This week I sort of broke my own heart so that I can finish my book.
"I'm almost done!" I have been saying this for months, but now I'm really about to be finished and it's terrifying.
I think there is a part of us that is forever standing awkwardly in front of our high school locker hoping that we don't make a fool of ourselves in public. We are so afraid that someone is going to make fun of us that it keeps us from striving for greatness.
"Stuck up" was the worst thing another girl could call you in seventh grade. "Who does she think she is?" So to protect yourself you get smaller and stop taking risks with what you wear or what you say. I have learned to do this, unlearned it and had to find it again many times in my life.
"What if I try this thing and I think what I'm doing is so great but really it's not and everyone is embarrassed for me except for that girl who hated me in junior high who is thrilled because now she can make fun of me for failing?"
A lot of times the people in our lives who criticize us don't even have to say anything-we do it for them. I can hear my ex-husband's voice in my head making jokes about me to his friends. "You think your ex is crazy let me tell you about mine..." He says, and they all laugh.
But of course-that's fiction. Maybe he has better things to talk about. Either way-
This is what despair feels like-
now here is how I dragged myself out of it.
In order to tell that story I had to stop protecting myself from the voice of my ex or that mean girl in junior high and be honest about everything I have always kept hidden.
I'm publishing all of my secrets online-in a form that will be easy to download by every potential employer or Match.com date I will ever meet.
"What would happen if you stopped pretending and let the world see who you really are?" My Dad wrote to me in the last letter he sent to me before he died.
Everything in my life stopped to write this book. Every relationship I have has been ground in it's teeth-no matter how cold my feet are at this moment I have to publish it. There's no other choice now.
Also-a couple of months ago my dead father's ghost reminded me not to take myself so fucking seriously.
I think it's going to be like skydiving-the anticipation is horrible but once you jump you are free from fear.
This is the part of the story where I publish the first chapter of the most awesome book you have ever read and once you get to the end of this excerpt you will be in a state of panic, wandering around your living room wondering when I am going to publish the rest of it already because doing anything other than finishing that girl's book seems so boring and stupid now- you're welcome.
Beauty Tips for the Bereaved
could have been any day. I chose a Tuesday. I had forgotten my lunch
and the cafeteria was serving Sheppard's pie. I downed a bottle of Advil
instead, just to see what would happen. After experiencing no ill
effects, I decided to go for a walk. I left the high school grounds,
searching for peace, something that would make the pain that was rising
in me recede. Not finding it, I continued to walk, across town, through
yards, over fences, across railroad tracks. I never felt tired, I never
felt whole. By the time I walked through the front door I knew what I
had to do. My mother was so angry she couldn’t speak for a minute.
"What is wrong with you?"
I shrugged. "I wish I knew."
“Go to your room.”
Once the door was shut I pulled out a Ziploc bag full of stolen
codeine, a half empty bottle of stolen Jack Daniel's and a handful of
Tylenol just to be thorough.
As I lifted the handful of pills
to my mouth and swallowed them with burning gulps of whiskey an
overwhelming sense of peace settled over me. I picked up an X-acto knife
from my craft table and drew slow hot circles into my wrists, deeper
each way around, watching the red blood bead and stream. It was so
pretty; I wished that I could replicate that color in oil paint.
I felt a moment of deep sadness for my Granny Pearl, then let it go.
"See you soon" I had said the last time I hugged her goodbye.
Now I am alone.
decision to commit suicide doesn't arise solely from a place of
madness. It's deliberate. It's calculated. Perhaps you begin to notice
that each second ticking by feels like a slow weight, your heartbeat
sending signals of agony to your brain. It isn't just that you
decide the future won't be any better, it's that the present has become
so unbearable you cannot stand another second of it. You see no avenue
of deliverance but death, so you take what is available to you.
People who have never experienced clinical depression are blind to this logic.
you are so depressed, why not run away? Why not hitchhike to Borneo and
help some orphans or hop a greyhound and start a new life? Why choose
The explanation is simple. You can't escape your own
chemical stew. You can't just walk away from your own mind, which is so
very sad and sick. Sometimes the only way to stop the pain is the sleep
of an overdose, a flying jump from a building, releasing your blood to
fall into a puddle on the floor.
"You have to tell yourself a new
story" My father had said on the phone a few days before. "This is your
movie, kid. You decide if it's going to be a comedy or a tragedy."
