Nina is a TA now because she is moving up in the world and she is sleeping with the professor for whom she is a TA. She says this is affective labor. Nina wants me to sleep with her boyfriend because if her boyfriend is sleeping with me he will be less worried about Nina sleeping with the professor. “Jealousy is the most bourgeois emotion,” Nina says. Nina’s boyfriend is cute but I am not as interesting or pretty as Nina. “He thinks you’re pretty, he told me,” she disagrees, but it is always possible that not everything Nina says is true. The professor has a wife and Nina shakes her head. “Who would be a wife,” she says, “you raise some man’s children and wait for him to come home to you every night. Why would you be a wife when you could be me.”
How I met Nina was in this writing class at the community college that had a lot of christian girls in it. I didn’t know they were christians at first; they looked sort of punk. Bleached hair and safety pins in their ears. Those leather bracelets with pyramid studs you could buy at the mall. They all lived in a house together up near the university and they invited me, once, to a keg at their house, and I went, and the keg was Kool-Aid and they were handing out tracts. I’m not shitting you. Nina sat in the back of the writing class and when she talked you paid attention but she didn’t talk much. I was afraid of her. She was the kind of girl who knew things I didn’t even know I could know. You could see it in her eyes. I wrote a story about abortion and the christians didn’t like it. They wanted to know where the father was. Not the heavenly father; the literal one, in the story. “No one would ever think about having an abortion without talking first to the father,” said the christians, one after the other. “I’m having trouble with this. It needs to be more realistic.” It was the kind of class where I couldn’t talk while they were discussing my story so I looked out the window instead. Outside it had begun to snow and I thought about how I would open my mouth when I left the building and let the flakes catch on my tongue. “The father has to be in the story,” the christians said. “You know,” Nina said, conversationally, but the tenor of her voice sent the christians into stillness, “sometimes you fuck people and forget to get their numbers,” and then no one said anything at all. After class she waited for me. She didn’t have a hat and the snow fell thick enough to silver the crown of her head. “Jesus,” she said, “let’s go to a bar,” and that was how I became friends with Nina.
That summer I lived with a hippie girl named Annie and this other girl Natalie, who was at that time the most famous lesbian of Bellingham. It’s a small town. Me and Annie were subletting rooms in Natalie’s house for the summer; I knew Annie from the restaurant we both worked at, where she waited tables and I washed dishes. Natalie was the kind of lesbian who collects fifties kitsch and was obsessed with the Spice Girls and focused a lot on drama, but she threw great parties, and sometimes me and Annie would come home from work and our house would be full of girls in cocktail dresses smoking cigarettes in holders, with little fur stoles around their shoulders, and I’d have to creep upstairs, sheepish, in my kitchen-dirtied clothes. Natalie would come up and find me in my room and we’d sit on the roof and drink whiskey and look out at the paper mill below us, spooky in the moonlight, and past it the washed-silver gleam of the bay. Natalie was in love with this straight girl who continually toyed with her emotions and I had my own troubles, as I had recently become fixated on a stoner busboy at the restaurant, who was always inviting me over to his house. We’d sit on his bed and smoke pot and listen to records with all the lights off, but whenever I tried to kiss him he’d tell me he didn’t feel that way about me, and then I’d go home. This happened countless times. “I know,” Natalie said sadly, “it’s so hard, right, when you know you’re being an idiot and you can’t stop yourself, it’s like those dogs in research experiments that keep getting electrocuted.” I didn’t know which dogs she meant specifically but I could imagine it: the dogs, nursing burnt paws, their beseeching gazes. “He snowboards,” I said dully. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” “Oh, honey,” Natalie said. “Here, have some more.” She tilted her flask into my open mouth and in the backyard the sounds of her party rose into the warm night all around us, laughter and the tinny thump of her cheap speakers.
a Nina story
I lost two hours once, taking the bus to Nina’s. When I came to I was talking to the driver and the landscape out the windows was field after field of corn and cabbage and other things I didn’t recognize, and I didn’t know the words coming out of my own mouth. “I didn’t,” I said, and stopped, and started again. “I think I forgot to get off at my stop.” “I wondered,” the bus driver said. “You don’t look much like a farmer.”
