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.
For the second time in weeks, I am rudely shouted at by a person half my age. Wait. You’re not about to read the routine old-man gripe about the next generation’s lack of respect, even if some of that’s in play.
It happens in San Francisco—I’m here for my job—at one of those upscale salad bars where you pick the ingredients and watch your lunch assembled and sealed into a plastic rectangle. Long line. A salad prep specialist waves his latex-gloved hand, next.
But the suited lad ahead of me stands frozen in the condition of Staring At Phone Oblivious (SAPO). He doesn’t move.
I tap his shoulder, lightly. Politely. Not a hurt-the-bones, get-moving-kid, the-geezer’s-ravenous type of peck. Or maybe so, because he whirls around and glares. On this porcupine, every quill’s up.
Suddenly, irrationally, I am afraid, unable to speak. I nod toward the prep area. Try to convey by my nod, my smile—twitchy, can’t help it—look, sir, it’s your turn. By now, however, the greens technician is wiping down the counter, tending to other matters. As if he had never signaled in the first place.
The executive lad spins back to me, drills me with his eyes. “Who?” he yells. “Who?”
His hand without the phone, I notice, clenches and unclenches.
My scalp tingles, my torso thuds. What if he takes a swing, throws me to the floor? Someone in line behind us will defend me, surely. I look around. No. All SAPO, every customer.
At last, another salad professional waves the lad forth. Come sir, please. Render unto me your garden-based needs. My lad marches over, shaking his head, phone clamped to it now.
Later, I’ll feel peculiar gratitude for my loud interlocutor, or non-interlocutor (we didn’t really converse), gratitude that’s irony-free and slow to grow and seeps into my bloodstream like the first drink at day’s end. I had touched an almost-forgotten world of raw heat and urgency, of special, newly minted vigor that I wasn’t sure I would have recognized. I’m refreshed.
Not that, at sixty-one, I hobble, decrepit. Yet to arrive are my barrel chest, twig arms, and lizard neck. Not for a few years will these rubbery cheeks sag into true jowls. I’m physically fit. Most of my mental faculties are yet to flee. I don’t grouse or meddle excessively. Don’t repeat or explain jokes.
Still, age has made me more of an outsider than all my weird traits combined, which is saying something. Dull is everything I know, every known thing, and strong the daily tug of negation that I know is ahead. A return to the empty abundance back of it all, the blank potential we came from.
Back to the salad shop, close call. In the moments after what I perceived as his near attack, I study the lad, finally ordering, his frown, the jaw jabbering, and imagine how his dense black hair, like swirled tar in a vat, would feel between my fingers, how his face might smell if I pull him close, all of his surprised flesh against mine.
This was the second episode of yell. The first took place maybe a month earlier, home in Atlanta, in my apartment building’s elevator. Not in, exactly, but at the door—a threshold event—as it opened to let off me and my dog and allow a woman and hers to board.
Both dogs went berserk. Hers a low-slung, otherwise docile ragmop I recognized and had watched her pilot along the sidewalk like a floor polisher. Mine a yappy Chihuahua, ever on the edge of exploded nerves and more often over it, a toy Cerberus.
For a few seconds the dogs lunged and scrabbled. We watched like bettors at a cockfight, yet to put money down. Then I stepped out of the elevator and held the door open for the woman, crouching now with her dog, fiddling with its collar. Her head jerked up. “Go!” she yelled. “Go!”
Go, old man, is what I heard.
Yes, I thought, soon enough I’m going.
If everything is a metaphor, what’s real?
“Probably because you touched him,” my girlfriend Joyce said about the San Francisco salad incident, which she (waiting for me at the hotel) missed. “You’re not supposed to touch anybody. Even hugging is considered a trespass on personal space. It’s all over the internet.” The internet, our lord and regulator. I ought to have known. As much a disciple as anyone, I slog through the tedium of my day job online and hover there still at night, aglow. Click click, tick tick, and tock, the clock: I’m hooked on the frenetic stasis of mediated non-experience, dying in front of a screen. These machines we dream into.
My salaried chores in San Francisco done, we take the weekend and trudge the city. We strain to take our minds off the latest shooting, another budding male gone haywire, why don’t people out here talk about it, Joyce asks, and in reply I say that one of the things I miss about San Francisco when we’re gone is the smell of jasmine. Sun-warmed vines of jasmine grow on the walls out here, exhaling their fragrance. Nob Hill. I sniff the jasmine.
On Sunday, roaming in Fairfax, we find ourselves at a festival. Music, street food, paintings by locals. A pair of wizened hippies runs a poetry-and-storytelling booth. One will spontaneously tell you a story if you ask, whatever story unspools for him, go with the flow. The other extends a hat with slips of paper inside. You draw a name and he recites the poet’s verse from memory. I step to the booth because I detect a chance to brag (senior move) about my son Skyler, his Michener fellowship in poetry at the U of Texas.
Both guys hug me.
We talk about storytelling and poetry and how impossible it is to make money in creative work, blah blah. “Well, there’s always marketing,” the white-bearded bard says. “Where poets go to die.” We laugh to the tree line, as the pensioner crowd is wont to do at clichés. I mention Matthew Dickman, poetry editor at Tin House—and a hero of my son; we’re getting closer to the brag—who said he rarely teaches and instead freelances in marketing. Happily.
The storytelling guy says, “Did you say Tin House? You mean Tin House in Portland? My god-daughter just got a job there two weeks ago. It’s a sign. Synchronicity!” People in California are always seeing signs.
I pick a name from the hat: Antonio Machado. The first two lines of the poem are, “The wind, one brilliant day / called to my soul with the odor of jasmine … ”
Poetry guy says he has taught for sixteen years at the Great Mother and New Father Conference in Maine, and is a longtime friend of Robert Bly, who won the National Book Award in 1968 and founded the conference in 1975. Bly, I know, fueled the “men’s movement,” which led to face-painted suburban dudes banging drums together in the woods, often tagged latent homosexuals by people as backward as myself. Poetry guy points out that it also led to those fathers around us at the Fairfax festival, schlepping their babies in pouches on their backs. Happily.
We talk for a while about Bly, and men, and what’s missing in the world for boys. Though it seems a logical topic, none of us brings up the latest shooting. Why don’t people out here talk about it? Maybe they do.
Maybe we did, sort of. What I want anyway seems always between, in back of, just offstage from the main action. I listen for what we don’t say or can’t. How the truth slips between words like a blob of mercury pressed under your thumb. You see it in the faces your lover makes in sleep.
The last lines of the Machado poem: “ … the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself: / ‘What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?’”
In Atlanta, the checkout kid rings up my senior discount without asking for ID, which I discover when checking the receipt, another geriatric habit. I say thanks and snicker to him about how if you’re going to get old, you might as well have something to show for it, heh.
“Yes,” he says. Pause.
Then he says: “Wisdom?”
I’m aware of my impulse to guffaw. It would be my attempt to mark myself in his view as one of those aw-heck old farts, really I’m just like you teenagers of today, who can know what’s up in this zany world, nobody learns anything.
I’m aware of my impulse to nod soberly, which might suggest to him that I have indeed seized upon hard-won sagacity that you, too, my student, may one day own, after you’ve lost everything else.
Lies, either way. I get the hell out of there. Someday I may end up on Social Security or worse, barred by poverty even from awkward moments with checkout kids. Shuffle the produce aisle, steal a grape, like in the Bukowski poem. The class divide has become a two-sided canyon, and those lucky enough among us find ways to service the rich, some licit, some not. We occupy their cubicles. We scrub their mansion floors. We nanny their foul brats. We ____ their ____s.
Here’s how Joyce and I finance “vacations”: She accompanies me on job trips. I’m planning another, and we need someone to dog-sit our savage whelp. Instead of asking a friend, I am of course—like a person with no friends—on the internet. There’s a rover.com for friendless dog parents, just as there’s a zipcar.com where you can rent wheels on short for less than a day, if owning is beyond your means and you have no friends who’ll take you places. I point all this out to Joyce, crankily. Poor Joyce, twenty years younger than I, skilled at suffering. I hope she wouldn’t call it such.
Those people on the shore your boat has cast off from, they’re not waving you goodbye; they don’t know you’ve left. They are turned again to each other. What matters is that you have a boat, and there was a shore. Doesn’t it matter? To make the answer, as Philip Larkin wrote, “Brings the priest and the doctor / In their long coats / Running over the fields.” Hordes of them, my god. Here they come.
Possibly, death—such is the pot banged by Jungians, tarot card readers, and motley mystics—amounts to a transformation only. Verb disguised as noun. (How many nights you’ve spent, head in hands, over those “transformed.”) When the no-longer shows up, we continue: altered. In my after-which-there-is-nothing, I am retooled by magic as the changed one I’d waited to become, standing those vain years in the ravenous line.
But who would I become? Who?
RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
Just off Central Avenue they’re tearing down Eastland mall—the dead mall as I like to call it. Bulldozers and cranes cluster near broken concrete and piles of rubble. In the beginning, I saw the front of the building removed, the insides exposed like a little girl’s dollhouse. As the rubble grew, I wondered if between the dust and crushed walls, a lone hanger could be found, a pair of new shoes, or perhaps a going-out-of-business sign. Do dead malls hold on to any of that?
“Mommy, what are they doing?” my preschool-aged daughter asks from the back seat. My throat tightens. In an uncharacteristic neutral voice, I explain the demolition of the empty building and the city’s desire for something new. Given Sekai’s keen sense of observation, I wonder if she notices how I stare when we drive this block of Central. How can I explain to her my want to stop the car and bury my head in my hands when I can’t even explain this to myself? Who cries over a mall?
