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Olanna's Perfect Sonnets

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The Shelter (Part Two)

For Part One, click here

 

Mission of Yahweh was run by a nun named Sister Gay. She was of African descent and bound to a wheelchair. Sporting a huge cyst or boil of some sort on her forehead, combined with her brusque demeanor, she proved an intimidating authority figure to myself and the other children. She lived in the large red farmhouse at the rear of the property along with her husband and nineteen adopted, wild children, ranging from diaper-wearing to high school age. 

I never understood how Sister Gay could be a nun if she was married, but you didn’t question that sort of thing as a child in the eighties and she always wore the habit, so nun she was to me. 

Everyone knew you had to put up with Sister Gay’s kids, all nineteen of them. And boy, were they mean, wild kids with free reign of the entire shelter complex. I only ventured into the farmhouse a handful of times; toddlers in diapers, girls with attitudes and foul-mouthed boys all around. We learned early on to stay away from them, but later we learned they would come anyway. 

There were stories of families kicked out on the street because some poor lady’s kid was the one who finally stood up to the bullying that week and made a futile attempt at tattling or fighting back. I only learned about theses stories the day Mark and I ran to Mom because one of the older boys from Sister Gay’s clan stole something of his and she wouldn’t (couldn’t) do anything about it. 

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Just stay away from him.” 

“But Mom! It’s not fair,” I yelled. “It was Mark’s!” 

“We have nowhere else to go, Leslie,” Mom ended the conversation. 

I can’t imagine how hard this must have been for her, the woman who stood up for us and for everything - to hold back. 

I think that was one of my first true lessons of social class and inequality in life. Even in a place where everyone had the same common goals, to get back on their feet with their children and without a man, and you were there under the premise of selfless charity, there was still a natural hierarchy of things and whether it was fair or not, Sister Gay would kick a struggling woman out with her kids rather than discipline her own. 

Filed under prose memoir creative writing spilled ink nonfiction olanna shelter

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An Analysis of Destiny

“Destiny is unimaginable, except in dreams or to those in love.”  

I’ve never been any good at remembering quotes. Movie quotes, book quotes, famous quotes, and I’d read John Irving’s The Fourth Hand many times before. It was one of those books, and he is one of those authors, that I can reread and enjoy each and every time. Maybe this time I’d read it at the right time in my life for that particular quote to stand out, to strike a chord and mean something to me. But then doesn’t that imply that I agree to some level of probability in the form of destiny or fate in a task as simple as when I read a book in a certain mood? And wouldn’t that be hypocritical to the statement itself? 

Whatever the reasons, those eleven words became a mantra of sorts. I became certain in my disbelief of destiny and subsequently any leftover hope that “meant-to-be’s” were ever real at all. I’d been wrong before. I’d learned I was my own greatest enemy, in that it was I who could not be trusted more than any other with matters of the heart. And this was a comfortable place to be. 

When love crept it’s way through the cracks in the walls, and now that it has permeated every cell within me, I hesitate to give up this disbelief, but I find myself sorting the puzzle pieces of how this came to be and there are so many coincidences that if it’s not some greater force directing the energy of our lives, then the world is almost laughable. 

It’s not just that we both shouldn’t have been there that night. Not that we’d both given in to the boredom of trying not to go out, trying not to drink and of all the places we both could have picked, we picked the same one. And it’s not even that I ditched that ex-boyfriend I was still trying to just be friends with to hang out with you when I’d never ditched anyone in my life and I was startled at my own behavior. Or even that I’d happened upon your poetry and prose a few months before and learned of our mutual friendships and across internet lines you’d inspired me to write more. Those could surely just be coincidences. 

One could argue the point that we’ve held such close, connected circles more than half our lives without ever really crossing paths before now and that must be more than coincidence. (Except for that one time at my brother’s apartment when you were leaving as I was arriving.) During those years long before, we lived different lives. I was starting a family and you were living in the Crackhaus. And I wonder, what if I’d known you then? What if the parties I’d gone to on babysitter nights were the same ones you threw and what if I’d seen the person you were back then? Where would we be today? 

And it’s questions like these that make me wonder if it was indeed an unseen force that kept chance and mutual friends apart from us together for more than fifteen years so that we would meet at exactly the right time. 

Irving’s words seem truer than ever. Is it just the love that lends to the willingness to believe in destiny? Isn’t it always? 

-Olanna, 2013

Filed under prose creative writing spilled ink destiny love john irving olanna

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The Shelter (Part One)

The rooms in the main building didn’t have closets or locks on the doors. You were expected to be honest, therefore locks were not needed. We had a twin size bed, two military-style cots, and a baby bassinet. There was a metal clothes rack, like from department stores, we used to hang our clothes. Mom had hidden a lunch cooler, the kind with buttons on the sides and a lid that snapped open, so we could keep milk and sandwich supplies on hand. You weren’t supposed to hide food in your room, but the daily rations really weren’t enough, except for on the days Mom had kitchen duty. 