The bus driver let me call Nina from a pay phone and then I sat through the rest of the route, all the way out to the ferry in Anacortes nearly and then back again to town. I didn’t have any other way to get home. When I got to Nina’s finally I told her what had happened. “That’s weird,” she said. She was rolling joints, concentrating. “You drunk?” “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess so.” “Got to get more serious about it,” she said, “you gonna black out in the middle of the afternoon. Want one?” She lit a joint and passed it to me and I leaned into the smoke, let it settle me. “I don’t know,” I said again. Outside the stars were coming out, one by one. Holes punched into a world made out of light, just on the other side of the sky.
What I remember is the light in her apartment and her car, that big old station wagon redolent of cigarette smoke, vinyl upholstery peeling and a hole all the way through the floorboards on the passenger side, and that she’d pour me whiskey in a coffee cup almost to the brim and I’d say “Too much, too much” and she’d say “Don’t let me think you’re a pussy, bitch.” She’d say, “You know he keeps a shotgun under the bed, what kind of hick you think I brought home to keep.” She’d say, “You know he wants to fuck you too, and you should do it.” I never did. We used to sing Janis Joplin out her window, three a.m., for the passersby, but it was a small town and there only was one passerby that I remember. Mostly it was just her neighbors, thumping on the door. You never know the things you’ll miss when they’re happening; it’s not until later, years later, that you’ll look back, and say, Oh girl, where did the good days go.
to be hopeful in bad times
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
I have been sober for five days and sixteen hours and the tank is almost empty and my daughter stopped talking to me forty miles ago, staring out the passenger window with her one good eye. Tomorrow is her thirteenth birthday. My veins are empty and creaking with want.
The last shelter was Christian and staffed with withered ghosts who pursed their lips and whispered us into chapel with all the other women. Curfew was at nine and the rules were posted over every bed on torn and stained pieces of paper: No weapons no threats no drugs or alcohol no running no loud noises no joy or hope for the future you will clean up after your children we will ask you to leave at any time for noncompliance chapel is mandatory at seven on Mondays Wednesdays Fridays and noon Sundays.
Ruthie in the bunk next to us smuggled pints of Old Granddad under her coat sleeves and sometimes pissed herself in the middle of the night. Her body was covered in new and aging bruises and I surprised her once trying to pick our locker’s padlock with the edge of a credit card, probably not hers. Fuck off, Ruthie, I said, and pushed her, and she collapsed into a pile. The shelter gave us twenty-four hours to leave and I said We were on our way out of this shithole anyway, and so they shortened it to six. We’re fast packers. Lucky thing. Earl was not surprised to see us. Look who come crawling back. Ugly little cunt just can’t get enough.
These days Earl is the best I can do. You wouldn’t guess it to look at me now, crank-skinny and hollow-eyed, but I used to be pretty, almost as pretty as my daughter, who is so beautiful as to be nearly luminous. Even the ragged cerulean hair and metal posts through her eyebrow, the black lipstick, even the tattered cormorant madness of her clothes is not enough to tuck away her loveliness. Even the tremendous and fearsome scowl she has worn since Chehalis, the fury that radiates outward from her in tangible waves. She is wearing a sleeveless black shirt covered in patches and I can see clearly the mess of white scars laddered up her forearms. My daughter is not stupid and any Ophelia knows true shufflers off this mortal coil cut lengthwise, not across. Her deathwish’s not in earnest yet, just a little stab. Testing the waters. I’m in no position to point fingers. The shelter before the last shelter told me my daughter was in immediate need of counseling, as if the precarious state of my daughter’s mental health would somehow come to me as a surprise, as if I would say, My daughter is unhappy? How great a shock is this! I had just gotten out of the hospital, this was Michael before Earl, and was feeling somewhat poorly myself, and sometimes in the very darkest hour of the night the haze of drugs would lift from me and I would see my own life unspooling into the darkness as a long and empty road not much worth walking. Though I’ll never tell her it was my daughter’s face would come to me then, reminding me to stay alive. I do not like to think how many times my daughter has found me on couches or in alleys and brought me home. Home such as it was.
