“cream” by beth hoeckel

Hey Girl, Do You Want a Hug?

Touching him was like touching a lion

I wish I could go back and do it differently. I’m not so naive as to think it would have changed the outcome, but maybe I could have communicated something powerful, and left my mark, if I had just been brave.

Sometimes I wonder if I even have the right to be sad. Maybe, I think meekly, someone could have called me when they found Erik blue-faced in his bedroom.

But then again, nobody knew about our interactions. In fact, I often find myself writing them down, just to remember that they happened. I have snippets scrawled on so many napkins — post-it notes, subjectless email drafts — and sometimes, thankfully, in my bright purple, hard cover diaries that are hard to lose or break.

These were our moments:

When I was in middle school, the most physically developed girl in my grade also happened to have the most permissive parents. She threw a party. Everyone went. But Erik disappeared shortly after he arrived.

I, on the other hand, snuck into the bushes with some boys to take my first sips of vodka. (I fantasized that the boys might kiss me, which they didn’t, which was fine. They were shorter than I was, anyway. Most people were, back then, though Erik wasn’t; he had one inch on me in sneakers. But he was tan, with wavy, light brown hair, and bright eyes, and therefore way out of my league. The two of us were just friends.)

With the taste of vodka still burning on my tongue, I wandered from the bushes to the basement, and found Erik crying in the Train Room. He was crouched underneath the most elaborate set — an Amtrak replica winding through a generic, snow-covered town that resembled Milwaukee. I asked him what was wrong and he told me to shut the door, so I did, leaving the two of us alone in a musty, dark room. Hormones ricocheted through my body. All I could think about was kissing.

“My parents are divorcing,” he said, tears, rolling down his cheeks. “And my dad’s crazy.” My parents were divorced, too, and I knew about crazy. But I was not at an age where I could empathize yet, really. Or rather, all I could see right then was a handsome boy sobbing. Easy prey.

“Do you want a hug?” I asked.

He nodded and I crawled underneath the table. The two of us scooted close, dragging our butts across concrete with the heels of our sneakers. I had never hugged a boy before. When I finally reached for him, our legs were overlapped, octopus style. Touching him felt like touching a lion.

“Thanks,” he said, digging his chin into my shoulder. I was afraid he’d pull away first so I quickly responded, “How about we go back to the party? I’ll walk with you.”

I once spent a certain Christmas Eve with Erik’s father and found out exactly what Erik meant by crazy. I was at my former stepmom’s house to exchange gifts with her, my half-sister, and my former step-brother and step-sister. I referred to them all as family, still, because I was lonely. But the truth was that since my father’s latest divorce, my would-be Brady Bunch had been scattered across various suburban ranch houses and downtown apartments, and we rarely saw one another anymore due to grudge-fueled allegiances that freckle most separations.

Is it possible to write a eulogy that isn’t inherently selfish? How do you express how you felt about a person without talking at length about yourself?

Apparently Erik’s father was sitting at our table drinking all our wine because he was part of my former stepmother’s divorce group — “Small world, huh?” While he was in the bathroom, my stepmom explained to me in hushed tones that she’d invited him only because she had felt bad for him, but hadn’t known he would stay so long. I was angry at her for letting him come in the first place, and then acting like she couldn’t control his being there. The presence of a stranger was making me feel more alienated by my family than usual. So when he returned from the bathroom, red-faced from wine, and complimented my 15-year-old sister’s “rack,” I got in his face and told him, “Get out.” He was too intoxicated to drive anywhere safely. But he got home fine.

One night I met Erik at a bar with about twenty other people — by then former classmates. I no longer went to their school because my mother had swapped me into a private establishment, saying she was worried about the prevalence of drugs — and especially heroin — at the public high school where I had been slated to attend.

I found Erik in the hallway near the bar’s bathroom and told him that I’d spent Christmas Eve with his dad — “Small world, huh?” He looked so embarrassed that without thinking I threw my arms around him and whispered, “It’s okay, buddy, he didn’t do anything embarrassing, I swear.” He squeezed me hard for a long time, and I could almost smell the dusty model trains and wet concrete in the basement where I’d first put my arms around him. We spent the rest of the night drinking side-by-side, stealing glances in each other’s direction and smiling, before we eventually left with different people.

When you’re young it’s easy to confuse a visceral response with romantic curiosity. To me, Erik simply seemed larger than life and sort of special and overwhelming. Now that I’ve accepted death as something possible, I feel similarly about nature, or wildlife.

Did I mention that he invited me to his school’s homecoming, and I accepted of course, all jubilant? I wore a tight, black dress with ruffles at the bottom, a padded strapless bra, and picked him up at seven because he didn’t have his license yet. He brought marijuana into my mother’s minivan and told me to pull onto a side street near the public high school. I’d never smoked before.

“This’ll make it better,” he said, pulling something out of his pocket. Then, while I held the pipe, he sprinkled crushed Vicodin onto the weed. I inhaled shakily, and felt nothing, drug-wise, but pretended to as I leaned in to kiss him. His tongue was heavy and half-hearted against mine, and his lips left rings of spit around my mouth. I didn’t know that someone so attractive could be so bad at kissing, or that I would feel so little when kissing an attractive boy I liked so much. When I pulled away to look at him — based on the laziness of the kissing, I mostly wanted to make sure he was still awake — he was pale and drained looking, with purple rings under his eyes.

