Love Letters to Ex, Athena Frances Harden

Ron Riekki

I couldn’t stand the sight of blood, but I became an EMT so that I could treat myself and my bandmates after punk shows. We’d play the Lyons Den in Chicago, and I had a habit of swinging the mic in circles, hitting myself and the audience and especially the bassist. I swung it hard, too. One night, Brian got it in the eye, and we were all worried he was going to go blind. The next week, I enrolled at the cheapest school I could find.

The class was filled with vets, most on the GI Bill. They’d prop their feet up like queens during class. Smooth and pudgy with their Afghanistan backgrounds. I could smell them, the military coming off their tattoos.

The instructor kept pretending to be a professional wrestler, roaming around the room to show us wall anatomy charts and telling us civilian war stories about blue-faced babies he couldn’t save. He’d never been to war, but he could paint war with words. He loved red and purple, brush-stroking everything arterial and venous, liters of circulating blood pouring out on the canvas of his earth.

All of the true learning was done in our off time, memorizing index cards with threshold limit value/short-term exposure limit and Parkinson disease and anaphylaxis written on them. I’d listen to Milo Goes to College, Punk in Drublic. CD after CD. The hours went by. Days. Weeks. I’d make up lyrics about the causes of bleeding during pregnancy—ectopic, placenta abruptio, placenta previa. I let my hair grow, metalhead-style, the guys in the class asking me when I was going to cut it. Never. I found out about a company that would hire someone with tats, someone with a Mohawk. They took all the motor vehicle accident calls, and their patients were unconscious, so they wouldn’t care how my hair looked.

I got a ninety-one average in the class, took the national exam, and finished in under a half hour, which I thought meant I’d flunked. I drove home screaming the f-word until my voice went. I didn’t want to retake it for the embarrassment of having to explain that I was actually just a dumb punk. Then I got my score in the mail and found I’d aced the exam.

They hired me.

I got partnered up with a fireman wannabe who rarely spoke. They threw us around Chicago, all over its freeways.

My second day, we had a multiple decapitation. I found myself staring at the heads. We had to wait for the coroner to come pronounce the kids all dead. Four of them in a convertible. They’d driven into the back of a truck with its bed down. The cops put up a tarp, holding it there, blocking the view from the one lane traffic. The fireman told me he couldn’t wait until he could actually start putting out fires. One of the heads from the front seat had rolled into the lap of a headless kid in the back. There was no alcohol in the car. It was a nice one. I don’t know cars very well, but the driver had to have a doctor for a father.

I was amazed at how my body seemed to react differently to blood now. When I did clinicals, the head nurse brought me into the room for a thoracic surgery, the bariatric chest carved open, sawed. I remember looking at the insides like they were a puzzle. There’s nothing disgusting about a Rubik’s Cube. It’s just colors and math, precision and expectation. The visual of an open wound was now triggering a completely different part of my cerebral cortex. I was thinking and seeing differently, whole other neurons firing.

The revelation happened when I started my once-a-week paramedic classes and was perusing my Emergency Care in the Streets by Nancy Caroline. It was a photo labeled “An object impaled through the abdomen” from the Trauma chapter, showing what looked like a crucifix made out of large thick rusty pipe had gone completely through a man’s stomach and out his back. The exposed penis, for no actual purpose, was included in the shot, but not the man’s head. The epiphany was like the Buddha. I felt lighter, less afraid of death, realizing the seconds that were passing, and a strong feeling that I could undergo torture for what I wanted, and what I wanted was to no longer have a penis.

I looked at the tiny little cowering mushroom of the corpse. Or maybe he was still alive. I don’t know.

I pulled my pants down and looked at my own. Corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum. This comic, spongy muscle wobbling like a baby. I Googled “how much does a sex change cost.” I read estimates of the $40,000 to $50,000 range.

My cell rang. The House, M.D. theme for my ringer. Our drummer asked me to come over.


I need a diagnosis.

I went over to his Wicker Park apartment, a two-floor complex where each apartment door had bands carved into the wood—SLAYER, Depeche Mode, Blood Red Shoes, BLUMENTOPF.

A few words on our drummer: Pete has a face made for hockey. He can’t afford food, so he has an anorexic build, eats once a day, and occasionally dumpster dives. Part of his ear is missing from a piercing gone horribly bad. He has a Ph.D. in Post-colonial Literature from one of those millions of Massachusetts’ colleges but couldn’t get hired because of his nose and ear and build. He just doesn’t look like a teacher and that’s ninety percent of the hiring process.

Pete had a fever, which could have been a cold or an STD or cancer or, what I assumed was a side effect of drugs.

I asked him if he’s had unprotected sex recently.



How recently?

You tell me.

Last month.

With who?

Does it matter?

I asked if he’d done any drugs recently.

How recent?

You tell me.

Is today recent?

I waited for him to continue. He didn’t. I asked if he wanted me to sit with him. He did. We stared at the wall—a crack running down it like a weird stupid drunk river.

I told him it costs fifty grand to become a woman. I told him sex changes are for millionaires.

