I don’t like those people who tell kids that adolescence is the best years of our lives.
That’s the kind of lie that can really kill you. It’s the kind of lie that makes you feel alone in your depression. It’s the kind of lie that can scare you for a long time.
There were other lies like that.
“I think I want to be a writer,” I told the career counselor at the California junior college where I almost signed up for classes.
I sat across from her in her little gray office.
She wore a well-ironed gray suit.
A poster behind her pictured the Everest summit: Aim High.
She stared at me, silent.
“Aim high,” I mouthed to myself, tasting the irony of it all. I didn’t tell the counselor I’d crossed the Himalayas by myself on foot when I was seventeen. Before the baby. “You know, write?” I said. “Creative writing?”
The career counselor shook her head and her exhale held a silent, bitter laugh. She let the corners of her mouth turn up as she said, “Good luck.”
I just sat there, not saying anything. I glanced over at Maia asleep in her soft blue onesie in her blue polka-dot stroller.
The counselor leaned back in her gray chair and adjusted her gray jacket and tilted her gray head to the side like she was maybe trying to pop a vertebra in her neck and she said, “Miss Gore.” She looked down at the piece of paper on her desk, like maybe she was trying to remember my first name; she said, “Ariel.” She said, “Miss Gore, you have a child to take care of now. You really ought to make an attempt to come down to earth and think about that. You need to think about your child and you need to ask yourself how you’re going to make a living.”
There was a small stack of brochures on that gray desk that invited: Become a Certified Electrician.
I nodded a few times too many. I stood up slowly, hunched over like I was looking at the baby when really I just didn’t want to look at the counselor.
Her words made my heart contract, but I still felt compelled to politeness. “Thank you,” I said before I grabbed the handles of the polka-dot stroller. I opened the door to get out of that airless office, held it open with my hip as I maneuvered the stroller.
The career counselor didn’t rise to help me.
“Thank you,” I said again, and I let the door slam shut behind me.
Why did you say thank you, Ariel?
You’re an idiot, Ariel.
Shut up, only crazy people talk to themselves, Ariel.
I pushed the stroller, my pace quickening. My mother’s words rattled in my head too.
You chose this life, Ariel.
You’re on your own, Ariel.
Everyone is very embarrassed for you.
Like I’m nineteen and I’ve already lost, no unlosing now.
The cement path led past cement pillars, past square gardens, toward a green expanse. “Aim high,” I whispered under my breath, then tasted the rage. “That fucking bitch.” My walk morphed into a run. Tears streamed down my face. I pushed the stroller. Maia slept. She kept on sleeping. I felt like a sucker for telling that counselor woman what I wanted, what I wanted to be. I felt like a fool for wanting something I had no right to want anymore.
Hadn’t I once been a flat-chested kid, knobby skinned knees, and safe in my body? My skin streaked with blood and mud, I used to collect tadpoles in a mason jar at the rocky edge of the San Francisquito Creek. I kept my hair short. Only my mother knew I was a girl.
I felt very far from that child body now.
Maybe the career counselor was right. Maybe I didn’t know how to live. I didn’t know how to make a living.
It didn’t matter if I could make stories.
I had to make a living.
But becoming an electrician scared me. Electrocution scared me. I felt too anxious and afraid—I should have told that counselor—to be trusted with live wires.
I was back living with my mother and stepfather in the stucco house I’d run away from, trying to pretend I didn’t notice the sour stench of my own humiliation.
I got a chain letter in the mail.
I sent ten dollars to the name at the top of the list.
I added my name to the bottom of the list and sent it off to ten unsuspecting members of my stepfather’s church congregation.
Surely if I waited, I would receive $10,000 in ten dollar increments—small white envelopes in the mail.
College was a distant plan B. It was a someday thing. A not-now thing. I awaited my $10,000, but all that came in the mail was a Stonehenge postcard from the baby’s father.
In Londontown hanging with Joe Strummer. Almost have the money together for the airfare to San Francisco. Sorry about everything. Let’s start new.
I threw the postcard away.
