Spectrum

Photo by Ishwar/Flickr

By Fiona Tinwei Lam

RED (life)

My partner was brewing a pungent, murky brown concoction on the stove. The label on the box beside the stove listed burdock root, slippery elm bark, sheep sorrel, and turkey rhubarb root, but it gave me no clue as to the purpose of the ingredients.

“What’s it for?” I asked, sniffing the pot.

Ted mumbled something unintelligible.

“Is it a laxative?” I asked.

“Not exactly.”

“For digestive problems?”

He paused. “Nope.”

Puzzled, I tried again. As a custom cabinet-maker, he had been working long hours and weekends but seemed energetic and healthy. “Is it for your anemia?” Several months before, he had been diagnosed with a severe iron deficiency, but he’d been taking a supplement.

“Kind of.”

I made a few more failed guesses. Finally, he said flatly and quietly, “It’s for cancer.”

I stared at him. “Why on earth do you think you have cancer?”

He kept stirring the pot. “I’ve been passing blood.”

When I urged him emphatically to see the doctor for more tests, he shrugged. He carefully poured the steaming brew through a sieve into a couple of large jars, not spilling a single drop. “I guess I should.”

•••

Several weeks later, we sat with the gastroenterologist in a small examining room, looking at a color print-out of the images taken during an internal scan of Ted’s intestines. One image revealed subtle polyps that looked hardly more sinister than crimson crayon scrawls. Another image showed the slight bulge of a small polyp that resembled a small fleshy boil or pimple. But then there was the final image: it looked like a blob of gummy red gelatin encasing curled-up maggots. It filled a third of the intestinal tunnel and resembled a fetal mouse or fetal frog. I repressed an instinctive shudder.

“It’s cancer,” the doctor said without drama. “I took a biopsy, but I’m fairly certain.”

So this was what cancer looked like from the inside. Ted’s father had died over two decades earlier of complications following stomach cancer surgery. A decade earlier, Ted`s eldest sister had died of colorectal cancer at the age of fifty-seven. Years of gruelling chemotherapy, radiation and experimental therapies had failed to stop its spread. We were informed that people with a first-degree relative with colorectal cancer are at a higher risk of developing it. Being the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer after prostate cancer for men, it is the second leading cause of death from cancer overall, although if detected early, it is over ninety percent curable.

The doctor matter-of-factly went through the process that we’d be going through: staging to determine how far the cancer had spread, an ultrasound and CT scan, analysis of the biopsy results, a referral to a surgeon. He drew a diagram of the kind of bowel resection surgery that Ted could expect to undergo—it looked deceptively simple, a cross between plumbing repair and alterations at a tailor’s.

Strangely, neither Ted nor I was alarmed. Perhaps we’d used up our storehouse of apprehension during the weeks leading up to the colonoscopy From this moment on, he would go through the necessary tests and procedures with all the hoops and steps laid out for him. It was as if we were both buckled into the seat of a medical amusement park ride called “the oncological flow chart.” A positive result on one test might lead to a diversion down a more complex chain of procedures; a negative result might lead to a positive destination reached in a shorter time. None of the flow charts in the cancer brochures led to the word “death.” But it existed, unwritten, just over the edge.

•••

We arrived for Ted’s surgery at Vancouver’s historic St. Paul’s hospital on the first day of August. As we dutifully followed the painted red line on the floor through the body of the older buildings into the newer sections, we passed commemorative plaques about the nuns who had fundraised on horseback at mining and logging camps to raise funds to found the hospital at a time when the current downtown site was located on the outskirts of wilderness.

Little did we know how familiar we would become with that brick edifice with its threading red line. Advised initially that he might expect a stay of five days, Ted would remain there for over four weeks. I would be taking the bus there daily, sometimes twice daily, for the remainder of the summer.

 

VIOLET (spirit)

We’d prepared for weeks before the surgery, going in for Ted’s appointments with the surgeon and for scans, as well as to the pre-admission clinic to review hospital checklists, instructions, and test results which I gathered in a purple file folder on the kitchen counter near the phone. That file became both compass and hub through the summer and fall.

On the morning of the operation, we were the first to arrive at the day surgery department at what seemed like any typical waiting room—institutional chairs arranged against the pastel walls, a coffee table with outdated magazines. After he checked in at the reception desk, Ted changed into a hospital gown and we sat together until he was called. It didn’t seem to be a place of sufficient gravitas, of momentous, radical change, where your guts would be sliced open, dismantled, rearranged or removed—or where you could die.

Because the surgery was supposed to last three hours, I took the bus home while Ted got his abdomen shaved and epidural and intravenous lines inserted. Too restless, I returned downtown. There were booths and kiosks set up along Davie Street as part of a block party in advance of the Pride Parade the next day. At Bute and Davie I walked by the celebrated rainbow crosswalk, Canada’s first permanent rainbow-painted crosswalk added to the West End in 2013 to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the local Pride Parade. I went into a dollar store to buy a small rainbow flag to mark the festivities. Inspired by Judy Garland’s song, “Over the Rainbow,” the flag had been designed for the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco to represent the diversity of the LGBTQ movement, with special symbolic significance assigned to each colour.

Back at the hospital, I headed upstairs to Ward 10B to look for Ted. He was a bit groggy but conscious and smiling, and looked surprisingly normal except for the various tubes emerging from underneath his sheets that were connected to a catheter, an IV, and a patient-controlled hydromorphone dispensing machine known as a PCA that he could press whenever he was in pain. I pinned the rainbow flag next to the “Nothing by Mouth” sign that was turned face down on the bulletin board behind his hospital bed, wondering why each of the six beds in the room had bulletin boards with those signs and no artwork or photos.

As there didn’t seem to be any kind of bulging from his abdomen, I asked Ted if the surgeon had given him an ostomy. He wasn’t sure and hadn’t had a chance to ask. The whole idea of having your intestine protrude out from your body to expel feces into an external bag had made us both queasy and anxious, despite our having watched the obligatory DVD at the pre-admission clinic that showed gorgeous athletic men and women blithely unaffected by their ostomies.

With his permission, I gingerly lifted the sheets and then his hospital gown, bracing myself for the worst. We both peered down at his belly. There was a narrow tube leading from a dressing a few inches beneath his rib cage to a small disc-like Hemovac drain to remove the build-up of excess blood and fluids after surgery. On different parts of his belly were five neat sets of black staples along puckered, deep red incisions, with the longest row near the pubic area. Over the weeks ahead, the redness would soon fade to purple, and then eventually light brown, until the scars from the incisions were barely perceptible.

I put his gown and the sheets and blankets back in place. I felt like celebrating and considered heading out to watch the parade the next day to wave our little Pride flag. Ted had made it through surgery successfully. He was in good spirits. The cancerous tumor had been removed, with no need for an ostomy. Maybe this whole ordeal wasn’t so terrible after all?

 

BLUE (serenity)

Ted found it difficult to sleep on the ward. The blue PCA machine dispensing the hydromorphone and IV fluids ticked and clucked day and night without a break except when the IV or the medication needed to be refreshed. We pretended there were miniature robotic chickens trapped inside it, even tried to imitate the sounds. He had to take it with him to the bathroom, the IV pole draped with tubes and with electrical cords that had to be pulled out each time. But the PCA alleviated the discomfort, at least during those first few days. I fretted about the possibility of addiction, but he waved my concerns away and kept clicking the button to bliss.

When he’d been first diagnosed with colorectal cancer, I had wondered how I’d feel about the hospitalization, bed pans, diapers, catheters, the physical changes to his body, the possible ostomy. Although we had lived together and become more interdependent over the past four years, he knew that I still had some doubts about our relationship. He was concerned that his care would become a burden that I would resent.

“You don’t have to come every day,” he told me.

I looked at him in disbelief. “Of course I do!”

And I did. The day after the operation, I ventured out to drift among the crowds in the intense August heat to get a glimpse of the parade. The noise and hoopla were fun, but ultimately it felt jarring to be surrounded by the teeming exuberance and staged goodwill. I rushed back to the hospital where it was quiet and cool and where I really wanted to be—with Ted.

Most of the time, after arranging plants and flowers and cards on the sill and getting him fresh ice chips, I’d gaze out the window by his bed. I’d look down at the shifting rhythm of traffic on Burrard Street and out at the glass towers that reflected both each other and a faceted sky. After drawing the curtains between us and the other patients so we could at least have the illusion of privacy, I would sometimes sit facing him on the bed, my back against the footboard, my legs alongside his, so we could hold or rub each other’s feet, which felt more intimate than holding hands.

Sometimes after the visitors had gone and if my twelve-year-old son was staying at his father’s, I’d remain to watch dusk fall across the city. I didn’t have to be social or chase down Ted’s frustratingly elusive leprechaun-like surgeon and his wandering medical team. The fluorescent lights would be turned off and everything would slowly become bathed in blue. I’d watch a DVD with him on the old portable player I’d brought, the light from the screen flickering across his face.

Other days seemed very long. I wouldn’t realize it until I returned home. Saturated from the hospital, I would want to collapse in bed, but I’d face a backlog of texts, voicemail, and email messages. My work, household chores, and tasks accumulated, undone. I had just enough energy to deal with Ted at the hospital and my son at home and not much left for anything else. But it seemed impossible for it to be any other way. Whether I was examining Ted’s stitches and dressings, helping out the nurses by changing his hospital gown or diapers, giving him sponge baths, massaging his feet, taking him for walks, or just sitting with him, it was important for me to be there. Our lives were entwined. Until then, I hadn’t been aware of how much. What bound us together wasn’t a yoke, leash or chain—it was a root.

 

ORANGE (healing)

Very soon after his surgery, Ted started receiving clear fluids. The little four ounce chilled plastic juice containers started to pile up: mostly orange, but grape and apple too. The inevitable hospital jello came also— yellow, orange, and red, laden with sugar, artificial flavours and colours, and probably made from gelatin extracted from the bones of factory farmed animals. Dishwater-like broths of questionable origin arrived as well. He downed them all willingly.

