The Mulberry Tree


The Mulberry Tree was always the best hiding place, but what was hidden there depended on the year and the strength of the winds. Things were placed there with the utmost care, and sometimes these were pretty things, things that belonged there like gemstones or pages from books, but other times they were ugly things, and you only put them there so you wouldn’t have to look at them anymore. You stowed everything away like the space would never end, like the tree was infinite, which was true, in a way, until it stopped being so.

In ’97 the Mulberry Tree was a place for secret treasures, usually of the geologic sort, that you wanted to hide from your sister. In the hollow on the east side of the tree lay a rock that sparkled like a diamond and some polished stones you found that were so smooth you thought they must be old Indian beads. Your sister would never find them there, and you would get to keep all the magic for yourself. All the powers they held were yours and yours alone, and you would protect them even if it meant climbing too quickly and scraping the inside of your knee. In ’97 with purple berry juice staining your chin you didn’t hear the music yet, only the voices carried over the wind calling you inside for dinner. In ’97 the dark hadn’t set in yet, and there were sunsets eternal and ripe, black berries falling from the sky.

But gold turns gray, as it always does, and five years later the dusk poured in without your noticing. Shadows changed places, but the Mulberry Tree still stood in the corner of the yard, bearing fruit quietly with its limbs outstretched. It waited until dinner was over and you could sneak out for a few minutes and stash your journal filled with impatient musings and notes from friends. In ‘02 it was the perfect hiding place for you and for them, all those restless, happy thoughts about words exchanged with boys and what would happen next with this friend or that. Name after name after name! Everything was on the cusp of happening, and you started to hear the music.

“Turn down the radio!” your mother would say while she pounded on your door.

“It’s not even that loud!” you would say back, knowing full well that it was. Even your ears hurt sometimes, but you needed it so you could ignore your insistent heart. It was a teenage heart, soft and clean and waiting to be knocked around a bit so it could have pretty scars like the ones you saw in the movies. It was a silly heart, but this heart, it was all you knew.

“Take care, take care of it!” your mother would say when she picked you up from school in the afternoon.

“I know!” you would say back, while your sister grinned in the rearview mirror.

They thought restraint was something you would learn and patience was something you would acquire in time, but they were wrong. Oh, they were wrong, and the summer brought outbursts that started with injustice and ended in the Mulberry Tree where you could put your hands on its rough bark and wait for the tears to dry. Bare arms wrapped around bare knees. The mulberries hung all around you and waited for you to lift your head and notice them. Eventually you would, and you would taste one, chewing slowly and being healed bit by bit.


Your scars healed easily because they were surface scars, and they didn’t need much more than a tube of aloe to blend back in with the seamless organ of your skin. Your mother’s scars were different, though. They were buried deep in the tissue and irreparable. As tragic as that sounds, the saddest thing about those scars was that they were invisible. To you, to your father, to the world, and even to your mother when she took the right pills. When you were sixteen, you began to realize this, and the things you hid in the Mulberry Tree got uglier.

It was winter when you saw your father go off to church alone in the car. The snow was mostly still white because you lived in the country, and gnarled branches protruded from every which way as you watched him back out of the driveway—slowly, slowly. Nothing about this was unusual, for your father always went to church alone, the one with the red brick on Route 1, and the winter had looked like this for as long as you can remember. But today your head had a heavy feeling. It was the feeling of disorientation you got whenever you became aware of existing, when you thought too hard about being alive and being human and being here, now. You would start to feel it in the back of your head, just above the base of your neck, and then the dizzying circles would begin, and the words “This is real This is now This is being alive You are alive” started swimming furious laps in your brain. You would have to tear yourself away from those ideas, pull yourself back into the present, and wait for the disgusting tides to recede.

When that was done you found yourself back in the once-removed world you usually inhabited. The beige carpet was still beige, the walls were a forgettable color, and your mother was sitting at the kitchen table not doing much besides staring at the centerpiece. Your sister had been talking to her and not looking at the centerpiece because the centerpiece was just a plastic holder for napkins.

“Mom!” your sister yelled, interrupting herself.

“What?” asked your mother.

“You’re staring into space. Are you listening?”

