The Professor

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By Alan Bruce/ Flickr

By Daisy Alpert Florin

I remembered that voice. Cool, soft, diffuse: the kind of voice that you’d have to strain to hear over the noise in a loud restaurant. A voice that rocked you along in its low, gentle waves. I’d always loved the way he seemed to listen more than he spoke. We’d never gone to a restaurant together, anyway.

“I want to know what you remember about me.” I held the phone close to my mouth and watched the curve of my lips in the rear view mirror as I spoke. With the pad of my index finger, I traced the dark circles under my eyes.

“Well, you were a gifted writer.” I flinched at his use of the past tense. I wrote rarely now, if ever. Caring for two children left little time for intellectual endeavors. At times, the contrast between my life now and the way it used to be was overwhelming.

“I have an image of you then.” He paused. “Do you want to hear this?”

I did, absolutely. This was why I’d called him.

“Sometimes, when you would wait outside my office, I’d find you sitting on the floor in the hallway, reading a book. It was very endearing. Most students would just stand there, waiting.”

Sunlight reflected off the windows of the building across the parking lot. I pulled down the sun visor to shield my eyes. This was what I wanted to hear, that I was noticed, remembered for an unstudied pose. Did anyone still see me that way? I closed my eyes, remembering that moment. How was it possible that he remembered it, too?

“Why do you want to know this?” he asked.

I paused, thinking. I was a thirty-four-year-old woman reaching back for my twenty-two-year-old self, speaking to someone who remembered the world in which she existed.

“Because you knew me when I still had choices to make about the kind of life I would have,” I said. “I don’t feel like that person anymore and maybe I want you to tell me that I still am, which is crazy, since you don’t even know me anymore.”

“I still know you,” he said. “You were then what you are now: eloquent, serious, thoughtful. I sense no diminishment in you even though we haven’t spoken in ten years. What made you so compelling then is what makes you that way now—you ask hard questions of life, and you expect hard answers. Most people are not that way.”

I leaned my head against the steering wheel and allowed his words to wash over me. I was twenty-two again, self-conscious and bold, fearful and fearless. I saw my future unspooling before me, full of hope and danger.

•••

Twelve years earlier, he had singled me out. I was getting ready to graduate from college, slim and sarcastic and completely terrified. He was filling in for a professor on leave, and so we found each other stumbling around our distinguished college, both of us feeling more than a bit like frauds. I noticed right away how his eyes would linger on me a beat too long after I had finished speaking. I could feel him watching me as I stood up from the seminar table and wrapped a long woolen scarf around my neck. I was young, but not naive; something about me had attracted his attention, and I liked it.

I was taking his class—an intro writing seminar—on a whim. I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer and during the semester, I discovered the power that writing had to reveal my inner self. When I wrote, I imagined the professor reading my words as I typed them. He responded to my writing as well as to my presence in the sun-filled classroom. Our connection was palpable and strong.

A few weeks into the semester, we arranged to meet in his office so he could help me with my post-graduation job hunt. While other students pursued corporate recruiting or worked alumni connections in the career center, I scaled the stairs, two at a time, to his office, my long and billowing wool coat, a 1970s hand-me-down from my mother, trailing behind me. When I arrived, he was still meeting with another student, so I sat down on the worn carpet outside his office, my back pressed against the wall, my knees tucked under my chin. A few minutes later, he came out and looked down at me. There was something about his gaze, steady and intense, that emboldened me. I stood up, teetering a bit in my high-heeled boots.

Inside his office, the radiators clanked and hissed. The sun, low in the winter sky, shone through the tall windows, casting everything in pale grey. I could feel his eyes on me as I pulled back the fur-lined hood and undid the toggle buttons of my coat. I slid a yellow folder toward him, and he gently removed the papers that were inside.

I watched him as he read, his dark head bent down toward his desk. He was young, as professors went, although like most college students, I couldn’t have said how old he was, only somewhere between thirty and dead. He had curly hair and a mustache and wore a rumpled writer’s wardrobe: wool sweaters, soft jackets. On his left hand was a gleaming wedding band that I couldn’t help but notice, although it didn’t mean much to me. What attracted me more than his physical appearance was his voice, which was quiet and soothing, and the power of his gaze. When he looked at me, he seemed to see something I only suspected was there.

“These are good,” he said. “You write well, with humor and clarity.”

“Thanks,” I said, looking down. The whites of my knees shone through the smooth material of my tights.

I looked around his office, taking in the high ceilings and sparse furnishings. On the shelf behind him was a photo of two children dressed in colorful bathing suits, the bright blue ocean glistening in the background. I twisted my long hair into a knot, aware suddenly of the curve of my neck.

“So, city girl,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “how did you end up here?” He gestured at the snow-covered quad outside the window.

“Well, not many people from my high school wanted to come here, so I thought I might have an edge.”

He laughed. “Aren’t there other kids from New York here?”

“Yes,” I said, “but not from my high school.” I began to describe my high school, full of brilliant, quirky kids, the kind of school with a Japanese Animation Appreciation Society but no football team. Few of my classmates had chosen the kind of college I had—a politically conservative campus in a one traffic light-town—and now, as the end of college approached, I often wondered what I had been thinking. He listened, his chin resting in his hands, his eyes soft and heavy lidded.

After that day, I looked for more reasons to visit him, to envelop myself in the still quiet of his office and the heat of his gaze. After discussing my job search, I told him about frat parties, late night swims in the river, my hunt for a graduation dress that wouldn’t be seen beneath my robe and a pair of funky shoes that I hoped would be. I told him how my friends roused me from bed at night shouting, “You sleep when you die!” and I would dress myself quickly in layers of flannel and denim and head out to another party. When I spoke, I could feel the way that my youth and energy intoxicated him. I was a femme fatale in duck boots.

•••

I was the one who had rekindled our connection, Googling him one afternoon while my kids napped. He had appeared, suddenly, in a dream several nights earlier in which whatever barrier that had once stood between us was inexplicably gone. The connection between us was magnetic and erotic, and I woke up with the memory of him clinging to me like a wet bathing suit.

I quickly found his email address beneath a recent photo. He looked much the same, grayer perhaps, but his eyes had the same intensity. Was it melancholy? I wondered now. I typed what I thought was a casual note and quickly clicked send. A few hours later, he wrote back: I wont lie and say your email brought back fond memories of our time together. The truth is, I havent stopped thinking about you since.

I was stunned by the intensity of his words. Was he serious? Did he really still think about me? The thought thrilled me, a dollop of intrigue mixed into my domestic routine. We emailed each other a few more times and then set a time to speak on the phone. I didn’t want to call him from my house so I left my kids at home with a babysitter and parked my car in the parking lot of a nearby nursery school.

What was I doing? I asked myself as I dialed his number. This was dangerous territory. I was married now, the mother of young children. I had no intention of leaving my family, and yet I couldn’t stop myself. The young girl I had once been—the one he had known—beckoned me, and her pull felt like gravity. Besides, wasn’t this what he had always done, spoken to me in privacy, out of earshot of his wife and children? I had always assumed that I was a secret he kept from his family, although I had never asked. So maybe it was okay, I reasoned. I wiped my damp hands on my jeans.

He answered after the first ring.

“I think I know why I started thinking about you,” I told him, the words rushing forth. “I’m in the same place now that you were in then—married with two kids. And it’s so hard, harder than anyone ever tells you. So I think I get it now, what you might have been looking for in me. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do,” he said. “You brought conversation back into my life, the kind that disappears when you’re married and raising small children. I didn’t know how much I missed it until I found it with you.”

I thought about the kinds of conversations I had now with my husband and friends: whose turn was it to take out the trash, please could I drop off the dry cleaning, what was I going to do about summer camp?

“Why didn’t you run away with me?” I asked him, shocking myself with the boldness of the question. “It would have been easier then than it is now.”

“Well, there was a bit of a stigma, don’t you think? The professor running off with his much younger student? Our age difference was a bit more to overcome back then.” He paused. “You also told me you didn’t want that.”

“I did? When?”

“One day in my office. I remember I moved too close to you and you pointed your finger at me and told me to step back. You said, ‘There are lines for a reason.’”

I dug around in my memory like an overstuffed purse. I couldn’t remember this at all.

“Well, you could have fought for me.”

“I suppose so,” he said. “But you’re the one who didn’t meet me in Boston that day, remember?”

I watched a squirrel dart across the parking lot, jerking his head back and forth as he ran. Mothers were walking kids back to their cars, buckling them into brightly patterned car seats, doling out snacks and reprimands and kisses. I wondered what my kids were doing at home. Waking up from their naps, probably, their hair fuzzy, their skin pink.

“Well, we could have tried,” I told him, watching the women ease their cars slowly out of the parking lot, returning to their appropriate lives of duty and routine.

•••

After I graduated from college, our conversations continued. And perhaps because we were no longer face-to-face, they became more intimate. Freed from the boundaries of our teacher-student relationship, we called each other almost daily. I talked about my new life in the city of my youth: entry-level jobs, late nights in smoky bars, the men who came and went. He shared few details about his life with me, and I never asked. I didn’t know the names or ages of his children or what he did after he hung up the phone. I knew he spoke to me from an office with a phone that only he answered, but I didn’t know where it was or what he did there. In my mind, it was tucked in the corner of a clapboard house with a large wooden desk by a window overlooking a leafy backyard. It was always quiet and remote and bathed in a soft green light.

I came to crave these long conversations, the way they removed me from the life around me, a life I wasn’t sure how to become a part of. When we spoke, I heard only his voice soothing me, building me up. My power over him continued to thrill me and could, I discovered, be as erotic as touch. I was as lonely and lost as ever, but on the phone, my life was full of possibility and ever-changing. I wasn’t writing anymore but, in a way, I was, telling him the stories I wasn’t writing down. And he was my most avid reader.

I never stopped to question the propriety of a married man and father speaking on the phone with a woman almost half his age. That it made me feel good was all I cared about, and so I used him and his affirmation of me as material to fill the gaping maw that was my burgeoning self.

After about a year, something happened that pushed us beyond the safe borders that we had established for our relationship, if that’s what it could be called. One day on the phone, I mentioned that my friend Molly and I were planning a trip to Boston to visit our mutual friend Janine.

“Funny,” he said. “I’m going to be in Boston that same weekend. Maybe we can meet up.”

He sounded casual, and I tried to meet his tone. A face-to-face meeting would signify a shift in our relationship from the emotional and intellectual affair we’d been having to something very different. The thought both excited and terrified me. After some discussion, we made arrangements to meet on Saturday afternoon. From my desk in a towering New York office building, Saturday seemed very far away.

When Molly and I arrived at Janine’s apartment, he had already called looking for me there.

“Who is this man calling you?” Janine asked me as soon as I walked in the door. I had never told anyone about the professor, but now it all came out: the phone calls, the wife and kids, our proposed meeting. They remembered him vaguely from school and were appropriately scandalized.

“Holy shit!” Janine said. “I can’t believe you never told us!” Molly raised a pierced eyebrow at me. I laughed and tried to siphon off some of their exuberance for myself. After settling in, I called him from Janine’s phone and we firmed up our plans for the next day. I would meet him in a park on the far side of town. What would happen next, I did not know.

Molly, Janine, and I drank cheap wine from plastic cups and prepped for a night on the town. I wore a short floral dress and chunky Doc Martens, a poor man’s Winona Ryder. “Where’s my Ethan Hawke?” I shouted at my reflection as Molly and I primped in Janine’s tiny bathroom. I put on my best smoky eye and red lipstick while Molly slicked back her cropped hair. Janine slithered into a pair of tight black pants, teased her brown hair high and painted her delicate eyelashes with mascara. She was ready to leave Boston, she told us. “I’m too much woman for this one-horse town.”

At the nightclub, I tried to lose myself in the heat and sound. As I danced, I imagined the professor watching me. I swung my hair around, my neck loose and long. I imagined his hands on me, sliding around my waist and pulling me toward him, the space between us narrowing as we swayed in time to the music, the throbbing bass notes coursing up through the floor and our bodies. I slept fitfully on Janine’s futon that night, Molly’s lanky frame stretched out beside me.

The next day, Molly and I sat together in the front seat of her car sipping coffee out of paper cups and puzzling over a map of the city. She had agreed to drive me to the park where I was meeting the professor and, I suppose, pick me up a few hours later. The details were vague.

“What are you thinking, Daisy?” she asked after a few moments. I kept my head down, unable to meet her gaze.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking down at the map. The brightly colored roads blended together into an unnavigable tangle. “Do you think I should go?”

“Well, what do you think is going to happen if you meet him? What do you want to happen?”

I tried to conjure up a physical image of the professor, but he was hazy. All I remembered was his voice and the way he made me feel. I was chasing a ghost.

“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s forget it.”

We tossed the crumpled map into the backseat and Molly cranked up the radio. Liz Phair’s voice blasted through the speakers of the Honda Accord, foul-mouthed anthems of female empowerment pulsing through the car. We sang along until we were hoarse.

As the hour of our meeting came and went, I tried not to think about the professor waiting for me. A few hours later, the phone rang at Janine’s apartment. She handed it to me.

“Where were you?” he said when I answered the phone. His voice was louder than I’d ever heard it before. “I was really worried about you.”

“I decided not to come,” I said.

“Why not?” he said. “You could have let me know. This is a big city. Anything could have happened to you.”

“Oh, so you were worried about me? That’s why you’re calling, to make sure I’m okay?”

I pulled the phone down the hallway, the curly cord stretching behind me.

“Don’t you think this is a little weird? I mean, what are you doing?” I stretched the words out. “Did you really have plans to come to Boston this weekend?”

He said nothing. I felt the outline of everything we had left unsaid pushing against me until I could barely breathe. I wondered where he was calling me from.

“Do you have feelings for me?” I asked quietly. “Do you love me?”

“I think you know I do.”

I exhaled slowly, my heart pounding in my ears.

