Thursday, May 29, 2014


by Giselle Renarde

I'm somewhat at a loss.  This fortnight's topic (near-death experiences) isn't one I can related to.  The only time I've ever lost consciousness was last year, when I sliced my finger open with a kitchen knife and fainted.  Woo!  That was something else!  But not a near-death experience.

I asked my girlfriend, just now, if she's ever had one.  Nope.  No luck there.

But it got me thinking about something that happened to her a couple years back, when she was having lunch with a friend.  In case I haven't mentioned it lately, my girlfriend (I call her "Sweet" online) is transgender.  She identifies as female, but she's not out of the closet with her family.  A few of them know, but most see her as a man, and she continues to present as male when she's around them.

Among friends, she's stealth--that is to say, she presents and identifies as a woman. Not trans. Not genderqueer.  Not "other."  Just a woman.

Many of the trans women I know are older people--say, sixty-plus.  One big difference I've noticed between trans friends in the "older adults" versus "younger adults" age category is that the older ones tend to be stealth.  Only their inner circles know they're trans.  Many also lead lives in which their time is split between two distinct identities, two distinct genders. In some situations they present male, even though they identify as women.

By contrast, the younger trans women I know tend to be out.  They don't mind people knowing they were raised as boys.  They deal with any repercussions that might arise because they don't feel ashamed of their identities.  This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, of course--just something I've noticed among friends.

Anyway, back to this non-near-death-experience.

My girlfriend was eating lunch at a restaurant with a friend with whom she was stealth.  They were enjoying a perfectly pleasant conversation when everything went black.  The next thing Sweet remembers is regaining consciousness in an ambulance, with a paramedic holding her wig in one hand and her driver's license (with her male name) in the other.

She was mortified.  She had no idea what had happened. There was only one thing she was sure of: her friend would abandon her, hate her, tell all their mutual acquaintances what a freak "she" was...

That's not what happened.  Her friend filled in the blanks as much as possible.  Apparently Sweet started nodding off as they were eating, then just collapsed.  She kept breathing, but nobody could bring her back.  Restaurant employees called 9-1-1.

When the paramedics arrived, they couldn't get her to regain consciousness.  They loaded her onto a stretcher and carried her to the ambulance.  Her friend came along and witnessed Sweet unmasked and revealed in a way that made my girlfriend very uncomfortable.

Sweet was absolutely sure the incident would dissolve a friendship she'd spent years cultivating.  She was far more concerned about the social fallout than her health. Her health was an afterthought.  (She's been scheduled for an MRI twice, but each time she's had an anxiety attack at the prospect of entering that machine.)  When I talked to her that day, she was freaking out.

And then... nothing happened.  Her friend drove her home and called the next day to make sure she was okay. Her friend emailed, as usual, to schedule their next get-together.  Nothing changed.  Their friendship went on, as usual.  Maybe this woman read Sweet as trans all along.  Who knows?  It's hard for me to assess my girlfriend's "passability."  We're just too close.  To me, she's the most beautiful woman in the world.  Could be that others view her differently.

Doesn't really matter, though, because the point of the story is that the scariest thing in my girlfriend's world happened to her.  She was "unmasked" in front of a friend and in front of strangers.  (Those paramedics put the "professional" in healthcare professional, by the way.)  And she lived to tell the tale.

Come to think of it, it's not even a very exciting story.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"The Mirror Man": A Nearly Dead Story

She lived for these Sunday afternoon teas, in the spring or early summer especially when it wasn’t quite muggy or quite cold and the breeze would catch the garden in the shade exactly right for the spring rituals of genteel women. The boisterous hummingbirds among the roses, the dignity of conversation away form the reaches of men or children.   Still Marion could see her sister Anna wasn’t right.  Bloodless, wordless, disturbed.

“Are you well, dear?”

Anna looked up and offered a small smile.  “I’m fine.”

“Clearly you’re not.”

Anna looked away, picked up a Madeleine cake and mouthed it with exaggerated enthusiasm.  “These are very fresh,” she said.  She touched a china tea cup to her lips, raising her little finger.  “They say President Teddy Roosevelt will be passing through town tomorrow to give a speech from the back of a train.  As is his wont.”


Marion set the tea cup down and waited in silence for her aura of Elder Sister Authority to gather around her like a cloud.  She waited until Anna felt it.  Anna set down her tea cup.  She lost interest in the Madeleine cakes and finally folded her hands.

“What are we really talking about, little sister?”

“I’m fine.”

“Are you not enjoying your honeymoon?”

“I am.”

“Arlon is a decent chap.  Good family and all that.”

“I’m a little tired that’s all.”

“I’ve seen you tired,” said Marion. “You are not tired.”

“I’m fine,” said Anna. “Do not press me so. Perhaps I’m not hungry.”

“I’ve seen you not hungry,” said Marion.  You’re not ‘not hungry’. You are disturbed.  Inwardly.  Clearly.  You cannot hide it, because you’re a cheerful person.  When you’re not disturbed. Something has deeply shaken your peace.”  She leaned forward intimately, glanced around to make sure no one was eavesdropping. “Is it the marital bed?”

Anna’s eyes narrowed.


Marion reached out her hand and took her sisters fingers and gave them a friendly squeeze.  “Does it upset him?  Your lack of maidenhead?”

“You would bring that up.  And still throw it at me.”

