Right out of high school, I decided I wanted to be in the medical field. Phlebotomy seemed interesting enough even though it meant taking blood from squeamish patients. I wanted to make a difference, or make money or something in between so I applied for work at one of those emergency clinics. In all honesty, I had decided even at the tender age of seventeen to lead an interesting life. Being in the medical profession seemed interesting enough according to the hour dramas playing on television at the time. I think my parents were just encouraged I might meet a doctor.
So, I became a receptionist at the clinic that entailed smiling politely at patients, demanding their co-pays before treatment, taking their initial vitals and then filing their complicated insurance form that required knowledge of physics and astronomy. I was also required to wear white nurse pants and any form of colorful smock sure to hide any curve beneath it. I even had my own stethoscope.
My first day, I marched in, my pants starched enough to encourage chafing and a bright blue smock sure to bring out the blue of my eyes. I, cold dead hearted, was going to make a difference. Patients would leave my desk shaking their head in wonder at how pleasant their trip to the doctor had been. As I brought my first patient, a young girl there with her mother with possible flu back to the first exam room, I was drunk with my own capableness. At least I was until I stuck a thermometer into her mouth and the girl promptly projectile vomited down the front of my pretty blue smock and white nurse pants. Her neon orange upchuck dripped down into my new white nurse shoes as I stood in shock fighting the urge to return the favor.
As her mother offered apologies, I fled to the bathroom where one of the nurses threw a pair of scrubs my way that were two sizes too big. After a quick bath in the sink and wearing the scrubs, my shoes squishing water down the hallway, I remembered an important detail. I was very squeamish. In my life, there had been a couple of instances of my sister arriving home bloody, and both times, I fled the scene. There had been the hamster blood bath that left me breathing into a paper bag with my head between my legs. I should have probably taken that into consideration when I picked the medical profession.
Never one to quit, I hung in working twelve hour shifts and Sundays for two years. As a parasitic writer, the interesting lives of those who worked there and visited during times of illness and injury were enough to overcome my flight or fight instincts. There was a constant stream of patients in distress and moonlighting orthopedic doctors who were working in the clinics to pay for exorbitant malpractice costs. There were also three full time doctors who worked during the morning hours. One was old enough to be my great grandfather, one was young enough to be interesting but married, and then there was Wayne Newton.
We called him that because he looked like Wayne’s doppelganger, complete with orange tan and dyed black hair. Although married, he thought himself somewhat of a ladies man. His specialty was pap smears and he did more than any other doctor there did. As required by law, one of us had to stand in the room with him taking notes while he flirted with every vagina spread eagle before him. Pap smears were the one and only time we were not allowed to interrupt him when his wife called.
Every day became a parade of stitches, colds and pill seekers. The pill seekers we recognized right away. They knew exactly what was wrong with them and exactly what prescription would help. We were trained to take their pulse while they complained of pain. Fast pulse, meant probable pain, but if it never changed, then they were more than likely faking it. The pill seekers were sent to the emergency room or simply turned away without their drug of choice.
One day a woman came in seeking Oxycontin. She said it was the only thing that helped her severe back pain. While I was taking her temperature one of the doctors wandered in and told me I was needed at the front desk. I stepped outside to be informed the woman was wanted by the police for passing fake prescriptions. We had to keep her in the office while waiting for the police. Suddenly, a routine crackpot became heart racing interesting. It was decided to do an x-ray and when I informed her of such, she became fidgety and insisted she had many and just simply wanted her prescription to leave.
Fearing I would be the one responsible for her leaving, I did one of the things I had been trained to do in medicine. I lied. I nonchalantly informed her if she got the x-ray then the doctor would add refills to the prescription rather than having her come back for more tests. She acquiesced and within minutes, the police were on site and taking her out in handcuffs.
My favorite doctor was a teddy bear of a man who was even more squeamish than I. He was a resident orthopedic surgeon and had little or no bedside manner. If anything, he appeared to be frightened of the patients and would have to psyche himself up to enter the rooms. He was also the one who seemed to get every STD and yeast infection for miles. He finally stopped working in our office after a week that included a woman with a diaphragm stuck firmly in her vagina, a young girl with herpes and four penile smears to test for Chlamydia.
After a few months, I was still eager to go to work. One of the reasons was a bi-weekly patient with multiple personality disorder who came in specifically to see one of the doctors. Married, with children, it was obvious her psychological disorder was not being faked. Her entire demeanor changed depending on what personality she was that day. There was the slutty girl who wore tank tops even in winter and who came in for pregnancy and STD tests after a weekend of debauchery. There was the haughty older woman with a posh British accent who wore silk scarves and suffered from migraines and food allergies. On occasion, the patient’s husband would bring her in as the little girl who stuck foreign objects up her nose or cut herself with razor blades.
It was all very interesting and tragic, until the day she came in as a personality we had not seen before. She was bruised and scared, her hair hanging wet around her face. She called herself another name and claimed she was possessed by the devil. Upon examination, the doctor realized she had burned herself with cigarettes on her thighs and was psychotic. She was taken to the mental hospital by ambulance and we did not see her for another six months. When she returned, she was the little girl and her husband informed us she had been childlike for months now. The last we heard, she was hospitalized again after being beaten in an alley.
The people I encountered became fodder for my short stories and poetry. I became desensitized to their plight as I dissected it in my writing. I enjoyed my work, but not the toll it took on my ability to empathize. There is a certain detachment needed as you hold down yet another child for stitches or inform a wife her husband was more than likely cheating because she now suffered from herpes. Sometimes, you saw people on one of their worst days, and you had to let go what happened to them after.
