This piece was an honorable mention for the 2020 American Academy of Poets Prize at Duke University.
like a newborn foal— bowlegged, pigeon-toed, drawn in swift slips to the clover-cover of the soft green ground
more joint than not, legs buckle knees, knuckle, tiptoe arch-fallen, spur-ridden, hoof-cloven, hollow
graceless in shape, sinew, slow-stumbling raceless wide-eyed, wet-maned, still slick with womb-water, walking in heaves and shudders till the earth pushes, sky pulls, and—lighter than light— canters forth
LASERBEAM coy, a real wallflower at first, then dashing across the floor where we scramble-scuttle, paws straining, claws out, scratching wood-floor-empty-nothing
and just when we’ve forgotten,
LASERBEAM smirking out of reach silent siren-song pulsing ears unwaxed, teeth bared we dive and scratch and stretch and come up emptyhanded, bloody, betrayed and when we think we’ve learned—
LASERBEAM caught, (we are hunters born) but immaterial, ethereal, ghostthin—
we don’t notice when it’s gone
honeysuckle evening when the moon can’t see us
hiding between the breaths of flowers sunsigh still over land we don’t pierce the silence it would bleed
even the crickets are muted in wonder
the water falls upwards the frost unfurls we hold time hostage it surrenders
(katydids startle fireflies fade
and we among them flash, then falter)
later, when we have loosed our grip it slips away from us
like a crow released from a ship’s bow— landbound, seeking terrain, fleeing the throttlebend of albatross circling the stern like carrion, beelining for the horizon
(pyrite sunglint over wave-dapple) drawn ever forwards by the kiss of distant shores and the promise of renaissance
the opposite of olive-branch caged by scurvy sailors until the stars scramble
This piece won the Anne Flexner Memorial Award for Fiction and the Rudolph William Rosati Creative Writing Award in 2020.
I’m going blonde. Everyone else seems to have everything figured out for once, so I need a change. I booked an appointment for this afternoon and I’m on my way now, listening to my maudlin brunette music and letting it bounce around between my ears one last time. Tonight will be all Top 40s.
At the salon I fall into the chair with the full force of my weight, just to see if I can break it. It doesn’t flinch but the cushions let out a funny little gasp. I straighten myself up and look in the mirror, but the stylist has gone back to the counter for a moment to check someone else in. They are short-staffed today. Popular time of year for a change.
There are cut cherry blossoms in a vase on the table in front of me. I lean forward to sniff them but it turns out they’re just plastic.
The stylist comes back over. She is short and her breasts are straining against her leopard print top, stretching the spots until you can no longer see the holes in the middle. The elastic is fighting a war.
She reaches down and begins to knead at my scalp with her rough fingers. It’s greasy—I’ve heard it’s better to go in with unwashed hair but I don’t quite understand why.
Her own hair is streaky, pink and blue over mouse brown, and I wonder for a moment if I should just get up now and leave before she does something irreversible. There’s still time to drive home and turn on the television and maybe catch Seinfeld reruns or whatever they’re airing these days. I could make microwave popcorn and turn down the lights. I could pretend I was a kid and it was late at night and I was trying not to laugh too loud so Mom and Dad wouldn’t wake up. I could call Frankie and we could curl up in pajamas like old times, but she probably has plans with Andy. She always has plans these days.
I settle back into the chair and grip the armrests until my knuckles turn white.
“What can I do for you today, then?”
My chest feels kind of tight and I don’t open my mouth for a few seconds and when I do I’ve borrowed my grandmother’s German accent that she only trots out on holidays or when she’s angry.
“Blonde,” I say and relax my hands. “All the American girls are blonde.”
The stylist laughs. “So where are you from, honey?”
It’s a bit of a loaded question—I was born in a different place than where I lived longest or where I liked best, and all of those are different from where I live now and where my parents ended up settling in their early retirement. I settle on, “Vienna,” because that’s where my grandmother is from and I lived there for a few months when I was a kid.
“Germany?” She talks with her mouth too wide open, like she wants me to count her teeth.
