I return to the moment when muffling velvet silence has descended around me. The air smells like dust and old fabric and I’m trembling where I stand, twisting my plastic smoking pipe prop around and around in my hands. My ears are buzzing with dry, dense muted whispers of the stagehands and the other cast. Some intermission music is playing over the auditorium’s speakers, and the crowd is all one uproarious rustle, burned wings of dead moths and cicadas. I adjust my hat, my belt, my jacket, my everything, to make sure nothing is wrong. Wrong. Wrong. The first two acts have gone off without a hitch; no forgotten lines, no missed cues—and I’m not going to be the one to screw it up. How many more seconds? Hands clap on my shoulders. “You’ll do great,” I hear, the voice a thick and dry and velvety whisper too close to my ear; their breath is very hot and very moist and it makes me kind of uncomfortable. I take a few short, shuffling steps to the left. When the light finally hits my face, the stage spotlights burning up the air, I launch myself onto the dirty wood of the auditorium stage and shout in a voice so powerful it even surprises me, “Look lively, gentlemen!” I head out into the light and bare my soul—well, as much soul-baring as I can do in a low-budget school play, anyway—and wish I could confess everything on my mind to the waiting audience.
The five of us stand in a semicircle by our cluster of lockers, like we usually do—we’d made a point during the fall registration to sign up for lockers close to one another so we could shoot the breeze between classes. We all share locker space for our books and (sealed!) drinks, turning our individual lockers into an aggregate mass of storage. Alan chugs from the tall black can of an energy drink, the nectar and the parable of the tired high-school student, while Scottie excitedly pounds on a locker with his palm. They talk about their prom dates, tall and frightening and enigmatic girls who dress in black and sequins, and I laugh and smile along with them. I am content enough to ride the coattails of their conversation, and I keep silent as I stuff my face with chips—baked, not fried, because the school food has made an attempt to be healthy— until Paul turns to me with a grin and remarks, “Hey Andrew, who are you taking?” at which point I look down at the tops of my Chuck Taylors and say, “Nobody.” The proclamation invites a round of back-slapping and apologetic “The perfect girl is out there somewhere!” from my friends, which I reluctantly accept. We disperse to our separate classes, and I hitch my backpack strap higher up on my shoulder as I walk, dreading the coming Saturday evening.
Four days later I stand by the punchbowl in a wrinkled white button-down and a green tie that I’ve loosened in a vain attempt to stop my neck from dripping sweat. Occasionally my friends will stop by, red-faced and sweating from the dance floor, and give me a nod and ask how I’m doing. Every time I smile and give them a small nod back, replying, “Fine.” This continues on through the night, my friends making occasional rounds by the punchbowl. It’s like watching them on a Ferris wheel as they drift past, one by one. I’m perfectly fine remaining here on the periphery of a normal high-school career, sipping punch cut with a lot of water and watching the couples grind on each other in the spastically flashing lights of the gymnasium. I take another drink from my Solo cup and shrug, even though I know nobody’s there to witness any of my little gestures. What’s another month of hiding, when I’ve already put eighteen years of it behind me?
I can only live and apply my own meaning to things; flashes of clarity or inspiration don’t come inherent with experience. It’s only when I give a situation gravity, when it matters to me, that it begins to really stick in my memory. And for that reason, the things I apply meaning to show the inexhaustible human capacity for youth and independence. Looking back on the things that I care enough to reminisce about, I see defining things like floating on my back beneath the California sky, the palm trees (so foreign to me) encroaching on the upper half of my blue sphere, while I ripple through the lower hemisphere. I see the wide, six-lane asphalt offering promises of better things and a freedom through a hiatus from familiarity, windows down, the van’s broken stereo system playing a muffled rendition of “Life in the Fast Lane.” Onward we go through heat-wavering horizons of sunny roadways, sunglasses on the sweaty bridges of our noses, and our arms out the windows, delighting in our own remarkable freedom. We have money, we have wheels, we have completely infinite youth, the three things needed to turn our van into a singularity as it rolls along our winding road through flat, hot brightness.
