Share Your World

It’s been a while since I last posted, so I thought I’d do Cee’s Share Your World this week.

Did you ever get lost?

Once. I must have been seven or eight years old. When my family moved to this part of Florida, we’d go to all the holiday celebrations in the area: the Fourth of July parade, the Christmas boat parade, and of course the annual Italian-American carnival.

This particular night, we were at an outdoor Mardi Gras party. It was tame enough for kids, but I was still awed by all the bright colors, loud music, and happy, noisy adults. (It didn’t occur to me that they were drunk.) I had handfuls of shiny plastic necklaces, and I was probably counting them and toying with them like a dragon with its hoard when I got separated from my family.

I looked at all the people whirling around me. I had a butt-eye-view, and there were no familiar rear ends in sight. Someone said, “Uh oh, lost kid.” Even though it was true, I remember getting so mad that someone would dare treat me like a child! (By age seven, I was convinced that I’d done about all the growing up anyone ever did.)

It didn’t take me long to track them down. They were just a few steps ahead, waiting for me to catch up. Score one for overprotective moms!

Who was your best friend in elementary school?

I met her at the orientation for my new school, right after the big move I mentioned above. We sat at the same table with our moms. We were both shy, but they got to talking, and after that it only seemed natural that we’d talk to each other during class too. I couldn’t tell you what we had in common at that point, but she was my only friend that year.

I made a few other friends eventually, but what’s most memorable about my best friend is that when I got sick, when I had to attend school only part-time and drop out of gym classes, she stuck by me. I think I would have spent my whole childhood as a loner without her.

We’ve met twice since graduation. I tried to fall back into the patterns of our old friendship, to be honest and open with her, but I ended up just feeling confused and vulnerable. It isn’t her fault. I guess we’ve both changed.

I took this picture the last time I saw her, over sushi.

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She was the first person outside my family to read any fiction I wrote, and she loved it so much that she showed it to everyone who rode her bus. She introduced me to both people and hobbies that changed my life, for better or worse. I probably won’t see her again, but I could never forget her.

Since the news television season has started in the US, list three favorite TV shows.

I’m not much of a TV watcher these days. As a kid, come hell or high water, I’d be in front of the TV with popcorn for The X-Files and Are You Afraid of the Dark? even if a rerun was airing. Later on, I LOVED the MTV reality series Fear. My love for creepy shows backfired, though: I became convinced at one point that my TV was possessed, and I never turned it on again. (It’s still a creepy story, looking back. I’ll write about it here one day.)

After that, I only watched TV with friends. In high school we’d have overnight parties where we’d watch anime, and in college, a few of us got together for every new episode of True Blood. Other than that, I occasionally put Food Network on as background noise. My partner did finally convince me to watch Orphan Black, and we’re excited for season 3.

If you were a mouse in your house in the evening, what would you see your family doing?

This is a decent summary:

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That’s five cats, all sniffing around the living room carpet, which I sprinkle with catnip on days I plan to vacuum.

My partner comes home around five, and the cats surround us much as they’re doing in the photo while I serve dinner. After that, we have fairly simple evenings — if it was a stressful day, we’ll stay at the table and chat for a while, and maybe have a glass of wine. Eventually, we’ll go to our computers to unwind with some browsing or games.

The real interesting stuff comes in when we roleplay (more like this than like this). It might sound like a completely nerdy thing to do (because it is), but I bet you’d get pretty invested in the stories if you were a mouse hiding in the corner. If you can evade the cats, at least.

Bonus question:  What are you grateful for from last week, and what are you looking forward to in the week coming up?

I met a lot of new people and made more friends last week. Having a big social circle is all very new to me, and I’m still figuring out how to keep up with all of them, but I’m having a good time learning.

As for the coming week, the countdown to NaNoWriMo is about to begin!

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“Here’s to those who wish us well…”

IMAG0286 “And those who don’t can go to hell!”

That’s our family toast. I don’t know if it originated from my grandfather or if it predates him, but we never miss saying it at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner in his honor, although he’s been gone for over fifteen years now.

There are only five of us — mom, dad, two brothers, and me — but we’re an interesting mix.

