(from When Doves Cry, an unpublished manuscript, selected chapters)
When Doves Cry is about my mother and her death from complications of HIV/AIDS in 1993. Beneath all of this, When Doves Cry is a story about the indestructible, transformational longing to be loved that blazes in every beating heart, including my mother’s.
A candid and vulnerable artifact of Chicago’s political and pop cultures in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, seen through the eyes of an outspoken, precocious, sarcastic and tenacious young girl, When Doves Cry is a story of compassion, injustice, and the universal journey home, to the source of the ache—the denial of love. It’s the story of my survival and perseverance under unusual, often harrowing, circumstances. It’s a coming out story, and a coming of age story. It’s a rarely seen window into an early example of a still-silenced demographic—women living with HIV/AIDS.
This excerpt is about our lives before my mom’s diagnosis with HIV, and span from 1984 to 1990.
Everyone knew he was coming to town. Disraeli and I just didn’t know how we were going to be able to go, until one night I overheard mom say, “I cannot wait to see that tiny, sexy fucker!” followed by slurping noises and laughter.
Forgetting to hide that I was eavesdropping, I ran to her, dropped to my knees, and began to beg.
“Please. Please. Pleeeeeeease mom! Please. Disraeli and I are his biggest fans!”
“Do you know how much those tickets are, Emily?”
“But Mom, I know every word to every single song! Not just to Purple Rain, but 1999, too! You know I do, Mom! Mom, please, please, please, please?”
She stared at me—bemused, soft, maternal.
I realized I probably sounded like Marsha Brady freaking out about Davey Jones.
She touched my cheek, and said, “O.K. Em, I’ll figure it out.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
It was freezing the night of the show, but there were so many people crammed into that tiny Datsun 210 that it felt like December in the tropics. Robert, Disraeli’s father, was there. He was always there. I avoided his eyes, and concentrated on Disraeli’s or my mom’s. From the backseat, I studied her waves of road rage and laughter in the rearview mirror as she whipped the tiny, stoned car through weekend traffic, and eventually, the suburbs. I’d never been to the Rosemont Horizon. My first concert, the Jackson Victory Tour, was two months earlier, but that was in the city, at Comiskey Park.
The Rosemont was packed, which meant more than 20,000 people. Our seats were near the top and to the left. Nosebleeds. We were waiting for Sheila E. to open. Mom was wearing a leopard print skirt and big earrings. I sat next to Disraeli, watching the flashes of neon couture pop through the crowd as people climbed over each other to get to their seats. Over stimulated in the best way, I suddenly noticed Disraeli sitting next to me and made a Holy Shit We’re Gonna See Prince face, which he returned with equal enthusiasm, which meant that his eyes looked like golf balls. Just past his head, my mother stood up, looked around, lit a joint, and began to walk up the concrete path toward the bathrooms, and toward her friends.
She looked back at me, and then at her friends in the distance, and stood still, unsure of where to go next.
“Mom! Mom! Thank you for bringing us!”
She relented, and walked back. She voluntarily hugged me. Her hair covered my eyes and I pressed harder, languishing how her collarbone dug into my face. Armpit odor, flowery perfume, marijuana, lipstick from the drug store. I hovered, and nursed the familiarity until she abruptly jerked away. She took a hit off the joint held between her two unpainted fingertips, and smiled at the whole world on the exhalation. An entire row of people joined me to stare as her slender wrist bent to move a delinquent curl from in front of her eyes–a gesture that gave me hope. Simple. Feminine. Self-conscious, like I was, amidst the thousands of other people in torn sweatshirts and leggings and mortared mascara. The angles under her soft skin were buttery and inviting. I grabbed for one as it began to leave, but I wasn’t fast enough.
I yelled to the back of her sashaying hips, which were now clearing a path up the aisle, toward the friends that were still waiting.
I began to disappear behind her.
The curls were not gentle when her head snapped to look back at me, though her earrings—three woven silver crescents that looked like mesh and dangled to her shoulder, came slowly to meet the velocity of her stare. Their tarnished and shiny spots glinted in the now fading lights.
“What, Emily? What?”
Tongue-tied, I could only silently stare.
Where are you going? Why can’t you stay with me. Will you come back when he sings Purple Rain? Please don’t pass out. Or OD. Please.
“Fuck, Emily. I gotta go! Jesus!”
Her body continued its pilgrimage and was inhaled by the furthest right corner. Curls faded into the darkness; leaving only a glimpse of an earring; a white, cupped, short sleeve. Crumbs.
“Mom! Mommy! I love you!”
The last you was a naked outcry that pierced the audience’s sudden, silent beat of anticipation.
My final attempt was joined by a tornado of screaming. We screamed together. An undulating serpentine of sound melted in and out of the skulking fog now meandering its way from the front. Like screaming underwater, or between two pillows—a collective, thunderous and outraged, “Mommmm!”
But there was nothing left of her.
Disraeli touched my arm. I looked to my right. His skin and eyes, an iridescent landscape of sweaty brown sugar and love, glowed in the hum, and his never ending eyelashes framed the gentle, earnest concern that was ever leaking from his soul. His barely thirteen-year-old arms enveloped me like the wings of a Pegasus. I melted into him, and wept.
“Em,” he whispered, and moved my body to face the other way.
We were standing at the top of a mountain, overlooking the dynamic menagerie that could only be found at a concert in 1984. Bobbing hairdos and shiny shoulder pads popped in and out of the spasmodic lightshow of cigarettes cherries and lighter torches. Holy shit. We were about to see Prince.
I joined the masses and lit a cigarette.
Disraeli and I looked at each other, and looked out at the millions of miles between us and the stage, and back at each other again.
He grabbed my hand, and our feet hit the floor as Sheila E’s neon drumstick made its first echo through the cavernous, clamoring, hotbed of fans. We moved through the crowd like aikido masters, ducking and sliding with the current of Sheila E’s slow-building opening drum solo; down the mountain, the neon sticks played the pied piper, as we sailed through the people, almost there; we played limbo with the final metal barricade fence, crawled on our knees through the gum and spilt beer, and arrived. Now Sheila E was no longer a blurry acid trip tracer, but a real life body of hair and breasts and attitude, who screamed into the mike, “Who wants to play with my tamales?”