“Well, that’s why I didn’t come,” I said. And then, after several beats, “I think I have to go.”

“If that’s what you think is best,” he said.

“I do,” I said and hung up.

I stumbled back into the living room where Molly and Janine were sprawled out listening to the Indigo Girls.

“What happened?” Janine asked, sitting up. Molly watched me expectantly.

“He was kind of pissed but, whatever,” I said. And with that, I was swept back into their world, leaving the intensity of the phone call, and whatever it had meant, behind.

•••

And that was how it ended, on the phone, our relationship remaining emotionally charged but physically chaste. I went back to my life in New York and rarely thought about the professor after that day. He remained firmly in my memory, as a part of my past encased in amber. I’d met and married my husband and started my own family without ever thinking of the impact I might have had on his. And yet here I was now, back on the phone with him, listening to the same, soft voice speaking to me in a very different life.

We had never had a physical affair, but did that make what we had done all right? Our relationship existed in a kind of gray area, and I wondered if what we had done was outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a marriage. If he had felt bored, stifled by routine, burden and obligation, was it okay for him to seek a kind of comfort elsewhere? Was it okay for me to do the same?

“Were you happy?” I asked him, gazing out at the parking lot. The sun shone through the trees, sprinkling drops of light on the pavement. “I mean, back when we knew each other, were you happy?”

“I suppose I was,” he said. “Meeting you made me happy.”

“No, I mean with your wife and kids. Did they make you happy? You never spoke about them, and I think I understand why, but looking back, it seems significant to me now.”

I could hear him breathing on the other end of the line. “Marriage is complicated, Daisy,” he said. “We do love our spouses and children no matter how disinclined we may be to discuss them.” He was drifting into his cool, detached professor-ese. It pissed me off.

“Give me a break,” I said. “I’m a grown-up now, just like you. You don’t need to protect me. You don’t need to be my mentor. Here I am, asking you the hard questions and I want the hard answers.”

“Okay, Daisy, you want the truth?” he said. His voice turned to glass. “Today is my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. In a happy marriage, today would be a moment to celebrate but, in mine, the day has gone by unnoticed, unacknowledged. Not even a verbal exchange of ‘Happy Anniversary.’ My twentieth was the same, as were many before that. I believe I’ve just given you a ‘hard answer.’ I’d be happy to give you more. I’d be happy to not be mentor-ly toward you, but I’d need to know what you want. And I’d need to know I can trust you.”

The sun beat down on the windshield of the car. Tiny pinpricks of sweat rose along the flat of my lip and quickly turned cold. The parking lot was empty, marked only by the regular grid of white lines. See, they seemed to be saying, there are rules we follow, unquestioning.

“Can I call you again?” he asked.

There it was, the invitation to a life of danger, the one I’d declined many years before in Boston but had asked for again. Did I want it now?

“No,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “Whatever you want. But if you ever change your mind, you know where to find me.”

I hung up the phone and drove slowly down the street toward home, to my children fresh from sleep, to the trash that needed to be taken out, to the dishwasher that needed to be emptied. It was not a life my twenty-two-year-old self would have recognized, but it was certainly one she would have envied. My world came into focus again, its colors bright and vibrant, technicolor. I felt clean, like crisp white linen drying in the sun. As I moved through the streets of my quiet suburban town, past the familiar houses and trees, I knew that I would not call him again. I’d learned all that I needed to know from the professor.

•••

DAISY ALPERT FLORIN is the staff editor at Brain, Child. A native New Yorker, she lives in Connecticut with her family.

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My Grandmother’s Abortion

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By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Bir

There’s still a residue of dried cottage cheese curds on the wall. Our dining room is beige, and the white curds don’t show up much. But I know they are there. I’m the one who threw the bowl of cottage cheese.

Frances watched me do it. The bowl was Japanese, one of those cute little ones, a white good luck kitty against a pink background. It hit the wall and cleaved cleanly in half with a satisfying crack. Cottage cheese flew everywhere: the wall, the floor, the blinds, the bookshelf, the books on the bookshelf. The goddamn ceiling. Frances wailed.

I threw it because of her. We were not having a good day together, my daughter and me. Our heads butted over insignificant things, and as they piled up—whining, backtalk, tedium—they became an Ugly Significant Thing. Frances demanded cottage cheese for lunch, then rejected it, lower lip protruding, and that small assertion broke me.

Frances is three, and she is wont to act like a three-year-old. But she is also always extra everything: extra sweet, extra clever, extra loud, extra hitty. We have occasional periods of intense discord that neither one of us are equipped to navigate levelheadedly.

Frances escaped the flying curds but not their implication. The dog quickly began lapping at the cottage cheese spattered on floor, and for impossibly long seconds I watched his purposeful pink tongue erase a small corner of the mess I’d created.

Immobilized, I wondered if this sort of thing goes on in other, less-extra households. Then the urgency of Frances’s crying broke the spell, and I scooped her up and held her against me. I stroked her hair, and she sobbed. I put my hand between her tiny shoulder blades and felt her warm, smooth skin as our breathing slowed to a normal pace.

“Mama, why did you throw my lunch against the wall?” she asked.

“Because I was upset,” I tell her. “Sometimes Mama gets upset and can’t help herself.”

•••

Frances shares her first name with her maternal great-grandmother, my Grandma K. Grandma died when I was four, and I have few memories of her. I treasure a silly 1970s Christmas snapshot of her. She’s laughing, holding a recently opened joke gift from my mom: a giant bottle of Excedrin. Though it wasn’t really a joke, because Mom knew Grandma would use all those pills. She took Excedrin at a pretty decent clip. Shortly before Grandma’s fatal heart attack—there’d been previous ones—she’d posted a package to me containing a summery outfit: blue shorts and a Blueberry Muffin t-shirt that said “I love you BERRY much!” It arrived just days after her death. Thrilled with its contents, I didn’t even notice my mother weeping after we opened it.

Mom drove up to make arrangements for Grandma’s funeral. Mom and her siblings discovered a homemade cherry pie at the house, nearly as fresh as Grandma’s death. Grandma loved to bake, pies in particular, and her adult children all sat at the tiny table in the tiny kitchen of the tiny house that they grew up in and ate that cherry pie. My mother does not bake pies.

Outside of baking, there were not many things Grandma liked to do. An occasional canasta date with her cousin and his wife, short stories in ladies’ magazines, watered-down polka music on the radio to drain out the sound of the young voices filling the house. She was too busy not going insane from raising her four kids for luxuries such as liking things.

•••

The name Frances came into our awareness because of my commute. Heading downtown every morning, my bus passed a posh clothing store, the kind of spot where a pair of knee-high socks costs fifty dollars. It was called Frances May. I hadn’t once set foot in the store, but seeing its name repeatedly from my jouncy seat must have triggered a response. When I was pregnant, I told Mom that we were set on Frances for a girl name.

“You know that was my mom’s name, don’t you?” Mom asked.

I didn’t, and I instantly felt like an ass. As a kid, I always thought of Grandma and Grandpa K as my boring grandparents. “Oh, then all the better,” I told Mom to break the long silence that followed. “It will be nice to have a family name.”

But initially Mom was not enthused about the idea. “I’m sorry. It’s just not a very happy name to me,” she said. I didn’t quite understand why she felt that way, but in the awkwardness of the moment, I didn’t press her for reasons. Mom decided that she’d call her baby granddaughter Francie. Grandma usually went as Fran.

Mom knows little about her own mother’s youth. Grandma’s father died young, and Grandma’s mother married a man who Grandma and her siblings called “the old geezer”. Grandma left school in eighth grade to work—for money but possibly to just get away from home. At first she cleaned houses, and later on, she worked at bars. Since she was neither flirty nor fond of drinking, this seems an odd employment choice, but it probably wasn’t a choice. She needed a job; bars needed a workforce, and bars didn’t require a high school education.

My mom, who never knew her maternal grandparents, has some joyful memories of her own childhood, but not many. She’s the oldest of four, born while Grandpa K was deployed in the Pacific during Word War II. Grandma and Grandpa K met at a dance hall called the Paris Inn, where Grandma worked at the time. To me, it means that there was a time when they did fun things, like dancing.

A son and two more daughters followed Mom. They lived in a modest house on a rural road. The girls all shared one room. They had few toys, few books. Grandpa was an ironworker, and his pay went far enough for them to have a solid middle-class life. Sometimes he went to the bar after work to decompress with his cronies and didn’t come back home for hours.

They had one car and no sidewalks. When Grandpa was at work, Grandma, who was not an outside person, was stranded at the house. For discipline, Grandma brought out what all the kids called the hittin’ stick. My uncle got his dose of the hittin’ stick more than his sisters, until he was big enough to yank it out of Grandma’s hand and chase her around the yard with it.

Grandma K was an anxious person, either by nature or by circumstance. Beginning in her late thirties, like many middle-class women of the time, she took diet pills (stimulants, basically), which could not have been helpful in achieving the state of calm that always eluded her. Her stress management choices—if that’s all it was, stress and not something more clinical, more constant—were cigarettes and tea. She drank tea, not coffee.

After Mom graduated from high school and moved away to work as a secretary, Grandma wrote her letters every week. They could have easily just spoken on the phone, especially given the content of the letters, which were unexciting recaps of what Mom’s siblings were up to or afternoon visits with nearby relatives. Looking at one of those letters, with their precise grammar and neat, old-fashioned script, you’d never guess they came from the pen of a woman who didn’t finish eighth grade.

All of these things I know because Mom told me. She makes a point of telling me family things, because her mother didn’t. So I know I’m thin, like her. I wear glasses, like her. I bake pies, like her. I’m starting to get arthritis, which plagued Grandma’s hands, though she barely mentioned it to anyone.

Grandma didn’t have an explosive personality like me, although she did yell at her kids, and often, run-of-the-mill nagging-mom stuff: “Keep out of there!” “Quiet down!” “Your hands are filthy!” She was kind but not down-and-dirty nurturing. (A housekeeping fanatic, Grandma wasn’t dirty anything). Mom learned how to sew, not from Grandma, but Grandma’s sister-in-law, Mom’s Aunt P, who had a special fondness for my mom. Aunt P had married well and lived several hours away, in a big city that must have seemed cosmopolitan compared to the dull Rust Belt town where Grandma’s family had settled.

Aunt P lived a long, full life. Mom made an effort to see her about once a season, especially once Aunt P was in her nineties. During one of those last visits, Aunt P told Mom that Grandma had had an abortion.

When Mom said this to me, I was full of questions: When did this happen? Did Grandpa know? Did Aunt P accompany her? How did they pay for it? How did Grandma manage, in her little world and little town, to find a place that would provide this service?

The one question I didn’t ask was why. I already knew the answer to that.

•••

My husband and I were the first in our group of friends to conceive. Which is amazing, as we have yet to catch up to them with them in other aspects of being grown up. Like: developing solid careers, buying a house, building up savings. But I felt that yearning bodily urge for something to grow inside of me, and we figured why wait? Months later, I was pregnant. Simple.

What’s not simple is how, since having Frances, my highs have been higher and my lows have been lower. It’s like something chemical kicked in, a sinister hormone from a rogue gland secreted on scattered, dread-filled days. And then it’s my turn to be extra: extra unresponsive, extra reactive. Add a newborn to the mix and the default façade of sanity would crumble.

•••

Aunt P accompanied Grandma to the abortion. It would have been Grandma’s fifth child; she was about forty at the time. There was no money for another baby, but maybe there was a lack of something else, too. Mom remembers a phase in her teens, late in the 1950s, when Grandma would break down crying for no apparent reason at all. It had been a bad year; Grandpa had spent many months unemployed, no ironworking jobs available.

“I think, looking back on it, she was crying because she was pregnant again and didn’t know what to do,” Mom said in light of Aunt P’s revelation. “She may even have been hurting herself, trying to lose the baby. There weren’t a lot of options.” So Grandma’s option was an illegal abortion, which must have terrified her. How did she know if the doctor was trustworthy? Who would watch the kids while she left town and then returned, scraped raw inside, needing to recover? Did it wrench her apart, knowing that to preserve her family she’d have to end a pregnancy that began just as the ones resulting in the four children she loved? Mom’s family went on only one vacation, to Niagara Falls, when the kids were still at home. Outside of that, the abortion would have been Grandma’s biggest getaway. This one trip that she did for herself wasn’t anything she really wanted to do.

It’s not the details, but the lack of them, that are telling to me about Grandma’s branch of our ancestry. She must have been loved and cared for to some degree in her youth. What if my daughter had been born back then, to Grandma’s family, raised with the ominous, menacing presence of an unwelcome stepfather? Would she be the spirited, confident girl I recognize? Or would her sharpness be dulled, her light hid under a bushel until it extinguished, deprived of the oxygen that it needed to keep shining? How much Fran is in my Frances? How much Fran is in me?

•••

I have options. Unlike Grandma, I have reliable birth control. After Frances was born, I got an I.U.D. On my insurance plan at the time, it cost me a twenty-dollar co-pay, but that minute contraption—mere slivers of plastic and a few whiskery wires, like a T-shaped fishing lure—retails for about four-hundred dollars. It’s over 99% effective. Sometimes, after we have sex, Joe will ask, “Is that thing still inside you? Does it still work?” Yes and yes, and why he doesn’t ask before? Neither of us likes to think about the splinter of error there, the baby we could accidentally create, the good and the bad parts of us that would load the dice.

If my I.U.D. didn’t work and I got pregnant again, I wouldn’t rule it out, the thing that Grandma did. I’m thankful not to have to make that choice. I can access reproductive health care, even without insurance. I have a husband who, when I say, “Not tonight, honey,” will roll over, sighing, and respect my wishes. I have girlfriends and medical professionals I can talk about sex with frankly. Joe and I together planned when we wanted to become parents.

