Elise was new in the seventh grade. She was beyond nerdy. She wore little wire-framed glasses and braided barrettes (so elementary school). She favored white turtlenecks dotted with tiny strawberries; she always got straight A’s.

I used to get straight A’s. In elementary school, good grades were effortless, but in junior high, my A’s turned into B’s, then C’s, especially in math. I only did well in Composition, where we wrote stories and poems. My mother took away my radio and Olivia Newton-John tapes till my report card improved.

When you got straight A’s, you got a certificate that said Outstanding Achievement, signed by the principal. I had yet to get one, but Elise got one every time.

“That’s disgusting,” I said to her once, spotting the certificate on her desk.

She scrunched up her librarian face. “What?” she said.

I had been trying to make a joke. “Getting all A’s. It’s really disgusting you know.”

“Huh?”

I sighed. “Forget it.” What a nerd.

Since the first grade I had been friends with Susan, who wasn’t a nerd but was very smart. My father said she’d probably be a lawyer. Since the fifth grade, I had known Marie and Lauren. Marie had long curling brown hair and huge eyes; Lauren was blond, tall, and rather chubby. She played Dorothy in our fourth grade production of The Wizard of Oz.  People still talked about how well she sang “Over the Rainbow.”

It was Lauren who made friends with Elise first. I don’t even know how. Lauren was always making friends with new, seemingly quiet girls, and bringing them over to our group, like stray kittens. Aside from Elise, she had also brought over Marie V. (now the original Marie would forever be known as Marie R.), darkly beautiful, and Andi, who at 5’10” would later become a model.

By eighth grade, Elise had changed completely. She wore contacts now and had cut her hair into a cute bob. She had gotten ridden of the turtlenecks and upgraded her wardrobe to 1985. Big shirts, long sweaters, and oversized pearls. Gone was the mousy grind who didn’t get my sarcastic humor. In her place was a tall and willowy ballet dancer, a navy brat who had lived in Italy and Hong Kong, a wannabe writer like me.

I turned fourteen that April. For my birthday, we went swimming at the Y, then to my house, where we gorged ourselves on cake and my mother’s fried noodles, egg rolls, and wontons. After my parents left for an all-night mah-jongg party, we went wild – dancing, screaming for no reason, doing obnoxious imitations of our teachers and classmates.

Elise had come straight from ballet, and still had on her leotard and tights under her clothes. Overheated, she stripped off her jeans and ran pantless through the house. (Why she didn’t just take off her tights, I don’t know.) I have a photo of her in mid-run, giant sweater half-off one shoulder, a goofy smile on her face.

That was the last time I was happy. While my friends blossomed, I stayed the same. One minute Laura was in sweatshirts and jeans, her dark blond hair limp against her head, the next she was in tight sweaters and skirts, a chic short cut freeing her face. She wasn’t chubby anymore but voluptuous. Random guys stopped her in hallway. “Your legs go on for miles!” one said. “You’re so cute!” another remarked, pinching her cheek.

No one pinched my cheek except my first grade teacher when I ran into her at TJ Maxx. You could barely see my face for the glasses and braces. My legs didn’t go on for miles, which Elise was kind enough to point out at a pool party.

“I didn’t know your legs were so short!” she cried, stretching her lanky ballerina gams out to the sun.

I grew to hate my stubby limbs, round face, and small eyes. One of just a handful of Asian kids in town, I wished I were Italian, French, or Irish. I longed for big green eyes and a pert narrow nose, a quiet mother who didn’t yell out the door in Chinese, a name that didn’t sound like a body part.

The more insecure I grew, the less I spoke. The less I spoke, the cooler I thought I might be. At lunch I did math homework instead of joining the conversation. On car rides to and from the mall – where boys always eyed Lauren and Elise, never me – I stared silently out the window while everyone else chattered and sang along with Crowded House, Bon Jovi, and Madonna.

But instead of being cool, I became forgotten, like the night of the eighth grade dance when Lauren and the others neglected to pick me up. It was a misunderstanding, Lauren said, hugging me when I finally showed up. They had thought I was meeting them there. But I didn’t know that while I waited, sobbing, in my room.

Ninth grade was worse. There were even more boys to ignore me and hit on Elise, Lauren, and Marie V. One was a junior who sat behind me in algebra II.

“Hey,” he kept whispering to me one day. “Hey.”

I knew he wanted to ask me about Marie V., who had a crush on him. Bu I pretended not to hear him, too shy to talk to most boys.

When I continued not to answer, he switched his tactic. “Hey, ching chong,” he said instead. “Ching chong ching chong.” Face burning, I kept ignoring him, as I did the kids at the bus stop when I was younger.

Suddenly the teacher stopped mid-lecture. “Scott,” she said, eyes burning, finger pointing. “Get out of my classroom. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Chagrined, Scott picked up his books and left.