It was not until I was sent to the emergency room to fill in for someone on maternity leave, did it begin to wear on me. For every patient with a foreign object shoved up their rectum, there was a gunshot or a car accident. I began to see every day life as something to survive and not to enjoy. The final straw came when I was eventually sent back to the clinic. After a string of car accidents and bloody deaths, I was ready for cough, colds, and women who had douched with Lysol.
A friend of my sister had come in with her mother who had the flu for a week. We took a chest x-ray and once it was developed, even untrained to read x-rays, I could see what the doctor was shaking his head over. There were tumors on her lungs, cancerous looking tumors. I turned to see this middle-aged woman who thought she was going to get a prescription for cough syrup, and instead she was facing lung cancer. We called her attending physician and he refused to interrupt his dinner to come in. I thought of how heartless it was when he had been treating this woman for years.
I stood outside the room while the moonlighting doctor, trained in setting broken bones, was stumbling over his words as he advised her to go immediately to the emergency room. She asked time and time again if it was pneumonia and finally he said, I see something on your x-rays and I think it needs further testing. She walked out of the room, all the blood drained from her face and we called her husband to take her to the emergency room. The next morning, I turned in my two weeks notice.
What I learned is there is a certain detachment required for seeing the worst of what life has to offer. I have great admiration for doctors and nurses who can treat injury and disease every day and function in their own lives. I have had surgery, have been to the hospital for injury, have taken my daughter to the hospital, and every time I feel the same emotion. There are worse things to happen to each of us, and it really is about setting aside the fears and living life to its fullest.
I never dated a doctor during my time there, but I did learn life lessons. Never douche with Lysol, never stick objects into your rectum that will be the subject of ridicule when you are in the emergency room to have it removed. Trust me, your x-ray will be on the wall in the break room. Always wear your seat belt. Never cut a bagel toward you. If you have a good vein for giving blood, please tell the technician before she sticks your other arm three times. Do not dwell on all the bad things that can happen to you, your angst does not prevent them for happening. Laugh as often as you can, because it’s been said before. It really is the best medicine.
The field adjoining our road began to look like an intricate ant farm lay on its side. Dug into the earth was a complicated maze of tunnels for the houses that would be built upon them. I began spending my days walking the paths, hidden in the earth with only the sun overhead. There were so many changes from when we first moved in and I was not happy with any of them.
I climbed up on the side, my feet dangling down and stared at the red Sold on the realtor sign in our front yard. It was leaning to the side from the one afternoon I walked up to it and kicked it over. Fearing my mother’s wrath, I then picked it up and tried to right it. The sign was a mocking reminder that some things cannot be undone. Selling our house and moving back to Kentucky was one of them.
In the evenings, I would sit in the spare bedroom with my sister playing Barbies and looking longingly at the disassembled cardboard castle now perched against the wall. Of all the rooms packed and ready for the move, our playroom was the saddest. We no longer had cardboard walls to hide us from the real world as my sister and I pretended we belonged to a royal family. She was so young, I think she was anxiously awaiting the day they would arrive to take us to our real home.
She was too young to understand we were leaving to never return. Instead, she treated our move as if it was another road trip with diner scrambled eggs and dirty gas station bathrooms. I envied her ability to laugh and be happy despite the inevitable. Even then, I knew in my gut, instead of life improving, it would become harder.
The weeks leading to our move, my mother was angrier than ever before. This was something my father could not fix, and I think she hated him for it. He had a family to support and he felt he could do better in Kentucky. I would also like to think her volatility came into play. Although she viewed Arizona as her new home, she had never assimilated and was anything but happy. Maybe he thought moving back to her family would fix her. To this day, we have never discussed what happened in Arizona to her.
The morning we moved, the truck came and burly men packed our whole life into it. I clung to my basketball, hoping for a last minute reprieve, but when my mother pried it from my hands and threw it in with our furniture, it was over. I would no longer wander through the mountains near our home or slide down a hill of volcanic rocks. I would never again taste the sweet nectar of the Indian paintbrush flower or listen to the coyotes howl at night. I was saying goodbye to the fragrant alfalfa fields and a night sky full of diamonds. There were bad things to remember, but there were also a lifetime of moments that would change the adult I might have been.
I walked to Daniel’s house. We stood on his porch, our hands in our jean pockets and said our goodbyes. His mother wiped tears from her eyes and gave me a hug that hurt my heart. I promised to write Daniel and send postcards, but I never did. Instead, I walked away from him, pausing only long enough to look back and give him a little wave. My last memory of him is his dark eyes looking into mine as he raised his hand to return my wave. Then he turned to go back inside.
My friends in the neighborhood told me awkward goodbyes. I took one more peek at my babysitter’s room of Playgirl penises and Robbie gave me his favorite GI Joe to remember him by. I lied and told him we would be back in a year. This is just temporary, I reassured him. A sweet lie, I thought. I knew I would never see any of them again. I never did find the GI Joe in any of the boxes. I am certain it was thrown out at some point.
We flew back to Kentucky. I swallowed the painful lump in my throat as the plane skimmed over a sea of white clouds. There were hours of sitting in my seat, resisting the urge to scream and pretending to be excited to arrive in Kentucky. Instead of being happy as I was swept into the arms of my aunts and uncles who cried happy tears we were home, I was lost and would remain lost for a long time. For months, I carried a baggie of black rocks we had chiseled out of a mountainside when we first arrived. They were that touchstone to what I left behind.
We moved in with my grandparents where we stayed for months until we rented a small house. We would move several times, one house after another, never a home. This nomadic wanderlust carried over to my adult life. I have moved more times than I would like to count and never felt I belonged anywhere. I had left my home. It was not just a place; it was a state of mind.
