Million Dollar Questions in Cambodia

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By Eli Christman/ Flickr

By Josalin Saffer

Cambodia feels like an open wound. Still raw from a scrape with death, still aching from its painful roots. Reminders of the genocide are everywhere: in the eerie absence of the elderly; in the mountains of garbage that clutter the roads and define the landscape; in the pleading tone of the desperate tuk tuk driver, hoping for a day of work; and in the perfectly rehearsed sales pitches of the children peddling baskets of discount Lonely Planet guidebooks on every street corner.

For the second time in five months, I am walking the half-mile stretch to cross the border at Poipet—the gateway into Cambodia and the portal to its poverty. It’s hotter this time. It’s now summer, and the tropical sun rules the land in a brutal tyranny. After eight months of traveling, I’ve grown accustomed to the musty stench of my soiled clothes and the taxing load of my backpack that contains everything I own, but never to the heat. As I walk under the stone archway inviting me into the Kingdom of Cambodia, the black dots of dehydration appear in my periphery like passing planets to a sun-bound astronaut who’s drifted off course. My head is forever trapped in a fogged-up fishbowl.

Poipet is not a coastal town, yet everywhere there is evidence of a shipwreck. Scraps of plastic, cardboard, styrofoam, metal, and human flotsam appear to have washed ashore. The people I see seem like the only survivors, still recovering from this thalassic catastrophe. Families huddle together under facades of crumbling concrete, the remnants of homes. Everyone walks slowly, staring at nothing, myself among them. I can feel crow’s feeling forming in the corners of my eyes from all the squinting. One thought raps relentlessly on the front door of my frontal lobe: I need water.

I search in vain for someone who looks like they might be sitting on a cooler, a makeshift minimart that often flanks the streets. But for the first time in Southeast Asia, I can’t find anyone to sell me anything. People are preoccupied, squatting low, on their haunches, with their faces covered and averted from the sun, trying to avoid the heat.

I am jolted from my feverish quest by a tug on my pinky finger. Two deep, dark eyes stare up at me, their depths like the abyss of a cave. A girl who looks to be about three years old stands obstinately before me like an avant-garde performance art piece. The canvass of skin covering her bones appears painted in haste, with sloppy brushstrokes, muddy streaks. She clamps her entire hand around my littlest finger with a firm grip and without the slightest indication of letting go.

“Excuse me, lady, one dollar. I need a dollar, lady. Please, lady, give me a dollar,” she chants.

I have a dollar. In fact, I have 300 of them stuffed neatly at the bottom of my pack. I had stashed them away for this very trip to Cambodia. As my semester teaching in Thailand neared its end, I carefully regulated every saved penny from my salary to fund a final trip around Southeast Asia before returning home to Atlanta.

Never giving money to panhandling children; it perpetuates their livelihood as beggars, I repeat in my head, the way I used to prepare for lessons and study for tests.

I had spent weeks reading and researching everything from personal blogs to the BBC. And every source answered my question of whether to give money to child beggars with a firm and stern don’t do it. They each echoed the same warning: “By feeling pity, giving money and food, child labor—a growing business—is supported and the children are sustained on the streets.” On paper, it made sense. And my response seemed easy.

But standing face-to-face with a three-year-old in Cambodia, my heart sinks and I panic. As a teacher and a student, I have never been as unsure of my answers. I can’t stop myself from thinking: What if they are wrong?

Reluctant to pull my finger from hers, we walk pinky-in-hand for several more steps before I finally untangle myself from her taut grip. I look at her and she expects me to speak, but instead of answering her question or acknowledging her presence, I look away. Our locked eyes make me feel a thousand times heavier than the fifty pounds I am carrying. A weight that recurs continually here, always with the threat to bury me in a quicksand of indecision. Eventually I tell her “No, I’m sorry,” but she follows me, tries to walk in my path, demanding me to notice her. She repeats her haunting mantra as if in a trance, “Just a dollar, lady.”

•••

Ten months prior, I was in Atlanta, sitting on my bed, thumbing the glossy pages of a National Geographic, and fantasizing about the day I would soon be in Cambodia. It was a picture of Ta Prohm that had summoned me. The twelfth-century, tree-entwined Buddhist monastery was the stage for Lara Croft’s adventures in Tomb Raider and is one of hundreds of ancient temples that stand alongside Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. On two full pages, creeping strangler figs and slinking lichens devoured the once indestructible ruins. It was a perfect crystallization of nature’s dominance over mankind. A reminder that nature can undermine even the apotheosis of human creations. I ripped out the pages and kept them in my purse for weeks. I wanted to be here, to feel small, and to stay inside this photograph forever.

When the day came for me to shrink my life into a backpack, I was staying at a friend’s house. Scattered across her floor were the remainders of my purged possessions and the things I would take with me. There were stacks of clothes separated into two piles—one for teaching and one for adventuring. There were labeled Ziploc bags, a diary of Anaïs Nin, a Canon Rebel. An empty journal and a manila folder stuffed full of goodbye cards addressed “Dear Miss Josalin.”

There were fifty of them, actually. One from every kid at SoulShine, the liberal afterschool program I worked at as a teacher and counselor in Atlanta. I picked up a card signed “Love, Emilia,” depicting an underwater scene: blue, squiggly lines for waves, spider-like crabs, swaying palm trees, and a mermaid replica, exactly the way I would have drawn it. For months at Soulshine, there was a mermaid craze, and it all began with Emilia.

Everyday after school, she would rush inside, throw her backpack to the floor, scarf down a hasty snack, and climb onto my lap. I loved the way her crimson curls bounced, giving off warmth and complementing her fiery spirit. I would twirl them in my fingers and she would, without fail, ask “Miss Josalin, today can we draw mermaids?”

I am not an artist, and my drawings were, at best, mediocre. But to Emilia, they were masterpieces. She praised me for them, begging me to teach her every step of my drawing process, eventually surpassing my talent and producing them en masse. The kids at SoulShine started to take notice, and soon every girl and even some boys were bombarding me with requests for drawing lessons. For hours after school, I would show them how two pencil strokes could make a ponytail and how a mix of blues, greens, and gold glitter create an iridescent fin. How a “3” and a capital “E” formed the outlines of a seashell chemise and how long eyelashes make the mermaid feminine.

Flipping through my cards, I saw dozens of mermaids. I closed the manila folder and wedged it alongside the few other carefully chosen items in my pack.

•••

In Poipet, I surrender my quest for water and opt for a beer instead. It’s ten in the morning, but I feel like I’ve been in this city for centuries, and the cold, foamy taste in my mouth provides a refreshing relief. I try to focus, envisioning Ta Prohm, and examining the bus schedule to Siem Reap. Waiting for the bus, a young girl races me to the trashcan to salvage my beer can. She wears a ponytail and shuffles by with shaky, knobby knees, hunched over like an old woman. Her shiny, thick hair whips like the tail of a black stallion, with features both bold and refined, in utter defiance to her demeanor. She holds her t-shirt stretched out like a basket in which she carries her collection of tourists’ trash—her treasures.

I watch her attempt to add my can to the pile and fail. Her shirt collapses, revealing her scrawny frame, and bottles and cans topple in every direction toward the ground. She looks around, eyes racing with the trajectory of launched pinballs. Gathering the bottles, she drops them two more times before scurrying away. In a few seconds, she vanishes from my sight, but her presence lingers in my mind. Sitting and waiting, I wonder: Would these children be forced to sell and beg and scrounge and steal for their lives if their families hadn’t been butchered and uprooted in a ruthless genocide?

From 1975-1979, Cambodia’s government systematically massacred three million of its own people. Promoting a radical agenda of nationwide ethnic cleansing, Pol Pot and his obedient Khmer Rouge regime rivaled the Nazis in organized cruelty. With horrifying gusto, their motive was to purge and reform the population in place of a pure, agrarian Communist society. The entire country suffered, but the Khmer Rouge singled out certain people as the enemy. Among those targeted were intellectuals, city folks, minorities, teachers, writers, doctors, and people who wore glasses. When the Khmer Rouge took power, they captured Phnom Penh, the capital, and evacuated the entire city in three days. Once bustling, thriving cities became wastelands and torture camps. The displaced people met their fate in an orderly fashion: They were herded to labor camps, then torture prisons, and, ultimately, to their death in the killing fields.

My bus pulls out of the station and leaves the forgotten shipwreck survivors to fend for themselves. Poipet disappears behind me in a dusty dirt cloud like the phantasmagoria of strange dreams. I gaze out the window at vast, barren fields and conical tops of straw hats and wonder what the people beneath them had seen and felt and suffered when Pol Pot reigned supreme.

To save cash and prevent scams, I rent a bike from my hostel in Siem Reap at dawn the next morning. Ten kilometers of dirt roads and dodging tuk tuks, and I am finally amid the ancient ruins of the Angkor Empire. It is low season, so there are not many tourists, most of them choosing to avoid the oppressive heat. Normally this would be a good thing, but in Cambodia it means I am an easy target.

I arrive at Ta Prohm temple with high expectations, burning thighs, and half the vigor of Lara Croft. As at many of the popular Angkor temples, the atmosphere is frenzied. Tourists strike stupid poses, snap photos in rapid succession, and discover hidden crevices by way of their own routes. Local merchants cast their well-practiced lines into a sea of unsuspecting tourists and wait to see who falls for the bait. Their merchandise is often handmade: wood-carved finger flutes, jangly jewelry, charcoal sketches of Angkor Wat, and hand-painted clothing. All for one dollar.

Through the chaos and crowded amalgam of flashy new Apple products and sweaty bodies, I see my enchantress. The divine tree fatally intertwined with the ruins from the two-page photograph. Like a comfortable houseguest she sprawls out and makes herself at home in a sacred room of the ancient monastery. I situate myself in just the right place and take the very same photograph, though not as high-res and with an amateur’s eye. I take hundreds more as I explore Ta Prohm. It provides me with endless inspiration, and the ruins invoke my creative spirit. But what captivates me is a pair of young merchants. A brother and sister no older than nine with bright red baskets and stockbrokers’ enthusiasm. Squatting on a mound of rocks that have been squeezed out of place by thick, gnarled roots reclaiming the jungle, they scope out the torrent of tourists entering their domain. They wait like watchdogs, sniffing me out immediately.

“Lady, I have very nice jewelry for you. Come here, lady. I have many, many things for one dollar,” the girl says, arms draped with bracelets from her wrists to her armpits.

I’ve prepared something to say this time. Silence, I convince myself, reveals weakness. I try to appear honest and confident, hoping my answers will suffice them.

“I can’t today. I will be back though. I will come and buy some tomorrow.”

She glares hard at me. Her brother stands behind her with one hand on his hip, the other cradling his basket like a baby. I shrug my shoulders and reveal my empty hands.

“Not tomorrow!” she says, now indignant and miffed by me. “You buy now, lady. Tomorrow, I do not see you.” Wiping the palm of her hand down her face, “All farangs [foreigners] look the same.”

