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Thursday, January 28, 2016


by Annie Dawid

        By that time, I’d broken almost every rule I would break. The smart girl from the “good” family,” I’d slept with men of every race, creed, and color. Most every drug had entered my lungs, my nose—though not my veins. I’d attempted suicide—“unsuccessfully”—more than once, and I’d learned the art of trichotillomania, though I had no name at that time for such transgressions of the body. “You use yourself as an experiment,” said my psychiatrist, years later. But he didn’t know the depth of the experimentation undertaken preceding my arrival in his office.
Almost. In my twenties, grad student by night, with a boring day job to pay the bills, the damage I had yet to do remained unfathomed. So when Victoria said, "Want to try heroin,” at first I thought she was kidding, because all I’d ever known her to do was drink. A sister-student in my Shakespeare class, we partied together on weekends, our entertainment consisting of binge drinking at bars, sometimes followed by crazy eating if we found ourselves without men by night’s end. More than once, we concluded the party at Clown Alley at two in the morning, scarfing tuna melts with fries, smearing them into our hungry, gaping maws, so drunk and messy the owner threatened to kick us out.
Victoria was heavy, buxom, blond, innately savvy about how to catch and hold men's attention. She wore short black dresses with black heels, her shapely legs exposed. At the same time, she remained phenomenally insecure: born into a family of drunks, both terrified and certain she was heading the same way. By the time we met, she'd had three or four abortions, all of which she agonized over profoundly, all originating in drunken one-nighters with strangers, hoping for connection, love, affection—everything every one of us needs. Guilt over abortion drove her to the bottle, and the pattern continued.
I possessed my own coping mechanisms, coming from a family of crazy people. We are crazy all on our own, without recourse to any genre of mind-altering substance, legal or otherwise. We're Jews, not known for drinking as a culture, though of course Jewish drunks exist, including my sister, though I did not know of her drinking then. Though I drank, fish-like, with Victoria, I remembered reading in the poet John Berryman's unfinished memoir, Recovery (unfinished because he threw himself off a bridge in the frozen heart of a Minneapolis winter while composing it), “Jews don’t drink.” He hoped to make lots of Jewish friends in the asylum because he believed they never became alcoholics; perhaps he thought they were genetically incapable of it. I must have believed it too. In my family, my mother, my brother, myself—all of us managed to get ourselves committed to psych wards—voluntarily or otherwise—without benefit of any substance at all. Even pot propelled my brain to scary precipices of heightened realities: the congenial park down the street metamorphosed midday into a labyrinthine forest, the two blocks between my best friend’s house and mine transformed themselves into a terrorizing odyssey, rapists waiting under every tree. I always told people, when they asked me to share a joint or drop acid, “My mind is a scary enough place all by itself, but thanks anyway.”
“Heroin can’t be compared to any other drug,” Victoria insisted. We'd just snort it—nothing more. In fact, she said the high was softer and gentler than any drug I had experienced. A bit like the best drunk, only it didn't make you want to eat. In fact, you didn’t think about food on heroin. For heavy women, this aspect held much appeal.
The night she introduced the idea of heroin to me, Victoria brought along her ex-boyfriend, conveniently accompanied by a friend for me as well, so there were four of us, neatly coupled. Her ex, Bill, now just a friend, had become a dealer, too deep in his habit to be sexual.
It made sense that Victoria would be attracted to heroin, alone among other drugs, for it shed an otherworldly light, associated in her mind with literati in London’s fin-de-siecle opium dens, formally dressed for their dreamy reach into oblivion. I, too, was drawn by that vision, summoned by The Picture of Dorian Gray we’d read in class together. Did I say no? I did not. I was curious. If she had suggested using needles, my refusal would have been automatic. But snorting? What harm could that do?       
Bill brought the heroin along to our meeting at the Savoy Café in North Beach. Each of us paid him twenty dollars. Stan, his friend, was broke after our first glass of wine, so I ended up paying for “my date” and I to drink several rounds.
Victoria had snorted heroin before, though Bill had advanced to the needle. After hours at the Savoy, drinking red wine, Bill said we should go out back. The rain had cleared, and we could see stars in the San Francisco sky, not a common occurrence, these shivers of unexpected light. I sat on a damp curb, waiting passively for the event to unfold, a spectator at my own life.       
Stan unfolded a rectangle of aluminum foil, Bill provided the heroin and the lighter, and we began. The longer we sat there, the brighter the constellations glowed. Doubtless my ass was damp and stiff from the wet cement, but I remember none of those details. Apparently, it never crossed my mind that we could get caught, sitting on the curb snorting heroin. I remember laughing, though, delighted by whatever delights one in a state beyond drunkenness, Victoria and I all over giggles, while the men remained quiet.
I only managed a few snorts before I said I’d had enough. “More for me,” said Stan. He was bland, a man whose sole outstanding descriptor was his position as a gardener at a golf course, which meant he had to be on the greens at six a.m. the next day. I didn’t care about him. Would I spend the night with him? I didn’t think about it. The moments there on the curb, observing the stars where they didn’t usually exist, constituted an isolated envelope of bliss. At once, I understood the allure of the drug: the idea that one needed nothing else in the world.
Victoria never told me how sick I would get.
A purposeful evasion, a convenient elision of truth? That night, in the gardener’s basement apartment, I woke in the darkness and needed to vomit, but I didn’t know where I was or who he was or where a bathroom might be. He was yelling some sort of direction to a toilet, but I couldn’t understand his words. I threw up on the floor, the carpet, and finally in the kitchen sink. Stan was furious. At five, when the alarm went off, he told me I had to leave; a key was required to lock the apartment door, and he had no extra. Somehow, I called for a taxi, still dry heaving, my brain now recoiling from what I had done to it.
The cab driver surveyed me, assessed the damage, and said nothing all the way to my apartment, me with my head out the window in case I got sick again. The sun shone, and I saw people waiting for buses on corners, though the sight of life going on hurt my eyes. It took days to recover, my head ringing with pain, whoever I was more disordered and directionless than ever before.       
Was that night the nadir of my existence? Drunk, stoned on heroin, in bed with a stranger and puking all over the floor? How deeply I descended in that man’s apartment, my body beyond my control, my soul atomized into particles. I had sunk, evidently, to my intended destination.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” wrote Eliot in “The Wasteland.” I remembered the Hebrew injunction: “Tikkun olam,” to heal and restore the world by finding the pieces of holiness god had dispersed all over the world. Slowly, I gathered my fragments, harvesting bits of self scattered like shards of light everywhere.

