It was time to go.
I walked outside to wait for you.
You were picking me up for a picnic
and I was delighted I’d be with you.
You didn’t talk about
your AIDS diagnosis —
mysterious letters I didn’t comprehend.
What was that, anyway?
Instead you were just you,
which was everything — the perfect man.
Your laughter, your wit, your exuberance
kept me smiling and, as always, adoring you.
It was time to go.
You picked up your picnic blanket.
You carefully folded it
and handed it to me.
“Here. Take it.
I won’t be needing it anymore.”
That’s how you told me.
It was time to go.
(In loving memory of Richard-Michel Paris)
Vivian Imperiale uses poetry to process her emotions and to pay ongoing tribute to the Love of her Life who died in 1985 in the AIDS Epidemic.
Constance Louie-Handelman completed her A.A. degree at CCSF in 1973. Now retired as a clinical psychologist, she has returned to CCSF 2019 spring semester with a focus on digital photography.
In hot suburban Florida
in an old, sandy bungalow
my father used to
measure my height on the doorframe
If we left the honey out
roaches would come
a bee drove his stinger into my arm—
that kind of summer visit
my baby brother—
learning to talk
my father tuning in
to area news
amid rows of Miller cans in the TV room
dad sold home alarms back then
drove us around
with a gun in the glovebox
I used to look for love in the gifts I gave him—
paisley ties and cologne
I wrote confrontations from 31,000 feet above
only to ball them up at sea level
enter the string of wrong
me, a war girlfriend
waiting by the phone
I am older now, a mother
I can see inside the dollhouse:
The marble queen pothos—that glossy, leathery, heart-shaped vine that grew up in my mother’s home—cascades down my banister. Devil’s ivy, they call it, because it is un-killable.
Dad falls off a low ladder
Son learns how to surf
Son builds castles from old boxes
Sails boats of old and worn shoes
A native of New Orleans, Megan Brown feels most at home near water. Her writing has been published in the Social Science Quarterly, East Bay Times, and 580 Split. In 2008, her short memoir about her campaign work in Nevada earned an Honorable Mention in the America’s Funniest Humor Writing Contest.
Sarah A. Smith
Sarah A. Smith works with ink on paper to create scenes that feature animals and nature. Often, her inspiration comes from antiques and objects in museums like this one, “Tiger and Hen,” drawn from a design on a 17th century huqqa base which is in the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
Seventeen glasses, full to the brim –
coffee, orange juice, milk, some water to drink.
They took so long to finish their breakfast,
Not that they wanted them to last.
Seventeen kisses, or sighs from Dad and Mom;
Don’t be late, come home by five o’clock.
Let’s plan tonight for our weekend getaway,
or maybe let’s watch some movie, so we better stay.
Seventeen rides going to school –
Busy cars, buses, or walking on foot.
Smiles were greeted, bags lain on desks,
Phones were barred, though they still check their texts.
Seventeen steps, walking in his boots
to reach Building 12, the mad boy took.
Shooting his AR-15 everywhere he aimed his fire –
Imploding from inside he took his ire.
Seventeen calls, or more the students made;
Smoke everywhere, what’s happening, for heavens’ sake!
Tears, cries, and bloodshed sprawled on the floor.
Who even let this guy enter the door?
Seventeen dreams, cut without warning.
On this day the sun at the park stopped shining.
Fernando Rosal Gonzalez
Fernando Rosal Gonzalez has published novellas, children’s storybooks and written TV scripts both for mainstream and independent producers in Manila. He created the children’s TV show, “Oyayi,” which was jointly produced by CBN-Asia, the NCCT (National Council for Children’s Television), and ABS-CBN. He is currently taking up filmmaking and creative writing courses at CCSF.
My photographic journey started six years ago when I took my first photography class at CCSF. This course ignited my passion for making pictures and creating something with my camera. It has become a way of expressing myself.
Spirals enthrall her.
She draws them in notebooks,
coil upon coil, twisting glyphs
about the page.
She sports a tattoo choker.
In this she finds comfort and beauty.
A loving vine about her neck turns her morning glory blue.
She re-enacts vestigial memories of a liquid time:
An umbilical cord slowly constricts;
her heart languishes
with each thrust.
She bears straps about her legs,
spiral rotators to twist in-turned hips, and inserts
that only allow for clunky shoes, an imposition most unartistic.
