A Boy of Eighteen Years

So many nights of no sleep lost to you. It’s all I can think about on this rainy Wednesday, my mother’s birthday, a cool rain that kept me awake with the endless thoughts of your cold cell, your cold refusal, and my cold ignorance.

Here I sit in my mostly empty classroom, the students done for the year, or done till Monday for me, when I give up three weeks of my summer to give my Newcomers a chance to see the city, learn how to fill out a job application, make a budget, make a meal together.

Remember last year when I tried to get you to come to the program and you blew it off half the time, arrived late when you came, never took notes, and flirted with all the girls instead of paying attention?

You were like that from the beginning. When I called Bruce and asked him if I could bring you home two and a half years ago, he said to me, “But you barely know the kid… and how do you know what he’s really like?” And my gut sank, and I sucked in my breath because you had been nothing but apathetic, misbehaving trouble from the moment you walked in. But I didn’t tell Bruce that. Because you were a boy of eighteen years, and you needed a chance, a home, and someone to believe in you.

I just got into an argument with a colleague about this intuition I have which he claims can’t be true: that I almost always can tell just who a person is within one or two meetings, and I am almost always right.

I was right about you and wrong about myself, and I sacrificed more than two years of my family’s happiness trying to show you that you could take hold of a different way of looking at the world.

But all you wanted was that damn car, that speed, that recklessness that drives so many young boys into cells and gun stores.

And who’s to stop them?

When my husband donned his high school cap and gown after a tumultuous educational experience, having been held back in second and fifth grades then promoted halfway through seventh and barely passing eighth, he walked right across that stage and across our country to San Antonio, just down the road from Uvalde, to don a uniform and learn how to shoot a rifle in the Air Force and begin a career that he would later abandon.

He was a boy of eighteen, just like you were when you came to my house, just like Salvador Ramos, Payton Gendron, Ahmad Al Aliwi Al-Issa, all the boys whose faces I feel I have somehow met in my classroom or otherwise, but he didn’t join the military so he could blow things up and learn how to shoot.

He enlisted because he wanted a future for himself that didn’t involve working in his daddy’s shadow at the cotton mill, because he couldn’t see himself in college, because he wanted the safety and security that so many of us crave.

And is he so different now, twenty-six years later, the father of my three children, the detail-oriented Airman First Class who checks our credit score with the regularity of the rising sun?

Older, yes. Jaded, a little. More liberal? Of course (he’s married to me).

But he is still that boy who knew better than to argue with a cop or buy a gun or bully girls on the Internet.

And he didn’t have your background, and we can all blame these backgrounds till we’re blue in the face. But what of the backgrounds of the two boys who started this sickness, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who came from the perfect middle-class life?

What possesses an 18-year-old boy to choose to forgo a decent future for a life of crime, or worse, death by mass shooting?

I was thinking about all these boys, all these shooters, before you called me from jail the other day. And I know that you think I shouldn’t compare you to them, but I can’t help it. Not because I think you would do that, but because I’m afraid you will.

You have the same tendencies. Resistance to authority. Self-entitlement. High-school burnout. Internet addiction. Recklessness. Ingratitude.

Maybe, just like those boys, you would claim that no one has ever loved you. Or that every adult in your life has failed you. Or that you’re better now than you were when you were younger.

I don’t know what your reasons are. I will never know. I will never understand how an eighteen-year-old boy can walk into a gun store and buy 362 rounds of ammunition to kill fourth-graders just as well as I will never understand how after more than two years of me trying to guide you, love you, offer you safety and security and a home and a future, you lit it all on fire in a matter of months, burning through money, burning through your next two homes, burning fuel into three other states till you found yourself in jail, penniless, without your precious phone, knowing only my number.

I hate myself today, this rainy day in June, for knowing your number, and not just saying no. Because no matter what happens to you, no matter what anyone says to me about how “this isn’t your fault”, I will always carry the burden of failure, of not following my gut, of giving you a chance you never wanted to have.