And indeed she does not see me. She sees what she wants to see: a rich, white tourist crippled by guilt who might dish out pity in the form of American dollars. And I try hard, but I do not see her either. I want to see a nine-year-old who runs through the ruins playing hide-and-seek with her brother, laughing and skipping, and free to just be. I want her to hold my hand and ask me about my funny clothes or my pale skin or if she can braid my hair. I want to see a child with the innocence that reminds me not to take life too seriously.

Just then, the wind kicks a slight breeze. A delicate dandelion flower floats by, hovering in the air briefly. The two siblings fall silent and still, their eyes fixed on this evanescent wisp of beauty until it drifts out of sight. And in this moment, they abandon their roles as pushy street merchants and again become children. I snap a photo of their sudden transformation and steal this moment for myself. When the dandelion vanishes, so too does their laughter and wonder. In Cambodia, this phenomenon of children behaving like children surfaces only in glimpses. I take a few more unimportant shots of big trees and crumbling rocks and exit the temple.

To my surprise, my bike—secured with a flimsy, shoestring-sized cable lock—is right where I left it. I try to drone out the cacophony of auctioneers offering me water and make a beeline for my two-wheeled getaway. But I am promptly intercepted and detained by a thin, young boy and eager guide. His hands are callused, and I feel tender when they touch me, grabbing my arm and dragging me along quickly. He seems like he has something to show me, but I soon realize it is me that he is showing.

He presents me to a group of kids of staggering heights and ages. They are his cohorts and his siblings, and it is clear who calls the shots. He points to the youngest, gives her the cue, and she yokes me with her eyes and begins rattling off her ABC’s.

“She can say her ABCs for one dollar,” my kidnapper says proudly.

I look around for an adult, but I see no one. And I remember reading that parents often get their children to do their begging for them. Smaller, cuter, and livelier, they have been proven more successful on the streets.

When he sees me turning to walk away, he runs after me, trailed closely behind by his well-trained posse. They crowd around me, hurling English phrases and fragments, convinced of their ability to sway me.

“Look, I can count to ten! One, two, three, four….How about ten bracelets for one dollar or a bottle of water? You are very thirsty, lady.”

I had seen this business savvy before. The same precocity, but with different motives.

•••

A master of the ocean realm, Emilia soon advanced to drawing castle-dwelling beauties. She was diligent and her hobby easily gained momentum within her circle of friends. She started a drawing club composed of six core members and a handful of transient contributors who came and went depending on the day. After snack, Emilia would dump out every box of crayons into a massive pile in the middle of them, and the others would elbow each other to get a spot at the big picnic table. First attempts at mermaids, princesses, dragons, and castles littered the floor daily. Somehow crayon nubs covered entire pages with fantastic scenes and not an inch of wasted paper.

They drew constantly. And in a seamless transition from schoolgirl to sales executive, Emilia started a business.

“Miss Josalin, look at the mermaid I drew, just like you!” Emilia boasted. “Will you buy a picture?”

“Oh yeah? How much?” I asked, amused.

“You can get one for fifty cents or four for one dollar!”

Of course I bought them. I bought them all, with whatever change I had lying at the bottom of my purse. It didn’t seem to make a difference if I gave a dollar to some children. But these were children who had three meals a day and shoes on their feet. Children who got back rubs for bad dreams, and Band-Aids for boo-boos, and kisses just because. They didn’t need my money. The quarters I gave them would gather dust at the bottom of their piggybanks.

In Cambodia, my dollar holds power. And I’m unsure of how to wield it. Sometimes, I think I came here expecting to watch a performance, like an audience member snug and relaxed in her seat. Instead, with the swift crossing of the border, I am dragged on stage and thrust into the scene. How am I supposed act? What am I supposed to say? The plot is complex, and no one gave me a script. Uncomfortable and blinded by the spotlight, I improvise. I hold my breath, believing that a botched line or a missed cue could sabotage the entire show.

I am constantly torn, thoughts bisected between not knowing how to help and how not to hurt. I struggle to reconcile my heart with my head, my guilt with my gut, constantly. I am suspended in a state of hopelessness and inner conflict, always. Here, I am forced to confront life’s injustices and contradictions. Here, I learn that there is not an answer for everything. The aftermath of genocide is not easily reversed, and the people will go on suffering, creating, destroying, enduring.

•••

JOSALIN SAFFER lays her roots in Atlanta, Georgia, where she received her B.A. in Journalism. She spent the last year living, writing, and working as an English teacher in Thailand and exploring Southeast Asia. This fall, she will continue her journey as a writer and teacher in the Czech Republic. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian Weekly, The Matador Network, and South East Asia Backpacker magazine. To read more of her published work, visit www.josalinsaffer.com.

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Things that My Mother Supposes

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By Katie Tegtmeyer/ Flickr

By Christine Wenzel

“I don’t suppose you’ll be coming to my funeral.” This matter-of-fact statement popped into our conversation right after my mother asked me to pass the salt shaker. We were having dinner at her favorite steak house.

“Why are we talking about your funeral?” I asked.

“I have already been to the funeral home and picked out my casket.”

“Mom, are you dying?”

“I’m eighty-six years old. I suppose I will sooner or later.”

Long ago, when our relationship was shakier than it is now, I asked if she could please, please eliminate the word “suppose” in conversations with me. If she had a question or a statement just say it, don’t cloak it. She said that she didn’t even notice she used the word.

“I suppose you’re not going to eat that food on your plate.”

“I don’t eat meat.”

“I suppose you think you’re old enough to go out on a date.”

“Yes, Mother, I’m sixteen.”

“I suppose you realize teenage marriages have a high failure rate.” 

“Ah, yes, this is the umpteenth time you’ve mentioned it.”

I noted the teenage marriage fact, waited until I turned twenty, and married two days later.

My mother’s dire warnings and the fact that no one in my family liked my choice of husband fueled my high-and-mighty, them-against-us mentality. Which meant that when the abuse started and then escalated, I hid it from them, until I couldn’t any longer. I hold the title of the first—and, to date, only—divorcee of the family.

I was the classic middle child, believing that my sisters received preferential treatment. I think that the friction between my mother and me started early, when it became clear that I wasn’t going to follow in the footsteps of her firstborn, studious, introverted daughter, the one easier for her to understand. My rebellious childhood carried into my adult life. Our disagreements became a habit. When I moved to another country, not so much to get away, but to follow a path that made me happy, it actually helped our relationship. We were good with short visits. It’s hardly worth the effort to try and change someone when you only have a week here and there.

What neither of us ever supposed is that peace would exist between us before she died. Not just peace but we would finally get each other and let each other be who we are. It’s taken me a long time to get here.

An example: I was a demonstrative kid. My dad nicknamed me “Kissie,” a play on “Chrissie,” which I was known as before I got everyone trained to use my more grownup name. Before puberty and teenage attitude set in, bedtime netted a big bear hug and kiss from Dad, then I’d roam the house looking to say goodnight to Mom. I’d find her buried in a book or at her desk, a magnifying glass in hand, studying the condition of a stamp. I’d attempt a goodnight kiss on her cheek. As I leaned in, she’d jerk her head to the side and my lips would brush her ear. I’m not sure if she knew I made a game of trying to plant one on her cheek, sneaking up from different angles to see if I could be the faster one and land that kiss on target. The score was heavily weighted in her favor.

The age gap between my older sister, Vicky, and me is enough for her to have grown up with a different maturity of understanding towards our family dynamics. “You know Mom had two nervous breakdowns when we were growing up. That’s why she was often remote.” Vicky dropped this tidbit into a conversation, suggesting, could I really be that clueless?

“She did? Why didn’t she ever tell me? I just thought she didn’t like kids.”

This new perspective, along with seeing an unfamiliar softness in my mother when she spends time with my son, started me on a path of realization. She did the best she could. I push her buttons. And, we will always be there for each other.

I started counting to ten rather than responding to her unfiltered comments.

“Mom, I just got back from the hospital. I lost the baby.”

“Don’t you think you’re getting a bit old for having more babies?”

One, two three… And once I get to ten, enough time has passed for me to change the script to what I believe she means: “I don’t want to see you hurt or sad, so don’t get pregnant anymore.” In her world, practicality trumps sentimentality every time.

Talking about her funeral is in keeping with her pragmatic nature. I’m just wishing she wasn’t talking to me about it. I actively avoid the thought of her dying. It’s enough of a reminder seeing her body shrink and her movements slow—why do we have to talk about it, too?

I’ve witnessed her busyness around death. I can’t manage being in the same room with a dearly departed, but I’ve stood outside, listening to her tell the funeral director that he had to re-part my grandfather’s hair on the right side. She took the decision to cremate her mom, had a big burial ceremony, and then later showed us an identical urn where she had kept half of the ashes. This half now sits on a shelf in her closet. I assume this gives her comfort. I kept waiting for her to cry when my dad died, thinking that this would be the time her stoic facade crumbled. It wasn’t.

“Mom, let’s leave the discussion about whether I will or won’t attend the formal part of your funeral off the table for right now. I’m more interested in why you are asking me to write your eulogy. Vicky or Janet would be much better for this.”

“You’re the writer in the family,” she says.

I’m tempted to say, Really? You know this even though I stopped sending you things I write long ago? You’ve never commented on anything I’ve written. Good or bad. But I’m past biting back. My sisters and I have compared notes and discovered that although she doesn’t give any of us direct compliments or encouragement, she does often say nice things about us when we’re out of earshot. No swelled heads in our family.

She continued. “Yes, I suppose they’ve been around more than you”—one, two, three … —“witnessing my day to day, my work the awards banquets, my volunteering. I believe you’re the one who can find the words to show who I was, not just tell what I did.”

“A little fast with the past tense, aren’t you, Mom?” A lump was forming in my throat.

“What I’m thinking is you can write about some of the stories, like why geese terrified me—that might get a laugh. And how impressed I was with your father’s presence of mind on our first date when he handed me his false teeth for safe keeping, then jumped into a fight to help his brother. Maybe mention how my father was a hippie before anyone knew what that was and how hard it was growing up with his instability, but I still managed to go to university.”

“Should I mention the time that the doctor’s solution to your menopause was Valium and you took so many you fell asleep standing up and then—”

Before I could finish, she said, “That could be left out.”

As we were leaving the restaurant, she touched my arm. “Could you work on it sooner than later?”

“I assume you want a chance to edit it.” I said.

“I suppose that wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

•••

CHRISTINE WENZEL is a Canadian who has been living in Mexico for twenty-two years. This is her first essay to be published, and she is thrilled that it is with Full Grown People. Her sisters’ names aren’t Janet and Vicky. You can find some articles she’s written about the town she lives in on her website, christinewenzel.com.

