Saturday, December 17, 2016

like fog

Even with all the ice and the midday sun skimming low on the horizon, this winter is easier than the first, and I think every winter will be. The first winter was all howling loneliness, always dark and I could never sleep.

I remember the mornings, sitting up out of bed with crusty eyes, making coffee, and catching the bus up the valley to go to work. Frozen,white fog pressed flat against the windows, blocking out everything and then the bus pops out into a patch of clear and you can see how clouds are hanging on the mountain and the road is going up and down and in and out of them. We are driving in the sky, and the sun comes up out of the cloud bank dripping like a bucket from a well.

My memories run constantly, some over and over on repeat, others flashing like unsuspected fish up from the muddy bottom. Sometimes the memory has a beginning and a middle, or at least and end, but most of the time it's white noise like this --

I remember the first night of the trip out here, and the name of the town where that first motel was: Big Springs. A flat spot on the plains, where I've never been before or since. What comes back to me is the sound of the trucks going by on the highway so close and so fast that in my mind each one shakes the room like a gale-force wind. Now I see I must have been afraid, but I didn't know it then. The first winter proved me right on a few essential things.

Because I was right when I thought it would be easy to start over, leaving everything, emptying. It is easy, so easy. You don't even have to change your name because it means nothing now to anyone you meet. You are a blank, but you can't stay that way because nature abhors a vacuum. Things will come along to fill you, maybe remake you, maybe make you forget too much. You'll be forgotten, too, in the place you left behind, memories of you will dry up like puddles. How is it possible to live in a place so long and leave behind so little of consequence? Living light, you called it. You said you liked it that way.

You never have to tell a single lie, because no one has any questions about you. Every morning I get on the bus and smile at the driver, and he smiles at me. I go to work, and to the store, and home, and in no place does my body feel solid or real. Maybe it's all the layers you wear, how they numb you. Or maybe it's the memories, how they light up your sensory cortices, flotsam and jetsam of the past blocking out the present. My startle reflexes are tuned up so high I feel every time someone whose learned my name says it out loud. I don't leave my house too much that year. Also, I haven't yet learned to walk in the cold.

That first winter taught me other things, too -- another way to move through time, a way to live when it is almost always dark and you can almost never sleep. Time moves in a spiral then, bringing you back to same place over and over, only little higher up. I blame the pace of travel. If I told you that it took a week of driving, barely stopping to sleep a few hours each night, eating at gas stations, it might wound to you like a long time, but it was blazing fast, moving like a comet across the incredible stretches of the west, over mountains that are still formidable with all the horsepower you can pack under a hood.

To the body moving that fast is jarring, dizzying. It will take most of a year for the buzzing in my head to stop, a white noise made up of sudden feelings and pooling memories of motel rooms, all the ones from the trip and then others, all the motel rooms of my life and there have been a lot. That winter teaches me some things about moving too far too fast.

So much darkness not to sleep in. Odd dreams when I sleep, quick waking that leaves me uneasy. I start to believe that people are looking at me everywhere I go, and what's worse is that this isn't true. I have a feeling like someone wants to hurt me.

I've felt this way before. It makes me hold my body differently, tense when I go around a corner or through a door. One time, after another move, another start-over, this feeling built and built until I had a panic attack one hot afternoon in May, a bad one. I remember leaning over the kitchen sink, a sudden pain in my stomach, falling into it, then nothing. My neighbor heard me screaming and found me in my kitchen on the floor, thrashing, and called the ambulance. He's standing over me with his phone in his hand and I wonder what this means and who he is.

I didn't want to go to the hospital, begged not to go, but I couldn't answer questions for the paramedics, didn't know what day it was or my name. Memories all blanked out, white like fog on the windows of the bus, empty as a dreamer, but awake.

Ambulance, hospital, hallway, bed. Scared of the nurses, like a child -- will they put a needle in me? Old lines of thought that run like this: no one will help you, no one wants to help you, only you can help you and how will you help you when you don't know your name? They take your clothes.

The doctor come with his chart and his questions. From outside, where I watch myself, I know that if I could explain he would understand and he would let me go. Inside, where I am still panicking, his questions open up the holes I am afraid of falling into, so instead I get angry and I tell him nothing is wrong. From outside, I beg myself to calm down. From inside, I can't.

He leaves. Inside, I'm glad because you can't trust anyone, they are the ones who put you here to begin with. Outside, I'm horrified because he was the one who maybe could have helped. From this perspective, which seems to see through space and time, I watch myself penetrating further and further in, other hospitals, doors slamming shut behind me.