"I guess I'm not a very strong person," I thought. "I'm sorry, Dad."
stood up, clicked out the lamp and crawled into bed. I wasn't used to
drinking so much so quickly and it filled me with euphoria.
"I should have written a note," I thought. "Something clever Dr. Tyler could have read aloud at the assembly."
couldn't think of anything. I could barely keep my eyes open. My arms
and legs were rubber. At the last minute I grabbed an orange felt tip
pen and wrote-
"I should never have switched from scotch to martinis" and dropped both pen and note to the floor.
"There," I thought."It's not original, but Erica will get it."
closed my eyes then, slipping one last time into my earliest memory. It
had always come to me as a dream that dissipated, shy as smoke, with
the smell of bacon and coffee coming under the crack in the door each
I stand between my mother and father in an endless,
moving field of West Texas grass, stretching my arms up to grasp their
hands. I am little. As the sun sets in front of us it grows larger and
brighter as it nears the horizon until it fills the whole sky. Suddenly
it drops and lands in front of us with a heavy thud that I can feel in
my teeth. With growing wonder, all three of us run toward it. It
is unbearably bright. I shut my eyes but I can still see its orange
light through my eyelids.
“It’s a dying star.” My father
whispers to me as he holds me on one side and my mother on the other,
shielding us from the light. Somehow I knew then that if I opened my
eyes they would both disappear with the light, leaving me small and
alone, the wind moving through grass as grey and empty as the sea.
killed my first rattlesnake when I was six years old. I was playing in
our front yard when I heard the sound. In West Texas, even very small
children know that sound, like seed husks in a dry bag. Venomous
reptiles lie beneath rocks, curled up in old flowerpots, behind rusty
sheet metal. They seek cool wet places to wait out the sun. Living
creatures scatter into holes and crevices during the day to escape it,
and you learn from the time you start walking not to venture into small,
dark places. Sticking your hand underneath a pile of boards could mean a
quick encounter with a nest of black widow spiders or a sleeping
rattler. People and animals move slowly, the air so hot and bright it’s painful just to breathe it.
had been sitting in the dry grass in front of the house braiding my
dolls hair and waiting to hear the sound of my mother's tires crunching
up the gravel road.
"Mommy is baking Teddy Bear Bread when she
gets back," I whispered to my doll, who didn't respond. The cicadas
buzzed at a chainsaw pitch, falling silent then catching their song
again as they would all day from spring to fall. One of the dogs began
to bark and soon all of them were jumping against the fence behind me
"That squirrel must be back," I thought.
suddenly the animal and insect symphonies cycled into a moment of
perfect silence. I heard a rattle shaking somewhere near my left foot. I
resisted the urge to jump up and run, took a deep breath and scanned
the grass around me.
“You hear that sound you stop,” I remembered
my father's voice. “Find out where it’s coming from and back away. If
you can’t get away then look for a stick or a rake to use against it.”
my Dad's opinion the best education you could give a child was
Wilderness Survival Training. I could build three different types of
shelter and peel a cactus for drinking water before I could read.
Scanning the high grass I saw it curled up around a water spigot that
stuck straight out of the concrete foundation of the house. I could feel
the snake looking at me, tense, its rattle moving too fast for me to
see. I backed away slowly as I'd been told to do, my legs made of fear,
and ran to tell my Dad.
I found him splitting firewood behind
the still. As soon as he saw my face he began to move with the
deliberate calm of authority in the presence of danger. I ran straight
into him, struggling to get the words out through my sobs. He held my
"Breathe," he said, staring into my eyes. "Be still and breathe."
a few seconds passed I told him about the snake. He nodded once and
stood up, pulling his long brown hair back into a ponytail. I watched
him walk over to the shed and back with the garden hoe.
I shook my head as he handed me the long-handled rake.
"You're going to take care of this one." he said.
backed up, preparing to run into the neighbors cornfield that
stretched to my right across the dirt road. He caught my shoulders and
kneeled in front of me, holding me in place. He continued to focus his
eyes straight into mine.
"Listen to me," he said firmly. "You feel afraid."
nodded. He let go of my shoulders so I could wipe a line of snot on
each sleeve. We were still for a long minute in the sun, kneeling man
in front of a small child; one of my braids had come loose and blew
every which way in the wind. I could see a hawk draw a slow circle in
the flat, cloudless sky.
