Fiction

There Was No Creek and I’m Still Alive

If my father could have had his way, he would have raised me in a box with a hole for air and food.

Illustrations by Cynthia

My father used to believe man was born from the rib of woman. He and my mother would constantly argue about it, like my mother would say, “No, it’s the other way around,” and my father would say, “Why don’t you ever think for yourself?” He believed monkeys were the first species to have sex just for the fun of it, and way the story goes is that one day a primitive African caveman spied on two monkeys fucking in a bush and then went home and tried to convince his caveman wife to do the same. My father thought the world was generally benevolent and we didn’t have to wring our hands together, we only needed to wait, and in due time everything bad would reverse itself and our good deeds would eventually be rewarded so extravagantly that destructive emotions like bitterness and self-pity would cease to exist, but for now, we had to trust that the universe was created right and we were its happy, observant bystanders.

“That’s a load of crap,” my mom used to say.

“And what about someone who only does bad stuff, Dad?” I asked him I was a child, when he was still in the mood to answer my questions and be the tiny God of my tiny world. “How will they be rewarded?”

“I don’t know, sweetheart, but everything happens. Everything that should happen, happens.”

“So every woman has a little man inside her rib?”

“Yes.”

“And you accept whatever happens in life?” my mom asked.

“Yes.”

“No, you don’t,” she insisted.

“I do. I accept it all.”

But he didn’t accept me and my mother. When we wanted to stay up all night, he pulled the leather belt from his pants and threatened to whip us. The next day, my mother and I bought him the same exact pair of pants but two sizes bigger and switched his old pair with the new one so that the next time he took off his belt to try and whip us, his pants actually fell to the floor, and he looked so funny in his boxer shorts and his little baby-bird legs, with his leather belt in hand, angry like he didn’t even know us. My father’s temper was bearable for the most part, and when it wasn’t, my mom and I fled to the house of my best friend, Thessaly. Thessaly lived in a small brownstone in Kew Gardens, and her father had no opinion on anything, not even about what kind of woman he wanted Thessaly to become, or what kind of woman his wife—a plump cat lady who was more punctual about feeding her cats than she was about feeding her husband and daughter—had already become.

My mother was everything my father was not. She didn’t believe in the essential goodness of the world, because the way I saw it, she was already living proof it, like she was the kind of mother who asked me all the time what I wanted to do instead of telling me what she wanted me to do, a mother who was willing to borrow a paintbrush from our upstairs neighbor and spread newspaper on our living room floor so I could lie there while she covered me in pig’s blood, which we managed to track down after my mom called her best friend’s cousin’s ex-boyfriend’s former colleague’s college roommate’s sister-in-law’s childhood horseback-riding instructor’s acquaintance, who was a very nice man with a smoky voice who owned a farm called Blood Farm, which he said over the phone he was thinking of renaming because it wasn’t so great for business.

I had a mother who was willing paint me in pig’s blood the way some mothers were willing to drive their daughters to school in the morning, a mother who spent the whole day cleaning up after I went to school so that my father didn’t catch wind of my “little stunt,” as he sometimes liked to call my ideas, and threaten to crack a folding chair over my “stupid fucking brain,” as he sometimes liked to call it.

I had a mother who supported all of my wishes, including when I wished for a Halloween costume that was the physical manifestation of the idea of “slaughter,” and it was going to be so incredibly meta, like I was both embodying the idea of slaughter with my costume and my costume was also totally going to embody how much I was slaughtering the competition, except my mega win was short-lived because I reeked, and my sixth grade teacher said, “Annalise, I swear to god, if I didn’t need this job to pay my bills, I would slap you to the ground,” before sending me home.

Later, Thessaly told me the whole school thought I was deranged, and someone had joked about giving me electric-shock therapy, which actually wasn’t a good joke at all because an auntie on my father’s side really did suffer from psychosis, and when she was 15, my grandparents sent her to Beijing for treatment, and when she came back, my mother said she suffered from memory loss and started to shit her pants on a regular basis and had to be put in adult diapers for a year, which is the kind of story that sounds funny when you tell it to a friend, but when you’re alone in your room and really letting yourself think about it, you end up feeling so scared that you crawl into your mother’s bed like you did when you were first learning to sleep on your own.

