A Year’s Invisible Work

If one were documenting my personal outside achievements, they’d have very little to record for the last 12 months of my life. I hold the same position at work I did one year ago. I’m in the same relationship. My living situation has gone unchanged for the most part. My physical health has not much varied, with the exception of some very minor improvements thanks to a few medical professionals. For many people, this description matches the majority of average years of their lives. For me, the absence of any large physical life changes for an entire year is an anomaly.

Substantial transitions did occur within my heart and mind, however. In the last year, I’ve pushed myself to engage with many untouched intimate memories and traumas, forcing my mind to process them to understand and free myself from their lethal grip. I stopped licking the wounds of past hurts and instead applied the learnt lessons toward actively pursuing a life and surroundings I could be at peace with. I closed the door on relationships which no longer served my purpose of light and love. I opened myself up to new inspirations I had never before allowed to collide with my personal drive. I rekindled the flames of passions I’d let fade. I lucidly marched, waltzed, and glided over the previously unexplored territories of my soul until the furthest corners were laid bare.

Since I was a young girl, I’ve always given myself timelines, no, deadlines really. When I recognize inside myself a fault or flaw, a vengeance I’m unwilling to absolve, or a bitterness I refuse to exonerate, I give myself a certain amount of time to deal with it before I must let it go and move on. Three hundred and sixty-five days ago I told myself I had one year to face the demons I was sheltering. I insisted with myself to begin down the path of relinquishing the monumentally weighted agony I’ve been carrying and find a new place to start.

It’s scary and daunting, getting older. With each year that passes, I recognize how little I’ve done. Each birthday marks a milestone of an achievement of mere survival, which, I admit, is not always such a simple feat, but it also serves as a reminder of how little time there is to do all the things worth doing in this current existence.

This past year, I did not let myself down. In the last 12 months, I’ve looked back on my youth and my foundation and I began the complicated work of facing and forgiving myself.

I have not yet completed the journey into my soul and the past that haunts it, but I’ve begun the task of starting anew, creating a sturdier, more intentional infrastructure for which to build my life upon. Better than a promotion, a new commitment, or a considerable difference in the external world, is the discovery of your self-acceptance, central peace, and internal truths.

What a colossally successful year it’s been. Now, I’ll depart to celebrate with some sinfully delicious cake before gazing into the blinding rays of the future.

Onward.

Lumpia & Friendship

The palm of my hand was filled with mini salt rocks. I threw my head back, poured them into my mouth, and let the acidic vinegar and dill flavors dance on my tongue before swallowing the extra saliva that rushed to my mouth to dissolve the salt.

“Do you like it?” Jackie asked, excitedly awaiting to discover one more thing we have in common.
“Yes! It’s awesome. I can’t believe I’ve never had it.”
“I love pickle salt. I love pickles.” She added. “We both sing, we both hate this island, we both went to schools called JJHS before.”
Her bob of black frizzy hair was waving in the breeze from the fan as she bent down to put the pickle salt back on her bedside table. She paused and ran her fingers across a series of deep maroon and purple books on the bottom shelf.
“Harry Potter?!” she inquired with the same excitement.
I was so sorry to disappoint her, “no, I don’t know anything about them.”
The whites of her eyes expanded as she looked at me in utter disbelief. “Harry Potter?” she said a second time, the enthusiasm in her voice deflating.
“I wasn’t allowed to read them.” I explained.
She shrugged her shoulders and moved on. “But you like to read, right?”
“Yep!”
Inside I was thanking her for being so gracious as to not require an explanation on the afore mentioned lack of societal adeptness. She recited the long list of our similarities again and I chimed in to note the ones she forgot.

While she disappeared to the kitchen to get snacks, I observed the few pictures she’d already put up on her wall. Most of them depicted a petite olive skinned Jackie with her big hair slicked perfectly back on top, smiling in a gold and black cheer uniform in some cheer-related pose. She was surrounded by identically dressed friends and had several pictures of her with another blonde cheerleader I assumed she was good friends with. An uneasy and familiar feeling of inadequacy washed over me. In middle school none of the cheerleaders had ever even glanced in my direction, let alone spoken to me. On the rare occasion they even recognized my presence, they gave me judging condescending looks that made me want to voluntarily jump inside my locker and disappear forever. Yet, here I found myself in the bedroom of a sophomore cheerleader, our soon to be cheer captain at school, it didn’t add up. The little voice inside my head screamed, abort!
Just then Jackie arrived with 2 Cokes and a napkin folded over a long cylindrical flaky piece of food.

“Lumpia,” she stated, “My mom makes the best lumpia, better than any other Filipina we know. She’s just the best cook.”
Inside I fought back against my will, She has Coke at home. She’s never experienced being poor. One less thing we share.

