Author: Corinne Loveland
Location: Santa Cruz, California
Corinne Loveland is a writer and educator. Originally from the New Jersey Shore, Corinne moved to California and received her MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco in 2005. She loved California so much that she decided to stay. When she's not writing or teaching writing, Corinne enjoys yoga, animals, and sipping tea on the beach with her boyfriend. Corinne's first book, a collection of essays entitled Looking for Breath,
has not yet been published, though single essays from the collection can be found in various literary magazines, online and in print.
In my yoga practice, I've been told time and time again that unexpressed emotions are stored in our bodies. My emotion is concentrated in my hips and jaw, which, I've also learned, are directly connected.
This makes sense. Most nights I clench my jaw so tightly it wakes me from sleep. I open my eyes in a dark, still house with an aching jaw and sore teeth and I know something is going on, swirling beneath the surface. During yoga, when I sit cross-legged and stack my ankle over my knee in double-pigeon pose to stretch my outer hips, I feel more than taut muscles stretching. I feel resistance, and I feel fear. In my hips and in my jaw, I sense a past I struggle to make sense of.
On the evening of November 3, 1992, Gail Shollar, my aunt, was raped and murdered. She was loading bags into her minivan after grocery shopping with her youngest daughter, Andrea, near their home in Piscataway, New Jersey. Scott Johnson, a man she never before saw, forced her into the van at knifepoint.
Andrea was found early the next morning on the lawn of a nearby daycare center, cold and crying, but alive. Gail, who must have pleaded with her captor to release her young daughter, did not have a fate as fortunate.
I know exactly what I was doing while my aunt was being killed. I've never been able to shake that. It was Election Day, the day Clinton was elected for his first term. My sixth grade teacher had handed out U.S. maps and asked my class to color in the states as the electoral votes were decided: red for George Bush, blue for Bill Clinton, and yellow for Ross Perot. I remember staying up until almost midnight, sprawled on the floor in front of the TV, coloring nonchalantly. When I put my crayons away and fell asleep that evening, I had no idea that my aunt had been raped and stabbed to death. I didn't know that my Uncle Bob would wake up in the middle of the night to find his wife and daughter gone, that he would panic, call my mother, and chaos would officially erupt.
We waited. For four endless days and four endless nights, we, a family united in fear, fidgeted, waiting to find out what happened to Gail. We waited for her to be found. My mother needed to be there, she explained, couldn't be anywhere but at her sister's house, in the middle of the madness. My mother further explained that she needed my brother and me to be there with her.
Those were the hardest four days of my life.
When we arrived, the house looked the same, but I knew it wasn't. I knew this as soon as I stepped inside. The couches, of course, were in the same place, and long white curtains framed the windows as usual, and the caged parakeet was chirping. The school photos of my smiling cousins still hung on the walls. The house still looked like a home. But I felt it in the air, and I felt it in my body, it wouldn't be the home I knew, not ever again.
I stationed myself at the kitchen table, away from where everyone else sat, stood, paced, and cried. I was incapable of feeling anything besides emptiness.
I approached my cousin Sherri, then eleven years old, Gail's oldest child, and tapped her on the shoulder. "May I borrow your crayons and some construction paper," I asked. I knew it was an unreasonable request to ask of someone whose mother had been kidnapped. It seemed like nothing was appropriate to say, nothing at all. That's why I didn't look at her when I asked. But Sherri didn't hesitate. She went straight to her bedroom. Maybe she was relieved by being able to handle a simple task, a task less draining than surviving a missing mother.
I returned to my seat at the kitchen table and propped my chin in my hands. Sherri returned with a handful of construction paper and a box of crayons. I hoped she would stay in the kitchen with me, but she didn't. I slid a piece of paper from the pile, pink, because pink was Gail's favorite color. I chose a green crayon because green was my favorite color. Carefully, I drew two stick figures, both with long squiggly lines indicating curly hair. My aunt and I shared long brown curls—among other features. In the drawing, we held hands. We were safe. I put smiles on our faces and flowers at our feet. Then, in big sloppy script, I wrote "Hurry Home, Aunt Gail, I Love You."
