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One day it became clear to her that no one was going to build the nest for her so she’d better get on with it. Her structure came in the form of words–sentences gathered one at a time and threaded in with others. Sometimes just a single word woven in and other times entire paragraphs plucked from the world around her. Words were the one thing that constantly surrounded her.  Food, clothes, friends; all these things were sparse but words! Words encircled her and built her up. So why not pluck a few here and there to make her own space? Soon the weaving became less delicate and more structural. She had to be safe inside this nest of hers. The sides became tall walls and seldom would one word at a time do. Paragraphs, essays, and whole novels stacked up to reinforce the edges of her center. Sometimes she stayed curled up inside for days reading and rereading her purloined words. Or she’d loose a week or more adding new words, gathering from every source available; until one day she looked around and realized she’s sealed the nest in and forgotten to leave a door. Her walls were steep and too tall to climb, the pinnacle only allowing enough light by which to read. She looked around her creation and bent to pick up the one word she’d had no use for before. It was dusty and faded from lack of use but as she read it the word began to brighten a little. Finally she spoke it aloud for the first time “home”. The sound of it filled her with warmth and she curled up with it, a tiny smile playing on her lips. This was her home and these were her words.

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The Beginning

Caitlin sat by the water crying softly into her hands.  The cries had subsided from the wracking sobs but the pain inside still cut deep. Caitlin ached in a way she’d never experienced before and yet she somehow knew she would feel this pain again and again throughout her life. The real trouble was Caitlin could not pinpoint the source. There had been no recent trauma, nor even a petty dispute with a friend.  She simply awoke with a feeling of dread that slowly filled her up like bread left to rise.  It pushed against her heart and lungs, making her breath come in shallow gasps and eventually causing a panic such that Caitlin fled from her house as fast as her legs would go.  She reached the lake without really intending to and plunged herself into the clear, icy water.  The shock of the cold seemed to punch down her dough ball of dread and Caitlin cried out, unleashing a torrent of tears.  At some point she crawled out of the water and curled up along the bank in a tight ball, trying as hard as she could to literally hold herself together while her sobbing threatened to tear her apart.  Now she sat, hiccupping every so often, and starring at her disheveled reflection in the lake.  Her black hair hung in thick, tangled ropes off each shoulder and her usually milky coffee colored skin was blotched and puffy.  Her brown eyes were rimmed in red, both irritated from her tears and the lake water.  Caitlin laid back and stretched out along the banks, stiff from being curled so tightly.  She starred up at the cloudy sky and worried about what this meant.  In her twelve years she’d never felt so out of control.  She tried to think back to being a small child, surely at some point she’d had similar crying fits.  Caitlin could not place any but knew that had such an event occurred it would have been excused as a child’s tantrum.  Today’s fit felt not only more out of control but Caitlin distinctly felt a fit of this magnitude would not be so lightly excused. This was the raving of a mad person and Caitlin knew she could not tell anyone or she’d never be accepted.  With this last thought Caitlin sat up and took several deep breaths and felt her insides pulling tightly back together.  She would hold herself together and learn control.  With a firm nod at her reflection Caitlin stood and marched back home.

Somehow along the road back home Caitlin’s resolute determination to take control of this new torrent of emotion dissipated and eventually fluttered away like a small, frightened bird.  Caitlin sighed and began to reason with herself.  Surely this wouldn’t happen again, it had never happened before so it must be a one off.  Something she ate that reacted strangely or perhaps a nightmare that she couldn’t remember but felt deeply.  Yes, that must be it. She’d had a bad dream and overreacted like a silly kid.  Caitlin forced a tight smile on her face and pushed a troubling feeling of doubt down on top of the now flattened doughy dread.  As Caitlin walked into her kitchen her mother looked up from the stove where she was preparing breakfast. 

                “Hello, Little Bird, you’re back just in time to eat.  Hurry up or you’ll be late for school.  How was your morning run?” Caitlin’s mother’s voice floated to her like wind chimes in summer and Caitlin’s smile relaxed and broadened.  A morning run, just as simple as that, what had she been so worked up about?

