On the day of my final comprehensive exam, I missed my exit and kept on driving. I knew that if I didn’t turn around immediately, I would be late. I would not be allowed to sit for my exam. I would be locked out of the classroom. My head knew these things, but my hands and my feet and my heart led me further and further away from campus. Four hours later, I was deep into swamp country, with nothing but misery and ramshackle houses lining the freeway.
I tried to think of a single person I could turn to. My mother, who rarely had anything positive to say, would stop speaking to me all together when she found out. My only friends were my classmates, who were ambitious and couldn’t wait to get out of grad school and do the sorts of things that made my soul want to retreat to a dark corner. Like my mother, they’d lose all respect for me when they discovered I dropped out so close to the end.
A hug would have been nice. Or a kind word. I’d heard about such things but never experienced them, at least not often enough that I grew to expect them.
I stopped to fill up my tank in a map dot of a town. I opened the rusted screen door of the convenience store and was met with the smell of stale cigarette smoke. The cashier, a bald man with the ruddy face of hypertension, scratched away at lottery tickets with a quarter pinched between his stubby sausage fingers. A boy of about 16 hunched over a Ms. Pac-Man arcade game.
“Hot damn,” the clerk said. “Fifty bucks.” He set the winning card aside and went back to scratching. Rush Limbaugh’s voice crackled on the AM radio in the background.
The magazine rack was empty save for a lone copy of Juggs with curled up edges. The shelves were sparse, with products strewn about in no particular order, a box of maxi pads next to a packet of Oreos next to a box of BC Headache Powder. The only things not covered in dust were the Dr. Peppers in the cooler and the tins of snuff.
As I picked out a soda, I envisioned the teenager hitting me over the head with a baseball bat and dragging me out to his pickup truck, the clerk not looking up from his scratch cards. The boy would show my dead body to his friends, and they’d help him bury me near the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, under an ancient live oak tree with its swooping, low branches watching over me for eternity. I smiled my first smile of day—probably my first of the past year—at the thought of being in the ground.
I waited at the soda cooler a good five minutes, but the boy stayed loyal to Ms. Pac-Man.
“Dang it. Fuckin’ Blinky,” he cursed.
I took my Dr. Pepper to the counter, and the clerk, whose name tag read “Chigger,” gave me my change without looking up at me.
Back on the road, I followed the signs pointing to the nearest state park.
“You stayin’ the night?” the warden asked at the front gate.
I hadn’t thought about it, but I said yes. I paid my $20 for a campsite and drove to the spot marked on the map the warden gave me.
It was 4 p.m., and I figured I had at least an hour before sunset. I left my car and set out for a nearby walking trail. The first live oak I saw had all her arms open wide, some of them dragging the ground and gesturing toward me. I sat on the sandy soil beneath her and leaned against her trunk to plot my next move.
My options were few. I could move back in with my mother and let her looks of disapproval chip away at my spirit until I figured things out. I could get some shitty job in a diner and sleep in the back of my Kia until I met some ugly motherfucker who’d let me stay in his double-wide trailer. I could go back to Dallas and turn tricks on Harry Hines Boulevard. Or I could join a commune and weave hammocks to earn my keep alongside a bunch of hippies with BO.
I could do any of those things and still be better off than a Syrian refugee or a favela dweller in Brazil. I knew I was feeling sorry for myself, and I knew I’d probably go back home and make another go of grad school after convincing my shrink to increase my medication, but I felt so right under that tree that I wanted to stay a while. The tree was solid, steadfast. She felt more nurturing to me than any person ever had. She had a purpose.
I knew that if I had a purpose, it wasn’t to be an account executive at some soulless corporation.
“I wish I had it easy like you,” I said, looking up.
You can. Did I hear those words with my ears or inside my head? I wasn’t sure, but they were real, and I felt them in my chest. I scrambled to get off the ground but only got as far as my hands and knees.
First came the pulsating heartbeat, thump-thumping from the ground and through my body. Then dozens of roots emerged from the soil and surrounded me like so many loving arms, pulling me into the earth. I thought I might be dying, but I felt too good. As the soil fell over me, I breathed it in through my nose and mouth and skin and exhaled pure white light. If this was death, I welcomed it, and I drifted into the first truly deep and dreamless sleep of my existence as the tree’s many hands swept away all evidence of me.
I awoke with a push and a shove and the sun kissing my face.
The cold winds blew me back and forth, threatening to break my spine, except I no longer had a spine; I had a spindly trunk and a smattering of leaves and was a mere twig in the shadow of my maker, the ancient live oak.
Her lowest branch brushed against me, and I hugged her back, smiling for the second time in 24 hours.
Note: Feeling uninspired to write lately, I consulted my trusty Tarot cards for a story idea. I pulled the 9 of Wands, the 8 of Cups and the Empress and wrote a story based on my interpretations of the cards.
“Our neighborhood is full of old ladies with broken hips and oxygen tanks. They couldn’t make it to the door if they wanted to,” my mom said. “If they did, they’d probably put a laxative suppository in your treat bag before keeling over on the front porch.”
“They’re not all old. We have lots of young neighbors who hand out candy.”
“Oh, like Mr. Keenan at the cul-de-sac? Which reminds me. I need to look him up. I just know he’s on the sex offender registry.”
“Then take me to another neighborhood.”
“And let complete strangers give you fun-size chocolate bars with razor blades in them? Or Jolly Ranchers laced with psychedelic drugs?”
“Yes, mom, that’s exactly what I want.” I rolled my eyes.
