Staff Editor Kelly Grey Carlisle Design Ileana Sherry Assistant Editors Ciara Bergin Sara Di Blasi Josie Hammons Paige Roth
All staff participates in the reading and selection of work and production of the magazine. 1966 is published with the support of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and its English Department. http://new.trinity.edu Founding Editors: Mallory Conder, Paul Cuclis, Michael Garatoni, Spenser Stevens, and Matthew Stieb The copyrights of all text and images contained in this magazine belong to their respective authors. Image credits: Above, Anna Guo. Cover and right, Paul Cuclis. Back cover, Josie Hammons. Cade Bradshaw: pages 57-58 Paul Cuclis: pages 4-5, 7, 10, 29-30, 41-42, 45, 79. Carmen Bergin: pages 11-12, 15, 33, 61, 64, 72, 78 Mallory Alice Epping: “Pro-aging Edifice, Siasconset Nantucket MA (Film)” page 19; “Demystifying Harbingers Of Death, The Pond House Nantucket MA (Film)” page 23; “Lost At Sea & Hoping For Meteorological Phenomenons, The Cottage Nantucket MA (Film)” page 26; “Dilaudid Dreams, Suasconset Nantucket MA (Film)” page 28; “Critically Endangered, Cisco Beach Nantucket (Film)” page 38; “Chickadee” page 52; “If You Get Lost Just Look At The Stars, Somewhere Earth (Film)” page 56; “Suffocation, Pittsboro NC (Digital)” page 66; “Anti-Malarial, Pittsboro NC (Digital)” pages 67-68; “Solitary Banjo, Pittsboro NC (Digital)” 77-8; “Don’t Die In A Nursing Home, End of Hummock Ponf Nantucket MA (Film)” 77; “The OP Willies, Olympia WA” 78. Danielle Kao: page 75, 77 Nancy Li: page 69 Catherine Schmitt: pages 47-48
Volume 2 Issue 2 Fall/Winter 2014
Leslie Jill Patterson On Forgiving
Sandell Morse The Memory Palate
Angela Morales The Big Divorce
Grace Andrews Blow 29 A. A. Weiss The Museum of Atheism
Catherine Schmitt The Coyote Gangs of Hope
Christina Phillips Water and Air
Lupe Linares A Living Structure
adj., (of a thing) easy or safe to deal with: if youâ€™d like to look a couple pounds lighter, black is a forgivng color.
Leslie Jill Patterson
By the time I met Tyrone, I’d studied all of the affidavits and memos his defense team had gathered from several Texas Youth Commission workers, who warned that Tyrone was capital-T Trouble strolling down the street. None of them had seen him in over a decade, nor could they remember his name or any particular offenses he’d committed while in custody, but when they saw his photograph, they recalled his flim-flam smile, the kind that made you forget his explosive temper seconds before he swung a fist. Which might have been a sparring tactic he’d honed back in the day, when he was five and his uncles taught him to “dogfight,” pitting him against other kindergarteners in a makeshift ring in their living room and casting bets on the outcome. He was a quick and certain study: all these years later, he’d beaten three of his “baby mamas” as well as the one wife he truly loved. Days before the homicide, Tyrone’s most recent girlfriend filed charges with the police, accusing him of beating her with a boxfan until she’d fallen unconscious. Twice. I knew he’d killed two adults—while three children and one infant howled in terror as he fired the gun, again and again, until it ran out of bullets. The infant was his. Prison officials at county lock-up where he’d been housed ever since thought him so dangerous they wrote him up when they found a “weapon” in his cell: a single staple, which he had used to slit his wrists. The judge overseeing his case summed up everyone’s impression: he set Tyrone’s bail at $1,000,000. When the guards brought Tyrone into the private client/attorney room at the county jail, he wore orange prison garb but wasn’t shackled at the belly and the ankles as other defendants had been. His eyes, wide and brown and wary, overwhelmed his narrow face and undercut his notorious smile, which he flashed right away. As his defense team introduced a couple of student attorneys and me, he nodded at each of us, polite but dismissive. He wasn’t sure we were anyone he needed to impress. I’d heard he would put on a show—all hood slang and profanity, a rooster cocking the walk. Certainly, his orange pants were slung so low on his hips, I thought they would slide to the floor, and he had a way of zigzagging his chin and jacking up one shoulder that seemed pretty street to me, white woman that I was. Despite his swagger, though, and my expectations of a “killer” physique, Tyrone was rawboned— knobby elbows and lean as a starving coyote. Striking, in a fierce sort of way. His family and friends swore Tyrone’s sense of humor could spike a funeral into a New Year’s bash, and sure enough, to my surprise, he could crack a joke. When he found out I was divorced, he said, “You need him bounced? I got people. I can make some phone calls.” We fell quiet, stunned. One of our team’s mitigators, Rob, involuntarily looked overhead for a recording device. Our client couldn’t afford to land in the newspaper again for another in-house infraction—this time, attempted murder for hire. Max, the team’s attorney, looked at me and swiped a hand across his throat: let’s garrote this conversation. But then Tyrone’s face cracked open, all teeth, and he said, “I’m kidding, man. White people, you so serious.” Then he proceeded to run down a list of vocabulary words we used that he found hilarious—we had to stop appreciating him all the time, for one thing. What kind of hokum word was that: ’preciate. “Bullshit,” he said. “Stop talking like damn honky psychiatrists.” I’m saying, he had us unstitched pretty quick. Halfway into the meeting, though, Tyrone quashed the comedy routine and sobered up. He turned to Max, the type of defense attorney known at the courthouse as a “gunslinger” because you don’t want to square off with him in front of a jury. Recently, Max had represented Calvin Solomon—a man who pled guilty to the shooting deaths of a family he didn’t know: a man, his pregnant wife, her teenage daughter, even their dog. A ringer for the needle if ever there was one. But Calvin skirted death row because Max’s efforts led a jury to settle on Life Without Parole instead, an outcome unheard of in Texas if a capital charge goes to trial. Sitting next to Tyrone, Max looked like a mafia mechanic. Two considerable
gold rings lent his hands a Vito Corleone respectability, and he weighed a solid 250 pounds. I’d seen him break in two, one after the other, a stash of ballpoint pens made from recycled cardboard, simply by gripping them to write. He wasn’t the type you looked at and thought sensitive. Or, Let’s talk. To Max, Tyrone said, “You read the Bible?” Max showed no expression. His empty face suggested he might need to admit something I’d seen a character confess in a Steve Yarbrough short story: There are lots of books in this world I haven’t read, and among them is one called the Bible. But I knew Max was a devout Catholic. He’d shown me his church when we drove around town one afternoon. I figured he’d cracked a Bible at least once. Tyrone asked him again. “You read the Bible?” Max couldn’t or didn’t know how to react. He stared at his client. Maybe he was trying to calculate where this discussion was headed; maybe he thought the question was a con. Honestly, it seemed pretty suspicious to me. I’d had my fill of men sidling up to religion for my benefit. When my ex-husband found out I’d lost the ability to have children, he’d said, “See, even God knows you shouldn’t be a mother.” When I’d answered, “You don’t believe in God,” he’d said, not missing a beat, “Yeah, but you do.” “I read the Bible,” I finally offered, though I rarely owned up to my spiritual beliefs since they hadn’t served me so well. Too, in Texas, for the most part, if you’re a Christian, you’re also a lot of other things I didn’t want people assuming about me. Republican, for one. Both a Muslim-hater and, by bogus association, an Obama-hater. Sometimes in Texas, there’s a triple-digit heat to Christianity which makes it unlikely that devout churchgoers, the kind who brag about their convictions, can chill the Old Testament wrath and show compassion toward people who haven’t earned it. Apparently, that attitude is catching. See what I just did in that previous paragraph? I myself cast Tyrone as the type of person who didn’t deserve understanding. People who haven’t earned it: I was talking about him and the other defendants the team represented, right? Tyrone sized me up, nodded. “All’ight,” he said, “you know what I’m conversating then.” I shook my head. “No. What are we talking about?” He leaned forward in his chair and clasped his hands in front of him, as if they were shackled, and pumped them in the air. “The Bible say we got to honor our parents. It don’t say if they nice to you or deserve it.” Everyone in the room stiffened. By that point, we knew that Tyrone’s mother, when she paid attention to him at all, thrashed him regularly between the ages of four and twelve, with an orange utility cord and always for petty offenses like having untied shoelaces or eating his cereal incorrectly. At night, she burst into his room while he was sleeping and whaled on him without waking him first because, rape-baby that he was, she should’ve had an abortion. In the darkest moments of our investigation, when we needed something to make us smile for God’s sake, we joked about putting her on the witness stand first, wearing a T-shirt that said, Exhibit A. By the time Tyrone turned seven, he tried to hang himself, an obvious cry for help that CPS ignored, sending him back home after his allotted days in the county-run juvenile mental hospital. When we confronted his caseworker—we could call her Exhibit B— she’d shrugged. “That kind of thing happens in black households all the time,” she said. “A dime a dozen.” Tyrone’s biological father, Manny Wilson, who had allegedly raped his mother, denied Tyrone from day one and was now a junky, whom Albert, our private investigator and the most resourceful man on our team, couldn’t find for nearly a year. Manny’s name wasn’t listed in any phone books. He didn’t have even the slightest cyber footprint. Finally, Albert and Max tracked Manny down by knocking door to door at the apartments where Tyrone’s grandmother heard Manny lived. She didn’t know the name
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of the complex, only that it was near the Dennis the Price Menace Liquor Store. Since we’d found him, Manny had called Rob several times, weeping and begging to see Tyrone. Tyrone had said, No way, no fucking way. And Rob and Max—ever vigilant and earnest about their jobs as Tyrone’s defenders, and both of them large men—had thrown up a wall, their bodies prepared to block Manny’s efforts to visit his son in lockup, if it came to that. Tyrone stared in my direction. Not exactly a direct beam, but canted to the right. Or maybe I was the one diverting my gaze. I nodded my head. “That’s what the Bible says.” He looked at Max, then leaned forward a little more and turned again toward me. “It say you got to forgive in order to be forgiven.” I nodded. “I’ve been thinking on that,” he said, his hands pumping the air. “I need my kids to forgive what I done, so I need to forgive my daddy.”
Max propped his forehead against his fists and stared down at the table. I knew, from previous interviews with other defendants, that this was the stance Max took whenever he thought he might tear up but, by God, wasn’t going to. His cheeks puffed, and his face turned red from the effort. Tyrone looked at me, his eyes square on mine now. “That right?” “That’s what it says,” was all I could manage without my voice cracking. “Okay.” Tyrone nodded. “Okay.” “You don’t need to worry,” Max told him. “We aren’t letting Manny anywhere near you if that’s got you troubled.” Tyrone made a gesture that looked like a rap groove or maybe a Crips sign—his fingers crimped as if double-jointed and his hand flicked, scooping the air. “I’m gangsta with that,” he said. Rob cocked his head to the side, like he was deaf and simply needed to angle his ear toward Tyrone in order to understand him. How’s that? What? I looked around the room for an interpreter. Max parked his big fists firmly on the table. “That’s right. Manny isn’t getting anywhere near you. No worries.” Tyrone jacked up his chin. “I’m gangsta with that.” Max’s brow wrinkled. “You want to see your dad?” The rap grove again. “Fuck it,” Tyrone spat at him. “Okay, okay.” Max held up his hands, palms forward, signaling everyone to halt. “No visits from dear old Dad.” “Fuck it. I’m gangsta with that,” Tyrone shouted. It felt like we were trapped in that Progressive car insurance commercial where the elderly guy keeps talking in some sort of jazz-speak—Okie-McSmokey Skiddlely-Doo—till Flo shakes her head and admits, Yeah, still no idea what you’re saying. “You want to see your Dad,” I tried. Decisively. Not a question, but a statement of fact. “Fuck it,” Tyrone said again, but calm this time. He settled back in his chair and flashed his smile. Max nodded and wrote a note on his legal pad. “Got it. We’ll set that up.” He looked a little sheepish, then with a zigzag of his own chin and a shrug of his shoulders, he added, “Fuck it.” Laughter snorted from my mouth. The hopeless, egregious ineptitude of a team of middle-aged, middle-class, overly educated white people representing a young African-American man from the hood lit up the room. Everyone howled. A real New Year’s hullaballoo. Though it wasn’t funny. Not at all. In the county where Tyrone would be tried, African-Americans comprised only two percent of the total population. Most of them weren’t registered voters—why would they bother in Texas?—so they might not receive a summons. If they owned a car and received the call via their vehicle registrations, the six dollars a day jury salary was a pay-cut they couldn’t afford and so they wouldn’t appear. Even if they did, during voir dire, when the prosecutor asked if anyone had experienced a negative run-in with the law that might prevent them from taking seriously every police officer’s testimony, the African-Americans would likely all raise their hands and be dismissed for cause. Tyrone’s jury of his peers would look a lot like his defense team. When we got ready to leave, Tyrone hugged my neck, said, “No shit, you’re divorced?” I nodded. His face turned dark, like he was getting ready to kick some holy ass on my behalf, getting his game on. “He didn’t hit you, did he?”
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I shrugged. “He was smart. He had alternative methods.” Tyrone squinted, leaned toward me. “You behaved?” he asked. “You didn’t deserve it?” Which sounds like a horrifying question given its implications and Tyrone’s history. Then, again, it was the same question I’d asked myself for years. And it was the same question society implied whenever they argued that women stick around because they like it. “Angelic,” I said. “A real saint.” “Serious now,” he said, smiling again, “I got people. What’d you say his name was?” I grinned. “Nice try,” I said. “Fear of God and all that,” he promised. I nodded. “Sure; repentance, forgiveness.” But in my head, I was thinking what a damn shame it was I hadn’t taken my husband’s last name when we married. That way, he’d be easier for archangel thugs to hunt down and knock unconscious with a box-fan. At the very least, I wouldn’t mind my ex bumping into Max or Rob or Albert in a dark alley. Out loud, I said, “Only, my ex is agnostic. He doesn’t believe in any of that.” “Yeah—” Tyrone paused, “—but you do.” At that moment, his face staring at me was the that of the little boy whom TYC workers recognized from a second-grade photo—a kid smiling, all flash and bravado, because he didn’t want anyone to notice the case of ringworm so thick it coated his arms and torso, because he didn’t want anyone to suspect how his cousin and his cousin’s friends ran a train on him in the family garage every afternoon and no one, not even his mother, sent an army in to stop it. What I know about forgiveness today I learned from murderers. If I was going to tell Tyrone’s story and tell it true, I’d have to forgive his mother first, and then her mother before her, and her mother before her. Forgiveness lies at the bottom of a rabbit hole that runs dark and deep, and once you dare to jump in after it, all you can do is fall.
The Memory Palate Sandell Morse
At the open market, Francis Compte chooses ecornet, squid, for salad, our first course, two chickens for the main course. He passes a yellow squash, then a zucchini under the finger pads of his touch, his hands moving, quickly, weighing, bagging, counting out change. Our evening meal begins here, and I try to see as Francis sees, a strawberry’s red ripeness, tomatoes without blemishes. Before arriving in Auvillar, a village in southwest France, I’d been encouraged to involve myself with the culture, perhaps picking grapes at a local vineyard or cooking with a French chef. I love food; I love kitchens, so here I am shopping with Francis, chef and owner of Le Petit Palais. He looks into his woven basket, moves his lips, without speaking, turns to leave. Then, as if he has suddenly remembered, he turns back, reaches for a box of raspberries and angles his head. “Ça va?” “Ça va,” I say. Okay. After spending nearly thirty years in the States managing upscale dining rooms, the Ritz in Chicago, a country club in Arizona, Francis has returned to his home country. Driving now with one hand, he sweeps an arm, “It is God’s country here when it comes to fruits. The people? They haven’t changed since I left. These farmers, they’re complaining all the time, but they’re pretty wealthy. Not so the small towns. There, things are not so good. Here, Sandell, let me show you.” He veers left and the car climbs a hill into a medieval village where mostly store fronts are empty. The architecture may be different, but the emptiness is the same, reminding me of small Midwestern towns I’d visited driving west from Maine to Colorado with my husband and two standard poodles. Commerce had left. Family farms had disappeared, giving way to agri-business. Francis points. “See. There, Sandell. Are you looking? Once in this town there were two markets, two bistros, two hair dressers. See what’s left? One hairdresser. And there only the cats go in.” We laugh, but he has made his point. Like Americans, the French choose to shop in box stores. And the next step? I don’t want to imagine agri-business here, but Francis says consolidation is happening. Outside the village, we pass field after field. Francis slows the car beside an orchard of small trees. Not apple. Not peach. “You see them, Sandell? Kiwi.” I don’t. I do. Small green fruit, hanging nearly invisibly. I like this man fate has set down in my path, a man who shows me, not only a kiwi, but a peek at France’s underside.
