If you’ve ever felt certain you’re not lovable, come on over. Sit by me.
I was walking up the steps toward the bank. The sun was hitting the glass door so that I couldn’t see inside. I guess the woman coming out didn’t see me either and—bam—the big glass and wood door clocked me in the face. I stumbled back a bit, head throbbing. We both said, oh shit, and she apologized and I shook it off, got on with the day. My nose wasn’t broken, but I had a black eye for a week.
When I saw my sweetie the following day, she assessed the damage gently in public and then later in bed, she cozied up next to me. “Goddamn, you’re even hotter when you’ve been roughed up a bit.” She kissed me and pushed her head against mine, making me wince in pain. “Mmm,” she grunted.
“You’re one sick fucker.” We both laughed.
“Yeah, at least I’m not the one who hit you. Count your blessings I’m mostly over that shit.” We shook our heads and laughed again.
Look, no part of me wants pain. I understand how pain can be cathartic, and it’s not my thing. I always talked myself out of a beating, smelled the metal of my own blood through the skin before it broke, and got myself out of there. I don’t attract the ones who hit, but I sure attract the ones who could. And I learn how not to push. Being careful not to get hit, apparently that’s my gig. And I’m good at it.
In my youth, I had a flair for the flamboyant outburst. I mean, I was never one of those jealous glass throwers; I never upset a table in a restaurant. I’m not violent at all, just a little loud. Even still today, I’ll yell and put on the Medusa face but I do it in the privacy of my home.
This was my last big scene and how it finally clicked that I was done with that nonsense.
We’d been upstairs at my place, having sex and then arguing about some damn thing. I couldn’t begin to say what. She was visiting for the weekend and decided, no, fuck it, she was leaving. I was wearing a pale green and cream lace silky negligee with a little pearly business along the bodice. That I remember clearly. She threw all of her stuff in the duffle bag and heaved it onto her shoulder and down the stairs. I followed, giving her a piece of my mind every step of the way. Fire was shooting from my eyeballs as I watched her step off the porch and head down my steep front yard into the dark night. I shouted one last thing, loud enough for her to hear as she got into her truck: “YOU ARE ONE FUCKED UP INDIVIDUAL!”
And suddenly, that thing happened. A zoom out. An awareness. Suddenly a small, but terribly clear, voice inside my head said, “Actually, you are standing on your front porch at two a.m., yelling for your neighbors to hear, wearing nothing but a skimpy negligee. You have just become the dictionary-illustration for ‘one fucked up individual.’ Why don’t you close your mouth and go in the house?”
And I went in the house.
She sat in the car for ten minutes and then I heard her mumbling angrily, hauling her bag up the stairs, bump by bump, then telling me, as she took off her clothes and got in bed, “Goddammit, if I leave now, I can’t fuck you again in the morning.”
At which I rose up briefly like a cobra to say, “Oh, so you think we’re having sex in the morning!?”
And she said, “Shut up. Just shut up. Go to sleep.” There wasn’t much fight left in me, so I did.
Yeah, we had sex in the morning.
She never hit me, but after a few disturbing episodes of almost, she went back to anger management classes and I joined a domestic violence abuse survivors support group. Things weren’t always good between us but that relationship lasted a decade because we both had fix-it tenacity. We tried to better ourselves this way and that. And now years later, as friends, we love each other still.
Maybe that’s all I will ever have in the relationship department. Love.
Not comfort. But love. What a strange consolation prize.
I sure know how to pick ’em. And they pick me just as surely. Okay, sometimes the others try to pick me but I just don’t get the hots for too many people and I send them straight to the friend-zone. With some, there’s a fast hard click, like a metal lock. That kind of connection rarely slips out of place until we’ve moved through some serious business together. How do we know even before we know? Is it scent or aura or the hand of God that shoves us together on the sofa?
I was talking to a recent unsuitable suitor on the front porch. We were drinking wine and smoking cigars, and I said, “Hey, look, don’t you even get it going for me! I mean, you don’t want the likes of me. I am damaged and downright difficult. I mean, fuck sake, you were raised by nice people in middle class suburbia and you’ve worked at the same job for thirty years. What the fuck? Stay away from me.”
As I told a friend (okay, she’s an ex) about the unsuitable suitor, I assured her I’d given her a good talking to. I’d really laid it out. And my friend said, eyes fluttering back in her head, “Oh, I’ll bet she loved that. You don’t know how bad people want a talking to from someone like you. You’re tough and pretty and almost always right.”
I stared, with the edges of my mouth curling up, eyes bulging. I thought I’d been super-clear. She added, “You’re a Bon Jovi song waiting to happen!” And then she finished our conversation singing, “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame! You give love a bad name…”
I specifically try not to be a heart breaker. I say “no” more often than I say “yes.” The body has to choose; my head can’t be in charge. It’s a little fucked up in there where mating’s involved. The circuits didn’t get laid quite right in the beginning maybe. Though I give advice to others like a champ, keep my head cool in most situations, I rarely know what to tell myself.
Though it’s not like I’m pre-interviewing lovers—the fact is, I rarely get a lady-boner for people who haven’t had the crap beat out of them a few times when they were kids. It was probably someone who loved them doing the beating.
One could say, well, that’s just common. And it’d be true. But there are similarities among most of my lovers that are downright eerie. Probably it’s comfortable for me.
Probably it’s familiar to me. Probably it fits somehow with something I learned when I was a kid. Isn’t what the therapists would say?
I pick people who are too damaged to trust anyone fully by the time they get to me. Maybe the part of me that thinks I’m not lovable says that seems right. But it makes me mad. And they’re so certain they can’t be loved that my anger seems deserved. But it also justifies the lack of trust.
That’s it. Those are the ones I’m hot for.
Or maybe it looks like this: I’m so calm and accepting, I seem like a miracle at first. Truly, I am calm and accepting and a motherfuckingmiracle as well, but you’ve got to know that some anxious lovelessness caused me to pursue all that calm, and as soon as you upturn the table, you’re gonna see how it was made. I can’t get to the sex without showing someone how I’m made. Well, at least not more than once or twice, and I’m a more than once or twice kind of gal.
My lovers usually can’t let down their guard. They can’t be honest with themselves about how they keep creating their own misery despite trying really hard to get clear, meditate, breathe, get back to nature, journal, join a tantra group, talk to a shrink, and get freaky, at least for a while, with me. I have some kind of mojo going on that keeps them wanting it, that’s for sure.
It’s a shame one can’t put a nozzle on ones own mojo, point it in the right direction, build it up, and let it fight the fire of a painful past. My lovers are fighters with mojo to spare, but it’s not clear whether we’re ever fighting in the right direction. I like ’em either super-scrappy or super-smart; both is best. What if we could point ourselves toward those painful pasts together, rather than looking right at each other when we’re mad?
After years of on again and off again, my lover with the anger issues and I went to couples counseling. After some time talking about our problems with sex—that is, talking about how she loves fucking me but doesn’t totally let me do her, she said this to the therapist: “I just know that if I really soften up with her, it’ll be the best thing ever. Then I’ll need it. Then she can hurt me.”
I wept quietly because, yeah, I knew that. I also knew she was already in pain without me doing the hurting. A pain I couldn’t touch. I guess she figured it was easier not to heal, to keep the low-grade fever of anger and hunger. Better to blame me for not trying hard enough. Better to choose a pain that already fit into her schedule rather than a yawning, aching need that brings terror. Who could relax then?
Pain is easier to carry than fear. Both will shorten your life. Whatever. We’re resilient as fuck, my lovers and I. That much is clear.
I have to hope for something better. It could be worse and it’s not. I pick someone with a few skills. I don’t pick the ones who are strung out on drugs. I don’t pick the ones who hit. I just pick the ones who need love and won’t accept it from me. Maybe a little they do. Small morsels. But I don’t do a good job pretending it’s enough. There’s a lot of fighting to be loved here on my side of the table. A lot of trying and failing. A lot of tear-it-down-and-try-again hope. A lot of joy despite the pain. Real eye-of-the-storm peace. A lot of tenacity and tenderness because there doesn’t seem to be another way.
If you’ve ever felt certain you’re not lovable, come on over. Sit by me.
There are a lot of you out there. Just like how I learned to stop making a screaming-scene on my own front porch, maybe I can learn to draw someone with a softer jaw, an unclenched fist. That’s possible. And here’s what’s likely: No matter who sits by me, I’ll keep pouring up love by the cupful. Sweet love. No matter what else happens, that’s not nothing. Love is never going to be nothing.
KIMBERLY DARK is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who wants you to remember that we are creating the world even as it creates us. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Read and gawk and learn at www.kimberlydark.com.
I used to beg to go to McDonald’s. I wanted my Happy Meal. My fries. I wanted lime-green pickles stuck to the bun. Little onion pieces poking through ketchup. The smell that made my mouth cry. The cardboard box. The toy.
Of course, the toy. It was the distraction, the reward, and most important. Mom was sure they were going to be worth a lot one day. So when everything was wrong, when I felt alone, or sad for some reason I didn’t know, I at least had it. Usually, the girl one was what I wanted: a mini-Barbie, a Catwoman, a pony. Other times not. But if it was, I geared myself up to say it. Despite the scary feeling, taught myself to say:
“Hey, Mr. Person?”
The man behind the counter would turn around. Four- or five- or six-year-old me, blue eyes with curly brown hair, looking up.
“Can I help you?” he’d ask.
“Um, can I have the other one?” I’d say, holding out a car, a Transformer, a rocket.
Then the worker, the adult, the Santa-for-now, after some thought, but not much, would reach under and swiftly come back up.
“You mean this?” he’d confirm. Or she. (A little cheer in the voice if she.)
And nodding my head, it was understood that indeed I did. I wanted this, and I’d give back the other in its plastic, knowing suddenly, with things right, that the day would be good.
School and other kids weren’t there. Home and fighting weren’t there. Confusion wasn’t there, and I could now sit down with my toy and my food and purely think to myself:
I’m a happy, normal boy.
It’s four in the morning and I want a goddamn burger.
I knew this would happen. I knew I should’ve eaten before, but I never learn, do I? Every time I go hunting for my one-night white knight, it’s the same sick story. Now, if I stop to eat, it’s going to take a million more excruciating seconds to get home, and I’ll fall asleep on the express bus, ending up at the ass-end of New York City, never to be seen again.
