It’s summer, and I’m fourteen years old. That puts us at 2004. I’m in my room alone, watching the dust motes pass in front of the light that’s filtering through my window. It’s a matter of focus. Either I can look out the window and focus on the too-full dumpster out there, or I can pay attention to the dust motes hanging in the air like tiny planets. I’m alone in here.

A few weeks ago, I was in the hospital visiting Rodhi, watching his chest rise and fall as he was Resting. Only no one else would call it Resting. They’d call it being in a coma. I wasn’t there when his chest stopped rising, stopped falling, but I was there for what happened after, there to watch him be taken up on the wind, his mother standing in front of him, chanting words in Malayalam that I still don’t understand.

He’s gone now, and I’m standing in my room. I can sit down, but I don’t want to. I’m wearing my school uniform even though it’s a Saturday, polo shirt neatly tucked into khakis, belt completing the picture. I don’t know why I’m doing these things. Drew’s at a friend’s house. It seems like I haven’t seen him in days, weeks, and when I do see him he’s stumbling in drunk in the middle of the night, calling out my name in the darkness, trying to wake me, and I’m pretending like I’m asleep even though I’m not. I want to talk to him, but not like that.

I walk over to his side of the room, made obvious by the mounds of clothes and CDs and games and snacks and dirty dishes. My side of the room is almost too clean. I know I shouldn’t, but I start going through his things. I find pictures of friends, girlfriends, sports memorabilia, lighters, dice with suggestive verbs on them. I don’t know what I’m doing.

I sift through movie tickets and receipts and half-completed homework assignments that will never be turned in. Is this what a person is? The tiny bits of miscellania and junk that they leave behind? I don’t know who I am.

On the top of Drew’s dresser, in the center of it, there’s a big bottle of cologne. I pick it up. The bottle is wine-dark, almost black, and I can see that it’s almost full. I hold the bottle in front of my face, spray, and walk into the mist like I’ve seen Drew do so many times before. It makes me smell like a grownup. I spray it again on my neck, my chest, my wrists. I spray it on my hands till they’re soaking wet and rub it all over my body. I hold the bottle in front of my face again, but this time I turn it towards me. I open my mouth and spray.

It tastes like liquid fire. I turn and look at the little motes of dust hanging in the air. Outside, sitting on top of the dumpster, is a single bird. It chirps. I unscrew the bottle’s top and start drinking the cologne inside. It burns terribly, and every instinct inside of me tells me to stop, but I don’t. When I finally finish drinking the bottle, I cough uncontrollably. I try not to make a sound because my mom is home, but I can’t stop the coughing, so I go to the bathroom and I lock the door and I turn the faucet on full blast. My body is telling me to stick my finger down my throat, to drink water, to wash my mouth out, to do something, but I just let the water run, try not to look at myself in the mirror.

When I finally stop coughing, I turn the water off and go back to my room. It’s already gotten dark outside, and I can no longer see the dust motes hanging in the air. I go to bed a little bit after that. I sit on my mattress for hours, unable to fully grasp the fact that I am going to die soon. I wonder if it will be slow or fast, painful or painless, and then I start wondering what it was like for Rodhi. No one can really say, because he was hardly even there at all. One moment he was breathing, and the next he wasn’t. It was as simple as that.

I’m surprised to find that I wake up the next morning. My stomach hurts and my throat burns, but I’m still alive. One day passes after another; the pain in my body slowly recedes.

The other type of pain still lingers, though.


It’s summer, and I’m twelve years old. That puts us at 2002. Mom and Dad are telling me to get in the car, that we’re going to the Fourth of July parade. I want to shoot off bottle rockets and firecrackers with Rodhi, but they’re making me go stand in the heat with little kids as we all wave to the floats as they pass us by. Mom can tell I’m mad; she preemptively tells me not to slam the car door. I do anyway, and little flakes of rust fall off the car. The hole at the bottom of my door is getting bigger with each car trip it seems, and no amount of screaming from Mom has gotten me to stop yet. Drew isn’t coming with. He said he was going to the parade in Chicago instead of our dinky little one in Des Plaines, and he was probably telling the truth. He left out the part where he’d be getting absolutely plastered with his friends, though.

