When I was seven, we made poetry books in school. I wrote two poems about my childhood dog, one about my grandpa, and one about 9/11. The rest were gibberish. On the cover, I drew broken hearts, storm clouds, a syringe, and my mom crying in the den. My dog and grandpa had just died.
My mother says that Grandpa came back for her. When she arrived at the hospital he was dead. Then she held his hand, kissed his cheek, and prayed that she could say goodbye. He woke up and squeezed her hand before leaving again. She told us grandpa was in Heaven playing with our dog. She told us she could feel them in the den.
That Sunday, the pastor mentioned us in her prayers. For a while, my family went to church every week. My dad was the Church treasurer, my mom played piano for the choir, and my sister was a junior deacon. I went to Jesus camp and youth meetings and cried when I wasn’t old enough to join my sister on her first mission trip. That Christmas, she played Mary in the pageant. I was a donkey.
This may seem unexceptional to you, but my parents are probably not like yours. In retrospect, it’s a miracle they ever even wanted to be tamed.
My mom was the preacher’s daughter in a Baptist church with thousands of members. She wasn’t allowed to dance or watch movies and was always being stared at. When her high school boyfriend broke her nose, my Grandmother yelled at her for disgracing the family. Still, my grandparents liked my mom better than her brother. She was a piano protégée, which was convenient. They put a piano in the front of the church and made her play whenever someone was born or died. My grandmother offered to pay my mom’s way through college, but wanted a wedding in return. When my mom did get married at 18, my grandmother denied that she’d ever offered my mom a future. My mom swears if my grandfather weren’t so high on painkillers, he would have fought for her education.
My mother left her husband, her family, and her religion two years later. She moved to San Francisco and played music for the ballet. For a while, she lived uncontrollably. She drank 100-dollar glasses of wine and fucked men in the back of the trolley. She blasted rock n’ roll and got high to clean her house. She pulsed with everything that had ever been denied to her. Half a decade later, she was bankrupt. She lived in her best friend’s living room, until he died of AIDs.
That’s when my father stepped in, a rich man from Vegas with an exciting past. He paid off her debts and told her stories. My dad’s life started off pathetic and unremarkable. His mother left him, and his father was addicted to gambling and alcohol. I never met my grandfather, but I hear his favorite phrase was “You’re cruisin for a bruisin.” He hit my father with all sorts of things—belts, books, plates; whatever was around.
They say Vegas turns men into animals so they can survive the desert. My dad was a stray dog. His ribs were showing. He had scars on his back and nothing to stop him from wandering. He liked to camp in the Sierra Nevada. He once killed a rattlesnake and ate it. He let tarantulas crawl up his arms, and drank whisky under the moon.
When he was 20, my dad became a mentor to a 13-year-old boy named Mike. My father bought Mike his first drink after a motorcycle trip to Tijuana. The same day, my dad was arrested for punching a Mexican cop in a bar fight.
For a long time my Dad’s relationship with Mike was this was the closest thing he had to love. But he knew desire. His city fed off of it. It’s not so surprising, if you think about it, that a boy from Vegas would eventually want more. After Nam, my dad went to college where he learned that he was a genius. There’d been rumblings of this in his childhood—counting cards at 11, running a gambling ring by 15—but nobody was there to tell him he had potential. Soon he was giving talks at universities and had more than a million dollars to his name. Cue my mother: a pianist in red lipstick playing in a Yosemite hotel.
Together, they agreed they’d finally be normal. They had two kids, moved to Connecticut and went to church on Sundays. This is the world I was brought into; unaware it was an act that would erode or that I had wild blood in me.
Once, during the stretch of dial up days and MySpace popularity, my sister took a “What religion are you really?” quiz. The results told her she valued social justice, community work, and love above all else. All true, but why was the label Unitarian and not Congregationalist, she wondered. She biked to the church barn, where our pastor spent Saturday mornings making bread, and asked.
For all the time spent in church, we’d never realized Jesus was such a big part of our religion. This is a story I’ve heard a thousand times, that I have to remind myself isn’t my own memory. My mom tells it every Easter, though we don’t celebrate anymore. I think she does it to remind herself that she used to have a family, that she used to dress her kids up for church and prepare dinner at seven o’clock sharp, that for just a bit of her life she could have been considered normal.
Maybe if things had been different— if my Dad hadn’t taken that job in Texas, if mom hadn’t given into the loneliness, if she hadn’t traded in the piano for vodka, if my parents hadn’t bought that house, if my Dad hadn’t invested all his money into Madoff to pay off that mortgage, if he hadn’t lost everything he had spent his whole life working for, if my parents hadn’t started fighting about money at first and then everything else, if they hadn’t slept in different bedrooms, if they hadn’t both fallen into their own what ifs—maybe she could have kept that life.
But things happened the way they did and by the time my second dog died, my Dad was already depressed and missing and my mom was a teenager again. She was dating a man named Stan who told her to dance more and drink more and “here try this pill.” By then, we hadn’t gone to church in years.