I pushed through the negativity flooding my mind and instead exclaimed, “My mom is the best cook in her family too! She’s never made lumpia though. What is it? Like an eggroll?”
She popped open the tab on her Coke and took a sip before answering, “Kind of, but Filipino. Try it.”
I felt as if it were a test I had to pass in order to continue down the path of getting to know one another. She watched with hopeful anticipation.
As I bit in through the flaky outside, the soft cabbage and crunchy carrots met the inside of my mouth with bliss. I savored the first bite but devoured the rest of the piece.
“Oh My God, this is SO GOOD.”
Jackie smiled from ear to ear, relieved and delighted I enjoyed it. It was at this point I realized the anxious expression on her face was probably because she’d been disappointed by others who were not as inviting to her and her family’s cultural differences. I overcompensated by repeatedly expressing the pleasure it brought me and asking for more. It truly was one of the best foods I’d ever tasted.

Throughout that first afternoon we spent together, Jackie shared stories about her last school, her old friends, the boyfriend she had there. She showed me videos of her singing solos at choir concerts there and some cheer competitions. She made me sing the chorus of one song for her so she could hear my voice. She was trying to share things with me but was also mourning the loss of her past. It was one thing we shared, an uncertainty of this new island and school, a fear of not belonging that we disguised with disgust. Her long haired Chihuahua followed us around from room to room and every few minutes barked to demand her attention which she freely gave through kisses and squeezes. She asked me lots of questions to which I gave vague undetailed responses. In short, I told her I didn’t have very much freedom when I lived with my strict mom and stepdad and that’s why I chose to move in with my dad just before he got orders to Lajes Field. I didn’t speak of the sanctuary in the garage or the plan to make an exodus to Kenya. I was embarrassed by my evangelical background and had not even begun to process it in a way I could explain it to another. This was my chance to make a friend, to start over, to be liked, to feel normal. Jackie was secure enough to show me videos of her performing and to invite me to taste and experience part of her heritage. She was so sure of herself it left me in awe. I didn’t believe I had the experience or personality necessary to be her friend. Regardless, she was relentless, asking me questions while bouncing around her house and from topic to topic, covering everything from favorite colors (hers: pink, mine: green), to least favorite subjects, to favorite foods. In that one afternoon we discovered neither of us had ever dyed our hair or tweezed our eyebrows or even kissed anyone. I let my guard down just enough to let her touch but not see my heart. We could read each other’s minds and finish each other’s sentences from day one and already unintentionally said the same things at the same time. We had an undeniable connection.

In school we immediately became a duo. Though we only had one class together because I was only a freshman, we met up between classes, at lunch, and before and after school. If someone said the name “Jackie” the words “and Kayla” would follow. For years I’d been longing for my big sister’s attention, begging for my mom to see me, I was desperate for a companion, a bosom friend I could bare my soul to. I threw myself into the friendship. Jackie was this strong confident girl who saw her own strengths and was proud of her background, who knew herself and her values. I was exactly the opposite. I didn’t see myself happily camping out in her fearlessness and getting lost in our friendship.

Problems arose any time she made a new friend or wanted to go clubbing off base or do something I didn’t understand or couldn’t relate to. We fought a lot, usually because I was accusing her of not caring about me as much as I cared about her. Any time other people were involved in our hangouts, I shut down. I didn’t know how to be around all these other people. Her friendship alone was enough for me. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t enough for her. Thankfully, we always apologized ourselves out of these fights. I realize now that it’s a miracle, really, because I couldn’t even properly express who I was or why I was hurting, so I don’t know how we managed to overcome those times without reason.

When I visited Ohio a year after I initially left to be with my dad, I had adopted some of Jackie’s boldness. At one point, there was gossip going on about my father and I’d had enough of it. My mom and the rest of the family were taken aback by how brazen I came off. Mom scolded me, “Look who’s gotten outspoken.” And Grandma murmured, “she used to be so precious.” It was more than a criticism, it was an insinuation that my choice of leaving them had turned me into not only a sinner, but a worldly monster. I felt the heat rise in my cheeks and stormed outside.

I was lucky to have those two years on Terceira Island and even luckier to have Jackie. For just a little while, I escaped the madness at home and cultivated some normalcies of teenage life. I met people of different cultures and uprbinging who were vastly different than any I had encountered in the small towns and churches I spent most of my time in before. It was a time of pretending none of my real deep rooted troubles and insecurities existed. From the day I met Jackie and tasted pickle salt for the first time, I made a decision to spend my time on the island just letting myself be a kid and having experiences I couldn’t otherwise have. Today, I’m infinitely grateful to myself for making that choice.

I didn’t leave Lajes knowing exactly who I was, but I left having found in myself a bravery I didn’t know I possessed. I left with memories and new life perspectives. I left knowing it was possible, even for me with all of my unique and unrelatable differences, to make a friend in this world.