“And Arlon is angry with you?”

“No, Arlon is a man of the world,” said Anna. “Its not that.  He’s from out west.  They’re very - progressive - about these things.  ‘Why can’t a woman do as a man does’ he says.  That’s partly why I agreed to marry him.  He’s not rich.  But he’s a progressive man.  He thinks women should be able to vote someday.  He even thinks the coloreds should vote.  He doesn’t need his women to be virgins.”

“What then?”

Anna turned her eyes away.  Her lips parted, closed, parted, like a fish contemplating a worm on a hook.  “. . I . . .”

Marion, a skillful fisher, knew to keep still.

“. . . I . . . had a kind of affair.”

Marion sat still, not breathing.  

“Yes, I think I have been unfaithful.”

“And you confessed this to Arlon?”

She shook her head.  “He’s not yet liberal enough to tolerate that.  But it wasn’t exactly an affair.  Not with a man.”

Now Marion was beyond shocked.  But she was intrigued.  “Not a man.  Anna.  Have you had a relation with a woman?”


“Performed an unnatural act with a woman?”


“I didn’t know you could be so interesting.”

“It’s not like that.”

Marion felt herself getting angry.  “Well, what?  Common barn yard animals?”


“What are we talking about Anna?  Just tell me.  I swear to god Arlon will not know.”

“A ghost.”

Marion was speechless.  She swamped her younger sister with a look that wrapped her in an atmosphere of self doubt.

“A man’s ghost,” said Anna, almost too softly to hear.

“There are no ghosts.”

“There is at least one.  And I assure you he is quite capable as a man.”

Marion felt her thoughts go still.  She took her gentle cup of tea and sipped.  The tea had gone cold. She took the pot and poured herself some more.  Anna held out her cup, a good sign, and Marion refreshed it.  “A capable male ghost?” said Marion, giving the subject an encouraging poke.  “The best kind I suppose.  If you must have a ghost about.”

“Capable and . . . Skillful.  Satisfying actually.”

“I think I would like to meet this ghost.”

Anna snorted tea through her nose and cackled.  Both women giggled, shook silently and sighed together.  The air around them felt fresher and clean.  “Invite him to come see me,” said Marion and they both laughed again.  Anna grabbed a Madeleine and stuffed it happily in her mouth.

“Its not a bad thing having an affair with a ghost, I think,” said Marion.  “You won’t likely get caught or pregnant and if Arlon shoots him with a pistol in your bed he’ll be none the worse for it.”

“No,” said Anna, with a little sigh of relief.  “You don’t think I’m crazy?”

“I’ve seen you crazy,” declared Marion.  “You don’t seem crazy today.  Only confused.  But I say - what is it like to have a little romp with a ghost?  Is it like a dream?”

“I’m not sure its a proper ghost.”


“He’s all covered with little snakes.”


“He came to me in the afternoon, after I had come out of my bath.  I was toweling off in the room and I was unclothed, enjoying a bit of an air bath and thinking of taking up a quill and ink and scratching off a note to Papa.  When I turned he was standing between me the big wall mirror as though he had just stepped out of it into our own world.  I thought I should be expected to scream or stand on a table or something but really, Marion.  He just seemed so lost and blameless.  Like a big puppy, not dangerous at all.  As though he didn’t ask to be there but had only arrived.  He looked and looked at me, as confused as myself.  And I realized - I liked having him look at me.  I felt as though I should know him, as though I had known him forever and always and we had only bumped into each other in passing and because we were supposed to.  Do you see?”

“He was covered with snakes?  Doesn’t sound like a proper ghost at all, no.”

“I’m not sure he was a ghost.  I wouldn’t know.  There is no word for him.  But it felt safe.  He was strange.  He was not like men we know.  He was a tall and athletic man, and yet almost more Papa’s age.  He had a picture inked onto his arms of strange oriental characters, but he was not a yellow man. His chest had five robin blue circles like little candy wafers and there were thin snakes or possibly string dangling from each.  I thought I heard anxious voices far away around him.  His words were odd.  He said I was ‘hot’ though I felt quite cool from my bath. He came over to me, kissed my breasts and pushed me onto the bed.  Onto my back.”

“And you performed the marital act?”

“With abandonment,” said Anna.  “I felt quite safe in his arms.”

“I don’t know if I should be ashamed of you or envy you.”

“It was sweetness itself.  Not as with a man, it didn't seem at the moment like an unfaithful act at all, only an adventure, a lark, a sweet dream without consequences.  As sweet a dream as you could ever have and no one harmed.” said Anna.  "I did think so at the time."

"And now?"

"Now I don't know.  If Arlon had done such a thing and enjoyed it so much I think I would be angry.  Wouldn't you?"

"Odd," said Marion.  "I don't think I would.  I think the rules would different."

"Do you think?"

"It was good enough for Mother Mary.  Though I imagine Joseph took some convincing."

Anna lifted her tea cup and held it out.  “Let’s just say - to capable ghosts.”

“And improper ghosts.”  Marion tapped her tea cup to Anna’s.  “And may the most improper one come to me.”

He opened his eyes to flashing red lights that spun around the bushes and grass and side paneling of the old Victorian house.  A young woman with blue latex gloves and a white uniform hovered over him anxiously peering into his eyes.  “Can you hear me?”  she shouted.

