Bones of Giants, by James O’Dea
Blend, by Tara Moreno
Touch the Sky or Be Put in the Earth, by Kitty Casner
The Closing of Anderson Elementary School, by Amber Cochran
Cant Say It, by Jade Bell
Super Crazy Cat Lady, by Kitty Casner
Sharing Eyes, by Kevin Cleveland
Shards, by Joel Zuehlke
Solitary Confinement, by Jade Bell
Stairs, by Nick Puglies
Breaststrokes, by Katie Curnow
Bones of Giants
By James O’Dea
Let us walk these streets.
Let me hold your hand in mine,
Let them call us children
while we find some grass to lay in.
Follow my eyes to the skyline
as it recites the story of where the buildings grew:
hungry shadows reaching in prayer, longing, desperation
pleading for what was.
See the cars crawl to oblivion from their former glory,
Weep for those hopeless, simple, calloused hands
that wagered their dreams on assembly lines
to watch the machines dance themselves to death.
Now while our loving city sags beneath the weight of its past
and wraps its bruised and broken arms around us
This concrete belongs to us.
These streets are the bones of giants.
We tread on titanic skeletons of our mothers and fathers.
We are the blood running rampant.
Clinging to the bones
We are the muscle.
By Tara Moreno
Dust from the Tigerlillies you bought
at the farmers market
down the street
I smile, stop and
take my finger and trace
away the past.
Tears they form, my heart is still
until the saltwater falls into the
I whisper, I miss you.
Touch the Sky or Be Put in the Earth
By Kitty Casner
Touch the sky or be put in the earth.
Make me fluttering ash or let jelly worms feast;
Cover me up and forget my birth.
I left you my body, for what its worth.
Too late for gentle beauty, too soon for haggard beast;
Touch the sky or be put in the earth.
If only my kindness were as large as my heaviest girth-
Please, out of all faithful friends, consider me least.
Cover me up and forget my birth.
Too late to be born again- no rebirth;
I was offered no redemption by a not-so-perfect priest.
Touch the sky or be put in the earth.
No one will remember me for virtue or mirth-
I folded in, then rolled flat out- a dough lacking yeast.
Cover me up and forget my birth.
The presence of my humanity was classified dearth,
Let the judgment of God Almighty come from His east.
Touch the sky or be put in the earth;
Cover me up and forget my birth.
The Closing of Anderson Elementary School
By Amber Cochran
The sky shines blue.
A desperate blue—
A blue that’s not found in Crayola.
But not desperate blue.
The leaves are stretched
In all their bushiness
Still against the sky.
The grass stands sharp
Though mowed—No tracks.
The school stands too lonely, too.
Where are the kids?
Have they already been dismissed?
That’s when I see
The windows chained, boarded.
Then I see the chipping paint
On the caterpillar.
The loneliness of the slide.
The rusty chains.
The tired bolts
Happy to be swung.
The swings blow.
The wind calms their longing.
Bottle glass takes place
Of where pattered feet would race.
Of tainted lovers
Replaces candy foil.
Even the soil
Is not the same
Without the kids
Hooting and hollering.
A lady mows the large lawn.
That is the only company.
How the swings are so welcoming.
The trees call us in their shade—
The swings call us their way.
The caterpillar curves and crawls t us.
The slide glistens, rust.
Who knows the next time someone will come here to play.
As we leave the swing and caterpillar both sadly wave.
Can’t Say It
By Jade Bell
Why can’t I just say the word?
Is it because
Penetration I was
Or maybe because the
Or could it be that I
Agonizing over the
Or because of the constant
Could be that I feel that
No matter what the reason is
I just can’t say the word out loud
So for now
Reading and writing
Super Crazy Cat Lady
By Kitty Casner
Super crazy cat lady,
First name: Flossie, Last name: Melling
She don’t smell like no daisy.
Her memories of young, fun days are gettin’ hazy.
Now she sits with ankles swelling
Super crazy cat lady
Cleaning habits fall short- ya know she lazy.
Aroma from the house is repelling
She don’t smell like no daisy
Deduct your cat as a dependent? Crazy!
Her level of delusion is compelling
Super crazy cat lady
About that hospital? Her therapist said maybe.
One hundred and forty-two cats in her dwelling.
She don’t smell like no daisy.
Each little kitty is her baby.
They sit in her flea chair yelling,
“Super crazy cat lady,
She don’t smell like no daisy.”
