Monthly Archives: March 2013

stories of failure

Photo by Aku Aku. Cementerio de La Recoleta, Buenos Aires.

4. pierre

 

I had arrived at the airport late and had less than an hour to spare before my flight. I was completely strung out on H and could feel my stomach churning. I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten. I didn’t feel right. I bought a bagel and orange juice and sat down, noting the looks people around me were giving me. I didn’t care. I knew I didn’t look well. I would sleep it off on the flight. I was going home for a week and I needed to pull it together.

I managed to drink the orange juice but I couldn’t handle food. I heard the announcement that my flight was boarding. I grabbed my bag and began walking quickly towards the terminal. My stomach lurched and I looked around wildly for a bathroom. I spotted one and began running, one hand over my mouth. I didn’t make it and vomited all over my hand, my coat, the floor. When I reached the bathroom, I caught my reflection in the mirror. I was a mess. I had to get on that plane.

I just made it, and found my seat in between two sorority girls who took one look at me and became fast friends. Neither wanted to change their seat with me but they continued to talk across and over me. I sat back and closed my eyes. It was going to be a long flight.

What the hell was wrong with me, I thought. How stupid of me to get high before the flight. How stupid of me to fuck up my life. I had transferred to the university as a philosophy major, and wound up dropping almost all of my classes the first year. I was searching for purpose in my life. I could find none. I turned to drugs, thinking I was expanding my mind. But I was on a path of escape and self-destruction. The second year I dropped out completely.

I had woken up that morning with the guy I had been seeing in my bed. He had left the bag on my kitchen table from the night before. He wouldn’t get anything for me. He would only share his stash with me, and only in the smallest, safest increments. And that kind of pissed me off. So that morning, I hit it before I woke him, and I had taken too much.

I had taken too much.

Pierre had warned me, but I didn’t listen.

Pierre.

I didn’t know Pierre well. By the time I arrived on campus, he already lived off-campus, in a place that he quickly turned into a notorious drug house whose parties were legendary. I had heard of him in a number of different ways before I actually met him. One of his friends and I used to skip class and go back to my dorm room to get high. At that point in my life, getting high was my way of maintaining a sense of normalcy, and I was indiscriminate about the drugs I took. Getting high was my state of being, my purpose. I had no desire to exist in sober reality, in a world I didn’t want to be part of.

“You’ve got to meet Pierre,” he said each time we hung out. “You’re just like him.”

But for some reason, it took some time before we actually met. My roommate had taken to hanging out at his house and she began pressuring me to go to some of the parties. I was perfectly content to stay in my dorm room, reading and getting high. But eventually I did go to some of the parties, where I’d start off in the basement where the bands were and wind up in some smoke-filled room upstairs for the rest of the night.

When I did meet Pierre, it was at a bar. He was cool, confident, popular. He had long black hair, ice-blue eyes, and a leather motorcycle jacket. Girls were all over him. Guys tried to impress him.  I didn’t see how I was like him at all. He had pulled me onto the dance floor, saying “you’re the Michelle I’ve been hearing about,” then twirled me around and around to disco music in a drug induced haze until I was dizzy. I didn’t think I liked him very much.

The next time I went to one of the parties at his house, I was waiting for the bathroom when the door directly across from me opened. Pierre and I stood face to face, then he took my hand and pulled me into his room.

“Come in,” he said, pushing aside the pile of papers, photographs, and comic books that were on his bed, offering me a seat.

“What are you doing in here?” I asked.

“This is my room,” he said. “Want to get high?”

Despite my reservations or the absolute awkwardness of the situation, that was the one question that he knew I would say yes to. We smoked a bowl together, and the whole time he talked. He talked so much I could barely process what he was saying.

“I know you understand. I can see it in your eyes. What color are your eyes? Are they green or gray or … ”

“Hazel.” I had answered.

“You’re so beautiful.”

I laughed. Beautiful was not quite the look I was going for. I was anti-beauty. I had very short razor cut hair, shaved underneath. I didn’t wear makeup. I had piercings and tattoos. I wore the utilitarian clothing of the early 90s, flannel shirts, one piece work suits, army jackets, combat boots.

“Your eyes are like magic. I love your voice. I wish you would talk to me. You’re so quiet. Why are you so shy around me?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re just like me. You can help me. We can help each other …”

He turned off the light and fumbled against me, kissing me, pushing me onto his bed, all the while trying to unzipper my work suit, my one piece shield. I didn’t know what to do. I was overwhelmed. His need was so strong.

