Two Summers Later

Two Summers Later

It feels like every summer has a life and a story of its own. The past three have been the most emotional and life-changing of all my summers so far. Mostly, it’s been the camps that make it so.

Before I continue, I want to clarify for some readers who might not have experiences with summer camps. I talk about my camps a lot–some people in my life say too much. But anyone who’s been a part of a summer camp knows–there’s something about them. The closeness. The intensity. The season. The rigor. The relationships built fast and left too soon. The 16-hour days getting up early and staying up late. Getting down and dirty. If you’ve not experienced that, it’s understandable that you won’t feel the level of emotion that goes into my stories about camp. But if you have been a part of a camp, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

There’s a piece of me that will always be stuck with the first summer camp I worked for. It’s a stubborn piece. Some days I want to be selfish and let it go. Some days I wish I could walk away without feeling guilty and broken. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.

I made some amazing friends at this camp, both with the other counselors and with the kids. I was barely 19, working with high schoolers in my first youth-oriented job. What had even possessed me to apply, and to interview passionately enough to be selected? I credit the South Dakota trip as the catalyst for my desire to work with youth. Setting out on the trip, I was terrified of meeting the kids and convinced that I would fuck up their lives in the three days we were there. I wouldn’t know what to say or do with them or how to interact. Going there and meeting kids from a place and culture I had little contact with shook me. Hearing the stories of the suicide epidemic was what pushed me into the place of wanting to combat youth suicide, which soon turned into a desire to work with kids in any way I could. My experiences from the trip were a huge motivator for me when I interviewed for the job and started working there.

But I forget that I applied for the job before the trip.

I can’t remember applying for the job, writing my application, finding references, sending it in, agonizing over it. I remember doing that for the resident assistant position at school; not for this summer camp. I remember getting the email from my supervisor suggesting the job to me and a few others. I can’t remember what interested me about the job, since I was still pretty afraid of kids. Maybe it was the fact that they would be high schoolers. Maybe it was because it was similar enough to my current position that I felt it would be easy enough to transition to. Maybe it was because I had friends who were applying. Though I wonder about it, I don’t think my abuser had anything to do with it—we were dating at the time; she had no interest in the job at all, so I doubt she convinced me. Maybe it was just because I wanted anything but to go back to my parents’ house that summer and was looking for any way to stay on campus.

At any rate, I got the job.

I felt like I sucked at it. The kids still scared me; I wasn’t always sure what to say or do. But I went through the training, learned a lot, and enjoyed it; I was making friends; I was connecting with my supervisors. By the time camp rolled around, I was excited to meet the kids. I acted as a TA for the first group, the middle schoolers. I learned the names of all the kids in my class and things about them. I made solid connections with several of them, and we talked outside of class. I didn’t have to, but I joined them each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I cried when they left.

The next six weeks I worked as a dorm counselor for the high school campers. I was going through a lot at the time. My abuser broke up with me, but we made the dangerous decision to remain friends. She was running hot and cold with me, sometimes wanting to be my best friend and sometimes ignoring me completely. My family was becoming hostile towards me, offended by my decision to further my education and experience by staying away from home. Thanks to counseling, I was beginning to recognize my depression and anxiety for what it was and put a label on my panic attacks, which was both freeing and terrifying. My self-harm episodes became more frequent and more alarming. During the first week, the head counselor noticed the scars on my arm. She took me aside and I broke down, telling her how much I felt I was struggling, how I felt I was no good at the job and close to quitting. She calmly talked me down, told me I was doing fine, and gave me ways I could be supported.

I kept trying. I made friends with many of the kids and learned all their names, though not as quickly as I wanted. As would become the tradition, the queer kids gravitated towards me. I was teaching a class called Images of Gender and I hit the cap of 24 students. I spent time with the kids even on my days off, having nothing better to do. I enjoyed being with them, though again I didn’t always know what to do or say and sometimes backed off to let the more experienced counselors handle things.