Annie Dawid teaches creative writing at Arapahoe Community College in Denver. She has taught workshops at the Taos Summer Writers Conference and at the Castle Rock Writers Conference. She retired as Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Lewis & Clark College. Recent awards include the Orlando Flash Fiction Prize, the Dana Award in the Essay, the Northern Colorado Award in Creative Non-Fiction and the New Rocky Mountain Voices Award in Drama. She has published three books of fiction: York Ferry: A Novel, Lily in the Desert: Stories, And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

(Un)fortunate Sons

by Sheila Luna

The Vietnam Wall rises out of the ground, a big wave of polished black granite with 58,267 names glittering in the sun. I weave through the Memorial Day crowd—bandana-wearing bikers, tattooed sailors, kids wielding ice cream cones, selfie-snapping couples, and World War II vets that are in Washington D.C. to commemorate the 70th anniversary of that war’s end, some in wheelchairs, some pulling oxygen tanks. Visitors touch the Wall in reverence. Some shake their heads in disbelief. Others offer white roses and handmade cards. I notice how we are, all of us, reflected in the Wall behind the etched names—past and present moving within the thousands of Vietnam vets who died or are still missing. The engraved names seem to come alive as they pick up the reflections of clouds and sun-dappled beech trees.
“It symbolizes a wound that is closed and healing,” someone says, pointing to the apex. Starting at eight inches on either side, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is actually two walls, each 247 feet long that rise to ten feet. Necks cock to get a glimpse.
 “It reminds me of a sinking ship,” says another.
Adjacent to the Wall, Medal of Honor recipients gather to dedicate a set of postage stamps that honor their service. One says Memorial Day is a day of mourning for him. Even though he is hailed as a hero, he remembers the day when nine of his fellow soldiers were killed.
“The tears are always here,” he says pointing to his eye.
A lone bugler plays “Taps” and now I have tears. Haunting tones vibrate and linger in the air. These twenty-four melancholy notes still somehow echo rest and peace. I think of my father. They played “Taps” at his funeral. I remember how they folded the flag and handed it to my mother.
Being in D.C. this weekend puts the holiday in perspective. No longer just poolside margaritas and a day off from work, Memorial Day is a reflection of history, of America, and a reminder that, regardless of our stance on U.S. policy in Vietnam or any war, we should grieve for and thank veterans who were willing to die for our freedoms.
As the Wall gets taller with more names, it represents a buildup of emotions that coincided with escalation of the Vietnam War. The names, inscribed in order of the date of casualty, show the war as a series of individual human sacrifices. I touch the Wall and wonder what happened to each one. How they died. Who they left behind. Running my fingers over the etched names, I remember my connection to a soldier in Vietnam.
Ushered into adolescence with mood rings, marijuana, and the My Lai Massacre, I wore waist-long hair parted down the middle, tie-dyed shirts, and a beaded band around my forehead. Even though I wasn’t old enough, I wanted to be a hippie. The words “peace” and “freedom” were sewn into my clothing and etched on my school supplies.
“Thought it was a nightmare, but it’s all so true,” I sang with the radio, wiggling my skinny, bell-bottomed torso. The black light in my bedroom illuminated posters of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Mary Tyler Moore. “They told me don’t go walking slow, devil’s on the loose.”
“Turn that down,” my mom said, banging on the door. “Come and eat.”
“Better run through the jungle,” I belted out. “Don’t look back to see.” I returned to earth when she barged into my pseudo-psychedelic world.
“Ever heard of knocking?” I yelled.
“I did. You are going to destroy your eardrums, young lady.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said, huffing. “I have a lot of studying to do.”
“I can see that,” she said, scanning my bedroom floor bedecked with album covers. Stepping between the Rolling Stones and the Partridge Family, as if cautiously wading through the Mekong River, she extended her arm, “Come and eat. Now.”
My siblings and I gathered around the table every evening because my parents said it was important that we eat together to remain a close family. That evening, my brothers were pretending to be Spock and Kirk, while my little sister was nonchalantly feeding our three-legged terrier under the table. During the waning years of the Vietnam War, Walter Cronkite would join us for dinner via a 12-inch black and white TV situated among a display of copper Jell-O molds of fruit and fish. He shocked the country with the number of dead and wounded and subjected us to images of children in faraway lands who had been crippled and burned and killed by bombs. Our bombs.
“Why do they force men to go to war?” I asked, interrupting a “Twilight Zone” argument between Kirk and Spock.
“It’s called the draft,” said my father, as he scraped the rest of his macaroni and cheese onto his Wonder Bread.
“Isn’t that kind of like slavery?” I asked. “Do you believe in the draft?”
“I don’t think we should be in Vietnam,” he responded. “It’s a pointless war.”
This surprised me because he loved to tell war stories about when he was on a frigate in the Pacific during World War II. He was a sailor, like Popeye, and I was proud of him. And he was always proud of his country. I had heard that some anti-war protesters were spitting on returning soldiers and throwing rocks and garbage at them. I could tell it made my father very sad.
As my mom served the chocolate pudding, Mr. Cronkite disrupted our conversation with befuddling statistics. He said that the average infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II saw about 40 days of combat in four years. Due to the mobility of the helicopter, soldiers in Vietnam endured combat about 240 days in one year.
“Poor kids,” said my dad shaking his head. “But you need to finish your dinner and do your homework and take off that goofy headband. You look like one of those Charlie Manson creepos.”
I knew all the Creedence Clearwater Revival songs by heart, but didn’t understand what they meant. I had no idea that fortunate sons were boys who escaped the draft because they were rich. Later I would realize that the song “Fortunate Son” was about the frustration of Americans forced overseas to fight, while sons of politicians dodged the draft. I knew there was a war going on, but I could not visualize men running for their lives through the dense jungles of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Like any good hippie, I donned peace signs and love beads. I was against the war. But it didn’t consume me. My brothers were too young to be drafted, fortunately, and I was too young to care. My priorities were learning how to play “Here Comes the Sun” on the guitar and obtaining a driver’s permit.
Until a revolution bombed my juvenile reality.