She begins to pin my hair up to the top of my head with those little toothy clips that only hairdressers and cool girls own. I’ll have to get myself some when I’m blonde. I’ll finally be able to wear a messy bun that looks artful and windswept and accidental and delicately crafted all at once.
I have this theory that I’m going to feel better once I do it. People will be nicer. Guys will smile at me more and rush to pick up my pens when I drop them. Girls will be jealous of me, except the other blondes. We will have an instant camaraderie.
The stylist paints my hair and wraps it up in tin foil. When she’s done I look like an alien from an old Hollywood sensation, an H. G. Wells wet dream. I go and sit with my head in the funny little dryer and everything is warm and I wonder if the tin foil will burn me but I decide that even if it does it won’t matter. You can have horrific burns down your face and neck but with the right shade and shape to your hair you can get away with it.
I close my eyes when the stylist washes the color and the bleach out of my hair because her breasts are too close to the top of my face and I don’t want to stare at the overworked elastic. After that she layers some color back in—I don’t want my hair to be white, after all. I want golden, cornsilk, strawberry, all-American, beach babe, bombshell, bubbly blonde. Blonde with dimension. Approachable blonde.
I go back to the hair dryer, then get shampooed, then she gives me a blowout. All the blondes get blowouts. I’m not sure I have the money to drop on a weekly one, not since I’ve been paying the rent all on my own, but I’ll have to find it. They’ll know if I don’t. The crack in the veneer.
“You’ll want to come back in about three weeks,” the stylist says before I leave. “That’s usually when the roots will start to show, but sometimes it happens sooner.”
I almost forget my Viennese accent when I check out, but I catch myself just before I speak. I hesitate a bit, like choking. Blondes don’t choke. I’ll have to practice.
At home, I put on a shower cap before I turn on the faucet. I even sing as I work my soap into a lather. Blondes lather before they wash. Afterward I put on a sheet mask and settle on the couch in the living room to scroll through my phone. It eats the hours, and it’s late when I finally drift off to a Frank Ocean song.
I forgot to set the alarm so I wake to sunlight. It feels right and so I pad back to my room and strip. I haven’t actually touched my bed in weeks, and there’s dust on the duvet. I throw on a camisole and shorts and then a big knit cardigan on top of it so it covers one of my shoulders but just sort of slips off the other. That feels like a blonde thing to do, and then I make myself herbal tea instead of my normal coffee, because that fits too. I should have a newspaper that I half-read while I sit on my balcony. I should maybe move somewhere with a balcony.
I have a few unread emails, but that’s it for notifications. I haven’t posted anything since before Aidan left and I know that out of sight is out of mind. No one knows I’m a blonde yet, and they’re all too busy having things figured out to bother with me right now—boyfriends behaving, fights forgotten, mental health monitored. They’re probably all staying hydrated and keeping gratitude journals. It’s alright. They’ll come around. They always do.
I need to show the world my new hair, but I have to think about it carefully before I do it. I can’t just post a selfie—I’m terrible at the angles. Anyway, blondes don’t take pictures of themselves. They have friends who do photoshoots at golden hour and capture candids where they’re laughing and all their teeth are perfect. Their eyes crinkle up but it’s cute when they do it. Natural.
I don’t really have the kind of friends who take pictures of me. They kind of avoid me when things are working out for them, really, and when things aren’t they’re always too shaky to hold a camera. We never actually do a whole lot except talk and wish things were better, and sometimes I tell them it’ll be okay without really meaning it or wanting it to happen, but that’s about it. Taking pictures would suggest we wanted people to see us.
But I’m blonde now and I want people to see me, so I guess I’ll just have to find a way. Maybe if I set my phone camera on timer it will look like I had someone with me taking the shot. I’m not sure what my best wall is, for a background, but I’ll figure it out. A real blonde has ingenuity.
