Archive for Narratives

America, My America – An excerpt

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America! My America!” Jordan shouts as he comes pell-mell down the hallway and into the dining room. Max’s red graduation gown floats out behind him, a Burger King crown is secured at his brow with a blue bandana, and he’s waving a plastic lightsaber overhead, dangerously close to every light fixture he passes.

“The lights,” I say. “Watch the lights!”

“Yeah, let’s go to Oakland for the big lights,” he says.

“No, the kitchen lights!” I point as his still-flailing lightsaber makes a wide arc and just misses the globe overhead.

“Are we going to Jack London Square?” Max asks, deftly flipping the omelet in the frying pan. When the kids were younger, we frequently spent the Fourth of July in Oakland watching the fireworks display over the water, but this year Jay and I have other plans.

“We figured that since we’re in a legal firework county this year,” Jay says, “we’d go old-school.”

“Why do I get the feeling that old-school is going to suck?” Jordan asks, lowering his lightsaber long enough to pluck a sausage link from the plate on the stove.

“Running around the apartment complex with two sparklers apiece does not constitute old-school,” Jay says as Max carries the eggs over from the stove and we all tuck in around the table. “After breakfast, lose the cape and we’ll go get some fireworks.”

“The gown, you mean,” Jory says, swishing a wide sleeve with a flourish. “It’s a cap and gown, right Mom?”

“At the moment it’s a crown and gown, but technically, yes, I think you’re right. Now eat.”

“And by the way it’s my gown,” Max says, “and my America.” He smirks, recalling the sleep-talking episodes from his childhood, during which he inexplicably shouted “America, My America!” over and over again.

They return later in the day with fountains, an afterburner, Saturn Missiles, bang snaps, black snakes, sparklers and a Pagoda, which they present with all the flourish of game show hostesses, reading the descriptions and warnings on each paper wrapper aloud.

Shortly after dark, we join our neighbors in the street. Jay lets Max do most of the setting up and lighting of the fireworks. Jordan struts across the street to chat up a cute pixie girl and a tall black boy with a mohawk who are sitting on the tailgate of a truck, trying terribly hard to look bored. When the sparklers come out however, Jory rushes back across the street to grab a box.

“I’m taking some for Iris and Bret, too.” He waves the box in front of my face.

“Do not chase little kids with them. I mean it.”

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t trip!”

There is an indescribable magic in the smell and the smoke, the pop of flashers and the wail of a Whistling Pete, a slow-motion enchantment in the dusky silhouette of a child on a bicycle, riding circles in the street with sparklers trailing behind. When our own firework stash has been depleted, Max, Jay and I linger at the edge of the driveway, delighting in the flares and flashes up and down the street.

A few blocks away, someone lets loose with mortars, which burst up over the rooftops, reminiscent of our Jack London Square days. I call Jordan back from his new friends and we head out to the backyard for a better view of the overhead show. Max drags the futon from the porch out onto the lawn and flattens it out so we can lay across it, with our legs dangling off the side. Iggy and Lola jump up and shove themselves in between us.

It is one of those rare nights where we are connected and at peace. It’s funny how a thing like that can swell in your chest unexpectedly.

These first few weeks back in Modesto, Jordan has been calm and congenial. No screaming fights, no slamming doors or strange behaviors. I keep expecting at any moment for the newness to wear off, but for now it is holding.

As we lie here on the folded-out futon in our first real backyard, I realize that in just a month, Max will be eighteen. Grown. And even Jory is only three years out from adulthood. Yet for tonight we are all children, eagerly anticipating each glorious explosion in the night sky above us.

“America, my America,” I murmur, reaching over to ruffle Max’s hair.

“Mom, you’re not gonna start singing that Lee Greenwood song, are you?” he asks.

“I’m going to try really hard not to.”

[this is an excerpt from The Complicated Geography of Alice, currently available at Amazon in paperback and for Kindle.]

Snapshot circa 2005

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[It’s been nearly two years since I smoked my last cigarette, but I found this bit tucked away in a pocket just now and it made me smile.]

