“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” I replied to the complete stranger in a suit.  As the stranger walked away, I wondered – not for the first time – what I was supposed to say.  I wasn’t sorry he was dead.  He had been abusive to both my mom and me.  At least verbally and psychologically.  I suspected physically, too, but I hadn’t seen that personally.  I wasn’t sorry at all; I was happy.  I suppose that makes me a bad person.

My mom felt the loss.  In spite of everything, she said she loved him.  Her tears were real; I had seen them often enough to know.  For her sake, then, I acted sorrowful, played the part of the grieving step-son.

I clung to that “step-“.  Step-son.  Step-father.  I even used the phrase step-husband, but not in front of her.  My real father had to have been a better man, a better person.  If only he hadn’t died when I was an infant, how much better would our lives have been?

So when people expressed sorrow for my loss, I chose to understand it as sorrow for the loss of my real father.  For the life we would have had.  For my childhood.  That way, I could say “thank you” and mean it.

My mom came over to me and put her arm as far around me as she could.  I returned the gesture, putting us into half a hug.  Her eyes were red and watery.  “How are you holding up, honey?”

“I’m okay, mom.  How are you doing?”

“Oh.  As well as can be expected, I guess.  Thank you for being here.”

“Of course I’m here.”

“Well, I just know the two of you didn’t always see eye to eye.”  My mom, the queen of understatement.

“Be that as it may, I’m here for you.”

“You know he was proud of you.  Always bragging to his friends.  He did love you.”

“I know.”  Why argue?  She was in mourning.  I wasn’t going to fight about reality right now.  My mom needed me, nothing else was important.

She pulled away and gave me her serious look.  “He did.”

“I said I know.”

“Why don’t you believe me?”

“What do you mean?  I already said I did.”

“Uh huh.  But I can tell you don’t mean it.  A mother can always tell.  I think you should leave.”

“What? Mom, that’s crazy.  I want to be here for you.”

“But not for him.  You shouldn’t hold grudges, especially against the dead.  Forgive and move on.  I thought we taught you better than this.”

“That’s not fair…”

“If you want to help, leave.  Let me grieve without your disapproval making things worse.”

I was stunned, confused as to how things had gone so wrong so fast.  But it was clear she wasn’t kidding.

“Okay, mom.  I’ll go.  Just know I love you.”  I gave her a hug she didn’t return and left the funeral home.  One last way for him to ruin our lives.

What to Do

“What do you want to do?”

“Sit here.”

“You’re already doing that.”

“Mission accomplished, then.”

“Be serious.  What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?  C’mon, you have to have some idea.”

“Well, what do you want to do?”

“Go to the park? Go for a drive? A movie? Shopping? Something. I don’t know.”

“See, you don’t know either.”

“But I had some ideas. What are yours?”

“I already told you my idea. It wasn’t good enough. So I don’t know.”

“Sitting here isn’t an idea. What do you want to do?”

“This reminds me of…”

“Oh no you don’t. No story or funny quip. Don’t change the subject. I’m on to you.”

“What? I wasn’t trying to change the subject. I just thought it was funny.”

“Uh huh.”


“So what do you want to do?”

“I’ve told you. You don’t like it.”

“But you aren’t doing anything.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Sitting there isn’t doing anything.”

“Maybe not, but irritating you certainly is.”


I apologize for the lateness of this post. First time in a long time I haven’t gotten it up before midnight on Sunday.


I have resisted saying anything about the pieces I post here, letting them stand or fall on their own merits. But I feel I ought to say something this time.  I wrote this piece almost 20 years ago.  Lately I’ve been doing some research that brought me back to this, and I thought I should clean it up a bit and post it. I don’t think it’s pleasant, but it still seems important, at least to me.

*    *     *

He pulled the knife slowly down his forearm.  There was a breathless pause before the redness began welling up, starting towards the elbow and following the knife’s path to the wrist.  He turned a smile, full of conflict and pain, towards her.  “This is what it feels like.”

He paused for a moment’s thought, then continued.  “No, wait, this feels better.  This is manageable.  I can react to this.  I can watch the blood drip off my arm, entranced by gravity’s inexorable pull.  I could, if I desired, clean, disinfect, and bandage the cut.”  He brandished his arm at her.  “This I can fix.  I know how to deal with it!”  His voice was getting dangerous, hysterical.

