On an evening in late autumn when I was seventeen, I stood on Harbor boulevard barefoot, searching for a motel that would cost thirty dollars. My feet were swollen from our long walk from the bus depot, and the weight of my pregnant body had caused my feet to go numb, sending pain up both my legs like continuous needling. The bus had dropped us off 3 miles away, which I had convinced my husband during our bus ride it was only a ten-minute walk. I unfolded my crumbled map from my pocket and placed my finger over the red star that marked Disneyland, which looked somewhat close to where we were standing. I silently prayed it was not another 3-mile walk away to Disneyland tomorrow, promising my husband we were very close to our destination. I began to doubt our plan of one full day of amusement park rides and walking for 12 hours, I wasn’t sure I could be on my feet for another second. We chose the motel with a sign that read Candy Cane Inn, despite its missing letters on the billboard, offering colorful doors of chipping red and white paint. My husband reluctantly agreed since there was a Denny’s across the street, which matched our low budget for our honeymoon. The motel desk clerk asked us if we wanted to rent the room all night or by the hour. I kept my horrified expression to myself.
I wanted to explain to the desk clerk that we had just been married that morning and rode a bus for 2 hours to reach Disneyland. I was prepared to show him our marriage certificate, also folded up and crumbled in my pocket, proving it was legal for us teenagers to share a bed. My husband’s expression silenced me, so I stood there dangling my rubber flip-flops from one hand, trying to disguise and hide my bare feet under the counter.
I only ordered a plate of sliced tomatoes for dinner, salting them to my own special taste. The puzzled look on the Denny’s waitress went away after asking me several times if there was anything else I’d like to eat. My husband finished his “grand slam breakfast” for dinner, without looking up at me once. I felt a sense of euphoria ingesting the salty tomatoes, their juices quenching and filling my stomach, reminding me of the summers I spent with my grandfather, eating tomatoes off the vine like an apple.
My grandfather had moved to California during the 1920s, a family of farmers from the Midwest. California was the land of sunshine and opportunity back then, there was no smoggy brown haze blocking the view of the San Gabriel Mountains. They owned a tiny house with a wrap-around porch upon 20 acres of orange groves that extended past the dirt roads and touched the hills. His mother made homemade biscuits each morning from scratch, stocking his pail full for his daily journey out until sunset, picking oranges by the baskets every day. He told me stories about the orange groves he had harvested many times, only a few miles away from where Disneyland is today. We picked tomatoes off his plants each morning, our sunrise ritual that sacred summer, letting the garden hose run for over an hour and water the rows as we spoke. I was always barefoot, feeling the wet dirt between my toes giggling, as I curiously squatted over the tomato plants, inspecting each one and smelling the fresh earth of his garden. Grandfather taught me which tomatoes were red and ripe to eat, he instinctively knew by feel and touch, as I couldn’t confirm until I took a bite.
Our door would not lock at the Candy Cane Inn, the door knob hanging on barely by two loose screws working their way out. There was also no bar of soap in the bathroom. I searched for those little bottles of shampoo neatly placed next to the folded hand towels on the sink, with no such luck either. The TV only provided static and a bent coat hanger placed on top. I know I was stalling for time in the motel room, looking at my husband already positioned on the bed. He was laying on top of the thin bedspread, kicking his shoes off violently on the floor. I knew what a couple was supposed to do on their honeymoon night, but I was filled with fear, unable to move close to the bed. I pretended to look through my knapsack for pajamas with my back to him, as I was yanked down suddenly by my arms beside him. He was not careful about my belly hitting the mattress face-first.
I quietly asked him if we could just sleep for the night, maybe I would feel much better and in the mood in the morning, but he was lost in a world of his own, attacking my body as though it was his conquest and divine right.
I reasoned with myself that this was not rape, and that he didn’t need my consent as his wife. I laid there motionless in submission, yet screaming inside myself, too loudly to stop. I winced away the pain with every breath, my fingers holding onto the corner of the shabby sheets, taking my mind somewhere else, anywhere else but the chipped paint motel room that was rented by the hour.
I laid there for hours crying on the soiled dingy bedspread of the motel bed as my husband snored loudly in a deep sleep. The bedspread would not cover me as it hung off the bed on his side. I was too afraid to reach for the blanket, even though I longed for any sense of security, it was too great of a risk to wake him. I made sure not to make any noise as I cried, something I had perfected as a child.
How much tenderness the word child speaks, when it's written out loud on paper for the first time. Trauma seems to have a mysterious way of creeping in quietly through the cracks. I was not even close to my teenage years, just a tiny and little frame with messy long brown curls, when I was sexually molested as a child. I learned to be invisible and silent, never knowing how
to express my emotions in front of anybody. Not a soul. I was raped by the time I was fourteen, as trauma continued to follow and open my door. A repetitive violent cycle, I would never escape. No one has ever closed the door behind it.
