Clear Water, Bright Lights

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

I remember the date when I first realized I was drowning. December 19, 2014. It was written in violent pink on the bachelorette party invitation email. Eunice missed the wedding season, I’ll give her that, but there’s something cruel about inviting a bunch of twenty-somethings to go out drinking in the dead of winter in Chicago.

The wind was already clipping in off the lake with a sting, and I realized that this would be the first time I’d seen Clara in three months.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like Clara. I mean, she was my best friend in college. We’d lived in the same house our senior year, with Eunice, of course. We all three spent the last week together in a drunken haze hitting pieces of fruit out the window with tennis rackets. The sharp snap of an apple against wire. The spray of juice and fruit flesh.

And we all three ended up in Chi-town. Only a bus and a Loop apart.

But there’s something about living different lives, or there’s something about living no life at all that stifles conversation.

And I was living no life at all.

What do you call selling your soul to a non-profit? Waking up every day as if it were Wednesday. The blue glare of the computer screen. Styrofoam coffee cups with bite marks along the rim. The printer asking again and again if you’d remove the goddamn paper, please?

Squabbling with my roommates about rent. Telling my mother that, no, I wasn’t going to be producing grandchildren just because I turned twenty-three which is, yes, the same age she had been when she had me.

So, I hadn’t talked to Clara in a while. Three months. Since John proposed.

I mean I had to have seen it coming.

We took the train out to the Dunes, because John has always had this weird idea that I want to return to Indiana. That I hadn’t been running from it for four years. That I could forget the smell of burning trash out in the neighbor’s back yard. That I didn’t remember the depression of an endless cornfield. The dead white sky.

Yeah, we went to the Dunes. And idiot that I was, I was surprised when I turned around and he was on one knee. There was sand and wind whipping into my eyes, so I didn’t have to pretend to cry.

I said yes, because he’s a nice guy, and my mother would be happy. I hadn’t told Clara about it yet.

The bachelorette party was at a kind of dive-y bar. It used to be a stage for improv groups, people just spit-balling, coming up with crazy shit. I guess it didn’t really change that much.

They still had old posters for shows, a few pictures of the celebrities who had once been there. I showed up a little too early so it was just me and Eunice and Eunice’s sister for a while.

Eunice asked me about John. I asked her about her soon-to-be husband, even though I wanted to ask about her instead. That was the way it was when you were in a relationship. Your status suddenly revolved around this other person. This other life.

John was a consultant, making good money. I’d move into his apartment when we married.

I’d slowly submerge my life into his, forgetting the little peculiarities about myself. My urge to talk through movies, my desire to be a painter, the way I still couldn’t tell left from right without using my hands. But I was happy. And Eunice was happy. So what was the problem?

Other people began to arrive and I lost Eunice. It was dark. The stools were uncomfortable. I was nursing a white Russian in the corner while the others were taking shots of whatever. There were little white Christmas lights hung over the bar and everything felt soft and out of focus and I couldn’t give a fuck about anything.

Until Clara walked in.

What can I say about Clara? She has one of those faces that’s full of energy, like every line is dynamic and moving and if you could trace the path of just one of them you’d find the little buzzing center of the universe. Her eyes are the deepest, softest brown I’ve ever seen. They remind me of soil and the smell of spring. Or something.

So in walked Clara wearing her classic amazing style: a black jumpsuit that would look tacky on anyone else but looks like she just got off the plane from Paris. Which maybe she did, because it’s Clara. And she’s kind of really fucking rich.

She didn’t notice me at first, because I was hunched. I’m a huncher, and I liked watching her before saying anything. But eventually she caught me staring and smiled her smile that’s just for me and walked over.

“Ellie!” she said and we were just the two of us together and alone.

“Hey,” I said. “What’s up with you?”

“Oh goodness,” she said, “what can I say? I just got a new job and you won’t believe it. I’m working in this basement with this guy who smells like lima beans and it’s top secret and

ridiculous. And the other night I got called back to be in this toothpaste commercial. And I just got invited to spend Christmas in Florence. So things are pretty normal. You?”

“Yeah,” I said, “similar stuff going on here. I just got a new Swiffer, but I don’t like to brag.”

Clara laughed. I stood up and we hugged. We gave each other the traditional it’s-been-so-long hug. Arms around each other, pull tight, not long enough to get comfortable, just long enough to remember how comfortable it used to be.

In college we had a turtle for a few weeks. Not for very long. It mysteriously disappeared out of our modified fish bowl and we never figured out what really happened. We pretended it was our child. Decided what religion it would be. Reprimanded it for smoking in the room. Gave it the sex talk just to embarrass it.

“What kind of party is this?” Clara asked. “Everyone looks all washed up.”

It was true that everyone, myself included, looked like they were trying just a little too hard. Dramatic make-up, dramatic dresses, dramatic laughter. We needed this fix.

“Yeah,” I said, “well we can’t all leave lives of romance and adventure.”

“Not from what I hear,” Clara said and looked at me expectantly.

“What?” I asked.

“How’s John?” Clara asked even more pointedly.

“Okay, okay,” I said.Yeah, he proposed. How did you hear?”

“Eunice, John, John’s friend Brian, Kelly…” Clara said ticking them off her fingers.

“Yeah,” I said, “I need new friends.”

“Yes,” she said, “you do.” She paused. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

There was a tinkling of ice in a glass somewhere behind me. The soft lighting seemed to flicker.

I exhaled. “I wanted to tell you in person.”

“Well,” she said, “here I am.”

“John got down on one knee,” I said. “And then I said yes. And we’re getting married in June.”

“Classic,” Clara said. “You’re gonna have to get your claws out if you want to get anything good.”

“I haven’t really started thinking about it yet,” I said.

“For real?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Why not?”

But then Eunice found Clara and we got pulled into doing a reminiscent shot of Patrone. And then someone pushed another mixed drink into my hand. And enough people had arrived so that a dance party started on the tiny dance floor.

Around midnight we moved on to the club that Eunice’s sister had picked out. It was loud and there were more shots and things were spinning just a little when Clara found me again.

“Maid of Honor?” she asked.

I pretended not to hear her the first time.

“Maid of Honor?” she shouted.

“Yes,” I said.

“Who is it?” she asked.

Lights of red, yellow, green, blue danced along the wall and dropped onto Clara’s shoulders, arms, legs, feet. They jumped onto her face, speckled her hair.

We went to Mid-Winter Ball together our junior year. We danced until one. The DJ was awful and someone peed from the upper floor down onto the crowd. I was drunk but not drunk enough to forget that she kissed me on the cheek when we were staggering our way out into the cold. The cold felt like nothing compared to the burning of her lips on my cheek.

“You,” I said, “I mean…you… if you…”

“Oh,” even over the bass it was not a happy sound. “Ellie,” she said, “I can’t be there. I’m gone in June. My new job. I’ll be traveling.”

“Oh,” I said. I turned towards the bar. “Let’s do a shot,” I said.

“Ellie,” she said.

“Shots,” I said.

“Sure.”
Next thing I remember we were on the shore of Lake Michigan. The rest of the party was scattered down a ways from us. Someone was vomiting behind a bush. Eunice was being lifted on people’s shoulders. She had left her coat somewhere and was now wearing the coat from the guy at the club. It flapped against the wind.

“It wasn’t anything serious,” Clara was saying, “but I just felt a connection you know?”

“What?” I asked.

Jeremy,” Clara said.

“Oh right,” I said trying to get back to the thread of the conversation.

Eunice rose and fell screaming in the wind.

The waves pushed up against the shore little and icy. I couldn’t feel my feet or my face. The pebbles stood out, etched by moonlight.

“Yeah,” Clara continued. “Like, I’d never felt that way about anybody before? It was strange because I knew it couldn’t last. Like,” she stopped and swayed a little. “Like, if it did last I’d burn up too soon or something.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Like a star,” Clara said, “stars when they go supernova or whatever. They’ve gotten to big and their atoms like just can’t bounce that fast anymore, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. She swayed a little more and bumped into me. She rested her forehead on my shoulder.

“So,” she said and inhaled deeply, “I ended it, right? Because I can’t supernova, man.”

I nodded and looked out at the long swathe of dark water. It rose up over me and for a second I wondered if it would come crashing down.

The night before I turned twenty-two, my senior year of college, Clara and I went down to the river and jumped in together. It was early March and freezing. The water knocked the breath out of me, and when we emerged the stars were out and my body was cold and on fire and alive and dancing. And hers was too.

The next day I went back and picked up a feather that lay on the spot where we jumped in. I never told her about that part. That day before going to the bachelorette party, I put the feather into my purse. It was still there burning a little hole against the lining.

“Clara,” I said. Her name felt so good against my tongue, so I said it again. “Clara.”

Mmmm,” she said from my shoulder.

“I— ”

“That’s how you feel about John, huh?” Clara said and turned her face to me. Her eyes so brown, the bottom of the lake, so deep. “You feel like you’re burning all the time? Super-fucking-nova?”

“No,” I said. I pushed her off my shoulder gently. “I feel like I’m drowning,” I said.

“Huh,” Clara said. She took a step to the left and looked at me. “Drowning. Love is water, Ellie.

“Yeah, Clara,” I said, “love is water.”

The next morning I woke up in Eunice’s apartment with the biggest hangover of my life. My head split into two equal halves, each half screaming at me for my stupidity.

Clara was on the couch across from me. Her hair swept across her face like the shadow of a shadow.

I left without waking anyone else up.

It was bright outside. Gray and white and bright bright bright.

I staggered down a few streets and took a taxi down to the shore again. In the daylight the lake looked smaller, bleaker.

I took off my shoes. Each step stung, each pebble felt like a knife. I walked down to the edge and let the waves hit my toes again and again. They lapped up the tops of my feet, my ankles, my shins. I walked further in. It grabbed at the edge of my skirt.

I looked across the water towards the place where John proposed. The other side of the waves. A different lifetime a different universe. Supernovas, man.

I opened my purse and pulled out the feather. I dropped it into the waves and walked back

out.

My legs screamed at me all the way home.

I called John from the cab.

“Hey, honey,” I said.

“Yeah,” I said, “I had a good time. I love you, too.”

I looked out the window of the cab up at the skyscrapers so high above my head, the bright sky so high above my head, and I was drowning, drowning, drowning and could never come up for air.

Girl Cries Alone With Camera (2017)

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

I’ve been here a year, a sun-soaked spotless year, the light bleaching memories until I return to a blank-page, useful for writing on, useless for writing with.

