You Never Know Just How You Look in Other People’s Eyes

train passenger

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Nicole Walker

There are several ways to get to Siena, Italy. For Erik and me, to get out of Lecce, a town notched in the heel of the boot of Italy, and into Siena, where, if these boots were had laces, you would tie the knot, we had to take a car, then a train, then a taxi, then a plane, and then another train and then walk straight up hill to the medieval city that is like Florence if Florence had not become heart-of-the-Renaissance-Florence. We took our first train from Lecce, through Brindisi, to Bari.

We are competent train takers. We take the subway when we’re in New York. We know you can sit forward or backward. We don’t get motion sickness. We can walk up and down the aisle. We know it is not like a car or a plane, but, admittedly, even though the Burlington Northern and Amtrak make us wait at the crossing in our Flagstaff hometown twice a day, we know trains as occasions, not everyday transportations.

The train from Lecce into Bari was late. We got into the cab to head to the airport. I told the driver, “We are late,” in whatever pretend Italian I knew then and have since forgotten. We were blond and carrying rolly suitcases. In Lecce, no one pretended to know English like I pretended to know Italian. But in Bari, the cab driver pretended to understand. Maybe I showed him the plane ticket. It was 11:40. Our flight left at 12:15. The train station is nowhere near the airport. I know he understood me because he spoke the international language of late-for-the-airport. He drove on the sidewalk. He took a left in a lane marked “right turns only.” His tires scraped curb. He stepped on the accelerator to speed around a bus to turn in front of it, bus honking, breaks squealing.

Now might have been a good time to tell the cab driver I was pregnant. Being pregnant shifts your perspective. Suddenly, your life, as protector of fetus, becomes much more precious, even if it’s a pregnancy you’re ambivalent about—it’s hard to be pregnant in wine country. Unlike normal times, making the plane on time seemed less important than surviving the cab-ride. But I did not know the word for pregnant and, although my perspective had shifted slightly, I didn’t want to bug the driver who was concentrating very hard to make a third lane for the taxi-cab where two lanes only existed.

•••

We thought we missed our flight. But then we read the arrivals and departures wrong. We had time to make it to the gate where we had prepaid for assigned seats. In Europe, people who fly Ryan Air rush like Barian cab drivers across the tarmac, suit coats flying, hand holding hat, to get their seats. Erik and I fly in America where our seats are assigned, and we board as soon as possible because sitting in a too-small seat ensures on on-time departure. In Bari, I walked to my seat like a pretend-calm person even though I did not understand why there were two staircases leading up to one airplane. The flight attendants had opened the back door of the plane to let us board. I did not know planes had back doors although I did know, thanks to my desperate attempt to keep the plane from crashing by listening attentively to the safety speech at the beginning of every flight that “the nearest exit may be behind you.” That an exit can also be an entrance is a very European idea.

After that, easy peasy, as Max, who was then only a two-month-old fetus, would say as a five-year-old now. He lived. We lived. The flight. The cab ride. I did not know how dangerous knowing only iPod Italian might be. When we arrived in Siena, our host spoke English. The knot that had been in my stomach, squishing fetus Max, unwound. I would give anything for a host for forever, someone to take me to a foreign country, find the airport on time, speak Italian to the taxi driver, explain why Americans don’t use two staircases to board the airplane from the front and the back.

•••

It’s impossible to know how high the seas will rise. Maybe they won’t rise much at all. Maybe whale poop will sequester the carbon. Maybe the mushrooms will. But some maps predict a bleaker future. In Grist Magazine, Greg Hansom describes pictures of sunken cities, newly named reliefs like Sea of San Diego and Archipelago of Bainbridge. San Joaquin Peninsula is all that’s left of Orange County. The coast we know now probably won’t disappear in our lifetime but in the next or the next or maybe sooner if the coal keeps burning and the cars keep driving.

I say “the cars” and “the coal” as if I am not sitting in a house, typing on a coal-burning laptop as the heater kicks on and pours naturally gassed heat upon me. As if the “the” means I won’t drive my Honda CRV to pick up my kids from school. Another article in the same magazine claimed that it’s liberals as much as Republicans who are the problem. We blame them for denying what we believe is there. But somebody else’s denial is necessary for us to believe that we liberals are doing the right thing, which is a whole lot of nothing. Nobody wants to be blamed for the Santa Monica pier falling into the ocean, but no one also wants to turn the heat down to fifty-five degrees in the winter or the air-conditioning to eighty in the summer. Heck, I have a dream to drive Route 66 all the way from Santa Monica to Chicago, Illinois. I wish I’d driven my car to Italy. Cars are a host country, like a planet. Every gum wrapper and seat print is our own. Our dreams are our cars. They take us out of here without it having to feel the pain of the unfamiliar. But, as the seas rise, perhaps we should get familiar with the boat.

•••

In Siena, the Palio happens twice a summer. Around the Piazza del Campo, horses race. Men, called Camparsa, in medieval outfits parade flags from their district through the streets toward the piazza. The streets, lined with nearly black cobblestones, are bordered by tall, connected houses from the 1300s, red flags, black stone, a Duomo, the Siena Cathedral.

The food in Siena was not the food of Puglia, which was dominated by broccoli rabe and orchiette, a whole-grain pasta. Siena had pizza. It had gelato. It had the food of the American Italian Vacation and it had wine I couldn’t drink. Like a proper tourist, I bought a scarf for ten euros. Like a tourist full of regrets, I should have bought a hundred. We stayed in a hotel that overlooked a garden. The piazza formed a circle where, during the parade, the horses rode around and the centuries swirled around and everything was stone which is how you make a city last—make it stone, make it circular to keep the art inside and the pillagers out. You keep the Renaissance at bay by keeping Florence down the street. You keep nature managed by turning it into a vineyard called Tuscany. Italy is a land of circles made by square painting frames and plots of grape and tomato vines. In Siena, you can’t see far because of the tall houses and the circling streets. It is easy to get lost although most of the time, the Duomo is in sight but the middle of the Duomo too is round and so if you end up on the wrong side of it, you might never know.

And I didn’t know, when we were on our way back to Lecce, to return to Zoe, the already-born kid, who was being watched by her attentive but window-opening grandparents who didn’t know about the Vape that you plug into the wall and emits some mosquito death vapor—and who could know of them? They, like we, are from the United States where we have DEET but no Vapes and so invited a thousand or so mosquitoes into their cottage to feast upon our already barely-alive daughter. She wasn’t really barely alive, but she had the Bad Lungs and the RSV and the inhaler broke the minute we plugged it into the wrong wall adapter. We adapt less well to the foreign world. We have made mistakes. We repeat them. Mosquitoes can sting more than once.

•••

The mosquitoes are getting worse. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that mosquito-borne diseases are already spreading more rapidly. In the regular times, like the eighties, at seven-thousand feet elevation, people are safe from mosquitoes carrying Dengue Fever. Dengue-fever-carrying mosquitoes once didn’t travel higher than 3,200 feet. But it’s getting warm up here. Mosquitoes don’t suffer from altitude sickness, just the cold. Which it is not. Not even in December. Scientific American, in a September 27, 2013 article notes that incidences of Chikungunya, a disease carried by the Tiger mosquito, which causes high fevers and rashes, is on the rise in Western Europe. Zanahoria, Italian for mosquito, was a word we all knew when we left Italy. Chikungunya is a word we do not know but maybe experienced that long night in Lecce when Zoe couldn’t sleep.

•••

Erik and I wouldn’t be late for the plane this time. We made it to the Siena train station early. I read the schedule. Or, I tried to read the schedule. Pisa CSE, Pisa Centrale. Trenitalia. One stop in Empoli. Isn’t there a nonstop?

Erik and I peered through the glass, the train schedule old and blurry. Our phones didn’t work then, in Italy. The computer, as the nebulizer adapter died when we plugged it in, died on the plane in from Rome. If it were 1960 and Erik and I were on the platform, perhaps then things would have made more sense. We would have studied the book harder, not being so lulled into submission by easy info access on our smartish phones. We would have taken trains more often, understanding that Centrale and One Stop were the same idea. Perhaps, in the 1960s, when the mosquitoes were happy at 3,200 feet and San Diego was confident of its shores, we would have been more versed in chivalry. Perhaps it would have been a time when Erik understood One Stop and Centrale to be the same destination, I would have trusted him. Perhaps if all our verses had been written in 1960s chivalry, he would have waited for me while I was in the bathroom instead of getting on the train without me. Perhaps I would have trusted him and his new British friends as they all waved to me to get on the damn train. Perhaps my 1960-self would have been more credulous. Of course Erik made new British friends and boarded a train without me. If only we could go back in time and then, again, in time, because it keeps coming, time, perhaps I would have jumped on that train, full of belief and trust in trains I did not know and toward the only Pisa that could have been waiting for me.

•••

We use the word “believe” when we talk about climate change. Fox News doesn’t believe it. Members of the National Resources Defense Council do believe it. Readers of Scientific American mostly believe it. Belief is the word you use when you cannot be sure about the future. And the scientists aren’t sure how high the mosquitoes will fly. They aren’t sure how high the oceans will rise. Belief, though, whether you do it or not, only worries about the future. When you believe in God, you pray to him to make good things happen. When you believe in climate change, you believe that maybe good things don’t. One of my mentors believes science will save us—big carbon scrubbers in the sky. How is hope different than belief?

•••

Instead, I did not get on the train. Erik did not get off the train. I stood on the platform as the train pulled away. Erik stared at me through the train window. Incredulity is another word for stubborn. I sat down on the concrete platform, underneath the schedule that predicted when Erik would come back. I’d figured out the train schedule by then but not my husband. I figured out that he might have been right about all trains leading to Pisa but that didn’t necessarily make me wrong. I waited as one train came back. Two trains. Three trains. He was not on any of them. I figured out that maybe sometimes it’s important to just go with the person you are with rather than let your butt get cold on the concrete platform of the Tranitalia Empoli station. Longing is another word for not knowing what to do next.

•••

If I had a house on the Olympic Peninsula, built fifty feet behind the neighbor’s property, which reaches out to the shore of the Puget Sound, how long would I have to wait until I could claim millionaire status for my now-ocean front property? When the water swallowed the neighbor’s strangely-suburban lawn? When the water lapped at my neighbor’s duck-dotted welcome mat? When the country duck hanging as a welcome sign is as wet as the doormat? When the roof of my neighbor’s house makes a nice fishing dock? You are silly to think oceanfront property will mean anything when you have to stay indoors to keep the mosquitoes from injecting their malarial parasite near the now-warm waters of the Puget Sound.

•••

Eventually, I got on a train to Pisa. Eventually, Erik came back. Our trains must have passed each other. When I got to Pisa, he wasn’t there. I went back to Empoli. He wasn’t there either.

•••

The seas have risen far enough to turn Queen Anne into an island at least once before, Jurassicly. They can do it again. Of course, the pretend house I built on the Sound will be under water by then, but, then, the sea doesn’t mind the taste of human constructs.

•••

Finally, our flight back to Bari, back to our mosquito-ridden daughter, back to our flight back to Rome that would get us out of Italy nearly departing, I rode the train back to Pisa. I had the plane tickets. He had to be there. And he was. He stood at the edge of the platform. If this had been a movie, I would have run to him. He would have run to me. Open arms.

•••

I am a good swimmer. If not a good reader of schedules or husbands. I am ready for you, warm waters of the Puget Sound. I know it would be too much to ask for you, dear ocean, to leave me any oysters.

•••

But this is not a movie. His arms are folded. Crossed. I’m so happy to see him. My heart thrills. I am home. But still. I cannot believe that he left me behind.

He says, “I cannot believe you.”

Which I take to mean, I cannot believe in you.

But I say, “You can’t believe me? I can’t believe you!”

I touch my arms. My hair. I am here.

“You’re the one that left me,” I say.

“You never trust me,” he says.

“I’m the one who speaks Italian,” I say.

“You cannot read a map,” he says.

“I came to you. Twice.” I say.

“I went back for you,” he says.

We each folded our arms because no one wants to believe they misunderstood a schedule, a wave, a bathroom break, a pregnancy, a train-trip to somewhere so beautiful so badly. If this were an O’Henry story, this would have been a love story. But this is not O’Henry. Erik was raised by a single-mom who did everything by herself—made peanut butter and jellies, went to work, paid the mortgage, bought a car, hiked in the desert, took the kids to the dentist, mopped the floors. He doesn’t believe that just because I had to pee, just because I was pregnant, just because I wanted to be convinced by the signage, that I shouldn’t have just gotten it together, got on the next train, and met him in Pisa. A feminist is the guy who figures his wife will figure it out. His mom could have done it herself. And, on my side, I don’t believe I should have just trusted him, just gotten on the train just because he said so, without even talking to me. I’m a feminist who doesn’t believe anybody should tell me what to do, even if that means I wait on the platform for two hours to be rescued by some chivalrous husband who does not believe in chivalry. Two stubborn faces staring through the window. There’s no way to know how to go back. I sing a version of the Charlie on the MTA song,

Did he ever return, no he never returned 
And his fate is still unlearned
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Pisa
He’s the man who never returned. 

