once we all sat around and listened to a girl tell everyone that the letter i should not be capitalized when referring to oneself in the English language, because each of our selves is not important enough to distinguish with a letter that towers over the others.

the boys always had bony hips and thin skin that stretched over them, pale and blue and veiny, and i liked tracing their clavicles with my pinky finger.

kids wielding parental credit cards and a plateful of cafeteria food discussed the various injustices of the world. pity those who do not follow, pity me because i got here and don’t know where i am anymore. pity me because with freedom comes responsibility, and i am not ready to be responsible for myself yet.

we all had dreams. ireland, the united nations, a big-time newspaper, a hospital, a prestigious book deal. some of us realized our dreams and some of us merely grew out of them. some of us changed them completely so we wouldn’t have to face the idea of failure.

kids clinging to kids clinging to ideas, thinking ideas will change the world, that if every person out there would just think a little bit more we’d all be happier and safer. but then kids graduate and realize that we still have to print warning labels reminding people not to use hairdryers in the bath tub, and the world needs a little more work.

kids deciding marx had all the right ideas, then changing their minds over and over and all over again until they realize the only real philosophy is the one that makes sense inside, a composite of the good bits from all the greats. kids realizing their parents and grandparents and great grandparents already know everything about philosophy except for the philosophers themselves, that the world sucks and there’s no way to tell whether everything is real but not who put these ideas into words.

we acted like walking in the rain was the hardest thing in the world to do


My Hell comes from inside myself.

Funny how you can feel gaunt and skeletal when you’re as flabby and wavering as ever, you emotional wreck, you piece of shit, you complete waste of human flesh. You’re breathing our oxygen, and we don’t want your rancid leftist carbon dioxide polluting our air and feeding lies to our plants. The reason you can’t sleep isn’t because you’re a victim; it’s because you’ve done so much stupid shit your brain is punishing you. Smiled today? BAM, smack in the face: quit smiling when you’ve let yourself lose so much, you fucking whore.

Doesn’t really matter how tightly you squint your face and press your eyelids together and think about puppies and kittens and beautiful things – doesn’t really matter because you know you’ve given well-measured doses of ugly to people around you before, and you can’t save yourself from what you did in the past. Nope. Can’t save yourself from your own fuckups. They follow you around like bastard children demanding support and homage – “Remember me,” they say, “Ma, remember me? Remember when you made a decision that was so idiotic you must have been slobbering and making monkey noises when you signed bill into law? Remember? I’m never going away. Never. You can’t escape me because I own you now. You created me and I own you and I’ll never, ever let you go free.”

Then night falls and all you want to do is sleep, and we can’t let you do that. Sometimes you cannot sleep. Sometimes you must stay awake and think about what you’ve done, whether it was yesterday or ten years ago. Sometimes you have to rock those bastard children to sleep, even though any tiny movement jars them and then comes the screaming that burns your ears and leaks from your eyes in one of those tear-torrents that burn when you realize you don’t have anything left to expel from your ducts. Then your lover will snore in the next room while you sit as still as humanly possible and use some tiny part of your brain to systematically torture every brain cell you’ve got left up there – we know you’ve been dousing your brain in booze and pot. Just another way you’re ruining yourself, besides this, besides these things you’ve done that have disappointed us so.

You aren’t a victim. You did this yourself, and you’ll admit it. Doesn’t mean we don’t know what’s best for you. What are your least favorite words, those words they keep uttering, the ones you despise? What are they? Oh. “Should have.” “Mistake.” “Would have, but…” Quit stammering, princess. You should have done so much you haven’t done. You know your mistakes. And would haves are useless. They’re the babies of should haves; they’re more innocent-sounding because they give a ripe old excuse for excuses. You would have, but, right? You would have, but you were too bored. You would have, but you were too insistent on proving something silly. You would have, but you left instead, and you can’t ever go back. You would have, but sometimes life gets in the way of would haves.

Don’t give me any of that shit about being happy. You aren’t happy. All you can do tonight is sit there and think about everything that’s ever upset you. About the people you loved who disappointed you. If you were happy you wouldn’t have set up tent and started this ridiculous dwelling, the kind that won’t go away until you send yourself into a seratonin-induced stupor, smiling and drooling like the fuckup you are. You think you’ve got things under control, but missy, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You haven’t been through the wringer yet. You’ve still got your appendages, some shred of your dignity, an iota of good humor left – we can’t have that. We can’t let you retain that. We will eviscerate you and everything you have ever loved because we care that much about you, one individual in two billion, smoldering in your own little Hell right there in your little apartment.

