When I was seventeen some dude and his friends came running at me holding a small woven pouch that looked just like mine. “There’s $60 in there. And your pipe. And a bag of weed. And I think some hash or something. And it looks like half a dozen tabs of acid.” He shook his head. The isolated concert hall had been filled with smoke and flashing, strobing lights and terrible music for some time now. Dragged to my first rave, I had found a decent people-watching space with a friend as we waited for our ride to take us away from the brackish air and chill of the salt flats. The dude kept his arm outstretched, the pouch—my pouch—presented in his palm, ready for me to take back. He had a jester hat on and his friends were piled in bright colors and patterns and grinning faces. I took back my pouch and said thanks. Remembered that some minutes or hours earlier the jester had asked if I had a pipe to borrow and I’d handed over the pouch and shrugged. Got back to watching bodies and flashes and waiting for the song to end, which never would. Even on the car ride back, I could still hear the womp womp womp in the engine and much later the buzz and beat as the refrigerator kicked on and off in my friend’s studio apartment. It was one of those rare, rare nights that I had to myself after my parents returned from their casino, with winnings enough to pay me for “babysitting”.
“You need to be careful,” jester said. I matched his gaze and nodded with him. But he was just a face with a stupid hat. His friend said, “Yeah. I dunno if you’re just naive or careless or stupid or crazy.” “Or stupid crazy.” “Or evil genius” said another friend. “Or a narc” said a fourth. Or maybe they were all the same person or might as well have been. I kept nodding. And said, “I dunno.”
Naïve or careless or stupid back then, I still dunno.
The next day I realized I should have shared something out of the pouch with them for giving it back. Like it was really cool of them to not take off with it. When my friend asked what I would have said or done if they had taken it, I said, “I dunno.”
She nodded and gave me that look. The one that said I know you, I know what you’re thinking. But I wasn’t thinking. And when you say “I dunno” enough or too much, people get the wrong idea. Like there is something to know. Like there’s a lot to know even. A lot not shared. Then suddenly you are a person with some great genius things to be thinking instead of the fog.
I dunno, I’d say when someone asked what I wanted to listen to. I dunno to a bite to eat. I dunno to how to laze about the afternoon ditched from school. I say ditched as if I ever went there in the first place—as if I was expected in a seat or at a table or in a hall or at my locker and I’d managed an escape. But at that time high school was just this world I visited when my parents were back from gambling and I got bored. A place I went because I thought I should. Thought I should show my face and turn in another forged note about my absence. “Natanya,” they’d say. Or sometimes “Natalya” or “Natalie” or once “Nadia” “Girl with a name,” they’d say, “How are you going to make up this assignment?” or “You ready to jump into this exam?” or “We’re doing presentations today, you okay for that?” and me always saying, “I dunno.”
I learned to dead-eye it. The questions. Especially when the adults would come by. My parents would be gone for some too-many days in a row. I’d have clothed and fed and shoved my siblings off to school. Sat my ailing grandmother in her chair in front of the TV with scrambled eggs, readied her shoes and cane for her daily walk. Fed a dog, if it was one of the times we had one. And I would have thought about going to school. Thought about making sure someone knew my name and said it correctly. Make sure someone had recorded some points or grades somewhere. Make sure I still had some friends left or that at least a person or two in the class that recognized me. The last time I’d been to class was not my best moment. I’d accidentally washed a dime bag with my clothes (and luckily only mine and not the kids or shima sani’s clothes). I remember sitting in the back of the class picking off little green flecks and piling them up. And I was legit confused about the class discussion because students were talking about Dracula and Keanu Reeves—and even though I was aswoon for Gary Oldman and Tom Waits at the time, I thought we were there to talk about the book. The one closed on everyone’s desks. The one book that I had managed to read that semester because it was almost a class I thought about going to regularly. And the cover looked really cool: a Boris Vallejo man with cape whipping around him, set against a full moon, a gnarling tree stretching about him. Though it wasn’t the cover the rest of the class had. My TOR book to their Norton Critical Edition with Christopher Lee’s face waning into a dark, but foggy background. I didn’t know how they all had the same edition and more embarrassing than the pile of recently washed and dried green flecks in a pile on my desk: I didn’t know how to ask, no matter the kindness my English teacher had extended to me back then.
There just didn’t seem to be a space for me in high school after I’d transferred to a predominantly white and Mormon area from Northern California at the end of tenth grade. And it’s not like anyone was particularly mean—well, there was one time. But it’s not like I was picked on or ostracized or squeezed out. I think I wasn’t even a person. Just a name forgotten or mispronounced and with no background worth mentioning. Do you like it in Utah? I dunno. Do you still talk to your friends in California? Hmm. I dunno. Sure. You’re Indian, right? Yeah, I mean Navajo. I dunno.