There is the Bay which is fertile and degraded, there are the hills which are aspiration and struggle, and then there is the Pacific, that’s for forgetfulness. You must wear your Pacific with a difference.

Bathe in the impure crystalline waters, sinfully blue and the mind becomes as unused as the virgin body.

I drown myself in the purposeful amnesia, because too many things have scarred and bruised me and I have grown weary at twenty-four.

***

It is a night job which means I have the days free should I want them. And I do want them.

I want it all: the innocence, the guilt-free living, forgiveness for a past I never wanted.

I take BART west, leaving right around sunset. I enter the bay tunnel with the last rays of the sun and emerge to a sunless night. One star dies to make way for millions. Is it such a bad thing?

But I am not a star.

I think I might be a sort of fish. The creepy big-eyed type that live their lives in total darkness. Their only use to ogle and be ogled in return.

I found the job on craigslist, one of the many ads I thought to be scams. But running on empty in a new place leaves you desperate, and, hell, I’ll try anything once.

I depart at 16th and Mission, make my way without making eye contact through the tangled web of homeless people. Their working legs walking wheelchairs in endless loops. Women sucking long slow death out of cigarettes, men with penises limp and barely concealed under sagging pants.

I try to remain small and quiet, unseen in the constant breathing city.

I walk the four blocks to the empty building. Corner of Valenica and nowhere.

There is a lock on the door with a key code. 1279. It doesn’t mean anything to me, but it reminds me of a sign I once saw.

“Please don’t break in,” the sign read, “there is nothing left to steal.”

I enter the key code. I enter the building.

There my equipment waits for me.

One (1) chair. Standard type stool with back, requires me to fold my legs onto the top rung to sit comfortably.

One (1) video camera. Possibly linked to the internet. It is always on when I enter. Always the blinking red light, the cords running off like so many dead blue veins into the shadowy rest-of-the-room. A dark and pulsing heart residing in the Somewhere Else.

I sit in the chair facing the camera. And then I cry.

***

Before I was the sobbing mass of a blob of a human that I am today, I was just a human.

Who can say when exactly your trauma creeps up on you and takes over and whether it was the big things, the sexual assault, the cheating and emotional abuse, the betrayal and lies and years of making yourself invisible, or the small things like the stranger on the street shouting “Smile, sweetheart! Why don’t you smile? You’re gorgeous!”

And when or where the snap happened exactly doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it did.

And it did.

I moved here for you. The you who held me as I cried about my broken body no longer sure if it was even mine. The you who watched my self-loathing crawl up and over my arms and told me that I was whole, that I would not die by my own hand, that you would be there for me, would always be there for me, whenever I called, you’d answer, like my shadow, my lungs, my heartbeat.

I moved to be with you, to get a beagle, and to grow old and happy and healed.

Until you woke up to love someone else. Someone who held water. Someone who reminded you of me, so you told me, but a younger and sexier me. Me 2.0.

And I, foolish heart that I am, was happy for you.

And only a little sad for me, left without an apartment, friends, or a job in a strange city that might have been the other side of the world.

I suppose I should pick up smoking. End it all a bit sooner.

***

I cry for two hours, have a ten minute break, cry another hour then I get my lunch. I bring water, snacks, and my book of Shakespeare’s sonnets in case I need a spark to set me off.

I stretch my legs during this time and walk around the space. It is your typical empty warehouse/industrial space. The streetlamps shining through dust encrusted windows. I watch a spider dancing in silhouette, spinning, spinning away in darkness beautiful.

Another two hours of crying, sometimes faking it, sometimes unable to stop, another ten minute break a final hour, and then home around 2:00.

BART is long since closed so I take Uber or brave it out on the night bus.

I sleep like the dead, losing myself in uncounted dreams, populated by men and women I don’t know but whose faces I have seen, the brain being incapable of creating faces of its own.

Or so I’ve been told.

***

It pays well, whatever else it is. The money appears in my bank account every week like clockwork and I have managed to pay the bills so far.

If it stops, I tell myself, so do I.

But I wonder if I wouldn’t show up to the building anyway, addicted as I am to the catharsis. Banging on the door to let me in, let me in, please, god, let me in.

***

I don’t know a soul in this city except you. And you’re too busy exploring your new life-changing love, enjoying your mind-blowing sex with Me 2.0.

I don’t harbor any grudges against her. I only hope she might die an early and excruciating death.

***

I have weekends free and I spend them as a zombie tourist, wandering stricken from the Golden Gate to Strawberry Hill over to City Lights Bookstore. The same empty expression, the same panic-stricken numbness in my chest.

I watch the fog creep down over the hills, deep and blanketing as the snow we used to see in Minnesota.

When we walked out on the frozen river and I split open for you, spilling drops of blood like so many pomegranate seeds for you to crush between your perfect teeth.

The irony of explaining the monstrous to a monster.

I wonder now which is worse: to bruise and rip a body or to break the wings of a soul.

***

San Francisco, city by the bay, take the past from off my shoulders, I have no more use for it. Make me washed clean, unburden me of these twenty-four years, meagre offering that they are.

Saint Francis, make me whole.

***

I get a croissant from Tartine Bakery. It is a little thing, but I am trying to give myself bright little things, trying to give myself space. Trying, in the end to heal in whatever ways are left open to me even if only between the flaky layers of a pastry.

I walk to the building early, thinking to stretch my body loose before the evening. Perhaps sit and draw the spider, sit and draw my own reflection spinning and spinning against the darkening sky.

I enter the key code, my prayer to the gods of empty buildings.

But for once the building isn’t empty.

“Whoa hey,” says a voice.

I have a bite of croissant melting in my mouth and nearly choke on it. “Hello?” I say.

My eyes are adjusting to the chiaroscuro, the shadow depths made two-dimensional and suddenly close.

“Hey,” the voice says again.

My pupils dilate and the voice solidifies into a man: youngish man, somewhere between twenty and thirty, white and, therefore, almost indistinguishable except for his beard which is streaked red. He is about my height, but stocky, with the thick neck of a bull that so many women my age seem to find attractive.

“Hey,” I say. “Um, sorry. I didn’t know-”

“That’s okay,” he says. “I’m almost done. Um.”

“Done?” I ask. “You do something here?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m, like, the AV guy, I guess. Mark.”

He extends a hand, and I see curled in the other hand the thick blue line of cord that I’ve only ever seen sprawled out as a snake. It occurs to me for the first time that they wouldn’t leave the camera running all day. That someone must come and check on it. That there is someone else involved beyond myself and the cheerful emails I received at the beginning, written in all caps comic sans.

“Lucia,” I say.

“Like the light,” he says.

“Like the saint,” I say.

His hand is thick, firm, warm. It feels like what I imagine shaking hands with a tree would feel like.

“I’ll just get out of your way,” I say.

“No worries,” he says. He smiles.

I eat the rest of my croissant.

“So you’re the girl,” he says as he unfurls the cord, plugging it into the outlet in the back of the room.

“Woman,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says. “Okay.”

“Yeah,” I say suddenly self-conscious. It occurs to me for the first time that other people—that strangers—what I had known but never allowed myself to imagine—

I bring my attention back to the present to prevent myself from descending into madness, or perhaps from beginning the climb towards sanity.

“I am the woman,” I say more confidently.

“That’s really cool,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“I mean, it’s a pretty sweet gig, right?”

“I guess so,” I say. “It’s something.” A pause. “So, um, what do you do? This can’t pay for everything.”

“I do tech,” he says. “Couple small theaters. Worked for an event planning company for a while.”

“Cool,” I say. “I didn’t even know that was a job.”

“Sure,” he says. “There’s plenty of stuff that pays. It’s just that most people don’t know about it.” He winks at me, and I feel my face redden. It feels good. I also feel like vomiting.

“Cool,” I say again. I look at my watch. Mark is continuing to fiddle with the camera, adjusting it for the chair, I assume. It’s getting close to show time and for the first time I consider it a performance. I feel light-headed.

“Are you, um?” I don’t know how to phrase the question. And not sure what I want the answer to be. Mark’s hair is flecked with gold in the dying light.

“I’ll be out of your way in a sec,” he says and my heart stops pounding.

Moments pass in near silence. I walk slowly to the chair. I sit.

Mark looks up at me from behind the camera.

“Okay,” he says. “Looks good.”

I smile.

“I’ll see you around,” he says. And then as quickly as he appeared. He is gone.

I wonder about his last statement, if he is watching, whatever it is, wherever it is. That night I see his face above the camera and I find myself fake-crying more than usual.

***

I take another week before I show up early again. It doesn’t occur to me until I’m at the building that Mark may not be the only AV person. That there could be a whole team, a swarm of strange faces, waiting for me.

But I’ve already punched the final 9 and I’m opening the door.

Mark has his back turned.

“Hey,” he says. “Lucia, right?”

“Hey, Mark,” I say before remembering to have forgotten.

“How you been?” he asks.

“You know,” I say.

“Actually, I don’t,” he says. “It’s why I’m asking.”
I laugh.

“That wasn’t that funny,” I say. “Sorry.”

“A woman apologizes for laughing at a man’s joke,” Mark says. “Might be a first.”

“I doubt it,” I say. “People have done crazier things.”

“Really?” Mark says. “Can’t imagine what that would be.”

I laugh again and set down my bag by the door. I brought a beer tonight. I’m not entirely sure it’s allowed, but I felt like a beer and so I brought it. I actually brought two.

I reach into my bag, hesitate, and then offer one to him.

“Want one?” I say.

“Oh,” Mark says, “actually, I don’t drink. But thanks.”

“More for me,” I say and feel foolish.

“So,” I say. Just that word and the heat rises to my face again. I look anywhere but at his face. I do not want to look at his face, I tell myself. I do not want to make eye contact.

“Yeah,” he says, and out of the corner of my eye I can see that he is grinning.

“What?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he says. Then, “You’re here early.”

“Maybe you’re here late.”

“You can have my number if you want it.”

“Who says I do?”

“All right.”

“All right.”

A pause.

“What’s your number?” I ask.

***

“I love the ocean,” I say, “but I haven’t been out there as often as I’d like.”

“Oh,” he says. “Baker Beach.”

“I’ve never been,” I say.

“You should,” he says. “I’ll take you sometime.”

He doesn’t drink, but he smokes, the chink in his perfect knighthood, the trail of dragon smoke drifting up into late spring sky.