As a recent arrival to Charlotte, I never knew the dead mall when it was alive with the hum of eager shoppers and squalling children. I never walked through the stores and ran my hand across soft fabrics or sifted through piles of sale CDs. I never sipped lemonade while middle schoolers exchanged first kisses just beyond the food court. I don’t know what it was to circle and circle around bright green trees in search of an elusive parking spot. Still I keep driving by, watching the demolition of a mall I never knew. A few more weeks and the dead mall will be a wasteland of concrete. Hundreds and thousands of parallel and perpendicular lines will provide parking for nothing. Not even an abandoned building.
What happens each day off Central makes me think of my hometown. A few blocks from Anchorage’s local college is the University Center. Or to be more accurate: my own dead mall. Mine. As in the theater where I watched movies with high school friends I no longer know. The stores where I spent my babysitting money on books, cheap jewelry, and the occasional hair scrunchie. The studio where my family posed for one of our final portraits before the divorce. My dead mall.
I’m not sure anyone else—my parents or my sister—remembers that day where we slipped in the back entrance by the movie theater. Still dressed in our church clothes, we walked through the doors as the smell of liquid butter coating stale popcorn flooded my nose and the click of my sister’s high heels tapped the tiled floor. That family portrait remains among the last with frozen smiles on a mother, father, and two girls. Did my parents allow their fingers to entwine with each other’s when I stopped to flip through comics at the bookstore? Did my father’s face shine with pride as the sun’s rays streamed through the skylight and streaked his wife and daughters’ coordinated spring dresses? Does it matter that no one remembers the photo except for me?
A few hours before dawn, the baby’s hiccupped cries shake me from my dreams. Before I can shrug off the weight of sleep, the mattress creaks as my husband, Nyasha, rolls out of bed, and his bare feet pad across the carpeted floor. He brings Shamiso back to me where I fall asleep nursing her. Both of us too tired to return her to the crib, she’s still there when the door handle turns, and Sekai shuffles towards us with a blanket dragging behind. She exhales a hot breath near my cheek. “I can’t sleep, Mommy.” As I drift back to sleep, she climbs onto the foot of the bed. A few hours later when the blue-black shadows of night dissolve into day, we still remain there with our bodies brushing against each other. Shamiso sleeps between Nyasha and me, and Sekai is perpendicular to our feet. The stuffy smell of sleep sweat wakens me, and my baby’s warm hand touches my nose. Lying there I wish the sun would forget for a moment its command to climb higher in the sky and let me stay here, near my family, forever.
When my sister and I were small, the dark of night and the quiet of the house made us tiptoe towards our parents’ bedroom. We crept down the hallway in our pajamas, tapped the wood, and pressed our faces to the slit between frame and door. In soft voices we said, “We’re scared. Can we come in?” Then the click of the knob turning, and my sister and I piled into the warm bed.
Back when I used to whisper to my parents in the middle of the night, could they have guessed the light in their marriage would dim, and they would clutch regret amidst their crumbled dreams? When the morning sun snuck through the blinds, and they saw their daughters resting next to them, could they have predicted what they had wasn’t the kind of structure to survive a generation?
It’s senior year of high school, and I lie on my bed with a book in my hand. The radio on my nightstand spits out one pop song after another, and I hum along, a disconnected soundtrack for the plot unfolding in my book.
“Well aren’t you just righteous.” I hear my father’s words from beyond my closed door. My mother’s cries muffle her response before I can make them out. “You think you’re better than everyone else.” And then I am not on my bed, the book tossed on the floor where the cheap pages display their frailty against the carpet. On the middle stair, I stand between the volley of words moving up the steps and sliding back down. From the bottom of the staircase, my father stares at me, and I feel my mother standing behind.
“Stop it. Stop it,” I say. “Don’t say that. Stop saying mean things.” My voice grows louder as something in me bubbles. Anger? Annoyance? Fear?
“Go back to your room, Patrice. You don’t understand.” My father walks away, and I hear the door to his basement office slam. Behind me, my mother disappears into their bedroom. I am left on the middle step where I lean against the cold wall. By the time I stand up, I wear an imprint of the wall’s texture on my temple and the side of my forehead. In the background the soundtrack continues with the levity of top forty hits.
I’ve seen other dying malls. A few cars may sit near the entrance while a scraggly tree or two sway in the wind. In the parking lot dotted with potholes, a gush of wind skips across deserted concrete that once held rows bursting with cars. A large sign hangs over the entrance. Yes We’re Still Open, the taut plastic reads. Inside an elderly couple rummages through the clearance rack. A handful of workers stand behind the counters of the food court peddling soft pretzels and day-old cookies. Of the shops with the lights still on, the names display unfamiliar words since the chain stores have vanished leaving behind only local establishments. Still Alive. For now.
But declining marriages elude me. Growing up in the eighties, the culture of divorce no longer shocked as in previous generations. During childhood, friends and classmates shuffled between parents every other weekend and through the summer. Still, my breath shortened into rapid pants when my parents separated after twenty-three years when I was eighteen years old. What makes a marriage survive? A cup of love? A bushel of respect? The anchor of loyalty? Uncompromising fidelity? Extra laughter? A shared purpose? A common faith? Perhaps all of that? Perhaps more? Holding my wedding pictures, I stare at my scarlet dress that reminds me of the small, faded photograph on the wall of my childhood home. Framed inside, the twenty-something version of my father wears a bright red suit. His arm loops through the arm of my mother, who’s dressed in a traditional white gown. When Nyasha and I lace our fingers together and sit close, is there something our eyes ignore, hidden beneath what we create? A sign to illuminate what stretches beyond our view?
In the middle of the night, a few months after I marry Nyasha, my water glass accidentally crashes into shards against the tiles of our kitchen. In the dark I stand with my bare feet against the cool floor. Crumbs of glass splay around me, stretching beyond the beam of moonlight shining through the window. Not even a moment passes, and he stands at the light switch.
“Let me get your slippers,” he says as he flips on the light.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “So sorry.” Fat tears appear in the corners of my eyes.
“Not to worry,” he says, setting my slippers on the ground, reaching his hand to me. “Why don’t you go back to bed,” he says. “I can take care of this.”
Back in the room under the comforting weight of the duvet, I see the yellow light from the kitchen, hear the crinkle of swept glass, and wonder why I am still crying.
In the year following my parents’ divorce, I asked my sister if she was surprised when she heard. Beneath my question, there was a longing to share the remembrance of the unexpected. “Not really—they used to fight,” she said matter-of-factly.
A while back, I returned to my hometown and walked through the University Center. I was surprised to see the building still limping along. Even a year earlier, the mall’s fate had seemed destined for dark hallways and caves of empty shops. “The local university gave it new life. They reclaimed it as an extension of their campus,” my mother explained.
My mother and I joined a sprinkling of other mall walkers in search of sanctuary from the single-digit temperatures beyond the sliding glass doors. We walked the faded hallways with a spattering of shops: a furniture store, a hair salon, a restaurant, all butting up against the green and yellow wing owned by the university. In the repurposed section, I saw the portrait studio had transformed into meeting rooms. The bookstore had become an office or a classroom. When I reached the entrance of the old movie theater, the lights were turned off. The locked door refused to let me see what now existed in the dark space.
As my hand touched the metal handle of the once familiar door, I felt transported back to my final time in the old theater, several months before my parents announced their divorce. In that awkward summer between high school graduation and the start of college, when my friends and I had shed girlhood but had yet to determine what womanhood looked like, we filled a row in one of the dark theaters. Tubs of warm popcorn and boxes of M&M’s moved up and down the line. In the smooth vinyl seats, I watched as Julia Roberts tried to sabotage her best friend’s wedding. Along with everyone else, I walked out of the theater believing something magical about marriage.
I’m six or seven years old. In front of their bedroom mirror, my father’s arms wrap around my mother’s body. He leans over and kisses the top of her head and feels her silky hair beneath his lips. For a moment I watch and then burrow between them to stretch their hug to include me.
Despite the past, I still believe in lifetime marriages with elderly couples and their wrinkled palms pressed together. On my wedding day, I walked down the aisle sandwiched between my parents. I rested one arm on the curve of my father’s elbow while I looped the other through my mother’s arm. As our trio of bodies moved as a unit, I pretended that I walked between something breathing, something that still flourished. Moments later I stood before my husband where, with our hands entwined and eyes alive, we made vows to begin. We slipped rings on our fingers, the cool metal sliding on clammy flesh. While my sister held my white calla lilies with the scarlet bow, my husband and I declared forever to each other. And with our fingers laced together, we walked back down the aisle into something new.
And I still give my subconscious space to imagine. In routine moments of life like a drive home, I let myself see my parents together. I envision my daughters speaking of Grandma and Grandpa as a single phrase. When my palm brushes my daughters’ smooth cheeks, I pretend the place I thought I would bring my children to swaddle them in the memories of my childhood still exists.
I started running after my parents called during my first year of college to announce their divorce. First down the hallway to where everyone gathered in a friend’s dorm room. Then to the mall where I swiped my credit card as if it were a magic wand that could give me a different life. Ribbed turtlenecks, soft sweaters, double-zip boots. Perhaps beautiful clothes draping my body could make my life beautiful, I thought.
Finally, I sprinted across the world. A decade of traipsing the globe. I called it “finding myself” or “spreading my wings.” I believed tired clichés could disguise my desire to not go home. A year in England, ten months in Madagascar, a semester in Spain, a first job in upstate New York where I knew no one. Thanksgivings were spent with a college friend’s family to avoid interacting with my father and his new wife. During a backpacking trip across Europe, as a night train zipped from Rome to Venice, I refused to admit to a friend that I longed for a beautiful marriage that lasted. Instead I said that I didn’t believe in love and certainly not the kind of love that could survive the years.
And then I met Nyasha. On the final stretch of my lap around the world, during a ten-week trip to South Africa to fulfill the requirements of a grant I wrote, twenty minutes after my plane landed, I met this quiet man. He listened while I made sweeping statements about how I would make the world a better place. He challenged me to give greater thought to what I said. Our conversations hovered in the realm of ideas, and his reserved ways balanced my impulsive personality. At the end of the ten weeks, we stood in the international departures terminal of Cape Town’s airport.