I didn’t feel grateful to the teacher, only embarrassed that she had heard.

* * *

That winter my father got a new job in a nearby town. He could commute, but my mother wanted a new house. We sold our old one – to the high school principal, of all people – and moved that summer.

I was excited. I’d be at a new school. I could be whomever I wanted – popular, athletic, student body president.

None of these things happened. At first I made friends with a couple of popular girls who were also new, but once they understood their standing, dropped me like last year’s jeans. But that mattered less at this school. What mattered was that I wasn’t the only Chinese girl. Far from it. Almost a quarter of the students were Asian, the children of immigrants. Having parents who spoke with an accent wasn’t weird; in fact some of the kids had accents themselves.

Boys looked at me. My braces and glasses were gone, and I felt more comfortable in my new preppy outfits. Was I – pretty? Dan Wagner thought so, and Ron Jones, but still skittish, I never said two words to them.

Later that same year, Lauren moved too. Texas. Unlike me, she was sad. She cried at school; she begged her parents not to move, but it had been decided.

After Lauren left, the group began to fall apart. We still saw each other sometimes, but mostly when Lauren visited. She had an older boyfriend who she lost her virginity to and who’d later kill himself. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. I hadn’t even been kissed yet.

Junior year, Elise suddenly decided she was a painter. I was surprised. In art classes, she had always struggled, or pretended to. Now she was producing picture after picture. I remember one: a woman with long tangled hair, painted in shades of blue. The word “blue” appeared throughout, in her locks, her lips, her arms folded over her bare breasts. Elise became so engrossed in painting, she switched to an arts high school in another town. She took photographs and started making films, often casting Andi in the lead.

Towards the end of high school, Susan and Elise stopped talking. I was never sure why. Perhaps Susan hadn’t liked the way Elise was behaving with her new artist friends; maybe Elise was tired of Susan’s judgments. Senior year, all three of us ran into each other at a piano recital. Susan and I had been taking lessons from the same teacher all those years, along with Elise’s sister. I talked to Elise and Susan separately while they gave each other cold looks above my head.

Once we all went away to college, I lost touch with everyone except Marie R., with whom I exchanged letters occasionally. From her I knew that Lauren was going to school in Dallas, Marie V. at Bucknell, and Andi at Baylor (later her whole family would move to Texas and become born-again Christians). Susan was at Harvard – studying archaeology, not law – and Elise was at NYU. Over the summers, she modeled.

I was in New York too, a hundred blocks north of Elise, but I never thought of contacting her. It had been too long. I called Marie R. once while she was still at NJIT earning her architecture degree, but the conversation was stilted. She didn’t seem interested in talking to me, and asked someone in the room for an exacto knife. That was the last time I talked to her, that I talked to any of them.

* * *

In the last decade, I’ve done my fair share of Googling my old friends. I know that Susan is a renowned archaeologist, and Marie R. a successful architect. Marie V. may live in London. Andi is married with kids, as is Lauren.

For a long time I couldn’t find anything on Elise. Surely she’d be famous soon – a filmmaker, a painter, a dancer, a writer. Whatever she wanted to be, surely she’d be.

Finally on a hot summer night in 2006, I found something.

By then I was divorced and living on my own in Manhattan. When I wasn’t dating disappointing men, I hid in my apartment, trying to write and surfing the internet.

I found it in a local paper in Virginia. Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, homemaker, died July 2 at her residence.

Elise? Dead?

Was is the same Elise? The age was right – she was a year younger than the rest of us – but her name wasn’t uncommon. Then I recognized her parents’ names and her sister’s.

Elise, dead. She is survived by her husband, Jeffrey Warren; children Isabel, George and Molly. Shocked I called home.

My father answered.

“Remember Elise?” I said. “My friend from my old school?”

“Elise,” he murmured. “I remember Susan.”

Of course he did. I’d known Susan since I was six. “Elise,” I pressed. I needed him to remember. “She was a ballerina. She came to our house.” She ran through it with no pants on.

“Maybe. Mom would remember. But she’s not here.”

“Elise died.”

“Oh no,” my father said, trying to sound aggrieved. But he couldn’t remember her.

The item didn’t say how she died, nor did a church newsletter I found. I called the church. A secretary told me it was cancer. I didn’t ask what kind.

“So many of her old friends have been calling,” the secretary said.

Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, homemaker, died July 2 at her residence. There was so much to reconcile. Elise dead, Elise a homemaker. It was shallow – after all, her husband was without a wife, their small children without a mother – but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Elise O’Connor Warren, homemaker, not world-famous director, best-selling novelist, or genius painter.

Somewhere along the way, she had decided to shed her skin again. Enough with being an artist, she had thought. Enough with modeling and hobnobbing with celebrities in Manhattan. I want to marry this man and live in Virginia and have three kids before I’m 30.