Even in the darkness, I saw my face blotchy and red from all my crying, feeling the damp pillow beneath me. I was overwhelmed with feeling homesick, yet I couldn’t remember a place that felt like my home. If I could escape the motel room, where would I run away with my swollen bare feet in the night? I imagined myself running down Harbor boulevard as the bright lights of oncoming traffic blinded me and honked at the dark figure of a teenager trying to escape. I wanted to wash my body, shower and rinse away the filth but I felt defeated once again, knowing there was no soap or towels in the bathroom. As I closed my eyes my mind freely began to explore, I envisioned Julia Roberts, her long and untamed curls of brown hair similar to my own.
She starred in the movie, Sleeping With the Enemy, made in 1991, only 6 months before I got married. In the film, Julia Roberts plays Laura Burney, a woman and victim of domestic violence from her seemingly good-looking husband. After faking her death in order to flee from her violent husband, Martin, Laura leaves her husband and moves to Iowa, where she adopts a new identity and starts dating a drama teacher at the local high school. Martin soon discovers that Laura isn't really dead, so he tracks her to Iowa and begins to stalk her. He finds Laura and the high school teacher and confronts them, forcing her to fight for her life once again. Laura has a gun, and she shoots and kills Martin.
Julia Roberts had devised a plan to escape, saving money and learning to swim over the course of many months. As she only had moments to escape after her treacherous swim in the ocean, her packed knapsack had a wig for disguise and a change of clothes. She took a greyhound bus across the country in pursuit of changing her identity, not leaving a trace behind so she thought. She had flushed her wedding ring in the bathroom, the last object seen in Cape Cod, but the heavy gold band remained, sitting at the base of the toilet. Arriving in a small town in Iowa, she was able to rent an old Victorian house with flower pots in the windows, a rocking chair placed on the wrap-around porch, and sipping her iced lemonade as the sun went slowly down each night. Despite painting and fixing up her house, rebuilding her life with a new hunky love interest next door, baking apple pies from the fallen apples from a nearby tree, she must confront and face her violent husband for the biggest fight for her life. He will never stop looking for her and find her, wherever she tries to go and change her identity. Not even the handsome boyfriend can rescue Julia. She must rescue and save herself. It all comes down to one moment, one choice, her pulling the trigger and ending his life.
I knew the fights we had throughout our twenty-five-year marriage were not normal and too violent in nature. I understood that doors in our house were not meant to have holes in each of them. I understood that a man should not physically harm a woman, and as I write those words, I have already corrected myself. A human being alone, she, he, or they should not physically harm another human being period. I don’t want my permanent record or history of marriage sealed tight in a closed and locked binary box. It is never okay to hurt a living breathing soul. I understood that sex with your husband was not supposed to hurt, it was not supposed to happen without permission and consent. I tried to pack up the trunk of my car many times with all of our belongings and as much clothing as we could spare. I would drive over to my mother's house to escape, watching my kids eat their dinner in a circle on her apartment floor. She didn’t own a kitchen table but ate her meals on a small folding tray. I would spread out a blanket and say we were having a picnic at grandma’s place, as they stared away at the cartoons on the T.V. My mother's advice always consisted of honoring your husband as God commands. It wasn’t required to love him, she said, his love was bringing home a paycheck each week. As it grew closer to bedtime, I lost my courage of leaving him permanently. I knew I would have to go back home, my kids needed the comfort of their beds and nightlights, and my mother's apartment floor would not suffice. My husband would unload our packed bags from the car without saying a word.
My marriage was over the minute I decided to enroll in college. This had been a forbidden topic my husband would never discuss. I didn't ask his permission to enroll. I just did. How incredulous it seems to me now that I strolled across the campus so freely in my 40s with “twenty-something” year olds, and took my seat in my English 101 class. Many of the students thought I was close in age to them and I wasn't prepared to be “hit on” by such young and good -looking people of all genders.
The Professor announced we would not be using any computers, nor consulting google, and everything was to be handwritten. We were going to actually learn to write, from our own brains and our gifts of imagination. He was an older gentleman and always wore a bow tie and suit to class. The syllabus read that he had a PhD in English and he had worked for the New York Times for 30 years as a journalist, before retiring and teaching at a local community college. I looked around the classroom at all the students like deer with their eyes crossed in headlights. He asked us to do a free writing exercise on that first day of class. We were to write an introduction about ourselves and pick a number, write solidly for 15 minutes about why we chose that number, never dropping our pencil. He said if you cannot think of anything, then simply write the words nothing over and over.
