Fallout Fridays – The Battle of Concord

October 24, 2277. A date which has become known as The Battle of Concord. At least for the new residents of Sanctuary.

It was never my intention to kill anyone except The Man With The Scar. The Man who killed Nate. The Man who took Shawn. But The Wasteland has a way of changing who you are, and what you will or won’t do, rather quickly.

After shooting a few rounds into the Mr. Handy robot-butler somehow still trimming our irradiated hedges, eventually he helped me salvage supplies and a holotape with Nate’s handwriting. “Hi Honey!”

That holotape became my only way to remember the sound of Nate’s voice. Or Shawn’s. I play it every night through my Pip-Boy like a lullaby. Proof that The World That Was was more than a dream before this waking nightmare. Hope and Happiness truly existed, once upon a time.

Codsworth gave me a direction to point: Concord. And the lone radio station within range told me where to go after that. Diamond City. “The Great Green Jewel of The Commonwealth.”

I spent the first night in an abandoned Red Rocket, clearing the place of gigantic vermin and befriending a German Shepard who looked as though he wondered out of Ms. Rosa’s backyard. I asked him if he had an owner, but he didn’t object when I locked up the station for a rough night of half-sleep.

As soon as I got to the center of the seemingly abandoned town, I could hear the ricochet of bullets and the twang of lasers. I only had a moment to decide my fate. And so I gave my aid to the man who asked for mine, although one of the men in leather managed to get away.

Sometimes I wonder how life might have gone differently if I’d refused. But once you’ve made a decision, there’s not much use in guessing what the other might have brought you.

The Museum of Freedom was now only chaos. But with their attentions diverted I managed to creep through the remnants of American History and slaughter the men I would later learn are called “Raiders”.

When my bullets got low, I used a switchblade to slit throats as the dog throttled limbs in gurgled silence. Better than using their crude pistols made out of pipes and spare bits of wood. There was no time to think between the pounding of my heart and the ceasing of theirs. Only the time to act before they could. Six lives ended in the span of three minutes.

As I approached the uppermost room I could hear the last two goons arguing about how to proceed. I pulled out the strange “laser musket” tossed down to me by the man in colonial garb moments ago. I gave the handle a crank, and the digital number behind the breech counted up to 1-2-3. I braced myself by the door to the main hall, ready to unleash whatever this weapon was capable of.

That’s when I noticed the frag grenade by my feet.

If it hadn’t been for Preston Garvey, I might already be dead. Then again, he says the same about me. I suppose that’s how relationships get started out here in The Wasteland. The ones who keep you alive, the ones who want you dead, and the ones who can afford to pay you to kill or get killed. Everyone else is just a scavver.

As the stimpak brings my vision from a dark red to a sickly brown, I begin to register who I risked my life for. An old lady high on chems. A mechanic with a greasy pompadour. A young man in the throes of a panic attack with his less-than-comforting wife. And Preston, who introduces himself as a “Minuteman”.

They say my dog is called Dogmeat. They simply call me The Vault Dweller before informing me, “Death is coming. And it is angry.”

I have less than five minutes to get into this rusted old Power Armor before a man who calls himself “Gristle” breaks down our barricades. I remind myself what’s truly important, because I know there may come a moment when I have to walk away and let the others die.

Stay Alive. Avenge Nate. Find Shawn.

Stay Alive. Avenge Nate. Find Shawn.

Stay Alive. Avenge Nate. Find Shawn.

Fallout Fridays – The Battle of Concord
{advertisement}

Fallout Fridays – Prepared For The Future

Last Known Date. Last truly known date: October 23, 2077.

The Day which has become known as The Great War of 2077. The Day my country and another country destroyed The World That Was in less than a dozen hours. After years of fighting over territories and ideologies. Through mutually assured nuclear annihilation. It’s like my late husband said, “War never changes.”

But The World That Was, and my life, forever changed on The Day. And for every day I’ve spent in this Brave New World, affectionately known as The Wasteland of The Commonwealth by the people who inhabit it, the more difficult it becomes to remember What We Lost.

Sometimes, when the nights are quiet and still, and the illusion of safety creeps into my bed, I still dream about The Last Known Date. Because everything before that has become elusive as its relevance disappears. A story I recite like a prayer, but not one which I can truly say I faithfully remember anymore.

I was still a lawyer for JAG when we met, putting in for my career change to Psychoanalytics at CIT when we met in the lobby for his own court-martial mandated therapy appointment. We struck up a conversation, and within six months we were married so he could avoid immediate redeployment to Anchorage.

Thanks to the Sanctity of Marriage Act, we had one year after our wedding night to lead a Congressionally Mandated “Normal Life” before he returned to Anchorage. A year to settle and begin a family. And so we did, with the hopes we would eventually develop our new relationship into one worthy of the lifelong commitment we made before the United States Government.

We always knew we were living on borrowed time. But we never knew Fate would come calling in a trench coat and hat, holding a clipboard.

Would I have done anything differently if I had known this would be our last breakfast together? Would I have studied his eyes a little deeper? Told him any secrets we ran out of time to share? Or would I proceed as though it were a Normal Day, and savor that feeling of safety and certainty, rather than the details of the man I did my best to love while he was mine?


First Unknown Date. Possibly October 23, 2277.

Nate is dead. Shawn was taken. By a bald white man with a scar across his left eye. These facts are all I have now. Everything else is dead. Everything else is gone after a bright flash and a cold sleep.

I wish I’d never woken up. I wish we never made it to The Vault. I wish we just died in each others arms like the rest of the world. I wish I was dead. I wish Nate was the one left alive, avenging my own death and rescuing our son.

But that’s not what happened.

I was the one who got us into the vault. I was the one who wasn’t holding Shawn when we went into the pods. And so I became “The Backup”. That’s what the man with the scar who took my son and killed my husband called me.

The Backup for what?

The Vault doesn’t have any of the “creature comforts” that were advertised to us in the brochures that pushy salesman kept leaving with Codsworth.

There are no food replicators. No community centers. No media libraries. (Unless you count this copy of the Red Menace video game.) There’s nothing here. Nothing. They lied. Because they knew there would be nobody to answer to once the bombs actually dropped.

Nate is dead. Shawn is gone. Vault-Tec lied.

All of our neighbors are dead inside their pods. It doesn’t look like anyone has lived here for a very long time. And I’m not sure how long I can survive out there on my own. But there’s nothing here.

Except giant cockroaches. Working water fountains. Empty Nuka-Cola bottles. And thankfully, a 10mm handgun. With a Pip-Boy 4000 Mark IV, only slightly used.

My name was once Dorian.

Now I am the Sole Survivor of Vault 111.

Fallout Fridays – Prepared For The Future

Harriet the (Gender) Spy

Harriet M. Welsch is a childhood friend of mine. She’s been in my heart since 4th grade, when I began my own habit of carrying notebooks to “clear my brain like a laxative” as her Ole Golly instructs her from the age 8.

It’s because of this brutally honest portrayal, of a genuinely flawed child on the brink of puberty, that Louise Fitzhugh’s ever-popular book still winds up on Banned Book lists every year.

Often cited as a “bad example” that will encourage nastiness, lying, and sneaking. As though these are qualities children would never posses if someone did not dangle them like a carrot in front of their pure angelic souls.

There’s no question that Harriet is at times nasty, sneaky, and manipulative. The notebooks she marks “Private” are labeled as such with good reason. Harriet already knows many of her thoughts are only for herself. That’s why they’re so unabashed and even, as she describes her own thoughts at times, ugly.

Harriet the Spy is ultimately a story of learning how to be true to oneself while also bending your overly rigid moral code. But it is not Harriet’s development as a child that brought me back as a thirty-something reader. Rather, it is her own unfiltered take on other girls, women, and femininity itself.

Especially after I gained the knowledge that her own author was an out lesbian from an upper-class background not unlike her protagonist. And I believe Harriet M. Welsch is already written to follow in her creator’s footsteps.

Yes, I believe Harriet the Spy is a baby lesbian, regardless of her complete lack of any mention of attraction throughout the book. (Besides jokingly referring to her best friend, Sport, as her husband.)

Now I have already waxed poetic on my own take on lesbianism being intentionally socially separated from “womanhood,” right down to the words themselves. And in previous essays I have also pointed out how utilitarianism over fashion has been a reliable “visual cue” for sapphic women seeking out our own kind, regardless of whether we consider ourselves to be “butch” or “femme” or neither.

Yet little is ever said about how sapphic women develop as girls, or how our views of (compulsory heterosexual) womanhood, as a looming inevitability, may shape our own views of ourselves as children. It doesn’t help that girls are trained from the cusp of puberty, and arguably even younger, to see other girls as competition rather than peers and confidants.