I was 34 then and nowhere near having even one kid. I didn’t know if I’d ever have any. Was I that different from who I was back then? I was still shy and still wanted to be a writer. I was less awkward and more confident. I was proud of my Chinese self. The shedding and growing of my new skin took much longer than it did for Elise.

Almost twenty-five years have passed since we were friends. I don’t know if I’d recognize any of them, or if they even remember me. I don’t know if I have a right to grieve for Elise. But when I saw Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, died, it was as though I did know her, had never stopped knowing her, and we were who were back then again, laughing and running wild.

We made our connecting flight to Mexico City from Guadalajara by, quite literally, one minute. This small, by-the-skins-of-our-teeth success involved our best broken Spanish, hand-holding, puppy dog eyes. Landing in Guadalajara an hour and fifteen minutes behind schedule, realizing that we late arrivals may very well have to finagle a different flight out of here in a language neither speaks fluently, I swallowed my excitement at Louisa’s studying of the landscape beyond the runway, her face filling the small window. To a girl from Johannesburg, Mexico oozes the exotic, fuels the othering nature we so shun out loud, as we wonder—how terribly wrong is it to fetishize that which we are not? We are cultural voyeurs, international peeping toms, fogging the windowglass of the world with our aroused heavy breathing.

But now, we’re nervous. Or at least I am. Louisa is the calming force in our relationship, and I do my best—sometimes purposefully, most times inadvertently, to agitate that force. This is an incredibly slow taxi to the gate and I stare down my wristwatch every ten seconds.

“We’re going to miss our fucking flight,” I grumble, amid the remainder of the infuriatingly calm passengers, “why aren’t we moving?”

“Look,” Louisa says, her finger greasing the window.

To my right, in the aisle seat, an old woman folds her fingers together in her lap. Her eyes are closed, and I bet she’s praying for something far less mundane than making a connecting flight. I’m not sure, what with all this engine noise, but I think she may be humming.

Louisa is pointing to a decrepit old AeroMexico plane, missing one wing, ditched defunct on the outskirts of this outskirt runway. The savannah desert tallgrass seems to be devouring it like some multi-legged sea creature—a giant hybrid of the millipede and the octopus—a millipus. Surely we are bearing witness to some spectral battle—nature versus machine. And the machine—this old plane that bears the brand of this younger one that transports us, ever so slowly to some still invisible harbor—is certainly losing.

Our faces come together in this tiny window as we watch the old plane. I swear I can see it rust before my eyes. I remember my countless road trips along the blue roads of the U.S., the rural towns in which I saw so many collapsed school buses, cargo vans, pick-up trucks parked on so many collapsed front lawns. This airplane seems the natural, if not operatic, extension of those lesser dead vehicles. This airplane, fighting in vain for its life against the strength of the landscape, knew once what it was like to fly.

“It’s moving even slower than we are,” I tell Louisa, and we sneak a kiss while the aisle lady’s eyes are still closed.

Soon, we’re running in the airport, the whirl of airport lights, the smell of roasting airport meats, the loudspeaker crackling its static, the music of Spanish spinning around us, running with our boarding passes in our sweating hands, our backpacks bouncing on our shoulders, to make it to the front of the customs line. Given our nearly decade-long battle for Louisa’s citizenship, anything bearing the word customs, sours in our mouths like lemon rind. And, of course, we have no idea where we’re going.

Soon, we make it to our official, an open-faced young man named Ricardo, laughing with his fellow officials about something I can’t quite understand. I make out the words pollo and estúpido. Something about a stupid chicken. I hope they’re not talking about me. Regardless, I decide to beg.

“Por favor, Señor. Uh, uh, tenemos billetes para México D.F. uh, uh, pero llegamos tarde…”

I’m trying, but he’s smiling at me like I am, indeed, that dumb-ass chicken, trying to talk his way out of the axe. I can’t quite tell whether his smile is genuine or condescending. If we were in the U.S., it would be condescending for sure. Louisa hugs my arm. Ricardo takes the boarding pass from my hand, shakes his head, clucks his tongue. This can’t be good. Surely, we’re to be decapitated and plucked, quartered and eaten—our punishment for our narrow-minded gringo othering.

“No es correcto,” he says.

“Fuck,” I whisper.

“What?” Louisa says.

“The gate’s wrong. It’s the wrong gate.”

