“You’re a Graham?” he said. We were in Vermont again, playing a favorite spot with a slew of our new friends drinking and next-morning-job-be-damned in favor of hearing us.
“I am,” I said.
“They’re a loathsome bunch,” he said, squinting one eye and pulling at his red beard. “I’m one myself, and when I went to Scotland, they told me to watch it. They are the marauders, the thieves, the brawlers. They don’t necessarily like us over there, but they sure are to stay out of the way. Real rough ones.”
“Sounds about right,” I said. I have been learning to stay out of their way for most of my life. But then again, I’m a Graham. A bit of a brawler. I seem to end up tangled horns first just after treaty.
I’m not sure what my thoughts on Karma are, but my thoughts on shame are pretty clear. It is abundantly mine. So when I burn the toast, or trip on the sidewalk, or lose my favorite hat, I have to first fight the belief that I deserved it. I have to stuff down the sensation that the Universe or God or my own dumb luck forged a reckoning with my Resting State of Badness.
My Someone is consistently fighting it with me. More often early in our love. Like when a mug– a gift from my favorite person– fell from the cupboard after a particularly rough passage. As I cleaned up the pieces, the grief moved rapidly– hope that it could be fixed, anger at our moving house on wheels, despair… but then fear. Fear that my favorite person who had gifted this to me would believe what I believed about myself– that I am unworthy of gifts. And then, it is me, crumpled on the floor–
“I am bad, I am bad, I am bad!”
And there, my Someone sitting beside me–
“You are good, good, good.”
It would be pretty easy to trace my Resting State of Badness back to religion. I’d be hard pressed to find many of my friends who don’t carry a bit of Christian trauma. As much as I heard that Jesus loved me, I heard that I am a sinner. Maybe more. For the Bible tells me so.
But Genetic Badness. This was something that could help. This was a hero’s story, against all odds. I could be the Good Graham in spite of my freebooter’s lot. As it turns out, nature and nurture are not the same thing.
The first time I was stung this summer was just a week after the confrontation with my parents. The yellowjacket jabbed me, unprovoked, at the doorway of our friends’ house in North Carolina. As I usually do when I’ve been hurt, I didn’t say anything. I walked into the house, made conversation with our friend, all the while my foot beginning to form a bright red blaze around the stinger.
I finished packing our things, climbed into our truck, then told my Someone.
Then, I began retching, my lower back aching, and my chest heaving.
“I might be allergic, I think.”
My Someone drove faster. We arrived just a few minutes later at our second driveway in town, our friends waiting happily on their porch.
“Go inside and get help,” my Someone said.
“I can’t,” I said.
We finished parking. My face began to swell. I finally asked for help as my body panicked. Someone ran for Benadryl. My throat began to swell. I took the medicine. I don’t remember much about the rest of the day. Only the recurring thought–
This has happened because I was bad. This has happened because I have disobeyed my parents. This has happened and I deserve this.
Kelsey told me when my parents broke up with me that this particular divorce would be more difficult than the rest. Harder than my actual divorce. Harder than the time I confronted the sexual predator from my teens. Parental trauma, she said, is more closely tied to what you believe is your identity. Tearing out the toxicity will mean tearing apart who you think you really are.
It turns out, I am in shreds.
I had been waiting for the other shoe since the blow out– waiting for the repercussions for standing up for myself. The truth of the world had to come out and remind me that there is no such thing as a good kid. So even as we deliberated whether or not I needed to go to the ER for my sting, I resisted the kindness. Somehow, this life-or-death attack from nature didn’t feel like enough. There was more coming.
I told my Someone this before falling asleep that night. We’d made a plan for him to check that I was still breathing through the night.
“You are good,” he said. “You are good, good, good.”
When I was stung a second time last week, it was with my Someone’s parents. Out for a hike in Ohio, we stumbled on a nest. One got me to the back of the calf and I ran, hearing the shouts of everyone behind me. When we arrived back at the campsite, my leg had swollen. But my Someone’s mom had it the worst, multiple times and had to hunker down for the rest of the day.
“This is my fault,” I told my Someone. “I made this happen. I took everyone on this hike, and then I stung them.”
My Someone laughed, but then got serious.
“You did not sting my parents,” he said.
It sounded rational when he said it, but I felt the following of my Badness, and it was infecting everyone around me.
I am a loathsome bunch, I thought.
Kelsey says I am confusing Disobedience with a Toxic Cycle.
She’s not wrong.
My favorite sting I ever had was when I was 7 or 8 years old. My Someone thinks that it’s sad to have a favorite sting. I was sitting up near the garage– the big one that smelled like diesel and oil and dust. My mother had run for an errand, or was working in the office across the driveway. That part I don’t remember. Just that I was alone and thinking again. And so I went in front of the garage where the large, long spools of erosion control fabrics laid flat across on shelved stilts. It was early summer, so the black fabric wasn’t too hot to burn my legs, yet. My feet dangled from the side of the spools I sat on, which made it perfect thinking conditions, running my fingernails through the rough hatch of the fabric while watching the sky.
That’s when I saw my Pap Pap’s old blue truck pull up the driveway. This was a lucky event, as I was just thinking I needed a friend. When he opened the door, he smiled across the gravel and waved. I began lifting my hand when I felt it. I looked down to see a wasp on my fingers, then looked back at my Pap Pap.
He ran. Toward me.
And this is why it is my favorite–
When he got to me, he did not say, “What did you do?”
He did not say, “Why were you sitting here where you could get stung?”
He did not say, “Stop crying.”
Instead, he picked me up and carried me. He said, “It’s okay, I’m here now. We are going to get help. You are good. You are so, so good.”
I was told later that I shouldn’t be sitting there on the fabric, anyway.
I would get stung a hundred more times if I could be carried like that each time.
We were leaving South Bend, Indiana, heading toward Kelsey’s house. We split ways with my Someone’s parents, his poor mother and I still itching from our stings. Otherwise, it’d been a good week. We played great shows, ate good food, were healthy, happy, and had the day off.
And I felt terrible.
“I never should have taken us on that hike,” I said to my Someone.
“It was a great hike!”
“Except that I stung everyone at the end,” I said. “This is what I get for not talking to my parents.”
My Someone exploded.
“You are GOOD!” he yelled. “We probably would’ve been stung, anyway! Mallory, you are allowed to sit on the fabric by the garage! You didn’t do anything wrong! Your parents keep moving the finish line! You don’t have to run, anymore!”
I thought about it.
“I think my sting is getting better,” I said.
“I think so, too.”