storytelling

Joy Now Allowed, No Eye Rolls Required

On Sunday as I sat across from my boyfriend at brunch, my plans were to share a meal with him and then spend the rest of the day reading or writing or both. He'd made mention of needing to write charts that afternoon, so when he looked at me with that grin, the one that starts on the right side of his face, and said, "What if we went to Six Flags today?," I didn't think he was serious.

Then he pulled out his phone to make sure the park was open (it is January after all, even if we are experiencing 70 degree weather every day), and sure enough, it was. He looked at me again, grinning even bigger this time.

"Want to go to Six Flags?"

I didn't need to think about the answer. Of course, I wanted to go to Six Flags. Especially with him.

The spontaneity of his proposition reminded me of one of the happiest days of my childhood. One Sunday, before my parents were divorced, my sister and mom and I were on our way home from church. In the car I asked my mom if we could go to Opryland

"Ask your father," was her response, and every kid knows exactly what that means, and that's a big, fat 'no.'

I asked him anyway, knowing full well we weren't going to be riding the Wabash Cannonball that day. 

"Daddy? Can we go to Opryland?" I was already deciding on which coloring books I would fill that afternoon as consolation when he said yes.

Plot twist! What?! You mean I just *asked* if we could go to the amusement park on a Sunday afternoon without any advanced planning and the wish became a reality? I was drunk with power, loopy with giddiness. I was about six years old.

Add thirty years to that six years of age. Cut to me smiling widely over a plate of eggs. We were going to go to Six Flags on the spur of the moment. Because we wanted to. This was the adulthood I always dreamed of as a kid.

Happy and laughing, we took his car to Vallejo. We secured expensive tickets, scoped out which roller coasters to hit up first and then tackled them. We wound through the park hand in hand and stood embracing while we waited in lines. We pecked cheeks and let the sun warm our faces. We shared a vanilla soft serve cone and took our photo with a real, live penguin. 

Unnamed

It was the best day.

As we waited for the wooden coaster, our limbs entwined like 14 year olds, I watched an actual pair of 14 year olds. Two girls, both fully teenaged with the scowls to prove it, waited with their arms crossed and their eyes permanently rolled. 

"This sucks," one of them said. Her eyes were full of disgust, her body rigid.

Her friend just sighed and ticked her eyes upward in response. One thing was clear: they would both rather be anywhere than at Six Flags on a sunny Sunday.

Suddenly I was transported back to my own year at 14. How I spent the entirety of it with my arms crossed and my eyes rolled, too. How I'd rather be caught dead than having fun, because having fun wasn't cool. And I desparately wanted to be cool.

These teenaged girls were wearing cute little dresses and their hair was expertly rolled. Makeup had been applied carefully and in excess. It was as if they had somewhere they wanted to go, but it definitely wasn't where they were. Their posture read, "I'd rather die than admit I'm having a good time." I seriously think their arms were crossed even as the roller coaster sent them spriraling upside down.

I looked up at my boyfriend, his grin, his face, how happy he was to be waiting in line for a ride, and I exhaled hard. I wasn't there any more. I wasn't 14 and miserable and vulnerable and afraid to show that I'm happy. I'm miserable and vulnerable in different ways, but I'm no longer scared to be seen smiling. 

Good thing, too, because it happens a lot these days.


Missed Connection

I don't know what he was trying to say to me, but I know feeling vulnerable on the train, feeling like you know someone when you don't. I know sitting helplessly as eyes brim with tears, being unable to control your face.

I was on the N for an afternoon of exploring a neighborhood that is not my own. I watched out the window as rows of homes flipped by like a shuffled deck of cards. I wore headphones that filled my ears with sounds I selected.

He was young, a little scraggly looking. He seemed nervous, and I caught him eyeing my phone. I stuck it under my purse. That's when he motioned to me that he wanted to talk. I pulled my headphones down.

"I'm sorry," he said. I didn't know what he was sorry for, but he seemed genuinely regretful. 

"I'm sorry?," I said it back to him as a question.

"This is embarrassing," he told me, and with the side of his flattened palm he wiped his eyes.

I didn't know why he was embarrassed. I didn't know why he was crying.

"Are you okay?," I asked him. 

"Yeah, I'm sorry. Ugh. I'm sorry; I'm embarrassed." He dabbed at wet eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.

"You sure you're okay?"

"Yeah."

And so I put my headphones back on, even though the exchange chilled me. I didn't know what else to say. I didn't know what he wanted. I didn't know what caused his tears. But I know succumbing to them in public on a train beside a stranger. I know what that is like. And I know what it feels like to try to communicate something you can't. And to feel ashamed. 

