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.

But before my new life ever even had a chance, my old one closed in on us. My father had to be hospitalized, and suddenly, my mother and I had to sell off all of our possessions. In two weeks’ time, all we had were two couch cushions and a TV on the floor that gave me electric shocks when I went near it. After we were kicked out of our home, my mother and I spent two months at Thessaly’s house and half a year in a transitional shelter for families where we had our own little apartment. Our case manager was a woman with oily eyes, who enthusiastically helped my mother find a job as the secretary in a medium-size law firm out in Long Island. She referred my mother to an organization that helped low-income women pay for their abortions. She found us an affordable apartment not too far from my mother’s work and even gave us some of her old furniture for free. “I want this stuff out of my basement, stat,” she said. When it was all over, neither of us remembered to thank her, and a year later, we found out from the local newspaper that she had taken her own life by jumping off her 10th-story office building.

My mother went into her bedroom and retrieved the thank-you letter we’d written a few months earlier and had meant to send to her—but somehow we had never gotten around to it.

“What kind of people are we?” she said, waving the letter around in the air. “All of this misery,” she said. “All this misery and nothing else but that.” I put my arm around my mother to try and comfort her, but inside, I burned with shame, knowing I had already moved on from grieving and was now wondering how long it would be before a boy loved me so much that he would be willing to jump out of a 10th-story window if he couldn’t have me.

“All this misery,” my mother said.

“It’s OK, mom. She was loved by so many people.”

“Did we love her? Did we thank her? Did we ever let her know she was in our hearts?”

I shook my head no and tightened my grip around her shoulders, all the while, burning.

***

Not too long after I finally got my period the summer after ninth grade, my mother started worrying that I wouldn’t ever have a healthy relationship with boys because of what happened with my father. I told her if that was true, then I was one angry gal, and she asked me, “Why so angry, gal?” And I said, “I’m angry because I didn’t choose to have an unhealthy dad, and now because of him, I might have no choice but to have unhealthy relationships with boys.”

“I know, babylove. But think of it this way: you didn’t choose to be born. I didn’t choose to be born. There’s a lot that we don’t choose about our existence, but it happens, and the only thing we can do is live our lives as well as we can live it.”

“But not Dad,” I said. “Because it’s too hard for him.”

“Not Dad,” she said.

“But us?” I said.

“But us,” she said.

***

One day, I will tell my mother about what happened with Mr. Myrtle, my 11th grade English teacher, and then I will ask her if she thinks what happened was fucked up, and I’ll also tell her about the man I met online when I was 15, who drove a hundred miles to meet me, and when I got in his car, I asked him if he wanted to go for a drive, and he said, “Sure,” and we ended up, of all places, in front of my old elementary school, and I wanted to tell this man about what kind of person I was when I used to go there, but instead I let him guide my hand to his belt buckle, and I wanted to explain why I flinched when I touched his belt, that it wasn’t because I was scared or because I didn’t want to touch his penis. I wasn’t scared at all despite having never touched one before. I went down on him and then fell asleep in his lap and woke up to him running his fingers through my hair and telling me that I was his beautiful girl and he was going to take me home now.

Across the street from where we had parked was the same spot where I saw my father, two years earlier, not long after we moved into the shelter. I saw him stumbling on the street across from my old school with dried blood on his lips and hands. I remember that his appearance disgusted me. His hands looked as if they had grown to twice their original size but somehow the outer layer of his skin had remained the same, making his fingers seem like sausages about to burst from their casings. I remember my father’s swollen hands and his bloodied lip, and his eyes and the way he looked at me as if he had seen me before somewhere, instead of looking at me like I was his daughter, and being all of 13 years old, what else was I supposed to do but pick up rocks from the ground and hurl them at my father, who spun around and screamed at a tree and then spun again and screamed at a passing car that had slowed down to see what exactly was happening. Why was this 13-year-old throwing rocks at a homeless man?

I will tell my mother about how I started to post pictures of myself on the Internet wearing nothing but underwear I had stolen from a shop in Woodhaven that sold “hooker clothes” according to Thessaly, who in 10th grade was still wearing Fruit of the Loom underwear and white cotton bras from the girls’ section of the department store, the kind that had tiny pink bows set right where your cleavage was supposed to happen one day. She and I were drifting apart. Ever since my mother and I moved out to Long Island, I had to take a 50-minute bus and then a 30-minute subway ride just to see her. And it seemed like she was never willing to do the same for me.

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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.