Among the lot of us, we’ve got nine cats and one dog. We’ve got an extended family of high school friends, unknown birth parents, estranged parents, adoptive parents, partners, exes. Together, we’re Catholic, Lutheran, nondenominational, atheist, uncertain. We’re second-generation Italian, Czech, Floridian, New Jerseyan, one thirty-second Spanish, rural Tennesseean mutt. We’re de-facto music lovers, video game players, and Miami Dolphins fans. My parents are short, my brothers are enormous, and I’m the petite one at 5’1″. Except for my blonde mom, we’ve got curly dark hair. We tan easily, and we prefer dark clothes. In group photos, we tend to resemble a Mafia family, and I’m pretty sure none of us are especially ashamed.

We don’t drink underage, but except for my straight-edge kid brother, we are drinkers. My parents are beer drinkers, I’m a gin drinker, and we all go for the occasional glass of red wine, as per Italian heritage law. We don’t shy away from strong words, hence the toast above.

We have weird holiday celebrations that are holdovers from customs and religions no one really remembers or understands: honey crosses on the forehead, strong sauerkraut soup, chickpeas tossed on the floor for the angels to pick up. (Or for the dog to eat. He’s basically a little angel, isn’t he?)

I don’t always understand my family, and they don’t always understand me. But at the end of the day, you can’t strip me of my family identity any more than I can manage to escape it.

(And, don’t tell them I said this, but I’m the only one who’s a half-decent cook.)

 And, okay, I’ll say it: I love them.

They can be hard to talk to, and hard to handle, but when I head over for a visit, it still feels like going home. It’s a place where I know the rules. I know where to find the snacks and drinks. I know when to sit down and shut up. I know I’m likely to hear a man’s voice burst into song, and I know it’ll sound damn good, because apparently in our family, the carry-a-tune gene is sexist.

So please, remind me of all this the next time I have to go see them. I’ll need all the help I can get.

Stitched

IMAG0258(You can read this post without reading my short story Stitched, but the full text is available here.)

If anyone ever asks me where I get my story ideas, this is what I’m going to tell them:

I was a twentyish college kid and my kitten was going to die. I’d never had a pet of my own before, and I sure had fucked this one up. Four short months into her life, it was ending.

Until then, I’d been under the impression that cats landed on their feet, but my cat had fallen on her head. She’d had a seizure. Her brain swelled, making her head loll to one side. The vet gave me anti-inflammatory pills for her and told me that was all he could do.

“She could go at any time,” he said.

While I watched her walk in circles and vomit in the litter box — while I waited for her to go — I realized I didn’t have any idea what to do with an animal’s dead body. My family would have buried her in the backyard, but I lived far away from them, in an apartment. There was no place to bury my kitten. I knew I wouldn’t have long to figure it out after she died, so I started searching online.

I learned that you could leave their bodies out with the trash, as long as you notified the county, but I couldn’t do that to my baby. I learned that you could have them cremated, which appealed to me, though I knew I couldn’t afford the process.

And I learned about pet preservation.

There existed a company not too far from my area that, for a fee, would freeze-dry your pet. They emphasized that the process was not the same as taxidermy, where you’d pull an animal skin over a premade form. Freeze-drying kept the animal completely intact, bones and organs and all. They’d use reference photos to pose your pet as naturally as possible, and they’d mail you the little preserved corpse, which you’d then be free to display.

I wanted to click away from the page in disgust, but I found myself scrolling through the testimonials, most of which mentioned something about “having our beloved pet back forever”.

I let my eyes sloooowly drift toward my kitten. Forever. Didn’t that sound good?

Luck must have been on my side back then, because over the next few weeks, she healed up almost perfectly. She’ll always have vision problems, and she’ll never be able to have surgery thanks to the increased risk of seizure that comes along with anesthesia, but she’s a happy, healthy five-year-old today.

After that scare, I didn’t stop planning for the future. I bought her a collar I could remember her by if she passed away, and I decided to save up for cremation. I came to my senses about the freeze-drying procedure. Having her body around would be nothing like having her. It’d be just another empty, soulless thing to gather dust. 