“Let’s go to the dance,” I offered, trying to be nice about the fact that neither of us wanted to kiss each other. I didn’t realize that this was some kind of turning point — that he had fallen in love in that minivan, though not with me — and that, from then on, every time I saw him he’d be grey-faced and drugged.

A few Christmas Eves later, fresh home from college, I was at my dad’s when the doorbell rang. It was Erik, holding a red, insulated bag containing our pizza. “Hey girl,” he said beaming.

For me, the words “Hey girl” will always conjure clean, cold fleeces, and the physical oomph of wrapping my arms around Erik’s broad, athletic shoulders.

I invited him inside — a gesture, mostly; he was working, delivering pizzas, and I didn’t think he could spare the time. But he said sure, beaming still, and while my father cut him off a slice of sausage/pepperoni, he and I sat side-by-side on the piano bench, poking at black and white keys, talking non-stop for about twenty minutes. I’m pretty sure his car was running the entire time.

“I’m just trying to save up some money so I can go back to Madison and finish up my degree,” he said, his face drawn, grey; his eyes tired, but still handsome. “I don’t want debt, and my dad won’t pay, so.”

His last name had once been hyphenated — a hybridization of his parents’ identities. But he now went by his mother’s name, he said, so I reached for my phone and changed his surname in my address book.

“I run into you now and then and I love it,” I told him sheepishly. I didn’t want to send the wrong signals in case he got freaked out and chose to never talk to me again. I was used to people cutting me out of their life because I was too effusive, too sensitive, too needy.

He nodded. “You’re one of those people for me.”

Afterward he texted me “Hey Girl,” with a list of compliments about my maturity, my brilliance, my haircut.

“Thank you!” I texted back, once again reluctant to seem too obsessed. It was all I could think to say, a fact that I would soon regret.

A few months after delivering our Christmas pizza, Erik died from using bad smack. Some con artist sold him poison instead of heroin, and it killed him. But I didn’t know he was dead until he had been in the ground for almost a year. I was living in California at the time, and nobody thought to tell me, because nobody knew that we were friends. Our interactions occurred under tables, in cars, in the hallways of bars, on my father’s piano bench. They consisted of sporadic texts and Facebook messages. “Hey girl” and “Do you want a hug?”

Why did I write all of this when I know that nobody’s going to read it? That he’s not going to read it?

It’s a hackneyed thing to say, but worth repeating: Try harder with the people who matter to you. Tell them how you feel. That way, when you find yourself writing something like this two years after their death, you will know they’ve already heard you. Talking about how you felt for them, however briefly, will not feel as self-involved or sad.

And one more thing:

When I was seventeen I went to Botswana and touched a leopard. It was not the purpose of the trip, just an unusual perk of having gone. In retrospect I think the animal was probably drugged. It seemed unusually sluggish. Nevertheless, my heart pounded. The leopard was beautiful, huge. Touching it was something I had never thought I would be allowed to do. The experience left me feeling exhilarated, unnaturally lucky, and flattered all at once. It reminded me of Erik.


If you like what you just read, please hit the green ‘Recommend’ button below so that others might stumble upon this essay. For more essays like this, scroll down and follow the Human Parts collection.

Human Parts on Facebook and Twitter

Next Story — What Happens When a Girl You Barely Know Accuses Your Mom of Child Molestation
Currently Reading - What Happens When a Girl You Barely Know Accuses Your Mom of Child Molestation

What Happens When a Girl You Barely Know Accuses Your Mom of Child Molestation

Here’s what happened to us.


The only revenge I’ve ever executed took place in a now-defunct movie theater in Wisconsin. The girl’s name was Lori and we were both 14. I didn’t recognized her picture when the police first showed it to me. But I’d been finding out about her ever since.

When we were twelve, she’d told her therapist my mother’s name. It was the finale to a long-winded confession. My mother, who — back then at least — had hair like a llama and a nervous way of fluttering her hands whenever topics turned “inappropriate,” was the one who had molested Lori, Lori said.


Two years is a long while to gather clues. I found out Lori carved curse words into her arm with pencils. I knew she was anorexic and bulimic, which, when you’re fourteen, are sort of valorized ailments. Secretly, I associated her with some of my most shameful moments. Like when I found the police report in my mom’s office — inside a binder labeled “Privileged” — and snuck it up to my bedroom, where I struggled with feelings of arousal while pouring over phrases like, “made me lick her wet crotch.”

The charges had been since dropped due to lack of evidence. Certain key, verifiable claims — including one that Lori and I had been on a gymnastics team together — proved false. But the whole thing did not go away as quickly as it should have. The police in our small, suburban town were sick of doing PSAs about razor blades in apples. They wanted to be heroes, and arrested my mother on the strength of Lori’s allegations alone. While my mom sat in a holding cell giving away her baloney sandwiches to jocular prostitutes, the local paper printed her name, and they kept her locked up until some judge asked what the hell was going on? The officers had to admit that nothing was.