The kid is maybe sixteen, slouched on a stone bench outside the bus station. His hair is unkempt and hangs in his face. He wears perpetual boredom like a heavy mask. There’s a pencil poking out of his back pocket, visible only when he leans forward to tie the too-long laces of his left sneaker. She recognizes him right off, knows he rides the 69West into town and up to the High School every morning. Occasionally early, usually late.

They don’t take much interest in one another, the woman and the boy, until she withdraws a pack of Winstons from her pocket and lights that first, morning cigarette. Slowly, shyly, he comes to life.

She pretends not to notice, as he stands up, hooks his thumbs in his belt-loops and shuffles across the space between his bench and hers. “Do you have another cigarette?” He asks, not quite looking at her, his eyes mostly obscured by a mop of dark hair.

She laughs, right off, one of those you-are-so-foolish-to-even-think-it laughs, and then says, “Dude, I SO can’t give you a cigarette.” It’s the laugh she’ll regret moments later, as he stares at his shoes and rubs the toe of the left one over a pebble on the pavement and then shuffles back to his bench.

For the woman, the seven minutes, which pass, between her laugh and the arrival of their bus, are thick with internal mumblings. Of course you did the right thing. First off, it’s illegal; contributing to the delinquency of minors and such, and secondly, you’d kick the ass of anyone who handed your own kid a cigarette. Hell, you should march right over there and let him have it for even asking, tell him how bad cigarettes are, how stupid you were to pick that first one up and how gutless you feel about not putting them down. You should ask him if he’s ever sat with someone who’s dying of cancer or even worse, ‘cause you know full well that it’s worse, sucking on a breathing tube for the last eight years of their life; having fucked up their lungs to the point of emphysema. You should call the school, tell his mother, shake your finger; smack him silly so he has half a chance of not ending up like you.

Still, she regrets the laugh, the way he hung his head and slunk back to his bench. I’m not trying to be an asshole, kid. I’m just doing the right thing.

 As she stands to board the bus, as she waits for the kid and an old woman on crutches to board first, she realizes that she’s rolling the smoke she didn’t give him between her fingers and thumb. Dude, I SO can’t give you a cigarette. If, however, one falls from my pack, into your lap as I jostle past, headed for the seat nearest the back exit, well it’s your luck, not mine.

And the thing she’ll remember, years later, is how that mask of perpetual boredom dissipated, how he nearly lept up out of his seat, twisting to make eye contact in that instant after the cigarette rolled from her fingers into his lap. Like Christmas morning, like puppies and shiny new bikes, like Disneyland and pizza; caught off-guard the kid’s mask evaporated completely.

As she slipped into her seat, four rows back, the boy still staring over his shoulder, waiting to make eye contact, waiting to mouth an exaggerated “thank you”, she was amazed at how good the wrong thing felt.

 

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 I’ve been working with badass Bradley on revisions for The Complicated Geography of Alice and I just cut the following chapter from the manuscript. It’s always wrenching to tear stuff out, so I’m sharing it here to soothing my psyche. Honestly, it’s more about my general distaste for the carrot and stick method of providing services to needy people than it is about Alice. Still, there are little bits of her – of us – in here that still make me giggle. 

 

Grandma Jo has been trying. I’ll give her that. A couple of months ago, she let me drag her to a PFLAG meeting where Alice’s support group leader Elizabeth spoke on transgender awareness. It was basic stuff, and I’d hoped it would be enlightening. Mostly though, my mum sat and stewed about a man in the group who had been rude to her in some other venue. She is trying to change her language to appease us, but it’s becoming clear that she has no interest in changing her mind. This is just a phase that her grandson is going through and she’s going to wait it out patiently, pretending all along that it’s no big deal.

For this reason, I’m surprised when she invites Alice and I to join her for High Tea at a local homeless shelter. The event is a benefit for the women’s program at the shelter, which provides temporary housing, healthcare and education opportunities along with financial and spiritual advising. The thought of making food and shelter conditional upon the acceptance of spiritual advising makes me queasy, but I try to set that aside because Alice is excited to have been invited to such a gloriously girlie event. Especially by Grandma Jo.

