I came into the world slow, my mother climbing up and down stairs, begging me to leave and start screaming. I clung to her, grew heavier, and grew a head of thick black hair. By the time the doctors ordered a C-section at nine a.m. in late January, I was three weeks late coming into the world. I was born with teeth. I was born into winter. When the days are short. When the night sky is at its heaviest.
I was born with a Janus head. Two faces, simultaneously looking towards the future and the past. I was born on the threshold of the year, when people are readjusting. I’ve been caught like this for a long time.
I was born to two alcoholics, two wonderful parents who loved me very much. We lived on the mainland of a mile-long island called Solomons. My mother, a dark-skinned Italian woman, with eyes like espresso. My father, a blonde and blue-eyed American mutt, tall and skinny as a rail. Back then, everyone knew my father was a drunk and that my mother left him. They knew my mother succumbed to addiction as well. An awareness of my family system, how they interacted with the community and my identity, bubbled up at early age. I learned to hide and run away as a consequence.
In a landscape abundant with trees and wildlife, dark, murky river water and fish skeletons, I thrived. I felt safer out there. I’d come home with it stuck under my nails and in my hair. The nights my parents fought, I’d come hurling out of the house like a shot. My feet would pound into moss and mud, I’d run through the woods, head reared back, mouth open and howling. I first learned to understand the world through disappearing into the dark.
At sixteen my mother ripped the braces from her teeth.
Flesh and blood splattered the sink. She looked to her reflection and smiled, pliers clinking against porcelain. Her bottom row of teeth is crooked now. The top is pearly white, almost translucent. “I have a fucking beautiful face,” she would say, years later, drunk on wine. Her lips were cracked and almost black. She sat at the kitchen table. Her head seemed too heavy for her neck. She was bankrupt and alone, no husband, with two adult children. She was living in a house held together by plywood and exposed insulation. I took her by the hand and led her to bed. She was the most extraordinary creature, even as she dragged her feet and gurgled spit.
This is my mother.
Or a part of my mother. A part of me. In order for you to picture her, you’d have to picture someone just like me: big brown eyes, a mass of curly hair, chesty, dramatic eye brows, and a laugh that’s more like a cackle. People still ask us if we are sisters.
She moved from Solomons Island to Florida and quit drinking for a man, a man I barely knew. He seemed nice, took care of her. In time, they grew gardens under palm trees.
My mother tells me that he’s the love of her life and I believe that. She sits in the sun, her skin naked and bright.
She is calm, if only for this moment, and then another.
My mother sent me into the woods.
By the time I received my MFA from Chatham University in Pittsburgh, my mother had moved to Florida and found sobriety. My father had disappeared. As my mother made her way back to me, her voice losing its grit, her soft eyes finding hope in things like lilies and fishing boats and new love, my father slipped off the edge and tumbled into obscurity. I still carried their story with me, from the mile-long island where I grew up. It was something I didn’t talk about or admit to, until I became a teacher. Until I started to use the past in order to unveil a future that didn’t mirror a life struggling in the clutches of addiction.
I knew about Chatham’s social justice program when I applied, but I didn’t see myself as a mentor, someone strong enough to guide an inmate or recovering addict. I also lacked the confidence to scrutinize and assess my own struggles with addiction. But I decided to shadow creative writing classes at a halfway house anyway, feeling comfortable on the margins, observing, helping out when it made sense. In two years’ time I had become a teacher. Twelve students, a full house.
The first time I buzzed myself in to face my class, my first lesson plan tucked between the pages of Jan Beatty’s Boneshaker, my whole body pulsed, blood pushed up against my skin. Surely someone could see my heart. A tall, pinkish, 19th Century Revival with beautiful arched windows and balconies, the center rests immaculate and inviting off a busy neighborhood street. Lady Liberty-green doors open to a foyer that splits into two levels. Upstairs are offices and apartments for residents, addicted mothers, up to fifteen at a time. They can keep their children with them as they go through a six-month treatment program. I felt greedy for coming back again and again, but I needed these women. I knew that as soon as I crossed the threshold.
Downstairs are more offices for counselors and social workers. At the end of a well-lit hallway, decorated with finger paintings and watercolors, are two doors: One leads to the children’s day care, the other to the classroom where I teach. It was during that first class that I wrote the words: My mother sent me into the woods. Time had changed my father when I met him on the path. I had started to travel back in time, revisiting that long, low house on the Patuxent’s shore.
. . .
There’s something about putting the words down on a page, articulating the inexplicable. Even if the metaphor is rooted in magic, even if the writing leans towards the strange, it allows you to step back and name your monster. To whisper the name Janus. To hear the hiss of the ssss and the echo behind your neck. To say, look, this is how it feels, this is my truth. It is naming the ether, drawing an outline out of the dark, discerning black from black. No longer out and swirling, you’ve pinned it down.
The addict is impoverished.
Social justice programs are about giving marginal groups voice. However, I am not sure if these women would have become writers if they hadn’t become addicts first. Not always are women given the permission to write and be creative. Literacy is a privilege — metaphor, simile, poems, novels, imagery are gifts. Specifics are often nonexistent in my students’ early writing. They don’t believe their daughter’s stuffed owl with the missing eye is an interesting artifact, a luminous detail. Why would anyone find them or such a memory interesting?
And so the addict is impoverished because she is mute. She doesn’t have the words to articulate her situation fully, and her situation dictates whether or not she has the opportunity to access words. Simone De Beauvoir describes this in The Second Sex, interviewing French prostitutes in the late 1940s who didn’t have the language to describe what’s happened to them. Between its pages I heard my students’ voices describing ripped panties by the Allegheny River, drunken fathers coming home from the steel mills, their lips wet in the middle of the night … a mother describing the time she dropped her son on railroad tracks at a crossing in East McKeesport when she fell drunk against a signal gate assembly. “I’ve never told this to anybody,” she said.