Deadbolt

She lies without her guard undressed exposed

wanting waiting to be wholly fathomed

a babe but grown desires the same amour

but just one single act demonstrating compliance generates a hope to hold

expectant eyes as she awaits intent from you to know her heart and soul its depth

distraction caused awareness dissipates

we’ve been in this same place a time before

repetitive neglect unwaning slight

tangled strangled thorns press into soft side and mangle rose glasses dimming fate’s sight

the ice cements around upturned frail roots of tree to save, preserve the life that’s left

retreat, it’s safe and warm inside the core

solitary healing, wounds wrapped, scars kissed

she sees you need her more than she needs loved

her soft as silk compassion wins, only once more your selfishness persists

now trust reserved specifically for few proven sound confidants alone

then burned again, unseen again, pull back!

black cave appears illuminates shelter

willful desire for alleviating blanket

crawls in and so begins the onset of a powerful everlasting anguish

comforted by only her own presence she tries for peace in loneliness

though suffocates under the memory sharp tongues, omitting eyes left on her heart

patience proves not a means to end

the fourth and fifth and sixth chances, you fail

cannot will not allow the agony

a child no more but still inside does not forget being neglected, brushed aside

caulk all the cracks and seal the holes and now you are dismissed

pain sees limits, creaked door rattles, and SLAM!

Deadbolt.

Happy Coming Out Day

I was nine years old the first time I had the thought, “something is wrong with me,” regarding my sexuality. My big sister and stepmom were perusing magazines and gawking at pictures of half-naked men. Most of the pictures were the same: the model standing shirtless, exposing a ridiculously ripped set of abs, the thumb of one hand casually tucked into the front of ripped or dirtied jeans, pulling them down ever so slightly so you could catch a glimpse of the apparently coveted v-shaped muscles leading to the genitals. He always wore a slight smirk and a smoldering stare and a cowboy hat was a common accessory.

They were moved, blushing, riveted by the picture.
“OOH BABY! YES.” I remember Krystal’s voice, still hers but with a subtly animalistic undertone. She waved the picture in my face and I felt nothing. I had experienced feelings of lust before, but never while looking at a picture of a half-dressed male. I tried to feel it. I forced my eyes to follow the contours of his muscles, to take in the sexual intent of his eyes, but it just didn’t spark any feeling inside of me.

“Whatever, you know you love it,” my stepmom taunted.

Why don’t I feel anything? What’s wrong with me? This thought-seed was planted in my mind at this time. It grew strong and took up residence there for many years to come.
This scene repeated itself countless times over the next several years. Be it a movie, a magazine, a stranger in a store, my sister and stepmom, and sometimes their friends, always pointed out men whose mere existence turned them on, and without fail teased me for not expressing the same heat they obviously felt.

It wasn’t just from family members. I heard girls at school and in youth group talk about men in the same way. The more conversations like this I overheard, the more exposed my differences became. During my preteen years, I was increasingly concerned I was a lesbian. I tested myself constantly by putting different images in my mind and judging my own reactions. I didn’t feel turned on by models in bikinis or simply the idea of a naked woman so I couldn’t even say I was attracted to one sex over the other. I was monumentally relieved about this, knowing how my family and church feel about homosexuality, but I was still confused.

I decided I’d need to start showing some attraction towards males who were commonly considered “hot.” I knew if I didn’t, someone would find me out. One night, in the summer of 2003, my stepmom ordered pizza and rented How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. It had just come out earlier that year. There is a scene in it early on when Matthew Mcconaughey changes his shirt in his work office. When his shirt came off, my stepmom and sister hooted and whistled. I looked at them both and joined in. I thought, Matthew Mcconaughey would make a great beard. I printed out pictures of him and plastered them on my bedroom wall next to the drawings my little siblings made me.

In my two years in public high school I did develop some crushes. Living with my dad, I was allowed to have friends and do things outside of going to school and church. I got to know some people in ways I had never known strangers outside of my home. For me, a crush was never inspired by the way a person dressed or carried themselves or by the standard way of rating someone’s looks. I never found the “hottest guy” attractive at all. In fact, if it weren’t for all the other girls telling me who was hottest, I’d have no idea how to gauge that. I did end up getting to know someone and becoming captivated by him. He and I dated for 9 months, an eternity to your typical teenager. However, had we not shared intimate secrets and our deepest desires, I may have never truly fallen for him. It was the depth of our connection that awakened me sensually.

During this time in high school, I also fell for a friend of mine. I never intended to. We were just very close friends, spent the night at one another’s houses, cried with each other when we were heartbroken over boys, other friends, or family. Through our time spent together, I began to see how beautiful a person she truly was. It was the things you can’t see, her heart, her mind, her loyalty, her love, that turned me on. We had been friends for nearly a year before I realized I was attracted to her in a way larger than friendship. It was the Fourth of July celebration on base. She was wearing jeans and a tan loose fitting t-shirt. Her lips were shiny with layers of gloss and her dark brown hair flowed freely down effortlessly accentuating the curve of her back. We sat on the grass, side by side, our arms touching. The fireworks on the outside were no match for what I felt inside. I willed her to feel what I felt. I had never possessed a desire as strong as this, to feel her lips on mine. She sat, staring at the sky, oblivious. When we hugged goodnight as we always did when parting, I tingled all over but nearly cried knowing I’d never do anything with this feeling. Later that night, I questioned once more my sexuality, and failed to make sense of it. Instead, I shoved aside the feelings for my friend and reverted back to a life of disguise. Our friendship dwindled after that. Though she made a reprise in my life a couple of times, I could never bring myself to be completely open with her. She worked for a long time to keep our friendship alive, and then I just let her fall away. 