My sister and I as adults talk about Arizona as if it were a shared dreamed. She remembers less, but likes to hear the stories of our adventures there. We prefer to file away the painful moments, the reality of what our family really went through. We sit together and look through the pictures, capturing only a fraction of the moments etched on our brains.
I can close my eyes and see the tall sunflowers that grew beside our trailer. I can put out my hand and feel myself petting my beloved dog Peppy who had come home to say goodbye. He is still there, buried in the earth, beneath the sun he loved to lay in. I can stand outside and inhale and it’s there. That indefinable scent of the mountains, of the fresh water streams and of the heat in the soil. I can throw my head back and taste the snowflakes on my tongue or the taste of freshwater from the springs we would swim in. I can hear the wind blowing through the pine trees. I am forever grateful even at a young age, I understood enough to take it all in, to hold it close because I would need it again.
There is no happy ending. My mother did not move back to Kentucky and become happier. My parents remained married, they weathered the storms of her depressions, and resigned themselves to the life they have chosen. Just recently, she is once again a victim of her own life. I watch my father, my heart breaking, sad that moving back did not fix all that was wrong with her.
As soon as I was old enough, I moved out on my own. I worked hard and then I moved away. I took my daughter on my journey just as my parents had taken me on theirs. We lived in New York and she saw her first Broadway play. We lived in Pennsylvania and went white water rafting and rock climbing. We lived in Massachusetts and every weekend ventured out to the historic sites and the aquarium. We lived in Rhode Island and she splashed in the cold water of the ocean and made a sand castle. I’ve made sure her life, if not secured by belonging somewhere, was filled with memories to sustain the life she would want to build for herself.
Like my parents, I have returned to Kentucky, except this time I did not feel I was leaving anything of me behind. I am still on that journey to find that home again. I wish I could say it is wherever my daughter is, that would be the beautiful prosaic thing to claim. My daughter is my life, but something else is a home for me.
I know I will find it again. It is not out of reach. I was offered an opportunity to move out West for work sometime in the future. I felt a surge of something I wish I could describe. One day I will stop moving around. One day I will stop yearning. One day, I will stand beneath that big sky and smile and be thankful for the journey that brought me there. I know one day I am going to end up exactly where I am supposed to be.
This time, I will bring my daughter along and we will talk about the places we have lived and the life we have led. Then one day, she will leave on her own journey. There is something I‘ll make sure of, something I never had. She may wander to find herself, but she will know I will have a home waiting for her. Always waiting for her to find her way back.
I developed a mercurial nature at a very early age. I learned to internalize and keep the essence of me hidden away. Call it survival skills or genetics, but I became withdrawn from people and refused to believe I needed anyone else. Instead, I became a listener. An observer of the world around me.
Nothing fascinated me more than the adults orbiting around our life in Arizona. There were gin rummy nights soaked in sloe gin and loud conversation coming from a room filled with the thick fog of smoke. I would sit on a chair in the living room, close enough to hear every word, yet nonchalant enough to look as if I cared about the game of Monopoly being played by the kids. I hovered between both worlds and lost all interest in whatever childhood I had left.
My immature crushes on Dylan and Daniel were a thing of distant memory. I had a new object of affection and as I sat perched on the arm of the couch, I wondered why I had wasted time on mere boys. He was every cliché of a cowboy that had ever been written. Wearing road weary blue jeans, black cowboy boots and a silver and turquoise belt buckle the size of a dinner plate, he walked into our house one night and I fell in love. I stood there mutely staring at him as he was introduced around and reluctantly left the room so the adults could do whatever they did that made them cackle with laughter and talk loudly at each other.
The entire night I stared at his face. He was tanned, probably younger than he looked and sporting a neat mustache beneath a mangled nose. He was in town for the rodeo and one of the women of the group had brought him home. He sat in his chair and she stood at his side, his arm casually around her waist. I shivered at the thought of his hairy arm on my skin. He was as ugly as he was beautiful, but I guess that was most of the attraction.
I became eager to fetch beers and refill the chip bowl, as the night grew longer and the crowd rowdier. He pinched my cheek, calling me cute as a button and plopped a sweat stained cowboy hat on my head. I had resisted the urge to run my fingers through his dark curly hair and stumbled over whatever thought came to my head. I did not have a clue the power of lust yet, but I was awash in the hormones of puberty that were yet to develop.
It was close to midnight when my mother insisted I go to bed. That apparently was the witching hour when the adults could no longer tolerate children’s presence and the more outrageous things would happen once we were ensconced in our bedroom. I cajoled, pleaded, but to no avail. As I made my way out of the kitchen, fighting back the tears that threatened to embarrass me, Merle had grabbed my hands, putting them on his slender hips and declared he would bunny hop me to my room.
There it was, this grown man, hopping down the hallway to my room, laughing as I giggled and then stopping at the door of my room. I wanted him to kiss my cheek, to feel the tickle of his mustache on against my skin, but instead he tousled my hair. He declared me a cutie, and then he was gone. I was both mortified and elated at being called cute.
Later that night, I snuck out of my room to tiptoe to the bathroom and peek down the hall at the adults. Merle sat in one of our kitchen chairs, his girl of choice on his lap and he was kissing the slender slope of her neck. She laughed and squirmed, her drink sloshing from her glass onto the table. Her mascara was running down her cheeks and she was undoubtedly drunker than anyone else at the table was, but still he wanted her. I was cute, but was she what men wanted?