You’ll have to start talking to me at some point, I say. We’re running out of gas.
Not my problem.
It will be when we have to walk.
It is starting to rain and the car is growing colder. The last time the heat worked in this car was probably when I was in diapers. I can see my breath against the splitting black plastic of the dashboard, the empty hole where the stereo used to be. I hadn’t planned on stealing Earl’s car, nor was it wise to do so. As soon as he gets home from work he’ll know what happened, he’ll call the police, he’ll track us down. His malice has grown exponentially over the last years, the inventiveness of his cruelty; who knew that such a bovine and mediocre mind was capable of such operatic heights of creation? Earl took to hitting where it wouldn’t leave bruises and when the police arrived and found me breathless and hysterical, high as a kite, throwing dishes, and Earl cool and charming, it was always me who’d spend my nights in jail. My daughter, bless her heart, wasn’t much of a character witness.
I told you already, she says. I didn’t want to leave. I don’t want to go to another fucking shelter. Earl’s an asshole but he’s not that bad. You can get a job. We can save up for a different apartment.
I can get a job in Portland. We can get a different apartment there.
I don’t want to stay in a fucking shelter! I didn’t want to change schools! I didn’t ask for this! You’re supposed to act like a parent!
How does a parent act?
Not like a fucking crackhead!
We both lapse back into a silence which grows weightier by the second. I am sober now and so I cannot reach forward to the glove compartment because there will be nothing there but dirty paper napkins and maps of states I’ve never seen, there will be no little baggie, no relief, no quick sweet trip out of here. I’d settle for a fifth but even that’s off limits. My daughter is making the face she makes when she is refusing to cry, a screwed-up nightmare of a face, the mottled technicolor of her black eye making her look even more ghoulish. It was the first time Earl ever hit her, I swear, and I got us out of there, didn’t I, I got us out as soon as he left for work in the morning. It didn’t matter so much when Earl was only going after me. That’s what you trade sometimes for sheets on the bed you lie in. The shelter in Portland is holding a space for us, which is lucky and rare. I told them Earl was going to kill us, which may in fact be true; I’ve never stolen his car before. I watched the familiar arc of his fist descending and wasn’t I surprised when it met my daughter’s face, not mine, and wasn’t Earl a little surprised too, and pleased with himself. Earl’s not a long-term thinker. It didn’t occur to him the kinds of questions that might get asked later, when Sunny showed up at school with the results of his efforts purpled across half her face. I lost Sunny once before, when she was three and the state of Washington found me unfit to parent. In all fairness, I was. That was when I was dealing. They sent me to rehab but it didn’t take. With my daughter gone I had nothing left at all, I was like the walking dead, empty of hope or any kind of idea about the future. A year later I got her back and she was a mean-spirited and unrecognizable stranger, cried when I touched her, hid from me for months. She says she doesn’t remember it and maybe that’s true. I don’t know. She was young. But not that young.
Sunny, Sunny, I singsong finally, I know you hate me, I know you do. But this time it’s for real. Things’ll be different. I’m not gonna use anymore.
I’ve heard that so many times. She isn’t crying yet but she’s close.
I know. I know. This is for real. The shelter’s just for a couple of weeks until we can get a place to live.
She’s scowling but the charge in the air is lessening. I am winnowing my way in. We’re a team, us against the world, me and my girl. I always kept her safe, even in the darkest times. There was always someone to look after her, someone sober enough to make sure she ate and got her diapers changed. Always or close enough. Dear Jesus, I think, Dear lamb of God, you have done very little for me in this lifetime, so maybe can you make this tank hold out until it gets me where I need to go.