I raised my arms with the rest of them, and she pulled some guy from the audience. She placed him at arm’s length, looked him up and down, and said, “Nawww. I need at least ten inches.” And grabbed the man by the shoulders launched the poor sucker back in.
“Glamorous Life” made our awkward dancing a throbbing, seamless, adolescent waltz of foreplay. I looked at him, hungry. He looked back, the same. He looked like a man; he looked like his father. The now regularly occurring dialog spiral of shame and confusion began. If I think of Disraeli while his father is…that always ended with an unwinnable clashing of the impossibility of resolution. I didn’t want to do that right here. Right now.
So, I screamed just because, like the way you can scream at a rock show,and obliterate your thoughts into the ether.
The room was gyrating in perfect synchronicity with the band and Sheila E’s hands. The Chicago crowd was going crazy over the horns, like we do. She finished her set, and the resignation of the crowd turned into the brief, understood calm before the anxious anticipation of the headliner began.
I turned toward the back and looked in the direction of where she last was. Squinting, I saw nothing that resembled her. Disraeli smiled and rolled his eyes.
Shy, and somewhat embarrassed for caring, I shifted my focus to people-watching, laughing, smoking cigarettes—you know, hanging out at the Prince and The Revolution concert.
Finally, a speaker crackled. The now impatient throngs assembled in the unified begging and submission that only Prince could elicit. Blood hammered through my veins and arteries, piercing between my legs, and smoldering my young, erect nipples behind the loose, neon pink and black cotton. Desperate, voracious, every molecule in the room beseeched the stage with a requisition for the sex-fueled consumption and redemption the whole country was stuffing and searching for. Everyone’s faith and diabolical desire for freedom pulsed in waiting to be swallowed by an omnipotent ratification, an almighty baptism of the Mephistophelian implications of our desires and transgressions.
The synthetic organ punctured our swollen souls and the incandescence of a billion hearts illuminated the stage before returning to embody the frenzied groove of freedom. Let’s Go Crazy.
Disraeli and I followed him in and out of every room he constructed. We cried when he sang “Free,” and baited and switched during “Take Me With You.”
“Is the water warm enough?”
“Shall we begin?”
Fuck yes, Lisa.
He preserved the sanctity of my battered cassette by going straight into “Darling Nikki,” and D and I reveled in the good fortune of being close enough to be showered with faux guitar jizz at the end.
“The Beautiful Ones,” a hypnotic string of keyboard ballet moves, stroked and softened the crowd.
“Paint a perfect picture.”
I knew Disraeli and I were smiling at each other.
I loved him. He was mine, and I was his.
And then Prince asked me who I wanted, and the dreamscape reconfigured and Disraeli’s face was no longer projected in my mind; it was replaced by his father’s. Even more horrifying, it was then replaced by my mother’s. Prince’s zigzagging riff maintained the dark trance, the entrapment of impossible equations and images now cycling, until the awful merry-go-round fused with the music into a faceless ascension of what seemed like a road paved with hope and possibility. And then it stopped; I was standing there, unrequited and alone, staring at the memory of my mother walking away.
And then, I was saved by the guttural preamble to the one song where anyone’s pieces were allowed to exist in a sultry, resounding celebration.
Dig if you will, a picture.
I heaved and moved my body with the waves of indignation and desire, not bothering to look for any of the characters in my story; I didn’t have to. We were strands, parts of an entangled mass of human shit, only whole when we were together.
I just wanted to dance.
I just wanted to live.
The stagnancy of Northwest Indiana is a particular flavor of hell, a heavy-handed counterpart to the Machiavellian exaltation of the city. Despair couldn’t begin to express the absolute horror in which I now writhed after our sudden and never-explained exodus from the city. We lived a half-hour away, and on a completely different planet.
Prince was probably flailing in the apprehension of the impending bubblegum pleas of gnats like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. Late 1985 was universally stewing in denial, but Northwest Indiana, in a rare assertion of leadership, was already a hotbed of revelatory ignorance and repression.
Umbrella-ed by a literal stench, in Griffith, Indiana, there was definitely a war going on. An unapologetic and authoritative bashing of even the wimpiest attempt at nonconformity. Tears for Fears crooned its multidimensional tale of unrequited love and world domination on WB96’s top ten, and then through the speakers of every boom box on the block, which was unknowingly agitating an intrinsic-seeming haze that could have only been derived by a collective and unrelenting devotion to yesterday’s rock and roll ruse, “Hip to be Square.”
Not to mention, everything was ugly.
Our new house was on a street with a devious trickster of a name, that even I, an accelerated seventh grade dropout, was confounded by. “Rensselaer” was the perfect namesake to my new and illogical existence.
Browned and dulled green patchwork attempts marked every territorial front, and, affront. My very occasional fantasies of the other side of the tracks had never evolved far enough along to consider whether a neighbor’s face would exude disgust and disdain at the mere sight of me. I’d never gone past the perfectly kempt square of grass that armored the home where a jubilant family loved and supported each other over a home cooked meal.
It was, however, a house. A third-class citizen of a house according to suburban hierarchical dogma, but still, a singular structure whose walls stood independently of any other house. It could have felt like progress or class busting, compared to the rusted chain-linked stockade I’d until recently occupied, but I knew that we weren’t any richer, and that my fairytales didn’t include a character named Robert in tow.
There was no escape; the sidewalks only led me to identical streets in a purgatorial and all too real imprisonment in the land of inertia and boredom. There were no buses. No alleys. No alcoves or all-nights diners in walking distance. No Disraeli, whom I couldn’t even call on the phone because he’d disappeared completely. No Danielle, whose number I never knew. It wasn’t just that I felt alone; I simply was, alone.
It was late summer. Beginning to acclimate to my fated ambivalence, I eventually bothered to leave my room, a broiling attic with a door that could lock, to explore the ultimately anti-climactic horizon. To the left, our street made a T. On its left was nothing. Two blocks to its right was a park. Even I, the optimist temporarily possessed by futility, couldn’t deny the potential of the uncemented and vibrantly green four-block circumference of flat, grassy meadowland.
On my first venture, with the comfort of anonymity on my side, I resurrected the cartwheel into the splits, sometimes channeling my aimless and constant outrage into a brilliant succession of only sometimes half-nailed dismounts. But days later, even the shiny abandon of public cartwheels was stifled by the pervasive murkiness of nothing special.
