Why I Write: Barbara Harroun

Because epilepsy was the first stone I threw. The first word that made someone who wasn’t family cry. And cry she did, snot and tears, and raging fists. Because I was made to apologize, and I was sorry and I was not sorry.

Because a bicycle is an exoskeleton. It carried me in it, not so much on it, and was a part of me, not just an object I rode. This changed when I put the bike away in junior high, and when I rode again it was an orange ten-speed, and it was only a means of travel, of biding my time before I could drive.

Because my first kiss smelled like plywood, and felt like placing my lips to my knee. He was as ordinary and known to me as my brothers, the neighbor boy, such a daily part of my world it did not feel strange to pull my pants down for him, until I watched his face, curiosity and disgust mating, and a sound came from him that had me scrambling to cover myself.

Because my mother sat on the edge of my bed, impossibly lovely, a thick braid falling over her shoulder, explaining my vagina was mine, not for show and tell, but sacred. Because I am certain she did not use the word sacred, but shame crawled over my skin and I could not look into her face, her open face and searching eyes.

Because dusk was born for 10 year olds, and scabs were made for eating while I hid, butt on the dirt, under a shrub, and I was certain I may never be found by the seeker, that perhaps the whole world would forget I was ever in it.

Because once my feet were so dirty in summer that when I placed them on the bottom sheet, then lifted them, I saw what my birth certificate would look like if I had been born at 11.

Because my best friend’s mom was going to be a nurse, and me, my brothers, and my best friend’s sister would play The Gross Out Game with one of her textbooks, the one with the photos of people seeking emergency treatment—a razor blade in the eye, just planted there, rashes raging across entire bodies, but the face clean as an empty plate. Because one by one, each person would go into the living room, alone, and see if they could go one page further than the person before them. I would turn to the page that had the picture of the girl who was both a girl and a boy, her eyes canceled out by a black rectangle, and I would hope no one was prodding her. I would imagine her swinging, forgetting her body. My own body was changing in a way that made me hate it.

Because the neighbor’s peonies exploded open, but only after the ants covered them, teeming in a way that frightened me. And then they could not carry their own weight, but collapsed, diving toward the ground, their perfume one I would always associate with funeral homes, the image of my great-grandmother, her yellow-white hair in two girlish braids, tied with red yarn.

Because in summer there was only the swimming pool, and it was enough. And during adult swim, there were adults to watch, and girls trying to be adults, and later a book, and my wet fingers would leave prints like fat dimes, and the life guards would let me sit below them and talk, and there I would French kiss a boy, way better looking than me, and in a decade, his death would hollow me out and make me hate February.

Because I was a sprinter, and in junior high, I took on the hurdles without grace, just guts, and our 4 x 200 m relay went to State, and our picture was in the paper. Our track uniforms were old, and polyester, and the bottoms were like wearing underwear over underwear. The day after the photo ran, the phone rang, and a man asked if my parents were home. They weren’t, so I said they were indisposed, as I had been taught. Then the man asked for me by name, and I said, “This is she” and he explained how he had seen me, seen my legs, and had imagined what those legs led to. He said he knew me, and now he knew me well. That’s when I hung up, and stood looking at the phone. Then I ran to put the chain lock on and deadbolt the door. Behind his words, I heard his leer, and sometimes, even now, at the grocery store say, I will look into men’s faces and wonder if it was him. He called each of us, but the other girls handed the phone to their mom.

Because in church, I was certain I believed and the light fell in great swaths of velvet reds and purples and the incense made me dizzy and the Beatitudes made me cry, every time.

Because when I was 16, and had kind of lost my virginity, I prayed the Hail Mary over and over, for hours, in the deep dark of my single bed, so certain I was pregnant even though I had gotten my period, and I wept and wished I could crawl into my parents’ bed and confess to my mother, and I imagined she would place her hand on my face and shush me and tell me she loved me, but I was certain, actually, she would hate me. I was not pregnant. Eventually I slept. And church became someplace I had to go every Sunday, where I bided my time until I wasn’t there.

