Self(ie) Made

“We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance” (1841)

“Katy Major! Look at you!” My skin crawls. I know all too well what she is about to say: “You’ve changed!

Jessica, a girl from my graduating class, is in my face gasping, her outer disapproval barely concealing her inner delight. We are both at a birthday party for a mutual friend and former classmate, Michael. In honor of the party’s theme—drag—I am dolled up to rival Ru Paul’s finest (if gangly lesbians served as any competition): black lacy lingerie, heavy makeup, high heels … I notice, in a delayed sort of way, that a cigarette hangs from my hand.

She is genuinely scandalized, and I have to suppress an eye roll. At my liberal arts college outside of Columbus, my classmates wouldn’t bat an eyelash if I walked into a drag-themed party wearing nothing but a feather boa. But although Michael’s party itself is in Akron, tried-and-true tough and ready for anything, the party’s attendees from our high school are small-town Medina stock: conservative and gossipy—or, as I less charitably consider them, uptight.

They all say variations of what Jessica said: You’ve changed . I’m unsettled in spite of myself. After about the third or fourth time someone tells me I’ve “changed”, I find myself wondering if they’re referring to something beyond my appearance. Have they caught wind that I’m gay? A feminist (still a maligned breed where I grew up)? A heavy drinker? Mentally ill? Or maybe, somehow, they’ve heard about the brushes with the law, the pregnancy scares … I start to ruminate on sources of potential scandal, wondering what it is precisely that has set off this reaction.

Regardless, Jessica’s shock is absurd. After all, who hasn’t changed since high school? I’ll tell you one thing: in the halls of our posh, upper-class high school, I never once saw her slinging a bottle of wine the way she is even as she stands before me, smug written all over her flushed face—no surprise, since she was eighteen and we were, you know, at school. In the same way, it’s unsurprising that Jessica hasn’t seen me in lingerie; wearing nothing but underwear to school is the stuff of nightmares.

It’s interesting—sometimes I trick myself into thinking that my graduating class knows me best, because we’ve all spent at least six years in the same classrooms. For some, the full ten years between when I moved into the district and graduated. But, much as I’d like to believe that, especially amid all the unfamiliarity of my still-new college, it just isn’t true. The vast majority of those people didn’t really see me—or anybody beyond their closest friends—except in the form of some hackneyed stereotype: Slut. Jock. White trash. It didn’t occur to anyone back then, how we all move within and beyond those categories, both in high school and outside of it. Maybe this is why facets of who we are, newly risen to the surface from far below, have a tendency to shock, suddenly apparent post-graduation because, for the first time in six years, we’ve escaped the claustrophobic identification system that birthed satires like Freaks & Geeks and Mean Girls. It is then we begin the most radical years of self-formation.

Who we are is a complex matter. The selves of chance and the selves we choose merge haphazardly, unevenly, shaping a fully-fledged adult around the age of twenty-five—far past high school—when the brain reaches full development. Appearances give little away in terms of the story of who we are and how we have become … but, in the limited scope of the selfie, we exhibit who we might like to be in the subtleties of the image we create. This is the twenty-first century and, if we can’t be exactly who we’d like to be—that age-old tragedy—we can at least play pretend in the tiny frames of mobile phones and laptops.

selfie made photo

 

Before I went to college, the term “selfie” scarcely existed. Instagram was just barely kicking off in popularity, in no way the social media behemoth it would become. This is not to say that, as teenagers, we failed to document our every expression and mood, as today’s teenagers notoriously do. Back then, we pointed digital cameras into mirrors to capture ourselves, ever trying to hide the extended arm bearing the camera and the flash’s telltale rosette—an untidy blur if the mirror happened to be dirty. Around the time I graduated high school, however, the iPhone was gaining traction. Before long, everyone had one. The ubiquity of the front-facing camera made the selfie a near-daily ritual.

This one was taken five years ago—nearly a fifth of my lifetime ago. What stands out to me as I examine this picture is my youth, perhaps transparent to no one but me. My hair is undyed, plain brown, ruddy in the yellow lighting of—you guessed it—the bathroom. (Old habits die hard.) My cheeks are still round. My smile creases my entire face, a contrast to the thin, close-lipped smile I wear on my current driver’s license. My skin, I can’t help but notice, is smooth and pink, not marred by today’s scarring, the remains of years of stress acne and cigarette smoke damage. So much has yet to happen to the girl-woman in the picture, still teetering before the chasm of adult life.

Still, much had already occurred. God’s will, or the plain luck of genetics, had already done its work. I was born fortunate to caring middle-class parents in a safe Ohioan idyll. The face in the picture above bespeaks privilege, no doubt about it—that round and rosy face is the product of never wanting for food, for shelter, for chapter books to devour or Christmas presents to tear open. My father’s Mediterranean features are splayed across my face—leptorrhine nose, broad brow ridge, oval face, wide eyes—while my coloring is a near-perfect match to my mother’s: fair skin, blue eyes, dishwater hair. In a word, I’m average—a forgettable exemplar of the so-called melting pot that Americans proudly lay claim to.

This picture is rather casual in comparison to later selfies; eventually, technology caught up with my generation’s desire to make a self rather than simply reflect one, cropping tools and filters abounding. Instead, in this photo, the posturing is in the details: my smile is a bit too big and my hair is suspiciously neat. Yet, my skin shines with perspiration and I didn’t bother with framing the shot strategically or filtering the final product. Only I can discern, mostly by way of memory, the enormous discomfort of my life at that time, as the new and the old clashed dramatically.

