My sister Bird is hard to understand. She has always been like someone I see through tall grass or peering back from pieces of a broken mirror.  There are impressions, singular and distinct, without a strong sense of knowing.

Likely I am the same to her.

We are only two years apart in age. She is the older one. We were close only sometimes as children. Bird always wanted to get away, spending her free time with neighbor kids. I liked to find safe and quiet spaces on our farm, away from others, where I could drift in and out of fantasies inspired by the books I read.

She has not always had it easy.  Or, more accurately, she is often in a maelstrom towards which she guided herself with many guileless little choices.  That isn’t the same as doing it the hard way.  She finds the will and strength to kick out, to break from the whirlpool, looking for land, safe and solid and dry.

Her husbands have each been like this; some have seemed like the harbor only to become the swap.  Others have always been sinkholes, although she skirted round them, making the most of it, never quite staring it in the face long enough to draw a breath and decide to leave.

Eventually she ends it.  Three husbands, a life in three acts.

Now the third one she has just left, so newly she probably still finds his hair or scent in the laundry.  At the same time, she is staring down her second run in with cancer.  I want to say, ‘Be strong.’ Yet this seems presumptuous. How do I know this person of fragments, this woman glimpsed through wild grass, unknowable to me for so many years, isn’t already fully sure she is strong enough?

I think she is.

I pray for her. Prayer has been a hard thing to define for a man who no longer believes in a sentient father god. It has been a discovery to think of prayer as a wish extended into the void of the universe.

In some ways I see this void as my eyes see it. It is black, yet sparkles with light.  It is deep and merciless and wild.  Still, I see it as my heart sees it, too.  It is where all energy begins and ends, some anchored here on this rock, some gathered to brood on the moon and vibrate on the sun.  In this mass of energy there is the makeup of what we call love. Hope. Kindness.

It isn’t necessary to know every mystery. Neither of the universe or of your own flesh and blood.  But quietly you can close your eyes, let your heart peer out through the stars, and send up a fervent wish.

I hope the universe helps to knit your body, woman of the whirlpool and wild grasses, sister for this life.  Keep kicking out, pulling yourself to safe harbor.

The Second Escape

With slender fingers the fog first choked the trees before encircling the building.  It was the kind of grey morning that gave no hint at the movements of the sun, that suggested that time was suspended, shadows given pause and highlights wiped away like fingerprints. The fog was a mercy, Dr. Klinger had said the previous evening, eying satellite feeds with a fevered intensity.

Max could see only the tops of pines distantly from the window of his cell.  Below him, in the courtyard outside the back entrance to the compound, voices barked and metal cried as the persons from the lab hastily loaded equipment into vans that purred and fumed.  It was an impromptu moving day that had sent everyone left in Dr. Klinger’s small operation into twenty four hours of perpetual motion.  More than half of the original group had been mown down in the flight from the old campus.

“This time the watch worked,” the doctor said. “This time we didn’t put faith in AI only to discover how easily they could corrupt it.  This time we went back to the beginning. To all beginnings. We rely on human wisdom and loyalty.  The animal in us all can save us all.”

When Klinger started to rave, Max would go still, studying anything he could latch his gaze upon. He would take even breaths and remind himself that if he gored the doctor with his antlers, he would lose the only person in the group that had something like love for him. He had overheard the others speaking before their last flight from the hired guns of the corporation.  He knew that some of them wanted to either give him up or incinerate him themselves.  The idea was to hide all proof of the experiment.  He was a liability.

When he told Dr. Klinger this, he was given assurances.

“I know who you heard saying those things. I always knew they weren’t loyal, Max. And did any of them make it out alive?”

“So am I supposed to relax and believe that karma will take care of everything? If karma were handling this-”

“You can’t believe that a man of science is concerned with karma.”

“If karma were really handling this, I’d like to know what the fuck I ever did to deserve being mutilated? Turned into a freak?”

The doctor struck him then, a quick, catlike blow with the flat of his hand against Max’s cheek.  His eyes were bright with feeling.

“You are not a freak. You are an entire ecosystem. A miracle. The intelligent material of dozens of forms of life, each rewired to cooperate within your body, helping to circumnavigate all of the safeguards that evolution put into place to prevent science from stitching together new life. You are a marvel of biological engineering.”

Max had turned away. This was weeks ago and the first time he had ever felt the urge to kill.  It had never been in his disposition to respond to a blow with a blow. His instinct had always been flight.  It had made his father think of him as weak, peering at him with hazel eyes that were aloof with disgust. Or perhaps simply he was confused by Max.

The day that Klinger struck him, a different response emerged, like a chain buried in the mud that was suddenly pulled from both ends, so that it rose up with a metallic whine. That was when he knew that the doctor’s talk of an ecosystem was not limited to what he could see in himself when he looked in the mirror.  Something was rewriting itself in Max. He was still apt to take flight, but now equally inclined to draw blood.

The doctor had turned away then, knotting his fingers together, his shoulders curving inward toward his chest.  “Anyway, the betrayers weren’t taken down by accident. I scheduled the departures to make them most likely to be in the line of fire.  Karma is a blind justice that primitives believe in.  Any definitive retribution must be thoughtfully orchestrated.”

He turned back to Max then and he could not see the change in him. He must have still imagined him to be a man who cowered in the face of pain, because he placed a hand on his shoulder gently.

“I will always protect you, Max. You mean more to me than you will ever know.”

It was funny to think that this man was saying to him something that would inspire hope and peace were it to come from a parent or a lover.  Issuing from the lips of this man, with his ignored beard and exhausted squint, it felt like a life sentence.

They could not both live, Max thought. One of them had to die.

Klinger studied him closely then.

“If you ever ventured out into the world, they would likely see you as you see yourself. You might be taken into another lab, taken apart, and studied organism by organism. And they’d make sure every trace of you was gone. What muriatic acid couldn’t sluice away would be pulled out of servers on line and taken from yellowing old folders.”

Max didn’t want to listen to Klinger, but he found himself mesmerized.

“Or else they’d shoot you where you stood, aiming for the head. They might bury you and say prayers that you’d never rise again. You would become a legend, something hill folk pass down to keep their children from wandering into the forest.”