He mouth was dry.  His chest, fingers and toes felt as if they were on fire.  His left hand was covered with angry red burn blisters.  She slapped his face lightly and firmly, batting at him like a kitten with a ball.  “Can you hear me, sir?”

He couldn’t speak but nodded furiously.

She held up her hand, spread her fingers.  “How many fingers?”

He looked at her fingers but didn't know.  Shook his head.

A young man appeared and ripped the sticky blue disks and electric wires from his chest.  He saw the glistening jellied paddles and the control box as the man whisked them away.  He tried to raise his head, but it was enormously heavy and dizzy and he flopped back in the grass disoriented.  Over head  birds flew past in formation singing.

“Three,” he said.

“Sir, we’re bringing you to emergency.  You received a shock that stopped your heart.  The foreman gave you CPR and we’re going to bring you in to intensive care.  Do you feel any pain?”

He nodded, croaked “Shit,” and then “It was Wednesday.”  He was relieved to hear the sound of his own voice coming back.  He held up three fingers.

As they lifted him onto the fold up gurney and began to wheel him over the lawn to the back of the ambulance he glanced at the old Victorian house with its  tea garden filled with rose bushes.  Near the house a  tall wooden pole with the dangling black high power cable he’d let go of it as he limply plummeted forty feet.

He remembered something.  There had been a woman.  An angel of some kind.  An angel of mercy waiting for him.

A man slapped him, said something, slapped him again and he opened his eyes resentfully, gurgling.  The ambulance doors slammed and they drove off howling. The nice young man gave him an injection and listened with his ear pressed to his chest as they raced down the highway.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Accidental Death

I have never had a new death experience, and after reading the Wikipedia explanation of NDE I'm very glad about it:

A near-death experience (NDE) refers to personal experiences associated with impending death, encompassing multiple possible sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light. These phenomena are usually reported after an individual has been pronounced clinically dead or has been very close to death.

No, never been there, never done that. I have however had a couple of near accidents that could have resulted in my death - and the death of friends. Both incidents, unsurprisingly, took place while driving .

Some years ago a friend visited me from the UK and we decided to take a road trip from California to Canada. I worked out a half-ass itinerary Orange County to Vegas to Salt Lake City, Idaho, Montana - I wanted to see what Butte looked like after watching so many Westerns in my boyhood. (Shouldn't have bothered). We made it to Canada as far as Banff then on to Vancouver without a hitch.

It was in Oregon while we were looking for Crater Lake and my friend was navigating when she told me, 'Oh turn right here, looks like it takes straight to the lake.' So I did and this road proved to be a steep uphill trail that got narrower and narrower as we proceeded. Now, I'm the last person in the world to ask a stranger for directions, but this did seem very wrong and I started to get a bit creeped out, so on seeing a guy on the side of the trail throwing debris into the back of a truck I  pulled over. He looked a bit startled by my question, 'Is this the road to Crater Lake?'

'No,' he replied, 'and you better not go one yard further - and be careful turning round.' Puzzled, I got out of the car to see if maybe there were potholes or something to avoid. What I saw, froze my blood. The road had ended and we were on the edge of what could only be described as a precipice. A hundred or so feet below was a garbage tip.
'But there's no sign' I said in protest.
'Everybody knows it's a private road' he replied. 'Says so at the bottom of the hill.'

To this day I'll never know why I stopped to ask the way. It was so out of character for me. Some intuition, sixth sense, or just blind luck. One thing for sure, my friend never go to navigate again on the trip.

The second brush with death also involved a car and also friends from the UK. (I really don't have it in for my fellow Brits, honest!) I was taking them to the airport in San Diego at the end of their trip and had to cross two sets of railroad tracks which are guarded by bells, flashing lights and electronically controlled descending gate that stop you from trying to beat the delay. I honestly don't know what happened except a car pulled out in front of effectively stranding me on the tracks.

Of course the bells started clanging, the lights flashing, my friends screaming 'Oh my God, we're going to get hit!" I tried backing up but there was a car directly behind me, the driver on her cell phone. So I backed up anyway, hit the front end of her car which made her look up and give me the finger. Now I was convinced we were going to die as I could see the train bearing down on us at a rate of knots. Fortunately she realized at the last moment she needed to reverse. As I backed up the the gate came down and hit the hood of my car and the train passed by us leaving no more than a coat of paint between it and we three trembling and very lucky fellas. One of my friends started to laugh hysterically as the train thundered by and it was contagious - soon we were all laughing like fools and I had definitely given them something to remember their US visit by.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Skirting the Precipice of Death

By Lisabet Sarai

Our topic for the coming fortnight is "Near Death Experiences". I hate to recycle posts, but this one is so appropriate, I couldn't resist. Besides almost all the members of the Grip have changed since April 2012 when this post appeared!

We went to Peru because, that winter, there was no snow in Austria. That fact scuttled our original vacation plans for a ski holiday. Hustling to find an alternative (I'd already secured time off from my job), we found a relatively cheap package tour to Lima. We'd had positive experiences traveling with this tour company to Jamaica. They provided airfare and lodging at a ridiculously low cost, then made their money on extras. In Jamaica it had been easy to use the hotel as a base for exploring on our own. We found out a bit late that Peru was a different sort of place altogether.

