potato chips and retainers and tryouts, football players

shoving jockstraps in the faces of girls no one will defend, essays, big tits and small dicks,

National Honor Society infighting, drama, so much drama

I thought I was the only person this alone, too afraid to lift my head to check, can rats get in our lockers did I leave that book at home how much longer do I have to stay and pretend to pray to this empty altar, when will the bell release me so I can flip the page of this script to the shoulder-slumping eternal sigh of time to go to class again This is life with your head inside the jaws

of the beast.

scrawling yawps

when I wasn’t stoned the only thing that helped me breathe

was opening a book

mist enveloping, welcoming me into the gray space

between ink black and page white leading me along to the Shire to start the long trek to Mordor again

questing for unknowable treasure the majesty of Tolkien’s adventures cast a blood spell on me sap rose from the ground where I was rooted, filtered through my imagination it dripped from my fingers as ink-blotted poetry, scrawled escape recipes I scribbled,

writing at the speed of life

gauntlet, thrown

My high school was designed by an incarceration specialist to make the herding, the feeding and the slaughter proceed as efficiently as possible that’s what we thought, anyway

the isolated back hallway was an icicle laid along the school’s spine, I avoided it, cuz it was filled with jocks but

after detention one day, at the end of ninth grade tired of wasting my time going the long way around I walked down that cold hall, itching for a fight.

A gym teacher stepped out. The short one the intimidating one, radiating more energy than Jean Grey on a cranky day, she pointed her finger at me and I snapped to attention and when she said I was a big girl I said “yes, ma’am”

and when she said I should go out for sports teams in tenth grade, I said “yes, ma’am”

because I was terrified of that woman In the fall, I dove into the cold, bleaching water swim practice;

my hair clean for the first time in a year, I lost myself in underwater meditation of lap after lap after lap after lap and that winter I skied in blue jeans, not caring that I couldn’t afford snow pants, not giving a shit what other people thought cuz I was fast, so strong I carved my mark on the face of the mountain come spring, I threw shot put and sucked at throwing discus, but I began myself again stopped smoking

started chipping away at my concrete cage went to class every damn day cuz cutting classes meant I couldn’t practice pulled my grades out of the toilet stopped phoning in generic answers and sleeping through class didn’t need to, I slept finally

at night, too worn out to entertain the monsters in the closet and under my bed the nightmares receded into the River Styx for a while

I experimented with friendships girls I met on the team, dusting off the concrete, my fists uncurled a bit, I stopped being rabbit-scared

most days

God bless that short gym teacher for caring enough

to call me out

and hold me up


Mom made me get a job the summer between

ninth and tenth grades,

between silence

and nervous laughter,

burn and infection.

Anything but babysitting, I said, and poof, I was a candy striper, hospital volunteer wrapped in a dress with thin stripes white and tampon-box pink,

I arrived on time five days a week filled water jugs, delivered flowers counted hours, fluffed pillows snuck cigarettes to old folks in need of a fix. The real lessons were found in the accidents: taking a jug of ice

into the wrong room and finding there a new mother, holding her baby who’d arrived so broken inside he couldn’t be healed, wouldn’t live long enough to be a bored teenager, would never blow out a single birthday candle,

the baby’s mother—not much older than me— she asked for Kleenex and I gave it and she grabbed my hand

I stood next to her, our fingers entwined my eyes on the floor

felt wrong to look at her

or the baby

so we held hands

and the ice in the pitcher melted slow to give them more time.

Another day I took files to the morgue because computers were still waiting to be invented. The restless dead hungry to come back to life, that’s what it smelled like down there, chemicals and meat. Dead-guy hand on the edge of a table freaked me out so much that when one of the not-dead guys— a junior assistant lab rat or something— asked me for my number, I gave it to him without thinking then sprinted for the surface.

He called me. A movie on the first date, garlic pizza on the second; movies and pizza was just my speed slow, turtle-paced, with dumb jokes and eventually a little kissing until in the front seat of his car he pushed my head into his crotch frantic-fumbling with his belt buckle; I escaped and avoided

the morgue after that.


We didn’t get our textbooks in health in tenth grade until the cold stripped the trees in late November

cuz the school board ordered the books to be gutted, they demanded that the sex chapters be surgically removed so explanations of the menstrual cycle and pics of diseased penises wouldn’t send us into frenzied orgies in the halls or cause us to drop out so we could do the sex all day.

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