High School

…High school bummed me out, so I rarely went. When class ended on the Disney channel, a loud, enthusiastic bell would ring. I guess our school couldn’t afford that bell because what sounded like a feeble seat-belt alarm signaled the end of our class periods. Ding. Ding. Ding. And then all the students would come pouring out from every class room into the halls and the sound of meaningless chatter and slammed locker doors would drown out everything else. The halls smelled like kids going through puberty who didn’t shower enough mixed with those who showered three times a day and wore too much Axe. I dreaded every class, one right after the other, so the spaces in between were just the spaces in which I felt the dread. Once I was in the classroom, I would usually become engrossed in whatever the lesson was that day and forget how much I hated being there. On days when that didn’t happen, I’d just sleep on the desk. Science class, where our fundamentalist teacher once fast-forwarded through a segment on the big bang theory,  was not a real class to me, so I slept in there almost every day. The desks seated two and three people and had a slick black matte surface. I noticed after I lifted my head that I could always still see the oily residue left from my skin, a greasy smudge that perfectly outlined my nose and forehead. I liked going outside after school. There was a grassy area out front where I loitered with the other goths, waiting for my mother to come pick me up…

The Bus Stop

…Sometimes I had to ride the bus home from school. The bus stop was at the church about a 15-minute walk from our house – maybe shorter if you hustled. I never hustled, because I hated this walk. It was hot out, muggy to the point that I felt suffocated. I was also bored and resentful of being alone with my own anxious thoughts. On some days, I would take a large piece of gravel from the church parking lot and kick it all the way home as a way to keep my mind occupied. Once in awhile, I’d kick the rock too hard, sending a sharp, thumping pain through the tip of my big toe and down into my foot. I used to play another game that I called “the time game” where I would try to pinpoint exactly what it felt like two seconds earlier when it was two seconds later. There was no marijuana on this walk, but the fact that I had thoughts like that made me wonder if I wasn’t getting some sort of contact high from the elderly hippies I passed about two minutes after leaving the church. The whole holler smelled like exhaust fumes from ATVs driven by boys my brother’s age. My niece was with me on this walk nearly every day during middle school. She was only three years younger than me because I was born late in my mother’s life while she was born early in hers. I vaguely remember us bickering the whole way, thought I can’t remember what about. I bet I was cantankerous, even as an 11-year-old, and she was annoying. It’s strange to think that she and I had such a daily shared experience while now our lives couldn’t be more different. She has two kids and I’m living in Oakland…

Our Neighborhood Church

…As a kid, church was a place where I got shushed. I remember walking through the doors every Sunday wearing an itchy, lacy dress with floral print and a decorative bib permanently affixed to the front. My shoes were small like me, black with straps, and they already made too much noise as I walked with Mom to our pew. Church smelled like dusty hymn books combined with the Wrigley’s peppermint gum my mom always brought with her to keep me distracted. Before the service officially started, the pews sounded like they were whispering as the women of the church quietly shared today’s neighborhood news with one another and speculated about tomorrow’s. Then the minister would go to the back of the church and pull a rope that hung from the ceiling. Each tug made the bell echo throughout the holler, letting the whole neighborhood know church was starting. Then the piano would start up with an unusually upbeat gospel hymn like “How Great His Glory.” I thought it was strange how the holy piano at church sounded just like the devil piano in the bars in my dad’s westerns. After the first song, everyone would pray, leaving their seats to get down on their knees, their face now inches from where their butt sat moments earlier. My mom didn’t do this part because she didn’t “profess” to be a christian which left me to wonder why we were there. After prayer, the preacher would preach – fire and brimstone if it was Brother Murray, a softer touch if I was older and we’d moved on to Brother Burden. His wife was rumored to have a severe mental illness, but we never talked about it…

The Lake in the Holler

I grew up in a holler next to a lake that looked just like a lake but was technically a reservoir since it was man-made. My dad would load 4-year-old me onto his motorcycle between him and the handlebars, and I would  try to cram my tiny legs further up my own ass with each of my dad’s warnings about the scalding, exposed tailpipe. Sometimes if Dad didn’t want Mom to know he was leaving, he would get the bike headed downhill without starting the engine. At the end of the driveway, he’d kick-start it, the noise as loud as a weed-eater, but at that point we were far enough away to pretend we didn’t hear Mom yelling at us to get back home from the porch. Once we got to the lake, the road turned into a mud path with large humps as if a flexible mud-being had been cursed solid while doing Pilates. We would zoom up the backs of the humps and then fly over the other side – my stomach went up and down so fast that it felt like it was in my throat one minute and in my feet the next. This was my favorite part of the lake when I was a kid. As I got older, I stopped fitting on the front of my dad’s motorcycle and had to move to the back. The tailpipe burned me multiple times back there, stinging like a wasp for hours afterward. Mom wouldn’t let me go to the lake to swim – she said it had AIDS. Mom thought everyone and everything had AIDS, but the real reason was because her friend Buddy had drowned when Mom was nine. Once I was 18, I moved away from the holler, but always came back for the lake. We would throw parties there, swimming in water as warm as dishwater all day, skinny-dipping at night, my large, pale backside reflecting almost as much light as the moon. Then we’d lay on the bank next to a bonfire and dry off until it was time to go crash at a nearby house…