It was the early eighties, and quite frankly, the country was a mess. Vicious bands of Shining Path guerillas made overland transit perilous. Strikes and civil unrest occurred on an almost daily basis. At Lima Airport, we waited three hours for our luggage because the baggage handlers had stopped work. Rolling electricity outages afflicted the city of Lima, many regions of which we were advised to avoid due to the danger of being mugged or worse. Aside from the amazing gold museum, there wasn't much to see in Peruvian capital. In any case, we had loftier goals: Cusco and Machu Picchu.

The only practical way to Cusco was by air, and that turned out to be almost as expensive as our flight from the U.S. Nevertheless, we decided to bite the bullet and bought non-refundable round trip tickets to the old Incan capital nestled in the Andes.

Arriving in Cusco, we were informed that the narrow gauge railroad to Machu Picchu had been out of service for three weeks, due to a combination of rainy season mudslides and another strike. Apparently the strike had been settled, but it still wasn't clear whether the trains were running. We were devastated. Cusco was an astonishing place in its own right, but to come all that way and not get to see the fabled Incan terraces and the Temple of the Sun...!

Two days before we were scheduled to return to Lima, our guide told us we could catch the Machu Picchu train the following morning. We were up at six AM (a real sacrifice for my husband!) and on the train by seven. By ten AM we still hadn't left; there were new landslides blocking the tracks, we learned, that had to be cleared. When the train finally crawled out of the station, we cheered – but prematurely, as we were halted by a slide after an hour. Bulldozers were mustered, mud was cleared, the train proceeded for an hour or two, before our way was blocked once again.

Normally the trip from Cusco to the base of Huayna Picchu (only fifty miles!) takes about four hours. In our case, we didn't arrive until after four in the afternoon. The heart-stopping bus ride up the steep mountain flank, along the Hiram Bingham Highway, required another half hour. And the ruins closed at five thirty.

So we had less than an hour to explore one of the great wonders of the world. It was worth the journey, but way too short. Some members of the tour planned to stay over at the mountain-peak guest house, but our plane back to Lima left the next morning and we were worried about losing our money. In addition, my husband was showing signs of the flu. We climbed back into the bus, trundled down the side of the cliff and onto the train, and – waited.

The locomotive finally inched forward, into the inky darkness. We hadn't eaten. My husband's forehead felt hot enough to fry an egg. Although we were both exhausted, the hard wooden benches on the train were not really conducive to sleeping. I remember that trip as a kind of endless hell – creeping along the tracks that clung to the mountain side, the rain-swelled Urabamba River audible even though it was seventy feet below us. We'd stop for obstacles, wait, move, stop... My husband was hallucinating. I could have believed it was all a dream myself if I hadn't been so physically uncomfortable.

I finally must have drifted off into some kind of slumber, when an awful roar yanked me awake. The train lurched to a stop, throwing us to the sticky floor. It sounded as a building was collapsing around us.

The terrible racket finally stopped. Echoes of the tumult died away. Along with some of the other passengers, I stepped off the train to check out the situation.

A massive wall of steaming mud blocked the tracks, less than ten feet in front of the locomotive. Trees poked out of the muck at weird angles. Boulders twice as large as the stones of the Incan temples lay scattered on the narrow shelf the builders of the railroad had cut into the mountain side. As I stared in disbelief at the debris, a few more clods and pebbles clattered down from the heights on the right. Far below us, at the bottom of the cliff on the left, the rapids of the Urabamba seethed and boiled.

The railroad crew hurried us back into the train. I was in shock. If the slope had given way thirty seconds later, the train would have been buried. We might well have been swept off the track into the river coiling below.

My husband had fallen into an uneasy sleep, moaning and tossing on the unforgiving seats. As for me, I didn't close my eyes. I heard the grunt of the earth moving equipment they somehow managed to convey from further up the route, the shouts of the workmen, the background mutter of the swollen river. I was awake when the train nudged forward, rocking on its earth-dented tracks. I kept watch on my beloved, giving him water, praying his fever would break. I stared out the open window into the black night, not quite sure we'd really survived.

I watched dawn turn the terra-cotta roofs of Cusco from gray to red as we crawled down, back into the valley. We could have died. With a smidge less luck, we might have been lost in the Urabamba.

As the sun rose over the ancient city of the Incas, I found it hard to believe. I still do. Maybe the old gods were protecting us. Or maybe, that time at least, we were just lucky. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Dubious Fruit

by Jean Roberta

“Jeanie, if a strange man ever offers you candy, don’t take it!”

I thought the grownups in my family were worried about poisoning. I had heard of crazy people who gave poisoned candy (or chocolate bars with razor blades inside) to children at Halloween, and my parents seemed to think this was likely to happen at any time of the year. I was reminded of witches in fairy tales who offered poisoned apples to innocent children or youths.

The message was that I should resist temptation in the form of food offered by strangers. If a strange man had offered to show me a puppy instead, I probably would have accepted his offer.

The connection between food and sex didn’t become clear to me until years later.

I was about eight when my piously Episcopalian (Anglican) grandmother took me to church, and I finally understood the story of the Fall of Man. I learned that the first woman on earth effectively created sin when she ate a ripe, juicy apple which God had forbidden her to eat, much as my parents had given me mysterious warnings about men offering candy, without explaining why I should resist temptation. Not only was Eve apparently a bad child of God, she also got her brother/husband Adam into trouble by offering him the same apple, or another one from the same tree.