I saw Merle again at the rodeo that ended the Fourth of July celebration. This holiday was a big deal in our small town. It meant a parade of floats, men on horses and a shoot out in the town square. There would be smoke, blanks being shot and men falling covered in fake blood and then carried to the parking lot of the Silver Spur in wood coffins. Sunburned, covered in sweat and cranky, we would then drive to the fairgrounds where we would sit on the hood of our truck and watch the cowboys try to stay on the horses.
There had been talk the rodeo would be canceled that year. There had been a tragic death at the last one. A horse had bucked and fallen on top of its rider, puncturing several organs and killing him two days later. Although it was by its very nature a brutal sport, the death hung heavy over the festivities. It was decided to have the rodeo anyway, and just after the National Anthem, there was a tribute to the fallen cowboy. I remember watching the cowboys, lined along the fence, wiping tears from their eyes and hiding beneath the brims of their hats.
As I sat on the hood, frying in the open sun and wishing I were anywhere but there, Merle walked up to my father. They shook hands and then he turned to me, a beatific smile on his face and gave me a wink. In my burgeoning adult like mind, winking back was the thing to do. So I did. He threw back his head, roaring with laughter and squeezed my shoulder. He told my father then, something that has resonated with me my entire life, she is going to be a handful.
I was a handful, but not in the way he probably meant. I grew up to make horrible decisions when it came to the matters of the cold dead heart I had tucked away. Somewhere along the way, I lost all sense of myself and a belief I could be loved for who I really was. I was a handful because I was impossible to know or pin down. I was loved, but whom did they really love?
As the sun set and everyone was leaving the rodeo, Merle walked to the back of the truck where I sat with my sister drinking a coca cola and fighting off heat exhaustion. He leaned in and kissed my cheek, his mustache tickling my cheek. It was not a kiss of someone making an inappropriate gesture to an underage girl. It was meant to reassure. I knew it even then.
“You’ll be okay, kiddo.” He said his voice soft and gentle like his kiss had been.
I’m not sure what he saw or thought he saw, but I knew his words were meant to convey a message of hope. Looking back, I think he meant hang on until you really are an adult. You will see all of this means so little. You will have your own child, your own life and someday you’ll stop searching for who you are. You will just find her, and you’ll be okay until you do.
Merle left town. Springerville went back to normal after the Fourth of July fireworks faded from the sky. There would be more card parties in the house, more drinks and laughter, but it had lost its luster. I chose to bury my nose in a book rather than eaves drop on conversations I could not yet understand.
School was out soon and one morning I woke up to find my mother crying at the kitchen table. I heard their words, but it was as if they were speaking from miles away. Just snippets of information penetrated my denial. The sawmill was closing. No work for my father. It was time to sell the house and move back to Kentucky.
My mother tightly coiled, always walking the fine line between despair and tension, began to unravel just before the holidays. She began locking herself for long periods of time in the bathroom and I would stand in the hallway watching my sister push pictures beneath the slit of the door trying to cheer her up. The part of me that used to care about whether or not she would open the door with a crooked smile and still sniffing tears had departed. My compassion for my mother was replaced by anger. I felt left alone to raise myself and my sister and angry with my father for not yelling at her to stop what she was doing.
When I left the house in the cool morning to go to school, I would no longer look back at my sister standing in the doorway, her fingers pressed against the glass as if beckoning me to take her with me. I would tell her she was too little, but I also felt if she were home, nothing bad would happen to my mother that day. When I was home, I refused to come out of my room unless it was dinnertime or my father insisted I come out and play. I would count down the hours he was at home on the weekend, watching my mother pretend to be something other than what we saw during the days he was at work. I roiled with anger and rampaged against whatever was happening in my house.
Then one day I arrived home to my fake grandmother making dinner and announcing my mother was in the hospital. My father arrived later and told us it was an infected tooth. She would be in the hospital for a little while. It was as if someone had flung open the windows and fresh air was blowing through the curtains. To this day, I am not sure what actually happened to my mother. She was in the hospital for a week, we saw her exactly once, she burst into tears, and we were bustled from the room.
My father stumbled with being both mother and father. He was unsure how to wash clothes and whites were suddenly tinged pink. He cooked frozen pizzas for dinner, still slightly frozen in the center, but we ate happily anyway. We built elaborate cities on the carpet with Popsicle sticks and went to bed leaving it there. My mother would have balked at the idea. I began insisting my sister take baths that consisted of more than splashing her face and laying out her pajamas for her nightly. I cooked scrambled eggs for breakfast and burnt bacon and thought for the first time in a long time, there was nothing to worry about.
It snowed the morning my mother came home. I remember standing in the door, watching the golf ball size flakes fall and blanket the morose brown ground we had refused to call a lawn. In Kentucky, we were use to lush green grass sprinkled with dandelions and smelling sweet of earth. I longed for the alfalfa fields next to our trailer when we first moved to Arizona. I would run through them in my bare feet, the soft leaves tickling my ankles, lie down on a soft blanket of green, and watch the clouds. Our yard at the house was nothing more than rocks and clumps of weeds.
My sister and I stood at the door calling for more snow. When we first moved to the mountains, our first winter in Arizona, there had been enough snow for a snowman. We had higher aspirations this time. I thought an igloo was surely easy to build and we had a sled just waiting to be used for something other than dragging large rocks home from the dried up creek. We stood watching the snowfall in our pajamas until my fake grandmother came in. Dad muttered something about going to get our mother, and suddenly the snowfall lost its luster.
She arrived, looking thinner, but exactly the same. She hugged us, told us how much she missed us and then went straight to bed. My father doted on her, making her hot soup and bringing her the newspaper to read. It is when I realized she was his other child. The favorite one. The one he had to tend to because she needed the most attention. Instead of feeling jealousy, I felt saddened and resolute I would never need or want anyone to take care of me.