This time when they abandoned their compound, Max studied the order in which the teams climbed into the vans.  The hired guns were nowhere near them yet, according to the last communication with their watch, yet he wondered if Klinger were still hedging his bets, putting his weakest links in harm’s way in some bid to feel that blood was not quite on his own hands.

Max was put into a vehicle with Klinger and two women he knew as Natasha and Inez. He knew they were doctors, but they never wore name tags, and everyone at the institution called each other by their first names except for Klinger.  Natasha was tall with angular features and long, beautiful hands. Her gaze was always quick and inscrutable. Inez was short and compact, wore her hair in a braid that coiled like a snake at the back of her head.  She cracked her knuckles nervously whenever she listened to a briefing from Klinger, but sometimes Max thought she was looking at him with empathy when he happened upon her gaze.

The four of them were in back of the van, with another woman and a man in the front seats.  They didn’t use horns to signal and they didn’t use communication devises.  All phones had been turned off after the last contact with the watch, because once the lab was loaded and ready to go, the last thing to disconnect and load was the scrambling device they had used to prevent detection for the last two months.  If anyone so much as took a selfie, they might in some way open themselves up to another ambush.  The GPS systems in their vehicles had been ripped out and left at the site.

Their departure had been planned from the beginning. In the absence of any modern technology to assist them, they were getting out with old school methods.  Careworn paper travel atlases had been procured and – unless the roads had been changed significantly since the turn of the century – they would get them to their next temporary compound.  Their movements were synchronized with old fashioned timepieces.  A small alarm bleeped one Klinger’s wrist watch and like magic the van in front began to roll forward into the fog.

On Tarking Ridge

The shadows creep deeply along the ruts in the road and swallow the trees up whole as night falls. We stand beside my car, Harry and me, shivering, wishing it was really spring.

My mom says the mountains are hazing; that’s what she calls it when the buds on the trees make the forest on the ridge look purple.   When the magnolia in the neighbor’s yard started to bloom last weekend, Dad said the world really had gone to shit.  There would be a late frost and kill everything.

“Everything’s upside down these days,” he said. He hunched over his computer, tuning the rest of us out.  His style.

Maybe tonight it will frost. It’s cold enough or feels like it anyway.

Harry says, “You sure this is the place?”

He’s trembling and I put an arm around him. “This is where I saw him last time.”

We just have to wait.

Harry is patient and kind.  He would follow a friend anywhere rather than let them go in alone. Luckily this doesn’t seem too dangerous. I’d never want to see Harry hurt.  We’ve been friends since grade school. He helped me skip school when I had my first period so no one would see the blood on my jeans.  My mom and dad were out of town on business and I didn’t want to tell my teacher or the secretaries in the principal’s office. They’re all terrible. Harry never said anything about it afterward to me or anyone else.  He is good like no one I know.

The wind picks up on the mountainside, rustling the leaves on the ground, bringing a whiff of warm earth and new life.  There are soft disruptions in the shadows, nothing too loud, just squirrels scrambling around.  A few cries from birds. My mom would probably know their names.

“That’s a tufted titmouse,” she might say. “You can tell by the liquid notes.”

She was a nerd before it was cool, she likes to say. I always pretend it’s a good joke because I feel sorry for her. Humor is not her strength.

Then on the ridge above us, silhouetted against the indigo twilight, I see the stag man as clearly as I did the last time. Tonight I’m not high, though; I made sure we’re clean and sober.  My mouth goes dry, but I give Harry’s arm a squeeze. I want him to look but not to say anything.  His hair brushes my cheek as he tilts his head to study the ridge. I feel him stiffen against me.

So I am not crazy.

The stag man isn’t tall, but his antlers make him seem like a beautiful dancer out of a strange ballet. His legs taper down to a pair of hooves.  It makes him stand unnaturally, his butt stuck out a little more than normal, his shoulders thrown back, too.  It really is kind of like a dancer or this kid in school who everyone was calling gay a year before he came out. Danny. He always walked like that. It made some of the other guys look when they caught him out of the corner of their eye, then scowl and turn away, like they were tricked into it.  I know I saw that happen at least three times and it made me laugh every time.

But this isn’t Danny and I’m not laughing.

“I can’t believe it,” Harry whispers.

“Are you scared?”

“No. I don’t think so. Are you?”


I’m not scared. I wasn’t scared the first time, either. He doesn’t seem threatening. He just looks sad, his head turning now and again to study the woods.  Now his head tilts toward us and while I’m not scared, I still find my stomach turning to jelly under his gaze.

The stag man turns his whole body toward us now, his hooves scratching the moist spring earth, one of them rasping along a vein of stone so we can hear the sound of it. Now his face is in shadow, his antlers and his lean, square shoulders trimmed in dim silver light.  If he approaches us, he will remain faceless until he is right on top of us, but out cheeks and brows, our noses and chins will carry those dim silver highlights. He’ll read us and see inside us maybe a little, the way no one else in ours lives ever can. I don’t know why I think this. I’m just tired of trying to make myself clear to older people who always turn my words and my thoughts upside down.

It doesn’t make any sense that I think he’ll understand, but it makes no sense that he even exists either. Harry and I link hands like we always have when we’re about to be swallowed up by mystery. With his nails biting into my palm, our breath curls up around our faces, and we wait without breathing as the stag man closes the distance.



Meatloaf and Tennyson

When I was ten I threw a dinner party for my grandmother and my aunt.  I had been given a cookbook for kids by my mother that year. It nurtured my desire to conquer grownup rituals like making food other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or grilled cheese.

My grandmother was rather old by then and little did we know she was in a golden moment just before a series of small strokes would shroud her mind in confusion and weaken her body.  At the time she was still rosy cheeked, with a shock of white hair rising up off her brow and a whimsical wave over each ear.  She wore a double knit pantsuit when she was going anywhere nice; at home she wore printed cotton dresses under a faded apron.  I was pleased to see the pantsuit was trotted out for my humble fete.

My aunt was rather like my grandmother, only younger and more vivid, with dark hair that was just as unruly and only a little peppered with grey.  She wore lipstick always, although no other makeup.  She was the oldest girl in the family but she might have been the same age as any of her sisters. We always thought that having no children had preserved her looks.  Her name was Becky.

Becky had a lot of distinct peculiarities, among them rocking on her heels while she listened to you; grabbing a niece or nephew as they walked by to check that their ears were clean; and in later years blinking her eyes quite a lot while she spoke.  Someone said that was nerves.

