Put Yourself in Her Shoes

9 May

We tell ourselves that laughter is a natural defense against the indefensible. When we chuckle nervously during a high school lecture about the Armenian genocide, or clutch our sides during that Seinfeld episode when Jerry and his girlfriend make out during Schindler’s List—that’s normal, even healthy.

When we laugh until we cry at news footage of Antoine Dodson, who has some neck-poppin’, hip-swivelin’ words of warning for his sister’s assailant; or Sweet Brown, whose recount of escaping a fire is notable for an adrenalized invocation of her lord and savior, we’re spitting into the gnashing maw of pitiless horror.

But when our endorphin levels plateau and our bellyaches subside, do we remember the starved, singed bodies? Do we put ourselves in Dodson’s shoes, chasing off the intruder who’d begun to rape his sister?  Do we imagine all that Sweet Brown, and everyone in her apartment complex, lost in the blaze?

We “like” and “share” interviews with Charles Ramsey, the Cleveland man who’d sat down with some McDonald’s when he heard the screams of a woman next door, a woman he’d never seen before but whose name he knew from news coverage of her abduction (and presumed murder). Though three women were liberated from a decade of rape and torture, the media’s response is best encapsulated by a Gawker headline: “The Hero Who Rescued Three Kidnapped Women in Cleveland Is Hilarious.”

Max Reed writes that “Charles Ramsey … is more than just a good Samaritan and hero: He’s also an amazing interview. (And even better on the phone with 911.).”  Yes, in the ever-churning world of mass media, the sound bite is the end all be all, but there is something sickening about the gleeful obliviousness with which Ramsey’s interview has been circulated. Commenters under Reed’s post mull over the merits of Ramsey as an SNL skit (“The hairpiece will be epic.”) or a radio DJ (“I would even dare say, he is talented at this stuff. Sad that it seems life wasn’t too kind on him [see his teeth, for example] because I’d venture he would be a hilarious radio host at least.”). Talented at what stuff, exactly?

Ramsey’s actions are unquestionably heroic. In a world when so many people still ignore the thumping and the muffled sobs on the other side of the wall, when nobody asks about a black eye, he didn’t shy away from aiding in what he first thought was “a domestic violence-type situation.” It’s not a bad thing to celebrate Charles Ramsey, especially if his act of valor can be used to address (and remedy) bystander complacency.

However, the ways we’re talking about him are problematic. Just like the reactions to Dodson and Brown, they traffic in racial, gender, and class-based grotesquery. In a thread accompanying a CNN article called “Charles Ramsey: Hero of abductions case, instant Internet star,” commenters call him a “ghetto superstar,” and suggest that he and Sweet Brown should mate: “Their baby would be nothing short of pure awesomeness.” When one commenter remarked that, “his language was quite [sic]…..colourful,” another one quipped, “Well, he is colored.”

The memeification of Charles Ramsey, just like the auto-tuning of Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson, isn’t laughing to keep from crying—it’s laughing to keep from feeling. Our apartments weren’t burnt to the ground. Nobody broke into our homes, tried to rape our sisters. We don’t have to live in older buildings made from cheaper, more flammable materials. We don’t have to live in an unsafe neighborhood. We remain a comfortable, unblemished “Us,” and they are, in their tragedies, reduced to a pitiful, laughable “them.”

Indulging in our basest, most lazy instincts will keep us from plumbing the full depths of an inchoate horror. We should be enraged, and not only (obviously) at the men who abducted, beat, and raped these women. We should demand accountability from a police department that flat-out ignored repeated calls from neighbors: women on dog leashes, paraded on all fours; women pounding on windows. We should question an entertainment industry that peddles these sorts of images, from hardcore porn to Law & Order: SVU, Fifty Shades of Grey to run-of-the-mill slasher flicks, as titillating. But anger would necessitate action, the upending of so many systems and policies, so many entrenched “truths” that we’ve all gotten so comfortable with.  So we laugh at Ramsey’s love of Big Macs and his prolific use of “bro.”

As I look at photographs of the weather-stripped old house that was, for ten years, these women’s living tomb, I can’t bear to (and yet I can’t stop trying to) imagine what fresh Hell awaited them with every breath they took. And I know I’m not alone. This specter of violence hangs over every woman, every girl, every time she hustles through a parking garage; each time she takes a new way home. It is present whenever a car slows down to follow her when she’s walking alone; it is present in that friend-of-a-friend who tells her she’s had too much to drink, he’ll drive her home.

With each new revelation – that the women were repeatedly impregnated and beaten into miscarrying; that a woman’s name was carved into the basement wall, next to the letters RIP; that one of the kidnappers was seen walking with a six-year-old girl he called his “girlfriend’s” daughter—I’m overcome with an ineffable grief.

Certainly, laughter can be a great comfort in trying times, but there is nothing funny enough to replace ten lost years. The “hilarious hero” narrative has subsumed the truth that Amanda Berry’s fortitude was her salvation. She risked death when she tore a hole in the screen door, when she screamed for help. Her voice, which had been smothered in a thick-walled dankness, pierced the open sky.

Just a day before Amanda Berry’s rescue became international news, and the man who helped free her became “the male Sweet Brown,” Elizabeth Smart’s remarks about how abstinence-only education damages rape survivors was one of the most heavily trending topics on Facebook. “It’s feeling like ‘and who would ever want me now,’” she says. “… And that’s how easy it is to feel you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value.” She was lionized—and rightly so—for being blunt about she endured, for saying the words, “I was raped.” And if we can commend her for those words, we can do better than creating umpteen remixes of the “I barbeque with this dude!” dubstep.

Some might say we need this levity to try and wrap our heads around what went on inside those walls. What we really need is empathy, to not see people as punchlines. We need to sit inside our terror and be moved by it. Charles Ramsey—who told Anderson Cooper that he’s having “trouble sleeping” now (and who wouldn’t)—gives us the simplest, most powerful perspective: “Put yourself in her shoes.”

