Two dreams, one good and one terrible. But the reoccurring theme was that my head was on your chest. I hate that I still remember what it feels like. I hate that I still remember what you smell like. Your laundry soap . . . It’s a small mercy that I never learned its name, or I would paint my walls with it and drive myself insane. You’re not even real anymore. You exist, you’re a person, I know that, but you’re… disappointing. You are the feeling of Christmas morning, and you are the memory of learning that Santa isn’t real. I never even got to know you, not really. I will never forgive the universe for that. I couldn’t forget you if I tried, and I haven’t seen - or smelled - you in ten years.
In 2020, you reappeared. I was dreaming about the end of the world, again. And there you were. Of course. I looked you up online, and it only took a few minutes to find your wife. Your wife. Of course you have a wife. It isn’t your fault. I didn’t think you would just curl up and die after I left. I didn’t think you’d castrate yourself like Abelard. But I was your Heloise, wasn’t I?
You weren’t hard to find either. I always told myself that I was the only one. That I wasn’t worried about it being a pattern. That I was an anomaly. I wasn’t being vain, I was being . . . hopeful.
You were teaching elementary school last time I checked. That didn’t concern me. I always said that I wouldn’t feel concerned unless you started teaching high school again.
And now you are. Should I be concerned? It feels disgusting to say no, and it feels disgusting to say yes. Was I the only one? Was I the anomaly? Does your wife know?
You have a son. He is named after an author, a poet, a rock star. I have a faint memory of debating our future children’s names in the back seat of your car, sharing a pack of cigarettes I was too young to buy. His name was on our list. So was Jolene. In a parallel universe, this could be my life.
But that’s not the first thought in my head. The first thing I think when I find out you’ve had a child is:
Damn, I wish you’d had a daughter.
I will never forgive the universe for letting us meet when we did. It shouldn’t have happened. The wires got crossed, we missed the signals, something in the cosmos went down wrong. I have read about twin flames and past lives and Indigo Children and all I know for certain is that the first moment I laid my eyes on you, I knew you. I knew you. In a cosmic way.
Somewhere, some time . . . I don’t mean that we were lovers in a past life, I mean we were closer. We were the same. We must have shared a womb. You were part of me, and I was part of you. You have always been familiar. I knew your smell before I met you. But I was too early. You were too late. I’ve crunched the numbers. In this lifetime, it never would’ve worked.
I wish I could stop dreaming about you. But every month, like clockwork, there you are again. Bleeding brings you back to me. My dear friend Catherine, in all her wisdom, reassures me it’s a good sign I only dream of you when I’m menstruating. Like it’s an act of ancient witchcraft; even on some spiritual plane, my body is still desperately trying to get rid of you. We don’t belong together in this life, we never did.
The other day, I found out on accident: she is pregnant again. And I am once more flooded with my broken thoughts . . . God, I hope you have a daughter. I hope your wife tries to name her Jolene, and you can’t think of a reason to say no.
I know this is an esoteric curse, and it’s unforgivable to condemn children for the sins of their father. Besides, I’m an angry, queer, feminist, and gender is whatever, right?
But god, I hope you have a daughter. I wish her no ill will. I hope she lives a blessed life. I hope she’s smarter than me, and that she never has to heal from loving a man like you.
But god, I hope you have a daughter, and that when she’s 13 she meets the love of her life. I hope she meets him a dozen years too early. And I hope you’re there to witness it, on this side of the looking glass.
I hope he’s twice her age, just old enough to know better. I hope he’s broken, and sad, and trying his best. I hope he has such a good reason for being such a mess. I hope that he drinks Southern Comfort just like you, and I hope you can smell his sins all over her neck. I hope you hold her broken body while she weeps, and remember how terribly small I was. I hope you look her in the eye and see me again. I hope she makes you remember who I was back then, and I hope you are finally able to forgive me.
I hope you have a daughter, and your wife wants to name her Sarah, and you are too ashamed to tell her why you can’t. And maybe, maybe then, I will finally be able to sleep.
This question always breaks my heart. I hear those words and a montage of memories plays in my head against my will: the endless zoo of stuffed animals I kept as a child, not to play with, but to collect. They each had names, and personalities, and I would line them up every night on the bottom bunk, on the mattress my mother called a “taco shell” but I had a melt down when she tried to throw it out. The bed was eventually tossed during the first move, but my mother graciously allowed me to keep the animals.