I’m starving, though, so there’s really no choice. Just like there was no choice in spending that much money at the bar. In circling it and three others round and round for the past eight hours. In going week after week, searching for some ridiculous validation, some salve for the years of suppression/oppression/depression from this dismissal, this doom they say is supposed to “get better,” but not all better, just not-as-bad statistic better, or law passed by the skin of its teeth better, or Brokeback Mountain in faintest rear-view, better.
But all right, that’s enough self-pity bullshit.
Where’s the fucking McDonald’s? I wonder.
Barely for a moment though, because of course the golden arches pop up almost immediately and I hurry inside. I don’t even mind the fluorescent blare because the lights tell me to wake up. To convey my order with words from my throat, and that if I do so, I will be served, like anybody else. Served, and grateful, and complete.
Should I order a Happy Meal? It’s really the cheapest way to get a burger, fries, and a drink—all my necessary items, plus maybe even get the cute—
“That’s not what I ordered!” a shout suddenly rings out.
I look at the counter where an old man is irate. The scene looks wrong as a green-skinned orange.
“Don’t you know the difference between chocolate and vanilla?” he continues, gesticulating madly. I want to cover my ears. I want to crouch down and shout, “Shhhh!”
“Here you go, sir,” the man behind the counter says, all ready with the replacement milkshake. I can’t help but be proud of his swiftness—a sense of déjà vu.
“Oh, there you go, finally!” the old man reacts. “Now, was that so hard?”
The worker is heavy-lidded, accentuated by the cornrows pulling slightly at his temples, but clearly alert. “No, it wasn’t, sir,” he says back. “Have a nice night.” This kind of thing must happen a lot at this hour, I realize.
I watch as the customer goes to the condiment counter for a straw, and glad the episode is over, I go back to looking at the menu. Sucking air into my cheeks, and still feeling the acid from the alcohol, I decide on a Number 2 meal. I bargain that it’s essentially a Happy Meal with an extra burger, and that maybe I can even—
“You’re not really a man, are ya?”
My throat clenches when I hear it. I feel chilled.
Am I standing with my hands on my hips again? I thought I took care of that habit. Or did someone, somehow, hear my voice? I look slowly to my left and see the old man again, fiddling with his straw.
“Look at you, stuck behind your counter. You’re not a man!” he shouts. “I can say anything to you and nothing will happen!”
At first, I’m relieved—that it’s not about me, that I can stay hidden. But the feeling dissipates quickly as I look back at the worker and see it: the unmistakeable pain and confusion in his eyes. The rest of him stays stoic, strong, and polite, hands holding the register. I know that move too well, though; I feel the break. The crush of having an idea that venom is coming your way, yet still be struck when it happens.
This is part of life. It may even be a part that makes you stronger. But this is not the place, I decide. And a young McDonald’s worker? A young, black McDonald’s worker? No… that is the wrong goddamn person.
I plan. There’s only a smattering of people sitting around behind—no one will catch the damage. All I need to do is dart over, take the milkshake, and pour it all over the old man’s head. “Nothing will happen to you, huh? Can say whatever you want, huh?” I’ll taunt while dodging his flailing arms. Then I’ll quickly bounce the cup off his decrepit face and run out the door.
I’m still tipsy and brave, but my breathing gets heavy. My adrenaline begins to rise as I prepare. Meanwhile, I can faintly hear the old man laughing through the ringing in my ears, “Fifteen dollars an hour you think you should get? What a joke. What a joke you are. You and all you little fast food babies.” I look around and see I’m still the only one paying attention to the worker who’s staring into the middle distance. The old man then relishes in slurping his drink, practically daring me with it.
I exhale heavily out my mouth to activate my parasympathetic nervous system, like my therapist said to do when my anxiety is up. I do it again and again. Then I move my feet like they’re in mud up to my calf. I step steadily and with great purpose.
And soon enough, with a few more steps, my feet turn away and hit the cement out the door, leaving the situation totally behind. Leaving it having nothing, at all, to do with me.
It’s an eerily smooth bus ride back to my home where I still live with my mother, where I’m a comfortable grad student, able to quit my fast food job after one teenage summer. “You did the right thing,” my ex-boyfriend texts, when I tell him what happened. “It wasn’t worth the trouble.”
But I know for a fact it was worth the trouble. I know it would have simply been correct to have the old man’s reaction result in an equal and opposite reaction. Worth anything to have that employee, eternally dumped on, know he is appreciated for doing his job and for doing it well. That he’s definitely a man and should never, ever be made to feel ashamed. Sure, there’s the possible slips, injuries, and arrests that may have ensued from my retaliation—but I know deep down nothing would really happen to me. After all, don’t I know the difference between chocolate and vanilla?
Fine, maybe it was for the best. Perhaps the worker would be embarrassed, feel patronized. Maybe he just wanted the problem to go away, or it was all a projection; I can’t know completely what it’s like. Still, the sound of silence is a horrible one I can’t shake. Because now, not only was the young man behind the counter perhaps deprived of his special prize, of some sense of support in a vulnerable moment, but also I’m forced to open my drawer—the one full of McDonald’s toys—and know that despite what my mom thought, and despite how much good they’ve done for me once upon a time…
They’re worthless now.
MICHAEL NARKUNSKI is working on his MFA and book of essays at Stony Brook University. His writing has appeared in Out, Narratively, The Advocate, Hippocampus Magazine, and on stage in NYC. You can follow his constant existential crisis @lampshadenark
It is, in my experience, impossible to meditate on a paper cut.
When something hurts, it hurts, and that’s actually just life in the goddamn moment.
What do you do when you get a paper cut and it really hurts? You curse. I mean, I spent years trying not to curse, because kids. Plus, cursing is negative and profane. But you know what? I think it helps me to curse. I decided to go with what works and I made one of my New Year’s Resolutions “curse readily.” When it hurts, I just let it out now. I don’t keep my curses bottled up inside.
“Mommy’s hair is gone because she has cancer,” Winnie, age five, informed me.
She was at my house to play one Saturday morning. “Do you miss her hair?” I asked.
She nodded, tearing up. “Girls are supposed to have hair,” she explained. Her big blue eyes widened for emphasis.
“Mommy’s hair will grow back,” I said. My friends were counseled to talk about the periods Mommy wouldn’t feel well from chemo treatments as brown days. “Mommy’s having a brown day,” I said, as if Winnie hadn’t noticed.
Brown days. Brown crayons. Breaking crayons.
I hugged her. Winnie wanted to be included by the bigger girls, who did not want to play with her; she wanted to get seconds to get thirds to get hugs to get reassurance that everything and everyone will be all right. She wanted to ban brown days forever, to break every single brown crayon.
When he first called from the hospital waiting room about his wife M’s breast cancer diagnosis, still without stages or numbers or treatment plans, it loomed instantly, amorphous and unknown, like a threatening storm cloud. “Out of the blue” is an odd phrase, and yet it worked, except I remember that day was cloudy. Stunning bad news doesn’t fall from gray skies. Stunning bad news fit the foreboding scene, though. Dampening clouds pressed in with a stranglehold. I couldn’t promise any damn thing, obviously. I listened. I hurt with him. To love friends sometimes means to hurt with them, and to hold onto that hurt.
My feet gripped the hilly sidewalk. I sent her a text. M texted back, seriously WTF right? That became the mantra: WTF. It was the correct mantra.
What I really wonder though is what helps, what really helps. You get into big-ticket problems and everyone tells you what you should do. Cancer is about as big as it gets. Everyone has an opinion about meditation or drugs or environment or the messed up way we don’t care for ourselves and really? You are in brown days with kids who need play dates. You are neither an environmental warrior nor a sudden yogi.
Anyway, other things seem (maybe are) smaller. Hangnails. Stubbed toes. Paper cuts. Splinters. Knotted neck muscles.
Things I’ve cursed in recent years include but are not limited to cancer:
High school administrators
The sham our country calls health insurance
Political arguments on Facebook
Snow and winter
Staff development days
January crowds at the gym
Other health crises
Poor administrators of all stripes,
And laundry—I have cursed laundry, which isn’t really what I curse when I curse laundry. Laundry is shorthand, metaphor. What I curse is how burdensome the freight of everyday responsibilities can feel. Sometimes, what’s most crushing is the place where the mundane and looming converge—and I often happen upon it with a laundry basket between my arms. I know the angle my arms need to bend to carry that sucker as well as I knew how to hold my babies through interminable nights.
Laundry is also why I sprained my ankle on a snow day. Because we were stuck inside the first and second days post-winter break, I tackled the laundry in the bottom of the hamper, the long neglected, overdue, already outgrown laundry. That’s when I tumbled. My breath was gone; my ankle flipped—searing pain in one nanosecond. I was twisted on the inside, and I screamed. I knew I was in trouble. Three days with ice and ibuprofen and elevation and longer in an ace bandage, which I MacGyvered with a pair of red tights I plan never to wear again—not that I’d worn them for.
In the midst of so many bigger things I cursed myself for freaking out about my stupid sprained ankle. I laughed at Lisa Kudrow’s absurdity in Web Therapy and felt only slightly less pathetic as a human. Fuck the sprained ankle. Fuck cancer. Fuck the big things. Fuck my family for freaking out about me lying down for three short days.
At the time I’d been doing yoga for about two years. I waited a few weeks to return to yoga class. Even after I could walk and work out, it turned out that my ankle hurt the most during yoga class—during the warrior poses and anything that had me sit with the top of my feet on the floor, which is to say my ankle hurt during yoga class, a lot. Ostensibly, the ankle is why I stopped.
It wasn’t just that, though. After those three days to elevate and ice my ankle nonstop, I realized that simply to sit with everything felt terrible. Take the ankle pain away from the yoga equation, it still felt terrible to be there with all that silence and stillness. However good it was for me, however much I should sit with what was hard, I felt terrible in that pristine space. So, I stopped.
I still wonder sometimes whether yoga or meditation would help more than cursing. I drew the conclusion that for now, cursing works better for me, and I haven’t wanted to take a yoga class since.