Yet, as we sat around the dead dog crying, my mom said, “I see her spirit. She’s right here next to me.” My mother was loud in her grief, interrupting mine. I realized I didn’t believe in spirits. Life is tangible. I was stroking my dog when she died, and I felt it leave her. Ironically, it was Christmas.
That summer, I went to Costa Rica. I volunteered for what I had thought was going to be an animal shelter. In reality, I ended up working for a hoarder, named Vicki, with no veterinary skills. She plucked hurt animals from their homes and held onto them with no intention of releasing them into the wild. Though, I’m unsure if she knew this about herself. I watched a baby bird and a goat die under her care. The horses didn’t get enough to eat and kept running into the barbed wire.
A woman recently asked me for a testimony about the place. She’s trying to shut it down. I agreed, but felt surprisingly reluctant. Vicki doesn’t think she’s trying to tame the animals, she just wants to hold them and I was guilty of that too. I bottle fed monkeys and let them play in my hair.
I don’t really talk to people I met at the “shelter” anymore, but their memories stick to me. We didn’t have Wi-Fi or electricity, so when night sank in, we lit fires and drank and shared pieces of ourselves.
Cailin is obsessed with aliens and is in the air force. She was engaged with a wedding date and a venue, but the wedding was called off when her boyfriend said he could never marry a girl who wouldn’t have a threesome. Corey was the closest thing I’d ever seen to evil. His mother was addicted to meth and committed suicide when he was 12. It wasn’t long till he started using too. He got girls hooked and had his way with them, said that was the worst thing he ever did. He went to jail for rape at 19, “but just for a few months.“ Somehow, we didn’t hate him. Frejya grew up in a small Icelandic town where “everyone was the same.” She had a child at 17 and now she makes art for movies. She’s always been fascinated by death. She wants to interview a woman whose son just died. Rachel looks like a jersey cow, with big, innocent eyes. Her mom died three years ago. Nora is serious drug dealer. She started at age 11 and has worked with the Mexican mafia. She’s only thirty, but her hair is greying from the stress of it all. Marissa was raised in Bible belt Georgia, but isn’t religious anymore. She wears Chacos and has a tree tattoo on her calf. Her happiness is light and contagious.
Once a week missionaries visited the animal shelter. They called it community service. When they came, we had to make lunch in our rusting, outdoor kitchen for all twenty something of them. The head preacher, Jack, insulted the beans I had made—“How do you mess up beans?”—but raved about the meat. “What is this? Its delicious!” We told him it was beef, but had no way of knowing. We took our food from the garbage bins in grocery store parking lots.
I got a parasite in Costa Rica and brought it home, where I spent about a month keeled over toilets thinking of Jack. In a quiet way, I hoped he was sick too.
The missionaries were from West Virginia, the place my church goes to on its mission trips. My sister helped build houses there and met a woman whose teeth had rotted away from too much Mountain Dew. Like my sister was, the missionary kids were eager. I don’t usually like to be around children, but I like most every child. Before seventeen, your flaws aren’t your own. You can tell when an eight year old is going to grow up to be an absolute dick, but for now, he’s just reacting to his father. These kids just wanted to please God.
On Thursdays the missionaries gave outdoor sermons to the homeless. Most were addicts or mentally ill. Jack told them to “accept Jesus and all will be well.” Men talked about how God helped them turn their lives around. Then, they all spoke in tongues. The poor sobbed and knelt at Jack’s feet when he gave them hot dogs.
Every week I watched this and every week some boozy man would try to stroke my hair. Jack said I was God’s vessel… that more men were coming because of me. This made me nauseous. He ended a sermon once by saying, “If you don’t follow Jesus, you’ll be running and screaming like a little girl.”
That night, we had a goodbye party for Marissa, Frejya, and Cailin. Neither the missionaries nor Vicki were invited. However, Marissa’s friend Emily would be joining us. Emily had applied to work at the animal shelter, but was denied after admitting she occasionally smoked weed, which went against the no drug policy. Eventually, Emily found work at a hostel two towns over.
Emily had wavy, dirty blonde hair and speckled green eyes. Her charred pink lips looked spectacular against her golden skin. She didn’t wear makeup, but had a sunburn that made her cheeks rosy. She was tall—5’7” maybe, with long legs and a short torso. She was thin, but her body was soft and feminine. Her boobs were at least three times the size of mine. She looked like the Instagram girls you don’t tell people you follow, the ones from California who skateboard and surf and drink beer.
We started out at a bar with $2 drink specials. It was one of those bars that definitely looses money; where the bar tenders get wasted and put too much alcohol in the free drinks they offer pretty girls.
For the first time in my life, a woman bought me a drink. I felt pleased she could tell I was bi. I’d spent years wondering where the lesbians hide, hoping for this moment. But she wasn’t my type. She kind of looked like me with her square glasses, gymnast’s body, and sharp nose. She followed me to the bathroom twice. On my way out, she asked for a kiss. She bit my lip hard, like she wanted to rip it off and eat it, and then licked the grime off my tonsils.