By Kevin Cleveland
Thin lines of ink were all that
had gone unspoken to me.
The faintest edge of the slim
perophery of a smile,
a gift ungiven, told of
strange things, dark things, and quiet
wondrous things in a place
secluded from all sight but
hers. Bright eyes were fixed in a
plane where she was God and all
creation was subject to
the will of cool, slight fingers;
pulling and caressing ink
softly into the forms of
upon the still, hollow void.
As heaven and firmament
grew beneath her wrist upon
the motionless visages
of erased thoughts, I hoped that
the calmly sketched faces of
her quiet creation could
tell me that which her hands would
not and could not ever say.
By Joel Zuehlke
Warped and skewed, curved and bent,
Rapid eyes destroying sense.
Bits and pieces, excerpted baggage,
Consciousness amidst the wreckage.
Like slow motion shattered glass,
Its beauty must be slowed to last.
A muffled laugh, odd and strange,
The arms of time – elastic range.
The ground is up and up is ground,
His ear, it hears a glassy sound;
Except without a single vibration—
Sound without air: its common patron.
What is heard, he really does knot,
Reality one end; the other, thought.
It happens each and every sleep,
But only few are made to keep.
A puzzle of shards to rejoin,
Bloody fingers, but on with the sewing.
The creak of the door; her ambient skin,
Outside the window; the sky like tin,
Realer than real she barks her words,
Turns her back and grabs her purse.
And dragging it as she did,
Their picture falls into a pit,
Until the ground, it dropped through air.
To nothingness he did stare.
Then like slow motion shattered glass,
It burst and wedged his eyes – the past.
Bloodshot red, they shall not return,
To that pit where he wants to learn;
Not today, perhaps tonight;
A moist addiction – his pillowed plight.
He’ll tarry until he plummets there,
But even so, his dreams prepare.
By Jade Bell
The sun sets over the ocean and here I am standing watch on an aircraft carrier. I’m supposed to be a lookout. The proper term would be low visibility watch and when there is fog or some type of element preventing visibility, I have to stand here and stare at the ocean. It seems easy enough, but when you have been up since four the previous morning and only had four hours sleep within the last twenty-four hours, standing and watching the ocean is the last thing that needs to happen.
Watching the water is like being hypnotized. Your mind starts wandering on journeys that make you wonder if those are the things that you would have been dreaming about had you been asleep. Right now I am thinking of the living things that I miss. That probably seems a little crazy so let me back up. We have been out to sea for months now. When we do stop for port visits, it’s usually to a place in the Middle East where there is mostly sand. Rarely have I seen grass. It’s such a simple thing to miss but grass became important to me the moment when there was just water as far as the eye could see. The farther out we go, the less life we see. Well, that’s of course with the exception of random whales and jellyfish. There are no birds, trees, or even bugs. As much as I hate spiders, I would at least like to see a web of some sort; anything that lets me know that there are things around me that are alive besides people.
I used to wonder how people go crazy in solitary confinement. I thought that if I were locked up the one thing that I would want is to be left alone. I actually like being by myself. Then I joined the Navy. I am here amongst thousands of people and the one thing that I do feel is alone. The new friends that I have made are cool and all, but there is always the “starting over” that concerns me. The small things that my friends back home already know about me are things I realize that I took for granted. There was never anything that I had to explain. They just knew. Out here I am alone often. I’m alone with my thoughts, beliefs, and values. Being alone, truly alone, is not something that humans were meant to experience.
Living with five thousand people and still remaining mostly anonymous is somewhat disconcerting. I spend hours with these people known as my shipmates. I see them at the store, post office, movie rental place, barbershop, and laundry room. We eat together, sleep together, and work together. We get to know each other in ways our families may never know us, and yet somehow, we know nothing. No one really knows me in the ways that I need them to. Back home, people know you as a person. Here people know you as a number, a shipmate, and as a person that either would or would not save their life, and all of that is sometimes disguised with the word “friend.” I wonder if I’m expecting too much. I mean could someone who has only known me for a year truly treat me the way that a person who has known me my whole life would? Well, probably not, but it doesn’t hurt to wish.