She howls in protest, hangs from me in anger, arms encircling my waist,
counters my legs with thick brick feet, pulling me
over, pinning me, craving the intolerable
constraint of love.
She snakes yarn about her arms,
winds the wool around her legs, circles
her trunk, all around until – wrapped like a grub
in a cocoon — she trips around the room,
delighted with the oddity.
She’s eight and knows constraint,
winds it decoratively about her body.
Dictating the confines of ability and rules, she turns . . .
the choker into
Erika Dyquisto works as an adjunct professor at City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State University. She cherishes the moments of (human) itarian metaphysical power that carefully chosen words can create, however brief those moments may be.
Ana Lazaro is a San Francisco-based artist. She considers herself a world citizen and has, since childhood, had a passion for capturing moods and emotions through her portraiture. Her background includes fashion and jewelry design. Ana’s current work is inspired by her desire to celebrate female artists across the globe.
How you danced with rainbow scarves
one in your hand, the other draped
across your bare shoulders
You made a tutu from violet shorts
curtsied for the camera
your red lipstick never fades.
You wrote the lyrics of your disease
Desire still trembling from fingertips
caress of a sunflower on your cheek
Sitting on the steps at the Washington march
You pulled back a sleeve, pale arm, held
the interferon laced syringe, poked
a needle into thinning veins. You, who named us
Mainstream Exiles, vagabonds, cast out of homes,
queer kids singing poetry on any empty corner
and abstract art projected onto flat buildings at night
We stole storefronts from their owners
Teeth chattering cold, but cheap
We were shadows, running to tape our words
on telephone polls on unlit streets. Your pretty boy face
returns as the exiled ones roam
and enter bars where you once sat
in dark rooms, illuminated by one disco ball
sequins, raw sex, edged in hidden alleys
back doors, the snap of fingers, attention
puckered lips, swaying hips, and the rough red spots
of disease. Coming out at twilight, a candlelight vigil
Haunting echoes of a conch shell summons
all who have laid in death’s bed
morphine induced dreams, fists raised
How the banner unfurls, blanketing us
Fingers pressed to lips, heads bowed
Not as supplicants, as dancers waiting
For the music’s crescendo.
Carla Schick was in the political queer arts group, Mainstream Exiles, in the early 1980’s. Their poetry is published in Sinister Wisdom, A Gathering of the Tribes, Suisun Review and Earth’s Daughters, and they received first place in the Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Contest.
My name is Desi Pena. I am 23 years old and enjoy skateboarding, making skate videos, photography and writing. Follow my Instagram @desip_
Currents move unselfishly.
Lapping at the shores of our consciousness
Repainting memories now faded
from strained expectations
but it is a gift
A taste of what true love is
of the heartaches measured in the waves
watch as the sea moves
in conjunction with the wind
they are kind lovers to one another
like the rib I’ve sought over lifetimes
It is a gift
the innocence of dreaming
the act of creationism from a childlike heart,
sewing the purest seeds of destiny and home.
So I listen to the sounds of forgotten pictures
Lapping at the shores of my consciousness
repainting the memory of my own dreams
– tiny masterpieces of life
I believed would be mine one day -
and I feel the hope well
the source of my good
the kindest parts
that I’d covered up for protection.
And in my mind
I drink from this well
A treasure I had once lost the location of
the origin of what my love languages look
like in flesh and spirit.
And I’m happily transformed by the attention paid to the lovers,
and my own deepest desires,
of a life consisting of intoxicatingly
waves and wind.
R. Shawntez Jackson
R. Shawntez Jackson is a native of the Eastbay. He is an award winning poet, playwright, spoken word artist, actor, educator and father of Wordsi2i.org. He is described as a vivid story-teller creatively framing and displaying some of the best and worst details of relationships, religion and sexuality.
S. M. Murphy
S. M. Murphy is a multidisciplinary artist inspired by the grotesque and macabre. His murals and artwork have been shown on the walls and in galleries of Sacramento and San Francisco, including both M5Art’s Art Hotel and Art Street projects.
Jeremiah lied every night. After prayer circle the youth group would discuss what concrete steps they’d taken to establishing their church here, in Buenos Aires. And every night Jeremiah, who would’ve spent most of the day walking aimlessly around the metropolis, lied. He said that he’d witnessed to a drunk in Bosques de Palermo, or to a divorcee in a Cafe Havanna, or to a toothless communist in a parillada. He’d seen these people during his wanderings, but he never talked to them. If he did occasionally talk to cashiers, bus drivers, and the like, it was never about Jesus. The other youth group members usually managed to bring one or two fellow college kids to the drafty space they’d rented between a cell phone store and a butcher shop. Jeremiah had zero new-comers in two months. One night Pastor Jeff pulled him aside after share circle.