For some girls, like Harriet, this becomes a rejection of feminine expression or interests in favor of more “serious” masculine pursuits. It is no mere coincidence that Harriet wears an old pair of her father’s eyeglasses in order to feel more intelligent while spying, or that she quotes the works of male literature even after Ole Golly no longer dispenses then.

She even insists on rescuing well-worn clothes her mother has expressly forbidden her to wear. The description of her “spy clothes” is so detailed it takes up nearly two full pages of text, and nearly every article of clothing is coded as male. Including an actual Boy Scout knife, which surely must have also belonged to her father. She carries these tools, while admitting they serve no needed purpose, and make her rattle. But they complete her as a Spy.

She already sees masculine items as useful, while viewing feminine pursuits as frivolous. According to Harriet, her father works in television and her mother plays bridge. She already shouts this distinction to the Cook before school begins:

“I do not go out to PLAY, I go out to WORK!”

This is a defiant rejection of how she already views upper-class womanhood. By choosing to work as a spy from the age of 8, in her mind she has already deliberately set herself apart from her intended role models, especially Marion Hawthorne and Rachel Hennessey.

IF MARION HAWTHORNE DOESN’T WATCH OUT SHE’S GOING TO GROW UP INTO A LADY HITLER.

I DON’T KNOW EXACTLY IF I LIKE RACHEL OR WHETHER IT IS JUST THAT I LIKE GOING TO HER HOUSE BECAUSE HER MOTHER MAKES HOMEMADE CAKE.

However, she also disparages even her own best friends for their seemingly shared social (and gendered) deviance:

SOMETIMES I CAN’T STAND SPORT. WITH HIS WORRYING ALL THE TIME AND FUSSING OVER HIS FATHER, SOMETIMES HE’S LIKE A LITTLE OLD WOMAN.

WHO DOES JANIE GIBBS THINK SHE’S KIDDING? DOES SHE REALLY THINK SHE COULD EVER BE A SCIENTIST?

This theme of gendered contempt can also be found throughout her relation to her mother and other grown women, especially compared to others (mostly men) she considers more worthy of her admiration:

“Bridge. What a bore. How can she play that fink game so much? And those finks she plays with!” He muttered away to himself. Harriet loved to hear him jabber on like this. She knew he wasn’t talking to her, so it was fun to listen.

Ole Golly and her somewhat renegade style of “parenting” has become increasingly at odds with what Mrs. Welsch believes to be most important to instill in her own daughter’s success. Namely, charm and grace befitting her upper-class background.

But Harriet only wishes to be a spy and “know everything.” Ole Golly does her best to encourage Harriet to learn how to blend in, specifically by invoking Mata Hari, but nothing can dissuade her from seeing expressive femininity as anything short of a waste of time.

Her competing models of womanhood come to a head when Harriet’s parents unceremoniously fire Ole Golly for taking Harriet out to the movies without express permission. A turn of events which absolutely crushes Harriet’s previous sense of order and predictability.

(You don’t keep your room “just so”, have tomato sandwiches every lunch, followed by cake and milk every afternoon, and follow the same Spy route every week, without a need for dependability.)

But courageously, she presses on without much disruption to her routines. It is only when she begins to practice being an onion for the school play that she begins to think about herself as something different from who she already happens to be.

I WONDER WHAT IT WOULD BE LIKE TO BE A TABLE OR A CHAIR OR A BATHTUB OR ANOTHER PERSON. I WONDER WHAT OLE GOLLY WOULD SAY TO THAT. OLE GOLLY LOOKED LIKE A BIRD WITH TEETH, BUT I THINK I REALLY LOOK A LITTLE LIKE AN ONION. I WISH SHE WOULD COME BACK.

Disaster strikes when she becomes caught in the dumbwaiter of Mrs. Plumber, right before practicing her “onion dance” with Janie and Sport, and she has a true crisis of identity:

SPIES—SHOULD NOT GET CAUGHT. THAT IS THE ONE ESSENTIAL THING ABOUT SPIES. I AM A ROTTEN SPY.

In her foul mood she immediately dumps on her best friends. As Janie and Harriet have previously been united on all fronts, particularly against the dreaded “dance classes”, a sign of impending expectations.

This begins the foreshadowing of Janie’s ultimate betrayal: the public reading of Harriet’s notebooks. Which leads to a new kind of feminine power Janie has never experienced through her science, the power of domination over someone she once trusted:

“Harriet, go over there on that bench until we decide what we’re going to do to you.”

The campaign against Harriet that week is the kind of bullying only children can devise. They pass notes about her developing body (Harriet M. Welsch smells. Don’t you think so?) and disgust at her well-known habits, they use the “class priss” to pull faces when the teacher isn’t looking, and when she is too busy taking notes on her way to lunch, they even steal her ritualized tomato sandwich.

This is the ultimate betrayal that has her write, in the same block letters she feels she has grown out of:

EVERYBODY HATES ME.

It is only after “playing sick” for three days that Harriet is taken to the “kindly old family doctor,” who just so happens to be Carrie Andrews’s father, a connection she’s never made. When he brings up the subject of The Notebook, her mother attempts to explain how her actions have affected others, but still she disparages her mother’s emotional labor:

THAT WAS ALL VERY NICE BUT IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MY NOTEBOOK. ONLY OLE GOLLY UNDERSTANDS ABOUT MY NOTEBOOK. I WILL ALWAYS HAVE A NOTEBOOK. I THINK I WILL WRITE DOWN EVERYTHING, EVERY SINGLE SOLITARY THING THAT HAPPENS TO ME.

This is immediately followed as she wakes with:

WHEN I WAKE UP IN THE MORNING I WISH I WERE DEAD.

And:

THEY PUT ME UP HERE IN THIS ROOM BECAUSE THEY THINK I’M A WITCH.

Which she realizes even as she closes her notebook, isn’t actually true. But as a channel for her emotions, these notes don’t have to be truth as Harriet sees them. They are simply her “private” thoughts, to Harriet.

When Rachel Hennessey, second in command to Marion Hawthorne, attempts to tease Harriet about still writing, Harriet makes herself physically threatening:

Harriet felt it necessary to become menacing. She slid slowly off the bench and in two steps was almost nose to nose with Rachel. “Listen here, Rachel Hennessey, just what do you mean by that?”

Rachel immediately backs down, which vindicates Harriet’s feelings toward her as a doormat and therefore inferior. Harriet uses might to make right, which is not a typical feminine quality, and is part of why she sticks out among her developing female peers. The same day, however, we see Sport’s new masculine identity: a carried toolbox.

Although Sport had been reduced to tears and could not even bear to read his own notebook descriptions out loud, now he assists Carrie Andrews (gifted in drawing) in leading the construction of the Spy Catchers Club in Rachel Hennessey’s backyard. Chosen for her mother’s well-known homemade cake.

These are three children who had previously been powerless, but through their united cruelty, have become valuable among their peers. They even fly the infamous Purple Socks as their chosen flag.

It is peculiar, dare I even say queer, that Harriet attempts to overcome this peer hostility through the type of stoicism normally reserved for male coming of age stories. She even quotes Rudyard Kipling’s “If—,” no doubt once heard from Ole Golly. This poem is, of course, about what it takes to be a man, not a woman.

After this critical moment, her own bodily autonomy becomes violated through the pouring of blue ink all over her body, and the traumatic “help” of her classmates, all rubbing and touching all over her body in derisive torture, while her teacher remains oblivious.

Once Sport and Pinky begin rubbing her legs, she catapults herself out the school and out into the street and doesn’t stop until she gets home, despite leaving a trail of blue behind her the entire way:

I’m the blue monster of East End Avenue, she thought as she careened across Eighty-sixth Street and up the block to her house.

Surprisingly Harriet writes no other notes about this incident, even though the only thing she carries from school is her notebook. It could be that something so monstrous was not even able to express itself through her thoughts. I will add that for me, as a child and an adult, this particular bullying scene was the most horrific. And I believe blue, rather than black ink, is a deliberate masculine choice by her peers (and her author).

The next day she learns the name of the Spy Catchers Club, but she remains ever stoic and defiant:

I HAVE NEVER HAD TO GO THROUGH SOMETHING LIKE THIS. I WILL HAVE TO BE VERY BRAVE. I WILL NEVER GIVE UP THIS NOTEBOOK BUT IT IS CLEAR THAT THEY ARE GOING TO BE AS MEAN AS THEY CAN UNTIL I DO. THEY JUST DON’T KNOW HARRIET M. WELSCH.