I didn’t agree with their disciplinary methods—making the kids do pushups or having them go on all fours saying “beep, beep, I’m a jeep.” I thought there were better ways to handle behavioral concerns. I felt that having them do those things would humiliate them, and I didn’t like that. If I witnessed a camper breaking rules, I told them not to and explained that what they were doing went against camp policies. If they asked why, I’d say that they were at our camp and needed to follow the expectations of camp while they were here, even if what they were doing was something they would do at home. If I heard one of them swear, I would say “I’m pretty sure you didn’t just say something you shouldn’t say, because I know that you know the rules. So I know I’m not going to hear you say words like that. Right?” It amused them. I never had a case of a camper continuing to swear after I spoke out.

The only time I yelled was when I saw them throwing bananas around the room. I was angry; I hate seeing food wasted. I tried to address the problem by talking to the individuals throwing the bananas, but when they didn’t listen, I stood in the middle of the room and yelled at them to stop. Seeing me—the tiny, timid counselor—screaming at them made them all immediately freeze. Because I never yelled or told them to do pushups, they took me very seriously in that moment.

Many of the kids liked me. Some saw me as their enemy, but I knew that I wasn’t going to please everybody, and each kid was going to have their least favorite counselors. There were some days I simply had to hide. There were some days I took my fears and frustrations out on my fellow counselors. There were some days I was not as engaged as I should have been. I knew this was not okay; I knew I had to work on bettering myself.

I thought I was allowed a few days to be weak; I thought everyone was.

The summer came to a close and the school year began. When I ran into my supervisors, we’d talk excitedly about next summer. I asked several times how I could continue to be involved, attending some of their fall and spring events and keeping in touch with my campers on social media. I asked my supervisors how I would apply for the following summer. I was told I didn’t need to, but that I would be sent an email gauging my interest in returning, and all I had to do was say yes. I knew I was going to; as difficult as it had been, I loved that job. I loved my kids. They cried when they said goodbye to me. I knew I’d made an impact, and a positive one.

I didn’t receive the email, even as the school year came to a close, even as my friends who applied started hearing back. One day I ducked into one of my supervisor’s office, explaining that I had one day over the summer I’d need off and that I hoped it wouldn’t cause a conflict with move in days.

She looked uncomfortable and said, “Oh, this is hard.”

“What?” I asked.

“Well, we’re not hiring you back this summer.”

I couldn’t speak. I could only stare. I felt like piece of me were falling to the floor. I thought of all the kids I’d connected with. The things some of them had said to me, about how I’d helped them, how important I was to them. I thought of every mistake I’d made that summer, of the negative feedback I’d received.

“I hope you’re not mad,” she said.

“I’m not.” I wasn’t. Not yet. “I’m…sad.”

This was worse than a breakup, ironic because later that afternoon my then-girlfriend broke up with me. This was worse than if my supervisor had told me at the end of last summer that I wasn’t coming back. They’d been telling me all year I could. What had I done to change their minds?

I agonized over it for months. When summer rolled around I cried when I thought of what they would be doing without me. I did everything I could to stay in their lives, working three hours a week as an elective teacher and volunteering for field trips. The ones who remembered me greeted me with excitement and love. I made new friends as well, once again attracting and mentoring the queer kids. My supervisors continued to interact positively. They even let me take three of the kids to my on-campus apartment to visit my cat. They trusted me completely. So why hadn’t they taken me back as a counselor?

I attended the end-of-year banquets, crying and watching them cry as they left, tucking away my favorite memories and chalking them up to a summer well lived. Wondering what I had done wrong, why they had rejected me, why it had to be like this. Wondering what I would do next year.

I wasn’t a teacher this summer. My new job schedule conflicted with class times. I’d had so many experiences since that first camp that I went everywhere confident in my abilities to mentor, build connections, lead, love, and succeed. I knew what that first camp had let walk away. They could have kept me on and I would have done better. They could have been straight up with me and told me off the bat I wasn’t coming back, because apparently they’d known all along even as they told me I could.

The only thing I did that summer was sleep over in the dorms so they could maintain the required student-adult ratio, and attend one field trip.

I could barely handle it. I couldn’t stand arriving on campus after most of them had gone to sleep, but at the same time I couldn’t bear the thought of arriving early to spend time with them. I was angry I could only attend one field trip but did nothing to fight for more.

I fostered my existing connections and built new ones. Still, it wasn’t enough. I felt myself slipping from their lives. I became less important. They stopped needing me.

I realized I could not return for another summer without breaking even more inside.

