Friday, March 17, 2017

Lucky or Unlucky, Part One of Three



The snow came down in earnest as dusk closed in.  In a few short hours, I’d be at the Embers Lounge on Dort Highway meeting my coworkers, Anne and Jeff.  I hoped that Chuck would be there, too, but asking them would have been a dead giveaway.

“I’m going out to dinner with Gracie tonight,”  I said to my foster mother, Jackie.
“Okay,” she said without looking at me.  “Is she picking you up?”  She held a coffee cup in one hand, a filterless Pall Mall in the other. Tendrils of grey mist curled above her head.

“Yes.”

I never expected it to be so easy.  I've lived here for two years. I never called friends on the telephone, let alone made plans to go out with them.  I never stayed up past midnight on the weekends. Sometimes things fell eerily into place. I took this as a sign that what I was doing was meant to be.  It was the right thing to do.

Barb lay sprawled on her stomach across her bed, writing in one of her notebooks.  

"Are you meeting him tonight?" She peered intently at me over the large frames of her glasses.

"No."

Barb went back to her writing and I opened a large plastic egg, pulling out a brand new pair of pantyhose.  Easing them carefully over my legs, I silently marveled at how thin I was. For that reason I always chose to put my hose on first.  I could now see the smoothness of my shimmery tanned legs, even in the dead of a typical midwestern winter.  My stomach was pulled taut into itself, all 109 pounds were carefully contained by that special built-in, tummy-control panel.

My hair, now curly and long again after the disaster, was pulled back into a banana clip, while a couple of bobby pins secured the rest around my face.  Back-combing their hair to ridiculous heights like meringue on a pie was the preferred style. I didn't know how to back-comb, but the other girls living here did. Peaks of hair were then held in place by spraying cans of Aqua Net in such copious amounts that the walls of our bedrooms were completely coated in this flaking, sticky shellac. 

"Can I borrow your eyeliner?" 

"Sure."

Barb wore eyeliner in Maybelline's Blackest Black all day and all night.  She'd freshen up her makeup before going to bed because she was certain that becoming Boy George's girlfriend could happen at any moment and this idea required her to maintain a strict, 24-hour beauty routine.  She'd awaken every morning with puffy, red eyes framed in smudged kohl, her pillowcase covered in lipstick marks.

After lighting it first with a cigarette lighter, I drew a delicate line across the tops of my eyelids. I applied silver and grey eye shadows into the creases of my eyelids.  I pulled out a long, grey sweater dress from the closet, a recent and expensive purchase from Spiegel’s catalog, and slipped it over my head.  The matching scarf was wrapped once around my neck, the ends thrown back again over my shoulders.  I swiped Avon's Please Stay Plum across my lips and surveyed the effect in the small mirror.  Just like a runway model, I thought to myself, amazed that I looked so grown up.

"Don't forget to wear green or you'll get pinched," Barb smirked.

"Yeah, right." 

Jackie left for work five minutes before my taxi arrived.  Alone in the backseat, the snow came down, melting instantly against the heated windshield before the wipers whisked it away.  Other pairs of headlights passed us, each leaving a white trail of light behind them, swirling the snowflakes into a thicker mass before they disappeared to the dark ground.  The cabbie was silent.  I made no attempt at conversation.

Ten minutes later, he pulled into K-Mart’s parking lot.  I dropped two dimes into the payphone.

“Hello?”  Anne sounded sleepy.

“Hi! I’m here!”  My sudden surge of excitement surprised even me.

“Where’s here?”

Moments later, Anne pulled up in her faded red Volkswagon Rabbit. She smiled.

“Wow!  Look at you!”

“What do you mean?”  I feigned innocence.

She shook her head. “You’re way too sexy." Her lips went from a curve into a flat line. "Don’t you ever just want to be seventeen?”

“No.  I don’t.”  

I didn’t want to be seventeen. I wanted to be older; I wanted to look older. I wanted to live in the older world where I could think and do for myself, the way others did. That world was near. Being seventeen meant only that I was getting ever closer to being there, wherever there was.

Inside, the lounge was thumping with loud music and a swirling mass of blinking, green-colored lights that hung from dozens of foil shamrocks. A frenzied mixture of silver and green tinsels swayed like pendulums by the constant opening and closing of the door as more and more people, pushed in by snowflakes and wind, crowded into the bar.  The bouncer handed me a fresh, pink rose tied with a green ribbon and an effervescent “Happy St. Paddy's day!” 

