Category — JONATHAN KELHAM
An excerpt from Something Wrong With Her,
a memoir by Cris Mazza
(Jaded Ibis Press, October 31, 2013)
Any Lower than the Floor?
by Cris Mazza
In grade school, I regularly neglected to pee at the end of the school day before starting my mile-long uphill hike. One by one, the classmates I walked with would peel off when they arrived home. I was always alone the last 200 yards. During this span my urgency to pee peaked. I would hold myself, stop and contort, legs twisted together like pipe-cleaners.
In my final stages of distress I squatted on the dirt shoulder of the road, my Achilles tendon jammed into my crotch, resisting the fierce convulsions of my bladder and surrounding muscles. I pretended to be tying my shoe, in case anyone drove by. Or I completely removed my shoe and pretended to remove pebbles from it.
Meanwhile my body was a shuddering pressure-cooker: If I stood up, I would pee my pants. On more than one occasion, however, while I crouched on the roadside — rocking, squeezing, squirming… fighting the muscles that were straining to relieve my bladder — there was a distinct snap. Something broke. My muscles went instantly lax. Pee flooded out of me. I could do nothing to stop it. By later that same day, I would be once again holding my urine.
I know now that the pelvic floor musculature is the muscle that prevents one from peeing oneself. I have never in my life, other than those times alongside the road, been incontinent. But now — as I try to get at the heart of why intercourse has frequently felt like I’m wearing an inflexible transvaginal chastity-belt, causing sharply painful penetration, which I also blame for a lifetime of dysfunctional sexual relationships and anorgasmia — I can’t ignore those childhood incidents. Maybe I didn’t damage the pelvic floor muscle into incontinence-causing weakness; perhaps I only confused it as to what it was supposed to be doing and when.
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I have had vaginismus most of my life, and the defective sex life to go with it. Call it frigidity if you like. Vaginismus, an involuntary habituated spasm of the pubococcygeus muscle, affects a woman’s ability to engage in any form of vaginal penetration. I recently discovered that vaginismus sometimes has a conjoined-twin: pelvic floor dysfunction. According to the refreshingly wry Dr. Robert Moldwin, (Director of the Interstitial Cystitis Center, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, New Hyde Park, N.Y.), pelvic floor dysfunction is “uncoordinated behavior of the pelvic floor musculature. … [T]hese muscles need to contract when you walk around without urinating. When one voids, the muscle of the bladder contracts, thereby forcing out urine. At the same time, the muscles of the pelvic floor have to relax. They also need to relax during both a bowel movement and during sexual intercourse. Even more importantly, one part of the muscle may be contracting while the other is relaxing: You would most likely rather not have a bowel movement while you are having sexual intercourse.” Thus, pelvic floor dysfunction is related to pain-based frigidity because it can cause one or both of “two different types of complaints regarding intercourse: either there is terrible pain during intercourse because the penis is coming directly into the rigid muscles, or there is discomfort a day later.”
It took me thirty years (thanks to my own silence on the gyno table) to discover it might not just be me being a frigid nutcase in the world of open sexual pleasure.
Therapies for vaginismus and pelvic floor dysfunction are distinct from each other, semi-controversial, and both somewhat gnarly. Marketed home therapies for vaginismus comprise a set of “dilators” (objects resembling vibrators of graduating sizes) and a DVD program to use them, all offered at prices $40 to $100. None of the doctors I went to even vaguely alluded to this kind of therapy.
Despite a prevalent misunderstanding, pelvic floor therapy is not just for incontinence. Possibly because most women with vaginismus, like me, silently assume there’s something wrong with them, the majority of pelvic floor therapy patients seem to be those with menopausal or post-childbirth incontinence. My urologist and pelvic floor therapist, however, knew I was not in the wrong place. Treatment protocols for pelvic floor dysfunction range from biofeedback, electrical stimulation and Kegel exercises of the pelvic floor. I partook of all three.