That evening, inside the kitchen of Le Petit Palais, Francis holds his elbows close to his sides. He grips a peeled carrot he has sliced lengthwise, then cut again. With his right hand, he wields a wide-bladed knife, slicing thin strips, each about two inches long. His arm is muscled and strong, fingers supple. He wears a black T-shirt, black and white pin striped trousers, a chef’s apron tied at his waist. A Rolex sits prominently on his left wrist, crystal facing the ceiling. I turn the bracelet of my Rolex, a gift from Dick, my husband, a man who, these days, prefers the living room couch to travel. But he is always at home when I return. Francis scoops up carrots. He drops them into a pot of boiling water, then wiping his hands with his apron, he points with his knife. The hairs on our arms graze. Quickly, we step apart. Ever since I rode with him in his car, something has sparked between us. I look down at my fingers, my wedding ring. Francis looks into the pot. “These we will boil, but not too long” he says. Above the stove, a shelf holds jars with condiments. In one, a golden liquid that Francis pours. Could it be chicken fat like the fat my Polish-Russian, Jewish, immigrant grandmother used to render? Same color, same consistency. And it is as if she is here, the feather brush of her presence as time rolls
backwards to a yellow stucco house in Morristown, New Jersey where we all lived together: my grandmother, my grandfather, my mother, my father and me. I am three, four, five, standing on a wooden chair, watching a fry pan where inside, chicken skin turns to grivenes, crisp leavings. Speaking Yiddish, my grandmother tells me to stand back. She doesn’t want me to burn myself as she spoons up a single, hot piece. She blows and when the piece is cool enough, she plucks it from the spoon and feeds me with her fingers. In the kitchen, I am my grandmother’s nearly constant companion, watching as she cleaves chickens as Francis cleaves, cutting away wing tips and back bones now, scraping tissue with his fingers, holding up the bloody mess. “See how fresh. Sandell, do you see?” The smell of raw meat turns Francis’ hand into my grandmother’s hand, her short, thick fingers reaching for mine as we climb a hill into town, taking turns pulling my red wagon, where, sometimes, I ride inside. At the chicken store, my grandmother pokes her finger into a wooden cage, pressing into a chicken’s feathers and through to skin. Is the breast meat plump? Back in her kitchen, my grandmother removes the last of the pin feathers, before setting the chicken to boil, feet and all, making soup for shabbos dinner. And me? I watch, then taste from my grandmother’s spoon. Always, she and I are alone in the kitchen. My mother works in my father’s store. Perhaps, my love for my grandmother translated into my love for kitchens and for food, not simply eating or preparing, but growing vegetables in my garden, pea pods, carrots and Brussels sprouts that I wash, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, then roast with fresh rosemary. Food conjures memory, the burnt scent of anger, the warm sip of comfort, the sweet taste of love. To know that Francis has chosen these chickens at the market, that he has hacked off necks and heads, that the onion he is slicing in half, then laying flat before dicing, that all of this has passed from and beneath his appraising fingers enchants me. “Slicing,” Francis says, “is about the knife.” Peering over his arm, I observe his knuckles relaxed on the knife’s handle, blade moving as if hinged, rhythmically and effortlessly. Despite his calm, the air is electric. A flirtation, here, in a kitchen, a place I associate with protection and love. Is that strange or strangely fitting? “You can slice garlic the way you slice onion,” Francis says, “but with garlic it’s very important to get the stem out. It’s bitter.” Just then, Jo, Francis’ wife, a sturdy woman with long, waving red hair, a hunk pulled back from her forehead, appears in the doorway holding a fistful of forks. She speaks in rapid French. Francis reaches for a glass bowl, then turns his head. “Sandell, do you want to eat inside or outside?” “Outside,” I say. En plein air, the open air where artists paint, setting up easels at the fields’ edges or on the banks of the Garonne, a lazy river that flows past my window, its course diverted by canals. Jo purses her lips, and I understand that serving inside is easier. Our guests will be two writers, a sculptor, a photographer and a painter, all in residence at Moulin à Nef, an artists’ colony where I, too, am staying. I smile, politely, but I have decided. When Jo turns to leave, Francis stage whispers, “She’s jealous.” Are we that obvious? Apparently so. A youthfulness has filled my body, not desire, not passion, but a feeling that if not thwarted, could move in that direction. I will not let it. Nor will Francis. Yet, another day at another dinner, Francis will point to me and say, “If I was Muslim, I would marry Sandell, too.” Curling the fingers of my left hand over a large garlic clove and using the knuckle of my middle finger to guide a knife blade, I try to slice as Francis slices, rhythmically and surely. Head bowed, I
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steal a sideways glance at my teacher. He nods, approvingly. I ease my grip, and the knife grows lighter. Again, my grandmother is here, her presence, unmistakable, as if her hand is guiding mine. I am more her child than my mother’s. It’s not just that my mother works; she belongs to my father, a man with a wild, unruly temper. And he hits. Not her. Me. Tactile in the kitchen, my grandmother grabs a handful of sliced apples, a lesser amount of raisins. She tells me to chop walnuts in her shteisel, a brass mortar and pestle. Her kitchen is my refuge, a place where the air does not hold the residue of my father’s anger and his rage. Of all the adults living in that yellow stucco house, my grandmother is the one my father does not cow. She wards him off with her wooden spoon. “Gay avek. Gay.” Go away. Go. “Meshugena.” Crazy. Alone with my grandmother, I breathe the rich aroma of chicken soup on the stove, of bupka, yeast cake with nuts and raisins, cinnamon and sugar, baking in the oven. “Taste,” my grandmother says, offering a spoonful of soup, a slice of warm bupka. “It’s all right? You like it?” I lift my knife and step back. “I’m done with the garlic,” I say to Francis. He scrapes chopped garlic into a bowl, then washes his hands. I speak to his back. “You know, I used to be my grandmother’s taster.”
He turns, the creases at his eyes crinkling. “Ah, no wonder you have come into my kitchen.” He understands without words. Kitchen as refuge. Kitchen as comfort, the meditation of repetitive movement like petting a dog or stroking a cat. Kitchen as love, the place where I prepare meals for family and friends, Thanksgiving dinners, Passover Seders, summer cookouts, winter stews. Kitchen, the place where I cook with my granddaughters, steaming fresh picked beans, then sprinkling on olive oil, salt and pepper. I add cherry tomatoes, chunks of feta. Sitting outside on the deck, we mop olive oil with chunks of crusty baguette. Now, Francis chops ginger, tossing a pinch into a dice of avocado, onion, cucumber and tomato, along with a smidgen of the garlic I’ve minced. He is making Sauce Vierge, Sauce of the Virgin. “I do not have the cilantro,” Francis says, “so we’ll do without the cilantro, for now.” At home in Maine, I no longer have cilantro, either. I planted early, and before I left for France, all of my cilantro went to flower. But I believe cilantro will appear, magically, in this kitchen along with, perhaps, a bowl of my grandmother’s chicken soup. “Important sel and pepper,” Francis says, pinching from two small bowls. He squeezes the juice of half a lime until his knuckles turn white. He pours olive oil. “The good olive oil,” he says to me. Now, his voice goes dreamy, and I understand he is speaking as much to himself as to me. “If I have some cilantro will be…” Alert to my presence, his voice brightens. “You serve this on chicken breast grilled. Want to try?” I take up a spoon to eat one of my favorite tastes, gazpacho in dice. Behind his glasses Francis’ gray eyes flash. “As they say in America, that ain’t bad.” He prepares a simple salad of celery root, that pale knobby underground vegetable. Cutting it into matchstick slices, he adds the juice of half a lemon and tells me how to make a similar salad with fennel. Mixing with a spoon, he says, “Lemon is emphatique, so it doesn’t get dark.” Emphatique? Ah, necessary. Now, taking a jar from the refrigerator, he holds it aloft, giving me a boyish smile. “The French do such a good mayonnaise, I buy it.” Scooping, stirring, he fixes his gaze on the slaw, looking, probably, for a particular consistency. He offers, and as I take slaw from a spoon, I feel that potency between us. The taste is savory, not too tart. Unmistakably, celery root—earthy, pungent. Moving now as if someone has upped his tempo, Francis slices a single white fig. He holds it with just his fingertips then places the two halves, seeded sides down, into a pan of simmering Madeira wine and brown sugar. He slices a lemon, then squeezes a stream of juice. Now, a hunk of butter. As the fig cooks in its fragrant sauce, Francis slices strawberries, spoons brown sugar, squeezes lime juice, adds ginger. He is in that place where thought gives way to the thing itself, a dancer’s leap, a perfect throw. He mashes green peppercorns, then drops a pinch into the mix. Who would have thought, pepper and strawberries? Francis leans close. “This is for you and me.” I slip the bowl of the spoon into my mouth where flavors billow, tastes of sweet and sharp, sugar and pepper, the bite of ginger, then intense ripeness—those sun-warmed strawberries. With the same intensity he brings to his cooking, Francis watches my face. “Delicious,” I say, lowering the spoon. Ah, this spark between us—like the taste of strawberry and pepper, an unexpected delight. Again, Jo appears. “Ça va?” she says to each of us. “Ça va,” Francis says. “Ça va,” I repeat.
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“Bien,” she says. With the back of my hand, I brush a lock of hair from my forehead. In an alcove, Jo takes a white cloth from a bureau, then walks to the front of the restaurant, her footsteps a silent echo on the wooden floor. It is as if I can see her spreading a white cloth on the outdoor table, then smoothing it with her long fingers. My friends will be the only guests. Francis has closed Le Petit Palais to cook with me. I shift my weight. Francis transfers that single white fig to a bowl. He adds butter to the pan, then, lifting it high, he swirls. He turns off the heat, sets the pan down, adds cream then stirs, wrist loose, wire whisk spinning. “Voilà,” he exclaims, lifting the pan once more. Now, a slow pour as liquid covers the resting fig. He hands me the bowl. Aromas of butter and cream along with sweet Madeira wine waft upward. I cut myself a small piece, taking up fig and liquid. “Ummmm.” A slight pucker of his lips. “Maybe I should give cooking lessons. What do you think?” Of course, he knows what I think. “Absolutely.” With his fingers, Francis tosses simple greens with olive oil, salt and pepper, then mounds them onto plates. He centers a large piece of grilled squid, scatters shrimp and curls of squid at the sides, and on the rim of each plate, a sprinkling of peeled, seeded diced tomato. What the French call le montage. In English, the presentation. In either language, an expression of love and pleasure. I adore the beauty of food, color and shape, and the nearly magical transformation of raw to cooked, of whole to diced. Francis and I serve our guests. Jo pours wine. Now, Francis insists I sit in the one remaining chair. I’d rather join him in the kitchen. “When you are finished,” he says. We lift our glasses to toast Francis. My friends toast me. I demur. Francis is the chef, not I. Back in the kitchen, I see that Francis is spooning sauce for the main course onto plates. It is a rich sauce made with Madeira wine, chicken and beef stocks, cream and cepes, porcini mushrooms. He tops each pool with a drumstick and a chunk of breast meat. “Everyone, Sandell, will have a sampling of dark meat and light.” He arranges matchstick slices of yellow and green squash that he has sautéed in olive oil, then seasoned with salt and pepper. Did he add that duck fat? Probably. One by one, he stacks green beans like pick-up sticks. He lifts a basket from a fryer, then with bare fingers quickly removes each small potato. “Even a simple chicken you can make it special,” he says with a grin. On shabbos my grandmother serves slices of boiled chicken or brisket with freshly grated horseradish she mixes with vinegar and with sugar. She bakes a potato kugel—grated potato mixed with beaten egg, salt, pepper, a pinch of flour—until it is crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. She slices carrots into pennies, boils, drains, sweetens them with honey. In the dining room, the table has been spread with a white damask cloth, then set with matching napkins and our best silverware, although it is not silver. At the table, no one yells, not even my father. If he starts in—that means picks a fight—my grandmother gives him the eye. “Sha, Leon. Shabbos.” Remarkably, he listens. I love the hush of Friday nights, family at the table, aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, the flavors of shabbos spiraling through time. Francis takes a bowl of poached white figs from the refrigerator. I hadn’t known. He’d prepared them earlier. A shudder of surprise and disappointment. As if reading my thoughts, he gives a shrug. “From yesterday.” A small betrayal. The feeling passes. A pan of pineapple rings, cut thick so they will not break, simmer in butter and brown sugar. Francis shakes the pan. “It needs to caramelize a little bit,” he says. Again, Jo appears. He glances her
way, and before she asks, declares, “Ah, tres bon.” Then, to me sotto voce, he confides, “She loves figs.” Jo nods. Careful not to look at Francis, I turn to Jo. “I do, too.” Francis has selected blue and white porcelain dessert bowls, each with a chrysanthemum pattern. Squeezed between two narrow tables, I watch the back of his hand, his fine gray hairs, as he lifts each pineapple ring, drizzles sauce; then, with a flick of his wrist, rights the pan. Inside each bowl, the deep blue of chrysanthemums, the fruity yellow of pineapple, the caramel hue of sauce. Now, a pale poached fig in each center. A delicate balance of texture and color. I speak, softly. “Do you like the beauty of food?” He holds the pan and pauses. “Ah yes, the aesthetic and the colors.” Outside, Jo pours Armagnac, a brandy distilled, here, in southwest France. I sit at the table. Francis pulls up a chair at the opposite end. Jo retreats inside. Perhaps, she is uncomfortable with so much spoken English. Perhaps, she’s tired. She has sliced baguettes, opened wine bottles, poured wine and water, cleared places, walking the length of the restaurant over and over. Earlier, that day, she served lunch. I see her in shadow, sitting alone at a table. In Auvillar, the light stays long. We talk and linger, until finally the sky turns the deep blue of the painted chrysanthemums inside our bowls. Tree branches hang in silhouette. Francis, speaking a mixture of English and French, tells a story of the years he spent in Arizona. “I took care of them all,” he says, “Reid… John, the photographer, interrupts. “Harry Reid?” “Yes, yes,” Francis says. “And Goldwater, the father. They’re all the same.” So we talk of the follies of our politicians, their corruption and their greed, and because none of us wants to spoil this evening, we let our own foibles and losses float below the surface where no one sees. Jo returns, offering more Armagnac. We decline, stand to leave, kiss, kiss, the French way. “Au revoir.” “A bientôt.” Soon. The deep blue sky floats to darkness as we make our way along these cobbled streets, walking through the oldest passage, and I, so full, so well fed, understand that because we are visitors, we don’t see Auvillar’s dark side, any more than we see each other’s. Yet, something intangible lingers. Shadows dwell inside these cobbles and massive stones, the clock tower where once this village was gated, the Cathedral where, in an adjacent graveyard, the dead lie, their bones stacked, a vacant convent where early one morning in 1943, Gestapo looked for a Jewish child, all slumbering and still, like giant cats curled beside warm stoves.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
The Big Divorce Angela Morales
That year—1978—Vietnam had invaded Cambodia, Annie Hall would win Best Picture, and “Macho Man” by the Village People was in the top ten. At night I would study colorful maps of Asia as they appeared on the nightly news—maps in which each country appeared bright and elementary, no shading or topography whatsoever. I worried about the shifting boundaries and how one country could so easily invade another and how easily these invasions could spread until soon, it seemed, everyone would be invaded and conquered. Also, at this time, Gloria Steinem was making calm, mind-boggling statements like, “Some of us are becoming the man we wanted to marry!” and before that, Bella Abzug had famously declared with an upraised fist, “A woman’s place is in the house—the House of Representatives!” Thirty-five states had ratified the Equal Rights Amendment and three more states were needed to amend the constitution. Phyllis Schlafly, organizer of the “Stop the ERA” campaign, warned that if feminists had their way, mothers and sisters would be marched into combat against their will, forced to carry machine guns and wear camouflage, and, instead of spending the day at the beauty salon, where women belonged, women would routinely visit abortion clinics, thus causing the inevitable decline of the human race. Whenever Phyllis Schlafly appeared on television, my mother would say, “My god, who is this nut? What is her problem?” But all this talk about invasions, defending borders, and fighting for rights must have inspired my mother to finally take her five children and run away from an abusive husband. For months— years, maybe—Helen Reddy had been singing the soundtrack to my mother’s life. En route to Lucky Supermarket or Washington School or to the drycleaners to pick up my father’s laundry, my mother would pop in her Helen Reddy eight-track cassette tapes and turn up the volume full-blast. Then, all of us, even my younger brothers, would sing along at the tops of our lungs “I am woman, hear me roar!” With the windows rolled down, we sang with gusto, without a trace of embarrassment. And, once, without telling my father, my mother had taken me to a celebrity auction in Hollywood, proceeds to be donated to a battered women’s shelter. That day an item up for auction was one of Billie Jean King’s tennis dresses, supposedly one she wore at Wimbledon. When the bidding was in full swing, my mother’s arm shot up and she shouted her bid. I was surprised because my mother couldn’t care less about tennis or sports in general. Then, every time the auctioneer raised the price, my mother raised her hand and kept right on bidding. Finally I heard, “Sold to the lady with red hair!” I don’t remember how much she paid for the dress, but I know it was hundreds of dollars. “You are so weird!” I said afterwards. “Why on earth did you do that?” She shrugged. “I just felt like it. I don’t know what came over me!” Like co-conspirators, we carried the dress home in its filmy plastic and tucked it deep inside my mother’s closet where my father would never find it. If he had found it, here’s what he would have said: Have you lost your fucking mind? You wasted money on this piece of crap? So you’re a lesbian now? In those days, Billie Jean King, tennis player extraordinaire, was living proof that women did not have to put up with that kind of shit. I can still see that dress—ironically feminine—heavy, multi-layered cotton eyelet and lace trim, pink monogrammed sweater embroidered with the letters BJK, pearl buttons and lace embroidery around the collar and around the elastic of the built-in underwear. But that dress exuded power. And like a talisman, it seemed to radiate some sort of protective aura. Therefore, I liked showing it off to babysitters and cousins, or to anybody who would look at it, though I never dared to try it on.
