It’s a Sunday morning and I’m sitting in a church, in a row very near the back, not far from the door. I like to sit near the back in church services and yoga classes in case I need to make a quick escape. Vulnerability looms larger in these settings, and I’m always nervous someone will decide I’m actually a fraud, and I shouldn’t be allowed to take communion or execute downward-facing dogs. This is irrational, I know.
The church is small and meets in a gym that belongs to a larger church. The doors are swung open to the mid-morning sunlight. A picture of Jesus hangs near the altar. He has a long, narrow nose and a down-turned mouth and he gazes at his flock with stoic indifference.
The priest’s reassuring voice leads us through the Prayers of the People. She prays for the poor and the sick and the imprisoned. “Lord, hear our prayer,” we all chime in at the conclusion of each request.
A shaggy-haired blonde child, about two and a half years old, is seated six rows ahead of me. He turns around. We lock eyes. I smile. His eyes light up. A feeling of validation washes over me. I’m not a mother, and the further I get into my thirties, the more I fear motherhood will elude me indefinitely. And so I’m flooded with relief any time I earn even fleeting approval of children. I take it as proof that I could be a mom, that I’d be a natural.
The child points in my direction. “Mommy!” he says. I look around to see who his mother is. The row is empty except for me. The child ducks under some legs and scurries toward the back of the church, toward me. He shimmies through the metal folding chairs until he is right next to me, wrapping his arms around my legs with an affectionate familiarity. I’m a little unsettled because the kid is a stranger to me. I freeze, waiting for his parents to come whisk him away. No one comes.
We finish the Prayers of the People and I gingerly sit down. He crawls into my lap. He’s pretty at ease around me, so I start to loosen up too. I let my heart melt just a little. His curls brush against my neck as he adjusts his toddler form into a more comfortable position, his head on my shoulder. I look down at the tiny adorable stranger in my arms, completely bewildered, wondering why has he chosen to bestow his affections on me, a strange lady.
“Mommy, do you have any snacks?” Wait. This kid really thinks I’m his mom. I take a mental step back to examine my hold on reality. Potential explanations for what is happening here:
1) I’m suffering from amnesia and don’t remember that I’m a mom.
2) I’ve entered an alternate dimension in which I am, in fact, a mom.
3) I’m hallucinating.
4) Noting my biological clock, God has simply dropped a child out of Heaven for me.
5) The kid is confused.
I assume it’s option #5. Which means I have a choice to make: I can correct him, or I can go with it. If I correct him, I risk him feeling some sort of misplaced maternal rejection, which could be quickly remedied if I just knew which mother to shuttle him toward. But I do not. If I go with it, his sense of alienated disorientation will only increase once he finally realizes I’m actually a stranger, not his mom. Both seem like potential Freudian nightmares.
But I know what I want. I want to go with it. I want to assuage, if even temporarily, the fear that motherhood will elude me indefinitely. I want to quench my maternal thirst. I want to sink deep into the mother-child blond like a sugar fiend taking a spoon to a can of frosting in the middle of the night.
“No snacks,” I whisper.
He sighs deeply and twists his neck around to look at me. “Mommy, can we go home?”
“Not yet,” I say.
The priest is breaking the bread: “The gifts of God for the people of God.” I carry him in my arms up to the altar for communion. No one stops me. I actually feel like a mom. And it’s wonderful.
The child plays with my purse straps while the priest gives the benediction. My heart grows tentative, knowing I won’t be a mom for much longer. My thirty-five minutes is almost up.
A tall man who’s been playing music for the service at the front of the gym approaches me. “Sorry,” he says, “his mom’s home sick today.” He chuckles. “You look a lot like her.” The child looks up as the realization hits him. He bursts into tears. I feel terrible.
“You see! I’m a fraud!” I want to yell. Instead, I give a nice smile and say, “No problem. We had a nice time.”
The reality is that I live in Los Angeles. The reality is that I live alone. The reality is that I have no husband, no children. But I act in TV commercials and so, on occasion, live outside of that reality.
Some commercial producers have decided I don’t look like a single woman in LA at all. In fact, I look like a woman living in suburban Nashville with two kids and a husband, the kind of woman who might spend her vacation days at a place like Dolly Parton’s Tennessee theme park, Dollywood. And since they’re offering money for this down-home interpretation of my likeness, I pack up my bags and head to Nashville to shoot.
In Nashville, I have a blonde son and a redheaded daughter. My husband is burly and bearded and looks nothing like anyone I have ever dated. They give him a snug winter-white sweater to wear, which makes him look like a gruff Bing Crosby. They give me a denim skirt and a button-up blouse with a vaguely Western motif. The director is going for Wes Anderson quirk. The client and ad agency are going more Smoky Mountain-chic. The result lies uncomfortably in between.
In the suburban house where we film, there’s a framed painting of a Confederate soldier and a guitar signed by Alan Jackson. I change in the gun closet.
When the kids are taken to set, my husband and I follow them downstairs to watch. The process is agonizingly slow. The girl doesn’t take direction well. The director is visibly frustrated. My husband leans over and snorts, “This is why W.C. Fields said never to work with children or animals.” We go back upstairs where I manage to fit in two naps on the overstuffed couch.
I keep wondering when they’ll bring all of us together to film the big reveal scene—me, my husband, and my kids. But it never happens. As soon as my husband and I are shuttled on set, our kids are shuttled away. We never film with them at all. But in the edited version of the commercial, the four of us are all in the living room together. The four of us are happy. We look like a real family.
It’s two in the morning and I’m sitting with my boyfriend in my Honda at the foot of his driveway. Technically, he’s not my boyfriend, but he was at one time, and we’ve been attempting over the past few months to see if we couldn’t put things back together. This attempt has been fraught with uncertainty. In the time since we broke up, a jungle of confusion and hurt feelings has grown wild.
I love him anyway.
And tonight, it feels like we’ve come to a clearing in this jungle. We’ve taken our machetes and sliced through heavy, swinging vines of miscommunication. It feels spacious and safe in the clearing. I’m already eyeing trees we can cut down for timber to use for building us a little cabin. This is working. We’re making this work.
He looks away from me, out the passenger side window. “There are still some things we need talk about.” He pauses, somberly. “And I’m nervous to talk about them.” Nervous, why? I don’t ask.
“We’ll get there,” I say, “We’ll talk about everything. It’ll be fine.” I am sure it will be fine.
He turns back toward me: “You’re my family, you know…” His face is soft. “And pretend I’m not saying this,” he turns away again, then looks back, “but remember how I used to say I wanted to have kids with you? I still think about that. I think about having kids with you all the time.”
But I cannot pretend he’s not saying this. A match has been lit in the dark and I feel like I can finally see again. I refuse to snuff it out. This is what I want. Us. A family. I feel high. In the clearing, I can see the cabin built already, smoke coming out of the chimney, a baby laughing inside.
He holds me with an earnestness that I think will break both our bones. “I love you,” he says. “Do you hear me? I love you.”
He gets out of my car and I watch him walk up the driveway. This will be the last time I see him. A week later, without warning or explanation, he will stop returning my phone calls. He will simply pack up his machete, walk away from our little clearing, and disappear into the jungle.
ANNA ANDERSON is a writer in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Bustle, among other publications. You can find her website at annaaanderson.com.
They gazed at me impassively, the man and the woman, each carefully neutral face masking—or so I imagined—the boredom of the entrenched bureaucrat settling in for a fifth hour of substitute teacher interviews.
“You arrive at the classroom,” said the guy, reading from a paper in front of him. “You find a vaguely written lesson plan. There are no administrators around to help. No one in the main office at all. What do you do?”
It was an implausible scenario, containing a hole a second-grader could have spotted. I was not here to point that out, I reminded myself. I was not here to be a wise-ass. This was my first formal job interview in seventeen years. I was here to play the game.
Back in the 1980s, yanked by divorce from the stay-at-home life she’d imagined would continue indefinitely, my mother took the first job she could find, writing jacket copy for a major evangelical publishing company. My sister and I snickered at the freebies she brought home from the office: Christian Archie comics; spiritual marriage advice; and our favorites, a series of YA novels by a guy who operated a ministry for teen prostitutes, each book titled with the name of a girl (Vicki, Lori, Traci), its plot detailing her sordid downward spiral from teenage rebellion to the streets, followed by an uplifting finale at the ministry’s safe house, and a tearfully repentant Lori (or Vicki or Traci) flinging herself into the arms of Jesus.
My mother was an agnostic whose crammed bookshelves reflected her highbrow literary tastes: Jane Austen, Henry James, The New Yorker. But the divorce settlement favored my father, a man with a sometimey attitude toward child support. So with kids to raise and bills to pay, Mom peeled from our VW’s bumper the sticker proclaiming the Moral Majority to be neither, pulled on her nylons, and went to work.
“A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do,” she used to tell my best friend Clare’s mother when they got together on weekends to drink cheap white wine and swap stories about their lawyers and no-good exes.
“It’s not about how good you are,” Clare counseled a few days before my interview. Like me, my old friend had quit teaching years ago. She’d recently gotten back in. “It’s whether or not you can speak the lingo.”
I remembered the acronym-larded professional development sessions back in the day, mandatory powerpoint presentations aimed at tired teachers surreptitiously trying to grade papers and plan lessons while simulating dutiful attention to the flavor of the month in educational strategy.
“It’s way worse now, with all the Common Core,” Clare said. “Don’t get me started. But you remember: redirect, assessment, collaborative learning, ownership, SSR.”
“SSR—shoot, I forgot all about that.” (SSR, for the uninitiated, stands for Sustained Silent Reading. SSR is to regular old reading as “sanitation engineer” is to “janitor”: the same damn thing.)
“Don’t worry, sister, you know what you’re doing,” Clare said. “Just tell ’em what they want to hear. Play the game.”
I quit teaching high school at the turn of the millennium to stay home with my baby. It was a choice I was able to make because my husband earned just enough to support the three of us. But there was another reason I quit my job: I didn’t have the passion. The great teachers had it. Walking past their classrooms, you heard the bustle, felt the energy. Those teachers shone, with a core of dedication that couldn’t be faked. Sure, they griped about the troublemakers. They rolled their eyes, recounting some mouthy tenth grader’s outrageous comment. But their voices—exasperated yet understanding—gave them away. They loved those troublemakers.
I was a decent teacher. I worked hard and planned my lessons carefully. I told my students that everyone has a story to tell. Real or imagined, we all have that story. I explained point of view, and starting a new paragraph every time the speaker changes, and providing necessary background information. I reminded them, more times than I ever imagined I would, to end sentences with punctuation.
My students wrote stories and essays and workshopped them together, drafting and revising multiple times before presenting their finished work. As a class, we applauded each presentation, and I pinned the finished pieces ceremonially to a special bulletin board with a shiny silver border. The kids acted like all this was no big deal, but it was.
