It is this. Chainsaw breath shredding throat, the night taking on weight, acquiring amorphous form, lifting moonlight in its quavering fingers, offering yellow-white puddles of light to the gods of yesterday.
It is the sound of the wind, the way it revs like an engine, then screams, a dying woman or a dying car, and who can tell the difference?
It is knowing that if the sacrifice was not enough, then you were not enough, because you gave everything. It is becoming a planet unto yourself, shrouded in the choking atmosphere of your own not-enough ness. There is no sky here. The horizon boils.
It is having held memories in your hands so tightly, making your fists into stones. No, no, I won’t let them go, and yet they slip away anyway, sand snakes slithering through the hourglass, grain by grain, until there is nothing left but dust on your palms, and you can barely recall why it’s beautiful.
But if you let go, lift your hands into the shuddering night, let the wind take the dust, the crumbs of the past, and leave you really, truly empty, what then? Is there life after this one, or do you hunch in the black, weaving shreds of moonlight into blankets, making a shawl of the stars, lying and saying, “I am warm now.”
This place is vast and it is empty and I am afraid to write because the nothingness will flood through my fingers, wash the dust from my palms, tell me what I already know.
In the Bible, manna from heaven turned to worms overnight. Yesterday’s light, yesterday’s love letter from heaven, becomes poison in your palms, and you stare at the rot, loving it, because once upon a time, it fed you.
It is not the valley of the shadow of death that I fear. It is the valley of the shadow of nothing.
Courage comes, not with fanfare or drums, but with a whisper.
A few months ago, I got new glasses—bifocals—which were difficult to adjust to. (I can use a preposition at the end of a sentence now. Merriam Webster says so. ) They made me feel old, which was depressing, and sometimes, if I looked out of the wrong lenses, the ground below me would disappear, or become suddenly small, and I would fall down a flight of stairs. It was fun. During this painful period of bifocal adjustment, my daughter and I took a road trip from Phoenix to Albuquerque. A near-tragedy ensued, an event that will forever go down in our family’s lore as “Mom’s Night Blindness Incident.”
We drove Desi’s newly acquired 2016 charcoal gray Charger, which was her pride and joy. She spit-shined that thing on a regular basis. The fact that she was allowing me to drive it all meant that she loved me very, very much. But bless my soul, she was letting me drive. I had been for about six hours.
The sun was going down, falling over the New Mexico mountains the way it does in a lovely splash of orange and purple and pink. We were listening to a song Desi had introduced me to, which I called the “Are You Ready Mother Fuckers Song,” but was really called “One for the Money”. (My children ensure at least 10% of my musical tastes remain hip.) We were also eating yummy things designed to make us fat. (We have to nurture our curves—do you think they just happen by accident?) Desi was listening to me whine about being tired, because that’s what I do on road trips. In fact, there are several sentences I repeat so often that my children have threatened to make a “Mom jar,” which is like a swear jar, only I put a dollar in it every time I utter one of my mom sentences that drive them nuts. I don’t know why I repeat these sentences over and over. I don’t even think about it when I say them. They are like linguistic tics, fun ways to make conversation. They are:
I’m so tired (uttered in the whiny voice of a toddler in need of a nap).
Does anyone here love their mother? Raise your hand if you do (uttered in the peppy voice of a cheerleader on crack).
Now that I type them out like that, I can see why my kids want to shank me every time I say them. Incidentally, Desi is a graphic novelist, and she says someday, she is going to make a comic based on me called, The Real Tawni Waters, Not As Cool As She Looks On Paper. It’s touching that my children want to pay homage to me in their art. But anyway, Desi and I were driving, and she was telling me about her life, and I was interjecting into the conversation with those two sentences, or variations thereof, fairly regularly.
Just as twilight gave way to darkness, we pulled over in a small town to get gas. I can’t explain what happened next. The road in front of me disappeared. I mean, I saw the street in front of me, and then, everything went black. Panicking, I veered sharply, and were it not for Desi screaming as if she were being attacked by rabid wolverines, I probably would have plowed into a steady stream of oncoming traffic on the opposite side of the street. However, Desi did scream, “MOM, GO RIGHT GO RIGHT! WHAT’S GOING ON? WHY ARE YOU BARRELING HEADLONG INTO ONCOMING TRAFFIC! OH, DEAR JESUS, SAVE US!?”
