Thanks Tania, for asking great questions.
Author Archives: K. Dawn Goodwin
I take pictures of pretty clouds because it’s easier than photographing what’s at eye level. I don’t want to put a camera in that woman’s face. She isn’t me, so she wouldn’t understand that sometimes I feel like I am her.
I parked my minivan in the Wal-Mart parking lot and stepped out, the hot wind rippling through my black sundress. It was really pretty – the dress, I mean – cut like a long sari with gold embroidery and feathered white panels. Sometimes a $30 dress can inoculate you to all the problems of the world, even with clashing plaid platform flip-flops, at least for three minutes or so.
I strode toward the bakery entrance; I was here to purchase light bulbs for a fish tank, and maybe a bag of oranges because I’d been fighting the flu. As I watched me and my flowing shadow pass over the oil stains like a low-lying cloud, I brushed too close to a car I thought was empty – a tiny gray coupe in the worst shape possible, something driven out of a nightmare or a junk lot, half its pieces missing and broken. It was double parked on the diagonal yellow stripes.
I didn’t know it was full of people until I was already upon it. Above the busted headlight I glimpsed the driver and realized she’d been watching me and my self-satisfied amble for quite a few car lengths. I diverted to give respectful distance to the nub of her rearview, but I was close enough to smell the stale upholstery, to touch duct tape holding her door together, the rust and the gashes and the mismatched paint. The engine was turned off, and the back window was closed. The glass reflected the passing orb of my T.J. Maxx purse, and also the faces of three babies inside – one sleeping in a hot car seat, two curly headed toddlers squirming in the sun beside her, an older one in the passenger seat. So many little bodies, like a pile of kittens nesting in trash, so trusting of the shitty world that apparently gave them life and nothing else.
The woman’s dark ponytail was gathered like a sheave of burned wheat. Maybe there was meth in her wiry arms, or desperation, how else could she let them all sit there in the baking sun, not going in the store but not leaving it either, not seeking shade or relief, just stalled out over a black puddle, hanging by a thread because death had not yet showed up. I didn’t just walk by her; I walked through her. I could feel her what the fuck, her must be nice, bitch and I entered the automatic doors of Wal-Mart still clinging to the squalor of those babies like a right hook in the gut. I slowed, as if to go back, but my heel wouldn’t turn.
What do you need? I would ask her. But I couldn’t ask her that.
It was this dress, my dress made it all wrong. It wasn’t the uniform of a fellow warrior, it was the beacon of naiveté, of free time and hobbies, of a non-addicted white girl who just paid $45 to have her oil changed AND her interior vacuumed.
Do you need any help? said the imaginary me, leaning in her car window with a sack of McDoubles and a mesh bag of Florida oranges. Here ya go, this should solve all your problems.
Who were they waiting for anyway, and would he kill me if I interceded into his demise? Maybe he’d follow me and rob me for drug money? Maybe she’d spit at me for daring to assume they were doing anything but being just fine, thank you.
But couldn’t I do something? I had $20 in cash.My minivan was clean and the AC worked and I had newish tires and a full tank. She could sleep in my bed and I could fill up the bath for her babies, I could pour their favorite cereal in the kitchen and make them feel what I sometimes felt when everybody was clean and fed and I had a quiet space to stir my tea: It’s all going to be alright.
But I kept walking straight, because it wasn’t going to be alright. I let her snap off behind me like a slingshot, out into the dusty broken-down distance, to a place I wouldn’t ever have to see or live in, because for some unknowable reason I was born here and she was born there, and that was a fact not made better by unwanted charity or free cheeseburgers. I bought a bag of oranges for myself instead and peeled one as I drove home. They smelled sweet and fresh, like forgiveness from a beautiful dying world.
At home, I hung up my dress, screwed the bulb in my daughter’s aquarium lid and watched her fish swim indifferently around in their dirty tank, their world now a much brighter shade of decay. I flipped the TV channels, pausing to watch a mother run to hug her small children, her edited happiness somehow coercing my tears– how good that must feel. I’ll take a happy feeling wherever I can get it, even a canned version. My life is full of dirty creature comforts, but my arms are well accustomed to a sterile kind of emptiness. A mother separated from her children is the cruelest kind of pain; a mother with no money to care for them is just as bad. A careless and cruel man well, he’s just par for the course. I’ve lived the former and grazed the latter, and my scarred up heart has a hair trigger response to the sound of a crying child, to a woman whose eyes tell you she is teetering at the end. I haunt the trenches where she is taking fire.
On a different evening, another young woman stood outside a different Wal-mart. I noticed her because her baby looked like my son— those fat little legs trying to stand, tiny hands grasping the edge of the cart like a captain on a sinking ship, it reminded me of those days back then, how hard it was. This was just a passing thought, and then I was onto the next thing.
But an hour and a half later, as I wheeled my weary bags back out the automatic doors, there she was. She was still there. Still there.
I slowed to do a double take. How could she still be here? It was almost 11:00 at night. The baby was wailing on her hip, poor tired thing. She was screaming into her cell phone, pacing, crying, while onlookers withdrew and whispered. In her cart was a new car seat wrapped in plastic. It was one thing to see an irate woman; another to see one so obviously desperate and struggling with a baby. Her distended stretch-marked belly hung over her jeans and drew my heart like a shield; the wounds of her birth were fresh and no one was protecting her, no one caring for her. I found myself staring at these bystanders, at their complete apathy and judgment, their pale unmoved faces like sacks of flesh in the sallow light, and suddenly it was just a microcosm of the entire earth, of humans who pick their teeth in amusement while a woman slides down the edge of a knife.
“Can I give you a ride?” I asked, pulling my cart alongside hers. My voice was submissive, offering no more than a sister in crime.
“No ma’am,” she sniffed.
She was so young. Not more than 19.
“You sure? I have a car seat. I have two.”
“Yes ma’am, no thank you. I just had to go and buy one.”
So I turned my back reluctantly, and retreated.
“Ma’am?” I glanced back to see her catching up with me, and my relief was palpable. “Actually, if you don’t mind?”
While she dried her tears we loaded my van and I cleared the junk off the passenger seat. I cooed to her son, though he would have none of me.
We drove in silence for a while, and she explained that her boyfriend took off with the groceries and the car, leaving her and the baby with nothing, and no way home.
“Why would he do that?” I asked.
“I went in the dressing room to try on some pants,” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “And he said I went in there to cheat on him.”
“What, with the baby?” I scoffed.
“I know right?” she laughed. “I love him, but he can be so…”
“Yeah, well,” I sighed, or growled, and then tried to soften it to a whisper. “Just so you know, he’s abusing you. Leaving you and the baby like that with no ride? That’s abuse.”
She said nothing, and I hoped it sunk into her arm like a needle. I pulled into the Best Western like she asked me to, and waited outside with the baby while she dragged the car seat into the lobby. I bounced him in my arms, trying to calm his crying. But he strained away from me, reaching his arms to the door where his mother’s shape had disappeared. He wanted her, only her. Only his mommy.