Later in the day I get a call. Frankie wants to go dancing. It’s a Saturday evening and so it makes sense but it feels a bit out of the blue, especially since we haven’t really talked since the last time we went out. Her voice sounds a little worried and part of me wants to ask if something happened with her boyfriend again, if she’s looking for an excuse to drink, but then I’d have to take care of her and taking care of people isn’t what I’m supposed to do anymore. I’m supposed to go dancing, so I say yes. I’m supposed to turn heads, and make friends with drunk girls in bathrooms, and share that little knowing look with every other blonde that says I recognize you, I applaud you, we are the same, you and I.
It’s kind of cold out but I know it will be hot in the club because it always gets hot in clubs with all those bodies pressed together so I put on a tube top and a short little skirt and then swipe on some waterproof makeup so it doesn’t slip with sweat. Blondes aren’t supposed to sweat often but when they do it’s supposed to look and smell good so I splash on some perfume and apply extra deodorant to my armpits and even a little to my back, just in case. Blondes don’t wear stilettos because that’s trying too hard so I toss on some booties with a little wedge at the back because blondes are either under 5’2 or over 5’7 and I’m neither.
I wonder if they’ll be able to tell, when I’m there, that I’m newly blonde. I wonder if my voice will give it away, or my eyebrows, or my posture. I think I slouch too much.
Frankie and I meet up at a parking garage two blocks from the club—I walked here but she drove. It’s good to see her, I guess, especially since I haven’t in a while. She says, “Nice hair,” but I can’t tell if she means it. She has a biting kind of tone whenever she speaks that makes it difficult to tell if she’s being sarcastic. I’m not sure why I like her, but we’ve known each other since before we lost all our baby teeth and knowing counts for something. Our parents worked on the same committee at the UN, so we moved around a lot, and often to the same places. We’re very different, but I think Frankie might be the only person who really knows why I am the way I am.
After a moment, she asks, “Is this about that girl on Aidan’s Instagram?”
I know the picture she’s talking about, from last Thursday—a girl sitting across the table from him with big blue eyes and hair so blonde it gleamed. We’ve been broken up a month now, but it still stings to see.
“No,” I say, and I can tell she thinks I’m lying, but I double down. “I just wanted a change.”
“Just another one of your self-improvement kicks, then?”
I shoot her a look. “How’s Andy?”
She makes a face, all her features sort of wrinkling up and shrinking in toward her nose, then relaxes and shrugs. This means he’s fine. She never wants to talk when things are fine.
In the line for the club we flash our IDs. The bouncer doesn’t comment on my hair being different and for the first time I’m sad they don’t actually look all that carefully at the pictures.
In the club Frankie says something and I can’t quite hear her but I shout back Yeah! and laugh because that’s what people do in clubs and especially what blondes do. She looks annoyed at me but doesn’t say anything else, so I pretend I can’t see her grimace. We make our way to the center of the pack and begin to move and for once it doesn’t matter that I’m not coordinated because I’m blonde and I’m untouchable.
A song comes on in Spanish and Frankie and I know the lyrics but once I realize everyone else is just sort of faking singing along, I go mute. Frankie frowns at me but continues to sing, enunciating really clearly so everyone can tell she knows the words. We spent fifth grade in Santo Domingo where my dad grew up, attending the American school during the day and watching my abuela cook in the afternoons. Frankie should know by now that it doesn’t make us special.
We keep moving, keep dancing, and I’m beginning to feel the power of the hair taking over me. I dance closer to people, dance on them. I push my hands through my hair and they come back damp with sweat and I know that I like that, that people like that. Frankie seems upset for some reason but I keep dancing because I’m not about fixing people anymore.
I order two tequila shots at first because tequila is a drink for girls who know how to party, but then for my next drink I can tell my abuelo would be disappointed if I chose Mexican tequila over Caribbean rum, so I get a mojito and sip it by the bar while Frankie is in the bathroom.
Frankie sort of dropped off the map about six weeks ago when she and Andy stopped fighting again. She’s been like this since grade school—I was always too anxious to make friends with people I knew I’d have to leave, and she’d run off with the first interesting person to look her way, then come crawling back to me whenever we had to move. I got used to it a long time ago.
