Make America Date Again

Photo by silkeybeto/Flickr

By Laurie Graff

“Well, I can see this afternoon’s going steadily downhill,” said my online date.

We were but twenty minutes in, and he happened to be right. I mean that, literally. What were the odds, but there I was in Riverside Park with a Jewish man from the Upper West Side, in publishing no less, and he turned out to be for Trump.

Our email exchange had been sparse. He just asked to meet. I didn’t ask questions. I just wanted to go. I used to kiss a lot of frogs. Then dating moved online. I now delete a lot of toads. Yet I felt all flushed when his face popped up on my screen. His profile, smart and to the point, matched the twinkle in his eye. He was a reader. Someone curious. Creative. He liked riding his bike and long summer drives. It would be a plus if he had a car, but I was just psyched to see he had hair. I wrote right away. He didn’t write back.

A week went by. I tried him again.

Hi! Are you playing hard to get? If so, I’ll play too… just tell me how! I can’t stop thinking about you. Okay, so maybe that’s not true but I do want to know you, and I would love to hear back. We’re both Upper West Siders, the river’s a favorite spot and the weather might actually be getting nice….

We made a plan to meet Sunday. He suggested one-thirty at the river. My class at the gym ended at one. I thought we could walk down together. Swing by Zabar’s café and get something to eat at the picnic table, on the new dock. He agreed. That morning, before heading out, I checked my email.

A slight change of plans… Instead of meeting at 1:30 on Broadway, I’ll meet you at the dock at 2.

All through the class I wondered what was up. On the one hand it seemed insignificant, but online dating was like a chess game. Every move meant something. Perhaps he planned to ride his bike, or maybe he knew wouldn’t be hungry. But I was, and made sure to eat before I arrived which (uncharacteristically) was precisely on time. At 1:59 I cut through the Boat Basin where, from the top of the patio, I saw him in the distance. He was leaning over the wood railings, looking out at the river, contemplating the cloudy Hudson. My heart and head connected as I thought, oh my, he’s cute.

That hardly ever happened, and I dropped my concerns rushing past all the people down to the dock. “Hi,” I waved. “It’s Laurie! Hello!”

“Hi!” He shook my hand. He smiled. “How was Pilates?”

We began chatting away as we checked out the boats and each other. It was always strange to come face to face with the live, 3-D person ordered up online. It was kind of like unwrapping a package from Amazon on an item whose size and color you gave an educated guess, and hoped would work in person.

“You want to walk?” he asked, pointing north on the promenade.

We were walking and talking. Getting-to-know-you talk. Trading questions with snapshots of answers. Conversation was easy, and he was easy on the eyes. I liked his black tee shirt and North Face pullover. He looked nice. He was warm. I’d go as far to say he was a mensch. Could I have met somebody?

“So where’s your office?” I was really happy to hear he still worked. Besides which, it was interesting to have met a man on the production side of magazines. “You know, there’s a Chinese place in a brownstone right across the street from you, seems very Mad Men-esque. White linen tablecloths. Art. I always wanted to go there. Maybe we could meet for a lunch special?”

Just so you know, for me that was a big deal. To signal, early on, I hoped to see him again. That I wanted to. He, meanwhile, was scrunching his face giving thought to the Chinese food. I recalled his profile saying he was a simple burger and jeans type guy.

“You should go if you want to try it,” he finally said, taking the lunch date off the table. But he continued to ask all about my work and he was attentive, so I resisted reading beyond the moment. Maybe he didn’t even take lunch, I thought, and bulleted through my years as professional actress, freelance publicist, and published author.

“So how do you get your health insurance?”

After saying I’d written three published novels you’d think the next question would be, “What are they?” But we were dating in the twenty-first century and, considering my chicklit titles, I actually figured this to be the safer question.

“Obamacare,” I said. “Fourth year. I was covered for twenty-three years through actors’ unions, and then through the Author’s Guild,” I explained, because it sounded substantial. “Then all the groups were disbanded so everyone’s on their own. It’s been good, but who knows what’s going to happen now. It’s all such a mess, right?”

I thought he’d jump right in. Only he did not even answer.

“It’s all like a mess, now. Don’t you think?” Gosh, people in steady jobs really had no clue what it took to freelance and find a plan every December. “Don’t you think it’s all like a big mess?”

He stopped walking to plant himself before he said, “I voted for Trump. I’m with him 100%. No resistance, no regrets. Behind him all the way.”

He whaaaaat?

His face deadpan, he rattled off that speech like an actor in a play. He had to be pulling my leg.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes,” he said. Seriously.

“Why?”

“Anything’s better than eight years of Obama,” he said, while I neglected to point out that Hillary, not Obama was the one who’d been running.

“I’m just… shocked.”

“Why would you be shocked?”

“Did you ever hear him speak?” I asked. I could practically see the air letting out of my balloon. “I just don’t ever meet anybody that’s, uh… for him. Especially here,” I pointed to Riverside Park as proof positive of the Democratic society I knew to exist on the Upper West Side where like-minded folk commiserated in the gym, in stores, on the subway and the streets. What in the world possessed this guy?

He resumed walking, so I followed. But now I could not look him in the eye. Instead, I looked down at the pavement, processing how this was about to change everything. From that moment on it was just a countdown to the end, and I passive-aggressively decided to let him take us there.

“Obama single-handedly destroyed the entire medical industry for the five percent of people who didn’t have health insurance.”

Obama? Again? The five percent didn’t count? Was that number even accurate? I’m the worst when it came to having data at my fingertips. Sometimes I memorized one stat, just to have something to pull out in these situations. I knew that 88% of the Upper West Side voted for Hillary. How’d I wind up on a date with one of the12% that was acting like the one percent?

“The problem’s with the insurance companies,” I said. “The problem is the greed. And people can’t navigate it alone. We need the groups so it’s easy for everyone to buy. Then there’ll be more people participating and costs will go down.”

“The insurance companies want to do it but —”

“But what? The government won’t let them?”

“That’s right.”

Fiddle dee dee, I thought, and rolled my eyes, remembering the first time I saw Gone with the Wind. Scarlett only wanted to have fun at the barbeque, but all the men could discuss was war, war, war!

“Do you read?” he asked.

Do you? I wondered. But he thought I was reading fake news. And I knew that he was.

“Okay, healthcare aside,” I said, intent on staying calm, channeling my inner Erica Kane, the vixen from All My Children whose mere tone could sweeten the saltiest of statements. “What about guns? What about LGBT? What about the planet? What about women’s rights, immmigra—”

“Well I can see this afternoon’s going steadily downhill.”

No wonder he didn’t want to swing by Zabar’s. Why spend time and money on a lunch that would never get eaten once the political views had been unpacked? Who could he possibly date in this city? More importantly, whom was I going to date?

“I just don’t know how you can get behind someone so stupid?” I asked, the cracks in the pavement deepening as I kept my voice light, and deliberately dug in. “He’s ignorant, coarse, he doesn’t read, he doesn’t understand The Constitution, God, those tweets—

Boy, I detested online dating. People shudder when I say that, and it frightens other women who feel compelled to meet that way. So let me modify. For me, online dating never works. No matter how promising it seemed there was always some insidious thing I’d have never imagined that appeared when we met in person. I could never love a man whose ideology, to me, so lacked compassion.

Maybe if we’d met during Obama… no! Maybe Bush? Maybe not. Perhaps pre 9-11? I think if we’d met at a happy hour during Clinton we could have had a good fling.

We walked in silence, little more than a few feet, when he saw an opening to the park at 90th Street.

“I’ll walk you out,” he said, but a moment later changed his mind. “Better yet, I’ll leave you right here.”

I did a pivot, quickly walking out and away.

“Nice to meet you,” I heard behind me.

Now, there’s an alternative fact.

•••

LAURIE GRAFF is the author of the bestselling You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs, Looking for Mr. Goodfrog, and The Shiksa Syndrome. A contributor to columns and anthologies, the former actress is also a produced and published OOB playwright. Laurie lives and works in New York City. Her new novel, Licked, is up for sale. Visit her website and ‘Like’ her on Facebook.

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The Presence of Her Absence

Photo by Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu/Flicker

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

“Is there hidden treasure up here?”

My eleven-year-old son Jonathan followed me up the creaking wooden stairs to the unfinished third floor attic of my father’s house one Saturday summer afternoon. What was he imagining? A secret stash of Spanish gold coins? Purloined jewels? But I knew what he meant. As a child, this Moorish-style house built in the late 1920s had always exuded mystery to me too.

“Let’s hope,” I said.

My eighty-three-year-old father had decided it was time to move. My mother had died two years earlier, a week short of her seventy-second birthday, after a drawn-out wasting illness. We’d grown so accustomed to the hiss of her oxygen tank that after her death, the silence was jarring. My father had removed the chair lift, the bed pans, the medications, and medical equipment. He’d taken to wandering through rooms in search of things to straighten and fix.

My husband Marc, our sons, and I were moving soon too. I had the unenviable task of emptying two houses at the same time and finding homes for all the soon-to-be-discarded books, house wares, tools, and toys. But I was grateful for the distraction. It kept me from focusing too much on the pain of closing up the only childhood home I had ever known.

“Let’s start here,” I said and opened the door to the attic bedroom. It was painted Pepto Bismol pink, a color my parents had chosen to welcome my teenage cousin Carole. She’d come to live with us after her mother Frances died. One unshaded light bulb still hung from the ceiling. Jonathan and I sat on opposite sides of the full size bed. But the old mattress was so soft and deep that we sank and rolled against each other, clonking heads. Giggling, we hauled each other out.

I seated myself at a built-in plywood desk tucked under the dormer, dragged open a warped drawer and dug in. Not the hidden treasure Jonathan hoped for, but treasure to me: a stationer’s box of faded invitations for my parents’ 1951 wedding at a long-gone New York hotel. Birth announcements for each of my fifteen first cousins. An envelope with a return address that said only, “War Bonds.” Braille manuals. A round-tipped Braille stylus, oak tag, a masonite board, and a hinged metal slate I remembered playing with. My mother had made books for the visually impaired; in later years, she recorded audio books for The Lighthouse. Reading was her lifelong refuge. Even as a child of ten, in the midst of the Depression, she’d told me, she’d sit on the floor and read three-week-old newspapers as avidly as if they were the latest screen magazines. At ten she read books by FitzgeraldHemingway, and Woolf. “I didn’t understand most of it,” she once told me, “I just read whatever I could get my hands on.” Was that why she’d dedicated so much time to producing those Braille books? To share that love of reading she’d also imparted to me? I closed my eyes and ran my fingers over the indecipherable bumps.

Then I unearthed a landmine.

I stared at a pair of similar printed cards. The same date. The same time. The same cemetery. I’d been barely two that terrible day in August. Grandma Anna and Aunt Frances died within twenty-four hours of each other. Mother and daughter. Frances, from mysterious symptoms that might have been lupus; Grandma, of complications from diabetes. I hadn’t known there had been one funeral to bury them both.

I had only the dimmest visual memories of Grandma Anna, my dad’s mother: a kind, billowing woman in a wheelchair, an afghan concealing her lap. I was not allowed to climb on that lap. Only years later did I learn why: her leg had just been amputated. “But even on just one leg,” my mother marveled, “she balanced herself on crutches because she said she had to bake. It was Purim, she had hundreds of hamantashen to make.” Her absence was a phantom limb presence in my childhood. I had ached for the grandmother I didn’t get to know.

I looked at Jonathan. He was reading one of my old book reports. “This is pathetic, Mom,” he said. “How old were you when you wrote it?”

“Those were simpler times,” I said. “You must be bored if you’re reading that. Why don’t you go see if Grandpa will play Connect Four with you?”

My mother had adored her mother-in-law. Anna had filled some of the void her own mother’s early death from cancer had left. My mother’s mother Liane died long before I was born. I’d been named for her. I knew Grandma Liane only through my mother’s stories. A woman so kind and beloved in their Yonkers community that five hundred people had come to her funeral. The only picture I’d ever seen of my grandmother was printed on the back of a small round mirror that fit in my mother’s purse. It was a faded photo of a woman kneeling in a polka dot dress, embracing a small blonde child who grew up to be my brown-haired mother.

“Why don’t you have more pictures?” I’d asked. She never answered. It had frightened me to hear my mother’s sad voice, to see the shrouded look in her eyes, so I stopped asking. Years later, I learned that a year after my mother’s mother died, her father remarried a widow named Helen. Helen resented my mother’s presence in the house. She tried repeatedly to drive her out. One day, my mother returned home from work to find that Helen had taken my grandmother’s photo albums and her set of the Harvard Classic Books series. She’d dumped it all in a metal trash bin in the back yard. She’d incinerated it all and erased my mother’s childhood.

