Did you ever call the police as a child?

I looked out over the front lawn waiting for my neighbor Maria to come back from school. There were hours between my window looking and Maria bringing me my homework, but waiting for things to change was part of the routine and boredom of barely breathing. Looking out over the lawn is about the most exciting thing a 14 year old girl with pneumonia can do.

Maria’s sister was a gangly woman, like a tall and awkward bird with sunken eyes and dark stringy hair. She’d just had a baby, and her body hadn’t quite recovered its shape, which in my young naive mind added to her strangeness. She opened the door of Maria’s house that day and I watched her body move as if throwing itself away from the place, fast and desperate into the grass. Her long limbs were bent impossibly and wild slow motion as she fell to her knees, her long strange bird body heaving up and down making noise like a bagpipe marionette.

She was screaming for help, the strange heat of her pointy face shaking snot into long strings that reached down into the grass.

“Please somebody help me! please!” she was saying, ” I just stabbed my stepfather!”

I wanted to run to her; I wanted to hold her weird body there in the grass and reassure her that whatever she’d just done, she was still an excellent mother. I had seen her kiss her baby just the day before. But I was petrified too, wheezing there on the couch, safe behind the glass. I had seen the bad kind of crazy before and was torn between what I knew about her and the blood on her shirt.

Did you ever have to call the police as a child?

“There is a woman screaming in her front yard,” I said. “She looks really scared, she says she stabbed someone… I’m 14, I’m home from school today because I have pneumonia… my mom is at the Shopette getting 7-Up.”

I felt like a tattle tale, I felt like a grown-up, I felt stupid, and hurtful, and scared, and like I had betrayed someone.

The police cars pulled up and escorted Maria’s sister back into the house, she was all collapsed and sideways. It was quiet for a time then an ambulance showed up and paramedics wheeled a body covered in a sheet out the front door. Dead. They didn’t run sirens when they left.

The police asked me questions. My mother, home from her errand, paced behind them. I wheezed out answers, “No, I didn’t see her do it.” Yes, I heard her say she stabbed him.” One officer offered up that Maria’s sister said she did it in self defense and I heard my mom whispering incredulously “she stabbed him in the back seven times.”

“Who has the baby?” I asked. “Maria will be home from softball practice soon to babysit, where is her sister? Who will tell her her father is dead? Who will bring me my homework when Maria moves away?”

Later, my father and his army unit were asked to come clean up the house, this happens in the military, they take care of their own. I watched them go inside and I watched them leave. I still imagine them scrubbing the blood of their friend from the carpeted stairs.


Mitigating risk

When I was 24 and went in for my yearly exam, I learned I was pregnant. Certainly it was something I wanted, some kind of made with love correction to my previous experience of pregnancy – which I had, in my teenage mind assumed was god punishing me for having sex before marriage, growing nightmare sized in my belly, but planted accidentally by love, god and I having long parted ways…

I wondered which of the two men I was dating might be the father, and if it mattered. I was smarter and dumber then – close enough to the tragedy of my first marriage’s end to know that love and an impending child are not enough, but not smart enough to use condoms with any regularity; I could stand on my own though, I knew at least that much.

On the table, my feet in stirrups, my doctor pushed her hands down to feel the shape of my uterus while I fantasized about what my life would be like, one child far away in New York with his father, and an infant I could love like no other, a love I had yet to experience for a child of mine (not yet anyway, I would discover that unconditional love for him in myself later – an act of grace) – But that day I daydreamed a new and whole life as I felt the scrape of the tiny brush the doctor used to take samples of my insides.

She said “you have some abnormal cell growth on your cervix, it may be an abrasion or a bit of growth that sometimes happens in pregnancy, but we’ll know in a couple days if you need a biopsy.” It was something like that. Normal. I didn’t worry about me, I worried about how to politely tell then men I was dating that I was having a baby and I didn’t know which of them should worry about it.

I didn’t tell Daniel I was pregnant at all, but I told Josh the next day. Josh wanted to get married, He was a writer and a Christian and a swimmer and a sinner and I was temptation there to trap him into behaving, at least to hear him tell it. He was firm in saying he didn’t believe in abortion, evil as it was. Evil as he thought I was he still implored me to move in with his mother. He would do the right thing, regardless of what I wanted.

A few days later I got the call. Abnormal. Come in for a biopsy, no need for an appointment, they’d fit me in. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to worry them until I knew. And then when I knew that parts of my cervix would need to be removed because of cancer, I told Daniel, but just about the cancer.