We didn’t have bathrooms either. There was a beige-colored public restroom with plenty of stalls along each side. Each side had its own entrance, the restroom itself situated on the second floor with each respective hallway and line of dorm rooms along either side. On the left, or the right, depending upon which side you entered, was the communal shower. In locker room design it held maybe twelve shower heads arranged in a square, the single drain perfectly centered with the single doorway everyone had to enter and leave through, making modesty an inconvenient trait to have. 

This was probably the most terrifying part about living at the Mission of Yahweh Women and Children’s Shelter. 

Betty was a very large, homely-looking African-American woman who’d become friendly with Mom. She had two children and often worked in the kitchen, urging the kids to eat their veggies, making jokes and saying prayers. I thought of her as the house mom. She was someone the other women instantly respected and even my child’s eye could see that. 

I walked in just as Betty had stepped through that single doorway from the showers, reaching for the towel that I was moments too early to benefit from, instead being subjected to a nakedness so obscene my virgin eyes burned the image into my brain, never to be forgotten. Betty’s boobs hung to her thighs. I’d never seen such a thing, my own mother’s smallish boobs being the only boobs I’d ever seen. The rolls of her stomach and thighs fortunately protected me from further view of her private anatomy, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the boobs that didn’t look like boobs at all. 

How long did I stand there? I still can’t be sure, but I can still summon that image as easily as I can remember my name and it still disturbs the hell out of me. 

-Olanna, 2013

Filed under prose creative writing memoir nonfiction olanna shelter

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pedanticpersiflage:


She has a print of Salvador Dali’s “Sting Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening.”  There is a naked woman suspended just above a block of ice, which is itself floating on an ocean.  There are two tigers lunging at her, and they are captured at the apex of their parabolic jump frozen solid like the ice block she rests on impervious.  One of the tigers is being swallowed by a fish, which appears at first to be a flame coming off what appears at first to be the sun setting on the ocean, but upon further investigation, it is a rotting pomegranate.  I am not sure whether the Jonas tiger will get her, but the other one damn sure looks like he’d sink his claws in if the rifle pointing at her arm doesn’t fire first.  Still, she sleeps forever, beautiful, somehow even more vibrant in her coma, framed like a Greek goddess, in that moment that approaches doom.  
In that moment where the rot is setting in the background, the moon is rising out behind the stilted legs of a rather tall elephant who is carrying upon his back some sort of ice sculpture or trophy, and ironically, the elephant is deep in the background of the painting conversely displayed to the metaphorical shall we say elephant in the room (or in this case painting).  She tells me, “We can’t hang that on the wall in here.  We have to put that one in the bedroom.”
“Why?  Do you just think it will go better in there?”
“No.  It’s the naked lady.  I made the mistake of hanging it in the living room at my old apartment, and some boy’s mother got all pissed off about it.”
I have to smile and remember that we are in the suburbs, and she has kids, and I am new to this.  I have spent most of my life hanging out with punk rockers, graffiti artists, anarchists, socialists, bartenders, alcoholics, drug dealers, drug addicts, and more lately, academics.  I was raised by a father who is a painter himself in his spare time and worships at the altar of Dali.  I have never really known what to say around the sort of people who think art is the little cursive scripted prints of the word Faith or the word Hope, cheaply inked and framed in black in a factory in China somewhere and sold en masse at Target and Wal-Mart stores across the fruited plains.  I cannot fathom what is so offensive about the naked female form, especially in paint, and especially in the dream world of Dali.
In fact, I would like to live in that world.  Perhaps, that is why I have experimented so heavily with hallucinogenic drugs.  I could understand on those drugs what Dali must have meant by his famous melting clocks, the illusion of time he is pointing to.  I look back to the print on the wall at the paradox of both sun and moon out together.  The tiger being destroyed by the generally harmless goldfish.  This is a world where nothing makes sense, but it is maybe closer to our own world than we realize.  Just a hit of acid away, or a gram of mushrooms to be there, and yet without the tour guides, I still need only to look at the paradoxes so prominently displayed in art to know at some point we failed in assembling our forms of logic.  Or maybe there is no logic. Certainly, there isn’t any in the people who most need to see Dali but recoil from him as they call his work offensive and promise never to let their son come over again.

pedanticpersiflage:

She has a print of Salvador Dali’s “Sting Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening.”  There is a naked woman suspended just above a block of ice, which is itself floating on an ocean.  There are two tigers lunging at her, and they are captured at the apex of their parabolic jump frozen solid like the ice block she rests on impervious.  One of the tigers is being swallowed by a fish, which appears at first to be a flame coming off what appears at first to be the sun setting on the ocean, but upon further investigation, it is a rotting pomegranate.  I am not sure whether the Jonas tiger will get her, but the other one damn sure looks like he’d sink his claws in if the rifle pointing at her arm doesn’t fire first.  Still, she sleeps forever, beautiful, somehow even more vibrant in her coma, framed like a Greek goddess, in that moment that approaches doom. 