When God confronted them both, according to the story in the King James version of the Bible, Adam said, “The woman tempted me, and I did eat.” This excuse can be interpreted in several ways, but the way that most mainstream Christians seem to have interpreted it is that Eve tempted Adam with the fruitlike curves of her body, and he succumbed to the temptation to have illicit sex.

God was apparently so furious as a result that he condemned Eve to suffer in childbirth (after growing fat in pregnancy, as though from gluttony), he forced Adam to work for his food (i.e. Adam had to develop agriculture instead of simply picking or harvesting the abundant food in the garden), and He condemned Adam and Eve to grow old and die – which, presumably, they wouldn’t have done if they had both been obedient.

Human misery, according to this story, is a direct result of Eve’s appetite. All her female descendants were therefore under a moral obligation to try to compensate for this shameful legacy by being obedient wives to their husbands. Of course, lifelong obedience and service to the Man wouldn’t be enough to overcome his distrust, since nothing can change a woman into something else.

Please note that this ancient story has several variations and several outcomes. Nonetheless, the Anglican interpretation of the story as authorized by King James and written in the era of Shakespeare seemed painfully clear to me in my childhood.

My grandma expected me to feel cleansed and uplifted by hearing a sermon in the House of God. Apparently she felt this way herself. I felt nauseous. Emerging into the light of day, I felt as if I would never be hungry again. The consequences of eating just didn’t seem worth it.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, I could rarely walk down a street in broad daylight without being propositioned, or hearing an assessment of my body by a male observer. When I complained about street harassment to a friend of any age or gender, I was usually asked what I had done (or worn) to attract the wrong kind of attention from men. If the shape of my body was on display, I was clearly the delicious-looking poison fruit that men couldn’t be expected to resist.

When I was in university, I had a kind of acquaintanceship (not exactly a friendship) with a classmate, a thin Englishman named Joe. He used to invite himself to join me for lunch in the cafeteria, although he told me that he was too self-conscious to eat in public. He would say he enjoyed “watching the animals feed,” and I was part of the herd. He would comment on young women who seemed “fixated,” according to him, and he thought this was why they were “fat.” (He classified most of our female fellow-students this way.) He expected me to agree with him, although I was afraid that even if I were just slim enough at the moment to meet his approval, I couldn’t afford to gain five pounds if I didn’t want to be diagnosed with a psychiatric problem.

In order to be both mentally healthy and virtuous (or at least less sinful than the harlots all around me), it seemed, I had to look like a saint in a painting by El Greco. (See the image above.)

To a large extent, Western society has become secularized since the time of King James, and this process has continued since my childhood in the 1950s. As the French say, however, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. (The more things change, the more they remain the same.) Intense feelings about food, sex, body shape, and the status of women are now largely defined in terms of “mental health” vs. “mental illness,” but these concepts often look like a thinly-disguised version of the old concepts of sinfulness (self-indulgence) vs. obedience to God’s laws (self-sacrifice).

In various jobs, I’ve watched female co-workers and colleagues act out a drama of temptation when they argue with themselves aloud over whether to have a slice of cheesecake or a cinnamon bun with their coffee during a break from work. “It looks so good, but I’m trying to lose weight!” Ads and commercials tempt women like the serpent in the garden by claiming that a particular new snack food is both delicious and low in calories (i.e. sin).

I try to resist falling into a Slough of Despond when I become aware of how much I weigh. I’ve gained about 30 pounds in the last 25 years, and I know in my head that this gradual change shouldn’t alarm me. It’s probably a sign that my metabolism has slowed down while my appetite has remained the same as it was in my active twenties. Even still, I can’t help feeling that something is wrong with me. As a woman in this culture, I wasn’t supposed to grow older OR fatter.

So I waver and compromise. A sweet treat can be compensated for by taking the dogs for a jog around the block. Luckily, my relationship with my female spouse (which would surely be incomprehensible to King James) makes me feel less guilty than I would probably feel if I had married Joe. That hardly bears thinking about.

Human figures in El Greco’s paintings look like tortured souls, and I don’t want to suffer any more than I already have.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

In the Teeth of the Endless Now of Desire

by Annabeth Leong

Midnight, and the older man I lived with was working the night shift. I couldn't sleep. All I could think about was the food in the freezer, the mushrooms in particular. Large and breaded, they came out of the oven crispy, salty, and filled with a rich juice that I craved.

Twelve mushrooms were left in the half-full bag. I got out of bed and stepped into the darkness of the empty house. I preheated the oven, took out the bag, and placed one—just one—on the baking pan.

The bag had to last, so one was all I could allow myself.


I have lived without sufficient food several times in my life, always for no good reason. When my parents got divorced, there was a while where my father forgot to feed me and I was afraid to ask him to. Though there could have been food, there wasn't, and I eventually got bold enough to make a habit of searching the house for money until I found enough to order pizza. Perhaps not the smartest solution, but I was a pretty small kid and that was the best I could come up with.

In this case, I'd run away from home as a teenager and wound up living with this man. He worked as a manager at a 24-hour gas station, and I worked an illegal number of hours after school and on weekends, so there ought to have been enough money for food. However, I was utterly under his control, and I turned my paycheck over to him as soon as it was cashed. I had no money of my own, he was able to eat food while at work, and he'd proven strangely unwilling to buy food for me. About once a month, he grudgingly took me to an all-night grocery store and bought oatmeal packets, frozen food, cartons of eggs, and canned soup. Then the game commenced.