Mine was a humid resignation in the infinite expanse of mediocrity. It wasn’t just that everywhere I looked was a sallow and sagging mirroring of my skin color, or that everything tasted like boiled socks dipped in MSG and ketchup, or that the thoroughfares were speckled, lifeless stretches without blaring horns or sirens; it was the absence of art that proved to be Indiana’s most gut wrenching offense.
There was no sudden glimpse of Picasso’s steely sculpture from the window seat of the Jeffery Express. There was no turning a corner to suddenly stumble upon the stunning architectural prowess of a painstakingly, masterfully constructed museum like one could do, while going nowhere in particular, on Lake Shore Drive.
And then, there was my home life.
He was there when I woke up, and when I went to bed.
I called my father and begged him to send me to a therapist. He did. After several months, she said,
“I don’t understand exactly why you wanted to come here, Emily. You seem to have a clear understanding of who your mother is and why she’s doing what she’s doing. You take care of yourself. You’re back in school. Why are you here?”
“I can’t tell you.”
She said, “Of course you can. Anything you say is completely confidential.”
I continued my silence, which was now armed with the comfort of The Color Purple by Alice Walker, under my pillow. Robert had given it to me, along with the order to read it immediately. He said that only then could I begin to understand the suffering experienced by an African American man.
While I’d never had even the slightest inclination to deny the reality of living in a patriarchal, white supremacy-run country founded on murder and lies, and built up with the hands of Indigenous and multi-cultural slaves who were confined by gruesome and brazen brutality and injustice, I’ll admit, he was right. After reading the book, I then knew even more about the cycles of horror, that, hopefully, weren’t somewhere-out-there, making Disraeli feel anymore fucked over than he’d already been by genetics.
But that wasn’t all that I’d learned.
When Shug sang to her sister, I learned how to name hope, and know faith. When Celie longed for Shug’s body and heart, I was granted permission, and membership, to the your-feeelings-don’t-have-to-be-a-dirty-secret-society-of-badass-women, who could choose to kill their enslavers with a freshly sharpened razor, but decided to choose themselves, instead.
The only period of time that Robert didn’t touch me over his eighteen-month reign, he was on vacation in California for two weeks, and I had been thirteen years old for almost exactly three months.
The first week he was gone, I told the therapist everything.
She said she was proud of me.
The next week, she said she was sorry, but since I was currently being molested, we had to tell my mother, and call the Department of Child and Family Services. I begged her not to, but she explained that it was beyond her control as a mandated reporter.
She called for my mom in the waiting room, who came in, and sat down beside me.
The therapist said:
“Emily has something to tell you.”
Instead, I began to cry.
With the therapist’s coaxing, I told her that Robert had been touching me, hurting me, raping me, for a year and a half. My mother screamed. Everyone in the building must have heard her.
Then, she said:
What are saying?
You fucking liar!
How dare you lie!
Get your coat.
We got in the car. She screamed some more.
“Did you suck his dick?
Did he eat your pussy?
Did you want it?
Did you like it?
You fucking slut.
You goddamn whore.
I hate you.”
She spit in my face at a stoplight. Some landed on my mouth, and my stomach rolled and heaved. I wiped it away and tried not to vomit. I hate you too.
“I know you’re lying, Emily.
You fucking liar.
You’re always trying to ruin my life.”
Robert came back two nights later.
In a small room with red carpeting and too much furniture, she said:
“Robert, Emily says that you touched her. That you fucked her. That you’ve been doing these things to her for a long time. Is this true?”
I don’t know why she’s saying all of that shit.
I guess she just doesn’t want us to be friends anymore.”
I’d been on the floor, curled into a ball, in the corner, barricaded behind the same rocking chair she’d used, in a far away land, to sing me to sleep, as a newborn.
I stood up.
“You fucking liar!
How can you lie like that?”
His response was to wrap his arm around my mother’s shoulders, and the two of them walked out of the room, leaving me standing there, alone.
I never saw my therapist again. I wish I could say the same about Robert, but that wasn’t the case. He didn’t live with us anymore, but was regularly parked in the driveway to drop something off, blaring Miles Davis or Bruce Springsteen, or on the other end of every other time the phone rang.
“Lemme talk to your mother.”
I would always hesitate, wanting to say…something, but what can you say to an impossible to kill, mother condoned, disease of a human? To someone whom you’re perfectly aware of just how far they’re willing to go? Someone whom masterfully orchestrated gruesome convolution and familial desecration, and knowingly continued to supply crack to a woman so fucking low she’d picked him over her own kid. Someone who could look you straight in the eye, and lie about committing some of the most atrocious deeds one can do, and not just to me, but to the possibility for me to ever trust my mother again? Not to mention, I’d lost my best friend. Not to mention, whom else had he done it to? Not to mention…
And it was usually around this section of the loop that I’d locate my mom, drop the phone on her bed, and walk away.
The park down the street is where I went. Cartwheels were replaced by sitting on the cannon of an actual army tank, a disturbing park accessory and excellent perch to contemplate injustice.
I did try to get away. I called the Department of Children and Family Services.
“Hi, I was told that my therapist had to call you to tell you that I’m, well, was, but might still be being, well, can I just give you my name? I think you’re supposed to have it.”
And then I was transferred, but more prepared.
“Yes, hi. I’m thirteen years old, and a mandated reporter made a report about my mother physically and emotionally abusing me, and her boyfriend, um, doing things, her boyfriend, he…I’d like to be put in a halfway house.”
“What’s your name, dear?
“Hmmm. Well I don’t see anything. Let me see if (so and so) knows. One second, dear.
And then I was transferred, again.
“Hello. My name is Emily Stern. I would like to get out of my house. You should have a report made by my therapist that states that I’m thirteen years old and have been molested by my mother’s boyfriend for over a year and a half. I’d like to be placed in a halfway house.”
“Oh, well that’s just terrible. Emily Stern, is it?”
“Let me see—hold on a minute while I look?”
“Hi, yes, well, it looks like we must have lost your file. Take care. Bye,” and hung up.
Stunned, I leaned into the doorframe, and listened to the empty clicks eventually disappear, locking the door behind me again. And again. Again.