Jeff was sitting at the bar.  He turned and waved.  Anne must have told him I was coming.  He gestured toward another glass filled with ice and golden liquid that was sitting. Waiting.

I danced with him, if the jerky movements of my hips counted as dancing, and had two more 7 and 7's before I saw Chuck, a dead ringer for Joe DiMaggio. Chuck was already drunk.  Wearing a thick and unceasing grin, he waved enthusiastically from the dance floor. I'd heard that he arrived at parties fully lit. 

My heart sank.  He was wearing that ugly brown suit again. His tie, still tied in Windsor, was slightly askew.  Although I had looked forward to seeing him here and somewhat out of the way, I was suddenly disinterested.  My manic moods were unpredictable when I was around him.  One minute I really liked him, I thought about him all the time, read and reread his love letters.  The next moment, and it could be for any reason, I despised him.  Often it was over his clothing choices, his neckties were often mismatched. It was something that made me wince in private.  Other times it was in the way he flirted with me openly in front of our coworkers.  Either way, I was here now in this adult world, it was St. Patrick's Day and the snow was coming down. 

I’d had three drinks but to little effect. I was boringly sober. Or was I just bored?

I must have been drunk.  The blinking lights that normally made me crazy-eyed were now beginning to make sense.  They seemed to fade into the distance. The noise seemed quieter.  I saw myself in the mirrors around the dance floor. I don’t know how many men I danced with, but my feet were numb. I danced with men I didn’t know, was annoyed with the men I did know, and I moved through it all with disconnect.

As quickly as it came, that mood disappeared and a new one surfaced.  I found myself dancing with Chuck.  How it happened, I don’t recall, but after two, maybe three dances and as many more drinks, I was sitting next to him with yet another glass in my hand.  I finished it, setting the glass down heavily on the table.  

I turned to look up at him, and his mouth was on mine. 


**to be continued ...
***excerpt from Banana Seat Ten Speed.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Take It Down, Part Two


One year, my dad decided to forego the ritualistic hacking of the tree limbs. Something had angered him, none of us kids knew what it was that set him off, but in the time it takes to pass through a doorway and come out on the other side, he'd have a fire blazing across his stubbled face. Most of the time, I don't believe he even knew what made him angry.  He'd appear in the doorway and stand there for a moment looking like he'd forgotten something.  Frustration at his temporary loss of memory caused his eyes to dart about the room, as though he were deliberately looking for something to blame his anger on.  Once he found it, there was no escape or reprieve.

"Who did that?" he shouted, pointing to a bottle of pine-scented Lestoil sitting on the buffet. His eyes quizzed the four of us who only had silence to offer. We all knew that he left that bottle there, but dare say that out loud, no way.

"I'm going to ask ONE. MORE. TIME! Who did that?"

We turned into four little stones.  My father hated silence. It fueled his rage until, quite without warning, he moved with definite purpose toward our Christmas tree.  No one could have guessed what would happen next.  Grabbing it by a single branch, ornaments and all, he dragged it across the room and stuffed the entire thing into the roaring flames.  It was so big that he had to shove it up and into the chimney. It made a spectacular sound as it was consumed by flame, and the house rumbled as though built on the back of a locomotive. Dad left the house, slamming the door behind him.

"Oh gubby-god," Bobby groaned.  "There goes all the candy sweeties." Fire licked greedily at the candy canes, melting the cellophane and sugar into boiling, dripping icicles.

He stood in nothing but his underwear, staring forlornly as the sugar blacked and hissed in the flames which lit up his bare skin orange as they devoured the tree.  The glass ornaments began to pop as the searing heat turned them into little bombs. There were several ornaments we had made in school, hanging now only by a bit of tied yarn.  Paper picture frames cut from construction paper outlined in wavy lines of multi-colored glitter and a single snapshot of a toothless grin sat glued front and center, the smiles held fast until the flame caused them to curl into themselves before withering into ash.

Bobby's dismay turned to fascination as he stared into the fire. He left the room only to return moments later with a brown grocery sack. He tore off a piece and tossed it hesitantly into the flame. The flames gobbled it up. Another piece, larger this time.  It too disappeared into the heat. In rapid succession, he finished tearing the bag and the flames, hungry for more, launched yet another obsession within his young mind.