The electrical stimulation was only as painful as a 15-minute pelvic exam, and included a probe jammed inside my vagina, and a rhythmic insect-sting somewhere deeper inside. My understanding is that electrical stimulation causes the pelvic floor muscles to tighten and relax on a non-spastic schedule, ideally simulating normal function. My therapy was taking place before the mediastorm over laws to require transvaginal ultrasounds before an elective pregnancy termination, so I missed the opportunity to rise above the undignified absurdity with empathy. My therapist, bless her heart, did her best to distract me by talking about my role as a college professor, my work as a novelist, while I sat impaled by an electric probe (which my insurance company required me to purchase myself).
Biofeedback consisted of a split screen, the top part showing the activity of my pelvic floor muscles, and the bottom part showing a graph of my abdominal muscles. It took just one session for me to isolate which muscle I needed to control: Watching the graph on the abdominal screen flare-up, my brain instantly registered which muscles I was using that I shouldn’t be using. The most interesting feedback on the graph, however, was in the weeks after I’d successfully isolated which muscles to exercise. During the rest period when I was supposed to be relaxing the pelvic floor muscles, sudden spikes would appear in the graph that the therapist explained were muscle spasms. I couldn’t feel the spasms, but possibly would have experienced them as pain if they’d occurred during sex. I was sitting there with a probe inside me, but since the probe wasn’t moving, it possibly didn’t have the same effect of meeting, over and over, a spasming/rigid muscle and resulting in pain, as might happen with a thrusting penis. The therapist said that the Kegel excercises I was doing at home would strengthen the muscle so that it wouldn’t spasm.
Could a pelvic floor muscle weakened in childhood learn to be spastic? Is it possible pelvic floor dysfunction initiated vaginismus, which then took over my brain — the organ we know to be the most powerful sex organ? Could it be that my brain then translated vaginismus into anxiety, stress, even panic, perpetuating not only the physical pain, but a cycle of fear? Even so, none of this can explain why I felt no sexual desire; why my hand never moved instinctively/unconsciously to touch myself; why I didn’t know what “horny” meant when everyone was saying it and doing whatever they could to assuage it.
Pelvic floor therapy doesn’t undo a lifetime of anorgasmia. In my case, it didn’t have the slightest effect on anorgasmia. But after three months of therapy, the seemingly freakish pain I felt during intercourse was alleviated. To this I can attest; I can endorse. And with the alleviation of pain, the fear also dissipates, though more slowly.
Pelvic floor physical therapy did more for me than any sex therapy or books about fantasy and masturbation, or friends steering me toward a vibrator, because the therapy targeted an actual source of pain: a weak pelvic floor muscle. Not all women with these conditions have been raped or are believers that sex is bad and dirty. That’s the cliché in which a sex therapist was mired when I tried to solve this problem 25 years ago.
But I know eliminating pain is not the same as experiencing pleasure. There are roads — that I’ve been the one to construct — yet to be cleared.
About the author:
Cris Mazza, a native of Southern California, professor, novelist and editor, directs the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. An interview with Mazza appeared in Ragazine.CC about the time her book, Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls, was published in 2011. Click here to read the interview by Kristin Thiel. Her memoir, Something Wrong With Her, will be published in October 2013 by Jaded Ibis Press.
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ILLUSTRATION: JONATHAN KELHAM
August 31, 2013 Comments Off on Cris Mazza/Creative Nonfiction
by Kevin Carey
I’m counting the white shirts that step off the train onto the street below me when I hear Carmen’s knock, a single tap, then two quick ones back to back. Boom, boom-boom. I watch every morning from my third floor balcony, the briefcase-carrying white-flight suckers. They leave their two acre lots and their SUVs for eight hours a day and they think they belong to the city.
Eighteen, nineteen. Carmen knocks again. Boom, boom-boom.
“Coming, you freak,” I yell.
I hand him a twenty when I open the door. “One-nine, one-nine,” I tell him.
“The lucky count,” he says, smiling, his dark round glasses, his long blonde hair combed back off his forehead. He wraps the twenty around a thick pile of bills. “Phone?”
I point to a white wooden table by the window. “Tell that boss of yours to give you a raise so you can get your own cell.”
“But I can always use yours, right, Buddy?”
He removes the lid of a green ceramic pot in the center of the table. “What’s the doctor selling?” he asks, lifts a fat joint rolled in yellow paper from the bowl. “This it?”
“You’d think the freak would hook me up for the weekend,” I say. “How’s a guy to make a living off of one spliff ?”
