My Fictive Uncle

I am a first generation college student with no living parents to help me navigate this completely foreign environment. I am living on campus in a big city far away from the dirt roads of my youth. It is my second day of my Sociology 101 class. I am already signed up to be a Sociology major. I already know that I love people and want to understand us better so that I can help to change the parts of our society that leave so many behind- or more accurately push so many of us behind.

    Is it just me or does my professor keep looking at me…I try to stay focused but I am already insecure and uncomfortable. Many of the kids sitting in the desks around me already have college credits from their high schools offering special courses or their parents paying for special courses. I had never heard of such a thing. I know that my education is not as strong as these suburban kids. My professor drops a note on my desk. What?! Did I just have a teacher pass me a note in class? Is that normal? I look around anxiously to see if anyone else saw. I am nervous to open it and read it in front of everyone.

    Crystal, please meet me in my office after class. I already checked your schedule and I know you do not have any classes until the afternoon.

    Gulp. I wonder if I did something wrong. I wonder if he can see right through me and knows that I do not belong here. Maybe he wants to tell me that I am not ready for college. I don’t know. I can’t focus for the rest of the class. What were we even talking about anyway. I thought I would love Sociology, it was my major after all, but I was always fighting to keep my eyes open in his classes.

    Finally the class is finished. My heart is pounding as I make my way to the Chair of the Sociology Department office. As the Chair, he has his own private secretary and she directs me to sit down. Before my butt even touches the seat though, he is out of his door and waving me in. He is smiling too big and too friendly. I have never spoken to him so I am confused about his very familiar greeting.

    “Crystal! I am so glad that you could come by!” …um…did I have a choice?

    “ Please, sit!” his hand pats the seat of a cushioned desk chair that he has pulled away from the desk so that it is positioned right across from him and there is nothing between us. I can hear my blood pumping in my ears. I have learned to be cautious at the very least around men and I wouldn’t generally put myself in a position to be alone with one that I don’t know in a room with the door closed behind us.

    “How are you?”

    “um….I’m ok…”

    “How do you like college so far?”

    “Um….it seems ok….”

    He smiles at me again with that huge goofy too big grin. I look away and glance around the office. I notice a Pirates Baseball Player bobble head up on his bookshelf. There are stacks of books on every surface. He is not a tidy man. This actually makes me more relaxed. I am not a tidy girl/woman. There is a big camera on his desk and it looks complicated. There are photos on the walls, blown up and framed. The photos are mostly of things, like trains and fields and bridges. But there is one that catches my eye. It is an old man. Just his face. His head is thrown back and his mouth is wide open. There are only a few blackened teeth remaining. He looks kind of like my grandpa looked. Again, this calms me. I do not know enough to fear middle class sociologists who romanticize poverty.

    “Crystal, let me tell you why I called you in here.” He has been watching me take in his office.  Over the next year, I realize that he loves to watch me, is always watching me. Sometimes from behind his camera lens, sometimes not. “I noticed you right away. You stood out in our very first class. You don’t look like a regular college student. You look different.”

    I look down to see how I look today. Long flowy floral skirt. Brown and pink buds floating around the cotton fabric covering my legs all the way to the floor. It is August, so it is hot enough for me to pair this with a tank top. It’s simple and brown and ties at the waist. My hair is long and curly and I have dyed my dark brown hair a pitch black. Tiny braids are scattered throughout. I guess I don’t look like the other college students with their Duquesne Hoodies and booty shorts. Is this a dress code thing?

Can you find me in here? Right in the middle with my peace sign! Looking back I try to see if Wilson was right that I do not look like the other college students, but I don’t see it. I see a barely 19 year old girl sitting among a group of 18 and 19 year old girls.

    He makes a sound. A grunt and covers his mouth. “After our first class I couldn’t resist my curiosity about you so I pulled your file to have a look.” Dramatic pause while my mind races through all of the things that he would see in there. Orphan. My admission letter about my parents dying of AIDS, my income at $0 and no home address. “I knew there was something special about you and I was right! Oh, sweetie. I am so sorry to learn about the terrible hardships that you have gone through. I have kids of my own in college. (No, he didn’t they were full grown late 20’s and only one of them was connected to any college of any kind and that was as a TA, not a student.) I can’t imagine how you must be feeling in a new place with new people and no family to call home to talk about it. I want to invite you to think of me as your “fictive uncle.” haha! Sorry that is a sociology term, just throwing in a little learning. I saw that you are a Sociology major which is perfect! I am going to take you under my wings and guide you every step of the way!”

    All of this is finally sinking in. I am a lucky girl. I always have been. I mean think about it. I could have easily contracted HIV when I was born. My mom wasn’t being treated at all, I mean there wasn’t even any reliable treatments yet at that time! It is my turn to smile. I can’t believe the Sociology Chair is offering to be my mentor! I am so excited. All of my reservations are gone. Because I need this. And honestly, because I do not know yet that toxic masculinity is not specific to working class and poor men. I do not know that I need to protect my girl body even here at this respected Catholic institution of learning. I am classist I guess like everyone else.

    Wilson goes right into this new role he has graciously offered to fill in my life. He employs me as his editor…I have no experience of writing, have not even taken even one college level writing class…or any writing class for that matter. This means that he will see me at least once a week to go over our work together.  I learn that he has authored a few books. He does love spending time with poor people! One book is about living with the “hobos” who jump trains. Another is about farmers in upstate New York. His books are filled with poverty porn. He is always the hero, courageously leaving the safety of suburbia behind to venture out and live among the downtrodden. He is never over the age of 30 in the pictures he shows me even though his hair is thinning and he hardly resembles the young man that he shows me.