Bobby now lived for two great loves: eating and burning things. A new tradition now accompanied the ritualistic demise of our Christmas trees: the sacred tradition of the burning of toxic materials. This is where Bobby resorted to finding everything and anything to feed the fires with zeal. First, it was newspaper and wrapping paper. Used and reused gift bows followed -- the kind that came ten to a package for .39 cents at K-Mart. Next was a large cardboard box, so large in fact, that Bobby, a three-foot shrimp in fourth grade, would use his bum to push it into the flames. With a candy cane poked into his face, he'd use his backside to repeatedly bump the box in until the flames licked at his underpants.

The kid was fearless, our parents nowhere to be found.

Fascinated by the fact that nothing could survive a fire, Bobby tested many other materials over the years. He searched different parts of the house for new test subjects. He looked in the pantry, the trash cans, the closets and even the contents of the refrigerator became fair game to fuel his fires. He'd emerge from these various points after having confiscated all burnable, and some non-burnable items.  Stacked higher than his own head, Bobby brought in armfuls of garbage, dropping it all onto the hearth. The box belonging to the Fisher Price police station and jail: consumed. The plastic school bus with the black and white family dog: burnt to a black puddle. Next, the cardboard box that looked like real wood from the Just Like Daddy's tool chest. Holly Hobbie's sewing machine box found its way in, followed by the faux plastic window to my Bubble Bath Barbie. If the fire seemed to be running out of steam, he'd kick its ass by adding handfuls of pine needles pulled from the carpet as an accelerant.

Sometimes, it just wasn't enough.  Fulfilling his desire to feed the flames, all kinds of plastic found their way to the crematory including gallon milk jugs and plastic tubes shaped like candy canes that, only weeks before, had been filled with fake M & M's.  Those hung proudly in our stockings on Christmas morning but were now, one by one, part of Bobby's sacred ritual.

His fueling brilliance reached its zenith when he discovered styrofoam egg cartons.  

With eggs.

"What are you doing with those?"

"I'm doing this." He set the carton on the hearth.  "Watch me." He grabbed an egg and angrily smashed it against the back of the hearth. The yolk sizzled as it slid and boiled its way down the blackened bricks while the albumen solidified and turned white. He laughed manically and grabbed another, and with the same gust of anger as the first, flung it into the raging inferno. When all the eggs were gone, Bobby tossed the styrofoam carton in without missing a beat. We watched the flames glow blue, then blue-green and yellow smoke began filling the room. The styrofoam grew and shrank, contorting as it turned black before collapsing against the grate. I turned and looked at Bobby. His eyes glinted orange in the flames.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Take It Down, Part One of Two


As kids, our house was usually the last one in the neighborhood to get rid of the Christmas tree. We had an unconventional way of disposal and because of this, it usually remained up until the end of February, minimum. In other words, well past expiry date. By the end of December, handfuls of needles lay so thick on the carpeting, they could have been confused for mulch. Every time the front door opened or closed, it acted as a bellow and the resulting wind would deposit another shower of needles onto the floor. As a result, the ornaments naturally inched their way downward. As the tree dried, it shrunk and ornaments hung on for dear life until, at last, they slipped off.

The cats, too, were necessary elements in the disposal of the tree, drinking the darkening rusty water from its tin basin before it could be absorbed to prolong the tree's life or evaporated into the atmosphere. If they weren't swatting at the ornaments, drinking the water or sharpening their nails on the trunk, they'd scratch out a bare spot in the fallen needles to make a toilet. If my dad caught the cat in time, he'd do an amazing switch-hit and with one motion, grab the cat, fling open the front door and drop-kick it down the stairs and out into the snow, where unfazed, the cat continued its business. Even after the tree was parched with fried needles, my mother would kneel beneath it with a saucepan and pour water back into the basin until it overflowed.

Each day on our way to school, my brother and I crossed the street and surveyed all the trees that had been discarded curbside, their tinsel strands blowing sideways in the wind. Once in a while, we'd find an ornament still attached to a branch and we'd relieve it of its decorating duties with a quick yank. A paper Santa boot or a floral pick of glittered mistletoe with tinsel strangled around its plastic boughs were among those rescued into our coat pockets.

Bobby scrutinized the branches for remains of candy canes.

"Here's something," he said to no one in particular.

"What is that?"

"Pa'corn," he replied, shoving the white fluffy kernels into his mouth.

I grimaced.