I screamed back, “I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING! I HAVE NIGHT BLINDNESS!”
Hearing of my sudden onset illness, Desi turned into her usual nurturing self. “WHAT THE LIVING FUCK, MOM? YOU DON’T GET NIGHT BLINDNESS INSTANTLY! YOU’RE INSANE, AND YOU’RE GOING TO KILL US! PULL THE FUCK OVER! I’M DRIVING!”
Calmed by her understanding and compassion, I regained my sight and pulled over into a motel parking lot. She leapt out of the car, ran around to my side, and yanked open my door. I was pretty sure she was going to drag me out by my collar and pistol whip me. “GET THE FUCK OUT! YOU’RE NOT DRIVING MY CAR EVER AGAIN!”
Which was soothing. I climbed out of the car, begging forgiveness. “I’m so sorry, Desi! I have night blindness!”
“Get the fuck in the car!” Desi screamed.
So I did, whimpering, “But I have night blindness.”
When we were back on the road, me slumped in the passenger seat, mourning my newly acquired disease (I’m a hypochondriac, so I spend a lot of time mourning newly acquired diseases), Desi in the driver’s seat, still trembling with rage, we had an enlightening conversation about the incident.
Desi: What THE FUCK happened back there?
Me: I don’t know! I just got night blindness! I couldn’t see anything!
Desi: You DON’T get night blindness instantly!
Me: Well, I did! I’m looking it up on Web MD when we get to Grandma’s.
Desi: I blocked Web MD on all the computers you have access to because you kept diagnosing yourself with cancer.
Me: Well, unblock it! I have night blindness! I swear, I couldn’t see anything!
Desi: Ok, fine, Mom. You couldn’t see anything. Why was your solution to veer off the road you had just been following? Did you think the laws of physics had upended themselves and the road had just disappeared? Wouldn’t the smart thing be to stay on the road, even if you couldn’t see it? AAAAAA!! I have night blindness! I have the perfect solution! I’ll catapult myself into a stream of oncoming traffic and die in a fiery crash!
Me: I couldn’t think clearly! I had night blindness!
Eventually, Desi forgave me for almost obliterating her new car. Our road trip fell back into its familiar, comfortable patterns, me screaming “ARE YOU READY MOTHER FUCKERS, ARE YOU READY LET’S GO” with the radio and intermittently whimpering, “I’m so tired,” every minute or two.
Desi: Mom, If you’re so tired, why don’t you sleep?
Me: I can’t sleep. If I sleep now, I won’t sleep tonight.
Desi: You won’t sleep tonight anyway. You’ve had insomnia since 1986.
Me: . . .
Me: I’m so tired.
Desi: If I get you a snack, will you shut up about how tired you are?
Desi knows that if you want me to shut up, or do anything, really, you should offer me food. As I mentioned, these curves didn’t happen by accident. I am a carbohydrate enthusiast and will respond to an offer of cookies with the fervor of a starving alley cat being offered tuna. If you buy me baked goods, you should probably stand back while putting them in my hand. I might bite you. Just drop those suckers on the floor in front of me and run. Desi stopped at a gas station and brought me a snack.
Me: What is this?
Desi: It’s your favorite. Nutter Butters.
Me: Oh, ok. I couldn’t read the label. I have night blindness.
Desi: MOM, YOU DON’T HAVE NIGHT BLINDNESS!
Me: I’m looking it up at Grandma’s.
For the rest of the trip, I tested my vision. We’d see a sign, and I’d say,
Me: Desi, can you read that?
Desi: Uh, yeah. It says “stop.”
Me: (wailing) I knew it! I can’t see a thing! It’s a big blur! I have night blindness.
Desi: Or, alternative theory, you need to put on your glasses.
I think Desi may have been right. (Don’t tell her I said so.) I think my night blindness may have been a temporary malady related to my bifocal adjustment. But silver linings: We didn’t die in a fiery crash, and my kids have a new way to mock me, which involves running around after me in public places saying, “Night blindness! Night blindness!”in really cruel, high pitched voices. (Our family is very loving. We show love in many ways. We say, “I love you.” We are there for one another when the proverbial shit hits the fan. We cuddle. We give little gifts that say “I’m thinking of you.” And we mock one another mercilessly.)