The worst part for you? The worst part for you is… we don’t really care one bit. We say things and then leave, never realizing you’re going to stay up alone and sobbing, never realizing we were just the finger on your faulty trigger. We don’t even remember you until we see you. We never stay up at night thinking about your poor, wounded crushed spirit. We don’t care. Nobody cares except you, and you care entirely too much. You’re pathetic. Go sit in your Hell and bide your time until you can pretend to be normal again.

talking to myself.

I want to change the world.
you cannot change everyone
I hate the rich and the greedy-
then hatred is all you have going for you
I want to love him forever
people change and hearts break and sometimes hon you just can’t see it comin’
I would never-
you might someday.
Can’t believe she’d do that.
you wouldn’t believe what some people are capable of doing
I can’t stop crying.
yes, you can
All I want is for them to understand.
but they are not you and they never quite will
If only things were easier…
stop with the ifs and start doing something about it
If only things were easier…
then you would not be worth much of anything at all
If only things were easier…
life will never get easier, just more interesting
If only things were easier…
then it’d be a whole helluva lot easier to go to sleep forever, wouldn’t it, but you haven’t, have you
I found him.
don’t forget you could still lose him
But I found him.
you’ve found them before and they’ve hurt you or bored you or left you or forgotten they ever thought you were beautiful
He is not like the rest of them.
and the rest were unlike the rest who were unlike the rest
I have a plan for my life
until you decide to overhaul it
I’d never do anything like that-
never say what you would never do because never means not once in your entire life
I am steadfast.
you are stubborn but you break easily
I am strong.
until you realize people don’t have quite as much love in their hearts as you thought
I can do this.
and you will, even if it destroys you, because you think you have something to prove
I can’t do this.
too bad you don’t have a choice anymore
I will always have them.
there are few but they do exist and yes you will always have them so fucking treasure them like you’ve never treasured anything else before

I forgot to forget.

I loved him and I let him disease me, just like that, a quick in and out, there you go, you’re one of them now.
The test was positive and he was negative and everything about both of us was… wrong, not fitting in the grooves quite right, not spreading out and making a safe place like we should have been, where trees have swings on them and giggles aren’t mocked.

During each night I had to tiptoe into the bathroom five or six times to look in the mirror and smile at myself and wonder how I could look so normal when I felt nothing but abnormal, except sometimes, a few times, I could see my abnormalities shining in my eyes like little fires that I hoped I could put out soon. He wouldn’t give me a fire extinguisher – COULDN’T give me a fire extinguisher – would never give anyone a fire extinguisher because he couldn’t fight fires to save his own halfway meaningless life.

We do not mean anything when we don’t have the power of family and friends and lovers to back up our existence. He did not agree.

When they scraped him from my womb they said I’d hear music and I did, not a gentle beep or a soft hum but a rousing orchestra, strings and winds and brasses all knocking together in a messy clamor that distracted me from the crying I couldn’t seem to stop. Because I don’t believe in souls or Gods or universal truth or universal good and evil; I can’t see the world in black and white; I can only see the colors that surround me and the look in his eyes when he told me he’d never stop holding me and now, looking back, the threatening look in his eyes when he gripped my shoulders; I can’t see the world in black and white, I can only see it in the gray that mine has always been. I cannot be always right and I cannot be always wrong.

Later I felt guilty eating because how can you justify eating when you just spend hundreds of dollars to empty yourself inside, to cleanse yourself of the unwanted, to rid yourself of the parasite you won’t want until years later when it’s already entirely too late? How can you justify eating when you know you’ve just done something you want to forget but you won’t? I tell you it’s a growth; a cluster of cells. You tell me it’s a soul I killed, like I can take it back, like I can go back and gather those cells and force them into my own womb and let them grow into the life they once deserved to be – NO!

It’s already too late to change myself; too late to change the whites and the blacks and the highs and the lows and the goods and the bads of my little world; it’s too late for me to believe in your gods; it’s too late for me to do anything but try to justify deserving a life where I don’t constantly remind myself of him and it and myself and that awful music that blared in my ears while I breathed through that mask and let the doctor rip something from me that probably deserved its own freedom. But life was from womb to vacuum for it. And life goes on for him.