The parade goes as expected, for the most part. Local politicians waving from convertibles, fire trucks blasting their horns, the Jesse White Tumblers doing a high-flying routine, little kids handing out candy to other little kids. Considering the temperature is in the 90s, the best part about it is when one of the floats comes by and blasts the onlookers with super soakers. I actually run into the line of fire to cool down.

The crowd is engaged despite the heat, clapping and cheering as expected. But then they go quiet.

I turn to my left, squint to make out the float that’s getting the silent treatment. More and more people turn and wait to see. Eventually, the float is right in front of us. It’s for a group called the Muslim Interfaith Alliance. The adults on the float keep up their smiling and waving despite the reception, but you can see the hurt on the kids’ faces. Worse than the hurt is the confusion. They have absolutely no idea why they’re being treated this way.

I look around, thinking that at least one person will wave at them, but no one does. No one says a word. I turn to my parents. My mom looks like she’s waiting for the light to change. My dad has his arms crossed. I turn back to the float. When I do, a kid on the float about my age locks eyes with me. I want to smile, to wave, but I don’t. I stand there and watch the float go by.

When we get home, I immediately go outside and take my illicit fireworks with me. I walk far away from my complex, closer to Meadow Lane, and pull out the lighter I stole from Drew.

I think of calling Rodhi outside, but I don’t. Think of launching bottle rockets into the air, whipping firecrackers at stop signs, but I don’t do that either. What I do is take out one of the firecrackers and hold it in my hand. What I do is study its every detail, the red and white stripes that lead to a stark black fuse at the end. I’ve blown up so many taped-on action figures to bits with these things, sent up ripples in Good Lake, and the creek next to Meadow, and the pond over in the abandoned fisherman’s lagoon where Drew and other teenagers get covertly high.

I bring lighter to fuse and ignite it. Watch as the fuse burns away, faster and faster. I think of throwing it, but I don’t. Instead, I close my hand around the firecracker and watch as the last of the fuse disappears into my closed hand. And then it goes off. There is the bang, close, like a gunshot. There is the sudden pain, replaced at once by numbness in my hand, the hand blown reflexively open by the blast and stained with the black of the powder, the red of my blood. I don’t make a sound as I watch the blood flow and then stop.

I turn toward my complex and walk, holding my hand open as I go. I can’t feel it for hours afterward.


It’s winter, and I’m ten years old. That puts us at 2000. Rodhi and I are out in our boots and coats and gloves and hats, wandering down Good Avenue, which can’t be distinguished between the grass or even the lake next to it because of the snow. Rodhi floats the idea of snatching a few of his dad’s tennis rackets and duct-taping them to our shoes to approximate what we’ve seen in shows about frozen tundras and intrepid explorers, but he chickens out at the last second. My winter gloves are secondhand, several seasons old, with tiny tears in the seams making them unsuitable for snowball fights. I’m stubborn, though, so I use them anyway. I just make every snowball count before my hands get too cold.

When we’re done with that, we take one of my action figures and find a good spot to throw him into the snow. We’ve done this for years, waiting for the thaw so that we can become archaeologists uncovering an ancient find. This year, I toss in my Wolverine action figure. The snow is soft powder, so he falls all the way through to the bottom. We make note of where he fell and take a picture of the spot with an old disposable I found lying around at home. We have so many disposables sitting there at home, some of them untouched for years, and who can say what pictures are already there when I snatch it.

Rodhi and I vow to save up lunch money and get the pictures developed when the time comes. The snow and the cold have been here for weeks, and they show no signs of letting up. This is a true Chicago winter. We leave our artifact behind and turn back for Bay Colony, for our apartment complex. Then we see LC and his crew. We both freeze, looking for an exit but not seeing one. We could turn around and run the other way, but it’d only be a matter of time before they caught us. And if they didn’t, LC knows where we live. They could just turn around and wait at our complex until they found us.

They fan out. Fernando moves to our left to block one end of the street, and Chaz goes to our right to block the other end. LC stands in front of us, facing the lake. The wind howls in our ears. Snow still falls from the sky. LC pulls out a knife, and the other two pick up sticks. They close in around us slowly, a smile growing on LC’s face.

We back up as far as we can, until we’re sure there’s no more ground behind us. LC swings his knife at the air in front of us and tells us to move. Rodhi and I stand there, neither of us doing anything.

