Chapter One: Leave Home
The first time a girl came in my mouth, bucking and loud, I took it as a sign. I felt like I could fly. Pussy was rocket fuel.
By the time I asked I'd already made up my mind.
“What if I run away from home?”
The girl was older, responsible, headed back to Austin and college. I was sixteen, punk, half-feral.
She tried to warn me off.
“You could be throwing your life away.”
I thought that sounded perfect. Both of us were right.
She was in Lubbock to see where Buddy Holly came from. That plus Prairie Dog Town took twenty minutes.
We walked block after block of silent, empty streets.
She said, “It’s like a ghost town.”
We fucked for lack of anything better to do. After a few days, when she went back to Austin, I had nowhere to go.
From the time I knew what it meant to run away I knew I would. The girl on Runaway Hotline posters called to me like a used car salesman. She stands in the rain, in black and white, holding a sign that says ANYWHERE, meant to discourage me. I thought she looked like home.
When I was nine I thought I could take off from the coast, Corpus Christi or Padre Island, during a family trip. I could walk east along the shore and eventually reach New York City. It wouldn’t be easy—the Florida panhandle looked like a bitch—but if I stuck to my plan I wouldn’t get lost. I'd keep a low profile and steal to eat for two thousand miles.
The first time I ran away I was twelve. Too young. Lubbock was too small, too flat and empty to keep me hidden. Dubiously gendered, marred by freckles, topped with bright orange hair, I was a walking signal flare. Still, it took three days for the cops to spot me in an alley, chase me down, and drag me back.
Now, at sixteen, I was more than old enough. It would be different this time, the decision made in a moment of joy. I felt full of confidence, bathed in happiness, like a shot of just the right antidepressants.
For some, antidepressants increase the risk of suicide. You get just enough of a bump, just enough energy, to follow through on a plan.
I didn’t have a plan. I had no thought beyond go. I was in a borrowed room, in a borrowed bed, my face wet as a newborn.
Chapter Two: Water Baby
Growing up, kids always asked, “Where do you go to church?” but we didn’t go to church. It was the first question after they asked your name. Kids of four and five would ask and I’d stumble, lacking the vocabulary needed to form a lie.
I’d trail off and get confused looks in return.
At daycare, a gang of kids gathered around a half-buried can. One end was exposed, the other baked into the ground. When no one could pry it loose, a boy explained.
“Satan has aholt to it. Satan has aholt to the other end so we can’t get it out.”
The devil was there, inches away, malevolent and red, his fingers bony and his grip unbreakable. I never believed in Santa Claus but I knew Satan was real.
People talked more about the devil than about God.
I picked up what I could. God was an old man, distant in time and space. He had advocates but was rarely seen or heard. Satan was close, under our feet. He wasn’t afraid to be seen, and if he caught you he'd never let you go.
Kids at daycare avoided me, turning away unless they noticed me for the wrong reason, something I said or did. Then they pointed and laughed.
“We don’t like you.”
"Nobody likes you,” one boy explained. I couldn't answer him.
Attention was never good. I tried to keep quiet and stay still but failed. I blurted out what came to mind excitedly, too loudly and at the wrong times. Something only I found funny or the answer to a question no one asked. The kids would turn to look and laugh or frown. Someone would say, “That’s stupid.”
Some animals run. I froze, hoping to vanish, chameleon-like, but my body always betrayed me. With a flash of heat my face turned deep red, signaling alarm. Not at all like a chameleon.
One boy fared worse. The first time I noticed him he was backed against a wall, facing a crowd.
“Look at him.”
“He’s wearing makeup.”
“He looks like a girl.”
“Look at him.”
“Like a girl.”
Someone squealed. The boy was wearing blue eye shadow, plain to see from across the room. I stood behind the crowd, watching, and wondered how he got past his parents like that. He didn’t answer but only stared, chin tucked, until the old woman who looked after us broke it up and scattered the crowd.
I saw him a second time, wearing nail polish. He was in the same spot, against the same wall, near the piano in the front room. The crowd seemed bigger this time, louder. I didn’t see him again after that.
At home, I played in an empty field with a neighbor girl. A small tree was our only diversion. Everywhere we looked, the earth was bare, the sky immense and vacant. Nothing stood between us and the horizon, where everything fell off. You could believe the world was flat.
“My mommy’s better than your mommy, my mommy’s better than your mommy, my mommy’s better than your mommy,” the girl chanted, walking circles around the tree, anchored as her hand slipped over its narrow trunk.
I watched, waiting my turn.
“My mommy’s better than your mommy, my mommy’s better than your mommy,” I said, not really trying as my hand scraped against the bark. Putting my hand where hers had been didn’t put me in her place. She’d picked a game we both knew I couldn’t win.