“I’ll write,” Nyasha said.
“Once a month?” I asked, attempting to make the moment light. I forced a teasing smile to appear on my face.
His face mirrored mine. “At least once a month. Absolute minimum.” His arms wrapped around me and drew me close before his whispered response tickled my ear. “And maybe more.”
Nine months later, he slipped an engagement ring on my finger, and six months after that we exchanged our wedding vows.
Fifteen years after my parents divorced, they still don’t communicate with each other, and I don’t talk much with them about the past. My father speaks in hyperbole tainted with anger, a conversation combination I avoid. My mother’s eyes grow sad. It’s a clothing store of blame where everything that could have gone wrong fits the other person. But crumbs of the past trickle between their words, and I become a timid mouse trailing behind, grabbing phrases, sniffing them inside. “Be careful. Some women don’t care that your husband is married,” my mother says as she helps me bring in the groceries. “Don’t try and change him,” my father remarks while the ocean salts the air and our feet sink into sand near where Nyasha and I will wed.
“You remember Grandpa,” Sekai says to my mother. My daughter stands in the doorway of the laundry room and holds the phone to her ear. From where I crouch pulling warm clothes from the drier, I can hear her side of the conversation unfold. My father and his wife left yesterday, and Sekai is telling my mother about their visit. “Gammy, you remember Grandpa. When Mommy and Auntie were girls, you were together a mommy and a daddy.” For the length of my mother’s response, I stop my work. Instead of remembering the past, I linger over the fresh smell of my husband’s shirts and my daughter’s pastel socks.
One day I may ask my parents what happened to their marriage. Maybe we’ll sit across from each other in an all-night diner with thick slices of blueberry pie between us. As my fork scrapes the remains of the violet filling, I’ll ask them if they understand what happened or how their marriage could have been different. I imagine my father raising his diet coke with beads of condensation sliding down the glass and my mother squeezing a fresh lemon in her hot tea. From across the table, they will look away from me for a moment. All around us waitresses will take orders, plates will hit tables, and perhaps a glass will break in the kitchen so the silence at our table won’t become awkward. Then they’ll begin to speak; slow at first but gaining momentum. Perhaps the talk will center on what disappeared, how they changed, or what may not have been there from the beginning. Maybe I’ll discover some answers. Or perhaps just sitting together will be more important than what I hear. As the night transforms to morning and the smell of scrambled eggs and bacon wafts past us, I will reach my hands across the table and rest mine in theirs. With damp cheeks, I’ll tell them, “It’s okay. We are okay.”
A few weeks before Christmas, Nyasha, the girls, and I slip in the side entrance of a mall. Not Eastland mall with its empty parking lot stretching wide, its wrecking balls and broken concrete. But another mall in Charlotte where cars circle and circle in search of a spot near the door. The windowless structure beckons for people to disappear behind the guise of shiny trinkets and the smell of new clothes. With our outfits coordinated in red and faces ready to smile, we join other families in the portrait studio waiting our turn. Just as I straighten Sekai’s dress and slide a matching headband on the baby, the photographer calls for us.
Christmas music bounces in the background mixed with the rumble of waiting voices. “Move in. Your faces almost touching,” the photographer says as she snaps an image. Then she stretches us into a row and with the help of stools and boxes, our heights stagger into a descending staircase. Arms rest on shoulders, and I hold Shamiso in my lap.
In a week or so, I will find a slim package with our family prints waiting on the stoop. Sekai will sit near me as I tug at the cardboard to release our memories. Later, I will hold up the two 8x10s of our family for her to choose between. “Which one should we display?” I will say to her.
Sekai will first stare at the one of our faces almost pressed together and then at the one of our staggered heights. She will point to the second photo, the one where Nyasha and I sit in the middle, Sekai leans against her father, and I hold Shamiso in my lap. “We are all looking ahead in this one,” she will say. As I slide the new family photo into the frame and place it on our bookshelf, I will think that she is right. We all look ahead, this small family, linked together, staring at what may come.
But today, after we sit for the portrait, we slip out the side entrance of a mall. I hold Sekai against my hip, and Nyasha carries the infant car seat. Beyond the doors, thick raindrops plop against the ground, and the musty smell of wet cement tells me to inhale this moment and remember the day. We stand beneath the massive umbrella of awning that stretches over our heads for just a moment before Nyasha suggests I wait while he gets the car. As he sets the baby next to me, his palm brushes against my bare hand. The touch of warmth against the chill creeping through my fingers reminds me of the beauty of all that remains. I watch my husband walk across the parking lot, through the rain, and I think this moment could be hallowed ground.
The scorpion’s name is Cupcake and Cupcake looks pissed.
“Oh, come on,” a zoo official with a walkie-talkie strapped to his waist says. “How scary can it be with a name like that?”
He’s talking to a girl. The girl is on Cupcake’s side of the safety rope. The zoo official is on the other. It’s the girl’s job to pop Cupcake’s carrying case open. Then she’s supposed to reach in and scoop out Cupcake like a gerbil.
From the way the girl is shaking, I’m sure it’s her first time.
I should say, “Honey, are you crazy? Don’t do that.”
I should say, “Sweetheart, how much are they paying you?”
To the zoo official, who is about my age and still wears his baseball cap backwards, I should say, “Why don’t you put your hand in there, dickhead?”
Instead I bring my ten-year-old son over to watch.
How I became this person, I don’t know.
Earlier, I wanted to hang out at the shark tanks. Then on the rickety bridge over Otis the Alligator.
Zoos trigger something primal in me. I don’t pay attention to the cute animals. I’m interested only in animals that, if things were fair and cage-free, would kill me. A zoo visit is about defying mortality, maybe. Most things are. It’s something not to talk about, though, especially with my sensitive ten-year-old son, who worries the snow leopard is depressed, wonders if the komodo dragon is lonely, and likes the penguin house most of all.
We were on our way to check out venomous snakes when I saw the Live Animal Demonstration sign.
How I justify watching:
I read somewhere that most scorpion stings are the same as bee stings.
I convince myself Cupcake is some sort of eunuch, a domesticated nub where a stinger used to be.
I think if someone’s going through the trouble of picking up a scorpion the size of a Pop-Tart, the rest of us should pay attention.
“You’ve got to see this,” I tell my son, who is a more decent person and who would rather not see this at all.
Cupcake’s whole body is a claw. She’s backed into the corner of her carrying case. Inside the reptile house, under ultraviolet light, Cupcake glows like a club kid at a rave. But out here, in the sunshine, she’s so black she’s almost purple, one oil-slick bruise. Her carrying case is pink, plastic, the kind usually reserved for hermit crabs, starter pets. It’s the kind of case kids store Barbie shoes in.
“Look, sweetie,” I say to my son. “She’s going to pick up that scorpion.” I point, like I’ve just said something wise, a life lesson.
I’ve become the muscle-guy from earlier, back at the aquarium. He flexed, pointed to a tank, and said, in a low and serious voice, “What we have right here are fish.” His pretty girlfriend clung to his bicep and cooed.
My son doesn’t coo. He backs up, because he’s not an adult, because the world hasn’t worn his heart to a nub, an overused eraser, because he still feels things.
“Why would she do that?” he wants to know.
The girl is ponytailed, in a powder-blue polo shirt with the zoo logo stitched on the chest. She looks like summer help, an intern, maybe. Maybe she’s getting minimum wage. Maybe this is unpaid life experience and she’s chalking up college credits she’ll have to take out loans to cover.
“Because she’s in training?” I say, and of course it comes out as a question.
“In training for what?” my son wants to know.
I’ve had a lot of awful jobs, terrible internships. “Life training,” people called some of them. None involved handling a scorpion, but still.
Once when I was a flight attendant, a pilot made me hold a door shut during take-off and landing.
There was a mechanical problem—the door wouldn’t lock completely and the handle would start to open on ascent and descent. It was something that would normally ground the plane, but the pilot had a date in D.C. that night—one hot blonde, one strip-club steakhouse, jumbo margaritas served up in glasses shaped like boobs.
The pilot didn’t want a delay.
He said, “Did you bring a parachute?”
He said, “You’ll love the way you’ll fly.”
He said, “Come on, I’m joking.”
He said, “Just don’t let go,” and winked.
I was young. I needed that job. I did what I was told. I pushed my whole weight against the handle and the handle pushed back. I don’t know how dangerous it was really, but I could feel the cold air whistle around the door seal. The steel handle frosted and shook and any minute it seemed the door would burst and I’d jettison out, cartoon baggage, still strapped in my jumpseat and smiling. I’d been taught to smile on the job no matter what. I did that. The door handle inched open and I kept calm and the passengers kept calm. They looked at me like I knew what I was doing and I pretended to know what I was doing.
We went on like that until one guy started hitting his call button. He kept at it through the short flight. He was doing sign language to show he needed a drink, that he might choke and die if he did not get a drink, like this lack of drink was cutting off what little oxygen he had left.
I smiled. He did not smile back. I shrugged and pointed my chin toward the seatbelt sign overhead, which demanded I stay seated, too—sorry, sorry—and that we’d both just have to hold on.
I held on. He kept pressing his call light like a game show buzzer. The door stayed shut. By the time we were on the ground, I was shaking. A red imprint marked my palm from the handle, and the man who wanted a drink was so angry he wrote down my name. He threatened to write a complaint even though I got him snacks and a diet Coke to go.
The pilot heard all of this but pretended not to.
“I think I can, I think I can,” the pilot said. He pulled his pilot-cap low, gangster-style. “Nice work, little engine,” he said, and patted my hip on his way out of the cockpit, off to his margarita-boobs and his blonde and the thick steak he liked juicy and medium-rare.