And so even though my mother loved me unconditionally and permitted everything, even though she tried so hard to build a safe space for me at home, one where all of my ideas were important and worthy, where my jokes were never the butt of someone else’s, and my little attempts to experiment with who I ultimately wanted to be were always allowed and even encouraged, despite all that, my mother could never be the whole wide world. No matter how often she let me know that I was precious and rare, I still had to contend with the rest of the world, who couldn’t give less of a fart about who I wanted to be and who I had so far been, and who I had so far been was someone whose hands would not stay steady when she heard her father’s footsteps in the hallway outside her room, someone whose bottom lip quivered when her father stood over her in the morning, wondering if he was going to throw her school textbooks at her or kneel by her side and stroke her hair, wondering if he was going to say, “Wake the fuck up already. How fucking entitled do you have to be to sleep until eight in the morning on a school day?” or if this was going to be the day he said, “Wake up, my princess. I made us dinner for breakfast. That’s what you asked for, isn’t it?”

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49 Comments

  • Laia September 30th, 2011 3:16 PM

    Oh Jenny, I do love your writing. And I’m really stoked that I can hear it in your voice in my head still. So wonderful.

  • Mariam September 30th, 2011 3:53 PM

    writing felt so real to me. I could picture everything so well. I just really really really really loved this.

  • Marguerite September 30th, 2011 4:06 PM

    That was BEAUTIFUL! – i wish i could write like that – although i was super upset when i realized halfway through reading this that it was fiction…

  • Marie September 30th, 2011 4:11 PM

    Wow Jenny, this one had some serious physical effects on me while I read it. I’m hot and cold, got the chills, on the verge of tears, smiling big and feel like someone poured something into my head all the way down to my toes. They saved the best for last!!!

    • Jenny September 30th, 2011 8:08 PM

      Oh, thank you so much, everyone. I’m so happy to read your comments! <3

  • Pashupati September 30th, 2011 4:12 PM

    I felt a light grip on my heart while reading the parts that are changes in her life.
    I hope we’ll see more of your writings!

  • obeykid September 30th, 2011 4:29 PM

    Excellent!

  • spacemadness September 30th, 2011 4:39 PM

    This is the best thing I’ve read in a long long time. I feel so incredibly moved

  • katycruel September 30th, 2011 4:50 PM

    Loved this! I’m glad I wanted to check the comments, because on the RSS feed, there’s no indication that there are 5 pages. It stops at the end of page 1.

  • moonmama September 30th, 2011 5:13 PM

    Ugh this was so good. Jenny is one of my favorite Rookie authors.

  • kellyann September 30th, 2011 5:14 PM

    jenny, i am a thirty year old aspiring editor and this is one of the most powerful short stories i have read in years. i touched something in me, deeply and viscerally. girl, you have GOT IT! with the utmost admiration, kelly coviello

  • Danbi September 30th, 2011 5:15 PM

    oh i was deeply touched. it’s amazing!i’m already looking foward to your another writing.

  • asleeptillnoon September 30th, 2011 5:30 PM

    god damn amazing! XD

  • annav September 30th, 2011 5:32 PM

    This is one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read, broke my heart a little I think but then reassembled it. You’re an amazing writer.

  • live_love_breath_dance September 30th, 2011 5:47 PM

    I love this. You are such a great a writer. Thank you. This gives me hope so much you wouldn’t believe.

  • Rita Unicornia September 30th, 2011 5:52 PM

    So freaking RRRRRRRRR AWESOME! best thing I’ve read since I’m alive!

    http://www.ritahasablog.blogspot.com

  • koolkat September 30th, 2011 6:35 PM

    This was amazing! I love your style of writing! Best thing I’ve read in ages. It was so powerful and sometimes I wanted to cry but at other times it made me see the point of it all. :D

  • Dayana September 30th, 2011 6:53 PM

    @Marguerite how do you know this is fiction? Either way this was beautiful and I would absolutely love this if it were a movie (I don’t know that was just my first thought).

  • Dayana September 30th, 2011 6:54 PM

    Ooooh it’s under the fiction section (durrr).

  • caro7 September 30th, 2011 7:08 PM

    I usually enjoy Jenny’s writing and I’m surprised because the story has some accurate and precise depictions detailing how a person must feel when dealing with mental illness. But… as someone who has a brother with schizophrenia, I have to make it clear that the majority of all schizophrenics are not violent or angry. I really hope that people don’t get the wrong idea. And that scene where the mother tells Annalise that they have to live the best life that they can but not their dad… I’m not sure what that means. Does that mean that the father can’t try to live the best life he can? Or that he should just kill himself? Hopefully not because that’s a really harmful message to have for people who are kind of ignorant about schizophrenia and how people and families deal with the illness. It’s not like people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia suddenly become unlovable or monstrous (I know that’s not what Jenny’s trying to say but it does come off that way).
    I can see that the story is focusing on Annalise’s perspective and the effect of schizophrenia on her upbringing and her family… but really the depth of the issue and the emotion doesn’t feel very true/real to me. Annalise is conflicted but the exploration of schizophrenia feels slightly empty. It makes the father seem like a monster rather than a human. Because of this I hope that readers and writers don’t treat mental illness in stories as a dark flourish to writing and recognize that it’s actually way more complicated and that it can be a far more positive (not so bleak) experience than what some might think.