We kissed for awhile and then just laid together on his bed. I listened while he talked and talked in the darkness. After some time, I told him I had to go. He didn’t want me to go. He asked me to come over tomorrow. He asked me to go out to dinner with him. He said he wanted to see me again. He said he needed to see me again.

I didn’t believe him, but I promised so he would let me go. I kissed him goodbye and didn’t see him again for months. After I had dropped out of school and was living off-campus, working at a restaurant near the college to pay for rent and drugs, sometimes Pierre would come in and we’d say hello, but that was it. He was in graduate school for film, keeping himself somewhat clean, and had moved out of the party house into a nicer, more respectable apartment.

My old roommate was dating one of his friends, and that’s how I found myself meeting up with him again one day towards the beginning of fall. We were all hanging out, waiting for our connection to show up, talking about drugs, the one thing we all had in common.

“Yeah, H is heaven and hell. You got to be careful though,” Pierre had said.

“Can you get it?” I had asked.

“Yes …” he said. “But I won’t get it for anyone else.”

“I would never do that shit,” my old roommate’s boyfriend had said.

“I just want to try it,” I said.

“You want to try everything,” Pierre said. I must have given him a strange look because he continued, “I know, because you’re just like me.”

He smiled sadly at me and I blushed, avoiding his eyes.

That would be the last time I saw him. During winter break, he od’d. He was only 22 years old.

During the week I was home, I did a lot of searching and decided that instead of avoiding the world, I wanted to change the world. I wanted to be a teacher. I decided to go back to school and began applying at different places. Several months later, a wonderful school in Manhattan accepted me and offered me a scholarship based on both academics and financial need which would cover all of my tuition. Even though they didn’t offer a BA in teaching, I knew I would have to go to graduate school eventually, so I focused on reawakening my love of learning. It was at The New School where I began to seriously consider myself a writer and blossomed in that transformational space. That summer, I moved back home to begin classes in the fall. I cleaned myself up. I had spent enough time trying to die. I wanted to live.  I would live.

 

*

“I am young, still young, and poor / and all my beauties sacrificed to hope.”
~ Cynthia Huntington


stories of failure

3. giving birth

 

Out of all the books I bought about pregnancy and childbirth, the one I loved most was After The Baby’s Birth – A Woman’s Way to Wellness: A Complete Guide for Postpartum Women by Robin Lim. In chapter 2, the author encourages the reader to “use these pages to write about giving birth to your baby.” She reminds us that “this is the story of what may well be the most profound experience of your life – the birth of your child, and your own rebirth as a wise woman.”

I gave birth to my first child when I was 24 years old. The circumstances surrounding my daughter’s birth made this the most difficult and challenging experience I have ever had. It changed me. It affected how I would approach my new role as a mother. After the birth, I wrote in the pages provided in the book. I remember sitting in the hospital nursery visiting room, reading this book, waiting to see my baby. I was alone. What should have been the most joyful time in my life was the most devastating, the most painful. I was sent home without my baby. I spent my days at the hospital, then I went home and slept from midnight to 6am. Then I’d go back, waiting to breastfeed, waiting to see her and hold her, waiting to take her home. My healing process was delayed. I was wounded physically, emotionally, mentally.

This was what I had written:

The due date came and went. Everyday we waited. We were so anxious. Finally, on thursday August 27, I began to feel labor pains. It started at 5 am and I would get pains every couple of hours. I had an appointment at the obgyn and we went and there was nothing! At 5 pm – I remember 5:12 on our clock, I got the first contraction. They were about 5 minutes apart and were getting to be between 3 1/2 – 5 minutes so we called and they told us to go to the hospital. We were admitted about 10. It was really funny as we prepared to go. It was so hectic. He was getting the ice ready and gathering clothes for laundry. Turns out that the contractions lasted like that for hours. We even walked for two hours on the hospital floor,  just dragging an IV with me. I remember looking up at the ceiling and just thinking – no one told me it would be like this. All this pain. And the waiting, waiting, waiting.

By 3 am, they told us to go home. We left the hospital. I still had contractions and they were getting worse. I vowed to wait until at least 6 am to go back. By that time, my contractions were 2 minutes apart. This time, my sister drove to the hospital because he was exhausted. She was driving erratically and doing like 80 on the parkway. I almost had a heart attack. I was so nervous, but I couldn’t even yell at her because my contractions were so painful.

We got to the hospital and the doctor that was there overnight had left. So we had a new doctor (Drayton) and nurse (Sarita) and everything was much better. We felt more calm. Sarita gave me breathing tips to remain calm. We weren’t as panicky. The afternoon progressed and they gave me medication to relax me. They broke my water. They gave me an epidural even though I didn’t want one. By 3 pm, Sarita and Dr. Drayton left and I was preparing to go into “birthing” soon. In their place was a nurse I couldn’t understand well, and the same doctor-midwife from the night before that we didn’t like.