She tried to explain that they would make some other child happier if I could just let them go, but I was 12 years old and we were moving to an island in the middle of the ocean, away from every person and every place I had ever known, and I couldn’t bear to lose one more thing. So we boxed them all up, and I wept as I shut them away in heavy boxes, and said goodbye to all their little faces.
The house in Hawaii was so much bigger, but somehow had less space. Hannah and I had to share a room again, and our closet was tiny; so the babies had to go in storage below the house. Eventually, I forgot about them - out of sight, out of mind. Until one night in monsoon season, when the whole backyard flooded, and water ran up to the porches. The next morning we peeled away the damage one soggy scrap of cardboard at a time. That’s when I saw them again: my menagerie was drenched, those boxes full of childhood were drowned. There was no use sending them to a thrift store, my orphans were goners. I should have let them go when they still could’ve made someone else happy.
When I graduated college, I had made plans to move across the country with this boy. My parents were also moving, from one castle in France to another, and they were tired of lugging around their kid’s shit. It made sense, they were in a new chapter of their lives, and wanted to downsize. But just as I was beginning my adult life, I was suddenly burdened with every childhood belonging I had left. I couldn’t take them with me, so they went into the boy’s father’s basement, somewhere way up north. Last I checked, they’re still up there.
A few years later, I was kicked out of my sister’s home. It was abrupt and it wasn’t, it made sense and it didn’t. I left behind as much as I could, out of spite. That’s when I moved in with Kendra, my drunk ass, two suitcases, and the backpack I had left. That only lasted a month. I left Jessica’s in the morning while she was at work, but I had to leave Kendra’s in the middle of the night, before her boyfriend could come back to stop me. I got back the suitcases, but only half of what was in them. I have left behind so, so many things. I lost that leather Harley Davidson jacket I saved up for on eBay, with the embroidered roses, that I bought for my 17th birthday. I lost that cool drawing of the girl eating the starfish, that I tore out of one of my sister’s weird art magazines. I lost my Steinbeck collection that I never read, I lost all the Buffy seasons on DVD, and I have definitely lost my birth certificate. I lost my virginity in Burnaby, I lost my last name in South Bend, and I lost my mind in Colorado Springs.
I have left trails of my belongings behind me like breadcrumbs to nowhere, because I have never really belonged anywhere. Traveling between the kingdom and the witch’s hovel, I have no space for possessions. If my arms were full, how could I hold your hand? Or your face? Or a beer?
And that word: possessions. To possess something… objects have always had personalities to me. Sometimes better ones than people. But things don’t stick around forever, anymore than people do. The kindest thing to do is let them go when it’s time. Don’t leave them in a basement to drown; they deserve better. The ones who want to love them are waiting.
My sister and I used to run cross-country in high school. It was a miserable routine of 6+ miles a day, usually across treacherous terrain, and in tropical humidity. But our team bonded over the pain, and our commiseration was a community of its own. One particularly rainy day, our coach, a fierce and competitive young woman, whispered - “You know what? Let’s just watch movies about running today!” We ran inside and flopped on the couch, breathless and giddy, promising not to tell anyone about our secret day off.
Later that night, back at home, my sister looked down at her dinner plate and sighed. “I just don’t feel like I deserve to eat,” she said, laughing. “It’s like I didn’t earn it.” Rampant eating disorders in high school aside, I knew what she meant. It’s like we hadn’t suffered enough to earn a reward, even though that “reward” was a basic human necessity.
I noticed this pattern more and more as I got older. In college, during the never-ending nights of writing papers at the last minute and cramming for final exams, we used to off-handedly brag about how little sleep we got. It’s as if there was a secret hierarchy of suffering, and we were all desperately trying to one-up each other. No one would ever dare boast, “Oh yeah? Well I planned out my schedule and I stuck to it, so I’ve been getting at least eight hours of sleep a night PLUS eating meals regularly, and I feel well-prepared for the end of the semester.” And why not? Why did we attribute heroism and admiration to whomever was the closest to collapsing from exhaustion? Shouldn’t those people have been embarrassed to admit that they had poor time management skills and took on more than they could handle? We should have admired the students who were eating healthy, sleeping eight hours a night, socializing appropriately, succeeding, and actually enjoying life, not the ones who were barely surviving.