In that moment where the rot is setting in the background, the moon is rising out behind the stilted legs of a rather tall elephant who is carrying upon his back some sort of ice sculpture or trophy, and ironically, the elephant is deep in the background of the painting conversely displayed to the metaphorical shall we say elephant in the room (or in this case painting).  She tells me, “We can’t hang that on the wall in here.  We have to put that one in the bedroom.”

“Why?  Do you just think it will go better in there?”

“No.  It’s the naked lady.  I made the mistake of hanging it in the living room at my old apartment, and some boy’s mother got all pissed off about it.”

I have to smile and remember that we are in the suburbs, and she has kids, and I am new to this.  I have spent most of my life hanging out with punk rockers, graffiti artists, anarchists, socialists, bartenders, alcoholics, drug dealers, drug addicts, and more lately, academics.  I was raised by a father who is a painter himself in his spare time and worships at the altar of Dali.  I have never really known what to say around the sort of people who think art is the little cursive scripted prints of the word Faith or the word Hope, cheaply inked and framed in black in a factory in China somewhere and sold en masse at Target and Wal-Mart stores across the fruited plains.  I cannot fathom what is so offensive about the naked female form, especially in paint, and especially in the dream world of Dali.

In fact, I would like to live in that world.  Perhaps, that is why I have experimented so heavily with hallucinogenic drugs.  I could understand on those drugs what Dali must have meant by his famous melting clocks, the illusion of time he is pointing to.  I look back to the print on the wall at the paradox of both sun and moon out together.  The tiger being destroyed by the generally harmless goldfish.  This is a world where nothing makes sense, but it is maybe closer to our own world than we realize.  Just a hit of acid away, or a gram of mushrooms to be there, and yet without the tour guides, I still need only to look at the paradoxes so prominently displayed in art to know at some point we failed in assembling our forms of logic.  Or maybe there is no logic. Certainly, there isn’t any in the people who most need to see Dali but recoil from him as they call his work offensive and promise never to let their son come over again.

Filed under mhilbig prose nonfiction creative writing

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Mother/Daughter Metal Concert Bonding

“Do we at least get to socialize?” my daughter asked me as I waited with her and her friends in the massive line wrapped two blocks down the side street to get into the Of Mice and Men show last night. I was taking her and one of her best friends and we’d run into several kids they knew from school. 

What she meant was “Do we at least get to socialize without you.” But she knew the answer would have been no. We’d already been through this. She’s just fourteen and despite all her begging, I’m not ready to let her go to a show by herself. 

Maybe it’s because I’m afraid she’ll get hurt, because she’s at that age when the excitement is next to the mosh pit and the closer she gets, the better it is, but that’s where noses are broken and phones are dropped and shoes are lost and girls are groped and I just can’t let go. I want to be there to push the sweaty kids away from her and show her just how to keep her hands in front of her to do the same, or how to spot the crowd surfers before you get a foot in the head and which way is the best way to balance their weight when they’re heavier than you. 

I slip outside for a smoke and a trio of young twenty-somethings comments on my shoes. 

“My sister just got pair like that, but pink!” one says. “They’re so cute!” 

They’re not special. They’re just blue Vans. The old, classic style, because that’s the style I still like. But everyone thinks it’s retro now, I guess. 

“Did you come by yourself?” another asks. 

“No, I’m here with my daughter and her friends,” I explain. 

This opens the door to a conversation I’m now having for the second time this evening and I’ve long since been a pro at reciting. It usually goes something like, “Yes, I’m old enough to have a fourteen-year-old. Thanks I love that I look young, it’ll pay off when I’m even older.” Then it’s how cool of a mom I am and their mothers would have never taken them to a show and omg you’re up front with them?! and wow how cool is that?! I must admit, I felt pretty cool for the moment. 

Then it’s back inside and I’ve got to warn the girls because the tall guys next to us are smoking a blunt and I know they recognize the smell by now, and this is why she can’t come to these things alone yet! And I can’t forget my own firsthand experience on what kind of trouble teenagers can get into when they go to shows by themselves. The kind of trouble you see in after-school specials, the kind of trouble you read about in books written about girls named Alice or boys named Jay, the kind of trouble that was sure to present itself at the good old neighborhood music venue, that was our kind of trouble. But some of us made it, and some of us didn’t. 

And while I’ve certainly got my fears about my baby growing up, I think the real reason I won’t let her go alone yet is I just flat-out love taking her to shows. We always have a blast and I do believe that somewhere along the night she forgets that I’m supposed to be the dorky, tag-a-long mom, whether she wants to admit it or not. 