I wonder now about that fragmentation of trust, of who we choose to tell what… but I didn’t want to tell anyone the whole truth, dramatic as it was – part of it was shame, I’m sure, mitigating the emotional risk for myself. I’ve always been terrible at being the victim of circumstance; I don’t like people feeling sorry for me. It’s like I owe them something for their concern. And I didn’t want anyone to see my whole self, monstrous as I felt I was.

“The cancer will grow as rapidly as the baby does, you have to think of the child you already have, you have to mitigate the risk.” That’s what the nurse said to me when we discuss next steps. I thought the child I already had needed a mother and not me, but I arranged an abortion anyway and shelved all the plans I had about loving anyone.

I tried to read the New York Times up on the clinic’s operating table, and they wouldn’t let me do that, said I had to be present… but too, they wouldn’t let me see the tiny mass of blood and tissue that could have been someone, I wasn’t allowed to be that present, wasn’t allowed to say goodbye.

I didn’t tell Josh about the abortion or the cancer, I said it’d been a false alarm, maybe a miscarriage. I don’t know, I guess I thought it would be more than he could handle or maybe he didn’t deserve the whole truth. There were some tears and some things said that were felt at the time but not true. We broke up on the sidewalk in from of my apartment. Daniel and I stopped seeing one another soon after that as well.

I only had room for so much heartbreak. I didn’t tell anyone else anything, not even my family. Mitigating risk.

A week later I was in another operating room. My legs had been in stirrups so often by then they weren’t even uncomfortable. The surgeon sat there with her laser ready to cauterize the pieces of me that were growing wild and uncertain.

She looked at my chart and said “You’ve had a tough couple of weeks.” She said it so dispassionately I don’t think she really believed it. I was just another of her appointments, another of the irresponsible impoverished women who defined the way of her world, hour after hour. I didn’t cry, wouldn’t dare give her the satisfaction of knowing there was a human being attached to that chart.

The anger in my heart at that doctor, the anger that I’d let myself hope, the sound of a fetal heart monitor in the next room, and the smell of my own burning flesh as the laser did its work. That’s how I remember grief

Eaten Words

“I have eaten too many words,” Stephanie said, then proceeded to vomit an entire library across the kitchen floor.  Alan was halfway back from the linen closet before he realized a tea towel wouldn’t un-spill a library.  He dropped the towel where he stood, next to a stack of 700s, and rang a professional.

The librarian answered the phone. He hesitated, then stammered out “Do you, have… you ever tried printing all million pages of Wikipedia?” He couldn’t bring himself to say what just happened, not aloud anyway, that would make it real. The librarian wasn’t amused. She muttered about the importance of expertly verified content and hung-up. If he called back now, told the truth, what were the chances she’d believe a library much like her carefully curated one was vomited up in seconds all over his linoleum floor?
Alan wondered if he could be high? He wondered if there was any way he could go back in time to see if he’d taken drugs that morning? Time travel seemed more real that what had just happened, and that logic itself would have convinced him he had ingested something had he not immediately tripped over several copies of Gulliver’s Travels.
Stephanie was still standing in the kitchen door when Alan hung up the phone, she was wiping the corners of her mouth with her thumbs and looked paler than he’d ever seen her. By the way her body was slowly pitching, he could tell she was getting ready for another wave. There was no way Alan was going to let her vomit in his kitchen again, and fuck it all, if it was another library it wouldn’t fit in there anyway, it’d break out the windows and walls.

The smell of old paper singed Alan’s nostrils with nostalgia, it was overwhelming. His eyes stung and watered; thoughts of hiding his pockmarked teenage face in outdated computing books, trying his best to be invisible.  His emotions couldn’t take it, he had to get out of that kitchen fast, and he had to get Stephanie out of that kitchen before she completely destroyed it.
“Has this ever happened before?” he asked her as he forcefully grabbed her arms and tried to spin her out the kitchen’s back door. They stumbled and kicked at volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica as they went. “I didn’t even know they still published” Alan said, half amused.

Stephanie stepped out of the door and into the sunlight. She opened her mouth to answer but the language that came out was French and Portuguese and Spanish translations of Kafka, burying the begonias! Her knees bucked and she fell forward, scattering the stack of Kafka translations haphazardly into newly planted rows of string beans and squash. She began to cry big drops of black ink. They fell on the brick patio and beaded into small black pearls.