“I think you need a new grocery store, my friend.”
“A new life, maybe.”
Carmen sniffs the joint like fine wine. “You can always jump back into the suit coat.”
“Time me,” I say.
He sparks a lighter, holds the flame near the tip of it. “May I?”
“It ain’t free.”
“My man, I’d never.”
“Not you. Freckled-faced faggot.”
It’s a game we play. He never pays for the weed I have in my bowl and I get to slide on some street numbers.
He tucks my twenty under the green pot, takes a few hits off the joint, then passes it over. “Come on, Bud, invest,” he says. The generous type, especially with my shit.
He punches numbers on the cell phone singing to himself, “Viva Las Vegas,” taps the table, waiting. “Yo, it’s Carmen. One-nine, one- nine, twenty times,” he says to some guy on the other end of the phone, then rattles off a list of number combinations and dollar figures. Carmen tells me the guy is small time, neighborhood numbers and local book on games. He swears he is legit, that this number works just like the real lottery, only it’s based on attendance figures at the race track in Revere, but I’m not so sure.
When he’s done, we finish smoking the bone and drink a beer on the balcony.
“Does anyone really hit that number?” I ask him, “or you guys just collecting your own welfare money?”
“In their dreams.”
“Just hasn’t been your lucky day yet.”
“Or ever,” I say.
Carmen drinks the last of his beer, crumples the empty can, looks at me with those sun glass eyes. “Up for a game?”
In a few minutes we’re walking through City Hall Plaza, a wide plateau of brick and cement and one bronze sculpture that looks like a pile of licorice. It’s a cloudy day and the city smells like rain. Carmen takes off and runs up the flat concrete steps in front of City Hall. He leaps two at a time, pretending he has a football tucked under his arm, cutting back and forth like a running back in the open field. Then he catches his foot and trips face first, just barely bracing his fall with his hand.
“Clumsy bitch,” I yell.
A gray-haired woman, pushing a shopping cart filled with empty cans and bottles, stops and looks in my direction. She stares from behind the hair hanging in her face, the low, tight tuck of a green and white Celtic’s cap, looks at me like I called her name.
I catch up to Carmen and the woman moves away, across the empty Plaza, the rusted wheels of the shopping cart squeaking on the worn brick.
We walk into the subway entrance that sticks up out of the ground like some secret passage to a cave.
“Red or Green?” Carmen asks.
“Green line,” I tell him, pushing through the turnstile.
We sit for a few stops, the sound of the steel wheels turning underneath us. We don’t speak until Carmen points to the other end of the car where an old man is holding a twelve-inch cross and mumbling to himself. “Check it out,” he says.
“Waiting for vampires?”
Carmen laughs. “Or the end of the world.”
“Like this dude I heard on television talking about the Apocalypse,” I tell him.
“No. This guy was a Bible scholar going on about an eight-year-old kid they had set up in some shrine room in New Jersey. People were coming from all over the world to listen to his prophecies.”
“For how much?”
“See, nothing’s free. Not even the future.”
When the car slows we look at each other.
“No peeking.” Carmen says.
“Old woman. Middle door.”
The car stops and the doors slide open and a young man wearing a Co-Ed Naked Lacrosse sweatshirt, carrying a knapsack, steps in. I hand Carmen a ten spot. “Lucky guess.”
“So this kid, what did he say?” he asks me.
“He was warning people to get supplies ready, oxygen masks, canned goods, shit like that.”
“This other guy had a business building underground shelters, made millions.”
“Where there’s a need,” he says. “You better make sure you get cash, less you plan on collecting upstairs.” He points a thumb to the ceiling of the car.
“Ya. St. Peter’s collection office,” I say. “I’ll give him ten percent to frisk them at the gate.”
We laugh again, this time loud, slapping the seats and drawing stares from the handful of people onboard.
The train slows.
“Mother,” I say.
The door opens and a woman carrying a baby in a pouch walks in first.” I take the ten back.
“If it ends right now, you’ll go out a winner,” he says.
“Today I think I’d welcome the end. Why not?” I look at him sitting there, a slight smile on his face. “Do you believe in God, Carmen?” I ask.
He lowers his sunglasses, stares back. “What’s up with that?”