Because I was named for my grandmother, I’d grown up feeling that I was the repository of all my mother’s fantasies, hopes, and longings. I’d also believed that names and words had a dark magic presence. To name a fear was to breathe life into it, so I learned early on not to ask about the things that scared me most. My mother had been only seventeen when she lost her mother. I worried my mother would leave me too. Because I bore my grandmother’s name, I also feared I might die young the way she had. I remember lying in bed at night, searching my seven-year-old body for cancer lumps. It was a typical fear for any child, but I worried more than most. I knew firsthand that mothers could and often did die before their children were done needing them. I am now past sixty. My mother has been gone twenty years, I am still not done needing her.

I continued to search. Cleaning out, but hunting too. I found a metal box full of index cards, scribbled over in my mother’s backward slanting hand. I began to read. “Patrick Mulcahy: August 23, 1949: black skirt, Ohrbach’s; white ribbon blouse; movie: ‘On the Town’; dinner, Caffe Reggio.” Each card contained the name of a man she was dating, with relevant details about what she’d worn and where they’d gone. There were scores of cards. She’d once told me, “Back then I only had two skirts and three nice blouses. I washed and ironed all the time so I wouldn’t repeat an outfit from one date to the next.” She’d been a poor young woman, sleeping on her brother and sister-in-law’s sofa bed in a Stuyvesant Town apartment. She worked at an advertising agency high up in the Empire State Building. She’d been popular. My dad once told me, “I had to fight off half the male population of Manhattan to get her.”

“I encouraged that fantasy,” she said and laughed. I like to imagine her looking like Rosalind Russell in His Gal Friday, delivering snappy lines of dialogue and wearing great hats.

I marveled at the volume of what she had stashed away in the attic. The file cabinets were crammed. My grade school loose-leaf notebooks, still bulging with yellowing compositions. Forty years’ worth of cancelled checks. A clever musical parody she wrote of The Mikado. Large, rolled-up photos in cardboard tubes. I unfurled them, and studied the panoramas of dinner dance crowds, women in taffeta gowns and rhinestone studded eyeglasses, balding men proud and portly in their tuxes. I recognized many faces, people who had once looked so old to me. I was now the same age, probably even older, than they had been when those photographs were taken.

I slid open the warped closet door and found her emerald green strapless satin evening gown. I’d loved to dress up in it. I swam in it then. What would it feel like to try it on now? But the gown sagged under the weight of its own whale boning. The glamour was gone.

Instead, I stepped into the long closet, slid the door shut, and stared at the pinpricks of light at the far end. One day Peter O’Leary, the imaginative older boy of five who lived next door, locked us into the closet together, pointed out the holes of light in the far wall, and said, “Those are witch’s eyes! She’s going to get us!” I remembered my terror when I couldn’t open the door. How I’d screamed and screamed until my mother found us and comforted me.

Slowly I began to fill large black plastic trash bags. In went the piles of torn pink bedding thick with dust; files full of raffles and receipts from the temple bazaars my mother used to run; rotting suitcases, the seams infested with tiny, larval debris that made me shudder.

“I wish I could be as sure of other things in this world as the fact that the housework will still be here long after I’m gone,” she often said.

I thought about the essential unknowability of my mother. The mysteries of our parents’ inner lives. Did she mean to leave me this tantalizing trail? More likely, she’d assumed she still had time left to sift and to sort the half-written stories, the faded photos, the letters from long-gone lovers. Why had she kept the boyfriend index cards? The snippets of lace and cloth? The feathered bits of millinery? The Braille books? Why had she valued these items above others? What had these totems meant to her?

I will never know for sure.

Her stepmother had destroyed the talismans of her own childhood. Had she preserved finite, fragile clues, bits of an adult life she’d cherished, to give me what she hadn’t had? Wanted me to know her in ways she’d been denied knowing her own mother? Reassembling these shards from my mother’s life was an emotional archaeology.

And then, finally, I found what all along I must have been seeking without even knowing. It was in a stationery box filled with unsent greeting cards. A note written to my husband Marc from my mother, on the eve of our wedding. I had seen it when she’d given him an antique silver Kiddush cup. Marc must have dropped the note during the excitement of that evening. I’d forgotten it. My mother had saved it.

The note said simply, “May Liane give you as much joy as she has given us.”

Did she know that I would find it one day? How much comfort I would draw from it? Could she have known that note would be what I’d treasure most? I’d like to think so.

Joy. I’d given her that.

And in return, she anchored me. The home she created was tender and safe. It is a lifetime since I lost her, but I still bask in the warmth of her sustaining love.

•••

LIANE KUPFERBERG CARTER is a nationally known writer and advocate for the autism community. Her memoir, Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism, is a winner of the 2017 American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Book Award. Her articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Brain Child, Literary Mama, The Manifest-Station, and Brevity. www.lianekcarter.com

 

Titanic

Photo by cea+/Flickr

By Susan Goldberg

Rachel and I told the kids that we were separating on a Saturday night—also known in our then-household as Family Movie Night. Family Movie Night was pretty much exactly what it sounds like: we each took turns picking a film, and then the four of us hunkered down with pizza and popcorn in the basement and watched it together.

Family Movie Night was about as democratic as it gets, which means that if I had to sit through Soccer Dog: European Cup and suffer the unrelenting vulgarity (and grudging hilarity) of Dumb and Dumber, then in turn my sons had to put up with my fondness for classics like Annie, School of Rock, and Beetlejuice, and with Rachel’s fascinating but maybe slightly off-base pick of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

We’d decided to separate a couple of months earlier, in an eerily calm conversation, one of us at either end of the living room couch, an afghan covering our feet in the middle. “Decided,” perhaps, isn’t entirely accurate; I, at least, had decided weeks earlier that I was done, that there would be no more couples counseling, no more trying to fix what was irreparably damaged. More precisely, then, we acknowledged that the marriage was over. If I’d had any lingering doubts, they were dispelled when Rachel excused herself from the conversation to use the bathroom. As she walked up the stairs, the thought that rose, gleeful and unbidden, in my head was, “Now I can renovate bathroom exactly how I want it.

Since that day, we’d been white-knuckling it to get through the winter school break, through Christmas (and an accompanying, weeklong visit from my mother-in-law), through the regular school/music lessons/soccer/swimming/meals/homework routine.

It was a surreal, slightly desperate time, punctuated by the confusing beauty of occasionally lovely family dinners and moments of pure joy with the boys, moments when Rachel and I looked at each other across the dining room table and shook our heads in disbelief that we were undoing this, even as we both knew exactly why. Ending the marriage was the right decision, and the much more frequent moments where we seethed silently, argued in whispers, retreated to our various corners of the house—or left it altogether, shaking in anger and grief—confirmed that.

Before we told the kids, we had needed time to figure out some basic facts — who would move out (her), how we would divide our time with the kids (50/50), how much the house was worth (I called an appraiser), how we would create a separation agreement and what it might look like (we hired a mediator, engaged our lawyers), how we’d handle living arrangements until she found a new place (we’d alternate spending time in the house with the children and staying with friends).

In focusing on those details, we were also making space to let the enormity of our decision sink in, to shift from envisioning a future together to a future apart, its unknown possibilities both exciting (bathroom!) and terrifying (money, loneliness). In figuring out schedules and valuations, we began the process what it would mean to let go, to be able to stop trying to work things out as a couple. In my better moments, it occurred to me that at least the problems we were dealing with now with had solutions.

And now, we had to figure out how to tell the boys.

On this particular Saturday evening, our seven-year-old son got to choose what we’d be watching for Family Movie Night.

“He wants Titanic,” Rachel texted me that morning. “It’s a metaphor.”

“I’ll miss your gallows sense of humor,” I wrote back. It was true.

Is there any good way to tell your children that their parents are splitting up? We’d been putting off the conversation until we could give them some credible information about why and how and where and with whom they’d be living, at least in the shorter term. We’d rehearsed the basics of what we needed to say — that it wasn’t their fault, that we loved them both deeply, that we’d tried really hard for a long time, that no one hated each other, that we’d still see lots of each other even on the days we weren’t all together.

Still, I felt entirely unprepared for the conversation, my dread mounting as the day (soccer practice, diving lessons, Pokémon club, playdates) wore on. I will admit that I dropped by a friend’s house in the late afternoon and took her up on her offer to share some of her clonazepam stash. In the end, I didn’t take any of the tiny pink pills that she’d carefully cut in half, but their very presence, in a baggie in my jeans pocket, felt like a talisman, warding off the worst.

Plus, we had a three-hour, sinking ship of a movie to watch. Subject matter aside, the sheer length of Titanic meant that we had to get the conversation over with quickly if we had any hope of actually watching the movie and getting to bed at a reasonable hour, putting the day and its challenges behind us.

Looking back, my focus on the logistics of the evening seems misplaced, a minor technicality in the grand scheme of what we were about to unleash on our kids. But so much—perhaps most—of parenting is about seemingly minor technicalities, details around snacks and screen time and who sits where and the right socks. In the midst of chaos, these details took on, at least momentarily, as much weight as housing appraisals and custody schedules. Or maybe it was simply that I had some control over them, could use them as a roadmap for the conversation, for the evening that would follow it.

We called, as planned, a family meeting. What we didn’t plan was our younger son insisting on having a tickle fight with Rachel immediately beforehand. On, of all places, our bed, the bed that we both, often, still slept in together, if awkwardly and chastely. (We didn’t have a spare room; the couch was uncomfortable; many nights we were simply too exhausted to bother contemplating other arrangements.) Eventually our ten-year-old joined in, as did I—because things were already strange enough, because who knew how many more moments like this we’d ever have, this family, together?

So there we were, the four of us, wrestling and giggling, the two of us with a secret and the two of them with no idea that their mothers’ marriage had hit its own iceberg.

Finally, I looked at my watch, and then at my ex. “We have something we need to talk to you about,” Rachel said, cutting short the tragic, gleeful puppy pile.

“What?” asked our firstborn.

“About a decision that Susan and I have made about our partnership,” she said, carefully.

“What about it?” asked his younger brother, utterly jovially. “Are you gonna get a divorce?”

Rachel and I looked at each other, and then back at them. “Well,” she said, “yes.”

I watched the expressions on their faces change slowly, identically: from open, tired delight to cloudy confusion, to fear, and then shock, then disbelief. “Really?”

“Really.”

Both kids looked from each of our faces to the other’s, scanning our expressions for some sign that we were joking, that this was just some warped continuation of our previous frolicking.

We launched into our prepared talk. There were tears, and hugs, and, eventually—because my children are children—talk of new kittens at the new house, “and maybe an Xbox!”

And then we ate pizza and watched Titanic, the hockey game dialed up on the iPad as well.

For days afterward, our younger son would repeat, “That was weird, the way that you told us.”

“Yeah,” I would say back. “It really was.”

“I wish you could’ve told us slower,” he’d say. I didn’t know how to answer. How could I explain that I’d been carrying around the news for so long that the weight of it was almost unbearable? That the months of that secret felt like the longest, slowest ones of my life?

“I was having a really good day until you told us that,” our older boy kept saying. “I won my soccer game, I won at Pokémon, the Blackhawks beat the Canadiens the night before, and then you told us you were getting divorced.”

“Yeah,” I finally answered. “It wasn’t a very good way to end the day. But, what if you had a really terrible day, and this was just the icing on the cake? And then you’d be all like, First we lost at soccer, and then I lost Pokémon, and the Habs won, and to top it all off, my parents told me that they were separating.” I managed to get a smile out of him.

“Maybe one day,” I said to him, “maybe one day, the way we told you will be one more story that we can tell about our family. Maybe one day, we’ll be able to look back on this and laugh and say, Remember when Rachel and Susan told us in the middle of a tickle fight that they were getting separated, and then we all watched Titanic together? And it will be strange and a little bit sad, but it will also be funny, and it will still be our story. All of ours.”

As we watched Titanic on that final Family Movie Night, Rachel and I looked at each other, often, over the heads of our sons. Once, we touched hands, nodding to each other silently: We got through this. We’re going to get through this.

Our younger son loved the film. His older brother was indifferent.

And Rachel and I?

We agreed, wholeheartedly, that it was a disaster.

•••

SUSAN GOLDBERG is a writer, editor and essayist, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices and Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents. Susan lives with her sons in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she is one of approximately thirty-odd Jews.

The House That Lies Built

Photo by Gina Easley www.ginaeasley.com

By Gina Frangello

My three children slept on mattresses on the floor, in the office adjacent to the master bath, pretending not to hear their father sobbing and pounding on the shower walls. This had become a morning ritual. How long had it been going on—two weeks, three?—on the morning when one of our twins woke to find a beetle in her ear. She’d become so inured to this strange new life of ours that she, who had once wept theatrically upon any insect sighting, simply flicked it across the room and slept on, later to see it on her brother’s mattress.

Sometimes, after the weeping, there would be shouting behind the closed door of their father’s and my master bedroom. Sometime near the end of that period of weeping and shouting, my son would come to my husband and me and beg us to “stop crying, stop yelling, stop closing the door to have talks.” My heart flipped and cracked and shredded itself apart with guilt. Even though it was my husband emitting the noises, my body pulsed with I did this. I did this.

