Wild Wom(e)n

Mothers
   My mom is a wild woman with hair that struggles to be contained. It curls and twists, growing out rather than down. I watched as over the years grey began to interweave with the deep brown, standing out against the backdrop of the dyed hair of other women. I remember thinking that the streaks were earned— they meant she knew something they didn’t. My earliest memories are of her hair long and pushed back as we hiked through the woods surrounding our home. She traversed the hills without hesitation, her feet knowing the right places in order to climb the rocks that towered ahead, seemingly impassable to me. 
   She tells me that she followed highways in her beat up Volvo station wagon to get to Colorado. She speaks now of the coast with a longing that’s tangible, having traded the ocean for endless fields and prairies. She never tells me why she came West or why she stayed, but the person she is to me now seems a far cry from the girl she was, sailing the inlets of Rhode Island. 
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The day we bought a piano for the house was the day I saw a light in my mom’s eyes that was different and distinct. The piano was heavy and cumbersome, classically grand and almost too immense to be worth it. My dad and several of their friends worked all afternoon to figure out a way to heave it through the front door. It seemed not able to fit through the frame, but nonetheless appeared in the living room after some time. She sighed when it was slid into place against the wall. She filled the bench compartment with loose sheet music. Her fingers danced over the keys, knowing where to land to create a sound worth hearing. The notes echoed out the open front screen door for hours each day, carrying across the fields between us and our neighbors. I’d roll my eyes in exasperation when she began playing the opening notes of a John Denver song that would each time without fail bring her to tears. I’d dream that the birds outside were listening.
If I had a day that I could give you
I'd give to you the day just like today
If I had a wish that I could wish for you
I'd make a wish for sunshine for all the while
I sat so many times at that same bench, praying for my fingers to create the same melodies, to piece together tones into any resemblance of what she created. Years later, I’d walk down the back hall of a music store to get to a stale, windowless room. I would sit in front of an electric keyboard at my first piano lesson, the notes sounding wrong and out of tune in comparison to the cathedral air that rose from her post at the piano in the afternoon sunlight.
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At age seven, I had a regular routine of sitting in my mom’s bathroom, watching as she pulled out the end of a syringe, sticking it into her leg and pushing it back in. The unsteady feeling of pins and needles spread from my toes to my fingertips then, as it does now when I see something about to puncture a layer of skin. I was too young to know much then, and didn't question the bruises that spread across her thighs like constellations for weeks or the curls that began to fall in clumps from her hair. My parents’ bathroom growing up was a sanctuary, the tub separate from the shower feeling like a luxury I’d never know. My dad mortared the sides of the walls, carefully sticking found stones into it, creating a collage that I ran my fingers along like the contours of a map. Spaces always feel immense when you’re a child, but as I watched my mom become vulnerable before me, the walls seemed to close in. This period of my life is marked by an uncertainty that I couldn’t recognize. I didn’t quite understand until much later that my mom was undergoing aggressive chemotherapy, or that the syringes contained drugs from an experimental clinical trial. Chemicals coursed through her body, demolishing any sense of immune system, in hopes of halting the disease that was scarring her brain and spine. It’s in my mother’s nature to hide the struggle she endures, and I didn’t really learn of her long struggle with Multiple Sclerosis until I was well into my adolescence. Neither progressive or relapsing diseases stop for anyone. With a mind of their own, they take paths and turns that are rarely expected and never predictable. Years of remission could be replaced by just a handful of days that negate any progress, that turn your vision blurry and build a haze amongst your thoughts. The year I entered high school, we moved from our mountain home to a house in the city. For years prior, my mom had been driving an hour and a half each way to take my brother and I to school in Fort Collins. Most mornings, we began driving on the two-lane highway before the sun had risen. She confided to me years later that the main reason for our move was that her vision was deteriorating too much to spend so long with her fingers wrapped around the steering wheel. Sclerosis means scarring. Multiple means many. The exponential multiplication of shortages in your nerves. Amongst deep physical and mental turmoil, I rarely see the strength within my mom waver. She holds the world that she has built for me in one hand, not allowing the weight of it to show.