Ricardo organizes for us an especially speedy backpack search, and tucks his electric body-wand into his hip sheath. Then, in a swell of philanthropy that’s all but gone the way of the dinosaur in the States, he leaves his post, motions for us to follow him, and walks us across the airport to the revised gate. His body-wand slaps against his hip, his small metal pieces of customs agent flair rattle like tambourines on his chest, and somehow, in our racing to keep up with him, the loudspeaker belching monotone Spanish above us, families reuniting and kissing without reservation, children scrambling with yo-yos, old men in massive straw hats groaning with their leather bags, young women in stunning woven dresses stretching themselves earthbound again, Louisa and I are struck with a sense of celebration. We’re surrounded by all kinds of music, by customs-agent smiles that actually are genuine; by a place that values humanity over procedure; where humanity is the procedure.

Ricardo delivers us to our gate and actually shakes our hands, wishes us good travels. We watch as he turns for the ten-minute walk back to his post. His gait is downright placid. Even from the back, I can tell by the way his neck tightens that he is smiling.

The woman who accepts our boarding passes is, according to her gold nametag, Luisa. That she bears my wife’s name at once quickens and calms my heart, and I mentally, and briefly, engage in some eponymous ménage à trois. Luisa explains to us in broken English, “We try to wait. You make it by one minute.”

I turn to Louisa. We are travel-drunk and delighted. We share a row with a young man with black-painted fingernails buried into his headphones. They’re so loud, I can hear the Spanish-language death metal. We’re still stationary, but the engines begin to whine. I lean in to Louisa’s window-seat and kiss her. As if to test Luisa’s proclamation, we try to hold it for sixty full seconds.

We were driving from the airport to the place Ahuimanu, which in Hawaiian means A Gathering of Birds, where there was to be a feast of welcome for my young son. I had brought him back from the Mainland along with my second wife, his stepmother, a woman who had come to hate him.

We drove through a tunnel under Nu’uanu Pali, where in 1790 Kamehameha the Great’s warriors forced Kalanikupule’s warriors over the pali, which means cliff or precipice. Nu’uanu is where that particular pali is.

I started thinking about Hilina Pali, which is over on the Big Island where I live. It’s near Kilauea volcano, and there are feral goats. In a little fenced patch of land about as big as your living room there is a kind of plant called ma’oloa enclosed there against the goats. That little place is where most of the ma’oloa that are alive in the world are hanging on and will continue to hang on if the goats don’t breach the fence and eat them.

At the bottom of Hilina Pali is the place Halape, where back on November 29th, 1975, there was an earthquake and a local tsunami in the night. A man I knew was camping there and the sea took him.

When we came out of the tunnel through Nu’uanu Pali, I thought about warriors leaping, falling, falling onto the roadbed, though in 1790 when they struck, it would have been forest.

I made the left turn and drove past the Japanese cemetery with its famous koi ponds, which are a notable tourist attraction, and then I drove into a residential district near Kaneohe.

I stopped at a traffic signal and I saw a hand-lettered sign taped to the pole. It said “FOR SALE: BABY CLOTHES – ULUA POLES” and I started thinking about that, rather than worrying about bad things that might happen at Ahuimanu, which which is what I had been doing.

Ulua are large strong-fighting ocean fish that you can catch from the shore if you’re willing to perch on rocks and cast out and wait. It is not like surf casting along the Atlantic, where you stand on a sandy beach and heave out over the waves, and sometimes can’t even see past the surf.

 

With ulua fishing you’re up on lava rocks with waves below, and if you aren’t watching and don’t listen carefully you might not notice that the sea has gone silent, which can mean it’s about to rise suddenly and take you.

I wondered about the combination of baby clothes and fishing poles on the sign.

 

I imagined that there was this young man who was new at the father business and a little weary of it, so when his wife said she was going to Honolulu to shop, he said he would take the baby for fresh air. When she drove away he went to their garage and chose a pole, and went to their freezer and got aku belly for bait. He wanted a day on the rocks and a nice ulua for them to eat, but he knew if he said he was going fishing she would never let him take the baby.

He put the car seat beside him on the rocks while he fished, and his son started to cry and he turned to see why and he stopped paying attention.

Oh they rose up and were carried down like the warriors, but more slowly, and they didn’t smash on impact, but sank beneath the surf. The car seat bobbed up, and he tried to get to it, but the waves dashed them against lava and they both died.

And I imagined that now the mother wanted to get rid of everything that reminded her, so she made the sign and was waiting and hoping someone would take the clothes and poles soon and it would be finished.

 

The house at Ahuimanu is tucked up close under the pali. There are no waterfalls when it isn’t raining, but a dozen or more appear when it rains hard. One falls from so high on the pali that wind dissipates the water long before it reaches the valley floor.

My aunt called that one The Crooked Straight and when it floated against the pali she would stop what she was doing and sing from Handel’s Messiah. She had a beautiful voice and a sweet nature, but she had died by the time I saw the sign on my way to Ahuimanu and her house below the waterfalls.