When I informed my ninth graders that they would memorize the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, they didn’t believe they could do it. “Fourteen lines, guys, fourteen lines,” I told them. For the next month, we started every class by standing up and reading the prologue in unison. Sometimes we marched around the room reciting it. My students made a great show of rolling their eyes and muttering. (“Dude, can you believe this?”) But around they went, quietly at first, shuffling on the scuffed floor, then with increasing gusto: Two houses, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene…They had it down in two weeks. It was only fourteen lines, after all.
Sometimes, even at the end of a long day, the thrill of this would hit me: these words, ringing in the California air, four centuries and a world away from their birthplace.
But I didn’t have the passion. I was weary of contending with the core of disruptive students who filled my classroom, angry kids I couldn’t seem to reach. I envied people who were done at the end of the workday. My job was a never-ending slog of lesson-planning, essay-reading, and grading. It ate up every evening, and every weekend, and I couldn’t imagine continuing and raising a family, too. When I quit to stay home, the freedom was exhilarating.
Still, four years later, I felt a pang when my license expired. I didn’t want to teach again, but it was disquieting to realize I couldn’t. The licensing commission had a lot of nerve, I thought. No longer good enough were my master’s degree, years of experience, and the slew of National Teacher Exams I’d passed. Now they wanted coursework before I could renew. That meant going back to school. My children were one and four. It wasn’t going to happen.
But what if the worst occurred? What if I was left on my own, like my mom, to raise my children? All the stay-at-home mothers talked about that. Few of us were in a position to easily re-enter the professions we’d left. Without my teaching license, what job was I qualified for that could support a family?
I tried to ignore those questions. Life insurance would take care of me if anything happened to my husband. As for the other possibility, I tried not to think about that, either. My husband brought me flowers every Friday and sent hand-drawn postcards when he was out of town, even for a night. He wasn’t going to leave me.
Part of me didn’t believe that. It was the part that remembered the wave. That’s what we call it now: the divorce wave, the surge of broken marriages beginning in the 1970s and peaking when my mother got her job with the Christian publisher. By the time those waters receded, not one of my friends’ families remained intact. Forty years later, Clare and I are still sloshing through the ruins, trying to spot the faulty foundations, the unstable beams, to identify exactly which imperceptible weaknesses rendered our parents unable to withstand the tide. Even now, part of me can’t help thinking of divorce the way I did as an eleven-year-old: a catastrophe that strikes without warning, a tsunami on a clear day.
That teaching license was my only route to higher ground. I needed it back.
When the kids were finally in school, I dug out my expired license and called the state to find out how much coursework was involved in renewing it.
“Fill out Application C and send in fingerprints and $225,” said the young man on the phone.
“Yes, I know,” I said. “But what about the education credits? How many will I need?”
“No credits. They changed the law four months ago. All you need now is the application, the fingerprints, and the $225. Do you want me to send you the forms?”
They changed the law.
I was unprepared for the elation that surged through me, the rush of astonished gratitude—all of which I promptly poured forth upon the hapless guy on the phone. It felt, at that moment, as though he had personally intervened on my behalf; if I could have reached through the phone to embrace him, I would have. Then, like Cagney or Lacey interrogating a perp, I proceeded to grill him. Was he absolutely sure about this? It applied to all licenses? Finally, I thanked him profusely, my brain thrumming like a violin string. In the space of a few minutes, with no effort at all, my employment prospects had shifted from service industry to professional grade.
Not that I wanted to teach again. I’d built up a freelance editing business over the years, and it was paying for extras, like summer camp and music lessons. I was done with the classroom. We didn’t need the money. I didn’t have the passion. But now—now I had the option. I was standing on higher ground.
Just ask an English teacher, and they’ll tell you: nothing gold can stay. The easy license renewal turned out to be a one-time deal. Four years later, it wouldn’t be so simple.
“I don’t care what you have to do,” Clare said. “Don’t let that license expire.”
She didn’t need to elaborate. For three years now, ever since her husband left their marriage, Clare had been wading through deep water. From the opposite coast, I’d cheered her efforts get back in the classroom: enrolling in graduate school, taking after-school teaching gigs, updating a resume with a thirteen-year gap. The hardest part was renewing her expired license, an epic bureaucratic campaign spanning eighteen months and involving the tracking down of records in three states.
“Letting the license expire was my biggest mistake,” she warned me every time we talked, a speech that always reminded me of the anti-drug commercials of our youth. “Don’t let it happen to you.”
I didn’t intend to. After a semester of online coursework at my local community college, I possessed the fresh transcripts necessary to satisfy the state licensing commission for another three years.
Now here I was in the district administration building, interviewing for a job. Not that I wanted to be a substitute teacher, exactly. But this time, it wasn’t about whether or not I had the passion. What I had was two teenagers, one of whom would be applying to college in a year. What I had was residency in a city where substitute pay is among the highest in the nation. I could set my own schedule if they hired me here, contribute to the college fund, and still have time to write and edit. What I had, in fact, was the prospect of an ideal side gig. Yeah, I wanted this job.
But I didn’t need it.
My husband’s position at a public agency survived the recession, thanks to a stable tax base. And after his seventeen years there, we’re no longer balancing on a financial tightrope, the way we were when I first quit teaching. The mortgage would be paid on time if I bungled this interview, and the orthodontist’s bill. No one would go hungry in my house if these two didn’t like my answers.
I wasn’t thinking about that—not consciously, anyway—as I explained how I would amend that vague lesson plan on the fly, make it specific. I was focused on playing the game, nimbly referencing stalwarts of the Language Arts curriculum, like Of Mice and Men and Raisin in the Sun. I avoided pointing out that under no circumstance—except possibly the Rapture—would a public school’s main office be devoid of personnel at eight a.m.
Neither interviewer spoke when I finished. They looked at me expectantly.
I’d already described my disciplinary strategies and my approach to lesson planning. I’d talked about meeting each learner at their level. Wasn’t I speaking the lingo? Hadn’t I demonstrated my professional competence?
I launched into another example, this one based on using classroom clues to devise a lesson. Art on the wall indicates a unit on the Middle Ages? I’d have students write a dialogue between a serf and a knight, or an artisan and a priest.
Still no response. What more did these people want?
“I could do dozens of things in this scenario,” I said, perhaps inexpertly masking my exasperation. That was when it happened, when I heard myself add, “You know, this really isn’t rocket science.”
My interviewers flicked glances at each other, then fixed me with identical fishy stares. After a long pause, the woman said “Do you have any questions for us?”
No, I did not.
I berated myself all the way to the parking lot. Substitute teaching is not, of course, rocket science. But Clare, or anyone who really needed that job, would never have permitted herself to say so. She wouldn’t have been so careless, not with the water rising around her.
But we all have a story, and in the one that’s mine to tell, my toes have never even gotten wet. I’m still not certain how to account for it.
At forty or fifty, not everyone is the same person they were at twenty or thirty or wants the same things. No one understands that better than people like Clare and me, who lived through the wave, who watched our fathers—and it was mostly the fathers—decide that, after all, our mothers were not the women they wanted to grow old with. For us, marriage felt like an extraordinary gamble, like stepping aboard a rocket, equipped with nothing to calculate its trajectory but love and hope.
My judgment is no better than Clare’s, or her mother’s, or mine. I haven’t worked at my marriage any harder than they did. Yet in my story, the man who seemed fundamentally decent and kind at twenty-five is still both of those things twenty years on. The young woman who decided to spend her life with him hasn’t changed her mind about that. The waters have held back from us. Which is why I’m standing here on dry ground, secure enough to be a wise-ass at an interview, a writer who doesn’t actually need a day job. Most of the time, it all feels like the sheerest luck.
Maybe they appreciated my honesty. Or maybe anyone with a credential and a pulse was going to get that job. Either way, I was hired. And that felt lucky, too.
KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, OZY, Slate, and other venues. A regular contributer to Full Grown People, she lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.
“It looks like you’ve got a horn growing on your face.”
That’s what the dermatologist says—literally says—to my father. A horn. I hadn’t thought of the growth as a horn until this moment, and now I wish I had looked at it more closely, even though it’s the kind of thing I don’t generally like to get too close to. I thought it was a big wart or a skin tag, or maybe a weird looking skin cancer, but I hadn’t considered that it might be a horn. I won’t get another chance to look at it, because the dermatologist cuts it off with no ceremony or drama—just a quick shot of Novocain and he starts digging it out. He’s done in five minutes. A horn on someone’s face is not a big deal to dermatologists. They’ve seen worse.
I should have said, actually, that I don’t get another chance to look at it attached to my father’s face, because the doctor shows it to me in a little vial, suspended in pinkish liquid.
He’s sending it off to the lab. Right now, the horn could be skin cancer or not.
Either way, the dermatologist isn’t concerned. He says, “There’s nothing to worry about. If it’s skin cancer we’ll take care of that, too.”
Maybe cancers that take the form of horns are easy to treat. Or maybe dermatologists just don’t get that worked up about eighty-four-year-olds who may or may not have skin cancer.
When I get home I google “people with horns growing on their faces” and it’s an eye-opener. You can’t mistake them for anything else because they are clearly horn-shaped. They’re hard, like dark, super-charged fingernails, and they’re huge. There are all kinds of horns, each resembling the horn of a different animal. Elk, moose, goats. Some curl up in a spiral, like they were designed by Dr. Seuss. Just when you think you have a handle on all of the ways human bodies can go wrong, you learn something new.
By taking my dad to the dermatologist while his horn was so little I saved him from possibly ending up with a giant horn, which would have been (presumably) more difficult to remove. Nobody gives you a medal for that though.
I send my dad the link to the page of pictures of people with horns. I tell him, “If I didn’t take you to get your horn removed, it might have ended up like one of these.”
He correctly points out, “We’ll never know how my horn would have turned out because we cut it off.”
Right now, his horn is in a vial being looked at to see if it’s cancer or not. It might be cancer and it might not be. It’s one or the other, but at this very moment it could be either. We have to consider both possibilities.
It’s like Schrödinger’s Cat. A couple of smart people have explained this to me and I still don’t understand it, because a cat is alive or dead, not both, no matter if we know it or not. But the relevant point here is that since we don’t know, we need to treat it as if it’s both alive and dead. You need to cover all the bases.
In the days leading up to this dermatologist appointment, my father, who has early Alzheimer’s, took it upon himself to make a dentist appointment the same day. His dentist is in the same medical park as the dermatologist and, coincidentally, has the same last name too.
“They must be brothers,” my father tells me every time he calls me about the appointment, which is more times than you might imagine.
“They might not be,” I say, because that’s the truth.
But they are. We learn that because when we get to the dermatologist’s office, the dentist’s office is right across the hall and my dad says to the dermatologist’s receptionist, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
Three minutes later as I’m filling out his medical history form, he goes up to the receptionist and says, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
A minute later, before I finish the form, he goes up to the receptionist and says, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
This time she gives me a long look and when I quietly ask her if she could call me instead of my dad with the results, she quickly agrees.