On almost a nightly basis after she got home, she would sit on the carpet looking broken, and convinced me through tears that everyone around us knew. So by the time I saw Lori at the movie theater, I had a lot on my mind.

She looked plump, for one thing. Not like any of the anorexics I’d seen in those pamphlets they handed out in health class. She was with friends. They were seeing Chocolat and eating chocolate. They laughed with their mouths full and I stared at them, clutching a plastic bag containing a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and my movie ticket.

The hydrogen peroxide was for my newly pierced ears, which were infected. Apparently I had some kind of metal allergy, which I was trying to cure without taking out the earrings. I’d been warned the holes would close otherwise and the potential for that felt like a potential for failure; better to keep the wound open, I thought. Maybe most teenagers don’t think like that.

From what I’d witnessed, it seemed like most 14-year-olds were like Lori was that day: giggling through braces while buying candy — on the way to see some movie because of Johnny Depp and a French title. Lori was supposed to have issues.

“Pastor Bill said we’ll go crazy asking ourselves, ‘Why?’” my mother had told me. “This girl Lori probably has problems so bad that ours pale in comparison.” She sounded determined. Hopeful.

But here, at the movie theater, Lori looked happy. I stared hard, caught her eye, and smiled nervously. She and her friends scurried off. I was seeing a different movie but went in after them anyway, and sat down a few rows ahead. When the previews started, I went up to Lori.

“You’re fat,” I shouted—it was the thing girls said in movies when they wanted to hurt each other—and then I poured the entire bottle of hydrogen peroxide on her head.

In Lori’s written statement to the police, she drew arrows pointing to supplementary exaggerations, underlined certain half-truths for emphasis, and wrote in the margins to fit everything she needed to say. The finished piece succeeded in making her into more of a victim, but was nevertheless false.

It was very imaginative, though. Sometimes, when I am feeling gracious, I think that maybe she should have been a writer.

“She saw me and ran from the theater to go and buy her weapon, thinking only of my demise, and would not stop laughing.”

In his report, the cop who came to calm her down described a chalky residue on Lori’s cheeks. I guess the peroxide dripped down her face. But I didn’t see that because I was too busy running away, flailing my arms. And perhaps Lori was right about one thing. Perhaps I was laughing.

Yes, this is real. Please take a moment to admire my clearance rack Abercrombie and Fitch sweater. I cut off the collar to make it less “fancy.” I was more self-conscious at this age than I have ever been in my life.

They caught me, obviously. They took my mug shot and tried to make a trial of it. But once again some judge said, “What’s going on here?” and told them to go back to luring lost dogs into their squad cars with ham. That’s what my mom told me anyway.

“Thank God for judges,” she said, uncorking a celebratory bottle of wine. “And thank you for defending me.” After a few glasses she started to cry.

“I love you,” I pleaded. I didn’t know what was going to happen. It could shut itself off in a few tears or last the whole night. Certain feelings are a straight shot with a finish line and certain ones are mazes that unfold forever.


In the ensuing months, I memorized Lori’s AIM screenname — duckybubbles999.

I put it into my chat box so I could see whenever she was online. I felt like by staring I could learn something that might demystify her. It was an early version of Facebook stalking. Her away messages were almost always sad.

Show me the meaning of being lonely ~BSB

I tried to feel sorry for her but couldn’t.

I also continued my field research. Whenever I ran into someone from my old school, I’d ask about Lori. I learned she now had a ring of bleach blonde hair on the crown of her head, which she said was from the hydrogen peroxide I’d dumped on her. When I heard this, I felt confused and vaguely jealous; I had tried to lighten my own hair with hydrogen peroxide many times, but it had never worked.

“She probably dyed it herself,” said my mother.

Even now I wonder almost constantly, though I am still uncertain. Was it actually Lori’s dad who did it? — The guy who, during the three days my mom was in jail, refused to be interviewed? Is that why Lori’s mom confirmed that she had driven Lori to our house, even though she never had?

And if that’s the case, did Lori simply need a name? Someone to pin it to who they might never find? I’ve heard that’s common — to project a childhood trauma on someone who won’t hurt you.

Perhaps it was this: she vaguely remembered me, but figured I was long gone at another school district, and the police would never find us.

In my most certain moments I think that fear and anger can only bloom to a certain point before you want to punish someone and innocent people get hurt.

I still struggle to feel sorry for her.


One day I was watching Lori’s screen name, listening to my heart pound in my ears, when Duckybubbles999 blinked. She had changed her away message. Only this time it was not a snippet of sadness from some boy band.

SHOOT FOR THE MOON EVEN IF YOU MISS YOU’LL LAND AMONG THE STARS! :)

My wrists started sweating in that sick way, like when you have the stomach flu. Here I was, scrutinizing a screen for hours, and she was rattling off upbeat quotations. She was staring at her computer like I was staring at mine, and unlike me, she was fine. For all I knew she was over there singing along to the Spice Girls, or something.

“It’s me,” I typed. “Could you please just tell me why you did it?” My palms itched. It said that she was typing, but then it didn’t. So I sent a few clarifying messages.

It’s me Kathleen.

I just need to know.

I’m sorry for calling you fat.

Please.

