Category: flash nonfiction

How Planned Parenthood Helped Me Plan Parenthood

 

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Note: The below words were partly written because I am told to “move to Canada” or sent images of aborted fetuses if I show support for PP on Twitter. This shows a lack of understanding (at best), and I often wonder if shared personal stories might bridge the black and white walls often placed by pro-choice and pro-birth reasoning.

My comment sections are always closed because I write for myself, and if I want trolls, I’ll post publicly on social media. So if you appreciate my words, please follow my blog. 

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I was 11 and at a Kansas City Royals game when I got my first period. My first baseball game and the realization that I was physically able to become pregnant happened on the same day.

If you know any 11-year-old children, male or female, please pause for a moment and picture them taking care of a baby.

You can’t, right? I can’t either. My son is presently 11, and he can’t even remember to brush his teeth. At the same age, had there been a rapist/molester/older boy in my life, I might have been able to carry a baby… 10 years before I could legally drink alcohol.

My periods were heavy, difficult to manage at school, and the cramping was intense, so I got on birth control pills at age 16, thanks to Planned Parenthood. What previously stopped everything in my life for a few days a month was now mild and predictable. Manageable. Many women take birth control pills for this reason.

I also decided to get on birth control pills because I became sexually active as a teenager, and realized I could never get an abortion because of my psychological makeup. However, I refuse to infantilize humans, and believe whether or not to procreate is a decision every woman must make for herself.

Every person and situation is different, and I am in no position to judge anyone else. This is the main reason I have always been, and remain, strongly pro-choice.

I was one of the youngest in my class, plus I graduated early from high school, so I am 16 in my college ID picture. I started college, and moved into an apartment, working multiple food service jobs to pay for tuition, rent, and bills at 17. I couldn’t afford health insurance. I couldn’t even afford a car.

I remained among the working poor until my early 30s, when I got my first job with healthcare. I never needed government assistance, although I definitely qualified financially during many years, but I had no children to feed, so my pride kept me from seeking help.

There were times I couldn’t afford to buy food, and yes—to stay on topic—tampons. I remember rolling up toilet paper in my underwear to create a poor person pad during that time of the month, praying it would stay in place. You do what you have to do.

I also remained on birth control pills the entire time. The reasonably priced well-woman care offered by Planned Parenthood allowed me to not become pregnant with a child I wasn’t emotionally prepared to raise.

Planned Parenthood enabled me to not need government assistance (i.e. taxpayer money) to support a child I couldn’t afford.

Planned Parenthood gave me the pills that kept my naturally-heavy periods predictable and light enough that I was able to consistently stay in the workforce—what might be labeled a productive member of society—rather than needing to call in sick every month.

When I met my husband at age 33, we decided to get married and have a child, and for the first time in my sexually active life, I stopped taking birth control pills. I became pregnant with my son almost instantly.

While my husband likes to brag that this faster-than-anticipated pregnancy was the result of his supernaturally strong sperm, I believe birth control pills are what kept me from becoming a mother before I was ready.

This was confirmed when my son was older, and after my husband’s vasectomy, I was able to get off the pill once again. My ovaries became covered with cysts—the left completely engulfed by one—and I had the most brutal period of my entire life. I had been bleeding harder than ever before, nauseated and unable to eat, for 90 days when my doctor performed the abdominal surgery to remove my left ovary, uterus, and cervix.

I had lost 30 pounds in 6 months and was subsisting on bits of saltine crackers and ginger ale before the surgery. I could only perform my motherly duties in short bursts, stopping between tasks to sit on the couch in a cold sweat as I tried not to vomit. It felt like having a stomach flu for nearly a year, and all symptoms ceased immediately post-surgery. I was given my life back.

I once again started to feel the symptoms after a year, and a sonogram revealed my remaining ovary was covered with 6 cysts, which sometimes happen when a women ovulates, but the ovary doesn’t release the egg. I was put on birth control pills to shut it down, and the cysts disappeared, saving my remaining ovary.

Even though I didn’t realize it, birth control pills had been necessary to prevent cysts my entire life. For many women, they perform this same function.

Sometimes birth control pills allow women like me to shut down their ovaries so that rather than having them removed, they can one day use them to have a child. Or they can continue to function and work. Especially for women with polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis, birth control pills are a medicine.

Birth control pills should be covered by health insurance.

Birth control pills are not “abortion pills,” and work by eliminating the need to ovulate. They prevent the female piece of the pregnancy puzzle from entering the picture. If you are male and consider not ovulating to be the same thing as killing a potential baby, I certainly hope you don’t masturbate. (All of those potential lives lost… you monster!)

For women like myself, Planned Parenthood has been the only affordable way to have a yearly screening for cancer, STDs, and receive birth control in whatever form to prevent pregnancy. I have never once been offered an abortion, or had it discussed in my presence at Planned Parenthood, and I visited them in 4 different cities over the span of 16 years.

I recently found out the Kansas City Royals are in a partnership with the anti-choice Vitae Foundation, and I couldn’t be more disappointed with the first baseball team I ever saw. The fact that I had my first glimpse of fertility at a Royals game struck me, considering that they are partnered with a group that would have expected me to have a baby, had I become pregnant at age 11.

If you would like to sign the petition asking the Kansas City Royals to cut ties with an organization that demeans Planned Parenthood, an invaluable resource for affordable women’s health and family planning—please sign the petition here.

