love this feeling so much, more than almost anything, the splashes of the lake, the mountains chaining the valley. My son wants to swim out farther together and we take off. He can’t see the constriction in my chest, the fear gnawing my toes. I don’t tell him there are monsters out there.
ANTONIA MALCHIK has written for Aeon, GOOD magazine, 1966, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and the managing editor of STIR Journal. You can read more of her work through www.antoniamalchik.com.
“This, honey, is crabgrass. It’s the stuff that’s been driving me nuts all summer,” I say to Steve as I point with my foot to a particularly large weed. “It’s all over our front yard and I pull it up and it leaves a huge hole and I could do it for hours, but at some point I just stand up and walk away ’cause I know it’s a hopeless fight.”
We’re walking to the hospital’s parking lot. I’ve just had a CT scan of my brain. Steve has taken a couple hours off work on this Thursday morning to drive me to the hospital because I’m so shaky from the migraine that I’m not sure I can do it myself. I drove myself to my doctor’s office this morning, but the drive to the hospital and the waiting in the waiting room and the potential need for food and drink all seemed too much at once, so I called Steve and asked him to meet me at home. I got home first and, while I waited, I Googled “brain aneurysm” and learned that what we normally think of as a brain aneurysm—the kind that kill people—is actually a burst brain aneurysm. So I could have a brain aneurysm right now without knowing it and it could be the cause of this excruciating migraine.
There’s something so satisfying about pulling up crabgrass because it all comes up at once. Find the center, gather the tendrils, and yank. At first I’d used the super duper fancy stand-up weeder I bought earlier this summer, with its eject button, but it turned out to be too slow. I wanted to be on my hands and knees pulling more than one weed up at once, digging into the earth, ridding it of the intruder that, for so many years, had passed for grass for me.
Until we moved into this house, the first house I’ve ever chosen, I paid little attention to the grass except to mow it. I always made sure that we kept the lawn mowed. There was a deep satisfaction that came from seeing the immediate transformation from unkempt to kempt. And surely at the old house we had crabgrass. But it had been Steve’s house before I moved in and I didn’t feel the same sense of ownership that I do here. The crabgrass here is maddening.
I sometimes worry that my neighbors, walking their dogs, judge us the way that I, walking our dogs, judge neighbors whose lawn has been taken over by weeds. Last year, our first summer in the new house, I quickly identified the house in the neighborhood with the tallest weeds. They were like a huge “fuck you” to the rest of us who pulled the ugliest and most obvious weeds. It doesn’t help that we live next door to a woman whose yard and garden are damn near perfect. I imagine conversations with her in which I defend the state of our yard by pointing to the work I do as a professor and a writer. While you’re out here perfecting your yard, I imagine saying, I’m inside prepping my classes or writing an important piece of scholarship. All she does in this scenario is look down at my feet, where the freshly mown crabgrass taunts. And on the afternoons when I find myself outside on my hands and knees pulling crabgrass, I imagine her shaking her head and telling me that I’ll never win. I know I’ll never win, but still, it’s so satisfying. When the entire weed comes up like a mop of hair, there’s nothing else like it. No other weed offers such a huge reward.
I’ve always been the kind of person who immediately jumps to the worst possible conclusion. Recently when our dog Wrigley began limping, I assumed it was bone cancer. When the anti-inflammatories helped, I relaxed. When the limp came back a month later much worse, I spent the night imagining our lives with a three-legged dog. Dogs recover from these things much better than people do, I told myself. We see it all the time. It’s the people who are taken aback by a dog with a missing leg. The dog herself is usually fine, running and playing like any other dog. Steve, on the other hand, always thinks the best, minimizing what I take to be life-threatening situations. For Steve, Wrigley’s diagnosis of severe arthritis on both hips was a shock. He thought for sure she’d just pulled something.
When I was a kid, I didn’t expect to live much past my late twenties. It’s not that I thought something terrible might happen to me; rather, I knew something terrible would happen to me. It’s a mindset born from years of abuse. The trauma theorist Kai Erikson wrote that traumatized people calculate life’s chances differently.
So when the doctor told me she wanted a CT scan of my brain because of the frequency and severity of the migraines, I immediately jumped to the worst possible scenario. “I’m convinced I have a brain tumor,” I said as she examined my ears.
“It’s not a brain tumor I’m worried about,” she said. “Usually with a brain tumor, a patient will come in very confused, unsure how they got here. What I’m more worried about—and I don’t want to give you more to worry about—but I worry about an aneurysm.”
Despite the migraine, I chuckled a bit. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know enough about the brain to imagine the worst-case scenario. I was an amateur at this thinking-the-worst business, it seemed.
