Update: the next Lit Lit will be Friday, June 3 at 7 PM, at our regular location, the Howland Cultural Center. We are thrilled that Shaina Loew, author of Elegy for an Appetite and chef/owner of Café Mutton in Hudson, will be our featured reader this month and sign books!! Advance open mic signups are now closed. Proof of vaccination is required at the door.
This is excerpt number four of my memoir in progress, tentatively titled Jailbreak. “The jailer” and “the harlequin” are both parts of me. You can find out more about the jailer here and the harlequin here. In the quatrain that opens this piece, the harlequin is speaking.
I have a wave of power inside me
I have a wave of fruit
I think I can be 300 feet tall
And I’m wearing a kickass suit
This confidence inside me my old therapist thought was a liability, my craziness talking. A lying dodge. On the whole she seemed to prefer the jailer. She and the jailer would have long conversations together. She never addressed the harlequin because she did not like him.
Therapy session between me and Robin:
I always start with So because Robin makes me start the show each time. Neither of us will ever say anything, the whole time, unless I begin. I hate the responsibility, and the bleakness between us, this room in which we seem locked together for 45 minutes at a time, a dungeon I pay to enter. Robin looking at me dryly as if I still haven’t learned anything in the 20 years I’ve been coming to see her.
Sometimes she actually says it: How long have you been coming to me, Donna?
Me (variously): Five years. Nine years. 19 years. 20 years.
Robin: Then why are you still doing X bad thing?
Maybe the harlequin didn’t like Robin, either.
Me/Harlequin: “I sometimes wish our therapy were more playful.”
Robin: “Therapy isn’t play. It’s hard work!
“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.”
Robin: “Yes you do!”
The harlequin ignores Robin, bides his time. Feeds me under the snow, through my root system, feeds me like birds at his many feeders, shines dazzling sunlight on me even in winter.
I’m sick of you wasting away without me, my love. I’m sick of you locking yourself in the dungeon to work. I miss you.
I will give you custard apples
and I will give you tajines warm with cinnamon
I will give you walks in the mountains
and I will give you a dog
Today I am not happy with everything E does and it makes me fear that my love is a farce. Would someone who really felt a lot of love be annoyed by her partner nervously going on about Trump when we’re having dinner at a new friend’s house? Be afraid that her partner sounded awkward and unconfident? Look at her partner’s face and think that she looked tired?
Why does E stir up the judge inside me? The judge rants, in my head, about E’s nervous boring chitchat. About something rude she said to Fred.
The jailer wants to break the house to bits, kick down the beautiful floorboards and mix them with dog shit, with peed-on papers from the doghouse, smash in the windows, sledgehammer the mirrors, destroy the furniture we built together and the art we put on the walls and shatter glass until it is so dangerous in here I have to leave.
The jailer resents E. He’ll be sitting there hammering more sheets of lead onto the cells and her voice will waft over and he will want to take his hammer to E’s lack of confidence and her belief she’s ugly. Put E in the deepest, dirtiest, most toxic dungeon cell, the saddest, scariest one and he will take his hammer to her and wipe out, wipe out all the awkwardness and the self-hate.
Did Bob invite us to dinner not because he likes us but just to get information on the outré sexual subculture that we have been involved in and he has not? Does he really enjoy our company? Does he think we’re cute? Does he think of us as boring?
This reminds me of the time I was eight and I thought my best friend Julie only liked me because I bought her bubblegum. She didn’t have any money, and I had some which I wanted to share. I liked her, and we hung out all the time, but I was afraid she only liked me for my money.
Now I realize Julie liked me for myself. But before the age of 12, I was certain that none of my friends liked me for me. I was sure they were with me only to get something from me. I often told them so and their feelings were hurt.
This is Part 3 of my memoir in progress, Jailbreak. It’s a memoir set almost entirely within my own mind, where all the different characters are parts of me. You can find parts one and two here and here.
