Our Work Burns Like the Sun

Photo by slgckgc/Flickr

By Amy E. Robillard

At the brand new HomeGoods, I buy thirty-eight dollars worth of things I don’t need. A tablecloth. Cloth napkins in an autumnal print. Two new dog toys that I’d been planning to save for Christmas, but when I walked into the house with all of my crap from the afternoon, one of the toys fell out of the bag and Essay spotted it and immediately ran to it and squeaked it. I couldn’t very well hide it away until Christmas. I also buy a roll of wrapping paper decorated with colorful donuts. I love donuts. They’re the comfort food I most often turn to in times of distress. When Steve was in the hospital for his emergency gallbladder surgery last winter, there were mini donuts in the house, and I picked up fresh donuts on the way to see him in the mornings.

I would probably spend more time and more money at HomeGoods this Friday afternoon, but it’s hot, so very hot for late September, and I have chocolate in the car. I’m worried that it will melt if I stay in the store too long. But there’s another reason I don’t stay very long.

The store reminds me so much of Christy and, as I see things that the two of us would get a kick out of, it hurts to think about how that store used to be a destination for us when our town didn’t yet have one, when it was only in Peoria or Shorewood. I pick up a mug designed to look like it was a mummy all wrapped up, just two eyes poking out, and I chuckle. I hear myself saying to Christy, “But I’m not allowed. I have too many already.”

Now Christy and I no longer speak because I told her husband, who is also my boss, that I had grown tired of his refusal to hear the things I said. In the strange logic of adult friendships, this meant that, because my boss and I were no longer friends, Christy and I also could not remain friends. Surely the two of them had interpreted my explanation in ways I cannot guess because that’s what people do. We defend our egos and our identities and we wrap ourselves up in stories that portray us as the innocent party even as we don’t realize we’re doing so. Only our eyes poke out.

The parking lot had recently been repaved, and the heat reflecting off of the deep blue asphalt is oppressive. When I get in the car, I turn the A/C up high. I feel around in the back seat for the Target bag with the chocolate bars; they still seem to be holding their shape. I rip open the bag of mini Hershey bars and take one out as the A/C begins to cool the car down. I tear open the deep brown wrapper and the familiar chocolate squares are soft, just beginning to melt. At this stage they are easily malleable, and I can imagine that it would not take much effort to manipulate this bar into another shape altogether. I imagine blending a bunch of little bars together to form a ball of chocolate. Or, with just a little more heat applied, melting four or five bars together to form chocolate soup. Shape-shifting. No more sign of the Hershey’s logo on each individual rectangle.

I pull up to a long line of cars waiting to leave the shopping plaza, and I feel that familiar dread that comes with recognizing that the cardboard sign that the sunburned, bearded, gray-haired man holds. It says he’s a homeless veteran waiting on public assistance that has not yet kicked in. He’s hungry. I have maybe three dollars cash in my wallet, three dollars that would surely help him, but still I make a point to pull in to the middle lane to ensure that another lane of cars will form a boundary between his suffering and me in my air-conditioned SUV with my bag of chocolate and my thirty-eight dollars worth of unnecessary purchases from HomeGoods. I turn my head away, check my phone, and then look out the other side of the car.

What I see on that side of the road is perhaps more disturbing. Two human beings make their way slowly toward the intersection of the busy roads. One is dressed in a cheap suit, with hair that at one point that morning was probably slicked back but is now stiffly hanging in the faint breeze. He’s smoking a cigarette, looking for all the world like the real-life version of Saul Goodman (‘s all good, man) The other is dressed like the sun, wearing what looks to be a very heavy and very hot perfectly spherical bright yellow costume, covered all around with little orange felt triangles meant to represent the sun’s rays. The person’s arms are covered in black material and poke out from two holes in the sun. The sun character wears black sunglasses (the irony!) and an exaggerated smile. The person in the sun costume walks very slowly, careful to step up on to the curb, and the man in the cheap suit puts his arms out as if to catch the Sun if she falls. The Sun carries a small, cardboard, professionally printed sign. Once the man and the Sun get to the place the man wants the Sun to be, he puts his arms on the roundest part of the Sun’s back and sort of positions her in place. The Sun then begins jumping in place with the sign advertising, I realize now, Sun Loans.

The man in the cheap suit walks slowly back to the shopping plaza, cigarette poised between his lips, ashes about to fall on the ground. He is in no kind of hurry to get back to his desk at Sun Loans.

The light finally changes. I leave behind the Sun with her sign advertising loans at what is surely a rate close to usury. I leave behind the veteran with his sign advertising America’s shameful treatment of those who have fought for our freedom. I leave behind the scorching heat of that parking lot and I think about the things I bought that I did not need.

I think about the irony of those two figures standing on either side of the busy intersection. They are both anonymous. One is sunburnt from standing outside too long, begging for money to feed and clothe himself. He is weary from standing on his feet all day. He is tired. He is ashamed of having to beg strangers for money to fulfill his basic needs. The other is covered, head to toe, in a costumed designed to look like the sun. She cannot stand still. She must jump up and down and wave her sign to get the attention of drivers as they pass. She wears a suit made of heavy felt that must weigh at least forty pounds. She is both protected from the sun and she is the Sun. She is likely filled with shame but we cannot see her face, so she is protected from our judgment. She cannot be making more than minimum wage. She has been driven to this street corner by forces similar to those that drive the veteran: a desire to feed, clothe, and shelter herself.

•••

When we were fourteen, my best friend Hillary and I worked illegally as dishwashers at Jake’s Restaurant in the mall. We were paid four dollars an hour to spray down the dishes before putting them in the massive dishwasher and to scrub the pots and pans by hand. When we recall this very first paying job, we tell two stories. The first is that, when the pots and pans were particularly disgusting, with caked-on food that would take real elbow grease to scrub off, I would hold one out, look at Hillary, and drop it into the trash can. Next!

The second is that, one night Hillary and I had a party to go to. At this party would be the two eighteen-year-old boys (men!) we were attracted to and who we thought were maybe interested in us. We stacked dishes and scrubbed pots for a couple hours until, at the same moment, we each looked at our watches and decided to run. We quit our jobs without so much as a word by running out the back door. We ran and ran. All the way to the bus stop at the mall’s main entrance, where we then waited for the bus to take us home.

When asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would respond that I wanted to be either a fireman (masculine pronoun) or Little Red Riding Hood. It seems I had a thing for running into, rather than away from, danger.

I cannot recall any responses to my expressed desires to put out fires or to deliver baked goods to my grandmother in the woods. What strikes me instead, now, as I think about the Sun jumping in place and Hillary and I running out on our first jobs, is that work is something that we are asked to begin anticipating from the youngest of ages, something we are encouraged to shape our entire lives around, but the jobs that perhaps shape us the most are the ones that are understood to be detours on the way to a career.

•••

The street lamps in downtown Hershey, Pennsylvania are shaped like Hershey kisses and alternate wrapped, unwrapped, wrapped, unwrapped. Silver foil with the trademark paper plume billowing from the top followed by plain milk chocolate.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I taught for a summer at the Milton Hershey school in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I was working for a private study skills company called Readak, which would contract with private schools to teach six- or eight- or twelve-week study skills courses to middle- and high-school students before and after school hours. The Milton Hershey School was my fifth of seven assignments, my last being The American School in Barcelona.

Milton Hershey and his wife Catherine established the school for orphaned boys, beginning with the children they had adopted when they could not conceive children of their own. Today boys and girls of all ages, largely from impoverished backgrounds and largely from Pennsylvania, attend the boarding school and live with married couples called houseparents. While I taught there, I lived in an apartment beneath one of the homes housing middle-school-aged girls, and it was everything I could do to not set the entire building on fire while attempting one night to make stir-fry. Each morning, food was delivered to the homes, and whenever there was too much, which was often, the houseparents, whose names I can no longer remember, offered me fresh produce that might otherwise go to waste. I would wake up in the mornings and take long walks around the school’s property, the decadent smell of milk chocolate in the air.

Children who attended the Milton Hershey School were cared for completely, from food and housing to medical and dental care, to clothing and computers and school supplies. What struck me the most, though, were the nightly dinners I was so often invited to join. The houseparents would tell me dinner was going to be family style, but I had no idea what that meant. I came from a family, but in my family, we ate alone in front of the television or we watched our mother eat standing up near the stove because she didn’t have the patience to sit down at the table before returning to the living room to watch her shows. I was twenty-six years old and I didn’t know what it meant to sit down at a table and eat a meal family style. What had we been doing all my life? Fend-for-yourself-style.

At the other Readak assignments across the country—in Wisconsin and Michigan and Nebraska—I would stay with families of the children I taught. A family would open their home to me, and I would move in to their extra bedroom and become a part of their family for six or eight weeks. They wrapped me up in their lives, including me in everything from the glass of wine with family dinner to the football games on Saturdays. And when I left, they hugged me goodbye. In between, I taught their children and their classmates study skills.

I cried during only one placement and that was because of a fifth-grade child whose name I can no longer remember. Let’s call him Jack. Fifth grade was too young. I did not recall signing up for kids this young, but somehow, at this school in Cincinnati, fifth grade qualified as middle school. I could not control the kids. They did not listen to me. They talked over me. They shouted over me and they did not give a whit about study skills. And Jack—now that I look back, Jack probably had a learning disability or ADHD, but at the time, I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I just wanted him to shut up so I could teach him to take better notes. I called his mother in the evenings and asked her to ask him to please sit still, to please stop talking incessantly.

What I wrote just now about crying only once? That was a lie. I cried in Barcelona, too. There I cried because I was supposed to be teaching on a Saturday morning but the school was locked and I didn’t have any way of reaching anybody to let me in, but the parents had already dropped off the kids and they all looked at me expectantly. I didn’t know what to do. I was tired of teaching study skills. I wanted out. I wanted to start my M.A. program already. I wanted to speak English to more than just these kids. I wanted macaroni and cheese.

I came close to crying during a placement in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Instead of being housed with a family, I stayed for six weeks in the infirmary. On one of my first nights, as I tried to fall asleep, I heard footsteps above me in the attic. Many tiny footsteps. Squirrels. What was to stop them from getting into the room where I was sleeping? What was to say that they didn’t normally have the run of the place? The next morning I called the Readak office on the verge of tears, only to have the teaching coordinator tell me there wasn’t anything she could do about the squirrels from where she was.

One of the speed-reading skills I taught students was called the finger method, and it involved tracing your index finger very quickly along the lines of the text in order to train your eyes to move faster. It was bullshit. And I couldn’t very well laugh or smirk when I introduced the “technique” to high school students. I needed them to take me seriously. But come on. The finger method, for crying out loud.

•••

Today I teach both undergraduate and graduate students. I teach writing and rhetoric, and at the start of every semester, I have anxiety dreams in which I cannot control the class. They’re shouting over me, they won’t sit down, they don’t care what I have to say, and eventually I just give up. This has never happened to me in my waking life. But it’s my biggest fear. It has stayed with me because of my experience with the fifth-graders.

So much of the work of a life is not visible. It involves shaping and reshaping the stories we tell ourselves about the work we do. It involves changing an emotional detail so that we can be the heroes of our stories rather than the villains. We engage, every day, in emotional work about the work we do, and this emotional labor is really what exhausts us. Shame threatens to eat us alive, so we tell ourselves that it was the children who were the problem, not me as a young teacher with no training on how to handle them.

We wrap ourselves in stories as heavy and as thick as the Sun Loans employee’s costume. We tell ourselves that somebody else will give the veteran money. Or, worse, we tell ourselves that the veteran somehow deserves his circumstances.

