My essay from Literal Latte comes back to my consciousness today. Thought I am not a huge fan of John McCain’s philosophy, I am a huge fan of his bravery. How dare these people in the White House say such awful things about a man who has been through so much…
http://www.literal-latte.com/2012/09/im-not-writing-about-robin/ From Literal Latte:
I’m Not Writing About Robin
Second Prize, 2011 Literal Latte Essay Award.
We have all heard the old joke about God and the Devil and the glittering jewel on the path. “What is that?” asks the Devil in admiration. “It is the Truth,” replies God. After a moment’s silence the Devil makes a helpful suggestion, “Let me organize it for you.”
— Brent Mitton
The Guru is Not Absent: The Case for Dharmatherapy
My friend, Robin, died recently. I drove across the country to visit her before she died, to remind her that her bravery made me brave. She seemed comforted by this thought, as much as you can be comforted when you know you’re going to die within a specific timeframe.
The chance of our stories becoming intertwined was unlikely. Robin had traveled the world. She’d been a guide in Alaska. She’d been a long-distance trucker. Me, I’m a wage slave who’s lived in the same town for so long I could drive the streets blind-folded. The circuitous route that led us to each other, that brought two people staring death in the face together, began in a writer’s workshop. We both liked to tell stories. She wrote about her travels — I wrote about relationships.
Fiction is what I usually write. This is not fiction.
I’ve told friends, “It’s like bad television.” You’d never see this played out on Grey’s Anatomy because it doesn’t ring true. And of course, there’s the superstition factor — usurping someone else’s story has got to screw up my own karma.
So instead, I’m going to write about the nature of reality and the writer’s obligation. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, ever since James Frey’s dust-up with Oprah Winfrey. Frey wrote a book, A Million Little Pieces, supposedly the true story of his descent into addiction. After Oprah chose it for her book club, the story turned out to have a number of embellishments. Okay, let’s call a spade a spade — he lied. He lied so badly that he even appropriated the tragedies of others for his own gain.
Outed by a website called The Smoking Gun, Frey came to stand for dishonesty at its most venal. His lie was at least as horrible as Herman Rosenblat’s scam, which was based on a story Oprah once declared “the single greatest love story in 22 years of doing this show.” Rosenblat wrote a memoir, Angel at the Fence, describing how his future wife passed apples through a fence to help him survive a concentration camp. Poor Oprah. I can understand her getting sucked in. What I don’t understand is why these writers wrote “memoir.” Why not write fiction?
Fiction is what I usually write. This is not fiction. When I write non-fiction, I make a strict distinction between what is true and what is invented. What I say here, in this essay, is truth — although admittedly filtered through my perceptions.
Ah, but there’s the rub. My husband, the main victim — er character — of many of my essays has said, “It’s not that you lie. You just remember big.”
Or I remember differently. My children accuse me of making up stories about them. I just tell the facts. It is a fact that my daughter swallowed a battery on a bet when she was fourteen years old. It is a fact that, around the same age, my son put his hand through the wall of our house because I wouldn’t buy him new clothes before school started. Yet, when I state these facts, they accuse me of lying. What do I have to do to establish veracity? Show the X-ray of the battery sitting in my daughter’s duodenum? Or show the fist-sized hole in the hallway of my house, strategically unrepaired? (I think it’s a good object lesson for my volatile youngest child to see that hole on a regular basis.)
The fact that they don’t want me to tell these stories gives me pause. And yet — and yet — when I attend family gatherings and try to be silent, someone always eggs me on, sometimes even the perpetrators. As in, “Oh, sure, Mom’s going to tell that story about me punching the wall again.” This is the stuff of folklore, these are family stories, campfire material, sagas I will pass down to my grandchildren who will someday say to their grandchildren, “And once, when your great-grandmother was fourteen, she swallowed a battery because her younger brother dared her…”
I consider these stories to be my stories. They do not belong to my children. My children have a completely different take on the same events, though the events happened exactly as I have described them. They belong to me because I was there, because I was the one who had to call Poison Control and explain that my yes-indeed-fourteen-year-old not fourteen-month-old daughter had swallowed a battery and to tell my husband that yes indeed our youngest child had put his hand through the wall! By virtue of my participation, these are my stories. I am the ultimate voyeur in my own life.
So, I will not write about Robin because I do not want to detract from the miraculous experience of her life. I don’t want to diminish the horror that befell her, and I don’t want to devalue her courage. However, I know that she will not be able to write about it, because she told me she wasn’t going to and because, by the time you read this, she will be dead. So there should be no conflict about me stealing her story. The only conflict is within me, that somehow, by telling her story, I am dishonoring her memory. And I do not want to dishonor the memory of someone so brave.
When she asked me to take her to the hospital, I knew something was seriously wrong….
When you write a piece of fiction, you must make it believable. Robin and I met in a writer’s workshop. Sometimes, we in writers’ workshops have to tell new writers that what they wrote is not believable. Sometimes their response is, “But this really happened.” And we say, “Ah, but nevertheless, it’s not believable.”
Some truths are just so strange they’re not believable. The fact that they happened has nothing to do with their believability.
So I will not write about how Robin called me one winter morning and said she’d been in a minor car accident the day before and how she had some numbness in her hands and feet. And how I offered to take her to the emergency room to be sure she didn’t have a pinched nerve. And how we went to the emergency room on the Sunday before Martin Luther King’s birthday and the ER doc decided she should have a CAT scan, just to be on the safe side. And how, sitting in the CT waiting room, I knew something was wrong because the CT tech came out and said, “You’re going to be here a while. Would you like a blanket?” And how I got goosebumps when he said that.
You see, I had recently been in that same room, waiting for a CT to pinpoint the rectal tumor that was threatening to kill me. Robin and I barely knew each other then — we had just met. As I progressed through my treatment, I talked to her about some of my experiences. Once I asked in amazement, “Do you know I have to take a shot every week that costs $1,500? How do people without insurance survive?”
“They don’t,” she answered. It turned out she was hiding a secret from me. She’d been having intestinal problems but couldn’t afford a colonoscopy. Only when her appendix burst and she was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery did the doctors find the tumor in her colon that threatened her life. We were both relieved to get treatment and recover. We were both gun-shy about going to a doctor for any reason, for fear that something else would go wrong.