When things are hard, rather than fight, go with the bad—ride the current because you can’t swim against it—but when things are easy, go with the good. The hard stuff showed me this. If I’ve changed my tack, it’s that I aim for comfort a little more, challenge a little less. I like peanut butter and I like carrots. I always have. Like Frances of Bread and Jam For before she began to eat everything, I appreciate that comfort foods exist because we take comfort in the beloved.
A year later, M and I still curse over text. Now, we just complain about the husbands and the kids.
A man with a two-day beard unloads his clothes from a four-door Cadillac with Texas plates and tells me something I will never forget.
Hooked on his index finger and draped over his right shoulder on hangers are a handful of short-sleeved, snap-button, western style shirts. He says he’s been coming to this part of the Arkansas Ozarks every spring for decades to hear the music at the Mountain Home folk center. He says Mountain Home is only an eight-hour drive from his home in east Texas.
The man nods toward the cabin next to mine as he tells me about his wife who always makes the trip with him. Been married thirty years. Some ups and downs but they get along. Raised good kids. House paid for. Did it the right way.
I picture her unloading the suitcases, stocking the mini-fridge and maybe checking out the dismal selection of channels on the television.
The man switches the shirts to his left shoulder and looks straight into me. Something has shifted in his face. There is an unfocused vacancy around his eyes, where there are deep, topographical wrinkles like rivers seen from the air. But there are also shallower creases. New tributaries. I cannot imagine I will ever see someone as sad as this man from Texas.
“This time we brought our daughter,” he says, pointing back to the cabin. “Hell, she needed to get away. A month ago, her husband and her two boys, eleven and twelve, were killed in a head-on with a semi. An awful thing.” He shakes his head. “An awful thing.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. This was more than I bargained for when I stopped for a friendly chat. I tell him again, “I’m so sorry.”
I try to feel the man’s loss as a father, grandfather, and husband. A man who comes to the Ozarks simply to hear jam sessions on the square, where the old-timers pick music as old as this country. But this time the trip is different. This time he brought his wife and daughter here to be healed by music. Or so I want to believe.
I follow his gaze to the cabin where the family rests after their long drive across Texas. “My daughter just needed to get away…from everything. We’ll only be here a few days. Have to get back. My son’s having back surgery.” He nods a goodbye and carries his shirts inside.
My stay transforms into one of anticipation. Will I bump into the man’s daughter? What will I say to her? What will she look like?
I cannot bring forth a face. The only face I know is that of the man’s, the grief deepening the creases around his eyes. A tragedy like this should not happen to a person at his age, or at hers, or to any of us at any age, but it does each and every day, to someone. To dwell on this thought for too long is paralyzing.
I try to stay focused. This town feels like an outpost. Somewhere else. Against the grain. Outside this nation’s boundaries. Yet I am not far from the geographical center of America, which is just north over in Missouri.
I loaf at a music store and listen to some old timers pluck and sing “But I Didn’t Hear Anyone Pray.” Authentic is what I think I witness, but I don’t really know. In the town square are empty chairs arranged in circles for jam sessions. Mockingbirds pick through trash. Hound dogs sleep under porches.
Despite the distractions I cannot shake the feeling of loss. It’s as if the man’s sadness poured into me like a virus. He has sent his family’s grief out into the world through me. There is no quick cure for this virus. No antibiotics. It has to run its course.
I search the aisles at Wal-Mart for wine or beer, but the clerk says with a laugh that the county is dry. If I want a drink I will have to drive to the next county. Miles over twisted, steep hills of oak and hickory. In the dark. I stay put.
In the morning at a local restaurant I take my eggs and bacon with grits. Several cups of weak coffee with powdered creamer that will not dissolve. I look out the window and watch baby armadillos graze below a bird feeder. I’m not sure there is a cuter animal than a baby armadillo. A family of raccoons appears next at the bird feeder. Then a cat. A turtle. None of the animals seem skittish.
I buy a hickory hiking stick with a bearded face carved on the handle, made by a man named Bubba. I lean on my stick and walk into the dense forest. Soft forest light filters through. Bright blue, orange, and crimson birds flit in the canopy. The extinct ivory-billed woodpecker was resurrected not far from here but then faded back into rumor. Alligators have wandered up waterways from the Gulf of Mexico. Cougars are spotted but never confirmed. Monkeys would not seem out of place. The great reshuffling of the animal world continues.
Down the road a wood frame house advertises two kinds of handmade dulcimers. Inside a man chooses an anniversary gift for his wife. The clerk plays “Amazing Grace” on a mountain dulcimer with hearts carved on the front. She plays beautifully as if at a funeral.
For the next two nights the Cadillac sits in its parking spot outside the lighted cabin. The blinds are drawn and, from a distance, the blue aura of the television screen gives the room a neon glow, like a tavern. I hear the clinking of glasses; silverware scraping across plates. But I do not hear voices, and I never see the man, his wife, or his daughter. I am tempted to knock on the door, yet I have nothing more to offer.
On the third morning I wake up early. I look out the window. The Cadillac is gone. The air is cool. Birdsong fills the air. In the distance I can hear bluegrass playing. I begin to feel better, more hopeful, as if a weight has lifted. Still, I know that anything can happen.
STEPHEN J. LYONS is the author of four books of essays and journalism. His most recent book is Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times. You can get his books through your local, independent bookstore, or online at Amazon.
My mom is standing by the kitchen sink, squeezing pimples on a chicken. This is the 1990s in Hungary, when chicken still come with remnants of what makes them poultry: feathers, dry skin around the heel, nails that once scratched dirt on a farm.
Behind her on the kitchen table are carrots and parsley and celery root. She is making soup—maybe it’s a Sunday, or maybe it’s a regular Thursday and I just got home from school. It all looks complicated to me and, frankly, disgusting—the gizzards of the chicken in a plastic bowl at the edge of the sink.
“I can’t imagine ever, ever learning how to do this,” I tell her.
She rinses her hands under the running water. “Oh, you will,” she says. “When you love someone and they are sick and all they want is some chicken soup, you will learn.”
I think about this conversation when my son is sick and I am rinsing slimy, plump chicken livers in a colander. He loves chicken livers in his soup, so I buy them in a small tub at the grocery store and freeze them in batches. I feel certain that I would not do this for anyone else, even for myself.
I plop the livers into the water next to the chicken breast and the carrots and the parsnips and the celery. My mom was right: I did learn how to make soup.
My grandmother writes letters to me in college on thin, see-through sheets of paper. Airmail from Hungary to the U.S. is expensive. I get one sheet in each letter, maybe two, filled with her fancy, cursive writing, usually in blue ink. I like getting the letters, I am sure, but I don’t remember them eliciting any sort of emotional response. I might even be disappointed: “Oh, it’s just another letter from grandma.” I keep them anyway.
When I look at them some twenty years after they were written and two years after my grandmother died—still neatly folded in their envelopes—I am knocked off my feet. They make me feel loved—cherished, even—like I never felt back then, not like this, not this explicitly and deeply. I suddenly see everything it took to write them—the process of purchasing the thin wax paper and the airmail envelope and the stamps at the post office, the writing of the letter with her arthritic wrists and fingers—in her armchair next to the radiator, right under her bright window filled with plants —the walk to the post office to mail them.
I can only read one before the tears start—written on my twenty-third birthday, seventeen years ago. She was proud of me. I had a car. And a job. And an apartment.
My grandmother taught me to iron and I used to think of her every night when I ironed my husband’s shirt for the next day. Now it’s all non-iron, synthetic, fake fabrics. And where’s the love in that?
There are people who are clumsy at love. Who say the right words but have trouble putting them into action. Who don’t call. Or write. Or remember. Who don’t think the way I do, that for love you do things—real things: see that action movie, eat at that restaurant, sit with the in-laws at Christmas, listen to quiet fears in the middle of night, scratch the itchy spot in the middle of the back. Iron. Make soup.
That’s the hardest thing, loving someone like that. Someone who lets themselves be loved but cannot return it for whatever reason. They give you little glimpses of what it is like to be loved by them—and it is fucking brilliant and just enough to keep you coming back for more.
I don’t love my baby right away. I know that this is not unusual, but it surprises me. I am happy that he’s here, and that he’s healthy, but beyond that, I feel very little. I don’t let him starve or cry too long or stay in a dirty diaper. I linger with him in the rocking chair and marvel at the fact that he has no eyebrows and the skin on his nose still looks unfinished somehow, almost translucent. I notice his features as if looking at a doll—a strange, antique doll with a porcelain face—that I can just set back on the shelf once I am done.
It’s funny that I don’t remember falling in love with him. It’s not like romance, where you get that initial tingle around the heart. It’s not a lightning bolt or a big spectacle. It happens at two a.m. when you are cleaning up poop. It happens at the playground. In the rear-view mirror of the car when he’s finally fallen asleep. In the middle of a temper-tantrum when both of you are crying and there’s snot on your hands.
Things I love:
Brushing my teeth.
The way the birds go crazy around four a.m. in the spring.
Landing in Europe after a trans-Atlantic flight.
The smell of tomato vines.
Rainy October days.
Skypeing with my brother and not noticing that an hour went by.
The jingle of bracelets on my wrist.
My mom’s soup.
My husband’s first heart attack happens in August, we think. We are in London and he wakes in the middle of the night to horrific back spasms. He has a bad back, but nothing like this has ever happened. He’s sweating and can’t catch his breath from the pain. I call an ambulance. They take him away and I sit by the window of our hotel room, staring at the street below until the morning, until our son wakes.
We take a cab to the hospital in the rain and sit with him as the doctors check his blood and re-check it again and again. In the end they rule out a heart attack. We fly home a few days later. He gets a muscle relaxer from his doctor for future back issues.
After he collapses in November and the surgeon threads a catheter through his arteries, he is fairly certain that what he had in London was not a back spasm.
I guess you can walk around with your heart broken on the inside.
I once ask my mom about how you know that you have found “the one,” that you are really in love. Maybe that wasn’t my exact question, but something along those lines. Maybe I am asking her about marriage, about long-term commitment, what that is like. She says that if even after all the years you’ve spent together it still feels good to cuddle up close together at the end of the day, then you are in business.