In summation; Planned Parenthood gave me affordable well woman check-ups and birth control when I couldn’t afford healthcare. I will forever be grateful to and support their organization for this reason. Thank you for listening.

She’s a Little Runaway

I laid low for a little while, on my best behavior, after the social worker came by the house. The thought of being sent back to the small town Missouri high school of 400 after attending the exciting Arizona high school of 4000 terrified me. I had a new set of friends that I wanted to keep, even if I only got to see them at school.

I was no longer grounded, not that it mattered much, since I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere anyhow.

There had been no mending of the relationship between my father and me. As my bruised face healed, my pain was forgotten by the adults in charge. After a trip to the dentist to fill in the chipped portion of my front tooth with composite resin, all returned to outer normalcy (if you didn’t count what my father had deemed my “whorish” blond hair). Minus the physical reminders of the fight during which he punched me in the face repeatedly, we moved forward without discussing the incident, as if it had never happened.

There would be no family therapy sessions, no psychological counseling, like in the After School Special television shows. In our family, when abuse happened, we did the sociological equivalent of a cartoon character emitting a “just minding my own business” whistle and sidestepping uneasily out of the room. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

I had my gym bag packed with clothes and all of the money I had ferreted away to date; around forty dollars. The plan was to ask to spend the night at a good friend’s house. If I was denied, I was running away. Because I was never allowed to go anywhere, I was pretty sure I would be running away.

I’d had it. I was angry about being beaten up. I was angry that nobody cared. I was angry that I didn’t get to have a social life and was expected to spend my teenage years friendless, in the middle of nowhere. I was just plain angry, and I wanted to do something bad to the people who were making me feel this way. It really was that simple.

A therapist would probably call it a cry for help, but a more accurate assessment would be that it was a middle finger. Fuck you. Fuck you, you awful, kid-punching people who never let me be a teenager or have any fun. Fuck you, I’m leaving. Oh, and also: fuck you. Did I mention that?

That morning, I asked my father if I could spend the night at my best girlfriend’s house. He said no, as expected. I left the house with a goodbye yelled down the hallway, so that my gym bag would not cause suspicion. I walked the usual route down the dusty gravel road to the bus stop and rode it to school, just to get out of nowhere-land and into the city.

When I got to school, I walked off campus. The girl who had been in accelerated classes and the gifted program her entire life was now resigned to not graduating from high school. I didn’t even care. I was so unhappy with my life; I couldn’t stand it in my desert prison with the guy who’d beaten me up, even one more day.

I wandered around the city, getting further away from the school as the day progressed. I worried my father would send the police to the area, looking for me. What I didn’t realize in my naivety was that he had as much reason as I to avoid the police. The police would ask his teenage runaway daughter questions with ugly answers that painted him in an unflattering light. He never called the police.

Foolishly thinking I would need a disguise, I bought a hair dye in a grocery store to change my white blond hair to a burgundy red. I grabbed a bag of on-sale bread rolls while I was there. I ate a few and gave the rest of them away to a homeless person in a Phoenix alley.

I found a bathroom and changed my hair. The violent incident that led to my eventual running away from home was set into motion by the bleaching of my hair, and the irony of now putting it back to a more father-friendly color to evade the police was lost on me.

After school hours were over, I found a pay phone and called my best friend. She told me about a party that night and we arranged a meeting place where she would come get me. Nothing else to do, I headed that way.

The party was in a cheap motel room. It was being thrown by three older military guys with a penchant for high school girls. The bathtub was full of ice and free booze, and the dimly lit room was packed with illegal deeds. A boom box sat on a bedside table, blasting the latest rock. It was sweaty, crowded, and overpowering. The smell of teenage pheromones was louder than everything.

The party tapered off into the late hours, and as high school curfews slowly eliminated the crowd, I found myself wondering where I was going to sleep.

One of the older guys throwing the party had latched on to me. We were drinking and talking, sitting on the edge of a bed, which would have seemed like a dangerous idea if the same bed hadn’t been used as a crowded couch for the last few hours. It seemed benign enough to an ignorant young girl who had no idea what he really wanted.

He pounced fast, kissing me roughly. I didn’t want to kiss him, not at all. I looked around wildly for help as he pinned me to the dirty motel bed, but the room had cleared. There was nobody left but the two of us. He had been waiting patiently for this opportunity, placating the stupid drunk teenager with small talk and alcohol.

Outside the room, I could hear talking in the parking lot as people said their goodbyes. I could hear cars starting, engines revving, and help leaving.

While he was sucking on my neck, giving me the kind of red marks I would despise the rest of my life, I was trying with all of my strength to push him off. I had moved from not attracted into completely repulsed by him, but I couldn’t make it stop.

He was a big guy, and muscular from the military training. He wouldn’t budge. I started to get genuinely scared, as I let myself think the frantic, horrified thought I’m sure many victims have had: “Oh my god, I’m about to get raped.”

This was how it happened. This was how girls got raped. I was saying, “No. Get off of me,” and he wasn’t listening. At all. But I didn’t want to get raped. I needed a new approach.

My whole life I have had a really calm mind in moments of extreme pressure, and this was one of them. I quickly assessed the situation and decided to psychologically outwit this bastard, if I could.

I stopped struggling and saying no, and acted like I was into what was happening. I kissed back. I used my hands. I convinced him that I wanted it as much as he did. I just needed to earn his trust and get him to lower his guard for one second, because there was no way I was getting out of the situation otherwise. He was just too strong.