Usually, I had one packet of microwave oatmeal in the morning before leaving for school. Then at school when lunchtime came, I shamelessly begged boys to buy me something from the cafeteria. My favorite was the chicken rice burrito, which cost $1.75 and would relieve my hunger better than anything else I was likely to get. I'd never thought of myself as the type of girl to ask guys to buy me things, but I was desperately hungry enough that I didn't care anymore.

After school, I begged some more, and if I was lucky the man I lived with would pick up a sandwich at a fast food place and allow me to eat half of it for dinner. What I didn't get was my own plate. I had to content myself with bites off his, and he salted everything he ate so heavily that his meals seemed covered in frost.


When the oven timer went off, I ran to the kitchen. The mushroom had expanded from the heat, puffing up into something delicious and golden. I knew I ought to cut it into tiny pieces to make it last as long as possible. I was weeks away from the next grocery trip, and I'd already eaten half the bag of mushrooms. Instead, I couldn't resist. I popped the mushroom in my mouth whole, caring nothing for the way it scalded me, my heart and soul focused entirely on the juice of it washing over my tongue as I bit in.

It wasn't enough. I was starving, and I had to feel that sensation one more time. I got out the bag again and eased one more mushroom onto the baking pan.


Hungry as I was, I had no self-control. I am very aware of how poorly I calculated my actions.

My mother gave me $10 once when I went to visit her—enough for a lot of dried oatmeal at the grocery store—but instead of trying to make the bill last, I took it to an Italian restaurant downtown and spent it on a meal of homemade focaccia bread, house salad, fresh pasta with marinara sauce, and a cup of tea. I performed precise arithmetic to figure the most food I could order while still leaving a fair tip. I chewed as slowly as possible, caught up in the transcendence of butter, flour, and tomato sauce, and for a brief time I felt free. Still, within the space of an hour the money was gone, and I was hungry again so soon after that.

When people criticize the buying decisions of those on food stamps or other government assistance, I remember that pasta. I knew it was stupid to buy it, but I can't explain how compelled I felt, how starved I was, not just for food, but for that experience of food. My brain chemistry seemed to change when I was desperately hungry. It was as if the future didn't exist. There was only the endless now of my trembling hands and cramping gut.


Fuck. The second mushroom gone in another single bite.

I needed the moment of eating it to stretch out longer. Why had I swallowed? Couldn't I have instead held it in my mouth until it utterly melted?

I went back to the freezer and got out the bag again. The mushrooms poured from it freely. Ten, and the bag was empty. I counted the ten on the baking pan, arranging and rearranging them, struggling with myself.

If I eat them now, I won't have them later. If I eat them now, I won't have them later.

I put them back in the bag. I put the bag back in the freezer. I paced the house like a caged animal, then rushed back to the kitchen.

One mushroom, gleaming on the baking pan, crowned in ice crystals, object of my unutterable desire.

The mushrooms took a long time to cook, so I'd been at this now for over an hour. I knew I'd suffer in school the next day. In a rush of abandon, I reached for the bag, and four more mushrooms joined that single edible jewel. Five. Half of what remained. I told myself that was a reasonable compromise, and stuck the tray in the oven yet again.


I knew he would be angry if I ate all the mushrooms. The man I lived with was often scolding me for taking two oatmeal packets instead of one, for wanting to boil a second egg when the one we'd shared had left me wanting, for taking money from other men so I could buy food.

There are 157 calories in a packet of instant oatmeal cooked with water. There are 78 calories in a boiled egg. There are 24 calories in a single breaded mushroom, and the packaging for the kind I used to like lists the recommended serving as eight.

I was no glutton, I was simply hungry. And even if I was a glutton—even if I was—what sort of sin is it to eat 16 breaded mushrooms when the package says eight will do?


I slowed down and ate the next five mushrooms as if they were the finest red caviar. Tiny slices, tiny bites, counting the times I chewed, and yet my hunger did not abate in the slightest. Anger flashed through me. I didn't care anymore whether I would be scolded. I didn't care if there was no food left in the house at all after that night. In a flurry, I cooked the rest of the package of mushrooms and made a packet of oatmeal. It was after two a.m. and I ate that food with nervous relish, getting away with it for the moment because I was alone.

I knew this meant I would have no mushrooms the next night, or the night after that, or the night after that, but I just couldn't think about that anymore. When desire overwhelms, the only time that exists is now.


Much later, after I got away from this man, I went to the grocery store and bought myself seven packages of the mushrooms. I wanted them available to me with no barriers. I wanted to eat them until I got sick if that was what I felt like doing.

I'd had a little while to recover by then. There had been enough to eat for a couple months, and I'd already gained thirty pounds. I could think straight for the first time in years.

I went home and poured one entire package onto a baking pan, shivering from the luxurious rumble of that multitude of mushrooms hitting the surface. I was so excited to finally be able to do this, a thing I had dreamed about on so many nights with such great intensity.

The oven timer rang and I arranged the mushrooms on a plate and took them to the table. I took a bite of the first one, closing my eyes in anticipation of that rich burst of juice, but it never came.

There was a little salty water and an anemic crunch to the breading. The mushrooms tasted of cardboard and little else.