So when she asked me to take her to the hospital, I knew something was seriously wrong. Perhaps she’d damaged her spine in the wreck. So, I’m not going to write about sitting in that waiting room wrapped in a warmed white blanket while people bustled in and out, not making eye contact, and how I knew it was bad because this was the Sunday of a long weekend and special people had been called in who normally don’t work long holiday weekends. I’m going to write about how I knew something was wrong because I’d been in that same room a year and a half before and that same tech had pinpointed my own tumor like a butterfly stuck to a corkboard. So, see, this is my story, not Robin’s story. Me, wrapped in a warm white blanket, waiting for my friend to be released, thinking, whoa, déjà vu.
Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to your will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Amen.
— Book of Common Prayer (1979)
I am not going to write about the handsome, distraught young ER doc who came into our sterile ER room and gave us the incredible news. I am not going to describe his shocked face as he told Robin, “You have a huge brain tumor and I’m afraid there’s no cure.”
She actually made a joke. “Thank God, now I have an excuse for forgetting things — I thought I was getting Alzheimer’s,” and we actually laughed. I’m not going to describe how we ended up comforting him — got that? — we comforted him! as he tried to explain that the tumor was huge. I’m not going to mention how he looked when she told him she had five kids and needed to make plans.
A few weeks before, we’d celebrated her birthday at a nearby state park, Paynes Prairie. Robin loved the Prairie. She told me the history of this park right outside my own town, how it had once been the domain of Seminole Indians, how steamboats once crossed its grassy savannah. Our writers’ group celebrated her birthday on the prairie with readings of fiction and poetry. It was a lovely, Florida December day, breezy and sunny, and we toasted her sixty years on earth and wished her sixty more. And here it was, less than a month later, and her life was over.
And I’m certainly not going to talk about the cold, hot-shot young neurologist who told her that she had a glioblastoma, the most virulent form of brain tumor, and that without treatment she had less than a month to live. With surgery she might live for six weeks, but might be blind or paralyzed or not know she was Robin anymore. The neurologist asked her all kinds of pointed questions as if she were a fascinating specimen, with no hint of humanity in his face or voice. “Have you ever blacked out? Do you have trouble remembering things? Have you had a lot of headaches lately?” No, no, no, she’d never had any, none, zilch, zip, no fucking symptoms.
Instead, I’ll talk about how my friend Robin wanted a cigarette and how I held the bag dripping steroids into her system as we walked out the front door of the ER and how some nurse practically assaulted us, shouting, “You can’t take her outside!” And how much, how very much I wanted revenge on the entire medical profession, particularly the many people who’d missed my own tumor for so many years (see how we personalize the most ludicrous moments?) by screaming at this rude nurse, “Listen Bitch, she has an inoperable brain tumor. She can do whatever she wants.” And how I managed to restrain myself because Robin was so brave and I wanted to show I could be courageous, too, but by God in Heaven if she wanted a cigarette, that was her right.
And I’m not going to talk about staying with her all day until we got a hospital bed, and how I was there when she called her oldest friend, Beverly, in Texas and her oldest son in Ohio and asked him to tell the other kids what was going on. And how I didn’t want to leave but she needed things from her condo so I agreed to go and tell her roommate what was happening.
But I will talk about the guilt I felt leaving the hospital and how beautiful the sunset was that night and how I cried, thinking it was insensitive of me to even notice such a mundane thing as a sunset when Robin was dying. And how I couldn’t find the notebook she wanted and how I had to sleep before I went back to the hospital and how just being in the hospital, on the same floor where I’d spent the longest year of my life one week, caused me to feel panicked and breathless. When I returned to the hospital, I was absolutely manic. I wanted everyone to treat her well. So I turned into a one-woman comedy routine. For the sake of Robin, how endearing could I be? How many jokes could I tell? How fast could I talk? Could I throw salt over my shoulder?
Repression… the painful emotions arising out of the conflict, are actively or automatically thrust out of consciousness into the unconscious, in which, however, they still remain active, determining behavior and experience, for the most part indirectly and producing neurotic symptoms of various kinds, as well as determining dreams, both night and day, and underlying many types of deviations from normal behavior.
— James Drever
A Dictionary of Psychology (1952), via Columbia Univ.
I can talk about volunteering my home to Robin and her children so they could assemble and decide what their next step would be. What would you do if you had a month to live? Gather your family, go to the woods, walk deserted paths, explore the edges of lakes and swamps, watch the sun come up every day and never watch it set?
Here is where the curse sets in. If I wrote about the things I saw that week, would that trivialize them? Would I commandeer them against their will, hold them hostage, wring the truth from them and leave them dripping wet on the floor, abused and abandoned? When does someone else’s experience belong to you? Oprah, Oprah, tell me true?
Remember, my friend Robin is a writer. But she chose not to write about this. So does that mean the story is up for grabs?
The truth is so complicated. If I say my daughter swallowed a battery on a dare, that’s the truth. But the complication is that my daughter is the kind of kid who never, ever did anything wrong, and the fact that her wild brother bet her she wouldn’t do it means she practically had to do it. Just to show him that she could be a bad girl sometimes. Just to prove she was normal.
And my son, who put his fist through a wall because I wouldn’t buy him new clothes, didn’t tell me that an older girl had taken a sudden interest in him. This was the first time a girl had ever noticed him and he was flattered and frightened by the attention. He didn’t tell me. I didn’t get it. All I saw was that damn hole.
My truth is much more complicated than saying I went to the emergency room with a friend and she had an inoperable brain tumor. Because at the time, I was hiding a major secret of my own, fear that my cancer had returned. I had a mammogram in October, and was told I was fine. Then the doctor’s office called back and said, whoops, we found something, please come back. So, reluctantly, I returned for a follow-up visit, and the second mammogram showed a lump in my breast. I was then given a sonogram and that clearly showed the lump. So they referred me for an MRI. At this point, I opted out.
“You mustn’t avoid me, anymore. Whatever you decide to do, I’ll respect your decision, but you must not avoid me.”
Maybe if they hadn’t told me I was okay after the original mammogram, I wouldn’t have been so frustrated, so furious and so frightened that I went into avoidance behavior. After a year of chemo, radiation, surgery and more chemo, I couldn’t stand the thought of starting again. I began avoiding the omnipresent members of the medical profession. I refused to return phone calls from the mammogram doctor. I tore up certified letters sent to me.