As his incisions seemed to be healing well, the type and level of foods swiftly advanced from meal to meal as the dieticians tried to speed his progress and ready his digestive system for his possible discharge from hospital in a few days’ time. He started receiving cream soups—broccoli, carrot, mushroom. When he started getting little cups of orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream, Ted’s eyes lit up as he devoured each one. His abdomen became increasingly bloated, however. We started joking that he was growing twins. Then rice with green beans and fish arrived, followed by a chicken sandwich, puddings. The stack of unopened juices grew taller. His belly ballooned out, painfully distended. The traffic jam inside his digestive tract became untenable. Intense, continuous nausea overcame him. He stopped smiling, his gaze turned downward and inward. The food was left untouched.

 

GREEN (nature)

Ted rejected the insertion of a nasogastric tube for two long days. But soon, it was impossible for him to think or sleep.

“Could I get more medication for the nausea?” he pleaded with the long-suffering nurse on the ward that day.

“You’re already on the highest dose,” she said shaking her head, disapprovingly. Her tone of voice shifted into persuasive mode. “Why not try the NG tube? You’ll feel better.”

Ted was fighting his body’s natural urge to reject the food. A scan showed that a gas pocket near his duodenum was causing the blockage. He finally agreed. It took five painstaking, arduous attempts by the nurses to feed the NG tubing down his nose into his stomach while he gagged and vomited on the floor. One attempt stopped him from being able to speak. He had to yank out the tube in order communicate to them that they’d threaded it in the wrong direction, toward his trachea instead of his esophagus.

When I returned later, he was sitting with his eyes downcast with concentration and discomfort. He seemed demoralized and exhausted. Green fluid was being suctioned out through his left nostril via a long tube attached to his nose that snaked into a large plastic canister attached to a wall unit. The canister was already half full. Canister after canister was filled and emptied that day. Ted’s nausea started to subside, but talking was kept to a minimum. I fended off friends from visiting.

“I’ll never look at a green smoothie the same way again,” I told him.

Over the course of the weeks ahead, it seemed almost everyone else in the gastrointestinal ward would be “producing” the exact same green fluid irrespective of what they were ingesting, as if the ward were some bizarre factory. The sound of vomiting was common. The cleaners were regularly called in to mop the floor of spilled bodily fluids of every type.

A number of patients came and went, part of the shifting social microcosm of the ward. We joked about pitching a reality TV show called Ward 10B. There was an elderly Danish man with dementia who was scheduled for a reverse ileostomy but kept pulling out his IV and trying to flee. Beside him was an outdoorsy young man who’d been airlifted to the hospital as a result of tearing his spleen after a dive gone wrong. After a few days, he was replaced by a wiry, grizzled fellow with keen, bright eyes, who swore and complained vociferously about the food. “What’s this shit?” The patient who had a bed next to Ted’s appeared to be a new immigrant. His chador-clad wife had her hands full trying to shush two young, precocious children. He was soon replaced by another patient whom we nicknamed “The Prince.” He conversed frequently and loudly on his cell phone in Farsi while his mother fussed over him. “More ice!” he commanded the nurses repeatedly.

The insertion of the NG tube did not end Ted’s problems. Just after his surgeon left for summer vacation, Ted’s temperature began to rise dangerously. His distended belly became tender and painful. The fluid in his Hemovac tube became pus-like and fetid, as if something were rotting inside him. A CT scan showed that there were air bubbles leaking from the re-sectioned area—infection had set in. He was put on an intensive course of antibiotics via IV and his vital signs were monitored every hour.

A peculiar foggy terror filled my throat and chest. My every movement seemed sluggish as if I were trudging through swampland, but certain thoughts flitted around in obsessive loops. I questioned the doctors, sent detailed emails and texts to his family members. I peppered the night nurses with questions when I’d get home late at night. Some would brush me off; a few would update me. If he deteriorated further, he would have to be admitted to the Acute Care ward for continual monitoring and more drastic medical interventions. A second operation could be risky, and if it occurred, even more of his colon might need to be removed with the likelihood of an ostomy, probably a permanent one. He might get another infection. Recovery would be longer, slower and more complicated.

Because his system had rejected most of the food and drink they’d given him, and because of the need for the re-sectioned bowel to heal properly, the doctor prescribed daily liquid nutrients, called total parenteral nutrition (TPN). A nurse told us that each bag cost $1000 to make fresh daily and had to be specially transported to St. Paul’s from another hospital laboratory. We named it the Crisco milkshake but it seemed more akin to breast milk. Chock-full of lipids, sugars, vitamins, trace minerals, and amino acids, it was a creamy white substance that was administered by an extremely narrow catheter threaded into a central vein in his chest. A nurse told me that the leftover TPN discarded at the end of each day supposedly worked well as plant fertilizer. (I took some home for the garden—our apple tree had a bumper crop the next year.) The TPN would sustain Ted for the next three weeks while he ingested nothing but ice chips. The orderlies with the food trays would stay away: the sign on the bulletin board was now turned face-up.

•••

The lounge in the ward had a small bookshelf with a few outdated magazines, several hospital foundation publications, and a number of dog-eared paperbacks. I noticed the cover of a single National Geographic magazine in the stack. The pristine copy was dated 1968 and its feature article described the plans for the first lunar landing. During those weeks in hospital, I sometimes felt like we’d landed on an artificial planet, a desolate sterile landscape with little vegetation, shifting inhabitants, its own unique language, hierarchies, protocols, and undeviating routines.

The whole ward seemed utterly divorced from nature: its windows wouldn’t open; the sliding glass door to the balcony off the lounge was locked; the concrete balcony itself was dirty and uninviting; there was no fresh air and little greenery other than a few limp, discarded bouquets and dehydrated plants left behind by discharged patients. I placed a hydrangea plant in the corner of Ted’s room so that he would awaken to their large blue clustered heads and rich green leaves every morning. As soon as they entered his room, the nurses and visitors would see something alive and beautiful and thriving.

 

YELLOW (sunlight)

Ted was supposed to have regular, short walks to maintain his circulation, increase his strength, and speed his healing. At first, it took immense effort just to get to the bathroom. He’d prepare himself with a shot of hydromorphone from the PCA, put on his special rubber-soled hospital socks, put on another hospital robe to cover his back, disconnect the NG tube during the days it was in place, clip the Hemovac to his gown, unplug the two electrical cords from the wall, drape the cords on the pole, pull himself up, and then try to walk step by shaky step without losing his balance. Getting back to bed meant going through the whole routine in reverse.

Eventually, he was able to get past the doors of the ward to reach the service elevators, next to windows that looked out onto the expanse of English Bay. He would pause there for several minutes, gripping a railing for support, before enduring the arduous fifty meter journey back to his bed.

“I was in better shape before the cancer operation,” he noted.

Right up to the day before the operation, he had been working full-time. He’d been full of vigor, tanned from a recent trek around ancient Haida villages up north, and ready to hop on his Yamaha motorcycle at any opportunity. Now he couldn‘t walk across a room without effort.

I thought of all those expressions—“gutsy,” “gut instincts,” “gut reaction,” “gut-wrenching,” “gutted,” “it takes guts,” “spill one’s guts,” “bust a gut,” and “no guts”—based on the word “guts” derived from the Old English word guttas for bowels or entrails. The adjective “visceral” comes from the Latin word viscera for inner organs also. It suddenly all made sense: the guts are located in our core, the elemental source of instinct, courage, determination, stamina, will, and strong emotion. The operation had hit Ted literally “right in the gut,” the stronghold of his vitality.

But as the days passed, his stamina gradually increased. We could extend his usual walk from the service elevators and back to include the ward down the hall. Finally, he was ready to try to take one of the notoriously slow elevators down to the fourth floor cafeteria and patio. As we waited, I could see how taxing it was for him just to stand.

The elevator finally arrived. Ted winced at every bump and jolt as we descended. The long imposed fast had eroded his body’s insulation. We made our way toward the almost vacant cafeteria. He steadily exited the open glass doors and was outside for the first time since his admission over three weeks before. As the late afternoon sunlight touched his skin, tears sprung to his eyes.

“It must be the medication,” he said.

My sister pulled up a plastic chair and helped him sit down. The plants in the concrete planters around us clearly needed watering. There were food wrappers and a few empty cups lying around, and some of the tables needed a good wipe. But it didn’t matter. We sat quietly while he closed his eyes and drank in the sunshine and the fresh air with an intense wordless gratitude.

“This is amazing,” he said at last, opening his eyes and smiling.

We talked about his progress to date. Ted had lost most of his muscle mass: his already slim 5’11 frame had been whittled down to 145 pounds. He would soon start a very cautious clear fluid diet. We stayed outside for about twenty minutes before Ted asked to return. This was the longest walk he’d taken since his admission and it had sapped his diminished reserves.

We would visit the patio again only once or twice more before his discharge; it was easier for him to take short unaccompanied walks on his floor. During the end of his stay, the monitoring of his vital signs grew less frequent, tubes were removed one by one, fewer and different medications were administered. He was even able to take his first shower. He was being released in more ways than one.

•••

Discharge day. Ted had filled out the necessary papers and questionnaires, been briefed on his diet and pain medication. He also was entirely tube-free at last. As he put on the jeans and shirt he’d arrived in thirty days before (much looser now), I removed my son’s school watercolours from the wall and the cards from the window sill and bulletin board, erased my daily list of questions for the doctors from the whiteboard, packed up the magazines, DVDs, and the rainbow flag. The room soon looked as blank and anonymous as it had been before our arrival.

“Good luck,” said the nurse who had dexterously changed Ted’s dressings, given him injections, and adjusted the IV over the course of the month, all with an artificial arm and hand.

We gave him the still healthy blue hydrangea for the staff room, and waved at the head nurse who was engrossed with paperwork. There was no one else to say goodbye to. Almost all the patients that we’d met in the beginning of Ted’s stay had been discharged earlier. Everyone was going about their business as if this were an unremarkable day.

As we walked toward the elevators, I wondered how many patients had stayed in that ward. How many had lived and how many had died as a result of their operations? Every bodily fluid imaginable had touched those floors. Every kind of person had lain in its beds, and every kind of emotion had been felt—boredom, irritation, anger, fear, despair, agony, exhaustion, relief, even joy—the full spectrum of human emotion and humanity.

The threat of a possible cancer recurrence would linger on the horizon for the foreseeable future, but it didn’t matter. Exactly one year and one week after his surgery, we would finally get married at a private family ceremony in our backyard. As my brother drove us out of the hospital parkade onto Burrard Street into the late summer sunlight, Ted teared up again. “It’s the medication,” he said. “Makes you emotional.”