Once I’d sold my desire enough, I told him in my best husky, oversexed voice that I thought we should both take off our shirts. He temporarily shifted his weight off of me while he sat up to pull his T-shirt over his head. I made bedroom eyes and pretended to start taking my shirt off too.

This was the chance I’d been hoping for, probably the only one I was going to get. I shoved myself out from underneath him while he was off-balance, and ran for the door to the motel room. I knew that if I could just get outside to yell for help, I’d escape.

I made it outside, with my potential rapist running thirty feet behind me. He was shirtless and angry. I spotted my best friend across the parking lot, exchanging phone numbers with a guy she’d been talking to all night. They were in front of his car, getting ready to leave. I ran as fast as I could in their direction.

When I got there, I said in a low, whispering voice, “Help me, please,” right before the guy I’d left in the motel room bed caught up. I said overly loudly to them, “I just realized I’m late for my curfew! Can you give me a ride home?”

My friend and the guy she was talking to both understood immediately what was happening and hustled me into the car, amid protests from my pursuer. We kept it really chipper and friendly, exclaiming things like, “Hey, thanks for the party!” as we drove away. We left him dejected and annoyed, standing in the parking lot.

Happy Naked New Year

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It was sometime in the mid-nineties, after the last ragged, dying gasps of my foolish decision to marry at nineteen. The disco ball sparkled fragments of light romantically around the floor, where I moved slowly underneath, head pressed against the chest of my new boyfriend. A crowd of equally drunk people swayed around us in the haze. Through the speakers, Whitney Houston was singing “I Will Always Love You” in a time before reality shows would make her a laughingstock. I pushed aside the cynical part of me that was cringing at the drippy song lyrics, and just tried to enjoy the moment. We were young, it was midnight on a New Year’s Eve, and we were naked.

No, not emotionally. That’s not a metaphor or anything. We were actually naked.

He was the bass guitar player in a country-rockabilly band. I was learning to play guitar for an all-girl rock band I was joining, and I’d met him in my crowd of musician friends. His band had a standing New Year’s Eve gig at a nudist colony in Washington, Texas. They would make the drive from where we lived in Warrensburg, Missouri at the end of every year, to ring in the next one at the Live Oak Resort.

I wasn’t a stranger to nudity. When I was a child, my parents’ divorce took my little sister and me from Phoenix, Arizona to a farm outside of Lawrence, Kansas to live with our new stepfather. Our land was completely secluded, and our parents were reformed hippies, so we ran around naked outside in warm weather if we felt like it. Our only neighbors were the proprietors of a lesbian sprout farm that provided alfalfa and bean sprouts to local restaurants and grocery stores. They often walked around topless, and would casually squat to pee in the grass mid-sentence while we chatted with them, so they didn’t mind our nudity. For a couple of city kids, the newfound freedom in the countryside was awesome. Kids love naked time.

When my boyfriend tentatively asked me if I wanted to road trip with his band for the New Year’s Eve gig at the nudist ranch, I didn’t bat an eye. I knew the people watching would be choice. Of course I wanted to go.

As we pulled into the resort and parked the van for load-in, I was surprised to see various stages of clothing on the patrons. Some people wore clothes. Some people were naked. Some were only wearing shorts, but no shirt, as if they were getting dressed and suddenly remembered where they were. Most were wearing shoes, however, which bothered me. There is something inherently off-putting about a fully shod naked person. If you’re going to wear shoes while naked, you might as well strap on a fanny pack, or don a top hat and pair of mittens too. It just looks odd.

During the drive there, I had been briefed by my boyfriend and his band in the etiquette of bare-ass, and what to expect. They told me that nobody would be pressuring us to take off our clothes; nudity was not a requirement. “That’s cool,” I murmured casually, lest they think me uptight.

We got out of the van fully clothed. As promised, no one pointed sternly to the word “nudist” on a sign and demanded that we strip down. The band set up their instruments, sound checked, and we started drinking. Despite the nonchalant attitude we were trying to maintain about the naked people, there was definitely a nervous vibe. I knew I wasn’t the only one whose inner teenager was giggling and pointing.

The large building had been decorated for the occasion in white and silver streamers with rainbow confetti on the tables. There was a disco ball glittering in the middle, and a black velvet-covered deejay booth to one side. The champagne fountain caught my eye immediately. I had only dreamed of such glorious things up to this point in my young life. The sweet alcoholic nectar was flowing expressly for my girl-drink inebriation. Despite my free spirit upbringing, the plethora of casual naked strangers was unnerving, and I knew the champagne fountain and I would become fast friends.

The band got onstage and began to play. Naturally shy, with the boyfriend/social lifesaver now missing from my side, I took up permanent residence near the stream of liquid courage. Through the softening focus of my bubbly-dimmed awareness, I soon realized I was surrounded. The once empty recreation building was slowly filling with people. Naked people.

When you picture a nudist colony, if your mind is like mine, you might mentally hearken back to the sixties, to a time of lax inhibition and free love. You might picture young, unclothed people at one with nature, walking serenely though a field of flowers, holding hands. You might picture throngs of squirming, nubile bodies seeking pleasure from one another. You might even picture yourself in that scenario, if you are feeling sexy. What you do not picture in any imagined dreamscape full of naked people are your grandparents.

But that was what the building was full of: naked grandparents.