As she becomes more isolated her writing becomes truly detrimental, as she completely disregards her own school work and family life and even self-care. I feel Mrs. Welsch deserves a lot of credit for her own bravery as a parent, because she takes on the thankless task of removing Harriet from her notebook at this time:

“I’m not playing. Who says I’m playing? I’m WORKING!”

Again, she distances herself from traditional womanhood by calling what she does Work. But her mother attempts to put her writing into its appropriate perspective:

“Look, dear, at the moment you’re in school, so your work is school. Just like your father works at the office, you work at school. School work is your work.”

“What do you do?”

“A lot of unseen, unappreciated things.”

Damn. That’s a helluva feminist punch hidden behind Harriet’s nastiness and indignation. And her mother still keeps a cool head.

The truth is, whether Harriet (or her father) actually see or appreciate it, Mrs. Welsch does do a lot for her family. She oversees their hired help, maintains the upper-class social network her family takes for granted, and it’s hinted she’s sacrificed quite a bit of her own cleverness to keep up appearances.

Even though she also loves math, which is traditionally seen as masculine, because Harriet has no talent for it she only sees this as another frivolous quality of her mother:

“What are you studying?”

“Math.”

Harriet made a terrible face. Mrs. Welsch came into the room and leaned over Harriet’s chair. “What fun, darling. That was always my favorite subject in school.”

Well, there you are, thought Harriet. Ole Golly wouldn’t have said that.

I feel I never gave Mrs. Welsch enough credit as a child. Yes, it is quite easy to paint her as a neglectful socialite who foists her child onto her hired nurse. (Although so does her father, and he revives no flak despite often disappearing from his family into his study with a drink.)

However this is what was expected of The Welsches in order to maintain their family’s social clout. And while the matriarchy of Manhattan may seem like a bunch of finks to Harriet and her father, it is her conflict with that feminized power which completely flattens her, because she does not understand or respect it.

And only when she has no emotional outlet do we see a much nastier and violent side of Harriet. Again, violence is a form of emotional outburst generally reserved for boys, especially by the age of 11. But Harriet trips and pinches and terrorizes without her notebook. She causes wails and tears and yelps:

SOMETHING IS DEFINITELY HAPPENING TO ME. I AM CHANGING. I DON’T FEEL LIKE ME AT ALL. I DON’T EVER LAUGH OR THINK ANYTHING FUNNY. I JUST FEEL MEAN ALL OVER. I WOULD LIKE TO HURT EACH ONE OF THEM IN A SPECIAL WAY THAT WOULD HURT ONLY THEM.

We can infer much about her classmates’ lives during this time, although some is alluded to earlier. Rachel Hennessey has no father. Beth Ellen is often starved for food and reacts strongly to being hit. Pinky Whitehead’s known problem is his mother. Sport reads cookbooks because nobody else will care for him or his father. And Janie’s planned revenge, breaking a finger, is the most violent of all.

But some revenges may appear humorous to young readers. Marion Hawthorne, the ultimate priss, is afraid of frogs and snakes. Harriet cuts a huge chunk of Laura Peters’s hair without her noticing. These are not dissimilar from what is often waved off as “boyish pranks,” but in a 11-year-old girl, they are strongly pathologized.

Mrs. Welsch (the unsung hero who has no first name, even though we know Harriet is named after her father Harry) must then leave her hairdresser’s to control the massive damage of her own distraught child’s behavior.

It is Mrs. Welsch who ultimately convinces her angry husband that Harriet needs to see a psychologist. And it is Mrs. Welsch who eventually smooths things over with Harriet’s school and presumably the mothers of Harriet’s peers.

Harriet never expresses gratitude for this unseen labor, but she does sleep blissfully when her mother tucks her in that night. Yet the next day she only washes when her father says so, and only agrees to see a different doctor because of his begrudging approval:

“He’s not a fink like most doctors.”

Of course the actual task of bringing Harriet to see the psychologist falls on her mother, presumably because her husband has work. And Harriet still views the task of seeing Dr. Wagner as being “fussed at,” the same phrases she disparages her mother with at times:

This was the dumbest thing Harriet had ever heard of. To come all this way to play a game. She bet her mother didn’t know this.

She questions her mother’s wisdom in taking her to see Dr. Wagner, until she is given a notebook, and again her mother has the thankless task of taking it away when their session is done.

While Harriet sees this as a betrayal, it does cause her to eventually attempt to make up with Janie and Sport. Her relationship with Janie remains tense, despite their bond of resisting dance class and having professional ambitions. For the first time without her notebook, Harriet finally understands her feelings:

She began to reconsider the idea of going to Sport’s house. A tear ran down the side of her nose. Janie was one thing, but Sport had always been her best friend. Suppose he acted like Janie?

It is here Sport is seen in the middle of a celebration for his father’s writing, something Harriet has been dreaming of for herself and which Sport has seen as a waste of his father’s time. Sport can’t help but briefly share his joy with Harriet, even though his anger soon returns when his father and Harriet begin to bond as writers:

“Hey, listen, Sport, get a clean shirt on. I’m taking you out to dinner.” Sport ran into his room. “How ’bout you, Harriet? Want to go to dinner with us?” Before Harriet could say anything, Sport opened the door to his room and shouted “NO” as loud as he could. Then he slammed the door again.

After this Harriet again has no tools to handle such emotions, expressed in a nightmare which begins as a pleasant dream about being rocked by her nurse:

Harriet’s mother came into the room. Harriet was still in her dream, screaming at the top of her lungs, “Ole Golly, Ole Golly, Ole Golly.” She kept on crying softly even after her mother was holding her.

Harriet rejects her mother still. And at this point my adult heart genuinely aches for her because there is nothing left she can do but humbly call on Ole Golly for her help in raising her child, after she also consults the psychologist she convinced her husband to hire. And she still returns Harriet’s notebook to her, against her own better judgement.

Harriet becomes joyously distracted catching up on her Spy Route, and before long she yearns to return to school. Here we see the true unsung heroism of Harriet’s mother and teachers, but only if we look for it between Harriet’s own disparaging views of her foes’ attempts to emulate their own bridge-playing mothers:

They walk like old ladies, thought Harriet.

“Rachel, don’t you think it would be nice if we could play bridge in the afternoons?”

Marion had a kind of cawing voice, like a crow.

Harriet has her peer-endorsed victory, the right to be published in the school paper. She has usurped Marion Hawthorne from her place of supreme power, and can now feel vindicated. But not before Ole Golly’s letter arrives (thanks to Mrs. Welsch) offering her two final pieces of advice:

1) You have to apologize.

2) You have to lie.

Of course, Harriet is immediately successful as the paper’s editor, given that she’s had years of practice. And while her published musings become kinder (sometimes), she still gloats to herself in her notebook about what she see as her Work:

I AM GOING TO WRITE A STORY ABOUT THESE PEOPLE. THEY ARE JUST RATS. HALF OF THEM DON’T EVEN HAVE A PROFESSION.

But while Harriet basks in the glory of printing stories from her Spy Route, eventually her writing takes on a different tone as Harriet begins to actually listen to what her mother and father talk about at dinner. For once, both parents are shown to be active agents in shaping their child’s life:

“I really don’t understand Mabel Gibbs. She starts out with this big thing about the kids going to dancing school—you’d think from the way she talked that they would be absolute apes in the drawing room if we didn’t send them—and I told her at the time, of course, that I thought Harriet was too young.”

Soon followed by her father:

“That better be from the Times. If they don’t print that retraction tomorrow I’m going to be mad as a hornet.”

This becomes Harriet’s inspiration to print her own “lie” in the form of a contraction, combining her advice from Ole Golly into knowledge learned from her father’s work. And finally, the gossip of her mother’s social goings as they relate to her peers also make it into the paper:

JANIE GIBBS HAS WON HER BATTLE. THIS SHOULD BE A LESSON TO ALL OF YOU IN COURAGE AND DETERMINATION. IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, THEN ASK HER.

Harriet, for once, does not hold her father above all others:

MR. HARRY WELSCH ALMOST LOST HIS JOB LAST WEEK FOR BEING LATE. HE IS ALWAYS SLOW IN THE MORNING.

The story ends with the dissolution of the Spy Catchers Club, in Sport’s own victory over his few male peers:

“This has gone far enough,” said Sport and looked at Pinky and The Boy with the Green Socks. “I can’t imagine what you MEN think you’re doing here.”

And Janie backs him up as well, contending that while men do play Bridge, they only do so in the evening when they are forced by their wives, playing directly into compulsory heterosexuality and masculinity:

Marion and Rachel finally sat alone. They looked at each other and then looked away.

“I guess,” said Rachel with some embarrassment, “that I’ll go see if the cake is ready.”

She was getting up rather forlornly when suddenly Laura and Carrie came back.