•••

FIONA TINWEI LAM has authored two poetry books, Intimate Distances and Enter the Chrysanthemum, and a children’s book, The Rainbow Rocket, about a child witnessing his grandparent’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her prose and poetry appear in over thirty anthologies. Her past work has been shortlisted for the Event creative nonfiction prize and City of Vancouver Book Award, and she recently won The New Quarterly’s Nick Blatchford poetry prize. Her video poems have screened at festivals internationally. She edited The Bright Well: Contemporary Canadian Poetry about Facing Cancer and co-edited the creative nonfiction anthology Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood. She is the co-editor of a forthcoming anthology of creative nonfiction and poetry about marriage, Love Me True: Writers on the Ups and Downs, Ins and Outs of Marriage. Born in Scotland, she immigrated to Canada at a young age with her family. She practiced law briefly before becoming a writer and teacher at Simon Fraser University. www.fionalam.net

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My Parents’ Delusions

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Gayle Brandeis

My dad thought my nose was a baby. He said there was a baby on my face, where my nose should be; a full body and a head. He found it funny. He wanted to take a picture so I could see what he saw.

•••

My mom thought my dad was hiding millions of dollars from her, from us. She thought he was part of an international money-laundering scheme.

•••

My dad called as I drove to pick him up to take him to the dentist. “I can’t make it to the appointment,” he said. When I asked him why, he said, “I’m in Bosnia.” Apparently he had been in Bosnia for the last five days. He told me he had received a voice mail message from himself saying he was lost in Bosnia, but he wasn’t afraid. When I got to his room at the assisted living place, he wanted me to listen to his voice mail so I could hear the message. Even though I doubted the message would be there, part of me wondered if he did somehow call himself, if I could hear what he had heard. But no, when I pressed Play, all I heard was myself, a message I had left a couple of days ago, the little-girlishness of my voice making me cringe. Later, he shook his head and laughed a bit, saying “Bosnia”, stunned by his own brain. When I brought up the story a few weeks down the road, he said earnestly, “It wasn’t Bosnia. I was in the Bosphorus.”

•••

My mom thought white vans were chasing her. She thought people were spraying her with poison from their cellphones.

•••

My dad thought President Obama had called upon him to be the new leader of the civil rights movement. He thought the FBI had transported his whole apartment to Washington, DC. “I’m going to be a hometown hero,” he told me excitedly.

•••

My dad’s death certificate reads

“IMMEDIATE CAUSE

(a) Cardiopulmonary Failure

DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF

(b) Debility and Decline

DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF

(c) Senile Degeneration Of The Brain

DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF

(d) Dementia, Vascular”

My mom’s reads “HANGING BY ELECTRIC CORD FROM PIPE.” (clearly there are no capitalization standards from coroner’s office to coroner’s office.) It doesn’t say “DUE TO OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF Paranoid Delusion” but the subtext is written all over the page.

•••

Watching both parents lose their minds doesn’t give me a lot of faith in the future of my brain. My mind already feels slower than it once did, less electric. I find my memory fading, too; sometimes it feels as if the grooves in my brain are smoothing over, erasing stories trapped in each cleft, a sort of reverse evolution, turning my cerebellum from prune to plum, something firm and blank and tart.

This terrifies me—if I lose my memories, my stories, who am I? I feel panicky when I think of my childhood, my children’s childhoods, being lost to me forever. But maybe a sense of peace comes over people who lose all their memories. If we forget everything, every moment would be brand new. We could just be, like an animal or a plant.

I can remember lying in bed shortly after my mom hanged herself, nursing my baby, who was born one week before her death. I remember thinking I should be doing something more, something active, writing or researching or doing one of the many practical post-death tasks that needed doing, but then I thought about sows, about how a mama pig just lies on her side nursing her piglets, how that’s all she needs to do, that’s her task, she gives herself to it fully, and I let myself drop into that surrender, let myself just be a mother animal nursing her young, mind blank, and I found there was something comforting, liberating, in that. Maybe that’s what it feels like to have your memory erased—you can just be a mammal in your body, living from moment to moment.

In her memoir Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso writes “My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death.” But I have to remember that’s just memory loss. Delusion is a whole other story. Dementia is a whole other story. And after watching my parents, I know I can’t take my lucidity for granted.

•••

My mom, in her delusion, thought everyone was against her. My dad had his own moments of paranoia and disorientation, but his delusions were more often of the absurd, even sweet, variety. I know I have no control over the matter—over that tender, amazing, convoluted gray matter—but if I have to lose my mind, may it be in the way of my dad. May I say things that make my family laugh and shake their heads instead of traumatize them. May I travel to surprising places without leaving the room, see whimsical things, imagine myself a hero—which sounds quite a bit like the writing life, come to think of it, just without the mediation of the page. Maybe it would help to think of it that way, to think of delusion and dementia as a new way of living inside a story, entering non-linear, unpredictable narrative. A way of life in which we let go of chronology, let go of traditional plot and sentence structure. That makes it sound less scary to me, makes it feel more like art than ruin. But I also know how scary it can be to get trapped inside a story—I saw that in my mom, how terrified and alone she felt in her delusion, especially at the end. Story can save us but it can also imprison us. My mom may have killed herself to kill the story that had taken over her life.

My mind wants to create a happier narrative for itself—one in which it can avoid my parents’ fate, one in which it can hold on as long as my body does, one in which my body and mind stay vitally, inextricably linked, until they both give up the ghost—but at the same time, my mind knows it may not be the final author of my life. None of us know who will have the last word. For now, I’m grateful to be able to string words together, grateful to preserve some sharpness, some clarity, before the light ultimately goes out.

•••

GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mothers Suicide (Beacon Press) and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Books). Her other books include Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. She currently teaches at Sierra Nevada College and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Buy her books here.

Read more FGP essays by Gayle Brandeis.

Monuments 

Photo by Kevin/Flickr

By Lynne Nugent

One morning, years ago, the major landmark in my town caught fire. A relic of the town’s glory days in the nineteenth century, it dominated our modest skyline, and I’d been used to passing it every day on my walk to work. I had not heard the news yet that day, and I glanced toward the monument as usual. The top part of the edifice was now a charred stump; it may even have been surrounded by wisps of smoke. But oddly, I registered nothing unusual. My brain projected normality—what it “knew” to be real—onto what I was seeing, overlaying it like a private movie. When I heard the news later—only then did I believe my eyes.

All of this is to say that I didn’t recognize I had been sexually harassed for seven years, despite having been a self-professed feminist since I’d learned what the word meant, despite having learned feminist theory at the feet of leading scholars in college, despite having been supportive of friends who had gone through sexual harassment and assault. And even after I allowed myself to understand what had happened, despite knowing of the importance of breaking the silence, and despite having been grateful to others for breaking their silence, I kept silent.

Back around 2009, I was looking for answers for some minor but annoying medical symptoms. My usual doctors seemed out of ideas, so I made an appointment with a local alternative practitioner. As I sat in his office, I noted that he didn’t have on a white coat, nor did his office seem especially clinical, but as “doctor’s appointment” was a category of the landscape of my world, as fixed as that monument in my small town, I only hesitated slightly when he asked me to remove my shirt as part of the exam. There was some plausible reason, which I now can’t remember—visual inspection of a rash, perhaps?

After the exam, he suggested that I do a patch test for some vitamin deficiency on a two-inch square of my “lateral breast tissue.” Then he added, “If you can find enough.” Then he chuckled: “Heh heh.” Trying to remember what “lateral” meant from way back in freshman biology, I must have looked confused. He repeated himself: “Lateral breast tissue. If you can find enough,” gesturing to my on-the-smaller-side (but well-formed, I had always thought with some pride!) breasts. And then he chuckled again, as if to drive home what he was saying: “Heh heh.”

If he had had spinach between his teeth that day, I wouldn’t have said anything. If he had farted during the exam, I wouldn’t have said anything. Because another fixture of my world was the personal code of conduct of a Nice Girl: always be polite and never point out when someone does something embarrassing to himself. So I ignored his comment, and then I convinced myself it had never happened, that it couldn’t possibly have been what it sounded like, a creepy evaluation of my breasts’ sexual appeal or lack thereof in the context of what had been billed as a medical examination.

I didn’t get up and walk out in outrage. I didn’t even stop seeing him (well, I did after a while, when I got sick of buying all the vitamins he prescribed). I didn’t alert the community; I didn’t expose him. And once I finally allowed myself to admit to myself what had happened, I didn’t tell anyone then either, not my close friends, not my husband, no one. I merely quietly unfriended him on Facebook.

Why? Because I was ashamed—at my silence, at my acquiescence, at my gullibility for going to someone who wasn’t a medical doctor, at my agreeing to take my shirt off, at the overall triviality of the event in the larger scheme of things (after all, he didn’t touch me; I was a grown woman; it wasn’t ongoing; it wasn’t some terrible work situation that I had to endure to keep my job—was it really sexual harassment?), even ashamed of, well, my breast size, which would have become part of the discussion if I had ever told the story. Embarrassed, too, for him, for saying what he had said. Worried about his reputation, about his livelihood. Because these are the unquestioned edifices in our society: a man’s honor, a man’s work, a man’s understanding of what happened (he’d surely deny that his intent had been anything other than innocent). I didn’t want to believe these monuments were on fire even as they burned right in front of my own eyes.

I finally told one person. This summer. And then in October, I wrote “me, too” when the #metoo hashtag went viral. Still, my doubts persist. Will I be criticized for doing everything I criticized myself for above? Will others hold me as responsible as I held myself? Above all, I think about the women throughout my life who’ve told me about being sexually harassed or assaulted: fellow undergraduates when I was an undergraduate; fellow grad students when I was a grad student; work colleagues; friends from every era of my life. I did not seem—I desperately hope—unsympathetic, but “this happens to others and not to me” was part of the landscape of my world, solid as any building, so I’m sure my empathy arrived, if it did, as if from a long distance. Today I’d look them in the eye and say, “I’m so, so sorry this happened to you, and thank you so much for having the strength to talk about it.” I’d listen, listen, listen some more, as long as necessary, forever. One of my favorite quotes, ever since I saw it on a greeting card in college, is a haiku by Mizuta Masahide: “Barn’s burnt down—now I can see the moon.” As what separates us becomes a wisp of smoke—has always been a wisp of smoke—what I see are these women’s faces.