Cancer had become the blight that blurred the landscape of my life, muddying the horizon as it came ever closer. Right before the mammogram, my youngest sister and my dear friend, Susan, had both been diagnosed with breast cancer. The two of them told me about their treatments, their fears, their intimations of mortality. Because I’d been through treatment for cancer, they felt they could confide in me. I couldn’t tell them my own mammogram had come back positive. I thought I’d rather die.
My primary physician, Dr. Ruben, got into the act. He started to call my house, personally. He left messages telling me I needed the MRI. I quit answering my phone at home and at work. I deleted his messages before my husband could hear them.
Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis. “Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil…” said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you…But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.”
— Wikipedia: St Francis of Assisi
So I will not write about Robin having an MRI. I will write about how I felt sitting in the MRI room pretending to read a magazine while Robin was inserted into a metal tube and pounded with noisy waves of magnetism and how I pretended I was fine and made small talk between the horrendous noises to let her know I was still there and how all I could think was, I can’t do that. I will not be able to take that test. And I will not write about standing in Robin’s hospital room listening to her make plans for her death with her children and how the reality of what I was hearing was like an assault and I thought, but I can’t just stay in limbo. So, I told her I’d been avoiding the doctors and that because she’d been so brave I would have the damn MRI. This made her feel better. She said, “If something good comes of this, then maybe it’s been worth it.”
I called my doctor, and I cried on the phone as I told him about listening to Robin plan her funeral. “If I have cancer again,” I said, “I’m not going to have any treatment. But I’ll have the MRI, so I can tell my family how long I have to live.”
This sweet man, who had taken me on as a patient the week I was diagnosed with cancer, the man who had referred me to the experts who saved my life, said, “You mustn’t avoid me, anymore. Whatever you decide to do, I’ll respect your decision, but you must not avoid me.” I agreed to this, although I didn’t believe him. Doctors are fundamentally incapable of letting you deny treatment. But I respect this man. I told him about my claustrophobia, so he prescribed large quantities of Valium to get me through the MRI.
Dr. Rubin had me pick up my records from the office where I’d had the mammograms and sonogram and bring them to the MRI facility. On the way, I pulled out the X-rays and stared at the tumor. The mass in my chest was so clear it looked like I’d swallowed a marble.
In the same room where Robin had been encased the week before, a young kid directed me to change into a gown and take off anything metal. He was very kind, though it must have been clear to him that I was high as a kite. He asked me if I’d like to listen to some music and I said, yes. “Do you like classical?” I made a face. “Rock?” he asked, and I nodded. “Do you want vintage rock and roll? Or something new?”
“Something new,” I said.
“How about Sting?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Sting isn’t new,” I groused.
He looked befuddled. “Coldplay?”
“Coldplay is good.”
Even with the music so loud my eardrums tingled, even so drugged I could hardly stand, being in that tube made me feel like I was in a coffin. Remembering Robin lying there so quietly the week before, I cried all the way through the test.
A week later I received another certified letter. “Your test results were normal.” You’d think the letter would have come as a great relief. Instead, I was furious that they had put me through this absolute hell, when it turned out nothing was wrong. And I was angry that I’d been made to act out a secret melodrama. The letter said, “Please make an appointment now for a new mammogram.” Yeah, that’ll happen.
Robin was thrilled by the news. She believed because her experience had forced me to take the MRI, she’d been responsible for saving my life. That really made me feel guilty. My life for hers? If I were writing about Robin I would say, is it fair to trade my life for hers? I don’t think so. How do you measure the value of a life?
May all beings everywhere plagued with sufferings of body and mind quickly be freed from their illnesses. May those frightened cease to be afraid, and may those bound be free. May the powerless find power, and may people think of befriending one another. May those who find themselves in trackless, fearful wildernesses – the children, the aged, the unprotected — be guarded by beneficent celestials, and may they swiftly attain Buddhahood.
— The Buddha
If I were writing about Robin, I would say, I drove from Florida to Texas to visit her. (Remember that claustrophobia? We claustrophobes don’t fly unless we have to.) She stayed with her friend Beverly until she died. When you are a cancer survivor, you spend a lot of time thinking about death and dying. It’s an unavoidable subject, even if you don’t expect to kick off within a month. During my visit, Robin and I spent many hours on the balcony of her friend’s home talking about our different beliefs. She thought she would die and everything would come to an end for her. She was on a journey that would soon be over. I believe she’s on a journey that will continue. I think this life is just a stop along the way. I told her I thought there was so much more to life than we can perceive, that there is a whole world of energy just waiting to absorb us, that we go on in a different state, sans corporeal substance. She gave me that look — the skeptical, slightly pitying look I frequently get from my non-believing friends and relatives.
I did not have the privilege of growing up in a religious household, though my parents were strong, righteous, moral people. My beliefs have been patched together through years of spiritual readings, teachings, and absorption. I believe it’s all true, all real, all there beyond our senses. I absorb and believe it all. I can’t explain any of it.
While I was visiting, I told her she should write to her children and tell them how she feels about them. “They already know,” she said.
And I thought, how arrogant you are to tell this dying woman what she should do, how she should feel. And yet I know if I had a month to live, I’d be writing letters to my family for every day of their lives, till someone ripped the pen from my cold, dead hands. “Darling daughter, congratulations on the birth of your first child.” “Dear Son, I want you to know how happy I am that you finally finished graduate school.” “My loving husband, on this, your wedding day, please remember me as the woman who wanted you to be happy after I’m gone.” “To my mother on her eightieth birthday, thank you for teaching me to be strong.” And I would tell the family stories. “Dear grand-daughter, when your mother was little, she once swallowed a battery on a bet.” “Dear grandson, let me tell you what your father once did for love of a girl.” Lord, through this method, I could go on and on. But that would be my story.
If I were writing about my friend Robin I would say, there are moments I can’t get out of my mind and I have to share them, because they are so painful, so recent, so real. Because this is not fiction, this is not me telling a story. This is reality. And reality demands an out. Fiction can waft away like a random thought — I need milk. But truth should out.
