I saw a woman who looked like my mother but she was young. She didn’t look like my mother when my mother was young, she looked like my mother does now, but young. Her lips were thinner than my mother’s lips were then but rather thin like they are now, pretty, and she wore glasses like my mother, and her hair wasn’t black like my mother’s was then but seemed grey somehow, even though her face was young, and it didn’t look fake, so her hair must have been just cool brown, not dyed steel grey like some people do now.
I stole some looks at the young woman—we were in an apartment show and I was not drinking—I just had a cherry coke and felt strangely tall. It was somewhere in the middle of January and there was no snow and there hadn’t been any snow.
Someone bumped my arm and I looked into the face of an old boyfriend from a long time ago, I mean maybe before the Iraq war even started, and I liked seeing his face. His eyes were bright and ready on mine as if it hadn’t been so insanely long since we’d seen each other.
“Hey,” I said, “I just had a dream about you.”
“No, you didn’t,” he said, and even I was wondering if I was lying, but I wasn’t. I had dreamed that he was on a bus with me, a couple rows ahead, and that he looked back and smiled like he was now and handed me some kind of flattened pepsi cup, except I couldn’t read it, but it was red, white and blue, and then the bus kept going past my stop and into a place where there were no houses, just factories, the bottoms of factories that went way up and I looked and the man was gone. And then the bus was gone.
“No, I really did dream about you—just two nights ago. We were on a bus.” It hurt to smile this much.
“Well,” he said, “we try to make meaning out of coincidences, but it’s just because our brains don’t understand statistics. If you pulled random numbers out of a hat, there’d be clusters you wouldn’t expect. Statistically, about once a month or so, people experience surprising coincidences like that.” He was a physicist and his smile was steady and strong. The night we met he’d told me he was doing a PhD in physics, I forget what kind—we were drunk at a punk house show and I wanted to know everything he knew. But we only dated a few weeks before dropping away from each other.
“Well, I know—I heard about that on NPR one night, but, this is the brain I have and it makes meaning.”
“Yeah, I know.” He touched my arm and I was knocked out by lust.
I told him I had to go home to my wife and sick dog, but I wasn’t married anymore. The next act roared up and I hated to miss it, but my dog truly was sick. I looked for the woman who looked like my mother, but instead I only saw people I knew.
I didn’t go home to my dog but instead I went to hang out with my brother for awhile, and when I was driving home it was late and I turned on a channel that plays music from the 30’s and 40’s and a woman’s heavy sweet voice began to sing “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.” But it was nearly the end of January. The roads were dry. The grass was crumpled but green.
I pulled the car over for a minute and wondered if I was losing my shit. I’d only drank cherry coke, but there was a Christmas song on the radio in January. The street was empty.
I went home and my basset hound/beagle mix dog was slumped by the door. I carried her to her bed and started brushing her out. She has her own room now that my wife left. That had been my wife’s shit room, filled with books and folders and shoeboxes and all kinds of fabric and things. She went to California and said I could keep it. I did keep the junk for too long, 18 months, almost two years because going through it was boring and depressing but I was afraid I’d toss something important out, and also because it felt like bad magic like throwing away clippings from her nails or hair for anyone on the chain of garbage to mess with.
But eventually I just bagged it and tossed it all out, except the books, which I mixed with mine, except for the really stupid ones like thick paperback documents from her insurance company or that went with old computers. I would have kept some pictures, but she didn’t leave those.
Anyway my dog had her own room now, her own bed because I wanted her to have a bed but she stank too much to be in mine all the time. I needed to get her a lamp because I hated the overhead light. I turned it off and let light spill in from the hallway.
I lay down next to my dog and wrapped my arm around her and had an imaginary conversation with the woman who looked like my mother.
“Hi, I think we’ve met before,” I lied for the second time that night but this time in my head.
“Yes, I think we met a hundred years ago.”
Then we were in a cottage by the lake on the far east side. She pulled out some bourbon and poured us each a cup. “There’s a cliff at the end of the yard, just beyond the trees. But you can get down to a little beach by taking a path down the side, through the trees. There’s a moon. You should see it on the water, hitting the rocks.”
I submitted this account to C.L.A.S.H. (Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing) in the summer of 2019. I was hoping our story would help in some small way break the stigma around lead exposure and other housing problems that lower-income families face. As long as people are ashamed to talk about struggles with housing, wages, discrimination and health care these problems will remain invisible and too many middle-income people will be conned into siding with the rich. The time has come to side with the poor.
At some point in my life, I heard that there was no need to worry about lead poisoning because it only happens when children “eat paint chips”. Thus, it only happens to the other, because, what kind of parent would let their child eat paint chips, right?
I want to tell our family’s story about lead exposure and also how hard it was to ultimately find a safe home to raise our child. I want to tell this story in detail not to generate pity, but to show the many obstacles lower-income families have in finding safe housing. My hope is that people who have not experienced this firsthand will come to understand that the problem does not stem from the choices of lower-income families but rather from decisions made by exploitive, uneducated and underprepared landlords and governments at all levels ignoring this most important aspect of infrastructure and health.
When my husband and I moved in together, we knew we wanted to have a child within the next few years. We rented the first floor of a Lakewood double that was freshly painted white and had old windows. Our landlord gave us the same printout I’d received from previous landlords explaining that because the house was built before 1978, there was lead paint underneath newer paint. Again, I didn’t worry because of the decades of new paint, and because we would never let our baby “eat paint chips.”
We loved the place. It was spacious and affordable and the landlord seemed to care for the house and had maintained it well in many ways. He had not painted over the natural woodwork. He’d built a new bathroom. Later, he even replaced the old basement windows with glass block. There was a tiny yard with a big pine tree. We were newly in love, and we loved our first home together.
We had our daughter in 2013, and while I’d felt peaceful and prepared during the third trimester, the sleep deprivation after her birth flipped a switch in me, and I experienced post-partum anxiety that was unlike any anxiety I had never known.
I was terrified of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), and Google searches revealed that everything caused SIDS. My daughter cried all the time. She cried unless I held her, but it was my understanding that it was not safe to sleep with her. So I didn’t sleep.
During my anxiety-fueled “research” binges, I came across the issue of lead exposure, and I decided to add it to the long list of things to ask about at our next pediatrician visit. While the home had been recently painted when we first moved in, it was now starting to chip. The doctor said it could be a concern since we lived in a 1920’s house. There are so many old rental doubles in Lakewood, no doubt she’d seen exposure before. It was standard to test by finger prick at age one, but I wanted to prevent exposure.
She put me in touch with an agency (I’m pretty sure it was the Cuyahoga County Board of Health) and provided her recommendation for them that we have our home inspected for lead. I made a series of phone calls to the agency connecting them to the pediatrician’s office that I don’t totally recall. I do know that at that time, they only inspected on doctor’s recommendations, usually after a child has tested with elevated levels. (We also were in touch with Lakewood Alive at this time, and they were really helpful, supportive and resourceful throughout this entire process.)
The agency came and did an inspection and found lead dust in several places, including the windowsill in our daughter’s bedroom (fortunately she was still sleeping in a pack-n-play in our room at the time) and in the shared hallway outside our back door that led to the basement and outside. This was the area with the most lead because of a back second-floor balcony that was falling down covered in chipping paint that contaminated the yard, the driveway and this common rear entryway/stairwell.
The agency gave us instructions on how to keep surfaces free from lead dust. They taught us that exposure to lead dust leads to elevated levels of lead in children, and so my bigoted but comforting idea about paint chips was shattered. They said we could rent a HEPA vacuum from a place in Parma that would help in the rear entryway/stairwell. They also told us about a program that we could apply for that would give our landlord thousands of dollars toward lead abatement. (I just threw out all the records of this last year, so unfortunately I don’t have the exact value of the grant or its name—I believe it was for $10,000, and it was likely the Lead Safe Program.)
We were struggling. My husband was working long hours, often six days a week, doing the shopping by himself and cooking dinner, all to keep us going. I was still awake nearly around the clock with our daughter. Once, my knees buckled and I almost dropped her. I was so sleep deprived and anxious that I suffered from invasive thoughts and my emotional range was trapped between fear and sadness with only rare but bright bursts of intense joy. Love was the deeper feeling that held me together.
I mopped daily. I wiped down the windowsills with paper towels and took them directly out to the trash. We always removed our shoes upon entering and asked guests to do likewise.
We jumped through many hoops getting the paperwork together. (I’ve always been grateful for government programs, and I understand that it is those who would like to defund them who set them up in such a way as to discourage people from applying.) The application process required many personal documents and forms, and then asking our landlord to also produce documents and fill out forms. Approaching him was a little intimidating because I wanted to have a good relationship with him and hated to ask him for anything.
He was a little skeptical. He said that years before he’d HEPA-vacuumed the back entryway/stairwell, and the kids who lived here at that time tested with elevated levels anyway. (This was scary, but I still had the arrogant idea that they must not have been keeping the place as clean as we were.) The landlord seemed to think lead exposure was inevitable, and that lead abatement was a waste of time and money, even with the subsidy. But he went along with the application process anyway.
We did everything we could. We continued to mop daily, leave our shoes in the back hallway and wipe down the windowsills. We didn’t open the windows the rest of the time we lived there, even though there was no air conditioning beyond window units in our bedrooms, so the kitchen, dining and living rooms were stiflingly hot and muggy during summer months. We never played in the back or front yard because the grass was contaminated with paint chips and dust.
About six months later in spring we were approved. I was so happy and excited about what this would mean for the safety of our little family’s home. New windows and siding on the house? In the meantime, the landlord painted the front porch, which at least helped seal someof the pealing paint.
We had a beautiful porch, but we never took her out there before he painted it, and now we could. Things were looking up.
Then, at her one-year check-up that August, our daughter tested 9 mcg/dL on her finger-prick lead test, indicating problematic lead exposure. (Results of 10 mcg/dL or higher are considered dangerous, and there could be some problems from levels higher than 5 mcg/dL.)
I was just beginning to get some sleep and feel some measure of safety and security for our family.
I called the landlord, angry because he had access to the grant, and yet he hadn’t started any abatement. We’d done all we could do on our end, and our child tested high anyway.
He got testy with me for the first time, basically repeating his earlier opinion that some lead exposure was inevitable and not a big deal, and that even with the subsidy, it would cost him too much money. He said that he would take some measures to reduce the lead, including removing the back balcony and painting the house.
Three months later, he still hadn’t done anything. Our daughter started to walk. Her intravenous blood test was slightly lower than the finger prick test, and we were told an iron-rich diet would help pull the lead from her body, so we continued keeping the apartment as clean as possible and feeding her an iron supplement and plenty of iron-rich beans.