I told my best friend Jenny about the situation.
“Maybe we can go to one of those church things where they hand out candy from their cars,” she offered.
“How is that different from going to a strange neighborhood?”
“They’re Christians. That means they’re good, right?”
I shrugged. My mom never took me to church. She was usually hung over on Sunday mornings.
“Absolutely not,” my mom said when I told her about the new plan.
“I don’t trust those people.”
“They’re Baptists. Jenny says that makes them good people. They won’t poison the candy.”
“It’s not the candy I’m worried about.” She topped off her glass of pinot noir. “Look, those people are scary. Take my word for it.”
“No. I’m 9 years old and I want to go beg for candy like a regular kid. Jenny’s mom is taking us. We’ll be fine.”
Mom stared me down for a good two minutes before nodding.
“All right. But if there’s a haunted house, promise me you won’t go in.”
It started off great, with people complimenting me on my Cleopatra costume and giving me the good kind of candy rather than cheap Smarties and Pixy Stix. I made quite a haul of Snickers, Twix and Kit Kats, each piece bearing a tag with a Bible verse. I was told, “God bless you” and “Jesus loves you” several times. Although a little creepy, it was a small price to pay for free chocolate.
About a dozen cars were arranged in a circle in the large church parking lot, their trunks facing inward. When Jenny and I got to the last car, a man dressed as an angel in a white robe handed us each a million dollar bill. It looked like real money, and some bearded guy was on the front of the bill. I assumed it was God but later found out it was Rutherford B. Hayes.
The angel, who had a 5 foot wingspan, asked us to turn over our fake money.
“Let’s see what this says, girls,” he said, bending over to our level. “Have you ever lied or disobeyed your parents?”
“Yes,” Jenny said. “Everyone has.”
“Well, then you’re going to hell. At least that’s what this here million dollar bill says.”
Karen’s chin quivered.
“What? Where does it say that?” I asked.
“Right here.” He pointed at a bunch of small print that I couldn’t see in the dark. “If you have sinned, God will send you to the lake of fire for eternity.”
My face grew hot. I had no idea if what he said was true, but I knew I wanted to get away from this man.
“But there is a way to avoid burning in sulfuric fires forever. I’ll tell you all about it after you see for yourself what hell is really like. Follow me.”
I grabbed Jenny’s hand and held her back. My mother may have been crazy, but one of the few things she and I agreed upon was that it was a bad fucking idea to go anywhere with a stranger, especially a grown man in angel wings trying to drag me to hell.
“No, we need to go now.”
“Come on, Karen, he’s an angel. He’s trying to teach us something.”
“Yes, Karen. I want you to learn how much God loves you.”
“Jenny, I think we should ask your mother first.”
I scanned the crowd and saw that Jenny’s mom had walked to the curb, just barely off church property, so she could smoke a Benson & Hedges without disrespecting the Lord.
“Come on, girls. It’s like going to the theater. You won’t get hurt.”
With heavy feet, I let the man guide us away from the circle of cars and into the church entrance, and here’s what I found out about hell: It’s a never-ending abortion that looks more like disembowelment, in which all of your innards are sucked out and splattered on innocent bystanders. It’s an insufferable rave that ends with a gang rape and choking to death on your own vomit, after which your corpse is gang raped all over again for eternity. It’s dying a slow, torturous death from AIDS, over and over with no hope of relief, because that’s what you get for being gay.
“What the hell is that?” Jenny’s mom said, pointing at my costume, after we emerged from hell.
My white costume was splattered with fake abortion blood, chunks of ecstasy vomit and some mysterious goo that the demon who danced around the AIDS patient shot at the crowd from a super soaker water gun while cackling, “Now all you sinners are infected!” Jenny had hidden behind me throughout the spectacle and didn’t appear to be as violated as I was, although a chunk of phony placenta had landed in her princess crown.
“Wait, girls,” the angel said, running to catch up to us in the parking lot. “I haven’t told you about salvation.”
Jenny’s mom leapt in between us and the bad man.
“Go to the car, girls. Run!” We took off and have no idea what she said to the angel, but we heard that he resigned as the church’s youth pastor and left town the following week. A few years later, my mom came across his name during one of her compulsive searches of the sexual offenders list.
Later that night, my mother gave me a bath, tucked me into bed and told me a story about when she was 9 and her parents sent her to a private Christian school. They could barely afford the tuition, but it was the only way to get her away from all the black people at her local public school.
“But why did it matter if there were black people?”
“It only mattered to my parents, who were from a different time. Anyway, they sent me to this school, where most of the kids had grown up going to church. They all seemed to know so much about sin and forgiveness and how you could be saved from eternal damnation. All this new information was a real shocker, and I quickly got saved so I’d go to heaven.”
“Does that really work?”
“Well, apparently I didn’t think so, because I was afraid it didn’t take. I asked Jesus to come into my heart several times a day, along with asking for forgiveness for my sins, constantly, on a running loop inside my head. Then my teacher told us about the one unforgiveable sin.”
“What was that?”
“Denying the holy spirit.”
“What does that mean?”
“Hell if I know. All the other kids seemed to have it figured out, and I didn’t want to look like an idiot so I didn’t ask. Did it mean saying that the holy spirit doesn’t exist? Did it mean ignoring the holy spirit if it rang the doorbell or called you one the phone? Who knows, but it drove me crazy. I didn’t want to accidentally do it and then go to hell, so I added yet another worry to my growing list of anxieties, telling God over and over that I absolutely did not deny the holy spirit, whatever that means.”