Fernando hits Rodhi in the chest with his stick. I put my hands up and motion for Rodhi to follow me out onto the ice, and he does. LC keeps telling us to go out farther, farther. When we stop, he throws rocks at us and threatens to throw bigger rocks out onto the ice. So we keep going. I can hear the ice groaning beneath our feet, but I try not to let on, for Rodhi’s sake.

Then the ice breaks.

First Rodhi is there, then he isn’t. He disappears into a dark hole. The water is calm for a second, and then there’s splashing. And then there’s me slowly sliding over to where he fell in. And then there’s me getting down onto my belly as LC and his crew laugh behind us. And then there’s me reaching my hand in and finding Rodhi’s. There’s me pulling him out and using all my strength to slide him away from the hole in the ice, one of his shoes now missing.

The crew’s laughter recedes behind us as they all run back home, and Rodhi is already shivering by the time he’s flat on his back on the ice. I help him back up, and we get off of the ice and back onto ground as carefully as possible. I don’t know what else to do, so I take him to my Hideaway. My Hideaway is a tunnel underneath the city of Des Plaines, a tunnel you can access by a manhole that some teenager pried the bolts off of long ago. There’s something like a room down there, made out of hollowed-out concrete, and I write little stories by the light of the lightning bugs I keep in jars down there. That’s where I go when things get really bad at home.

I’ve never taken anyone else down here or even told anyone about it, but it seems like the right thing to do. I take off my jacket when we get down there and put it around Rodhi. I huddle up close to him and try to help him stay warm. He shivers for a while but eventually starts getting warmer and quiets down. Without the sound of his shivering, it’s silent down there, and the only thing you can see are the lightning bugs blinking in Morse code.

Neither of us says anything. Rodhi turns and looks at me. I don’t know what to say. He leans in and kisses me, and I kiss him back.

When it’s time to go, I walk him back to our complex. We never speak another word about this day.

my ex // perience

this is my ex

where the heat doesn’t go down
in a town
where you can take a barbed-wire bat
to the leg
mistaken for a King
or a GD
when you’re just a kid
where you can
walk past grown men fighting
as a child
walking to a friend’s house
at a time when you could see
where everyone was
by the number of bikes left strewn
on the front lawn

this is my ex


It’s spring, and I’m eight years old. That puts us at 1998. Mom and Dad are heading out for a couple hours, leaving Drew in charge of the place. They’ve got to run a few errands before coming back to pick us up so we can all do family pictures at Sears. We’re supposed to go through our closets and find our Good Clothes. Our Good Clothes are the pants that we can still hold up with safety pins, the shirts whose holes are low enough where we can hide them by tucking them in.

My Good Clothes are hand-me-downs from Drew’s old Good Clothes, and the sizing is all off. After Mom and Dad leave, Drew starts vacuuming. This is weird, because they didn’t ask him to, and Drew never vacuums. I sit on the couch like a lump while he moves around the apartment, not quite knowing what to do when it gets to the couch. I scoot to one end of it so that he can clean without me in the way, but I keep getting in the way. He detaches the hose from the vacuum and starts to clean the couch cushions. I get up from the couch and start to walk away. He tells me to get out of the fucking way. I yell that I already did, partially because the vacuum is running and I have to yell to be heard, and partially because I’m angry. He drops the vacuum but leaves it running and walks toward me.

Before I can respond, he’s punched me in the stomach so hard that I can’t make a sound when I hit the ground. When I can move, I start to get up, but he pushes me from behind. I scramble around and get to the back of the couch, but he’s already there. From here, no one could see me. With the vacuum on, no one could hear me.

Drew starts hitting and kicking me. No method, no technique, just anger. I’m crying by now, trying not to because apparently that makes me a little bitch, and I’m doing the best I can to kick him and get back to my feet. In this moment, it hits me for the first time that you can be completely trapped. That you can be hurt and hurt badly with no chance of escape. That the people who hurt you can be the people who love you. I thought those things in simpler terms as I saw Drew through a cloudy bubble world of tears, trying to catch my breath and reaching up to grab his arms as they came down.