She was still too shaky for Thanksgiving dinner that year and we had it at my fake grandmother’s house. My grandfather had been injured falling off a logging truck and there was talk of them returning to Kentucky. Micah and I ate our dinners in lawn chairs beneath the carport. It was freezing outside and there was still snow. We watched Russ building a large bon fire in an empty drum, tossing in whatever sticks and paper he could find until it roared above his head. Micah said he knew they would be leaving Arizona. I told him I would be sorry to see him go, but glad to see Russ leave. As we exchanged knowing glances, Russ threw two empty aerosol cans onto his fire and there was a sudden explosion. The can tipped over and fire shot toward the carport. When the smoke cleared, Russ stood there with singed hair and eyebrows, yet still smiling. I could not wait for him to leave.
They moved away just before Christmas. There were hugs and tears and at some point during the goodbye dinner, I hit Russ above the eye with a matchbox car. All of the pictures we had in our photo album are of me smiling from ear to ear and Russ scowling with his eye swollen and turning purple. It was my last goodbye gift to someone who would go on to cause damage in other people’s lives. Micah and I cried, our shared experiences bonding us, yet things would never be the same. We promised to write, but never did. Out of sight, so they say.
With that, whatever family we had in Arizona was now gone. There were friends, those my mother had yet to alienate, but we were ostensibly alone. Christmas was a morose day of half heartedly opening presents and arguing between my parents. There was a seismic shift in the plates of our lives, and I did not have a clue what it was. My mother was torn between wanting to return to Kentucky and wanting to stay in Arizona where she felt truly at home. I just wanted to get away.
Just after the holidays, my mother was in the hospital again. She would be hospitalized several times as I grew up. I often joked she had every organ remove you could spare to lose. I will be honest and say I am not sure what it was that time in Arizona. I am not sure my father even bothered with an excuse. She was just simply in the hospital and then she was home again. This pattern would play out through out our lives.
It was just before New Years, after mom was home and in bed again, the snow fell overnight. A deep plush carpet of white covering our yard and our street. I trudged out into it just as the sun rose and everywhere I looked there was just white. I threw myself down in it, despite the cold and my thin coat, and made a series of snow angels. I built a snowman with rocks for eyes and a mouth. I threw snowballs at my bedroom window until my sister peeked out and then half dressed, joined me in the snow. We laughed and played even as the sun grew hotter and our snowman began to melt. This was what we had been waiting for, and it was perfect. It made me believe if you waited long enough, those perfect moments would come; you just had to be patient.
The house was finally finished. My mother cried as we walked through the empty rooms, our voices echoing. I marveled at the new carpet and the smell of fresh paint. We had a breakfast bar and a room for a table. There was a large wood burning stove in the living room. There were two rooms with closets and I nearly wept at getting my own room, until it was announced I would not be getting my own room. Di was too afraid to sleep in hers alone and I would have to share one with her. Oh yeah, and she insisted on a nightlight. My first night in the room, I cursed my parents for having a kid afraid of the dark.
The first day in our new home, I stood outside in the gravel driveway and looked around at the houses. Across the street, a blonde boy played with his dark skinned sisters. Next-door three little girls dug in the dirt beneath their swing set. I could see a dark curly haired boy riding his bike up the dirt road. A place where I was new. Where I could reinvent myself.
I made a conscious decision to forget about the sadness and put aside my anger. The new house with its new appliances represented a clean slate for us all. My mother was happy for the first time we moved to Arizona and it affected the entire house. My father began making pies and leaving poems on the refrigerator for us. This is what happy is, I thought.
I met the curly haired boy first. His name was Robby and he lived with his grandmother and his sister. He did not know where his mom or dad had gone. He invited me to his house and his grandmother gave me a cup of punch with a scoop of ice cream in it. I remember the smell of patchouli and carne asada always cooking on the stove. He showed me his older sister’s room and it was a revelation.
Her dresser was covered in perfume bottles and bongs. There were pictures torn out of a Playgirl magazine taped to her walls. Robby showed me her record collection, but my eyes could not tear away from the myriad of penises before my eyes. They were in all shapes and sizes. Who knew!
We rode our bikes down to the blonde boy’s house. His name was Bobby and he lived there with his very religious parents and the two Native American sisters they had adopted. He resented their very existence and I remember him sweetly telling the youngest to eat a grasshopper, which she did with relish. Bobby called his friend Stoney who came over to meet the new girl. Like that, I had forgotten about Daniel and Dylan.
I came home one afternoon, covered in dirt and exhausted from riding my bike through trails no child should ever be on. My parents oblivious to the dangers of mountain living, simply said be home by dark. My mother and father were fighting. My granny and his brother were coming to visit. To see our new house. My mom did not want them staying with us. There was bad blood going back years, but my father told her she was being unreasonable.
This is as good as time as any to dissect my mother’s psyche. She grew up with alcoholic parents who nearly killed each other. Her brothers and sisters are all in their own way as damaged as anyone. My mother would like to believe she escaped the same fate, but she is wrong. If there is anything my mother clings to, it is that she is right. Always.
Therefore, she is qualified to sit in judgment of all those before her. This pertains to strangers, friends and especially family. She did not like my father’s mother, who yes, was an alcoholic in her own right. Yet, it was this same disease she excused from her parents. My mother specifically did not like anyone in my father’s family and made no bones about it. Her contempt was always barely concealed and the tension could be cut with a knife.