We were confined, all five of us, to the upstairs of our two-level home, one proper bed between us all, extra furniture heaped in piles around our emotional chaos. Downstairs, the first floor of our apartment was gutted, everything draped in plastic. We were in the early stages of an extensive home renovation project we had been planning for a year—the first in fifteen years for our hundred-plus-year-old house. The renovation was, as such things always do, going more slowly than intended.

In the sixth week, my husband finally packed his bags for a solo trip to Colorado and informed me, while this time I wept hysterically on the floor of his closet, that I was to have had all his things moved to an apartment we co-owned with friends by the time he returned, and that he would never spend another night with me in our house. He had to walk past the children on their mattresses, to get to the stairs that would lead him out. Our fourteen-year-old twin daughters pretended to sleep and ignored him, but our nine-year-old son leapt up and rushed to the closet where I was howling like an animal and took me in his arms saying, “It’s okay, Mommy.” I had never, to my recollection, cried in front of my children before, even mildly. My son kissed my face and I tried to calm myself down, to not be That Mother, whose children have to parent her, the way my own mother, depressed in a back bedroom, had often been. Now, however, I was a broken thing with no control of the noises coming out of my body. I had wanted to be so many other things, but instead I was this: a bad memory my children would never be able to get out of their heads.

•••

Don’t feel sorry for me, hysterical on a closet floor, a woman left behind. It isn’t like that, some Elena Ferrante Days of Abandonment descent into rejected grief and madness. I am the Asshole in this story. What they never tell you is how much being the asshole hurts too.

•••

Three days into a home renovation my husband of twenty-two years and I were planning for our duplexed apartment, where we lived with our three children—my elderly parents in a separate downstairs unit—I confessed that I had been having an affair on and off (but mostly on…say it clearly: mostly on) for nearly three and a half years.

My husband and our children and I were in the Wisconsin Dells when I told him, at a horrible water park resort, in exile of the most invasive stage of the renovations: things being demolished, air thick with dust. My husband and I had left our teen twins in charge of our son and gone to dinner at the swanky restaurant inside the hotel, where we had several cocktails each. Though I’d never been a big drinker, lately—by which I mean at least the past two and a half years—I had more or less required a couple of drinks in order to have what passed as a fun time with my husband, to whom even saying “hello” had become a guilty lie.

I was stewing in a toxic, complex brew of my own guilt and duplicity, combined with longstanding marital resentments, anxieties, and almost unbearable boredom. That night, however, was a good night. It was a night—the first in at least a year—in which I could see the glimmers of why I had once fallen intensely in love with my husband and how we had ended up married to begin with. I felt moved by the way his smile was higher and more creased at one end; I could remember how once upon a time he had made me laugh, had been the confidante with whom I casually shared inside jokes that meant nothing to anyone Not Us. Even though he had told me several months prior, at a friend’s wedding, that he knew I didn’t “love him anymore” and that he feared I was just waiting for the children to go to college and then we would become “a clichéd empty nester divorce,” I could see he was still trying—that he wanted to fix whatever it was that had been broken for years before my affair. He still believed in me, even if it seemed years since we had made each other happy. He trusted me, even though it had been years since I’d been worthy of trust.

Was it my ability to glimpse our former love, that night at dinner, that allowed me to finally see—really see—how grotesquely entitled I had been, thinking it was in any way acceptable for me to lie so blatantly? To confuse kindness and tact with cowardice and manipulation—to tell myself stories about how “the Europeans” don’t make a “big deal” about infidelity, as though all I was guilty of was some vague Francophilia?

During the long night of wandering the resort in search of private spaces, my husband and I sobbed and fought, bargained and despaired, in the wake of my announcement. He kept saying, “It’s him or me” and telling me I could never speak to my lover again if I wanted to stay in our marriage. I knew what the Right Answer to such a demandwhen you have three children together and elderly parents in the unit downstairs and nearly a quarter century as a couple under your beltwas supposed to be, but I couldn’t give it. I couldn’t promise to cut out of my life the man I had fallen passionately in love with and “rededicate myself to the marriage,” and I realized all at once that if I had been able to do such a thing, which my husband had every right to demand, I would never have had an affair in the first place. I had walked away from other flirtations or borderline-emotional-affairs with a fair amount of ease over the years, knowing they were not worth the risk, knowing where I wanted to be at the end of my story, and not to mess that up for some momentary rush.

The second I actually started my affair, the decision had already been made.

I had withheld that decision—from both my husband and myself—for more than three years.

I had no Right Answers anymore.

•••

This is not about whether I had a “right” to leave my marriage. Of course I had a right. The fact that my husband never cheated on me or that he was a good provider or that he didn’t abuse drugs or alcohol or didn’t beat me has nothing to do with whether or not I was obligated to stay. No one is obligated to stay. We live in a society in which women are no longer chattel, in which we are permitted to choose our relationships, in which divorce is painful but common and legal. My guilt isn’t for knowing that I was never going to love my husband the way I needed to again—the way I believe people should love each other if they are going to use up all the days of their fleeting lives on each other. I don’t feel guilty for the fact that I could already glimpse the picture on the other side of our full-throttle “parenting years”—our children busy with their own lives, heading off to college and out-of-state jobs, our retirement years alone together—and knew I could not stay stagnant inside that frame. This is not about whether or not my husband also made his share of mistakes in our marriage or what they may have been. My leaving my husband was not retribution for any fault of his, but rather—and I believe this in every core of my being—that we each have the right to choose what ships to go down with versus when to get into a lifeboat and save ourselves emotionally. Promises made at the age of twenty-five can feel like words uttered by someone else entirely by the time we are forty-six. There is no one who doesn’t have the right to leave a consensual relationship between adults: no marital atrocities required.

Rather, this is about living, quite literally, inside the toxicity of a lie that had the power to knock down walls. If I did not owe my husband an Until Death Do We Part I no longer believed in, I still owed him a common decency and truth that I did not deliver. Our demolished house became a too-obvious metaphor for the ways I had literally blown our house down. How had I even become a person who would commit to an extensive and costly home renovation, paid for by my husband’s salary, when I was desperately in love with another man? After I shocked myself by confessing, I still held fast that my husband and I could live together “as friends” in our home and raise our children together, each having our freedom—I believed this so completely that I nearly convinced him of it, as he rushed out on a dozen Match and eHarmony dates, then came home either sexually keyed up while I hid awkwardly in the bathroom, or tearful in his grief. This was the livable solution I was selling? How do we become so blind to ourselves? How do we come to believe we have the right to know more about the narrative of someone else’s life than they do, to manipulate that narrative behind the scenes for years, and then believe they actually owe us a friendship?

By “how do we,” I mean of course “how did I?”

“…people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes,” wrote Joan Didion. “If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties.” I was trying to force my husband to forgive me, to still think well of me somehow, to avoid having to look at myself. I no longer wanted to be married to him, but after twenty-five years together, I was selfishly unready to surrender using his eyes as a mirror for my own vanities.

To say he was furious about the timing of my confession would be an understatement. But likely it was my very guilt about the renovation—about all that money spent—that finally drove me, after years of Sphinx-like secrecy, to leave hints that night at dinner until my husband at last asked me point blank, “Have you had sex with him? Are you in love with him?” Ultimately, it was the astronomical renovation costs that shook me out of my three-year era of spectacular rationalizations and made me understand that the only thing I had left to give him anymore was the truth.

•••

I still live in the building my husband and I once shared. Within six months of our separation, he had already come to find being in our home unbearable, even when he was alone with our children—he had moved in with another woman and her three children and had no desire, by the time of our finalized divorce, to ever set foot in our house again. He made moves in our divorce proceedings to try to sell the house, but with three children who have lived here their entire lives, and my elderly parents who were too sick to move anywhere else besides assisted living, selling the home would have punished all the wrong people. I was determined to keep our physical home intact, choosing it above the far more lucrative “permanent maintenance” to which every attorney and every friend told me I was entitled after twenty-three years of marriage, even though at the time of my divorce I had just finished chemotherapy for breast cancer and had no reliable income. “Divorce law is not about atonement,” my fatherly attorney kept telling me anxiously, but in my mind, if somehow I could keep the kids and my parents safely in their longstanding home, I could contain, at least to some small degree, the wreckage I had wrought.

During the weeks of our marital cleaving, our shattered and tarp-strewn house was a painfully literal metaphor for so many things gone wrong. Now, the beautifully restored home in which I live with my children and my widowed mother, where the man I love writes at an orange desk in the spot where my children’s floor-mattresses were strewn during those terrible weeks, where our three cats curl up with us and we have dinner parties and Game of Thrones marathons with friends…now this place carries enormous contradictions. It is a less volatile, more fun, and more transparent place than it was. Yet this space is also a constant reminder of my worst regrets and shame. Though my once double life is now whole, the dark wood floors of my dining room and restored vintage door (thicker and more soundproof than the flimsy former one) on my bedroom still remind me daily of the casual cruelty of which I was capable and of the privileges—even with my tax return only a couple thousand above the poverty level the year of my divorce—my ex-husband provided in buying and paying off this home he expected to grow old in. Here in what should have been a safe and sacred space, but instead became a site of violation, I wake up every day trying to live authentically, with truth and ethics, trying to be better than I was.

This is about and not about regret. It is possible to both not be sorry that a marriage is over, yet to be grotesquely sorry for the ways in which I ended it. It is possible to be incredibly more myself now, and yet to understand that other people paid far too high a price for my pursuit of freedom and happiness. I love my house, and I do not feel deserving of my house, even though I am trying to be, in the way I parent, the way I daughter, the way I hold to honesty in my new relationship; in the ways I work to care for and manage this household, responsible myself now for its bills and upkeep. Someday, maybe I will sell this beautiful shell that contains so much history, both luminous and sad. Until then, it is a walk-in model of my heart, capable of ruin and beauty, of pain and reinvention. I don’t know if these walls would ever forgive me, but I am trying, every day, to forgive myself.

•••

GINA FRANGELLO’s fourth book of fiction, Every Kind of Wanting, was released on Counterpoint in September 2016, has been optioned by Universal Cable Productions/Denver & Delilah, and was included on several “best of” lists for 2016, including in Chicago Magazine and The Chicago Review of Books. Her last novel, A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), was selected for the Target Emerging Authors series, was also optioned by Universal Cable Productions/Denver & Delilah, and was a book club selection for NYLON magazine, The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown. She is also the author of two other books of fiction: Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010), which was a Foreword Magazine Best Book of the Year finalist, and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006).  She has nearly twenty years of experience as an editor, having founded both the independent press Other Voices Books, and the fiction section of the popular online literary community The Nervous Breakdown. She has also served as the Sunday editor for The Rumpus, the Executive Editor for Other Voices magazine, and the faculty editor for TriQuarterly Online. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and journalism have been published in such venues as Salon, Dame, Ploughshares, the Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, Role Reboot, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post and in many other magazines and anthologies. www.ginafrangello.org

 

Spectator

Photo by Gina Easley. www.GinaEasley.com

By Kristin Wagner

I can see life outside through a rectangle.

The sliding glass door to the back of our house is large and unobstructed and like a huge movie screen, a world happening within four sides.

I am a spectator, observing the sway of branches in a wind that would snatch my breath away, the fury of rainstorms that tinge the sky green with a sudden drop in barometric pressure that I could feel squeezing and pulling my body, the gentleness of sunlight sparkling on snow that would have twisted my muscles too tight in the cold. I stayed inside because I had to. I watched the world outside through this frame because it was all I could do to be a part of the outside world.

Summer is so unforgiving in its beauty and its heat. I wish ugliness and boredom. I wish heat came automatically with a barren dry hellscape, a vision I could feel justified in closing the drapes against, scenery no one would blame me for hating. I wish 100 degrees came without sprinklers and snow cones and dusk and lightening bugs and the smell of tomato plants growing so that I didn’t sit inside filled with envy and lost opportunities. The rectangle of outside life I can see is gorgeously blue and peony pink and sunflower yellow and vibrant green. Each time I pass into that world, though, I can only stay a little while before I seem to collapse in on myself, the cell walls that keep my body upright softening like ice cream and falling inward into an inevitable puddle.

Winter is unforgiving in its beauty and its cold. When it’s ugly and slush-gray on the ground and slate-gray in the sky, I can convince myself that there is nothing more to want than coziness and movies and warm food. But often enough the rectangle I can see is dazzling with diamonds, the sharp outlines of black branches tangled in the most lovely way, dashes of red as cardinals flit in and out of our hedges and the sun in winter comes at a clean-edged new angle. I remember that the air in winter feels cleaner, the cold coming through your lungs seems to purify the world and I want to be outside to feel that. But to feel the cold means that my muscles will react like starved and beaten dogs flinching and retracting away from a threat, and I can’t risk that, not today.

Sometimes the rectangle is a movie screen, showing reels of action that I may watch but not participate in. Snowball fights where the hit and explosion of powder occur just off stage right, the cinematographer giving just the edge of a child bending and scooping snow. The director that allows me glimpses into my children’s outdoor lives makes sure not to give away too much. I’m allowed a quick impish glance at the camera before the characters run off again—where they’re going and what they’ll do next a mystery. The rule for playing in the snow without me is that I have to be able to still see them through the rectangle without much effort. Within earshot is too far away. Within my line of vision is the right distance, where I can bring them back too soon because if I don’t, if I wait too long, I will not have enough energy for pulling off boots and making hot chocolate.