“You know, every time you walked away Carlos kept saying how cool you were, “ my daughter told me as we walked to the car after the show. 

I think that’s as close as I’m gonna get, but I’ll take it. 

-Olanna, 2013

Filed under creative writing prose nonfiction memoir ofmiceandmen olanna

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Hate Me

olanna:

I can’t remember loving him. I know that I loved him only because at some point, it must have been true.

The first time he tried to kill himself, the 911 dispatcher had to ask me to calm down so she could understand what I was crying about. I was so hysterical because I loved him, right? I don’t remember which pill he took that time. It might have been the Klonopin, or maybe the Trazodone. Either way it was the entire contents of one of the newly prescribed drugs aimed at fixing his brain, when in truth the problem with his brain was his addiction to cocaine. Like a dutiful wife, I had him admitted into that rehab/mental health facility off 45 where he would find likeminded souls who needed someone or something else to blame for their failures just as he did. I attended family counseling sessions and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. I must have loved him to do these things, right?

Once, during a rare absence of his narcissism, he played Blue October’s “Hate Me” and begged me to leave him. Hate me. Hate me so you can finally see what’s good for you, he pleaded. That was back when I must have still loved him though. I didn’t leave.

The next five or ten times he tried to kill himself are a blur, the chronological order having flown out the window with his mind. There was the time he overdosed at the rest stop outside of Austin after he took off with the car and debit card when rent was due. 

Or the time he insisted on going with me to my annual conference in San Antonio because it happened to fall on the same week as our anniversary. I’d tried to hide the pills, as I always did, but truth be told, there just aren’t that many hiding places in a hotel room.

Or, how about the time I didn’t even call 911? I only called Poison Control because I think it was just Hydrocodone he took that time and I was pretty sure it wouldn’t kill him and I was too tired to deal with his shit. 

I thought it selfish of me that with each new coke and pill binge disguised as a suicide attempt, I worried more about what I would tell the children if he succeeded than I worried about saving him anymore.

“If it happens one more time, you might as well not come home,” I told him after something like the seventh rehab stay. I admittedly lost count.

A mere week later, one more time did happen. It’s still unclear how much blow he did that night. One last time of cocaine, pills, holes in walls, pushing, struggling, slit wrists, red and blue lights flashing in our picture-perfect cul-de-sac, neighbors gawking, and children cowering in beds. One more night more memorable than any in the ten years prior.

Hate me for all the things I didn’t do for you.

Three days later he called from the hospital. I hadn’t bothered to visit this time.

“I’m getting a divorce. I already got a lawyer.” I didn’t even let him speak.

Hate me today. Hate me tomorrow.

Done and done.

-Olanna, 2012

Filed under lyricalprosechallenge prose creative writing memoir nonfiction olanna

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The Dinner Plate Exchange

I was fourteen or fifteen the first time Mom brought a homeless man home for Thanksgiving dinner. We were no strangers to the dirty underbelly of city living and Mom had always tried to give back what she’d once been forced to accept in charity herself. A prideful woman, Mom hated admitting defeat and even if we had nothing but a deliciously traditional Thanksgiving dinner, we were doing just fine. 

He had a generic name like Bob, I can’t quite remember, and wasn’t very talkative. He’d become a regular sight on the corner of 19th and Heights Boulevard where he slept in the stairwell of that old bank that Mom passed every morning during her walk to work or our family walks to the grocery store (we needed all eight of our arms to carry the bags home.) Mom began to take him plates of food and he would leave the dish on the stairs for her to retrieve the next day. He never forgot and he always returned it clean. And this was how Mom grew to trust Bob, never really conversing with him, just the giving and returning of our dinner plates. 

When she announced that Bob would be joining our table for Thanksgiving I was a little surprised. I recall us kids being uncomfortable with the idea and Mom being upset with our resistance. 

“People shouldn’t be alone on Thanksgiving,” she said. 

I was still too young to recognize that some people chose to be homeless. I always assumed they were just down on their luck, in between jobs, or despairingly alone like we were when we’d lived in the woman’s shelter many years before. It was not until I was older and perhaps more well-read that I learned that many, many things drove people to the streets, willingly or not. 

So Bob sat at our table on Thanksgiving along with Mom’s lonely, prescription drug addicted boss and we had a lovely meal. And year after year we had strange guests in our home, Mom often taking risks in order to be charitable, to be human. 

People often compliment me for what I’ve accomplished despite the many challenges life has thrown at me; my successful career, my wonderful children, my house, and I suppose it’s true. I’ve come a long way. But then I read stories of women giving strangers rides in the rain and I remember the many times someone else’s human spirit saved our holidays as a kid. 

And then I remember how long it’s been since I’ve volunteered in any way and I feel sad. I realize I must not forget where I came from. 