This time when I left, I didn’t say goodbye.

The Best Summer of my Life

The Best Summer of my Life

I’m coming to terms with the fact that the summer is almost over.

This summer has probably been the best of my life.

I’ve broken free from my parents. I cut toxic people out of my life. I let go of thoughts about my abuser and my most recent ex. I found my own place and have been living independently for two and a half months. I made the tough decision to withdraw from my first choice master’s degree schools to look into other programs that better fit my current needs.

I’m one of the only people in my cohort that I know of who has a professional full-time job and is living alone. Most people I know of are still working part-time and living with their parents or significant others. I’m not saying that makes me better—but it’s a different experience, and one no one thought I could have on my own.

I live within walking distance of my work, which makes every day easier as I wake up at 6 to open the school-age camp room at 6:45 almost every morning. For the first several weeks, I would follow this routine. It’s similar to my college routine, as I often worked early there as well or had early classes and walked a comparable distance to get to them. But it’s different; this time, I do not walk in with anxieties over what I should have done to prepare for class, or fear of not knowing who I would encounter on my on-campus jobs. I walk into work confident and excited. I know what to expect. I have a good idea each day which kids will be there, but even if some show up unexpectedly or are there when they usually aren’t, I can handle it. This is my realm. I’m a professional among professionals, sure of my step, confident in my role. It took weeks to get here, but by the time July rolled around I knew what I was doing. I have enough autonomy to make choices to guide my day, enough knowledge to fill the gaps of time where nothing requires my immediate attention.

My counselor said it usually takes six months to reach this point in a new job. I am once again fortunate to work in a place where people support one another, judgement is held back, humor is prevalent, and almost everyone loves what they do. All of this makes the job so much easier.

My job in the after-school program before this had everything this job had. But as much as I loved that job, the one I hold now has even more. It’s full time; often I get to see my kids all day, every day. I hold a title no one else holds; I’m recognized as having skills and requirements others don’t. I get time most days to work alone, developing my programs, making connections, and doing research. I have my own desk and laptop for work. I have a private phone with my own extension. My name tag states my position. I even have my own business cards.

It’s incredible. My position is everything I’ve wanted in a job. It’s something people told me I would not find unless I got my master’s, left the city, had years of experience elsewhere. But here I am, fresh out of college, and people are already looking to me as an authority in my area and expecting big things from me.

It’s been the best summer of my life, and I can measure that by looking back and seeing almost every day as one where I’m excited to wake up, excited to get to work. I’m sad to leave work, but each night I returned to a place that is my own. Once I leave work, I’m not weighed down by tasks to be completed. Instead of dedicating hours to homework and outside-of-class activities, I have time to keep my apartment clean and run errands. I have my own car, and am gaining enough confidence in driving to take myself to get groceries and even take some trips for fun.

But now I’m looking at the coming week and realizing that summer camp is almost over. Soon school will start; some of the kids I’ll only see in the afterschool program, and others I’ll have to wait until next summer to see again. I’ll spend more time at my desk planning. Soon I’ll be going into schools to run my own after-school activities, something I could only dream about doing four months ago.

It’s going to be hard to let go of this summer. With each youth program I’m a part of, it becomes a little easier to say goodbye. I’m less pessimistic and more resilient. It’s hard to believe three years ago people looked at me and wondered why I was trying when I clearly wasn’t good at it. It’s hard to believe that two years ago I would hide from some of the kids I worked with, cry almost every day over how hard the job was, and constantly question my decision to get involved in youth work. It’s hard to believe one year ago I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. It’s hard to believe six months ago people said what I wanted didn’t exist, and that I was nowhere near prepared to do what I wanted to do.

I proved everyone wrong—especially myself.

The past few summers before have been hard. The summer before I came to college was full of anxiety and an intense desire to get out of that house. The next, after my freshman year, I experienced heightened hostility from my parents as they resented my education, demeaned my experiences, belittled my successes, and discouraged me from taking on the opportunities that came my way. The following summer was the pinnacle of my relationship with my abuser and my first intensive job working with youth. It housed my first suicide attempt. Last summer, I was disappointed in having little to do; depressed; and again tried to kill myself. Each summer had its highlights and moments of joy. But this summer held the most excitement and happiness. This summer had the most days in a row where I felt good. I’ve had dark moments, but they weren’t been quite as dark and they haven’t been as long.