But like the best work, most of this work is collaborative. We do none of this on our own. We are supported in this emotional labor at every turn by a society that tells us that we are responsible for our own actions at the same time that we should respect those who risked their lives for their country. We have no shortage of stories to choose from. Pick one to wrap yourself up in. When it no longer fits the situation, simply let it go. Wrap. Unwrap.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is an essayist and professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her essays have also been published on The Rumpus and in Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Creative Nonfiction.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

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Schrodinger’s Sister

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Stewart Sinclair

My oldest sister’s birthday passed in the beginning of June. I didn’t call her. I was afraid to. Instead, I sent her a direct message on Facebook: a compromise—I told myself—between an impersonal public wall post and actual conversation. I told her Happy Birthday. I told her I love you. I didn’t say anything else. It was almost midnight, and my message just barely went through in time for me to be able to say that I hadn’t forgotten or ignored her. It was also (conveniently) late enough that when she replied I could ignore her response, which came through about twenty minutes later. I made sure not to go back on Facebook for the rest of the night to keep up the appearance that I had just fallen asleep.

But I didn’t sleep for a long while. I stayed up thinking about her message, and the last time we spoke, when I had promised to send her grocery money—a promise I ended up going back on when I realized that I didn’t know what she would do with the money. It was one of several times when I hadn’t kept that kind of promise. I once told her I wanted to buy a painting from her, and gave her some idea of what I was looking for. She tried to offer me one of her other paintings that she had already finished. I never answered. I didn’t have the guts to tell her that as much as I loved her paintings, I was really trying to pay her to make something new. In other words, to pick up a paint brush, charcoal, pastels, RoseArt crayons, anything that would make her put down the needle. I’d give her my entire paycheck if I knew it would accomplish that.

Eventually, I fell asleep, but I didn’t sleep well. I knew that I’d have to look at the message tomorrow, and that there were only two options for how she’d reply. She’d either just say I love you, too. Or she’d ask me for money. Whichever way she answered would tell me how she was doing.

Jane* has always been a fiercely independent person. She left home when she was sixteen and slept on the beach under the promenade for much of the time in the following two or three years. But even when she was technically homeless, she worked. A gallery near our hometown post office hung her paintings. She got a job as a line cook at a restaurant downtown. She graduated from high school. She was by any estimation undeniably beautiful, brilliant, and talented. The world would have offered itself up to her. There wasn’t a boy in our hometown who didn’t fall in love with her. There weren’t many girls who didn’t harbor some secret or overt jealousy toward her. She could have married for love or for money. She could have ignored men entirely, gone off to college and disrupted some urbane avant-garde scene.

But Jane didn’t want any of that. She hopped trains across the country, settling at various times in Austin, San Francisco, New Orleans, Taos, and wherever else she rolled off the line. In each of these places some other boy fell in love with her. At home, it was Xander. In San Francisco, it was a guy named Elvis. In Austin, it was Dutch. After I finished my freshman year of college in Santa Fe, she and I decided we would take a road trip back home. I went to the train station in Albuquerque, and she snuck up on me and gave me a big hug, and then introduced me to a gnarly, six-foot-four, tatted up man carrying her bags. He looked like a mix between Hank Williams and one of the bouncers from Roadhouse.

“This is Christ,” she said. “He’s a good dude. We’re gonna get him to his long-lost brother in Vegas.”

So, we did. In fact, I handed Christ the keys to my 1989 Crown Victoria and he drove us all the way from Albuquerque to Las Vegas. The only portion I drove was across the Hoover Dam, because every vehicle crossing the dam goes through a police checkpoint, “and I ain’t got a license,” Christ confessed.

It’s just the type of thing that happens when Jane’s around. A mix of insanity, spontaneity, fuck-it-let’s-see-where-this-train’s-headed, and an almost saintly amount of compassion for her fellow travelers. Christ was an intimidating figure, but it was beautiful to seem him wrap his bulky, tatted arms around his brother for the first time in twenty years.

All this is just to say that Jane doesn’t like to rely on anyone else. She’s staked her entire reputation on being able to survive in situations that have cost other men and women their lives. So when she asks for money, I know that I’m not talking to the person I’ve known my entire life. I’m talking to a need, a desperate little itch in the arm, a series of unfortunate events wrapping around the psyche of a strong woman. It makes her weak, it makes her helpless, it makes her all the things that she has never really, truly, in her heart of hearts, been.

I opened her Facebook message the following afternoon. She said, I love you, too. But then came the rest. Can you help me out with birthday money, or buy that painting? She wanted two hundred dollars. She told me she’d been living out of her car and hadn’t eaten anything but donuts for months. She reminded me that I said I’d help her out a while back, but she knew I probably forgot because I’m busy, and that was okay. She said, I love you again. Then she said all the other reasons she was in a tight spot. If I didn’t have money, she went on, maybe I could use my credit card to fix her car so she could get back on the road.

She listed every reason in the world except for the one I needed to hear: that she had a problem.

I’ve lived away from home for a long time, roughly three thousand miles from most of the immediate crises that my family has come up against. I find out about them through conversations with my mother, sad phone calls with my father, and Facebook. Three very dear friends of my family have died in the last year, and I haven’t been to a single funeral. Each time, I spend about twenty minutes or so putting together as delicate a Facebook message as I can, trying my best to make a digital eulogy that would let my family know that I care, that I grieve, that it hurts. I lie to myself and say that I’m there and that I’ve dealt with the grief. That’s why it’s cathartic to come home. I meet my new nieces and nephews, who I had only known from the photos my sisters share on Facebook. I find out what’s really been going on behind the public façade of social media. And I remember that instant communication can only make us feel like we’ve been part of our distant families. Coming home makes me realize just how much life I’ve missed.

Like last Christmas. It was going to be the first time in over ten years that my four sisters and I would be in the same room at the same time. Even my stepsister flew out from Texas to be with us. Eleven of my fourteen nieces and nephews were there opening presents on Christmas morning. Everyone was there except for Jane. My other sisters called her, texted her, went by her house, but she didn’t show. We didn’t see her until the next day, when she showed up at a family trip to the Santa Barbara zoo. I was so happy to see her, to give her a hug, to have all of my sisters with me. But at the same time, I wanted to run away, break down, and cry.

My oldest sister has the remarkable ability to look beautiful even when she looks bad. And she looked so bad and so beautiful that I didn’t know what to do about it. A zoo just isn’t the right place for an intervention. And, like a skittish pet, I didn’t want to frighten her away just when she’d come out of hiding. But it was on that day that I realized that there had to be some sort of bottom, some sort of end to the long independent crusade she’d been on. I wanted her to complete that narrative arc, where the artist spends her early years wildly crisscrossing the country, chaotically traversing the polls between strung-out desperation and the unforgettable highs of being a free-wheeling, cosmopolitan tramp. When I thought of her, I thought of a mix between John Muir, Georgia O’Keefe and Timothy Leery. I thought about Will Rogers, who said you can’t break a man that don’t borrow, because he can look the world in the face and say, I don’t owe you a thing.

But she was over thirty now, and the window for change was closing.

As I thought about Jane’s birthday message reply; I thought about how I should respond. In the past, I would have just ignored it. Eventually, I would have counted on it becoming a small, bitter resentment between the two of us that neither of us spoke of. We’d sweep it under the rug, woven from the fibers of that love between her and I that had always seemed the most important thing in the world. We’re family, after all, and family means burying shit deep down and then forgiving each other our trespasses on the day that we die, or sometime thereafter.

But I didn’t want to do that this time. I decided that this time I would tell her how I felt. I told her I didn’t have any money—which was true—or any credit—also true. But more importantly, I told her that even if I did have it I wouldn’t give it to her. I told her that I was worried about her, that I knew she was in a rough spot, and that every single person in her family would give her anything she needed to get better, but that I didn’t think getting better was what she was going to do. I told her that I believed she was an artist, and that art is one of those enigmatic industries where smashing directly head first into rock bottom can even be a benefit, if you can just pick up the pieces. I told her, You’ve been struggling and hurting long enough. You’ve earned a break. I love you.

Social media gives you just enough information to draw most any conclusion that you want. My message went through, but Jane didn’t read it. I watched as the timer underneath her name ticked away the hours since the last time she logged on. It’s something I’ve often done when checking in on her. If I see that she’s online, I can be fairly certain that she’s alive. But the hours passed. One hour, five, ten, one day, then it just listed Sunday as the last time she logged on.

When she’s not online, I conceive of her as both alive and dead. She is at the same time actively trying to kick her habit and quietly slipping away in the back seat of a broken-down car, too high to even know that she’s dying. I picture an artist mixing paint. I think of the giant cloth canvas she once made for me, a rendering in color of Louis Armstrong and his wife at The Pyramids of Giza, except that she portrayed them in Mardi Gras masks. And then I try not to picture a sunbaked body in a car with the windows rolled up, a sleeping bag balled into a pillow, a sketchbook on the floor with a few last thoughts scrawled into it, unaware that they are even last thoughts.

Come Wednesday, I finally see that she has been online. I know, for the moment, that she’s alive. But I also know that she could have read my message, and that she has chosen not to. As much as I knew that she was going to ask me for money, she must have known that I was going to plead for her to get help. The message is both read and unread. The plea is known and unknown.

That’s the blessing and curse of our connectivity. I am there, immediately, in a phone in my sister’s pocket next to some cough drops, a handkerchief, and a tied up little baggie of cheap heroin. But at the same time, I’m no closer than I ever was. I’m still three thousand miles away. I’m still just waiting for the veil of uncertainty to lift, for the message to be opened, and for her to tell me she loves me, and that she’s going to be okay, for real this time.

•••

*Her name has been changed.

STEWART SINCLAIR is a writer from Ventura, California. His work has been featured in Guernica, AvidlyThe New Orleans ReviewThe Morning News, and The Millions. He now lives in Benshonhurst, Brooklyn. Find him on twitter: @stewsinclair.

Rocket Science

Photo by Jenifer Corrêa/Flickr
Photo by Jenifer Corrêa/Flickr

By Kate Haas

They gazed at me impassively, the man and the woman, each carefully neutral face masking—or so I imagined—the boredom of the entrenched bureaucrat settling in for a fifth hour of substitute teacher interviews.

“You arrive at the classroom,” said the guy, reading from a paper in front of him. “You find a vaguely written lesson plan. There are no administrators around to help. No one in the main office at all. What do you do?”

It was an implausible scenario, containing a hole a second-grader could have spotted. I was not here to point that out, I reminded myself. I was not here to be a wise-ass. This was my first formal job interview in seventeen years. I was here to play the game.

•••

Back in the 1980s, yanked by divorce from the stay-at-home life she’d imagined would continue indefinitely, my mother took the first job she could find, writing jacket copy for a major evangelical publishing company. My sister and I snickered at the freebies she brought home from the office: Christian Archie comics; spiritual marriage advice; and our favorites, a series of YA novels by a guy who operated a ministry for teen prostitutes, each book titled with the name of a girl (Vicki, Lori, Traci), its plot detailing her sordid downward spiral from teenage rebellion to the streets, followed by an uplifting finale at the ministry’s safe house, and a tearfully repentant Lori (or Vicki or Traci) flinging herself into the arms of Jesus.

My mother was an agnostic whose crammed bookshelves reflected her highbrow literary tastes: Jane Austen, Henry James, The New Yorker. But the divorce settlement favored my father, a man with a sometimey attitude toward child support. So with kids to raise and bills to pay, Mom peeled from our VW’s bumper the sticker proclaiming the Moral Majority to be neither, pulled on her nylons, and went to work.

“A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do,” she used to tell my best friend Clare’s mother when they got together on weekends to drink cheap white wine and swap stories about their lawyers and no-good exes.

•••

“It’s not about how good you are,” Clare counseled a few days before my interview. Like me, my old friend had quit teaching years ago. She’d recently gotten back in. “It’s whether or not you can speak the lingo.”

