That was the winter we discovered how filthy we all were. Defiled by toxins and microscopic debris from our food, air, clothing, shampoo, and perfume. It lurked in our eyeshadow, sectional sofas, and wall paint. Infused our dish soap and radiated from our iPhones. Clung to our painted toes when we walked barefoot in the tick-treated grass, sifted through our vacuum filters and into our lungs with each dusting. Lived in our body fat and tissues, organs, and spirits. Even the simplest of ingredients, sugar or wheat, corrupted us to the bone. Nothing could be inhaled, smoothed upon our skin, or swallowed without the threat of further ruin.
Ashley was the first to try a liver cleanse of juiced mustard greens and prayer, but she wasn’t sure which god was most interested in spritzing up organs. Wikipedia said it was the ancient Egyptian god Amset. She couldn’t find any ideas on how to craft an altar or why, so she whispered quietly to him as she soaped her belly button each day in the shower. I swore by sunning my liver for three days on a windowsill in a bowl of sea-salted spring water. “The trick is to change the water every eight hours,” I said. “And think radiant thoughts.” Marjorie preferred moonlight to rinse her liver, relying upon the cool, silvery rays of a full moon to bathe her organ in healing light. As for June, she said you couldn’t beat her grandmother’s method. She took her liver out to the creek behind her house with a clod of lye and gave it a good slapping on a rock, scrubbing it with sand to loosen any bits of PFCs from the pots her parents used in her childhood. Then she’d wring it out and let it dry over a green willow branch, standing watch to prevent crows from flying off with it.
“Fuckers gotta learn,” she said, cocking her imaginary shotgun and taking aim. We nodded in unison, sitting in Marjorie’s living room, sipping vodka spritzers, and commiserating on how to improve ourselves.
“I hadn’t thought about the crows,” Marjorie said, and excused herself to check on her liver bath on the back patio, currently basking in the moonlight. “Do you think I should worry about cats?” she yelled through the open door.
“YES!” we shouted back. “God, YES!”
“I found my kitty gnawing on mine behind the sofa,” Ashley whispered. “I had to do an extra cleanse that week and find a way to forgive Cleopatra.” She strung out the word “forgive,” emphasizing “giiiiivah” like she was trying to sound out something foreign.
“You see, right there, that’s another reason I hate cats,” June said. “Eat your fucking liver the minute you turn your back.”
Marjorie’s husband walked in the front door with a greasy sack from Sonic accompanied by Gunner, their fat yellow Labrador. “Sorry, ladies,” he said, waving a limeade at us before disappearing into the kitchen. Gunner worked the room, sniffing each of us for signs of treats, but finding none trotted into the kitchen.
“Like Gunner wouldn’t swallow a liver whole if given a chance,” Ashley said.
Marjorie walked into the living room, cradling a beautiful cut-crystal bowl, something dark and meaty sloshing rim to rim with each step.
“WAIT!” Ashley said. “Don’t tell me that is cut crystal?! Oh my God, Marjorie!”
“What the fuck, Marjorie?!” June said. “Don’t you know that contains lead? LEAD!”
Marjorie jolted to a stop, and liver water spilled onto her carpet. She gazed into her bowl as if it were full of poop soup. I got up and said, “It’s okay, honey. Let me have that.” I gently removed it from Marjorie’s trembling hands. “We’ll get that rinsed right out. Supposed to be sunny for the next three days, anyway.”
“My mother gave me that bowl,” she whispered. “Waterford.”
We plied her with vodka spritzers for the rest of the night to ease her worries. When Marjorie went to the toilet, Ashley turned to me and hooked a thumb back down the hallway: “Oh . . . MY . . . GOD!” she mouthed. I nodded, not wanting to stoke them up more about how badly she had just fucked up her liver.