But that was college, just a phase, an adolescent experiment in maturity and adulthood. Surely the real world would be different. …To be fair, I can’t really speak for any sort of experiences in the “real world,” because I have been working in the restaurant industry since graduation, and it’s an occupation far from “normal.” I’m not proud to say that I’ve thought more than once, This feels just like finals week in college.
Except there is no final exam, there is nothing you’re actually working towards, no promise of feeling accomplished. It’s simply one agonizing hour after another, crawling towards the end of your work week, then collapsing in exhaustion and sleeping through your days off until you have to force yourself awake and do it all over again. There is no cycle, no break, no progress. You don’t get graded, there is no end-of-year performance or showcase. The promotions are ultimately lateral, the management is as powerless and underpaid as you are, and the increase in responsibility comes with no corresponding increase in authority. Perhaps in this industry more than any other, there is the added pressure of the party culture. Where we once used to brag, “Oh yeah, I haven’t slept since Thursday, but I got that paper in on time!” Now I hear, “After working that sixteen hour shift, we went out to that 4am bar and then back to my place. I haven’t slept since Thursday!” Maybe it’s different for the chefs, who in varying degrees actually love what they do, and are working the field they are passionate about.
But I don’t know a single person who’s dream career is to wait on tables. And that’s not to say it’s a bad profession - there are numerous benefits to the industry, and although there is a subliminal American pressure to work in one’s “dream job,” I find no shame in working a job that fits with your personal schedule and affords you the time and money to pursue other endeavors while still making rent.
I think that’s the problem: this industry is supposed to be just a job that pays our bills, and allow us the freedom to do what we want in our off hours. Yet for most of us, there are no real “off hours.” We work 11+ hour days and then spend all our “free” time recovering. The politics of maintaining your preferred schedule would require an essay all of it’s own, but let’s just say it requires an enormous amount of negotiating and sacrificing one’s boundaries to feel any sort of job security, and even that is a fickle illusion.
It’s gotten to the point where when I do have a day off, I don’t even know what to do with myself anymore. I feel like I’ve become a cog in the machine, and if I stop moving, I’ll cease to function. I can feel myself getting stupider. The longer you work in any sort of customer service, I’m convinced, the less you are able to read things like sarcasm or subtlety. You must take everything at face value. The customer is always right. No one ever lies. You are the face of the kitchen, the bar, and the company, and it is your responsibility to communicate with all the hierarchies while facilitating perfection. I am an emotional escort, offering a meticulously detailed experience with the expectation of flawlessness - and each guest’s fantasy is different, often changing several times throughout the evening. It is my job to keep up, to give them what they want before they know they want it, to read their minds, to make them feel superior without acting like a servant, to be flirtatious but not a flirt, to never sweat, and to do it all with a smile.
I skipped the eighth grade, I was my high school’s Valedictorian, I graduated Summa Cum Laude in four years with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting. I’ve written a book and been Juliet twice. I’ve worked at restaurants where the Bar Manager and dishwasher attended the same distinguished University. .. But the apron fits us all the same. Perhaps my theatre training served me better for this career than for anything else I’ll ever do, because no phrase has been truer in any profession than “The Show Must Go On.” I’ve been to shows where the stage manager had to abruptly announce that they had to pause or end early due to an emergency, but in this industry, I’ve seen raging gunmen outside the doors, toxic sludge flooding the drains of the bar, and fecal water dripping from the ceiling over the dish pit - and not once has service wavered or come to a halt. The show must go on.
The performance happens every night, with a rotating cast of 1,000, and you’re the last one they’ll remember. Your bow at curtain call is replaced with a monetary assessment of how valuable you are as a human, and it’s usually scrawled incoherently on the tip line at less than 20%. At the end of the day, it’s easier to bury yourself in work, to have the luxury of complaining, “I worked until 4am last night and now I have to work from 10am until 6pm!” than it is to come home, set your aching and bruised body down, and listen to the nauseating drone of tinnitus as the silence swallows you whole. “What’s new with you?” Suddenly becomes the most terrifying question, because every time your panicked heart searches for something to say, the answers become shorter and shorter.