Because he made the appointment with the dentist for the same day as this appointment, but four hours later, and because I don’t have time to stick around all day, my dad has formulated a plan. He will walk across a busy road with no crosswalks and have lunch at a shopping center, and then will walk back afterwards, find the dentist again in this medical park, which is the most complicated medical park in the world.
I have told him several times that this was not a safe plan, but he assured me that he did this kind of thing all the time, and had been an officer in the U.S. Air Force and flew several kinds of complicated airplanes and he could certainly manage crossing the street. I had put off the argument for later because I was so tired of talking about it.
He mentions this plan to the nurse once we’re in the doctor’s office, and she says, “No, you won’t. You’ll get killed, and even if you don’t, you’ll never find your way back here.”
He replies, “Oh!” and looks truly surprised.
“No, I’ll drive you to lunch and then I’ll drive you back here,” I say, even though I really don’t have time. I agree with the nurse. It was a crazy plan. But, also, I’m aware that I would seem neglectful if I let him do it, and I’m sensitive about looking neglectful.
My choices are to piss him off or to look neglectful to everyone else in the world.
It seems like there’s only one right answer. I have to keep him safe. But it’s so much more complicated. It’s difficult to know at any given moment if he should no longer be doing something he used to be able to handle. I have power of attorney, and, sure, I can play it safe, err on the side of caution, but every little freedom that he loses diminishes him a little more.
He’s stopped driving. Although he’s in “independent living” at his senior living home, someone comes to his apartment twice a day to make sure he takes his pills. I started handling his banking after he made a few concerning mistakes with his money. He’s unhappy with all of these changes.
When an older person wanders off and gets lost, it ends up in the news, and the reaction in the comment section is predictable. “Someone should have been watching him!” Just like when a kid is allowed to walk home from school by herself (imagine!) and something bad happens. “I’d never let my kid walk around without supervision! Bad parents!” The online judgment comes fast and hard.
The problem is, until the older person goes missing or something happens to the kid, you don’t know for sure that it’s not safe to let them do this thing that they want to do. Maybe the kid is ready. Maybe the elderly parent is still able to take an unsupervised walk. How do you know? Maybe this will be the last time he can do it.
With Schrödinger’s Cat, the way it works is this: the cat is in a steel box. Also in the box are a radioactive substance, a vial of poison, a Geiger counter, and a hammer. When the radioactive substance decays, the Geiger counter detects that and makes a hammer smash the vial, releasing the poison, killing the cat. But the thing is, you have no idea when the radioactive substance will decay. So at any given time you don’t know if the cat is alive or dead.
It’s the same thing with elderly parents with dementia. Until something goes wrong—they mess up the bank account, they forget to take their pills, they get lost—you don’t know that the decay has gotten to that point. If you wait too long to start giving them that extra supervision, there can be a disaster. If you jump the gun, you’re taking away some of their quality of life before you need to.
After the appointment I drive him to the shopping center and we have lunch. Then I drive him to the dentist. It will be two and a half hours until his appointment. I can’t stay. The home where he lives provides rides to and from doctor’s appointments, so I have him call and request a ride, but he can’t get anyone on the phone.
“Try again,” I say, because I don’t want to leave him without a ride.
“It’ll work out,” he says. It’s one of his favorite things to say and it drives me insane. It happens all the time. He tells me about a problem and asks for help. Something with his computer, or his phone or TV, or something more important. Maybe his knee is bothering him. I start looking into it, but before I can do anything he says, “It’ll work out.”
It works out because I make it work out, not because it magically works out.
He assures me, though, that he will just call again after the appointment and get the ride. I tell him to let me know if he can’t get through. Then I leave and drive the forty minutes to get home.
That night he calls me and says that he never got through so he walked across a major road, this one with a crosswalk, at least, to catch a bus back home. He got on the right bus, had cash for the fare, got off at the right stop, and crossed the road again to get home.
“It all worked out,” he says.
Three days after the appointment we get an answer about the horn. The dermatologist says it’s benign.
JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
I tried to talk my sons out of getting tattoos. To me, tattoos seemed like something for circus performers or punk rockers: a way to mar lovely, pristine skin. They were ugly, in design or placement, sometimes both, like the one of a snake I’d seen creeping up the cheek of a man’s face at the beach. I’d been noticing more and more tattoos during our summer beach vacations. Military sayings like Semper Fi stretching across a young man’s shoulders, the black words stark against his sunburnt skin. An intricate lacy sleeve of bright flowers and ivy covering a barista’s arm from wrist to shoulder. The odd trail of pink stars on the calf of the mother holding her toddler’s hand.
Snakes. Someone else’s words. Flowers and ivy. Colored stars. They were all unnecessary and permanent, I told Tim and Sam. What design could you get that you’d never regret? Don’t forget. You have a tattoo forever. But kids are all about the here and now. Tim, who was sixteen at the time, talked about getting a tattoo of Pittsburgh’s skyline or the small black-and-tan outline of our family dog. Sam, who is nearly four years younger, wanted a tattoo of the Coca-Cola polar bear, but with a bottle of Mountain Dew instead of the cola, claiming to be a rebel. I didn’t know if they were serious or just trying to provoke me, but I hoped the urge would pass before they turned eighteen and could get one without my assent.
The idea first came to me while skimming through a small tabloid newspaper while I waited at a restaurant. Maybe it was the colorful ads for punk band concerts and head shops or the small brown tattoo of an owl on the back of the hostess’s calf that my daughter Meg pointed out. Something made me turn to her and say, “I’d like to get a tattoo someday. One of Tim’s birthdate or name or something.”
Meg snickered, then said something like, “Oh you’d never do that.” But my sister Kim said, “Yeah, that would be a nice thing to do. To remember him.”
After getting a haircut one bright afternoon in August, I walked the four blocks to a Starbucks for a mocha, a drink that, in my grief, had become a staple—something about the warmth of it in my hands and its decadence. Allowing myself that indulgence was, in a weird way, a self-kindness that was still hard for me. I had to remind myself I was worthy of it. Like I reminded myself kids with good parents were dying every day. From cancer or car accidents maybe, though not drugs. Maybe I had been a good parent. But despite the number of drug overdoses—in Pittsburgh and everywhere else it seemed—it was still something I didn’t believe.
Kayla was standing beside the tattoo parlor three blocks down from my hairdresser, her head shaven except for a small blue tuft above her forehead. One side of her skull boasted her newest tat: a black tarantula beside the pink open bloom of a flower. Weeks before, I’d seen her photo on Facebook and thought, as a mother would, Oh Kayla, what are you doing to your body? That tattoo was just the latest in a series that spread across her chest and legs and arms. What led her to get one after the other after the other? Wouldn’t she someday regret at least one of them?
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi, how are you?” I walked up and hugged her. I remembered the card she sent to me after. I remembered all of them.
“I’m good. You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m doing okay.” I noticed the blue lipstick around the filter of the lit cigarette dangling in her hand. Blue lipstick looked so natural on her. The tattoos probably helped with that. “Hey, I’m thinking of getting a tattoo. Of my son’s handwriting. Can they do that?”
“Oh, that is so cool. What a great idea.” She dropped her cigarette to the cement and ground it out with the toe of her shoe. “Come talk to Ed about it.”
Ed was tall and in his forties, with a long gray ponytail and tattooed arms. His stencil machine could make an exact tattoo of Tim’s handwriting for just fifty dollars—what seemed a pittance. Before the parlor door even closed behind me, I knew that I would do it. It would go on the inside of my right wrist because he was right-handed. I could peek at it whenever I wanted to. It would be my secret.
I made myself go into his bedroom, hoping to find his handwriting on a school paper in his desk drawer or a page of his Narcotics Anonymous workbook, if I could bring myself to read through it again. I’d read it the day after he was found, but remembering anything from those first days was like pulling something out of the ocean’s center, bottomless and dark. Some memories were just gone. I was thankful for that.
As soon as I stepped onto the dark blue shag carpet, I took a deep breath. This room still held things from his good years, before he got sick, before things went so far they could never be the same. Baseball trophies, bobbleheads from Pirates games with his brother and dad. The faceless brown bear I’d named Bruno before Tim could talk. The thin white poster board covered in pictures of him. Of us all together. After the viewing, I’d propped it up against the mirror of his dresser, unable to pull the pictures off.
And now I wanted the tattoo there on the inside of my wrist. To look down and see it throughout the day and night. We had lost so much of him. He left his belongings on buses or at friends’ places where he’d stayed briefly those days he had nowhere else to go. And items I suspected he’d sold for drug money—his Xbox 360, my favorite Laurel Burch earrings, Meg’s nano iPod. Other things had probably been stolen by roommates when he lived at three-quarter-way houses after rehab, things we’d bought him before realizing just how much shit we were in, things that were cheap but desirable to someone who had little: the e-cigarette we bought him to keep him from the real, more dangerous kind, the black rainproof jacket with the warm fur lining, the silky soft throw because he loved the feel of soft things against his skin. All those things had gone missing, along with the son I’d known.
When I couldn’t find anything with his handwriting in his room, I remembered the Mother’s Day card he wrote to me when he was seventeen and still living at home. It was a bright shade of yellow, an oddly cheerful color for him to choose then; he always seemed to be somber, even sullen. The front of the card read “from your son. Mom, because of you, I grew up a healthy, well-mannered person who always tries to make the right decision,” and the inside read “As far as You know anyway.” Those words mocked me, since I knew he was already smoking marijuana then. Arguments about it had replaced civil conversations between us, despite the therapists and doctors, despite my pleading. Below the typed words “Happy Mother’s Day!” were the handwritten words, “From Tim!” that he’d scratched out and replaced with “Love, Tim!” when my husband Ken pointed out “From” was unnecessary. Tim sometimes needed to be reminded of what was obvious, lost as he was in the outer-space regions of his teenage mind.
My tattoo would be monochromatic and simple: the words Love, Tim! in black ink. What my son wrote to me. His printing. His words. I imagined seeing them whenever I turned over a soapy dish in my hands or spread lotion that smelled like oranges and ginger across the dry palms of my hands. I’d linger in those tasks, seeing the black, block handwriting that wasn’t yet there. I could feel him write the words, his hand twisted around the pen, face tight with concentration. He had hated his handwriting homework, even before the torture of writing cursive letters began, but now those shapes he hated drafting seemed to be all I had left.
On my fifty-fourth birthday, I felt like a switch had flipped inside me. I had to get the tattoo that night. The urgency I felt was a wave pushing me along. I didn’t resist.
“Hey there. What can I do for you?” Ed said. He was the only one working at Jester’s Court Tattoo that night.
“Hi. I was here before. I’m Kayla’s friend. I wanted to have a tattoo made from this card.” I opened it and pointed to Tim’s words.
“Oh yeah, I remember. Just words, right? We can do that. It’ll be fifty dollars.”
We stood together looking at the card, and I explained how I wanted to include the exclamation point but not the thin underlining that Tim had drawn under his name. Meg and I had debated in the car whether to include those extra markings. At first, I thought I’d just include his name, but then decided that Love was an equally important word, since I knew in my heart that it was true. Despite how things had ended.