                “It was good, I went to the lake and back. It wore me out a bit though.” Caitlin replied as she slid into her spot at the table. Caitlin laid this happy moment over the doubt and dread of the morning, much like she often threw a blanket over her bed intending to make it properly later. 

A few weeks went by without another incident and Caitlin had almost forgotten about it entirely until one Saturday morning.  She awoke at the brink of dawn as usual and began to plot her morning run in her mind. It seemed to take her longer than usual to be able to focus on the route she wanted to take and Caitlin decided she needed to get up and move around a bit. She tried to reach over and pull back the blanket and found that she couldn’t move her arm.  She felt very heavy, as if someone were pushing her down onto the bed.  Caitlin tried to sit up and could not.  She felt worry rising up inside her chest and thought she might panic but quickly realized that took too much effort. She was too tired to care about anything.  Caitlin closed her eyes and let herself get pushed into the mattress. When she next opened her eyes the light in the room seemed the same.  Caitlin smiled, thinking she’d only slept a few extra minutes and would have time to get her run in.  She sat up and smiled again at how easy it was. Maybe she hadn’t woken up at all but had just dreamed it.  As Caitlin stood a piece of paper fluttered to the floor.  Bending to pick it up Caitlin noticed the clock on her table said five o’clock.  Caitlin sat on the edge of the bed and read the note: “good morning sleepy head! You must need your rest, enjoy it! Your mom and I went to do some shopping. I’m sure you’ll be glad you missed it! Should be home around 5. Love, Dad” Caitlin jumped up, realizing they’d be home any minute. Determined not to let them know she’d slept all day she threw on some clothes and ran downstairs. She’d just slid onto the couch and clicked on the tv when they walked in.  Attempting to appear normal, Caitlin kept flicking the channels and called out what she hoped was a bored “hello”. While her family bustled around unloading shopping bags and groceries Caitlin absently flicked the channels and pondered what this meant.  She’d slept a solid twenty hours.  Her muscles felt stiff and she still felt like she could sleep another twenty.  Caitlin wanted to cry but felt she needed to keep up her front so she squashed this feeling down on top of the first one, breathing deeply and imagining herself packing her feelings away as carefully as her father packed a suitcase.  She heard her mother and father laughing in the kitchen and the sound filled her with a warmth she was able to lay over the unpleasant little pile.

After dinner Caitlin sat in her room trying to make sense of it all.  Trying to find a reason for feeling this way made her head hurt and threatened to raise another panic.  Caitlin looked over at the china vase on her bookshelf. It appeared to be a small vase intended for only a single flower but upon closer inspection was deceptively large and capable of holding an entire bouquet.  No matter how warm her room was the vase was always cool to the touch and Caitlin loved how reliable it was in that way.  Such a simple object, so delicate and yet so sturdy and it was always there ready to hold whatever Caitlin wanted to put inside.  Caitlin pressed the vase on her forehead and sighed. It felt wonderfully cool against her skin and Caitlin closed her eyes.  She pictured the vase being a part of her, a place she could store the things she didn’t know what to do with.  If only she could put these troubling feelings inside something and hide them away! Then she could forget them and move on, out of sight out of mind just like her mother said whenever she packed up old decorations and things from the house and stuffed them into the attic.  Caitlin thought about this for some time and eventually began to picture the vase forming in her belly, surrounding the unkempt pile of pain, fears and indecision she’d carelessly placed under a thin blanket of happy images.  The vase grew around this pile and Caitlin felt herself relax some more.  She pictured the vase filling her abdomen and looking exactly like the one she held to her face.  It was delicate but large enough to handle any number of things Caitlin wanted to stuff inside, so long as she compressed everything tightly.  Caitlin opened her eyes and grinned.  She’d found her own internal attic she could hide away anything unpleasant.     

