The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Growing up, I wanted passionately to please my father. Mostly I failed. I wasn’t the strong, swift swimmer he tried to make me. Although I started learning French, my father’s native language, in kindergarten, my accent was deplorable, and I was never able to carry on a conversation. But one thing I could do to please him was keep myself clean. I changed my clothes often — too often, according to my mother — and always washed my hands and face after eating and playing. Being dirty made me uncomfortable.
One Sunday in June when I was seven, my family went on a picnic with relatives and friends at Crystal Lake, about an hour’s drive from our home in Chicago. We swam, played games, and ate wonderful picnic food, the kind we never had at home.
According to my father, I didn’t swim well enough to accompany him past the safety rope into deep water, so I paddled near the shore and practiced my strokes whenever I thought he was looking. When we came out of the lake, we both put on sparkling clean clothes. Father wore white duck pants, a starched white shirt, and a straw hat. His hat had come from Paris and was better, I knew, than the straw hats other men wore, because it was French. I, too, wore white, thinking it the cleanest color.
I devoted the rest of my day to keeping clean. I didn’t join in ballgames or races, ate only those foods that didn’t drip or smear, and drank ice water rather than my favorite: chocolate milk. I was determined to keep my white dress and Mary Janes spotless. My mother told me again and again to take my nose out of the book I was reading and play with the other children, but I stayed put.
“She’s so shy,” my mother explained to my aunts.
Keeping clean was lonely business, it’s true, especially at a picnic. But at day’s end, when my brother and the other children were soiled and wilted, I’d be sparkling clean, and my father would be pleased.
We had just finished eating supper when, all at once, the pleasant breeze turned into a strong wind. Paper napkins and table covers flew into the air, chairs overturned, and leaves and twigs blew off the trees. We all scurried to gather the picnic equipment and head home before the storm hit.
Suddenly, a gust of wind grabbed my father’s straw hat and sent it twirling. He made a lunge for it, but it was out of reach and heading for the water. Seeing the look of dismay on his face, I dashed after his wonderful French straw hat.
Into the muddy lake I plunged, deaf to my father’s shouts to “let it go.” I slipped and fell in the murky water, but I grabbed the hat. Dripping mud and clutching the broken, wet hat, I raced back to my father. But when I got to him, he grabbed the hat and flung it away. My heart fell. In a flash, I saw myself: a little girl standing before her father, covered in slimy mud from head to foot. Hot tears stung my filthy cheeks.
To my amazement, my father clutched me against his chest, his white shirt cool against my hot face. He held me so tight I could feel his heartbeat. When he put me down, I could see the imprint of my dirty body on his clean shirt and pants. Then, taking an immaculate white handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped the mud and tears from my face.
Rancho Mirage, California
I was always dirty growing up. My mother was a hippie and unconcerned about anything as bourgeois as bathing. We drove across the country in a VW bus and traveled around Europe on trains. Once, we lived in a shack in Hawaii with no running water or electricity and survived on purloined guavas and rice. If we ever rinsed off in the ocean or cleaned up in public restrooms, I don’t remember it. People called us “dirty hippies.” Looking down at my filthy hands, I had to agree.
There was a distinct difference in odor between us and other people. My mother always had a healthy, sweaty scent beneath a light fragrance of home-rolled cigarettes and peppermint Lifesavers. The brisk, astringent smell other women emitted scared and intrigued me. I was always a little afraid of them, the mothers with lacquered hair and false eyelashes: so pretty, so mean. Those were the mothers who, when I played with their daughters, made me wash my hands all the time and wanted to comb my snarled hair.
For a while, my mother and I lived in Copenhagen, in a rental with only a sink to wash in and an outhouse in the backyard. Copenhagen was very cold, and we often slept in our clothes, which, like our hair, smelled of kerosene from the heater. Our rooms reeked of sleep, fried potatoes, and sweat.
Then we discovered the public bath. That day, we rode the tram through the freezing gray city, our noses and toes numb with cold. When we opened the old-fashioned door to the bathhouse, steam billowed out. A uniformed attendant looked us up and down, handed my mother a stack of huge, fluffy towels, and walked us down an echoing hall. The little room she brought us to had a wooden chair and the deepest tub I’d ever seen, already filled with hot, clear water. The attendant poured birch bath salts into the water, swirled it with her hand, then left us.