While we were on our way to our daughter’s fifteen-month checkup, my husband texted our landlord that he wanted in writing that abatement would begin. Our landlord texted him back that we had thirty days to leave.
It was the first snowfall. My husband usually had to work during office visits, and we had been excited to be together with the pediatrician and show her that our daughter was walking, but now we were shaking with fear and anger.
We knew our rights. We were on a month-to-month lease, but it said clearly in the paperwork that the landlord could not evict us because for applying for the abatement grant or during a certain period of time after.
When we got home I took some deep breaths and called him. I tried to approach him as a gentle concerned mother, hoping that empathy for me would help smooth things over. He immediately started screaming at me that we were playing a dirty trick trying to get things in writing, and that we were setting him up, and that the abatement would cost tens of thousands more than the grant and that he wouldn’t do it.
Our landlord then said that if we really wanted to keep our child safe from being poisoned by lead, we should move to a farther out suburb like North Olmsted.
I was shaken. I hadn’t been yelled at like that in many years. I was used to dealing with people on friendly professional terms. The content as well as the tone was humiliating.
My husband took the phone and told our landlord firmly that we were excellent tenants, that we had always paid rent early, that we were quiet, that we’d tended a garden and made the place better than we’d found it.
My husband’s conviction calmed down the landlord, and he apologized for threatening eviction. Maybe it was easier to yell at a crying mother than an angry father. He said he would HEPA vacuum the rear entryway/stairwell, paint the house and tear down the outside back stairs and balcony, which, again, was the largest source of the pealing paint and was falling apart anyway.
It took me a while to shake the trauma of being yelled at, of being threatened with the loss of our home on the first snowfall with my newly walking daughter tumbling about with wispy hair and a hopeful smile.
Our daughter’s lead levels eventually went down as she grew. We loved our home and were pacified by the hope of new paint and the removal of the back balcony.
Lakewood Alive was helpful throughout this experience. I talked several times with a woman who was a passionate advocate for renters. She never wavered in her conviction that we had a right to a safe home for our child. She gave us advice about how to stay safe when our landlord eventually had the house painted.
He hired a neighbor who was a professional painter. The woman from Lakewood Alive had said they needed to use a tarp to keep the grass and soil safe from the lead chips. The man didn’t use a tarp and paint chips were everywhere. I don’t want to insult my neighbor, but I carefully approached him and mentioned the tarp and suggested he wear a mask to keep himself safe from lead. He told me that there was no lead paint because it had been banned in 1978. I have to admit, I was a little shocked that this professional didn’t know that lead paint remained underneath the newer paint and was presently exposed. I told him that our daughter had tested for elevated lead levels.
The landlord never did tear down or paint the back stairs and balcony that were collapsing and covered in chipping paint.
The double had an unusually nice dry basement, and when our daughter was two-and-a-half, we were planning on hosting a play group, so I wanted to set up a play area down there. I noticed the basement stairs had chipping paint, so I painted them, but I was frustrated and concerned because I knew I wasn’t totally doing it right. I hated the thought of any of the little children being exposed to lead paint dust. For some reason, that was the day we finally got fed up and decided to move.
This was in 2016. Our rent was $575 a month, and when we’d moved there in 2011, most doubles were going for $650. By 2016, the rents had gone up hundreds of dollars. The lowest we could find was $850, and these doubles also had old windows and paint rather than siding. To get siding and/or new windows, you had to pay $950 or more. (Plus electricity and heat that could add hundreds more in the winter.)
Eventually we found a place in downtown Lakewood for $750 a month. The location was wonderful as the library and grocery stores were a short walk away. The building was old and not in great shape, but it had siding and a new window in the child’s room and a nice yard.
Ultimately, we only stayed there 18 months because despite the lower lead risk, the building was maintained much more poorly than our first place. There were rodents in the basement, old dangerous electrical wiring and most repairs we had to pay for ourselves with a credit card. (I called various Lakewood government agencies to figure out when the electricity had last been inspected and was told that there was no record of this house being inspected—that inspections were done randomly, and the rental had probably not been inspected since the landlord purchased the building in the 1980’s.)
The spaces underneath both sinks were damaged and unusable. The home was not secure; for example, a basement door to the outside was held shut with an old broom. We saw a rat in the basement and hired an exterminator company that said there wasn’t much they could do if the landlord was unwilling to seal the multiple entry points. He was not, nor was he interested in reimbursing us for the exterminator fees. He just said, “thanks!” We were glad our two cats seemed to keep any mice and rats from entering our unit. The landlord took responsibility for nothing.
Once I called because the lights in the bathroom were flickering. The landlord sent over his regular maintenance man who just stared at the lights for an hour and left. Our landlord liked him because he would always underplay the situation and repair things as cheaply as possible. For example, the toilet repeatedly broke, and he would just fix it by bending the metal in the tank.
The final straw came when we discovered a heating duct was torn right below the main vent and loose asbestos was likely coming into our home.
(The house had an ancient gravity furnace and this vent was actually the only one that seemed to work, so gas was costing hundreds of dollars each month and on very cold nights we still had to all sleep together under piles of blankets and still we shivered so much we barely slept.)
We called a repair company who sent a man to inspect who told us this was dangerous and needed immediate repair. We told the landlord and told him we would pay for the repair. We were willing to max out our credit card.
The landlord came over enraged, ostensibly because the repair company was trying to “con” us. He said the duct had been torn for years. He “repaired” the duct himself by applying knockoff duct tape while asbestos fell on his head. The tape fell off within 24 hours.
The repairman had sealed the metal heating vent with (real) duct tape, and we left it on all weekend. It was so cold that we were actually concerned about hypothermia. We didn’t know what to do.
On Monday we called the local EPA who said the duct should be replaced, but that since the actual tear had happened a long time ago, we were probably safe for the time being. The landlord not only completely refused to pay for the necessary repair, which would have cost less than $1,000, but refused to allow us to pay for the repair.
We began looking for another place to live.
By the end of winter, we found a beautiful, well-maintained 1920’s apartment with new windows. We are so grateful to the friendly and competent maintenance crew whenever they come to fix a leaky faucet.
We are happy and plan on staying here. But there is a cost, and not everyone in our situation would have been able to make this move. Residents must have good credit scores, and the rent is nearly $900 a month: three hundred dollars more than we were paying three years ago. And other similar units are going for more like $1100 and $1200 a month. We moved at just the right time before rents really started to go up.
We love this apartment, but we miss having a yard and a porch and a basement like we did in our doubles. Those are nice to have when you have a child. But, we had to prioritize her safety. Our housing cost has gone up much more than our income, so we are living paycheck to paycheck, and often have to use our credit card between paycheck to pick up groceries.
We lived five years in the double where my daughter was exposed to lead, and the rent wasn’t raised once. The policy of this apartment is to raise the rent a minimum of three percent each year. We hope there will not be a large rent increase because we’d hate to have to leave this home, too. (Update: fortunately, they only raised the rent 3% this year, even though other similar apartments’ rents keep rising.) People shouldn’t have to choose between safety and affordability. Some people don’t even have the choice.
Sometimes friends say, “My mortgage is less than your rent! Why don’t you just buy a house?” But when you add insurance, water and taxes, the monthly payment is still more, and we can’t afford to pay any more, and then there is the down payment, which we can’t even imagine having on hand.
We like having a simple life. We would rather have time to be together and do work that is meaningful to us than have extra money to go to restaurants or travel. But safe housing, like health care, is not a luxury. It is a right.
After we left our first double, a family who’d lived there before us moved back in, the same family whose children our landlord had mentioned had tested with high lead levels years before. They had a new baby. Like our landlord, they must have accepted that elevated lead is part of urban life. There was also a new baby in the other unit of the second double we’d left. The unit was shared by a sweet, large family who worked together to keep things going despite many struggles. We told them about the asbestos, which at that time was not affecting their unit, but there were still rodents in the basement and unsafe electrical wiring.
It’s my understanding that doubles were built at the turn of the last century as part of a social movement motivated to create better living conditions for factory workers. Activists and reformers wanted to get families out of the tenements and into places where people had some access to a garden, that were better maintained, more like shared houses rather than containment units.
Imagine all the acres of land in Cuyahoga County dedicated to safe affordable housing at that time! The only new housing I see now is being built for the wealthy.
When children do eat lead paint chips, and I now know that little children will put anything in their mouths, they die.
Parents can do everything in their power to prevent exposure, and it happens anyway. Our daughter is fine. What if we hadn’t known to mop every day and keep the windows closed? Would she have tested over 10 mcg/dL? Would she have been able to clear the lead from her body? I’m grateful that she did and she is healthy. But I think about the people of Flint. And I think about the people of Cleveland and Lakewood and East Cleveland.
While our family has a lower income, we also have a fair amount of privilege. We are white. I have a graduate degree and grew up in a middle class family. My husband served in the military. He has a stable job. These experiences of benefiting from the system and being treated with respect by authority figures gave us the naive confidence and feeling of justification to do research, ask for help and even demand justice.
Even still, while we secured the lead abatement grant and Lakewood Alive was a helpful advocate, we ultimately had to move two times in eighteen months, leave two homes we’d invested our hearts in, just in order to find a safe home for our daughter. And we were fortunate enough to have the credit score and income (just barely) to do so. Both of our former homes still house young children.
How much does lead stigma and racist, classist bigotry perpetuate the valuing of profit over life that results in housing injustice? I don’t accept my former landlord’s implication that if you really loved your child, you would move far away from here. Lakewood and Cleveland are wonderful cities. Safe housing should be a right for all people.
I’m writing in part to give voice to the mothers who can’t because they are working two or three jobs to provide for their families, and to the fathers who have accepted that babies with high lead levels are just part of life in America.
Originally published in Moonshine Baby online literary journal, March 2015
Sleep—in a sleep like charcoal unsettled on black construction paper. Sitting asleep—mouth sealed.
A sleep so heavy, it was work. My body knew we were in a car, wrapping around mountains. Black trees rising up on my side, dropping off on his side.
A long black moment—then brakes before impact—desperate breaking jolt. He said shit and I didn’t want to open my eyes but I did.
It was so dark—night in that old country with no lights—Virginia mountains.
Neal—the man who was my husband then—looked at me, smiling because we were alive. There was only the sound of our breathing.
A deer, he said. And there was blood on the glass in front of our faces.
We were coming back from a vacation in Nags Head, North Carolina. We’d split from my brother and his wife—they drove back through Maryland. I wished they were still with us.
Still waking up, I stood with him off the side of the highway. We weren’t safe in the dark sedan, we figured. Afraid to leave the lights on, who knows how long we’d be here, and we didn’t want to drain the battery. Traffic was sparse but treacherous. The cars flew past us, invisible, shaking the Toyota. With the hazards on, we waited in the dark curve of the road. So we got out—our cell phones weren’t picking up reception in these black mountains. There wasn’t much of a shoulder. Cicadas, frogs, crickets made sounds around us. The grass was wet against my ankles.