Life as a spectator is not bereft of joy, but it is not a participatory kind of joy. It is observational and it requires that you truly love the subjects of your observation; you must not be consumed with envy at their joy. There are certain people I do not love enough to merely watch them being happy without me. Children are different though, because I would gladly walk through broken glass for them. This is nothing so dramatic—I simply have to find contentment in looking through unbroken glass instead of being on the other side of it.

•••

Sometimes I determine that I have to be a participant, that I have to be active. Sometimes it may be a function of time, a calculation of how long it has been since I joined in. Sometimes my calculations encompass the savvy of a Las Vegas odds-maker and determine that the risk is outweighed by reward. Sometimes I find that I cannot abide simply watching another minute longer.

One winter day, strep had overtaken my usual illness, the sharp rasping swallow punctuating normal exhaustion. My oldest was finishing his basketball season, and at the last practice the parents were invited to join in games. Despite being practically bed-ridden for months, I did. I put on sneakers and threw a headband over my hair and tried to coordinate my body in ways I had never tried before for relays, and I called plays I didn’t understand, and I ran all-out sprints. It felt silly but I wanted him to remember this effort, this effort to overcome my embarrassment and illness for him at least for a bit. I dropped every ball thrown my way, and it would hit my foot and skitter off and I was trying to show him that these things can be laughed off, that trying new things will mean mistakes that are survivable. Lessons I felt like my boys weren’t hearing often enough—that they were worth my effort, and embarrassment is temporary, and joy can happen in the midst of epic failures of skill. Sometimes I understand that showing them what that can look like means more than telling them.

We got to a game where only three players were on the court at a time. My kid and I and a teenage boy were to take over a few roles. The older boy and I would play offense and my guy would play defense and the only goal was for offense to get the ball through the hoop. Every other parent got the ball to the teenager, and the teenager took a shot. This time the teenager threw the ball to me, and I actually caught it without a fumble or bobble. Stunned, I realized I was near enough the hoop that even with my stubby, weak, and unpracticed arms, I might have a shot. I pivoted to the hoop and, as I lifted my eyes, brought the ball up, and it began to leave my fingertips, it was smacked out of the sky inches from my nose. I was dumbfounded and all I saw was the line of other parents, children, and coaches with huge eyes and even bigger surprised smiles having witnessed my son fly through the air higher than ever before to knock that ball out of the sky. Epic. It was epic. We all laughed helplessly for minutes on end, kids recreating his block and other kids recreating my stunned expression.

My guy was so pleased with himself, but then the light for him went out for just a moment as he whispered to me, “You could have really made it in—I am so sorry.” He realized that he would have been devastated to be robbed of a moment of triumph that no one expected to see.

But how can I explain to him, that for my effort I got to be a player on the movie screen, a key foil needed to create an amazing unrepeatable moment? That I got to be in the scene instead of the audience for once? That I was within the frame of the rectangle, on the other side of the glass and be there to assist in something great? He would be given an award for the best defensive play of the season, against his own mother, when we got the end-of-the-season ice cream.

And how can I explain to him that the spectators to the scene mattered as much as the actors? That their smiles and laughter meant as much to the moment? That the people watching and the people doing are inextricably bound together and one is just as important as the other, that the rectangle I sometimes have to view life through is not a movie screen with the actors unaware that the movie-goers even exist?

How can I explain the joy of knowing that when I am only able to watch, I matter as much as when I am able to act?

•••

KRISTIN WAGNER is a creative non-fiction writer, a former teacher, a mother to two school-aged boys, a wife, and a person with a collection of chronic illnesses. When those illnesses allow, she posts at kristindemarcowagner.com on topics ranging from disability advocacy to making cupcakes with her kids. Other publishing credits include essays at The Manifest-Station (on illness and parenting), and The Rumpus (on teaching and caring for students), and right here at Full Grown People (on teaching and caring for students and parenting).

Read more FGP essays by Kristin Wagner.

The Mug Shot that Broke My Heart

Photo by Eflon/Flickr

By Kase Johnstun

In late January 2016, I walked through customs at John F. Kennedy International Airport after spending nearly a month in Barcelona, Spain. I’d spent my time there at JIWAR, an international artist residency, writing and drinking wine and looking out over Calle Asturies from my thin balcony.

In transit back to Utah, my phone, back on my U.S. cellular plan, dinged with local news notifications that had been blocked while in Spain. I scanned through them with a tiring thumb: car crashes, house fires, burglaries, and Mormon news.

A mug shot stopped my scrolling. My thumb hovered above the screen that showed a photo of someone I once knew well, someone I had once loved. It had been seventeen years since I’d seen her, even a photo of her, but I knew her, the way I know the lines to my favorite childhood movie though I haven’t watched it in decades, belting them out without thought. And I got dizzy. A warmth rushed upward to my head when the flush of adrenaline tapped into my bloodstream.

There was no mention of her name in the notification’s basic font that sat on my screen, only the mug shot and the headline, “Woman facing felony charges for fraudulently filling hundreds of prescriptions.” It was her face, but the bright eyes and smiling dimples and smooth skin that I remembered from our youth—from our early twenties—were gone. A grayness covered the photo, and a sturdiness in her gaze peered off the screen. She was no longer the young woman I loved romantically, but she also wasn’t the woman who I’d hoped had spent seventeen years laughing and smiling and being in love with her husband and not getting arrested on felony drug charges. I had found all these good things in life, and I had wished she had too.

I’d met her during my college years.

We did the same thing, took care of students with disabilities. I was a job coach for students my own age, eighteen- to twenty-two-years-old. She was a group home manager.

I spent my days piling students into a van, singing horrible nineties pop music on the way to our job sites, and working with them to dip chicken in batter or collect recycling for Sister Stephanie or straighten cereal boxes on supermarket shelves.

At the end of the day, I waited with them while their parents or group-home facilitators picked them up at the rim of the school’s roundabout. We waved goodbye like we’d never see each other again. Our hands flailed in the afternoon sun. The next morning, we’d all high five in the parking lot like team members running through a human tunnel. It was a fun ritual.

She would wait outside to take students to their home, to bathe them, and to make them feel a sense of family until they fell asleep at night.

They loved her. They rushed to her, threw their arms around her, many of the young men holding on a little too tight and a little too long. She’d roll her eyes and wiggle out of their grasp and give them a smile. They competed for her attention, as did I. She was pretty, but it was the way she laughed and shouted and lived life so unfiltered that drew me to her.

I’d asked her out a few times before she said yes, and when she finally did, we spent eight months together. For the most part, we laughed when we were together, the world—and the people in it—existed only for our entertainment.

She once told me about her uncle who, when he got hungry while sitting on his lazy boy and watching old episodes of seventies sitcoms, would ring a tiny bell and yell “chili” to his wife, who would then bring him some chili. It was horrible, and we both knew it, a domineering man and a subservient wife fulfilling his gross needs, so whenever we noticed a relationship in public like this, we would ring a fake little bell and yell “chili.” It was a way of saying, in public and right in front of men like this, “Are you seeing the way this asshole treats his wife.”

We laughed a lot.

But she had a sadness to her that hid behind the outwardly funny, boisterous, and giving personality that she wore everyday.

One night, after we had gotten close, after we had gone on a night hike on the trails of the Rocky Mountains, she pulled a photo out of a hiding place in her car. She held the photo close to her chest.

“I have kids, twins,” she said.

There were a few moments before she spoke again.

In those moments, I’d thought about how well she had hidden them from me, how well she had kept them a secret. I wondered where they were when I visited her at parents’ house where she lived. I wondered where they were when I just popped by one afternoon to say hello—had she seen me coming and stuffed them in a closet or a hamper or in the back with the dogs?

I understood keeping them from me, a young man who had sworn up and down that he never wanted to get married or have children.

But then she spoke again.

“They’re three now,” she said.

I remained quiet, still wondering where she had hidden them.

“I gave them up,” she said. “It was the only thing I could do. It was my first time having sex and their dad is not someone I would want to raise them. He didn’t fight the decision.”

She ran her fingers over the photo, letting the tip of her skin rest on the young children’s faces, a photo mailed to her from their adoptive mom.

“I miss them everyday,” she said.

The sadness hung on her for a few more moments before she shoved the photo back in its protective spot in her car.

I reached to give her hug, but she pulled away and made some crack about not being a cry baby or not being so needy or not being pathetic. Just as she put the photo away, she had somehow tucked the sadness away too.

In all my relationships before I got married, there was a moment when I knew that relationship would not survive much longer. With her, it came one Monday night when I visited her at her parent’s home. In Utah, with Mormons, Monday night is family home evening. It’s the night of the week when the family gathers together to pray, to eat dinner, and to invite elders over to lead discussions about their faith.

That night, right after dinner, her father asked us all to join him in the living room. He was a kind man. He asked us all to kneel down to pray. The very blond, pale portrait of Jesus that hangs in every Mormon household hung next to the just-as-common painting of the Mormon Temple. My immature self started to get angry.

At the time, when I had just barely broken the twenty-year mark, I felt offended that this man would ask me to kneel down to pray to the “Heavenly Father” of the LDS faith when he knew I was raised Catholic. Now, having just barely broken the forty-year mark with a family and a home of my own, my perspective has changed.

It was his home. It was Monday night. He had all of his children there. I would not have adjusted my family’s weekly ritual to suit the needs of a kid with a marijuana leaf necklace hanging around his neck and a five-inch long goatee dropping from his chin, the ratty thing crinkling in his fingers while he played with it nervously.

I knelt, doing my best to be respectful. Her dad reached out for his wife’s hand. They had all closed their eyes. Mine remained open to watch the wave of hand clasping approach me. My girlfriend reached out for mine, gave me a little smile, and grabbed it, rubbing her thumb across the backs of my fingers.

The prayer began, and I watched them, their devoutness in their prayer. All I wanted to do was to break the chain and walk away. The anger and resentment of my twenty years growing up in Mormon Utah as non-LDS growled in my gut, consuming me. And the rubbing of the thumb across the back of my fingers felt like acquiescence. They were kind people. I was immature.

I knew at that moment, however, that we would never last, and six months later, three months after I had tried to break up with her on the rocky Irish shores north of Dublin where she had met me at the end of my long backpacking trip across Europe to celebrate graduating college, and only two months after I had left Utah for Kansas to begin graduate school, we broke up over the phone. It was one of those relationships that took a departure to end it, but once the departure was made, both of us knew it was over.

“I just thought you would convert eventually,” she said to me. I think we both knew that I wouldn’t. It was the kindest break-up I had ever been through, and I believe when she hung up the phone, just like I did, she considered me a friend and wished the best for me.

We had never broken each other’s heart, not romantically. We had moved on, loving the person who gave us something in life, who, like my wife and I talk about over a couple of glasses wine, helped us find each other—to show us what we did and didn’t want in a lover. The heartbreak, for me, finally came when I saw her sadness in her gray and flat eyes in the mug shot on my phone.

Something had gone wrong somewhere along the way for her, and it hurt in the place in my heart reserved for long-ago lovers.

•••

KASE JOHNSTUN lives and writes in Ogden, Utah. He is the author of rereleased Beyond the Grip Craniosynostosis (McFarland & Co). He is the co-editor/author of Utah Reflections: Stories from the Wasatch Front (The History Press). His essay collection Tortillas for Honkies was named a finalist for the 2013 Autumn House press Nonfiction Awards. He is the literary chair for the Ogden City Arts Advisory Committee and hosts a literary podcast called LITerally where he interviews authors about all things publishing and writing.

Other People’s Clothes

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amanda J. Crawford

The dress was stiff and boxy, made from that awful faux-suede fabric my mother wore in the 1970s, rubbery on the inside and velveteen on the outside. It was far too large for me. The pressure of my office chair pushed the collar up toward my chin so that the shoulder pads seemed cantilevered from my neck, and the belt, otherwise too low for my waist, found a niche in my short torso to rest. And while the deep merlot color of the dress would have been acceptable on another day, today I was certain it brought out the shadows under my sleepless eyes and the bruises darkening on my upper arms.

I sat at my desk in the sunny ninth-floor newsroom of Phoenix’s daily newspaper with my legs crisscrossed underneath me and my shoulders hunched, folded into myself as if trying to construct a purple faux-suede wall around my heart. I had spent my entire adult life in newsrooms, where there is no escape behind office doors or cubicle walls, and I usually relished the collective energy—the perpetual chatter, collegial banter, ringing phones and occasional shouting—that sucks you into your role as a cog in the daily grind.