Erik doesn’t laugh. And then he does.

•••

You can know a few things. You can know this: No one is going to rescue us. We are going to miss our flight from Pisa to Bari. We are going to miss seeing our kid, with her mosquito bites, harboring a virus we cannot pronounce. We are going to spend the rest of our lives passing our traveling companions on the train from Pisa to Empoli, from Empoli to Pisa. But we won’t know what it feels like until we open the windows and actually touch the water. Until then, all we will see is our warped faces, reflected back at us. Duck decorations can’t swim. I should have believed Erik instead of staying put and hoping he’d come back to save me.

They say with time, you look back and laugh. For Erik, that’s not so long. For the island of San Diego, it’s too soon to know.

•••

NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg  (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University where she will host the 2015 NonfictioNOW Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.

Read more FGP essays by Nicole Walker.

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The Detour Path

dune

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Powell Berger

You started skydiving in college, a dare at first, then an obsession, and now an escape. You like standing on the step of the airplane, clinging to the wing strut, still tethered to the airplane but in just one leap, one moment’s push from the metal sliver holding you, you fall away, the plane banking and disappearing above you. You feel the wind blast against your face, your cheeks pushed flat against your cheekbones, no sounds audible against the wind screaming past you. You revel in the shock of opening your parachute, pulling the little pod tucked on the back of your leg-strap that initiates the sudden stop, yanking you from free-fall, jerking you from your plummeting dive into a quiet, suspended hover above the hues of greens and blues and browns beneath. The rustling sound of the parachute above your head as you glide towards earth fulfills you. In those moments, you are free, certain, invincible.

You pack everything you own in your rattletrap white Chevette—except for the bookshelf that your grandfather built because it’s too big to stuff in the car and you feel bad about leaving it behind but you tell yourself you’ll come back for it—and you drive south. You are in love. Not a man—you’re still too wounded, too raw for that—but a lifestyle, a sport, an escape hatch. You know this isn’t your “real” life, but rather a detour before you head down that inevitable path of career and Washington politics and all things you’ve always known you’ll do. But now, this opportunity beckons, and you can’t say no.

You spent most of your college holidays in Florida—Thanksgiving, spring break, Easter—encamped at the biggest, baddest, best skydiving center in all the world, learning from the sport’s luminaries, trying to hone your skills. World champions congregate there, and you wanted to learn to do the complicated freefall acrobatics like they do, the ones you’ve seen in the magazines. Now they want you to manage this legendary drop zone, and you are only twenty years old. You! You can’t say no, and while you know it won’t be forever, it will be for now.

You drive the eight-hour trek from Atlanta with all your books, your skydiving rig (the one you bought by pawning your beloved flute and hoarding waitressing tips) and your blue jeans and tee shirts and gauzy cotton skirts shoved in the back of the Chevette that your mother gave you when you went left home. You start your new job. The pilots like you because you pay them on time. Most of the other skydivers like you well enough, too. They largely ignore that you still don’t have the skydiving expertise that they have. You’re not fooling yourself. You understand your skiving skills are mediocre, but you love it in spite of your lagging abilities and you appreciate the attention when the skydivers you’ve read about take time to jump with you, to teach you. And you love the scene, alive with risk and money and big dreams. And drugs, planeloads of drugs. It is Florida in the 1980s where planes no longer deemed fit for drug-running haul skydivers. Including you.

You meet a guy—a man, really—and you start dating, and soon you move into together. He’s fifteen years older than you, but somehow that seems okay and he’s part of skydiving’s “it” crowd and you like that. And you like him. Between you, you know all the best skydivers in the world and all the best coke dealers and where all the best parties are. Sometimes you host the parties. The sport’s glitterati turn out for your parties, and your life is full and you forget the bookshelf that you said you’d retrieve, the tongue and groove mitered corners dinged by Nancy Drew and history texts and political science theories. Your mother entrusted you with it when you left for college, and you know that she’d be disappointed to discover you’d left it behind. But you are young and alive and happy and the open hole in your soul left by the boyfriend who died your freshman year is slowly scabbing over and you feel alive again.

•••

The man is cutting the grass in the late Friday afternoon sun when you finally summon the courage to pee on the stick. You are twenty-two now and beginning to forget that this is your detour life with its skydiving and parties and cocaine and life lived large. Until your nipples get tender and your period doesn’t come. You bought the stick at the drugstore where you rarely go, hoping not to be recognized, and hid it until this moment so you can face the stick alone. You open the box and read the small print instructions, studying the clinical sketches illustrating the proper wipe-and-catch peeing position, and you realize you have never done this before. You curse yourself for forgetting the pill so many times, always taking two the next day—or three sometimes—and believing it would still work out. You feel stupid and ashamed and you wish you hadn’t left the bookshelf, hadn’t left that life at all.

Now you pee on the stick and watch the lines appear in a faint plus that bleeds to dark and decisive. You slip out and go back to the drugstore and spend another twenty dollars that you don’t really have for another stick, even though the first one left little room for uncertainty. And again, back in the bathroom you share with the man, the lines cross in the certain plus and your head feels light and the tiny bathroom with his comb and shaving cream and toothbrush on the counter feels cold and prison-like.

You stare at the two sticks, now lined up next to the toothbrush and shaving cream. A fetus grows inside you, maybe six or seven weeks along, the product of this man and you and your life on the detour path. You always said that you didn’t want children, mostly because your now-dead college boyfriend couldn’t have them because the chemo had racked his body and stripped him of heirs, and so you held his hand and agreed that children would not be part of your life. Your life together. But now he is gone and finally, finally after the months of anguish and anger and emptiness, you have moved on to a happier place, on the detour path, and you feel complete again. Although you still talk to him almost every day—tell him stories of your detour life (which he only pretends to understand) and assure him that you are okay— but only when the man is working or sleeping so he won’t know you still live with the ghost of the life that will never be.

The man comes in from mowing the grass and showers and opens a beer. You show him the sticks and wince as the pain crawls across his brow. You sit together on the couch and recount the last six weeks—the all-night parties steeped in alcohol and pot and coke, the meals you’ve not eaten, the sleep you’ve not gotten. You know the first few weeks of development are important, and you know you’ve not behaved well. You are ashamed, and he knows it, but he does not judge.

You talk about the detour life and the future that’s yet to begin—the career, the dreams, the possibilities. He tells you he knows that you never meant to stay and that he supports you, whatever you decide. No one is angry. No one cries.

•••

On Monday, you make the phone calls to find the best doctor, the best place to go. You choose someone who practices at a local hospital and is known to be a good doctor, one who cares about his patients. He assures you it will be simple and that you will be able to have children one day, when you are ready.

It will cost $2500—or maybe it is $1500 or $25,000. Whatever the number, it is money that you and the man don’t have, so he goes to the bank and gets a loan. You wonder what he told the bank, but you don’t ask.

You don’t know that finding a doctor who practices in a real hospital and who takes care to make it simple and sterile and makes sure you are able to conceive and bear children again is not a universal thing. You don’t know that other women don’t have the same options and that you just happen to live in a state where, at least for now, the decision is yours to make. You just know you don’t tell your mother, or your friends, or anyone really, except for the nice lady at the doctor’s office, and she looks at you with understanding and sadness.

You arrive on Thursday morning as directed, and the man waits in the lobby strewn with copies of Time and Newsweek, Ronald Reagan splayed on the covers, while you change and go to the procedure room. You are scared and glad that the man took the day off to be with you. It is as the doctor told you, simple and relatively painless, although the machine makes a sucking sound and you don’t want to think about why. The stirrups are cold and the speculum is uncomfortable and the doctor keeps reminding you to relax your knees as he moves from the sucking machine to his tray of silver probes and scrapers and devices.

The assistant is kind and holds your hand, asking if you are okay when you blink back a welling tear. You are, you assure her, and you feel relieved that it is done yet sad that it had to be.

You sleep all day on Thursday while the man follows the doctor’s instructions to make sure the bleeding isn’t too excessive and that you remain coherent. He brings you a tray of food in the afternoon, which you eat gratefully before slipping again into fitful dreams.

On Monday, the bleeding finally slowed and the pain subsided, the man returns to work. You make phone calls to your friends in Washington, where your real life is supposed to be, and schedule interviews.

•••

In a few weeks, the man will propose to you, sitting at an oceanfront table at sunset, and you will say yes. You will sell your little Chevette—it only starts sometimes now, though it was your faithful friend on the detour journey. The man will join you on your trek to Washington—where you always knew you’d be—uprooting his life so he can be with you as you pursue the career you always meant to follow, and you will build a life together. He will keep skydiving, but you sell your rig while holding tight to the strength found flying free, untethered and so certain.

You and the man will not last forever—the detour too great, your difference too vast—but you will have a son and you will both raise him and cherish him. You will break barriers and your career will flourish, just as you had imagined. Occasionally, usually on starry nights when you feel particularly wistful, you will still talk to that first love—the one who died so young—and you will hope that he’s not disappointed. You will eventually remarry and move again, pursuing your next chapter. The man will remain in Washington, a life he chose because of you, and while you know he is happy, you feel guilty about uprooting him.

Just as the doctor promised, you will have other children—another son and a daughter, who, with your oldest child, form a trifecta of sibling unity, something you cherish because you know it will outlast you, as it should, and you are grateful. They ask about your skydiving days and you smile, remembering the freefall, the invincibility. And every doctor’s visit, every check-up, every test—those routine visits that become part of life as times passes—every time you fill out one of those standard medical forms that ask about your pregnancies, you will flinch and remember. And you will wonder whether to count that first one, so long ago.

•••

POWELL BERGER is a freelance writer living in Honolulu with her two teenagers and two cats, where she revels in their havoc and joy in equal measures. She spends every July as a Program Fellow at the Paris American Academy’s Creative Writing Workshop and dreams of one day living there. Besides her essays for Full Grown People, her work has appeared in various print and online publications, including TravelatiHawaii Business, and Inside Out Hawaii. Her writing world is housed at www.powellberger.com.

To read more by Powell Berger, click here.

Ordinary Artifacts

subway

By slgckgc/ Flickr

By Samantha Vincenty

My gym bag’s zipper is broken. The crinkled fabric’s worn through at the bottom and it’s time to throw it in the trash, but I can’t. Not yet.

My boyfriend finds me in a daze on our bedroom floor, my hands on the empty bag in my lap like I’m clinging to a dead pet.

“You don’t have to throw it away,” he says, crouching down to look at me. He knows what it means, why I hold the receptacle for my sweaty socks in such high regard.

My mother died four years ago, but I’d cleaned out her apartment a few years before that when it became dangerous for her to keep living alone—she was one more forgotten stovetop fire away from harming herself and the other tenants in her building. I’d held on to the bag, among other things, ever since.

The bag is bright fire-engine red, not auburn red like the hair I was born with and the hair my mother dyed to match mine. Mom bought it at New York & Company, that bastion of career separates, as uncool as (or marginally cooler than) Ann Taylor. The zipper pulls resemble MTA subway tokens with an identical “NYC” cutout logo and the words “The NYC Style Authority” wrapping around the circle. I wonder if these details are why she wanted the bag. Maybe the faux tokens reminded her of riding the IRT by her childhood home in the Bronx, or commuting to her nursing job at Columbia Presbyterian before she gave birth to me and we moved to the suburbs that made her so restless.

The New York City subway stopped accepting tokens in 2003. My mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis came into full, horrific bloom that same year. I quit my job to become her part-time caregiver, using subway tokens to ride from Brooklyn to Grand Central. Three times a week I’d take a commuter train to Yonkers so I could take her on walks, clean up all of the nonsensical piles and mysterious stains she’d made around the apartment, and cook us steaks on her George Foreman grill. The oven was now officially off limits, and it was important to stay on-message: Never ever turn it on.

In 2003 my mother, an artist for most of her life, cried because she could no longer sketch or paint realistic likenesses. She forgot to love some of her favorite things (Pet Shop Boys lyrics, romance novels, tweezing her immaculate eyebrows), but I liked how she also forgot to refuse things that she’d previously sworn off (cream soda, sushi, a ludicrous soap opera called Passions). I was twenty-four and envious of the career pursuits my friends described over syrupy-sweet cocktails at happy hour. I drank more than I needed. I drank quickly, too, to forget how exhausting it all was but also to make sure I was having the fun I thought I so richly deserved. In those days my mother would call me constantly to ask when I’d be back, sometimes just hours after I’d been there. Her thoughts were getting foggier by the day, and she hated being alone with them. She still remembered who I was.