The only question that ever had me really searching for something to say, really stretching my throat open to get to a name or two, to utter a single sound: “What music do you like?” I didn’t know what to call any of what I liked and there were too many bands and musicians to mention. Of course, I know it would have been kinda cool—in the way that everyone now mentions their teenage guilty pleasures as kinda cool—to say I had many long nights of listening to The Pixies and Jawbreaker and The Cure, but also Prince and Led Zeppelin. Thelonius Monk. Nina Simone. Blondie. And I had a real, real thing for Jerry Lee Lewis, the Glen Miller Orchestra, Dion, The Supremes. Donovon’s “Hurdy Gury Man” when I wanted to feel creeped out in the small hours of the morning. There also may have been a shameful rewinding and replaying of Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me” as if I wanted someone else to hear it, to think it about me, the cute boy or girl that had half-smiled at me. Truly though, many didn’t know me or care to and had I more time outside of house-making, perhaps I would have been sad about it. So, I said none of those things, none of those names and bands. Saying those things meant committing to a certain school group or person or personhood and then having to have this thing between us to maintain. This conversation to keep up on as if there could be time for it to grow. “Hey, so remember you said you liked Bauhaus?” “Uh. I dunno.” The kid opened his mouth to say more, thought better, turned away. Another crappy exchange of nothings avoided. Back to the click-click of the Black Silver Reed keys and snap of carriage returns. Ms. Adams saying I was a wonderful typist for rarely being there. “You have a day job, we don’t know about, Natalie?” I dunno.
And this made it easier to lie the hardest when the adults came around—social services, church officials, parents in the neighborhood, twice the cops. “When will your parents be home?” they’d ask and I’d say “I dunno. Soon. I’ll tell them you stopped by.” Close the door. Turn back to the chore board I created and the questionable dinners planned and the clothes lined up. And I always pulled together what money was around the house and my dad’s blank checks which he always left with me. And I practiced the different ways of answering suspicious clerks when they’d look at a check with the scrawled crappy writing of a teen. “I dunno,” I’d say. “My dad just said to run in and give it to you for milk.” Three-dollar-eleven-cent checks because I knew the amount too well. Four-and-fifty-eight if I bought bread too. When brave enough and if we had eggs, I’d go to a grocery store and add on a Jiffy brownie mix too. The checks were supposed to be for pizza delivery—but sometimes, day four or six, or once day twelve of them being gone, and delivery pizza was not as exciting as you’d expect for a seventeen-year-old and three kids ages nine, eight, and six. At least at seventeen I could drive and wasn’t making up stories to get rides from neighbors anymore. “Sure, I’ll take you to the grocery store. Your mom not feeling well, I guess?” “Yeah, I dunno.” I’d say.
Sometimes I think about them—those adults, sitting in the car with me in silence. Staring at me at the front door. Hanging on the phone. All of them wondering if they should just push a little more. Push into the foyer, push before I hung up, push when I was dumb-eyed standing front and center after everyone had left the classroom already. Most of them imagining dead-beat parents, working parents, drunk parents, passed out parents. And not the emptiness of parents—who when home were loving, fun, productive, engaged, and social—gone for slots and a hefty coin bucket. Gone for closing in on a week, or once three, and even my grandma would ask in her English Where’s your mom? A harsh stop after every syllable except the last as if her teeth, what she had left of them, kept those words from spilling out like silk or honey. Kept me from having to answer as softly back. I’d shrug and pull her blanket around her tighter. Hand her another buttered piece of bread to gnaw.
As I sat across from the third-grade teacher at parent teacher conference some months or a maybe even a year before my youngest siblings’ troubles started to show more aggressively, I could see her asking for the words to come to her lips. Asking for her eyes to show the right kind of concern that wouldn’t scare me off. Asking her hands to hold one another gently, concerned but not anxious or obtrusive. I can still see her face and will always be able to recognize the faces of people who are going to spend some time later questioning whether they did the “right thing.” I leafed through the colorful drawing assignments of which that kid mine-not-mine was nailing, just nailing every line and shadow and proportion. And I brushed off the half-written and scribbled out and angrily wadded up assignments she’d also pushed towards me.
“Are you … are you here on your own? Your parents working?” she asked.
I nodded, not looking up, smiling at the lovingly but sensibly drawn triceratops, a tip of one of the horns chipped just so, a careful blend of beige and yellow and green with a hint of blue across the ridges of the beast’s hide, its posture solid—regal even.
“They really need to be here. Will they be able to come by the next time?”
“I dunno.” I stood up cradling the drawing.
She sighed and made like she was going to say something else, something big and powerful.
I’ve seen it before. She was going to make her big move, extend her suspicions and open a door she thinks is right there in front of her. And later, she’ll tell someone about it, her worried voice on and the other person saying something like, “You did the right thing. I’m proud of you.”
I felt sorry for her. And all this worry she had. All the thinking cycloning and revving up her heart. Her wherewithal in motion. The rubbing of her knuckles betraying her.
“I’m sure they are on their way,” I said. And I almost believed it myself. Almost. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
I am not sure what isn’t an influence—my environment, my memories, story, song, sensations, my body. My writing begins with something I can’t let go of: an image, a word, or a rhythm. Like hearing a heartbeat or breathing. Then I have to follow it and trust that it will take me somewhere, even if the journey is just to learn how to trust. I’ve been working a lot in collage lately, feeling my way through curves and colors and landscapes. Unable (unwilling) to commit to lengthy narratives. And I’ve been reading for brevity: the kernelled moments throughout Steven Dunn’s water & power, the talons in Michael Wasson’s poetry, Instagram lit journals and authors posting snippets of writing luring me to their work, ridiculous yet accurate buzzfeed quiz results & accurate yet ridiculous daily horoscopes, Dear Prudence, the shifts and new crisps and choruses in Divya Victor’s Kith, Erika L. Sánchez’ Lessons on Expulsion, and Marream Krollos’ Big City. And I’ve been following the bridges and hooks of songs too many to include. But mostly, I don’t sleep deeply or for any long amounts of time anymore and brevity seems the only thing true and yet a thing I still can’t always capture.