The distraction of a busy newsroom, where I could never wallow in my own thoughts for too long, had kept me going for years as my personal life fell into shambles. On this day, though, I struggled to concentrate as I put together simple items for Sunday’s political column. I wanted to disappear. I practiced not looking up, not catching eyes, staring at the flashing cursor on the white screen of my computer. When that didn’t work, I fled one floor down to the brown tweed couch in the small, austere parlor off the women’s bathroom that was set up for nursing moms, locked the door, and cried.

That morning, my friend Sarah, four inches taller and three sizes bigger, had produced this dress from the back of a closet filled with the work clothes she had worn in a former life as a payday-lending executive. Now expecting her second child, she was planning her exit from the business world for good. Sarah offered me the dress and a ride downtown.

The night before, her husband had reluctantly paid the cab that delivered me to their home in the suburbs. I was hysterical and had run into oncoming traffic on the six-lane road by my house. Sarah made me herbal tea in a large, brightly painted mug and listened as I tried to explain what had happened through tears. She dismissed questions from her husband, who was friends with mine, and set me up to sleep for a few fitful hours on their couch.

With no place else to go, I headed into the newsroom early the next morning, wondering if anyone could tell I was wearing someone else’s clothes.

•••

I’d never been good with clothes. I learned to shop cheap and fast from the blue-light special sales at K-Mart. I’d sip a red Icee until my lips, teeth, and tongue were tinted its unnaturally red cherry color, waiting for the cart with the blue light to illuminate the kids’ section and put everything in our price range.

When I was in elementary school, my grandmother made most of my clothes, in cotton prints that matched my mother’s. In middle school, I remember standing at the bus stop with my friends as they bragged about their tee-shirts with prices inflated by the word “Esprit.” My mother was too practical to spend money on brands, so I began supplementing my discount store clothes with items dug out of the back of her closet: a patchwork skirt, a tweed jacket, and a cowl-neck sweater from the 1970s. In high school, as I embraced grunge music and its associated style, I wore my dad’s oversized yellow and gray flannel, smothered under his large Army jacket.

By my young adult years, though, that creative fashion spark was gone, extinguished under the weight of responsibility carried too soon. I married my high school sweetheart at nineteen and began working full-time during college to support us. My clothing, like my life, became almost entirely utilitarian—bland “work clothes” purchased in haste from the clearance racks of department stores or casual items picked up on sale at the outdoor stores he frequented. My wardrobe was as joyless as our marriage, and I spent my twenties trying not to think about either situation too much.

It wasn’t until I was almost thirty that I started to pay attention to my clothes again. I made a good salary at the newspaper and could afford to move beyond the clearance racks. I had a cache of stylish professional women friends who counseled me in my shopping. And I was propelled by an internal stirring, the nature and ramifications of which I was not yet fully aware. I started wearing high heels, tight pencil skirts, and clingy blouses. I was never the type of woman to turn heads, but I felt sexy for the first time in my life. People noticed. One day in the newspaper’s breakroom, the photo editor asked why I was dressed so conservatively. I looked down at my outfit, a short-sleeved red sweater and black dress pants, unsure what he meant.

“Most days you look like someone about to get divorced,” he informed me.

•••

The first time I left my husband I had time to pack a duffel bag. I tossed it in the trunk of my friend Emily’s white Honda Civic coupe and put my miniature schnauzer in the backseat. A few hours later, my husband tried to set our house on fire. I stayed with Emily in her small condo for two weeks, living out of that duffel bag, taking my dog on long walks along the nearby desert canal, and seeking solace in the arms of a married coworker.

The second time I left my husband, I left with nothing but my purse. It was sitting in a room on the other side of the house with my cell phone and keys inside when he held me in a room and told me, “You will never leave this house on your own two legs again.” When he wasn’t paying attention, I sprinted across the house, grabbed my purse, and ran into the street to flag the cab that took me to Sarah’s house. I borrowed clothes from Sarah and another friend, Yvonne, before sneaking back into my house for some of my own clothing a few days later. I lived in a friend’s vacant rental house for six weeks.

The third and final time I left my husband, I had just changed out of my pajamas. As I poured our morning coffee, I sensed it: a tingling in the air foreshadowing violence. I put on a coral tank top, jeans, and a simple necklace I had made out of a circle of marble and hemp twine. If you had told me to pick just one ensemble from my wardrobe that I would get to keep, that would not have been it. But that night, as I sat in that same vacant house I had stayed in a few months before, staring at my disheveled reflection in the mirrored closet doors and trying to decide what to do with my life, my husband packed up almost everything I owned—clothes, shoes, jewelry, photos, keepsakes, and even my writing. Stolen, dumped, sold, set on fire—I don’t know. By the next day, nearly all of it was gone.

•••

I didn’t know how to start putting my life back together again, but I knew I needed things to wear. I remember walking listlessly through Target with Yvonne just before the store closed, dejectedly checking the price tags of items on the clearance racks. Yvonne lingered a few feet behind me, alternating between perky chatter and croons of empathy. I bought underwear, sweat pants, capris, a tee-shirt and a short-sleeved green knit blouse I found on sale. It was all I could afford.

It was the summer before I turned thirty-one. I was homeless, single for the first time since I was fifteen, and broke. A few months earlier, partially in a bid to save my marriage, I had put in notice at the newspaper to teach at the state university and complete my graduate degree. The move would mean less hours at the office but also less than half the pay. I was sure now that my marriage was over, and I made the move anyway with virtually nothing to my name.

After our shopping trip to Target, Yvonne and I returned to the house she shared with her boyfriend in a neighborhood along one of Phoenix’s desert mountain preserves. She had moved in with him a few months earlier, despite being uncertain about their future. She took me upstairs to a spare bedroom, taken over by the things that she had still never put away. There was a metal rack overflowing with clothing, and she began going through it, pulling out things she thought would fit me and throwing them in a pile on the bed.

I was petite, but Yvonne was even smaller, not even five-feet-tall, and her style was flamboyant in comparison to mine. Yvonne was born in Mexico but adopted and raised by Anglos in Idaho. In the Southwest now, she had been reconnecting with her Latin American roots and attending a lot of cocktail parties with her boyfriend, who was in politics. Her clothing reflected both. The rack was filled with brightly colored silk and bejeweled dresses. I sifted through the pile, holding clothing up before me in the mirror and trying on things that didn’t seem too small or ostentatious. I took a plain red blouse and a sleeveless brown dress. Yvonne insisted I also take a strapless silk cocktail dress with ruffles and a bright tropical flower print that she thought was perfect for newly single me.

As the word spread that I needed clothes, other friends culled their closets for things that might work for me, too. For some reason, it seemed we were all going through major transformations in our lives around that time—an epoch in our collective history—and my friends empathized with my predicament. (In the years since, I’ve wondered what it was about that time. Maybe it was hormonal, since we were all, more or less, around the age of thirty—a biological pull to reinvent, rejuvenate, redo or reproduce. Or maybe there was, for some reason at that point in our world, a collective metamorphosis, radiating from one of Arizona’s desert vortexes and sucking all of us in.)

My friend Emily, a cutesy blonde who I stayed with the first time I left my husband a year earlier, had recently left the newspaper to work in politics. Despite all of our grave concerns, she was marrying a religious conservative from far across the aisle. She cleaned out her closet so he could move in and gave me a black A-line skirt.

My friend Megan, a brash cocktail writer raised in a family of park rangers, was trading in her hiking boots for sequins and a personal brand. She gave me a green terrycloth hoodie and a couple of tee-shirts.

And Sarah, the former payday lending executive adept at reinvention, was taking massage classes, seeking out a more natural lifestyle, and trying to figure out what was missing in her comfortable family life. She gave me a black linen wrap-around blouse and pink pajama pants.

As I wore each of the items from my friends, I felt like I was trying on pieces of their current or former lives. My existence was so pliable at that moment, with no structure, definition, mementos, or even a set address, that I wondered if a blouse or a skirt could set a new course, one that might turn out better than the one I was on before. I allowed each piece to shape a part of the new me: The new professor wore Emily’s A-line skirt, and the newly single party girl wore Yvonne’s ruffled silk cocktail dress. I tried to get in shape in Megan’s green hoodie, and I tried to prove I was strong and independent in Sarah’s black linen blouse. But more than anything else, what my new wardrobe changed in me was my thinking about clothes.

•••

I can’t remember how long it was—if it could be counted in months or merely weeks —before I returned home for the first time. There, I found a pile of shoes in the corner of my closet. I sat on the floor hopefully sorting through them only to discover that not a single one had a match.

I had been stuck in agonizing paralysis about my future, but had finally settled on a new place to live when my estranged husband called and told me he couldn’t make the mortgage. He moved out, and I returned home that day and immediately changed the locks.

It was 2008, in the throes of the Great Recession, and every indicator of Phoenix’s bursting housing bubble told me I should run away from the house, too. Still, here was something I could own at a moment when so much else familiar in my life was gone. I threw away all the matchless shoes and any other reminders of what had been, cleansed every square inch with disinfectant and burning sage, and posted an ad for a roommate. A nineteen-year-old college student moved in and, almost immediately, so did Yvonne.

Yvonne had met someone new at a conference. She told her boyfriend she was moving out, packed her car with clothes still on the hangers and stuffed it all into the small closet in the back bedroom of my house. I learned to be single living with these two women – one of them new to adulthood, the other my own age but newly in love. I also learned the secret to Yvonne’s expansive wardrobe: a local chain of name-brand consignment shops. We shopped there together, sorting through the designer racks, experimenting with our fashion and inexpensively figuring out what the new “us” would wear.

Yvonne didn’t live with me long. In a few months she got pregnant and moved out to begin a new life as a wife and mother. Megan introduced me to her ex-boyfriend, Marcus, who moved in. Marcus was a buyer for a trendy recycled fashion boutique. He picked out clothes for me at his store and patiently helped me figure out my style in front of a heavy full-length mirror in the hallway. He also began taking me on thrift-store hunts throughout the city.

Before I lost everything, I had done very little second-hand shopping. Raised on the blue-collar edge of middle class, I realized that new clothes—even from K-mart—were a mark of something I had always been reluctant to concede. Now, headed into my thirties, I rebuilt my wardrobe almost entirely with second-hand clothes, from friends or consignment and thrift stores. The process made me conscious of the waste of fast-fashion and clearance-rack junk—cheap clothing that I had, for so many years, bought and thrown away without ever really looking or feeling good in it anyway. At the same time, I began to marvel at how people (including me for a while) could spend so much money on a few items at a boutique or an upscale department store.

Learning to shop second-hand allowed me to live out my ethics, recycling and repurposing more fully in my life. I began shopping for other things second hand: furniture, dishes, silverware, curtains, a bicycle. It became my nature to think first about Goodwill or Craigslist. I continued to exchange things with my friends, too.

Soon after my divorce, Sarah left her husband and became a single mom as she finished massage school. I was searching for myself, but Sarah’s quest was more specific. “I want to experience passion—real passion—before it’s too late,” she told me. As I cycled through my new wardrobe, deciding who I would be, what I wanted and what that new person would wear, I passed on dresses to Sarah.

•••

After my grandfather died a few years ago, I followed my mother down the creaky wooden steps into the musty basement of my grandparents’ house where decades’ worth of flannel shirts hung on a metal rack.

“We’re just going to get rid of them all,” my mother told me.

She remembered my penchant for my dad’s old flannels when I was a teenager.

“I thought Toby and Beck might want some, too,” she offered.

My second husband and stepson are Goodwill pros. Toby is a musician and had been a single dad on a budget, with a punk aesthetic crafted by thrift-store finds. All three of us took flannel shirts that belonged to my grandfather.

When we got back to my parents’ house, my dad saw the Army shirt Beck brought home and went to the basement for a special hand-me-down of his own. He brought up his Army jacket that I had worn throughout my teenage years and gave it to his new step-grandson.

I was back at my grandparents’ house last year after my grandmother died, helping my mom sort through things. My mom pulled out a thick beige sweater of my grandmother’s that she said suited me perfectly, and I picked out some costume jewelry. When we got back to her house, my mom brought out the trench coat that she had worn throughout my childhood from a wardrobe in the basement where it had been covered in plastic for decades and had me try it on.

“I think the eighties are back in style,” she told me, approvingly.

In the winter in Kentucky, where I moved with my husband and stepson a few years ago, you can find us all in layers of other people’s clothes. My whole family is donned in the flannels of a gentle Maryland man, who wore them as he went fishing or watched Westerns, and my stepson is wrapped in my father’s Army jacket, which had been a staple of my own teenage years. When I’m feeling lonely, I put on the taupe trench coat that I remember my mother wearing to church on the rainy Sundays of my youth and swear I can still smell her perfume after several washings.

As I write this essay, I fondle the large wooden triangle on a necklace that had been my grandmother’s and think of Betty Jane, the stylish woman who pulled herself out of poverty and gave me my middle name. I ponder how my world has changed in the years since I began wearing other people’s clothes, and I find beauty in the cycle, the threads of which are intrinsically mine.