I feel confident. I feel comfortable. I know what I’m doing. I have tangible long-term plans. I know where I’m going. For the first time in maybe my whole life, I feel like I have my life in my control.

It’s the best feeling.

Shame

Shame

Earlier this February I visited Chicago for the Midwestern Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Asexual/Ally College Conference (MBGLTACC). During the weekend we were there, the Alphawood Gallery housed an exhibit—Art-AIDS-America. The travelling exhibit displayed pieces of art created primarily by HIV+ gay men in the 1960s-80s.

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Peter Staley, an active member in the fight against AIDS and a leader of the organization ACT UP New York, was a keynote speaker at the conference. Myself and a small group took the bus to the exhibit after witnessing Staley speak. Seeing the man I’d learned about in person was shocking for me. The exhibit was even more visceral.

We walked through the museum with a grim sense of kindred. Everyone in my group was queer; we all felt a strong connection with the history behind the AIDS epidemic. Each of us is an advocate. We have all worked with a variety of queer students, as well as others; we have heard stories and seen things that others outside of the community rarely have to witness. With this in mind, we felt we might have a small idea of what it was like during this time. And when we walked out, we walked out with stark images in our minds of the suffering experienced by those with AIDS and their loved ones.

There were many pieces that drew my attention. A bloody band aid taped to a piece of paper. Words and silhouettes projected on a wall moving through each other and sharing almost indecipherable poetry expressing the pain of the unknown. A newspaper printed with the words if he were alive today, if she were alive today, if they were alive today…

The one that struck me most: a metal fence with thousands of ribbons tied to its posts.

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It’s cliché to say, but this piece stopped me in my tracks. It was so stark and accessible. I stared at it, tilting my head back and forth, taking it in.

I noticed a basket off to the side. It was full of ribbons and strips of fabric. All in faded, dusty colors that were once vibrant. I stepped closer and read the sign next to it—if you have lost a loved one to AIDS, please take a ribbon and tie it to the gate in their memory.

I looked back at the fence and its many posts completely covered in ribbons. I thought of this piece of art travelling from city to city, each time gaining hundreds of ribbons from shaking fingers.

I walked around the fence and took in the rows upon rows of ribbons, tied tightly and loosely, overlapping, crushing into each other, gently intertwined, long, short, fraying, stiff. I wondered what it must feel like—so many years ago, or today—to lose someone you love to the terrifying, stigmatized virus.

And for the first time in years, I remembered Chris.

Chris was my dad’s gay best friend. His story was about as cliché as it got, and either despite or because of this, it rang true with a passion. Though not the way my dad told it. He cited his memories in mocking tones the day he forced me to come out, sitting forward in my desk chair, eyes fixed on me. It was March of 2013. He used the story to prove how gross and yet insignificant it was to be gay. He used the story of someone close to him to disrespect my community and my identity.

Listening in the moment, I was struck with fear and shame. I was terrified of being mocked, being spoken of the way my father now spoke of his friend. I was ashamed of being part of a culture so clearly ridiculed. I was ashamed to be the person that I was and always had been. I was ashamed to have discovered myself.

Staring at ribbons upon ribbons on the second floor of the gallery in Chicago, Illinois, on February 18th, 2017, I conjured up an image of the man I’d never met.

I now stood unashamed of who I am. I pieced together what I knew of the queer experience combined with what I knew about my father’s lifespan.

It would have been in the 80’s. Kansas City, Missouri. “Small-town,” southern-Midwest queer life.

Chris. Isolated. Maybe thinking there was no one like him. Did he have any gay friends? A partner?

I imagined a young man, maybe in college, whose friends knew he was gay. In the 80s—no small feat. My dad described the job they both had in a fast food place. How Chris loved the ice cream machine and wanted to make all the shakes. How that was considered the girl’s job. I imagined the young man with an apron and a silly server hat, grinning at the cold metal spinning and pouring. I imagined his “gay hands,” with the signature quirk of the wrist, as he handed over the frosted class.

“And then Chris got AIDS. And Chris died.”

