Sewn into

           We quickly became sticky like the back of the hot orange 99¢ star on a loaf of bread. We stuck—at first to the TV, and then to the shadow’s back, while our mother

Paul Himmel
stuck to the couch. Sometimes we couldn’t tell where her head ended and the chocolate-covered pillow began.

           Without the flashes, laughs, and songs from the TV, the house would have been as silent and as dark as a corpse.

           We should have been able to write a cartoon episode about a girl in pigtails, climbing up and down the bark in her backyard. But we couldn’t. If a female character was thrown at us, we’d have tossed the pen (or keyboard) into the garbage, or we’d have sat for a while, finally drawing out the female, but ending up drowning her in the shower, spraying a bottle of liquid soap all over her face. We’d have stared at her from all angles, wondering what those anthills were on her chest, and we’d watch the water trickle down her torso, wondering where it would run off from.

           Our mother never mentioned females to us. She never mentioned much of anything, but once in a while, she’d squeeze an eyeball out from between its lid and ask, “What time is it?” We’d look at the blue, digital numbers on the VCR. “Zero, one, three… either a two or a five.” All we knew was that one curved up and the other curved down.

           Then her head would smash back onto the cushion, and the TV would once again steal our attention.


           “Think about your own experiences,” we’d been told. Females everywhere write about what it’s like to be female.


           We thought about the twelve-foot shadow we followed into preschool. We remembered crouching behind the three-foot tall Fisher-Price house and blaming the shadow for squeezing us into that small corner. That block of blackness could have been our mother, our father, our current President of the United States of America, or the cartoon koala bear waiting for us inside the TV at home. It could have been all of these things or none of these things. Perhaps it was a mixture of us—the silence in our mind at night, the awkwardly-drawn figures we grew up five feet away from, the thirty-three-year-old lump of skin holding down the couch during the day.

           We thought about where the shadow came from. It could have been imprinted in our DNA. It could have been sewn into our genes. It could have crawled up into our imagination after forming in hell and slithering up the dirt into that plum we picked the flies off of and ate right there in aisle nine of our local IGA when we were two years old.

           We tried to pound it out on the dashboard during the heavy metal rotation on station 98.9. We tried to tap it out of the ash from our cigarettes. We tried to write it out. We’d been told we couldn’t even write ourselves.

           We’d written crippled businessmen, psychologically challenged guys who perform surgery on their own colons, and boys who get their own mothers pregnant. Dysfunctional men in a man’s world. For a short time, we thought we were feminists, but we didn’t know what to do with any of that hatred toward males. We thought about how we’d kill them off—implant fine bacteria at the edge of every urinal and bidet that waited to leap onto flesh and bite; crazy glue on the tip of every condom—strong enough to seal the tiny hole at the penis’ end, so bladders everywhere would explode. It was awkward.


           We thought about our mother—the one laying stiff, like rigor mortis, all throughout our toddler years. Mother, our mother. Someone had to hold down the couch during the day. We weren’t sure if we hated her or if we loved her more than any person should love another. We cried, hidden behind a shadow, inside that Fisher-Price playhouse, waiting for the time of day when some other preschooler’s mother would drive us home. We’d sit as quiet as an ant, strapped into the backseat, watching trees and clouds float outside of the car window. We waited, desperately, to get home to sleeping beauty.


           Eight hours a day was never enough sleep for her or for us.

           We woke up every morning and followed the black mass down the stairs. Brushed our teeth. Combed our hair. Then there was the TV. She was home and off to bed—sleeping on the puke-colored couch in the living room. We sat down and pressed a button for an imaginary world to flash before our eyes.


           “Think about your own experiences.”


           We thought about walking home from second grade—the shadow in front of us and a seven-year-old brunette behind us. The brunette, nearly stepping on our heels with every foot she stomped on the uneven sidewalk, wanted to be our friend. We remember her bangs sticking to her eyelashes in class. She tried to teach us foursquare at recess, but we danced in another world.

           Should she blame us?

           Her older sister asked us why we didn’t like her. It wasn’t that we didn’t. We didn’t know what kind of person she was.

           Sometimes, we thought the shadow might have been peering back at us, while we had our heads turned, listening to the voice of some other child.

           We didn’t think we were allowed to have friends.

           Conversation was false and dripped off of other children’s lips like spit, but it was never juicy; never thick enough to bite into. So we went back home to the TV and engaged in conversation with a koala bear, hung up on a tree in the backyard of a little girl with pigtails. It never had much to say back to us.

           We could have written about that brunette. That young girl. But we didn’t know anything about her. Couldn’t even remember her name, but she was black, and her body had a few different lumps in it, like the ants we occasionally found crawling around in between the strands of the living room carpet.