I didn’t really want to bother her while things were working so I found myself alone a lot more, especially because Becca had finally stopped trying to off herself after she found God, and James got into law school, and Maryam got a promotion and started working longer hours. I didn’t have anyone except Aidan, really, and after the last time I went out with Frankie, that one foggy night when everything started to get to me, I didn’t have him anymore either.
There’s a guy who comes over to me and the lighting’s bad so I can’t tell if he’s actually cute or if the blue edges of the shadows are creating the illusion of good bone structure. He taps my shoulder and I flinch at first but then remind myself that I’m not supposed to flinch anymore. I turn around slowly and he says something like didn’t mean to startle you and that choice of words, the sort of country lilt to his voice melts me a little. It’s hard to hear, though, so I’m not sure if the accent is real or imagined.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asks next and I’m surprised because people don’t usually ask to buy me drinks and then I remember that I have joined the ranks of the elite.
I’m nearly done with the mojito but I’m also getting pretty tipsy and I know that blondes get drunk but they never get hungover and they’re never sloppy about it. I tell him sure and say I’ll take a daiquiri because it’s mostly sugar anyway and I don’t have to drink it quick.
He starts to ask me questions and I can only sort of hear him (huh? yeah, totally, haha! what?) and eventually he says, “You wanna get out of here?”
I look down and it turns out I’ve emptied the glass and I’m not really sure where the time has gone and normally I would say no and get a bit freaked out and wind up at home on my own but I sort of nod because he seems nice and I’m a blonde now and this is the kind of thing you do when you’re confident and carefree.
It’s only after we’re in a cab halfway across the city that I realize I must have left Frankie there and my phone is dead. She’s probably going to be worried about me, and if I’m being honest my breathing is a little quick, but whenever I get wherever we’re going I’m sure I’ll be able to get a charger. This is nothing like last time when my phone powered down. It can’t be. I’m completely in control.
I don’t know where he’s taking me and that’s the sort of thing that should worry me—I can feel anxiety nagging at the corner of my mind but I push it back. I’m done being nervous all the time. Usually the only thing that keeps me together is worrying about other people, trying to keep Becca away from sharp objects and Frankie away from sharply dressed men, reminding Maryam to take her meds and reminding James not to take Maryam’s meds. I met all of them but Frankie in college after I stopped trying to fit in with the international students and the other Latinos and realized my niche could best be described as (✓) Other. Anyway I’m good at keeping them organized, but when that’s not on the table I start worrying about myself and everything falls apart again. So I won’t worry about myself anymore. I’ll land on my feet. I always do.
Turns out he isn’t the sort of sleazebag to take me right to his place without some conversation so we end up at a 24 hour diner and he orders us waffles. They’re too sweet but they soak up the alcohol a bit and I need to clear my head. He’s from Oklahoma originally, so I was right about the country in his voice, and he went to college there too so he’s new to the city but he’s looking to break into the advertising scene because he loves graphic design.
When he asks about me I decide to tell him the basics—Dominican-Austrian by blood, cosmopolitan by upbringing, American by citizenship and schooling and heart. I mention that I’m going through a breakup but I decide not to tell him why. I haven’t really said it out loud to anyone yet. He doesn’t pry.
He’s sweet, and funny, and I start to forget my phone is dead and Frankie’s probably half-crazy. We keep talking and he seems to really like me and when the waffles are gone we don’t really notice because we’re just sitting there, talking, and then a waitress comes over with the check and we both reach for our wallets because blondes reach for their wallet then acquiesce.
He covers the waffles and shyly mentions he lives a few blocks down and won’t I come in for a nightcap. He actually calls it that, a nightcap, and even though I should play it cool and go home or find Frankie or something I can’t turn him down when he says it like that.
He sticks his hands in his pockets as we walk and I loop my arm in his outstretched elbow. It’s bolder than I’d usually be but he just smiles and keeps walking.
At his apartment he fumbles with his keys. We get in and I ask if he’s got a phone charger and he goes into his room to grab it and I slip into the bathroom to freshen up. I’m probably still sweaty-sticky from the club and I figure I’ll splash my face and neaten the edges of my eyeliner and maybe dab under my armpits to make sure they don’t smell too bad. Maybe I should go home soonish but I’m not really sure how that would operate because I don’t do this very often, and he doesn’t seem to either but that could just be a trick like last time. Then again, we didn’t make it to the guy’s apartment last time before things started going wrong.