I remembered the acronym-larded professional development sessions back in the day, mandatory powerpoint presentations aimed at tired teachers surreptitiously trying to grade papers and plan lessons while simulating dutiful attention to the flavor of the month in educational strategy.

“It’s way worse now, with all the Common Core,” Clare said. “Don’t get me started. But you remember: redirect, assessment, collaborative learning, ownership, SSR.”

“SSR—shoot, I forgot all about that.” (SSR, for the uninitiated, stands for Sustained Silent Reading. SSR is to regular old reading as “sanitation engineer” is to “janitor”: the same damn thing.)

“Don’t worry, sister, you know what you’re doing,” Clare said. “Just tell ’em what they want to hear. Play the game.”

•••

I quit teaching high school at the turn of the millennium to stay home with my baby. It was a choice I was able to make because my husband earned just enough to support the three of us. But there was another reason I quit my job: I didn’t have the passion. The great teachers had it. Walking past their classrooms, you heard the bustle, felt the energy. Those teachers shone, with a core of dedication that couldn’t be faked. Sure, they griped about the troublemakers. They rolled their eyes, recounting some mouthy tenth grader’s outrageous comment. But their voices—exasperated yet understanding—gave them away. They loved those troublemakers.

I didn’t.

I was a decent teacher. I worked hard and planned my lessons carefully. I told my students that everyone has a story to tell. Real or imagined, we all have that story. I explained point of view, and starting a new paragraph every time the speaker changes, and providing necessary background information. I reminded them, more times than I ever imagined I would, to end sentences with punctuation.

My students wrote stories and essays and workshopped them together, drafting and revising multiple times before presenting their finished work. As a class, we applauded each presentation, and I pinned the finished pieces ceremonially to a special bulletin board with a shiny silver border. The kids acted like all this was no big deal, but it was.

When I informed my ninth graders that they would memorize the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, they didn’t believe they could do it. “Fourteen lines, guys, fourteen lines,” I told them. For the next month, we started every class by standing up and reading the prologue in unison. Sometimes we marched around the room reciting it. My students made a great show of rolling their eyes and muttering. (“Dude, can you believe this?”) But around they went, quietly at first, shuffling on the scuffed floor, then with increasing gusto: Two houses, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene…They had it down in two weeks. It was only fourteen lines, after all.

Sometimes, even at the end of a long day, the thrill of this would hit me: these words, ringing in the California air, four centuries and a world away from their birthplace.

But I didn’t have the passion. I was weary of contending with the core of disruptive students who filled my classroom, angry kids I couldn’t seem to reach. I envied people who were done at the end of the workday. My job was a never-ending slog of lesson-planning, essay-reading, and grading. It ate up every evening, and every weekend, and I couldn’t imagine continuing and raising a family, too. When I quit to stay home, the freedom was exhilarating.

Still, four years later, I felt a pang when my license expired. I didn’t want to teach again, but it was disquieting to realize I couldn’t. The licensing commission had a lot of nerve, I thought. No longer good enough were my master’s degree, years of experience, and the slew of National Teacher Exams I’d passed. Now they wanted coursework before I could renew. That meant going back to school. My children were one and four. It wasn’t going to happen.

But what if the worst occurred? What if I was left on my own, like my mom, to raise my children? All the stay-at-home mothers talked about that. Few of us were in a position to easily re-enter the professions we’d left. Without my teaching license, what job was I qualified for that could support a family?

I tried to ignore those questions. Life insurance would take care of me if anything happened to my husband. As for the other possibility, I tried not to think about that, either. My husband brought me flowers every Friday and sent hand-drawn postcards when he was out of town, even for a night. He wasn’t going to leave me.

Part of me didn’t believe that. It was the part that remembered the wave. That’s what we call it now: the divorce wave, the surge of broken marriages beginning in the 1970s and peaking when my mother got her job with the Christian publisher. By the time those waters receded, not one of my friends’ families remained intact. Forty years later, Clare and I are still sloshing through the ruins, trying to spot the faulty foundations, the unstable beams, to identify exactly which imperceptible weaknesses rendered our parents unable to withstand the tide. Even now, part of me can’t help thinking of divorce the way I did as an eleven-year-old: a catastrophe that strikes without warning, a tsunami on a clear day.

That teaching license was my only route to higher ground. I needed it back.

When the kids were finally in school, I dug out my expired license and called the state to find out how much coursework was involved in renewing it.

“Fill out Application C and send in fingerprints and $225,” said the young man on the phone.

“Yes, I know,” I said. “But what about the education credits? How many will I need?”

“No credits. They changed the law four months ago. All you need now is the application, the fingerprints, and the $225. Do you want me to send you the forms?”

They changed the law.

I was unprepared for the elation that surged through me, the rush of astonished gratitude—all of which I promptly poured forth upon the hapless guy on the phone. It felt, at that moment, as though he had personally intervened on my behalf; if I could have reached through the phone to embrace him, I would have. Then, like Cagney or Lacey interrogating a perp, I proceeded to grill him. Was he absolutely sure about this? It applied to all licenses? Finally, I thanked him profusely, my brain thrumming like a violin string. In the space of a few minutes, with no effort at all, my employment prospects had shifted from service industry to professional grade.

Not that I wanted to teach again. I’d built up a freelance editing business over the years, and it was paying for extras, like summer camp and music lessons. I was done with the classroom. We didn’t need the money. I didn’t have the passion. But now—now I had the option. I was standing on higher ground.

•••

Just ask an English teacher, and they’ll tell you: nothing gold can stay. The easy license renewal turned out to be a one-time deal. Four years later, it wouldn’t be so simple.

“I don’t care what you have to do,” Clare said. “Don’t let that license expire.”

She didn’t need to elaborate. For three years now, ever since her husband left their marriage, Clare had been wading through deep water. From the opposite coast, I’d cheered her efforts get back in the classroom: enrolling in graduate school, taking after-school teaching gigs, updating a resume with a thirteen-year gap. The hardest part was renewing her expired license, an epic bureaucratic campaign spanning eighteen months and involving the tracking down of records in three states.

“Letting the license expire was my biggest mistake,” she warned me every time we talked, a speech that always reminded me of the anti-drug commercials of our youth. “Don’t let it happen to you.”

I didn’t intend to. After a semester of online coursework at my local community college, I possessed the fresh transcripts necessary to satisfy the state licensing commission for another three years.

Now here I was in the district administration building, interviewing for a job. Not that I wanted to be a substitute teacher, exactly. But this time, it wasn’t about whether or not I had the passion. What I had was two teenagers, one of whom would be applying to college in a year. What I had was residency in a city where substitute pay is among the highest in the nation. I could set my own schedule if they hired me here, contribute to the college fund, and still have time to write and edit. What I had, in fact, was the prospect of an ideal side gig. Yeah, I wanted this job.

But I didn’t need it.

My husband’s position at a public agency survived the recession, thanks to a stable tax base. And after his seventeen years there, we’re no longer balancing on a financial tightrope, the way we were when I first quit teaching. The mortgage would be paid on time if I bungled this interview, and the orthodontist’s bill. No one would go hungry in my house if these two didn’t like my answers.

I wasn’t thinking about that—not consciously, anyway—as I explained how I would amend that vague lesson plan on the fly, make it specific. I was focused on playing the game, nimbly referencing stalwarts of the Language Arts curriculum, like Of Mice and Men and Raisin in the Sun. I avoided pointing out that under no circumstance—except possibly the Rapture—would a public school’s main office be devoid of personnel at eight a.m.

Neither interviewer spoke when I finished. They looked at me expectantly.

I’d already described my disciplinary strategies and my approach to lesson planning. I’d talked about meeting each learner at their level. Wasn’t I speaking the lingo? Hadn’t I demonstrated my professional competence?

I launched into another example, this one based on using classroom clues to devise a lesson. Art on the wall indicates a unit on the Middle Ages? I’d have students write a dialogue between a serf and a knight, or an artisan and a priest.

Still no response. What more did these people want?

“I could do dozens of things in this scenario,” I said, perhaps inexpertly masking my exasperation. That was when it happened, when I heard myself add, “You know, this really isn’t rocket science.”

•••

My interviewers flicked glances at each other, then fixed me with identical fishy stares. After a long pause, the woman said “Do you have any questions for us?”

No, I did not.

I berated myself all the way to the parking lot. Substitute teaching is not, of course, rocket science. But Clare, or anyone who really needed that job, would never have permitted herself to say so. She wouldn’t have been so careless, not with the water rising around her.

But we all have a story, and in the one that’s mine to tell, my toes have never even gotten wet. I’m still not certain how to account for it.

At forty or fifty, not everyone is the same person they were at twenty or thirty or wants the same things. No one understands that better than people like Clare and me, who lived through the wave, who watched our fathers—and it was mostly the fathers—decide that, after all, our mothers were not the women they wanted to grow old with. For us, marriage felt like an extraordinary gamble, like stepping aboard a rocket, equipped with nothing to calculate its trajectory but love and hope.

My judgment is no better than Clare’s, or her mother’s, or mine. I haven’t worked at my marriage any harder than they did. Yet in my story, the man who seemed fundamentally decent and kind at twenty-five is still both of those things twenty years on. The young woman who decided to spend her life with him hasn’t changed her mind about that. The waters have held back from us. Which is why I’m standing here on dry ground, secure enough to be a wise-ass at an interview, a writer who doesn’t actually need a day job. Most of the time, it all feels like the sheerest luck.

Maybe they appreciated my honesty. Or maybe anyone with a credential and a pulse was going to get that job. Either way, I was hired. And that felt lucky, too.

•••

KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, OZY, Slate, and other venues. A regular contributer to Full Grown People, she lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

Read more FGP essays by Kate Haas.

Stinger

pocket doll
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Lori Jakiela

The scorpion’s name is Cupcake and Cupcake looks pissed.

“Oh, come on,” a zoo official with a walkie-talkie strapped to his waist says. “How scary can it be with a name like that?”

He’s talking to a girl. The girl is on Cupcake’s side of the safety rope. The zoo official is on the other. It’s the girl’s job to pop Cupcake’s carrying case open. Then she’s supposed to reach in and scoop out Cupcake like a gerbil.

From the way the girl is shaking, I’m sure it’s her first time.

I should say, “Honey, are you crazy? Don’t do that.”

I should say, “Sweetheart, how much are they paying you?”

To the zoo official, who is about my age and still wears his baseball cap backwards, I should say, “Why don’t you put your hand in there, dickhead?”

Instead I bring my ten-year-old son over to watch.

•••

How I became this person, I don’t know.

Earlier, I wanted to hang out at the shark tanks. Then on the rickety bridge over Otis the Alligator.

Zoos trigger something primal in me. I don’t pay attention to the cute animals. I’m interested only in animals that, if things were fair and cage-free, would kill me. A zoo visit is about defying mortality, maybe. Most things are. It’s something not to talk about, though, especially with my sensitive ten-year-old son, who worries the snow leopard is depressed, wonders if the komodo dragon is lonely, and likes the penguin house most of all.

•••

We were on our way to check out venomous snakes when I saw the Live Animal Demonstration sign.

How I justify watching:

I read somewhere that most scorpion stings are the same as bee stings.

I convince myself Cupcake is some sort of eunuch, a domesticated nub where a stinger used to be.

I think if someone’s going through the trouble of picking up a scorpion the size of a Pop-Tart, the rest of us should pay attention.

“You’ve got to see this,” I tell my son, who is a more decent person and who would rather not see this at all.