Sometimes I have a rabid need to to save every mother, to soothe her baby for her, to fix what can’t be fixed, to make right what can never be made right; I am besieged. But the babies don’t need my arms, they need hers, and her battle isn’t mine to fight. The only thing I can really do is see for her, to bear witness to every black stain underfoot in a Wal-mart parking lot, because each one is a mother’s leaking lifeline. I am beholden to her pain, but can only illuminate it from a distance. All I can do is know what it’s like. And in knowing, understand that I’ll never know how hard it really is.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2016
I tore along the expanse of highway and let my car window down, like a stoma, to receive the warm dirty air of pines and gum trees and weeds growing along the guard rails. On the floorboards, my plastic bags chattered, the sediment stirred, the filaments of my hair lifting in the current. I leaned into the wind to taste the sweet aroma, but nothing came. I breathed in one more time, just to check.
This was the same stretch of highway where I’d chased his car that night, flying in tandem down four broad lanes, my four windows down, buzzing on the pleasant roar of tequila and wind and thumping bass. For miles I could smell the honeysuckle blooming in the darkness, washing and whipping over me in cool, fragrant waves. The black horizon glowed purple just above the treeline, his taillights pushing 90, darting past me in a diagonal line, tires tapping across massive plaques of smooth asphalt that shone under my headlights. My heart stroked the shadow of his speeding form, wondering if I would die from the sheer bliss of our impending sex, or maybe from an uncontrolled roll at the top of the exit ramp. Either way it was the perfect way to die, believing you might actually catch a thing that can never be yours.
Every year since then, the honeysuckle swelled again, marking the useless passage of time, her plain flowers unfurling and beckoning to me at the edge of my weedy yard, crowned with a plume of feathery bugs. Tethered to my bag of chips, to my hard drive, I’d sniff the breeze and drift outside onto the spongy earth, infusing the clean perfume into my lungs. That scent, the closest thing to my heart, the only remaining approximation of love. I’d breath her in deep, every spinning molecule, the stamen of my body arching upward like a broken satellite, avowing to transmit the southern sky forevermore, if for no one but myself.
The curve of your shoulder, he’d written. In my mind it was so soft your skin looked blurry like cotton.
I’d worn a Mexican blouse that night, I’d kept tugging it down to cover the rolling flesh of my belly. But above the table it slid down both my arms, and his shy smile undressed me, taking me in, his head cocked to the side like a man in love. In that look of his, all the ecstasy of being alive in early spring, and all the warnings of dying in late summer. The southbound lane to his arms was a stream of fresh ribbons, the northbound a mangle of knots that could never be undone.
She ended up being more imminent, more trustworthy, more constant than him. Her fibrous pistils were undeterred by my firing pistons, my trash wrappers, my smoking trail of gasoline. He left, but she came back. Each year without fanfare or fail, her fragrance marked the unresolved passage of my grief. She was the anniversary of silvery sun-soaked leaves that dissolved in the grinding gears of a chipper, the communion of lovemaking before years of solitary confinement.
Not yet, but soon, I’d lay in my dry empty bed, breathing her, taking in her scent again. She would seep into my cells on the open highway, unfurling, calling, until finally I’d rise and depart my dirty patch of carpet to investigate; wandering out through my rotten screen door to inhale and sniff, to pull her petals apart with my lips and drink, and find the exact taste of my own blood, still longing to know itself.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2016
Look at me, I’m the mountain, the lion of noon
My heart is an endless blue ice catacomb
My ruffled slate glitters, my spires feather -white
Your brand-name synthetic tent shudders all night;
Through the cracks of my body, cerulean ice flows
I’ve turned crashing waves into glistening stone
You tether and clip by aluminum rungs
Still the vaporless moon runs black in your lungs
Look down at your boot, abyss and freefall
Your mitten hand scraping the vertical wall
The sun snowblinds on primordial shale
Your flapping ropes strain, then billow like sail
In the valley of silence your ears ring and burst
Your eyes reflect back the curved seam of earth
You’re seeking my summit, the raven’s flint face
The blue sky that thins into blackness and space.
I am the mountain, my throne and my will
Stem low-lying clouds with the tip of my quill
The ceiling of stars sweeps the bend in my neck
My forearm at rest above each continent
At midnight I summit the earth as she sleeps,
So warm with despair, the wounds in her deep
My eyes shine with cold, I cradle the sphere;
And then there is you, asleep by my ear
My peaks glint like diamonds, my snow smokes like steam
The galaxy mimics the arc of my wings
No god has such power as one word from my stars
Yet your flashlight: a flicker, a hot beating heart
Your fingers just fibers, your ice pick half clings
To a cirrus of atoms, to carbon and strings
I see you ascend by the sheer Lhotse face
I perch by your path, you are never safe
And watching you seek me, I see who I am
I remember that coat, that frail frozen hand
You are what I am, and I’m what you’ll be
When your body lays strewn and your greatness is free
Look at me, I’m the mountain, the lion of noon
My heart is an endless blue ice catacomb
My ruffled slate glitters, my spires feather-white
I’m the dream of what’s coming; through the veil, to the light.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2016
more amazing photography at http://www.ousland.com
In heaven somewhere an angel will quit
Each time that cashier has to scan all my shit;
She’s got lymph-edema, about 88
Pillhead to support – he’s home sleeping late.
O Wal-Mart, O Wal-Mart how can I describe
This feeling I feel when I go deep inside?
The eyes of your greeters are pools of despair
But you’re just so much cheaper I’ve learned not to care.
You’ve wiped out the scenery, killed mom n pop
homeless vets live in tents behind your back lot.
And me, yes it’s true, like some crack-smokin bitch:
Cash-strapped, stretch pants, with three hungry kids;
Be it fish sticks or towels or Equate spermicide
Or the Band-Aids my blood will need to squeak by
Or July 4th from China, or African plums –
my cart has no conscience; she turns tricks and runs.
Cuz I need you like coughing needs a carton of reds
Like a cheating spouse needs prescription meds
I need you like white bread needs Sara Lee ham
Like electric carts beeping in a traffic jam.
I see the wifebeaters, the meth in their bones
The oil stains of Jesus, diabetes, bad loans
In a faraway country, your factory kids starve
But I’m saving on box tops and White Stag neckscarves;
Wal-Mart O Wal-Mart, your bakery sucks balls
And the slaves working there have eaten their souls
Fucknuts in pickups, ten puppies for free
An orc in aisle five beats her child with sweet tea.
But me, I’m your bae, your shorty, your boo
I shop every day with cloth bags and no clue
someday I hope I won’t need you so much
But for now I’m so broke, who gives half a fuck.
Dedicated to anyone tethered to a mangy plot of dirt, but who looks up anyway and beholds the beauty of the earth
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011
(This essay was awarded 2nd place in the Memoir/Personal Essay category of the 80th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition)
I sat at the defendant’s table next to my attorney, shivering in the relentless air conditioning. Annex B was a dingy, cramped back-up space that was used when all the nicer courtrooms were taken. The fluorescent lights left an empty glare on the rows of plastic yellow chairs. The audience was sparse, mostly strangers awaiting their turn to walk the plank. An elderly Bailiff dozed along the wall near the empty witness stand, his head resting against the outdated paneling.
“Are you ready for the ruling of the court?” The judge asked from his bench, putting on his reading glasses.
I sat up straight and stopped breathing. What? He hadn’t even taken a recess. He hadn’t even deliberated, or pretended to. He shuffled some papers and I stared up at the disapproving gray brick of his face. My heart was a waterfall, swelling in my throat.
It was okay. It was going to be okay.
“Yes your honor,” said Debbie cheerfully. “We’re ready.”