I wonder what kind of woman Grandma would have been if she’d been able to finish high school, or if she’d grown up in the kind of family that encouraged girls to explore their world. I wonder how many children the newly married her would have preferred to have, if that number was three or two or one. I look at the cottage cheese on my wall, ghostly freckles like snow, my reminder that fits are not worth having. More fits will come, but the aim is to keep them to a minimum, to have them out of everyone’s sight. With more than one kid, god knows what kinds of dishes would be flying around, and at whose head.

But that’s not a problem I have to deal with. Not now, hopefully not ever. I kiss Frances, my daughter, Fran’s great-granddaughter, and turn away from the mottled wall.

•••

SARA BIR lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Her essay “Smelted,” from this site, is included in Best Food Writing 2014. Her website is www.sausagetarian.com.

 

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The Swap

sundress

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Though the forecast semi-promised rain, the afternoon of our upstairs housemates’ clothing swap was ushered in to the best Memorial Day weekend in New England weather. It was hot, yet fresh in the sunshine, comfortable in the shade, bright, clear blue sky with puffy white clouds above and thick, healthy green grass below.

Em and Nell—the two sisters from upstairs—and a few friends began to lay down sheets and unpack clothing from bags and boxes. Other friends walked down the grassy hill with more, which were placed by category onto the ground. They brought shirts and pants, skirts, dresses, and shoes. Home baked goods—a plate of brownies, another of cookies dusted on top with powdery confectioner’s sugar, and chocolate chip cookies—appeared, as well as bags of salty snacks and plates and containers with watermelon and grapes. Beer and a big bottle of wine arrived, too. There were no cups. People shared, swigged.

Nate and Ben, the two sisters’ boyfriends, looked on. The ponytailed boyfriend was a housemate, the shorthaired boyfriend a visiting beau. Ben walked from his woodshop in the barn and back to the grass several times. For a year, every Saturday morning he drove off early to attend a boat building class. His canoe was lodged on a rack in the open middle barn. An onlookers’ corner formed in the shade, more males than females. There wasn’t much for them to do but sit and chat and drink a beer and look moderately bored. This was a big step up from waiting at a ladies’ clothing store while your girlfriend tries stuff on, but that vibe endured, just a bit, the price of boyfriend-dom or of being part of any group that wasn’t engaged in your dream activity. It wasn’t quite a Memorial Day Party.

In the thicket of swappers, though, hugs and squeals and vamping ensued with gleeful abandon as clothes came on and off of bodies and bodies moved between states of dress and undress. A pause in the action occurred about an hour in for everyone in that swapping circle to make introductions: name, gender, preferred pronoun—the icebreaker trifecta for twentysomethings in the twenty-teens.

One of the most beloved in the group had recently announced her transition. She’d changed her name, completed a course of testosterone blockers, and begun estrogen. Short dark hair growing out, Marta graced a new-to-her blue dress quite stunningly—to everyone’s accolades. The male clothing she’d had—work clothes, play clothes, and so much workout gear—couldn’t come along. Her former drag items no longer worked, either. Whatever those had been, playful or experimental, no longer applied. What to wear and who to become melded now and, amongst the heaps of clothing, she found nothing else she really wanted. Meantime, a rainbow-striped baseball cap made the rounds of heads. Eventually, it was left on the roof of our black sedan, and I brought it inside to our mudroom. Perhaps some child or tween might take a shine to it.

•••

The big yellow house we live in has an apartment on the top, which, for over a dozen years, we’ve bartered for hours, mostly for childcare and the light housekeeping duties that keep a family functional: laundry assists and kitchen cleanup and some cooking.

The barter tends to be with young adults in the twenties, a changeable time. Newly graduated from college, newly cohabiting, newly married, newly out (but not to the family), newly employed or trying to become employed, or applying to graduate school, no one who’s moved here planned to set roots from a top floor flat. Transition, even when there’s a person who stays for a couple of years, is implicit, because the apartment’s appeal is the bargain—no cash money, just time and utilities and Wifi and laundry and a place to park off-street in the winter—and the feel of your own place but in such proximity to a family. It has a separate kitchen and bathroom and entrance, yet it shares heat and laundry and Wifi and off-street parking in the winter. In over a decade-plus, the two-bedroom has housed somewhere near twenty people—it’s hard to keep count. Perhaps it’ll click for someone for longer, but somehow I don’t expect it, at least not in this incarnation.

The spring and fall swaps started two years ago with these sisters. My closet and drawers emptied in increments over time, to my relief. Clothing and shoes of my twenties and beyond that had lingered in my possession unworn were released—and I was freed of whatever the threads held over me. The sisters pluck favored items from my contributions to the swaps before they begin. A running top went to Nell; that morning, Em and her best friend appeared in linen sundresses, sleeveless with collars and big buttons down the front I’d released from my closet, sundresses I used to wear. My best friend, Penny, wore those dresses, too. I had three. I kept just one for the dog days. I know Penny still has at least one left, because she wore it when visiting last summer. Once, a grey and white striped cotton tank dress was handed to me. I put it in my closet, never felt comfortable in it, and placed it in a bag six months later. The way I want the swaps to work for me is as license to push the extraneous away and let my closets and drawers speak to the life I lead right now—or as close to that goal as I can get.

A swap cycle ago, my daughter received the metallic lacy tank shirt—a shirt for Em, a dress for my daughter—that she’d coveted; it’s become a dress-up staple. There is an element of dressing up to the swap culture—and to the twenties. “The clothes have gotten nicer, more professional,” Em observed earlier this year. “More of us have real jobs, ones you need to dress for.”

One of our dearest of babysitters—a friend and former housemate, too—moved to New York just over a year ago, and she’d come up for the weekend’s swapfest. In belted jeans that fit perfectly and a tee, Lila looked fantastically herself, but a sleeker version, as New York can bring out. Her reddish hair was longer but seemed to have been cut recently. She seemed neat, put together. She loved her job and the chance to go to art openings and film screenings and her housemates in Brooklyn. She awaited another position at the auction house, and grad school loomed more as possibility than pressure. “It couldn’t be better,” she said. She’d pieced together work, first in a store and then increasingly “in her field” here for a couple of years before the right New York opportunity arose.

Nell spent more time with her visiting beau in the onlookers’ corner than in the swap heap of clothes and people. She held up clothing that came from her not-quite-two-years-older sister and shrugged. “I almost always end up with Em’s clothes in the swap.” The older sister lost a lot of weight over the past year and the beloved green sweatshirt dress already went to her taller, broader-shouldered (former swimmer), barely younger sister. Both are high achievers, highly engaged, competent, capable and lovely. Their sisterhood is obvious, especially their arresting oblong eyes, and yet they come across with completely different energies—one more muscled in her upbeat-ness and drive, the other lower-keyed, yet more serious and at the same time, funnier.

Another former babysitter friend and housemate for a summer flashed her gentle smile. “I’m in Montague, now,” she’d explained—a thirty-minute drive from our house, “an herbal garden, my herbal practice and then work with a program for youth. It’s coming together.” I’d listened to the ups and downs of managing the piecemeal work and the herbal training. And on this bright day, it was all smiles and a sense that they all were nowhere near finish line but rounding the track and feeling fine.

•••

What of the other moments? I remembered them so clearly—tears in the kitchen, eyes pooling puppy-dog wide. “I didn’t get the job,” choked the recent college graduate. It was a halftime position at a local parents’ center and while it was closer to her desired field—public health and sex education—it really wasn’t that at all. A parent from the center had gotten the job, assisting other parents and kids at the drop-in center.

“You’d have been great,” I cheered her on, “and yet you’d have been frustrated, too, because it’s not exactly what you want to do. Already you have a job doing what you want and you’re not six months out of college. The right thing will come along. It will. You’re doing so wonderfully already.” More tears, big hug—and onward, that’s the twenties. That’s life, really. She’s getting her PhD now, full ride, and the last position she applied for—sex educator at a local college—she got.

Jobs missed and gotten is only part of it. Long ago, our babysitter’s eyes blazed with adoration and she smiled like the cat that ate the canary. She and I stood with the laundry basket of clean clothing in between us. We both folded. “We’re… dating,” Hallie offered. The other half of “we” was another babysitter. Although Nic did not live in the house, she did, which meant that while the romance burned brightly, we often had moon-eyed twofers of babysitters, because they could hang out with the two kids, cross-legged amongst the blocks and books and trucks. Distracted by love, there was so much laughter that the romance was, for the kids, infectious. They loved both the very fair and self-declared sensitive young woman and the beanpole young man with slack eyes and a zest for Buddhism, so the pairing was kind of magical. Please don’t break up in my living room if it comes to that, I remember thinking. I hope I didn’t say it out loud, but I might have. I wasn’t so very far from breakups myself, and I still had enough single friends searching for love that the potential for disaster felt fresh enough—coupled with the fact that my kids were small and I felt dependent upon the babysitters for my emotional survival.

Hallie is married now—not to Nic—and has an eighteen-month-old boy with carrot hair and blue eyes that will bore holes into her heart.

What sticks? What do you let go? What returns? Like the clothes on the piles, there’s not really one answer. Answers form a shape shift, the questions blend in, the colors are your favorite and then you’ve worn them so much they’ve worn out their welcome. There will become, in your mind, a bright green era or a vegan period or a time when the relationship was all about starry-eyes and then… not.

•••

Meantime, the afternoon’s happy, hugging crew strewn across the lawn like so many to-be-swapped clothes included a reluctant eleven-year-old boy and a toddling one-year-old boy. The clothes and people continued to arrive. The neighbors’ grandchildren looked on at first and then disappeared, having seen some bras and tattooed bellies. People in states of undress reveal things about themselves that you did not know in inked bellies and backs with flowers and words and leaves. My daughter, who is six, went from the swing to Lila’s lap. Our two-year-old neighbor pal stuck to the climber and swings, mostly swinging on her belly. Yoni, her babysitter, found clothes. I snapped photos; I chatted with former and current babysitters and their friends, my friends through them and hoped my clothing found happy homes. Besides the linen dresses, this time I’d unearthed some things from deep in a closet—a brown jacket and pleated skirt that would be retro now, and likely in style again, a flowered corduroy dress that I’d loved, brown, grey, reddish hues and drop-waist with buttons in front (I guess I liked buttons), leggings and comfy black pants that straddled the line between clothing and pajamas.

I love to watch these young adults grow, to see the ways they reach toward dreams, and especially perhaps the way they revel in friendships. They sew a world together between them like homemade fabric flags waving. I envy their time—the potlucks and parties and nights out dancing, the brunches and weekends and hikes—not because I want for friends, or because I never see mine. I do, in fact. But I miss the way these young adults’ time unfolds opportunities to hang out abound so amply. Friendships take up a particular kind of space, edged out by romantic partners and children and extended family. Things become more encumbered, more weighted, less blowy. My friendships were like that once: juicy, time consuming, and filled with rituals and catch phrases and photos of one another that we passed around, hand to hand.

I’d let go of the electric blue suede short boots with the pointy toes and chunky heels a while before, but they were emblematic of my twentysomething self. They were as hip as I got, a little sassy, cute, and hopeful. They were confident boots and in them, I felt confident. That’s a sensation that I experienced fleetingly—and remains, frankly, fleeting. When Em nabbed low cowboy boots a couple of swaps earlier, she’d declared, “I think I know what you were like when you were my age now,” and in a way, I think she did.

Some of the clothing I’ve offloaded over time is very big and baggy, other things are small and clingy. My body, my style, my stage of life changed over those decades. I worked. I went to graduate school. I moved away as a newlywed for an eighteen-month adventure in London. The wedding was a huge affair, with so many friends spilling in from afar and from near. We feasted on the friendships, the old ones and new ones and middle-length ones. For years and even decades when someone became important to us, we wished that somehow through magic or time travel, we could have shared that friend-fest with that person, too. We returned from London barely three months before our first baby arrived. I became a mom, and despite conflicted feelings, a Mom, too. I became a writer. I volunteered.

•••

I’d joked for years that our house served as excellent birth control, filled with one, then two, then three, then four kids—but the fourth brought infant lust to the towheaded artist on the top floor. Sloan wanted a baby so badly and adored our tiny gal so much that it saddened him to leave for graduate school. Being gay served as excellent birth control just then, too. I cried when Sloan left (in our old car, sold to him for cheap) because I so adored him. But with all these people, something reminds me of them and I can reach out and they reach back, because we did happen into one another’s lives during rich times, ones that we hold tenderly.

The whole time, with all those practice twentysomethings I thought that by the time I began to launch—or prepare to launch—my own kids, I’d be able to do it better because of all I’d learned. And maybe that’s true: I saw that encouragement is what older adults can offer and the willingness to brainstorm and write endless references for as many years out as requested. I saw that you could love new things via younger people: music and Zumba, a better way to make jam or put the toys away. You could remember how poignant and how free and how confusing freedom felt and how much it cost to have your car towed.

But now I have to let go. I have to not worry about the fact that things will go awry and the place will be a mess—and then maybe clean, maybe not, depending. I have to trust that trial and error is, it turns out, inevitable. Nothing is smooth, not really. All that effort to smooth the way for my children, not so much to do their laundry (although there’s that) but to manage things for them—the many check-ins with teachers and the many lessons and classes and teams and enriching books and rules or letting go of the rules, the endless, endless bedtimes—wasn’t a recipe for these next steps. How much is rent? How much is insurance? What do I do when I can’t do the math assignment? Do I ask her out? I couldn’t have pre-answered those questions and so many others. I tried; I whispered to my eldest son as an infant all the important stuff, like “don’t drink and drive,” or “use condoms” or “respect women.” I like to believe he heard me, and when he needs that critical good advice, it’ll rise up like the long buried memory it is, soggy and warm and still intact.

The swaps are the young adult version of offloading the kids’ hand-me-downs. You keep letting go, and eventually, you realize you’ve grown. Each one of you has grown, not just the kids. The thing that remains isn’t a shirt; it’s not a moment or a skill; it’s love. You’ve done right because you’ve loved. You’ve loved and you’ve done right. That’s how it comes out in the wash. That’s how every one of you gets to the thirties.

