Taneum Bambrick’s new collection of writing, Intimacies, Received, is out September 27, 2022 from Copper Canyon Press. “Groundings” is an essay excerpted from the author’s in-progress memoir.
My childhood home in eastern Washington sat along the edge of a brush field. I often brought a thin blanket out into the sand and threw it over an old growth sage. A tent the size of my head, I’d slide under it, watching two straight lines of translucent ants march up and down the shrub’s twisted, gray bark. I was alone too often. We lived in a desert-y pocket of the state. From the living room window, I could see the hills where the government concealed an army training site. At night, the ridges sometimes flashed red. I’d shift my shoulder blades into the gravelly texture of the earth out back until I found comfort. There, a tick dropped onto my arm, and I watched as it stepped up to the crease of my elbow where the veins are brightest. It crouched down. I tried to pry it off—to examine it—but, feeling the hooked grip, I panicked and pinched so hard its exoskeleton crushed. Its blood already my blood.
The next day I laid under the sage again, waiting. I wanted to prove that I could react receptively this time, without causing another being harm. For weeks I let ticks onto my body, felt them migrate to settle along the hottest spots of my head. Hard shells holding on even as I showered and slept. Like piercings, I thought, touching them. Touching them in the grocery store, at daycare while the other kids napped on the carpet in rectangular sleeping bags. Friends—that’s what I called them when my father recoiled after running his hand through my hair. He and my mother spoke fiercely at each other, pulling each tangled curl apart. I cried when he yanked the ticks off, their little legs tracing circles in the air. Over the kitchen table, he poked through their bodies with a green thumb tack, placing each corpse in a Ziplock bag. These are not your friends; they’re drinking your blood, he said. They can make you really sick. I lost a little softness towards him when I decided not to believe this.
When I was eight years old, we moved forty minutes away to a college town in a deep valley. My parents built a house on top of a cow pasture. For months after we settled there, my little sister Chloe and I still found rumpled cakes of manure in the yard. The farmer had left a plank of wood across the irrigation ditch, which Chloe and I sat on often, lowering our toes into fast water and sulfuric mud. I acclimated to grass, brushing my hands over and back, tearing clumps out to form impressive piles of scraggly roots and dirt.
Two robin families nested in shadowy corners where white beams connected the roof to our porch. My father would hoist me up on his shoulders to look at the flattened, wet chicks. Their eyes shut, beaks open, they laid naked and orderly like sausages on a dinner plate. My father taught us about the killdeer population—white-chested birds with two black rings around their necks—that shrieked in our driveway. To demonstrate, he chased a female until she rolled her wing up and then down off her body, as if missing an important bone. See, he said, the mother is trying to seem hurt, becoming an easy target so I’ll eat her instead of going for her nest. Chloe and I shrieked, running as she dragged her wing behind her like a blanket.
Never touch a bird’s eggs, my father said when we found the killdeer nest; speckled black and clutched in pebbles and dirt. If the smell of your skin gets on them, the mother will never come back (years later, over text, he admits this isn’t true: I was trying to get you to leave the eggs alone. I am sorry for appealing to your strong sense of kindness). When I looked at them, I imagined the amorphous chick, rolled in liquid inside the shell, organs and veins like the green and red stripes at the center of marbles. Later that day, I went looking for the nest alone. With my thumb and pointer fingers, I lifted one egg carefully out of the bundle without brushing my skin against the others. The mother wailed, puddling her body at my feet. Just this one, I thought. I was not kind. I imagined all I had to do to make it hatch was keep the egg warm. I bunched together a giant nest of wool blankets inside my window seat and set the egg in its center. Touching and staring at it often. By the end of the day the egg felt light and cold.
At my father’s fortieth birthday party on my aunt’s lawn, everyone was given a wig that looked like his black curly hair before he started balding. A good sport, my father laughed and wore a wig too, which delighted my sister and me. He looked like his high school senior photo. My sister and I wore the wigs for months after. We wore them to my mother’s friend Bethany’s farm. Identical men, standing in a goat pasture. Girls, be sure to leave the goose alone, Bethany said. Her old bird laid an egg on top of a compost pile, but it never hatched. Still, the bird kept sitting on it, perched high above the patchy grass. When we honked she honked. Chloe and I dared each other to step one, two, then three steps onto the compost pile before retreating in fear. Still seated, she flapped her wings once, threateningly. When I took my third step, the goose leapt off the nest. She charged, lowering her neck to chomp at my ankles and calves. I let her slap after me in a long circle that ended back at the pile, where I jumped up and stole the egg. Still running, I took my wig off and slid the egg inside. I carefully sealed the elastic back around my head after hopping the fence.