When my name comes back to me a few hours later it is sudden, the way the sky up here can clear with no warning and turn brilliant and innocent. A nurse comes in, an older woman with her hair drawn back tight and her face carefully arranged to meet me. I'm OK now, I want to tell her, I won't say anything else to scare you. I ask her to bring the doctor.

It takes a long time, but I don't mind. If you've ever forgotten your name and remembered it again, you know it is the best feeling in the world. I tell the doctor "panic attacks" and I answer all the questions he asks. I can tell there are more questions, and he says he wants to keep me under observation, but by now I remember that I'm an adult and I can refuse, so I do. Finally, he shrugs.

This is a small ER in a county hospital and it is the weekend. He knows how much paperwork it takes to commit someone involuntarily, and I'd be out again immediately. My eyes are so clear now, my affect so regulated and congruent. I apologize for all the trouble. He makes me sign and form that says I am being released against medical advice, and suggests I consider wearing a medical alert bracelet for my condition. To keep things nice I say that I'll consider it. The nurse brings back my clothes. I let the hospital gown fall down my arms and off my body. On the way out I stop in the lobby and buy candy from the vending machine. It takes an hour to walk home.

This is a story I don't tell new people, and of course no one ever asks you -- have you ever lost your mind for a while? Do you know how good it feels when they let you out? Ever walked home in the sunset, trying to make your thoughts weave back together and cover up the blank spots in your timeline? My stomach hurt, I bent over the sink, then I was gone --

Because I could give it a name, that's why they let me out. Because I gave it a name and made it make sense. Names have this power. They take the terrible and unknowable and symbolize it,  translate it into the realm of the rational and classifiable. Of course, the name is also nothing. It explains nothing. It doesn't tell you what it feels like for me unless you've felt it too, and it doesn't tell me why it came or how to make it go.

Yet somehow, once you know the name you may find that you release some of these questions. The name brings with it its ontological framework, the grace of which is that what doesn't fit loses its significance, becomes ghost.

As long as you act quite ordinary -- wait for the bus in the morning and go to work, smile at the people that you meet and introduce yourself, answer when your name is spoken -- then people will grant you the privilege of very few questions.

Sometimes I feel lucky, and other times it makes me too afraid to cry and I feel like I've lost everything until I depart the bus at the downtown station in the cloud-filtered early morning light and see the old men and their dogs, the ones who sleep here all night and know what it's like to be really cold.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

a letter to a guy I met at the library

I'm so glad we're friends on Facebook. I like knowing you. I wish we'd gotten to know each other better in real life before I moved. Maybe we could have been real-life friends, too. I appreciated all the attention you gave me at the library, all the big smiles and doe-eyed looks. I was working really hard in school, and sometimes your smiles were my only break. I'm glad we went for drinks those times. You made it really obvious that you were trying to hook up with me, but that you were also trying to hook up with everybody, so it was casual, no big deal. I wasn't trying to hook up with anybody at that time, but if I had been you would have been at the top of the list. It's funny we didn't get to be better friends, though. We just never quite made it past a certain superficial barrier, and I really wanted to, because whatever was on the other side of that barrier, I have a feeling, was probably pretty cool.

I try to think about how your experience of being an incredibly good-looking guy of color might have played into that situation. You were probably used to being exoticized and fetishized by white girls you met at the library. You pretty much said as much, and you implied that this was fine, because you liked getting laid. This was pretty much as far as we got.

I was older than you. I wanted to be respectful, careful. I didn't want to fetishize you or exoticize you because I wasn't really sure if it was as OK with you as you said, or if it would always be as OK with you as you said it was then. When I was 22, I submitted myself to a lot objectification that I must have believed at the time was inevitable, that I thought, in my insouciance, I might as well make bank on, since it was already there. I do not feel now all the ways that I did then. I question how the discourses of oppression persuaded me I could embrace what were presented as the rewards without being harmed, without harming others.

Not that you were not beautiful. Not that part of what was fun about going for drinks with you after six hours studying for qualifiers was not about the shine on your mahogany skin, your thick, black eyelashes, your long, strong fingers. Not that race was not absolutely there, between us at the bar, grazing against us always like our knuckles grazed when we reached for our glasses at the same time.

I didn't think this letter would be so much about race, but it feels unavoidable after the kind of election we've just had. I voted blue after watching a Youtube video of a young white guy talking about his Nazi ideals. I've been depressed ever since. I wonder if you voted and what you think about all this. You never gave me the impression you were particularly political, but we never got that deep about things like that, which is funny because I like getting deep about things like that, and you were a history major. I wouldn't have like to hear what you would say. I think that sex, and race, and my fear, my desire to be respectful, as well as whatever was going on inside of you about all the white girls you met at the library, it all got in the way. I wonder why it was now that you got in touch, years after our last last-call together, our last high-five and side-hug before weaving our separate ways home, your message: You moved? How am I supposed to run into you now?