•••

SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a contributor to Full Grown People. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and the 2014 anthology The Good Mother Myth, amongst other places.

 

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The Status of Pain

microphone

By Ally Mauro/ Flickr

By Sonya Huber

A friend at a writing conference asked me how I was doing. I said, “Pretty good, all things considered.”

“That’s good,” he said. “All I see on your Facebook page is ‘Pain, pain, pain.’”

I gave a half smile and a knowing shrug to get away from the conversation, but my brain buzzed with distraction, embarrassment, annoyance, and a bit of curiosity. That’s all I’d managed to leave as tracks on his brain: pain? Was he razzing me in a failed attempt at flirtation, or maybe trying to be sensitive in a backhanded way?

Then I began to worry that I’d set up an inadvertent Wailing Wall on social media, even though I’d tried to do the opposite. I had made a conscious decision to post as little as possible about my medical adventures with Rheumatoid Disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

Sure, I needed to vent. After scrolling past enough pictures of people’s dinners, rock-climbing feats, and dogs, I felt compelled to put a bit of myself into the maelstrom. And sometimes I wanted to share that my small life was also part of the big picture of life, even if it was posted from flat on the couch.

The last thing I wanted to become on social media was what I felt like in real life: pain, pain, pain.

•••

When I was in college, a young woman in philosophy class told us that she had chronic pain from ulcers. I couldn’t fathom it. Pain, like stubbing your toe, but all the time? Wouldn’t that drive you bat-shit crazy? She was beautiful and a campus athlete, and I began to revere her from afar as some kind of saint, which was the reference point I had for unrelenting suffering: that it ennobled.

Lucky for me, I had exactly twenty more years to live my lovely normal life, filled with sex and sports and walking and soccer and sleeping late and hardly ever having to fill prescriptions. My body could swing and shake and dance for hours. Eventually my immune system revved up into crisis mode when I was in my late thirties, which catapulted me into rheumatoid disease. It’s systemic, autoimmune, and incurable. My joints hurt pretty much all the time. I’m four years into the rest of my life, the part that comes with pain.

Since then—in case you’re tempted to share with me your quick fix—I’ve tried everything, and I manage stuff like a pro. Supplements, exercise when I can, a new diet, medications, acupuncture. I work it like a job, and I have to say I am as responsible as one can possibly be in caring for this very needy pet. But although pharmaceutical company commercials want us to believe that new drugs make life better for everyone, the drugs for my condition don’t work all the time, and they don’t erase pain.

•••

Pain itself is a weird experience, but you get used to it, even if it does drive you a little bat-shit crazy. It’s as tiring as parenting a newborn. It creates so many interesting conundrums and challenges. You can imagine it as adding a World of Warcraft addiction or a constant remodeling of one’s kitchen to your already busy life. That’s what it’s like: a weird project that you have to manage in addition to everything else you already have going on. A weird project that will never go away. Imagine remodeling your kitchen for the rest of your life.

People who don’t know pain think it is really depressing. This makes sense, because it is the core biological imperative for preservation of one’s existence: avoid pain. Run, in fact, from any mention of it.

When I post on Facebook about being in pain, or admit to pain in a casual face-to-face conversation, I read the winces in the emoticons, and I feel and see the edges of my friends’ mouths pull back in grimaces of displeasure, winces of agony, as if they themselves are feeling discomfort. As if, in mentioning it, I am the one hurting them. They don’t want to talk or hear about pain. But they have questions, and they are embarrassed to ask. Some friends do ask, and I have loved how they listened as I tried to describe it. I feel very cared for in those moments and immensely relieved.

It’s hard to figure out what to do with this pet Pain I have if I can’t post picture of it on Facebook. It’s not going anywhere, and yet the thought that it makes other people uncomfortable adds to my own discomfort. Not only do I have a physical problem to deal with, but I also have to feel guilty and watch that I don’t inflict thoughts about pain onto other people like some kind of social contagion. People want to fix pain or to convince themselves that it’s not that bad. They want to tell you their grandmother cured her osteoarthritis with cactus juice. I’ve done the same for different difficulties, responding with vague clichés about “what makes us stronger” when friends have lost parents, marriages, jobs, and medical battles.

It’s hard to know what to say. It’s easy to say the wrong thing in those situations.

Sometimes it’s harder to watch someone we love suffer than it is to suffer one’s own pain. I can’t do anything about this pain (aside from seeing my doctors, getting on the treadmill, and eating turmeric and fish oil like candy) but at least I can know it. And that’s what causes anxiety for others, I think, and for me when I’m on the other side of a skin barrier from pain: it is unknown, unfathomable.

•••

I decided to read through a year’s worth of my Facebook posts to assess whether this friend’s comment about “pain, pain, pain” on my Wailing Wall was accurate. Because I love Facebook, I had hundreds of my own inane status updates to click through, mostly quotes about writing, teaching, books I loved, political activism, or events on my campus. I had posted links to articles on fighting racism, pictures of my family, jokes, laments about my dying car, and a photo of a squash that we’d kept on my kitchen table for over a year because my son drew a face on it with a permanent marker. I posted about getting solar panels, my love of the cartoon Adventure Time, and many thoughts on the Affordable Care Act. I posted ideas for imaginary band names and jokes about Star Wars, as well as an update on happened when I spilled a full can of seltzer on my desk. I posted about the sport of soccer-tennis, a trip to Hong Kong, kayaking, and the zombie apocalypse.

Throughout the whole year—June, 1, 2013 to June 1, 2014—I discovered six posts about my illness. Three of these were not about my own situation, but instead links to content created by other people: a graphic about national awareness day for Rheumatoid Disease, a link to a survey about Rheumatoid Disease, and a link to a book about coping with chronic pain. The remaining three posts gave updates about my own health situation, all within a few weeks last summer in which I had a thyroid crash and was having problems with my energy levels. One was a simple apology that I was having trouble returning emails in a timely fashion because I wasn’t feeling well. The second: “When I have the energy, I’m going to write about finding the energy to parent with an autoimmune disease.”

And the third: “It turns out that giving up caffeine after a 22-year habit is actually not that big of a deal if you have RA. I have learned this morning that my pain tolerance and my pain levels are both so high that a teeny little caffeine headache barely registers. It’s kind of cute, this little chemical headache trying to act all important.”

Two posts for the entire year had mentioned “pain” by name.

•••

In that last post, I injected some humor, as I know I should when talking about illness, as a way to sweeten the subject and not drag my friends down, but also because it’s one of my own coping methods: I have to laugh at it. At the same time, I was trying in that status update to give myself a little credit: I do have a high pain tolerance. People in chronic pain are often desperate for a sense of how others might experience their level of pain, not to share the misery but because they would like to know whether they are merely being overly sensitive or whether they are dealing with something that is as epic as it feels.

This is all complicated by the fact that pain research shows that a chronic pain sufferer’s nervous system can get activated and become permanently on alert, so that everything does feel like agony. The question is epistemological, as all seem to be: how would this pain feel to another person? That’s impossible to know, because pain is not an abstract essence. It is an experience, a process.

•••

My friend might have been exaggerating, but I believe his comment, and his memory of the “me in pain” that I’d shared on Facebook, meant something, despite the fact that it was factually incorrect. Pain is searing and it creates an emotional connection. Expressing pain affects others deeply, creating discrete and uncomfortable memories. One expression of pain, and that is what he remembered. This, too, must be keyed into our species’ survival.

When I thought of this friend and his own online persona, I happened to remember most vividly a few honest posts he’d made about his own troubles. It could be that empathy burns those associations into our brains, and that we vividly remember the strong emotions that are drawn forth by the agony of others.

The question, then, is whether even a few honest statements about our conditions become what people see when they think of us. If we are vulnerable, will people automatically associate our whole beings with those moments when we are at our weakest?

•••

Maybe as a result of this awareness, which began well before his comment, I’d also been consciously checking myself. I felt embarrassed after I posted more than one thing about my health because an administrator at work who is also a Facebook friend said, “You’ve been very honest on social media about your medical issues.” He said the word “very” like I’d done something scandalous and unwise, or as if I were into an odd hobby like sticking goldfish up my nose. Or as if admitting to Rheumatoid Disease was akin to posting a picture of myself doing a kegstand. He’s one of those administrative types that make you feel like you might be in trouble for everything. He kind of has principal voice.

After his comment, I got a little paranoid and decided to post less on social media about my pain, partly out of vanity: I didn’t want to be depressing. I wanted people to see me as someone who had more going on in my life than pain. I wanted to be seen as sexy, lively, cute, funny, and relevant. Smart. A thousand other favorable adjectives to please my ego. So maybe vanity won over honesty, or maybe I was trying to condition myself to focus on more than the pain in my joints.

After I’d made the promise to myself to craft an ideal version of myself, a witty well-read upbeat figment of my imagination, another friend said, “I noticed you haven’t been posting stuff about your health on your page. You must be doing well. I’m so glad.” I wanted to tell her about my continued troubles, about the complicated nature of invisible disability, but I said nothing. We hugged and rushed off in opposite directions in the middle of some event.

•••

I have gone back and forth about what risks I take when I publicly acknowledge on the Internet that I am sick. Or that I am me plus a sickness, or however I might want to describe it to make myself feel better on a particular day. For a while, I thought that sharing would actually protect me, because I figured that the more people knew, the more they’d be required not to discriminate against me. But this is a whole other legal and medical privacy conundrum. I know, ultimately, that the social protection of sharing outweighs any of this, because I stumble slowly into networks who will be truly supportive when the chips are down.

I know that the data I post on social media might be used for specific marketing purposes and is public in a way that might have an impact on me in the future. I can’t be denied insurance for a pre-existing condition under the Affordable Care Act, but new methods of discrimination are always being hatched. Still, this condition is already recorded everywhere in my records, so I’m not safe anyway.

I can’t maintain a cagey fear of anyone finding out about my healthcare issues. Pretending a big part of my life doesn’t exist only makes me feel insane, and ashamed, as if I have done something wrong that I need to hide. I needed people to know what was really going on in my life because the pressure of trying to pretend to be normal was more exhausting than being sick. I needed my coworkers and friends to adjust their expectations of me. I needed them to know what I was up against so that they might understand when I said no. Putting my reality on Facebook was a way to train myself and others to deal with my new normal.

For that reason I have decided to be “out” despite the consequences, but I have to remember that I am able to be vocal about a few conditions in my life due to social privilege. One: I’m a writer, so if someone does discriminate against me on the basis of a health issue, I can put it up on the Internet in a reasonably coherent narrative. Two: I’m an activist, so I would know how to make a stink about it. Three: I’m white, so I have the social privilege to be listened to and believed. Four: I’m a tenured professor with a decent income, so I have the flexibility and time to write, the ability to have a flexible schedule that works around my illness, the support of colleagues, and the ability to be relatively safe from health-related discrimination at work.

•••

Or did I just want sympathy? I admit, at my weakest moments, that I did want that. But I also wanted to benefit other people with these conditions, which is a major motivation for people who post information about illnesses on social media. A recent study found that 94% of patients were willing to share their social data to help patients like them, even if there were privacy risks involved. Hence, the link sharing. And another survey found that 33% of adults use social media to find out about medical conditions and “to track and share symptoms.” For that function, I would sometimes post questions or comments to a series of Facebook and blog comment boards where patients could crowdsource information about new treatments, tests, medications, research, and side effects.

At base, I wanted my friends to understand me, including this new little wrinkle in my life. I wanted to be out as a person with Rheumatoid Disease because being quiet about it added shame and loneliness to a host of other problems, mainly the pain.

It’s hard to know exactly what I want in response. Sympathy helps a little, but it almost directly transforms into my friends’ agony and discomfort, and I don’t want that. Instead, like sharing haircuts or publications or travails about broken cars, I just want them to know and to have known, so that they can form an accurate and honest picture about me and who I really am. That’s intimacy, I suppose, and it seems to break down the wall that anxious sympathy erects.

And it’s true: I do have chronic pain. But I can name your imaginary band in two seconds, and I have a thousand books you should read, and I’ll send you a link to a great news article, and I think your dog is really cute. And I do have a lot more going on than lying on the couch. It’s just that right now … I’m lying on the couch.

•••

SONYA HUBER is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody (2008) and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (2010), and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers (2011). She teaches at Fairfield University and in Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program.

 

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Slightly Settled Nomads

viewfromplane

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Breawna Power Eaton

My husband and I weren’t fighting, just winding down dinner, discussing life, our future. Then it happened—a mutual, unspoken realization, and all we could do was stare in silence across the table, weighing the words we’d just said:

“Constantly moving just isn’t the life I signed up for.” I’d shrugged, thinking he’d nod and say, “We’ll see” or maybe, “We’ll settle down one day.”

Instead, he said, “Well. I thought I married someone who loved to travel.”

His hazel eyes remained steady.

“I do love to travel.”

My blues eyes resisted a blink.

“I know, but you said you wanted to live overseas.”

“For a few months, Tom, not a life of constantly moving.” Exactly what his career as a Navy judge advocate now required of him. Of us.

That’s when the silence filled our beige-walled dining room with the sage curtains left over from the previous owner. The place felt like ours but not ours, even though we’d bought the gray bungalow two years prior when we moved to Newport, Rhode Island. Our first move of his career, away from our home in San Diego. Soon Tom would deploy to Afghanistan for seven months. Soon after his return, we’d move to Japan, where Tom would again deploy on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier. Two years in Japan, then … ?

“We’ll take it job by job,” Tom said, breaking our silence with his beloved mantra. A mantra I—bitter about leaving my teaching career, family, and friends behind in Southern California—had previously balked.

“Job by job,” I agreed that time instead of muttering my usual, “Easy for you to say.”