"It's good," he insisted. "Yummy good." He proceeded to fill his pockets with popcorn, most surely a snack that would be finished before we arrived at school.

Waiting for the tree to come down at our house was a rite of passage of sorts. Although we ate most of them during the holidays, there were still candy canes on the boughs that we could not reach even by broom or by chair, but when the tree came down, our dad would find them.  Bobby, always the first one in line, would take them from my dad and share them with rest of us kids. We'd suck on them until they were whittled into sharp points.

"Don't walk around with them in your mouth like that," dad warned. "If you trip on something, it'll go down the back of your throat and choke you. Then you'll be dead.  Just like that."

Bobby sat alongside the two younger boys in family, all three with nothing on but white underwear.  They all sat on the edge of the hearth swinging their legs back and forth in bliss, sucking on their sugar pacifiers. We were all quiet for a time.

With the candy now removed and it still standing upright in the tree stand, dad began cutting branches off the sides of the tree with a hacksaw. From that point on, the tree became a sort of upright rotisserie with the longest branches, after having been first snapped against one's knee, were thrown into the fireplace and greedily consumed by crackling flames. Over the days, branches were cut away until only the trunk remained standing, like a knobby toothpick. 

That's how things went every year with few exceptions.


... to be continued ... 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Of Storms & Trees

Dusk creeps in at 3:37 p.m. For no reason, the dog starts whimpering. I should light the evergreen-scented candles and find all the plugs to the chorus of Christmas lights around the house before it gets completely dark.  It's bitterly cold outside. In stocking feet, from inside the house, I stand at the doorway and throw paper cups filled with salt down the side-porch stairs.  I miss large patches of ice, but keep tossing anyway.

It's cold inside, too.  The furnace seems to run nonstop, and we're constantly slathering our lips with mint and eucalyptus balm.

Husband puts on a pair of socks and leaves the room.  I hear scotch tape being torn from its dispenser, and the sounds of cellophane as it's removed from a brand new roll of hundreds-of-snowmen wrapping paper.  There's salt stains on the hardwood floors, the first in a marathon of stray grains that manage to find their way indoors on dog paws and wet winter boots.

The dog wants to eat early.  Again.  

I listen for the hollow, rattling metal sound of the UPS truck, knowing that we have two or three more days of gifts yet to arrive.  I still haven't found my box of gift tags and trims.  Found it four or five times, always battling it out of my way whilst unwrapping glass tree ornaments.  Now that I need them, they're nowhere to be found.  For the first time in years, we buy a fruitcake, a decidedly English confection that I've forgotten about for two decades.  One of my dearest friends used to start them every October, a dozen in all, wrapping each one in brandy-soaked cheesecloth so that when the cloth was removed every 20th of December, they were rich and fragrant.  How I wish that now I had taken time to learn how to make them.  Her way.

The neighbor is yelling for her dog to hurry up and get inside.  Her windows are still cluttered with Halloween decorations, her trash can has been laying sideways on the frozen lawn for nearly a week.

So long ago, another cold afternoon where the sky was the color of a pewter cup. 

"My God," said Margaret, shaking her hair, laden with wet, heavy snowflakes and chunks of ice. "It's really coming down out there." She stamped her feet loudly on the hallway mat.

"Great," I remarked dryly.  " Though I'm glad I wore my boots."

"Do you need a ride home?"  Margaret was the only one at work who often offered me rides. I seldom accepted.

"Naw.  I'll be fine.  Besides, I need to cash my check and get some groceries."

"You must be close to millionaire status by now," she teased.

I pushed buttons on the office calculator while the floor heater warmed my legs.  One hundred, ten dollars after taxes each and every Friday.  Sometimes I'd have an extra seventeen dollars if I worked two hours of overtime.  Rent was fifty-five each week.  Then five dollars toward the monthly phone bill, and five more dollars toward the cable bill.  Forty-five dollars left to last until next Friday. I could have figured this out in my head, but using a calculator creates the illusion that I have so much money, I have to use a machine to help me keep track of it.

I pulled on a black felt hat, tucking my hair inside.  After buttoning my coat, I pulled my scarf tightly about my throat and headed into the storm.  A countless number of thick, heavy snowflakes had fallen since lunchtime, the sidewalk and small lawns now evenly covered.  

Five more blocks to go.  

