Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Fine Line

When I wrote that blog entry about my mom a month ago, I had no way of knowing that 23 days later, she would be gone forever. None of us, including her, had any warning that there was a civil war quietly taking place inside her body. She complained of a cold, initially, and was diagnosed with pneumonia the day after Mother’s Day. Eleven days later, she was checked into the hospital. By the next weekend, the doctors were saying she might not make it. I booked a flight to Tucson and arrived to find that she had been moved to the Intensive Care Unit. She was intubated and sedated, a Sleeping Beauty in a hospital bed. A biopsy of her liver revealed the shocking truth: she had cancer; it had spread extensively; it was rapidly shutting down her major organs. The next day, my family said our one-sided goodbyes to her, and removed her from life support. She took a handful of breaths on her own, and then died.

Right now, the cold, hard facts are about all I can express. Words fail. For someone who works through her feelings via words, this is a tough pill to swallow in itself. I have no doubt that losing Mom will color my writing for the rest of my life. I know I will examine this experience in microscopic detail. I will pound out my shifting emotions and contorting thoughts on a keyboard. I will look to a blinking cursor on a white screen and search for answers, because that is what I do. But for right now, it is simply too painful.  

However, this blog has become important to me, and I do not want it to stay dormant for too long. My drive to follow my passion has been renewed by this experience, not snuffed out. So, until I can bring myself to create new material that is appropriate for sharing, I’d like to put forth a piece I completed a few months ago. Like After Innocence, that other very intimate piece I wrote, this one concerns events that unfolded while I was in high school. Those four years are such a treasure trove of… unusual memories and experiences; it’s hard not to return to that time again and again in my writing.

Thanks for your patience and for the well-wishes I’ve already received from so many of you. I promise to get back into the swing of things as soon as I am able.

Photo by John Thornton

Each time Ms. Walsh raised her arms to emphasize a point or write on the dry-erase board, the sweat marks came into view. It was always a bit of a surprise. She was a well-put-together woman with short silver hair, impeccable make-up, and a modest, mature wardrobe. I always thought the mole above her lip gave her an air of gentility. My classmates and I would be rapt in concentration, trying to decipher the mystifying combination of letters and numbers known as Algebra, when gasp! there they’d be, two damp circles on her silk blouse. It wasn’t unreasonable that a grown woman living in a desert climate would have pit stains, but as a high school teacher, Ms. Walsh was not allowed to have outward displays of bodily function and get away with it. Most students giggled into their hands as soon as her back was turned.  

As a fellow sweater, you might think that I’d feel some sort of kinship with Ms. Walsh, but in actuality she made me uncomfortable. She displayed her damp pits so cavalierly, whereas I exhausted a lot of energy hiding my little issue beneath baggy layers of clothes and the straps of my backpack. I kept my arms straight down by my sides like a penguin, afraid to even raise my hand to answer a question in class. Each time my classmates laughed at her overly active sweat glands, they were also laughing at me.

One day as I sat there, taking notes and willing Ms. Walsh to put her arms down with my mind, I felt something tiny and sharp puncture the fabric of my shirt. It pushed into my back and was quickly removed. Figuring the person behind me had accidentally brushed the jagged edge of their spiral notebook against me, I ignored it. Then it happened again. Puzzled, I turned around and looked at the person sitting behind me. He made eye contact and held my gaze. I saw a mechanical pencil in his hand, perched in the position it must have been in when he poked me. Still convinced it was an accident, I returned my attention to the front of the room. Then I felt him tracing circles slowly around my back and pushing the pencil lead into me again. I glanced back and he grinned. When I got home from school that day, I took off my t-shirt and looked at the back of it – there were faint pencil marks. I examined my back in the mirror and was shocked to see red, swollen dots on my skin.

The next day I gingerly took my seat in front of him. After about ten minutes, I felt the pencil lead prick my back. I tried scooting up in my chair to passively signal that he should stop, but he just reached further, poking me slowly, but repeatedly. Past the fabric and into my skin, past the fabric and into my skin. It hurt a little, but it also felt... kind of good? Like when someone is braiding your hair and accidentally pulls a bit too hard. I never told him to stop. I never said a word.

As the semester wore on, there were many days when I sat in front of him and absolutely nothing unusual happened, but there were many days that he… penciled me. It became an odd and silent ritual of ours. As soon as I felt the lead against me, my pulse quickened and I waited for that little, familiar stab. He would sometimes build up tension with long, gentle strokes before finally sinking the sharp tip into my flesh. There was always a satisfying pop as the lead penetrated the fabric of my shirt. We sometimes spent entire class periods this way, and I’d stumble into the hall at the ring of the bell, exhausted from the physical and mental restraint this activity demanded. When he decided to hurt me, I was filled with a mixture of dread and excitement. When he ignored me, I was relieved and sad to not have his attention.

Our desks were not discreetly positioned. In fact, we were right in the middle of the classroom and anyone who cared to notice could see what was happening. A few times, I saw girls looking at us with questioning eyes, but we just ignored them and continued our routine. On some level, I’m sure he knew that his actions could be read as bullying, but he seemed compelled to do these things, unable to control himself. I naively imagined he could sense the strange satisfaction I was beginning to get out of what was transpiring between us. These interactions were unexpectedly awakening something masochistic in me. Because of my inexperience with the opposite sex, I was excited by this perceived connection to him, by the fact that I had any connection to a guy. It made me the perfect “victim.” He could have done more to me and I wouldn’t have stopped him. I lay in bed at night and searched for meaning in the action of his hand creeping over the invisible barrier between our desks. I wondered if he was interested in me in a romantic way, but when we saw each other in the halls he wouldn’t even make eye contact.

I never told anyone what was happening, maybe for fear that they would put a stop to it or for fear of retribution. Perhaps someone finally did say something to Ms. Walsh or maybe she noticed these strange interactions herself, but mid-way through the semester, she announced that our seating assignments would be changing. Everyone was shuffled around and I was placed in the back row while he was placed near the front, another boy seated in front of him. As I made my way to my new desk, I looked to him, panicking. He didn’t look back at me. He took his seat and greeted his new neighbors with a smile. I sat in stunned silence. I knew that it was the end, that he would never touch me or speak to me again.

As the lesson began and Ms. Walsh began writing equations on the board, I opened my notebook and began taking notes. I felt a bead of sweat roll down my side and was finally comforted by the fact that Ms. Walsh was sweating a little, too.


  1. You are so brave to talk about such raw experiences so honestly. It is one of your gifts to be able to unravel life's knots with words, and in doing so, you help me unravel mine a little. Your blog reminds me that you're not just my sister, but a complex woman brimming with perceptive insights and cunning observations coupled with a smirking wit and somewhat sick sense of humor- wonderful qualities I so often look for in fellow humans and so rarely find. In my opinion, this was the best piece of writing I think I've ever read from you. Mom would be happy to know that she inspired you to take firmer hold of the things that define you as the magnificent creature you are.

  2. Oh, sister. Thank you for your kind words. I definitely put more time into this tiny piece of writing than anything I've posted here thus far. Once upon a time, I wanted to try and get it published somewhere, but I never got around to sending it out, and I don't see that happening any time soon. With all that's happened with Mom, I thought, "Why wait? Publish it yourself!" I imagine that will be my attitude about a lot of things in the months to come. Your support means the world to me. <3