    One weekend, he invites me over to have dinner with his family. He invites another girl too. Let’s just call her Olivia. She is an exchange student from Ecuador and I recognize her from class. While she and I wait for him to pick us up in his little white punch bug car, she confesses that she is nervous. She has called home. Her parents are wondering why a grown man is inviting us to dinner. They say it is inappropriate. They tell her not to go. She wants to know if this is normal in our culture. If her parents are overreacting. I am not wise enough yet to realize that she is lucky to have parents looking out for her. In a way, a tiny way, I am even relieved on some level that I don’t have to navigate that kind of thing with parents who are going to slow down my independence. I tell her “Don’t worry! We are going together. We are meeting his family. He is our teacher! We are safe. If anything feels off about it, we will promise to leave together.” She is convinced enough to go, but I can tell she is still nervous. I feel grown up and bold.

    I feel even more bold as we sit at a table with Wilson and his 29 year old son eating pasta and salad and sipping red wine. I LOVE red wine. Wilson apologizes that his wife is out of town and his daughter lives on the other side of the country so we are only going to be able to meet his son. Who is a jazz musician! I look at the son, who does resemble the young man in the books that I have been “editing.” He seems annoyed to be there. With his dad and two 19 year old college freshman girls.

    Olivia is quiet and reserved throughout the dinner, but when I whisper to her to check in, she tells me that she isn’t afraid anymore. But she isn’t engaging either. I can see that her glass of wine is still full and I am almost finished with my second. Wilson pours it freely into my glass and beams that awkward whole face smile at me. His speech is looser now and he is talking to us about his life, his travels, his first love. His son is more and more annoyed. Looking back, I wonder if he is disgusted that his dad is so clearly flirting with teenage girls in their home while his mother is away. I still don’t see it that way. My eyes are clouded by the idea that this is what it means to be an adult! Sipping wine over dinner and having intellectual conversations. This is so much better than the college parties that I have not been going to.

    The night ends without anything happening to wake me up. Olivia never goes to his house again, and neither do I, but I do go to our favorite Italian restaurant with him or our favorite diner where I get the feta and spinach omelet. Wilson loves food and he loves introducing me to all of the flavors that I have never experienced in my impoverished childhood. It grosses me out to realize how much he was getting off on it all.

    “Hey Wilson! I got your message. You wanted to see me?”

    “Come in! Come in!” He gestures to the chair that is basically mine now in his office. I sit down and hope he can’t smell the cigarettes on my sweater. I don’t want another lecture from my fictive uncle. He reaches over and puts a hand on my chair. It has wheels and he pulls it close to him. I must let my surprise show on my face because he laughs and says, “Relax kid, I have a surprise for you! I stopped by the Italian Market in the Strip District and picked up a few things today.” He is giddy like a child. Again, ew. He tells me to close my eyes, which I do because I mostly do whatever annoying things that he wants me to do. He bounces between teacher and mentor all the time so that I sometimes get confused which Wilson is making the request. I do not tell him that I am uncomfortable with my eyes closed. It is triggering for me, even though I don’t know that word yet or that concept. I only know that if I can not see freely all around me, I start to panic and feel like I can’t breathe. But I force my eyes shut. They refuse to stay shut all the way and through slits, I see him pull me even closer still. His hand is squeezing my knee. It does not go higher, but it does not belong on my knee. He says, “Open your mouth.” My panic is wrestling with my desire to seem normal and not like a freak. I think that there is something wrong with me in this scenario, not his behavior. I open my mouth. Now, I know he can smell the cigarettes. But he doesn’t say anything. He places an olive on my tongue. “Be careful of the pit. Isn’t that delicious?” I open my eyes. Ya, I say and scoot my chair back an inch or two. I have never been this close to him before. This  scene plays out again and again with chocolates and grapes and dolmas and all of the flavors that he wants to share with me over the next year. He only wants to help me experience everything that I wasn’t able to as a child. Sometimes when I open my eyes, I see him putting his camera back down. I wonder how many photos of me he has with my mouth open and my eyes closed.

I finally got the negatives to my pictures back and found this one that he had snapped of me on the camera that he gifted me.

    One day, I am down at the Hooka Bar with my friends. I have made friends with all of the international students because I am part of some group called the “global community” and the college arranged for kids who were interested in that group to have similar classes even if we had different majors. I go to the Hook Bar with the international kids. It is fun to be there with the kids from Iraq who sing in Arabic as we pass the hooka around. Wilson knows that I go there. I look up to see him approaching my table. He looks so completely out of place that it takes me a minute to make sense of what I am seeing. Plus, doesn’t he hate smoking? He squeezes in right next to me, pushing away the boy that is currently occupying that space. He watches as the hooka is passed to me. He takes it from me and sucks in the flavored smoke. Exhaling and looking right into my eyes. This is for some reason, the first time that I realize that this is not right. Something is not normal about this. When he leans over and whispers, “I love watching the smoke roll off your lips..” I feel sick in my stomach.

    After that, I avoid any extra curricular time with him. I do his editing, which again is a joke, but he pays me…I say, Im busy when he invites me to the baseball game. “Don’t get too radical!” He warns me. “You don’t want to turn into one of those crazy too far leftists who can’t even relax and enjoy baseball without crying about oppression!”

    I say no when he asks me to go on a camping trip with him. He has a cabin somewhere and has been asking for weeks. When he finds out that I have gone camping instead with a boy that I am still in love with from my hometown, he is furious. And heartbroken. He sulks in his office and mumbles something about “hoping I had fun rolling in the weeds with some redneck boy instead of going camping with him at his nice lodge.”

    I invite friends with me when I can’t dodge his requests so that I am only seeing him in the company of peers. His eyes flash anger as I show up at our Italian restaurant with a male friend in tow. “I hope you don’t mind that I brought someone along!” I say cheerily. The tables are turning. I am no longer his puppet and he doesn’t like it. He barely says two words through dinner. I don’t bother to tell him that I barely know this boy. He is literally just a person that I saw outside of the dorms and told him the situation and said, “hey, do this for me and you get to eat some really good free pizza.” I let Wilson think this is my boyfriend, not because I want him to be jealous but because I want to shift the dynamic. I want him to stop all of this gross flirtation and actually honor his offer to mentor me.