1 Mar

Originally posted on the next youth hostel:

When I was a very little girl, I used to say I wanted to be a movie star, but by adolescence the idlest whiff of that desire had flown, never to return even while sitting with a drink and watching the Oscars. But this morning I found myself fantasizing about having reason to go up on stage last night, and in the scripted stupid banter which is part of why I have not the slightest interest in being a Hollywood person, I’d say, “Hey Seth, I saw your dick.” And then I’d proceed with some jokes about its small size—that I had had to part his pubic hair to get a look, although actually the last time I saw it he had been waxed, and was that to make his dick appear more prominent? Etcetera. Cut to a reaction shot from Seth. He’d be looking faux horrified and embarrassed. Ha…

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When It’s Not Just Entertainment …

1 Mar

There’s much in life that I’ve learned to shrug off, if only to preserve my sanity – or, at the very least, my blood pressure (being a humorless feminist is, after all, hard on the arteries). When I was a teenager, I had more stamina, more fight: I’d argue openly (and not civilly) with the high school English teacher who said that Richardson’s Pamela was “a great love story;” I’d tell the jocks who bullied the gay boy in gym class that if they wanted to beat someone up for being effeminate, they could take me outside and “go to town on an actual woman, since that’s what y’all hate so fucking much.”

I’ve gotten older, and I’m tired. I watch elected officials oh-so-sagely define “legitimate rape” (as opposed to, say, “cheap imitation rape”) and my anger becomes an atomic blast detonated under the ocean: a thunderous swell swallowed by the current. Every time I check my bank balance before getting groceries, I get a gut punch of a reminder that a man in my position still earns more on the dollar. But I can’t afford to take a leave of absence so I can storm Capitol Hill. So I tell myself that quick gestures like promoting a post about rape in the military, or signing a petition demanding that Congress reinstate the Violence Against Women Act aren’t inconsequentially tiny; they’re examples of “everyday activism.”

But once I’ve clicked “like” or “share,” I’ve already returned to my insular world of workaday worries. Until I settled in on Oscar night to root for my favorite actress, Jennifer Lawrence—who has, in her brief career, invigorated the woman warrior archetype with quiet grace and vulnerability; who won for playing a character who refused to be slut-shamed (“There will always be a part of me that is dirty and sloppy,” she rails. “But I like that, just like all the other parts of myself.”)—and was, instead, subjected to an assault of misogyny insidiously disguised as satire, a supposedly edgy take on the old awards show shuck and jive.

My Facebook feed, by and large, exploded in righteous—and when I say righteous, I mean Old Testament righteous, Samuel L. Jackson launching into Eziekel 25:17 righteous—indignation. However, as soon as I re-posted Buzzfeed’s “Nine Sexist Things That Have Already Happened at the Oscars,” a few blasts from the past used the comment thread to tell me, in essence, that I needed to lighten up. The “We Saw Your Boobs” song was, like, totally Meta, a commentary on what everyone expected of host Seth MacFarlane, an auteur of fart jokes, a bard of boob humor. And weren’t these actresses complicit in their own exploitation when they doffed their tops on screen? After all, we don’t see the menfolk resort to stripping down (except, of course, for the immaculately muscled chests of our action heroes). These women gave up the goodies, so why is it so wrong to point that out in via an Old Hollywood style song and dance routine that names—and by extension, shames—them in front of their peers?

The problem is not that “We Saw Your Boobs” points out any double standard regarding male and female nudity on screen (since it doesn’t); the problem is that the whole bit is nastily judgmental. And the problem isn’t just with the song itself; the problem is with everything the song encapsulates about our culture. When Michael Fassbender goes “full monty” in Shame, he is praised for his bravery, not to mention the size of his (not so) little Fassbender. When Lena Dunham tosses caution—and her skirt—to the wind in Girls, critics say that she’s inflicting an unwarranted, even delusional narcissism upon the viewing public.

Before you say that Shame is an apple, and Girls is an orange (or, better yet, a pear), consider this: Both works use their protagonists’ sexual masochism to exemplify their social isolation and emotional immaturity; this necessitates a kind of nudity that isn’t always enticing, or even titillating. Like most things, we can only analyze or appreciate cinematic nudity in context: Despite what their mention in MacFarlane’s ditty would suggest, Jodie Foster’s bared breasts in The Accused are far from Girls Gone Wild. As Katie McDonough points out in her succinctly named Salon piece, “‘We Saw Your Boobs’ celebrates rape on film.”

“Four of the films MacFarlane crooned about featured nudity during or immediately following violent depictions of rape and sexual assault, stripped of their context and played for laughs. Scarlett Johansson found herself on the list because of a real-life violation: Her nude photos were stolen from her phone and leaked online. Oh, your privacy was invaded and your breasts were splashed across the Internet against your will? That is hilarious!”

The song isn’t just patently unfunny (at least to anyone who’s celebrated their fifth-grade graduation); it reduces these characters to sexual playthings in the moments when their bodily autonomy is taken from them. And while it’s easy to say what the host of schlocky, overstuffed awards ceremony that’s more about fashion than craft says on stage doesn’t matter, the thoughts he’s articulating do dictate the ways we live; they reflect ways that women are treated and the ways that treatment stifles our lives.

So, yes, dear family friend who didn’t actually watch the Oscars but felt the need to leave a comment about the first amendment on my wall, Seth MacFarlane has every right to crack wise about the weight of a young singer who has received every honor someone in her field could hope for; he has every right to hypothesize about when a nine-year-old girl will reach her sexual expiration date; he has every right to reduce the Herculean efforts of the CIA analyst who lead us to the architect of the greatest mass murder on American soil to a “bitches be naggin’” joke. Nobody is going to throw him in a gulag. But we have every right— every responsibility—to call him out on how destructive he is.

His routine tells me that, as an overweight woman, I will never be judged on my accomplishments; I could win the Pulitzer, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I would always be my dress size. It tells my three-year-old goddaughter that her body’s power resides not in all the cartwheels she can do or how fast she can tumble: Her worth is determined by who finds her fuckable. It tells my friends who care about their work not to bother, because passion and intensity, while admirable—even sexy—in men, is burn-the-witch terrifying in women.