We undressed, and my mother even unbraided her hair. When we slipped into the steaming, fragrant water, our feet burned from having been cold for so long. The water was nearly up to my chin, and I had to hold my head steady to keep from getting any up my nose. As my mother scrubbed my hair with a bar of soap, she talked about mermaids and dryads and water nymphs.
We had to wait there all day, it seemed, for our hair to dry. Being very clean after having been very dirty felt as good as eating when I was really hungry. By the time we left, it was nearly dark, and on the tram home, I leaned against my mother and fell asleep.
San Francisco, California
There is an unmistakable smell to an anthracite-coal miner — a pungent, dank, sweaty odor that permeates the skin. It’s the smell of wet iron, rock, tobacco smoke, axle grease, and gasoline: the opposite of sunshine.
At night, as a girl, I would lie awake in bed in the dark, waiting for my father to come home from the mines at ten. First I’d hear the sound of his Jeep turning the corner and parking, then the steady tread of his heavy, mud-caked boots and the rattle of his lunch can beneath my window. The wooden gate at the back of the house would click shut, and I’d count the twenty-two steps it took him to reach the back door and enter the kitchen.
Once he was inside, I heard his boots drop to the floor next to the coal stove to dry. Then the kitchen faucet ran for a long time as he tried to scrub the grime from his hands with a worn bar of Lava soap. He never succeeded in getting the coal dust out of the creases of his knuckles, and thick black lines of it were permanently wrapped around his cuticles.
The clink of dishes and muffled voices meant he had finished eating. Then came the sound I was waiting for: the click of his Zippo lighting his after-supper Lucky Strike. That was my signal that I could sneak down the stairs into the fluorescent glare of the kitchen, where my father sat, legs stretched out, reading the newspaper and gulping instant coffee, his dented lunch can on the table next to his empty plate.
I’d stand in the doorway, pretending to rub the sleep from my eyes and trying to make my yawns seem authentic. My father, for his part, would act surprised to see me. He’d put down the newspaper and scoot his chair back just a bit. Then I’d climb up on his lap, onto his coal-saturated work clothes, and rest my head against his sweat-damp chest.
“What did you bring me?” I’d ask.
“Nothin’,” he’d say, smiling.
“What’s in your lunch can?” I’d say.
“Nothin’,” he’d repeat. Then he’d reach across the table and slide it toward me. He always let me pull up the metal clips to open it.
Inside, beside his green metal thermos, were two wads of wax paper from his sandwiches, and underneath them was my prize: a battered Tasty-kake, squashed but intact, its wrapper dusted black.
“Can I have it?” I’d ask, knowing he’d carried that cupcake since the dark hours of morning, down into the hole and back with him.
“I guess,” he’d say.
The cupcake smelled of the mine, of my father, of his Jeep. I savored it in big mouthfuls, swallowing grit and sweetness as he read the funnies to me. He held me with one rough hand and the folded paper with the other, his fingers leaving smudges on the pages.
When we were done, he’d carry me piggyback up the stairs. Tiny crystals of coal shimmered in his dark hair, and the hollows behind his ears were almost black. He’d let me fall backward onto the bed. “Now cover up good,” he’d whisper. Then he’d bend over, careful not to touch the blankets, and I’d kiss his rough, whiskered cheek and breathe in my father’s smells one last time. Until the next night.
Lou Ann Pleva
Fort Worth, Texas
When I moved back to California in the midseventies, I bought a summer cottage in rural Marin County, against the advice of old friends who told me: “You have no idea what you’re getting into, buying an old house in the country. You’ll be sorry.” But I loved the place, with its acre of trees and grasses snuggled into a valley and hawks soaring overhead and the sun slanting through the redwoods on the ridge.
My friend Lynnelle moved in with me, and things went pretty well for the first six months. Then one autumn afternoon, the septic tank backed up into the bathtub.
“Hasn’t been pumped out for years,” the plumber announced, stirring the sludge in the tank with a stick. “Better call the pumpers and make an appointment.”
An appointment? But this was Friday afternoon! I couldn’t face four days or more without a toilet.
“Unless you want to dig it out yourself,” the plumber said with a smirk, sliding the septic-tank lid back into place.
