Crossing Over

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Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – September 21, 2018

I am surrounded by waves. Lake Huron on the right. Lake Michigan on the left. They roll back and forth across an invisible border. Becoming one. The unsettling hum of steel grates under my tires. Above, the iconic steel towers shudder. Below my wheels, the concrete sways. A lullaby motion that both soothes and disquiets. My eyes flicker side to side, then forward. My hands tighten on the wheel, not so much in fear as in determination. In 1989, a Yugo was blown over the side of the Mackinac Bridge. It took eight days to find the car and the driver, a thirty-one year old waitress from downstate. A life cut short by recklessness and weather. Tomorrow is the twenty-ninth anniversary of the accident.

My hands unclench as I approach the toll booth. A sigh of relief escapes. Days of sunshine or storm, it always feels like a victory to make it to the other side. It always feels as though I’m crossing over a point of no return.

I pull into the bridge view park and stare at the far shore, the Lower Peninsula. I push the door open and stride into the wind. Today is my fiftieth birthday. Half a century of existence. How on Earth did this happen? For most of my life, I felt like I was nearing the end. Wanted it to end. Now it feels like I’m just getting started.

Will Grant make it across before it closes? I left before he could drive up to meet me. The radio warned of high winds. The Bridge would surely close by afternoon. Now our meeting point is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We had planned to do a cruise, but Lake Superior is in turmoil today. It is not disappointment that I feel, but excitement. At last, I will witness one of the legendary gales.

Grant has no mobile phone, so we must revert to sibling telepathy to communicate. My youngest brother likes to be out of reach. As do I. I recently caved in to convenience and bought my first smart phone. In the world beyond, a flip phone was enough. Taxis, pizzas, and the rare text from students were the extent of my phone communications. Anyway, most of the Upper Peninsula is a cellphone dead zone. You are on your own.

The U. P. is as mysterious and daunting as any of the exotic lands that I’ve visited. It is a soul-swallowing place. Vast cedar swamps and impenetrable, claustrophobic forests. A place for those who wish to never be found. Plane crash sites remain undiscovered for decades. This territory is ruled by the beasts which wander within: bears, wolves, moose. Apocalyptic swarms of insects. And the Great Spirit of Ojibway legend, the Manitou.

It’s been eight months since my return to Michigan. The most difficult thing to get used to is being accessible again. Aunts, uncles, and cousins have re-emerged. Friends and acquaintances. The faces in my memory have morphed. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of younger selves. The in-between years that I lost. The people we were then and who we’ve become. Or, in my case, unbecome.

To them, I look the same on the outside, but I am somehow unrecognizable. You are so different. You used to be so judgmental, so condescending. You seem so content with life, with who you are.

The person I was really judging was myself. I pushed people away and withdrew into anonymity. A self-inflicted punishment for my nonconformity. I have no idea when or how the pieces of my life will reassemble. My adventures are now those of human connection. The most intimidating adventure of all. I’m not sure I have what it takes.

It is in the banalities of daily life that you truly get to know someone. The morning coffee, the home improvement projects, the errands. The female domestic rituals push me far out of my comfort zone. Bridal showers and weddings and baby showers. In this world, I am truly lost. However, I understand the vulnerability that parenting entails. Grant and my littlest sister Jessica were like my own children. I decided, long ago, that I would never allow myself to love that deeply. Ever again.

I add an hour to Grant’s promised arrival time. I have been on this Earth too long to put much faith in others’ timing. I find a tiny cafe in Grand Marais. The largest plate of nachos I’ve ever seen is set before me. The owner is from Bay City, where I was born. She mentions names of people she knows who went to my high school. People I used to know. People who never left. She’s had a hard time integrating with the Yoopers, the local people, and wants to move along. I ask her about Jim Harrison, the famous writer who lived in this tiny village.

“I never met him, but he frequented the local bar,” she says. She goes to the window. A wistful gleam lights up her eyes. Her voice drops to a throaty whisper. “The lake will be so gorgeous today.”

A chill moves through me. A thrill. Of all the lakes, Superior is my beloved. All those years ago, I stood on her shore, a child so lost and fearful. She taught me the meaning of awe and its connection to love.

Life is not segmented artificially by what we call days, months, years, dawns, noons, evenings, night; rather, life is segmented by our moods, impressions, traumas, odd transferences of power from inanimate objects- the aesthetic principle – dreams, linked by time spans of loves and hates and indifference, unexpected changes in the prism of our understanding, areas of passion or lust that disappear in a moment, lapsing into a kind of sloth, dread, and slowness. – Jim Harrison, Sundog.