Together we’d nodded, though I still believed he’d never feel the sacrifice of our moves as deeply as I would: he’d always have a job and social network to jump right into, while I’d have to start from scratch each time. After finally settling into our new life in Newport, however, I’d begun to see our move less as dismantling and more as an opportunity to reconstruct my life. I’d re-awakened my love for writing, contributing a weekly Q&A feature to a local arts paper and later pursuing my MFA. I’d interned at a non-profit that was building an academy for orphaned children in rural Kenya. I’d started running half-marathons. I’d attended weekly wine-pairing classes. I’d pursued all of the interests I never had time to pursue while teaching high school English full-time. Being uprooted from the life I’d settled into in San Diego was painful, but the change of terroir had allowed me to grow in unpredicted ways, ways I never would have had we remained comfortably at home. I could no longer deny the perks of moving, but a lot of me longed to return home.

What I had failed to realize in our first few years of marriage was that we had not settled in San Diego—only I had. When we weren’t traveling, Tom was already planning our next adventure. A few years before we married, we backpacked around Europe on a “pre-marriage trial run” that cemented our desire to live life together. We honeymooned in Cinque Terre, Italy, two summers later in 2005. Thereafter we spent almost every break (for me from teaching, for him from law school) traveling somewhere—a summer studying law in London, a spring break scuba diving in Jamaica, a winter break touring Eastern Europe’s Christmas Festivals with his best friends. I’d never realized his love for travel meant more than trips during school vacations. He’d never realized my love for travel meant just that.

That night at the dinner table, our silence said what we did not want to voice aloud: we hadn’t married the person we thought we’d exchanged rings with at the altar. Though this is true to a degree in every marriage, it doesn’t lessen the sting of that moment, when you realize you’re on a different trajectory than the one you thought you’d bound yourself to for life.

“Job by job,” we agreed that night, because we were happy, more in love than we were when we had exchanged rings six years prior. Still I couldn’t shake the sting of that moment, nor the underlying fear that our agreement was merely a fake binding, a Band-Aid that we’d either slowly pull away over the years or painfully rip off, when one of us decided to finally stay and the other continued to go.

•••

Tom left for Afghanistan a few months after that night, a few days after Thanksgiving, 2011, and returned mid-July, 2012. The first sight of him at the Baltimore airport felt like I’d been thrust through a strange time warp: the ache of his absence instantly replaced by the peace of knowing he was safe and home. Just like that, seven months melted away. Him, here in my arms, now, was all that mattered. I had to keep convincing myself that I was awake and not just dreaming about this moment yet again, that, yes, his arms were actually around me, his lips truly pressed against mine.

Two weeks later, we left our home in Newport and flew to our new life in Japan. On the way, we spent a weeklong layover in Southern California, making up for lost time with friends and family, celebrating Tom’s safe return, while simultaneously saying goodbye. Again.

Our “Ta-ta for Now” party felt different than the one we’d thrown for ourselves in San Diego in 2009. Back then, I’d wondered how our friendships would change during our three-year stint on the East Coast, and I worried that we would miss out on too much our loved ones’ lives. We had. But what hadn’t changed was the connection, the way we always easily slide right back into wherever we left off, save for the little ones now vying for our friends’ attention. Vying and winning. Annihilating us, actually. Who can compete with those cheeky grins? A two-year-old learning to give high-fives will always top even the most surprising story about sailors’ salacious behavior or my younger sister’s most recent disastrous date. No doubt. Things had changed.

Seeing our friends all playful and giggly with their little ones made us realize that we surely did want to start a family, but we just as surely wanted a few more years of freedom, a few hundred more nights of good sleep. Moreover, I was terrified of having our first child in a foreign country, far from my support network, while Tom spent half of each year at sea. I wasn’t ready. But a comment by Tom’s friend’s wife stunned me into thinking otherwise. She caught me on the way back from the bathroom.

“I thought I’d be jealous of you two and your lives in Japan,” she’d said. “But I was looking at my family today, and I realized that was just stupid. I’m happy where I am. I know I’m where I need to be.”

Squeals and laughter filtered in from the party outside.

“That’s great,” I’d said. I’d realize later that her words were not for me, but for herself; she needed to give voice to her epiphany, to announce aloud that she had, in fact, made the right decision to start a family, to settle down. In the meantime, she made me question mine. According to our plan, we will be at least thirty-three when we have our first child, which doesn’t matter really, except that our friends’ kids will all be toddlers in pre-school. They’ll have no clue who we are, and our babies will grow up on their own, too young to be besties with our best friends’ kids, like we’d always planned.

Are we making the right decision? I’d wondered as I hesitantly returned her smile. Are we leaving where we need to be or heading there?

Two months later—two months into our next life—I found myself relaying this story to the British backpackers, J and F, I met in Malaysia, after meeting Tom at his second port call.

•••

A little context: As the “military life” predictably and thereby unpredictably goes, life in Japan turned out different than expected. Tom left with the ship less than two weeks after we arrived in Japan, just over a month after returning from Afghanistan. Desperate for time together, we decided I should forego finding a full-time job or getting our house completely settled so I could meet him at every port the ship pulled into during his first three months at sea.

What made the already complicated situation impossibly more complicated was that we could only communicate about port dates and locations in person, which was impossible as he couldn’t even tell me where he was presently floating when we were lucky enough to talk on the phone, let alone where he was heading and when. I found out I was going to the first port call in Guam when Tom emailed me my flight itinerary.

But I’d known about Malaysia for months; Tom emailed me my e-ticket from Afghanistan as an anniversary gift, a gesture to show he’d do whatever he could to keep me close while he again was away. A week before I was supposed to meet him in Malaysia, there were rumors, as always, that the ship was no longer heading to Kuala Lumpur. Playing the game of ports, I quickly learned that I’d never know if I’d actually see him until I actually did, and even then, the ship could leave earlier than planned.

•••

 “We don’t even mention children,” J said in response to my story, and my residual wondering about our wandering life, about pushing back Babyland yet again. “It makes F anxious,” J said, lifting her light eyebrows, then making a funny face across the table toward her boyfriend, who shrugged, gave a slight smile, and ate a forkful of fluffy white rice.

The couple brought me to their favorite spot for cheap eats near their hotel in China Town, where they’d been living for over a month. Tucked behind hawker stalls crowded by hungry Saturday night market-goers, the small food court felt spacious and quiet, although it too was filled with food stands. Choosing what to eat had been difficult, though you really can’t go wrong in Malaysia, especially if you enjoy spicy food. Dim sum, dumplings, tandoori, satays, curries, and fried noodles—only a sampling of Malaysia’s deliciously diverse cuisine, inspired by the mostly Malay, Indian, and Chinese population and the Thai influence from up north.

We chatted over our plates, piled high with rice and various saucy mysteries, satays, and grilled meats from the cze char (buffet style “pick and mix”) stall. I didn’t know what was what, save for the cabbage satay and eggplant curry, both disappearing from my plate all too quickly, as I took bite after bite, racing to keep ahead of the fire that would surely spread over my tongue if I paused.

Unlike me, J and F believed they were exactly where they needed to be, at least for the moment. The British couple had been traveling with nothing more than mini-suitcases throughout Asia for eleven months already, and they were feeling the itch to leave Kuala Lumpur. The weather’s been drab lately, they agreed. This idea, that she could move to better weather just because she wanted to, tickled J. Her smile widened with each new country she added to their seemingly endless list of possible destinations.

“Maybe we’ll head to Nepal or go back to Thailand,” she said. “We stayed mostly in the center last time, maybe we can go explore the North or South.” Her scheming sounded even more adventurous, flavored by her English accent.

While they’d loved living in central Thailand, India had been their favorite thus far, the place where their adventure began. After they’d sold most of their belongings and rented out their flat, they headed to India thinking they’d stay for maybe a month or two, but maxed out their visas instead, staying for the full six months. They couldn’t explain exactly why they’d felt compelled to stay. The country was just … fascinating.

When I asked if they thought they’d return to their lives and home in London, they shook their heads. They couldn’t imagine settling any time soon, though J’s family wished otherwise. She’d recently returned to England for a wedding (and a funeral) and felt pressured from all sides. Her family asked when she, already in her mid-thirties, was thinking about coming home, about settling down, about having babies, while her friends with babies urged her to stay away, to keep traveling, to live the adventure they no longer felt they could live. Do it for us, they’d said.

Again I thought of my friend’s comment at our party back home, of the seemingly forced dichotomy—you settle or you roam—and of my burgeoning desire to have a bit of both. As I listened to J and F throw around ideas—How about popping over to Cambodia? Or Laos? Or, ooh, what about Vietnam?—I grew envious of their ability to be grown up and yet so carefree.

Sure, their travels hadn’t always been easy: J had an infected tooth pulled a month or two earlier and was still recovering from a bout of foot and mouth disease. Still, after just one week of exploring Malaysia, I could already see why they never wanted to return to their “normal” lives. There’s something about travel that encourages our childlike curiosity to rebloom. Daily in Kuala Lumpur, I’d found myself paused in wonder, struck by the interesting juxtaposition between the sparkling metropolis and the surrounding rainforest. By the curious combinations of flavors and spices in each dish. By the soul-gripping wail that echoed throughout the city five times a day, calling the faithful to pray. By the interesting people I’d met, whose stories always seemed to showcase yet another way to a fulfilling life. Instead of realizing the obvious—there isn’t just one way—I only grew more torn.

Each day I woke up in Japan, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming, that this new, exciting life in a foreign land was truly mine. In Japan, even going to the grocery story felt like an adventure. The enormous shelled and tentacled creatures in the seafood aisles seemed more like zoo exhibits than options for dinner. Each time I paid with the correct change felt like a victory, replete with a rush of adrenaline, the craving for more.

But sometimes, I just wanted to go to the store and actually know for sure what I was buying. (Is this one brown liquid, amongst a hundred others labeled in Japanese, soy sauce?) Crazy as it sounded, even to me, I also craved my old routine, longed for the predictability of my former life as a teacher, knowing all the while my nostalgia was for a romanticized version of the school year, filled with days when things actually went as planned, when my students couldn’t wait to read Shakespeare, cried at the loss of Lennie, shared their own writings aloud and basked in the applause of snaps from their peers.

“Really? I don’t miss teaching at all,” J bluntly replied. Sure, she was looking into teaching online, but solely to fund their continued adventures. “I no longer spend my days working and my nights worrying, ‘Will my students be fed when they go home? Will they be safe?’”

Now she was overwhelmed instead by how much of the world they still wanted, no needed, to see.

“You do begin to settle, actually,” J realized later, after we’d finished eating and walked to the stop for a free city bus tour, another of their favorite finds. “When you stay more than a week in a place, you spread your stuff out, you make yourself feel at home,” she said with the same proud smile she probably wore the first time she rode her bike sans training wheels. Satisfied, she was, with her newfound life philosophy—home is where the mini-suitcase is.

Earlier that evening I was nervous about whether J’s bout of foot and mouth disease was contagious. As it turned out, it wasn’t her blisters I took home with me, but her sense of adventure, of “Why not?” Why look back when life is stirring around me, here, now, wherever I am?

•••

J and F weren’t the first people I’d met who lived the traveling life. I’d joined a group of young backpackers in Melaka, where I spent a night biding time, while the ship made its way to Kuala Lumpur.

The sun was setting by the time I cleaned up and headed out to explore the night market, yet the air remained thick and hot, slowly working its way down from the high eighties. Too nervous to wander in the dark alone, I figured I’d be back in an hour or two.

I was staring quizzically at what I was about to eat out of a tightly wrapped banana leaf when a man in thick, black framed glasses ensured me the fish cake was tasty, then asked where I was from.

“California? These guys are from California,” he said, introducing me to another young man in glasses from Brea (near where I grew up), a tall blonde from San Diego (where Tom and I will live again one day), and another donning a UCLA t-shirt. “Join us,” Black Frames said, before turning around and weaving his way through the gorging masses. He owned a hostel and gave his patrons a tour, pointing out the best stalls. When curious enough, a few of us would buy a treat, take a bite, then pass the morsel around the group, which fluctuated in size throughout the evening. It was hard to keep track of who was who, as our noses led us apart, toward the sweet, tangy, and savory smells wafting from wayward stalls.

As the hostel crew shrank and grew, we played conversation tag, getting in a few minutes at each stall with another member of the group. Throughout the night I played patchwork with their stories, quilting a travel tale more complex and adventurous than my own. The first three guys I met had just quit their jobs, sold everything they owned, and set off in search of something their lives after college failed to fulfill.

“It’s nothing,” one said in response to my gasp and widened eyes. “A South African couple at our hostel biked their way here from Korea, along with their little dog.”

I met this legendary couple a few hours later on their hostel rooftop, where we sat around on broken chairs and wooden benches, drinking warm beers in the dim glow of the city lights far below. Apparently, when nobody is home, Black Frames shuts the drink fridge off to save electricity. I don’t like beer even when it’s cold, so it made no difference to me. I wasn’t there for the beer. I was there for the company—for the night out on the town I fought Tom over during our pre-marriage European hostel tour. Tired after long days of walking to museums and ruins and monuments, Tom had always been ready for bed a few hours after dinner, while I wanted to be wherever music was pulsing, people were toasting, cheersing until the sun began to rise.

“Fine. Just stay in,” I’d say. “I’ll go out on my own.” And Tom would nod, knowing as well as I that my words were empty, that I was too scared to explore the night on my own.

Almost ten years later, I was not back in my hotel room as I thought I’d be by this time; in fact I had neither a clue nor a care what time it was. I was lost in conversation, drinking a warm can of beer on a dark Melakan rooftop, inspired by a group of twenty-somethings’ bold willingness to uproot themselves, to just leave everything behind. The idea of becoming a nomad never crossed my twenty-one-year-old mind. My post college adventure was our European tour. I’d returned from that trip sure of two things—I wanted to marry Tom and I wanted to see more of the world. But first, I needed to earn my teaching credential, and then start my career.