I’d always had a soft spot for the baby’s father. He sang that David Bowie song, “Kooks,” in the morning in his sweet London accent, but he was a mean drunk at night, and even though I didn’t know about alcoholism yet, I could see that the drinking was getting worse. I could see something else too—something I couldn’t quite put my finger on—something about the way the world kept telling him to “be a man” that frustrated him to the point of violence.
In the morning light through the kitchen window, my mother made fresh zucchini and peach baby food. She had painted my childhood bedroom pink. She held Maia in her manicured hands, said we could stay as long as we needed.
But at night she said the opposite. “Everyone,” she whispered, “is very embarrassed for you, Ariel.”
Who was everyone?
I imagined a whole audience of everyone I’d ever met, spotlight on me, and they all cringed knowing I’d done something terribly wrong.
I share my childhood bed
with the baby
nurse her as we both fall asleep
her body is soft like clay
The next morning my mother breathed angry like it might as well be night. “Unwed mother,” she seethed as if she were only talking to herself now. “This is not happening.”
My mother shook her head. “Oh, let’s just have tea.”
Her best friend, Roberta, appeared in the entryway, her long, sand-colored hair braided into a rope.
Yes, let’s just have tea with Roberta.
I stood in the tiled kitchen, Maia on my hip. She could hold her own head up now, and she gripped the sleeve of my black T-shirt with her tiny hands.
Waiting for the water to boil, I arranged boxes of herbal tea. Red Zinger, Grandma’s Tummy Mint, Almond Sunset.
“You have to get out of here,” Roberta hissed at me under the whistle of the kettle.
My mother had just stepped out the French doors to pick a lemon.
“Out,” Roberta hissed, louder.
“Why?” I said without looking up. Peach Passion. Sleepy Time. Orange Spice. “It’s beautiful here,” I said, “and elm shaded.” I didn’t tell Roberta I was waiting for my $10,000 in little white envelopes.
“Out.” Roberta glared at me with round possum eyes. “Jealousy is dangerous. Your mother is dangerous.” Roberta bared her teeth and for an odd moment I thought she might bite my shoulder.
I stepped back.
Roberta seemed to shrink, just a little.
Roberta was crazy, I knew that, but she was right. Pink paint couldn’t quite cover the angry thing. Her face suddenly became more pointed, and short white hair sprouted on her cheeks and chin.
“In another time,” she whispered, “if your family had any money to speak of, you’d have been sent off to a home, your baby stolen from you, and no one ever would have spoken of it again.” Her cheeks flushed a shade of dark red I hadn’t seen before, then turned white as she shrank very quickly now.
I felt disoriented as Roberta kept shrinking. Hadn’t I just been pouring boiling water into tea mugs?
She was a possum on my mother’s tiled kitchen floor, the size of a house cat but the shape of a rat.
The possum made a hissing sound as she breathed. She looked up at me one more time and then scurried across the room and out through the laundry room. She scratched at the back door.
I felt panicky, pushed the door open for her.
She looked back up at me one more time before she ran out across the dead grass and under the neighbor’s fence.
The neighbor’s dog barked.
I rushed to the fence, Maia still on my hip. I peered through the gap between two boards. And there was the possum who had been Roberta, flat on her back like she was dead, the neighbor’s dog pawing her.
I kept watching.
The dog walked away.
The possum rolled over onto her belly, stood up on her short little legs, and scurried off.
“Where’s Roberta?” my mother asked back inside her tiled kitchen.
I shrugged. “She said she had an appointment.”
My mother nodded, a little confused, then bared her teeth at me so quickly I wasn’t sure if I’d imagined it. She hissed.
Did my mother hiss?
I looked at my pyramid of boxed tea.
Possum, I thought. Possums play dead. Possums lie low. Better aim low for a while, Ariel. Better play dead.
That evening over spaghetti with fresh basil, Maia played with her noodles and I told my mother and stepfather I’d been accepted to an alternative college up in the North Bay.
It wasn’t true yet, but I’d make it true.
I said, “I’m meeting a friend who’ll give us a ride up there tonight.” My parents each poured themselves glasses of red wine and nodded and accepted my story the way they accepted all the implausible things I told them to avoid conflict.