My dad didn’t even know the weight of the history behind those words, but tossed them out with a flippancy that should have shamed him, if only because he was talking about someone who used to be his friend, who had died.

Chris. Did he know anyone else who had died? Was he the first of his community to go? Or was he trapped watching his friends dying around him, knowing that he would join them—slowly, agonizingly, disgustingly. I thought of the pictures around me. There was no hiding the blood and pus and mucus and skin lesions and the wasting and drooling and haunted eyes and pain.

I imagined him lying in bed shaking and sweating. I imagined him in the doctor’s office naked with black spots on his skin. I imagined his bones sticking out at the joints and his face drawing longer and longer lines below his eyes. I imagined him alone or with friends despairing at his side. I imagined him crying with pain and anguish as he watched himself and others around him succumbing to what would have been an unavoidable fate.

How long was Chris dying? Who took him to the doctor? Who cleaned his sheets? Who brought him food? Who stood by his bed? Or was he alone?

Did my dad ever visit Chris? Did he talk to him? Did they write? At what point did they part ways? My father spoke of the death and the funeral as if it came up unexpectedly, as if he’d had no idea his friend was sick and dying until it was over.

“His mom called me, and invited me to the funeral. And I went, not because he was gay, but because he was Chris.”

Because Chris was something worth appreciating but his queer identity was not.

My father was loving half a person. He was appreciating the pretty parts. The funny images of him at the ice cream machine. His apron. His hat. His gay smile. But my dad didn’t want anything to do with the rest of it. The needles. The sex. The blood and pus and band aids and sweat and night terrors. What about the pride and fear and isolation of being gay?

My father told the story of his friend’s death as some kind of cautionary tale. Almost like the sex ed teacher in the movie Mean Girls—“If you are gay, you will get AIDS, and you will die.”

Using his dead friend’s suffering to convince me that being gay was as gross as a disease.

As if being Chris was somehow separate from being gay, as if dying from AIDS was the inevitable outcome, and no one would mourn the half of you they didn’t want to see.

In Chicago that night, I picked a ribbon from the basket and found a place, low on the fence, in one of the few small spaces left over, and tied my tiny piece among the many others, one sad story among many, one aching cry among the millions of half-mourned lives.

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Why did my dad tell me the story of his dead gay friend the night he piled words together to gut the integrity of the community I’d just gotten a hold on?

Why did he use the story of his friend’s suffering to throw spite in my face, as if the suffering itself didn’t matter, but the aftermath was some kind of triumph on his end, the noble straight friend ignoring the deceased’s identity and avoiding the stories of the pain?

My fingers left the ribbon on the metal pole and I walked to stand inside the circle the fence was making, turning and staring again and again at the faded colors, the faded lives around me, gone but not forgotten.

I thought of Chris’s death and who took him to the mortuary, who collected his ashes or who threw him in a black trash bag and left him with the other bodies of the other dead gay men?

And my mind turned to ashes and the images of a crowd of people singing and screaming outside the White House, throwing the ashes of their loved ones through the gate and chanting, shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame

My father made me feel ashamed for something five years later I was proud of. I wanted him to feel the shame he should have felt when all he felt was pride in what he saw as altruistic pity for his dead gay friend.

I keep the pictures in my head and the voices I’ve never heard, say his name. And a shame that should be felt by those who permit the suffering when they turn the other cheek.

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Hurt Worse

Hurt Worse

It’s been three weeks since you carved the word “fragile” into your arm. The letters didn’t leave the rough, deep-set scars you’d hoped for. At the same time you’re relieved that your co-workers don’t look close enough to see the pink raised lines that still whisper the bitter word.

You forgot how warm it was getting. And how intuitive some of them are. That they might notice how you hold the hem of your sleeves in your palm or that you’re wearing sleeves at all.

But no one really notices the way you clutch your arms around your ribs. When the scars start to heal no one pays attention to your itching. Even the people who know. It’s better that way. It’s not like in the movies where one person sees it, touches them gently, and fixes everything.

The last time you gave in like that, there was a backwards spiral. Those aren’t fun. It’s not worth it.

Even if you think the reaction would be better this time—better to just leave them hidden there and hope.

Hope they don’t stretch back open when you couch dance to The Lion King on Friday.

Hope the bleach water and goggles are enough to hide the red lines on Saturday.