He lit a cigarette. I went for his free hand, he squeezed my hand fast and let it go.
I wanted to help—to figure something. I opened my useless cell phone again. Searching…it said. I shone the weak light of it around, to see, and there a few yards behind us, was the white bottom of the deer, the deer on its side, still. I closed the phone. The vision struck me with a physical pain rising from my guts to my chest.
Neal opened his phone and looked back at the deer a long minute. “Well, I guess you were right, Mu, we should have left earlier.”
Not long, maybe twenty minutes, or forty, a car slid in behind the Toyota. The walking light of the state trooper moved toward us.
“Hey, y’all better get from that ditch. There’s rattlers down in them grasses.” Her voice was stern and raspy. It was too dark to see her face, just the unmistakable outline of the forward-tilted hat.
I gripped Neal’s arm, afraid to move. He jerked us forward, back onto the tar road.
“I didn’t know…” I said, “We were hiking in Sedona a month ago, we heard a rattle then, but, I didn’t know they weren’t just in the desert.” How could it be – in this humid green night.
“Oh yeah, ma’am, they mate down there, liable to be a dozen or more there now.” Her flashlight glazed off the mirror and lit up her face, revealing tiny features recovering from a smile.
We were grateful. It was sometime close to midnight. The trooper drove us into a town, told us this town, believe it or not, had just installed indoor plumbing three years ago. She’d take us to the man who could tow our car to his garage, and then give us a ride to a hotel by the highway.
In the back of the police car, we sat still behind the solid partition. I wondered about the plumbing and the darkness. How could it be—in America? I looked over at Neal. He turned and gave me a fast smile, a reassuring wink. We’d been married seven years. He was skinny, white and poreless with thin red hair he parted unnaturally on the left. His eyes, once disturbingly beautiful to me, heavy lidded and dark red brown, now seemed to bug out a bit.
Our week at the beach! I’d laughed so easily with my brother. Sisters and brothers have the same humor. I felt lonely for it now. Neal and I couldn’t laugh together. Did Neal even see the faint flicker of superiority on the elfin officer’s lined face when she said this town had just received indoor plumbing? Smug pride that hertown was more cosmopolitan than this one?
Neal would say I was being mean, but I thought it funny in a friendly way—we are all susceptible to foolish comparisons of our town to the next.
It seemed all night till we were in the hotel an hour away from the village in the mountain where the tow man and his wife lived. I felt sleepy like a child, pressed between Neal and the window of the tow truck. The guy was nice enough to drop us at the hotel after he dropped our car at the only garage around.
We were broke, had no credit. Ashamed, I called my brother and asked for help—they were almost home, back in Ohio, but he gave me his wife’s credit card number, said we could charge it all and then pay them back over the rest of the summer. My stomach knotted up.
The hotel was incredibly new, as if forest had just been cut to make way for this commercial strip along the highway, corporate billboards guiding the way. But I had no reception.
In the room, Neale automatically flipped on the TV. The TV showed women with black hair and dark tans getting pedicures, then a reality show about prison, then a game show about war, then a reality show about meth, then a reality show about bridezillas, then a commercial for a hamburger with many patties, then a commercial for floor wax. Bees flew out of the rays shining from the floor.
And I felt suddenly awake.
“Hey Baby, let’s have a hotel party!” I jumped off the bed and onto the floor in front of him.
“Let’s not, Mumu,” he lay on his belly channel surfing. The sound of the TV made me sick – we never watched network or cable at home, just streamed shows. Commercial TV disturbed me. The racing images, the banners and emblems stuck on the screen – I couldn’t believe people put up with it.
Neal wanted me close, but not to talk to, not to touch. Just to be near while he watched compulsive instant Netflix viewings of Nip Tuck, Prison Break, and any law show. If I picked up a book, or my phone to text, he’s look at me sideways and say, “Now Muriel. Do that on your own time.” Meaning, when I am home and he is not. Which, being that he was rarely employed, was not often.
After being trained these past seven years, I would sigh like an adolescent and obey. If I picked up the book or phone again, he would yell my name, hit my hand.
Once I wrote on the back of an envelope a deal: I would not text while he was in the room, and he would drink with me and listen to music with me once a month, maybe on a Thursday night.
He laughed, he said, you’re so silly, Mu.
I said, no, I’m not happy, I need to have fun. I need to have someone to talk with, you to talk with.
He said, you arehappy, you don’t even know about unhappy. Go make me some coffee. Then he pinched the soft part of the back of my arm, hard. I winced. I said, I hate that. He said, oh you love it. Go on now. Chop chop.
“Well, maybe I’ll go see if there’s a bar downstairs, or a convenience store, get some wine or something.”
“Just stay put, will you? God Mu, such a drink drink drinker – didn’t you drink enough with your brother this week? And don’t be stupid, you know there’s no bar in this place.”
“I’ll just go for a walk then—it’s a gorgeous night.”
His face glowed blue as I put my boots back on. He held the remote tight, but wouldn’t press mute, he looked over and said, “What the fuck, Muriel, get back here, come on, it’s ridiculous to go walking around, shit, it’s almost three…”
A sudden Jolt—a blind jolt like someone ramming their elbow into me, and I staggered, but nothing was there.
“Yeah, I’ll be back.”
“What’s wrong with you—why’d you fall like that?”
“I’ll get you a candy bar, if I see a machine,” my throat felt tight, “I love you, Neal.”
He turned back to the TV, “Yeah, whatever, love you, too. Don’t forget your key.”
I rubbed my shoulder—I swallowed my desire to cry when I passed a couple of women, mother and daughter maybe, silently going to their room. What hit me in there? It was like the air had become a wall and rammed into me. Could there be a ghost in such a new place? Or from what was here before this place?
I just wandered the halls, the light dead and awful, useless. Everything smelled new, what was that smell? Drywall and glue.
I was outside myself. Arrested, examined. Moving down the halls, I could see still images of myself from three angles: face slack, the light imprinting me in this dimension faded, first red, then cherry pink. I felt the weight of the corpse I had become, alone in this marriage. Eyes dull. Guilty.
There were just two floors. Soon I was wandering around on the first floor. The only soul around was the front desk woman, who asked me if I needed any help finding anything. She had a black and red wig that looked squished on one side like she was napping on it before I came around. It didn’t look very soft. I said, no, I said I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t bother asking about a gas station, too late for anything.
She adjusted her wig and turned toward a muted television. She looked how I felt: heavy joyless eyeliner, exposed skin, skin dented from unfriendly surfaces.
My throat was swollen with sorrow—I wondered if carrying this sorrow all the time would affect my lymph nodes. There was no chlorine smell in the hotel, no coffee smell. I stepped out front—the night heat felt good—I’d forgotten it was spongy summertime—my fingertips numb from the air conditioning. So much power to keep this place cold, and how many of us were here tonight: a dozen people at most? The highway rushed from the darkness, and the crickets.
Then—a slap hard on my back and I stumbled forward, falling to my hands on the hard concrete. My wind was knocked out of me—no one was there. Embarrassed, I looked through the glass windows, but the front desk woman was faced away from me, toward a screen.
I sat back on the ground, catching my breath, looking at the palms of my hands, scratched and bleeding a little, as well as my right knee.
I was having a stroke, or a seizure of some kind. A brain tumor was pushing on the part of my brain that keeps my shit straight.
I felt strange calm in the panic, wondering, what next, and, will I die here, and I sat for a long time.
Back in the room, my eyes dry from too much wakefulness. He was sleeping, soundlessly as always. His hand lay still stretched out across the cover, so peaceful. I ached. I wanted to reach for his hand, to touch him and be touched by him. Flickers of our first days together, sitting in the café at the art museum with acorns falling around us, hugging at the beach, sitting around a fire with Halloween paint on our faces, these flickers rose up then fell away. They were losing their power. I’d held them close for seven years, but three sweet months followed by six years and nine months of—something like tension—and their power was fading.
I remembered the candy bar, so I slipped out again, but only had 72 cents, there was nothing.
The room was dark, except for the blinking red lights on the DVD player. I turned away from him in bed, because he didn’t like our skin touching while we slept. I thought my eyes would not seal shut, but just stay open over the dry air, but no, I fell asleep fast.
In my dream, I was standing on a rock, at the edge of a mountain, over a valley. I knew there was a fire somewhere down in between the mountains, but I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. The forest moved behind me—I sensed Another at my back. I knew then who was there. The Bear grasped my shoulders in his paws, hard, but I stood still. I could smell his musk, and the paws were larger than I would have thought. He began to shake me, and occasionally a claw grazed my cheek, but I didn’t look back, or fall. He shook me harder, and I began to cry, but it was honey-crying—sweet streams of honey pouring down my face, pouring into my mouth, down the front of my body, down to the ground and down to the valley below.
(I knew him like a Mother. I felt safe in his ravaging.)
Then, with a grunt, he tore off my arms, and I didn’t fall. Suspended. And the honey cleared from my eyes. And then he tore off my legs and I hovered over the town. My torso rang through and through like a clanged tuning fork. He tore my head from my trunk and threw my body parts down to the fire, and I flew away.
Of course, morning came fast and hard. Nothing was easy, and the continental breakfast was over at eight, before we got up, and the shower had a weak stream, and the cell phone etc. etc.
And of course, the car was so damaged, we’d have to rent one, and somehow, get this car ten hours home in a few weeks. And my brother had to give me a second card, and I was ashamed, and felt guilty for the thousandth time, that I didn’t make more money. And angry at Neal etc. etc. Old bruisy feelings, our vacation most completely over.
We had to take a cab to the rental car place. (We were so hungry.)
We waited in the heat an hour for the cab, first in the cold hotel lobby, then in the heat out front. Then, a banged up flat grey Chevy from the eighties puttered up and stopped in front of us. The cabby, also flat grey, ushered us in like a grouch, as if, of course we were supposed to recognize this unmarked jalopy as a commercial service vehicle.
Of course we were, because, as George the cabby told us, he was the only cabby in town. He was known. George wore a black Greek fisherman’s cap with a peeling sticker on the side facing me. I wanted to read the sticker’s faded blue lettering, but I didn’t want to stare, so I only caught “-asps!”
I sat up front and Neal sat in back. We did not stop at the first stop sign down at the bottom of a hill. We slid on into the intersection right in front of a speeding truck that slammed to a stop and honked for a long honk.
“What’s his problem,” said George.
I looked back at Neal and we exchanged a yikes look.
We rode slowly down a lone state route that gradually turned into a main street lined with two-story buildings from a hundred or more years ago – businesses with apartments above.