That was the other attorney, sitting at the table opposite from us, next to my husband. Her crispy little manner and practical square heels filled me with dread.
“We’re ready,” echoed my attorney, unimpressed, and with a touch of sarcasm.
“Well then,” said the judge, as if he was circling a crossword or ordering a large fry, or reciting a prayer at a funeral that nobody had bothered to attend. “Have the temporary legal custody be with the father.”
Something was inbound. Something was urgent. Be with the father, with the father, the father. This meant something. I waited for the follow-up, for the addendum, for the explanation of the real answer. Then my husband’s mother cried out from the back of the courtroom, a joyous gasp, a lone triumphant cheer meant to imply her martyrdom, meant to bury a knife in the softest part of my back. A shot had been fired, the horses exploding violently from their gates, spooked and confused, crashing into the stands, trampling people under their powerful, bloody hooves.
“Child support, she makes $14.00 an hour, so we’ll base her payment on that,” the judge continued, talking to someone. “I’ll allow a deviation for her travel expense for visitation.”
Deviation, visitation, what was this, like the searing white seam of a tidal wave pulled taut along the horizon. I stared at it from the shore, paralyzed, spellbound. The life-giving sphere of my little snow-globe sky was peeling back like burning paper, the air sucked out of my chest and into the vacuum of a black, starless outer space. This was not safe. We were all unsafe here. I watched my attorney’s pen, poised on his memo pad, trying to write. Stuck, sticking, strike through – the tiny wet tip tried and failed to thread the first letter of a single word.
“The two of you work on that some,” the judge rattled on, “and see if you can agree on that. If you can’t, call me for a conference and I’ll help you get the answer to that.”
The shame and fear was gathering above me, it belonged to me, it had come for me, unpeeling over my head as a mighty, ten-foot shockwave of galloping black water that would snuff out everything I had, everything I loved. All of the bright, quiet mornings where my baby’s sleepy eyes adored me as he suckled my breast, our pale skin pressed together as one soft, luminous body. This darkness rolled over us now, it was here to splinter the rocking chair where I’d held him, to sweep it all away, to tear apart my little green kitchen, as tender as a stalk of celery, where I twisted my daughter’s white hair around my knuckle, braiding it before breakfast, where I wiped the jam off her smooth skin with the edge of my sagging maternity shirt.The punishment had converged on me, on me alone, with every eye in the courtroom watching as it blotted out the iridescent soap bubbles I blew until I was dizzy, my son chasing them as they rose softly into the dry sky, thinning and effacing like my womb, like my swollen body that ached and arched and writhed with a pain so great I couldn’t even make a sound, bursting, releasing a baby ribboned with my tears and my blood, the broken seal of my love.
“Anything else?” The judge continued. “There’s currently health insurance with the father, is that right?”
Across the room: “Yes your honor.”
“Continue that. Anything else?”
“Your honor, I think we can work out when the children get turned over to the father,” Debbie bubbled, falling over herself. “I think we can work out the return.”
So nice and neat, like formalities before an execution, but who would hold them when they cried? Who would wake in the night to pull up their blankets? Who would touch the rise and fall of each of my three sleeping babies? Who but me?
The children were not adequately cared for, my husband had told the court. He’d stumbled a bit over the script. I don’t think she was… watching them… not adequately.
Strange and matter-of-fact, the sound of those words, of him looting and laying waste. But this was a court of law, where truth would prevail over this sickness, where justice would never bow for a performance, no matter how convincing.
She told me she wanted to kill herself, he’d said aloud, the words echoing.
Looking down on my head from above, I could see my wrinkled Wal-mart blouse coming untucked in the back, because it never fit right to begin with. The sparkly pink clip in my side-parted hair. How could I have worn these stupid things, these hallmarks of guilt, of a mental case. Of a female.
I remembered how I’d been crying that day, stirring a foaming pot of macaroni. I’d dried my cheeks with the back of my sleeve, the baby balanced on my hip.
Just put a gun to my head, I’d whimpered, over the dinging timer.
Oh my, he’d replied, the whites of his eyes growing wider. Oh, my.
I should’ve watched my words. I should’ve kept quiet and hummed along like a dishwasher, like a perfect wife who gave everything and never broke down. But I hadn’t known. I thought I’d married a country song. I thought love would catch me when I fell. I thought God was smiling down on me through the holes in the floor of heaven.
I lowered into my attorney’s ear, straining under the wreckage.
“Hank,” I whispered, clutching the arm of his suit, “did I lose my kids?”
He didn’t look at me. His pen was scribbling notes, monitoring the chit-chat, as if any of it mattered.
“Hank, did I lose my kids,” my dying plea repeated, “did I lose my kids. What happened.”
“Yes,” he finally whispered back, expressionless, his eyes locked on the judge. “I don’t know how.”
I had. I had lost my babies. I was a coastline of utter destruction. And out the window to my left, just over Hank’s shoulder, the lifeless and unseeing industrial landscape remained unmoved, ambivalent as God. A round shrub grew in a patch of dirt one story below, in the dark and towering shadow of the courthouse, where no grass survived. It lived on the other side of the glass, in a world I no longer recognized, or wished to be a part of.
I want out, I whispered to it, to the shrub. I want out. I didn’t want this place anymore, this so-called earth, these false walls parading as reality. If I had lost my children, then it would lose me in return. I was tapping out, tapping out, my spirit rising to seek the open window, to squeeze out through any forgotten crack as the car drifted down, down, down to the dark abyss of the sea bed.
My body, like God, did nothing. It merely crumpled, unheroically, into my lap. Trapped inside, tears washed over my hands like blood.
“Allow whatever visitation they can agree on,” the judge said, stacking up his papers, closing his crafty little laptop, as it had already granted us the correct answers to life’s most challenging questions.
“Thank you Judge,” said Debbie the attorney, bursting with cheer. “We’ll work on that.”
“All rise,” said the Bailiff, stirring from his slumber.
All the bodies in the room stood at attention. Hank gestured to me, insisting, and so I rose from the dirty flecks in the chipped tile floor like a dead woman, a canopy of flesh on a pyramid of bones, just in time to see the back of the judge and his black superhero cape ducking out the back door, skittering away from the scene of the crime so he could ride into the sunset, impervious to the shadow of a doubt, beyond the reach of a second thought. He had the power to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but all he really wanted to do was get home for supper. He did not appreciate being kept here, five and-a-half minutes late.
The room stirred with movement and chatter. I looked down into my lap, into the floor, toward the hollow center of the earth. Beside me, I could hear Hank putting his files into his rolling briefcase. A few of my friends approached the table to offer condolences. Seeing them filled me with shame. I could already see it in their eyes, the seeds of doubt. The malignant consensus of my guilt that would spread unchecked in the school hallways, in the phone calls between those eager to admit they always had a feeling about me. They would console me in public now, distrust me in private later. Because now, I was a visitor, not a mother.
I waved them away with my hand, turning to hide my face.
“No,” I managed. “I can’t.”
They stood awkwardly until Hank wheeled his things away from the table, and they decided to recede with him. It was such a relief, the semi solitude. The end of their eyes on me.
I wanted to stay in this chair until the world was gone, until not a soul remained in the courthouse. I would wait here until every staring head was jettisoned to the far corners, so I could slip out unseen, crouching in the shadows behind the shrubbery, dodging the flashes of passing headlights like an animal. Only then would I be safe from the pretend pity and gleeful conquest that loomed on the treacherous face of my mother-in-law.