Hope your roommates are too tired to look at you twice when they first get back so you have time to throw a blanket over the evidence on Sunday.

Hope that by Monday they’re set in enough that you forget about them and can focus on school and work and chores.

Take one breath every day and hold it till the lights turn out because that’s the only way you can make for even a tiny bit sure that nothing else is going to happen.

Remember the last time something else happened?

That’s where the word came from in the first place, when the best people averted their eyes when you stepped out of the police car clutching your overnight kit and smelling like deodorant from the treatment center.

The only way to prove them right is to take the word and make it real. You can’t think of a better way than with the help of your silver friend.

Remember the time you sliced off the top of your thumb prying it out of the pink plastic shaver? You don’t remember the pain. Only the blood that didn’t stop coming. Sometimes that’s the best part.

There’s that one time you did it in the shower because you thought you’d never come out. Even though you knew the voices in the rooms across the hall. They’d just showered and no one would be looking in for a long time.

There’s not enough gauze in the bathroom this time so you have to deal with it. It hasn’t been this bad in a while. Each step and turn stretches the split skin and there’s this metallic ache in your muscles. You’re not good at sterilizing. Maybe one day you’ll get tetanus. You wonder if it’s as debilitating as people say.

Three weeks later lying on the bed and twisting your arm in the crooked light of your desktop lamp. How did you get the letters in that spot anyway? Three weeks is kind of a long time. A lot happened, anyway. But you’ve managed to hold your breath all twenty-one days.

The ones on your leg stayed better. You wonder if anyone sees them when you’re in the water. They probably notice the hair first. You never shave.

I think you’re wondering if I noticed. If your tiny winces masked by an extra-loud giggle and your hitched breath lead me to some conclusion. If I noticed the way you held yourself. I’m not sure if I did. I wonder what I would have said if I had.

I think part of you wants me to be the one to fix this. Is that what I want? I want you to be fixed. I feel like I’m the last person you should count on to do that.

I think the funny thing is not even knowing how much she hurt you and still comparing myself and asking if I’m hurting you worse.

Then I look at your fake smile and wonder if anyone will ever hurt you worse than you hurt yourself. I think the reason you want the scars to last is because you want them to hurt worse than the pain.

Tank

I live in a tank. Occasionally, my fish throw down a sandwich for me to eat.

My tank is lined with plastic grass and studded with cardboard houses. Taped to the inside wall of the tank is a blurry photo of a city skyline. I hate looking at it, because it reminds me too much of home. Life outside the tank is so much more wonderful. The air is sweeter because the trees outside aren’t plastic. The trees outside clean the air themselves, so we don’t have to depend on fish scooping us out once every week to filter the air and clean our plastic trees and cardboard houses, protecting us from germs that don’t exist in life outside the tank.

I’m lucky because I have other people living in my tank with me. I’ve heard of some people who live by themselves in tanks, with no one to talk to or interact with. My buddies and I don’t talk much but I like knowing they’re there if I ever feel like it. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like living in a place like this all by myself—with no one to bounce off of, no one to shoot the breeze with, no one to occasionally poke or play tag with. Just me alone with my thoughts. That idea always scares me. What happens when I run out of thoughts and there’s no one around to help fill me back up?

I have only vague memories of what life is like outside the tank, because we were taken away when I was four. But when something really dramatic like that happens even the vague memories seem real and definitive. I almost remembered the feeling of real grass on the soles of my feet or the taste of pure earth air. I had a blurry recollection of looking up at a sky filled with tiny, faint specks rather than the single glaring bulb that doused our tank every night when the fish turned off their salt lamps. I remember what running water felt like through my fingers, but now all I can splash in is the blue cloth “river” we were so generously provided with.

Don’t get me wrong, my fish are nice enough. They almost never forget to feed us, and their faces are gentle when they quietly observe us. I know Phil, who lives with me, used to have a fish who’d scream and slap the tank and make rude faces. I felt happy that our current fish are so nice to us. Occasionally they’ll blow bubbles at us and Phil says it’s them attempting to communicate, but I have no idea what they’re trying to say.