“Just a question. Do-you-believe-in-God?”
“Think God would sell pot?” I ask him, “I mean, if he was down here, like one of us.”
“Probably not. But his kid? He had those apostles slinging vino all over the place.”
“So they might have smoked a few if it was available?” I ask.
“Sure. They were fishermen, not angels.”
The lights flicker off and on as the train switches tracks, and suddenly the car is more crowded than before, folks reading the paper standing up, a few city kids with iPods.
“I’m not sure I believe in God,” I say.
“What do you got to lose?” he asks, “if you find out there’s nothing when you die, you won’t know, cause there‘ll be nothing. If you say you believe in God and you die and he’s there, you’re covered.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t have enough evidence.”
“Oh I get it.” He lifts his arms over his head. “Show me the holes in the hands.”
I straighten up, look at him real serious. “Let’s say I told him, ‘God let me hit the number and I promise I will give up selling weed and donate my money to the church.’ Why wouldn’t he do it? He gains a disciple, I do something good with my life. Everyone wins, right? So why wouldn’t he?”
“You got a point.”
“Bet your ass I do.”
“But,” he says, lowering the sunglasses on his nose again, “what if it doesn’t work like that.”
“What if you have to believe without the proof?”
“What fucking sense does that make?”
“I don’t know. But it always seems to be the way.”
“The way, Yahweh, the word, it’s all bullshit. I’m talking about a practical approach. He shows his face. I tell the world. And so on down the line. One poor slob at a time.”
The doors open and a Boy Scout troop gets on. We sit quietly for a few stops, cornered behind the sea of blue caps and gold-tasseled ties. One kid looks back at me, thick, round glasses and a fat face. I nod my head and he smiles. The doors open and he walks away looking back once more before catching up to his troop.
“I do believe sometimes more than others,” Carmen says.
“When times are good, you believe?”
“More like when I’m sitting alone, quiet you know, and I get this feeling that everything is going to be okay. I can’t explain it, but that’s when I believe.”
We get quiet again, look out the window at the train passing in the opposite direction.
“Ah, but you’re grateful because you have something someone else doesn’t,” I say.
“So how about the have-nots? Does God exist for them?”
“The meek will inherit the earth right?”
“And suffer the whole time they’re here,” I say, my hands open in front of me like I’m waiting to catch something falling from the sky.
“It’s about salvation,” Carmen says. “The poor, the ones with nothing get the spoils at the end of line.”
“I don’t buy it.”
“Then you don’t believe in God.”
The train slows.
“A nun.” I say.
“A priest,” he says.
We look as the door opens and a tall, slender girl, long black hair, dressed in a tight half- shirt and jeans, walks by and stands at the end door, her back facing us. “Maybe there is a God,” I say.
The next few minutes pass with the long exchange from underground to above ground tracks. We ride in the dark tunnel without saying a word, just the steel wheels scraping on the turns, the sudden shifts of weight rocking the train. We don’t speak until after we come up into the light of Commonwealth Ave. and bet on a policeman and a lesbian.
“You know what really kills me?” I say.
“Not hitting the number?”
“That fucking Bible.”
He looks at me, waits.
“Look at it,” I say. “It’s a bestseller, murder, lust, sex. I bet they ran it like a weekly. ‘When we left our hero he was on his way to the Red Sea.’”
“What if it were all true?” he asks me.
“Come on, man. It’s Rocky and Bullwinkle for Christ’s Sake. Where’s the truth? Where’s the hope?”
I stand and face him, holding the hand rails over my head. “At least we provide some hope, Carmen, something to help you get to the end of the stinking day, something real. Can’t you see? It’s all designed to keep the meek, meek and the poor, poor. ‘Give them religion, that’ll keep them from causing trouble, keep them from rising up. Promise them the great pay day, put it all in a book.’ You said it, Carmen. What if there’s nothing? Really think about that. Imagine the end is nothing.”
He stares at me, hard, like I’ve hurt his feelings. “Don’t knock the flying squirrel, man.”
At the end of the line we switch trains back. By the time we get home I’m forty dollars to the better, hitting the last four; back to back lawyers, a secretary and a gangbanger.
Carmen heads to the corner to check the number. “See you tomorrow, Bud,” he says, “unless I come knocking with your winnings.” He laughs and pretends to knock with his fist.