•••

AMANDA J. CRAWFORD is a recovering political reporter whose literary work has previously appeared in Creative Nonfiction and Hippocampus. She is a journalism professor at Western Kentucky University and performs with the Americana gothic band Former Friends of Young Americans. www.amandajcrawford.com

Familiar

By Caroline Davis2010/Flickr

By Deborah Linder

I stand before the mirror in the hotel room with my legs planted wide and my arms outstretched in a V. I’ve never attempted a power pose before, but I’ve heard it’s a great way to boost your confidence. Apparently, just mimicking the stance of a powerful person can make a poser feel powerful, too. It’s also been suggested that the pose can raise testosterone and lower cortisol levels and that the subsequent hormonal adjustment will reduce anxiety. Since, at this moment, my mouth is parched, my palms are clammy, and my heart is palpitating wildly, anxiety reduction seems like an excellent idea.

I hold the pose for a full minute. It occurs to me that this is the body language equivalent of a positive affirmation, a fist-pump, a Go get ’em, Tiger. And while I’m normally skeptical of pep talks, tonight I’m willing to suspend disbelief.

As I stare at my expanded self in the mirror, I am reminded of the time I was hiking in Glacier National Park. Posted along the trails were warnings of mountain lion sightings and instructions on what to do when confronted with a big cat. “Make yourself appear as large as possible,” the signs directed. “Act defiant, not afraid.”

The three men I am about to meet are not mountain lions, I tell myself.

Nor am I easy prey.

Nonetheless, I have never felt more vulnerable.

Now I’m in the elevator, in a free fall of floors passing too quickly. Sixteen, fifteen, fourteen… I’m tempted to push all the buttons to buy time, to catch my breath. Somehow, even after decades of waiting, I’m still not ready.

But it’s too late: The elevator doors open onto the ornate marble lobby. I’d chosen this majestic old hotel for its substantial heft, its art-deco grandeur, its storied history and roster of illustrious guests. But Winston Churchill and Elvis Presley are no longer on the premises, and at this moment, I’m surprised by the seeming-ordinariness of the hotel.

Clusters of people stand laughing at the entrance of the restaurant, others peer at their phones from overstuffed chairs. The clerks behind the desk don’t even bother looking up as I stand alone for the last time. A neighboring elevator arrives with a ping! and I step out.

The inevitable awaits.

There, at the far end of the lobby, are my mystery dates. They are bigger than I expected, solid, strong presences, a triumvirate of maleness. Ruddy-complected. Short-cropped, grey-blond hair. Button-down shirts. Shifting stances. Anxious smiles.

And now I am walking towards them, a preordained gravitational pull, even as I am conscious that each step brings me closer to a place I’m not sure I want to be. The lobby feels, at that moment, insurmountably vast. As I finally approach them, I look quickly from one face to another, struck suddenly by the pairs of dark blue eyes regarding me. There’s something disconcertingly familiar about those eyes, the blue a hue I recognize, a hue I know from seeing it every day. Those eyes, their eyes, are the same as mine.

Because, after all, the men are my brothers.

To be precise, my half-brothers.

Now I am hugging them, one at a time, and they give good hugs, full squeezes, no holding back. They start to introduce themselves but there’s no need—I know them already. I’ve studied their faces, their photos, the images that have filled my computer and mind since all this began.

•••

A few months earlier I had sent three identical letters to three separate addresses:

“Dear ___,

           I’m writing to you—and concurrently to your brothers—as your half-sister. I have no idea if you know of my existence; if not, I will explain that my mother was your father’s first wife. Their marriage was short and soon after my mother remarried it was decided that I should be adopted by my stepfather.”

In the letter I explained that I’d had no contact with anyone from my biological father’s family since the 1960s and that, in fact, I had done my best to obliterate reminders of my early life, specifically those relating to my father. It was only recently—when, surprising even myself—I’d spontaneously searched the Internet search and discovered his obituary.

What I didn’t explain was that I closed and re-opened the laptop three times before making it to the end of the death notice. The most difficult part to read? Not that my father had been young when he died or that his type of cancer would likely have been protracted and painful. No, the worst part was the list of survivors. Specifically, the absence of my name from that list. Could there be any wound deeper than a denial of my very existence? None perhaps, save the revelation of three other names, those of my father’s sons.

For a long while, I told no one of my discovery. It was too big. I was uncertain what to do with the information, uncertain, even, of how I felt. Yet I whispered the names of those unknown men to myself and I doodled their initials on the backs of envelopes, just as I’d done years earlier with my first crushes. According to the obituary, they all lived near one another, in the same state where my father had died. Other searches revealed little else. Who were these guys? What did they know about me? Why had they never been in touch? And, alarmingly, what else didn’t I know? I began to wonder if our paths had ever crossed. And if so, would we have recognized each other? Were there traits we shared? Interests, predilections, hopes, fears? Not even Detective Google could help me there.

I allowed myself to imagine what it could be like to reveal some version of the truth: Oh, yes, I have three brothers. I’m the eldest of four, with three younger brothers. Even though we live far apart, my brothers and I are very close.

Until one day, tired of imagining and yet preparing myself for the worst, I mailed them each a letter.

•••

Now we stand grinning at one another in the hotel lobby, talking at once about my trip and their traffic and how it was so easy to recognize me, until finally, it’s clear that somebody needs to take charge, and I guess that should be me because after all, I’m the oldest in the family and even though for my whole life—at least until now—I was an only child, one with a distinct lack of experience in birth order dynamics. I’ll do it, I’ll take charge. That is the role of the eldest, right? Which I hope does not come as too much of a surprise to the oldest brother, the one who’s used to taking charge in the family.

“Should we head out?” I say and we start toward the stairs before one of them asks, “Okay, where should we go?”

I find this deeply unsettling. They haven’t thought about this before now? We’d arranged this date nearly a month ago and yet no one has thought beyond this moment? It hasn’t occurred to them that something needs to happen, that we can’t all just remain here in the pretty lobby of this hotel in Cincinnati all evening?

Five minutes in, this sister is already exasperated with her brothers. And it occurs to me that perhaps this lack of planning is just the beginning of the things that are different about us.

“Well,” I say, “How about somewhere we can go for a drink?” It’s clear to me that one of us, at least, could really use a drink.

There’s a brief conference. It’s obvious that none of them frequents the bars in town, which is, I decide, probably a positive. There’s a little bit of bickering: “No, that place’s no good,” “Not on a Friday night,” “Nah, we’d have to get in the car to go there,” before the youngest says he knows a place a few blocks away. And so we step out into the warm spring evening.

Arranging ourselves on the sidewalk proves awkward. Demonstrating gentlemanly politeness, they all want me to go ahead. Or maybe they’re just afraid to walk with me. Finally, after a bit of jockeying, we pair off and start down the street.

“Man, you’re tall,” my walking partner says, and it’s true that at five feet eight, I’m not a small person. At this moment, though, standing next to his six-foot plus stature, I don’t feel tall at all. In fact, suddenly, I feel like a little girl.

And I’m reminded that the last time I was part of their family, I was a little girl.

What remains of that child wants to put our her hand to be held, to feel safe and reassured that taking this risk has been the right thing to do. But I don’t yet know that, nor do I really know these men and so instead, I tuck my hand into my pocket and try to keep up with them as we head down the street.

•••

As it turned out, my letters proved to be lit firecrackers that had landed in their mailboxes. No real damage was done, but a lot of commotion ensued. “It was quite a shock for me and still is,” one of them wrote. Another explained that, “I am … trying to face this as reality.” It was surprisingly reassuring to know that they had been unaware of the circumstances all these years, and to know, too, that unearthing that long-ago secret felt significant to them as well. A third wrote, “Your letter did indeed catch me and my brothers by surprise. We did not know any of this. We are all … trying to process this information.”

And thus began the exchange: emails, letters, photographs, confidences. Giddy, I sent off friendly notes and flattering photographs. There was so much to know, to discover. Like the little frisson that accompanies flirtation, it felt exciting and strange to have new people interested in my life story. And for those long-married men, I suspect it was similar. After all, when was the last time that anyone had expressed genuine curiosity about what they thought, how they felt, who they had wanted to be, and who, in fact, they were?

•••

We settle into a booth and order drinks. Thankfully, everyone is drinking, even the one with a medical condition that makes it unadvisable. “Except every now and then,” he tells me. I’m both glad that this is one of those times and worried that it’s a genetic disease I’ll eventually inherit.

They reminisce about the day my letters arrived. “Thought you were after Dad’s money,” one of them admits. “I thought there was no way this could be true,” one says. When confronted, their mother, my stepmother—a woman I vaguely remember meeting but had never really known—eventually confirmed my story. Their father hadn’t wanted them to know, she told them, although she now regrets having kept quiet. Dad was a very private person, the men tell me. Secretive, even.

We order another round of drinks.

I bring out a photo album I’ve put together, a highlights reel of my life. This photographic history seemed like a good idea when I was planning the trip, a way to catch them up on my last fifty years. There are pictures of what I now think of as my “real” family standing in front of houses in California, in Chicago, in St. Louis, and in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And much earlier, worn snapshots from when I was a toddler, although none with our shared parent. I hear myself chattering a monologue, eager to fill them in, introduce them to everything I’ve been and have become. That’s me on study abroad, have you ever been to the south of France? And here’s my college graduation, and, oh, yes, that’s my wedding day. San Juan Capistrano? It’s in Southern California, where I was living at the time. And here’s Henry as a baby, what a rascal, and here he is holding Andrew at the hospital, nearly four years later. I know, they don’t look much alike. That black Lab? Let’s see, that would be Lucy, or maybe Stanley, hard to tell, but both really great dogs.

It suddenly occurs to me that this compilation of photographs will come in handy at my funeral some day. I’ve seen slide shows like that, Kodak moments commemorating a person already gone. Hell, maybe that’s happening right now. The person in the album has already disappeared, an only child replaced—tonight—by a woman with three (half) brothers.

The men flip through the album quickly, occasionally glancing up as if to check the resemblance of that younger person in the photo to the woman now sitting across from them. Stop turning the pages so fast and pay attention, I want to tell them. There will be a quiz. Who is my younger son named for? How did I meet my husband? Where did we last go on vacation? It worries me that they might not appreciate the importance of backstory.

But as the night goes on, the possibility of catching up with one another’s lives seems increasingly remote. As we continue talking I have a hard time remembering which one of their daughters is a karate black belt and which is studying to become a nurse. Whose job requires travel? How old are their boys again? Which one of them likes to ride motorcycles? (That one, at least, is easy: It turns out they all do.)

When we order food, I learn that one of the brothers has a shellfish allergy. For a moment, I marvel at the vagaries of biology. How is that the other two – and me – have been spared? Accustomed to singularity, I feel awakened to the idea of commonality.

One of them has ordered a Scotch egg as an appetizer and I am offered a bite. I hesitate, not wanting to be rude, yet reluctant to press my lips onto the same surface that his touched. Suddenly this all feels uncomfortably intimate. Dad was a very private person, I hear them say.

My husband has sent along a list of questions to keep the conversation flowing. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done? Is there a family tradition that’s meaningful to you? Which song do you play really loud when you’re alone in the car? As much as I’m grateful for his thoughtfulness, as much as I want this to be a light-hearted romp of a family outing, I can’t help but wonder if the situation is actually less comic than tragic.

For what does this meeting represent, anyway? The word “reunion” has such a cheery lilt. Are we reunifying? But we are not East and West Germany, although it strikes me as portentous that my separation from their family was approximately the same length of time as those two states spent apart. Nor are we a band that is getting back together thirty years after its records went golden. The cheesy lyrics to a song, “reunited and it feels so good,” float across my mind and I swat at them with an inward, Nope, not exactly. Which feels like a betrayal because the men sitting here with me right now are kind and decent. They are funny and sincere and, I suspect, dependable. They are, indeed, solid. I bet they’d help me build a backyard deck or teach me to shoot a gun. In fact, if there were a Dating Game equivalent for choosing a brother I would want to pick all of them. Plus they seem ready to welcome me into their clan. Maybe I’d like to bring my family to their Thanksgiving? I’m asked.

But when I try to imagine my husband and our two sons giving up our own holiday traditions—abandoning the neighbors with whom we always share the meal, relinquishing the special tortellini soup we have as our first course, foregoing the after-dinner walk, the cheese course, the assigned seating we’ve tweaked for years—the concept of What Might Have Been veers abruptly into What Will Never Be.

•••

When I was a girl, an only child growing up in a lonely house, I yearned for siblings. How much better life would be if I had someone to catch my Frisbee, to deflect my parents’ focus, to help me understand boys. I was aware of the sacrifices I’d have to make: the endless arguments about the bigger piece of cake, riding shotgun, or being the first to press the elevator buttons. I knew from friends that familial arguments would likely include the phrase, “That’s not fair!” and that, as an only child, I’d have to become less spoiled and more adept at sharing. That was all fine with me. I’d have traded my frilly canopy bed for one with bunks any day, especially if it came with a brother or sister to giggle with in middle of the night.

But I am no longer that girl.