“We decided that there wasn’t anything else to do anyway, so we might as well play bridge,” said Laura.

“Besides,” said Carrie, “I’m rather fond of it.”

By now, Harriet and her best friends have navigated their adolescent emotional growths relatively unscathed. Janie has avoided dance class in favor of her science experiments for another year. Sport has become the king of his small masculine court before he must leave Gregory School for a different co-ed education. And Harriet is recognized for her relentless dedication. The three friends silently meet at the park, and walk along the river after Harriet offers a final thought:

NOW THAT THINGS ARE BACK TO NORMAL I CAN GET SOME REAL WORK DONE.

She still focuses on her Work as what sets her apart. And likely this will not change. Harriet feels superior to the likes of Marion and Rachel and their socialite heterosexual mothers, but she has also learned to make allies rather than enemies of her own gendered deviants, Janie and Sport.

It is with this greater wisdom and humility that she walks forward into the inevitable process of puberty and higher feminine expectations. But we can always hope she does so as the Spy she has always known herself to be.

Harriet the (Gender) Spy

Backyard Boys

CN: Sibling Abuse, Homophobic Slurs

I ride my new green bike around the neighborhood and try to think of it as my own. I can hear boys shouting and laughing as I turn the corner of Sunnydale, and I creep closer to investigate.

There’s five boys total, and they’re all older than me except for maybe the smallest one. Three of them are shirtless and the others wear t-shirts tight with sweat. Backs glisten as they wrestle each other to the ground over a football, rubbing grass and dirt into their knees and chests. The smallest boy has long black bangs he constantly pushes from his face as it drips with sweat. I like watching him the most.

Continue reading “Backyard Boys”

Backyard Boys

Numbers

Aunt Jantha is waiting for me when I get home from school, hanging out of her open-top Jeep in cutoff shorts and a tied-up t-shirt with dirty-blond braids sticking out of her baseball cap. Mommy says Jantha is an “overgrown hippie”, and she’s totally the coolest relative on Daddy’s side of the family.

“Hey kiddo. How was school?”

“Fine.” Boring. Like every day of school.

“Any homework?”

“No.” I already finished it during recess.

“Well good!” She follows me into the house and then into Papa Phil’s study, where I set down my backpack, “I was wondering if you’d like to go hiking with me today?”

“Hiking? Like in the woods?”

I think the last time I went hiking I was 6 and Cloud was 3. Daddy took us up a mountain and then spent the whole time going back down laughing at me because I had an accident waiting for the bathroom.

“Sure! I used to go hiking all the time when I was your age,” I have a hard time saying no to my own reflection in her perfectly round purple sunglasses.

In a few minutes we’re cruising down Race Street. Past the churches. Past the Sonic and the Dairy Queen. Past the middle school, the junior high, and even the high school. All the way back into the woods and out of town. We pull into a road with signs pointing left for “Camp Wyldewood” and right for “Riverside Park”. We pull right and park in front of a bright red caboose and a small wooden playground.

“Hey I know this place,” I realize slowly, “I think Papa Phil took us here when we were little.”

Aunt Jantha pulls her own backpack out of her Jeep as I jump down onto the gravel.

“Yup. But you’ve never been past the playground I bet! But I’d say you’re old enough for a little adventure. Just don’t wander too far and neither one of us will get into trouble.”

We follow the chain-link fence around the edge of the playground until we reach a wide concrete trail that crests into a steady hill, declining deeper into the wilderness.

“Think how much fun this would be on a bike!” Jantha says, and I can already feel the breeze through my hair and rushing past my face.

“Did you and Daddy ever ride your bikes down here?”

She laughs, “Well I did, but your Daddy was always ‘too busy’ by the time I was old enough. Back then he only cared about going outside if he could go swimming.”

The deeper we go the quieter it gets until all I can hear is the rustling of leaves, the chirps of birds, and the faint babble of the river next to us.

Mommy always says she hates hiking, camping, and wild nature in general, but I wonder what she would say about this place. Even the air seems cleaner, with just a touch of green as it shines through the canopy. Eventually the trail curves and dips sharply, and Aunt Jantha calls up for me to wait.

“Before we wander too far, we better find some good walking sticks to keep our balance. You’ll want a dry branch that’s about as thick as your arm and about as tall as you. There’s one right there!”

She pulls a large stick off the ground and brushes it free of dirt before she unhooks a pocket knife from her belt loop and opens it before handing it to me by the handle, “Here, smooth out anything on the top where you’re gonna hold onto it. Just make sure you always cut away from yourself, never the other way. Okay? If you get stuck ask for help. I’ll be right back.”

To my surprise it’s very relaxing, slicing off imperfections and bits of dirt and bark until I have a clean, white, smooth handle. Once Aunt Jantha finds her own and does the same, we march slowly along the river bed with me still taking the lead. It feels very grown up. Exploring through the woods and off the walking trail.

We reach a spot that Aunt Jantha calls “The Basin,” a big clearing next to the river full of dried mud and rocks at the bottom of a steep cliff.

She stands proudly on top of a big log next to what must have been an old campfire, “See? This is where the river floods, that’s why there aren’t any trees here. Lots of kids have cookouts here when the weather is nice. I used to do that all the time.”

“This place is pretty cool, Aunt Jantha.”

“You don’t have to call me Aunt.”

“I know.”

“So don’t do it then. It makes me feel old.”

“Okay.”

After an awkward pause she clears her throat and says, “Hey, you know what might be fun? Let’s spell out our names with rocks and see if we can read them at the top of the cliff!”

“Yeah! And anyone else who walks by can see our names too,” Jantha always has good ideas. Her and Aunt Bobby. They’re the only grownups besides Mommy who understand me without asking a lot of stupid questions or telling me what to do all the time.

Lucky for us The Basin is full of smooth, white rocks, and it doesn’t take us long to spell our names out in a space that must have been cleared for an even older campfire. Two rows of logs are lined up like church pews, and we use the aisle between them as a canvas before settling down on one of the logs to catch our breath.

“So, how do you like Searcy so far?”

“It’s okay,” I tell her, except I hate it.

“Have you made any new friends yet?”

I’ve heard all these questions already from everyone else, but I’m okay answering Jantha, “I used to be friends with Elizabeth and Amy, but they won’t talk to me since the fight with Trent. And there’s a couple of boys in my Connections class that I hang out with, but they’re kind of dumb. Their names are Ricky and Clay.”

Jantha gets up and begins to lead me to another path up the side of the cliff, “You’ve had a pretty busy couple of months, huh? Do you like your new teacher as much as you liked Miss Funk?”

“Not really,” I shake my head, “She’s kind of mean. She’s making me teach myself cursive because she says I was supposed to already know it in third grade, instead of fifth grade like they did in Little Rock. And she gets mad when I read in class, even if I’ve already finished all my work.”

Jantha laughs, “I used to get in trouble for that all the time too. How is your Mom? Do you like her new house?”

I lean heavily on my walking stick up the steep slope.

“It’s a nice house. It’s got big rooms and wood floors with a big climbing tree in the front yard. But I don’t really like the other lady who lives there. She has two boys and they’re always loud and always rough and always breaking things.”

“Yeah, some boys are like that. Lucky you’re different, huh?”

I hate that word. Different.

Jantha gives me a strange look, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I’m trying not to cry, which seems stupid because there’s nothing I feel sad about right now, “I just wish I was normal sometimes.”

She leads me to the edge of the cliff and points down to the very bottom:

“DORIAN & JANTHA

Peace & Love”

“Wow! I didn’t think it would be so easy to see. It’s so far down.”

We stare into The Basin for a long time, not saying anything. I dangle my toes past the edge dangerously, imagining what it might be like to slip and fall, even if it was only an accident.

“Being normal is boring,” Jantha finally says, emptying her backpack of sandwiches and a canteen of water, “Only weirdos make a difference because only weirdos change the world from what it already is.”

That makes me smile. Maybe she’s right. Maybe it is better to be weird.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, Dorian, but how are you holding up these days?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what with your mom and dad and the move and everything, it just seems like you’ve been really quiet lately. You know you can always talk with me if you need to, right?”

It’s only then I realize this isn’t a spontaneous idea, but a planned outing while Cloud starts her new dance classes. I’m not sure if that makes me feel angry for being tricked, or happy to have time alone with Aunt Jantha like before Cloud was born.

“I don’t know. It’s all so different. Home. School. Everything. We hardly see Mommy except for the weekends, but Daddy’s never awake anyway, so I don’t know why we don’t just go live with her. Cloud would cry less, although then I would have to deal with those boys, so I wouldn’t really like that either. It doesn’t even matter because grown-ups never listen to you anyway.”

