bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Perimenopause and Scanned Documents

by KJ Hannah Greenberg

I’ve reached that time of life when my new experiences are beginning to insist on entwining with my more familiar ones. Two important examples of this phenomenon are: the changes caused by the monthly sloughing off of my uterine lining and the changes caused by my weekly attempts to update my understanding of computer accessories.

Per the former, I’m now, in a good eye, part of the “over fifty” crowd. That certain differences would occur, in my physical function, was expected. Early adolescence, young adulthood, pregnancy, the post partum years, lactation spans, as well as the middle of midlife all brought with them anticipated variations in my reproductive tendencies. Some things got bigger, others smaller. Some energies intensified, others diminished. Women’s bodies, mine included, are anything but static.

Per the latter, whereas I remain an unwilling participant in the media revolution, I allowed myself, for the reasons of earnings and sanity, first to be dragged through the conveyances of mass media and then to be pulled along the shoots and ladders of convergent media. The liminal stages of those explorations, all the same, were disagreeable despite the fact that they wrought necessary transformations.

In the first instance, somehow, although I had previously experienced many corporeal alterations, perimenopause surprised me. Wellness, at its best, is a free fall that creates no G’s worth of health challenges. Yet, as honest older gals will testify, the mid decades’ fluxes frustrate order, hindering even those economies of time, space, money or energy that have been in place for just a brief measure. More specifically, simultaneous with my accepting that nooky would never again generate progeny, I found myself facing multiple false alarms.

In the second instance, my word count, font issues, and efforts to avoid hincty language, aside, nothing equaled the equilibrium problems I stumbled upon when interacting with machines that buzz, click, or burp. All of a sudden, editors were insisting on electronic connections. If I wouldn’t or couldn’t Skype or to IM, I stood to lose contracts.

My husband and I exhaled a lot, counted to twenty-five, and otherwise made do with my erratic hormones. My inner chemicals pinged and ponged more than they had during my premenarch years, my fecund years, and the occasions when I lapsed in my exercise routine. Like New Englanders who accept the inevitability of northerly winds, we braced ourselves during my shifting patterns.

I, personally, also attempted to get along with the more popular new conduits for broadcasting ideas. While remembering to format my works according to submission sheet instructions and making sure to trim my pages’ size according to individual outlet’s strictures stymied my creative process, decades of experimenting with not abiding by publication fads proved, in balance, that any urgings I manifested to resist the winds of the media might as well, alongside my writing aspirations, be flushed. Without a means to cultivate an audience, an author has few reasons to generate manuscripts.

The upshot of going along with, instead of fighting against, my physical changes is that my husband and I smiled and still smile more. Loving, in the sixth decade, seems to be an agreeable matter.

The most singular result of my retrofitting my instruments for offering up my work has been my ongoing enjoyment of having my name in print. Other benefits have included my intermittent pleasure in learning to place dark backgrounds behind pictures meant to be scanned, my periodic delight in developing a website, and my seasonal joy in learning to differentiate among data storage devices (albeit, I’ve still not tried parking my information caches on multiple viral servers, i.e. on cloud storage devices).

I never would have believed, had someone bothered to predict for me, that my perimenopausal years would be juicy, invigorating and downright fun. There continues to be a great discrepancy between my lived days and nights, and the concepts floated out by our information sources about the physicality of middle-aged women.

Similarly, if anyone would have suggested, twenty or thirty years ago, that I would be tolerant of, if not somewhat comfortable with electronic publications, audio publications, print-on-demand vetting, or other extremely contemporary aspects of getting writing to readers and to listeners, I would have laughed. I am an old school, palpable card catalog, Big Six publisher, footnotes ‘til ya drop, sort of person. Clicks and whirs never figured on my professional horizon.

Nonetheless, change can bring unexpected goodness. In determining that I will have to remain obsequious to my body’s rhyme and rhythm, similar to determining that the nature of publishing’s progression is beyond my control, I find myself freed. Explicitly, instead of fretting over my long past youth, I celebrate my matronly methods. Equally, instead of getting unsettled about the shrinking numbers of readers that bother with paper-delivered notions, I glean my satisfaction from wider, more diverse, and often younger groups of respondees than my traditionally transmitted writing ever scraped together.