A few weeks ago, I had the delight of doing a radio interview/performance with Ken Wolverton for his Techno Sadhu Road Show. I dropped the F-bomb like ten times and almost got the radio station’s license revoked. I wasn’t trying to cause trouble. I’d known Ken for decades, having met him when I was in my 20s and written a feature about his art for a newspaper I worked for. I was well-aware he had lots of problems with real bombs that blow people up but few problems with word bombs that, at worst, make some people uncomfortable. (That’s why I’m his friend. I like people who are more offended by nuclear bombs than F-bombs.)
His radio show was a hippie show in a hippie town, and I guess I wasn’t familiar enough with FCC regulations to understand they don’t make exceptions to their rules for hippie radio hosts in hippie towns. So there I was, blithely reading from my soon-to-be released novel, The Long Ride Home (which is veritably littered with F-bombs), when Ken started writhing miserably, making all kinds of fairly difficult to read hand gestures, and eventually, gesticulating wildly, as if he was being overrun by fire ants and dying before me in silent but very real agony.
I stared at him, the sheer horror of the knowledge that something was very, very wrong washing over me. But instinct kicked in. Before I was a writer of any note, I was an actor, and in moments like this, I fell back on my stage training, which was pretty much as natural to me as breathing. At this point in my life, the phrase “Never break character,” is engraved on my stem cells. I can handle just about anything the stage throws at me without letting the audience know something is wrong.
Like that time I was playing a baton twirling lunatic, with some pretty complex baton twirling blocking (at least for me—I’m notoriously clumsy) in Talking With, and the stage crew left a giant bench right in the middle of my stage. The bench was part of the monologue before mine, but I was supposed to have a clear stage so I could do all sorts of baton twirler stuff. I walked out on the stage in front of a crowd full of theatre goers, trying not to let on that looking at that bench was sending me into an active panic attack. Lightheadedness. Heart palpitations. Nausea. The whole bit. I could do none—NONE—of the blocking I had rehearsed for months. I had to improvise, come up with a whole new routine, on the spot. All while trying to bring emotional authenticity to my performance. I pulled it off, I think. I worked around the bench, delivering pieces of my monologue standing on top of it, as if it was meant to be there. I don’t know that I was good, per se, but I’m pretty sure the audience never knew I was madly reworking my blocking.
Or the time I was in the middle of one of my most important monologues as Meg in Places in the Heart, and an actor knocked on the door about ten minutes too early for his scene. I said, in my character’s Southern drawl, “Not right now! We’re having a conversation!” to the mistimed knocker and continued with my monologue undeterred. He came back a few minutes later on his scheduled entrance line, and the show went on.
Of course, there were other times that my, “Never break character,” rule didn’t go as well. Like when I was playing Doris in Same Time Next Year, and part of my blocking in a fight scene involved lobbing a decidedly hefty wooden hairbrush across the biggest stage I had ever worked on, at my costar Vern. During rehearsals, the director said, “Be careful not to hit him.” I laughed and said, “You have no idea how bad I am at sports. I couldn’t hit him if my life depended on it.” Most nights, I was right. I threw that hairbrush with fury, and it landed with a plop about two feet in front of me and fifty feet from Vern. But one night, I was really, really into the scene, and I lobbed the hairbrush with all the rage in my soul, and it flew all the way across that stage, which was roughly the size of South America, and slammed right into the side of poor Vern’s head, almost knocking him out. He visibly reeled. I stared in horror, something akin to the horror in which I stared at Ken that day in the studio, trying to keep it together, trying to stay in character. And then Vern freaking blew it for me. Rubbing his head, still swaying, he said, “Your aim’s gotten better.” The audience erupted into laughter. We were all in on the joke now, so I broke character and laughed my ass off. We rolled with it. The rest of our fight scene was played out with me being in a sort of gleeful frenzy. I guess I pulled off a new brand of crazy rage during that scene. Or more likely, I just sucked.
Anyway, I had to do my best to stay in character at those times, think on my feet, so I tried to do that as I read my novel, and Ken writhed in front of me, performing a modern dance number, looking very, very concerned. I thought maybe the place was on fire. I thought maybe Ken was having a heart attack. But I kept reading. We were on the air after all. I couldn’t break character. But Ken’s gesticulations just got crazier, so finally, I stopped at the end of a paragraph, trying to pretend it was all I had planned to read.
