I am in the WIC office, there to answer some questions and get my vouchers from the government for free food—the milk, the cheese, the cereal. The woman is pleasant and professional, she coos over my fat little baby and tests the iron in my blood. I don’t drink or smoke or eat all that unhealthily, and I answer questions in a conciliatory manner. Five years ago I was in this same office with my firstborn, I remember it all—the dingy gray walls, the posters with fruits and vegetables arranged in a rainbow. As the woman gives me the informational packet, she rattles off what I can and cannot get—yes to tuna, no to those fancy-ass organic eggs—and then she gets to the juice page. She purses her lips and pauses. I interrupt her, eager to please—Oh, we don’t drink juice in our home. She is visibly relieved, and nods her head approvingly. We share a smile of those in-the-know. She finishes entering up all of my information in the computer, and I bounce my son on my knee. It’s just so crazy, she says, more to herself than to me. Years ago we used to be worried about people being vitamin C deficient, so we put juice on the vouchers. Now we know that in the long run, giving your kids juice is so much more harmful than any residual vitamin benefits might be. It just causes so many problems, it’s just so contradictory. She looks at me and shrugs. But, you know. We are a government program. And the juice lobby is pretty powerful.
I leave the office, my vouchers clutched in my hand. I didn’t know, until just now. I keep my baby's teeth free from the sugary juices, and I feel good inside. But there are so many others, caught up in a game of making money off of the most vulnerable in our society. Women, Infants, and Children. We are nothing compared to those that whisper in the ears of the powerful. We drink our juice, and it sure does go down easy.
I always try and think of cheerful and yet accurate ways to describe my neighborhood. I never know if I am hearing gunshots or fireworks I tell people brightly, my anecdote tightly crafted. My neighborhood is under-resourced, pre-gentrification, “diverse”, post-urban. I want people to know something about me because of where I live. I am tough yet hopeful. Sometimes it’s actually both. Gunshots and fireworks, I mean.
One day I was putting my daughter to bed. I was pregnant with my son. I am patting her back and I hear gunshots, loud. It does not really sound like fireworks at all, it sounds like it is right outside of my window. In the end, I never know how close it is, if it happened in my front yard or in the back alley. It is all so disorienting to me. I am not afraid, probably because I did not see the gun, I did not see the person holding it, and myself have never been at the business end of a revolver.
One time, we called the police on a neighbor. He had been in a downward spiral for a while and there was a lot of drug activity, a lot of shouting, women wandering the hallways wearing nothing but an open trench coat, extremely lost. The screaming got so loud that grown men stood frozen in the stairwells, the shouts bringing back memories that made us all long for quiet. We called the police because at that time we didn’t know any better. The police showed up and they had guns that looked fake—so large and so black in such bulky yet long shapes. They waved them everywhere, running down the hallways, my daughter asleep behind paper thin walls. They screamed at us to get on the floor. Our neighbor barricaded himself and his guests inside, refusing to let anyone leave. There was a lot of pounding and shouting. And then, he left with them. The police questioned my husband, because he was the one who called. They were very unkind. Why do you live here? One asked, but it was not in a curious tone of voice. We reported him, we did not appreciate his attitude. We now knew why nobody else had called the police, preferring to walk quickly and quietly into their own apartments and to shut their doors.
When I was in high school, I was in a play. It was loosely based off of the Kip Kinkle school shooting—in Thurston, Oregon--where that sweet-faced boy with the bowl cut went and stopped the hearts of four people with the bullets of a gun. I played the shooter’s girlfriend, who breaks up with him for another boy. The play ends with all of the characters—a best friend, a teacher, a rival—standing on stage dressed in white. When we are shot, we each take our right hand, full of ketchup, and plaster it over our hearts before crumpling to the ground. We gave a several performances at our high school and then did a mini-tour of a few other places. I can still remember lying on the worn-out stage, breathing heavily, the smell of tomatoes and vinegar upsetting my stomach, the loud silence of an audience shocked and excited by the drama of it all. We held Q and A’s after the performance, but I don’t remember much of what we talked about. It was so horrible, so horrible, we would have told anyone. These kinds of shootings have got to stop. We really thought we were making a difference, our eyes sober and clear, our hands full of ketchup. The shooter was lonely, he felt wronged by the world. If you are sad, talk to someone. If you are sad, don’t shoot anyone. In my own heart, I knew what the answer was. It was love, always love. If you loved all the people, then nothing bad would ever happen. I didn’t know that there were so many more factors, so many more unseen forces, all pulling us in the same direction.
My husband grew up in Roseburg, Oregon. A mill town, small and sleepy with hints of generational poverty hovering everywhere. He took swimming lessons at Umpqua Community College. A shooter walked in there today and killed 10 people, and injured more. I imagine my husband as a small boy—brown eyes and hair bleached blonde by the southern Oregon sun—paddling underwater, carefree.
We live several hours from there, now. Our landlord is a real character, small and fidgety, dressed professionally but with eyes that dart all around. The rumor is that when he first showed up a year or two ago he wore a bulletproof vest and went door to door, evicting all of the tenants engaged in illegal and violent activity. I don’t know if it’s true but there is a stillness to where we live now; families, mostly immigrants and refugees, push strollers through the parking lot. I went for a walk this afternoon and there was a young boy on a pink bike, pedaling furiously. In the back of his shirt he had a long plastic assault rifle delicately tucked.
I have been a bit depressed, these past few months. I went and saw a counselor for the first time the other day. She looked at me and she was so calm. You have a lot of anxiety, she told me. Yes, it was true. Things had happened in the past few months: I almost died in childbirth, my son got very sick, I moved across the country, I changed jobs. Our brains always want to solve a problem, my counselor told me. Your brain wants to solve the problem of you being anxious. This was why I was depressed, why the future felt like one long horrible event to be endured, why I found no joy or pleasure in my current situation or in thinking of what would come next. Buckle down and survive, was the answer to my existential questions. Suicidal tendencies can be the same. The brain just wants to solve the problems of sadness and misery. It’s not a good solution, but the brain never made those promises. It just fixes the problem.
Death is your trigger said my counselor, and I knew it was true. I lived in neighborhoods where thirteen year old boys were shot and killed in front of the community center. I worked within refugee communities where the stories of trauma piled on top of one another. Everyone had dead babies, starving relatives, stories of rape and war and famine. Sometimes it felt like everyone I knew had stared down the barrel of a gun. And sometimes I would log into my Facebook, and scroll past the posts. The ones about second amendment rights and tyrannical governments and yellow-bellied liberals. I thought about how protected the people who own guns are, and I thought about the rest of us. The women, the infants, the children. How we are just pawns in a game that was started long before we were born. That there were lobbies, ears being twisted, mouths moving fast, to keep our rights free.
It doesn’t matter that it isn’t good for us, it doesn’t matter that it is the most vulnerable that pay the highest price. We have rights, is the thing. And besides, it probably won’t ever happen again.