When I can, I get back up to my feet and run for the vacuum’s power cord. Drew chases behind me, tries to stop me, but he’s too slow. I yank the cord out of the wall and run for the other room, yelling for someone to help. I hardly finish the word when my legs are pulled out from under me. My face hits the floor, and when I can turn over and open my eyes, nothing seems to be put together just right.

I take slow, deep breaths. The vacuum is back on. For a moment, I imagine that everything that just happened was a dream, that I fell asleep, or fell down and hit my head, and I imagined everything. That Drew was finishing up the vacuuming, and we’d play some N64 after, maybe race in Mario Kart. But that’s not right.

Drew is walking over to me with the vacuum still on in the background to cover up the noise. I can’t be sad anymore, so I get angry. I think of the words I’d heard hurled between Mom and Dad, the words I’d heard the big kids use. Drew pulls his fist back, and I scowl at him:

“Fuck you. I hate you.”

I brace for the hit and take in a breath. The hit never comes. Instead, Drew studies me like I’m a lizard who said the same words. He doesn’t know what to make of it.

By the time Mom and Dad get home, I’ve already cleaned up and gotten dressed for family pictures. When we get to Sears, the photographer puts the family in every configuration possible–Mom and Dad, Dad and Drew, Mom and Drew, me with both, the whole family. Then:

“Let’s get the brothers.”

The photographer has Drew and I get in close with an “act like you love him” that he immediately laughs at right after he says it. We get a little closer for the picture. The photographer adjusts our posture while a void opens up between us. It seems like there is no light and no sound. He tells Drew to put his arm around my shoulder, and Drew does. When he’s satisfied, the photographer gets behind the camera and looks at us:



It’s summer, and I’m four years old. That puts us at 1994. Mom, Dad, and I are at a waterpark that doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m running around and splashing. My nose burns from trying to inhale while underwater, and the chlorine’s effects have spread to my eyes, making everything look impressionistic. This is my earliest memory.

Drew isn’t there. He’s at a friend’s, maybe, or football practice, I can’t remember. Either way, I’m wandering around while Mom suns and Dad goes to get himself a drink.

There are some other kids there, but not very many, and most of them are so young that they can’t even stand yet. I look from them to my mother to them again. A little farther past, there’s the main pool where all the older kids and adults are swimming.

The main part of the pool is open, but at the end, at the deep end, there’s one of those pool dividers to set up lanes for competitive swimming. A bunch of teenagers are messing around in those lanes, holding onto the dividers, dunking their heads under, and reappearing on the other side. The lifeguards aren’t watching.

I run over to the edge of the main pool, laughing, having no concept of the world other than what’s right here. I crouch down and put my small hands on the edge. I dip my toes in. One of the lane dividers is just a few feet in front of me. It would be so easy to reach it. The teenagers are still over there splashing, dunking, and carrying each other on their shoulders. I scoot off of the edge and fall into the pool.

The extent of my knowledge about swimming at this time has come from Drew holding me afloat in the pool while I doggy paddle, so my body goes back to that out of instinct. It doesn’t work, though. I splash and thrash, but I can’t keep my head above water. Even under there, I can still hear the happy sounds of people enjoying themselves, but the sounds seem to be coming from miles away.

I know it’ll burn, but I open my eyes anyway. Everything is harsh. Harsh blue of the water, harsh reds and oranges of bathing suits, faraway wrinkled feet, and beneath me a Band-Aid swirling in the pool’s eddy. My senses do that desperate thing where every sensory detail stands out all at once, so I can see the smudge of blood left on the Band-Aid’s bandage strip, and in that moment I see my own mother putting a Band-Aid on me. I was running around with a dollar store cap gun trying to shoot bad guys, and I fell down, skinning my knee. She came up to me, still smoking a cigarette, and put a Band-Aid where my skin had been cut open, her not knowing then that she shouldn’t be blowing smoke in my face while doing it.

I look past the Band-Aid and see the teenagers, who are moving away. I want to call out to them, but they won’t hear me. They don’t even know I’m there. One of the lane dividers is a couple feet away, but it might as well be a couple miles away. I’ve moved maybe a few inches from where I started, just far enough where I can’t reach the edge of the pool anymore.