I don’t remember much at this point, it’s all a blur really. I remember he was giving me ice chips. I remember the contractions coming in waves right after each other, and the pain – so much pain. They wheeled me out of the delivery room into another room. They were yelling at me to push while moving me on a stretcher to a different room. I still don’t know why. I remember seeing mom at the end of the hallway and how I didn’t want her to see how much pain I was in. We got to the room and all the people there were so mean. They were yelling at me to push and I was pushing and they were saying things like “don’t you want your baby to be born” and it was horrible.

Apparently this ordeal lasted a half hour. The part I remember distinctly is the moment she was born. It was like one great release – no pain – just her slipping out of me. They raised her up so I could see her and then a nurse began cleaning her. I birthed the placenta and the doctor stitched me. He held her and then I got to hold her. It was terrible and incredible and painful and beautiful all at the same time. I never knew how much love we have – for each other and for our child. It is so beautiful it just fills me up inside. It’s the most amazing feeling to know that love has created – something so beautiful and so powerful – it has created a whole life.  We love her so much.

It is tragic that we haven’t been able to take her home yet. She had a fever when she was born and the doctors found a bacterial infection. Although her blood is normal, they took a spinal tap and they said it showed something. We find out today exactly what will be. She may be here for as long as 3 weeks. I have to stop for a minute.

It’s just extremely difficult for us to have her, but not able to take her home. It’s been almost 5 days so far. That’s almost a whole week since I gave birth. She’s been here 5 days without me. My mom has everyone praying that she will be okay. I want her to be okay. I want her to be home. It’s so hard to come to the hospital and see her for such a short time, every few hours. It’s such a bad environment for her first few weeks of life. I feel like this is hell. Yesterday I thought I was having a nervous breakdown when I found out she may be here for so long. As of yesterday it was only supposed to be until tomorrow. I can’t think of anything but getting my baby home. My days are divided into 3 hour blocks of time. I just want my baby to come home

During the time I was at the hospital, a large proportion of babies were held in the nursery. Years later, the hospital would close after being exposed for many things, including running unnecessary tests and holding infants in the nursery much longer than necessary for the insurance money. Although my daughter did have a fever and a slight bacterial infection at birth, her blood was normal and there was nothing wrong with her. They never should have given her a spinal tap. A doctor told me this, and appealed on my behalf to release her. My daughter was released to me after another week, a lifetime. I did not look at motherhood the same, after my daughter had been ruthlessly taken away from me right after I gave birth. The nurses were surprised with the tenacity in which I stayed at the hospital, the insistence that I continue to breastfeed on demand even though it meant just waiting at the hospital for nearly 16 hours a day. I remember those moments, rocking her in the nursery waiting room, holding her, feeding her, singing to her, reading to her. Even changing her diaper was precious to me. Just being with her. And I vowed that I would be the best mother I could possibly be to her. I would never allow anyone to take her from me again. I would protect her with my life. I would be more than I ever thought I could be.

 

*

“I am young, still young, and poor / and all my beauties sacrificed to hope.”
~ Cynthia Huntington


stories of failure

2. catching fireflies

 

There were only a few weeks left of summer, and I couldn’t wait for the school year to begin again. I was 11 years old, about to enter 8th grade, and I was having the worst summer of my life. Over the last few months, my world had been turned upside down. My parent’s divorce was going very badly, and my father had refused to move out of the house. Home had become a volatile place and we were barely there. My mother had taken to bringing my sister and I to her boyfriend’s apartment and his sister’s house, a place I hated more than anywhere else in the world.

Whenever we went to his sister’s house, bad things happened. And it seemed like they were getting progressively worse as the summer went on. Sometimes my mother would leave my sister and I at the house alone. His sister was supposed to be watching us as we stayed with her 10 year old son John, in front of the television or playing video games. What she really did was drink beer in the kitchen with her ex-husband. Many times they would fight and she would leave, and then he would be alone in the house with us. At first, he ignored us. But after some time, he began to seek us out, to seek me out.

I was terrified of him. He watched me with his eyes. He tried to get me alone. I had been successful in avoiding him, but he was getting bolder. One of the last times I was there, John’s mother had left and his father was getting drunk in the kitchen. He began calling my name, calling me into the kitchen.

“Pretend you don’t hear him,” John had said.

We ignored him and kept playing the video game. But John’s father was insistent. He staggered into the room and grabbed my arm.

“I said come here, little girl.”

“Let her go.” John said quietly.

