it’s like this: you get busy. your studio apartment swells into a cluttered mess–banana peel & empty food packages sprawling the counter, sink piled high with dishes starting to stink, bed awash with paper & note cards, a stray highlighter or pen. your split your time between double shifts, meal prep, & the peace you smoke from a glass pipe, & the getting busy hushes all your thinking parts.
when i was younger–fifteen, eighteen, twenty-two–i spent hours at my computer, fingers frantic at the keys while my stereo buzzed with neutral milk hotel, martha wainright, damien rice. i fed myself the alphabet & nourished my body & mind with words that mattered–if not to anyone else, to me. i was the mad woman in the attic awake all night chain-smoking cigarettes & drinking peppermint schnapps from the bottle straight. writing was all i could do to stop from exploding or lighting myself on fire.
now, at twenty-seven, it’s hard to find the words, & when i do, i tell myself they don’t matter, that it is better to be quiet & safe than to speak & be made dangerous. i say that i am too busy. i create endless messes & find infinite distractions that draw me, again & again, away from this page. i preoccupy myself with things rustling in the future, just beyond any horizon i can see, & pretend not to see the gun powder, the roman candles, the book of matches nearby. i create silence, hold it till my lungs burn.
i write, i can’t write, then i erase. i hiccup-stutter-stop in trying to begin, & i try, & i try, & then i am quiet. as i try, tenney, a man i have cared for almost every day for the past six months, is dying in a hospital in pittsburgh, & i don’t want to let him go. a co-worker tells me, wanting to keep him, that’s the selfishness in us, but we can’t wish him back into who he was.
it’s like this: i don’t know how to process grief without muting my loud heart with self-destructive impulses. i can’t allow myself to feel pain without minimizing & berating my experience. i am the drunk girl forever-crying at the party who can’t grow beyond the hurt done to her. i tell myself, you were molested, so what? & think of janet saying, not everything is the result of your relationship with your father. some things are just because.
so it’s like this: i was molested & nobody listened & now i loathe my voice. or it’s like this: i was born or nurtured into shoulders too small to carry hurt & anger & disappointment without ruining myself first. either way, i can’t grow up, & i can’t parent myself into the adult i’d like to become, & so i tell the same story again, again, again, the reincarnation of the child who cannot grow beyond her own shadow &, instead, becomes peter pan ad infinitum.
the pastor says, as we speak, two of our chaplains are with tennyson. my supervisor calls to say he probably won’t make it through the night.
for two years, the father attempts to initiate contact with the daughter he abused. the first few attempts are timid, silly emails–hello, i can’t seem to reach you; give me a call sometime, & wal-mart pharmacy called my house wanting to speak with you. the next, ambiguous, wistful apologies–i can’t change the past; maybe in another life. he tells his son, i hope that before i die, your sister will talk to me. when his emails receive no reply, then he gets a little coy. he writes on a sheet of paper & slips it into the mail:
I have been reading your letter daily and thinking about it throughout the day.
I have been trying to figure out a way to make this right.
Then, all of a sudden, it came to me.
There is nothing “I” can do to straighten this out.
“YOUR” terms prevent me from doing anything.
You know my address. But letters will not work.
You know my phone number. But a call will not do.
“FACE TO FACE” when you are ready.
when the daughter doesn’t speak a peep, a few months later he explodes, once again emailing: Molested??? REALLY!!!! You base your relationship with me on ONE statement by your mother. DUMB ASS
first, the daughter shuts down. she thinks, i’d rather be dead than deal with this again. she craves cigarettes & pizza & chocolate & wounds to her skin, but she tells herself, just sit with this. be still. let it pass, & it does. this time, she does not die. instead, she gets mad.
when i was thirteen & first told my mom i felt funny around my dad, we were two betrayed girls tossing out throwaway phrases like, if he ever touched you– & if he ever hurt you— & i thought, because she glowed red-hot with her anger, that she had a plan. i thought we, together, would leave. if he ever touched you– & if he ever hurt you– fizzled, a trail of smoke from a candle blown out. we stayed for years–i was fourteen, then fifteen, sixteen, & still living with a man who terrified me. she found a new man. she left without me.