Alan watched the tears sink into the porous rock, leaving grey ghosts on the brick he and his father had laid the year previous. Stephanie’s hands were over her mouth as she tried to stop crying, her face was a red blotchy mess covered in greying stripes of inky tears. Alan, for the first time since Stephanie stepped into his kitchen, and maybe for the first time ever, felt sorry for Stephanie and patted her shuttering back. “I liked you better when you devoured math,” he joked, “At least it came back-up in tiny exponents.”


Not Quite Dating but Certainly a Mugging

[This piece was written and performed for a live audience in 2013 – I found it written out on a folded piece of paper in my coat pocket]


Eduardo and I had been going steady for about two months. Well, maybe not going steady, and you really couldn’t call it dating because we never really went on any dates, and we didn’t actually know each each other that well. I don’t know what you’d call it, it was more like… I would hang out at his coffee shop during the day, and by the night’s end, he’d be in my bed. He never really stayed there though, he lived across the balcony and would go home to sleep. What do you call it when you aren’t quite dating your neighbor/Latin lover? I guess it doesn’t matter. We did go on a walk once though.

After locking up the cafe late one summer night we decided to take a walk along the shore of Lake Michigan, I remember the breeze felt good on my face. Eduardo and I attempted to hold hands, but that wasn’t really who we were together, so we just talked, hands in our pockets.

What we realized then was that we didn’t even speak the same language. I mean, we both spoke English marginally well, I just mean, I spoke… still speak… like the world is held together with glitter and spiderweb silk; and well, Eduardo, he was a pragmatist.

Low on conversation and not even remotely in love, we did that one thing that we knew best; We made out, in the dark, on the shore, with the breeze against our backs; It was glorious. There was another couple maybe twenty feet away that looked to be doing the same, occasionally one of their heads would pop up like a prairie dog and look in our direction, then they’d lay back down and roll together with the waves. Chicago summer nights are enchantingly weird that way.

We were closing in on midnight when we decided to leave the beach. Walking back to my car we passed the couple who were next to us on the shore, two men in black hoodies. I got a chill up my spine, only this chill wasn’t the kind that’s an ode’ to love on a strange Chicago night, this chill was straight up fear. The couple turned around and followed us just moments after we passed them.

That’s when I felt what I would later come to realize was the chilly steel barrel of a 9mm against my temple. It really is cold, it’s the first thing you notice before you start to panic. We were being held up, not only that, we were being held up by a couple of dudes that a few moments earlier had been watching Eduardo and I all hot and heavy on the beach. My cheeks burned with embarrassment and my heart raced. Holy shit. Were we really being mugged by the prairie dog couple?

I don’t remember everything, but I remember they sounded scared, I picked up on that and it confused me. THEY were the ones with guns. I remember they pulled on the hem of my shirt and demanded everything in my pockets. I was infuriated with them. I actually yelled at them “You have guns, you don’t have to pull on my clothes to get me to do what you want, back off!” – and they did. Then they took my car keys, my cell phone, my drivers license, and my bank card. From Eduardo, they took $600 cash.

With the gun still on my temple, they asked me to take off my shoes, turn around, and run into the trees. You think facing a gun is unnerving, take a few minutes to think about knowing it’s there pointing at the back of your head and not seeing what was happening on the other end. Will I live? Will I die? Will a bullet get lodged into my brain? Are they planning on hurting me? Will the prairie dog guys kill my neighbor/Latin lover that I’m technically not dating? Why did they take my shoes?

Eduardo ran into the thicket and then I did, the grass was cool against my feet. We waited for what felt like hours. Then he whispered “Melissa, I think they ran away” and I swear to you that sounded better than any admission of love I’d ever heard before or since.

We walked the two miles home barefoot and in shock. We laid in my bed and tried to sort out what came next. To be honest, that’s not true, we didn’t actually sort anything. When we got back to my place we had incredible adrenaline fueled “we could have been killed” sex. It was the first and only time that Eduardo stayed all night in my bed.

In the morning I realized my bank card was FDIC insured and whatever the muggers had taken I could get back, so I called the police. They sent an officer over to take my statement, annoyed I hadn’t called them right after the crime. Eduardo wanted no part of it, I don’t know why – maybe he had a criminal history, maybe he was in the country illegally, maybe he just wanted a shower. Like I said, I didn’t really know him that well.