One of our last phone conversations had convinced me of that love, relieved me of a little bit of my guilt. That talk had been an absolution, a gift, though I didn’t see it at the time. Love, however powerful, was not, it turned out, strong enough to cure or rescue or tame. But love lived on in spite of death, of heartbreak, of a parent falling short. I had learned that much.
Meg liked the punctuation mark because it showed the exuberance and energy he had then. I liked the idea of a marker that showed who he once was, before the addiction took full hold. Thinking of him adding the exclamation point made me smile, although it made me feel sad, too. Every memory had those two opposing sides: happiness and sorrow. Glad to have known him, so sad that he was gone. I lived a dichotomous life now.
“Take a seat here and get comfy. I’ll be back in a flash,” Ed said, walking to the stencil machine. When he returned and handed the card back to me almost gingerly, like he knew its value, I slipped it carefully back into the plastic sleeve I’d brought it in and laid it beside me on the chair. He rubbed my wrist down with alcohol and then a milky lotion to help the stencil ink stick to my skin. He showed me the stencil first, then peeled the back of it off and held it parallel to my wrist, ink side down.
“I want it tilted so I can read it.”
He shifted the paper, waited for my okay, and then pressed it onto my skin for several seconds, rubbing it once with his thumb. When he peeled the stencil back, Tim’s words were left behind.
The needle, when he took it out of sealed plastic wrapping, was longer than I’d imagined and reminded me of the IV needle the nurse had pushed into my skin the night I went into labor with Tim nearly two weeks early. I’d felt so unprepared to parent him.
I watched Ed feed the needle into the top of the small machine and turn a stubby knob until the needle was in place. Holding the gun in his hand like a pencil, he dipped the needle into a cup of black ink the size of a thimble. I heard a thick buzzing noise as he tested the machine, operating it through a small pedal on the floor near his feet. He bent over my wrist and I heard the buzzing again as he began at the top of the letter L. I watched as the needle punctured the skin on my wrist, leaving ink on top of the purple stencil markings. When I asked Kayla what getting a tattoo felt like the day I stopped into the parlor, she said like a cat scratching your sunburn. For me, it was just a subtle scraping, dull and somehow distant, like it was imagined or in the past. Maybe I wanted to feel Tim so badly that I welcomed the feeling of his words being etched into my skin, my body that had held him for those eight and a half months, kept him safe. Maybe the tattoo really didn’t hurt much. Maybe it did, but I was too numb to feel it. Or maybe I wanted to feel pain to feel him again, I don’t know. I only know the needle felt light and quick.
When we left the tattoo parlor, my wrist wrapped with bright purple tape, I was euphoric, a feeling little known to me since Tim’s death. I felt lit and warm and accompanied in a way I hadn’t when I walked in. My skin was now home to a secret kinship, a shelter for a part of my tender, vanished son, suddenly found.
When I’d seen him last, his hair had grown shaggy and wild again like when he first started using. He mostly wore black cotton t-shirts that hung on him like a tent and bore the silhouettes of Notorious B.I.G. or Big Pun. I’d grown used to those XL shirts that swallowed up his five-foot-eleven frame, his narrow hips and shoulders, as if he wanted to hide, his pants so long and wide-legged they billowed up around his bright green and white skate shoes. His clothes were more than a fashion statement: He didn’t want anything pressing in on him.
For weeks, I babied the skin of my right wrist, following Ed’s instructions carefully: wash three times a day with an antibacterial soap, pat it dry with a paper towel, then rub in a fragrance-free lotion and let the tattoo get some air. I enjoyed the ritual of it, the patting dry with a gentle touch, the feel of the lotion, cool and soft.
When I first considered the tattoo, imagined the script carved into my wrist, I kept going back to my penultimate conversation with Tim. I said before it was a gift, though I spent much of the call pleading with him to listen, to hear me, when—I see it now—he was no longer capable of it. The addiction had suppressed his ability to listen, the way that other diseases suppress your immune system, leave you unable to fight. Maybe if I tell you what he said, you’ll understand. Even without having been in my shoes those six years. Maybe it will be enough to recount his words that day.
I had been at my office with a stack of pages to edit, but I was getting little done. Most days were like that for me then. A struggle to focus, to care about work when my son’s life—and therefore mine—was becoming a natural disaster. He’d been texting me for forty-five minutes, seeking my approval, my acknowledgement that his plan for the immediate future held merit.
Here’s what he was planning to do just weeks after his second overdose and week-long hospitalization: move into an apartment with Jake, a young man about his age whom he met at rehab. Two addicts who thought the occasional use of marijuana or can of beer would be no problem. Two addicts still living in denial, unable or unwilling to face the reality of their disease.
When the phone rang, I considered not answering. I had so much work to do, and debates with him took a circular path, his reasoning so illogical there was no possible resolution. Afterward, I had trouble retracing the tangled branches of his thought. It was, I suppose, a symptom of his drug use, his brain struggling to follow its own thoughts, the connections numbed or diverted. But I knew I had to try.
“Hi, Tim,” I said, doing my best to not sound annoyed and probably doing a poor job of it. I was lousy at hiding how I felt, especially with him, especially when I felt afraid or angry—two emotions he always seemed to bring out in me.
“Hey, Mom.” His voice always sounded monotonic, flat and emotionless, his mind forever planted firmly somewhere in the middle of happy and sad. I wondered if he ever felt anything anymore without drugs.
“Tim, I think you need to go back to rehab now. It’s what you need. Not moving in with Jake.” When he didn’t respond, I kept going. “You almost died. Again. Tim, you need help.”
“Mom, it’s okay. I’m done with that shit. Jake and me are gonna get an apartment and it’s gonna be fine. I got my job now, and he’s working. We can afford it.”
“Jake is an addict, Tim. He’s a nice guy and a friend, I know, but he’s not good for you. Remember what they said at rehab? That you need to change your friends, your habits, your hangouts. It’s the only way. You need to find friends who are clean and have been that way for a while.”
“It’s fine, mom. He does a little marijuana now and then, but that’s okay. We can do that. A lil marijuana or a beer ain’t gonna hurt. I’m off the hard stuff, I promise.”
I swung my chair away from my desk until it faced the window. Hearing him talk that way was scaring me. Most of my knowledge of addiction came from the Sunday family sessions at rehab, and I remembered what the counselor said every week: Addicts had to leave their old friends behind. Old friends led to old habits and old habits led to relapse.
“Mom, did you hear me?”
“Yeah. You know you can’t drink at all anymore, Tim. Or use any drugs.”
“Mom, it’s okay. I can do it once in a while.”
“No, you can’t. Mel was clear on that. You can’t. You have to stop it all. And you have to get new friends.”
“Mom, I can’t. And I don’t want to. I have a job now, and I want to be out on my own. I can do this.”
I stood up and looked at the sky, at the single bird gliding toward the building just a hundred feet away. Tonight, when I was locking my door and heading out, the whole flock, black and busy, would be gathering on its rooftop. “Tim, you can’t. It’ll happen again and this time—” My voice fell into my throat and I started to choke up, my voice suddenly thin and wispy. “Tim, you can’t. You won’t survive it again. You…you will die. And I can’t take that, I can’t.” I started to cry. “I can’t let that happen, Tim. I love you. You have to do what you can to stay clean.”
“Mom, I love you too, but it’s my choice. I can’t go back to rehab. I just can’t do it again. I’m gonna move in with Jake, after I get a few more paychecks.” He paused, and I watched the lone bird land on the rooftop, his black silhouette clear against the darkening sky.
“And Mom, no matter what happens…if I die, it’ll be my fault, not yours.” The quiet between us thinned and stretched out, but I was too terrified to speak. I could hear the ticking of my office clock, the blood rushing in my ears. I began to sob openly, holding a wet Kleenex to my face.
“Mom, I know you and Dad love me. You guys are the only reason I’m still alive.”
Looking back, I knew. The way he was talking, there was only one way things could turn out. He wouldn’t go back to rehab. He wouldn’t stay clean. He would make what few choices he could, decide the few benign things that drugs had left him control of, like it or not, without my help.
Today I wonder, was he saying goodbye to me? Did he know it, too? To leave me with those words I’d cling to just weeks later, words full of his love for me and Ken, proof that he knew all we had done to try and save him.
I don’t know the answer. But the word Love—the way he wrote it—on my wrist above and just to the left of his name—is how I remember that call, his words, uttered to me with all the certainty his numbed heart could feel, a mark of his love for me, true.
PENNIE BISBEE WALTERS, who works as a technical writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is currently working on a memoir about loving and losing a child who suffers from the disease of addiction. Her poems have appeared in Voices from the Attic.
This very evening. Right after I get home from work I will take my husband by the hand, walk him into our bedroom and have sex with him. I’ll unbutton his shirt, spread my fingers over his swimmer’s pectorals, the perfect spread of chest hair, a mix of brown and silver. I will place my lips there and the salty hairs will prickle my nostrils. I will unbutton his pants. He will stand above me rubbing my shoulders and try to kiss me, but I will be busy doing other things to him.
This plan develops as I drive home from work on a Monday. I head south on I-5 with a glittery Lake Union to my west, the sun pushing gold against the clouds, sprays of light landing on the shiny dynasty we call Downtown. Sex on a Monday, after work, what a fun surprise! It will get us out of our slump!
I change the radio station, from news of a suicide bombing to a piano sonata. My stomach growls. The idea of dinner pushes its way in. Maybe we’ll eat first, and then the sex parade will start. And this, of course, is my first tactical mistake. A full stomach does not lead to sex in our household.
Earlier that morning, five a.m., I watch the beautiful back of my husband rise out of bed. He doesn’t see me turning my owl head to watch him. The swimmers shoulders rolling up and away from me. The ruffled silver hair. A hand stretching back to pat me. “Good morning,” that patting hand says.
While my husband goes off to swim, I lie in bed and stare out the window, at the clouds hanging like an old man’s eyebrows in the sky. I spend a half hour thinking about the sex we didn’t have all weekend. We weren’t too busy; there were no arguments and no body-part problems. There were two straight days of rain, a lot of cozy time in bed, plenty of napping and cuddling and binge-watching our favorite British mystery. And no sex.
I’ve counted. I’ve kept score. In the beginning there was so much regular sex for middle-aged people, something sexy popping and fizzing every day, every night despite my bladder infections, the new sensitivities, despite the doctor’s visits, the antibiotics—we powered through. And then. It whittled down. Normal, right? First, a few times a week, then two, then the weekends for sure. But there was always an element of playfulness even as the snap-crackle-pop evened out. Sometimes I’d roll over in the morning, say, “Quickie?” and my husband would wolf grin and come my way. Or when we both worked at home, I’d send a text with the word “nooner?” Ten seconds later, footsteps stomped down the hallway.