“Wow, mom. That’s crazy.”
“And that’s how my OCD began. I know I’m still a bit of a mess, and I’m overprotective, but I’m working on it.” She cupped my cheek in her hand. “It took years of therapy to let go of the fear of going to hell. I don’t even believe in it anymore.”
“I don’t think I do, either.”
“Why is that?”
“Would you ever send me to hell if I was bad?”
“Do you think any parents would send their kids to hell for being bad?”
“If there is a God, I don’t think he’d do that to any of his children, either.”
In my last writing update, I suggested that I might attempt NaNoWriMo again. I now realize that was an overly ambitious notion. I do have a lot on my plate right now and don’t think I could swing adding 2,000 daily words of fiction to the mix without ending up being a shitty, evil person no one wants to be around.
I’ve decided to scale back my ambitions a bit. On November 1, I will begin a new novel, but the daily word count will be 500. I can squeeze that many words into an hour in most cases. If I’m not overburdened with paid writing assignments on a given day, I may go over 500 words if I feel like it, but 500 is the minimum, and I won’t feel bad for stopping there.
KellNoWriMo will extend past November, into December or January or however long it takes to finish the story. For real this time. And I implore anyone reading this to hold me to it. I can’t make it to my 43rd birthday in April without having a finished manuscript in hand.
It turns out that finishing even one of my three partially written novels was a bad idea. Those stories were conceived years ago. I began writing each of them in a frenzy of enthusiasm, but when life tried to get in the way, I let it. I lost the momentum. Months passed. Years passed. I became a different person, as we all do over time. I still think the story ideas are good, but each is a snapshot, a moment in time, that captures who I was then.
I cannot go back and complete a story begun by the Kelly of 2005, who was pretending to be happily married in the suburbs, taking care of two children under the age of three with no support system. She pretended she was a lot of things back then, trying on different costumes to see which one felt better than the real her, who was miserable, angry and resentful most of the time. She tried the earth mama thing, joining a co-op and spending hours making organic food from scratch for a family that wouldn’t eat it. She tried Zen Buddhism, which lasted one miserable day of silence. She tried to set herself apart as someone who was more creative, had better taste and was more spiritual and self-aware than the other suburban moms, but in the end, she was nothing more than a judgmental cow. She hated everyone and everything, including her husband, because she hated herself. I can’t finish the story of someone who no longer exists.
I don’t want to finish the novel started by the Kelly of 2009. She was a fairly content person at that point and far removed from the judgy bitch of her past, but there was a lack of balance in her life. In an instant, she went from being a poor single mother who scraped up change from the sticky cup holder in her car to buy milk for her children to receiving a portion of her ex-husband’s inheritance. She was so busy making up for lost time, buying the things she had long denied herself, spoiling her kids and taking trips to see her British boyfriend, that she did very little of substance. She took astrology classes, bought lots of books, ate good food and always had pedicured feet. I don’t fault her for this—she had struggled emotionally and financially for many years and deserved to have a little fun. Sometimes I wish I could revisit this carefree period of her life. However, I can’t complete a novel that was started on a whim by someone who didn’t have to work for a living. I’m not that person anymore.
It’s too painful to complete the novel that the Kelly of 2012 began. Even though she had begun looking for a job long before her money ran out, she didn’t land a single interview until she reached a point of desperation, so she took the first job offered to her. The pay was abysmal, the company offered no benefits and the “bad cop” of the two female bosses used fear and intimidation as a motivator. Kelly would go in early, stay late and work on the weekends, hoping for the raise or bonus that her bosses kept promising employees, but her hard work was met with backhanded compliments and demands for faster turnarounds. In the process, she ached to spend more time with her children and began to second-guess herself at every turn. The novel she started during the six long months she worked there was an attempt at purging the debilitating self-doubt that had taken over her psyche. I have since purged that shit in other ways and cannot finish a story that was conceived during a period of such low self-esteem.
I thought that I had an obligation to tell every story that came to me, but I’m surrendering that notion into the ether, along with the countless other shoulds that are preventing me from moving forward. It’s a huge relief to let go of those stories that belong to some other person.
November is approaching, and even though I’ve said I’ll never do another NaNoWriMo word vomit, I just might participate anyway. Between my freelance work and family responsibilities, I barely have time to shower more than three times a week, so I’m not sure how I’ll fit in 2,000 words a day. But I think that’s the point—you don’t know how you’ll do it, but you do it anyway. The trick is to keep going in December, when no one’s looking or counting your words, until showing up every day is a habit, something you can’t imagine not doing. And then you finish the damn thing, while you’re still the same person and still care to see how it turns out.
Chester winced upon seeing his photo on the celebrity gossip website. Shot while he stood on the pier talking to the paramedics, the picture featured his dimpled belly spilling over the waistband of his swim trunks. He had lost his toupee when he dove in the water, revealing a pasty dome that contrasted starkly with his spray-tanned face. The photo also revealed where most of those extra 10 vacation pounds had ended up: on his chest, which could very well fill an A cup.
But being bald and slightly overweight was nothing compared to what was going on below the waist as the wind had blown up the legs of his swim trunks. The offensive sight was covered with a black circle, and readers were encouraged to click here for the uncensored shot.
Chester clicked and saw his wrinkled old-man left nut hanging out.
“Oh, this is not good,” his manager Jerry said over his shoulder.
Tears filled Chester’s eyes.
“Why are they focusing on what I look like?” His voice cracked. “There’s only one sentence about my good deed.”