The more I thought about it, the more curious I got. There were obviously people who loved having their freeze-dried pets around. What did they get out of it? I wondered how someone who’d keep a pet’s body forever would handle trying to come to terms with a human loved one’s death.

Just like that, the seeds of a story took root.

I came up with a woman who’d had her dead pets preserved, who thought of it as a celebration of their lives. When her teenage daughter suddenly died, it only seemed natural to do the same.

Her husband had always been skeptical about the freeze-drying situation, but he’d never been much of a family man. As it turned out, he had a lot to say to his daughter’s body, and a lot to make amends for.

These thoughts stewed in my head for a long time. I didn’t want to put them on paper. The idea made me uncomfortable, brought back bad memories, even grossed me out a little.

Eventually, I wrote and self-published the short story Stitched, which has been more widely read and enjoyed than any of my20140618_131208 other work. It was my first foray into horror, which made it more derivative than I would have liked (the Stephen King is strong with this one), but my discomfort during the writing process made it a story worth telling.

Here’s the true definition of horror fiction, as far as I’m concerned: It’s something you relate to, but wish you didn’t.

These days, I’m working on plenty of other horror projects. My sources of inspiration vary, from a sudden rainstorm to a road sign to a mountaintop sunset. I think these stories are better than Stitched in terms of plot and characterization, and I hope for them to eventually see the light of day.

But nothing will beat the story of how Stitched came to be. I still feel the horrible knowledge of what’s to come creeping up on me every time I look at the first few lines.

When Armand arrives home from work, he walks upstairs to his daughter’s room to press his forehead for several minutes against the cool wooden door, the same way he has each day since her death.

Today, though, the door is open. And his daughter is lying on her side on the window seat, hands folded beneath her head.

Will He Come Back?

IMG00026 This is my ex cradling my cat — our cat, back then — circa 2009.

Let me step again and give you a content warning here: this post discusses domestic violence. If you want a history of him and me, check here first.

Half of the reason why I left him was the cat. I took care of her. I trained her as well as I could. In sickness or health, she’s the one cat I’ve owned who doesn’t go outside the box. Early on, I believed my bad behavior caused him to abuse me, so it never crossed my mind that he’d hurt an innocent kitten. He did, and not infrequently. I started trying to leave as soon as it happened, with my cat in my arms, but it was like he had a sixth sense about us. He’d notice, and he’d put a stop to it. He’d be extra careful not to leave marks, to make sure I couldn’t call in help and show them evidence.

But he could be sweet, too. Any abuser can. The cat loved him, and he loved her, as much as he could love another living thing. I stayed with him for years because of how he’d cry over his mistakes, or tremble over his fears. Like an innocent, or a child. He’d refer to these moments as “showing his true self”. I don’t agree — it wasn’t a fake or unreal person who abused me. It was him. But the scared, vulnerable boy wasn’t fake either.

After I left him, I wanted to help him move on with his life, but I could only take so much. I couldn’t spend every evening on the phone, trying to walk him through basic household tasks like operating the coffee machine. I couldn’t give him money for rent every month; I had my own life to live. I tried and tried to cut off contact with him, but he’d keep sending me messages, no matter what. Finally, almost a year after we broke up, I sent him an email saying I’d contact the police if he kept trying to speak with me. He listened, and I haven’t heard from him since.

Today, I regretted that.

If I could see the future, even at a heavy price, I’d use it to see if my ex will ever reenter my life. I know that cutting off contact was the right thing to do for both of us. It stopped him from manipulating me. It stopped me from enabling him, or feeling constantly afraid.

But today, four years after our breakup, a reminder of him entered my life in the strangest way. I went to get a library card, only to find that he still has books out under my name.

The lady at the checkout desk said, “Maybe it’s worth getting in touch with an old friend, if you think they might be able to recover the book for you.”

I almost laughed. I left the library feeling okay. I’m used to taking responsibility for things he helped (or forced) me to thoroughly fuck up. I would pay the replacement fee and get on with my life.