I have been on watch about an hour and already I am drawing some conclusions. It’s been seventeen days since another human has touched my skin. I know it seems silly to count but it’s something that I notice. Back home someone would have touched me by now even if it was just the hand of the cashier at the store. But I understand that can’t always happen here. We’re already from different places in the country with our own germs. We also live in very close quarters and viruses can spread within a day or two to every single person on this vessel. It’s smarter to just not touch people and I get that. However, the lack of touch does something to your mind if you’re not paying attention. It’s something that just sneaks up on you and hits you at an unwelcome moment, like when you’re on watch. My whole community is asleep and I’m responsible for a part of their safety, but I am concerned about the fact that no one has touched me in weeks. These moments are when I let my imagination fly. I think of anything that will allow my sanity to remain intact.
I am thinking that I actually see land. That has to be a part of my daydream because I don’t want to get excited for nothing. No sleep plus solitude equals hallucinations. As refreshing as the smell of salt water is, and as great as this time on the sea has been for my allergies and sinuses, I am more than ready to get back to land. I long to hear those annoying crickets chirping outside my window in my grass that I know is alive. The water seems to be getting a bit lighter and I ignore that as well, but I know that has to be a real seagull flying over me which means that land is near. At this point it doesn’t matter whose land it is; I’m more than willing to trade in my sea legs for a while. I don’t like seagulls at all but I wish that this one would land right next to me where I could pluck one of its feathers as proof that I’m not crazy. It’s true. The captain has just come on and said that we will land soon. I am excited that perhaps someone will touch my arm here and remind me of what it feels like to be human and not a machine. I know that wherever we land will bring on new issues and dangers that I need to adapt to. I am confident that I will succeed. I do love my job but being a chameleon is hard work. Each day I have to play a new role. I’m wondering what it will feel like to just be myself again.
By Nick Pugliese
I used the officer’s binoculars to study her face, the pale, metallic blue of her eyes, moist with apprehension. Each crease in her weathered skin acted as a journal of the events she experienced that led her to the ledge. No ring.
The megaphone distorted my voice coldly, my usual cadence manipulated and compressed. Every word I spoke sounded like an indictment against organic thought. So I told her to stay calm and handed it off.
With every stair I ascended my tired organs twinged in lackluster defiance. My heart was throbbing behind my ribs. Six flights. I was a younger man years ago.
Her door was open so I entered. There were paintings hanging precariously from tiny nails driven into the drywall. The paintings were of buildings I didn’t recognize, though one appeared to be the Library of Congress.
She heard me enter and screamed that she’d do it. I believed her and told her to relax. I just want to talk. We all just want to talk. I wiped the sweat from my face with my handkerchief and caught my reflection in a mirror. I was flushed. I looked like I was about to vomit. I was a younger man, years ago.
Her bed was just two mattresses on the wooden floor, but in the way a harem would be. Her red sheets were strewn haphazardly around. A stuffed wolf lay on a pillow. As I stared at it, I felt tears bubbling up.
She was watching me from outside the window. She said she thought I wanted to talk. I nodded, then added that it’d be easier to talk if she weren’t at risk of falling to her death at the advent of a strong breeze. She laughed, a floating, lilting melody that forced me to smile.
I took a step closer and she tensed. I showed her my palms. She told me not to come any closer. I nodded. Her hair was fluttering around her face like storm clouds, the dark, grey flecked tendrils threatening rain. I asked her her name. She told me it was Rachael.
Rachael. I repeated it back and she nodded. I told her my name. Now that we know each other, now that we’re friends, I said, can I come closer? There was an overstuffed tuffet in the corner of the room, near the window, with deep scarlet paisley print etched into the fabric. I thought that if I could get to it, I might be close enough to grab her narrow wrist before she went. I’d have to be fast though. I was a younger man, years and years ago.
She acquiesced with a slight wave of her hand, before latching it back to the windowsill. She was afraid. That was good. I reached the tuffet, never taking my eye off her, and she watched me back. Our eyes met for a long second before she looked back toward the street. I blushed.
It felt good to sit. Rachael, I said. She tore her attention from the street and looked at me. I asked her if we could talk about it. I was close enough to smell her perfume, a pleasant mix of chocolate and flowers. It smelled like what I always wanted my kitchen to smell like.
She was crying but silently. I could see the tears leave her crystalline eyes and follow the furrows in her cheeks to her softly curved chin. She opened her mouth to speak but didn’t.