“Stop crying. You knew what this business was like when you got into it 40 years ago. You’re one of the biggest movie stars in the world. You can’t afford to be seen fat, naked, or ugly.”
“But I saved a busload of special needs kids when their driver had a heart attack and drove off the pier! They would have drowned if I hadn’t been there.”
Jerry shook his head. “You shouldn’t have been anywhere in public without a shirt and two pairs of Spanx on. Who do you think you are? A woman?”
“It’s not fair, Jerry. I’m almost 60. I have to work my ass off to look good, while a woman can get away with a beer belly, crow’s feet, and gray streaks in her hair. Why am I not allowed to enjoy life and look my age? It’s bullshit.”
“That’s how it’s always been. You can’t fight it.” Jerry opened a prescription bottle and placed two Xanax on the desk next to Chester’s laptop.
Chester scrolled down to the comments section.
“Everyone’s so mean. Who do they think they are, scrutinizing me like this? Muffin top? Moobs? Look here—this one says I need a ball-lift. Is that a real procedure, Jerry? Do I really need to have my sack tightened?” Tears flowed over his cheek implants. “I don’t ever want to leave my house again.”
Jerry rubbed his shoulder. “Well, that’s the plan, Chester. At least for a couple of months. We’re going to issue a statement saying that you were nowhere in the vicinity of the pier that day, and the hero was your pudgy, average-looking cousin Chauncey. Then we’re putting you on the lemonade cleanse and whipping you into shape with fitness boot camp.”
“Do you really think I’m pudgy and average looking?”
“Nah, man, you’re beautiful just the way you are. You just need a little tweaking to convince the rest of the world of that.” He shoved the pills closer to Chester. “Now take your medicine and don’t worry your pretty little head about those mean people. They’ll start being nice again when you’re in top form, and then you’ll be happy.”
“Happy? Do you really think so?”
Chester swallowed his Xanax like a good boy and smiled as much as his face would allow, the corners of his mouth going up while his forehead remained waxen and unlined.
Not many people hear my message anymore, even when I shout and knock things over and place sign after sign in front of them. I’ve pulled stunts to get their attention that make the burning bush look as inconspicuous as a hooker in Times Square, but they chalk it up to some strange coincidence and put their heads back down, darting their eyes and fingers across a tiny screen. With all known information, about half of which is dead wrong, available at their fingertips, it takes a lot to impress a human being. I think the signs and synchronicities I throw out there are at least as engaging as a video of a cat playing the harpsichord, but most people would disagree.
I can help with so many human problems, but I have to respect free will. I can point to solutions and open doors, but people have to ask for my help first. There are two big problems with this setup. First, nobody but the Catholics and a few odd new agers have figured out that they can ask me directly for assistance. Second, most people are too proud to ask for help. They think they should be able to do everything on their own, and if not, they’re massive failures. If only they would realize that there is no such thing as independence. Even the self-made millionaire depends on his employees and consumers and financial advisers to keep his lavish lifestyle going. Without the participation of others—and this includes divine entities as well as humans–he has nothing.
Despite their stubbornness and lack of attentiveness, I care about humans and want to ease their suffering. If only more of them would reach out to me.
When it comes to children, there’s a gray area with the whole free will thing. Kids can usually see me, and they remember me, for it wasn’t so long ago that I taught them the mysteries of the universe.
“I’m sorry, Mary. Your iron’s too low. You can’t donate today.”
“It happens a lot with women. Go home, eat some red meat, and get lots of vitamin C. You can try again on Monday.” The tech gave her a dismissive tight-lipped smile.
Mary’s eyes filled with tears. She nodded and went to pick up her son in the plasma center’s childcare room.
“Mommy!” Two-year old Felix ran to her. She kneeled and caught him as he propelled himself into her chest.
“Let’s go, sweetie.” She squeezed him tight and carried him to the car even though he would rather walk like a big boy.
“Can we have McDonald’s?”
“No, sweetie, not today.” Mary had $23 in her checking account, which needed to last her another week. The plasma donation would have netted her another $30, which would barely help her scrape by until she got paid again. Eat some red meat. Clueless fucks. If she could afford red meat, she wouldn’t be selling her bodily fluids twice a week.
She strapped Felix into his car seat and slipped behind the wheel of her aging Toyota Corolla, wondering what cheap, unhealthy crap to buy at the grocery store that would sustain them for a week.
I sat next to Felix in the back seat and he giggled when he saw me.
“What’s so funny?” Mary asked.
“The man.” He pointed at me.
Mary turned to look. “There’s no man there, you silly monkey.”
“Tell her to look in the glove compartment,” I told him.
“Look in the glove department, Mommy.”
“Tell her to just do it.”
“Just do it, Mommy.”
Mary leaned over to the passenger’s side and popped open the glove compartment. It was filled with old insurance cards, inspection records, and receipts for car repairs. “What am I looking for, sweetie?”
Felix was too busy trying to touch my face to listen to her. She pulled out a wad of papers and threw them to the floor. Reaching to the back of the compartment, she felt them—seven rolls of quarters, lovingly packed into their paper casings by her granddad.
How could she have forgotten? A year ago, she had driven him around town to run errands, and the bank was going to be their last stop so that he could deposit the $70 into his checking account. He suffered a stroke at the corner of Brinker and Main, just half a mile from the bank, and died later that day.
Mary laughed and cried simultaneously, and I slipped away, my work finished for the time being. She turned to her son. “How did you know there was money in there?”
Felix shrugged. “I’m hungry!”
“Let’s go buy some groceries, little man.”