She didn’t respond.

I was at my dad’s house that night but somehow they still found me. About an hour after I chatted her, there was a knock on the front door. I looked out my bedroom window to see a cop on our stoop.

I tucked my nightgown into my sweatpants and shuffled downstairs. My step-mom was already there, chatting with the officer. She gave me a look.

“You know that girl has bigger problems than you do,” she snapped, and left me to talk to the policeman.

I didn’t recognize him from mom’s debacle but you could tell from his voice that he’d probably heard about it. He seemed appalled. “You think after everything else the girl needs this?”

“Those charges were dropped,” I said, my voice catching in that way that happens right before you sob. “We sued them back for defamation of character but we lost a lot of money and now there’s nothing we can do.” I heard my step-mom rattling pans in the kitchen and lowered my voice. “Just because Lori is messed up doesn’t mean I’m not.”

The cop raised his eyebrows. “Aren’t you the one who attacked her with some kind of chemical?” He crossed his arms. “I wouldn’t go around pointing fingers if I were you — you’re the lucky one.”

“Okay,” I said, and burst into tears — which was embarrassing, because now I couldn’t see. Certain animal responses are blinding, like rage or a good cry. It was only when I heard his footsteps drifting off — the unlatching and the slam of the squad car door — that I realized he’d gone and left me to unpack whatever this was turning into.

When I decided to write this, I Googled Lori’s name. She is now working as some kind of inspirational speaker.


Kathleen Hale is the author of No One Else Can Have You and the forthcoming novel, Nothing Bad is Going to Happen. You can find more of her writing here & there.


If you like what you just read, please hit the green ‘Recommend’ button below so that others might stumble upon this essay. For more essays like this, scroll down and follow the Human Parts collection.

Human Parts on Facebook and Twitter

Next Story — No Petting Zoo: A New York City Safari
Currently Reading - No Petting Zoo: A New York City Safari

No Petting Zoo: A New York City Safari

My life on the food chain (with footnotes)


I grew up in the suburbs of Wisconsin among five-year-old trees and hypoallergenic pets. Non-domesticated fauna were pretty much limited to white-tailed deer and small, orange foxes—though I never actually saw the latter. I wouldn’t even believe those foxes existed except that every few years some neighbor wept over the fact that one had eaten her toy poodle.

I had such limited contact with wild animals that I started to fetishize them. Petting zoos and regular zoos became my preferred places to host birthday parties. I wrote fully illustrated stories about girls named Kathleen who befriended mice and birds like Snow White. I also wrote stories about tigers that escaped from circuses, mauling and beheading the clowns in the process—a full massacre—in part because I hated clowns, but mostly because I wholeheartedly empathized with tigers.

Anyway, by the time I finally ventured forth from that verdant and mall-topian sprawl, I equated environments like the one I’d grown up in with minimal wildlife, and I consequently deduced that polluted and cement-laden cities must be even less hospitable to non-human species. I also thought that I was at the top of the food chain, and rightly so; the foxes didn’t bother me, and when deer traipsed into my yard, I could always chase them out. Moreover, I was a carnivore.

So imagine my surprise when I moved to New York City and found that it was host to a litany of feral critters, and that these animals could also be very scary, and that they even tended to leech off of and cohabitate with unwitting residents like me. Since moving here, my darkest moments have usually occurred against the backdrop of disturbing relationships with vermin. In the more terrifying instances, I’ve found myself in places on the food chain where I definitely don’t belong.

I’m an animal lover. But New York City has rattled my devotion.

Count Sheep by Beth Hoeckel

Bugs

I arrived at my first New York City apartment panting from the five-floor walk up and feeling like a queen. I had found the Chinatown sublet on Craigslist and planned to start my publishing internship the very next day. My self-sufficiency and editorial aspirations made me feel like Carrie Bradshaw in the chrysalis phase.

Unfortunately, the apartment wasn’t exactly what I’d been expecting. There were five other people living there, for starters, and only one bathroom for the pack of us. Being the newest addition, I was also last in line for the toilet, and more than once I pounded on the door in desperation only to be told to “go in a bag if it’s such an emergency.”

The bathroom itself was incredibly small, had recessed flooring, and lacked drainage. By the time it was my turn to shower it had gotten really wet in there. There were always about two inches of standing water, and I had to decide whether to skinny dip my way across or try to hurdle the dirty lagoon and risk slipping and cracking my head on the tiles. The last thing I wanted was for my obviously unfriendly roommates to find me unconscious and naked—what might they think? So I wallowed through the muck.

Bugs came.

I noticed the water bugs first. I didn’t know what to do about them because I was twenty years old and an idiot. In my mind, I only had one towel, and it was for my body. I couldn’t use it to absorb the excess water, and I didn’t know how else to deal with the situation. So every day I waded through ankle-high runoff, took my shower, created more spillage, and put the troubling yet harmless insects out of my mind before it was time to head to work.

The bedbugs were harder to ignore.

