I am four when my sister is born in Greenville, South Carolina. My parents are educated, but we struggle economically. I am easing you into this story—that in itself is a luxury. We move to Memphis, Tennessee that same year. There are no guns in our home, but I’m too young to know this, much less understand why. We live in a shitty duplex in Memphis. Our neighbors have guns and a pen of dogs in the backyard. They are sportsmen. Hunters. Good ol’ boys with rifles and a healthy love for the 2nd Amendment. They wear camo and set up targets in their backyard. My momma is nervous around them, but I’m too young to understand why. Let me say that again: At five years old, I am too young to understand why. I start kindergarten at Sheffield Elementary School. It is 1983. There are no active shooter drills. Let me repeat: At five years old, I am too young to understand. I am allowed the luxury of being five years old, and only five years old. The neighbors give us a puppy—Brittany Spaniel, a hunting breed. Candy is female, runt of the litter. In other words: worthless. As luck would have it, she’s the only one in the litter worth a damn as a pointer. The neighbors offer to buy her back. Though my family could use the money, my parents refuse. I am too young to understand why. There is no dollar amount my parents can assign that is worth taking a family dog out of the living room and asking her to become a kill dog.
I am six and we are driving from Memphis to Florida. My momma explains the trip by holding a balloon up to the rearview mirror, to show us the shape of the state that will, for me, become the place I mean when I say, home. My daddy manages a Kay-Bee toy store and my mom starts substitute teaching. At some point, my daddy starts subbing, too. We live in a trailer park that has a real name but which the locals just call “Dogpatch” in a town you’ve never heard of, unincorporated Davie, Florida. The only landmarks are the city dump and the Boy Scout camp. I start first grade at Flamingo Elementary. There are no active shooter drills.
By 1987, both of my parents have landed full-time teaching positions. The Sawgrass Expressway hasn’t been built yet, so my mother commutes more than an hour each way, every day, to work at J.P. Taravella High School in Coral Springs. The school is 5.3 miles away from what will one day be Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, which doesn’t exist yet in 1987. She works in an affluent neighborhood, at a good school, in a city we couldn’t afford to live in. My father teaches at Nova High School—a progressive school that allows students from all over Broward County to attend—23 miles away from what will one day be the site of a mass shooting, at a school that isn’t built yet. We still live in Dogpatch; we are saving for a Real House. Our neighbors have guns. My friend Melanie’s father is what you might call a stereotypical redneck or white trash. He is drunk. A lot. He shoots Budweiser cans off a tree stump in the back of the trailer. There are swarms of kids roaming the streets of Dogpatch. It makes no difference. I am seven and the neighbor who watches me and my sister after school lets us watch horror movies, even though my momma says “no.” Darlene and her brother sneak into her father’s closet one afternoon to show me A Secret. It is a gun. I do not know it at the time, but later, I will understand that it’s a .45. “It goes BANG,” Darlene says. “We’re not supposed to touch it.” Her brother closes the lid and slides it back onto the top shelf.
I am in fifth grade and we are moving to a Real House. It’s not too far from Dogpatch, in the part of Davie—now incorporated—where people with horses and cow pastures live. Miami Dolphins football player Dan Marino will later be one of the first people to buy what will later be called “McMansions” in a neighboring city, which will be much too upscale to call Davie, so it colonizes the land but keeps the name: Tequesta. One of the cross-streets is called Shotgun Road. In 1989, it is still full of Florida locals who drop the n-word in casual conversation, which I am old enough to know is bad, but as a child, will have no way to address, because they are the adults. Our new neighbors all have guns. Shotguns mostly, but every so often I overhear adults talking about things like “magazines” and realize they aren’t talking about reading, but about shooting. There are no guns in my house. I am old enough to understand that in this; my parents have stuck a stake in the ground, but I am too young to understand how. I am in fifth grade and my father has written a letter of hardship to the board at Nova, where he teaches. Though it is a public school, kids are signed up at birth to attend the educational complex: a system of two elementary schools, a middle school, two high schools (public and private) and a vocational school. I was not signed up at birth. My sister and I are enrolled at Nova, where we always understand that it is a privilege. Our home schools—Seminole Middle and Western High—wouldn’t give us the same opportunities, and though I am by now eleven, I don’t understand that there’s another reason my parents don’t want us there: this is rural Florida, still, though in twenty years’ time, it won’t be. There are guns everywhere, but still, no active shooter drills. We are allowed the luxury to be children.