One morning just after Robin had been released from the hospital and her family was visiting at my house, I came out of my bedroom ready to go to work. I saw Robin sitting on the front porch, smoking a cigarette and watching the sunrise. Her thirty-year old son was on his knees in front of her, his head in her lap and she ruffled his hair like a child. I had to go back in my bedroom and bite my thumb till it bled so they wouldn’t hear me cry.
I’d planned my visit to Texas so I’d arrive the day Robin’s youngest son was leaving, so as not to interfere with his visit to his mother. Robin’s friend, Beverly, drove the son to the airport in Houston, while I stayed with Robin. Beverly gave me instructions on what to do if Robin had a seizure, what medications to give her, how to administer the suppositories if the oral medications didn’t work. I pretended to be calm and unconcerned about the fact that I might have to force medication down Robin’s seizing throat. Or worse. I pretended I could handle anything, even her death.
As Beverly and the youngest son drove away, Robin and I sat on the balcony of the house and waved to him. He waved back. She watched them drive out of sight, and then began to cry, the only time I had seen her cry since this whole ordeal began. “I’ll never see him again,” she said. “Yes, you will,” I answered. The look she gave me, so bitter, so frustrated, so irritated with my simple platitude, made me feel useless. I was convinced I was right just as she was convinced I was wrong. What brought us together? I believe in fate. I believe if I hadn’t met her, if I hadn’t got the MRI, if I hadn’t faced my fear, I wouldn’t be alive now. Or let’s just say, I wouldn’t be living. Yes, there is more than we see, more than we can know. Yes, I wanted to say, our essence goes on beyond this moment. Listen to me, believe me.
But what do I know? This is a woman who was looking death in the eye with more courage than anyone I’ve ever seen, and I’ve spent hours in chemo rooms with people getting up close and personal with the Grim Reaper. I have no proof of my beliefs, other than a certainty that this can’t be it, that God is in the details, in the pond behind Beverly’s house, in the sunset on a frosty January evening, in the red-rimmed eyes of a youngest child saying goodbye to his mother. For now.
So this is the truth. I cannot write about my friend Robin, who believes there is nothing beyond this life, because I don’t understand her. I can’t write about Robin because I want to scratch and claw for every scrap of time and fill every moment I’m alive so I never have to think and never have to feel and never have to deal with that bus bearing down on me. I can’t write about Robin because I’ll never be as brave as she is.
But if I am writing to her instead of about her, if I am addressing this truth to the Robin who may not be part of this earth anymore even as I’m putting down the words, all guilt fades. Maybe they’re all right — the Buddhists, the Muslims, the Christians, the Hindus, the physicists. Maybe there are many paths to “God” or perfection or infinity or parallel time. To Robin I say, I salute your courage and your spirit. Thank you for helping me to be brave. I’m still here, still thinking about you. Maybe that means you’re still here, too.
Defying the best expectations of the best doctors at two major medical centers, Robin Spaeth lived six times as long as she was told she would. She died peacefully in her sleep at the home of her dear friend in Texas where she could look out over the large back yard and imagine it was a prairie.
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Found this story on a Web site from quite a few years ago. Though the story is fiction, it was based on a real incident. I was hitch-hiking back from work at Marineland and Terry gave me a ride home. I was too embarrassed to admit to him that I had totaled my mother’s car the first week I moved back to St. Augustine and had no way to get around. Or that I could barely afford my $80 a month apartment under the lighthouse at 38 White Street. Sometimes at night, I could hear the alligators croaking across the road at the Alligator Farm So I wrote this story, making up details, when I should have written about how difficult it was to see him, how much I loved him, how much I wanted to be back with him, and how much I pretended I didn’t care about him at all. Idiot.
Oh well, got a story out of it anyway (I always do):
by Wendy Thornton
“A final comfort that is small, but not cold: The heart is the only broken instrument that works.”
T. E. Kalem
It was late afternoon and the sun was beginning to drop lower on the horizon when Rachael walked to the highway and put out her thumb. She still wore her waitress uniform, the little white dress and black apron, but she’d taken off the clunky white saddle shoes that looked old fashioned but were comfortable. She stood on the side of the road in flip-flops, watching cars flash by. It usually didn’t take long to get a ride. She was young, petite and blonde. Even in the ugly waitress outfit, she attracted attention.
The week she moved back to town, she’d pulled out in front of a telephone truck. The angry driver told her, in no uncertain terms, that she was lucky to be alive. Sometimes she wasn’t so sure.
She had no money, no place to live and no way to get around. So she’d taken a waitress job at a seaside restaurant until she could find something better. Working constantly, she’d finally saved enough for a deposit on a crummy little apartment on the edge of the bay, and though it wasn’t much, it was still a lot better than the motel room she’d been living in since the wreck.
Of course, better days were coming. She’d been accepted to art school. Being an artist was never going to make her rich, but she didn’t care. At work, customers and staff loved her drawings. She drew little caricatures of people on restaurant napkins. Everyone laughed when she drew a picture of the manager, Michael, in his cowboy boots and the Stetson he always wore because he was too cool for school. Now all she had to do was wait for fall semester, and she’d feel like she had a reason for being on earth. Right now, she felt extraneous, like an extra toe.
Within minutes of sticking out her thumb, a blue Honda Civic slowed and pulled alongside her. “You want a ride?” someone asked. Maybe she ignored the flutter the voice gave her.
“Sure,” she answered, getting in the front seat without looking at the driver. Only after she’d buckled the seatbelt and turned towards him did she confirm that the man who’d stopped for her was the man who dumped her, her old boyfriend, Dennis.
“Hello, Dennis,” she said. Dennis Raymond Boyd. She used to write the name in her textbooks. Mrs. Dennis Raymond Boyd. Mrs. Rachael Boyd.
“What are you doing out here, yeah? You shouldn’t be hitchhiking. It’s dangerous.” So many voices – his soft, sexy voice, his angry voice, his disappointed voice. But she’d forgotten the self-righteous one.
She laughed. “This is how I get around.” No details. She wasn’t about to explain how she’d totaled her car.
“But what happens if someone picks you up who is, you know, dangerous?”
“Not really your problem, is it?”
“I can still worry about you as a friend.”
“Is that what we are?”
“You know what I mean,” he said. But no, she thought, I don’t know. “I didn’t realize you moved back to town.”