And I heard what I didn’t hear: It isn’t so much their poverty of language; it’s lack of agency to interpret what has happened to them — what continues to happen to them — to slash back against it as a birth right, first on the page of their own journals and then as reimagined women slashing back against it in their own lives.
The Hanged Man
The very first class seemed to work in slow motion. I studied their faces, trying to quickly memorize names, trying not to look at the track marks on their arms or the collections of recovery medallions and tokens, red, green, and blue key chains cluttering their desks to indicate one month, ninety days or a year of sobriety.
We went around the room introducing ourselves. We played a game: green light, share something people don’t realize about you upon first meeting; yellow light: share something that gives you pause; red light: share something that only a few people know about you.
“I’m a heroin addict.”
Leslie, a slender Italian woman who plopped down next to me said, “You have beautiful eyelashes!” Her black hair, pulled back, accentuated her high cheekbones. She fidgeted in her chair, tapped her pencil. Her Pittsburgh accent drew out her “O’s” so they sound liked “A’s”: Dahntahn instead of Downtown. Like my mother and grandmother, her hands worked like a maestro’s as she talked — her whole body wrapped up in her words, as if my mother were sitting next to me, and I wondered how differently my mother’s life would have turned out had she not quit drinking. I imagined her, skinny and strung out, carrying bags through the front door of the center upstairs. What would she write in a workshop like this? Poems about her daughter, a dark-haired girl with her face, her boney knees? Would she write about herself, or her missed opportunities, her drunk ex-husband and how he left her with two babies. Would she describe wine as the color of black blood clotting in the hearts of her children?
How did I become this woman?
When I say all of my students inspired me, I mean every single one of them. These mothers who fight addiction, who have used during pregnancy and lost their children to the state, who ask me questions about stanzas and line breaks, word choice and imagery, who ask me for more books, more copies of poems, who read words as if they were starving, coaxed me forward, out of my own belly, through the cave of my heart and onto the page. When I brought out tarot cards, passing out one to each student — The Hermit, The Magician, The World, The Emperor — they poured over the intricate designs, listened patiently to my readings … your past is influencing this current station, it’s clouding your mind, don’t let it dictate what happens in the following months, you can always change your cards, the future card is a suggestion, the past card is here because it’s important, permanent, and influential … and then they reimagined the images and readings as stories and poems and essays.
I handed The Hanged Man to Leslie. The Hanged Man hangs upside down, tied at one foot, like a child suspended in the womb waiting for his life to start, a symbol of self-sacrifice, the martyr alive and well, though the ground has been swept from beneath him.
“It is both a card of contemplation and rebirth,” I said. “A writer’s card.”
She writes that she is no longer faint of heart, her chest betraying her in a room full of people. Her hands still shake when she reads her words out loud, she says, but not as badly as they used to. She says she recognizes her face in the mirror again. She says that if she reaches behind, she can feel the other face, too, the nose and its whispering mouth, slowly disappearing into nothing. She says that no matter what she tried to write before — the drunken poems, love letters, dream journals — it was all a distraction. Any other subject and any other place were better than the place she came from. But now, my ribcage is cracked wide open.
She writes about being hoisted up by the men who have hurt her. They tie her legs with a rope and pull her up until she is suspended above everyone and everything. The wood they tie her to is splintered and sun-bleached. She finds peace hoisted above her assailants. Describes the air as clean and cool, says her face is closer to the sun.
It’s always the mother isn’t it? Their wombs, your first home when you glimmer into consciousness, their arms and breasts the warmest, softest place when you are mute. They teach you language, they name you. Losing that home is our first pain. And later, to watch a mother destroy herself, like a hurricane ravaging the pines, leaves you stranded, helpless. All you can do is wait and pray the split wood left over can be salvaged.
I visited mine in Florida nearly two years after she left Solomons Island. A semester away from obtaining a Master’s degree, I was about to turn twenty-five. When she picked me up from the airport, I realized I couldn’t remember the last time we had been alone together.
“I don’t drive a whole lot anymore,” she said, peering over the steering wheel. She looked older. She was tan, but her fingers looked delicate. Her hands had started to wrinkle. But her skin looked good and clean. I could tell she hadn’t been drinking like she used to. I watched her as she drove, but avoided eye contact.
I tried to place the feeling. There was a new distance between us, almost as if she were an old lover. But I felt comfortable in the silence, mature in my lack of expectation. I knew her smell, her smile, the sound of her exhaling cigarette smoke, but they no longer drew my spine and jaw into tight lines. I could breathe.
Two days into my visit, I asked her to cut my hair. I’d grown too afraid to do it over the past few years, and I didn’t trust hair salons or strangers. So it grew tangled and massed, hiding my face, covering all of my back, trailing behind me like a weed. She said she would without hesitation. I walked out to the back yard of her little blue house. I stood barefoot in a patch of gray-white sand. She followed me with a pair of black-handled scissors.
I could feel her breath on my neck, could almost feel her pulse as the sun warmed my shoulders. I closed my eyes. I smelled salt and fryer grease. She is leaning in to brush the hair from my neck. The metal legs slicing, my curls dropping to my feet.
Brittany Hailer is a creative writing teacher in a women’s rehabilitation center. She has taught creative writing workshops at the Allegheny County Jail. Brittany is the managing editor for IDK Magazine. Her work has appeared in In the Doorframe Waiting, Atlantis Magazin, and The Fairy Tale Review. She earned her MFA from Chatham University. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.