“Boy ain’t that the truth. That’s why I don’t consider myself a grown-up, just a big kid. You know, this used to be my favorite reading spot during the summer?”

My ears perk up, always eager for good books, “Really? What did you read?”

“Fantasy. Science Fiction sometimes too. Anything with fairies or dragons or wizards. What about you?”

“I just finished Harriet the Spy and I think it might be my new favorite. She spies on all her friends and neighbors and writes all their secrets in a private notebook and she lives in New York City.”

“I’ll have to start lending you books. I bet I have a few you might like. Have you read The Color of Magic yet?”

We thankfully avoid further discussion of my parents or their divorce or anything else serious. After our snack we continue to wander until we find a pasture surrounded by trees draped in white and yellow flowers.

Jantha says they’re called Honeysuckle because you can suck the nectar right out of them, and we pick and suck enough of them to make crowns of flowers around both our heads to wear. It’s silly and they’re hard to wear, but that’s why she’s my favorite relative on Daddy’s side.

The orange sky looks beautiful through the green leaves as we begin to make our way back to the playground and the Jeep. As we crunch up the gravel she nudges me playfully and points to the caboose.

“You see that caboose?”

“Uh-huh.”

“When I was growing up, we would sneak out at night and climb up in there so we could kiss!”

And then she plants a wet loud kiss on my cheek before racing me the rest of the way to the Jeep.

I wish I could tell Jantha about Ryan and his treehouse. But I don’t want to go to Boot Camp. And if I can’t tell Jantha, then I can’t tell anyone. But it’s hard to think about that when she cranks up her radio and pulls out of the parking lot to get us two big Blue Ocean Slushes from Sonic on our way back home.

My lips and tongue are still blue when I fall asleep.

Numbers

Leviticus

“Mommy, why are they giving that boy by a bath? I want to go home!”

Just when I think Church is over, they start talking again. I want to change out of these uncomfortable clothes and eat lunch already!

“It’s not a bath, puddin, it’s called a Baptism. They wash away bad deeds so you can go to Heaven. It’ll be over soon.”

She strokes my hair as I lie across her lap, smelling her Mommy Smell and clutching my drawings of the grownups who talked during church.

“Have I had a baptism, Mommy?”

“No, baby. You’re not old enough. When you’re 12 or older you can decide if that’s what you want for yourself.”

“But if I’m not Baptized, how will I go to Heaven?”

She shushes me and whispers, “It’s okay. God doesn’t expect you to be all grown-up right away. And even if never get Baptized you can still go to Heaven. You don’t have to be a Christian to go to Heaven.”

That sounds okay, and before I know it we’re back in the car and going home to play!

My room is in the middle of the house so I can go anywhere I want through the two doors on either side. My Nintendo and The Computer are in the Den, but the TV and Table are in the Living Room. Mommy and Daddy’s Room are just past the Den to the right, and Cloud’s room is to the left. The Kitchen and Front Door are through the Living Room to the right, and the Backyard is out through the Living Room to the left. So I can go anywhere I need to without being too loud or waking up Daddy.

Daddy gets really angry if I accidentally wake him up. Or Cloud. But I’m a really good big brother, so that almost never happens. Even if he forgets to feed us when Mommy is at school, I can still climb on a chair in the Kitchen and make us Peanut Butter Toast.

But since Mommy is home, we have Spaghetti. I love spaghetti, but only when it’s naked. With salt. I don’t like vegetables. They make my mouth feel icky. Everyone says I need to eat them to grow up big and strong like Daddy, but I don’t want to be like Daddy. I want to be like Mommy.

My room doesn’t have real doors though, so when it’s bedtime I can still hear whatever Mommy and Daddy are watching and listen, like one of Papa’s old radio shows he likes. My favorite show is called Taxi, and it’s about people who drive taxis in New York, where Mommy and Aunt Bobby and Papa and Grandma Kowski came from, before they were gypsies.

That’s why Cloud’s bed is a big blue bus, just like Grandma and Papa Kowski’s house. It has a table that turns into a bed, and Papa built a porch and even a whole other-one-house that we get to stay in when Mommy and Daddy and Cloud and I come to visit. But I like the bus. Mommy says living out of a bus wasn’t very fun, but I think it would be the best house because then you could go anywhere and always be home.

I dream I’m floating in a bubble, floating even higher than Daddy’s plane can fly, and looking all the way down at the whole world that looks like ants crawling along my feet. But then the bubble goes up over the clouds and all I see is a mean looking monster.

It almost looks like an elephant or a hippo, but it has three sets of arms and legs like a person. It’s sitting criss-crossed and wearing a pretty blue robe with lots of silver jewelry but all of its eyes and hands and only a trunk without a mouth look really scary.

“God?” I ask. But it can’t hear me through my bubble.

It looks down at me with all of those eyes and then stretches out one of its sixty fingers and then —pops— my bubble.

Now I’m falling past the clouds and can see the ground coming right up to me as the monster laughs at me. I close my eyes tight because I’m scared and I don’t want to die but then the wind stops. And I feel the ground underneath me. So I open my eyes again.

Now my whole room is on fire! All the paintings of Winnie the Pooh and Raggedy Anne are melting and I worry about who will rescue Cloud, because only Papa knows how to fight fires but he’s hours and hours away from our house.

Then I see an even bigger monster, covered in fire, crashing through Mommy and Daddy’s Room and I scream. I run for the door for the Living Room so I can get out of the house, because Papa says that’s always what you have to do in a fire, but now I’m in a room like in Indiana Jones and I can’t find the door anymore. The walls just keep moving closer and closer and I close my eyes and just keep screaming and screaming and screaming.

Then Mommy and Daddy are there. They pick me up off the floor and there’s no fire or monsters anymore. But I know it was real! I even tried to do what I was supposed to do but I still got trapped and so now I can’t stop crying because I don’t know if the monster is still around the corner, about to eat us all. Or if the fire just isn’t big enough yet but maybe it could be soon and then we could all die.

“Baby baby baby, it’s okay, you just had a bad dream.”

I’m so scared I can’t even talk.

“No! I—I couldn’t—I couldn’t breathe—I couldn’t get out—the fire! And then the walls kept closing in and I couldn’t save you or Cloud or even get out!”

And then Mommy and Daddy laugh. And that only makes me cry harder because now I feel stupid.

“You’re okay, Puddin. You must have just walked into the closet by mistake,” Mommy kisses my cheek while Daddy holds me.

“No!”

“Daddy used to be claustrophobic too when he was your age, didn’t you Daddy?” She strokes my hair out of my face and wipes my eyes and nose with her hand.

“That’s right, son. Sometimes I’m still scared of small spaces,” he gives me a kiss.

When I calm down they lay me in my bed and then I hear the funny mechanic from Taxi say, “Thank You Very Much” in his silly voice, and it actually feels like it’s going to be okay.

I hold onto Boy, my baby doll, extra tight so he won’t be scared either. But I still keep seeing those two monsters. The elephant and the fire. I know Mommy says it’s just a dream, but I know they were really God and Satan.

What scares me is that God sent me to Hell, but even more than that I’m scared that maybe Satan just needed to get out of the fire too. Maybe he was just crashing through the walls because he didn’t know how to get out either.

But if God sent me to Hell in a dream, how do I know I can still get into Heaven like Mommy says if I don’t follow the rules? You always have to follow rules, or otherwise you get in trouble. And sometimes when I get in trouble Daddy gets really angry and scares me like the fire monster.

Maybe I just need to be Extra Good, just in case.

The next day I go to Kindergarten and I’m so good, I don’t even get a Behavior Document. Those are these notes my teacher is always sending me home with, and when Daddy sees them he gets really mad and spanks me. But if Mommy sees them it’s okay, and she tells me why Mrs. Brown thought I was rude and how to be better next time.

One time I got in really big trouble for telling her it was a “Yellow” Duck and not a “Yella” Duck, because my mommy said so.

I got in trouble another time for asking if I could read a book on my cot if I wasn’t sleepy enough for a nap.

And another time I got in trouble because I told her I had already read all the books she had in the classroom, but she said I was lying and couldn’t have read all of them. But I wasn’t lying! She only had like ten books and all of them are too boring to read again and again.

But today I was extra good and didn’t even talk at all, so when I waited for Daddy and he never showed up, I got worried the other teachers watching the kids get picked up would get annoyed at me and write another Behavior Document. So instead I told them I knew how to get home.

Because I was pretty sure I remembered how the bus got from my house to the school. I even have a Batman raincoat in my backpack, just in case it rains. And pretty soon I’ll even be big enough to ride my bike.