“I missed it here,” she said. “This is my home now.” She wondered if he would object. He always complained about outsiders moving to his beautiful beach town. “I tried to move back with my parents but I hate Raleigh. Every day I was gone I missed this place. All I could think of was, when can I get back?”
‘You know I’m dating someone else, yeah?”
She looked startled, then said quickly, “I do. I’m very happy for you.”
“And I’m glad you’re here. I want you to meet her.”
Magnanimous of you, she thought.
As they approached town she chatted about the restaurant where she worked. “I’m dating the manager,” she lied. “You’d like him, a nice guy named Michael.” Michael’s boyfriend, Jason, wouldn’t appreciate her usurping his lover. But whatever.
The news seemed to please Dennis, though. “I’m glad you found somebody new. I was worried about you. For a while there you seemed so, well –” she could feel it coming “so sad.”
“I was,” she agreed. “But I got over it. I’m very happy now.”
“This is where I turn off.” Dennis pulled over to the side of the road at an intersection. “I bought a little house out of the country.”
Her heart set like a stone. They’d always talked about buying a house in the country. “Did you get some land?”
“We’ve got 20 acres.” Rachael noted that we. “My girlfriend has a couple of horses. I’m not really into horses,” he added.
Dogs either, she thought. She had to give hers up when they lived together. If she had it to do all over again, she’d give up Dennis and keep the dogs. But hindsight is always 2020.
“Well,” she said, pushing the door open, “Good to see you again.”
She started to get out, but Dennis suddenly said, “Wait a minute. Let me give you a ride all the way to your house. I’d love to see where you live.”
Noooo, she shrieked internally. How bad was the apartment? She hadn’t done the dishes, she remembered that. And the bed was unmade. What else? What else?
Still, it would be nice to get a ride home all the way home and maybe, maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world that he knew where she lived. Maybe someday he would come and visit voluntarily.
“Okay.” She closed the car door again. “I live just off Orange Street.”
“That’s a nice area.”
When they turned onto the road where her apartment building was, he slowed. “It’s this old house up there,” she said, pointing. He pulled up in front of the two story wooden house and looked at silently. While there were nice houses in the area, this one had seen better days. The wooden house had been split into multiple apartments, and badly needed painting. The shutters listed sideways, the screens were split and patched. The front porch was up a set of five sagging steps. Her neighbor had put a wicker chair outside her apartment, but Rachael’s side of the porch was bare. “Thank you for the ride,” she said. Then on an impulse she could never explain she added, “Would you like to come in and have a cup of coffee?”
He hesitated a moment, then said, “Sure, I’d love to. Why not? I’d love to.” He parked the car and she led him up the steps to the apartment. She’d never noticed before how small it seemed, how empty. The kitchen opened into the living room, separated by a counter. She directed him to one of the barstools in front of the counter and went into the kitchen to plug in her second hand coffee pot. Sitting on the stool next to him, she leaned forward her elbows on the counter. “So,” she said, “How have you been?”
He looked around curiously, “Nice apartment,” he said, and she knew he was lying. The living room contained a small couch, a television and no other furniture. There was nothing on the walls. From where they were sitting, they had a direct view into the bedroom. He could see the unmade bed that took up most of the space, the open, chaotic closet. Well, she was busy. Working all the time. Trying to buy a car. And she hadn’t expected visitors, damnit.
Off the living room was a claustrophobic bathroom. She hoped he didn’t go have to use it. She hadn’t had time to clean it yet. The landlord had given her a discount on the promise that she’d clean the place up. But working so many hours, she hadn’t been able to do all she promised when she first moved in.
“This is interesting,” he said. “Good use of space.” She almost laughed at that. “So how have you been?”
She thought about telling him the truth. I have no life. I have no money. I have no friends. I wrecked my car and now I hitchhike back and forth to my crappy waitress job, but hey, other than that, everything is peachy.
But no, she wasn’t going to let him feel sorry for her. She’d made her decision. She was going to live here. She was going to get it together and make this her home. “I stay busy,” she said, as she poured him a cup of strong coffee. “My boyfriend and I like to go on camping trips. He owns a Winnebago.” She almost laughed at the thought of Michael in a Winnebago, Michael whose idea of roughing it was, “the Sheraton without the pool.”
She and Dennis had once talked about visiting Yellowstone National Park, camping out in the mountains.
As she expected, “That’s great,” Dennis responded. “Been to Yellowstone yet?”
“No, but we’re going next month. I’m so excited I can hardly wait.” She imagined herself leaping into the air, making little squeaking noises of delight. But that might be a bit much.
“Sounds wonderful.” Dennis sipped his coffee. She thought she heard a bit of wistfulness. He added, “Charlotte and I are supposed to go soon. I’m not sure when. She has a hard time getting off work.”
“Oh really. What does she do?”
“She’s a lawyer,” Dennis said. He blew on his coffee, avoiding her eyes.
Of course she is. Rachael remembered him berating her – when are you going to bring in more money? Why do I always have to pay for everything? Don’t you have any ambition?
“It’s not what you think,” Dennis added hurriedly. “She does whatever it’s called – not corporate law but the other – where she helps people.”
“Oh Dennis,’ Rachael said, “I knew you would never get together with a corporate lawyer.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I guess you know my type. Well.” He put the cup down. “I hate to drink and run but Charlotte is expecting me. We’ll have to get together sometime. Maybe you and – Michael, is it? You and Michael, can come to dinner sometime.”
“We’d like that,” she answered. She walked him to the door, all two steps, then stood on the porch, smiling as he drove away. As soon as the car was out of sight, she ran back into her apartment, ripped off the uniform and jumped in the shower. She hoped the neighbors couldn’t hear her shrieks. She stepped out of the mildewed stall, stood in front of the fogged-up mirror. She started to wipe it clean, hesitated.
In the steam she drew an ornate heart. Then her initials. And below that a question mark. She stared at the image for a long time, wiped it clean with a towel. She slipped into jeans and a t-shirt, then stretched out on the lumpy couch in the living room, and stared out the window where his car had been. It felt good to be lying still, to be motionless. Soon she would whirl like a dervish, keeping thoughts at bay. But for one minute, the setting sun streamed through the window, warming her. She glanced at the barren walls on either side of the window. She imagined a mural on the wall, the sun illuminating a small, ivy-covered house somewhere out in the country. Maybe a mountain rising beside the glass. Time to buy some art supplies. Get the place spruced up.
