Mom always said Daddy was a good man. They got married in the forest, built themselves a home and decided to have a baby. Daddy did a lot of building. He had very strong hands. She said they were beautiful hands, with one big vein that stood out on the back of each one. They were hairy, though. She said Daddy had a lot of hair.
When he died I guess she didn’t know what to do. She loved him a lot, anybody could tell even if just from the way she remembered his details. Her memories painted my portrait of him more than any photograph ever did.
Claud was a different sort of man. The skin was thick on his neck and face, and he shaved it all twice a day to keep the prickles back. He had some white spots on his arms that he always said were from the sun, but I found them one day on the internet and learned they were a type of fungus: a mold, sort of, burrowed under the skin.
His arms were thick, usually crossed. His fingers were rough from dryness and daily use of a keyboard. His mind was sharp, he was good with numbers. An accountant. Loved golfing. I don’t think he ever loved Mom as much as he loved golfing. Then again, I don’t think he ever loved Mom much at all.
He loved me, though.
He told me so often, as he cupped his big hand over my entire shoulder, pressing his fingerpads into my arm. That hand would later cup an entire breast, and the first two fingers would reach all the way up inside me so I could feel them hit my pelvic bone. Then his cock did the same, from behind. It happened in my bedroom every night for years and years. It’s how I knew that sleep would be coming soon along.
Mom forgot a lot of things very often. This was no different. Sometimes I would tell her the truth and she’d be shocked, infuriated. Sometimes she’d try to throw Claud out of the house and he would lock her in the hall closet with a key. I would sit on the carpet by the door and cry when she was in there for a long time. I never tried to ask for the key.
But there were many other days when Mom didn’t remember any of it. She would keep saying, Honey, I don’t understand. Honey, what are you saying? On those days she would tell me that none of it was true. Sometimes when Claud was away she would make a bed for me on the couch and put a hot towel on my forehead. She would sit by my feet and we’d watch Jeapordy or Wheel of Fortune. She never wanted to talk about Claud. I think for her it was easier to just pretend he wasn’t there.
Then one day a man named Alan arrived at our home. Alan was a lawyer, and he said he had come to take me away. He said one of my teachers at school had contacted him on my behalf. He had a kind face. Mom was on her knees and crying and squeezing me tight in the entryway, her hands wrapped around and under my backpack. It held four of my school books and a change of clothes. Alan said they would have the rest of the clothes sent to me. It was best if Mom stayed away for a while, he said, so that I could orient myself.
Alan brought me to a hospital where the doctor’s name was Dr. Lambert. He had glasses and a prickly white beard. His hands were warm. He pressed on my belly, listened to my breathing and shined a light into my eyes and ears. Then he put a mask over my nose and told me I would be very sleepy for a minute. A fog came and left me as I blinked up at the ceiling lights, cold and white. In the hospital almost everything was white.
My room was white, too. With a white bed and a white blanket. There was a little white table and chair and a window very high that let white light in. The door was white as well, and made of metal. It locked from the outside.
Alan the lawyer asked me many questions. He visited me once a day, except for Sundays. On Sundays there was a church service in the brunch room of the hospital, then we would go out to play in the gardens. They were simple gardens with bright green grass and shrubs that were pruned to have a curve. Sometimes there were yellow daffodils.
On the other days we would have school, classes in math and reading, sometimes science. The teachers often changed, as did the students. Some would come and some would go. It was normal. Sometimes we helped the cooks make lunch, at least those of us who were able. Some of the residents were unable to help much, so they stayed mostly in the break room. It had a large window, a record player and some books and toys for children. There were a few round tables, all white. The chairs were white, too.
Mostly Alan came to ask me questions about Claud. Alan was kind, but he didn’t listen well. Many times he asked me what Claud looked like, so I had to repeat his description over and over again. It was not difficult for me to talk about what Claud did at night, or that Mom would often forget all about it. But it made me very sad to talk about Mom. I sometimes asked to see Mom, but Alan said it wasn’t a good idea. He would just nod and write, nod and write and ask more questions.
Dr. Lambert said the same thing when I asked him about my mother later on. I began to see Dr. Lambert more and more after my first two years in the hospital. Like Alan, he asked me questions about Claud – but he was more forceful, his voice was louder, his look was more direct. He would fix my gaze and say, Honey, is that what you remember? I always said yes, because it was the truth. I had no reason to lie.
I was seeing Dr. Lambert twice a week when he told me he wanted me to start taking a small pill every morning. He explained that it was to help me experience my surroundings better. I didn’t understand, as I felt that I experienced my surroundings perfectly well. But still I took it, every morning when the nurse brought it to my door with a paper cup of water. She made sure I took the pill, then she smiled and took back the paper cup. She told me not to worry, that lots of people take pills in the morning. “It’s normal,” she said.