I feverishly wrote away, my mind moving faster than my pencil, and had produced close to 6 pages when the time was finished. Feeling proud of myself prematurely, we were then called upon to read what we had written out loud. That was entirely different. I had never learned to speak out loud in front of ANYBODY my entire life, I had always felt the safety and protection to express myself and endlessly write, behind my words.
I stood there shaking, my hands trembling and crumbling the paper as I heard my voice speak out loud for the first time. As I read my paper explaining why I had chosen the number seventeen, of course because I was married at that age. I went on to announce to the class that I had seven children, I was forty-two years old, married for twenty-four years, and then I paused for the longest ten seconds of my life. I spoke a little louder with my next breath. I’ve decided that I’m going to file for divorce, and my name is Cat. Not Mary Catherine. I prefer to be called Cat from this point forward. And just like that, I discovered my own voice within and my new identity was born.
My escape and new identity I had been planning over the years was much different than Julia Roberts. I detested guns and knew I could never hold the cold metal pistol and fire away in my own hands. I already knew how to swim quite proficiently, and I had no plans to jump overboard and swim to safety. I did not need a wig to disguise my identity or need to board a Greyhound bus to travel. My ex-husband knew I was moving away with his children for several months before, but he was too busy with his new girlfriends to stop by on the last day to say goodbye. I knew he wouldn’t search to find us, claiming his undying obsessive love like Martin had done to Laura, Julia Roberts's character.
I rented the biggest size u haul truck, 24 feet it advertised in large black letters, deciding I could drive it 3000 miles in moving away from Houston. It took my children and I only 6 hours to load all my furniture and boxes, enduring the 105 degrees of Texas heat. We had very little furniture, dwindling down to only our beds, mostly there were boxes lining up the walls of the truck. I stood back and viewed our hard work, wondering why I was spending a lot of money I could barely afford, to transport cardboard across the states.
I closed the truck door, slamming it in place and locked it tightly. I searched the faces of my children, we were all drenched in sweat and soaking clothes, as they patiently stood there watching me. I suggested we go swimming one last time in our pool at the apartment complex. I was barefoot, the pavement burning my feet as I ran towards the pool. I could hear the laughter of my kids behind me, chasing me to the pool to get there first. My youngest daughter began to fret and yelled out to me, “we don’t have our swimsuits to wear, mom!” I scooped her up with one arm and jumped into the cool waters below us, with our clothes still on. “We don’t need our swimsuits, my love.” Her golden hair streaked by the sun and swept behind her wet, she giggled and spit out water at me. We swam in the pool until sunset, talking and laughing, excited about our journey ahead. I was beginning my new identity as a single mom, no longer living in violence, and beginning with the freedom for myself and children that Julia Roberts never thought about before her own escape.
"Lakeshore Tableaus" | Rosemary Ford
One of my earliest memories of the Chicago Lakefront is standing in Millennium Park at dusk as the sun disappears behind the squat buildings of the far west side, just visible between the skyscrapers of Michigan Avenue. Staring up into your face, smiling because you love my smile and you make me smile, I slip out of heeled sandals to better appreciate the cool, damp grass, and to ground myself in this moment so that I can always remember the gleaming surface of the metal orchestra shell as its lights change color as the darkness creeps in from the waterfront and is reflected in your eyes.
August 29, 2016
You and the Pumpkin meet me at the coffee shop at the end of my shift, and we cut east past the Hilton, onto Michigan Avenue, heading north to Millennium Park. We pass the outdoor dance floor in Grant Park with its weather faded tiles of blues, grays, and taupe set in a herringbone pattern; pass The Bowman and The Spearman with their majestic war bonnets, naked and weaponless astride their mounts; pass the old man playing chess for money outside of the Memorial Court and the hidden fountain of the Spirit of the Great Lakes, the pedestaled lions guarding the entrance to the Art Institute, and the bucket boys pounding their plastic drums for change with beaten drumsticks beneath the lion's watchful gaze. Sometimes I imagine their stone tails swaying indolently back and forth behind them in the Summer heat.
We finally approach the Crown Fountains, two mini skyscrapers made of glass bricks displaying a rotating collection of strangers, their faces 50 feet tall, grinning, stoic, staring at each other across the distance of a reflective pool, blinking, breathing under a cascade of water. You sit on a park bench, watching as the Pumpkin and I run screaming, laughing, splashing through the shallow pool with the other children; tourists, Loop residents, Latino kids from Pilsen and the far west side, a few black kids from the south. Fewer black kids maybe because the adults aren’t often seen relaxing in the Loop, only cleaning, serving, panhandling. Maybe also because some mothers aren’t like you, willing to wash chlorinated water from the curls that are quickly shrinking under the cooling saturation; willing to detangle the naps that result after a hard day’s play in the water and the sun, after it disappears behind the false horizon created by the squat buildings of the far west side, just visible between the skyscrapers of Michigan Avenue.
