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I had my own sexual trauma at thirteen. It took only a few minutes. I can’t remember it all, but can still feel the pebbles and grit embedded in my opened-up palms, see my ripped jeans, and taste the blood inside my mouth from where my face was shoved into the ground. I can still smell their boozed-up breath on my neck and feel their thick hands and fingers. It was a one time event, but my perpetrators went to school with me. I had to face all three of them for the next five years in classrooms and even at parties. I had no one to talk to, no therapy, no coping strategy.
I begged my parents and the male police officer, who spoke with me about it immediately afterwards, to drop it. I gave no details. Details would have made me cry.
“I’ll be fine.” I said.
What I wanted to say was, “Shut up. Shut up.”
And like a miracle, they did. My parents and the cop, they shut up. In a span of less than fifteen minutes, they were gone.
I was left alone with the sound of my body hitting the pavement hard and the boys laughing and squealing in my head. It was like taking a deep inhale, closing off your ears, eyes, nose and mouth, and never exhaling again. I failed to mention “the event” again until I was 30 and in therapy for self-hatred so thick, I could stir it. Thanks God for the panic attacks that led me to the office of a persistent and wise therapist. I had no idea my low self-esteem and carefully hidden self-destructive behaviors were linked to what happened at thirteen. All I knew was I had spiraled to a black bottom and couldn’t find my way back up. Continue Reading…
In strange places, nonetheless.
This particular morning I was power walking through the aisles of Target, in search of cereal bars for a quick breakfast before meeting a friend I hadn’t seen in years. My mission: timeliness. Lately I’d been succumbing to the sultry pull of lateness, but truly, this tendency irked me. I prided myself on maintaining consistent timeliness as a teenager because my mother had provoked near-insanity in my nine-year-old-self, shuttling me to every.single.appointment at least ten minutes late. Nowadays, I’m able to calculate the theoretical ratio between the necessary time remaining for travel and my estimated lateness like a pro; yet, this never fails to inspire raw panic within me. So, this morning’s mission of timeliness would be accomplished with power walking and way-faster-than-the-speed-limit driving. Perfect.
Approaching my turn at the register, I thrust my bag at the cashier while searching for my credit card with the furthest bill date.
“I have my own bag.”
Silence, yet comfortably so. I glanced upward.
“Hello. How are you?” asked the cashier, deliberately leaning forward. He was an older man with graying hair and wrinkled skin. Wearing a bemused expression, his voice playful, he was so clearly entertained by my frenzied state that I couldn’t help but giggle.
(In truth, I was embarrassed I could ignore someone so easily. *Mental note: ask everyone how they are. Always.)
“I’m so sorry, how are you?”
“I’m ok. Just take a breath, relax.”
He had amiable eyes. How was he delivering this somewhat condescending message with such kindness?
“I’m just in a rush, I’m sorry!” I apologized; I couldn’t remember the last time I acted like this. I acknowledged my rudeness because maybe, just maybe, doing so would eradicate my ignorance. It was a desirable and convenient theory.
“Keep breathing, keep breathing. I’ll get a move on. Relax…!”
I was still looking for the right credit card. Which one had the lowest balance?
“Miss, I need this.”
The man had been grabbing at the bag between my fingers; I didn’t even realize I was still holding it. Gripping it, actually. I mumbled, “Sorry, sorry.”
“It’s ok, it’s ok!” he conveyed with laughter. There was a type of softness in his voice that I couldn’t quite place. I finally lifted my gaze to swipe my card and grab my now-full bag.
“Have a nice day!”
He laughed again: “You too, miss. You too.”
“And I’ll try to slow down!” I added. Perhaps this was an obligatory sentiment, but at least I tried. He laughed again.
With this exchange complete, I power walked back to my car and pulled out of my parking spot with the swiftness of person practiced in the art of driving under time pressure.
And then I began to think.
Sometimes, the universe speaks to us in the form of an elderly Target cashier.
This man was kind enough to reach over my barrier, my cocoon of speed and agility, my downward look indicating I did not want conversation, and speak to me. He dared unravel a few of the myriad threads holding my world together, protecting me like a shield, and whisper a message with his kind eyes.
This man was a messenger. Was he my particular messenger? No, probably not, but he was a messenger of sorts. And now it was my turn to absorb his words and decipher their meaning. I concluded that our conversation could mean three things:
- I was not meant to live in the extremely fast-paced area of Bergen County.
- I should always show kindness toward the people around me.
- I need to engage.
I began to ponder the last point. Lately I felt like I’d been trying to slow down, yet hated it: I would spend hours scrolling through meaningless pages on my laptop at early hours of the morning, my eyes half-closed in sleepiness. If this was relaxation, I wanted no part of it. But what if slowing down meant I needed to engage in my surroundings, rather than aimlessly numb my brain?
What if, like a child, I could find grandeur in any moment? I liked this idea: life could expand and contract based on my level of engagement with the world.
I considered a world in which everyone sustained such a high level of engagement: happily acknowledging other people in the street, admiring the leaves and the way their waxy exteriors glisten in the sun, searching for knowledge with eyes fixed ahead instead of looking at phones for quick-fix stimulation. An open-armed world built on a foundation of wonder.