I met my husband when I was nineteen and he had just turned twenty, and we married each other within a year. He hasn’t changed much; nor have I. And even though you are no longer a part of our lives, we are still going to be the good people we were when we were young.

And you are still going to be the same person I met two and a half years ago.

And I want you to go on with your life. Stop calling me. Give me my life so that I can take my Newcomers to the zoo, to Red Rocks, to the museum, to all the places you never wanted to go. So that I don’t have to hear my girls complain about how you treated me.

So that I never lose another night of sleep trying to make you a better person.

Tomorrow Morning

My husband finishes work at 16:00, but he invited me to dinner in the cool uptown neighborhood where he works tonight. Because he had to “flip a switch”, as the four of us girls teased him, at exactly 18:00, and he couldn’t be late.

And we won these smiles.

Vittetoes Do Campfire

Someone with a camera (my camera) took our photo. A nice white woman with a GoldenDoodle sitting next to us. On a Tuesday in May that should have been eighty degrees but it was only fifty and threatening rain.

Threatening.

But it wasn’t a real threat. It wasn’t an 18-year-old one of my students who walked into an elementary school in Texas to kill three teachers and EIGHTEEN 2nd-4th graders.

Nope. That life, that teacher life, is for tomorrow morning.

Tomorrow morning, I will rise at dawn, or just when the bluejays call me awake. I will walk my dog two miles through my Denver neighborhood. I will kiss my blue-collar husband goodbye and let my baby daughter drive me to the high school where we live/work. And we will walk into the Italian-brick-National-Historic-Monument of a high school and pretend that we don’t know the kid who could walk into an American gun store and kill the next generation in ninety minutes.

And I have worked for twenty years in this profession where my heart breaks every GODDAMN DAY in an attempt to keep that kid from doing that.

And you know what?

Tomorrow morning, I am going to see my recently-arrived refugee students who spent thirteen years on a list or thirteen harrowing months waiting in line or thirteen lifetimes waiting to come to the savior that is America, and try to explain to them, in my broken Dari/Spanish/Arabic/Pashto… that we are just as broken as them.

Tomorrow morning, I will rise at dawn after a night without sleep, and I will be there for them, trying to convince the boys that the gun store doesn’t exist and the girls that they have a future that includes educational advancement, no forced marriages, and a life that they can create.

And look at my girls.

Let them rule.

Just take a look at the three girls I have raised who have to face this.

Tomorrow morning.

And Biden, you’re going to give a speech? And Governor Abbott, and Donald FUCKING Trump, you’re speaking at the NRA convention this Friday, I hear?

And what the FUCK are you going to say? Thoughts and prayers?

Are you going to be there tomorrow morning, when the blood of eighteen elementary students is still staining our hands? Are you going to walk into that high school tomorrow morning, having that conversation with the kid whose negativity has walked him into the free-for-all, no-accountability gun store that is our nation? Are you going to sit by my side tomorrow morning as I try to make it through another day in a profession that vilifies and disgraces me with false promises and broken souls? Are you going to tell my Newcomers tomorrow morning that this really is the American FUCKING Dream?

No. You are not.

Tomorrow morning, before the alarm goes off, I will be awake. I will take my broken salary, my broken heart, and I will hug my kids. The only gun I will carry, the only bullets out of my mouth, are these words:

I am here.

I am here now. I am here later. I am here tonight.

I am here for you. For a million years.

And I will still be here for you.

Tomorrow morning.

Ravine

My mother once fought a ravine and two strange men, and only a woman could tell you which was scarier. The dusk settling in on a rural New York night, a 30-something woman trying to maintain her health with a long walk, and a pickup truck.

Doesn’t every American nightmare begin and end with a pickup truck?

You can feel the humidity in your mouth. As thick as gnats, as thick as a cloud of mosquitoes fighting for blood. Hovering in the clouds that are the sky of the upstate, the Finger-Lake country, the I-can-get-away-with-this country. Choking you.