“Shut up,” his father hissed, pulling me up by the arm.

My sister began to cry. John looked at his father, then at me. He grabbed my sister’s hand and yelled “Run!”

I ran, freeing myself from his grasp, following John and my sister out the door and down the street. We ran as far as we could until we were breathing hard. John took us to a friend’s house who lived several blocks away. We stayed in his friend’s backyard, littered with concrete, weeds and broken glass, until it was almost dark and the mother told us we had to go home. When we got back to John’s house, his father had left. We didn’t talk about what happened. We watched tv until my mother and her boyfriend came back and took us home.

Not home. To her boyfriend’s house. That summer, I had no home.

But the summer was almost over. And we were at John’s house again. The adults were drinking beer inside the house, but we were outside. I remember that the night felt wild and restless, because I knew that school would be starting soon and all of this would be over, like a bad dream. Fireflies began to light the night and we ran after them, laughing, trying to catch them with our hands.

I don’t remember whose idea it was to get a jar. But the three of us had gone back into the house and asked for one. John’s father stood up and went into the kitchen. We were told to follow him.

He took a jar from the cabinet and placed it on the table. Then he pulled a knife from his pocket and stabbed the lid.

“How’s that?”

“I think they’ll need more air holes,” I said softly, truthfully. The words came out of my mouth before I had time to think.

“You’re never satisfied, are you. Nothing’s ever good enough for you. Isn’t that right,” he said while walking towards me, holding the knife.

No one spoke for a second. I held my breath.

He trailed the knife along my cheek, barely touching my skin.

“You’re such a pretty, pretty girl.”

His eyes were bloodshot blue. His breath reeked of cheap beer. He held the knife towards my face and began touching my hair.

“You’re just like my little Kimmy used to be. Now she won’t let me touch her. Now she’s a bitch like her mother.”

I swallowed hard. I didn’t know why I felt so afraid, why I couldn’t move.

“Mom! Mom!” John began to scream.

The other adults came into the kitchen and saw me backed up against the wall, John’s father over me, holding the knife. My mother’s boyfriend pulled him away from me. I thought he saved me. I thought he saved me until one day in the not-so-distant future, the bloodshot blue eyes facing me were his.

 

*

“I am young, still young, and poor / and all my beauties sacrificed to hope.”
~ Cynthia Huntington

 

 

 

 


stories of failure

1. social services

I arrived at Social Services early for my appointment. It didn’t matter. The parking lot was already full. Four lines snaked from the door as people spilled from the sidewalk into the street. I found a spot in the adjacent lot and took a deep breath as I locked the car and began walking, holding my folder of papers, photocopies, letters, and documents and shifted the bag that rested heavily across my chest and shoulders. The only thing that worried me was that my appointment was Monday, September 14 which wasn’t actually a day. The 14th was on Sunday. But I had an appointment, and I figured it was a clerical error that could be easily fixed.

I had brought three books, not sure what might work this time.  Last time, I had brought two short story collections:  Success Stories by Russell Banks and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander.  Neither had been a good choice. I had sat in the waiting room hour after hour, waiting for my number as tears filled my eyes and number upon number was called, never mine. I waited as people within earshot told their stories to each other and the children around me cried. I listened and watched, one eye on the screen and the other on the book, as the words filling my ear and mind and heart left me empty with sadness.

This time I had brought a thick book of collected short stories by Amy Hempel, a compilation of best short stories from 1973, and a book of poems by Sharon Olds. When I got on line, I took out the book by Hempel and began reading as the line shuffled forward slowly. I looked around me, taking in the people who also waited on line. We were the poor, the desperate, the failures. I had been on unemployment and was looking for a job every day. When my unemployment ran out, I still hadn’t found a job and I had applied for and finally received a job at a large retail store which turned out to be a mistake. I was unemployed again.

I had been looking for a job forever it seemed. I applied for everything I thought I could do. I had both a CV and a resume. Since I have masters degrees in both education and creative writing, I was applying for teaching jobs at every level. Nursery school, preschool, elementary school, university and college. I applied for tutoring, daycare, nanny, and assistant teaching positions. I applied in the publishing industry for editing and writing jobs. I applied for entry level and assistant positions. I applied for web writing positions, writing and researching positions, writing for business positions. Then I started applying for other things as well. I applied for waitress, food service, barista, business, retail, sales, clerk, and cashier positions.

Nothing came back to me. I had no income. I had sold the small collection of jewelry I had in order to buy school supplies and some clothes for my children and pay some bills. But I was running out of money and I was running out of time. It didn’t matter how many resumes or CVs I sent out. It didn’t matter how many local places I went into, asking if they might be hiring. I was in a panic. I was back at social services. I had been there, back and forth for weeks, jumping through hoops, trying to get temporary assistance. I always left in tears.