When she arrives to pick us up, Alice has just finished applying her thirteenth layer of lipgloss and I’m still struggling to run a comb through my hair.

“You both look so nice,” Grandma Jo says as Alice dashes past her towards the car.

“SHOTGUN!” she shouts, diving into the passenger seat, leaving me to climb into the back. On the ride to the bad side of town, my mother explains everything as she is prone to do.

“Now there’s going to be tea, sandwiches and desserts, and then a fashion show. Do you remember the women in my bible study group? We’ve got a whole table to ourselves.”

We arrive at the mission, disembark and meet our little circle of ladies in the parking lot. My mother’s Bible Study Lady Friends are the kind of women who arrange casserole duty for grieving families, send encouraging little notes to one another with bible verses written in them, and structure the bulk of their gossip in the approved “prayer request” manner. They’re nice enough, some more so than others, but a generally congenial group.

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In the early weeks of Alice’s transition, I experience a series of “Ah Ha!” moments and, in each instance, I stop whatever I’m doing and rush to her for confirmation.

The skinny jeans!” I shout into the phone from my office.

What?” she asks, like she hasn’t even bothered to pause Hitman and is continuing to play the game while balancing the phone on her shoulder.

That shopping trip last month when you freaked out because I kept grabbing the usual baggy jeans instead of the skinny ones you actually wanted…”

Oh yeah. Makes sense now, huh?”

I had no idea, kiddo. I thought you were being difficult just to be difficult.”

Mom, I’ve got people to kill.”

And I’ve got people to make sure we don’t kill over here, but it just hit me that the skinny jeans were one of those signs I missed.”

Yep. Love you mom. Bye.”

I continue to be amazed and surprised at having been invited behind the curtain, that for the first time in so many years we are privy to the inner workings of her psyche. Not all of it, you understand, but little peeks that illuminate wide swaths of curious and sometimes infuriating behavior.

Some of my light-bulbs over-reach, like when I Ah Ha! her love of the “Wig In A Box” song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Not a girlie thing,” she corrects me. “That’s just a kick-ass song.” She dances off down the hall singing a list of antiquated ladies hairstyles at the top of her lungs.

Nothin’ girlie about that,” I mutter to an empty room.

Days later, I’m driving home from work when another little pop occurs. I resist the urge to call Alice while driving, but just barely. I swerve into the driveway, bolt through the front door and down the hall towards her room. Unfortunately, I’ve got too much momentum built up by the time I notice the vacuum cleaner loitering just outside her door and I rush headlong into it, tumbling through the doorway as I shout:

Ah Ha! Marvin K Redpost is a girl!”

Briefly, there is silence as I fumble with the vacuum hose and right myself. When I look up, I realize that Alice and I are not alone. Standing a couple of feet from where I crash-landed is her friend Bret, whose perpetual deer-in-the-headlights expression is doubly so today. But what’s most striking is that instead of the basic uniform of rock t-shirt and ratty jeans, Bret is decked out in Alice’s best white oxford shirt and black slacks, which are slightly too short for the lanky limbs poking through them.

Both Alice and Bret are standing stock-still, clearly surprised by my graceless arrival, but also in that zone of children who’ve been caught doing things children do when grown-ups aren’t around.

My mom’s cataloging fifteen years of gender-bending in one week,” Alice says, rolling her eyes and holding out a hand to help me up.

I’m still staring at Bret, who’s looking over my shoulder for an escape route.

You look incredibly…” I almost don’t say it: “handsome.”

The smile that follows is so worth the chance taken.

Yeah?” Bret asks, turning towards the mirror above the dresser to examine the well-dressed boy staring back.

Alice gives Bret a shove with her shoulder to make room at the mirror so she can apply a fresh coat of bubble gum pink lip-gloss. Alice says as she paints, “I stole this book from the library ages ago…”

Fourth grade,” I say, watching them huddled together in the mirror.