I started waking up with blistery bumps all down my legs. But it was summertime, and about 100 degrees inside my bedroom, so for a while I told myself, and others—because in New York, people are prone to ask about potential bedbug bites in loud and nervous voices—that it was heat rash. I’d never actually had heat rash before, and as someone who had only ever worried about bugs during brief stints at a Bible Camp in Lake Geneva, I associated insects, by and large, with things like forests, muggy sleeping bags, and Jesus songs complete with sign language. In New York, aside from the sores blooming on my legs, none of those warning signs existed, so I remained unconcerned.

I managed to delude myself until I discovered what looked like apple seeds in the seams of my mattress. After comparing them to photographs online, and confirming my worst infestation fears, I polled my roommates about chipping in for an exterminator. But they were even more delusional than I had been; instead of freaking out with me, they freaked out at me, saying that there were not any bugs in the apartment, and that if there were, I’d brought them in—because they certainly weren’t responsible. Then they shut their doors, and collectively pressured me via email to start showering at the YMCA.

During my Googling spree, I uncovered several homemade remedies for combating bedbugs and swiftly employed them all. Most notably, I ditched my mattress and invested in an Aerobed. Then I laid double-sided tape around it like a moat. In the mornings, the tiny bedbugs were trapped on the adhesive—along with spiders and cockroaches.

After enough time in Chinatown, I dreaded falling asleep. I knew that by morning everything that crawled toward me at night would be laid bare against the double-sided tape. To cope psychologically, I sprayed myself with bug spray and pretended I was camping.

I started to hate New York City, too. Most days I identified less with other humans than I did with the pig heads displayed in the Chinatown butcher windows: my mind detached from my body, my teeth clenched in anticipation of the deathblow.

Seabirds by Beth Hoeckel

Pigeons

Pigeons haven’t really resided in Wisconsin since the late 1800s—and those were carrier pigeons, enslaved by my people for the purpose of correspondence. So I’d never known one before moving to New York, and upon arriving I initially found the mangy, gurgling, omnipresent birds to be exotic despite the fact that they were filthy.

At first I fed them. During my lunch hour, I’d break off pieces of my hot dog bun and toss it to the most bedraggled-looking one. On good days I saw myself as Mary Poppins. On not-so-good days — like when my bed bug bites itched so badly that I entertained weird amputation fantasies — it was more like The Pigeon Lady from Home Alone 2. Either way, on some level, I was a woman at one with nature.

Then a legless pigeon tried to drag itself to my hot dog with its beak, only to be publicly mauled to death by its more robust brethren. As it died writhing on the sidewalk, I started to see things differently. From then on, I screamed when pigeons warbled by my ankles, noticing only their gnarled toes and sticky feathers. Their beady eyes seemed to beg for euthanasia. Even the captive horses trotting around Central Park suddenly looked depressed.

Or maybe it was just me, projecting.

(Feral) Cats

Eventually, I sprung for a $600 per month, seven-by-nine-foot room in Queens, complete with a window (!!) that looked onto a sunless concrete enclave where residents stored garbage.

After sunset, I’d watch cats crawl from the shadows, stalking edible waste. As they fought over coagulated baby formula or moldy takeout, I’d sit on my narrow mattress in my narrow room picking crud off my work shoes. I fell asleep to impassioned meowing and the sound of plastic shredding underneath predatory paws. It was pretty clear based on what they sometimes dragged from neighbors’ trash bags and managed to digest that these cats would have gladly eaten my face, given the chance. But still, I rooted for them. Based on the way I tended to pounce on the free beers that magically appeared in the conference room at my office building every Friday, I sometimes felt like a stray, too.

Black Squirrels

Who knows how the feral cats missed their opportunity to eat this guy—there were so many of them and so few of him—but a black squirrel would occasionally appear on the lip of my window, scratching on the screen.

This sounds cute but it wasn’t. It reminded me of my senior year, when my dad and I lived in what I felt certain was a haunted cabin. Occasionally, when I was home alone doing my homework after dark, I’d hear a rustling noise and look up to see a white tailed doe brushing her forehead against the window, back and forth, her big, black, bottomless eyes staring straight at me. It only happened a couple of times but it scared the bajeezus out of me. When a normally skittish beast knocks on your door, it’s unsettling. Demon possession springs to mind. And besides, by the time the black squirrel started twitching on my window ledge, I’d seen enough diseased pigeon feet and slept with enough bedbugs to know I didn’t want to live with whatever this particular rodent was carrying. I didn’t want it anywhere near me.

Then one day I climbed into the shower to see it sitting back on its hind legs, luxuriating in the steam. I screamed and it chattered, skittering in a tight circle but not leaving. Eventually I had to simply get out. The shower belonged to the black squirrel now. I went to work with dirty hair, feeling weird the whole day—and though I never saw it in the bath again, or found out how it had gotten there to begin with, I always checked to make sure the it wasn’t busy in there before I took my morning shower. I also started putting raisins on the windowsill, so that it wouldn’t act so starved and hyper when it did show up. After a while I started to think of it as a sort of pet. A pet I never, ever, wanted to touch.

Chickens

Queens ended up being too far away from my social life in Brooklyn and proved nearly impossible to get to on weekends after 9pm. So I found yet another crooked broker to show me cheap places near the Gowanus Canal, and promptly settled into a place with low ceilings and windows that faced brick. A Laundromat was conveniently situated right down the street, which made the chicken slaughterhouse on the other side of my apartment slightly easier to bear.