You didn’t smoke. I revel in this newness, as close to touching another person as I’ve come. I haven’t kissed Mark. I don’t think I can. Don’t think my lips can form those shapes anymore. I am afraid of him, the way I am afraid of most things.

He’s as harmless as any human being, which is to say a ticking time-bomb.

“I’ll take you,” he says. And I have no doubt that he could.

***

I feel as if I am back in high school. We go on dates, Mark and I. We take walks in parks, we drink coffee, sometimes we eat food. I drink wine while he watches, the stain of rotting fruit against my lips.

We do not kiss. I never touch him for longer than an awkward hug at the beginning and ending of these little sessions. We meet in the daylight. He walks me to work when I have work.

I can’t tell if I’m happy with this chasteness. Or if I am frustrated.

My body is ready for the dry-rot of sensuality. It yearns for that burning touch, for the holding and stroking, the worship and adoration of hands against skin. My body does all it can to reach towards intimacy. But my mind keeps it chained.

Every link is a memory, of you, or of him.

You: the taste of your mouth on mine when we are together in the shower, soap and hot water.

Him: the rush of blood to the surface of the skin and I know there will be another bruise tomorrow.

Between the two I could go insane.

Wait, I tell my body. But I don’t know what I’m waiting for, and as I wait, I am drying up.

***

DEAR PARTICIPANT!!

WE ARE EXCITED TO ANNOUNCE THE CONCLUSION OF OUR PROJECT “GIRL CRIES ALONE WITH CAMERA”!!!

WE COULDN’T’ HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT YOU! 🙂

PLEASE JOIN US FOR THE SHOWING ON JULY 4TH. WITH RECEPTION TO FOLLOW.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION!!

WE WISH YOU SUCCESS ON ALL FUTURE ENDEAVORS!

SINCERELY,

 

“BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD.”

-GANDHI

***

“Are you going to the reception?” I ask Mark.

We are on the bunker, that one that’s really close to the Golden Gate, so close I could reach out and touch it. Mark has told me the name, but I’ve forgotten and perhaps don’t want to know. I prefer to think of it as just another ruin, like Machu Picchu or the pyramids, great stone wastes growing up out of the moss.

It is hot out, getting on towards summer. My lease will end sometime and I might need to find another job.

We still have not kissed.

“I don’t know,” Mark says.

“Aren’t you curious?” I ask. I am sitting with my legs tucked under my chin, my head turned sideways to look at him. He has such a solid face. I let myself imagine it. We start dating, and for once it is simple and sweet and I don’t have to burn myself to feel.

I turn away and bury my face between my knees. I scratch the back of my neck.

“I mean,” he says. “I helped edit it. So I’ve seen it already.”

“What’s it like?” I ask.

“You haven’t seen it?” he says.

“I’ve just lived it,” I say.

“That’s weird,” he says. He shrugs. “It’s pretty much what you think it is.”

“Huh,” I say. “Are there other girls?”

“I don’t think so,” he says.

“I meant you,” I say.

“What?”

I sigh. It is the thing that stops me most. Mark is not quick. You were quick. He was also quick.

“Never mind,” I say.

He smiles as he does when he knows he’s missed something but doesn’t seem to care that he has.

“So what’s it all for?” I ask.

“What the project?”

“No,” I say. “The all of it.”

Mark looks at me. “I don’t know,” he says. “I try not to think about it too much.”

“What do you think about then?”
“Nothing,” Mark says. “I try not to think at all.”

I raise my head. I look out at the bridge orange and glowing against a backdrop of fog. Closer at hand a violet has pressed its way up through the cement. It is sharp and close. I realize I haven’t looked at something, really looked at it in so long.

Since I looked at your face, as near to me as my next breath.

“What are you doing then?” I ask.

Mark shrugs. “I’m just trying to have a nice time,” he says. He makes eye contact. I make eye contact back.

But I don’t lean in.

***

I wear a dress that is too short to the reception. All my other clothes are packed up.

It’s held in some tiny art gallery/trinket shop in the heart of the Tenderloin. I take a Lyft to the place and manage to only be catcalled twice on my way to the door.

There are about ten people there. The space is dominated by the screen. It hangs from the upper level, clear and big and bright.

There is my face in a hundred thousand pixels.

I don’t know if I expected sound, but there isn’t any.

It’s just me, silent, my shoulders shaking.

I watch myself with an odd feeling of detachment. My body, suddenly huge, my grief seems almost, laughable at that size.

What are you doing? I want to ask myself.

My big on-screen face leans up and I see the path of the tears from whatever day, whatever moment, whatever pain I felt then, dripping down my puffy red face.

And then I can’t help myself, but I do. I start laughing.

Everyone turns to look at me. Three or four men with soul-patches, a woman with half-shaven head, there may be a beret or maybe I just want there to be a beret. They all look at me confused, scandalized.

A moment of recognition, a few glances back to the screen. They see me now, the girl.

But I am not crying. I am laughing, so hard it hurts my ribs, so hard its cracking out my fingers, so hard I double over.

It’s hilarious.

I am laughing on my way outside. I am laughing as I get on a bus headed somewhere. Laughing my way down a few winding paths into the heart of the Presidio.

It is clear out. There are a few couples on the beach and a homeless man sleeping down a ways. But the ocean is empty and above it hang a thousand crystalline stars, brighter than the pixels, closer than the violet pushing through the cement.

You are a pebble and I throw you to the waves, he is a laugh and I release him to the sky, Mark is the feeling of water against my calves and I allow him in.

I can feel the weight of all the eyes, pulling me apart, placing upon me, and I laugh and scream and am until it is all very clear.

 

 

 

 

Modern Horror for the Modern Woman

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

I first noticed it under my bed a few months ago, but who knows how long it was there before. It was small at first. I only found it because of the bump.

It was about midnight, and I was tossing and not sleeping as I tend to do when Charley is out of town. I had woken from dreams of digestion, luminescent glowing fluids, and tentacles, when I felt the mattress lift ever so slightly and fall with a bump back onto the bedframe.

It reminded me of sharing a bunkbed with my older sister as a child. Sometimes at night if she was angry or more often if she was bored, she would lift the mattress with her feet and let it drop, so that I, sleeping in the top bunk, awoke with the sickening feeling of falling.

Here I was, an adult woman, with the same feeling of falling.

I got up, lowered myself onto my hands and knees and peered into the darkness.

It was small then, a lump half-hidden in the darkness, but I felt it watching me.

Charley came home the next day.

“There’s something under our bed,” I said.

“Hello to you, too,” he said.

“Just look at it,” I said. “Also I missed you.”

He kissed me.

“Under the bed?” he said. “Are you sure it isn’t on top?”

“Come and see,” I said and dragged him to the bedroom.

Charley dropped to his hands and knees beside me. He sat still for a moment. There it was, staring back at us. I forced myself to breathe evenly.

“I don’t see it,” Charley said at last.

“What?” I said. “Are you serious? It’s right there.”

Charley looked again. “Sorry,” he said. “I just don’t.”

I looked at the thing. It looked larger than the day before. I wondered whether it could laugh.

That night I felt the bed rise again and drop with a bump. Charley, sleeping soundly next to me, didn’t stir.

The next few weeks, I kept my eyes open. It hadn’t, as of yet, done anything more sinister than jolt me awake every once in a while. Still, I didn’t like that I alone could see it.

Or so I thought. Until one day when my niece was over to visit.

I love my niece. She’s a nice niece. I don’t get to see her as often as I want. As a teenager, she has a bit more going on in her life than hanging out with her aunt.

“Jenny,” I said. “I need to show you something.”

“Okay,” she said.

“It’s under the bed,” I said.

“You’re weird, Aunt Margot,” she said. But she followed me anyway.

I held my breath this time. Hoping against hope that it had indeed disappeared, that it was nothing more than my imagination. I didn’t say anything as Jenny took a look.

“Ew,” she said. “What is that?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It’s scary,” Jenny said. “You should get rid of it.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll try.”

The exterminator was as kind as he could be under the circumstances.

“Ma’am,” he said, “there’s just nothing there. I can set out the traps if you’d like, standard cockroach and mouse. But really I can’t do more than that.”

“Please,” I said. “Maybe you’re not looking hard enough. It’s there. Right there. Why would I be making this up?”

“I don’t know,” the exterminator said. He glanced nervously towards the door. “Why would you be making this up?”

“Can’t you just poke at it with a net or something?” I asked.

“I think you’re thinking of animal control,” the exterminator said. “Or a psychiatrist.”

“Come on,” I said. “This has to be a joke.”

He might have been joking, but his bill certainly wasn’t.

“Margot,” Charley said when he found out. “Are you okay? Is this about something else?”

“No,” I said. “It isn’t about anything else. It’s about that weird thing that’s under our bed. It’s getting bigger. And I swear the other day I saw it grab one of my socks.”

“Margot,” Charley said. He ran a hand through his hair, his thick beautiful hair. Probably one of the reasons I fell in love with him in the first place. I looked at his face, so trusting, so trustworthy. He couldn’t be lying to me. He just didn’t see it.

“It’s there,” I said. “Please, just believe me. It’s there.”

By April it was so large I could see it every time I walked into the room. It had started to make little hissing noises whenever I walked by, something like air escaping from a tire, or hysterical giggling. One morning I found a pile of little bones next to the bed.

“We should move,” I said. “Please, Charley. Let’s move.”

“Margot,” Charley said. “It’s okay. Whatever this is, it will pass. I promise. It will go away.”

I tried to lure it out with cheese, raw meat, beer. Nothing worked. It stayed where it was glowering under our bed. I took to sleeping on the couch. I couldn’t persuade Charley to join me. I was scared all the time. I ate fewer and fewer meals. Started pulling out strands of my hair as I’d done in college.

Jenny came over again.

“Aunt Margot,” she said. “Are you safe?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It hasn’t done anything yet.”

“I’m scared,” she said.

“Let’s go see a movie,” I said.

We went to the local theater that was playing old-fashioned flicks. We watched a back to back screening of Roman Holiday and Sabrina. For a little while I forgot to be worried.

Until I got home, took off my shoes and felt it watching me.

I looked up and there it was in the doorway of our bedroom. It was larger than ever. Looking at me. Watching. Waiting. Hissing gently. Oh so gently. Mocking. Watching. Waiting to—

I grabbed my shoes and flung them as hard as I could. It hissed when they hit and sprang towards me.