Filed under prose creative writing memoir nonfiction olanna

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Stranger in my House

I opened my eyes. I hadn’t been startled awake, nor was I scared, but something had brought me from unconsciousness. I don’t recall feeling a presence above me or an imminent threat. There was no subconscious awareness telling me I needed to wake up. I merely just opened my eyes. 

It was summer time and I always slept in the living room in the summer because our single window unit air conditioner wasn’t strong enough to cool my bedroom. Mom and my youngest brother, Richard, were sleeping in the adjacent dining room we’d converted into a bedroom but the two actual bedrooms were empty of occupants. 

I opened my eyes and saw a man standing at the foot of the couch. He was Hispanic, smooth olive skinned, I guessed in his early twenties. I had a hard time in my youth estimating the ages of grown ups, but he was shirtless and his chest was bare and that made me believe he wasn’t that old. He was wearing jeans but had no shoes and his black hair was unkempt and long around his ears, wisps lying across his forehead. 

I opened my eyes and saw this strange, shirtless man standing above me as I slept and still I wasn’t scared. I was angry, furious. Who was he and why was he in my house? I screamed these questions at him, laden with profanities and he responded with the gentlest toned words spoken much too fast in a language I barely understood with the strangest look of concern on his face. This only angered me more. Perhaps he was trying to trick me into believing he was a good man. What good man appears above a sleeping girl in the middle of the night? 

I caught pieces of what he was saying to me between my yells. Twice, still speaking in Spanish, he asked if Mom was okay. “My mom is fucking fine! Get the fuck out of my goddamn house!” I remember saying. This was not too long after the last night Mom’s ex-boyfriend had been around (see Domestically Disturbing) and that was the only thing I could think he meant, but it was none of his damned business and he was fucking shirtless in my house. 

All of this happened in what felt like seconds and I was already at the front door on the other side of the couch, unlocking it and making him leave. He walked out and as I locked the door again I wondered how the fuck he got in if I just had to unlock the door to let him out? 

Mom was just waking up as I turned the bolt. I quickly explained what had just went down and followed her to the bathroom which you could only access through either of the two bedrooms. She sat down to pee and asked the same thing, “How did he get in? Are all the doors locked?” The house had a total of three doors so I left to check them. I double checked the front and the back door off the kitchen was secure. I returned to the bathroom so I could cross into what used to be my brother, Mark’s, bedroom but what was now used as a cluttered storage room to check the final side door. 

And there the man was. Crouched behind an old nightstand close to the offending side door that had compromised our already precarious safety. “Mom!” I yelled, “he’s back! He’s in here!” She ran from the bathroom and we both chased him out for a second time in what could only have been about five minutes. One of us locked the side door and we briefly discussed what the man’s intentions possibly could have been. 

Then we went back to bed. Richard hadn’t even woken up. It was funny how Mom always handled things herself. Calling the police would have been a nuisance at that point. 

And I always wondered what the man really wanted. And sometimes, when I tell this story, I get the feeling people think it’s a little weird that I remember it as a time where I learned important life lessons, then I remember that I came from a different kind of life and I’m proud of my survivalism. 

But I still, sometimes, wonder what the hell that man wanted. 

-Olanna, 2012

Filed under prose creative writing nonfiction memoir olanna

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Secrets

So there still is hope, yes, I can be healed. There is someone looking for what I’ve concealed. In my secret drawer, in my pockets deep you will find the reasons that I can’t sleep and you will still want me, but will you still want me? 

I used to cry to that line in the song, never believing there was anyone looking for anything of mine, and I was right. No one was. Not even you. Still there came a day when my tears dried up and I found myself comfortable with being uncomfortable, content with being lonely. Just as I’d accepted my loneliness, you’d come to your own version of acceptance, and it was during that punk show where neither of us was looking for anything that we drank our way to the after party and ended up at your place where we could’ve watched the sun rise had we looked away from each other long enough to look out the window. 

Later, as we tried to pinpoint that moment we fell in love, an impossible feat, you said maybe it was when I wrote that poem. But I also had this nagging notion that this is what I remembered falling in love felt like. I thought maybe it was when you wrote yours with the line that spoke of roses, angels, and things that save people. Or perhaps when you first spoke those words and I was too terrified say them back, but knew something was different because I didn’t want to run.

The conversation turned to secrets as we lay there on my bed. For the first time in years, I spoke aloud of mine, but for the first time ever I wasn’t afraid of them. I whispered things I’d never uttered to anyone, you told me things reserved for very few, and no one thought to judge or stake red flags. And it’s not that you compelled me to unlock my secret drawers or empty those burdened pockets, not exactly, but just that I wanted you to know all of me. 

In love and solidarity of secrets, my dear, you have healed me. 