I see the four of us laughing and throwing one another in the pool that technically closed three hours ago but, hey, the staff never locked the gate. The wet, rubbery impact of the beach ball on the side of my face will not be an easy thing to forget, because Tanner finds it funny (granted, so do I) to keep pegging me with it. Sitting underneath slowly turning ceiling fans, indulging in helados paletas and cheap warm beer, because beggars can’t be choosers, we talk until we see the pale summer sunrise filter in through the blinds, when we turn to each other and say, dude, we’ve gotta drive all the way out to San Diego in, like, four hours. So we all take our miscellany of places around the one-room condo, my bed of choice being a pile of pillows under the coffee table, and sink into another hot West Coast slumber.
Later the same year, I am sitting in a dark and snowy car outside some little theater in Denver, the post-show crowds milling drunkenly about the parking lot. Our breath is fogging up the windshield and we entertain ourselves by doodling on the glass and laughing about it. He writes “JL + AH” and encircles the letters in a heart, and my chest does this weird thing of tightening and untightening like squeezing a balloon, and I know that it’s so dumb and shallow of me to think that the gesture means anything beyond wanting to get in my pants. But shit, it works. I have to stifle something like a laugh because I entertain the idea that his initials stand for somebody famous like Jay Leno or Jennifer Lopez. The laugh ends up getting stuck in my throat and I release what I’m sure is an incredibly attractive kind of donkey bray. Sooner than seems logical, my fingertips are gripping the sides of his face too hard and I feel his beard scratching beneath my palms. It’s an awkward way to kiss somebody, but I don’t want to let go because the hungry addictive animalism has taken hold and is eating a gap through my ribcage, and I’m heating up under my winter coat and sweat is soaking my armpits, but I’m never going to stop because some kind of feeling is finally flooding in through the new hole in my chest. It feels right, like I’m a teakettle gone unused for months, and what was previously tar-black is now being discovered by the snowy light coming in through the passenger-side window.
I take a seat on a folding chair, an old and creaky one painted a weird mix of pink and brown, clutching a donut in a thin napkin and tracing my eyes around the circle of chairs. I feel self-conscious as I always do, tugging at the hem of my shirt and wondering if I look okay, panicking slightly because I hadn’t found a mirror in hours, and the light in the room isn’t enough to check out my reflection in the screen of my phone. I take a bit of comfort in seeing that everyone else there looks just as nervous as I feel, other waywardyouths trying to kill the silent time by crossing and uncrossing their legs, weaving their fingers together in their laps, or focusing too intently on their refreshments. Nobody says anything as a few more people filter in through the doors over the next few minutes, taking care to seat themselves with at least one extra chair between them and anyone else—the survival instinct of the shy and the beaten-down.
I chance to look up from my lap, my mouth full of donut, and I see a pair of spectacled green eyes looking curiously at me from across the circle. I struggle to swallow my mouthful of pastry and I am uncomfortably aware of how strange I must look. The guy gives me a timid smile which I tentatively return, and then we both revert to our stoic solitude, having staring contests with our respective laps. That was as close as I’d get to real conversation that day, save for a few “About Me” words shared with the circle, coerced from me by the energetic woman who was spearheading the meeting.
When she arrives, enthusiastically introducing herself as Miss Pellier, she goes around the circle and hands each of us a pamphlet. I take a look at the cover and my eyes hit on each of the five multicolored letters: LGBTQ. I stare at the vibrant pamphlet but ignore all of the colors except for the green, because it reminds me of the face behind the glasses.
I gaze around the circle again and note just how depressed it all seems, with everyone so reserved and timid, balled up into themselves. It feels more like a recovering alcoholic or drug addict anonymous meeting, with everyone so silent and burned-out, seated in old chairs in a low-ceilinged, dimly lit basement classroom. The faces all seem washed out by the wan fluorescent tube lights, and the lack of windows adds to the suffocating feeling. The whole place smells old and dusty, perfect for a ragtag group of disoriented souls. We exist now in this film noir of a room, living in the colors of gray and brown and extra brown, awash in the suffocating quiet of the dingy air and the buzz of our own inescapable thoughts. At any given moment, I am seconds away from choking to death on the heavy atmosphere. Only Miss Pellier, with her optimism, offers a contrast to the rest of us, standing in the center of the circle like a harlequin sort of figurehead, a monument dedicated to destroying all of our loneliness.