I brace myself for the wind and push out the door. He better be there, dammit. I’m always on time. Let him wait for me for once.

The sinister downward slide of a car window. “Hey. I knew that was your car.” That goofy grin under those dark sunglasses.

I am unable to maintain my scowl.

Down to the lakeshore we go. He struggles to stand upright, to walk against it. His long, gaunt limbs ripple in the wind. For a split second, it appears that he might blow away. My breath catches in my throat. I restrain myself from reaching out. He doesn’t need me anymore. It is far too late.

Pictured Rocks to Munising to Ishpeming. We leave my car at the hotel and take his beige Lincoln Continental. I brush aside mechanic detritus and settle into the grimy leather seat.

“I never spend more than four hundred dollars on a car!” he proclaims. Several similar models, which he mines for parts, populate his front yard. “As long as you move them around every once in a while, the city can’t make you get rid of them!”

Grant has the IQ of Darwin, while also being a prime candidate for the Darwin awards, which honors those who die in the stupidest ways. His cigarette bobs up and down on his lower lip as he barrels from one topic of conversation to the next. He recently purchased a hundred acres in the same area as my parents, our brother Billy, and myself. His trail cam has captured elk and a seven-foot, five-hundred pound bear. He has big plans for his vast property. His future house will be mostly subterranean, built into one of the high ridges. He will hang huge speakers on trees and blast elk bugles across I-75 in hopes of luring more of the beasts onto his land. He will put up a billboard slamming his employer, one of the big Detroit auto companies, and then make them pay him to take it down. He shares his life with five chihuahuas. He works as a master mechanic. He subsists on a diet of Red Bull and organic chocolate milk. He scrapes his teeth clean with a razor blade. He was born on Valentine’s Day. He is thirty-nine years old.

His exuberant shriek haunts my memory. His favorite television show was the Weather Channel. Blazing brown eyes and a Koolaid mustache that reached up to his eyes. Life was a constant source of wonder.

His voice is deeper and quieter now, but still filled with exclamation. “If you see a dead porcupine on the road, call the local tribes! They’ll pay you up to four hundred dollars! Did you know that scavengers always go for the anus first?!”

Our conversation trajectories are as much of a surprise as the roads we meander. The comical sexual exploits of his coworkers, obscure economic theories, the origin of new slang of which I’m ignorant. All of it is interspersed with random, but relevant, lines from offbeat movies. Little is said about our childhood. He remembers the policemen talking to our mother on that night. He remembers nothing of the road trip around the U.P. that we took soon after. As soon as school let out, my grandparents loaded us up in their vans and ferried us across the Mackinac Bridge. To safety.

June 1982

We follow Highway 28 across the Upper Peninsula. For hours, we see nothing but the woods, gray sky, and road signs advertising homemade pasties, which Grandma says are tasteless, doughy meat pies that are not all they’re cracked up to be. I ride in Grandpa’s work van with Billy, Grant, and the dogs. The radio is tuned to an AM talk radio station, because it’s the only one that comes in. The weatherman announces that there’s no end in sight to the abnormally wet and cold weather.

Grandpa blows his last lungful of smoke out the window and stubs out his cigarette. “Cold weather keeps the black flies away.”

Billy sits on a large toolbox and reads a Popular Mechanics magazine. He hunches over the magazine and gnaws on his fingernails. He seems unaffected by the problems with our father, except that now he gnaws until his cuticles bleed.

Grant sits on my lap in the passenger seat and stares out the window. Slow motion blink of his big brown eyes. He mimics Grandpa. A deliberate slouch, a thoughtful nod. He takes phantom sips of coffee from his identical cup. Every day that he’s around Grandpa, he regains more of his enthusiasm. Joy replaces the caution that has crept into his voice.

My throat tightens. Please let him go back to how he was before. He is three years old. Maybe there’s time to erase all of the bad stuff.

Cruncher and Bigfoot lie at the very back of the van, next to the box that holds the air mattress that Grandpa and Grandma sleep on at night. The smell of wet dog and wood shavings fills the van.

I take the road map out of the glove compartment and secure the seat belt around Grant. I move to the back of the van, spread the map out on the floor, and trace my finger along the thin red lines that crisscross the U.P. Munising, Marquette, Iron Mountain, Ontonagon, Escanaba, Copper Harbor. Unknown places with unknown people. So many places to start over.