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My hair strives to be the mess that comes from my mother. As it grows past my shoulders, it snakes into coils reminiscent of her warm smile. Her perfect, dark spirals adorn my brother’s head, while half of my hair has decided to follow after my father, stick straight and unbothered. It’s comical, really, the way it divides from top to bottom, the layers beneath straining to create disarray in contrast to the subdued strands. An old photo of my father hangs on the wall of my parents’ home, showing a long ponytail sticking out of a wide brim hat as he sits on a horse in a pasture of wildflowers. His hair is sandy and light as it trails down his back. My mom sits next to him, a wild mess of smiles and curls and the sleeves cut off a t-shirt. When I visit the ocean, my hair explodes into ringlets that only arise when drenched in saltwater. High in the mountains of my Colorado home it lengthens into waves.
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My mom recites the phrase “Everything happens for a reason” as if it were a prayer. Her religion is faith in people and in the world, and I know the world has faith in her. Sisters If you ask me to think of someone I love, I’ll think of Marie and the smell of lavender and sleepovers on my bedroom floor. It seems as if years were spent sharing a twin bed and trading clothes back and forth and my memories of high school look like her. Marie is a too-loud girl born to a too-quiet family in rural New Mexico. She’s warm like the desert she hails from. We met in the summer before we entered high school and I was secretly grateful to have someone to reliably eat lunch with. Her older sister had known my brother, and for months he had told me of the girl I was bound to be friends with. We spent that summer in a tentative air, riding bikes and swimming in the river, before quickly falling into a rhythm within one another. My quiet energy has always relied on someone louder and more bold than me to carry social situations. As Marie and I became fast friends, I realized her soft brown eyes resembled those of the girl I spent my childhood alongside. Marie’s hands are small and her skin is soft. My walls are adorned with homemade gifts from her, wrapped carefully for each birthday and christmas. Marie is like candles and the warmth from a sunburn on your cheeks.
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“It’s not too dark, is it?” I asked, painting a black liquid onto a strand of my hair. It dripped, staining the white countertop below. “No. Definitely not,” she replied, lying. The dye splotched my already fried hair in inconsistent streaks. We stood in the bathroom of my parents’ house, chemical fumes filling the space, only let out by a small crack in the window. I let the dye soak for too long before leaning over the bathtub. Marie’s fingers ran through my hair as she sprayed too hot water, burning my scalp. It stained her fingers for days. I hurriedly dried and straightened my hair, subjecting it to as much damage as I could possibly fit into such a short period of time. We painted black around our eyes. The weekends were reliable. These Friday afternoons were devoted to procuring what we at fifteen, nearly children, couldn’t buy for ourselves. Several townies were notorious for stooping to the level of buying cheap alcohol for highschoolers so their numbers were saved in our phones. We’d wait outside the doors of the liquor store quite obviously, dodging the glances from the greasy haired men at the registers inside. We’d anxiously smoke the cigarettes I had religiously stockpiled, stolen from older siblings or graciously taken from friends cooler and taller than ourselves. A girl who had graduated from our highschool the year prior, one who had taken us as freshman under her wing, had yet to move far. She was leasing an apartment in the downtown of Fort Collins with several other people we knew, which created a haven for a rotation of teenagers through her door. The apartment quickly devolved, grime layering the kitchen and stains carpeting the floor. We’d flock to the house, drink too much, smoke too much, and coax a ride from a friend returning home that night. We’d sneak back into my parents house, wash our faces, and peel our ripped tights off, a stark reminder that we weren’t the adults we’d molded ourselves to be hours before. One night, our friend Jenna’s rusted old Subaru dropped us off at the curb in front of our house. The speakers rattled loudly, threatening to wake up the neighbors. I could hear the bass shaking the doors as she retreated down the street. We stood aimlessly on the street. I sat, feeling the pavement beneath my fingers. “I’m gonna vomit,” I hear Marie mumble, stationed in the bushes, her words barely echoing out of the branches. I stood up lazily, moving to hold her hair loosely in my hand. She groaned and rose, grasping my arms as we walked through the back gate, entering quietly through the kitchen door. I whispered an excuse to my mom as we stumbled past her in the hallway, holding each other up. “Marie has really bad allergies, she’s going to take a shower,” I told her. Like most nights during that time, my mom knowingly nodded her head and asked if we were alright. She would enter my room the next morning, gently sitting on my bed and smoothing my hair. My mom created a house of safety and warmth, and as teenagers we took advantage of that. I never questioned the regularity with which Marie resided at my house, but I now know it was a welcomed respite from the sharp-cornered house she came from. I remember those years as obscured through a haze, yet the feeling of holding Marie’s hand to steady myself remains.