I often walked home from school with my friend Kate. Her mother made the best coconut cream pie and sang like Peggy Lee. Sometimes we would stick pencils in her mom’s robin’s nest of a hairdo, piled high atop her already elongated head. That day, her mom wasn’t singing and there was no pie. She told Kate that her Uncle Jack from Wisconsin had been shot down in Vietnam. “He’s MIA,” she said, a tear trolling down her long face. I’d heard that term before, but never knew what it meant. “Missing in action,” she clarified. Uncle Jack’s friend was badly wounded and got to come home, but he wasn’t talking to anybody. I met Uncle Jack once at a Christmas party. He was funny. Now he was dead. The war had infiltrated my world, like troops behind enemy lines.
Kate’s mom became involved in a grassroots movement called Voices in Vital America (VIVA), which distributed Prisoner of War bracelets to raise awareness. Each nickel-plated bracelet was embossed with the name of a POW or MIA and the date he was taken prisoner or declared missing. They came with little stickers that indicated either POW (white star in a blue circle) or MIA (blue star in a white circle). The bracelet’s owner pledged to wear it at all times until the war was over and all prisoners released. I gave her $2.50 and she ordered one for me.
When my bracelet arrived, I was surprised to find that my POW bore my last name. I immediately felt a connection. My bracelet said Lieutenant Commander Dennis A. Moore 10/27/65. A Navy man, like my dad, he had already been in prison for six years. The letter that accompanied it said that Dennis Moore, the pilot of an F8E single-engine aircraft on a combat mission over North Vietnam, was shot down near a city called Hoa Binh and captured. A wave of foreboding engulfed me. I applied the appropriate sticker and slid the bracelet on my arm. Like a promise ring, I wore it faithfully.
“What’s that on your arm?” my boyfriend asked as he searched for a baggie in his glove compartment. Clyde was two years older and said that we would elope someday. When he looked at me, my eyes rolled around in their sockets. I was in love. Or so I thought.
Having just picked me up for school, he took a slight detour and pulled into the dry riverbed to smoke a doobie. I never understood the attraction of getting stoned, but I went along with it because I thought he was cute and cool and I wanted a ride to school. I also felt older with him, and rebellious, like a hippie. If my parents only knew the real Clyde, they would have grounded me for a month, and maybe even banned television.
“I’m doing my part for the POWs,” I said, proudly, displaying my bracelet. A few weeks ago, “pow” was just a word in the comics. Now I had a cause. “We’re putting pressure on the government to do something.” 
“Are we now?” He sucked on the sloppily rolled joint, held his breath and squinted as if he couldn’t decide whether to enjoy the drag or laugh at me.
“There’s a war going on. Guys a little older than you are being tortured and killed.”
“They are baby killers,” he said, exhaling the smoke in my face.
“That was an isolated incident. The soldiers are under a lot of pressure, and probably under the influence, like you.”
He turned up the radio and the Grateful Dead blasted through the desert air. I could tell where his priorities were and for the first time since I started high school, I felt as if I had risen above the stoner mentality. Drinking Southern Comfort underneath the bleachers at football games suddenly felt trivial compared to what my Dennis might be going through at that moment. He could be in a cage or a hole-in-the-wall prison. What if he was starving or tied up with iron chains?
“It’s a pointless war,” I added. “Don’t you get it?”
“And that little armband is going to help?” He passed me the spit-laden joint and I pretended to inhale.
“I’m late for my poetry class,” I said. “Can we go?”
“Whatever you say.” He revved the engine and we sped away, leaving the strains of Jerry Garcia in a cloud of dust.
In no time, more kids at school wore POW bracelets and so did thousands across the country, regardless of their views of the War, as a testament that POWs should not be forgotten. By the War’s end, VIVA had distributed five million bracelets. For me it was more than just a symbolic gesture. I felt close to Dennis and I felt responsible. I’d lay in bed at night and run my fingers over the indentation that spelled Lt. Com. Dennis A. Moore 10/27/65. It felt like Braille. It felt like a prayer. Sometimes he would haunt my dreams—beady-eyed Viet Cong burning him with cigarettes or whipping him like in the movie Spartacus.
In February 1973, the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam. Troops returned home and the first planeload of POWs left Hanoi. I remember watching the broadcast of “Operation Homecoming,” hoping that one of the weary prisoners stepping off the plane was Dennis. I was happy for the soldiers who were finally able to reunite with their families. Older and a little wiser, I also knew that the troop withdrawal was not a cause for rejoicing. The war suddenly felt very sad and futile. So many lives lost. So much destruction. Infused with whiffs of global awareness, instead of marijuana, I began to ponder the fragility of life.
Several weeks later, I saw his name in the paper followed by Status: Released POW. He was safe. It felt as if a relative had just survived a risky heart transplant. I took off my bracelet and broke it in half, as directed by the instructions. The options were to send it to the released prisoner or keep it. I kept it. In my mind, I wanted to keep him close, and to save a piece of our history.
Those who wore MIA bracelets could not take them off until the missing soldiers (or bodies) were located. There are still 1500 MIAs unaccounted for, grieved for by their families, their names etched in the cool granite of the Vietnam Wall. And there are POWs who are still held captive, which disturbs many returned prisoners because they abided by a code that none would return until all were released.
I spot a seventyish man on bended knee in front of the Wall, crying, whispering something to his dead buddy. He places a photo against the Wall of a smiling young man in a crisp white uniform. I can only imagine his grief and I realize that the grieving process is never really over, no matter if it’s for a friend killed in war or the death of a beloved parent. The wave of sadness rises and falls, reflected in the teary eyes of friends and in the shiny granite of monuments.
Now returned from D.C., I open my childhood jewelry box, and there’s my POW bracelet, like a long lost friend. I run my index finger over the name. My POW was one of the unfortunate sons who experienced the atrocities of the Vietnam War; but he was fortunate that he survived. When I was in high school, I couldn’t fathom how people could kill, torture, and annihilate entire populations because of religion or oil or a line in the sand. I still can’t. I like to “imagine all the people living life in peace,” as John Lennon once dreamed. But as long as there is evil in the world, there will be war. And, as long as there is war, we will depend on people like Lieutenant Commander Dennis A. Moore.

