Black & Blue

When I was 15, a friend and I took the regional bus from about 60 miles north of San Francisco to the middle of San Francisco. If you’re at all familiar with the Bay Area, you know that anything along a that particular 60 mile half-radius is bound to be suburbs. Charming, track-housed, quiet, and very, very white suburbs.

I was myself a very, very white suburbanite (or the child of two), and though my friend appeared to be “exotic”, it was clear she didn’t hail from the barrio. Our clothing, our speech and mannerisms, our very cluelessness were strong indicators that we did not belong in the pre-gentrified Mission District of San Francisco in the early 90s.

We were there by accident. I mean, we were in San Francisco on purpose, but we weren’t supposed to get off the bus there. A responsible adult was waiting for us at the bus station a few stops away. But did I mention our cluelessness? So, there we were – two suburban girls with backpacks, wandering around looking scared and confused in a complicated part of town. But we didn’t want to call home (on a payphone, because early 1990s) because that would be admitting that we weren’t quite as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as we pretended to be when securing permission to make this trip in the first place. So we asked a cop in a patrol car where the heck we were, and how to get where we were going.

It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember exactly what was said. I doubt we were very coherent, or that the officer was intentionally dodgy, but the result of that short conversation was that the cop in the car negligently waved us in a direction that was away from him.

I was horrified. I don’t mean I was scared (although I was intimidated by our circumstances), I mean I was filled with righteous indignation that this Officer of the Law didn’t immediately drop everything to personally escort us to safety. Clearly, I was operating on the Sesame Street model of law enforcement. Setting aside for a moment the wisdom of two and a half intervening decades, why was I so certain that a police officer would help me?

Because, quite simply, I’d grown up believing that. I’m only being slightly facetious when I call it the Sesame Street model. From the time I was old enough to toddle, my family, teachers, tv shows and books had shown me, either explicitly or by example, that cops were friendly, helpful authority figures who would protect me. Lost? Find a cop. Scared? Find a cop. Dropped your ice cream cone? Okay, so that one wasn’t taught to me, but it’s not a stretch for a good little girl to make that connection. And who would nay-say me? All my friends lived in my community, looked like me, watched the same tv shows and read the same books I did.

So, to have my expectations so rudely quashed by the heedless attitude of a real life cop was an affront to my worldview. And because I was a well-behaved, middle class, white girl, I was certain that my world view was the Correct and Authentic One(TM).

And that is the extent of my bad experience with law enforcement in America.

Cut to 25 years later. In the space of days two men were violently put down by law enforcement officers at opposite ends of the country. I could say “murdered” but that’s a term we apply to victims, and of course, the narrative of well-behaved, middle class, white America refuses to identify black bodies as victims.

I find it difficult to know what to say to that. I am implicitly a part of that narrative, even when I explicitly speak out against it. The violence done to black and brown people in this country is not for me to publicly be outraged about – it’s not my lived experience and it’s not my voice that should be heard. At the same time, People of Color have been screaming their outrage since the founding of this country and nobody is fucking listening. When the first thing out of the mouths of people who would never consider themselves racist is, “We should wait until all the facts are in,” instead of “Why the hell are our cops killing citizens??” – we know that we live in a racist society. When more outrage is expressed by white America over cops killing dogs than cops killing people, what could I possibly say to make them see the truth? And yet, as a white American, it is incumbent upon me to speak out to other white Americans, and keep speaking out – even though it’s not my voice they should be listening to.

There are important conversations to be had about the militarization of our domestic police force, about the culture of toxic masculinity that pervades institutions of authority, about the actual risk-to-benefit ratio of concealed carry and open carry gun laws. Predictably, they will all take precedence over the more necessary conversation about our racist society. Predictably, they will overshadow the tragic statistics showing how people of color are targeted by law enforcement at staggeringly disproportionate rates to whites. Predictably – because it happens every damn time.