My plan B was to find a baseball bat and a ride to the Southside; one that I consistently rejected because everyone knew I’d be the one thrown in jail. My daydreams rarely stretched past what was feasible, with the least harm to myself. Better to know the options and strategize from there. Though, sometimes, on the soft grass instead of the missile launcher, I savored the candy-eyed fantasies of what could have been.
“He did what???”
“He…he… he touched me and forced himself on me. He…made me…He started a year and a half ago and he said that you would hate me if I ever told you. I’m so sorry mom. I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. I should have stopped him. He was just so mean and scary!”
She’d jump up and scream “Ahhhrghhhhhhahhhh!!! Nooooo! Not my baby!” and then lunge toward me.
I’d prepare for the impact by breathing all the way out, so when she hit me I was more like a feather than a rock. But the collision of her fist to my face would never come. Instead, she’d go to the phone on the therapist’s desk.
“Give me the mutherfucking police! I want to talk to a chief. I want to talk to the head of the children’s unit! NOW!”
I’d stare at her, then my therapist. She’d raise her eyebrows and smile an “I told you so.” We’d listen to my mother yell at the cops.
“You’re damn right I want a social worker. I want a social worker and fifty cops and an army waiting at my front door! My daughter has been molested and if you don’t lock him up I’m gonna slit his throat the second I see him. I’ll be there in a half hour.”
The base of the phone would crack in the corner by how hard she’d slam the receiver. The therapist and I would huddle and wait for mom’s breathing to go from loud and fast to normal.
My shoulders would meet my ears in confusion; my mouth would try to find words, but instead, looked like a marionette with a busted jaw.
“Mommy? You’re not mad at me?”
She’d rush over, and fall to her knees at my feet. She’d stare into my eyes and press my hands against her heart and burst into tears. The therapist would press play on her boom box and a muzak version of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” would fill the room. My mother would gently grab my chin, and turn it, so that I was looking into her eyes, and say:
“My beautiful Emily. I would never blame you for anything. How could I? You’re a child! He was an adult! A sick, disgusting, twisted piece of shit of a human being who took advantage of my baby girl. I’m so sorry, honey. If it’s anyone’s fault it’s mine. I should have protected you from such a horrible, awful person. I shouldn’t have been doing all of those drugs and ignoring my baby. I never should have let him into our home. I never should have taken a chance with the most important thing I’ve ever done, my only real achievement, my best and most beautiful accomplishment was when I had you! I failed you. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ll make it right. I promise, baby girl. I’ll never touch another drug again. Oh Emily, can you ever forgive me?”
And I’d sob into her shoulder while she ran her fingers through my hair. She’d whisper that she loved me over and over again, until the tears stopped.
A year and a half later, I lived in a thrifted slate-gray and pinstriped trench coat that reached my calves; men’s polyester plaid golf pants; and a black T-shirt. Our new street, in a new sector of regional Indiana hell, was simply named, “Henry.” The dead end, which ran a quarter block over and parallel to the train tracks, was a stubby drag in The Township of Highland, the slightly more bustling version of its neighboring predecessor, Griffith.
Nearly fifteen years old, I’d finally gotten my period, after years of thinking I was so coated in evil I’d have a spontaneous hysterectomy before I could vote. I’d learned the phrase, “do the drapes matched the curtains?” from my very short lived friends with benefits neighbor Mike Spitz’s mom, who apparently didn’t believe I was a natural blond; and was on my fourth cassette of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, because they kept disappearing.
I was pretty sure my brother, David, had swiped the first copy to listen to while he smoked a joint on the drive home from his last visit, which normally would have been fine because we shared music—but I was still pissed at him because of what he’d done the last time he’d been there.
David, whom had been living on the fringes of my life for the last few years, was now around more frequently. He’d fallen in love, moved in with a woman named Aimee, but it seemed that perhaps they’d parted ways. He now lived with Jane, AKA Jano, AKA Jano-Wano, who was an ER doctor with a smooth radio-DJ voice and the best pot. She and my brother had met when I was eleven; they both worked at Illinois Masonic Hospital. My brother was a Unit Clerk and Jane was the ER doctor. They became friends, and were now roommates. She had a swanky apartment on the North side, equipped with tons of food, decent cable, and a bathtub with jets. David’s new swanky existence was all the more reason to have some compassion for his little sister and not be such a douche, like the last time he’d visited.
At the end of an argument with my mother about why I locked the door to the bathroom, the gist of which being that she was pissed that she couldn’t pop in at her leisure while I was using the bathroom, she’d told me to go fuck myself, and I’d retorted with my favorite line from the V.C. Andrews’ book Flowers in the Attic, “Damn you to hell, (Corrine Foxworth)!” and went to my room, slammed the door, turned the radio on loud, and snuck out through my window to run a quick errand.
Upon my return from the Speedway gas station, where I’d bought a pack of Camels, I was unable to catapult myself back in because my window had been crudely and permanently nailed shut. I went around to the front, threw the door open, and screamed.
“How fucking dare you permanently nail my window shut! I know you don’t keep up with the whole parenting thing, but that is a fire hazard! Haven’t you already done enough in this lifetime to try to kill me?”
“What the fuck are you talking about? Fuck you, Emily.”
David, standing in the doorway of the kitchen, sporting a candy pink button down, embellished with a cutting edge chic-in-the-city bolero tie, busted out laughing.
“Really, Dave? Really? You’re such a dick. I’m never making you a mix tape again!”
What’s more obnoxious than a sibling playing Gestapo?
I’d assumed that one of my friends from school must have absconded with the rest of my copies of The Wall after they’d repeatedly hinted they were worried about my recent obsession with discussing Nihilism during lunch in the cafeteria. At first, I think they were as into it as anything else we’d talk about. They never shied away from deconstructing U2’s Joshua Tree, or the meaning behind Death of a Salesman, or how insane it was that our entire educational administration revolved around teenage boys in sweatpants that seemed to communicate solely by grunting or yelling, “Yeaaahhh! Trojans Rule!” which in other parts of the universe could have implied the success of a hot one night stand, but in their case, it meant that they loved football—and if you’d have asked any of us, probably each other.