It’s okay, I told her. I’ll talk. I told her that whatever happened, it can be solved. This isn’t the way to go out. I told her about myself, about my wife, and my children. I told her how my wife died, years ago, when I was a younger man, and that it was so hard raising two kids alone. How I thought many times it was too hard.
She was crying harder, nodding. It is hard, she said. Death is hard. Much harder on the living than the dead. She was gazing at her bed, and I followed her stare to the stuffed wolf.
Yes, I said. Death is hard. But if you aren’t the one that’s dead, you have to keep going. It hurts, I know, but there’s more life for you. I surveyed the room and noticed what looked like military medals framed on the wall near the mirror.
I was a soldier, I told her. Years ago, when I was younger.
She looked tired. Her grip on the windowsill was less certain than it was before. She told me that war is unfair. No sons or daughters should be taken from their mothers. There’s nothing else that matters.
That’s not true, I told her. We aren’t our children. They aren’t our legacies. We have to keep on.
Her eyes went back to the street. She asked me how to keep on.
I told her one stair at a time.
For the first time, she smiled, and slipped.
I had to be fast. I was a younger man, years ago.
By Katie Curnow
Jenny got her breasts in sixth grade, the summer before sixth grade, to be exact. I spent that summer up north playing dolls with my young cousin Ashley, portraying the ever dynamic role of Mom each day we played house, and laughing at the exposed skin of tourists on the beaches. As I played the role of the woman in our games, baking dirt pies and cleaning up our wooded home, three hours south of me, Jenny was developing tissue, becoming a woman in the first noticeable way to the curious 11-year-old eye.
Everyone came back to school with stories of road trips and beaches, with new lunch boxes and sweaters, with shorter or longer hair, some even with tanner skin. But Jenny had the most interesting story from summer without saying a word to us. We all looked without looking so as not to disturb Jennifer Ross, the most interesting girl in school, our own personal exotic animal at our zoo. It was the first time in a long time that Jenny had been a tangible object again. She had been ignored, pushed to the edges of our consciousness since last fall. She was a ghost of a little girl once invited to birthday parties and to lunch tables but now sat alone, in the back of the class. But now, here she is again, a carnival attraction, caged by the beige walls of that room and confined to her desk for all to leer. In any other situation, it could have been creepy the way we all glanced over at Jenny in her light blue collared shirt neatly tucked into her plaid skirt, but all of our worlds shifted that day and she was a constant reminder, sitting quietly in the back of the classroom that we were moving forward on the ride. In math that afternoon, after we had come in from what used to be called recess but they now called flex time where Jenny had taken off her sweater and sat alone on a bench, Angela Daniels leaned over her desk to whisper to someone behind me, “Jenny is a slut.”
That evening, I performed a body inventory. Face: freckles, tan skin, blue eyes, small mouth. Middle parts: tan, like a painted wall, yearning for something to adorn the flat facade, small belly button. Bathing suit area: off limits. Legs: thin, but quick, running faster than any boy, any girl. Flat feet. Toe nail missing on pinky toe, right foot. I pulled at my skin, pinched my sides, and made adult faces in the mirror. Serious faces, faces for talking about taxes and discussing a novel or film. Keeping my mouth flat and my brows low, I said, “You’re going to need an operation,” just like they said on those doctor shows.
I came out of the bathroom to find mom making dinner, like always. Some things didn’t change over the summer. Mom made dinner, we talked about our days, we watched something on television, and I went to bed. She had let her long hair free from the workday bun she kept it captive in. It was so thick and wild, like a pony’s, and I would braid it, twist it, and flip it, for hours when she would let me. She looked tired but she was humming so I knew she was in a good mood. Recently, she would be more agitated and restless than the average mother, I would think. Her face would be flushed, and her eyes would be dark and heavy, and she would snap at me to stop jumping around or to keep my voice down because of her headaches. She never looked unhealthy; she never complained about her ailments. I guess sometimes her thoughts would display across her face and I did not have the tools to decipher the complicated code of her emotions via her facial expressions. I didn’t realize until years later that she was silently contemplating the return of the cancer occupying a spot in her lung. My summer with Ashley was really a medical retreat for my mother as she and her doctors tried various therapies.