Unfortunately, the thought of him didn’t leave me. I started to worry, as I do every week or two, when I have a thought or a dream about him. I cut off contact, so I don’t know where he is. Before, he would have messaged me if he was angry or upset or planning to come and find me. But now? He could be preparing to turn up at my doorstep with a gun, and I’d never know.

I tell myself I’m safe. It’s been a while. He’s probably moved on, and if he’s found another person to abuse, at least he has a police record thanks to me, so they’ll take any reports more seriously.

hope he has moved on. I hope he’s gotten help. I loved him once, I saw the good sides of him, and I want a good life for him. I hope he understands that me leaving him wasn’t an act borne from hatred or retribution, but from fear for myself, and from a wish that it’d drive him to understand that his abusive behavior is serious enough to require intervention. I hope he’s out there living a good life, never even allowing me to cross his mind.

I hope he’s not blaming me for all the ways his life has gone wrong, plotting revenge as I type.

Speaking statistically, I know that the danger has likely passed, but that doesn’t help me let go of the fear. It has faded over time, but inevitably, it comes back to me. I think it always will.

If I could look into the future and know for sure where he is, what he’s doing, whether he hates me, whether he’s well? I’d do it, at any cost. My peace of mind is worth it.

When I Need to Cry, I Watch Horror

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Growing up, I was not a crier.

One of those anecdotes my family loves to repeat: When I was first learning to walk, I wouldn’t make a sound if I fell down and hurt myself. Instead, I’d sit there on my diapered rear, looking solemn. So, one day, my grandma came up to me and said, “Honey, it’s okay to cry.”

I punched her in the face.

Later on in life I ran across a few situations that probably merited tears, but I never could figure out how to cry. (And, as I learned firsthand, there comes an age when it isn’t cute to express your emotions through whacking people anymore.) I cried over high school crushes, but for the most part, anything more intense would make me clam up.

I remember sitting through tearjerkers like Up and Big Fish while my friends or family wept around me. There were plenty of jokes about how I was heartless, or they were too emotional. I wasn’t an easy scare either, when it came to horror movies. If you’re the kind of person who believes in gender stereotypes, you’d call me the man in every relationship I’ve had: I kill the bugs, I let my lover hold my hand in scary movies (and when they have nightmares after), and I don’t show my feelings.

The thing is, I wasn’t feeling my feelings either, and I wanted to. Crying, or at least sitting with your sadness for a while, is cathartic. You do it, and you move on. There was plenty I wanted to move on from. For a while, I sought out the saddest movies and songs I could. I’d sit in front of Youtube and watch these recordings of sobbing people having their pets euthanized. Nothing.

Then I saw a horror movie alone, and I caught myself off guard by bursting into helpless, noisy tears.

I think it was The Last Exorcism. Later on, when I went to see sequel in theaters, I cried too. (No, not because of how awful it was.) For a few years, I went by myself to see every horror movie the week it released: Chernobyl Diaries, Paranormal Activity 4, Sinister, The Possession, The Woman in Black. Some were good, or at least fun to watch. Others were terrible, but inevitably, I left the theater sniffling and all wrung out.

And it felt great. It felt like I was finally getting somewhere in life. I just couldn’t help wondering what the hell it was all supposed to mean. The movies that hit hardest tended to feature young girls as the subject of a ritual or a possession, which didn’t frighten me and certainly hadn’t happened to me.

…Unless, in a way, I actually had been through something similar.

I remembered how my ex, the one who hit me, used to be terrified of the woman from The Grudge. He said that for a long time after he first saw the movie, he’d sit awake at night, staring at the corners and waiting for a wispy dark cloud of her hair to appear. Which he thought was strange, because usually, he was most attracted to girls who looked like her — and like me — with long dark hair and pale skin. He was so terrified that if my hair fell over my face or I got too quiet, he’d yell at me.

I told him, “Maybe it’s because you’re afraid of what you love most turning on you.”

From where I am today, this sounds silly, but his fear gave me power. He could hurt me, he could manipulate me, he could shout at me, but he was also afraid of me. Afraid that the weak, intimidated person he knew might be taken over by something stronger. I don’t think he feared the supernatural so much as he feared me snapping out of it and finding a way to get back at him.