…one of those Marvin K. Redpost books. He kisses his elbow one day and when he wakes up the next morning he’s a girl.”

I meant to make you take it back but I bet we still have it.”

Bret is quiet, but grins while fussing with the collar of the oxford shirt. Up. Down. Up. I move up behind them and flatten the collar.

Definitely down,” I say.

I stole that other book too,” Alice says, “the one about the girl who dressed up as a boy to fight in the Civil War.” Alice says rubs her lips together and then leans forward to make a kiss-print on the mirror.

The Secret Soldier?” Bret asks.

Yep.”

My little book thief.” I fluff the hair at the nape of her neck.

I learned it by watching you,” she says, swiping my hand away.

After Bret leaves, Alice comes into the kitchen where I’m chopping vegetables for Pasta Fagoli. She grabs a peeled carrot and chomps on it.

Bret’s gotta hide the clothes so his mom doesn’t freak, but I figured you wouldn’t care if I gave ’em away.”

You’re right. I don’t. And by the way, can I just point out that I was right about Bret months ago?” In the midst of all these unraveling mysteries, I’m smug about this particular point.

And yet you totally didn’t see me,” she says quietly, pointing the half-chewed carrot at herself. “Seriously Mom, how did you not know?”

She will ask me this a hundred times. I will ask myself a hundred more. I never quite find a good answer.

They hand you a baby.

Someone announces Boy or Girl.

You never think to question it. 

 

(Behind The Curtain is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir “The Complicated Geography of Alice” due out December 2014.)

 

 

 

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twitch

No mother expects to find herself sitting in the parking lot of a psychiatric hospital, digging the drawstring out of her child’s new pajama pants so they’ll pass a safety inspection. Then all of a sudden there you are, or at least, here I am, tearing at Jordan’s plaid pajamas with my teeth.

It’s the evening of his second day at Fremont Psychiatric Hospital, perched on the northeastern end of Silicon Valley, an hour from our Santa Cruz condo. Jay and Max will make the trip with me tomorrow night, but for this first visit, I’ve come alone.

Getting onto the locked ward is no simple task. There are guards, heavy doors and no less than three places where you have to show identification. I huddle with five other parents in the elevator until we are dumped out onto the third floor in front of the Adolescent Ward’s nurse’s station.

As the charge nurse checks and records each of the items I’ve brought, Jordan comes bouncing up to the final barrier that separates us. Still in his camo pants, but wearing an unfamiliar t-shirt emblazoned with Bob Marley’s face, he taps her fingertips on the sturdy mesh gate and singsongs, “Open, open, open.”

I want to laugh.

I am going to cry.

We don’t belong here. He’s surly, but he’s not sick. He’s experimenting with drugs, but he’s not crazy. He’s got an ugly temper and is intent on being as rebellious as possible, but some boys are just like that, right?

The adolescent wing doesn’t rate its own visiting room. Instead, families gather in the long hallway, flanked on either side by patient rooms. There are too few chairs by half, and those without collect in tight bunches on the floor along the wall.

As I come through the gate, Jory trips into me for a quick hug and then grabs the clothes in my hands. “What’dja bring me?” He’s in a surprisingly cheerful mood for someone on a 72-hour suicide watch. I don’t know what I expected, but not this. “Come on, I’ll show you my room.”

I follow him down the hall, passing a crying mother and daughter in plastic chairs, a family of five playing “Go Fish” in a circle on the floor, a father and son leaning against the wall, staring at their feet, and a whispering group of girls who pretend not to be watching us as we go past. We approach a burly nurse standing casually with a paperback novel in his hand. Jordan jerks his chin up in acknowledgment.

“What’s up?” the nurse asks.

“I’m gonna show my mom my room, k?”

He raises an eyebrow but also works to suppress a smile—another authority figure who doesn’t trust my child but still finds him disarming. It feels like that awkward Parents’ Day at summer camp: The kids and staff share an odd intimacy, while the parents, identifiable by the mix of exhaustion and wide-eyed terror on our faces, are merely day-tripping into their curious little world.