Time is like an eel, slipping between rocks before you notice it and always getting away before you can grab hold. In this way Caitlin began to realize she more likely to be considered a young woman than a girl.  Her china vase had proved to be very effective over the years and any time Caitlin felt herself losing control she would close her eyes and picture the vase and imagine herself forcing down the previous contents and pushing the latest fear through the narrow opening.  This too would be shoved down and the vase would settle back against her internal organs.  Her intestines curled around the vase like a large, protective snake and kept the vase securely in place until the next time she needed it.  Caitlin began to feel heavy and no longer ran; her belly was too full to be jostled by running! She also ate less with each meal, finding there was not as much room for food now, but this seemed like a good thing to her.  So Caitlin grew taller and thinner, losing some of the earlier muscle mass from her younger, more active days. People often remarked about how thin she was and Caitlin agreed, often thinking of her entire body as the vase, larger on the inside than it appeared from a distance and delicate enough to keep people at arm’s length so they never glimpsed her secret.    Caitlin progressed in school and was coming close to graduation, her grades high enough to please her parents and get her into a decent college.  Caitlin worked a part time job and had a few friends, exactly as one ought to.  She was the model child her parents wanted, so long as they didn’t look directly at her with any real scrutiny. And so time continued to slink by with Caitlin surviving life, happy enough surrounded in her protective cocoon until one day it all began to change. Little by little the vase began to crack and refused to hold any more secrets.

The first crack came at the start of her senior year. Caitlin sat up tall in the front row, determined to do as well in this class as the others. The teacher was new, just out of college and starting his first day of the first year of his career with a room full of seventeen year olds who wanted nothing more than to be done with high school.  Mr. Parson had piercing green eyes that Caitlin couldn’t help notice.  He rambled on about the syllabus and class rules, Caitlin barely listening as she stared out the window and daydreamed.  His words floated softly to her in the midst of her dreaming “how do you feel, Caitlin?” Before she had time to shake herself awake and place his question in any sort of context some part of her began to answer. “I feel like no one sees me at all, not even the mirror.” Caitlin turned to Mr. Parson as she spoke and those green eyes popped her dream like an overfilled balloon. She gasped as she felt a hairline fissure run down the side of her vase. Caitlin felt as if the blush reddening her cheeks was the result of internal bleeding.  The class giggled and Mr. Parson eyed her more closely that Caitlin cared for.  “I mean, that’s Dickenson or something, right?” Caitlin attempted to recover as she slid down in her chair. Mr. Parson’s stare rested on her for a few more uncomfortable minutes until he cleared his throat and said “I don’t believe it is but I’ll check. Glad you enjoy poetry as we’ll be covering quite a bit this term…” his voice droned on as Caitlin gently prodded her vase, attempting to determine the extent of the damage. She felt mostly the same, embarrassed but not over run with panic so it must not be too bad.  “That was a close call! Be more careful, if it breaks open then they’ll all see.” Caitlin silently chided herself. 

After that incident Caitlin avoided Mr. Parson as much as she could, slumping in her chair and trying her best not to look him in the eyes.  He gradually seemed to forget about her strange comment on the first day and Caitlin accepted the small fissure on her vase as a near miss, a warning to remain vigilant.  She pulled back slightly from her friends, not dismissing them entirely but ensuring that they didn’t get too close.  She did the same with her family. No one seemed to notice the distance growing between them and this fact filled Caitlin with a confusing plume of pride and loneliness.  This, too, she shoved into her vase, pressing gently so as not to push against the weakened spot.  To cork it she’d think back to happy times and squeeze a pleasant memory in the neck of the vase.  These memories were becoming more distant and harder to grab, the attempt often sending Caitlin into a spiral.  She’d reach for a good memory and it would slip through her fingers, the resulting dread would push against her and cause her to fall into the pit at the bottom of the vase.  In here the oldest pains had congealed into a putrid sludge and the freshest thoughts floated on top, preventing Caitlin from keeping her head above the surface.  In times like this she found she had two options: thrash, kick and fight until she forced herself back out of the vase and into the real world bruised and gasping from the effort or allow herself to drift away. The second option was so much easier and the sludge would become so warm and thick that Caitlin almost had no desire to fight it.  In these times she would curl up as tight as she could and close her eyes, letting everything she’d been running from cover and consume her.  The pressure from so much left unsaid would push against the chasm of loneliness inside her and cause a strong vertigo.  Sometimes these moments lapsed into night and she’d wake in the morning on the other side again. She could shake it off, force back any sludge that had sloshed out, and go on.  Other times this vertigo held her so tightly that she could not break free and she’d stay in bed for days at a time.  The flu or a migraine served as a murmured excuse and the fear of overplaying these excuses eventually buoyed her back to the surface. 