I was safest in my room, alone, listening to records on my plastic Fisher-Price turntable. Danny Kaye, Hans Christian Andersen, and The Little Match Girl kept me company. Listening to stories, I forgot my problems. I disappeared, surfacing elsewhere.
My favorite record was The Water Babies. It’s Oliver Twist through the looking glass, a street urchin's adventures in Wonderland. We follow Tom, a ten-year-old chimney sweep. Tom never bathes or goes to school and all he knows of church are the bells that ring. His master beats and starves him. His best days are when his master gives him the dregs of his cups. When Tom’s drunk he's the happiest boy around.
Eventually an angry mob chases Tom out of town. By the time he stops to rest he’s practically sleepwalking. Thirsty and hot, he stumbles towards a stream, tumbles in, and disappears beneath the water, where he quickly falls asleep, “the quietest, sunniest, coziest sleep that ever he had in his life.”
I met the water babies once, with Tom. Daydreaming, under a tree, I fell into a trance, an altered state, for the first time. I found myself at the bottom of the sea surrounded by water babies. How welcoming they were. In their presence I felt happy, peaceful.
Chapter Three: Blood
My parents were immigrants—Mom came from Germany and Dad from Trinidad. They married in college.
Mom was born in a bomb shelter in Jena, Germany at the end of World War II. When Oma, my grandmother, went down to the bunker at the sound of air raid sirens, Germans controlled their city. Days later, when Oma resurfaced with my mother in her arms, American soldiers filled the streets.
“They smelled so good,” Oma said. “They had soap."
Three weeks later, Hitler shot himself in the head. When Opa heard Hitler was dead he abandoned his duties, buried his uniform in a pile of pig manure, and began the walk home.
Seven years later, Mom didn’t want to leave. In a photo taken at port in Amsterdam, Opa looks confident, Oma is smiling, but Mom's face is unsettled.
When it was time to pick a new home in America Opa chose Lubbock, Texas because it sounded romantic. They traveled cross-country by train. South of Amarillo they noticed an orange cloud sitting like fog on the horizon. Opa asked if anyone knew what it was.
Someone said, "Dust. That's Lubbock."
The first thing they noticed was the ugliness of the place. They told themselves they’d leave as soon as they could but stayed, they said later, because the people were so friendly.
Dad came from Trinidad for college and stayed because his allergies went away in the dry climate. There was almost no pollen.
I loved Trinidad—the ocean, the fruit-bearing vines and trees; lizards, chickens, and goats; delicious roti and channa—but Dad said he hated it. When I asked what he hated about Trinidad, he said, “Everything.”
Mom called Dad's family "the last of the colonialists." The first of them, a Frenchman, came to Trinidad with the British and stayed to run a plantation.
Opa was a Nazi; Oma was one, too. They denied it, saying they never joined the party, but I heard pride when Opa talked about Germans marching across Europe like supermen. The Reich fed their soldiers methamphetamine. The blitzkreig came at the expense of sleep.
Oma waxed nostalgic now and then when she talked about Hitler.
“Those eyes,” she’d say. “The way he spoke, he could get people to do anything.”
Oma complained that no one ever talked about the good Germans. Mom agreed.
“Hitler was right on the race issue,” Opa said, more than once, usually over family dinners. He meant black people, not Jews; some of their best friends were Jewish.
Mom taught art at the black high school. She agreed with Opa.
She’d say, “I know, I work with them."
She'd say, "I hate black people.”
Home felt German, or at least not American. We ate bratkartoffein and smelly cheese, subscribed to Stern and Der Spiegel, played Mensch Argere Dich Nicht and listened to opera. I spent hours with Mom's old copies of Struwwelpeter and Max und Moritz, German children's books. It didn’t matter that I couldn't read the words. Illustrations of death and dismemberment were clear. Blood gushed from severed limbs and smoke wafted from the ashes of disobedient children. Children were baked, boiled, ground to powder, extruded as pellets, and fed to geese. When Mom threatened to ground me I thought she meant to bury me neck deep in the backyard.
Our house was full of books. I pulled books about the war off the shelves and studied the photos: headshots of criminals, mountains of skulls, and living skeletons only distinguished from the dead by their eyes. A copy of Mein Kampf sat on a top shelf, a gift from the state for Oma and Opa on their wedding day. It was signed by Goebbels, not Hitler; Opa was a war reporter for the propaganda ministry.
A line ran between those books, my family, and me. Guilt accompanied us but no one mentioned it, as if unsaid was undone.
They rejected the guilt. I pocketed it like a coin, something I could keep.
They wanted me to learn the language but I refused, only learning fragments:
Ich bin ein Hund
Ich liebe dich nicht
The first word means shit; the second phrase means I’m a dog; the third means I love you not. The last one loops in my head on repeat. I can see Mom looking down at me, smiling and singing these words, but that could be a trick of the mind.