June 2, 2017
I’m leaving the coffee shop one late morning in June, cutting east past the Hilton, crossing the five lanes of traffic on Michigan Avenue and into Grant Park on the other side. Seating myself on the lip of the 8th Street Fountain, I remove my glasses before reclining on my elbows, closing my eyes and turning my face to the sun. I lie there for long, uncomfortable minutes, the sparkling deposits of the pink stone digging into my bony elbows, the gentle warmth of Spring too precious to let go of with the oncoming brutality of Summer.
I lie there a moment longer before sitting up, putting my glasses back on, pulling a book from my messenger bag, turning my back to the fountain, the glare reflecting from the surface of its water and the loose change in its depths, shielding the pages of my novel from the spray.
August 16, 2017
Lor’Enyah, my barista coworker, tells me that she and some of the ladies from her church Women’s Group are going to attend one of the Chicago Parks District movie nights in Millennium park, so naturally, I invited us along. Taking a break from steaming milk and pulling shots for customers, I step into the back and call your Grandmother, asking her to drop you at the coffee shop after my shift, and could she please pack some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, juice, snacks, and a blanket? Your Granddad drops you off a little early in jeans and a pink plaid shirt, so I make you a fruity tea lemonade and stow you in a window seat to people watch until the end of my shift, then we cut east past the Hilton out onto Michigan Avenue to hop the number 3 or 4 bus north to Millennium Park and the Orchestra Shell.
Lor’Enyah is waiting for us at the entrance, her dark skin absorbing the light of the sun even as the big coils of her black hair reflect it, and we pass through event security before searching out the vendors offering free pints of ice cream before staking a spot on the cool lawn. We spread out Lor’Enyah’s blanket, lay out our movie snacks, and set our empty backpacks out as markers to claim spots for the church ladies stuck at their 9 to 5’s. They trickle in singly and in pairs, using cell phones to announce their arrival and our group of waving arms as true north to navigate the ever-expanding quilt of blankets overtaking the lawn.
We are a diverse group of young women gathered on a Summer’s evening to talk about work, church, and family; pass the chips and dip, please, and where did you get this salsa? The movie starts as the sun disappears behind the squat buildings of the far west side, just visible between the skyscrapers of Michigan Avenue, and you settle against me under the fleece blanket as a group of women who look like your father help launch a man who looks like your mother into space, and before Alan Shepard has burnt his way back into Earth’s atmosphere and splashed into the Atlantic Ocean, you have fallen asleep in my lap, hogging the blanket.
I am on the phone with you after work, standing on the terrace overlooking the 8th Street Fountain, but my gaze is to the east, skipping over the Metra railroad tracks below, over the verdant lawns and rounded treetops lining Lake Shore Drive, drawn to the water, the uncomplicated horizon where the sun has left for the day and the darkness has yet to rise. I know that even as the words simmer up from inside you breaking past the guard of your lips and into my ear that I will not remember them, only the sound of your voice (smooth like your high thread count sheets, and cool as them too, when we slip between them at the beginning of the night) and the damage they cause inside of me as I hold them too close, too long.
July 31, 2018
Your mother dropped you off for a week this Summer, hoping that I would teach you about life in a major city, and I have spent most of that week getting up at 3:30 in the morning to steam pitchers of milk to the consistency of melted ice cream and pull shots of espresso that look like caramelized molasses before returning home to power nap before we hit the streets.
A light rain has settled in for the afternoon, but it’s Movie Night in Millennium Park and we Washington girls never let a little rain stop us from playing outside, so we pack a blanket into my Army-issued backpack along with a plastic tarp to protect our blanket from the wet grass, and we head out, riding the 67th street bus east to the Redline, and the Redline north into the Loop. We stop by Osaka Sushi on Michigan Avenue to select a variety of hand-rolled maki for our al fresco dinner garnished with pickled ginger shaved into translucent ribbons spooled into little rosettes next to a small clump of wasabi, the rose’s petal.
We sit on bar stools in front of a window facing Van Buren, you reading the copy of The Help I gave you, me watching the office workers hurry east and west in the light rain that has subsided to a drizzle, and even that has stopped before we leave the shop, crossing to the east side of Michigan Avenue and continuing north to the park. The afternoon heat has returned and burned the dew from the expansive lawn of the Orchestra pavilion, but the sky is still overcast with the harbingers of rain as we spread the tarp and layer our blanket on top. With you settled in, I visit some of my coworkers at a local branch of my coffee shop, fueling up with three shots of espresso over ice for me, and a cup of hot tea for you, and as I approach our spot on the lawn, seeing your oak colored hair flowing over your shoulder as you slouch over your book, I wonder at how you resemble me at that age with a book in your bag every place you go, and your nose in it at every possible moment of the day, and now you’re reading on the same buses and trains as me when I was 15 and Aunt Beverly would kick me out of the condo on weekend mornings to explore the city, not unlike I have done to you. And as dusk approaches and the steel gray of the Orchestra Shell melds with the sky and the opening credits of Wall-E appear on the screen, it occurs to me that your earliest memory of this place will include me. Maybe the sushi dinner we ate on the lawn, or reading the book I gave you while I was fetching mint tea and espresso, or how I fell asleep beneath the Chicago sky as the sun disappeared behind the squat buildings of the far west side, just visible between the skyscrapers of Michigan Avenue while darkness creeps in from over the waterfront.