Grandpa glances over his shoulder. “Would you like to go everywhere?”

I can only stare at him.

“I can’t promise you that we’ll go everywhere this time, but we’ll see as many places as we can.” He winks at me.

I clutch the map and allow myself a smile.

I place my hand on the road atlas that sits between us. I haven’t gone everywhere, but close enough. My days of running away are over.

My mother says that Grant and I were the most affected. We closed ourselves off, lashed out. Turned our backs on the world, our middle fingers raised in defiance.

Our itinerary is different than the one we followed so many years ago, but no less mesmerizing. Tannin-tinted waterfalls. Mt. Arvon, Michigan’s highest point.

At Marquette, we encounter Lake Superior surfers. It is said that the best waves are in the deepest winter, beyond the ice that gathers at the shore. Crazy Yoopers.

Down old logging roads, deep grooves in soft dirt. The car bottoms out. The undercarriage scrapes the ground and then springs back up. Grant whips the car to the side as a trio of slick SUVs pass by, headed in the opposite direction. Faces turn to stare, heads shake. Grant and I look at each other and laugh. I’d so rather be us than them.

Silence falls between us.

“You never listen to the radio?”

“They play the same crap they’ve been playing for thirty years!” His lips pull tight for a quick drag. The cigarette snaps to rigid attention. He twists his mouth to exhale out the window. “I prefer to listen to my thoughts.”

Journey. Led Zeppelin. And, of course, the obligatory Bob Seger and Ted Nugent. It’s been decades since I’ve heard most of what floats over these airwaves. It was already classic when I was young. Shouldn’t more music have been added to the playlist over the years? Music from the eighties and nineties. What’s popular in America these days? I stare out the window. I don’t know who anyone is anymore. I lean my head against the cool glass. And I don’t care. An endless parade of forest fills my vision. Autumn’s first tinge graces the treetops. I’m not sure I know who I am anymore. But I’m getting there.

I flip through the atlas. Grant enjoys driving backroads for hours. Just to see where they lead. There is no such thing as nowhere. Before I left America, I would do the same on my solitary days off. In Michigan, Southern California, and Arizona. There was always a folded map by my side, such a perfect companion. Endlessly captivating, never judgmental.

I place the atlas on my lap and swallow hard. “Do you ever feel like you’re not one of them? I mean, not part of humanity?”

“Oh, God, yes! They did a study and discovered that two-thirds of people have no internal dialogue whatsoever! They call them NPCs, non-playable characters. Like in video games. They’re just running on a program with no self-reflection at all!”

I roll my eyes. “And no one wants to deal with the least bit of emotional discomfort. It’s character-building to have hardship, loss. It’s part of life.”

His eyebrows shoot up. “Reminds me of that scene in Star Trek V, the one where they search for God. The Vulcan takes McCoy’s and Spock’s past trauma away, but Captain Kirk refuses. ‘Pain is what makes us who we are!’ he says. ‘I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!’”

I smile. Confronting trauma and regret is not for the faint-hearted. And there are some things you just never get over.

Grandpa died just days before my high school graduation. That long drive home from the Cleveland Clinic. How were we going to tell Grant? He was waiting at the door with a new card he had made for Grandpa. He was seven years old. We didn’t have to say it. He could see it on our faces. His hands crumpled the card. A hard sheen of rage snuffed out the soft ray of hope in his eyes.

A letter tucked into a casket:

Dear God,

Grandpa was very sick. I missed him very very much. He was very nice to me. He was a very good person. This was written by Mr. Grant W. Douglas II. God please give this to Grandpa when he’s with you. Please God. I’m sorry I said I hate you.

Dad went crazy. Grandpa died. I took off for California. My visits home may have caused more pain than happiness. The distant echo of his voice still tears through my heart. The serrated edge of rage. Please don’t go! Why do you always have to leave?

Why did I? My mother insists that they respected me for it. They were not my responsibility. Such a fine line between helping and allowing others to take responsibility. I sigh through the knot in my throat. It would have been worse if I had stayed. The alcohol and pills and other drugs I took to cope. The harassment from my peers which had started to involve my family. My departure certainly saved us from yet another tragedy. All I can do is cherish the time we have left together. Cherish the nows that remain. This is why I came home.