 

My brother died in 2010, seventeen months before I snapped the selfie above to oh-so-casually send on to a crush via SnapChat, a brand-new phenomenon at the time. His death occurred just before the mobile phone’s transition from the pull-out keyboard to the touchscreen. I, too, was on the cusp of something: adulthood. A little over eight months after he died, I would graduate from high school, never more unsure of who I was—past, present, and future. Every classmate that walked across the stage at E. J. Thomas was engaged in the delicate process of self-formation, no doubt, but—perhaps like every teenager—I couldn’t help but feel terribly alone. In the year following Colin’s death, I drank my first beer, drifted away from old friends and made new ones, chose a college to attend, reluctantly attended prom. My parents divorced. I moved out.

These are all facts—just facts. Who is to say what re-makes a previous self and what cements what was already there? Later, I had a drinking problem, “alcohol dependence” drily noted on my chart when I was hospitalized a month or two before graduating college. It would be absurd to link those two words, penned four and a half years later, to that first half-full Solo cup I slugged back at Ohio State … wouldn’t it? And would it be equally as absurd to see my poor mental health as purely the result of trauma, rather than a destiny of chemical imbalances? Cause and effect, past and present—the distinction between who we have become and who we always have been is difficult to pinpoint.

I obsess over the possibility that who I have become might not necessarily be who I was “meant to be”—a slippery concept cobbled from superstition and faith and doubt and a certain resigned fatalism. I imagine myself, still fresh-faced and young, stumbling upon the proverbial fork in the road and glibly skipping down the wrong path, littered with hangovers and lost sleep and despair—just parallel to the path riddled with landmarks like graduating Summa Cum Laude and publishing a book by twenty-five and marrying young. I try to piece together an alternative self when I’m lying awake at night, imagining who I was “before”—before when? Before Colin died? Before I came out? Before I started drinking?—and trying to place her in my current circumstances, wondering how she’d react. Invariably, the answer is “better.” I imagine her sailing through her college classes, mind so clear from an uncluttered path to adulthood that she knows exactly what she wants and pursues it with a certainty that needs no outside reassurance. The real me stumbled through college, accidentally discovering passions and falling into bad habits and joining causes and abandoning the old for the new, all in an alarmingly haphazard fashion.

In my therapist’s office, I ask—though I know she doesn’t know any more than I do—whether I would be mentally ill if. If Colin hadn’t died. If my parents hadn’t divorced. If my coming-out at nineteen hadn’t been such a disaster.

In her usual calm, neutral tone, she says: “Well. You were born with anxiety, no doubt about that—just like you were born with blue eyes and blonde hair.”

I start to cry—and fail to confess that I’m a bottle blonde—even though her answer contradicts the one I feared I would receive: that the circumstances of my life have altered fate for the worse. Nothing is what I want it to be. “So, you mean I’ve always been fucked up?” I wail.

She shakes her head patiently. “Do you think that people born with diabetes are fucked up?”

“No,” I mutter, but I’m still picturing a smile as bright as the one I wore seven years ago, nine years ago, twelve years ago, plastered across an older face.

“A picture says a thousand words,” we say, intoning the old cliché as if it still holds any real meaning. On the contrary: a picture says little. While essayists are typically experts at wringing photographs for meaning, I find myself at a loss when I eye a selfie. Candids are easier—there’s Mom, harried, at my fifth birthday party, jerked out of comfortable introversion by the obligation to celebrate or Dad, interrupted from the computer’s hypnotic draw a second before a bleary-eyed snap is taken. Even group photos, staged as they are, rarely lack a lapse in order—a crying baby, a blinking uncle, a pair of “bunny ears” gone unnoticed. Selfies, however, are something quite different—an everyday artifice used to create someone new, not the past and present selves which so often disappoint, but an aspirational future self, an ideal. Genetics, luck, fate—they’re all muted by the artful use of strategic angles, filters, and multiple takes for good measure. It takes a keen eye to bypass technology’s disguise and see through to what lies beneath.

 

When you are young, it seems this simple: pick a job, a spouse, a number of children to bear—these are straightforward constructs that limit or expand your life. Who you are is another matter entirely. When you are a child, you presume that you will be the same forever. That you will always eat a cheese sandwich and watch Blue’s Clues at lunch. That you will always be best friends with the little girl next door—and, if you’re like me, that even if you and that little girl do happen to grow up, you will build conjoining mansions to live in. That you will always have a crystal-clear sense of right or wrong. It never occurs to you that the act of becoming will at times overwhelm you, the dizzying possibilities nearly buckling you under their psychic weight, that the choices you make will leave you wondering what is fundamental and what is evidence of becoming: mistakes, influential social trends, damage sustained through that trick of metamorphosis. Urgent and troubling questions will keep you up at night: What has life made of me? Have I ruined myself in the becoming? Who am I supposed to be?

 

Consider one of the world’s most famous women … the first “social media mogul,” boasting tens of millions of Instagram and Twitter followers, a mobile game she created and stars in, and a pack of emojis for the iPhone bearing exclusively her face and body. Her daily life televised for more than ten years. She’s the author of a book composed entirely of selfies. She’s a fashion model, a business owner, but mostly, a “celebutante”: famous for being famous. Her image is everywhere.