Roman Holiday

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By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Lisa Lance

Shivering in the crisp December air outside Papà Giovanni, a restaurant on the corner of Via dei Sediari and Via del Teatro Valle in Rome, my husband, Chris, and I wait for the sliding glass door to open. We see couples inside, nestled in red leather banquettes and wooden chairs at two of the half-dozen close-set tables. Red and white tablecloths set off vintage china, and glittery poinsettia decorations remind me that it is just a few days after Christmas, even as fresh tulips in the center of each table hint at the coming spring. Dusty wine bottles line the room, tucked into alcoves or perched on ledges. An eclectic mix of drawings and paintings, along with faded postcards of Sicily, clutter the brick walls.

It is just as we remembered.

We are in Rome to celebrate our tenth year of marriage and also to escape a stressful year at home. Our relationship is strained by a multitude of factors: family drama due to the messy divorce of my husband’s parents, which has taken a broader emotional toll than we expected; Chris’s demanding job, which keeps him out of town for weeks at a time; and my perpetually tired and frazzled state due to graduate school, with two classes each semester on top of a full-time job. We need a break, and I hope our holiday to Rome will be a bright spot in the brewing storm—if not a full repair, then at least a period of some romance, a reminder of what it was like when we were happy.

After we are seated at one of the small tables, the waitress brings us aperitifs of warm spiced wine in small china cups on saucers, and the chill of the evening retreats as I sip. She hands us menus, blue for “the gentleman” and pink for “the lady”: the blue version includes prices for each item, while the pink version lists calories. If this were a restaurant at home in the United States, I would be offended, but here it seems charming.

The wine list is a worn tome that resembles a guest book from a wedding. As Chris turns the pages, I notice the list of wines written by hand, some entries scratched out or modified, others smudged by water stains. I laugh at the small size because, in my memory, the wine list has taken on mythical proportions. As I recall from the first time I saw it, the book had been the size of a dictionary and had been wheeled out on a cart, attracting stares from the other customers.

•••

Our first trip to Rome ten years ago was my initiation into the world of international travel, and all of my memories shine with the luster of this perspective, fresh and new. We had an extravagant five-course dinner and then wandered the cobblestone streets to the nearby Piazza della Rotonda, where people milled around one of Rome’s most impressive monuments, the Pantheon. Sixteen towering Corinthian columns support a triangular pediment inscribed with the stamp of Marcus Agrippa: M. AGRIPPA.L.F.COSTERTIUM.FECIT. The domed roof is larger than that of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and, at 142 feet in diameter, nearly the length of an Olympic-size swimming pool. In the center is a large oculus from which red rose petals rain down on Pentecost.

The interior of the Pantheon was closed that evening, but we passed the obelisk-topped fountain that pierces the sky like an upturned sword, water babbling from the mouths of the marble masks at its base, and climbed the steps of the monument anyway. We stood among the columns of the portico, and Chris suddenly dropped to one knee.

“What are you doing? Get up,” I said. I thought he’d had too much wine at dinner, and I pulled his arm, trying to get him to stand.

“Oh, no,” he said as he reached into his pocket. “I’ve been planning this.” He pulled out a gold band accented with a row of seven small diamonds and held it up to me.

“Really?” I was floored. We had moved in together after dating for only a few months, but in the past year of our shared life we hadn’t discussed marriage. Our relationship was comfortable and fun, and I had assumed it would be at least five years before we took the next step.

“Well?” He was still on one knee.

“Really?” I still didn’t quite believe it. “Really?”

His brow, framing earnest, clear blue eyes, started to crease with worry. “Will you say yes already?”

“Yes!” He put the ring on my finger, and we kissed. The streetlights around us seemed to brighten, and the other people in the piazza faded away.

An enterprising street vendor approached us, and Chris purchased an armful of red roses and presented them to me. As we walked back to the hotel, the outlines of buildings seemed fully in focus; everything was crisp and clear. We passed the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II in Piazza Venezia, and its marble walls and columns glowed bright white against the night sky, the twin statues of the winged goddess Victoria and her chariot soared, it seemed, in celebration high above us on the roof of the monument.

•••

Back in 2002, we were still going through the transition from college student to adult. We’d had internships and temp jobs, but hadn’t yet started our “real” careers. We had academic knowledge but little actual experience; we were fairly broke but full of optimism. Our tastes then had only recently shifted from Boone’s Farm and Miller Lite to Tanqueray or Chateau Ste. Michelle. Now, after years of wine tastings, we can tell the difference between a Malbec from Argentina and a Cabernet from California, and on our return visit to Papà Giovanni, my husband confidently makes a selection from the list.

The wine decanted, we look again at the menus as we nibble on focaccia with truffle butter and reminisce about our last visit. “What did we even order?” I say.

Chris recalls some kind of eggplant stack, slices of the vegetable layered with tomato sauce and cheese and balanced on a plate like a small, square Tower of Pisa. I’d had veal for the first and only time in my life, a choice that had seemed so elegant then, but after eight years as a vegetarian would be unthinkable to me now. We had tried to order five courses and share them, but we were unable to convey our wish to the waiter and ended up with two of each dish. It was the biggest and most expensive meal we have ever had in a restaurant.

This time around, we order separately, and only one course at a time. I begin with a salad of arugula, pears, walnuts, and parmesan—a medley of sweet and salty, soft and crunch. The server returns to take our orders for the main course, and I select Cacio e Pepe, a traditional Roman dish of spaghetti with black pepper and parmesan. The strength of the dish lies in its simplicity. The noodles are al dente, and the sharp cheese and spicy pepper flavors mingle and dance on my tongue. For dessert, a decadent chestnut soufflé is perfect with a cup of Italian espresso, strong and smooth enough to clear a path through the gastronomic haze that begins to cloud my mind.

After dinner, we wander the cobblestone streets. Strings of lights twinkle overhead, criss-crossing between the buildings like spider webs weighted with shimmering drops of dew. I catch faint whiffs of cigarette smoke as we amble along. Italian couples walk arm in arm, parents navigate strollers over the uneven pavement, and Asian tourists pause to take photos. Unlike cities at home, nobody here seems to be in a hurry. As we exit the narrow alley, the Pantheon, bathed in golden light against the dark night sky, rises before us.

The enormous bronze doors are open. “Do you want to go in?” Chris asks.

“Yes.” Entry is free, so we join the flowing crowd to explore the space together. The interior of the temple is harmoniously symmetrical—the distance from the floor to the top of the dome is equal to the dome’s diameter. The floor and walls are inlaid with marble, rectangular patterns of muted gold, maroon, and blue interspersed with swirling veins of grey and white.

As we wander through the vast interior, I am suddenly hungry to learn everything I can about this building that has such a prominent place in my memory, and I stop to read every information plaque available. Built by Marcus Agrippa around 25 B.C., the temple was originally a place to worship Roman gods, but, like so many historical places in Rome, it was later converted to a Christian church. Alcoves along the rounded wall hold statues and murals—some of Christian significance and some depicting more ancient figures. The more I learn, the more appreciation I have for the detailed architecture, the majestic beauty, and the fascinating (if not always pleasant) history of the temple. Grand tombs hold the remains of Vittorio Emanuele II, the first ruler of a united Italy, and Umberto I, a king in the late nineteenth century under whose orders hundreds of starving peasant protesters were killed. The famed Renaissance painter Raphael is also interred there, along with his fiancé, Maria Bibbiena, despite rumors that his early death at age thirty-seven was the result of a tryst with one of his mistresses.

How could I have missed all this on our first visit?

Chris and I have weathered our own conflicts over the past decade. We’ve dealt with jealousy and baggage from past relationships, struggled to find time for each other, moved far from everything familiar to a new city with no network of social support. We married young at twenty-four, and we’ve worked hard to create harmony in a home where our evolving personalities, interests, and worldviews are often at odds. Any discussion about politics, for example, quickly spirals downward from friendly debate to contentious argument. We’ve felt the ripple effect of marriages crumbling around us, from my step-sister and brother-in-law, who filed for divorce barely a year after their wedding, to my husband’s father and step-mother, who called it quits after more than two decades together. How long can we avoid the afflictions of infidelity, boredom, and financial distress that spur the downfall of so many other couples? Other couples who began their lives together just as we did, filled with optimism.

Even an edifice as strong as the Pantheon needs to be rebuilt from time to time. Agrippa’s original structure burned in 80 A.D. Then, after being rebuilt by Domitian, it burned again in 110 A.D. It was restored by Hadrian in 126 A.D. and could not have remained “the best-preserved building in Rome” without periodic restoration projects throughout the centuries.

That monument was an apt place to begin a marriage, and restoration is precisely the reason we returned to Italy. More than just a building, the Pantheon is solidly built, with walls that are twenty-five feet thick, and it can certainly withstand the occasional crack—even a deep one—as well as the repairs necessary to maintain its majesty. It has survived two thousand years of wars and conflicts and cultural changes. It has been home to dueling religious and political philosophies, and it serves as a place to remember and celebrate people with complicated pasts. Yet despite its age, or maybe because of it, the temple is still a magnificent site to behold. Instead of shutting out the elements, the oculus remains open, and allows sunlight to shine and rain to fall inside its walls.

Chris’s proposal to me in Rome has become something of a legend for us, the first story we tell when others ask about our relationship, the memory we recount each year on our anniversary. It’s as much a part of our history together as the day we first met. Revisiting a place with such personal significance carries risk, and I had been worried that this trip might be a disappointment, that the rosy glow of recollection and the passage of time might have morphed the actual events into something mythical that could never be recreated, that the story now only held its romance in the retelling. My memories of the first visit are like a giant Impressionist painting, vivid, yet vague. Ten years later, I pay more attention to the details—the postcards on the walls, the dust on the bottles, the inscriptions on the tombs—than I did the first time around. Will the cathedral of our marriage weather another ten years?

The passage of time allows for physical wear, for philosophical shifts, for falls from grace, but it also allows for rebuilding. Perhaps we can learn from past mistakes … a bit like I learned to order the perfect dinner from a foreign menu. Perhaps we can learn to communicate clearly. Not to be greedy. Learn to appreciate simple flavors, and to savor each bite. I will think of this when times are difficult, as they have been lately, and I feel the way I did outside Papà Giovanni, shivering in the cold, waiting for the door to slide open and let me back into the familiar warmth inside.

Coda: As it turned out, our marriage would not weather another decade, and two years after Chris and I returned to Rome, our divorce was finalized. Restoration isn’t always possible, but while we may not always be able to depend on the strength of buildings or institutions, in their destruction we sometimes find a greater strength in ourselves.

•••

LISA LANCE is a writer living in Baltimore, Maryland. She earned an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She currently serves as an editor for The Baltimore Review, and her articles and essays have appeared in publications including Baltimore Magazine, National Parks Traveler, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Seltzer, neutrons protons, Bmoreart, and Sauce Magazine. This is her second essay for Full Grown People. Learn more at www.lisalance.com.