My mother existed in a constant state somewhere within her late thirties to early forties. As I grew older, she remained the same, never aging. When I was younger, I thought that she had always been that way; never an infant, never a child, always my mother with long gray hair and the green eyes of a feral cat. Her given name was Mom but Mother for formal occasions. Her friends called her Rachel, a silly nickname they gave her. Once, I heard someone in the grocery store call her Dr. Greyson. She was just as real as I was, but my being here had been more clearly laid out as we had the birds and bees talk early on. My mother had been artificially inseminated from donated sperm and I was born nine months and twenty-one days later. I was created from science, but at five, I was convinced she was created from magic. She was too extraordinary for the ovum and zygotes that come along with conception. There were more appropriate explanations for her. She appeared from the sea. She popped into existence to bare me, teach me to swim, and then to rock me to sleep. It was as it should have been and would always be.
Her breasts were gone. To say that means, that at one point, they had been there in the same moment as I lived, then one day were missing but that’s not true. From the day I can say I knew her, as a person, no, not as a person but as my mother, she did not have breasts. Not that I was concerned by the absence of her breasts, as a child. I knew no other body than hers and it was perfect. I would catch glimpses of her, just out of the shower. Clean and calm, having washed her troubles down the drain and out to sea, as she would say. The soft, smooth folds of her skin like an ivory silk shirt draped upon her chest. Later, when I was in eighth grade, I would look up breast loss and I would see pictures of double mastectomies and it would fill me with a sadness I could not explain. The images, without the women’s faces, showed baggy skin attached haphazardly to a slumped torso, as if the loose skin were absent mindedly added and nothing had been taken away. My mother hadn’t looked like those women; there was a liberation and relief from the scars left behind.
We were sitting down to eat when I blurted the big news I had tumbling around in my brain like a rock being polished, slowly trying to understand the significance of the event. “Jenny’s got boobs,” I told her.
“Does she?” She pursed her lips and took a sip of dark red wine. “Say breasts, boobs sounds vulgar.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, she’s got breasts… like a woman now, ya know.”
“Ah, like a woman. Is that all it takes to be a woman?” She humored me for a moment. Sometimes she would allow the exaggerated, excited speech of a child but was quick to correct the misguided or misinformed ideas of the developing brain, of the developing identity.
“No, there are other things, but this is one’s special.” I told her, slightly whining. I repeated the steps as I had remembered them, “Next she’ll get a period, and then she’ll get to shave her legs, and then she’s a woman.”
“There’re more important things that make a woman, Beth. Those are just some of the changes and actions a girl can go through in the process, but there’re emotional and mental experiences that are more important, remember?” I remembered; it was only a few months ago, before she sent me north for three months that we sat down for “coffee talk”. I remember her talking about the developing body, she never used euphemisms like blossoming or blooming like other girls’ moms had told them. I was not a flower to be pollinated but a girl to be informed. She spoke at length about self-image, self-confidence and the self.
“We’ve talked about this before, Beth.” She was growing impatient with me. I stared at the untouched peas on my plate, growing angry at her insensitivity. She was speaking to me like a child, which I was, but she infuriated me with her motherly wisdom that always seemed in an abundance. I wish I hadn’t been an only child so another child could have been the target for her coffee chat, diffusing the concentrated ray of life advice aimed directly at me, often too mature for my own understanding. “You don’t know anything about having boobs!” I ran to my room and sobbed on a stuffed rabbit my grandmother had given me. I prayed to Mary to give me breasts like Jenny’s. The next day when I came home from school, there was a light pink training bra on my bed.
After a few weeks, I became immune to the allure Jenny’s changing body. I no longer peaked at the space below her neck, and then looked down to assess my own condition. I stopped staring at the way she walked to see if the weight of her chest somehow made her more graceful. She shuffled around the perimeter of hallways and classrooms just as she had before the change. I walked as confidently as I could, my arms wrapped around my body, the skin on my arms grazing the cold, heavily painted walls of the old building. We were considered responsible enough to switch classrooms from period to period that year. We had homerooms, and first hour classes, and we didn’t have to say the Pledge of Allegiance anymore if we didn’t want to but we still had to do the rosary. We had classes like Home Economics, and for the first time, we had a real gym class. We didn’t play dodgeball in the grass or jump rope in the back on the hot pavement. Tag turned into football, four squares became tennis. Our first lesson in gym was swimming, and I was relieved. Not particularly coordinated, I hated playing any game that had equipment. I was an excellent swimmer, whatever ability I lacked on land with a bat or ball; I made up for in the water.