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Last year, I boarded a plane on a Thursday afternoon headed for Seattle. I skipped out of my last class early, convincing a friend to use my car to drop me off at the airport. With just a change of clothes stuffed in my backpack and a ticket I bought for 70 dollars in my hand, I ran through the airport to make my flight. We were to spend the weekend with no one but each other, touring the home that she had built for herself in Bellingham. A ticket that cheap means long layovers, inconvenient timing, and a midnight arrival in Seattle. Still, when I stepped out of the airport, I found Marie’s car parked in the lane outside waiting for me. Perched in the driver’s seat was a figure clad in ripped workwear, long hair hanging past his shoulders. I laughed as I opened the backdoor, knowing he was the latest in the rotation of men who hang on to her every word, not recognizing her truth is in what she wasn’t saying. We spoke muffled hellos, dampened by the day and the rain pouring outside. I squeezed myself into the car, surrounded by climbing gear and coats thrown lazily into the backseat. We pulled out onto the highway, settling into the drive north. The man, whose name isn’t worth trying to remember, cleared his throat, not realizing it was much too loud for the small space we were in. “So, you’re— uh— friends from high school, right?” he asked. Marie laughed, and threw her head back, swinging her eyes to meet mine. Earth tones effervescent. “Right,” she responded. Marie doesn’t feel the warmth that she exudes, choosing rather to seek it from other people. But she also takes on their hurt, all that accumulates and spills over into their cupped palms, painting it on her skin and their nails leaving half-moon reminders of their smiles. I believe that we learn so much from each person we meet, and more than anything Marie taught me how to love boundlessly.
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It rained the entirety of my time in Bellingham, but we didn’t care. We walked along the paths of the harbor, shrouded in fog, hiked across the train tracks to get to the best tidepools in town, and ran down the alley behind her house with our arms outstretched like airplane wings. The night before I left, we lay in her bed, buried beneath layers of down comforters and blankets. Raindrops streaked the window and voices wafted under the door from the kitchen. “I don’t want to go home.” I spoke it into the November air, not expecting a response. We spoke of the home we would build when we lived in the same place, no longer separated by miles and jobs and classes. Notes floated through the air from speakers next to the mattress, spelling the sounds of a song that was familiar to the both of us, the lyrics stinging my skin.
I once saw a sunset so vivid and warm that I swore it was perfect, Last night in the car, the falling raindrops looked like stars of some incalculable speed, Then later, my friends said “Good to see you again, this is a home to me.”
The next night, I slept on the floor of the Seattle airport as I made my way home. The warmth within her attic room so differed from the cold Colorado air; I was sick for weeks.
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There’s a note in my phone, written at 2am on June 24th, 2016. There was a park near my parent’s house that we would frequent, laying in the grass until the last possible moment we could return home. I’m surprised now we never got caught by the cops that patrol city parks, our hands grasping open handles as we stared up at the stars so stifled by the city lights around us. That night, we were talking about our plans for after high school graduation. Our senior year of high school was steadily marching closer, so impending and monumental then. We swore no one had ever felt this way before. Not everyone meets the people they’ll spend their life with so young, right? Marie grabbed my phone, tapping out a message that’s become our call and response, now a desperate grasp at once was. Marie and I talk now more out of obligation than anything else. Obligation to who we once were, and maybe obligation to who we might be. But if who I am is built in the image of my mother, then Marie helped me put the pieces together. Who I am right now, is yours forever. Lovers I once met a girl with the name of a grandmother who walked with lead in her footprints. Her home was deep in the Sawtooth mountains of the Idaho high country and her secondhand jeans were sewed with elastic in order to fit her waist. The day I met Franny she drove into the parking lot with the melody of Earth spilling from her speakers, spelled in the notes of Dylan and Young and those my father taught me to love. Her tires kicked up dust that tinted my vision like rose colored glasses and it feels like I wore them that entire summer. I couldn’t tell if I wanted her amber hue of hair for myself or if I wanted to comb my fingers through the strands, tucking it behind her ears, but either way I know that June I fell in love with the way she elongated her vowels, nearly singing my name.