Telling you just what your mother told you—that you should have stayed home. That you shouldn’t have gone to college. That you should have been a housewife. That education and careers are for penises. That you aren’t really a woman if you aren’t surrounded by a cartload of kids.

And you. She. Didn’t listen. You took that 2.5-mile walk in the dusk, running your long and delicate fingernails along the cattails. Feeling that soft moisture in the air, filling your lungs with droplets as golden as the fire from the sun. Feeling your freedom of marrying a man who would never in a million years tell you not to be who you are. Just letting you.

Walk.

Walk that walk. Walk all the way around the “block”, the upstate block that stretched between a cemetery, an elementary school, houses built two hundred years back, and cornfields flooded with the life of early summer, ready to burst with golden morsels of joy.

She will tell you this story later (not much later). You are nine years old, sitting in your stone-floor kitchen, listening to her tell it.

It is the same story she told you years ago, about her mother writing the letter to the college and telling them that her daughter shouldn’t go, that women are housewives, and why would she waste her life on an education rather than raising babies?

But there’s a ravine in this story.

A ravine. Resting above Flint Creek, the creek with the black snakes in summer, the creek that freezes so hard in winter that we bring our toboggan and sled right down over its ice, the creek that is a mystery and a blessing and a danger all wrapped in a childhood built upon the backbones of exploration.

In case you were wondering, this far along… the ravine saved her.

She clung to the vines, the grass, the weeds, the green growth along the banks of that creek as if her life depended on it.

Her life depended on it.

Because on her 2.5-mile walk, at dusk, in midsummer, two men followed her and did all the things two men in a pickup truck do.

They drove forward and circled back. They blasted their radio and their diesel. They shouted and slurred.

And my mother won a full-ride scholarship for that nasty letter her mother wrote in 1972. It was the Women’s Liberation Movement, and goddamn it if someone was going to tell her or anyone that she wasn’t going to get her degree. Even if it was her mother.

And she clung to the side of that ravine, hiding her waist-length auburn curls and her 120-pound soul and her fear, until she heard that diesel drive away.

And she didn’t call the cops or cry or call my father.

She walked home and told us, my sister and father and me, the story.

And that is why I am here today, writing this.

Because she clung to the terror and came out on the other side and didn’t get raped.

And how fucking sad and amazing and heartbreaking is that ravine, that ravenous victory?

How fucking sad is that ravine?

Six Years Back

Six years ago, to the day, we had a snow day just like today. I got out the art supplies and all three girls colored all morning. All three girls put on their snow gear and built a snowwoman. All three girls giggled. Mythili finished a book she’d started three days prior. Riona helped me shovel. Mythili walked over to the local cafe and ordered tea, just like me.

Six years ago, they were still children. So happy to have a moment to themselves. To enjoy. To laugh.

And now what?

Before the day even began, I was crying. I cried myself to sleep, and now my eyes are so red I can’t even see straight. My husband tried to love me so hard last night, my perfect husband, but the pot smell seeped into the room, the door shut, the Camry reeked, and my worst nightmare crept under every crack.

It’s been two weeks and three voicemails to a non-responsive therapist since Mythili lost one of her closest friends to an overdose. And the last thing I want to smell is pot coming from out of her room. Pot she’s smoking alone. Because she’s lonely. Because she’s alone.

She was one of her closest friends whom she’d cut ties with months ago, months when her therapist deemed her better and stopped seeing her every week… every two weeks… every month… to not at all.

Not at all.

As if my girl, my child, was cured. As if all the phone calls I made to various medical and psychiatric doctors, begging to get her medicated, to no avail, were just washed down with every other aspect of this dark pandemic, a pill too solid to be swallowed. As if, after six months of therapy, her mind could go back to the mind of the girl in these pictures, from our snow day six years back:

I want to go back. I want to go back to that smiling child. I want her to tell me what I did. What someone did. I want a reason for the pain that torments her soul.