"I embrace all of life's sorrows boldly, with my whole self," my yoga teacher said, weaving between myself and the other practitioners in the studio. Heat blasted from the vents, and sweat dripped from my hairline to my mat as I flowed through a vinyasa, a set series of postures that lead into one another, linking movement to breath. I moved with grace and determination, wanting, aching for what my teacher said to resonate in my mind and body.
If we ate, or slept, or did anything ordinary while we waited, I don't remember. I only remember the worry, the fear, and the pain.
They found the minivan first, parked near a patch of woods a few miles from where Gail had been shopping. There was a bloody palm print on the inside of one of the windows, and from this, or from a piece of hair, or from something I can't remember, police knew who did it. They just didn't know yet what he had done.
They found the knife next, the following day. It was a kitchen knife, covered in my aunt's blood, found in the backyard of the killer's girlfriend.
At the house, the house my aunt would never see again, the doorbell, like the phone, sounded constantly. Family members, friends, neighbors, news crews, police, strangers, they called and stopped by continuously, wanting to know what it was that we felt. Cameramen from NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS zoomed in on the front door of my childhood, trying hard to expose the faces behind the horror.
Another day passed. My Uncle Bob agreed to a TV interview. Bright lights and microphones and cameras were all in place. Bob was on the couch, surrounded by his three children. "We want her back," he said, his big brown eyes swollen with sadness. "Please, whoever you are that has her, let her go safely," he pleaded, gasping between sobs. "Let her come back to her family. We need her." He wiped his tears with his fist.
I did need her. My mother left us at Gail's house all the time. I knew with Aunt Gail everything would be stable, safe. I knew nothing crazy would happen, and now that she was missing, craziness was here.
Four days of waiting, four days of rain. In the sturdy house of my childhood, I sat, listening to the rain pound on the roof. Enough was enough. An army of rescuers, nearly one hundred men and women from the community, formed on the fourth day. They promised to find my aunt. From the house that had become a prison, I saw them on the news, saying they were determined to find her, to get to the bottom of this waiting game. They were going to find her body, they said. Not her, her body. I think that's when I began to understand that my aunt would never see the construction paper card I made her.
To look around the studio and survey the practice of others is considered improper yogic behavior. It's an ego thing, comparing yourself to someone else, striving to hold a headstand for as long as the person on the mat next to you or taking pride in your ability to outstretch another. Yoga isn't about flexibility. Yoga is about steady, controlled breath. Yoga is learning to understand the nuances of your body, finding inner awareness, and acknowledging the sensations that emerge through the physical postures and breathwork.
During hips stretches, I need to keep my eyes closed, clamped shut in fact, to avoid being elsewhere. My urge is to scan the room, to watch my fellow yogis effortlessly stretch their lithe hips. I don't mean to, but I envy them, not for their loose hips but for what they must not be storing there.
My cousins, my brother and I were in the basement when the detective came. We hadn't thought anything of the doorbell. Sherri sat in a rocking chair, her face worn from what was nearing a week of crying. Bobby, Gail's middle child, and Prescott, climbed on the pool table and smashed pool balls together. I sat on the floor, my knees pressed into my chest.
It was my mother's piercing scream that we heard. All motion stopped as I slowly lifted my head and turned toward the staircase I did not want to climb.
Gail's dead body, naked and mutilated, had been found, submerged in a drainage ditch, covered by a pile of fallen, soggy autumn leaves.
Often, before beginning my practice, I bow in dedication to a person, a cause, or a feeling. I vow to breathe through the upcoming physical challenges, to look inward and send my breath to the areas of my body that ask for it. Sometimes I think of my aunt and I dedicate my work on the mat to her struggle, her pain, and her love. Sometimes, I can't help but imagine her as she died: her face an expression of terror, pleading not to be killed. Breathing deeply and with control, I remember her voice and I hear it cry as she is led deep into the woods. I envision my aunt to the backdrop of a cold dark autumn night, her final night, and I feel the silence that must have followed the slaying. I see her killer walking away from a bloody body that means nothing to him but everything to me, a body that is no longer her. With a knife in his hand and a smirk on his face, he leaves. He leaves permanent damage. Sometimes, while I move, I wonder what she thought as she was penetrated, as he came toward her with that kitchen knife to slash her throat, as she was stabbed again and again. And again. I wonder if she put up a fight or if she surrendered. I wonder if she thought of her family, and selfishly, if she thought of me, if she had any idea what she meant to me.
And I breathe.