“You’ve been on my heart a lot lately, Big J. I hope you know that. And I just wanted to have a one-on-one to see how everything is going. If maybe there’s some way we can better make use of your time.”
The other youth group members went to Spanish classes at the University by day. Jeremiah already knew the language because of his Spanish grandmother, and had his days to himself. It was agreed that he help the others with the language in the evenings, though only a couple of the quieter girls actually took him up on this.
“I’ve been trying. It’s just everyone here’s so Catholic.”
Pastor Jeff assured Jeremiah that he completely understood. He only asked that Jeremiah make a solid commitment to getting one person, just one, to come to Bible and Bites. Jeremiah said he would do his best, and then skipped dinner to go for walk around the neighborhood.
As he was stepping out of the building, a policeman got off a bus dragging a kid about Jeremiah’s own age behind him. Once on the sidewalk, he slapped the kid on the back of the head, booted him on the butt, and called him a maricón. He then let him go and himself got back on the bus. The kid walked past Jeremiah, rubbing the back of his head. One of his eyebrows was pierced, and the other had three vertical lines shaved out of it. He wore an adidas track suit that swished as he walked. He caught Jeremiah staring. He smirked as he took off his white tennis hat. “Que?” he asked. Jeremiah looked away.
Jeremiah replayed the scene in his mind. He wondered what the kid had done to deserve that. Lost as he was in such thoughts, he walked farther than he’d meant to. He had left the dorm’s neighborhood, but he wasn’t sure in what direction he’d gone. He turned down a street he didn’t recognize at all. It looked like medieval Europe. Part of it was the trees. With their thick, gnarled trunks, they could been older than the buildings they stood in front of, which themselves had an immovable aspect unique to the oldest of buildings. He stepped under the trees and was surprised to find that it was already night under there. The street itself was cobblestoned, and in the extreme darkness it appeared wet. Another pedestrian passed by him, but Jeremiah hardly saw them. It was as though they were gliding past each other underwater. After they’d passed, Jeremiah craned his neck to look back. They might’ve done the same, it was too dark to tell.
He had to strain to hear his own footsteps. He looked at the backs of his hands, and then his palms. He laughed without knowing why. It felt good here, there was that. So good, in fact, that once he’d reached the end of the tree shaded street, he turned around and did it all over again.
Now he wanted to stay out a little longer. Perhaps there was more to find. He’d noticed the train tracks before, but had never walked along them. He found a way in and started down them. After a couple of minutes the kid who’d been kicked off the bus came towards him. Jeremiah stared for too long again, and the kid stared back. “Que onda Yanqui?” he said when they were near, each one on their own set of tracks. Jeremiah tried to respond, but only managed to make a sound that died somewhere in the back of his throat. A few steps after they had passed each other, Jeremiah craned his neck to look back. The kid had turned to look too. Jeremiah snapped his head forward.
During the day Jeremiah continued exploring other neighborhoods; Recoleta with its middle aged women in fashionable pants suits, giant sunglasses, and white high heels; San Telmo with its aging intellectuals in wool vests; the skater kids by 9 de Julio with their adidas warm-up pants tucked into their socks; the garrulous drunks of La Boca in worn slacks and wine stained oxfords. At night he walked the tree shaded street and the train tracks. It wasn’t long before he saw the kid from the bus on the train tracks again. This time the kid pointed directly at Jeremiah’s chest, at the blue youth group sweatshirt with its crucifix insignia. “Evangelico?” he said. Jeremiah nodded, to which the kid pointed at his own chest and said, “Satán!” with a laugh. He motioned for Jeremiah to stop. He told him that his name was actually Manolo, not Satan, and offered to sell him marijuana.
“Evangelico.” Jeremiah said while pointing at his own chest. Manolo slapped himself lightly on the head, “Ah claro, disculpa disculpa.” He wanted to know what, if anything, Jeremiah did for fun. Did he even ate ice cream? When Jeremiah said of course he did, Manolo threw his arms up in relief and offered to take Jeremiah to the best ice cream spot in Buenos Aires. He promised that it was close and that he would get Jeremiah back home before his bed time. Jeremiah said that he didn’t know, but Manolo insisted, “Te invito.” He assured Jeremiah that he was not, in fact, Satan.