Sheila Luna holds a Master of Liberal Studies, with a concentration in creative nonfiction writing, from Arizona State University. Her personal essays and poetry have recently been published in Spry Literary Journal, Pilgrim. Sotto Voce Magazine, and Every Day Poems. She is currently working on a memoir about her experience living in the wilderness of northwestern Montana with a mountain man, where she battled the elements, struggled with a chronic disease, and ultimately discovered her own identity through the solitude of nature and the healing power of art. She now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she enjoys the luxuries of running water and electricity.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Keisha, Urban Warrior

by Desirée Magney

          The familiar Marimba African rhythms chimed and I glanced at my iPhone to see who was calling. “Blocked Call.” It could have been a solicitation or a wrong number, but I knew it might be a defendant in one of my cases or, more importantly, one of the children.  
          It was the children who were my clients, but that didn’t stop the parents or guardians from calling me. Any time of the day or night, any day of the week, these calls came in. Of late, I had been working a particularly difficult case.  Seeing the disintegration of this family was akin to watching a train wreck in slow motion and I was at a loss to know how to stop it. The local evening news had reported another drive-by teen shooting in Anacostia. My stomach clenched. Was it my boy? I worried about these kids I represented as if they were my own.
          “Hello,” I answered tentatively. It was Keisha, the defendant mother in one of my custody cases.
“Miss Desirée, will you please come to mental health court with me tomorrow?”
Keisha was the biological mom in one of my cases. I was the lead attorney and was assigned a “shadow” attorney who would assist me. My shadow, Joan, and I hadn’t known each other previously but we became fast friends over the many hours spent pouring over case files, researching criminal background records at DC Superior Court, and talking over the unusual facts of this case. Joan would travel from Manassas, Virginia, catching the Metro train from Vienna to Judiciary Square, a good hour plus commute. We met at the DC Superior Court, Joan with a baguette always in hand, to begin our long hours playing detective, tracking down the facts, and requesting related case files. We bonded over lunches at the courthouse café, discussing Keisha’s children as well as our own, early on discovering we had daughters born on the same day, same year. We called them our twins. I asked her why she always carried a baguette. She explained it was for the long trip to and from the city. Thin and athletic, she admitted she didn’t act out of hunger; rather, she had a theory if she ate enough bread it would soak up any liquids in her system and she wouldn’t need to pee during the long commute. We laughed, a great diversion from delving into the heady, complicated lives of the parties in our case. As a fellow woman of a certain age, I understood what Joan meant. In that instant, we bonded.
A few years ago, I became a child advocacy lawyer with a non-profit organization. I was there at its inception at the invitation of a longtime acquaintance. She and I, like many others women lawyers we knew, had suspended our practice of law when we had children. Now that our children were getting older, there was a feeling that it was time to use our legal training pro bono to give back to the community. I served as a court-appointed guardian ad litem, representing disadvantaged children in often harrowing child custody cases.