You could call Richard a special project of mine. He carries a lot of guilt for what happened between us. Of all the people on Earth, he could hear me the loudest if only he’d tear down that wall of guilt.
“Have a nice night, Sandra.” Richard forced a smile as he bid the day spa receptionist goodbye. Twinges of lust struck him, but he quickly self-corrected. Don’t be a creep, he thought. She thinks you’re gay anyway, you moron.
“’Nite, Richard.” Her smile was genuine, and he envied her that.
His wrists ached after rubbing the glutes of the wealthy country club set all day, and all he wanted to do was slather his achy joints in Tiger Balm, drink some chamomile tea, and go to bed. It was a typical Saturday night.
When he entered the two-bedroom apartment he shared with Eddie, an artist who responded to his roommate ad on Craigslist just a month ago, he was hit with the sour smell of alcohol seeping through pores. Eddie was trying to detox for the second time since he moved in, and foul odors filled the air.
Richard walked into the dining area to find Eddie passed out with his left ear on the table, one of his drawings beneath his head. The fantasy montage looked like a thought bubble, featuring a futuristic skeleton cowboy riding a winged unicorn and brandishing a six-shooter in each hand.
“Eddie.” He gave his roommate a nudge on the shoulder with one finger, shuddering at the feel of his sweat-soaked t-shirt. “Eddie, you okay?”
Eddie sat up with a jerk. “What? What’s happening?”
“You passed out. Just making sure you’re okay.”
Eddie rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, man. I’m fine. I just didn’t sleep much last night. It’s catching up to me now.”
“Need any help?”
“Nah, I’m good.” He stood and gathered up his drawings and pencils with shaky hands and went to his room.
Richard spent the next hour cleaning, disinfecting, and dousing the carpets in fabric refresher to cover up the stench. When he was done, he sat at the table with his cup of chamomile tea and honey and noticed a drawing Eddie had left on a chair.
It was a pencil sketch of an angel holding a baby in his left arm and pressing his right index finger against the baby’s upper lip. Yes, this was my doing. When not drunk off his ass, Eddie was quite the channeler of divine inspiration.
Richard felt a sense of recognition when he saw the sketch but pushed it aside. He set the drawing on the table and took the last swig of his tea, savoring the sweetness of the honey that had collected in the bottom of the cup as it ran down his throat. It was one of the few pleasures he had in this life.
When people speak of happy childhoods, I look at them the same way I look at doctors who use the word “pressure” in place of “pain.” I remember fleeting moments of what you might call happiness—my mother pretending to be a waitress taking my order when she served me dinner, reading Little House on the Prairie books with a flashlight way past my bedtime, my dad casually walking though the house with pantyhose over his head like a burglar, just to see if anyone would notice. The latter usually ended with a yelp from my mother or one of her friends when they looked up from their coffee and cigarettes at the kitchen table to see my dad’s smushed-in face. I’ve got plenty of fun anecdotes from my childhood, but true, lasting happiness eluded me, and I felt defective because of it until I found a few kindred spirits.
On my first day of elementary school, we were forced to play duck, duck, goose in PE. It was my first exposure to this asinine game, and I willed the little girl tapping heads around the circle to not pick me. My luck only held out so long.
“Goose!” She slapped me on the head and ran around the circle. The other kids cheered her on.
I stayed planted in my spot. The coach, whom I had already decided was the devil after knowing her for 15 minutes, blew her whistle and stomped over to me.
“You’re supposed to get up and chase her!” she barked.
I was stunned silent. I wanted to go back home to my mommy and eat toast on the couch while watching Captain Kangaroo, not be forced to run in circles and chase some kid who smiled too much for my liking. I wanted to cry but was determined to not let that mean old cow see she was getting to me. My parents, who had already brought up six children when I came along, let me get away with being surly when I felt like it, mainly because they were in their late 40s and were just too tired to put in the effort. (For the record, aside from being withdrawn and pessimistic on occasion, I turned out okay without strict rules and punishments to shape my character. I have never done hard drugs or been arrested, and I even give money to homeless people.) My new coach, however, had no tolerance for a little girl who gave her dirty looks. I didn’t mean to be petulant, but I had no point of reference for this authoritarian approach at turning me into an Olympic duck, duck, gooser. Nobody ever yelled at me to do something–and do the shit out of it–at home.
“Well, what do you have to say?” She leaned in close to my face.
“Go sit on the bench!”
Finally, I thought. I strode over to the wooden bench on the perimeter of the gym and watched the spectacle from afar. The next person to be “goosed” was a girl with a Dorothy Hamill haircut. Upon being chosen, she ran the wrong way. She, too, ended up on the bench.
“I guess we’ll get used of it soon,” she said to me.
Used to, I thought. I was too polite to shame another person for bad grammar, but it made me wonder what kind of place this was, where adults expected you to shit when they said “squat,” a girl couldn’t pick a preposition to save her life, and children were delighted as all get out to play games of someone else’s choosing, on command, in a gym with no air conditioning.
I told my parents all about my horrible first day of school when I got home, and they laughed.
“Yep, that sounds like school. You’ll get used to it,” my mother said. At least she used the correct preposition.
“Just do what they tell you and learn to play their game, and you’ll get through it just fine,” my dad chimed in.
“But I don’t want to play their game!”