She wanted to turn away, avert her eyes from a sight so distressing that she had no words for it.  But her eyes were transfixed.  The whole cut was oozing blood now, and it traced paths down his arm. He continued to glare at her, and she felt the heat of his stare burn into her forehead.  But the blood wouldn’t release her eyes.

“So what do you think?”  His voice was calmer now.  But the danger was still there, just deeper, more subtle. There was no response she could give.

“What are you, mute?”  Still calm.  “There is a perverse pleasure in watching this kind of mutilation, isn’t there?”  The question stung her, but still she could not speak, could not look away.  “It is mutilation.  I have no illusions about that.  I don’t pretend that it’s art.  Or a political or social statement.  It’s damage.  Inflicted on my body.  By me.  Damage.  Nothing more.  But nothing less.”

Finally, she broke the spell.  Her eyes met his, though they still burned with red hues.  He seemed to be melting away, dripping down like his own blood. Yet, he continued, almost as though he were delivering a lecture to a distant, passive audience.  His eyes didn’t even seem to see her.

“There are a lot of ways we damage ourselves.  So many varieties of mutilation, that it would be impossible to try to catalogue them all.  Each of us does violence to ourselves every day.  Most ways are unrecognizable.”  Even his voice grew distant.  Almost as if he were merely reporting some mundane facts discovered by someone else.  Facts he didn’t even fully comprehend.  She shuddered under the weight of his words.

He didn’t stop.  “Damage to the soul is easier for us to ignore.  We don’t see it as obviously.  As readily. Until it comes exploding up at us in some violent or crazed explosion.  Then we label the result of such damage evil.  Even then, we tend to ignore the actual evil.  The real damage.  The horrible price that has been paid.

“When we mutilate our bodies, it’s easy to recognize. We can heal the wounds. The injury itself is easy to notice, to treat.  When we mutilate other bodies, that, too, is easy to recognize and treat.  We understand those wounds.  They’re visible.  They’re tangible.  We label the mutilation ‘evil’, and the mutilated ‘victim’.

“Even then we still miss the real cause, the real damage. The mutilation of our souls.  We do it to ourselves, everyday.  We lie to ourselves.  Just to get through the day.  We tell ourselves that we matter.  That we are important.  That we can affect our lives.  That we don’t hurt ourselves in little ways all the time.”

She finally found words.  His speech demanded an answer, though he had asked for none.  “It doesn’t have to be that way.  Not everyone damages themselves like that.  We can be honest with ourselves.”  She believed it.  She needed to believe it.

His vision suddenly refocused on her.  “This is honesty!  This is what being honest leads to.  An even greater damage!”  He stood.  All the anger from his last words drained out of the air as soon as he turned away from her.  “No.  Better not to be honest with yourself.  Better to never think about the state of who you really are, what you really want.  Better to be ignorant.”  He left to go clean and bandage his arm.

Just A Dream

I killed someone last night. Again.

Sitting up in bed after turning off my alarm, I told myself it had just been a dream.  I wasn’t really a killer, just someone with an overactive imagination.  Dreams weren’t real.

But it was difficult to believe my own denials.  If it had just been a dream, why was there blood on my hands?

I got in the shower to wash off the sweat, the grime, the blood. This was the third night in a row I had had the dream.  Each night, it felt more real than the previous night. Though this was the first time there was blood.  I didn’t know how to explain that new detail.  After washing everything away, it was clear there were no cuts anywhere that might explain it.

A knock on my door as I was toweling off startled me. I quickly threw on jeans and a t-shirt before walking to answer it.  Through the peephole, I could see a cop on the other side.  I debated not opening the door, but he knocked again.

“Good morning, officer.  Can I help you?”

“Sorry to bother you, sir.”

“That’s okay. What can I do for you?” It took a lot of effort to act normal. I was certain I was failing.

“Are you alright, sir?”

“Oh fine. Just running a little late.” Was that believable? I couldn’t be sure.