“Yes, I am.”

But you knew she wasn’t because you could see the storm clouds gathering in her brain. It was this talent you had, allegedly bestowed upon you by the god your father was driving over to see at the church on Route 1. You backed away from the window and put on a sweatshirt and boots so you could go out to the Mulberry Tree to hide what you saw. You grabbed a book, one by Melville that you had to read for school, and opened the back door.

“Won’t you be cold like that?” asked your mother.

“I’ll be fine,” you replied, while your sister crossed her legs on the kitchen chair.

But you were not fine! And the Mulberry Tree held your shivering limbs for four-and-a-half minutes before you got cold and walked around. You read one page of Melville but mostly watched over the snowy backyard and the fences that kept it from spilling out. Nothing moved, and you were satisfied. As your boots crunched the snow on your way back to the house, you decided what you would do next and forever so that the storm clouds in your mother’s head would disappear for good.

And so it happened that at age sixteen while your father was talking to his god on Route 1 and your sister was sharpening her pencils, you began to work on your annihilation. You did it because you knew that creating a storm of your own was the only way your mother would forget hers. It was genius! And it started with cigarettes after school.

After that you quit some extracurriculars and learned how to dye your hair ice blue with blonde underneath. It didn’t take long for you to figure out who had the best drugs and where to go to take them. Warehouses at the edge of the suburbs looked dead to most people, but to you they pulsated life in the form of music and warm bodies and colors you’d never seen before. Sure, there was sadness here, but at least everyone knew it and was trying to transform it. Sure, there was yearning here, but at least everyone acknowledged it and made it loud. The worst was the quiet yearning and the ignored sadness that most people have. The stifling of those things—that’s how people die, you were certain. That’s how people die while still being technically alive.

But the warehouse nights were for being alive. You participated in it all, threw yourself into the mix without a second thought, but knew you were not like the others because you were doing it for noble reasons, and they were all selfish. They danced and touched and took pills because they were weak and they didn’t give a damn about anyone else. Not you, though. You did it for your mother because she had to be saved! You would use your darkness to make her forget her own because she was your mother and she raised you and held you when you were sick or screaming. This mission meant that you had to stay out late almost every night. You danced with boys and took pictures with girls, all of you covered in glitter and laughing about things that were forgotten by dawn.

Your school called often, asking where you were when you failed to show for days at a time, but even when you were there you weren’t there. You squeaked out answers to your teachers’ questions from underneath the heavy sweaters you wore to hide the way your collarbone stuck out now. Your eyes were rimmed in red, and you drank coffee before any of your classmates started to like it, cupping your hands around its warmth and taking pictures of it to post online for thousands of people to see and like. You didn’t know what they thought of you, but you didn’t care because this was all for a good cause.

“Where have you been?” your mother would shout when you walked in the house just before the sun came up.

“With my friends!” you would answer as you kicked off the shoes that made you almost as tall as the girls on the runways in Japan. She yelled for a while but you saw no storm clouds anywhere near her and nothing else that would take her away. It was working. Your father said nothing but kept going to see the god on Route 1, and your sister watched from the stairway.

Once she asked you, “Why are you doing this to them?” Them, meaning your parents. You looked at her and shook your head because she would never understand what you were fighting for. She couldn’t see the storm clouds that tormented your mother. Before walking away she told you that you looked like a wreck, but you were fine with that because you could be left alone to make tea in the kitchen in your bare feet, just how you liked it.

Inevitably you ran away because that’s just what people do. It was only for a day and it was only because you lost yourself a little more than usual, and there was a boy with no name who looked like the son of the god on Route 1. A policeman came across the two of you sitting on a bench outside an all-night diner and asked why you weren’t in school. You had no answer, but it didn’t matter because the tights you were wearing said enough. The policeman took you with him but left the boy with no name because he was over eighteen. Your mother drove out to get you, and on the way home you wanted there to be silence because it would be so forceful, but you cried instead.