Among the junk left in the garage by the former owner were some hip boots. I pulled them out and vacuumed off the spiders. “What do you think?” I said to Lynnelle, holding up the boots. “No cracks in the rubber. We could probably do this ourselves.”
She looked at me incredulously. “Not me. I’m just getting over an infection. Anyway, Laury’s coming over tomorrow, and there’s no way I’m going to smell like sewage for him.”
In other words: “Your house, your problem.”
So on Saturday, I found myself standing beside the open septic tank, dressed in the hip boots and dipping a shovel into the muck. I remembered the time when I was little and the men had come to pump out our tank. I was fascinated. I had always wondered what happened to the waste after it disappeared down the toilet. I was also a little afraid that some of it would somehow be identifiable to the men as mine.
As I edged around the lilac bush to watch, one of the men said to me, “Don’t come any closer, girlie. Once you get this smell up your nose, it never comes out.”
But now, as I shoveled the soupy mud onto the grass, I thought it didn’t smell too bad. I watched it soak into the hard, dry soil and envisioned roses and nasturtiums growing there — a circle of abundance among the scrubby grass. I felt heroic, enterprising, self-sufficient. My parents would be amazed at their delicate daughter, I thought. And I remembered afternoon tea at my grandmother’s — cinnamon toast with the crusts cut off and lace-edged napkins. Wouldn’t Grandma be horrified, I thought happily.
The sun warmed my shoulders, and I moved along at a fair clip. The level was slowly going down, but the farther in I had to lean, the harder it became to lift the shovel. Looking dubiously at my boots, I sat down on the edge of the tank and then slid into the hole.
The boots held. The shoveling went faster now because I could get better footing and was dealing with more-solid waste. But it was tiring. I watched Lynnelle go into the house with Laury and pull down the window shades in her room. His malamute whined at the back door. I pictured them taking off their clothes and lying down on the bed. The rhythm of my shoveling began to annoy me. Why should they be in there making love while I was knee-deep in shit? Why should I have to do this job all by myself? She lives here, too. I wiped the sweat off my forehead with my sleeve, and it came away smeared with muck. I began knocking the shovel against the side of the tank and grunting aloud with each scoop. I hated my friends who had told me not to buy a house — and the ones who’d supported me, as well. And I especially hated Lynnelle and her creepy boyfriend and his stupid dog.
I was scraping bottom now with every scoop. I could see that the exit pipes were free of skulch, so I crawled out of the hole, got the hose, and filled the tank partway. The water drained out. Fabulous. My work done, I eased out of the boots as carefully as I could, took off all my clothes, and, leaving them in a pile by the back door for the dog to sniff, marched naked into the bathroom and showered until all the hot water was gone.
Barbara J. Hazard
When I stumble into the kitchen in the morning, the debris from an evening of fun lies between me and coffee: dirty dishes, eggshells, empty beer bottles. I rinse the coffee pot, fondly remembering last night: the baby oil; grinding myself into his face; smoothly shifting positions to take him into my mouth.
I feel lucky to have arrived at this particular state of domestic ecstasy. My high-school years were a blur of one-night stands; I tolerated the sex and knew nothing of pleasure. My marriage, in my twenties, was full of useless, painful sex at best, with oral play off-limits because it was disgusting to him.
Finally, in my thirties, after the divorce, I met the man I’d fantasized about all my life. I knew it that first night as he slowly knelt before me and put his head between my thighs.
Now, I may spend my mornings cleaning up, but I never say no to a long evening of raunchy sex. I know that, later in life, I won’t remember the dirty clothes, muddy floors, and piles of dishes. I’ll remember the baby oil on our gritty sheets; fucking in our truck on the beach, with our three sand-crusted dogs curled around us for heat; driving across America and stopping for a quickie in the sleeping compartment, pants down around our knees, musty from living on the road. I’ll cherish the smell of a hard day’s work on his well-worn V-neck, his breath minty from a dip of Skoal or soured by an afternoon beer. I’ll remember him licking my inner thigh, grabbing me so tightly that, for a few brief moments, nothing separates us.
In my suburban girlhood in the fifties and sixties, the fear of getting dirty was a barrier between me and an entire world of experience. My paternal grandmother used to say, “Horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow.” My Catholic grade school offered no physical education for girls, and at recess we had to play with balls that the boys had rejected. Though I climbed trees and rode my bicycle, I was a long way from testing the limits of my body and the material world.