I screamed and raced towards the kitchen, reaching for a knife–

It was on me before I made it two steps. Sharp claws and a heavy heavy weight. Dragging me down.

I screamed again, pushing it away, beating at it with my hands. It was so heavy. My lungs were in agony reaching for air. Its smell overpowering, I felt it sucking the oxygen out of me. Cutting into my arms and belly, my legs, my face. This was how I would die and Charley would have no idea.

Charley if only you’d believed me.

I woke up in the hospital. My arms in bandages. Charley sitting next to me.

“Margot,” he said. “Hey there.”

My head hurt. The sun was too bright. Everything hurt.

“Where?” I asked. “Where is it?”

Charley dropped his gaze to the floor. “Margot,” he said. “I love you so much, baby. I just love you so much.”

“Is it dead?” I asked. “Is it finally dead?”

“The doctors aren’t sure,” Charley said slowly.

He was talking from a million miles away, the bottom of the ocean.

“They’ve seen cases similar, but not exactly like this. I should’ve said something sooner. Picked up on signs.”

“It’s dead,” I said. “Just tell me it’s dead.”

“There was nothing there,” Charley said.

Outer space. His words could barely reach me.

“Margot, you did this to yourself.”

“No,” I said. “No.”

That night in the hospital, I lay awake, tossing and turning. When I closed my eyes I saw it again, smelled its breath on my face, the sharp claws, the suffocation. I heard Charley saying, “There was nothing there.”

I lay there in the hospital bed listening to the machines beep-beep-beeping away. The traffic outside my window. The ticking of the clock from the nurse’s station.

I felt the mattress lift ever so slightly under me.

And fall with a bump.

 

Accidents

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

He hit the dog almost without knowing it. He might have driven on had it not been for Charlene’s screams from the seat beside him.

“What? What?” he shouted.

“Out there!” she said, pointing a trembling finger. So, Sid pulled the rented Jeep to the side of the road and got out.

The dog was panting still, incredibly, its tongue hot, red and pink, its stomach splashed across the hard-packed dirt road.

“The most dangerous things in Australia,” Sid remembered the rental agent saying back in Sydney, “are the roads. You hit the edge wrong, it’s raining, you’re a goner.”

It had sounded quaint in Sydney. Everything had sounded quaint: the roads and the honeymoon and the whole rest of their lives together. Driving up the coast to Brisbane and then scuba-diving on the Great Barrier Reef. But that was before and this was now and the dog was dying on the road in front of him.

“Do we bury it?” Charlene had gotten out of the Jeep now. She was walking hesitantly towards him, her high heels wobbling. “Can we find its owner? Maybe it will live.”

This last came out plaintive, and Sid almost hated her for it.

“It’s not going to live,” he said coldly.

It was a dull yellow dog, the same color as the miles and miles of countryside they’d been passing through. Flies the size of pennies were landing dark and angry where the tire had burst through. Sid wondered where the flies had come from in all that great distance.

Australia was bigger than he’d imagined. Sure, there were kangaroos, but there were kangaroos in the zoos back home. This was a country, a continent of heat and desolation. He felt the sweat beading at the back of his knees and under his wide-brimmed hat.

“Your adventure hat,” Charlene had called it when they were packing. It had seemed cute then. Now it sickened him. He noticed that the key was still in the Jeep and the doors were standing wide open. The air-conditioning that had been blasting since they left civilization was now streaming out into the strange December summer.

“Go close the doors,” Sid said. It came out an order, and he could feel Charlene silently adding it to the count. Only eight days married and they already had a count.

“I’ll move the body,” Sid said.

“It could be diseased,” Charlene said.
“I’ll move the body,” Sid said already walking towards the dog.

It wasn’t as heavy as he thought. By now the life had run out of it and its eyes were dull. The flies swarmed his hands and arms. He hoped they wouldn’t bite, unlike everything else in the damned country. When he reached the edge of the road, there was a trail of blood thick and dark as oil running behind him. He pulled back and threw the body as far as he could. Flies flew up like a black cloud on the wind and settled again a few yards from the road.

Sid felt his arms go slack from the heat. It was only once he was back in the Jeep, the radio turned up, and the AC pummeling him in the face that he noticed the red stain on his shirt sleeve.

Charlene was beautiful. Everything he’d ever dreamed of in a girlfriend, and then, in a wife. She had long blonde hair, the kind you’d expect on models or pornstars, but not on real honest-to-goodness women. Her body was firm in the right places and soft in the others, as was her mind. She was a smart woman and he loved her for that, but she was also, in many ways, a child. She took spiders outside on napkins. She talked to fish in the aquariums. She was obsessed with babies, even the ugly ones.

He knew it would only be a matter of time before they produced offspring of their own. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to see copies of himself, his own face smiling up at him. He wondered whether he’d like them.

They had met in grad school. Which was better, he supposed, than his brother, Josh, who had met his girlfriend on Tinder. Their mother hadn’t understood when Josh explained.

Sid and Charlene’s first date had been awful. They could laugh about it now. Charlene thought Sid was stuffy, and Sid thought Charlene was a ditz. They had agreed to a second date only because they had found each other physically attractive.

Love blossoms in the most adverse of circumstances and with the most inauspicious of beginnings. So had theirs grown from such humble roots until neither could imagine a future without the other. If that wasn’t a sign, Sid didn’t know what was.

Sure, there had been other girls before her, especially in college when he still had his athlete’s body. There had even been one woman in the early stages of dating Charlene. But Charlene was the clear winner if only through her persistence.

They had been married in a church more out of tradition than any real belief system. Her father had died when she was twelve, so her grandfather walked her down the aisle. She had wanted for a time to walk down the aisle unaccompanied, but Sid thought it better to bow to custom.

Her vows had been simple and sweet. “I will love you now and forever.”

His vows had been copied out of a book he found in Barnes and Noble.

And then they were off to Australia.

“Did you see any farms nearby?” Charlene asked a few miles down the road. She had been silent since the dog.

“No,” he said, “why?”

“Just wondering if there was an owner,” Charlene said.

“It didn’t have a collar,” Sid said. He didn’t actually remember, but he was feeling tired. The weight of the dog was hanging over their honeymoon in a way he didn’t particularly appreciate.

“We can call about it when we get to the hotel,” he said. The matter would be forgotten by then, he hoped.

“I suppose,” she said.

He took her hand from where it lay clenched on her knee. He pressed it to his lips. She smiled faintly and continued to stare out at the road.

Eucalyptus trees wove by in endless uniformity. Sid decided he loathed the country and everything in it.

They reached a small town near six o’clock, a very American time to eat dinner, Sid knew, but still they were hungry. They found the restaurant most likely to cater to tourists.

“Welcome to the Outback Steakhouse,” their waitress began. “My name is Abby and I’ll be taking care of you all tonight. Any drinks to start you off?”

“Just water for me,” Charlene said.

“What beers do you have?” Sid asked. Charlene gave him one of her looks. They still had several hours before the hotel, and he had agreed to drive that day. But it was only a beer, and he needed it. He ignored Charlene and pretended to listen as Abby patiently prattled off a list of beers. He ordered the one that sounded least like piss.

“What a day,” he said when Abby had walked away. She was cute, her hair bobbed short and an intriguing tattoo that started just above her knee.

“Sure,” Charlene said.

“What? Are you mad?” Sid asked.

“If you have to ask-” Charlene started.

“It’s not my fault,” Sid said.

“Who said it was your fault?”

“Why are you acting like I’m some kind of villain?”

“I’m not. But it would be nice if you showed some kind of emotion.”

“What would it help if I cried?”

“Maybe.”

“Look, Charl, I’m torn up. I’m real fucked up about this dead dog, are you happy?”

“It’s not just that, and you know it.”

“Do I?”

“Come on, Sid, don’t play stupid.”

“Listen to the pot calling the kettle black.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Charlene’s forehead crinkled a sign of real danger. It had crinkled like that when she found out about the other woman years ago. Instead of feeling afraid, though, Sid almost smiled. It felt good to get a rise out of her, this perfect woman he had married, this angel of a creature. In their years together he could count the number of arguments he’d won on a single hand. That persistence again.

He recalled in particular when he had wanted to drive across the country for a month, she hadn’t said no, but she hadn’t said yes either and the end he hadn’t gone simply because of the strength of her will. She never even raised her voice. He admired her for that power.

“Are you ready to order?” Abby had appeared again. Sid saw that her teeth were slightly crooked. He wondered how old she was.

“I think we’re going to need another minute,” Charlene said not taking her eyes off him. Sid felt certain they would not be having sex that evening, which should be illegal on a honeymoon, he thought.

“What about it, Abby?” Sid asked before she could turn away. “What’s your favorite?”

“Oh, gosh,” Abby said with actual surprise. “I don’t know. I guess I like the coconut shrimp pretty well.”

“Two plates of the coconut shrimp,” Sid said grandly, and began to hand Abby the menus.

“Actually,” Charlene said, “I’d just like the house salad.”

“Two plates for me, then,” Sid said.

“Okay,” Abby said. She smiled uncertainly, flashing her crooked teeth again.

“Why are you such an asshole?” Charlene hissed.

“It’s a free country,” Sid said. “You’re the one who married me.”

Charlene just shook her head.

The coconut shrimp was sticky and overly sweet. Sid ate both plates even though it made him feel sick. He left an outrageous tip and a smiley face on the bill. He tried to catch Abby’s eye as they were walking out, but she was greeting another table.

Charlene put in her headphones when they got to the hotel. It was a fancy place. Too fancy for their budget, but it was only for a night. In the heady stages of planning the honeymoon this was to be their night of luxury, an escape from the otherwise narrow limits of their life. But that would not be the case tonight.

Sid opened the minibar and took out the whiskey. It was nice to know no matter what continent they were on, every minibar came stocked with at least one bottle of Johnny Walker.

Charlene stared at him from the bed. He poured a shot and swallowed it.

How had it all gone wrong? Had it been the flight when she saw him checking out the stewardess? Or in the rental agency when he made a joke about dying of cancer rather than living in Australia? She was still sensitive about her dead father.

It could have been before that, though, the times when she looked at him as if she were seeing something she’d never quite seen before, as if some part of her understood what he was deep down.

He knew what he was deep down. He had known it since he was a child. His mother had told him over and over again.

And when he was in high school, the first girl he ever had sex with. When he held her down and she closed her eyes and he wanted to stop and couldn’t all at the same time. Knowing himself and running from it, frozen in a constant state of loathing.