-Olanna, 2012 


Filed under prose thoughts creative writing spilled ink cheesy olanna

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Domestically Disturbing

olanna:

I thought it was ironic that his name was Mark, same as my brother and dad. It was 1990, the summer before I entered middle school and we’d just gotten back to Houston from visiting Dad in El Paso to discover Mom had a new boyfriend. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d had one, so I was wary, as all children who fear change to their perfect little worlds will be. Mark seemed like a decent enough guy, so I figured I’d give him a chance.

It didn’t get really bad until we moved to The Heights. Mom lost the business she’d started before Mark came along and money became more than scarce, worse than when we’d lived in the women’s shelter in 3rd grade. They spent more and more nights at The Shiloh Club, the neighborhood bar on Studewood that remains to this day, and I was left to take care of the boys constantly. I was twelve now, the creepings of teenage angst beginning to surface; bitterness about what I lacked that other kids had; resentment of my ever-growing responsibilities that I was much too young to bear. We didn’t have a phone and I’d been accepted into a performing arts school in Bellaire, a fancy neighborhood across town that required a two hour bus ride each way, both of which weren’t very conducive to a social life, but rather were catalysts for isolation and depression. My best friend and brother, Mark, was sent to live with Dad, so it was just Richard and me now, but he was only three. I learned to prefer when the electricity was cut off to the gas being cut off. When the gas was off I could still cook our dinners in the microwave, sure, but cold baths in our unheated home during winter were unbearable. I’d take candlelight over that any day. Sadly, as time progressed, these were the least of my worries.

I’ll never forget that last, culminating night, burned into my mind. He was really wailing on Mom again and I just couldn’t stand by helplessly listening to her cries anymore. Because of the phone situation I had to choose between trying to help her or leaving the house to go to the payphone a few doors down so I could call 911. Did you know you don’t have to put a quarter in a payphone if you’re calling 911? I did. However, experience had shown that he’d chase me on the way and I’d learned the hard way that even if I got there fast enough for the call to connect, they wouldn’t trace the call and dispatch the police if all they heard was screams before it disconnected like they did on TV, so I opted with helping this time. And honestly, there isn’t a whole lot a 13 year old can do to stop a grown man in a rage…so I tried to stab him.

I clearly remember making the decision to kill him, to save Mom. He had her pinned to the bed now; his back was to me, there was my chance! Problem was, the knife I found didn’t even break his skin. I tried again. And again. It wasn’t nearly as easy as the movies made it look. When he realized what I was doing, he turned on me for the first time. He’d never hurt us kids before, but now he knocked me to the ground. My glasses fell off and his hands wrapped around my throat. I couldn’t breathe, worse than any asthma attack I’d had before, and Mom was screaming. My memory fails me at this point. All I know is Mom managed to get him off me and we grabbed Richard and ran to the car.

Her glasses had fallen off in the struggle too. We were both nearly legally blind but we remembered that there was a police substation nearby. We miraculously directed each other past blurry traffic signs and lights only to learn the substation didn’t handle emergencies. They told us they couldn’t help. They actually fucking said we had to go somewhere else and call the police. Yes, the police told us we had to call the police. We ended up at the Stop ‘n Go on Heights Boulevard that’s a Sunny’s now and were finally able to have an officer escort us back home where Mom, after countless similar nights, agreed to have Mark arrested.

He came back a little less than a year later, drunk as he’d always been. We’d since moved into a cheaper building where our apartment was the second floor of a single family house turned triplex on a block of what could only be described as slums, where rats were commonly sighted and the oppressive Texas summer heat drew the sketchy neighbors outside their unair-conditioned tenements in little clothing, cold beers in hand. Mom had taken a minimum wage janitorial job, abandoning her art, passion, and life-long career, merely because this job was conducted behind locked doors and she knew he wouldn’t find her there. But he did find us.

That night after he’d tracked us down, Mom refused to answer the door so he began to kick and break the windows of the car. She wouldn’t, couldn’t face him, so I went downstairs instead. I again stood up to this man, raised my little voice, and negotiated with him. I would let Mom come down and talk to him for 5 minutes, but he couldn’t come inside and he had to leave the car alone. I would call the police if he didn’t leave when I told him to. We were closer to a payphone here, so I felt like I had a better chance of making it if I had to. And if he wouldn’t follow those rules I wouldn’t let Mom come down and he could stand outside screaming and yelling until one of the neighbors finally became annoyed enough to call the police themselves. My only thought was if he got upstairs into the apartment, I wouldn’t be able to get him out. Somehow, it worked. I think he just wanted to hear from her mouth that she wouldn’t take him back. Mom shakily stood her ground. I never left her side, as if I were now the protector. Five minutes passed, and just as quickly as he’d come to disrupt our lives yet again, he was gone. We never saw him again.

Long before I understood the significance, the tables had turned. I didn’t mind though, because everything was gonna be alright now. I’d make sure of it.