They hung out a few times after that. Manolo showed Jeremiah a famous empanaderia, walked him down a culvert where kids their age smoked weed and made out with their girlfriends, took him to a part of Bosques de Palermo that had an astonishing number of stray cats in it, pointed out the transvestite prostitutes on their way back from seeing the cats, and, always and no matter what else they were doing, showed him video after video on his phone. Clips of street fights, cruel pranks, soccer riots, and lurid reggaeton music videos. He would sidle up very close to Jeremiah to show him the videos, and he always smelled of menthol cigarettes and musky cologne.
Jeremiah began skipping his tutoring sessions in the evenings to hang out with Manolo. Eventually Pastor Jeff pressed Jeremiah about what he’d been doing with all his time if he wasn’t tutoring, if he still hadn’t gotten anyone to come to the church, not even for Bible and Bites, not even for Movie Night. “Maybe,” Pastor Jeff offered, “you’re out there looking for yourself? I know how it is at your age. But just remember that whatever you’re looking for is not of this world. Remember to find yourself in the light of God’s love.” And so Jeremiah imagined himself with a flashlight, the beam the deep crimson glow of the Sacred Heart. This was something he’d started doing on this trip, trying to take the words in sermons and in the bible as literally as possible. He meant no disrespect, it was just the only way he could pay attention to words like that now. Otherwise they lost all meaning. And so in this instance he imagined himself with the crimson flashlight in hand, searching the darkened streets of Buenos Aires. He came upon the tree shaded street. There he found himself cowering on a dank stoop. He shined the light on himself then, but his other self would not look up. He kept his head buried in his arms as the light shined on him.
After his talk with Pastor Jeff, Jeremiah started doing some tutoring again. One of the quieter girls, Taylor, was picking up the language fast, and she too had taken to going off on her own to explore the city. She visited museums and attended dance performances, though she always made sure to be back in time for prayer circle.
After one of their lessons she asked Jeremiah where it was that he went all the time. He must have been feeling stir crazy because without thinking twice he offered to show her. He had them leave the dorm at twilight so that he would miss prayer circle. Taylor wore sandals with jewels on them and a purse he had never seen her use before. She had also put on some eye make up. They passed through a fancy part of the neighborhood on their way to the tree shaded street. She slowed to admire the spacious cafes and brightly lit clothing stores. When they turned the corner onto the tree shaded street, she hesitated.
“I know,” Jeremiah said, “Super dark.”
She said it felt about ten degrees colder under the trees. Jeremiah agreed and breathed in the cool, almost minty air. After the tree shaded street they passed all the warehouses and junk yards that led to the train tracks. There was more and more dog shit on the sidewalk to dodge. Jeremiah stepped in it about once a week and was barely bothered by it; it was good luck if it was your left foot, or so Manolo said. Someone yelled at them from a passing car. Taylor asked what they had said. Jeremiah hadn’t quite caught it, but he knew it wasn’t howdy. When they finally reached the train tracks she stopped and looked back the way they’d come.
“I might catch a cab back,” she said.
He asked what was wrong. She said that she didn’t know, that maybe she’d just been expecting something different.
“And now that guy is staring at us.”
Jeremiah looked over. Manolo was crouched against the railroad wall, smoking a cigarette slowly and deliberately while staring right at them. Jeremiah waved.
“You know him?” she asked.
“A little, yeah.”
“Then why didn’t he wave back?”
Jeremiah said he didn’t know, though of course he had an idea. He walked her back to the street to catch a cab. She made room for him in the backseat, but he remained standing, holding the door open.
“You’re not coming?”
“I think I’m going to stay out a while.”
She scooted over to get a better look at him. The orange glow of the streetlight illuminated her face. There was a spattering of freckles across her nose that he’d never noticed before, and her make-up highlighted the inquisitiveness of her expression.
“What’s going on with you, Jeremiah? These aren’t nice places. And that guy looks dangerous.”
“It’s just a style.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but are you, do you think you’re still walking with Jesus in your heart?”
He put his hand over his heart and felt it beat. He imagined a tiny Jesus living in there, seated in an armchair, watching Jeremiah’s life unfold. What would that tiny Jesus say, he wondered.
“That’s a good question,” he said.