“And I’m the pope,” I yell after him.
I dial a beeper number so I can connect for the weekend, then I sit outside on the balcony waiting, looking over the city, at the empty train station, at the afternoon sky. There’s a kind of yellow-gray haze floating low over the buildings. It looks fake to me, like a backdrop on a pine frame that could be wheeled away at any moment or turned off with the flip of a switch. This could be the end of the world I think, right here, right now. It’s peaceful and quiet and I’m content just to sit and watch it happen.
A single raindrop lands on my arm and I stare at it, sitting there like a small pool in the crevice of my skin, and it makes me think of a time when I was a kid and my father made me a tire swing in our backyard. It was summer and a warm breeze was blowing and I was alone, swinging, my head arched back looking up at the sky. It was gray, like today, and the rain had fallen onto my forehead and I remember trying to keep my balance so the raindrops wouldn’t fall off my brow. I imagined them living there like a colony of tiny lakes. I remember I stayed that way, gathering drops, until the warm rain had soaked through my clothes, rocking back and forth, never wanting to leave, never wanting to stop looking up at the sky, never wanting to be anywhere else on earth.
The phone rings at my side. “Hello,” the voice says. “I got what you need. Come on by.” At the same time, I hear a knock at the door. Boom, boom-boom. Carmen.
“Hello,” the voice says again, “You there?”
Boom, boom-boom. Carmen yells from the other side of the door, “Open up man, you won’t believe it.”
I hold the phone to my chest, the tiny muffled voice still speaking impatiently, and I see that the clouds have broken slightly and a soft ray of light peeks through the grayness and spreads like a blanket across the rooftops and I smile, a silly sort of smile, like I know a joke no one else knows.
About the author:
Kevin Carey teaches in the English Department at Salem State University. His work has been nominated for a Push Cart Prize, won Best of the Net 2011, and was a finalist for The Million Writers Award 2012. He recently has been chosen as a finalist for 2012 Black River Chapbook Competition. His co-written screenplay “Peter’s Song” won Best Screenplay at The New Hampshire Film Festival 2009 and his one act plays have been staged at The New Works Festival in Newburyport, Mass., and The New Hampshire Theater Project. His book of poetry is The One Fifteen to Penn Station.” Kevin is also a seventh-grade basketball coach in Beverly, Mass., and a part-time filmmaker. He has recently completed a documentary film, with photographer Mark Hillringhouse, about New Jersey poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan, called “All That Lies Between Us.”
June 29, 2013 Comments Off on Kevin Carey/Fiction
Out of Fashion
By Thaddeus Rutkowski
In school, I wore bell-bottoms made of brushed felt. The pants were tight around the thighs, but the bells — which had fringes — were very loose around the ankles. I kicked the fringes when I walked. For a top, I wore an orange corduroy shirt.
I walked alone in the halls of my high school. No one wanted to walk beside me. If I happened to be walking toward someone, the student stared at me as I passed.
I had one teacher — a Spanish teacher — who was a perv. He would notice any girl who wore a miniskirt. The school had a dress code — one of the rules was that the hem of a skirt had to touch the floor when the wearer was kneeling.
Whenever this teacher had any doubt about the length of a skirt, he would have the student kneel on the tiles, and if the fabric of her skirt touched the floor, she would be allowed to take a seat and the class would resume. If not, the teacher would dress her down, in Spanish.
When I walked into the classroom wearing my bell-bottoms, the teacher looked at the fringes brushing the floor and shook his head. He waved a finger, then rubbed one finger over the other as if to say, “Shame on you.”
“Tomás,” he said, addressing me by my Spanish name. “Tomás, we don’t do that here.”
My math teacher didn’t care what clothes students wore, but he was a sadist nonetheless. He said he would raise students’ grades, on one condition. “If you take a whack,” he said, “I’ll give you a higher letter.”
He opened a closet door to reveal a collection of paddles. He had flat wooden bats in various shapes, some with holes drilled through them for a greater sting.
Students lined up around the classroom, waiting to be paddled. The line included girls as well as boys. One by one, they went to the front of the room. Each of them took a swat, except for one boy, whose grade was too low for the paddle. He had to accept a kick. The teacher hauled back and booted the boy. The force of the blow sent the boy hopping forward, but he didn’t make a sound.