The harlequin moves through the quiet streets, body like an acrobat. Like a soft snake, like water, effortlessly, as if tumbling, unseen unless he wants to be. He moves through the tourist crowds around the plaza, he slips past cops, he slides into the jailer’s ugly living quarters to observe my hero:
Even lying in bed the jailer is rigid, his face is tensed and white. His ears are live for the threat, he cannot stop listening. His shoulders are taut as he tries to see if he can hear the whores outside the window, their possible cavorting. He projects his awareness out the window, wishing his ears were very long and he could stick them out into the night and have them reach, reach into iniquity and monitor it at every moment.
He hears nothing.
The harlequin pirouettes over to the jailer’s bony body and smiles at him, unseen. He straddles him on the iron bed and sweetly thumbs his nose.
I have no idea where the harlequin came from.
I can’t even say how long he’s been with me. From birth, I would have said, but I don’t know if I’ve been able to escape that long.
I remember at age 5 the yeshiva principal said on the PA system that one of us had done something terrible to the school bathroom and if we were the one who had done it, the school would know.
I was scared. Even though I hadn’t done anything to the school bathroom, I was afraid that somehow the school knew that I had.
I went home and asked my mother if the yeshiva had called.
Did the harlequin join me at age 8? At age 12?
When I’m on the cusp of changing, at age 12, I stand in the elevator of our apartment building in Coney Island with a magic marker, terrified by my own capacity to do evil. The elevator of our housing project is yellow and my marker is blue. And I make a mark with it on the elevator, because I am an evildoer.
The harlequin whirls through my brain, I can barely see him. He is lying to my mother, telling her he loves her beyond anyone, beyond anything, for all time. He tells her this because she forces him. But also because it’s better to lie, to turn colors, than to stand there and be punished and to suffer.
The jailer speaks:
Who was that?
I was being rubbed all over with oil. They were teasing me with long feathers.
So many of them were touching me. Then her big hands came and it was only her.
See the harlequin lying his head off. See him going through walls. See him getting me the hell out of there.
“Sit down RIGHT FUCKING NOW and write your book!”
Who is this part of me who orders all the other parts around like it was some kind of fucking monster?
Shut up and write.
The harlequin moves through the soft fields, lands empty of everything but alfalfa and barley. Wildflowers under his feet reminding him of the seeds he planted long ago, everywhere. Some things take a long long time to bloom. There is an abandoned gas station, a big oak, shanties and a hanging tree. He will go where he needs to go, anyplace that souls are caged. Bees move around the terrible little buildings where hundreds squeezed into the spaces meant for five.
He finds the children hiding in the crawlspace and sends them leaping over the field.
The jailer visits the harlequin in prison.
Now the harlequin is a tall young man with blonde hair down to his waist, vines curling around his neck and sliding down his whole sweet body. He is wearing a dress.
The jailer comes in with two guards and addresses his victim:
“You’re not impossible to look at.”
The harlequin says, “The god gave me my looks.”
The jailer: “You know what they say happens to effeminate men in jail.”
The harlequin: “Nothing will happen to me. I am in charge of whoever touches me.”
The jailer: “Your rot will not infect us!”
So, all that was more or less from The Bacchae, a play that has been performed many times in my own mind. But when The Bacchae‘s not playing, the harlequin has short dark hair or a shaved head, he wears pants or he is naked like the elves who help the shoemaker. He blends into his surroundings so well he’s hard to see. Or he is hard to see because he moves so quickly. Or his nude body is dark in the darkness. Or on a gray day he’s the color of water. Or if you see him in the sun, he’s colored like white light, all the colors together.
Who is the harlequin?
Let us spy on him at home, something no one else has done to date. His home is a black cave. There are no windows. The cave is round, like a nut. Huh, maybe the harlequin lives in a nut. It is also a Faraday cage.
A Faraday cage is an enclosure that prevents electromagnetic energy from getting in. It is not, properly speaking, a cage but a protected sphere. Nothing can hurt him here.
The harlequin speaks: I’m in my nut. The walls are beautiful and black, and I can see nothing. There is nothing to bother me. The black walls shine. There are no doors. Where I live is like a jewel.