I get into the bathroom and hit the lights and the first thing I notice is how very boy it all is, not man but boy with the toilet seat up and one near-empty hand-soap dispenser on the sink next to a tube of toothpaste with finger indents where it has been impatiently squeezed around the middle instead of neatly from the bottom edge.
I register all this before I look up into the mirror and when I do I recoil. I’m still not used to seeing this version of me. After the drinks and the waffles with my head sort of fuzzy I think I look fine but not spectacular. I was supposed to look spectacular. I fix my makeup to see if that’s it, but even so I still just look like a person, just as fragile and tangible as before when my hair was limp and lusterless.
Between the personness of my face and the boyness of the bathroom I feel exposed and uncomfortable and I’m starting to think the nightcap maybe wasn’t such a good idea. I go out to the living room again and he’s there with the phone charger asking if scotch is okay, and I can’t square the man who drinks scotch with the boy who squeezes his toothpaste tube and neither seems like the sort of guy who buys me a drink then takes me to a diner sometime well after midnight. I wonder if any part of him is real and if so which part is, or if I’m making him out to be too simple. I don’t think these are the kinds of things that blondes think about but I’m not sure.
I accept the charger and plug my phone in. It vibrates to indicate it’s beginning to charge. I take the glass of scotch as well. I feel like the daiquiri is wearing off, or the hair dye. I don’t want to leave now. I don’t quite want to stay either, but we get back to talking. He doesn’t ask me all that much about myself and when he does I am able to deflect. It’s easier than explaining all the things that really led me here. Blondes don’t have to explain. They just sort of laugh and the world reshapes itself.
Soon, though, my phone screen lights up as the texts and calls from Frankie pour in. She’s alone, she’s worried about me, she isn’t sure where I’ve gone, am I okay, did I leave, did it get too overwhelming again, am I alive, am I with someone, please tell her I’m with someone and alive and just an asshole, please don’t be a dead asshole. If I hadn’t disappeared on her before, it would register as paranoia and I’d be annoyed, but as it is I just feel really guilty. She knows what happened last time and she feels like it’s her fault for not babysitting me.
I excuse myself and pop to the bathroom to call her. I explain everything as best as I can but she wouldn’t understand because her hair is short and black and it does this thing where it falls in a straight line bob like she used her chin to cut it. Pretty and all, but high maintenance. Dramatic.
She asks me if I’m sober enough to consent to everything this time and I tell her we haven’t even kissed yet and that yes, I’m plenty sober and the waffles helped and I’m sorry for bailing and is she okay and does she need me to do anything for her.
She sounds annoyed when she responds. “Jesus, don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
“You never call me when you’re fine.”
“To be honest, it’s because I don’t think you can handle it. Go deal with your farm boy.”
I’m not sure if he is a farm boy or not because I’m not really sure what people do in Oklahoma, but I hang up without saying anything else and go back out into the main room. If Frankie doesn’t need me, she won’t get me.
Farm-boy-not-a-farm-boy has finished his scotch and smiles when he sees me walking in. I sit next to him on the couch just far enough that it’s not too clingy but close enough that our knees are brushing. That seems like the right kind of energy for tonight. Coy, but not too coy. Blonde coy.
He turns and faces me and says something but he’s staring at my mouth and so I smile a bit then lean closer. He kisses me and tastes like scotch and syrup but suddenly I’m thinking of the toothpaste tube and the way I don’t have any other texts on my phone and this man and Frankie are the only people who really know I’m a blonde now, not including the stylist who did it to me in the first place, and it’s not too late to go back and ask her to add the color back in but even if she did it wouldn’t be the same and I’d have to keep adding toner in every few months to keep it from fading back to bleached white straw.
He pulls away. “What’s wrong?”
I didn’t realize I’d frozen up. Blondes don’t freeze up. Blondes don’t choke. They most definitely don’t start crying on the couches of strangers who want to hook up with them and maybe, just maybe, actually get to know them after.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he says in a sort of whisper-voice. “Want me to take you home?”
