Posted in A Cartography of Sin, Nonfiction, writing contests

On Constant Discomfort

This was my entry for the first round of the Yeah Write Super Challenge #3. My group was tasked with writing a personal essay based on the prompt “Discomfort”. This piece got me into the second round.

I can’t swallow. I’m a cornered animal: all quick heartbeat and panting. Most of my consciousness is screaming, “Calm down!” This part of me knows that it’s just a bad dream. That none of what the other part of me is saying is true. But that other part is good at convincing me otherwise.

I wake Kris gently with a soft shake and softer apologies.


“I know I’m being crazy but I need to have this conversation so I can calm down.”

We calmly discuss that no, we definitely didn’t kill someone and carry them around in a garbage bag looking for a place to hide the body. No one has found the body because there isn’t a body. No one is going to find the body because again, there is no body.

No one found it.

No one will find it.

We didn’t kill anyone.

“There’s no way we forgot about killing someone.” It’s almost all statement. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah.” He nods the way he does when I ask if we need milk.

“Okay, me too.” I pretend to fall back asleep.


At some point during my development a box labeled, “Everything will make you uncomfortable” was checked. Sounds. Words. Habits. The way people drive. Competing noises. Being touched. Everything sets me off. And for most of my life I thought it was for no good reason. It was in full bloom from my early adolescence until my early twenties, the physical and mental discomfort exhausting. Sometimes I could keep it under control. Usually I would get to a point where I had to walk away. For a long time I just didn’t interact with other people.

It’s part nature: several branches in my family tree ended in suicide. It’s part nurture: when I told my father not to touch me he would answer with “I’ll remember that when you want something.” But I never asked him for anything. Especially not that.

It has a name: OCD. It manifests in ways people would find shocking if I let them see. Because my OCD looks like OCD. It doesn’t look the way it does in listicles and on television. It’s not freaking out if my pens aren’t lined up neatly.

My OCD is avoiding washing myself because I can’t without crying.

It’s an urge to keep used sanitary napkins.

It’s saying, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to be dead a year from now.” And believing it.

But OCD isn’t just obsessions and compulsions. It’s those and at the same time an awareness, and embarrassment, of how crazy the obsessions and compulsions are. OCD is a tiresome, unending battle between the part of my brain that is crazy and the part that is not.

It’s forcing my soap slicked hand between my legs, after the tears, laughing and asking myself, “Dude. Do you really want to walk around with a stinky vag?”

It’s feeling panicky at the idea of throwing away a used pad while realizing that I’m this close to becoming a hoarder. That shame is unbearable.

It’s thinking I’ve murdered someone while being mortified that I could believe I have the capacity to kill. And it’s having to remind myself that even if I am dead this time next year there’s no way of knowing it right now.



When I was nearing my mid-thirties I had to get a physical. A male nurse took my vitals. The two parts of my brain fought between being completely distressed and recognizing that I was safe. That my overreaction to someone not even touching me was ridiculous. By the time the female doctor came in I was climbing the walls. She looked at me, signed the forms, and left the room. She came back, handed me a card, and said, “You’re in crisis. I’ve made you an appointment. They’re waiting now.”

At the mental health facility I spilled secrets like marbles. I experienced every emotion: a dizzying cyclone of disclosure. A psychiatrist took notes, had me answer unending questions, and gave her initial diagnosis: OCD. PTSD. GAD.

The acronyms made me laugh. I didn’t wash my hands twenty times a day and had never fought in a war. I was just nervous. And for some reason I was having lots of really bad panic attacks lately. Also, could she chill with all the D’s? I didn’t have any disorders. And I was not going to take meds. There was nothing wrong with me.

She scrawled a prescription onto a pad and handed me a set of instructions. “It will get worse now that you’ve disclosed. You’ve opened up a part of your brain that you’ve been using a lot of energy to keep closed. You’re going to need help dealing with this.”

I noticed she was careful not to touch me. That was what allowed me to trust her.

Posted in A Cartography of Sin, Nonfiction

Putting Out Fires

“Wow, what happened?” My arms never fail to catalyze this question.
“I didn’t know how to put out a fire.”


I was on fire.

I tried to put it out with alcohol. At the bar, halfway into happy hour and more than halfway to a hangover the door opened. Light and the noises of Brooklyn stumbled in much like I would eventually stumble out. In walked the new teacher. I immediately ordered a round of shots. She and the others thought I was being friendly. I wasn’t.

Nate knew. He knew I was mean with jealousy. At their little jokes about her being in his old classroom. Her advances toward him. They may not have made jokes. She likely didn’t make advances, but my imagination has always been good. It didn’t help that I had recently realized that all evidence pointed to his ex not being an ex at all. Sometimes I chose to believe his insistence that I was crazy. That I was not the other woman. I was not crazy. And I was the other woman.

“Nancy has stinky feet but we still love her.” The joke was too much with everything else. I went outside to the yard behind the bar and found a spot with a clear view of the few stars visible in the city. He came outside. “Harriet’s leaving. You should say goodnight.”

“No, I shouldn’t.”


“Why don’t you go say goodnight to her.”

“I don’t like her.”

“I don’t believe you.” I wanted passionate convincing. He walked away.