•••

LYNNE NUGENT’s personal essays have appeared in Brevity, Mutha Magazine, the Tin House blog, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” column, and elsewhere. Her previous essay for Full Grown People, “The Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card,” was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Find her at lynnenugent.wordpress.com.

Read more FGP essays by Lynne Nugent.

My Word!

Photo by RCabanilla/Flickr

By Jonathan Kalb

From as far back as I can remember, I was what grownups called a verbal kid. My parents were both high school English teachers, my mother for thirty years, and I was lucky enough to inherit their predisposition to articulate speech. At this point, in middle age, I know that this articulateness is a privilege—a gift reinforced by a few beloved mentors and heaps of inspirational highbrow entertainment—but that’s not how it always felt growing up. Speaking precisely was no social advantage in the public schools I attended in suburban Wayne, New Jersey. I would much rather have been good at baseball.

Early on, I developed a tendency that, for all I know, is common among verbal kids, though I’ve never heard it mentioned. I began privately adopting certain words as my own in the secret belief that, like an ardent lover, only I fully understood their true colors, coded signals, and secret desires. I’m not speaking of what people often call pet words—favorite, everyday words that we all have, replace over the years, and tend to overuse. The words I mean are deeply lodged within our psyches and continue to move and sometimes bedevil us even as we age out of them.

I have intensely vivid memories of the circumstances surrounding my learning these words, which subsequently became totems and touchstones, seeding private jokes, tempering and organizing experiences, and affirming my core beliefs.

•••

“Solicit.” Google definition: “to ask for or try to obtain (something) from someone.”

One day during tenth grade, I saw an enticing ad on my high school bulletin board: “Easy work. 1-3 hours after school. Earn $50 to $100 a week.” That was big money in 1974.

The job turned out to be selling subscriptions to The New York Times door-to-door on commission. The clincher was that the guy on the phone promised I’d be paid a minimum daily fee no matter how much I sold. My mother liked his articulate-sounding voice and didn’t pay close attention to details. He picked up me and five other boys in a van the following week and drove us to a leafy section of Hackensack.

We were set loose in pairs, and my partner and I were at it about fifteen minutes when we walked up to a stocky guy standing in his driveway, who asked what we wanted.

“Would you be interested in home delivery of the New York Times?”

“Are you soliciting?” Neither of us knew that word.

“We’re selling subscriptions to a newspaper.”

“So you’re soliciting.”

“We’re selling …”

“That’s soliciting. Soliciting is illegal in Hackensack.” The guy then pulled out a police badge, yelled toward his house, and asked whoever was in earshot to summon a patrol car.

Twenty minutes later the two of us (and then four, then all six) were sitting on a bench at the station, waiting for Hackensack’s finest to decide our fate. We could hear the panicked van driver being grilled in a side room. The next few hours were a gauntlet of tedium, hunger, peremptory harangues, and supercilious questions from cops half-heartedly trying to bait and shame us.

They eventually just let us go. I thought my mother would kill the driver when we got home very late, and he explained what happened. He never paid us for the day.

The dangerous and dubious edges of “solicitation,” the word’s slightly sickening aura of unfairness, has been part of my worldview ever since. When I later learned this word’s association with prostitution it made perfect sense to me. It was a name for something casually polarizing, acceptable to some, depraved to others: not just selling but unwanted, disreputable selling. Not just asking, seeking or applying but supplication, begging, the stain of importunateness always there.

I’ve collected random bits of trivia over the years about many of my words, but particularly about “solicit.” I happen to know, for instance, that the Latin root sollicitare means to disturb, rouse, trouble, or harass. I make space in my head for the fact that Samuel Beckett used “soliciting” to describe the diabolical activity of the purgatorial light interrogating the characters whose heads stick out of funereal urns in his anti-drama Play. I’m probably the only fan of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus who looks forward to the particular slur a plebeian politician uses to trigger an anti-patrician mob reaction: “He did solicit you in free contempt.”

To this day, any neutral use of “solicit” startles and jars me. If a colleague, for instance, proposes soliciting opinions or applications, I automatically regard the appeal as disingenuous and probably futile. The colleague’s motivations seem questionable purely because of the choice of word.

“Solicit” isn’t for everyday use (unless you’re a British lawyer). It’s one of those occasional words that hangs around your brain and exerts its force over time. My sense of its effect on me is that it influenced my disposition toward decorum, convention, and propriety—the whole basket of deplorable ideas that poisons the concept of respectability. Thanks to the Hackensack police, Beckett, and Shakespeare, the word is forever linked for me to all the species of exclusion and harassment that authorities soft-soap as protection: “right to work” laws, gratuitous prohibitions in public spaces, arbitrary restrictions on journalists, protesters, students. I would guess that, more than any other word, “solicit” helped make me politically liberal.

•••

“Spontaneous.” Google definition: “performed or occurring as a result of a sudden inner impulse or inclination and without premeditation or external stimulus.”

When I was ten, I nearly set fire to my family’s house. I, like many kids, needed to test grownups’ claims, and one that struck me as particularly dubious was that gasoline was flammable since it was a liquid. Every liquid I’d ever seen meet a flame—water, soda, juice, pee—had extinguished it, and, yes, I’d done that experiment any number of times. How could anything you poured out, that splashed and sparkled, possibly burn?

One day when my parents were out shopping I rolled our lawnmower onto the driveway, unscrewed the gas-tank cap, and tipped it over—a clumsy maneuver that created a bigger puddle than I intended. Some gas dribbled toward the driveway’s edge, but it looked as if it had evaporated so I wasn’t worried. I threw a lighted match at the entrancing polychrome fluid, jumped back, and thrilled at the windy whoosh. What do you know—the adults were telling the truth!

Within seconds, however, the harmless blue flames on the pavement had spread to the bushes in the adjacent flowerbed and were snaking toward the garage. I stomped on them, waved my arms and dashed about, but the area was already too wide and I found myself surrounded by fire. Then, out of nowhere, an older boy who lived across the street—who had evidently been watching me—ran up, pushed me away, grabbed a garden hose, and doused the fire in a heart-attack minute. Thanks be for fluids that behaved themselves!

I begged him not to say anything to my parents. Then I dashed inside and dialed the Wayne Township Fire Department, asking the guy who answered: “Hey, is there any way that gasoline can catch fire without a flame?”

“Spontaneous combustion,” he shot back, declining to elaborate.

I ran to the dictionary. I didn’t completely understand its complicated definition, though the gist was clear enough and flooded me with relief: a thing could ignite on its own without heat from any external source. I’d found my alibi, and a marvelous new word. What grownup could possibly have such specialized technical knowledge?

My father saw the damage as soon as he pulled up in his Buick Electra. I babbled out my terrifying tale of having “accidentally spilled some gas” while trying the start the lawnmower, after which I was shocked to see it “spontaneously catch fire all by itself. I have no idea how!” Then he asked me to tell him what really happened.

Long story short, since he knew exactly what spontaneous combustion meant and knew it couldn’t happen out on a driveway, he confronted me. He said that if I’d admitted I was trying an experiment because I didn’t believe that gasoline could burn he would have been annoyed and probably made me pay for the bushes. Instead my lie had deeply disappointed him and had to be punished.

This is how the word “spontaneous” became inseparable in my mind from visibility and discernment. My father saw right through me; there was no hiding from him, and this incident marked the turning point in childhood when I suddenly grasped how much more adults saw about me than I’d allowed myself to perceive. All children are humored and cosseted. Adults want them to enjoy their natural curiosity and spontaneity as long as possible. But that indulgence is mostly pretense, condescension. Real respect, I realized then, can’t come from pretense. It has to be earned. I’d been expelled from the Eden of childish egoism and felt naked and embarrassed.

From that day on, “spontaneous” could never again be an index of simple or sincere expression to me. The word instead reminds me how complicated trust, honesty, and instinctiveness are. If, for instance, someone praises an actor, a musician, or a painter for the amazing spontaneity of a creative act, I might share in the admiration but I’ll also ponder the years of preparation and seasoning behind the act. If a child asks for my spontaneous reaction to something—a joke, say, or a picture, or a feat of agility—I will oblige, but I’ll also wonder what his real game is. I know something else is at stake and want to know what.

“Spontaneous” set off brain-alarms when I first noticed how overused it was in the essays of Richard Wagner. Wagner felt that his music-drama was the spontaneous expression of the will of the German Volk, and this word made his ardor suspicious well before he made clear that the German Volk excluded Jews. “Spontaneous,” ironically enough, planted cautiousness in me and reinforced my naturally analytical disposition.

•••

The earliest word I remember adopting is “shortchange.” Google: “to cheat (someone) by giving insufficient money as change.”

On a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History in fourth grade, my parents gave me six dollars to spend on lunch and souvenirs. My bill at the cafeteria, where I’d scrimped to be able to afford a dinosaur at the gift shop, was $1.83. I gave the cashier my single, searched my pocket in vain for change, and then handed her my fiver. She gave me back seventeen cents, snapped her drawer shut, and wouldn’t acknowledge or investigate the error no matter how much I protested.

My tears came, the manager came, and the upshot was that they would reconsider my claim only at the end of the business day when all the register cash was counted. A sympathetic teacher brought me back to the cafeteria then, delaying the homebound buses, and the manager handed me four dollars—“Okay, young fella. I guess you were right!” I still felt indignant since the gift shop had closed. Worse, when I showed my four dollars on the bus, a creepy little red-haired kid cracked wise that he thought I’d just been “jewing” the lady over my lunch bill.

For me this was a story of epic complication and monstrous injury. My parents—whom I never told about the bus comment, which felt humiliating—glossed it with a single word: I’d been “shortchanged!” A good word, I remember thinking, useful, self-explanatory, but too succinct for the outrageous context. It left out the condescension, the bigotry, and the still more stinging injustice that I never got a dinosaur.

Since that day “shortchange” has carried a charge of special outrage for me. It doesn’t just mean cheating, but cheating with malice, discrimination, and intolerable collateral damage. I never hear or use it without flashing back to the experience of not being believed, of belonging to a category of person (children, Jews) whose complaints could be summarily brushed off. In college, I once joined an anti-apartheid divestment campaign I’d been ignoring after receiving a flyer about blacks being shortchanged by the South African government. Recently I deleted the Uber app from my smartphone after reading a headline about the company shortchanging its drivers in New York City. The word made it impossible to believe that Uber’s error was anything but a deliberate fraud.