It’s been a dozen years since I had a job like that, which is maybe one reason I can keep watching the girl and the scorpion now. Empathy is an easy thing to lose, like car keys, like the name of that one actor who played in that movie about scorpions, you know the one.
“You can do it,” the zoo official says as the girl loosens the clasp on Cupcake’s case.
“You forgot what work is,” my father used to say, meaning me and what I do for a living, the way I push words around a page. He meant, watch it. He meant, first you’re on one side of the glass, then the other. He meant, be kind.
He meant, it’s not work if it can’t kill you.
He meant what work does to a body, but work kills people in many ways, I think.
At the entrance to the machine shop where my father worked for thirty years, a sign counted down the days since the last accident. The numbers were flip charts. The numbers didn’t go above two digits much. It was someone’s job to turn those numbers forward and back. Imagine that job.
My father had so many metal shavings in his skin he’d joke that he’d set off metal detectors at airports. He never wore a wedding ring because rings could catch in the machines and take a finger or worse.
“I want to keep all my fingers,” he’d say, “so I can show the foreman where to stick it.”
“I mean, seriously,” the zoo official is saying, “Cupcake?”
It’s a punchline he’s sharing again and again.
When our son was first born, he cried all the time and no one in our house slept much. At first we thought it was colic, but it went on and on and the pediatrician shrugged and said some children are born sensitive like that.
“He’ll get used to it,” the pediatrician said about my son and the world.
My husband worked a terrible corporate job back then. His boss liked to stretch an eight-hour day into a fifteen-hour day too often to count.
Once, after a stretch of six long days in a row, my husband came home and went into the kitchen. He took a serrated bread knife to his forehead. He carved. Blood ran into his eyebrows and down his cheeks. He came out and showed me. He looked proud. I felt sick. But then he called his boss and said he’d been in a car accident and wouldn’t be in to work the next day and maybe the next. I cleaned his forehead with peroxide and we celebrated with drinks and take-out from an Italian restaurant nearby. Everything felt, for a moment, manageable. We remembered we were happy. We remembered we loved each other. Our son slept some. We did, too.
“Most men live lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau said.
A knife going across a forehead wouldn’t make much of a sound.
“In training for what?” my son wanted to know about the girl.
The girl shakes even more now, like she’s about to stick a fork in a toaster. Cupcake’s case is open. Inside, Cupcake flexes her tail, her very operational stinger. I look down at my son, who’s squinted his eyes shut.
The girl tries to breathe. She cups her hand and lowers it into the case.
“Okay,” she says to the zoo official, who’s beaming. “Now what?”
“It’s not what you look at,” Thoreau said. “It’s what you see.”
“Things do not change,” Thoreau said. “We change.”
The girl nudges her hand under Cupcake.
She brings the creature out to show us, a heavy dark heart in her palm.
LORI JAKIELA is the author of three memoirs—most recently Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books 2015)—as well as a poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point 2012), and several chapbooks. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and more. She teaches in the writing programs at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and co-directs the summer writers’ festival at the historic Chautauqua Institution. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their children. For more, visit http://lorijakiela.net.
Earlier this year when I was trying to work up the courage to quit my job, I went to see the performance artist and musician Peaches at one of those “in conversation” events at a Berlin art gallery. I had moved to Berlin with my husband in 2015 for my job, with the mutual understanding that we would only stay for a year. That deadline was looming, and I had cold feet.
The setting and inspiration for the talk was an exhibition of sixty-five photographs by Cindy Sherman, an artist who’s been tackling the concept of identity in her work since she first started taking her portraits of herself in the 1970s. Sherman usually works alone in her studio and the resulting pictures often portray social and cultural stereotypes, from starlets and pinups to, more recently, aging society ladies and fashionistas. I first came across Sherman through her so-called History Portraits. I was taking an early Italian renaissance art history class at college, and the counterpoint of Sherman’s Madonnas—often equipped with obviously prosthetic, exposed breasts—made me laugh. Sherman doesn’t title any of her works, but they’re often referred to by the numbers curators use in exhibition catalogs and, as in the case of the History Portraits, thematic groupings. In other words, Sherman declines to identify any of her pictures about identity.
I nabbed a seat for the discussion in the second row with a perfect view until, minutes before the program was set to start, a middle-aged woman doused in perfume and wearing a matching white fur jacket and hat sat down in front of me. It quickly became clear she had no intention of removing the hat—which was the primary offender in blocking my view—and when she turned around, I thought I may have figured out why. She had black hair, the texture of which looked like a wig, with spare tendrils of odd lengths spilling onto her shoulders. The hat seemed to be holding the whole arrangement in place. Her coral-red lipstick was smeared and she wore black eyeliner and a blank stare as if the point of her eyes was to absorb the snatched glances of those of us around her. A closer inspection revealed she was wearing rather fabulous high-altitude platform shoes, the heel of which was scalloped in gold metal. When the second man approached to kiss her hand, I was sufficiently intimidated to lose my nerve over asking her to remove the hat. She looked like a Berlin version of one of Sherman’s Hollywood/Hampton Ladies, a series of photographs displayed on the wall at the back of the room, and it only occurred to me the next day that she could have been Sherman donning a disguise to attend a talk about herself. This would certainly explain the hand kissing.
If it was Sherman, she wouldn’t have been the only one in the room fiddling with her identity. I was there straight from work and dressed in my version of a businesswoman costume—Isaac Mizrahi for Target blazer, Banana Republic dress, Wolford black tights and LK Bennett boots—feigning to be a fan of Peaches when, in fact, I had just read an article about her in a magazine a month or so earlier. I was a legitimate fan of Sherman’s, but on some level I was attracted to the event by its association with the radical art of Peaches. Simply by attending, I was asserting my identity outside the narrow confines of a normie, trying on the idea of what it might be like to be the kind of person who’s a fan of Peaches. I was too timid to go to a club to see her, but here in a gallery at the gentle hour of seven-thirty p.m., Peaches was accessible to me.
In addition to being an artist and musician, Peaches—who was born Merill Beth Nisker—is a forty-nine-year-old Canadian super-fan of Sherman. Like Sherman, Peaches’s work explores identity. While we think of Madonna and Lady Gaga as our culture’s pre-eminent pop-star chameleon queens, Peaches’s subversive take on identity, particularly when it comes to traditional gender norms, exposes their work as merely conventional. The video for Peaches’s recent single, Rub, was banned from YouTube, perhaps for being “a lesbian desert sex scene, but without the male gaze,”—which is how one of the video’s co-directors, artist Lex Vaughn, explained it to The Daily Dot. During the course of the conversation at the gallery, Peaches screened this banned video along with the one for Dick in the Air, in which she and comedian Margaret Cho don fuzzy onesies complete with built-in, penis-like appendages that they proceed to, you guessed it, wave in the air.
In person, Peaches is nothing like you might expect from her videos. She wore a baggy brown dress that hung in swags around her like something from a Greek statue, Dr. Martens boots, a couple of hair extensions, and no makeup. As she remarked to the interviewer when asked about her penchant for elaborate stage clothes, sometimes dressing down is its own version of a costume. Her manner was down-to-earth and engaging while displaying a self-assured intellect. When the interviewer occasionally veered into presumptive lines of questioning, Peaches managed to disarm him with the politest of is-that-sos?
Commentators on Sherman’s work sometimes characterize it as an assertion of identity as a performance. When asked her views on identity, Peaches answered that it’s something we’re constantly creating through trial and error, starting with the identity-less child who learns by mimicking her parents: the child sees her parents holding a phone and holds a spoon up to her ear. I like this concept of trial and error better than performance; it asserts an earnestness where performance asserts artifice. The two can, of course, co-exist.
At one point the conversation turned to Sherman’s series of the Hollywood/Hampton Ladies. What’s easy to read in these portraits is satire of the desperation of middle-aged women, both their makeup and their facial expressions trying too hard. But Peaches pointed out that Sherman is also showing us their vulnerability inherent in this set of headshots designed to garner interest for their third act in life. Where I previously was simply in-on-the-joke of these portraits, I could now intimately—and uncomfortably—relate. The Hampton/Hollywood Ladies had something to offer me, a willingness to try and to make myself vulnerable in the process I was going through in defining my own next act.
At the end of the evening Peaches stood in front of the room and performed an unexpected costume change, using the draped dress as a beach towel changing device. Now donning a blush-colored sequined shorts romper, she belted out an excruciatingly raw rendition of Private Dancer. It was earnest and imperfect, an ending dedicated to the concept of quite literally exposing oneself. People whooped and applauded, smart enough to know they had seen something special.
My takeaway from my evening with Sherman and Peaches wasn’t inspiration to embrace an identity radically different from my own. I am early middle-aged and inexorably shaped by the values and mores of life so far, and I didn’t leave the show ready to dye my hair pink and join the circus. They are the artists and it’s their job to operate at the radical edges of identity to show the rest of us what’s possible, giving us room to maneuver in the space in between. But I did take the experience as a reminder that my relative financial security was a ticket to engage in some trial and error about what I would do next, to emulate the toddler that Peaches had described.
She also seemed to be telling the room to be brave. Watching her perform considerable feats of derring-do like changing her clothes in front of a room full of people before belting out a vocally challenging song—and then, crucially, seeing that nothing bad happened—was a life affirming thing. To put it coarsely, I took her performance as a sort of creative invective to grow a pair. So much of my resistance to change—specifically leaving my job—was fear-based: that I would never find a job that paid this well again or that I would never find any job again. The inquiry pretty much stopped there, failing to go to the next step and ask “and then what?”
It reminded me of one of my favorite regular features in a Sunday newspaper magazine, an interview that always asks the subject “What would you do if you lost everything and had to start again?” Invariably the answer inspires less dread than one would imagine. Often it evokes the opposite in the interviewee—a sense of liberation, an opportunity to get back to what he or she loves. In other words, the answer to the question “what’s the worst that could happen?” usually isn’t that bad. Even if Peaches had bombed in her performance and everyone had booed, well, so what?