Manolo was still at the tracks when Jeremiah got back. There were big clouds passing in front of a big moon and the world felt three times its usual size. Manolo stood up from the wall just as the clouds cleared. For a moment, he was bathed in moonlight. They both were. Light glinted off his gold chain as he walked up to Jeremiah. He smelled of menthol cigarettes and musky cologne. His hand was warm, despite the cold.
Christopher Williams lives in Oakland, where he works as an interpreter. He hopes you’ll check out his fiction blog at christopherpaulwilliams.wordpress.com. Last month he had one visitor. He believes that if we work together, we can double that number.
Charles is a lover of all things San Francisco. His fiction writing includes stories of traveling abroad, baseball, a misguided youth on the streets of SF, and other tales of life in the city.
sharp cheddar cheese
bright orange almost everyone can see
special category and status
ingredients of all sorts
it is mixed and matched in fine dining
eat at places that came with cushion toilet seats
Dolores Heights, Marina or Pacific Heights
filling food fabulous delights
$24.99 a plate easy peasy
mac’n cheese or nachos
territory pushes and pinches
yellow, brown, and black finches
those no one thought with privileges
i beg your pardon
i’m with privileges
lots of them too
who else knows
the privilege of
not being able to see your disgust
of my “compromised faith,”
not being able to hear your petty offering
of that inspirational speech
of my “daily bravery,”
not willing to accept
your supreme efforts
of excluding my kinds
through early prenatal examinations,
the short buses, intervention and medications,
oh yes, daily questionnaires and surveys
and attitude, offered by your eyes and hands
confirming my special status
of all else
if this is not privilege
why all the attention on me?
and guess what?
I eat mac’n cheese and nachos too
Ali is a single mother, a voracious reader, and a fierce advocate for survivors of abuse, seniors, and people with disabilities. She also happens to be an immigrant, and legally blind. She bravely started writing just a couple of years ago in spite of the ESL ghosts that haunt her.
Ana Lazaro is a San Francisco-based artist. She considers herself a world citizen and has, since childhood, had a passion for capturing moods and emotions through her portraiture. Her background includes fashion and jewelry design. Ana’s current work is inspired by her desire to celebrate female artists across the globe.
but you’ve become my shadow
your assault in the image of mine
influenced by my experience
I was unaware of your existence
but your ordeals were mine
before they were yours
not to be possessive— as much as I don’t want to share
the trauma, I’m here to share the healing
I do not know you
but I know your story
an echo of my own
I heard the blow-by-blow account
of what happened to you (to me, us)
and my stomach felt empty and
nauseous, both at once
I could predict the next act that you did not
consent to, before it was told to me
my body ached in the places
you (me, us) were hurt
I do not know your name
but forgive me
a reported rapist might become
a jailed rapist might become
held from offending again
had I intercepted your abuse
snatched it from the air before
it could settle onto your shoulders
I’m sorry despite
knowing that what happened to you (me, us)
isn’t, wasn’t my fault
I have never met you
but thank you
for turning in our mutual rapist
when I didn’t, couldn’t
for impeding yet another
repetition of our pain
for reminding me
that it was real, that it was wrong, that I (you, we) deserve justice
for seeking the reparation
we deserve to heal
I cannot find you, talk to you, cry with you
but I believe you (me, us)
Eddy Funkhouser is a queer non-binary urban farmer and garden educator living in San Francisco, CA. Their work can be found in Dirty Girls Magazine, Beyond Bloodlines, Awakened Voices, Stonewall’s Legacy, and Written on the Body.
Meghan Harris is a landscape and abstract painter in San Francisco. Her education includes Princeton University, Corcoran School of Art, Washington, DC, Art Students League of New York, and City College. Her work “Bridge” captures how one experiences objects from many perspectives. See harrispaintings.com.
I stood at the water pump. Everyone else had their lunch in hand, sitting or squatting on old wooden logs. I looked down at my red plastic shoes labeled 37 and in a moment they were off and I was sprinting away as fast as my legs would take me. I ran across a rocky stream bed and out onto a dirt road. I saw a house, jumped a fence and sprinted to the door, knocking loudly and desperately. A middle-aged man with no shirt and a bulging tan potbelly opened the door, “I NEED TO USE YOUR PHONE,” I shouted at him. He let me in and his wife handed me the phone. I dialed my mom’s cell. No answer. I dialed my home phone. No answer. I dialed my mom’s cell. She picked up, “GET ME OUT OF HERE.”