I expected so much more from these people who were supposed to be my fiercest protectors. They gave me a womb-like existence for my first five years and then delivered me to the jackals without so much as a warning that this might be a little different than what I’d grown accustomed to. I had received shabby treatment from a mean lady for no good reason, and I was surrounded by simpletons who squealed with glee at playing games. Games, I tell you—running in circles, freezing at the tweet of a whistle, and pelting the weakest children with red rubber balls. It was cruel and unusual, and I wanted to learn about my other options for living out my youth.
It turned out there were no other options. I quickly learned that there are two kinds of people in this world—those who enjoy playing games, and those who get hit by dodge balls on purpose so that they can go sit on the sidelines and do what I consider far more interesting things. Motivational posters will tell you that those who get into the game full throttle will eat, breathe, and shit excellence, but I preferred to sit on the edge of the gym throughout my childhood and adolescence with the weirdos who gave me Cure mix tapes and instructed me on how to dye my hair with Kool-Aid. If that makes me less than excellent, I’m willing to accept that, but I still don’t accept that anyone had a truly happy childhood—not even the duck, duck, goose champion of Eugene Field Elementary.
I’ve been labeled aloof, mysterious, shy and just plain stuck up. I’m more of a listener than a talker. I wear my heart deeply buried in my chest inside a padlocked steel box rather than on my sleeve, and I’ve given only a handful of people the key.
Even worse than the accusations of being emotionally walled off from the world—I’ve been accused of writing from the persona of a disaffected hipster. I’ve been told my writing lacks depth and sincerity. One of the few people who knows the real me doesn’t think the real me even makes a casual appearance in most of my writing.
My blender broke the other day while I was making a smoothie. When I hit the full-tilt, grind-the-shit-out-of-my-frozen-berries setting, a piece at the base of the jar shattered, sending burnt plastic bits all over the kitchen. Defeated, I dumped the whole thing, still filled with unblended banana chunks, yogurt, and berries, in the garbage.
I went upstairs and checked out my social media feeds, which is what I do when I don’t know what to do with myself. I do this when I’m overwhelmed or feeling bad about my life, and invariably, I always see someone who’s having a much better time than me, which makes me feel worse.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I don’t know why I do this to myself, either.
But on this day I see that Amanda Fucking Palmer has written a blog post about her husband Neil’s new book. You may have heard of him. Her blogs are always uplifting and give me fresh hope for humanity, at least for the few minutes I spend reading them, so I dive in with relish.
I read some things about the book and their marriage, and then she brings up the art blender.
Yep, she wrote about a blender on the day my blender crapped out.
She talks about how she throws her experiences and feelings into the blender and sets it at a 2 or 3 to write songs. When she’s done blending, there are still recognizable chunks of the origins of her creation. She’s all about expressing her true feelings and making herself vulnerable. This is a woman who strips down naked and lets people draw on her body, the very thought of which sends me searching for a paper bag to breathe in.
When Neil uses the blender, at least prior to his current book, he dials it up to a 9 or 10. You have no idea how to connect the dots between his life experiences and what he puts on the page. He can get away with this because he’s Neil Fucking Gaiman. (One of my goals is to reach the heights of creative genius in which I, too, can use “Fucking” as my middle name.)
I know Amanda’s blog post touched a lot of people for many reasons—the tender way she talks about her marriage, the madness of her creative process, both of them bumbling their way through new paths to creation now that they’re married. But to me, it was all about the blender.
If my blender had an 11 setting, I’d use that, so afraid am I that someone might discover the real me. And I didn’t even realize how crippling this sense of self-protection had become until one brave soul told me that my work was disingenuous. I don’t believe in coincidences, so when my blender bites it, I have to think that the universe is telling me I need to stop pulverizing every ounce of what makes me unique and worth listening to and serving it up like some punk teenager with a chip on her shoulder. Neil Gaiman may be able to create brilliant works of art when his blender is at a 10, but not having found my voice yet, I just look like a bad imitator of Neil Gaiman, or infinitely worse–Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer.
I’m going to see Neil Gaiman in Dallas tomorrow night on his last ever book tour. His current book is reportedly very personal–his wife says he turned his blender way down when writing it. I can’t wait to learn from it. I’m willing to take lessons in vulnerability anywhere I can find them, and who better to teach me than NFG.
It wasn’t my first time at a psychic fair, but as it turned out, it would be my last for a long while. Taking in the familiar scents of incense and essential oils, I paid my $15 at the hotel conference room entrance for the privilege of a reading with Danny Cortez*, a psychic intuitive that my tarot and mediumship teachers Sam and Polly, a husband and wife team, raved about.
“Danny’s the best. So warm and genuine. He has amazing insights,” they said. In my memory, they said this in unison, their eyes replaced by twinkly little stars. Then again, my memory is shit from so many years of drinking.
Before I go any further, yes, I used to study tarot reading and mediumship. I was and still am a believer in a spiritual dimension that is easily accessible with meditation, practice and the right tools. I have spoken to dead people. I can rock a tarot reading like nobody’s business. I’m intuitive as all get out. So don’t expect this piece to be a former insider’s exposé of the fraudulent world of the new age movement. I really dig this stuff. The people who are involved in it, though? I could do without most of them.
Which brings me back to Danny Cortez. My teachers, who I loved dearly and still have a great respect for, once told me that when people go for a psychic reading, 99 percent of the time they want to know about their love life, financial situation or health. As much as I hate being average, I went to Danny with questions about my romantic woes. I’d had a long-distance relationship with the most wonderful British man for a few years, and we were about to embark on the immigration process to get him to the States. I wanted to know if everything would go smoothly.