I remember this on those evenings when we are both exhausted, when I feel just a tiny bit resentful that he is in bed, listening to music, while I finish up bath time and story time and get a glass of water and give another back rub. I stumble into bed and I don’t really want to talk or be touched or be seen. I want to be angry and stomp around like a child—and sometimes do.
I pretend to read and he reaches over to rub my shoulder. I melt into his touch, his warm palms. I put down my book so that I can be in full contact with his body, smell his chest and the spot behind his ears, to rub my nose in his beard.
I am so mad at him, damn it.
When my son wants to tell me that he loves me, he switches over to Hungarian. That’s our language, our secret love code. The words are sweeter, more melodious, melancholy. “I love you” is such a throwaway phrase. “Mama, te vagy a szerelmem,” he tells me and I know it’s true. That we are each other’s loves. We are walking to my car and I hold his hand and feel him holding on, his palm almost as big as mine.
I like that our love is so uncomplicated.
Isn’t it crazy that you can never really know that another person loves you? That you can keep something like this a secret? Maybe there is someone you see every day—at work or at the playground or at school dropoff—and have no idea that they have a crush on you. That they think about you during their day, when they are sad or bored. That they plan ways to run into you, to talk to you. That they imagine this whole other life with you, with you at the center—as their center. You could have this wild affair, this crazy romance, if only that person would speak up, make a move.
But we never do. Nobody ever does. We shuffle back to our desks, hide in our phones, pull forward in the dropoff line.
We kiss past the crust of the morning. The wet spot on the pillow, the gunk in the eyes, the sour breath. We wipe away sweat and dreams from brows. We dip hands into hidden folds and curves, underneath, where it’s dark and heavy and damp. We lick and swallow and we spread and moan. We pinch and scrape and knead. We release—our hands smelling faintly of love all day.
Things I want to learn to love:
An achy heart.
Being awake at two a.m.
My husband does not like soup. When he’s sick, he wants to be left alone: no juice, no tea, no lemonade or honey. No soup. This is confusing—how can you not want chicken soup? My chicken soup. And if you don’t want chicken soup, what can I do for you? Is doing nothing a sign of love?
I stop making soup for a while. Then just make it for myself. Then for our son. You can’t just make a little soup. I offer it up on cold winter days and on sick days for years. “Nothing against your soup,” he says. But no thank you.
I resign myself: he is a no-soup person.
Fifteen years and four kitchens later, on an average Tuesday he suggests that I make soup for dinner. “But you don’t like soup,” I say.
“I could live on your soup,” he responds and I say nothing to hide my shock. Later there is crusty bread on the table and wine and the cooked carrots and parsnips in a separate bowl from the shredded chicken meat. He adds hot sauce and hot pepper flakes and dips his bread.
He makes my soup his own.
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and has published essays in several online and print outlets. She lives in Maine—again!—where her soup-making skills will come in handy this winter. You can read her other works at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin
I entered the terminal in a rush, wondering if I’d be asked to turn my phone to flight mode before the what the hell? texts started coming. At that point, things were basically over. Trying to explain your actions via SMS is the same as cybersex. You might finish, but is anybody really satisfied?
The problem had started at dinner, somewhere between coffee and “The Tonight Show.” This was the end of a busted week in Los Angeles. I had told everybody I was coming to “take meetings” when the real purpose was to surprise my manager, who had been steadily ignoring my calls. Desperate to prove I still had value, I had pitched him a series of increasingly poor ideas: the girl with daddy issues stuck in an evil computer. The hitman who kills using an Asian ghost. The billionaire who pretends to be two competing billionaires to get the girl because all girls dream of being lied to by a rich guy.
“I kind of like the robot one,” Nathan said, chewing his burger while I pawed at his fat fries.
“Me, too,” Jen said. Jen was Nathan’s wife and the only girl I’d met in California who didn’t talk about juice cleanses. They were a young power couple in LA and I’d spent the week sleeping on their couch, wondering if they had any faults besides talking about their cat like he was a human being.
“Nobody has any patience for non-evil robots,” I lamented. “By the way, Jen, you look very attractive in that dress.” She was one of those people in complete harmony in every situation, meaning the opposite of me. I could never think of anything to say. I preferred to stay on the fringe of social situations, mocking the successful around me, following the old if-you-can’t-build-something-destroy-it philosophy. Faced with someone who simply enjoyed life sapped me of my observational jabs. So instead I complimented Jen often and ecstatically, a toy dog yapping for its master’s attention, steadily ignoring the WTF looks I’d been getting from Nathan.
“You look nice in that button-down,” she rejoined. I had worn the shirt three days straight. Nathan raised his eyebrow, anticipating my response. It was, “You’re so wonderful. I love you.” The tone was supposed to be jokey but the words left my mouth sounding open, earnest. It was truthful, too, since I had fallen in love with her the moment we had met, as well as their anthropomorphic cat, Sam.
“Oh, I-love-you-too” Jen said in a way that meant both the opposite and I-pledge-undying-fealty-to-my-husband-angrily-chewing-a-cheeseburger. I couldn’t be stopped at this point. It was weird.
“We should have an affair. Elope or something,” I said. What the fuck are you doing? one side of my brain asked. Don’t worry. If you go too far past the point of no return it will go meta and be seen as performance art, the other side said. “I’m much taller than your husband,” I added.
“Don’t you have a flight to catch?” Nathan asked.
As we crawled down the 110 in traffic I tried one more joke, the social equivalent of that last bet in Vegas when you’ve lost it all and are borrowing twenty dollars from the former best friend you’re trying to cuckold. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something to do with “Wife Swap,” a popular show on ABC once upon a time, except I didn’t have a wife so Nathan could borrow a life-sized wax head I won at a carnival. That went over predictably well and we drove the rest of the way in silence. I should have just taken a bus, I thought, but since this was Los Angeles, it’d probably be more efficient just to give my wallet and phone to any passing transient rather than go through that whole shiv hassle.
We arrived at the drop-off spot and I shook Nathan’s hand and looked him in the eye, a thing guys do when they want people to think they’re serious. I offered Jen a limp handshake and when she looked confused, I gave her a light hug, whispering “You’re both very lucky with each other,” into her ear. That was as close as I got to an apology. I grabbed my bags and headed to the terminal, looking back once to see if they watched me go. They were already gone; their hybrid slunk away silently. The automatic doors to the terminal parted and I automated myself inside.
“Just you?” asked the check-in girl and I nodded, yes, just me, always. “Did you enjoy your time in LA?” she cooed.
I nodded again, wondering what would happen if I told her the whole dinner situation. “Um, okay…” she would have said, uncomfortable at my honesty, confused why I’d messed things up. “These things just can’t be helped,” I’d explain and she’d be the one nodding, silently judging me as she passed me my boarding pass.
By the time I got on the plane I had not received any messages. Maybe they’d never come, I reasoned; maybe Nathan would sleep on it and understand that hot wives deserve to be hit on by your childhood friends. This was a sort of male bonding — Nathan had won the wife game and I was indicating my approval by dropping lines about affairs. Men can’t be straightforward with their feelings. It’s part of the rule book. Yes, that’s it, I decided. All is fine in the world. I asked the flight attendant for a glass of wine and wondered what they were selling in this month’s Sky Mall.
But as time passed, my mind replayed the week’s events in lurid detail. That’s the trouble with planes; they’re engineered to make you reflect on your life. Buses and trains offer the dual distractions of finding your stop and not being murdered by crazies, but in the sky there’s no scenery, no proper indication of time passing. There’s nothing but the noise of the engines, the buzz of your life at a crossroads. I tried to distract myself with more wine and in-flight entertainment. But all I could think of was what had got me here, and why I had messed with a friendship simply because I couldn’t be bothered not to.
At this point, the only thing to do was wait. I waited for my ego to take over, for my momentary bout of self-awareness to become hard, defensive. I channeled my inner Homer (the classic one not the yellow one) and readied my yarn for spinning. I must be the hero of my story, so heroic I would become. It was Nathan’s fault I was in this position to begin with. If he were feeling weird he should have said something. My brain analyzed each situation not for my indiscretions but for Nathan’s. It rewired each memory, rewriting my role as the falsely accused.
What the hell, Nathan? We were long and fast friends. I had got him his first condom at age seventeen in a Chinese sex shop while dismissing an old woman’s upselling attempts for nipple clamps and rust-colored anal beads. I had shopped with him for flowers to impress one of his many sub-par girlfriends. I was there to commiserate right after Lindsay dumped him on the phone, his angry yelps cut short because her roaming charges were too high. Did Nathan really think I was brazen enough to hit on his wife? Or stupid enough to hit on her in front of him? So I’m a cad and a moron. Real nice, Nathan. I jabbed at my in-flight meal angrily, fully convinced now that I was the scapegoat.
Next I played our upcoming exchanges. It would start with the thank-you note I’d write. My dearest Jen and Nathan, it would read, thank you very much for letting me stay at your great apartment in LA. What a view! I had a wonderful time and you guys are great. I hope you appreciated my unique sense of humor and hope to see at least one of you in Hong Kong. You know what I mean. Nathan would respond rudely. Fuck. Off. It was as if he had no sense of propriety, or humor for that matter.
In time, the story would spread to family emails, dinner party tales, and class-reunion letters. “It was a normal dinner …” I’d begin. Jen would still be perfect—at least that part of the story would be true—but I was the happy-go-lucky everyman who had come to LA to find my old friend transformed! Nathan was a workaholic, rage-fueled beast; his green-eyed irrationality scorched everything around him. “You should have seen it,” I’d tell my audience, “his eyes literally turned green.”
“Like the Incredible Hulk?” one might say, looking for validation.
“Exactly like the Incredible Hulk,” I’d affirm.
“That sucks. Some people are just dicks,” another would say.
I’d take a moment to process this truth. “We used to be close,” I’d offer. And I’d sigh a heavy sigh, full of the terrible weight of others not living up to their expectations. “I just—” here’s where I’d pause for dramatic effect—“wish that it weren’t the case. That everybody could be cool and not make a big deal out of nothing.”
I imagine the cute girl next to me putting her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’re cool.”
“We are cool,” I’d agree happily. Then I’d raise my glass to friendship and to the people who really understood me.
YALUN TU is a writer based in Los Angeles. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @yaluntu, where he very rarely updates anything.