For my dinner party, I insisted on doing all the cooking. I chose a recipe in which you made a meatloaf, frosted it with mashed potatoes, and put it back in the oven with slices of American cheese laid in overlapping diagonals along the top.  I thought it was the height of elegance. I probably heated up a can of green beans as a side dish.

I remember folding our printed paper napkins into triangles and laying them out alongside our Corelle plates with the little green flowers all around the edges. They were corny plates, but hard to break.

Everyone said dinner was great, but there was an air to the whole evening that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. It was as if Grandma and Becky had been placed in unchartered territory.  It wasn’t that they didn’t know my mother’s dishes quite well and there was nothing extraordinary about a meat and potatoes meal in our family.  It was more to do with who had orchestrated this event.  None of my uncles or boy cousins cooked, but I was quite used to my father’s delicious Saturday morning breakfasts.

I think I would say that Becky was taking in the whole thing with a mixture of confusion and amusement.  It was plain to them that I was not like the other boys in the family, but what exactly this dinner party meant was something that her personal life experiences could not quite reconcile.  We were family, and that went a long way to keeping the evening humming pleasantly. Not that our family specialized in uneventful gatherings; our default was typically at least two people leaving in a huff.  Yet still there was that elusive quality of unspoken surmising: a soft kind of astonishment and many things unsaid.

After dinner I read aloud to my aunt and my grandmother from a book of Tennyson’s poetry I had recently discovered.  I think my grandmother nodded off early on, not that she didn’t love the written word. It was something that was key to her life. Still, she was fading as the long summer twilight burnished the sky outside our picture window.

I stood before the glass and read from The Lady of Shallot with as much artistic lilt as possible. I enunciated every word with something that tried to be a British accent – but gently, as not to earn the kind of criticism that any act of pretentiousness was rightly apt to receive in my family.  It was a coup to even read a whole classical poem without eliciting sniggers from one of my relations, and there was a moment when my mother had a coughing fit that might very well have been a smothered laugh.  At least it sounded a lot like the way she stifled nervous giggles in church.

I had not yet discovered who I would become at that age, although the difference between who I felt like and what other people expected me to be had begun to cause me a lot of  confusion.  Yet on this night, despite that underlying sense of a secret not quite articulated, I was still a child in my family, with the women near me providing a sense of safety.  It surprises me to discover as I write this, that this would be the first of many coming out parties, each nudging me forward toward my authentic self.

That night I watched the taillights of Becky’s dusty little Pinto fade down the drive, still drunk from the thrill of what I had accomplished. The words of Tennyson expanded in my mind like a spider web growing bigger in the brewing heat of a summer day.  The crickets in the meadow outside the house were noisy; it was only about eight o’clock and there was plenty of time yet to clean up my dishes and wind down with a little television before going to bed with a book.  The night and I were still young.


Deer Feet

It was hard for Max to walk at first.  He was sure his ankles would snap under his weight. But that bastard Dr. Klinger said he would be fine and needed to exercise.  The doctor would protest being called names.

“I saved your life, young man,” he might say. His woolly eyebrows would escape up under his bushy grey hair, that tangle that spilled forward each time he raked it back.

What would Max say in return?  He might say that his life wasn’t saved, that he could have lived perfectly well as an amputee. They could have outfitted him with those blades like the Olympian who smashed through his bathroom door and killed his wife.  He would rather have metal arcs spanning the distance between his knees and the ground.

“But you had to be shown. The board had to finally see my vision, that bunch of number-crunching neanderthals. The accident happening on your way from my lab was providential, as my grandmother used to say. It was serendipitous. You coming out unscathed except for the hamburger meat that was your old feet. Meanwhile the deer beaten to a pulp but those feet as perfect as they ever were.”

The doctor might put a hand to his chest piously. “If anything I should be thanked.”

Max had thought a lot about his trip to the doctor in the last three weeks.  His employer had sent him out to announce formally that they were cutting funding to the doctor’s program.  There had been too many liberalities taken with his study of interspecies genetic co-modification.  When the doctor sent them a white mouse with the red wings of a Cardinal at Christmas, the board was deeply disturbed, if briefly entertained, watching the creature fly up and down the length of the boardroom table, snatching up bits of cheese off the lunch platter while hovering inches above the surface.

“But what would the press say if they saw this…thing?” the CEO asked.

There was a brief conversation, voices rising in anger at times, before they all fell silent to hear the chair speak.

“It will have to be incinerated.”

So it was done.  For good measure, they collected everyone’s cell phones and scanned them to make sure no one had taken a video.  Each person in the room signed a nondisclosure again, although from the beginning of the project, they had already signed dozens of amended and updated versions of the same.

Somehow it fell to Max to break the news to the doctor.  It felt wrong from the beginning. He was the youngest member of the board and some would say his greatest qualification was being a blood relation to the CEO.  It was a fool’s errand, to say the least.

The doctor had wept when he received the news.  But then he had pulled himself together, offered Max a lunch, as the journey from the remote lab to the nearest town was some distance, and the long roads twisting and still etched with winter ice.  All he remembered about the drive back to town were high banks of white snow on either side.  Then the stag, standing there in the middle.  If he hadn’t felt so tired after lunch, if it hadn’t been so hard to keep his eyes open.  In the weeks he spent lying in bed, he had plenty of time to catalog his regrets.

He should have headed back before lunch, when he was still buzzing from the thermos of coffee that kept him company on the ride in.

He should have refused the task; his uncle would hardly fire him for it.

He should have stayed in college and finished his MBA instead of being seduced by an offer for an immediate and easy windfall.

He should have studied dance, as he wanted to when he was sixteen, instead of being shamed out of it by his father.

He should have died in that boating accident at five instead of his cousin Katie. It always came to this; it was an illogical regret.  He had had many joyful moments in life between that summer day when the water off the Cape turned maroon all around them and the morning he woke up to find he had hooves instead of feet.  All the same, he couldn’t escape the thought that this was a long overdue payment for a debt he owed the universe. Somehow he had cheated that day, getting to walk away unscathed.

On the fortieth day after the car accident, the doctor insisted he walk.  It was hard to do because the small area of his new feet allowed him little wiggle room for balance. He found he wanted to spill forward.