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Value of Thirty Bucks

“You wanna know something about Cory and his mom?” my son, Zachary asked me in the car the other day. Zach and Cory are ten years old, but have known each other since they were around four. Cory is a cute kid, a hell of an athlete, of mixed parentage, unequivocally likable, but from an obviously less stable home life than one would desire for their kids.

Zach says, “They’re poor.”

“So?” I replied, automatically filled with the defensive position I tend to take when the label of “poor” is spoken of with negative connotations. Because, to me, “poor” means survival, appreciation, hard work, deserving, and a billion other adjectives that mean I understand more than you.

Simultaneously, I’m struck with the ever-present doubts of parenthood, because if there was any value I wanted to impart on my children when I first learned I was to be a mother, it was the value of appreciation. It was that we would not take the things I am fortunate enough to be able to provide them for granted. It was that, despite my reluctant decision to migrate to the suburbs years earlier, I would still ensure they would be exposed to the cultured inner loop of this fine city, so as not to be sheltered from the less desirable side of life. It was that my children would never, ever look down on someone for having less than they.

Zach can tell, I think, that I’m irritated so he goes on to say, “No, I mean like so poor do you know how much he thinks is a lot of money?”

“How much, Zachary?”

“30 bucks!” he says, incredulously.

I realize that he sincerely, innocently thinks this is an absurd belief. Thirty bucks, to my son, means nothing.

I think of when I was their age; what we could have done with thirty bucks. The shoes that could have been replaced long before the holes were so noticeable other kids would poke fun. Emergency room visits that could have been avoided because we could have gone to one of those primary care doctors who only charged a nominal fee they called a copay, but we always had to wait until we were so sick it couldn’t be ignored any longer. (My brother almost died because of that once.) Water bills that could have been paid on time, laundromat money we could have used, and school yearbooks that could have been cherished over the years.

I think about what they don’t realize thirty bucks gets for them these days. Zachary is on his fourth pair of shoes this year. Zoe went to the mall with friends the other day and didn’t have to do anything to earn her spending money. Their respective lunch accounts at school cost fifty bucks this month alone. And as I’m defending Cory and his family, the tone of the conversation has taken a completely different turn. I want to know what Zachary said to him. Did Zach, did my kid make Cory feel like crap for valuing thirty bucks? I’m lecturing them both about what they take for granted and telling “when I was your age” stories that they have zero interest in. I’m admonishing him for his thoughtless behavior when it occurs to me that it was supposed to be my job to make sure he understood these things and suddenly, I mourn my failure as a mom.

Just then Zoe chimes in asking if I bought the headphones she asked for earlier in the day to replace the umpteenth pair she broke.

I think we’ll go volunteer at a soup kitchen soon. Or maybe I just won’t turn back on the cable and internet for a while. Take away Zoe’s cell phone or Zachary’s xbox. Or cook fried Spam and canned beans for dinner. I wonder if any of that will help.

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Domestically Disturbing (No Woman, No Cry)

I thought it was ironic that his name was Mark, same as my brother and dad. It was 1990, the summer before I entered middle school and we’d just gotten back to Houston from visiting Dad in El Paso to discover Mom had a new boyfriend. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d had one, so I was wary, as all children who fear change to their perfect little worlds will be. Mark seemed like a decent enough guy, so I figured I’d give him a chance.

It didn’t get really bad until we moved to The Heights. Mom lost the business she’d started before Mark came along and money became more than scarce, worse than when we’d lived in the women’s shelter in 3rd grade. They spent more and more nights at The Shiloh, the neighborhood bar on Studewood that remains to this day, and I was left to take care of the boys constantly. I was twelve now, the creepings of teenage angst beginning to surface; bitterness about what I lacked that other kids had; resentment of my ever-growing responsibilities that I was much too young to bear. We didn’t have a phone and I’d been accepted into a performing arts school in Bellaire, a fancy neighborhood across town that required a two hour bus ride each way, both of which weren’t very conducive to a social life, but rather were catalysts for isolation and depression. My best friend and brother, Mark, was sent to live with Dad, so it was just Richard and me now, but he was only three. I learned to prefer when the electricity was cut off to the gas being cut off. When the gas was off I could still cook our dinners in the microwave, sure, but cold baths in our unheated home during winter were unbearable. I’d take candlelight over that any day. Sadly, as time progressed, these were the least of my worries.