Even when “shortchange” is used in its softer sense of underestimate—as in, “Don’t shortchange Mitch McConnell. He’s a sly old tortoise!”—it carries a repugnant aftertaste for me, a sugarcoating on dishonesty. Someone is lying to him- or herself about the real merit of an opponent. The word is fused in my head with the principle of fairness at the core of democracy, which is no doubt because as an adult I know that bourgeois democracy, with its rational values, is what gave Jews a path to social inclusion and equal opportunity after some two millennia of exclusion. Jews esteem articulateness. For a long time they did so out of faith in the Enlightenment dream that reason would soon reign over human affairs—that the articulate, being most reasonable, could compete to best advantage on a level playing field in the brave new reasonable world.

•••

Many people have personal dictionaries, lists of words and phrases they use and understand in idiosyncratic ways, shaped by their unique experiences and quirks. These dictionaries are usually unwritten, though a friend of mine told me that she and her siblings once wrote one as a gift for their father on his seventy-fifth birthday. It was about fifteen pages long, she said, and contained several dozen personalized definitions of not only his pet words but also the grumpy connotations, guilt-trippy subtexts, unspoken addendums, and affectionate intimations behind his expressions. The gift made him weep—the tears prompted, I imagine, from the feeling of being so clearly seen, so intimately known by his loved ones.

No one but me could compile a dictionary of my adopted words—and I could add a dozen more to these three—because I don’t use them often. They operate in my inner life as sources of knowledge and attributes of my character. They’re not quirks of speech. Even my wife of twenty-nine years didn’t know most of these stories until she read a draft of this essay. I sometimes think of these words as my deep personal myths.

Roland Barthes famously argued that myth was “a type of speech,” not merely a genre of story. He defined it as speech that treats anything (objects, ideas, people, places, words) as rooted in the natural order when in fact it reflects a very specific and contingent ethos or value system. Nations, communities, and social classes share experiences that make certain concepts appear ineluctably true, timeless, or transcendent. Loving wine, for instance, becomes a token of being truly French, loving ideas for their own sake a mark of being German, and trusting inarticulate people more than articulate ones an acid test of Americanness. Personal myths are much the same as communal ones, only subtler and more virulent in their effect on the psyche.

Since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve been struck again and again by the fact that the leader of my country is now a man so antipathetic to language that he might as well be my mythical enemy. Everyone can see that the communal myths that helped elect him are noxious and retrograde, even his supporters. What interests me more are the personal myths that roil and curdle and fester inside the man. These you can’t see but I imagine them to be grotesque counterpoles to mine.

Trump is a prodigy of belligerent self-absorption who hides behind a protective wall of muddled, degraded, and degrading language. Most of the words he relishes are monosyllabic fetishes (“win,” “sad,” “huge,” “weak”), and he deploys these more like punches than thoughts. I doubt many of them hark back to complicated childhood stories. Nevertheless, without getting too psychoanalytical about it, they probably all have sharp early associations with shaming by some combination of teachers, coaches, and Fred, his blunt and brutal father. One can easily imagine this rolling dumpster being set aflame with remarks to the effect that, “Whadda you smilin’ at? You didn’t win!”; “That’s a sad report card!”; or “Why such a weak swing? Choke up!”

We will obviously never know the whole truth about Trump’s myth of grievance against proper and precise language, though we can all agree it’s now a serious matter indeed. It’s one thing for an average person to heedlessly mangle and ravage words, quite another for the most visible and influential man in the world to do so.

Masha Gessen, in her wonderful “Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture” this year, carefully explained just how thorough his assault on clarity and truth is. She examined a random interview transcript and pointed out that approximately one in ten words was wholly drained of meaning. “Trump’s word-piles fill public space with static,” she wrote. “This is like having the air we breathe replaced with carbon monoxide. It is deadly. This space that he is polluting is the space of our shared reality.”

Our shared reality. That is what a myth purports to define but instead pollutes, sickens, and destroys when it is this malignant.

I’ll be candid about my own corner of this shared reality. My adopted-word myths admittedly contain fear, loathing, envy, and even aggression toward people who can’t or won’t speak well. Zadie Smith put the matter succinctly in a recent piece on the question of who owns black pain: “Our antipathies are simultaneously a record of our desires, our sublimated wishes, our deepest envies.” Yes, all those dull-witted kids who could catch, throw, and bat better than me, win more votes for student council, and get dates with the cheerleaders—they had things I wanted. Personal myths are defenses as well as weapons. At their worst, they’re a form of lamination keeping our ideas clean and utterly unreactive.

The learning moment then must be when the lamination tears. At some point, we must all hope, that will occur in Trumplandia. Some anomalous freethinkers in his ragtag army of gloating elite-bashers, pricked to attention by the jagged edges of, say, “collusion,” “rapist,” “hacking,” “laundering,” “proliferation,” “denial,” “fraud,” “fact,” “treason” or some other word that miraculously survives the wreckage, will pluck up the courage to admit their real resentments. Only then will the mythical curtain start to rend and make the driveling man behind it visible again.

•••

JONATHAN KALB is Professor of Theater at Hunter College, CUNY. He has published five books on theater and his essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, Salmagundi, and many other publications. His blog, “Something the Dust Said,” can be found at www.jonathankalb.com.

 

Rent

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By María Joaquina Villaseñor

2006

Relief as I arrive at the rental office with moments to spare before it closes to pick up keys for my new home: an eleven-hundred square foot townhouse with a small backyard, a garage, and more space in the closets than I have stuff to fill closets with. I wonder if the large downstairs closet by the front door could be used as a study; I contemplate it seriously.

I furnish the town home with two tables, a small stone-colored couch, a rustic Mexican wooden television stand with shelving—all furniture that my mother and stepfather have given to me from their own home. My queen-sized bed is a hand-me-down I got from my sister; I’m pretty sure my niece was conceived on it.

About a year later, a friend from Berkeley, a former roommate, visits me there. After staying with me, she gossips to another friend that I still have all my furniture from grad school. I’m hurt since it is obviously not meant to be a compliment; but she’s not entirely wrong either. The décor of the townhome is more than a little patched together, the furniture worn and perhaps more starkly so against large, bright white freshly painted walls and new carpets. I want to paint the walls, but it’s a rental and I don’t want to lose my security deposit. Grad student poverty is still my day-to-day reality. But the new place is to me, palatial and above all, spacious with possibility.

I am 189 miles away from Sacramento where I was born, the furthest I have ever lived from that city except for the year I lived in Mexico as a girl. I am a new Assistant Professor at a public university on California’s central coast with a freshly completed a doctorate from UC Berkeley. I traveled from the Sacramento area in a caravan with my mother and stepfather in a small U-Haul truck, me driving the 1987 Volvo that my stepfather purchased for me for $750. I am twenty-nine years old, the Volvo is my first car, and I am a newly licensed driver. My mother and stepfather are doing all they can to help me. So many things are new.

2005

I’m embarking on a nationwide job search, and I interview at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. There, after actually complimenting the coffee at a restaurant in which we have dined, a graduate student accuses me of being a “Berkeley food snob.” She says: “People who come here from Berkeley are always like, ‘Oh, well, in Berkeley we have blah blah blah, and in Berkeley we have wah wah wah.’” Seriously—that’s exactly what she says.

If the apartment in which I live can be taken as any indication of the kind of status that enables one to become an anything snob, then this graduate student’s accusation is a verifiable impossibility. I live in a basement studio apartment of an old white Victorian home on Hearst Avenue, in Berkeley not far from campus. I select it solely on the basis of its location and the fact that it is “affordable.” It is not really affordable, since I have to take out roughly ten thousand dollars in student loans to afford it, but I’ve reached the point that many graduate students reach: I simply can not deal with the idea of having yet another roommate and have no idea how I will be able to write anything while having to negotiate others’ schedules and habits. I’ve been a student having student money problems and roommates for eleven years; I’m desperate to be done.

I should have known there is something up with the basement apartment when the landlord asks me to give him twelve postdated rent checks for eleven hundred dollars each when I sign the one-year lease. I have never signed a lease on my own before, and I understand Berkeley to have an odd and difficult rental market, so I agree to his request. After all, he says this is the only way to secure the apartment and make sure he doesn’t rent it to someone else. I give him over thirteen thousand dollars in postdated checks.

I’m sick almost immediately and this lasts pretty much the entire year. The damp, musty basement apartment grows molds and mildews in places I didn’t know mildew grew. As a child, I lived in some poorly ventilated homes and apartments; I’m used to the green black creep of mold on bathroom ceilings, to the mold that grows around window sills. But this apartment has that and more. I discover that mold is even growing in the one small closet in the apartment. My clothes begin smelling like mildew. A girlfriend tells me about a product called Damp Rid, a container of crystals that gets put in places where moisture leads to mold in order to absorb the dampness. I have no idea such a thing existed, and after complaining to the landlord who does nothing, I think I should give it a try. I have three containers of Damp Rid in different parts of the four-hundred square foot studio including in the musty closet. I write my doctoral dissertation next to containers of Damp Rid with a constant runny nose, itchy eyes, and allergy-induced headaches.

Some young men live in the flat above. I can’t tell if they’re students or if they do something else for work. I hear them exclaim, “Oooooh! Oooooohhh!” in loud unison about once a week. I imagine they are involved in some kind of weekly circle jerk and don’t really know what to think about that. I guess I’m curious about it but I mostly stay away from them. Eventually, I figure out that they’re vociferously playing video games. A disappointment. I have a very regular writing routine and remember every day that I moved to the Hearst Avenue basement apartment because I didn’t want the noise or the distraction of roommates. One day, I begin to hear hammering right outside my window. I try to tune it out and don’t worry about it much until the hammering goes on day after day. I am distracted and irritated. I see that my neighbors are building something brown and hairy on the back of a truck. Over the next few days, it begins to take shape…some kind of an animal. A…Snuffleupagus? On a truck? One day, I ask them about it. And that is how I learn about Burning Man.

I think I will be happy and in better health once I move out of the Hearst Avenue basement apartment, but the move takes place abruptly. I file my dissertation on a Friday afternoon in May, and my grandmother dies the day after on Saturday morning. My deceased grandmother is in Mexico, and though it’s time for me to move out of my Berkeley basement apartment, I leave suddenly and take a flight to Guadalajara to accompany my mother to my grandmother’s wake. After the wake and after my grandmother is cremated, we transport her ashes to Ciudad del Carmen, my grandmother’s hometown and the place where my mother was born and raised.