Until Charlene had told him she loved him. This beautiful perfect woman who loved him and shouldn’t. Who knew him and loved him anyway. A woman he could never fully comprehend. A woman who he loved and despised.

Did he hit the dog on the road on purpose? He couldn’t remember.

He took another gulp of whiskey.

It was hot in the room, they were on the top floor with thirteen rooms of heat accumulating, pressing up from beneath. Pressing. Neither of them moved to turn on the air conditioning. Sid couldn’t tell if they were in a state of war or not.

At last when he’d finished his whiskey he moved to the bed. He struggled to remove his shirt and then his shorts. He crawled onto the bed and over to Charlene.

He placed his head in her lap, and she gently ran her hands through his hair. She took out her headphones. A point of submission.

“Don’t leave me,” he mumbled.

“Never,” she said.

He buried his face in her goodness.

Once there was a world that made sense. Green trees and an office to work in, classes to take and Charlene to marry. Once there was a world in order and a life of progress and potential. Then there was waking up and there was Australia a great desert surrounded by the greater wasteland of the ocean. What was life but an island surrounded by the greater ocean of death?

Sid woke up the next morning with a headache. The air conditioning had been turned on in the night. Charlene was gone. The keys of the Jeep were on the bedside table.

He waited until noon, checking his phone every five minutes. At noon he took the elevator down to the lobby, left a message at the front desk and got in the Jeep. He started driving north towards Brisbane.

Sid sang songs to himself. “We Are the Champions” played on the radio. Kangaroos fought in the distance. He sped through farms, past green fields and palm trees. Children playing in the front lawns. At one point he met the coast and whipped past cliffs falling down to the spray of salt water.

Sid forgot for a time that he was married and that he had no idea where his wife was. He might have been in college again, on one of his many solitary road trips. From Massachussetts to Idaho from Florida to Maine from Texas to California. Life could continue on a moving plane the same as it could continue in the static. He could run away faster in a car. He always could. Since he first learned how to drive.

At around four Charlene called.

“Where the fuck are you?” she asked.

“Almost to Brisbane,” he said.

“What?” she said.

“What?” he said back.

Charlene started cursing.

“Calm down,” Sid said. “You left. So, I left. It’s as simple as that. Just take a bus and meet me.”

“Fuck you,” Charlene said. Her voice slurred slightly.

“Are you drunk?” Sid asked.

“No,” Charlene said.

“Liar.”

“Fucker.”

Sid started laughing. “This is the first time I’ve heard you drunk in years.”

“Fuck you,” Charlene said. She started crying. “He’s dead,” she said. “Just like that.”

“Who’s dead?” Sid asked.

“You know,” Charlene said between sobs. “I know you meant to do it.”

“Do what?” Sid asked.

“It died like a dog,” she said. “Just like a dog.”

“It was a dog,” Sid said.

“Not the dog,” Charlene said. “Before—when you said—the baby.”

“There never was a baby,” Sid said. “You told me there wasn’t a baby.”

“There was a baby,” Charlene said.

Things slowed down. Outside the sun pulsed in slow motion. He felt the sweat accumulating on his neck and when it finally ran, it ran cold.

“Come back.” Charlene said, “Pick me up.”

Sid hung up.

It hadn’t been a conversation as much as a feeling.

“If I were pregnant,” she had said.

“Are you pregnant?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

“Well, I know what we’d do,” he said.

“Do you?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “It might be different if I really were pregnant.”

“You’re not, though, are you?”

“No,” she said, “I’m not. But if I were—”

“You know what we’d do,” he said, “I mean right now. If you were pregnant right now. It wouldn’t be the right time. Not just for us, but for the baby. You know? Timing matters.”

“Yes,” she said, “timing matters.”

She looked at him then, as if seeing past his skin, past his flesh, past his bones, to the pulsing darkness that lived inside him. And did she feel that same pulsing darkness within her?

“Are you pregnant?” he’d asked.

“No,” she’d said.

He drove back with a feeling that his head was being held in a vice. He couldn’t shake it. His pulse pounded. He was angry, he knew, but he couldn’t tell at who or what exactly.

It started to drizzle halfway there. The road slickened to a dark gray. Sid didn’t slow down.

It was his fault and it wasn’t. He cared and he didn’t. He would divorce her and run away to start a new life. People did it all the time. It didn’t matter in the end. Whether she’d killed the thing or not.

Sid wiped his forehead with his sleeve. It was the same shirt he’d been wearing yesterday. He hadn’t changed that morning. A dark stain stared up at him.

It wasn’t his fault. None of it. Could he change what he was, what he had always been? Could he see past the smear of rain on the windshield? Could he see anything coming down the road towards him?

So how could it be helped?

California: Year One

Today, July 4, 2017, marks one year since I arrived in this strange world of California. It has been a year truly unlike any I’ve ever experienced in my near quarter-of-a-century life.

What a roller coaster. I spent a month in Palo Alto working every job that I could find. I moved myself across the Bay to Oakland. I got a job with Blue Bottle. Started working in San Francisco. Met my Ferry Building family. Celebrated Christmas with my sister. Jumped in the ocean. Ate a doughnut. Visited Portland. Got mugged. Joined my first ever real-world writing class. Gave my first ever reading. Adopted a kitten. Moved jobs. And, as of yesterday, moved houses once more.

Note to self: I know you think you can do anything, and you can, but next time don’t move all your stuff and then work a seven hour shift. That’s a recipe for a zombie-Laura.

I’ve been thinking about the United States a lot, you know, and the Bay Area in particular. And recently I saw a sign that says “America was Never great.” Which is both true and also not true.

The state of the United States is one founded on the removal of Native people, the enslavement of Africans, and the general principle that anything is okay if you have enough money to justify it. So, yes, the state of the United States has never been great.

However, when it comes to the people who happen to be living here, then it becomes more complicated. At least for me.

Because the people of the United States have done some pretty cool things. Like fighting for black liberation, women’s liberation, gay rights, trans rights, prisoner equality, and generally human rights across the board.

If the United States is anything, it’s the constant struggle of its people against the state.

This has come into the light upon my arrival in Oakland. I wrote about this before, but I’ve never felt more strongly the feeling and embodiment of community. This is a place where people are living out their beliefs.

Is there rampant gentrification, horrible landlords, a brutal police force and insidious racism? You better believe it. But I also firmly believe that the community is more powerful.

So this July 4, I am celebrating my arrival into this joyous community. I am celebrating the power of people everywhere to struggle against the oppressive forces that seek to destroy them. I celebrate the Native people who have endured, survived and thrived into the present. I celebrate black freedom and black community. I celebrate the Asian immigrants who built and are building the country. I celebrate women, cis and trans, strong enough to keep fighting. I celebrate all people working towards universal equality.

And that’s a lot worth celebrating.

 

 

Dear Ma

By popular demand, I am posting the short story I wrote for my dystopian writing class. It is entitled “Dear Ma”. I read the first letter at my first ever real-life-adult reading!

 

Dear Ma,

I suppose this message is long overdue. The one I send to you apologizing for running oft. But now that it comes to writing it, I don’t feel the need to apologize no more. Apologize for what, Ma? For living?

But that isn’t the tone I meant to take. You know I have a habit of rambling when I’m nervous.

Life on Mars is what it is. Colder, I think, than I thought. There’s plenty to do every hour of the day. Terra-forming and cultivating water and all that. You’d be bored stiff up here. There’s not yet time for music or for art or for joy.

Every now and then I sneak in a few drawings right before bedtime. I draw the dust-storms from a distance, and the sunlight coming off the ice-caps. Sunlight is different here even. The same sun but further away, a different angle. Who knew such things were possible?

You knew.

You told me not to go. You told me to stay in that last conversation we had. Before I packed up and slunk out of your life. In the kitchen whose details I can still pick out: the rooster clock always a few minutes ahead, to keep you moving, you said, the hand towels that smelled a little of mildew, and the kettle on the stove always a few seconds away from boiling.

I recall those things sometimes in the night, when I feel the weight of this alien planet on me, making it harder for me to breathe.

But I’m rambling again, Ma, and I apologize for that.

There wasn’t nothing for me back home. The smog so thick it felt like pea-soup, and the news reporting sandstorms coming this way or snowstorms going that way and we were always either burning or freezing.

And the blinking out one by one by one of other species. Constellations going quiet in the night sky.

I know it was our fault, but I didn’t want to be the one to pay the price. Didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in those giant terrariums where you couldn’t see the future, couldn’t see the past, only saw the day-in day-out trudge.

I suppose it ain’t that much better here, Ma. But at least we’re working towards something and not away from.

I’m sorry the way I left it. Jenny won’t grow up with her big brother. Only the shadow of him. And I miss her. And I miss you. And I wisht that things had shook out differently.

Why did you dig in, Ma? What could you see on Earth that might have made it all right? Or did you simply believe that life wherever it burrows itself would wind up about the same.

I see it already up here. I don’t want to acknowledge it, but I do. The captain talked about a new chance, a new way of doing things, living with our new planet. But I feel already, the digging in, the greed.

My bunkmate, Robinson, said they found a passel of diamonds some ways west of the settlement, buried underneath the ice-caps. He says they plan on mining them up.

“For what?” I asked.

“Diamonds is useful,” Robinson said. “Use em for lasers and nonsense.”

But in his eyes I saw that glimmer. Humans are gonna soil their bed wherever they go, and justifications will come in later.

I miss you, Ma.

I didn’t tell you this earlier, but I been drawing you up here, too. Your face and Jenny’s, already etched in my memory’s eye. Good to have you with me wherever I end up.

See, they’re talking already of Next-Planet. Already preparing for it. When Mars fails the way Earth did, then off we scramble and maybe I’ll scramble with them.

It might be harder to send transmissions then.

I am sorry, Ma. For the way I left you. Sorry I abandoned you. I hope you are still finding time for art and music.

I remember you told me, “Without something more, the soul shrivels up, and without a soul you can never mind about the rest.”

So I think that when I can, I’m gonna start to show my drawings. And who knows but I’ll be the first artist on Mars.

I love you, Ma. And I love Jenny. And I think about you both all the time.

I hope that love, like starlight, can travel the distance of space.

Your son,

William

 

Dear Ma,

I ain’t heard back from you yet. Though whether that’s on account of transmission failure or on account that you are angry I don’t rightly know.

I know I said a lot of things in my last letter.