Harriet appeared shortly. “I wanted to say goodnight to you. I was hoping you would say goodnight to me, too.”

“What?” I squinted through beer hazed sight. “Why are you even here?”

“You invited me.”

“I wasn’t serious. How could you think I was serious?”

“I guess I take people at their word.”

“God, you’re clueless.”

She leaned down, put her hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry that you are so sad. And so angry.”

“Fuck you.”

She walked away.


Hiss — POP!  The essential oil burner on the entertainment center exploded. My apartment full of cheap IKEA wood was about to go up in flames. The dry winter air didn’t help.

He ran into the kitchen and soon metallic static of water filling a pot signaled to me that something was wrong.

“NO! Kitchen fire!” I held up one finger before grabbing a bag of all purpose flour. A fistful of flour saved the night. And possibly my life. Because I was reminded after that, simply could not get out of my head, that every type of fire has its own method for being put out. Liquids work on some. Liquids only make others worse.


Another fire had been sparking in me since childhood. The fire of mental illness. It bloomed like ink in water, loaning itself to beauty at times: bursts of creativity, manic redecorating, all night conversations. In the company of others I could keep it under control, but when I was alone it raged. Self-hatred throwing some gas on it. Shame tossing on more.

I would scream while I cut myself. I’d stuff balled up pair of socks in my mouth so the neighbors didn’t call the police. I marked every indiscretion of his, and mine, on my body. The cuts were ugly and deep. I thought it would help but I just ended up with infections.

The maps of these wrongdoings still exist: a cartography of sin.

I was forcing a boxcutter into my thigh when a film of my mother began projecting itself in my head. If I cut too deeply and killed myself she wouldn’t survive. So I had to. I wrapped my leg tightly with pantyhose and washcloths, making it up as I went. I threw on a large coat and rode the empty D to Coney Island. I had finally realized that some fires can’t be put out. I had to let myself burn up, leaving a pile of ash. Only once I gave myself the time and space to burn completely could I rebuild.

The empty beach was littered with the faded ephemera of a summer long since over. At the water the wind howled louder than I could. I screamed until my throat bled.

Image by Brooklyn MuseumEast from Little Pier, Coney Island, Brooklyn, ca. 1872-1887.Uploaded by palnatoke, No restrictions, Link

Posted in Nonfiction, writing

Meeting a Prophet on the D Train

Brooklyn, NY — January, 2000

A man with more spaces between than teeth enters our car. His pack is black and strong, worn in the places it’s spent nights on pavement.

The two tones sound; this line is not fancy enough for the new cars that direct us — in the most un-New York voice ever — to, “Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”

“We’re all going to pray together!” His shout makes everyone on the train tighten.

We’re all going to die. He doesn’t pull a gun, though. He doesn’t even pull a knife. What he does pull out is a tattered Bible. He begins to read.

My second thought sounds like the me I keep away from this boy. This boy who positioned himself in such a way as to let me know he’d protect me. He has already relaxed back into the half slumber the rocking train always brings. I keep my mouth shut.

It is too late to deal with death or God. My evening has left me tired and counting the stops to Ave M. I’m looking forward to the walk through the crisp air, waking me up. By the time we walk the three blocks I’ll be ready to crack a bottle of wine and let the rest of our night unfold. This is the part of the night I like best: the anticipation of being alone. Alone where the attraction between us is clear. And primal.

My curated facade, the one I hope will make this boy finally call our weekends together a relationship, cracks. “Shut up,” my sleepy voice whines, weaving itself into woolen peacoat shoulder. Suddenly, the man is going to save my soul.

“You have evil in you,” he hisses, his eyes are made into slits to match.

Did my mother send him? She is not pleased with me although she has not said it outright. But early one Saturday she heard this boy — who I want to be my boyfriend (but isn’t) — in the background when she called to tell me something inconsequential. I stumbled too long to say, “He’s here picking me up to [insert mom-approved, non-sexual date activity possibly involving a library here].” Instead, I didn’t say anything even when she asked, “Is that Nate? Kind of early.”

My mother and I were suspended there for a second, swinging on opposite ends of a coiled phone cord, neither wanting to say nor hear the answer. “I’ll talk to you Monday,” was followed by a click. Sharp scissors on strong cord.  Our morning calls ended.

I lean into Nate, place my lips near his ear and whisper, “Beer’s not evil.” Everyone else is acting normally now that I’m the target. Now that we know the subway preacher is not violent. Nate has his left hand on my knee, his right reaches for my hand. Whispering always gets him. I need to make up for the lightning strike he witnessed earlier. He turns his head, kisses me in a way that indicates the night ahead. Maybe it turned him on. I only get sassy behind closed doors.

Avenue H. I perk up a little and notice the preacher. His eyes flick between me and his dirty fingernailed index finger as it feverishly guides his mumbles. Will he follow us?

At Avenue J he lifts the bag, heavy as if carrying the sins of the world, onto his back and leaves. He pauses by us but we don’t look up. “She misses you.” His final words take root.

Our hands are connected as squeezes send messages: lovers’ morse code. But I can’t get my mother out of my mind.

I’ve always tried to be a skeptic. But then moments like this happen.
By relux. from Minneapolis, USA – New York City Subway, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link