At night I heard muffled squawking and dreamed of Santeria. Overall the combination of burnt feathers and sweet-smelling soap exhaust gave the place a weird vibe.

Red by Beth Hoeckel

Rats

I found out I had a rodent shortly after sending in the deposit plus the first and last month’s rent. There were cockroaches, too, obviously—only one or two, per month, but still; if you left dishes in the sink, one would inevitably be found floating in the pot by morning. In my mind, these pests could not have have been exclusively due to filth, since the Laundromat fumes probably disinfected whatever sort of E coli from the chicken plant was floating through the air—not to mention the fact that I scrubbed the whole place with bleach every weekend. In general it was starting to dawn on me that New York’s vermin are a common denominator of sorts; due to overpopulation, cramped quarters, old construction. Regardless of socioeconomic status, no one here is immune to mice, cockroaches, or bedbugs. “Don’t take it personally,” I thought.

Anyway, I only ever saw a single rat, but given the amount of feces I found, who knows, there could have been thousands of them.

At first, I’d put out those little snap-traps with cheese. In response to my efforts, the rat(s) would eat the cheese (without setting off the trap), and then defecate all around said trap, as if to say, “Eat shit.” So I ditched the snap-traps and switched to sticky-traps. One night, I woke before dawn to a terrible shrieking sound, and after some sleepy searching, found the rat still stuck to a trap under the sink. It had gnawed through two of its own legs trying to escape, and there was blood everywhere. The rat and I were both screaming as I picked up the heavy sticky paper from one corner. At first I put on dish-washing gloves and tried to pry its remaining limbs loose, but then its feet started to tear, and I ran outside in my nightgown to toss it in the trash. “Don’t take it personally,” I said.

In part this new, blasé sense of everyone’s smallness actually allowed me to focus on more practical stuff in my life without getting overwhelmed by the bugs, the mangy (and probably near-death) cats, or by my own anonymity for that matter: stuff like finding a slightly better place—one that was closer to a better subway, and that included a bathroom where the tiles did not occasionally fall off the wall and crack dangerously close to my toes.

Bluebirds

The first time I saw a non-pigeon in New York, I was en-route from my current apartment to collect my dry cleaning. It was more than 100 degrees outside, and heat rising off the sidewalk made the sight of an adorable baby bird hopping foot-to-foot to avoid the steaming ground much more of an emergency. As the bluebird’s parents squawked in terror on the branches above me, I tucked a clean but chemical covered dress underneath their baby, careful not to touch it.

The next step was to get the fledgling into a bush or something, so that the parents could guide it back into the tree. There was a one outside the cleaners, but that bush seemed precariously close to the deli cat sunbathing down the street. Plus, I worried that the noise from construction crew hammering away in the middle of the road would make the bird’s parents too jumpy execute a proper rescue mission. So I hoisted the fledgling into my dress-hammock and walked across the street slowly enough that the parents could follow—and they did! As jackhammers pounded into concrete, we walked together toward a private garden with a tall gate. I nudged the baby bird through the slats, then peaked through to watch a miracle unfold.

As I watched in horror, a fat, collared cat crept from the manicured bushes, its eyes peeled on the peeping fledgling. I rattled the padlocked gate to try and scare it while the parents chirped frantically from the branches, but to no avail. Eventually the cat pounced and slowly ate the baby blue bird, starting with its stomach.

Just as I was about to cry, I felt a hand clamp down on my shoulder. I jerked around to see one of the construction workers towering above me, watching the display over my head. “Nature,” he shouted in a thick New York accent, struggling to be heard over the machines.


Kathleen Hale is the author of No One Else Can Have You and the forthcoming novel, Nothing Bad is Going to Happen. You can find more of her writing here & there.


If you like what you just read, please hit the green ‘Recommend’ button below so that others might stumble upon this essay. For more essays like this, scroll down and follow the Human Parts collection.

Human Parts on Facebook and Twitter

Next Story — You Are Here
Currently Reading - You Are Here

“Home” by beth hoeckel

You Are Here

Reflections on New York City hazing, with teenagers in tow

My teenage siblings recently flew from Wisconsin to stay with me in Brooklyn. Over the course of that week, I found myself revisiting my first few months here through the lens of their relative shock and awe.

”Yes,” I told them. “There is a lot of garbage.”

”Yes,” I agreed. “People are very brusque compared to in Wisconsin.”

”But,” I insisted, over and over, “Nobody’s going to see you mess up — nobody is looking. You’re surrounded by people and yet you’re alone.”

Michael and Carly (seventeen and sixteen, respectively) regarded me doubtfully.

“People saw,” Carly insisted, referring to her unsuccessful attempts to swipe a metro card upside down. “And they kind of hated me for it.”

“If they didn’t care,” Michael added, raising his eyebrows, “then why did they all look so mad?”

“That’s just their faces,” I assured them.

It’s easy to write off perpetual embarrassment as being specific to adolescence, but I think there’s also something to be said for the fact that transplantation lends itself to a certain emotional regression. Out of our element, touched down in a completely new and busy place, we tend to feel the way we did in high school: alone, hyper-visible, and struck dumb by the sense that everyone is watching.