Throughout the next decade, when I heard of hate crimes against the gay community, shame would wash over me. I knew somehow not speaking up was hurting not only myself but others. When there were gay pride parades or events or when it became a topic of conversation in the media, I withdrew myself from the conversation, from the idea. I longed to be there, marching with them, supporting them, knowing I, myself, though not entirely sure I was gay, was different just like they are, but I stayed mute.

Years passed. I suppressed the thoughts and the confusion. After a time of separation from my little sister, we were catching up with a whirlwind of deep conversations. She was the first person whom I ever confided my confusing sexuality in. I described to her how I was not attracted to people physically, but rather to their person, their character, who they are. I don’t think about or look at a penis or a vagina or boobs or butts and get hot. I told her I don’t think it’s wrong that other people do, I’ve just never experienced it. I explained to her that it doesn’t mean I don’t get turned on, I just have to know the person first before I feel sexual desire towards them and then, it doesn’t matter what parts they have because the parts aren’t what I find attractive. She listened intently before saying with ease and without even a hint of judgement, “oh, you’re pansexual.”
It was a turning point for me, a light bulb moment. I had never even heard the term. I looked it up, read others’ accounts and for the first time realized I wasn’t completely alone in my different-ness. There wasn’t something wrong with me. Though I’m still not a proponent of labels, sometimes they are there to help us identify ourselves and to identify with one another, to help us not feel so alone. That’s what discovering the word “pansexual” did for me.

Since this revelation two years ago, I’ve told only exactly 4 people about my sexuality, excluding Hope, 3 of whom were coworkers I was certain would not judge me… not exactly courageous but still a small step of progress for me. Earlier this year I discovered Simone De Beauvoir for the first time. I instantly related to her, feeling she understood a part of me no one else fully had. I posted one of her quotes, “In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.” It was a cryptic and half-assed attempt at coming out.

Recently I overheard two gay men at work making fun of someone they encountered who identified as pansexual. The ridicule was something like, “oh, now people are just making stuff up. You’re either gay or straight.” I was shocked, two men who have undoubtedly been discriminated against for their “differences” are now making fun of others in the same way. It hurt me, not only for myself, but for the many others out there who are “different” than those they are around, whether by their sexuality or race or religion. Enough is enough. I spoke up to those men that day and intend to continue speaking up.

Until this day, most of my family and my acquaintances have assumed I’m straight because the person I’m in love with now happens to be male. For a long time I considered myself lucky to have found a male companion, I thought if we make it for the long haul, I’ll never have to be honest with my loved ones or face the ramifications of coming out. I was fortunate to find him because in the world we live in, life is just easier for male-female couples. I was more than happy to hide behind the assumptions.  However, for me this whole year has been about shedding the weight of expectations and shattering the glass box my family and society has put around me. It’s been about being true to myself, no matter the consequence. So today, to all of you I finally say, I’m not straight and I am not ashamed.

This isn’t as profound a statement as it may be for some others to make. I don’t anticipate my life to change in many ways because of it, and I’m ever aware of that luck. For many, coming out completely and utterly upturns their lives, but I still feel my honesty is important. We are in a unique situation in the year 2016. The LGBTQ community has more rights than ever before, but this election season has given the public approval to spew hate once again. It’s becoming socially acceptable, the hate crimes, the disgusting offensive vernacular often used to describe this community. These are your brothers and sisters, your children, your friends, your parents, your cousins, your colleagues, people who are out and people who are so scared they may never come out. One of my deepest regrets is being too cowardly to speak out sooner. I will no longer remain voiceless. When you stay silent, you contribute to the pain and suffering inflicted on each of them.

If you’ve been quiet, whether about your own sexuality or simply your personal opinion on human rights, today, please, at the very least, consider coming out as an ally.

“The words of our enemies aren’t as awful as the silence of our friends.” -Daisy Coleman

 

Perverse Purification

A miniature hand is cupping the side of my cheek softly as a large soft weight thuds onto my legs. I open my eyes to see Hannah’s cherub cheeks puffing out beneath her honey colored curls, it’s her hand on my face. Josiah in his hunter green dinosaur pajamas is crawling up the length of my body, bunching up the sheets and blankets as he goes, and lands on my chest with a snicker of joy. Golden ribbons of sunlight are streaming through the slits in the blinds on the window to my right. It’s daylight already?! I think to myself.
“We’re hungry,” Hannah whines softly.
I hear Hope’s voice before I see her leaning against the bedroom door, her raven hair knotty and disheveled hanging down to her waist, “We were going to ask Krystal, but she gets mad at us when we wake her up the morning.”