At first the pills had no effect on me. I felt the same as I always had, neither happy nor sad. I went to my classes and daily activities. I contributed. I spoke with Dr. Lambert. Alan almost never came to visit me anymore.
Then I began to notice things, details I hadn’t seen before. The paint was chipped in many places on the hospital walls, and often it was scratched or scuffed. The tables in the break room were sometimes dirty, before the nurse cleaned them with a cloth and some Windex. I always volunteered to help her, because I liked the smell of Windex and the blue splatters on the white tables and scrubbing the dirt away.
I hadn’t seen Alan in three or four months, so one day I asked Dr. Lambert if he was too busy with his cases to come see me anymore. Dr. Lambert said I could
talk to Alan any time I wanted, and to just ask him myself. “Ask away,” he said. He folded his hands and leaned forward, smiling. I suddenly felt very ill, so I asked to go to my room. “Of course,” said Dr. Lambert. “I’ll see you tomorrow, honey.”
I had been in the hospital for two years or more. I had not seen Mom since I arrived, though Claud had visited a time or two. I shuddered to think of them alone together but I knew Claud wouldn’t hurt her like he hurt me. He had told me many times he only wanted me that way, not her. He said it was different with me. Sometimes he put his fingers in my mouth and I tasted myself on them. Sometimes he left the lights on during. Sometimes he turned them off.
Dr. Lambert’s questions came to be more direct. He began saying things like, “I want you to be more specific. I want you to be certain. Tell me more. Describe that again. Tell me more.” He began to repeat himself. He was displeased with my answers. He’d lean in and gaze into my eyes. “You know the truth,” he’d say. “You know.”
One day he told me: “Claud does not exist. Claud never existed. You invented him. I’m sorry if this comes as a shock but deep down I believe you must know this.” Dr. Lambert’s eyes were clear. My stomach ached. “You know this, honey. You do.”
I asked for my mother. He said she couldn’t come. “Claud is real,” I told him. Dr. Lambert disagreed.
In his office I sat in a special chair. A soft plastic clip was placed on each of my pointer fingers, which tightened and vibrated when Dr. Lambert pressed a small control button. He pressed the button every time I said it: “Claud is real.” Buzz. “He exists.” Buzz. It was uncomfortable, but it didn’t hurt. I read the nameplate on the desk: Dr. Alan Lambert. He asked me again and again and again: Who is Claud? Is he real?
“Yes,” I would say. “Claud is my stepfather. He is real.” Buzz. Buzz.
As the months wore on my memories were crumbling, falling from my mind in chips and blocks. I remembered the taste of Claud’s thick fingers in my mouth, pressing down on my tongue, as I remembered biting my own thumb so hard it drew thick bubbles of blood. I remembered being crouched by the closet with Mom locked inside and I remembered being inside the closet without her. I sometimes remembered her screaming and banging, but I wasn’t sure from which side of the door.
Dr. Lambert’s tone had changed. “This memory is falsified,” he would say. “This memory is untrue. This is a projection. This did not happen in physical life.”
All the white was still there on the walls, but now the scratches stood out to me. I knew the patients were disabled, mentally. I knew that I was one of them. I didn’t know what I remembered and what I didn’t, and I was always very tired. I missed my mother very much.
Who is Claud? Is he real?
“Claud is my stepfather.” Buzz. “I… made him up.” A pause.
“Good,” Dr. Lambert said. “Very good, honey. Very good. You’re progressing.”
Claud does not exist. Claud never existed. Claud’s not real. I made Claud up.
That’s good, honey. Great, honey. Good, good, good.
The day finally came when Dr. Adam leaned to me and said the words: “Looks like you have a visitor.” I turned around and there she was, like a ghost or a dream, in a dress and a robelike shawl, hands to her mouth, nervous. She looked at me through downturned eyes, wet with tears.
“Honey,” she breathed, and she opened her arms.
Mom brought me back home in her red station wagon. It had been several years but my bedroom still looked exactly the same. For days we didn’t speak to each other; there was too much and too little to be said. We settled into the house in silence.
It lasted weeks, perhaps, but time had lost meaning anyway.
The little house Daddy had built was chipped with wear and tear, but Mom had kept up good care of it on her own over the years. We spent entire seasons cleaning up the surrounding land and putting up fencing for goats, soft white lady goats for shearing and making wool yarn. Mom taught me to knit hats, then socks the next year, then gloves after that. We planted a vegetable garden and collected mushrooms in the refuse under the dry pine needles of the forest bed, saving them to cook later on.