I was aghast to discover that my hedonistically carnal vision of what the nudist resort would be like was completely off target. I was expecting Greek gods and goddesses with bodies made of marble and supernatural sexuality on full display. Instead, I was surrounded by elderly people who might have pulled out a hard candy to offer me, if only they had pockets. I didn’t know if I was disappointed, relieved, or repulsed. Probably a combination of the three. The pressure was officially off to be attractive. Anyone with a poor body image would do well to go to a nudist camp.

With the intimidation factor lifted by the sagging skin and alcohol around me, I soon felt comfortable enough to revisit my carefree childhood by taking off my clothes. I stripped down to nothing, leaving my baggy jeans and T-shirt on a chair. Fuck it, I decided. Obviously nobody here cares if I have the body of a Victoria’s Secret model, or even a Lane Bryant model, for that matter.

Standing near the front of the stage drunk and naked, watching my boyfriend’s band play, I was soon asked to dance by one of the older men. It was a fast song, so there was no slow dancing closeness, and I accepted. I was really nervous about the slow songs, though. How would we keep the naughty bits from touching? With visions of Uncle Creepy punch lines dancing in my head, I didn’t want to explore that disturbing riddle any further.

I ended up dancing with many elderly gentlemen. As we talked, most of them seemed to feel obligated to explain to me, the outsider, why they were at the nudist ranch. Even though I never asked, or cared, they seemed determined to give me their reasons for getting naked. They told me they liked the resort because unlike in their normal lives, where they were very wealthy and powerful, nobody could determine one’s financial status without clothing. Everyone was equal when naked.

At the time, this rationalization struck me as noble. My youthfully trusting brain thought they were really neat people for valuing the social equality to be found in nudity. Now that I’m older, I realize they were probably just trying to impress the hot young chick by making sure I knew they were rich. Rather than appreciating the lack of class division, they were actually making certain I was aware of it. Unable to display shiny red sports cars and power suits, all they had left in their arsenal were words of braggadocio. They made sure the cat was out of the bag, or wrinkly old sack, as it were.

The night wore on, and the room full of nudists got more raucous. I noticed there were a few people who stood out as full-fledged extroverts, and many who were more casual. Upon meeting, some women would flirt openly, lasciviously telling me they liked the way I moved my body on the dance floor. Others would politely extend a hand in greeting, as if we were undressed ladies-who-lunch attending a fundraiser for clothing.

One woman was going from table to table, hiking up a leg to show everyone (who didn’t ask) her recent clitoral piercing. I found it interesting that someone could be seeking attention so hard that being naked wasn’t enough; she still needed to perform a labial lambada to stand out. I happened to be close to a few different tables when she did this, each time smiling benignly on the outside, while screaming in horror on the inside. She had managed to do the impossible: making me want to un-see something even more than the wrinkled ocean of senior flesh surrounding us.

There was a younger guy maintaining a constant state of semi-erection as he tried to dance with every woman in the room. People were giggling about this, which surprised me, as I would think any form of bodily mockery would be frowned upon in such a place. I was relieved to discover that even in a room full of nudists, it was still okay to laugh at an errant boner.

One man in particular latched onto me that night, grilling me about the nature of my relationship with the boyfriend. Yet again, the explanation was given that he came to the nudist resort so that he could be naked and not judged for having so much money, blah, blah, blah. Same story as the other men, but he was pushier, shoving a business card into my unwilling hand. “Call me,” he insisted.

The band ended up drinking enough to lose most of their clothing by the end of the night. And there we were: a bunch of naked people rocking out in a Texas warehouse. The show ended before midnight, and a deejay took over, playing all of the grungy songs and romantic ballads the nineties had to offer.

This experience reinforced to me that even in a group of people who consider themselves nonconformists, there will always be the familiar personalities. The archetypes exist with or without clothing: the attention whore, the arrogant rich guy, the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, the criminal… you’ve seen the movie.

Hugging my naked boyfriend on the dance floor at midnight while Whitney serenaded us, I noted the inimitability of the odd evening.This will probably be the most unusual and interesting New Year’s Eve I ever have in my life, I thought. And so far, this has proven to be correct. But I’m not giving up. I remain hopeful that I may someday top it.

Let Them Eat Cake

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Smiling, I watched as two kids around the age of seven happily grabbed pieces of the chocolate cake we were trying to unload. I worked in the free sample corner of a California grocery store. Usually my job involved cooking food for this purpose, but whenever we over-ordered a product, it conveniently became that day’s sample. The customers got to try something new and we got rid of our excess goods. Win-win.

The children had run away down an aisle toward the back of the store, presumably in the direction of their legal guardian. I was not yet a mother at the time, but the way people let their little ones run wild in public had always perplexed me. Weren’t they worried about the safety of their offspring? Weren’t they worried about the annoyance of others? Now that I’m a mother, I still don’t understand this lackadaisical approach to childcare, but if you disagree with me we can discuss…wait, what’s that? Oh, sorry. I can’t hear you over the chop-chop-chop of my helicopter parenting. Forgive me.

A woman walked up to my counter with an unpleasant sneer on her face. “What about the kids?” she barked at me. “That was chocolate cake! What about the kids?”

She was obviously angry that I’d given the children sugary food without asking their parents. She was not angry about the fact that the kids were completely without supervision–she was angry at me, the girl who was not allowed to deny anyone a sample, as per the boss’s orders.