As a woman, I went to work in a machine shop. I’ll never forget the thrill I felt the first time I pulled the handle and lowered a spinning drill through a length of aluminum bar stock. The drill was like an extension of my hand as it twisted chips of aluminum up from the hole. Finally, it broke out the other side, and there was the hole — my hole — round and perfectly placed, with a fine, jagged ring on the bottom where the drill had torn neatly through.
Cast iron is different. Sometimes you hit a hard spot, and the drill screams, then thuds dully against the surface, scattering gray dust over the work table and into the pores of your hands and arms. Even soap and scrubbing won’t wash out cast iron; it has to wear away slowly over days.
At a family brunch the first Christmas after I began working at the machine shop, my gray-tinged arms stood out against the white linen tablecloth like an uninvited guest. Some ladylike friends of my parents were embarrassed for me and suggested that surely I could find another job, something more . . . “appropriate.”
But I was proud of my hands. They and I were in the world, learning how things got done.
As a wedding gift, Dennis and I had received a generous gift certificate to a mail-order nursery. As usual, I got carried away. Instead of ordering just a few plants from the catalog and saving the remainder of the money, I spent every penny. A few days later, UPS delivered six fruit trees, three grapevines, two lilacs, and ten rosebushes.
Dennis fumed. “When are we supposed to get all this planted?” he asked. “And where is it all going to go? Have you considered that?”
I shook my head.
“Well, I’ll tell you this much: Once we plant it, you’re going to live with it. I’m not digging up trees and moving them around the yard the way we rearrange the furniture.”
I felt nauseated, overwhelmed by the task before me. I had no idea where to start, and Dennis was barely speaking to me. But I had no choice but to dig in. Though we spent the weekend planting, on Monday evening, the ten rosebushes still remained.
“You’re going to kill me,” Dennis said, pulling on his hooded sweat shirt after work.
The sky darkened along with our moods as we carried shovel, peat, fertilizer, water bucket, and horse manure out to the front yard. My hands were callused and my back ached, but I didn’t dare complain.
The rain began after we’d planted bush number three. It only sprinkled at first. Then it rained fat, cold drops that shimmied past my collar and ran down my back. The holes we were digging started to collapse in on themselves. Dennis mixed the fertilizer while I furiously scraped back the mud. Gloves were useless. Our clothes were muddy and sodden.
Lights flicked on in our neighbors’ houses. I imagined happy families gathered around dinner tables. Our meal would most likely be cold cereal, and I didn’t envision much conversation. Then a window slid open across the street, and our neighbor Cathy called out to us, her voice barely audible above the pounding rain: “Only newlyweds could be that crazy! It must be love!”
Dennis looked up at me from where he was crouched, packing mud around a new bush. Rain gushed off the brim of his baseball cap and the tip of his nose. For the first time in days, he smiled, and I thought of the long, hot shower that awaited us.
“You’d better double-glove. It’s ugly in here,” Joyce says as I come in to help her. Twenty-four-year-old Tony is dying of AIDS, his body oozing blood from every orifice. We work quickly, mopping, wiping, suctioning; trying to stay ahead of the flow. “Jesus,” Joyce says, “where is it all coming from?” We hang IV bags of platelets to help his blood clot, but it’s no use. We are losing the battle.
Tony’s fiancée, Lisa, comes in, sees him, and throws herself on his bed, screaming, “No, No!”
Is she crying for him, I wonder, or does she see her future in that bed?
Joyce leads Lisa from the room, and I am alone with Tony. I look at his face and see bloody tears. Take him now! I pray to God. Please, for my sake as well as his.
When it’s finally over, it takes three of us to get him cleaned up. Afterward, we silently peel off our blood-spattered scrubs and change to go home.
I stay in the shower for a long time, but still come out feeling dirty.
Before I met my husband, I had sex with near strangers with the enthusiasm of a tiger. Now, when my husband draws my hand down to touch him after he’s been inside me, I pull away.
My husband has done nothing to bring about this drastic change. I feel guilty that I gave myself so willingly and with such sweaty passion to those fleeting lovers, yet I find myself avoiding making love to the man I’ve married. Once, I got a kidney infection and was relieved that, for the time being, I wouldn’t have to worry about him asking for sex. It’s almost as if sex had become taboo for me. I blushed when people talked casually about it — I, who’d once had such a dirty mouth that I’d shocked my boyfriends.