I nod. I think there might be snot coming out of my nose.
“Do you want to talk about it? Whatever it is?”
Aidan always left me alone when I was crying, even after that night when Frankie and Becca forgot me at one club because I was in the bathroom when they decided to go to the next one, and then my phone died and some other stuff happened and I had to walk home barefoot and half-dressed with my head fuzzy and my thighs aching, and by the end I was spending almost every night curled in the cold porcelain of the bathtub trying to stifle my sobs so they wouldn’t echo. It only took him two weeks of that to leave me for good. I rub my fingers under my eyes to smudge away the mascara, then sniff so the snot creeps back into my nose.
Oklahoma still has the curl of a worried smile tugging at his lips. I blink a few times, then ask, “Could you do me a favor and get a picture of me?”
He laughs, then catches himself when he realizes I’m serious. That’s the other issue—people don’t take blondes seriously.
“What, right now? Like this?”
“Like anything. Anywhere. Just a picture.”
He nods a bit uneasily and accepts my phone when I hand it to him. I don’t get red very easily and I’ve been told I don’t look like I’ve been crying after I cry, so after a few moments when I start feeling a little better I tousle my hair and strike a few poses on his couch.
When he holds his phone out in front of his face I can see something I couldn’t when I looked in his eyes. I think his eyebrows give him away, raised but only half-way, like he’s trying and failing to keep them lowered. He’s a live wire, Einstein on the verge of a breakthrough, a child in front of a near-finished jigsaw. He wants to know what makes me tick. It’s been a long time since anyone looked at me like that. I forgot how much I missed being dissected.
To Oklahoma’s credit he has a great eye and the photos look nothing like how I feel on the inside. He asks again if I want to talk about it and I tell him I don’t really like talking about myself and that I’ll be okay again just as soon as someone else breaks down. I work well under pressure is the thing.
He sort of shakes his head at this and offers to get me a cab again but this time I’m committed and when I kiss him I don’t think about him squeezing a big fat dollop of toothpaste onto his raggedy old toothbrush and jamming it all in his small little mouth.
The next morning I head back to my apartment after popping three aspirin and doing my best not to vomit them up. I stop in the mail room and tear the name Aidan Thompson off the address card inside our box and drop the torn-up scrap of paper in the trash. On the elevator I check my phone—it’s buzzing with texts from Frankie asking how I’m doing and if I’m hungover and what happened really, and messages from people who saw my couch pictures on Instagram and slid into my DMs, and a half a dozen replies to the Snap story I forgot I uploaded of me singing at the club. No crying, no one asking for a hug or if they can vent at me. Nobody who needs me. Dozens who want me. I brew myself some tea and change into something that says I had sex with a stranger last night and it doesn’t even matter and sit at the window and wonder if I should break my lease and move into Oklahoma’s apartment. It had a balcony.
A brief note before the actual text begins: This work received 2nd place for the George M. Lucaci Award at Duke University this year. I wrote it partially because of the anger I was feeling after compiling a list of questions that women ask which men rarely have to consider. I recommend reading that list in tandem with this work. At any rate, let the piece begin.
Excuse me, I know you don’t mean anything by it but I’m just
not comfortable with the way your palms are on my shoulders with your fingers
trailing down towards my chest because I am a small girl in a foreign country
who doesn’t speak the language and you are a grown man some thirty years my
senior who owns the restaurant enveloping me and you are talking to my
professor across the table like everything’s fine. In a way everything is fine
because I’m about to drink this delicious mint lemonade you brought out and
chat all night with my friend across the table and nothing will happen after
you leave except me scooting forwards in my chair a bit so when you have to
lean forward the next time your hands will have hard wood to grip instead of
bird-thin bones. But I won’t say anything and you won’t say anything and my
friend will say something only after you’re gone and my professor’s husband
will say something the next day to another student when I’m not even there to
hear it except through the grapevine, which is how these things travel anyway.