I’ve given Sunny the piece of paper with directions. The gas station in Northeast Portland is easy enough to find, a couple of blocks off the freeway exit, just like the girl who conducted my phone intake interview said, and lucky thing too, as we coast in on fumes. They all do this, all have some complex ritual of initiation and discovery; they will never just let you in, tell you where the shelter is, say Come on over, make yourself at home. They will say I need to ask you a few questions to make sure our program is a good fit for you and then they will give you a safe location from which to be conducted to the secret abode, the magical kingdom, the place of rest and healing where if you are lucky you will have your own room with a door and a couple of boxes of generic macaroni and cheese. The girl who meets us is skinny and wild-eyed and looks about as old as my daughter.
Shari? she says.
Yeah, I say, that’s me.
And this is Sunny? Sunny is staring at the ground without speaking.
We’re like the Sunny and Shar show, I say.
Hi, Shari. Hi, Sunny. I’m Melanie. Can you follow me in your car?
I’m out of gas.
She frowns, not having prepared for this eventuality. Well, she says. It’s late. I guess I can give you a ride and we can figure out what to do with your car in the morning. It’s kind of against the rules. It’s, like, something about our insurance.
Well, I say. Don’t hit anything, then.
Okay, she says, That’s a good idea. I can’t tell if she’s joking.
What you want to know, I will say to this girl, like all of them, is how I got here. What you want to know is the story of the tragic past, the dissolute childhood, the neglect and lack of self-esteem. Perhaps my father was not present. Perhaps there was molestation, drug use, a legacy of familial violence. Perhaps there was never enough to eat besides commodities food and five-pound bricks of nuclear-orange government cheese. Perhaps I raised eleven sisters alone on an abandoned farm in the Skagit Valley with only a single laying hen and a starveling calf for sustenance. Perhaps my uncle shot my brother and my cousin fucked me senseless over a barrel before I got my first period, perhaps my parents tied me up in the basement and denied me food and water. Who else would choose this life? Not you, surely, not you with your clean house and tidy yard, your organic cotton sweatpants, your hybrid car and your social conscience. I know your fucking kind. I’ve sat across a desk from a hundred social workers by now, a hundred wall-eyed white girls fresh out of social work school, shiny as spit-cleaned glass, with their sweet earnest faces and positive affirmations. I know the coldhearted old bitches who live for nothing other than to cross me off housing lists and emergency grants, deny me food stamps, tell me to take my kid outside, to wait in line, to draw a number, to sit in the same hard plastic chair in the same stinking piss-yellow lobby for the rest of my natural life. What you want from me is humility and gratitude and the desire to change. What you want is a story that shows I am deserving of your open arms, your warm bed, your safe house full of junkies and crazy whores just like me who, as soon as your back is turned, will rifle my things, steal my cash, pocket my EBT card, turn my daughter against me. I have been down this road before more times than even I can count. Melanie asks me if I want Shari to be present for our intake and I say She was present for what got us here, and Melanie looks at me funny and says Well okay in a small voice. I am guessing she is new to this job. An intern? A volunteer? A lovely little girl-child with the best of intentions, here to lift me up out of my degradation and bring me into the fold of universal sisterhood? I could have this little bitch wrapped around my finger in minutes, wide eyes and tears in the right places, breathless gratitude; but I’m feeling old and mean. It’s the want, the want of drugs, it’s the presence of the unfiltered world, so bright and harsh my eyes can’t focus and my skin feels rubbed raw.
Melanie asks me the questions off her sheet: Name? Social security? Medication? Do you agree to refrain from using drugs or alcohol for the duration of your stay? Can you tell me what brought you here? Have you ever spent the night in the hospital? Are you permanently disabled as a result of domestic violence? Her voice shakes a little bit and when I say, Do you want just this one, or all of them? she clears her throat. Uh, I guess, uh, just, uh—she turns a page, looks for a name—Just Earl. Um, just tell me about Earl, that would be okay.
Okay, I say. I’ll tell you about Earl.