Mrs. Wyatt saw me walking home and she gave me a ride the rest of the way. Which was really nice of her, but for some reason Daddy was really mad when she knocked on the door to make sure he was home. Daddy’s always home except at nights when he works for UPS. On Fridays if I can stay up extra late, he even takes me to McDonalds for some ice cream sometimes.

But as soon as Daddy and me were alone in the house he starts screaming and throwing things and I start crying because he’s so scary. Then he picks me up and throws me against the wall instead of spanking me, which means I must have done something really bad by trying to walk home by myself.

He gives me a whole thing of Starbursts after, because he still loves me even when he beats me. And then Mommy came home with Cloud and told me how worried she was because I was walking in the wrong direction from school and they never should have let me leave without calling Daddy.

But I don’t think so. I think I just should have gotten home by myself and then played in the backyard until Daddy woke up. That’s what I usually do when I can’t get inside the house. Or if it gets dark I go to our neighbors and play with my friend, Peter. He’s a year younger than me but he has a really cool Powerwheels Jeep and I like to chase him and Cloud on my bike and pretend we’re superheroes.

But after that I got to go to a new school, Bale. And the teacher there is really nice and she keeps telling me how smart I am, and she even let me play King Max when we put on a play of my favorite book, because I was the only one who could remember all the words.

So if I’m that smart, I bet I can figure out how Heaven works. Just to be sure. But I still hope Satan is okay. Maybe he just needs a firefighter like Papa.

Leviticus

Exodus

After the Fourth and Final Parent’s Day at AEGIS, which Daddy has once again failed to attend, Jonathan promises to take me up on the roof after he, once again, attends church with me instead of meeting his own parents.

We’re the only two boys in Theatre. Most others, my friends Dan and Blake included, are in Music or Art. Dance is unquestionably female.

The Art Education for Gifted Integrated Studies camp was a month-long intensive college campus experience for high schoolers, only available through scholarship to those who submitted a portfolio impressive enough to gain admittance. As I was turning 14 and starting Freshman year in August, I was easily the youngest in attendance. Something of a pet for the Seniors who found my wholesomeness adorable. And Jonathan was no exception.

“This is so cool!” I stage-whisper as he gently closes the roof access and looks around for chaperones or counselors.

“Yeah, Kimberly told me about it last year. We don’t ever bring Fish up here, but I know you’re cool. So it’s okay.”

I beam at Jonathan until he gives me a quick, calculating glance. He’s only slightly taller than me, but sleeker and more muscular, with dark skin and long braids he keeps tucked into his head-wrap.

“How old are you again?” His eyebrow cocks up and I quickly reply, “I’ll be 14 in two months! That’s when I start high school.”

“Christ, you’re just starting? I can’t wait to get out of there,” he sighs and unrolls a blanket from his backpack next to the industrial sized AC units, out of eyesight of the door. We settle with our backs buzzing against the warm metal surface.

“When I graduate, I’m moving to New York to write for Saturday Night Live. That’s where my family’s from. My mom’s family. New York accepts everybody. The weirdos and the crazies and the queers. Anyone else the rest of the country doesn’t want can all live together in New York.”

Jonathan turns to me and smiles before he produces a joint from under his head-wrap.

“Ever had one of these?” He teases.

“No,” I sheepishly admit, “But I’ve always wanted to try.”

He cups his hand and lights it in a smooth motion, “Here, let me spark it for you.”

He puffs until the tip glows red, then hands it to me, “Remember to inhale — hold it in — and then slowly exhale.”

I’ve never smoked anything in my life, but I do exactly as he says despite almost immediately gagging on the first breath. My face turns scarlet before I finally back out an enormous cloud, quickly covering my mouth to muffle the sound.

“Whoa! Slow down, killer. Don’t try so hard, you’ll feel it soon,” he takes the joint from my fingertips to puff on it twice while I regain my composure.

He’s right. By the time he passes it back to me I already feel an enormous weight lift from my chest. Before long we’re giggling and leaning close against one another.

“Don’t be offended,” he says as he flicks the roach off the roof, “But why are you in Theatre and not in Music with your other little drummer boys?”

Pot loosening my tongue, I tell him the truth, “Honestly? I wanted to get as far away from my home as possible so I could just be by myself. I needed a break and this camp was a month-long and free.”

“A break from what? You’re only 13.”

“I don’t know…Life? I guess?” I place my head on his shoulder and he rests his own on top of mine.

I can feel the deep vibrations of his voice as he asks, “What, your dad?”

“No, I mean yeah, but not just that. It’s—“ the proximity and the pot and the camp camaraderie embolden me further as I take a deep breath, “I’m…I’m a…I’m not a boy…”

It sounds so ridiculous out loud! I turn away in tears but Jonathan wraps his arms around me and rocks me into his chest as I take shuddering breaths.

“What do you mean, you’re not a boy? It’s okay, baby. I won’t laugh or tell anyone. I promise,” I smell his lotion as he tenderly kisses my neck from behind, sending shivers down between us.

“I mean I’m not a boy. At least I don’t think I am. I think and act a lot more like a girl and I…I think I might even like boys…”

This last sentence hangs in the air, barely a whisper, but his face is so close to mine I know he hears me. He begins to stroke my hair and I can feel his bicep flex against me as he holds me tighter still.

“It’s just not fair! I go to church, I help others, I practically raised my younger siblings, but I’m still never going to be what I feel like I really am!”

I turn around to bury my face and he holds me and rocks me until I finally look up into his brown eyes. He doesn’t say anything. He just leans his face toward mine. And then he kisses me. I open my mouth and find his tongue with my own.

My first real kiss! And it’s with a boy! I feel a slight twinge of guilt about Angela back in Dallas, but that doesn’t stop me from allowing Jonathan to gently lower me onto my back as he crawls on top of me. His bulge swells up against me as he becomes more earnest, and I more willing.

I don’t know if we kissed like that for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, but when he pulls back he gives me a sweet smile as I try to regain my senses.

“Well, you sure don’t kiss like a boy, that much is true,” he winks before moving away slowly to sprawl on his back on our abandoned blanket, “I thought maybe you were gay but maybe you’re right. Maybe you are a girl.”

I move to his side and rest my head on his chest, gazing up at the stars and moon with him.

“I try really hard to hide it from everyone, you know? I’ve been praying for God to make me a real boy for years, but I know He can tell I don’t mean it. And it’s a sin to lie to God. That’s why he punished me with these.”

I lift his free hand and place it under my shirt. He gives an appraising squeeze before quickly resting his hand on my head instead, stroking my hair gently.

Finally he sits up and lights another joint for us, “It’s like this. I can’t tell you if you’re a gay boy or a girl or whatever. Right? Only you have the ability to figure that out, but it probably won’t happen right away. That’s okay. You’re young, you’ve got plenty of time to experiment. But you also still have four years of high school and your parents to deal with. Only you can decide if you need to do that in secret or out in the open.”

Before long my spirits lift with our clouds, and I feel comfortable enough to ask him, “So what about you? Are you out? No offense, but Arkansas isn’t exactly super friendly to gay black men.”

He coughs out a laugh, “True, it’s not ideal. But this is my home too. Oddly enough, God gave me the strength to be gay. I used to feel like it was a curse or something I needed a cure for, but think about it? Why would God make me gay if he didn’t want me to be gay? Because it’s actually my character God is testing. To see if I’ll stand up for myself in the face of Hatred and Judgement. That’s what Jesus did, and he changed the world.”

“Yeah,” I cough sarcastically, “And what did they do? Kill him.”

“Well shit, kid. You have to make sacrifices if you want to make change. Some people sacrifice higher than others, but the reward is Salvation. I’m sorry, I don’t want you to think I’m some kind of religious nut.”

“Hell don’t worry about me, you already know I’m a Jesus Freak,” I laugh and pass the joint back, “But God, I don’t think I’ve ever been this relaxed.”

He puffs and passes back. I look into his eyes.

“Can I tell you something? I used to love going to church. I used to close my eyes and sing my heart out and feel the Holy Spirit rush through my soul. But now? I’m just not so sure.”

Jonathan just gives me a distant smile as we puff and pass once more.

“There’s just so many ‘Good Christians’ out there who only care about appearances. Who cast out sinners instead of loving them. And they care more about death than being better people now. You know I’ve actually heard preachers say good deeds don’t count without a baptism? I mean, surely Jesus can see past circumstances, but what if I’m wrong? What if I’m still damned no matter what I do?”

Jonathan pinches the last of the joint and holds it to my lips before flicking it off the roof.

“God in the mouths of men makes for some cruel irony, Kid. But you’ll be alright. Just have faith.”

Eventually he folds up the blanket and smuggled me downstairs back to the dorms. He kisses my forehead goodnight and whispers, “Break a leg!”