By 2004, subway tokens were out of circulation, and I used a Metrocard to get to Grand Central. Mom didn’t want to move into a nursing home, but at twenty-five I had burned through my savings and needed to find a job. Worry, about my future and hers, stole hours of sleep from me at night. My mother needed full-time supervision—in addition to the stove fires and sink floods, she had started wandering the streets alone, forgetting where she lived. So I returned to Yonkers to sort my mother’s things into three piles: Discard, donate, or keep. I kept the red bag because I wanted something she’d used in her normal, pre-illness life. It served me well for a very long time, but now the bag’s demise feels like another ending.

I know I’m not alone. A colleague who lost his father two years ago recently told me that he rummages through his parents’ drawers just to touch his dad’s folded clothes. “I like, lay on his side of the bed and try to smell the pillow and shit, even though I know it’s been washed.”

We’ve talked about that connection we all yearn for, between a lost one’s tangible things and their memory. We need the artifacts. No, I don’t want my small New York apartment to be a Dead Mom Museum. But should I let go of something if it feels like a fresh burial?

I’m still not sure. So the bright red bag remains on the floor, unused and un-useful, while I figure out what feels right. I may turn one of the subway-token zipper pulls into a keychain, as a functional monument to a time that fundamentally shaped me as a person.

There are two zipper pulls, actually, and I’m keeping them both: One for me and one for the woman I remember.

•••

SAMANTHA VINCENTY is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Hairpin, Fuse.tv and BUST, and she is currently at work on a memoir. She tweets about music, pop culture, and weird stuff she finds on the street as @shermanther.

Finding Muchness

blackheart1 (1271x1280)

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By McKel Jensen

On my first night living alone, I found myself in a room containing only a bed, a nightstand, and a single Tiffany-style lamp—the only thing I requested as inheritance from my aunt who passed away just over a year before.

It was Wednesday. Monday I had been in court petitioning an end to our marriage. Tuesday I had closed on a house. It was late at night and the next day my sister and parents would be coming up from Salt Lake and St. George to my little townhome in West Haven, Utah, to spend Thanksgiving with me. There would be no turkey cooking in my oven that year, but I was thankful they came all the way to spend it with me.

I’d received the keys to my house just hours before, and I stayed up late that night prepping the walls of my new bedroom with blue tape, getting ready for a fresh coat of paint. I chose a dark brown color named “Bay Colt” from the Martha Stewart line of colors. It was a comfortable color, grounded, and it would contrast perfectly with my new heavy, red bedspread that I had my eye on buying in the next couple of days. I painted accent walls that included the wall behind my bed. A healthy, rich soil color was perfect as a place to replant myself. Besides, the designer Vera Wang, three-hundred-dollar bedspread would be my way of being seductively mischievous (if only for myself!).

•••

Just two days before, I sat in a courtroom with Jim, two bailiffs, the court stenographer, our lawyer, and the judge. All the gallery seats behind us were empty. Once the proceeding started, life’s reality began to settle in and the tears were uncontrollably escaping, enough that the bailiff brought me a box of tissues. I tasted the saline as the tears dripped past my lips. I had to swear the truth, the whole truth, and I had to convince the judge to grant an annulment to a marriage that could have/should have been annulled four years prior. Though Jim didn’t have to go under oath, he was there and nodded in agreement at the implications of an unconsummated marriage. The judgment was final. It was as if Jim and I were never married.

I never understood the phrase as if you were never married. That’s what our lawyer said an annulment legally meant. How can someone say that a marriage didn’t happen? I experienced it. I was there. It existed to me. Legally, however, it never happened.

Remarkably, I never felt like a failure. Even on that day in my empty bedroom, I was exhausted and relieved. It was finally over. I had done everything I could think of to save my marriage—twice. We’d consulted with therapists (good and bad), physicians, energy healers, and clergy, but none could give us an answer or a cure.

I never gave up until I knew we were done. It was over when the truth that he didn’t even want to want me finally resonated with me. If Jim did not want to want me, then there was no practitioner or prayer that could change his desire. So what was the purpose of discussing big purchases or planning future trips? What else could we get out of this relationship besides frustrated companionship? Those years felt like pedaling a bike on a treadmill, working so hard to go nowhere. There was no progression. If anything, I wished I had caught on sooner that this was a doomed marriage from the start.

We followed our belief to stay chaste before we were married. For a long time, I thought that if I hadn’t been so strict in practicing my religion, I would have known. When we dated, he often told me he was uncomfortable with my forwardness. I thought I was the one whose sexual perspective was skewed due to a handsy ex-boyfriend. After we were married, I felt justified to find a way to ease the frustration outside of the marriage. I could have cheated on him and felt I could defend my actions, but I’m thankful I never strayed. Ironically, there were times I hoped that he would cheat on me so I would be angry enough to call it quits and feel justified to call off a God-sanctioned marriage. Other times, I would entertain the thought of getting him drunk and taking advantage of his stupor. Damn our religion. No sex outside of marriage and no drinking.

After so many years of silence, never telling anyone outside a professional few, I finally opened up. No more secrets from society. My mom lost a lot of her hair trying to take in what I told her. When it grew back in, it wouldn’t hold the color as it did before. She had been caught up in our myth of perfection. Opening up also meant answering a lot of questions. Answering questions about that marriage has always been complicated. To those casual friends or acquaintances I would simply answer the question of “what happened?” with “It just didn’t work”—only sometimes divulging the secret pun on the word “it.” “It just didn’t work” and it didn’t. Others that got more detail would ask, “Is he gay?” or “Was it pornography?” Having been his wife, I could honestly answer “no” to each of those. I wished I had the answer as to why it didn’t work.

•••

That day in my new bedroom was the beginning of my new life. I was McKel Nobody and I could be me and love me and want to be me. And, although I was surviving the trauma of an upturned life, I was going to be selfish for once.

After I moved in, I had a point of realization: this was my house, and I had complete, creative control. There was no compromising, no rationalizing, no male opinion, no collaboration of details. I was going for it. The color: Brazilian Blush. The room: my home office.

I then found a can of bright white, semi-gloss paint that I had used to paint floorboards in another house. I dabbed paint onto a small sponge and pat it onto a stencil of a butterfly. Instead of following straight lines as the stencil intended, I rotated each butterfly, one at a time. I worked myself around the room. I even hid a couple behind the door knowing I would be one of a select few who would get the secret.

By the end, I had a room full of butterflies gliding over my desk and around the black bookcases filled with books, over and around the window and above the closet. The idea of one butterfly being alone made me sad, so each butterfly was paired off with a companion or in families. “Well,” I thought, “only this one can fly alone.” So I let one independent butterfly have her space to prove that she could make it.

•••

About a year into our marriage, Jim finally sat me down to explain what he saw was going on. We sat in our 1975 split-level home that we bought a month before we were married. It had fake hardwood floors that were installed incorrectly by the previous owners.

“I, uh,” he staggered to get the words. “I’ve been praying a lot about us.”

My breath slowed.

“I’ve known I’ve needed to tell you for a while, but…” He stopped again. I thought we had a relationship where we could share anything, but his delay of telling me something made me uncomfortably aware that this wasn’t going to be a fun conversation.

He then proceeded to tell me in the most logically constructed way that he could. “I am not physically attracted to you.”

“What?”

This is where friends would say, “Well, why did he marry you?!” But it would be a few more years before I would ask that question and when I did, he replied, “I didn’t want to be shallow.” At this time, though, my mind processed everything slowly, methodically. I needed to obtain every bit of information I could to make a valid judgment.

“I am not physically attracted to you.” Maybe I needed it repeated because the first one didn’t take. “I see girls on campus that dress immodestly, and I instantly get excited,” he confessed. “I don’t get excited with you.”

I sat there, honestly not knowing what to make of the information he was telling me.

“I think it has something to do with chemistry. We don’t have any chemistry.”

Chemistry. Sex is sex. What does chemistry have to do with it? Besides, isn’t compatibility more important in a relationship than chemistry?

He sat there relieved, grateful that he was finally freed from the weight of his confession. I sat there heavy, burdened and wondering when the tears would start. They didn’t for another twelve hours.

“Well, what do we do now?”

Jim was the one that suggested going to a therapist. When we arrived, we met with a tall, thin man who seemed as if he rode his bike to work and wasn’t willing to make mid-morning appointments because it interrupted his morning ritual. I had no idea how to find a therapist that could help us, especially when we weren’t asking for referrals from friends. I found him on an internet search on a whim. His name wasn’t worth remembering.

“So, tell me what’s going on?” he asked us.

The two of us sat closely on the couch, our arms crossing as we held on to the other’s thigh. Jim explained our situation due to lack of chemistry, that thing that couples have that makes you bubble inside and want to jump on each other. “We don’t have chemistry,” he said. “I don’t want to have sex with my wife.” It never got easier to hear, although at the time I was thankful that I didn’t have to guess what he was thinking.

The therapist smiled as if Jim had made a joke. “You don’t need chemistry.” He then continued with a question to Jim, “What do you not find attractive about her?”

Jim squirmed, “Nothing. I think she’s beautiful.” If he thought I was beautiful, why did we have a problem?

“There is nothing you would change about her to make her attractive to you?” He asked again as if I wasn’t sitting right in front of him.

Ironically, I was hoping he would state something, anything—give this therapist some meat to work with! “No. Nothing,” he admitted again.

I sensed the therapist and I had the same idea; he needed more than just crumbs, “What do you find attractive in a woman?”

“Well, I like redheads,” he stammered.

At this point, the therapist turned to me and asked, “Have you tried dying your hair red?”

Apparently he thought that a year’s worth of sexual incompetency would be remedied by a ten-dollar bottle of L’Oreal. “No,” I said, though secretly wondering if it would work—if only for a second.

It was becoming painfully clear that all the therapist saw were two overweight virgins who got married and now couldn’t figure out how sex worked. “We’re asking for help, not to be your entertainment,” I wanted to say but didn’t. We scheduled two more appointments with that man.

•••

After that, we had a handful of therapists before I settled on one for myself. Her name was Tam, and she was there during my transition from as-if-it-never-happened to single. As I was preparing for my new house, she was the only one that didn’t think I was silly for losing sleep over wall colors and furniture placement. “This is all part of your process for coping,” she said. “You are focusing on your future, and that’s good.” If she had visited me in my house and saw the boldness I expressed in that blushing pink room, she would have been proud.

Although that room was my home office, I referred to it as my Alice in Wonderland room. I spent the following weeks and months finding trinkets and sayings that would fit into the theme. I handcrafted phrases such as “Why, this clock is exactly two days slow!” and “Off with your head!” and placed them on my bookshelves. Displayed on the far wall first seen when you walk were three black frames each holding a word in the phase “Whoo are you” and a fourth frame holding the tailing question mark. There was a time that Alice didn’t know who she was either. Throughout the following months, I added a ceramic tea set, a large Mad-Hatter hat, ceramic mushrooms, a black, old-fashioned alarm clock and a caterpillar on a mushroom.

My fascination with Alice in Wonderland started one year before when Jim and I went to see the new Tim Burton movie in the theatre. Two months before the film’s opening, I found myself forty pounds overweight (trying to fill my emptiness) with back, hip, and neck problems that caused serious discomfort and lots of chiropractic bills. That night at the theatre I was two months into my progressive goals of losing weight and obtaining therapy for myself and not for him (or us). Perhaps that is why I was so open to receive the messages of the film and why the Mad Hatter’s line to Alice—“You have lost your muchness”—resonated with me. Alice couldn’t remember who she was.

Two weeks later, friends and family from both sides descended on our house to celebrate my thirtieth birthday. And since I was born in 1980, what better way to celebrate than by a 1980s theme? Guests arrived in leg warmers, side ponytails of crimped hair, blue eye shadow, brightly colored mixed-matched socks, jelly shoes, upturned shirt collars, and the macho style single earrings that would make George Michael proud. My brother wore his letterman’s jacket from high school that was a little tighter than he remembered. Jim wore a thick, black glamour rock wig and a Goonies t-shirt. People were smiling. I was smiling. The smell of freshly grilled hamburgers hung in the air as my family presented me with a cake with six-inch long candles jetting out of it.