Movies that center on exorcism still scare us today, although the historical events that inspire them are often a case of misinterpreting disability. Some even take comfort in reclaiming exorcism as a way to handle their illnesses.

I can relate. The girls who star in these movies are innocent in a way I never got to be. The ghosts or demons that haunt them also give them the ability to hurt and terrorize — without being fully themselves, without marring their innocence.

I spent my childhood at the mercy of illness, feared for what it might do to me. I spent my early adulthood at the mercy of a man, feared for what I might do to him. I had power over others that came at a great expense to me. I was scared to show my feelings to anyone who asked, because I knew that an honest answer would make them scared, too. Or angry, or sad. Sometimes this felt good; it gave me a secret advantage. Usually, though, it just made me feel beyond helping.

These movies reflected my experience in a way real life never could. The protagonists don’t mean to cause any trouble. Some of them fight against the entity that seeks to take them. Some of them embrace it. Either way, they don’t come out the other side unscathed, and no one will ever look at them in quite the same way.

I cried because a handful of scriptwriters out there accidentally managed to understand me. They stuck up for me. They made me sympathetic.

These days, there’s less of a disconnect between me and my feelings. I still love horror, and I’m still not a big crier, but I no longer need to see pretty little girls in white dresses be tortured and turned into monsters before I’m able to feel something for myself. I’ve gotten better at processing my experiences, and I think I’ve finally cried myself out.

And I still don’t like it when people fawn over me and ask me if I’m feeling okay, but I can usually brush them off or tell them the truth, which is a big step up from smashing them right in the nose.

Little Blue Pills

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If you went back in time fifteen years and told me I’d end up swallowing pills daily as an adult, I might have just offed myself on the spot, no kidding.

At age nine I was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune condition. My mom was terrified for her baby (understandably, considering the mortality rate), but as far as I knew, the bad part was taking the medicine.

I never could take pills as a kid. They’d get stuck going down, or I’d throw them back up. So I ended up spending a few years swallowing liquid steroids, mixed in with chocolate syrup. And while I didn’t mention this in my post on hoarding, I eventually got fed up with the taste enough to start peeling back a corner of my bedroom carpet and dumping my daily dose there.

After that, I called it quits on medication. I wouldn’t even take an Advil unless I was in too much pain to function. And I stayed that way, until early this year, when I managed to render myself regularly nonfunctional.

I thought I was taking a positive step when I started therapy, and I guess I was, but it also kicked off a serious months-long drinking habit. Despite all those stirred-up memories, alcohol kept me calm and focused, as long as I started drinking early. It also gave me miserable headaches every single afternoon. Between learning to swallow pills and cutting back on drinking, I chose the pills.

Long story short, a few months later I found myself sitting in a doctor’s office with this weird, throbbing pain in my side, half-convinced that I’ve given myself pancreatitis. He told me I didn’t, but he did say I should quit it with the daily alcohol just in case. (He never did figure out what was up with me, but it went away.)

I happened to mention to him that I felt like I had to drink in order to stay focused and accomplish anything, and he said, “Oh. You have ADD.”

It was as simple as that. I left his office with a prescription for my little blue pills. I’ve taken them for not quite thirty days now, and I can’t imagine how I got through life before this.

Reading through a list of symptoms is like going down a checklist of my flaws: forgetfulness, trouble meeting deadlines, excessive dreaming, inability to honor commitments, chronic lateness, procrastination, anger. That’s all gone from my life now. I keep looking over my past in total awe that I’ve spent my whole life beating myself up over a chemical imbalance that isn’t my fault.

It’s not all sunshine and roses. If I overestimate what I can do in a day, I get anxious and irritable, because in the past I’ve faced such harsh consequences for failing to follow through. I spent much of my first medicated week glued to the computer, in shock that I was finally able to set and achieve goals in my favorite video games, the way other players always did. I’m starting from scratch when it comes to organizational skills, and it shows.