We held at twice a week then fell to once, on the weekend, still able to blame my delicate sex organs, the sensitive bladder, an inability to bounce back so fast. Consecutive days were pretty much out for us. I saw naturopaths, shifted my diet, and took my “estrogen poppers” to settle some of my womanly discontent, and things did improve.
Then I just got lazy.
I need to address something. Did you know that a woman’s vagina atrophies? Did you know that the general story arc of our orgasms—timing, intensity—can change with age? I guess it makes sense. Our skin loosens, our boobs sag; the butt drops, our muscles soften, the joints ache. And our vaginas are part of this aging ride. It’s different for everyone, of course, but this is how it went down for me.
Let’s say you’re a woman in your mid-forties. You’re single. You’ve had a relatively inactive sex life for that decade and then suddenly—you meet a man when you’re forty-seven. You’re ready to rock and roll.
You could be in for a few surprises.
After a succession of bladder infections, I eventually went to see a urologist. This is the kind of doctor I thought specialized in the dick problems of old men. My dick doctor, as it turned out, was a woman, about ten years younger than me. She was petite and no-nonsense, and she gave me a precise de-briefing on what my body had been up to while I was mindlessly careening through my forties.
“Your vaginal wall gets dry and droopy just like your skin as you age,” she said, pulling on her perfectly smooth forearm. “Gravity gets it just like everything else.”
She diagnosed me with Sensitive Bladder Syndrome, recommended acupuncture and gave me a list of foods to avoid. Her philosophy around having sex with an atrophying vagina was bold. “Really go for it—pound away!” she said banging a fist into one of her open palms. “Get in there and see what works.” Then she handed me a prescription for painkillers.
My husband and I weren’t young when we married. I was forty-nine; he was fifty-seven and a widow. It was his second marriage, my first. The ceremony took place at a friend’s house. My parents walked me down a sprawling lawn to an open-air altar. We stood before our friends and family, beside a small lake populated by the white blooms of lily pads. Three days later we went on a road trip to the Canadian Rockies.
We didn’t have a lot of sex on our honeymoon. I started my period, the beds were so soft that my back hurt, and I was also having some of my sensitivities. Instead of waking up mid-sleep to make love with my new husband as one might imagine, I woke up and reached for my Kindle to continue the science fiction trilogy I was obsessed with.
During the day we sat at the mountain town cafes and watched people go by. We explored the ice blue rivers of Banff, stood with hung jaws before the crystal green of Lake Louise; we hiked through wildflowers and past the high glaciers of Jasper. At night we cooked dinner in our wooded cottage, and I stared out at the small lake giddy with the fact that I never had to answer the question of whether I would find a mate and who that mate might be ever fucking again. We rifled through the collection of DVDs and glommed on to a long-running British series we became enamored with called Midsomer Murders. The show falls under a genre I call “gentle garden mysteries.” While bodies fell and the investigation heated up under the charge of fifty-something Chief Detective Inspector Tom Barnaby, I was lulled into a deep state of relaxation by the comfort of the mature cast, the bursts of trees and bushes, so much Eden green, like the worst calamity the universe can conspire is the death of a water colorist.
We went to bed tired and content, spooned our warm bodies in the soft bed, my husband’s breath on my ear. His hand on my breast, my foot stroking the bone of his shin, and in my right hand my Kindle, where I blissfully continued on with my sci-fi drama. It rained at night, the scent of sage breezed through the open windows, the air was cool against our shoulders and arms, the rest of our bodies snug under the comforters. There was nowhere to go, nobody waiting for us. We were so happy. I was home.
It’s Monday morning. As my husband swims laps in the pool I lie in bed imagining him next to me later that night, and I choreograph: how I will open my legs, throw one over my husband’s resting, unsuspecting body; put my hand on his chest, move my mouth over his neck, over the light brown belly hair, down his body, the lean legs. Move around the canvas of his body slowly—kiss here, kiss there, swirl a body hair in my tongue, rub my teeth against his rough skin—and then spend the other half of the night returning to the home of his lips.
But here’s what really happens Monday after work.
I drive into our garage at five-thirty with a hunger headache from too little for lunch. Visions of seduction are long gone; they fell away somewhere between Lake Union and merging onto I-90.
“Lovergirl is home!” my husband exclaims in his usual way, popping his head out of the garage door. He walks toward me opening his arms, right to my car door. When I stand up he gives me his lips, a full kiss. Every night I come home, he’s there for me right on the lips. I lean into him, my cheek against the tee-shirt he’s been gardening in all day. I breathe in the smell of bark and branches. He grabs my bags and we go into the house.
All the overhead lights are on, the news blaring. I see the crumbs and salt flakes in clumps on the small kitchen island, and pick up a sponge to wipe them off. Why do I make cleaning the stupid island more urgent than seducing my husband?
We have dinner, watch an episode of Midsomer, and go to bed where I don’t make one tiny move on my husband. Tomorrow, I think. Tomorrow, I’ll be on it. I won’t get side tracked; I won’t look at any kitchen surfaces; I’ll stay focused on those blue eyes, the swimmer’s hips. Tomorrow!
Tuesday morning I wake up slowly, next to those pillowy lips and the bent, crooked nose I love, those arms that reach for me, after an argument, when I shout in my sleep. I think back to how it was in the beginning. What I remember are flashes of body parts over the bed, under the covers—yes, we’re conventional, but so what? I remember him inside of me, his fingers on me, feeling lost among my own body parts, the undulations of narratives building and bursting in unexpected waves. We were a story—a romantic thriller—unfolding beneath a tangle of sheets.
We get up and go swimming together. I am filled with resolution. Tonight, I tell myself as I swim sets of two-hundreds in line with my lane mates. Tonight, I tell myself as I speed over the express lanes of the I-90 floating bridge. I am determined! When the day is done, I’ll drive into the garage, greet him with a kiss, grab him, pull him by the crotch of his pants down the hall to our bedroom, take off my shirt with the other hand. First my jacket, then my shirt, then my camisole, maybe keep the bra on for him to remove—I’ll position myself on the side of the bed, ass down, legs up and parted and wait for him.
“Do anything,” I’ll say, and he will and it will be exactly what I expected. Over dinner he will turn to me with a gooey smile, the blue of his eyes will darken and my husband will say “Thank you,” which I still find strange. I will look back at him, put my lips in a kiss position and respond point blank, “You’re welcome.”
After making love he will be so content! He will take my hand as we glow in the reflection of our day’s end Midsomer Murders. It will be the episode that features a hospital for troubled people in one of the villages, and a spate of “suicides” that were really murders committed by a trinity of jealous children.
“There’s no way all three of those kids would do that!” I will exclaim.
“Oh, it keeps the old folks on their toes,” my husband will say in his soothing voice. Then, at the moment of reveal, just as Barnaby confronts the nymphomaniac mother of the murderous children; just as I’m concentrating on the British-accented dialogue, those blue eyes will turn to me and proclaim, “You’re my love.”
He’ll move in closer, stroke my cheek with his gardener’s fingers. “Oh my love,” he’ll murmur, coming in for a kiss.
I’ll miss the climax of the show and I’ll try not to be irritated because—and I have to remind myself of this—we can always rewind the scene and play it later.
TATYANA SUSSEX is working on a collection of stories about being a late bloomer. She writes, swims and coaches big dreamers from the watery city of Seattle. You can visit her blog at Everyday Creative Coaching.
When the birds wouldn’t stop shitting on our new patio furniture, I tried everything and then I called our friends who have guns. I asked them a) if it was legal to shoot birds within the city limits and b) if so, did they want to help us get rid of the birds who were making a mockery of us.
It’s not like this was just a pile or two of dried bird shit. No. I’m talking about multiple fresh globs of shiny white liquid bird shit. So many that they bled into one another. The birds weren’t flying overhead and shitting from the air. They were coming specifically to our furniture, resting on it, and shitting. The chair at one end of the table seemed to be a particular favorite. They were using our new teak furniture as their personal toilet. And the stoop right outside the sliding glass door, what we called Essay’s perch, where she liked to lie and sun herself.
We thought we had solved this problem two years earlier when we’d just moved into this house. At the old house, we kept two bird feeders, and my husband Steve diligently refilled it when it ran low. This was his project. I didn’t hate the birds the way I do now, but I didn’t participate either. When we moved into this house and the birds we were feeding began to show their gratitude by shitting all over the patio and our furniture—not quite as nice as the new teak, but not the point—I suggested moving the bird feeders to the back of the yard. When that didn’t help, we removed the bird feeders altogether. When they continued to shit, we bought a bobble-head owl and a falcon and staked them into the yard, moving them each time we mowed the lawn. Problem solved.
Until this spring. Looking back, I think it may have had something to do with the two dead birds we found in the yard within the space of three weeks. Were the birds who wouldn’t leave our airspace—the ones who constantly flew overhead cackling and cawing and landing on our end chair to shit—actually grieving? Was there a mourning period they had to observe before they could move on to shit in someone else’s yard?
To the branches of the trees I tied shiny reflective tape specifically designed to detract birds. It looked like we were gearing up to have a party. Festive streamers blowing in the wind. The damn birds flew right past them.
I ordered plastic snakes from Amazon. When they arrived a couple days later, I was pleased with their life-like slithering tongues sticking out of their pebble-sized heads, satisfied that they might make even me jump if I happened to forget that they were fake. I distributed them on the patio and on the furniture, paying special attention to the favored end-chair toilet. Steve and I ate dinner that night on the patio beneath the stars with three rubber snakes at the other end of the table.
I ordered yellow eyeball balloon detractors from Amazon. Three balloons per package. Except they’re not really balloons. They’re more like beach balls decorated with six red “eyes” that are supposed to resemble the eyes of predators and cause birds to redirect their flight patterns. When they arrived, I went to the basement to find the foot pump. I came back up to the kitchen, attached the silver stickers to the six red circles on each of the balloons, and set to pumping. Both dogs cocked their heads, puzzled by my project. By the time I got them inflated and hanging from the branches of the trees in the yard, I was sweating, my hair was falling loose from my ponytail, and I was desperately thirsty. But before going inside, I stepped off the footstool to admire my handiwork.
From each of the biggest trees hung reflective streamers, two per tree, each five or six feet long, and one yellow inflated balloon decorated with six red eyeballs. A bobble-head owl and a falcon each staked its claim to the lawn. A dozen rubber snakes littered the patio and the table. The overall effect might be described as quasi-festive, and I could imagine a newcomer backing away slowly upon entering, wary of the invisible traps surely hidden strategically throughout the yard. I may have lost my sense of perspective.
I have never once shot a gun. I’ve never held a gun or even a bullet and I’ve never had any interest in doing so. We do have three guns in the house, all given to Steve by family and all kept in cases primarily as family heirlooms. Two are shotguns and one is a Winchester rifle and I wouldn’t be able to name the differences among them if my life depended on it.