I stopped at the grocery store, and, after cashing my check, I bought a box of spaghetti noodles and a jar of sauce.  Outside, a makeshift Christmas tree stand stood off to one side in the parking lot.  Strings of lights hung from four poles that corralled the trees within as they leaned against sawhorses and wet planks of lumber.  Fallen needles made a green carpet on the fresh snow.

"That'll be fifteen bucks, ma'am. Do you need it loaded into your car?"  

"No thank you.  I'll just take it with me. I'm only two blocks down the road."

"Fair enough then." 

I grabbed a low branch of the pine near the bottom of the trunk and began pulling.  My groceries in one hand, the tree in the other.  The tree glided easily over the snowy sidewalk, erasing the footprints made by my boots, which were now sinking ankle-deep into the snow.  Some of it even filling the insides of my boots.  I continued to drag the tree behind me, leaving a sweeping path like the brushstroke of a giant paintbrush.  Up the hill, to the home on Prospect Street, one of the few cobblestone streets left intact, where I rented two rooms upstairs, I dragged the tree up the front porch and inside.  

I let go of the tree and set my rent money on the hall table where my landlady, Mrs. Shepsea, would find it the following morning.  Grabbing the branch again, I pulled it up the staircase to the second floor and leaned the snow-covered tree against the hall corner to thaw.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Ghosts of Christmases Past

 ~A guest post from my brilliant writer-editor-friend & husband.

Past, present, future. It’s no matter; each is home to any number of ghosts. And with the appearance of each one, another welling up of emotions comes forth. Detecting a pattern in emotion is difficult, but generally speaking, the ghosts of the future tend to illicit apprehension, those from the past, sentimentality. Those from the present, which for me, are the most difficult to recognize—because how well does one see the present while staring into the past or peering into the future—are a mixture of emotions that fall somewhere in between the other two.

Tuesday, winter, Christmas. It’s no matter; each is a marker of time. And with the appearance of each one, another memory is tied.

It’s Christmas that I’d like to talk about, for Christmas does indeed present a marker of time for which many memories are tied. One of mine comes to me every year while wrapping gifts.

Every year, without fail, sometime before the first sheet of wrapping paper is parted from the roll at the snipping of scissors and the first length of tape is sheared from its dispenser, I recall wrapping presents with my dad.

It was a ritual of sorts.

Every year, at my dad’s scheduling, he would take me (and later, me and my brother) out shopping for Christmas gifts for my mom. Doing so was, at the best of times, unremarkable and at other times, a trial.

My memory may not be the sharpest on this point, but it seems we always partook this adventure too near Christmas. Near enough that my mother may have already begun to badger my father with sharply worded reminders. Yes, it seems we were procrastinators.

Undoubtedly, this procrastination left my mother feeling underappreciated. I see that now. It also left very little time to enjoy the act of acquiring gifts for someone else, at least it did for me.

I didn’t quite understand it then, but the malls and shopping centers of the 1980s near Christmas time caused me much anxiety. The crowds were too thick, the lights too bright, the air too thin, the parking too difficult, the eyes too many.  Bundled up, out of the cold and into the central heating, the skin reacts by tingling underneath the weight of insulated corduroy.

There may have been some variation, but there were four staples when it came to purchasing gifts for my mother. Every year we bought the same four gifts: perfume, slippers, nightgown and cigarette case.

This ghost is a sad one.

Sad because my mother probably deserved more thought be put into her gifts, sad because putting too much thought into her gifts would have upset her, sad because we waited until the last minute, sad because I didn’t want to be there, sad because I’m not sure my dad wanted me there either, sad because we may not have had the money to buy them sooner, and lastly, sad because, good present or bad, we had to wrap them all.

Wrapping presents. Every year, without fail, I’m reminded of taking our quarry upstairs to my parents’ room to begin the process of wrapping. Had there been any doubt that we were perhaps not completely welcome during the process of shopping, it was made clear while wrapping, we sucked.

There, sitting Indian style (as it was called at school) on the dark champagne-colored carpet in my parents’ bedroom, my father put on a gift-wrapping clinic that rivaled the best workmanship of the origami masters.

Masters of giftwrap are like masters of martial arts; you can’t spot one in the crowd. Stocky with broad shoulders, the red beard of a clan conqueror; a beard that hid scars and intimidated challengers, a bow-legged gait and perpetual frown earned from years at the oars of a longboat—no, not even the wisest of magi could know, simply by looking at him, that my dad possessed the mastery of papercraft.