Was he seeking solace? Did he have a story to tell? A request to ask?

The young man watched as I deboarded at the next stop. His face looked ripe with things to say.


This Is a Toe in the Water

Sometimes I have so much to say, so many stories to tell that I don't know where to start, so I don't start at all. I worry I'll hurt someone, or that a person I love very much will get the wrong idea, or that I'll be reviled en masse. Because a lot of what I want to say and many of the stories I want to tell are brutal. Some of them are all true, others are threads from several things woven together and others are pure and unbridled fabrication. (Though that last type is laregely unrepresented.)

Fear of hurting people's feelings keeps me from being the writer I want to be. Fear keeps me from writing essays like this. Teresa Finney is so brave in her piece. It breaks my heart, and that's what I want to do to you. I want to break your heart.

But what if I break my mother's heart. Or my father's heart. Or my friend. Or my favorite person.

537158706_acc19c4386

"If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Anne Lamott said that. She's one of my favorite writers about writing. And I love this quote with ferocity, but I can't bring myself to be that bold. I'm so scared.

Perhaps it's because I'm not good enough. Maybe if I had the words I could tell my stories with empathy and compassion and not piss people off. Maybe.

I battle this every day, this not saying the things I want to say. Bravery, consistency and wherewithal is what separates me from the writers I most admire most. 

I am a junkie for the instant gratification of a star, a like, a re-tweet or a thumbs up. Pat my back all day and it will keep me from doing anything hard, keep me from doing anything of real worth, keep me from doing anything that satisfies this incessant need to write something that matters. To me. That makes me proud. That makes people feel something or relate on some level for even a moment.

I'm a terrible coward. Because I know people sacrifice relationships when they tell their stories. Their real stories, the deep down dark ones. How much am I willing to risk? How vulnerable am I willing to be?

This is me being vulnerable right here. This is me admitting I'm scared and not practiced enough to write the stories I have festering inside of me.

This is a toe in the water.

[photo credit: Jofin]


Summers of Content

Summer left all kinds of marks on your legs. Thick bands of red from the metal flatbed of your dad's pickup truck. Raised welts made by cut grass criss-crossed your thighs. Jean shorts and sandals left stripes of burned flesh after long afternoons in the yard with a book.

The heat didn't keep you inside. Not when Aunt Shirley would promise a trip down to the store for something sweet. She'd pile all the kids into her aging maroon sedan and carry you around the bend down by the big house with the horses on the front lawn.

Eager children's limbs spilled out of the car and into the store where air conditioning filled all the space within, instantly freezing swimsuits and wet hair. You got to pick one thing--and hurry up--and you'd usually go for a Nutty Buddy or an orange push-up pop. You raced to eat your treat before it liquified down your arm. Then you'd fold and fold and fold the sopping wrapper into a fat sqaure and shove it into the smallest pocket of your hand-me-down cutoffs for your mom to find later in the laundry.

The nights were a respite, but not by much. The night air was still thick with wet, but when the sun dropped the stars showed themselves to you in the black tapestry of night, pulsing overhead, nestled like jewels. When the frogs and crickets gave pause you could hear their secrets.

There was nowhere but there.

Face into the fan you'd sing ahhhhhhhhh as the blades whipped your voice into a hilarious thing. 

You needn't move anywhere. Besides, where would you go?

Creek

The creeks were the thing when you knew no one with a boat. You'd slip off socks and shoes and ease into shiny water, scrunching toes over mossy-smooth stones, wavering, gripping, standing steady as the water filled in around you, delighting in every almost-fall. You were told to be on the lookout for broken glass or sharp rocks, but no one mentioned water moccasins, so you got to watch your father beat one to death with a stone. 

Why would it occur to you to leave?

Anyway, how would you go?

You'd lie in bed at night, legs sometimes over, sometimes under the thin sheet. You'd find triangles where the walls met the doors. You'd count them. Seven triangles. Seven intersections of three. Some were flags and some were pyramids, but that would change depending on how far the door was ajar. So many hours to find your own flags and temples.

You lived in your head then, back before you left and learned just how hot it got.

[Photo: Brenton Rogers]


Is the Marina as Bad as Everyone Says It Is? I Will Tell You.

To say I had a shitty weekend last weekend is really underselling it. And Friday is always the toughest day for me at the office job in terms of workload. Add to those things a little dash of payday, and I knew it had to be done: I talked my girlfriends out of yoga and into the wine bar. 

It was not a hard sell.

What happened next is something that never happens: I went to the Marina. On purpose.