While I like these men, and while I have tried so hard to make myself likeable, nay, loveable, to them, I’m not sure there’s a space we can all inhabit. I’m suddenly skeptical that the overlap between my life and theirs is enough for a real relationship to ever develop. Not now, not after so many years. Any scientist will tell you that blood is a weak binding agent. Without the underpinning of a shared history, does our kinship offer anything other than a possible source for a replacement kidney?

•••

Now the meal is over. Before we head out, I ask to take their picture. And because they’re still willing to humor me, they huddle together at one end of the table, pressed closely against one another and yet comfortable together. They smile and I click. Is it significant that the only photo I have from that night is one in which they are apart from me? No matter. I will text the photo to my family back home who are waiting to hear how my night has unfolded. “Those eyes!” my son will immediately text in response. “They’re your eyes!”

Later, back in the hotel elevator, a friendly couple will ask if I had a good evening. “Oh, you know,” I tell them. “Just a family thing. Out to dinner with my three brothers.” They nod and smile and I smile in return. I don’t acknowledge how long I have anticipated being able to speak those words or how exquisite they feel as they spill carelessly from my mouth.

And maybe, for now, that is enough.

•••

DEBORAH LINDER writes fiction and creative nonfiction in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Remedy Quarterly, Rapportage, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Smithsonian.com, and the margins of her favorite cookbooks. More of her writing is at www.deborahlinder.com

Heartbreak Hotel

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Gail Griffin

Bob and I came together in middle age, embedded in distinct careers. Of our eighteen years together, we spent sixteen at different academic institutions in different time zones, so summers and Christmas counted heavily. But from the get-go Christmas was a site of struggle. He would have been happy to have nothing to do with the American version of The Holidays for the rest of his life. I convinced him that Christmas is like Christianity: not inherently loathsome, only rendered so in practice. So we reclaimed it. Gently but firmly we pushed families away and took our own direction. Once we were in a rented cabin in an unincorporated village—really more an accretion of ramshackle structures—eight thousand feet up in the Rockies. We found a tree stand among the junk piled up in a storeroom, bought a tree, and decorated it with white lights and pinecones edged in gold spray paint. Rustic chic at its best.

In 2003 we bought a cabin in northern Michigan, a kind of stake in future unity, and it became the obvious yuletide retreat. The snow was usually deep, the quiet unearthly. Four years after the purchase, Bob retired and moved to Michigan. That Christmas at the cabin was overshadowed slightly by our wedding a week afterward, whose unspoken theme was “Well, Finally.”

Four months and eight days later, as spring was making its slow, tentative appearance in northern Michigan, Bob drowned in the Manistee River, which ran far too close to the cabin. Through the fog of unreality, I heard doors slamming, books closing with a thud, windows being boarded up, all over my life.

•••

Once I went with Bob to San Antonio, where he had a conference. While he conferred, I wandered, scrutinizing the Alamo and hunting down Mexican ceramics and folk art, which I love. I’ve always been especially drawn to the calacas—the skeletal figures in two- and three-dimensional art, dressed brightly and placed in all manner of tableaux: a red-frocked singer fronts a band, a happy couple dances. Weddings and marriage constitute a common trope. The shifty irony embedded in the art form fascinates me. I can never figure out if death is being mocked or doing the mocking of human pretensions and institutions.

I bought a Christmas scene enclosed in a box, glass on its front and top. Six figures celebrate a fiesta de Navidad, four dressed elegantly, two utterly naked in their bones. All of them hold one hand out, as if grasping a nonexistent glass. A clock hangs on one wall, a radio on another. Lining the back wall are portraits of saints, the Holy Virgin, and the birthday boy himself, along with a large decorated wreath. A skeletal dog lies under a table spread with plates and bowls of food. Along its back edge are candles—and a skull, so that the dead can contemplate themselves, I guess.

As I move into the fall after that first dreadful summer without Bob, Christmas begins to look a lot like this.

I can’t imagine a way to endure this year’s holidays. The homes of family and friends are readily available to me, and also impossible. I would be doubly trapped, by my grief and by someone else’s routines, possessions, floor plan, kindness, traditions, and holiday cheer. I cannot bear any of it. So in late October I put Bob’s travel agent to work. The Caribbean, I say; maybe Jamaica.

Why? The Caribbean is not my place. My notion of a beautiful beach is Lake Michigan, and wonderful weather is between sixty and eighty degrees. I hate the whole concept of a resort, and I have never owned anything like the requisite wardrobe. I dislike sitting in the sun. Rum and tequila sicken me; in warm weather I drink gin and tonics, strong, sharp, and icy. But I went to Negril twenty years ago and what I crave now is what I experienced then (minus the unfortunate reaction to a brownie containing preternaturally potent local ganja). I want exactly that feeling of being not where I belonged but in Neverland. As usual, my critical mind interrupts, reminding me that Neverland is one of the imperialist fantasies that have played an insidious role in the history of those islands. That voice is acknowledged and overruled. I want to bury myself in what I can pretend is unreality until the freaking holidays go away.

It’s late to be booking for Christmas, but she knows the situation and finagles me ten exorbitant days at the mythic Jamaica Inn in Ocho Rios. I try to make a fiction of the trip, to think of myself as some kind of romantic refugee from darkness and horror fleeing to dissipation and mindlessness. My imagination has always saved me; maybe it will fly me right over the worst and land me in a new story.

•••

The night before I am to leave brings what is called in my neck of the woods “wintry mix”—precipitation combining with temperatures hovering around freezing to yield rainy snow, snowy slush, slushy ice. My flight is delayed and I miss my connection, in Memphis of all places. There will be no getting out of the country tonight. Memphis is gray and damp. The Holiday Inn near the airport turns out to be a strangely cavernous, grim place with very long hallways reaching in many directions. There seem to be few guests, and they appear to know each other; there is much talk and laughter in the lobby. My room is at the far end of one of the long, empty corridors. I drop onto the bed and feel myself float away from my body and dissipate. I’ve escaped my life all right, and now I’m in a Stephen King novel.

It’s a motel room, I tell myself, yanking my spirit back. The thing to do is get out of here. I consider the options on a dark near-Christmas day in Memphis. The blues seems appropriate. But a woman traveling alone, utterly ignorant of the city, probably shouldn’t head down to Beale Street for the evening. What else is in Memphis?

It takes me a few moments. Then I grab my second wind, hike to the lobby, go outside, hail a cab, and say, “Graceland.”

The car radio reports that an Iraqi journalist has thrown a shoe at President Bush at a Baghdad press conference two days ago. The driver and I emit simultaneous chuckles. On this trip I am reading Anne Lamott’s Plan B: “I feel that we began witnessing the end of the world in Slo Mo once George W. Bush became president.”

The end of the world, oblivion; what a comfort.

•••

It’s true: the first thing that strikes you is how small Graceland is. You were expecting Tara, and it’s more like the biggest house in a ritzy 1950s suburb called “Tara Hills.”

The weather and perhaps the holiday season have kept the tourists away except for me and a group of Japanese visitors. They’re working with a translator, leaving me essentially alone to wander and ponder. The house is glaring in its sheer ugliness, beginning with the white living room with royal blue and gold drapes and huge peacocks etched into the glass panels around the opening to the music room. In my embarrassment, I feel my northern middle-classness sharply: to Elvis, this was elegance. Gladys’s bedroom, white with heavy royal purple portieres and bedspread, was his way of crowning his mother queen of his universe.

My audio-tour headset features the princess of this weird kingdom, Lisa Marie herself, who shares reminiscences about particular rooms. In the living room she says she knew her father was coming downstairs by the jangling of his bling. In the kitchen, dark with ugly patterned carpeting, she fondly recalls him and his minions cooking up a storm in the middle of the night. What was she doing awake? I wonder. She tells her stories as if they were episodes of Ozzie and Harriet, as if her years in a vacuum-sealed funhouse operating in its own time zone constituted your typical American childhood.

After the luxurious whiteness of the front rooms and Gladys’s bedroom, the rest of Graceland reminds me of Disneyland—every room a different world. A half-flight of stairs down from the kitchen is the Jungle Room, a porch that Elvis enclosed and turned into an ugly little explosion of exoticism, all carved wood and faux-animal hide. Whether we’re in Africa or Asia or South America is irrelevant: we’re Elsewhere, carpeted in a sickly green. Lisa tells me that it later became a recording studio—hence the carpet on the ceiling.

Downstairs, on the basement level, are two rooms that constitute a man cave of sorts, Elvis’s playrooms. A startlingly black and yellow room harbors the bank of three TVs that Elvis used to shoot out on occasion. The room across the hall is mostly taken up by a pool table. What strikes me about both rooms is that, while they are in a basement, Elvis has taken pains to make them seem even more enclosed and bunker-like. The TV room has mirrored walls, which supposedly enlarge a small room, but to my eyes simply make it more claustrophobic: I’m trapped there with myself in an endless reiteration of that very room. The poolroom’s walls are covered in pleated print fabric, floor to ceiling, like one big curtain keeping something hidden. Possibly the décor is meant to suggest a private men’s club. If the front rooms announce the King, these lower spaces, disconnected from each other visually and emphatically self-enclosed, point to someone else, someone who wanted more than anything to hide. I can’t breathe down here, but I get it.

I head outside; the rain has let up. There are a passel of Elvis outbuildings to wander—Daddy Vernon’s office; buildings full of cars; the racquetball court now lined with gold records and awards; the reliquary of memorabilia that I will recall mostly as the Hall of White Jumpsuits, though it also contains the baggy gold blazer I always considered his coolest item. But I head for the Meditation Garden. Given the fountains, the towering granite Christ, the proliferating bright plastic flowers, the religious figurines, and the large pictures framed in sharp red and blue, it’s hard to imagine anybody meditating here for an instant. There is a quartet of graves—Vernon, Gladys, Elvis Aaron, and next to him Jesse Garon, stillborn a half-hour earlier. Does it mark you even in pre-consciousness, to be linked to a dead body as you float in the amniotic sea? What did it mean that Elvis was a surviving twin, one of that haunted fraternity who pass through life with the constant sense of someone missing?

Jesmyn Ward writes of “grief constant as a twin.”

I am trying to imagine my way into this strange life. The official narrative here is insistently triumphant, but I always see the Elvis story as a classic American tragedy. It feels utterly weird to be here where no one could possibly imagine I am. But something surreal in the place also feels right. Not Disneyland or Dreamland, and utterly sans Grace; more like Nowhereland. Making all my nowhere plans for nobody.

Are you lonesome tonight?

•••

Early the next afternoon my plane lowers into sunny, vibrant Montego Bay. A driver from the Jamaica Inn is there to retrieve me. It’s a nearly two-hour drive; I’m a day late, and having driven over yesterday to fetch me, he is not happy about it, as if I could have managed better. On the road to Ocho Rios along the north coast, there are white egrets near the water, goats everywhere. A town called Lilliput. A shop called Da Endz. The shops—huts of corrugated tin, mostly, with Coke signs—remind me of West Africa. The driver notes points of interest: “Discovery Bay,” he says, with italics. “Where Columbus landed.” And then its perfect complement, Runaway Bay, an escape route used by Africans fleeing Columbus’s heirs, the maroons, enslaved people who headed for the hills whence they organized their resistance.

For about fifteen minutes after arrival, my spirit lightens. The Jamaica Inn is stunning—long, low blue and white buildings facing a perfect little half-moon bay, open-air patios, arresting tilework. Built in 1950, the inn is for grown-ups. It is haunted by legendary guests: Noel Coward, Katherine Hepburn, Errol Flynn, Ian Fleming. Perhaps in honor of the latter, portions of Dr. No were filmed here. Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller honeymooned here. At one end of the wide white beach is the restaurant and bar, at the other, on a hill, the spa. My veranda suite consists of a sleeping space entirely swallowed up by a huge, heavenly bed, a bathroom, and an open-air living room with the front wall waist-high, open to the beach. Breakfast is dropped off here every morning. Beyond, a wide white strand, and then the curling, unnaturally turquoise surf.

“All wise people say the same thing,” Anne Lamott promises me: “that you are deserving of love, and that it’s all here now, everything you need.” Possibly this is what I was thinking when I booked—that I would treat myself as if I were a person deserving of comfort. Now I look around at this exquisite world, unreal and alien as Graceland. What is it I need? Why am I here? What exactly am I planning to do with ten days? I am going to write, of course, but I don’t, because I can’t manufacture sequence or sense or even interest.

Being waited upon by silent, impassive black people makes me just as uncomfortable as it should. Even the other guests make me anxious when I walk the beach. I imagine how I look, what they think I’m doing here, how pitiful and humiliating my aloneness is. On the night of the beach barbecue party for all guests, I hunker down, eying the blazing bonfire, fearing that someone might come to fetch me. I feel highly visible and completely invisible. Once day I submit to the spa and get an expensive facial that leaves me greasy. I don’t even visit the bar. Occasionally I go up to the restaurant for a meal; more often I order room service, along with fifths of Tanqueray at monstrous prices. A friend has given me an ancient iPod, which I’ve loaded with pulsing classic rock to chase out the wailing in my head. Reading has proven the single reliable antidote to waves of despair and sickening flashbacks to the night of Bob’s death, so I finish Lamott and plow through the other books I’ve brought. Usually water calms me, but when I watch the big, roiling breakers, I keep thinking of Edna Pontellier on the winter beach at Grande Isle. I wonder how far I’d have to swim before I was too tired either to keep going or to turn back.