She did not love herself enough, he might say, she was not what I needed, she did not appreciate me, she bored me, she was putting on weight like a fat kid who’d just discovered candy for the first time, she needed to grow up, more than I could help her. He might say all that, and not mention the things I want so badly for them all to know, that he created something with me that neither of us loved enough to allow to live. That I can’t ever forget him even though I want to more than anything, because, because, because – any iota of innocence I managed to maintain until then is GONE now.

On the ride home I felt so light I would have flown out the car window had a seatbelt not been restraining listless me. He sympathized for a few days but later he discarded me.

I am not leftovers; and I do not forget; and I will let him forget because someday he will know what it’s like to love someone who loops an umbilical cord round your neck, cuts off your air passageways, pulls your insides to the outside then leaves you dismantled among the gravel and pavement and carpet soiled from too many nights filled with too much bitter wine. Someday he will know how badly it hurts to be so wrong. Someday I will slip into his dreams and show him what it’s like to have your insides vacuumed until nothing’s left but a heart that hurts and a messy and unraveling sense of Self that can’t ever quite be put back together again. Someday I will show him that I was resilient; that I learned from him; that I would never make the same mistake again no matter how pretty the boy or how good the dick or how soulful the eyes or… Someday I will show him that he was absolutely right; we were one of those couples that is good for some time but then dismantles because one is stuck in an endless cycle of self-pleasing and the other is stuck in an endless cycle of pleasing someone else. Someday I will show him pain, real pain, pain not dulled by drugs or philosophy or agnosticism but real, finite pain that hits you when you least expect it and leaves only when your thoughts have turned to drivel and self-pity.

Or maybe I won’t show him these things, but I hope somebody does. My mistakes will haunt me and I hope his will haunt him forever, crying, dreams with diapers flitting across the horizon, pacifiers in his orifices and ecstasy inside and (touch me feel me I AM A CHILD) screaming into his ears alongside the awful music I heard once.

Summer, Texas, Age 8

Air conditioners never work. I try to read the book in my hand, the thrilling epic of two teenage vampires, but every few minutes a drop of sweat gets so heavy it falls from the tip of my nose right onto my open novel. Sweat spots be damned – I’m hot. Tank top. Shorts as short as I can get them, within reason. Purple jellies. Bathing suit underneath. Human beings shouldn’t have to withstand temperatures this high, this searing, but here I am, in the backseat of a car headed to what’s sure to be its own doom, ready to wait and wait and wait.

We were going to go to the water park today, but I’m starting to think that might not happen. Earlier Dad poked around under the hood, crawled underneath the car, yelled profanities at nobody in particular. I guess the car broke down again, but not so much that we can’t get to the shop. Me, I’d rather sit in the air-conditioned trailer, lounging on the couch with some Kool-Aid and a book, somewhere I can close the blinds and keep the sun from poking at me through the windows.

But now we’re there, and I get some reprieve from the sticky backseat. I find a spot in the shade and sit Indian-style on the concrete. I have to shudder – there’s nothing worse than feeling sweat drip from your butt down your thighs – but that’s the way summer goes around here. No wonder Southerners in books are always sitting on front porches, fanning themselves and drinking iced tea. Who in their right mind would drink hot tea? The heat crept up right after my birthday in March and won’t go away until October.

I go inside to use the bathroom. I’ve been sitting outside so long there are spots in my eyes when I go inside, and everything looks blue. My mom says she’ll buy me a Coke if we have to wait too much longer, but I don’t want a Coke in particular. I want to jump feet-first into a cool lake. I want my mom to get into the inner tube like she always does, so my big sister and I can drag her to the deep area and listen to her yell about how she never learned to swim. I want to get on a big blue mat and ride down the twisting water slide, stopping once the slide workers can’t see me and letting the water build up behind my mat so a big gush of water pushes me down at full force. I want to fight with my sister about who gets to use the blue raft – whatever her favorite color is, mine is too. I want fun, and I want it now.