I know they’re all sorry. I know they froze, we froze. But in this moment with
your hands on my shoulders and your warm rough fingers dripping onto my skin I
I’m sorry but I’m not comfortable watching you become a
punchline these next few days because I’m part of the same joke in that case.
You’re the reason I flinch when my professor taps me on the shoulder the next
day and the reason why I’m so much more tense when a drunk man starts following
our whole group because the road to hell is paved with guys who didn’t mean
anything by it.
I ate freeze-dried raspberries once while camping in a yurt
with my Girl Scout troop, a bunch of rambunctious twelve-year-olds comparing
tree bark patterns, led by a woman some nine years our senior, a child herself
but eager and bright-smiled and warm. I remember being shocked that the berries
were similar in taste and texture to Fruit Loops, and when we tried the
freeze-dried edamame I spat them out.
She showed me how to turn a penny from copper to silver to
gold, and in turn I let her graduate and move away, and I stopped talking to
her as she went on with her life. It’s these little decisions we look back on
and question. Fourteen months ago in Kansas she swallowed a bullet put there by
an ex-lover. She was not yet twenty-eight.
Sometimes I remember the raspberries but mostly I cry when I
eat Thin Mints alone and wonder if I will ever give a little girl the world and
rip it away in a long-game, one-two punch.
If I go to hell I’ll
be sure to greet Brett Kavanaugh there with a swift kick to the nuts before I’m
dragged away so someone else can take a turn. On the day he gave testimony I
called my mother in tears because I knew him, this man who laughed and held
women down, by some thirty different names. I knew the many faces of Dr.
Christine Blasey Ford, knew the flavor of the tears she shed both raw and
stewed. I know what it is to hold a woman shaking in my arms as we both hunt
for the words to make things right.
I was fourteen the first time I bit my tongue to bleed. A
friend—and not even a close one—had made me her first point of contact. I would
later discover that this was my talent, inspiring trust—I have a friendly face
and a burning spirit. The moment she said the word “rape” I was tight-fisted
But she asked me to tape my lips shut, so I became all ears
and glares and gentle hugs. I learned well what to do, and the next time I was
ready. When another friend came forward, and another, and another, and told me,
in a stony-faced Greek chorus, about Persephone, I clenched my mind and loosed
When my sister took a self-defense course in college, they
taught her to go for the eyes. As a writer I think that’s a lesson I learned
I was taught to cross my legs at the ankle like a lady. I
was taught to cross my fingers and hope for the best. Never put down my drink
at a party. Never look a panhandler in the eye. Keep my neckline high and my
hemline low. Keep my gaze low—no, lower. Speak rarely, quietly, shyly. Apologize
if I interrupt. Apologize when I’m interrupted. Say no once, then acquiesce.
I found out I was a girl on a mustard-yellow school bus that
ferried me from elementary to middle school for algebra classes. I was all
elbows and knees, joints wired together with gangling copper and not a hint of
spare fat for curves. The six boys I had for company on those rides back and
forth would talk to each other and rarely to me, spreading their legs wide to
claim entire seats, making fart jokes in August, dick jokes in November, pussy
jokes in March. They spoke in tongues too large for their mouths of violent
acts and degrading deeds while I shrank in the corner, raised my hand less in
class, and stopped outscoring them on tests. It didn’t keep them from turning
on me by April. My very presence was an attack.
There are so many rules for being a woman in public, rules
that change shape based on the color of your skin or the weight of your body,
the prominence of your breasts or the wideness of your eyes. There are so many
ways to erase ourselves from hungry eyes that keep uncovering us.
So when your fingers brush my shoulders, grip my
collarbones, graze the skin above my breasts, I cannot breathe because I’m
tired of having to make myself small for you but I don’t know how to speak
without making you angry and I don’t know how to make you angry without making
myself unsafe and I don’t know how to do anything but stiffen and make awkward
eye contact with my friend across the table and wait for someone to say
something and crumple as you leave.