We have friends who hunt. They’re gun enthusiasts, you might say. One day Steve and AJ got to talking about Steve’s guns, and AJ asked to see them. Steve told him about their history, and AJ offered to teach Steve how to clean them. They set a date to do so, and they spent hours taking the guns apart, AJ showing Steve the tiniest details and intricacies of cleaning them. The one he couldn’t quite get apart, though, was the Winchester. “Okay if I take this home with me and ask a buddy to help me figure this out?” he asked Steve.
“Of course. No problem. Do whatever you can.”
“And then I’ll bring it back and one of these days I’ll teach you to shoot.”
I had been teaching most of the time they’d been cleaning the guns, but I was back home by this point. AJ looked over at me and chuckled. “And Amy can join us.” He looks at me. “If you want.”
“Yeah, I’m thinking I’d probably shoot my own foot off or something.”
When AJ returned a few weeks later with the Winchester reassembled and cleaned, he also brought with him his AK-47 to show Steve, who has an avid interest in military history. It was a monstrous case. He heaved it up and lay it on our kitchen counter, opened it up, and I saw, in my home, an honest-to-God military-style assault rifle. I had never seen one before. I took a quick look and backed away, uneasily, as if it might jump out of its case at me. I made a joke about knowing some people I’d like to use it on, and even as the words escaped my mouth, I was shocked. But I kept going. “I now have access to an AK-47,” I said. “Somehow that makes me feel better.”
I think sometimes we don’t have control over the words that come out of our mouths. Maybe they come from the most primitive part of our reptile brains, the part responsible for regulating our breathing and our balance. My words were a knee-jerk reaction, and while we commonly think of a knee-jerk reaction as something we say without thinking, it is also something that literally provides balance with little conscious thought. Our knee jerks out reflexively to keep us standing when we might otherwise collapse. The words that come from our reptilian brains, the deepest parts of ourselves, are those that keep us balanced, the ones that help us maintain equilibrium.
The family I grew up in did not communicate well. We were not taught how to express our emotions and we were not affectionate with one another. We isolated ourselves from one another, my mother with her soap operas in the living room, me with my books in my bedroom, and my siblings with who-knows-what in their bedrooms. We walked past each other on the way to the refrigerator at home and in the hallways at school. My sister expressed her own frustration and anger by beating me. “As soon as Ma leaves, you’re dead. I’m going to kill you.” I stored my anger inside for years, feeling it solidify into depression and shame, and ever so very gradually, as an adult, working to alchemize it into a tentative and ultimately confident belief that I have a right to my own feelings. Some days I still have to work at it.
What I am trying to say is that, though I make my living teaching others about the value of language, the power of the written word, the lingering, life-or-death effects of the words we choose to speak, I understand that sometimes we don’t choose our words and sometimes violence just seems easier, so much more efficient.
When I teach undergraduates about the concept of ideology, I ask them to think about it using the metaphor of marinade. As products of an ideology, we are the meat that is being marinated. The marinade is the ideology—the coherent set of values, beliefs, and ideals that guides our thoughts and actions, that shapes our perception of reality, and that largely remains invisible. When a piece of meat has marinated in a mixture of seasonings and sauce for a long time, the marinade becomes part of the meat. It infuses and is therefore inseparable from the meat. One can no more easily remove the marinade from the meat than one can remove the brain from the body. And a piece of meat needs time to marinate. One cannot marinate a piece of meat in five minutes, just as one cannot subscribe to a new ideology in a week.
The marinade I grew up steeped in was this: Your life is not valuable. Nothing about you is valuable. You’re fat and ugly and stupid. I’m going to kill you.
You’re dead. You’re dead. You’re dead.
My life was not precarious because my life was not valued. I have never been afraid to die. I am still trying to understand that most people value life. Most people love their families. Many days there’s still a mental hitch I have to get past when I consider this. Infused in me is a belief that I am not valuable. I marinated in it for too long a time when I was too impressionable. Beliefs can change. Of course they can. But the original beliefs, the original flavor of that first marinade is still there. It cannot ever be removed. It can only be masked.
There’s a certainty for me in sadness. I know sadness. I know boredom. I know depression and I know fear. I’m comforted by disappointment because I know how to respond. I don’t know how to respond to good fortune. It’s not where I live.
I have always felt most comfortable in discomfort. I learned from my mother that when things were calm, when nothing was unsettled in the house, the way to make it so was to pick a fight. What are you thinking about? Why don’t you ever talk to me? Why don’t you ever fill up the sugar canister when it gets low? Why am I always the one who has to do the grocery shopping? You don’t really love me, do you?
Bring what’s inside out: the self-loathing and the bottomless insecurities. Share them so that you’re not so alone loitering in your despair.
When the birds would not stop shitting on our patio furniture, I wanted to shoot them. I thought of AJ and how I had access to guns now. I tried shooing them off using the jet setting on the hose nozzle, but that didn’t work. It didn’t stop me from trying. Picture me standing there in my yard on an early summer evening, on a quiet street in a quiet city in the Midwest, in my shorts and tee-shirt, no bra, among my plastic birds of prey and my predator eyeball balloons, shooting the jet spray straight up in the air, onto the roof and into the dense branches of the trees, cursing under my breath at the birds who would not leave us alone.
Knowing that I had access to an AK-47 changed my thinking when I couldn’t get rid of these nuisance birds. I was being reasonable. I was doing all of the things the internet told me to do. They were still in our airspace. “This is a no-fly zone!” I yelled at them as they flew by. My rational approach wasn’t working and I knew something that would. Shoot the motherfuckers.
Not that I would actually use an AK-47 on the birds. Of course not. I would ask AJ to come over and use whatever kind of gun one uses to shoot birds. I had figured out that these weren’t random birds. It seemed to be just four or five birds who kept coming back to the yard to shit, stopping on their way to our neighbor’s yard for food. This strengthened my theory about their being in mourning. Maybe it was a family.
After the horrifying shooting in Orlando, I decided to give blood not because I thought it would help anybody there, but because I felt helpless after signing the petitions to ban military-style assault weapons and imploring Congress to do something about terror suspects’ access to guns. Doing something physical felt good. While going through the preliminary health screening, the technician was surprised to find that my pulse was just fifty. “Is it always this low?” she asked me. I shrugged my shoulders. “I have no idea.” A pulse of fifty is the Red Cross’s minimum for blood donors, so I just made the cut-off. Usually it was my iron level that was a cause for concern.
Later, when I told Steve about my pulse, he remarked that that’s the heart rate of an athlete. It means I’m really healthy, that my heart doesn’t have to work very hard to pump the blood throughout my body. “Maybe it’s all the walking I do with the dogs,” I said. “Or maaaaaybe it means I’m dying.” This was a familiar trope in our home. I was always turning the slightest problem, the tiniest bump or bruise, into a life-threatening disease. I was always dying. I am always dying. I have never really learned how to expect this life to continue, to believe that what I do matters, to think of any of it as permanent.
Just the other day I read a piece in the New York Times about therapists’ developing understanding of depression being rooted not in past traumas but in an inability to anticipate a positive future. And it occurred to me how much of my life I have spent unable to anticipate a future. Yet here I still am.
I heard a rumor a few months ago that one of my colleagues has a gun and he wants to use it. This comes to me fourth- or fifth-hand, so its veracity is anybody’s guess, but though my response when I heard it the first time was an exaggerated disgust, I think I understand that desire. When you have something shiny and new, you want to use it. It occupies your thoughts. You shape your actions and plans around it. You think, When I get home, I’m going to switch my old purse for my new one right away. You think, I can’t wait to find an outfit that works with these new shoes. You think, I can’t wait to try that new lens on my camera. You think, I can’t wait to use my gun.
Possession of a shiny new object changes your thinking. Likewise, knowing you have access to that object changes what is possible. This knowledge affects the ways you troubleshoot problems.
Writing this makes my pulse go up a little. It scares me to think of myself as somebody who professes to believe in the power of language but at the same time sometimes understands the will to violence.
I recently lost respect for somebody in almost an instant, and it occurred to me just how long it takes to build up respect for somebody, how long it takes to earn somebody’s respect, and how quickly we can lose it. Respect is earned slowly, over time, in tiny increments, through actions that show again and again what kind of person one is.
The bird shit all over our brand new patio furniture was the ultimate sign of disrespect, day after day. At first it seemed so trivial. I mean, I was being driven to distraction by bird shit. But each morning, before I could go outside to enjoy a beautiful early summer morning with a cup of coffee on the patio, I’d have to get a roll of paper towels and the spray cleaner, grab a plastic bag, and gag my way through cleaning up globs of fresh shiny liquid white bird shit. I could feel my pulse rising. I took it personally. Why this yard? Why this furniture? Why us?
I wanted to reason with the birds, to show them that I’m really a good person, that we’re good people, that my dogs are lovely, that we deserve a little bit of peace. I’d have to do it slowly, over time, but birds don’t understand language. I knew I couldn’t really shoot them.
Violence is a perceived shortcut to respect. And a gun is nothing if not a symbol of violence. To have a gun or have access to a gun is to have near-immediate respect. A gun says, You will respect my power to snuff out your life in an instant.
A gun says, I don’t have time to earn respect. Instead I demand it.
A gun says, Look at me. Now.
A gun says, I don’t have time to persuade you. What if I can’t?
A gun says, I am afraid.
My knee-jerk reaction to other people’s families, to animal families is to believe that they love one another. I never experienced that love, and I can name dozens of friends who have similar experiences with their own families, yet still I simply assumed, when considering why it was the same four or five birds flying over our yard, that it was probably a family in mourning. It seems that at the same time that I’d been marinating in the belief that I was worthless, that nobody loved me, I was also receiving and holding on to the message that other families were not like ours. Other families love one another. That’s what a family is. Never mind the stories you hear about domestic violence. Never mind the stories you hear about husbands shooting wives. Never mind your own experience.
I want to use this new understanding. It’s shiny and new, like a gun. It will not always seem so.
This new understanding says, Family members do not necessarily love one another.
This new understanding says, Blood is thin. It runs in times of danger.
This new understanding says, You were not alone.
AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her essays have also been published on The Rumpus and in Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Creative Nonfiction.
Lucinda shows up in Wisconsin, on September 25 by way of North Carolina—our half sister from another mother. She is the younger, better version of me in every way, but I’m the only sibling that she talks to—there are three others.
She arrives after a twenty-five-year absence in our brother’s life; a seeker, a philosopher, convinced she can carry the weight of his impending death, that she could, in fact, be his angel of death. Like Charon, she has the gold piece for passage in her teeth at all times. She is both midwife and doula for the dying. Our first night together, at the all-night grocery store, Mark wears flannel pajama bottoms, white socks, flip-flops. His eye sockets are purple under the canopy of fluorescent lights. She’s Martha Stewart on crack:
Pro biotic for your belly. Score! Fresh ginger, for nausea, Ooooh, I like this soap, it’s organic, it’s lavender! I love these fruit cups! I love mandarin oranges! We’ll have lasagna for dinner tonight.