I don’t have a fully-formed concept of death yet. I’ve killed bugs by this point and have seen roadkill in the Bay Colony parking lot from where a squirrel had no chance against a truck, me going over there when my parents weren’t looking, which was pretty easy to do, crouching down and talking to the squirrel, poking at its body and at its head, its mouth opening when I do, and a few flies coming out, me recoiling and not understanding, running home but not crying, being horrified but also curious. I knew those things, but that was about it. None of my family members had died yet. That would come later. For all I knew, this moment would last forever.

When I open my mouth to breathe, it isn’t like opening my eyes and feeling the burn of the chlorine. It’s much worse, but then it isn’t so bad as the darkness sets in, everything going from too harsh to too dim, and then it fades altogether and I’m just not there.

The next thing I remember is me opening my eyes. I’m on my back next to the pool with cold water on my mouth and chest. I’m looking up at a lifeguard who looks absolutely terrified. My mother is next to him, and when she sees that I’m alive, she starts crying uncontrollably. My dad is next to her. His face is hard to read, but it’s red, almost purple. It looks like he’s getting ready to fight someone, though he doesn’t know who.

Before the End

1944. A year before the end of war. My grandma Joan was ten, and sad, sad because her best friend Crystal was moving away. Crystal lived across the street, and Joan wasn’t to cross. She did anyway.

Joan caught insults on her walks to and from school with Crystal, some older boys saying things she couldn’t make out except for the word “nigger.” She didn’t even really know what that word was supposed to mean, but she saw how it affected Crystal, so she knew it was bad.

Crystal’s mother was institutionalized, so she was raised by her grandmother. Joan’s mother died shortly after childbirth, so she was raised by her father and later her stepmother. Crystal’s grandmother was never home, and Joan’s father buried empty liquor bottles in the cellar’s dirt floor, so the two girls got along fine.

On the day Crystal had to go, Joan took her to the playground one last time. They didn’t get on the swings, but they watched the other kids who were on them. They didn’t say anything, but that was okay. They just watched the other kids swing back and forth, back and forth. And that was the thing–no matter how far you pushed off, you’d always end up right back where you started.

Read 11:42 PM

“I’m okay now. Really, I am. I know you didn’t ask, but I had to say it. How long has it been since we’ve spoken, Mom? Two years? Three? I’m losing count. I don’t know if this will go through to you, don’t know if you even check this Facebook account anymore. Back in my college days, you kept it up, shared photos and statuses painting all of us as the big happy family, leaving out the part about us living in poverty, about you leaving every weekend to go to your boyfriend’s house, leaving me to be the parent for the little guys. And I’d turn it into a game with them since they were too small to really know what was going on, get them outside, out of the heat because you hadn’t paid the bills in months and we had to go without AC, had to sleep on stripped beds in 97 degree heat and even that didn’t help. I’d take them out to the backyard and inflate that kiddie pool we had sitting in the garage, the one with holes that I had to patch with duct tape. I’d fill it up with hose water, and for a little while everything was okay. We were cool. We were having fun. There were a lot of things I never told you before I left for school. I guess this is my chance to tell you those things. I don’t know. What I do know is that New York City was a hell of a lot different from Des Plaines, IL. I turned over alternate realities in my head, imagined a world where you were genuinely proud of my writing and publishing instead of acting like you were proud on Facebook before treating me like shit in real life. It’s a funny thing, getting out of poverty and away from abuse. You feel like you have to constantly prove yourself, have to do things that will quiet the tape in your head, the tape of other people’s voices who can no longer do you harm. It’s feeling guilty when you go out to a nice restaurant, dressing nicer than you did while growing up and wanting to tell people who look at you that these nice-looking jeans cost $5 at Goodwill, that this shirt was a gift, a gift you blushed at when you looked the price up online. These are just things that happen. I just figured that that’s what family was–getting cussed out by your mom on a daily basis, having to microwave cups of water to take a hot shower, only eating when you got to have school-provided lunch. I wouldn’t learn the extent of how fucked up my upbringing was till my late teens, when I’d finally open up to someone about my home life, open up to a girlfriend who wouldn’t work out but who’d play a pretty formative role in my life. But anyway, it wasn’t till I saw the wide eyes and dropped jaw that I understood. Until she cried, I was fine. But once she did, I cried too, like a kid who scrapes his knee and only cries after his mom freaks out. I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this. You’ll probably never read it anyway. Even so, I feel like I just need to get this out. I know it sounds stupid, but I feel like I don’t know you. Don’t get me wrong, you were there. We had conversations, some of which weren’t terrible. But there was this impenetrable wall, this giant question mark hanging between us. I feel like a stranger to my own mother. I’m doing well now, Mom. I know you didn’t ask, but I wanted to let you know. And I’m not just saying that. About doing well. I met someone new, and she’s sweet, and kind, and funny, and caring. She’s an artist. It feels good having someone who gets me, who understands why I’m up till 3 in the morning writing a story ’cause I can’t stop the flow. I feel like I’m floating when I’m with her. Did you ever feel that way with Dad? I know it ended with fighting and all the rest, but there had to have been a time when things were okay. Maybe before I was born, I don’t know. Just curious, I guess. Anyway, that’s it. That’s all I have to say. What do you have to say?”