That was the worst moment. It was then that I realized that these mushrooms I had craved and fought for, this food that was my ultimate indulgence, this thing I would have sold my soul for if given the chance—it wasn't really very good at all. I'd just been that hungry.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Day The Food Arrived

by Daddy X

When first confronted with this topic, I was tempted to do a heavy philosophical treatise on the old artist’s question: Does the artist (fill in poet/writer/actor) need to starve to actually know in his/her heart all the range of emotions?  Would they be effective? Would someone without a full range of experience be able to capture the essence of desperation? Like the “tree falling in the forest” quandary, all the arguments have been hashed over and over so many times from so many different angles that it’s hard to present a position that sounds anything but trite. Of course, if anyone wants to follow up on this area in your comments, it could be interesting. There are some of you out there who are quite a bit younger than others of us and have different takes on history and experience.

My first response has always been something to the effect of: “Then we can’t write about the wealthy?”

So, with no real ideas for a post, :>) I decided to kick off a story to the hunger prompt instead. It may become a longer piece someday, but as is, I think it has a certain finality of its own.

Hope you enjoy.

                                             The Day the Food Arrived

It was the first time I could remember Father not going to work. At least not if he had any strength about him at all. Of course there were those days when he just couldn’t get up off his straw mat from one ailment or another. His malaria attacks caught him up some days—other times it was food poisoning or simple weakness if he hadn’t eaten the day before. Days like that we didn’t get any grain at all.

But most mornings, Father would wake before dawn and head off to the quarry to cut stone for the new Pharaoh’s tomb. Each day he brought back a cup of grain for his labors.

During certain seasons the Nile flooded extensively, and the puddles in the streets held fish and frogs after the water once again receded within its banks. If food was scarce, but we were lucky, Mother and I might uncover a bed of maggots to supplement our protein. She’d immerse a carcass in water to float the tiny, crescent-shaped morsels free from their host. We would rinse the wiggly mass through a cotton sieve to separate them from the smell. Boiled, they appeared like rice, but tasted much healthier. More sustaining.

When my brothers were really young, they’d steal fruit and vegetables from the market, scurrying through the alleys to avoid a beating. But when Het-Tum and Het-Awry each turned ten years of age, they too were sent to the quarry.    

One morning, Father was still at home when we got up. Though he looked well enough, we were concerned it would be a no-grainer day. He stood at the end of the dirt path, talking with several men in brightly dyed clothes.

“Look at him, the lazy son of a dog,” Mother said. “We won’t be eating tonight, my hungry daughter. Perfectly fine day—he’s up and about. But he’s now more interested in his new friends than in feeding his family.”

“New friends?” I said incredulously. “We don’t have friends, at least none like those people. Those men look like priests. They’re clean! No callouses on their hands.”

“Ah, yes, my child. I wonder what he’s up to.”

That evening a young boy brought us two goats.

“You may eat the male,” said the lad, “but allow the female to live, so you can drink her milk.”

“And we can make cheese!” exclaimed Mother. “Oft’s the time I’ve dreamed of cheese...”

Father never went back to work. Day after sweltering day, stores of food came delivered to our hovel. Chickens, sheep, and haunches of beef were carried to us by pale Europeans from the north. Gazelles and turtles—delicacies intended only for royalty—floated down the river on rafts from the south. Stowing away the bins of grain overwhelmed our lean-to against the city wall. So we moved into a house.

It came to be that sustenance was no longer hard to come by; we were healthy, not only as individuals, but as a family. We bathed every day, and didn’t need to haul water or bury waste from the chamber pot. A mysterious someone had piped the river into the new house. We all started to gain weight.

My brothers didn’t need to go to the quarry any more. They had time to play, hang with the village elders, learning, gathering skills and wisdom usually reserved for the patriarchs. For our family, life had become like the fat ones on the upwind side of town.

As much as everyone benefitted, it seemed that I had benefitted most. Plain, skinny, uneducated girls, prone to lice and skin irritations, had not much to aspire to in our city. Rich men had fat, healthy wives, not frail street urchins like me. Poor men wanted strong, heavy women to work the fields and smother them in fat folds of love at night. Nobody wants a starving woman. No slender harlot will make her living in Egypt.

I became coddled more and more. As the only girl my parents birthed, I was their only problem. If a father can’t marry his daughter off in this town, he’s stuck with her. Unless, of course, she manages to find her own scandalous way in life. But then I perceived that I was the center of attraction. I would be fed first at every meal. There were always honey-soaked breads, nuts, dates and sweet baklava within my reach.

In the marketplace, men took notice of my growing presence. No longer did villagers turn their eyes from a scrawny, filthy, pitiful disgrace. Some even followed me through the narrow alleys. Blocks from the market, I’d glance behind me in the fetid streets, only to see a bearded stranger I had stood beside while examining some tuber earlier in the day.

As I grew heavier, my movements became more labored. In time, I had difficulty getting off the couch or out of bed. My trips outdoors became fewer over the weeks and months. I was lonely. I missed the glances of the young men I’d encountered in the square.

Father had been taking nocturnal excursions. With no job to go to, nothing for which to make him wake, he came home late, inebriated nearly every night. Mother would put him to bed with sweet tea, crackers and broth, knowing nothing of his whereabouts. I always wondered why she let him come back every time.

But he never neglected to kiss me, no matter how drunk he was. He called me his salvation.