•••

Cupcake’s whole body is a claw. She’s backed into the corner of her carrying case. Inside the reptile house, under ultraviolet light, Cupcake glows like a club kid at a rave. But out here, in the sunshine, she’s so black she’s almost purple, one oil-slick bruise. Her carrying case is pink, plastic, the kind usually reserved for hermit crabs, starter pets. It’s the kind of case kids store Barbie shoes in.

“Look, sweetie,” I say to my son. “She’s going to pick up that scorpion.” I point, like I’ve just said something wise, a life lesson.

I’ve become the muscle-guy from earlier, back at the aquarium. He flexed, pointed to a tank, and said, in a low and serious voice, “What we have right here are fish.” His pretty girlfriend clung to his bicep and cooed.

My son doesn’t coo. He backs up, because he’s not an adult, because the world hasn’t worn his heart to a nub, an overused eraser, because he still feels things.

“Why would she do that?” he wants to know.

The girl is ponytailed, in a powder-blue polo shirt with the zoo logo stitched on the chest. She looks like summer help, an intern, maybe. Maybe she’s getting minimum wage. Maybe this is unpaid life experience and she’s chalking up college credits she’ll have to take out loans to cover.

“Because she’s in training?” I say, and of course it comes out as a question.

“In training for what?” my son wants to know.

•••

I’ve had a lot of awful jobs, terrible internships. “Life training,” people called some of them. None involved handling a scorpion, but still.

•••

Once when I was a flight attendant, a pilot made me hold a door shut during take-off and landing.

There was a mechanical problem—the door wouldn’t lock completely and the handle would start to open on ascent and descent. It was something that would normally ground the plane, but the pilot had a date in D.C. that night—one hot blonde, one strip-club steakhouse, jumbo margaritas served up in glasses shaped like boobs.

The pilot didn’t want a delay.

He said, “Did you bring a parachute?”

He said, “You’ll love the way you’ll fly.”

He said, “Come on, I’m joking.”

He said, “Just don’t let go,” and winked.

I was young. I needed that job. I did what I was told. I pushed my whole weight against the handle and the handle pushed back. I don’t know how dangerous it was really, but I could feel the cold air whistle around the door seal. The steel handle frosted and shook and any minute it seemed the door would burst and I’d jettison out, cartoon baggage, still strapped in my jumpseat and smiling. I’d been taught to smile on the job no matter what. I did that. The door handle inched open and I kept calm and the passengers kept calm. They looked at me like I knew what I was doing and I pretended to know what I was doing.

We went on like that until one guy started hitting his call button. He kept at it through the short flight. He was doing sign language to show he needed a drink, that he might choke and die if he did not get a drink, like this lack of drink was cutting off what little oxygen he had left.

I smiled. He did not smile back. I shrugged and pointed my chin toward the seatbelt sign overhead, which demanded I stay seated, too—sorry, sorry—and that we’d both just have to hold on.

I held on. He kept pressing his call light like a game show buzzer. The door stayed shut. By the time we were on the ground, I was shaking. A red imprint marked my palm from the handle, and the man who wanted a drink was so angry he wrote down my name. He threatened to write a complaint even though I got him snacks and a diet Coke to go.

The pilot heard all of this but pretended not to.

“I think I can, I think I can,” the pilot said. He pulled his pilot-cap low, gangster-style. “Nice work, little engine,” he said, and patted my hip on his way out of the cockpit, off to his margarita-boobs and his blonde and the thick steak he liked juicy and medium-rare.

•••

It’s been a dozen years since I had a job like that, which is maybe one reason I can keep watching the girl and the scorpion now. Empathy is an easy thing to lose, like car keys, like the name of that one actor who played in that movie about scorpions, you know the one.

“You can do it,” the zoo official says as the girl loosens the clasp on Cupcake’s case.

•••

“You forgot what work is,” my father used to say, meaning me and what I do for a living, the way I push words around a page. He meant, watch it. He meant, first you’re on one side of the glass, then the other. He meant, be kind.

He meant, it’s not work if it can’t kill you.

He meant what work does to a body, but work kills people in many ways, I think.

•••

At the entrance to the machine shop where my father worked for thirty years, a sign counted down the days since the last accident. The numbers were flip charts. The numbers didn’t go above two digits much. It was someone’s job to turn those numbers forward and back. Imagine that job.

My father had so many metal shavings in his skin he’d joke that he’d set off metal detectors at airports. He never wore a wedding ring because rings could catch in the machines and take a finger or worse.

“I want to keep all my fingers,” he’d say, “so I can show the foreman where to stick it.”

•••

“I mean, seriously,” the zoo official is saying, “Cupcake?”

It’s a punchline he’s sharing again and again.

•••

When our son was first born, he cried all the time and no one in our house slept much. At first we thought it was colic, but it went on and on and the pediatrician shrugged and said some children are born sensitive like that.

“He’ll get used to it,” the pediatrician said about my son and the world.

My husband worked a terrible corporate job back then. His boss liked to stretch an eight-hour day into a fifteen-hour day too often to count.

Once, after a stretch of six long days in a row, my husband came home and went into the kitchen. He took a serrated bread knife to his forehead. He carved. Blood ran into his eyebrows and down his cheeks. He came out and showed me. He looked proud. I felt sick. But then he called his boss and said he’d been in a car accident and wouldn’t be in to work the next day and maybe the next. I cleaned his forehead with peroxide and we celebrated with drinks and take-out from an Italian restaurant nearby. Everything felt, for a moment, manageable. We remembered we were happy. We remembered we loved each other. Our son slept some. We did, too.

“Most men live lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau said.

A knife going across a forehead wouldn’t make much of a sound.

•••

“In training for what?” my son wanted to know about the girl.

•••

The girl shakes even more now, like she’s about to stick a fork in a toaster. Cupcake’s case is open. Inside, Cupcake flexes her tail, her very operational stinger. I look down at my son, who’s squinted his eyes shut.

The girl tries to breathe. She cups her hand and lowers it into the case.

“Okay,” she says to the zoo official, who’s beaming. “Now what?”

“It’s not what you look at,” Thoreau said. “It’s what you see.”

“Things do not change,” Thoreau said. “We change.”

The girl nudges her hand under Cupcake.

She brings the creature out to show us, a heavy dark heart in her palm.

•••

LORI JAKIELA is the author of three memoirs—most recently Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books 2015)—as well as a poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point 2012), and several chapbooks. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and more. She teaches in the writing programs at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and co-directs the summer writers’ festival at the historic Chautauqua Institution. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their children. For more, visit http://lorijakiela.net.

Read More FGP essays by Lori Jakiela. 

The Ringing in My Ears

happy sad
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Randy Osborne

The old lady comes up short, but she didn’t budge, failed to budget, couldn’t fudge it. She with her Camels and six-pack of beer and chips who stares at the checkout screen with eyes of disbelief, or what she wants Register Man to believe. Need’ll make you fake things.

She mutters to Register Man, who replies the total again, blank-faced. Nods past the old lady at me, as if to signal: Sorry sir, you’re next. Though I have no purchase, am not in line yet. About my age, the old lady, let’s just say.

The standoff: She fingers her envelope—CURR. scrawled on it (Register Man, take this dog by the ears!), and CHANGE scrawled on it (our only certainty), with rows of meager totals. Silver hair shags out the back of her baseball cap. Imagine her school pictures in forgotten shoeboxes. The small round face, peg teeth, beaming into the future. This one.

We have a problem, each of us edgy for slightly different reasons, but mostly it’s our possible sad destinies standing in front of us smacking her pockets in faux astonishment. Or the old lady has a problem. Register Man only seems to, really. He owns the place.

Last week he scolded me, shrill: Why you not buy case wine, ten percent discount! You in here almost every day, buy wine. You like Whitehaven so I add supply, boxes in behind for holiday, I am overstock!

I scan a row of jars. Gourmet pickles, truffle paste, rare Italian beans. How did she find her way here? Our neighborhood swarms with youth. They slog to dreary, high-paying jobs—an equation: the more numb your soul, the fatter your paycheck, they learn to accept—and avert their gaze from stray elderlies, the ones I pretend I’m not. As I do right now, and to escape at least mentally, I get on my phone and call Joyce. A few blocks away, she doesn’t pick up. Stirring dinner.

As a kid I once hurled a telephone to smithereens. One of those runkenclatter rotary-dial apparatuses, so unlike the wafers children of today tap and smile into, hefty with the promise of serious plaster damage, which it delivered thereon. To me, the possibility that one person could talk to another not within sight or earshot seemed deeply, even infuriatingly wrong. That I caught myself up in trying, worse. Maybe you think I’m crazy to feel this way still.

The silly cell-phone burble repeats in my ear. Pick up, pick up. No Joyce.

And then it starts again—a different kind of ring.

The diagnostic term, tinnitus, reminds me of that light tap of stick on cymbal that drummers sometimes do. Unlike the noise in my head, where a jet engine revs, whines. Or locusts drone in trees. Or a uniform tone beeps long: this is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. It arrives at the oddest moments for no apparent reason and subsides the same.

I consider paying for the old lady. Not because I am an exemplary person. Not because of the season, this pageant of do-goodism looming over us a week before the 2015 calendars flip. I consider paying for her because of reprieve. For the old lady, who wants only to recline in her distant hovel with suds and smokes. For Register Man, who knows that if she blocks the flow of commerce a few minutes more he must give her the heave-ho, and nobody wants to haul a crone out the door screaming this time of year. For me, of course, phone still clamped to head as I pretend to listen and converse. I actually say a few words—to nothing.

Now I am outside, under the strung lights. Now at the street. Cross.

Three nights ago, on the fifth floor of our gated complex’s parking deck, I peered over the wall (an easy climb) to the cement below. Could happen fast. Up and over. Air whistling past my ears, the delicious impact.

Briefly I left myself.

Back in the body. How long passed? No more than a few seconds—amazed, I saw my foot drop from the ledge where it had waited for the rest of me to follow. Half over, like bounding a country fence. How the deed gets done when it does. A moment of inadvertency.

The near-George Bailey episode followed a night of trying to write through the confluence of agitations become chronic. At my keyboard, all the world’s clamor. Pop-ups and videos, Facebook ever hailing. The full internet of tags and links, chains draped, hung off my invisibly distributed personhood, not anywhere.

Now, almost home. Outside the tall-paned bar I pause to examine the women, fresh, much hair-toss and throat-show. Gust of wind chafes my face, a filthy looker, and suddenly I realize that if I don’t go back and help the old lady, I’ll fret hours over my inaction. Another clog in rusted wheels.

I turn. Cross.

To find the scene unchanged, as if time stopped. Incredulous old lady. Register Man with fists on hips. A second queue open, twitchy adolescent handling the overflow.

My voice comes out how much. What does she owe? Register Man, whom nothing surprises, says $3.27. What about the tax on, I say, there’s tax on, tax on—a fool stammer, I throttle—everything. At last I step in. Swipe the card. We’re almost touching. Let the fossil be gone, into the dark.

I want to chase her down the street, deranged, and grab her by the knob shoulders and shake answers out. I want the grand epiphany, balm. I want to know that everything I believe I understand is more than a stuck-on symbol.

Instead, I’ll let the elevator hiss-groan me to the top deck again. Trace the city skyline with bent finger. Dream what’s nearing from beyond, if there even is.

Cross. Rise.

•••

RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Randy Osborne here.

Shelter Girl

fairyhome
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Chareen Ibraheem

I hoped to say goodbye to it in 2015. But the year ended and I was still here.

So many factors revolve around being homeless. I can look at the factors all day long, and we as a society can engage and look at the factors all day long. But the truth of the matter is I can only look at myself.