May 25, 2020
It’s your birthday and the end of a long Memorial Day weekend, and I volunteered to go into the shop and make cold brew for tomorrow’s shift. I text you to see if you want to join Sugar and me for a walk in the park before packing her up and driving into the Loop with the window down so she can stick her fluffy head out as we speed east on the Dan Ryan Expressway.
I let us into the store, allowing Sugar to explore the empty café which is devoid of furniture in these early days of pandemic life where customers place orders from outside of the store at a register stationed at the north entrance, and pick them up at the exit to the south. I weigh out five pounds of beans sourced from Africa and medium roasted earlier this week in California, grind them, and saturate them with filtered water before mixing with a whisk, watching Sugar from the corner of my eye as butterscotch-colored crema rises like a soufflé on the top layer of the coffee, giving testament to its freshness and enveloping me in the aroma of chocolate. She is lying by the front door watching the masked passersby stop and stare and wave to her with her big black eyes shining like lodestones, and the 70 pounds of white fluff that is her body shining and luminous in the shadowed confines of the store like a mound of freshly whipped cream. Settling into the cool silence behind the counter where we have so often stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the silver hulk of the La Marzocco as we dominated the morning rush, our whispered commentary on the state of the customers overcrowding the café barely audible beneath the hiss of steaming milk, the gentle hum of espresso pulling, and the low buzzing drone of the burr grinder pressing our signature blend of beans into a portafilter after crushing them into a fine powder, I smile: You and I were #BaristaGoals.
Finished with the cold brew, I make us two iced chai tea lattes, flat, with oat milk, set the alarm, and leave the store with Sugar, locking up behind us. We stand at the corner looking first to the south and then to the west to the nearest transit hubs, but you come from the east, waving at us from across the street in a multicolored sundress and a wide headband, so unlike the neutral beigey brown and olive tones that you usually wear. I hand you a chai and the three of us cut east past the Hilton and Michigan Avenue into Grant Park and the 8th Street Fountain where the water has been turned off for this first approaching Summer of Covid-19, none of us knowing that four hundred miles to the west, a man has died in the streets, and this will be the last peaceful stroll for all of us.
Happy birthday, Lor’Enyah.
May 30, 2020, Morning
We meet Sharon and her new dog, Charlie, in the park. It does not go well. The miniature pinscher mix isn’t like the dearly departed Riley, who carried himself with a crotchety dignity that was appropriate for a gentleman of his advanced years, even as he helped teach you how to walk a human with a leash. Charlie’s high-strung aggression even in the face of your Zen puffiness leaves much to be desired, and all of us are relieved when Sharon takes him back up to her condo before joining us for a walk through Grant Park. He was neutered recently. I wonder, do you think his emasculation might have something to do with his behavior?
We climb the stairs to the terrace overlooking the 8th Street Fountain to the west and the Metra train tracks to the east, ambling south along the promenade, moving in and out of the late spring sunshine as you stop every few feet to sniff at concrete pillars and curbs and here and there to mark your own territory. Crossing the bridge just north of Roosevelt Road, moving further east and pressing towards the lake, I wonder if you notice the tension building between Sharon and I when she stops talking about how happy she is to be working from home, and starts talking about the riots and looting taking place across the country.
Generally speaking, I don’t engage my white friends in race-based political conversations. I believe that those who wish to be better educated on those issues will seek the information on their own, much in the same manner that every person pursues that which they truly desire. I often feel that these conversations are initiated with me in times of social upheaval and civil unrest, when my friends may be feeling guilty for the times they saw something and said nothing, or might even have been active participants. Whatever the case, after having often been the only black person in the room, the building, the town, I have learned to not tokenize myself or to allow myself to be tokenized; to not allow myself to be oversimplified and reduced to the color of my skin, to be broken down and stripped of my individuality, my identity as a beloved daughter, cherished sister, adored aunt, obsessive book hoarder, skilled oyster shucker, and your lifelong companion. And so while Sharon goes on and on about how she understands why people who look like me are upset, she doesn’t see how wanton destruction of property will solve anything, and I listen, neither condemning nor validating her perspective as the Ambassador of Blackness might, but allowing her the time and space to feel what she feels, as her friend, all the while wishing that I could trade places with you, sniffing at the piles of fresh horse manure left behind by the CPD mounted officers patrolling the park.