"You're right to be afraid." he said
again. "That snake is real. You have to be a warrior. I don't mean you
always have to fight, but you have to conquer your fear. Move through it
with open hands but hold your strength inside you like a fist."
understood. I always did, even when everyone else raised their
eyebrows. My dad always talked this way. I made a tight fist with my
left hand as he had shown me to do when I was afraid, closing my eyes
and gathering strength as I raised it in the air.
"Good Girl. Are you ready?"
I nodded "yes" grasped his hand and walked back to the water spigot.
The snake was still there. As it heard our approach the rattle began it's furious stacatto warning again. I froze.
"It's just a baby, kiddo!" he laughed, his eyes still serious."You can take of it. No problem."
handed me the flat-bladed hoe and moved to stand directly behind me,
his fingers curled around the handle above mine. I held my weapon tight,
took a deep breath and raised it high in the sun, bringing it down hard
as close to the snake as I could. At the last second I closed my eyes.
felt blade click into spine and heard the bell of its contact with
the stones underneath. When I opened my eyes I saw a baby rattlesnake
leaking a thin stream of blood. Its belly was pale and soft and twisted
up in a curlicue. It smelled like rotten garbage. Dizziness buzzed
through my limbs like lightning. I began to laugh, my body on fire with
adrenaline as I jumped up and down with my father.
"You did it!"
he yelled, grinning as he caught me up in his arms and spun me in
circles. "Don't tell your mother" he said as he put me down.
I stole another glance at the dead snake. All of a sudden I felt sorry for it.
“Let’s bury it” We dug a hole in that same garden where I had pressed
seeds into the damp earth and watched them grow into flowers and sweet
peas and mint that wafted through my window at night. I had planted
gumdrops and Reese’s Pieces and spit slivers of my own fingernails into
the earth hoping to see a tall vine bearing hard little crescents to
chew on. I wondered if the snake would grow baby snake plants. In my
mind’s eye I could see tiny rattles hanging like mustang grapes at the
end of a long vine.
woke up to the sound of my father singing in the kitchen. With my
feet I searched the floor beside the bed for my bunny slippers and
padded silently down the hall in the dark to find out what was going on.
As I neared the yellow light of the kitchen I saw my father waving a
knife and moving his lips to the Grateful Dead coming from the tape deck
on the windowsill. His friend Rick stood over a body wrapped in garbage
bags on the long kitchen table. I squinted, but couldn't make out who
it was. Clenching a cigarette in his teeth, Rick gripped and pulled at
the weight of a shoulder as my Dad sliced open the belly, lifting a
handful of slick guts into the smoky air. The head turned towards me,
eyed me briefly and lolled back into a shoulder. Blood filled up the
sink and piles of glistening parts lay on the dirty linoleum. I started
“Hey kid, come over here! I'll teach you how to
skin a deer” He waved me closer with his knife. I shook my head and
backed out of the kitchen towards the porch, where I knew my mother
would be smoking a Virginia Slim in the dark. Instead, through the
screens I saw her standing in the cornfield looking up at the sky. I
walked out and through the rows to stand next to her, breathing in the
apple scent of her waist length hair.
" I wish he would just do
that in the barn" she said and sat down on her knees next to me, cupping
both of her hands around one of mine. "It's going to take me a whole
day to get the kitchen clean again."
"Soon the corn will be
higher than you and we will have to find another place to watch the
moon." she brushed a curl of my hair behind my ear with her index
When a periodic
breeze rippled through the field its rustle drowned out the sing-song
mating call of the toads that lived in the creek behind our house. It
felt like hearing the landscape breathing in and out.
grandmother used to tell me a Cherokee story about a Rabbit who became
so angry at his mother-in-law that he threw her up to the Moon and she
stuck there. Can you see the Rabbit in the Moon?”
I stared up at
the full moon, searching for the rabbit. My mother squeezed my hand
absently, I knew that she was a thousand miles away. It had always been
that way. Even when she smiled the sadness played out in her eyes, I
felt it in my mother from the crib, even before I could speak.