    He ups the ante. I am currently taking out massive loans to go to this school. You would think an AIDS orphan would get a free ride, but, no. Not at all. “Crystal, I have a proposition for you. There is a program that gives a HUGE scholarship to a Sociology major each year. You have to be a junior to get it, but I think we can bypass that if you take two more of my classes next semester. As the chair of the Department, I have a lot of sway over who gets a scholarship like this.” He is trying to reel me back in. He feels my trust in him slipping away and he wants me to remember that I need him to survive in college. Remember, I am not like the other kids. I am different. I don’t really belong here. I need someone who does belong here to help me find a place.

    I say yes. I say Thank you. I say this is an incredible opportunity. But then, I leave his office and never come back. I leave my campus and never come back. I never go back to college at all. What am I going to do if I get on the wrong side of the Chair of the department that I am majoring in. But I realize that he thinks that he owns me. He has bought me all year with the pizza, chocolate, money, everything. I don’t want this. I hate what he has done to me. I hate that he has an excuse every time that I ask to meet his wife.

Over the summer following my freshman year of college, he emails me constantly. He begs me to come back. He tries every tactic from talking up the scholarship and academic advances he can get me to painting me a picture of us at that cabin he always wanted to take me to. He refuses to send me the negatives of the photos that he took to get developed for me. He says if I want them I have to come get them in person. He casually sends me texts about getting him pot. I haven’t smoked since high school and he knows that. I got all of that out of my system and I don’t want it anymore. I tell him I can’t get him any and he begs me. “Please. I can’t ask anyone else. I am a professor here! I need you. I need you to help me. We can just smoke a little together and relax.” I think of the way that he looked at me at the hooka bar and I pass. No way. I’m not doing this anymore.

    When he ignores my attempts to shut off communication, I meet him one last time at a coffee shop in my new neighborhood. I dropped out of college so I’m not at the dorm anymore. I ride my $5 goodwill bike there so I can get out of there without asking him for a ride.

“I don’t want you to contact me anymore. I don’t want you to email me or call me or text me. About anything. Ever. I am not a student and I am not your friend. I don’t trust you.” I am proud of myself in this moment. I am scared but I am proud.

“Why would you say such a thing?!” He is freaking out. He acts as if I am coming out of nowhere with this even though I have been giving him this message for months over email.

I look him in the eye. “Tell me the truth for once. You never wanted to be my “fictive uncle.” You called me into your office because you were attracted to me. You called me in and the one other female student who had no family in the States to look after her. You targeted me.” I am clear. I am not crying. I do not cry even though saying this part about how I feel like I have a target on me, that he preyed on is terrifying and true.

“No! It’s not like that! I….I mean….am I attracted to you? Yes! Of course I am. You are beautiful. I am human. I dream about you. Can I help that? How can I help what I dream about? I am a human…a man…You are something really special. I have never met anyone like you before. I am….in love with you. I can’t help that! How can you be mad at me for falling in love with you?”

“Stay away from me or I will tell your wife. You will lose your job!” I get on my bike and pump as hard as I can.

But Wilson is a man with a lot of privilege and he knows that what I said isn’t true. I have no power over him. He does not leave me alone and when I muster the courage to meet with the Dean of the Liberal Arts Department to report him for harassment, I am told that I am no longer a student there and that this matter does not concern them. They will do nothing. When I throw a fit about how unjust this is and how I will protest and organize, they tell me that what has happened is not a big deal. Did we have sex? No? Then I have nothing to report.

I fantasize about making flyers warning his female students about him. I want to stand outside of every class he ever teaches and tell every single student. I want them all to see him for who he is. But I never do that. I never do anything. But I did this. I wrote this today. And this did feel good.

Wilson is not his real name.

Free Fallin’

    I don’t remember the exact moment that I realized this was it. I don’t know what made this different than all of the other times that my mom got sick. I guess her AIDS was progressing and her blood counts were way too low and so this was just how it was all finally going to end. How our life together…her life…was going to end. After waiting for years (I mean my whole life) for this, it seemed to sneak up on us. It wasn’t a huge monumental moment, just a slow devastating crawl to goodbye.

    In those final weeks though, I was determined to make my mom’s life my sole focus. The first boy that I ever fell in love with was away at Military Training and I hadn’t seen him in months. I was supposed to go visit him, but I cancelled the trip. I needed him, but I needed my mom more.

    I stopped going to school entirely even though it was the week of midterms my junior year of high school. I only hung out with my friends if they came to me.

    This was all new. I was my mom’s primary caregiver, but she wasn’t in constant need of my care. So while her illness had impacted my school attendance and social time, it hadn’t claimed it so completely like this before.

    “Mom, You are hungry. Please, eat this toast I made.”

*Mom responds by side-eyeing the toast and then swatting it out of my hands, sending it crashing to the floor.

    “Oooookaaayyy…well, mom, you have to eat something! Please! How about a milkshake?”

    *Mom doesn’t say anything but a small smile plays at the corners of her lips.

    I go the kitchen and thank god the social worker from the Rural AIDS Alliance was here last week and brought us two whole cases of Vanilla Ensure smoothie drinks to help fatten my mom up. She had always been thin, but now she was disappearing from wasting syndrome.

    A few days later we meet our first Hospice Nurse. She asks me how my mom’s appetite has been..

    “Well, she isn’t that hungry, but I do get her to eat smoothies sometimes…”

    “Has she had anything else to eat?”

    I think she is going to yell at me. To realize I am an inadequate caregiver for my mom. I have to prove myself worthy of this job so that they don’t hospitalize her again. I promised her that I would make sure that she died at home.