Reclaimed Ambition

aspen

By k rupp/ Flickr

By Antonia Malchik

You’d think, given Russia’s tumultuous history, the country would have a more dramatic landscape than the one it inherited. Its revolutions and massacres cry out for powerful mountains, like the Rockies that defined my childhood. Instead, its few sprawling cities trickle out into miles of taiga—boreal forests, the first obvious shift being groves of aspen trees quivering in that silvery way they have, flashing light from leaves in high summer. Watercolor paintings with a ubiquitous gray-pink winter sky and lone Russian Orthodox Church domes seem incomplete without the aspens. They are rooted in the allure of the country and its history, a culture in which poetry is pre-eminent and the past wrought hard with stoic endurance.

Aspens are communal. A grove of aspens is actually one organism, connected via an underground root system that sprouts from an individual seedling. These underground systems withstand the most devastating forest fires and regenerate with young seedlings—all genetic clones—that can grow up to three feet a year. While each tree itself might only live for a few decades, the entire root system can survive hundreds or even thousands of years—stands have been found in the American West that are tens of thousands of years old.

The analogy to Russia is hard to miss if you know something of the country’s history. Russian communities had traditionally worked as a collective, or mir, bound by a concept translated as “joint responsibility.” A community as a whole, not individuals or families, was responsible for things like tax payments and military conscription. Land was redistributed every now and then as families grew and shrank. The system had been in place for hundreds of years, long before America was formed, and functioned right up until it ran into the Bolshevik revolution. Mir wasn’t an idea formed by utopia-seeking philosophers; Russia’s “geographical vulnerability and agricultural marginality,” as one historian puts it, made joint responsibility a requirement for survival.

Like the mir, aspen trees thrive by virtue of their collective strength and resources.

•••

My Russian-born father told me (incorrectly, it turns out) that aspen wood was useless. He was visiting a few months after I had taken my first woodworking class, and I’d been getting a little obsessive about wood. More often found mixing bread dough in the kitchen or with head bent over a notebook, pen in hand, I’d recently begun using a drill and a sander and filling the back of my station wagon with abandoned stumps and branches dragged out of the woods. I’d been making three-legged tables and driftwood chairs, the sound of the orbital sander whining in my unprotected ears. I’d abandoned my usual flowing skirts in favor of jeans and tried applying a screeching, vibrating axle grinder to the innards of a cedar knot. (I had no idea making a rustic wooden bowl would be so violent.) I spent months making a table out of a solid block of maple, even now marveling at the beauty that emerged from the deep scars left by an indifferent sawmill, how its ripples and honey colors make me feel alive.

I’d lost myself sometime in the previous year. I’d grown numb, then tired, then depressed. My children’s demands crashed onto my head, crushing me into exhaustion as if I’d been sandbagged, and daily I stared out the windows, contemplating what their future would be in the face of climate change and epidemics of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and planetary chaos, wondering what the point was of trying to teach them to read, or forcing them to always say “please,” or denying them as much chocolate as they wanted.

I knew these thoughts weren’t healthy, much less helpful. I needed a distraction that would take me out of the house and require me to do something besides think too much. My head had taken over my life. Every day was split among my job as a freelance copy editor, the thousand fractured moments that came with caring for small children, and writing. Even my leisure time was taken up with books. Mothers like me often say that they’re drowning, but I wasn’t drowning; I was turning into some gaseous substance that moved through the ether, that existed but couldn’t feel. So I signed up for a rustic woodworking class hosted by the local nature museum at random because it sounded more enticing than lectures on birds. In that first class, I spent a day learning to make a chair using driftwood branches and a drill, and I got hooked. Over the next few months, woodworking started to drag me back down to the ground I’d always loved.

•••

My father and I had just dropped my son off at a part-time kindergarten surrounded by birch and aspen trees, and we were taking my daughter, Alex—or she was taking us—for a walk around the property before getting back in the car.

“It’s horrible now, looking at all this wood,” I told him. “I can’t just appreciate it anymore. I want to take it all home and make things with it.”

“Not with aspen.” He picked up one of the hundreds of limbs lying around and showed me: where it had broken off the tree, the branch’s guts were exposed. They looked like bundled fiber optic cable or a bag of spaghetti, except thicker. If you tried to cut it, it would crumble to pieces. Bound together, several branches would barely be strong enough to hold something up.

“It’s no good,” my father said. We walked up and down the driveway of the school’s property, Alex stopping to poke decaying leaves and swing her dinosaur umbrella around, narrating every step we took because she never, ever stopped talking.

“I wish we could do this more often,” I said. My father knew that I had never been a lonely sort of person. But I did get lonely for this: his company, walks and conversations, my family, my home, mountains and trees that nurtured and spoke to me and people who understood me, who laughed at my stupid, snarky jokes. He lived in Russia, back in his homeland, and I in New York, and we saw each other once a year at best, often only once every two years.

“You need more help,” he said, returning to our earlier conversation. I’d told him about feeling overwhelmed. I hadn’t mentioned that I was feeling numb and depressed and non-existent.

I’d told my older sister, though. She lived off in California with her three kids. My family was so widely scattered that it wasn’t even deserving of the word. My younger sister lived in Oregon, my mother in Montana, my in-laws in England, and, of course, my father in Russia. I had a few friends where we lived, but not a single one that I could call on for regular help in any but the most dire of emergencies.

“I know. What can I do, though?” We’d talked about my husband and me moving back to Montana. I didn’t know how much help it would give me in the mothering, the living, the feeling of non-existence, but I craved my home like drink, like the coldest, purest spring water that runs off the peaks no tourists ever venture to. I wanted to be there, closer—if not to every single family member then at least to the place we were mutually attached to.

•••

Aspen, I found out later, is actually widely used for random things you never think about—wooden matches and shredded paper packing material, for example, because it doesn’t burn as easily as other wood. It can be used in furniture but is hard to work because it’s soft and tends to shred or “fuzz” (to use a fancy woodworking term), can gum up equipment, and often refuses to take a finish or stain, although its softness makes it easy to shape. While it’s still used in areas of Russia for roofs, the wood has to be absolutely sound or it ends up rotting quickly.

The wood that my father and I picked up had been lying on the wet ground for a long time. It was decaying; we could pull it apart with our fingers. But its community would continue to thrive. Even when aspen trees are cut down, the root system keeps going, sending up multiple clones for every felled tree. Killing the roots requires girdling, a process of carving out a band of the bark, cambium, and phloem in a circle around the trunk. Girdling prevents nutrients from reaching the root system, which will eventually die.

I didn’t tell my father everything: that it wasn’t just parenthood and the lack of help. That my unmooring had a lot to do with how my writing ambitions had shipwrecked a couple of times, leaving me despairing for several months; how I then let the kids’ learning and nurturing slide into too much television and a reliance on packets of organic hot dogs. How useless I felt as a human being. I couldn’t tell him these things. Not when his parents had survived Stalin’s purges, when his father had made his way out of the Siege of Leningrad in the middle of the starvation winter, stumbling in the last stages of dysentery, when his mother had worked night shifts as a metallurgical engineer up in the Ural Mountains and then gone home to hoe potatoes and hunt for mushrooms and chop wood to keep her children alive. They’ve left so much to live up to.

I didn’t tell him how I’d started shying away from a particular shelf in our bookcases, where The Artist’s Way is kept, among other creativity/inspiration volumes of its kind. Memories of all those morning pages—three free-association pages handwritten immediately on waking, as sternly instructed in The Artist Way’s introduction—the weekly artist dates required, supposedly, to nurture my inner artist self, the facing of fears and claiming of goals, of throwing the doors of the inner self wide open to serendipity—they form a tender spot, a sore point, a wound.

My writing ambitions weren’t a secret from my father. I was one of those children who would write short story collections, in crayon on yellow legal pads, and bind them together with yarn and cardboard. In my twenties, I went off to an MFA program after two unproductive years as a journalist. And I worked really, really hard because hard work is the thing I’m best at. The harder I worked, the higher my ambitions became. I formed big dreams. Huge dreams. Dreams of many published books and attendance at notable conferences and magazine editors tapping out emails to me.

Dreams all out of proportion with what I wanted the rhythm of my life to feel like. The continued refusal of those dreams to come true infected my parenting, my friendships; they sucked the life out of all the little things I used to take pleasure in: cooking, making jam, weeding the herb garden, watching the heron fish at the pond next door, teaching my son math. I let those dreams define who I was, forgot what it meant to be a complete human being.

When I started woodworking, I hoped to find myself in the wood, or at least find a sense of groundedness in the physical labor. I started volunteering at a local hardwoods sawmill and became ravenous for information: why elm is so hard to mill and work (it twists and warps and its grain runs every which way), what black locust is used for (anything from artsy coasters to decking because it’s as hard as cement), what created that thin, black lacing—like a spare Picasso pencil drawing—in the sliced trunk of maple lying around (spalting, caused by fungus, which makes for beautiful furniture or bowls if caught early and dried thoroughly but makes the wood too weak to use if left to spread). I wanted to learn how to work with different woods, but I also wanted a metaphor for who I was. Secretly, I hankered to relate to maple, like the table I made after the scars were sanded down and the exposed beauty glossed with beeswax and almond oil.

Instead, the more I saw of the whole, beautiful hardwoods laid out under my sander or sliced open in eight-foot lengths on a Wood-Mizer mill, the more I felt crumbly inside, full of barely connected shreds. Like aspen. Prone to rot.

•••

“Leap, and the net will appear,” claims one of the paragraphs in The Artist’s Way, which has been a kind of writer’s bible for almost three decades now. “Pray to catch the bus, then run as fast as you can,” which I realize now simply translates to “Work really hard and hope for some luck.” Because the bus driver might be a jerk and refuse to stop, or you might trip and fall on the sidewalk, or someone will suddenly block your way.

Where is the space between acceptance and giving up? Between loving who you are and turning your back on hope?

Walking with my dad, I pondered these questions but didn’t speak them aloud. I loathed my own first-world myopia because I was in fact wallowing in the pain of unattained ambition, not fleeing chlorine gas attacks in Syria, or throwing myself around my child’s body while American drones dropped bombs over my Pakistani village. I had never even suffered the self-dissolving pain of miscarriage or infertility, as many of my friends had.

I should be grateful for what I have, do something actually useful with my life, like my father’s parents had managed to do even when faced with hardships that I can barely imagine.

I want to be better, I wished I could tell him. To be less ambitious, less desirous of recognition. To know throughout myself, not just intellectually, that the potentials I once dreamed of and haven’t reached do not mean I’ve failed. I have done many hard things in my life, but this feels like the hardest: To accept that my existence might never be like a shining block of silver maple carved into a work of art, or an oak tree that will last untold generations.