A dynamic town pulses a few blocks outside the gate, but where am I going to go? With whom? And how? The prospect of venturing out alone in a taxi is so confusing that I quickly abandon it. I realize I feel trapped, paralyzed in paradise.

Flashback to another Christmas, in another tropical latitude. Bob was working in Massachusetts then. He rented a place in Marathon, halfway down the Florida Keys. I spent Christmas with my parents, planning to fly down to join him the next day. Out of nowhere some savage intestinal ailment attacked, and I spent Christmas day in the bathroom while it tore through my system. Refusing to consider postponing my flight, I loaded up on drugs and told myself it had been a twenty-four-hour demon.

Bob picked me up in Miami. After the long, slow drive down US 1, we arrived around dinnertime. I’d eaten nothing since noon on Christmas, so I was hungry.

“What about your stomach?” Bob asked.

“I’m fine! It’s over, really!” He looked doubtful. Damned if I was going to spend my first night on vacation in a motel room drinking microwaved chicken noodle soup.

At the seafood restaurant, I quickly decided that what was required was a banana daiquiri. Again, Bob looked skeptical. I was nearly done with the tomato bisque when I understood that Faulkner was right about the past. I went running for the rest room and made it just inside the door before my stomach took itself back to zero. Back at our table, Bob was already laughing, generating jokes about my having knocked over waiters and given it all up to a potted palm.

We spent a day strolling the street circus of Key West. We met friends there and toasted the sunset on the wharf. We visited Hemingway’s place and saw the six-toed cats. We rented a motorboat and took off across the silvery water. We talked to fishermen and ate conch fritters at a waterside bar. We made love in the afternoon on the big bed in the air-conditioning. Bob bought fresh-caught grouper and cooked it on the tiny oven in our closet-sized “kitchen.” We watched stars and water birds and other tourists.

Now I sit, watching the water, under a weird kind of house arrest. I’m a woman alone in the world again, unable to move with the security a man provides. Without the particular joy and comfort Bob generated. I will never move with that ease again. In seven months I have aged ten years; I feel shrunken and vulnerable.

And so I pass my ten days in Jamaica doing exactly what I did all summer at home: reading, staring out at the world, and drinking. I am in a place so beautiful that I feel like an oily blot on the landscape, a human sinkhole. A place so insanely romantic that it seems a cruel joke I’ve played on myself. I am lost. I need my little brick house urgently, viscerally. I want my cat, the television. Within the first two days I am counting down until I can go home. To Michigan, God love its dark, icy heart.

•••

Of course the January weather ensures that I my flight into Grand Rapids is rerouted to Detroit, where I arrive too late for anything but resigning myself to a night in the airport. I’m told I may not retrieve my luggage. It will go on to Grand Rapids without me. I wait around the airport all night, and just as the blue air is lightening to gray I phone Bob’s brother, who lives a half-hour away. He’s a very early riser and a true child of the Motor City in his eternal readiness to hop in the car and drive for hours. He scoops me up and ferries me across the state. In his car, with his solicitous, comical company, I breathe easier than I have in ten days.

My suitcase has not reached the airport in Grand Rapids; I’ll have to return for it the next day. Right now, climbing into my frozen Honda, I don’t even care. The thin sun has broken through, the mercury is up, the roads are dry, and I’m on my way home. I stagger into my house an hour later with a shudder of deep relief, like one who has narrowly escaped harm.

The world out there has changed on me. Its roads are peppered with explosives. Best to stay in, lock your doors, I tell myself. My house becomes my outer layer, and I pull it in around me. For a long time I don’t travel, and in the middle of even pleasant social engagements I find myself anticipating being home and what I’ll do when I get there.

It occurs to me that I have veered from escapism to agoraphobia, centripetal to centrifugal energy, in a very short space. But they amount to the same thing—running from danger versus cowering from it. I worry about myself: am I turning into a timorous old lady who lives behind her curtains with her cat? Will I never travel again? Is this quietude, this retreat, the beginning of decrepitude, step one of the death march? Is my life over too?

And I can’t do anything about any of this. This grief is a beast I must ride where it takes me, and then I must learn to live where it drops me. The fantasy of self-creation—so youthful, so American—has met its death blow. Profound grief is a formidable force; like a storm it reshapes the landscape. I’ll have to live it out and see what I have to work with.

In my misbegotten Christmas flight, I wound up in two successive havens, two dreamworlds, one lurid, one lovely, places where carefully crafted illusion offers itself to tourists for a price. Both were constructed as escapes or, depending on your angle of vision, retreats—from lives of enormous privilege and wealth within which nightmares lurked. I fled back to the solidity of my home with its earth tones and replacement windows and insulation, cardinals in the snowy trees outside and a zillion channels to choose from. It keeps me warm and dry and quiet and safe. I know it’s another illusion. Maybe a time will come when I can think about that.

•••

GAIL GRIFFIN is the author of three books of nonfiction. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared widely. “Heartbreak Hotel” is part of a collection probing weird corners of what Mark Doty calls “grief’s country.” She lives and writes in southwestern Michigan.

Rebecca

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kathleen Guthrie Woods

I’d recently moved in with my soon-to-be-husband when—“Hello, he-loo-oh!”—the lady from across the street hustled over to introduce herself.

“You look just like your sister!” she gushed.

“Uh, I think you have me confused with someone else.”

“Oh, no. You look just like her. Your sister!”

Actually, I don’t. My little sister stands a good four inches over me and got all the dark genes, while I got the “Irish” ones.

But my new neighbor insisted. “You know, I saw her, when she lived here. And then you came!”

Oh, sweet god, not again. For it wasn’t my sister she was comparing me to. It was my husband’s first wife. His beloved first wife. The one who died.

I’ve known from the start that my husband had a type: blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin—what he calls “pasty.” But she was petite and I am tall. She was left-brained and I live in the right. “You’re funny,” my husband said when I asked how we were different, and I took that as a compliment. I believed him when he assured me he wasn’t marrying a memory.

In the early years of our relationship, friends asked me how it felt to be living with my own Rebecca, referring to the protagonist in Daphne De Maurier’s classic Gothic romance novel. In De Maurier’s sinister tale (and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film), a nameless narrator marries a widower, moves into Manderley, his family estate, and is haunted by the memory of the beautiful, charming, apparently perfect first Mrs. De Winter. The new wife lives with a jealousy that eats away her self-esteem, if not sanity, until she learns the true character of the original lady of the house: cruel, selfish, manipulative.

My Rebecca was nothing like this.

It’s too bad our paths hadn’t crossed earlier in life, because I believe we could have been good friends. From her sisters I’ve learned my Rebecca was a “whiz in the kitchen” who had a passion for making pies from scratch. We might have bonded over a common mad love for our nieces and nephews or our affinity for Broadway musicals. We appreciated the value of a good man—a great man. A man who loves and appreciates feisty, strong, passionate, compassionate, and pasty women.

Pasty women who, to outsiders, apparently all look alike.

Like any new bride—and a forty-something bride with a previously married groom—I was prepared to be evaluated at first-time introductions. But in my odd case, navigating reactions could be painful. On a handful of occasions, I found myself an undeserving source of grief when my accusers realized the woman they thought I was had died. Should I try to comfort them? Express my sympathy? Sneak away under the pretext of refilling my wine glass so they can cry in private? No one tutored me in the appropriate etiquette for these scenarios.

In other settings I encountered a law school classmate of Rebecca’s who was offended I didn’t remember her from torts class, and a distant relative who introduced me to old friends gathered for a funeral as “Brad’s wife, Rebecca.” I swallowed the insult when no one blinked at the mistake and said, “Nice to meet you.”

At a retirement party, a woman I’d yet to meet got within inches of my face and announced to the small group around me, “You’re right. She does look like her. You can especially see it around the eyes.” It was as if she was critiquing a painting or sculpture or butterfly pinned in a display case, oblivious to the human being inside.

But it was almost worse when people couldn’t accept the reality in front of them. Like the woman who was convinced she remembered me from someone’s long-ago wedding: “But I know I know you!” Not wanting to embarrass her by announcing the news of my doppelgänger’s demise in front of other strangers, I tried to ease her into a neutral topic of conversation. But as my frustration grew, I was tempted to ask, “Do read Playboy? Perhaps you recognize me from there?” Before I could exercise my questionable wit, her son-in-law pulled her aside on some excuse. They moved almost—but not completely—out of range so that I heard: “Ohmygawd, she died?! THAT’S the new wife?”

Yes. “That” is me. I am wife number two. Not the replacement, not second best. Just me. I am here! I wanted to shout, with a stomp of my feet. I am still here! Please see me! But, unlike some people, my parents raised me to be polite.

Shortly after my run-in with the across-the-street neighbor, Brad gave me the green light to make his Manderley my own. I began by combining our kitchens, tossing the expired spices that lurked in the pantry’s shadows, keeping the best blender and donating the other two to Goodwill. I then moved through the house, making space in the living room for the cabinet my great-grandfather built by hand and transforming the sunny guest room into my home office.

Finally I made my way to the basement. I turned a storage closet into a wine cellar and hammered nails into a wall to hang our combined collection of gardening tools side by side.

I felt like I was shedding my independent single girl shell as I watched my queen-size bed and three-piece entertainment center being carted out as a donation; they had been my first major “real” furniture purchases as an adult. No turning back now, I thought.

With renewed gusto, I tackled clearing out the bonus room of the basement, thinking it could be the site of a future man cave or guest suite. I sorted or purged chairs with damaged legs, battered bags of softball gear and retired golf clubs, forgotten office files and outdated cell phones; junk, mostly, stood between me and the orderly home I envisioned.

I had understood that Brad had gone through Rebecca’s more personal belongings after she’d passed, so I was unprepared when I stumbled upon a notebook filled with To Do lists scribbled in her handwriting. I held my breath as I scanned the yellowed pages for anything worth saving, then stopped cold when her college ID card slipped out. For half a second I resisted flipping it over to study the photo, then gave into the temptation to settle the debate. There was no gasp of shock, no tingling sensation of facing my long-lost twin. Had I placed my old ID next to hers, I would agree that we kinda looked similar at that age, but not so much that I would have freaked out if I bumped into her on the street. I placed the notebook in the recycling bin and the ID card in a box of items for her sisters to unpack when they felt ready to reminisce.

With an hour stolen here and there, I made progress. But my world, and my heart, stopped the day I found the box with Rebecca’s wedding dress. I didn’t need to open it to imagine the carefully preserved white satin and lace, and I sensed her longing to one day share it with a daughter or niece. I continued to unearth treasures, and among the dog-eared novels destined for the library, I discovered gardening inspiration for the backyard she never got to plant; kitchen remodeling ideas for making her new house into a home; and picture guidebooks of Italy, Germany, and France, destinations for future romantic getaways. I found, buried deep below the fun stuff, workbooks for moving through the adoption process. Diagnoses, treatments, suffering, and early death eclipsed it all. Surrounded by all the remnants of Rebecca’s hopes for creating a family and a home, for living a full and “normal” life, I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of her losses. I sat in the corner of our basement and wept for all of her unrealized dreams.

And then I spent a few minutes weeping for myself. If only I’d met my husband when we were in our twenties, we might have naïvely bypassed our painful misfortunes. Among my own shattered dreams were dashed hopes of having children, and grandchildren, of creating a real family. I could have been Brad’s only bride, his only history. I cried over the possibility that when we all meet up in heaven, Rebecca will get first dibs. I wondered if he ever looked at me and wished I were her. And I hated myself for feeling jealous of a woman who had lost so much, and in the process, had given me everything.

Our husband will never fall out of love with Rebecca; he simply discovered that his heart was big enough to love again. And while I’m not The Love of his life, he is mine. Mine to build a future with, to fill the blank spaces on our walls with new photos of weddings, anniversaries, and vacations. I am sad for him, for the heartbreaking losses he has experienced, yet those same experiences also helped form the man I love. I am grateful for our second chances.

At times I still sense three souls in our marriage, but I believe it’s possible to embrace the “exes” and “formers”, I believe we can thrive when we choose to accept the past and live in the present. For today’s reality is Rebecca is gone, and I am here.

Meanwhile, I’ve grown to make peace with my role in our family dynamic, and I’ve learned to better anticipate the mistaken identity crises and respond in a way that feels appropriate to me.

“I don’t believe we’ve met before,” I say, “but I am pleased to meet you today. My name is Kathleen.”

•••

KATHLEEN GUTHRIE WOODS performed a version of this essay live for San Francisco’s Lit Crawl. She is currently wrapping up work on The Mother of All Dilemmas, a memoir about finding her worth as a woman in today’s world—whether or not she has children. See more of her work at http://kathleen-ink.com/articles/.