Josiah is still lying on top of me, pressing down on my lungs making it hard for me to breathe but he’s just too cute, I can’t ask him to get off.
I stay lying for a while, with six little eyes of anticipation on me. Lethargically wiping the crust from the corner of my puffy under-rested eyes I ask, “Eggs or Oatmeal?”
Josiah giggles loudly when I pluck him off my chest and sit him down while I’m struggling to pull myself out of the warm bed.
From the top bunk across the room, Shaina looks up in a daze, half consciously taking in the source of the noise before pulling her sheets up over her head and rolling over.

The whole house was up late the night before in a drawn out counseling session. One of the members of the Exodus House was showing signs of demonic possession. He had been caught watching porn late at night and the elders of the house discovered he had been smoking when he was supposed to be running errands for the group. It was reprehensible. Mom gathered all of the women of the house together earlier that afternoon to tell us he had been sneakily snatching up our underwear and wearing it himself, warning us to be cautious and vigilant. It wasn’t that he was a bad person, he was just under the influence of very strong demons due to past transgressions and we had to act fast to prevent them from spreading about in the house and infecting more individuals.

That evening as the sun fell and we directed the children upstairs, Hope began pouting. She had been expressing her feeling of exclusion from adult conversations for many months. At ten years old, she felt too old to play the games the younger children liked but she was too young to participate in some of the discussions the group had. Mom and Bill whispered quietly to one another before Mom said, “it’s okay, you can stay. Josiah, that means you need to listen to Hannah upstairs. You guys play nice.” She patted him on the butt before they took off through the kitchen toward the stairs.

Once we heard the bedroom door fall into its frame upstairs, Bill began pacing back and forth, uttering the language of the Holy Ghost. He always seemed to stand even taller than he was, commanding authority with his broad stature. He summoned the guilty one of the group to move towards the center of the room. Inherently, we all circled around him, hands outstretched towards him. Hope stayed close, mimicking our movements. Many versions of tongues were introduced to the room one by one, a ripple effect.
“Ooooooo, Humanuh, Humanah Adonjanawa”
“Ahsheetaimassah, maltainshursh.”
“Adabu, Adabu, Adabu”

Some in the group had been gifted with more words of the spirit than others. Tongues were rolling and our mouths took the form of words we of which we knew not the meaning. The recipient of our prayers began twitching. His arms were outstretched because he wanted to be relieved of his strongholds as much as we needed him to be. He was open to the release and healing; he had to be or he could not stay. Bill lead the group in the prayers and commands, “In the name of Jesus, COME OUT! Satan, you and your demons have no place here. This is a house of God, a temple of the Lord.” He was unwaveringly certain. “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you, with the power of God that lives in me, COME OUT OF HIM!” He pointed at the possessed, “you, the enemy, YOU MUST OBEY. There is power in the name,” He began chanting then and we all joined in, “JE-SUS JE-SUS JE-SUS!”  The Bible states that demons tremble at the name. The guilty one began convulsing violently, collapsing to the floor. From the ground, he barked hateful unrecognizable words, his eyes flickering black. One moment, he was our fellow beloved group member, the next he had lost control and became vile and angry, attacking each of us. Hope helped me hold down one of his legs while other members penned down the rest of his limbs. Bill hit the floor with his fist beside him and wailed, “COME OOOUUUTT COME OUUUUTTT!” Over and over again while we continued uttering  unknown words. A wave of calm came over him and we all paused to catch our breath.

At some point during the frenzied praying, Hope had drifted away from the group. She was sitting on the couch with a sketch pad and pencil. When asked what she was doing, she turned the picture around. It was drawing of a hideous demonic monster, its arm stretched up and out. She was such a natural talented artist. The muscles in this being’s arms were defined in such a way that you knew he was pushing out with his arms. “He’s caught in his throat. We need to be louder,” she said. God had given Hope a gift of visions. When she was as young as 2 years old, I remember her dragging me about from room to room, across streets, trying to show me what she was seeing. As she got older, this developed into her depicting her visions with art.

Bill pulled our blameworthy brother to his feet before motioning Hope to come over and lay her hands on his chest. She obeyed and everyone prayed loudly, thunderously demanding the devil to surrender.  For nearly an hour we were relentless. Mom sang under her breath in The Spirit, swaying back and forth in that motherly way, keeping a watchful eye on my little sister. The evil inside him fought back perilously, he was forceful with strength as he wildly swung his limbs and body around, occasionally lunging at us. There were periods of time when he was completely exasperated, without enough energy to move, and we’d loosen our grip just before the writhing would start again. Decisively, Bill made one last statement, “Your strength is no match for that of my God’s,” and finally, his body went limp. He was sobbing uncontrollably, snot dripping from his nostrils to the pink carpet beneath his back. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” he managed to ask forgiveness between sobs.