He stayed silent. I wondered if it was from the sickness, his STD overdose.

We talked about Brian, our guitarist. He was getting married. This was the fifth time he’d supposedly been getting married, but it never happened. He’d always been on the verge of marriage.

I told Pete to drink orange juice. I told him that fever reduces iron. Orange juice would help the iron depletion. He said all he had was tap water, Ramen, some grapes, pasta, and coupons.

I went to the store and bought him orange juice. When I came back, he was gone. I drank some O.J. and left the rest in the fridge, Garbage scribbled on the door, which I thought meant the band.

My next shift was dead. I mean, no calls, which was rare. This was Chicago and 2.7 million people means 2.7 million possibilities for falls and scrapes and explosions and drownings. Although, I’d never had a drowning. Drownings tended to be all war-story. In medic school, the instructors seemed to be addicted to their drowning and near-drowning tales, but I’d never had one. I seemed to get a billion different epidural hematomas. A few leg amputations. One arm avulsion, which, if someone begged me for the grossest thing I’d ever seen, might just be that.

In the tiniest parking lot known to mankind, for a convenient store just outside Lincoln Park, I told my partner a sex-change costs one-twentieth of a million dollars.

He was silent.

Why you know that?

I was silent.

I told him.

He started up the ambulance.

Where we goin’?

He took us back to the base station.

In a week, my hours were reduced to part-time. I no longer had my same partner, instead I’d been thrown in with a variety of EMTs who all seemed to love their job but hated the patients.

Pete called and told me the guitarist quit the band.

I dropped out of medic school.

I started roaming Chicago at night, going into strip clubs, dreaming of being the person on stage. They were all overpriced, the waitresses angry if you weren’t spending money, the strippers angry if you weren’t spending money, the bouncers paid to be angry. I tried to slide into the side corners, fade into the dark. Two places actually kicked me out for not buying drinks. I walked down alleys. I walked miles to Pete’s. It was 3 a.m. I pounded on his door. He answered it. He was not sick anymore, had his head shaved. I asked when that happened.

Girlfriend did it.

You have a girlfriend?


When’d that happen?

He yawned.

I saw her on the mattress on the floor. She was Asian, emo, a multicolored explosion of hair, smiley skull cartoon T-shirt, no pants, no underwear.

I told him I was sorry for interrupting.

She grabbed my hand, pulled me to the bed, cuddled into me.

Pete looked unhappy.

I told him I could go.

She let go. I stood.

She asked how old I was.

I don’t know, I said.

She said, Me either, I’m adopted.

Oh, I said, I didn’t mean that.

Pete stood against the fridge, groggy.

How’s the sex change, he asked me.

Good, I said.

You got a sex change? the girl said.


Me either, said the girl.

It was uncomfortable, the room, the night, the pause.

Let’s go for a walk, she said.

She grabbed some sweat pants, Pete’s. She put them on. They were vulgarly huge on her. She rolled them up. She tied them as tight as she could. And she pulled us all outside.

Where we goin’?

We walked down the sidewalks, the city apocalypse-empty.

Pete told me he was going to become a yoga instructor, told me he’d quit drugs, was going to quit the band.

His girlfriend said that she’d be glad, that the other guys in the band were all xenophobes and homophobes and people-phobes and just general phobes.

I asked her name.


I told her mine.

We entered a park. It was Oz Park. The Tin Man statue, like a horrific floating ghost in the night.

We walked by it, went to the Dorothy statue; we stared up at her shoulder shrug pose, as if she’d said she didn’t know the answer before we’d even asked it. Her hair, like waves of water in a sand mandala. Her face, meditatively calm and content. I leaned in and pet the statue of Toto. Pap joined me.

Why had the sculptor made Dorothy black? Because that was the beauty of art. You could turn anybody into anything they want.

I thought about this, the words sinking in like topical antibiotics. We stared at Dorothy’s face for a long time, our eyes adjusting to the night as if the world was getting painted a whole different color, everything—if at least for a moment—feeling so clean and healed, as if I could look into a massive cinematographic crystal ball and see a future where there were no flying evil monkeys, just me being me exactly how I wanted me to be me, and the people I’d be around would love me for that.

Ron Riekki's books include U.P.: a novel (nominated for the Sewanee Writers Series and Great Michigan Read), The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book awarded by the Library of Michigan, Eric Hoffer Book Award finalist, Midwest Book Award finalist, Foreword Book of the Year finalist, and Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist), and Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsula (2016 IPPY/Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal Great Lakes—Best Regional Fiction and Next Generation Indie Book Award—Short Story finalist).

Athena Frances Harden was born in rural SW Pennsylvania in 1989 and received a BFA from Point Park University in 2013. Using an array of mediums from photography to videography and paper collage, Athena intends on evoking deep emotion with the earthy, delicate, and intimate style presented. Bringing awareness to simple detail and relationships, making visual art to better understand self and the world we are all inhabiting. Currently residing in Pittsburgh PA, traveling often and breathing carefully.