At the same time that having to empty the dishwasher, having to take out the trash, and having to feed any and all visiting, though invisible, dragons remain constants, my ways of having to transport my exuberance to others, whether in intimate climes or for the public eye, have fluctuated a large amount. In all, I’d espouse that my sudden weaving together of comfortable manners of acting with new forms of being present is serving me well.

KJ Hannah Greenberg has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice, helps out as an Associate Editor at Bound Off and at Bewildering Stories, and has two new books launching, a full-length poetry collection, A Bank Robber's Bad Luck with His Ex-Girlfriend (Unbound CONTENT), and an assemblage of short fictions, Don't Pet the Sweaty Things (Bards & Sages Publishing).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Traveling Salesman

by Loukia Borrell

            I’ve had sex with nine guys. There were others, with nudity and some kind of sexual act, but no intercourse. If I include everyone, sex and almost sex, I might be closer to twenty men.
            I began my sexual resume at age nineteen, with a mild-mannered college guy from Richmond. I moved on to newspaper people and cops, and retired at age thirty-two with my second husband, an ambitious, edgy, green-eyed Philadelphian whose hands are always warm and comforting.
            The one person I didn’t really know was the second guy. Our paths crossed when he was in town on business and after spending a grand total of two hours with him, he left town. I felt the itch and motivated myself to follow him across the country for sex.
            It was 1985, and we met when I was working as a waitress during my summer break from college. He came in for dinner and caught my attention right away. I thought he was very handsome. He reminded me of Kurt Russell, the way he looked in “Escape From New York,” except without the eye patch. He took notice of me and carried on about how               I looked like Anne Bancroft. He loved the dark hair and bedroom eyes. He told me he was in computer sales and in Virginia for a convention. He asked me to guess his age and it turned out he was ten years older than I. Cool. 
            During his two-hour stay at the restaurant, he was like a wave. He flirted outrageously, as did I. Before he left, he gave me his business card.  On the back side, he wrote his home address and phone number. He asked me to meet him at his hotel the next day, so we could get to know each other.
            The next morning, I arrived wearing crisp, white shorts and my matching sorority shirt. I walked into the lobby like I was a movie starlet on set. We sat on a sofa and talked. I giggled constantly. I went back the next day, carrying flowers, and hoping my hair looked the way Madonna’s did that year–messy, sexy, and unlike a virgin. He kissed me on the bed in his hotel room. I felt his body through his clothes. We made plans to meet at his house in San Diego before I went back to college for the fall.
            He flew home and within days, wrote to me. His letters were filled with adventure stories: Biking trips, watching a mesmerizing city skyline, eating lobster and drinking beer in Mexico, driving along endless miles of beach on
Pacific Coast Highway
. The frequency and detail of his letters depended on how sure I was about making the trip. The more anxious I sounded on the phone, the more letters came.  He told me to make a stand for myself, not to miss a chance for closeness and fun. He thanked me for making him feel things he hadn’t felt in a long time.

            I spent my summer working and shopping for nice clothes. Everyone at the restaurant knew what was going on. They all thought I was crazy, especially Big John, the owner. One afternoon before my shift started, he asked me into his office.
            “I hear you are planning something crazy for a guy you don’t know,” he said.
            “Yes?” I said.
            “Do you really need to go all the way across the country to get a boyfriend? There are guys working here,” he said.
             “The busboys?” I shifted my weight and leaned up against a filing cabinet. “I can get those at college,” I said. “This guy is different, older. He’s got a life.”
            He stopped counting money and looked at me.  The office was quiet.  
            “You’re crazy. After you have sex with him, he’s going to drop you. If he likes you so damn much, he’d walk back here from California. Tell him to come here to get to know you and your family,” he said.
            I knew that would never happen. I adjusted my cummerbund.
            “Well, I know what I’m doing,” I said, “It’ll be fine.”

            All of this was happening as I tried to forge my own way and make decisions for myself. My older brother didn’t say anything. My father took an observer’s position, but my mother was outspoken and furious.  She fumed whenever I got a letter or call. She complained that I was tying up the phone too much. She threatened to disinherit me. At least once, she called him at 3 a.m. Pacific Time, so he implemented the “Mother Project,” urging me to find ways to manage her until my departure. She finally stopped talking.
            It was the summer of 1985. I was just realizing that AIDS was something that could threaten me. Before that year, I thought it was a disease for gays, hemophiliacs and people who spent their time shooting heroin. Then, I woke up when Life magazine did a cover story on AIDS and the headline said something like, “Now No One Is Safe from AIDS.”  About a week before I went, I called him.
            “Do you have any diseases?”
            “No, no way.” I didn’t ask him to prove it.
            “Jesus Christ. I’m sorry. I just have to stop listening to everyone and thinking so much.”
            “Good girl.”