Before the smoke from the extinguished candles reached my nose, I remember thinking, “This year will either be the best year of my life or the worst.” Things would either begin to work or they wouldn’t. I knew a change was coming. I had thought this during the weeks leading up to the dreaded thirtieth birthday, and I added it to my broken-record thought collection which already included the lyrics of the song “I Want You to Want Me” from the band Cheap Trick. That song had been on repeat for over a year already. No one knew about my thought collection. Surrounded by people that truly loved me, I knew that they couldn’t hear my thoughts just as I knew that they couldn’t see the gaping hole hidden behind my new “Everyone loves an ’80’s girl” tee-shirt. McKel had lost her muchness.

•••

The pinkness of that butterfly-filled Alice in Wonderland room proved that I hadn’t quite lost everything. I had made a place for myself. I was still undecided if my thirtieth year was the best or the worst year of my life. It was certainly one of the hardest but deciding to leave that marriage was a relief. For the first time in years, I felt like I could finally progress, even on my own.

As the months followed, I finished painting my house—except one room. It was the third bedroom, between the Alice in Wonderland room and the second bathroom. My L-shaped couch was wall-to-wall without an inch to spare. I dubbed this room the “makeout room,” mainly as a joke. Having been married to a man who couldn’t perform and wouldn’t accept me (and a lousy kisser, at that), I figured, as the phrase goes, “If I build it, they will come.” Pun intended. It must have worked because once, while making out with a guy, the man suddenly jumped up, said, “I’ve got to go,” and ran out of my house. I never got an explanation.

That house served its purpose well through the seventeen months that I lived there. I healed in that house. I started grad school and did my homework while in that house. My husband, Daniel, and I found chemistry in that house while we were dating.

I met Daniel six months after moving in. He was from Brigham City, thirty minutes north of West Haven, and the thought that I almost bought a house closer to Salt Lake made me wince with what-ifs:

“What if I had bought a house farther away from you? We may not have met!”

“I would have found you,” he replied.

Nearly a year after Daniel and I started dating, we were married. And while preserving the sacredness of my marriage with him, I will confess that it is blissfully normal and that it works.

•••

McKEL JENSEN is a newbie to the world of published personal essays. She has worked behind the scenes in the non-fiction book publishing industry and currently works as a technical writer/editor for a large manufacturing company in Utah. She has recently received her MA in English from Weber State University, where she was selected to be commencement speaker for her graduating class.  She lives in northern Utah with her wonderful husband and ever-curious son.

Jacket Required

brunch

By Charles Kim/ Flickr

By Jody Mace

At the retirement community where my dad lives, on Sundays at 11:30 a.m., they have a buffet. It’s a special event, more special even than Japanese Food Night or BBQ Outside Afternoon. There’s a dress code. Men have to wear jackets and ladies have to wear a dress, a skirt and a top, or a pants suit.

It was the dress code that led my dad to boycott the Sunday buffet for the first eight months he lived here. Because nobody was going to tell him to put on a jacket. I kept on saying “What’s the big deal? It’s just a jacket,” but it was the principle of the thing.

Then one day he called me and told me every Sunday they have a buffet, and he went to it and it was wonderful. They had prime rib! He said this as if it was the first time I’d heard about it.

He said, “I don’t know why I haven’t been going to this!”

I said, “I know exactly why. It’s because you didn’t want them to tell you to put on a jacket.”

He invited us for the following Sunday, and my husband Stan and I leapt at the chance to go. I put on a skirt and top, not having a pants suit in my closet, and my husband and seventeen-year-old son happily put on jackets. We stopped at my dad’s apartment in the complex to pick him up, and he was wearing a powder blue jacket and looked great.

We got there a few minutes before 11:30 and a line was forming. Stan, our son, and I were thrilled because we love a brunch buffet, plus my dad was paying, but in general the mood was dark. There were several reasons for the discontent:

  • The line was too long.
  • Sometimes they did not open the doors right at 11:30, despite the published start time.
  • Sometimes the wait staff was not as responsive as desired.
  • Undisclosed reasons.

As we stood in line a friendly woman approached me and eyed my dad, husband and son appreciatively.

“Are you with all these men?” she asked.

“I am.”

“They’re all good-looking,” she noted. “And all different ages.”

Then she looked a little bit too long at my son. “Mm, mm, mm.”

Another woman came up to her and asked “Who are you with?” and she nodded at us and said, “I’m with them.”

Meanwhile another woman, noting that it was almost 11:30, tried to cut to the front of the line. She was turned away.

She muttered “JESUS CHRIST!” and stomped off.

When we got to the front of the line, the woman working the desk wrote down my dad’s room number. This took too long for the woman who had been eyeing my men, and she whisper-shouted, “It’s like she’s writing an encycloPEdia!”

Even with the litany of complaints, there was something special about the Sunday brunch buffet. Everyone was dressed up. There were different stations for food. It was like going to dinner on a slightly threadbare cruise ship or an old Victorian-era resort hotel that had hobbled into the twenty-first century. I loved it.

We were told to sit at Table 18. This was a good table because it was near the omelet station. There, two men were making omelets to order, with a wide range of fillings. These guys were pros. They did the thing where they each picked up two omelet pans, one in each hand, and flipped both omelets at the same time. It was a professional operation. Also there was French toast, link sausages, and bacon.

While I was waiting to order my omelet, the two women in front of me lamented about the choir they sing in.

“We need new sopranos,” one said.

“I know!” agreed the other. “I can stand right next to them and I still can’t hear them!”

“What kind of cheese would you like?” the omelet man asked the second woman.

“What?”

Besides the omelet station, there were three other buffet areas. There was a salad bar, a lunch buffet, which included a carving station, chicken, fish, breads, and vegetables, and a dessert table, which included slices of cakes and pies, half of them in a section called “SF,” which I learned meant “sugar free.”

There was a problem at the dessert table. The pecan pie was all gone, leading to a heightened sense of discontent and some raised voices. My dad did snag a slice of sugar free pecan pie but said it was horrible. He went back to try to find some chocolate pie but it was all gone, too. He implored one of the wait staff for help, and, probably familiar with the rate with which the tenor of his complaints have been known to rise, she went into the kitchen to investigate. She emerged with a slice of chocolate cake and that calmed him down a little.

Meanwhile at the salad bar, a man with a walker was despondent. They had bagels and lox, and I’m talking really good-looking lox, no brown patches, and a lot of it. But they had run out of cream cheese, or had failed to replenish it in a timely manner.

“How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?” he asked nobody. “How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?”

The buffet had been a success. We loved it. In a family too often lacking in traditions, I thought this could be one. Every Sunday morning we would put on our finery, drive to my dad’s retirement community, where we’d pick him up at his apartment. He’d be more congenial than usual, or would at least seem that way, wearing his powder-blue blazer. We’d socialize in the lounge area, amidst the grand piano and sofas. Maybe my son would play a little “Rhapsody in Blue” when he learned more of it. We’d get to know the other residents as we reconnected every week. It was totally worth getting dressed up. Even our son didn’t mind putting on a jacket because he liked the bacon.

My own life sometimes seems so complicated. Taxes, college bills, vet appointments, trying to make a living. The seemingly endless demands on my time. People are always saying they don’t want to go into a “home.” If I can afford one like this, sign me up. I liked everything about the retirement community. The weekly schedule of activities. The planned trips to shows and museums. The happy hour. Bingo. And especially the Sunday buffet.

We decided to return the next week, and this time we’d bring our daughter too, because she’d be home from college for spring break. I felt kind of bad that she’d miss the tradition that was about to start. It had started too late. Kind of like when my parents joined a country club the summer after I’d started going to sleep-away camp. (Strangely they stopped after I quit camp.) I still hear all about how much fun the swimming pool was from my sister, who seems to always forget that I missed out on the whole thing.

I texted my daughter:

Me: Let’s go to Grandpa’s Sunday brunch when you’re home. It’s awesome. It’s like brunch-theater. But there’s a dress code. Make sure to bring home a skirt or a pants suit.

Daughter: I’m not wearing a “pants suit.”

Me: That’s just one option.

When we arrived there was some confusion over the change to Daylight Savings Time.

“Why are you here so early?” my dad asked.

“I’m not,” I said. “Daylight Savings time started this morning.”

“They didn’t tell me about Daylight Savings Time!” he protested. “Nobody told me!”

This time he suggested a different approach to check-in. We got to the check-in counter before the crowd. He checked in and got a table assignment, and then we relaxed on the couches in the lounge while the others lined up. When the clock struck 11:30 a.m., we walked right in, right past that line. Suckers.

Those people were pissed off.

Generally, you don’t want to get between old people and the Sunday buffet. They’re hungrier than you are, they’re meaner, and they’ve got nothing to lose.

I heard murmurs rising in volume as the whole line realized that we had played them. But I didn’t care. I was getting into the spirit of things. I might not be elderly yet but I was learning that I had an inner battle-ax.

As we entered the dining hall, I passed on some valuable advice to my daughter.

“When you walk in, stop at the dessert table. Take what you want. You don’t have to eat it right away but if you don’t take it now you’ll end up with sugar-free pecan pie.”

This time instead of bagels and lox there was shrimp cocktail. Big shrimp. And instead of French toast there were blintzes. Blintzes!

There was one old guy who wasn’t wearing a jacket. He was wearing a big slouchy red tee-shirt and I found myself feeling judgmental about him. Didn’t he know this was Sunday brunch? What was he doing on my cruise ship looking like a schlub?

I felt not only that I belonged there, at the retirement community’s Sunday brunch, but that he didn’t. One of the elderly women looked at him, then at me, and shook her head a little. I shook mine back. It was as if crotchetiness was contagious.

God, I loved the Sunday brunch.

The next day my dad called me. “Well, they’re doing away with the Sunday buffet.”

“What? Why?”

“Nobody liked it.”

“What do you mean nobody liked it? It was awesome! They were all fighting to get in! Who didn’t like it?”

“The people who went to the meeting and voted.”

“Well, this sucks,” I said.

Those old people were infuriating. They were living in this beautiful retirement community, being served great food. The omelet guys were flipping made-to-order omelets two at a time! And all they did was complain. They could go to lectures, concerts, poker night. Other people took care of it all for them. They didn’t have to do anything but show up. But their favorite activity, hands-down, was complaining.

“They’ll still have a brunch, just not a buffet,” my dad told me, trying to cheer me up. “It’ll still be nice. They might still have the omelet station. I don’t know. Maybe they’ll still have the bagels and lox.”

“You think?” I asked.

“But I’m going to bring my own bagels,” he said. “Their bagels are hard as rocks.”

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O MagazineBrain, ChildThe Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Jody Mace.

Why We Left

boxes

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Bir

Two years ago, my husband and I moved away from Portland, Oregon, on purpose. We left behind friends, career prospects, and a two-bedroom rental house that cost a mere $875 a month. And we loaded our dog and kid into our Outback and drove as fast as a ’99 Subaru can go all the way to Marietta, Ohio, the town where I grew up.

“We just need to be closer to family,” I told people in the perplexed silences that inevitably followed when they heard our plans to relocate. What illustrious family could possibly woo us away from an artsy Eden on the Willamette?

The family thing was true and untrue. We needed to be closer to them because we were perpetually broke, and the broke-ness had become such that it was time to deploy the emergency move-in-with-my-folks plan.

But there was also an ache that hadn’t gone away despite five years of gamely trying to adore that adorable city where we fit in so well, in so many ways. Portland loved me, and I could not love it back, and I felt like a shithead because of it.

We arrived in Portland in 2007, three mayors and at least two ultra-bougie New Seasons food markets ago. Before that, we lived in New York City, and in comparison Portland seemed preposterously quaint and manageable. Our first months in Oregon, my husband and I would admire the downtown skyline and the conifer-studded hills rising behind it and coo, “Oh, look—it thinks it’s a city!”

The intensity of city life was what we moved to escape, and our new no-name strip of neighborhood between I-205 and the used car lots of Southeast 82nd Avenue struck us as a quiet haven of playgrounds and modest houses, with a few hookers thrown in for color. Two greasy old-school Chinese joints bordered us, Hung Far Low to the south and Chinese Garden to the north. We had a spacious backyard, where I doggedly pruned an overgrown apple tree and hacked away at diseased lilac bushes. We got a dog from the Humane Society. My husband joined a few bands. On heady Portland summer days when the sun cascaded down like a shot of heroin, he haunted a skate spot under the Hawthorne Bridge. Though magazines and newspapers in New York barely gave me the time of day, in Portland I wrote freelance stories for the food section of Portland’s major news daily, eventually worked in their test kitchen, and also taught cooking classes on nights and weekends. My husband had a string of long-term temp assignments in administrative offices. It was almost enough to keep us afloat.