On May 24, 2006, Kim Kardashian left a Brentwood cinema after seeing a matinee showing of The Da Vinci Code with post-Newlyweds Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees. Midafternoon. Brentwood. Yet Kim’s toes had barely brushed the pavement before the two were swarmed by paparazzi, eager to photograph the latest substitute for America’s sweetheart, Jessica Simpson. There they were, in a quiet LA suburb—in droves.

Strange. What would possess LA paparazzi, typically busy chasing down stars downtown, to schlep their way to a suburban movie theater? Lachey, particularly now that he has all but faded into obscurity—a tombstone marked “98 Degrees” sprouting up in the graveyard of nineties boy bands and more than a decade having elapsed since the finale of Newlyweds—is fond of pointing out the role he played in Kim’s rise to fame. “No one followed us [to the movie],” he told Details magazine in 2013. “Somehow, mysteriously, when we left, there were thirty photographers waiting outside.” He laughed good-naturedly before getting to the heart of the matter: “There are certain ways to play the game, and some people play it well.”

The reaction Kim Kardashian typically evokes is a grudging mixture of exasperation and admiration, resentment and awe. Although many Americans are, perhaps rightfully, quick to point the finger at Kardashian and her ilk for rendering fame meaningless—no longer an indication of exemplary talent or even obscene wealth—no one can quite bring himself to go so far as to deny the astonishing cleverness with which she played the celebrity machine.

Similarly, around the time that Kim was reaching the upper echelons of tabloid ubiquity, a sex tape was “leaked” and later sold as Kim Kardashian: Superstar, a scandal which generated plenty of scorn, but even more media attention. In a coincidence that parallels Kim’s star-crossed encounter with the paparazzi in Brentwood, a little over six months later, Keeping Up With the Kardashians premiered. 1.3 million tuned in. Today, the show has been on the air for fourteen seasons and more than ten years.

The game that Lachey enigmatically refers to is a game that we all play to some extent. Whether we like to admit it or not, self-formation is often forced, at least at first. Remember when you were a teenager and determinedly wore a political t-shirt bearing an eco-friendly message every single day, dead-set on proving yourself a hardcore activist? Or, when you signed your name “Marilyn Monroe” sometimes, in hopes that willing yourself glamorous could make you someone equivalent? Or, when you gave your entire presentation for your elementary French class entirely in French, just to prove that you could?

Maybe you don’t, reader, but I do: because this is my story of self-formation.

Pushing the traits that we most treasure in ourselves to their dramatic extremes is a part of teenage life, a precursor to the young adult years when our most definitive features settle back into their natural state and the adolescent pressure to individuate fades. Today, I volunteer at the local parks to do my part for the environment, though the “Save the World” t-shirts are long since abandoned. I’m not glamorous by any means, but wear Marilyn’s signature red on my lips for special occasions. I don’t need to prove my intelligence, because by this point, I know who I am: maybe not a genius savant with a sky-high IQ, but someone with skill and dedication who laps up knowledge eagerly and occasionally retains it. I’ve settled into myself and, let’s be honest—so has Kim. She scarcely needs to call the paparazzi now—if this is, indeed, what happened in the spring of ’06—for they doggedly follow her wherever she goes. Kim’s experience is magnified by her celebrity, her game played with higher stakes—a potent risk of public humiliation and the shining opportunity to matter in the public eye—yet still she only demonstrates—on a giant, media-swollen scale—what we all practice.

 

In 2015, Kim published Selfish, an autobiography entirely consisting of photographs of her—not professional shots, but “selfies” previously posted on Instagram, each skillfully rendered glamour shot swollen to a dozen times the size of an iPhone screen on wide, glossy pages. On the surface, it seems as though such a project is doomed to flop: if Kim’s reputation suffers, it is because the public perceives her—and the desire for fame that drives her—as shallow and self-absorbed. A book entirely comprised of selfies seems perfect fodder for such criticisms. Surprisingly, however, critics by and large found Selfish poignantly revealing, despite the crafted artifice of the selfie and the layers of expensive clothing, lingerie, or makeup draped on the subject, intensifying the smoldering gaze with which she so often meets the camera.

The photograph—like the film—is a slanted replica of a person or her life. An artifact that we view as a reflection of reality, but in truth, veers closer to fantasy. The form is fundamentally different from the experience of witnessing someone in motion—not only because the moment frozen in a photograph whizzes by before we can process its meaning, but because even candid shots are staged, arranged in the mind’s eye of the photographer. The selfie, then, is something more altogether: to the subject, it is a skewed funhouse mirror. While, the spectator can’t discern where reality ends and fantasy starts. Psychoanalysts theorize that when a child first looks into a mirror, paradoxically, he perceives the other for the first time. He sees his reflection as a separate object and is presented with the illusion of self as other—and so two others appear to be confined in the looking-glass before him. He identifies with the reflection—a separate object—a not-him—a creation of his own. He’s witnessed his first potential selfie.