“Hey you old coo!” George stuck his hand out the window at a man sitting outside a barbershop smoking and reading a paper. He stopped in the middle of the road, but it was okay because there weren’t any other cars.
“When you opening up, George?”
“Gotta run these ‘uns to Gladsdale, then I’ll be back, better side an hour.”
“I’ll be here.”
Slowly the cab pulled forward again. George said to us, “See, I’m the town’s only barber, too.”
I looked back at Neal again and we smiled. I was feeling good for the first time since back at the beach with my brother and his wife, with the ocean in front of us, a warm kitchen and deep drinks.
I could never figure out whyour days at home were so difficult—it didn’t seem like they had to be that way.
But I reached back and Neal squeezed my hand. I felt calm, and suddenly looking forward to being back home. After this bumpy cab ride, once we settle the paperwork and got into some boat of a rental, I would look out the window and daydream about the changes I’d make when we got back home. The new routines, rituals, rhythms, the way to finding happiness again with myself, and with Neal.
We were approaching what seemed to be the main intersection of town, and George put on his turn signal. It ticked loud and fast. As we got closer to the red light, I saw a dog across the street, a big moppy dog running between people on the sidewalk. I laughed—the dog was clowning and the people were enjoying him. His red tongue flapping against his big white body, running from this person to that, stopping to roll, hop back up and side to side.
Then the dog walked into the street and I worried for him—but there were no cars, we were coming to a stop, and the dog was walking slowly.
I turned to Neal to point out the dog, but then George wasn’t stopping, and I turned back to see the dog walking diagonally across the intersection, and everything was moving so slowly, but instead of saying stop, I looked back at Neal, and then I heard the yelp, the cry of the beast, and felt the bump as we ran him over.
My stomach rolled. I looked back to see if he was lying in the street, but we’d turned. Moving fast away from the town, down long country roads. Riding up, and then down. I looked at George—his eyes were inscrutable, aged like wood, maybe he only knew the road by feel. His feet charged the gas and brakes with no regard.
After a long minute Neal gave a nervous little laugh. “Jeez, Mu, how many animals are we going to hit this trip?”
George snorted. “There’s critters jumpin’ out at you from all sides these parts.”
I couldn’t look back at Neal. The guilt waved through my body. My heart was with the body of the white dog.
When we got to the barren industrial park that housed the car rental office, I got out fast, feeling like I was going to vomit. I was grateful to Neal for dealing with George.
“What’s wrong with you?” He squinted in the sun, his hand shielding his eyes.
I was bent over, breathing hard with my hands on my knees. “That dog—Jesus, Neal.”
“Oh, that,” he laughed, “That dog’ll be fine, Mu.”
“I don’t think so.” I stood up and looked at him, my face laced in cold sweat.
This thing between us—it was contempt. Contempt I saw in his face, for the words I said, and for the movements of my body.
“Well. Come on, chopit, Muriel, I want to get out of this sun.” He clapped his hands and walked ahead of me into the one-room building.
We stood in the rental office. The carpet was blue like a boy’s new room, and the walls were blue, and the whole thing smelled like the hotel, new wood and glues and paints. There was no music, just the receptionist, holding her index finger up to us, saying, just a minute.
We didn’t look at each other. We stood apart with our hands not touching. The new air, cooling and sweet like canned water, the new air seemed to expose the field between us. We were waiting for a safe car, however expensive, to take us back to Ohio. We didn’t look at each other.
I looked instead into a painting behind the receptionist. It was loud and out of place here, framed in garish yellow wood, slightly crooked. It was a messy sunset—paints of melted egg yolk pouring into heavy golden water. Rough black trees scattered on the shore, some reaching veiny into the sun, and then repeated on the water. A forest somewhere, a dark molten sun.
Originally published as“Forty-Fifth Week of Motherhood” as part of the52 Weeks of Motherhood Projectby Nova Doula Services December 2015
Before my daughter was conceived, I knew myself. This knowing was part of the nest I built for her: I would not drag her down with my lack of identity or center. I was a writer and noise musician, a witch, a punk, a yogi who drank in the dark. Pregnant, I sang to her day and night. I meditated. I read. My third trimester was basically a hermitage. I was ready for her. My husband, too, had been making himself ready for her. We were not young parents. We had wanted this for years, and we were fortified.
My husband and I left our home on August 7, 2013, the day of our daughter’s planned C-section birth (she was breach, sitting upright inside me like a little Buddha), with lists and supplies and mantras. The birth was easy and happy. I felt deeper peace and joy with my almond-eyed baby on my breast than I’d ever known.
After that afternoon, we knew no peace for months.
Could it really be that I was getting no more than twenty minutes sleep at a time for that first week? My daughter had a hard time latching; she dropped a pound and turned yellow. I never knew such horror.
My husband had to return to work two days after we returned from the hospital. He works first shift in a factory and needs some minimum amount of sleep to stay safe. And so at three, four in the morning, I paced the living room alone with my daughter, who would not stop crying and could not drink. I held her tight because I didn’t trust my arms to hold her, and I kept my eyes open because I didn’t trust my legs to hold us up. Feeding and sleep issues, by necessity, improved to the level of survival: a breastfeeding support group and the visiting nurse set us up with plastic nipples and syringes and formula, and my daughter’s pediatrician said I had to sleep, and that my husband could take her for four hours in the afternoon and give her a feeding of formula two hours in with a syringe and his finger.
And so for months our days went like this: when my husband got home from work, often after stopping at the store for diapers and wipes and chocolate and vegetables, he would take our daughter for four hours. I would try to sleep, but the exhaustion and anxiety often kept me up for a while. Maybe I’d get two or three hours. When I was finally out cold, he would bring her back in to me. I’d feel so depressed upon waking around nine or ten at night because I knew I’d be up for the next twenty hours.
Our room was lit twenty-four hours a day with pink Christmas lights so I could change her through the night, twelve diapers a day. It was like a different room than the one we’d lived in before. I’d sit up and nurse, which did hurt for a long time because of latch issues, but at least was working. I sat with an aching back and situated the rubber nipple over my nipple and positioned my daughter on the nursing pillow in the football hold, which was the only one that worked until months later when deliberate positions gave way to natural ones. I wish I’d known more about safe co-sleeping. I was afraid to risk it, but now I can see how it can be done, and it might have made all the difference in my experience of post-partum anxiety.
Then my husband would make dinner, really great dinners: vegan chili or curry and salad. We’d eat together and this was the best part of the day. But then he’d have to go to bed, and the night fear would start.
I wanted sleep, and all other things of the water element: fruit, sex, liquor. I did have showers and fruit and constant drinking water. I wanted touch. I never got ‘touched out’ with my daughter: skin-to-skin was the saving grace. My husband, for a while, wasn’t available emotionally or for physical affection. Though I was lonely, I know now he was showing his love through his dedication. He was sleep-deprived and scared himself, and basically working from seven am until midnight, between working at the factory, shopping, cooking and sitting with our colicky baby, who cried the entire four hours he watched her.
Again, if I knew then what I know now, I would realize she didn’t really need to nurse an hour on each side, thus constantly, around the clock, since babies need to nurse every two hours, starting from when the last session began. She must have just been suckling for comfort? But she was so small. I was afraid she would dry up in the night, and wither away.
And for long stretches of the day and night she would only stop crying when she was nursing.
After one fourteen-hour stretch of nonstop crying, as I sang broken Motown songs to her, thinking the loneliness would get the best of us, I took her to the doctor who diagnosed her with reflux. Treating that helped.
Her head and fine hair were so soft, we called her the peach baby. Things got better very slightly and slowly. At two weeks, three weeks, I thought, how has this not been six months? People always say this goes so fast.It was summer when we went into the hospital, but my upside down days made me feel we’d been thrust into winter.
But there was love and beauty. She smiled. She said ‘gah’. Sometimes when she nursed, and her eyes would close, she looked like a very tiny beautiful woman. I realized I’d objectified babies, in a way, and now I saw her as a compressed human being, all potential, like the miniature maple leaf coming out of its bud.
Fresh local peaches arrived. Just what I wanted. But as I slid the knife into the flesh of the fruit, I imagined a knife going into my baby’s soft, peachy scalp, and I couldn’t eat them.
Walking down the street with her for the first time, holding her, I imagined people pulling over and getting out of their cars and shooting her. I knew this was not going to happen, but I also knew that children around the world werebeing killed, and holding a baby in such a world became unbearable.
The news became grotesque. Stories of violence against women and girls suddenly sprung up everywhere. I won’t add to your suffering with the details, but the details stabbed at me then.
There were more moments of peace. And sometimes, when she was asleep in her bassinet, and my husband was asleep, I felt such joy. But then I’d leap up and stare hard at her with dry eyes, was she still breathing?
I thought I would never be happy again, but if she survived, then at least I could live. I thought I’d never write again, or let loose and laugh with my friends, or experience any kind of pleasure, but it was strangely liberating because I thought, I don’t care, as long as she’s ok.
But survive what? The first year? To adulthood? Mortality was a tenderness I could not bear.
There were endless bad things that could happen to her now and in the future, and I felt I had to run through each one in my mind and mentally solve and prevent it and try not to think about it, otherwise, the void was bound to take her back.
The gift of all that at least was I became forced to live in the present moment. Survival could only mean now.
I am here with my baby now. And now. And now.
I knew I was trapped in a paradox: all the activities in my life that had soothed my existential fear were unavailable to me, now that I needed them the most. It was just me and this small being, whom I loved so much I could barely look at without feeling staggering grief.
It was during the forty-fifth week of pregnancy, that is, when our daughter was five-and-a-half-weeks-old (she was born at thirty-nine weeks), that our friends had a party at a cottage on the beach in Geneva. It was the Saturday before the full moon, near the equinox, and I couldn’t believe it was still summer.
Of course we couldn’t go, and it hurt. I imagined them frolicking, drinking, laughing on the beach, the waves crashing on the rocks. The moon smiling over the water. We’d been there, before. I held my daughter and felt scared like I did when I longed for some old freedom, that if I allowed myself to long too much, she would be taken away.
And yes, things were getting a little better. Slightly longer stretches of sleep at night, maybe two hours at a time here and there.
But that day I read a fact that hit me like a bolt between the eyes: today’s temperature highs will be the temperature lows of 2050.
What have we done.
My husband took our daughter for my rest. I could sharply hear her crying, as we’d just put the air conditioners away. I couldn’t sleep. Images of a world with wars over water, the rape and murder and torture that comes with desperate pillaging, animals drying up, their sad soft bodies. I knew all this when I decided to have a child. I looked the other way and hoped things would end up ok.
I panicked because, if I couldn’t get the two or three hours sleep, how would I be able to stay up for twenty more hours and take care of her?