"I see it," I lied.
studied them, cataloguing every detail I could pick up from stray
conversations, mapping the landscape of their history. I observed the
inner workings of my parents with the same intense hyper focused
attention I used to apart the clocks and toasters that my Dad brought
home from his scavenging trips at the local dump. If there was something
that didn't make sense I couldn't stop turning it around in my mind
until I figured out the answer.
"What if I got eaten by a bear?" I
wondered, rearranging my pillow and unable to sleep."How would my soul
get out of its stomach to go to Heaven?"
"What, exactly, is gravy?"
"Do my parents love each other?"
met in the cafeteria of the Tarrant County Junior College. My mother
noticed a young man sitting at a round table passing out brochures to
recruit volunteers to work at Our House, the drug treatment center he
ran down the street.
"He had that long brown hair and beard- he looked just like Jesus," my mother told me later.
"I was doing dry runs on impregnating the whole world back then," my Dad said.
The man who would be my father handed her a pen, and she signed up.
of Fort Worth filled up the churches every Sunday morning, while the
other side slept off another bender. My mother's people sinned, my
father's lived and breathed the Word of God. Although her tiny body was
stunted from polio, his mother beat him regularly from her wheelchair
with her cane and promised a much worse punishment from the Devil if he
didn’t behave. His father, who would die of rheumatoid arthritis when my
Dad was a teenager, let his wife run the show as long as she turned a
blind eye to his Saturday afternoon cockfights and the little flask he
kept in his trouser pocket. As my dad rubbed liniment into the legs of
his handicapped parents, his mother read from the Bible and spoke in
tongues. Physically she suffered, trapped in her strange, twisted body.
Spiritually she soared as she awaited the rapture.
at all times for the End of Days," she had told me the previous
Christmas."It's coming, I tell you what. The Lord is going to judge us
When he turned sixteen my dad began to rebel against his mother and
her oppressive religion. He skipped prayer meetings to smoke reefer with
his friend Rick. The longer his hair grew, the lower his grades
dropped and the more belligerent he became. He was already beyond her
control, she just didn't know it yet.
"High school is a
drag. I hated it." He told me on the last Christmas Eve I would spend
with him for seven years "I don't know how you stand it."
his school participated in a series of nationwide intelligence tests
administered by the Navy, my dad filled out the answers to hundreds of
questions every fall without ever being told what the tests were for.
One day in the spring of his senior year the meanest teacher in school
called him out of class.
“ His name was Odie Adar, if you can
imagine. He had been a Marine. He was famous for sneaking up behind the
boys with the longest hair and pulling it. He was a real bastard.”
Odie Adar told my dad to follow him to the parking lot. They got in
his car. Odie drove him to a barber and forced him to get a crew cut.
Back in his office, my dad sat fuming in his chair.
“ Why did you do that to me?”
“ You are wasting yourself.” The teacher said.
“ What you mean, man?”
results from all of those Navy tests finally came in. You scored in the
98th percentile. You're one of the smartest kids in this country."
My dad was embarrassed. He looked at the floor.
"What the Hell is wrong with you boy?" Odie Adar stood up and leaned across the desk towards my Dad
“ Keep your hair short and you can do anything you want. Anything.”
Despite the pleas of Odie Adar, my dad grew his hair long again, and
moved out. He drifted awhile, but when he pulled his VW van into
downtown Austin and saw a naked man directing traffic in the middle of a
four-way intersection he knew he was home.
He got a job as a
park ranger at the Mount Bonnell nature preserve by the lake. One
afternoon he picked up a book he saw laying face down in the mud and
began to read. It was 1984 by George Orwell.
The story kicked
off rockets of paranoia somewhere deep in his brain, it’s circuits
already wired long ago for such a revelation. Everything clicked into
place, and he went home and packed warm clothes, a little food, a
sleeping bag and a map. His plan to survive the end of the world was to
walk to Mexico.
"You don't speak Spanish" I will tell him years
later as I hold his hand and wait for the Hospice nurse to arrive with
his pain pills. He will cough, struggle for a long time to clear his
throat and then continue.
"I thought it would be safer there,
less infrastructure. I'd just finished reading 1984. Seemed like it
would take Mexico a little longer to get organized enough to pull off a
fascist police state"
He traveled for three days, avoiding the
highway for country roads and following dry creek beds. On the third
night it froze. His feet began to crunch on frosty grass; he could see
his breath clouding in front of him as he walked. His pack was heavy and
he was tired. He made his way to the interstate, intending to hitch a
When a car pulled up he ran to it, dismayed to discover that it was a cop.