This is a story about drugs, but not only about drugs. It was the night before the Y2K glitch was supposed to happen. Do you remember it? It was three hundred fourteen big news stories ago, just a blip now but back then, end of 1999, it was the big one. The idea was that there was a decent chance we’d all wake up on January 1, 2000 to computers freaking out, banks failing, planes falling. We, the five of us, thought watching for the apocalypse would be a fun thing to do while on drugs, and so, after work, we drove from the city to the beach. We were twenty-two and thought ourselves very clever.
We loved ourselves, is the truth, loved each other, even if we couldn’t have articulated it like that at the time. It was merely where we lived, this fragile, warm world we’d built, as taken for granted as air. We’d all, by then, had a look around and we’d chosen each other, is what I’m saying.
I was the fifth wheel on this beach trip, which is better than being the third wheel, by a little. It was Dave, who was my best friend and roommate from college, and his girlfriend, Julie, the two of them newly in love, always touching. And there was Alis, a girl I also cared a lot about, and her boyfriend, Skeet, the two of them no longer, I think, so much in love, touching a bit less. What we did that night, in that fierce way, was listen very closely to Radiohead songs, afterward only smiling, sure everyone really got it. Though I’m not saying we were the only clever twenty-two-year-olds who’d ever had this kind of love, and though it comes and goes, comes and goes, we had it, and still do.
And we were doing drugs. We were doing ecstasy, which I don’t think is called that any longer, which tells you a little about how old we all are now. We had a hotel room, two beds, where the couples would sleep, and a couch, where I’d sleep. We drank a little, smoked a little, and then we took the pills we were there to take. We listened to more Radiohead, wrote some bad poetry, smiled some more, said oh my god a lot.
Peaking, bundled up, we went to the beach. There was no one else there, of course. I remember there was crusty snow on the part of the beach where the ocean didn’t reach. I was clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth so much that I had little white pockets of foamy spit at the corners of my mouth. I know because there’s a picture of me from that night, pupils huge. And in that photo with me, our arms around each other, to all the world brothers, is Alis’s boyfriend, Skeet.
Skeet and I were never great friends, and probably we were never more than two guys who cared about the same girl. But there we were, ecstatic, walking along that magical line where water meets sand, retreats, and then meets it again, forever. The others had found something else that delighted them and were well behind us.
And maybe it was that repeat-repeat-repeat of the waves, but I remember, just before we saw what we saw, Skeet was talking about the universe, how he was sure the Big Bang was just one of an infinite number of Big Bangs, how eventually the universe would stop growing, race in upon itself and collapse to a point until it again exploded in yet another Big Bang. We were merely, Skeet was saying to me—just me, on that beach—living in a moment between Big Bangs. Soon, everything would collapse, and explode. Collapse and explode. And I thought: Holy fucking shit, he might be right. There’s a reason people take drugs, is what I’m saying. Drugs have their moments.
I saw it first. Skeet was still talking, but my eyes were fixed on a cluster of bright, very bright lights, maybe a mile up the shore, softly expanding, collapsing, expanding, coming from what looked like yet another beach house, three stories, decks, the whole thing so bright against that black night. Then he stopped talking. He’d seen it, too. The light, yellow, orange, shimmered, moved, rose. We had the same thought at the same time.
“Is that building on fire?” I asked him.
“Fuck yes, it is,” he said.
Do you remember sprinting? When was the last time you sprinted? Have you ever sprinted toward what you think is a building fully engulfed in flames, the thought, unspoken but as alive as your blood, that once you got there, you just might be able to do something about it? If you have, you’ll know that there are four stages.
At first, you are a catapult, released. You just fire, and go, and after the initial awkwardness in your thighs, the stiffness in your hips, you are convinced you can go, screaming through the cold, dark night, forever. After that, not yet tired but muscles now accustomed, you settle into a groove. This is by far the most pleasurable part. You merely run, free, fluid. Third comes the onset, gradual at first, of the burning of the lungs. You slow, not because you want to, but because your body makes you. Fourth, finally, chest heaving, legs on fire, stomach ready to rebel, you stop, because you cannot go on without some essential part of you failing. And that’s what happened to us. We stopped running, exactly at the moment that we got close enough, heads no longer bobbing, to see the truth.
“I think,” Skeet said, “that those are Christmas lights.”
“I think,” I said, “that you are right.”
In that blackness, our friends catching up to us, also breathless, Skeet and I found the other’s eyes, laughed and then coughed, the black Atlantic Ocean behind us, swelling and retreating, over and over again, both of us knowing, I think, that all of it, the ocean, one day would die. And we would die. But not this, somehow, not this.
SETH SAWYERS’ writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Millions, Salon, Sports Illustrated, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Morning News, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He has been awarded scholarships and residencies to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Writers@Work, and VCCA. He is working on a novel about two ten-foot-tall people who find each other in the time just before the internet. He is online at https://sethsawyers.wordpress.com/.
The teacher cleared her throat, aligning her sharp pencil nib to our printed names on the class register. “Isabelle Lee Shi Qi … Daniel Teo … Lim Jia Ying…” As I raised my hand, she paused and lingered over my name. I bit my lip. Was I about to be singled out on the very first day of class?
She pursed her lips. “There’re two of you named Lim Jia Ying in this class. What are we going to do?”
Another person with the exact same first and last name? My name wasn’t exactly the Asian equivalent of John Smith, and last names were usually the differentiator. I glanced around until I caught the gaze of the person whose face was attached to the torso that was attached to the other raised hand. There was a pregnant glance of equal parts solidarity and wariness.
This situation would not do. How would teachers refer to us in these two years with us in the same classes, how would we write our names on our homework assignments and report cards and parental consent slips? The conclusion was this: because I was eleventh on the class registration list, I was now christened as “Jia Ying 11”. Because the other Lim Jia Ying was twelfth on the list, and life is unfair, she would simply be “Jia Ying”.
When I told my parents after returning home, they indignantly demanded to know why I couldn’t be the one just called “Jia Ying.” I shrugged.
I didn’t mind. I’m still using the same “limjiaying11” email username now. It’s true that when I see her posts on Facebook, I sometimes wonder if that could have been me doing and writing those things. As if her name meant we possessed a common essence, that we were interchangeable. I wish I could report that our identical names forged a unique bond that endured and transcended all our differences and soldered us together forever. But it was just another thing that happened in the year I first had my period, the year a boy first shakily confessed a crush on me, the year I met a true friend who’d remain so for the next fourteen years.
I hadn’t even been that shocked that the name “Jia Ying” was also claimed by another. Chinese names basically meld two distinct words with prosperous or auspicious meanings. Many of my female friends were named after beauty, feminine gentleness, happiness, floral motifs. The chosen pair of words anchor and harbor and shelter the buds of outsized hopes and dreams and over-expectation of new, eager parents.
Apparently my name was chosen from options conjured by a wizened old man with a sharp chin who looked at my birth date and various other vaguely random factors like the weather. (Such superstitions are normal among my mother’s five sisters, who spoke mainly Mandarin and prepared feasts of fresh food and folded paper objects to pray to their ancestors.) In Mandarin, “Jia” 佳 means good (or excellent, beautiful, fine). “Ying” 颖 means clever (or gifted, intelligent, smart).
No name better encapsulates the chronic fear of losing (kiasu, a commonly professed national virtue) and drive for attainment of the Singaporean. At least three of my Facebook friends are also called “Jia Ying”. I used to constantly discover new “Jia Ying”s during role call in Chinese class, sneaky Jia Yings that usually went by their Western names instead. My mother likes to recount the time she signed me up for art classes, and the receptionist informed her that there were already ten other students named “Jia Ying”.
Sure, I could never find my name on those personalized souvenirs at gift shops, though that never stopped me from trying. I will probably never experience the thrill and instant affinity of encountering a fictional character that shares my name (or maybe that’s because I do not read and probably cannot understand Chinese books). I spell out my name habitually when ordering lattes or making a reservation. But there were Jiaqi’s and Jiaxuan’s and Jiawen’s and Jiaqing’s and Jiawei’s, and there were Yingying’s and Shiying’s and Peiying’s and Cuiying’s and Liying’s. So my name was no anomaly.
My name served as a pre-emptive hedge against the willful renouncement of my Chinese heritage. My parents had nothing but the deepest condescension for people who gave their children Western names, or as they called them, “Christian” names, especially as these names would come first before their last name and Chinese name. (Christianity was their synecdoche for the West, something I would also have to delicately navigate when I became a Christian: another story.)
When we were ten, appalled that my sister and I had named our dolls Elizabeth and Georgina and Louisa and other names lifted from the pages of Enid Blyton, my mother warned darkly, “Remember, you don’t want to become a ‘banana’ all right.”
My sister and I would roll our eyes with as much gusto as we could muster without injuring ourselves and mutter, “Yes, yes, we know. It’s just a game.”
(A banana may be pale white or snow white or stark white on the inside, but remains stubbornly, unchangeably, yellow on the outside.)
“Don’t be like X, who married an angmoh (Singaporean slang for red-haired man)! Don’t be like X who doesn’t even go to hawker centers anymore but only eats brunch. Don’t be like X who can’t even say hello to her grandparents because she simply forgot how to speak Chinese.” It seemed there were endlessly available examples of “bananas” to serve as cautionary warnings, as I refused to voluntarily speak Chinese and devoured unhealthy amounts of English books and movies and decided I wanted to study in America.
They warned ominously against my choosing a Western name for myself, as some of my friends had done. I once unwisely complained that my name was always forgotten. They were savage: “If you deserve to be remembered, you will be remembered.”
But “Jia Ying” was abruptly unpronounceable once I stepped foot in college in New York. I watched as my name was promptly forgotten during those orientation icebreakers and self-introductions. Some people wouldn’t bother ever speaking to me again (or maybe that was for other reasons—who knows). Some people would try to call me or get my attention without revealing that they had forgotten my name, out of that habitual American politeness. The more earnest and well-meaning would frown, stumble over it, ask me to repeat it, try to repeat it but end up saying it the exact same way, ask if that were better, and I would nod encouragingly with a forced smile.
What was the point of a name like that?