In two days, I have a four-day weekend planned. Booked months back with the hope that, with an outdoor heated pool, a cool town with tons of shops, and a hot springs right downtown, she’d want to come with us.

She used to love swimming. Skiing. Snowshoeing. Hiking. Camping. Traveling. Drawing. Doing puzzles. Riding her bike. Talking to me. Walking. Eating. Cooking. Baking. Reading.

All the things, all the things that I love, she loved.

And now she hates all of them. She hates everything. Even a snow day.

And do you know the weight of this? Do you know how much it hurts to see her hurt?

I’m not even at noon yet. I’m not even halfway through this hellfire snow day. When I went cross-country skiing to and around the park, trying to find peace after another night of four hours of sleep, I didn’t find anything but loneliness. I haven’t slept in days, weeks, months. Is it her? Is it Fabian who we’ve asked to leave, whose program sent the email today confirming that it will be within two weeks, that there’s another big meeting on Friday, the day we leave for Steamboat Springs, the day I begged, fought to have off, the day I requested as a personal day (along with Monday), putting in for my reason, “Mental Health Weekend,” and my principal’s secretary responded with, “Due to class coverage concerns, the principal is asking if you could just take one mental health day?”

One mental health day? I didn’t have a planning period for nearly three weeks because I was either covering classes or proctoring an English-proficiency test. Then my co-teacher got COVID and I had to fully run her class, too. Then my principal got COVID and couldn’t meet with me to discuss my request. And then I just gave up and changed my personal days to sick days. And this is the world we are living in, where we can’t take two days off, where the person who has to quarantine with their under-five set of kids for a week has priority over the mental breakdown of this mama of teens.

Before I went skiing today, before Mythili reluctantly agreed to go grocery shopping with me, this is what she told me:

“None of my friends want to listen to my problems. None of them care. I don’t want to talk to another therapist. I’m tired of talking to so many people. I just want to talk to her. I want to be home alone all weekend. I don’t want to be around anyone because nobody understands. Nobody understands how I just go through each day. I just go through each day, going through the motions, and I can’t find joy in anything, and I have no reason for it, and I don’t understand it, and it’s like something is just wrong with my brain, and I AM SO TIRED OF IT, I’M SO EXHAUSTED.”

And the tears took over. Hers and mine.

And what have I done through my tears today? I have been working on a puzzle and telling my son that he’s moving out next week because I failed him and texting my husband, to which I knew he would say yes, “Can you, for the second year, stay home with Mythili this weekend instead of having this amazing weekend together?”

Because there is nothing amazing about wanting to take two days off in the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a mental health crisis. There is no new snow in Steamboat, no leniency for teachers, no grace for a mama whose heart is as broken as her child’s.

And the boy who is leaving my house next week? Am I supposed to feel good about it? Relief? Gratitude?

There is nothing, nothing but remorse.

Because he’s probably feeling much like Mythili, and I couldn’t help him.

Because I’m feeling much like Mythili, and I can’t even have a long weekend. I can’t ski the pain away, drink the pain away, pretend that the pandemic, my job, my family, don’t exist.

We exist.

And we all hurt so fucking much right now that we cry ourselves through a snow day.

A snow day–the best day ever. Six years back.

Gratitude/Gratitud/يشكر

I was searching for a knife and I found myself standing in the ceramics room of chaos, otherwise known as Art Room Lunch.

Don’t worry. The knife was for a pie, not anything sinister. And it was a butter knife covered in clay, easily washed off in one of the many sinks, ready to cut through my store-bought pumpkin pie.

Yes, I wrote the words. Store-bought.

I cringe to even think of the admission. At least my cranberry sauce was homemade because God forbid I sell my entire soul to consumerism and mediocrity.