Back in Berkeley, at move-out time, my stepfather and my sister pack the contents of my apartment into a small U-Haul truck. I tell my twin sister where the cigarettes I hide are, and all the things I do not want my stepfather to see; as always in my life, I entrust her with my secrets. I leave the apartment with a little clothes, a certificate attesting to the completion of the requirements for my doctoral degree, and some uncertainty about the future though I am certain I will not return to that mold-infested place. I’m grief stricken, exhausted, worried about my mother, missing my grandmother already, and overall considerably less happy and healthy than I thought I would be at this moment.

1999

I’ve walked by the 1970s era building thousands of time since I moved to Berkeley in 1995. There’s a storefront on the bottom floor and the store sells Turkish rugs, beaded jewelry, baskets, and other imports. The building is pretentiously called “The Glen Building” and it has a top floor studio apartment that I rent with he who is my first serious long term romantic partner. I’m twenty-one and just learning about what that means. The studio apartment interior is very basic and has fresh paint and a new carpet, the way I hope and expect a rental will have. The carpet has very little padding and matches the 1970s industrial storefront feel of the building. It has a full but very tiny kitchen with a sliding door onto a balcony with a view of the Bay Bridge far in the distance. We move in a queen bed that’s just a mattress and a bed frame with no headboard and an old red easy chair and a table from my parents’ house. While we live in that place together, my partner Ryan and I travel to Mexico, the first time I have ever taken a love there. After returning from Mexico, I make a complete travel scrapbook including ticket stubs, stickers, and countless photographs of us with cousins, aunts, and uncles, on the Zocalo, at la Casa Azul, in Coyoacán, in Xochimilco, in so many magical Mexican places.

I want our studio apartment in the Glen Building to be more like Mexico. We paint the bathroom Frida Kahlo blue and the kitchen a Mexican avocado green. The painting of the kitchen and the bathroom is an investment and a grownup undertaking both because of the effort and because of the cost involved between the painting supplies and the forfeiting of the deposit money. There is a basketball hoop over the sole closet door in the apartment. The closet is not like a regular bedroom closet. It’s very small—more like a hall closet or linen closet. I share it—happily—with Ryan, and we jam our clothes in there and do not complain. I have a bad habit of leaving my wet towel on the bed when I get out of the shower. It is one of only two things that Ryan ever seems unhappy with me about. The other is that I sometimes go on and on talking, and I don’t listen to him very well. I stop leaving my wet towel on the bed and learn to be a better listener.

I learn to fry tofu, I learn to make soups, I learn to use a rice cooker. We host friends sometimes overnight, even though we have no separate guest room or even a futon. One of our friends, a fellow undergraduate, and also poet, gambler, and sports fan, stays with us several times, sleeping on our floor next to us in the queen bed with no headboard in which I learn about what it means to have an adult sexuality. Another friend comes out to me in the stairwell outside of the apartment, confesses that the protagonist of the sex and romance stories he has told me is a man, not a woman as he had made me believe. I’m unfazed; we’re figuring things out and finding our way. We host parties in our cramped studio apartment and create traditions. One of these new traditions is hosting Christmas dinners the week before we leave for our respective families’ holiday gatherings. It’s a way that I can make sure I have a good Christmas. I make roasted legs of lamb and experiment with cooking other things that are brand new to me and like nothing we ate in the homes in which I grew up. With Ryan, I learn what it means to create a chosen family; we flirt with being a family of two ourselves. For the first time in my remembered life, I share a home with a man with whom love and safety are feelings I have all the time and in abundance. I am free.

1992?

We live in a rented house in a suburb of Sacramento on Ash Street, having returned from a year of living in Ciudad del Carmen just the year before. The house is a boxy, light brown two-bedroom house where I live with my stepfather, mother, twin sister, and my two younger brothers—sweet, rascally, fun, little boys. My twin sister and I miss living in Mexico and long for the embrace of my mother’s family, the literal and figurative shelter they give us.

Between, say 1984 and 1995, I live in at least six different rental homes and apartments excluding the year we live at my grandparents’ house in Mexico. In one of the apartment complexes where we live, my mother and stepfather are the resident managers, living rent free in exchange for being the on site go-to people for our neighbors in the apartment complex. A Korean family who own a donut shop are our upstairs neighbors there. The woman of the household teaches my mother to make kimchi and they sometimes bring us fresh donuts from their shop. Some of our homes have unfinished floors. Some of our homes have roaches. All of our homes have holes that my stepfather has punched into doors and walls.

The holes in walls sometimes get covered and repaired, but they sometimes stay—or multiply—while we live in those places. The holes in the wall remind me of the imminence of the “cocos”—what my stepfather calls the knuckle punches on the head he gives us—that is his most frequent physical punishment of us kids. For a while, we are hit with the hard, grey plastic handle of a paddle for a raft I only vaguely remember us owning. But I do remember the raft paddle … its sting, its heft, the fear it inspires even after the welts were gone. There are slaps, too. Hair pulling. I believe, hope, pray that my mother will make it stop.

But she is being hit, too. The sounds of my mother and stepfather’s yelling and arguments are often preludes to sounds of thuds and later to the sight of my mother’s eyes—red and bleary and puffy from crying—or to the mark of welts or bruises on her. Occasionally I see a ripped blouse from her being pulled, yanked on, or dragged. My sister and I learn to drown out the sounds by turning up the volume on the TV. Against reason, we hope our little brothers do not hear what we’re hearing, do not see what we’re seeing.

Once my mother has us pack a few things as we flee to a battered women’s shelter—a “safe house.” I do feel safe in that house though I’m also scared that my mother will go back to my stepfather. Which she does. In the safe house, I desperately want my brothers to somehow feel like things are okay and normal. Though the hand-me-down towels, sheets, and other kids’ hand-me-down stuffed animals point to the anything-but-normal nature of our situation. One of the rules of the safe house is that no one is permitted to give out its phone number and address to preserve the secrecy, anonymity, and so the thinking goes, the safety of the women and their children. We can’t tell anyone where we are or how to reach us. It does not feel normal.

2017

Today, almost thirty years later, I long to remember the faces or names or stories of others who were in that safe house with us, experiencing something similar. But I don’t. We were there just a few days and I was preoccupied with our own situation, where we would go after. It turned out to be that where we went after was the same house we had left. After that, there were promises of no more beatings, which was a promise he mostly kept. After eight years or so of much torment, he (for the most part) stopped hitting us all, instead sticking to yelling, punishing, general volubility, and the maintaining of a home environment where walking on eggshells was the norm.

Of course, we kids did sometimes have fun and experienced joy in our childhood family homes, but these feelings were rented, and we were always aware that we could be evicted from joy at any minute. My siblings and I continued to be kids together until my sister and I moved away to college; we loved and still love each other with the passion of people who know that sticking together is survival.

I’m now a tenured professor, a wife, and a mother of twin daughters. I married my husband just over two years ago, on a beautiful, sunny afternoon on a beach in Maui aptly named Baby Beach since we spoke our vows with our two babies by our side with no other family present. In the midst of our wedding planning, and after thirty years of marriage, my mother and stepfather were in the middle of a bitter divorce the dregs of which I could not bear to have at my wedding.

Beside a shimmering Pacific Ocean, my groom read poems I saw him write on the plane ride without knowing what he was writing. We had one friend in attendance, a dear mutual friend and colleague we learned would coincidentally be in Maui at the time of our wedding. Our friend valiantly did quintuple duty—as our sole guest, videographer, on-site child safety specialist, best man, and maid of honor. I marveled at our luck. Actually, I marvel at my luck every day, as the man with whom I share my home and life shelters me with love, harmony, and understanding, opening my eyes daily to all that is possible for me, for us, for our life together. What is this happiness that I dare to call my own, beyond all my younger self could have imagined?

For the first time in my life, I live in a home that is not a rental home though it is in the same campus housing complex where I moved as an Assistant Professor just over ten years ago. The home I bought with my husband is only slightly bigger than the home I rented just over ten years ago on my own. Not long after we moved in, my husband and I went to the furniture store and bought a brand new couch and coffee table, another first for me. We didn’t buy an expensive couch because we have two small children who spill and stain things the way small children do, but it’s probably still the nicest couch I have ever had.

Last month, my youngest brother hand delivered a letter from my stepfather. The letter was sort of a group letter—asking for reconciliation with my mother, with my siblings, and with me. My name was written on the envelope in handwriting I will always recognize, but there was no address on the envelope under my name. My stepfather has never seen the first and only home I have owned, and does not know where I live. Sometimes the dull ache of the past tugs, but peace reigns in the home I have made, and I relish it.

•••

MARÍA JOAQUINA VILLASEÑOR is a professor of Chicanx/Latinx Studies at California State University, Monterey Bay. She is a co-author of The Historical Dictionary of U.S. Latino Literature, and an essayist whose writing has been published in Remezcla and The Acentos Review.

Oppa Hit Me

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sylvia Kim

It’s the summer of 2007.

My body’s immersed in the warm bath water. But instead of feeling relaxed, I’m in pain. The pain throbs across my body, eats up my mind, but mostly, pierces through my heart.

I replay the images from last night in my mind—flashes I desperately want to forget.

The rage in his eyes, so unfamiliar. As if I were staring into the eyes of a stranger and not the eyes of my brother. My brother—a pastor, my role model, the spiritual leader of an entire congregation. My brother who has known me and, although imperfect, has loved me my whole life.

Lips curled in fury, his face unrecognizable. And then the chokehold. Flying across the room. Hitting the wall. Feeling my body land in an unnaturally distorted position.

Looking up from down below, everything was out of focus. Upside down.

When he came to me while I was still on the ground, I knew right then and there that nothing would ever be the same again.

I was right. Things have never been the same.

•••

In Korean, “Oppa” means “older brother” from a girl’s perspective. The perspective of a little sister.

These days, “Oppa” is commonly used as a flirtatious term popularized by k-pop and Korean dramas.

But when I was growing up, “Oppa” was a serious term of respect. I was never allowed to call my brother by his given name.