Separated from my family, from the very few friends I have and treasure, from the mountains and pine forests that formed me, my art, my creativity, feels all-consuming, the one thing that defines my structure and growth. Working with wood helped bring me back to earth. I felt made of flesh again, rather than of the ether. But the depression only started to lift when I redefined my ideas of success in terms of fulfillment because when I looked back over the previous few years, the memories that brought me pleasure had nothing to do with writing accomplishments. The memories that glowed for me were nearly all related to my family, to time spent with my far-flung community, and to hiking and walking, relating in earth-bound ways to the Earth I love so deeply: walking the high cliffs plunging into the ocean on Scotland’s Isle of Islay with my husband and in-laws, taking ten days off to help my overworked younger sister with her new baby, meals and conversations lasting well past midnight with my Russian relatives, trekking through the islands of St. Petersburg with my uncle, picking Montana huckleberries with my husband, laughing for hours in our giddy way with my sisters. My daughter retrieving her rain boots and umbrella and telling me firmly that she’s going out to “play with the rain.” My son reading a Little Bear story, stumbling but persistent, to his grandparents over Skype. My mother playing the guitar and singing one of her folk songs to my kids after we spent the night at her husband’s backcountry cabin, where the sheer weight of the unfiltered Milky Way made me realize how long I’ve lived under light pollution. That I’d forgotten how arresting the unshrouded night sky is.

The thrill of a magazine’s “yes” for an essay or an agent’s interest in one of my books burns out quickly and leaves no glow like these memories do. Only the act of writing itself comes close, reflects that slow crunch of my hiking boots over dry pine needles fallen on the mountains that are part of me.

In the same way I can work with wood slowly and honor its inner structure, I want to take my writing and transmute both the excitement inherent in success and the sting that comes with every failure. I want the whole process to take a more human scale, to become as creativity should be—not majestic or overwhelming or stunning, but nurturing to everything and everyone that surrounds it, part of the earthbound root system that keeps us alive.

Relating myself and my writing to aspen’s weakness and lack of inner beauty is not accepting a lower state of being. It’s part of a whole. And, when I am gone, my existence can still be worthy as shredded pulp to shelter my community or a matchstick to light a stranger’s way.

Like the members of a mir, like aspen groves, I need community. We all do, just as we need clean water and air, as we need to work and to laugh. To feel that we belong and that we have something worthwhile to contribute is necessary to human survival, a fact I had to lose myself to figure out.

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK lives in upstate New York, where she sometimes blogs about wood and writing and parenting and philosophy on Pooplosophy. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and can be reached through her website antoniamalchik.com.

Face Value

papers

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Randy Osborne

“I don’t expect you to remember me,” she says. The Atlanta bar is loud around us. She’s maybe late thirties, with dark hair and eyes, apple cheeks, a certain kind of defiance about the lips. She tells me her name. “We were pen pals almost twenty years ago,” Jessica says.

I stare hard at her and ransack the mental files. Nothing. Later I will learn that Jessica heard my name from what turned out to be a mutual friend, who knew I’d be in the bar on this night for a special event. It’s over and the crowd is shuffling out.

Jessica goes on, apparently untroubled by my blank stare. “You worked at Creative Loafing.” Dimly I recall that job at the weekly alternative newspaper, but Jessica not at all. “I was a college student at Oglethorpe. I read one of your columns—something about family, I think—and sent you my poems. You wrote back.”

She lowers her eyes. “I still have those letters. I just wanted you to know how much they meant to me.” She was ready to quit writing in those days and I encouraged her, she says.

“Do you want to see them?”

•••

In the past couple of years, I’ve started collecting old handwritten diaries and letters. The hobby arose as if out of nowhere, intense and mysterious. When asked to explain it, I tell people about my father.

Tom prowled yard sales for antiques he could mark up and resell. At his bank-teller job, he sorted bags of coins, plucking the rare finds and replacing them with his own pocket change, worth only face value. One of the first to own a metal detector in the 1960s, he haunted public parks on weekends, waving his wand like a dowsing rod. He unearthed tiny balls of tinfoil and flip-tops from soda cans, an occasional brooch pin or bauble.

One day, as a toddler, I stood at his side when he dumped onto the table his latest pile of flea-market junk. A hardcover book fell to the floor. When I opened it, the spine crackled. Spidery script in ancient ink lined the crumbly yellow pages. Wedged between them was a lock of hair, snipped and preserved more than a century before. I exhaled and the filaments trembled as if alive.

My spare bedroom is piled with crates full of folders and padded envelopes, the scribbled records of the pasts of strangers. Not that I plan to profit by passing them on. These I am keeping.

•••

The scans arrive by email from Jessica. My letters, dated between June and November 1996, are not handwritten as I hoped but generated by an old-style dot-matrix printer, probably in Creative Loafing’s office. Most striking about them is how little my “correspondent” voice has changed, given all that history. Brisk, jaunty, self-deprecating. Is there an essential me? An immutable set of qualities that add up to an entity, myself, never to be mistaken for another?

As part of my day job—I’m a biotechnology journalist, handling the daily news of DNA and disease—I was assigned a few months ago to write about a saliva-based genetic test that purports to find predisposition to disease. I spat in the test tube.

“You have really good genes,” the consultant tells me after checking the results. Except for one hitch: one copy of the APOE3 gene, which confers an average risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and one copy of the APOE4 gene, which means high risk. About 22 percent of the population bears this genotype, and it doubles my odds of Alzheimer’s.

When I am held down screaming in some filthy public hospital (so I envision it) as the nurse finds a vein, what of that essential me will exist?

In one of the letters to Jessica, I mentioned that although she has referred to prose as a blind corridor, she did not go so far as to call it a brick wall. “Even those who pretend we know what we’re doing are really groping along,” I wrote to her. I described my father’s recent accident, which rendered him a paraplegic, and my fumbling attempts to handle his affairs.

Maybe this is what prompted Jessica to send me an essay next. “I like the way you folded into the second version of the truck-stop story how your father is aging,” went my reply. At the end, I wrote, “Maybe I will get to meet you someday! That would be good. I have things to ask you about fiction vs. non-fiction, and the difficulties of each.” How non-fiction can become fiction so easily, as recollections fail.

November 1996. In another year, the newspaper job would end. In two years, my wife would leave me a letter—also dot-matrix, in a business-sized envelope—on the pillow of the guest room where I had been sleeping for a while. And then I was divorced.

•••

They tow my car from the parking deck of our apartment complex. Having misplaced the title to the decrepit Subaru, I avoided the hassle of getting new tags after I moved here from California. The truth is, I pretty much neglected the car altogether. Probably because of the flat tire, someone reported it as abandoned. I don’t bother visiting the impound garage to harangue some bored clerk in his cage. What’s a car anyway but the means of transport? Like the body hauls the soul around, until the soul alone is transported … somewhere. No doubt the Subaru will be auctioned or flattened for scrap, so I let my driver’s license expire, too. My watch quits working and I throw it away. All of this I recognize as the wordless language of relinquishment.

I’ve waited a long time to get old. After high school, I knew that I needed more life in order to have anything worth saying to a blank page. I wanted to claw the calendar pages off in bunches and accumulate a past. I wanted to let time etch lines in my face and scorch my soul. It happened, but I don’t know much more today than before, though I feel friendlier with the questions, more patient. Less patient, too, almost violently so, as the death clock ticks on. I’m pushing sixty. It’s not pushing back.

Still left to quit is my job. I phone a financial advisor to ask about retirement prospects. He wants a list of assets and I almost laugh. As he will, when he gets the “list.” It’s on the night after this conversation when shy Jessica sidles up to remind me about the letters.

“You did a good thing,” she says.

I guess Jessica’s age is about the same as mine when our letter exchange began. Such women look away from me in the street, sick of goons inspecting them. Then, too, it’s instinct, simple biology, and nothing personal. Their DNA makes them not return my gaze for the same reason my DNA makes me hope (absurdly, because what’s next?) they will. Our respective strands of chromosomes, our stranded chromosomes, want only to replicate with the optimal candidate. For mine, they are it. For theirs, I am not.

Yet another, larger part of me feels a wash of relief at not caring. The soul separates from the body, hardly a big deal. Can it be starting already? What’s astounding, so lucky, is that they came together in the first place, for however “long” or “short” a time.

“A few years ago, I ended a relationship that was murdering the joy out of me,” Jessica writes in a follow-up email to the letter scans. Quickly she apologizes for the “melodrama.” She’s “re-entering the world” and trying poetry again, she says. I tell her I’m glad. Her father has just turned eighty-three, she adds. “My parents had kids late, which makes them the age of my friends’ grandparents, which gives me an odd perspective sometimes.” She mentions his “creeping Alzheimer’s. At least he’s still around, which I know isn’t ever guaranteed, and everybody expected him to be gone by now.”

•••

One of my letters to Jessica closed with, “I want to help and am running out of time.” Another scrap of unintended melodrama, true in one way during the moment of composition—I was headed out the door, late for a flight—and more broadly true in another way now.

If I see her again, I’ll tell her, since it’s possible she will understand, about my stockpile of handwritten letters and diaries. About the form of treasure that they make up for me in the language of those who’ve relinquished everything, happily or not. About how the once-blank pages are filled with insistent claims, clamoring to be heard, silently bursting with what we’re expected to remember.

•••

RANDY OSBORNE writes in Atlanta, where he teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at Emory University. Represented by the Brandt & Hochman Agency in New York, he is finishing a collection of personal essays.

How You Like Them Apples?

apple girl

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

 

By Miller Murray Susen

It’s the Morning Hustle. Five things are happening at once. The microwave beeps with the oatmeal. Lily reminds me she needs a note to go home with a friend after school. Max yodels a nonsense song and knocks over his milk with his elbow. The bus will be out front in ten minutes. In the midst of it all, I’m packing the kids’ lunches. Not for the first time, I wonder why I never do it the night before. Or make them do it themselves, for heaven’s sake. I plunk two oatmeals on the table, toss Max a dish towel, and go back to frantically sectioning apples. Lily pauses at my elbow.

“Be sure to get all the core out.”

“Yes, yes.”

“You never get it all out. It’s so gross. The texture.”

“Gotcha, now sit down and eat.”

I secure the apple slice between forefinger and thumb and dig with the blade of the paring knife, trying for that perfect angle where the core will pop out in an intact semicircle, leaving only smooth flesh behind. I’m rushing, though, and instead I hack the section in half. I chop out the middle, do the same to the other sections, and quickly pile the bits into a container and cram it into her lunch bag. Well, they are core-less.

“Eat up! Let’s go! Five minutes until the bus!”

•••

My dad doesn’t like to cook. This does not prevent him from turning out stacks of tender buttermilk pancakes, hearty dishes of spaghetti bolognese, gooey grilled cheese sandwiches with a buttery, crisp exterior that shatters delightfully when you take a bite. He feeds me and the kids lunch about once a week, and as I linger over my chicken salad sandwich, made with sweet pickles and celery the way I like it, he effortlessly cores apple slices for us. He uses the battered pocket knife he carries in a leather case on his belt, his rough, square fingers strong and sure. Pop! goes the core, and he slides a few slices my way along the table.

“Thanks for lunch, Dad.”