Only then could I get up and walk calmly into the gaping jaws of my new life, to a bed where hell awaited, and sleep fled. Where I would glimpse the unfathomable meaning of visitation, and weep until I vomited. Where I’d lay on the cool tile of the bathroom floor, pinned against the spin of the earth, staring down a universe so vacant it was laughable. Infinitely ordered, divinely just, and also flushable, safe for septic tanks. It was overcome by a sheet of paper, ink-stamped “Truth” and nailed by its neck to a statue in the town square, on each page the Story of Me, and every word a lie.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011
(This essay was awarded Honorable Mention in the Genre Short Story Category of the 80th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition)
I never meant to have sex with him, even when I was naked in his bed, with the sheet pulled to my chin. But I always lied to myself about these things, to make the Real Me palatable to the other me, the me who knew about Aftermaths and whispered the warnings.
We’re only gonna fool around, I thought, barely breathing as he dropped his jeans on the floor beside the bed, and suddenly I felt vulnerable, uneasy about what his body might look like. Bodies were all we had at this point. A feverish need for skin on skin, despite a hundred miles of buried landmines. That could be anywhere.
“It’s weird, doing this sober,” he smiled. “But I like it.”
He’d rather be drunk, I thought, disappointed. Oh god, what am I doing.
I could feel his self-consciousness too. It was in the air as he undressed, skewing the spotlight back onto his body. Which was good because the light seemed to glare on my own flaws, my less than impressive breasts, my stomach, the scars and veins on my pale legs. Was I still sexy? Was he? I peeked at his black underwear, at the shape of his body, unsure. He saw me looking and his eyes flashed a little fear. It was silly for us to be this far into it and still hiding, but his cotton t-shirt did not appear to be coming off. So I let him focus on my shyness instead, ducking under the sheet like a kid.
“Can I see you?” he asked. There it was again, his electricity working on me, an exasperating sexiness that had nothing to do with his body. He was innocent. He was sinister. It made me swoon.
He peeled the sheet off my chest and nuzzled in. My hands grabbed his back and his neck and his thick hair trying to get it all closer, burying my lips in the rich scent so I could drink it . Every point of contact with him was molten, a rub that sparked an unbearable burn to cling tighter, harder, until all of his bearings were stripped, and he’d drag me down with him, tethered to our doom. He kissed my nipples, my knees, wading between my legs until I felt high, moaning like an animal.
“You’re so wet,” he shuddered, sucking his fingers. “Oh, my god.”
I caught his face in angles from the corner of my eye, feeding on the way his eyelids fluttered, the way his mouth tightened with pleasure. His breathing quickened, train tracks curving downhill, spiraling into darkness, into bliss, into destruction.
“So soft,” he moaned, stroking me. “So soft.”
I reached for his hips, slid my hands under the elastic, taking him in my hand. With the other I touched his lips.
“So hard,” I replied. He held the pad of my fingertip between his teeth, licking it. His other hand teased, wanting to go all the way inside.
“I need more,” I said, guilty. I took his hand and brought it to my mouth, sucking the tips, trying to find relief. “Please give me more.”
He reached up and switched off the bedside lamp, leaving us in semi darkness. There was a slice of light from the hallway. With one arm he ripped off the rest of his clothes, snapping one of the seams. He reached for me and pulled me up on top of him, dragging me along the silky erection and onto the rough, hairy skin of his chest. Everything was going to escalate now. There was going to be sex. A little sex, I cautioned myself. Only a little. What did that even mean. I would keep everything at a distance, I reasoned. No oral, no all the way in, no losing control, just a taste, his body barely inside, my thighs bracing for control, my white-knuckled grip still clinging to the edge of anything I could find. But we were so tangled and swollen now, almost in pain, that when I opened my knees, just a space, he lifted and fit right into me. He fit perfectly.
For a minute we barely moved, simmering in the glorious undertow between us. I seized on him, threatening to pull away, to end it at any minute, but his hand held me fast on the small of my back. It was that way for a while, gentle rocking as I tried to hover, as he gained another inch, until I lost my ability to recall what I was for, what I was against. It was all a game. The goal was to get fucked hard, to claim his naked body and his secrets, make them all mine.
I looked down at his serious face, snagged on the fantasy of his prowess, on the glittery surface of a temporary high. There was no oasis in his eyes, no softness, they were hard and shiny with lust. But he’d gotten control of my body now, fastened in me like a hook, soothing the ache, nudging deeper. My eyes stared at the bedside table, square angles in the dim light, but saw nothing. My body undulated and weakened, my head dropping into his shoulder. I tried to pull myself back, to slow down, to find ground. He was just barely inside and already it was too much. A thrumming pulse that was pushing off me the tracks, sailing, exploding. I was coming.
I expected it to feel good. What I didn’t expect was that it would feel so good I would cry.
What the hell. I fell onto his pillow with a heavy exhale. I covered my face with the back of my arm, and let tears fall without thinking. He looked at me in the dim light and froze.
“What’s the matter?”
“What,” I said, blinking. The splendid tide was ebbing, leaving me settled and dreamy.
“Are you crying?” He sat up a little, his demeanor shifted. His face was in shadows but I could hear the nervous smile.
“No,” I laughed, flipping to curl my arms under my belly.
He was still staring at me, silent.
“Just a release,” I tried to explain, sniffing. “Y’know. Pent up tension. Why? That not okay?”
“It’s okay,” he said, laughing a little, as if to let me know that nothing rattled him. Not even a woman, acting crazy. “As long as that’s all it is.”
“Yeah,” I sighed, brightening my voice to show him. “That’s all it is.”
He got up then, walking to the bathroom. He still suspected me. Of God knows what. Of feeling.
I scooted to the edge of the bed, as far away from him as I could get. For protection, maybe, from my feelings. To acknowledge we had done everything, even though there was nothing here between us. I stared at the face of his digital clock, wondering how he would say goodnight. However he’d choose to do it, I already knew. It wouldn’t be enough.
“I like you,” he said, his voice playful.
“Oh yeah?” I didn’t look up. “Why is that, besides the obvious?”
“You don’t crowd me in the bed.”
“Oh,” I answered, deadpan. “Ha.”
It made me wonder if I should just get up right then, and head for the hills. But before I could lift my head, I was asleep.
In the morning I woke up at first light, staring at the knots in the pine ceiling above us. He was still asleep beside me, on his stomach, his head resting in the cradle of his arms. I peered closer at his face, the flecks of gray in his hair. I could see the tattoo sleeve plainly now, the dark colors across his bicep, a lone pearl shining from inside an oyster shell.
The light coming in the windows was overcast and blue. Outside in the driveway I could see our cars sitting side by side. His sharp and sporty, mine blunt and economical. I didn’t know how I felt about any of this. Maybe regret, maybe guilt. But I didn’t want to figure it out in front of him. I had to get out and fast, before he woke up.
I slipped out of bed as stealthily as I could, picking up the pieces of me left strewn on the floor, putting them on. The air was ice cold. As I shifted around a button clinked against the bed post and he stirred. He blinked at me. I stared back, a deer caught in headlights. Headlights, a push-up bra and unbuttoned jeans.
“Good morning,” he said hoarsely, stretching his arms.
“It’s freezing,” I said, hunting down my blouse. He peeled back the blankets for me and beckoned.