Oppa and I learned to grow up fast as children of first-generation Korean store-owner immigrants. After a successful stint as convenience store owners, my parents would often leave us at night to go work at their clothing factory—a new business venture they were exploring. Oppa would go through my bedtime routine, put me to sleep. He would guard the phone at home. Three rings, a pause, another ring. That was the code my mother taught us so that we would know when to pick up the phone.

Left at home, too often by ourselves, we had a love-hate relationship; we fought viciously, made up, fought again and made up.

We couldn’t live with one another but couldn’t live without each other.

My childhood memories are entangled with images of his face, his expressions, his mannerisms, his lectures, his embraces.

Growing up, he was the closest person to me in my life.

•••

There were signs, of course.

His flashes of rage. The holes in the wall from his punches. We placed calendars over each hole and excused every outburst as teenage angst.

When Oppa went to high school, he struggled with his weight and consequently, his self-confidence.

Although I had my own personal angst, something about him, his vulnerability, his sensitivity made me feel protective.

Likewise, Oppa personified all the tell-tale behaviors of an over-protective older brother.

There were years of miscommunication and distance.

By the time Oppa went to college, we had re-kindled our friendship. By the time I went to college, we were so close that he gave me The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and told me that he would always be there for me.

He was the one I turned to over and over again with each dramatic incident of my teenage years, for each critical decision I made in my years as a young adult.

He was truly my Giving Tree, and the most influential person in my life.

•••

In the summer of 2007, I was visiting California to meet my boyfriend’s parents. We were planning to get married.

I had been visiting California since Oppa attended Fuller Theological Seminary. Oppa was now the Pastor of an English-speaking ministry at a local Korean American Church. My boyfriend attended that same church.

That morning, Oppa and I had a big fight. He was complaining I wasn’t spending enough time with him, that I was spending too much time with my boyfriend.

He’d become so angry, hurtful, since I had started dating my boyfriend.

I came home early that evening. I was staying with Oppa and my sister-in-law in their two-bedroom apartment. The fight from the morning seemed inconsequential. I was ready to make up.

But that night, something snapped.

I saw true rage in Oppa’s eyes. Was it really because of my boyfriend and Oppa’s over-protective stance as an older brother? Was it because I was about to launch my legal career and Oppa had always wanted to go into law but hadn’t? Was it because my parents already loved my boyfriend and were considering him as their son when Oppa had always struggled with self-acceptance as the eldest son of a traditional Korean family?

Is there ever a reason or justification?

This time, there is no making up.

•••

I’ve always prided myself on being an advocate. I consider myself a woman of action. I protest. I march. I fight.

I’ve always loved arguing, the heat of debate. In law school, I specialized in criminal litigation and international human rights—always one of the few Asians in my classes.

I’ve always been told how “non-Asian” I am; how I break the stereotype of a submissive, quiet, well-mannered Asian woman. I am loud. Confident.

Never would I have imagined myself to be so submissive…so Korean…so silenced.

I’ll never forget the panicked look of my sister-in-law as she forced the phone out of my hand when I was trying to call the police. I’ll never forget the sound of my weeping parents begging me not to call the police. Instead they told me to roll an egg on my bruises to make them go away faster.

I underestimated the power of my subconscious need to obey, to comply, to help my parents in sweeping this messy incident under the rug. The driving force to save our family’s reputation was also clouded by my internal voices of justification. This was my brother, after all. He loved me; I loved him. Surely this was not something I could send him to jail for, ruin his entire career, ruin our entire family. I felt forced to do nothing.

Me, an English-speaking lawyer-to-be with a background in advocacy and activism.

I’ll never forget the self-loathing and shame I felt as I retreated within myself, my voice silenced. Oh, the hypocrisy. And I called myself a lawyer? An advocate?

To this day, my father claims that what happened that night was not a big deal. So an Oppa hit his dongsaeng, little sister. He’s always wondering why I’m being over-dramatic. We were family. We loved one another. Why couldn’t I just get over it and move on?

So, I did nothing. I moved on.

•••

That night, my boyfriend picked me up and took me to a nearby hotel. He held me as I sobbed. He gently placed ice packs and eggs on my bruises.

He also went, the very next day, to hear my brother preach.

He, too, is Korean.

•••

I did nothing. In 2007 nor in all the following years.

But there were moments of clarity, of progress.

When I found out I was giving birth to a little boy, I cried. I was anguished that I should give birth to a little boy that could become a man who could potentially hit another woman. But I found strength in my husband, a good man, in knowing that we could raise our son differently.

Within a year after my son was born, I joined the Board of Directors for a specialized clinic for women experiencing violence. In my application to join the board, I shared, for the first time, openly about what my brother had done to me.

It was cathartic. Empowering.

I now have a daughter. And with the dismal statistics of women experiencing domestic violence in North America today, I want her to know that she can have a voice. She needs to have a voice. I need to raise her so that she, unlike me, will not be silenced.

•••

I get out of the bath water, unsure of what to do next.

I look in the mirror. I don’t even recognize her—such uncertainty in her eyes. That can’t be me.

When I look up close, at the bruises, she’s even more unrecognizable. I take out my makeup bag. I cover up my bruises. I put a smile on my face. I meet my boyfriend’s parents.

A year later, we get married.

•••

I won’t go into the details of my depression and journey of spiritual healing and revival after the summer of 2007.

I won’t go into the decade-old disappointment towards my brother and my beloved well-intentioned parents who have never acknowledged the criminality of what Oppa did to me.

It wasn’t until recently that I finally found the strength to publicly share my story.

Surprisingly, this strength came in the form of an unexpected phone call from a police investigator conducting a background check for my brother who had applied, of all things, to become a police officer.

As I shared my story, ten years later, to this random police officer, I did feel a refreshing sense of vindication. Oppa should have never become an ordained pastor, an American citizen, a Navy Chaplain. He should have received court-mandated counseling. I should have received a restraining order.

Then he wouldn’t have dared to threaten me again. Which he did, five years later, causing me to cut him off completely.

And my parents, first-generation immigrants. To this day, condoning my brother, asking me to be the bigger person, to think of the family’s reputation. To this day, asking me how they can choose between Oppa and me.

They don’t realize that by choosing to protect my brother, they gave up their daughter. The broken trust and abandonment I felt in my deepest moments of pain have never left me.

I know what I experienced is nothing compared to the unspoken tragedies of domestic and family violence in too many households across North America. But that’s why I need to tell my story. This story.

I loved my Oppa. I love my parents. But Oppa hit me.

•••

SYLVIA KIM is a lawyer and human rights advocate currently residing in Southern California. Although it took her much too long to publicly share this story, she hopes this will encourage other women, particularly from cultures where domestic and family violence is highly stigmatized, to share their stories as well. Sylvia is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and usually writes on international human rights issues, racial justice, and politics.

Clothes Call

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Lesléa Newman

“So, Dad,” I sit down at the kitchen table, face him, and speak loudly so he can understand me. “I think it’s time to go through Mom’s clothes. What do you say?”

My eighty-nine-year-old father puts down his cup of instant Maxwell House coffee laced with Sweet ’n’ Low and stares at me. “What?” he asks.

I give him a look. We both know that despite his hearing loss, he knows what I just said. It’s been four years since my mother left us for what she called the great Sak’s Fifth Avenue in the Sky and I ask my father this question every time I visit. And each time I ask, my father answers: “Not yet,” in the tone of voice he used throughout my childhood, which always signaled the end of discussion.

I repeat my question even louder, and my father surprises me by not offering his usual response. Instead, he says nothing for minute. And nothing for a minute longer. And then he lets out a huge sigh as if he’s finally admitting that my mother is never coming back. “I suppose,” he sighs again, “it’s time.”

While my dad turns on the TV and settles down in front of a blaring Yankees game with a can of salted peanuts and a glass of diet Coke, I trudge up to my parents’ bedroom. Off to the side is my mother’s “boudoir” which contains a makeup table, a fainting couch, and two enormous closets, each one bigger than the sixth-floor walk-up I rented in Manhattan four decades ago when I first graduated from college.

Where to begin? I had tried over the years to get my mother to at least start cleaning out her clothes but she wouldn’t let me touch a thing. “If it can’t hurt you and you don’t have to feed it,” she’d say, shaking a sharp red fingernail at me, “just leave it alone.”

I enter the closet on the right, lined with double racks on either side, and I’m immediately overwhelmed by blouses, skirts, sweaters, slacks, dresses, hats, belts, scarfs, gloves, stockings, slips, and shoes. I gaze in wonder at stripes, polka dots, plaids, paisleys, sparkles, sequins, lace, and leopard print. I run my hands along silk, velvet, velour, wool, cotton, leather, suede, and satin. I take a deep breath and inhale my mother’s unique scent: a combination of Chesterfield Kings, Arid Extra Dry, Chanel No. Five, and Aqua Net. Suddenly, I understand my father’s reluctance to let any of this go. Everything in this closet contains my mother’s DNA. Every blouse at one time was filled with my mother’s pale, plump arms. Every skirt swished around her short, shapely legs. Every pair of pants cradled her zaftig belly and hips. Standing here, I can almost pretend my mother is downstairs with my father, screaming at him to turn down the damn TV. Getting rid of all this is like saying goodbye to her all over again.

But as my father said, it’s time.

I head to the back of the closet where I come face to face with six hanging shoe bags, each one with sixteen pockets, which according to my quick calculation, adds up to ninety-six pairs of shoes. My mother’s love affair with footwear started long ago when she was a young bride working in the shoe department of Orbach’s. All day long, squatting on her heels, she measured feet and fit them into fancy footwear she couldn’t afford. Plus, she and my father lived in a tiny basement apartment in Brooklyn. “The windows were above my head,” my mother told me. “I looked out at the street day after day and all I saw were shoes.” At the time, my father was a law student at NYU and, as he has told me numerous times, my parents were so poor they “didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” My father promised my mother that when he became an attorney, he would buy her anything she wanted. And clearly what she wanted was an Imelda Marcos-size collection of shoes.