    • Jenny October 1st, 2011 1:25 PM

      Hey Caro, I’m really glad you brought up these issues and shared your own experience of knowing someone with schizophrenia. I completely agree that it’s lazy and harmful to suggest that the truest and most valid depiction of mental illness is one of violence and monstrosity. I also agree that it’s equally ignorant to suggest that people with mental illness are essentially doomed and incapable of living well.

      The issue of how best to represent, include, and honor all the different and complex ways that a person can live with mental illness reminds me of discussions about women who wear the hijab. It’s really disturbing when only certain kinds of stories are privileged and publicized–and these stories are, of course, the ones that are the most sensational, or the ones that validate a very first world, Western-centric belief that women who choose to veil themselves are unquestionably oppressed. Every woman who wears a headscarf or veil has the right to be heard and the right to tell her own particular story. And the more we rely on this idea of a “single story” that represents the experiences of all women who wear a hijab, the less of a chance we have of subverting the dominant, stereotypical, simplistic narratives of Muslim women.

      You’re right to point out that my particular fictional short story cannot claim to represent the full range of possibilities and experiences when it comes to living with mental illness or living with someone who has mental illness. I wish I could say that my humble little story seeks to contribute to the very worthy goal of eradicating ableism and taking down cultural tropes of mental illness, but it does not. It’s just one story, and I know there is room for many more!

      I fear that I’m the least qualified person to analyze this story (even though I wrote it) but I’d really like to try and respond to the extremely thoughtful questions you’ve posed. The way I see it, the story is entirely from Annalise’s perspective, and it takes place at a time in her life when she is still quite young and inexperienced (in the beginning of the story, she’s only in elementary school.) Her attempts at understanding what is happening to her father are, at times, shallow and self-absorbed. She’s not able to empathize with her father’s illness, and rather than understand how her father lives with it, she wants to figure out how she can live with her father. She fears being held responsible for his anger, and in a lot of ways, she fears having a father who will always be unfit to take care of her and protect her, and even guide her. Then there’s also the issue of abuse–both Annalise and her mother have been physically and emotionally abused by the father.

      The scene when Annalise and her mother agree that they still have a chance to live a good life but not their father, is a moment when Annalise is testing out the idea of giving up on her father. It’s a moment when Annalise and her mother acknowledge that they don’t quite understand the struggles that lay ahead for Annalise’s father, and what’s more, they have their own struggles to overcome. I don’t think Annalise and her mother believe that the father should just kill himself, but rather they feel helpless when confronted with the question of how to look after Annalise’s father. Again, here I am trying to remain faithful to this fictional world, and in this fictional world, characters are self-motivated, selfish, vulnerable, needy, scared, brave, daring, traumatized, and banal. As for my own personal beliefs– I absolutely believe that people who live with mental illness can live well and all life is valuable, worthy life.

      The author Chimamanda Adichie gave a great talk on the “Danger of the Single Story,” (http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html) where she says, “The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” I stand in solidarity with you in hoping that no one will take my story and understand it to be the single, definitive story on mental illness. I know that the smart cookies here at Rookie have a lot more up their sleeves… and if you can give us some time, we will be coming back to this topic with a lot more to say!

  • ghastly September 30th, 2011 7:25 PM

    This made tears come to my eyes. It was really beautifully written.

    I rather liked the part about Mr. Myrtle, even if there was another article that encouraged us to leave crushes on teachers as crushes.

  • AineFey September 30th, 2011 8:16 PM

    Wonderful story. There are tears in my eyes.

  • jenjencm September 30th, 2011 10:08 PM

    Wow! I think this is the best online article I”ve ever read. I’m so glad you had your happy ending Jenny. :)

  • diny September 30th, 2011 10:09 PM

    i have daddy who is complicated. he seems doesn’t want me do anything that include risk on it. yeah, i am kind of devout. instead i got many A-s my daddy still thought that i am not the great kid ever. he expect so much on me.
    ‘Dad’ at your story scare me, Jenny. i wonder how if actually my daddy don’t want me. how if my dad gonna be ‘that dad’.
    ‘Mom’ at your story is kind of Ramona’s mom! yeah, i hope all parent do like ‘mom’. i can do everything that i want.
    but, i am a devout. ha!