Softening, I considered this. I felt myself being pulled. I hadn’t realized how much I’d wanted reassurance. Just a little. I crawled back in and laid next to him.
“Trying to escape I see,” he said. But not as if it bothered him. As if he was a dispassionate observer of my many idiosyncrasies. As if I was a passing anomaly, like the weather. “What time is it?”
“Too early,” I groaned, sinking back into the warmth of arms that did not belong to me. I closed my eyes and rested.
“I had fun last night,” he offered, after a moment.
That phrase rang in the air, an unpleasant finality to it. My eyes popped open.
“Yeah, me too,” I answered robotically, pushing away my hurt feelings. “But I gotta go.”
I stood up and finished dressing. After a moment he stood too. I tried not to stare as he walked naked to the closet. I could see everything about him, and yet knew nothing. He emerged in some soft jeans and a black sweatshirt with a bulky hood that puffed out behind his head. I startled when I saw him. He looked so young and hot, effortless. Wait, what? Was I on drugs? I had better get out of here.
“Can I make you some breakfast?”
“Oh no,” I said, “You don’t have to do that.”
He began to make coffee, but I was already grabbing my purse and coat.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything?” he asked, following me as I walked to the door.
“No it’s all good,” I said, pecking him goodbye. “Thanks anyway.”
“Okay,” he smiled, eternally amused.
I hurried off to climb into my frigid driver’s seat, shutting the door and turning the key as my breath frosted in the air. Last night’s directions were still crumpled on the floor mat. I glanced up into my rearview mirror and saw him standing there at the bottom of his front steps, hunched in the cold, a distant smile on his face. Instead of scurrying inside, he was staying to see me off.
What, I wondered, could that possibly mean.
Startled, I backed up and straightened the steering wheel. I headed down the long driveway, checking one last time before I slipped out of sight, just to make sure it wasn’t a mirage. He was still standing there, as if to honor the farewell. What a strange gesture. I idled reluctantly at the turn, trying to give the image in my mirror a place or a name, a category, something. But it was nothing I’d ever observed before. It was highly unfamiliar, disarming, suspicious. And it was the most romantic thing I’d ever seen.
Did it mean I was special? Did it mean he cared?
It meant nothing, really. So why, in the name of God, did it mean so much.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011
From time to time, I wake in my bed after visiting someone else’s life, in a place so real you could touch it. I stumble through a doorway and find people I know and love, only I forgot that I’d forgotten them. It is a vision that beckons, shimmers, then slams the door in my face.
As my bedroom comes back into focus, I have this sense of being stretched like a strand of hot glass, suspended between two dimensions. For a languid moment, the streets in this other world are more real than the ones I live on now. Their names are on the tip of my tongue, the contours of the hills in the distance are so familiar I must have walked them my whole life. There is a person there, waiting. But the connection cools and snaps, and the faces freeze and vanish.
These places are not always easy to visit. Even when the scenery is bucolic, there is almost always an undertone of war. Most times, the only way I can escape is by accepting my own death. Sometimes death doesn’t come as needed, and I have to put a gun to my head. Sometimes I wake with relief, sometimes loss, but always with the ache of loneliness that comes with amnesia, with questions that are not meant to be answered.
Last night I visited Europe during the occupation. I guess. I don’t have the words for where I was. I wore a long skirt, with an old gun hidden in my coat.
My life was all about my people. I had people. I don’t know what the hell that means because I have nothing like that in this life, I have no people. But there I was surrounded by brothers, cousins, extended family all around. Our hair was dark, our skin was white, the men wore undershirts and dark pants all the same shade of beige, gray, black. I walked through the dim city streets, grit crackling under my boots, sooty fire escapes overhead, fear in my heart. Still, I wanted to fight, like an alley cat that bristles and hisses before the miscreants stone it to death. I wanted to fight because it was my in my blood, and because pride helped obscure the reality of my inevitable doom.
My boys, my young men who were as close as brothers, all around me. We whispered as we passed each other.
Tonight, I said.
Tonight, they nodded back, as if our every move was being watched.
There was this calculated façade of calm, as if we all knew what was coming: a chance.
We collected in the street as if for some harmless family gathering, sitting at makeshift benches to eat and talk. There were at least a hundred of us, and we didn’t want to raise suspicion. Our small cache of artillery was hidden. The air was prickling, men with urgency in their dark eyes.
This street where we sat was an alley between two factory buildings, and at each end was a tall iron fence. To protect us, perhaps, or confine us.
Three lanky teenage boys wearing coats that were too small, stood at one end of the alley. They were dark-skinned with smooth black hair. Their nationality was different. They had rifles strapped on their backs, as if they were keeping watch on our behalf. They were friends of my son. A friendship, I suspected, that was ill-advised. I knew they would betray us, or we would betray them. I wouldn’t let my son go to them, and this upset him. But there was no time to sort it out. My son was lost in the crowd as it scattered. Someone was coming. Something had gone wrong.
The fight was breaking out too soon. This was not as planned. Our men had been spooked. For a moment everything paused, like the silence before a falling glass shatters on the concrete, and then a single shout splintered the street into chaos. Gunfire pulverized the brick over my head. We were discovered. Now the enemy would close in from both sides and kill us all. All was lost, and so quickly. I ducked for cover in one of the buildings, doom and grief in my heart. I knew, I knew there was no way out of this. Nowhere to go. In here, the booming gunfire was muffled, but soon they would hunt me down. Death was coming for me, breathing down my shoulder, how would I meet it?
Down one of the corridors stood a beautiful woman, sheltering some children. I knew her. In a world of sepia-toned shadows, her face glowed brilliantly with calm and sweetness. She had long curly hair down to her shoulders.
Stay and fight, she implored me. Face the enemy and remember our cause.
But I was panicked to my core, I didn’t care about our cause, I wanted only to stay alive, to find a place to hide, to escape.
They’re coming! I hissed at her, climbing up to a bank of windows that lead to the roof. I rammed my shoulder into the glass, breaking a few panes, stumbling out into the air above the crossfire. The city around me was engulfed in flames. I turned to my right, but the beautiful woman had followed. She was beside me.
Stop, she warned me, holding up her hand. She had seen something. A thick gunshot rang out from across the street, and a shell rocketed toward her in slow motion, leaving behind a trail of fire as it landed in her body, embedding in her coat, knocking her off the roof. I covered my eyes but I had already heard it, the soft thud that snuffed out her life. The sucking sound of her dying breath roared in my ears, louder than the deafening artillery fire, filling me with dread and sickness.
Just like that, she was gone.
A soldier was coming through the window behind me. I fell down to play dead, but it was too late. Before I could surrender to him, I remembered I could escape. I placed my hidden gun to my head and pulled the trigger.
I’ve done this in dreams a dozen times before.
First comes the loss of breath, then the darkness, the wrenching away, then the blissful fall through the escape hatch, back into my room. And then there is light.
In the distance, no gunfire, just the steady hum of a leaf blower. I lay there blinking in the sunlight, breathless.
When I die, will this life become as distant to me as that one, just some passing, transient dream? Will I doubt I was even here, the same way I doubt if I was there?
I guess it doesn’t matter. Life on earth is fucking barbaric. Centuries of war, suffering, murder, loss– it’s in our blood, the DNA of every cell. Maybe I have a frayed strand in my heart that wicks up these memories, and when I wake it casts a little flicker, and in that brief moment before the darkness recedes, I can hold vigil between two worlds, remembering enough for everyone. Or maybe for no one.