In his round home, the harlequin lies gloriously naked and spreadeagled. There is just enough room in his shining black jewel to stretch out his arms and legs in every direction. He believes he draws energy into him from the universe, but in fact energy is precisely what cannot get inside these walls. There is also no food, there is no water, and there is not a soul to talk to. There is not even a bed. All it is is a round box.
When I’m in fifth grade, I have a recurring fantasy:
First my eyes pop off, then my nose. Then all my teeth pop out, softly and easily. There is no violence or sickness to any of this, only sweet relief.
Then my ears come off. It is so peaceful. Then I put my head under a hill, forever.
Starring as Dionysus in The Bacchae, the harlequin spends less than 15 minutes in the jailer’s cell. The prison crumbles from the ground up, earthquake splits the stone floor and the walls tumble. The harlequin elegantly steps out of the mess
I’m just seven hours old
Truly beautiful to behold
And somebody should be told
My libido hasn’t been controlled
You know nothing about me, Minkowitz. Or you do know but you’ve forgotten: it’s a long time since you were 12, or 15.
I am delicious
I am seditious
I have diamond hoops in my ears and I’m 7 feet tall.
I’m just a sweet transvestite from Donna’s brain, and I am the motherlode, baby.
I have always been here feeding you.
He has been here, a wall of fruit and water, a rising wave of wine, since I turned 15. He has shown me storehouses and greenhouses, he has been the corn secretly growing, the peach and walnut trees rising up to take care of me, he has been the milk and honey.
What, are you afraid you’ve wandered into the wrong narrative? Are you afraid I’m talking about religion now?
The god inside me is part of me.
I have a wave of power inside me
I have a wave of fruit
I think I can be 300 feet tall
And I’m wearing a kickass suit.
Hi there. This is from my new work in progress, Jailbreak, a memoir where all the fighting, contending characters are parts of me. For Part 1, see here.
The jailer is not over-fond of food, but he does like to threaten prisoners with cutting a little flap of meat from them and eating it himself. He believes most will do whatever he wants to avoid becoming part of him. When he has me on the table next, he pops out a very sharp, pearlhandled knife, a beautiful thing, and moans as he shaves it gently across my cheek, as though I were a black truffle he had just been given. “Don’t you want to be inside me?” he asks. “Wouldn’t you like to make me vomit?”
I don’t know whether I want to make the jailer vomit.
I don’t know whether I want to be inside him.
He is inside me, that’s all I know. But I have to be truthful here: part of me *is* attracted to the jailer. On one level I would like to penetrate him, make him cry out in rapture, force him to drop his weapons out of too much joy. I could see us loving each other, could see us married and living together peacefully, blissfully in a willow bed of trust like Bert and Ernie. Would that solve things?
The jailer speaks:
Just putting one foot in front of the other foot is so hard. It hurts, and it’s slow. But it is not my job to complain about hurt or slow or hard or cold cold cold, it is my job to test, and to make sure, and to do right. It is my job to calibrate my negative reinforcements precisely to the work at hand. It is my job to look into everywhere, and to fight evil, and act.
It is my job to hold myself straight so that Donna will not fail.
Without me, everything sinks.
I have always been afraid that I would fall into the trash heap. Become oozy garbage, fall away and rot, and join — me, personally, Donna Minkowitz, join — what medieval people called a midden: the town’s heap of bones and animal carcasses, food waste, human dung they lived right next to. To become slime and fall away — sad — to fail while still alive. The reason I am afraid of this is that my mother thought my sisters and me were all right kind of I mean maybe but my father was a human turd. A poor human-shaped piece of shit with arms and legs, having the audacity to talk and think, and I was afraid that if my mother stopped liking me even a little more than she liked turds I would become one, too.
The jailer is a hero. He guards me against the filth that will corrode me from within, the evil impulse, and the blows I cannot take that attack me from without. He hurts me so the others will leave me alone.
He hurts me so the others will leave me alone.
