Did you know that I was born in November? Our birthdays are one month and three days apart. You’re a Libra. The Scales. Balance. Me, I’m a scorpion. Poison. Did you know that if a scorpion uses its pincers to attack a predator, it will pinch off its own tail along with its anus? After the fact, it will live about eight months, swelling with excrement and no way to release it. Yup, I’m a scorpion all right. Just as a scorpion has to eat her young to survive, I had to leave mine behind. In order to keep you near me. Twisting and squirming in agony now, I beg of you—you need to read this letter so you know why I left you. This letter is for your sake, not mine. Mine’s been shriveled.

Perhaps you remember something about my disappearance from your life, opaque silhouettes of memory dusted over with musings and stories you’ve been told. That’s no way to know The Truth—through stories laced between fact and fiction. I want to fill in the empty spaces about who I am. Again, for you, so that the caulk of honesty seals the leaks in your mind. I don’t want the rot of abandonment to spread its spores into any happy crevices of your psyche. In order for you to understand why I lied and why I left, you will need to understand everything surrounding that moment, all of my treks across desert sands without water, merely surviving among predators, in environments where everyone was a snake to me.

I’m not sure how to explain this to you. I guess you could think of me as a defensive scorpion that amber night in November, exposing myself to him in a manner he wasn’t expecting. Falling leaves rustling outside, my inner softness saying calm your soul, calm your soul. There were warm Santa Ana autumn breezes outside. I heard fierce winds instead. I don’t understand breezes. People like me don’t get nuance. It’s either a tornado or dead air nothingness to us. But you see, my pincers, they’d adapted to my lifetime of environments of predators and their poison was bigger than that gentle voice trying to calm me. I swelled up inside; emotional excrement compressed and then expanded. In your teenage jargon, I blew my shit up.


Why did I cut off your father’s finger? I’ve asked myself that same question many times for many years—that stupid reaction that changed my life when my survival skills stopped working for me. You might not believe how benign it was, what he said. Abstract, like a pop cultural reference that floated around harmlessly but warped me nonetheless. I’m sure you’ve been told things, lies about me that have rotted my absence to your curiosities, a moldy apple lying on your forest bed of queries.

Your father never really knew the truth about me because I never told it to him. He didn’t know that I was born Betsy Louise Cornish. He knew me as Heather Lyon. Heather, after the plant known for good luck and protection (both things I craved), and Lyon, a place in France I once saw on a map. I wasn’t sophisticated enough yet to know that it wasn’t pronounced lion. So I roared away with my lies.

Back to that night. What triggered me? It was one rhetorical question he had asked me. Well, not The Question itself. Everyone asked that same Question a lot; it was part of the vernacular of my generation. My plaid wearing post-Nirvana slut warriors, smothering horniness with feigned anger inside of our trendy plaid shirts, nipples-rubbing-up-against-the-worn-softness-of-thrift-store-flannel button-down-shirts generation. It was the condescending delivery of The Question. As if he knew more about life and pain and the world than I did or ever would, with my stick straight white blonde hair, creamy skin the color of rice milk, and unusually dark brown eyes for my skin color. Like some DNA creature went haywire secreting squid juice, turning my should-have-been-blue eyes into black. Or a latent African slave ancestor from my tangled Southern roots tapped my DNA code to remind me: you don’t really belong with them, those polished rich people, and you never will.

Ok, so what was The Question. The six words he hissed at me that destroyed everything for me: “You don’t get it, do you?” The question sounded like oil dripping from his mouth. He licked the corner of his lips, scowling and I thought, oh yeah, I’ve gotten it. A lot more of it than I ever wanted to get. And then I really, really lost it. All of it. I unleashed my life onto him, slinging my poison everywhere. Killing myself instead. That instinctual reaction of mine is why I am here sitting in this prison cell of a bedroom wondering who took my daughter to get her ears pierced, who taught her about tampons and toxic shock, who taught her how to skateboard, who is warning her about hormonal teenage boys and condoms.

That night, your father was grieving the only way he knows how, to rage. His older brother, Arturo, had just been murdered. Quite brutally, as these things in cartels tend to go. I wanted him to tell me, to share with me, to include me. Family. I wanted Family. I was getting greedy. A survivalists’ worst mistake. But you made me soft. I wanted it for you. A real Family, a pair of parents in it together, just for you. Gooey marshmallow Love.

But then he started yelling, treating me like a dumb blonde plaything who had no brains. Like he always did. Hearing his cactus thorn of a tremoring yell—that’s when I lost my shit. He, with the weekly buffed nails had no idea who I was, where I came from, what I endured to get there. How badly I wanted you to have something profoundly elevated from my sooty childhood. And he was ruining it with his misogynistic violence.

He came at me, shouting, alchemizing his tragic grief about Arturo into a wild rage, and reached out to grab my face. His jaw tightened and gnashed, his right nostril snarled and curled. He was no longer handsome in that second. He was a million faces I had endured, blurred into one image, bleeding around the edges, splotches of cinnamon and rust colored memories. See, that’s the thing about abuse and PTSD: we just don’t know when it will arrive and in what form. Mine was a bleary hallucination of spices and aged metal.

He cornered me in the kitchen and I could feel his throbbing hand squeezing the bones in my delicate jaw as he pushed me against the wall. Even though he didn’t touch me. Not yet. I had jumped forward, slipping through time to what could have happened. Hallucination or prophecy, you decide.

