Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

A Chance Encounter in Birmingham

Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Mileage: 2,830

Music: “Hit the Road Jack” by Ray Charles

Meal: A plate of (scurvy reducing) vegetables—my first since I hit the south.

*interview names and minor details changed*

I left New Orleans as it was approaching the peak of its flamboyant frenzy.  In Nola Labor Day weekend was also Gay Pride Decadence Weekend. Men had come from all over the US to don rainbow boas, dance in the streets, and celebrate being that who they were.  Interestingly, gay women were hard to find but the men crowded around me with their stories and flattery.  Sometimes all people need is someone to listen to them.

After kissing my delicate boys goodbye, I drove through the remainder of Louisiana remembering our conversations of love and hope; hope for a day when the world fully embraces our unique life choices.  As I crossed Mississippi (and yes I spelled it aloud as I had learned in first grade), the towns dissipated into thick forests, summer foliage turning golden in the late afternoon sun.  I was again on my own but this time with a full heart, a sunlit path, and a radio blasting the delicious melodies of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. “Why, hello there Darlin’” said a voice from the sky. God had found me on my journey, “Where have you been all these years?”

“Visiting anger, fear, and selfishness,” I replied.  “Basically, running from You.”

He smiled down on me. “I’m with you now.  You have a gift waiting for you in Alabama.” And He left me to sing aloud to the blues.

I entered Birmingham as the sun was setting and could just make out the town’s brick houses nestled in the soft hills.  The streets were quiet but I found an open Asian restaurant with an inviting bar scene.

I squeezed myself in at the bar.  “Is this seat taken?” I asked a pretty young girl who was sitting there alone, surely waiting for someone.

“No, no, go right ahead,” said a warm smile.  “It’s just me.”

I ordered a plate of vegetables, eager to put some vitamins in my malnourished body.

“So what type of food is Alabama most known for?” I asked the soft spoken girl to my right.

“Barbeque,” she said and eyed my tofu and broccoli with suspicion.  “But I do not think you’ll find Birmingham BBQ at a Thai place.”  And we laughed, the ice between our bar stools now broken.

“I’m Heidi,” I offered.

“I’m Madison,” smiled the girl.

With a svelte figure and braided head, I assumed Madison was still in college. However she was already a graduate with a masters degree and four years of accounting under her belt.  “I know it sounds boring,” she said, “but it was the only respectable major I could think of.”

Madison was the first one in her family to go to college; an opportunity she felt would take her beyond the dire situations of her family’s past.  Madison’s mother had gotten pregnant early and ended up in an abusive relationship that Madison shuddered to think about.  “We do not really talk to my father since my mother left him,” she said.

“Getting pregnant early was not an option for me or my sister,” said Madison.  “My mother laid down the law and demanded that we do something different with our lives. If we messed up and got pregnant than we would have to move out.” Properly scared and determined to fulfill her mother’s wishes, Madison devoted herself to her studies and athletics as opposed to parties and boys.

“My track coach was the only father figure I had,” said Madison. “He was an amazing coach and really believed in us and took our abilities to the next level.”  Under his support, Madison won hurdle race after hurdle race.  Sadly, Madison put tremendous faith in the one man that would also seek to undermine her self worth.  “He raped me when I was 15 years old,” she said calmly. “He told me that his use of my body was ‘God’s will.’”  Southern Baptists are a God fearing group and risking wrath wasn’t to be taken lightly.  “I was from a religious community—I didn’t know what to do, what was right or wrong.  I was too young.  I was too scared.”

Due to her athletic performance and scholastic achievements, Madison got into various universities in the south, a golden pathway out of her past in Birmingham. “However they still required partial tuition payments…and I couldn’t ask my mother to pay for all of that.”  As no one else had gone to college in Madison’s family, she didn’t understand that other types of financial aid that were available.  All of a sudden a scholarship to the University of Alabama in Birmingham appeared.  Madison wanted nothing more than to leave her town and memories but she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have half of her education paid for. “My mother didn’t understand why I was crying as we signed the acceptance papers.”

Madison resigned her self to her choice and entered the university hopeful for a new beginning, eager to learn and run and succeed.  However, on her first day of track practice she saw that her old high school coach was now her college coach.  Something inside of her died as she realized escape was futile.

“Did your sexual relationship continue?” I asked.

“It had to—he held it over my head,” she replied. The religious pressure now had a financial component to it.  “During my first year I got a phone call telling my me scholarship had been increased.”  Madison later found out that her coach had given up his own stipend to transfer the funds to her.  He told her, “I took food away from my children’s mouth for you.  You should be grateful to me.”  And Madison felt pressure to appease the man that had given her such an opportunity for future success.

“I couldn’t tell my mother.  It would break her.  I had to carry it on my own.” To this day very few people know of the ongoing sexual abuse that Madison endured, thinking she was a lucky uber achiever that had the world at her feet.

“It was terrible to have this burden of being the first to go to college,” said Madison.  “I had to keep up my scholarship, I had to perform in school, I had to show up at track practice…..with him.  The pressure to succeed was unbearable.  I won’t deny that I tried to kill myself.”

Due to complaints by other girls on the track team, Madison’s coach eventually got fired.  He blamed her as did the other African Americans claiming that she teamed up with the whites to have the one black coach removed.  Madison was a lonely for the remainder of college, but at least she didn’t have to keep up her Lolita- like relationship.

Even with the coach’s pressure rendered useless, Madison knew his touch would be with her for the rest of her life.  “I knew that I was smart and attractive but somehow I couldn’t shake the idea that perhaps all I was good for was sex.  I had this fear that that was all men saw….”

However, despite the difficulties of new romance, Madison is not one to feel victimized and overwhelmed by life.  With a strong body and stronger heart, she plans on always moving forward.  “Bad things happen to everyone,” she said.  “It is how you cope that matters.”  Madison is now ready to leave Birmingham and accounting to reinvent herself yet again.  At Madison’s accounting firm they often said, ‘It’s just numbers—it is not like you are saving a life.’  But Madison wanted more than just numbers.  She decided that she wanted to help others and is now exploring Master degree options in Healthcare Management.

“I saw a movie with Denzel Washington about organ transplant donors and decided that I want to be the one in power to make those difficult decisions of who gets what.  I want to work with desperate families to help them find solutions to live.”

I wanted Madison to move forward, but with an open heart.  I looked her in the eyes as we hugged goodbye and said, “Sometimes we build up so many walls we don’t let anything good in.  Sometimes out of self-protection we kill beautiful things before they have a chance.  Make sure you allow a little vulnerability for the goodness to enter.”  Madison nodded with sincerity in her big brown eyes.

As I walked down the peaceful streets back to my inn, I remembered all the love I had previously thrown punches at.  I probably needed to start taking my own advice.  “It’s good to see you back, Miss,” said the Innkeeper as I entered the musty foyer.  “It is good to be back.” I replied.

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