First I collapsed it into Jiaying, so people wouldn’t call me Jia, thinking that “Ying” was my middle name.
I’m not sure why I thought that would make a difference.
Then I caved. “I’m Jiaying—but you can call me JY. Like, the initials JY.” I would smile, slightly ironically. “It’s easier that way.”
Practically, renaming or naming yourself may be advantageous. We can legally change our first name, neglect or adopt a last name, or choose a new one altogether. Names are flimsy, insubstantial representations. The wrong name sabotages, closes doors, lowers pay, diminishes workplace opportunities. Professors cannot call on you if they do not remember your name. Networking contacts cannot provide a referral if they forget how to spell it, especially if a Henry or a Jack or a Jessica pop into mind as well. These are the more benign examples that exclude actual racism.
But why does it feel so disingenuous to choose a name for yourself? I considered choosing something other than “JY”, but balked.
A name is an identity that extends beyond temporary capitalist gain. It reveals, defines, categorizes. Just as we don’t choose our family, we usually don’t choose our first names. There’s a weight to the given name. Names don’t feel real until they are bestowed, whether by your parents or loved ones or through ceremonial rites of baptisms. Naming yourself is too radical and too literal an act of self-definition.
I suppose “JY” worked for a bit. The most common response was the approving observation that it sounds like a rapper’s name. I suppose it does. I just never quite evaluated the aesthetics of my name that earnestly: It was a utilitarian move, my way of secretly preserving my actual name (for those who knew what JY stood for) and truncating it to the point where it could fulfill the functions of a name: it could be pronounced, remembered, and used.
I’ve considered other names, sometimes as an idle fantasy, sometimes as stimulating dinner conversation fodder. My only condition was that I wanted a name with two syllables, because my cardinal rule was that it sounds better when the first name is a different number of syllables from the last name (Lim). That seemed to leave many two or three or even four-syllabled names for the picking. But, turns out everyone has an opinion of what a Joy or Catherine or Ruth should look like. Also turns out that there are many people I do not want to share a name with.
During my brief summer stint at a business newspaper, I was Sofia. Or at least, I became Sofia for the sake of my email address, because there was a full-time hire with the exact same first and last name (again!). Being the lowly intern, I was naturally instructed to somehow obtain another name. In the five-minute conversation with human resources, I chose Sofia. I liked that Sophia meant wisdom in Greek. And I didn’t want it to be spelled like the “Sophia”s I knew. And I had recently read a few novels on Eastern Europe and had always wanted to visit Bulgaria after reading about it.
But everyone who mattered, like my mentor and my fellow interns that I shared lazy afternoons and countless waffles and ice creams with, still called me Jia Ying. I would always take a few seconds to realize that the person calling the name Sofia was actually referring to me, Sofia!
But I became friends with a fellow freshman named Sofia (did I become good friends with her partially because we shared the same name? I will never know.) We met up regularly, lived together for a semester, laughed and cried through breakups and academic failures. It would be too weird to be a second Sofia. So now, I’m still just JY.
I doubt the rapper name JY is the best partner to plunge into the working world with. It seems unbefitting an actual adult, which I was pretending to be.
But what will I use on my Facebook account, if old college friends try to locate me or newfound ones try to add me? What will I use when I write? What will I get baptized with? What will I use at my wedding? I want continuity and I want pronounceable-ness and I want functionality and I want something that I like.
Now I’m flirting with simply “Jia.” It should function well for these few years of living and working away from Asia, away from home. It should be easy to remember. (Or easier. I’m not over-optimistic here). It’s the name my emails are already addressed to, since most companies assume “Ying” as my middle name. It’s one half of the nickname my boyfriend calls me. It’s minimalist and pretty slick and if people cannot pronounce that single word then they will just have to deal with it on their own.
“Jia” is a compromise. It’s my name, spliced brutally into half. It’s part of me. It’s not something entirely new and foreign: how could I possibly name this foreign, ill-defined, mysterious, and incomprehensible being?
But it’s also a whole new identity to be “Jia” instead of “Jia Ying,” as I begin working and living and eating and breathing in America, after the reassuring structures of college as “JY,” sans family and old familiar friends as “Jia Ying” or even “limjiaying11,” a twenty-hour flight and twelve-hour time difference away from home. I preserve a fraction of myself, I relinquish a modicum, and I gain something else in exchange.
We moved a year ago, but my office is still cluttered with boxes, the dumping ground for random stuff without a home. I’ve made a goal to put away one box a week, so as I was digging, I rediscovered The Guys. Opening a drawstring cloth bag, I pulled out a tiny crocheted lion, its yellow yarn hair fanning out haphazardly. There were sixteen more little Guys in the bag. White and black panda bears, little tigers, other little animals that could have been bears, but maybe tigers. I received The Guys over thirteen years ago, gifts in a dark bar on slow afternoons.
It was quiet at the Rose and Thistle pub and I leaned back against the bar, watching a thin haze of smoke linger up near the ceiling. It was early so there were only few patrons, drinking and smoking. Later tonight, after ten, the smoke would be thick and dense in the dark. We didn’t care. We took drags from cigarettes at the edge of the bar in between drink orders.
My early afternoon regulars were there. Denny and Joe sat with their pints of Bud Light, and Carleen with her glass of red wine. Thomas was playing video poker in the back, where, alongside the bar, behind a curtain, there were three video poker machines. Thomas was the oldest of the group, who were all well over fifty. I figured Thomas was over seventy. His face was wrinkled up, both in good and bad places. He had soft white hair that straggled over his forehead in lazy curls that he didn’t bother combing. He wore the same jeans and plaid shirt over his thin frame every day. The curtain rustled and he stood at the opposite end of the bar, holding his empty glass.
“Ready for another, Thomas?” I asked, reaching for the bourbon. Thomas was always ready for another. I pulled out the milk carton.
“Yep, might as well.” He inhaled from his cigarette. “How’s that class going? Your class on all those old books.”
I smiled to myself as I poured the milk. “You mean my Milton class?” I was studying Eighteenth Century Literature.
“Yeah, that one.”
“Good,” I said, handing him his bourbon and milk. “I love Milton.”
“Glad someone does,” he replied and gave me a crooked smile.
I leaned over the bar toward him. “Why do you drink that stuff? It looks awful.”
“Good for the belly,” he replied. “You should try it.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Got something for you,” Thomas said and reached into his jeans pocket. He pulled out a tiny crocheted bear and held it out for me. It was orange with black stripes. It might have been a tiger, except for the ears, which were distinctly bear like. It had a thin, black yarn smile and two tiny googly eyes glued on.
“I love him!” I exclaimed, holding him up. “Look everyone,” I held him up to the three regulars at the bar. “A new little guy.” They nodded at me and Thomas, and Joe gestured to his empty glass. “Thanks, Thomas,” I said and stuck him in my apron, so his little orange head was poking out.
I had several of these Guys already. He crocheted them himself with tiny needles, straining his eyes over the thin yarn, and stuffing them with fluff. Frequently, he crocheted them tiny hats or gloves or little vests. He never left me any money for tips, but once every couple weeks, he threw his money into the machine, drank his bourbon and milk, and gave me one of his animals.
Denny and Joe knew him a little. He’d been an iron worker, but had spent all his money on bourbon. He’d had a family, but none of them talked to him anymore. He lived in a home with a couple other elderly people a few blocks away.
“Thomas,” I said once, as he leaned up against the bar and took a drag from his Pall Mall. “Don’t you have any grandkids to give these to? I feel bad taking these guys. I know it must take a long time to make them.” I ran my finger over a little brown bear with blue felt eyes.
Thomas sighed and the wrinkles in the sad places on his face seemed deeper. “I have some grandkids,” he said. “But their dad doesn’t much want to see me anymore.”
“Why?” I asked.
Thomas looked down as he talked. “I did some things. Made some mistakes.”
I leaned over toward him, holding out the bear and said in a soft voice, “Maybe you can undo those things. You know, start over.”
“No,” he replied and looked up at me with his clear blue eyes. “Too late for that, I figure. You might as well take them.”
By the time I quit working at the bar, I had seventeen of these little animals. I kept them in a shoebox as I moved from apartment to apartment, finished school, moved to Astoria, and married my husband. I pulled them out now and then to finger their tiny ears and look into their googly eyes.
When I moved back to Portland, my son, Logan, was just six months old. I brought him into the bar one afternoon, just to say hello. The smoke was still thick and I was much more concerned for my baby’s lungs than I’d ever been for my own, so I only stayed a few minutes. The owner told me Thomas had passed. He’d been transferred to a nursing home and died in his sleep there. Some of my old regulars had gone to the service, but no family had come.
When Logan was two, five years after I’d left the bar, I pulled out The Guys. They quickly became favorites. Logan named them all in ways that made sense to him—Motorcycle, Cupboard, and Window, for instance. We sat on the floor of the living room with a set of giant Legos and made enormous castles for the Guys. Motorcycle would be asleep in his bed, while Cupboard stood guard on the turret. Window rode in the back of the police car to jail, having been apprehended by Lion. The Guys had long conversations with one another, achieved great acrobatic feats, and slept in bed with my little boy. Many times I wished I could have let Thomas know that The Guys were alive and well, living in castles my son built.
Both my children are older now and don’t play as much with The Guys. The little vests and mittens had gotten separated from their owners and I was worried The Guys would be lost in the maelstrom of toys, so I gathered them up. Now they’re lined up on a shelf, looking down at me while I write. The crochet work is in great shape, with stuffing only popping out of a few. But they’re worn. They’ve been played with and kissed. Their yarn is grungy and some are missing eyes, although I superglued many back on. Their little smiles are frayed.
When I found out Thomas had passed away with no family attending his funeral, I was angry with his son. What could Thomas have possibly done to merit what I saw as this neglect? But there are things. I saw only the old man, kind and loving. But kind people can be terrible people capable of terrible choices. Kind people can harbor deep wells of regret. I have people in my own life whom I have cut off, who I will never invite back in, who will never know my children. It doesn’t matter how kind they are to the people in their lives now. But those little guys have spread love in my family. It was too late for Thomas with his own family, but it was not too late for him to spread love in mine. So one night as I took a writing break, I noticed The Guys looking down on me. I went upstairs and poured myself a bourbon and milk. “Cheers,” I said to The Guys. It wasn’t half bad.