For those unfamiliar with the San Francisco neighborhood, here's a brief primer: The Marina is a gorgeous part of town that is clean and smells nice and not at all like pee like so much of the rest of the City, but it is also filled with very rich young people who migrated north after graduating from Stanford. Collars do get popped. Here, I'll just tell you the story my friend Sarah told me as we were making our way to our Marina wine bar destination:

Once Sarah and her boyfriend went to a store called Shoes and Feet in the Marina so Sarah could get shoes appropriate for waiting tables. Her boyfriend was wearing a brown zip up fleece shirt. Out of no where a man accosted him. "Is that the new Patagonia shirt? In chocolate brown? Because I was going to order it online but they changed the name of the brown, and I wanted to make sure it was the right brown."

So, yeah. That's the Marina. I never go there because it is far away from where I live or work, and so I always assumed the shade thrown at those who live in the Marina was overdone and unnecessary. Are Marina guys really awful bros and are their female counterparts really that skinny? (Here's another tell: There is a restaurant in the hipster-drenched Mission District that sells tacos. They also have a "Marina Girl Salad." I'm surprised it has cheese.) All things told, could the Marina really be that bad?

Marina Girl Salad in the Mission.

It's that bad!

We went to the Marina because a friend of Sarah's works at a wine bar there. It was a brilliant move, because he greeted us with sparkling rose and truffle popcorn. Did this man get some kind of cheat sheet prior to my arrival? Those are all the things I love! I also loved the outdoor area with the fire pit and the lovely weather, but then there were the people.

These people looked like they were kidding. A woman was wearing a seersucker short suit. Let me say that again: A woman was wearing a seersucker short suit. Not one, but TWO unironically popped collars were spotted. It was such a sight to behold.

My friend Leo joined us after we'd staked out a little corner by the fire. I could see his wide eyes as he entered the place. "Where are we?," he whispered upon arriving, and we nodded knowingly. 

Bin

During the course of our wine consumption the topic of the Power Shower came up: the cold beer in the hot shower thing. Everyone's done it--after a sweaty run or a long bike ride or when miserably hungover. At least I thought! But Leo has never drank a beer in the shower. Not only that, but he'd never even heard of such a thing. My mind was blown.

I was two glasses in when I leaned over to the butter blonde with immaculate highlights and said, "Have you ever drank a beer in the shower?"

This woman had no idea what to do with that question. She looked at me as if I'd slapped her.

"I'm gluten sensitive." That is what she said.

Leo recoiled in horror. "Don't try to make friends," he mouthed. And so I wisely went back to my white wine and cheese plate and stopped pestering the locals with low-class questions.

Got my passport stamped. Not sure when I'll travel back to the Marina, but if I do I may try to rustle up a seersucker short suit.


Last Summer's Cooling

When the thick cream infiltrates the iced coffee it creates a black and white sex scene in my cup. The liquids--one creamy, one thin--meld themselves together in unctuous streams, tripping and falling over ice cubes, until they mix to form a milky brown oneness. I am eager to consume the sex scene in my hand, but will only do so after holding the sweaty cold drink to my forehead.

I used to place iced coffees on my face when I lived on an island called Manhattan. On this island there was no where to escape the endless spankings at the hands of a brutal summer sun. Iced coffee became a portable cooling device. I'd stick the chilly cup under my arm pits when no one was looking, even though on that island of Manhattan someone is most certainly always looking.

I lived in a high rise apartment I couldn't afford and would stay inside the small studio most days, propping my ass up on the narrow vent of the air conditioner by the window. I could see all the way to Brooklyn from up there. I'd sit on the air conditioner until my thighs grew raised bumps, cheap binoculars pressed to an unwashed face.

Ice Coffee

Twenty dollars is not enough to spend on binoculars if you really want to know what's happening inside your neighbor's home. You should probably spend at least $75, unless you can find some heavy, old binoculars at a flea market and flirt yourself into a good deal. The heavier the better, because when you are holding binoculars to look into the windows of strangers your hands shake. The fight the tiny Asian lady is having with her meathead boyfriend becomes blurry. You can't tell if the makeup session at an expensive dressing table is for her or the man who might come later. Splurge on a telescope, I say, with all the money you save staying in.

Sometimes I'd imagine someone was watching me, too, so I'd put on productions in my apartment. I'd pretend. I'd pull the blinds all the way to the top and open my laptop and stare at it, unmoving, for hours. 

In Manhattan, you can have a single iced coffee delivered to your house.