We emerge from the forest. The mouth of the Huron River gapes. Murky, sluggish, it bleeds into the lake, which now slumbers. A mirror-like sheen glimmers in the diffuse sunlight. Two campers sit side by side on the beach. Not a sound emanates from either.

We stare across the river, the border of the mysterious Huron Mountain Club. Grant breaks the silence. “Next time I want to pan for gold! Bring a kayak and go along the shore! Most of the time you’re escorted away, but sometimes people get invited inside! Or I can just parachute into one of the lakes! They don’t own bodies of water!”

“What would you do there?”

“Fish, probably. I’ve heard that there still might be grayling in the lakes!”

Back in the car, we creep along the perimeter of the Huron Mountain Club. Established by wealthy industrialists in the 1800s, there are only fifty members who are allowed to own cabins. The members are notoriously secretive. They refuse to speak to the press. The land has become one of largest tracts of primeval forest in the Great Lakes region. The only outsiders who are allowed in are seasonal workers and researchers. The focus has long since changed from hunting to conservation. The lakes and rivers and forests are absolutely pristine.

Henry Ford was famously denied membership until he bought adjacent land and stopped a highway from being built through it. This highway, Blind M-35, is the focus of Grant’s attention. We drive as far as we can and then park. I note the fresh ATV tracks in the sand. I tense up. This is the heart of moose country, but I’m more wary of humans than animals. We are unarmed. My heart begins to pound. Grant’s fixation is no different from my infatuation with forbidden places: North Korea, Transnistria, Belarus. One sure way to get us to go somewhere is to tell us we shouldn’t.

The silence is so thick that it muffles our words. The forest becomes sparser, otherworldly. Spongy moss underfoot. Fluorescent orange lichen is splattered on the slender tree trunks. Around the next curve, over the next hill. But the only thing up ahead is more sandy road. We have no choice but to turn around and head back.

June 1982

I walk along the lakeshore, collecting pretty pebbles. Agates have distinctive bands and glow when the sun is low on the horizon. But there is no sun today. Gentle waves seep through the pebbled shore and recede. A merry tinkle. Water chimes. The lake ascends into mist. Somewhere, a foghorn blows. The lonely toll of lighthouse bells. The numbness that has imprisoned me since Dad’s breakdown ebbs away. Tendrils of fog reach out and enfold me, obscuring the world. Something special is happening. Something only for me. My breath catches in my throat. I bow my head. I am so safe here, alone. The fog drifts into the forest, a procession of phantoms carrying my fear away.

At Big Bay, I walk along the driftwood-strewn beach, stepping over the contorted tree carcasses. The power of the lake surges through me. Messages are churned up from the depths, transported in the waves, and hurled upon the shore. What would I say to that skinny little girl with the freckles and braces and shoulders slumped with so much burden? So many things. Do the best you can with the choices you make, some of which you will regret. Others will fill you with wonder. There will be help from that which runs the show. Life will both annihilate you and take your breath away. One day you will stand on this shore again, a survivor of so many apocalypses. Every atom of your being will be younger than ever.

And you, beautiful girl, what do you wish to tell me?

Please don’t forget me.

Grant watches me from afar. With a look exchanged, we head for the car. So much said in things unsaid.

It’s not possible to have certain epiphanies before middle age. It is a point of no return. We can crow all we want about how we’re never too old to do whatever we wish to do, but choices narrow. Minds and bodies degrade. But it’s never too late to open our hearts and reclaim our souls. To face our demons and learn from them.

The driver’s side door slams, jolting me out of my reverie. I glance in the sun visor mirror and cringe. It will take me forever to comb the knots out of my hair.

Grant lights a cigarette and starts the car. “Hey, you wanna take logging roads back to Marquette? I’m pretty sure it’s possible. Worse case, we turn around.”

I smile and settle into the seat. “Absolutely. The only roads worth taking are those unknown.”

This Sacred Space

I have become an artist of farewells. Of letting go and moving on. I can sense their arrival when they are still far on the horizon. The preparation for separation begins. This is the result of a lifetime of leaving places, people, jobs, virtual communities. Outgrowing toxic mindsets. Shedding the masks hiding my true identity. All of these are losses and worthy of grief.

Over the years, I’ve encountered many kindred souls in the virtual realm. We traveled the road together for a while and then our paths diverged. Our shared journey was finished. We had learned as much as we could from each other. This is growth. This is life. It has always been this way, but in recent years, and especially months, it has accelerated. We are being forced away from certain souls and drawn towards others. The more we resist, the more painful it is. Many of us are discovering our real tribes and our core truths. It is excruciating, but necessary.