The only hint that my father could ever have possessed such mastery over so delicate an art sat inside milk crates gathering cobwebs in the family garage, where the things from his past had come to rest. That is where he kept his golden trophies. Atop each one a plastic man and woman of gold stood frozen in the step of some unknown dance. My dad, in some other age, or another dimension, was a ballroom dancer, and, if his trophies were any indication, a good one at that.

Had he executed a fraction of the precision upon the dance floor that he did upon the brown shag rug of his bedroom while wrapping presents, then he was, no doubt, a regular Fred Astaire.

It was here that I learned the basics. Folds should all land on one side. No folds should be made on the front of the package. Never let the blade of your scissors close completely while cutting (that creates a jagged edge). All non-factory cuts to wrapping paper must be hidden (by folding each over upon itself by half an inch or less), only the outside most design of the paper should be visible when creating end flaps. A ruler can be used to make straight folds, a pencil helps tuck in your seams. Lumps, bumps, wrinkles, rips, tears and the excessive use of tape were all, quite very literally, frowned upon and necessitated a do-over.

At four years old this was a nightmare, at six: torture, at eight: agony, at ten: an ordeal, at twelve: a trial, at fourteen: It was okay.

This ghost stays out of the way for most of the year, but always returns just before the gifts are set beneath the tree. With each fold, I hear his appraisal. They come in long sighs from over my shoulder that only I can hear. Sometimes I do as they say and trim an end fold a little closer or use less tape, at other times I don’t.

I used to dread those trips with my dad, but in those days, as we sped across town hoping the heater would warm us, braving the icy roads and buzzing traffic, seeking parking amongst the woven brickwork of cooling cars and enduring the stinging nettles of winter on our skin while standing in check-out lines long enough to quash even the Christmas spirit of Santa himself, in the short glimmering days before Christmas we made ourselves a ghost, and I smile when it visits me.

I wish you and your ghosts a very Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

To No Way Out

Earlier this year, I found two blogs of particular interest.  Interesting because they had a common direction; both were estranged from their families ... And both blogs had a common ending. 

Disappearance.

One was written by a girl in her mid to late twenties.  She posted at least once a day, often twice or more.  It was not uncommon for her to post four times in one day, perhaps, to escape her daily demons.  From what I gathered, her parents had been extremely abusive.  She began running away at a young age, and was living on the streets until she was found and then put into the care system where she aged out.


Eventually she, along with a roommate, was able to rent an apartment and had a job where she could bike to work.  She found a rescue husky and adopted it, naming her Moon.  Moon became everything to her.


Often, she'd awaken in the morning to find blood all over Moon's fur.  This young girl would take to cutting herself in fits of unresolved rage and anxiety.  During these fits, the husky would throw her body over her master's in an effort to comfort and calm.  This went on for three years.


One day, the girl wrote a bleak post; Moon had cancer and was dying.  Nothing could be done, and so she made that difficult decision that most pet owners have to face.  The girl seemed to handle it as well as could be expected, but soon after, it became evident in her writing that she was losing her grip.  Her demons were now gaining ground.  Grief and troubles escalated to such an extent that her therapist insisted on seeing her daily for several consecutive weeks, but to no avail. The blog ceased and the girl vanished, leaving behind a blog several years in the making.  Having had a substantial following, her readers were left hanging and worrying. 


The blog's author never gave her real name, nor any indications of where she might have been living. No name, no age, no location, nothing but a chronicle of her heartache was left behind.  Her readers were left to assume the worst.  Day after day, month upon month, the site remains without an update.  Still her readers come, some to pay homage on holidays, others to investigate and converse about her disappearence.  Some assume she's dead, others that she's in regression.  Regardless, their comments go unanswered.


The second blog is that of another girl, aged 28.  Her blog is dedicated to providing tips and advice on leaving an abusive environment.  Although she never discloses the nature, she insists that she's in hiding from her parents; hiding because of an abusive past.  By all outward appearances, she seemed like an adjusted young person; she was in college; she was well-written; she had her own apartment that she shared with two kitties.  She took up knitting as a hobby.  She made friends and joined support groups.


She advocated leaving abusive environments, regardless of age or direction.  Her tips were often unrestrained, even going so far as to advise the best places to hide money in preparation for The Departure (tucked inside stick deodarant was a favorite), or suggesting a Bug Out Bag be packed and ready to go at a moment's notice, even in the middle of the night.  She had prepared pages and pages of checklists that, she suggested, could be printed off at the local library. Included was her extensive checklist of possible places for a person to hide until they were able to secure a safe environment to live in.  