May 30, 2020, Evening
After a long walk through the park with Sharon, we meet with Lor’Enyah and do it all over again, with the politics, but without the tension. It seems that politics are unavoidable today; we meet them head-on as we pass the same pile of horse shit on the sidewalk heading north on Columbus Drive, which has been overrun by Black Lives Matter protestors coming from the north on a collision course with police officers in safety helmets pressing from the south.
There is a part of me that wants to join them; the part that has always known that I was born about a thousand years too late to be a pirate queen, and too early to channel my inner Tina Turner and rule my own Thunder Dome with a will as steely as my chainmail mini dress. But I am not alone, and the part of me that has loved you since I brought you home three years ago and is responsible for your happiness and wellbeing is bigger than the angry voice in my core that is comfortable with violence and spoiling for a fight, so the three of us turn west on Jackson, pick up lunch at Devil Dog’s, and claim a cool patch of grass in a small park off of Printer’s Row, Lor’Enyah and I talking about ex-boyfriends and how stupid it is for men to allow marriage-minded women to get past thirty without locking us down. We both agree that once you’ve passed that landmark and realize that you didn’t die from being single and childfree, the entirety of your future and the world opens up before you, and it’s almost like being a child again: We’re asking ourselves, what do we want to be when we grow up?
Neither of us are sure, but as you lie there on the grass watching squirrels that you are too tired to chase, we suddenly realize that helicopters have begun to circle overhead and thunderheads of smoke are visible to the north. While we were reclining in our secluded glen the protests have turned violent with the coming of the dark which has crept in from the east, and as the sun disappears beyond the false horizon to the far west side, the bridges connecting the Loop to the rest of the city, to the light, have been drawn up, corralling protesters, residents, and law enforcement as surely as the walls of the Thunder Dome.
July 24, 2020
We meet outside of a neighborhood market on State street, taking turns holding Sugar’s leash as you first go inside for a bottle of wine, and then I choose a six-pack of beer based on the label that speaks to me this evening. You brought tacos, and I ordered sushi, and together with Sugar, our spirits, your blanket and my tarp, we crossed the street into Grant Park, heading south towards Roosevelt Road to find a patch of grass for our picnic in the waning hours of the afternoon. A few couples and groups picnic nearby, admiring Sugars’ cotton candy mass almost blindingly white in the summer sun after her morning with the groomer, and there are college students in hammocks tied to the trees at the perimeter of the lawn.
We settle in, and for the first time in a long time, this summer is almost normal for the three of us. I feared for your safety in your West Loop dorm during those riotous nights of protest when the sacking of the Magnificent Mile moved west towards the smaller businesses surrounding your college campus. I feared for myself in the days to follow, when CPD required proof of residency or employment before allowing people into the Loop. I wonder if Sharon ventured beyond the Loop that week or the next. Do you suppose that she was stopped as she was coming and going, made to validate her presence in this space, to prove that she belongs, made to justify her existence? You were with us that night as the bridges were drawn up on the western front of the Loop, and you stood by as Sharon withdrew her friendship from all three of us. Sometimes the world tries to add to the weight many of us carry as we go through life, tries to make us feel the color of our skin and the circumstances of our race as a burden, as an anchor staking us to the beach as the tide rolls in over our heads.
I wish that she hadn’t taken up that burden that perfect morning in May, that she had not carried it home with her from the park, but here we are, two black women and Sugar, laughing, drinking, dancing until the summer sun has set to the west and darkness has crept in from over the water to the east, bringing with it the balmy heat of night, the sliver of a honeyed moon and the corrupted glow of light polluted stars to shine down on the lesser darkness of our upturned faces as the wine runs out, 11 o’clock approaches, and Sugar starts to snore on the cooling grass of the lawn.
"On Nostalgia" | Bella Schilling
I seldom remember moments from my childhood, or even moments from mere years ago, and sincerely miss the feeling that those moments gifted me. Whether it was the pride at age five after showing my dad how long I could hold my breath underneath the shallow salts of the Puget Sound, or the strength after picking up my diploma from the high school I once thought would never end; I had never found the benefit in blissfully dwelling over a moment that might not ever be present again.
When I consider the significant memories of my past, they’re ones that have had the most impression shaping the person I am now. The tragedy of a childhood pet dying while you’re away for college, the bliss of driving alone for the first time after getting your license, the care of a friend sending a song that made them think of you; each memory is slowly building us into who we presently are and who we are meant to become. But what memories am I choosing to feel nostalgic over and which am I ignoring completely? Are the memories I associate with nostalgia the ones that didn’t impact my existing character but wish they had?