Every one of us let go and backed away, dropping our guards and allowing our physiques to unclench for the first time in an hour. We let him rest there for a few minutes before Bill reached out his hand to help him up. “Welcome back, brother,” he said warmly and pulled him in for a long embrace. Hope moved to the couch and sat beside Mom, her brown eyes wide. She grabbed ahold of Mom’s hand for comfort and leaned her head against her soft shoulder.

We gave our brother-in-God a few moments to rest before the counseling session began. In appearance, it was incurious, just a group of people sitting on the various random mismatched pieces of furniture that made up the living area, chatting together. It was, in fact, a very peculiar and grim ritual performed in The House. Mom and Bill asked most of the questions and guided the conversation, scrutinizing every pause in response, every out of place breath, every movement of the eyes. The rest of us rarely participated unless we felt a nagging at our hearts (the spirit of God), to say something, even then, we looked at Mom and waited for a nod of approval before speaking. It was hours and hours of accusations, harsh questioning, crying, confessions, and begging. Even after conceding and pleading with God and the group for forgiveness, the interrogation continued. This was common during our counseling sessions. No leaf could be left unturned. By the end of it, there’d be no secrets, not a single private thought was permitted. The devil preys on our thoughts so we had to share all of them with our leaders so they could help us stay pure and maintain the impenetrable spiritual wall of protection around the house.

It was late into the night, more like early morning before our leaders deemed it resolved. Hope had long since fallen asleep on Mom’s lap. The rest of the kids were passed out upstairs. We all took to our respective beds with an eagerness to end the day and start fresh again tomorrow, knowing the house was once again safe and clean.
As I sleepily walk hand in hand with Hannah towards the stairs to make them breakfast, I check Hope’s face… she is changed. There is a sense of maturity, she participated just like the adults. But there is something more, understanding… distrust. For a split second a pang of guilt punctures my gut, I contributed to that, simply by being there, by participating. With a practiced urgency, I hasten the feeling away.

Midnight Awakening

Picking at a stubborn piece of quinoa stuck to the bottom of the display case, I laughed without restraint at Rebecca as she mimicked the snooty customer she had to wait on just before close. In an over the top impersonation, she swayed her lower half back and forth, a towel still in one of her hands as she pressed them firmly at her hips, “Excuse me, but I asked for five ounces of prosciutto, not seven,” she imitated the lady with a snobby tone, turning her freckled nose upward. A bob of blush and rosewood colored hair bulged out the back of her hat, strands and strings falling as she marched in front of the case in a dramatic production. She committed fully to the act, a natural performer. Adlibbing in the same posh voice she feigns, “you see, if I eat those extra 2 ounces I may get a ring of fat around my waist like you,” she’s pinching her sides now lowering her voice in a mocking disgust, “and I certainly cannot have that.” Her light eyes twinkle and her mouth contorts into strange shapes as she tries to keep from giggling at her own performance. From behind the counter where Kate is scrubbing the floor with a deck brush, she yells, “those extra two ounces aren’t for eating, they’re for you to wrap around your cucumber so it feels more like flesh.” The whole team busted with laughter. Kate, resuming her work on the floor adjusts her sweat soaked tank top and merely grins at herself without looking up. She always knew how to take it one step too far. I could not remember the last time I had let go and laughed that freely.

This store I transferred to was much older and broken down than my previous one, but it was new to me. When I arrived to this place, my mind and soul were empty, as they had been for some years.  I had since sealed up the crack I once carried in my emotional infrastructure after the wreck Brandon and I had been in a couple of years before. We were living together now, though we may as well have been on separate planets. I had numbed myself to feelings. I had no interest in any hobbies, in making friends, in caring about anything. It was a humdrum existence. I went to work, made food, did the dishes, called my little siblings once a week, saw the family on occasion, but mostly, I slept. When nothing was required of me, I drew back the curtains, burrowed into the dark hole inside myself, and stared blankly at nothing in particular until I fell asleep and dreamt of endless blackness. No one knew – not Brandon, not my coworkers, no one in my family, of my secret shadowy desolation. The months I had spent consciously and intentionally rejecting thoughts of my mom, of doubt, of God and religion, and of grief had worked. I no longer thought. I no longer felt. I was unable to understand a purpose to anything, incapable of envisioning a future. I was caught in a perpetual state of nothingness. When the idea of transferring stores was presented to me, I felt I had nothing to lose. I was great at putting on masks, one I was best at was being the diligent and dependable Work Kayla. I did not foresee any qualms to fooling another group of people.

With the regular nightly urgency as any retail environment has at closing time, I scoured and sanitized the department rapidly, watching my teammates do their individual parts as well, working around one another like a dance to complete it all. I was still learning this new dance, deciphering which tasks each of my fellow coworkers preferred. Music was playing, people were laughing together. The work we were doing was dismal and often disgusting, but we had a sense of togetherness and made it fun. For the most part, every individual carried their weight. Without warning, I found myself settling in here. All of them openly welcomed me without pausing to ask questions. I was part of a team, one that got me talking again, laughing again, participating in my own existence once more.