Only a few students were doing well enough not to get whacked. I was one of them. When the teacher noticed me sitting at my desk, he said, “You, Mouse, come up here. You’re next. You also get one — that’s a real number, plus one — just for being here.”
I rose from my seat and went forward.
At home, I put on hip boots to go fishing. My brother called the rubber wear “hippie boots.” I walked to the creek with the tops of the boots folded down. When I was ready to wade, I pulled up the tops and buckled the rubber straps around my belt.
As I walked through the fast-moving water, I realized the boots weren’t really necessary; the creek was only about two feet deep. I could have waded wet and made my casts. I could have fished without stepping into the water at all.
I put away my hippie boots when I returned from the stream. The next time I went out, I decided, I would wear sneakers.
My father took my family to see the movie Alice’s Restaurant. The movie was rated R, and I looked forward to seeing some sex, but there was next to none in the film. There was some nudity when the main character was given a physical exam for induction into the military. There was drug use among the people who were living communally. There was some swearing. That was it.
Later, my father became angry about a scene in the movie. In the sequence, one of the characters, a recovering junkie, gets high on drugs and swings around on some kind of apparatus. As he hangs like a monkey, he says repeatedly, “I am an artist!”
“That guy was no artist,” my father said. “He was a horse’s ass.”
After a few drinks, my father called me to where he was sitting. “I’m a real artist,” he said, “I’m serious, too serious for the rest of the clowns. But you don’t give me my due. You treat me like your social organizer. My job is not to entertain children!”
My mother brought home a small box from the hospital where she worked. The box held greeting cards. “Look,” she said. “It’s drawing by your father.”
I looked at the sepia-colored drawing my father had made. It showed the hospital where my mother worked. Every edge of the building was sharp; every angle followed perspective. The roof of the car port jutted out over the area where ambulances arrived. The windows of the rooms looked new and clean.
I could see that my father had talent. He had exceptional eye-hand control. I couldn’t understand how his hand could be so steady, even after years of drinking.
My sister embroidered an image from one of my father’s paintings onto a lapel of my jacket. In light- and dark-blue thread, she constructed an antique bottle, the kind with a stopper instead of a twist cap. It was one of the bottles my father had dug from an old dump in the woods. He’d cleaned the old glass container and set it up in a still life.
The bottle floated there, against the tan color of my cotton jacket. I wore the jacket to school, and some students noticed the splotch of color in the shape of a bottle, but no one asked me what it was.
I tried writing a piece in the manner of a book I was reading. The book was ostensibly about fishing for trout in America, but it was really about a character named Trout Fishing in America. He did some fishing, but he did a lot of other things as well.
My piece had a beer wino in it. This wino drank only beer, which he bought by the case. He would start drinking in the afternoon, and he would go until he fell asleep in front of a television test pattern at night. He drank beer like a wino.
Somehow, my father saw my story. After he’d read it, he said, “Is this all you can do? Write funny stories? Why don’t you go to your room now and write another funny story?”
I went out to the porch, where there were hooks in the ceiling that had once held a swing. The swing must have broken and been taken down. Or maybe it hadn’t been broken, and had just been taken down. Perhaps my father took it down. Maybe he just didn’t like the idea of rocking in a swing on the front porch, chanting that he was an artist. It might have signaled boredom to him, as if people who sat in swings had nothing better to do. He had his ways of relaxing— sitting on a porch wasn’t one of them.
Most of our neighbors did, however, have porch swings. I would see them sitting there on summer evenings, looking out from their front porches. They wouldn’t be talking. They’d just be staring.
When I walked by, they wouldn’t talk to me. They wouldn’t wave, even if I waved. So I didn’t wave. I even avoided eye contact when I passed by.
The last thing I wanted to do was to have a swing on our porch. I didn’t want to rock back and forth in it and chant, “I am an artist.” That would be an embarrassing thing to do.
About the author:
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. He teaches at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. His writing has appeared in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Fiction and Fiction International. He was awarded a 2012 fellowship in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
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April 27, 2013 Comments Off on Thaddeus Rutkowski/Fiction