For me, the sight of my siblings navigating New York City incited uncomfortable flashbacks to my own initiation process. Their inability to stand upright on the subway brought me back to falling into old ladies’ laps on the R train. Tending to their blistered heels in the evenings reminded me of how little walking one does in Milwaukee, where the dearth of public transit necessitates carpools to and from every doorway. I’d been hazed into city life by getting hollered at for walking too slow, or for pulling my rolling suitcase over strangers’ feet. Blisters had bloomed, my boogers had turned black, and once I cried so hard in public that NYPD officers approached me in hoards, thinking I’d been attacked.

“I’m just homesick,” I told the cops, covering my eyes for privacy.

Eventually, I learned the New York City method of sobbing in public — face visible, expression haunted yet slightly proud — an art form that discourages all human contact. But it took a while, and until I became a model of what I now call “NYC MASK,” I felt exposed and mortified pretty much constantly.

“It’s a navigable city,” I promised Michael and Carly. I guess that, having reached the point where I can read a map and comport myself in a way that does not invite predators, I now feel a cult-like compulsion to convert the innocent, and help them weather the often uncomfortable transition to NYC MASK wearer. My own traumatic acclimation had yanked me out of my Midwestern self-consciousness pretty quickly. It taught me to be direct and watchful. Over the course of my time here, I’ve learned the difference between politeness and fear.

“See, we’re here,” I told my siblings, pointing to the map above our orange plastic seats. I traced the green line to Metropolitan Avenue. “And we’re going here, six stops.” I watched Michael and Carly stare at the intersecting lines — the open bubbles and the black bubbles, the elongated bubbles — and recalled those first few heart-pounding weeks in Brooklyn, when the subway maps swam before my own eyes. The trains and their coded stops may as well have been veins snaking across some anatomical map of the human body. And I sucked at science. I presumed that new places, like certain equations, were a phenomena that only geniuses could hack.

“Can’t you just do it for us, Bubba?” Carly asked.

“Okay,” I conceded, grateful that they are now taller than me and have the same pet name for me that they had when they were babies.

I didn’t ask them to navigate for the rest of the trip, and in general I treated them like children. Part of me was scared, because I’d wanted to help them avoid the shock of leaving home for the first time — maybe if they practiced enough while visiting me, freshman year wouldn’t even faze them. But instead I’d have to watch them struggle, reliving my own experiences through their actions and reactions — all the while wondering if their inability to hack it (or disinterest in hacking it, really) foreshadowed their settling in Milwaukee—though maybe I was overreacting. And what’s so wrong with Milwaukee, anyway, Kathleen? You NYC MASK-wearing snob.

A lot of closing thoughts, in other words. And not to compare myself to a mom, or anything — such a comparison would be offensive to moms, since I’m barely responsible for myself, much less for anybody else (this morning I ate Halloween candy for breakfast,and right now for clothes I am wearing a blanket) — but it must be something that parents deal with constantly: realizing how much you want to make the leap for other people, only to realize that instead you’re going to have to watch them either do it themselves, or choose not to all together.


If you like what you just read, please hit the green ‘Recommend’ button below so that others might stumble upon this essay. For more essays like this, scroll down and follow the Human Parts collection.

Human Parts on Facebook and Twitter

Next Story — Sugar Baby, Don’t Cry
Currently Reading - Sugar Baby, Don’t Cry

Photo by rachel libeskind, a few months after my “date”

Sugar Baby, Don’t Cry

The summer before my senior year of college, I decided to take a semester off, which involved moving to Chicago, buying two kittens from an animal hoarder, and regularly smoking gigantic quantities of marijuana. The part-time retail job I secured using a fabricated resume was harder than I had anticipated. At one point I tried to sell a confused-looking woman a pencil skirt that was actually an upside-down cowl neck sweater. “You are whack,” she told me, and promptly left.

The clothing store paid four dollars an hour plus commission, which I rarely received. I was quickly running out of the money I had squirreled away; I could no longer even afford the brand of hot dogs I preferred, which made me very sad (they had cheese in them). So when someone at a party said I had a nice ass and suggested I find myself a sugar daddy, I cocked my head and did some verbal nodding.

“If worse comes to worst,” I said. Then I went home, smoked a bowl with the kittens, and posted a naked photo of myself on a site for connecting sugar daddies with sugar babies.

I don’t actually remember the name of the man I eventually found. He was tan, tall, maybe sixty years old, and had large bleached teeth, like rows of Chiclets.

“I’m going to send you some materials — pamphlets and things with my face on them,” he explained over the phone. “I don’t want you to be scared that I’m not who I say I am.” He cleared his throat. “I’m trying to help you feel safe because I expect a certain amount of discretion. Do you understand?”

“Sure,” I blurted, not knowing what else to say. When the pamphlets came I stashed the package in a corner and stuck a note to it that read, “This is the guy who killed me,” just in case.

I found all of this very funny. It didn’t occur to me that I might be bad at being a sugar baby, like I was at selling clothes. I figured I had the requisite skills: a predilection for casual sex, a body without any missing parts. Sure, I’d never had an affair with an older man. But I told myself it couldn’t be too awful. There would be some part of him that was still nice to look at, and I would train my eyes on that.