I kept all your milk teeth in an old jam jar, you know, after taking them from underneath your pillow. Over the years I paid you twenty dollars in singles and collected an ever-increasing rattle, holding you while you cried and bled and healed and teethed again. You never lost your faith in the Tooth Fairy or Santa or the Easter Bunny, even when you were ostensibly too old not to wonder, and I had to fill you in over steaming bowls of pho at the corner store on Second and Main and you did your best to fight the tears but they came strong as ever.
You were a late bloomer, a real shrinking violet when it
came to speaking up, and the other moms would always tell me how to fix you
with honey in their voices and arsenic in their eyes. Don’t you think he’s a little strange, they’d always ask, and haven’t you tried music therapy or tae kwon do or did you give him the MMR vaccine before he started to talk? It was
that sticky smile in the asking, the way their questions sounded like
accusations, the pseudoscientific bullshit they’d shoot me with until I stopped
showing up to parent functions.
So bright, you always were, though, and curious, but your
fear grew in lopsided like your upper left canine. You gave no thought to
reckless things, stepped into traffic to see how headlights look up close, but
shrank at little things like raising your hand or talking to the boy next door.
I always told you life was a fragile thing like the little glass doll you used
to love that fell and lost her head. You never listened.
Rough and tumble, you racked up scrapes and bruises faster
than I could count, but as you aged the nature of them changed. Your eyes grew
purple underneath from late nights studying, your wrists callused from resting
against the keyboard. Your teeth straightened out on their own, almost like
you’d willed them to when you found out how damn much braces would cost. You
were always stubborn like that.
Anyway, all this is just to say that I still had your teeth
rattling around in my bedside table when you graduated, and I still had your
teeth when you moved away to college on the opposite coast, and they sat in the
jar still rimmed with residue of age-old peach preserves when they became all
that was left of you.
They kept you in cold storage for almost a month while I
made up my mind because I knew you couldn’t bear the thought of being chewed by
worms, but I couldn’t let them turn you to dust. Those are your options, they told me, take your time (but not too much). I could hear the parentheticals,
and I could hear the tick-tick-ticking as the clock wound down. I didn’t know
what they’d do to you if I couldn’t decide. But I couldn’t decide.
You’d never believe it if I—no, you would. Only you would,
because when I was talking to you with my mouth half-full of noodles you
stopped me with watery eyes and made me promise never to lie to you again. I
held fast to that promise just as soon as I gulped down the broth and we were
always straight with each other. You used to tell me things, but you stopped.
Sometimes I wonder if…
But you were cold and hard and smooth, like a diamond in one
of those fancy steel drawers, and I was hours away because I couldn’t afford
the plane ticket out with all the cost of the funeral I was delaying. I slept
with the windows open like always, letting the sound of rain on rustling leaves
try to steady my breathing. I was curled into myself beneath the blankets and I
remembered the way your hair used to smell when you were little, sweet and
clean like day-old shampoo and a hint of sweat and fabric softener and vanilla.
I couldn’t cry.
But something scuttled at the windowsill and when it
wouldn’t stop I looked up. In the dim illumination of the city’s light-polluted
glow, there was just the fuzzy outline of a squirrel, slick aerodynamic body
belied by a bloated silk-spun tail, perched and staring with glassy eyes. I
froze, a shiver sliding up my spine, and could only watch as the squirrel leapt
down to the nightstand and bent over, its small busy hands tugging at the
Everything that followed was sounds. A whoosh as the drawer
opened, a thud as the squirrel leapt in, and the sound of rustling as it
burrowed, searching, searching. The rattle of teeth as it found its mark.
It lifted the jar and leapt out of the drawer holding it,
though by all odds it shouldn’t have been strong enough to do so. And it shook
the jar some more, scampering back to the windowsill on two stubby legs, and in
a last brief flash of lightning before it jumped away, it smiled, and that
squirrel had your teeth.
I called up that minute when a gunshot thunderbolt swept the
squirrel away and no one answered, of course, because it was the middle of the
night, even in your time zone. But the next morning I looked out at the little
mound of overturned dirt beneath the roots of that oak you used to play by, and
I called them and told them to bury you in the ground before winter because
that wasn’t you anymore, not really. You were a beautiful boy, you were, and
now you are only a smile.