Chloe and I smiled, staring into the wig in the backseat of my mother’s Subaru outback on the way home. We brushed grass and crusty shit off the white shell. What will we do with it? Chloe whispered. Girls, I saw my mother’s slivered eyes in the rearview mirror, why are you so quiet? She sighed and made a U-turn, a block from our house. When I saw that we were headed back to the farm, I started crying. My mother refused to engage, fingers locked to the wheel. Standing at Bethany’s front door, I placed the egg into her hand and said, I am so sorry, with more shame and sincerity than I’d ever felt, my real hair tangled and wet with sweat.
After we moved to Ellensburg, my mother started working for Planned Parenthood. She brought home paper bags full of flavored and multi-colored condoms—like toys—for my sister and I to play with. We loved the flexibility of the material. How they felt almost liquid. We rolled them over soda cans and up the wooden arms of kitchen chairs. The legs of our teddy bears, a sleeve for the tail of the life-sized tiger our grandparents gave us from Costco. By then my mother had already clumsily taught us about sex. The penis goes in the vagina, she said, and you kiss. I didn’t imagine there was any movement aside from the initial insertion. What do you do while you wait? I asked. Play monopoly? She laughed but didn’t answer me. One night, I pulled the tiger’s tail into my body and laid still beside it on the carpet. I felt sad, looking into its plastic face. I wondered if sex didn’t have the appropriate impact on me.
At ten, eleven, and twelve, desire flickered through my body. I remember sitting in class and leaping forward suddenly in my seat. A quake following a memory of a scene I read in a book or saw on TV. Walking down a hallway, I caught my name floating between a group of boys and I listened. Her body is hot, a boy named Mark said, but her face is ugly. I hid behind a giant Spanish textbook the entire next period. For years I experienced a type of acne called cystic, which bled whenever I cried or laughed. Covered in scabs, I looked wounded. I tried to melt them down by holding a cotton ball full of household bleach to my skin. I punctured the white heads with the tiny point at the end of a kitchen knife.
Worried, my mother suggested Accutane, which she’d taken for acne in her thirties. I remember the dermatologist, touching the clearness of my neck, who said, you will be very beautiful once we resolve this. Each egg-shaped, yellow pill sat in a plastic pouch behind a sheet of cardboard. The cardboard was covered in many images of the same crossed-out pregnant woman. I pushed the pills through the X across her chest. If you have a child on Accutane, the dermatologist said, it will have a cone-shaped head. Can you promise me you aren’t sexually active? I nodded. I started my period that year. I was eleven and barely understood the mechanics of sex.
I thought the pills were lovely. I skipped one dose so I could pull a pill apart, spreading the powder out like gem dust on the counter. The skin on my lips cracked and rolled off during the first month. Scabs rose from my arms randomly. I desired pain. The desire was erotic. Like some force outside language was constantly trying to contact me. While I knew the scabbing and dryness were side effects, the dermatologist said nothing to my family and me about the mental health risks. I created my own alphabet out of symbols to hide my emotional and slightly violent poems from my sister and parents. I screamed My Chemical Romance lyrics: I never said I’d lay and wait forever, if I died we’d be together. Stealing my mother’s scented candle, I poured its hot, red wax down my skin.
My face cleared within weeks of being on the medicine. I stared in the mirror, feeling sure I could watch the acne sink. That summer, too, a friend taught me to fry the frizzy curls out of my hair using a flat iron. I came back to school looking completely different. Suddenly, boys found me attractive. I was voted middle school president. That year, for the first time in my life, I was adjacently popular, but spent time with a group everyone hated who wore chains and spikes and played Magic: The Gathering during lunch instead of going outside. I liked that sadness and indignance held them together. Their leader, Zac, gave me a glass vial of his own blood, which I rolled between my fingers in the fleece pouch of my Hollister sweatshirt.