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We knew that one day Ms. BJK would be dead and we’d have her tennis dress—valuable—not for money, of course, but as real historic memorabilia. Imagine having the actual dress of Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Lucretia Mott! Here was history in the making! That summer, mornings began with a windless blue sky and spotted mourning doves fluttering down the eaves. Those gentle birds soothed us back to sleep with their melodic cooing as did the pleasant shush-shush-shush of the neighbor’s sprinklers. By the time I’d awakened, my parents would have already gone to the shop—Raymor Electric and Appliances. My father, a chronic insomniac, would have arrived long before dawn to unlock doors, turn on lights, and await the arrival of his electricians. My mother would have taken my younger siblings to the babysitter and then she would have joined my father to answer phones and to charm the customers into buying a washing machine or refrigerator or microwave oven. So in our parentless house on Country Club Drive, my nine-year old sister Linda and I could do as we pleased. Sometimes my parents wouldn’t return home until nine o’clock at night, and by that time, my father would have already picked a fight with my mother, and they’d be locked in the middle of it when they walked through the door. Typically, he’d accuse her of having committed various crimes that day such as flirting with the Motorola sales rep (or the newspaper ad guy, or the gas-station guy, or any guy, for that matter). My father would claim to have seen how she’d looked at that Motorola guy with her cow eyes and how that guy’s eyes had been popping out all over her cleavage, and did she enjoy that, acting like a slut? Dressing like a slut? Did that feel good? Did that turn her on? Is that how a good wife should act? And, by the way, why’d she stolen money from his wallet? So she could go buy more slutty clothes so guys like Mr. Motorola would keep drooling over her? My father kept us all on-edge—a common expression being walking on eggshells, though walking on nails would have been more accurate. The police had visited our house more than once, and after they’d taken my father to jail to cool off, I would say to my mother, “Just get a divorce! Why do you put up with this? What are you waiting for?” I yearned for a divorce, for it would be my divorce, too. I even liked the word divorce for its clean beauty—the effortless cut of a sharp knife—a naked ankle freed from a steel trap.
Most days that summer when I was eleven years old, my eight-year-old sister Linda and I spent the better part of the day home alone and playing dead in our swimming pool. In that shimmering, turquoise expanse, we’d let our bodies go limp, our hair swirling around our faces like jellyfish tentacles. Suspended and weightless, we’d pretend to be lost at sea. One of us would churn up the water into magnificent waves and foaming eddies, while the other bobbed around trying to hold steady in a fetal position. Inevitably, in those years of shark and disaster movies, we’d imagine great white sharks: massive, chomping bloody gums and rows of razor-teeth. Of course, we knew we were idiotic to imagine that great white sharks could attack us in our very own swimming pool, but when you are twelve or ten and home alone, pools easily become oceans, and the mere idea of a shark is enough to send you running to dry land. So with sharks swimming round in our heads and with our lungs aching from too much L.A. smog, we’d hoist ourselves out of the water and flop down onto our bellies, foreheads resting on balled fists. The hot solid concrete burned our legs and made us shiver. Even now, remembering those days, I hear my erratic breath echoing against the ground; I feel my heart beating steadily
inside my eleven-year old chest, and I see those glistening droplets of water shrinking and evaporating off my forearms. That summer felt like a slow-moving creek—like water that had meandered into a dead-end tributary—stagnant, but rich with flutters of algae, water striders, and rock beetles. So in our own little tributary, we dozed in the sun and sprawled out across our sticky, faux-leather couch on which we watched game shows galore—game shows until our eyeballs ached—The Gong Show or 25,000 Pyramid or, our favorite, The Price is Right. Large-breasted housewives bounced up and down on stage, twirling their jumbo cardboard checks and ogling their new Buicks. We liked to see who would win the Showcase Prize or the “European Fantasy,” usually consisting of a whole slew of related prizes—plane tickets to Paris, a set of Samsonite luggage, a 35-millimeter camera, an oil painting of a Swiss Chalet, dinner on the Eiffel Tower. A prize like that could be worth twenty-thousand dollars! The redheaded model, Holly, sashayed her hips and rubbed up against the suitcases, gently massaging the items with her finger tips, as the male announcer, Rod Roddy, described each item. The first female contestant leaned into the microphone and bid boldly: Two thousand dollars. “Higher!” we yelled. “Come on, higher! Higher!” Rod Roddy would reveal the actual price of the items: Five thousand, five hundred dollars! Then the winner’s podium lit up, miniature light bulbs flashing madly, bells dinging. The winner hooted and howled and sprinted up to the stage where she danced a little jig and lunged at Bob Barker, practically knocking him down as she kissed him violently on the cheek. We’d peer into the television screen as the people dissolved into a million disconnected dots. Television exposed us to hours of hysterical women bemoaning their clogged sinks; distraught women puzzling over whether to serve stuffing or potatoes; robotically-happy families biting into Big Macs, and sexy women seducing men with their irresistibly silky L’eggs panty hose. So when our heads spun with a cacophony of advertising jingles (Ro-to Rooter, that’s the name, away go troubles down the drain!), and we felt inexplicably depressed from staring at too many laughing, fun-loving families, we’d abandon the TV and cherry-bomb ourselves back into the pool. Or maybe I’d disappear into my bedroom to read a Steven King novel or to write a letter to Ufuk Ufuk, my Turkish pen pal from Istanbul, (whose name, I enjoyed telling people, was definitely pronounced You-fuck You-fuck). I’d bolt my door before Linda could slip in behind me, and then she’d body slam it or kick it until I relented and let her in. Just when it seemed summer would never end, our slow-moving creek began to rise. One morning after my father’s car had disappeared down the driveway, my mother woke us up by shoving Hefty garbage bags into our arms and saying, “Get your clothes! Quick! We don’t have much time.” “Why? What are you talking about?” I said, confused by my summer-induced stupor. “We’re moving,” she announced. “We’re getting the hell out of here.” “Right now? Today?” “I’ve got it all planned out,” she said. “Hurry up now—get dressed—march!” My mother moved with quick, militaristic precision, as if she’d been rehearsing our escape for months. We stumbled around the house picking up dirty clothes or any object that lay in our paths—a single shoe, a headless doll, a rusty screwdriver. Then my mother’s sister Delmira arrived to assist in the getaway. We kept glancing around, praying that my father wouldn’t come home, knowing that if
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he did, he’d go one-hundred percent berserk. He was that kind of man. Consequently, the packing-up happened so quickly that in a few minutes, my mother and Auntie Miri had gutted the kitchen and the bathrooms with whirlwind force—they’d left cabinet doors flung wide-open, with clumps of tattered receipts and plastic cups strewn across the linoleum. At one point, Auntie Miri kicked off her shoes, and for some reason, I still recall how her long, crooked toes gripped the concrete and how her foot bones fanned out as she ran awkwardly across our backyard, balancing in her arms a stack of our indestructible butterfly-gold Corning Ware. Funny, the details you remember in moments of high-drama, as if, in rebellion, the brain slows down and refuses to process more than a single snapshot at a time. “Come on, shake a leg! Hustle!” they kept saying, nudging us forward like we were baby horses and the barn was on fire. Finally, we’d crammed the Suburban so full that the doors barely latched shut. All five of us squeezed in together on top of the mounds of Hefty bags, with my sister wedged next to the vacuum cleaner, my brother with his elbow inside the blender. My mother then slid into the driver’s seat, took a final glance around, skidded out the driveway, and away we went. Suddenly my six-year old brother threw his arms up and wailed, “But WHY??” I could see my mother’s stony reflection in the rearview mirror. Ignoring my brother, she stared straight ahead. So sudden was our departure, we scarcely had time to think about what we were leaving behind.
We drove onto the freeway and headed north out of Los Angeles, as my mother mumbled phrases like, A new life…A fresh start…A second chance. Stark silhouettes of saguaro cactus and yucca trees began to rise up across the high-desert landscape. Tumble weeds rolled across the highway as a low summer sun streaked the evening sky with heartbreaking slashes of pink and orange. The horizon opened up, then, wide and endless, and I felt a twinge of terror faced with so much open space. We knew that this—whatever this was—was going to be big. The prospect of never seeing my father again gave me both great relief and great uncertainty. I began to wonder if he was really the ogre I’d made him out to be—or if maybe somewhere in there was a nice man, a man who could maybe act more like the fathers on television. Maybe we were making a gigantic mistake—disappearing so suddenly—as if aliens had sucked us up without a trace. Eventually we arrived in a dusty desert town and my mother turned left, right, left again, into a neighborhood of sixties style flat-roofed houses. She slowed and stopped and then bumped into the driveway of one such house. It turned out that my mother had already paid first and last month’s rent. And for months, she’d been stashing away grocery money and concealing her escape plans, lest one of us should blab to my father and spoil everything. The plan: we’d hide out here, she would file for divorce, and when alimony was settled and property had been divided, we would move back to L.A. She knew that once my father got the divorce papers, he’d hire a private investigator (or a hit man), whatever it took. She didn’t want to have to hide out at a battered women’s shelter. More important: She didn’t want us to grow up without a mother. During my father’s darkest moods, when he’d pace the house, guard the doors, hide the car keys, stalk my mother around the house, we’d learned that if we called the police, Uncle Eddie, his brother, would simply bail him out. In four hours, he’d be home, and madder than ever. Plus, the two pistols were a problem—one that he kept under the seat of his car and the other on the top shelf of his closet. I could definitely imagine him shooting my mother, or possibly all of us, like those men in the news who’d lost their minds from the pressures of modern life—failing businesses, mortgages, medical bills, whining kids, barking dogs. They’d simply gone off the deep end. My father could have been one of those. So when my mother would start whispering about battered women’s shelters—these places where women could supposedly hide from their abusive husbands so they couldn’t be tempted by husbands who would sweet-talk them and bring them presents and then drag them home by the hair—I’d worry. Certainly, I did not want my father to hurt my mother. But I also knew for certain that I did not want to live in a battered women’s shelter. For one, I hated the terminology. “Battered” seemed ridiculous. Wasn’t “battered” how one described an old shoe or smashedup car? And wasn’t it true that, unlike women, shoes and smashed-up cars did not have brains or free will? And wasn’t a “shelter” actually a place for stray dogs and cats—a chain-linked prison camp for animals where the thin, sour odor of fear permeated the air—a scent that made you feel terribly sad? How did any of this apply to people? How did any of this apply to us? If my mother wanted to leave, I thought, then she should leave! If she wanted to divorce my father, then she should just do it and quit thinking about it! Obviously, I understood very little about the human heart and basic economics. In our getaway house, the last shards of desert twilight fell across the empty rooms as we crept around our new house. We stuck our heads into closets and pried open jammed windows. The whole place, including knobs and hardware, had recently been coated with a thick, sloppy layer of white latex paint. Traces of other people’s smells seeped through—cigarettes, perfumes, cats. One might say
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that the house itself was battered. An empty house, though, is an utterly beautiful space—a blank page across which any words might soon be written. Without my father’s enormous, suffocating presence, we’d felt un-tethered and silly, like we should dance and sing. We turned on the transistor radio as we unloaded the Suburban, humming to disco tunes and bobbing around the tiny house. Later we spread sheets across the gummy carpet to make temporary beds. My brothers and my mother slept in one room and my sisters and I slept in the other. It felt like one crazy adventure, yet I could in no way fathom the idea of permanence. I didn’t sleep, however, being worried about bugs in the carpet, where I’d go to school, and whether or not my father would bother to open a can of dog food for Caesar and Cleo, and, most of all, whether my father would, any second, come banging down the door, hell-bent on having us back, ready to drag us home. The next morning we got dressed and looked at my mother: Now what? “I’ll go get some groceries,” she said cheerfully. She came back with the usual processed foods to make us feel right at home—Oscar Meyer wieners, Spaghetti-O’s, macaroni and cheese, Frosted Flakes, Twinkies, a gallon of milk. She also brought coloring books and crisp boxes of brand new crayons. Then she left me in charge while she went out to look for a job. She’d once owned her own beauty shop—La Candesa—and she knew the beauty business inside-out. “We can do this,” she said. “It won’t be easy, but we can do this.” And I believed her. After she left, I sat at the kitchen table with Linda, Rocky, Chris, and Monica, all of them eerily subdued and trying so hard to be good. Their chubby fingers grasped at the pristine crayons, as they filled in cartoon shapes. I knew I would have to grow up fast. The last tenants had left some kitchen curtains—threadbare, happy ruffles in a yellow and white checkered pattern. They flapped gently in the hot breeze. My mother would not have bought curtains like that, but they seemed a good symbol of our new life. I practiced saying to myself, My mom and dad are divorced, My parents got a divorce. Terrifying thoughts crept up then—visions of my mother actually going out on dates with guys like the Motorola rep, guys wearing soggy leisure suits who smelled of Scotch, Old Spice, and cigarettes. I imagined my mother drinking champagne and laughing at all the jokes, pretending to think that the Motorola guy was hilarious. Even though I had no evidence to prove that my mother would become a party animal, I imagined strange men invading our desert hideaway—playing mean jokes on us, calling us “kid.” Holy shit, I thought. What if she remarries and we get a stepfather? Stepfathers did not have the biological connection that real fathers had—and even if real fathers could be complete assholes, they had their DNA to protect, whereas stepfathers had nothing to lose. In fact, a stepfather would want to make new babies, and where would that leave us? That possibility had never before crossed my mind when I’d dreamed of divorce.
At El Dorado Elementary School, sounds and smells of sweaty children and ammonia-scented hallways, though normally depressing, soothed me with a bland familiarity—pink rubber erasers, pencil shavings, that beef-stroganoff smell wafting from the cafeteria. Subconsciously, I must have believed that if my mother could re-invent herself, I could re-invent myself too. Nobody would know that I’d once had a terrible overbite or that I’d once been a fat girl, that is, before all the swimming and the Figurine Diet Bars. Now I could be the smart girl, or the mysterious girl—or any kind of girl I wanted to be.
Back at the getaway house, I stacked my new textbooks on our kitchen table. I vowed to improve my terrible penmanship and to study harder in math. I would keep my pencils sharpened to dangerous, precise points. While my mother boiled weenies and sliced them into Franco-American Spaghetti, I cut out little flash cards and memorized my vocabulary words, words which very well might have been displacement, alienation, fortitude, optimism. We set up our small television set atop the creepy shag rug in our new living room so my brothers could watch Hawaii Five-O or The Six Million Dollar Man. Monday nights, though, were mine: I would have conniption fits if I couldn’t watch Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. I was obsessed with these old-fashioned family dramas—stories with simple morals, braided rugs, and homemade pies. As much as I loved television, I longed for a house without one—a time when Christmases meant a heart-shaped sugar cake, an orange, and a shiny new penny. Best of all, my television shows provided me with surrogate fathers: Charles Ingalls became my top choice, for he could build log houses, play the fiddle, give bear hugs (even to other men), as well as spin a good yarn. And someday, my boyfriend would have to be just like John Boy Walton—aspiring writer and lover of poetry (and small furry critters), kind to all people, regardless of color or creed. I never doubted that somewhere a real John Boy existed, even if I had never met one. Maybe though, what I really wanted was not to be married to a John Boy but to be a John Boy—to always do the right thing, to take good care of my brothers and sisters, and to find a voice with which to tell my future stories.
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Then one day, just as we were making friends at school and settling into a routine, my mother, said, “Hey! Let’s go get some ice cream.” In the blazing heat, we climbed back into the Suburban and drove to 31 Flavors where I got my usual scoop of pink bubble gum ice cream. My brothers and sisters ordered their rainbow sherbets and fudge ribbon swirls and strawberry shortcakes. Then we got back into the car and were so busy licking away at our ice cream that we did not notice that my mother had driven straight onto the freeway and that our car was moving at top speed—not headed back to our little flat-roofed house—but somewhere else entirely. Some force had overtaken her—some sudden breakdown of willpower (similar to how an alcoholic decides to drive to the liquor store)—and she went into that trance, once again. “Uh? Hello? Where are we going?” we said, looking all around. My mother didn’t say a word, but kept right on driving. She was concentrating hard on the road ahead, her fingers gripping the wheel. With ice cream running down our arms, we watched saguaros and yuccas begin to shrink in the review mirror, and we didn’t dare say a word. After a while we saw the Now Entering Los Angeles County sign, as we descended out of the mountains and straight into a third-stage smog alert, into the rumble and whistle of traffic, and finally, we were right back in it—inside that pillow of brackish, brown haze which engulfed Los Angeles and would soon engulf us for the rest of our childhoods. Then there it was, my parents’ appliance store—Raymor Electric— Reddy Kilowatt Lightbulb Man flickering on and off, on and off, and suddenly there he was—my father—vivid and three-dimensional, throwing open the car door and crying like a baby into my mother’s lap, crying about how much he’d missed us, saying how much he’d rather be dead than to live without us. Sorry, Sorry, Sorry! So overwhelming were the emotions of that moment, so thick with hope and regret and anxiety, the Suburban might have plunged into a lake and we might have been swallowing water, all of us quietly resigned in our fate to live forevermore without oxygen. I had to turn away. But suddenly I remembered a time when my father once showed me the stars, when he did not rage, when I saw glimpses of that other man he had decided not to become. I learned, then, that being human is no easy task. Families were simply random people—forget genetics, forget blood—just random people, all of us thrown together to eke out an existence with all our flaws and trepidations. But what would become of our little house in the desert? What about El Dorado Elementary School, my embryonic, yet blossoming, friendships, and my new textbooks with their unbroken spines? What about Helen Reddy’s “You and Me against the World?” I felt real despair, then, and I knew that his win had been our loss. He’d regained a family and we’d failed at a divorce. Oh, how I longed to be a dog! My life would be so simple: gnaw a good bone, bite at a couple fleas, doze in brilliant, blinding sunlight followed by a good roll in the grass. Instead, life was turning out to be a kaleidoscope of emotions—emotions for which I had no name. But I was glad to be going home; I had to admit, living on the fringe felt derelict and lonely. I missed my dogs, the mourning doves, the sprinklers, the swimming pool—all those things that lulled us into believing that we could go on like that forever.