The minutes flew past as I tried to will myself to sleep. Finally, I just got up, feeling all dried out and exhausted by the work of despair.
I nursed my daughter, sitting up on the couch with the nursing pillow in place and her small growing body cupped in my left arm. She gnawed and I blinked dry eyes. She put her hands on my skin. At some point recently, we didn’t need the rubber nipple anymore, which was great, but without seeing the milk on the nipple, I doubted my supply. Did she nurse all day and all night because she wasn’t getting enough? But her cheeks and thighs were getting fuller. I stroked her small back and she looked up at me.
I told my husband, very carefully, about 2050, and not sleeping, about our friends at the cottage. And I could hear how slow and strange my voice was. I wanted him to tell me that the future would be just fine, and I knew he could not tell me this.
It was ten at night and the sun was down, but he said, “Let’s go to the park. Let’s go look at the moon.”
We drove in the dark to the closest park on the shore, not far, and on the way I felt panic. I felt eager to get it over with, but then, there was no rest to come home to. The air was newly crisp, and the moon was waxing fat.
We were desperate, our little family, desperate to find the night, the end of summer, the moon.
I smiled for my husband, but any drunk driver heading back to the suburbs from a bar crawl could end our happy little life in any number of gruesome ways I couldn’t get out of my head.
We parked. I cracked the window. The air held the last thickness of summer, the first cold of fall.
Then I saw a light in the sky. And another light. My heart went to my throat. I stared in disbelief as I saw what looked like blazing jellyfish rise in the sky – I couldn’t tell if they were big and far or close and small. I asked my husband if he saw them, too. He said yes, and we sat in the car. I could tell he was scared, too. What was it? Some kind of bomb or UFO? Was it real? But what else could it be? The fire blossoms lifted unnaturally into the sky. Should we leave? Go back home? Strange orbs of light – it was hard to believe, but there it was. We were all quiet.
We decided to carefully get out of the car.My husband smiled and said, No, look, and touched my arm. As I stepped out of the car, my perspective tilted, and I saw the balls of fire were close, coming from just farther north in the parking lot. What parked cars before had hidden was revealed to be a family. Older and younger people, and children, tossing something flaming into the air that dissolved before it reached the height of the tops of the trees.The family was releasing beautiful burning balloons into the sky.
The relief was staggering.
I exhaled. We laughed. My husband said he’d seen something like this before in Malaysia as a boy. Playful orbs. I looked at my daughter, small in her giant car seat, watching us with big lashy eyes. I carefully took her out of her seat and wrapped her in the black sling against my chest, and I put the little black robbers’ cap, which had come with the sling, on her head.
We walked into the park.
We saw black slashes of trees against blackest blue sky, and living black water. It was a tonic. And the moon! The moon lit up the park. The sound of the water and the shivering trees and the light of the moon all told us we were in a sacred place. I held our daughter close as we walked and grew calm. We introduced them all to our new daughter: the lake, vast and breathing as a sea, and the grass and trees and sky and moon. I hadn’t walked freely anywhere larger than a room in our apartment or a hospital room since before she was born. Another life. Then we looked closely and saw our daughter was looking up at that pearly bright moon against the black sky, and the moon shone on her face! The night was a mother.
I will always remember our daughter’s face bathed in moonlight, looking up with conscious presence from under her little black cap, returning the gaze of the moon.
Back at home, my husband played guitar to us as I nursed our daughter in my arms.
And now, nearly two years later, everything is fine. We are who we were, but stronger. We’re still nursing, and it’s easy and sweet, and we sleep, and our strong little daughter pulls back the bedroom curtains and calls the moon by name.
When I was young, I had a friend who regularly protested the Iraq War. Once, he saw police aiming guns with rubber bullets at a woman in the middle of the street. He made the courageous choice to jump between her and the police, and he took the bullets to the back. He showed me the scars.
It wasn’t covered in the news, and the war raged on for years. My future husband would serve two tours.
I first heard about global warming when I was in third grade. It was called “the greenhouse effect.” This was in 1986.
Twenty years later, I went to see Al Gore’s movie, and I left the theater shivering with fear, but also remembering how protesting the Iraq war worked out for my friend.
I believed we were powerless. I had not yet had children.
For a time I learned from people who were were working to relocalize the economy in order to shorten feedback loops and become less dependent on oil. They were relearning skills our culture had forgotten that allowed them to “power down” by using less energy and resources for everything from water use, food production, heating, etc. There was a belief at the time that peak oil was near, and the decline of oil stores would cause societal breakdown before climate change. The hope was that if we could develop skills at the local level that would allow communities to become carbon neutral, than hopefully the ideas would spread, but at least our communities would be resilient.
But then fracking technology caught me by surprise and kept the machine running deep, cheap and hard enough to bring climate change to a crisis.
Not that I’d done much in the way of relocalizing and powering down, not much more than talking. It was something I put off. There is so much urgent business in front of us each moment of our brief time on earth: family, work, the urge to create, the urge to feel good. Endless housework and nagging maintenance of both our obnoxious stuff and our precious relationships.
When I had my daughter, Obama was president. He wasn’t perfect, but still… After Occupy, there seemed to be a progressive culture taking root. It seemed like LGBTQ rights were surging and white people were becoming more aware about police violence against black people. Despite my minimal involvement, local agriculture was on the rise. People were talking about slut-shaming and uncovering the buried history of indigenous people. Social scientists claimed that despite our heightened awareness of violence, there was a global downtrend in violence and in the treatment of children.
Things were hard and things were real, but as a species, it seemed like the interconnectedness of the internet was helping us grow. Personally, we didn’t have a lot of money, but our rent was cheap. It seemed like a good time to have a baby.
As my baby grew into a child, I would occasionally look at articles describing the climate horrors we could face by 2050, and I would look at my beautiful child and wonder what we had done, and I raged against the powerlessness I felt. Then I would google up some good news about climate technology or policy so I could get through my day. Or get to sleep at night.
Then Bernie ran for president and brought progressive ideas back to the Democratic party. Hillary was not ideal, but still…I was thinking we were about to elect our first woman president running on the most progressive democratic platform in a long time, thanks to the people-powered ideas Bernie and his supporters had brought to light.
Then Trump won. We who had been cozied up in liberal bubbles learned that the internet had not only been brewing intersectional feminism but also a vicious alt-right unashamed of ideas that seemed shockingly retrograde, bigoted and cruel.
My world, our world, suddenly tilted toward the worst climate projections and fears of fascism on top of that. As we shook ourselves awake from our stupor, grief and shock, we read that maybe calling our congresspeople is actually effective. I’m still not so sure about that. I have made many calls these last three years. It worked for the Tea Party, but, after all, the Tea Party asking for things that didn’t buck corporate agenda.
The Trump administration continues to ravage environmental protections, promote the industries that are causing global heating and burn down democratic institutions. Through bold lies, the Trump administration spreads fascism: in a world with no truth, people are smart to stand behind the strongman. They spread cynicism. The world is burning, so we might as well make money off of it.
Meanwhile, our rent has almost doubled, while our income has not. Each year our family has less and less. There is no money for extras, and we have to dip into our credit card in between paychecks. Everything feels insecure: health care, housing, even the food and water supply under climate change and deregulation.
The UN said that by 2030, the climate change may create a global “climate apartheid” with the rich hoarding resources and the rest of us, all of us, nonrich Americans as well as the rest of the world, suffering and dying from lack of basic neccesities.
In 2030, my daughter will turn seventeen.
Our family isn’t perfect. We use computers and drink coffee and use plastic. But, due to a lower income, we don’t consume as much as many Americans. We wear clothes until they get holes, and then sometime a bit longer. We very rarely dine out or buy food with a lot of packaging. We are vegan because it feels right to us. We use the right lightbulbs.
Research shows the four most powerful consumer decisions a personal person can make are to have one fewer child, take one less airplane trip, stop driving altogether and go vegan. These choices, or working toward these choices have a much greater impact than buying low energy lightbulbs and such that have been promoted over the last few decades.
We can spread the word and chip away toward these goals as best we can as individuals. I am poor, so I never fly, but I do drive a car. People can at least eat less meat.
These actions are individual ethical decisions. The only way to solve the climate crisis is to view it as the collective tragedy of the commons that it is. People cannot be expected to put huge amount of efforts into personal changes that statistically amount to nothing.
Here is an example. My community used to offer near-universal curbside recycling. Now, because China doesn’t want any more our plastic crap, the whole economics of recycling has changed, and our city no longer offers curbside pickup for apartment buildings. I’d have to drive my recycling across town before 3:30 P.M. on weekdays only, knowing that much of it would be either tossed out or transported large difference using up fossil fuels. Also knowing that only a small percentage of apartment dwellers in my city are trucking their stuff down to the center. It’s futile. Green options need to be built so that they become societal default. People want to do the right thing, but we need a critical mass in order for it to work.
We need a massive, comprehensive infrastructure overhaul. The science and technology is there. But our government has been coaxed, coerced and gerrymandered into a corporate state, with corporations even writing the laws.
American identity has been manipulated. We have been turned into “consumers”, when first we are citizens. Actors in a democracy.
The summer of 2018, I longed for the change we need and I called to mind the idea of a Green New Deal. I wrote the words GREEN NEW DEAL and put them above my desk. I googled the term and saw that it had been used by the Green Party and several others before as a way to describe proposals that could work together to slow, stop and begin to repair the damage done to the planet as well as create quality jobs. I thought it could also be a way to heal our country and win over some people who voted for Trump primarily because they had been betrayed by neoliberalism from both parties.
I called Sherrod Brown’s office and suggested as much to a bored sounding man, who told me that nothing would change with the current administration and state of congress. It was an election year and progressive Brown was up—I thought maybe democrats could align behind the message. The volunteers at Marcy Kaptur’s office were a little more receptive. I told them everyone I know is underemployed. Wages have been stagnant since the 1980’s. Low unemployment rates hide the economic reality.
Within the next few months, several changes brought climate and economic justice to the top of the news. Democrats took back the house with new progressive members. The devastating U.N. report on the urgency of the climate crisis was released saying we had just twelve years (eleven as of this writing) to drastically cut emissions in order to maybe avoid environmental devastation by as early as 2040. (My daughter will turn twenty-seven in 2040.) Newly elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined youth activists in the Sunrise Movement in occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office. Their demand was immediate and far-reaching legislation to address environmental problems and justice issues at once.
The Green New Deal.
We need to unite behind this idea. We need to unite behind candidates who support this idea. This is our hope. The Green New Deal was ridiculed from the start by Fox News, who covered it more than any other channel. Nancy Pelosi also made fun of what she called “the green dream”, but that didn’t kill the dream as most top democratic candidates for president support the Green New Deal.