    I am starting to panic when the nurse gives me a sad smile and says, “Its ok, hunny. It’s great that she is eating those smoothies. You don’t need to try to force her to eat anything else.”

    I am relieved, but it’s a bittersweet sentiment because the reason that I don’t have to force her to eat anything else is that we know it won’t matter what she eats. This is the end.

    When the hospice nurse leaves, my mom and I chat for a little while. She is still speaking a little although she tires easily. In the final days, she doesn’t speak at all.

    “Mama, how are you feeling?”

    We don’t have television so we just sit together and talk. Mostly I do. I let myself tell her all of the things that I have never told her. Well, not all of them. But I tell her about Tom. His ashes are still at the funeral home because we couldn’t afford to pay for them or have them buried. She wants to be buried with him and I don’t ask her to change her mind, even after I tell her about how he hurt me. I worry that this is too much for her to hear in this vulnerable state, but she is my mom and I want her to know. I don’t want her going to the afterlife still thinking he was our rescuer.

    “Will you read from the bible for me?”

    My mom can’t read so this is a normal request. Plus, the bible is the only book that we own. I read to her into the afternoon. Until a knock at the door lets us know school is out. Friend time.

    “Ms. Arnett! Hey Crystal! How are you two?” My buddies all cram into our apartment, my mom gives me her blessing to go into my room for a little break while she closes her eyes. We close the door behind us and my friends look at me with their faces flashing with shame, grief, fear, shock…confusion. They have only had a week to adjust to the idea that my mom is dying of AIDS. I kept her secret for as long as I could but when we knew that this was it, I felt that I had done my part and that now I needed to open up. I needed to give people a chance to love her for her and say goodbye. I didn’t want her to die thinking that everyone who loved her would stop once they knew the truth. I had to give the people that we loved the chance to be the loving people I knew them to be.

And they were. For the first time in our lives, in those final weeks, people stopped by with cookies, soup, casserole. They hugged us and told us they loved us. They hugged her. I will never forget my upstairs neighbor coming by to say goodbye. I could see that he was holding tears back. He was a single dad and a sweet man. I used to listen to him singing to his baby girl and sit in awe of his love and care. I had not witnessed those attributes in many men. My mom was in a hospital bed set up in our living room. She never wore her false teeth anymore and her hair was matted to her face. She smelled bad. I was doing the best I could but giving her a shower at the end was too dangerous, after she kept having so many falls. Still, he lovingly placed his sweet little toddler right on the bed next to my mom so that they could have one more snuggle. My mom had been his main babysitter since he was a single dad and needed to work during the days. In that moment that this cis, hetero, small town man placed his child in the arms of my dying mom’s arms, I knew it was the right thing to be honest about her HIV status. Maybe it was right to keep it a secret, maybe it wasn’t, but it was right to tell people at the end. They came through.

Me getting some baby hugs from the little girl that my mom babysat.

Back to that day in my room with my friends gathered around. Someone pulled out a flask. They handed it to me while wrapping their free arm around my neck. There wasn’t much to say. So, my friends offered me the comfort that we had been turning to since we became teenagers. We passed the drink around and finally we started to talk. I started to leak out the things that I was thinking about. Worrying about. I wanted my mom to be comfortable. I wanted to take away her pain.

“Let’s get her high…”

A look from me. “I have been begging my mom to smoke pot for years! Just to help her stop throwing up and relax. You know my mom! She won’t do that! She is a good christian lady.”

But after a lot of talking, we decided maybe she would feel different about it now. My mom didn’t know that I smoked even though I had been asking her to try it. She was a combination of in denial and very nieve. But I was willing to come clean to her about my drug habits if she would just TRY IT and feel BETTER! But of course she wouldn’t.

Some of my friends left. They had to go home to their dinners with their not dying families. But one of my friends stuck around. He had the flask in his shirt. Do you want to have a drink with us Ms. Arnett? Just one. Just this once? We think it will help you feel better.

Not saying this is the friend who was drinking or smoking….just happened to have this sweet pic of a friend with my mom that fit this story perfectly and is one of my favorites! Also, look at my friends…see what I mean by my mom was naive for having no clue that I smoked!

And with my jaw falling off my face, my mom accepted. So my friend poured some into a cup for her with some ice and there we were sipping on our alcohol with my mom. It was weird but also really nice. After my friend left. My mom came out with another surprise for me. “Crystal, will you play that Tom Petty CD you got for your birthday? “Ya, mama. That sounds nice.” So, I took out the Cd that was in there, a book on tape of the bible, and put in the Tom Petty.

My mom sat up. She didn’t do that too often but maybe the liquor was making her feel loose and strong. She started to sing the words. I joined in and soon we were belting out the lyrics with tears streaming down our faces. I crawled into bed with her and we held and rocked and sang that damn Tom Petty Cd all the way through. It is one of my favorite memories of my entire life.

There is more I could tell you about these final weeks. But I didn’t sit down today to tell you about my pain. I wanted to tell you something good about my mama. Something joyful and loving and true. So, I want to leave you with this image of my mom and I wrapped in each others arms singing cheesy lyrics and crying together. There will be time to talk about the death later.

She’s a good girl, loves her mamaLoves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, who’s crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too

Now I’m free
Free fallin’
Yeah, I’m free
Free fallin’

Tom Petty

Move-Out Day (the angsty story of a teenage AIDS orphan)

I am 19 years old. My mom has been gone for two years. I have just completed my first (and only as it turns out) year as a first generation college student. I am sitting under a tree in front of the freshman dorms. My lungs are burning but I can’t stop smoking these cigarettes. One after another. I don’t want to be in my dorm room packing boxes. Boxes to go where? Where am I going to go? I am tired of being a burden on all of the good people who are trying to keep me alive and afloat. I don’t want to move back in with my high school English teacher for the summer. I am not sure if they even want me to anyway. I haven’t been good about staying in touch this year and I haven’t made any visits. Not that I could do that easily with no car and being hours away.