Kim Kardashian West’s selfies are crafted reflections of her, canny as her public self-formation. Artfully wrought, each one depicts another angle of Kim’s success. Here she is in 2006, still dark-skinned and visibly Armenian, using the now-archaic mirror and digital camera to capture the shot. Here she is in 2009, cavorting with Kourtney Kardashian, both still twentysomething and baby-free in Mexico. And here, she is in 2014, showing off her resplendent post-baby body in a lavish full bathroom that could only belong to the wife of Kanye West. Her pictures move from apparent carefreeness to the smoldering stare of a successful businesswoman and international sex symbol.

One recent selfie, near the end of Selfish, depicts Kim, hair ocean-tousled, in full makeup—though her eyeliner is artfully smudged, as if to suggest that this is a casual pose—wearing nothing but a towel, barely visible at the bottom edge of the photo. No longer a smiley twentysomething, glib and cutesy, Kim is all sex symbol, all the time, her face carefully arranged into an expression of haughty indifference, her shining visage as glossy and surreal as the sleek coffee table book itself. Since her first pregnancy, her curves are more pronounced than ever, her breasts bulbous and veiny, and it’s hard to tell what the focus is intended to be: the dark eyes which gaze unwavering at the camera lens, or the eye-popping presence of her breasts below. The sweetheart of her family reality TV show, the drool-worthy and busty babe of the likes of Maxim and Playboy … spectators can’t decide and, based on this selfie, maybe Kim can’t, either.

Selfish depicts Kim’s journey from celeb wannabe, cheesing and sticking her tongue out, releasing shot after endearing shot of her hugging Kourtney and Khloé or lounging around LA nightclubs and coastal beaches, to legitimized celebrity, wanted by Vanity Fair and Us Weekly alike. Her older selfies depicted a young woman intent on being fun, carefree, sweet—everything America could want for its next rising starlet, but as the book approaches its end, we find that Kim has attained iconic status.

Perhaps back in 2009, or even as recently as 2011, Kim would have been slammed by the likes of the New York Times and The Telegraph for Selfish, but not in 2015, when her atmospheric fame and status demand a certain measure of respect. The Telegraph concedes that Selfish is “oddly moving” and The Times marvels at the visual progression from celebrity sidekick to superstar: “This is the post-Calabasas Kim, the Kanye West Kim, the Kim who must be deferred to by the world’s greatest photographers and designers.” Whatever Kim may have been, natural-born narcissist or just another rich nobody, today, she is the selfie we see and what was once a pose is now an unconscious gesture.

 

I am no Kim Kardashian West: at my age, Kim was already appearing regularly in the New York Daily News, peddling designer wares as “kimsaprincess” on eBay, and skillfully turning aspirations of fame into press coverage. What it would be like to live the life of a celebutante, every detail of origin and transformation scrupulously documented for public consumption? Would such attention be liberating—or invite the suffocating pressure I feel when old friends scrutinize me, Jessica’s “You’ve changed” amplified to the voice of a million so-called fans?

Our world is a place where photographs —once considered straightforward depictions of reality—are not captured but crafted, a place where the famous have abandoned the game of chance for one of strategy. Discerning the essential self from the obfuscating effects of trauma—airbrushing tools, Instagram filters, contouring—is a bewildering process and so, in an effort to understand—to wield control over the seemingly uncontrollable act of becoming—I write. It’s not glamorous, but it’s my best chance at self-recognition. Who was I, and what was there to love in her? Would she be proud of who I have become? Words teach me what I suspect Kim Kardashian learns at twice the rate—how story becomes mythology and how those mythologies shape not just a self, but also a world that intimately surrounds her.

Ultimately, it is up to us to craft the story, in a most Kardashian-esque way, whether it ends up a cautionary tale of hitting the bottle too hard or a fairy tale about becoming the author you’ve dreamed of being since girlhood. Writing changes the world—in the smallest of ways—and, in doing so, the person who writes bypasses the empty life we all so fear. Whether or not you believe that life’s destined path is brimming with your essential self or with fate’s obscure plans, what is meant to happen must: whether by God’s design or your own careful construction of each resplendent, artful selfie.


Katy Major is a writer and critic from Medina, Ohio. Previously, her award-winning work has been published in Otterbein University’s Humanities journal, Aegis, and Quiz & Quill Magazine. Most recently, her work was featured in ‘Adelaide Magazine’s summer issue. Katy is currently at work on her first essay collection, Self(ie) Made: American Essays. You can find her on Twitter at @wildthingwriter or visit her website on all things horror at WildernessHorrorBlog.wordpress.com.

 

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The Funeral of a Nation

My grandfather is dead. I thought there would be more time, another birthday party for me to ignore the invitation for. But he has been dead for two weeks. Long enough to cast a vote for presidency. Long enough for a large and estranged family to organize the funeral, buy plane tickets, or save up gas money for the trek to the homestead of Michigan.

For most of the seventeen-hour drive, my partner and I have been bouncing around from CDs, to the iPod, to the radio, to small breaks with RedBull. As we finally cross from Ohio into Michigan, our sense of relief is met with a terrifying sense of dread. Miles tick down like the ball dropping on New Year’s. We find we’re listening to NPR more and more. In the next twenty-four hours, everything is going to change. My grandfather will be eulogized. The nation will either have its first female president, or a man who….

I shake my head.

I can’t even think of what would happen if he gets elected. I take shallow measured breaths, with each one, praying to get through the next two days in one piece. My dogs are sleeping in the back seat. My partner is barely awake beside me. My sister is dating another woman on the other side of the country. My nieces are tucked safely in bed in the state I’ve just arrived in.