I haven't been onto Facebook since the election, couldn't face all the vomit of feelings the come up with the re-posts about Muslim registry, hate crimes, quotes from Elie Wiesel, my own sick sense of impotence. I beg myself not to think: Nobody, nothing can arrest this. Everything that was supposed to get better is getting worse. Shame. Rage. In what ways have I participated? I want nothing more than to be innocent and that is something none of us can be.

While we're on the subject of race, can I tell the story about the last time I was close with a black guy? It was in sixth grade. I know, a long time ago. I've had good friends who were Latino, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, but in between sixth grade and now, none of them have been black guys. I don't know why. Probably has something to do with growing up in a crappy ass part of the rural south, a town left behind in time thirty years ago, with nothing to sell itself but it's long, low rows of chicken houses stinking up the summer breeze. Those shitty houses where only the poorest of the poor would work, the migrant families and the black people who lived, not even in a shitty part of town but in a whole other town, Jonesboro, a town outside of the town, where there was no water, no sidewalks, no nothing but a few rows of shanty houses, trailers, an old horse, an old dog, the ever-living moss hanging from its strangled perch on the trees.

Erik Washington, my last black guy friend, lived there. I lived even further out of town, down the most dirt of dirt roads, so the bus picked me up the very last, even after Erik and the other Jonesboro kids. I got in the mornings, clueless and forlorn in my cousin's hand-me-downs, out of date and never the right size, my hair cut never-quite-straight by mom sitting on the landing upstairs under the bare bulb where the light was brightest. Town kids clucked and mooed at me while I walked down the aisle and no one moved over to give me a seat until the bus driver stopped the bus and yelled back without turning around.

I knew Erik from 4-H, where we both showed calves. Maybe they mooed at him to when he got on, although I wouldn't know because that was before my stop. I don't think so, though, because Erik was kind of popular. He was older than me and played football. He had a nice smile and a goofy, friendly sense of humor. We talked sometimes, I don't remember what about. I do remember a mom of somebody, a white lady, come over while we drinking punch together at a 4-H meet and acting like we were doing something wrong. I remember not understanding this, forgetting it, then remembering it again. If Erik was sitting by himself on the bus, he would move over. He was one of only two or three people who would do it without getting yelled at by the driver. I remember the sweet relief on those mornings, when I knew I would at least get to school OK. If I had to sit next to someone who did not want to sit next to me, that was the beginning of a bad day.

The white girls from town were mean with their words: Hey, look. It's the real-life garbage-patch kid. the black girls were mean with their eyes. I don't know why they were mad at me, except that I was garbage, worse than garbage, and yet still, inexplicably, white with all and whatever of what that meant. It was the white boys that were scariest, though. It didn't matter if they were from town or not, they looked at me with a kind of viscous appetite, like hurting me was the start of something that made them hungrier as it went. Scariest, because when it started like that in the morning it would usually go on all day -- the snarled comments at my locker, the foot stuck out to trip me in the hall. My stink of fear and submission --please don't hurt me, please don't look at me -- around me all day like a fog. The bus home on those days, those were the worst times. That was when there was holding down, pinching, the whispers, the words that didn't even make sense to me, things I didn't understand and I didn't even ask myself why me, because I was nothing and anything could happen to me, because everyone saw what happened and nobody cared.

Just Erik. Erik was the one, the only one who spoke for me. Erik told his mom. Erik's mom turned out to be a sober lady of the church. She knew right from wrong. She came to our house, I remember this. I remember opening the door to someone I had never met. I remember her sitting at the table with my mother. I am sent out of the room for their conversation, but I hover half-way up the stairs and listen to her voice cutting through the haze and silence of our house: What's happening to your child is not right. What's happening is not right. We have to come together. Something moves in my chest, unfurling, not large but solid, unmistakeable and with heat. It hits against what's real, and though it comes with pain its name is also hope.

I want my mother to be like Erik's mother. I want her voice to get angry and strong and sure. What Erik's mom doesn't know is, my mother is not the coming-together kind. Not that she doesn't want to, but she doesn't know how. She only knows how to close her eyes and wish my pain would go away, like she wishes away her own. She never talks to me about this conversation, and so I only know what I learned from the stairs, but that turns out to be a lot. What is happening to me is not alright. It is not alright, but it is happening. Like the chicken-houses are not alright. Like the Nicaraguan girl whose parents work there, who sits next to me in class but cannot learn because she does not speak English and because she needs glasses and cannot see the board, like that is not alright. Like it is not alright that there is a place like Jonesboro, where people like Erik and his mother, who are angry and strong and sure and know that it is not alright, must still live anyway. It is not our choice. The things that are happening to us are not our choice and that is not alright.