When I was little, my mother would take me to the lake where my grandparents had lived when they were both living. She would ease me into the water but I would clutch her body with my arms and legs. We would exist in the water together, just feeling the water lightly petting us with cool waves. Speaking slowly, she would unlock my fingers from her arms and remove my legs from around her waist. I would struggle until I knew I could touch bottom and once I calmed down, she would begin the lesson. With arms out flat, she would urge me to lay stomach down on them, draping my body over her supportive arms like a delicate garment or an antique quilt. Once I felt comfortable, I would oblige her, trusting her competence in the chilly lake. She would say “swim!” and I would begin paddling madly with my arms and legs like a frantic dog desperate to get out of the cold, murky water. She removed her arms, and for a moment I swam. I stopped paddling when I realized her arms were gone, fell beneath the water for only a second, and gasped in the gray water. She pulled me out, held me like an infant and patted my back until I spit water out. I was sobbing, but she threw my arms above my head while I continued to cough up the foul liquid. After my lungs had found the easy rhythm of breathing again and my feet had found the smooth bottom of the lake, she said, “Let’s try it one more time.”
In the pool of Saint Agatha Academy, I was as fluid as the chlorinated water. I skimmed the surface with smooth strokes, then dove down quickly to the bottom, propelling my body below with my skinny legs and then bolted back up to the surface. Holding my breath, I would sink all the way to the bottom, use my arms flowing back and forth to keep my position and look up at the world through the watery filter. The lights would blur and wiggle. Figures, shadows would move by and out of my sight. The muffled sounds of girls screeching and boys tossing each other into the water couldn’t disrupt me in my meditative state in the deep end of the pool. I would look for as long as I could stand the burning in my eyes, and then return to the top for air. The times I came up for air, I saw Lorraine and Angela by the stairs, splashing each other in between secret exchanges behind wet hair and cupped hands. Marcia and Jessica floated like dead bodies on the surface. Other girls dog paddled in the shallow end, or tiptoed on the gradual decline to deeper waters, but turned around when they could no longer keep their heads above the water. Jenny clung to the side, near the six feet mark, as far away from the other girls as possible. I thought maybe her chest had hindered her ability to swim. The first day in the pool went quickly. The teacher, Ms. Dixon, blew the whistle signaling our time in the water was up. Toweled girls filed into the locker room adjacent to the pool entrance, terry cloth wrapped around their hair and their bodies. We shuffled into the room, unaccustomed to locker room practices. Some girls quickly dressed, removing bathing suits from under uniform shirts and skirts, leaving wet marks all over their clothing and smelling of chlorine. Most of us took a shower with our bathing suits on. Lorraine had remembered to bring shampoo and soap from home which she did not share. The rest of us awkwardly rinsed over the suits to remove the chemical smell.
I stared at the pink tiled wall as I washed my arms, using only my hands and some water. The other girls gossiped and giggled behind me. Lorraine and Angela were closest, I heard them talking about Jenny. “She looks fat in her bathing suit” Lorraine said. “Like a big purple elephant,” the words barely coming out of her mouth as she laughed. Jenny, one of the undress-under-your-clothes girls was already in the hallway, probably reading a book or peeling rubber from the bottom of her shoe as I’d seen her do on the playground. They were quiet for a moment and the skin on the back of my neck grew hot and I could tell the conversation had turned to me. “Beth’s mom wants to be man. My mom told me she doesn’t have boobs.” “Yeah, she probably cut ‘em off ‘cause she’s a dyke, too.” I stopped breathing. I could feel the blood rush to my face. I’d heard that d-word before, heard the other girls whisper it to each other.
I hated Lorraine and Angela. My eyes filled with tears and I stood there paralyzed by my own inability to find the words to say to shut them up. The right words did not exist. My own understanding of sexuality and the body had been so primitive that I immediately went to a place of fear and hate. I thought I knew what was meant by the d-word. I had heard other words like it, the one that I heard most, lesbian, was on TV and sometimes in movies, and the girls would call each other that on the playground. If a girl called another girl a lesbian, the other girls were programmed to laugh and shun her. Lorraine and the other girls had a vast knowledge of names to yell out: slut, whore, dogface, fatty, lesbian, pervert, even virgin on one occasion. I didn’t know what they all meant at the time, and I don’t know if those girls knew the meanings of the words they said. Even now, I can’t say for sure those words have a specific, unchanging meaning, only the subtext, the intention of the voices shouting out sounds to hurt a vulnerable child gave them meaning. I never played their games, and it was pointless to call me those names when I was already shunned. I had been the girl “with no daddy,” a “monster baby,” since fourth grade; I stopped telling my mom and teachers about the verbal assaults because there was a thin line between, “reporting and tattling,” as one adult had put it. After a year, I fell off of the girls’ radar, allowed to exist in the demilitarized zone just outside of their vision. Somehow being ignored as human was better than being acknowledged as a beast. But I had exposed myself under the shower, had entered their territory by attempting to do the same basic thing as they had, cleanse my body. This time, however, my mother had been the target. Head down, I turned the water off and quickly walked out of the showers, desperate to explain to them, to myself, why my mom’s body was different but I didn’t know why. It was as it should have been and would always be.