Finally she pulled the car over on a side street and got out. The sun was strong in the mid-morning sky and came down unevenly through the trees that flanked the road. You waited for her to get back in the car, but she didn’t, and the plastic dashboard grew hot from the light. You looked out the window and saw her standing on the sidewalk with her hands on her hips, staring upward. You got out, too, and found that she was looking at a mulberry tree. Purple berries, almost black, covered the branches with such determination that you thought it couldn’t have been accidental. More were smashed and dried on the sidewalk beneath your feet, and you looked at them while you leaned your head against your mother’s shoulder, the cotton of her t-shirt soft on your skin.

“Everything is going to be ok,” you told her.

“I know,” she said, and you held each other while the birds came and went, feasting on fruit from the Mulberry Tree.

On Being Medicated


Previously published on Thought Catalog

You function “like a normal person.” You take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and make it out the door in less than an hour. It used to take you the whole morning. And two to three cups of tea. And a handful of songs that glistened on your ears. If you made it out at all. You used to lose time looking out the window because everything was beautiful, and everything in every season had a hazy glow attached to it. In the summer you’d go out to see what the plants looked like after the heavy sky left drops of rain on the leaves. In the winter the fresh snow would cover everything and fill your mind with soft corners.

But now, none of that. There are only dirty sidewalks and messy gardens and more fucking snow. The world is a place you are forced walk across to get to work/school/home. At work you answer emails and make phone calls and order supplies and tie up loose ends and find solutions to problems. Under fluorescent lights you go to meetings and cross things off your to-do list. Your hair is combed, your tights don’t have runs in them, and your boss praises you. You smile because you have forgotten that this is not you.

No, the You you’ve known all your life would not feel good about completing a purchase order or remembering which folder a document is in. The You before the medication had dreams about doing more than this. It was always Which city am I going to next? And now it’s When is the microwave in the breakroom free? During the day this doesn’t seem like a big deal because you are focused and productive. You see clear goals and paths carved out to get you there. You are medicated, and everything is linear.

But when have you ever been a fan of straight lines? At night you remember how you used to love the twisted ones best. How much time did you spend just wandering, even if it meant not getting where you were supposed to go? You would always find something better, or at the very least you’d see/touch/taste/feel something amazing on the way there. The world was not something you were forced to be in; you wanted to be in it, badly, and wanted it in you. You wanted to put your hands on it and breathe it in. What was that like, again?

It’s too hard to remember because every morning you wake up and swallow a blue capsule that pushes all that out of sight. It gives you tunnel vision, and during the half hour it takes to kick in you can feel the narrowing like waves crashing over you. Soon this part will be over, though. Soon you won’t be reaching out to grab the hand of the person you used to be while the tide pulls her under. You’ll forget her and you’ll forget the way the sun hit the streets just right this morning and how the breeze brushed past you whispering “Follow” as it disappeared around the corner. You’ll be fine, and you won’t dream.

It’s ok because this is what the doctor says is “fine.” This is what your parents and teachers and bosses say is “fine.” But you know this is not fine because fine is having space for your thoughts to breathe. It is thanking the stars or the lord or the Smiths that you are not like the others. It is what you were before you were medicated. It can be yours again, and you know it, and each day it’s harder and harder to hold your breath and go underwater. One day you won’t do it. You’ll just stop, and you’ll live again. You’ll stop, and you’ll see and feel and be in love with the world again. Any minute now.

This Is Fiction I Swear: Part 2

Part 2: People on Rooftops.


We move so quickly sometimes, it feels like we never stop. Those of us who don’t have “real jobs.” Those of us who don’t sit at computers or have business cards. We still wear sneakers to work and keep our headphones loud on the train. We still add water to our soap bottles so we can make them last and then make rent and then make it through another month. And somehow we make it. I’m off at Clark and LaSalle—that’s where I said I’d be. Rushing down the dirty stairs ahead of a guy in a suit who’s holding two briefcases because I have to move what I’ve got before my shift. I see my friend and we shake on it and chat a little and it’s done. I’ve got an extra fifty and she’s got a little upper. I’m not hard, though, just a girl with a script for more amphetamine salts than I can use. My watch says I’ve got four minutes before I have be clocked in and my feet say I’ve got six blocks of pavement to cover so I’m back on it.