Her blog generated a lot of controversary.  It also generated a lot of hostility.


It was evident that the larger audience of her blog did not feel that her ideas were sound, let alone helpful.  Her suggestions about an eight-year-old leaving home were downright dangerous.  But she felt strongly enough to voice her opinions and did not refrain from attacking any commenter who "did not understand the situation," or those that she deemed were, "exactly the kinds of people that [she was] trying to warn others about."


"You're the ones we're trying to get away from," she wrote during one of her final posts. 


I suspect, in contrast to those initial outward appearances, she had plenty of problems, and unwittingly, her compulsion to write and "warn" others that escape was necessary was merely reflective of that fact.  In truth, and although she undoubtedly considered her authorship to be from a position of helping others, she was in no position to help anyone, as she herself had not "escaped" but was instead "hiding" and was still in the process of escaping.


Hiding is not escaping.


It came as no surprise when she, too, abruptly ended her blog.  Readers left comments wondering where she was and how she was getting along.  No responses for weeks, then months.  And out of the blue, she reappeared to leave a message.  Her parents had hired a private investigator to locate her.  She wasn't well.  She had been seeing her therapist, looking for relief and answers.  They tried scores of medications but none brought relief.  Plagued with anxiety, she dropped out of school, moved to a smaller apartment with a roommate.  She gave up her cats.  By her own account, she rarely leaves her bed and is now close to losing her job.  She's barely able to pay her bills.



These are but a few examples of what life looks like after aging out of the system with unresolved trauma.  It's what trying to adjust to a functioning life looks like.  Survivors try to cope.  They want to beat the odds.  They want happiness and security and productivity.  But we are bewildered when all we find is pain despite our best intentions.  We make unwise choices that only escalate our pain, leading us into a jetwash of despair.  We always seem to be starting over from zero.  Nothing makes sense.  There is no comfort and no real way out.

Life after trauma can be the harshest critic.  The odds are difficult, almost impossible to beat with every step, an uphill battle.    

These internet messages-in-a-bottle have become capsules of grief floating in cyberspace. And what can we, as readers, do about it?

Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Name By Any Other

After we're born, we're cleaned up and swaddled into a blanket.  We're whisked away by nurses, our vitals and responses to stimuli checked. Our level of health, our well-being determined, documented. Then we're given a name.   Our given name introduces us into society. It’s what we’ll be called for the duration of our living days, and, in some cases, our names will last beyond our final breath. Our family, our friends, our lovers and our enemies will all call us by it. Many expecting parents have their child’s name selected weeks, even months, in advance of the birth date. 

My parents did not.

In conversation over the laundry basket while folding clothes, in bed before switching off the light, in the department store selecting a stroller, over slices of pizza served on paper plates, in the car driving to the doctor’s office. Infinite are the places, and, as the carrying of a child does not go unnoticed before birth, near infinite is the time for a couple to discuss this. 

My parents had married some six months earlier. My father insisted that I be named after his mother, Mary Anne Kilpatrick. He made it official on my birth certificate.  My mother, not being fond of my paternal grandparents, refused and instead, called me Suzy. The nickname stuck and a conflict of identity was set in place from my day of birth forward. 

Over the years, as I grew older, and as my mother's mental illness escalated, my name morphed into many other names.  Good-For-Nothing. Dummy.  Priss.  Liar.  Her. 

The letters began dropping out of my names, until the names themselves became shorter and shorter.

Eventually, I became It. 

It.  It.  It.  It.  It. 

"Tell It to get out here and do these dishes."
"Don't give It anything to eat today."
"It's not hurt; It's just faking."
"It won't be returning to school."
"We'll lock It in the bathroom while we're away." 

After aging out of the system, I legally changed my name for protective reasons. A brief first marriage produced another name change.  A second marriage changed my name yet again. 

Even today, I write under another name. 

A few weeks ago, I was asked to be a guest speaker at an upcoming anniversary event in support of REACH.  An acronym for Runaway Emergency Action Center Hotline, REACH was confused.   
"Your name isn't Morgan Bongard?" 

"No," I answered.  "That's my pen name." The woman on the other end of the line was patient.  Kind. 

"Oh, certainly, we understand."   

“Really,” I think to myself, “I’m not sure that I do.”