On that rooftop, I felt like I was fresh out of college again, but with my path unmapped. A path instead inspired by the young men starting over from scratch, but even more so by the lone traveling ladies, like the freelance event coordinator who decided to explore Singapore and Malaysia before heading to New Zealand for a few weeks, where she would work on a farm (or horse ranch or something) to earn her keep until she decided she liked it and stayed or didn’t like it and returned home to start her own event planning business. She was fed up wondering what life would be like if.

“So you don’t know where your husband is or when he’s coming to meet you,” she asked, transitioning from her travel tale to mine.

I shook my head.

Her eyes ballooned in the way mine had when I heard about all of their impressive quests. Though I knew I would (probably) see Tom in less than forty-eight hours, I wasn’t supposed to share the ship’s whereabouts. I felt a tinge of guilt for not telling her the truth. I felt like a fraud. Even so, I couldn’t help but sip my warm beer, smile back, and soak up her perception of me as I wanted to be seen—as adventurous as she. Or the young woman from Vietnam, also traveling alone. Or the young Malaysian nurse who was moving to Saudi Arabia the following month to save money for travels of her own.

The rooftop filled with chatter about who was going where next. Some were heading to the rainforests in the Malaysian highlands, then moving on to Thailand. Like J and F, many of the hostellers arrived on one-way tickets. Their days were no longer dictated by work schedules, but by their whims and fancies, by wherever weather was better. It was on that night, when my voice joined the backpackers’ chatter, that the idea first began to take root, that maybe Tom and I really didn’t have to decide whether to settle or roam yet, if ever. I no longer felt homeless, more like a slightly settled nomad, creating a new home away from home for us in Japan while traveling wherever and whenever I could possibly see Tom. And every new place, every new person I met, only proved that there was still so much to see, including uncharted territories of myself.

•••

The following morning, I took a bus from Melaka to Kuala Lumpur and checked into our hotel, where Tom would join me the following day. He’d emailed to say he hoped to meet me at our hotel around two, and there I was waiting, with the same nervous excitement of waiting for a first date, as eager as I was a few months earlier when I stood at the international terminal of the Baltimore airport, amidst a crowd of families and friends welcoming the troops returning home from war. Like a game show revealing a secret prize inside, the terminal sliding glass doors had opened each time a group of arrivals approached. When I first saw Tom’s face appear behind the oncoming crowd, I froze. Stared, starry-eyed. Thirty pounds lighter, he looked like the twenty-year-old I’d fallen for almost ten years before. More exhilarating than the free fall on a roller coaster was the feeling of his lips, so soft, against mine.

I paced about the hotel room in Malaysia as I waited for Tom to arrive, the excitement of my night of swapping travel tales with the nomads in Melaka, their sense of freedom and openness to the unknown still pulsing through my veins.

As I waited for Tom this time, there was no National Guard, no crowd, no sliding doors. Nothing more was necessary. Just him and me. Our arms soon wrapped around each other, willing to unbind only for a glimpse of the other’s bright smile, for the exhilaration of another first kiss. I realized I was trembling when we stared at the view of the city outside our window. Here we are, Kuala Lumpur. Never could Tom or I have anticipated this moment or, like everyone, any moments that would and will follow.

It’s inevitable, I realized, that the edge of that Band-Aid will begin to peel, followed by that sting. But who’s to say what lifting such temporary binding would reveal? We’d sense a gaping wound, wouldn’t we? The need to change bandages, clean out the gunk, bind ourselves in a new chance to heal. Or maybe we’d find everything intact. Maybe a faint scar, a reminder of where we’ve been.

“It’s beautiful,” we agreed before giving into silence. The city spread to the horizon before us, hardworking cranes dotting the skyline, verdant trees competing for sunlight among the many buildings, new and old, that would soon sparkle at night. We shared another smile. Another lingering kiss. And soon, I could feel my heart begin to settle, easing into a soft and steady beat.

•••

While BREAWNA POWER EATON’s time in Japan ended in August, 2014, her tales of getting lost and unlost in love, life, and travel can be found on her blog Lady Seeking Adventure, where a recent post reveals their next adventure—a little one due in late November. Bre received an MFA in Creative Writing through Antioch of Los Angeles and is currently seeking representation for a book-length essay surrounding Tom’s deployment in Afghanistan and her burning question: “How did we—as a nation and a couple—end up entangled in our country’s longest war?”

This Wild Life

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By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Renee Simms

The children wriggled and cursed in the old SUV, summoning me to exhortations about proper car-riding behavior. “Y’all know better!” I warned. I turned down whatever music was playing. I did these things while I watched traffic conditions on 30th street, which, if you’re traveling east in Tacoma, has a precipitous, San Francisco-esque drop. As you drive, you will feel your fingers tighten against the steering wheel once you realize that you can’t see beyond the approaching precipice. You’ll slow down, and that’s when you’ll catch a glimpse of it—the entire Puget Sound. You’ve got your bluish water and snow-capped mountains, the old barges dotting the coast. Porch lights wink from houses pushed far into the hills. This view is tantamount to falling in love.

Driving west, though, it’s all uphill. That’s the direction that I was traveling. My Rodeo was, at the time, twelve years old. I liked the vehicle just fine even though its manufacturer was a company best known for making good lawnmowers. As the children teased each other and bucked in their seats, my Rodeo stayed focused on the road. She climbed the hill with all her inelegant noise: a sound like cicadas trapped inside the engine.

“Do not call your sister names,” I said, or something close to that. Perhaps, I told my raucous kids to “Shut up.” I don’t recall. It was late and I was tired, plus my night vision is poor and there was very little light. The sky had a moon so slight that evening, you could say that it wasn’t even there. When we reached the top of the hill, I stopped to turn left onto Union Avenue. I waited and waited and waited. Each set of headlights that passed by blinded me for a couple of seconds. Finally, there was a break in cars and I completed my left turn. This is when I saw the delicate fawn in the street.

The fawn tottered on its pencil legs, froze, then bounded away. The poor thing probably saw us before we spotted it. Nocturnal animals like deer have what’s called tapetum lucidum, a layer of tissue over the eye that reflects light and gives them good night vision. I pounded my brakes and swerved the car. We stopped within inches of the deer. “Ohhhhh!” my daughter said. “Where is its mom? Why is it all alone?”

“I don’t know,” I said. My heart thumped in my chest. “It’s a rough world out here in the animal kingdom.”

•••

According to its website, the state of Washington’s Department of Fish & Wildlife gets phone calls each year about orphaned fawns. People stumble across the fawns curled up in tall grass in the woods, seemingly alone in the world. Usually they are not alone. The mother-doe is hidden nearby where you can’t see her. She keeps a watchful eye on her offspring, but the range she allows her young to roam is far and wide.

•••

After we settled down, I drove my children back to the 1920s cottage that I was renting near the university where I worked. The kids were visiting me for one week. They lived most days with their father, my ex-partner, whose home was just outside of Phoenix. Like the animal we’d encountered that night, my children were seemingly without a mother during most of that year. I’d decided in May to take a two-year, visiting faculty position in Tacoma. My ex and I decided that the kids would stay with him during the first year of my appointment. It only seemed to make sense. From the time I got the job, I had less than twelve weeks to find a place to live, to move from Phoenix to Tacoma, and to prepare to teach three classes. There was no way that I could also uproot my children and enroll them in a school system I did not know.

So, instead of spinning my wheels over how I would bring the children with me, I planned for their year without a mom. We all have certain details about parenting which we covet. I knew the details that I paid attention to might be overlooked by their father while I was away. So before I left, I investigated babysitters and talked with relatives and friends about how they could help us watch the kids. I made sure the woman who braided my daughter’s hair had my ex’s cell phone number. I purchased school supplies for the upcoming year. Even after I was gone, I kept in touch with the kids’ school teachers via email and phone. Although I would not be there in the flesh with my children, I was still around keeping a watchful eye.

•••

Deer are a uniparental species. The father deer, the ones with the big, scary antlers, are around to make the babies and then they’re gone. You will not see them hanging out with doe or fawn. If you spot a male deer in a herd, chances are that every deer in that group is male. Fawn are cared for by their mothers only. The mama deer do everything for the babies, including eating their droppings and urine so that predators won’t catch scent of them.

•••

What surprised me most about my decision to leave my children in Arizona was the reaction of my friends and relatives. You would think my kids didn’t have a working, able-bodied father who loves them madly. “You can’t leave them with their father. Their father? Children need their mothers,” one friend said.

“Why don’t you take them with you? Your students will babysit the kids,” another friend said.

Each person I consulted was well-intentioned. They were expressing genuine concern for my family’s well-being. Still, the tone of alarm in their voices and the repetition of frightful scenarios like the ones my father liked to put in my ear, made me doubt my own decision. For example, my daddy insisted I research the sexual predators in my neighborhood so we’d know who was watching the kids walk to the school bus stop while I was away. I told him that we’d lived there for nine years without such information.

Other people’s fears and doubts became my own. As a result, the hardest part of my year away from my children was not the months when I was on a mountain and they were in the desert; it was having the courage to leave them with their father in the first place. I was trusting that I was making the right decision for everybody involved. The conventional wisdom was that I was the primary caretaker and needed to live in the same house with my children. But I was also a provider, and taking a job that increased my income counted as taking care of my kids, too. I can’t imagine that a man in my position would have been counseled the same way about this transition. I can’t see him being told that moving to a new city while single-parenting and starting a new job was a sane or normal balancing act. In the end, I decided I would not multitask in this way. It was hard to trust my own conscience about this. Then there was the actual moment when I had to say goodbye.

We said our farewells in mid-July, two days after movers loaded my boxes onto a twenty-two foot straight truck. My shipping order included the usual domestic items, like linen and dishware, but also fifty small and medium-sized boxes of books. The only furniture that I took from the Arizona house was a bed and writing desk. Their absence—the way the bookshelves and floor had visible gaps of unoccupied space—was, by the time the airport shuttle arrived, the only evidence that I was leaving. The rest of the house was intact. My ex had even moved back in for this one year. A clear light came through the windows that morning. Its brightness made me hopeful even though the shuttle driver, who was five minutes early, had robbed me of final moments with my kids.

My son was the first to rise from the couch and walk in shiny athletic shorts and no shirt to where I’d paused at the door. At eleven years old, he stood nearly my height. His thin body and sway-backed posture at one time reminded me of an apostrophe. Now, as his shoulders broadened over a small waist, his upper body resembled an inverted triangle or wings. We hugged. My daughter, who was six, ran up and wrapped her thin arms around my thighs. Then I embraced my ex. For a brief moment, we were a family huddled near our home’s threshold. In the next second, I would be through that door and inside the blue airport van. I wouldn’t see my kids for the next three months.

The other difficult part of leaving was accepting that my life could be full of similar curveballs in the future. I had never anticipated divorce; nobody does. Similarly, it never crossed my mind that I would have to take a job in another state in order to care for my kids. Nor did I think I’d be single in my forties, that I’d have to think about my safety at night or how I present at private parties where everyone else is coupled-up.

I’d told my daughter the night we saw the deer that the animal world wasn’t quite like ours, that it was unpredictable and dangerous. “Sometimes a fawn is just on its own,” I’d said. But the truth is that we are just as vulnerable as animals that walk on cloven hooves. This becomes most clear when we’re stripped of institutions like marriage or when we experience health problems or economic insecurity. It’s when our bodily functions fail us or we’re hungry without knowing when we’ll eat; it’s when we’ve been physically harmed by another person that we recognize life’s brutal underbelly. Sure, we erect boundaries between civilized society and the wild side, but these boundaries are easily crossed and civilizing tendencies require our constant attention.

•••

Deer are mostly vegetarian, although they will eat meat on occasions. Some of the vegetation that can attract deer to your yard are dandelion, clover, wheatgrass, mushrooms, and other fungi. If you want to keep deer out of your yard, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests deer-repellant landscaping. Shrubs which deer don’t like to eat include globe thistle, lavender, oregano, rue, pine, birch, fig, trillium, lilac, and yarrow.

•••

A friend in the Midwest recently told me about a family of deer living in her mother’s backyard. She used this story as an example of the way that nature was making its return to this urban area that has been in decline for several decades. It was a way to paint the picture of a crumbling city and infrastructure. “Can you believe it? Living in the backyard!” she said. I was struck by how the appearance of deer were interpreted by my friend and how differently they are seen here in my neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t have deer living in my backyard, but they sure bounce through it on occasion, and I’d wager that my neighbors consider deer as part of the area’s charm. Living close to wildlife means different things depending on a person’s context.

Take the deer I saw this summer in the South on a college campus where I attended a writers’ conference. The deer were considered by most writers as magical and spritely, as evidence that we were in a pastoral setting conducive to ideas, instead of the crammed cities where so many of us live. The deer, for their part, pranced in and out of our view as if the college campus was their world and we were in it by happenstance.

I have summers without the children, now, which allows me to attend professional events like writing conferences. My kids live with their dad in the summer and they live with me during the school year or nine months out of the year. It’s an arrangement that works, but again, it’s one I didn’t anticipate years ago. As I walked this latest conference one night, I saw a herd of deer near a tree. There were at least seven or eight of them huddled together. I’ll admit right here that I was slightly drunk, but I’m pretty certain of what I saw. As I walked closer to the animals I saw young and old deer, mostly doe, and one gargantuan male. As the doe and fawn nibbled the grass, heads down, the antlered deer kept his eyes on me as if saying, “Keep it moving, woman, and don’t step any closer.” I was in awe. The next morning, I told another writer who’s a good friend and poet and he said, “That’s incredible! The males rarely hang out with females and fawns.” He was right. That’s what I’ve read to be true about these creatures of the forest and woods. But stranger things, I imagine, happen all the time.