Maybe just for me.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011
Ah, personal trainers. I’ve never had one of my own, but I’ve suffered through enough gym memberships to understand their habits. For most of my young life, I was in awe of these competitively “healthy” male narcissists. I believed they could teach me – along with all losers of the world – how to be safe from Fat and Ugly. All I had to do was max out my cardio, hit the weight machine, eat less (aka get an eating disorder) and suddenly, I would morph into a perfect replica of someone else.
My conclusion now is that while necessary, personal trainers are not always healthy. Or useful. Actually, there is something wrong with them. And by wrong I mean evil. I can’t independently verify this fact, but anyone who spends more than two hours in the gym every single day for years on end, might be trying very hard to nail the closet door shut on a stack of skeletons.
I’m not saying that I’m not slightly intimidated by their carefully sculpted muscles, because I always have been. I mean, their flat stomachs and perma-tans, their holocaust against stray body hair, and of course the way their paper-thin skin recedes around their eye sockets. It looks really “great.”
But lately it’s occurred to me that the perfectness of a personal trainer’s form may be in direct proportion to the size of the demon that is pursuing him. Only it’s not usually a demon, it’s just his sad little inner Fat Kid, the one he can’t afford to let anyone see. He’s bullied him into a box – for now. But, in order to keep that lid clamped down, most personal trainers have to develop a fairly significant – and highly arrogant – Inner Asshole.
I knew a personal trainer once who also owned a tanning salon, ie, a man with a giant Inner Asshole. His job was to motivate overweight women, to help them get in shape. You know, better their lives. But outside work, he spent most of his time scanning for hot chicks. Hundred-pounders, he’d call them, like turkeys. When he’d find one, he’d wait til she passed by so he could turn and analyze her butt.
“Gross,” he’d say. “She was better from the front.”
Which begs the question. If we want to be personally trained, do we really want it from people who live like a caloric POWs, eating more performance-enhancing acronyms than regular food? Is measuring salad dressing with a syringe – and a woman’s ass on a sliding scale – really the Happy Ending to a life of health and fitness?
But personal trainers like these populate the health and fitness world, especially mainstream weight loss reality shows.
I recently watched an episode of True Life on MTV called I Used to be Fat, where a teenager was coached by a trainer to lose 90 pounds in 90 days. There was a related video on MTV.com about nutrition. On it, a human Ken doll, standing behind a counter of meats and vegetables explains how to be perfect:
“What does a balanced diet look like? It means low calories! That won’t store as fat!”
He shows us a chicken breast cooked with a drop of olive oil –just a drop! That’s it! – along with a pile of pale quinoa and broccoli florets. Wait, hold yo. Did he really stand there with his plastic-looking torso and suggest quinoa? I mean in theory, sure, eat *gag* quinoa. But the thing is, I’m a decorated/recovered health food veteran and even I – on my best days – find it to be about as appealing as fish spawn. So, because this is MTV, picture the obese youth of middle America – neglected, high and unhappy, watching TV with their hand in a bag of chocolate-covered Doritos. Undaunted, personal trainer holds up a Ziploc bag that contains a teensy handful of nuts.
“You don’t want to get carried away! So maybe about nine or ten of these almonds? That would be a good snack for you.”
Portion control? With raw almonds? For fuck’s sake, most of his viewers haven’t even seen a raw almond this year, let alone tried to chew it into a flavorless paste. They should be allowed to eat all the raw almonds they can stomach. Surely there is an imperfect middle ground between fast food slavery and the vegan promised land? Something that your average American kid could easily assimilate? No, there isn’t. He can’t allow for that because he is from the world of shark cartilage supplements, obsessively timed reps and incrementally reduced rice cakes. He is a mother effing personal trainer.
He points at a beautiful bunch of fresh carrots. “These vegetables have too much sugar!” He warns. “Stay away! Also, white rice is out. No good! Stick with a small amount of brown rice. Oh, and try lentils! And clean meat!”
Yes, this would all be very useful dogma, if his audience was prepping for a bodybuilding competition. But they’re not. Below his online video, their comments pour into the website from the basements of suburbia, the “dirty” meat demographic, the teary-eyed cries for help from our collective inner Fat Kid. Each one says the same thing, how much they hate their bodies, how fat they are, how they cry more than anyone they know, how they are at the lowest point in their life and don’t know what to do. But the video ends and the MTV.com mothership steams onward, dropping an ad for McDonald’s in its wake.
Health & Fitness, after all, doesn’t really make people happy. Because once you get thin, you might get fat. If you get fat, how will you get thin? It’s just a hamster wheel destined for Perfect, which does not exist. It’s a subjective, shape-shifting illusion sold by the Personal Trainers of the world, who you’d never guess are just as unhappy as anyone.
If I was the trainer, what would I tell the overweight girl typing a letter to MTV bemoaning her total unworthiness? I would tell her, go to the mirror and look at yourself. No matter what you see reflected back, say I love you. Say I love you exactly like this, no matter what. Say it out loud even if you feel like a sorry prick. Even if it’s a lie. Do 3 reps every day. Never stop. That’s the real work. No personal training is harder than that.
Maybe that’s why we crave the tips, the tricks, the dogma of diet, the expense of hiring a repressed asshole to yell in our ears while we run the hamster wheel. Sure it’s hard as hell, expensive, but it’s a cakewalk compared to getting out of the cage in our mind. Or facing the fact that we’re in one.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011
Growing up I used to hear people say, “inner beauty is what counts”. It was one of those things that looked great on paper, but in real life usually panned out to be bullshit. If it counted, then why didn’t it count? Why was inner beauty more like the snickering consolation prize handed out to ugly people who didn’t get the invite. People like me.
In the real world, especially the one girls had to live in, the surface mattered. A lot. In fact, despite a lot of lip service to the contrary, it was everything. Pretty faces and attractive body parts were the sum total of our human worth. Even God, who was supposed to see only our hearts, ironically chose only the comeliest maidens for the Bible’s best supporting roles. Despite what anyone said, the mirror always laid out the bottom line. The mirror reflected back Who You Really Were. And your placement on the sliding scale of hotness was the Decider between life as a Role Model or life as a Joke. Inner beauty? It didn’t even have a seat at the table. It couldn’t even get into the club.
Somewhere along the way, someone told me I was ugly. And then I realized – or decided – that it was true. After all, ugly explained why I didn’t fit in, why other kids thought I was weird. But ugly also became the battle cry that divided me against me, served up my first taste of hate, cast a miserable spell of self-conscious panic over every face to face interaction. Back then, there was never any hope of appreciating the magnitude of the extraordinary gifts I’d been given as a human being. What gifts. And who would notice them anyway, and what did it matter, since I was ugly.
Last week, I went to the mall. I walked into a store where headless mannequins strutted with attitude and oversized photos of young models loomed. Like plastic fruit, their faces had been cleared of anything real. Their long, silky hair had been cut from the heads of plain-faced girls, sold and reattached to their model scalps, strand by strand, tousled with precision, and placed around skin that would be airbrushed to a supple pool of lifeless cream.
The greeter at the front of the store said hello to me, and I nodded back. She resembled the models too, only much shorter, and with acne that she’d tried to powder over.
