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Ballerina Brain


By Jenna Fox



     Hold your breath in a tunnel. Hold it. All the way through. No cheating. Only breathing out, slowly, the warm air wisping across the lips. Count the cars ahead of you. Pray there’s no traffic. I 90 is long. Think about something else. Lungs hurt. Hold your breath. Like underwater. You’re a mermaid. 30 seconds. 45 seconds. Hold it. All the way through. You have to hold your breath.

     I am a sophomore in high school, standing at the dusty edge of the Grand Canyon, when I fall over the edge, my feet slipping on the sandy ground. My body feels angel light. The air whooshes past my face. 5 seconds of freedom. Flying. Flying. No. Falling.

Rocks and trees rush past. The river at the bottom, a tiny trickle gets closer. It is deep and rushing fast. The water that carved that canyon across millenniums. I don’t hit the ground. I am standing next to my mother. My brother. Posing for family photos, our beat up motorhome in view. My mother is wearing a foam visor she bought at a gift shop 20 miles down the road. Pukka shell necklace around my neck. It is hot.

     “Touch the screw! You gotta do it! Don’t forget to lift your legs up! Legs up!” Girlish squeals as we’d all bump and bounce across the railroad tracks, the smell of volleyball knee pads and half eaten bags of Doritos mixed with the school bus vinyl seats as we headed across the valley to games after school. Touch the screw. Or what? Nobody said what. Something bad? What bad? What would happen?


     Fresh winter air in my lungs. Jogging stroller with infant strapped and bundled inside. Walks are good. For exercise. For mental health. I walk slowly, to the top of the hill, and let go of the stroller. It gains speed. I start to run. Legs pumping faster and faster. Not fast enough. Too steep. Wheels rolling, stroller wobbling, street is coming. Faster. I’m running. And running. The stroller flies into the air. Semi-truck. I scream, “MY BABY! MY BABY! OH GOD MY BABY!” The love of my life. Hit. Hit by a truck. In the street. I’m a bad mom. Dead baby. Dead baby. I saw him die. Holding the handle tighter I reach down and grab the jogging strap. I put it around my wrist. Grip tight. I wish there was a second jogging strap. Emergency brakes. I push the stroller slowly. Round the corner toward home. Fresh air. Seattle winter sunshine.

     Dressed in black, I sneak out of my bedroom. I am 20 and in college. My dog was hit by a car. I know it was him. Our neighbor. The one who threatened to kill them if they were ever on his property again. Yakima County vigilantism. So I sneak out. To find the bodies of dead animals he’s buried on his property. I bring a knife for tire slashing. I look in his windows. I see his wife. Maybe losing her will make him think twice about taking an innocent animal’s life. Rage catches in my throat. I roll over and close my eyes, a dreamcatcher hanging above my bed. I made it in Girl Scouts when I was in 2nd grade. Seal sinew and pale blue yarn.

     My baby is five weeks old and there is blood on the corner of my hallway from where I bashed his head into the wall in anger. I didn’t mean to. I was so tired. Incredibly tired. He wouldn’t nurse, kept crying, crying. That damn nipple shield. The struggle. I reach out and hand him to my husband. “I can’t do this. I need a minute to myself,” I said. “They would both be better off without me. Everyone would be better off without me.” I’ve been to a hundred of my own funerals. I’ve eaten crackers with my grieving relatives. I’ve heard the nice things they’ve said about me. I’ve hugged them while I lay in my casket. Forty-five minutes later we’re on the phone with the midwives. I said, “I think I need meds again. The images won’t stop. They’re getting worse. I’m afraid.”

     Criss-cross applesauce, as the water fills the tub. It doesn’t matter that I’m 27 and folded into a too small pretzel of limbs against porcelain. I sit and pour the water from a glass Pyrex so worn by use that the measuring lines have faded to mere scratches. I lift the cup, filled up with liquid heat, pour it over my head. Tingling burn against my scalp, my hair relaxing into long wet ropes across my back. When bathtubs aren’t available, I stand quietly, with the stinging spray hitting my back, buttocks, stomach, breasts. Leaving my body hot and red. Red enough to be gently teased by my husband for looking like a partially boiled lobster. Hot water washes me clean. Being clean isn’t a form of self-harm. Is it?

     The four year old, with his cherubic cheeks and golden curls, was sitting in my lap, his safety spot. I held the knife to his throat, brief moment of betrayal, and then blood. Next, the baby. My sweet infant. They can’t be without a mother. I won’t do that to them. “Being without a mother is a fate worse than death,” I think. It’s harder with myself. The grief over the blood soaked bodies in my arms. And I don’t like pain. I can see my husband walk through the door, collapse on the floor at my feet, the three of us slumped together in a mix of blood and genetics. I see him crying. I feel his pain. I feel nothing. Release. I don’t remember the Facebook messenger fight that prompted slitting my children’s throats. I ask him to bring tacos home for dinner. And text that I’m having a hard day. Fridays home with two kids is always hard.

     Studded tires against the pavement makes a clicking clicking clicking when driving slow, sounds like the ocean when I’m on the freeway heading home for Thanksgiving break. The road and low hanging fog are the same color gray. My world is gray. The bridge before Selah is high above a dry river canyon. The tires spin on black ice. Hurtling toward the barrier divide. The crushing sound of the cement barrier and then, Thelma and Louise style, I only see sky through the windshield. “No pie this year,” I think as the wintry sagebrush enters back into my peripheral vision. Bridge behind me, I think, “A girl from high school had a boyfriend jump from that bridge. So tragic.” The road rolls on. This one I’m used to. This one doesn’t make my mind go into self-loathing. I’ve seen it enough to know it’s not real, that the image will last for a few seconds. Then disappear like the low-lying fog. It isn’t real. It isn’t anything to dwell on. Keep driving. Home to Thanksgiving dinner.

     As a kid my parents took me to Maurice Sendak’s Nutcracker performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet. It was beautiful, and every time I came home twirling. “I want to be a ballerina, mommy,” I would say. The bloodied and bruised toes wrapped tightly in pink satin as they twirled in effortless tulle and glittered grace. I saw the performance. I never saw the work it took to get there.

     My wish has come true. My beautiful ballerina brain. I sip coffee and vacuum the living room. I walk the dog, lead classroom lectures, and make sure my children wear clean socks and underwear to school. Like dreaming. The black tunnel behind the pillow tries to swallow you and your limbs jerk about. Gasp a little. You’re in bed. Trying to sleep. You don’t hit the bottom. You’ll never hit the bottom. It’s just a dream.

     The elusiveness of words.

     Intrusive images.

     What’s even real?

Jenna Fox is described by her community college students as, “sympathetic, but with a blunt sense of humor.” She balances a multi passionate life as an educator, writer, tarot reader, Reiki Master, and queer mom of two, with the help of her supportive Seattle community and wonderful husband. Her essays can be found in Salty, Mutha Magazine, Hip Mama Magazine, 9 Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology, Unchaste Volume 2, and Yours Truly. More information can be found

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