We waited on line restlessly as the mid-September sun rose higher in the sky, beating down on all of us. I looked around, and read story after story. I smiled at the child next to me, who looked at me with huge sad eyes. The child did not smile back. I was the wrong color. I was in the wrong place. No one smiled at social services, not even the children. And that thought made me bite my lip to bite back the tears that threatened again. What the fuck was I doing here? I had had some bad luck. I had had a good teaching job. It was the economy. It wasn’t my fault. I was laid off and then the job market just closed to me. I looked around again. I wasn’t better or worse than any of these other people.

I was at a low point. I was going to get out of this cycle of poverty. I didn’t care if the people at social services saw me as a poor white unemployed single mother with two children. I was going to get a good job again and make money. I had two advanced degrees. I had potential. I should write about this, I thought. Someone needed to give voice to the voiceless, the poor, the downtrodden. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to make it real. I wanted to leave that wretched place and never look back.

After waiting on line outside for over an hour, I had finally moved into the building. The lines stopped about four feet from the security guards and metal detectors. People were getting angry. Children were whining and crying in strollers and in their mother’s arms. Someone cut the line and a fight broke out and we all had to wait as the line stopped and the fight was taken care of. Every time I was at social services, at least one fight broke out. People waited and waited for hours just to go on to the next step that might bring some help. They were desperate, angry. A woman leaving the building was rushing out and mistook the plate of glass to the side of the door for the door. And all the while, numbers being called ominously filled the space with sound. First in English, then in Spanish, then they appeared on a screen.

I was feeling okay. I had an appointment. I had all my paperwork. I had all of our birth certificates and social security cards, letters of paternity, a letter of custody, proof that I didn’t receive child support, a notarized letter from my landlord, two notarized letters verifying my address, my w2 forms from the last three years, my bank statements from the last six months, documents from my children’s schools verifying their attendance, all of my bills, the four pages of paperwork that listed all of the jobs to which I had applied, documentation that I had met with the job program counselor, my ten page application for temporary assistance, and my picture ID. I had triple checked the checklist. There was no way they were going to tell me that I had to come back this time.

It took almost another hour to get to security. I knew the routine. A brief exchange, a serious nod, and I handed them my bag, my book, and my folder. I went through the metal detector, then held out my arms as one guard used handheld metal detector to trace the outline of my body and the other looked through my bag. They pushed my stuff through and told me I could get on line, pointing to the next line where three women worked at different stations, protected behind bullet proof glass.

“Next.”

I walked forward.

“I have an appointment.” I said, pulling out the appointment letter from my folder.

“Photo ID.”

“Yes,” I said. I handed her my license through the partition.

“You don’t have an appointment.”

“But I do … see, right there, on that letter. It says Monday, September 14.”

“Your application was cancelled.”

“What?”

“Your application was cancelled.”

My heart started to race.

“No. But … it’s Monday …”

“This is showing that you had an appointment for September 14. You didn’t come so your application was cancelled.”

“But September 14 was yesterday. It was Sunday. You weren’t open.”

“Your application was cancelled.”

“But you weren’t open yesterday. It was a clerical error. Can’t you fix it?”

“You’ll have to reapply.”

“But … can’t you do anything?”

“Your application was cancelled. You can take a number but it’s too late to reapply today. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

I slammed my book on the counter.

Our eyes met.

“Now I understand why people go crazy in this place.”

She looked behind me, searching for security.

I grabbed my things and walked away quickly, fighting back tears, anger running through me like a terrible, helpless, hurtful thing. A woman in a wheelchair blocked my way out and pushed along so slowly, I felt my anger deepen and then I felt ashamed. I took halting steps behind her as tears just fell down my cheeks, wanting to run, wanting to run away and never come back. I was never going to go back, I thought.

When I left the building, the sun blinded my eyes, dizzying my vision. I broke into a run. When I got into the car, I fell apart.

The next week, I would reapply. It would another few weeks before my application was accepted. The same week it was accepted, a preschool I had applied to called me and asked if I was still interested. I went on the interview, and they hired me at $8/hr. I was going to make less money than I had received from unemployment. But it was a job. It was an opening that could lead to something better in the future. I had potential. I was well educated. I was a great teacher. I was back in the workforce in the teaching field, doing something I loved. Things would get better for me. They had to get better. There was no room left to fall.

 

*

 “I am young, still young, and poor / and all my beauties sacrificed to hope.”
~ Cynthia Huntington