And he’s in absolute thrall to her: a school-boy crush, for this paragon of love and light. My god, so much light, so much energy—it crackles from her skin like static electricity. This girl is lit up. I trail behind the two of them; so animated, so colorful, it’s like watching a passion play. He willingly hands over all his power to her. I am completely stupefied, silenced, erased. Back at his apartment, breakthrough pain! Lucinda calls her mother, who is not our mother. Mark takes the phone, turns his face to the wall. He might be crying. I don’t know. I can’t bear to see him like this. It unhinges me. I smoke at the window in another room. Lucinda enters, crying—she takes my hand. She wants to be the doula for my pain and grief, too. But here’s the thing. It’s not what I want from her, at all.
I want her to get out of my way; I need her to shut up, be humble, bear witness, and respect a bond she knows nothing about. But she’s too high on her mission to help, to fix, to redeem—and doesn’t see this, or if she does, chooses to ignore it. I’ve been dispossessed in my role as the oldest sister, his oldest friend. She is the changeling who replaces me, and then tries to help me. When he’s passed out on his pain meds, she wants to go to a salon and get a pedicure, go shopping for new clothes, sample cheese curds, go for a drive. I just want to curl up in a ball and sleep, too. This is not a vacation. And does it really matter if your intentions are pure, and your compassion is real, but your actions ultimately create even more chaos? Who can really tell when times are so fraught?
I can see her mind working: He’s a cool guy, after all, full of flaws, like we all are, but also charismatic and funny. And I see her guilt and her regret, for ignoring him all of her life, but I can’t fix it for her. I can’t fix it for anyone. And I don’t want to. I don’t have the bandwidth. I have my own path to walk—this is my mandala. Go find your own.
At the V.A. clinic the next morning, his doctor examines him. He sits on the table, emaciated, yet still very much in his power, in his body, and still very hip, a rocker—in his black hat, purple hair, and Tibetan beads. We’re in an air-conditioned, windowless room, beige walls and tiled floors. Lucinda and I sit on folding chairs, facing them, doctor and patient, as if it’s a performance. And he’s the star of the show. At one point, the doctor says to him, So yes, you could die in your sleep, and that’s when Mark got up and left.
As I leave to follow him, I hear Lucinda still with the doctor: He needs a higher dose of Fentanyl, now. Today.
In the parking lot, in the sunlight, Mark leans against her neon blue rental. His beads are loose around his wrist and his neck. We don’t say anything. It’s too much; I try to hold him, but we both pull away. What if Lucinda sees? But also the idea of his death is just too crazy. We try to square up to his mortality—the white clouds roil in the sky above our heads. It’s a perfect September day. The leaves are just starting to turn. We’re on the south side of town, in a neighborhood I don’t recognize. He has six weeks to live. Lucinda triumphantly emerges from the clinic,
The patches, she announces, one thousand milligrams, will be in your mailbox, tomorrow! Fed-exed, baby.
Back at his apartment, she draws up a complex schedule for his complex meds, puts it in a spreadsheet, gets it printed, and tacked to the refrigerator. Also tacked to the refrigerator are all her cards and letters to him—spanning the entire length of their relationship, almost six weeks, including a selection of her favorite quotes from their time together:
Screw break out pain!
You’re like a real sister to me!
And taped to the purple wall in the hallway is a hand-painted birthday card from her son. It hangs next to a Xeroxed copy of a prayer by Tecumseh, a Shawnee Indian chief, which reads:
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.
In the kitchen, she heats up the lasagna, and I pour vodka into a green plastic cup. Mark eats a tiny sliver of his dinner, and then they’re off to the dunes of Lake Michigan, so he can smoke his evening joint .I don’t go. It’s not my ritual. It’s theirs. I pour more vodka into the green plastic cup, which I drink in silence and utter confusion in his empty living room. The hospital bed is to my right, Tibetan prayer flags overhead, courtesy of Lucinda. When they get back, she kisses me on the cheek, says, I love you, and is gone. She sleeps at my aunt’s house. She’ll get her hands dirty, but not that dirty. I’m happy that I’m getting out of here tomorrow.
In the morning, I’m confident, at the very least, she’ll give me some space to say goodbye to him. I have to go home. I have a full teaching load. I have a dog. I pay New York City rent.I’m at the limit of how many classes I can miss before my pay is cut. In his bedroom, I’m packing; she arrives precisely at ten a.m. to take me to the airport. She picks up my hair brush, and pulls out a new one from Walgreens: Look! I got it for you on the way over! The old one is so gnarly. She marches into the living room, calls out his name:
Mark! Honey, hi, you up? Did you take the anti-nausea meds? Let’s look at the schedule.
He’s been avoiding me all morning, will not talk about how this might be my last morning on earth with you. I don’t want to go there either, but I do want five minutes at some point in the day, before I get on the plane, to say goodbye. Because it might really be goodbye. So, will you, Lucinda, will you give me that space? But it’s not looking good. I stand in the shadow of The Changeling, a sister he never really knew, who now controls everything. Because in the land of dying, everything is upside down. Everything is topsy-turvy. It’s like the circus has come to town. Lucinda and Mark make plans to eat lobster, in downtown Milwaukee, after they drop me off at the airport.
And I see as I get in the back seat, and they get in the front, that this is the way he wants it. He’s not going to say goodbye to me. It’s a much smoother ride with The Changeling in charge. It’s easier on him. He hardly knows her. He basks in her reflected light, as they talk cornfields and lobster rolls. I’m in the back still holding out hope—two minutes alone at the airport, that’s all I’m asking. This is all I want. And Lucinda is an exceptional woman. We’ve been friends for 20 years. She will honor this connection, which doesn’t include her, and step aside, but when we are pulling into the entrance for my airline, she says,
Let’s take a family picture!
She gets out, helping me with my bags, I whisper furiously to her,
I do not want to take a family picture.
And I can’t even manage to sound like a sane person. I’m acutely conscious that my head might explode. She wants a picture to post on social media? My brother looks terrible. I look terrible. I don’t want a digital snap shot, or simulacrum of any kind, of this day, this moment. This moment can burn in hellfire, the second I don’t need it to move to the next. Mark stands at the curb, says, What’s wrong? Lucinda, on the verge of tears, replies, She doesn’t want a family picture, and points at me. I pick up my suitcase and throw it at her. It’s too big and too heavy to make much headway, but I make my point.
I’m out of control.
Mark calls out to me, as I walk away, You’re coming back, right?
In the lounge, at my gate, I call my younger brother of the same mother, and tell him what has just happened. I stand in front of a row of floor to ceiling plate glass windows, overlooking a 747, illuminated by a brilliant afternoon sun. I’m center stage, on the red carpet, in the brightest spot in the room, practically blinded by the light, and I weep. It is such a relief to finally be the despairing, messy, breaking-down woman that I’d been holding back for so long and so hard. Everybody in the terminal watches me cry. It’s the happiest, and most satisfied I’ve been in weeks.
The next time I fly back, The Changeling has vanished, for good, dethroned when my brother didn’t want to go along with their suicide plot. She said it was time, and he said, no. He texted me: She’s Dr. Kevorkian! Tell her to stay away! She got on a plane anyway. She called me from Atlanta. I knew her heart was breaking. I told her, don’t go. Turn around and head home. She didn’t listen. She didn’t know him. When he says no, he means it. She pounded on his door. Crying. Let me in. But it was over.
This long-lost half-sister brought him, for a brief time, what he needed—organization to the chaos of his dying. This must’ve been a relief, and maybe it even promised a different ending, a kind of redemption. But in the end, she didn’t prevail. She was banished. Two weeks later, I flew back into town, at his request. Left to our own devices, we watched movies and smoked pot with cousins and siblings, ate frosted cinnamon muffins for breakfast, and a candy bars for lunch. I didn’t try to fix him, redeem him, or help him.
I bore witness, and believe me, this is infinitely more difficult because it’s acknowledging that you are helpless, and power greater than you is in control. I tried to stay longer, but he said, no, go home. I knew better than to argue. He died a few days later.
He died like a hero going home.
LILLIAN ANN SLUGOCKI has been nominated twice for Best of the Web, a Pushcart Prize, and was winner of the Gigantic Sequins prize for fiction. She’s been published by CCM, Seal Press, Cleis Press, Heinemann Press, Spuyten Duyvil Press, as well as Vol 1: Brooklyn, Bloom/The Millions, Salon, Entropy, The Nervous Breakdown, Hypertext Magazine, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Manifest-Station, The Forge Literary Magazine, BUST Magazine, Angels Flight, literary west, and others. Her latest book is: How to Travel with Your Demons (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2015). She founded BEDLAM: New Work by Women Writers, a reading series @KGB Bar. @laslugocki
This is just one thing that happens: a software developer writes me a nasty, condescending email in which he says he’s sorry only that I understand nothing about technology.
Years ago I had purchased a lifetime subscription to an app of his, and my querying email about downloading it onto my new computer (“Would you please tell me how to …?”) has been met with his suggestion that I will need to purchase an upgrade for my new operating system; the old version of the app doesn’t work any more. “Hmm,” I have written. “Do you think that’s what I understood ‘lifetime’ to mean?” And he has replied that yes, it should be. He has explained that I do, indeed, retain my right to use the old, unusable system for the rest of my life, so I still have exactly what I paid for.
I’m shaking. That’s how mad I am. “He never would have written me like that if I’d been a man,” I say to my husband Michael, who nods slowly in a way that makes me want to kill him.
When I tell a friend this story over lunch, she says, “I’m sorry, no. What if the post office were suddenly, like, ‘Oh, a forever stamp? No, no. That’s from before. You can still use it, but your mail won’t go anywhere.’”
“You’re saving my life,” I say, and she laughs and pats my arm.
Something is wrong with me, only I don’t know what it is. Or how to fix it. In the middle of the day or night, rage fizzes up inside my ribcage. It burns and unspools, as berserk and sulfuric as those black-snake fireworks from childhood: one tiny pellet, with seemingly infinite potential to create dark matter—dark matter that’s kind of like a magic serpent and kind of like a giant ash turd. This is how it is for me right now.
Or how it is sometimes because also I smile a lot. I make an applesauce cake with brown sugar icing, because I know the kids will say, “Yay! Yum!” when they get home from school—and they do. I write a beloved editor a note to remind her how grateful I am for our years of working together, and she responds, “Oh god, me too!” I walk in the woods with my fourteen-year-old daughter, and we alternate between admiring the electric green fuzz of springtime and speaking intently about the complexity of gender, which she is turning in her mind like a Rubik’s cube. We whisper in our pussycat’s ear and laugh when he pushes our faces away with his bored paw. I read fantastic novels in bed like the world is ending and there are just these fantastic novels to read before it does. When I finally click off my headlamp, I experience the luxury of wrapping myself around my husband’s warm, dreaming bulk. I’m friendly and funny. I’m easy to work with.
Only, also, I’m not, even though I always was before. But now I’m biting my angry tongue. I’m sitting on my angry hands so I won’t wrap them around somebody’s infuriating neck. There is acne bubbling up from underneath my lined and angry red face. “I pretty much just hate men,” I say, smiling, and some of my friends laugh, some tighten their foreheads in puzzlement. Sometimes, in the night, my mind is like a butterfly net, lunging after injuries so I can pin them into my aggrieved display case.