I dreamed I was in my cell and the jailer kicked the door down. He hadn’t come to check on me in a long time. I stood in the corner and refused to look at him or speak to him, so he kicked me savagely in the stomach but I pulled him down on the floor, grabbing his legs, and we fought grappling head to toe, I bit him all over and sometimes I kissed him, bites and kisses full of saliva like a second-grader’s. But when I realized he was down and the door was open I ran out past him through it, leaving him lying there. I was free.
For years I have had an obsidian arrowhead on or around my desk. It freaks me out, but I keep it because of its power. I run my hands along its sharp edges — three sharp edges, plus the point — and know that it is the jailer’s weapon. It has always been here to help me do what I must. It is scary, a shiny black sharp thing like a priestess’s knife, made of lava flow.
The arrowhead is a form of volcanic glass, and it is meant to hurt. What they call “its energies” are scary.
It looks like the knife the priestess hefts to cut the animal’s throat or to slash a human victim across the neck. The victim is bound to the altar, and perhaps at the beginning the priestess’s hands were bound as well: maybe she cuts her own bonds with it first, but then she does what she has to do and slides it along the other woman’s throat.
The arrowhead has helped me do what I must but it frightens me inside. This piece of glass is about sacrifice, of the self or of another, take your pick. It is about dying imagined as the most needful, the most necessary thing — someone’s dying, anyhow.
Hi there. This is from my new work in progress, a memoir where almost all the events take place entirely in my own mind, and the fighting, competing characters are parts of me. This is Part 1. For Part 2, see here.
My jailer has lead at the bottom of his boots. Lead at the toes and lead at the heel, it is a trial for him to walk but he walks anyway, sadly, seriously, everywhere through my mind. He patrols with his lamp, scanning the walls and edges. I am so tired already but he wants me to sleep so he can perform all his jobs: sweep the rooms, kill the vermin, dust and mop. My jailer is also a janitor. There is a gleam in his eyes, but his head is just as heavy as his feet so he walks always looking down slightly, peering in the corners to catch the mice of my mind.
My jailer has tension in his shoulders, he almost is tension in the shoulders, he thinks if he relaxes I will fall to pieces and he will be responsible. My jailer leaves the apartments to nervously walk the port streets of my mind, hunting for the rot and decay piles in the niches, the filth to root out. He paces: his bloodshot eyes cast themselves over the harbor, over the empty streets, spying out the midnight people who still remain.
They huddle together. They are poor. Dirty clothes, no showers. They are companionable. A sister and a brother, or at least so they consider themselves. My jailer has a big baton and I admit he does get pleasure out of rousting them with it, swinging it in their direction, and yes, hitting the brother on the leg with that big black object.
There is an energy around his nightstick, a sort of snap. It is the most energy that is ever around the jailer, for he is a droopy sort. His pleasures are few enough, I tell myself, why deny him this?
The jailer lives in a mean little room. He has a set of cubbyholes, an iron bed, a dusty floor, a set of fleas. His cleaning is not meant for his own room. The bed is bolted to the floor and cannot move. He has a jug of milk, which he drinks each day because he is intolerant of it. It will teach him temperance, he believes. It makes him break out and have diarrhea.
He has a little net that he prefers to use with mice and insects. It is unusual, maybe, to catch mice with a net, but he prefers the personal touch, the up-close involvement. He wants to see the mouse directly, wants to interrogate it.
I am afraid of my hands being broken. I am afraid of the bones being broken and never being able to help myself, never being able to bring food to my mouth again. I am afraid someone will hurt my hands deliberately and I will be a husk, just lying there in a corner waiting for the jailer to come and examine me more.
The jailer has caught a particularly smart and bold mouse in his net today, it’s a cute thing with a stripe down the front of its face and he is proud of it.
I am hurting in my left shoulder blade, the whole left side of the shoulder, as though I’ve been shot there, and I’m worried I will always be in pain.
The jailer says: “How does it feel when I do this?” and he rubs a point inside the shoulder blade until I scream.
He seems rather powerful right now, now that I think of it. He wears an old, coarse black fabric, burlap or coarse khaki, two pieces, it looks a little bit like a pajama-top and culottes, cut like a medieval merchant’s garment and interestingly outlandish, but not well-fitted. It’s too large for him and looks itchy.