“I won’t keep you. We are talking to everyone in the area. There have been several break-ins recently. Have you seen anything or anyone out of the ordinary recently?”

“Nothing comes to mind.”

“Well, keep an eye out and let us know if you do see something. Be sure to lock your doors.”

“Will do, officer. Thanks.”

He nodded and moved on to the next door in the hallway.

I waited until the door clicked shut before exhaling. They weren’t looking for me. Not yet.  Maybe it was just a dream.  A horrible dream. But how to be sure?

At the hardware store around the corner, I bought a padlock. As I installed it on the outside of my door, one of my neighbors walked by.  A nice guy, kind of serious.

“I was thinking about putting one of those on my door, too.  Especially after that cop came by this morning.  But wouldn’t it be better on the inside?”

“Yeah, but this lets me lock it while I’m out.”

“Good thinking.”

“Thanks. Hey, could you do me a favor?”

“Sure. What?”

“I got two keys with this. Would you mind taking one and locking this side tonight? Open it on your way to work in the morning?”

“Won’t you be stuck inside, then?”

“Yeah, but I’ll feel safer tonight.”

“That seems like overkill.”

“Probably. But still. Will you do it?”

He shrugged. “I guess. When do you want me to lock it?”

“Now. I’m going to turn in early. Just make sure you unlock it in the morning.”

“Okay. But call me if you need out.”

“I will.”

That settled, I went inside and closed the door. Locking it from the inside, I waited until I heard the padlock close. Now I couldn’t get out. If I had the dream again, I could be certain it was just a dream. That gave me some reassurance. Exhausted from the day and the restless night of sleep, it was easy to go to bed early.

A knock on my door woke me the next morning. It was my neighbor. “Hey. I’ve taken the padlock off. I’ll put it and they key in the usual place.” We had a spot where we hid packages for each other.

I had had the dream again. But the blood on my hands, and the new blood splattered on my pajamas, said it wasn’t a dream at all.

The Proper Tool

“Concentrate.  Focus your mind.”  Master Rhe’s voice came in irregular intervals, making it nearly impossible to follow her directions.  Of course, that was probably the point.

Marai continued to stare at the ball in front of him.  No matter how hard he tried, it would not move.  Frustration began to well up inside, distracting him further.  He tried to push it down, to no avail.  Master Rhe was sure to notice.

“What is wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing, Master.”

She hit his upper arm with her staff.  “Do not lie to me.”

“I am sorry, Master.  I am getting frustrated with my inability to do it.  I know that I should not give in to that feeling.”

Her staff connected again, in the exact same spot.

“What was that one for?”

“Why do you think you ought to avoid frustration?”

“Such emotions lead to the negative side of the world.”

Another rap on the arm.  This time he held his tongue and tried to discover his mistake.

After a long silence, Master Rhe sighed.  Her sigh always indicated disappointment, and she always made sure that her students would not miss it.  Marai had heard it more than he liked.

“Negative.  Positive.  These are constructions.  The world just is.  There are no good or bad emotions anymore than there are good and bad forces.  What we do is important.  The tools we use serve purposes, they do not define the actions they are made to perform.

“The so-called negative emotions provide a great deal of power, but they are blunt.  They can accomplish much, but when precision is called for, they are a hindrance.  When dealing with narrow margins, calmness of mind is more appropriate.  But it is a mistake to identify parts of yourself as negative and shut them out.

“Be mindful of that which brings you frustration.  Learn from it, do not shun the feeling.  Now try again.”

The lecture over, Marai turned back to the ball.  The frustration he had felt returned, but rather than try to force it away, he accepted it.  This exercise was frustrating.  Now that he admitted that, he could sense the power behind it.  Could he use that?  He let the power flow freely and began to focus it on the ball.  It immediately rose into the air before it exploded into tiny fragments.  A piece stung his eye, blinding him temporarily.  At least he hoped it was temporary.

Another loud sigh.  “Just because you can do something, does not mean you should.  It is important to know the proper tool.  You would not send a bull to do a job meant for a cat.  Emotions are not bad, but that does not mean they do not deserve caution and respect.

“Go.  Attend to your eye.  When you are ready, we will try again.”  Master Rhe turned and left the room.