After my dash for freedom I was escorted back to basecamp. Here I waited a day while my mom drove the seventeen hours to North Carolina to tell me in a shaking voice that she was not taking me home. I tried to convince her to take me by telling her we could eat ice cream together, a food I had not enjoyed for over a year. She told me if I wanted to get better I had to stay, and she wasn’t letting me come home.
My running away had consequences beyond crushing my hopes of escape. My feet were bruised and I was put on level 3 watch. At night I was rolled in a tarp and sandwiched in between two counselors. Every time I shifted in my sleeping bag the tarp crinkled noisily. My running away also prolonged my stay in the first stage of the School of Urban and Wilderness Skills’ (SUWS) four-stage program – Safety. In the Safety stage students had to take control of their safety and well-being. This meant eating enough, not running away, and no self harm. I had trouble with all three.
I came to SUWS for a variety of reasons. I was five-feet six-inches tall and eighty-five pounds. I was depressed, disconnected and suicidal. When my parents asked me to go to SUWS I agreed. I knew they wanted the best for me. They had been trying, really trying to help. Nothing seemed to work. I had suffered through five therapists, six antidepressants, and a two-week hospital stay. SUWS was my Hail Mary.
When I arrived I was stripped of all my possessions. I was given a bright orange hoodie, blue pants, and red numbered shoes to wear. The staff member who escorted me through this process held a brown clipboard and roughly checked off boxes as my things were taken away.
On the third day of my then hopeless stay at the SUWS base camp a young boy came back from the field with a broken leg.
“What’s going to happen to him?” a younger student asked.
“He’ll have to go back home,” a counselor responded, “he can’t hike on a broken leg.” Soon after that I ventured behind the bathroom tarp, found the biggest rock I could lift with one hand and dropped it on myself. The first time I missed my left hand, which I had laid on an adjacent rock. The second time the rock hit my hand and bounced – literally bounced – off it. Immediately, a large blackish bruise blossomed from the hit. I walked back to basecamp like a dog with its tail between its legs. I shielded my left hand behind my back and never spoke a word about it to anyone.
While I was at basecamp I met a variety of students. Most had been forcibly escorted from their homes in the middle of the night and were at SUWS for excessive drug and alcohol use. I was the odd man out. I silently judged others as I worked diligently on my various assignments, which I was certain would lead to my expeditious completion of the program. I hurriedly filled out my little green notebook, identifying tree and plant species, and filled my journal with meaningful entries, which I hoped showed rapid psychological improvement. I socialized with only a select few: a young girl, who I remember as being very dirty and extremely energetic and a young counselor who was still full of optimism and the desire to make a difference. She came up to me one day while I sat crying under a tree. “It comes in waves doesn’t it?” I nodded, and smiled at her. Her name was Wren and she was the kindest person I met at basecamp.
Finally, through a desire to get out as quickly as possible I started eating, slowly at first and then greedily, like a drowning man gasping for air. I stopped dropping rocks on myself and I didn’t run away again. I got my assignment for a field group – group C, Charlie: a group notorious for girl fights and lengthy program durations. I got out of Safety and headed for the mountains.
In the second stage – Individual, I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone. I entered into Group Charlie with three other students: Elena, Elizabeth and Maddie. We hiked silently during the day taking breaks often. At lunch we were assigned small plots of dirt facing away from one another. When I glanced over my shoulder I could see Elizabeth mock smoking with small wooden sticks. She said it helped.
Elena, Elizabeth, and Maddie had been at SUWS for a while when I arrived. They all did drugs, had sex, and were under the age of fourteen. We were allowed to speak to one another during brief windows, once in the morning and once at night. There wasn’t much to say. Mostly we just gossiped.
“What’d you do to get here?” Maddie asked on my first night.
“Is it true that you ran away?” Elizabeth chimed in.
I wondered how gossip circulated in a place like SUWS. Miles of wilderness separated different groups and yet it took mere days before every tiny bit of juicy gossip was known by the entire camp. Maybe the wind carried it to us, knowing we needed this small source of entertainment and humanity.