Years ago I was receiving instruction in sitting meditation from a zen Buddhist priest. Whenever I tried to sit cross-legged, one of my legs would invariably fall asleep. Alarmed, I called out to the teacher that my legs were falling asleep. “Is that so,” he responded, more statement than question. Without having to spell it out, the teacher had made his point: what’s the worst that could happen if my legs fell asleep? Not much as it turns out. If it got really bad I could always uncross my legs, an option that, remarkably given it was always wholly in my control, I seemed to have ruled out because I thought it would mean I was doing meditation wrong.
This is another abiding fear of mine in life: that I am doing it wrong.
And this, perhaps, is the siren call of artists like Peaches and Sherman. They are decidedly, unabashedly doing it wrong. Sherman’s Madonna is squirting milk from her plastic boob and Peaches is waving her penis in the air, both of which make it just a little bit easier for me to remember that quitting my job wasn’t really living life on the fringe. What could possibly go wrong?
JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her writing has recently appeared in the anthology, A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis, as well as Fiction Advocate, ExBerliner, and Remedy Quarterly. You can find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.
I never knew my grandmother well but I was told growing up that I had her yan sher, which literally means “eye expression” in Mandarin. I understood it more colloquially as referring to Grandma’s spirit, her aura. My father said this as a compliment. My mother, not so much.
The woman I call Grandma—my paternal grandmother—grew up in the pre–Cultural Revolution Chinese countryside just north of Beijing. She had a clumsy instinct for things like judgment and war and enemy lines. She played with the Japanese kids in the yard who nobody was supposed to play with. She unraveled the bandages wound tightly around her feet and learned to read. She became a wife before she was twenty, and a mother soon after. She birthed seven children from her tiny frame and lost two.
Of course, she wasn’t all good and mighty. Grandma’s fingers were just as clumsy as her instinct to judge, so she could never properly sift the rice hulls from their grains in the fall. The rice patties her kids brought to school for lunch weren’t white and pure as they were supposed to be but speckled with brown. This was considered an embarrassment, but Grandma didn’t lose any sleep over it.
When I was young, I sensed that Grandma wasn’t exactly the model of a woman that I should want to embody. Enemy-befriending, bandage-unraveling, wooden-fingered Grandma wasn’t supposed to be my ideal of feminine perfection. She was wrinkled and weathered by the time she was thirty, and she didn’t know how to smile properly for a picture. Her fingers, unnaturally thick for such a small lady, were dusted charcoal gray no matter which picture I looked at.
And I looked at many. From halfway across the world, from a second-floor apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I flipped through the thin stack of Kodak photos that sometimes came in the mail. The images I remember were all set in winter. Grandma and cousins posed wearing puffy neon jackets in their front yard. The ground wasn’t grass or the concrete sidewalks of Milwaukee, but a worn, packed dirt. Grandma sat on a wooden chair, cousins stood in a row, and the family dog, Little Black, lounged at their feet. Their expressions seemed never whole—never just a smile or a frown—but instead halfway through a sentence or question, as if they weren’t sure when exactly the camera would go off.
These pictures were mostly the same but I studied each one as if it were a unique blueprint for my own identity. Of all the cousins on my family tree, I was the only one to live in America. I was special in that way, but I was also alone.
“You’re like your grandma,” my father would say.
“How?” I’d ask.
“You have that same sarcastic look in your eye. Yan sher.”
“What do you mean?”
He never replied directly. The answer came at me slowly, through stories and pictures gathered over years.
Just before I turned two, my parents brought me to visit my father’s family. After the stay, I observed that Grandma didn’t pay much attention to me.
“She’s not an affectionate woman,” my father said.
“That’s right—she’s not!” my mother said.
I don’t remember this early impression of Grandma and clearly, it didn’t do anything to diminish her in my eyes. Maybe Grandma was busy playing poker with the village ladies or preparing dinner with the aunts or walking Little Black instead of cuddling me.
My family moved to America shortly after that visit, and I only saw Grandma a few more times in her life. The last was the August before my senior year of college. On this trip, I noticed that my cousin Hailian had bought gifts for the family—bottles of perfume, silk neck ties, a watch for my father, a jar of L’Oreal face cream for my mother. The girl had manners, my mother noted, and I decided that I should learn a thing or two from Hailian.
During afternoon nap on a particularly hot day, I snuck out to the village convenience shop with my little brother. When we walked in, a bell on the door jingled and a sleepy shopkeeper emerged from behind a shredded plastic curtain. We apologized for waking him and asked in our best Mandarin for a nice woman’s shirt.
“For your grandma?” he guessed right away.
My brother and I examined the one option shown to us, a button-down shirt made from a flowered pattern. It would do.
Grandma had an afternoon routine. She spent hours hanging out with other neighborhood women on the stone ledges that lined the narrow village streets. I had often seen them perched in the shade waving their bamboo fans and swatting at mosquitos that buzzed by their legs. These women greeted everyone by name—kids returning home from school, men in suits riding bikes to and from work in the next town over, the fat lady with the toothy smile who herded her goats down the village’s most central streets every afternoon.
On this particularly hot afternoon, my brother and I found Grandma on the stone ledges and presented her flowered shirt. Almost immediately, the neighborhood ladies clapped their hands in laughter. Look at those American kids! What funnies! They called us not by our names, but as our father’s children.
Grandma laughed too, then started unbuttoning the shirt she was wearing. Soon she was topless and slipping her arms into the flowered shirt we had bought. I stood there with my eleven-year-old brother, unable to turn away. Grandma was skinny and tan, her breasts small and wilted, gently falling over her ribcage. Her skin was withered as if a layer tissue paper had been glued onto her actual skin beneath. I had noticed that Chinese women, who often showered communally, were generally more comfortable with nudity than American women. But an eighty-something-year-old woman changing out on the street with a group of ladies cheering her on? This was not normal. Afterwards, Grandma sat there on the ledge sporting her new shirt with a beaming smile on her face. This was her way of saying thank you for the gift.
When I recounted this story to my mother, she looked disturbed. I got the message. What Grandma did was not ladylike. It wasn’t something I should emulate. But over the years, I always remembered this story and felt a kinship with Grandma. Maybe she wasn’t refined and full of grace, but she was bold. She was a hoot. She didn’t care what others thought about her. She did what she wanted to do, in that nonchalant way that always had my mother shaking her head.
My mother was a different kind of woman. She wore billowing dresses and strappy sandals and tortoise-shelled sunglasses with lenses the color of tea eggs. She knew how to stand for a picture, arm-in-arm with my father in front of Tiananmen Square the year before I was conceived, a silver flowered clip locked into her wavy hair. After we moved to America, she bought do-it-at-home hair perm kits that came in purple and silver boxes with a blonde lady on the front.
I can still see my mother standing over the sink in our tiny bathroom in Milwaukee, her hair dripping of something that looked like milk and smelling of chemicals. I’d watch her from the bed where we all slept—my mother, father, and me. Every night, my mother would come to this bed and put Lubriderm lotion on her hands, her fingers smooth and long like a ballerina’s legs. And then she would take mine and do the same for me, paying special attention to the dry cuticles that I had a bad habit of chewing off.
For a long time, whenever my mother tried to teach me about being a woman, I felt like she was pulling me away from myself. More times than I can count, my mother would come up behind me, rest her hands on my shoulders and press her thumbs into my spine. “Straighten up,” she’d say.
I’d arch my back to an extreme. “Like this?”
She’d shake her head. “You know what I mean.”
Did I? I don’t remember. What I remember is feeling defiant. Proud of the fact that I didn’t naturally stand up tall or want to sit nicely at holiday parties with the women who gossiped until midnight spooning dessert from the table. I wanted to be the one rolling in the dirt, the one with the scraped knees hanging from the top branch of a tree, the one riding her blue Huffy down the street that ran the length of our apartment complex. Through grade school, I insisted on wearing tee-shirts and cargo pants, the kind that could be unzipped at the knees and transformed into baggy shorts for the summer. In high school, I wore my hair in a messy bun that I had to keep re-doing throughout the day to keep tousled because my thick hair always fell straight.
My mother thought of names for me. Things like kuang tou (basket-head) and bu-nan-bu-nu (not-boy-not-girl, or, as I guessed, tomboy) that she muttered when she saw my getups. I knew these names were not endearing. They were meant to stir me to change. I did change, but in the opposite direction. I messed up my hair even more and slouched defiantly. I wanted to show my mother that this was who I was.
I felt less that I was caught between two cultures and more that I was caught between two women. Except I wasn’t really caught. I knew who I wanted to be, but I was too young to be her yet. I felt a maddening ache to get out of the house and out of our town. Once I grew up, once I moved away, once I had my own place, my own money, my own life, I could be whatever kind of woman I wanted to be.
A month before I started college, my parents and I attended a dinner reception for incoming freshman and their families. We drove into New York City in our green Dodge Caravan and circled the blocks around school several times before finding a parking spot. My mother wore an olive and bronze–colored silk dress with a sash at the waist. She had brought this dress with her from China and kept it in her closet, taking care to replace the moth balls every winter. I don’t remember what I wore, but I know that it had not occurred to me that I was supposed to look nice for this event. I probably wore my uniform at the time: jeans and a tank top, flip flops, and a choker necklace made of plastic sea shells.
There was a woman at the reception who seemed important. I don’t remember what color her hair was or what she wore, but I was alert to her presence. While the families sat at round tables, this woman paced around. She shook hands and made friendly conversation to which families laughed and nodded as if on cue. As this woman circled closer my table, I noticed the muscles in my mother’s neck clench. Her hair was twisted into a bun with a flashy jewel barrette that she saved for special occasions. By the time the woman got to the table next to ours, my heart was pounding hard in my chest. I was suddenly embarrassed at how out of place my family looked. I watched as the woman told her joke, smiled, and then moved straight to the table on our other side.
