The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Blood-Red Bougainvillea


The phone rang in the dark—my boyfriend. Well, my ex-boyfriend now. My baby’s father. Lance.

“Good news,” he laughed into the phone. “Good news and a hundred dollars!” He started singing that Clash song about your daddy being a bank robber and I shrugged into it. A Clash song could always charm me.

Lance had followed us to California and found a live-in job taking care of an dying woman who collected ceramic angels and plastic troll dolls. Part of his job was to arrange the angels and the trolls into makeshift social clusters on the low tables around the woman’s home hospital bed.

On his morning breaks, Lance brought us applesauce and printer paper.

Maia reached for him. “Dada!”

I made Bustello coffee in my sunlit corridor of a kitchen, Jimmy Cliff on the cassette player.

At night, Lance yelled on my front porch and banged his fists on the glass panes of the door.

I bought a deadbolt at the hardware store on D Street and installed it, but Lance just smashed the glass panes, his blood dripping onto my beige renter’s carpet inside as he unlocked it all.

“Can I come over tonight?” he asked on the phone now. “I got a hundred dollars!”

And I knew it didn’t matter if I said yes or no, but for the record, I said Yes. I said Sure.

And maybe that’s the part I shouldn’t tell you: As often as I tried to lock it out, I invited male violence into our home.

I invited it in, again and again.

I felt sorry for it, I guess.

Poor little angry, hurt boy left out in the cold.

Poor little male violence.

Sure, you can come in.


I could certainly use the $100, even if I knew it would only be $37 by the time he got here, drunk.

At least he’d bring a full pack of cigarettes. If I was lucky.

That and $37.

I’d take my chances.


The phone rang in the dark—my girlfriend. Well, my ex-girlfriend now. Jamie.

She was calling from a payphone on Mission Street in San Francisco, her voice an echo of itself. “The vultures are circling,” she whispered. “A whole wake of them ready to swoop down and feed on me.”

Her new girlfriend was threatening to kill herself.

“I can’t handle another death,” she said. It had been maybe a month since her grandfather murdered her grandmother—smothered her with a pillow. Jamie cried: “She’s gonna throw herself off the Golden Gate Bridge if I leave. It’s going to be all my fault.” She’d already jumped from the rooftop of their college, the girlfriend, but she’d only broken a few bones. She was HIV positive, the girlfriend, but that’s not why Jamie wanted to leave. “Should I leave?” she kept asking.

I didn’t know.

The I-Ching told her to wait, to be yielding and receptive.

“I can’t leave,” Jamie said.

I was starting to kind of hate the I-Ching.

“Remember Spain?” Jamie whispered.

Our squat outside Valencia seemed very far away now, like a book we’d once read—its images bathed in the candle-lit romance that illuminates the memory of hunger but never the hunger itself.

I sat on my blood-stained beige renter’s carpet, surveyed the Sesame Street books and sock monkey stuffed animals as Jamie went quiet.

I picked up a ballpoint pen, wrote on the edge a diaper: I guess you don’t have to have a baby to sink into silences.

A siren down Mission Street.

“Maybe I should be the one to kill myself,” Jamie said softly.

And I wondered why female violence was always so quick to turn on itself.

Like, Stay the hell away from me, female violence.

I completely deny you, female violence.

Take one more step and I will kill you, female violence.

No, seriously, you’re dead to me.

I will kill myself.

A click and Jamie was gone.


The phone rang in the dark—my Gammie, the one who sent me $100 a month in red envelopes. Evelyn.

“Darling,” she breathed into the phone. “I’m just calling to tell you how marvelous you are.”

I imagined my Gammie on the other end of the phone, her grey hair piled into a bun, a red silk scarf tied around it, her red-manicured nails clutching a Vodka tonic. Her skin was slightly darker than the rest of the women in our family, so she always joked about the milkman. “I can’t stand it,” she sighed now. “I’m the last Democrat in Orange County.”

I held the receiver away from my mouth so my Gammie wouldn’t hear the inhale and exhale of my cigarette.

“Darling,” she said. “You’re doing a marvelous job–as well as anyone could do–but children need fathers, don’t you agree?”

I could hear Frank Sinatra singing I Gotta Be Me in the background.

I opened my palm and crushed the burning cherry of my cigarette into the center because that hurt in just the right way. I pressed it harder.

“I didn’t always have a father,” I said softly.

I remembered waking, maybe two years old, and feeling the satin trim of my warm pink blanket between my fingers.

I remembered the blood-red bougainvillea that vined and bloomed just outside the open window.

My mother and my father and my sister and I had been living in Europe when my father went fully bat-shit and something to do with Iranian spies he locked us all in an apartment and nobody will tell me what went down next, but after that it’s the French police breaking down the door and escorting my mother and my sister and I out into the cold and after that it’s an airplane and “go to sleep, Ariel” and we land back in my Gammie’s guest bedroom in southern California, safe.

“Well, that was awful,” my Gammie sighed into the phone now.

“I remember bougainvillea,” I whispered. And as I hung up, I wondered if she was right about children needing fathers.

I mean, how would I know?

I loved my father. But the logistics of remembering what town we lived in and how to get rice and tofu on the table if he did remember what town just weren’t in his skill set.

That, and him thinking my mother was a spy.



A knock at the door and I stood up slowly, padded across the stained beige carpet, unbolted the lock so that Lance wouldn’t have to smash another window pane.

He smiled as he stepped inside, started singing that Clash song London Calling, as he opened a full pack of cigarettes and held it out to me.

“Thanks,” I said as I took one. I brought the cigarette to my lips, lit it, and inhaled.

The smoke felt warm on my lungs, like comfort—familiar and deadly.

I exhaled, measuring my breath into an imagined future in which I might more marvelously control what I let in and what I expelled.


Photo credits: Image 1 and image 2. All photos licensed under Creative Commons.

Ariel Gore is a LAMBDA-Award winning editor and author of eleven books of fiction and nonfiction including The End of Eve (Hawthorne Books, 2014), We Were Witches (The Feminist Press, 2017), Hexing the Patriarchy (Seal Press, 2019), and Fuck Happiness (Microcosm, 2020). Her latest anthology, Santa Fe Noir (Akashic Books), drops March 3, 2020. She teaches noir fiction, experimental story structure, and The Summer Manuscript Workshop online at The Literary Kitchen. More from this author →