Elizabeth, Elena, and Maddie didn’t like me. I was a goody-two-shoes, a teacher’s pet who worked hard to set up trap lines and start fires each night so I could get out as quickly as possible. I didn’t break the rules or talk back. I thought I wouldn’t have sex until marriage, I wouldn’t drink until I was 21, and I would never so much as associate with anyone who used drugs. I was judgmental and it showed. At first I didn’t care much. I had one goal and one goal only – get out. So I studiously whittled traps and struck fires from steal and stone. In a week I had caught up to Elizabeth, Elena, and Maddie. But eventually my loneliness weighed on me. I went all day without speaking or being spoken to and at the nightly circle I was attacked or worse, ignored.
After two weeks of loneliness I could take it no longer. I dropped a rock on myself and tried to run off a ledge. A counselor restrained me until I was calm enough to be let go. I sat hunched over in the dirt, sobbing uncontrollably. Elizabeth approached me. “It’s much harder at first…” She said, “but it gets better, I promise.” She stood beside me until I stopped crying and then helped me to my feet. Elizabeth, I realized, was no different than me. We were just two kids who had gotten into some bad stuff.
After my breakdown I slowly became closer to the other girls in my group, and especially to Elizabeth. Nightly circles now contained occasional moments of laughter and always a mutual hatred for SUWS and our counselors. Even Elena, a former thirteen-year-old drug dealer with biceps the size of my head, warmed up to me. Instead of threatening me, we colluded to take down our counselors.
My birthday occurred during one of my final days in the Individual stage. It wasn’t anything special. I received a few brownies (which Elizabeth told me I didn’t have to share if I didn’t want to) and a card from my family, but other than that it was SUWS as usual. When we got to camp I spent the afternoon working on my traps. Towards dinnertime Elizabeth and Elena approached me, hiding something behind their backs.
“We know it sucks to be here for your birthday, so we made you something to help you forget,” Elizabeth said, holding a few pieces of torn paper in her hands.
“Close your eyes,” Elena instructed.
And then Elizabeth started reading,
“Snowy mountains covered in white,
On to the ski lift, hold on tight!
Stop by the lodge for something to eat,
Something chocolate and moist, some kind of treat!”
Elizabeth read on, describing each lovely escape in a wishful voice. She ended with,
“Blinking starts burning bright,
Welcome to the city of light!
Blue moon, bright in the sky,
Thank you for coming, goodnight and goodbye.”
I opened my eyes to Elizabeth and Elena’s grinning faces. They handed me the torn sheets of muddy paper. On each was a picture drawn by Elena, and on the back the corresponding poem written by Elizabeth. It is to this day, the best present I have ever received.
On one of the following days Elizabeth, Maddie, Elena and I were told to join hands. We were told that in the Individual stage we were black bears – solitary, independent creatures – but now we were to become wolves – pack animals. We were given a circle of rope and told to lean back. Together we kept one another standing.
The third stage – Community, could almost have been considered fun. Elizabeth, Elena, Maddie and I spent the afternoons sitting under the main tarp building our wood drills, which would later enable us to make fire from two pieces of wood.
We spent our layover days helping one another make fires and meeting with the therapist for Group Charlie. Our therapist’s name was Amber. She hiked out to our group once a week, and met with each of us for thirty minutes. I would talk about the week and she would assess my progress. In addition to all the hard skills I had to complete to get out, there were also mental skills that Amber had to check off in my little green notebook with her special red pen.
By the time I reached the Community stage two other girls had joined our group. They were nice but Elizabeth, Elena, Maddie and I didn’t talk to them much. They were still in the Individual stage. After one of Amber’s visits we circled up for a “truth circle”. Someone had broken the rules and if they admitted it in the truth circle they wouldn’t get in trouble. As it turned out the two new girls had taken Amber’s pen and checked all the boxes in their notebooks.
After this, truth circle became a regular occurrence. This was also the time when I let loose and rediscovered my love of breaking rules. I stopped filtering my water, poured soap into the rivers we passed, and swapped personal food items. It wasn’t that I wanted or needed to do these things, it was just my way of saying “FUCK YOU” to the SUWS program.
Near the end of my time in the Community phase, Elena was removed from Group Charlie. It was a sunny day and we were hiking up a steep wooded hill. We came to a cross trail and took a break. A counselor asked Elena to take a walk with her and bring her pack. Fifteen minutes later the counselor returned without Elena. She announced that Elena was being moved to another group. We had gotten too close and, as the councilors put it, “You do not come to SUWS to make friends.” Elena’s only goodbye was a hastily written note telling us how much she would miss us. We never got to say the same to her. A week later gossip circulated that Elena’s parents were pulling her from the program because she was making no progress. That’s the last I heard of Elena.