Part of it is hormones, I know. I wish they were visible, like when the radiologist injects you before a scan, and you can see the dye pumping fluorescently through your veins. Sometimes I actually feel as though I’ve been injected with something—not dye, though, as much as testosterone. Amphetamines. I worry that I’m going to land on the other side of menopause, blinking in the sudden sunlight, wondering where all my friends and family and work went.
But then it makes me so mad even to write that, because part of it is not hormones. Part of it is the fact that so many men are assholes. I am just so sick of it.
Something I’ve written gets passed from an editor I’ve worked happily with for ages to her brand-new boss, who suggests that my stuff is a little too “voicey.” “Your voice is good, it’s great!” he’s assured me, in the note accompanying his almost grotesquely word-for-word edit of my piece. “But it’s a little much, you know?” Cue the black-snake firework. Yes, the pellet is already there, sure, but it’s these jerks who put a match to it, who trigger its furious unfurling.
The wagons circle on Facebook, where I complain about the editor. “We love your vagina!” I write, by way of analogy. “I mean, it’s great, it’s beautiful. But could you do something about the way it looks and smells?” I get amen from the women. Some of the men mansplain to make me laugh, which I do. And one man writes, in earnest, “Tell me about it! In my profession, you get mansplained, womansplained, childsplained, everybodysplained.”
“That gives me kind of an All Lives Get Splained feeling,” I write, irritated by his willful erasing of power from this problem, and he doesn’t write back. I’m torn between anger and regret—Ugh, my temper!—but then the regret only makes me angrier. Why should I feel bad? I write funny, mean emails to the editor and then, without sending any of them, quit my long-standing gig there.
A friend of a friend dies—a woman my age with an arrestingly beautiful and vibrant presence—and I stalk her mourners online in a strange way. “She was the kindest person I have ever known,” somebody writes, everybody writes, and I wonder if she was ever angry or horrible. I hope she was; I hope she wasn’t. A man she knew for a matter of months writes a long explanation of who she really was, inside. I hate him, hate everybody. I wish I were the kindest person anyone had ever known. I worry that Michael wishes I were more wifely: pretty and perfumed, willing and gentle. I’m furious just imagining this. But also sorry.
I watch a Youtube video about a large dog trying to sneak past the sleeping housecat on his tippy-toes because he’s afraid of her. There is something comically familiar about this scenario.
“We don’t have any cold cuts for school lunch,” the seventeen-year-old says, peering into the refrigerator.
“Oh, your highness, a thousand pardons!” I cry from the kitchen couch, where I am sitting beneath the cat, and my gentle, sweet-hearted son raises his eyebrows.
“Just that I’m putting them on the shopping list,” he explains, and I sigh, say, “Sounds good. I’ll get some ham.”
My daughter’s young, butch guitar teacher stays after their lesson to kvetch with me about men and politics. I’m frying onions at the stove, wearing an actual apron, and I brandish my spatula, say, “Fuck them all,” and, bless her, she laughs. Courtesy and wrath crash together in me like cymbals. I’m a fucking etiquette columnist, for god’s sake! But while I do believe in goodness, in compassion, I don’t believe in smiling while men spray their hot and aggressive horribleness into your face. My daughter manages to inhabit kindness and fierceness without splitting apart at the seams. She is my role model.
A friend recommends a particular garlic press on Facebook: “I have bought probably half a dozen presses in my life, this is the only one that didn’t make me angry.” I laugh, and am relieved that other women are angry too, about whatever. There’s a nasty woman joke in here somewhere, but I can’t bear to put Trump in this essay. He is its missing center.
My parents visited once when we lived in Santa Cruz, and Michael and I took them to a fancy seafood restaurant at the wharf. We sat at an open window over the sea, eating crab claws and lobster bisque, the sky the unbelievable blue of a child’s painting, while a seagull stood in the window the whole entire time, choking on a starfish, hopping around on one foot, intermittently gagging and barfing, three of the starfish’s five legs jutting from its mouth. “This is lovely,” my lovely English mother said unironically, and I think I laughed. Absolute perfection with a gagging seagull in the middle of it is pretty much my entire life.
Here’s a confession: my interaction with the software developer escalates, and I end up letting him know that I’m a journalist. He writes back a blisteringly angry email, calling me out on threatening him obliquely, and I apologize. “Life’s too short for this,” I write. “Forgive me. I was angry. I shouldn’t have written that. But I don’t think you are communicating honestly with your customers, and I hope you do.” He never writes back, and I am seething and, now, also humiliated. I know you’re supposed to forgive people, even when they don’t ask for forgiveness. But it is so hard.
My boss walks into our office while I am looking at a Fuck the Patriarchy needlepoint pattern on Etsy. I already have a framed cross-stitch on my wall that says The way to have a friend is to be one, and I believe deeply in both of these sentiments. “I’m turning back into an angry feminist,” I say, and he says, “I wasn’t aware you’d stopped!” He’s a poet and I have been his secretary for fifteen years.
“When you’re done complaining, make me some damn coffee!” he says, but he is kidding. He fills the pot, makes the coffee. He’s as fierce and gentle as my daughter, as anybody I know.
I don’t always feel just one way. I’m not always sure. And maybe that’s what it is to be a grown-up—living in the middle place, where you can’t decide quickly about everything. A misanthrope, in love with the world.
CATHERINE NEWMAN is the author of the memoirs Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy, as well as the food and parenting blog Ben and Birdy. She is also the etiquette columnist for Real Simple magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Boston Globe, and many other publications. Her first middle-grade novel, One Mixed-Up Night, will be published by Random House in fall of 2017. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family.
I don’t know who I am without Peter. I’m lost on so many levels without him. He’s been dead as of 12:01 p.m., April 2, 2013. I know I’m a parent, a single parent. I know I’m a woman in love with several men. I know that I’m a widow, a word I have grown to hate. But who am I? Without my best friend and husband, who am I?
In an effort to know myself, I have taken every step to ground myself and seek deep spiritual knowledge. I have mined the wells of my soul and gone to the deepest and most powerful source. Not therapy. I’ve been there, done that. Not rehab. As they say, rehab is for quitters and I am no quitter! I have nursed at the teat of the most omnipotent place in the universe. The internet.
I’ve discovered a whole world of quizzes on the interwebs. I’m excited to delve in. Social media sites are the perfect place to seek knowledge and enlightenment—right? This exploration began as an innocent Facebook quiz several hours after my planned bedtime, and it was a doozie.
“Which Golden Girl are you?” I have always maintained that I was Dorothy and I would punch someone’s heart out if they disagreed. So I already know what the test results will be. The quiz is over and I have answered every question to the best of my ability; the little spinny thing moves in circles and the test is calculating. Beep, boop, beep. The results are in and I don’t even have to look at the screen but I do. “You are Blanche!” “Blanche!” I scream at my phone at one a.m.
OH. MY. GOD. I am Blanche. The description goes on to explain to me the qualities of Blanche, which I already know because I watch The Golden Girls every night as a pacifier to insomnia. Blanche is quick witted, as am I. She excels at one liners (well, not to brag), and she’s driven by a need for attention, which, the test informs me, is why I’m always late. I need attention, of course. Blanche makes every boy fall for her and she has the fearless tenacity to back it up. Yep! I have slept with several men since Peter died. Once again, OH.MY.GOD. That must be why I am so sad losing Peter—I’m obsessed with men and sex. I am a quick witted, fast talking slut that needs attention from men to survive. What a relief! Now I can proceed to the process of grieving as Blanche would grieve. Or should I say the way Blanche did grieve because she is also my neighbor in the “widowhood.”
The next day I walk around in a sleepless haze but confident in the knowledge that I’m a Blanche. My whole world has changed from black and white to color, just as I now imagine how men feel when they meet me. I’m more flirty with my boyfriend. I’m happy to openly acknowledge that I enjoy the company of boys, or as Blanche would call them … men. I need more, now! I need to know more about myself, pronto! Facebook is such a tremendous way to find these life changing quizzes, so forward I go, desperate in my need for more self-awareness. Luckily, I don’t sleep anymore. This is a spectacular life decision for me.
Every woman thinks she’s Carrie and, really, she is the Carrie of her own life. But armed with my new Blanche diagnosis, I fully expect that just like with the Golden Girls quiz, I’ll be wrong and I will indeed be Samantha. Twelve questions and three minutes later, I discover that I’m correct. Samantha it is, she is me. I wonder to myself, “But am I really proud of my sex life and my newfound sexual freedom?” Well I must be. The Facebook quiz says I am. I can’t get enough of this newfound insight.
Back to Facebook, but this time I need in-depth quizzes, something that speaks to my very core. I search for more; I casually ask my best friend if she has seen any fun or interesting quizzes anywhere. Lorie doesn’t skip a beat and casually mentions a few fun quizzes that she’s seen on Buzzfeed. Now we both take quizzes on Facebook and Buzzfeed, and since we can never do anything alone, we ask each other the questions and score each other’s tests. Man! What a blast! Look at me, talking with friends, doing something! I really am Samantha!
I’ve learned so much about myself, and these quizzes are the main reason. I’ve done an amazing job of avoid the impending pain and the sleepless nights that accompany the anniversary of my husband’s death. Screw being horizontal, crying on a therapist couch—I never really laid down anyway.
Maybe this should be my new career, creating quizzes for social media. I could start with “Which Facts of Life girl are you? Blair or Tootie? Do you enjoy motorcycles like Jo?” Then I could move on to more complex quizzes like “Are you and your best friend really secret enemies?” This is genius!
I’ve learned so many things about my newfound single self that I do a quick run-down. I know that my Ennegram personality is a loyalist and I thrive on love and my intuition. Interesting. I learned that if I were to be a yogi, balance is crucial to my well-being. Fascinating. I now also know that I will get remarried at the age of thirty-three. I am currently forty-three. I know that I am a slut that thrives on attention, especially from men, and Claire from The Breakfast Club is my spirit animal, which fits because I have always wanted to fuck Judd Nelson.
My newfound interest in the internet has provided me with the perfect distraction. I get to escape life for a brief time. I get to postpone the devastating heartbreak that accompanies the anniversary of my husband’s death. I get to pretend that I’ve found meaning in my new life without him. What could be better than that?
TANISHA PORATH was born a poor black girl in…well, actually she had a pretty middle class existence in Anchorage, Alaska, where she was born and raised. She studied photography at an art college in Seattle, the name of which, try as she might, she can’t quite remember. Soon after she graduated, she moved to Portland, Oregon, with her husband and started her career as an editorial photographer. Some of her clients have included Willamette Week, The Oregonian, and several other periodicals. She has two roommates that she happens to have given birth to, her daughter, fourteen, and her son, seventeen. She became a widow on April 2, 2013. She became a writer on April 3, 2013.