Scripps College gives every first-year student three things: a Nalgene water bottle, a day planner, and a rape whistle. Okay, it’s not really called a rape whistle; the college gives it some fancy title that alludes to protection and solidarity among the institution’s all-female population. The student body calls it a rape whistle, though. Each fall, the first-years gather in the humanities auditorium for a self-defense class. Girls learn how to layer clothes, how to walk confidently, and how to look more intimidating to a potential attacker. Girls also learn how to defend themselves physically: kick the assailant between the legs, push the heel of your hand into his nose bone, or use your thumbs to literally gouge his eyes out. At the time that I attended the self-defense class, none of this was new information for me. My father—a third degree black belt—had taken me aside at the ripe old age of thirteen and taught me five easy ways to kill someone with my bare hands. At the end of the self-defense class, the entire group of first-years storms the humanities courtyard to blow its rape whistles. After the piercing wails shatter the silence of the night, the administration tells the group that no one is ever allowed to blow the whistle unless she is being attacked. (If you blow it without an assailant, “for fun,” you’re fined $50.) All four years of my college tenure, the bright green rape whistle stared up at me from my keychain, winking in the California sunshine. Its bold, white Scripps College logo wore off over time, but its message was clear: as long as I was on campus, I was protected. I mention this tradition not to laud or mock the Scripps College self-defense education program, but to show that I am an educated female. Both my father and my academic institution taught me to recognize a sexual assault and respond appropriately. I used the Nalgene. Every day, I filled it up with water and took it everywhere. I also used the day planner. I still have it, full of my notes about tests, homework assignments, and extracurricular commitments. I never blew the rape whistle, but I should have. I remember a foreign finger stroking the cotton of my panties. I remember a deceitfully gentle, raspy voice asking me if it felt good. I remember the tingling of nerve endings in a forbidden place as fear threaded lead rods through my limbs. I remember wondering what the hell was happening. I remember the familiar baby blue of my bedroom walls, the cheerful green of the plants in the mural there, and the unsuspecting eyes of Peter Rabbit as he manned his wooden wheelbarrow. I don’t remember when I said “no.” I don’t remember if I said “no.” I do remember the word reverberating against the walls of my skull in double-time, a hummingbird chorus of wrong that exploded like shots from a machine gun, biting and vicious. Nonononononononononono… I remember how it began. I don’t remember how it ended.
According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, one in every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. I was sixteen when my stepfather, Neil—at the time, my mom’s fiancé—parked his modest vehicle
outside an off-white stone building that looked like a warehouse and urged me to get out. “We’re shopping for you,” he told me with a broad grin. “’Cause, you know, this stuff is important. You’re not a kid anymore.” I followed him out of the car and up the curb to a glass door with blackened panes. “You’re gonna see some things in here that might shock you,” he warned me as he grasped the handle, “but don’t worry. If you have any questions, just ask me.” He tugged the door open, and I stepped into what appeared at first to be a comic book shop, with rows upon rows of magazines and DVDs. Upon closer inspection, though, I realized that all of the covers boasted nude, big-breasted female bodies. The Catholic in me was already planning my next confession. O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee. I think I accidentally walked into a porn distributor. Neil strode confidently up to the counter, a glass menagerie of neon objects and shiny plastic packages. “We’re looking for a vibrator.” On the one hand, I really, really hoped that he was using the royal “we.” I mean, I’d heard him crack sex jokes. I knew he was sleeping with my mother because I’d accidentally walked in on them one afternoon. I knew he had a kinky sense of humor. “For her,” he finished, jerking his thumb in my general direction. The heat on my face was far more intense than that of the fluorescent display lamps. “No we’re…” “Yes, we are,” he interrupted. “You asked about vibrators. You’re old enough to have your own.” He turned back to the stout man behind the counter and banged a decisive hand against the glass. “Something small. She’s a virgin.” I had thought that my first bra shopping experience with my mother had been the most mortifying hour of my life. Within seconds, I decided this was far worse. The man lifted up a hand to scratch his balding head and wiped his palms against the black polo shirt that stretched across his protruding stomach before placing a small pink vibrator on the table. “This here’s a good beginner,” he offered. “How much?” Neil asked, unearthing his wallet. “Fourteen.” He handed the guy a twenty, and the guy wrapped the vibrator in a black plastic bag and passed it to me with a wink. “Enjoy it!” I didn’t tell him that I didn’t have the slightest clue how to use it. I also didn’t tell him that, while I was intensely disturbed, I was also the tiniest bit curious. I remember him telling my mom about the vibrator over dinner. I remember her saying it was nice that we were bonding. I remember getting home to my dad’s house and tucking the vibrator in the top drawer of my nightstand, at the very back. I remember wondering why Neil thought I needed one. “You don’t have to have sex with guys, you know. You can just give them a blow job.” I looked up from my homework with unchecked disgust. “What?” “I know you want to wait to have sex, but…I’m telling you, guys need something. That’s why you can give them a blow job.” I shuddered. “Ew.”
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“Or a hand job,” Neil continued, undeterred. “Do you know how to give a hand job? There’s a technique to it.” The “technique” seemed pretty straightforward to me. I’d sat on guy’s laps, only to feel their arousal jabbing me in the butt. I wasn’t too concerned about my ability to satisfy on the sexual front. “Not everyone’s good at it, you know. It’s like any other skill. You have to study first.” I bit my lip apprehensively. “What do you mean?” “I mean…I don’t want to see you go in blind. I can educate you, you know. In fact, I bet I could find a video…” He found a video. He also found a step-by-step instruction guide. A combination of morbid curiosity and a sudden fear of sexual inadequacy rooted me to the place behind his computer chair. “What are you watching?” I jumped almost a foot in the air as my mother entered the study. “I’m teaching your daughter about hand jobs.” He cast her a sideways glance and grinned. “You know, you could probably benefit from this lesson, too.” She dropped her purse and briefcase by the door and walked over to the desk. Some families watch romantic comedies together. Some families watch action flicks. My family watched porn. These stories sound absurd to me now, but this is how it happened. Once every two minutes, someone in the United States of America is sexually assaulted. That means that there are approximately 237,868 victims of sexual assault each year. Seventy-three percent of sexual assault victims know their attacker.
Neil sent me roses on Valentine’s Day. They were my first bouquet. He told my mother he wanted to make me feel special. He told me that I was a very beautiful girl, and I needed to remember that. He told me that I was thin and attractive. He called me “hot.” I was torn between timid appreciation and the desire to unzip my skin and run it through the washing machine. I simultaneously wanted to thank him and wrap myself in my grandmother’s quilt while hiding in the dark recesses of a nunnery. “Isn’t that nice?” my mother asked when she saw the roses. Nice didn’t feel like the right word. Twenty-eight percent of sexual assailants are intimately familiar with the victim. I remember him pulling back the fabric of my underwear with his index finger. I remember the ridges in the pads of his fingers as they brushed the lips of my vagina. I remember a foreign flag on my soil. I remember an invasion of foreign tanks in my streets and foreign troops in my basement. I remember asking him to stop. Seven percent of sexual assailants are relatives. I remember familiar hands in my hair, along my arms, and across my breasts. I remember being fully clothed, but feeling naked. I remember a gentle ribbing and good-natured humor. I remember him telling me he wanted to make me feel good. I remember feeling horrible for weeks afterward. Sixty percent of sexual assault victims never report the assault to the police. Over half of sexual assault victims over the age of five never file a formal report. Justice is never served. Villains roam free. When I was training to volunteer at a rape crisis center, that number mortified me. Every counselor, psychiatrist, and professional urged us to tell the women and men in crisis to stand up for themselves by reporting the incident to the police. The center encouraged us to accompany the victim to the hospital for a rape kit and examination—which makes complete sense. Of course you’d report a sexual assault. If you don’t, the attacker goes free, and you will most certainly not be his/her only victim. After all, forty-six percent of rapists released from prison will break the law again within three years. The statistics clearly indicate the importance of using the law to one’s advantage—not only to protect yourself, but to protect society at large. Here’s the thing, though: when my stepfather tip-toed into my bedroom, laid down next to me in bed, and slid his hand between my legs, I didn’t tell anybody. Not at first. I told my younger brother in whispers one night after lights-out, bent over and shaking on his bedroom floor. “You have to tell Mom,” he warned. “I can’t!” I argued, fighting through an unfortunate leak in the lachrymal tear ducts.
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His gaze was every bit as intense as his resolve. “If you don’t tell her, I will.” Later that week, my stepfather’s mother was hosting a pool party. When the extended family had gone inside for burgers, my brother pulled me to the patio chair where our mother was napping. “You have to tell her now.” “No,” I answered firmly, jerking my arm out of his grasp. “It’s her husband. She’s not going to believe me.” “Of course she’ll believe you!” he argued. “You have to tell her! You can’t let him get away with it!” “Tell me what?” I inhaled sharply. The metal legs of the chair screeched across the concrete as my brother sat down next to my mom. “Tell her,” he urged. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I didn’t know where to start. I remembered his index finger stroking me through the cotton of my underwear, and… “Neil touched her,” my brother, Adam, said instead. I told the concrete about his hand between my thighs. I kneaded the flesh of my quadriceps with my palms and told the edge of the lawn chair that I asked him to stop, and he did, but I could still feel his fingertip along the labia and the gentle scratch-scratch of his nail. “Are you sure?” The lawn chair and the concrete blurred into a mess of blue and rust and brown and grey that beaded and fell. “This is a serious accusation. Are you sure?” I nodded, answered shakily in the affirmative, but the question continued to haunt me. Am I sure? “I’ll take care of it,” she said in a whisper-soft cadence that trembled ever so slightly. “I’ll talk to him, okay? Just…please don’t tell your dad.” I remember coming home to my father, night after night after night, wondering what it would be like to fold myself into his arms and cry. I remember lying rigidly in between the sheets at night, staring at the faint stain of fingerprints on my bedroom ceiling at my father’s house and wondering what would happen if I fell asleep and someone came in. Would I wake up? Would Dad wake up? Would my brother wake up? What if we woke up too late?
“Neil has something to say to you.” I glanced up from the denim bedspread and caught Peter Rabbit’s gaze for a moment before my eyes found my stepfather, all six feet and three hundred pounds of him, darkening my doorway. “I’m sorry about what happened,” he said firmly. “I shouldn’t have done that. I got carried away.” “Do you accept his apology?” my mother asked expectantly, black eyebrows raised against olive skin—a foot shorter than him, but his teammate nonetheless. “Yes,” I all but whispered. Her sigh of relief deflated me. “Good. Then we can all put this behind us.”
It sounded like a perfect plan to me. I remember my father tugging a Sig Sauer from a bright blue plastic case and teaching me how to shoot. I remember him showing me how to fold my left hand over my right, how to turn off the safety, how to pull the trigger and prepare for kickback. I remember thinking: this is what he will do to Neil if he ever finds out. I remember my college suitemate telling me about a male pediatrician who had touched her inappropriately when she was a child. I remember asking her firmly if she had told anyone. I remember sighing in relief when she said, “Of course. I told my mom immediately. We filed a complaint.” I remember wondering if I should tell my suitemate about Neil. I never wondered if I should file a complaint. We were at Neil’s family’s Christmas celebration, surrounded by red and green and taffeta and the distinct smell of cinnamon. The children were eating cookies and talking excitedly about the gifts they’d gotten earlier that morning. The parents were drinking wine. Neil’s stepfather sat down next to me and put a wrinkled, papery hand on my knee. “I like your sweater,” he said. “Thanks,” I replied. “You know, you hide behind those baggy sweaters, but you’ve got a figure,” he began, wrapping his fingers more tightly around my knee. “I remember you in your bathing suit this summer. I used to think you were just a thin little thing, but you’ve got curves. Good curves. You’re a woman. You’ve got a great figure. You shouldn’t hide it. You’ve got good breasts, like your mother, and good hips. You’re really very attractive.” I shifted uncomfortably. “Thanks.” He leaned forward until I could smell the wine on his breath. “I mean it. You’re a woman. A very sexy, sensual woman.” I uncrossed and re-crossed my legs, shaking him off. “I’m going to, um, get some cider.” “You can have a glass of wine, you know.” His hand found my arm instead. “You’re a woman. You’re not a girl anymore. You’re a woman. I mean…you look like a woman.” I found my brother shooting the breeze with the boys outside and told him we had to go. I kissed my mother on the cheek and bid her Merry Christmas before we left. When we got home, my dad looked up from the movie he’d been watching and smiled. “Hey. How was the party?” I think my step-grandfather tried to put the moves on me, I wanted to say. Maybe creeping is a genetic disorder. “It was fun,” I said instead. “Goodnight.” I remember coming home from college and dodging pass after pass at dinner with my mother and her husband. I remember walking around the neighboring school with my mother after dinner, trying to convince myself that my fears were all in my head, that he had only touched me once, that he was never going to do it again. I remember wondering what was going to happen if I ever had to be alone with him. I remember my mother stopping by a lamppost one night and turning to me with wide eyes.
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“Did I tell you about Penny’s daughter?” I vaguely remembered Neil’s stepsister, Penny. I didn’t remember that she had a daughter. “Remember how Penny got married? She’s actually getting a divorce now.” “I’m sorry to hear that,” I mused. Having grown up in the south, I had amassed quite a few blasé responses to the rampant gossip of the neighborhood housewives. Don’t ask, just placate. “Yeah. It turns out her husband was sexually abusing her daughter. Can you believe that?” I remember thinking that this story sounded painfully familiar. My mother plowed on. “I mean, what kind of person does that to his own stepdaughter?” You tell me, I wanted to say. You’re married to him. “I don’t know,” I said instead. “You know what your problem is?” Neil told me one night after dinner. “You’re too intense. Guys don’t like serious girls. You’ve gotta lighten up a little.” “You mean guys like you don’t like serious girls,” I retorted with a sarcastic smile. “Well, obviously,” he laughed, “but seriously. You could be hot if you wanted to be. If you cut your hair and put on a little makeup and stopped being so intense, you’d have a boyfriend in, like, a second.” “Yeah,” I muttered, “but not a boyfriend who really likes me. Besides, I’m not looking for a—” “Every girl is looking for a boyfriend,” he interrupted. “Look, you want my advice? You intimidate guys. You’re too smart for them, and they know that, so they’re scared. Tone it down.” I was furious. How dare he tell me how to act around men? How dare he climb up on any sort of high horse and have the audacity to speak to me about the impetus for a real, lasting relationship? A tiny voice in the back of my head wondered if he was right. Am I too intense?
I began dating a guy named Blaine. We were making out on the floor of my apartment living room. I felt his hands along my ribcage and his tongue on my lips. I opened my eyes and saw that his were closed. I glanced surreptitiously at my watch. We had been making out for approximately three minutes. I wondered how long things would have to continue. Blaine, an assistant middle school football coach, was six-foot-three and roughly two hundred pounds. He had brown curly hair, beautiful blue eyes and a smile of which Crest would have been proud. His hands found either side of my face, and I wondered if I could take him. I wondered whether it would be more practical to use the heel of my hand to drive his nose bone into his brain or to use my thumbs to gauge his eyes out. His lips found my neck, and I wondered if he would stop when I asked him to. He sucked on the hollow of my jaw, and I pushed him off of me. “Sorry,” I said, “I’ve got to go to the bathroom. Then, shouldn’t you probably go? Don’t you have school tomorrow?” “Yeah.” He dragged the syllable out reluctantly and shot me a cute, lopsided smile. “But I’d rather be here with you.” I smiled tightly. “You’re sweet.” Get out of my apartment. “I’ll be right back.” When I returned to see him out, he pulled me onto the couch with him and leaned in for a kiss.
I pressed my palm against his chest. “We really should stop. We both need sleep.” He leaned in and kissed my forehead. “You’re so responsible.” He stood up, and I contemplated hooking my heels along the backs of his knees and snapping his neck. He turned around, and his eyes didn’t seem quite so beautiful anymore. “See you soon?” He leaned forward for a hug, and my heart began hammering my sternum. “Yeah,” I agreed tersely. “I’ll call you.” We broke up a few weeks later. We never made out again.
I told myself I was overreacting. I told myself it had only happened once. Women get raped every two minutes, and I had been touched inappropriately once by my stepfather, who had a sick sense of humor anyway. I told myself I didn’t have a right to complain. I told myself I didn’t have the right to claim that any real sort of wrong had been done. After all, he’d apologized. I had accepted his apology. Everyone had agreed to leave the past in the past. My mother’s voice was always there. Are you sure? I told myself I wasn’t. I started carrying a pocketknife, just in case. I stopped inviting boys to my apartment. I didn’t want them to touch me unless I was absolutely positive that I could physically overtake them. At the same time, though, I was terrified that Neil’s fingerprints were on my skin, like a tiny road map to my deepest, darkest shame. I was terrified that any guy who did manage to make it past my murderous instincts would see that I had a light pink vibrator in the drawer of my nightstand; that I was too intense and unapologetic; that beneath my clothes, my stepfather’s fingerprints were on fire, a vicious reminder of the signs I hadn’t seen, the things I hadn’t done, and the boundaries I’d failed to draw. I am an educated woman. I earned a degree from a women’s college. I think women are strong and beautiful and capable, and I would never tell a woman who’d suffered abuse that the abuse was her fault. In the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind, I still carried guilt and shame like leaden weights. I
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still played long, drawn-out games of “what if?” What if you’d told someone? What if you’d paid attention to the signs? What if you’d told him he made you uncomfortable? What if you’d taken your expensive, hard-earned education and acted like a strong woman with a strong mind? What if you’d done what you were supposed to do? I was painfully aware of the potential impact, though. I imagined my father in jail for murder. I imagined my mother, alone and single again, hating me for destroying her perfect life with her newfound Prince Charming. I imagined myself at eighty-five, living in a dilapidated house with ten dogs, a familial pariah because I’d tried, unjustifiably, to claim the title of “victim.” I kept my mouth shut and let the silence lick at my insides like salt water on limestone, unmaking me one small wave at a time. Victims of sexual assault are three times more likely to suffer from depression, six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide.