these days my mother says, if i had known, we would have been out of there, lickety-split. we would have been gone so fast. i didn’t try so hard for so many years to have kids just so he could ruin them. when we talk about my dad, she wants to talk about all the ways he betrayed her, i think to justify having an affair & leaving him, the version of him that she thought was a perfect husband who could give her everything. she used to say, i was so stupid to leave your dad. now she says, i was so stupid. i didn’t know. uh-uh. i had no idea.
throughout my life, my mom has used her “stupidity” as a reason not to do a lot of things. her dream was to be a nurse, but she was “too stupid” & hated–still hates–reading books. she has never read my poems or stories because she is “too stupid” to understand them. when her boyfriend expressed how hungry he was for me, she allowed him to come home from his week-long stay at a psychiatric ward &, years later, added it to the list of “too stupid” things she did.
i write, & when i get to the parts where i might say too much, i tell myself to be good. be nice. be a good girl, not a bad, bad baby.
i started to get mouthy when i was ten or eleven, maybe twelve. when i think of being angry as a child, i have two distinct memories. in the first, i am with my mother in her van at my elementary school, & we are leaving early for a doctor’s appointment or a piano lesson. i am angry about something, & the anger is so big it overwhelms my insides & leaks from my mouth. it covers me like lava, & i am drowning in it, blinded, until my mother slaps my face. i become very still, & then i get quiet. i get good. i can’t remember whether i cried. i’m sure, later, that i did.
in the second memory, i am younger, & i am angry again. it is summer-becoming-fall, late afternoon but still bright with sunlight. i rage on & on at my mother, & my mother tells me that she is leaving & never coming back, & then she goes. she goes, & i feel satisfied, & she is still gone. it starts to get dark, & i begin worrying. in my memory, i look for her in the woods & at the neighbors’ house, but in my gut, i know this is a lie. i remember lying in my bed, & i remember crying. i remember taking the anger i felt toward my mother & sharpening it into daggers that i used to pierce my own guts. before i fell asleep, i convinced myself that she was dead–kidnapped, hit by a car, eaten by bears–& that it was my fault. that this is what happened to girls who were mad, & that it was better to be otherwise. to be quiet, to be good.
late that night, my mother came home alive, but in her absence i had learned.
tenney’s first night in the pittsburgh hospital, i go home & self-medicate in whatever ways are available to me, & then, because my heart still aches, i lie awake imagining him, doubting that i made it clear enough the last time i saw him that he is loved. that i love him. that, always, he will be loved.
after months of intermittent stays in the hospital, the paramedics arrive in tenney’s hospital room at 4:15 on a wednesday to transfer him to a stretcher, & the nurses ask me to sit in the waiting room. when i am allowed to see him again, i touch his shoulder & say, make sure they don’t drive too fast, tennyson. have a safe trip. they’re going to take good care of you at the hospital. behave yourself flirting with all the nurses; don’t go coming back here with a hundred more girlfriends. i want to keep talking until he looks at me & smiles, because then i can know that he & i both will be OK, that there is a chance he will come back, but he doesn’t. the paramedics tighten a strap across his arms & he winces, barely murmuring oww, his face bunched-up, his mouth a wide O. his eyes are closed tight, & he is shaking. i touch his shoulder one more time, & when he doesn’t open his eyes, i say, i’ll see you soon. when i leave the room, his eyes are still closed.
tonight, when tennyson’s breath is sustained by two liters of oxygen, his calories fed to his stomach through a tube in his nose, instead of getting drunk or high or sick on too many sweets, i tell myself to be brave, to be still, to be silent. in the space my quiet creates, a flood of stories, too many to tell, a bad girl too tired with grief for the telling. when she can begin, the story will go like this: years & years ago, a man named tennyson was born, his legs fragile as glass birds, infection already brewing in his bones, & he outlived anyone’s diagnoses & expectancies of him. in all of the girl’s memories with him, he is smiling, his head shaking just a little. there’s warmth in the pause & their silence as he looks at her, & she sees him thinking, & then he says, i love you, jessie, like her caring is a nugget of gold or a hunk of the moon. he smiles, his eyes bright. reflected in his glasses, a version of herself she can see clearly, barely a shadow: a good girl, loved first simply for loving in return.