When I approached Danny, he had a beatific expression on his face, looking like every portrait of Jesus I had ever seen. I sat across from him at the small table, and he asked if he could hold my hand because it helped him pick up psychic impressions better. I found it strange, but he came highly recommended by people I trusted, so I offered him my right hand.
“You worry too much,” he said.
I nodded and smiled.
“So what do you want to know?”
I told him my story, and when I got to the immigration part, his eyes lit up.
“Sounds like me and my wife,” he said. “We met online. She’s from Peru. We’ve only been married for a couple of months, and she’s still not sure if she likes it here or wants to stick around.”
“Interesting,” I said. I didn’t find it interesting at all, but I didn’t know what else to say. I actually found it a waste of my $15 that he was using my session time to tell me his story and, I suspected, make me feel sorry for him.
“I learned so much about immigration getting my wife here. If you need any pointers on all the documentation you need to gather and how to prepare for the interviews, let me know.”
“Thanks, I will.” I was eager to get on with my reading. ”So what do you see happening with my situation?”
Still clutching my now clammy hand, he flipped a couple of tarot cards with his free hand. “Hmm…I see that he’s hesitant to go through with it, just like my wife was. He’s worried about the difference in culture and about having an instant family.” I hadn’t told him about my children, so I had to give him credit for getting one accurate psychic impression. He turned over another card. “But I think it will work out in the end.”
He thought it would work out. I was less than impressed, but I didn’t ask any other questions, mostly because I didn’t want to hear more about his unhappy home life. His gaze made me squirm, and holding his hand reminded me of the time I volunteered at a telethon when I was 16, and the poster boy, a horny little fucker, kept wheeling up to me and putting his hand on my thigh, thinking I’d let him get away with feeling me up because he was going to die young.
With a few minutes left in the reading, he asked me about my work. He got excited when I told him I was a writer. “Maybe you could help me write my book. I want to tell my story, but I need help getting all of the ideas organized.”
This was about a year before my freelancing career took off, so I was eager to pounce on any opportunity for a real writing assignment. I ignored all of the red flags, which were dangling in front of me like donkey balls at a Tijuana bachelor party, and told him I’d be in touch on Facebook.
My reading ended with me having learned very little about what my future held and too much about Danny Cortez and his Peruvian wife, who very likely cried on the phone to her mother every day because she made the mistake of marrying a creeper with a hand fetish.
But I had my starving writer’s blinders on, and I wanted to work. I friended him on Facebook, and he messaged me his phone number, asking me to call him the next day so we could talk about the book. I rang him at the appointed time, and he was stoked to hear from me. I tried to talk about the book, but he kept making dumb small talk and asked me where I lived. Thankfully, as naïve as I was being, I wasn’t stupid enough to give him my address. Suddenly, he said, “I have to go. I’ll call you later.” He hung up.
At that point, I was relieved to get off the phone. I had no doubt that he said goodbye so quickly because his wife had entered the room. Why would her finding out he was on the phone with me even be an issue if all we were doing was discussing a business transaction? In his mind, it was never about the book. I felt so foolish for giving him the benefit of the doubt.
I was done with him, but I soon learned he was just getting started. He called and left several messages apologizing about getting off the phone so abruptly and said he was eager to get started on the book. I didn’t respond, but being the intuitive creature I am, I could feel his sleazy energy coming at me with all the force of porno spunk.
The next morning he texted me: Good morning, sunshine!
I called my ex-husband, who is one of my best friends, in a panic. “He called me sunshine! I’m not anyone’s fucking sunshine!”
“Well, it’s obvious that ignoring the guy won’t make him go away. You need to tell him flat out not to contact you anymore.”
“But it’s complicated. He’s friends with Sam and Polly, and I don’t want to burn any bridges in the community.” At this time, I was being groomed to become—don’t laugh—the next John Edward or Lisa Williams. Okay, you can laugh, but only a little. “Can I just let him down easy?”
“Nope. You’ve known guys like this. It needs to be a clean break.”
I knew he was right.
I sent Danny a private message on Facebook: Your calls and texts are making me uncomfortable. Please do not contact me again.
He unfriended me immediately, and I never heard from him again. But I sure as hell heard about him. Sam raved about him at all of our mediumship circles, and he told us that one day he’d have Danny join us. For several months, I lived in constant fear that I’d show up to the circle to find Danny sitting at the mahogany conference room table, making googly eyes at anyone with a vagina.
I was tempted to tell my teachers about him, but something held me back. I was quickly becoming disenchanted with many of the people I was meeting in the new age community, so maybe I sensed I would be taking a break soon and it wouldn’t matter anyway.
Not long after this incident, I got involved with another kook in the community—this time an astrologer and numerologist–who wanted me to help with a short e-book on numerology. I should have known she was trouble when she told me she legally changed the spelling of her name so it would add up to a 5–the number of fun. I had the same reservations with her that I did with Danny, but I ignored them. While she didn’t hit on me, I felt violated in other ways when she screwed me over on our flimsy handshake agreement. Thankfully, I only had to put in a few days of work on the project, but I got paid in secrets and bullshit. After a first draft and one revision, she went and had someone else rewrite the thing without telling me. Instead of giving me an opportunity to make the revisions she wanted, or being honest and telling me she didn’t like my writing style and wanted to go with another writer, she chose covert bullshit and probably justified it by telling herself she was sparing my feelings. When it was all said and done, I got an email full of praise for helping “jump-start” the project, with offers for free astrology readings or NLP sessions for the time I put in. At the time, I was still pretty insecure about my abilities and felt like maybe she did this because I wasn’t good enough, and I blamed myself for being naive enough to accept her offer of royalties without a written contract, so I didn’t make a fuss. Now I know she was just as self-serving as a predatory housing lender or a personal injury lawyer, and I deserved far better treatment.