During middle and high school, I was grounded for long stints of time. The groundings felt unfair not only to me, but to other people in our small community. You’re such a good kid, my leadership teacher once said, can I call them and tell them how well you’re doing at school? Nothing helped. Their panic surrounding me came from somewhere else. The first grounding I remember happened after I saw a movie with a boy. I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16, which included all unchaperoned parties or events where boys would be. At the movie, I went with my friend Kayla, her boyfriend, and his best friend Cameron. Cameron innocently held my hand through the film. He was the kind of boy my parents wanted me to like. He played baseball and football and smiled shyly at other peoples’ jokes. After my parents learned about the date through a passing comment from Kayla’s mother, they grounded me from the phone, internet, and TV for two months. Cameron and I lost touch. He wasn’t like other boys who enjoyed squirreling around my parent’s rules.
Because I was grounded so often—once for an entire six months after sneaking out and TP-ing a friend’s house—I developed a habit of dating boys who delighted in the risky sacrifices I made in order to see them. I gained a reputation for being impossible to date, which made all attempts feel important and sexy. When I was in eighth grade, I sometimes kissed a boy in high school named James who sent me Dashboard Confessional songs and threw rocks at my window. I climbed down and laid with him in the gravel. Our backs aching beside the loud irrigation creek.
That year I also caught a boy, Adam–who I ran cross-country with–staring through my bedroom window, perched on my roof. When his large face came together through the screen, I squawked through my hand, which I’d instinctively brought to my mouth. Sliding along the shingles, he admitted that he’d done this before. You need to get down and leave, before I tell my dad, I warned him seriously. But my father heard already. T, he called from downstairs, are you ok? Did you see a spider or something? I looked sheepishly at Adam and raced down the stairs to tell my father, who laughed. Don’t hurt him, I heard myself say. He lifted himself off his leather armchair and staggered into his bedroom closet, coming out with a baseball bat I didn’t know he had. For several minutes, he stood in the grass below my room like a guard outside a club or palace.
I tried convincing myself no one was hiding on the roof by popping the screen out and carefully sitting where Adam sat, one arm hooked through the open window, whenever I heard a noise or felt afraid. I KNOW YOU’RE OUT HERE, I would whisper-scream to nobody. Regardless, I woke whenever I heard the house shift, a dog bark, one of my parents get up to use the bathroom. Most of the time, I overreacted to innocuous movements. One night, I peered over the diagonal roof, watching several boys from my grade—wearing all black—position orange traffic cones around our driveway silently. One boy taped pieces of paper onto the cones. Another one squirted the entire contents of a squeeze bottle of ketchup over the yard.
I watched until I could figure out who they were. A group of my childhood friends who ran parallel to my group of friends in terms of popularity, which meant our crushes on each other felt obligatory. Hey, what are you doing, I asked genuinely. Without looking up, they dropped the ketchup and stack of computer paper, sprinting to the street where they’d parked a minivan under the shade of several dying willow trees.
I smirked, watching the car scrape away, then walked out the front door into the dark. On each paper taped to the traffic cones, they drew images of fighter jets shaped like penises. At the center of one jet they wrote, Taneum loves dick. I liked spending time dissecting metaphors in school and when I read, but I couldn’t understand this, I wondered if the juxtaposition of sex and violence was too smart for me to understand, or too thoughtless. In the harsh clattering of frogs and crickets, I lifted a rubbery traffic cone to my face. I heard my heart moving in my ears, which only happened when I felt afraid. I smiled, then frowned; ashamed of the warmth uncoiling behind my ribs. I liked the attention. My toes coated in loose red. There were boys all over my parents’ house those years.Every night I stared out my own window, nervous, imagining. Every morning I woke with my arms clamped around my sister in her bed.
While camping at a lake in the Cascade Mountains with my family the summer after I turned 14, I walked across a dirt parking lot to an outhouse. The lot was surrounded by pine trees with rectangles of shady space between thick trunks. I saw a condom on the ground. Yellow-white and exhausted like a snakeskin. There were no cars. I thought, I would do anything to be taken into the woods by a stranger. I wanted my virginity over, for the thought of sex to stop threatening and distracting me. I didn’t care if it hurt. I could relax once it was finally done. I watched smoke spool up from the campfire into the stars that night beside my sister. My dad, singing with his head thrown back, tried teaching us the lyrics to “American Pie.” Headlamps strung across our tight wool hats. Before we slept, all four of us spit our toothpaste onto the same huckleberry plant. ♦
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