Eight years after my stepfather tried to share my bed, I finally came clean with my therapist. She cried. I did not. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with me,” I grumbled. “It was once. It’s never happened again. Why can’t I just get over this? Why do I have to see every guy as an enemy? People get raped all the time. What happened to me was…” “It was sexual abuse,” she interrupted, using a tissue to dry the corners of her eyes beneath her glasses. “You were sexually abused.” “It wasn’t like that,” I argued. “He didn’t even get that far…” “Because you told him to stop. Have you been alone with him since?” I knew the answer immediately. “Once,” I admitted. “Maybe twice. Always unintentionally, and never for more than five minutes.” “You don’t know if it would happen again,” she countered, “because you’ve gone out of your way to make sure it doesn’t.” She inhaled sharply. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” “I told my mother,” I snapped. “She asked me if I was sure.” “Why didn’t you tell anyone else?” Because my father would’ve killed him. Because it would’ve ruined my mother’s life. Because she thinks she’s happy with Neil, and I don’t want to be the one who burns that to the ground. Because… “Because I couldn’t decide if it was my fault,” I told her honestly. “There were signs. There were so many signs, and…” “And you were a child.” “I was a legal adult,” I volleyed. “I was over eighteen.” “Mentally,” she persisted, “you were a child. You needed a parent. Have you thought about telling your dad?” My eyes widened until the sea-green couches and floral walls were a massive vibrating blur. “Hell no! He’d kill Neil!” She folded my file in her lap and leaned forward. “What do you want?” she asked, slowly and distinctly. “How do you want this to play out?” “It doesn’t matter,” I argued. “What I want can’t happen.”
She shrugged dismissively. “What do you want?” she repeated. “I want to not have to see him at holidays,” I all but whispered. “I’m…I think I’m scared of him. All the time.” “You can make that happen,” she told me firmly. “You have the right to declare that boundary. It’s your life.” Nine years after my stepfather knocked on the door while I was reading and laid down next to me, I told my mother I didn’t want to see her husband anymore. I told my father what had happened. I finally declared a boundary. I finally stood up for myself. There was nothing magical, affirming, or honorable about it. My mother told me that she didn’t believe me; Neil told her he’d fallen asleep and didn’t know what he was doing. My father asked me why I hadn’t come to him in the first place. My father, the linebacker-sized lawyer, asked me why I had let the statute of limitations run out. Then, when he discovered he could sue Neil and my mother for conspiracy to cover up, he asked me to pursue legal action. He told me that he’d unearthed a case in Colorado where Neil had posed as a massage therapist in a high-end hotel, going from door to door and offering his services. He’d raped a woman. She had pressed charges, but the defense attorney had threatened to unearth her entire sexual history if the case went to court, so she’d never pursued the case further. He told me that the case had come up in the divorce, which my mother had known and chosen not to believe. Only ten percent of rapes lead to an arrest. Only eight percent of rapes get prosecuted. Only four percent of rapes lead to a felony conviction. Only three percent of rapists spend even a single day in prison. I still chose not to pursue legal action. I claimed a desire to put the whole thing behind me, but here’s the truth: deep down, I still wonder how much innocence I can rightfully claim. I still wonder to what degree I’m responsible. I still wonder to what degree I’m sure. Then I close my eyes and feel the pressure of his fingertip along the labia and the gentle scratchscratch of his nail. I hear a raspy voice asking me if it feels good. I feel unwanted hands in my hair, along my arms, and across my breasts. I’m sure that it happened. I’m still not sure how. I still own the rape whistle. It dangles from my keychain, its logo completely gone. I’ve never blown it. Sometimes I think back to that night as a first year, standing in the humanities courtyard, listening to two hundred individual whistles piercing the night. Hypocritical as it is, I can’t help but hope that each of those girls carries the whistle with her everywhere, even after college. I imagine a Scripps student in a dark alley, in a suspiciously dirty bathroom, in a childhood bedroom. I imagine a potential assailant approaching. In my mind, the Scripps student never hesitates. She blows the whistle every time.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
The Museum of Atheism A. A. Weiss
What had changed in Riscani since the fall of the Soviet Union? A history text would mention the collapse of the farming collective, the breakdown of local government that led to widespread corruption, perhaps the cutting of the trade pathways that provided markets for the locally manufactured goods—cheese, wine and perfumes. In Moldova, I observed the effects of Soviet collapse every day, but only understood the fragments of disrupted life as they affected my host family. Tima spoke frequently over vodka shots of longer workdays and fewer vacations; a decade had passed since he’d relaxed by the sea in Odessa. Tanya complained about the value of the family’s bread decreasing slowly every year; soon the people would expect bakers to give it away for free. And Natasha worried, with reason, that her education was far inferior to the quality of the common village schools her parents had passed through decades earlier. But gloom did not permeate everything; the collapse had destroyed the compulsion to worship the state. Riscani now had a proper church—a gray, onion-topped, Orthodox church—situated on the path leading to the bar on the lake. This church had been constructed before WWII. It had survived that conflict, only to be stripped of its icons, murals, priest, and renamed “The Museum of Atheism” during its time in the hands of the Soviet Union. Now the church had taken back its name. To this church, Natasha took me to worship. Teenage Natasha took off her Spain football sweatshirt and put on a sweater that hid her breasts. She borrowed a flat-soled pair of Mama Tanya’s shoes and wrapped a red shawl around her hair. Papa Tima and Mama Tanya inspected her from their positions in bed, giving her tips as she dressed on how to look pious. They argued briefly about make-up, Natasha agreeing to forgo eyeliner. Snow had fallen the previous night, but none had collected. The cold had now set in, and most predicted it would last until June. The only people on the back streets of Riscani all walked in the same direction, toward the lake; all kept their hands in their pockets and elbows pressed against their sides, chins tucked to protect their eyes from the wind, frozen breath clouds exiting downward. I’d kept my vision on the heels of a man in front of me, and when he continued past the church, Natasha took my arm to correct my path and guide me toward the church gates. She gave two lei to a Roma boy with his hands cupped at the entrance. A line extended out the door, and I realized then that I’d be standing the entire time during this ceremony. Before we entered the church Natasha turned to me and said, “Take off your hat.” “I know,” I responded grumpily. Natasha brushed her hand over a wandering patch of my hair and patted down the rest. I hadn’t fully appreciated Natasha’s love for the Orthodox Church until this moment in the crowded antechamber. Natasha, the youngest in the family, the baby without Soviet memories, was the only one to publicly express her faith. She attended church, carried laminated saint cards, crossed herself when we encountered shrines while walking, passing her hands quickly over her chest in the double orthodox manner and kissing her thumb. Inside, the space resembled an old school house suitable for twenty children. The warmth of the interior came from the parishioners. Fifty people stood together on a collection of thin carpets over wood floorboards. There were no chairs. Natasha stood with me for the first half hour, split her attention equally between the priest and me, and then worked her way through the clustered, big-boned, wool-draped worshipers to the front, where other members of the choir had collected. A moment later, the priest made his first pass through his congregation, swinging a brass cauldron that emitted smoke. An altar boy walked ahead with a large candle. Another altar boy trailed
behind with another candle. The crowd parted to accommodate the priest, as they hadn’t for Natasha. They turned in place as flowers following the sun, never letting him see their backs. He spoke his chants in a booming voice in a language I didn’t recognize. It seemed ancient, a mix of Russian and Latin. Women held hands up as he passed as though to feel the cloth of his white gown, though no one actually touched him. As he passed by, we briefly made eye contact, and in that moment I was certain he knew who I was; his eyes changed to express recognition, surprised and friendly. He continued his pass, never interrupting his chant. I unzipped my coat and found a place where I could stand away from the overwhelming heat. I shifted my weight from leg to leg. I recognized the moment in the chanting when the language doubled back on itself and became a repetition. I watched as women and men took turns kissing portraits of the saints framed in gold on the wall. Three hours passed. The priest made several passes. Worshipers had come and gone, but most had stayed the duration as I had. At the end, when the chanting stopped, everyone formed a line and took turns kissing a large silver cross that the priest extended from his hand. I observed from the back as the priest blessed Natasha and she kissed the cross. The ceremony ended. All the saints on the walls had been kissed, but people remained because the priest had not yet removed his tall white hat. He waved from his pulpit as if someone had forgotten something. He waved to a person at the back door. I turned and saw several worshipers frozen in place, pointing among themselves, not sure which person he was trying to reach. Finally, he sent the second altar boy to the back. The boy pointed to each parishioner, passing from one to another, waiting for the priest to nod his head. The priest finally waved the boy back and whispered something into his ear. Then the boy came directly to me. “The priest wants to bless you,” he said. I looked to the priest and pointed to my chest. “Yes,” he nodded. “You.” Everyone watched as I approached. The priest put his hand over his heart and bowed once I arrived; I mimicked him. He smiled. He knew the words he wished to speak, but didn’t wish to waste them on deaf ears. He pulled the altar boy by the sleeve and asked him to translate. The boy protested, “You know I don’t speak English well, Papa.” Natasha rescued this boy by saying, “Speak to him. He understands Russian.” The priest smiled again. Sweat beaded on his forehead from the physical exertion of his service. In a voice heavily accented with Romanian, the priest thanked me for worshiping, for respecting other traditions, for taking advantage of the brotherhood of Christianity. A murmur filled the room behind me: “Katólik,” they said. “The American is katolícheski.” Then the churchgoers stood without making noise, perhaps not even breathing, as the Priest talked with the American. “I’ve wanted to tell you for quite some time,” he began. “I really like your beard.” This was a joke; people laughed. I thanked him. He spoke quickly and I understood every other word. He asked if it was true I planned to visit Egypt someday—he glanced at Natasha, who’d probably told him every idea she’d ever heard me speak—and then he recommended that I climb Mt. Sinai, as he’d heard good things. He asked about priestly issues in America; he asked if I was aware of gay marriage, and had I ever been to Oregon
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because that’s where it was happening. I said his sons all seemed hard workers at the school where I taught, and all very bright. He smiled broadly and grabbed my shoulder. He said something completely unintelligible, but in quite a flattering tone. After an awkward silence it seemed he wanted a response, so in polite, formal Russian I said, “Right back at you.” He scrunched his eyebrows together. Someone in the background stifled a giggle. “Do you know what I just said?” he asked. I admitted that I hadn’t. “I just blessed you,” he explained. “You can’t bless me back.” No longer able to contain their laughter, a pair of women ran out of the church, toward the bazaar, surely to inform the world. “May health and happiness pursue you,” continued the priest. “Traveling is good. One learns that God’s children fight over similarities, not differences.” I looked at the silver cross in his right hand, held against his breast. He followed my eyes and then extended the cross. I kissed it at the bottom, where other lips hadn’t left marks, and the priest smiled. He snapped his fingers, and the altar boy gave me a bag with Christmas candies, biscuits and a small orange. The priest placed his hand over his heart and bowed a final time. I felt a hand take my elbow; Natasha motioned for me to follow her to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said. “I will stay with the choir and sing until dawn.” We’d arrived just before eleven and now it was just past two in the afternoon. She saw that I questioned her sanity. “It’s a tradition,” she explained in English. “Okay,” I said. “Until tomorrow.” The priest waved goodbye from his pulpit and I instinctively, stupidly, flashed him a peace sign. He mimicked me, and he and many others laughed. Outside I felt energized. More blood returned to my legs with every step. The wind had relaxed enough for me to raise my chin and look forward. Instead of returning home directly, I walked to the lake. The Roma boy who’d begged two lei from Natasha stood far down on the sloping dam near the artificial shoreline, spitting sunflower seeds into the water. The wind picked up. I buried my head down into my coat and returned home. Upon entering, Papa Tima spoke in a loud voice to Mama Tanya. They were both in the kitchen. He wanted me to hear but pretended I wasn’t there. “Did you hear the joke about the Priest and the American?” he asked Tanya. She started laughing and had to muffle her laughter with a dishrag pressed against her mouth. “‘Bless you, my son,’ says the priest.” “‘No father,’ interrupts the American. ‘Bless you!’” Tima pounded the table with his flat palm as he erupted with laughter. Tanya removed the dishrag from her mouth and joined him at full volume. How could they have known so quickly? I entered the kitchen smiling and accepted a plate of jam pastries. We paused in thought, three shots of vodka elevated in our hands, as we struggled to think of something new we’d never before toasted. After a moment we settled, like always, on health and happiness.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
The Coyote Gangs of Hope Catherine Schmitt
On the first warm Saturday of spring, my friend Keri sat on the grass doing grad-school homework on her laptop in front of her rented house, down a dead-end road on seventy acres of old farmland in Hope, Maine. Pussy willows were starting to fuzz in the swamps. Scattered clumps of crocuses provided the only color in a landscape still emerging from the dull shadow of winter. Keri liked the privacy of the farm. There were plenty of trails and swimming holes nearby, and the house was a short drive to her water quality protection job at the county extension office. Not wanting to waste any sun, the first real strong rays of the year, Keri wore a tank top, shorts, and flip-flops. Luna, her boyfriend’s 110-pound Rottweiler-Akita-Lab mix with a red brindle coat, lounged next to her on the grass, soaking up the warmth. Keri’s fine blond hair glinted in the sun, long strands falling in front of her glasses as she typed. She heard the high-pitched calls of hounds coming from the woods across the road. Not recognizing the howl, she wondered if someone had lost a dog. Keri heard more barking and whining, then the sound of rolling tires crunching on the gravel. A club-cab pickup truck was coming up the driveway. Not accustomed to unannounced guests, Keri told me she was unsure what to do. She put Luna inside the house and approached the truck, which had stopped in front of the barn. She wondered if this person was looking for the dogs she’d heard barking. Keri approached the driver’s side of the car. “Hello…can I help you?” Keri asked. The car door opened and a figure stepped out of the truck. “Are you looking for your dog? I heard a dog earlier from the other side of the road…” The figure took the shape of a tall, broad-shouldered woman, maybe in her late forties. Turning her back to Keri, the woman reached behind the driver’s seat and pulled out a rifle, which she slung over her shoulder. Keri glanced into the truck bed. Hounds were caged in wire crates, their tongues hanging, eyes half-closed, saliva dripping from their mouths. “Can I bring out some water for your dogs?” Keri heard Luna inside the house, scratching at the windows and barking. “No.” The woman turned around. Keri looked at the gun, and then at a large, dish-shaped GPS tracking unit in the woman’s left hand. The woman wore steel-toed boots, green camouflage pants, and a pocketed vest. Her long brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. And she had a beard—dark, wispy sprouts of hair around her mouth and chin. Keri realized that the woman had been hunting coyotes. Keri sometimes heard coyotes at night. She liked the sound. She thought coyotes symbolized the wildness of Maine—a wildness she felt had been lost from her homeground in the Midwest. Keri also thought the coyote to be a symbol of hope. Coyotes had seemed to overcome so many challenges, adapt, succeed. “You know,” Keri said to the stranger, “I don’t feel comfortable with you being here, hunting coyotes on this property. I’m afraid for my dog…I have a lot of respect for those animals; coyotes are resilient…” her voice trailed off as the woman dismissed her with a smirk and placed large hands on Keri’s slender shoulders. The stranger leaned in, inches from her face. Keri looked up at her, feeling small. “We’re gonna access this property to hunt those animals no matter what you say,” the stranger snarled. Keri looked up into the woman’s white, freckly face. She couldn’t speak. She was trying to contain her alarm at the woman’s facial hair. Brown hairs hung down from the chin, and a long mustache
curled around the woman’s dry lips. A stick snapped, and Keri turned to see two short men coming out of the woods, jeans hanging off their hips, dingy strands of hair hanging out of blaze-orange baseball caps, guns slung loose over their shoulders. The woman said something to the men; one of them got in the passenger side of the truck and the other climbed into the bed with the barking dogs as the woman got in the driver’s side. The truck kicked up gravel dust as the coyote hunters left. Keri stood there in the driveway, stunned. She would never feel safe at that house again. The bearded woman and her male companions had been hunting1 on land owned by a local lumber company, hundreds of forested acres surrounding Keri’s rental property. The land is not posted against trespassing, so it is open to hunters, as is the norm in rural Maine. Keri’s landlords had told her they allowed a few neighbors to hunt deer, turkey, and small game on their property, but not coyotes. After the encounter, Keri confirmed with her landlords that the three people who came into her yard that April afternoon were not neighbors, and that coyote hunting was not a permitted use of the property. Later, Keri told her friends about the visit from the hunters, about the bearded woman. “Must’ve been Tina,” said one. “Oh, yeah. Tina. I know her,” said another. “There’s gangs of coyote hunters all over this area.” Keri had no idea. She had been hiking and snowshoeing with Luna miles through the woods and along the St. George River for a year and had never encountered anyone. But like learning a new word and then seeing it everywhere, Keri started running into coyote hunting stories wherever she went, stories about people confronting hunters in their backyards, being woken in the middle of the night by barking dogs and flashlight beams. Hope, Maine, is a rural village of 1,300 people just inland from Penobscot Bay. Narrow roads roll between open fields, cedar swamps, and hardwood forest in a series of north-south ridgelines that separate the valleys of the St. George, Medomak, and Damariscotta rivers. At the center of town is a two-hundred-year-old general store, the kind of country store with creaky wood floors, shelves halffilled with convenience staples and canned goods, local honey and soap, work gloves and bar and chain oil. Jars of jerky sit on a wooden counter polished by generations of exchange. Solar-powered, handbuilt homes are neighbors to trailers, organic farms, and apple orchards. Subarus, as common as pickup trucks, are tagged with bumper stickers that say “Hope is Hip.” Yards are adorned with rebel flags or Stop Nuclear Bombs signs. Toward Appleton, eighteen dead coyotes are nailed to Raymond Gushee’s front porch. The coyote gangs have terrified many residents of this pastoral county halfway up the coast of Maine. At night, they drive their hounds through stands of white pine and alder thickets, across the backside of lumber yards and orchards, along beaver flowages and the edges of lakes. They park their pickups on the side of some road or driveway, tracking their trained hounds with Garmin Astro GPS units (manufacturer’s suggested retail price $649.99) across lines of property, town, and county. Their hounds corner the coyote, but hopefully not kill it before the hunter catches up to them to shoot it. 1
The correct term is not hunting but killing, as Rick Bass pointed out in Ninemile Wolves. To hunt is to procure
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This is what it’s like to live in Hope: Coyote, moose, deer, and unidentifiable carcasses are regularly dumped on the edge of the farm. Spotlights flash into the windows at night as the gangs sweep through the meadows behind the house, scaring the sheep. At one in the morning, the dogs start barking; outside are more dogs barking, men’s voices, idling engines, the horse and new foal chased out of the paddock. In the inevitable confrontations with startled landowners, the hunters claim their dogs can’t read the No Trespassing signs. The coyote gangs turn private property into an amusement park and a slaughterhouse, because as they say, “If we don’t kill coyotes and keep killing them, we’ll have a catastrophe.”