There is so much at stake in this election.

“If he wins, we should buy a gun,” I tell my partner, voice hiding within the confines of the night. If I speak too loudly, if I brace myself too much, I may tip the election in favor of the sum of all fears. I can’t even bring myself to say his name.

“You should buy a knife. Maybe two. One to keep with you at all times, and one to keep in your car,” he responds. He doesn’t need to say it. In the silence, we both hear Grab them by the pussy. I bite my teeth together. I dare someone to grab me. “We should stock up on water and dog food.” We bounce ideas back and forth, preparing for another war.

On the radio, it’s announced that Trump has won another state. And another. Clinton has fallen behind. We breathe more, we drive, the dogs stay asleep in the backseat. Another mile ticks by. Ten more. We’re so close to the end.

Headlights cut through the dark road and spill onto my mother’s small house. We pull in the driveway and she meets us outside, cigarette in hand. I last saw her barely over a week ago, for another family member’s funeral. I’d picked her and my oldest sister up from the airport and was informed that the woman standing in front of me would be voting for Trump.

I’d been told earlier in the drive that she never made it to the polls. A pathological liar my entire life, I am not sure what to believe. I take refuge in the fact that even if she did vote, she has the decency to lie to me about it.

We stumble into the house, her dogs, locked away in a bedroom with her husband, bark loud enough to wake the neighborhood. My dogs make their way into the fenced in area, do their business and follow me to the bedroom.

My bones are tired and sore from the drive, from the radio, from the fact Clinton still hasn’t pulled into the lead. My partner crawls into bed beside me while my mother makes up an air mattress in the living room. She and her husband of ten years have slept separately for longer than I can remember.
Blue light illuminates the room as my partner checks the latest information for the election. “Trump is still ahead,” he says.

“I’m so scared,” I whisper as a dog crawls under the blankets and nestles against my neck. He pushes the button to kill the screen to his phone and we’re in complete darkness. My partner’s hand stumbles through the shadows to find me. He tries to reassure me with his touch, but I am mostly numb. He can’t win the election. He just can’t.

“We’ll know more in the morning. There are still a lot of votes to be counted.”

I lay awake while his breathing evens out. All three dogs breathe nearly in unison, like ocean waves crashing and going back out to sea. Slowly, I relax and follow suit. It’s still dark when he stirs beside me. I don’t know what time it is, but my body screams to remain still, hidden in blackness for several more hours. Though my eyes are closed, they register the difference in lighting as his phone jumps to life.

“Trump won,” he says.

His words freeze the air. My heart falls out of my body and onto the floor. I’m not sure I’m breathing. “No.” I say. This can’t be happening. “What?”
“Trump won.”
“It’s my grandad’s funeral today. You couldn’t just give me a few more hours of peace?” My voice rises. A war is coming.

“You would have survived the Holocaust,” my mother told me. It is one of the first memories I have of her. A thick layer of smoke from her cigarettes surrounds her as she speaks.
“Why?” My sisters and I ask.
As though she doesn’t hear the question she continues, “Jacci and Laura have dark hair, so they would be dead. But you. You have the blond hair and blue eyes the Germans looked for.” She touches my hair gently. Only, my eyes are green and always have been.

His alarm goes off. My alarm goes off. We push snooze to avoid starting the day. Another alarm. Another. I text my oldest sister to tell her that we woke up late and will hold her up and prevent her from getting to the funeral early. She tells me she, her husband, and children will wait but we need to hurry. My mother’s voice continues to play in a loop through my head, “You would have survived the Holocaust.”

But my sisters would be dead.
My grandmother was in a concentration camp.
My sister is dating a girl.
My other sister has two daughters.
I have had an abortion.
My granddad is dead.
I’m having trouble breathing.

Sensing my distress, my partner reaches over and squeezes my knee. I exhale. I inhale. I swallow the anxiety plaguing me. I swallow the urge to vomit. I exhale, I inhale. I swallow. I did what I could. I cast my vote. My partner cast his for the first time in his twenty-three years. I had intelligent debates with people on social media and in person. I voted. I made sure to vote.

Why wasn’t it enough?

I ride in the very back of my sister’s husband’s vehicle, with my niece. There is a rest stop where I buy skittles and share with my nieces and nephew. My sister, a health nut to the core, glares at me. We discuss the election results. When we speak of my other sister, when we talk of the Vice President-Elect’s support of conversion therapy, I crack. Tears sting my eyes. The world, my nation is hollow. It is the perfect day for a funeral.

“Why are you crying?” my niece asks.
“Because I’m scared,” I tell her honestly.

The sun is bright but the creep of winter is setting into the bones of the trees. I can’t help but wonder if I’m burying my grandfather or my nation today.

In solidarity to my emotional turmoil, my partner and I take a shot of vodka in the parking lot to act as a buffer from too many feelings hitting me at once. My abusive, alcoholic father stands at the door of the church greeting people as they walk in. My sister and I stop dead in our tracks, grab her childrens’ hands and back-pedal. “Why aren’t we going in?” her husband and my partner ask. We shake our heads and keep speed walking to another entrance of the church.