I had learned the backstroke, the butterfly stroke, and the breaststroke before I was eight. I showed Ms. Dixon each one, and she made a check by my name for that day’s activities. It had been a week since Angela and Lorraine said those things in the shower about my mom. I thought about it every night before I went to bed, staring at the dark ceiling, my ears hot and tingling. Ms. Dixon let students have free time in one half of the pool once they finished their various strokes. I was the first one done so I returned to my favorite space at the bottom, looking up. I thought about my mom’s body, how she lost her breasts and what it must have been like to be alone and scared. For the first time, I saw my mother as flawed, lacking in essential parts, imperfect. I thought about the words girls use to torment others. Such a powerful word to make a girl cry like that, a magic spell or a curse of some kind. I had asked her once about the word dyke and why it had been written on a locker at school. She told me, not really talking to me but around me, that some people make monsters of others and want to control who they are and what they do, people love who they love and that’s it. The answer may have seemed simple at the time, but it answered the question I thought I was asking.
When my eyes started burning, I began to come up for air. A wavy figure splashed into the pool as I was coming up. Flailing wildly, the shadow’s foot jerked into my nose. The pain was immediate and consuming, temporarily disorienting me in the water. Struggling to find the bottom, the top, something, I sucked in water, and tasted salty blood. I opened my eyes to see clouds of red in front of my face. Ms. Dixon jumped in and dragged me to the side of the pool. She propped me against the ladder, holding my back as I gasped, blood pouring down my face. “Everyone out of the pool,” she yelled. Children screaming, scrambled out of the water. The last student out, clinging to the side of the pool at the impact point, was Jenny. Once out of the water and sitting on the ground while Ms. Dixon called the nurse in, she came over, slumped and defeated. “I’m sorry, Beth, I’m so sorry but, but, someone pushed me. I’m so sorry.” She was crying a little, but I was tired of her, tired of her meekness, her sitting quietly while other girls made fun of my mom, tired of her developing body while I was still in all ways a child. “Shut up, Jenny- you’re a fat dyke and I hate you!” I got up and took off for the showers, still bleeding.
The school called my mom, and she left work early to pick me up. My nose, bandaged but not broken, was throbbing. She let me lie on the couch like when I was littler and sick with a cold. She brought me a cool cloth for my forehead and kneeled beside me, lightly touching my cheek with the back of her forefinger. I rolled over to look into her eyes. “When will I get my boobs?”
“Sweetie, this process takes time. Your body will change when it’s ready.” She didn’t correct my use of boobs.
“Why did you get rid of yours?” She sighed. “I was very sick and the only way for me to get better was to have my breasts removed.” I wondered if I could get sick , too, like how I had gotten the chickenpox from Ashley last year. “Will I get it, like chickenpox or the flu?”
“No,not like that, it was cancer. I had cancer in my left breast and it had to be removed and then I chose to have my right one removed too.”
“You wanted to get rid of it?” I was surprised that she chose to remove something I wanted to so badly that I would stare at the one girl, cursed/blessed enough to get two.
“I didn’t want to, at first. I thought I wouldn’t feel like a woman without them, but they’re not what made me a woman. Our physical being changes so often in life, Beth, that we cannot rely on it to define us. It is our minds, our thoughts, our decisions that make us complete within these transforming bodies. Do you understand?” She began smoothing the wrinkles on my forehead with her finger tips.
“Kinda.” I rolled back over onto my back and closed my eyes. My nose swollen as pressure radiated outward throughout my face.
“But the interesting thing is that I felt more like myself after the surgery, feeling somehow complete and confident with my new figure. Renewed, in a way.” I don’t think she said this for me.