I am in middle school and my friend Erin’s parents are both cops. There are guns in the house and she shows some of them to me when her mom is on duty. One has a pink grip and this is Erin’s favorite. “I’m getting one for my sweet 16,” she says, pointing the barrel at her closet. I am worried, but at thirteen, I am still too young to be afraid the way I should be. Let me say that again: At thirteen, I am still too young to be afraid the way I should be.
I say, “Put it back or we’ll get in trouble.”
“What, scaredy cat, it’s not loaded,” she says, miffed. “I checked.”
I am fifteen and the uncomfortable third wheel on what was supposed to be a sleepover at Erin’s house, but I am slowly realizing was just a cover story, so she could go out with her twenty-two-year-old boyfriend, a Realtree snapback-wearing Good Ol’ Boy whose name I have purged from my memories. We are riding in a jacked-up Ford pickup and naturally, he has a .45 in the glove and a shotgun rack hanging in the cab. We are in high school now, and there are still no active shooter drills. Her boyfriend uses the n-word a lot, and when I object—he says, “I have nothing against black folk; I think everybody should own a couple.” I am stunned and scared and I tell them to take me home. I have failed at something and I don’t know how to make it right, because let me say this again: I am fifteen, and I am too young to know how to do the right thing when there are guns in the truck. I fight back tears because this is the first of many girlfriends I will lose over a man, and it is the first time I understand how women change themselves—often for the worse—in the name of love, how love can be perverted and twisted by men who know how to wield power and fear. He drives erratically and she sits in the middle seat and I am looking out the window, trying not to notice that he’s fingering her while he’s driving. This is the last time I see Erin outside of making brief eye contact in the halls at school, pretending like we don’t really know each other. Years later, when Trump wins and they say fifty-three percent of white women voted for him, hers is the face I assign to that percentage.
I cannot remember if I was in middle school or high school when one of my uncles has a psychotic break. He is epileptic and he suffers from bouts of paranoia and psychosis that is sometimes triggered by grand mal seizures. It is important to say that his disorders are not the thing that is scary—we have grown up with him and we know how to make sure he doesn’t bite his tongue or choke, that his limbs may go clonic and that if we get too close he may lash out without meaning to. My momma loves her brother and she has taught us not to be afraid of the epilepsy, that the paranoia isn’t anyone’s fault: “It’s just that his brain is wired differently and sometimes the wires get crossed the wrong way.” He shows up one day ranting about a secret language that only he can see, that the letter “T” represents Christ, and the only he can understand the messages. It is one of only a few times I remember thinking, My momma is scared of her brother. Something is different about this episode. They have been trying to get him to the VA hospital, but he is smart and he knows what to say to the doctors. My parents have been trying to get him help, to get him back on his meds, and there is panic in my mother’s voice when she screams, “Get Angie and get in the house and don’t come out.” I am thirteen, maybe fourteen—it’s hard to put this one in a timeline and be confident I’ve gotten it right. I am too young to understand what she’s really afraid of here, because it’s not the epilepsy or the paranoia; it’s the fear that he might have a gun, because we live in rural Florida, out west near the mouth of Alligator Alley, and everyone out here has guns. She is afraid because he has no grasp on reality in this moment: in this memory, he is an angry white man who stands over six feet tall, and he thinks my parents are conspiring against him, and there is a chance that he might have a gun, a way to make sure they’re listening.
It is the late 90s, and I am in college now—the liberal arts school of the Florida system, lovingly nicknamed the hippie Harvard, full of mostly white students who honestly want to make a difference in the world but haven’t seen enough of the world to know what that means yet. We are living in a student rental packed with more roommates than there are rooms. Derroll jokes that he is the result of what happens when you raise your children in an evangelical household—I can’t remember if he was Mormon, Pentecostal, or Seventh-Day Adventist; it doesn’t really matter because the point of this is that he comes out of this strict religious upbringing with a taste for the trappings of masculinity. He brazenly walks through the house naked. He has many, many guns in our house. He leaves a loaded .45 in the kitchen and is quick to anger when I remind him we have cats who could knock the guns off the ledges and cause them to misfire. Once, a friend bangs on our door drunk, late at night and Derroll answers the door naked, brandishing a shotgun, making my drunk friend literally piss himself. We have a house meeting and I am terrified to be the one that asks him to move out. At nineteen, I am still too young to understand the full complexity of the danger I am in when I tell a white man that I am afraid of his temper and his guns. Let me say this again: At nineteen, I am old enough to understand the fear, but not the complexity of the danger.