I was always uneasy with looking at myself in the mirror, even as a child. But I find it even harder to do now. I may glance at myself for a minute to make sure my cornrows are neat and well kept, but when I look in the mirror—I mean really look in the mirror—I see the embarrassment of the adult I’ve become. I see an embarrassment to the little girl I was, who grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, New York. I haven’t been fair to the little girl who loved to create, create something, and create anything that would lead her away from the harsh reality of the projects. Her imagination was her key to unlock her way out, her creativity the strength to push open the door. To a world of possibilities, or so she thought.

I’m watching myself in the mirror, standing over a sink and trying to squeeze enough water out of my washcloth to quickly wash before someone in the church (where I will stay tonight out of the cold) needs to come in. I monitor the door and try to finish up, and I think about how I got to this point in my life. Especially with two college degrees. I didn’t think an A.S. in Theater and a B.A. in English were so great, but down here where I am located, it’s like a prize just to finish high school.

Someone bangs on the door and curses that they need to use the bathroom. Sighing, I turn off the water, dry off, and put fresh clothes on (especially underwear, since they’re scarce around here for women). Opening the door, I walk past a young guy who is looking at me all angry. I ignore him as I walk over to my mat, squinting my eyes in the semi-darkness. On several other mats, some people are whispering in conversation, others cough, and some have settled down for the night.

I finally spot my mat that has a small red blanket on it, and my heart soars with relief, thankful to be indoors from the cold. Except for the hardness of the mat, it’s okay. It’s much better than sitting in an airport, hospital, or stairway building all night. Removing my dirty sneakers that already have holes formed in them, I step onto the mat and lie on it, but not before trying to find a comfortable spot. When I do, I adjust my now-dirty cross bag like a pillow and lay my head on it.

Immediately my mind starts to wander back to a time—eight years ago, in another state—when I sat at a bar in a strip club. I don’t want to go there; I often pray I don’t. I fight hard to move on from that chapter of my life as well as other chapters, but the human brain is fascinating at recapturing things you don’t want to remember.

•••

This was not my first time being met with homelessness. You’d think after years of knocking on doors for jobs, jobs in my field, any kind of jobs, I would be settled by now. But, it hasn’t worked that way. I’ve run around town, dressed in my best interview clothes, and talked in my proper professional etiquette, and I’ve had years of experience working in corporate office setting. How many closed doors in one’s face can one take? No criminal background, no drugs, no illegal history of any kind. That would hinder me to getting that “dream” job that I dreamed since I was a child. Timing? Maybe. Years of inquiring, and still knocking, honing skills needed the best as I could.

I was weary. I fell into a deep dark depression, and I couldn’t see my way out of it. Usually I could, but this time, it was like a black hole that sucked me in deeper each day. Destructive habits were starting to resurface, ones I had long tried to suppress, work on, or pray about. But they found a way back, a door open, and a trigger. Growing up in a family full of destructive habits, it was easy to fall into the same pattern.

Not able to meet a motel room I stayed in briefly, I headed down to the local city shelter. It was place that was surrounded by all kinds of people that were destructive on many levels. Strangely enough, I felt at home. I felt a kind of high being there. This was my first time in one. Feeling alone and abandoned by family, church, and friends, I didn’t care. Old thoughts of sexual abuse as well as other abuse I faced as a child kept popping up in my mind. Years of trying to “let it go” had not worked for me. Suddenly it was like a gulf overtaking me, the years of rejection gnawed at me.

I guess it made sense—I was just rejected by a guy I was semi-getting to know a few weeks ago. I felt the need to prove myself and show him I was what he wanted.

All around me I heard bits and pieces of conversation about local strip clubs in the area. The idea to feel beautiful and sexy at the same time and become every man’s fantasy was alluring. Not to mention, I heard if you were “good” at what you did, the money rolled in rather quickly. Naive to this, I didn’t understand all of what “good” meant.

A woman who was a former stripper said to me, “You’re not ready,” when I asked her about it. She briefly schooled me on the basics of the “business,” and the more she talked the more excited I became. It sounded like a glamorous lifestyle. I was feeling desperation and a need for attention from this guy, so I took what I wanted from our talk and ignored the rest. After all, it was only one night. What would it hurt? I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t get any lower than where I was.

I had heard about amateur night at this local club everyone knew about, where all you wear is a bikini and dance for money. Sitting at the bar, I watched a nude woman with stilettos on stage dance, surrounded by colored lights. I was mesmerized by how this woman boldly worked the pole, dancing in sync to the hip hop and R&B music, moving in time with the music. Men threw money gracelessly at her feet. Excitement building in my chest, I wanted to be like this woman, who was not only attractive but had men falling at her feet. I felt self-conscious about my apparel: no bikini, but jeans and sneakers. Not to mention my puffed-out relaxer and slight odor from not being able to use the showers at the shelter that day.

I turned towards the bar and ordered a Hennessey and Coke. I took a sip, enjoying the way it tasted on my tongue. I wasn’t a drinker, but this was what I needed. As I sipped my drink, I causally chatted with a guy who sat next to me. I held onto my drink and watched him carefully. He encouraged me to get up on stage and said I could do it.

Insecurity settled on me like a familiar blanket, and I again scanned the room to see women in bikinis and thongs handing out drinks to guys at the tables. Their hair and makeup fixed in sexy styles, neatly done, they skillfully walked in stilettos. I kept wondering what was I doing there. These women were gorgeous. They had an art to dancing and working the pole that I would never master, I thought.

I ordered another Hennessey and Coke. I felt like I was inside a dream, a hazy dream. The pulse of the music sounded out sexual and raunchy things to be done. Time was going by quickly. I wanted desperately for the guy to call me back and say, “Shorty, I am on my way.” (He always called me shorty). But in the whole hour, his phone just kept ringing and going to voicemail. Left messages. No answer. Glancing at the door now and then, I still expected him to walk through the door. I was frustrated and hurt. I stopped calling. I imagined he must be laughing at me with his chick. Taking another sip, it went down my throat easily again.

A couple of drinks later, I felt myself loosen up as I relaxed and waited for them to call us new girls to the stage. All the while I felt myself falling into a deeper depression. If this was it for me, I at least wanted to enjoy the night. Death was on my mind. I felt it all around me. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to live anymore. Consumed with my thoughts as I listened to the music, a loud voice snapped me out of it.

“IT’S AMATEUR NIGHT LADIES! TO THE STAGE!” I looked up at a short guy with a booming voice. The guy in the seat next to me waved me on and winked. I grinned slightly at him. The music was lowered a bit. My favorite song by rapper TI—”You Could Do Whatever You Like”—was playing.

I asked the female bartender, “Is it time?”

My head felt woozy as my heart beat against my chest. I steadied myself on the bar stool.

“Yeah,” she said eyeing me briefly, before she gave the guy next to me a quick glance. I quickly jumped off the seat and followed behind a group of girls to a back room. I noticed everyone else had their bikinis on, and I didn’t have anything.

“Here.” A girl threw a bikini set to me. It landed easily in my hands. “Keep it.” Nodding, I rushed to the bathroom and tried to wash myself.

Doing the best I could with a small piece of soap and paper towels, afterwards I changed into the bikini, so small the thong part showed my butt cheeks. I guess this was supposed to be the desired effect. Adrenaline pumped through my veins—just the excitement of it was like drug.

Before I hit the stage, I tried to straighten out my semi-afro with my fingers and some water. I really wished I had found someone at the shelter to cornrow my hair for me. For free. Glancing at myself one last time, I looked down at my shoes. Church shoes, it looked like, with a heel. Not cool. But this was all I had. Everyone said it was okay. It was just “amateur” night. This was to see if they really wanted to keep you.

“Okay, ladies, let’s go!” a woman said outside the bathroom.

I took a deep breath, walked out, and headed to the stage with the other girls. At first, I danced with the other girls as a group, my nerves and fears getting the best of me.

It was different from what I had imagined. When it was my turn, I danced solo. My name was “Candy, and as I danced, I felt some money hit my leg and foot. Pleased, I kept moving until my turn was up.

Backstage, the lady who worked at the club grabbed my arm and said, “You gotta fix yourself up more, then you’ll have a chance.” I nodded and went to change. I knew I shouldn’t, but the wheels in my mind kept spinning as to who I could find to do my hair and coach me some more.

It was an early October morning and dark outside. I prepared to stay in the club until daylight when a big, built guy with glasses appeared in front of me and asked if I needed a ride. “Sure, thanks,” I said, uncomfortable.

“Come on.” He waved me outside. I followed as I tried to push away the advice the lady at the shelter gave me a few days ago.

I hopped in the black Jeep and slammed the door. He made small talk along the way. His car swerved the car a bit as we rode down the dark road. “I liked your dancing,” he said, taking turns eyeing me and the road.

I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in him at all. I laughed, smiled, and flirted a bit to try to buy time.

“You live around here?”

“No.” I shrugged my shoulders coolly. “With a friend downtown.” I held tight to the twenty-five dollars he threw at me on stage.

“I really liked what I saw. You’re sexy,” he said, staring at me in the dark car as we sat waiting for the light to change. We were almost downtown. My heart was doing flip-flops. I was for this ride to be over.

“Let me give you my number,” he said.

“Yeah, let me get it,” I said calmly, with a giggle in my voice.

We were finally downtown, and he quickly wrote down his number. “Call me.”

“I will.”

“Let me get a hug, shorty.” Expectation still lingered in his eyes.

I moved over and hugged him, and he squeezed as he hugged me. Smiling, I told him, “I’ll call you.”

We moved away from each other and I quickly grabbed the handle and got out of the Jeep. With one finally smile and a wave, I walked away quickly around the comer. Leaning against a wall, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I waited for my breathing to return to normal. Then I opened my eyes and walked the few steps towards Landmark Diner, my favorite diner. I went inside and ordered my favorite meal.

As I ate, I thought about the events that took place. I was happy I had tried this new thing. A surge of excitement passed through me as I quickly pulled out my phone and redialed the guy again.

He picked up. “I see you’re answering your phone now,” I told him. I was nervous about what he would say next.

“What happened?” he asked a little too calmly. I went over the details with him. We stayed on the phone briefly because most of the time I was jotting down information he was giving me. He seemed impressed by my “attempt” at stripping so far and gave me a club to go to the next day and he said he would meet there. Although I was doubtful he would, my hopes still soared. This one would at least be closer to the shelter downtown.

I left the diner and headed back to the shelter. Things were busy as usual there, people trying to get help with getting placed, men standing outside looking for a hustle. People on in wheelchairs, drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes, women with children, women with baby daddies by their side. Impatient, sometimes grumpy, social workers.

I walked into the nearest bathroom ready to take a shower after getting a paper pass to do so. All that ran through my mind was getting ready for tonight. I’d find someone to do my hair to make it look halfway descent and find a sexier bikini this time and find someone to do my make-up. The excitement was building, the attention, the need to make more money, the glamor of it all.

I was about to step into the shower when, all of the sudden, I fell. My right ankle slammed against the floor hard. Not noticing the pool of water in front of me, I started to get up when the ankle or leg couldn’t hold me and I fell to the ground again. I cursed aloud, and I saw my right ankle begin to swell.

A lady who came in the bathroom, said, “Don’t move, honey. Someone gonna call the ambulance.”

She rushed out the bathroom. I sat there silently in shock, upset. My plans to self-destruct weren’t exactly working out as I had hoped. All I thought about was the guy I wanted to impress and how I wanted to be in his arms again. Really be in his arms, not some quick trip seeing me at a hotel room and that was it. I wanted to be his ride-or-die chick. I wanted to have his baby—I told him many times.

But I guess that wasn’t going to be. These thoughts went all around me, and that was more devastating than that my dreams of becoming a dancer were over.

I didn’t hear from the guy anymore. And when I did call, it was brief and or voicemail or a female who answered.