Well, it’s a start. Not for lack of trying, I’m finally beginning to find more people just like me.
I’m more than a little bit hungover when I drag my duffel bag in through the front door, having spent the night at my friend’s to celebrate his 21st birthday. I know I look a mess, dressed in a monstrous outfit of a winter coat, gym shorts, and a paper top hat, so I’m a bit put off when I look up to see my mother staring down the length of the staircase at me. I give her a smile, a growing sense of paranoia telling me that she might be able to smell the alcohol even from her distance. I think it’s a good idea to try and diffuse tension, so laugh a little too loudly at nothing. My eye might be twitching. I’m not sure.
Things are kind of awkward.
She puts a hand over her mouth to hide her smile at my ridiculous clothes, and I take care to stay at the bottom of the stairwell, fearing that any closer she might begin to smell the booze. There’s a short bit of a shaky rapport between us, the closest that we ever get to any kind of meaningful conversation, which culminates in her usual question of asking what my plans for the day are. I could lie to her and tell her that I have errands to run down in Boulder—very specific errands that would conveniently last the length of a typical coffee date—but for whatever reason, I feel like I owe her the truth.
“I have a coffee date with Sam.”
She looks taken aback, because I was never one to “date”—I was more one to stay in my bedroom and play video games and take long naps. I’m not offended by her surprise that I’m actually interested in someone (and that, miraculously, they’re just as interested in me)—quite the contrary. It makes me laugh, in a self-depreciating kind of way. “Who’s Sam?” she asks. “Is she in one of your classes?”
I now have two options as I stand, hungover and sweating bullets, in a second that lasts much, much longer. I can grasp the nettle, so we say, or I can stay behind a veil of glass that had kept me safe up until this point. Curiously, I knock a couple times on the glass, noting just how fragile it is, only a few words away from being broken completely. Weighing the options, I know that one answer will keep things exactly the way they are now, and the other could end in catastrophe.
There’s something to be said for the comfort of routine, an endless repetition that will bear one comfortably to the eventual grave, but where would I be if I didn’t try to change things? So I make the right decision and, as I stare into my birth mother’s eager face, I stammer, “Mom, Sam isn’t a girl.”
She looks confused. “Then what is she?”
The question makes absolutely zero sense to me, so I just gawk at her a bit before I figure out the right answer. The two syllables are hard to form, as my mouth has gone suddenly very dry. I owe it to more than the alcohol. “A boy.”
Her eyebrows disappear into her bangs. “Oh!”
What follows are the longest and most silent ten seconds of my life. She’s not upset, or angry, or tearing her hair out, falling to her knees, and screaming to God why she was burdened with an errant child. Just surprised. She turns around and walks back into her home office to take a phone call. I spend a few more seconds at the bottom of the stairwell, and then stumble like a zombie into my room, fall face-first onto the bed, and sleep for the next four hours. When I wake up, the pillow is cemented to my face with drool, and the paper top hat is a crumpled mess on my head. As I peel the pillowcase off of my cheek, the events of the morning come back to me like a crack in a dam, a slow flood of memories that make me curse my poor judgment.
Five days later I’m pulling on my shoes in the living room, ready to leave and see some friends, when she appears in the doorway without a single sound. I’d been making a point to avoid both her and my father, fearing whatever potential grief they could give me, but my mother simply walks over and sits down next to me on the sofa. I stare at my untied laces against a backdrop of the living room rug and fiddle with my watch in my lap. Again, my life is dictated by an uncomfortable and terrifying silence. Swallowing takes notably more effort than normal. I’d kill for a glass of water. When her voice reaches my ears, it sounds oddly muffled and grainy, like I’m hearing it through a curtain of falling water.
“Your father and I want you to know that no matter what, we love you very much.”
I’m stunned. My stomach is on fire and my palms are dripping sweat onto my jeans, my hands shaking with the leftover fear. It takes a few seconds for the neurons in my brain to fire up and comprehend that this couldn’t have gone any better. Maybe my judgment wasn’t so bad after all.