It was in the ceramics room, searching for and washing the knife, that I had a conversation with myself. Not my actual self, of course. My colleague. My friend. My self of fifteen years ago, when I had three tiny girls at home and it seemed all they did was scream… or, at least, cry to spend more time with me. When I couldn’t talk to my husband without a child between my legs, clinging to my breast, or pulling at my shirttail.

And it was so hard.

And here I am now, searching for a knife because between my two jobs and four teens I can’t seem to remember to bring one. My baby drove me to work this morning. My BABY. Fifteen, prepared to be the first of three to get her license on her sixteenth birthday, nine months out. My baby who, when I used to come home from work, wouldn’t let me leave the couch for a good ninety minutes. She needed to cuddle. To read stories. To nurse. To pet the kitty and the puppy. To be wholly mine since I took myself away from her for nine hours a day.

And now? She needs me to “chill” when I gasp at a too-sharp turn of the wheel. To allow her sleepovers on a whim and cash for shopping whenever I have it. To be sure I mention her name whenever I say that my daughters bake the Thanksgiving pies.

But most of the time, as with the other three, she is in her room. I hardly see her. She is FaceTiming friends or watching Friends. My middle is working or Instagramming. My oldest is away at college. And the boy we’ve taken in? He’s on the phone in his room.

There is no screaming. No clinging. If I want to have a conversation with my husband, I don’t have to call him on the way home from work, as my colleague told me today. I can just shut the door to our bedroom. No one will open it. Or we can talk while we walk the dog. We can take a tiny trip to Estes Park. We can talk in the morning, hours before our teens pop their eyes open, and no one will ever know.

No one will ever know how lonely it can be, without the screaming. The crying. The needing.

But I can’t say this to her. She is giving me a knife, and I have a pie to cut. Carne asada, tacos al pastor, shawarma, arepas, patacones, lasagna, and the life I live are waiting for me back in my own classroom.

Yet my lunchtime conversation is just what I needed. I needed to see a roomful of kids trying to shape ferns and mushrooms out of balls of clay. A distraught mother trying to navigate the work/life balance. The vibrant life of humans humming and thinking and creating and loving.

Living.

Because sometimes it feels like it’s just me. Just them. Just all of us. Alone in our rooms with the doors shut.

And sometimes, all we need is a butter knife and a slice of pumpkin pie, store-bought or not, to bring some gratitude to this Thanksgiving table.

This Thanksgiving life.

Scenes from a Marriage

Dear One,

You can try to call me out, but it will never work. I have been doing this for as long as you have, if not more. I know the rules. The laws. The disappointment is just another capillary in the bloodstream of America, and I have swallowed it wholeheartedly.

You have not swallowed it. You gave up after twenty-some years and didn’t take this picture.

To you, it’s just a middle-aged man at a sink, exasperated with his wife. I know. I know.

Exasperated with my need to document everything. Even a bleeding finger. To post it. To show the world: this is what life is ACTUALLY like. It’s not a picnic, a corn maze, a perfect autumn afternoon.

It bleeds.

But you wouldn’t let it bleed. You wanted to stop it too soon, to pull away the paper towel and slap on the band-aid. Never mind what a doctor would tell you, a marriage doctor.

Hold it above your head. Apply pressure. Replace the paper towel five times. Have the peroxide and neosporin ready. Yet, don’t remove the paper towel, the pressure, all the pressure of the world telling you not to, before the blood stops.

Just.

Wait.

And in the waiting, you will take the time to study the video. To read every law ever written about what we can. Do. About how horribly our immigration system has failed these children who stand before us.

And if you just waited? And if you let it bleed? And if you understood?

Then you would have this pic. And a chrysanthemum for a background, filled with color. And you wouldn’t have quit. You would have taken a snapshot of twenty-three years of marriage instead.

And you would understand where I am coming from.

But instead?

Let me just post my Scene from a Marriage.

Unlike HBO, this is not a Scene from a Divorce.

Because I see the beauty in making things work, even if the law, the world, the society tells me otherwise.