I wanted to die. I wondered why God had let me live. I hated my life. Not only was I homeless, but I was in a boot, walking around in crutches. I was reduced to nothing; the women in the shelter called me “Crutch.” What‘s up, Crutch?, You doin okay, Crutch? or Go, Crutch, as I struggled down the hall.

•••

As time went on, I stayed at different shelters for my ankle to heal—in the snow, rain and sleet at times—going out, to get clothes, documents needed, as well as information. That all basically led to nowhere. I was worn out, tired, hurt and confused.

People didn’t understand—that I would expect them to—that I wasn’t just homeless to be homeless. It was a reason behind it. I was struggling in life to get my life together. I was thankful I wasn’t in a corner of a shelter, rocking back and forth in a seat talking to myself, or receiving disability, or waiting for it to come, or waiting on child support. Or drug addicted. These were real problems to the shelter system people.

Not some woman who was clearly educated and so they thought she was trying to take advantage of the system. What was I to do when I pushed myself for years to get a better job more stability?

I still was with family until now. I don’t know, but maybe it wasn’t important. Maybe it wasn’t a big thing that my grandmother lived in a senior building, and for years the manager has been harassing me and her because the only people are supposed to be there are seniors. It doesn’t matter if I help her or go shopping for her, and still look for work and a place to stay for myself. It doesn’t matter that each day, I am on my grind. Doing what I have to do. Doesn’t matter that they threaten her if I continue to stay overnight with her. Where I have to try to sneak in and out just to have a place to stay. And after a while I am told I have to leave.

I guess it doesn’t matter or mean anything that I can’t stay with my mom in the projects I grew up in because the front door always locks to keep drug dealers and users out. And the only people who have the key are the people on the lease. Maybe it doesn’t matter that my mom has kicked me out of her apartment (if did get inside) and cursed me out and yelled at me and has physically put her hands on me.

Maybe that doesn’t matter to people because I am a grown woman and should be on my own. Not their problem. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the rest of my family doesn’t care. Again not their problem. I don’t know.

Maybe it doesn’t matter that I’ve traveled to another place to make a better life for myself and people seem kind at first, but then there is no money rolling in from you, and they tell you to leave. Or you return to their place at after looking for work all day and you can’t get in the house, or the key they gave you doesn’t work.

But in order get “help” from one of the shelter programs, you have to be literally homeless. If that was the case, then why couldn’t I get help when I was sitting in a chair in the airport, or sitting in the city hospital all night, or sitting in a stairwell of a building hoping no one would catch me just so I could be off the streets for the night? Then to go back to the local woman’s shelter to shower and eat lunch, but at three p.m., I have to leave, only to do this all over again until the shelter program for the week at a church opens up. Where I can lay on a floor on a mat. It wouldn’t bug me so much if I wasn’t still dealing with this right now in my life.

Yes, I am still dealing with this.

I am grinding every day to find work, more than temp that I’ve done many years now so I can at least secure a steady place to stay of my very own. I have to catch myself many times.

That child that once dreamed in the projects of Brooklyn still resurfaces a lot especially times like this. I have to tell that child, you’re an adult now—stop fantasizing about winning that Oscar and having your favorite actor by your side as you receive it. I try not to think about how I want to complete this novel I’ve tried to work on for years so I can make my grandmother proud. That how she took care of me most of the time was not in vain. I try to tell that little girl on a day like today when depression sets in, and I know she’s crying inside of me thinking about the abuse she suffered and the physical violence she witnessed and experienced. I tend to her for a minute—just for a minute—because if not she’ll want to live in the past and this is not the time or day to be stuck in the past.

This is not for people to feel sorry for me. I don’t like that. It’s to know and try to understand that not all homeless people are the same. But as I’ve sat, eaten, and slept with the homeless, I see that I have things in common with the women. The need to be loved and cared for, broken pain now and in the past, needing to get our lives together.

The only difference is I can say I am here because of God. No other reason. Why, I don’t know. But all I can do is stay on my grind one day at a time and hopefully make something wonderful happen out of all this pain and suffering. Maybe.

•••

CHAREEN IBRAHEEM is a writer living in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Go That Way, Very Fast. If Something Gets In Your Way, Turn.

chippedhouse
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Erica S. Brath

I was on my way home from a writers’ conference. I was about to get on the highway when I noticed it was a three-lane parking lot. So I kept going, That’s when the GPS started freaking out, trying to turn me around. I put my turn signal on, until I realized it was taking me back to where I’d started.

“No! I will not turn around. I will not go back.” I was white knuckled, jerking my father’s pickup truck around unfamiliar roads in the middle of Ohio. I clicked off the screen, tossed the phone in the console, and started looking for a place to pull over to consult a map.

“Damn it. I fucking hate Ohio!” I screamed in frustration as no shoulder wide enough to keep a Dodge Ram safe from passing traffic appeared.

I’ve been in these situations before, unsure of where I am, just driving forward, fear growing in the pit of my stomach. It rises to just below my ribcage and sits, nagging, anxiety pushing my pulse higher no matter how many times I count to ten.

“When you find yourself in a situation that causes you stress, take a moment to stop, find your center and breathe,” the yoga instructors always say, calm, peaceful, so fucking Zen you want to push them over and hit up a pastry shop.

Which may be why I have never actually been able to find that rock-solid island in the middle of adrenaline- and coffee-fueled chaos.

But for some reason, as I started to feel the blood pounding behind my eyeballs, I simply stopped. Not literally, because I was still cruising through cow-infested verdant fields of summer green, dotted now and then with absolutely adorable farmhouses, many with hearse-like black buggies next to cherubic boys in dark pants, white shirts and wide-brimmed hats, standing like tiny undertakers all in a row.

But for a single, blissed-out moment I didn’t care if I was lost, or where I was going. The truck said I was going east. That was good enough for me, because I needed to be in Ithaca, New York.

The fields sped by in my peripheral vision. Farmhouses, barns, buggies all started to look the same; I worried I was just going around in circles. I thought about life: Just because the scenery changes doesn’t mean you’re going forward. Or anywhere at all.

Was I going anywhere? What the hell was I doing anyway?

•••

I’d spent nearly a decade taking dozens of road trips with my husband, Sean. We’d driven between Pennsylvania and Virginia more times than I could remember, the most epic when we headed south pulling a newly-purchased twenty-nine-foot travel trailer. This was before either one of us had smart phones―maps and calls to my mother-in-law had to suffice for directions or information on where to get a half-decent cup of coffee―and well before our best efforts at making a life together imploded.

Now, he was in Philadelphia in a full-blown crash and burn―the countless calls and text messages I’d received over the course of the conference confirmed that. He was broke, out of work, homeless, and battling addiction. He blamed me, his mother, and anyone else who, in his mind, had let him down over the course of his life.

I know the fairytale grown-up world I thought existed when I was in my teens , where my―of course, British―rock star husband provides me with enough disposable income to chase whatever creative muse might flit by. I’m cool with working my ass off in conjunction with an equally driven partner. But that’s not how things had turned out.

We’d gone to hell and back during the recession, but we’d managed to finally eke out a somewhat decent existence. He’d returned to masonry with a small company outside Charlottesville, Virginia, and I had lucked into a job as a screenprinter—finally utilizing my BFA—after nearly a year working retail for eight dollars an hour. I’d also found an amazing group of creative, talented friends. I’d never imagined anywhere below the Mason-Dixon could feel like home, but it was tolerable, considering I was northeast born and bred.

“I can’t do what I want here,” he’d started saying from almost the moment we moved to C’ville. “No one here plays the kind of music I do.”

His musical talent is unmatched, so I was sympathetic. I don’t feel that way because I married him―I wouldn’t have married him had he been mediocre. Cold, yes, but if I were going to fully support his creativity, I had to believe in it. He was the real deal. I wanted to see him succeed.

“What do you want to do?” I asked with some trepidation when his misery finally reached a fever pitch three years into our foray in the south.

“I need to move back north.”

He’d made several weeks-long trips to Philadelphia that year to practice and play with his band, which consisted of the same guys he’d been in a previous band with before I met him. He’d handed me their CD shortly after we met―I put it in my car’s player knowing that if it sucked I’d have to break up with him. They were amazing, with the kind of chemistry that doesn’t come around often.

“Well, so, what do you want to do?” I repeated. “What’s your plan?”

It seemed straightforward enough: He’d move back to Philly, where we’d met and lived before the recession kicked us south. I’d stay in Cville and continue working, providing a steady stream of income, stability, and health insurance. He’d get settled, and then I’d pick up stakes and move north.

It fell apart almost from the get-go. He said he couldn’t hold it together without me, and he sank into addiction. I found myself repelled by his neediness. I saw my life with him as a trap. So instead I moved further north. It wasn’t a plan so much as a reaction.

•••

I felt like an asshole, like I’d somehow abandoned him. The guilt still burned red hot as I navigated the winding Ohio roads a full year after he’d packed up a rented van and driven north, away from our cramped, aged camper and onto a completely different life. He wasn’t my kid, he wasn’t a child—he was a full-grown man who refused to take responsibility for his actions. His mother and I had spent countless days and dollars to keep him afloat until it became obvious no amount of assistance would ever be enough. Yet I still felt like a jerk, and I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t know if the guilt would ever go away.

And I was sad. I knew in my heart that, in the end, we’d go our separate ways, but it’s not that I didn’t care about him. It didn’t stop me from feeling paralyzed, plodding through life’s motions under a heavy weight. It felt like just another failure, another way I’d managed to veer off life’s path, whatever that was supposed to be.

In many ways the hardest part was the external judgment, which just added to my uncertainty about what I was doing, or should be doing, or should have done. It was almost like the second Sean fell down, those around me headed my way with knives out. They’d been holding back, barely, their disdain, but all bets were off. I found myself putting up walls, forcing my own disdain at what had been, so completely, my life, as if by swearing it off I could convince the world—and those around me—I wasn’t like him.

“I always knew he was bad,” they’d say. “What were you thinking?”

And I’d nod my head in agreement—“Yeah, what was I thinking?”—afraid that if I defended him, they’d judge me harshly, too.

Thing is, he wasn’t actually a bad person. He may have looked like your typical bad boy, and he most certainly embodied the stereotypical rock and roll persona. He was tall, thin, his body angled in sharp lines from hard living and hard labor. He smoked like a chimney, swore off whiskey and the rages it put him into, and sported one—intentionally—amateurish tattoo: a skull and crossbones with the words “fuck off.” He was wholly, unabashedly, loudly uncouth. But he was also a voracious reader and a constant questioner of the kinds of things most people just accepted as fact, which the journalist in me found a kinship with.

When the financial sector collapsed and everyone I knew turned their backs while we struggled, we only had each other to rely on. Losing my ally, my—albeit damaged—champion was like another floor dropping out. He may have been alive in the corporeal sense, but I wasn’t sure the real Sean was ever coming back. And if I waited to find out? How many second chances could I give him before it was too late? I hated myself for even thinking this way, and I hated him.

He’d dropped out of school at sixteen, lived wherever he could find a place to lay his head and was, for the most part, married to music, his second wife. I was his third. Drugs were, and always had been, his first.

•••

I wasn’t sure about moving north, but winter was coming fast and the camper was falling apart. I had to make a decision. I had family in Ithaca, but for all intents and purposes I was broke and alone, save for my two terriers. I was forty-four, not a single possession worth calling my own. Even my own truck, which I’d left for my dad to drive if needed when I headed to Ohio, was a slap in the face: I had a car I loved somewhere along the east coast, which I’d been forced to leave after its water pump quit. Sean was supposed to drive from Philly to Virginia to get it after I moved, and we’d trade in the spring―I’d headed north driving what had been our tow vehicle, our Behemoth, a ’97 Suburban. I had no idea where my car was, or whose dubious possession it might be in, along with the rest of my belongings. So I was limited to very local trips considering the advanced age and state of disrepair of the tow beast.