In her piece “Sexism Fatigue,” Lindy West articulates how what happened at the Oscars is both a drop in the ocean and a hammer-strike of a rising tide. “I’m not a feminist by choice,” she writes. “I’m a feminist because this is the world. And if my fatigue sounds defeatist, it isn’t. It’s the opposite. It’s an internal rallying cry that reminds me how bad things are.” When a teenage girl is shot in the head for going to school; when a woman exerting her legal right to control her own fate is subjected to a medically unnecessary, purely punitive trans-vaginal ultrasound; when a gaggle of legislators who must not have passed eighth grade biology hold hearings about the morality of contraception (as opposed to say, the morality of poverty or mass shootings), MacFarlane’s remarks aren’t just shtick.

Yet the backlash to his performance, and the backlash to the backlash, can be powerfully constructive, or at least illuminating. As Irin Carmon points out, “Everyday slights and institutional discrimination are hard to point out on your own. Watching them on a screen or finding them in a tweet helps make them visible.” They’re not just visible, they’re glaringly apparent, and we can’t afford to be tired anymore.

Next Big Thing …

10 Feb

I would love to thank the divine Zoe Zolbrod  for tagging me in this blogroll chain-mail of writerly self-interviews.  I’ve been following these as they’ve appeared on Facebook and I’m really enjoying the chance to see what everyone is working on. Projects like this are so important because it’s very easy to feel siloed by the solitary craft of writing. I’m tagging my friend Elly Zupko, author of The War Master’s Daughter. 

 

::deep breath:: Here goes.

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

The working title is Your Name is No. 

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’d been working with these characters in a story cycle for about two-three years. However, they soon begun to test the seams of the short story format. They insisted on a broader story, more time on the stage.  They had things to say about love and violence, money and family. As I wrote more, I realized that there was a novel’s-worth of material.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

 Angelina: Jennifer Lawrence

Jack: Christopher Meloni or Joaquin Phonenix

Marie: Christina Hendricks

Janet: Evan Rachel Wood

Eleanor Crostini: Naomi Watts

Rhea: Gina Torres

 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Angelina Moltisanti, an angry, unmoored young artist, is forced to live with her estranged parents after a car accident shatters her wrist; her presence in her parents’ home conjures up old aches and new revelations about the family.

 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m going to pass on this one, because I am still actively in the writing process.

 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Still truckin’. My goal is to be done within the year.

 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Well, Mary Gaitskill has been a huge source of inspiration for me as I turn a caustic eye toward love, sex and suburban life. I’m also reading and enjoying The Shipping News, because of the way that the characters’ thoughts and feelings propel the plot along. I also drew a similar strength from Cheryl Strayed’s Torch.  Though it is technically not fiction, Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water explored a feminine rage that was as pure as flame, and that has been incredibly valuable as I develop Angelina.

 

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I guess I just want to write the book that I would’ve wanted — needed — to read when I was in my early twenties; a book that let me know it was okay to be angry about certain things that happened to me, and that it was okay to forgive other things.

 

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I think many readers will see themselves in Angelina: sharp-tongued yet clumsy, angry yet loving, violent yet vulnerable. Her arch toward understanding (if not forgiving, not entirely, at least) her father and mother will resonate with a lot of people.

Hurricane Drunk

29 Jan

This story was first published in Connotations Press: An Online Artifact 

What pissed Dolly off the most wasn’t the guy’s pale, fish-lipped face. It wasn’t even that the Audi he forked around a telephone pole was in his daddy’s name; it was his flip-flops. Might as well go barefoot before you’d spend three dollars for seventy-nine cents worth of rubber; your feet would end up just as dirty.

His shoe preceded him down the sallyport. She hadn’t seen it right away; she’d bumped into Sergeant Reichel when he was holding it, thong slung over his gloved finger as if the sandal had teeth.

“This one is just sad,” he said, elongating the “a” in that way that meant there really was nothing else to say.  “DUI; nailed a pedestrian out with her dog.”

Dolly had been over in medical; her pacing irritated the nurse, who asked if she wouldn’t mind taking out the trash. The detention center was just across the river from a spice factory, which tinged the air with a saltiness that always recalled Memaw’s supper table. Potatoes mashed with whole cloves of garlic and herb-smothered ham. But she couldn’t bear to think of meat while holding a bag of syringes.

She’d seen Reichel on her way back in; he greeted her the way he always did, by calling her “Parton,” even though she was a redhead and only a C cup. He only remembered people’s names when he could riff on them.

When he told her the victim was thirty years old, Dolly felt that full-body hiccup that used to let her know when she was about to catch Memaw’s belt. Thirty was a birthday away. Even that doctor she’d seen last week commented on her age: “It’s rare to occur—and be so aggressive—in women so young.” He didn’t look her in the eye; he just talked toward the file he held in his slim, hairless hands.

“They couldn’t get at her until they’d towed the car off the pole; fucking Audi.” Reichel regarded what they saw in any given day—the seventy-year-old woman in the silk blouse and snagged pantyhose booked on her fifteenth public intoxication; the drunk and disorderly husband and wife who beat each other to hell yet warbled “At Last” to each other through the walls of their isolation units—with a jocular indifference Dolly wished she could muster. Arresting officers, at least, got to cuff them and book them and maybe appear at trial. She’d spent nine years cutting rings off of fingers and explaining to drunken college girls that, yes, they did get a phone call, but they’d have to wait like everyone else.

“Even if she lives, he’s looking at least five.” Since he’d done two tours in Desert Storm, Reichel’s opinions—from whether premium fuel really made your car run better to which poor dummies would be denied bail—were regarded with a paternal solemnity.

The DUI’s face was as white as a knuckle pinched of blood. A single cut divided his eyebrow, stopping short of his eyelid. He bucked against the officer hauling him in; Reichel waved her on with two fingers and Dolly caught his legs. Her face puckered; up close, she couldn’t ignore the vinegary footmusk that had become as forgettably present as the slate-gray walls.