Ultimately, it takes only that short sentence to get my waterworks going, and I bury my face in her shoulder like a little kid as she tells me over and over that it is all okay. I stay like that for a while, my chest heaving with lengthy, choking sobs, regressing about a decade and a half in a matter of seconds. I let her stroke the hair on the back of my head until I stop crying. It’s the first time I’ve hugged my mother in months, and is the first time I’ve wept deeply in I can’t remember how long. My only words, “I’m sorry,” are shaky with tears, stifled by the fabric of her shirt. As my bout of sobbing eventually winds down into muffled whimpers, she says to me the three words that I’d needed to hear for a very long time, the three words to get me back on track, the three words to let me know that I’m not a complete and utter fuckup.
Everything is okay.
His scorn is so evident, and his attempts to make it subtle are so poor, that I find myself disgusted before I’ve even pulled my pair of favorite jeans back on. I am so tempted to reciprocate it all: if he wants to play the anger game, if he wants to act all high and mighty, then I can throw it right back at him. At least he’s enough of a gentleman to have thought of everything: he hands me a piece of white gum and an individually-wrapped sanitizing wet wipe. Whether it’s out of genuine concern or just a kind of procedure for everyone he gets with, I don’t know, and I don’t care. All I want to do is get out of his green-eyed spotlights of shame. With reluctance, I chew the square of gum. I discover that it’s peppermint, the weak hand-me-down cousin of the far-superior wintergreen. I don’t really want to accept his help, but… damn, do I need this taste out of my mouth. I rip open the wet wipe and scrub it between my hands as I follow him through the darkened hallway.
Back in his living room, he sits down on the sofa and looks expectantly up at me when I don’t follow his lead. Awkward, embarrassed, ashamed, I make up some half-assed excuse that I need to get going, that I have work in the morning, that I have some classwork to finish up, the usual litany of excuses of getting out of an awkward situation, short of staging a fake phone call. I glance at him through the low lamplight: reclined expressionless on the cushions, he doesn’t resist my hasty retreat, though as I’m pulling on my coat he mentions something about seeing me again.
I stop with only one of my arms in a coat sleeve and stare incredulously at him on the sofa. He looks so damn impassive, almost bored with the situation as a whole, and it makes me mad. Something sparks inside of my mind, and I think that he has a hell of a lot of nerve asking that of me, especially right off the back of being such a complete and total dick. Against my better judgment, I pull him up and into a tentative hug, resisting the impulse to turn the hug into a headlock, and tell him that of course we’d see one another again. I instruct him to call me, and slip out the door into the hallway, leaving him alone in the dim den of his apartment.
As I walk, in a huff, I tug up the collars of my coat so it obscures the sides of my face. This high-rise complex is very nice and very quiet and very clean, almost like a hotel, and the heater is going full-blast, so I don’t really need my winter jacket. My footsteps make no sound on the indescribably patterned carpet, though the descent down four stories of concrete service stairs are echoing with my own breath and the rustle of my jacket, underneath which I’m already pouring sweat.
Outside, in the merciful April cold, I sit in my car with the engine off, underneath the revealing light of a streetlamp, and I put my head down on my steering wheel and I cry.
I never speak to him again.
I have been incubated and molded by suburban space and the certain decadence it brings, because my suburban childhood was a shelter from the fallout of reality. Rows of carbon copied houses and the intermittent patches of green were tall concrete walls around me, impenetrable by tragedy, comfortably inescapable. Such was youth.
Now, months of hedonism on the grid-like streets and taking pieces of the evening sky out from the gaps between power lines have created one summer that blends pleasantly together into one elongated memory, like many paints spread along the same line: different shades of gold and purple and cadmium red all make an indescribably bright hue, like something you’d find inside of a peach. The summer mimics the pale, fruity flesh in more than just color: it is a summer I want to take a big bite out of, and let the juice dribble down my chin. Warm nights of adventure and little to no sleep leave me in some kind of delusion as I gather my crusade of my like-minded peers and we set about, taking whatever the town has to offer.