            His place was up on a hill. It was a small, bungalow-style house with two bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom and kitchen. I felt like I was in Beverly Hills or something.  The floors were hardwood, the furniture well-placed and neat. There were a lot of windows that you could sit in front of and see the city’s lights at night. We slept with T-shirts on and were naked from the waist down. I used a spermicidal diaphragm I hoped would kill any viruses he might have. I didn’t have any orgasms but I felt close to him, anyway. I daydreamed about transferring from my North Carolina college to a university near him.  We could live together, get married and have kids.
            He worked during the days and I rode a bike to the waterfront or walked around his neighborhood. I cooked meals, dusted furniture, and shopped at a corner market. Everything seemed brighter, bigger. The plants seemed huge, the flowers tremendous. The trees seemed taller. The sky was always blue and the nights were cool. Some days he took off work and we went places together. We drank wine by the ocean, took a ferry to Catalina Island for the weekend, and drove to hole-in-the-wall restaurants for great Mexican dinners. I called my mother and told her she was wrong.
            About a week into the trip, I met some members of his family.  We planned a cookout for them. When they arrived, I could tell his parents were money. They wore nice clothes and jewelry, spoke of their travels and easy lifestyle. They were nice people, but I felt awkward around them. They knew he picked me up in a restaurant and that I came out without knowing him. I felt embarrassed, thinking they might know something I didn’t.  While I was in the bathroom, I overheard his mother talking about how I was still in college. She kept telling him I was too young. After I told his father how much of a struggle it was for me to get there, and that people had tried to stop me, he looked at me point blank and said: “If you were my daughter, I would have chained you to the bedpost.”
            The next day, we fought. He wanted me to leave a week earlier than I planned.
            “Change it. Call American and tell them you had a death in the family and have to be back sooner,” he said.
            He was impatient and distant.
            “OK,” I said.
            He left for work. I sat in his living room, by the computer, and spent most of the morning on the phone trying to convince a supervisor for American Airlines that someone in my family was dead. He made the change and I apologized for the trouble. When I hung up, I sat and stared at the furniture. I began to look through cabinets, drawers and closets, for papers, bills, proof.  I found a lot of pictures of girls in the back of the guest room closet. Most of them were dark-haired, like me. A lot of Latina and Hawaiian girls. There were letters in his desk. One of them was from a girl who was coming over from Vegas to see him for his birthday. I studied the postmark on another letter, and then opened the envelope. It was from someone he met during the same trip he met me.
            I confronted him. He said I had no business going through his things. He was angry. I relented. The trip was ending and I didn’t want to leave on a bad note. The morning I left, he dropped me off at the airport curb. He gave me some cash to cover the ticket I had purchased to visit him. He told me it was a thank you gift for helping him prove to his friends he could get me out there.
            My brother picked me up. My parents didn’t want to talk to me or know anything about the trip. About a week after I got back, he sent me picture prints, but no negatives. He said he needed to keep them in case I got mad at him someday. There were no nude shots, but I did let him take pictures of me in my underwear. I was too sad to argue with him. I planned to buy a photo album, but ended up putting my pictures in a brown envelope with his letters.
            The next week, I went back to college. I felt safe there, away from the summer’s disappointment and my mother’s silence. I called him a few times during those months, and there were some letters exchanged between us. Our contact was infrequent, impersonal and brief. His letters were thin, double-spaced and written on small pieces of paper. I graduated in December and got an internship that put me in a new city.
            About a year after I went to California, I started getting sick. I was renting a room from an elderly couple, working at a newspaper near Washington, D.C., and feeling tired all the time. I got different things: Urinary tract infections, respiratory illnesses, fatigue, weight loss. I was working a lot of hours and put down my poor health to stress. I also wondered if it might be AIDS, which by now, with Rock Hudson dead, was the biggest story out there. I told the doctor about my trip and asked for an AIDS test. During those months, I would stand in front of the mirror every morning, naked, and look for unexplained rashes and lesions. I looked at my reflection and imagined thorns all over me. What a dumb broad.
            After the second negative test, I stopped taking them and tried harder to put that summer behind me. That trip hurt me and ruptured my relationship with my mother. She took it personally and was ashamed at the lengths I went to for a man. Eventually, I moved on, but I wasn’t the same girl. I was different. I had less faith in people and viewed them skeptically.
            The last time I called him was in 1989. I don’t know why I did. I think I was just making sure he was alive and that his life wasn’t too different from when I visited him. He talked to me and said he was serious with a girl. He said something about getting married. I told him I was a journalist. He said he was sorry for acting the way he did toward me. I told him he was fine.
            I never spoke to him again. Years went by and bigger things happened. My brother died of cancer. My mother got dementia and quit life. I married my second husband and we had three children. My husband tells me the same things every week: I am beautiful, entertaining, and interesting. He is obsessed with his wife, he says. He says the first time he ever saw me, he felt a cord unravel itself from deep inside him and attach itself to me.
            He does silly things. He’ll go grocery shopping with me and wander into different aisles, waiting for me to come around. He likes to pretend he has never seen me before and imagines what he could do to introduce himself. He writes letters to me, on his way somewhere, 30,000 feet above the United States, telling me about his incredible life. He says he could live in meager surroundings, in any city in the world, as long as I live there, too. Things get bumpy from time to time, but we have great passion, mutual understanding and a good life together.
            Now and then, I think about my trip to California. It comes to me the same way you think about being in a car accident. You were there and it happened, but as time goes on, it fades, and you don’t want to bring it into focus anymore. But I can. I can bring it back, razor sharp, anytime. I can find the pictures and the letters. They are valuable to me because I have daughters and a son, and you know, life moves around in circles.