If someone stood at the counter eating all of my samples, despite the fact that I got in trouble for an empty tray, I wasn’t allowed to say a thing. When the homeless lady came in daily to eat everything at once (and chug the entire carton of milk supposed to be used as coffee creamer), I had to watch in silence. What this abrasive, snarling soldier in the fight against sugar didn’t realize was that I was not allowed to join her military. I was sugar Switzerland.

But did I say any of this to her? No. Why not? Well, first of all, I needed the job. Arguing with a customer certainly wouldn’t garner me a raise come employee evaluation time.

Secondly, I am non-confrontational to a flaw. I don’t like it. It makes my stomach hurt.

And last of all, and most importantly, she was being rude. I didn’t deserve to be snapped at because somebody didn’t care enough to make sure their kids weren’t taking candy from strangers.

So what did I do? How did I handle the situation? I’m a bit embarrassed to say because it wasn’t very mature of me. In my defense, I had fifteen years of working customer service jobs with the public under my tired belt, and honestly, my patience with mean people was running on empty. I could still fake sincerity with the best of them, but my years of hoping that people are mostly good at heart were long behind me. My jaded inner Pollyanna was sitting firmly on the steps of her imaginary trailer, chain smoking and hollering ignorant invectives at the neighbors.

My temper in absentia, I did the first passive-aggressive thing that popped into my head. I pretended I didn’t understand her. She had a thick Spanish accent, and the way she was saying “the kids” made it sound like “da keys.” So I went with it.

“The keys? Have you lost your keys? The customer service desk is right over there. If someone has turned in your keys, that’s where they’ll be,” I told her kindly, with a beatific smile plastered pleasantly upon my lying jerk face.

“No! The kids! What about the kids?!” she yelled.

I continued to radiate sweetness and innocence, coupled with a not un-dog-like head turn to let her know that I was confused, yet patiently trying to understand her dilemma. I was here to help.

“Oh no. So…your keys? Did you lose your keys? Well, if you go to the customer service center they can help you find your keys, ma’am.” Still smiling. Apologetic nose crinkle. Blank eyes.

She turned beet red. I could practically see the cartoon steam coming from her ears. “No! The KIDS! The KIDS! The KIDS!” she spluttered at me in fury. Except that because of her accent it came out as: “Da KEYS! Da KEYS! Da KEYS!”

So I continued to psychologically poke the crazed woman by acting like I thought she’d lost her keys. Nobody does passive-aggressive like a person working retail. Nobody.

She stormed over to the customer service desk I’d pointed out to her and grabbed a manager. It was Jamie, one of the cooler ones, thank goodness. Her anger really helped my cause, as by the time she dragged him over to my counter she looked completely insane. Meanwhile, I thought about unicorns, emanated rainbows, and adjusted my halo.

“She is so STUPID! She is an IDIOT!” she pointed at me accusingly as I widened my eyes in feigned surprise. I held my hands out at the manager and said, “I’m sorry, Jamie. I thought she lost her keys, but I guess I’m not really understanding what she wants. I was just trying to help.”

“That’s okay. How can I help you, ma’am?” he inquired, turning to her politely.

Behind my manager’s back, I gave her a very different smile from the friendly “eediot” smile I’d been giving as I pretended to not understand for what she was berating me.

This smile knew she’d been saying “kids” and not “keys” all along.

This smile was shotgun-married to the hardened gleam in my eyes, and knew the score.

This smile whispered “Fuck you” as it passed you in a crowd, and kept walking.

It was at that moment she knew I’d been messing with her the whole time, and when she realized she wasn’t going to get me in trouble, she became even more enraged.

Without attempting to further thwart my agenda for the corruption of angelic children via evil chocolate cake, she immediately demanded that he refund her money and take back the bag of groceries she’d purchased.

Because yes, like some sort of sugar police officer noticing a violation while off-duty, she had been walking out of the store when the kids took my samples, and walked back in to yell at me. Now she stormed over to a register with Jamie for the refund, and then flounced out of the building, loudly announcing that she’d never shop in our store again.

(It never fails to amaze me when irate customers say this, as if the employees will take it as an insult. What we’d really like is a promise. Maybe even a legally binding document stating that you will never, ever come back. Please. Do it for the kids.)

The Chocolate Cake Incident happened in Los Angeles, the land of the body-conscious and health-minded. A few years later, I met the man who would become my husband, and we had a baby. To give our child a backyard in which to play, we moved to Oklahoma, the home of the not-so-body-conscious and not-so-health-minded. Sugar flows freely here. Gravy abounds.

In Oklahoma, nobody screams at me for feeding children chocolate cake. In Oklahoma, I am treated like a hippie freak for enjoying vegetables, and not really liking processed foods. I am sometimes appalled on play dates with other kids when their mothers hand them unnatural junk foods like dyed chemicals disguised as yogurt squeezed from plastic tubes, or as I recently witnessed, pull out a bag of marshmallows for them to eat with their Capri Sun high-fructose corn syrup waters.

Because it seems to be everywhere, we try to keep the sugar to a dull roar at home without being weird about it. We figure that if we don’t give our son too much daily sugar, it will be a nice treat when he receives it at school or from his grandparents. I recognize that it is my job as his parent to teach him to eat well so that he won’t become an adult with obesity and poor diet-related health issues. But I’d like to do this without making him feel so deprived he winds up overcompensating for all the desserts he missed once he’s grown up.

You know. Moderation.