And to top it all off, when you serve food all night long, you oddly just don’t feel like eating anymore. Whether or not you’ve “earned” it.
I don’t think I really exist in other people’s lives. A boy accused me once of “being one of THEM,” one of the pedestrian everybodies, those terrible people who I thought we were mocking and judging together. “How can I be?” I told him. “They don’t really accept me either.” He used to tell me he was red, the only True color. And the Others, they were blue.
If anything, I was like their pet. Something they kept around for amusement, for comfort. Something they talked to without every expecting or desiring a response.
I fill a particular void in people’s lives. I am a distinct flavor they only indulge in when they’re craving something salty and a little bad for them. I am the junk food of people, always there on a rainy day, excellent after a break up or family crisis, a generous caregiver during a hangover. I am nostalgia of the time before you counted calories, I am the guilty pleasure, the once-in-awhile luxury. Not because it’s too expensive or hard to find, but because you’d get sick if you had it everyday.
I am the snarky comment you wish you could’ve thought of but would’ve been too afraid to say out loud. I am the one who asks the questions, not the one who has the pleasure of answering them. I am the friend who shows up two hours before the party to help set it up, but leaves when all the guests arrives; or shows up six hours late when they have all gone, and stays to help you clean it up.
On occasion, you might find yourself bragging that you know me, or find yourself telling one of my stories to a group of friends and pretend that it’s your own.
I am the weird thing you bought at a flea market one time on a whim, imagining for a fleeting moment that you could be the type of person who wore hats like that or could find a use for an antique branding iron. But I only looked good in the store, and once you brought me home you realized I didn’t really fit in with the rest of your stuff. The eccentricities always end up gathering dust in a corner under the pile of books you’ve been meaning to read, or forgotten in a box with your ex-lover’s sweaters. I’m the ukulele you bought because it was going to be so easy to learn, and you already knew how to play a few songs on it… but tuning it was such a pain in the ass, and you got bored with the songs you knew anyway.
I’m a high maintenance plant, the kind of orchid you purchase to prove to yourself that you can handle the responsibility. You invest diligently for a month or two, proud of your accomplishment in keeping me alive. It’s not that hard! You tell the orchid. I can’t believe all those other people gave up on you! But not me. This is easy.
But then the edges of my leaves begin to curl, the petals recoil. Was it always this difficult? Just a light mist of nourishment, a minute or two out of your week, and that was enough. Now it needs more?
You watch the orchid whither away on your window sill, but you keep it there - a vestige of its failure, not yours. Your friends come over and laugh with you. “I had an orchid once,” they say. “But mine died too. It was too much work.”
Why couldn’t it have been like the cactus, or the succulent? They’ve been with you since college, and you never remember to water them. We should be rewarded for our resilience.
One day the orchid is gone. Did you throw it out? Did your mother? Your drunk roommate? Did she slink off on her own? You can’t remember, but every time you hear the name, your lip curls into a sneer. The only kind of person who could keep that thing alive must be crazy.
I am a time machine, a vestige of a different era; too weird for everyday use, but too cool to throw away.
I told him I was Purple.
I can’t wait for the day that I look down at my own body and feel at home.
I cannot actually remember the last time I felt “at home” in it. Or if I ever did. There were flashes, moments maybe, as a child, but what sticks out the most are the memories of feeling “stuck” in it. Running at a birthday party, and realizing all the other kids were so much faster than me. Playing soccer on a field, and stumbling over my own feet. Squeezing into clothes that didn’t fit in a sweaty dressing room, panicking, hearing voices comment on “how big I was for my age.”
Curling in agony on a public bathroom floor, pressing my hot face against the tile and wishing for death. A prisoner to a chronic pain that I was told for years was "normal."
I suffered from disassociation for a long time. I think part of that just has to do with growing up in religion: “You are not of this world.” You never know when the end of the world could come. No point in settling in with that kind of thinking. Why paint the walls if we might be moving?
I did everything I could to deceive myself from the world I was in, and the world closest to me was my body. I was a fast runner, but not as fast as my thoughts. I was a diligent starver, but the hunger only created more monsters. I was a creative self-harmer, but the scars that once promised escape turned out to be anchors, landmarks on a map that always got me lost.