I ate a piece of my bread and tried to look unfazed. But I was confused. Did the important woman skip us by accident? Would she come back around? I was glad that I was spared an awkward encounter with this woman, but why didn’t she speak to us?
My mother and I never talked about this incident. It occurs to me now that maybe it doesn’t stand out in her memory as an exception to her everyday life. When I was growing up, my mother always reminded me that it wasn’t easy to be an immigrant. “You have to be better to get the same result,” she would say. A better student, a better woman, a better friend.
I’d usually laughed it off. “I don’t feel that way,” I’d respond, “You’re being paranoid.”
But being at that reception, as I sat proud and excited and anxious at the prospect of being alone in the world for the first time, I experienced something that never left me. Only years later did I understand that what I had experienced was how it felt to be an immigrant’s child. That lucky first generation. And all the pride and burden and vengeance that came with it.
I graduated from college and then law school. I got a job at a firm in New York and rented an apartment on the Upper West Side. I worked long hours and indulged in fancy cocktails to justify those long hours. One Monday night in late September, I had come home and had just stripped off my corporate outfit when my mother called me. This was normal, so I took the call and steeped a peppermint tea. Then I put my mother on speakerphone on the kitchen counter and got ready to scrub at the dirty dishes in my sink.
“You should sit down,” my mother said.
“Your grandmother…” my mother started.
I immediately had a bad feeling in my stomach. My mother never said much about Grandma. Something big or bad had to have happened.
Grandma had died sometime through the night. The night in China that was the day I had just lived. I tried to remember something, anything, that had happened during the day that felt tragic or poignant. A moment I could identify in hindsight as a sign that I knew viscerally my grandmother was gone. I must have felt something. Grandma and I were connected by blood, and something even stronger. We shared yan sher. That had to count for something. But I had nothing. I had been sitting at my computer for most of the day, chatting occasionally with coworkers but mostly working on assignments that barely varied from one day to the next.
After I hung up the phone with my mother, I went to the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror above my sink, next to my blue shower curtain. The pattern on my shower curtain was a map of the United States, and I thought about how my grandmother would never step foot on American soil.
Grandma wasn’t sick. She had been weak through the previous winter but rejected my uncle’s invitation to stay with his family. She liked where she was. She was walking to the market every morning for breakfast buns and soy milk and playing chess on the stone ledges with the ladies in the afternoon. It had been a good summer. She was getting stronger. Of course she would die someday, but I wasn’t prepared for her to die today.
I sat on the bathroom floor against the cold bathtub and cried. I had never lost anybody close to me before, and I hadn’t expected the tears to come so diligently, before I could even fully process my sadness. I was puzzled by my tears because along with vague sadness, I felt something light. I felt the peace of a life ended without great injustice. Grandma had lived long. She had died in her sleep, as she always claimed was the best way to go. Her death had not been big or bad.
That night, I lay in bed staring up at the wooden beams across my ceiling. I thought of my grandmother, who had gone to bed not long ago. Now her small body was cold and empty of life, her brain without consciousness. It was impossible to understand how a person could just be gone like that. And not just any person, but Grandma. The lady with the sarcastic look in her eye. Now there was only one of us in the world.
A few nights later, I left my Midtown office building and walked up Sixth Avenue. I strolled along the southern edge of Central Park, past the row of carriage horses resting in the shade. It was a quiet night, the air cold but comfortable. I settled on the stone fountains facing Columbus Circle and spoke to my father, who had gone home to China.
In my grandmother’s village, funerals were celebratory events. My father described how the whole village had come out. There was a live band and two teenage go-go dancers. At funerals, it was tradition for family members to dedicate songs to the deceased.
“Your uncle selected two songs for you and your brother because you guys couldn’t be there,” my father said, “It was really a nice celebration. Everyone said that your grandmother was a really kind lady.”
I watched as two men in front of me played with neon rockets that could be wound up and shot up into the sky. At the top of their trajectories, the rockets flashed with bright lights, lingered for a moment, and then fell back down. I kept my eye on them. Up and down, over and over again. Something about the simplicity and sureness of their paths was calming.
All this reminded me of Grandma. As long as her life had been, it was never meant to be much more than what she was born into. She would get married and have kids. She would live in the same house through most of this and die there too. Then I thought about own my life. I was born in a hospital in Beijing, to a country-boy scientist father and a Manchurian mother with a graceful edge. Maybe I was not meant to travel far in my life either. But I had. What were the chances that somebody like me would be here sitting in Columbus Circle on this very night?
My grandmother could never have dreamed of this life for me, but she did live to see a glimpse of it. A few months before she died, Grandma found my lawyer profile online. She didn’t mention this until she overheard my uncle talking about my website profile in the other room. “I saw it,” Grandma said.
A clunky old computer had sat idly in the corner of Grandma’s room for months, maybe years. Nobody guessed that she knew how to use it. But there it was, in her browser history. My name, my picture, my degrees.
This last story makes me smile because this was Grandma’s way. Understated but crafty, insulated but modern, modest but full of pride.
I see now that while Grandma could never have dreamed of this life for me, my mother did. And even more, she demanded it of me.
Over the years, I realized that the main difference between my mother and grandmother is how each woman handled judgment. Grandma was fearless. This was the essence of her aura. She was not ashamed. She did not care that her children brought to school rice patties that were not perfectly white. She didn’t often ask, am I good enough? She just was what she was.
But my mother, she never stopped asking that question. My mother didn’t believe in accepting what you were born into. She believed in being better. She believed in learning to sit up straight and breaking bad habits. She believed in going to the salon for a perm, and when she found herself in a new country with little money, she believed in doing it herself. She believed in upkeep. And most of all, perhaps, my mother believed in her kids. While I begrudged my mother’s attempts to mold me when I was growing up, I see now that her intentions were pure. She pushed me because she believed in me.
It is a humbling thing to look back on your younger self and see somebody who cared so much about how you would turn out today. The lesson, I think, is in the effort and intentions. Perhaps the time I spent as a girl searching for the good and bad and admirable allowed me to face the judgments I had of myself. Perhaps being exposed to the wildly different personas of my mother and grandmother instilled at a most basic level the idea that there was no one way a woman could or should be.
I never did find a model of feminine perfection that both satisfied my mother and sat comfortably with me. I was a college grad who sometimes dreamed of being a farmer, a corporate lawyer who changed immediately into sweatpants at home, a tomboy who learned to walk in heels. And while I was becoming these things, I forgot to think about how much I wanted to be like Grandma. I forgot to think about how much I wanted to show my mother exactly who I was. I forgot to try so hard. Without detaching from either woman, I detached myself from the idea of being confined to their qualities. In growing up I became my own woman, and I am still becoming her.
JIADAI LIN lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she is working on a novel based on her former life as a lawyer in Manhattan. She can be found on Twitter here: @jiadailin
My brother-in-law is a big sports fan. Me, not so much. Recently, he asked me, “In baseball, do you know what they call one ball, two strikes? A Mickey Dubrow.” He laughed and then apologized. There was no need. It was a good joke. I had had testicular cancer and one of my testicles had been removed. I was lucky. I had a type of cancer that is highly curable, and once the tumor was taken out, I was cancer free.
I was also lucky to have a damn good doctor. I remember the first time she checked my testicles for lumps. As she pulled on her rubber gloves and sat on the stool in front of my naked lower half, she said, “This is the part we both hate.” In my head—let me repeat that—in my head, I replied, “I don’t know, I kind of like it.” But out loud, I said nothing because she was my doctor and you don’t say stupid shit like that to your doctor.
During a yearly physical, my damn good doctor noticed that one of my testicles was larger than the other. You’d think that would be something I would notice, but it went right by me. She arranged for me to see a urologist. The urologist ordered a scan that showed that the inflation was caused by a tumor. The only way to find out if the tumor was cancerous was to remove it. I asked if there was any other way to find out, because what if they took it out and it was just fine? I didn’t want to lose a ball for nothing. The urologist assured me that there was no other way.
I worried that the surgery would damage my sex drive. I knew that I only needed one testicle to continue having a normal sex life, but sexual desire is as much mental as physical. I was afraid that I would convince myself that the surgery had destroyed my sex life.
My sex life is completely vanilla, but I’m one of those guys who thinks about sex a lot. Like all the damn time. I read stories with lots of sex in them. I write really good sex scenes. One of my life goals as a young man was to be a good lover. Let other men climb mountains. Pleasing my sex partners was my Mount Everest.
Men are supposed to have sex on the brain all the time, except when they’re thinking about sports. Since I’m not into sports, I have extra time to think about sex. I’m not quite Portnoy and I have no complaints, but my sex drive is part of who I am.
How sex obsessed am I? Just about every woman I look at, I imagine what she looks like naked. I don’t include underage girls and the very elderly, but every other female is fair game. In fact, if you’re a woman reading this essay, I’m imagining what you look like naked reading this essay.
I’ve never been ashamed or embarrassed by my obsession with sex. I have never understood the argument that sex was only for procreation. Animals have sex for procreation only. Humans have sex for all kinds of reasons: recreation, expression, stress reduction, revenge, etc. Having sex for fun is what elevates humans from mere animals.
The cancer surgery went well. Afterwards, the urologist met with my wife and me. He told us that the tumor was malignant, but Stage 1A which meant that once the tumor was removed so was the cancer. It was an odd moment, to find out in the same sentence that I had cancer and that I no longer had cancer.
My wife and I waited until I had healed from the surgery before we attempted having sex. We moved slowly. She did most of the work, handling me gently, and with loving kindness. As I approached orgasm, fear gripped me. What if something went wrong? There was nothing to substantiate my fear, but fear is often irrational. The orgasm did happen and I felt tremendous relief. The last time I felt this emotional during sex was the first time I had slept with my wife. I knew that something more than sex had taken place.