My father has survived his marriage by conceding a lot to my mother. However, he was not budging on this one. My granny and Uncle Daryl were coming to visit and that was final. I remember the slam of the bedroom door and my mother standing there gape jawed. She had turned to me as if looking for me to say she was right. I merely shrugged.
My granny arrived with my uncle exactly three days later. They pulled into the driveway in a Pinto and empty beer cans stashed in the seats. Daryl was the youngest of my father’s brothers. Longhaired and good-looking, he said his quick hellos and then left for the bars. My granny hugged us with a Camel cigarette clinging from her mouth and exclaimed we looked like the natives with our brown skin. My mother sneered, pouted and harrumphed through the visit. I had never been so entertained by her hostility.
If my granny asked where the coffee was, my mother shoved it in her hand and slammed the cabinet door. If my granny poured beer into a glass, my mother shoved a coaster beneath it. If granny lit a cigarette, my mother went outside to smoke a half pack. The entire equilibrium of our world had been thrown off its axis and I would giggle in delight at the sparring between the two of them.
They stayed a week and in that time, I saw Daryl maybe twice. He was awash in booze and local women and did not even bother coming home. My granny on the other hand insisted on trailing my mother everywhere. I think she too was taking some perverse pleasure in pushing my mother over the edge. Then the talk of us returning with them to visit in Kentucky began. I could see my mother really wanted to go, wanted to see her parents, but the thought of being in a car with my father’s family was almost too much.
Until my father decided, we were indeed going back to Kentucky for a short visit. We would drive back with granny and Daryl and fly back to Arizona. I was excited about the trip, I had not seen my mom’s family in a couple of years and the thought of a road trip and diner scrambled eggs was enticing. Until I realized we were driving back in the Pinto. You know the car that in certain crashes the gas tank exploded.
Also, let me mention this Pinto was years and years old and quite small. Riding back to Kentucky would be my father, mother, granny, Daryl, myself and my sister, sans car seat of course because there was no room. Therefore, while granny and my mother and sister shared the back seat, I sat on the floor on the hump. I would be sure I lost my virginity on this trip, if it had not hurt so much when I actually did.
So there we went, across the same highways we had traveled on to get to Arizona. Except this time, my sister and I were trapped in a ticking time bomb with four smoking adults who bickered and fought along the way over a course of three days. Yes, there were diner scrambled eggs and chocolate milk shakes, but as we crawled toward Kentucky, I prayed for a bed and some peace and quiet. I realize that was too much to ask for.
By the time we arrived, I had strep throat and a double ear infection. As I was passed from relative to relative, I felt as if every bone in my body was bruised. I slumped on the couch as my papa tried to feed me McDonald’s cheeseburgers. We had not had McDonalds in two years and I could not even taste it. By the end of the first night, I could not swallow and was spitting into a bowl. Not what I had in mind for my first visit back home.
The worst part was we were only in town a few days since the drive had taken us so long. It was a blur of fried foods, loud voices and pleas for us to not go back. My mother cried, but she had begun to believe Arizona was her home now. She loved her house, her friends and her tennis. Still sick, I did not care about anything but getting home to my bed. That, and flying on a plane for the first time.
As we said goodbye to our family at the airport, I trembled as we boarded the plane, confined in our small seats. I was still ill and probably feverish at this point. Yet, as I looked out that window as the earth fell away and we were in the clouds, heading back to our new home, I felt infinitely better. Everything was an adventure I discovered. That hunger began in me. I wanted to do more. I wanted to do everything. I wanted everything.
The house was being built and I was miserable. My best friend, Daniel no longer raided his mother’s jewelry box and brought me gifts. He felt I should have control over where I lived, when in fact I had none. I spent my days fawning over Dylan with the white hair and trying to keep up with the uncles who were barely older than I was. I baked with my fake grandmother (she would forever be known as Dorothy as she had stolen my papa away from my granny) and waited until we moved into our house, which now had green exterior walls and a poured concrete foundation.
My parents in their euphoria did not notice their eldest was unhappy. If they did, they simply could not acknowledge anything negative when so many positive things were happening to my family. I, on the other hand, was becoming resentful and angry we were moving yet again and no amount of appendix scar attention could ease my suffering.
Even Dylan became tarnished with my newfound colorless view of life. I would sit at my desk and seethe at his shallowness and the way the girls doted on him. Was I really one of those girls? When he called my name at lunchtime, I pretended to not hear him. Instead, I sat on the football field with a book and retreated into a world that was not mine. I was a festering cauldron of burgeoning female ready to blow at any moment.
There are things that happen in life. You can look back and see them as you did as a child. Worst possible moments of despair and pain, or you can see them for what they really were. Just moments. As you get older, you collect them like seashells in a plastic container and you’re not really sure why you still have them. You keep meaning to throw them out, but you went through all the trouble of collecting them, surely they have some value. They don’t. Because every time you walk on a beach you will see there are more shells. Just like moments. There will be more. Some of them wonderful, a few of them painful.
Arizona has become like that for me. There were things that happened emblazoned in my brain. Things I cannot always find humor in. Every place I’ve moved, they were wrapped in bubble wrap and carried with me. I could look back at Arizona as a place of pain, but it wasn’t. There was the smell of alfalfa, the feel of the sun on my already bronze skin, the millions of stars I miss every time I look in the sky from somewhere else. There was so much good, I refuse to let it be tainted by anything awful that happened.
At the time, I was too young to process how life cycles through these wonderful and miserable moments. I was miserable and made more miserable by events occurring I felt I had no control over. I hated the house and everything it stood for. I hated everyone and every thing. Except my dog, Peppy. He was the one consistent thing in my life.