“ Shit,” he thought.” I’m going to jail.”
The policeman told him to get in so he did. They drove for a few miles
in silence, finally pulling into an elementary school parking lot. It
was the middle of the night. No one was around.
“ Come with me.”
My dad followed the cop; dread growing stronger with every step. He
was led to the boy’s bathroom. The cop pulled the door open.
“Get in there.”
He did as he was told. He walked in, dropped his pack and turned around to face the policeman.
“Look,” the cop said,” This ain’t much, but it’s awful cold out there. You could die. Block the door and get some sleep.”
“ Thank you.” My dad bleated, eyes blinking back tears.
It’s nothing. I’ll drive by every hour or so. You won’t hear me, but
you’ll know I’m here if you need me. Try to get out before the kids come
in the morning.”
“ I will.” He slept curled up on the cement tiles, blocking the door with his body.
His enthusiasm was waning for walking to Mexico when he woke up in the morning so he decided to let fate decide.
I will get in the next car that stops,” he thought as he walked” If
it’s heading North, I will go home to Fort Worth. If it’s South, I’ll
keep heading to Mexico.”
An hour later, a car stopped for his outstretched thumb. It was going north.
Back in Fort Worth my dad sweet-talked his way into a job running a
drug crisis center called Our House. Anyone in trouble could knock on
the door of the rambling two story house and be taken in, no questions
“ We never wrote down anyone’s name. The police were
always hassling us about our records, but we wouldn’t do it. In three
years, not once.” Try to stay off the grid if you can.
who came in had to deposit their drugs into a stolen mailbox that was
bolted to the floor of the big front room. The police came once a month
to take its contents, baggies of multi-colored pills and vials-always
noting that somehow there was never any marijuana inside the mailbox.
People came by, they wanted to blow their brains out, they needed to
hide from the cops, whatever. We listened to them, played music, made it
safe for them. Then they went on their way.”
father had followed the advice of his guidance counselor and kept his
hair short, I believe I would never have been born. My mother had just
converted the entire Diamond Hill football team to the Church of Christ.
They held prayer meetings before each game and she was on fire to save
some more souls. A treatment center would be full of people who were
spiritually lost, and they might be more receptive to hearing the Lord's
message if they were coming down from a bad trip. She signed up to
volunteer to save a few souls, but she followed my Dad back to Our House
for stir fry because of his waist length honey brown hair.
My Dad had a way with the ladies.
I was always trying to make it with her but nothing ever happened.” He
will tell me one day, reaching his shaking hand out to hold mine. I will
be sitting on the edge of a hospital bed trying to memorize him,
capture as much of him as I can to carry with me. ”I remember her
sitting across from me one night by a campfire, she looked like Joan
Baez-waist length black hair, those cheekbones she got from the Cherokee
side-you got those." He will gesture, as if to touch them, but he is
"I think it's the only trait I got from her" I will
tell him, as I place my hand on top of his thin grey hair "That and the
"That's because you are both excellent liars" he will smile, then begin to cough again.
she found out she was pregnant, despite my fathers objection to
involving the Man in his love life, they got married and moved to a one
room cottage in the country. Tired of struggling with the police and
weary of fixing people only to see them come back broken, he would work a
vegetable garden instead. His uncle owned the land and agreed to let
them live there for a while as long as he didn't have to pay for any
My Dad was sitting on the front porch on his last day
at Our House watching the sun go down when a woman jumped in front of a
bus across the street from him. It swerved and missed her. She
continued to stand there, waiting for the next one.
“ Oh Shit.”
he thought and called out casually “Ma’m? I just made a big pot of
coffee in here and it’s too much for me. I wonder if you’d come over
here and help me drink it.”
She turned slowly and focused on him saying nothing.
“ Do you take cream and sugar?” He yelled.
She nodded, made her way onto the porch and sat down. When she reached
for the coffee cup he saw the blood running down her fingertips,
pooling into the cracks of the wood.
When I think about my dad
trying to exorcise such terrible despair from the strangers who blew
into his life, I wonder if it prepared him for what would come. When his
daughter would begin an education in madness and he would begin his in
grief. And nothing he could think up to say would make any difference at
Me and the internet
1 day ago