The Bay Area Rapid Transit

…The BART station where I get on in the mornings is always crowded, so I grab one of the fabric handles dangling from the metal poles that run across the ceiling and try to balance my uncoordinated body parts for the 12 minutes it will take to get from here to the office. I can feel people against my back, a tall one literally breathing down my neck. Sometimes someone will have BO, and that bums out the whole train; the smell of underarms travels at warp speed on public transportation. Sometimes I stare at the people sitting who got on at earlier, less popular stations – they don’t have any elbows in their backs and nearly all of them are able to read peacefully all the way there. I hate those people and wish them ill every morning. The BART has a distinctive sound, shrill metal-on-metal as if the infrastructure is so worn down that its bones are missing cartilage and rubbing against one another. Sometimes if I can drown out the noise, I think about how amazing it is that we’re flying underneath the ocean between Oakland and San Francisco. Then it’s time for my stop and I see that actually nothing in this world is all that impressive because the escalator is out. I assume from the smell on my way up too many stairs that it’s because the gears are jammed with homeless piss and shit. I’m not a hand-washer – it dries me out and I guess I’m just gross – but touching any part of the BART station sends me running to the nearest bathroom to scrub off the public plague I imagine lurks on the banisters. Getting back on the train in the evenings is worse because now everyone has stress-sweat from their jobs in finance and tech. At my stop, we pack in like sardines, and just when you’re sure your fellow man wouldn’t be crazy enough to try and fit one more person-sized thing on this train, here comes some asshole with his bicycle…

My Basement

… The basement smells like standing water, and it’s dark, dim at its brightest. During Christmas time, Mom would have to move one of the two overstuffed la-z-boys out of our cluttered living room to the basement to make room for the Christmas tree. This made the basement my new favorite hideout during my teen years. Despite the dimness, I would sneak down the steep, creaky stairs just to get some alone-time in the rocker. I was in my James Patterson phase, so I would sit down there for hours reading about the grisly murders to which Detective Alex Cross was assigned. The loudest sound was the crackle of the furnace, which my dad came down to stuff with coal and wood seemingly at random, or whenever he was bored with the conversation upstairs. Besides the fire, I could hear the purr of my cat, Miss Kitty. She was a soft calico with a split face, one side orange and the other dark. I told myself she loved spending quiet time with me down in the warm basement, but really, she probably just enjoyed being safe from the winter air and the hunting dogs who liked to tree her. Between the furnace, the cat, and the rocker, I was always warm, bordering on too warm. I stayed because I loved to be alone and I felt proud to be a girl enjoying such a masculine space. It was dark, unkempt, and filled with the hunting trophies from the men in my family – deer antlers were strewn everywhere, and once, my oldest brother stored a dead bear in the deep freeze in the corner, just so my mother would be shocked when she came to re-stock her upstairs freezer. In the spring, the basement flooded multiple times so that the wet must lingered and mingled with the scent of the bone-dry carcasses. The air tasted like mildew and cobwebs abounded. Sometimes I could feel them on the back of my neck as I walked down the stairs and would quicken my pace…