Shit. I totally forgot tomorrow was The Showcase. Last day of camp.

At least I’ll be leaving for Dallas and not Searcy when I’m done. Until August, when I have to go back.

Exodus

Genesis

It’s been over an hour since Nathan and I took four mushroom caps and stems each, and I still don’t feel anything. I’ve already finished my orange juice, which he says speeds up the process and strengthens the hallucinations. But the only change I’ve noticed is an upset stomach. Probably why Nathan disappeared into the bathroom a while back.

We’re at his older brother’s house, which was once their grandmother’s, as is obvious by the dated decor and non-grounded electrical outlets. I have no idea how to turn on the TV, let alone the Nintendo, so I listen to my iPod on shuffle instead as I open the fridge to find a Shiner Bock.

I don’t really like beer, but Shiner is pretty good and at least I’ll be buzzed if I drink it quickly. Tonight is supposed to be a spiritual journey, a vision quest to talk with my patron gods and plan for my future, but instead I just feel nauseous and slightly tipsy as I chug the remaining beer and walk back to the well-worn couch.

As I sit down the iPod shuffles to “Kiss The Bottle” by Foo Fighters, an eerie coincidence.

“What if I use my iPod as a divination tool?” I wonder, “Maybe the gods are trying to speak to me through music.”

Just then my stomach kicks and my mouth waters and I know I’m going to throw up. Nathan warned me this could happen.

I run through the house to the guest room and then the half-bath and kneel in front of the toilet. But nothing happens. The music shuffles to “U” by Pearl Jam, triggering every feeling I’ve ever had about my best friend and pen-pal-turned-girlfriend: love, shame, guilt, jealousy, deception, manipulation, humiliation, impotence, grief.

I see our childhood paths cross and recross, our failed reunion years ago, and our most-recent breakup. I’m fighting back tears while I hug the porcelain and pray. But this was not the prayer I learned in church, or the meditation I practiced with Nathan.

My brain shuts down, leaving only the primal stem of our animal ancestors. I speak to the cosmos in dark forbidden languages. I cry out to my gods in agony. I cannot take this life anymore. I want to die. I thought I was supposed to have visions and hallucinate? I feel tricked and disillusioned, reminded of my failed baptism at age 13. There is no God. There is no Odin. There is no Tlazolteotl. There is no Dionysus. There is no Mama Santo.

I am alone.

I am no longer in the bathroom, but on the waterbed in the neighboring room, rolling myself back and forth on the waves. The silk sheets feel smooth against my skin, and only now do I realize I’m naked, save for my disconnected headphones dangling between my legs.

I crawl under the covers to see a small glowing blue box at my feet. I hold the screen inches from my eyes, fascinated by how the text moves and breathes on its own. I reconnect my headphones and my ears are filled with “The Great Gig in the Sky” by Pink Floyd. I wrap the sheets around my body like a cocoon and try to sleep this off.

But now my life is flashing before my eyes at breakneck speeds. There’s me in Kindergarten, forgotten, and walking home. There’s Daddy hurling me against the wall and then bribing me with Starbursts. There’s faces I no longer remember and events I’ve already forgotten. In a moment I see myself in the eyes of God and realize my insignificance. My life is over, and I have nothing to show for it.

I don’t want to be high anymore. What if I die?

I don’t want to be high. I don’t want to die.

I don’t want to be high. I don’t want to die.

I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.

Now I’m standing in a desert surrounded by bleached white bones, looking at the enormous black wolf from my recurring dreams. Fenrir the Devourer opens his jaw and speaks, “It’s too late. You’ve been dead far too long. You were given gifts and you chose to hide them. You are a coward. You deserve to die.”

More images flash. A 9-year-old wearing panties and smiling in the mirror. A 12-year-old crying herself to sleep. A 15-year-old stealing clothes. A 17-year-old attempting sex.

Back in the desert, Fenrir stares with cold yellow eyes and I hang my head in shame and defeat.

“You have known what to do from the beginning, yet you refuse out of fear. The gods have lost patience with you, Boygirl. Now you are mine.”

Except now I sit atop Sleipnir, my eight-legged steed, wielding a mighty spear. Huginn and Muninn spread their wings as they ride atop my shoulders. I have sacrificed myself to myself upon the tree of life for nine days and nine nights. I have plucked out my own right eye in exchange for eternal wisdom. I am the God of Inspiration, Magic, Prophecy, Poetry, and War. I unleash my battlecry as I charge into the Gates of Ragnarok. Fenrir opens his mouth and swallows me whole.

Cold darkness surrounds me. A booming voice, both everywhere and nowhere says, “Every journey begins with the first step. It will be treacherous, but you have my blessing and my gifts.”

Only silence follows.

“Is this Death?” I wonder, “It’s so anticlimactic. Where’s the bright light? Is this Heaven or Hell? Maybe the rabbi was right. Maybe the afterlife simply is.”

A pale blue dot approaches through the darkness, and a strong hand grips my left shoulder from behind.

A slight, olive-skinned man with the horns of a ram approaches, offering his flask to the hand behind me.

“Hail, Allfather.”

“Hail, Father of Wine.”

The faceless hand grips harder as he accepts a swig of mead over my head.

“Is this your Boygirl?” He asks.

“Nay, though she has my blessings, Hades will not accept her.”

Dionysus nods, excuses himself, and walks away into the darkness once more. The pale blue dot approaches still.

“Hail, Allfather.”

“Hail, Mother of Death. Is this your Boygirl?”

A wide-hipped, dark-skinned woman eyes me closely, her face, simultaneously young and old, is framed by fine jewelry made of bone and ivory.

“Nay, she is not one of my children. But I shall grant her safe passage through your realm if she continues to show me respect.”

Mama Santo turns her back on me and just as quickly she is gone.

The pale blue dot is now a beautiful naked woman with fluorescent butterfly wings and a white death mask through which she gives me a warm smile.

“Hail, Allfather.”

“Hail, Mother is Filth.”

She takes my right hand and my left shoulder throbs in pain from the responding grip behind me until I yelp in pain.

“I have come to claim what is rightfully mine, Odin. You’ve done all you could for her.”

His voice booms in indignation, “That may be, but this Boygirl must still decide for herself.”

“Very well,” she tugs my hand once more.

“Boygirl, do you wish to stay here in the dark? Or follow me?”

There is an eternity of silence before I speak.

“I’m ready, Mother.”

Allfather releases his grip and Mother of Filth pulls me into the air as her bright blue wings flutter up above.

“Do you know who I am, Boygirl?”

“The Mother of Filth?”

She looks down at me through her death mask and once again she smiles.

“You may call me Tlazolteotl, Child. While it is true that I rule over all Filth and Vice, I am also the Goddess of Purification. I will teach you to eat shit and produce gold. I will show you how to transform your body as well as your mind. Above all, I will teach you to see even the lowliest life as a vessel for hope. Now fly, my child. Go!”

She releases my hand and I fall all the way down. All the way down past the stars and past the earth and all the way down into my own mother’s womb. I hear her voice surround me as she asks, “Look, don’t you want to see the Moon? Get out!”

But I can’t budge. I can’t breathe. All I can do is struggle and thrash until I begin to see stars from avoiding drowning in my own amniotic fluids. But when I finally gulp in out of desperation it is oxygen that fills my lungs. And then I see the pale blue dot again. I tuck my arms to my side and wriggle my face toward the light, closer and closer. With one final thrust I push my face into a cool breeze. Then one arm. Then the other. I heave myself free from her womb.

I fall onto soft carpet and look up to see the waterbed, shocked by my fall and sudden sobriety. The only sources of light are my iPod and a red digital alarm clock. It’s four in the morning. I walk back to the bathroom to pee, where I find my abandoned clothes.

Once dressed, I stand at the bedroom door, scared to leave my sanctum. What will I tell Nathan? What does this mean for my future?

But Nathan must be in Mason’s room because the living room is still empty. I fish through my bag for my cigarettes and then walk out the back door. The brisk wind cools my sweat-covered face as I sit down on the porch swing. As I light my cigarette I’m kissed by faint droplets, so I cup my hand before I inhale. The back door slides open and Nathan silently sits next to me.

“It’s raining,” I tell him as I shake out a cigarette for him from the pack.

“So it is,” he replies, reaching over me for my lighter on the armrest.

Eventually he asks, “So how was it?”

“Trippy.”

Our two clouds lift into the air in laughter.


Keep paying Dori to keep writing

Genesis

Masked Men and Mutants: Queer Coded Clowns

“Can’t Take A Joke?” by Andy Fairhurst (http://andyfairhurst.deviantart.com/)

For Part 1 of this series about queer theory and comic book history, click here.