In February of this year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. introduced the Green New Deal non-binding resolution. It’s a fourteen-page document that outlines goals that are intended to be filled in with legislation.
This video best expresses the vision of the Green New Deal:
Here’s one way to pay for it:
What to do? Communicate. Communicate at all levels.
Tell your friends and family. Call your representatives. Here in Cleveland, Marcy Kaptur has not yet endoursed it, but Marcia Fudge has. Activists spent a great deal of time communicating with her, and though reluctant at first, she ultimately gave her endorsement.
Keep in mind that while the Green New Deal is the large-scale Federally-funded program we need, much of the decision-making embedded in the resolution will take place at the local level.
Let the idea spread. Our only hope is to aim for the most progressive vision possible because it will be fought at all levels. But it could be beautiful.
Educate your family and friends. Call your members of congress. Join Sunrise, Global Climate Strike, Extinction Rebellion, green labor group BlueGreen Alliance or other organizations and participate in climate strikes and actions. Check out Greenpeace’s social media hive or resistbot. Get behind the Green New Deal and communicate. Vote for the candidate that most strongly supports the Green New Deal. Work to support that candidate. Here is a link to Greenpeace’s ratings of presidential candidates:
After the election, there will be much work to do locally and personally for many years to come to secure resiliance. Right now support the Green New Deal and the candidates who will support with greatest force and commitment. As of this time of writing, that candidate is Bernie Sanders.
If we all schedule an hour a week to communicate in various intelligent, efficient ways about the Green New Deal, the idea will spread. My local community even passed a resolution supporting the Green New Deal along with another environmental house bill. Communication can include letters and phone calls to members of congress, face-to-face conversations with people in your community, strikes and demonstrations, or using whatever platform and voice you have available to you.
Also consider the top 100 producers of greenhouse gas emissions. There are people behind the decisions that are causing environmental devastation, and you can communicate with and about them and hold them accountable. Here is a list:
There is much work to do, but our best hope is for us to unite behind The Green New Deal and progressive candidates.
This story first appeared in Adanna Literary Journal issue 4, September 2014
Carmel angled her elbows around her doubled paper plate as she worked on loose shreds of roast beef, two soggy slices of Wonder Bread and potatoes coated in corporate Cajun spice. She was hungry, and didn’t want Mark to take her plate prematurely. Even though she loved him.
She ate her meat, bread and potatoes at the same curved corner of this bar most every night. She should feel safe. The bread floated away from the meat, hanging off the edge of her plate. She ate the bread last, even though she didn’t want it. When she was done, she smoothed her hefty blond bob back behind her ears, pulled her blue knit cap down and pushed her ruined plates forward.
“What kind tonight, Carmel?” Mark’s head was narrow, as if he’d been clamped too hard at birth, but his smile was genuine. Brave like a skull smile. One canine tooth gone from a fight back in high school. By the Coke machine. Carmel had been there.
“Rum and Coke. No. Vodka tonic.” She tried to order a different drink each night, until one day she would finally hit on her drink. Something exotic, beautiful. Something he could make for her. But everything she thought of was so generic.
He zipped around, working fast, even though the bar was dead. One bar in this town, and it was dead every night except for Tuesday Karaoke. Now there were always a couple guys around in blue and red flannels and caps in the winter, by the darts, or laughing at the giant TV, which she hated. Tonight the TV was on mute and the radio played bland hits from the eighties and nineties. The guys were just like the squirrels she passed on her walk over, benign, but not company. And not really wild.
A woman walked in. The long rounded bar was empty, but she sat by Carmel. Heat came off the women, even in this cold bar, where the heat was kept low, and everyone else wore a hat and coat.
The woman slid forward, focused on Mark. Her smell was chokingly cheap jasmine and stale cigarette. Her color was dried out orange: hair crispy dyed, skin saturated with freckles. Carmel couldn’t tell where her freckles ended and her lips began. Her lips were dry and cracked and bare, but her eyes were lined and shadowed in black. They looked weird because she wore no mascara, so her pale red lashes twitched against the black makeup.
Carmel had never seen this woman before.
Mark came up and let himself flop against the bar, exhaling and smiling at the woman as if he knew her, but Carmel knew he didn’t. “What can I get you, sugar?”
Her body swiveled and scissored toward Mark, but her eyes flicked at Carmel twice. “MM – how bout a mojito with extra lime, baby-man.”
He popped his eyebrows, then his body and hopped to it. Carmel wondered, how did he know how to make a mojito?
The woman leaned into Carmel, “He’s a sizzler, sister, I think I’ll be taking that boy home.”
“Home…you don’t live here. He’s married. His wife just had a baby.”
Mark came back with a beautiful emerald drink and, with his long elegance, handed it to the woman. He asked Carmel if she’d like to have another vodka tonic. Carmel pulled something out from the recesses of her memory. “No. How about a pale russian?”
“Uh, white russian, Carmel?” He smiled at the other women. “I don’t have any cream, how about a black russian?”
“Ok. How’s Karen? Is she recovering from giving birth to the baby?”
“Oh yeah, she’s happy as a horse.”
When he left, the woman sucked her drink and nudged Carmel. “A horse.”
“You don’t understand. He loves horses.”
“What do you love?”
Mark brought back the dark drink and winked, zipping away, god knows why – there was no one waiting for service. He crossed his arms and looked at the giant TV.
“Come on, gal…” The woman gulped down her mojito, jerked her head at Carmel’s drink and called to Mark, “Two double shots of Citron and the bill, kind sir.”
Carmel wasn’t used to two drinks followed by a double shot. She followed the woman out to the parking lot. The mud was hard, frozen dry. The woman had bare feet shoved into pink heels. It was too cold. She walked up to an old brown sedan and turned to Carmel.
“Where’s your car, Babycakes?”
“I walk. I just live down the block, above the drugstore.” She swallowed, wishing she hadn’t told the stranger where she lived. Carmel didn’t work. She stayed with her father. The drugstore had been closed for nineteen years.
“Come on, it’s early. Let’s go drink by the river. Hop in.”
A wind came up and knocked the car about. Then disappeared. If they were going to the river, Carmel was glad the air tonight was still for the most part, and dry. She looked out the window, feeling like a child. Trailing, sleepy. Not as curious as she imagined she should be.
Carmel asked, “Where you from?”
“Cross the border.” Across the Ohio border into West Virginia. “But don’t you even want to know my name?” She turned and smiled at Carmel, her eyes off the road a few seconds longer than Carmel was comfortable with. A canine tooth flashed gold.
Carmel looked back out the window. They wound down a side street, down to the riverbank. “What’s your name, then.” Like telling where she lived, she felt a stab of regret after the words left her mouth. As if speaking were more dangerous than riding.
“Star. I’m a starworker! HA! That’s your oldest profession, ok?”
“How did you know people drink by the river?”
“You should get over that bar-keep, Carmel. Enough suffering.”
Carmel felt her cheeks get hot and put her hand on her left cheek so Star wouldn’t see. “I don’t like him. He’s married. Did you bring any wine coolers?”
“You’re corny.” Star pulled fast against the street closest to the river. They got out. The doors squealed like dogs. “You got family, Carmel?” She pulled out a bottle of something clear and they headed over to the river’s edge.
They sat down on a rare patch of dry winter grass. Nothing was natural along the river – concrete, brown water. Maybe the brown was natural. Carmel was more careful this time, didn’t mention her emphysematic father she lived with in the two-bedroom apartment above the closed drugstore. “No.”
“Water looks like chocolate – is it rusty?”
“I guess.” Carmel tucked her hair behind her ears and pulled her cap down over them.
They passed the bottle back and forth in silence. It tasted like nail polish remover, but Star drank it like water. Again and again it returned to Carmel, who touched her lips to the bottle and just pulled a tiny kiss out of it, already feeling sick.
The orange streetlight fell dead onto the moving brown water. What makes it move? Where is its source? Where does it go?
Carmel said, “You stay in your car or what? What you doing in Crayton?”
As Carmel turned to face her, the world shifted and she realized she was very drunk. She put her hand to her mouth. Her lips were numb.
Star looked less dry here by the river. She looked clammy even. The harsh orange light was behind her, so it was hard to see her face, but when she turned and the light flashed on her cheek, it looked wet. They’d taken off their coats, the cheap vodka making them hot even as their breath was visible. Carmel’s eyes adjusted and she could see Star’s mouth, nose, eyes. For a long minute they looked at each other. Carmel felt a lift as their eyes locked. Were Star’s eyes grey, or silver? How long, maybe never had someone met her eyes so long before. She felt aroused and tried to hide her shaking.
“I’m in Crayton for you, Carmel. I came here for you.”
Carmel smiled. Closed her eyes then. This must be that moment before a kiss. Her chest opened, hoping for touch.
Knocked instead back into the ground, rough grass at her neck, concrete clanging the back of her head. Star on top, riding her like a fresh demon, slapping her numb face over and over again. Laughing. Laughing that was high pitched but quiet, like nails on glass.
“The hell you’re doing?” Carmel tried to say, but her cheeks, her mouth, were muffled with hits. Not devastating hits, but hits that stung, and were getting heavier.
“Ya ratty frump! Sitting around waiting for shit, ya shit.” Star stopped hitting and began to pet Carmel’s face.
Carmel’s eyes gently opened. Star’s hands, tracing unknown shapes on Carmel’s battered skin felt so good it made her mouth ache. Again, the orange light was behind Star, it was hard to see her face. Carmel wanted to ask what she was doing, but all she could do was swallow.
Star’s hands trickled down to Carmel’s throat and began to squeeze.
Her breath caged provoked rage, and while Star was planted firmly on the core of Carmel’s body, Carmel was bigger and stronger. She pushed the ground with her feet and they both toppled over, rolling, slipping into the water.
Frigid water. Carmel’s neck free, she exhaled heavy bubbles, and pushed off the muddy floor, aiming for the orange light blooming through the dirty water just ahead. But skinny white arms came out. White hands gripped her hands. No, Carmel moaned, her brain fucking crazy with supernova fireworks, all she could do to keep from inhaling the water, taking it in. Kicking.
Star’s face up in her face now. Star’s smile gummy, no teeth. Carmel kicked. Star’s eyes, still looking in. She held tight, laughing in the water. Just the orange light showing her face, her white hands. Carmel thought, If only this were a dream, I could just breathe the water.
Her street flashed in her mind. Hird Street. Empty. The drugstore next to the hardware store and the bar down the street. Her father on one end, Mark on the other. In her sock drawer, an ancient orange stuck with cloves she’d made with her mother the same year the hardware store closed. She felt sick for oxygen, and she felt sick about going back to Hird Street. Star moved her face closer. She said monster things in the dark, in the water. So much air lost, thickly flicking up into the space above them.