It is a summer of change and of gratification; surrounded by our buzzing society we smoke and cry and drink and laugh and fuck; our little town is bursting at the seams with our own dreams and our passion. City lights on a hilltop become our Bible of illumination, with our Commandments numbering only one: to not take anything too seriously.
We suck small pieces of ice up with our straws and fire them out like pea-shooters, seeing who can launch theirs farthest down the hill. From on high, up on the hill by this water tower, we can see over the highway and into the skyline of Denver. The lights of the skyscrapers and the weird, curved roof of the Qwest building look so close through the evening, like we could reach out and run our hands along the glass and the metal and the concrete, spanning dozens of miles with our arms and fingers alone. It gives us a sense of satisfaction and almost an air of otherworldliness, looking down on the startlingly few square miles in which we grew up. We pretend that all we see is a glass dome, with the gold sky filtering in through the ceiling and the fragile walls of the horizon only a short car ride away. We spin in a complete circle together with our arms outstretched, laughing and holding one another, and imagine ourselves as the sovereign rulers of all we survey. The Kings and Queens of Suburbia, we had three months to do what we wanted and make our mark but we just squandered it all, accomplishing none of our lofty goals, preferring to spend most of our time in bed or in the fluorescent glow of a computer screen. We have only a few days left before the inevitable return to responsibility, but for now we find it justified to waste some of the last few precious, hot hours of summer, throwing our hands to the perfect evening sky and chanting about how it’ll always be this way.
I never used to be a whiskey woman. I was simple. The sort of girl who wrote vague, sparse poetry that served as a mechanism of purging, rather than of truth. A girl who drank screwdrivers at thirteen and thought herself devilish in the act. A girl who was determined to become a writer, but knew she was too young and sinless to have anything to say. A girl who equated inexperience with ignorance and condemned both, so sought all walks of sentimental movies, novels, and songs–a deluge–all forming one wall of hard emotion to expel all the things I was still too young to feel.
I won’t pretend I was innocent. In fact, I sought to shake what innocence I had at every turn. And it worked, of course. I knew I had succeeded when I graduated to whiskey. Cheap whiskey, too. The kind that comes in those opaque, brown plastic bottles with papery labels. Dry adhesive. My parents could only buy the cheap stuff because they went through it so fast.
I can only think of my infancy in the terms with which my mother used to describe it. She told me that there was an earthquake a few months after my birth, high on the Richter scale. My parents slept nude every night; so there we were–mother, father, and daughter–huddled naked and vulnerable in the doorway as the dishes fell and clambered like splintered scorpions over the linoleum. My mother laughed to think of it, the starkness of their nudity against the dark sky, her feet vibrating on the ground.
“Sleeping free” my parents called it. My father would defend himself when the subject came up, “What? You can’t be free at any other point during the day, so you might as well be free at night.” At the time, I thought that my parents were just nudists in denial, a couple of ex-hippies. But now I understand that my father was just horny as hell and wasn’t afraid to admit it, whatever the time of day. These conversations were frequent right around the time that I called halved oranges “family soup,” for mysterious reasons.
My father’s dark glossy mustache was impeccable–always. Except on those rare nights when I was very young, and he would shave it just to throw me off. He would come into the living room where I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and exclaim, “Uncle Joe’s back in town!” as if I couldn’t recognize him without his mustache. He would lunge in, a mock-scowl darkening his oddly smooth face, and tickle and harass me endlessly. I would protest, squealing and giggling. Uncle Joe was the mean one, my father’s evil twin, but harmless relatively. The man my father would become, later in life, proved to be far worse.
It was strange, though. The sequence of it. The acid preceded the whiskey. When I met Lucy, I was eager and wild-eyed in a long, flowered skirt that lifted the grime from the floor of each concert venue I visited. I danced with my arms waving in the air as if I was hollow and thrashed by the wind. The music was dull: sitars and mandolins with comatose heartbeats. The people were all miles away. Outside themselves. There was a man on the balcony supine on a white leather couch, mottled with unwashed people and concave with their weight, who offered me something extra. Two women sat on either side of him, eyes cloudy and distant. Bloodshot. As I lapped up the clear, resplendent liquid that the man squeezed from an eyedropper into my palm, I felt a burning in the back of my throat where the roof of my mouth continued into my sinuses. I was suddenly very aware of the tract between my throat and stomach, could feel it pulsing, aligning my entire body. Hot with the burn, but not uncomfortable. Just uncomfortably aware. The throb of light. The heartbeats of the cinderblocks in the walls outpacing the music–their shallow breath. I was so aware of everything.