NAOMI ULSTED is a memoir and fiction writer from Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her two boys and her husband. Her work has been published in Salon, Luna Luna, Maximum Middle Age, and Narratively. She is also the director of a Job Corps center for training under-privileged young people.
It was my mother’s heart attack that brought us together. I’ll always see him sitting on that hard chair outside the intensive care unit, looking down, like if he could only pray hard enough, she’d be his again.
They’d been eating barbecue sandwiches at the now-defunct Golden Rule in Bessemer, a new location for an old Birmingham chain.
“Your mother was complaining of indigestion, but we thought it was just her acid reflux again,” he told me later. “But, you know, the pain kept getting worse.”
He drove her to Bessemer Carraway hospital, and then when the support staff determined that she had severe blockage, they transferred her to St. Vincent’s in Birmingham to insert a stent. She had given birth to me in St. Vincent’s all those decades ago, but now I lived two states away from my mother. She doesn’t have a living will, and I suppose that in many ways we were lucky that no life-threatening operation had to be performed, because this man who accompanied her and stayed with her, and who was now waiting for her to regain consciousness, was not her family. He was her new boyfriend, John.
I received the call the previous night, at the college where I teach, where I had been the invited guest of a Presbyterian youth group, talking to them about my faith. My father was Jewish, and I had been identifying with him, and explaining my choice to twenty earnest students. I remember vividly when my colleague entered:
“You need to call home immediately. It’s an emergency.”
My heart almost stopped, a fitting experience, for when I got my wife on the phone, she told me, “Jo Ann’s had a heart attack.”
Somehow I drove the forty-five miles home, and we booked a flight for early the next morning. A good family friend met me at the airport and drove me to my mother’s house so I could pick up her car and drive to the hospital. I remember looking down at the general area of the hospital from my plane, and then passing the turn to it on the drive to my mother’s house. I remember wondering if I’d get there before anything worse happened, and even if it didn’t, I wondered what I’d find in her room. What state she’d be in?
Draped across the top of the recliner in her den was the beige sweater she’d been wearing, and on the seat of her chair was her matching brown purse. In my mother’s world, purses have to match the basic color scheme, and I could have cried at that thought. I could also see the spot on the floor where she must have thrown up. Someone had cleaned it already, most likely John at my mother’s direction, for she’s the kind of woman who never leaves her house a mess. I grabbed her purse, her vitals and drove. When I got to the intensive care unit, there he was:
“Buddy, I know we haven’t met, but I’m John Vines, your mother’s friend. She’s all right. They say she’s going to recover fully. You know, I care so much for your mother.”
I had no doubt. I could see it in his eyes.
Words you never want to hear your mother utter:
“Well, I’ve gotten myself in a sure-nuff fix this time…”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know that I was supposed to go to a concert last night with ‘the little family’: Susie, Virginia, and John Vines. It turned out, though, that Susie and Virginia couldn’t go. So John and I went. Anyway, after the concert, he drove me home, and when we pulled up in the driveway, he kept the car running, turned to me, and said, ‘I want to say something now. I’m glad that the others couldn’t go. I’m glad it was just us. I’d like to continue seeing you.’”
My mother paused, and I felt sure she was about to ask me how to extricate herself from yet another man’s unwanted overtures. (This had happened twice before in her short widowhood with very different men). It’s not as if I didn’t believe my mother would date again after my father’s death; it was more that such thoughts left me as queasy as I normally get spending too much time in the summer Carolina sun. Or like that day my wife informed me that our oldest daughter was now “a woman,” an experience that left me reaching for the nearest door jamb. I even survived the special ceremony my wife planned for her new womanhood. We have pictures of our daughter then, at thirteen, with flowers in her hair. So queasiness can also feel sweet.
It can also unnerve a son.
“What did you say Mom,” I breathed.
“Well,” and then she laughed in a way that warned me that, unlike those previous occasions with those other men, this time she saw different stars:
“I told him I’d love to. He’s such a gentleman, the last of the old time Southern gentlemen. He even buckled my seatbelt for me!”
That might not sound like much unless you know my independent mother. But at least I was already sitting down.
“He buckled your seat belt for you? Did you want him to? Do you really like a man to buckle you in?”
Notice how I asked these questions instead of the other ones: “Are you in love? Are you ready to get married? Where will y’all live, and oh my God, will you be having sex now?”
Fortunately, I’m not a stupid man.
“Oh, I didn’t mind at all. It was such a sweet thing to do! But what do you think?”
So I told her. “Mom, all I want is for you to be happy. If you want to go out with John, that’s fine. And if you decide you want to marry him, that’s fine too.”
She laughed off the marriage part and instead uttered a few clichéd phrases about her time of life and having fun. Honestly, I don’t remember exactly what she said, because another thought had invaded me, concerning my father. Having his wife remarry, I don’t think, would have alarmed my dad. My alien thought, however, would surely have killed him again. While my mother rambled on across our long distance phone lines I silently protested.
“But John’s a Georgia Tech man, a Yellow Jacket! He played for and adored Coach Dodd, a man my Alabama Crimson Tide-loving father detested. A man my father referred to often as ‘Cry-Baby Dodd.’”
I can honestly say that my father disrespected only two of Alabama’s football foes: Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Not even Tennessee or Auburn roused Dad’s hatred like the Irish and the Yellow Jackets. Alabama and Georgia Tech no longer played each other, though, and while the former’s star continues to blaze, the latter’s has fallen mightily.
Besides, my poor father was gone and my mother was very much here.
“He’ll take me places, anywhere I want to go! And you know I always had to drag your daddy everywhere we went. Except to his mother’s, that is, and to the Alabama football game!”
As the weeks passed, it seemed my mother had found the antithesis of my dad: John drove a Lincoln, and my dad hated Fords. John was a gentile, my Dad a Jew. John played high school and college football. My dad, the clarinet and tennis.
Yet they were each loyal Americans, served their country proudly, and were hard-working providers for their families. They were both quiet, gentle men. And my mother, somewhat reluctantly, provided one other similarity.
“John and I went to the Bright Star the other night [Bessemer’s finest restaurant and the oldest continuous-serving restaurant in Alabama]. You know how good the seafood and steaks are there. They had stuffed snapper on the menu, so after I ordered, I looked over at John. And do you know what he ordered?”
I could hear it coming, This seemingly perfect man did the unthinkable:
“He ordered the hamburger steak, just like your daddy used to!”
Though I wouldn’t order it, because I’m no idiot, I have to admit the hamburger steak at the Bright Star does look good. Dad always smothered his in ketchup.
“Did he add ketchup?” I asked Mom.
“Of course! I just don’t understand men. All that good food and no matter what, they just want hamburger! And when it arrived, all he could say was ‘Oh yeah!’”
I wanted to pronounce an “Amen” on that, but decided that enough bland sauce had been poured already.
Though she was still in intensive care, the doctors had successfully placed a stent in my mother’s damaged artery and declared her out of danger. John left me soon after I arrived at the hospital, and I’ve always wondered whether in his place I would have done the same; whether I would have ceded space to my steady companion’s son. He had been the one to accompany her through this trauma, and now his actions said, “I know my place.” I didn’t know his place, though, and even as I write this, I look at the phrase I used for John: my mother’s “steady companion.” It’s a true statement because they did go everywhere together, including church on Sunday, a church John didn’t belong to. Can seventy-somethings be described as boyfriend and girlfriend? As “special friends?” Even today, when I describe John, I call him “Mom’s friend, you know….”
Except that we really don’t know. I could never use the term “lovers” to describe John and Mom, even if I did think it described them accurately. Years into their relationship and while he was lying in his own hospital bed awaiting exploratory kidney surgery, John made the mistake of referring to another mutual female friend of theirs as his “other lady friend.” This so incensed my mother, who by that point had decided that she’d never marry John, that she left him in his room for a couple of days. That same lady friend, one of my former Sunday school teachers, fueled my mother’s ire some time later by wondering aloud whether John had spent the night at my mother’s because she saw him wearing the same clothes on that day as he had worn the day before, and the last she knew, he had been seen entering my mother’s house in the early evening.
Why my mother felt the need to report this to me during our weekly Sunday morning phone chat, I can’t say. Was she just passing the gossip before I could hear it from other mouths?
“I just couldn’t believe she would say that about me. She knows me better than that!”
But my mother has reported other strange information over the years, like the time she told me that a new, and newly-drunken, neighbor made a pass at her in her own house during a barbecue that she and my dad were holding for this new neighbor and his wife. My mother was in her late sixties at the time.
“Your daddy never knew, and I didn’t tell him. He would have been furious.”
Yet she told me long distance. Was I supposed to be furious too? Or appalled? Disgusted? Nauseous? My daughters have always laughed at me, saying I never know when someone is flirting with me. If I ever did know, though, I wouldn’t be calling them on the phone to report it.
Of course I didn’t think of these awkward moments while my mother was lying in the hospital. Part of me wished that John hadn’t left us alone because I wasn’t used to seeing my mother in such a vulnerable state.
She was alert when I walked in, though, saying “Hey darlin’” before I could get to her bed. I sat with her through the evening and offered to spend the night by her.
“Oh, you don’t need to do that, I’m fine. You just go home and get a good night’s rest.”
She was in no danger, according to all the nurses, and selfishly, I thought a bed at home sounded so much better than the pullout cot available there. However, when I reached home, I realized the strangeness of sleeping in my mother’s house alone, seeing but not seeing her flitting from room to room picking up stray items or straightening yet another decorous object. Hearing but not hearing her habitual smoker’s cough lapsing into such a choking fit that I’d wonder if this was the end.
When I returned to the hospital the next morning, she volunteered the information that she was determined to quit smoking. “I decided last night that that was it!”
I rejoiced. Her health, finally, seemed to mean more to her than her Virginia Slims Menthol Lights. That night when I returned to her house, I threw out the remainder of her carton, and the open pack in her purse. I remembered then the time in fourth grade when, after viewing an anti-smoking film in school, I played hooky and waited till she was out running errands then flushed an entire carton, bit by nasty bit, into the back bathroom toilet. When she asked that night what happened to her cigarettes, I confessed. Though upset at the loss of good money, she didn’t punish me.