A few of my friends even knew snippets about my childhood. My friend Jeremy, one of the first people I’d asked over to my house, was a brooding and brilliant pianist. We were hanging out in my room when mom came blasting into the driveway. Jeremy, having both manners and uninhibited curiosity, jumped up to meet her. We stood outside of her car, me—awkwardly, as she got out. Jeremy smiled and put his hand out to introduce himself. My mother stared at him, and said, “Who the fuck are you?”
Jeremy, an earnest human, stumbled backwards in shock, but continued his task, and said, “Hiya, Mrs. Stern. I’m Jeremy. It’s really great to meet you.”
To which she replied, “What the FUCK? You just ruined my geraniums, you asshole!”
Jeremy and I looked down, and sure enough, when he’d stumbled backwards, his man-sized foot had indeed stepped into a brown ceramic pot of—already dead geraniums, their corpses now shriveled twigs baking in the sun.
Mortified, I yelled, “Jesus Mom! Can you not completely ruin what minute chance I have to actually have a friend?”
Ignoring me, She gangbusted through the back door like an angry ogre being chased—a histrionic display an outside observer may have related to the geranium situation, but what my sister and me called, “Mom’s home.”
Jeremy and I silently watched her entrance until she kicked the door closed behind her. I tried to smile, but probably looked more like I was asking a question amidst having a severe gas pain. Jeremy smiled for real, hugged me, said he’d see me soon, and left, like any sane person should. I was genuinely surprised when, later that evening, someone knocked on the front door. My mom answered, and there stood Jeremy with a ceramic pot of actually living geraniums.
Jake was another safe human. He hadn’t met my mom, but he was the cutest and least offensive member of the faux gang of moped-riding punk boys that I sometimes traded music with. The others were obsessed with Nazi and Jew jokes, and thought it was hilarious to actually burn a cross on my lawn.
Scott, and Leigh Lawrence, and the Hoadly brothers, were all safe to a point. Susan, as well. She would join in my ongoing spell-casting for a life that didn’t suck and homebrewed and unofficial Wiccan tendencies to talk to the dirt and pray to the trees, and her mom would feed me from their fridge, even though they were on food stamps too. Even Megan, who, in many ways, I couldn’t stand because she was even more broke than our family, yet insisted on blabbering about movie stars and current hairdos, and moving to “Cali.” She’d earned her stripes after my mom overheard me talking shit with Jessica about Megan trying to date some guy I had a crush on, and in a moment of innovative parental support, Mom yelled, “Heeeey Em! That slut Megan’s on the phone for you!” right into the receiver, when she’d called that night to apologize. There were a few other people, but no one that ever elicited the same feelings of safety that Disraeli had. That section of my heart was an abandoned building.
I’d try to explain the Nihilism thing.
“It isn’t that I’ve deemed all existence meaningless. It’s like, more like, I wish I could believe that life is meaningless”
I didn’t, however, go on to explain that Pink Floyd’s song “Comfortably Numb” was tantalizing. If there was any possibility that my reality, and all sociopolitical fucked-up-ness, could be replaced with a year-long subscription—hell, even day pass—to the dominant culture’s denial of the existence of abuse, violence, and the hierarchy of oppression, I was ready to sign. And even more enticing than that, was the possibility that absolutely nothing existed.
Of course, the reality was that converting to Nihilism was never gonna happen within the confines of my all to real and all too shitty high school existence. I would have been so much happier if I’d hung out with the metal heads more. They were way more punk that the punks.
By the time I was sixteen years old, the world’s hypocrisy had lost its comedic flair. It was fucking with my head. It was fucking with my happiness. I sang “Kiss Off” by the Violent Femmes in the hallways, and in my sleep. I wasn’t homicidal; I was pissed. Pissed at the lying, the faking, the matching hairdos and Keds. The perfectly coiffed stabby claw bangs that everyone haughtily flipped around—like they were actually the ones who tipped Cindy Crawford off on the latest, hottest, dumbest, ugliest trend next to Z Cavericcis. I was done with acquaintances crying themselves to sleep because they could no longer continue deluding themselves into believing that blowjobs weren’t really sex, and came to terms with the truth by becoming proselytizing Born Again Christians. And for the love of all things good, I couldn’t hear one more second of the fucking awful music. No! I didn’t want to Wang Chung tonight, and Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, who littered the airwaves, were lucky we were “never alone now” because I would have punched them.
Most of the theater kids, my sister Jessica included—and emphatically so—belonged to clubs like D.A.R.E (the don’t-do-drugs club—again with the Nancy Reagan bullshit), and another called Snowball, which held emotionally supportive weekend lock-ins where they supposedly loved abstinence, a drug free lifestyle, and talking about their feelings during eight-hour “back-rub trains” in a school gymnasium—and I say supposedly because several of the superstar snowballers were also the region’s superstar blow dealers.
High school revealed itself to be much more difficult to deal with than institutional classism or living in a patriarchy. Teenage injustices weren’t theoretical; they were an acute violation to my daily aesthetic. Northwest Indiana was like being out at a decent but not awesome club called the South Side of Chicago and having the sixth-grade graduating class of Our Lady of Grace Elementary School slip a cultural roofie in my Tab, leaving me to wake up in a mess of teen-male-sports ideologies and virginal young ladies who took it in the butt to ensure they’d still be marriage material.
My sister, Jessica, loved those “Just Say No to Drugs” retreats. And that shit loved her. I eventually hated going to school with her. Everyone thought she was amazing and adorable and “sooooooo nice.” I thought they were just jealous that she had Dolly Parton boobs and was a tease, unlike me, who had more of a Rizzo from Grease philosophy, which was very much in line with my totally disconnected from my entire body and emotions philosophy; I believe in consistency. The truth about Jessica, however, was that she was nice, and genuinely cared about me, and probably maintained whatever buzzes of authentic ingenuity and integrity pumping through those Snowball backrub iron horses. She’d once cried real tears and said, “But Emily, if your socks don’t match, people might laugh at you. You might be left all alone.” We’d taken opposite routs to self-acceptance; Jessica chose to try to fit in, and I’d carved an identity out of being different.