Aside from that our fish also do a really good job of making sure the air in our tank stays clean. It sucks to be shoved into a squishy bag every week and sitting dead bored as they meticulously clean out every toy and refill the air. I hate being scooped up with the itchy net and feeling helpless for the seconds I’m dangling in water before I’m put inside my air bag. Sometimes I forget to hold my breath and choke on water during the transfer. If it’s the blue fish taking me out, she usually pauses to watch me get settled and make sure I’m okay before cleaning. I appreciate that, because I would definitely not want to die during a tank cleaning.

Sometimes I do wonder how I will die. I’ve heard stories of people climbing out of their tanks in rebellion, only to drown before they can find our homeland. No one’s really sure where to go outside the tank. In fact, I wouldn’t know hardly anything about life outside the tank if it wasn’t for Phil, who was older when he was captured and has gone through three sets of fish including our current ones. Phil knows a lot more about the world than I do and I like hearing his stories even if they do make me sad about missing life outside the tank.

Sometimes Phil mentions wanting to try climbing out like others have. I’m scared to because I don’t want to have that choking feeling of swallowing water last for more than a few seconds. I’m afraid if it does it will kill me. I don’t’ really know what death is or what dying looks like but Betty, our third tank mate, seems terrified of it and apparently in our homeland it’s something you want to avoid. I don’t know, I was too young when I was captured, and my parents and I never found each other in the enormous tank we were all dumped in right after the capture.

Phil doesn’t seem to be afraid of dying. He says he knows a way that we can climb out and live long enough to get us back to the homeland. Do you even know where the homeland is? I ask him every time he says this. Not off the top of my head, he replies, but with something as important of this, I’m sure we’ll find the way.

I hope so—I mean I hope it works out for Phil. I’d hate to have him die searching for something he misses so much. He keeps asking me and Betty if we want to come. More like he keeps telling us we have to come. He makes it out like the fish are involved in some huge conspiracy against us. I don’t know about that. Creatures with such gentle faces can’t be up to much harm.

Betty refuses point-blank to go with Phil but I’m still on the fence. Betty says we have no reason to go—life is easy here, we’re taken care of. Life outside the tank is too dangerous. Here we’re safe, clean, fed regularly. We’ll die for sure if we leave, she says, but if we stay here, we’ll only maybe die.

I don’t know who to listen to. Most days I stand with my nose pressed against the glass waiting for the fish to appear with their gentle faces and throw me a sandwich.

Disturbed

Disturbed

I think I was ten when I learned what “disturbed” meant. It held such serious connotations. For me it described a feeling I couldn’t shake, something I didn’t like, didn’t understand, but couldn’t escape.

I noticed that when my brothers told me disturbing things, though, they did so with what appeared to be glee. As if they were not disturbed at all.

Maybe they were mocking me. But at the time it lead me to believe that by sharing the disturbing thought, it would become less real and less troubling for me.

I read a lot. I watched a lot of movies. I watched the news. I saw a lot of things I didn’t like, didn’t understand, but couldn’t escape.

If I told someone about them, it would make it less scary and less real.

I lived in a house with five other people. We never got out. I didn’t have friends. It took less than a day for everything one person knew to be common knowledge. there was no escape in my own home.

So I found other ways. I kept a journal. I wrote twisted fiction. I wrote stories about experiences I’d never had and places I’d never been. I wrote about people years older than me. I wrote about feelings I’d never had, feelings so intense I couldn’t find the right words.

I hated not having the right words. So I read more. I got a thesaurus. I read my dictionary. Trying to find the words I didn’t know that would click into the puzzle of the misery I was trying to portray in my stories.

I wanted to describe a misery too intense to be endured by a single human. Because I needed to get it out of my head.

I created characters so I could destroy them. But not completely. Tear them down then wait just long enough for them to rebuild only to be rendered into wreckage once again.

I wanted my words to tear my flesh in a way that I felt my hands never could.

I was trapped in the same way I trapped my characters. Maybe they had an island, or a fence, or a river keeping them in place. I had four walls and five family members who never let me ask the questions they didn’t want to hear answered.

I wrote with a darkness that shamed me. My writing lay stacked in drawers. When I read my works, laughter lashed back. My handwriting became smaller. The stacks grew higher.