The eastern coyote, Canis latrans, is related to wolves, Canis lupus, and the domesticated dog, Canis lupus familiaris. The coyote is indigenous and unique to North America, having originated on the continent some sixty million years ago. The coyote is native to the Great Plains and the high desert, but as European colonists exterminated wolves and cleared the landscape as they moved west, coyotes expanded their range eastward. They migrated from northern Minnesota across the St. Lawrence River into northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine in the late 1930s, when French-Canadian woodsmen working in northern Maine reported seeing “les loups.” The animals were larger than western coyotes, possibly a result of interbreeding with gray wolves as they moved east. The new terrain’s forests made their fur take on a darker color, from almost black to grizzled shades of brown, blond, and red. Clarence Aldous of the University of Maine reported early coyote sightings to the Journal of Mammalogy in 1939. The state wasted no time setting up a $25 bounty and contracting with locals to exterminate coyotes without rule or limit. But the coyote continued to spread, slowly, from north and west to south and east, from the northern forest to the coast, adapting to its new habitat along the way. The coyote is an omnivore and a scavenger. She eats what she finds: deer, yes, especially in winter, but also snowshoe hare, squirrel, mouse, muskrat, shrews, chipmunks, grouse, turkey, berries, apples, and garbage, altering her eating habits to what food is available. By the 1970s, coyotes had expanded throughout Maine. The coyote was called a “mystery mongrel” and the “new wolf.” Today there are an estimated 12,000 coyotes in Maine. Around the same time that coyotes were spreading through coastal Maine, people began moving into Hope, first to take part in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s and later to escape the suburban sprawl of the Northeast megalopolis. After a century of declining population, Hope grew from 500 people in 1970 to 1,671 in 2010. Perhaps nothing describes the evolution of this area more than the Hope General Store’s own website: “We no longer sell guns, boots or shovels but we have added wifi, solar panels, imported goods, a huge beer selection and a great deli.” Hope is hip. Hope is where the young, idealistic, or disenchanted can still buy land and start ventures like Hope Spinnery, a wind-powered fiber mill spinning alpaca wool; Hope Unleashed, a dog daycare and boarding facility; and Hope Elephants, a home for aging and injured elephants from zoos and circuses around the world. Hope is where someone like my friend Keri, who is the black sheep in her conservative, Midwestern family, can find a place to live and feel at home. As Keri told me about the coyote gangs, about how angry they seemed, I asked her, “Where does the anger come from?” “It’s just like wolves,” she said, referring to the fear of wilderness that led European settlers to kill off all the wolves in New England by 1900, the hate that humans have had for predators ever since
humans started raising the sheep, cows, goats, and chickens that attract predators. A hate that emerged in the Middle Ages as man sought a scapegoat upon which he could heap his sins of greed, lust, and deception and whose sacrificial death would be his atonement, according to Barry Lopez in Of Wolves and Men. To Lopez, the wolf killers had an unreasoned hatred of many things, of laws and governments and wolves, because wolves seemed better off than they were. I wonder if the coyote gangs are reacting out of this same hatred, a powerlessness to the changes surrounding them. The rhetoric is similar, but coyotes are not the same as wolves. Coyotes don’t typically have an intricate pack society like wolves; coyotes run alone or in pairs. The coyote is a jack-of-all-trades; the wolf is highly specialized to habit, habitat, and prey. The coyote is a new resident of New England; the wolf was native to Hope. And perhaps this is the problem. History, which so often provides context and cultural reference points, only goes back a few decades in the case of the coyote in Maine. In the East, there is no Native American coyote-as-trickster mythology to lend an alternative interpretation. The coyote is not filling the niche of the wolf. That niche ceased to exist for almost a century, as humans severed the wolf’s demands on and interactions with the New England landscape, at the same time as the landscape changed due to logging, insects and disease, road-building, and human attempts to “manage” wildlife. As newcomers built homes, mowed their fields, and allowed forests to regrow along the edges, coyotes flourished along with the habitat for their prey. They succeeded when so many other animals did not. Like robins, sparrows, sea gulls, crows and raccoons, the coyote’s ability to exploit a landscape altered by humans has meant that it followed us, became a part of a scene we created, and thus became symbolic of it. Ted Williams, who wrote about the early days of coyote snaring in Maine and coyote poisoning in the Midwest, explained it this way: “Maybe people hate wolves and coyotes for the same reason
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wolves and coyotes hate dogs. Neither can forgive the other for being on the other side of wild or domestic.” Neither wolf nor dog, coyotes are cast in a kind of purgatory, forever denied the awe we have for the wolf and refused the adoration we lavish on the family dog. Mark Twain wrote that the coyote “is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless...He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it.”
The coyote gangs had so rattled people in Hope and the surrounding communities that a local legislator was prompted to submit a bill to amend Maine’s hunting rules. In a state where ninety percent of the land is privately owned, recreational opportunity, including hunting, depends on access to private property. This traditional policy of land, water, and wildlife held in a public trust is an exception to an otherwise ruling attitude about the inalienable rights of the property owner. The bill’s sponsor knew he would have to frame the issue as one of trespass, not coyotes. He asked my friend Keri if she would testify in support of the bill and tell the legislative committee her story, but she was nervous and afraid. She said she would write a letter. Anonymously. On the first day of spring in the year after my friend’s encounter with the coyote gangs, sportsmen packed a room in the state capitol building for a public hearing on the Act to Protect Owners of Private Property Against Trespass, which would require landowner permission to use bait or hunt with dogs. Prompted by alerts from the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance (“Hearing Scheduled on Unnecessary Dog Regulation”) and the Maine Trappers Association (“Maine Bills Threaten Outdoor Recreation”), the hunters arrived in full dress: jeans, camouflage, flannel, ball caps. The older men wore suspenders and pilly, faded chamois shirts. The young men wore sweatshirts, John Deere t-shirts, a t-shirt proclaiming the wearer to be “one crazy redneck mudder.” They arrived an hour early, lined the back wall of the hearing room, and filled most of the seats. They sat silent with their arms folded, or chatted and joked with each other. Each had paid four dollars for a coyote-killing permit, which allowed hunting coyote yearround, except on Sunday, and twenty-four hours a day between December and August. They could use bait (“a road-killed critter or a trapped varmint carcass” was recommended by one sports writer). They could use hounds. They could use lights. From October 31 to December 31, they could use steeljawed coil-spring traps. They could kill as many coyotes as they wanted (there was no “bag limit”). But when threatened with restricted access, they saw an entire lifestyle being taken away. At least, this is the mythology promoted by sportsmen’s groups and the weapons manufacturers that support them. And so there they were, in Augusta instead of out hunting. There was a registered guide, who “makes half his income running hounds.” And the guy who guides down in New Jersey and New York, where coyotes “regularly attack cows, sheep, and children.” They don’t want any new laws, especially when the problem is the result of a few “bad apples” with no respect for law. Changing the law, said one hunter, “isn’t going to change the DNA of the coyote.” Maine has a predator problem, and if they don’t hunt coyotes, they believe the problem will only get bigger. They are the only thing standing between peaceful prosperity and beastly chaos. They are doing the state a service by protecting the deer herd (“Save a deer…Kill a coyote,” reasoned one t-shirt). This is where the tale of the coyote gets complicated. Deer populations in coastal Maine, including in Hope, where the coyote gang activity seemed to be escalating, are not in crisis. But because the emotion over coyotes is so wrapped up in the propaganda
about deer, it’s hard to write about one and not the other. This was made clear that day at the public hearing, when the testimony and committee’s response contained confusing and circular references to coyotes, deer, landowner rights, and sporting tradition. Like the coyote, white-tailed deer expanded in Maine in response to landscape changes wrought by humans. Three hundred years ago, white-tailed deer lived only on the coast and river valleys where the winters were mild. Northern Maine was the domain of caribou and moose. When the Europeans arrived and started cutting trees, they cleared the way for deer to move in while simultaneously hunting the deer’s primary predators—wolves and mountain lions—to near extinction. In the twentieth century, clear-cutting and logging road construction created new growth of trees and shrubs. Deer populations swelled in this predator-free pasture at the northern edge of their range, limited only by hunting and the severity of winter. Deer can’t run through deep snow. Their hooves break through crusted-over snow, and slip on glare ice. They can’t nibble on frozen, buried twigs. Deer survive the North Woods winter by huddling together in dense groves of fir and cedar. So population numbers rise and fall mostly as a result of winter temperatures. In the 1960s and 1970s, Maine’s increasing coyote population stirred up the feeling that coyotes were competing with humans for deer. The state classified the coyote as a “furbearer” in 1972, which meant it could be governed by hunting laws and rules and was “consumptive wildlife” to be “harvested.” The winter 1976 issue of Maine Fish and Game magazine featured a blurry photograph of a coyote standing ankle-deep in snow, howling, with spindly trees in the background. “This scene captures the esthetic value of Maine’s wildlife while emphasizing the rapidly growing need for sound wildlife management,” said the caption. For more than three decades, this schizophrenic language has reappeared throughout the state government’s communications about coyotes. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife encouraged trapping and initiated a formal snaring policy in 1979, “to lessen predation rates around select deer wintering areas and satisfy public demand for removing coyotes.” Then the state introduced night hunting and established a formal “animal damage control program” while encouraging the public to report “coyote nuisance problems.” In 1989, in an echo of the first bounty enacted against wolves in Maine in 1645, the Maine Legislature enacted a “coyote awards program,” giving out prizes to those who killed the most coyotes and the largest coyote. The state-run snaring program was suspended in 2003, because of the risk of harm to Canada lynx, which had just been placed on the Endangered Species List, but as deer numbers fluctuated, so did the pressure from sportsmen for the state to do something about “the coyote problem.” In 2009, the Maine legislature extended the coyote night-hunting season through the summer. In 2011, just four days before the hearing on the coyote hunting bill, with much fanfare, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife released “The Game Plan for Maine’s Deer” which, according to one state biologist, “puts coyote in the crosshairs.” Yet the plan concluded that the primary cause of Maine’s latest deer population decline was the combination of severe winters and diminished winter cover due to changing timber harvesting practices, and that while the “sporting public” might be dissatisfied and frustrated with the declining deer population, “society” was content with the status quo. The plan also acknowledged that despite a very vocal anti-coyote sentiment, the broader public was not overwhelmingly against the coyote, and a long-term reduction of coyote numbers was probably not attainable.
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Wildlife biologists, including those who work for the state, know that large numbers of coyotes can be killed—as many as seventy percent of a localized population—without any effect on their overall population size. Killing breeding-age coyotes pressures the animals to change their diet and alter their reproductive rate as dispersing juveniles quickly fill vacant territories. Despite knowing all of this, in its Game Plan for Maine’s Deer, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife emphasized that coyote predation was “certainly one effort that we can address now.” The attitude seemed to be, we can’t control the climate, or the forest industry, or sprawling development, but goddammit we can kill coyotes. So one hunter editorialized, “It is time to declare war on the yodel dogs.…The coyote is the great white shark of the woodland, eating everything it can overpower.” This creed was taken up by a retired state wildlife biologist, who recommended winter as the prime killing season: “Long-legged hounds, or rugged Australian shepherds, effectively traverse deep snow and wear coyotes down after a prolonged chase. GPS units, snow sleds, and strategic placement of hunters on woods roads often prove exciting and effective. Both outfitters and groups of hunting buddies can be found working coyotes with dogs during winter in Maine.” Heeding this advice, the coyote gangs kill 40, 50, 90, who knows how many coyotes each year. For most members of the coyote gangs, hatred for the coyote does not seem to be the result of a love for white-tailed deer. At least not around Hope, where deer populations are doing just fine. In Hope, the hatred for the coyote comes from something else.
At the public hearing on the hunting bill, one man from western Maine, “boiling over he was so mad,” was “really mad at the rich people from away coming in and buying land and then posting it against trespass.” Republican committee member Ralph Sarty’s face reddened with rage as he listened to testimony from the man from Portland who read a lot about coyotes and about wolves, who felt no fear when he encountered a dead deer in the corner of a nature preserve, a statement which brought snickers from the sportsmen in the crowd. Do the hunters feel that they understand the terrain better than people like my friend Keri? That their experience in the woods in pursuit of coyote trumps another’s “non-consumptive” experience, trumps the experience of every other living thing? What is Raymond Gushee trying to tell the world by nailing dead coyotes to the front of his house? The hearing resulted in some changes to coyote-killing rules. Legislators outlawed night hunting with dogs, limited hound packs to six dogs, and increased penalty fines. The state’s new deer management plan included a provision to pay hunters for killing coyotes near wintering areas, setting aside $20,000 to help compensate hunters for their efforts in targeting coyotes in remote parts of Maine. The state claimed, “This is not a bounty program. We are not paying people for the number of coyotes that they kill. This is simply to defray expenses accrued by folks who are doing this.” Not long after the bill was resolved, Keri said she heard that Tina and a bunch of other coyote gang members relocated farther north, possibly because it was getting harder to hunt in Hope or the coyotes were getting scarce, or maybe they wanted to take advantage of the state’s compensation plan. Raymond Gushee’s porch was empty, and the summer people would soon arrive. The night was dark again, and quiet, except for the coyotes howling beneath the stars.
Water and Air Christina Phillips
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Feel the air move through your nose and mouth, feel your chest swell, feel it sink as the air moves out. Now stop. Feel the ache in your lungs, hear the silence where your breath has disappeared, smell nothing. Feel your breathing now…and then forget about it; forget the moment something else captures your attention. You spend most of your life breathing without thinking. And yet, you can only survive minutes without oxygen, as it is the single most vital and consistent resource for keeping you alive. The very second you deprive yourself of oxygen, your entire physiology shifts into a complex survival mode to stay alive, overriding all other bodily functions, because, without oxygen, you’re just a liquid-filled shell. “Okay, so just flip when you’re ready, and if you get stuck, drop your paddle and I’ll pull you back up.” Carlisle slaps the front of my kayak, and steps backward in the pool water a few feet to give me room. I shift in my small boat, feeling the pressure of the inside edges pressed against my thighs, and the tight tug of the “skirt” I wear around my waist, that extends to stretch around the opening of the kayak. The skirt is made of a durable wetsuit material and is meant to create a guard from water splashing up into the opening of the boat. Even in a four-foot pool, surrounded by trained kayakers and lifeguards, I am having trouble fathoming my desire to purposely flip underwater and control my body’s screaming panic long enough to turn myself upright again. Carlisle, an undergraduate with floppy blonde hair, who serves as my kayaking instructor, has taught me the proper way to “bail,” which involves yanking the skirt off while still underwater, kicking down and out of the boat before swimming around the side and back to the surface. But, given how snug my legs are fit into the opening, I imagine myself flopping upside down, pinned, as my kayak and lungs fill with water. The human brain weighs less than five pounds. And yet the brain consumes 20% of the oxygen you inhale. Without oxygen, brain cells die in an average of two to five minutes. The brain uses oxygen to create the electrochemical signals that signal all of your bodily processes to occur. The cells in the brain, called neurons, and the cells in the body, are in constant communication with one another through these signals. The brain is in charge of movement, thought, sensation, and emotion, regulates metabolism, and, most importantly, it stimulates breathing. When you breathe in air, oxygen is carried from the lungs through a complex highway of blood vessels (arteries, veins, and capillaries) in transport vehicles known as red blood cells, which are powered by the beating of the heart. The unconscious action of breathing is controlled within the brain stem. The brain stem, through signals from cells called carotid bodies that sit in the carotid arteries near the heart, controls the rate of inspiration and expiration without ever needing to signal the conscious brain to breathe. Respiration depends on one thing: the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. In the blood, red blood cells are designed to deliver oxygen to the cells needing it and to pick up the carbon dioxide waste product the cells make from that oxygen. At any time, a red blood cell has a different chemical makeup depending upon where it is in the circulation process. 59
As I bob in my kayak, my blood flows through my blood vessels in rhythm with the beating of my heart. Each muscular contraction of my heart pulls blood in from the veins. With the next beat, these cells flow
to the lungs. The thick smell of chlorine and sweat hits my nose as I inhale, and oxygen swells my chest as it spreads in my lungs, which are pulled open through breathing muscles in my diaphragm and along my rib cage (signaled to contract by the brainstem). As the oxygen caresses the inside walls of my lungs, the red blood cells that came from my heart fill tiny capillaries along the surface. They dump their carbon dioxide, the garbage, so-to-speak, that the body cells create when they use oxygen. Now free of their load, the red blood cells saturate with as much oxygen as they can hold. Another couple beats of my heart sends these oxygen rich blood cells out of the lungs, back through my heart, and out into the arteries. Propelled by the heartâ€™s beating, the arterial walls expand and contract, and push the blood out and into my body, where it spreads and delivers oxygen to my organs, muscles, and all bodily cavities. Leaving my heart, the red blood cells are 97-99% saturated with oxygen. Upon return to the heart after one pass through my body, they have anywhere between 40-70% saturation. As more red blood cells replace the first ones that reached the lung, and deposit their carbon dioxide and take up oxygen, the partial pressure of carbon dioxide in my lungs increase. This signals the brain to relax my breathing muscles, which cause my lungs to collapse, and push the carbon dioxide-rich air out of my body and into the atmosphere, where the cycle begins again. This process repeats itself twelve to twenty times a minute in a human at rest, and a single cell of blood circulates through the entire body an average of once per minute. So every minute, all of the red blood cells in my body will need to drop off carbon dioxide and be replenished with oxygen at least once. As I exhale, I feel the tension leave my shoulders and I try to relax my hands. I take a gulping breath, readjust my grip on my paddle, close my eyes, and drop sideways into the water, pulling the kayak over on top of me. I was eight years old. It happened in an indoor wave pool, the kind they build in desert cities where people feel so deprived of the ocean and real tides that they are willing to spend money to float on inner tubes in a gymnasium-like building filled with water that, every seven minutes, heaves and rolls to make waves whose sounds are drowned out by the whirring of the machines that create the current. At the time, I had a practiced understanding of swimming. I lived in Phoenix, after all, where the ratio of inground pools to houses was probably 3:1. My father and I went to the wave pool on a miserably hot afternoon in July. It was as damp and stifling in the pool area as it was dry and scorching outdoors, and by the time we got there in the late morning, the water was filled with the rocking bodies of middle-aged men, elderly women, and screeching children. My father rented a large inner tube for himself, and I insisted on swimming. There was a game I liked to play when the seven-minute mark was reached and the artificial waves cranked on. I would swim to the deepest part of the pool, around eight feet, where the waves were nothing more than rolling shifts in the water. I would take a deep breath, and sink straight underneath, pushing the air back out of my lungs to propel me deeper, until I was standing at the bottom, lungs empty, limbs light. It was there that even the sound of the wave generator faded away, and I could focus only on the shift of water around me, carrying me up and down. By the time my father had picked up his inner tube, the waves started forming, and the chatter in the echoing room reached a high as children idling by tables near the food line ran to greet the first waves. I pushed my way past them, aiming for the deepest part of the pool. My father and I settled near
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the right-hand wall as the waves were reaching their climax. I sank under the water, tracing my hand down the smooth, slimy, gray wall, feeling it grow slicker the deeper I went. I felt my feet touch the pool floor as the last of my breath escaped my lungs. I drifted, toes brushing the rough ground, eyes closed, arms lifting and falling at my sides with the movement of the waves carrying me up and down. At that age, I remember being able to hold my breath for long stretches. I stayed underwater long enough for wet to not feel wet anymore, for the sensation in my arms and legs to disappear until I was just a part of the water’s flow. And then, the need for air would break the spell, as I felt a lump forming in my throat and the familiar pang in my lungs. I pushed off the pool floor and reached up with my arms. When I expected to feel the cool burst of air as my hands penetrated the water surface, I instead smacked into the underside of an inner tube. My head, following my arms closely, bumped into the solid rubber. My eyes flew open, and I scrambled to find a way around the inner tube. It was as though the second I realized I was being denied the right to surface, my body decided that need was immediate. I jerked left and right, my arm smacking into the wall. I couldn’t find a way out. The edges of my vision clouded black, and I let out a screech, which caused me to inhale a gulp of salty, chlorinated water. My skull felt like it was trying to bust through my skin, and my arms and legs flailed weak and helpless as water burned my throat and lungs. I twitched violently, my chest heaving in one last effort to inhale, but I managed to clamp my mouth shut. My limbs felt weak, and I began to drift downwards again. The water felt smooth, slippery, and it pulled me down. At some point, an arm reached down and yanked me up. My head broke the surface and I remember the sounds of the wave pool assaulting my ears. I retched, spewing water back into the pool, before I sucked in a heaving breath. I gripped the edge of my father’s inner tube, which, seconds earlier, had been the very caged ceiling trapping me under water. My father pounded my back as I slumped against his inner tube, crying and coughing, my lips blue and my face ashen, then bright red as oxygen-rich blood spread under my skin like an incoming tide. I never went back to that wave pool. And, even after joining a competitive swim team when I was in high school, I refused to participate in any races or training that required me to hold my breath for an extended period of time. I only stayed underwater for seconds at a time, barely disrupting my normal, twelve-breath-a-minute cycle.