All the while, we looked for better jobs. And looked and looked and looked. There were two main problems we grappled with in Portland: rain and money. Too much of one, and never enough of the other.

•••

Let me tell you about Marietta, Ohio. Founded in 1788, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. Situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, which means it’s in spitting distance of West Virginia. It’s an Appalachian Interzone, at once very Midwestern and not Midwestern at all; a generous pinch of twang runs through the local speech. The population is staggeringly white, though there might be about twenty black residents now, and if memory serves, back when I was in high school there were maybe five. So that’s improvement. As for other ethnicities, if you live here and you’re Asian, you’re probably a doctor. There’s one shop that serves decent coffee, but it’s a nutritional supplement store/smoothie bar that doesn’t open until nine in the morning. Vietnamese food? A taqueria? Fat chance.

Portland feels like another universe in comparison. I still struggle to define the charms and drawbacks of each place. Both are defined by the big, dirty rivers that run through them. Portland had innumerable food carts and strip clubs; Marietta has innumerable churches and fracking rigs. You’ll have to wait for hours to score a table at Portland’s Tasty n’ Sons for breakfast on a Sunday, but in Marietta, the Busy Bee Diner offers immediate seating and a waitress who wears her hair in, yes, a beehive. Sure, Portland has scads of idealistic youths engaged in civic activism—but you’d never guess how many grumpy retirees in Marietta volunteer their time for charitable causes. Instead of laptops, they might carry concealed weapons. John Deere pajama bottoms worn as all-purpose outerwear are a common fashion statement, true, but the population overwhelmingly accepts proven science and public health—that is, you don’t see citizens coming together against fluoridated water that way they do in Portland.

Living here is a bit like going back in time. After my high school experience as the resident misfit weirdo, I skipped town with a happy shrug, never suspecting that decades later I’d come to crave Marietta, with its scenic bridges and dozens of historical markers and goofy festivals and rickety, underfunded little museums. It’s an all-American community with a picturesque downtown of antique stores and brick streets. The thrift shops and flea markets are great, because the records and mid-century furniture aren’t all picked over. Baby boomers abound, as do minimum-wage positions in nursing homes. Among the ladies there’s an unfortunately popular haircut, this wedged-in-the-back/spiked-in-the-front chemical-drenched thing with streaky highlights that my husband and I call “crispy hair.”

And I have to be slightly more mindful of what I say in mixed company. In Portland, most people likely lean Democratic, or support reproductive rights. In Marietta, I have friends who vote for Tea Party candidates.

Free from the confines of that infamous Portland bubble, I like walking around and not running into endless clones of myself and my political views. I feel like I have a better understanding of what the rest of America is like, and a window into the goodness of people who don’t think like me. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I’d get asked when we first moved back to Marietta. The old guard here clings to a deeply ingrained Midwestern/Appalachian skepticism of outsiders, and they are reluctant to embrace change, even small ones, like installing pedestrian crosswalks on the busiest street downtown.

“I grew up here, actually,” I delight in replying. Not fitting in is my comfort zone. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable in Marietta.

•••

My California-bred husband still wakes up dazed upon realizing that he resides in the ass-end of Appalachia. He loves record stores, ethnic food, post-rock bands, and independent movie theaters. He’s trying to be a good sport.

But once we had our daughter, those things phased out of our Portland lives, anyway. By then I’d veered away from my culinary career, landed job with the county library, and was thoroughly enjoying the best employee benefits of my life.

Which was great, because we needed those funds to cover childcare. It became apparent that raising Frances in Portland would present increasingly complex logistical problems. For our one-car family, Frances’s daycare had to be reasonably close to my library. Both Joe and I worked until six many nights, and nearly all daycare centers closed before then. Through desperate combings of Craigslist we found a few options, but there was precious middle ground between total sketch-fests that reeked of sour milk and tiny palaces of early childhood education where the tuition was higher than my paycheck.

When my husband’s temp gig with a Portland city agency ended, even though he wanted to work, we realized we couldn’t afford it. We reluctantly pulled Frances out of the loving daycare we’d been lucky to find and had him stay home with her, collecting unemployment until he got a job offer high enough for us to clear her monthly fees.

That put us more in touch with the day-to-day struggles of the working class than we were comfortable admitting. We could have chosen housing that was even lower-cost than our moldy house of sadness, where I had to make wiping the backs of our bookcases down with bleach water a weekly task. I developed a ceaseless runny nose that eventually blossomed into massive sneezing attacks, ones that disappeared once I walked out our door, and I realized I was allergic to our own home. We knew we had food, a roof over our heads, and a bank account that was barely ever overdrawn.

The biggest ache was a battle we raged with our privileged identity. We’re educated, liberal, and artsy. People like us are supposed to gentrify neighborhoods, not get pushed out of them. For extra money, I picked up sub shifts at public library branches; eventually, I worked at least once at all eighteen branches in the county system, the grand slam. It was a great way to see the parts of city that the alluring travel features in magazines don’t show you. That was the Portland I ultimately fell in love with, the one that didn’t trump itself up. I saw a lot of meth teeth and smelled the stench of urine wafting from clothes that had not been washed in years, sure, but I also saw people who were more or less…normal. People who needed jobs and barely had any tech literacy, so I’d have to walk them through filling out a resume online as they raced to submit it before their allotted time for the day ran out on the library’s public computer. People who needed referrals for free legal services, or were trying to locate their parent’s birth records, or who just wanted recommendations for a good book.

To a casual observer, I looked like the Portland dream: The librarian-writer! With nerdy glasses! Who used to be a chef! But really, I was one of them, the other Portlanders. The ones who constantly did the utility bill/paycheck triage. The ones whose shady landlord, when asked to take down the 1970s wood paneling because it’s housing a robust colony of mildew, replies “But if I take down the paneling, it’ll expose the hole in the wall!” The ones who shopped at the discount grocer not because thrift is trendy, but because thrift is necessary. A few strokes of massive bad luck and I could have been the urine-reeking patron, or the patron who lived in her car, or the patron who lost visiting privileges with her kid.

We were tearing our hair out, working with a tiny margin of error from month to month, with no bright future in sight. We cobbled together our work schedules for Frances-watching duties, doing that frantic parent-to-parent handoff as one of us headed out the door; I worked every weekend, and we rarely had relaxed family time together. What’s the point of living in an amazing city when you can’t access its best attributes?

“You know that feeling you get when your plane descends to land in Portland, and you look at the city below and think, ‘I’m home’?” A friend posed this question, and I had to confess I’d never once felt that way. It was more like, “Huh. Here we are again.”

The love that Portlanders have for their city borders on romantic. I felt like a third wheel, immune to the giddiness. While tall bikes and food carts made out on the couch, I skulked in the corner of the rec room, alone. I became cantankerous about the stupidest things, hundreds of soggy twigs to fuel the brush fire of animosity shouldering inside me. I think of myself as a person with pluck, a problem-solver who deals with the situation at hand, but I’d somehow let my circumstances neuter that part of me. On I went, pruning the apple tree. Bleaching the furniture. Polishing a turd.

But really, I was angry for us at not getting it together enough to thrive in one of the most livable cities in the country. Portland was often good to us. We had lovely friends, and I adored my library job. Every morning I’d wake up and resolve to bloom where we’d planted ourselves, and then the sad numbness would settle in, and it became impossible to suss out which part of that sadness was Portland’s fault and which was mine.

There’s that TV show. You know the one I’m talking about—it pokes affectionate but absurdist, sketch-comedy fun at Portland and its charming yet maddening idiosyncrasies. It’s big there; it’s very Portland not to get enough of Portland. If you live, or once lived, in Portland, people will inevitably bring up That Show.

Please don’t bring it up with me. I can’t watch it. Not because I don’t like it, but because it’s too close. Why watch a parody of something that felt like a parody the first time around, in real life? “Come sit with me,” my husband implored as he sat on the sofa a lifetime later, in Marietta, enjoying That Show. He says it reminds him of bygone times, times when it was unlikely that he would have a co-worker named Delmus who wore a t-shirt that read “Dicky-Doo Champion: My Tummy Stick Out More Than My Dicky Do!”

I recognized all of the spots on That Show that Portland people recognize, the cutesy storefronts and brunch places and busy intersections, and I felt both so glad to be rid of them and so idiotic for my inability to flourish there. That Show is a little like my past punching me in my gut.

We had a big garden in our Portland backyard, which I spent many pleasant hours tending, and we curated a collection of the jagged, dirt-crusted bits of metal and plastic and glass that perpetually worked themselves to the surface of the soil in an ornery dis to gravity. It was not a pretty garden, but it produced enough vegetables that it created a decent dent in our grocery bill during the summer months, and yanking at its prolific weeds was an excellent outlet for the bad juju I carried around. Besides, I love to be outside in the sun. With three dependable months of it, I had to soak up as many Pacific Northwest rays as I could.

One day, Frances, who was out playing with the broken Fischer-Price farm I found for free on someone’s curb, called out, “Mama, look at what Scooter did.” I looked up from my weedy reverie and saw a bloody rat between the parsley and Swiss chard. Our dog looked up at me, beaming over his fresh kill. The rat, I assume, had been nosing around in our compost heap. I dug a shallow hole at the base of our fruitless apple tree to bury the thing, and in the process unearthed two corroded AA batteries. Who knows how long they’d been lurking down there? It was nothing, really, but after that, I was done with Portland. The rat-battery incident was my final straw.

I was poised to score a coveted Library Assistant position at the library, one that would nearly double my pay. But I didn’t have it in me to hold out any longer. I couldn’t be content in a saggy dump of a poorly-insulated house, donning two sweaters indoors to stay warm and buying organic spinach and avocados on our credit card. We aged out of that, but couldn’t get it together to bring in the income for necessary creative-class trappings we saw our friends enjoy: Waldorf preschool, annual beach house rentals, February trips to Hawaii in order to remain sane until mid-June, a compact, tidy home in a cute neighborhood within walking distance of a bar full of synth music and unevenly executed vegan menu options. Portland is a shitty place to be broke, though I guess you could say that of any city.

Still, on most days, Marietta squeaks ahead as a less shitty place to be broke. We lived with my parents until we found a house that does not give me allergy attacks. Its rent matches what they raised the rent to in our old Portland dump after we moved out. To the new tenants of the putty-colored house on SE 89th Avenue with the collapsing back patio: I hope the apple tree’s fruiting now. The flower pot of rusty nails and glass shards you found in the shed are the spoils of my unintentional garden archeology digs. Let me know if you ever accidentally encounter that rat.

Sometimes in Marietta, I look at the lazy bends of the Ohio River’s familiar brown muck, and waves of profound contentment wash over me, a strange mixture of bliss and relief. We came back to Portland in July for a visit, our first since moving to Ohio. I rode busses all over town, savored frequent cups of expertly-brewed coffee, and enjoyed the absence of crispy hairdos. At the tail end, I started getting a twinge of the coolness fatigue I had when we lived there. Boutiques selling tiny terrariums, bars built to resemble libraries, movie theaters selling rosé by the glass. In Marietta, maybe a dozen things are cool, and half of those are cool because they are utterly not cool at all. It’s special to be cool.

When we got back to Ohio, our cherry tomatoes were ready to pick. The first sweet corn of the season hit the farm stands. Vinyl banners advertising dozens of vacation bible schools crinkled in the breeze. My daughter returned to her preschool, where she played with classmates named Kolton and Kaylee instead of Mabel and Forester.

The flight back was uneventful. The plane took off and I looked out the window at the familiar vista below, crisply outlined in the magical Portland summer sun, and I thought, “There it is. That was my city.” Keep on loving it for me, okay?

•••

SARA BIR is the food editor of Paste Magazine and a regular contributor to Full Grown People. “Smelted”, her essay from this site, appeared in Best Food Writing 2014. She lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

Balloons

GohmannDad

Johanna with her father. By Ernesto Rodriguez

By Johanna Gohmann

Nine years ago, I am 27, and I am home in New Albany, Indiana visiting with my family. There is a birthday party for one of my seven siblings, and there are the usual hot dogs, and paper plates, and perspiring cans of soda. My mother has brought in a big bunch of brightly colored helium balloons as decoration.

The morning after the party, I am up in my childhood bedroom, and when I look out the window, I see my Dad standing in the front yard, alone in the quiet of a spring morning. The dewy grass is giving a sheen to his leather shoes, and he is holding the big bunch of balloons in his large hands. I watch as he struggles to carefully separate the strings, then he releases the balloons to the sky one at a time. He stares at each one as it drifts up and away, until it becomes just a tiny pinprick of color.