I didn’t feel alone. I liked being a pop-a-round member of the student body. Any rendition of home was suspect. The only subdivision I consistently avoided was Jockville, despite their seemingly infinite fascination with my hair (Hey Stern! What’s your haircolor gonna be this week?), my fashion (Hey Stern! Are you ever gonna take that Ministry T-Shirt off?). And their most passionately incessant inquiry? My secret-even-to-me identity of weirdo high school student obsessed with politics by day—bonafide Satan-loving descendent of Abgail in The Crucible , which we’d been reading in English, witch by night (Hey Stern! You’re gonna burn, Stern! You’re gonna burn!).
The bravest of the bunch, JT, armored in his blue and gold football jersey and ambivalence to math, let his curiosity get the best of him on the first day of geometry class.
“Hey, you’re Emily Stern, right?”
“I’ve heard about you. You practice witchcraft and sacrifice cats?”
“You know, you’d better fuck off or I’m gonna put a curse on you.”
Which, he did.
The biggest hemorrhoid was Neal, the head of the school wrestling team. We had public speaking class together. He was a wannabe KKK member in a leotard and letterman’s jacket, who’d appointed himself the president of the “Keep Indiana Drowning in White Supremacy” club. His plan of attack was to constantly provide up-to-the-minute and live commentary as I was giving presentations to the class.
Me: “Martin Luther King, JR played an unendingly vital role in the Civil Rights Movement…”
Neal: (in a loud whisper from the front row) “You wanna suck big black dick, you fucking nigger lover? Oh, yeah…oh, yeah, you love that black dick, dontcha? You wanna stick your mouth all over that? Oh, yeah.”
It was no secret in Highland, Indiana, that my mom fucked black guys, and just like the asshole who owned the 76 gas station on the corner of Highway and Kennedy, everyone had an opinion. The gas-station guy always took my mom’s hand when she was trying to prepay and said, “Why do you want to mess with those nasty, disgusting people? You’re so… pretty. How about I take you out for dinner sometime?” My mother never gave him one of her pleasantly punched-in-the-face smiles. She gave him the “Go fuck yourself, you fucking piece of shit” smile, which of course, was just a different route to turning that guy on.
After a while, Neal took his show on the road, and included the corridors, cafeteria, and random run-ins at Burger King. I actually did try to explain why what he was saying was so completely fucked. I also suggested his obsession with big dicks was a sign of latent homosexuality. Then he and his tribe of genius jock friends started calling me the “Sermon Girl,” (Stern! You better pray!), when I walked past their designated popular sportos-only benches at the entrance of the school, AKA hate monger headquarters, which I assumed was hand-picked and sanctioned by the administration.
As was assigned, I was giving an informational speech about Mayan and Aztec art, a departure from my usual analyses of racism, AIDS, or why Ronald Reagan was paving the road to hell; and as usual, Neal chose to sit in the front row to assert his intellectual prowess. I was, at first, genuinely curious to see if he was going to mix it up a little with some immigration jokes. He didn’t; it was the same old Americana. It may have been his sheer disregard for innovation and craft that made me bother to pause, in the middle of a sentence about a vase, to look directly into his eyes and say, “Stop,” which, he didn’t.
When I finished, he followed me to my seat, going on and on about dicks and black people. I told him—three times—to stop. I warned him that I was on the edge. He continued. And then, without much thought, and with great precision, I turned around and punched him in the face. He tumbled like a domino down two levels of our tiered classroom. Mrs. Petrin ran over and asked what the hell was going on.
“Neal wouldn’t stop saying racist, sexist, fucked up shit, so I punched him.”
The two of us watched Neal slowly drag his ass to the top of the classroom. “Neal!,” said Mrs. Petrin, “If you can’t keep your mouth shut, I’m going to send you to the office. And, Emily!”
I attempted to look remorseful, but blew it and started to crack up instead.
“Please take your seat.”
Near the end of my sophomore year, I decided to kill myself. It was no coincidence that it wasn’t long after the one consistently good thing in my life went south. I’d had the abysmal epiphany that jerking off to my singular and many-years-long fantasy—the one where around forty girls were going down on me—meant I was a fucking LESBIAN. Really, it was the last fucking straw.
So, at three in the morning, I put in a mix tape—a present from punk-rock cute boy Jake, with whom I was even more enamored, because he was dating Jen, whom, in spite of her impassioned and uninformed Anita Bryant to orange juice like defense of Morrissey’s first solo album, she was still the hottest girl in school.
When I pressed “play” on my boom box, The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Nine Million Rainy Days” came on. I didn’t write a note. The people who knew me wouldn’t be surprised, the people that thought they knew would think it was a botched ritual, and the ones who were my mother-freebasing-in-the-kitchen wouldn’t notice anyway.
What I really wanted to do was kill all my classmates then kill myself. I know that’s completely insane, but at the time they felt like a spiral-permed mass of evil conservatism. I had it all planned out. For the record, I had this fantasy before the movie Heathers came out and way before the Columbine massacre. My suicide scene was also better than almost anything on television besides Roseanne, and being a theater geek, I often saw situations in dramatic structure or script format.
Opening Scene: Pep Rally, High School Gymnasium
My hair is six different shades of burgundy, purple, and fuchsia, almost down to my ass, super curly and huge. I’m wearing sixteen-hole oxblood Doc Martin combat boots that I stole from a rich kid in the parking lot of Burger King. I jumped him. He didn’t even fight back. The boots were big, but I shoved two halves of a washcloth inside, against my toes, and they worked fine. (Fantasies are all about the details. It draws out the drama and makes the feelings last longer.) I painted the boots black with my mom’s old acrylics so he wouldn’t recognize them. Of course he probably bought them with his bar mitzvah money.
The pep rally starts, and the whole school is there. My eyes land on the thirty-five-year-old assistant principal, Mrs. Hoyda. Her fashion is slightly above school-marm dowdy, her demeanor nun-slash-prison-guard, but her ass and tits are bizarrely perfect. Her contradictions act like a drug on my brain. She announces the cheerleaders. They’re about to blast off their chairs, their eyes bulging with a demented need to please, their faces painted blue and gold like electroclash Oompa-Loompas. Sometimes I killed them after they performed, because I was still trying to crack the code for how Jennifer Veneble’s hair didn’t move, at all, ever, when she did a backflip. But usually it went like this. I grab the mic from Sweet Ass and scream, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! I have an important announcement!”