Nothing changes on the bus after this. My mother turns her mind to something else while that thing that is warm and solid in my chest folds up again, and I never see Erik's mom again. Erik and I never talk about this, although he will still let me next to him the few times that seat is empty. But Erik still saved me.

Today, I wish I had another story where I am the hero and save Erik, where I stand up for him to a crowd of kids, where I raise my voice and shout them into silence. Back then, I never even thought of this. I never imagined myself with any power I turn to anyone's effect: garbage girl.  Even a decade after, long after I thought it put this off, it wasn't off. It took so much work, so many violent convulsions of spirit. I did some things in the course of that, things I wouldn't do now.

Maybe you have, too. Back to you. I'm going to guess that you've been angry, too, and sure and strong sometimes, your soul has bucked with a surge of strength and hit with pain against the limits of our situation. Maybe fallen back at times, maybe accepted oppression as inevitable, resigned to make the most of it, to get laid as much as possible. I remember you talked up growing up in Washington - so white there I thought I had a skin disease.  Maybe one day looked in the mirror and seen your high cheekbones, your long eyelashes, thought about the hunger certain people have when they look at you and decided there is a way to feel good about this, to use it. Maybe I didn't want to be part of this, and didn't know how to find my way out either. Maybe this is why we were only friends, and why we're still friends. Maybe I'm over-thinking everything.

Anyway, this was my baggage when we were sitting at the bar talking about nothing, with sex keeping everything safe, intentional, and on the surface. I don't know what your baggage was. We never got there. I'd be curious to know.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

signs of life

Thank you to those of you who still come here from time to time looking for me. I miss you, too. The last few years have been a lot of work and I didn't do any writing for pleasure for a long time. I didn't tell any stories. Lately it feels like whatever it is that makes me want to do that has been waking up again, maybe because life has a certain amount of predictability in it now within which it is comforting to remember stranger times.

For a while I really did want to wipe it all clean and start over, and I have found that this is disconcertingly easy to do, despite everything that's been revealed to us about the illusory nature of our privacy. Those of us who came of age in the sheltered garden of history between the Cold War and the War on Terror were encouraged to regard the digitization of our lives as a wide-open frontier of anonymity, ours for the taking, another iteration of our manifest destiny. We believed in free speech and the ripe possibilities of interconnection: tune in, log on, upload. How lightly we held the knowledge -- never hidden from us, only disguised as history -- that, like every frontier, this was a military project all along.

We wake up now as in a cold dawn, understanding with the gut-punch of the should-have-been obvious how easy it is to signal a cascade if processes, at first most likely automated, but perhaps slowly gathering an audience, triggering additional layers surveillance and collection: [caller, recipient, time of call, duration, location], camera in laptop flicking on, in-phone GPS cricket-calling into the cross-hairs. Data generating data to be reviewed, shared, commented on, analyzed by other frail humans with hearts full of ordinary brokenness and desire.

And yet despite all this, for me it's been easy to disappear in one place and appear in another by wholly ordinary means, and to begin a life as a contributing member of society, living a life that makes sense to other people so that they feel no need to ask more than the dinner-party kinds of questions. With all that it's possible to know, about me or anyone else, most people one encounters are not very curious.

Lots of people must have this same experience, although not everyone takes their living of a double life so literally as to create other names, other histories. Not everyone has to re-learn to introduce themselves by the name on their birth certificate. I have a tendency to take things pretty far. But many of us must be in some way doing this all the time, trying on and then shedding identities with and without an intention or a purpose, going new places and shaking hands with strangers like nothing ever happened, piecing together the rules for fitting in, curating a collection of stories that will and won't be told.

I'm not going to cop right now to anything as sad or self-eulogizing as saying that I have regrets about the new life or the old one. I've always fought against that streak of self pity in myself. My life is ordinary in the best of ways. When I wake up in the morning, I have an idea of what to expect, and to enjoy that is to enjoy a privilege. And still I am unable to forget all that I've had a chance to learn about the darkened rooms and the things that go on there, the splendid variety of ways the human soul (if you'll forgive me that word, in context) presents itself to another when it believes no one is looking on.

I have to try, like all of us do, to protect myself. I ought to keep to myself anything that might constitute identifying data: names, dates, locations. I supposed it might be wiser in cases to describe events parallel to history rather than overlying it. To lie, in other words. It would keep me safer. And then on the other hand again, I suspect the frisson of danger might just be what some people always liked most about me anyway: the idea that, if they wanted to enough, they could hurt me.