His heel careened into her right breast, right on the bruise that ringed out from the lump. She had a sudden vision of the lump rupturing on the inside, spraying black ink to muffle her blood. Not that it made any difference. She’d been numbed and flattened, numbed and pierced; the first of many times, she’d been told—and not the worst she’d experience—through the course of her treatment.

“The worst part will be getting this tape off, right?”  Dolly tried a joke on the nurse who taped plastic to her skin; her small brown fingers skimmed the gauze, but even mild pressure made Dolly wince.  The nurse gave one of those smiles that made Dolly realize she was (or soon would be) sick enough to be humored.

Dolly drove her shoulder into the backs of his knees. “I said sorry,” he cried. As they lowered his limp body to its feet, Reichel asked her if she was okay. Had her face betrayed the pain? She was still the strongest female guard. She may have been tall and gangly—with legs that Ma said had a way of getting out from under her—but her movements had the blunt swiftness of a hand punching through plaster.

The boy’s name was Garrett Meechum, no priors, charged with personal injury DUI (at least for now). When Dolly searched his pockets, his cuffed hands tightened to fists. She lifted his wallet—the word “Gucci” embossed on soft black leather—and a two-dollar lighter that read “Margaritaville”—and handed them to Reichel. Dolly wondered if the woman Meechum hit was the type who cared about labels.

“Why am I even here?” Meechum yelled.

Dolly shouldn’t have been shocked that a drunk could forget anything. Not when she’d sat on Memaw’s porch, waiting hours for a Pontiac Bonneville (Ma’s gift from the only Randy she’d dated who Dolly ever liked) to come swinging up the driveway. Nowadays, Ma left messages inviting her to some potluck her A.A. group hosted. Dolly didn’t know why, it’s not like she ever had the problem.

“You hit a lady,” Dolly spoke as if teaching a toddler to shit on the toilet. That was the way you had to talk to drunks.

“Is she okay?” Garrett Meechum might as well have said “oops.”

The officer said he’d found Meechum still behind the wheel, punching down the airbag and yelling about how “animal control never does shit about these deer.” Then he heard the dog.

“What kind of dog?” Dolly asked.

He looked at her like she’d said she collected books about serial killers. She fixed her fuck you, too, buddy look on him.

“I killed her?” Meechum asked.

The cut bled into his lashes. Dolly searched his face for some recognition that he might spend the good years of his life in a series of rooms even smaller and grayer than the one she’d lock him in tonight. She actually preferred cell-gray to the aggressively exuberant “It’s A Girl!” pink of the infusion room she’d toured. Sandi, the social worker, took the turquoise pin off her lapel and handed it to Dolly; it was a stick figure woman with her hands folded over the empty space where her heart would’ve been. Sandi said her “bestie” had given it to her when she’d started chemo; now she was ten years in remission. She encouraged Dolly to bring “the girls” for “support.” But quiet was the silver lining.  Every time most folks opened their mouths, they just affirmed the petty deceptions that made their lives bearable.

“We’re not sure yet,” Reichel said. The he paged Deputy Jackson from B unit to help Dolly take Meechum to medical. He cringed as the nurse cleaned his cut; blood bloomed on cotton balls, blackened the stitches before she’d even finished. “It’ll itch, but rub around it with your knuckle, don’t scratch with your nails,” the nurse said.

Dolly imagined lying on her sofa, watching hours of talk shows because she couldn’t bear to reach for the remote and feel the empty space where her breast had been. Then she remembered how Ma frowned into the mirror as she’d dabbed foundation over her stitches with a Q-tip. “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe he’s a dick,” she’d drawl. Her laugh was the crackle of a radio station that couldn’t quite come through.

Jackson asked the nurse about how she spaced the stitches. Whenever Dolly saw her in the break room, she was studying a biology textbook she’d found on Half.com. Dolly would sit across from her, reading one of her dog training guides. A week and a half ago, she was planning for a puppy. A German shepherd. Dolly had wanted to be a K-9 officer, but Detentions was the only unit without a hiring freeze. If running a puppy through agility tests wasn’t the next best thing, it was close enough.

She’d wanted to be a vet before she wanted to be a cop. In seventh grade, she made all A’s, and her biology teacher wrote “has a great future” on the report card that Ma clipped to the fridge. Ma had moved back to Memaw’s in between boyfriends, punctuating the silence Dolly had become accustomed to with random laughter and muffled shouting. Dolly was humiliated when she’d come home from school to find Ma still half-asleep on the sofa, still in the polka-dotted halter-dress she’d worn the night before. Then she’d look at that report card—the only thing on a bare fridge—and the fist around her heart eased its grip.

One night, as the three of them pushed their forks around their supper plates and avoided eye contact, Dolly shyly mentioned that she thought she’d like to work with animals, maybe as a vet at a zoo.

“That’s great!” When Ma smiled, her eyes were the bright blue of a nickel winking up from the sidewalk.

“Too much education,” Memaw said, slicing her potato into four even parts. And that was that.

Even though her apartment allowed dogs, Dolly hadn’t even considered bringing one home until ten years after the old woman died.

Puppies, she’d read, had bladders like sieves. Maybe that’s why the woman Meechum hit was out so late; maybe she was drowsily lecturing her puppy about how only one of them paid the rent, and she needed her beauty sleep. Or maybe she was sighing at a dog that had aged into incontinence; a memory of the morning she first got him—that stop for McNuggets because she needed him to love her, but she was still too scared to bring him home—lulling her to the shrieking tires.

“It’s only alcohol,” Dolly said.

Jackson hovered behind the nurse as she shined a tiny light into each of Meechum’s eyes. He made the face Dolly must’ve made during her MRI. She hadn’t expected lights to twitch through the cavernous dark. Her skin rippled like the air before a lightning strike. Meechum tried to stand, but, with his hands bound behind him and his feet slick with sweat, he looked like the women doing half-squats in those Jane Fonda videos Ma used to watch (“if my gal is going to be one of Caroline County’s finest, I want to be in shape, too!”).