“What is it? You need to sit down immediately!” she says, indignant, grabbing the mic back.
“It’s really important! I promise!”
She hands me the microphone.
“I just wanted to tell you that:
I hate you and all that you stand for.
I have an extremely contagious blood, spit, and airborne disease.”
I reach into my Docs and pull out the most awesome dagger, which I stole from the army-navy surplus store. I carefully and in slow motion slit my throat, the camera in my mind’s eye on rollers doing a 360-degree pan as I hit the jugular, sometimes one single arc of spurting blood, sometimes a splatterfest, depending on whether my mood is Sam Raimi/Italian horror classic or eighties cheese, but always the blood spurts out of me and into everyone’s screaming mouths. The money shot. The most brilliant murder-suicide in all of northwest Indiana’s history.
On the night of my actual suicide attempt, I didn’t have a knife nearly as cool. It was just a paring knife in need of sharpening that my mom had gotten at a thrift store. For backup, I also had a razor from her hairstylist supplies. I ran my finger along the knife’s blade and rattled off, in chronological order, my list of reasons to move forward with this decision. I’d made it to somewhere around twelve years old when the phone rang. I grabbed it before it woke someone up.
“Hello? Who is this?”
“Jake. What are you doing?”
“Nothing. Why are you calling me? It’s really late.”
“What are you doing?” He was acting like he knew something. How could he know anything?
“I’m going to bed. Look, I have to go.”
“Why do you have to go? What are you doing? Tell me what you’re doing,
Emily. I have a bad feeling…”
“Jake, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I have to go. Please don’t call
I hung up, grabbed the knife, and turned off the light. I felt for my veins, which I’d practiced doing many times since I was ten years old. I knew what to do. Up and down not across. A long, deep, fast incision. I dug the tip in, closed my eyes, pressed down and began to drag it down my arm.
This is YOUR choice. You can do whatever you want, Emily. This is your life. No matter what you choose, you’ll be fine.
The point of the knife popped through layers of skin the same way the sewing needle had in fifth grade when I pierced my ears six times at a slumber party. It felt good to control the pain with my breathing. Then something I hadn’t considered popped into my head: What if I can never sing again? What if there isn’t any music where I’m going?
“Goddamn it!” I said out loud.
I wrapped a clean sock around the barely bleeding gash, slid the knife between my mattresses, smoked a cigarette, and fell right to sleep.
Saved by art.
My friend Scott came over the next day to work on a project. We were involved in theater stuff at school. I didn’t know him very well, but I liked him. He was often part of the lunchtime philosophy and politics crew, and he loved Monty Python, which was as metropolitan as it got in Northwest Indiana.
Sitting on the eight-by-eight piece of grass behind my house, he asked me if I’d been depressed lately.
I resisted replying with, “By ‘lately?’ do you mean since I graduated from cell to fetus?” and instead said, “Did you steal my copy of The Wall?”
“Maybe,” he said.
“Scott. You don’t have to worry about me. I mean, I appreciate it, but if I ever decide to kill myself, it’s OK. I’m not crazy, and I’m not scared.”
Scott tried to find the right words. He said my life would get better and I didn’t really want to die. I felt the dissimilarity of our histories in his plea. His eyes, blue behind his rose-colored glasses, were filled with earnest concern and reassurance and hope. But Scott hadn’t seen what I’d seen. Hope is for those who’ve lost faith. My faith was intact. My faith was in my rock–solid knowing that there was no logic to humanity, and the only true moments of happiness in my life had been built by me. Perhaps Scott was trying to convince himself. “Look, I understand everything you’re saying,” I told him. “What I’m saying is that no matter what I decide to do, it’s OK. I’ll be OK. You’ll be OK. My family will be OK. And more important, this is my body and life, and I get to do whatever the hell I want with them.”
I took his hand and looked into his eyes and face and said, “All the hype is bullshit. Killing yourself is a personal choice. Anyway, I was going to do it last night but decided not to, so you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Scott tried to laugh, but his very own awful flower had taken root in him. He was never the same after that conversation. He began to question everything he’d ever known. I may have popped a Sunday School induced religious pimple of doubt that had already festered for years. I’d done something else that day, for myself, which I’d needed to do for years.
My suicide attempt, which, let’s be real, wasn’t much of one, was still a triumph because it was the first time I remember commanding ownership over my body, and all my other parts and pieces as opposed to a non-consensual buffet for rapists and bullies.
That night I was in the kitchen, digging in a cabinet for my favorite Jays Hot Stuff potato chips, while my mom was doing dishes.
She said, “Honey?”
“Have you been depressed lately?”
I laughed. She looked confused, which made me laugh harder. “No, Mom. I’m fine.”
We got our first Christmas tree when I was seventeen. It was Herb’s idea. I was excited, still wishing that any kind of borrowed illusion of family values could elicit a long-term, blissful departure from our deviant John-Waters-meets-New-Jack-City existence. In 1986, when my mother first started dating Herb, he had movie-star handsomeness. At twenty six years old—with his angular facial structure and riveting features, hilly biceps, six-pack, and tight, well-manicured cornrows—he was the South-Side housing projects raised, ex-gang-member doppelganger of the smokin’-hot car thief in Adventures in Babysitting.
By December 1990, Herb no longer dazzled and distracted with good looks or rippled appendages. He reeked of bile and B.O. and genitalia. His eyes couldn’t focus right away when I asked him a question. His arms—once confident, throbbing, dense masses of exotic, mystical, martial-arts-related knowledge—were pock-ridden noodles.
My mom and Herb had purchased the tree from the parking lot of Jewel grocery store. When Herb carried it into the house, he stumbled and fell onto the couch. My mother, dressed in an African safari-print skirt and a white button-down blouse, tied in the front at the waist, laughed, speedy and hysterical, behind him. We dressed the tree with ornaments from Walgreens. After we finished, I stood in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, listening to my mother and Herb fuck as I stared at the blinking lights that mocked our attempt to be normal. I was a little resentful because I was trying to method-act strategize for my role in the primetime Christmas pick-any-sitcom episode where I played the punk-rock wacky eldest daughter in a loving family. I looked down at my skull-and-crossbones T-shirt and my nearly shredded blue-and-white plaid old-man pajama pants with the collapsed elastic and snickered as I thought about how the show that was really playing out was more a cross between Drugstore Cowboy, Mommie Dearest, and Roseanne. I was happy though. I wanted a holiday, even if it was no more than giving in to the commercially driven, spiritually vacant, capitalistic version of normalcy. Even with my skepticism and snark, I wanted to play that role in that TV show; I wanted to experience a family Christmas. I had six months left of high school, decent enough grades to graduate, and a plan to move to New York City and try out for Broadway shows while I wrote my life story and poetry about people on the subway and earned money busking in Central Park. I just had to make it through my final semester.