Then–but not always, and certainly not since. My mother made sure of that, it seems. Just after I was born, my mother tried to leave my father. She bundled me in the blanket my grandmother, her mother, had sewn for me–hot pink and strewn with rubbery-looking sharks wearing sunglasses–and swept away in the night. Only a suitcase in tow. She went to the bank to withdraw money for a small room in a roadside motel and the teller laughed at her. He turned to the teller next to him and pointed at the screen. They laughed together, according to my mother. My father had frozen the checking account, the savings. I was only a soft core for the blanket, keeping it warm. I didn't learn any of this until shortly after I met Lucy the year that I was fifteen.
Entering middle school, budding and gawky and oafish, not yet used to the size of my body, I was a lover of vulgarity. I sought every walk of R-rated movie I could find and bought them. It was the same with books. I read Lolita and American Psycho that year–books I’ve since revisited and been appalled (and more deeply enthralled) by. My mother didn’t mind much. She wanted to see that I got what I wanted, and I did. I especially loved the movies that asserted themselves as “teen comedies,” thinking that by watching them I would somehow know how to act older, know what older kids did. And by measure of the American Pie films that served as the scripture for my passage into adulthood, I never really succeeded–thank God.
I loved these films–Porky’s, Animal House, Scary Movie–but I hated to watch them with my father. I hated the pleasure he got from them, so different from my own. At almost every scene, he would giggle mid-drink, bubbles of reeking whiskey and coke popping in his face and running down his pocked cheek. I hated the way I would cringe when a scene went too far, when a man would make some jibe to another about being a homo and my father would scoff, “You know, I would never cross swords with another man, but Mom's doin' it to me with a strap-on now.” I would turn myself inside myself and feel my face turning red, but say nothing. I would replay the scene for my friends later, when we were all alone. My friends would gawk wide-eyed–giddy, devilish glee dampening their eyes–and cover the smiles that warped their lips. I would feel powerful and mature for knowing the material better than they.
My Uncle Slippery–why we called him that I never knew–dubbed me “Hannah Handful.” My mother would ask a favor of her brother, my Uncle Slippery–a babysitter for a night out–and he would laugh incredulously. “You mean spend a night with Hannah Handful? No way!” But he always gave in, of course. As an infant, my parents tried everything to get me to sleep. My father took me on long, winding drives in the car. I cried all the way. He sang to me, rocking me in his thick laborer's arms. Still, I cried. My hands fumbled furiously for the beard he wore then. Again, I only know this because my mother told me. They tried everything. The only thing that finally got me to sleep was to leave me in the closet with the vacuum running. How they came upon this idea, I never knew.
At age three or four, I awoke screaming somewhere around midnight because I'd forgotten my blanket at Uncle Slippery's–the hot pink one with the sharks and sunglasses, the one my grandmother had hand-stitched just for me. I refused to sleep or to be soothed until I had it. My mother drove the twenty or so miles back to Uncle Slippery's to retrieve it, waking him in the middle of the night. To her surprise, I did not sleep on the way home. I only clutched the blanket to my chest, thumb suctioned into my mouth. At home, we had to watch Pinocchio three times before I finally fell asleep.
It was ten years before my mother got sucked into air purifier machines. She was in charge of the finances and saw trouble ahead, but kept it to herself. She didn’t want to scare anyone. She bought up air purifiers by the dozens believing that, as promised, she could make thousands of dollars working from home for only a small nominal fee and a deposit on each machine. When she finally told my father that we were bankrupt, my brother and I sat at the top of the stairs and listened through the banisters, not looking at each other. Not looking anywhere. My father broke every full-length mirror in the living room with the splintered legs of chairs he’d dismembered in his rage and threw my mother out of the house, only a suitcase in tow. When she came home, it was by doctor’s orders. A stranger had found her unconscious on a sidewalk with nothing but a handle of cheap whiskey in her suitcase.