It is a rather odd sight—this 6”5, grandfatherly figure, clad in impeccable dress slacks and a sport coat, playing with a handful of children’s balloons. Watching him, I feel something inside me twist tightly. I slip on some shoes and go outside to join him. When he sees me, he smiles a distracted smile.

“I like watching these balloons float away, Josey.”

We stand together, and he releases the string on the last balloon. It drifts skyward, joining the other tiny dots of color in the sky. We watch silently as it sails up into the clouds, fading into the blue. It is a rare, quiet bit of togetherness for us, and should be a sweet moment. But watching those balloons drift away fills me with a strange, anxious kind of melancholy. I don’t like watching them go.

When I am 35, my Dad is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis isn’t a surprise. He is 77, and I have seen the shift in him—his confusion with numbers and dates…the way he repeats stories within minutes of each other, sometimes transposing the names of people and places. And yet, when my oldest brother calls me with the news, it still feels improbable. As if my commanding, in charge father never would allow such a thing to happen to his solid, intelligent mind.

For a while, medication seems to slow things down, but then a full year later, it’s undeniable that my Dad is slowly coming uncoiled. It becomes the norm for him to appear wearing a shirt inside out, or sporting two pairs of pajama pants beneath his dress slacks, even in the heat of August. I buy him a beeping gadget to help him locate his constantly misplaced glasses and keys. He loses the gadget.

At 36, I am pregnant with my first child. When I talk on the phone to my Dad, I can feel my baby rolling back and forth in my belly, his strong kicks and punches occasionally making the fabric of my dress hitch and jerk. I listen to my father struggle through the conversation, and I try to float, relaxed and easy, through his tide of tangled words. I rub at the patch of flesh over my flailing baby, and I try to imagine my Dad holding my son as he did his other grandchildren—bouncing him gently on his knee, letting him teethe on his heavy silver wristwatch.

As I watch my Dad slowly lose bits and pieces of himself, I think about those long ago released balloons. I know the bright shades of my father are fading with each passing day. They are drifting further and further away from me. And I can feel myself scrabble to contain them…trying to grip the tangled strings of them tightly in my fists…struggling to somehow make them stay.

He spent his life as a successful insurance salesman. This makes him sound staid and dull, but in reality, he is a big, playful personality. His large blue eyes perch above a smirking mouth, and as a younger man, he bears a striking resemblance to Chevy Chase. As he grows older, his features crack and curl, and he suddenly begins to look and sound like Gene Hackman—the same knowing, smiling eyes—the same gruff voice. Once while watching a movie, I hear Gene Hackman tell someone to “shag ass”, and it’s as though my Dad has been transported to the big screen. Shag ass means “to hurry,” and the only other person I’ve ever heard say this is my father.

He has large, mitt-like hands, and their Shrek-like size renders certain tasks comical, such as when he struggles to use scissors, or when he reaches to pet his tiny terrier that he calls “Princess.” He has a tiny bit of shrapnel from the Korean War imbedded into the thumb of his right hand, and as children we probe this tiny black pellet with wide-eyed fascination.

He is, as my mother says, “full of foolishness.” In one of my favorite photos of him, he is in a Freddy Krueger hat and sweater, brandishing a pair of rubber knives, and giving a hilariously hideous snarl to the camera. As kids, he often tells us about pranks he pulled as a child. When he was a young boy, he and a friend took Limburger cheese (a product whose smell can only be described as fecal) and hid slices in their palms. They went up and down the stairs of their Catholic grade school, quietly greasing the banisters with the stink. When people came down the stairs, they walked away sniffing their hands with disgust.  As a little girl, I am enthralled by this prank, and my friends and I reenact it on our last day of school. The cheese is gooey and the smell makes me gag, but I love feeling mischievous like my father.

He likes teasing us—his children—most of all.  One warm May night we are all gathered watching “The Incredible Hulk”, and my Dad comes into the living room and looks at us with a grave, stricken face. He tells us that he’s just seen a special news report, and he has some terrible news. President Reagan has decided children simply aren’t learning enough, and he is cancelling summer vacation all across the United States. At first we just roll our eyes at him, but he keeps his face so stone cold serious, we become panicked.  We begin pacing the house and shouting. One of us anxiously flips through channels trying to find the “special report.” We groan on like this for almost half an hour, until some of us begin crying and shouting our hatred for stupid President Reagan. My Dad finally breaks down, and admits that he’s only joking. We pile on top of him—half furious, half laughing—and try to punch him with our tiny fists.

When we are young, he is gone a lot. He goes on business trips and golf trips, which are often one in the same. He leaves the house in a dark suit, toting a scuffed leather duffle and a rattling bag of clubs. When I kiss his cheek goodbye, my lips come away lightly greased with his aftershave.

When he is home for long stretches, it is an event, and the house buzzes nervously with his presence. At dinner, my six brothers and my sister and I sit around our large kitchen table passing plates of Shake and Bake pork chops and spilling milk. My Dad shouts out “reports!” Which means we are to share any interesting events from the day. My mind always goes blank at this, and I feel as if I never have anything worthy of reporting.

After dinner he helps my mother bathe us. We call bath time “souping”, because my Dad adores the nonsense words and nicknames that come out of our mouths as toddlers. When a little one refers to bathing as “souping”, he makes it part of our permanent lexicon. The same for “goosing”, which means teeth brushing.  He is forever asking us if we have “goosed our teeth.”

The best part of souping is when my Dad comes in, a giant bath towel in hand, and slings one of us inside the towel, then carries us on his back like a hobo sack. He hauls us to our respective rooms and deposits us on the bed with a bounce. We call this “geeking”, and we all beg to be “geeked.” When it is my turn, he drapes the rough towel beneath my underarms, then throws me over his broad shoulder. I travel down the long hallway bumping damply against his broad back, slick as a seal tucked into a papoose.

After our baths, he comes into my brothers’ bedroom and stretches his long frame out on the carpet. We excitedly cluster around him in footed pajamas, shouting for a story. He tells us made up, ghostly tales that are always designed to teach us a moral. There is the smug “Simon Cigarette”, who chokes to death on cigarette smoke. Or “Reginald Reservoir”, the bratty boy who ignores his parents’ pleas to never go near the deep reservoir, and of course meets a terrible fate. And then, the favorite, “Little Sally Go To Church”, about a little girl who doesn’t want to go to church, and instead wants to stay at home and eat junk food. Sally’s lack of piety is always punished by a visit from the Sunday Monster—a giant beast who jumps out of nowhere with a horrific roar. My Dad roars in his deep baritone, and we all scream with terrified delight, beg him to stop, then quickly beg him to do it again.

When I am small, he calls me “Josey Lamb”, because when I’m around the rowdy swirl of my siblings I appear shy and quiet: gentle as a lamb. He continues to call me this even after I am fully-grown, and have become loud and opinionated, and decidedly less lamb-like. But he does so ironically, with a glint in his eye.

He tears up easily. Which seems funny for a man with such a large, commanding presence.  But certain songs and movies leave his eyes pink-rimmed and glistening, and when I am growing up, I actually see him cry more times than my mother. On my wedding day I select “Someone to Watch Over Me” for our father-daughter dance, because it’s a song I know he likes. But he refuses to slow dance, and just keeps shimmying around the floor, making goofy faces. A few bars in I ask him what exactly is wrong and he says, “Josey! This music is too sad!” Flustered, I go up to the DJ and request that she instead put on Supertramp’s “The Logical Song”, another favorite of my father’s. He is thrilled, and in my wedding photos we are both spinning and laughing, giving high, jubilant kicks.

When I am in my 20s, I chafe at his politics, and what I consider his small-town small-mindedness. He is a staunch republican and extremely conservative, whereas I consider myself very liberal. We have heated arguments at the dinner table that leave us both red-faced and shouting, and make my mother flutter nervously around the kitchen. My other siblings never engage with my father in this way, and they find it hilarious the way we shout at each other about Clinton, and both Bushes.

Sometimes, to gall me, he tapes conservative news articles to the lamp hanging above my place at the table. I come down for breakfast and find Karl Rove’s smiling face torn from the paper, dangling in front of me from a piece of Scotch Tape. I sleepily look to my father, and he smirks at me over his bowl of Raisin Bran.

With the Alzheimer’s, the days of political debates and discussions come to an end. There is no longer any real, lasting talk of the present. My father’s mind becomes stuck in the past, like a wheel that can’t quite push over, and he speaks to me about long ago events, as though he is plucking dusty photos from an album in his mind, and holding them up to me, saying, “Here. See?”

He tells me several times about how his father once gifted him a new baseball glove. He says he loved the glove so much he oiled it every single night.

Or he recounts the time he found a dead body on the golf course. He describes how he and a friend were playing on New Year’s Day, and were the only ones stomping their spiked shoes though the frosted grass, knocking around balls. When my Dad rounded a sand trap, he spied the man—gray-faced and frozen, a bottle of whiskey at his side.

He talks about his time in the Korean War. About how frightened he was lying on the floor of a cargo plane, traveling further from his Indiana home than he’d ever been in his life. One night in camp he polished his army boots white, as a sort of goofy mini-protest, and he was soundly punished for it by the Colonel.

And he talks about Lynne Anne, the oldest child and sister I never knew. She died when she was five of meningitis. He fingers the tattered prayer card that he still, 38 years later, carries in his wallet, and he tells me in a low, quiet voice how delicate and beautiful her hands were. He talks about her golden hair.

I listen to him talk, and feel overwhelmed by how much there is about him that I don’t know, or can’t really fathom. His life stretches behind him full of heartbreaks and triumphs and mysteries that I will never really grasp. And through him, I learn that understanding people, and loving them, sometimes has very little to do with one another.

Now, when I am home visiting, he really likes to give me things. He has always delighted in giving gifts, but now, each time I am there, he gives me funny things—strange bits of odds and ends. He has taken to handing me the smallest of trinkets, the kinds of treasures a small child might hide away in a cigar box.

“Here Josey,” he says.  “You can take that home with you.”

And he hands me an old golf tee, or a tiny, pretty seedpod that he’s spied on the ground. A St. Anthony prayer card. Old fishing hooks. A tattered National Geographic. I save all of it. I bring it back to New York with me, and I tuck it into jewelry boxes and special drawers, hidden away like clues.

Losing someone in this way—this subtle losing, piece by piece—is its own unique kind of sadness. It’s a mean, cruel kind of grief that I feel could drag me under if I let it.  And so I try to focus on the fact that my father is still here with me. He still makes me laugh. He still loves to tell stories. And he still loves to tease. Even now, he still calls me up and holds the phone up to the radio, so that when I get back to my apartment I have a voicemail that is nothing but Rush Limbaugh ranting away. I play back these voicemails, and I picture my Dad huddling in the background, struggling to hold in his laughter. Just like the trinkets, I save these garbled voicemails. And I try to focus on the father I still have…on the bright shades of him that remain.

I can’t ever bring myself to think of when that final dot of color finally fades from sight, completely out of my view. Until then, I steadily train my eye on what I can still see. I take in every last glimpse.

•••

JOHANNA GOHMANN has written for Salon, The Morning News, xoJane, Scratch, Babble, and Curve, among othersShe is a regular contributor to Bust magazine. Her essays have been anthologized in A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the WorldJoan Didion Crosses the StreetThe Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010The Best Sex Writing 2010, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2015. www.JohannaGohmann.com

 

Republished with permission. Johanna Gohmann’s “Balloons” is one of 25 personal essays by women writers writing about their fathers in Every Father’s Daughter, a new anthology edited by Margaret McMullan, including an introduction by Phillip Lopate. Contributors include Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Jayne Anne Phillips, Alexandra Styron, Ann Hood, Bobbie Ann Mason, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others. 

Humming and Whistling

vet mother

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Abbie Gascho Landis

The weekly playdate prompts me to clean, which helps to chase off cockroaches. Here in Alabama, land of robust flora and fauna, the consequences of sloppy housecleaning can be cockroaches nearly the size of mango seeds crossing your living room wall by lamplight. So I clean, wagging my full abdomen behind the vacuum and holding my vacuum-phobic toddler on my hip. Every Wednesday morning, Sam and I welcome a handful of moms—most of us in various stages of pregnancy—and three other toddlers for a couple hours of nonstop play and food and mom talk.

I am the only mom working outside home. This week, as we sit swapping stories about our toddlers’ naps and eating habits, discussing labor and delivery, I feel like I left half my body at the clinic. In the past three days, I worked forty-two hours as an emergency veterinarian. I wonder how other people stitch together their various lives.