I have not seen this man since I graduated high school, ten years ago. At that time I was still afraid of him. Before that encounter, he had lost custody of us during a drunken night my sisters and I try to forget. And yet, that man is no longer my father, at least not the one I knew.

He sits mere pews from me, my partner, my nieces and nephew, sister and her husband. His hair is greyer. He moves slower. Parts of me are scared as I watch his siblings sit beside him, or as I observe my sister stiffen in his mere presence.

Then, when the preacher conducting the sermon says, “Let us pray,” my father bows his head, and suddenly, the man is human. A boy who just lost his 104-year-old father. A man who lost the opportunity to watch his three children grow up and become a teacher, an intellectual, and a rebel.

The procession leads outside where there are elderly men in military uniforms standing beside flags. My granddad was a World War II Veteran, the same war I was brought up to believe I would have survived. My father stands just in front of my family. I know he recognizes my sister. I am unsure if he recognizes me. My nephew stumbles a few steps away from me, and I grab him as though the man he nears is a radioactive chemical spill rather than a man.

Gun shots ricochet through the air while my oldest niece covers her younger sister’s sensitive ears. In my arms, my nephew jerks from the sudden boom.
And then it is over.

My family and partner pile into the same vehicle we arrived in. My sister says goodbye to no one. I am shaking as I take my seat beside my niece. We eat candy until my stomach is upset.

We drive the miles to my niece’s swim practice and with each mile that stretches before us, I swallow the tears that are like acid in my throat. I take a breath deep enough to puff my chest. I sit straighter. I am the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. I am the granddaughter of a World War II veteran. I am the sister of a queer woman. I am a woman who has had an abortion.

I would have survived the Holocaust.

I will survive this war.


Lynne Schmidt is a mental health professional in Norway, Maine. She has recently become a recurrent contributor of FIDO Magazine and has had publications in UNE Magazine, The Sun Journal, The Portland Press Herald, Her Kind Vida, several editions of Zephyr, and many others. She is the founder of AbortionChat and regularly attends reproductive justice and writing conferences where she participates in panels or hosts them. She prefers the company of her three dogs and cats to humans.

Alyss’ 2016 Best of the Net Noms

 A little late in posting this but congrats to our 2016 Best of the Net nominees.  You can read their nominated pieces via the links below.
Poetry:
Almost Someone Coming Home by Alexandra Smyth
everytime I speak, my gums bleed by Amber Atiya
Grundy County by Tammy Bendetti
bone editor by Courtney Jameson
Sugar water, ugly bird by E. Kirstin Anderson
Warnings with emotions up to 40 miles per hour by Jennifer MacBain-Stephens
Fiction:
Grandma by Rosemary Hayward
CNF:
 
Unfamiliar Skin by Erin Slaughter

How We Roll

“I’m not crying,” I whispered into Scott’s shoulder.  I leaned over his wheelchair and clung awkwardly to the parts of his torso I could reach in that position.  I needed to hide my laughter somehow, because Scott’s sister hated me enough without throwing a fit of funeral giggles into the mix.  The family — both warring families, in fact — stood in untidy rows around the plot.  No one else seemed to find the gravediggers’ coffin-top antics funny, but from the moment they leapt atop the closed casket, shovels in hand, I was lost. I laughed into Scott ‘s shoulder and thought about running.

It started with a trip to Detroit a year before.  I’d tried dating.  I’d met terrible men.  Scott seemed different.  His profile made me laugh, and his emails complimented me without implying that he’d like to refrigerate my head.  We talked for hours on the phone, sometimes late at night.  He told me about his wheelchair and cerebral palsy, but the information didn’t phase me.  I’d grown up on TV shows where the guy in the chair can do anything non-chair guys can do.  They danced and sang and did laundry and played murderball.

After initial online and phone talks, we made plans for me to come see him at his place in Melvindale, a part of the Detroit metroplex that isn’t quite downriver, but that is generally considered inconvenient to anyplace decent you’d want to go.  Melvindale houses many of the oil refineries that line I-75 south of Detroit.  One of the holding tanks is shaped like a basketball and has a Pistons’ logo.  This bit of whimsy does nothing to improve the smell of burning methane, a sour, gassy odor.  The charmlessness of Scott’s malodorous town (people call it “Smellvindale”) should have served as a kind of cosmic warning.  But if there’s an internal voice that tells most women to flee certain men, it never speaks to me.  My brief history of dating creeps should have taught me invaluable lessons about men’s personal hygiene, going Dutch and knowing when to bail, but I never actually slept with anyone for the first 35 years of my life, and found that the learning curve involved in romance made Mt Everest look like the escalator at Sears. I just felt so grateful for any male attention that the parts of my brain in charge of common sense and self-worth lost signal the minute I caught a whiff of off-brand aftershave.

Scott’s apartment should have prompted flight.  It should have prompted cleansing fire, because that seemed like the only real workable solution.  He’d confessed that his little apartment court had yielded two dead bodies since he’d moved in.  He said something about the tragedy of crack and the bad ideas people have about Russian roulette…after smoking crack. He made these ideas seem charmingly gritty — just more tales to burnish his urban hero cred.  Scott grew up in central Detroit.  Every other house on his block had burned, and the dingy white siding on the enduring structures made the street look like a mouthful of broken teeth.  Scott’s childhood home had had stairs.  The only working bathroom was on the second floor of the house, and his mother carried him to it every day for most of his childhood.  When the family eventually moved into a ranch house in Wayne, the motivation wasn’t Scott’s disability and a desire for something accessible, but a hand-illustrated letter from Scott’s mother’s ex-boyfriend.  The letter came from prison, provided helpful info about an upcoming release date, and included drawings of severed penises and dead bodies.  Scott, his younger sister and their mother moved soon after this note arrived.