“Down,” Dolly said, putting both hands on his shoulders. She loved the sound the leather made when she bent her knuckles.

He began banging the back of his head against the wall. Dolly could get him down in a chokehold but Reichel always said that was “the one law suit you didn’t want.” She got on her walkie-talkie for an E.R.C.

“One strap-o-lounger, coming your way,” Reichel laughed into the static.

Dolly braced her forearm against Meechum’s sternum. Jackson sidled to the left, ready to hoist him when the chair was wheeled in. Underneath her sway back and back fat, she was compact with muscle—the second strongest female guard. Reichel wheeled in a chair that looked more like an executioner’s gurney, cuffs on the armrests, cuffs for the ankles, straps coiled on the seat.

He moaned “please” like it could protect him against something. Meechum was easy to get in the chair; he may’ve been broad, but he was all flab. He fisted his toes; his hands batted the air like they could grip something solid.

“Don’t Guantanamo me!” He yelled as Reichel fit the transport sack over his head. The sack was a thin, fishnet material, with heavy cloth banding around the mouth. Dolly watched his expressions flicker through the mesh like a tea light in a paper bag. This isn’t (is it?) happening to me.

Dolly had wheeled that chair down the hallway a hundred times at least, but now, for the first time, it felt heavy—like she was finally aware of the heft of a human body. Or maybe she was getting weaker. Already. Dolly parked the chair so he faced the corner. He started repeating the word “no;” a shivery cry that sounded like a laugh. The word swam up through Dolly’s mind as if it was the answer in a Magic Eight-Ball.

Click here to listen to me read this story in its entirety.

Fairytale

29 Jan

This piece originally appeared in Pure Slush: real

The first—and last—time I ever asked my father about God, I was eight years old and he’d had two drinks too many. I waited until the closing jingle of the six o’clock news (that was the safest time to ask him anything—we knew better than to interrupt the five day forecast) before telling him about the boy in my class who’d found presents addressed to him from Santa in his parents’ closet. A slap of his thigh welcomed me on his lap.

“Daddy,” I said. “Is Santa real?”

Daddy is such a sweet, tiny word; it’s a candy that dissolves in your mouth. For a moment, his eyes softened like he might say something that would let me hold on to Christmas Eves with my mother, sampling cookies in the Italian bakery and picking the ones that would go well with Santa’s chocolate milk.

“No,” he answered as if I’d asked for ice cream for dinner. “But let’s not tell your mom I told you; I love those cookies.”

Sometimes, I tell this story as a joke; I cycle through his voice and a pipsqueak version of myself as a child, asking if there’s an Easter Bunny and a Tooth Fairy.

“There’s no Easter Bunny, and we can tell your mother I told you that because I’m sick of chewing those damn carrots,” he says.

“You remember that time your mother told you that the dog scared off the Tooth Fairy, and that’s why she didn’t leave fifty cents under your pillow? I forgot to do it that time,” he says.

“Daddy? Is there a God?”

“Nope.”

It’s not quite “our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name,” but it’s a perfect punchline.
I always end there. I never say what I wanted to know after losing Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Lord Himself.

“Then why do I have to be good?”

I’ve auditioned many takes on his response in my head. When I want to believe that he doesn’t mean it, I play it broad. Most times, I know better. I simply hear his voice—eerily affable, like he’s explaining why our neighbor’s car engine won’t turn over:

“Because I’ll beat the hell out of you.”

He would become far larger and infinitely more powerful than the God he killed off. His vengeance was tidal; his forgiveness was the first flush of sun after a storm. Its magnanimous warmth lulled me into forgetting that I wasn’t the one who’d sinned. I feared his anger and craved his love—even when I came to hate him. Especially when I came to hate him. I’d press my fingers into the bruises under my clothes, and as the shock of pain subsided into a slow, voluptuous ache, I lifted out of myself—away from the droning on of my teachers; away from the kids on the bus who mocked me for walking so funny; away from my mother’s cheerful nattering about keeping our grades up and our voices low. It never brought me peace, only a fleeting relief. It was close to prayer as I ever came; it did more for me than prayer ever could.

Control

29 Jan

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Joy Division was my adolescent love. The wry despondency of Ian Curtis’ lyrics affirmed my teenage suspicions that simply putting one foot in front of the other (as my guidance counselor so helpfully suggested) was a Sisyphean endeavor: “Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders/Here are the young men, well, where have they been?/We knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber/Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in.”

Then there was the music itself: blunt and muscular, but with a sinewy sharpness that drove me deep, drove me home. It inspired drawings of molten Hellscapes and angels in black leather jackets that I’m glad I’ve lost between moves; what lingered was the sound it gave to the inchoate rage I felt when I heard my father set his briefcase down in the living room, to the dread that hissed through my room when I heard him come up the stairs.

If it were going to be the kind of night he’d apologize for, he’d flip immediately to the weather channel, with its constant promise of Biblical winds and damning rains. I’d steel myself through mindless repetition, re-writing the same lines in my notebook: “I’m ashamed of things I’ve been put through/I’m ashamed of the person I am.” My redemption, I decided, would be to make art like Curtis’: beautiful yet ugly, wrenching yet effortless. I charcoaled hulking men with haunted eyes. In our quieter moments, the moments I’d cling to when I needed to forgive him, my father would gently open my bedroom door to watch me draw.

“I always wanted to be good at something,” he’d say. His voice belonged to the college lineman who did what his coach said and ran until he puked, but still never got scouted. When I was little, I could forget that he was the man who slapped me for spilling the saltshaker; he was the man who brought me marbled notebooks and prints from the Italian masters. By the time I’d found Joy Division, he was just the middle-aged man who mockingly crooned, “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work I go (damn it)” as he knotted his tie.

“You never make me anything I can frame anymore,” he’d say. “All this dark shit.”

I read about Curtis’ epilepsy; how the twitching, flailing dances that mocked his condition sometimes conjured his fits. “For entertainment, they watch his body twist,” he sang, his voice sharp and sad and thick with regret. “Behind his eyes, he says ‘I still exist.’” Those three words became the essence of art: I lied about how I got those bruises and why the sleepover couldn’t be held at my house, but whatever I put on paper was true.