I finally acknowledged my inhibitions about sex and began seeing a sex therapist. I told her that I’d been sexually abused as a child, but that I’d always thought I could deal with it. Then, when I fell in love, the pain of what I’d been through finally hit me. The fact that my husband and I respected each other brought back years of stored-up tears and anger and wanting to say no.
Now I’m trying to start over with a clean slate, but I don’t know how to get to that middle ground: dirty, but good; dirty, but clean.
When I first went to work as a railroad track laborer twenty-five years ago, I would occasionally meet old men who called me a “gandy dancer.” I thought they were insulting my manhood until I learned that gandy dancer is an old term for an itinerant laborer in a railroad section gang — derived, perhaps, from the now defunct Gandy Manufacturing Company, which made tools used by railroad workers.
Gandy dancers use picks, shovels, crowbars, and sledgehammers to remove and replace railroad ties, pound spikes, install rail anchors, and align tracks to the proper width. Railroad ties are soaked with creosote for longevity, and, on hot summer days, the sharp, pungent smell burns your eyes and clings to your skin like a caustic cologne. Everything you work with is heavy and filthy, and you’re guaranteed to look like a chimney sweep by lunchtime.
One day, Mike, who worked with me on the section crew, decided to turn the lowly gandy dancer into a white-collar position. Having purchased five suits for five dollars at a Salvation Army clearance sale, Mike dubbed himself “the world’s best-dressed track laborer.” For one week, along with his orange hard hat, safety glasses, leather gloves, and steel-toed boots, Mike wore a suit to work every day. He was sartorially resplendent in ill-fitting double-knit polyester, frayed white shirts, and wide striped ties. Mike worked like a demon that week — partly because the track manager was watching him closely, but also because he was on a mission to destroy those suits.
At lunchtime, we’d stop in at nearby cafes, and all eyes would turn to stare at the unfortunate “executive” who appeared to have just survived a fire or an explosion — or both. At the end of the workday, when the suit was completely in shreds and covered with dirt, Mike would repair to one of the more upscale watering holes, where he could mingle with his suited peers — much to their shock and our amusement.
My sister, our girlfriends, and I needed money to support our growing smoking habits. Too young to work at the supermarket or the drugstore, we decided to sell our services to local businesses at random, hoping to earn some spare change.
Our first stop was the furniture store, where we told them we could dust the furniture. We even offered them a free trial. They smiled and gave us the furniture polish, never intending to be satisfied.
Everywhere we went, the story was the same. We made our way down the avenue, receiving rejection after rejection. Our last stop was at a shoe-repair store.
The six of us could barely fit into the small storefront. The smiling store owner stood behind the counter. We explained that we needed money and were willing to dust, sweep, and so on. He said that he would be glad to give us money if we really needed it, and proceeded to hand each of us a Kennedy half dollar. We laughed at our great luck. Then he asked what we needed the money for: did we smoke pot or drink? Blushing, we admitted only to cigarette smoking. As we giggled our way out the door, the store owner said his name was Alfredo, and that we were welcome to come back anytime.
We stopped in to see Alfredo often. He let us hang out and smoke in a back room. He also gave us red wine from a gallon jug he kept behind the counter, and a coin or two, to keep us coming back.
One day, Alfredo asked if we liked “salt and pepper.” We laughed at his strange question. Then Alfredo pulled out a pornographic magazine filled with pictures of mixed-race couples in a variety of positions. “Salt and pepper,” he said, with a gleam in his eye. Sherri took the magazine from his hand, and we all crowded around for a closer look, poring over the pages in awe and disbelief. After we left that afternoon, I felt dirty. I attributed it to the thin layer of soot and polish that covered everything in the store, or to all the cigarette smoke. I washed my hands and soaked in the tub before dinner, but I still didn’t feel clean.
Our visits to Alfredo’s store continued for months. Every visit brought another lesson in sex education: oral sex, anal sex, sex with animals, S/M. Once, he masturbated in front of us, beads of sweat forming above his quivering lip just before he came. He told us about a neighborhood girl who used to pee in his face. Every time I left Alfredo’s, I would go home and wash. Sometimes I didn’t even wait until I got home, but popped into Alfredo’s small bathroom and scrubbed my hands under the scalding hot water.
