This is a rework of the original excerpt. I’ve added a little more from the opening vignette and inserted a different one from the younger version of the protagonist.
This excerpt is PG-13 for mild language.
For the pdf version click here: The Box and Liquid Fire
The day my father brought the box over I laughed about it. That dingy plastic container, dusty with age.
I referenced it lightly, gesturing to it and telling my husband, Zen, “Here sits all of my teen angst.” We both laughed at that.
I first sifted through a morass of really terrible teenaged poetry. It’s utterly awful. A few stilted lines here and there are bearable, but generally it’s quite bad.
Buried towards the bottom I find an old notebook, black cover, gold lettering, college ruled. More awful poetry, but towards the back there’s a shift of loose papers. They tumble into my hands and my breath slows.
It’s my old journal, started from when I was seventeen. I thought I had thrown it away. I know my intention at one point was to burn it. I must never have gotten around to it.
I begin to read and am at first amused by the pretentious, self-aggrandizing insecurity, but as I continue the memories of emotions flood back. How miserable I was then, how unstable.
It’s sixteen years after I last wrote in it and as I’m reading my ten-year-old daughter, Hope, comes in from the outside full of the curiosity and the bright expectations of the young.
I sit next to my youngest daughter, an infant, who smiles serenely and kicks her striped-sock feet while reclining in a bouncer that makes her look like she has bunny ears.
The toddler, Flower, is in the other room asking, “Wha’ happen to sheep? Sheep go ka-boom!”
Later, I cook dinner while my ex-husband, Tanno, Hope’s father, holds Smallwise, the baby. Then we sit around the table, eating, Zen still at work.
Flower yells out her Toddler Battle Cry, her face covered in spaghetti sauce, “Bum-bee-ya! Bumbeeya. Bum-bee-YAAAAAA!” and we laugh.
That night I tell Zen of my journal, how strange it makes me feel, seeing all those intense old emotions; the smear of my own black inked writings . . .
It astonishes me that I never mentioned it before considering the impact it had on my life. That I’ve kept that part of my life so secret and so very much mine. That’s when I realize that it wasn’t just my journal I had shut in that dust-covered box. I had ripped out who I was back then and locked it up as well. Everything about who I was, who I no longer wanted to be.
It explains the feeling of divergence that I’ve felt my entire adult life, one that seems to have only grown stronger. I’ve questioned myself, mystified. How did I go from a mentally unstable, drug addicted seventeen year old to a 34-year-old mother of three with a graduate degree who drives a minivan?
When I look in the mirror my eyes are as spectral as they were then, and just as questing. I am haunted by a former version of myself.
I look back on all the intervening years between then and now and I feel like life has made me thin, a sharp edge of unreality questioning its own form. I’ve spent too many years trying to be the face of something not natural to my own biology. This place is comforting in its familiarity, despite the darkness that comes with it. It is the place where my words are born. How could I have left it for so long?
I stretch my sight to see all the distant years that could have been, that have now crumbled to dust in my mouth. Their taste is sweet, but false. It has been many long lean years since I felt like myself, truly myself.
I won’t stop until I am as I always should have been.
The night after I started reading my old journal I had a dream of Mr. Man and I sitting in a glass enclosed garden. It is deep night outside and our reflections are shimmering on the walls and the grass is all black. There are tufts of lavender in the garden and I pick some, crush the delicate miniature blooms between my fingers and hold out my hand to him so we can both inhale its sweet scent. But it doesn’t smell like anything. Over and over I crush the blossoms for us but there is always an absence, no matter how many times I try. I wake with the feel of the flowers still being crushed by my fingers and the vacancy of their perfume still in my nostrils . . .
3. Liquid Fire
the world is a hushed green and blu sprinkled in faery red-gold. the haziness moves like the currents of the ocean. i feel the breeze lift the heaviness of my hair off my sweaty neck while the sky cries for some tragedy. i walk behind him, like women used to walk behind men so long ago. GOD! i’m so damn passive, like some little masochistic bitch. no wonder he hates me.
this rage burns, it consumes my soul the way he did my flesh. i feel as if all my blood is liquid fire running through my veins and burning my heart. i can’t believe he made me cry.
i wish i could tell him. i wish i could make him understand this verse circling around my head like vultures around meat that is about to die and rot. i wish i could go up to him and say: i kept on trying for you, but all i got were three nails and some wood, and then you asked me what it’s like to be Christ. and then i’d kick his ass . . .
The past couple of days have been rough, like sandpaper on my skin; carving asperous fissures through my mind.
Smallwise has gotten to the age when babies really start waking up and staking a claim in the world. And her second tooth has yet to break through the gum making it so much more difficult to soothe her.
She can’t even begin to submit to her exhaustion unless we bouncy walk out on the porch for at least fifteen to twenty minutes, which wouldn’t be so bad except the days are seared and steamy. The heat shimmers like a mirage of sensation. No natural suburban environment could possibly be so hot; we’re too civilized for such things. It must be a trick of the mind, for only the far wild places of the world ever feel such a wet fire unfurled over the sky with a ponderous snap of brightness that hurts the eyes. It leaves my thoughts feeling bloody and raw.
Thursday in particular is bad. Zen got to work late because we were both tired and so he worked late, leaving me with Flower and Smallwise in what turned out to be an agonizingly long day.
First, Flower was having pooping issues. She weaned herself when I got pregnant with Smallwise when she was about a year old. Not long after she began having major bouts of constipation and started holding it in, making things worse. We give her milk of magnesia every day but that kid has an anal sphincter of steel, and still manages to hold it in. The only way to get her to poop is to catch her while she’s trying to hold it in, separate her legs, and sit her down, all while she’s screaming shrilly and fighting as hard as she can to keep her legs closed.
Because Smallwise was fussy due to her not-quite emerged tooth I had her snugged up in her soft carrier. So when Flower would start to grunt and strain I couldn’t ever get to her in time to make her assume the “Poop Position”.
I tried to be in a fun mood but the heat tangled itself in my temper which was spit quick and wicked. I grumbled when Flower began eating the glitter playdough after only fifteen minutes and we had to put it away.
“We can never do anything fun because you always end up eating it.” I immediately winced as soon as the words were out of my mouth, wishing I had bitten them down instead of letting them loose.
When Smallwise wouldn’t settle I slammed a door and snapped at her, then instantly began to cry from remorse. I hate the days when my mind seems to grow teeth and snarls at everything within growling distance.
It was just one of those days that no matter how hard I tried I could only be my least patient form, straining against all irritation like it was a personal affront.
That night, as I lay in bed I can’t sleep, and my mind keeps turning to my last journal entry written sixteen and a half years ago . . .
I tore myself apart psychologically, split myself into pieces that are only now pulling themselves back together. Who am I now? What am I now?