In the kitchen one night the unspoken monster ripped itself out of me, sudden and ugly. “Was he real, Mom? Did Claud exist?” I felt weak, body heavy and collapsing, mouth wrenched and set in a silent sob from someplace deep down in my gut. She rushed over, embraced me, sat us down together backed up against the kitchen cabinets, humming to me as I cried into her lap, tears pooling on the linolelum. In low tones she told me, “Honey, whatever you remember is real. It’s all real, honey.” She held me that way for a long while, silently, pushing locks of hair back from my face.
Then, as if in a breath, she was gone. She was 47 and it was a Tuesday morning. She refused to wake up for much longer than usual. At first I was awed by her; she had achieved this brilliant, perfect stillness like what the soul longs for in life. I sat on her bed with my hand on her forehead until shadows stole over the room in late evening, as night darkened and bluish light filtered down through the open blinds.
While holding her there in the dark a desperate force suddenly tore through me, like a seizing orgasm of loss and rage, and I clutched tighter the limp head in my arms. How was I supposed to do this? The thought of relocating my mother’s body terrified and overwhelmed me. A wild panic set in, my skin burned hot and I intensely feared my own being. Then suddenly, with a heavy presence, a thick- limbed, light white man occupied the bed beside me. With a large hand he reached out and cupped my kneecap, pressing his fingerpads lightly into my thigh. The other large hand tipped up my chin between thumb and forefinger and Claud murmured into my mouth, “Don’t you worry, honey. I’ll take care of everything now.”
chasing one little baby tick of unblackened weed around the rim of the pipe, warm in my bone-cold fingers: cold white light and me here on this dingy old velvet couch listening to the boys in AIDS’s bedroom pretending it’s a real gym. they listen to eminem a little too much, but i won’t givem shit for it.
genezareth and hannah are considering busking on a corner on weekends; seabass was turned down for a resto job due to his lack of a work visa; bethany was selling Christmas cards for a euro apiece; i was considering selling knit caps, AIDS and I have discussed becoming regional camgirls.
we are sort of brutally poor, but we do our bestish. combat creeping depression with routines and rituals: open the shutters every morning and close them up every night, go for hikes, go for runs, do pullups and pushups and abs, chat together in the sparsely-furnished kitchen all squattin on buckets and low stools on the ground. we are all in balls deep for bernie sanders.
written fall-winter 2015. entry 1 of a series.
play rough with your pups. nip their skinny ankles, snap at the achilles. flip them on their backs and pin them down. you are their master, make them know it. twist their fur in your jaws and wrench it hard, when they’ve done wrong don’t let them rest. back them into corners. goad them, make them snarl. draw their blood and shove their noses in the puddles. keep their errors current, no piss stain forgotten, no accidental bite and no ignored command. they will try to forget — don’t let them. train them up to fighting dogs for back-alley snarling circles, gnashing teeth with larger beasts of less formal education. teach them to fight by fighting, only then will they survive.
the day is full of monsters but at night they go to sleep and we are free to walk in peace around their stomping grounds, shrieking miniature godzillas come to crush the dozing city under scaly clawed feet. time to pretend: I want to see you out here aching from your laughter, stopped up in your awe gazing out at some great work of mother nature thinking “we mean nothing,” I want to carry you though you’re twice my size, want to feed you in the mornings and the nights, want to hear your stomach gurgle in my ear and put makeup on while you take a shit, want to fight you until you love me back.
but the day is full of monsters: I’ll wait for the cover of darkness.
I cried for you in the kitchen last night
before I remembered
I live alone,
just like I wanted.
picture it: this inconveniently-placed manhole
in an alleyway crisscrossed with
stringings of laundry. it’s an okay city
with good folks and bad folks,
old men grunting, old women
slinging wet clothes, kind of bored, but
their gripes are more barks than complaints.
the young ones are out
uncertain and strutting, fumbling with
their phones and their unanswered
garbage and urine and
stray cats here and there
and stray people. in the end you see
it’s all the same.
burnt alive and limbs twisted
back like gnarled oaks counting
hundreds of years with the same
shoving roots. too aggressive
he says, and we say eat shit
bring on the chainsaws for our
slaughter, splay our needles out
like blood and bile for we’ve
always more to lose but still
a clear-cut in the children’s
park, church parking lot, public
private old-growth stands, the
silent heaving wombs that
made you now under your fire
fight back, he cries: the grasping
child swinging fitful little hands,
his mother laughing rises. time
again to teach him what is right
and what is wrong.
in solidarity with the women’s march against the Trump inauguration and the anti-Trump resistance movement
I needed you, and you needed me.
Maybe it was the tacos (actual Mexican tacos, not this pita-burrito-shaved-mystery-meat bullshit I’ve been victim of for two years) or the potential English-speaking sex partners (such potential) or the mountains (likely) or, actually, the text my younger brother sent me:
Hey Jessi. I hope Europe’s fun and all, but if you ever come back to the states, I’d like to spend some time together. I think we could be really good friends now.