Within a year, I’d developed full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder. Although I tried to hide my fixation on cleanliness, my mother eventually began to notice, and I had to see a dermatologist for my severely raw and chapped hands. Lacking psychiatric help, however, I continued to use soap and water as a feeble means to purify myself.
Ten years into my disorder, when I could no longer leave the house for fear of getting dirty, I started therapy. Now, at age thirty-six, I have only limited urges and have found ways of hiding them — although sex still spurs the desire to “freshen up.”
At twenty-one, I joined a monastic order of women that kept a herd of Holstein milking cows. There was only one bull, whose role, of course, was to propagate the herd. There being no other use for the poor fellow, he stayed in a small, gated pen until his services were needed.
Every spring, the bullpen had to be cleaned out, one shovelful at a time. The timing of the chore was important: the temperatures had to be warm enough to have melted a New England winter’s worth of frozen bull crap, but not so warm that the manure would be fly-infested and unbearably rank.
I’ll never forget my first experience cleaning the bullpen. I was a sweet novice, standing up to the ankles of my rubber boots in a sea of manure, which was thick and runny due to an abundance of rain. I breathed through my mouth and didn’t look down.
Sister Celestine, my mentor, supervised. She had obviously been down this road before, having attained the level of “simple professed,” which meant she had taken her first vows.
Because speaking was forbidden in monastery, we communicated through Cistercian sign language. Sister Celestine lifted one shovelful from the pen to the manure spreader, demonstrating what had to be done. Then she stood her shovel in the muck, smiled brightly, and signed to me, “Here . . . spread . . . novice . . . professed”: her way of saying, “This is where we separate the novices from the professed.”
In basic training, I learned that the Marine Corps way was to keep everything — weapons, equipment, and personnel — spotless. But in Vietnam, I experienced a world of dirt, dust, mud, blood, and sweat. The jungle heat meant that water was for drinking, not washing. I learned to clean my skin by rolling off the layers of dirt with my hands. I sacrificed my underwear, using it as rags to clean my M-14, because my life depended on my rifle. My battalion was known as the “Walking Dead,” because of its high casualty rate.
When the first of my buddies was badly wounded, the blood covered my uniform, eventually hardening into the fabric. I was surprised at the smell and the stickiness, but most of all by the sheer amount of it — more than I had thought possible for a heart to pump out.
As time passed, my feet festered with jungle rot. My socks disintegrated, and even my fiberglass-mesh boot inserts grew mold and deteriorated until I pitched them. Punji stakes penetrating my boots were the least of my concerns.
One day, the order came to exchange our M-14s for M-16s, which were smaller, lighter, and easier to carry. We received no training or manuals on the new rifles. They jammed at the worst possible times. The North Vietnamese Army regulars had AK-47 rifles, which did not jam.
After the battle of Hill 861 at Khe Sanh, I stood on the airstrip while choppers came and went, rapidly disgorging their cargo. One landed near me. Thinking there were wounded inside, I ran under the turning rotors to assist. In the back, Marines were strewn in every possible position. It took me a moment to realize that they were all dead. I helped drag and stack the bodies and zip their dirt- and blood-streaked faces into green plastic body bags.
That day, I used my precious canteen water to wash my hands. They still are not clean.
As I toss the hay bales onto the wagon, the hot breeze blows bits of leaf and dust back onto my dripping face and sweat-soaked arms. When enough bales have accumulated, I get up on the wagon to stack them.
I am proud of my ability to stack bales. I sling them into place with a quick jerk to set the bale’s bristling edges tight against its neighbors’. I can set them tighter and higher than my father: nine full layers. Back at the barn, we have to toss off the top two layers just to get the wagon through the doorway. The bottom row hangs two feet over the edge, locked into place by the cross-stacked bales above: 197 bales on a wagon.
Inside the barn, where my father and I unload the wagon, the air is sticky and thick, and the bales fly off the end of the elevator, creating clouds of dust like a hovering black fog. The handkerchief over my nose turns black. Rivulets of sweat carve channels through the crust of debris on my arms, but the clean areas are immediately covered over again.
By the time we finish at dusk, I am coated so thickly I cannot see my skin. My mother’s voice slips through the twilight: “Don’t you come in the house like that.”