[photo by Duncan Spalding]


The Story of My Sexual Assault on Muni in San Francisco

Something happened to me yesterday that has happened to millions of women in cities all over the world. This is my story of sexual assault on public transportation, a bus in downtown San Francisco:


I was sitting in a seat by the window across from the rear doors with headphones on, listening to music, being careful to hide my loaner phone in my purse after I had my iPhone stolen out of my hand last week. A man sat down beside me in the empty seat.

I did what I usually do and quickly, discreetly sized up my seatmate. He was a disheveled middle-aged man with blonde hair that was either dusty or graying. He smelled strongly of alcohol on his breath, body and clothes. He didn't smell like piss and weeks upon weeks of not showering, like other unfortunate people who sometimes take the bus, but he looked like he was swiftly headed in that direction. This man was clearly intoxicated and behaving strangely. He swayed in his seat and repeatedly made the sign of the cross, which is highly disconcerting, let me assure you. When women would board and stand next to where he sat he would try to engage them. They would quickly move away. I should have followed them.

He tried to engage me as well. My defense was to aggressively ignore him on the very crowded bus by staring out the window and keeping my headphones on. I had just three stops to go. When he tried to talk to me (words I couldn't hear due to the music) I shook my head no and held my hand up, flattened, to signal that I wished to be left alone.

Muni Bus

The bus continued to lurch down busy Market Street. I pulled the cord to signal that I wanted off when the bus was due to stop again at 5th and Market.

I stood a few seconds before the bus came to a halt, a clear indiction that I was getting out and off the bus. When the bus stopped the man to my right swiveled his legs around rather than stand, so I took a wide step to get around him and as I did he grabbed me between my legs.

Without thinking I turned and swung my heavy purse containing a server's book, a hardback journal and loose, sharp pens at his head, but barely connected. I think the purse grazed his face. I screamed FUCK YOU, also without thinking, and fled off the bus.

I stepped down onto the concrete platform, my head swimming in a raucous tide. A young man beside me asked what happened. "He grabbed me between the legs," I told him. 

The young man shook his head. "And that man said, 'What?,' like he didn't do nothing."

My legs moved forward in spite of myself. I was floating down the sidewalk on Market Street trying to comprehend what had just happened. I was trying hard not to vomit. I felt ill; I was physically revolted. I shuddered and tears collected in the corners of my eyes. 

My lip quivered as I crossed the busy mall to the elevator that would take me to the restaurant where I work. Everything was foggy. My feelings were foggy and my vision was foggy and my mind was foggy. I couldn't believe what had just happened, and I couldn't believe how awful it made me feel. 

As I hit the button in the elevator for the 4th floor I realized for the first time I'd been sexually assaulted. I'd considered whether or not this was a big deal, checked the facts against my feelings and decided that yeah, it kind of was.

I walked into the restaurant in a daze. I walked over to put my bag away when my friend Leo put up his hand to give me a high five. I blurted out, "I was just sexually assaulted on the bus."

I told Leo and Marc more specifically what happened and the embarrassment rose in my face and the revulsion in my gut. I sat down at Table 100, put my forehead on my forearm, burying my face, and cried really hard.

Poor Leo and Marc stood there mostly silent. "This fucking city," was certainly uttered, as were several I'm sorries. They were both very comforting in their presence, but they seemed at a loss for words. And who can blame them?

"Do you want a glass of wine?," Leo offered. I looked down at my hands and they were shaking.

"YES," was my emphatic reply.

He went and poured a hefty glass of gruner veltliner, my favorite, and handed it to me. "Here. Slam this."

And I did. It helped immensely. My nerves were completely frayed and I was a mascara-y mess and I had a new two-top at Table 49. I freshened my make-up in the bathroom and by the time I took the couple's drink order the wine was kicking in and my nervous system began to unclench slightly. 

I made iced tea for the lady at 49 and waited for the bartender to pour a Trumer when I felt the first bubbles of boiling anger begin to rise within me. I was moving through the stages of grief very quickly. Suddenly I was fucking pissed.

I wanted to punch someone--specifically the asshole who grabbed me between my legs. Just typing that sends puke rising into my throat. I can recall with precise accuracy the sensation of his hand between my legs and I'm not sure I'll ever forget it. It felt like wrongness and violation and horror and evil. 

Marc, the sous chef, sensed my anger. He stood watching me fume.

"Is it too soon to make a joke?," he asked, knife in hand.

"It's been 15 minutes," I said. "I think it's probably overdue."

He grinned. "I'm going to say I was sexually assaulted, too, because I could really use a glass of wine right now."

I laughed and laughed and was grateful for the levity. And the wine.