“Honestly,” I said, “people make mistakes.” I didn’t mention the time I found my liver in a bowl of moldy water, dying gnats kicking their legs on the surface above it. They must have been drawn by the melon I’d left out. I forgot to change the water or check on it for two days. It was gray and smelled like death by the time I remembered. Shit, you got to keep those things straight! Set an alarm. Mark your calendar. Whatever it takes. You know the way some people forget their kids in hot cars every year? That was me with my goddamn liver until I started to set my alarm on my phone.
When our livers were good and shiny, we moved on to our colons. I got everyone chugging celery, lemon, and ginger juice that spring. Still, when Marjorie didn’t see results fast enough, she got a stiff wire brush at Lowe’s to give herself a good reaming. We considered intervening but decided to just let her work out her own truth, no matter how bloody. Ashley said fairies came each night to tidy up, and in the morning she awoke to a squeaky clean colon and itty-bitty boot marks on her sheets. To thank them, she left thimbles of whiskey out on her nightstand. “They drink every bit!” she said and bounced, clapping her hands as if she were talking about dancing ponies. June planned to travel all the way to India to give her colon a good cleanse and bragged about the retreat’s turmeric baths, dirt salads, and elephant dung facials. She showed us pictures of poopy-faced ladies grinning blankly as if they had just seen their god. June returned weeks later than expected and fifteen pounds lighter. When we asked her about her trip, she only said, “I’m okay. I’ll be okay.”
We did yoga retreats and therapies, added talismans and ceremonies, and sound and smoke healing. Draping our bodies in citrine and rose quartz, chanting affirmations, and clutching the polished stones while stepping regally through puffs of sage smoke, eyes clamped shut, as if through a portal into another space and dimension. A cleaner, safer dimension where no demons lurked. An assortment of foreign gods appeared on altars in our homes, and we offered fresh-cut flowers, incense, and food. We fingered the rims of tuned metal bowls until they sang our tone. Thrilling to the dull, rising note as it thrummed in our teeth with one focused om. Laid naked in happy baby pose on our decks, gripping our feet and sunning our taints when we thought the neighbor’s kids weren’t looking. We gathered for dance healing and rebirthing, manifesting our best selves through ecstatic jerking and swaying as we banged out our frustrations on djembe drums June found at a yard sale, dancing ourselves into delirium until we curled into fetal position and twitched and wept. We tried drugs, so many drugs. Dried fungi still smelling of cow shit, ordinary pot, and extraordinary gummies, Molly and acid and something we were assured was peyote but was just dried hunks of cucumber.
“My fault,” Marjorie said. “I didn’t google what it looked like beforehand.”
We leaped and howled and hoped for redemption, but none came. A brief moment of euphoria would fade, and we were back to our same, flabby lives and families the following day. You could find us googling dolphin experiences and goat yoga volume discounts on any given night. We searched Groupon for deals at the closest sweat lodges and vaginal steam services, because all this healing was expensive. Meanwhile, bemused husbands grilled meat and infused our homes with the scent of charred flesh, sucking gristle out of their teeth for days. “What are you ladies doing?” they’d ask as they walked through a room, but they never stuck around for an answer. While they dined on ribs and burgers, we survived on watermelon or air according to our cleanse in any given week. As our energy and focus dwindled, so did our patience. “I don’t want to hear one more fucking word about bass fishing,” Ashley said.
We used animals to change us. Therapy experiences where goats pranced on our cat-bowed backs in yoga poses or dolphins rubbed against our thighs and splashed us playfully. “What does the dolphin get out of this?” I asked, suspect of their motivations. The trainer shrugged and pointed to the bucket of fish. There were cow-cuddling sessions. I lay back against the warm, slick body of the rent-a-heifer, Matilda, who was chewing her cud and swishing flies away with each shudder of her lustrous hide. Ashley, always the adventurer, turned to mule-hugging, embracing the unimpressed beasts and pressing her ear against a furry flank. She said she could hear the heartbeat of the Universe in their rumbling guts. June wanted to try something more pedestrian, such as a therapy dog, but she only borrowed Gunner for one day and then decided against it. “Gunner eats shit,” she said. “Lots of it.” She couldn’t find comfort in an animal that thought of street excrement as a snack and then tried to lick her face.