My father and I turn on the hose at the side of the house. I am eager to rid myself of the itchy exoskeleton, yet also reluctant to give it up. This crust of dirt is a badge of honor. It proves that I am a man, that I have worked hard and earned the right to be respected.
I want my father to say something about the work I did today — to acknowledge my skill, strength, and endurance. As we strip off our blackened shirts and wash the hay off our arms and heads, there is a certain warmth between us, a mutual satisfaction, perhaps, with a job well done. But I want more. I have always wanted more.
I was addicted to heroin for four years. Before that, it was pain pills and alcohol. I have now been clean for one year, nine months, and twelve days. I still dream about shooting heroin.
My daughter is eight years old. For the first six years of her life, she watched me sleep on the couch. I have never loved another human being more than I love my daughter, but I have never loved anything — human or otherwise — more than heroin.
I would like to say I quit using because of my daughter, but the truth is that it took a trip to the emergency room and the threat of a five-year prison sentence to get me clean.
I was on probation for stealing money from residents at the nursing home where I worked. After two DWIs and numerous failed urine tests, my probation officer had given me an ultimatum: get myself into a rehabilitation program, or end up in prison. Still, I was unconvinced.
Then I developed an abscess in my arm from using the same dirty needle over and over. At the ER, the doctor cut the abscess open and drained it without anesthesia. He said I deserved to feel pain, for once.
I had hit my lowest point ever. I was looking at losing my daughter and going to prison, and all I could think about was leaving there and getting high. I didn’t even recognize the person I had become. I checked myself into detox the next day.
Since then, my life has been one drug test after another. Each week I am tested by my therapist, my probation officer, and the residential program where my daughter and I live. As long as the tests are clean, I get to stay in the program, and out of prison. Everyone, including me, keeps waiting for my urine to come up dirty again.
There are many days that I want to screw up and land in prison, so that I won’t have to keep trying. It would be so much easier. When I tell my therapist about my mother abandoning me, my grandfather molesting me, and all my years of drug abuse and stealing, I feel that my life is not worth putting back together. Then I look at my daughter, whom I have gotten to know this past year, and I realize I’m not willing to give that relationship up.
Sometimes my daughter looks at me anxiously, as if waiting for the sky to fall all over again. Each time I see that look on her face and realize what I have done to her, it cracks my heart open, and all I can think about is running away and getting high. But I don’t. One dirty urine sample, and she gets to live out my childhood all over again: abandoned by her mother. So each day, we heal together a little bit more, and each day, I want to be here a little bit more. And each week, I have another clean drug test.
My little sister Lauren was one of those children who desperately want to fit in, but never do. She wore glasses from the age of four and was painfully uncoordinated, always falling down or stumbling over something or someone. Though she tried to dress like the other girls, her fashion sense was as clumsy as the rest of her. Lauren’s asthma kept her in and out of doctors’ offices, and my parents could not hide their resentment at the expense.
I resented Lauren, too. I felt that I shouldn’t have been in the same family with her. When I rode my bike, she always tried to tag along. When Lauren went out on her own, she wandered through the neighborhood in search of a group of kids she could join. If she happened to find some who didn’t turn her away, she stayed with them until they went home or I came to get her.
One day, when Lauren didn’t come home on time, my mother sent me out on my bicycle to find her. I saw her bike by the edge of the woods, but there was no sign of Lauren, so I circled the neighborhood, thinking she had abandoned the bike to walk somewhere with the other kids. When I still didn’t find her, I went home and told my mother, who became agitated and ordered me to go back out and call my sister’s name throughout the neighborhood. I hated shouting, “Lauren!” for everyone to hear, but I did it.
I came across a couple of kids who told me they had seen Lauren earlier with Chris, a particularly mean boy who lived in our neighborhood. Lauren was undiscriminating in selecting playmates; she considered anyone who let her hang around a friend. I reported back again to my mother, who was starting to vent her frustration at me: “Go back out there!” she said. “I know she’s hiding from you. Tell her that I’m going to whip her good if she doesn’t come home now!”
Once again, I rode through the neighborhood calling Lauren’s name. This time, she appeared, stumbling out of the woods near her bike. Her clothes were a mess, and she had bits of twigs and leaves in her hair.
“Where have you been?” I demanded.