“Well, that’s enough for today,” Dr. Klinger said. “The tenons are still knitting and I’d hate to see you snap them in a fall. I could kill the pain with morphine for your sake, but seeing my handiwork undone would be most unpleasant.”

As Max began to fall asleep, the doctor stroked his brow fondly.

“You really are a miracle. You’re the most beautiful creature ever designed by man. You just don’t see it yet.”

“I’ll never be able to balance on these deer feet,” Max said drowsily. The physical therapy was exhausting. Or else they were feeding him something in his IV to lower the veil. His eyes fluttered closed and he forgot as soon as he saw it that one of the doctor’s assistants was wheeling in a cart on which were perched a strangely familiar set of antlers. Eight points. Then Max could not open his eyes any longer.

“I think I know how to solve the problem of balance,” he heard the doctor say.

Then a voice, “Isn’t that what everyone wants?”

It may have been his own.


We had a black nanny and housekeeper briefly when I was a kid.  Even writing it down makes me cringe from the white privilege. My physical impressions of Edie are clear still: the short, broad shape of her in slacks, peter pan collar, and sweater; a pair of inscrutable dark eyes; the wigs she wore that Mom called ‘fright wigs’ because they were the kind you could only buy at Halloween. What did my Mom know about black women’s wigs?

What I remember about Edie the most is an air of calm; she didn’t bustle and she never seemed frantic. This wasn’t like our family, where it seemed someone was always whipping through the room in a state of agitation. We were always running late, losing things, grabbing paper towels to sop up a spill, scrambling into socks with clumsy fingers.

Edie worked for our family from the time that I was an infant until I was perhaps four. Then she worked for us a little later, but this time just cleaning house. When I was in my teens, Edie hadn’t been cleaning for us in a number of years. But sometimes she would call my mom to talk and inevitably she would ask to speak to my sisters and I directly. Following the cues of my older siblings, I either dodged the call by frantically waving my hands and mouthing ‘no’ or I took it with a sullen expression on my face, like someone being forced into an obligation.

I think the reason we tried to avoid the call was that we didn’t remember Edie much and it felt like an awkward exchange with an elder who wasn’t family. Maybe there was a little sense that her ‘otherness’ was an excuse; we certainly were raised with a lot of racism in the family. Yet this perspective might be a distortion.  I am thinking of an elderly white lady friend of the family with whom I would definitely have felt the same stilted discomfort if we were placed on the phone together.

In retrospect, it would have been a good idea if my Mom had pulled us aside at some point and made a nice movie speech about Edie and why we owed her a small degree of affection or at least respect.

“That old woman, with her cheap wig and her moth-eaten sweaters, was the closest thing to a mother you had when I had to punch the clock to get this family through the mess Carter made of the economy! And I’ll be damned if you ever, ever make her feel like spending a minute on the horn to ask her how she’s doing is anything but a pleasure! Do you hear me?”

She would have waved her finger at us as she spoke and we – sufficiently cowed by the force of her conviction – would have exchanged guilty glances. Watery music would have underscored the scene and one of us would have suggested we go out, get some ice cream, and take it to Edie’s house. The director of photography would pull away as we all spooned dessert from bowls on our housekeeper’s porch, smiling and laughing, lens flares nudging bubbles of light across the screen as the camera tilted upward through a stand of pines.

Our mom never really forced our hand like that, making us confront our attitude problem.  She did sometimes say, “Poor old Edie, I don’t know why you kids…” She would trail off, distracted by the can she was opening for dinner or something she had been reading in a magazine before Edie called.

A few years ago, my mom told me she had invited Edie to come live with her.  I had always known that Edie and her only child, a daughter, had a strained relationship. The daughter had become a Jehovah Witness and Edie could never come to respect that choice.  With Edie’s mind and body beginning to fail, she felt she had no place to go. Mom set her up in the guest room.

Edie felt haunted, it seemed, in her dementia. She often told members of the family about the man who would come into the house when she was alone, and how she didn’t like him. He would stand at the foot of her bed and stare her down. We couldn’t imagine it was real.  In our old house, back when I was a kid, where Edie had lived in for a while, she used to talk about the noises the ghost made in the basement.   My father swore it was the belching of the furnace.

My mom would further dismiss the ghost theory, “No one ever even died in this house, unless you count the son of the last owner, but he was killed in a car accident at the end of the driveway, so even that doesn’t make sense.”

This time around, we were sure that Edie was just imagining things. Eventually she became so agitated by the idea of the strange man that she didn’t want to stay with Mom and Dad anymore. Her daughter was convinced to come pick her up; she put Edie in a home after that, where she stayed until her death some years later.

I wonder if Edie’s daughter visited her frequently. When her mother called, did she look at the number on caller ID and have the same desire to dodge it that we did as kids?

Edie didn’t ask for anything for herself when she spoke with you. She asked how school was going and when you said okay, she’d reply with, “Mmm-hmm.” You could hear her chewing gum, which she always did.  Then the silence would stretch for a while and she would say, “And how you behaving?” When you’d say you were being good, she’d give another ‘mmm-hmm’ but this one sounded more doubtful. More gum chewing. Then Mom would take mercy on both of us and take the receiver back, getting Edie to chat about people they both knew.

I have a strong sense of myself. I know what I want and how to ask for help when needed. I make a point of fostering only meaningful relationships, knowing I want to make room for conversation only with people who enjoy me as much as I enjoy them. I am guarded a little bit, but I never have to be at the mercy of relationships that aren’t equal.  It is perhaps one of the many subtle advantages of privilege.

What choices did Edie have in life?  Who would she have been if she had the same opportunities as I did? I had so many choices that I’ve been wasteful with some of them. Maybe Edie’s daughter saw how her mother’s life shaped her into someone who took what was offered and accepted it. Maybe the daughter made it a point to question everything, even her faith, and to make a study of using choice to shape herself. This difference between them would have been profound and it was perhaps what distanced them ultimately.

I have a lot of trouble separating prejudice from my musings about Edie. If we were the color-blind society that some would like to pretend we are, than my recollections about her would probably only ponder how children don’t like chit-chat with their elders.  If we were more honoring of age in this country, perhaps there would be little else to consider. Because I would never have made Edie do all the heavy lifting when I got on the phone with her. Instead I would have made it equal.