When the job was done, we threw the soiled coats and towels in their proper bins and punched our respective ID #s into the time clock. I was walking alongside Eric towards the employee parking lot as I looked up at the full moon. I allowed myself to feel awe, to purely observe nature while all other oppressive perceptions faded away. Eric towered over me, watching me take in the sky. Pulling my gaze from the moon and stars, I got an unclouded peek into his eyes, a deep shade of walnut. Hidden inside them were dark secrets, pain, wanting, but they were also flooded with compassion and insight. He began recanting some theories about the moon and its impacts on the Earth and on people. He was well versed in the science surrounding our universe. More so, he spoke with an unbridled passion for it, for the facts that are still unknown, for the work being done to know them. I was fascinated, gripped. We stood in the parking lot, emptied of all but his car and mine, for several hours, past midnight, in the crisp and cool unobstructed autumn air discussing philosophy, spirituality, science, religion, outer space; no topic was off limits. It was as if neither of us could speak quickly enough, as if there would never again be a better point in time to pour out every inner speculation or belief. Under ordinary circumstances, standing alone with a man who is a near stranger, who is tall and strong enough to easily overtake me, in a dark parking lot behind a building late into the night would’ve scared me, but with Eric, the world was safer. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew him somehow already, perhaps from another time. Conversing with him felt like discovering I had a home after all. He was family. He stood casually in blue jeans and an old T-shirt, a black backpack slung over his right shoulder as we discussed history, consciousness, and the secrets of the universe.  From a distance, he might appear common; up close and engaged in a dialogue with him about only the most important conditions of life, he was anything but. The atmosphere around us altered, enveloping us in a bubble of clarity encouraging the transfer of intellect.  I wanted to stay there forever, drinking up all his knowledge, his willingness, and hopefulness.

When I finally arrived home that night I didn’t indulge my habitual despair by turning off my mind and sleeping; instead, I turned the lights on, and with a new fire burning inside my soul, I read. I researched. I thought. With a hurried excited zeal I thrust myself into a world of information, of every philosophy and religion I could get my hands on, desperately trying to absorb as much material as I was capable, to make up for all the lost time I wasted in obscurity. There was so much undoing to be done. Christian indoctrination was started on me at a very young age; now, I realized instead of pushing it all down and pretending it didn’t happen, I could educate it away.  I was oblivious that I had been waiting for this exact divine conversation for years, an opportunity and a gentle universal push to finally think my way out of the darkness.

We all have those defining moments, the ones we look back on and see ourselves growing or morphing into the person we truly are. For me this was one of the most crucial. I walked out of work that night and despite being tired, gross and sweaty and smelling like vegan nuggets and sanitizer, I felt accomplished, felt a part of something bigger than myself, part of a team. The acceptance from everyone, the joy and openness they prodded back to life inside of me primed me for the awakening of that midnight conversation. I am forever indebted to and grateful for that strange but genuine group of individuals. I knew then I would never again allow myself to step backward into an obsolete existence.

Little House, Big Memory

Mom was 6 months pregnant and bedridden as we approached the winter of 2000. Her body was in a constant state of early labor for most of the pregnancy. Bill had to take medical leave from the sausage factory so there would be someone home to take care of Hope and Hannah while I was at school. I couldn’t remember having ever been as poor as we were at that time. Our daily diet consisted of whatever the WIC coupons we received would buy, generally, canned tuna, peanut butter, dried beans, milk, and Juicy Juice. The coupons were meant to be enough for just Mom so she could properly nourish the child she was carrying, but we spread it out among all 5 of us (6, if you count unborn baby Josiah). We had a small stock of sausage leftover in the freezer and up until it started getting cold, we had zucchini and yellow squash on occasion from a generous neighbor’s garden. I’m not exaggerating when I say that was it. Even then I thought our poverty was probably a large part of the reason Krystal left again to live with Dad.

We kept the heat way down in the lower 60s, partly because Mom was always flushed, but mostly to keep the gas bill lower. My room was in the basement, the coldest part of the house. On the eve of my twelfth birthday, I awoke to Hope tugging at my blankets. Through the pitch black room, all I could see were the perfect shiny whites of her eyes, reflecting the slight bit of moonlight coming through the one small window in the far corner. It took me a second to realize I wasn’t dreaming because Hope had never come down the creaky wooden stairs into the basement before by herself, let alone at night. Then I heard it, Hannah crying at the top of the stairs. Hope leaned in and whispered almost inaudibly, “she had a bad dream.”

Bracing myself for the bite of the icy air, I peeled back my covers and shivered. Grabbing Hope’s delicate little hand, we ascended the stairs toward our blubbering red-faced little sister. Hope explained that she went into Mom’s room but Bill said she couldn’t climb in bed with them because she might kick Mom’s belly. After calming Hannah, the three of us made ourselves a comfortable pallet of blankets on the floor in the living room and spent the rest of the night cuddled there together. We slept curled up in the living room for most of the winter after that, keeping our bodies snuggled closely to stay warm. We wore socks, long pants under our night shirts or gowns, sweatshirts over that, and on particularly cold nights we also wore hats and mittens.