No, I’m not deleting this blog. This sacred space will remain. I have left Instagram, the only social network I used. Definitely not an earth-shattering event. I simply felt as though my wilderness photos and little mystical musings didn’t belong there anymore, amid the ever-darkening cacophony.  The posts I saw in my feed confirmed this.

Silence is complicity. You are just as guilty as the perpetrators.

I have been far from silent. They are simply unable to comprehend what I have to say.

And this is my message:

Wish you were here. (June 10, 2020) #sacredspace

It has become an incredible act of courage to remain a sovereign, peaceful presence amid the turmoil.

We each have the right to process our unique realities in the way our souls guide us. To protect our precious energy in any way we can. To share that which we feel compelled to share. I am not a bad person.

World weary. Road weary. Here I lay my self down to rest. One day I will sleep here forever, my ashes seeping into the Earth with the rain. (August 8, 2019) #sacredspace

My work there was finished. And that’s okay. I felt a twinge of sadness as, one by one, I deleted almost four years of posts – the images and thoughts I had so carefully crafted. The travels, both past and present. The wildflowers. The eagle.

The butterflies. The night sky’s dazzling illumination.

The random roadside messages.

And my selfies.

What a peaceful existence I cultivate. What a gentle soul I am. What a shame to delete this beauty.

But as I clicked that final red button – permanently delete my Instagram account – it was not regret that I felt, but relief. I am free, once again.

I left without saying goodbye.

1974

I have always been a wildflower. (August 12, 2019) #indestructible #sacredspace

Illumination in Blue

A new year, a new decade. And I re-emerge, once again, from the void that swallowed me in the last months of 2019. A year that I could not wait to see the end of. The theme for my 2020 is “Illumination”. Enough of the darkness for a while.

The long period of creative dormancy was a perfect opportunity to reassess my writing. I’ve finally begun to submit my memoir, Wish I Were Here, to agents. I am grinding away, slowly, on a new blog post. I’ve unearthed my novel, Blue, from the vault. I’ve decided to re-edit it and re-submit it to agents and publishers. It’s not Pulitzer material, but I’m confident that it deserves a wider audience than it received. A few years ago, I posted an excerpt – “What I Was Doing in Guam” – on this blog. It was featured on Freshly Pressed. How many of you remember the pre-Wordpress Discover days?

Blue was published in 2006 by Murphy’s Law Press, a Canadian micropress which no longer exists. The story is about one young woman’s journey into the vibrant, but shadowy world of exotic dancing. How she uses it to take back her power after sexual assault and other trauma. Some of you may know that I worked as an exotic dancer (stripper) for a couple of years in the mid-1990s. The novel is not autobiographical, but some of the characters and scenes are based on my experiences in that world. For a few years, there were copies of Blue available on Amazon. But even those have disappeared, hopefully into appreciative hands. To begin this new year/new decade, I’m posting the prologue and chapter one. Some caution for more sensitive souls – the beginning of the novel is dark and somewhat explicit, so you may want to skip this one.

Prologue

In an industrial neighborhood of San Diego there is a lonely, forgotten lot guarded by nothing more than a chain-link fence. Little remains of the establishment that reigned here, or of the painted ladies who once graced its stage.

Stiletto heels protrude from the seared earth like tawdry tombstones. Sunlight glints off a garden of broken mirrors and scattered rhinestones. Sparkling apparitions flit about in the breeze. They are specters of the dancers who have been scattered like some lost tribe of Babylon.

Amid the rubble one thing remains intact: a blue sequined mask.

 

Chapter
1

When I was eleven years old, Christine told me the story of how I came to be. I walked into the living room to find her sitting on the floor, a faded pink boa around her neck, cabaret music blaring from the stereo. Clippings, faded costumes, and photos were spread out around her. The flotsam of a past life I never knew about.

I turned the music down and sat beside her. I wanted to reach out and pluck the false eyelash that hung precariously from her swollen eyelid, but I was afraid she’d slap my hand away.

“If irony were a color it would be blue,” she said as she gathered me to herself. Tequila fumes wafted at me, but I didn’t look away.

I stiffened, unused to her affection. Something was wrong.