Carmel mashed her mouth to Star’s mouth and sucked, their eyes still locked. Carmel sucked Star’s air out. The air tasted like gas heat coming out of grates. Star’s eyes were holes into her true self, but Carmel couldn’t see what that was. She sucked Star’s air. The irises were sealed grey like the lids on soup cans. The pressure of Star’s grip on Carmel’s arms faded. Star let go, and Carmel kicked up, bumping her lips together to conserve air.
Carmel broke the surface just above them, gasping, breathing. The drunk out of her head but still in her body, and the cold in her body, made climbing the little bank difficult. But she lay there on the hard grass, breathing. Feeling warm, but shaking.
The water moved in delicate weaving patterns, steady, unbroken. Carmel felt doubt. Dread shimmied up her legs. She’d killed Star. Star had just been playing, and now, Carmel had killed her. Still, she stayed, watching the water. Her whole body shook. She finally stood up. Darkness to her feet. Knowing she had to get out of the cold, soaking wet, it couldn’t be safe.
She heard splashing to her left, and staggered as she saw a longhaired figure pull itself out of the river maybe fifty feet away. Carmel ran. She ran home. She took a long hot shower.
The next day she watched the news – no dead people. Her father liked a TV dinner on a TV tray. She kissed his greasy forehead as he flipped the channel. She left as always, heading out to Mark’s bar for her own meal. But then, she turned down Robin Avenue instead. There was no traffic, really. A brown sedan drove past. She walked until it was dark again.
Down the hallway again. Most walls in apartment building halls are white, maybe grey or tan or cream, but those walls were red. The hall stank like eucalyptus and apartment cooking, other people’s cheap meat and noodles. I knocked and stood back with my hand at my throat, annoyed by the deranged pulse. Waiting at the door. I looked out the black window. Waiting. There were trees in the dumpster below, silver tinsel shivering on the edges. It was cold, but there was no snow.
The door opened, not on Lizabeth, but on her nephew, called Matt or Mike or something. He slumped with a bowl of ramen noodles and a bored face, eyebrows barely raised.
“Hey, man, where’s the old woman, she home?” I said.
“Come on in, Margot.” He turned into the room. I followed him into the heat, hoping the human smells wouldn’t be too intimate. Steam heat invaded my nose and my very pores with old woman smell: scalp and powder. Mildew and medicine. Not much evidence of the nephew in here. Just piles and piles of papers and magazines. The long living room was dark with the shades drawn against streetlights and just two dim lamps on. It was quieter than usual, and I realized it was because Lizabeth’s oxygen machine wasn’t on. “She’s not here. Where is she?”
Matt or Mike pushed some dusty Ladies Home Journalsand Usmagazines off the couch and onto the floor and motioned for me to sit while he went over to the old woman’s La-Z-Boy and reclined with his noodles. “Oh, do you want to share my noodles, Margot?”
“No, thanks.” I smiled politely and sat in the dust.
“She’s at Giant Eagle.” He twisted up a fat wad of noodles on his fork. “She should be back soon.”
Originally published in Contraposition Magazine, February 2015
It wasn’t his going away party because he wasn’t going far. It was just his last Friday night in Stow, Ohio. And Ryan Bakan felt a touch stoned. He was moving to Cleveland in a week for no reason, other than that’s what he’d casually told a woman online that he was. He strolled around the hilly yard, smiling here and there, avoiding direct conversation. He had no job up in Cleveland, no people, nothing. It was a hot September and the sun was making its long way west. The yard was bare save for a young crabapple tree. Other yards stretched on. Ryan’s skinny stomach stretched tight with regretted hot dogs. The beer wasn’t working anymore. The warm blue can sweat in his hand.
The last two years had felt like five years, but he couldn’t name what had happened. Two years ago he was just thirty, which was still almost in his twenties. Two years ago he was with the pregnant girl and worried all the time. Now it was past Labor Day, and he hadn’t seen his daughter since Memorial Day. He nodded at his dude Matt, who pointed at Ryan’s aviator glasses and gave him thumbs up: “Brah! What’s up.” They shook hands. Ryan was known for his sleazy sunglasses. He didn’t care if Matt said he wore them to make up for being a tiny man, a man who looks like a kid.
He thought he felt a vibration in his pocket, but no, no text. He was waiting from a text from Rochelle—a girl he’d known in junior high. She lived in Cleveland. He’d found her online. He felt like an asshole thinking she was the reason he was moving, but there was no other reason.
His dudes were setting up the cornhole stuff. His heart hurt. Grass stains on the white paint of the cornhole board. He told them he’d be down all the time—it wasn’t even an hour away. Something else—some other feeling hit him that was not the anticipation of missing his dudes. It seemed like they’d been playing cornhole forever, but also, like it was a new thing. New like pushing their hair up with gel and the new century and reality television, but look at the thing. It was banged up, and it seemed kind of sad, like, how long had they been slinging those bags around, and why hadn’t there been a new game?
He stood aside, his hand on his phone. Cari, a girl he knew, stood beside him. Cari had the knobby bruised legs of a child and sticky dirty-kid skin, but the lines in her forehead were deep. They’d hooked up the summer before and now she was with his dude Matt. She looked at him, though. As if it had been something.
“Days are getting shorter, you notice that?” She rubbed her nose. Her voice was scratchy like a young boy.
“Fucking sucks.” It had been nothing. Electrical shorts of wasted late night. The bar lights coming up, then a warm body under him in his bed. Waking up thinking, will she stick? Will she stick around – will one of us have to decide?
But, as it happened, she broke her leg playing softball that day after she spent the night, and he didn’t hear from her again. He heard about the break, and understood that the interruption erased the evening. But still, after she hooked up with his dude, and he started seeing her at parties, she looked at him. She said things about the weather, upcoming holidays, time.
Rochelle, the girl who he was holding his phone for, wasn’t even single. Or a girl. She was two years older than him, had two kids, was married. But he remembered her rising up from behind the seat in front of him on the school bus, twenty years before. He was in seventh grade and she was in ninth. She knew he liked her. The joyful sun of that year played in her smile. Sometimes she asked him to tell her blond jokes, and she’d laugh, even though she was blond. Sometimes she didn’t talk to him but just listened to Nirvana on her Walkman. On those days she didn’t smile: grey Ohio days, her face pressed to the cold glass, Nirvana jingling around her head, her eyes serious against tears, angry acne on her high cheekbones. Ryan watched her on any kind of day, sometimes just her reflection on the window through the gap between the arc of the green leather seat and the glass.
Now, Matt came up and put his arm around Cari. She shrunk a little bit. “Dude—you in?”
Ryan was startled. He needed another drink. He didn’t meet Matt’s eyes, just looked at his long thin chin with the dimple at the end. His face seemed to pulse. “Sit this one out.”
“What?” Matt’s sleepy mouth hung open a little. He moved slightly from side to side, breathing hot beer, and gave Cari a couple irregular shoulder squeezes.
“I’m going to sit this one out.”
“Oh, right on.” Matt scampered off. Ryan turned away from Cari and walked back to the cooler. He put his hand on his chest—it felt like his rib cage was fusing tightly together.
Rochelle rising on the bus twenty years ago. Popping up. She wore a painted drainpipe around her neck. Her hair was blond, curly, frizzy and all over the place. A year before, she would have worn it pulled into a ponytail. She would have kept her head down. Because, a year before, it wasn’t cool to be weird, and people attacked anything that stuck out. To cut it off. But in 1993, freaks rose up—girls with burgundy hair, boys in army fatigues—tall boots, green shoes, bands bands bands, suddenly music was everywhere. It was ok to be silly. It was ok to be dark.
Rochelle hadn’t given a shit that Ryan wasn’t cool—he still wore his hair in a crusty 80’s spike, he still wore starter jackets, he was a head shorter than her. His voice was still the voice of a child. She talked to him because he was nice, because he smiled at her with the open face of a kid in love.
He remembered his little hard-on riding his jeans that whole year on the bus. Listening to Rochelle talking, doing impressions of teachers, gossiping about kids in her grade. His prick a spark of light.
Now, as the sun slipped slowly west, and he turned from the cooler with just a can of diet caffeine-free Coke because he was really thirsty and the beer wasn’t working anymore, Cari lingered.
“So, Ryan. How many times have you been to Cleveland? Do you like Cleveland?”
He looked past her. His dudes were slinging sacks. Some girls stood by the grill. A little lapdog zipped past and one of them scooped it up. This house belonged to one of those girls, but he couldn’t remember which one. “Yeah. I like it.” Duh. Though he’d only been up there twice, and one of those times was just to drive his uncle to the Cleveland Clinic.
Cari waited for Ryan to say more. She made him kind of sick—he couldn’t believe he put his dick in it. She must have wanted more because she always gave him that look—even though she was with his dude. A look like the thirsty clerks in the cell phone store where Ryan worked. Ryan kept his cool around customers, and he did better than his needy associates.
He adjusted his sunglasses. “Whose house is this?”
“What house.” She knit her brow and shook her head.
“Here. Where we are now. I know I should know, but I forget.” He put his hand to the back of his neck where a drop of sweat slipped down. “One of those girls, right?”
“Jenn. Jenn’s house. Her parents’ house. We come here all the time, Ryan.” She rolled her eyes and pulled out a pack of Misty slims. Maybe she didn’t roll her eyes, but it seemed like it.
He nodded and looked off. She didn’t have to be a bitch about it. Sure, we partied here, but we were always here all at once, right?
Ryan had been cyber-stalking Rochelle. So, she was a mom in her mid-thirties. But she still seemed arty. No, not arty, that’s a word his mom would use. Bohemian. She was in some kind of band. She posted paintings of lions and moons. Bohemian.The word felt good in his mouth—it was something secret—linens and incense and secret sexual positions. Bohemian.
“What?” Cari shifted her hips.
He felt blood fill his face. She must have been watching his mouth. “What. What. Nothing.” He walked past her. Pushed past her. The late afternoon sun hit his eyes out the corner of his shades and he staggered: Had he pushed her? No. He felt like pushing her, but he hadn’t. Relief flooded. He had to get out of this sun for a minute. He touched his phone.
His dudes called to him to come over! They were going to smoke a bowl in the garage. But there was a sting in his eyes like sweat. He turned away, had to get out of the light, into the house. He avoided eye contact on his way to the bathroom.
His image above the bathroom sink. The quiet in the house was loud. For just a flash, his face crumbled like a baby about to burst into tears, but then recovered. Solidified. The air-conditioning was powdery soft, soft like the dusty blue toilet paper and cushy toilet seat cover. All of it too much and too monochromatic. His mouth felt full of lint. It wasn’t hot enough for air conditioning. Maybe it was, but it was too cold in here. The cold air hurt his feet. What was happening to him? He’d lost his shit out there for a minute.