“You could go into advertising.” That’s what my father said when I told him I’d be getting a master’s in creative writing. He worked with statistics, numbers that had been caged and tamed; for him, work was only meaningful when its purpose was evident. Highway billboards and forty second spots between Monday Night Football and the eleven o’clock news: My livelihood dependent upon oversized ads for oversized sedans that would be forgotten one exit over and cat food jingles that high-schoolers would YouTube until they were just stoned enough to wonder if cat food just, like, tasted like tuna, only, like, spicier.

“There’s a reason,” I said to my father, “That they say ad nauseam.”

Still, those last six months of my grad program turned into a blitzkrieg of resumes. Not writing. When I wasn’t refreshing my email or cold calling under the pretense of “following up,” I was at my kitchen table, drafting columns of bills and the numbers needed to pay them. I’d become my father, scowling over a yellow legal pad and chewing a black ballpoint pen. He’d been the source of so many worries, but a roof over my head hadn’t been one of them.
“Welcome to the real world,” my father said back. “We’re all bored. But we’ve all got bills.”

When a friend asked me if I wanted to see Anton Corbjin’s Ian Curtis biopic, Control, I said I was too broke even for a matinee. That much was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. That movie poster—a black and white portrait of the spectrally handsome young actor playing Curtis—unsettled me. His eyes are rapacious with hunger; they reminded me of all I’d loved about making art. But his lips are caught between a pucker and a sigh.

I wouldn’t see the movie for a few years, after I’d ended up at a small career consulting company that published magazines to promote its overpriced (and under attended) conferences. Hours of my life ticked away as I inserted semi-colons into the stories of people who were actually doing what they wanted to with theirs.

Channel surfing demanded so much less of me than any kind of art; I lost my lines to the unique state of frazzle and fatigue that a bad workday induces. Though I kept a sketchbook on my lap, I’d only managed the iris of an eye in an hour. I was starting on the lashes when I saw the scene that made me feel as utterly, unequivocally understood as I had when I’d heard the real Ian Curtis wail, “In arenas he kills for a prize/wins a minute to add to his life/But the sickness is drowned out by cries for more/Pray to God, make it quick.”

Curtis is in his living room, lost in the notebook perched on his knees, his face in that soft yet furrowed look of inspiration. His flow is broken when his young wife—who, in those earlier scrappy-love courtship sequences, wore her leather and her faux-fur and her sly spirit of up-for-anything with pride—calls him to bed, but only because he has work in the morning. She’s wearing a housedress that even my thick-ankled Italian grandmother would’ve deemed too frumpy. His expression—resignation (she is right, technically) and frustration (but he was so close to the perfect word)—flickers across his face like a matchstick that won’t quite catch.

My father would call me during our mutual lunch hours. Now that I packed a sack lunch every morning and cursed my way through rush hour traffic, I was no longer a punk kid who needed disciplining. I was someone who could finally understand him: his gripes about assholes who didn’t clean the coffee pot and assholes who made the coffee “like muddy water;” secretaries who didn’t relay messages and bosses who expected you to read their goddamn minds. My father, who used long car rides to expose us to Simon and Garfunkel, Sinatra, and Springsteen because “you can’t get everything you need to out of just one song, you need to hear it all;” my father, who rhapsodized about riding the subway to see Dylan. Back when it was just him: No wife, no children. Just the slow sway of the train thrumming through his body.

“So how’s the job?” he’d ask, and I’d reply that it was, you know, a job. He’d laugh and say, “You’ll get used to it.”

“How’s the boss?” he’d ask. The CEO had the doughy, dumpy build of an overindulged toddler—and the temperament to match. He jokingly (but not really) insisted on being called “boss.” Minutes after he’d fire someone, he’d send out company-wide emails with inspirational quotes: “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there” was a favorite.

“Still a prick,” I’d say.

“He’s the prick who signs your checks.”

When I was a teenager, delusions of grandeur were as much a balm as the Bacitracin my mother rubbed between my shoulders. I was not who my teachers, my bullies, my parents said I was. My molten hellscapes would be in the Guggenheim, and I’d be the star of a cover spread in Poets & Writers analyzing my short fiction (which was filled with serial killers and teenage agorophobics) before my twenty-second birthday. I’ve never asked my father where he thought he’d be at twenty-two, twenty-five, thirty. I’m afraid he’ll say something that will make me see myself in that young man on the subway, humming Guthrie and looking forward to wherever he was going. I don’t want to know all that he gave up once my mother, the woman he’d only been dating for a few months told him, casually, between bites of her salad, that she was pregnant.

“There’s what you have to do,” I imagine he’d tell me, “and what you love to do.”

Whenever I’d leave that downtown office building where I lost eight hours of my day (nine, counting the drive there and back), I’d see the punk girls getting off the bus. They wear everything I used to wear: ratted black jackets and strategically slashed t-shirts. More than once, I’ve seen that classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart” shirt I bought from the Hot Topic: A marble angel swoons against a parched cemetery lawn. If I wore that shirt now, the heft of my breasts would twist that angel’s face into a Munchian scream.

They’d lift their eyes from the text they were reading or the cigarette they were lighting and stare back at me. They saw me shuffling from the office to the parking garage, brandishing a thermos and briefcase like all the other shirt-jacketed and be-pantyhosed masses and must’ve thought—as I had—that the lure of the “good job” wasn’t status or even security; it was just the dulling lull of sucking your thumb.

Now, the sound that lingers with me every time I’m tempted to turn the laptop off and veg out to Intervention or leave my watercolors in their box to let the talking heads on MSNBC tell me what I already believe doesn’t come from a song, it comes from Control. It’s a small sound from the scene before Curtis hangs himself. After yet another epileptic fit hurls him to the floor, he slowly sits up, rubbing the top of his head; the word “ow” breaks from his lips. It is a child’s helpless cry, the cry that we’ve been told being strong, being competent, being grown-ups, means we have to suppress.