Most days I forget that I only have one testicle. I’m not sure why anyone would dwell on it, even someone as sex obsessed as myself. You work with the tools you have.
Before the surgery, I thought of myself as invincible when it came to my health. Even though I was in my mid-fifties, I believed that my body would always bounce back from any disease and from the abuse I’d put my body through with too many drugs, too much alcohol, and generally not taking care of myself.
The surgery didn’t destroy my sex life, but I was convinced that I came out of it with two strikes against me. The first strike was the realization that my body was no longer invincible. The second strike was the realization that my body was aging. As I get older, my body won’t be able to ward off disease as easily and eventually age may dampen my sexual desire. This all sounds terribly depressing, but I’m not worried. In baseball, a batter with one ball and two strikes still has a chance to score.
MICKEY DUBROW has been an award winning television promotions writer/producer for major cable networks for over twenty years. His essays have appeared in Creative Loafing, The Atlanta Jewish Times, Prime Number Magazine, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Under the pen name, Allan Kemp, he is the author of the Black Phoenix urban fantasy series.
I see my dead father. Not in dreams, but physically, alive, out in the world. He’s always alone. I’ve seen him numerous times. He seems at peace, not lonely or struggling to understand his fate, his new whereabouts. Not laboring to return to the earthly plane. Problems endured alive, resolved; no longer important. On his own, no one else to answer to, to provide for, or support. Children, ex-wife, and wife number two no longer a responsibility or concern. Mistakes made, unmet expectations abandoned and not rectified. Unfulfilled and incomplete duties not complete and not fulfilled. Pain and sorrow, remorse and apology, lifted. A freedom he didn’t know in life. An aura of wonder surrounding him. He died on April 23, 2009, at age seventy-four, his cremains now interred at a cemetery in South San Francisco.
I saw him while on a Caribbean cruise in 2015. The ship docked at St. George’s, Grenada, and we had a half-day to explore the island. Walking back from Grand Anse Beach I noticed a man sitting on a pylon looking out to sea—my father, Ed. At least, it looked exactly like him. The bend of his back, the slope of his shoulders, the side-view of his face, his gray hair, even the clothes—K-Mart Bermuda shorts, a well-worn tee-shirt, brown leather fisherman sandals; his favored outfit. My father, Edward Willis Thompson. I did a double-take. I stopped and stared, studying, wondering, wanting, and needing. I wanted to go to him, but I did not. I wondered if it could actually be him, knowing—in my rational mind—it was not. In my fantastical mind, wishing it to be truth. I needed the healing that didn’t happen when he breathed.
He sat alone; no one else on the beach or near him. The way he gazed out at the water—as if he was there, on that pylon, permanently. Like he’d found his place to rest, to live out his eternity. Possibly, I was meant to pass him, to discover him there, at his final resting place. So I’d know he was okay, now at peace. The sereneness of my vision of him led me to believe this was the case—a communication from his beyond to my within. And it could have been him. Who’s to say it wasn’t? We don’t actually know where the dead go. Maybe “Heaven” is a favored place from life. The beach—any beach, especially a tropical one—Dad’s favorite place in the world.
Before the Caribbean sighting, I’d seen him a handful of times: in a Home Depot parking lot; in a crowd at the mall; on the street in Glendale, California, where we live. Each time I had the same experience, I thought: Jesus, that man looks exactly like my father. After the third sighting, I didn’t question whether it was or was not. For me, it was. Even if it’s as straightforward as me seeing my father’s corporeal doppelgangers, it was still him. This is not something ghostly. It is something else. Ghosts are fine, I like them, I have no problem with them, but these sightings are not phantasms. And it’s okay. I’m not sure I need to understand or label them. They simply are. I find them soothing and calming. Is he reaching out to me? Possibly.
I was never all that close to my father. My parents divorced when I was five. He left the family and wasn’t around much when my sister and I were growing up. We’d see him on summer vacations, spending a week with him staying at a cheap motel in Avila Beach, California. The days filled with sun, sand, and water—and a whole lot of fun. He seemed to enjoy the time we spent together. He spoiled us rotten by buying us everything we wanted: ice cream at all hours; any toy we pleaded for; cash to spend ourselves. Standard absentee father conduct—making up for ever-present guilt. At the end of the week, he’d drop us off at home, our white skin now a dark brown, temporarily happy, father-sated yet sad all the same. We wanted him to park the car and come inside, return to our mother, to the family.
The vacations ceased when I was eight, the moment he married his second wife, Mabel. She wanted as little to do with us as possible. He went along with what she wanted. A strong-willed, opinionated woman married a weak-willed and lazy man. A mama’s boy, he wanted to be taken care of—the way his own mother had spoiled him. Mabel provided a clean, comfortable home, three squares a day, and her body at night. They had an unspoken understanding. He did what she wanted, and, pretty much—sadly too—only what she wanted. From that point on my interaction with him was sporadic at best.
When he was sick and dying of lung cancer, I visited him in the hospital. A shell of the man I once knew, he recognized me despite his dementia; he knew I was there and was happy to see me. Dying in a hospital bed at the VA facility in Palo Alto, California, his six-foot-four frame, legs twisted yet still gangly long, slid down the hospital bed so his feet dangled uncomfortably off the edge. I only spent a couple of days visiting; there was little to do except be in his presence and pull him back up the bed so he didn’t dangle off—over and over. He’d move, or wiggle, or shift his body, and down the bed he slid. Due to dementia, his stage four lung cancer, and the medications he was on, holding a conversation with him was not possible. Expressing my anger and displeasure for the way he treated us—his two children—would not be happening. Instead, I sat close to the bed and held his hand, or helped him eat ice cream or his lunch or dinner, feeling sorry for him in so many ways. I hurt for him and for myself. I did my best to do the prescribed things a person does for another, a relative, a father, who is in the throes of dying. I told him I loved him. I wish I’d done all of it because I truly felt love for him.
And, I can’t say I felt much either when he died. Mostly, I was saddened by what we were unable to achieve: a loving father and son relationship. A seemingly ethereal idea foisted upon me by societal expectations, out of reach, a dream in our family—but something I still desperately wanted. I didn’t mourn his loss in the accepted ways one is supposed to when losing a loved one. My grief was tied to lost possibility, to what would never be, not to losing my “father,” my “Daddy.” I hadn’t spent enough time with the man for the type of familial intimacy to develop that would warrant true and deep feelings of grief over his loss. To add to my confusion and misery, his wife cremated and interred him without telling my sister or me. There was no viewing, no service, and no burial—at least none we were invited to. Even in his death, we were treated the same as when he lived—excluded like we didn’t belong or exist.
A recent sighting took place at our local Trader Joe’s. Dad was putting groceries into the trunk of a car. I found myself thinking, there he is again. Like before, it looked exactly like him—the height, the build, his movements, the clothes, all Ed Thompson, my father. A rote calmness emanating from him—a task as mundane as grocery shopping joyful. Not a care in the world. Similar to the island pylon resting place, I’m left thinking he’s still in that Trader Joe’s parking lot, still loading groceries into his trunk, over and over, on a continuous, never-ending loop, stuck in time and not unhappy about it in the least. A chore no longer a chore but a happy task. A final resting place or action could be malleable, or exist in multiple places, couldn’t it? The world of the dead not curtailed by human, earthly barriers of time and space.
Observing him, I wondered if he was buying groceries for us. Like this father, the version I saw in the present day, might go back in time, and do the right thing. Was he going to bring groceries to help feed my sister and me? To add to our food stamp-supplied coffers? To remove some of the burdens on my overworked mother? To ease her financial strain? He’d bring the groceries when he came to pick us up for a weekend visit. Like a good father and ex-husband, he’d hand the bag of groceries to my mother and then help us with our suitcases. We’d drive off with him to a motel for another spoil-us-rotten weekend, momentarily forgetting how he wasn’t in our lives. Or, would this be one of the numerous occasions when he didn’t show up?
One of those times, my sister and I, dressed, coats zipped up, suitcases ready, waited patiently by the front door. Then, the allotted time passed and no Dad. Hours went by, still no Dad and no phone call. Our mother tried to locate him by making a series of calls. Her anger with him—for us, for herself—palpable. Coats removed, suitcases stashed, she wiped away our tears, and finally, a phone call came days later. He didn’t have money for gas, or his car broke down, or he had to work, or who knows what the fuck else of an excuse he’d come up with. Not once, but over and over this took place. Our childhood a never-ending, continuous loop of disappointment.
How to explain simultaneous love and hate? Or concurrent joy and anger? Recently, since seeing my dead father out and about in the world, I realized how I felt about him: I loved him and hated him; he made me happy and so fucking mad. I now see my entire involvement with him existed on a yo-yo continuum. He could be the most charming man—father—in the entire world one day—bringing us gifts, taking us to the movies, showing us a good, fun, time. Through a child’s filter he loved us, he brought us happiness, and we loved him back. Followed by a long absence, a cancellation or a no-show when he was supposed to take us for the weekend, or some other equally injurious hurt. After one of these, the tears, the anger, and the hatred bubbled to the surface, polluting the prior felt love. This up and down, love to hate, joy to anger went on all through my childhood, into my adulthood, up to his death.
Buddy—the nickname he earned growing up with four siblings outside Oklahoma City—was a jokester and a kidder; a big, overgrown kid. Bighearted too, generous of spirit, he was kind to small children and animals. Without question, I know a gentle soul resided within the man. Social, he loved people, he loved his family; he had Okie and country blood in his veins. He used to sing Merle Haggard’s lyrics “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” over and over. And he meant it. From him, I learned to appreciate my Okie heritage. The salt of the earth, hardscrabble people my relatives were and still are; survivors. People and a place he evolved from.