But I have to wait, right here with my sister and my mom and my dad, while some greasy mechanic bends over our car and performs an intricate operation on its insides. I don’t know why we drove our car here if it was so broken in the first place, but when I try to verbalize this, my mom shushes me. Dad has that look on his face that tells me and my sister not to mention cars, money or his inability to understand the mechanics of an engine, but sometimes I like to push him and see how far I can get before he erupts in anger and starts mixing his words up, like when he can’t decide whether to say “Do not” or “Don’t” and ends up saying something that sounds like “Dough not.”

Every few minutes the heat waves inch closer to where I’m sitting, so I get up and pace around.
“Are we goin’ yet?” I pester. I get the Look of Death from my mom, who looks a little overheated herself. My sister’s almost a teenager, so she’s being sullen and won’t help me entertain myself. I watch the men working in the garage. The whole place smells like grease and oil and rubber and big, dirty men. They must not realize they have black streaks across their foreheads, where the grit from their hands rubbed off into the sweat beading on their faces. They ignore me, instead shouting orders to one another over the grimace-inducing roars of their various pieces of machinery.

Mom and Dad are talking finances again. Guess it costs a lot to have those big dirty men poke around under the hood. My parents have that collective concerned look on their faces, the one they get whenever something bad has just happened and they’re trying to hide it from us. My mom looked like that the day our dog Dixie died. Finally they stop, and Mom buys my sister and me a Coke apiece.

“You girls sit tight for a minute,” she tells us. “We’ll be right back.”

The adults disappear into the tiny office, and I feel a whoosh of cold, sterile air as the door shuts behind them. Soon they’ll come out and we’ll go to the water park. Soon I’ll have that blue raft, and I’ll be splashing and playing and having so much fun I won’t be able to stand it.

Boston 2004

Overlooking the Boston Skyline from behind the Royal Sonesta hotel in Cambridge, she tells her friend, “Boston is surreal.”

They’d taken an Elantra and a Suburban. They’d swung through DC, marveled at John Ashcroft’s well-guarded abode, taken in a They Might Be Giants street concert, walked so many miles their feet were numb.

And now Boston, where the radio plays “Dirty Water” as soon as you cross the city limits, where standing by the Charles River in August is as chilly as a Texas November.

She leaves the river some, mingles with politicians who hold every office imaginable in the forgotten state she sometimes represents. In the hotel lobby they chit-chat, hold babies, pose for photographs. The mornings start with some importance; organized breakfasts where the failed Democratic nominee she’d fought for sits at the next table over.

The man she sits next to at one breakfast will go on to become the governor of the great state she represents. She wonders if he can detect her hangover.

It’s hard for her to wrangle her way inside the convention center, so she takes a cab to a small church, where she dons a gray polo and learns about the volunteer duty she’ll have to complete for access to the Fleet Center. She is to man the celebrity press entrance, she learns. It’s warm out. She won’t need a sweater.

But later she wishes she’d brought one. She shivers as she uses a strange piece of machinery to scan credentials – some for people she doesn’t know, others for people like Larry King, Mo Rocca, Michael Moore, Tom Brokaw. Surreal. She converses with the Boston police, who tell her smoking’s “bad fo’yah.” After a few hours of work she sneaks inside the Fleet Center, finds an abandoned seat just in time to hear Barack Obama speak. He momentarily re-ignites her passion for politics.

She mingles with the future and current politicans of her state at an open bar party later. As her cohorts consume more and more alcohol, she watches her representatives degrade into dancing fools. She wishes she could dance.

A group of young people splay themselves on the floor of one of the Sonesta’s ballrooms. They use Magic Markers to draw signs for their failed Democratic nominee – he is to speak at the convention. Later, the signs will be forgotten.

As she pushes her way through the credential-checks one night, she sees a group of anti-Bush protestors through the chain link fences that keep the Authorized separated from the Unauthorized. She locks eyes with an old woman who solemnly holds her fingers in a peace sign. The girl reciprocates, and the old woman smiles, laughs and curls her hand into a thumbs up sign.

Inside the convention center, Diddy and his entourage slink about, clad in black, cameras trained on them.

She stays in her seat throughout the long speeches – Lieberman, Pelosi, Albright. Willie Nelson. John Kerry. He’d lose. She knew it. But these things are all about hope, she told herself, and can’t hope defy reason?

She watches the swaying nets full of red, white and blue balloons throughout the presentations. When they’re over, the balloons start to fall, but lopsided – first one side, then the other. It always looked so elegant on TV, she thinks. But this is what it’s really like. The balloons don’t fall at the same time.