I would tell those punk girls, my sixteen-year old self among them, that this cry, the culmination of so many disappointments—from the day job that blots out your creative thoughts yet can’t quite pay all the bills, to the lover who leaves you, not with the passion of slammed doors but with a long sigh—this will be your undoing, but only if you let it.

Torture, Ethics and Zero Dark Thirty

29 Jan

A dizzying blitz of descriptors surrounds Katheryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty: pro-torture, anti-torture; anti-Bush, pro-Obama; mindlessly jingoistic, nuanced in its critique of American exceptionalism. The word “poetic” hasn’t yet been used; of course, we don’t associate images of raw, beaten flesh, and explosions tearing through bodies with anything remotely lyrical. And there is no beauty to be found in swollen lips vomiting up dirty water.

Yet there is a brutal symmetry between the film’s opening moments—a black screen, just the sounds of 911 calls from the smoking towers—and its denouement: the raid against the architect of their deaths, the killing that was meant to avenge them. These cinematic stanzas are punctuated with last gasps and desperate pleas. An office worker sobs to a 911 operator who can only advise her to calm down; just before the line cuts out, her voice gets impossibly small: “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” A decade later, in Abbottabad, a young girl cries “Daddy” through a volley of gunshots; her brothers and sisters weep and scream as combat boots thunder up stairwells.

Anyone who enters the theater expecting “Call of Duty: We Got Bin Laden” will be gravely disappointed with the somber, meditative film that unfurls in front of them. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t indulge in breathless reveling; it’s a brooding, muscular piece about obsession and vengeance. There are certainly very real, very vital questions about whether torture (we’re way past kidding ourselves with terms like “enhanced interrogation techniques”) should ever be employed; however, these are not questions that the movie’s characters—analysts and operatives, soldiers and guards—ever debate on-screen (or even internally). Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal treat torture through the vantage point of their protagonist, a young CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain): It is a means to an end. Detainees are water-boarded and rammed into hot boxes, but we’re standing on the side of the men and women holding the hoses, clicking the dog collars shut. And for them, it’s positively quotidian, par for the course. Dan, the agent who first schools Maya in “enhanced interrogation techniques,” downs an ice cream cone before setting to work (A guard quips, “You agency guys are twisted.”).

Various be-suited higher-ups pound their fists on conference tables and yell about protecting the homeland, yet the very first interrogation scene—the first real scene in the movie—immediately follows that black screen, the cries of doomed Americans. What we see next—a suspected al-Qaeda financier strung up from the ceiling—is about “gathering intelligence,” but it is also about punishment. “This,” Dan tells the financier, “is what defeat looks like.”

Though we are, as a nation, ostensibly engaged in a “war on terror,” we don’t often, as individuals (or, at least, civilians) feel particularly embattled (or even inconvenienced). Still, our history has, by and large, been divided into a before and after. Simone de Beauvoir, writing from a freshly-liberated, still-tattered France, wondered if vengeance could ever serve as restitution: “All of us have more or less felt it: the need to punish, to avenge ourselves … Is it well-founded? Can it be satisfied?”

These are clearly not questions that Maya, a feminine exemplar of Eastwoodian grit, loses sleep over. At one point, then-CIA director Leon Panetta (a rumpled, weary James Gandolfini) asks her if, in her twelve years with the agency, she’s done anything other than search for bin Laden. “No,” she says, simply, forcefully. She is singular in her pursuit, an arrow shot from a taut bow. But Maya is no hero; she is, as she tells Panetta, “the motherfucker” who found bin Laden’s compound, and it is this identity—not the “God and country” invoked by the Navy Seal who calls in bin Laden’s death—that compels her. When a suicide bomber murders her only real friend, a slow-talking Southerner who bakes a birthday cake for an al-Qaeda operative she hopes to flip as an asset, Maya vows to “smoke everyone involved in this op, and then I’m going to kill bin Laden.” 

A national grievance is writ small, making the partisan hoopla over Zero Dark Thirty’s original pre-election release date particularly insipid. President Obama only appears as a talking head on a TV screen, promising that, “America doesn’t torture” with what seems, in hindsight, to be a willful naiveté. We all know that Gitmo doesn’t close. We all know about the drones.

However, the film’s amended December-January release situates it in an oddly appropriate cultural moment, one in which a spate of very public crimes—a murder that Indian authorities didn’t prosecute until the country exploded in protest; the gang-rape of a sixteen-year-old that Ohio authorities simply buried until Anonymous intervened—has challenged us to decide if pure, primal emotion can ever be separated from our desire for justice; if we can sleep at night knowing that our peace of mind was delivered “by any means necessary.”

The street rioting in India and online vigilantism of Anonymous has, arguably, yielded results: arrests have been made and conspirators have been shamed. Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya might say that her interrogations serve a similar purpose. She’d also likely agree with de Beauvoir’s assertion that, “one hates only men, not because they are material causes of material damage, but because they are conscious authors of genuine evil.” Or, as a commenter on a Huffington Post piece condemning the film, succinctly put it: “I have no sympathy for torture. Then again, I have no sympathy for the people being tortured.”

Though it’s structured like a traditional procedural, Zero Dark Thirty is a shifting inkblot of a film: A myriad of meanings float up from its white spaces. A battered detainee refuses to yield information about an attack in London: Days later, on July 7, 2005, a series of coordinated suicide bombings will kill fifty-two people. Just before we’re able to knit a tidy conclusion about the ineffectiveness of such brutality, the filmmakers pivot: Once ninety-six hours of sleep deprivation has weakened the detainee, Maya is able to trick him into giving up the name of bin Laden’s courier; this is the lead that pitches her down the rabbit hole, until she emerges again on a desert air field, watching twin helicopters rise toward Pakistan.

 

To read the rest, visit The Rumpus. 