Just in time (according to my watch) I make it to my restaurant. It’s not mine, but I work there and I love it because everything moves quickly and I don’t have to think, just react, which I’m good at doing. I’m on my feet rushing from the kitchen to the floor to the kitchen to the floor and back with my ears full of clanging pots, sizzling oil, clinking glasses, and people’s voices. My co-worker and I are hamming on the line and we’ve still got our spirits up. Three more hours. Every day is a race here. Every lap hard, but every finish satisfying. Pardon the expression. But there’s nothing like closing at the end of the night when everything’s put away and the lights are off and the stillness takes over.

But right now it’s a hornet nest. My manager looks like she stuck her finger in an electrical socket, the cooks are throwing things to each other, there’s a line out the door, and it must be a hundred degrees inside. But we keep smiling. And chatting. And looking like we’ve got it together. At least we think we do. I don’t know what the diners think, but as long as it translates into a few extra dollars in our pockets at the end of the night we don’t care. It’s all about that hustle and getting the last people out the door at 10 PM.

But one guy is just sitting there and won’t leave. He came in with another guy, but the other guy left and this dude won’t leave. He’s kind of pretty so I don’t mind too too much, but my coworker is mad and wants to go home because he has a girlfriend or a dog or a television show or something. Could be all three. He tells me to go over and tell the guy it’s last call or whatever because he might still tip if you do it.
Fine, and a heavy sigh. He wasn’t my table, and I shouldn’t be the one to do this, but my coworker is right. I am good at it. I’m saying something like Hi there, our kitchen is closing in five minutes so if you’d like to order anything else… and he’s just grinning, sort of. It’s a lopsided grin and it looks nice on him.

11:30 we’re on the fire escape one building over, the one across the street that’s more like an alley than a street. We climbed up on the dumpster and scaled the staircase till we were as high as we could get. Now we’re sitting there looking at the rooftops and the smoke stacks and the empty downtown streets. The city is so vacant this time of night. No businessmen. No tourists. Just cabs and wanderers. He says ‘wanderer’ isn’t a word, and I’m not even sure why I said it. I’m not even sure if I said it. At this point he’s got to be reading my thoughts which is horrible and awful because I never know what might happen. I’m trying not to look at him. He’s got gray shoes on, and I like them. They’re not too hip, and I like them.

‘Wanderer’ is a word, though, but I let it go because I like the way he says things. They sound like certainty. They sound like light. Light. The light from the high rises or the cars or something hits the angles on his face, and he looks like that guy in that band who spells his name with more letters than necessary. He’s not looking at me now, just out there across the alley. And me too, I’m looking across the alley. There’s nothing to see, but I think we’re seeing the same things.

I’m getting that feeling where I can’t stay in one place so now I’m fidgeting and standing and saying we should go higher. There’s always higher. We’re climbing on a ledge not meant for climbing and stopping on a balcony not meant for stopping. Someone’s window is open so I reach in and pick a flower from a solitary houseplant. It’s sort of orange, like it wanted to be orange but could only be yellow, and I give it to this boy and he puts it behind his ear and we’re up over the ledge where we can finally feel the wind brush our cheeks and mess our hair.

We’re on the roof, and there’s music coming from somewhere, the kind of music that soaks into your skin and coats your nerves and makes them shiver and sweat all at once. It’s all over me now, clinging to my arms and face and lips and getting caught in my hair. I forget about him. I forget about them. It’s just me and my city right now. If real is a feeling, this is it.


Coming home now, through the tunnel, and I remember my phone. My sister texted me. She texted me before I even left work, which was hours ago, and I forgot to respond. I can’t believe I forgot to respond. She’s so far away now and so busy all the time, and I think of her sometimes when I’m feeling good. She’s younger than I am, but stronger and better at being in the world I think. She exists in my head like a top that spins and spins and won’t stop with neon colors like orange and pink and green with little flecks of silver when the light catches it the right way. And I forgot to text her back.

But then I see it: hundreds of yards of unwound video tape spread through the underground. Shiny black strips coiling and uncoiling amid the cobwebs and graffiti-soaked walls. Thousands upon thousands of images that will never be seen. Thousands upon thousands of stories that no one will ever know. And it’s beautiful. It’s probably a dumb art-school kid’s abandoned film project, but it’s beautiful.