Tag Archives: Narrative non-fiction

Three Words

By Kaleena Madruga

Describe yourself in three words, Khal says. He prods the growing fire with an unravelled wire hanger.

Um, I start, pulling my blanket a little tighter over my shoulders.

Abrasive. Creative. Driven.

Good ones, Chris says, nodding.

I don’t think you’re abrasive, Suzanne offers kindly. I shrug.

I have created a misty kind of coat; it envelopes my tougher memories, the sad ones and the bad ones, making it hard for me to remember things exactly as they may have happened.

Abrasive.

Some people know about my divorce and some who don’t. There is also one, Chris, who knows but does not wish to know. So I keep to myself most of it, good and bad, but there are jolts like a metal stick against wood amidst the heat that hit me when I am unprepared.

I fell asleep most nights alone, before and after, before because I was actually alone, during because my ex-husband worked later, and after because I had no choice. I remembered moving into a dingy, ugly, unhappy apartment and thinking that I would be ok if I could fall asleep that night. I did fall asleep quite easily, but I was not ok. Sleeping was the only thing I was able to do with a relative routine for two years. But I have been abrasive long before this.

I often talk to my therapist about how masculine my house was. My father, my brother, my mother, my pets. Looming, loud, competitive, confident. Dark hair, dark skin, dark fur. Masculine. I asked for a canopy bed, purple walls. I had tangled hair that refused to be brushed smooth; my mother had to spray it with a detangler, yank the comb through. My skin, covered in thick Portuguese hair, became dry in the heat, eczema scabs up and down my arms and legs. I craved softness, quiet. I’d ask my mom to teach me how to do makeup, and her face would twist like she’d tasted a lemon. I don’t wear makeup; she’d say and toss her hair behind her shoulder. I don’t need it.

I was and still am obsessed with feminine beauty. I dye my hair blonde and blow dry it straight. I whiten my teeth, shave my arms and legs and feet, and my face and my pubis. I rub lotion all over myself, inject my forehead to make it smooth. Every day I put on makeup. My underwear is lacy. I am the ugliest I’ve ever felt in my life.

Standing in a dark bar trying to reconcile after the cheating, I am drunk and holding onto a pool cue with its base pressed into the ground for balance. My misty jacket of protection disables me from remembering exactly what I said that night, but my ex-husband leaves alone, tears brimming in his eyes.

After it was over, I only sought out men with girlfriends. I didn’t cry or ask for help. I wanted to prove that what happened to me could and would happen to anyone. Two years later, I was a sick and bruised skeleton. I developed something close to shame, but there’s a better word for it I haven’t found yet.

I treat my body like it’s as disposable as I feel. I pump it full of alcohol, allow it to stumble, to be handled, unloved. I talk to myself like a nemesis; I punch my mirror and let it break on my hand. Disgusting, I say to the shards of my reflection and my blood. You are disgusting.

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Creative.

If you can figure out a way to get fucked up every day and ruin all of your relationships, you have to be pretty creative. I am dependable and eloquent enough with my words to maintain a job as a freelance writer. I make just enough to buy enough bottles of wine every night to send me into a coma. 

Years later, I attempt to turn everything I hate about myself into a collection of stories to be sold and held and read. Creative.

I find Chris at a small table on a Tuesday morning because we are reading the same book. I am pleasant enough, but I have not loved anyone in years, and I certainly haven’t touched anyone that I got close to liking, including myself. Even though I am shiny and new, my insides are still sick and decayed, healing but slowly. I am grateful that I now live somewhere with seasons, as I can attach imagery to my innards. My outsides are spring, blooming. My insides are winter. Dead.

But I try, I try with Chris because something inside the dead forest of my winter tells me that he is worth it. And while I am terrified of love and even more terrified of myself, I let him in. Time passes, and I begin to see myself in different ways. I finish the things I’ve started. I treat my skin and body better; my insides bloom. 

You are very bright, so creative. My boss says to me. We are speaking over the phone, so I wince like I’m about to take a punch. She never says but. She just leaves it there. Bright and creative.

Are you a creative person? Suzanne asks Chris.

Not at all, he laughs, puffing smoke out of his mouth.

That must be hard, she says, considering her hands. She is so creative that it must be intimidating.

Whatever pride I had is shoved back into a drawer and saved for myself. I remember that my grandmother when she was alive, used to sew. 

I sip my beer and nod, re-writing this whole story in my head.

Driven.

I can tell you that I know what it’s like to want to die, to hope that you will just drop dead, so you don’t have to do it yourself. 

But I can also tell you that I know what it’s like to want to live. To really live, to feel everything with such an immense magnitude that you could turn it into something beautiful if you held onto it instead of trying to wash it away.

I will tell you that I gathered up everything I had and tried to save my life because of these two feelings happening inside me all at once. I can say that the wanting to live felt bigger but much scarier. I can tell you that I held onto the armrest of my airplane seat, shaking on my way to a new life, still very much afraid of my old self. I had two suitcases and was sitting in a pad filled with blood from the baby I’d aborted two days before.