My husband took our son with him to run an errand at the DMV this weekend. As they waited in line, a kind stranger bought our boy a gumball from a nearby machine. My husband was perturbed by the presumption that it was okay to give someone’s child sugar without asking. When he told me about it, I was bothered more that they gave an unknown child gum, as it was only months ago we could finally start trusting him to not swallow it.

As we discussed this, it occurred to me that we had become the sugar police. We were now the concerned adults whining about giving too much sugar to children. I immediately remembered the time I was on the non-parent side in Los Angeles, and tried to put myself into the shoes of the woman who’d chewed me out for giving chocolate to children six years ago.

Was she right? Should I have risked losing my job to take the cake away from the unsupervised kids? Had I unknowingly set the obesity and diabetes wheels in motion for them? Should I have explained that my job required me to give samples away to everyone? Had I been too cruel as I pretended I didn’t understand what she was saying to me?

Nah. That lady was a bitch.

 

 

Very Superstitious

 

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Whenever I see a tails-side-up penny on a sidewalk, or in a parking lot, I think of her.

Every time she spotted one, she would kick it as hard as she could.

Everybody knows that only a heads-up penny is good luck, so she kicked the tails-up pennies.

I found this to be terribly endearing, like she was kicking out at the Fates. Take that, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos.

Or perhaps by kicking a penny into the heads-up position, she selflessly passed on good luck to an unsuspecting stranger. Numismatic altruism.

Whenever I see a penny on the ground now, I think of her.

I think about what a talented songwriter and musician she was.

I think about my ruined credit from using plastic to pay for our band van repairs, gasoline, and groceries. Trying to survive in a rock band full of rich girls was not easy for a poor kid with no parental parachute.

I remember them coming into the Subway where I worked, alcohol buzzed midday and having fun. They had no idea how badly I wanted to be a carefree twenty-something on a day drunk too, but nobody was paying my way.

I think about all of the time I put into our band: the hours I spent on the phone with A&R reps, booking gigs, mailing music, and hanging show posters. How I quit college one semester from a degree to go on tour, only to be kicked out by her after we finally signed a major label record deal. And how they had to hire a manager to do all the promotional work I’d been doing to get us signed because nobody else in the band could ever wake up before noon.

I think about how she organized it so that the whole band and our label rep from New York kicked me out chickenshit-style as a group, rather than having the human decency to do it one-on-one. I was the fourth person she’d fired from the band in two years, so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.

I think about how I missed the chance to play at the private R.E.M. end-of-tour party in Athens, Georgia, even though I had everything to do with Mike Mills noticing our band.

I think about the time we got into such a horrible, drunken fight that we threw full beer cans at each other.

I think about the next day, when she asked me how my bathroom mirror got broken and I sarcastically laughed until I realized she really didn’t remember throwing the beer can at my head and missing. (I ducked. Seven years bad luck.)

I think about her annoying rich-kid-with-nothing-real-to-think-about ramblings. “What is the Absolute Truth?” she often pretentiously wondered aloud. “What are we doing here on the planet?” she would toss into a conversation. But most of us were tired from working a job all day here on the planet and just wanted to relax.

It was irritating to be around, to be constantly slapped in the face with someone’s existential angst. Struggling with unanswerable questions is not how I choose to live my life — that’s why I’m not religious. I don’t care who put us here, why we’re here, or where we go when we die. I’ve got bills to pay.

She had no job and her parents bought everything: her college, rent, brand new car, and musical gear. She could spare the brain space, as she had nothing to do but think about such things. Money can make a person crazy that way.

Sometimes I think about the cat she named Abby, short for Absolute Truth. She later abandoned it when she moved into an apartment that wouldn’t allow animals. I wonder what the Absolute Truth was for that poor creature.

I wonder if she’s doing drugs all of the time, and if she still thinks that when she trips on acid she’s getting in touch with her Native American heritage, as if her great, great, great-grandmother being Cherokee makes her drug-induced hallucinations “visions” instead of drug-induced hallucinations.

I think about her insane rages whenever she’d attempt to drink anything stronger than beer — when she’d become violent, uncontrollable, and even piss herself after shots of whiskey.

I wonder if she’s still ruining the lives of the people around her.

Whenever I see a penny on the ground now, I think of her.

And I kick it.

 

 

Forget It

 

It had been years, but she still couldn’t forget it. The awkward feeling she had inside when they said goodbye. They’d only been together a few months, but it felt like forever.

Their meeting at a show both their bands had played was unnervingly comfortable, as if their souls already knew one another, and it was actually only the bodies meeting for the first time. Usually very shy, she was instantly at ease with him. They had a rapport and camaraderie she normally only had with lifelong friends. They slept together the first chance they could, and that was natural too.

They explored the huge city together; shopping in cheap dollar stores for food, drinking beer to pass the hot summer days, and watching bands play in bars. He had an avocado tree that extended over the roof of his house, so they would climb out the kitchen window to pick them. Sometimes they would drink and talk by the avocado tree on the roof, or play acoustic guitars to pass the time.

She was in love with him in minutes, but couldn’t tell him so, because she didn’t have the right. In any other situation, she wouldn’t have let him walk away, she would have held on and never let go, but he was already spoken for. He was taken. And she couldn’t take him away from his girlfriend. His girlfriend was younger, and so obviously naïve for trusting him. She could tell from the way he described her that she was somewhat weak emotionally, and sheltered. Their break-up would break her.

Because his girlfriend lived across the country, she assumed it would be a matter of time before the distance ended the relationship, the way distance almost always does. It was that pesky almost that would come back to bite her in the ass.