Mars is the red planet they say, but my life has recently become blue. I was transferred from terra-farming to the cap. Those diamonds they found turned out to just be the beginning. There’s a whole mining operation up on the ice now. And I’m up in the heart of it.

The sun, though still weaker, is intensified by the ice. Even under the layers of gear, my skin sometimes catches and I have burns for the next few days. I try to move quickly. To keep moving seems to be my way.

The descent down into the mine is treacherous. First the flight of stairs cut into the ice down and down and down, worn almost smooth by boot after boot. Then once we’re down deep enough there’s the elevator shaft to lower us into the mine proper. It moves so smooth that elevator, I feel almost as though nothing changes as at all.

I have nothing to compare it to, but the mine is dark, lit only by fluorescent spotlights every few yards. It’s cold in the tunnels and damp as well.

We walk around crouched over, beetles scuttling through the dark. Mining for diamonds.

The work is harder, but we have more time off. I have more time for my drawings. Or more truthfully, more time to drop bone-weary into my bed.

I think back to learning to draw with you and Jenny in the terrarium. I think back to watching those lines so straight and smooth under your hand coming out jagged and jarred through my shaking paw. But you told me to keep on, so I have.

My former bunkmate, Robinson, came with me on the transfer. He’s a decent enough fellow. And that’s all we aim for here on Mars, decent enough.

There’s a number of us who came as volunteers, you remember. Propaganda, you called it. A chance for a new life, said I. But there’s also a number of us here on account of criminal records.

The crims are kept in separate settlements, under guard, but we work all together. They’re decent enough people, too. All with stories, same as the rest of us. I met one woman named Caroline. She was sentenced for killing her father, a man who brutalized and molested her since before she could speak. I don’t see how any court could find her guilty for that.

But she’s here anyway. And we sometimes get to talking.

We all get a little stir-crazy up here. Some of us blow off steam with illegal gambling rings or by picking fights. There’s no way to get alcohol and anyhow the captain wouldn’t hold with it even if it were safe to consume. So instead we act punch-drunk whenever we can.

One person will start it off.

“I’m gone,” they’ll say and start swaying crazily, staggering through the halls banging on doors. “Gooone,” they’ll shout and we howl in response.

“Drunk,” we shout back. “Drunk as a skunk! Four sheets to the wind!”

We hop up and down, dancing with each other in maddened frenzied circles, kicking the walls and doors, breaking bottles and pulling bedding from the bunks.

And as soon as the hall guards show up we settle right down. Not a drop of alcohol in our systems. Some of us wake up the next day with shadow-hangovers anyway.

Some of the miners are joining the Next-Planet movement, Next-Plan for short. Some have added their names to the transfer list home. But to my knowledge, no one from that list has ever returned.

I keep on drawing, Ma. I keep on hoping to hear from you one way or the other.

Every six or seven days, I get one day off, and then I go out walking on the caps. I follow the road connecting the settlement to the mine until I get out of sight of everything. And then out there on the tops of the ice is the sun, the same old sun just a little askew. I feel its warmth and see this great red planet stretching out its arms all around me. And it’s times like those, Ma, that I think I just might be happy.

Your son,

William

 

Dear Ma,

I am in some trouble and I wish now more than ever I could hear your voice.

You always told me to trust people only up to a point. Well, I’ve gone and found that damn point.

Robinson isn’t entirely to blame. Only his big fat mouth.

We got scooped up into the belly of the beast and now I’m twiddling my thumbs here in the stockades. And damn if we don’t deserve it.

I keep thinking about the one time I was arrested on Earth. And your face when you came to bail me out of jail.

“Well,” you asked on the ride home. “Was it worth it?”

And I was so ashamed I couldn’t look you in the eyes.

I don’t know that I could do it now.

We were just talking. All right, and planning. A little talking. A little planning. Next-Plan.

We can’t keep working here, can’t keep up in the diamond mine. Can’t go back, not to where we came from. With more people dying, or losing the few jobs left, and the lights flickering. It’s all going to end, Ma.

We got the news back before we were stockaded. Saw the way the terrariums were consolidating. And the buccaneers stopping shipments. The starvation. God, it’s all ending. Even for those who are still alive.

Even for Jenny.

I can’t write to her. Because she might read it. I’d rather be the long lost saint than the found sinner.

I am in the stockades now because Robinson and I and Caroline and a whole bunch of crims and Earth-siders, made a plan to steal a ship and head on out to the next moon. Just a small ship mind you with some basic terra-forming gear. The fleet would hardly miss it, but the captain called it mutineering. Like any of us know what that word means.

So we’re in the stockades which is better than working those goddamn mines any longer.

The worst part is that I’m not allowed to draw in here. And that’s like losing my arms and my feet and my sense of smell and my taste all in one. And I feel myself drawing closer and closer in and shrinking down on myself.

And I’m writing this letter over and over again in my head knowing that it will never be sent, because, Ma, they told me while I was in here that there is no one left to send it to.

Your son,

William

 

Dear Ma,

There is nothing but time in the stockades. And in my waking-nightmares I see five doors.

I do not want to think about door number five.

Door number one.

I am with you, we are both younger and the years have still been kind. We are at the table and there is a bowl between us. We are mixing, mixing, mixing something. Something with flour and sugar but no eggs because eggs are the kind of expensive we cannot afford even now when Pa is still alive. Still breathing. Still shouting curse words at us when he isn’t at his job.

It is warm in the kitchen and I can smell the flour mixing in with the sugar and the water opening it all up because water is magical. And we know that, oh we know that.

We are mixing the bowl and the sun is still shining and my sister is not yet born. And I am everything that you ever wanted in the world. And we are happy.

I do not want to think about door number five.

Door number two.

I am older, perhaps I am fifteen, Jenny is ten and just learning to ride a bike. Up and down the street, up and down the street she goes and I, like a good big brother watch and occasionally taunt. She is turning a corner, right where the terrarium ends, the cul-de-sac on the edge of the world, and she turns too fast. The tire wobbles and then she is on the ground and gravel is in her knee and she is crying.

I am at her side before I can think. I am picking her up with more than my scrawny fifteen-year-old strength. Because she is my sister and there is blood, oh god, blood, and I can’t let anything happen. Not to her, not to my baby sister. Who I hate and love and would kill for.

You put a band-aid on and the world is restored.

Door number three.

My father is dead. What can I say that I should have said before? I am angry and I am broken inside and I am twenty years old and cannot feel all the things I should feel yet.

It is snowing outside the terrarium, so inside the funeral is lit only by the bright fluorescence. We are gathered next to the incinerator where his body becomes ash to be returned to the soil to feed us. As he fed us in life. So he feeds us in death.

What can you say about a man who terrorized you and loved you in equal parts? A man who had to sit and watch the world shrink around him, and so could do nothing more than shrink his own world still further. How tight can you go until that pressure explodes into some black hole of an existence?

He is dead now anyway. And that is that.

Door number four.

Door number four.

Door number four.

It is the nighttime and you are tired. I am tired. We are tired.

I am home from my job. Another day on the farms knowing I am not bringing in enough food to keep the terrarium running. Knowing that it is all coming down around us. So small, I am telling you, it is all so small.

You don’t know, you say, you can’t remember what it was like before. So how can you possibly compare? You don’t know what we’ve lost.

So then how? I am asking, angry because I do not understand. And in my mind I think, how are you better than him? How are you better than that bastard? You are letting yourself shrink.

It isn’t about fighting, you say. It’s about living. And you can’t run away from life just because you’re scared. Just because it isn’t what you thought it would be.

It’s not running, I say. It is growing. It is changing. Hoping.

For you, maybe you say. And you shrug. And maybe that was what did it. That slump of the shoulders. Maybe that was enough to send me out of the house and down to the loading dock that took me from our terrarium out to the space station and from there on that long backwards looking trip to the red planet. And there there there I was away on the other side of everything I’d ever known because of a shrug of the shoulders and an answer that I wouldn’t understand until it was too late.

But I do not want to look behind door number five. Please do not make me look behind door number five.

Because behind that door, which in my mind is stained with blood, I see your face aged by years I did not witness and weighed down by burdens I did not ease. And above all I see your hands folded that were once always moving. Hands that mixed a bowl with me. And hands that held a paintbrush even when the sky was falling around us. And hands that placed a bandaid on my sister’s scraped knee. And your hands, yes, your hands, they are still, still, still, still forever. Still.

Your son.

 

Dear William,

Yes, it’s me. And you better shut the fuck up for once and listen. You never were good at that even when Ma had to whup you.

So, I got not a lot to say, except Ma is dead and I’m coming to Mars.

Don’t get all proud and mighty like you was right the whole time cuz you ain’t. But I might as well stick with my only remaining family even if you are a goddamn yellow-bellied son of a liverwurst and a coward and a runaway.

And I ain’t so mad that you left, cept you left without saying goodbye. So I’m gonna have to slug you a good one to tell you hello.

Things got about just as bad as you might have thought. Lights going out and we was eating nothing but that compressed shit you probably eat in space.

And then Ma went ahead and died. So that about did it for me.

I signed up for the next shuttle out. And on account of you was already there they said, sure.

Plus I think they are wanting some more of us female types up there.

I heard about the captain. She sounds like a badass. I’m looking forward to meeting her.

Don’t do nothing crazy until I get to where you’re at, though. I don’t want to travel all this way and have to pick up your life for you again.

Like I did all the time back home.

Is it strange, William, that I’m actually excited to be going?

You remember that part and I’ll have to slug you twice.

Your sister,

Jenny

 

Dear Ma,

Well, I’m out of there! That’s what they said in the old screeners. Those ones we used to shoot up on the wall when we were tired. My favorite were the ones about the animals. All those bizarre critters we lost. The big cats and the dogs and so many kinds of birds. I remember hearing them on the screener. Sounded like creaking metal or falling water or something I don’t know what to name.

It was quiet on Mars except the noise we people made. And the wind.

It’s quiet in space, too.

Oh, I done forgot to tell you, but we busted out. Turns out some of the crims were known for their skill at jailbreakin’. And darn it if we didn’t just blast free from the stockades.

We stole more than we meant originally.

Caroline calls it liberating. But I don’t know that I quite agree.

You should’ve seen the captain’s face when she saw us sailing off out of the atmosphere. I didn’t see it either, but I imagine it was perty damn funny.

It’s happening. Next-Plan. I feel in my blood already a quickening.