Keisha was the biological mother of a number of children, two of whom we now represented. She wisely had given up custody of all of them. Having suffered for many years with drug addiction, she admitted to using crack cocaine throughout her pregnancies. Impoverished, she often found herself homeless and prostituting for drugs and money. She had been diagnosed as bi-polar and had been in and out of drug treatment centers and psychiatric hospitals. With no way to support herself, let alone her children, she had the good sense to know they would be better off elsewhere.
 She gave two of her children to a neighbor woman, Kim, who couldn’t have any children of her own. Tamika and Samuel had lived with Kim since their birth and were now teenagers. They knew Kim wasn’t their biological mom, but she was their real mom in their minds, although they regularly talked to Keisha and saw her on occasion. Kim finally had decided to legalize her custodial arrangement over the children. Joan and I were baffled as to why, after all these years, Kim would choose this point in time to come to court to seek an order of custody. But Kim had been recently disabled and unable to work and it eventually became clear that she needed a formal custody order to be able to obtain more benefits. Meanwhile, Keisha never disputed custody and the man listed as the defendant biological dad, Jimmy, didn’t dispute it either. At times, the entire group seemed like one big happy family. Joan and I weren’t sure why the court even felt the need to appoint a guardian ad litem in this case, given that none of the parties contested the best placement for these children. But obviously, the court had questions and as time went on, we understood why.
For years the case dragged on, the court and Joan and I reluctant to relinquish oversight of these children, wanting to keep an eye on their progress, as I recommended in my status reports and relayed in court hearings held every few months. As the kids became older teens, Kim was less able to exert any control over them. They rarely went to school. Kim would call me at 6:45 in the morning, even when I was on vacation, and ask me to talk Samuel into going to school that day. Tamika regularly got into fights, shoplifted, and was on probation. She lashed out on the streets, at school, and at home, once even throwing cleaning solution at a relative.
Joan and I got to know Keisha, Kim and her boyfriends, Jimmy and his latest woman friend, and most importantly, Tamika, and Samuel, as well as their great grandmother, aunts, and uncles. We had visits to Kim’s homes and the children’s great grandmother’s home. We talked on the phone to school and to community counselors, principals, and teachers. We attended numerous meetings at the children’s High School, met with the children’s education attorneys, the police, and Tamika’s probation officer. We tracked down allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Joan and I sought counseling for the kids and got them placed in Sasha Bruce, an organization offering services for at-risk children. We were more social workers than lawyers. Desperate for this family to survive, to thrive, we spent countless hours on the phone discussing their circumstances and what else we could do for them.
Meanwhile, tensions had been rising between two Anacostia neighborhoods. Tamika, hotheaded and ready to battle at any perceived slight, got into a fight at school one day defending her brother. Samuel, soft spoken and sweet natured, with beautiful, long dreadlocks, had been accosted in school by a group from another neighborhood. Tamika defended him in the hallway. Security guards broke it up and the police were called. Joan and I went to the local police precinct to discuss what appeared to be rival neighborhood gangs and the impact it was having on our clients. The police officers said the groups weren’t gangs, just feuding neighborhoods. It seemed to be a distinction without a difference.  
A few days after the incident at the school, shots rang out at the Anacostia Metro station.  Samuel was targeted. The shooters were cruising, looking for the “kid with the dreads” but found his cousin instead. The shooters missed and continued their search for Samuel. He began receiving threatening Facebook messages. At that point, I was no longer willing to visit the family in their home, not wanting to risk becoming a drive-by shooting victim, a very real possibility even if accompanied by security personnel provided by the legal non-profit. Kim had a car, so I asked the family to meet at our offices instead. Kim and Samuel arrived, his once lovely dreads freshly shorn. Kim was upset.
“Can you believe he cut his dreads? My boy cut his dreads! He shaved his head!”
I cocked my head and furrowed my brow at her. Sometimes the kids had more sense than she did. How could she be so oblivious? At least he knew what he needed to do to survive on the streets.