Read 11:42 PM

Never Had a Home

I don’t know how to tell you I never had a home. We had houses–almost more than I could count, moving from one to the next, but no home. When people asked if my dad was in the military, I eventually just said yes, because that was easier than saying we got evicted again. Never having a friend for longer than six months, parents hanging up phones that I’d stay silent on, trying to think of something to say to the friends I left behind. They wanted me to leave it all, friends included. No reminders of the past.

I got it down to a science. Would get in a big fight with whoever picked on me first, blacken their eyes and bust their lip so I’d be left alone till we inevitably had to move again. Mom would work at gas stations or dollar stores, whatever she could hold down. Dad worked here and there as a driver, which gave him the idea that he could drive home after getting plastered at the bar on his days off. But if you pull the trigger enough times in Russian Roulette, you’re bound to find a bullet.

He went over a guardrail going 70. When the car came to rest at the bottom of the hill, it barely resembled a car. Let’s just say the ambulance didn’t exactly have to rush to the hospital.

After he died, my mom very quickly developed a chronic pain condition. The doctors had all sorts of reasons for it, but we all knew it was from heartbreak. Sometimes the emotional can become physical. She was prescribed painkillers, strong ones, but she never took them. Instead, she took to selling them when she was scheduled to work alone at the gas station, passing them to her customers along with their change. It was the only way she could keep us from being put out on the streets. She could’ve taken some and sold the rest, but she wanted to get the most money she could. She wanted me to be comfortable. So she suffered in great pain all day, every day. The logistics of managing a guilt that great are tricky, I can tell you. Having to sit by as a kid, helpless, as your mom cries in the bathroom, running the water in the hopes that you won’t be able to hear her, saying she was just freshening up when you ask.

Mom had a string of boyfriends, guys who by default went out in sleeveless shirts, made mountains of beer cans that would collect in the corners of the kitchen like some joke of an art installation. Years later, I’d do something similar at my first gallery feature: a pile of all the household items that can be used to destroy a life. Eventually, muttered insults would turn to shouts, and shouts would turn to pushes, and pushes would turn to punches. At 14, 15, 16, I didn’t have much chance of fighting them off of her, but I’d always try. Got a couple of black eyes that I’d cover up with mom’s concealer when she wasn’t around. I didn’t need Mom getting in trouble for something that wasn’t her fault.

I started reading, painting. I’d practice speaking into the mirror, refining the way I spoke. Saved up a summer’s worth of lawn mowing money and bought clothes that belied our poverty. A college roommate put it this way when I eventually let him in on my upbringing: “Man, I just thought you were some white dude from the suburbs.”

Here I am all these years later, settling in in Chicago, Wicker Park to be specific, standing in front of this gleaming white building that I’m meant to inhabit, meant to become the artistic director for this colony of artists. None of them have seen my eyes blackened, smelled the shirts I had to put on, day after day, when the washer would break and we had no money for repairs. They won’t know that I never had a home, and I’m not sure I’d be able to tell them even if I wanted to.

They say secrets keep you sick, but how bad can it be if I’ve been sick all my life? I’ve gotten used to it. So I’ll keep these stories close, hold them in so tight that they’ll never show. The best actors are the ones who don’t know who they really are. They disappear and reappear the way that they’re supposed to.