“It was my pleasure.”

His eyes glint warmly at me from his weathered, smiling face.

“Now take those kids home. I need a nap.”

•••

Lily’s fourth grade teacher is trying to bring a little hands-on fun to the last quarter of the year, a respite from the rampant standardized testing and flurry of final projects. She asks the parents to come in and help kids learn about fractions in the real world via making (and consuming) an apple pie. Which is how I find myself seated at the center of a group of four nine-year-old girls, passing out vegetable peelers and Granny Smith apples.

“Y’all get started with these, and I’ll use this sharp knife to peel some, too.”

“Mrs. Susen, this is hard. I can’t get mine to go.”

“It is kind of hard with a peeler. You just have to press down with authority. Like this.”

I demonstrate to get the peel started, then hand the apple back so the girl can continue to slowly scrape off tiny, unsatisfying flaps of skin. I hope no one peels a forefinger.

“Why can’t I use the knife like you do?”

“I don’t think your teacher would like that.”

“How’d you learn to peel so good?”

“Oh, I’m actually only okay at peeling apples. See? I’m getting a lot of the flesh. But you know what made me want to learn?”

The girls stop their inefficient scraping to listen, glad for an excuse to take a break.

“There’s this movie called Sleepless in Seattle. Have any of you seen it?” They shake their heads. “Well, it’s a little old for you guys. Anyway, in the movie, the main characters are a boy about your age and his dad. And they’re living on their own because the mother died.”

Lily’s eyes widen. “She died? How?”

I smile reassuringly, a little sorry I started on this topic. “She had cancer, I think? I don’t remember. Anyway, there’s a scene where the boy is having trouble remembering things about his mom. He doesn’t want to forget her, so he says to the dad, ‘Tell me about Mom.’ And the dad starts off, ‘Your mom could peel an apple in one long, curly strip.’ And ever since that movie, I’ve been practicing my apple peeling so I could learn to peel an apple in one long, curly strip.”

Lily says with rising pitch, “So that we’ll say that about you after you die, Mom?”

“Uh, well, just because I thought it sounded cool. Anyway! Who wants to unroll the pie crust?”

•••

Every Wednesday I make lunch for my ninety-three-year-old grandfather. He’s rattling around on his own now in the house that he and my grandmother designed, built, and lived in together before her death a few years ago. At first he was looking after himself pretty well, but the dementia he was already exhibiting at the time of her final illness has accelerated since she died. It’s seemed to me that his life without her is so diminished that he’s choosing to let go and drift, to slip away into memories. My uncles hired a live-in caretaker, but our in-town family still takes turns to provide him with some lunches and dinners each week. It gives the helper a break, and him a little company.

I never spent time with Popi on my own before my grandmother died. They had eight sons together, and I’m one of twenty-three grandchildren, so I didn’t spend much individual time with either of them, actually. Occasionally, though, in her later years, when she tired more easily and was home more often, I would run by to help my grandmother with a project, and she’d make lunch for the three of us. Her meals were ladylike and quaint, and delicious. First she’d offer a pitted avocado half with a pool of vinaigrette in the middle, to scoop up together with a silver spoon. Next a dainty glass sandwich plate cupping a cream cheese and chopped black olive sandwich on whole wheat with the crusts cut off. Finally she’d rummage around for a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milanos and offer two on a china dish along with a cup of weak coffee thinned with skim milk.

When I started bringing Popi lunch, I felt weirdly self-conscious. I didn’t know if he’d like my cooking or my idea of a tasty sandwich. So I’d punt and pick up sandwiches, cookies, and bags of potato chips from the bakery. Popi was the original smug health-food fanatic, culturing yogurt and spreading mashed yeast on toast back in the fifties. But since his dementia has taken hold I’ve noticed that he loves junk food. He’d eat every crumb of the bag of chips, and sometimes eat his cookie before he finished his sandwich. Max scolded him for it when I brought him along to lunch. But then Popi’s edema got worse, and the word went out from my uncle that we should all cut back on offering him salty snacks. One week my ungrateful children had picked listlessly at a nice pot of French lentil soup I made for dinner, so I decided to take the leftovers out to Popi to see if they’d suit. His eyes lit up when I offered the hot bowl of soup, along with a buttered roll and a peeled clementine, and he thanked me extra warmly for the “lovely, lovely lunch.” Since then that’s my lunch formula: soup, buttered bread, fruit, and sometimes a little sweet.

Initially during our lunches Popi would reminisce in vivid detail about his childhood in New York City and Long Island or about his time serving in the Air Force during World War II, but in recent months he gets caught in conversational eddies, pausing a moment before circling through a familiar exchange again from the beginning.

I carefully core and thinly slice apples as we cycle through one of his most frequent conversational gambits.

“It’s a very still day.”

“Yes, the weather’s been nice lately.”

“I had a friend who was very well traveled. He used to say that here in Central Virginia we have ‘the finest climate in the world, outside of the Austrian Tyrol.’”

“So, Popi, what’s the weather like in the Austrian Tyrol?”

“Couldn’t say, I’ve never been.”

We both chuckle, like it’s the first time and not the fiftieth, then pause as I deliver the apples and a shortbread cookie.

“Well, doesn’t this look nice? Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

A moment as we both take a bite of apple.

“It’s a very still day.”

•••

Morning Hustle. Max’s milk is in a pool on the floor, again. Lily has soccer after school, and I remind her to pack up her shin-guards and a water bottle.

“What’s the sandwich today, Mom?”

“You know I don’t like to talk about lunch. You only complain about what I’m packing. Go brush your teeth.”

“Fine, but I was wondering, can you just put a whole apple in my lunch bag?”

Max perks up. “Yeah! I want one, too!”

“A whole apple? Will you guys eat the whole thing? I don’t want to waste these apples, they’re organic and expensive.”

“Yes, I will!”

“I will, too. Everyone else just brings a whole apple. Apple slices are for little kids.”

“Well. Okay, then.”

I drop two apples into the lunch bags. Easy enough.

“Guys, go get your shoes on. You’re going to miss the bus.”

•••

I always thought one day I’d feel like I’d really come into my own. I’d feel a sense of mastery, of justified confidence, as I strode through my life. I wouldn’t just look like a grown-up on the outside; I’d feel the way that I assumed grown-ups felt on the inside. My father, in his calm competence, personified the adult I expected to become. But he still seems like a grown-up relative to me, even though I now signify adulthood to my own children. And caring for my grandfather, as his edges soften and calm competence fades, just messes with my head. How can it be that I’ve grown powerful in relation to this proud patriarch? That I am woman enough to cut his food into bite-sized bits? Middle age. I’m in the middle of the process of discovery. Won’t I always be here? Even when I grow old, if I should be so lucky, I’ll still be in the middle of understanding who I am.

•••

MILLER MURRAY SUSEN is the most extroverted introvert you know. She acts and tells stories, then holes up at home and sweats about having done those things. She writes essays and plays, then gets bored in a quiet room by herself. She adores her husband and two children but wishes they wouldn’t insist on talking to her so much. This fall, she’s going to try directing her own adaptation of Little Women, plus take on a part time job as Associate Director of Education at Live Arts. She is super thrilled and super stressed!

Extra Reads for You

Hey there!

I’m taking the week off to work on the very first FGP book. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you’re hankering for some more reads from the FGP writers, I’ve made a handy-dandy list.

Happy reading and happy 4th!

xo,

Jennifer

Sara Bir, “Canning Is Bullshit”

Angel Sands Gunn, “Underwater”

Kate Haas, “Strangers on a Plane: Overcoming My Fear of Flying”

Jessica Handler, “How to Write the Tough Stuff”

Sonya Huber, “How the ‘Trophy for Just Showing Up’ Is Earned”

Jim Krosschell, “Trash”

Nicole Matos, “Broken Collarbone? Just Roll with It”

Susan McCulley, “Part of the Practice (Or The Time I Became Naked in Yoga)”

Zsofi McMullian, “My Complicated Relationship with My Jewishness”

Tamiko Nimura, “Celebrating the Child: Kodomo no Hi in Seattle”

Randy Osborne, “The Mad Years”

Robin Schoenthaler, “On Set with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin: My Son’s ‘Labor Day’ Adventure” and “Closing Up the Cabin”

Traditional Holiday Recipe

recipe box

By Shimelle Laine/ Flickr

By William Bradley

1 lb. ground turkey

¼ cup shredded parmesan cheese

¼ cup Cabot’s Habañero Cheddar

1 tsp of chili powder

1-2 minced garlic cloves

dash of salt and ground pepper

1 bag of frozen tater tots

1 bottle of barbecue sauce

3-4 horror movies—the cheesier, the better

Begin, years before, by trying to be traditional. Invite friends from your graduate program in English over for a big Thanksgiving meal. Your fiancée will make a turkey, and you can make the stuffing and mashed potatoes. Serve some green beans, too. Buy a pumpkin pie. This is, after all, your first Thanksgiving since you moved in together, just a month and a half before your wedding. You are Very Serious Grown Up People now, people who can be trusted to pay their bills on time and maybe even raise a kid. And this meal, you think, will somehow prove it.

Of course, neither of you really likes turkey—oh, sliced thin for a sandwich it can be fine, but huge chunks of dry meat? Even smothered in gravy, about the best you can say is that the gravy makes the meat less bland. You know that there are people who claim that their own turkeys are succulent and flavorful, but you suspect that they are fucking liars and that there is no way to turn turkey into an enjoyable meal. You can try to move stuff around on your plate so the turkey gets mixed up with the stuffing and the potatoes and the green beans, but doesn’t that just seem wasteful and silly? There’s always that flavorless chunk of bird flesh ruining every mouthful of delicious carbohydrates.

Your friends eat enough to be polite but are really more interested in drinking the wine and beer you bought for the occasion while they talk about Marcel Proust or Emily Dickinson or Jorge Luis Borges or Ron Jeremy. Drink your own Pinot Noir slowly as you try to clean up the kitchen—you don’t want to be the drunkest person at your own party. Not this early in the evening, anyway. But you despair and think about drinking even more as you realize you’ll be eating leftovers for the next several days.

•••

In the ensuing years, try to find new ways to do Thanksgiving as you move across the country multiple times. Go out one year. Order a pizza another. When you’re both vegetarians, do up a vegetable stir fry or just eat sides at someone else’s house. All are better than the usual Thanksgiving dinner, but it doesn’t quite feel special. Well, except for the part where you drink beer in the afternoon while watching football. And then, when you both agree you’re not really into football, drink beer in the afternoon while watching movies.

And though beer in the afternoon is always enjoyable, something seems off. Thanksgiving should be more notable than your typical day on vacation. You long for the pleasures that tradition provides. Without some way to mark the day as unique, an annual holiday to be celebrated as opposed to just a day off from work, it feels like you and your wife are missing out on something.