Wendy Thornton has been published in Epiphany, Riverteeth, Confluence, The MacGuffin, and many more. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been chosen many times as an editor’s pick on salon.com. She never gets tired of writing but does wish some of her stranger characters would leave her alone.
© 2012, Wendy Thornton
I have an upcoming talk at our local library, and of course, I’m a nervous wreck. In my opinion, writers shouldn’t have to speak in public. If they wanted to be sociable, they wouldn’t be writers – they’d be musicians :). Back in the old days, I hear you would sell your book to an agent, the agent would sell the book to a publisher, the publisher would do all the advertising for you, and the money would roll in. That’s what I’ve heard, anyway.
Nowadays, millions of people are trying to get books published. Half the time, agents don’t even respond to your request for representation. No news is bad news. You didn’t hear from the agent? You lose. They don’t want your book.
I didn’t even bother with that part of the process. I didn’t even try to get an agent. When I decided to self-publish my first book, I actually had some good feedback from agents, but I decided I didn’t want to wait for them to make a decision, and then for the months, maybe years it would take to sell the book to a publisher. And then maybe the months, maybe years it would take to actually get the book into print. Self-publishing seemed like a nice option. I would have a book completed. It would be published. I could sell a few, give away a bunch, and have some street cred as a writer.
My first book, Dear Oprah: How I Survived Cancer and Learned to Love Daytime TV, was about my cancer experience. At the time I wrote it, I thought I would only be alive a maximum of 2 years. That was fourteen years ago. If I’d known I was going to be here for so long, I might have considered going through the hassles of trying to get representation. Still, the book has been helpful. My doctor liked it :). Some of my friends found it very comforting when they themselves became sick. My mother liked it – although, being a long-term English teacher, she did manage to find a bunch of mistakes. Oh, well.
Now I am putting out another non-fiction self-published book, Sounding the Depths. It’s okay, though. I know it’s not going to become a best-seller. I know I’m going to have to promote it myself. That’s okay. It was fun to write, and I have plenty of publications in major literary magazines and anthologies. It’s not like I need to be formally published to have bragging rights – I already have that. Now I just need to figure out how to stop being such a frickin’ chicken and learn to promote my own work.
Sometimes it seems you spend months and months trying to get things published and nothing happens. Then all at once everything seems to hit. I was fortunate to get not one but two poems published recently, and just had an essay accepted. Here are the poems in The Wild Word (http://thewildword.com/poetry-wendy-thornton/)
Never Underestimate the Ring of Fire
Never underestimate the Ring of Fire
for if we become so complacent that it matters not
where the next earthquake, the next volcano
the long breadth of fault spreads darkly
through city streets nowhere near
if we forget to care and lose all fear,
if Japan’s problem is theirs alone and after all
Ecuador is really far away from here
so when they beg for help we don’t answer the call
then the finger that wears that seismic ring
points in a different direction and here’s the thing
we have no control over the fire down below
we can’t anticipate where the dragon will go
as the karmic tectonics of memory slides
past all those villages where the innocents hide.
The man on the fire tower is a little black blob
from a children’s book, pressed against the evening sun
waiting for his replacement to come.
He searches the horizon for white puffs of smoke
moving faster than the fluffy clouds
speaking like the Indians spoke
in old movies,
only now the message is bleak and dire,
no rain, severe drought, fire!
But that one flash of movement
when he raises his face to the sun
enjoying the warmth
like a puppy on the front porch
stretching his neck towards the fading light
imagining the chances of sunward flight
away from fire before his evening run.
Looking up, and then off to the horizon
where the smoke speaks
as flames move towards the metal column,
a tree with no leaves,
born of desperation
born of a foundation of drought
born of climate change doubt
and the voice is a demon
whispering, you can’t stop me,
silly young boy with no plan.
But this kid with his head in the clouds,
has seen the future in the sun
in the moon and the faraway stars.
And he knows he is one.
So he yells to the skyline, “sure I can.”
This was originally published in Blue Heron Review
Blue Heron Review Issue 3 Winter/2015
Shhh. Let’s turn the lights down, turn the sound off,
Listen to the crickets sing in the dark. A spark of life
Still remains even in the night, even with the sound
Of silence broken only by crickets. We’re running
All day long and the siren song of getting and spending
Wears us flat out, but when the lights go out
We fill the night with music, canned laughter, drown out
The peacefulness of crickets, as if, left to our own devices
Our own thoughts, we would think the worst of ourselves,
Sunday school sermons, you did – yes and then – and worst of all
Do you remember when – boy howdy, bad times,
But now, now we work, we’re good, we do what we should,
We shut the crickets out, noisy little reminders
Of night’s power, keeping us awake, ignoring the fact
That morning will come too soon, that we should say, who cares,
Let’s rub our legs together and howl at the moon.
Wendy Thornton has been published in Riverteeth, Epiphany, MacGuffin and other literary journals and books. Her memoir, Dear Oprah Or How I Beat Cancer and Learned to Love Daytime TV, was published in July 2013. She has won many awards for her work. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and has been Editor’s Pick on Salon.com multiple times. Her work is published in England, Scotland, Australia and India.
So sorry to hear this journal is going out of business. The Editor says, “I’ve spent all year prolonging this inevitable moment, and it makes me so sad and heartbroken to tell you that I don’t think I can do this anymore.” It’s a tough business!. Thank you to this great editor for publishing my work.
Volume V, Issue 7
The Queen Victoria Syndrome
by Wendy Thornton
Years ago, while working on a master’s degree in cultural studies, I learned to see the world through the eyes of the “Other,” via courses in Jewish, African-American, and Southern literature. I studied Italian and French literature, the magical realism of South America, the sorrowful literature of Africa. Of all the courses I took, the one where I felt hopelessly out of place was my lesbian lit class. This surprised me. After all, I assumed that, even though I wasn’t gay, I’d have a lot in common with the women in the class.
Besides me, four women and three men took the course. I was the only heterosexual and the only married individual. All I had to do was say “my husband…,” and my classmates would groan and roll their eyes. I was tempted to say “my partner,” but that seemed hypocritical. I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t married. I was always late to class. Ken and I were raising two kids, going to school full-time, working full-time, and our marriage wasn’t exactly blossoming under the pressure. Still, the book of cartoons about a lesbian super-heroine who hacked off penises with an ax left me feeling a bit queasy. In this, I had something in common with the men in my class.