I can only equate this feeling to abysmal group projects in high school. You have certain group members who are seriously lacking their end of the stick, but you’re faced with a delicate dilemma: You end up doing the entire project by yourself, without telling the teacher that your classmates had nil to contribute, yet your classmates still willingly accept the credit. Deep down, you and your classmates know that you’re the one who did everything but it’s easier for everyone if you keep the details unknown. The same goes for memories, anyone outside of our consciousness (habitually our therapists and parents) can candidly tell us what experiences they think have shaped us as if it’s fact. We get to decide who we are and what brought us here. Say it with me: We get to decide who we are and what brought us here.
I met a man on a train last summer while traveling back home from visiting family in Oregon. For his sake, I’ll refer to him as “K”. The image of his scuffed brown cowboy boots and navy-blue Dickie’s hat sitting next to me is still imprinted in my brain like an open wound that will never completely close. He offered me his spare Jack Daniel’s shooter and showed me the 35mm photographs he had taken of his grandfather's dog “Whiskey” the weekend prior in Medford; I could have sworn K stole every phrase he said to me straight from a Nicholas Sparks novel that I had yet to read:
You look beautiful in the sunset’s light...
Let's listen to our wedding songs together...
You’re an enigma to me...
Where have you been all my life?
After he got off the train, he stood outside the window we were once staring together out of and yelled “maybe I’ll see you again” to which I rebutted: “maybe you won’t.” The four hours I spent with K were diaphanous, we both knew that we would never see each other again and didn’t bother to dwell on it during the time we had together. That was the first time in my life that I had been face-to-face with my own fantasy—one that I had dreamt about as a young girl— and felt completely disconnected from the promise that I once thought it held. We both would take the feeling we had given each other and never let it go, letting it live in our subconscious forever to remember the infrequent, arbitrary romances of life.
There are moments my current self is constantly experiencing that I already feel will have an impact on the development of my being later on. These moments are hard to swallow—like when you’re a child and you know the bigger pill will take away your headache faster but being
faced with the pill itself is terrifyingly new and therefore inadequate. Your mother will reassure you that you won’t choke on the pill, but you know that by swallowing this pill you’ll have opened a door for many more pills to come. You won’t be able to say “I don’t want to take this pill; I’ve never swallowed a big pill, I’m scared” anymore. You’ll still be scared (terrified, actually), but for what reason? It is in this growth where you are face to face with impact while it’s still unfolding, a conscious awareness that you rarely find.
In moments of nostalgia, we’re all just breathing remembered air. We’re inhaling the feeling we gained from the moment, or the person, and exhaling the expectation of it ever happening again. Nostalgia is a difficult feeling to hold on to, it reminds us that no feeling or memory is promised forever, if at all, and that the subtle tastes we get are worth the loss it comes with.
"Lần cuối mà nó lắc đuôi (The Last Time He Wagged His Tail)" | Long Trần
I fear the dead, for my ông nội (paternal grandfather) was the first dead body I touched. It was like a movie scene. The boy’s body jerked into an on-and-off seizure. With his labored breathing, we tried to comfort him with our touch. Petting his dirty blonde hair, we kneeled down to his level. Some of us calm, thinking this would subside, mẹ (mother) started to weep. “The boy is known to be a survivor.” “He’s scrappy, he’ll be fine!” His tail suddenly began to periodically wag. I grew increasingly concerned. Mẹ panicked as always. It was the first time I saw em gái (younger sister) worried. Why was his tail wagging like this? Is this the end? Is he dying? Is he wagging his tail in pain or joy knowing we are here comforting him in his last moments drawing breath?
Em gái barged into my room. “Wake up, anh (older brother).”
Annoyed, I rolled over. “Bruh, why?”
“There’s something wrong with Mocha.”
I quickly ran downstairs and turned to my left. My Chihuahua, Lulu, sat up at attention on the couch, looking towards the kitchen area. My heart sank. Across 12 years of living in our house, Lulu and Mocha have slept together in the same bed. Keeping each other warm. Annoying each other. Being there for each other. Mocha's butt is often being used as Lulu's pillow. Mẹ once said that once the time comes, we have to separate the two dogs, friends who have been together since the beginning.
Mocha is a Yorkie. The cutest thing you'll ever meet. He looks like a literal teddy bear. The thing is, he's diabetic and went blind during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were able to pay for surgery to get his vision back, but our problems didn't end there, for we had to try to keep him alive for as long as we could. Twice a day, he sat there, letting us hold him gently and inject a big needle of insulin into his back. It wasn't easy at first to control him. Every 8 am and 8 pm quickly became rituals in our household, reserved for our "baby boy."