My brother was only six. Nothing made sense. He peed on the toilet paper roll in our parent’s bathroom and was, of course, chastised. He swore it wasn’t him. Dad took another swig from the odiferous drink in his hand. “Well, I know Mom didn’t do it. She can’t, physically. But I know she would just so she could hurt this family again.” It was the next day that I came downstairs to see him with a shotgun in his lap and a look in his eye I had never seen on any human face, ever. His eyes were cast into his lap, staring at the dark glint of steel. His face seemed not to be flesh, but instead melting wax, charred at the edges by disappointment and self-pity. Only now, in my recollections, can I even try to sketch that expression. At the time, there was only panic. My brother, mother, and I leapt down to the lawn from the roof outside my window and a neighbor called the police. For the next five years in which we all shared a home, my father promised me between whiskey-laced burps that he would never forgive me for sending him to jail when all he’d wanted to do was die.
Shortly after I met Lucy, I met another great friend. Music. We'd met before, of course, in passing and with mostly social motives behind its evoking–the drive to have something in common with someone else. But with Lucy, music became flesh ripe and sweet as an orange. Sitting against the riverbank outside a music festival, heady bass causing the loose dirt to shiver and fall in sheets into the near-stagnant water, I saw music come toward me. I saw the crests in the water rise to great peaks. I wondered if the river could contain so much activity, but was unable to set the question into words. I saw the pulse of the bass forming high, viscous points on the surface of the water that thrashed and threatened to break out. I held out my cupped hands. The music came to me, gently extracting itself from the confinement of the water. Round and whole, soft in the cup of my palm. I held music. Its freedom was my own.
Freedom is less easily granted than it is conceived. I'd dreamt of it in, I'm sure, the same terms as most kids my age. I planned how I would decorate my apartment, what joy it would mean that I had artistic license over the whole house, not just one room. I planned on turning my music to full volume (of course, in fantasy, speakers never blow and neighbors never complain). I imagined a stick of incense burning in every room, the whole place filled with earthy smoke, billowing. Halved oranges for breakfast. To some degree, I was correct. But I could never have guessed the price at which it would come.
My father had admitted to keeping several female escorts on hand for at least a year before the whole thing combusted. He spoke of them often to my brother and me while we watched Animal House or American Pie, about having them burn him with candle wax and the incomparable experience of shaving their pussies. “You should meet her, Hannah,” my father said. “She's a free thinker. Just like you.” My mother knew, of course, but she was too afraid. After we went bankrupt and my father in his wisdom diagnosed her as the culprit and myself as her co-conspirator, he'd kept her wholly out of the finances. She had nothing. She had nowhere. My brother cried. I tried to steal whiskey from the cabinet. My mother had beaten me to it.
It was like a fairy tale, when it all finally happened. One of his whores had fallen for him and he for her and they'd planned a great escape into the broad open world of open relationships.
My mother moved to South Dakota with my brother, where she procured a nursing job and a two hundred dollar apartment. I moved in with Garrett.
A nuclear bomb doesn't make a sound as it drops. That was the way I felt–suspended in the kinetic silence.
Thank God, my brother didn't come to watch us dismantle the house. He’d wanted to until he found out that we wouldn’t be moving back in. We got an industrial dumpster and threw everything in it. Everything. Every incense holder, every poster, every concert ticket, every dream and toy and wonder. I threw in my hot pink shark blanket, simply because I didn't want to have to deal with another thing in a box to be carted away into the unknown.
When the only thing left was the furniture and my mother and I slept on the couches, my father came with his ex-coworker to help him move his things. My father pointed to the couch on which my mother still slept and said, “Do you want this? It won't cost you anything; it's going in the trash anyway.” I dreamt I pushed my father down a long flight of stairs and he looked up at me helplessly from the landing, legs entangled in heaps of family soup and teen comedy DVDs.