I was surprised to find the gay men and lesbian women didn’t get along. Somehow I had this idea that there was an über-gay culture that included men and women who preferred same sex partners, sort of a “We are the World” of gaydom. When I expressed this idea one night, “Oh, honey,” one of my fellow students scoffed, “you just don’t get it. We boys don’t like girls, and those girls don’t like boys. There is no rapport.”
So I accepted that everything the guys said would be greeted by hoots of derision by the women; the comments of the women would be pooh-poohed by the men; and anything I said would be mocked by all and sundry. That was okay though. Getting involved in an intellectual argument was much more stimulating than creating soapbox derby cars with my Cub scouts or figuring out where to store thousands of Girl Scout cookies or addressing the insubordination of my irate secretary.
One of the big disagreements I had with the class was over the book Fried Green Tomatoes by Fannie Flagg. The story is of two friendships, one contemporary, the other set during the Depression. In our lesbian literature class, we delved into the friendship between the two young girls growing up in the Depression era south. Idgie and Ruth run a café together in the fictitious town of Whistle Stop, Alabama. I maintained the book wasn’t a story about two lesbian women. These girls were friends. They had a deep and abiding respect for each other. There was nothing sexual about it. Naturally, I was ridiculed for my naïveté.
I took the book with me the next time I had dinner with Marilyn, my friend since high school. A psychologist, Marilyn is my sounding board for all things, both cultural and personal. We meet once a month for dinner, always at the same restaurant, always at the same time, and she, at least, always eats the same food. As I sat down in a booth, I pulled the paperback out of my briefcase. “Oh,” said Marilyn, “that’s one of my favorite books.”
“Really? We’re studying it in my lesbian literature class.”
“What? You’re kidding! That’s not a book about lesbians.” She sipped furiously at her cherry Coke. “Every time you turn around, people are usurping perfectly good stories and turning them into manifestoes. Why can’t a book about friendship just be about friendship?”
I remembered this curious exchange when I watched the movie Brokeback Mountain a few years later with two young female friends. Brokeback Mountain is definitely about a gay relationship. But the two women surprised me—they thought the movie was silly, that the men acted like “lovesick teenage girls.” I admit, I was shocked by their reaction. Having been a lovesick teenage girl myself, having been madly in love with someone who looked remarkably like the dear, departed Heath Ledger, one of the stars of Brokeback Mountain, I found the movie touching and tragic. I didn’t see it as a “gay” movie; I saw it as a movie about two people tragically in love. But then again, I didn’t grow up in a gay era.
Homosexuality was not something we talked about in suburbia in the sixties. I’m sure there were gay people around, but we didn’t know. We couldn’t identify them because we didn’t have the words for their situation, for their experience. I learned from my lesbian literature course that this inability to name what was obviously there is known as the “Queen Victoria Syndrome.” During Queen Victoria’s time, the British Parliament made homosexuality illegal. Supposedly someone asked the Queen, “Shall we extend the same laws to women?” And Victoria responded, “Don’t be silly. Women don’t have sex with women.”
So I grew up a victim of the Queen Victoria syndrome. Once, when I was thirteen, a friend invited me to spend the night at her house. She was very popular, in the upper echelon of my junior high school, and I couldn’t imagine why she wanted anything to do with me. I was a geek, a bookworm. I didn’t have fancy clothes, didn’t hang with the cool kids. So I was surprised and flattered to be invited to her home.
That night, Pam and I shared a bed. Her bedroom was almost the size of my whole house and decorated like something out of a teen magazine. She insisted we go to bed way earlier than I wanted. I was afraid she’d laugh at my threadbare pajamas, but she didn’t seem to notice. She snuggled up close and soon seemed to be sleeping. A night owl, I lay awake staring at the ceiling. Pam flung an arm across my chest and then, though I didn’t have the words to describe what happened next, she fondled me. I had slept with my two sisters when we were younger, and this was nothing like that. I moved away from her. She moved closer. Again, her hand went to my breast. Again, I wriggled away. Her hands wandered lower. I didn’t know what to do. I could feel her measured breathing in my ear. The next time she leaned against me, I rolled right off the bed. Curling up on the rug, I spent the rest of the night on the floor.
Pam and I never spoke about what happened that night. We remained casual friends. It would be years before I slept with a woman again, and that woman was Marilyn.
Marilyn and I became friends because we were both on the newspaper in high school. She was not the type of person I would normally have befriended. She was beautiful, blond, perky, best friends with the prom queen. At first, I thought she didn’t have a brain in her head, but I began to notice that whenever our journalism advisor gave one of her inspirational speeches, Marilyn would make sarcastic comments under her breath. “In journalism, truth is paramount,” Mrs. L intoned. “But fiction is more fun,” Marilyn hissed, and people around her laughed. I appreciated her sense of humor.
We began to hang around. We brought out the craziness in each other. Remember that boyfriend who looked like Heath Ledger? The day I turned sixteen, I got my driver’s license, and Marilyn and I took off across the state of Florida, to the small town of St. Augustine, to visit him. For years she was a willing accomplice as I followed him around in a futile attempt to get his attention.
And I accompanied her on her windmill tilting. Because she had a crush on a baseball player, I went with her to every high school game. One night after a ballgame, we were late for curfew and drove furiously across town trying to get home before midnight. Marilyn pointed at a field of reeds. “We could save time if we cross that field.” Heck, she’d lived in Sarasota all her life. If she said it was a shortcut, who was I to question? I turned off the road into the reeds, and suddenly my little Corvair splashed into water. The reeds looked like a field, but in reality, they covered a good-size lake. We screamed as the car sank. Swimming out of the front seat, we hiked to a nearby house and called a tow truck. After the tow truck driver pulled my car out of the muck, he asked, “Where do you want me to take it?”
“What gas station? Where do you want it fixed?”
“Uh,” Marilyn and I looked at each other, confused. “We’re going to drive it home,” I said. The tow truck driver laughed. “Not tonight you ain’t,” he drawled. I got in, cranked the car, which started right up, and we drove home, water pouring out the doors.