“Do you have more to read?” Ken asked. “I’m sorry I stopped you. You just can’t say those words on the air.” Do you know what I said back. (This is really smooth. You can see my actor training paying off in the next phrase.)
“Oh! I can’t say fuck on the air?” Because if I hadn’t gotten the radio station’s license revoked already, I needed to clinch it fast. Ken looked like he might throw up.
I continued reading after that. I don’t think I swore again. Though I can’t be sure.
To be honest, I’m not really aware of my swearing. I just think “fuck” is a word that people use sometimes. I don’t understand being offended by four letters that make up a word that rhymes with “duck,” a word that basically, if taken literally, indicates the sex act, which most of us, if not all, have in engaged in from time to time. I don’t understand being offended by four letters when the world is falling apart, when babies are being blown to smithereens in Syria and gay people are being herded into concentration camps to be beaten and murdered in Chetznia and a homicidal yam has taken over Washington and seems intent on blowing up our planet in an act of petty, pubescent, ego-fueled rage. Honestly, I feel like many of the people who are horribly offended by the word “fuck” have a misplaced set of priorities. (I’m not saying all people who choose not to use the word “fuck” have a misplaced set of priorities. People have good reasons for not using it too. I’m all for being able to say–or not say–whatever you want. I’m just saying if someone is more offended by that word than he or she is world hunger, he or she may need to reassess a few things.)
Also, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the common human being uses the word “fuck” pretty often. And as a writer, I want to speak to my human brothers and sisters in the language they use, the language that resonates with them. I always say that the only way you can make a true human connection is by reaching across, not down. If I am reaching down to my brothers and sisters, I’ve already lost the battle. Because whether I use the word “fuck” or not, I am not better than anyone. I am still racked with all the insecurities and rage and love and desire and beauty and brokenness that make all of us human. I’m not interested in faking it.
Did you know that the word “fuck” used to be an Irish term for sowing seed, as in farming, that in the beginning, it didn’t have any negative connotation, or any association with the sex act? At least that’s what my linguistics professor told me, way back when I was an undergraduate. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s always stayed with me. Fucking originally had nothing to do with sex.
But even if it’s not true, even if fucking always had to do with sex, why is it that we are so terrified of sex? I have a great deal of reverence for sex. I think it’s beautiful and yes, even sacred. I used to be pretty free and easy about it. Now, I won’t have sex with anyone, because throwing my sex around loosely cost me little pieces of my soul, the same way throwing my friendship around loosely, giving it to people who didn’t really value me, cost me pieces of my soul. I’m saving my body for someone that loves me, reveres me, protects me. I’m careful about giving it away now because it’s precious, and I love me. But that’s sort of the opposite of what people seem to think about sex. That it’s somehow dirty, in and of itself. That we should never talk about it, or think about it. That we should be ashamed because many of us (not all—I do understand and respect that there are beautiful asexual beings on our planet) are biologically predisposed to wanting it.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. A few months ago, I received a letter from a fan who told me she loved my work, but I was ruining the beauty of it by using the word “fuck,” turning people away from work that would otherwise be accessible to them. I didn’t write her back. Maybe I should have. But I get tired of moralistic judgments from people who don’t know me, who don’t understand who I am, who have no idea why I do the things I do. Yes, I studied and thought about words enough to pull of selling books to major publishers. (For reference, the odds of getting drafted into the NFL are higher.) But it never occurred to me to think about the ramifications of using the word “fuck” in my writing. Because I’m just a dumb bimbo who catapulted to the place she is without one deep thought in her pretty little head. Thank you for schooling me.
I felt the same when a man met me at a reading of Beauty of the Broken, bought my book, friended me on Facebook, proceeded to write me constantly, as if we were very close (he seemed to have me conflated with the protagonist of Beauty of the Broken), and post on my wall obsessively, and then wrote me in fury a few months later saying he couldn’t believe the way I sexualized myself on Facebook after all I’d been through (this man had no idea what I had or had not been through) and the way my “posse” played along with it. He was going to punish me by unfriending me. (On, no! Not that! Say it ain’t so.) Unfriend away, dude. I don’t want to be your friend. My sex is NONE of your business. (I blocked him.)