When I revisited them, I covered their tracks in ink. But there are some days I look at those too and feel estranged. When did those get here? Who put them there? They are flagpoles in the dirt of a war torn country. Things happen to my body. I am a body that things happen to.
Perhaps it’s not the ugly way the flesh has grown over, or the unfamiliar sensation of skin and fat that didn’t used to move that way. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel a sense of belonging even if my arms were clean. It wouldn't look like me anyway.
I used to black out every night, and wake up in strange places...
A basement with wood paneling and a green velvet couch. The overgrown grass of a friend's backyard, a muddy dog licking my face. Pavement, a hardwood bench, and a stranger's boot.
Getting older feels the same: I fall asleep in my bed, and wake up in a strange house every morning; the walls are my body, and I never know who’s home.
I think I’m getting soft in my old age. I remember huddles of grown ups warning me of this as a child, whenever a sympathetic bank commercial played or a teary-eyed celebrity thanked her mother in a grandiose acceptance speech. “Someday you’ll understand,” they’d say to me, carefully dabbing beneath their mascara. “Someday you’ll cry at silly things too.”
But I was resilient. I refused to believe that I, too, was vulnerable to their weaknesses. Even as a kid I was aware, however subconscious, that betraying emotion negated worth. This would be reinforced later, in the workplace, in relationships, even in the theatre. Only amateurs admired the ability to cry on command; only neophytes were full of so much water that the smallest of prompts could wilt them, like vases filled up to the top. True actors were made of steel, disciplined. Whatever proud soul emoted the most but cried the least was the actor who won the respect of the room.
To cry was to lose the stitching of that human fabric weaving us all together, to reveal your tears was to mine for your most precious treasure - like a deep sea diver recovering pearls from the briny wombs of stubborn oysters. It was the highest card in the hand, and the timing of its play was crucial.
I once loved a man who never cried. In his darkest and cruelest of spells he would boast that he was “too soft” for this world and that I “couldn’t understand,” as if there was a riddle to life that only he knew the answer to. The same man who could reap a harvest of obscenities from the fields of flowers I sewed with my trembling tongue… “How can I believe you if you’re crying?” He’d say, and in the same breath I’d be accused, “It can’t have hurt that bad, you’re not even crying.” Tears became currency, the same way sex did. The gods of “gender” demanded different prices; for the dom and sub in each exchange there was a unique balance of worth. In his eyes I had too much water in me to be trusted... so I drowned us in it. He was “too soft” to swim, bloated with poison, and the river dried around him.
The water is still in me, but now it’s a well, and anger is the only vein in my earth that has access to it. I can maneuver and absorb the greater sadnesses of life - like rain on a dead flower, the dirt spilling over the edges of it’s round clay pot, the little white beads floating in a murky black puddle - there’s nothing growing in there, so there’s nothing to kill.
But anger is alive. Her thrashing current has only grown stronger, and louder, with time. She is the river and the one who moves me. It comes over me slowly, starting in the throat. The air in my lungs gets warmer and harder to breathe. Roots grow over my neck, I can hear the earth around them fall on my collarbone as they reach higher and higher, digging into my skin, tightening under my jaw. My words come out stilted, like a record skipping, or a song switched off. All I can think is no, please, not now… And the feeling is hot, patchy, like sunburned freckles; a slippery pinch of flesh on the wrist in a sprinkler-soaked summer, testing your resilience to pain with the milky-limbed neighbor boys, their voices taunting, their eyes already leering. “I bet you can’t,” they say. We used to call them “Indian burns” and see who could endure the most without flinching. I always used to win. But not anymore. One grimace, one heartbeat in your eye, and you’ve lost. You’ve given up your defense. Because nobody believes you when you cry. Even if it’s from anger. Look in the river… the rocks at the bottom are the softest.
I am haunted by the quiet spaces of comfort in my life. They creep up on me and envelop my body, like a warm blanket that smothers a child. I had a rough few years there, and I have to joke about them sometimes to steady my breathing; it's somewhere between the hiccups of an asthmatic teenager and the rhythmic chant of an OCD schizophrenic.