Because I was 19 when I fell in love, and he was 27, recently returned from Prague, grainy black and white photographs to prove it. He handed me platonic, as I sat on the step below him, smoking, leaning into his legs, legs that had just been wed to mine, and for the rest of that summer, everywhere I went, I was looking for him. And one night, my best friend insisted we return his CD of a quartet from Prague and his book on the Federal Reserve, that I get rid of him once and for all because my friend hated him, called him a pretentious asshole, so we got stoned, and walked through the summer night, talking with our heads down and bent toward one another, and she waited for me at the bottom of the stairs. He was cooking his famous red sauce for friends, was half drunk and happy to see me, and he invited me to stay, but my friend called me by all of names, demanding I get down there right now, and I wanted to tell him that as soon as he broke up with me his best friend made a pass at me. This same friend stood across the counter, not looking at me, peeling the label of his beer. Two years later the man I had loved would follow me into a Wal-Mart parking lot, in his mother’s jeep, and tell me he wanted to make his famous red sauce for me, and I was there for toilet paper and cleaning supplies because I was moving in with the man who would be my husband, And a year after that I would see him when I was a social work intern at the hospital, at lunch, and he was married, so in love his cousin said, the one I had met once, who had looked at me with slutty disdain when I was 19, that their happiness was enough to make anyone sick, and I laughed and he noticed the ring and I exclaimed such happiness even though it was all stress and anxiety, and he invited me to sit with him and I said no, but thanks. And my mom told me, years later, that she had been at an event and met his father, who seemed kind, and there he was, and he acted as if he had never met her, had never sat at her table and eaten her food, and if she could have spit hard at the ground, I think she would have, so clear was her disdain for him. Because he had come to dinner, my father insisted upon it, and after dinner we sat outside, under the tree, and my father went in, and we could not stop touching each other, we rolled on the brick patio like fighting cats, and we were like that when my father came out to water the garden. Because knowing he was a loser, who lived in his father’s garage, and worked for his cousin, and was so broke I always had to pay for dinner, does not change, even now how my skin was something I wondered at and loved being in, particularly when his skin was near.

Because I did get married and it has taught me that love, what do I know of it beyond choosing it again and again? And one person holds fathoms and universes and uncharted loneliness, and sometimes I can map him, and sometimes we are each other’s maps, and sometimes we are frightened and alone, but mostly he is my truest friend. We have known one another in the belly of trauma, and as young people wild with life, and now, deep in our middle years. Mostly it has been joy.

Because I have borne children, seen my daughter’s hair emerging from my vagina, been shaken by both my strength and frailty, overwhelmed by my son’s vast sweetness, amazed and consternated by my body before, during and after birth.

Because at 37 I got a dog and the doors of my heart blew open and the windows in it were raised, and we walk together, and sit together, his head in my lap and it is a perfect contentment.

Because my father planted a plum tree in my front yard, and this summer it bore fruit and it was a pleasure, each time, to pick them or pluck them from the ground, and eat them to their stone, or pit them and arrange their blushing flesh in a cake made rich with sugar and butter and sour cream.

Because while, in winter, there is the pressing weight of depression, in summer there will be a garden and watching my children swim without my aid.

Because some days, my mother calls me, and there are no words for my gratitude, no way to articulate the expansive love that rolls over me, and if there is a prayer, a pure prayer, it must be that feeling. It must.

Because my brothers are in the world, and they have known me, and I them, my entire life.

Because the world is still that of wonder and terror, joy and despair, and I want to name it all, all of it, before I go out on the wordless breath.

About Barbara Harroun

Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming in San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Rusty Toque, Black Sun Lit, the Kudzu Quarterly Review, Slipstream, Madrid: Journal of Contemporary Literature, The Circus Book, and freeze frame fiction. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, reading, engaging in literacy activism, cooking or running.