Which is how I wound up driving more than four hundred miles each way to Ohio in my father’s pickup. I’d attempted to rent a car, but was turned away when it was discovered I was a nomadic ne’er do well.

“My dad’s going to pay for everything,” I said sheepishly, handing over my driver’s license at the rental counter. I was, after all, well beyond the age of my father paying for anything. But he’d offered, and I was in no financial situation to say no. I’d taken a part-time job in Ithaca with the same chain store that had plucked me from jobless perdition in Virginia just to make sure I didn’t go without work. But the pay and hours provided little more than spare change in the adult world I had once been accustomed to living in.

I’d spent thousands of dollars on this particular car rental company; I had no reason to think there would be a problem. They’d gained my loyalty when the engine of my Volkswagen Golf self-destructed in 2010, melting to a puddle of oily, metallic goo on the side of Route 495 in Delaware, leaving me, Sean, and our puppy stranded as traffic zoomed by. Their gimmick was they’d come get you. We’d needed a car. I’d wound up renting from them for well over a month.

So it was a shock when they rejected me.

“If you don’t have a major credit card, we need proof of income and residence,” the woman behind the counter said. “And you’ll have to pay for everything yourself. No one else can pay for you.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked, still not comprehending the situation. “Why can’t he just rent the car and add me on as a second driver?”

“Because we need the same information from all drivers, so even if you’re a second driver and you don’t have a major credit card, you still need to prove income and residence.”

My cheeks grew hot, my pulse started to race, and my favorite feeling―enraged embarrassment―took over. I could prove my pittance of an income but not residence. I hadn’t had an actual, legal address in years. By federal law, even as a full-time RVer, I was considered homeless.

“This is outright discrimination,” I stated, digging my fingernails into my palm. “I do not have proof of residence, and why, exactly, do you need proof of income?”

As if I didn’t know: Because if you’re on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, you’re a lazy, shiftless thief. Because people without credit cards don’t work. Because being chosen to hold credit certifies you are an actual citizen in the eyes of the rest of society. That’s what matters―money. Anyone who doesn’t have it is scum and banned from normal activities. Like renting a car to attend a conference. Because lazy impoverished scumbags don’t go to conferences. They’re too busy collecting welfare and doing drugs.

It makes even the strongest-willed person want to crumble. Which is why I can almost understand Sean’s compulsion to numb himself no matter the consequences. Almost.

It’s no secret: I bought into the lie that as an educated person I deserved to live a life of comfort, free from things like being turned away when trying to rent a car. But the life I’ve lived and its choices—some made by me, some hoisted upon me—have shown me that there’s really no escaping the mess that is life.

But I was neither a total failure nor the victim, but something in-between. I loathed working retail and the pittance I earned, but I also hated working seventy-hour weeks in uncomfortable shoes so some CEO could feel impressive and buy something else. I’d been given the chance, an existential Scrooge story in reverse, to decide what, exactly, had to change. Would I keep pushing forward until I found my way? And if it all went to shit, if the traffic stopped moving, was I agile enough to veer off and figure it out without crashing again?

I figured I needed to find the fine line between living in the moment and looking at the long-term ramifications of what I was doing. I’d been cruising along for decades, certain I’d always find another on-ramp and everything would work out for the best. There’s merit in that approach, but also some nasty potholes. Getting hitched in the basement of a bland, brick apartment complex with no witnesses and celebrating afterward with a cup of Dunkin Donuts might have been a place to start thinking about the path I’d been on. But I hadn’t. I needed to find balance. I dreaded becoming stuck, but the other option—full-on hedonism—was also something I couldn’t even bear witness to, let alone indulge.

With the conference behind me, and its amazing writers inspiring me to just get to fucking work, I had to accept I was alone, wandering on the eastern edge of the Midwest. The guilt, the hurt, and the anger still burned in my gut, and probably always would. But was anyone else’s happiness my responsibility? Was it okay to put myself, my ambitions, first?

I’d been taking the most circuitous routes my entire life, but they were mine. I owned them. The writing conference was just another start, a way to meet people like me, wake the muse up and keep going. It wasn’t fucking up so much as it was just life. Could I cut myself some slack? Should I? And more importantly, could I stop feeling sorry for myself and everyone else and do what needed to be done?

“Aha!” I hollered as I spied a sign for the highway. I could see it off to my left, cars and semis flying along. “So there!” I exclaimed, slapping the wheel in triumph, shaking off the melancholy.

•••

ERICA S. BRATH is a non-fiction writer currently living in Ithaca, New York. She works as a graphic designer and editor, and has written for publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, and Men’s Health. She is currently working on a nonfiction book detailing her experience living full-time in a travel trailer during the Great Recession. Her website is esbrath.com.

Read more FGP essays by Erica S. Brath.

Behind the Clickbait

By Ruth Hartnup/Flickr
By Ruth Hartnup/Flickr

By Sarah Broussard Weaver

 

She Stopped Taking the Pill—but What Happened Next Shocked Everyone!

She and her husband wanted a child—a “little-Nick-and-Sarah-baby.” She stopped taking the tiny daily pill. Nothing happened. Her body, young and healthy, refused to ovulate more than three times a year— a practice of inadequate irresponsibility it had begun with Menstruation Number One, when she was almost sixteen. She worried, a lot. She could become one of the women forced to smile through tight teeth. The mouths sing-songing, “We’re trying!” “Whenever God blesses us!” “Someday!” The ones who cry to see blood on the soft, snowy cotton, those who stare surreptitiously at the lucky. The experts on aiming a bad-news-bearing pee stream on a plastic stick, the minds trying to will nothing into a pink line.

 

After Months of Suffering, She Made an Amazing Discovery That Would Change Everything!

In the end, her body would fail for only a little over a year. The worry had eaten away at her for no reason. She could have saved the tears for something better. When she felt her way to the gray dawn bathroom and she vomited into the bowl, she knew it must be true and it was. It was a bad time—they had just moved across the state—and they had stopped actively trying, wanting to get more settled in their new city. But she hadn’t started using birth control again; she’d been lulled by their failure thus far. Now they were, at the same time, happier and more worried than they had ever been.

 

The Appalling New Ways in Which Her Body Betrayed Her!

She should have spent those worry-months picking up extra waitressing shifts. When the sickness came, she wasn’t ready. Her body failed her in a new way now. Her blood rushed harder through the highways. Her doctor, bony and cruel faced, the only female doctor who’d accepted Medicaid, berated her for gaining weight—it was too much, too quickly. She’d thought only a woman could understand what she was going through, but she saw no sympathy in the stony eyes, just disgust. The prescription for high blood pressure—get off your feet and stop eating so much. Her worry over her inability to conceive morphed quickly into another worry, as her body struggled, as the money quickly became not enough.

 

Groundbreaking Research Uncovers the Top Five Things to Avoid When Pregnant!

She needed to keep waiting tables—they couldn’t pay their bills with only his tips. She left her restaurant and he left his, so they could get a new restaurant together. This way, he could carry her heavy trays. Sinking into their sofa after midnight, after working a double shift, her feet and legs rebelled. They tingled, ached, screamed at her as she held onto the stove for support. She stirred canned soup and heated hot dogs—all against doctor’s orders, but they were quick, cheap, and she was too tired to deal with more. They sat on the green sofa with the Southwestern design—ugly but free—and binge-watched episodes of Friends he had downloaded—illegal but free—as they fueled their bodies with salt, sugar, and fat. These nutritional sins were the only luxuries they could afford so they savored them. They went through all 236 episodes in that dark apartment. She doesn’t think Friends is funny, anymore.

 

They Had Nowhere to Turn—and Then, an Unexpected Phone Call!

They had to choose which bills to pay. The apartment’s rent was the most important, of course, the truck payment second. All frivolities had already been cut, and all bills were already in or past their grace periods. The truck insurance was allowed to lapse, which meant they now were in danger of their only vehicle getting repossessed. One chilly night, his parents called him. They weren’t rich, or even super comfortable, but they had read between the stress lines in foreheads and the pauses in phone calls. They offered to share what they had. They offered to make room. She threw everything in cardboard boxes, nervous and relieved about the offer. He used their last dollars to rent a U-Haul, and they drove it, along with their uninsured truck. They drove from Dallas to the Hill Country; from the cold apartment complex surrounded by strangers to the warm house surrounded by family.

 

The Aging Effects of Stress—Doctors Say You Can IMPROVE YOUR MENTAL HEALTH by Letting Go of Unrealistic Expectations!

The stress wasn’t over, but it was lesser. It was now the stress of preparing for childbirth, of two women sharing a kitchen, of heads butting, of chore parceling, of packed cardboard boxes in the garage with no plans to unpack them anytime soon, and of feeling beholden by the knowledge that this graciousness could not be repaid. It was no longer the stress of unpaid car insurance, eviction, and having to choose cheaper food over healthier food. She still couldn’t bring herself to care what the scale said—she’d deal with it later. Her new doctor-who-accepts-Medicaid was a man; she felt that she could accept the advice that resonated in her and release the rest as “something he knows nothing about.” He didn’t mention her weight—either he was more compassionate toward her feelings or too busy and uncaring to take the time. Either way, she was grateful to ignore it for now.

 

The Shocking Aftermath of Her Life Choices!

She gave up canned soup, doctors with cold eyes, waitressing, and Friends. She gave her body her blessing to grow their baby girl for the remaining three months. His parents gave all they could spare to the preparations for their granddaughter’s arrival. She and her husband felt the relief of release as hope returned to their eyes. It wasn’t the perfect start for a young family, but it was a safe and loving one. They accepted it gladly.

•••

SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER lives on a hill in beautiful Portland, Oregon. She is a senior at University of Portland. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Eastern Iowa Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Mulberry Fork Review among other journals. You can visit her at sbweaver.com or tweet hi @sarahbweaver.

Under the Bridge

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

By Matthew Salesses

A Korean adoptee, I had just spent a month in my birth country teaching English for a school that wanted me to be white. In order to quit, I had to spend a day overseas, so I was in Japan because of visa laws. I figured I’d make a little trip of it. For three days and two nights, I wheeled a suitcase around Fukuoka, temple-watching and feeling sorry for myself.

I had only a hundred dollars in my bank account. Since I’d broken my contract in my first month, I hadn’t gotten paid. On the first night, I headed to the beach. It was still warm in October, and I lay on the hard sand and tried to sleep. After a few minutes, I moved to a bench instead. I was there for less than an hour when it started to rain. My clothes stuck muddily to my body, but when I unzipped my suitcase, I realized that the reason I could change outfits was because I was dragging my life behind me in a piece of luggage.

I had nowhere to go. I asked myself, What would a homeless person do? I made my way under an overpass. There I laid my head on my suitcase and attempted to cry myself to sleep. I wasn’t even thinking yet of how I had been left under a bridge in Seoul as an infant. I wasn’t ready to confront my adoption. I had only been in Asia for a month, and it was the first time since I was two years old. I didn’t make the leap to thinking that my birth mother might have left me under a bridge for the same reason I found a bridge in Japan—rain. I stayed under the overpass until the rain faded to mist, and then I dragged my suitcase back into the streets, planning to empty my bank account on a hotel room, call my parents, and tell them I needed to come home.

I might have done just that if I had found a single hotel in my one-hundred-dollar budget. When everything was too expensive, I made my way to a bar. In Korea bars stay open until early morning and I hoped the same would be the true in Japan. I took a table in the back, low to the floor, where people could sit cross-legged. I parked my bag there and ordered a single beer. I used the table as a pillow. Whenever anyone came by, I took a tiny sip to make the beer last. It had cost something like ten dollars.