By the summer, Ashley discovered our guts were leaking all over the place, disrupting our well-being and absorption of nutrients. We swelled with a bacterial bog of poison that inflamed our joints and kept our bellies round and sad. To patch hers up, she decided to eliminate all things that could be associated with gluten or even had a notice that indicated they had no gluten at all. “Why would they put the ‘no gluten’ label on tea if they weren’t at least thinking about gluten?” she said. “You don’t know who’s hiding what if they have to point it out.” I decided to eat more probiotics and gulped down yogurt and imported Spanish sausages crafted with refined infant fecal matter. You couldn’t taste anything but sausage, which was oddly disappointing. June took a more natural approach and, after a three-day fast in a forest lean-to, returned claiming an ancestral spirit had appeared to her on the third night as a rabbit. The rabbit sang a song of its people, something light and funny about hopping, and then told her to kill and eat it raw. After that, no more bloating!
Marjorie was still recovering from her wire brush experiment. Privately, we whispered about her innards. No doubt she had the leakiest of anyone, stewing in her own poison. She told us they had to build scaffolding and bring in an experienced roofing crew to properly repair her guts. They started work too early in the morning, waking the whole neighborhood up, but at least they were done in two days. “It’s her own fault,” Ashley whispered over a lunch of fresh tomatoes and edible weeds from her garden. She motioned jamming something up her butt two or three times. We imagined Marjorie’s guts like a soaker hose in a bed of tulips, spraying a steady stream of crap into her system.
“It is ALL of our faults,” I said magnanimously, to which the gals nodded as if I had spoken a great truth.
We sat with our grief at our thoughtlessness. Wallowed in our choices like goddamned pigs in shit. We journaled and prayed and consulted whatever spirits we could find to consult. Ashley said she still liked to pray to Amset even though the god hadn’t done fuck-all. “It’s just habit, really, at this point,” she said. June said a Swedish man in the form of a vapor emerged from her sink each morning and provided her with a blueprint for the day. “How do you know what he’s saying?” we asked, rolling our eyes at her when she turned her back. “You’re not even Swedish!” June shrugged and said it was just a feeling that passed between them. She had looked up a few words and couldn’t figure out what cows or ice had to do with her days as an accountant. Still, the vaporous Swede gave her a comforting routine until he attempted to emerge from the toilet while she was sitting on it. Marjorie didn’t have any spirits to contact (her ancestors and angels were real pieces of shit, apparently), so she called a 1-900 line. Six hundred eighty-two dollars later, all she could discover was that a spirit named Carl wanted her to invest in his living cousin’s pyramid scheme.
My grandmother was the only spirit-guide option who presented to me. I woke one night to see the ember of her cigarette at the foot of the bed, and I felt her weight as she shifted her seat and the mattress creaked. “You’ve always been a dumb cooze,” she said, taking a long drag on her cigarette. I could hear the crackle of heat as she pulled the smoke deep into her lungs, the same lungs that betrayed her with stage IV cancer. As she released the cloud of smoke in a gusty sigh, she said, “but I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.”
We ached with shame when we thought about all we had done over the years, the bad choices, the wrong ideas. Burned with it until we broke out in hives, cold sores, and adult acne, manifesting our failure in fragile hair follicles, crumbling nails, and crepey necks. Sure, we could blame plenty of other people for handing us hotdogs at county fairs or bowls and bowls of Cap’n Crunch as children, or for allowing us to sit in a smoke-filled bar in college drinking buttery nipples like it didn’t matter before laws reflecting the better social good caught up. Ultimately, though, every decision that defiled us had only one source: ourselves. I chose to smoke clove cigarettes at June’s birthday party in high school and then to continue smoking a pack a day for a year. Ashley decided to blow way too many men and to spend years cutting herself. Marjorie wanted to use hairspray well past when everyone else had quit. We made a conscious decision to soil our bodies again and again, which was a big “fuck you!” to the Universe and all we had been given. And you know what? The Universe was saying “fuck you!” right back. First, in cutout letters from magazines on soiled stationery slipped into our mailboxes. Later, a skywriting plane spelled it out just for me on the last day of my family vacation in Destin, Florida. Often the TV would hiss and crackle, in and out of focus, with the tiniest voice rising above the static to tell us what we already knew. Late at night, the phone would ring, and we could hear its heavy breath when we said hello, then the faint giggle of time and pressure, followed by a whispery, “You are soooooo fucked.”