I reached over to the wooden block of knives on the counter. I held the knife out in protection of my body, and still he reached out for me with the stupidity of violence pulsing through his veins, mobilizing his rage. I wonder if his anger also blurred his vision and he didn’t see the knife. Or if he suspected I would drop it. I’ll never know. All I know is that when I saw his finger dancing on the floor like a lizard’s tail, and then heard you crying from your room, I ran. I ran out the door before he could grab me again. I remember screaming to him, put your finger on ice. Then I ran as far as I could.

Did you know? A chopped finger on ice preserves it so that the surgeon can reattach it. Why did I think to tell him that? Strange, isn’t it? Perhaps, I felt guilty because he was/is my daughter’s father. That must be the first thought in the thought process of a victim to their abuser, finding their value to remove their flaws.

When he asked me that silly question of “You don’t get it, do you?”, I secreted venom. Because I get it. Its are everywhere. The whole world is an it. The secret mystery is which part of it we focus on and tap into. I’ve tasted a lot of its. The soaring it of the plunging escape of a needle, the sticky it of the hand of the stepfather-pedophile, the scraping it of criticism and the comforting it of shame, the meditative it of watching a dark-haired baby girl with carnation lips nuzzle her head into the embracing petals of my breast, the supportive it of being embraced into a family, and the crushing it of losing a child.

Yes, that’s right. I said the comfort of shame. I was born into shame, birthed by my unwed mother who was kicked out of the house by her steel-eyedBaptistuptightparents. Shame was the molecule of my being. I didn’t know feelings of glory or pride or confidence. Not yet. Not until you.

I also didn’t know much about my father, except that he gave me some African droplets from his father’s side, but I was told to never talk about that by my mother’s mother when I asked about him. My father was a faceless man named Jerome. My grandmother would smile her thin redhookerhue lips, bleeding into the dry cracks around thin wrinkles, forming a spackle of spittle and lipstick, like clotted period blood that made me queasy to look at. I spent most of those years staring at my feet when she drawled at me, out of fear, shame and disgust at her smeared lips. “No dear, we don’t talk about that. I guess you could say your father was Black Irish. That would be acceptable lineage.” And that was how shame was initially instilled as my heritage.

Shame was a sensation that breastfed me, spoonfed me, and then left me with grandparents to raise me in more religious shame, baptizing me into always craving acceptance. Then, at ten years old, my mother returned with a man who would rescue us from her parents’ house. A Messiah-like stepfather and his chariot, a shiny new Cadillac to deliver me to my new life. We drove through cacti and fire-hot flatlands of Texas. A never-ending heated plain. To an arid and stiff Nevada. Where the stepfather ran a whorehouse. He treated us like parasites sucking his resources. So he made me suck his.

I knew my mother knew. She would wince and pour herself a shot of whiskey every time he called me his “Montgomery angel,” humming the Prine melody. She knew and pretended not to because she had nowhere to go. But sadly, that abuse story is like a rubber stamp on screwing-up-childhood assembly lines manufactured by pinched up sweaty men’s faces, supported by their complicit female momager-accomplices. That’s not the it I want to tap into. That’s not my main story; it’s a comma in the epic of your mother. That small story of mine, although painful and fucked up, gives him an undeserved stature. He doesn’t get that. I erase that story because then it isn’t a story. That’s the Betsy Louise Cornish story. Not the Heather Lyon story, so it’s not mine anymore.

The problem was that my real story wasn’t told. It was stored. Stored tightly into coils slithering around in my nervous system, plugging up tear ducts, tightening muscles, scar tissue pocketed in sinewy legs. Stored up into a bundle of constant states of needing to survive. And that’s what I did. At 14, I sprung. At 25, I combusted.

See, my abuse and lashing out and damaged girl behavior wasn’t because I was put there by shame. It was because there wasn’t anything else taught to me. Yet I knew that I desired a piece of a better kind of it. Whatever it was. I had to find out. So I studied the itness of people I wanted to be like. I watched the perky moms and their babies, the perfectly coiffed grandmothers, the men in silk suits and ties—how they all spoke, behaved, dressed, and their veiled gracious manners of speech. I noticed they always seemed to be positive in their speech, quelling their anger, never spreading negativity. Not like the rest of us did—anger and darkness and negativity interrupting potential happiness. I learned the secret then, the it of the fancy people—that their antennas were tuned into waves of success and positivity. So that’s how I versed myself in elegance and behavior and fine tuned my presence.

I, the survivalist, also figured out that fancy people train their eyes to recognize your status in the details—like if your shoes are imported, snake or eel or pig leather, and handmade by some peasant. They want to be assured that your brain has been filled with elite knowledge of agreed upon canons of literature to further prove your elitist status. Basically, that you went to some fancy school, have more money than a small country, and what bloodline you pump through your pussy. I learned. I mimicked. Fine, so I lied. Potato, potahtoe.

I used my street smarts, my library card, and my beauty. I admit it – I am beautiful. Geez, like it’s a guilty crime that I have to admit to! Screw that. You are too, you know, even if your father won’t tell you because he’s afraid of his baby girl growing up. Beauty: it shouldn’t be your only it. But still, own it and never apologize for shining out around others and their bland boring selves. Shine. Shine. Shine, o daughter of mine. As a child, I was sometimes referred to as a brown-eyed Christie Brinkley, but had no idea who she was, and thought it was my grandparents’ church friends criticizing me by comparing me to some ugly sinful woman they knew. Beauty was the devil to my grandparents and beauty was a whore to my stepfather. Eventually, I figured out how beautiful I was. But I still didn’t use it. Not the way some people do. Until I met your father. My beauty was an it that I tapped into then. I used it. He wanted it. I exchanged it. For something I wanted. A family. A life that didn’t smell like whores and beer and shame.


For all installments of “The Story of It,” click here.