It happens because I survived my “bad” encounter with a cop. That’s what it boils down to: I, and the people who look like me, are not really affected by police violence against people of color. When I log off my computer at the end of the day, I will go to bed safe in the knowledge that I’m actually safe. That if I need to call law enforcement in the middle of the night, they will come to my rescue, not blame me for my victimization. That the odds of my white teenage daughter surviving a routine traffic stop unscathed are astronomically greater than a same-aged black youth. I can choose to look away, I can choose to not say anything. I did make that choice, for a long time. But to paraphrase a man who would know, I don’t want to be the only one left standing when it finally does affect me.

We can’t pretend this isn’t happening. We can’t carry around a bottomless bucket of sand to bury our heads in. Our friends, neighbors, countrymen are dying and if we’re silent, we’re complicit. Speak. But more importantly, listen.

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Note to self:

Don’t ever make a public statement about not sinking lower. Because life is listening, and will not waste the opportunity to show you that there is, indeed, a subbasement to your particular house of horrors.

On want.

I can’t go back and re-feel what’s come before. It’s just not a habit I’m acquainted with. I can’t feel the shock and numbness, damn it, or the fresh loneliness, or the bitter betrayal. What’s settled in, though, is the flinching wariness, the suspicion, and the constant, entrenched anger. Occasionally, the sadness creeps through. Desperate, engulfing sadness that my husband is gone. Irretrievably, unconditionally gone.

I need to tell you something, oh vast and empty Internet. I need to tell you how I loved him. From the time I was four years old, I only wanted him. I cherished every second with his family. Summers spent at baseball games and in the pool. Kindnesses shown me in the simplest of actions – like showing me his record collection when the “grown-ups” got to talking about boring stuff. Getting my triple-A baseball program signed by players he knew by first name. Passing by his neighborhood, knowing he wasn’t there and looking for him all the same. The time we made out as teenagers on a New Year’s Eve. Or the long, heartfelt conversations over miles and hours apart. The way his marvelously huge hands would cover my naked body and the taste of him after midnight. The way I could lean into his side on the couch and count on his arm coming around me. The way he loved my daughter.

All that is gone. In its place are creeping in all the times I overlooked a mis-remembered anecdote, or a story that wasn’t quite right. A lie that I chose to move past without really resolving. A nagging doubt that I couldn’t quite face. Omissions, excuses, niggling little bad habits… they were there all along, and they’re creeping forward like pestilence, poised to overtake my immunity to fault.

I hoped, Internet. I hoped, because I wanted to believe that hope was worthwhile. I wanted to believe that trust was valid. I believe my exact words were, “You have to decide to trust someone, before they can earn it.” If they ever invent a time machine, I’m going back to slap myself, hard, right in the face. It would hurt less than this.

I loved someone for my whole life who never deserved it. Who definitely never loved me back in the same way. I don’t know how to live with that. I don’t know what to do with the betrayal that I perpetrated on myself. On my daughter. The reckoning is approaching, and I am woefully unprepared to face it. I wasted over 30 years of passionate, devoted love on someone who threw it away. How does anyone make peace with that?

I keep thinking that he can’t hurt me anymore, and I’m probably right. But the wounds I’m finding now were inflicted by me, by my own heart. I did this to myself because I wanted.

The love of my life is gone. But the want remains. And I have to just live with it.

Today is.

Today my grief is a 200 lb python, wound lovingly around my torso, slowly and surely squeezing the breath out of me.

Today my grief is the crumbling walls of a white room, and the vast blank darkness beyond.

Today my grief is a stopped heart, and the tripping beats it makes to catch up.

Today my grief is aching arms, and tears that won’t fall, and eyes that can’t open without seeing betrayal.

People will soon stop asking me how I’m doing. My grief is nearing that expiration date on compassion, when concern slowly morphs into impatience, then disgust. But my grief still exists. It still greets me upon waking, it still waits for me in the quiet places and dark spaces. My grief doesn’t care how disgusted I am with it.

My grief doesn’t put on the same suit every day, or even every hour. It wears python skin, white paint, anxiety, crying. It shows up dressed in a sunny day and desperation. It lays atop the surface tension of a glass of wine, chased down my throat by the sharp tartness of escape. It comes costumed or bare, disguised or honest, but it comes, regardless.