Someone must have taken pity on me and let me sleep.

•••

In truth I might be mixing this memory up. I might have started in the bar and ended under the overpass. I wonder why I remember it in this order. Maybe I want to think that when I hit bottom, a stranger helped me—because that is how I have always thought about my adoption. Maybe I want to think that I made myself move on from the bridge, and not that I ended up there because I could go nowhere except my past.

•••

When I woke in the early morning in a closing bar in Fukuoka, I returned to the city with my suitcase and my shame, and I temple-watched again in a sleepless haze. I hated the city’s artificial cleanliness. My legs hurt—that was real pain. The malls were full and the temples empty. The desire to fly back to Connecticut grew stronger and stronger. But I didn’t call my parents. The real reason was that I had left a new girlfriend in Korea and I wasn’t ready to throw something away before I knew what it was.

I searched again for a hotel until I found a room that maxed out my account. As sad a place as it was, the hotel held plenty of wonders—there were slippers, a heated floor, a bidet built into the toilet seat. I had never seen a bidet before. I used everything in the room and took a long bath and got ready for bed. It was maybe six in the afternoon. Before I slept, I tried to find perspective. I wasn’t truly alone, of course—I could call my girlfriend and ask her to wire money, or I could call my parents and ask them bail me out. I didn’t know what it was to be truly alone—or I hadn’t since I was an orphan.

With a calling card, I phoned my girlfriend so that someone would feel bad for me, someone other than myself, and I told her about sleeping in the bar. I didn’t tell her about sleeping under the bridge—that seemed too much. She was more shocked than pitying. And soon I was defending myself. I couldn’t appear to be so poor that she wouldn’t want to date me. The phone shook against my ear. I said I had to go to sleep, and I listened for a minute or two to more shock that I would sleep before sunset. Eventually my girlfriend shamed me into actual perspective. I was simply being cheap or punishing myself. I wanted to appear as if I had a pitiable life, but I was just making choices she couldn’t understand.

She never wanted to save me. I let that sink in, in that hotel room in Japan, sleeping naked in a borrowed robe. Rescue hadn’t drawn my future wife, a Korean woman, to me, a Korean adoptee. That was my expectation. Those were my rules for myself. I felt oddly relieved—and oddly disappointed. I harbored the half-hope that she might still change her mind and I wouldn’t have to save myself. But of course I would.

•••

MATTHEW SALESSES is the author of The Hundred-Year Flood, which was named of the season’s best books by Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Gawker, and others, and was a Best Book of September and a Kindle First pick at Amazon. He has written for NPR, The New York Times, Salon, Glimmer Train, The Millions, and The Rumpus, among others. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Houston.

Violets, Boxes, and Stars

violets
By Jessy Rone/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

The sight of demure violets and shaggy dandelions against the deep green of recently mowed grass has always delighted you. Normally you don’t like the combination of yellow and purple or yellow and green, because you hate team sports and those eye-searing pairings are often team colors, spotted on high school basketball jerseys or the itchy polyester cling of cheerleading uniforms. But in the context of spring, you love it, those three colors coming together for a few short weeks, radiant under the still-shocking intensity of midday sunlight. It calls to mind a suburban idyll, those violets and dandelions asserting themselves against an herbicide-drenched carpet of lawn.

But it is night now and you are looking at your phone, even though you’ve vowed to spend less time looking at your phone, and one of the feeds of text on it alerts you that a cookbook writer you admire just made violet syrup. It excites you, the very sound of it. Violet syrup. You imagine the violet syrup in a dainty pressed-glass jar, illuminated like an isolated shard of sacred stained glass in the path of an afternoon sunbeam, high on the shelf of a shabby-chic hutch. It calls to mind tea parties and Anne of Green Gables, harkening back to an age before phones that offer tiny visual enticements of violet syrup in the first place.

In your house there are all sorts of things to do, things that get pushed aside because of your job, which is to arrange little black symbols in lines against glowing white screen. It is called editing. The things you edit are lists about food, and you correct the mistakes in these lists because you’ve had enough jobs cooking food to spot misinformation quickly. You know what food does, even though your editing job consumes enough of your time that you now resort to serving boxes of bunny-shaped macaroni and cheese for dinner more often than you are comfortable with.

You do this editing from home, because that’s where the screen is, and your daughter often sees you scowling intently at it, and the magnetic power it holds over you infuriates her. You try very hard to limit her own exposure to glowing screens, both large and small, and yet there you are all day, tapping away at buttons as she implores you to draw with her or listen to her rambling preschooler stories. You want to give yourself fully to those stories, but the lingering demands of unresolved symbol-arranging pulls you away. Her job is to go to daycare, where she can play with other kids her age and build up her social skills so you can be at peace with your screen and your keys.

Sometimes you need a break from editing, so you switch to a different screen for a bit and click on little boxes and stars under photos of babies and dogs. You didn’t click on the star under the violet syrup on your phone. Is this worth a star? What does one do with violet syrup?

You try to shove the violet syrup to the back of your brain, but the violets do not give up on you. They appear all over, suddenly, in low-lying mobs: in the green strip of medians, along the path in the woods where you walk the dog. They grow in clusters, making pinpricks of color at the base of stop signs and between the cracks in the sidewalk. They soothe and disrupt you, because they are just another thing that you won’t get to. If you don’t pick the violets and make them into syrup, you’ll forget about how the purple and the green of violets make you feel.

You go with your daughter to a park without your phone so you can be somewhere and not really think about stars and boxes, and she runs off and then returns, bearing a fistful of white violets collected indelicately in her small hands. “For you, Mama,” she says. White violets? Was that one of Elizabeth Taylor’s perfumes?

The white violets do it. After a whole week confronting their quiet menace, you surrender. It’s Friday and you have deadlines. You are alone at home, busy editing inside and it’s glorious outside and you evict yourself from your dining room-cum-office. You close up the screen and grab a mixing bowl and go to your front yard, which, despite its minimal lawn, is infested with violets. You squat down, and you pick.

And you pick. One violet, two violets, three violets. You need a murder of violets build up in the bowl. You think of saffron, collected from the stamens of tiny crocuses, and consider how ill-suited you would be for the life of a saffron harvester, since after five minutes you are ready to quit this violet-picking business. You cannot give up. You do not give up.

The violet syrup recipe on your phone says to gather three handfuls of violets. You succeed, and you take a close-up picture of the bowl of violets with your phone, and you think about sharing this picture so other people—friends, kind-of friends, vaporous friends—can click on a box or star to agree with you about how great your life is, this life of carefree front-yard foraging. But you look at the real violets and then the violets on your phone, and you notice that they look nothing alike. Your phone violets are blue-ish and stiff and cool, and your real violets are a vibrant violet-purple, and the shiny metal bowl is warm from sitting on your lap. You delete the photo.

You retreat inside, to the kitchen, to separate the tender petals from their green bases that hold them together (a part of their anatomy called, adorably, the pip). So many small flowers, so many pips to maneuver around. Hundreds. Steeping the pips with the petals would make the resulting syrup bitter and to skip it would be to negate the already frivolous work you’ve invested so far. This is exactly the sort of thing you’d love to recruit your daughter for, but pulling petals away from pips requires more finesse than her unruly five-year-old fingers can muster. And so you do it by yourself, outsourcing the supervision of your daughter so you can blow off work and pluck itty-bitty flowers apart for making an essentially useless condiment.

It occurs to you that you should probably taste a violet before you go through with this. For all of the wildflower’s loveliness, its fragrance and flavor is that of the most bland lettuce ever, and you don’t imagine exposure to heat doing it any favors, but by now you’ve decided that making violet syrup will fill some hole in your life that needs to be filled. Even if you are just filling it with lettuce-flavored simple syrup.

Building up a critical mass of violet petals feels Sisyphean, absurd, impossible. Many times in your life, you have repeated insignificant tasks. You pumped the handle of the hopper and squirted a blob of Bavarian cream inside the donut. You stripped away the stranger’s slept-on sheets and unfurled a fresh sheet for a new stranger to sleep on. You took the rectangle of plastic from the customer, slid it through the reader, and made small talk as they paid for their pig-shaped corncob holders or glittery pink silicone spatula.

Do you receive our catalog?

Would you like a bag for this?

Enjoy your day!

You took the rectangle of plastic from someone else and slid it through the reader, and then another rectangle from another person, and then another.

A good place to eat around here? What do you like?

That meat grinder’s aluminum, so I don’t recommend putting it in the dishwasher.

Caribbean is my favorite Le Creuset color, too.

Your favorite Le Creuset color is actually Flame. The violets are tedious, still. Twenty minutes in, you have a pint of pip-free petals, not nearly the quart you need for the syrup. Screw it. You instead opt to make violet sugar, which requires only one handful of petals and one cup of granulated sugar.

It’s the big dirty secret of foraging that, with enough refined sugar, all things are possible. Only a few centuries ago, it was an expensive luxury. Crews of African slaves labored around the clock on Caribbean plantations to placate white people’s hunger for the laser-like precision of white sugar sweetness. On those islands that inspired a Le Creuset marketing expert to name a soothing shade of turquoise blue after their waters, there was a constant need for boatloads of new slaves, because they died before they got around to having children. Some fell into the boiling vats of cane juice, and some bled to death after getting their limbs caught in the rollers that pressed the cane, but most were simply worked to the point where they collapsed and never got up again.

Sugar is commonplace now, unavoidable. It infiltrates the snacks your daughter eats at daycare, the Nutri-Grain Bars and Fruit Roll-Ups. Now, the ability to afford eschewing sugar is a sign of membership in the upper class. Your white sugar, though, will not be white. After this, it will be violet.

A few blitzes in the food processor and that’s it. It tastes like regular sugar and looks like wet purple sand. To give it a boost, you add a grating of Meyer lemon zest, but it’s still not punchy enough.

You look at the windowsill over your kitchen sink and spy a vanilla bean pod. Of course you always air-dry the hulls of scraped-out beans after the majority of their flavor has been sucked into custards and compotes. They cost about a hundred dollars a pound and are actually the cured seed pods of a specific orchid, one that’s pollinated by hand a hemisphere away. The producers of these seed pods sometimes use a needle to prick a unique brand on them, just as a cattle rancher would, so the beans can be traced back should a vanilla seed pod rustler come to plunder the crop. Sometimes, before eviscerating them with a paring knife, you examine vanilla beans and you spy the tattoos, looking like leathery runes from another age, and you imagine having to prick thousands of still-green seed pods on orchid vines.

You realize you now have a small stockpile of dried vanilla bean hulls, and you grind them to several tablespoons of fine brown dust in your spice grinder, and you add a fat pinch of this dust to your violet sugar, and it does the trick. They’re kindred spirits, these two esoteric floral essences.

You retrieve your child from daycare, and you both return home to a big bowl of intact violet blossoms, ones that were not massacred into sugar, and you give this bowl to your daughter and send her to the yard and say, “Do you want to play with these?” She sprinkles the violets on the sidewalk and scatters decapitated dandelions and mangled clumps of grass among them, announcing, “I made a store!” and you approve.

The violet sugar is in a jar on the counter. It is subdued in color and soothing to look at, nothing at all like the cartoonish hues of purchased decorating sugar that you sprinkle on cutout cookies, and you just leave it there, even though you have no immediate plans to bake anything. Maybe you will divide it among smaller jars and give it to a few of your friends, the ones who appreciate things like the glancing presence of violets. The violet sugar means you are not entirely a useless and shallow person. You think about it and think about it and then sit and tap on keys and sort those feelings out, and then there it is, Violets, Boxes, and Stars, a few teasing lines on the screen of a phone, and you tap on them, and see this.

•••

SARA BIR is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She lives in Ohio.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.