This will be the first city I’ve settled in my entire life. I have no plans to leave anytime soon, if ever, and it hits me that I don’t quite understand what this means. To plant my feet somewhere and call it home. Is that what this is? Maybe that’s what I’ll make it. And I’ll stay. Stay as long as I can. As long as the concealer stays on. As long as the new clothes hold up. As long as the smile can hide the pain.



Either you were a civilian, or you were a veteran. There was no in between for Karen. Never knew where the next meal was coming from as a kid? Beer bottles made brown explosions on the wall during fights between M & D? Veteran. Got the crusts cut off from the lunches your mom made you every morning? Taken on annual summer vacations that you complained about for being “lame”? Civilian.

While most people would consider being adopted as qualifying you for veteran status, Karen felt like she still hadn’t earned it. So she started going on undercover missions. Did shit like mess up her hair, forego makeup, wear her crappiest clothes, and panhandle. On the missions when she was homeless like this, she’d talk with the actual homeless, level with them as one of their own. When her mission was complete, she’d divvy up her earnings amongst the people who actually needed it and head back home. When she did this enough times in her hometown, she’d take the Amtrak to other cities, other states, so as not to arouse suspicion.

She’d watched Titicut Follies. While she assumed that the treatment of those who’d found themselves in the psych ward had no doubt improved since then, she still needed to know what it was like. So she stopped at the 7-Eleven that was a block down from the nearest hospital and bought three of their strongest energy drinks. Chugged them, one after the other, to induce a “manic state.” Left her ID at home so they couldn’t alert M & D. It was during the summer, so Karen was even able to tell her parents that she’d be staying the week at a friend’s. Waited a half hour or so for the energy drinks to take effect. Figured it was time to check in once her vision got hazy and her heart felt like it was going to beat out of her chest.

She’d psyched herself up beforehand, thought she’d need to to make it convincing. Thing is, once she got into that reception area and the lights were too bright and she met the bland indifference of the receptionist and felt like she might pass out, she didn’t need to act. Could barely get out that she’d been having suicidal thoughts, constant panic attacks on top of that. And then she was made to wait, for how long she didn’t know. And then she was led to a concrete hole of a room, a room with nothing more than a metal slab that you were meant to lie on and a smattering of cameras. The kind with a door that locked once it closed.

For some reason, they put her in the wing that housed those who were prone to violence. At least, that’s what Karen assumed once she’d witnessed two fights within a half hour of being there. Most of the people in this wing had done things you’d usually be arrested for, but had done them in a way that freaked out the cops involved to the point where they didn’t want to deal with them. Stuff like resisting arrest by biting. Taking off their shirt before getting in a fight, then dropping their pants too. These people gave the rest of the patients a bad name, Karen decided.

Maybe she’d been placed there because of her high anxiety. Who knows. But they eventually realized their mistake and placed her in a wing with other suicidals, mostly quiet types who either ate too much at meals or not enough. Who had to excuse themselves from groups because of crying spells. Who stayed in bed for days at a time. Who sported thousand yard stares and took a few seconds to respond when you called their name.

These were people who would sit down next to you and strike up a convo if they sensed that you needed one. And that’s the funny thing about veterans of that kind of shit: They could always sense that you needed one. Once you’ve been to the depths and back, you become acutely aware of others’ internal states. Sensitive to their inner sufferings.

They kept her longer than anyone else. It wasn’t because she hammed it up or anything. She ditched the act after day four, but apparently they saw something that she didn’t and decided to keep her there longer.

It’s the silent moments you have to reflect that get to you. One after another, her new friends left, slipping her their number scrawled on the backs of group therapy schedules, scratched in with the nubs of pencils.

She was encouraged to share in group, and she did. She went in with a whole character bio and story ready, but all of that fell away after she made her friends. Making it all up didn’t seem right when they were letting everything out. So she talked. About finding out she was adopted as a kid. About collecting everything she could carry in a backpack and running away. About getting picked up by a cop and brought home three days later. About not being able to talk for another three days after that, memory wiped. All of it.

Karen left with a prescription for an SSRI she’d never take, a hospital wristband she’d keep in a lockbox with the numbers after she’d put them into her phone. They gave her fare for the bus, the card for a therapist who accepted Medicaid. She hadn’t planned on riding the bus till its final destination, but that’s what happened. She got off at the end, caught a bus going back home, and looked out the window. Watched the way that dusk played with the sky, purple segueing into black.