Scott liked to describe his elementary school as “black.”

“If you turned it upside down and shook it, one white kid would fall out.  Also, one kid in a wheelchair.  They’d both be me,” he said.

“Once when I was 12, some kids made fun of me for the chair,” he said. “I said ‘What’s the matter with you people?’ meaning assholes who’d make fun of a kid in a chair.  An eighth grader overheard, and ended up leading the whole playground in a chant of ‘Redneck, redneck’ at me,” Scott said.

“Jeez,” I said, as I made an illegal left onto Outer Drive. We’d been listening to a radio story about the ex-mayor’s prison sentence. “Did that chair have Confederate mud flaps on it?  What the hell?” I asked.

“It gets better,” Scott said.  “You’ll never guess who that eighth grader was.”

“Unlikely,” I told him.  “I don’t exactly keep a roster of all the kids you went to school with.”

“No, you don’t get it,” he said, repressing a giggle. “It was Kwame Kilpatrick!”

Scott couldn’t help the wheelchair that Kwame made fun of.  Scott’s mother gave birth to Scott at 24 weeks, resulting in his cerebral palsy.  Given that this happened in 1972, the fact that he survived at all seems distinctly miraculous.  Almost a virgin birth story, given Nancy’s youth, small stature and shining innocence.  In pictures, she looks young and fresh and deeply sad, even as the 35-year-old mother of a new high school graduate.  I painted her once as a Christmas gift for Scott.  No matter how long I looked at her face in that graduation photo, I found it hard to remember just a few seconds after putting my supplies away.  She seemed unformed and unfinished, as if violence and poverty stunted her growth or at least forced her to develop in a small, neatly composed way, like a bonsai tree.  Scott’s sister, Erica, has the same child-face as her mother.  Her eyes, wide-set and strikingly dark, glare hatefully out of a round, unlined face. Multiple sclerosis paralyzed Nancy at 40, and pneumonia killed her at 45. Erica blamed herself for her mother’s death. She hired the last aide to care for Nancy, and the aide had had a cold. Nancy once threatened to have old friends in gangs take care of me. She did this in the kitchen at Scott’s house, while I stirred a pot of chicken soup and ignored her.

After a year, I wanted out, but I pushed on.  I’d drive to Detroit on weekends, dreading the sight of refineries, and wishing more than anything that I could just turn around and go home.  One of my last trips to see Scott involved his grandfather’s funeral.  Grandpa Bob lived on Scott’s block growing up, and had actually been Scott’s biological grandfather’s best friend.  A black GM worker, he’d met his second wife at AA.  This had outraged his existing wife and all but one of his adult children.

Bob left most of his money to one of Scott’s cousins. Erica found a lawyer to defend Bob’s estate from the estranged children and grandchildren who lined up for cash after he died.  Erica found the funeral home to bury Bob.  Unfortunately, the funeral director took his cues from both sides of the ensuing feud, which is how I ended up in a black funeral home in Detroit at a service with dueling printed obits.

The one Erica commissioned mentioned all of Bob’s relations — both blood kin and the neighbors who’d cared for him and his wife for more than 30 years.  The shirttail bio family’s only mentioned Bob’s first marriage, and each one bore a hand-written note that read “Thanks, Grandma Betty — you’re the best!!!!”

I’d arrived for the funeral at 9 am, though the service wasn’t scheduled to start til 11.  My directions to the place might’ve worked, if Fort Street hadn’t been undergoing permanent construction, or if I’d had GPS at the time.  There were detours around old detours.  When we made our fourth trip past the sewage treatment plant, Scott started crying while somehow also screaming at me.  We’d gotten lost because I refused to come up the night before, he shouted.  We’d be late to the service and everyone would whisper that it was because of the fucking chair.  He punched the car window for emphasis.  Repeatedly.  I cringed and tried to keep his aunt’s latest set of verbal instructions straight in my mind.  We finally found the funeral home a few minutes later.

No one cared that we were late.  No one noticed.  After a hellish two hours driving the wrong way on broken streets in abandoned neighborhoods that reeked of solid waste treatment and abject hopelessness, the bizarre eulogy unfolding before me seemed so surreally funny that it was all I could do to keep from laughing.  I kept thinking about the Mary Tyler Moore episode where Chuckles the Clown dies.  How none of his work colleagues from the TV station could help laughing on hearing the news that the clown, dressed as a peanut, had been shucked to death by a rogue elephant.  The minister wanted us to clap if we loved the lord.  Scott clapped.  Scott was an atheist, but the idea of offending a rude group of hostile strangers bothered him more than pretending to care about God.  I sat silent and refused to clap, despite Scott’s death glare.  When the minister asked us to stand if we loved Jesus, Scott didn’t try –  wheelchair, etc.  Scott stared pointedly at me, but I kept my seat, too.  He kept staring, though, so I got up.

“That’s right!  Stand if you love the LORD!” the minister wouldn’t let it go.