           “Think about your own experiences.”


           The only memory we had of our father was him carrying us on his hip through the backyard. He was reaching for a plum off the tree with one hand—he was a horticulturist—and loosely holding a lit cigarette in the other. The burning sensation on our cheek wasn’t as horrifying as the smell.


           She’d still be sleeping when we got home from school. We thought it would be better—having something to do during the day, even if it entailed learning the alphabet and numbers. But it wasn’t. Once we left the house with square, plastic lunchboxes filled with Jiffy and lettuce, she started working days. At three o’clock, she’d hit the couch again. We imagined someone standing in front of her, both bodies near the couch. The other figure would swing an arm as big as a hog, and in slow motion, the knuckles would make contact, and red would splash out of her mouth. She’d be down for the count and wouldn’t wake up for five more hours.

           Eventually, the TV turned to science fiction and black and white movies. We were saying “fuck” three times in every spoken sentence.

           And we began to write. Amalgamated acumen. On one occasion, she said she admired it, but it didn’t keep her up at night (or during the day.) She was no longer a sleeping beauty that we waited to get home to.

           The shadow was still there. It floated out through our pencils and forced its way onto our pages. White sheets—blackened by a shadow so exquisite, it was alive. We never felt its breath, though. We only heard it in our fantasies. Footsteps creaked on the wooden floorboards in the night.

           “Think about your own experiences.”

           The black blob dripped off our pages like sweat on a four- hundred-pound forehead. Hot and dizzy. Female, female.

           The shadow began to haunt us more than ever when we sat at the desk in our sanctuary, pen in hand. We would have rather had a sword. We would have cut the throat of that cloudy bastard and hidden the pile of blackness that was left of it in the closet.

           Then they turned into narratives.

           Was any of it from a feminine perspective? Should it have been?

           We never thought about it much, but at some point in time, we realized we had never discovered the feminine identity. We’d heard males say before that females hate females, which we never believed to be true. Males were not exactly our cup of tea either. They hadn’t ever been a superior life form or anything of the sort.

           But for some reason, they became our characters.

           We started to write for the reasons all writers write. Then we tried to turn it into something serious. Break out of the mold; abandon what is comfortable. Creativity breeds change.

           But for some reason, we didn’t change our characters.


           The only way to get rid of that twelve-foot shadow was to swing our mood—change our perception. We began to smoke our words; let them float through the air in a swirl. The moment our eyes glazed over, the shadow disappeared. Maybe it didn’t like the smell. Maybe it suffocated. We became separate. It didn’t steer the wheel of our mind anymore. And the body was cold and lonely; stupid and worthless as an ant. Empty, simply empty. When the daze wore off, the blackness came back to its fullness, and we followed it through the house again; stomping up the stairs when it did; slamming doors when it did; reverting back to the TV when it did.

           Eventually, we changed our perception again. We began to drink it to sleep. The taste was bitter at first, but it grew into us. We awoke with cravings, and it awoke, too after the buzz wore off. Our mother offered to share our habits together, but we didn’t. We only shared them with ourselves.

           On those hazy days without the shadow, with just an altered point-of-view, we struggled to keep the “I” down. It was lonely. Left to one. No “we.” No “us.” Just “me,” without the darkness of the shadow to help with the writing. It was one person living for herself. By herself. And she missed the comfort of being sad.

           With drugs came nothing, aside from the memories of what used to be—fuzzy childhood came back; cloudy images of the shadow and a preschool girl barely caught our imagination. The quiet “I” couldn’t think in full sentences. Everything was a shattered fragment of the past. This body couldn’t live without it.

           In time, the shadow began to catch on. It made us follow it to the toilet and dump out every ounce of change we had. It was back to normal again. Somehow, we were comforted. We knew it was what we wanted—two pulses for one heart; two pupils sharing one lens. We quit trying to be one person; one idea; one overwhelming state of mind.

           The gruesome blindness of life brought by the shadow was torturous. We cried and prayed to a god we didn’t believe in to kill us. But with drugs—medication of any kind—we were nothing. It took years to decide that something, even a deep, relentless pain, was better than nothing.

           Who knows where the shadow came from? We don’t even care.

           The “I” died long ago and made a brief appearance in our teenage years. Sure, we could make it come back again. We could smoke, snort, or swallow. Maybe the “I” would turn feminine. Maybe “I” would eat sleep like a zombie and become a mother. Maybe “I” wouldn’t shake like a vibrating gong in between both genders and finally bong out its own name. Maybe we belong together. Neither white, black, male, or female. Just a mush of grey.

© 2008 Underground Voices