Early on in the summer, my brothers and I camped out in the backyard in our musty, old canvas tent. We loved doing that. Mom would make us snacks and sandwiches, and we’d tell scary stories.
My older brother, Sam, once told a story about mad and rabid dogs that got red eyes and went crazy attacking people—especially kids. I ignored the prickle of fear in my stomach and pretended that his story didn’t bother me. But later, after dinner, when it was getting dark, I heard the howling of coyotes that lived in the rocky part of the hills above our house. I said I had a stomachache and went to sleep in my own bed, away from red-eyed dogs.
The tent had a warning on it that it was “inflammable,” which Sam smugly explained meant that it WAS flammable and could burst into flames at any moment.
I somehow got that message muddled with the idea that “nontoxic” meant the same thing as “toxic.” And so, armed with the unquestionable knowledge of my big brother, I picked a day when Dad was at work and Mom was occupied and, in general, we were a feral pack of children. With shaking hands and an oddly detached feeling, I dissolved two sticks of “nontoxic” chalk into a glass of water. I stirred it around as best I could, though the white powder never fully emulsified with the water. I drank it down quickly, using my finger to wipe the sludge out of the bottom of the glass.
I paused, wondering if my hands were beginning to shake even more, and whether that was a sign of impending death. My heart beat steadily and nothing hurt. There was a window over the sink in the kitchen that looked out over a bank of hardy ice plant and a large olive tree that we were forbidden from climbing.
For all my love of words,
for my aching passion for books,
I didn’t have the language
to ask, plead, beg
Inside I screamed
loudly and shrilly,
mouth open as wide as I could.
I was crumbling into myself. And no one could hear me. No one could see me. I needed to be seen, to be seen and known and loved despite the knowledge of my brokenness.
Because I didn’t know how to say that was what I wanted, I didn’t know how to ask for and accept love in that way. I didn’t know for sure, even, if that kind of love existed for me, as dirty and damaged as I was.
And because of my silence, my inability to tell my mom, my dad, my anyone what had happened with Stu, I couldn’t have that comfort of being known. The darkest part of me stayed hidden, secreted away, so how could I expect to be seen? And so without the security of that unconditional, that no-take-backs love and safety, I decided to drink the chalk.
I rinsed the glass out and put it on the top shelf of the dishwasher, making sure not to leave too much space between it and the next glass because that’s the way my dad taught me.
I went out back to wait. It was midafternoon but not too hot. The sidewalk didn’t burn my feet as I walked past the lawn and flowers to the old chicken coop. The previous owners had had chickens and some ducks but the pond had been filled in underneath the play structure that Dad had built. I climbed the empty stalls onto the roof. I ran my hands up and down the rough shingles while I waited. I waited so long I got a splinter. Still, I waited longer.
Nothing happened, though, because it was only ever chalk. I was disappointed and relieved. But there was something else: I had done something bad, something sinful, maybe even something evil, and I knew that somehow I’d be punished for it.
I thought of Stu, and the things he did to me. I hated it. I hated him, what he made me do, that he made me lie about it. I hated how scared I was. I hated him for making me sin. I’d thought, maybe, that poisoning myself was some sort of penance, some sort of grand apology, for those sins: the lying and the shameful touching and the nakedness I knew was bad. I’d thought that dying would make up for it somehow.
But as I slowly realized that nothing at all would happen, that I was alive and wouldn’t even get sick enough for extra TV, I realized that what I’d done was just another mistake, another mess-up, another sin. Sin piled upon sin.
God was going to be so mad at me.
That night I had another dream about darkness. It pushed down on me and my body began to shrink like when a movie camera zooms out and everyone gets smaller and smaller. I looked down at my hands in a patch of moonlight and I didn’t recognize them. Whose hands were these? How were they moving? Was I doing that? Nothing looked real, or even solid, and it was hard to tell if I was still dreaming or still awake. I wanted to scream or to cry, but I couldn’t because I was just a body.
with no voice.
So I sat quietly, wondering if this was what happened when someone just vanished, disappeared (like magic). And in the dark, I heard the laughter.
Far and near,
bouncing off my ears
into the nothingness around me.
And soon I let that darkness pull me, lull me, cover me with sleep. It was just too hard to keep fighting it.