I’m not ashamed of being a sexual being. I refuse to play along with a culture that has defined women by their sexuality, that says that women fall into two categories–virgin or whores. What if my sex is my own? What if I can express the fact that I’m a sexual being—wear sexy clothes, own my sexuality—without it discounting me as person? What if I don’t give a flying FUCK what society has to say about my sexuality? What if I’ve decided to own my vagina, and my sexual urges, and my breasts, and all of it, as an act of love for myself? I’m fully aware that this will make people discount me, categorize me, demonize me. I. Don’t. Care. My sex was part of my birthright the day I was born on this planet. It’s not yours. It’s not society’s. It’s not men’s. It’s MINE.
Speaking of sex, if you haven’t noticed, I dress in a way that acknowledges my sexuality. Many people who love me deeply and honestly have expressed concern over this. I love those people back. I know their concern for me comes from a good place, and I thank them for loving me. On the other hand, many people who hate me deeply and honestly have used the way I dress as an excuse to vilify me, call me a slut and all that shamolee. You know how it goes.
But the truth is, I’ve put as much thought into the way I dress as I have into using the F-bomb in my work. I LOVE being a sexual being. I LOVE being a woman. I think the female form is gorgeous, and I feel lucky to be in possession of one so I can dress it up in all kinds of sparkles and spandex and lace. I’m not going to wear mumus because I live in a horribly fucked up culture that has decided that a sexual woman is a dumb woman. Guess what. I’m a sexual woman. I’m also really fucking smart. Guess what. I’m a sexual woman. I’m also really proud of who I am, and no, just because I own my sexuality doesn’t mean I’ll give it to anyone who asks for it. (But even if I would, is that anyone’s business but my own?) As a matter of fact, I won’t. As a matter of fact, as I said, I’m pretty fucking careful about who I sleep with these days. As in, I sleep with no one. Because, as I said, I love me, and I’m waiting for someone who loves me as much as I do. But I’m not throwing my sexuality under the bus so our fucked up culture, which has decided that female sexuality = evil, thinks I’m a good person.
If you think I’m evil because I say fuck, and because I show off my cleavage (I happen to have awesome cleavage), I don’t want to know you anyway. If you are so shallow and caught up in our culture’s bullshit that you can’t think past appearances, you aren’t really the kind of person that I’m interested in befriending.
I remember a director of a play I was in once said to me, “When I met you, I thought you were some Marilyn Monroe knock off bimbo, but then, I started talking to you, and you were smart, and you knew literature, and I said, ‘Wow, she’s pretty fucking amazing.’” Yes. That is, at least in part, why I am what I am. I like to challenge people’s preconceived notions of femininity and the stifling categories into which it falls. Because maybe next time that director sees a woman who looks like me, who owns her sexuality in spite of a culture that is determined to call her a whore if she does so, he will withhold judgement. He will talk to the woman and find out how fucking amazing she is instead of categorizing her based on the way she presents sexually.
Whew. Ok. Glad I got that off my chest. In spite of my behavior, Ken invited me back, this time to cohost the show, on the condition that I would “restrain my rebellious tongue frothing with unmentionables.” I love that description of me. I told him I was going to put it on my resume. I do have a rebellious tongue. This world needs rebellious tongues. It needs people who will say “fuck you” to the powers that be. Because frankly, as is, the powers that be are making sure we all die without living. And as of late, it seems to me they are working very hard to simply make sure we all die.
I will be cohosting the Techno Sadhu Road Show this month (dates and times forthcoming). I will do everything in my power to avoid using that list of unmentionable words that I realized after the radio interview hung very prominently over Ken’s head. I don’t know how I missed the sign. After my reading, Ken said he was pretty sure I had checked every word off the list. I had. But this time, I will refrain from saying “fuck” out of respect for Ken and his show, not because I agree with the FCC.
Turns out, I am a rebellious woman frothing with unmentionables. I want to embody the parts of self that we’ve decided are dirty. Because they aren’t really dirty. I want to mention the things we are afraid to mention. Let’s talk about it, for fuck’s sake. Let’s talk.
P.S. Here is the radio show in question, which Ken titled The Tawni Waters Special. I’m special. My mommy says so, and so does Ken. So there.