I’ll never forget that last, culminating night, burned into my mind. He was really wailing on Mom again and I just couldn’t stand by helplessly listening to her cries anymore. Because of the phone situation I had to choose between trying to help her or leaving the house to go to the payphone a few doors down so I could call 911. Did you know you don’t have to put a quarter in a payphone if you’re calling 911? I did. However, experience had shown that he’d chase me on the way and I’d learned the hard way that even if I got there fast enough for the call to connect, they wouldn’t trace the call and dispatch the police if all they heard was screams before it disconnected like they did on TV, so I opted with helping this time. And honestly, there isn’t a whole lot a 13 year old can do to stop a grown man in a rage…so I tried to stab him. I clearly remember making the decision to kill him, to save Mom. He had her pinned to the bed now; his back was to me, there was my chance! Problem was, the knife I found didn’t even break his skin. I tried again. And again. It wasn’t nearly as easy as the movies made it look. When he realized what I was doing, he turned on me for the first time. He’d never hurt us kids before, but now he knocked me to the ground. My glasses fell off and his hands wrapped around my throat. I couldn’t breathe, worse than any asthma attack I’d had before, and Mom was screaming. My memory fails me at this point. All I know is Mom managed to get him off me and we grabbed Richard and ran to the car.

Her glasses had fallen off in the struggle too. We were both nearly legally blind but we remembered that there was a police substation nearby. We miraculously directed each other past blurry traffic signs and lights only to learn the substation didn’t handle emergencies. They told us they couldn’t help. They actually fucking said we had to go somewhere else and call the police. Yes, the police told us we had to call the police. We ended up at the Stop ‘n Go on Heights Boulevard that’s a Sunny’s now and were finally able to have an officer escort us back home where Mom, after countless similar nights, agreed to have Mark arrested.

He came back a little less than a year later, drunk as he’d always been. We’d since moved into a cheaper building where our apartment was the second floor of a single family house turned triplex on a block of what could only be described as slums, where rats were commonly sighted and the oppressive Texas summer heat drew the sketchy neighbors outside their unair-conditioned tenements in little clothing, cold beers in hand. Mom had taken a minimum wage janitorial job, abandoning her art, passion, and life-long career, merely because this job was conducted behind locked doors and she knew he wouldn’t find her there. But he did find us. That night after he’d tracked us down, Mom refused to answer the door so he began to kick and break the windows of the car. She wouldn’t, couldn’t face him, so I went downstairs instead. I again stood up to this man, raised my little voice, and negotiated with him. I would let Mom come down and talk to him for 5 minutes, but he couldn’t come inside and he had to leave the car alone. I would call the police if he didn’t leave when I told him to. We were closer to a payphone here, so I felt like I had a better chance of making it if I had to. My only thought was if he got into the apartment, I wouldn’t be able to get him out. Somehow, it worked. He just wanted to hear from her mouth that she wouldn’t take him back. Mom shakily stood her ground. I never left her side, as if I were now the protector. Five minutes passed, and just as quickly as he’d come to disrupt our lives yet again, he was gone. We never saw him again.

Long before I understood the significance, the tables had turned. I didn’t mind though, because everything was gonna be alright now. I’d make sure of it.

Filed under prose nonfiction memoir olanna lyricalprosechallenge things I don't speak of

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Despite What You’ve Been Told (you’re my) Lover I Don’t Have to Love

I was too sad to give a fuck. You could’ve been anyone and I didn’t care to know who had been me before. Because, let’s be honest, you were merely a substitute. A lover I didn’t have to love. The nights when you were too drunk to talk were the easiest. I could escape in you, climb down off my cross and lay with you without having to play the game of making you feel like a man. No matter that I cried myself to sleep the first couple times you left, wishing no one (he) had left at all, but understanding that this was how it would be now. I still let you cum…I mean, come over.

Despite what you’ve been told, I once had a soul.

As time went by, you set the steel trap of my thighs and dove right in. You said it feels good, so why not give it a try? So I dragged myself through streets of shame and with your services free of cost, I proved true to my emptiness and stayed with you. I thought you were just my next mistake, like me to you.

But that Christmas Day, years after we first began our emotionless off-and-on whatever-this-was, you broke the rules and admitted you loved me. I’d blown you off for the writer a couple months before (who subsequently blew me off in turn) but there you were still waiting, uttering words you weren’t allowed to speak. I responded in retreat; angered, I didn’t believe you. I disregarded you and the dim light in your eyes I didn’t recognize as surprise until it was much too late.

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Say It Ain’t So

“I want to see Europe before I die,” I think as yet another Weezer song blares through my iPod dock. This time it’s “Say it Ain’t So” and it’s almost comical the memories that this song stirs. Sit back, reminisce. Back to high school days when the Blue Album was one of the staples for us drug-using, chain-smoking, anti-authority kids. Back to the days of the gazebo on Heights and homemade tattoos and impromptu trips to Cali in someone’s dad’s stolen car. Back to the days of Fitzgerald’s and The Abyss and whatever punk rock show we could clench our teeth into. Back to the days of boys and girls and love and sex and first times and abandoned houses. Back to the days of graffiti and raw art and running from the cops. Back to the days of crack and heroin and AIDS and things we should have never been exposed to and friends that never should have died.

We were pretty cool back then, weren’t we?

-Olanna, 2012

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