Making lists helps, so I mark most of those dark nights of the soul with the unusual places that I slept: - a lot of curbs - a few park benches - under a bridge - a motel filled with bed bugs and a sad stain on the ceiling - that one time on top of the abandoned Hooter's - the couches of strangers who become friends - the beds of friends who treated me like a stranger
If I'd known the story I was going to end up having, teenage me would be so jealous of all the juicy things I could sensationalize. But now I torture myself until the birds beg me to rest, and it's still too hard to write down. It's too quiet, and these blankets are too soft. I have a fridge with food in it and a lock on my door but I still feel like a kid with my thumb in the air begging for a ride to the bar. I can feel myself get that lost look on my face sometimes, and people ask me if I'm sick or tired or pissed off. It's hard to explain that I'm just remembering how goddamn lucky I am to be here, and how it knocks the wind outta me sometimes because it all still hurts so much. Now that I'm not just surviving, now that I'm living, I feel removed from all the sparks that used to keep me fighting. All that time I was fighting to get HERE. And now I'm HERE and all that fight has nowhere to go. I'm a grown up now. Grown ups know when to use their inside voices.
That boy who saved my life a lot used to shake his head at me and say, "Oh shut up kid, you're five-star homeless," as he pulled off my mismatched socks and duct-taped boots while I tried to grab one more beer, black-out drunk and throwing fists into the darkness. I had a lot of nightmares then, and I didn't always know where I was going to sleep. So I'd keep my body awake, but let my brain take a rest, impressing at least a handful of crusty regulars that I could drink with them shot for shot. That's how my face found the curb, more night than one. Not from anything so glorious as a fight; the only fight I lost was to keep my goddamn eyes open.
I drink a lot less now, and I always spend the night in my own bed. I have my own bed now. But I still can't sleep. Sometimes I think I slept better on the curb.
The night woke up in the middle of me
Sometime in 2013
My life was about to change forever. I had said goodbye to him, and we knew, just like that. We would never see each other again. I had gotten onto that plane with a dress in my bag for his funeral, but he never could keep his promises. Although it was not the goodbye I was expecting, it felt like a death all the same.
I hailed a cab back home in the middle of the night. The only person who would've picked me up at that hour was the one I'd just said goodbye to. An old Lebanese woman was driving, and there was a young boy in the front seat, but she motioned for me to hop in anyways.
Me: Can I smoke in here? Cab Driver: You're such a pretty girl, why do you smoke? Me: Bad habit, I suppose. Cab Driver: I know why you smoke. It's because you think too much. Me: You know what, you're absolutely right. Cab Driver: You should do what I do. Me: What's your secret? Cab Driver: When I start thinking too much, I just go to sleep. You cannot think when you are asleep.
There was a freedom in knowing I had lost everything. The reason no one was picking me up from the airport in the middle of the night was because I was about to be kicked out of my home. It doesn't feel right calling it "home," I suppose, since it never really felt like one, despite our best efforts. I'd made my bed and now I had to sleep in it. I had fucked up the bed, and now I wasn't allowed to sleep in it.
I was intrigued by the boy in the front seat. I thought for a minute he might be the cab driver's son. I asked where he was going.
Boy: To the Jersey Academy. Me: Where's that? Boy: Boarding school, in South Bend. Me: Why a boarding school? Boy: I got expelled from my last school.
I couldn't help but chuckle. I'd secretly always wanted to be expelled.
Me: That's so punk rock. Boy: (Crooked grin) Yeah, I guess. Me: So what'd you do? Boy: (His face darkens) ...Just pissed a lot of people off, I suppose. Mom sent me out here. Me: (Getting the hint) Gotcha.
There was silence until the cabbie dropped him off. He pulled out his one large suitcase and began dragging it to the front of the dark school. How did 16 year old boy and a 22 year old girl have no one but this cab driver to pick them up in the middle of the night?
Hey. Yeah? It gets better, kid. I promise.
It's the only thing to say, when you've reached that age where you know it won't. He nodded as I got in the front seat.
Another cigarette? Just one more. Before I go to sleep.
