The worms squirm up the side of the old coffee can. Their dirt-speckled heads scan back and forth, like tiny periscopes, before tipping over the side, almost making it. But not. They free-fall into the creek. Six or seven drown before Uncle Bert notices. “Get them!” he yells.
No way. Not that I want them to die. I don’t. I poke sticks in water from the bank rather than join my cousins knee deep because I refuse to kill them. Refuse to push a razored barb through their wriggling slimy bodies. The look of disgust on my uncle’s face tucks my chin to chest.
Aunty Barb’s response to my letter, twenty years later, an attempt to silence me. She doesn’t address my questions. Instead, she claims my younger sister, Laura, had never called, never begged for help that afternoon. She expresses her disgust that I exposed her to such filth. Fabrications. False memories. Her brother did none of that. None. Don’t write back.
Why would I?
Opening shifts five days a week at McDonald’s to make the payments on my first car. A white Chevette with a red racing stripe along each side, like the Odessa Barb’s red band stretching the length of its scaled body. Both car and fish small, busy and beautiful.
Laura and I listen to miles of 8-track tape in that car. Our first tastes of Freedom. Then she got pregnant. We embrace, say goodbye like it’s a death sentence. Heartbreak. Time does not heal all wounds. My mascaraed lashes like the Barb’s transparent fins, splattered with black teardrops.
Sharpie’d Barbie doll pantomime play, Silly Putty’d strap-on for penis-less Ken—absence of innocence prominent.
Growing up, Laura and I share a room. Dad visits us both there, but I don’t know about her visits until we are adults. Blocked. How can I embrace the You’re special, I put you on a pedestal, fairy tale if I allow myself to be cognizant of his visits with her as well? He doesn’t call her his princess. Just me. I would hate me if I were her.
Winter months we pull barbed wire wide, drop skates, take turns squeezing through. On the other side, a horse corral to cross before wooded trails, leading to treacherous toboggan hills and frozen pond ice rinks. One time, the back of my jacket snags midway through. A cartwheeling gymnast. Birds on a live line. Bambi on ice. Wire barbs. Stuck in my jacket. I freeze, avoiding a rip, terrified of Mom’s reaction.
I get through. A small puncture the only possible informant. We lace banged-up floppy brown boy skates and slid around until we can no longer feel our toes. Good times.
Tidbits overheard above clinking coffee spoons and gossip while watching black and white Sesame Street – Barbra Streisand, large nose, unusual face, funny girl. Grew up believing her movie was biographical. The Mill, not celebrity exclusive. Load after load, back alley neighbours’ dirty laundry flaps from Mom and company’s loose lips around kitchen table. No one is saved the round-table henpecking, except perhaps the handsome yodeller who lives in the duplex a block up. Hens flirt. They don’t peck at our own can of worms. Not until I pry it open twenty years later.
Heart disease. Dad and his dad. Do genetics differentiate between sexes? I need to exercise more, eat healthier. Nagging. Does heartache cause heart disease? How many psychotherapy sessions to cure? Dizzying.
Heart health. Barbra Streisand on Instagram, promoting women’s heart research and education. Good actress, great singer. Heart specialist? Should follow the link. Perhaps something other than statins, and holistic alternatives like barberry extract (biii-tterrr) and odourless (Bull. Shit.) garlic capsules purchased, expired, now landfill filler.
When Dad marries Barbara, he changes. The picky-eater would not approve of his militant table manner rules. He desperately denies his unconscionable clean your plate! (including the inedibles) rule.
“Oh, Terry, you didn’t?” Her shock wrinkles eyebrows to hairline. His discomforting demeanor, a confusing recipe of glare and flounder, drops my eyes to Barbara’s bland casserole growing cold on my plate. My appetite eaten.
The first time we three are together and Dad says, “Hey, Hon,” both our heads turn to him expectantly. Of course, he means her. I blush, embarrassed by the demotion.
Only a month before, Dad and I had been rocking out most nights, drunk and getting drunker, hopping around on hardwood floors, remixing oldies like California Girls and Barbara Ann. School and records skipped a lot.
Some stuff I don’t remember because of the twelve-month party after Mom left. Other stuff, dissociation tucked away. Stored in compartments, slightly out of reach. When Barbara references my new nephew being uncircumcised, like his Grandpa, I shouldn’t be surprised that I don’t know. Why would I know? Not like I was his wife.
Barbarian teens; immortal mentality. Drugs and drink, party, drive: an ex dies; my current accused. I lose both. I lose hope. I need help.
Three fifteen-minute sessions shared; shatters an already flimsy faith in shrinks. Freshly-barbered, Old Spice clean he scritch-scratches well-educated guesses about me on his brand-new clipboard counter-creasing his bland-tan pressed slacks.
“You know what your problem is, Shirley?” he says, still scribbling. NO, you idiot! Screams in my head, If I knew, I wouldn’t need you. I burn holes in the soles of his spit-polished shoes until my silence insists he look up; see my nonchalant shrug. “You think too much,” he says, and I say, fuck you.
My daughter, Alexis, four at the time, watches me pinch a few inches around my middle. “Look at this spare tire,” I say. She leans in wide-eyed, “Mommy, that’s not a spare tire. That’s fatness.” Innocence. Something I fight to maintain for my girls.
Same daughter, now fourteen, like a barb in the back, prodding me to the 21st century. Headlines: A CoverGirl boy! Her older sisters share my shock. The absurdity of a boy cover girl. Alexis’s shock is subtle. An eyelid flutter so fleeting, it flies over her sisters’ heads. But not mine. No words needed. Schooled, by my youngest daughter. Shame squeezes my chin, Grow up.
James Charles: the embodiment of gender revolution. A boy who likes lipstick, mascara, and eyeliner; a brilliant makeup artist. I have work to do, to undo my unawareness.
New to me identities—cis, binary and non, pan, fluid. Gay? Bi? Trans? Almost old school. Barbara Walters’s eye-opening documentary. Ignorance is choice. So is education.
Google “barb,” for definition. Barb Holland claims page one and two. Who the hell is Barb Holland? One click: A character on Netflix’s cult classic, Stranger Things. I know some strange things.
Worms do not appreciate the light. Like dads who touch daughters. Both squirm deeper into darkness. Survival. The can, opened, like a beached whale’s guts, a lifetime of indigestibles spilled. No resealing. Remodel the lid, bend into healing jingles. Ensure it’ll never fit again. Exposure is for the can opener.
Therapy with counselor Barb. Communities Against Sexual Abuse (CASA). Home for two years. Flashbacks and triggers, pretty fucked up. Counselling. Group Therapy. Art therapy. Writing. More writing. Succulents, a handful of hen and chicks from Barb’s garden to mine twenty years ago, flourish today. Recovery. Keeping it real. Ever striving for balance. The challenges and trials, the heartaches we face, like barbs on a wire.
Shirley Harshenin writes from her home in British Columbia, Canada. She believes in angels, caffeine, and the human spirit’s extraordinary resilience. Her work has been published in Canadian Writer’s Journal, Room Magazine, Contrary Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Entropy: Woven, Haiku Journal, and is forthcoming in Unlost Journal.
Featured image: Photograph by v2osk on Unsplash.