By morning the car was dry. No one would have known about the lake incident if it hadn’t been for the tow charge slip from the gas station I forgot about. Dad didn’t care how I pleaded for mercy. He confiscated my keys.
Months later he trusted me enough to let me drive again but only because he needed a favor. Dad owned a car lot and needed someone to switch out a new Olds Cutlass SX hardtop for an Olds Cutlass SX convertible. Excited, I volunteered. Such a cool car! I was to drive from Sarasota to Daytona Beach, switch out the hardtop, and deliver the convertible to my father’s client in Sarasota. Marilyn was allowed to go. We would spend the night in a hotel in Daytona, courtesy of the car lot. For a sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girl, this was the equivalent of getting a ride in a pumpkin complete with Fairy Godmother.
But I was obsessed with the boy-who-filled-my-dreams-but-didn’t-remember-my-name. We drove to Daytona, picked up the brand-new convertible, and detoured immediately to St. Augustine. We drove up and down the beach, looking for my own true love. We attracted a lot of attention, two tall teenage blondes in a flashy new convertible.
As God is my witness, I do not know how that car got stuck in the sand with the tide coming in. I was a good driver, and I knew better than to stop on soft sand. Perhaps I thought I saw my surfer boy. Who knows? All I know is we were suddenly stuck up to the wheel wells in a car that rocked because waves broke over it. I had visions of my father’s face exploding as I described what had happened to his brand-new, expensive car. I had visions of jail cells.
Fortunately, our hysteria produced a lot of attention. While eager young surfer boys rushed to dig us out of the sand, I saw my own true love, the Heath Ledger look-alike drive by, stare, and shake his head. Totally humiliated, I cried on her shoulder and Marilyn comforted me. It wasn’t until about three in the morning, when the surfers picked up the car and moved it up the beach, that we realized we had run up over two hundred extra miles on this brand-new car. Even Marilyn cried too.
Now, I know it’s illegal to turn back an odometer, and, frankly, I was surprised that the guy at the gas station offered to do it for free. But after all, what do you do with two hysterical girls at three in the morning?
Marilyn and I remained friends through high school and into college. During our first year at the University of Florida, we decided we weren’t going home for the summer. The dorms were closed and neither of us had a place to live, so we borrowed a friend’s apartment. The apartment complex was pretty sleazy—in fact, the apartments were known as the Green Latrines. But the price was right: free.
These wooden duplexes, built off the ground, were painted a sickly forest green. Located in the blocks across from campus known as the Student Ghetto, the apartments were square, boxy, and consisted of a kitchen-living room box and a bedroom-bathroom box. The floorboards creaked. The apartment didn’t have air-conditioning; the doors could not be locked; windows didn’t close securely. There were no phones. The Green Latrines were popular with male graduate students. Women typically didn’t live there.
Marilyn and I actually loved spending the summer there. We came from very staid, middle class families. We were not scholarship students. Our parents paid for our educations. Each month during the school year, we received a small allowance and spent it before the first week was out.
But the summer was different. Being on the voluntary poverty level was exciting. We had no money, but we knew all we had to do was make it through a couple of months and then we’d be back in the dorms with our parents sending a regular income. For those two months, we rated our boyfriends by where they took us for dinner. Fast food was a two, one step up from being invited to share an apple in a grocery store parking lot. Steak dinner was an eight. But the sine qua non was a buffet, where we could help ourselves to all the food we could eat and stuff our purses with ill-gotten goods for our starving roommate.
It was after we each had such a date that Marilyn and I heard our intruder. We each returned from a buffet dinner date, put our napkin-wrapped packages of food in the refrigerator, and fell into bed, exhausted. There was only one bed in the apartment and we shared it chastely. About two in the morning, we heard footsteps creaking along the floorboards. We lay motionless in bed, terrified, as the thief made his way through the house. He made no attempt to be quiet, breathing heavily as he rifled through our things.
When he came into the bedroom, we pretended to be asleep. We heard him moving around the room, opening dresser drawers, rifling through the closet. Finally, after taking all our little packages of food from the fridge, the thief climbed out the way he’d come in, through the window. He could just as easily have come in through the front door that didn’t lock. But he never bothered to check the door.
The next day I said, “Marilyn, did you hear—?”
“Oh, don’t say it,” she hissed. “We didn’t hear anything. Understand? We were sleeping. Nothing happened.”
Her theory was that if we didn’t acknowledge the thief had been in the house, then the incident didn’t happen. I realized later he was probably looking for drugs. He had to know that the residents of those ugly green apartments had no money. I think the reason he didn’t rape us was because he thought we were a couple. In those days, men and women had hair the same length. He saw two people sleeping together and decided we must be a boy and girl. He never imagined two women lying there, helpless. The Queen Victoria Syndrome.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I were confused by everything but our sexuality. We wanted to make money, but we wanted to be free spirits. We wanted good jobs but didn’t want to be corporate drones. We wanted to fall in love but didn’t want to be tied down. We wanted to be brilliant but didn’t want to think about anything serious. You name it; we had an inconsistency for every mood.
The only area I can safely say we had no ambiguity about was in the area of friendships. Our friendships were sacrosanct. I would have trusted Marilyn with my life, and did on a number of occasions. Never once did we think of taking our relationship to a sexual level. It was already so much more. And besides, I knew the minute I met the Heath Ledger look-alike that my destiny was heterosexual.
Once a friendship is sexualized, the very nature of the friendship changes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But one of the lessons I learned in my class on lesbian literature, one of the discoveries I made outside my readings, from attending a class full of gay men and gay women, was that people who are gay know it early and without ambiguity. They don’t fall into the lifestyle—they are the lifestyle.
I have been madly, passionately in love. I have felt like Heath Ledger, listening to Jake Gyllenhaal mumbling in Brokeback Mountain, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” and thinking, I know that feeling. Marilyn was the person I poured my heart out to. If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t know how I would have survived. We’ve been friends long enough to be honest with each other. While others may sympathize with a love-struck sixteen-year-old girl, your true friend will tell you to quit whining and do something about it. If that means you end up sitting on a sandy beach while your father’s expensive new car threatens to float out to sea, well, that’s just another memory for the scrapbook.
Sure, you need lovers, because love is the essence of life. But then again, you need your friends to sympathize with you when you’re ready to die of sadness, to go with you to the edges of the ocean, to remind you that you can survive anything.