At that point, I couldn’t bear to be around my teachers, who were blissfully unaware that now two of their most beloved colleagues had behaved in such unethical ways, so I quietly slunk away, deciding I needed a break from all this spiritual mindfuckery. I still embraced spirituality, but so-called spiritual people were doing my head in.
I do not regret what happened, as the experience forced me to quit seeking answers outside of myself. With no spiritual community I felt I could trust, I had no choice but to go within. When I stopped seeking and learned to just be, something magical happened. My writing career took off. I learned to listen to my intuition and not take just any writing assignment out of desperation if it didn’t feel right. I learned to ask for signed contracts up front. I learned not to take anything in trade for my services—only hard currency. I learned to spot unethical clients who wanted to take advantage of me. Most importantly, I learned that when it comes to preserving my dignity and honoring my spirit, I can burn all the motherfucking bridges I want. There’s always a better bridge up ahead–one that probably doesn’t want to pay me with an astrological chart or cheat on its wife with me.
*All names have been changed to protect the innocent, the delusional and the profoundly fucked-up.
I’m kind of a dick. I’ll admit that straightaway. I meet women online for the sole purpose of getting laid. Yes, we’ll go on a date first. After that, it’s purely sexual, and our wild romps usually take place at her house because I don’t want her to know where I live. She might end up stalking me after I end it. I may be a dick, but I’m good in bed and they always want more even after I’ve moved on to the next woman.
Waiting by the entrance of JinBeh Hibachi and Sushi, I smelled Missy before I saw her. A wall of fruity perfume with vanilla undertones hit me with such force that a wave of nausea came over me. I looked down the street and saw a cute blonde in a bridal veil heading my way, surrounded by her ugly drunk friends. Maybe there had been a mishap with a broken perfume bottle in their Hummer limo. The bachelorette party passed me by and stumbled into the karaoke bar next door, but the smell not only lingered after they were out of sight but got worse.
I turned to find Missy standing to my right, looking ten times more stunning than her profile photo and stinking like a French whorehouse. Forcing a smile, I tried to say her name but her scent caught in my throat and sent me into a spasmodic coughing fit.
“You okay?” she asked, placing her hand on my back while I hacked. I wiped my watery eyes with the back of my hand and nodded.
“Sorry, must have swallowed a bug or something.” We stared at each other for a few seconds, her checking me out and me trying to form a sentence. The smell—and the resulting brain fog–reminded me of the time I ignored my dad’s warnings and went into the house after he set off a flea bomb. That act of rebellion landed me in the hospital with lung damage, and I still have to use an inhaler on level orange pollution days.
“Ready to eat?” Not my best line ever, but it was the best I could do while high on toxic fumes.
She smiled and nodded. I opened the door for her and held my breath. The maître d’s eyes widened, and he took a step back. He told us there would be a half hour wait, so we took a seat at the restaurant bar. Holding my breath was getting harder, and I noticed people scrunching up their faces and moving away from us. Did she not see that people scattered when she entered a room?
“What’ll you have?”
“A glass of cabernet. I’ll be right back.” She went to the ladies’ room, and I took a slow, deep breath.
“Excuse me.” A guy leaned in next to me at the bar and set his martini down.
“This is probably not my place, but I’m going to say it anyway.”
“She’s not my girlfriend. First date. And last. Probably.”
“The woman you’re with,” he conceded, “is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The heavy perfume is a sign of shame. She’s trying to cover up how bad she believes she is.”
“And you would know this how?”
“It’s what I do. I see it all the time. Classic sign of someone who feels dirty, guilty, and ashamed.” He handed me his business card: Richard J. Finkelstein, Ph.D.–Specializing in Psychotherapy for Trauma, Sexual Abuse & Sexual Addiction. “You’d be wise not to get involved.”
“Hey there,” Missy said as she returned, freshly spritzed with another layer of Vanilla Fruit Bomb No. 5. I turned my back to my new therapist friend and faced her. Unable to talk and hold my breath at the same time, I gave her a tight-lipped smile. Missy took a sip of wine and gave my thigh a squeeze.
“Why don’t we just skip dinner and go back to my house? I’m only hungry for one thing, and it’s not sushi,” she said. She leaned in, and I dry heaved in her face. Then the wheezing began. I flashed her the “wait” gesture with my left hand and reached for my inhaler in my jacket pocket, grateful that I could buy myself some time, even if it meant taking a hit of corticosteroids in the middle of a crowded restaurant bar. Assaulted with fragrance chemicals and deprived of oxygen from so much breath-holding, my head spun and my bronchial tubes collapsed. As I wrapped my lips around the inhaler and sucked in sweet relief, I wondered if I could force myself to tolerate that ungodly smell just this one night so I wouldn’t have to go home alone.
“Well, that was embarrassing,” she hissed. “This is not going to happen. You’re a mess.”
She grabbed her purse and left, the bar patrons giving her a wide berth. I slouched at the bar and drank my beer, which I could actually taste now that the air was clear.
“You were going to have sex with her anyway.” Dr. Finkelstein had reappeared next to me.
“Maybe. I’m kind of a dick like that.” I didn’t look up from my pint glass.
“I have an opening in my schedule Monday at 3:00.”
“See you then.”
This story is my third installment in the SENSELESS Writing Challenge, in which participants write a story about each of the five senses every Friday in May. This week: Smell.