“I’m saving myself for the Easter Bunny,” I told Scott, not bothering to whisper.  I stomped toward the exit, intent on checking my email in the ladies room, and ran right into Erica.  As the minister advised us all to “Check yourself before you wreck yourself,” Erica and I locked eyes and shared a moment of mutual incredulity.

“What the fuck?” I mouthed silently at her.

“I didn’t pick that asshole,” she told me as I moved closer.  She whispered this.  “Granddad wasn’t religious.  This is all them,” she said, gesturing at the right side of the room where Team Grandma Betty had assembled.  She actually introduced me to Bob’s only non-estranged son as Scott’s girlfriend, as if she and I were on civil terms.  As if she hadn’t threatened me with her gang ties (“Her gang ties are my gang ties, and those guys all have wives and jobs now,” Scott had assured me).  I smiled and shook the guy’s hand.

At the cemetery, we all stood awkwardly together: blood kin, neighbor kin, and me, the idiot who’d committed herself to a man who screamed at her and called her names.  I felt glad when the funeral director, an ancient black man who looked like he’d been carved out of walnut, told us that the graveside service would be brief.  A pair of gravediggers moved to lower the coffin into the vault so that a blood daughter and Scott’s cousin Tory could take turns throwing flowers into the hole and we could all get the hell out of there.  The gravediggers got about half an inch deep before the coffin stalled.  It stuck against the sides of the vault.  Whispers went round the crowd.  I heard the funeral director’s raspy bass whisper “Too big for the Goddamned  vault” about ten seconds before the gravediggers did something unimaginable – they climbed on top of the coffin and began jimmying away at its sides with shovels.  At that moment, my struggle with the absurdity of the whole shitty situation exploded inside me.  I wanted to laugh.  I was going to laugh.  I clung to Scott and laughed until tears ran down my cheeks.  Erica put a hand on my shoulder.  I collected myself, and the gravediggers solved the coffin problem by cutting the guy ropes.  The box dropped – Thud! Bang! – and the tossing of flowers and dirt commenced rapidly.  The funeral director told us there would be no procession back to the home; he didn’t feel like it.

I wheeled Scott over the rough, muddy ground towards my car.  I thought about escape.  I thought about the Starbucks Americano I’d drink as I drove back to Toledo at the unofficial Michigan speed limit of 90 miles an hour.  As we moved toward the paved path where my car was parked, the funeral director shouted for attention.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the hearse…needs a jumpstart.”  I dropped Scott off at his place, hit the Starbucks right off 75 in Allen Park, and got the hell out of dodge.

 

Rebecca Golden

Five

To love my mother, I make her five. I give back the dress full of daisies her grandmother made; give back the wide brown eyes and Shirley Temple curls pinned at the sides.

To love her, I frame her in the black and white photo of before.

***

I remember what it was like, when loving her came without effort. Late night games of “what-if” on the porch when the fans weren’t strong enough to stir a cool breeze on hot summer nights. I remember when she told me about ice skating on the lake behind her childhood home, the way she built enough speed to feel like she was flying. She told me about the beer bottle, hidden in the cattails, and how it sliced her hand as she fell.

She showed me how she squeezed her thumb to make the blood spurt onto the snow, to make her wound more visible. To make it count.

I wish I had not remembered that story the day my husband came home, once again smelling of Diet Pepsi and Appleton rum, when I set down the onion and took the knife to my thumb. When I felt the metallic zing and watched the sink stain red. When I remembered the sight of blood from a previous wound will sometimes stop an abuser from striking, even as they resent the disruption of their plan.

***

Were you close?

***

His mother once showed me a photo of him at five. All blue eyes and a blonde bowl cut, the kind you get at the kitchen table. His kindergarten photo, taken right before she left. She thought the violence would stop, if she was out of the picture. Thought her kids would be better off with the dad who could provide even though he drank. I saw him at five, so I loved him.

Later, when I tried to talk to his mom about the violence in our home, the way he hurt me, that he said I was lucky he didn’t kill me, she said, “You knew he had a temper before you married him. I told you what his father was like.”

Thanks to her, I knew to take the children with me. I remind her of that, when she calls to tell me how wrong I was to do so.

***

Once, on Christmas morning, his hands closed around my throat, anger adding strength as he lifted and shook me by the kitchen stove because I refused to force our three-year-old daughter to finish her muffin. 

I remembered the sound of a thrown ashtray hitting the sink, cutting into my right hand as I washed dishes in scalding hot water. Remembered the feel of a broken nose, the taste of blood, the sound of bells ringing as they shattered.

He said, “Don’t look at me like that. I am not your fucking mother.”

I remembered telling my mother he felt like home.

***

Two months after our divorce was finalized, two years before I would stop speaking to my mother, I took the before photo of my daughter, no longer black and white.

She was five, with long blonde hair and green eyes, sitting with her brother on a patch of grass. In the June sun, they sat, waiting for their dad to pick them up for a visit.

He brought her back with broken blood vessels and scattered bruises, with threats of what would happen to all of us if she told. Brought her back shaken, with bells in her ears that never stop ringing.

***

My mother said it was my fault for letting her go. His mother said I knew he had a temper and I had children with him anyway. He told the police he was mad at me when he hurt our daughter.

I can’t forgive any of us when I remember my daughter was five.

 

Mandy L. Rose