•••

Develop your own Thanksgiving tradition accidentally, after you both go back to eating fish and fowl when you learn that soy products have a negative interaction with a prescription drug that you have to take every day. Agree that neither of you wants to cook and eat a whole turkey, but decide that turkey burgers might be tasty. Acknowledge that stuffing and green beans, while good enough at a typical Thanksgiving dinner, don’t really appeal to either of you, and that while potatoes are delicious, they’re much better in “tot” form than mashed. Decide that you’re not really interested in being around other people—that you’d prefer to spend this day together alone. Also, conclude that the day’s movies will all be horror films, beginning with Friday the 13th, Part 3—the DVD of which actually came with 3D glasses that will allow you to enjoy the original theatrical 3D effects from the comfort of your own couch.

You or your wife should divide the ground turkey in half. Mix half the turkey with the Parmesan cheese, and half with the habañero cheddar—your wife is not as into spicy food as you are. Divide the chili powder, garlic, and salt and pepper between the two turkey and cheese mixtures. Form each mixture into two patties. Grill on a grill pan, turning frequently, until cooked through. This will take about fifteen to twenty minutes.

In the meantime, make the tater tots. Directions are on the bag.

Realize as you take your first bite that this is the best burger—turkey or otherwise—that you have ever eaten. It’s juicy and spicy and more flavorful than you ever imagined turkey could be. Dip your tater tots in the barbecue sauce—dip the entire burger in the sauce too, for that matter. Wipe your hands on a napkin before putting on your 3D glasses and pressing “Play” on the remote control.

Compliment your wife on this amazing recipe that is, mostly, her creation. Smile when she replies, “Thank you, baby.” Watch the film’s opening sequence, as Jason stalks and kills Harold and Edna. Watch your wife’s face as the teenagers load themselves into the van and the hippie guy—who looks like Tommy Chong and is clearly too old to be hanging out with these kids—hands them a joint that seems to leap from the screen into your living room. Laugh, both with and at her hysterical response.

As you finish your meal, lean back on the couch and put your arm around your wife. Let her snuggle into your chest, but be careful not to crush the arms of her 3D glasses.

“We’re so fucking cool,” she’ll sigh.

“We should have a kid,” you’ll say in agreement.

Repeat this process, once a year, every year—alternating movie choices and maybe someday no longer talking hypothetically about a kid—for the rest of your life.

•••

WILLIAM BRADLEY’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Normal School, The Bellevue Literary Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Missouri Review, Brevity, and Utne Reader. He has recently completed a book manuscript—a collection of linked essays—that he is now sending out to publishers, agents and contests. This is the second essay he has published in Full Grown People that references horror movies. He has a wife and two cats, but kids remain hypothetical for the moment.

Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

diamond

By PTMoney.com/ Flickr

By Reyna Eisenstark

There was likely a time when I didn’t know that that long stretch of 47th Street on the west side of Manhattan was called “the diamond district,” but I can’t remember it. There was a sort of shorthand for streets in Manhattan that I learned as a kid: diamonds: 47th street, shoes: 34th Street, Indian food: 6th Street, and so on. This is the old city, the city of my parents and grandparents, that remarkably still exists inside the twenty-first century one, if you know where to look for it.

So when I found myself at the end of my marriage, panicked nearly every second about money, with my only valuable possession a diamond engagement ring buried in a tiny box on the top of my dresser, well, I pretty much knew where to go.

And so, on a hot summer day, a couple of years ago, I stood in front of a diamond exchange store on the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, considering my options.

I don’t know what drew me to this particular store, but there I was. It was simply the first one I noticed. It was large and on the corner, which seemed like important details. Now, as a rule, I don’t excel at comparison shopping. In fact, when I am looking for something, I will pretty much snap up the first thing I see, and that’s it. Then I spend the next day? month? year? hearing about everyone else’s great deal on the very same thing that I should have gotten if only I’d bothered to shop around. In front of that store, I told myself that I could just see what they had to say and then try a few more places. But I knew this would be the only place I would enter.

The tiny ring was now in the pocket of my jeans. I hadn’t worn it in about a year.

The minute I entered the store, some young people rushed over. Really, I’m remembering this as a sea of twenty-somethings, men and women, descending on me. I told someone that I wanted to sell my ring. A young woman took a look at it and then there must have been some unseen communication going on (why is there no HBO drama set in the underground world of the diamond district?) because seconds later, a man in his late seventies, wearing a rumpled suit, came sweeping past everyone, took one look at my ring, and said, “Come with me, young lady.” He grabbed me by the arm and led me away. I knew at that moment that my ring was valuable. There was an actual charge in the air.

The man swept me past the crowd of young people all the way to the back of the store and up a flight of stairs into his crowded messy office, which looked probably exactly the way it had looked for the past forty years. Was there a manual typewriter? I know I’m not getting this right. He introduced himself and I’ll call him Abe Feldman, which may be his actual name; I no longer remember.

Abe Feldman was of a time when people said things like “how do you do” upon meeting someone and I wish I’d had the foresight to say such a thing. It might have given me an advantage. Instead I came across exactly as I was: hopelessly out of my element. I knew I would have to play the game I had been dreading, the ancient ritual of figuring out a price. Some people find this thrilling, I know, but for me it is simply exhausting. But Abe Feldman was raring to go.

Here is what I knew: the ring had cost six thousand dollars. The man who would become my husband, and then my ex-husband, had bought it with a credit card, which eventually we both paid off. I couldn’t imagine what the ring would be worth now, and probably I should have done extensive research into this, but I hadn’t. I knew that Abe Feldman would say some number and I would succumb pretty quickly.

I can’t remember if Abe Feldman wore one of those eyepieces that jewelers wear to look at diamonds, but let’s just say that he did. He spoke fast and urgently as he examined the ring, explaining that it had a slight crack in it (which I suddenly remembered) but that it was in decent shape.

“I’ll give you two thousand for it,” he said. He opened the safe on his desk, which I hadn’t noticed, and took out a big pile of cash. He started counted out hundred dollar bills, one at a time, flipping them onto the desk like cards, hypnotizing me. Abe Feldman was a master of seduction. He looked at me carefully and then said, “I’ll throw in another hundred,” and placed one last bill on top of the pile.

This was a ton of money. And yet, the number sounded right to me, which made me think that it was worth even more. But I wanted to stop the game, which Abe Feldman clearly knew. “Now, come on,” he said, “It’s nearly four. I have to leave. You should take the money. I’m giving you a good deal.” I had the feeling that Abe Feldman had all the time in the world. It was me who wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.

I must have agreed to it, because I remember him asking for some identification, which surprised me. Nothing at all felt legal in that tiny crowded office, but I handed him my driver’s license and he copied everything down.

It hit me at that moment that Abe Feldman was getting the deal of a lifetime and I knew that I couldn’t just give up so soon. I realized that he had seen my name. “As one Jew to another,” I began (I could be seductive too), “you know I’m supposed to bargain with you as long as I can, right?”

He smirked. “As one Jew to another,” he said, “I’m giving you a good deal.” And then I really knew there was nothing left to say.

I don’t really remember this part, but eventually I must have left his office and gone back downstairs and out onto the hot summer sidewalk. I remember thinking about Abe Feldman laughing to himself the moment I left. And maybe he did, but the best part about this was that I had a pile of money now in place of a ring that had been sitting in a tiny box on top of my dresser. And that ring, which, to be honest, I had always felt conflicted about, as I never really saw myself as a diamond-ring–wearing woman, had become more important, more useful, at the end of its life than it ever was before.

I would love to end this story with me throwing my hat in the hair all Mary Tyler Moore–like and then skipping down the street to buy myself something fabulous with all that money, or just simply strolling down the street, grinning, with an enormous sense of relief. And I would get there, eventually.

But this story actually ends with a sudden flash of memory: the man, who would later become my husband, and then my ex-husband, but now still my boyfriend, sitting on the end of our bed and asking me to marry him. And then, as we were both laughing and crying, just beside ourselves with feeling, he said simply, “I have a ring.”

And then there I was, standing on the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, with thousands of dollars in my pocket and a terrible sinking feeling.

•••

REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. She tells stories, mostly from her own life, on her blog, Collected Stories.

Unfinished

dogplane

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

 

By Marcia Aldrich

The 16th of November was eerily warm, and neighbors were out in full force with their leaf blowers, trying to clear their yards before the weather turned. My husband was raking enormous piles of leaves onto the blue plastic tarp and then dragging them to the corner of the yard. We live on the banks of the Red Cedar River in a subdivision adjoining several natural areas, and the deer cross through our yard every day and bed down in the leaves for an hour or so before moving on. We hadn’t seen any for days since hunting season had opened.

In the previous week, we stumbled upon deer bones at Sander Farms, a natural area near the busy Dobie Road, a death trap for deer. Most days we take our dogs, Quin and Omar, to Sander Farms where they run off leash. A person I’ve never seen mows a trail through the tall grasses. Omar found the first bone—what looked like a leg—on the side of the trail at the entrance. Each day we found another piece of the deer, another leg with the fur still on, a rib cage, the pieces scattered through the fields as if one animal after another had taken him up and then put him down.

On this day, only Omar was with Richard in the side yard. I hunted inside the house for Quin and found him lying at the foot of the bed on the carpet breathing hard. His chest was rising and falling. Earlier that morning, I had stopped to talk to him when he was lying on the stairs’ landing. He didn’t lift his head in greeting or wag his tail. He didn’t give any indication that it mattered to him that I was sitting on the step caressing his beautiful face that had in the last year become shot through with white hair.

He was the dog who came from wherever he was to greet me at the door when I came home and made sounds that welled up inside him like a moaning, but they were not caused by pain or discomfort—they were caused by relief and happiness that I had come back to him.

Lately on our walks, Quin would stop and then after a few minutes be ready to continue. Last summer after leaving the fields, he’d lie down in the shade of a yard before continuing home. He had grown slower, bringing up the far rear, so far that it often felt as if Quin and I were on our own separate walk from Richard and Omar. Sometimes he stopped right at the edge of the driveway as we were entering the street before we had even started.

He struck me as far away, sunk into himself as if he was in pain and was conserving himself. I suspected that despite the pain medicine, he hurt. Still I thought his difficulties had to do with arthritis and joint deterioration. I didn’t think anything else was going on. He always had a good appetite.

But he stopped wanting to sleep on the bed, preferring the floor in his own space. Then he developed a cough, the telltale cough, it turns out. A dry, hacking cough. He wasn’t coughing all the time. Some days it didn’t seem as if he coughed at all, and we forgot about it. Richard said Friday that he thought we should take him to the vet on Monday. It was time to do something but still not urgent. Saturday morning he didn’t eat breakfast, didn’t go out into the leaves, sat unresponsive on the steps, and I Googled coughs in dogs and found they could be a sign of illnesses like congestive heart failure and cancer.