I cannot say that I figured anything out or that everything is ok. When people tell me I am brave, I tend to diminish those words, wave them away in the wind. I did the things I had to do because I didn’t see any other way. I am not brave because if that plane had started to go down, my grip on the armrest would have remained the same.

I do not say any of these things tonight, with my friends, or ever. I hold onto them, and I look at the stars. I take my three words, and I hold onto them; they are mine, I like them.


Kaleena Madruga received her BA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and her MFA in Creative Writing from Roosevelt University. She lives in Chicago. Kaleenamadruga.com

YVONNE

By Bill Vernon

Although the biggest elephant in the world is loose in the building, I voluntarily check-in at the reception desk. A wall clock insists it is exactly 7:17, which I write down by my name then enter the lobby where about 20 residents are present. Some wear street clothes, a few bathrobes, two moves with walkers, the others are stationary, sitting, three crowded onto a love seat facing a large glass cage in which brightly coloured birds flit back and forth. The bird chatter carries clearly to me, but I think it must be amplified from such a distance away.

Four hallways spoke off this circular room, this hub, to other sections of the “Home.” I veer right toward the hall where bedridden 75-year-old Jane lives in SW113. The white paper gift bag I carry, with bright red, blue and yellow balloon designs, is for her.

When a television erupts with rapturous cries from people winning money on a game show, it distracts me enough to bump a wheelchair accidentally. I apologize, “Excuse me,” but the person in the chair doesn’t hear. She’s propped up with pillows; waist belted onto the chair’s frame so that she can bend over her lap without falling to the floor. I step forward to go on, but the woman’s profile stops me. 

The shape of her head. Can it be?

“Spittle runs from a corner of her mouth; her lips flutter but release no sound.”

“Yvonne? Is that you? Yvonne?!” No reaction. I repeat the name and touch her shoulder.

She slowly straightens up, unfolding in sections, her head finally coming up and back so that her eyes open upon me. My God, it is Yvonne! 

She stares at me blankly, though perhaps half asleep, not yet fully awake after dozing. 

I say, “Bonjour. C’est moi, Bill,” which I try to pronounce the French way, Belle, as she always said it.

I audited four semesters of her French classes 15 years ago. We were colleagues for 30 years, attended faculty meetings, served on committees together, and chatted many times. I expect my pronunciation to evoke her beautiful smile, her perky sense of humour, her easy laugh, and it’s all that remains in my mind. 

Spittle runs from a corner of her mouth; her lips flutter but release no sound. Something like a crusty dab of mashed potatoes is on one cheek.

I go down on a knee, so we’re level. “Ca va?” 

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Her eyes stare without recognition. Did she have a stroke? Wouldn’t I have heard? No. I’ve heard from none of our mutual friends in a decade. Maybe she’s drugged. I’ve seen many people humped over as she was because of that in other facilities. 

I babble about people we both know, things we’ve done in the past, how the school has changed since we taught there. That goes on for several minutes, stimulating no response. I finally pat her clasped hands, tell her it was great to see her and return to the reception desk, which of course, refuses to tell me much. 

I’m not on its list of Yvonne’s visitors, not a relative, and an unnamed daughter is the facility’s contact person. I can leave a note for the daughter if I want to. I decide no, not today. I don’t know Yvonne’s children; I don’t want to intrude. I’m also afraid to learn how bad off she is.

My purpose for being here takes me to Jane. She opens my gift, thanks me, eats a “fancy” chocolate from the box inside, says yum, then asks who I am. I’ve been asking that myself. 

I say, “Bill, your husband of 50 years,” and chat with Jane without much connection. When her eyelids begin drooping, I kiss her cheek and go; almost run, in fact. 

“The idiotic escape in my old Honda hasn’t emptied Yvonne from my mind.”

Yvonne is slumped over, probably asleep, when I hurry back through the lobby. To work in a place like this would be difficult. I couldn’t do it. To live here, to be a resident? I don’t want to think about it.

From the parking lot, agitation directs me to the nearby interstate highway where the snow has melted, clearing the asphalt for rubber tires. I ramp down onto it, race along its nearly empty three lanes, reach over 80 mph at one point, cover six miles in minutes, then take the first exit. It’s not a fugue. I know I’m doing it. I’ve chosen to do it, and I’ve chosen to quit doing it. I also know driving that way is dangerous and stupid, I could have wrecked and hurt other people, so I feel guilty.

Keeping active guards me from dwelling morosely on negative matters. I daily walk five to eight miles and lift weights. Action is my habit but an antidote to nothing. It does produce a centrifugal force, a spinning center that throws loose things like dilemmas out to the edges and off. Its Coriolis effect deflects approaching problems away from the outer edge of my spinning. 

Deflecting and expelling work most of the time, but not now. The idiotic escape in my old Honda hasn’t emptied Yvonne from my mind. Nor Jane. Anything seems better than sitting around, listening to the clock tick. 

In my garage, I turn off the engine and lights, sit in the dark, and imagine driving Route I-75 to its end, taking Canadian roads as far north as I can get, then hiking into the bush, sitting down, and letting the Arctic winter have its way. 


Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it in Dayton, Ohio. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction occasionally appear in a variety of magazines and anthologies.