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.

When I do eventually tell my mother about Mr. Myrtle, I wonder if she’ll remember meeting him on parent-teacher conference night. He was the last teacher we met with that evening. It was the second week of October and nothing had happened yet. Mr. Myrtle was still just my English teacher who always wore band T-shirts on Fridays. There was a core group of girls who were habitually late to his class because they lingered in the bathroom to touch up their makeup, and they always made it a point to ask about his T-shirts.

“So what does X Los Angeles stand for?”

Sometimes, he stayed after school and played music for us on his guitar, or he would bring in CDs of bands he liked and explain a little about each one: “This is ’60s bubblegum pop. This is ’70s freak-out psychedelic. This here is ’60s garage rock. This band plays kind of like classic stoner jams. This is British New Wave, which I don’t really like that much, but there’s a few really good songs, and it did eventually lead to even better stuff.” We were all in love with him, and never stopped to wonder why it seemed like he wasn’t very friendly with any of the other teachers, or why he spent so much time with us, or why he never seemed too eager to shut down these instances of flirtation that happened in class and outside of class.

When my mother and I sat down in Mr. Myrtle’s classroom to talk about my academic performance, he was still just my teacher who had once drawn a picture of me in his notebook while another student was asking him questions about our exam on Death of a Salesman. He later slipped the picture onto my desk as he was handing back corrected essays, with a note that said, “Did I capture your essence? It’s not easy, you know…” When my mother met him, he was still just my English teacher who wanted to talk to me after school about this story I had written for class, which was about a mentally ill man who pushes his daughter off a drawbridge, and then spends the rest of his life looking for her, in complete denial of what he has done. On that night, my father was still somewhere out in the world. The thought had even crossed my mind that maybe Mr. Mrytle was going to be the one to finally handle my mother’s ass, because why not? They were both so beautiful and infinitely kind.

“I love that quote,” my mother said, pointing at a Virginia Woolf on the wall. “‘As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’ I love that.’”

“Brilliant writer,” Mr. Myrtle said.

“I like the James Baldwin quote,” I said, pointing it out to my mom. On the first day of class, I had stared at it while we went over the syllabus. “People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.”

“Oh, is that why my morning bagel tastes so cruddy?” my mom said, and we all laughed. No matter how affected we were on the inside, we would always know how to conduct ourselves in public.

Mr. Myrtle leaned forward and looked into my mother’s eyes. “I’m just going to say it,” he said. “Mrs. Li, your daughter is, by far, the best student in her class. There is no question about it. She’s an incredible student.”

“That’s the best thing you could have said. I mean, I’m not surprised, but it’s still so good to hear,” my mother said. She put her arm around me and squeezed me like she had done a million times before.

“He says that to everyone,” I said, making them both laugh, as I had hoped they would.

I had stopped fucking around online. I no longer met men on the Internet who were willing to drive a hundred miles to see me. I started talking to Thessaly on the phone again and confided things in her like how I had seen my father in front of our old elementary school, and we had shouted at each other in the street, and since then, neither my mother nor I knows anything about his whereabouts, and I was scared that he was in trouble. My mother had just been promoted to office manager at her law firm, and our house was small but beautiful and full of green plants. My favorite teacher was telling my mother that I was his favorite student, and everything was as delicately perfect as the formation of the stars in the sky.

Exactly one year later, my mom and I found out my father was dead. They found him floating in the Hudson River (how did he get there, my mother wondered, and was he chasing a shiny bird, I wondered). But all that misery was to come later. Now, the three of us were sitting in Mr. Myrtle’s classroom. He and my mother were chatting about their favorite authors. I felt I had become the happy, observant bystander my father so frequently encouraged me to be.

“Watching is enough,” he used to say to me.

“What if I want to be part of it?”

“You’re always a part of it. When you were little, your mother and I would sit a couple feet away from each other, and I would watch you crawl from your mother’s arms into mine, and you know what? I was a part of it. Sure, all I did was watch, but there’s not a person living or dead who’s going to convince me I wasn’t a part of it. I was a part of it,” my father insisted. “Goddammit, I was part of 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.