Cari—in her overly large t-shirt with the cartoon character. It was supposed to be a sponge, but always looked to Ryan like a block of cheese, it’s eyes dumb and gaseous. Cari—when they’d fucked, she hadn’t taken off her shirt. It was a better shirt, black and tight—but he remembered in a flash that she wouldn’t let him peel it off. Her lips went tight as she kept it down. How did he remember that, after all the shots they’d done and with only the dim street light coming in through the bedroom window?
He turned on the water. Someone knocked.
“Just a minute.”
No response. Had he yelled? Did he sound pissed?
Rochelle had responded to his long Facebook message. He’d been confident enough to confide his childhood crush to her: ha ha, boy I sure had a crush on you back then! How are ya?
She’d said that she’d liked him a lot, too. Ryan looked up her husband. He was black. He looked at the man’s picture. His face was hard to read: stoic, military. He wore a shaved head. Ryan had been expecting some bearded hipster, or working class punk guy or something. What did it mean?
His heart beat in his narrow chest. He could chase it. His narrow chest. He never had a hard time getting girls, though. Rochelle had been really cool in her response. She even asked him if he ended up becoming a veterinarian. So, she hadn’t looked at his profile. But she did remember he loved animals, wanted to be a vet.
Ryan was the guy who loved animals and was going to be a vet. Into his twenties, or the slower first half, that’s how he was known. But at the huge state college he partied, just like everyone else, listening to leftover 90’s rock and blowing loans on glass bongs only to shatter them at the worst possible moment on the hard black and white checked linoleum on the tiny dorm floor. Lost at OSU. He didn’t flunk out, but he couldn’t pass organic chemistry, so eventually, he dropped out. All those half semester loads still left, it seemed as if the longer he went, the longer there was left to get a degree, even a worthless general degree. So he came home.
Home to Stow and his older cousin who’d raised him, and the dogs. The dogs’ stink he’d been so used to as a kid—it was just the smell of home. He’d roll with them, grab their skins like a brother, they’d kiss his face, and he’s say, ok ok,cut it out guys but really, the big sea lion mouths lunging toward him made his heart ache.
Returning, he smelled their stink. He washed his hands, after gingerly petting them, and he didn’t get down on the floor with them anymore. His cousin, on disability for morbid obesity, noticed the change. But he was kind enough to say nothing. Ryan hid in a drugstore cologne shield. It felt blue and crisp and carried it’s own nauseating reek of those early fall semesters in Columbus, the big city.
The TV as background noise. Endless company from sarcastic newspeople and bacon hawkers. It was no longer home. The TV was an old big wooden one, a piece of furniture anchoring the living room. One day, not long before he left for good, he tripped over one of the dogs and jammed his finger in the doorway. The hound wiggled her ass and shuffled out of the way. Ryan’s cousin pulled himself away from the flashing primary colors and teeth on the TV—he turned with effort in his chair and said, “Hey Ry, you ok? You hurt?”
Ryan wanted to squeeze his cousin’s face, dig his nails in, close his fat mouth, close his eyes. Then cold shame flashed in his belly and Ryan looked away. “When are you going to get a flat screen—you waiting for the magic polar bear or some shit?”
So, no, he wrote Rochelle that he didn’t end up becoming a vet. Or a vet assistant, or a clerk at Petworld. He didn’t add that he didn’t even love his dogs any more—they literally made him gag. And when he got his own place in this little suburban complex, where everything is single guy quiet, there wasn’t even a fish.
Rochelle asked what do you like to do? What did he do—he had a daughter he didn’t see. He worked at a cell phone store. He went to top 40 bars in shopping plazas and fucked girls like Cari. All he could say was he was moving to Cleveland.
It was a lie—but it became something to do.
The water ran. How long had he been in the bathroom? Someone would think he was taking a shit.
On cue, the door thumped. He popped like a pussy: “Just a minute!”
He opened the door on a little girl with big brown glasses, not the pissed off character he expected. He had to hang on to his nerves.
Outside the sun hit the grass too hard. He heard, from a distance, his dude say, “dude.”
He didn’t turn, felt a sweat bee in his sleeve, wiggled his shoulder.
It was as if he couldn’t see any of them clearly anymore. It was his sinuses, making his head feel stuffy and weird. He saw his dude charging at him from across the yard, Cari behind him, pulling his arm. Everything seemed farther away than it probably was. He saw the guys and girls near the picnic table with the plastic green cloth by the skinny crabapple tree. He knew there were baked beans with bacon and potato salad and two of the girls wore crocs, those big plastic shoes he didn’t understand. He knew there was some music coming out of some little speakers in the grass, but he couldn’t tell if it was country or hip hop or metal: lazy whole notes of some instrument that could have been a guitar, or synthesizer or even a voice.
The sky—something about the sun. The weird angle of the sun made his head feel like a mushroom whose cap is slightly separated from its stem. It hurt and it was scary. He wanted to ask the others if they’d ever seen the sun at an angle like that before: something was wrong with the sun.
He turned then, and started walking away, down the hill, not running.
Did Rochelle think he was a creeper? Rochelle laughing in that younger sun, the same sun, but not so runny and white. Rochelle with her blue spiral notebook, a face carved into the cover. An old man, or woman, a face like wood grain, carved hard during long class days. The bridge of the nose gone over so much that white showed through the black ink.
Did she think he was rapey? He written, “I’d crushed on you hard, lol.” The words: crush, hard, the qualifying lol, did they make him sound like a creep?
But there she was on Facebook—her face rising up, and there was a picture he’d taken! From back in the day: her arms out, looking at him with her head cocked, flirtatious, some third party had posted it—he remembered grabbing some girl’s camera. And there was Rochelle now, her hair a shade darker, her neck just a little thicker, but beautiful, tending a baby, and why was it so strange to think, we could just slip out and have a drink and marvel at—the possibility of knowing each other across this divide.
This time there was a vibration—Ryan slid his hand in his pocket.
The hit to the side of his face registered a second after contact was actually made.
Stars, light and meat. The earth rushed up and slapped the left/back of his body: hip, occipital bone, then ear, shoulder blades. And there was a brief expansive void – time taking a swallow, silence and then the noise, people around him on either side.
A voice, his voice: something was supposed to happen, something should have happened, why didn’t anything happen, and then, blocking out the scene unfolding in real life, images rose up from his mind, filling his eyes: of Rochelle laughing, her frizzy hair whipped into and out the little rectangular window of the bus, the heat in his lower belly, the primary colors throbbing from the ear buds of their Walkmen.
And then he saw his baby girl, suddenly, his baby—he was there when they held up the baby pulsing blue and pink and wet with vernix—she turned her black almond eyes to him, opened her mouth and howled.
The hit hadn’t even seemed to come from Matt, but it must have. That’s the only thing that made sense. Ryan, still on the grass, craned his neck forward as his body closed in defense like a pill bug, and he saw dudes holding Matt back, and Cari looking not proud but ashamed, her face in the shadows of her hand. Matt tried to break free because he was supposed to, but his face was slack, worried.
All the shit talk they’d talked over the years: punch that little bitch in the nuts when you see him, he’s gonna have my crusty dick in his mouth, if I see that punk-ass bitch, I’m gonna make him wish his daddy were still sticking it up his ass: for all the talk of all the nights of shit-talking, none of these thirty-something bros had ever been in a fight.
Ryan sat up, hands trembling. The people: he looked side to side and didn’t recognize them, some guys and girls he knew sure, his friends, but he didn’t make eye contact. Their support felt like shame, as if they were pulling his pants down.
“Dude!” said Matt as he pulled away from the guys holding him back, took a couple steps toward Ryan, still on the ground but sitting up somehow, then turned and stormed off. Didn’t run away, but walked off pissed. Didn’t need to specify as to whether he was pissed with Ryan, Cari or himself because his walk was general: no regret, but no pride in the act. Cari ran after him. More material for their relationship.
Ryan looked around. A girl, Jenn, was asking if he was ok, did he want a paper towel or some water? His hand was to his mouth and it came away wet with blood. He couldn’t answer. Did not know the right thing: to take comfort? When all he wanted was to blow it away, make like it never happened. He looked at her mouth. She held her eyes and mouth set in concern, but the corners of her lips were twitching up in pleasure. She couldn’t help herself. Something was happening, here in the yard.
“I feel like I should know you, but I don’t,” he said to her.
“Oh my god,” she turned to a girl with short hair, spiky bangs and short shorts. “Julie – he’s had a concussion.”
Right. Ryan knew. Julie was a nurse. “No—I know you’re Jenn. But I don’t know if we just met this summer at parties, or if your friends with dude, or if we’ve ever had a conversation, or why you’re here—why are you here?”
“Ryan. You’re moving to Cleveland. You met me three years ago at Rob’s. We’re here cause it’s Friday. We’re here to give you a send-off.”
Ryan stood up and walked away from her, after letting her hand drop, both their hands limp like ghost hands.
“Plus, it’s my folks’ house!” She said after him.
They stopped calling and let him go. He walked through the grassy dip between houses, what was once called a side yard in cities where yards were scrappier, not flowing verdant green, fertilized and caressed like here. Someone’s parents’ house, even though they were all grown ass men and women. He remembered his phone, and pulled it out. The text was just from his dude at work.
Three weeks later Ryan stood on the upper level of the James Garfield Mausoleum at Lakeview Cemetery on the east side of Cleveland. It was a squat castle tinged black. He looked out over the blue sky and orange trees, red trees of Cleveland. From there he could see downtown skyscrapers folded into the distance, and to the right, the vast lake. Jolly graves poked through clean grass that would soon enough be dirty with winter. Behind him on the stone floor of the balcony, an old man sat on a blanket. Ryan turned to the old man, who was picnicking alone. He asked the man if he was from Cleveland.
“No, boss, I’m from Kansas. I been here since the seventies though, early seventies, came out here to work with my cousin. He’s dead now.” The man had a mouth like a shovel and a flannel shirt—cheery blue, like the October sky.
“It’s a good city?”
“Sure enough. Want an apple?” He held up a green waxy apple with a small circular sticker. Ryan waved away the apple, then changed his mind and took it.
“Thank you.” It was good—gushing sweet, sour water. The water of a living thing. The skin gave way to his teeth, and Ryan devoured the fruit. Even this corporate apple that had come from far away, maybe grown under artificial light, that hadn’t had the chance to live an honest, wild life. It was still a life, and life has a taste and he was tasting that life. The water molecules stitched from atoms eternal, had grown up through the tree, passed through to her daughter apple, and now flowed into her son, Ryan Bakan.