I wonder now why I didn’t Google the cough before. Hadn’t I been paying enough attention or hadn’t I wanted to see what was going on because I knew that seeing it, really seeing it, would be the first step down an unhappy road? And so I put those steps off. Now I looked at his breathing and I knew we couldn’t wait until Monday. Our vet doesn’t work on the weekends and I took Quin to the Emergency Clinic at the Michigan State University Veterinary Center.

I arrived at one-thirty and things went very fast even though I was sitting for hours in the waiting room. Someone came to the front desk right away and took Quin to the back of the clinic and I never saw Quin again. He jumped up on me in his anxiety. And I hugged him and lowered him to the floor, resting my head on his cheek as was my custom. And then he allowed himself to be led away. I’ve gone back over this part a hundred times; at that moment I believed he would be returned to me and that this was not our goodbye.

After the first hour, an assistant returned to update me about the primary vet’s concerns on the basis of the preliminary examination. They put him on an I.V. to give him some liquids. His gums were pale, his breathing and heart rate advanced. They were going to do more investigation and be back. The assistant hung back a bit and said I might have to make a decision today. He was kneeling down, in a kind of crouch, and he looked up at me when he said that, as if it pained him to sound so ominous.

I called Richard and said, “This is not good.” And then I waited. But I knew.

When I decided to take Quin to the clinic, when I helped him into the back seat, I didn’t know I’d have to make the decision, that we had arrived at that awful place, a place I had been before.

I noticed boxes of Kleenex scattered everywhere. I was not alone in requiring them. While waiting I had watched a woman carry in a puppy near death and then walk out an hour later alone. She arrived sobbing so loudly that they could hardly understand her at the front desk. She left in silence.

The young vet appeared, and we went into one of the small examination rooms and he told me what he feared but couldn’t yet confirm. He wanted to do a chest x-ray. Cancer. He thought the cancer started in the spleen perhaps and had moved to the lungs. The chest x-ray might show us something. And then he was gone. Primary lung cancer is very rare in dogs—they don’t smoke. If you find cancer in a dog’s lungs there is a ninety-nine percent chance the cancer originated elsewhere and is inoperable.

I called Richard again. This time he was riding his bike to the clinic and the noise from the wind and traffic was terrible—but he was on his way.

More waiting.

Then I saw Richard ride by on his bike and a few minutes later he walked in—his clothes filthy from raking leaves for hours, his hair plastered away from his face by the wind. Another hour passed and still it felt like time was flying. I wanted to hold it in my hands and quiet its pace. Employees kept apologizing for the delay—I wanted to say don’t apologize, don’t speed things along. I want a lifetime of delays.

Then the young vet appeared again, Dr. Carver. This time I caught his name. Without his having said a word, I could see in his face the news he was about to deliver. I’ve seen this look before—the look that says your dog is dying, we can’t do anything, and you are going to have to put him down. The look that says this news will devastate you, how shall I tell you?

We stepped back into examination room # 5—this time I noted the number as I noted the vet’s name—and he said “I’m sorry.” The x-ray shows that Quin has cancer in his lungs, and there is nothing we can do about it. Did we want to see the x-ray?

No, we did not. I’m not sure why we didn’t want to see it. I’m not exactly sure why in this moment and the moments that followed that I wanted to shield myself from seeing. I didn’t care to have the images of his ruined lungs. I didn’t want further tests to nail down whether there was a tumor on his spleen or liver or abdomen or all three. What did it matter? In a matter of minutes I knew I would decide as I must to let him go. We would never have a complete narrative of his decline.

If Quin were a person, he would have come home and had hospice care for the remaining time. But we don’t do that with dogs. None of my animals have had a natural death at home. They have all had a precipitous decline and I’ve taken them to a vet where it has been determined that they are dying, that nothing can be done, and then I have had the dog or cat put to sleep.

My daughter and I carried Irene, our first dog, into the vet. We lay her down on a blanket in the exam room and held her as the drug was administered that would stop her heart. It happened in a second and was utterly quiet. And then we left, walked to the car, and drove home. We left Irene there to be picked up for cremation.

The death of Larry, our second dog, was not so smooth, if that’s what you could call it. He had a tumor on his spleen that I knew could rupture at any time. Still I had some months with him, watching him every day for signs, saying goodbye every time I left the house as if it might be our last. His spleen did rupture. By the time I realized what was happening, he was very weak and I could barely get him into the car to drive him to the vet. Twenty minutes later, he was too weak to get out of the car. Several of us had to carry him into the exam room where he lay on the cold floor. With the greatest difficulty I had him put to sleep. His head was in my lap, he looked at me as he died.

And I will never be able to do that again.

Now when I see Larry I see him on the blue speckled floor, I see his eyes looking at me for assurance, to somehow make it all right as I had done for ten and a half years. But there was no making it right, no reassurance. The vet kept saying he’s looking to you to let him go. Was he?

I didn’t want that power. Eventually I let him go and he died. We walked out of the room and got back into our car and left my great boy behind. That’s what you do. Some people bury their dogs in the yard as in days of old but Larry was a ninety-pound field golden retriever and our yard was exceedingly small, postage stamp size. And we knew we weren’t going to stay in that house forever. I couldn’t imagine leaving my buried dog behind. There was no burying him. There was only cremation and picking up his ashes and keeping them near me.

•••

I wasn’t in attendance when my mother and father died. They died in Pennsylvania and I lived in Michigan. They were not young and they weren’t in good health; nevertheless their deaths, when they came, were sudden. My mother woke up complaining of a headache. After lunch she said the pain was unbearable and my father called an ambulance. She was dead by nine-thirty that night—she had sustained a massive cerebral hemorrhage. My father returned to his apartment after a week’s trip in Florida and had a massive heart attack. He died before he reached the hospital. Never stood by their hospital beds, never saw their bodies slip into death, their faces in death. Never saw their bodies wheeled away and stored in a refrigerator with a bunch of other dead bodies until the funeral home could pick them up. My parents’ deaths were managed, and their bodies were managed without me. When a person or a dog dies, we relinquish them to someone—to coyotes, to medical experts, to funeral managers, and to the people who work the crematoriums.

I have seen two of my dogs die. I thought I should be with them, touching their faces, looking at them, saying goodbye. I should be there. And I was. With my parents, I felt pained by my absence. It wasn’t something I decided. My sisters stood by my mother’s hospital bed as she died; they touched her hands and spoke to her. They both arrived at the hospital after my father had died in the ambulance, too late to say goodbye. But they saw him in his death. I feel that I let my parents down and at the same time I feel grateful that I did not see their faces rearranged by death.

Dr. Carver asked, “Do you want to say goodbye to Quin? Do you want to be with him for his final moments?” I put my head in my hands and sobbed. Give me a minute, I asked. I have to think. But I knew I couldn’t see Quin die. I didn’t want that to be the last image of him I had. I wanted to remember him as he emerged from Lake Michigan after an afternoon of swimming or pulling an enormous fallen branch through the snow. I wanted to see him alive, unfinished. I am not a novice in this dying business.

Now I know that the last image will be the one I carry with me forever—it will write over all the others. Selfish is what I am. I chose not to be the angel of death. I did not give my Quin the sign that he could go. Richard said goodbye. I didn’t even want to hear about it, didn’t want to know how Quin looked, what the room was like, was the lighting bright, was it low, what color was the floor, was he on a table, who else was in the room, did he lift his head, did he know? I didn’t want to know.

Did I fail him as I hadn’t failed the others? After nine years of never failing Quin, did I fail him in the end? Was I unable to summon up that last bit of strength to serve him? It was so fast. I would be undone forever to see him die. My refusal wasn’t about the insufficiency of love.

And then like all the other deaths, we waited for the assistant to retrieve his leash and collar and walked out the doors of the clinic and got into our car and drove the long ride home. It was dark now and it would begin to rain shortly.

•••

When we came home without Quin, Omar looked confused and anxious. He lay by the door, facing it, ready for Quin to walk through it. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. At some point, Richard asked if I wanted to take Omar to the fields. Yes and no was my answer. But we went because we still had a dog and he needed exercise and some sense of normalcy. We passed a couple we knew who walked their two dogs every night. When they saw that Quin wasn’t with us, that it was just Omar, the woman started to ask where and stopped. Something about our faces, our forlorn figures told her that Quin had died. We got to the fields relieved we hadn’t run into any other people who would inquire where Quin was and realized we had days and days of being asked the dread question ahead of us. We let Omar off leash but he didn’t take off. We walked the trail and he stayed right by us. On the slight slope uphill he found the deer’s skull not far off the path, the last part of the deer to emerge. I don’t know if a more perfect thing exists. So delicate and small, as white as can be, lying in the grasses and mud as if it belonged there. And perhaps it did belong there. Where else should it have been?

The next day was a terrible day. Dark, foreboding, with winds up to sixty miles an hour, and intermittent torrential down pours. By evening, we lost power and huddled in the bedroom listening to tree limbs being ripped from trees and flying against the windows. And it went on like this for most of the night, and I thought yes, this is how it should be, the world should come unhinged, it should flail and bang because something great has left it. Of course, it was me who was unhinged. It was my grief that I saw in the storm.

And the next day came as it does and the storm was over, power was restored, and the temperature plummeted. It was winter now. The leaves had been stripped from the trees, what had remained by mid-November. Some roads were blocked because trees had fallen across their way. I heard saws buzzing nearby.

I pulled out a photo of Quin at Sleeping Bear Dunes in 2005 when he was young. He’s just emerged from the lake, no doubt fetching sticks we were throwing. He’s running towards the camera, sand and foam coats his face, his fur is wet and deep red, and he looks right at me. I take the photo. Our eyes are locked. This was the face I wanted to remember. Not because I am deluding myself in thinking someday I’ll return home from work and find Quin waiting at the door for me, or that it will be Quin sitting on his perch on the landing overseeing our world, or Quin emerging from the dry brush of the fields and running towards me, but because I know he won’t.

•••

One week to the day after Quin died, his ashes arrived in the mail. They arrived in a small metal container about three inches tall, blue larkspur sprays on the beige background.

Thanksgiving morning, Richard and I bundled up against the cold and, with Omar, walked through the falling snow to the fields. No one was on the streets and the fields were empty. At the place where we enter the fields, we unleashed Omar, as we had always unleashed both dogs. They’d bound into the fields and then abruptly stop to smell whatever they smelled before hurrying on into the open area. Here I pulled out my little baggie, dipped my bare hand in and gathered some of Quin in my fingers and scattered it. The first fingers of ash were smooth, like sand, and they blew in the wind and carried a little ways off the trail to coat the dry stalks. “To Quin,” I said, “your final pasture.”

But the pain of losing never is finished. A friend writes about how she dreamed she found her lost dog sitting on a shelf in a second-hand shop on sale for nine dollars. “I picked her up and she smelled exactly the same, and she started licking me. It was as if she’d been waiting for me for ten years. Then I woke up, but for a moment there, life seemed healed.”

•••

MARCIA ALDRICH is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. Her website is marciaaldrich.com.