I don’t want to go to any of my new friends homes and watch them live their middle class lives in their middle class families and cart me around and show me off and whisper about the sad little AIDS orphan that they have picked up off the streets. I am bitter and I am angry and I should be grateful but I am too pissed to be grateful.

Smoking helps. I watch the mothers and fathers carrying boxes all around me. Some of them are fighting and some of them are clearly relieved to be bringing their children home for the summer. Maybe I am not the only freshman out here alone without a family. Where are the others? Are they holed away or hidden in plain sight like me? I know some of my international student friends are alone today too. Some are going home or have host families to take them in.

    “CRYSTAL!!!!!!! You need to get that room packed! You have to be out of there by TONIGHT! I just went into your dorm and everything is still completely unpacked! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” The Resident Floor Monitor (What do they call those people? I can’t remember, but you know what I mean, the older girl who lives on our floor and keeps an eye on us.) She is screaming at me. We have barely interacted this year. The only conversation I remember having with her is when she found out I had been sleeping in the community room for a week because my roommate and her boyfriend had sex for the first time and basically never stopped. But here she is, screaming at me. I thought of her as a pretty mellow person but I guess she probably can’t leave until we are all out.

    “I don’t have far to go. Don’t worry. I just have to drag my stuff across the campus to the other dorm.” That’s where they put the student athletes who stay for sports camps. They are letting me stay on campus so I’m not homeless this summer since we are getting evicted from our freshman dorms. I had wanted to get an apartment off of campus so that I wasn’t on the street every time the dorms shut down for holiday or vacations. But the priest in charge of the catholic university refused me. Even after I petitioned. I collected signatures from the freshman dorms and from all of my professors and the priests that I had made friends with. But no. Rules are Rules. Better to learn that now. The compromise was that I could stay during the summer. I was still on my own during holiday breaks since surely I could find a family to take me in or I could go with the campus missionaries on a mission trip during the breaks.

“CRYSTAL!YOUARENOTLISTENINGTOME!” Oh, ya. The resident still wanted me to move. I took one last drag from my cigarette, braced myself to enter the building and the world of happy whole normal families. My mouth felt like cotton from all of the smoking. I needed water. I needed coffee. I needed to scream and cry and throw things. But I buzzed myself in and I began the painful job of wrapping up my life and moving it. Every single thing that belonged to me in the whole world had to fit in that small college dorm. I wasn’t just packing up text books and little black dresses for college parties. I had everything of my moms in there. Her old wedding dress. The diaper bag she stitched by hand for me when she was pregnant for the first time. BABY and CRYSTAL sewn on in synthetic pink yarn. I fucking hated this.

    I dragged a chair a friend had given me out the door and onto the lawn. I looked at the distance between me and the dorm I needed to move to. I calculated the time I had left and knew what I had to do. “ANYONE WANT A CHAIR? PERFECT FOR YOUR NEW APARTMENT! FREEEEEE!!” Didn’t take long. Someone claimed it and their dad took it off my hands. One step closer to being done with this work.

    By the time I had half of all of my possessions in the world carted to my new room, I was sweating and sobbing. I remember rain, but I genuinely think that I am just adding rain because that’s how I felt. It must not have been a beautiful day because when I remember it everything is cloudy and hurting. At some point I started to not care if I was being noticed. I dragged my bags down the halls and into the elevators with tears streaming down my face. Go ahead. Look. See me. See my hurt. Everything hurts. My body is aching my stomach feels sick and I want to explode. Or disappear.

    I know I shouldn’t be resentful. I know I shouldn’t be angry that other teenagers have parents to care for them. To love and move them. To buy them sheets to fit their dorm bed. (I am using a homemade hammock that I bought in Brazil, as a bedsheet. I didn’t have one that fit those long skinny beds.) But I am pissed. I am pissed that these kids get to party and study and win and fail and be loved.

    My phone rings. It was a gift from the teacher who took me in for my last year and a half of high school when my mom died. It is a number that I don’t recognize but the area code is for my hometown. For a second, I think maybe God sees me and maybe someone from my family is calling to check up on me. Maybe they somehow know it is college move-out day (even though none of them went to college and even though none of them have been in touch.) They are calling to reach out! I swallow my tears, wipe my eyes and answer the phone. “Hello…?”

“….Crystal! Hi sweetie! It’s your aunt ____.”(I am not going to include her name out of the kindness of my heart.) My heart swells! My aunt ____! Someone loves me! Someone IS thinking about me! “HI!” I say. My hopeful and fragile little heart bursting open and letting in the love.

“Sweetie, I am calling because as  you know your Uncle ____ (this is one of my moms sisters calling and she is now talking about one of my moms brothers…big family) lost his job, and he and your aunt___ lost their apartment that they have lived in for their whole adult lives and they need some money.”

I am confused. Don’t we all need some money? We are all poor, but just because I made it to college doesn’t mean I have any money yet. My work study job isn’t exactly making me rich.

“Mary (not her real name) needs a car. You know she’s off to college too! And since your uncle has your mom’s car we were thinking he could sell it since he needs the money! Everyone wins!”

I am speechless. Or maybe I am full of words but they have all gotten stuck in my throat and I can’t push any of them out. My aunt is mothering her own daughter. Shes not thinking about me. Of course. We all win? What do I win? My mom’s old beat up car is technically mine but what do I know about owning a car or driving in a city or anything? So I let my uncle have it. They need my permission to let him take the money for the sale. That is what this call is about. My cousin will be driving around in my mom’s car. She will be paying my uncle for it. So on this day when I need to hear from a loving family member so desperately, I get my first phone call only because they need something from me. How funny the timing is. I wonder if she remembers this story. I am sure it was just a blip in her day. I was just a blip in her day.