What happens when you are forced to hold your breath? This was not a question I thought much about until I decided I needed to overcome my fear of drowning. Between my incident as a child in the wave pool and claustrophobia I can’t explain with any childhood trauma, I lived with a stomach churning, hand trembling fear of being caught underwater. I was about as inclined to sit in a boat in fast moving water surrounded by jagged rocks as I was to return to a wave pool. I had little interest in learning how to flip a kayak for the purposes of white water adventures; I wanted this flip clinic to help me overcome my panic when underwater. It seemed like the most extreme, and simultaneously safe and supervised, way to tackle my fear. While I reckon with the idea of purposely trapping myself underwater in a four-foot-deep pool, a small pocket of human endurance athletes spend their lives diving into deep waters, holding their breath for extended periods of time. These free divers, who get a rush from spending as much time underwater depriving themselves of oxygen as possible, are pushing the boundaries of the human body by manipulating and training a reflex known as the “mammalian dive reflex.” The mammalian dive reflex stems from the first terrestrial mammals, which, when they came ashore, still relied largely on the oceans for their food. These animals had to figure out a way to spend extended periods of time underwater, hunting their prey, and this led to a series of physiological responses that help the body conserve oxygen during conscious breath holding. As a mammal, when you hold your breath, your body rapidly undergoes several physiological changes. The heart continues to beat even when the lungs aren’t filling with air. The carbon dioxide-rich blood returning to the heart from the body still stimulates the carotid bodies to signal the brainstem to tell the body to inhale. When the brainstem sends a message to the breathing muscles to contract and allow the lungs to fill with air, you consciously override that effort. That conscious action prevents the muscles from responding to their usual, rhythmic action. The muscles, wanting to contract, begin to ache. At the same time, this lack of inhalation signals the thalamus, which is the part of the brain that controls your “fight-or-flight” mechanism. This mechanism arises from an evolutionary need to act quickly in dangerous situations; it stimulates the release of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, which surges through the body, and causes blood to rush toward major muscle groups like the legs and arms, used in combat or fleeing. Adrenaline also sharpens the senses, like vision, hearing, and touch, in order to process the information coming at you as quickly as possible. Sweat glands activate in anticipation of muscular output. Every part of your body hones in on one thing: breathing. The brain, which desperately needs oxygen to survive, becomes wholly focused on reclaiming what is lost. The fight-or-flight mechanism is the same whether you are running from a predator, preparing to make a speech, or holding your breath. But, interestingly, even though this mechanism is designed to help save your life, when you submerge your head in cold water, it is overridden by the mammalian dive response, which is designed not to allow you to breathe as soon as possible, but to help you hold your breath longer. The mammalian reflex makes sense for one main reason: our evolutionary mammalian ancestors needed food from the oceans badly enough that they would risk diving into deep waters to get it. Though the fight-or-flight reflex still sent their bodies into panicked overdrive, their minds appreciated the urgency of starvation, and established a different reflex to temporarily overcome and delay the need to breathe. As possessors of such a reflex, we, as humans, are ingrained with the power to survive in a seemingly un-survivable, hypoxic world, if even for a few extra moments.
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I’m always struck by how quiet underwater is. When my elbow, then shoulder, and then head submerge, the echoing voices and whistles from the pool deck dull, and are replaced by a screaming pounding in my head as my heartbeat thuds against my eardrums. For a second, as the water shifts around me from the waves of other kayakers nearby, I’m reminded of the bottom of the wave pool, and in that second, I find this both alarming and cathartic. The weight of the flipping kayak carries me further underwater, and the paddle fights the change in pressure and tries to resurface, yanking my hands with it. My knuckles smack against the edge of the kayak. I barely notice the pinching pain, though later, I’ll find purple bruises from the force of the impact. The moment my head submerges in the water, sensory receptors near my nose and mouth fire a signal to my brain, activating my dive reflex. As my unconscious brain realizes I am underwater, and thus incapable of breathing, it sends a message to the heart to decelerate its beating. As my heart rate declines, the movement of oxygen-rich red blood cells from my most recent breath decreases. The more slowly this blood spreads throughout the body, the more slowly it deposits oxygen and picks up carbon dioxide. My heart is taking the first step to conserve the precious oxygen I have remaining. As the water floods my nose and ears, I rotate more fully under the water, allowing myself to come to a stop completely upside down, my torso as straight as it was when I was upright a second earlier. Even in the blur of underwater, I see my arms, pale and gray, stretched out in front of me, the muscles bunched in contraction. I can already feel a burn in my chest as my breathing muscles ache to breathe. Even as the mammalian dive reflex kicks in, the carotid bodies continue to send signals to the brainstem, reminding it of how the carbon dioxide levels in my blood are reaching higher and more toxic concentrations. My whole head feels like it is filling with water, and the space behind my ears and above my eyes ache from the pressure. As my heart rate decreases, my blood vessels constrict, pulling blood away from my fingers, toes, and digestive tract. By stopping this blood from traveling to parts of the body that are not essential to my survival, my body attempt to keep all of the oxygen remaining in my blood for use in those places that needed it most: namely, the brain and muscles necessary for movement. I feel my thighs, abdomen, and shoulders become even more rigid with tension, as I rotate my torso to the left side and orient my paddle so that it is out of my way for when I try to flip back over. My jaw aches as I clench my teeth. Meanwhile, blood continues to circulate through my body, and my cells continue to consume up oxygen and churn out carbon dioxide. As the oxygen concentration in my red blood cells drops lower and lower, the burning in my lungs goes from a dull ache to a hot spear pressing against my ribs. My brainstem is using the pain in my chest to persuade my conscious brain to allow me to breathe. My heart rate slows further. I try to focus on preparing to flip my boat, straining against my overpowering need for air. I feel a thunk on the bottom of my kayak, which is now fully exposed to the air. This is the signal Carlisle has given me to cock my hips and rotate my shoulders to pull my boat back under me. At the same time, I feel a surge behind my eyes as the oxygen levels in my brain reach dangerously low levels and pain receptors in my head fire alarms. When oxygen levels drop too low in the blood, the brain attempts to shunt oxygen away from brain cells that are not critical for survival. My sensations dull; black dots float in front of my vision, the pounding of my heart in my ears fades. As my brain slows down, the electrochemical firing between brain parts becomes more delayed, and conscious thought begins to be overridden by my urgency for air. I reach what free dive experts call the “psychological threshold.” The psychological threshold is the moment in which the need to breathe eclipses the conscious
desire not to. It is this psychological threshold that free divers attempt to delay. They call it the struggle phase, as a period where their bodies twitch and contort as controllable muscle contraction attempt to overcome uncontrollable muscle contraction. Following this phase, the time before unconsciousness, and subsequent brain cell death, is unpredictable. In some, the psychological threshold occurs when oxygen levels are still moderately high, but in others, this threshold only comes about as an absolute final effort to stay alive. The muscles surrounding my lungs surge with effort, the searing pain makes my mouth flies open and I exhale the carbon dioxide-saturated air that I’ve been holding in with a rush. Immediately, my chest feels empty, and I want nothing more than to inhale. Knowing that if I breathe underwater, I will choke, I start to thrash in the kayak and dropped my paddle. And suddenly, I’m upright again, heaved over by Carlisle, who threw his body weight onto one side of the kayak to pull it up and out of the water. I inhale deeply and my muscles tremble as they relax again.
Diving is in our ancestry. Humans have been free diving for thousands of years, from fishermen plunging deep to scour the ocean floor for food, to women gathering pearls from the mucky sand. Though we are land mammals, we are inexplicably drawn to water. While I struggle to hold myself underwater for long enough to flip a kayak upright, some athletes commit their lives to pushing their mammalian dive reflex further and further. A 2008 study in Sweden found that, with practice, participants could extend the amount of time they could stave off their psychological breaking point by practicing submerging their faces in water. After only a couple of weeks, their heart rates slowed measurably within seconds of going underwater. A trained free diver, like former world record-holder Tanya Streeter, can lower her heart rate to as low as ten beats per minute during a dive. The average heart rate of a human being above water is eighty beats per minute. The longest she has held her breath is six minutes and seventeen seconds, which seems unbelievable, until you hear that Ricardo da Gama Bahia, a Brazilian athlete, survived on a single breath of air while submerged in water for twenty minutes and twenty-one seconds. These divers are defying the standards of human ability by learning to overcome the body’s intense desire to live,
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by training an ancient reflex that attempts to overcome one of the most immediately life-threatening circumstances we have, and by learning to survive underwater without air. And yet, even trained divers, whose bodies learn to temporarily stave off impending death, feel the same exact panic and trauma that I feel when I cannot surface for air. It may take them minutes to experience the same terror, but the terror will come all the same. It is the fact that they willingly subject themselves to looking death in the face every day, even train their bodies for it, that astonishes me.
In my kayak, I gasp for air. I grip the sides like I gripped the edge of that wave pool years ago, and feel my father’s hand around my arm, and the chaotic splashing of mechanized waves as I bob in the calm swimming pool. My lungs and chest ache from the heaving effort, and my skull thuds behind my eyes in tempo with my heart rate, with my heart’s effort to return oxygen to my brain. I was underwater for less than thirty seconds. Yet, while I was submerged, I was only a few minutes from death, closer than perhaps I’d been all day, with the exception of when I tried to cross a four-lane road without waiting for the crosswalk signal. In the moment I spend recovering, I feel each breath that goes in and out of my mouth. I taste the heavy, moist air as I inhale, and feel it fill my lungs. I imagine my blood flowing through my heart and in rivulets to all parts of my body, spreading oxygen to the corners and crevices. I think about the free divers, who put themselves moments from death on a regular basis, testing and defying the smoothed routine of respiration that has existed in our systems before we even were aware of it. As the burning in my chest fades, I find I am thankful that I don’t need to rely on ocean-bottom pearls as a source of income. Carlisle asks me if I’m okay, and I nod while attempting to cover my nose, which is gushing water. My hands tremble, and I shake the water out of my ears. All I can think about is the feeling of air returning to my lungs. Our dependence on oxygen is non-negotiable. And yet, this dependence has the ability to be challenged, not only consciously, by holding your breath, or purposely flipping a kayak, but unconsciously, by parts of your brain that overlook basic survival for the sake of short-term gains. I wonder vaguely if I’ll ever reach a point where I can overcome the terror I felt from nearly drowning in the wave pool. In that kayak, where my legs are starting to bruise and chafe from the rough inside, and my sinuses ache from inhaling water, and my throat scratches from the effort of my breathing, I decide the comfort of land and plentiful oxygen is sufficient enough to overcome my wounded pride at panicking in front of a bunch of experienced kayakers in a four-foot deep pool, and I surrender my attempts at flipping for the day. That night, when I will rehash my minor triumph to my mother over the phone, she’ll say, “You know, you refused to go underwater for a long time after that, and wouldn’t join any swim teams or go to water parks for years. But then, in high school, you suddenly decided you wanted to swim again, like it was something you needed to do.” And I will realize I am drawn to the water in much the same way as free-divers, professional swimmers, and casual wave-pool goers. Despite the panic, there is something alluring about submersion that pulls me back, like the undertow of waves tugging the land back into the sea. I hear a laugh behind me, and watch as one of the more experienced kayakers rotates upside down and right-side up over and over, with little effort, only staying underwater for seconds. And already, I have forgotten my breathing, but it continues on without me, steady and reliable, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.
A Living Structure
Number nineteen fell apart unexpectedly when I bit into the world’s softest piece of garlic bread. Biting into that bread felt the way I imagined biting into a cloud might—airy, moist. My mouth seemed empty, but I could taste the hint of garlic and the melted mozzarella all around. When my teeth clamped on the hard chunk of something, I spit it out in shock. The little beige rectangle hit my plate, made a sound like two glasses clinking, skidded across it, off the edge, and onto the red-checkered tablecloth. I could tell it was a tooth, but I hoped it wasn’t mine. I ran my tongue across my teeth to check, and sure enough, a third of one of my molars was gone, leaving a cavern in which a morsel of garlic bread lay trapped. The break was clean—a deliberate straight line that made it look as though someone or something had been living inside the tooth, sawing at it until it was weak and could be tapped out of place. I picked up the third of my tooth from the table and held it between my fingers while my tongue probed at what remained. Even though the change happened less than a minute before, I couldn’t remember what it felt like not to have that emptiness in my mouth. Almost a week before my tooth fell apart, my mom called to tell me about my dad’s front tooth, which had been damaged in a car accident years before and had been slowly dying ever since. My mom and I were both in the truck when the accident happened. We were driving down one of the narrow, paved roads that winds through Adams County, Pennsylvania, when a car sped around a curve. The car drifted into the middle of the road, and even though my father swerved, he wasn’t quick enough. The car slid against the entire length of his truck, shattering the driver’s side window and rippling the entire side so that it looked like a crumpled paper bag. I was sitting between my parents holding a can of Dr. Pepper, which didn’t spill at all. Still, my mom took the can from me after we stopped and poured it on the ground. “There might be glass in it now,” she told me.