And all at once the pattern was revealed to me, with the speakers blaring through neon signs, the faces all reminiscent of the wisdom and smoke drenched echoes from last night, last year, last life: there is nothing new under the sun. There are the same five types of a person in every gin joint from Casablanca to Mishawaka. Every bar has a dishwasher without a vehicle and an alcoholic manager the workers affectionately refer to as "Mama;" every restaurant is a Rubix cube of gossip and misinformation spoken from the mouths of people who know you and love you more than your own flesh and blood. Lovers and friends come and go, but the regulars at the bar are forever. The transient alcoholic is the exception. She wanders from watering hole to hole in the wall, always familiar but never recognized. She observes the group hugs and hash-tagged selfies from the outside, a participant, but never included. A story or two may be told some stormy night when the song she used to exhaust the speakers with plays and all the old-timers are reminded of the stumbling gypsy that made a fool of herself in one fleeting season that has since blended into the blurry grayness of time. She is of no importance to them, but they are of the utmost importance to her and always will be. The saints and monsters who's arms she flung herself into willingly will be catalogued in the testaments of glorified guilt, whispered in the hazy hour between wakefulness and sobriety, bleeding words through magnificently conducted choreography, waltzing our wretchedness in a pit-stained shit-reeking bar. As if our troubles are any more than a drop in the grand ocean of time. But oh, how potent that bruise of a drop is! Like the pinprick of blood-stained sweat on Christ's brow, as holy as the bead of condensation from the beer bottle of the sticky bar top, or the tear stumbling from the weeping child's half-closed eye as clothes are scratched off of grass-stained hips and violated without welcome. In the end we are all drops, more silent and meaningless, and more deafening and earth-shattering than we will ever, ever know.
the rocky place
Sometime in 2013
The funny thing about "rock bottom" is that it's not an event, it's an action. It's that feeling in your gut when you miss a step walking downstairs, but that feeling goes on, and on, and on... and then you wake up. That's rock bottom. It's a sharp whack on your shoulders, a wake up call by cops as you're trying to sleep on the sidewalk. It's curling up in a sleeping bag stained with liquor and tears on the roof of an abandoned Hooter’s restaurant. It's sleeping in an teenage waitress’s car after nodding off at IHOP, and it's driving 45 minutes on a scooter in the pouring rain after getting off work at midnight only to find out that homeless shelters have curfew. That was my rock bottom. Not to be aimless, or even homeless. It was to be truly... unwanted.
When I was a kid, I thought I'd already been there, to the rocky place. Then I found out that things can actually always get worse. This is a good thing to know: because it makes you start fighting. Fighting to be happy, instead of fighting to convince everyone in the room that you've suffered the most. Fighting to be healthy instead of manipulating your body to feel anything except what you actually feel. When you don't know how you're going to eat that day or where you're going to sleep that night, suddenly the struggle to live becomes much more real. You can't afford to overthink that one offhand comment and wallow sensitively for hours, anymore than you can afford that teener of shitty cocaine or the $40 bar tab that will let you blackout and have a moment of peace.
I not only underestimated just how cruel life can be, I underestimated how kind it can be too. I have gotten piss drunk and blacked out and woken up on friend’s couches who paid my tab, drove me home, held my hair while I puked, took care of me, and never made me feel the fool for it. I have hitch-hiked in the bitter hours of the morning after sleeping under a bridge because my bicycle got stolen, and had a tattooed truck-driver pick me up and with tears in his eyes say, “I have a daughter your age. I’d give her a good talking-to if I knew she was hitch-hiking in this part of town at this hour. You ain’t my daughter so I can’t say nothing, but – I’d want to know my kid got home safe.” Then squeezed my hand as he dropped me off at the crack-den motel I was living in. “It gets better, kid,” he said.
Two local bartenders took me in and let me live with them when they found out I had nowhere to go; gave me a bed to sleep in, and took off my shoes when I was too drunk to walk. I will forever be indebted to the passing strangers in my life who had the decency to let me wrestle with my demons, and even more to those who had the graciousness to tell me, "Grow the fuck up. You're stronger than this. I love you."