She would lie next to him in bed, silently listening to them talk on the phone, and watching him leave the apartment to argue with her, but every time they seemed near the break-up she assumed was inevitable, things would return to normal.

She was soon humiliated to find herself playing the other woman to a faceless girl in another state. She knew she could do better – she knew she deserved better – but she kept hoping that something would change. Until it did, she didn’t have the right to love him. She wouldn’t allow herself to say it. But she felt it.

She knew it was his decision to make, it was his choice, and it hurt more than anything to think that she wouldn’t be chosen. When he verbally acknowledged this choice during a pregnancy scare by saying, “Well if you are, I guess we’ll start thinking up names. And I guess I’ll have to tell her it’s over,” it sickened her that he was so nonchalant. That he was too cowardly to follow his heart, and would allow his destiny to be determined by biology.

As time passed, she became angry about being second choice, about being a substitute stand-in for the real thing, because he wasn’t that to her. He was the real thing. And she was angry because she believed in the goodness of her own heart. She knew she was not second best to anyone. She was the real thing too. She deserved better than second choice status.

Slowly becoming moody and sullen, she grew resentful that the relationship couldn’t progress further than the stunted and deformed bastardization of love it had become. She knew that if it had started the right way, if there were no secrets, no constraints, and no significant others, it could have been beautiful. It never had a chance. She never had a chance.

Pride, or fear, or futility kept her from ever telling him that she loved him. But she did. She wasn’t supposed to love him, and she wasn’t allowed to love him, but she loved him anyway.

She walked away from him forever after they had awkwardly, ridiculously hugged one last time; as if a hug could somehow sum up everything they’d shared.

She felt so confused and conflicted. She wanted to tell him she loved him, and please don’t leave me here alone in this huge city, and please don’t leave me here alone on this empty street, and please don’t leave me here alone, and please don’t leave me.

But instead, she walked away quickly so he wouldn’t see the tears running down her face, making the buildings blurry and the palm trees shimmer.

A month later he emailed her to tell her he’d moved back to where his girlfriend lived. They were engaged to be married, he told her. She didn’t answer.

He was confused when she didn’t email him back, to congratulate him, and emailed her to ask if something was wrong. She told him that it was hard to feel like celebrating his news of engagement when he’d been fucking her behind the oblivious back of his bride-to-be a month ago.

He stopped sending emails.

She was still trying to forget it.

Alone

 

She liked to go for walks in the forest near her house in the country.

She also spent time playing in the barn where her brown and white spotted horse sought shelter from bad weather.

The barn was full of animal stalls no longer used, and an upper loft where nobody could see her, reached by a ladder made of wood. When she unlatched and swung open the small window in the upper center of the barn-top, she could see for miles across the green countryside.

Her favorite hiding place was in the hay barn, an outbuilding made of metal, and full of fescue cut from fields adjacent the farm. She was almost a teenager, and strong enough now to move the hay bales around, making secret rooms and forts hidden from the entrance. Sometimes she would bring a book, and quietly read by herself for hours in a cave made of hay.

Living so far away from civilization had caused her to grow comfortable with her silent, solo self. She no longer had the desire to be around other kids or people. Whether this was a form of learned helplessness – a coping mechanism to deal with forced solitude – or a natural preference, she was no longer certain. But she was okay with herself, by herself. It was peaceful, and nobody hurt her when she was alone.

Today she walked down the path that led into the forest. She loved it in the forest; the sounds of squirrels scratching around in the trees, and birds singing careless songs. She would often climb up into a favorite tree and watch nature making music all around her.

There was a dump in the forest, used by farmers from all around, where she would sometimes ferret around, looking for other people’s treasures. It was there she found the seventies copy of The Joy of Sex, full of hairy, hippie-looking people in embarrassing poses that repulsed her. She hoped that when her time for romance finally arrived, it would look nothing like the pictures contained in that moldy old book.

Sometimes she would find the tracks of what were probably large dogs, that she liked to tell herself were from mountain lions, if only to make the peaceful forest feel dangerous and exciting for a moment. She wondered what she would do if she ever encountered a big cat on one of her nature walks.

Today she was feeling sleepy. The late afternoon air was thick and syrupy. The sun was bright, the stream she walked along was trickling quietly, and the warmth of the summer day made her eyes grow heavy. Rather than go all the way back to the house to nap, she decided to lie down in a patch of soft clover she spotted underneath some trees.

She stared at the clouds for a few minutes before drifting off to sleep.

She was startled out of sleep by what felt like claws on her legs. Terrified, she opened her eyes to see what it might be.

Standing on her legs was a wild rabbit.

Agouti brown, with glossy, dark eyes, the rabbit stared back at her in surprise. She held very still, so as not to frighten the small creature, as they looked at each other silently for a moment.

Deciding she was no threat, the rabbit casually hopped off of her legs and continued munching clover nearby.

She looked back up at the sky, feeling blessed and happy to be alive, quietly existing among other animals like herself.

She was not alone.

The Book of Lies

 

He had a collection of guns underneath his bed. They were casually stored there, the way one might store useless winter sweaters over a hot summer. I kept clothes under my bed, and he kept… guns.

I didn’t really know how to feel about the guns. We didn’t have children in the house, so it wasn’t a safety issue. It just seemed kind of intense and odd to sleep over a herd of guns; to fuck over the guns; to watch sitcoms on the television in bed, while laughing above the pile of guns.