“We must find a way to forgive ourselves,” Ashley said. She strained that word again, adding extra syllables, “forgivvvvvvah” and crossing her hands gently over her chest as if in benediction. We must nurture the part of ourselves that still craves a gordita or thought using Roundup was a good idea for the weeds in the driveway. We have to do better, but no one could look in the mirror and see anything but someone they despised for secretly still, STILL loving Cheetos or Fudgsicles or cocaine. After every shower, I’d stare at my naked, damp, destroyed self in the mirror. “You bitch,” I’d say to myself. “You dumb, dumb bitch.” And sometimes, I would strike the side of my head or my stomach with such force I’d leave bruises, trying to beat the poor choices away. I stroked the bruises throughout the week, pressing them to feel the pain again, and I hated myself for that, too.
When we couldn’t fix the shame in ourselves, we looked for ways to shame each other. I reminded Ashley that she had manifested her failure with her tech startup by not imagining its success hard enough. “Choose success!” we chanted at her as she wept. But Ashley chose to take out a second mortgage for nothing instead, sinking herself deeper into debt and misery. Marjorie suggested I would never have met and married my wandering ex-husband if I had asked for more in a man. I went home and stewed myself in acid, considering how I should have requested someone whose dick would not end up in all his coworkers. June needed us to intervene when she swerved to avoid a deer, sliding right through a curve and into a pine tree. At the hospital, we patted her uninjured foot. “You were afraid of driving that stretch of the highway too late at night, and look what happened,” we said. “Your fear manifested your own wreck.” Marjorie needed a good ol’ Come to Goddess talk about her sadness over her miscarriage. “It was probably the shrimp salad,” we said. Marjorie insisted she didn’t even eat shrimp. “Nope,” we said, “definitely the shrimp.” Whatever nearly killed, saddened, or merely disappointed us resulted from our broken thinking. We were manifesting ourselves straight into a long dirt nap as bonafide failures, and something needed to change. If only we could go back to when we were children and get our minds right as they are now.
Marjorie’s little girl showed up first. She said she woke up with her whispering in her ear that the door was unlocked and the bad people were coming. She screamed and leaped from the bed, frightening the girl who crawled underneath and whimpered for the next hour. “I have to nurture her,” Marjorie said. “I have to show her that everything is going to be okay.” She petted the girl’s hair while she said this. The child sat staring at us, smirking in a way I found unsettling. Still, nurturing our inner child was the only way we would be all right, recover our sense of well-being and hope.
The rest of our internal children appeared that summer. Ashley’s was running in nothing but panties through the sprinkler on her front lawn when she got home from work. June’s lurked around her garden shed, throwing old dog toys and bones at her while she pulled weeds out of the radishes. Mine was the last to appear. I thought I wouldn’t get one until I opened a closet door in the basement, looking for the croquet set. “BOO!” she screamed. “Hahahahahaha!” And jumped up and down, knocking over stacked boxes of shoes. She laughed so hard she peed herself, and I had to put her in the bath. “BUBBLES!” she screamed until I added dish detergent.