“How are you doing, Edie?”

The bigger yet picture suggests that if our society wasn’t laced through with race crime, than very likely we would not have had an Edie to look out for us as children. That a white family in a small home with only middling incomes could afford to pay a black woman a very likely small going rate is in and of itself the legacy of slavery. Centuries of abhorrent, racist policies had caused our very different paths to intersect for a while.

I’ve inherited a lot of white guilt, but strangely my mother – who sides politically with so much that disenfranchises people of color – is the only one of us who never hesitated to take Edie’s calls and even gave her a place to stay when she needed it. Edie knew she could ask.

Race is as complicated as people are themselves.  I hope we can solve it, but it will likely take more willingness to connect and less abstract liberalism to bridge the divide. Less expressing that we are all one from the safety of a social media bubble and more sitting at the same table and opening up about our conflicted and incomplete impressions of one another.


How Junior High Almost Crushed Me

You can survive growing up different in a small town, but you have to find your tribe. This was something I didn’t know until I was grown up.  It would have changed everything about my junior high school years.

Instead I did it all alone. At home, even when my mom implored me to share why I dreaded school so much, at my most honest moment, I could only say, “The kids all call me fag.”  What I would say now is, “I’m gay and the kids are hateful about it.”

But the reason I couldn’t say it the honest way was because I had already picked up on the fact that being gay was undesirable at home and at school. Everywhere. When I told my mom what the kids were saying, she said, “Well, you aren’t, are you?”

I knew the answer she wanted and I said it. “Of course not.”

I’m sure I looked at the floor when I said it because I’ve never been comfortable lying.

In sixth grade I ditched school by hiding in the pines halfway down our driveway on the way to the bus. I would stay in the woods all day and come out when the bus returned to drop off the neighbor kids. Instead my brother-in-law spotted me sneaking across the lawn to another part of the farm and he and my mom slowly hounded me through the woods, cutting me off eventually like prey, and they drove me into school.

I was absent from school so often, eventually my mom and the principal had an understanding: he would drive out and pick me up himself.  She used to threaten that social services would take me away from her for being an unfit mother.  I had played sick so much the last year or two, she knew all my tricks, even the one about putting soap in my eye to pretend I had an infection.

In the car ride with my principal, he’d ask me if I didn’t like learning. I could only fixate on the fear of being teased and ridiculed; learning was somehow secondary to feeling safe.

So by seventh grade I knew I had no more passes left. The principal of the junior high was a different person altogether; not only did she not have Dr. Blanton’s worry-creased brow and pitying southern drawl, she was too busy herding the monsters that are middle schoolers to make car trips for one kid who refused to get on the bus.

If I were to survive seventh grade, I would have to be as invisible as possible, avoiding anyone who might hurt me.  That meant not going into the cafeteria, where I feared that the gathered masses would introduce me to a replay of what I experienced each morning when we assembled in the gym after getting off the buses and before homeroom. Every day as I walked along the bleachers, a silence would fall among just enough of my peers that I noticed it. It was followed by whispers and snickers. Sometimes one word would rise above the murmurs: “Queer.”

I couldn’t avoid morning assembly, but I had found a way to dodge the repeat airing of it at lunchtime. As we left Mrs. Bardwell’s class each day to head to the cafeteria, I would let myself fall to the back of the line.  When we rounded the first corner, I ducked into the bathroom and waited until the halls grew silent again. Then I pushed through the outside door and squat-walked along the side of the building to the windows of our class room. I always made sure one was unlocked before we went to lunch.  I would push it open and climb in, waiting in the silent comfort of the classroom where only moments before I had dreaded being called on by the teacher. If I was called on, it meant hearing the giggles, the ones that meant at least two people were sharing the joke about me. The same joke about me that brought the chatter of morning assembly to a halt.

So I kept my head down in class, avoided raising my hand even when I knew the answer. If I could make myself invisible, I could avoid the pain of being ridiculed.

In the half hour that I spent alone in the classroom, I felt at peace and I wished it could go on and on forever. Hearing the lunch bell brought a knot of pain to my stomach because I knew my sanctuary time was up. So in reverse I repeated the steps that had brought me there: shimmied out the window, slithered along the side of the building, pushed back into the hall, ducked into the bathroom, fell back into line as my classmates dashed past.

I hid in the bathroom in fourth period. The kids in that class seemed especially hard around the edges.  And despite the attempts of a few sympathetic family members to convince me that most of it was in my head, I knew that I wasn’t imagining how much contempt my classmates had for me.

It was confirmed one Monday morning when the whispering about me didn’t end with morning assembly, but followed me down the hall to my locker, which it normally did not, since the other kids started thinking about homework to be turned in and finding their buddies before classes. This day the whispering was still going on after first and second and third period. Finally I found out why.

Someone had dedicated a song to me the night before on the local radio station. It was Aerosmith’s Dude Looks Like A Lady.  At fourteen I was plump, wore my hair in a luxuriant brunette mullet, and had porcelain skin that I would kill for now. Maybe I did look more like a girl than a boy, but I knew the song was about more than that. Someone in my class wanted to put it out there so their friends could hear it and laugh in appreciation.  The joke about what a fag I was should be shared with the world outside of school.

Now I realize a different kind of kid would put a pithy, Rupaul-inspired spin on the whole situation. They would decide their foe had instead made them famous. Maybe what I needed more than anything was more fearless drag queens on TV.  I think my whole generation would have benefited.

I can almost relive the rise in my blood pressure that happened when I was told about the song on the radio.  It wasn’t anger. It was fear. Whether it was genetic or just a learned response, by this age I was strictly a flight strategist. Fighting was not my norm. So I hid the rest of the day in the bathrooms, roaming from one to another only when classes were in session. I ducked as I went past each door so I wouldn’t be spotted.

I luckily didn’t learn to loathe myself because of how I was treated, but it did make me loathe society for many years.  It took a long time to learn how to move through the world with an open mind toward others. One thing that I am always thankful for is that I have a lot of compassion for underdogs, for people who are misrepresented or even ignored. It is part of why I care so much about how our society treats people based on ethnicity, cultural and religious origin, gender, sexuality, age, size, income.  I know how feeling unsafe turns everyday life into a precarious obstacle course. How it twists you up inside.