I’d started lying to them as a kid—lying at first just to my mother so she wouldn’t hit me. But pretty soon I started lying to avoid getting yelled at, too, or to avoid having to talk to her at all. Then I started lying to my stepfather, too, because even though he was tall and kind and used to lift me up in the air with his strong arms, his first loyalty ran to her. The lying became instinctive. The mere sight of my mother sent lies shooting off my tongue. I’d blurt whatever popped into my head. It was a school holiday so I walked downtown and they were giving away free Hello Kitty erasers at the stationery store. No, really, the Mendozas invited me to live with them. They want me to move in right away. I’ve been accepted to the Beijing Language Institute and I don’t need any money. Roberta had an unexpected appointment. And now I’m waiting for a friend to pick me up and take me someplace for college even though I dropped out of high school the first week of junior year.
“All right,” my mother said.
“That’s wonderful,” my stepfather said. He was bald except for a wispy sprout of gray hair that stuck up from the middle of his head. When my mother wasn’t looking, he slipped me one hundred dollars in tens under the table and whispered, “I support you.”
It was hardly the thousand tens I was waiting for, but money magnetism, I would learn, is a tricky science.
“Thanks,” I whispered.
Later, as my parents watched the MacNeil Lehrer Newshour in their coffin of a bedroom and Maia chewed the foot of my old Curious George doll from when I was a kid, I put on my leather jacket over my sweats, laced up my Doc Martens, and packed our things into the back basket of Maia’s blue polka-dot stroller.
I had black jeans and a soft maroon T-shirt. I had the handmade baby sundresses and matching quilt a high school friend who’d recently been born again had sewn for us. I had a flashlight and warm socks. I had a small garnet heart my mother’s mother, Gammie Evelyn, gave me that I carried for luck. I had good conditioner, stolen from my mother, and Clinique makeup, also stolen.
I had five books:
The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou, which I’d borrowed and failed to return to the Kensington and Chelsea Library a few years earlier and which promised me I could still be a writer even if I was going to be a teenage mother.
for colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange, which explained some things about men and violence.
The I Ching, a regal yellow hardcover I’d always carried, always read the oracle from—sixty-four hexagrams that are said to map our DNA.
Jambalaya by Luisah Teish, a purple hardcover that framed magic as a science of the oppressed.
The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges.
Aim at the horizon, Ariel. That’ll be good enough. Sea level. Dirt level. Plan B is the answer, Ariel. They have financial aid at the alternative college up in the North Bay. Lie low. Play dead. Apply to the college.
I opened the door to my parents’ dark bedroom, stuck my head in, and said, “My friend’s waiting for us. Bye.”
They both mewed like cats, and didn’t say a word.
Outside, Maia whimpered in the cool night wind as we ambled toward the park where I knew I’d find a comfortable redwood bench. “It’s California in August,” I whispered into Maia’s soft ear. “I love you, but stop whining.”
And that was that. Maia puckered her soft baby lips and she never whined again.
I curled up on the wooden park bench with my arms around her the way I used to sleep with my backpack and passport cradled against thieves, and I closed my eyes.
Maybe that night on the park bench, like Borges, I dreamed that my grown-up self was sitting next to us. Maybe in the semiconscious dark, she told me all the wondrous and terrifying things that would happen in the years to come, so that I woke with only a fleeting memory of my dream but with a basic faith that I could answer the questions:
Will we survive?
Can I be a mother and an artist?
Can I be a single mother and a writer?
Can I be a daughter still?
With an unpanicked Yes. Yes, of course. Follow me.
In the light of morning, I let the memory of that dream fade. I nursed the baby, buckled her back into her stroller, and we headed for the Caltrain station downtown.
Ariel Gore is the author of nine previous books of fiction and nonfiction and is the founding editor of Hip Mama. She’s won an American Alternative Press Award, a Lambda Literary Award, a Rainbow Award, and a New Mexico-Arizona Book Award. Her stories and articles have appeared in Psychology Today, The Rumpus, Ms., Salon, and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland and Santa Fe and teaches online at Ariel Gore’s School for Wayward Writers, literarykitchen.com.
Excerpted from We Were Witches by Ariel Gore. Published by the Feminist Press.