At Ahuimanu my uncle was giving a welcoming speech in Hawaiian when my wife rose up and struck my little boy in front of the guests, because he was not paying attention the way she thought he should have been. I was not quick enough to stop her, but I took my son in my arms to make him safe, and soon after we got back to the Mainland I threw her out.

She went down to North Carolina and then I divorced her. I don’t know where she is now.

Everything she left behind, I sold.


Over at Big Other, Roxane Gay–author, and editor at Pank Magazine–ruffles some feathers with her investigation into author payment among literary markets. That is, the lack thereof. Is exploitation too harsh a word?

At least one commenter seems to think editors are all but demonized by a readership sharing too much overlap with a community of authors wishing for publication from the same venues they’re trying (failing?) to support. It’s a contentious issue, as the comment thread suggests.

This writer has no realistic expectation that he’ll be paid for publication by smaller markets, but maintains fantasies about lucrative book contracts against all better judgment.

Is remuneration contrary to the purity of artistic ambition?


I’ll get right to it. I could barely pee on my own without shooting a stream like a wild hose was out of control on the bathroom floor.

The problem wasn’t me. The hall commode was a cathedral of tile and fixtures with a throne set almost too high for my tippytoes to help reach.

You see, I was an independent young lad. I could clamber out a bedroom window at three years of age and walk through the dark, out to the edge of Candler Avenue in San Jose, California, and sit on the curb with our dog Candy.

 I’d do that: curb sitting. Just pass the time. Just sit there with our overgrown sheltie dog, watching the clouds, watching people pass in the dark, or during the midday, or whenever.

You’d think that dog could have helped me take a proper piss in the toilet.

I had no problem whipping it out for a leak in the backyard like I was on some great adventure in the outback of my dreams.

Hell, I could drench the side of the house and shoot petals off flowers if I had to. Me and the dog—we pissed together on the apple tree. It was fun. I don’t know why she lifted her leg. But she did.

I gladly pissed in the wild. In fact, I could have been on “Survivor” at age three and won. 

Most challenges of my wayward youth were easy obstacles to defeat.

Getting out of the neighbor’s garage after sneaking in. Simple. That was just a waiting game. He left and turned off the lights. I think I just crawled into a really dark place. I popped out when there was light, terrifying everyone like I was a cat scampering from a tin can.

Once I tried to slither out of a canal as torrents pushed me down its muddy banks, determined to drown me. I escaped. I told my mother I fell into a puddle.

I solved the problem of urgency once by running toward home and pooping in my pants. I hid the evidence in my room. I don’t even think the dog ratted me out.

I found creative ways to turn Tinker Toys into bows and arrows and launched them at my brother’s skull. I could have hunted deer.

But that damned toilet.

The bathroom throne was my greatest challenge at about age three. I’m guessing here since my parents are no longer among the living. Three sounds good. It puts me at that challenging height for a youngster trying to sling his tiny dick into position for a squirt into the commode.

I was proud of myself when I reached such fathomable heights and wasn’t shooting the opposite rim, or firing away at the open door.

I remember pushing up the seat and lid. That was always a minor victory when my pants were around my ankles. Yes, that’s how I peed then. There was no sneaking it out through little portholes. The pants went straight to the ankles just like that one rejected American Idol song: “Pants on the ground, pants on the ground…”

And the dick went on the rim. Barely. That could have been a verse in that song. “Dick on the rim, Dick on the rim! Hat turned sideways, dick on the rim!”

The toilet seat fell in slow motion.

I could have moved. But it took so much energy to yank down my pants, get on my tippytoes, and then try not to shoot the dog that was watching.

I couldn’t react. Little kids can’t react. They just watch. I watched.

I watched the toilet seat smash my tiny wiener.

And then I howled in pain. I howled and did some sort of strange tribal dance, because, well, that’s what you do when your wiener gets crushed.

I howled because I had to pee and I was afraid.

I howled for my mommy. She came running in. She held me as I howled, “I want a Band-aid!”

And then she put one on.

I felt glorious.

I’m guessing it fell off somewhere outside.

It was borderline impossible to pry myself out of bed.  I sleep in a ridiculous pile of blankets and pillows spread across an illegally comfortable mattress.  The prospects of coffee and accomplishment normally get me up and moving somewhere before noon on a regular day, but today was tough.  Today it was cold.

Don’t misunderstand; I prefer to sleep in the cold.  I’m that guy.  I keep my AC at home set on sixty-seven year round and I crank the hotel thermostat down when I’m on the road.  I cannot bear to sleep when it’s hot.  Some people can, and I don’t understand them.  Only rarely do I find myself in the charge of these mysterious Heat People; a random friend or relative whose home I’m crashing for the night, a person who lives blissfully in an incubator.  I’m never ungrateful for their hospitality no matter how miserably I get through the night.  I will simply toss and turn in silence, dripping sweat and lying on top of the blankets until morning comes and I can walk outside to cool off under the sweltering Texas summer sun.