But the little girls could not be comforted. For a moment, maybe, we could hold them and tell them we loved them and everything was going to be okay. They nestled quietly against our sides until they fell asleep, if we were lucky, before waking with a sudden start as if from a nightmare and demanding unhealthy snacks. Exhausted by the whining, I told mine, “Yoo-hoos and fruit rollups are for losers.” When I brought her apple slices, she threw them at my head, announcing that I was a butt-face and nobody loved me. Ashley’s wanted an add-a-bead necklace no longer sold at any mall, and she constantly wept from her unfulfilled need. June’s wanted a puppy she was denied as a child. She gave her a three-month-old golden retriever the girl named Pokey. She rolled on the floor, adored it for a half-hour, and then went back to watching cartoons while it chewed and pissed its way through June’s house.
Marjorie’s child was scary, though. She often awoke to find the girl hovering at the foot of her bed, silently gumming her own hair. She would sit humming, not eating the spaghetti she demanded, and ask what Gunner would taste like. She paced when others sat, and more than once, Marjorie walked in to find the kid having a whispered conversation with the wall. We should have known there was something off with Marjorie’s inner child, but how could the manifestation have been so wrong? “When I was a little girl, all I wanted to do was go to Disney World,” she said. When she took her child there, outfitted in a Bella costume, she assumed her inner princess longed to ride spinning teacups or pose with Minnie Mouse. Instead, she went to a water feature, threw rocks at the circling koi, and glared at the other children. When Minnie offered to give her a hug, she hissed and spat, baring her teeth at the cartoon mouse.
Two weeks later, her husband found the girl crouched over Marjorie’s draining body and holding the knife that slit her throat. Gunner was barking and dancing around in the corner. He said he couldn’t believe what he saw until she started giggling. He leaped to grab his old lacrosse stick and tried to beat the demon child to death. With each blow, she laughed harder and harder until POOF! no more girl. She just disappeared with a pop and left the room smelling of brimstone.
Her husband had some explaining to do. “Now, who did you say did this?” the sheriff asked, looking at the splattered walls and Gunner licking blood from his paws. Marjorie’s husband was brought in for questioning just in case, but his inner child story checked out to the sheriff’s satisfaction: “I know how these ladies can be!” he chuckled. “Don’t tell my wife, or she’ll want one too!”
June’s little girl wandered off one day, leaving the front door open and a half-eaten bowl of Cap’n Crunch in front of the TV. Pokey followed for a few blocks and then was nabbed by concerned neighbors. June let them keep the puppy. Ashley’s was arrested for stealing lip gloss at Walgreens. When she got a call from security, she said she did not have a child and hung up, which was technically accurate. She never saw her again. Mine took all the cash out of my wallet and split town on a bus to Chicago. At least, I think it was Chicago because I got a postcard from there two weeks later saying only, “U r a but fas luzer.”
A sadness descended upon us that no dolphin experience or wine-fueled wheel-throwing exploration could ease. We had failed ourselves, our organs, our spirits, the Universe, and our inner children. Plus, Marjorie had been brutally murdered by a demon. Just as she was the first to try the liver cleanse, Ashley was the first to turn away from the healing strategies we had devised. She dismantled her altar and threw out her talismans. Driving to the gym one day, I saw her standing outside a Taco Bell scarfing down a gordita, hot sauce running like blood down her wrist.
By fall we gathered infrequently and were less cohesive in our convictions when we did. June had grown bored by the vodka spritzers and wanted cheap beer. She sucked down three or four PBRs, then would belch and giggle like she had told herself a great joke. Nobody talked about a cleanse or an experience, or a rebirthing. I started playing pickleball because it was catching on in the neighborhood. It made me feel better about everything, the orderliness of it, the size of the rackets, the abbreviated court for my aching knees. I bought a bumper sticker, “Pickleball is My Life,” and put it on my pristine bumper, showing up at pickleball mixers and tournaments regularly. I even made some new friends.
The Universe still left an occasional dirty little note under my windshield wiper, but I threw them away without looking. I had long ago blocked the Universe’s phone number, too. There was nothing that fucker could tell me I didn’t already know. Finally, it slipped an email through from an address I didn’t recognize. “No one will ever love you as you are,” the email from goddessbitch23@gmail said. “I know,” I said aloud to no one or anything, and there was some healing in that.