Who has to clean up all this confetti, she wonders, once our job here is done? After we’re done cheering and yelling and pledging to do our best to help people get ahead in life, who comes in and cleans up our mess?

Her candidate doesn’t win. She gives up. Maybe, she tells herself, someone will come along who will give me a reason to be passionate again. Just maybe.

The man who killed and laughed

It had been longer than a year since he’d trudged in the sand, longer than a year since he had manned a gun. On the outside, the 50-year-old man with patches of winter gray popping up in his thick, wavy hair was merely happy to be home. “I never want to travel again,” he told his daughters. “I’ve been all over the world. Now, I just want to sit on the couch and watch TV.” They laughed at him, but they knew it was true. Germany, Korea, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Spain… he had seen much more than they probably ever would.

He’d retired from the military with a heavy shadowbox full of all the medals he’d won. He’d also received a flag, carefully folded into a fancy wooden case, and a certificate for his wife. The certificate was amply beautiful to make up for the year he’d been in Saudi Arabia while his girls were in kindergarten and fifth grade and his wife had struggled to keep the girls fed, clothed and properly transported.

On Christmas Eve, the family didn’t mention the desert. Nobody said a thing about Tikrit, or the inhumanity of war. The shadowbox watched over the living room where they drank green margaritas and made jokes. He didn’t drink a margarita. Instead, he retrieved a bottle of Crown from the freezer – he preferred it cold – and sipped on it.

His father was an alcoholic. After numerous operations, a colostomy and admonitions from doctors, his father still hadn’t quit. The soldier had learned from his father and refused to touch a drop while he raised his girls. Now, they were old enough to drink with him, and he relaxed.

But after the first few sips, he started to remember the things he’d worked so hard for the past year to shove out of his mind. Distraction was necessary. He arranged a board game – Yahtzee, an old favorite of his – with his daughters. The girls sipped on their margaritas and tittered, shooting sarcastic remarks at each other across the dinner table. One rolled a Yahtzee, the other cursed. The man found himself in the midst of a peal of laughter when the reality hit him:

I’ve killed a man, he thought. And not just one. I don’t even know how many I’ve killed.

He turned to his youngest daughter.

“What would you do,” he asked, his speech slurring, “if you were on top of a building, and people were coming at you, trying to shoot you? What would you do?”

She didn’t answer. She couldn’t answer.

“Would you shoot them? I did,” he said. His eyes looked damp and red. “All those men I shot… They probably died. I kept them from ever being able to be with their families again, like I am right now. They’ll never see them again.”

He began to cry silently. The girls didn’t know what to say. Their father, a man who had gone directly from high school to the Army and then worked at an ammunition plant all his life, only cried when he was excessively proud of scholarships they’d won, accomplishments they’d managed despite the odds.

“I’m glad you’re back and safe, Dad,” the oldest said. He had worn his Air Force blues to her wedding, and she’d thought he was the most handsome man there.

“That’s why I don’t believe in war,” the youngest said. “I don’t think any human being should have to go through what you’re dealing with. We’re just glad you’re here, with us.”

The man shook his head, placed his score-keeping pen on the table carefully.

“There was a woman in our unit – she had a baby at home, and I just couldn’t let them get her. And the guy manning the gun… He was fumbling, and I was so scared, I wanted to protect them all. I just pushed him out of the way. I just grabbed the gun and started shooting, and I was glad. I was glad! I laughed! I was happy it was them and not me!”

“You were doing the only thing you knew to do. You can’t punish yourself for that,” the youngest said.

“You don’t understand,” he said. He began to speak more quickly, more forcefully. “You can’t understand. What would you do? Do you even know? What if someone is trying to kill you, and the people with you. Would you kill them? Would you?”

His wife approached him, wrapped her arms around him and urged him to the living room, where she spoke soft words in his ear. The girls looked at each other, shaken. There was really nothing to say, except that they’d never seen him as upset.

After that night, the man was embarrassed. He assured his wife he wouldn’t drink anymore – no sense turning out like his father, whose pores oozed the pungent odor of alcohol and who was almost unbearable to hug anymore. He gave the rest of the tequila to his daughters.

But he still had trouble falling asleep. When he did, he traveled 7,000 miles from his home to the nauseating heat of Tikrit. He killed every night and tried to forget every day.

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