Still. I’ve cleaned my house and kept it that way. I’ve written thousands of words of fiction and made important progress on the work I hope to publish. I’ve begun to learn how to network with authors online, and I’ve made a few friends in the process. I no longer shy away from phone calls or family events. I was accepted into a volunteer program and have poured hours of work into it already. This is my ninth blog post in twenty days, and on top of it all, I’ve made more progress in my video games than I would have during any other month.

I never fully realized how much my prescription does for me until I skipped a few days. I started off feeling confident, but I found that I could barely drag myself out of bed, even with an alarm. Nothing motivated me but food, and I wanted to binge eat so badly that there was no way for me to feel satisfied with healthy choices. The simplest tasks, like brushing my teeth or scooping the cat litter, seemed insurmountable.

That’s what every day looked like for me, for about twenty-six and a half years. Once, before I knew there was a name for the problems with my brain, I tried to explain them to my partner by saying I could not choose to get things done. I could do something because I’d been drinking, or I’d rewarded myself with food, or I was afraid of the consequences. I was not able to just decide to do something — even something fun, like going shopping or playing a game — and then do it. Instead, I’d go on desperate get-your-shit-together kicks once or twice a year, fueled mostly by shame, and I’d burn out.

I’m afraid of becoming dependent on these pills. What if one day I can’t access them? What if I adjust to the dose?

But I read somewhere not long ago that what ADD medication does for you is fix the broken pathway between making an accomplishment and feeling proud. I can’t cite a source here, but I know that for the first time in my life, I can value myself for the hard work I’ve done, even though I know lots of others out there do more and better than me. I feel happy when I reach a goal, instead of just feeling deprived of all the time I spent working.

Pills are still tough to swallow in more ways than one, but for a shot at an actual fulfilling life, I’ll take my risks.

A Decade of NaNoWriMo

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Over a decade ago, in 2003, a friend begged me to sign up for National Novel Writing Month and try to write 50,000 words with her in November. I didn’t make the goal, but as an aspiring teenage writer, I was overwhelmed and delighted to discover a whole online community of people like me. We didn’t all aim to be professional authors. Some of us didn’t even want to be published. But we all had ideas, we all did our best to put them down on paper, and we supported each other.

NaNoWriMo has sustained plenty of criticism over the years. People fear that being called a “novelist” will go to your head. You’ll try to send off your unfinished manuscript to harried agents and publishers. You’ll think it’s okay to veer off into a fight between pirates and ninjas in the middle of your narrative. And real writers don’t need an event to motivate them to write, anyway.

Maybe some of these fears are valid. All I know is that I stand 100% behind anything that seeks to enable anyone, anywhere to be creative. NaNoWriMo gave me the support and encouragement I couldn’t find anywhere else in my life. If that makes me a fake writer, then so be it.

Last weekend, I got an email inviting me to become one of the Municipal Liaisons for my area. This November, I’ll be hosting parties, leading write-ins, and reaching out to fellow local writers in an attempt to get them across the finish line. I finally have the opportunity to give back to the event that has given so much to me.

I only wrote 3,000 words during my first NaNo, but I showed them to my creative writing class. They liked it enough that I felt motivated to finish a few short stories, none of which were ever published, but all of which received many encouraging personal rejections.

NaNo has kept me going through hard times. My first win in 2007 was an oasis of peace, happiness, and cooperation in the midst of a busy, scary year. Local meetups, like the ones I’ll be conducting, have provided me with healthy competition, inside jokes, face-to-face support, and friends.

The first Camp NaNoWriMo session in 2011 gave me something to hold onto while I drifted across the country, unsure where I’d settle down. I completed a cathartic memoir, and the peace it brought me allowed me to sit down that November and finally complete a novel, start-to-finish, that I fully intend to submit for publication one day.

This year, I’ve worked on outlining and revising the series I began in 2011, written down solid beginnings to two new standalone novels, started and completed a 60,000 word novella, and just recently, gotten into the habit of writing regular blog posts. I’m still not published, but now I have a plan for getting there.

I may have had it in me to write this way all along, but I needed the NaNoWriMo community to show me how to have faith in myself. There’s nothing I want more out of life than to inspire just one other writer in the same way.