“I don’t want you to get cancer,” I managed in the face of her initial fury.
She understood, and I know that despite her habit and need for a cigarette then, she forgave me. She loved me.
The next day when I returned to school, she ran to the store and bought a new carton. So we lived with her habit for another forty-five years. But now, after a serious heart attack, we were done.
My mother was released from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, and our beloved family friends, the Mulkins, invited us all—my brother, my wife, our two daughters, and John—for Thanksgiving lunch. We drove straight to their house from the hospital, and so Thanksgiving seemed restored, except that this combination of families had never spent any holiday together before. Not long after the meal, John made a suggestion. “Let’s get your mother back home. She’s still pretty weak.”
On that Sunday after Thanksgiving, Mom suggested that we let her rest while we went to a movie or something.
“You all don’t need to be sitting in this house watching me. I’ll be okay.”
After we returned, my wife walked past my mother’s bathroom and over to me.
“I think I smell cigarettes.”
I smelled them too, but only faintly, and then after a few moments I convinced myself that I had smelled nothing out of the ordinary, except, that is, the scent of my mother’s lemon body oil.
The next morning, I found a cigarette butt that hadn’t fully flushed, floating in her bathroom toilet.
She hadn’t left the house the entire weekend, and I was certain that I had purged her place of all offending smokes. So how had she procured these new heart-killers? When I confronted her, all she said was, “You just don’t understand. Only a smoker understands how hard it is to quit.”
I never asked, but I was sure that in the couple of hours we had spent at the movies she had persuaded John to buy her a new carton of smokes. After all, he had told me, “I would do anything for your mother.”
And so my mother continued smoking for another ten years until she finally gave up her habit after successfully undergoing radiation treatment for a small but malignant lung tumor. I suppose John stood by her through these trials, but she said it was the e-cigarette that really helped.
“I remember I cried when my father died/Never wishing to hide the tears
And at sixty-five years old/My mother, God rest her soul…”
My mother isn’t dead, and she wasn’t sixty-five when my father died. She was sixty-seven, and I was forty-four. While it’s true that I did not wish to hide my tears, my mother told me to stop crying. “I need you to be strong now.”
I tried to stop; truly, I did. Fortunately, I was already in therapy, so I dealt with the grief. I don’t know how my mother wrestled with hers, but I suspect she did what she’s always done: pushed it back inside and moved on with her life. She jumped back into her civic and social clubs; she repainted the bedroom and ordered new furniture. She got a new mattress for the back bedroom where my father spent his last year because he’d been unable to control his bladder, and despite the bed-pads and adult diapers, the mattress was ruined.
She began getting offers from men. She seemed ready to enter that world again: of dating, of potential husbands. And so, it seemed, I had to get ready within myself to understand and accept the difference between “your father” and “your mother’s husband.”
I am unlike my father in these ways:
I drink: Beer (now gluten-free), red wine, and bourbon, especially bourbon. Four Roses, small batch.
I read novels instead of the newspaper, and I write. A lot.
I am a political liberal. I never thought Rush was right.
I eat seafood of all types including anchovies.
I wear a beard and hate mowing the lawn.
I am like my father in these ways:
I cherish my home and the older I get, the less keen I am on leaving it.
I am loyal to my job, my family, and even my country.
I like meatloaf with ketchup.
I cherish the University of Alabama football team, recently buying a 55” TV just to get a bigger picture for this season’s games.
I try to stay fit, walking my dog for an hour each day and supplementing that with thirty minutes on the elliptical. I use free weights, calculated repetitions, though the calculations are often, if not always, based on some OCD number in my head.
The irony of this obsessive number is that it’s 64, taken from a framed Alabama football jersey mounted on the wall near my weights. When I lift weights I have to make sixty-four reps. Have to. That jersey is 1940s vintage, crimson wool with a wraparound crotch button. I received it in one of those be-careful-you’ll-smother-in-this-thing dry cleaners wrapping bag. My father gave me many Bama jerseys: numbers 22, 25, 38, but he didn’t give me this one.
John Vines did. John played on the 1951-2 National Championship Georgia Tech teams. He never pulled for Alabama, or Auburn either, his home state teams.
But not even John could remember where he got it or even how long he had had it. I wish I had my other jerseys. My mother junked them went I went off to college. But I’ll never lose or give up this one.
I tried researching to see whose jersey my number 64 could have been, but no luck, or at least there were too many possibilities and no winnowing down. John didn’t know either, but it didn’t matter to him.
“I want you to have it. I know how much it will mean to you.”
If I could have worn it, I would have right then. Players back then were smaller, even those on the offensive line. I weigh in the mid 190s, just too big to want to try stretching this precious wool. Besides, wearing it isn’t the point. The point is that a Tech man gave a Bama man, a man young enough to be his son, a Bama jersey, a precious keepsake, on a cold and cloudy Christmas season night. And when he left our house that night, for the first time, I hugged this man, my mother’s boyfriend, instead of merely shaking his hand as acquaintances do.
It was my wife, not a football fan of any sort, who suggested framing the jersey, because she understands what gifts mean and how to honor them and those who give them. She understands the texture of human hands and shoulders and hearts.
Though 64 is an easy number to reach with arm weights, and I still feel sufficient after achieving it, I go beyond it usually, and every time I do, I think of John and how pleased he’d be. Not always, but more times than not, I think of my father, too.
During the year after Mom and John began dating, I would have bet anyone that they were headed toward marriage. I waited for the news.
But it never came.
John had moved to a new house, just a block above where we used to live.
“I don’t know why he moved up there,” Mom complained. “That neighborhood is going down,” which was true enough, though very sad given the decades we all had spent there.
My mother helped John decorate it though, as if someone might soon be moving in with him. And someone did: the stray dog that showed up in John’s alley one day; a beautiful shepherd mix about the size of a young horse. John named him J.V., after himself.
The beautiful house that Mom helped John decorate stayed that way for almost a year. And then…
“You won’t believe that house! He’s just wrecked it. He is without a doubt the messiest man I’ve ever seen. One thing I’ll say about your daddy, he was neat.”
Yes he was, OCD neat, just like my mother is OCD neat. Shoes in proper order, beds made within five minutes of getting up, dishes washed, dried, and put up immediately after a meal. I could go on, but the funny thing is that despite knowing how she was, John went on doing what he wanted, “messing up” his house. I always wondered if what he did was just him, or some subconscious method of insuring that marriage with my mother, despite what he said, would never happen.
“You know, Bud,” he said to me once, “your mother is mighty particular.”
Oh yes, for who else would demand her own vomit be cleaned up while she is undergoing a heart attack?
Eventually, John bought another house in the same area and on the same street where my mother lives. My mother is a stubborn woman, and so once again, she helped John “fix up” his new home. And once again, just months after he moved in and staged an open house to show it off, my mother began complaining:
“I just wish you could see that house! All that work I did and for what? For nothing! He leaves stuff where he found it and never throws anything away. He’s just a pack rat!”
This coming from a woman who eventually throws everything away: my jerseys, my old comic books, my old journals, and if I let myself, I might remember other things I can’t find and don’t know what happened to. So it came to this: an OCD woman just couldn’t marry an extremely relaxed man. Still, my mother put her refusal to marry in her own inimitable way: “I just decided that I didn’t want to wash another old man’s dirty underwear.”
What could anyone, especially her son, say to that?
Though my mother and John never married, they remained close friends, and Mom reported their adventures together. She even dragged him to see her favorite rock band, Chicago, once. When I’d come to town, she’d have John over for supper, and we’d both relish her roast beef, new potatoes, fresh lima beans, and creamed corn. Often, on the day I’d be leaving for home, John would drop by to say so long. More often, he’d give me a card, and in that card would be a twenty-dollar bill.
“That’s to get you a Coca-Cola on the way home,” he’d say.
As if Cokes cost twenty dollars. As if he were my dad or something.
Last month I went back to Bessemer.
John was dying.
I thought about so many things as I drove, but the one thought I couldn’t put down occurred the previous summer when I was there: when John wanted to take me to a hamburger joint for lunch, just him and me. But I was too busy. I had overcommitted myself with other friends. At the time I knew I would live to regret turning him down, so why didn’t I do anything about it?
That following fall I called John to tell him I’d be coming down for a visit and that I wanted to take him out.
“Okay, Bud,” he said. John was never much for phone calls, especially from other men who were trying to take care of him, who were making him feel too much of what he had become: dependent.
Mom and I did take him to The Bright Star on that visit. He ate well—this time, the liver and onions—but in many ways it was a futile endeavor. His cancer was too far-gone, and he had chosen not to undergo surgery. He was eighty-eight years old, and people that age, surely, should get to choose how they approach their end. I remember how thin he’d gotten, this former lineman for the city. He still had his friendly manner, but it didn’t take a genius to tell that he was slowly moving on.
And so he did this summer, June tenth.
Mom and I went to visit him that day. His daughter Sallie had brought him to her house where she, her husband Noah, their children and grandchildren, and even John’s beloved J.V. could be near. Sallie recounted on that day a memory from her childhood: how her daddy would carry her on his shoulders to the Highland Bakery on summer nights after he got off work.
“I’d be in my nighties, ready for bed, but he’d walk us the two blocks to get ice cream. Cherry Vanilla or Lemon, my favorites. It’s just so hard. I’m gonna miss him so.”
That’s the way it is with people we love. Our fathers, and even those who never quite were, but could have been, and whom we loved anyway.
As I did with my own father on his deathbed, I told Sallie to speak to John. To tell him that he had been a good father and that it was okay to go now. I watched her lean into him and speak those very words.
She called a few hours later to say he was gone.
I couldn’t be at the funeral, but I heard that hundreds of his friends and family attended. A fire truck—he so loved fire trucks—led the procession to the cemetery, and there everyone gathered to honor this very gentle, very Southern man.
In his will, he left my mother one hundred dollars.
“Just a little Coca-Cola money,” he wrote.
TERRY BARR is the author of the essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother. His work has appeared in South Writ Large, Steel Toe Review, Eclectica Magazine, Blue Lyra Review, The Bitter Southerner, The Dead Mule School of Southern Lit, and of course, Full Grown People. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.