Meanwhile, Keisha was dealing with her own demons. During the pendency of the case, she was in and out of drug treatment programs, often homeless, and was arrested once again for prostitution. But she came to court for each custody hearing—unless she was in rehab or jail—and supported her children the best way she knew how by staying in contact with them and buying them things whenever she had money. The kids stayed in touch with Keisha’s family—their biological grandmother and aunts and uncle. Keisha seemed sincere in her attempts to “right her wrongs.” She would ask Joan and I to pray for her. She always thanked us for the job we were doing helping her children. It was clear to me she loved them. In my mind that was evident by the fact that she gave them up. But she struggled to get her life in any order to take them back.
She was enthused when a halfway house program taught her some computer skills and tried to help her prepare for her GED. But I still needed to sit with her outside the courtroom before each hearing and quietly read aloud my findings in the status report I had written for the judge. We sat shoulder to shoulder on a bench outside the Family Courtroom as I read to her in hushed tones. It broke my heart to have to read the truth I had written about her, the truth I had to tell the judge. But Keisha listened attentively, shook her head in acknowledgment, and slowly ate a piece of Joan’s baguette as I read—baguettes that Joan now brought as much for Keisha, as for herself. We never knew when Keisha had last eaten.
As she quietly listened to me reading the sometimes brutal truths of her transgressions outlined in those court filings, somehow we became closer, and I realized Keisha’s inner strength, her realization of who she was, and her determination to try to change. Although, she could have easily resented the candid nature of my reports, she knew I was only doing what I had to, by virtue of my position upholding her children’s best interests under the law. She accepted these truths for what they were even though she fought against what seemed to everyone else to be her fate.
“Oh, that Keisha. She’ll be back on the streets in no time,” Kim would say to me when I told her that I had heard Keisha was back in rehab. “She’ll never get better. You wait and see, Desirée.” But I had faith.
So when I got that call from Keisha asking me to meet her in mental health court, I agreed, gently reminding her that I was not her attorney but that I would be glad to be there for moral support. She assured me she already had a court-appointed attorney for these hearings. If she could get through the mental health court diversion program, her record would be expunged, but it entailed her staying in rehab, going for drug urine tests, and not getting re-arrested.
I met her outside the courtroom the next day. We waited for her attorney to arrive so that he could enter her name on the already lengthy, post-lunchtime docket. It was going to be a long afternoon. When the judge returned from lunch, the courtroom doors were opened. Keisha and I found seats a few rows from the defendant’s table and waited for her attorney to arrive and her name to be called. Keisha relayed the latest about all her children, showed me photos of her new grandbaby, told me of her newest drug treatment program. She was excited to be given yet another chance. She looked good. Her hair was set in small plaits around her head. Her skin had a healthy glow. She was smiling.
We did this three times. At what would have been her fourth and final hearing—the one at which the judge would have presented her with a rose and a certificate of completion—she arrived at the courthouse looking disheveled—her hair was dyed pink in places, and her skin was blotchy. My chest tightened. I knew these were bad signs. She sat down and proceeded to tell me that she had gone off her psych meds, had been arrested again, and her urine tests weren’t clean. I knew it was likely the US Attorney’s office would recommend jail time. I placed my hand atop hers and told her how sorry I was. I also told her that I had faith in her and that ultimately, I knew she could do it. I reminded her how often she had picked herself up and that I was certain, she would again. She smiled weakly and squeezed my hand.
Shortly after that day, Kim moved herself and the kids out of DC into Maryland. As a result, the custody case in which I had been the guardian ad litem was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. I lost touch with the kids. Even though they had my phone number, technically I wasn’t to contact them.
A month later, my iPhone rang. The caller ID gave no name or number. Keisha couldn’t afford her own cell phone any more but she had good news to report. She was back in rehab, doing well. She had picked herself up once again, was soldiering on. I couldn’t help but smile and feel hopeful she could do it this time, against all odds.
She told me she wasn’t happy about the further distance between her and the kids but she no longer felt she had a say in the matter. I had assumed Kim’s move was prompted by the annoyance of having the court and I oversee her life with a fine-tooth comb. Keisha confirmed this without my asking. Keisha updated me on the kids and her continuing concerns about them. She confided in me that Kim had yet to enroll them in school, even though weeks had passed since the move. She thanked me once again for all that Joan and I had done to help the kids and all the support we had given her. She told me to say ‘hi’ to Joan and to thank her for all those baguettes. This was sounding like her final goodbye to me. I didn’t want it to be. I wanted to know what lay in her future. Then, just as I told her to stay in touch and we were about to hang-up, she said, “I love you, Miss Desirée.”
In the split second following her words of gratitude, I imagined what other lawyers would say in response. The ethical lines of professional responsibility can get blurred sometimes. As lawyers, we are supposed to maintain a professional distance between the parties to a case and ourselves. I had admittedly already crossed this line by sending food baskets to the kids on Christmas and their birthdays, filled with edible treats I knew they wouldn’t be able to afford, a sports book for Samuel, and a journal for Tamika to write in whenever she felt she was about to lose control. Each time we met outside the courtroom, everyone hugged, not something most lawyers do. So, it didn’t take me but a millisecond to respond to this kind and gentle woman, who needed all the support she could get.
“I love you too, Keisha.”

*The names of all the parties to the case have been changed to protect their identities.

Desirée Magney is a writer and attorney. She writes both nonfiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in Bethesda Magazine, Washingtonian Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, The Writer’s Center—Art Begins with a Story, and Jellyfish Whispers. She was honored with a “Best in Workshop” reading at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She is a Board member for the literary journal, Little Patuxent Review, contributes to their blog, and has been one of their fiction readers. She has two adult children, Daniel and Nicole, and lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with her husband, John, and their dog, Tucker.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Counter Winds and Cross-eyed Casters