We were all fine, but the impact of the accident caused my father’s head to jerk forward and his mouth to collide with the steering wheel. There was no visible damage, and if I were him, I would have probably called myself lucky. Even after the damage started to show years later, he was reluctant to go to the dentist, have the dentist pull the tooth, and then charge him thousands of dollars to construct a new one out of porcelain. He said it would be cheaper in Mexico, and since he needed to visit his mother anyway, he would wait. For years, he tried to avoid biting with the sensitive tooth. When he ate dinner, he would roll up his tortillas and clamp down on them with the right side of his mouth. Neither my mom nor I knew that the tooth was causing him any pain. The night before my mom called me, she was watching television after dinner. My dad grilled steak that night, and it was tough. After dinner, he went to the bathroom. She thought he was shaving until she heard the scream, and when she made it into the bathroom, my dad stood still with blood dribbling down his chin and landing in heavy drops on the pale, blue sink. He looked into the mirror to inspect the gap in his mouth while still holding the offending tooth between his thumb and index finger. When I asked him why he did it, he said, “It hurt when I ate.” My mom and I both told him to rinse his mouth out three times a day with warm salt water. We had both been through this before and knew what to do, but my dad didn’t listen. He said that he was okay, that it didn’t hurt anymore. Had he gone to the dentist, he would have likely been told that the tooth he had been so desperately trying to keep despite the discomfort it caused him wasn’t just a front tooth. It was called number nine, it had a purpose, and it should be missed. The first time I saw my father without his front tooth was only three days after number nineteen had been reconstructed with silver amalgam. When he smiled at me in the airport, I could see his tongue. My mom told me that he spent the first few days after it was gone holding his hand over his mouth when he talked or smiled. By the time I saw him, he acted like the tooth had never been there in the first place. His mourning period was over. He had accepted his loss and was in no hurry to find a replacement for number nine. My father has always been a handsome man. In his old driver’s license that I carry with me in my wallet, he is thirty-one. His skin is the color of tanned leather from working outdoors all year long, and his hair is full and black. His moustache, goatee, and eyes are all black, too. He has always had a moustache, though in this picture it is a thick handlebar connecting to the goatee. Over the years, his moustache transformed into a neatly trimmed border that frames his upper lip, and the beard disappeared, never to be seen again. Like his sideburns, the moustache now has streaks of gray in it sometimes. (Occasionally, he says, “I need to paint it,” and goes out to buy Just For Men moustache and beard dye.) There are wrinkles in the corners of his eyes now, and his hair has been thinning for years. Still, he doesn’t look old yet. In the driver’s license picture, he might look mysterious if he weren’t smiling so that you could see his teeth. His teeth were perfect—straight and white without any gaps—until number nine started showing signs that something, somewhere, had gone wrong. It looked nicotine-stained while all of its partners were still white and healthy. The discolored tooth did not diminish my father’s good looks, but
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the gaping hole made him seem incomplete.
My mother is also missing a front tooth, though hers is on the bottom and doesn’t show when she smiles. She went to Georgia to visit my grandparents once and came back without it. I was in high school at the time, and I kept asking her how it happened. The hole haunted me, but she wouldn’t explain. “I fell down,” was all she said. She didn’t seem to mind because she had never had nice teeth. She started smoking when she was thirteen, and by the time I came along, they were already beginning to yellow. After a while, I barely noticed the gap. But I did notice how, three years after she lost it, she gained weight and could never get it off. My mother was only thin for a year of her life. She was twenty-two, and she got that way by eating nothing but canned soup. No breakfast, no lunch. Just soup for dinner. By the time she met my father, she had gained the weight back. She wasn’t fat, exactly, but voluptuous with hair that appeared blonder on the ends than it was around the roots, the result of years spent using home hair dying kits. She had long, red fingernails and wore too much makeup. I don’t know if my father thought she was beautiful. In all of the pictures I have seen of the two of them before I was born, she has a round face, and she looks shocked—at what, I don’t know, but it might be her luck at finding this handsome man who didn’t beat her like the two husbands she had before. Or perhaps that wasn’t it at all. Maybe she surprised herself with her own courage—the courage that it took for her to say yes when my dad walked into the bar where she was working one night and said to her, “Apple season starts next week. I’m leaving for Pennsylvania tonight. Are you coming?” She had only known him for a few weeks, and she didn’t like him in the beginning. He was cocky, she said. The first night he came to the bar, he had a broken leg. That same night, he got into a fight and won. Later, he asked her for a free beer. She didn’t give it to him that night, but eventually they were friends, and she did. When he asked her to leave with him, she didn’t think. She just said yes and went back to the trailer where she was staying to pack her things and left the South forever with this Mexican man she knew her mother would never accept. They drove to Pennsylvania in the car that she had stolen from her second husband not long before. She had been afraid he would kill her, and one night when she thought that he might, she managed to get out of the house and into the car. She drove the forty miles from Bainbridge, Georgia to some town just across the Florida state line where she had a friend who had a trailer. When my parents got to Pennsylvania, my mom drove that car to a junkyard fifteen miles away. She sold the car for scrap metal and hitchhiked home. When I think of her this way, she is beautiful to me. The missing tooth; the papery skin that looks so much older than its fifty years; the thick, yellow fingernails that are never painted red anymore—all of this is beautiful because this is what is left of the fearless, unpredictable woman who raised me. These are the marks that remind me of what she has lost, what we have both lost, and only in their presence can I remember her completely. Now, she cries too much. Her kidneys are failing, her arteries are hardening, and she retains so much fluid that her weight can easily fluctuate fifty pounds in one week. She doesn’t drive if she can help it because she doesn’t trust her sight, or her hands, or her lungs. She asks for help to do the simplest things—clip her toenails or take off her socks. I call home almost everyday to hear her voice, and when she doesn’t pick up, my body goes cold. I leave a message, and when she calls back, I can breathe. “Hey baby,” she always says.
Before Dr. Hohlen began to reconstruct number nineteen, he explained that the tooth is a living structure. The pulp contains blood vessels that supply the tooth with nutrients and nerves that allow it to sense hot and cold. The pulp also contains lymph vessels that have the responsibility of carrying white blood cells to the tooth to help it fight off bacteria. Each tooth is independently alive and has its own private system that helps it survive. Unfortunately, each tooth also has to contend with its owner, who has all the power over how it lives or dies. The acts that can preserve the tooth are so simple and take up an inconsequential portion of the day: brushing carefully so that the bristles of the toothbrush scour the entire surface of each tooth, flossing to dislodge the crumbs that get trapped in between them, and finally mouthwash to kill the bacteria. The whole process takes five minutes, but the winding of floss around fingers seems so tedious, and it’s easy to miss the backside of the rear molars. Small mistakes that accumulate over time and add up to a loss that we can never forget. I was home with my parents for a full day before I got used to my dad’s missing tooth. The open space was like a window, and I could look into his mouth to see how hard his tongue worked when he talked and how it retracted from his teeth when he smiled. The novelty of witnessing what should have been the private workings of a tongue wore off, and just as it did, the entire left side of my mouth began to ache and didn’t stop for six days. My left cheek was swollen, and my jaw wouldn’t open more than half an inch. My dad is a master on the grill and promised to make burgers while I was home. When he finally did, it took forty-five minutes for me to eat one. I, too, began to take my bites using one side of my mouth. Without his front tooth there, my dad couldn’t break his habit, so the two of us sat at the kitchen table, him holding his burger to the left side and me holding mine to the right. When the agony subsided a week later, I was left with a blister the size of a dime on my gums.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Because my tooth and jaw were no longer hurting, I convinced myself that the blister was no big deal—it didn’t feel much worse than taking a drink of orange juice when there was an open sore in my mouth. I didn’t go to the dentist until I made it back home to Nebraska, and even then, I waited three more days. When Dr. Hohlen looked at the sac on the side of my gums, he said, “That’s what I thought,” and walked away. In the room where I sat, there was a poster above my head that had a picture of a Shar-Pei wearing gold, wire-rimmed glasses. He looked distinguished, lying on the floor with one paw draped casually over a book. Above him was the phrase, “It only hurts when I study.” I watched him and poked at the blister with my tongue. Dr. Hohlen returned and told me that my tooth had abscessed. “What that means,” he explained, “is that the pulp got infected, which caused the tooth to die. All of the infection in the tooth had to get out somehow, but because of the filling, it couldn’t get out the top. Instead, it ate through your jawbone and leaked into the gum tissue. We’ll have to lance that so that we can drain the infection.” Before I left, he told me that the blister was one of the biggest he’d ever seen and that I would have to get a root canal before he could put the crown over my tooth. I walked home with the hole in my gums sutured shut. My tongue moved up and down my dead tooth as though I were petting it.
Number nineteen wasn’t the first of my teeth to go. The first one was number two, the back molar on the upper right side of my jaw, and it fell apart gradually over the course of five months. There was a cavity, I knew, but I was concentrating on finishing my BA and thought that number two could wait. When it fell apart, I was eating a piece of French toast. I felt it dislodge, and the shock of its hardness against my tongue was too much. I threw away the rest of my breakfast but kept the tooth. I wrapped it in a napkin, and when I got back to my dorm room, I tried to fit it back into place just to have one last memory of what it felt like to be whole. When I couldn’t, I put it in my desk drawer. I didn’t tell anyone except my mom, who never felt much for her teeth anyway and couldn’t sympathize. Five months later, when I finally sat in a dentist chair to have the tooth looked at, I couldn’t concentrate. Before I left the house that morning, my mother couldn’t breathe. My dad wanted to take her to the hospital himself, but she couldn’t move either. She told me to call for an ambulance, but he kept telling me not to, that between the two of us, we could get her to the car. We didn’t have health insurance, and I knew the ambulance bill would be expensive, but my mother’s breathing sounded like a kazoo. “I can’t…breathe. I need…oxygen,” she wheezed. She smoked all of my life, and the sound of her wheezing became normal to me over the years, a cadence that lulled me to sleep at night. This time, though, her face was red. When I picked up the phone, I had to think about the numbers—911. I learned them in elementary school but never thought I would dial them. I was detached from myself for the whole ordeal, watching from some omniscient place as I told the operator the address and picked up the dog to lock him away in the bathroom before the ambulance arrived. It took three men to get my mother strapped on the gurney, and my dad and I couldn’t do anything except stand back and watch. When they left, I looked at my dad. “What should I do? I’m supposed to go to the dentist in an hour.” “Go. You can’t do anything now. I’m going back to work until lunch. We’ll call the hospital then.” I went, even though it felt wrong. I didn’t listen to music on the way. At the dentist, I filled out a form, checking no to every allergy. The question that stopped me,
that haunts me every time I change dentists, asked: “How do you feel about your teeth?” If I were honest, I would have written that I am so afraid that I might lose them all that I run my tongue over each of them after every meal to monitor any changes and that some days this process can take a full hour. Instead, when no one was looking, I inspected them in the mirror hanging on the wall next to me. They were straight, but there were gaps between them. Number seven was chipped because I hit it against the rim of a thick glass once when I was drunk. They weren’t exactly white but the off-white color of my high school’s cafeteria walls. I wrote: “I’m not proud of them, but I would prefer to keep them.” When I was finally called back and seated in the dental chair, the new dentist that I found in the phone book didn’t talk much. His offices were once a family home, and the room that I waited in had been the kitchen. I knew because one window was shorter than all the rest. When he came into the room, he wore a mask that he didn’t take off for the entire visit, and it muffled his voice when he asked how I was doing. He walked out of the room before I could say anything. I was grateful. How could I have told him that I was afraid my mother was dying? And how could I have not? When the dentist came back in, he told me to open my mouth and scraped at what was left of my tooth so violently that a few more chunks flew off and got caught on my cheek. He looked straight in my eyes when he said, “Well, we can save it for you if you want. It’ll cost about fifteen hundred dollars. Or we could just pull it for a hundred. It’s up to you, but I would rather pull it.” “I need a minute,” I told him. “I don’t even know how much of it’s left after that.” He left to give me time to think. I knew the answer, but I couldn’t let go so quickly. When he came back, I said that I wanted it pulled. I didn’t mean that I wanted it pulled at that moment, but he told me he had time. There was nothing I could say—my mother in the hospital, my tooth in pieces. There was no time to say goodbye, and before I had a chance to run my tongue over number two one last time, my mouth was numb with Novocain. The dentist told me to keep my head still, but his jerk was too strong. My head lunged violently downward with each tug, though my mouth felt only the pressure of his pull and the final give of the roots. The tooth came out in two large pieces, and I made the mistake of looking over at the bloodied roots lying on top of a tray that had been covered with a Snoopy paper towel. He packed my gums with gauze, and before he sent me to the front room to pay my bill he said, “You would be an excellent candidate for veneers, if you’re interested.” Besides not being able to breathe, my mom was fine. I visited her in the hospital the same day on my way to work. I had never seen her with an oxygen tube running under her nose before, and the presence of the thing accentuated the absences I felt but couldn’t articulate. When I left the hospital, I sat in my car with my shoulders heaving. I didn’t cry, though I performed the motions of it. I didn’t know what there was to cry about, but I knew that my life changed over the course of a few hours. I knew that I lost something that would never come back to me, but I couldn’t say, still can’t say, what it was. I knew only that whatever I lost was replaced by fear and longing. Though I knew that everyone had to die, I hadn’t realized that we are always dying, that we die in pieces, and that once those pieces are gone, only absence remains. When I got to work that afternoon, I changed the bloodied gauze packed against my gums. The bleeding didn’t stop all evening, and I couldn’t eat the grapes or the peanut butter sandwich that I brought for my dinner. The grapes were lost anyway, rancid from sitting in the sun while I visited my mom.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
I drove home weak from blood loss and not eating. My dad got home from his truck driving job just minutes before I pulled in. He had put in a whole day in the orchard, visited my mom in the hospital, and hauled a load of pulpwood to Westminster, Maryland. “You look tired, m’hija,” he said. He fried beans for me because they were soft, and I wouldn’t have to chew. As I sat in the dental chair waiting for my brand new crown, I thought about all I had been through with number nineteen. The first time a dentist worked on it, I was thirteen. I was getting cavities filled for the first time in my life, though not because I had never had any. My mother, who had always been afraid of the dentist, couldn’t bear to take me. At that time, my dentist was Dr. Bettina McBeth, a short lady with a receding hairline and large breasts. Though I had at least eight cavities filled within a few months of each other, she had never said a word to me. Her assistant had done all the talking, telling me to open wide for the Novocain. “There might be a pinch,” she said. I closed my eyes tight. When Dr. McBeth finally started working on number nineteen, she pushed her breasts into the side of my face. They were warm and spongy against my cheek. After Dr. McBeth was done, there were two fillings on number nineteen—one on the side and the other deep into the center of the tooth. The natural tooth around that filling must have weakened, causing a third of it to break off into my garlic bread more than twelve years later. That break would lead to a reconstruction, which would lead to an infection, then to one failed attempt at a root canal, and a successful one. A month later, there would also be a temporary crown, and finally, it would all culminate in the permanent crown that had been carefully molded and crafted out of porcelain to feel and look just like the old number nineteen. I was in the room for only a few minutes before Dr. Hohlen walked in. Because the tooth was already dead, he didn’t give me any Novocain. I kept my eyes open throughout the whole process. He pried off the plastic crown and scraped off the temporary cement used to keep it in place. He snapped the porcelain crown over the tooth several times, occasionally popping it off with the help of dental floss so that he could sand away a millimeter of porcelain on either side. When he was done and the crown was finally in place, he told me that it looked great. “Thank you,” I said. I looked slowly around the office before I left to take it all in. I would miss it—the sterile yet rubbery smell, the fluorescent light that glared into my eyes, and the set of false teeth with clear gums and a jumbo toothbrush stuck between its jaws. I would also miss Dr. Hohlen who said, before I left, “You’re a really good patient.” Over the three months I spent in and out of the dental chair, I learned how to hold my tongue flat against the floor of my mouth to give the dentist and his assistant full access to all of my teeth. When the time came to clamp them together and tap, tap, tap the red paper so that he could see where he needed to reshape the cusps to fit my bite, my jaw lined up straight every time. I was polite, and asked questions, and said thank you, even when the news wasn’t good. I was composed, though I was never in control. On my way out of the office, I stopped in the bathroom to inspect the new addition. The old number nineteen was filled with silver amalgam, but this new one was pristine. In my mouth, it looked like the only brand new car in a lot full of used ones. I ran my tongue around the edges of it. The porcelain was smooth, and though I knew I would always mourn my loss, I couldn’t help but admire the craftsmanship of its replacement.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Our Contributors Grace Andrews is a professional writer, musician, and teacher. She spends her days sharing art with students and her nights cuddling up to her sweet family of rescue puppies. A graduate of Scripps College, she encourages women everywhere to use their voices for positive change. All names have been changed in her essay. Lupe Linares currently lives in Muncie, Indiana where she teaches courses in American literature and composition at Ball State University. Her work has also appeared in NANO Fiction. She recently went to the dentist for the first time in over year and is happy to report that that she is cavity-free thanks to what her dental hygienist calls an impeccable home care routine. 79
Angela Morales’ work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Harvard Review, and most recently, Best American Essays, 2013. She teaches English at Glendale Community College and is working on an essay collection.
Volume 2 Issue 2 Fall/Winter 2014 Sandell Morse’s work has appeared in numerous publications including Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, The New England Review, Fourth Genre, and Ascent. Her work has won many awards, including the Michael Steinberg essay award, and she has been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, an Associate Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and a Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her website is sandellmorse.com Leslie Jill Patterson’s prose is forthcoming or has recently appeared in Texas Monthly, Grist, Gulf Coast, and Baltimore Review. Her recent awards include a 2012 Embrey Human Rights Fellowship, the 2013 Everett Southwest Literary Award, and a 2014 Soros Justice Fellowship, funded by the Open Society Foundations in New York. She founded Iron Horse Literary Review and currently serves as copy editor for Creative Nonfiction. She works as the case storyteller for attorneys representing indigent men and women charged with capital murder and facing the death penalty in the state of Texas. All names have been changed in her essay. Christina Phillips is a first-year nonfiction MFA student at the University of South Carolina-Columbia, with an undergraduate degree in biology from Furman University. She is interested in writing pieces that expose, simplify, or educate readers about principles, such as those found in science, that may be foreign or difficult to understand, through narrative and immersion. Catherine Schmitt is a science writer based at the University of Maine and the author of A Coastal Companion: A Year in the Gulf of Maine from Cape Cod to Canada and The President’s Salmon: Restoring the King of Fish and its Home Waters. Her work is archived at catherineschmitt.com. A. A. Weiss works as a foreign language teacher after having lived in Ecuador, Mexico, Moldova and New Jersey. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Eunoia Review, Pure Slush and The Writing Disorder. He currently lives in New York City.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Featuring work by Sandell Morse, Leslie Jill Patterson, Angela Morales, Lupe Linares, and A. A. Weiss.