If I could parent myself through the whole thing now, I would make sure it turned out differently. No one should be made to feel like hiding is the option, like being invisible is preferable to finding your light and place. And perhaps I could have gotten to myself at the perfect moment when my future empathy would be assured, but before I learned to be quite as cynical as I became. Probably I would even leave that alone, because I grew out of it eventually.

The one thing I know I would do to help myself is that I wouldn’t try to convince myself not to worry about what was happening to me. Every grown up tried to take that course, from my parents to the shrinks they sent me to. “Don’t worry about what other people think of you.”

That would be the saddest coffee mug quote in the world and it didn’t do much to comfort me.

What I would say is, “You’re right to let this bother you so much. You want to be liked and instead you feel loathed.” Then I would explain that having the whole world love you is impossible and not even the goal.  You just need a small but meaningful tribe.

It starts with taking the time to notice the other kids being picked on. I know I wasn’t alone.  There were kids who were teased because their clothes were ragged. There were kids who were tripped and knocked down because they had a speech impediment.  I would tell my fourteen year old self to give the other beaten up and spit on kids a smile when I got to assembly in the morning. Eventually, I would say, you can choose to sit next to one of them and ask them their name. Then you might find them in the cafeteria and sit with them.

Friends matter because there is safety in numbers.  A group that is made up of people who have been shaped by rejection may be the strongest, because they value what it means to find inclusion after feeling adrift and alone.  If the world had more tribes made of people who were vastly different except that they shared only the desire to protect and encourage each other to personal happiness, we would perhaps divide ourselves less by race and creed and more by the contents of our hearts.  It would have saved me a lot of pain in junior high and it would certainly heal so much of what ails the world today.



I wouldn’t say we were friends.  It may have looked like that for a while – at the beginning – but before long the whole thing sort of plateaued.  We ended up merely acquaintances, the people who will stand together at a party if the rest of the company is flat.  We were a bookend match of each other’s awkwardness, holding our drinks close to our chins as our arms tried to fold themselves over our chests, while one hand took orders from the brain to dose hard early because this gathering was going to suck.

She went by Caro in college, although when we were in junior high school she was called Carol or sometimes Fats.  In tenth grade, before Mom and I moved away, she found the theater club, dyed her hair red, and dropped the ‘l’.  She also dropped thirty pounds and found a light, languid gait unlike the slightly panicked walk-run that used to propel her into classrooms just after the bell.  Damned if Carol didn’t always knock something over with her backpack trying to slip into her seat unnoticed.

But not Caro.  This new tenth-grade artsy-fartsy goddess entered the room within a cocoon of laughing thespians, her auburn waves falling over her eyes, pushed back with a careless gesture now and again as she rolled her eyes at the droll nonsense of her troupe.  No shit.  Every day of tenth grade her entrance to Mr. Martolli’s class played like the opening credits of a show about with-it teens figuring out life while giggling over Twizzlers.

When my mother was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, we had to move to her hometown in Maryland.  It was all very sudden and she knew we’d need help.

“I don’t want to ask your grandma, let alone live with her, but how are we going to do this otherwise?”

“I could quit school – just for a year – and get a job.  Wouldn’t that help?”

“Me watching you make milkshakes for minimum wage when you should be learning? Knowing all the while the only reason for it is my being too proud to ask that woman for help…”  Mom was washing dishes.  Her gaze slipped out the window, whisked the worn picnic table and brown grass of the yard, and rose to the pale blue November sky.  The silence stretched and I almost tried to make my pitch again.  I was licking my lips and taking a breath when she finished her thought.

“It would kill me to see you working instead of being in school.  We’re going to Perryville and that’s that.  It’s a year. We’ll technically be closer to Johns Hopkins there than we are here and their program is good.”

“But UVA…”

“We don’t know anyone there. I can’t keep working. You can’t quit school. We’re going to live with your grandma.”

And so we did.

The last day of school in Virginia floated along like a dream.  A friend had got me a card that played a song from Peanuts and someone else thrust a balloon tied to a candy bar in my hand.  I was always vague about who had done it, although everyone knew I loved candy.  I spent too much time on the drive trying to figure it out.  When we got to the bridge at Havre de Grace, I put it out of my mind, knowing on a visceral level that in ten minutes we’d be carrying suitcases into Grandma’s house and that from then on out, it would be a daily battle to find any calm.  And not just watching Mom fight for her life.  My stomach was already in knots; I twisted around in the car seat to watch the sunset poking through the steel arch of the bridge.



I didn’t see Caro for three years. I had kind of forgotten she existed.  High school wasn’t when we started talking.  It was in college, when Mom and I moved back to Virginia. I was a year behind because we had to wait to reestablish our residency for in-state tuition.  I was surprised to see Caro in a class with me; surprised she was studying science, too.

“Well, acting is fun, but I get too nervous,” she told me once.  “Like everyone says they do, too, but this one time I was so close to puking on stage that I realized I needed another option.  My Dad suggested I rethink science, which I loved first. It felt right.”

I looked away, swallowing a chalky little bitterness that I always felt when people talked about their fathers.  I wondered if I’d ever stop being jealous of that.  It drove me crazy because I knew my mom ought to be enough.  She certainly worked her ass off to fill the void.

“Well, they say what you loved doing at seven is what you’re meant to do,” I said.

We were standing amid the trees in the quad, watching clouds thicken and tighten above us.  Other students were ambling about, some clinging to their perches in the grass, determined to stay until the rain chased them off.  I remember watching the president of the university pacing in her private garden at the top of the hill, disappearing and reappearing from behind a bronze bust of Mary Wollstonecraft.  She was talking into her cell phone, her face pale within a frame of black hair and red dress.

“Prima donna,” I heard myself say aloud.

Caro followed my gaze, her eyebrows raised in surprise.

“You’ve heard stories,” I added.

She shrugged and I realized then she didn’t play this game.  Caro the actress with the red hair and the nose ring. Carol the bookworm who’d come packaged with a beaker if she were a doll.  These girls didn’t talk smack.  That’s why we’d never really be friends.  I’d spend a lifetime figuring out the shape of the world by critiquing others as harshly as I would myself.  Girls like Caro would opt for a simple motto like ‘be nice’.

The rain started to fall one big splashy drop at a time and we turned in unison, holding our books up in front of our chests as we headed for the shelter of a portico nearby.  She smiled into the distance.