by Julie Whitlow

Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah, Baghdad, Ramadi—the names roll off of my tongue for no other reason than these were flashpoints of the second Iraq war—an ongoing conflict based on centuries of the banging drums of distrust beating out war marches against enemies, perhaps imagined, perhaps real. Soldiers draped in the flag of my country had officially been killing or being killed by Iraqis for eleven years when eight scholars from the warzone arrived at my university in Salem, Massachusetts, a town chastised for its long-ago intolerance and famed for reversing course. The scholars were on a mission of understanding and shared learning, and my small role was as volunteer mentor to one of the female scholars whom I will call Jameela. Because we were not allowed to take their pictures or publish their names due to potential threats against their lives by those who saw their trip to the US as traitorous, she needs to remain anonymous. When a story and photo about the group published in our neighboring town’s paper—the Marblehead Reporter—prompted a call from the State Department, it was clear that the fear of repercussion was real.
          Jameela and I had weekly conversations about language and writing in Arabic and English. The scholars spent weekends on cultural excursions and experienced Boston’s Freedom Trail, the Museum of Fine Arts, and MIT. They seemed eager and at ease, despite devastating news from home about beheadings by ISIS and bombings in Baghdad. As time went on, the distrust within the group became visible, an offshoot of the ancient tribal factions that each represented: Sunni, Shia, Arab, Kurd, male, female. Reasons that lead to persecution, violence, and human discord became reduced to small, sobering distinctions and the awareness that, despite everything that makes us similar, it is the atomic alignment of culture and history that grow into deep insurmountable divisions. Via my encounters with Jameela, frustrating distinctions seemed obvious only through mundane interactions.
Toward the end of her stay, I decided that a good host should invite Jameela over, perhaps for a meal, a breaking of bread between new friends as an idealistic handshake of peace. However, my doubts about the likelihood of being able to prepare a meal that would meet the halal code that dictates the foods permissible for Muslims impair my ability to cook. Jameela had expressed an interest in having some local fish and I mentioned lobster as an interesting regional delicacy. Jameela agreed and reasoned that since lobsters had shells they were probably an acceptable meal. The night before our luncheon, though, Jameela emailed that she actually couldn’t eat a lobster because of the chance that it wouldn’t be killed humanely. Jameela assured me that fish would be okay, depending on its size, scales, and spine. It became clear that a restaurant lunch would be more prudent than a meal at home.