“And I gotta put these away,” Jory adds, holding forth the stack of clothes.

The nurse nods and returns to his book as we move on.

“That’s Tyrone.” Jordan lowers his voice to a whisper. “He’s the guy they call when someone’s gonna get the Booty Juice.”

“Booty Juice?” I ask.

He ducks into one of the rooms, and I follow. It’s larger than I expected, and uncomfortably tidy with a pair of twin beds, two desks, a large divided closet and a small bathroom.

“When somebody goes psycho, Tyrone’ll hold ‘em down while another nurse gives ‘em a shot in the butt. It chills ‘em out.” Having dropped his clothes onto one of the chairs, he demonstrates the shot to his butt-cheek and then falls, splayed out, onto the bed.

“No way,” I say.

“Yes way. The prophet next door got the Booty Juice this morning just before group.”

“There’s a prophet next door?”

“Nah, he’s really just psychotic.”

He sits up and starts digging through the clothes, snatching up his favorite Guayabera shirt and the Vans I swiped from Max to bypass the shoelace restriction. He slips the Vans on over his hospital booties.

“My roommate, Alan, loaned me this shirt.” He plucks at Bob Marley’s dreads. “He’s got tics. You know what those are?”

“Like Tourette’s?”

“Yeah, but without the cursing. Mostly he just clears his throat and winks a lot.”

“He’s in here for that?”

“Alan freaked out after drinking too much cough syrup, so his parents had him locked up. He’s cool. But mostly I hang out with the suicidal lesbians.”

I watch him slip into his favorite Cuban gangster shirt and swagger back out into the corridor to flirt with the darkly pretty girls gathered near the pay-phone. He’s been a gossipy child for as long as I can remember and has always gravitated towards groups of giggling girls, so this is no great surprise.

“Scarface wore these, you know,” I hear him inform them in a sly, knowing way as he flicks the collar and shrugs his shoulder.

I spot two recently abandoned chairs and make a beeline for them. A minute later, Jordan breaks off from the girls and joins me.

He flips his chair around and straddles it with his arms over the back and his chin nestled into the spot where they cross. “The doctor thinks I might be bipolar.”

“I’ve heard that’s popular.”

He smirks and then looks away.

I lean in with my elbows on my knees. “I’m sorry.”

We sit in silence and listen to the Go Fish family for a while.

“I didn’t know you might be sick,” I say. “I just kinda thought you were being an ass.”
“That’s okay. So did I.”

We talk in hushed tones for the rest of the hour. He asks me to tell his teacher, Sarge, that he isn’t just ditching and to find out from the doctor when he can come home. As we chat, I notice that his left eye is twitching—not constantly, but every now and then. I find it unsettling.

“What’s up with your eye?”

“What do you mean?”

“Is there an eyelash or something in it?” I reach over to poke at him, but he pulls back and brushes my hand away.

“It’s fine.” He leans in close. “You see that girl behind me, the hot chick with the long braids?”

I glance over his shoulder and nod.

“She’s schizophrenic and super cool. She gets the best meds.”

Despite all his bravado, when Tyrone announces that visiting hours are over, I see Jordan’s chin quiver for just a second. Then comes the stab of realization that I have to get up and walk out of here without him, that I cannot just march to the gate with my child in tow and demand that they let us leave. How helpless it feels to hug him and walk out the door, down two floors in an elevator stuffed with weeping strangers, and out into the cold darkness of night.

I cry most of the way home. Later that night, I read up on the medications they’ve prescribed for him to see if any of them would account for a muscle spasm or eye twitch. Nothing does, but the twitch remains, popping up every once in a while over the next year. Finally, when it seems to be gone forever, I casually mention it, and he lets out a great laugh.

“That? It’s just something I picked up from my roommate back at Fremont. It’s a great distraction for grown-ups who’re just yammering on and on. You should try it some time.”

And just so you know, every once in a while, I do.

 

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