•••

RENEE SIMMS writes fiction and essays which have beeen widely published. She is putting the final touches on a story collection, Because We Were Miles from Home, while teaching and parenting outside Tacoma.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

girlinwindow

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Kim Kankiewicz

With the first lilting chords of the piano, we take the floor. The snare drum eases into a 6/8 shuffle. We melt into one another as the strings sigh the opening notes of the melody line. The horns respond with a glissando in the second verse, and we are afloat on liquid gold. We are bodies swaying in a collective embrace, in love with every-other-body in this place.

My dress is buttercup yellow, strapless with a sweetheart neckline. The chiffon skirt cascades over a crinoline of nylon netting. My hair is combed into a sleek bouffant, its curled-up ends grazing my bare shoulders. My dance partner wears a white sport coat and a crew cut. His face is indistinct, but no matter; he is not the point of this imagined memory.

The point is the convergence, the enfolding of each of us into all of us. The song, to which I have never really danced, is “Theme from A Summer Place.” In my reverie, we sway to the familiar instrumental recording, Percy Faith’s 1960 orchestral arrangement. But other artists—my favorite being The Lettermen in 1965—have recorded “Summer Place” with vocals. Listen and you will hear a song less about romance than about sanctuary:

There’s a summer place

Where it may rain or storm

Yet I’m safe and warm

For within that summer place

Your arms reach out to me

And my heart is free from all care…

•••

Since childhood, I have cast myself in fantasies with soundtracks from my parents’ youth. I was six years old in 1980, when my family moved to Nebraska and settled into the Craftsman house where my parents still live. The formal living room, unfurnished for nearly a year, was the theater where my brother and I performed “Rock Around the Clock,” “At the Hop,” and other teen anthems from the American Graffiti soundtrack.

In fifth grade, I pictured my sixth grade crush pining for me as I listened to Frankie Valli crooning “My Eyes Adored You.” Carried your books from school, playing make-believe you’re married to me. You were fifth grade, I was sixth, when we came to be. I knew no sixth grade boy would carry my school books—not least because I was the kind of kid who listened to the Four Seasons in 1985—but envisioning such a scenario made the unfamiliar territory of adolescence feel navigable. The same was true in the final months of my eighth grade year, when I sweet talked my dad into deejaying a sock hop at my middle school. With high school on the horizon, I imagined joining the letter jacket crowd, the clean-cut kids with social status. (That the sock hop itself was not imaginary is equal parts mortifying and miraculous.)

At no time were my retrospective daydreams more persistent than during my first year of college. Living in Kansas I was homesick, so homesick. Studying to the oldies and wearing vintage clothing bolstered my spirits, but the image that sustained me emerged from a trashcan in the bathroom of my residence hall. On my nineteenth birthday, I discovered a date stamp on the trashcan’s raised lid: October 10, 1967—the month and day of my birth and the year my mom entered college. Never mind that she had attended a different college; it seemed profoundly significant that this trashcan was installed when my mother was a freshman, seven years to the day before my birth.

The date stamp became my talisman. Glimpsing it as I left the shower each morning, I would borrow my mother’s courage for the day ahead. She too was homesick, so homesick, when she arrived on campus, but she came to regard her college years with fondness. In her footsteps, I would do the same. I was into The Ventures that fall, and as I ascended the stairs between my residence hall and the main campus, a mental guitar loop from their 1960 hit “Walk, Don’t Run” propelled my steps. In my sophomore year, my confidence as a returning student was affirmed when Pulp Fiction made Ventures-style surf rock popular again.

I more or less maintained that confidence through the transitions of marriage and motherhood, relocations to Colorado and Minnesota and corresponding career changes. I believed homesickness was for kids and for people who moved internationally or under duress. Even as a college student, homesickness seemed to place me in an immature minority. As an adult, I did not expect to come unmoored when my husband’s career took our family from Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest.

•••

Here is a partial catalog of things that have made me cry since we moved to a suburb of Seattle last year: a parking structure where all the spaces are compact, because I miss the ample welcome of a Midwestern parking lot; the opening page of a novel dedicated to “the great state of Minnesota”; an area car show, because it was to St. Paul’s annual vintage car show as “Rock Around the Clock” is to the entire American Graffiti soundtrack; a photo of John C. Reilly, because I once noticed that Minnesota’s eastern border looks like his face in profile.

I am ashamed of my emotions, ashamed that I am not content to live in a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood between the Puget Sound and the Cascades. Our new hometown has good schools, a downtown with an art gallery and a live theater, hiking and biking trails, a farmers market. Our new neighbors build community in many ways—educating and caring for children, volunteering at the food bank and soup kitchen, protecting natural resources, creating art—and they have welcomed our participation in these activities. We’re surrounded by beauty: trees, lakes, mountains, and a creek where the salmon run every fall. My husband says he is still astonished that we get to live here.

I know how he feels. When we moved to Minnesota, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. We arrived in autumn, my favorite season. I basked in the low-angled sunlight reflecting off St. Paul’s Como Lake, the red and gold leaves crunching beneath my feet as I circled the water. Our family picked apples at a local orchard, watched squirrels and birds at an urban nature center, and met other families at a park where my son learned to ride his bike. In winter, the season that defines Minnesota for people who have never been there, we discovered sledding hills and indoor playgrounds, and the tropical plant room at the free-admission conservatory, where anyone could find warmth and color on a bleak day. We found that we lived among neighbors who would clear our driveway with their snow blowers without being asked.

But I loved Minnesota before I experienced those things. I loved it before I lived there because my grandparents had called it home. I had spent Christmases and summer vacations with them, and with the aunts and uncles and cousins still living throughout the state. I knew something of Minnesota’s history and its coalescence with my family’s history, and so moving there felt like a homecoming. Moving away felt like an evacuation, like being emptied from a vessel made from parts of myself.

I assumed that these feelings would fade after a brief adjustment period. Months after moving, I wrote off my ongoing melancholy as stress or Vitamin D deficiency. When it occurred to me that I might be homesick, this self-diagnosis seemed so implausible that I Googled “adult homesickness” to verify its existence. My search turned up several recent articles on the subject, including an op-ed in The New York Times by a writer named Susan Matt. Based on a decade of research, Matt concluded that feelings of displacement and depression are common among adults who relocate. Yet we are reluctant to acknowledge “the substantial pain of leaving home” in an era that regards mobility as a virtue.

Matt’s byline referred me to her book, Homesickness: An American History, in which I read about homesick colonists and nineteenth-century immigrants. I learned that homesickness became taboo in the twentieth century, when embracing progress meant surrendering ties to the past. What most interested me was the connection between homesickness and nostalgia, which are literally synonymous. The word nostalgia was coined in the seventeenth century as a diagnostic term describing a painful longing for home. It combines the Greek words nostos (“return home”) and algia (“pain”) and remained in use as a medical term through the Civil War. It was only during the rapidly changing twentieth century that nostalgia gained distinction from homesickness—longing for a lost time as opposed to a lost place.

I recognize these desires as twins, but how do I understand twins born years apart? What does it mean that I am nostalgic for a time before my own birth? It’s notable that when I cry for Minnesota, I am moved by my sense of its shape, of a history that predates my life by decades. Like the homesick freshman I was, I am again sustained by popular music of the past. I recently bought a turntable and have acquired on vinyl the greatest hits of Bobby Vinton, Herb Alpert, The Brothers Four—artists who were on the charts the year my dad graduated from high school. My most common earworm, the song that both rouses and soothes my sentiments, is “Theme from A Summer Place.”

•••

In 1960, when Percy Faith recorded “Summer Place,” my grandparents owned a creamery in Fingal, North Dakota. My dad was fourteen years old. His parents had purchased the creamery when he was four and would operate it until 1968, when my dad was in college.

My grandfather was a butter man. He bought cream from farmers, pasteurized the cream in a heated vat, and churned it by the ton. By hand, he scooped butter from the churn into 64-pound boxes that were trucked to school cafeterias and military bases. He kept two boxes from each churning and parceled that butter into one-pound cartons sold locally. The town was proud of its butter, deeming it the best around. Fingal butter was served in restaurants and at the Woolworth counter in Valley City. Fingal natives who had moved to Fargo or Grand Forks filled shopping bags with Grandpa’s butter on return visits. At a reunion just months ago, a former classmate showed my dad a yellow carton with a Fingal Creamery label that she has saved for almost fifty years.

Butter unifies. It absorbs and concentrates flavor. It creates texture and emulsifies, blending ingredients that would not otherwise mix. A man who makes butter connects farmers with townspeople, towns with cities, schoolchildren with soldiers. The butter maker’s family is embraced. His wife is esteemed, his children golden boys and girls.

This is the refuge I seek in my father’s past. I want to know the butter maker. I want to break bread with the butter maker’s family. I want my children to walk to school with the butter maker’s children. I want to be the butter maker, and the butter, melting into the place where I belong.

•••

I have become a broken record. At some point the longing to be absorbed becomes self-absorption. I must reconcile my butter-gold narrative with reality. In 1960, Fingal was homogenous as milk. I imagine it was possible there to feel separate from the world, from the civil unrest churning the nation, from the state’s native population. Even so, I hear whispers of Fingal residents who did not find sanctuary in small-town North Dakota.

Nostalgia is too easy. It saddens me that the Fingal Creamery ceased operations in 1970, two years after my grandparents sold it and returned to Minnesota. But to romanticize an era when mom-and-pops outnumbered franchises is to overlook disenfranchisement. My own comfort and safety are not enough, after all. I am out of my element where I live now, like frozen butter unevenly spackled on toast, and maybe that is the point. Maybe I am here, in this place and time, to be uncomfortable in a culture consumed by comfort. Frozen butter will keep safe indefinitely, but safety is not its purpose. Butter is for flavor and texture, qualities that are lost after too long in the freezer.

In other words, it is time to expand my soundtrack. I’ll always have a soft spot for golden oldies. But there are living voices singing songs I want to hear, street musicians and symphony members I want to know. I want to feel the pulsing of every drum in the beating of my heart. If the asynchrony is jarring, I am ready to be shaken.

•••

This is KIM KANKIEWICZ’s second essay for Full Grown People. While writing it, she discovered that The Brothers Four are from Seattle and are still performing. She has tickets to attend a Brothers Four concert the next time her parents are in town and hopes to hear a live performance of her dad’s favorite road trip song, “Blue Water Line.”

Big News

Today is Full Grown People’s one-year anniversary, and I have to say, it’s only because of the awesome community you’ve established here. I wish so very much that I could go around and thank each of you. But please pat yourself on the back. No—hug yourself. No—kiss your own shoulder.

That was from me.

There are no new essays up this week because I took last week off to work on the first FGP anthology. It should be out in October, and it’s amazing. You can pre-order it now, and I hope you do so that I can figure out how many copies I should print.

Why would you want it?

•  You can’t keep up with the twice-a-week essays.

•  You’ve discovered the site in the past six months and want a big old gulp of the goodness here.

•  You like FGP and hope that it succeeds financially so that you can keep getting your fix.

•  You’re a hard copy person, damn it!

I’m planning on publishing more—both Greatest Hits and themed issues with new content. But this one will knock some socks off, with writing by Marcia Aldrich, Shaun Anzaldua, Sara Bir, William Bradley, Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser, Michele Coppola, Zahie El Kouri, Jessica Handler, Karrie Higgins, Sonya Huber, Jennifer James, Kim Kankiewicz, Kristin Kovacic, Meredith Fein Lichtenberg, Jody Mace, Jon Magidsohn, Antonia Malchik, Jennifer Maher, Catherine Newman, Randy Osborne, Carol Paik, Sarah Pape, Katy Read, Robin Schoenthaler, Amber Stevens, Dina Strasser, Jill Talbot, Suzanne Van Atten, Rebecca Stetson Werner, and Susan Rebecca White, plus cover photography by Gina Easley.

Thank you again, lovelies. As someone wise once said, you make-a my dreams come true.

xo,

Jennifer

The Accidental Immigrant

budapest stamp

By Laszlo Ilyes/ Flickr

By Zsofi McMullin

My twentieth high school reunion was held at a restaurant right across the street from my former school in Budapest. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to be there so badly. I didn’t love high school—who does?—but what’s worse is that I barely remember it. I have no memories of, well, of anything really from that time, except for one boy I had a huge crush on for four years.

But this story is not about that.

I was repeating the tale of what I’ve been up to for the past twenty years for about the fifth time that evening—this time to a former teacher—when he asked me, “So, did you just decide one day to move to America?” At first I wasn’t sure why the question shocked me. But then I realized that it was because it assumed that there was a decision involved, a moment in time when I said “no” to staying in Hungary and “yes” to becoming an American.

But really there wasn’t. My trip to America wasn’t driven by war or famine, by financial difficulties, or political unrest. I didn’t have to come to America. And I certainly didn’t have to stay.

I was eighteen when I came here and, looking back, it’s hard to imagine how I had the courage to do this. Actually, it’s hard to imagine how my mother had the courage to let me go. She worked at the American Embassy in Budapest and when the question of college came up in my junior year of high school her colleagues encouraged me to apply to American schools. I am sure my parents thought about and discussed the pros and cons of sending me off to another continent. I am sure. But I don’t remember my own thought process, my actual decision about going ahead with the plan. And even if there was a decision, I certainly never considered the possibility that it would have an impact on my life twenty years later. You just don’t think of that when you are eighteen.

Mountains of paperwork, a full scholarship, and a trans-Atlantic flight later, my mom and I were driving through the woods of Pennsylvania to the school where I would spend the next four years. We spent the night in my new dorm room drinking iced tea from the vending machine and arranging furniture. My mom left me there the next day and after she drove off, I went to the bookstore to buy thumbtacks for my new posters.

My one-year scholarship turned into four years. Graduation turned into a job. My job led me to my husband and marriage. Pennsylvania turned into Maine and Connecticut. Jobs, a child, friends, a life.