“So what did you want to be when you were seven?”

“Cruella. Maleficent. Ursula.”

She laughed.

“I never wanted to be the princess, either,” she said.

I side-eyed her then, thinking that she was the princess whether she liked it or not.  It was her right.  It came with being beautiful and kind and natural and smart.  Caro was all the things they try to show us about the princess, the qualities so remarkable that they come wrapped in a ball gown and a tiara.  She had all the things that draw men and magic and sometimes foes.  I didn’t want to be her enemy. Yet I couldn’t see how to be her friend, either, because she seemed to exist on a higher plane of self-confidence.  I was sure I’d never know how to breathe that air.

“Anyway,” I said. I tried to sound light. (I always tried to sound light back then.) “I realize now that none of those Disney witches are very real. I’d settle for being Dorothy Parker.”

I had to explain to her who that was and I knew she barely found it interesting.  Still, we found things to talk about in the coming years, dosing ourselves with gin and tonics, two people who sometimes defaulted to chatter when the room wasn’t entirely ours. And later I realized that we didn’t exist on a different tier; we were just two kinds of people whose overlapping interests made a narrow bridge, hastily traversed in youth and vanity. Now I would try to take it slower, see what developed if we walked instead of driving.

On Burying A Friend

The air is still moist from the night when I with gloved hands take up the shovel to make the grave for our very old friend.  It helps to be alone out here, bent over the earth with my thoughts.

Later the loneliness is edging close as thankfully my husband joins me in a cap to keep his ears warm. And so we take turns cracking through tree roots and pulling up stones. Helpmates. Silent in our grief, the passing of our ginger cat.

Our Guy.

The scratch of iron and rock make a sharp cry to break the calm of the woods, fittingly rough, like how we aren’t ready to let go.  Finally the hole is deep enough.  We climb the steep hill and I take off my muddy boots before entering the house.

My eye drops toward the floor as I push the door open, to where he usually stands with curious eyes asking to go out.  I cannot give a moment for tears just yet.  I push through the house, to the cool spare room, where he waits in his carrier.

I take him outside and together my husband and I wrap him up for burial.  He weighs the same in my hands as he ever did.  Or is he lighter now, not twisting to protest being cradled like a human baby?   I feel he must be given a final hug, something to say that inside the bundle is still the lovely creature who shared so many years with us.  I curve around his still form, weeping freely, my husband weeping with me, the two of us with rubbery garden gloves, hands a little cartoonish, eyes as red as pickled eggs.

“Okay,” I say.

Somehow we fitted his resting place perfectly.  The bundle settles into the depression as if sized by tireless craft, rather than the educated guess of two men unfamiliar with the digging of graves.  I gather a wad of mud between my hands, say a word of good-bye and sprinkle him over with earth.  My husband says his farewell and reaches out to let his gathered clay fall like dark heavy snow.

I am careful with the first shovels-full of dirt, filling in the edges until the ground is level with the top of him.   Then another level until the black bundle is covered over. When the ground is filled in again, we pull a rake over the earth until it is smooth.  Then I rake away the autumn leaves because they make his resting place seem too forlorn.

I decide we ought to cover him over in stones to keep animals from digging him up.  We root around at the edge of the woods as the day opens up bright and warm above us.  The mud on ours boots grows thicker as we work.  We cannot seem to stop hunting for new stones.  I like best the ones from under the leaves, the ones cleaned by a recent rain.  One crude rock at a time, we build a mound to cover the grave of this our very old friend.

“We’ll put a ring of bulbs around it in the spring,” I say.

And my husband nods through his tears.

“I’m glad it got warm. I fell asleep last night dreading the cold, knowing how he hated it.”

We are silent a moment more before taking up the shovel and the rake and climbing the hill.  At the side of the house, I realize we have forgotten the pick axe.  When I return to the edge of the woods to fetch it, I see a small rock winking up from the ground.  I almost turn away from it, but it seems that in noticing it, I ought to add it to the mound.kingly-guy


Acting 201

Felix went all in to help Adele with her final performance in acting class.  Perhaps he was regretting that he hadn’t signed up for 201 with her; every time they hung out with friends from the first class, they said they missed him.  Weeks before the end of semester, he had mapped out a plan for Adele.  He chose the monologue, coached her through it line by line, designed the set, and did her hair and makeup.  All because she looked like Bette Davis.

It wasn’t an easy three weeks.

There were times when Adele begged to abandon the project.  One night she came really close to putting her foot down entirely.  When she yet again failed to enunciate her lines with the proper Davis clarity, she tossed herself across the battered sectional in Felix’s basement.  Hugging a pillow close to her chest, she suggested she might rather do the monologue from Fame, which she still remembered from high school.  It was a little on the short side, but she even had the clothes she’d worn. The leg warmers were doing double duty as curtain tiebacks in her bedroom.

Felix wouldn’t hear of it.

“You’re destined for this role, Adele! Don’t be faint of heart…”

He motioned for her to stand, and she rolled her eyes, but she climbed out of the sunken cushions.   She had the big eyes and the small mouth and if she could just learn to actually be dramatic and articulate all at once, while not dropping a line or forgetting a mark, then she’d be fine.  His big obstacle was getting her to embrace the bigness of the part.  Adele had a dry, close-lipped personality, but for this she’d need to have sweep and volume.

Secretly Adele thought the lines were corny, but Felix was protective of his heroes.  “Bette exudes corruption once you get to the end and look back on it, but for at least the first half, you’re convinced she’s the classic woman wronged. She plays it so well.”

His eyes would drop to the floor each time he praised the long dead actress, as if embarrassed that Adele might feel inadequate by comparison.  She could have told him she didn’t like that whole old style – people didn’t act like that anymore – but they’d had exhaustive talks about it in the past.  He thought there simply wasn’t enough guts and saliva in modern theater.

That night they watched the movie together again.  Maybe for the first time ever,  Adele was glad she wasn’t stoned because there were some line readings that would give a nun church giggles.  Glancing over at Felix, she saw a pleased little smile on his lips. With his dyed black hair and painted on brows and lips, he looked vampiric in the television light. Not that she would ever tell him; he was too vain about his looks already.  He’d spent almost two months pay on green contact lenses to look like Louis from The Vampire Lestat.  And one night he told her about an exhaustive face lightening regimen that involved peroxide and a nail brush.