Two years, 1.5 years, doesn’t really matter. People figure some shit out in two years. They flip-flop their lives around and get new girlfriends and married and a dog. The stench of the change I was headed to witness, so dank and meaty like that of aged crotch, assaulted me through the Ibiza airport, the Barcelona airport, the Paris airport, the Turkish airport, all along the 30-some hours of flights, and when I arrived in SFR I was sweaty and anxious and physically weak. But it was just me, as it turned out. Much of what I came back to was exactly the same, or improved un poquito.
Maybe that’s it, that everything was the same.
I don’t want you to go, but I would never do anything to keep you. I am so, so proud of who you are.
Thanks, Mom. Hey, Aunt Jeanne told me you used to be a wildcat yourself.
Smiling. I was.
My old ex-boyfriend faked sick in Tahoe to come see me in San Francisco. We ate burritos in the Mission and drove up to Coit Tower and I sucked him off in his Subaru, parked on the street in some suburb. It was fine. I won’t miss him.
My friends in Portland are all depressed. Portland sucks now, they say. Flooded with shitty Californians and rich hipsters driving up the rent. We can mostly blame Portlandia for this. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, go fuck yourselves. Now I have to pretend your shit’s not funny.
It’s like that all over: rent is higher, apartments are smaller, college is cheaper for women with babies and Food 4 Less is always hiring. They ask me when I’m coming home, but what can I say? Home has never really existed.
We’ll talk about this next year.
Salut, all. I know it’s been a while.
Been thinking lately of how to tell you about these last two months, what I should or should not say. I could tell you about loss, which has become an all-too familiar concept; I first lost my mobility, then my parter and best friend, then my grandmother, all in the span of a month. I could tell you about the journey of quitting anti-depressants for good; or, in the medical vein, I could tell you all about commuting by ambulance, being bathed by home nurses, weekly doctor’s visits. I could tell you about the hard stuff, the long nights full of tears and paint and candle wax, the physical pain and frustration that has come from walking, sitting, sleeping, the fight to maintain a firm emotional footing throughout this incredible storm.
But these are the grimy details. They’re only slivers of the bigger picture of this autumn, a season that will forever stand out to me as one of transformation.
The loss I’ve endured here has thrown into stark definition the things that are most precious to me, the values I most firmly believe in, and more than anything, the incredible blessings that remain in my life — the crazy people, most of whom are at least as fucked up as myself; the love I’ve felt in their little care packages and postcards; the support over Skype and phone as my family processes the death of our matriarch; the thrill brought on by a gust of wind lifting my hair as I cross the bridge over the Rhône, those surges of energy that make this earthly existence such a beautiful and heartbreaking thing to behold.
My way of life is a source of confusion for some; I’ve been described as chaotic, messy, out-of-control. But the reality is that I am needlessly ambitious; I want to plunge my body into all the beauty and darkness and laughter and sadness of this world all at once. I cannot compartmentalize my experiences nor my emotions, and I accept this — I am a tempest, a raging inferno of passion and melancholy. I thrive in chaos, I love with unrelenting intensity, and for this I offer no apology.
Because I broke my spine, all of life has taken on an even higher value. I now recognize the worth of every footstep, the power in the mere ability to stand, the incomparable vivacity of flying through city streets on two wheels, of screaming sweaty in a concert hall densely packed with bodies, of inhaling lungs full of cold river wind. I have forged connections here with other human beings and recognized the resting beauty in the ones I’ve left behind. After Christmas I’ll start living without the back brace, and I will set forth on my quest to live and experience more, to push myself further and beyond my limits; I’ll thumb my way around Europe, scale mountains, have more explosive romances, swim naked in oceans, and I will do this all with the unshakable conviction that life is best spent in the corners of chaos and passion.
And yes, I will keep climbing trees.
Mrs. Thelma Marie Anderson
12 May 1924 — 3 October 2014
Last letter to Grama
You are a special kind of person, the kind that deserves to be reminded of how wonderful they are two hundred times a day. If I didn’t know you heard it enough, I would have said it too. Then, of course, I’d have to tell you I was lying and that you’re terrible. But I think you’d know the truth. You’re a smart lady.
You’re also strong, the strongest person I know. Your strength lives in all of us, and I feel it in myself every day. It helped me fly out of the United States and it helps me every time I have to make a choice or fight a battle. I have always and will always admire you, and I will think of you when I am scared or alone. I will carry you with me everywhere I go, from one side of the earth to the other, to the moon and then back home for a midnight tea party. You have always been my safe haven. I will love you forever, and keep you forever as a beacon of strength in my heart.
GO GET ‘EM, TIGER.
With infinite love and laughter,