          I guessed that a restaurant called Finz would likely serve enough varieties of fish options for Jameela to eat. In order to get in the home visit, I would then bring her over for coffee. So, I picked her up at the campus residence hall and we proceed to Finz.
          I was used to most of the female scholars wearing a hijab, the fabric folded over the head, fastened under the chin, and covered by a longer scarf. This day was particularly warm and humid but, as our outing was not routine, Jameela wore additional beautiful brocaded layers of over-garments woven with golden thread and extending almost to the floor. I was touched that she thought of our outing as so special but felt bad that she was sweltering in the summer heat. As we walked from the parking area, droplets lined her smooth forehead and upper lip and she revealed her shock over the girls on the street in shorts and tank tops. How can they walk around with no clothes?
            At Finz, I cringed as we were shown through the bar to reach our table near the water. I tried to ignore the barstools and glistening bottles of liquor packing the shelves, wondering if Jameela realized that we were surrounded by alcohol, another taboo of Islam. When the water that we requested arrived, Jameela wiped the rim of her glass with her napkin and removed the ice. I attempted to explain the menu and its variety of fish that could be ordered grilled, fried, or baked: salmon, sole, haddock, scrod. Jameela wanted assurance that the fish wouldn’t be fried in a beer batter like it was at a restaurant they went to in Rhode Island. It was such a shame that we went hungry that day. She produced her iPhone to determine which of the fish had the acceptable number of scales and a demonstrable spine.
          Together we perused pictures of various fish before and after scale removal on the tiny screen of her phone and Jameela finally decided on the salmon. When her plate arrived, she seemed surprised that the spine and scales had, in fact, been removed and discarded. I ate my haddock taco while most of Jameela’s fish went back to the kitchen. When we finished, we headed over to my house for tea.
          Our conversation resumed around issues related to her studies and teaching. I learned that her husband is also a professor. She has two sons, thirteen and nine, who are rarely allowed to leave home except to go to school: We can’t let them out. We would worry too much. The older one is angry. He thinks we are too protective. He just studies and looks at his iPad. He wants only to go around with other boys… But they are fine. They are happy.
          Jameela knew that I have two daughters but I began to dread questions about my family. How could I possibly tell this elegant and lovely woman who frets over the kinds of scales her lunch once had that I am married to a woman, that I have a wife. I started preparing the tea (necessary to digest fish, I learn) while avoiding having to explain that my children have two mothers. I steered Jameela away from the family photos displayed around the house and was relieved when my children started distracting our delighted guest with a book on Chinglish, that funny blend of Chinese and English.
          When I arrived with the tea and handmade multicolored macaroons from the nearby French bakery, we talked a bit more about life in Baghdad. Jameela took a sip or two of the Earl Grey. I got a sense that she didn’t really like it and she didn’t try the cookies, even the one cut to look like a seagull with wings painted in gray and white sugar.
          The girls and I ate the cookies and I offered a walk around my neighborhood. Built as a summer community in the late 19th century, rows of former summer “cottages” line the streets. Architectural traits range from Victorian to New England eclectic. Some have signs tacked above the door that have probably labeled these houses for decades: The Anchorage, Edgewater, Rendezvous, Fidder’s Green. Why does a house need a name?  I took a guess that the original owners probably had another “real” house and this was a kind of getaway, a summer house. Or, it may be tradition, like naming a boat, I said. Jameela looked at me quizzically. Do you think we are crazy? As the one attempting to explain why my neighbors’ houses have funny names, I assured her: no.
          We walked past a pale blue house with a stack of lobster traps in the yard. It has a fishing rod mounted over the door that is nailed above two oars and a sign that reads “Cross-Eyed Casters.” What does that mean? I pantomimed the cast of a fishing rod, and explained that being cross-eyed means that your eyes don’t line up right, that the nerves and the brain aren’t communicating with the eye muscles. Oh, yes, we have that word in Arabic. Cross-eyes are like crossed minds. They can’t see the world around them clearly.  I focused on the literal, agreeing that being cross-eyed probably makes fishing difficult. I left out the part that the cross-eyed reference may very possibly have something to do with this particular fisherman often being intoxicated. It seemed imprudent to explain that part.
          We continued our walk down the street to see the ocean. We met a grey-haired male neighbor who shrugged in dismay when Jameela refused his handshake. She started to complain of the heat in the late summer sun. I apologized for the walk as her heavy clothes began to smell after weeks of wear and lack of laundering.
          We got home and I prepared to drive Jameela back to campus. As I gathered my keys, Jameela presented me with a fancy gold and silver ring in a velvet box that I accepted graciously but inwardly cringed at its opulence. I drove her back to the residence halls and Jameela seemed genuinely happy: Why didn’t we do this sooner? My own frustrations with the day were, thankfully, not obvious, but, I was glad that the day had ended and I could return to the comfort of the familiar.
          A week or so later, before the scholars were set to leave, I decided to assemble a little package for Jameela to take back to her sons. She had mentioned that they liked to read in English, so I went to Harrison’s, famed purveyors of comic books and pop culture, to see if I could find some appropriate reading material for two boys forbidden to go outside of their home for fear of getting hit by an explosive device. I started down the rows of shelves, trying to gauge how the overwhelming number of comics could be narrowed for the interests of two Iraqi boys whom I would never meet. Scissor Sisters seemed inappropriate just given the title. Would the swords and sabers of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles be offensive?  Surely, the cleavage of the new Betty and Veronica would be in violation of some kind of rules related to nudity. Wonder Woman is even worse—all cleavage and thighs. The Simpsons cover showed the children hitting adults on the head with bats and Garbage Pail Kids displayed kids with their rear ends exposed. They all seemed to model taboos that I perceive a foundation of Iraqi aesthetics.
I continued down the aisles, mentally deconstructing both the bedrocks and counter-culture of America via the comic books on the shelves, trying to look at them with the eyes of the mother of the Iraqi pre-teens that I envisioned: Japanese anime punks, Sound of the Devil, and Southern Bastards were beyond my experiences but clearly in the realm of the offensive. Did Archie and Betty have pre-marital sex?  Could Batman and Robin be seen as gay? My insecurities mounting, I was about to abandon the plan.
          As I was about to walk away from this gesture of cross-cultural generosity, I re-examined the row of classics. Popeye and Peanuts would have to do. Popeye was on the cover with an open can of spinach, exclaiming, “I yam what I yam.” It seemed innocent enough, a sailor with a good diet would certainly charm Jameela’s sons. And how could I go wrong with Peanuts: the meek and nervous Charlie Brown navigating life’s lessons through his side-kicks, the bossy Lucy, loyal Linus with his security blanket, the endearing slob, Pigpen, and the ever-supportive Peppermint Patty. The boys could learn so much about the actual insecurities of Americans and practice their English at the same time.  
          At an arranged time on the Friday before the scholars were leaving, I packed the books along with some archetypal favorite candies of my own kids--Sour Patch Kids and Nerds—and went to the dorms where Jameela was staying. She had also asked me for ten signed letters of recommendation about her efforts as a scholar while in the U.S. that she could present to her superiors at the university in Baghdad, and I had complied with gracious exaggeration of what we had been able to accomplish together. I went to the reception area, called her room, texted her, all to no avail. Finally, one of her Iraqi colleagues, Noora, came down and told me that Jameela had gone to the mosque in a nearby town with some of the others—for one last round of prayer. Was it a prayer for her kids? For a safe journey? For war to end? I would never understand, wrapped in my cloak of the secular and rational. Annoyed, I gave the package to Noora who promised to pass it on.
I never saw Jameela again, but she sent along a note with a leather wallet embossed with the hanging gardens of Babylon, wonder of the ancient world, and a blue glass pendant of the evil eye, a talisman used to ward against evil by numerous factions across the Middle East who are in the throes of hurling missiles at each other. I took it as an honor that Jameela wished me safe from harm, but felt more aware than ever of the discrepancies of human behavior—the kindness of individuals and the killing by tribes. There was a short note in the wallet: Thank you for your time and teaching and for the gifts. I really like Popeye and Peanuts. Popeye the sailor man is strong and smart. And Peanuts shows us the American mind. I will take them all to Baghdad and teach my boys America. I would love to stay longer but winds blow counter to what the ship wants.
          When Jameela returned to Baghdad, she posted pictures on Facebook of black smoke billowing in the direction that she had come from. I wondered about those boys. Were they finally able to go outside and play? Or would they become part of the conflict, careening blindly through the haze, holding on to their protective charms, hoping that the evil eye would not blind them?

Julie Whitlow teaches in the English Department at Salem State University and coordinates the graduate programs in teaching English to speakers of other languages. She has been a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and a Fulbright scholar in Nicaragua, experiences that made her realize mutual human understanding is elusive and worthy of exploration.