We can’t talk about heroes without talking about villains. And we can’t talk about villains without talking about Queer Coding.

In academic theory or analysis, “Queer” is vaguely understood to be The Other in regards to societal expectations of sexuality/gender.  This is different from casual usage of the word queer, which is used as a slur by some, and increasingly commonly as an umbrella term for gender and sexual minorities, by members of that same community (such as yours truly).

We can’t talk about The Other without acknowledging what is in opposition to The Other. So in queer theory, this can be vaguely understood to be the societal belief that heterosexual and cisgender experiences are The Norm, normative, etc.

For this reason, it is not necessary to “prove” that a character engages in same-sex behaviors or attractions in order to argue that a character is “queer coded” by the choices made by storytellers. Instead, what is being argued is that storytellers are using deviant (which in this academic sense just means not-normative) sexual or gender behaviors as an allusion to criminal and/or amoral motivations.

There are many examples of queer coded villains out there: Scar, Rattigan, Hades, and Jafar of the Disney universe, or Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates of live-action thrillers, or countless video game bosses such as Sephiroth or Vega or Vamp. All of these villains have different goals, motivations, and outcomes, and they perform different evil acts in pursuit of them. But they all share a certain…swishiness in common with one another. A wimpy, un-manly, un-masculine way of carrying themselves. A way that is often deliberately contrasted with their normative foils, the hero who defeats them.

In comic books, there’s no example I love more than The Clown Prince of Crime himself, The Joker.

Batman has an entire Rogues Gallery, but The Joker is his oldest foil. If Batman is a symbol of conquering fear to fight crime, Joker is a symbol of using fear to fight society. If Batman is Order, Joker is Chaos. If Batman is dark and brooding and serious, Joker is bright and garish and absurd. And while Batman believes he has conquered his traumatic past, Joker believes his own traumatic past has conquered whoever he may have once been.

These are what are generally acknowledged to be the intentional themes of Batman and Joker’s dynamic throughout the ongoing (and often-regenerated-but-tweaked) nature of comic book storytelling. But there are many unintentional themes as well, and those are what often make Joker queer coded among various storytellers through his history.

As mentioned before, if our hero is being intentionally envisioned as incredibly masculine and heterosexually virile, then it can become easier to get that across in contrast to a feminized antagonist, rather than solely through the hero himself. This is why I don’t think it is coincidental that the more aggressively masculine iterations of Batman (Frank Miller, for example), are nearly always paired with an equally exaggerated Joker. While less extreme portrayals of Batman usually have less intentionally-feminine portrayals of Joker.

In The Dark Knight Returns, one of the best selling Batman graphic novels of all time, Batman and Joker have been unseen for decades. In the pseudo-1980s apocalyptic “future”, the two men are nearing the end of their lives, surrounded by a world that has forgotten them, and each are pulled back into their public lives for one last push against what society has become in their absence.

For Batman, this means establishing Order by any means necessary. Gone is the friendly childhood Batman who would never dream of killing or even seriously maiming another human being. Instead we have a heavily armored and heavily armed stormtrooper with pointy ears, who defiantly tells the reader “Rubber bullets. Honest.” A Batman who constantly scoffs at progressiveness and civil rights and criminal reform as the source of the societal scourge he must force himself to defeat in spite of his age.

For Joker, who has been in a catatonic state since the disappearance of Batman, his motivations are summed up in a series of increasingly close-up panels of his mouth as the news reports of Batman’s first sighting. His pale unmarked lips finally speak the word, “Darling,” in response. His ability to return to his life of crime is preceded with an intimate portrayal of him applying bright red lipstick, which is complimented by his bleeding-heart liberal TV-therapist, right before The Joker murders him and an entire studio audience.

Joker’s use of make-up on top of his disfigurement, his flamboyant gestures and theatrical presentation, and especially his use of romantic pet names for Batman; are all relatively unique details added by Frank Miller to what we already knew or assumed about The Joker. These are therefore deliberate and intentional choices, even if the intent itself might not be consciously recognized by the storyteller or the reader.

I mention this graphic novel specifically, because it can be argued the current cinematic versions of Batman have heavily borrowed from it’s costume design, it’s themes, and it’s general aesthetic as the quintessential “grownup” or “edgy” version of Batman; and arguably even Zack Snyder and DCU’s entire filmography. (Which is how we wind up with his and Frank Miller’s version of Xerxes in 300.)

So does this mean it’s Uncool to ever make a villain act in a way that isn’t super-duper cisheteronormative? Not necessarily. I don’t think there’s an inherent problem in having queer villains, by which I mean villains who are literally gender/sexual minorities. I think the problem is using deviant gendered behavior/expressions as a shorthand way of portraying the villain as antisocial.

Hell, I think The Joker would actually manage to be even more fun if his queer coding was allowed to surface as an actual queer person, baiting Batman with taunts about how they’re more alike than he’ll ever care to admit. But that is likely to remain relegated to headcanon and fanfiction.

Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, also of Batman’s universe, are decent examples of villains who are queer, not queer-coded. These two women are, have been, and will continue to be romantically involved with one another. While this was originally “subtext” or maybe even “fan service”, it has since become acknowledged by storytellers and is officially “canon” now.

And believe me when I tell you, most of my favorite Batman stories are when these two ladies doing villainous shit together in a romantic/sexy kind of way  and are loving the hell out of it.

Masked Men and Mutants: Queer Coded Clowns

Fallout Fridays – Kill Me, Cait

A red-haired white woman with a bloody baseball bat, covered in large nails.

January 8th, 2278

I’m out.

But I’m not sure how. That’s never a good sign.

The air outside feels real. I know it’s also highly irradiated but the crisp cool winter breeze against my face is exactly what I needed.

I seem to have stuffed my rucksack to the bursting point with every Institute widget I could find before escaping. Which would be great if I wasn’t trying to dodge bullets with a hundred pounds of bullshit strapped to my back right now.

“Oi, look out behind ya, feckin’ gobshite!”

I turn around to see a red-haired woman with a baseball bat trounce a man two steps behind me. The left side of his face goes soft as his body collapses into the gutter. She brandishes the bloody bat in my face as she closes the gap between us.

“You better remember who I am, Vault Dweller, because I sure as shite remember you. You’re the arse who killed all me customers. And I’ll be wanting proper compensation.”

I throw my rucksack in front of her and the weight makes an audible thud on the concrete.

“Take it. Take whatever you want. Go ahead and kill me too if you want. I don’t care anymore. I’m going to the Third Rail to get shithoused.”

I turn around and continue walking East. I can hear her heave the bag behind me and her footsteps catching up.

“So that’s it then? You’re not gonna fight me, but you’ll kill a whole theater of spectators in front of me?”

“That is correct.”

She scurries around me, panting with the extra weight but determined to match my brisk pace.

“That’s fucking bollicks. Is it because I’m a wee fragile girl and you don’t want to hurt me?”

“No. I am also a woman. And you would not be the first woman I’ve killed. You’ve done me no wrong. I have. Take what you feel you deserve and be on your way. I’m tired.”

“Oh aye, you’re tired, love? We’re all tired. You think you’re some kind of mysterious stranger with a heart of gold? We’ve all got tragic backstories here. You’re nothing special.”

“I know.”

She stops for a moment, falling behind as I dutifully press forward to make it to Goodneighbor by nightfall.

“You know what? I think you should carry all this shite for me. I mean, this is my payment, right? Well I only accept payment in caps or Psycho, so this won’t do me any good. I’m sticking on you until I am appropriately compensated.”

I stop to look at her. Her haughty face glistens from sweat despite the winter and her matted red hair shines in the pale sun. She has one boot defiantly planted on top of abandoned loot as I stare into her eyes. I can feel a deep unspoken sadness reflect back my own. And that’s the closest thing to trust or friendship I’m willing to accept right now.

I stoop in front of her and gesture toward one of the straps so she’ll remove her boot, “Sure thing, ma’am. I’ll carry that bag for you if it’s getting too heavy.”

“Now you wait just a goddamn minute, Vault-Tec…”

“I’m Dori.”

“…I’m Cait.”

We awkwardly shake hands and proceed past Boston Commons side by side.

“By the way, I’ve got a hit of Jet left if you want. I was saving it for a fight but if you need it…”

“Oh please, I’m not some charity case. I take care of my own Joneses just fine thanks,” she says as she slams a Psycho needle into her arm.

“Fine then, just thought I’d offer,” I take the final puff off my inhaler and can already feel the strain of the weight on my back easing.

She gives an approving nod as our mutual highs kick in.

“Only thing better than picking a fight is getting stoned, am i right?”

Fallout Fridays – Kill Me, Cait