One day, six official-looking men came to our door leading a flat, oxen-drawn cart. Our servant boy located Father in the breakfast room. “Sir,” he said. “Men from the Pharaoh have come. They say it’s time.”

“Show them in.”

Amid a clunking and clanging of iron and leather, the men entered. “Are you Het-el-Nut-Saheed?” asked the leader of the group.

“Yes,” said Father

“Is she ready?”


“How much does she weigh?”


So? Should I go on and make it a longer story? Let it stand as this tongue-in-cheek slap to everyone’s intelligence? Stop being silly?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Hunger comes in many flavors

When we think of hunger we usually thin k of empty stomachs and people starving. Or our own stomachs grumbling when we’re too far past feeding time. But me? I like to write about sexual hunger. Yes, I know. I have a one track mind. What can I say? Is there anything more intense than the hunger of a man and woman for each other? In so many of our stories I combine both kinds of hunger to create the atmosphere of sexual tension, like the following excerpt from Eight Second Ride, a hot story about a bull ride and a lady sheriff.

She shifted in her chair. “Listen, Kyle…”He reached across the table and touched her lips with one finger. She was shocked at the heat it generated and the acceleration of her pulse.
“No objections, okay? Let’s enjoy dinner and let me show you I can really be a fine gentleman.”
Oh, god, how will I get through this? I don’t want to feel anything from him but he’s worse than a drug. I never should have agreed to this.
He ordered a bottle of wine, asking her what kind she preferred and checking with the waiter to see what was recommended. When she protested that she didn’t want anything stronger than water, he just grinned at her.
“One little taste, okay?” he said. “Then, if you don’t want any more, I’ll finish the bottle myself.”
“And drive home?”
“I think I can handle the wine.” His slow smile nearly curled her toes.
The waiter brought them a bottle of Sister Creek Muscat Canelli, a light white from a Texas winery and one of her favorites. When their glasses were full he touched his to hers, the ping of crystal resonating in the air.
“To a pleasant evening,” he said.
“A pleasant evening.”
The backs of his fingers just brushed hers and that same sizzle raced through her. Oh, yeah, she was in trouble here. And the worst part was, she seemed helpless to resist it. When he licked a drop of wine from his lips she wanted to replace his tongue with her own. When he gave her a slow smile, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking, she squirmed in her chair, feeling moisture seep into her crotch. God, this man was lethal.
She only meant to take a little sip of the wine, but somehow her glass was suddenly empty and Kyle refilled it, teasing her that a tough sheriff like her should be able to hold a little alcohol. The problem was the wine was delicious and took the edge off her nerves that snapped and crackled with Kyle Mitchell just across the table from her.
He kept up a conversation throughout the meal, his voice low and soothing, his interest in her obviously more than just polite. When she finished her salad, he leaned across the table and brushed his thumb across her bottom lip.
“A touch of salad dressing, darlin’.” Then he slowly and deliberately licked his thumb.
Jessie squeezed her thighs together.

When he chewed and swallowed, she couldn’t stop looking at the movement of his jaw and the muscles in his throat. Whenever he refilled her wine glass, he managed to caress her fingers with his own, touch her skin lightly. She was unwillingly mesmerized, hating herself for it but unable to drag her eyes away from him.
They ordered a slice of Decadent Chocolate Surprise for dessert.
“To share,” he said, and told the waiter, “Two forks, please.”
“Oh, I think I’m too full for dessert,” she protested. She was buzzed from the wine and not exactly in possession of all her faculties. Getting home before she got into trouble was an urgent priority.
“Just a few bites,” he insisted, and flashed that killer grin. “You know what they say. Chocolate can be better than sex.”
Sex. Not a word she could afford to associate with Kyle Mitchell.
When the plate arrived, Kyle handed her one of the forks, his fingers brushing her hand. She was sure a lightning bolt had shot through her arm and directly to her cunt. Holy shit!
But if touching was bad, eating the dessert was positively lethal. When she didn’t immediately dig her fork into what was really a decadent dessert, Kyle broke off a piece with his fork and reached across the table, sliding it into her astonished mouth. He took a bite himself, then slowly and deliberately licked a speck from his lower lip.
Jessie was having trouble with her breathing and her pulse was beating in every erogenous zone in her body. But she knew Kyle wasn’t as detached as he pretended. The dark flush on his cheeks and the glitter in his eyes told her exactly how aroused he was.
“You know what I’d like to do to you, Sheriff Jessie?”
She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear it. His low, smoky drawl was an aphrodisiac itself, making liquid heat rush through her.
“I think I have an idea,” she heard herself say, the tone of her voice unfamiliar to her.
“Oh, darlin’, I don’t think so.” That very wicked grin tilted his lips. “You’d be shocked at the thoughts running through my mind.”
“Maybe I wouldn’t be shocked at all,” she teased. Oh, god, what am I turning into?
“Oh, yeah? Well, first I’d like to strip you naked, turn you over my knee and spank that sexy ass until it turns a beautiful shade of red. I’d reach between your thighs and feel just how hot and wet it made you.”
Spank her? Really? Wasn’t that one of her secret fantasies? Would he be the one who was shocked if she told him that? Wait a minute. This was just supposed to be dinner, right?

Get yourself together, girl

You can find Kyle and Jessie's story at all your favorite virtual book stores.