My advice to the sad ones, the tender the ones, the dark ones, forever curious about the limits of human suffering: go to rock bottom. You will meet the demons that were to evil for Sodom and Gomorrah - I know, because I used to drink with them. And on your crawl back up, you won't be fighting to be happy, you'll be fighting to survive - and in that fight, as the sinews of your muscles flex to make it through one more day, one more night, may you meet your Good Samaritans just as I did, on many a highway road, thumb out, heart on sleeve, tear stains streaking a dirty face. It is in those gracious moments that I found happiness - scarred, bruised, and delirious, fighting to live, experiencing more from humanity than I thought I could bear but there, beating still, my heart was alive. I was still here. I was going to be okay. Existing is a quiet ecstasy.
the after church crowd
Sometime in 2014
Once upon a time, I accidentally lived in Indiana for two years. I waited tables at a corporate chain restaurant, the kind of place where the Sunday brunch crowd were almost entirely fresh out of church. On one particularly relentless weekend, the oldest and most conservative guests seemed to be exclusively sat in my section. I could actually hear them audibly sigh as I approached them; they might as well have just said out loud, "Oh no, HER? Why do we have to be stuck with that one?" As if the piercings, eyeliner, and shaved head warranted some kind of threat, like I might bite their jugulars and suck their blood if they made eye contact. But I was friendly, attentive, kind, and professional. If anything, I used their loathing as fuel to try that much harder to prove them wrong… though it rarely worked. They looked at me through sideways glances, tipped atrociously, and treated me with excessive disdain. Thank you, church goers, I’d think to myself. If Jesus were here right now, would he be all that impressed with your tattoo-less children, gaudy cross jewelry, and the Bible verses embroidered on your velcro wallets? Do you really think the way you treat the people that look “scary” to you means nothing to the brown, Middle-Eastern homeless hippy Jew whom you believe died bloody and beaten on a piece of rotten wood for your sins, sipping vinegar and shitting himself like every other broken human piece of flesh does before their bones collapse and surrender to death? But that’s not the “Jesus” Deborah or Brenda or Bob or their fat cunt children believe in. Come to think of it, I bet the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Aryan Jesus you have painted in your tacky living room would treat his waitress like shit. He and Trump would be mighty proud of you. I survived through brunch, and crawled my way to the end of a brutal double shift. As is tradition, I see the hostess approaching me to announce that I’m cut, when a group of seven boys roughly between the ages of 14 and 24 seat themselves in my section. …So close. I roll my eyes, take a deep breath, and do my damn job. They were all polite and friendly, geeking out over little computer motherboard panels they had actually brought to the table. There was no cursing, no talk of women, sex, cars, or Kanye West. I couldn't figure out what they were all doing together.
When I brought the checks I turned to the oldest, the clear ring leader, and asked how they knew each other. "Church," he said. My exhaustion had eclipsed my better judgement, and before I could think I accidentally blurted out, "But you're all so nice!" I immediately cringed, but the young man just laughed, and invited me to their next service. I joked and tried to change the subject, making some quip about how every time I tried to step in a church I burst into flames.
Before he left, I thanked them for being so nice and polite. He asked one last question: "Do you get the after church crowd in here a lot?" I’ve never had a good poker face, and I could feel him see the look I gave. I didn’t need to answer. He asked a little more softly, "And how do they treat you?”
It was like that moment when you’re a kid, running on the pavement, and your feet can’t go as fast as your heart wants you to. Your sneakers peel out from underneath you, and your body hurls into the hot asphalt. Your heart is in your throat and everyone is running on without you, but you don’t want the boys to see you cry so you stand up and brush yourself off, trying to steady your breath, blinking back tears. Then a grown up appears, safe and warm and tall, and puts their heavy hand on your shoulder. You’re fine, you’re fucking fine, you’ve almost gotten away with it! But the moment you hear those three words - “Are you okay?” - it all falls apart, and despite your best efforts, the words get caught in your throat and tear your face apart, and you’re undone, you’re boneless, they can see you, and you weep. For whatever reason, I couldn’t hide my face from this young man who wanted nothing from me but an honest answer. So I gave him one. “They treat me horribly," I said, my voice breaking. “Like they can smell the poor on me. Like they're afraid I will get my dirty sinner germs on them.” He looked right at me, this precious geeky virgin, and said, "Yeah, you look like a lot of "Christians" have treated you that way."
"You have no idea.” I looked around the table and realized every boy there was silent, wide-eyed, hanging on every word I said. I didn’t know how to say thank you, or what to even thank them for. “I really… I had no idea you guys were from a church," I finally said. "And I mean that as a very high compliment."
The man touched my hand gently. "Coming from you," he said, "I know it is.”