He was silly, she thought then, growing frustrated with the movie.

“Can’t we turn it off and try the lines again?” she asked.

He agreed too readily and she wondered if subjecting her to the film had become a tactic.

“Feed me my line…”

He was about to when they heard a soft knock, telling them Felix’s mom had come down the steps and wanted to enter her son’s subterranean den.

“Hello?” Jean called out warmly.

Felix looked peeved, but Adele felt like she was getting a pardon.

“You two still working on the play?” Jean asked.  She was dressed in denims that rose all the way up to her bra and a sweat shirt with an appliquéd kitten clambering anxiously out of a watering can.  Her shoulder length hair was messy except for scrupulously combed bangs.

“Yes,” Adele said. “The drill sergeant never sleeps.”

“Ha, ha,” Jean laughed.  “Well, Felix, you ought to give Adele a break. You two could come upstairs and eat with me. I made goulash.”

“No, Mother,” Felix said. “Maybe later.”

Adele never knew how to act around Jean.  If she followed Felix’s example, her demeanor would hardly be warm.  She was raised to be polite to elders, but like her friend she wasn’t always comfortable with chit-chat.  As usually happened, a silence stretched between the three of them and eventually Jean edged towards the steps.

“Well, I’ll let you get back to it then…”

“Thanks, Mom.”

When she’d gone, Felix made a little face. It wasn’t exactly mocking, but it seemed to say, ‘What just happened?’ As if it were odd that a mom would offer supper to two teenagers who rarely left her basement except to go to their classes.  Feeling angry at him but unsure of exactly why, Adele took a deep breath and began her monologue.

“‘I was in love with Jeff Hammond. Been in love for years. We used to meet each other, constantly, once or twice a week-”

“Can you hit those t’s a little harder? It’s like this…”

Pulling his characteristically slumped shoulders back, Felix launched into the monologue in a perfect impersonation of the old movie idol.  Adele stared at him with a mouth like she was eating worms.


“You,” she said. “You ought to do it.”

“I didn’t take the class. Besides, I’m not a girl.”

She almost said maybe that was up for debate, but she bit the comment back, turning away to gather up her things.  “I’m going home.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know you’re tired-”

“I am. You’re right.”

When she turned on her car lights, they shone through the patio doors of the basement, and she saw that Felix had already put the movie back on.  If she knew him at all, he’d make a run upstairs for goulash in about two minutes.  But he wouldn’t eat it with Jean.



The day of the performance was hectic.  Felix had made a list of all the things they needed from home.  Adele would bring her own extensive makeup kit, a curling iron, bobby pins, and the 1940’s outfit she’d borrowed from one of her mother’s friends.  He would bring a piece of plastic rattan valance to wrap around the base of a plant he was borrowing from the admissions lobby.  This would help make the set look more Malaysian, he determined. And he had a piece of cloth his dad had brought from Guam that they could drape over the This-End-Up sofa ubiquitous to all theater department performances at the college.

Tension propelled them through makeup in near silence, but they started to get testy with one another while he was curling her hair.  Worrying that he’d burn her skin and ruin the show, his hands trembled and he got the waves around her face wrong.  Luckily her brow was just as high and rounded as Bette’s because he doubted he could have talked her into shaving back her hairline, even though Davis had done it herself twice in her career, both times to play Elizabeth I.

“You’re pulling!” she said, punching his arm.  He was through with the iron now or else she wouldn’t have dared.

Unperturbed, he spoke through a mouthful of bobby pins, “Don’t forget the line is, ‘We’d always been so careful before about writing in the past.’ You said ‘calling’ instead twice last week and you could still hit those t’s a little more aggressively.

“I’ll pretend each one of them is you,” she muttered.

He smiled for the first time all day.

“That’s right, my queen,” Felix said. “Get it all out.”

Finally there was nothing else he could do and Felix had to leave the stage area and take a seat with the class. As he watched Adele perform her scene, he was glad they’d chosen dark green for her outfit, but he couldn’t help but feel she never quite rose above a level of emotion one might call robotic. It was worse than that she wasn’t as fiery as his favorite actress. Rather she was flat, like someone who’d never felt anything before. Maybe she was on the sociopath spectrum, he wondered. Was there a spectrum for that?

The class applauded nicely for Adele.  After the curtain closed on stage,  Professor Dupree studied Felix for an awkward moment.  He imagined she was realizing how much of a role he’d played in Adele’s final project.  Impulsively, he leaned towards her and made a bold suggestion.

“Since I’ve done so much of the work in helping Adele, do you think admissions would let me sign up for the class retroactively, if I could complete all the homework assignments before next Tuesday?”

Her eyes widening, the professor said haltingly, “I don’t think they’d go for that.”

Quelled, Felix studied his lap.

A moment later, Adele was cautiously descending from the stage in her borrowed pumps. Professor Dupree gave her an empathetic smile.

“That was an interesting choice, Adele.”

“It was all Felix,” she answered.

For a moment, it seemed that the two women were transmitting a silent message to each other.  Felix felt if he had a moment, he might figure it out.  But then someone up on stage was asking who brought the plastic rattan valance. They needed to break things down quickly to do their monologue from Fame.

When he was done corralling all of their props and the makeup kit, he couldn’t find Adele anywhere.  The class was recomposing themselves for the next number and the professor gave him a smile that was thin.

As he stepped out of the student center to see if Adele was having a smoke, he heard Professor Dupree give a gleeful little squeal, saying aloud about the next act, “Oh, I love this one!” He shrugged, thinking with some pleasure that Dupree had always struck him as fatally boring.

Adele was sitting on a picnic table on the smoker’s terrace.  She’d unbuttoned the vintage blouse a little, but left her hair up off her neck and face.  In the harsh afternoon light, the makeup looked thick, but her eyes were magnificent.  He shook a cigarette from his pack as he approached her.

“You were great.”

“No I wasn’t,” she said.  “But I’m glad its over.”

He lit his cigarette with a lighter that had a spent flint.  After a moment it sparked, but it was too late to continue to argue her defense.  He said instead, “You want to come over tonight.  We can watch whatever you want.”

She shrugged, “Okay.”

They both knew it would need to be something funny.