“Nowhere,” Lauren answered.
“What have you been doing?”
“I haven’t been doing nothing,” she said.
“You’d better get home quick. Mama is mad!”
Lauren slowly got on her bike and rode home, with me riding beside her, pelting her with questions. I attributed Lauren’s disarray to her clumsiness, the way I always did. It wasn’t until I was an adult that Lauren told me Chris, the mean neighborhood boy, had lured her into the woods that afternoon and raped her.
When we got home, my mother chased Lauren through the house, beating her with a hairbrush because she had gotten her clothes dirty.
When my sister and I were preschoolers, our mother would dress us up in smocked pinafores, white bobby socks, and patent-leather shoes just for us to play out in the front yard. She was worried that people would drive by and call us “dirty Mexicans.” We quickly learned to play outside without getting dirty, so as not to meet with our mother’s disapproval. But I never understood why we had to worry so much about staying clean, when other children didn’t.
The great irony was that no one driving by our tiny house in Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia, would have taken my sister and me for Mexicans, dirty or otherwise. Though our Mexican mother had bronze skin, black hair, and wide cheekbones, she had married a fair-skinned, blond American, and we strongly favored our father’s side of the family. Nevertheless, for our mother, dressing well and looking tidy was a matter of pride and survival, and still is.
I’ll never forget the day that, as an adult, I discovered why dressing down is a privilege that my mother does not have. While she was visiting me in California, I brought my mother to my son’s preschool to meet his teacher. As my mother, dressed in a jean skirt, blouse, and sandals, followed me into the classroom, the teacher told her that she had come too early to clean.
My father was trying to replace our standard, suburban, patch-of-grass front yard with a Japanese-style rock garden like the one he had read about in the home section of the newspaper. So far, all he had was a rectangular border of white stones surrounding a middle rectangle where, instead of the recommended dwarf Japanese yew and creeping juniper, my father was planting petunias. The garden embarrassed my mother, who claimed it was tacky.
During a lull in his work, my father left a wheelbarrow full of dirt in the driveway. My seven-year-old brother and his friend Bruce rolled it toward a thicket of trees in the backyard. I tried to tag along.
“We’re building a fort,” my brother told me.
I was excited because he was speaking to me in a nice voice, not his usual growl. I trailed behind the boys, who pushed the wheelbarrow, picking gray stones from the mound of dirt inside and tossing them at each other, pretending they were grenades.
“I got you! Die, Nazi, die!” they yelled.
It felt so good to be included. I wanted to throw a rock, too, but I knew if I did, it would break the spell, and the boys would send me back inside the house, where my mother would make me play with my new baby sister.
When we reached the row of tall poplar trees that marked the end of our property, the boys stopped the wheelbarrow in a group of high, scratchy bushes full of red berries. You couldn’t eat the berries, I’d been warned, or you’d die.
“Want some berries?” my brother asked me.
I shook my head vigorously, holding my hand over my mouth.
“They’re delicious, aren’t they, Bruce?” he said.
“Sure,” said Bruce, and he picked several berries off the branch and pretended to eat them. He had a big bruise over his eye where his older brother had hit him with a toy truck. “Tastes like ice cream,” he said.
“Sit down,” my brother told me.
“Why?” I asked.
“So you can watch us build the fort,” he said.
His voice wasn’t as kind as before, and I was a little scared. Hesitantly, I stepped around the bush, my sneakers getting caught on some of the thorny branches. I found a tree stump to sit on and saw a bluebird land on the bush, pluck a red berry, and gobble it down before flying away. Maybe the berries weren’t poisonous after all.
When I turned back to the boys, I saw them tipping the wheelbarrow up, and suddenly the dirt was flying all over me: in my hair, in my eyes, up my nose, and down my shorts — gritty brown dirt, full of twigs and pebbles and worms and ants. “Stop!” I screamed.
The boys laughed so hard that snot came flying out of their noses. Bruce picked clumps of berries from the tree and flung them at me. Then the two of them ran away, leaving me there on the ground crying, my tears mixing with the dirt to form mud.
My father found me and carried me back to the house. He told me to take off my clothes on the steps so I wouldn’t bring any dirt inside. Then he took a photograph of me, sitting naked on the steps, covered in dirt, looking eternally sad. This slide would be shown every year at family get-togethers.