I am twenty and I have come home for a semester, I am taking classes at Broward Community College, adjacent to Nova High School, where my sister is now a junior. I am in a film class when the emergency alarms go off and we are told over the intercom that the campus is closing. There are no smartphones yet, so we don’t know why. I walk over to Nova, to find my daddy and my sister, and Nova is also on lockdown. On the way home we listen to NPR in silence and they report on a school shooting in Colorado—far, far, away from Florida—Columbine. I am scared in a way I don’t fully understand, though I am only months away from being old enough to drink and have legally been considered an adult for two years. In the coming weeks, Nova will have an active shooter drill, and my sister will learn the language of terrorism in the futile attempts the adults have decided are the means to keeping her as they say, “safe.”
I have become a statistic of my own: married young, divorced young, three husbands by the time I’m thirty-five. I move to North Florida, more rural than the no-name town I grew up in, or the touristy city where I went to undergrad. Three husbands bring guns into our homes and tell me, “It’s to keep us safe, it’s so I can protect you. So I can protect you.” They say, “Castle Law,” and I don’t understand. I am twenty, twenty-four, thirty-two: how old must a woman be before realizing that the man who pledges to protect you might be the very person you need protection from?
Besides the guns, they have another thing in common: throughout the course of each marriage, they will all raise their hands to me in anger, and I will excuse it, hide it, forgive it. How much of this is me changing myself, perverting love into obedience, twisting love into complicity in secret-keeping, excusing violence to keep the peace.
Here is another thing they share: they are all angry. They are all white men. They all believe that the world owes them something but they can’t quite articulate what and the world can’t quite deliver, and violence is their only means of discourse. They all have easy access to guns. They are proud members of the NRA. They are Responsible Gun Owners on paper, to the world that doesn’t go home with them. They all love their guns in a way that only years later, I’ll understand that they could never love me. These men love their guns because deep down, they hate a part of themselves that they cannot show to the world.
The first time I fire a gun, I am twenty-one and the oily smell of gunpowder and hot metal gags me. I am so scared I start to cry. The second time I fire a gun, I feel a hot thread surge through me: power. One of my husbands—it doesn’t matter which one—cautions me, “Never aim the barrel at anything you don’t intend to kill.”
Later, he will aim the barrel at me.
One of my fathers-in-law collects guns and his lust for them reminds me of Gollum from Lord of the Rings, the way he lovingly cleans them on Sunday nights after family dinner. His favorite is a Desert Eagle, a semi-automatic handgun, which he brags chambers the largest centerfire cartridge of any magazine-fed, self-loading pistol. Its barrel is terrifyingly long and its weight is cumbersome, and my husband tells me that it’s hard to fire accurately, that really, the only reason to have this gun is because of what it represents: it is devastatingly powerful, and its only real purpose is killing people. Cleaning the guns after dinner is a habit that I do not realize at the time serves a dual purpose: yes, he is cleaning and maintaining the guns. But also, he is reminding us who is the Head of the Household, who demands respect, what would happen if we stray from his path. The Desert Eagle is a shock collar. Just seeing it keeps us in line.
I am living in Tallahassee and I work at the Borders bookstore and after work, all the baristas from the café and the booksellers go to drink yards of beer at a shitty bar. Many men I know are military, because how else do you pay for college or health insurance when you’re from Wakulla County? These are more men who are capable, comfortable around guns. Some of them have already been to Iraq, Afghanistan, other places I only know from news stories and the things they don’t talk about when they come back, changed. Let me repeat that: they come back changed. They have done things they cannot, will not talk about. One spring, Tre gets called back to active duty, so we go out drinking after work. Outside, smoking under a streetlamp, he presses his Zippo into my hands and says, “Just in case.” He doesn’t finish, because I know what just in case means. Three months later, he is killed in action. I keep the Zippo in my jewelry box.