Loukia Borrell has been writing for more than two decades. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Virginian-Pilot, St. Petersburg Times, New York Times Regional Newspapers, and in various other magazines and newspapers. She has authored a book, Raping Aphrodite, a fictional work based, in part, on the 1974 invasion and division of Cyprus. A native of Ohio, Borrell was raised in Virginia, where she lives with her husband and their three children.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Childhood Concrete

by Ruth Lehrer

            Squatting on New York City pavement, I was queen of jacks. Onsies, twosies, my red ball bounced until it cracked white and crumbled. We huddled in little girl packs, sitting tirelessly on school playground rock. We hop-scotched up the numbers and back. We sang slapping, smacking songs until they were ground into our brains like multiplication tables.  I still know seven times six, and one middle-aged clap still triggers every word of “Miss Lucy had a Steamboat,” dirty parts and all.
            How did chants about asses and shards of glasses get past the recess monitors? Maybe schools cared less back then, the real world in such a turmoil—Vietnam and Malcolm X and Nixon saying it wasn’t him. Maybe the teacher’s aide was worrying about her draft-evading son in Canada and she didn’t notice we were singing about steamboats bound for hell.
            I have visceral memory of failing at double-dutch—a twist, a slap, a fall. I was teacher-less, since all the great double-dutch masters were black girls in fourth grade and I was only in second, my friends only white or Puerto Rican. I could skip to one hundred, but the flip-flip of two ropes evaded me. Something about turning your knees in and your feet out.
            Boys didn’t play jacks and didn’t clap songs. I think they played marbles but I didn’t care about boys. I just wished I could be hopping double-dutch, up by the chain-link fence where girls sucked on cigarettes that friends poked through crisscross metal mesh.
            Then we moved upstate and there was only green grass and no concrete. No one cared I was queen of jacks. My hopscotch skills withered without chalk and cement. There were no double-dutch athletes.
            Now, I am almost fifty, still double-dutchless. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, when I drive out of the hills, down the north-south highway to a concrete urban school, I will look and see—do they still twist ropes on city pavement?
            Maybe a ten-year-old girl will notice me, watching, and take the time to teach what I missed the first time around.

Ruth Lehrer is a writer and sign language interpreter living in western Massachusetts. Her poems and fiction have been published in Meat for Tea and Wordgathering. She received third prize in the 2009 Hampshire Life Short Story Contest and Honorable Mention in The Binnacle 8th Annual Ultra Short Competition. She is currently seeking a publisher for her first novel, I Love You More Than Cinnamon Toast.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In Formation

by Nancy Graham

Four thousand Air Force cadets stand at parade rest in sky blue and navy rows on a cloudless August day. On the emerald grass behind them, a handful of men and women in desert camouflage lounge next to large backpacks. From my vantage point among the tourists, the contrasts in uniform and posture are striking. Are the slouching soldiers being sent home in disgrace? Are they meant to remind us how wars are really fought these days?