Who lives like that?  Maybe these people grew up on a cul-de-sac in southern Hell and maybe their parents made them take naps in the oven as toddlers, but my body chemistry can’t function in that environment.  There should be some sort of compromise so that everyone is comfortable.  For instance, I’ll set the temperature to 70 degrees in your house, and then you can go sleep in the clothes dryer.

Despite my usual love for the cold though, even I have my limits.  I can only handle it as long I have an out.  Mornings are fine because I can crawl out from underneath the covers, turn the heater on, jump in a hot shower, and walk out to a warm room.  When I am put into the constant cold though, I whine like a little girl.  I spent one rebellious January night a decade or so ago camping with a friend of mine in temperatures that dipped down somewhere around Taylor Swift’s age.  It was a horrible night compounded by the realization that the morning wouldn’t bring any respite.  I was one big frozen complaint.  That knowledge has prompted me to buy a zero degree rated sleeping bag in the off chance I’m ever faced with a similar situation.

Last night I pulled that bag out again.  I came home from a gig in Oklahoma to find that the heater in my house had committed suicide.  Not that the winter’s here are insufferable by any means, but the past week has consistently hovered in the forties and the massive windows in my bedroom do very little to help with insulation.  I fell asleep under a mountain of blankets and awoke to see my breath escaping, cloud-like, from my mouth.  I buried myself beneath the covers to combat my fear that I would freeze instantly, like a combination lock sprayed with liquid nitrogen.  Hopefully, I thought to myself, that sort of thing only happens in the movies.

Eventually I talked myself into facing the icy air.  There were certainly solutions waiting for me out there in that frozen, waking world.  I had things to do and I needed to figure out a way to raise the temperature.  I called Home Depot to see if they had a space heater but they informed me that those were “seasonal” down here.  This is Texas and apparently winter already happened here on January 8th.   I missed it.

So now I’m up.  I’m huddled at my desk wearing three t-shirts and a brown hooded sweatshirt that makes me look like a shivering little Jedi or a really tall Jawa.  Feel free to choose whichever Star Wars metaphor makes you feel the happiest.  I am confronted with the ugly reality that I wouldn’t have survived in a pre-technological society.

The American frontier would probably have pushed me somewhere closer to Mexico, where I would have happily fought for independence from Spain in exchange for the promise of more comfortable temperatures.  My ability to get through the day should not ride on whether or not some piece of climate controlling equipment decided to commit seppuku.  If 2012 thrusts us into a post-apocalyptic landscape, I can only hope that I’m truly enough of a forward thinker to have booked myself for a show in Hawaii on December 20.

The coyote is lying on the side of the road. Lazily, softly, as if it is sleeping. But dead—this is obvious. A dead coyote, the color of maple, with thick, lustrous fur that makes it seem pettable and friendly. My tires whiz by its body with one final indignity: the spraying of filthy sleet.

The air outside is frigid. It is early morning, January, and from the gunmetal sky fat snowflakes fall quickly to the earth. I notice how long the coyote’s ear is, splayed backward and open, now quietly filling with snow.

A little further up the road is another coyote, in similar posture. Then 50 yards later, one more. A trio of coyotes, struck down, I imagine, in quick succession. Perhaps they were a family. Perhaps each was running to the aid of its fallen mother or brother. At the thought of this, I almost start to cry.

The snow starts falling even faster now, in a diagonally blowing wing that howls faintly and whips around my car. I slow my old Saab, make sure the lights are on, but the other traffic, I notice, is moving at its usual highway pace of about 90 miles an hour.

I have a baby in the car with me, just two months old. She rides, well-anchored, facing toward the back. I peer at her car seat in my rearview mirror, and my heart stutters. My baby, Muirgen, sees no dead coyotes; she only hears the music on the radio or the soft cadences of my voice. I take her to the art museum where I work. She lies quietly underneath a baby gym or in my arms as I make phone calls. I nurse her and type with one hand.

But I hate to drive anywhere with my baby. I hate to leave the house. Catastrophe and death, I fear, await us, as if we too were coyotes, scrounging for food in the wasteland of winter fields, dodging speeding semis and Jeeps in our quest for a small puddle of water from which to drink.

I can picture clearly the accident that will kill us. It plays in my mind like a film. I feel the steering wheel spin through my helpless hands as the car flies off the road, flips in the air. There is a pause, during which time we hang upside down, wondering, suspended, What is happening? Is this real?

I can almost hear the delicate whisperings of angels as they hover by our impending wreck. But this is not reassuring—instead, it is terrifying—and then angel whispers are drowned out by a crash, massive and final. Glass and metal crush and smash. I scream and reach out for my baby, but we are both strapped in too tightly, unable to escape.

