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.

***

In fourth grade, the other kids nicknamed me GHOST BOOBS because I went to school one day wearing my mother’s water bra, which was a bra with water and oil inside to make tiny breasts look enormous, or in my case, turn no breasts into some breasts, and this kid, Davy Rothko, who had the kind of ADHD that seemed basically incurable, pointed to me and said, “Those aren’t real,” to which I replied, “How do you know?” to which he replied, “Ya didn’t have them yesterday,” and launched himself headfirst into my water tit.

“See,” he said. “They’re not really there. I could punch right through them.”

“They’re not ghosts,” I muttered, and from then I was GHOST BOOBS. We were both sent to the principal’s office, but I was the only one who had someone throw a soiled bra with the words GHOST on one triple-G cup and BOOBS on the other at her in the middle of making Valentine’s Day cards in art class almost a year later.

In sixth grade, I was the girl who came to school smelling like a murdered pig, but I was also “the girl who eats rats” because I had raised my hand during a lesson about different cuisines around the world, and I had told everyone that my mom and I went to this little basement food court in Elmhurst that was so secretive you had to rent a key to get in, and we went one evening and dined on fried rats with little pickled vegetables, and it actually tasted pretty good—kind of like chicken nuggets. One girl’s mother called the school to complain because apparently her daughter was so traumatized by my rat nuggets story that she refused to eat for two days straight.

When the principal called my mother to tell her about this and to suggest that she have a conversation with me on the importance of self-restraint, my mother laughed it off and said that was the stupidest thing she had ever heard.

“These people will eat soured milk which has active bacteria and mold, but the thought of a Thai delicacy makes them want to vomit?”

“Who eat soured milk and mold?” I asked my mom.

“Everyone who eats cheese. Everyone who eats yogurt. Everyone. Some people should try an education for once in their life.”

In ninth grade, I wore five or six pairs of underwear at the same time and stuffed crumpled-up wads of Kleenex into the innermost panty because if I wasn’t going to have knock-you-over knockers then I was going to have the biggest booty of all the freshmen girls. My mother asked me if she was imagining it or did my ass look huge in jeans and then small again when I changed into pajamas, and I asked my mom how she would feel if I wanted to get permanent butt implants someday, and she said, “You know I support anything you want to do, but you do really want strangers groping your butt for the rest of your life?” and I said, “Yeah, I do, Mom,” and then she said, “Well, I guess I’d say go for it. Come to think of it, your poor mother wouldn’t mind a nice man grabbing her ass once in a while.”

My poor mother hadn’t had a man handle her ass since the day my father came charging at me with nothing in his hands but held them up like he was about to swing a bat and like my head was the thing he wanted to strike.

“I never wanted you,” he said. “You were never my choice. You came between me and now I have to be two mes. I have to be two fathers. I have to be two husbands. I have to be two mans.”

“I’m sorry, Dad,” I said, covering my mouth with my hands because I didn’t want him to see me smiling at “mans,” and because I could imagine someone passing by our apartment and thinking, Here is a man and his daughter horsing around—adorable! Because what if in that split second, the passerby only saw my smiling face and my father’s back? I didn’t want that at all. I wanted other people to be disturbed by what they saw. I wanted someone to fear for me, to try and save me, but how was that supposed to happen if I sat there smiling like everything was so fucking super duper?

“You, you, you, you, you, you, you,” he said over and over. “You don’t want me to eat the food I want to eat. You don’t want me to sleep at night. You don’t want me to go outside. You don’t want me to wash my hands in the bathroom. You want to be the one who eats. You get to be the one who shits at night. You get to be the only one who goes outside. And you want to take Helen from me. You want her to love only you. You want to edge me out. You want me to be left out of everything. You want everything and you want me to have nothing. You you you you you you you you. You’ve been trying to strangle me in my sleep. You tried to poison me this morning.”

“It was just milk!” I cried out. “Dad, it was just milk. You always take milk with your coffee.” I wrung my hands together like I was a beggar who had followed him into the street, as if I were some nuisance he couldn’t be rid of. I was desperate for him to kneel down in front of me and take my hands in his hands and tell me, “Honey, it’s just me, your dad,” but he swung his arms at me again, and I backed away.

“You,” he said. “You lie about everything. You sneak around and steal my money and you eat my food and you wear my clothes and you walk in my shoes like you want to replace me. You cheat me out of everything.”

My mother came home from her shift at C-Town an hour later and found me cowering in the corner while my father paced from one end of the kitchen to the other, repeating, “How do I get rid of her,” and then she knew that it wasn’t just my auntie who had schizophrenia on my father’s side of the family, but my father had it too, and for so long it lived inside him, but we called it by so many different names. “Oh he’s just tired.” “He’s irritable these days.” “Winter always hits him hard.” “Daddy’s upset because his daddy passed away this year.”

When my father’s sickness finally became clear to us, I had just started seventh grade—my first year at middle school—and my mother had a baby inside her, but she didn’t tell anyone because she was terrified and I was terrified and everyone who knew us was terrified, as if psychosis were a virus that could be passed between neighbors.

How grateful I was back then, before my father’s sickness became undeniable, to leave elementary school behind and start fresh. Like a beetle, I was shedding. I was going to walk away from my old, beat-up shell, which was composed entirely of bygones—the story of eating rats, the water boobs I tried to pass off as my own, the nights we stayed at Thessaly’s and played with her mother’s cats and stacked big thick bracelets on our wrists to cover bruises from when he grabbed us and promised to snap our hands from our wrists, mornings when I held my mother’s hair back as she vomited into Thessaly’s toilet, again and again until she was vomiting blood, all the while knowing we had to go back home and neither of us could predict anymore the resilience of my father’s anger. I was going to a new school, to a new life. Gone would be the kids who mocked me without knowing how often my mother and I tried to plant jokes into our lives so that my father, whose behavior had become increasingly erratic and rageful, might see that we were not scared of the dark things that he wouldn’t admit to feeling, that we truly saw light in every moment, that the hands that dragged my mother across the living room floor one evening were the same hands that picked me up from the couch where I had fallen asleep and carried me to my bed on another.

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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.