  • cherryloop October 1st, 2011 12:02 AM

    That was a very well written story. It’s a difficult thing to capture emotion in a story, and to make the reader of the story relate to them. you can see Annalise’s inner conflict, and how she develops as a character throughout the story.

  • mirandab17 October 1st, 2011 2:15 AM

    That was incredible. I was so damn tired before I read it, like my eyes were actually soo heavy, but I literally could not pull myself away.

  • Bren October 1st, 2011 2:35 AM

    Beautiful.

  • MHAV October 1st, 2011 9:18 AM

    I generally don’t comment, but this was truly beautiful. Your writing is incredible, and the whole story felt so honest. You did what all writers should do, believe in what you are saying. Fantastic

  • jeanette October 1st, 2011 6:12 PM

    This was so honest and so powerful that it brought tears to my eyes.

  • Maca October 1st, 2011 6:39 PM

    This so beautifully written. It’s real yet it’s fantastical, I loved it.

  • Sophii October 2nd, 2011 10:36 AM

    When I realised it was five pages long I thought I might struggle getting past the first but it was so gripping that I did read the whole thing. This is so moving and inspirational. I hope that one day I can write as well as you do. I really believed all of it and it evoked such a range of emotions in me.
    Thank you
    Sophie
    http://thechicmuse000.blogspot.com/

  • Christie October 2nd, 2011 10:44 AM

    It’s really well-written and flows perfectly. Can’t wait for more!

  • Lumen Gratiae October 2nd, 2011 12:52 PM

    I was absolutely moved by this piece. I am growing up with an abusive father myself, and it makes it more manageable to know that I’m definitely not the only one.

  • Pashupati October 2nd, 2011 12:56 PM

    Diary of a schizophrene by Marguerite Sechehaye, is a great book from a first person POV, even if it’s quite old so maybe not accurate if you want to know how it is from the medical side.
    Although I don’t know anybody with schizophrenia so I can’t really say which of her experiences are widely shared. The thing is, I realize it’s just easy to see a representation of a schizophrene and think “so that’s how schizophrenia is like” (or how whatever is like, in fact with representation of people we don’t share the lives and with a characteristic, it’s so easy to fall in the so-that’s-how-it-is-and-that’s-how-”they”-are trap!), without taking individuality of a person into account… So the best would be having a wide variety of representations.
    (caro7 comment made me think about it, so I’d wanted to answer her, but the “Reply” link isn’t there while not connected and it seems I can’t connect myself without writing a comment!)

    • Pashupati October 2nd, 2011 12:58 PM

      Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl is the correct english title. Sorry, just translated and thought about checking after!

    • Jenny October 3rd, 2011 10:52 PM

      I think your idea of having a wide variety of representations is an astute one! And thank you for the book recommendation! <3

  • Luxe October 2nd, 2011 3:01 PM

    I’ve never commented before but this is so perfect. I can’t explain how much I love this piece. Your writing is perfect.

  • Jenn October 2nd, 2011 6:07 PM

    Incredible! I don’t know what to compliment most, the imagery, the emotion? Everything was truthful and touching and beautiful, thank you for that.

  • sallyjane October 3rd, 2011 5:19 PM

    oh my god. this honestly gave me chills. so beautiful.

  • Nomi October 3rd, 2011 9:03 PM

    WRITE MORE PLEASE I LOVED THIS.
    I must say, I am glad this is fiction, because I would hate to think you went through having a father like that. Still, please write more in the future!!

  • PoisonIvy October 3rd, 2011 10:45 PM

    this is amazing. i absolutely love your writing.

  • Lucidita October 3rd, 2011 11:44 PM

    This story will stay with me for a while.

  • heartcity October 4th, 2011 12:02 AM

    this is really really great. can’t wait to read more!

  • chilljill47 October 4th, 2011 7:37 PM

    i couldn’t stop reading this, it felt so real and tangible, if stories can be tangible

  • leraje October 9th, 2011 3:49 AM

    amazing, love this so much.

  • Livy October 11th, 2011 3:40 PM

    I’m blown away. Writing like this makes me want to run a marathon. Write a novel. Kiss a stranger. Scream. Cry. Laugh. Just amazing. ♥

  • Fronoan April 1st, 2013 4:53 PM

    Will there be a continuation? I hope so!!
    It had a sad subject but was ultimately happy. Thank you for this!^o^

  • blueolivia April 10th, 2013 10:09 AM

    jenny, this was beautiful. i don’t know what it is that you have, but girl, you have it. your voice is so clear in this and your metaphors were enlightening. i loved the themes carried throughout. i love it.