In the morning, I wake and the jailer gives me coffee and buns. “You were wonderful last night,” he says.
It is a pleasure that he gives me sweet buns, the kind with glazing on top, because I have been prediabetic and am not usually allowed to give myself sugar buns. If the jailer serves it to me it doesn’t count.
I try to drink the delicious coffee and eat the buns before dealing with him, but he grabs my head and makes me look at him.
“You were on the floor last night and you can be there again.”
Pause while I look at the cleaning schedule for the day. The cooking schedule, which I myself supervise and am quite good at. The panic-inducing work schedule. Let’s take a moment out from this moment out to look at my relationship:
It’s great. Er.
WHAT IF IT’S NOT GREAT WHAT IF IT’S NOT GREAT
Let’s go back to walking the streets of my mind: somehow in my mind’s eye, I am never in the beautiful downtown or the place with the art buildings, I am in the garbage streets, the dangerous blocks. The wharf is always a fun place to go, with the prostitutes and the poor kids. No, there is a nice building pretty near to here and I will go to it:
It is carved out of something black, and luminous. I don’t know who made it. It is tall. It has unusual curves and lines, I don’t know what it is about it but I like the place. How did it get here? Was it carved in one continuous block out of some substance I don’t know? It has a strange light inhering in it, it looks as though each stone were lit from within, and it smells of a warm spice like cinnamon or red curry.
I touch the column and it soothes me, no it repels me, no it soothes me. It is so beautiful I do not want it to repel me, but it literally pushes me back like a powerful negative magnet, it makes me step back in the street when I touch it.
Help me, I say to it. Please. I talk to it but not in words that the jailer might hear, I fervently think these words to it: Help me. From the center of the stone something pulls me in, and I hug the building.
I will be posting new excerpts from Jail Break periodically, please check back for more!
This is an excerpt from mymemoir Growing Up Golem, published by Riverdale Avenue Books and available from Barnes & Noble, Powells, Amazon, and your favorite independent bookstore:
My mother loved to make things. One day, when I was thirty-two years old, my mother created a giant, half-lifesize doll that looked just like me. (This is absolutely true.) It had yarn hair the same color and kink as mine, and real corduroy pants just like the ones I wear. My mother called it the Dyke Donna doll. (Mom was very pro-gay and lesbian, so she always felt very happy using words like “dyke.”) The doll wore a stripey red shirt like a circus performer, along with real, removable, bright red booties made of felt, and extravagantly long curling eyelashes that my mother drew in by hand, quite lovingly. It had big red apple blush-marks on its cheeks, like Pinocchio as I have always seen him drawn. It stood a discomfiting three feet tall (I myself am only five feet two). My mother gave it to me as her gift, to keep in my tiny apartment. I had to keep it under my bed because I couldn’t bear to see it sitting in my chair. But I felt like I was hiding a child away there, without food or anyone to talk to.
Starting in her early 20s, my mother had made a whole series of dolls and wooden soldiers and little straw figurines and puppets, and I believe that one of them was me. A few years after the Dyke Donna doll appeared, my arms broke. (This, also, is true.) I don’t mean that my arm bones broke – I’ve never had a broken bone – but that my arms’ capacity as limbs, their functionality and coherence, suddenly ended. Continue reading “Growing Up Golem”
Hey, I have two events coming up in March I’m really excited about!
One is a reading in conjunction with the Women’s History Month art exhibition at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon. At the opening, I’ll be reading from new work, while Mandy Kelso reads from her new book of poems and 50 women artists exhibit their work! Saturday, March 7, 2:30-4:30 PM, 477 Main Street, Beacon, NY (readings are at 3:30; I’ll also be signing books!) Wine and refreshments served.
The second is an amazing evening called Twice Told Tales where 12 of us writers will produce works inspired by six photographs by Margot Kingon. The event is curated by Linda Pratt Kimmel (who will also be reading) and it’s Sunday, March 15 at 6:30 PM at Quinn’s, 330 Main Street in Beacon! ❤