That night two counselors awaked me in the middle of the night. They took me down to the river and launched into a long speech about my progress. At the end of this ceremony they handed me some beads and told me I had made it to the last stage in the program. I was the first one in Group Charlie to do so.
In the last stage of SUWS four-stage program I was finally allowed to know the time and use the map and compass. These privileges, which had seemed paramount throughout my time at SUWS, soon seemed unimportant and I rarely exercised them. Responder wasn’t much different than Community. It just meant I was one step closer to getting out.
One afternoon while Maddie, Elizabeth, and I sat sewing leather medicine bags, our conversation stumbled upon the topic of getting out. Elizabeth and Maddie were indifferent about their situations. SUWS was bad but what was beyond SUWS wasn’t much better. I, on the other hand, exclaimed joyously “I think I’ll be going home soon!”
“Doubt it,” Maddie said, “You’ll go to a boarding school just like this, like the one I came from.”
“My parents would never do that to me,” I said confidently. “They can’t wait for me to come back home.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Maddie replied. “Everyone here says that.”
I nodded nervously. Trying to hold to my convictions. I couldn’t imagine my parents sending me away. Then again, a few weeks ago I couldn’t have imagined my mom telling me I had to stay here either.
My conversation with Maddie made me so nervous that I ate all my lunch food, an amount of food that had been intended to last for a weeks worth of lunches. Horrified I ran behind the bathroom tarp and tried to make myself throw up. After many attempts (which produced only uncomfortable gagging) I stopped and walked hurriedly back to camp. I immediately sought out Elizabeth to tell her what I had done. Awhile later a counselor pulled me aside, “Elizabeth told me what happened.” I was startled. I had never thought Elizabeth would care enough to tell on me. When I returned Elizabeth caught me by the arm and asked if I was okay. “I want you to get better,” she told me.
Soon after my food frenzy I was told I would be going on a solo. I would spend a whole day and one night alone (though close enough to remain under the stifling surveillance of SUWS counselors). I was told this would be an opportunity to reflect on my progress and become more independent. Nature and solitude would work in tandem to fix me.
In the morning black charcoal was rubbed on my cheeks and I was given a bag of rice and a metal bucket to cook with. When I got to my solo plot of land I set up my tarp, built a fire pit and started a fire. Having the whole day ahead of me I found I had nothing to do. I tried to fill the seemingly endless hours by washing my clothes and drying them by the fire. Then I cooked my rice, well before a reasonable lunch hour. Finally I resorted to writing.
I wrote about the trees overhead and the people I had met. I wrote about food – wanting food, not wanting food, and not being able to stop. I wrote about my parents and how they had forced me to stay here. I wrote about Elizabeth, Elena, and Maddie. I wrote about how terrible SUWS was and how I longed to get out. I fell asleep curled around my notebook.
The next morning I took my place next to Elizabeth in our breakfast circle, relieved to once again be in the company of others. We filled our cups with lukewarm oatmeal and a spoonful of powdered milk.
“I have some special news,” a counselor said. She paused and continued, “Helen will be released next week.”
Warm sweet relief filled my entire body. Elizabeth threw her arm around my shoulder, squeezing me into an excited half hug.
After seven weeks at SUWS I was finally, finally getting out.
I had the morning to gather my things and say my goodbyes. Elizabeth and I wrote our contact information on small pieces of paper, and tried to sneak them to one another throughout the morning. But the crumpled piece of paper I had stuffed hurriedly into my pocket was discovered and taken by the counselors. “You do not come to SUWS to make friends.”
Before I came to SUWS life was meaningless. I would wake up wishing I had never been born. I would get through the day dully mimicking activities that had once brought me joy. I would fall asleep without hopes of a better tomorrow. Before SUWS I had nothing to live for. SUWS gave me a purpose – get out – and for that I am eternally grateful.
I cannot tell you that leaving Group Charlie was sad. In fact I hardly remember it. I am certain that I hugged Elizabeth and Maddie goodbye. I am sure I was sad to leave them, with no hopes of ever finding them again. But I was getting out and at the time that was all that mattered.
My name is Bryan Guzman. I’m a first year student at CCSF majoring in Studio Arts. My heavy admiration for photography and film has completely grown throughout the years. I enjoy shooting people in any way, shape, or form, capturing their many emotions and giving myself and an audience the ability to feel lots of things.