This is the scene that I picture when I drive or even think about getting into the car. There are more scenes, equally horrible.

I picture my child burning alive, myself overcome with smoke, unable to rescue her. I see her in a tiny coffin, being lowered into the ground. I cannot bear to even imagine this horror.

This pervasive sense of doom and dread, the heart palpitations, nausea, the crushing pains in my chest—it is anxiety, I learn. Just one little word for this terror that haunts me. I am simply anxious.

Am I also depressed? I tell the psychiatrist that I don’t think so. Oh, but anxiety goes hand-in-hand with depression, especially post-partum, I am told. I must have PPD—post-partum depressive disorder.

I bristle at this diagnosis. I have read horror stories about PPD-suffering new mothers who lost their minds and smothered their babies. I love my child; I am certainly not sad that she exists, or that I am her mother. I am not crazy. I would never hurt her. In fact, all I can think about is how to keep her safe.

It is, I learn, hormones that are most likely the cause of the problem. I am seriously depleted, running on empty as far as estrogen goes. Stop nursing, I am told. Take Zoloft. Take Paxil. Go on a vacation and leave your baby behind.

This PPD that I am told I have renders me consumed with worry, even during quiet, happy times. I hold my daughter and rock her, read to her, sing. She gives me a radiant, gurgly smile and looking into her chubby face, I feel joy. A nanosecond later, I am sure that we will be savagely murdered by the repairman who is coming to fix our washer—so sure of it that I can imagine exactly how he will corner us in the kitchen with an enormous knife. I will try to flee, but he will catch us and pull us back, stabbing brutally, relentlessly, before we can wriggle out the window.

I picture all of this while sitting on the couch frozen in terror, clutching my baby. Then I have an idea. I steel myself to get up, lock all the doors and post a note saying we had to run out. I huddle on the couch with the baby, hiding, keeping still, until the repairman gets the note and drives away.

Only then can I breathe normally.

I tell my husband about my horrible daydreams, but briefly, and always with a touch of humor. (“I just thought Satan was speaking to me through our child. Ha ha. I think I’ll go lie down on the couch.”)

I don’t want to scare him, but I just want him to understand that I need help and hugs and comfort. This he offers, but because I am not completely honest, he never understands either the depth of my fear or how close I might be to a breakdown.

**

The word “anxiety” is interesting to me. It slides off the tongue and sounds almost elegant, but is derived from the Latin angere, which means “to choke.” Anxiety is a disorder that is sadly commonplace, and, by definition, frustratingly vague.

Anxiety can be either low-level, or “generalized,” or it can manifest itself into full-blown panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, or obsessive-compulsiveness. According to psychiatric literature, anxiety is often not attributable to a real or appropriate threat and can be a symptom of other problems, physical or psychological.

The sort of anxiety I have feels like full-blown panic sometimes, but apparently it is only generalized. There are people much worse off than I am, those who actually pass out from fear, those who cannot ever leave their houses.

After consulting a pharmaceuticals textbook, my university-clinic doctor prescribes low doses of Valium because, she says, “That’s the most cost-effective way to treat this.”

I don’t take the Valium because I am still nursing, and because I need to drive. Instead, I make up excuses not to come in to my part-time job in Cedar Rapids. “My car tire blew out,” I say. “I can’t find my keys.” Oops—couldn’t call in sick (had to e-mail; the coward’s way out) because I misplaced my phones.

I buy life insurance—much more than my father says I need. I want to be sure that my child is cared for, in case the worst should happen. I hope she will remember how much I love her, but I know that if I die before she reaches a certain age, she’ll probably retain no memories of me at all. That doesn’t matter, I tell myself. It is now that matters. Do the best you can for her now. Keep her healthy and safe.

While Muirgen naps, I go online and visit the PPD survival group chat rooms. I see a posting from a woman who, it seems, is just like me. She got pregnant on her honeymoon and now is struggling with both PPD and trying to maintain a good relationship with her husband, who claims he hardly knows her anymore.

I write to her. I say, “It’s so hard to be hit with all of these changes at once—getting married, being pregnant, possibly moving house, having a baby.”

Her husband, like mine, probably had about two weeks to look around and say, “Wow, we’re married…” before being faced with a nauseated, exhausted woman, a woman whose pretty face got puffy, whose nice clothes no longer fit. A fat, tired stranger—and then, suddenly, two strangers, one of whom cries a lot and has stinky diapers.

“Of course it isn’t easy for us; we’re the ones actually experiencing all these things,” I write, “But it’s got to be almost equally weird for these men.”

She writes back that we are kindred spirits, in the same boat, exactly. She tells me that her son is named Vegas. I assume, rather stupidly, that she is Hispanic, but then she explains that her baby is named after Las Vegas, where she honeymooned.