As the morning sun began pouring into the house, I heard rustling coming from Mom’s room. She had a rough night again, not sleeping because of the constant aching of her legs and pressure on her midsection. No one said anything to me as I got ready and left for school.

From our very first years, Mom set the precedent of making all our birthdays a big celebration. Even though we didn’t necessarily get loads of gifts every year, there was always some, and usually decorations, a homemade cake with ice cream, and a gathering of family members. She possessed a special talent to make a person feel loved and significant and always made extra efforts to do so on our birthdays.

On the bus on the way home that day, I could feel tears surging against the back of eyes as I recalled the lack of special treatment I received that morning. I’m pretty sure They forgot it’s my birthday. One of the skills I’d mastered by then was coaching myself through tough emotions. It’s okay. It’s probably better that they forgot because we don’t have money to waste on cake or presents. I know Mom would feel bad they couldn’t spend it so at least if she forgot she doesn’t have to feel bad. I resolved not to acknowledge my birthday myself or mention it to them when I got home.

I took a well-practiced bottomless breath to fortify myself before opening the front door to our residence. I spotted a green balloon on the floor as I pushed open the door. Hope & Hannah were front and center grinning ear to ear as they, in unison with Mom and Bill, squealed, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” There were about a dozen or so balloons of several colors floating about the floor. Mom was sitting up in her recliner, beaming. Bill stood next to her. I caught sight of the two little signs taped to the edge of the dining room table like a banner, a picture of all of us holding hands with “HAPPE BRTDAY KALA” spelled out in Hope’s brand-new crooked lettering and another picture that looked like a house but I couldn’t quite make it out. As I took them all in, drops started trickling down my face and to the floor. The girls raced to see who could hug me first. Mom reached up, locking her arms around me squeezing tightly. “I thought you forgot.” I said, feeling the tears pool up again. Half laughing, half consoling she said, “I could never.” We eased out of our embrace and I turned to discover a cake on the table that I somehow missed before. It was shaped like a log cabin with graham crackers as the roof, set atop a bed of green icing, with a sign out front that read “Ingalls’ Home.” One of the girls’ toy cows and toy pigs were each settled into the green icing as well. My mind was mauled by my emotions and my being was drowning in love.

As a girl I was obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder and all of her books. Before I could read, Mom read them aloud to me; when I learned, I read them again. Her writing style coupled with stories about childish adventures and family values, populated with believable characters, depicted a simpler but still meaningful life I so envied. It was comfort. Those stories were my version of a security blanket. I had started reading them all over at the beginning of the summer but I didn’t even think my parents noticed.  Mom told me she made the batter and Bill baked the cakes. He shaved them down to make them into the shape of the cabin and even iced them. She told me it was all his idea, except the farm animals, that was Hope. I’d spent my life in the shadows of my older sister, frantically wishing for a smidgen of the kind of daddy-daughter relationship she had with our own Dad. I was moved.  At this singular juncture, I felt seen. I felt the possibility I had so long ago let go of, come back within my grasp. And so, on my twelfth birthday, Bill won over my heart.

The sausage and squash was notably tastier that night. It was exceedingly difficult to work up the will to cut into my Little House cake, but it was well worth it, my favorite, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. Mom’s baking never disappointed.

For months, I had been fruitlessly pleading with Mom to let me start wearing makeup. I inherited her prominent dark circles and I was fed up with kids at school teasing me, asking me if I was sick or had black eyes. Also, I was jealous of the popular girls and their glittering silver-blue eyeliner. As Bill cleared the table, Mom had Hope fetch her makeup bag. To my joyful surprise, she spent the next hour teaching me how to put on makeup, light and evenly. She did her face while I did mine. Since she couldn’t stand to do it in the bathroom, we took turns using the tiny mirror in the brown case of Cover Girl powder foundation.

Mom always smelled faintly of roses, oregano, and lipstick. To this day, however, a slight whiff of Cover Girl foundation immediately brings me back to the chair beside Mom’s, the day I turned twelve.

There was no big gathering, there were no presents, there wasn’t even a card; but this day did not only go down as my greatest birthday, it also became one of my most cherished childhood memories, one I’d firmly clutch and keep close to my core, willfully bestowing upon it a hopeful symbolism I’d fervently cling to for many years. Nothing outwardly profound occurred that day, but I soaked up the affection, basked in the warmth of security and inclusion. These sensations would carry me through the next couple of seasons in my life, leading me to feel valued. To someone outside it may seem like a rather boring and average day; but it profoundly impacted my perspective of my step-father. From this day forward, I fell back on this memory as assurance to myself that he was a man with a big selfless heart and, more importantly, that I was relevant to him.