One afternoon when I was outside with the weeder pulling up crabgrass, the UPS guy stopped by to deliver a package. “Are you pulling crabgrass?” he asked.
“Yep. It’s hopeless, I know.”
“Can I hire you?”
“I think I’ve got more than my share here, thanks.”
He shook his head and smiled as he got back into his truck.
What am I doing? I thought. I should be inside writing important scholarship.
I woke that morning with the headache. It seemed manageable for the first hour or so I was awake. But then my head really started pounding. I took a couple tramadol. Nothing. I tried to imagine going in to school, teaching my class, talking with any coherence about anything. I started crying, holding my head with both hands, massaging my temples with my fingers. It had never been this bad before. My first migraine lasted a month, my second one three days, and the last couple just a day because I’d finally gotten medicine that helped. But with this one it was too late to take an Imitrex and the tramadol wasn’t helping and I understood what it was like to want to die. I couldn’t escape myself. I couldn’t think. I canceled class for the day and called my doctor.
In the radiology waiting room, Steve and I sit quietly until my name is called. The radiology technician asks me for all of my vital info, checks the name on my paper bracelet, and asks me whether I’m pregnant. “No,” I say.
“How can I be sure of that?”
“My husband had a vasectomy.”
“I’m still gonna need you to sign a form before we do the scan.”
I shrug my shoulders. Fine with me. As he walks across the room to find the form, I say, “I’m too old to be pregnant anyway.”
He tells me that they’re now required to ask women up to age fifty-five about pregnancy.
“Ha! I can just imagine some of the answers you must get.”
“Oh, I’ve gotten some good ones. At first it was hard for me to ask, but now I just laugh about it.”
“You should write an essay about those responses.”
On the ride home, I realize that being the passenger is making me nauseous, so I ask Steve to pull over and I take over at the wheel. Somehow I feel a little better after the scan. Maybe it’s the promise of certainty. We’ll finally know how I’m going to die. Steve, of course, is convinced it’s just migraines. “If it’s just migraines, it’s gonna take years to figure out the right medication and I’m just not up for that,” I tell him.
My doctor and the radiology tech both told me that they’ll have an answer for me within an hour and a half. By the time we get home, I figure it’s more like an hour. Steve goes back to work and I sit on the couch with the dogs, imagining how this will play itself out. As the minutes and then the hours pass, the scenarios become bleaker.
I have a brain aneurysm and I need immediate brain surgery to clip it. They’ll have to shave my head. My department chair will have to find someone to take over my classes for the rest of the semester. I might die. If I die, I’ll get to see my beloved dog Annabelle again.
I have a brain aneurysm but surgery is too risky, so I must walk around for the rest of my days knowing it could burst any time.
What they’ve found is so bad that they call Steve first, tell him to come home and get me, and we go to the doctor’s office to learn that I have weeks to live.
They don’t find an aneurysm or a tumor, but they do find plaque and I’m diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
At night sometimes, I close my eyes and I see crabgrass, its white webbed center with its blades growing in all directions. I open my eyes and try to concentrate on something else, but it’s no use. I close my eyes and the crabgrass taunts me. It knows I’ll never get it all. It will always win.
It occurs to me now that crabgrass is like cancer in that they’re both named for the crab. Cancer comes from the Greek karkinos because the tumor with its surrounding vessels resembled the shape of a crab. And the most common genus of crabgrass is digitaria, a name that likens the tendrils to fingers reaching out in all directions.
It’s not that I want to die or that I want a brain tumor or an aneurysm. It’s not that I want attention, that most obvious of explanations. I think when I imagine these scenarios what I also imagine is the freedom that comes with knowing.
After my beloved dog Annabelle died, none of the day-to-day stuff mattered anymore. What mattered was that I no longer had my Annabelle and I no longer knew who I was. But I knew who I wasn’t. I wasn’t a person who cared about who in the department was dating whom or which professor had a crush on which graduate student. I wasn’t a person who cared about the way that the people I had thought were my friends couldn’t find it in themselves to support me. I wasn’t a person who cared about who liked me or who loathed me or who didn’t know I existed. I’d lost my girl. Nothing else mattered. I wanted that clarity again, the clarity of tremendous, soul-crushing grief.
My doctor’s office called after about two and a half hours. My CT was normal. I’m normal. When she told me this, she pulled it all up at once, all of my imaginings about the end, all of the repercussions of the scenarios that allowed me the freedom that comes only with certainty. Like I do with a particularly gnarly crabgrass weed, she yanked it all and left a gaping hole.
AMY E. ROBILLARD is becoming increasingly torn between her identities as Associate Professor of English at Illinois State University, where she specializes in rhetoric and composition and the personal essay, and as essayist whose work resists academic categorization. Her nonfiction can also be found on The Rumpus.