“Good God,” I think, “She named her kid Vegas.” I can’t bring myself to send her another note.

I drop out of the chat rooms. I resist the psychiatrist’s reluctant offer of psychotropic drugs. I decide to handle things on my own, to let my body adjust naturally.

There are some women in this online PPD group who are seriously ill. Their children have been taken from them. They cannot get out of bed. They are hallucinating and could be dangerous.

Some are glad that their mothers or in-laws are taking care of their babies. Some desperately long to get their children back. They all have to wait, though, for the drugs to kick in, for their hormone levels to stabilize. This could take weeks or months.

Meanwhile, their babies are growing fast, sadly apart from their mothers, swaddled and alone with relatives who may be forcing outdated, even harmful baby-care practices on them—feeding the newborns “pablum,” insisting that they only get a bottle every five hours on a strict schedule, that they not be picked up when they cry so as not to “spoil” them.

Some women vent about this. I read their postings but keep silent, feeling grateful, despite my own problems, that I am not in their shoes.

The biological point of anxiety, its reason for existing, is to help us run from danger. But if the danger is all in our minds, well what’s the point of feeling “fight, fright, or flight” in response to that?

I understand that PPD is essentially the result of a chemical imbalance, but it seems like a disorder we should have evolved not to have. Post-partum is a crucial time, a time when we need to be fully present and strong for our babies. As a species, how can we afford to have up to a quarter of all new mothers paralyzed by fear, wracked by tears and hallucinations, hearing demonic voices? What could possibly be the benefit of all this?

Does PPD keep us safer by, in a seemingly sexist, eerily fundamentalist way, keeping us at home? Does the very presence of this disorder spur husbands and relatives to help more with the baby? Or, is PPD just a sick example of natural selection—weeding out the neurotics, the especially paranoid?

**

I am driving home from work, south on the Avenue of Saints from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City. I remember the coyote I saw the previous summer, when I was heavily pregnant but could not yet even imagine how much my life was going to change. That coyote stood in a field that had just been mown, hay tied in neat bales that dotted the landscape. Her ears were back, and she looked scared, as if thinking, “What happened to everything I knew? Where is the long grass that used to hide me?”

Everyone says that coyotes are smart, that they are brave, adaptable hunters who will eat flesh or fruit, whatever they can. But many farmers see coyotes as nuisance animals, predators that will steal and kill their sheep or chickens. Coyotes are, therefore, unpopular guest on the land that they hunt—and the rest of the land is being taken from them and used for new roads, new subdivisions.

The world is changing for coyotes. I realize that the world is changing for me. Still, the coyote adapts, using its innate cleverness to negotiate the changing landscape. Of course, I will need to do the same.

The image of the anxious-looking late summer coyote is imprinted on my brain.

When I see, months later, the dead coyotes, I wonder if she was with them, if her life is over now, if her presence has been savagely erased.

I don’t believe that my life, with all its blessings, is really anything like a coyote’s. But it is the coyote that reminds me how quickly things can change.

 

 

Like so many stories, it began with a drunken promise. My friend Nathan told me he’d found something. “It’s the most amazing thing in the world,” he said.

Naturally I didn’t put too much faith in those words, but I nonetheless looked forward to the day I’d become a part of the secret; the main frustration being that three people in the whole world knew about this “amazing thing” and I wasn’t one of them…

***

One warm summer night we were drinking in a blues bar. There were many familiar faces, but I found myself alone with Nathan, talking about the “amazing thing.”

“It’s a house,” he said. “An abandoned house.”

My excitement died a little. How exciting could a house possibly be? In Dundee, damn near half the buildings were derelict. “You’ve got to see it… It’s beautiful. Not just any house; a big house. Ancient. On the _____ Road, too.”

I’m in my room. Through the thin, rotting trailer walls, I can hear the muffled sound of the television preachers on The 700 Club. I know my parents are in the next room sitting on our mismatched furniture, watching the TV that is on top of a larger TV that broke many years ago, but never got thrown away.


TNB Hall of Fame
Kip Tobin ponders the power of the number 47 in an essay entitled “47 vs 23: The Debate Rages to a Head”. “Jesus performed 47 miracles in the New Testament,” he writes. “The four noble truths of Buddhism. The 47 ronin of Japan that is linked to Confucianism. And by themselves, 4 and 7 both have extreme symbolism lodged in our own cultural lore: Four seasons, four horsemen of the apocalypse, four letter words, the Fab Four, four food groups, four parts of the day, four classical elements (water, earth, air, fire), four mathematical functions (add, subtract, multiply, divide), Four was an album by Blues Traveler, 4 was an album by Foreigner, and oddly, four, according to Wikipedia, ‘is the universal number for women, as symbolically suggested in literature throughout history.’ (Who knew?)”