Today is grief. Every damn day is grief.

A Not-so-funny Feeling

This roiling gut, these sleepless eyes. The tears just there, in the back of my throat that refuse to surface. Weightless, nerveless fingers.

Why is this my new normal? Why do I have to live with a tangled mess of nerve endings that don’t know up from down?

I read somewhere that the stomach has enough neurotransmitters to function as a brain if it wasn’t so busy processing food. I don’t eat anymore, which explains a lot of the problem.

I’m not tired. I wish I was tired. I wish I felt like if I could just get enough sleep, I’d rise like a fairy tale princess to a castle full of happy people. Instead, I’m stuck in the nightmare, shaking.

Small Things, part II

A glance. It’s a small thing in real time. A moment – or a second. A split second sometimes.

We almost don’t notice it until after it’s done.

Why, then, does it have to be like an iceberg on the surface of our emotions? Just a small look, a small second – but beneath the look is everything.

When you love someone enough, a glance is all it takes to set the world right side up. To make your heart expand, to put wings on your soul. A glance, and they are the most beautiful creature you’ve ever set eyes on.

When that love is gone – what becomes of the glance? Of the wings? Of the soul?

I don’t know if I’m more afraid that no one will ever look at me like that again…

…or that I won’t look at anyone else that way again.

Such a small thing to lose. You almost don’t notice it until after it’s gone.

We Can Be Heroes…

I got the news that David Bowie died on my phone while sitting on the toilet. It was undignified, ignominious, and wholly modern. As were my tears. I cried fresh, new, culturally relevant tears because I – and many others – lost an icon.

Bowie was (and GOD, how I hate to use the past tense) a hero of the margins – unrepentantly, aggressively authentic. His art was entirely his, without apologies. Many marginalized communities, especially the LGBTQ+, celebrate his weirdness as a beacon in a small, dark world and since many of my friends belong to that community I celebrate his weirdness with them.

So, that first bout of weeping was for them, and the artists and dreamers and weirdos whose light went out on the vast, cruel sea.

For me, though, the little girl who never had trouble assimilating, who embodied the term “wall-flower”, it wasn’t his weirdness that was my beacon. It wasn’t what he did that entranced me, it was what he didn’t do. He didn’t apologize. He didn’t conform. His opposition to Normal could have taken many forms, and I would have been in love with any of them. It was the act of defiance that made me watch him, his very breath a giant “Fuck You” to the establishment’s control and THAT enthralled me. Whether he was strutting across the stage in glitter, hypnotizing a young woman with crystal balls (unsurprisingly, that is both a literal interpretation AND a euphemism), baring his soul in simple, unaccompanied song, or orchestrating his final farewell, Bowie never seemed to do anything that wasn’t entirely honest and true to his artistic vision. For me, it was about his authenticity.

The little girl who assimilated retreated by degrees, replaced with a painfully self-aware woman. Right now, replaced with a woman who is self-aware, and in pain. The authenticity of my life is ugly, and raw, and set with jagged edges that rip the fabric of my psyche to shreds. My authenticity is not about sparkly jumpsuits and flipping off the establishment. It’s about emotional tar pits, and vicious anger, and snarling, black despair. My honesty is found in days when I simply can’t do anything but stare blankly and drink at socially inappropriate times. My non-conformity comes from screaming my pain instead of just bearing it, like the good little wall-flower expected to. My authenticity is not fit for consumption; it is not art. But it is real, and I am no less heroic for confronting it, head-on.

My first tears were for the freaks and dreamers, artists and weirdos and friends. But the tears that came later, that sent me running for the bathroom stall in the middle of my workday to sob into handfuls of cheap, single-ply toilet paper that dissolved under the onslaught – those were for me. And for Bowie, who surely knew that lonely darkness, and came out swinging a light of his own. I cried because my truth is ugly, it’s mean and bitter and exhausting. But it’s mine. I am living an authentic life, no matter if I can’t turn it into art or a beacon for three generations to rally around. It’s mine, and it’s true. And for now, it is enough. I am a hero, if just for one day.

david-bowie
David Bowie 1947-2016