I said goodbye and walked with my group to a consignment shop. We bought three bottles of Guaro, Costa Rican hard liquor, but didn’t have enough money for chasers. My boyfriend texted and I told him what happened. He doesn’t mind my dalliances with girls. “Just don’t leave me,” he replied.
Two women with matching tramp stamps drove passed us on a gulf cart. They told us to hop in and brought us to the beach, where a middle-aged man waited, setting palm tree leaves on fire. He licked his lips when he caught sight of me. Corey told him to check it.
My stomach was warm from the Guaro. The embers from the fire floated to the sky and became stars. Even the trees were dancing. “Lets go skinnn-n-n-y dipping,” Marissa said. I tried not to watch Emily peel off her shirt. I felt sticky from the heat.
Emily said my white butt was glowing. The rest of me was dark enough for people to ask “are you sure you’re not Tico?” Tico is a word for Costa Rican. “I don’t know. My mother was adopted, but she has blue eyes and red hair, so…”
Emily spanked me and giggled, “Let’s go!” She grabbed my hand and we ran into the ocean. There was a special type of phytoplankton that turned bright blue when agitated by exterior movement, so lines of light followed us. When the waves broke, a frenzy of blue dots clung to the shore. “We’re standing in the sky,” Emily said.
She ran her hand down my arm. I felt like the bioluminescent water, where she touched I burned, lit up. She kissed me carefully at first, stole my breath. Then wrapped herself around me. My whole body was throbbing for her.
Laughter trickled in from the beach. Emily didn’t want to miss out and took me back to the shore. We slipped into our clothes and dried by the fire. The middle-aged man was passing a blunt around. “Don’t smoke this unless you smoke at home. It’s the good stuff,” he said. Emily took a hit, and titled her head back to blow out the smoke. I wanted to kiss her neck.
Cailin, Marissa and Freyja talked about going home. They were scared. They’d devoured stories here. We all had. We wrote our own and listened to others’. What would it feel like to go home with all these news things inside of us? Would anybody notice?
Emily didn’t care to discuss things she had no control over. She pulled me back in. I got to kiss her neck. Then she looked at me with that look—too dunk, too high, dazed eyes. I rolled over. She held me. Our bodies fit together like puzzle pieces.
Corey had to kick and shake us awake. Everyone else had left. I walked with my head on Emily’s shoulder. She walked with her arm around my waste. A man trailed us, dragging his machete down the street. We were too tired and tingly to give him malicious intent. When we got back to the animal shelter, it was 5 am.
We were greeted with a warning, “watch out for Peanut.” Peanut was a monkey Vicki had hoarded. Apparently, he had gotten out of his night cage and ripped at Rachel’s face. Later that day, Vicki told Rachel not to get a Rabies shot. “I could be shut down!” she barked. Rachel knew that without treatment, Rabies is nearly 100% fatal. Still, we had to convince her to go.
A few days later, Nora told me Vicki was thinking about kicking me out. She had heard about the goodbye party and so had the missionaries. Jack told her I had taken advantage of her hospitality and that I had looked God in the eyes and betrayed him. They wondered if I were possessed. Surely, I had the devil in me.
Neither of them ended up confronting me. They didn’t have grounds to kick me out. I hadn’t smoked, and there was nothing in the rules against homosexuality. I still attended the outdoor services with a feeling of, well, power. He had made me feel so anxious, and now it was my turn. I talked to his children more. I gave his oldest daughter a copy of Bitch magazine that I’d brought to read on the plane and had been holding onto for no particular reason.
Before the missionaries went home, Jack baptized 7 people. The baptized fell at Jack’s feet and kissed his toes. Then, they went on being homeless. Eventually, they stopped waving and smiling to me on the street. They got drunk with a new kind of sadness. Hope is a nasty tease and we she leaves you, you’re ruined.
A year and a half later, I’m on a bus in Ecuador, talking to a girl named Hope. She has five siblings with names like Grace and Divinity. One of her sisters is lesbian. Another is suicidal. She says she loves them and that she cries when she thinks about their damnation.
I asked if the men who wrote the Bible could have misunderstood some things. She said it’s possible, but it’s not her place to pick and choose what’s real. She said religion isn’t about morality, it’s about following God’s rules. She told me that even though God is cruel, converting people is easy—“we all need something to believe in, to hold onto.”
It’s true. My mom is 62 and still thinks she can touch the world with her music. It’s what keeps her alive. I have a similar delusion—I want to be a best selling author—only my delusion is less sad because I’m still young. My sister is on the frontlines of America’s ideological war, advocating for civil rights through 90-hour workweeks. My dad just wants to shield his children from the mistakes he made, to give us everything he never had.
We all have our delusions, and some of us are lucky enough to realize them. But it really doesn’t matter if we do. We’d just strive for something else anyway. We hold onto the meanings we make. We live a life of choices and circumstance, and in the end, no matter what we’ve been through, we can create a story out of all the random things that have happened.
An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents an unedited, full edition of this piece.