“A color so profound can only lead to melancholy,” she said as she stroked my slumped shoulders. She took my face in her hands. “It’s time you knew where you came from. You got a right to know. But don’t ever ask me about it again, you hear?”She picked up a high school yearbook. Swaying a bit, she riffled through the pages. “Here he is,” she said. “Kip Caruthers, your father.”

I looked at the black and white photo of the man who I was told had died in Vietnam. He was not what I imagined. He looked like a poster boy for the Aryan Nation. A frat boy. He wore an ascot in the photograph, for crying out loud. Be a good boy, Kippy, and fetch mummy another martini. This man never stepped one foot in Vietnam.

“It was all a lie,” Christine said. “I met him at a spring dance at a country club in Scottsdale. He saw me dance and, supposedly, that’s what caused him to approach a girl he wouldn’t have otherwise spit on. People threw money at me when I danced. That’s how good I was. Are you surprised?”

“I don’t know.”

“I was going to be a Vegas showgirl after high school. My parents hated this idea. But they knew better than to hold me back.”She paused, and took a deep breath. “Kip got me drunk and ended up forcing himself on me. I fought with everything I had, but it wasn’t enough. I marched back to the dance all torn and dirty and caused a scene. I expected help, but all I got were looks of disgust. Only sluts dreamed of being showgirls. I got what I was asking for.”

I sat silent, stunned. I was the offspring of rape. A vile joke. I didn’t deserve to live.
Christine took another swig of tequila, “When I started to show, I stalked Kip. I went to his football practices. I strutted right by those snotty cheerleaders and took a seat in the bleachers. I’d pat my fat belly and call out, ‘Little Kippy says hi too’. After a couple of times Daddy Kip got involved. He paid me to shut my mouth and go away. I had no choice but to take the money. There was no longer any hope for me to be a dancer. Abortion was illegal back then and damned if I was going to ruin my body and give the child away. I know it’s not a pretty story, but you need to learn how to take honesty if you’re going to survive in this world,” she said. “Sugar-coated words aren’t worth shit, baby Blue. Look where they got me.”

They got her saggy tits, stretch marks, and me. And I got Kip’s blonde blandness. Every time she looked at me she saw him.

She stumbled down the hall to her room.

I sat amid the tattered remnants of her dream. I fished out a pair of white gloves and a rhinestone choker. I modeled them in the mirror, but couldn’t bring myself to meet my own gaze. Why didn’t I somehow abort myself and make it easier on everyone? Clenched within that claustrophobic scarlet cocoon, I was toxic. That’s what she should have named me: Scarlet. The color of blood-boiling rage.

But some part of me knew that I was destined for great things. I knew that someday someone would see the spark hidden inside me and nurture it to flame. It made me want to live as revenge on her revenge, but I was never able to muster up as much rage as she did. I was born seeing scarlet, yet my tendencies deepened into blue.

I made it a point to disappear from Christine’s radar. We wandered ghostly through each other’s lives like two phantoms trapped in adjacent realities. Most of the memories from my youth are as faded as the desert in the noonday sun. I know that I was an honor student. I won gold stars for perfect attendance. I was unseen, not even interesting enough to be picked on. I was a nice, quiet girl who didn’t make waves. The girl nobody remembered.

I awoke one morning when I was seventeen to find a strange man sitting at our kitchen table drinking coffee while Christine made scrambled eggs and bacon. I stood in the doorway, unsure if I should enter.

“Oh, hi, honey,” Christine said. “I made you some breakfast, too. George, this is my baby Blue.”

I slid into the seat opposite George. His eyes lit up when he saw me. He had short black hair with a long, skinny braid that curled up under his collar like a rat’s tail. I shuddered. “I’m what you’d call an optimistic fatalist,” he said and flashed a crooked smile.

“George has a degree in Psychology,” Christine said as she set his plate before him. She sat beside him, beaming at each mouthful he ate.

“I’m planning on going into Psychology,” I said, trying to make conversation. “Right now we’re studying the philosophies of Freud. You know, the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. It’s fascinating.”

His face was seized by panic, and then he brushed my words aside with a sneer. “As if any of these theories make a difference in the grand scheme of things.” He had no idea what I was talking about.

He wasn’t blatantly insulting, but I would have preferred that to his self-righteous arrogance. It took all my will to be polite. If he stopped coming around because of me, there’d be hell to pay.

