Measures to Keep Water Out & Goats on the Freeway (Excerpts)
Measures to Keep Water Out
Memoir is a form of homage. To the person. To the time. To the memory. It is a slow collective awakening of one self with many selves. This memoir is about me. It is about PK. It is about the cancer permeating our world. It began seven years ago during the chemo sessions at Swedish, where I sat in the gray leather chair and stared out on Seattle, and a female nurse injected my chemo into my port.
I could no longer conceive fiction. Fiction was too far away and, in fiction, I could not express the chaos, conflict, decay, and death of my cancer days.
My first self-portrait photograph: I’m naked with a ball of yarn wrapped around my body. I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor. I asked my friend Rachel to shoot it overhead. I’m eighteen years old. I’m awash in self-contempt—tying myself in a strangulation tight hold. There is no record of this photograph. There was no Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, and if there were, I’m certain I would have posted it. Ah, the impoverished reality of the nude.
My father was a nudist. He said he was allergic to cloth and wool. He went to the nude beaches and walked up and down the beach naked, while my mother sat in the car reading a book. I imagine she was very hot in that heated car parked beside the New Jersey Shore.
Diane Arbus took photos of nudist colonies. Families are sprawled out on lounge chairs with cigarettes and dollar bills wrapped in their socks. When I try to imagine my father walking on the beach, it assaults on the eye. I imagine him with a herd of gay men walking on the beach.
Nakedness is the thrust of the memoir. Memories are stripped down to the bare essence of memory. The narrative is transparent. A transparent language of concealment. A deluge of unveilings. An object here. And a conversation there.
Now the memoir continues in the time of corona. AIDS brought out the uglies. Nearly 33 million people died worldwide. (Source: World Health Organization website, August 2020.) Now the social realm of COVID-19 reinstates the terrible injustices of public health.
My cancer bills mounted to around $300,000+. PK and I would have gone bankrupt if we both did not have jobs and health insurance. Already people are talking about silver linings. The only silver lining will be if we clean up our own house. If we have collective global action. We refuse to do this regarding climate change, yet with COVID-19, we collectively express concern.
The sounds of the ocean are changing because humans are not traversing the waters. In Seattle, PK and I took great measures to keep water out of our house. We spent years patching the walls and building a French drain that I dug out one summer. Controlling water is a major theme of our relationship.
Experiences are big. Memoir is a form of homage to experience. How you write about it when you are in the throes of experience is quite different from writing about it years later when you are buried alive in it—it is no longer part-memory, part-dream. It is both sunny climates and shadowlands.
Goats on the Freeway
When I drive home from work onto the freeway, to the left of me is a mini tent and usually a man waiting for someone to stop and give him money, to the right of me is a hill with thirtysomething goats munching away on grass and blackberries. I imagine the sleeping goats at night satiated and full, while the man lies awake in his tent hungering for more.
On Friday we went to Swedish Hospital and saw Lynda on the 12th floor—the same floor where I had seen Randy Hale. We called it the Penthouse. Lynda was sound asleep rolled in a ball—her head bald from three rounds of chemo. She will be there for a month, and then they will do a bone marrow transplant. But first they must kill everything before doing repairs.
Randy chose no treatment. No chemo. Sandy Jones worked the system to try every possible living experimental drug. Shoshana Levenberg marvels at each writing day as if it were her last. Krystn Fuerst, fortysomething, has had breast surgery, radiation, and now a tumor lodges in her neck. More radiation. More found tumors. Michelle Howe, thirtysomething, had breast cancer that spread to her spine and brain and killed her. It is June. Gemini is gone in two weeks, and cancer—my sign—comes and I have it in my mind to look up how my horoscope sign became the name for the deadly sickness that has destroyed so many lives.
Cancer is the dimmest of the thirteen constellations of the Zodiac and cancer is the term we use for malignant tumors. The American Cancer Society explains the word’s origin: Around 640 to 370 BCE, Hippocrates named tumors as carcinos—a Greek word that conveys a crab. Some suggest the masses of cancerous cells reminded Hippocrates of a hard crab shell or perhaps the pain of a crab’s claw never letting go. Then the Greco-Roman physician Celsus (28 to 50 BCE) composed an encyclopedia of medicine and translated the Greek word into cancer, which is the Latin word for crab. Then while dissecting a breast tumor, the Greek physician Galen (130 to 200 AD), compared it to a crab’s legs moving out from every part of its body, and he attributed oncos—the Greek word for swelling—to describe tumors, which led us to the term for cancer specialists—oncologists.
The death of one thing is the beginning of another thing. I know this. But when I write it the words are trite on my tongue. June is the month of Pride. We are on the cliff of gender. Pride like everything in this country now begins forwarding its debut on June 1, instead of the usual June 26 (my birthday).
We live in a world of constant need for celebration. National Croissant Day. National Smile Day. We lived between the lesbian and the otherworld community, and now even the Pride community seems gentrified. Whitewashed. Corporate. Mainstream. I am embarrassed. This year is the fifty-year celebration of the Stonewall rising, and a sign says: i’m gay we belong. Stonewall was a riot not a rainbow. We hear about conversion therapy from our vice-president and the poster of today lacks protest. The poster of today trite on my tongue.
PK and I—the fertile murk of our minds—we are no longer part of the conversation. We are on the sidelines, watching the rainbow-colored parade pass us by. The sadness for which the antigays are renowned lingers in our bloodline. It is a salve on a frayed nerve how we try to forget the size and heft of our pain. The painful—inescapable to innocent eyes. So why not celebrate? Why not write the mundane? Why not express happiness during these solemn, suffering times? During these tragic ruts of time?
PK does not need her name in print. How will she respond when she discovers I have written a memoir that is all about her—her tenacity that borders on savage? Will I have to use made-up names for my memoir? Is that even allowed? Will the ruts of time crush the story—will the hurts of humans evade the pages.
Elisa Gonzalez visits and brings us the 1980s papers. Political manifestos we wrote in our twenties. When we sit at the 2020 table, forty years later, and read our political manifestos on feminism and racism and anti-Semitism, we are cigarette-less. We feel the weight of genius. We understand the power base then, as we do now, and we sigh that historical sigh of relief—yes things have changed but not ever enough.
Today PK, Elisa, and I see the backward momentum of abortion. We talk about the delay of the ERA. We see the male domination of our bodies. We see the white privileged entitlement even though by 2044, the majority of the U.S. population will be people of color. (Source: Center for American Progress website, August 2020.) We see the stepping backward—the retardation. The smoky reality of truth.
We remember the cigarettes. Ash hanging at the end of the cigarettes we smoked. The marginalized, the desperate, the forgotten hanging at the end of the cigarettes we smoked.
Geri Gale's books include: Patrice: a poemella, Alex: The Double-Rescue Dog, and Waiting: prosepoems. Her poetry, prose, and drawings have appeared in ang(st): the feminist body zine, Sinister Wisdom, Neuro Logical, Poetry Pacific (forthcoming), South Loop Review: Creative Nonfiction + Art, Bayou Magazine, Under the Sun, and Canadian Jewish Outlook. gerigale.com and @gerigaleword
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