(Up)Rising by Denise R. Ervin

In the city that birthed rebellion in the decade before my mother birthed me, I have built a home out of ruins.  This city that burned itself and then rose from its own ashes has been my guide, showing me the way through the flame ignited by my own personal book of matches.  This city, where I turned both arsonist and voyeur, built a monster and sometimes, that monster is me.

It wasn’t the vitiligo that speckled my skin or the eczema that left flakes of me on every surface I touched.  It wasn’t the joints that my pediatrician promised I would grow into that never quite knit together properly and left me with a bad right ankle and a bad left knee so I can’t even limp worth a damn.  It wasn’t even the gap-toothed smile I had grown to care for once guys my age called it sexy. It was my brain that sent me into the blaze.

I’ve never felt pretty, so I focused on being intelligent.   I was a child of two parents who had come from the south at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, who had no formal education beyond high school, but who settled into the truth of Henry Ford’s promise of a living wage for all his people.  There was never a question that I would go places they had never been allowed, my sister and I both.  I read insatiably and I wrote poems and stories that my teachers praised.  I, to this day, can quote movies and songs and recite random facts and information from my lifetime and from lifetimes before.  My memory is far from eidetic, but I do have an odd sense of recall; I remember my first phone number, for example, but not the driver’s license number I’ve had my entire adult life.  As a child, I figured that being smart was the least I could do to fulfill the dreams my parents had for me, so I did the most.

I earned all As in every class from the time I entered Kindergarten and I took my studies seriously.  High school was a breeze for me, even courses that my peers struggled with, with minimal studying.  By the time I entered college, I was confident there wasn’t at least a little something I knew about everything there was to know.  I knew I could write.  I knew I could teach, even if it was the last thing I wanted to do back then.  And I knew how to show the proper amount of deference to a man who I thought would leave me if I showed too much skin, or teeth, or backbone.

The day I found out almost everything I knew was a lie, that my brain had forsaken me and I didn’t have enough Detroit in me to withstand an attack, was 6 months into my attempt at marriage.  Albeit not often, I had failed before.  But this?  This was not me failing.  This was a grown man wrapping his hands around my throat and squeezing like a python until I began to go limp.  This was my happily-ever-after slapping me across the face and catching my earring with his wedding band, snatching it from my ear and flinging it across the room.  This was my husband shoving me into the kitchen counter so hard that the bruise would last longer than his sentence.  This was attempted murder in the former murder capital of the country.

I can still remember the smell of dark roast coffee dripping in the carafe as he entered the room, unable to contain his jealousy at my pending college graduation, as though he had not started his degree the same time I did.  As I stood by the toaster trying to decide if I should wait for the honey wheat slices to rise on their own or pop them up prematurely, looking forward to what I thought was coming, he caught me unaware.  A daughter of this city should have known better, should have been smart enough to drop a tear before she dropped her guard, but he caught me slipping.

And. He. Whupped. My. Natural. Ass.

I tried to fight back and that only made him madder, made me uglier, made me dumber.  I would tell the ER nurse who bandaged my cracked ribs that I should have done more, protesting through my split lip and bruised cheek.  The look on her face told me to be grateful I got away when I did, that I ran better than I fought.  It didn’t matter if it was true.  My city is not famous for raising track stars; we breed brawlers through and through.  And my injuries had me feeling like a fraud.

My inner circle was filled with neck-rolling, finger-snapping cosigners who told me they would have committed murder if thrust into my shoes.  I simply pressed my lips together in a tight smile, my tongue rubbing against the chipped tooth I would waffle on getting fixed for years to come, knowing I’d had the same thoughts before I needed to put them into action.  I remembered, then and now, the famous Mike Tyson quote: “Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face.”  I plan better now, but also, I don’t let people get close enough to make me change my plans.  Years of therapy have taught me a few lessons.

First, there is no honor in staying in a fight you know you can’t win.  Pugilistic ancestry be damned, Joe Louis didn’t die in a boxing ring.  Know when you’re outmatched.  There are no trophies, badges, or belts for getting the most pain medication during your hospital stay.  Second, there is nothing shameful about running.  Just make sure you’re in good enough shape to go the distance.  You will get caught if you stop to catch your breath, so pace yourself and maintain your stride.  Nothing and no one that seeks to destroy you will stay on your heels forever.  And finally, don’t get attached to your mistakes.  If you start the fire, that means you know exactly where to aim the fire extinguisher to put it out.  You are the point of origin.  And when you’re out, don’t discard the ashes.  They are the foundation of your future.  Build brilliance.  Build tenacity.  Build success.  Build the Detroit in you that he thought he stomped to the ground.  Be all of it, destruction and salvation, buried and resurrected, hero and villain.  You are made in and of difficult things; your city raised you so.

Denise R. Ervin is a creative writer hewn from the streets, classrooms, and boardrooms of Detroit, all of which taught her to contribute to the narrative of those who live, love, and look like her. She has spent two decades as a teaching artist, performing poetry around the country, and leading workshops for the likes of Midnight & Indigo and Room Project. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in AADUNA, Harbinger Asylum, Third Wednesday Magazine, and others. Most recently, she was selected as a Writing Fellow by The Watering Hole and a semifinalist for America’s Next Great Author.