When I think of my infancy, I think of it with my mother's mind, in her words. My first memory, my own memory, is of an Easter egg hunt at an old mansion somewhere in Sedalia. I don't remember the hunt itself, but I remember that the Easter Bunny resided in the mansion and that that morning the sole goal of the hunt had been, for me, to meet him. I found him in the central parlor of the mansion. The wallpaper was a curdled off-white color and peeling from the walls. The carpet was mushy. The Bunny sat in the corner of the room on a feeble antique stool, leaning against the wall. He wore one of those breathable whole-head masks and it drooped from his head, canted as if he'd been nearly decapitated and his head were hanging on by only a shred of skin. His blue fur was matted and moldy. The eyes were objectless and without light. The head turned, creaking almost, in my direction as I entered the room–centimeter by centimeter. His two buck teeth jutted toward me like twin daggers. I stepped back toward the door. I began to cry, clutching my pink wicker basket filled with green shredded film close to my chest. The hands of my father reached through the door and pulled me out, saved me. With my head buried in the warm crook of his neck, God, I was saved.
In the apartment with Garrett, I was always the one to make coffee in the mornings–probably because I was the one who depended most upon it. I loved these mornings, when I would make coffee nude or in my kimono and peel oranges for breakfast, even though the combined acidity ate through our stomachs like fire. We had no mop, so crumbs of whatever pizza or hodgepodge lingered from the previous weeks stuck to the bottoms of my feet.
I sleep naked every night. Charles Richter, inventor of the Richter scale, did too. He was an all-out nudist. As it turns out, separate concepts of earth-shaking sexuality are not so estranged. It's apples and oranges. Funny, isn’t it, how we all promise ourselves that we won’t become our parents, and then we do?
Garrett practically groaned with gratitude as I set a steaming mug before him. His bare legs were crossed over the arm of the couch, toes flexing, with hands folded over the dark spade of his chest hair. The skin of his face was slack and crisscrossed with folds from the pillows, but his eyes (nearly blind in the mornings, pre-contacts and corneas warping) were trained warmly on me. I passed him a bulb of fruit, filmy and plump with its white skin and flesh. With his broad thumbs moving blindly, he bisected the orange and began to peel away the layers. The layers. I understood what it meant to share a thing with a person, with a lover and best friend. To become a family, cultivating. He kissed me on the cheek and said, “Thank you.” And that was all I needed. I dropped the wet spirals of orange peels in the garbage disposal and watched them spin until they were gone.
The worst trip I ever had with Lucy happened years before the general combustion that consumed my home and my family. I was at a music festival, staring into the fire because it was pitch dark and there was nowhere else to look. In the hooking prongs of the flames I thought I could see people dancing, enjoying themselves. Undulating to the pace of the beat that thrummed incessantly in the distance. I swore that I could see halved oranges floundering in the tangle. I decided that my only option, being so far outside that raucous dance, was to punish myself for trying to enjoy it all.
I should be at home, I thought. I'm only fifteen. My brother is alone in that God-forsaken place. I am the only guilty one in the family, I thought. The only person that can save my father is me, I thought, and here I am with Lucy in the sky wilting in front of a fire because I am too young to feel all this–far too young. It was the way I felt when my father's whore called me one day when she couldn't find my father was and was seizing with worry and wondered if I knew where he was (I didn't; I don't) and said, “Your dad told me you're a writer. I want to write an autobiography–full of drugs and sex and drama, all that shit that people like–but I don't know how to write it. Maybe you could be my ghost writer?”
I'm done with whiskey now. It was a crutch. Lucy was, too.
I have parted with the worst parts of myself, while allowing them to leave scars in me that mark their passing and their past presence in me. Some things can never be effaced and I wouldn't want them to anyway; my sins are my skin. I have packed into boxes all that I have gained (and lost) and taken it carry-on into the unknown, for it is at my doorstep. Nothing goes into the trash anymore, because trash never really actually disappears.
I haven't heard from my father in over two years. I have lost the husk I wore all those years to form a thicker, adult skin. I think of my adulthood on my own terms, with my own mind. I am who I am because I have felt the welt that other minds can leave. These soupy memories have become constant condensed weights in my stomach, fermenting and churning nauseously, but they do not define me. I do. And I will rise up and look this whole world in the face.