As my shift continued I thought more about what had happened. "I was just wearing my work uniform," I thought. "It wasn't even anything..." I stopped myself before I could think it all the way. I was about to consider what I'd been wearing in trying to process what had happened to me. 

After urging from others I decided to go to the police precinct and report the crime today. I was reminded that there are cameras on Muni buses and that there might be viable video of him touching me. Even if not, these crimes are grossly underreported and even one more record of this kind of assault might mean more police presence in the future.

So, after my short lunch shift this afternoon I took a cab to 6th and Bryant to the Southern station to file a report. I took a cab because the next bus was reportedly 47 minutes away and I felt unsafe walking. That happens when you've had your crotch grabbed on public transit and the police precinct is in a sketchy-ish part of town. 

I entered and told the security guard I was there to report a crime. He told me to walk to a counter where officers were protected behind thick plastic or glass. I had to use a phone to talk to the policeman on the other side.

"I'm here to report a crime. I was groped on the bus."

"What happened?"

"I was groped on the bus. He grabbed me between my legs as I was exiting."

"Where did he grab you? Sorry, but you have to be more specific."

"He grabbed my vulva." I tried to tamp down my embarrassment.

"Okay. What do you want to do? File a report?" His tone made his words sound more like, "Are you serious? You came all the way down here for this?"

"Yes," I told him. Yes, I wanted to file a report.

He asked for more information. I gave it to him. He told me to wait. Then he came out and spoke with me face to face.

"We have two options here. We have a Muni task force. We can give them this info and they can be on the lookout for this guy. Or you can file a full report, but it won't do anything."

He made sure to tell me this guy wouldn't be caught even if I filed a report. For a moment I hedged. For a split second I considered not filing a report. He nearly convinced me. Then I remembered what I came there to do.

"I realize this guy probably won't be caught, but this crime is underreported and I want to do my due diligence and make sure this one is. And if it means more police presence later, then even better." He did not agree with me; he said nothing. The amount of sympathy he managed could fit into a thimble.

I waited more. While waiting with no where to sit for many minutes. I considered the infirm or pregnant or elderly women who would be very physically uncomfortable waiting to file a similar report. With nothing to be said of the emotional discomfort.

Finally I was given a slip of paper with my case number on it. I was told that usually sexual battery requires "skin on skin contact," but that that was how my case would be labeled. He told me I could follow the case online.

I initiated a hand shake. He finally, finally mustered that he was sorry this happened. He told me to be careful. It sounded a lot like, "don't let this happen to you again."

A less confident woman would not have filed this crime report for sexual assault. I know this, because I nearly didn't.

I have a lot more processing of emotions to do before I write more about what happened to me and how the situation was treated by SFPD. Plus, there is more to be revealed with how this case will be handled. But I wanted to write about this now for my own therapeutic reasons, but also to shine a light on a crime that happens regularly and that just might be downplayed by the people in charge of our safety. 

If this happens to you I urge you to report it to the police. Do not let them convince you to walk away without filing a report. Being groped against your will on the subway or bus or anywhere is sexual battery, and you deserve to stand up and have your assault counted.

More soon.


The Start of a Story, Published Here

The tree behind the gate is still leafless despite the frilly green dresses of its sisters. It stands naked, frail and shamed, as it has every year since she was born. 

Seeing it bare out there every year, day after day, tears Mindy's heart to little bits. Sometimes she breaks into the yard next door, shimmying over the locked iron gate and climbs up the bare tree's crumbling trunk and hugs its craggy necks. 

Naked tree

Her parents always change the subject when she brings up the strange tree. Science is her worst subject, but she knows that Spring means flowering and budding of life, and that tree has never done either. It just stands there, dead. 

"Get away from the window, Mindy. Shoo. Go play with your sister in your room." Her mother was always telling her to get out of the window, always telling her to go play with her sister.

The younger sibling is all big rosy cheeks and shiny hair and a laugh like a bubbling fountain. Mindy finds her in their shared bedroom melting crayons onto poster board with a hairdryer.

"Does the weirdo tree not want to play with weirdo Mindy right now?" her sister said never looking up from the puddle of hot colored wax she is creating with full-blast high setting. 

Mindy drops to her knees and watches her sister make her liquidy Crayola art that will dry into something their father will praise endlessly and perhaps even frame and hang in his dingy office at the insurance company. She watched the purple wax spray and land in fat dots on the warping cardboard and planned how she'd go out later after everyone was asleep and pick the lock on the iron gate to the yard next door and go give the tree a gentle stroking, a few reassuring pats, then sleep beneath it for a bit until she could sense the sun coming up through closed eyelids.