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
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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

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