Oma called me bienchen, little bee.
Chapter Four: School
I peaked academically in first grade. Never again would I see so many A’s. I had an advantage because Mom taught me to read before I started school. Reading was the easy part.
My first-grade teacher, Miss Kate, was kind, but I still didn’t make friends. The other kids didn't play with me or talk to me. If I tried to play or talk they complained. More than once I found myself surrounded, backed in a corner, with a crowd yelling at me.
One day I came home and found Miss Kate there with my parents. Through the porch window, I saw her sitting inside with her back to me. My parents sat across from her, listening. I was desperate to know what she was telling them. I was embarrassed to think she was telling them about my problems, that something was wrong with me.
I ran and hid beside the house until she left. Earlier, while I was playing, I’d shit in the yard, and smeared shit on my clothes. I smelled like shit and didn’t want Miss Kate to know.
I never asked why she'd come and they never mentioned it.
Kids who kept their distance and made fun of me had cause. Normal eluded me; I never got close. Once, on a crowded school bus, I saw Meg, a girl I knew, sitting up front. Her dad knew my dad; we’d spent time together at her house and mine. We'd eaten ChapStick together in my parents' bathroom.
I don’t know why. I decided I'd crawl under the seats along the floor of the bus, from the back rows to the front. Kids called me names and made faces as I wormed my way between their dangling legs. Still, I persisted. I broke out in a smile when I popped up next to Meg.
The words "I love you" flew from my mouth as I lunged to throw my arms around her. She'd never been unkind but naturally recoiled. Her friends, normal girls, spoke for her.
I'd heard the word before but not like this. It felt stickier, and made me uneasy in a different way.
I couldn't answer. I walked back to my seat.
Susan had freckles like me but her hair was brown and straight. Her face was flat and round—she looked like Peppermint Patty, and was a tomboy, too. She didn't complain when she had to stand next to me in gym and she let me talk to her. I got into the habit of following her out of the building after school. That's when I asked.
"Do you want to be friends? Maybe hang out some time?"
She was gentle but firm.
"I don't think so."
Shame, chronic and acute, stuck deep. Shame is what I feared the most.
The trick I played to get by—the only trick I knew—was to tell myself none of it was happening to me. Those things happened to another girl, some stupid girl. I hated her, too. I tried to not even look at her. When I had to, when she made herself a spectacle, I told myself I was nothing like her. I told myself I was cool, tough, smart. I walked around in my head like I was someone else.
This pretend life was precarious; it offered the barest shelter. I lived in fear someone would read my mind and hear the things I told myself, that I was cool, tough, smart. If anyone found out it would be the biggest joke yet. I became my own best-kept secret, a secret I swore to keep.
Chapter Five: Perverts
Those were the days when John Wayne Gacy roamed the earth. By the time they caught him, he’d run out of places to hide the bodies of the boys he killed. When four- and five-year olds played outside they whispered warnings about creeps driving too slow.
A pervert might get you anywhere. At the Taos Inn on a family vacation, the pool boy asked if I wanted to see his chickie. Happy at the chance, I followed him into the tool shed.
He closed the door behind us. He was sixteen or seventeen, tall and mostly bones. I was five or six. He wore a white undershirt and jeans that hung on his hips. He turned his back to me and faced a workbench; his hands disappeared and I imagined him lifting a fuzzy yellow chick from a cardboard box. When he turned around to face me, his dick was in his hand.
Dickie, not chickie.
“Touch it,” he said. He took my hand. I was shocked by the size and substance and the funny way the skin moved. I was frightened and embarrassed by my mistake.
He said, “Now let me touch yours.”
I told him I had to go and hurried out.
The man who called said I’d won a contest. She handed me the phone. He started with a question.
“How many hairs do you have on your pussy? Three or four?”
The correct answer was none but that wasn’t a choice.
“Three,” I said, since it was closer to the truth.
He asked another question and I guessed again. His breathing got ragged. I realized I could hang up, and did. I hurried out of the kitchen and locked myself in the bathroom.
Mom followed me and stood outside the door.
“Open this now. What did that man say? What did he want?”
She was always mad; she stayed at a boil. This was more of the same. I tried not to move, as if silence could hide me.
“I knew something was wrong.”
She was talking to Dad now but he didn't answer. She yelled through the door again.
“Who was that man? What did he say to you?”
I didn’t answer. I turned on the sink to create a diversion and waited until she gave up. It was only a matter of minutes. I could almost always outlast them.
The boy next door and his friend tried to take me all the way. I was five or six; they said they were almost ten, which I knew meant nine. They took me behind a hedge.
They told me to take off my pants.
“Your underwear, too.”