The County Fair

…The county fair smelled like funnel cake and horse manure. It sounded like carnies calling out as you walked by, yelling for you to play their games. My dad said all the games were rigged, but I was never good enough at them to be able to tell, and I wasn’t convinced he was either. Once I won a poster of the band 98 degrees. I don’t remember what game, only the prize. It was small, only 5×7 inches, but I loved that it was behind glass. Sometimes I’d run my finger along the edge just to feel how sharp it was.  I’m pretty sure I clumsily shattered it within the week. The fair was too warm, humid, and to me, came with a sense of danger or maybe just an inability to predict what was going to happen next. Screams were everywhere, coming from happy children riding the rides set up less than two days before by men I’m not sure I would now so quickly trust with my life. Sometimes I rode the cages. The cages were like a  ferris wheel if the placid, romantic benches were replaced with squirrel cages that twirled 360 degrees as the giant wheel whisked them up and over, over and over. I wouldn’t be surprised if I still had bruises from the safety belt cutting into my thick thighs. I also liked the ride that looked like a blue octopus wearing yellow space-ships on the bottom of its tentacles like roller-skates. I would load into one of the ships and feel the octopus’ arm lift me up and down as her body spun me faster and faster until I was nauseous; once I threw up a single pea. Eating at the fair was always more complicated than it needed to be. I remember standing in line for thirty minutes just to be served scorching hot french fries drenched in ketchup, so hot that you shoved them all in your mouth as fast as possible so they didn’t have the chance to burn your fingertips. The saving grace was the funnel cake, a delicacy my family waited for all year. Funnel cakes are little more than fried dough covered in powdered sugar…

The School Bus

…The school bus was a big behemoth that inhaled small children and exhaled diesel fumes. I remember the feeling of carrying my red Arthur backpack up the stairs,which were right behind the collapsible door that moved side to side like the elevator in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. At that age, each stair was nearly as tall as I was. In the mornings, the bus was cold but still warmer than it was outside. It was quiet in the mornings too, and even though the whole experience of “bus” was overwhelming, there was still something comforting about sliding into one of the big brown seats. They hid me from the bus driver and the other kids. I would let my head rest against the frosty window and play Super Mario in my head across all the fences we passed, up the sides of buildings, across porches. Sometime we sped up, causing the platforms to blur, and I’d get a headache trying to keep up with imaginary Mario. Sitting there, hidden, drowsy, entertained, I felt safe, like what it might be like if the beast swallowed you whole and you found a cushy spot to nest just behind his spleen. Sometimes we’d hear the crackle of the bus driver picking up his radio followed by the polite tone of Frank the Bus Driver/Pastor saying, “Amber, please turn and around face forward… kushhhhhh …. Now, please …. kussssshhhh … Thank you.” click. Mornings were sedate. Evenings were rowdy. Evenings sounded exactly like 90 children who have been pent up in a red school house all day and then loaded into a crowded yellow clown car should sound: a dull roar…

Offices

…An office is open, but not like a prairie. It’s open like sucking space that has no oxygen. An office smells like nothing if you could bottle up nothing and sell it, maybe as an app or a b2b service. The walls taste like lead paint even though you can be sure they’re perfectly safe. The people smile but it’s fake; when I smile, it’s fake. It’s quiet in the office, underneath the sounds of keyboards tapping, executives exec-ing, and that woman from legal who laughs too damned loud. I laugh too loud, but not at the office. Not intentionally, it’s just nothing is funny about failure. Before the layoffs when there was more than one layer of buffer between you and upper management, you could spin around in your spinny chair until you felt drunk, then stumble over to the snacks and free drinks and pig out like a teenage boy. The office tastes like organic power bars in Silicon Valley. In the midwest, they taste more like free diet soda and stealing the last stale cup of coffee out of the pot without making a new one, despite the passive aggressive sign that “Cindy” put there to deter such delinquent behavior. I don’t even drink coffee, but if I did, I’d be a coffee delinquent. Some offices are gray. You were in a building that was purple. Then you moved downstairs after the first round of layoffs and that office was a pale green. Now you’re under the highway with homeless people and their tents as your neighbors, but out here who isn’t, and your office is gray, like the color is positively correlated with morale.

My Anger

…My anger is sudden, but always lurking just below the surface. Up it comes at the most inopportune times. When I wake up, I can feel its tendrils already licking at my insides,  and if I let it, it would turn my heart into a charred piece of meat over the course of a day. Anger smells like a bonfire where the smoke chokes you but you’re cold so you just keep leaning in anyway. Anger promises the right to a wrong, whispers that you’ll feel better right after you give that clerk a piece of your mind. You could drown in anger’s promises before it fulfills one. Anger wears many masks, but its favorite is self-righteousness. Other times it will deign to appear as fear and self-protection. You’ll recognize it by the hot feeling in your stomach begging you to destroy something. I’ve heard anger is restorative, and I’m sure it can be since destruction is sometimes the first step to restoration. But anger is only a wrecking ball and you can hear it crashing around inside you. Anger is red, but it doesn’t sound like sirens, more like cannons. Inside, it burns while outside it punches. Its food is vitriol, the acid enhancing its potency like a tonic. The taste is like bile, but anger has no palette. Anger came here to take, and it doesn’t have any other motives. Anger is quick, swift, and sneaky, creeping up next to you without you ever having known it was coming, and if you don’t catch it…