On the limo ride over to the hotel bar where we had agreed to meet, my driver bemoaned the plunging temperatures, saying that whenever it got cold the crime in Chicago quickly escalated.

“People are hungry,” he declared, and our eyes locked in his rearview mirror. The look on his face was sympathetic — and I wondered briefly how many prostitutes he had ferried to this very hotel, in this very manner. I wondered whether he could tell that I was new at this. It was my first sober evening in months — and being clearheaded had the effect of making me temporarily introspective. Could the driver tell I’d grown up in the suburbs with supportive parents, and attended a liberal arts college, and was only doing this lazily, as a lark?

“There’s bubbly back there,” he told me. I smiled gratefully at him, immediately changing my mind about the need for sobriety. Maybe he didn’t know anything.

Standing in the lobby, I found myself remembering Cotillion classes, and I walked across the marble tiles pretending there was a string attached to my head that pulled it up to the ceiling, straightening my spine. Back at college, I had gone up to any boy I liked, or thought I might like, and said something along the lines of, “Would you like to have sex with me?” My seduction strategy revolved around the following principles: locate easy prey, be explicit, and get what you came for.

I had decided to go for a more toned-down, “sophisticated” version of myself that evening. “Where exactly is the bar?” I asked the man at the front desk, flipping my hair. The cheap champagne sloshed in my stomach, making me feel a little bloated, but mostly confident.

The hotel employee pointed me past the ornamental rock garden and toward the escalators, which zigged and zagged four stories overhead. On the way up, I smoothed my cheap, red satin dress against my stomach, and saw my sugar daddy the moment I shuffled off the last mechanized step. I knew it was him because of the pictures he’d sent, but also because, aside from the bartender, he was the only person there.

“Hi,” I said, swinging one leg over the barstool adjacent to his as if I were mounting a horse. Sometimes, guys at college responded to my propositions by slitting their eyes to indicate both suspicion and fear. But more often they would cooperate, following me back to my room to compete in the Sex Blooper Olympics, which is not actually a thing, though if it were, I would be the winner, because I am excitable, graceless, and lack all basic spatial reasoning skills. I cannot tell you how many times I have hit my head, bitten my partner, or fallen out of bed while making sweet love because I cannot count how many times.

“And you’re…” I had already forgotten his name. “Cute!” I kicked my feet happily. He drained his drink in one gulp. We sat there for a minute, not talking.

“Do you have any brothers and sisters?” I mumbled.

“What?” He sounded bewildered. The bartender brought him another blue cocktail, and slid a matching one toward me on a paper napkin.

“Sorry,” I said. It was quiet for a minute. I stared at his thinning, white hair and realized that if he did have any brothers and sisters they were probably already dead from natural causes. “I’m really sorry.”

“I’ve never actually done this before,” he told me.

“Me neither.” I reached for my drink.

“The thing is.” He sucked on his lips. “I… I actually had an accident two years ago that…well, I was in a wheelchair for a while. Some of my friends signed me up on the website. I’ve only been walking on my own again for the last six months.”

“Uh huh.” I assumed this was part of the same protest — that whole discourse of, I never do this sort of thing — only with more bells and whistles attached.

“What do you mean, ‘Uh huh’?”

I shrugged. “It’s fine.”

“It was my female friends, actually. They convinced me to join the site.” He smiled stiffly at me. His two front teeth were tinted blue from his drink.

Let’s get this over with, I told myself, and slapped a hand on his leg.

“Um,” he said, looking at his lap. I decided to interpret this as positive reinforcement, and gave his thigh a firm squeeze.

“I guess…” he stuttered. “Shall we—”

“Yeah,” I said.

He signaled for the check. I couldn’t tell if we were on our way to his room to do sex things, or to sit silently on the bed while watching some game show. His body language was inconclusive. So on the elevator ride up I took a deep breath and threw myself at him with my tongue already out of my mouth. He swooped back, pried my fingers from his ears, and held me at arm’s length. I wilted in his hands, picturing a sophisticated actress fainting in an old black-and-white movie.

“This is way too much for me,” he said.

The elevator door dinged open. When I tried to follow him into the hallway, he held up an admonitory hand.

I took a step back. “Are you okay?”

“You honestly don’t seem to care.” The door started to close and he reached to stop it, digging in his pocket with his free hand. “I told you, I’ve been sick — rehabilitating for an entire year — and here you are, you’re…” He held out a twenty-dollar bill. “There, for a cab.” He shook it at me. “You’re a very aggressive person.”

I stood there as he walked off. Then the elevator started to move. The doors dinged open, and another lady got in. She reached past me to press the lobby button. I wanted to speak to her, to ask her something, anything — whatever people talk about, when they’re being honest. But I averted my eyes for the rest of the descent, as if growing up were just a thing that happened so long as time kept passing.


If you like what you just read, please hit the green ‘Recommend’ button below so that others might stumble upon this essay. For more essays like this, scroll down and follow the Human Parts collection.

Human Parts on Facebook and Twitter

Sign up to continue reading what matters most to you

Great stories deserve a great audience

Continue reading