And now, twenty years later, in that half-lit restaurant in Budapest, I realized that I have become an immigrant. I don’t even like to call myself an immigrant. That word to me somehow means desperation, flight, the life of a fugitive. I became an immigrant just by living my life, doing whatever comes next.

•••

When we arrived in Budapest just a few days before the reunion, there was nobody there to greet us at the airport. My parents moved to the U.S. a few years ago, and so they weren’t there to pick us up or drive us around during our visit. With no close friends or relatives, we were left with a grumpy taxi driver who gave us curious glances hearing me speak Hungarian to my son and English to my husband. We were tourists.

If you didn’t know me, you would never guess that I am not an American. I don’t have an accent. I write and dream in English. The pull I feel to my homeland is invisible to everyone else. It’s a faint tugging feeling in my chest, something empty and burning. I go through life, day by day, even feel happy most of the time. It’s only when I am quiet that I get that uneasy vibe, that feeling that something is not quite right. Something is out of place.

Whatever. Move on.

There is a life to live, things to do. No time to wallow.

I assume all immigrants feel this no matter why they are away from home.

The cruel thing about all of this is that going “back home” does not make you feel better. Suddenly you are a stranger not in one place—your new, chosen land—but two places.

The first thing I did after booking our plane tickets to Budapest was to buy a map of the city. It’s stupid really, because I know—or used to know—the city and its streets by heart. As a teenager I went everywhere by myself—on trains and trolleys and buses.

But suddenly I felt unsure about whether I would find my way from the hotel to the metro station, to the store, to my old high school, to a friend’s house. It was all unfamiliar territory and, like a tourist, I stood on street corners with this little crumpled map in my hands, drawing lines with my fingers from street to street.

Of course, it all came back after a day or two but with a sense of strangeness at every corner: I tried to pay with a bill that’s been tucked in my wallet from our last trip, only to find out that it’s been out of circulation for over a year. Bus stops have moved. Shops closed. Neighborhoods fell and rose. Buildings crumbled. There were new parks and fountains, coffee shops, hip bars.

People have moved on. It was hard to find things to talk about with my former classmates and not just because so much time has passed. I couldn’t really imagine what their lives were like and I assume they felt the same. There were the inevitable questions about America: “So, does everyone really own a gun?” And there were the personal ones about how much money I make or what kind of car I drive—both very American pursuits to the outside world, I assume.

And despite all of that—the feeling of being a stranger in your homeland, the loss of friends—there is a comfort to being “at home.” Old reflexes return, memories surface, the empty, burning feeling of homesickness is suddenly gone when I am on the streets of Budapest. I have no reason to feel at home, yet I do. And more than just feel at home—it all feels right. Settled. Comfortable.

•••

My late grandmother’s apartment in Budapest had a long, narrow hallway leading from the front door to the living room. One the left side of the hallway was the kitchen, a wall with a mirror and coat hangers, and a smaller hallway leading to the bathroom. On the right side of the hallway were three floor-to-ceiling cabinets.

It was a tradition during my childhood that my parents and my grandma would harvest the fruit growing in the garden of our summer cabin, haul it in big wooden crates to our apartment in Budapest, and make jam. For a few days each summer, our small kitchen would smell of apricots or plums or peaches—whatever was in season. Jars boiled in huge pots on the stove, and the floor was sticky with the juice dripping from our fingers as we peeled, sliced, smushed.

Once sealed in jars, most of the jam would make its way to my grandma’s apartment and to her pantry cabinets for storage. She would bring a jar or two with her every week when she came to visit, or she’d use the jam for baking.

When she died last year, her cabinet was still full of jars—carefully labeled with a mysterious system of letters and numbers. For example “08P” might mean plum jam cooked in 2008. On some jars, the writing faded and only after carefully removing the tight lid would we be able to tell what the jar held—the color of its contents darker with age, but the scent of the fruit still potent and unmistakable. Ah, apricots! Is this cherries, maybe? Let’s taste it.

On a recent weekend we were sitting around the breakfast table with my parents, my brother, and my son. This particular breakfast table happened to be in Maine, a world and lifetime away from the summers of jarring jam in Budapest. But there they were: two jars of jam that my parents brought with them when they cleaned out my grandma’s apartment. One jar of apricot and a jar of cherry and sour cherry mixture.

My son preferred the sugary, sickeningly sweet grocery store jam. But the rest of us used long spoons to carefully spread grandma’s jam on buttered toast and savored every bite.

I couldn’t help but think back to the person I was at eighteen—to the people we all were twenty years ago. When my grandma tightened the lid on these particular jars just a few years ago, she already knew that her son and grandchildren would be eating it somewhere far away.

But I didn’t know how much it would taste like home.

•••

I think that when people say that America is a melting pot, they don’t actually mean it. It’s not a huge vat of gooeyness that’s all blended together, uniform, smooth. It’s more like a tossed salad—chunks and bits and pieces of this and that thrown in. It’s easy to fit in—it’s just as easy to stand out. I think that most of us immigrants alternate between those two options—embracing what makes us different, but just as happily disappearing into the crowd.

I have to admit that there is some comfort in the limbo I feel when I am trying to decide where I belong. I can be a bit exotic, a bit different, slightly off-kilter and blame it on my Hungarian-ness. I wonder if this is what I have become, if this is my “thing” now: being different, being from nowhere and everywhere, being two people in one body. Should I let it define me?

But maybe that is the lovely thing about America: no definitions needed. I can be defined by my memory of cobblestoned streets, jars of jam, first kisses along the banks of the Danube. I can also be defined by the life I built here out of nothing really, just the two suitcases I brought with me twenty years ago.

I had hoped that as the anniversary date of my arrival in the U.S. gets closer this summer I would feel more settled with my American-ness and less conflicted about the eighteen-year-old me making this huge decision without realizing what she was doing. But maybe it’s time to embrace all of it—the homesickness, the uncertainty, the double life.

Maybe it’s time to plant some trees and start making my own jam.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN lives in Connecticut with her husband and son and blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Pastime

spoons

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Lee Gulyás

Since my father died, my mother has tried to stay busy by selling antiques and collectibles. She fills up her time and clutters her house with dressers, armoires, vintage hats, children’s toys, and books: leather bound first editions, dusty Zane Gray westerns, school primers, old children’s books with full-color plates. All her purchases, full with their history of use, offer my mother hours of escape from a life steeped in the absence of my father.

When I visit my mother, the only meal we eat at home is cereal. A box from the pantry and milk from the refrigerator don’t interfere with the stacks of Depression glass, lead crystal, bone china, sterling flatware, and collectible spoons she has piled in the kitchen to clean and sell. Ultimately, we find ourselves in restaurants for a large chunk of my trip. After carefully considering specific words, as well as the tone of voice I should use, I muster up the courage to ask about her collecting. She doesn’t look up from her enchiladas, takes a swig of ice tea, and shrugs her shoulders.

“Well … it keeps me out of pool halls,” she snaps.

“No, really, Mom.”

“I don’t know. I like it and it keeps me busy,” she says, punctuating the inevitability of her pastime, as if she had no choice in the matter.

I can’t think of what to say next. I envision her old and frail, in a house so filled with things that to walk through it requires navigating through a maze, a system of paths through unknown territory. My intrepid mother won’t seem inconvenienced by the slow switchback trails between the bathroom and the kitchen—she just bushwhacks through the endless underbrush—stacks of books, boxes of costume jewelry, daguerreotypes, stereoscope cards, enamel kitchenware—and reveals the treasure beneath. “Look,” she says. “Look at this Depression-glass cake stand. What a score.” The extensive collection of objects with a past and a possibly profitable future now waits out the present in her midst.

“Are you done?” she says, jarring me back to my unfinished dinner. “I’m gonna go pay the bill. It’s almost time for Antiques Roadshow.”

•••

Each time I go, the initial entry into my mother’s house is pleasant. It still smells like home, even though she doesn’t cook anymore. After I settle in, look through the pantry to see if there is anything worth eating, situate my things by the stairs in the hallway, I check out the newest magazines in her stacks, piles of Southern Living, Country Living, House & Garden, and Antiques and Collectibles. Then, the reality of my surroundings sinks in.

The piles are neat and orderly, but they cover almost all the kitchen counter space. There is enough room for the coffee maker, and we could easily pull the toaster out, if the desire for toast arises. The kitchen table is clear and clean; its glass top reflects carefully placed items on the display shelves above the windows. Vintage biscuit tins, teapots, and assorted ceramic curios tier the room. Grotesque pioneer faces on porcelain mugs look down with a cold, fixed gaze. I turn away from the stern faces, and notice the pocket door to the dining room is closed. I glide over, quietly slide back the door, and see jumbles of overloaded boxes, filled to the brim and beyond, overflowing with so many goods that not a single sliver of tabletop or floor space is visible. The hallway and sitting room suffer from the same condition. The TV room seems relatively clear; my mother can easily get to the couch and television. I circle back to the kitchen, past the wet bar, and my eyes become filled, cluttered with her accumulations, like the rest of the downstairs.

My head spins. This is what she does. She buys things, spruces them up, and resells them at a profit. This is her reason to wake up in the morning. But I can’t stop thinking how all her purchases will be my responsibility to dispose of after she is gone.

•••

I lug my bags to the room at the top of the stairs, my brother’s former room. I glance around and realize I could be in an entirely different house than the one I left downstairs. The upstairs is clean, spare, and light. When my brother and I left home, my mother commandeered our rooms; his became the guest room, mine became her office. I place my things in the bathroom and drift into her bedroom. The walls are now a soft blue. Instead of my father’s desk, there is a white couch, and blue and white china plates hang on the wall in a geometric pattern. Antique, twin, brass beds occupy the place where the king-size bed used to be.

I remember when she started to change the room; it was several years after my father’s death. I was helping her put clothes away in the closet and she still had my father’s bathrobe hanging on what used to be his side. She became quiet, lowered her face against it, and sobbed, “It doesn’t even smell like him anymore.” Days later, she had fans of paint chips and new fabric to upholster a Victorian couch crammed into the garage. Now this room is hers, but it looks unused, sterile, especially in relation to the downstairs, the part of the house in which she really lives.

I venture downstairs and get comfortable on a couch, my mother already cozy on hers with a quilt and a pillow, ready for Antiques Roadshow to begin. Mom doesn’t just watch the show—she participates in the dialogue, interjects comments about the scarcity of a book, or informs the woman that her vase is, unfortunately, not a Tiffany. An expert asks a young computer executive about the piece of furniture he brought for appraisal. Mom chimes in. “That new-money idiot stripped the original finish from that Queen Anne highboy—bet that took about seventy-five thousand off the price.” The appraiser estimated removing the finish reduced the value by ninety thousand dollars.

Yet my mother is not solely interested in the monetary value. She reveres the heirlooms: the handmade rug with family names stitched around the border, the letters from a soldier to his family at home, the solitary item that a young woman retrieves from her grandparent’s estate. She beams when people relate the stories of who owned the item, and how it is important to them because it was important to their family. One woman, about sixty or so, brought a needlework mural that she thought was peculiar. The appraisers proclaim it the finest specimen of American decorative arts they have ever seen. My mother becomes speechless. The woman learns, via the strange embroidered cloth with a village scene of thatched cottages, hay wagons, and children, that her great-grandmother emigrated from England and had faithfully reproduced her former village onto a hanging that would be placed over a mantle. The woman sheds tears of joy, and my mother grows misty-eyed.

I’d like to think that this is the part where I tell her that everything will be okay, that in time she won’t turn around thinking my father called her name from another room, that she won’t absent-mindedly wait for him to pull his Mercury into the driveway. That in time she won’t dread the words Just one tonight? when she musters the will to get dressed, leave the house, and go out for dinner. Although it is hard for me to accept the sudden loss of my father, I have a husband and daughter at home. I worry about my mother alone in this house full of memories, wandering through rooms dense with echoes of family life.

But I don’t tell her it will be okay. I just sit here, next to her. Somehow, in our numb silence, I know she understands.

•••

When my mom dies, I know it will take months just to get everything unpacked, spread over what little available space is left, and what will I do with it all? What’s important to me? I imagine myself emptying a dresser. I pull out a drawer just a bit too far. It falls to the ground and I spy an envelope taped underneath. I open it and see a sepia-toned photograph of my grandfather stashed next to a tiny key. I now know I will have to open every drawer, every wooden cigar box, every container, or I will inadvertently toss out something hidden away for safekeeping. I will have to search through jacket pockets, desk drawers, and shoeboxes, inside vases, books, and kitchen cabinets. I will have to organize items into piles. Piles to keep: family photographs, my father’s watch, my mother’s ring, a few letters, important papers. Piles to donate: towels, bedding, blankets, clothing. Everything else would fall into piles to sell: a multitude of books, furniture I have always loathed (the pair of round faux-Colonial end tables, the tufted brown leather sofa, embroidered footstools) and the hoards of items I neither care about, nor have room for in my own home.

I could look in the phone book under Estates, call people who specialize in selling the entire contents of households, but I stop short of letting absolute strangers peer into my mother’s solitary life, inviting in larger groups of strangers to speculate whether or not she was totally crazy or just mildly eccentric. I could call other antique dealers to come and buy her treasures, but I would constantly hear my mom’s voice chiding me that everything was worth much more and I’m being duped. The alternate scenario—me dealing with the house item by item—scares me so much that I shiver. Maybe I’ll just torch it all.

But I’m lucky—my mother’s still here. Since my father died just one year after his retirement, my mother had to quickly figure out a life on her own, difficult in a society that dismisses women and the elderly. So I tell her how proud I am—of her resilience, her stubbornness, and for proving that you are never too old to start again. She’s important to me. Not her house, or her things, no matter how many memories they may hold. I tell her, but even if I were silent, she would understand. She always does.

•••

LEE GULYAS lives in Bellingham, Washington, and teaches at Western Washington University. Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared in such journals as Prime Number, Event, Barn Owl Review, and The Common.