That is the difference between being working class and having a family and being dirt poor and an orphan. I am sure college wasn’t easy for my cousin. I am sure she worked for almost everything she has. I am sure she feels accomplished as a pulling herself up by her bootstraps success story. But, there are tiny ways that you are privileged ahead of the poor when you are working class. Some of us don’t have anyone trying to help us acquire a cheap first car, giving us a place to do our laundry over break or moving us out of our first dorm. The myth of the people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps is just a myth because none of us are ever truly in this alone. So many of us are being helped every day and helping each other. Some of us don’t see the assistance we receive because it is a given. A matter of fact. Some of us are forced to see it and to offer our gratitude because our assistance is called by its name.

“ok. “ I squeak into the phone. I am not crying anymore. Now. I am raging. But I do not give her that. No. I say “ok.” My uncle who is poor can have some cash. My cousin who is working class can have my dead mom’s car and I. I can have. I can have my rage. No more crying for me that day. For the remainder of that day, I smoked like a chimney and carted just the necessities over to the other side. The dorm could throw away whatever they didn’t want.

Sad angsty teenage Crystal…Don’t worry I quit smoking;) and I mostly quit being bitter!

Later that night, when almost everyone was gone and the campus was silent, I made a new friend out smoking in front of my new dorm. He was kind and poor like me. He was there because…I don’t remember. But we connected right away. “Hey, have you seen all of the stuff that these rich kids throw away?!” “haha, not yet, but I bet it’s crazy.” “It is. Come on!” So we went and raided the dumpster outside of my old dorm and I got some upgrades from the trash I had left behind. And a new friend. Maybe everybody did win. I was still pissed and I was still sad, but I was finding a way to survive on my own. And with the help of other poor people that I ran into along the way.

Seizures

Basketball Season was my favorite time of year. Still is. In fact, I am now the director of my neighborhood elementary school’s basketball league and I coach each of my kids’ teams. So, you can imagine my excitement about seventh grade basketball. Seventh grade was the first time that I got to play on a real team, a team that you had to try-out for! It was a big deal and I was thrilled when I made the team.

Maybe that is why my mom didn’t say anything about the $65 basketball sneakers that were a mandatory purchase as part of the team uniform. She quietly sold the VCR and the TV and scraped together enough cash to give me this luxury. The shoes were horribly ugly but they were my first pair of basketball sneakers and they were NIKES and they made me feel like a real player. I was elated. I had been all about basketball for as long as I could remember. Carrying around a little stuffed ball since I didn’t own a real one, and practicing my shot over and over while laying on the floor.

    My junior High-School was housed in the same building as my high school and the girls basketball teams all traveled on the same bus to and from away games. We were expected to watch the JV and Varsity Games. One night, at a home game, my mom who came to every single game that I ever had, despite illness, poverty and social exclusion, sat through my game with a headache. She wouldn’t miss my game for the world, but she didn’t feel up for sitting through JV/Varsity games as well. She asked if I could walk with a friend and she would go have a rest. I didn’t think too much of it. My mom didn’t feel well a lot. She was diagnosed HIV positive when I was three months old and between the immunodeficiency and side effects from medications, she was always sick.

    I stayed through the games, cheering on the older girls and getting some flirty teenage girl practice in as well. The boys basketball teams often came to watch every game too. It was a small town and there wasn’t much else to do, so we all went out for the cheap entertainment and the chance to sit close to other teenagers of the opposite sex (or the same sex but none of us were out yet as bi or gay or queer as some of us grew up to identify as.) My mom and I lived in town and so my friend Carla and I decided to walk home together since she lived right up the hill from me. Somehow we walked right past my mom’s car still at the school parking lot, driver side door wide open, lights on and seatbelt buckled with no one strapped inside. I guess there were still other cars there when we left and besides we were probably giggly as usual distracted by our very important crushes and friend drama.

    But when we got near my house, my heart started to race…Where was my mom’s car? Then I saw her. She was standing perfectly still, holding onto the railing. “Mom!” I yelled, I started jogging toward the house. I am sure that Carla was not picking up on how fearful I was yet. I mean, how could she? All of our worries were wrapped up tight and I never talked about it with even my closest friends. But she must have heard my voice shake, because instead of continuing up the hill when I left her abruptly and headed down the street that turned off to my apartment, she followed close behind. “Mom!” I yelled again. But she was not responding. Not with words or motions or even a blink. Nothing. I shook her, please just be a joke! What was this? What was going on? Nothing like this had happened before. I ran into the house, screaming for Carla to watch my mom. I dialed 911 as fast as my fingers could dial. I was always ready for this moment. Trying not to cry, trying not to fear that all of my worst nightmares were coming true, I gave the ambulance the address to our house.

    How do people with AIDS die? Is this what it looks like? Is this it?! God, No! Please. I could hear the sirens approaching and my mom was still stuck, leaning against the railing. She still had not moved a muscle and she would not answer my questions. Had she been in a car accident and walked home? Where was the car?! The sirens snapped me back to reality. I still had a job to do here. I had to keep our secret. I had to get rid of Carla!

    “Carla, thanks for helping! You gotta get home. The ambulance is coming and your mom will be worried about you. I will call you later. Bye!”

    But no way. Carla wasnt going away.. And I am glad looking back. But in the moment, I now had to to figure out if I had to legally disclose my mom’s HIV status to the paramedics and if so how could I do that in front of Carla? Would the paramedics deny my mom treatment as they had done in discrimination against my step-mom who was also living with AIDS? Would they make a scene about it and talk about it loudly like a nurse at the local clinic had done and leaked our secret when they were first diagnosed? All of this was racing through my brain as I stared in horror at my frozen mom and ignored the tears streaming down Carla’s cheeks.