A fur faced ball of energy who would sit beside me and ponder the hopeless of the world, he was my companion in pain. He understood when my parents were too self absorbed to. He understood when no one around me saw me. When he curled beside me, it was like a hug from someone who loved you despite your unpleasantness.
Then I came home from school and my father was not at work. He was waiting for me at the gate and he put a hand on my shoulder. He led me around the back of the trailer where a mound of dirt was covered with rocks we had found in the dried riverbanks of the Little Colorado River. He explained a farmer had shot Peppy. Probably chasing cattle at night. He had made it home and died on our rickety wooden porch. When dad had come home from work that night, he found him and buried him.
That morning, I had not been greeted by Peppy, and I remember looking around the yard for him. He was off somewhere doing something and I had not given it a second thought. He was always there when I came home from school. But not anymore. I remember standing, looking at that dirt mound, thinking of my Peppy dying alone in the dark on our porch. I wondered if he had lain there, alone and cold, and wondered why I hadn’t come out to comfort him. I had not been there for him when he needed me. It made an already difficult time in my life unbearable. If possible, I retreated further. That unexpended rage had come what fueled me. It was just a matter of time before it was unleashed somewhere, on someone.
My uncle, Russ was four years older than I was. He was cocky and deranged in a future serial killer sort of way. He made his brother, Micha’s life miserable and mine. We hated him, loathed him. There were things, things that I will never speak of. Yet, we were powerless to him. He was bigger and a bully and we cowered in his wake.
One day we were walking along the road up to the graveyard. As morbid as it was, I did find comfort amongst the dead. It was proof I wasn’t alone in losing someone. I walked behind, watching Russ smash bugs beneath his sneakers and toss rocks at the lizards he came upon. When he stopped at a ditch, retrieving a stick and began dragging something from its murky waters, I stopped too.
In horror, I watched him drag a freshly dead dog from the water. Obviously, hit by a car and left to die. He laughed in glee and suggested we autopsy it. I became not myself that day. Everything flashed as if it were happening to someone else. Suddenly, I was standing over Russ who was lying in the road. There was bright red blood spurting from the cut above his eye and I was panting and holding a rock. I felt that rage unraveling from my belly and my body shook with it.
My parents punished me for hitting him. There had been stitches. I have many regrets in my life, but that was not one of them. It wasn’t the act of violence, I would never condone such a thing, but it was my no longer standing there as a bystander to something horrible. I had done something. Maybe not the right thing, but I had done something.
He, of course, would retaliate against me in a hundred ways. He would push me down in a ditch or into a barbed wire fences. I would return with bruises and cuts, but I would never tell on him. He would taunt me, call me names, and invoke the name of Peppy to try to hurt me. However, he never did. Whenever he seemed to get the upper hand, I would remember him that day lying on the road and crying. Big tears of pain, surprise, and the fear in his eyes as I stood looming with that rock. He was no longer a monster to fear, but a weak boy who would grow into an even weaker man.
I suddenly forgot about Daniel and Dylan and the dog grave we were leaving behind. I was ready for a fresh start in a new house and I felt hopeful.
There is a fine line between exposing one’s self and showing off an appendix scar. I think I could be guilty of both as I unbuttoned my jeans and showed everyone the four-inch red incision line on my first day back to school. There was a certain sense of pride that I had survived not only surgery, but an infection. Not that I understood the implication of either. I was the only one in my grade missing an organ, and that made me quasi-famous.
I did not lie, but neither did I correct the wild rumors. Someone asked me if my guts exploded and I just held up my hand and told them I couldn’t really talk about it. A girl from another grade said she heard I had died and was brought back to life. I shrugged mysteriously and moved through the lunch line. Suddenly there were new faces at my lunch table and they all wanted to know what it felt like to be sliced open. I didn’t bother mentioning I was asleep.
Having surgery did slow me down. Since they apparently used super glue to close my incision, I was afraid for months it would suddenly open to expose a gaping hole where my appendix had once been. I was afraid to go down the slide, ride my bike or climb on the monkey bars. I begged off jumping off sheds until I was certain I wouldn’t explode on impact.
It was during this hey day as a school celebrity, Dylan began noticing me. He carried my lunch tray to my table. He sat across from me and told me lame jokes. He drug me behind the first grade trailer and asked to see my scar up close. With a finger he gently touched the still tender wound and smiled at me. My knees felt weak and I could barely speak, but I remember making an equally lame joke. He laughed and my heart sang. I sat in the classroom fantasizing about the beautiful flaxen hair children we would make. My near death experience had convinced him what he had been missing.
Apparently, near death experiences aren’t nearly as interesting as a new girl in school. How quickly I fell off my pedestal when the dark haired girl from the Navajo Reservation was suddenly thrust into our classroom. She wore beaded bracelets and pulled her shiny black hair with leather ponytails. She told stories of powwows and her traditional beliefs. My organ pickling in a jar in some hospital was suddenly deemed not as worthy. I watched as Dylan pulled on her ponytail and whatever daydreams of our life together were gone. Apparently shiny new objects attracted him.
Dejected, I found solace with Daniel who had visited me in the hospital and brought me lifesavers. He rode me on his bike and avoided potholes and bumps to keep my remaining organs intact. He held up barbed wire fences so I could crawl under rather than over. He stole heavy gold bracelets from his mother and slide them on my arms. We would sit for hours on the edge of ditches they were building for underground utilities for the new houses being built. Sometimes we would talk about general things or sometimes we would just sit and say nothing. I didn’t know it then, but he understood me.