The second crack came during another English class after a writing assignment.  Caitlin completed the assignment for homework the night before as instructed. It was a simple writing prompt: Who are You. She’d begun by being superficial and flip; putting in just enough effort to give Mr. Parson what he was looking for, but then her pen struck against the weak spot on her vase and the inkwell filled with the hidden feelings.  Without realizing it she began to write the real answer to the question in an essay that spelled out everything she feared.  Each time she pressed down with the pen more cracks began to web out from the first.  Caitlin fell into a deep sleep after completing the essay and awoke just in time to run to school.  She got to class as the bell rang and slipped breathlessly into her desk.  As Mr. Parson took roll she began to reread her essay and her heart pounded. There was no way she could let anyone read this! Caitlin slipped the creased papers into her folder and tried to scribble out a second one but her mind was racing to quickly for her to grab ahold of any one thought.  She felt another attack coming on and forced herself to breathe deeply. Her heart pounded and her intestines roiled, threatening to expel last night’s dinner and Caitlin gripped the edges of her desk. She looked up and saw Mr. Parson’s smile mixed with a touch of concern.  “Stage fright, is it? Nothing to worry about, no one is expecting Shakespeare.  Go on, read to the class.”  Caitlin found herself nodding along with him, too overwhelmed to say no.  She wanted to run from the room, or come up with some great reason why she couldn’t read her essay, but her body and mind refused to obey.  A numbness spread through her body, as if she were going paralyzed from the inside out.  Caitlin stood before the class and read what she’d written. Each word she uttered felt like a tiny earthquake inside her vase until, with the very last sentence, it busted open. Caitlin stood still, afraid to move, and waited. At first it was just a hole, a window looking inside the darkness of her soul and Caitlin sighed.  She could fix that, it would be okay. But no, this last attempt at covering the inevitable sent it spilling forth.  Caitlin felt the rotten, liquefied remains of years of decomposing feelings ooze forth.  She slid back into her seat, sure that she’d left a trail of slime behind her.  Everyone could see it now, it was coloring her skin black and purple like a bad bruise. Her stomach sloshed with the bile and she knew if she began to vomit she’d never stop. Her eyes seemed to darken and her body bent forward with the weight of it all.  Five years of fear, panic, worry and dread mixed into a miasma of crazy that filled her every pore.  Caitlin could hardly hear over the rush of it filling her veins and she could not look anyone in the eye. 

From that day on Caitlin tried to live with this bile pumping through her veins. She tried to scrape it up and build a new vase, and succeeded at hiding some of it away, but she couldn’t undo the damage. She was infected with a virus of her own creation.  Her ability to live alongside it was over, she longed for the days when it only attacked a few times a month.  Now she fought a daily battle to get out of bed. The sludge pulled against her and dragged her down.  She managed to go on to college but did not thrive. The outside pressures mixed with those internal and she’d have little explosive fits. Sometimes crying desperately for no reason and other times yelling.  Caitlin spent most of her time in her room, intent on quarantining the virus from others. She’d spend days and nights studying, trying to make up for her failure to attend classes. She rarely slept, each attempt to relax only invited the virus to take over and her mind would swirl with everything she so desperately wanted to forget.  One night, after three successive nights without sleep, she found the solution.  It was so obvious that she immediately berated herself for not coming to it sooner.  Caitlin shoved her greasy hair out of her face and grabbed the few crumpled bills on her desk. She made it to the art supply store just before they closed and grabbed the first Exacto knife she saw. On impulse she grabbed a pack of replacement blades and fled from the store without waiting for her change.  She tried to make it back to her room but the pressure was too great. She made it into the stairwell and collapsed on the bottom step.  Her dorm room was eight flights up and the grimy stairs mocked her. Caitlin rolled up her sleeve and laid back against the stairs. She watched them spiral above her as she slid the blade against her skin. She was sure she could hear a hiss of pressure release as the first cut opened. Her blood was so black as it poured down her arm that Caitlin knew this was the only way.  She cut again and again until eventually her breathing returned to normal.  She found she was crying but not the wrecking sobs she had become so accustomed to.  These were tears of relief.  Caitlin looked down at her arm and saw that the pattern was an exact match to the web of cracks that first appeared on her vase.  With one final, slow glide of the blade Caitlin crossed through the cracks.  She no longer needed to contain her virus but set it free.