Just over twenty-four hours ago, I lost a patient during a surgery to repair his diaphragmatic hernia. Today, the woman cradling a pregnant belly, cross-legged on the floor, jumping up to redirect toddlers or serve tea doesn’t feel like the same woman who orchestrated anesthesia, surgery, and ultimately resuscitation attempts at three in the morning. My hand prying open the elastic to check for a full diaper is the same hand that reached through the hole in the diaphragm, grasped a still heart muscle, and squeezed rhythmically until it began to twitch in my palm, for a moment. My voice singing “The Wheels on the Bus” told a tearful young woman that the gentle three-legged dog who brought her through a painful divorce had been too damaged by the car that hit him to make it through surgery.

Every now and then, one of the other moms asks me about work. One conversation began, “You deal with animals, so you might know what to do. Something died in our ductwork and there’s a horrible smell.”

Another time, someone wondered if people actually bring their pets to the clinic during the middle of the night. I answered honestly—yes—citing an unfortunate recent example involving euthanasia.

“What?”

“I had to euthanize him,” I repeated, prompting a rapid subject change.

Mostly, we just talk about being moms, which is, in fact, my harder job.

•••

At work, we sometimes order food, the way most offices do. Taking an index card around, someone collects orders from the staff and phones China Garden. The anticipation usually beats the real eggroll, which drips oil down my fingers yet remains dry inside, requiring syrupy orange sauce squeezed onto each bite. On the other hand, the crab rangoons are perfectly crisp and creamy inside if I can get to them while they’re hot. Often, just when the food arrives, I’m racing around, aware of the patient family who’s been waiting almost two hours in room three, the pushy woman who’s harassing the receptionist and seems to have no money, and the elderly gentleman in room four who, my staff informs me, is diabetic and needs to get home soon. Also, two critical hospitalized patients, one of whom does not seem to be breathing well at the moment, tug my attention.

I cram a crab rangoon into my mouth while scrutinizing the radiographs of the diabetic man’s dog. With my free hand, I press my aching breasts. Lactation makes me ravenous, and with limited time to eat or pump breast milk, my body distracts me with discomforts. One friend of mine, in her obstetrics and gynecology residency, pumped when and where necessary, putting milk production and comfort over privacy, earning the T-shirt they made for her at graduation with Creamery written across the front. I lack her moxie, and her hands-free breast pump.

I cock my head and stand back, chewing fried dough and deciding about the x-rays. Also, I’m organizing my plan of action. Get that diabetic man home now, check on the hospitalized patient with dicey breathing, examine the pet in room two for potential drop-off, and have a technician triage the pushy woman’s pet and finances while I race to the bathroom to pump. Those x-rays are normal. And go.

•••

At home after working overnight, I wake in the early afternoon. I am molten, a liquefied rock settled into the bed, the long pillow between knees and arms. My head has melted into the pillow during this nap. Some heavy low sound slips from my chest. Sam rattles his crib in the next room, while the baby stretches and jumps in my abdomen. Her movement is like a mild electric shock that twitches an involuntary muscle, the only part of me able to move at all. On my overnight shift, I rested briefly after five a.m. Several critical cases kept my attention all night. One eventually stabilized, with fluids dripping into an elderly canine vein. The other patient quit battling to breathe against the thick fluid around her lungs. A flat-faced Persian cat, she gasped in the oxygen cage for hours, then flung out her legs and died. She left the clinic in the arms of two devastated people, and I felt relief for her. The night removed my bones, leaving me a motionless slug with maternal responsibilities.

More sounds from Sam, with words now: “Up!” I find my limbs individually, sliding them under the blankets. I crawl up out of the well. In Sam’s room, I sit on the floor by the crib, where he grins and hops around, peering at me over the front rail, through the rungs, over the side. I go back and forth like a limp metronome, joining our favorite game, “I See You Over the Top, I See You Over the Side.” I aim his space heater at my lower back and knead my lumbar muscles, laughing with him as he flops into the blankets. Joy is this: my warm back, a radiant boy, electricity of the daughter I contain. Stiffly, I ease sideways, then stand up one foot at a time. I snag Sam under his armpits and hoist him into our afternoon.

•••

Last Sunday we were so busy at the clinic that I added sitting down to pee when calculating minutes off my feet in the past fifteen hours. We were so busy that one large German Shepherd mix stayed for several hours on the floor in the exam room where we’d euthanized her. Her status—recumbent, dehydrated and shocky, with a maggot infestation in her hind end—went from the top of our triage list to the bottom after she was dead. Short-staffed, we kept her in our thoughts but turned towards the living, trying to alter the course of other patients’ lives.

I began that shift with an emergency Cesarean section on an English Bulldog. Four puppies. Two with detached placentas were dead. One with a malformed head and severe cleft palate lived two hours. The fourth puppy rallied and made it home. Bulldogs are seriously impaired when it comes to reproduction. And breathing. I finished the surgery with my pregnant belly soaked in amniotic fluid, but glad to have mama bulldog recovering nicely.

I walked from surgery into the treatment area. All of the exam rooms were full. The long, U-shaped benches in the lobby had people seated shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting to see me, the only veterinarian in the building. I had to pee.

•••

Two nights ago, I thawed and browned some venison—cuts I didn’t recognize because they were a gift from a friend. My plan: fajitas. The pieces looked miserably chewy, and the smell struck me as unappetizing. I set it aside in my crockpot and made veggie fajitas instead, intending to spice the meat and slow cook it. I forgot about it overnight. In the morning, I felt wary of the meat still sitting on the counter. So I ignored it. By noon, I was actively guilty and disgusted by the meat and myself. So I put it in the fridge. This morning I made my move, almost in tears about it, and threw away the perfectly good—though neglected—food. In the trash bag, it totaled only the size of my two fists. But it was food, the flesh of an animal who died to be eaten. Either way, it made me sick.

•••

I learn in a continuing education seminar that hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, are considered hazardous substances. “Beware,” the pharmacists say, reciting regulations guiding the administration and disposal of such pharmaceuticals.

“No wonder,” I think, eyeing the other pregnant veterinarian beside me, and closing my eyes to feel those hazards in my own veins. I have been newly pregnant, then postpartum, then breastfeeding, now pregnant, heading toward postpartum and breastfeeding again. I have worked through both pregnancies and breastfeeding, feeling larger than life. Hazardous. “Don’t mess with the pregnant lady,” I joke to my coworkers.

But I do feel somehow superhuman, more than myself. I love the wide eyes on my clients, watching me enter an exam room belly first. Everyone can see the power that I carry. Little did I know that mothers everywhere carry the weight and strength of their motherhood at all times. Beyond pregnancy, it simply becomes invisible.

Hazardous. There is no end to the changes wrought upon a pregnant body, both during and lingering after gestation. I have learned not to underestimate progesterone and estrogen, and the rough seas when the two trade places in hormone hierarchy. So I grin at the pharmacists and their regulations for such dangers.

•••

I lean between wall and exam room table, transfixed by the woman across from me. It is four in the morning, and her cat is dead on arrival. Nothing I can do, but we stand talking, two women close in age. One year ago, today, her daughter died. And now her cat.

She tells me to take photos, videos, to hold each moment like glass. Her daughter, not quite one year old, was asleep. Something stirred her husband, nudged him to check on the baby. She wasn’t breathing. They acted fast. Her heart still beating. A local hospital. A need for life flight. No helicopters available. A desperate drive. Days on life support. And then it was over.

We are both weeping. Her cat lies between us.

•••

My cat prowls and stretches and climbs onto the shelf of my belly. I’m not settled in for napping yet. She’s ready, though. First I must arrange pillows strategically to support my back, neck, protruding abdomen. I turn off the cell phone. Let the dog in. Set the baby monitor on its charger to avoid low battery beeps. I fold myself around the pillows and begin with a deep breath inward, filling my chest and womb, allowing breath to flow down my curving legs to the soles of my feet. Purring, the cat joins me. I lift the blanket corner. She nestles against a shifting baby. As I focus, my face heavies, sinking against my bones and teeth. My breath, again, washes through me like a wave carrying light foam up the sand, then receding back into the ocean. In labor, these waves of breath will carry us to delivery, transforming wild pain into something I can hold.

Later, consciousness rises back to my eyes when I hear squeaks and murmurs over the monitor. I slept for an hour, pressed by the cat. Lead flows in my veins, holding me into the sofa crevices. I wiggle my toes, stretch, then roll to a stand and prowl back to the bedroom where my small, golden-haired boy grins. “Good nap!”

•••

I open the oven to pull out the chocolate almond biscotti, filling the house with aroma. We’re standing in the kitchen along the countertop’s wide peninsula. Two blonde heads bob up and down as two-year-old boys climb the stepstool to munch banana nut muffins and blueberry cornbread. It’s a typical Wednesday playdate: three pregnant moms and two kids. We’ve just decided to head outside into the sunshine when Jenny, two days past her due date, gasps softly. “My water’s breaking.” She heads for the bathroom, and Rachel and I nearly follow her in there in our excitement. We giggle and our eyes fill. I offer towels and dry pants and assurances that amniotic fluid is the most beautiful thing we’ve ever had on our kitchen floor.

Jenny calls her husband. We settle down a little, finish our snacks, and speculate about Jenny’s next twenty-four hours. Husbands arrive to drive Jenny and the extra vehicle back home. They’re all gone within minutes. A flurry of astonishment and biscotti and well wishes bustles out the door. Sam, perched high in my arms above my own round abdomen, leans his head on my shoulder. We head down the hall. Naptime.

•••

When my daughter is three months old, I discover that I can sing and whistle simultaneously. I’ve never tried that before. If fact, I’m not trying it now. After a full weekend of work and waking nights with Stella, I stumble around the house. A sound escapes me, something between a vocalized sigh and a descending whistle of amazement at how tired I feel. The result mixes my vibrating vocal cords and pursed lips into a warm buzzy feeling in the middle of my mouth. I try a tune. Success.

The next day, I try again but have to muddle through some bizarre, atonal, not-so-nicely-buzzy variations before I find the hummingbird in my mouth again. I zuzz out “Twinkle Twinkle” for Sam.

As I’m parenting two children and being an emergency veterinarian, sometimes I squawk out ineffective days, unable to balance my focus, like losing the melody between my lips and my voice. Sometimes a warm buzz fills me and fills the room. There. I find a balance, and a tune wavers along.

•••

ABBIE GASCHO LANDIS is a veterinarian and writer in rural upstate New York. She is working on a book about her relationship with freshwater mussels, set in Alabama. Her writing appears at www.thedigandflow.com.

We’ll Always Have Frankfurt

clouds w:plane

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofi McMullin

I took the last fortune cookie that came with our bill at the dim sum place near my office. My friends and I were celebrating the end of a long week, and we were all loud and slightly buzzed from our cocktails. The thin slip of paper fell into my lap as I crumbled the cookie between my fingers, and I almost simply tossed it on my plate amongst the small pools of soy sauce. Instead, I wiped my fingers and straightened out the strip. I laughed at a joke half-heartedly, not taking my eyes off the words in front of me.

“An old love will come back to you.”

“Well, you are going to have to be more specific,” I joked after I read my fortune to my friends. But I really only had one old love in mind.

The last time I had seen Peter was thirteen years ago when he flew halfway across the world to show up at my office, unannounced, two months before my wedding to another man. We had lunch, then later that afternoon we met up at my apartment and talked for maybe an hour about … I don’t even know what. Definitely not about our six-year, mostly long-distance relationship—by now more of a friendship rather than a love affair—or what was about to happen to that relationship. I think back and wonder why he was there, why he drank tea with me in my kitchen, why he told me that his girlfriend was looking at wedding magazines. Was he looking for a certain reaction from me? Was he there to change my mind? Or his?

We held each other and he kissed my forehead. Then he walked away.

We stayed in touch through infrequent e-mails and occasional phone calls through this thick, juicy part of life filled with marriage and children and careers. Somehow our friendship deepened over the years despite the distance, and our interactions always buzzed with that faint undercurrent of lovers who fell victim to time, distance, circumstance. We could have been. But we aren’t. And now we never will be.

The good thing about meeting up with an old love after a long time is that there are no expectations. When I first fell in love with Peter, I wanted desperately for him to rescue me. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college, and all I wanted from life was to graduate—although I think I would have given that up for him too—marry him, have his babies, and iron his shirts. Everything else in life seemed too scary, and loving him was very easy. He was irresistible—all blond hair and blue eyes, easy humor, and cool confidence. I fell in love with him the moment I heard his name—one of those pit-of-your-stomach, butterflies-around-your-heart, love-at-first-sight, unexplainable affairs that I believed only happened in very cheesy movies. It sounds ridiculous now, but I remember the feeling clearly—giddy and out of control and all-consuming.