I’ve been working on drawings of our crew. Robinson, of course, with his thick hair, dark eyebrows so much storm clouds I can’t help wondering when they’ll start to rain. Caroline with her eyes deep as the mineshafts.

The leader of our motley crew calls themself Mercury. It’s a little on the nose but no one really cares because we’re moving on again. Three hundred of us. We’re moving on, places hardly anyone’s been before.

And maybe we’ll die along the way. But maybe we’ll do a bit of living first.

Your son,

William

 

Dear William,

You blockhead! If it don’t beat all that I show up to Mars, all ready for a tearful family reunion, set to start a new life on strange soil. And what should I find but the captain mad as hornets on account of my older brother done run oft. Again!

Well, if this message ever reaches you I damn well hope you’re pleased with yourself.

I almost wisht Pa were alive just to cuss you out better than I can.

If you ain’t the most pigheadedest of men I’ll eat my helmet.

I’m picking up where you left off I guess.

Working the new farms. There’s a harvest due in a couple of weeks. We’re working on storing it for the next arrivals. We’re having to make do with fewer harvesters than we planned. Thanks to some ginormous asshole has already been mentioned.

I like it here on Mars.

Didn’t plan on that. But there’s something real about working new land. There’s something about the people I’m working with, a willingness to live and breathe. To hold the branches back so as they don’t hit the next person’s face.

The captain is just as cool as I figured she’d be. Don’t know why you got so upset. Guess you never liked to work all that hard.

Captain has taken a sort of liking to me. So every once in a while, I go visit her in her room at the end of the barracks. It’s neat in there, course, and she has a whole stack of books. Real old-fashioned books the kind bound in leather and whatnot. She says she wants to “preserve them for posterity”. I think if you ain’t been so numb-skulled you and she could’ve gotten along fine.

She grew up in a terrarium not so far from ours. Small world don’t seem to do it justice. Shrinking world might be more apt.

Anyway, dearest asshole of a brother, if you get this, know that I’m pissed at you. And you better bring your sorry hide back here soon. I ain’t chasing you across the known and unknown. Not even if you’re the only kin I got.

Your sister,

Jenny

 

Dear Jenny,

I ain’t got the words to tell you that I’m sorry. Or how sick I felt when your transmissions finally done caught up with me.

You got every reasonable right to hate my guts. Only I hope that you won’t.

I’ve got news!

We found the Next-Plan. Can’t tell you where on account of the captain’s probably reading this, too. Do hope she ain’t still sore at us. Sorry, captain.

It’s beautiful out here, though. Blue like you can’t imagine. They called Earth the blue planet. They clearly never found this place. It starts out all soft and dusky in the mornings, dusty kind of, and then peaks into a sheen aquamarine come noontime. Purples, violets, waterfalls of color, sis! It’s the most amazing place I ever been.

I will admit. We don’t quite have the discipline the captain kept on Mars. We’re mostly all off on our own. A few of us are making an attempt at cultivation. Knowing as we do that the supplies won’t last forever. Or even for very long.

Robinson is head of resources, which means quite a few can get stolen and bribed away. There’s a black market up here before there’s a regular old market. But I’m working hard. Working anyway.

I have had to stop my drawing for a time, but I’m saving up the sights for when things calm down. There’s the ridge on the other side of where our ships touched down. Sometimes I go out walking towards it when the sun is lower near the horizon, it’s hot here, for certain, but I can make these treks if I make sure to take breaks and hydrate.

Well, the ridge is just about the strangest thing I ever set eyes on, whirls and formations all twisted and bizarre, like walking through blue hell. I just look and look, storing away for when I can be drawing again. There’s this one rock, like two devils locked in combat, dancing, sis, like you never seen.

All right, if I’m being honest. It isn’t that I don’t have time. It’s partly that. But I also been ordered not to draw no more. By Caroline of all people. She’s got this notion that drawing and other types of art-making will distract from survival.

I don’t have the words to tell her that art-making is necessary for not distracting from.

We shacked up together, Caroline and I. We talk about maybe starting a family if we can get this little colony kicked forward. If that time comes I’ll tell Caroline and maybe our future children all about art and drawing and writing and why we need it. They’ll understand.

It’s big out here, sis. I can’t tell you how exactly. But I can finally, finally stretch my arms. I can finally see something coming down the lane.

Your brother,

William

 

Dear William,

I suppose it might be my time to apologize, only I still hold as this is all your own damn fault.

The captain knows where you are. Of course she read your transmission to me. And of course she figured out where you’re at. She’s smart, that one.

She’s sent out a party to bring you in. I weren’t allowed to send this transmission until she left. And even now I’ll likely catch hell for it. But even though I think this is all your fault, I still don’t want to see my brother dragged back in chains. So if you get this, prepare to run, big bro.

You never knew how to be reasonable, always so idealistic. That’s why you and Pa was always at each other’s throats. You never knew to just keep silent, like me.

Sorry to bring up Pa like that.

Well, if I see you again soon. Which it seems likely I will, I thought to let you know. Mars is really growing. It’s taken its hits for certain, but we’re making it here. The first harvest we learned so much. And second and third we produced enough to sustain us through the year! Think of that, Willy!

And there’s an art gallery here now. Nothing as good as what you used to do, but real stuff anyway. I’m hosting a poetry reading. Me! Never did like the stuff on Earth, but somehow moving cross the galaxy done remind me of Ma and her voice at night reading us some old dead poet.

Now we got all the live and happening ones right here.

So if you come back, dear brother, which I hope you won’t, but if you do. Well things are certainly looking up.

Your sister,

Jenny

 

Dear Jenny,

Not sure if this’ll reach you first or I will. Captain found us. There was a fight. People died on both sides. I didn’t kill no one. I didn’t even fire the gun Caroline shoved into my hand.

She’s dead now. Robinson, too.

Not sure why I’m not.

You may ask why we chose to fight. Why we’d risk killing and dying when there are so few of us left anyway.

Don’t know that I can tell you cept that we were meant to be free, Jenny. We all of us were meant to declare our own lives our own, live em as we see fit.

This ain’t the way I wanted my life to go. But for a while there I had open skies and enough room to stretch my arms. I weren’t stuck in no terrarium or shoved down a mineshaft.

I’m in chains now. Just like you said.

And I don’t know what they’ll do to me when we get back to Mars.

I’m glad you found some poetry at last, little sis.

Yours,

William

 

Dear William,

William. I’m sorry to hear about Caroline. I’m sorry that things happened the way they did. That weren’t right. That weren’t the way it should’ve gone.

I’ll speak to the captain when you get back. We’ll make it right. I know we will.

There’s time enough and space up here for understanding.

I’ll be sure of it.

Yours,

Jenny

 

Dear Jenny,

I heard you tried talking to the captain. I appreciate that more than you can know. But don’t worry, sis, I led my life the way I wanted to. Right up till the end.

The only thing I regret now is that I don’t have pen and paper in here. I can see some of the world through a little glass window. I can see the streets of the new city, hustling and bustling, more people now than I ever thought there could be.

I heard the first child was born here. The first real Martian, Jenny. How amazing is that?

I know I’m going to die soon. I know I am. That’s something, too, isn’t it? The first execution on Mars. They’ll have to remember me now. What all my damn drawing couldn’t do, my bad habit of liking people too quickly.

There were so many things left to draw, though, Jenny. The way the stars looked in space. The impromptu baseball game on Next-Plan. It had to end when the ball got hit too far. Home-run, we shouted, and it was home.

The way Caroline looked when she was asleep. Her hair tossed all messy across her face, one arm stretched up over her head. So stubborn, she was, so certain even after all she been through.

Robinson when he caught hold of an idea, his face’d flash for a moment like lightning.

And those two devils fighting, or were they dancing, up there forever on Next-Plan. Ain’t that the way we all are, sis, trapped in our ways, in ourselves. Human wherever we run away to.

I hear you and the captain plan on getting hitched. A real wedding and everything. I’m happy for you, Jenny. I know you must’ve figured out your own peace. I ain’t holding nothing against you or against her.

Only sorry I won’t be there to give you away. We always talked about that back on Earth. You said you’d never dream of getting married to know half-wit sorry son-of-a-gun. So I guess you was right after all.

I knew I was saying good-bye to you then, Jenny. I didn’t think I’d have to do it all over again.

There’s so much to say, Jenny. So much to write down. So much left unspoken.

I’m sending to you the last one I ever drew. Back on Next-Plan, while Caroline was asleep. It’s what I imagined my family might look like. But I think it ended up looking more like the family I had.

Your brother,

William

 

 

Dear Ma,

I suppose it’s been too long. I should have written this message long ago and meant it.

I ain’t sorry, Ma. Not for none of it.

I spread my arms out wide and it took me across the galaxy.

And now, inevitably, it’s bringing me back home, Ma, to you.

Your son forever and always,

William

Thoughts on Suicide and Self-Harm

Disclaimer: I am doing very well. I have a regular therapist and am taking anti-depressants. I have not had a serious depressive episode since January. I just want to share this side of my life in order to make it easier for other people going through similar situations and feeling alone.

I am fine.

You are not alone.

Content Warning: Suicide and self-harm

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are topics I think about a lot, and especially upon moving to California. At every station there are signs that read “Suicide is Not the Route” with a hotline provided. Other than laughing morbidly at the pun, I hadn’t given these signs too much thought, or I thought I hadn’t, but they stuck in my mind my like the proverbial bad penny.

I had a conversation with a driver recently that really brought things to a head. We were talking about BART, the often delayed public transit system of the Bay Area, and the driver said, “Yeah, my girlfriend’s train got delayed the other day for like an hour because someone killed themselves on the track.”

“Wow,” I said. “Do you know where that happened?”

“No,” he said, “just somewhere. How selfish, though, right? To inconvenience so many people.”

“That probably wasn’t on their mind at the time,” I said.

I am a suicide survivor. I attempted suicide twice, once my junior year of high school and once my sophomore year of college. Since then I have suicidal thoughts frequently, especially in times of heightened stress.

I would like to say, to ward off worries, that I am currently seeing a therapist and on a regimen of anti-depressants. I do not need worry, but I would like to open a discussion.

Suicide is a terrifying thing, often because people who have the most knowledge about what it’s like are no longer with us. We only ever get outsider views of what it is.

Suicide is not glamorous. Suicide is not artistic. Suicide is not needy. From my experience, suicide is my brain running into a corner. The world narrows until there is only a single option. All other possibilities are undermined by suicidal logic. Relationships seem worthless, meaning becomes impossible, and even day -to-day actions resemble climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.