I browsed the racks of clothes and took a few pairs of shorts into the dressing room, where a panel of mirrors awaited. I undressed sheepishly, shrinking under the raw glare of the overhead lighting, averting my eyes as I kicked off my jeans. I slipped on the shorts, buttoned the top snap, and then, without breathing, glimpsed myself. My legs. They’d been hidden all winter under pants, below the counter, beyond the reach of my bathroom mirror. But here they were, revealed to the twisting cringe of the judges table at America’s Next Top Model.
On the inside of my right thigh, there was an angry looking, bruise-colored cluster of varicose veins. On the back of my left leg, there were more. Another vein ran down the front of my shin bone. As I stared, they seemed to double, triple, quadruple – too many to count. I’d had surgeries in the past to remove the worst ones, but I’d lost my insurance before the rest could be fixed. It looked like I’d been beaten with a pipe, and was sprouting leaks all over.
Disfigured, my thoughts whispered. It knocked the wind right out of me, a fist to the gut.
“Don’t worry,” Tyra Banks assured me, “you still have your inner beauty.”
I tried to focus on the shorts, just the shorts, with their cute little sparkly embroidered back pockets, price tags still dangling, but all I could picture was girls whispering about me when I was 14, my guts exposed through my pale, translucent skin, a force-fed bariatric cocktail of pure shame. The air itself was burning the backs of my calves, millions of blinding reflected angles, each one a judgment, a pink slip, a failure.
I dressed, not bothering to button properly, grabbed my purse, shoved my hangers into the arms of the attendant and hightailed it the hell out of there. Above my disheveled shirt collar, the sphere of the mall gleamed and glistened in a carousel of beauty, all of it digitally, surgically, chemically, financially enhanced. I alone was real, my tender and freakish body caught in the grinding metal gears of the machine. I hurtled toward the safety of my car, where I could regroup in stillness, drive away from my problems, and never be free of them.
I went to the gym to seek absolution, hoping, as usual, to change how I felt. I stood in the back of an exercise class with fifteen women of varying shapes and sizes, trying to follow along. Looking around, I couldn’t help but feel like we were all caricatures of the fitness instructor at the front, whose body was the template, having been repeatedly shaped by the singeing edges of her own vicious will power, and also a hot metal cookie cutter. She reminded me of the unforgiving tyrant who lived in me, in all of us, and who never saw enough improvement, no matter which mountains we moved.
Improvement. I was always trying to improve my body so that I would end up liking it. Only, I never quite reached the promised land of “like.” I barely crossed the town line of “despise slightly less.” What was improvement anyway, what was fixing the thing I hated, without learning how to love it first? Exercising when I was feeling bad was like worshiping a parking meter: it only loved you while you were feeding it coins.
At home, I ate dinner and watched a TV show where a fat person was made to confront his shirtless body in a mirror. He cried and confessed his shame. I stared at the enormous folds in his exposed skin, the unfixable stretch mark scars, and recoiled as they intended me too, the same way I recoiled at my own reflection. Then I pushed my plate away and cried. These bodies were supposed to tell strangers everything they needed to know about us. Instead, they told absolutely fucking nothing. They told lies. And the world pressed sticky notes onto me, onto him, scribbled with comments and fear and paranoia and untreated mental illness.
My whole life I’d envied playboy bunnies and acrobatic strippers and fitness instructors and gorgeous actresses and lingerie models, because their parking meters never seemed to run out of love. But I was tired of bleeding on a gurney. I was tired of feeling ashamed.
That evening, I scanned through the news of the day, checked the weather, then finally, half-asleep, I clicked on an article about a 25 year-old man who had received a face transplant that day.
His name was Dallas, and in the margin was a snapshot of the way he looked back in 2008, before he accidentally touched a high-voltage power line that burned off all the flesh from the crown of his head to the tip of his chin.
The last thing he remembered, the article read, was standing inside a cherry picker, making repairs on a church window. Three months later, he woke up in a burn unit, faceless. Without eyes or nose. His upper lip, roof and insides of his mouth were gone, as were his teeth. His face was a numb, expressionless graft of skin.
I looked at his before and after pictures, and beheld the unimaginable.
How normal I suddenly was, how functional my body, how perfect it seemed, how socially acceptable. Suffering? Clearly I didn’t know the meaning of the word.
I imagined myself in his place, left to navigate the world in darkness, where networks would advise viewer discretion before revealing my face, and onlookers would shield their eyes from the sight of me. I imagined lying in the hospital bed as he had, coming to terms with the pain, the loss of my control, of my pre-planned place in the world. How could I survive such grief, only to face a doomed life? I tried to imagine summoning the will to stand upright, but could not.
I clicked on the video of him speaking. It was prior to the transplant. He faced the camera, without lips, with the empty sockets of his skull plainly visible beneath the skin graft, and he said, “The accident was a gift.”
“When you stare death in the face,” he said, “everything about life seems that much more precious. Every breath is a gift.”
I’d heard that cliché before too, how a brush with death makes you appreciate life. But as I took in his horrifying scars, and then the sound of his voice brimming with gratitude — and not suffering — the magnitude of his spirit settled on me, and opened me. In a flash, I saw what it might be like to have my own body decimated, my own life in question. I saw how everything that confused and pressured me now would evaporate, all the illusions would be stripped bare, all the relationships pared down to their essences, and all the little, overlooked things would emerge in their true glory. At the brink, I realized, you could see what was lasting, and what was false. You came back understanding the difference.
They filmed Dallas at the playground, crouching to catch his three year-old daughter at the bottom of the slide. He told the interviewer that the face transplant wasn’t about fixing his face. He was proud of his scars.
“But I can’t feel my daughter’s kisses,” he said, “and I can’t truly kiss her back.”
She descended the slide, tumbled into his hands and threw her arms instinctively around his neck.
“Daddy got me,” she said, and looked right at him, without the slightest flicker of hesitation. She didn’t even notice the complete absence of his face. Only his presence mattered to her. Only him.
“She doesn’t care and she never has since day one that I was disfigured,” Dallas continued. “She says, ‘Daddy has a boo-boo.’”
Then he steadied himself, resting one hand on the slide as he struggled to stand up. Something about him spellbound me. Even with no features, he was intensely, brilliantly beautiful. How could that be? I wasn’t sure exactly, but this, I realized, was what I wanted. This was what was missing from my life, from the way I saw others, from the way I experienced myself. It was the overriding influence of someone whose spirit was so powerful it transcended everything you could see with your eyes. It annihilated ugliness. It was more tactile than anything I had ever felt in my hands. It was bravery. Massive, larger than life bravery. Up to then, I didn’t know it was possible in such heroic portion.
Perfection is the world’s eternal obsession, its constant misery. But at least now I could rest my attention on a different map entirely, one with a path out of darkness. I could put my finger on the pulse of what was true and did not hurt. It wasn’t outer beauty, or inner. It was what Dallas did when fate conspired to destroy him. He rose from the ashes with no face at all, and shone like the sun.
copyright © Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011
When I was alone, without kids, I had a lot of time to float around. But I longed to be weighted down. I longed for a cast iron center to my life, something strong and smelted from pain. I remember asking around about the military life, wondering if f could hack basic training, l imagined mud and cold and mean girls much bigger and tougher-minded than I would ever be. I visited one recruiter. I was scared of getting hurt.