I came home one evening at my curfew of dusk. It didn’t matter where we were, we just had to be home before dark. As a kid living in the mountains, you didn’t bother arguing with that logic. Just as the sun began to set, the howling of the coyotes and wolves began, and you wanted to be inside. My father was home early from work and I thought this meant he had lost his job. My stomach seized at the thought of living in something smaller than the tin can we called home.
Instead, he announced he had bought us a house. Well, actually a plot of land they would be building a house on. Three bedrooms he said excitedly and we will have two bathrooms. My mind was on overdrive with the possibilities. No more sharing a room with my sister! No more arguing over bathroom time! No more being trapped in a container so foggy with smoke we could barely see out the windows.
The best news, it was close to where we lived so I could still ride my bike to visit Daniel. We would have our own yard and the Arizona equivalent of grass which was a dirty yard with sporadic tufts of weeds. I remember my mother smiling and laughing for the first time in what felt like years. She was happy to get out of the prison van too. A brand new house, not in our wildest dreams did we ever think that was possible. I was already picking out paint colors for my room.
I excitedly told Daniel about the move and he frowned. I wasn’t going to be that far away, but we could no longer just walk across the street to see each other. I would have neighbors and would probably be riding bikes with them. He was angry at me for allowing myself to be moved. As he stormed away in a huff, I stood there on the dirt road feeling confused. How could someone be happy and sad at the same time? My child mind couldn’t wrap itself around that. Why did something have to be taken away in order to gain something else?
I cried myself to sleep that night, not sure if it was out of joy or sadness.
I remember words and phrases that sounded like “surgery,” “infection,” and “rectal exam.” I was bent over and violated by a sympathetic doctor who then told my mother my appendix had burst and I was to be admitted. I stood in line at admitting. The pain was throbbing in my right side and I did not fully grasp what was to occur. My mother was crying and all I could care about was the pain ending.
At one point the pain was so severe, I just remember blacking out and waking up in a gown and having an IV inserted into my hand. The nurse looked at my mother who was crying hysterically at my side and rolled her eyes. I smiled at her and she smiled back. I’ll never forget that kind face and the pat she gave me on my head. “You’re going to be just fine.” She said, and I believed her.
Coincidentally, or maybe not if you believe in destiny, the surgeon who would be removing what was left of my appendix was from my hometown. This dried my mother’s tears. I thought they had flown someone in especially from Kentucky to cut me open. For a brief shining moment I felt special. This was quickly dashed when they gave me a shot of medicine that set my veins on fire and I found myself drifting to peaceful sleep.
My eyes opened to a nurse calling my name and gently shaking me. My throat hurt and I could taste rubbing alcohol. I could feel a throb in my side and asked if I had stitches. I was disappointed they had glued the incision shut instead of cool black sutures I could show off. She promised there would be a scar, so it wasn’t a total loss.
I was in the hospital for a week due to the infection. What transpired was an endless string of meals consisting of jello and broth. To this day, I still cannot stand jello. The food was just this side of bearable compared to my mother’s dinners, so I didn’t complain. There were visitors to entertain and gifts to accept. My sister was not allowed to visit in the hospital, so she was taken to the movies by my father. I still bring this up as practically child neglect. How dare he choose to take her to the movies while my life was hanging on by a thread.
Then I was expelled from the hospital in a wheelchair and told I would be out of school for a couple more weeks. I didn’t like school anyway, so this was just the news I was waiting for. I was tucked in a bed with magazines and a radio and told to take it easy. If I had more organs to donate, I would have surely volunteered them. Even my mother seemed to have softened due to the guilt of almost sending her oldest child to school to die from sepsis. I would take away from this experience a hard lesson. The special treatment didn’t last long. Queen for the day was a fleeting crown.
Within a week my mother was crawling out of her skin having to tend to her sick child and my little sister who did not understand I needed to rest. Instead, she wanted to hear stories and touch my scar and share popsicles with me. I think this was an important time for our bonding. We became close and I feared she would inherit my incredible bursting appendix. I became a little mother to her, and she was happy to have me around. My mother, on the other hand, was ready to have her life back that included watching the Price is Right in peace.
I was ready to run and play myself. I missed my friends and was anxious to be out of the house and in the fresh air. I’m sure this extended period of togetherness forever altered my relationship with my mother. She was already on the edge and to have a child have emergency surgery then be underfoot for almost a month must have been a lot to take. I think maybe she resented me for the imposition on her already tenuous hold on her sanity. It didn’t get any better after that.
The first time I held my daughter in my arms and she stopped crying
The first time I made my daughter laugh
The first time she told me she loved me
The births of my niece and nephew
Seeing my sister act in a play
Standing on Mt. Pilates in the clouds
The first time a man kissed me, not a boy
Kayaking in the ocean
Saving my sister from drowning
Saving my sister in a bowling alley
White water rafting in Pennsylvania
Eating salted shrimp in Chinatown
Winning an art contest
Swirly and sunny
Seeing that ray of sunlight streaming through the Vatican
Singing Karaoke in Florence, Italy
Being kissed by an Italian man in Florence, Italy after Karaoke
Reading my story out loud in Creative Writing and having the teacher, a published author, tell me I had talent
Singing with my daughter
Seeing her sing on stage the first time
My daughter as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and seeing her with such confidence and poise
Dying my bangs blue
Exploring Rome, Italy in a taxi
My guided tour of London, England
Being sick and then waking up one morning and feeling better
Skiing in Maine
Taking my daughter to her first Broadway show
Boat ride on the Seine
Taking my daughter to Disney World for the first time
Getting on a roller coast for the first and last time in my life
Wasabi mashed potatoes
That weekend in Los Angeles
Seeing the sunset on Venice Beach
Surviving a tornado