The guns languished beneath us the entire year we dated, listening to our arguments, sex and snores, waiting for their moment in the sun.

The biggest gun was an SKS rifle. He took me to some land on his parents’ farm one afternoon, and let me shoot the SKS. It kicked back into me with a force I’d never felt when I shot guns on my own parents’ farm.

I didn’t like the way it felt. The SKS took the usual video game tomfoolery of smaller guns into the realm of certain death and destruction. It felt ominous. Apocalyptic.

He was hung up on power. He could never have enough power. He was a computer hacker who worked a straight job safeguarding the city’s computer system from other hackers. He referred to himself more than once as the Dark Horse.

He was also very secretive, and his browser history showed young girl porn websites I didn’t even want to begin to understand. His poorly hidden dresser drawer porn showed rape scenes with girls tied up by groups of men. It was more than disturbing.

I ran into an old friend at a local rock show who visibly blanched when I mentioned that I was dating this guy. He pulled me aside to talk about him.

“You know he worships Satan, right?”

“Ha ha, very funny,” I said dryly, assuming this person was exaggerating for effect.

“No, really, he worships the devil. I’m not kidding around. He’s totally into all of that black magic bullshit. Ask him.”

I assumed this person was just the victim of rumors gone wild. People see a guy who dresses in black, and they assume things like this because they need to categorize and label things they don’t understand. My boyfriend had never mentioned this to me before, so I did an inner eye-roll and dismissed what my friend in the bar had said. Mostly.

Eventually it started to nag at me. Yes, it seemed like a pretty big secret to keep from the person you were dating. But what kept making me wonder were the other dark secrets. The information my friend had shared made me uneasy. The boyfriend was obsessed with power, and the idea that he might play around with witchcraft and alternative philosophies to make himself feel mysterious wasn’t beyond comprehension.

But a Satanist? It made me cringe in embarrassment for him to think about it. It was so trite to dress in black and cast “spells” on the people you dislike. So childish. He was in his mid-twenties, for Chrissake. Surely he was past that high school-ish phase of rebellion?

I waited until he was taking a shower one day, and searched through his closet to see if I would find anything. The shower was downstairs, so this afforded me fifteen minutes of time alone.

Hurrying, I dug into the packed closet, scooting clothing, board games and boots aside. I didn’t know what I was hoping to find, but I knew that whatever it might be, it would be in the back.

Buried there under some sweaters, perhaps the sweaters displaced by the collection of guns under the bed, was a stack of books. Many of them were by a man named Aleister Crowley. There were books about black magic, rituals, the occult, voodoo, and ceremonial spells. I couldn’t believe it. My friend in the bar had been telling the truth.

I quickly looked through the books, then hid them back where I found them before he came back up the stairs from the shower.

The books were creepy, but what bothered me the most was the realization that I was being intimate with a complete stranger. I had no idea who this person was, or of what he was capable.

I’m not at all religious, and would have laughed along with him if he’d confessed that he’d dabbled in such things in his youth, because we’ve all done stupid things.

But I was haunted by this discovery, because what I really discovered was that I would have sex with someone I didn’t know very well.

I discovered that I was so superficial I would date someone who hid ugly things like rape porn and black magic spell books.

I discovered that I was shallow enough to be with someone completely pathetic, simply because it was better than being alone.

That was when the realization finally hit me that it wasn’t better than being alone at all. Because I was already alone the whole time. He wasn’t sharing himself with me in any way, and never would.

The incident completely changed the way I viewed him, and the way I viewed myself. I broke up with him soon thereafter.

Springtime

 

He kept her trapped inside the winter of his life like a frozen flower.

He gave her no happy sunshine, no soul-quenching water, and no rich, nurturing soil in which she might grow. Instead, he made certain she would never thrive in the cold, hard, unbreakable ground of his disapproval.

He admitted this to her openly, that he kept her poor and unhappy so she would find the idea of life without him, the idea of life not-on-his-terms too daunting to try. He kept her broken, so she’d never feel whole and strong enough to run away.

So she prayed for warmth, wondering on the shortest, darkest days if joy would ever come back into her life. She began to question whether or not it had ever been there in the first place. She had forgotten what it felt like.

That harsh season, she learned that alone and lonely don’t always go hand-in-hand. Sometimes the loneliest one can ever be is in the arms of someone who isn’t really there. And sometimes when somebody says they’ve given you their love, they have actually given you nothing but empty words in the shape of a heart.

She continued to beg him for scraps of kindness, like a dog in a restaurant alley. He moved further away with every desperate plea she made. The unwanted mongrel of her weakness only filled him with disdain.

Please give me flowers, she would ask, wanting to feel appreciated.

Annoyed with her requests, he once brought home grocery store flowers, and tossed them at her in disgust.

“Here are the flowers you wanted so badly,” he sneered.

That really wasn’t what she meant.

He never understood.

What she really meant was please approve of me, in the way my father never did, and please genuinely care about me. Please want to take care of me, even though I can take care of myself. And even though I’ve proven I can live on nothing, give me something, simply because you want to, and not because you have to.

Stop making me feel like the afterthought I have been for every single person in my entire sad life.

Make me the first thing you think about every day.

She waited patiently through the solstice of her pain, life standing still and afraid to move, until one day she found the sun. The ice melted off her petals and she felt strong, like she could grow again.

She was finally ready to value herself in the way he never would. She finally knew her own worth. She was ready to leave.

It was springtime.