I was in the final weeks of high school. Close to freedom from both school and Christine.“Once you’re eighteen you’re out the door,” she had said so many times, as if she’d have to force me to leave. I had a job as a waitress at a coffee shop. It was a dismal little place on Main Street. The customers were year-round desert rats who had nothing better to do than to blame me for their withering lives. I saved every cent toward my escape. I was fed up with living in a place where people came to die. All the trailer parks and wheezing geriatrics.

When Belinda Black walked into my life, I knew that my life was about to dramatically change. One day, she was there at the counter, a dazzling jewel amid the dusty fossils. Her green gaze was as direct and piercing as a cobra’s. Her dark skin and those shimmering eyes paralyzed me.

“My mother is Haitian,” she said, as if reading my thoughts. “You get some strange genetic combinations down there.”

I stared at her, coffeepot poised in mid pour. She had spoken to me! With a quick glance around at the other customers, I refilled her cup and set the pot down. The dinner rush was over and I deserved a break.

“You go to my high school,” she continued. “I’ve seen you around. I don’t talk to anyone there. They’re a bunch of flatliners, but you’ve got a real spark in you. We should go out sometime.”

I nodded, dumbfounded. And so our friendship began.

 

“I haven’t lived at home in three years—since I was fifteen,” Belinda said as she put the finishing touches on my makeup. We were going to a high school party, something she would normally never do, but she wanted me to try out the man catching skills that she had painstakingly taught me. “Too many rules and not enough rewards. I’m out of here after graduation. Off to LA. Why don’t you come along? We’ll make our fortune in Hollywood.”

“Ok, I guess,” I said, trying to hide how thrilled I was. It wasn’t like I had any other plans besides to get away from Mesa. I was sick to death of looking at five hundred shades of brown. I wanted to be somewhere green, where things blossomed. California sounded so full of possibilities.

“Voilà, you’re finished, my dear,” she said as she turned me toward the mirror. “See how good you look with just a light touch of makeup? You don’t need a lot, but you do need a little help. You’re too plain without it.” I nodded, grateful for her attention.

“I’m going to be a movie producer,” she said as we pulled up to the party. “Push It” by Salt ’N’ Pepa blared out of the house. A boy barfed in the front hedge as we approached the front door. “I know I’m beautiful enough to be a star, but I want to work behind the scenes. I’m going to be the one that recognizes the talent hidden inside an unknown. I’m going to nurture it and make it shine. And grow filthy rich.”

Belinda was the only female I knew who smoked cigars and drank Armagnac. She conversed on topics such as stock options and world dictatorships.

“An educated woman who can also fuck like a whore is a gem,” she said as we made a circuit through the house. “She can name her price.”

I watched her work the room, scoping out the most promising conquests. The jocks pretended not to notice her; they rough housed and made fun of each other to hide their nervousness. What would it be like being worshipped like that? Women like her always get what they want, I thought. They’re all so sure of themselves too: Oh, I’m every guy’s type. When I tried it, it came across as desperate.

“Over there,” Belinda said with a tilt of her chin. It was Brett Banks. He was one of those boys who fit into every group and none at all. And for that every girl wanted him.

“Can’t we try someone less intimidating?” I begged.

“He’s looking over here. At you, not me,” Belinda insisted. “Go on. Remember, just stare deep into his eyes and pretend that anything he says is the most fascinating thing you’ve ever heard.” She gave me a little push.

I did what she said and it was working. We had just begun to make out when Belinda turned around and snatched him right from under my nose.

“Almost, but not quite,” she said with a patronizing smile as she led Brett away from me, toward a vacant back bedroom.

My heart wilted. I settled for the dorky friend, a boy with a face and name I didn’t know. I willingly laid down for him as I had for so many others. There was really no reason not to, and the boys all seemed to want it so badly. I didn’t see what the fuss was about. The contorted faces and strangled moans. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. At least someone got some satisfaction out of it. All I got out of it was soreness and disappointment.

Boys were nothing more than amusement for Belinda. Diversions. She always had at least two flings going at once, usually with rich old men from the various country clubs in Scottsdale.

“You always gotta have at least two,” she said. “That way they sense that something’s up. It keeps them interested.”

She knew about my father and thought it would be a hoot to nab him. She never got a chance to penetrate Kip’s inner circle of cronies, however. My home life shattered for good, and Belinda was there to gather me up and whisk me away.

 

I should have paid heed to the unease that I felt whenever I was alone with George.
I came home from work one night to find him on our couch, whisky in hand, his flabby arm outstretched, inviting me to dance.