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A sound of tarp crinkling awoke me from a dead sleep. It had taken me nearly an hour to fall asleep; there was a rock poking through the tent directly under my back. My nose was cold, one of the only parts of me sticking out into the crisp air from my sleeping bag. The tarp crinkled again, this time making a distinct thumping noise. I shifted, turning to face the other side of the tent, “Franny?” I whispered. I waited a moment. “Franny?” I repeated, this time a little more forceful. She groaned, slowly turning to slant her eyes at me through the dark. Before she could utter an annoyed sigh, thumps that sounded remarkably like running echoed. A sharp intake of breath resounded from the down hood that encased her head. The pattering continued as I watched a small figure climb up her sleeping bag. A mouse was running across her. She shot up yelling, surely waking up the others in the tents around us. It scurried out under the gap between tent and tarp. Franny quickly pulled on the elastic band of the sleeping bag, tightening the fabric in a tight circle around her face. “I don’t FUCK with mice,” she hollered. My stomach ached the next day from laughing. Neither of us could sleep much with the threat of small rodents crawling on us, so we lay awake talking. Each night, we turned to each other to drip out the words we had saved for each other throughout the day. Lying inches apart, turned to miles. Tarp, then dirt, then roads and roads between.
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I spent that summer traveling deep into Idaho in a 15-passenger van, our belongings precariously stacked in a trailer we towed behind. I lived and worked with the same ten people, our days spent building and repairing trails throughout the state. Conservation corps have become such a home for me I feel most comfortable paying for laundry with quarters and taking one shower a week at a city rec center. I moved to Idaho the week after my first year of college, anxious to escape the brick dormitory buildings that had been holding me in for so long. That spring, during the first wave of warmth, I had jokingly told my mom that the person I saw myself spend my life alongside wasn’t a man. A late May snowstorm blanketed the first flowers that had already bloomed, and I left soon after. For the duration of that season, Franny and I shared a canvas home that we could roll up at a moment’s notice. It was a step by step process we’d memorized, wordlessly gathering the fabric in our hands. The first week of work, we became a team, so efficiently finishing tasks as we learned what it meant to know each other. We created a language for just ourselves, realizing the common syllables of our childhoods and homes and playlists.
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After the season was over, Franny dropped me off at the tiny Boise airport. I walked away from her dusty truck with all my belongings on my back, swearing I was going to come back. Only a few weeks later, I drove twelve hours by myself to return to her. I drove up to her house, hesitant of how it would be without the mediation of work and a shared life. For the next week, we romped through the city and the Sawtooth mountains. She took me to her childhood home and we saw my favorite band play at a music hall in Boise. We camped above the mountain town of Stanley on a pullout overlooking the whole valley. The sunset each night lit the sky up with dust and the haze of summer forest fires. We didn’t have many words beyond recollections of what we shared during the previous months. She didn’t ask about my home or where I was driving to afterwards. We stood on top of the roof of her truck, dancing to the twang of a guitar and drinking canned cocktails. The last night I was there, I drove her to a house party full of all her friends from high school and college. When we arrived, she was quickly absorbed by people, not looking behind to see where I was. I sat outside in the summer air, exchanging polite sentiments with people I didn’t know as she had her heart broken inside by a man who didn’t love her. I drove her home, glancing over at her in the passenger seat of her own truck sobbing. I saw her brush her hair out of her eyes, obscured in the red glow of the traffic lights. I learned that night that she so fully gave herself to the moment, not thinking to give a glance to the world around her. Franny was so deeply entrenched in creating sepia toned Kodak moments and I had so quickly been wrapped up in the sage scented wake she left behind her. I left the next morning, packing my belongings in the trunk of my car before she could wake up. I drove to the Grand Tetons to meet my friends, knowing I’d likely not see Franny again. I was okay with it. I know now that I had projected onto her a self to become and a woman to love. I wanted so badly to find a home for a part of myself I was having trouble finding a place for. I imagined the Sawtooth mountains were carved in the image of her, but I realize I can mold them to be anyone whose consonants were as soft as hers.
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My mom once told me that she moved every three months for years. A rotation of places to call home, never in one place long enough to buy a bed. She said she slept on the floor with camping mattresses and sleeping bags. I imagine her with books piled up around her, leafed through, marked, and folded. It’s been a while since I’ve had a steady room to call my own, and when I look in the mirror, I see resemblances of her. My floor is littered with packing lists and I scribble poems on the back of them, testaments to the women I come from and the women I love. Steadiness, amidst tumult.
Sun kissed cowgirls, Skin freckled by the cosmos. Kicking up dirt behind you with a vengeance.

By Anna Wright