On Christmas morning, my mom made my favorite spinach-and-Parmesan quiche with its crunchy, brown patches of cheese on top and delicious crust with buttery, charred black tips, and we opened presents.
She gave me:
Red tapered candles in a standard-size envelope, unsealed, with a thin red ribbon wrapped around it.
A biography of Beatrix Potter.
A pack of cigarettes.
I liked everything.
My big present came from my brother’s friend Jane, AKA Jano-Wano.
Her gift to me was a brand-new Brother word processor. When I typed, the words showed up on a one-inch screen, and I could see the text and go back and correct it, just like on a computer. I loved that it felt expensive and modern while still feeling like a typewriter. It was where I would write books and poetry, maybe even the essays that would allow me to be the first girl in my family to graduate from college.
Christmas night I ran an extension cord from my room into the four-by-four downstairs bathroom that smelled like fabric softener and mildew and had a working fan that made me feel better about chain-smoking. I put the word processor on a folding chair in front of the toilet and began to write.
Two days later, my mother called our house, collect, crying, because her car had been stolen from the parking lot near her job as a makeup artist at Bloomingdale’s in the Water Tower shopping center. I innterrupted her crying with questions and deciphered that she and Herb had ridden in together that morning. When she returned to the parking garage after work, her car was gone.
Jessica and I weren’t that shocked by her phone call because a few minutes earlier we’d discovered that the TV, VCR, and microwave had vanished, along with Jessica’s big Christmas present, an eighty-eight-key Casio keyboard from my father.
I hadn’t yet had a chance to begin my descent to the basement. When we hung up, I lit a cigarette, walked downstairs, and stood outside the door of the bathroom where I knew the word processor was no longer sitting on a folding chair. I actually felt its absence like a wound in physical space. Finally, I opened the door enough to check—a masochistic afterthought.
Sometimes the cards line up so that what should be a random shitty thing turns into a hit from God. That word processor had been my ticket to freedom—my one chance to have something I couldn’t afford. Do I think Herb wanted to take all that from me? Not really. He just wanted money for drugs and wasn’t thinking about me. It wasn’t personal but elemental. Herb probably didn’t mean to give me Christmas only to take it away.
When my mom came home, she was hysterical—screaming and growling and sobbing, executing an Oscar-worthy “I’ve been robbed” meltdown. I wasn’t sympathetic. I stood a few feet away from her and watched her performance. I was happy that she was suffering and hoped it might make her hit bottom. I didn’t believe her pain either. What could she have stolen that was of actual value, that meant anything at all? She threw the banana-shaped phone and her keys and a stack of magazines. In the three feet between her bedroom and the living room, she swirled like a third-grade modern-ballet impression of a hurricane, slamming the door and screaming and opening it and starting the cycle again. The door, the keys, the magazines, my face—no one object was more important than any other; all were equally empty of value and open to demolition. I saw this, too, as impersonal. As I floated high up in the place where I went, the cause-and-effect succession of calamities had no identifiable source, no reason. It simply was. I went to my room after she landed on the floor, whimpering and whispering, “Why?”
Then Herb showed up in my mom’s car. I knew he was there because I heard them screaming louder than my Peter Murphy tape, which I’d been rewinding for an hour, replaying the song, “Cuts You Up.”
My mother’s story was this: She and Herb had left that morning and driven into the city. She handed the parking attendant the keys in the same lot she always used. Herb planned to meet up with her when she got off around five. My mother went to work. That was all she knew. What I imagined happened next was that Herb tried to pick up a trick on Michigan Avenue before returning to the parking lot and asking the attendant for my mother’s keys. Which the attendant gave him, because why wouldn’t he? They’d arrived together.
Now, in our living room, Herb pleaded, “Toni! Juice! Baby! Calm down, baby! I didn’t do anything! I swear! You know I’d never do anything to you!”
I left my room and returned to the doorway, where I recently had conjured the Christmas spirit, and watched the two of them. My mom moaned like a dying animal between deep, heaving sobs that made her teeth chatter. Herb stood next to our most civilized possession, an upright piano that had been my dad’s when he was a boy. It was solid and wood and displayed books of music that no one knew how to play. The blinking lights of the Christmas tree felt like the laugh track of a studio audience. Then my mom stormed off to her room and slammed the door.
Herb walked over to me and placed his hand on my shoulder. I saw fresh track marks at the bend of his arm. He leaned in real close and whispered, “I didn’t do anything. I’m not the one who stole everything, I swear. I think I know the guy who took your stuff. I can help you find him.”
I leaned into his face, real close, and whispered, “Get my fucking word processor back, you stupid fucking piece of shit.”
My mom and Herb ended up staying together. I never saw my word processor again.
Only a few weeks before, my mother had told me a story about when she was a teenager—one of less than a handful she’d ever told me. When she was sixteen or seventeen, she was dating a boy she’d really liked, and he’d told her he was in love with her. Then, out of nowhere, he told her he’d fallen in love with someone else, and was no longer in love with her, and maybe never even had been.
While telling me this story, she applied three gradient shades of brown, frosty eye shadow, beginning with a dark mocha and ending with nearly clear, glittery sand, in the bathroom mirror. She stopped talking and put on her mascara, needing to focus with her mouth open, the same thing I do now as my daughter stares from the stepping stool where she always stands.
I turned my body so my mother and I were both in the reflection, and petted the thick, brown-black, banana-curled, gorgeous Italian mane around her face and shoulders. I still wonder if I’ll ever be as beautiful.
“What happened?” I asked her, making eye contact in the mirror.
“I just didn’t know someone could lie like that. Could look right at you and lie. I just didn’t know.”