What the hell? I thought. Maybe I’d been too hard on the guy.

“Have a drink to celebrate your graduation,” he said. “Soon we won’t get to see your pretty face around here anymore.” He fixed me a drink. I downed it in one swallow.

“That’s a girl,” he laughed. He scratched his hairy belly and lurched toward me.
I backed away, already feeling woozy. “Thanks for the drink. I’m going to my room.”
The last thing I remember is walking down the hall, George on my heels, his clammy hand upon my arm. I tried to shrug it away as everything faded.

I don’t know how long I was under. Sometimes I wish I had stayed under forever. But consciousness gradually returned. When the shadows came into focus George was on top of me, slick with sweat, pumping away.

“Oh no!” I wailed. “Get off of me!”

“What, baby? You were digging it a minute ago. Let’s have some good sex. Your mommy doesn’t need to find out.”

“Oh, oh God,” I sobbed. I got up and ran into the hall. Streaks and sparks whizzed in front of my eyes. The Grateful Dead music that had once sounded sensual now seemed sinister. I nearly passed out again. I huddled on the floor of the bathroom sick with shame. How could I have allowed this to happen to me? Especially after I knew what had happened to Christine. I should have seen the signs.

Then Christine came home. Her harsh voice bounced up the stairs and down the hall, edgy as shattered glass.

I took off my window screen and climbed into the garden. She would never believe me. It was best to just leave. I threw on my work clothes that smelled of grease and sweat. Whatever drug he had given me wore off and I felt like filth. I didn’t have time to grab my shoes.

I went to Belinda. There was no place else to go.

“God, nasty old George,” she said. “He must have slipped you that date rape drug. Well, at least he didn’t finish off in you. Did he?”

“No, I’m pretty sure he didn’t. But you know what the worst thing is? When I didn’t know it was him, it felt good.” I shuddered.

“You give him too much power. All he did was stick his dick in you. Breaking your nose is worse. Think about it.”

I could have sworn she looked secretly pleased that I had nowhere else to go.

She continued, “Well, I guess we have no excuse to stick around these parts anymore. First thing we gotta do is go get your stuff.”

My work shoes were on the front porch when we arrived. They were lined up neatly, the toes pointed away from the door. Next to them a suitcase, my clothes folded neatly inside. Christine had even put my favorite stuffed animal, a pink bunny, next to the suitcase. That touch of finality, most of all, made my heart wrench. I sat on the steps and sobbed. It hadn’t been much of a home, but I could never again go back to it.

 

One evening, soon after, Belinda set me up with one of her country club connections. “You have to be practical. You have no money. You have to use what God gave you to survive. Anyway, it’s just a couple of times and then we can split for LA.”

The man, Alan, was seventy and made his fortune with high-quality hair products. When I met him he was wearing spandex bike shorts and a tank top. “I was just making a protein smoothie. Want one?”

I nodded and settled back onto the couch. “Pump up the Jams” by Technotronic blared from the speakers. He danced toward me, smoothies in hand. His flabby, gray-haired breasts swayed. I sighed with resignation and leaned my head against the back of the couch.

He launched into small talk. “How about this wacky weather? Monsoon season is so early this year!” He paused to get into the groove of the song. “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?  You can never go wrong with a degree in Business Administration! That’s what I did and I’ve never regretted it!”

I took a deep breath and shut him up with a kiss. His mouth was wet and soggy. As appetizing as a fallen soufflé. I got up and walked into his bedroom. It was decorated like a lair. Animal prints, foliage, and in one corner there were giant plumes in a floor vase.

He rubbed his stiff weenie against me and bleated, “Oh, Blue, please hold me.”

I undressed and stretched out on the leopard-print sheets. He pumped away on me, watching us in the wall mirrors, while I clenched my teeth against the pain. Just a few more times, I thought. Just this one man. I tried to remember what Belinda had told me: I gave the physical act too much power. Nothing could defile me without my permission, and so on. I ended up crying silently, wishing he’d just finish.

He mistook my sobs for shudders of ecstasy, “Oh yeah, you like that don’t you, baby? No young man can hold out as long as I can.”

As if that were something I should cherish: a whiny old man banging me until the end of time.

 

“Adios, all you losers,” Belinda sang as we drove away from Mesa for the last time. The wad of cash from my visits with Alan was stuffed into the bottom of my backpack. As we left the desert behind I vowed to forget my past. All of it. My life begins now.