    13 years old, but I was trained for moments like this, so I handed Carla the phone and demanded that she take it inside. I shut the door tight behind her just as the ambulance doors flew upen and the paramedics ran up the steps. Quick! I would only have a few seconds to get this out. “I have to tell you something! Please, come close. I need you to know, but I need you to help us and I need you to keep this quiet!” Finally the tears were stinging my eyes too as I begged the woman to honor her commitment to helping. I leaned right into her ear. I whispered clearly so I only had to say it once. I almost NEVER said it out loud and it felt weird on my tongue, “My mom has..AIDS. Please. Please, take care of my mommy.” I was suddenly a very mature grown up kid and a little baby all at the same time.

    Thankfully they took my mom to the hospital. Our secret was safe. But was my mom safe? Carla called her mom who offered to take me to the hospital. That woman was a saint. I still love her so much. She was a single mom with four kids and she was always happy to take me on as well. (Thanks Mrs. Gigs. Love you.)

Carla (on the left)
and I getting ready for our first high school dance. I was 15 and she was 16.

    I don’t remember if I took her up on the offer to go to the hospital. I don’t remember if I stayed home alone that night or if I went up the hill to sleep at Carla’s. We had only just become friends earlier that school year. We weren’t in the same grade, she was older and we hadn’t known each other before. I don’t remember because this scene of my mom needing to go to the hospital and me needing to either stay alone or stay at a friends or get a ride to visit her in the next town over was a scene that happened over and over again for the last few years of my mom’s life.

    I kept playing ball though. It turned out my mom had a seizure disorder as a result of the HIV. I don’t know that much about it because I was young and no one really took the time to explain it to me and my mom didn’t have the capacity to understand it herself let alone translate it for a child.

This is what I do remember. My Uncle Bud came to my basketball practice. He never had kids and I had never seen him at my school before and I never saw him there after this. So, I knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. I remember the ball literally just fell out of my hands when he walked into my practice. I couldn’t even make my fingers work to hold it. I could barely see. Everything was spinning, but I followed him into the hallway where he told me that my mom was going to be in the hospital for a while because of the seizure and that she might have more of them.

    I thanked him for the information, but I needed to keep up the charade. I composed myself and walked calmly back into the gym. Obviously everybody was staring at me. Waiting for me to tell them what was going on. I steadied my face and told them that my mom had…Cancer. That’s right. I bold faced lied to my team. Because you know what? I knew that cancer was acceptable. I knew that it would mean that people would make me cards and give me flowers. But I knew that AIDS meant shame and blame and guilt and that if I told them that…..we would die a different kind of death. I had promised my mom I would never let that happen. So here we were.

    When I got a ride up to see my mom with my grandma later that night, I crawled into bed beside her and breathed in the sweaty sick smell of her hair. My mom. I can still smell that sick hospital smell and I still find it comforting and nauseating. I can’t even write about that smell without crying. I wish I could smell my mom again.

    Anyway, I curled up next to my mama, who was surprisingly alert and aware and I whispered in her ear that I told the kids that she had cancer so she didn’t have to worry about our little secret. I felt like I had to whisper about it even here in a private hospital room with only my grandma in the room. We never even talked about it in front of them. They knew. But it was better left unspoken.

    No one ever asked if my mom still had cancer or if she got better or asked anything really. Which was for the best. Maybe they didn’t ask because they knew I was lying. Maybe they didn’t ask because I was so skilled at avoiding the conversation. What mattered was that my mom had survived and our secret was safe and we were going to make it for a little longer. We still had a little longer together. Safe with our secret and each other.

Drinking Buddies

Content Warning: Domestic Violence, Gun Violence, Alcoholism

Tom was an evil genius. Manipulative men tend to be very intelligent. It takes smarts to completely warp another person’s entire sense of reality and force them into whatever shape you want at whatever time. Tom was the master of that. He was the master of us.

His psychological abuse was in a lot of ways a lot harder to navigate than his physical violence. Well, maybe that is not fair. It wasn’t that easy to “navigate” the times that he shot live bullets at me. But at least when the gun was out of his hands, I knew that it was over for a minute or more. But the mental warfare was ever present and we could never ever put our guard down. (Thanks for the CPTSD, Tom!)

My mom and I were each others everything. Neither of us had another thing in the world of value so taking us from each other was the ultimate threat. If Tom didn’t get enough satisfaction from beating my mom, he would resort to putting me in the car and driving away. He would call from a pay phone and let me talk to her and make me tell her how happy I was to be away from her.

Scene: Tom drives away from our trailer in a cloud of dust and heads to the redneck bar with me in tow. He has no license so we take back roads the whole way. Not much difference between the back roads and the main roads except maybe a little cracked patchy blacktop on the main roads.

We pull into the bar. I can hear LOUD country music rattling the windows. The bar is in a kind of rundown shack of a building with blackness of night all around and even if there was light, there would be nothing but woods to see anyway. We go into the bar and take a seat at the counter. I am 8 years old. I am scared. I wonder if my mom is ok. The last thing I saw was her barely conscious body on the livingroom floor. Blood all around. Tom had to get me out of there for my safety. Course there would be no blood if he hadn’t smashed her head into the toilet seat.

Back to the bar. I am scared. I am quiet as a mouse and the bartender is lookin’ funny at me. He knows Tom and it’s not my first time at this bar but that doesn’t help. If you knew Tom, you knew to keep an eye on him at all times. Tom needed to cheer me up so that he seemed like a good guy just hanging out with his kid at a bar. Totally normal stuff. So, he says, “Go ahead, have as much of those peanuts in that bowl as you want.” I reach in. My stomach is empty. No one had been available to feed me when we were back at home and Tom was teaching my mom her lesson. I lick the salt off of my fingers. I have never had salty peanuts before. This feels like health food and I eat and eat while honkytonk music fills the room.