I am in my mid-thirties, at an MFA program I can’t afford, traveling biannually to California to study creative writing, because it seems like a way to distract myself from my alcoholic husband and the nightly terrorism of our home, if only for ten days at a time, twice a year. I am in the smoker’s pit with a smartphone when the news about Sandy Hook starts spreading on Facebook. Classes continue uninterrupted, though our mentors are sure to tell us that there are counselors available if we need to talk through it. When I go home, my angry husband is drunk, and he aims a .32 revolver at me, “So you’ll listen, goddamn it.” When I finally talk him off the ledge I put the gun in a Ziploc bag and drop it in the water tank of the toilet. Call his best friend from high school, a cop. On my way to work the next morning, I meet him in a parking lot to surrender it. “You know he’s got more,” he says. “You need to get out of this marriage, because if you don’t, you’re going to leave it in a body bag.”
A tattoo parlor on Monroe Street is evacuated after the owner—a friend of a friend, someone I knew of but didn’t know—shot himself in the shop. People say: Messy divorce, custody battle, child abuse, domestic violence. The whole block is evacuated because he was building a bomb in the back room. These are not strangers. These are neighbors. These are angry white men you know who are grinding grudges to sharp tips.
I stay. Love twists itself into fear, into statistics, into things people can live with. Even the most fucked-up things can become normal, if you ignore their terrible weight long enough.
I haven’t left yet. I dance at a club on Mondays, a group of Tallahassee misfits and goths and people who live paycheck to paycheck and most, if not all, are comfortable around guns, many of them are military, and nothing seems out of sorts. Allen comes back from a tour and does terrible things to women he loves. One night after drinking too much, he posts a cryptic message on Facebook, comes home, and turns his military-issue rifle on himself. No one speaks the terrible thing that races through all our thoughts at some point: What if he’d taken it to the club?
I live in California now, away from Florida, away from houses and husbands with guns. Pulse nightclub in Orlando—another man with a gun, who did exactly that: went to the club with a gun. Thoughts and prayers are another kind of love, twisting, perverting us.
I am walking laps around a park with a friend from Tallahassee, who also lives in California now. “Did you hear?” she asks, somber.
“No, what?” I say.
She pulls out her phone and shows me a news story from back home: a friend of my ex-husband, an armed standoff with TPD, a shot fired—whether he is killed by the police or if his own bullet kills him, the story doesn’t know yet. I think of his wife, his child, people I know, real people. The gun was legal. He was trained to use it. Licensed. It was there for safety, for protection.
My sister texts me: “Did you hear?” Sends a link, another news story. My ex-husband, who still has many guns, has been carjacked. At gunpoint. His guns have kept nothing safe.
I have another uncle, who I have not seen since my grandmother’s funeral. I am old enough to be afraid of him, because he has brought a militia’s worth of weaponry to her funeral, drinks and raves right-wing conspiracy theories deep into the night. My mother tells him to leave, voice quavering. By that time, my parents have spent years of their teaching careers practicing active shooter drills, mapping out the paths they will take, the students they will protect, the carnage they will become in the event of the unimaginable, because it is not unimaginable, not anymore. He leaves and this is the last time I see him. Years later, my sister mentions he won a lot of money in a poker tournament in Las Vegas. I forget him for years, until the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Before the shooter’s name is released, the details fit: his age, his guns, his anger, the place, a white man on a mission to punish, to control, to destroy. I am ashamed and relieved when it’s not him, but here’s the thing: it could have been. It could have been.
I am almost forty and my parents have only just retired from teaching, spending nineteen years of their careers teaching a course where everyone hopes their knowledge will never be put to the test. I am scrolling through Twitter when #Parkland starts trending and I am ashamed at my relief that my parents aren’t teachers anymore and terrified, because my partner has just become certified to teach. I text my momma: I’m glad you’re retired and I’m scared of how selfish it makes me feel. She texts back: I’m glad, too, I love you. I think of the texts scared teenagers sent their parents from lockdown, I love you, I love you, I love you. How this feverish love of guns twists and perverts what is considered normal. I text a friend in Florida. I am scheduled to travel to AWP and present a panel and have already articulated my fear at traveling back to the state where I have left ex-husbands, angry white men with guns, grinding grudges. A week before Parkland, my name lands on a list called Shitty Women in Literature, penned in poison by another angry white man, loading grudges into a magazine, a barrel aimed like a hit list of women he wants to destroy.
Do you think we’ll be safe? I ask. I don’t know, she replies. I just don’t know.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.