As I condemn my characters to thicker and thicker layers of despair, I try to free myself from the sticky strings that life winds around me and sticks to the walls that closed in on my childhood. One time my brothers and I were playing we were trapped in a spiderweb but when the screams became too real I yelled at them to stop and ran out of the room. Then in my head I repeated the screams over and over until they sounded less real and felt less awful. I see the way my words struggle across the pages and the strings stick tighter but there are fewer. I’m still just a ten year old trying to run away from the meaning of a word I didn’t know, I didn’t understand, but that I can’t escape.

To Anyone Who’s Ever Told me I can’t Do It

To Anyone Who’s Ever Told me I can’t Do It

You’re wrong.

I buy my own food. I take the bus to work. I have 4 jobs, 2 internships, class, bills to pay, a cat to feed, medication to keep track of, and a family that was loathe to send me $100 for groceries for the whole year, who fucked up my financial aid, and who refuse to give me physical or emotional support and who actively criticize and invalidate me.

On top of this I live with 3 diagnosed mental illnesses, struggle with emotional PTSD after a childhood and adolescence of abuse and neglect, and I’m a queer person in a Trump world, where not only students but also professors have gone out of their way to sensationalize or invalidate me.

And yet I still somehow find the time and energy to fund raise $113 in a day for a cause I care about, lend several hours of my time to volunteer for efforts that are important to me, reach out to help and support those around me, communicate with faculty and staff for projects outside of work or school, fight to make my university a better place, stand up to people who are fucking things up, support my successful friends and colleagues, and help my school outside of my work hours.

I have succeeded in all of my classes. I have done well enough on assignments to get praise from my professors. Sometimes my professors ask me to work with them. I seek out academic challenges and they readily send them my way. Many of them have pointed me towards volunteer and work opportunities, and have offered to be references for jobs or write letters of recommendation for scholarships.

I have been successful in all of my jobs. I have received praise from supervisors on doing a good job, being a role model, going above and beyond. I have had productive and enlightening conversations with them. I have worked to better myself and seen my progress. I have formed lasting relationships with my co-workers and in many cases have been a part of a cohesive and amazing team. I have seen the impact my work has on those around me–whether it’s them beaming over their improved writing skills, finding their own passions, gaining valuable life skills, seeking out challenges of their own, growing as people, learning about diversity, becoming a better ally, becoming a better friend, finding joy in everyday things, opening up to themselves and others,  finding their safe places, making connections, gaining experience.

I have forged amazing friendships. I have encountered incredible people and worked to keep them in my life. We’ve had life-changing experiences and supported each other through thick and thin. I’ve been through breakups and lost friends to misunderstandings and abuse. I’ve become incredibly close to people who end up leaving. I have found comfort in unlikely people. I’ve worked through an intense fear of being loved. I’ve taken dramatic steps in relationships. I’ve fallen in and out of love. I’ve created a support system for myself that has been there for me during my darkest times and has shared with me some of my greatest successes. I’ve helped friends through depression and anxiety and even suicide.

I’ve lived amazing experiences. I’ve traveled to places that 15 year old me never would have dreamed about. I flew on a plane by myself and navigated my way through a foreign city on my own. I have friends in other states and other countries.

I’ve battled with my inner demons and, in some cases, won. I have scars that will stay with me my entire life, but I refuse to let them take me down.

I’ve three times tried to kill myself, but guess what, I’m still here.

So yes please get mad at me for saying things that don’t appeal to you, for questioning your authority, for taking things into my own hands, for going out of my way to do things that distract me from my ultimate goal (get an education). Please do blame me for things outside of my control. Please do take advantage of me and freeload off my efforts. Please mock my experiences and make light of my struggles. Please discredit what I tell you because I can’t possibly know anything. And while you’re at it, go ahead and say I’m not doing anything with my life. Go ahead and make fun of me for trying. Go ahead and mock my passions. You won’t be the first or the last.

And you’ll never know how I’ll keep fighting. How I’ll move on from your verbal bashing. How I’ll protect myself. How I’ll stop asking you for help because I rarely get the help I need from people like you.

And I guess I should thank you–for reminding me that the close friends I have are extraordinary, that most people I will encounter in life will be more like you. People I will learn to fight because for once in my life, I know I’m right about something.

That it’s never wrong to keep working for what you see needed around you.