When I saw him a few months ago for the first time after thirteen years, I had no expectations of our time together. A nice dinner, maybe. Pleasant conversation. But that was it. I know now that I don’t need to be rescued. I have a baby. I have shirts to iron. I have love that is giddy but not all-consuming or out of control.

What I didn’t expect was that the moment I saw him, I would constantly have to remind myself that I can’t touch him. I can’t just take his hand in mine. I can’t run my fingers through his hair. I can’t wrap my arms around his waist as we wait to cross the street. But even after all these years, some weird reflex compelled me to reach for him. We used to kiss and caress and grab and now here we are, trying to find this restaurant in the rain and the darkness and I can’t take his arm, so I don’t lose my balance? Seems ridiculous.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” we told each other when we first awkwardly embraced. I know we both said it to break the ice, to acknowledge the absurdity of standing face-to-face after all these years.

But it’s a lie.

We have changed. Maybe not the basics, maybe not the important parts. But we are softer around the edges, maybe a bit tougher on the inside. We’ve seen things and we’ve done things that we never thought would happen to us: dead babies, illness, disappointment, messy relationships. Our bodies are plumper with age, scarred from surgeries, birth, accidents. The hairs are finer, dusted with gray; the eye crinkles are deeper, a bit sad. We have loved and fought and bought cars and houses. We changed diapers and stayed up all night with sick kids. We have savings accounts, retirement funds, houses, employees, vacation time, car-pool duty, in-laws.

We are grown-ups.

We are nineteen.

Sitting across from him at dinner our time apart didn’t feel that long. Then the thought hit me: if we wait another thirteen years, he will be fifty-seven. I will be fifty-one. A lifetime gone, pretty much. How many more thirteen-year chunks do we have left?

Dinner was a blur—catching up after so much time is hard work and it takes concentration. It’s possible that I drank my wine a bit too quickly. My mind had trouble catching up with what my eyes were seeing: HE was sitting right across from me. He had the steak. I had the veal. We took bites of each other’s desserts. Like it was no big deal.

After dinner we walked slowly in the cool, rainy darkness to my hotel. Not yet ready to end the evening, we circled each other once we got to my room, our conversation suddenly faltering. Here he was, amongst my things—my travel-weary suitcase, my patent-leather shoes under the desk, my coat on the back of the chair, my jewelry spilling out of its case, my work notes and business cards in a neat stack on the desk, next to my keys from home.

“You drive a Honda,” he noted, and I laughed and said it was a soccer mom car. He asked “May I?” and rifled through the stack of papers and magazines and the flowery notebooks and postcards I’d bought.

I remember that when I first loved him, I always wanted a piece of him. Something that belonged to him. I would have given anything to be able to stand in his room like he was in mine now, surrounded by the things he touched every day. Once when he visited me in college I hid his white undershirt from the previous day under my pillow. The shirt smelled of him for a couple of days after he left and I hung on to it for years, even after his scent was gone. Another time I stole a pair of his socks—blue, with little teddy bears on it. I don’t know if he ever noticed—I doubt it. But I still have that pair of socks and, now in that hotel room in Germany, I thought I should have brought it with me, given it back to him. But then again, that’s probably the only piece of him I’ll ever have.

The next day we walked the cobblestoned streets of the city together—sometimes arm-in-arm, but mostly not. We talked; he took a couple of work calls and walked away from me as I sat on a bench. It was a Saturday; there were weddings at the town hall and we watched as happy couples took pictures in front of medieval buildings.

We wandered into the church on the main square and in the quiet, musty hall we walked our separate ways. I lit a candle, but it was just an excuse to stand still for a moment and breathe. I knew we’d have to say good-bye in a couple of hours and that the countdown would begin on our next thirteen years. I wandered over to the tomb of a German prince and his wife and felt jealous of their eternal togetherness. I looked around to find him and saw him across the church, writing something on a piece of paper to be pinned on the church’s prayer wall.

I never asked what he prayed for.

Over the candles I prayed for strength and composure, but neither of those things were granted that day.

“We were able to pick up right where we left off a lifetime ago,” he wrote in a text after we said good-bye. And he was right. The slow burn, the thrumming background noise of our past was right there, ready to spill over.

When I got on the plane the next morning to head home to my husband and little boy, I felt suspended between my nineteen-year-old self and my current life. Somewhere over the Atlantic, settled down by the plane’s gentle rocking and the clouds passing outside my window, my twenty-one hours with Peter started to feel otherworldly. My destination on the plane’s map became clear, a fixed point on the horizon, comforting, promising.

I thought about how, in the end, the fortune cookie wasn’t exactly correct. Old loves don’t just “come back.” They visit, they haunt, they poke around in the sensitive flesh right around the heart with their deft, nimble fingers. Old loves are beautiful and tempting and so, so delicious. And for a moment it seems like yes, yes, a comeback is possible. A moment of weakness. A look. A shared memory. But then… life. The real one. The one waiting at the airport.

I stared at the little “x” on the map for a while as the plane flew through some turbulence and thought about how the engines just keep on whirring and pushing forward, no matter what shakes them.

We wait out our thirteen years and then for a couple of hours we lie and pretend that nothing has changed. We keep walking on cobblestones, through crowded streets; stop to eat chocolate, to watch weddings and street performers. We stand under an awning during a quick rain shower and we wind our arms together as one of us peeks out, looking for a small break in the clouds.

[This essay has an equally excellent companion. Read Zsofi's other essay about the old love here. —ed.]

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Role Reboot, and Kveller. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Two Weddings and a Friendship Funeral

wedding

By AfroDad/ Flickr

By Keysha Whitaker

My best friend Justine, in a sleeveless white dress that flared out in ruffles above the knees, descended the steps of a waterfront house in Maryland. The fifty hushed guests gasped on cue. They were here to celebrate the couple’s forever-love; I was paying my final respects to our friendship.

That morning I hadn’t helped blend makeup to match Justine’s honey complexion or calmed her down in a moment of panic, even though we’d been friends for twenty-one years. Instead, I wandered around a nearby mall where I once waited while she went on a first date with a man she met online. This was in the early 2000s when Internet courting was synonymous with Craig’s List Killer. Then, I was her wing woman, but today I wasn’t by her side.

But at least I’d be in attendance, unlike her first wedding seven years ago. Amidst the stress of planning a wedding both families disapproved of, she decided on a four-thousand-dollar per person destination affair, even though I, the maid of honor, was living paycheck to paycheck. We’d already been quarreling about details when she took a new stance.

“Honestly, I don’t care if anybody’s there. I don’t care if my family’s there. It doesn’t matter if you’re there or not,” she’d said in a huff. Hurt, devalued, and financially relieved, I’d bailed on the wedding and the planning of her stateside bridal parties. But seven months later, I’d felt guilty.

“It’s fine,” Justine had said when I’d broken our silence with an apology. “I’m over it.”

But I wasn’t. I’d vowed to prove myself reliable. So a few years later when she—newly divorced—prepared to relocate to New Jersey, I scouted apartments on her behalf and emailed self-made videos. With my help, she picked a Jersey City high-rise with a hypnotizing view of Southern Manhattan, not unlike the one behind her now.

As the bride stepped slowly into frame, I held up my iPhone and counted: one … two … Two was the number of times that I’d spoken to Justine on the phone in the last two years and I didn’t know why. My thumb hovered over the shutter button as I let her walk out the shot and to the trestle where her groom and maid of honor—her college roommate who had replaced me before—waited.

Inclusion on Justine’s wedding guest list but exclusion from her life was the culmination of bewildering behavior that began when she left New Jersey in April 2012. For two months, I left unrequited texts and voicemails. At first I was worried that something happened to her until I saw a Facebook post. She was living; she was just doing it without me.

My phone remained silent until September. “Hey. I’m in the City,” she texted. “I’m gonna be at Penn Station around seven tonight if you want to meet up. If not, that’s fine.”

“Sure,” I said, trying to match her nonchalant-ness. That evening I braved the rush-hour drive over the George Washington Bridge to meet her in Midtown.

We hugged. Then we laughed.

“What the heck happened to you?” I said.

“I guess I did your thirty days of silence and solitude,” she said referencing my sporadic practice to abstain from phone calls to find my true and drama-free self.

“Yours was like three hundred days. And at least I tell people,” I said. “You just disappeared.”

Justine shrugged. “I did think about you. I’m glad to see you’re doing okay.”

Until she boarded her train, we made familiar easy jokes and traded expressive glances that had become like a secret language since our first day in a Connecticut Catholic high school. Drawn to each other by the energy that makes atoms collide, we compensated for our inability to take unsupervised outings (edicts set by mothers we believed were overprotective) by creating our own social world that lived on the landline.

We talked every day for hours. Even after college, we chatted in the mornings until she pulled into the parking garage and her signal dropped. Fifteen minutes later, we reconvened at her desk, yapping about work before getting off to actually do it. One year she called me at seven in the morning. A New York City radio morning show was searching for a female co-host. “You should apply,” Justine yelled excitedly from somewhere on I-95. She knew my dreams of working in entertainment. I auditioned for the job and got it. If it weren’t for her, I never would have heard the ad.

I hoped our train station reunion was the rebirth of us, but my only communications from her the rest of the year were two pictures: one of her in a cat costume on Halloween and another of some balloons on New Year’s Eve. The next summer she texted that she was moving in with a new boyfriend. We joked about telling her mom, and I refrained from asking why she moved on from me.

I suspected fundamental differences in our personalities had finally convinced her we were incompatible. While I had been taking creative risks that led to years of low-paying jobs and episodic unemployment, she was making good on a self-imposed deadline to be a six-figure salary executive at a Fortune 500 company by age thirty. If we were TV shows, she was The Jeffersons, and I was Sanford & Son. I knew she wanted positive change for me, but maybe like a haggard spouse grown tired of waiting, she packed her bags and left.

At the end of the year, I found out that she’d gotten engaged. Another friend saw it on Facebook and phoned me before I received my BFF’s texted pic of the groom on one knee: “He proposed.”

I was truly happy for her. I just pretended to be surprised.

The next month, I actually was astonished when Justine texted a surprise dinner invite at the end of a business trip that had brought her back to town. I agreed.

I picked her up in my SUV, but we may as well have been in Doc’s DeLorean. As we waited for a table, I marveled over the chocolate diamond engagement ring and chuckled at stories of her fiancé. After the food arrived, I asked why she disappeared.

“I didn’t realize that happened … it wasn’t intentional,” she said. “It was a crazy time. It’s funny because he knows exactly who you are. I talk about you all the time.”

Even though unintentional wasn’t in her DNA, I nodded. Two months before the wedding, my phone rang.

“Would you write and read something for the wedding? You know me the best and the longest,” she said. “I was going to wait until you returned your invite, but I figured I’d ask you now.”

The invitation had been sitting on my kitchen table. It wasn’t just the loss of friendship that made me debate my attendance; the costly trek from western North Carolina to the coast of Maryland would obliterate the tiny bit of money I had to live on for the summer.

“I’m surprised you asked,” I said. “I didn’t think that I was in your inner circle anymore.”

“I guess we’re not on the same page,” Justine said. “To me, our friendship is the same even though we don’t talk. I thought about what you said at the restaurant. Maybe I pulled away because I didn’t want to keep asking you to hang out when you couldn’t afford it. I dunno. But if someone asked me, I’d still say you are my best friend.”

“Well, I’m honored that you asked,” I said, blinking quickly to ward off a familiar sting in the corners of my eyes. “Of course, I’ll do it.”

During the ceremony, as the couple made jokes with the officiant and guests, I waited for my cue. When she called my name, I rose from my seat and angled my body toward the couple, reading the poem I’d written.

“Love is patient, ever-present /Love is kind, joy divine/ Never envies, never boasts/ Humbles hearts, comforts souls / Pushes towards the finish line /in the midst of mud and grime.” I paused at the reference to the couple’s participation in a mud-filled obstacle competition and glanced at my old friend. Justine had tears in her eyes.

At the end of the reception, she walked over to me. “Thanks for doing the reading. It was perfect. I hope you weren’t put out of your way with all the traveling …”

I was exhausted but not from the physical distance—from the emotional one.

“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it,” I said, glancing only for a minute in eyes that used to say so much before averting my gaze to the blue-black water behind her, almost indistinguishable from the night sky.

“What time does your flight leave? We are having people over for crabs tomorrow at eleven if you want to come.”

“I leave at one.” I gave her a loose hug. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”  She gestured towards remaining wedding business. “I got to go.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”

 

["Justine" isn't her real name. —ed.]

•••

KEYSHA WHITAKER has a MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her work has appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward, The Frisky, and the New York Press. She hosts Behind the Prose, a podcast for writers, from a closet in Pennsylvania.