But what is hardest for me now isn’t even the suicidal thoughts themselves, it’s people’s attitudes towards suicide and self-harm, the silence and stigma that surrounds these issues.

I am not a bad person because I attempted suicide. I am not a bad person for talking about it. I am not alone in being a suicide survivor.

Time for another online confession: I have also participated in self-harm.

In my first few years of college, I would scratch myself from time to time, usually on the stomach where I knew no one would see any residual red marks. In later years, I started to cut myself, on the wrists, the upper arm, chest, and stomach. I never cut very deeply, but for a long time I had to wear long-sleeve shirts, sweating in the summer heat, to keep from frightening people. (Positive update: I haven’t cut myself since January.)

It isn’t considered “natural” to self-harm. Humans evolved to fear and avoid harm, self-harm feels therefore counter-intuitive and strange.

Most people think of cutting as a form of attention-seeking. In high school when the whole “emo” aesthetic appeared, self-harm was widely described as needy, dramatic, selfish, creepy. One person I told about my self-harm described it as “masturbatory”. One ex-friend told me I was “just doing it to get attention” and that it was “stupid”.

But self-harm is also a coping mechanism. For me, cutting has never been a serious attempt at ending my life. For me, it is about releasing stress. It is terrifying to feel trapped in your mind, running through the same evil thoughts again and again. It helps, temporarily, to focus on a physical external pain.

I’m not trying to excuse what I do. I know that hurting myself is in fact, hurting myself, as well as the people who care about me and want me to be healthy. As I mentioned earlier, I am also on anti-depressants and in weekly therapy to help me live with my depression.

But I am tired of people making sweeping statements about self-harm and suicide when they have no firsthand knowledge. Being on the front-line with a mental health issue is fighting for your life every single day. And sometimes you get fucking exhausted. And sometimes you engage in self-harm. And sometimes you just need to get through it however you can.

I don’t want to be quiet about this. I’m not looking for pity. I’m not doing this to get attention. I’m doing this because the silence is overwhelming.

To my fellow people in the trenches, you’re not alone. You’re not a bad person because you have mental health problems. You’re not a bad person if you self-harm, and know that wherever you are, however you are feeling, I am on your side.

Things Taken, Things Found

It’s been a couple of weeks now since two young men jumped out of an unmarked SUV to relieve me of my purse and backpack.

Since this event, I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot and from quite a few angles.

I think about the physicality of it all. The physical objects taken: a worry-stone, a little pink bear, two apples, and a month’s worth of journals. And I think about the physical bodies in play. And specifically about my body, once again, not my own.

It is not a little thing, this past election. And it is not unconnected. The highest office in the country is held by someone who is on tape bragging about sexual assault.

So, no, I wasn’t hit. I wasn’t stabbed. I wasn’t shot.

But I still felt violated. To have someone so close to my body without my permission. And to have someone take my innermost thoughts, my little fluttering hearts, and dump them who knows where.

So. I am okay. And I am not okay.

I have been thinking, since this event, how I feel about the people who did this. I cannot tell if I am angry at them or not. On the one hand, people, I believe, have free will and are responsible for their actions. On the other hand, there but for the grace of God go I.

I do not believe this was personal. I didn’t know these people from Adam (not my brother, of course). I believe that I was only one of many that these people have robbed. And isn’t it saying something that there are people in this society who believe the only way to make money is by stealing my worthless crap? That money is more important than someone else’s right to walk to work at 6:00AM on a Saturday?

These are the claws of capitalism, a society that disparages and demeans its component parts until they feel compelled to prey on the seemingly weak.

I am trying, in the aftermath, to find what hasn’t been lost. And as usual I fall back on gratitude.

That for all the people on the planet who are there to steal my silly little purse, there are also people willing to buy me lunch, take me to get my bike fixed, and give me their old phones.

For all the people who are there to harass and belittle me, who make me feel weak, unwanted, and alone, there are people who make me feel strong, who lift me up, who tell me that I am important, I am worthwhile, I am alive.

I am so incredibly lucky. So lucky to know these people.

And I can only hope the people who took my backpack and purse can meet people like them who will challenge, inspire, and uplift them.

And I hope they ate the apples.

On Being Human and Eating Doughnuts

People frequently ask me why I do things.

“Why are you cutting off all your hair?”

“Why are you moving to California?”

“Why are you biting my leg?”

And quite frequently my response is “I don’t know. It just seemed like the thing to do.”

As a survivor of multiple suicide attempts, I’ve come to fully appreciate my time on earth and to understand on a personal and physical level that life is finite. I don’t want to waste one precious second of it doubting myself or my decisions.

Which is why when people asked “Why are you trying to eat a giant doughnut in under three minutes?” I just smiled and said “I don’t know. It seems like the thing to do.”

It started on a late-night doughnut run to Bob’s Donuts, a paradise of fried dough and simple carbohydrates. Staring at me from the window was a gorgeous behemoth, sugary, quiet, waiting.

“There’s a contest,” my friend told me. “If you can eat one of those in under two minutes, you get your name on the wall of fame, plus a free doughnut.”

I was hooked.

I won’t lie and tell you that I dreamt of the doughnut, but it was a close thing. The day I had decided to make the attempt, I woke up with a pit in my stomach. No good. I needed that thing empty. I spent the morning doing quiet breathing exercises to calm my nerves.

Then there was the matter of stomach-stretching. I did a quick Google-search for food competitions and discovered that I was already behind schedule. But so it goes. To make up for it, I spent the day eating bags of goldfish followed by cups and cups of water to expand the belly. For clothing, I wore a loose-fitting dress with plenty of room in the gut-region.

And so the day passed.

At last, accompanied by two brave compatriots, I wound my way through the streets of San Francisco under the growing darkness to Bob’s Donuts. The sign glowed red against the setting sun, the door yawning like the maw to hell. Or maybe I was hallucinating.

We entered. A quiet shop. A few commoners purchasing their daily dozen. Family Feud playing on the television.

I approached the counter with as much moxie and vigor as I could.

“Um, hi. Do you, uh, still have those really big doughnuts?”

“We’re just cooking a fresh batch now,” the woman said. “You can wait here if you want.”

So we did, that tantalizing and aching fifteen minutes. During that time, I was able to reflect on just about everything. Including how goddamn big that doughnut was.

Nine inches by nine inches to be exact.

I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my life. Flown to Peru on a whim. Jumped in some bodies of water. Written a novel in a month. Ate a stick of butter in ten minutes. Moved across the country without a job. Trapped voles in a tall-grass prairie. All sorts of things.

I like doing crazy things. It makes me feel alive. It makes me feel that I’m doing something worthwhile, one leap at a time. But eating this doughnut might be the final doughy straw.

Before I had time to second-guess myself, though, the doughnut had appeared in a pretty pink box. It was larger than my head.

The helpful fellow behind the counter explained the rules, got out his phone, and said, “Okay you can start.”

And I was off. That first bite was incredible. The doughnut still warm, delicious, and way chewier than I imagined. The second bite was like gnawing into wet sand. The next few minutes flew by in a whirl of nervous giggling and furious chomping and, at last, when the dust had settled and the three minutes were up, the doughnut was still sitting there.

Or half of it anyway.

I had failed.

In addition to attempting a lot of crazy things, I also am accustomed to succeeding at crazy things. I got into my first-choice college, the only one I applied to. I was accepted on the study abroad program of my dreams.

Yes, mostly because I’m incredibly privileged. But also because I’m too stubborn to quit before I’ve even tried.

So, here I was, staring my failure in the face.

It was incredibly freeing.

For so long I’ve tried to be the best. The best partner back when I was dating people. The best ex after I wasn’t. The best friend. The best student. The best barista. The best writer. The best activist.

But you know what? I’m not any of those things. I never will be. I am a human being, and that means I am incredibly flawed. I make mistakes. I send drunk emails. I think mean thoughts. Some days I’m tired and I don’t even leave my house, never mind showing up to that protest or calling my senators for the umpteenth time.

Some days I don’t eat the whole doughnut.

And that’s okay.

I am human. I like to do crazy things. And sometimes I’m going to fail.

It is okay, sometimes, between those bites of doughy goodness, to take a breath.

I don’t know. It just seems like the thing to do.

 

Laura’s Nth Cat-Call

Remember back in the day, back when I had never been cat-called? Ah, simpler times.

It’s been about a year since then, and now I’ve stopped keeping count. From the simple, “Hey there, beautiful” to the more complex “pulls-car-over-to-the-side-of-the-road-to-yell-that-he-‘wants-to-get-to-know-me'” there is an infinite variety to the cat-call. A subtle nuance to the ways in which I am reminded that my existence is not mine, that my body is not mine, that I am always and forever under threat.

If you’re a woman, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you’re male, you might think I am overreacting.

As a way to think about this, and all forms of microaggression, I have decided to buy an air-horn and blow it every time someone cat calls me.

Because that is what it’s like.

The first time someone air-horned you in the face, you could probably laugh it off, tell the story to your friends, let it go as just another ridiculous part of living in the city.

The second time, you might be slightly annoyed.

The third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh times you’d probably start looking for ways to avoid this intrusion. Maybe you notice you get more air-horn blasts when you’re wearing certain things, or that more people with air-horns hang around certain corners. So maybe you change your behavior, but you still get honked at no matter what you do. You get honked at for smiling, you get honked at for not smiling. You get honked at when you say nothing, you get honked at when you try to tell them why their honking is unwanted. There is nothing you can do to make the honking go away.

Because the honking is not your doing. It is the system that gave these people the air-horns in the first place. It is the system that decided some people would have air-horns and some people would not. It is the people who have the air-horns who are choosing to use them.

And it doesn’t matter if they think the air-horn is a way of greeting, or a compliment, in the end, it is still an obnoxious and unwanted noise interrupting my otherwise pleasant day.

And perhaps if it were only ever air-horn blasts, we could let it go. But often these air-horns are simply the beginning. When people say things like “smile, beautiful”, I wonder what will happen when I don’t. Will I be hit by a car? Assaulted in broad daylight? Followed home? Or worse?

I’m tired of trying and failing to keep myself safe by toeing the line. I’m tired of the anger that’s made its home in my chest. I’m tired of the weight of silence, that oppressive voice telling me to smile, smile, smile.

So, I plan on purchasing an air-horn of my own. And honking back.