 

The Best and Worst Parts of You

29 Jan

The best advice you’ll get about turning thirty will come from that friend of a friend who drinks until he gets far too loud and a little too touchy (in both senses of the word). But when he sidles beside you at your friend’s birthday party, you will be just tipsy enough to smile when he calls you “youngin’.” His voice is as bright as a struck bell, yet his face is prematurely leathered. This will endear him to you, and when he says he reckons you’re the next stop on this birthday train, you’ll confide that you’re nervous about hitting what the magazines call “the big 3-0,” that you’ve been tallying up all you’ve done and haven’t done, measuring yourself against all you thought you’d have accomplished by now.

He’ll say that this is bullshit and backwards and all kinds of wrong. He’ll call you honey-pie and tell you that what you have or don’t have doesn’t matter; what matters is making sure that you spend every day becoming the you you’ve always wanted to be; that you appreciate where you’ve been (even if it pains you).

Though you’ve rolled your eyes at this sentiment when it’s appeared in print or pixels (always beside an ad for anti-cellulite cream or the best hotels in Europe), the soused brio of his words will make you realize that they’re true.

One morning when you’re eight years old, you’ll spill your cereal, and your father—the same father who sleeps on your bedroom floor when the monsters in the Muppet movies give you nightmares, who brings you reams of computer paper to draw on and frames all your pictures for his office walls—will slap you in the face. It will shock you into tears, but what will hurt long after the stinging fades is that, in the time it takes for a plastic bowl to fall, you can go from his little girl to a stupid bitch.

He’ll tell you he was tired, that he’d had a bad day. He’ll tell you that liquid, even if it’s as mild as milk, can stain wooden tables and tile floors. He’ll ask you to be careful; he’ll say he doesn’t like having to discipline you.

Even when he starts taking off his belt, he’s still the father who carries you to bed every night and, as you whoop and shoot your fists into the air, cries out: “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Supergirl!”

He will never stop being your father. Not even when you stare him down and say, in a voice that betrays how carefully you’ve considered it, that if he raises his hand to you, your mother or your little brother again, you’ll kill him.

This is the knot you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to pull apart.

Throughout the better part of your twenties, you’ll stare at the watercolors of haystacks and cottages in the offices of your various therapists, lamenting that you never had a real girlhood—but that isn’t true. You didn’t have the luxury of retreating into a quiet room to journal for hours or talk on the phone, and it never occurred to you to wonder how bold you could be with boys. But girlhood isn’t a kewpie-eyed innocence; it isn’t the languorous blossoming into a body.  It is that Valentine’s Day when you put on your mother’s black dress and go to the movies with that tender boy who paints portraits of Miss Piggy as Marie Antoniette, the boy who makes you a heart-shaped pin out of clay.

You’ll wear that pin under the army jacket you’ve so artfully ratted; you’ll finger it the way you used to press into your bruises, just to feel something, anything, that isn’t the tedium of Geometry, the slow dread of dodging your mother’s eyes at the dinner table, or the quicksilver flash of panic that grabs you as you blink up from the floor of whichever friend has taken you in that night.

You will know that no matter how much hate your body has borne—and how much hate churns within you—there is sweetness in this world. That knowledge will carry you further than innocence ever could.

When you are fourteen, and you mother calls to tell you that your father has been rushed to the ER, that the tests show he’ll need stents in his heart, you will snarl that you want nothing to do with him, he’s her problem now. You won’t go to see him in the hospital; you’ll get fucked up with your friends. As you get sloppier and sloppier and the words become mush in your mouth, you’ll boast that you hope he dies. Though you’re armored in the bravado of youth and anger, you’ll still know that this isn’t true. What you’re not old enough to realize is that you fear your pity more than you fear your rage.

Years later, when he falls in the shower, you’ll sit at his bedside and watch the IV empty into his arm. He’ll ask you to tell him about what your dog did that day, and when you hear the fear in his voice, you’ll remember that he was a child once, too. He is the pudgy boy in those photos your aunt kept on her mantle: He looks slightly above the camera lens; his eyes are expressionless and he can only smile with the corner of his mouth. Before she dies, your aunt will tell you that your grandfather used to heat his belt buckle on the stovetop. She will call your father by a little boy’s name and say that he did the best he could for her and your grandmother.

No matter what he has done to you, and didn’t do for you, his blood thrums in the best and worst parts of you.

 

To read the rest, visit The Nervous Breakdown. 

Review of E.J. Levy’s “Love In Theory”

29 Jan

EJ Levy’s new story collection, Love, In Theory, is a powerful array of contradictions: sensuous yet wry, bruising yet brainy, perfectly precise yet voluptuously messy. Her characters inhabit not-so-ivory towers of academe and hospital hallways; they chase after lovers they’re lucky to be rid of and fuck up happy homes; they laugh at themselves and they love without hope. Everyday actions—flirting with a salesman at a camping store, shaking hands with a partner’s co-worker—pitch them into moments of existential extremis that Levy describes in prose that fuses the muscular density of Mary Gaitskill’s best work with the sardonic buoyancy of Lorrie Moore, while remaining very much her own.

Though not a linked collection in the traditional sense (no two stories share the same characters), these pieces coalesce around themes of desperation and desire. The characters are achingly aware of their own loneliness, and they try something—anything—to remedy it. Their efforts to wrestle out of their comfort zones allow Levy to deploy her sharpest—and most poignant—prose; the book is laced with lines that make you wince in recognition and take your breath away with their beauty.

In “Theory of Enlightenment,” a high-octane New York businesswoman follows her erstwhile lover to an ashram; despite the novelty of this premise, Levy grounds her observations in a hard-bitten wit that feels as lived-in as a much-loved party dress that’s been on too many strangers’ bedroom floors: “This is not a thing they feature in women’s magazines: How to Steal Your Boyfriend Back from God. So Renee has to turn to relatives, to friends, to strangers who lurk in adjacent cubicles. That morning, she confides in her coworker Alice … Over lunch, they talk sex, they talk self-esteem. They share rape stories and religious denominations. By that afternoon, Renee has agreed to help Alice find an apartment in Brooklyn.”

To read the rest, visit The Nervous Breakdown

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