I took to hoarding war paraphernalia, war movies, box sets of World War II newsreels, newspaper clippings on Vietnam. I watched them alone in my apartment before my waitress shift at a bar in downtown Atlanta, and when I came home sometime before dawn, unable to sleep, I would open up my papers, lay them on the floor and study them. I was searching for a soldier, for that frame where he flashes through the grainy black and white, no longer one dimensional but full-blooded and in color, someone you know, no different from the guy playing Frisbee down at the park at this very moment. I rewind and pause, rewind and pause, wondering who were you, did you die, what was it like, where is your body?
The bodies, the youth in those bodies. Those blackened hands braced around artillery were hands that once entwined another’s, those strong backs and rumps a mother had aged her hands patting and spanking, those squinting eyes were memorized by a lover somewhere, forever smiling back in a picture flame beside a bed. Each shadowy speck staggering in the distance was somebody’s jewel. Swallowed up in the darkness, they vanished. For every young man who dies with his blood and limbs blown about like litter, thousands of miles from home, there is also a woman who is sitting at home on the porch on a beautiful sunny afternoon, frozen in agony. She can never trade her own limbs in, can never be there to pick up the pieces, the slaughter of sinew and helmet laced with fragments of brain that were knitted together in her womb, that contain the only copy of their shared memories. The strong limbs that she nourished are now broken, splintered, and unreachable except in the darkest snapshots of her imagination. Is there a deeper hell? I can’t name it.
I had a photo of an American Marine in Vietnam, clutching his rifle, holed up in a mission church that was surrounded by Viet Cong. He is dirty, handsome, both tired and full of adrenaline, not looking at the camera but right through it. The caption mentions that he and the other soldiers had spent that long night plunging back out into the darkness, under fire, to collect the dead and wounded from the grounds outside the church, dragging them back in, getting shot, dying. Back in America, the throngs of Americans screaming and chanting with their bright banners and disheveled clothes, filling a city street at noon. I’d probably be there too, if I’d lived then, I’d be marching with my fist in the air. But I always notice the greenness of the trees in the background, and then the fact that they’re not being shot at, and it renders them, me, all of us – ridiculous. Of course we’re not ridiculous. It is not ridiculous to want peace. But what do I do with the haggard misery of the boy in the church, or the mother and father who endure the murder and burial of their child. I feel ashamed of their innocence, then my own. And decide maybe I would’ve been a soldier.
The first time I saw an image of a POW was during the first Gulf War. The local paper printed their four snapshots as they had been seen on TV, bruised, cut up, frightened. I tore out the pictures and taped them to my wall where I could see them from my bed. At night I would weep over them, dramatically beg God to bring them home. I was just a stupid kid, but I loved them. I needed to tend to their fragility, carry their seed of horror with me. What was it like to sit helpless and bound by the enemy? Today would they drag you out and shoot you, would it be quick, would they torture you, could you handle it? And at home, his wife’s fears are suffocating, violent. She is in America, surrounded by strip malls, landscaping and yellow school buses, but she is vanishing, she is looking right through you, staring down a barrel with him . Is he still alive? Is he dying right now? What are they doing to him while I cannot help him? An outsider, I watched and shuddered.
PEOPLE I RESPECT are going to peace marches. I don’t admit it, but I’d never go to one. I don’t want anyone confusing my particular brand of disgust with disgust for those soldiers, whom I love with a loyalty that is dead serious and personal. They are always my men, my children. As our new war unfolded with all the pageantry of the Christmas shopping season, here were new seeds of horror, more POWs, which I regarded from my breakfast table like one might a call from the doctor: I’m sorry to inform you, the disease is back. Inside you are breaking, but somehow you knew this was going to happen again, didn’t you? It was only remission.
Like bookends to the day are news stories of more men lost, this one was a devoted family man who leaves behind a 7-week old son, here is the picture of his newborn for you to ponder, and here is another, leaving four kids and a wife. Here is a 30-year-old soldier, speaking her name into the camera while the whites of her eyes flash and roll at the gunman we cannot see. Here is a building full of 200 enemy combatants, now you see it, now it’s just a fireball, but the Iraqis burning alive inside the crumbling floors have no news coverage to rival 9/11, just a hazy rather colorless satellite photo for our comfort and viewing enjoyment.
As I watch I wonder, who chose the Font for the “War with Iraq” logo? What sort of style do you look for when designing a title for war? And what does it mean, these flag-colored bumper stickers, United We Stand? Back here on the home front, war gives rise to more opinions than floaters in a dead pond, and if everyone is as right as they think they are, what exactly are we united on? Soldiers suck it up, follow orders and get killed. But if I put little flags on my car windows like we’re headed to the Saturday football game, does this make it all better? United we stand. I thought I loved this country, too, but I am too horrified to stand. I am that 22-year-old mother, clutching a baby who wears the smile of a man I will never see alive again. My lover will never walk back through that front door, and I could
not even so much as hold his hand as his blood emptied into the sand. The relatives will stay with me for a little while, but what then? Little baby, you and I are alone, alone, alone.
I SEE OUR COMMANDER IN CHIEF talking and I am paralyzed with embarrassment. This spokesman for the American way of life, ambassador to all nations of the world, with his incredible edible Texas schtick. If he could form at least one unscripted sentence that had any depth to it, it wouldn’t hurt so much. Somebody gives the man five or six one-liners to memorize, which he repeats in different sequences until it becomes obvious he isn’t really listening, and then the question-answer session is cut short, God bless America. The menu at Shoney’s Bar-B-Q has more original thought to it, and at least you know what the hell you’re getting.
I sometimes wonder what goes on in his mind as he rides on his aptly-named Bushhogger back at the ranch, in the heat with the loud motor roaring and the grass flying, where does his heart settle when no one else is around? What if he doesn’t have one, what if he’s just a clone, a sack of impulses and a pulse. His handlers stand like gods against official blue curtains, snapping at the questions for him, steely and powerful. There are little flag pins on the lapel of their dark, designer suits. They make war. They love Jesus. They remind me of robots.
It is much more soothing to watch the average guys in their desert uniforms, dusty, familiar, maybe a genuine smile for the camera as he gets out of the Humvee. He is the brother of your best friend from high school and his wife is sitting at the kitchen table somewhere in Virginia or Connecticut or California trying to balance the checkbook, the kids screaming from the swing set. He has already taken fire. In a quiet moment, he wonders what the hell he’s gotten himself into. He dreams of home. But he endures for reasons that have nothing to do with the script, with the empty speeches. He endures for the warm, shady spot by the coast where he took her on the honeymoon, for the view from the top of the overlook that he used to climb by the old farm, for the smoke-filled dive downtown, for the holy space where the light comes through the window on his sleeping baby. He has no power, no fame and another dismal checkpoint ahead, but he has some honor. He is somebody’s jewel, he is my cast iron center, my lover, my loved one. I cradle his image with my eyes, hoping for him, but they break for commercial, and he vanishes.
copyright © Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011
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I had to get the van repaired. I was attracting too many men. Nothing says love to a redneck like a dirty, smashed up minivan full of sticky children. While in the shop, I got me a candy apple red Chevy Impala. The plastic walnut trim just screamed Made In America. I liked the way my rental smelled. Reminded me of vacations. Whereas my van reminded me of rotten, lint-covered raisins. I asked the autobody dude if he could roll new carfloor carpeting into the estimate. Or possibly, a new car. He said he’d see what he could do.