Clearly this type of world could be created only by certain messenger-type people, those brave enough to pick others up, shake them, and say, “What are you doing, asshole? There’s a whole world out there! Look at it!”
And yet…what if we’re all messengers, just in disguise? Only a few kind-hearted souls may reveal themselves as such, but maybe we all possess the potential for deliverance deep within our bones. Everyone could experience life in broader colors, perceiving grandiosity on every corner. For those that view the world in grey, well, any one of us would gladly point out the colors and encourage them to see.
Because we’re all messengers.
Sometimes, the universe kicks us in the ass and says, “Wake up, now!” in the form of an elderly Target cashier who just gets it.
And for that, I am grateful. I will lace up my messenger shoes and continue forward, because every person deserves to own a pair.
Every person deserves to know they’re worth it.
“Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what.” ― Salman Rushdie
Serenity House, Room 114. Hidden on a hillside among Santa Barbara’s majestic coastal oaks. The slick ad reads like a vacation destination. It is not. Serenity House is a hospice facility, a place people go when they can no longer live at home. It’s a place people go to die.
In my mind’s eye, the door to Room 114 is closed because I wasn’t there when you died, when they blessed your body and anointed it with oils. When the ghost of you didn’t haunt me.
In my deepest dream-space, you are still alive in that room. Heart pounding, I know my biggest fear is beyond the heavy oak door, and I must enter alone. I press the cold metal handle and walk inside.
You are there, propped in bed and shirtless, not dressed in a jewel-toned silk shirt, like the ones you used to wear. I place blessed salt on your chest. You, for purifying, salt of the earth, my father. And me, for salting the dark field of my childhood. I don’t want to go back. I can’t.
Enough salt, enough tears. We’re free to love and forgive now in new spirit bodies. Continue Reading…
My brother and I retreat through the vestibule of the funeral home. I pick my way through four inches of uncleared snow in the parking lot, navigating in my oh-so-appropriate black stiletto knee-high boots, and climb back into the cab of his pick-up. I slam the door as he starts the engine, and reach for the pack of cigarettes we had bought for the occasion on the dash. “Where’s the fucking lighter?” Jeff fishes through his coat pocket, pulls out an AC/DC lighter, and passes it over as the heater in the truck comes to life.
“Lager’s. Now.” A divey bar with peanut shells on the floor, orange vinyl booths, and wagon-wheel light fixtures. A decor mode not uncommon in that part of the world. Perfectly appropriate to a day such as this.
Rap, rap, rap.
There is a man at the window of the pick up. He is wedged between the window and the side mirrors which extend far out in this monster of a truck.
I look to Jeff. “Oh shit. Are you kidding me?” I hit the automatic button to roll down the window, against my better judgment, although ignoring him and leaving the parking lot would have resulted in taking this poor guy out with the side mirrors.
“You must be Julie. We didn’t get a chance to speak. I’m Pastor Dave.” He is breathless, partially from the four degree weather and his lack of a coat, and partially from the chase he just gave us out of my father’s viewing.
“Are you coming to the memorial service?”
“Um. I don’t think so, no.”
“Can we talk for a moment?”
“I don’t believe there is anything to talk about.”
“And you are?” He leans further into my window. I move the cigarette to my left hand, trying to keep the smoke out of his face, and let it burn.
“I’m Jeff. That asshole in there was my step-father.” Continue Reading…
Getting dressed to go take dance lessons at The Broken Spoke tonight I put on a silk dress and look in the mirror. I am in Austin, visiting from Los Angeles. That’s what I do. I visit the places I had imagined an ‘us’. Where he was from, where he traveled for work, where he wanted to take me. For some reason, we don’t get there. But when we break up, I go.
The trips, I expect to work like leeches, ridding me of longing and restoring me to health. According to the ancient Greeks, bloodletting restored balance. But there is always a point, weather in Paris, the Sierra Nevadas, or now, Austin, where I wonder why I have to do this. People use leeches medically because of ineffective draining. I visit these places, hoping I can empty myself of the fantasy, hoping that as much as it stings, I will let go. It is both indulgent and purposeful. J. talked about Austin, talked about us coming here, to this place, The Spoke, to dance.
The last time we danced was after the Thanksgiving, when I made a salad that cost seventy dollars because I wanted to impress people. It sat on the serving table untouched, a buffet wallflower. Back at my house the mandolin I bought to get the fennel epidermally thin sat in a drawer and mocked me for the rest of the year. We brought the salad home and when we slow danced in my living room, none of it mattered. I couldn’t two step and J smiled and told me he wanted to take me to the Broken Spoke. He said that would make him happy. I pretended like it was a little thing, but I tucked it in my brain book, a pressed flower I could take out and marvel at when he went back to Texas. A man wanted to take me dancing. I had told him I didn’t want to fall in love with someone unavailable. He went back to Texas. I hoped he would return, but when we spoke a few months later, he had a new girlfriend. I never learned to two step, so… here I am. Continue Reading…