I laid down on the ground and struggled with my polyester shorts.
One boy said, “My brother told me about a guy who put it in all the way."
His friend didn’t answer.
"It was his wedding night.”
Suddenly, I felt afraid. I hadn't given much thought to what would happen.
I lay still, arms at my side. I didn’t make a sound while they took turns on top of me, each with his pants unzipped. At the sight of them, I felt relief. Their members were negligible, like the small, pink eraser on the end of a pencil. Nothing to be afraid of.
It got me started. I approached a four-year-old and took him back to my place. In my closet, we pulled our pants down and squeezed our bodies together as hard as we could. I felt something desperate and intense and too fleeting. We hurried to pull our pants up, afraid we'd get caught.
I approached the same boy a second time. He was reluctant but agreed. In the shaded ivy on the side of my house, he quickly backed off. He zipped up his pants and ran away. He came back with his sister and her friends.
“My brother told me what you did. We all know,” she said.
Her hair was sun-bleached, her skin bronzed. Her hands clutched her hips and her chin jutted out. Her friends stood behind her, her little brother behind them.
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Yes you did.”
“No I didn’t.”
We went back and forth. I was insistent. I knew they didn’t believe me but denial seemed like the best option. That day I earned a new tag, pervert.
I began to take what I needed. On a road trip, at a gas station, some toys caught my eye. Pocket-sized bears made from a soft, stretchy rubber I'd never seen before. They were cool and trembled almost like water. Touching them sent a charge of pleasure through me. Not quite what I'd felt in the closet and not quite what I felt with the water babies. It felt like something in between.
I asked Dad, usually the easier mark.
I begged. I tried to tell him how important it was but he acted like he didn't hear.
There was a box of red bears and another of blue. I chose blue and stuffed one down my pants. We were miles down the road before my parents noticed me playing with my new toy in the backseat. They both yelled.
"You stole that."
"You can’t steal."
"How could you do that?"
I’d never seen them in such agreement. I didn’t answer and avoided their eyes; I stared out the window until they gave up. When they did I started playing again.
A little further down the road I pulled too hard and one of the bear's arms snapped off in my hand. Suddenly, the toy felt worthless. I shoved it between the car seats and never saw it again.
I had a talent for theft and for ignoring the consequences. Having few talents, I made use of it. I felt no guilt over stealing, only fear in the moment of getting caught. When I got away with it, which was most of the time, I felt only success.
After the toy bear it was small things from corner stores and spare change at home, then dollar bills from wallets, sometimes a five. If Dad was flush I might take a twenty, but he usually noticed that. When they noticed, they yelled.
"You can't do this."
"Why do you keep doing this?"
I couldn’t say.
Stealing and lying took me out of contention for polite society. It embarrassed my family. They said no one would trust me, no one would believe anything I said; they were right but I didn't care. The more they yelled, the less it mattered.
If you’ve never stolen it just means you never had to. Stealing was I took care of myself.
Chapter Six: Gena—Kin, Kind, Kindness
Languages come in families—Afro-Asian, Nilo-Saharan, Celtic, Semitic, Austronesian. English belongs to the Indo-European family, a collection of language found from Europe to Asia.
The words kin, kind, and kindness come from an Indo-European root word, gena, that means blood, seed, or tribe. Gena became kuni in Gothic, gunjam in German, kyn in Old Norse, the Old High German chunni, and the Old English cyn, all words for family or race. In Latin gena became genus and meant birth, family, race, class, or kind.
King, kindle, and generous come from gena, as do progeny, genealogy, and nation.
The relationship between kin and kindness isn't hard to see—to extend kindness is to treat with generosity, like family, kin. We sort as we go, like with like, other with other. It's reflexive; it happens on sight. Likeness indicates safety, difference signals threat. The scapegoat, generally, will be the one least like us.
We're kind to our kind—blood, seed, tribe. Darwin called it kin selection. The closer the relationship the more favor we show.
Family is meant to protect us. but my family didn't work like it should. We repelled one another like the like ends of magnets; we couldn't come close. We never touched. Our structure was distance.
I thought of it as bad breeding or bad luck. Today I think of it as an autoimmune disease.
In autoimmune disease the body fails to recognize itself; it sees its own cells as foreign, invasive. The body wars against itself. The effects can be fatal.
The damage done when family rejects one of its own is never fully repaired. We fill the void with what’s at hand but the fill is never as strong as what's missing. If you manage to survive you're left vulnerable, lacking. A face even a mother can't love? You're fucked.
Autoimmune disease runs in my family: rheumatoid arthritis, reactive arthritis, Crohn’s disease. Bad breeding, bad luck.
When I ran away, I got by on the kindness of strangers. They gave me a bowl of beans, a piece of bread, a cup of milk, farther from home than I could imagine.