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of standing in formation dressed in a crisp uniform.  I picked up recruiting brochures at the post office and pestered my father while he polished his National Guard boots and brass bars. His weekends with the Guard seemed to my child’s mind like exotic trips. While he was gone, I practiced my marching skills.

Was it on one those weekends he first thought of leaving us? I imagine my father slumped on a folding cot after a day of drills, taking deep drags on a Camel. Perhaps there was some joshing in the barracks about the burdens back home. He was not much older than the airmen-in-training below me. 

My musing is interrupted when two of the camouflaged figures take off at a dead run toward the ranks of cadets and pull one of them back out of formation. For a hazing ritual? A special assignment? Because a response hadn’t been barked with sufficient enthusiasm?

When the trio arrives at the backpack, the camouflaged figures lower the cadet to the grass and hand him a bottle of water. The woman in camo waits until he takes a deep drink, and then pushes the cadet’s head down between his knees. Once he is in the desired position, she snaps back up. Her weight shifts onto the forward leg; she is ready to run.

A female voice comes from behind us. “The people in camouflage are EMTs. Sometimes if you lock your knees, even if you stay hydrated . . .” I turn to see the shrug. The speaker is a cadet in the same sky blue and navy uniform. She has been assigned to answer our questions but no one has had any.

A tourist finds his voice, “Do the cadets get in trouble? For fainting?”

Our cadet smiles. “Not anymore.” 

Her shoulders are squared, but there is sweetness in her voice. She seems, for lack of a better word, nice. Standing there in her uniform, this young woman appears to be both confident and compassionate, just the sort of person who should command troops and weapons someday. I can see why she was chosen for this public relations assignment.

My father started leaving us for traveling jobs when my younger sister was born. Eventually, his visits home came at greater and greater intervals. My mother retreated back to her hometown. But she was a husbandless woman and we were fatherless children and we were not greeted with open arms.

Down below, more cadets are swaying. The EMTs prowl like coyotes around a herd of cattle, eager to cull the weak. Soon there are five or six cadets reclining on the green lawn. Will they suffer punishment later at the hands of their peers? Or will the shamed cadets just cry silently in the shower tonight?

I thought I could win my father back. I just needed to march with more crispness, earn more Girl Scout badges, capture more academic awards, read more impressive books, create more order in the world, and be more charming and witty. He would see my accomplishments and reward them with his presence. The family would be miraculously reassembled.

The cadets below are raising and lowering flags on command. A parade. That’s what this type of military assembly is called, I remember. The word we use for the passage of clowns and convertibles has military origins.

Until recently I thought my father’s leaving was selfish; he was too absorbed in his own search for happiness to give a thought to ours. If so, it didn’t work. He was never satisfied with his life and deeply disappointed to have been born too late for the real wars. He drifted and then he died at a young age.

Now I see that his departure must have been an act of desperation. My parents were too young when they married; they were certainly too young to be parents. Deserted, my mother, sister, and I loved each other as much as we could. My father dropped by from time to time. We were all permanently shaken, but I now think that he paid the highest price. Perhaps with time this insight can become forgiveness.

The tops of my shoulders are burning. I have no cardigan, no sunscreen, and no parasol to shield me from the Colorado summer sun. Visiting the Academy had been a whim, the parade a surprise. While I do not feel faint like the cadets sprawled on the grass, I will bear physical evidence of being here even for a short time.

This year I left my husband after a twenty-eight year marriage. Our tall, confident daughters will never be fatherless or motherless. But we are no longer in the same formation. Do I begin to see my father’s path as courageous because I want to view my own departure in the same light? Or do I think I earned the right to go by staying so long? I don’t know; I was merely certain that it was time to leave.

The tourists who flank me on the viewing platform seem determined to stay until all four thousand cadets march past on their way to the dining hall and the brass band lowers its instruments. But I am thirsty and turn away from the spectacle. I’ve seen enough. I smile at the young woman cadet as I pass and she smiles back.

Nancy Graham lives in Colorado.  Employed for many years in corporate America, she now writes full time, mentors a high-risk high school student, and serves on the board of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.  Graham has degrees in English and Political Science.