American Dream

I want to work at Waffle House

when I grow up.

Calling out orders over the din,

sweat trickling down my back and

steam rising up from the dishwasher

like a message from the heavens

proclaiming my importance.

 

I’ll sling the hash, scramble the eggs and

make the bacon extra crispy for table 3.

I’ll wait tables, wash dishes and

cook all in one shift.

The bacon will sizzle at my command,

people will see my style and flair

and they will smile because of me.

 

I want to be a truck driver

when I grow up.

Sitting on 18 wheels, hot metal and

one hell of an engine.

The road will be mine

kids will wave from minivans,

bikers will nod humbly and the

waitress will bring me extra coffee.

 

I’ll drive from Maine to Florida,

stopping only to gas up the rig.

Rubber will burn, the pedal will

melt onto the metal and I’ll sleep

every other Tuesday.

 

I want to sleep on a park bench

when I grow up.

Worn out from living the life

great novels are made of;

my tangled hair at my shoulders

and a beard covering the scars.

The pigeons will tell me their secrets

and the grass under my shoeless feet

will remind me of the gnarled roots that

began the entire escapade.

 

Mothers will steer their children away from

me, boy scouts will give me nickels and the

policeman will shake his head as he evicts

me from my bench.  From behind the

dumpster I’ll watch the people walking by

holding hands, living the life that already

passed me by.

 

I want to be alive

when I grow up.

Out in the world in a pile of

grease and ketchup sitting on

the general merchandise and sleeping

with God’s creatures.

 

One Fine Fall

I remember the piles of leaves at my feet.  For some reason whenever I think of the house it is Fall and I am outside in my blue jacket and a runny nose.  Of course I have other memories but the first image is always of my blue outline against the red and gold leaves.  God, I loved jumping in those leaves. 

This particular day I was four years old in what would turn out to be the last Fall in the house.  I played outside most of the day, defenseless against the pull of mud puddles and leaf mountains.  Sometime around dusk I sneezed and snot poured from my nose in two thick rivers down to my chin.  Too much to staunch with my sleeve, I went into the house looking for a tissue and found her standing in the kitchen. She turned from the stove and looked at, or really through, me.

“I need a tissue…” I whispered, shyly. I could almost feel her eyes focusing until…there! She saw me! For a shining moment she really looked at me.  My heart pounded and I dared not move for fear of breaking this wonderful spell.

“Oh!” She said, as if shocked to see this small person in her house.  “You do, don’t you?”  Her smile was warm and bright as she knelt down and wiped my nose. Her eyes never left mine and I’d never felt so loved.  “There you go, all better!” she exclaimed and her voice and my heart agreed that this one small act was that of great importance.  She ran her fingers over my cheek and tucked my hair behind my ear.  “Run and play, dinner will be ready soon.” 

 At the word ‘dinner’ the light was extinguished like wind to a flame and her gaze left my eyes. The spell was broken, I was once again invisible, a chore to be dealt with if acknowledged at all.  But the warmth remained and as I went back outside I knew I had witnessed something extraordinary.  My mother had seen me at last.

Barefoot

Why am I walking barefoot in a cold drizzle?

Yes, I am aware that I do not have shoes

But thank you for pointing it out.

(and insinuating that I am a simpleton)

I intentionally left unshod, rambling

Through puddles and onto soft, wet grass.

I want to feel the walk the way my grandfather did

when he was a boy too poor for shoes.

Feeling the walk from his soles to his soul as he meandered

Through puddles and onto soft, wet grass.

His excitement over the arrival of new shoes abruptly

Cut short when he felt so removed.

So I am walking through puddles and onto soft wet grass

Because I can’t remember the last time I felt

Puddles and soft, wet grass against my skin.

I am not sure if I am walking away from a present

I do not understand or toward a past I do not remember. 

I am just walking barefoot in a cold drizzle.