But, there was another side to the man that didn’t jive with the Okie-identifying, softhearted big kid version. Life kicked him in the teeth over and over, and he took the hits. He didn’t fight back. His divorce from my mother. His unintended abandonment of his children. His failed career—stuck in middle management after earning an MBA. His second marriage to a horribly controlling woman. A woman who cut him off from his siblings, from his children, from his friends. The parts of him I hated were the results of him quitting, giving into life: his confusion about right and wrong when it came to us kids, his passivity, and laziness in not doing the right thing or allowing others to decide what he wanted, or even what he felt, and the selfishness all of this manifested. He ended up a depressed, inadequate, and indolent wimp, and he knew he was. And I hated him for it.
I now see the hatred overrides any love I may have felt. It is the stronger of the two emotions, and I don’t know if it is changeable. I have often wondered if it would have been easier not to have a father, to not know there was a man out there in the world, living and breathing, who was my so-called “father”—the man who gave me life. The mere fact he existed and ignored us feels more problematic, difficult, and painful than if he simply didn’t exist or had permanently disappeared. The hurting hurt over and over and over, and it still does. And, once dead, no going back. A door slammed shut, hard, in my face. I’d forever believed there would be enough time to fix it. Then, there was not.
I have a French friend who, when she was a young girl, lost her mother to suicide. She once told me a story of walking along the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan where she lived during her early twenties and passing a woman who looked exactly like her long-dead mother. Her mother she hadn’t seen since childhood. She stopped and turned around to look for her, and when she did, the woman wasn’t there.
I understood why she told me the story. It gave me chills then, it still does now. Was the woman she saw her mother, a ghost, something else? Who can say? It’s not important. For her, it was real. Somehow, the woman who brushed past her and then vanished was her mother. I feel the same about my fatherly sightings. He can be real for me, there in the flesh, if I decide he is. He hasn’t ever come to me in my dreams, not that I remember or am aware of—only in these sightings. Unfinished business, it could be. I suppose we have quite a bit. I wanted something from him he could not give, and I know he was aware of failing my sister and me. I know he felt guilty and remorseful but not enough to fix it. That’s the unfinished business.
No matter the explanation or understanding of the sightings, they bring me comfort. These are unanswerable questions. I accept he might be somehow trying to reach me. Why would I ever not? Why would I cut myself off from that possibility, from any possibility? I wouldn’t and I won’t. After all, who truly knows the truth of what is out there, of how these things work? The dead versus the living. We should all be open, like a conduit, to all of it, to any possibility. Shouldn’t we?
C. GREGORY THOMPSON lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes fiction, nonfiction, plays, and memoir. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offbeat,Printers Row Journal, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Every Writer’s Resource, and 2paragraphs. He was named a finalist in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival’s 2015 Fiction Contest. His short play Cherry won two playwriting awards. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert. He is on Twitter as @cgregthompson.
When I was seven years old, my family moved from Mississauga, Ontario, to Kuwait City. My Palestinian father, who immigrated to Canada in the sixties, joined a wave of Palestinians who at that time had found careers and a home in that small desert country. He left when I was six. We joined him shortly afterward. Kuwait was my first experience of the Middle East, or, more correctly, western Asia. (Middle compared to what? I’ve always wondered.) In the almost-year we lived there, I learned a lot of things, including the fact that my body has a tendency to betray me in my times of need.
Sometime after moving to Kuwait, I started blinking: a lot. It seems obvious now that the twitch was a response to moving to a new country where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language, but at the time my parents didn’t connect the dots. Concerned, they took me to see an ophthalmologist. Once there, we sat in a small sterile room where a large, bearded man explained very calmly to my parents that, if my condition did not improve, he would have no choice but to insert a needle directly into my eyeball. He acted this out with great drama, grabbing my shoulder and pressing down on a fictional syringe pointed directly at my face. He was so convincing that I swore I could feel the phantom dose being forced out of the needle and splashing my cheek. And although the thought of a thin rod of cold steel being forced into my eyeball was terrifying, I pushed my fear down until it was a small, throbbing ball in the pit of my stomach.
At seven, there were few things more terrifying getting a needle. The cold, silver sharpness of the alcohol swab on my arm, the crinkle of plastic yielding to the expert hand of the nurse as the syringe is unwrapped, the gentle clink of the small glass bottles as they are pulled from cabinets: All these things evoked in me a creeping sense of dread that was all-consuming, resulting in a flash of sweaty fear that soaked the back of my school uniform, bunched up and wrinkled from the car ride over. I was well acquainted with the ritual, and over time my fear had calcified, built up like a hard crystal shell.
My parents must have seen the fear in my eyes. They very quickly ushered me out of the doctor’s office and down to the car park. I seem to recall many wide-eyed, meaningful looks passing between them in the elevator. Are you freaking kidding me? I imagine my father secretly muttering. He had a bit of a temper in those days, and in retrospect I wonder if our hasty exit wasn’t just a way of getting him the hell out of there before he had a chance to enlighten the ophthalmologist on twentieth-century medical techniques. I imagine the doctor responding: What? You no longer terrify children into shitting themselves as a means of discouraging involuntary physiological responses to stress? No? You must be kidding with me right now, habibi. You are laughing at me, yes?
For many children with nervous dispositions, a tic is the body’s way of responding to trauma or stress. It followed, then, that the key to stopping the blinking was to try to settle into my new life. Getting used to my new school and making friends was a good start, but my twitch presented a kind of social catch-22. The tic made me seem weird and off-putting, which decreased my popularity with my classmates. On the other hand, lack of friendship made me feel weird and off-putting, thereby contributing to stress and more blinking.
A young child with a nervous tic provokes strong reactions in people. Especially when the child already has so much working against them, like natural awkwardness and coke-bottle glasses. They become the object of pity or, at best, concern. They bring out the best in people. Strangers give them lollipops. Aunties tsk-tsk them and pat them on the head. Teachers are indulgent and kind.
I once knew a woman whose communist family had very quietly sneaked out of Chile shortly after the infamous dictator Augustus Pinochet had taken power. This would have been sometime in the seventies, and she would have been around four or five years old. After having witnessed countless friends and family members “disappear,” this woman and her family somehow managed to get out of Chile and into Canada. The entire ordeal must have been extremely stressful, because in response to these events she developed what she would describe to me as a “full facial seizure.” She once provided a demonstration: puckering her entire face, eyes closed, frowning, lips pushed out, and then rolled her eyes back in her head while her mouth opened into a large O. It was like an exaggerated, creepy air kiss: MWWAAAH. This she would repeat in rapid succession several times a minute.
While a child with a twitch may evoke empathy, in adults twitches are less likely to be indulged. They tend to make people feel uncomfortable. I experienced this myself many years later, when I worked with someone who had the habit of blinking repeatedly when considering some new piece of information or pondering a response to a question. It gave him an air of skepticism somehow. Like, I hear what you’re telling me, but I’m not buying it. Even innocuous questions like, Hey, Joe, how was the weekend? were met with prolonged fits of blinking which seemed to last an uncomfortable eternity. In the silent seconds that it would take for Joe to consider the question, my confidence would slowly begin to crumble: Did I say something offensive? Did a member of Joe’s family die and the interment was this weekend? Are those tearstains on his collar? Oh God, what have I done?! Just as I was about to mumble an excuse and make my getaway, Joe would blink twice and respond: Fine. How about you?
Eventually, I settled in. I made friends, went to the sea with my family on Fridays, and was deeply comforted by the deep azure of the sky beside the blondeness of the sand dunes. Eventually, my tic went away. I sometimes wonder, though, what would have happened if it hadn’t. What would have become of the likes of my Chilean friend and I if our families had not fretted and worried and protected us from crazy barbarian ophthalmologists and American-sponsored bloodthirsty dictators?
Because some people never grow out of it. You know who I’m talking about: the guy on the subway who can’t stop rubbing his nose; the dry-cleaner whose constant shrugging seems to signal an internalized sense of resignation: You can pick up your jacket on Friday. Or, whatever. Normal people, doing normal things, but with the addition of a particular physical trait that sets them apart.
A few years ago my tic made its triumphant return when I suffered through a particularly bad patch at work. What does it all mean? I would ask myself, sitting awkwardly in meetings, trying to hide the side of my face that was engaged in the electric boogaloo. Ironically though, no one seemed to notice. Not only did I have to suffer through the frustration of crippling facial convulsions, but for all intents and purposes, the problem seemed to be quite literally all in my head.
On a couple of occasions, desperate for some kind of validation, I would mention it to someone: friend, colleague, the guy who picks up garbage on the side of the highway. Each time, they would look at me uncomfortably and hesitate before leaning in really close and muttering:
Oh yeah, there it is.
Yes! I would think, momentarily vindicated by their acknowledgement of my suffering. But my relief was short lived as I watched their faces slowly change from curious to concerned.
She DOES have a twitch. Weird.
Her face is going into spasm. Because of work. Huh.
I should probably put these scissors away.
Despite years of effort, I have not yet found a way to control my tic, and I have come to accept that I will never be completely rid of it. It’s both humbling and frustrating to know that the façade that I have constructed, the stories I tell myself in the dark about who I am, can be so quickly undone. For while life moves along quietly, my tic hides buried away in the twisted labyrinth of my nervous system, slumbering peacefully, until like a vulture circling a carcass, it moves in. Its motivation is insignificant and unpredictable: moving across the continent, talking to a boy, almost getting fired. It has its own logic and sense of proportionality. My tic makes its own rules. And at the age of forty-five, I have finally accepted it for the existential consolation prize it is.
Although I may see it as a betrayal, my tic is really my body’s way of keeping me humble. It serves as a reminder that inside, I am still a coke-bottle-glasses-wearing, frizzy-haired kid from Mississauga experiencing culture shock for the first time, whose sense of self can be swiftly undone by a face with a tendency to break into movement like a dancer on Soul Train.
ELSE KHOURY is having a mid-life crisis, only instead of buying a motorcycle or getting a tattoo, she’s writing essays. Elsé lives in Niagara, Canada.