That ritual ended in January, the worst month of my fucking life. After my ông nội died, we thought he could hold on just a bit longer. Between Marvel movie marathons with my ba (father) and em gái, while mẹ worked the night shift, Mocha displayed a concerning lethargy. The boy is known for being hyper and annoying. He always begged for food, especially apples and cucumbers. Around this time, he just laid down on the pad we placed near the fireplace with Lulu when we binged watched movies on Disney+ or when he climbed his doggy stairs onto the couch to lay at mẹ’s feet as she and I binged watched Below Deck episodes. Suddenly, we began to seriously fear losing the cục cưng (the precious baby of the house) of our lives.
Thousands of dollars can’t buy you more time. We didn’t feel this way until the very end. Although a major investment, we didn't mind shelling out hundreds of dollars a month on prescription dog food, chewy.com orders, and trips to Value Pet Clinic, for he brought so much joy into our lives. Suddenly, our trips home from Costco were different. Mẹ and I entered the garage, carrying groceries into the house. Our eyes quickly filled with tears as we labored to conduct business as usual. Literally the worst fucking Costco trip of my life. I never cried so much in one day, ever. We knew life was never going to be the same. There would be a new quietness that would take some getting used to. Mocha’s obnoxiously loud barks and cute footsteps slowly faded into memories we were only able to experience by watching the countless Ring security camera videos and iPhone clips that exist.
In his final moments, I caressed his face and petted his head. All of us were there as his body quickly shut down. His kidney failed, for that was the only potential cause for his passing that we gathered from our previous vet visit. How did he go so fast? He survived for so long with diabetes and blindness, through the darkest time in human history. We couldn’t believe it. He was gone. The most shocking, yet beautiful death imaginable. How he managed to keep wagging his tail in such a moment of pain and despair continues to touch my heart as I, along with my family, overcame the grief of losing such a beautiful dog, for he wasn’t just a dog to us. Despite stereotypical, dog-eating jokes often directed at Asians, people have no idea what dogs mean to immigrant, refugee families like mine. Our schedule revolved around our dogs, around Mocha. Mẹ labored for him. Sacrificed her own sleep and health for him. Ended up mourning for him. Emptiness is what we felt the rest of February, for we lost more than a pet. Mẹ lost a son. Em gái and I lost an em trái (younger brother). We poured his ashes into the Cedar River to set him free, to release ourselves from the misery of burying a younger sibling. This felt like a premature death of a child, taken away from us by forces out of our control. I remember breaking down your doggy stairs around Tết (Lunar New Year). Ant Clemons’ “Better Days” became my anthem to navigate the grief of experiencing a pet death. I remember on Christmas crying about how I treated my girlfriend, the prospects of living far away from home, the fact that one I day I will have to bury my parents, and that Mocha will die someday. I will never forget when mẹ put your body in a cardboard box, em gái adorning it with your favorite toy, that being a doggy vodka bottle plushie from Costco. I will never forget how we made sure to bring Lulu to Value Pet Clinic to pay respects to you and witness us giving Mocha’s body away to be cremated. I will never forget the trip we took back several weeks later to pick up your ashes.
Mẹ came out with the premium package we had purchased for you. An imprint of your paw. A lock of your hair. A beautiful, wooden box containing you. Mẹ described how she burst into tears coming in to pick you up for the last time. Not every owner got the premium package, which is an individual cremation rather than being grouped together with other dogs. The thought of rows of ash boxes makes me sad, for not every dog was lucky enough to have owners who could afford the best for them.
When you were younger you would stand up and pray, like the farm animals that learned how to walk and speak in Animal Farm. He begged us for food, whether that be the dry-ass boiled chicken we gave you or the cucumber slices you heard us cut, you were always there impatiently waiting for crumbs to fall and food to be thrown into your mouth. What kind of dog likes apples? I regurgitated an apple slice to offer you after you rejected the solid slice mẹ offered you. Although you were so close to death, you managed to work up enough energy to eat your last apple slice before you left this cruel world.
Living among unhappy people, you managed to brighten our lives and make things feel full and eventful while there is so much suffering in our world. I will look back fondly on the little moments of when I would bế (carry like a baby) to let you go pee, for we feared you would tumble down the stairs. I held onto you like a teddy bear, like an infant I was proudly showing off to the world. Your hair is so silky smooth. Your skin is soft like a baby's butt. You are literally the cutest “forever puppy” I will ever know.
I remember when I got to push you and Lulu together in a doggy stroller around our neighborhood. Lulu is doing fine. We try to keep her on our laps and keep her company. She’s handling it better than we thought. The immediate separation we ensured helped her navigate being alone for the first time in a very long while. We take her on weekly trips to the off-leash dog park where we let her roam free in the “small and shy dog area.” You would have loved this place. I wished we could’ve brought you to more places besides expensive trips to the vet. I pray for you every night, that you rest in peace and watch over us. We thương mày nhiều quá (we love you so much), our bilingual, annoying, apple-loving fur baby.