“I started swimming, after it, did you know that? ” I ignored her question. “What does it feel like to be a woman?” She laughed and brushed my hair off of my face. “It’s different for everyone. I can’t speak for a whole group of people and I can’t say it’s not different for men.” She came and sat at my feet. “Maybe it’s not important to know how it feels to be a woman, but to know how it feels to be you. Never limit yourself by other people’s terms.” I closed my eyes. She was quiet for a few minutes before saying “Ms. Dixon heard what you said to Jenny.” My mother stopped petting my feet. I felt like I was sinking into the couch. I couldn’t tell if it was the medicine, the day’s events, or my mothers ability to touch a specific nerve inside me, but I felt like vomiting. “Jenny’s really hurt, too. It was an accident, Beth.”
“I know,” I started to cry.
“No one deserves to hear that, no one. Do you understand?” Her tone was hard.
“Yeah.” I said sniffling. This time I really did understand and wasn’t just humoring her. She wiped tears from my cheeks, my eyes still closed. I couldn’t look at her, and I imagined if I couldn’t see her, then maybe she couldn’t really see me.
“What are going to do about it?” I could feel her stare on me through the thin sheet.
“I don’t know.”
As the Tylenol, a pill I swallowed and for the first time did not chew, set in, I fell asleep on the couch with my mom at my feet. I woke up with my body tense, legs tangled and bound in an old sheet; my mother no longer at the end of the couch. It was dark outside and I was disoriented without a sense of time, a common side affect of my taking naps at odd hours of the day and without duration constraints. I thought of Jenny, alone forever, clinging to the sides of pools for the rest of her life. I cried, guilty for what I said to her, guilty for ignoring her, for leaving her out of my life, just as the other girls had. She sat patiently on the sidelines, parallel to me, watching the other girls interact and bond. Jenny and I were on the fringe, ignored for reasons we did not know, mocked for reasons we did not understand, they were washing us down the drain, and swiftly, we were moving out to sea. They made a monster of my mom, perfect in her skin. A skin I loved and knew well, then doubted once their gazes turned to me.
Jenny had been pushed out after her birthday party last year. All the girls in our grade had been invited. We were going to carve pumpkins and eat cake and giggle and gossip. When we arrived at her bungalow on the tree-lined street, we met her family at the door, her brother David, a little boy in spaceman pajamas and her moms, Deborah and Cheri. The next Monday, someone spit on Jenny at recess from a crowd of girls. No one would admit to the act and their silence solidified the pack. I saw Angela do it from my seat on the ground, but I kept quiet. They pushed chairs away from the round lunch tables when she approached with her tray. They wrote dyke on her locker with permanent marker. They called her names and pushed her down, all while I watched from the bench.
I needed to apologize to Jenny. First thing in the morning, I wanted to go to her desk and give her a card I had made. I wanted to ask her to come over for dinner, to sit next to her at lunch. I wanted to ask her her favorite color and movie, maybe she loved sea foam green and old Shirley Temple movies like me. I wanted to be her friend and write notes to her, like the other girls often did when the teachers weren’t looking. Maybe we could have played with dolls, if she wanted to, even though she was in the process of becoming a woman. But Jenny never came in that day, and I waited for her all week, until Friday I asked our English teacher, Mrs. Hamilton, where she was, “Jenny is going to Price Middle School now.” I asked if I could get a card to her, but she was unhelpful in telling me how. I kept the card in my notebook, in case she came back, but she never did. They, we, had finally washed her out to sea.
My mother had spent the last months of her life attempting to teach me about myself, just as she had laid me in her arms, supporting me as I paddled in the water when I was younger. I imagine she was determined to prepare me for the woman I would become, a woman she would not be allowed to know. After her death that winter, I moved up north to live with my Aunt Sara and Uncle John, becoming more of a sister to Ashley than the faux mother of the previous summer. When the weather had warmed, Ashley and I went to the lake. She asked me if I could teach her how to swim the way my mother had shown me. Ashley placed her belly on my outstretched arms, and I told her to paddle with her arms and kick with her legs, but I didn’t remove my arms immediately. I gave her time to adjust to the movements of her body in the water, then slowly I lowered my arms, as she paddled in place. Emphatically splashing her small arms and legs through the water, she didn’t fall below the surface. She was swimming.