‘Cause I’ve got friends in low places
Where the whiskey drowns
And the beer chases my blues away
And I’ll be okay
I’m not big on social graces
Think I’ll slip on down to the oasis
Oh, I’ve got friends in low places

Tom is telling me how much he loves me. How my mom will be fine when we get back. She just needed to rest. No need to worry. She would want me to have fun. He orders another beer for himself and a Pepsi for me. It comes in a cup with ice and the sugary coldness wakes me right up with a zip! Soon, I am talking with the burly men at the bar. Dancing to the country music and stuffed to my eyeballs with peanuts. How much Pepsi did I drink? Wait, more importantly…How much beer did Tom drink.

It’s time to go. Question: Who the hell would let that maniac leave the bar with a child? So drunk he could barely walk. Everyone knew he carried a gun from that time he pulled one out and threatened some random guy for looking at him the wrong way. Answer: Apparently, every single other drunk guy in the bar every single time this scene played out.

Scene: It is snowing. There are no street lights on dirt roads and the night is pitch black. I am in the front seat and I feel like I am in a spaceship! I am still buzzing from all of the salt and sugar and the snowflakes zooming at our window are illuminated by the headlights like stars shooting past us. It is beautiful. For a moment, I am happy.

But then BAM! We would have ended up in a ditch or worse even without the slick roads from the snow. I know because I can not even begin to count the times that I walked with my drunken stepfather the miles back to the trailer from the bar. So many nights. So many miles. I kept him alive, I guess, but there were no cell phones and thankfully no cars out those roads at night. What would I have done if he had passed out in the ditch or if anything worse had happened. But I was a miracle baby and my mom was praying for me and her prayers or my luck carried me home unscratched. Every single time. Physically anyway, I remained whole.

By the time we got to the trailer, Tom would be ready to pass out and my mom and I would have a day of rest as he would be too exhausted tomorrow to torment us. Plus, He was always a little cheery the day after a good beat down. He would be temporarily propped up on his masculinity and power. Until he remembered that he was nothing in our society and then he would elevate himself by pushing his woman and child into submission below him.

Maybe I should thank Tom for making me a feminist too. No way was I taking feminism for granted when I was raised in the belly of the patriarchal beast.

My mom and I would never speak of these nights. There was nothing to say.

Stigma, Secrets, and Shame

Trauma has a way of sealing memories in or locking them out. For me, it is the former. My memory is like the home videos middle class people take of their family milestones. Just like that, I watch myself participate in my own history.  I never hold the camera. I am only an actor.

    An example of this is also one of my very oldest memories. Maybe my first true memory complete with action and movement instead of just those earlier still photographs that I can just barely see if I close my eyes and really concentrate. I am little, too young to go to school yet, maybe 3 or 4 years old. My days are spent at home with my mom whose primary occupation is mother. She narrates every single thing that she does because she is a shattered lonely woman and I am her everything. “Mommy is washing the dishes so that we can pass inspection when the mean lady comes to see if we live like slobs.” or one time, “Ouch!” Why is mommy pouring ketchup on her arm? That is funny! “No! Get back! Get away! It is blood! And Mommy’s blood is POISON! GET BACK I SAID!” mommy’s blood is poison? Is my blood poison? Is all blood poison? Wait! The poison is in mommy?!

    My mom never held the scariest details back from me….or atleast I dont think she did based on the horrors she decided to share. We played this scene out over and over until I knew the truth. My mommy was dying because her blood was poison and I could not under any circumstances get it on me. If I saw her bleeding, I needed to yell and tell her and get away! If she dropped a glass or even just got a paper cut, “MOMMY! You are BLEEDING!” There are a lot of sirens in my head. Still to this day. I hate sirens.

    It seems extreme, but this is not a conspiracy theory. People living with HIV were driven out of their communities, fired from their jobs, kicked out of schools, abandoned by their families and friends. Even the politicians of the time were threatening to round us all up and send us off to live in isolation in some AIDS refugee camp. But wait! I was born negative. Would I get to live with my mom or would I be forced into the welfare system “for my own safety?” These were the very real scenarios that we had heard of and lived in constant fear of.

    Here is the tricky part. For anyone, but especially for such a young child. How did my mom teach me to both fear her blood with all of my life, and also NEVER react that way in public or mention it to ANYONE EVER? Fear. She put the fear of God in me that if I ever told, our lives would be over. The meager allotment of respectability that we had as poor white trash living in public housing over on Brooklynnside Lane would be done. No one would ever come near us again. Maybe we would lose our housing all together? Maybe we would lose our whole town.

    Keeping “the secret” was critical for our survival. And so I did. I never once slipped up, I learned to keep my mouth shut and to make myself invisible. People joked that I was always “hiding behind my moms skirts” and heck ya, I was hiding. I was terrified that someone would read my mind or that I would reveal our dangerous truth.

    I started having asthma attacks. I couldn’t breath. I was sick a lot just like my sickly mother and no one knew yet that trauma and anxiety can look a lot like a child who can’t sleep, wets her pants at school, has episodes of gasping for air and sweats a lot. It seems so obvious to me now. How could no one have seen the red flags that I was not ok? As hard as I worked to keep the secret, my body was giving us away. But luckily no one was looking. No one cares about a redneck girl in the middle of small town America whose mom is dying from her own sins. Luckily, we didn’t matter.

Finally telling my story on my own terms.

Thank you for joining me in celebrating and honoring my own story and the stories of my parents lost to the AIDS epidemic. These stories will be filled with love and with trauma. I will try to put content warnings when necessary. After years of silence fueled by shame and fear, I began to open up about my story in adulthood. Now I am able to share in a way that feels healing and important and is not filled with need. I am ready to speak the truth so that we can learn from the mistakes of the past and create a better more equitable world for our children.