So many shoes! One shoe, two shoes, red shoes, blue shoes, black shoes, white shoes, left shoes, right shoes. I feel like a character in a Dr. Seuss children’s book. Or like the child I was once, clomping around in my mother’s high heels with one of her beaded evening bags slung over my shoulder. How I wish my mother were here to tell me the story of all these shoes. For surely each pair has a story to tell. Here are the pink satin pumps dyed to match the gown my mother wore to my brother’s Bar Mitzvah in 1966. Here are the gold lamé tassled flip flops she always wore to the “beauty parlor” when she went to get her monthly pedicure. Here is a pair of red stiletto sky-high heels that showed off her stunning calves (it’s not for nothing she was known as “Legs Levin” during her salad days). And here are the most heart-breaking shoes of all: the flat navy blue sneakers she wore when the cancer made her feet so swollen, she couldn’t squeeze them into anything else.

Just for kicks, I take down a pair of black patent leather three-inch heels with a bow across the toe, and, feeling like one of Cinderella’s ungainly step-sisters, try to stick my feet inside. I know they won’t fit. Unlike me, my mother had lovely feet. Size six and a half. Baryshnikov-worthy arches. Alabaster skin. Delicate toes. Toenails expertly trimmed and buffed and polished candy apple red. I have no idea where my mother got her gorgeous feet.

Her mother’s feet were a sight to behold. Squat, flat, wide. Flaky, crusted skin. Gnarly prehistoric toes. Thick yellowed nails. Great big bunions. Still, like my mother, my grandmother loved shoes. When she moved into a nursing home at the age of ninety-nine, she marched in on white open-toed, high heeled T-strap sandals. The nurse took one look and told me to bring her some flats. “The last thing she needs is to fall,” she said. Since my grandmother didn’t own a pair of flats, I returned the next day with a pair of my own. My grandmother slipped on the moccasins, took two steps, and promptly fell down. “Please mameleh, can I have my heels back now?” she begged. I returned them and my grandmother wore them till the day she died.

How I wish I had my mother’s dainty feet! “Mom,” I say aloud, “I could wear your shoes as earrings.” Standing in her closet, my mind wanders back to the last day of my mother’s last hospital visit. She was lying in her hospital bed on top of the blankets in a sweat. “You have such beautiful feet,” I said to her, for even at that point, her pedicure was perfect. “I wish I’d inherited them,” I went on. “I have your mother’s feet.”

“And her face,” my mother said, gazing at me with love for the last time. “You have my mother’s beautiful, beautiful face.” And then she shut her eyes. And now I wipe at mine.

No wonder my dad didn’t want to go near my mother’s closet. Though we buried my mother four years ago, this feels like a burial all over again.

“You can do this,” I tell myself. I step out of the closet to fetch a cardboard box big enough to sit in and start chucking my mother’s shoes into it. Each one makes a dull thud that reminds me of the sound made by the clumps of dirt we dumped onto my mother’s coffin on that blistering August afternoon long ago. That was the saddest sound I’d ever heard. Until now. “I can’t,” I say aloud. My mother’s voice appears in my head. “One step at a time,” she says, as she reminded me so many times when she was alive. “Brooklyn wasn’t built in a day. You can do anything you set your mind to.” And she was always right.

Somehow the afternoon turns into evening, and by the time my father comes upstairs to tell me that the Yankees have lost, I have seven huge boxes of shoes and pocketbooks, fifty enormous plastic bags of clothing, and two empty closets. I am exhausted. My dad is amazed.

Since we scheduled my mother’s clothes to be picked up the next morning between seven a.m. and noon, I set my alarm for six. When it jars me awake, I leap out of bed, pull on some clothes, and lug everything out to the driveway. Then I drag myself back inside, crawl between the covers, and try to go back to asleep. But a minute later, I throw off the blankets and creep outside again. I can’t leave my mother’s clothes out there by the curb waiting to be picked up like trash. Soon I hear the front door open and see my father coming towards me. We stand side by side, each of us with one hand raised to shield our eyes from the glare of the morning sun, as if we are saluting my mother’s wardrobe. Neither of us says anything, for what is there to say? My head tells me that these are only things, but my heart disagrees: these are my mother’s things. There’s a big difference.

An hour passes and my father goes inside to get ready for work—though he is about to turn ninety, he’s still practicing law. I stand guard over my mother’s clothes until ten a.m. when a big yellow truck pulls up to our driveway. “Thank you for choosing Big Brothers/Big Sisters,” says the driver as he tosses bag after bag into the back of the truck. It takes him all of five minutes, and then he is gone.

And so is she.

•••

LESLÉA NEWMAN’s seventy books include the poetry collection, I Carry My Mother which explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death, and the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies. From 2008-2010, she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. Currently she is a faculty member of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Her newest poetry collection, Lovely will be published in January 2018 by Headmistress Press. More information here: http://www.lesleanewman.com/newbks.htm

Read more FGP essays by Lesléa Newman.

Our Work Burns Like the Sun

Photo by slgckgc/Flickr

By Amy E. Robillard

At the brand new HomeGoods, I buy thirty-eight dollars worth of things I don’t need. A tablecloth. Cloth napkins in an autumnal print. Two new dog toys that I’d been planning to save for Christmas, but when I walked into the house with all of my crap from the afternoon, one of the toys fell out of the bag and Essay spotted it and immediately ran to it and squeaked it. I couldn’t very well hide it away until Christmas. I also buy a roll of wrapping paper decorated with colorful donuts. I love donuts. They’re the comfort food I most often turn to in times of distress. When Steve was in the hospital for his emergency gallbladder surgery last winter, there were mini donuts in the house, and I picked up fresh donuts on the way to see him in the mornings.

I would probably spend more time and more money at HomeGoods this Friday afternoon, but it’s hot, so very hot for late September, and I have chocolate in the car. I’m worried that it will melt if I stay in the store too long. But there’s another reason I don’t stay very long.

The store reminds me so much of Christy and, as I see things that the two of us would get a kick out of, it hurts to think about how that store used to be a destination for us when our town didn’t yet have one, when it was only in Peoria or Shorewood. I pick up a mug designed to look like it was a mummy all wrapped up, just two eyes poking out, and I chuckle. I hear myself saying to Christy, “But I’m not allowed. I have too many already.”

Now Christy and I no longer speak because I told her husband, who is also my boss, that I had grown tired of his refusal to hear the things I said. In the strange logic of adult friendships, this meant that, because my boss and I were no longer friends, Christy and I also could not remain friends. Surely the two of them had interpreted my explanation in ways I cannot guess because that’s what people do. We defend our egos and our identities and we wrap ourselves up in stories that portray us as the innocent party even as we don’t realize we’re doing so. Only our eyes poke out.

The parking lot had recently been repaved, and the heat reflecting off of the deep blue asphalt is oppressive. When I get in the car, I turn the A/C up high. I feel around in the back seat for the Target bag with the chocolate bars; they still seem to be holding their shape. I rip open the bag of mini Hershey bars and take one out as the A/C begins to cool the car down. I tear open the deep brown wrapper and the familiar chocolate squares are soft, just beginning to melt. At this stage they are easily malleable, and I can imagine that it would not take much effort to manipulate this bar into another shape altogether. I imagine blending a bunch of little bars together to form a ball of chocolate. Or, with just a little more heat applied, melting four or five bars together to form chocolate soup. Shape-shifting. No more sign of the Hershey’s logo on each individual rectangle.

I pull up to a long line of cars waiting to leave the shopping plaza, and I feel that familiar dread that comes with recognizing that the cardboard sign that the sunburned, bearded, gray-haired man holds. It says he’s a homeless veteran waiting on public assistance that has not yet kicked in. He’s hungry. I have maybe three dollars cash in my wallet, three dollars that would surely help him, but still I make a point to pull in to the middle lane to ensure that another lane of cars will form a boundary between his suffering and me in my air-conditioned SUV with my bag of chocolate and my thirty-eight dollars worth of unnecessary purchases from HomeGoods. I turn my head away, check my phone, and then look out the other side of the car.

What I see on that side of the road is perhaps more disturbing. Two human beings make their way slowly toward the intersection of the busy roads. One is dressed in a cheap suit, with hair that at one point that morning was probably slicked back but is now stiffly hanging in the faint breeze. He’s smoking a cigarette, looking for all the world like the real-life version of Saul Goodman (‘s all good, man) The other is dressed like the sun, wearing what looks to be a very heavy and very hot perfectly spherical bright yellow costume, covered all around with little orange felt triangles meant to represent the sun’s rays. The person’s arms are covered in black material and poke out from two holes in the sun. The sun character wears black sunglasses (the irony!) and an exaggerated smile. The person in the sun costume walks very slowly, careful to step up on to the curb, and the man in the cheap suit puts his arms out as if to catch the Sun if she falls. The Sun carries a small, cardboard, professionally printed sign. Once the man and the Sun get to the place the man wants the Sun to be, he puts his arms on the roundest part of the Sun’s back and sort of positions her in place. The Sun then begins jumping in place with the sign advertising, I realize now, Sun Loans.

The man in the cheap suit walks slowly back to the shopping plaza, cigarette poised between his lips, ashes about to fall on the ground. He is in no kind of hurry to get back to his desk at Sun Loans.

The light finally changes. I leave behind the Sun with her sign advertising loans at what is surely a rate close to usury. I leave behind the veteran with his sign advertising America’s shameful treatment of those who have fought for our freedom. I leave behind the scorching heat of that parking lot and I think about the things I bought that I did not need.

I think about the irony of those two figures standing on either side of the busy intersection. They are both anonymous. One is sunburnt from standing outside too long, begging for money to feed and clothe himself. He is weary from standing on his feet all day. He is tired. He is ashamed of having to beg strangers for money to fulfill his basic needs. The other is covered, head to toe, in a costumed designed to look like the sun. She cannot stand still. She must jump up and down and wave her sign to get the attention of drivers as they pass. She wears a suit made of heavy felt that must weigh at least forty pounds. She is both protected from the sun and she is the Sun. She is likely filled with shame but we cannot see her face, so she is protected from our judgment. She cannot be making more than minimum wage. She has been driven to this street corner by forces similar to those that drive the veteran: a desire to feed, clothe, and shelter herself.

•••

When we were fourteen, my best friend Hillary and I worked illegally as dishwashers at Jake’s Restaurant in the mall. We were paid four dollars an hour to spray down the dishes before putting them in the massive dishwasher and to scrub the pots and pans by hand. When we recall this very first paying job, we tell two stories. The first is that, when the pots and pans were particularly disgusting, with caked-on food that would take real elbow grease to scrub off, I would hold one out, look at Hillary, and drop it into the trash can. Next!

The second is that, one night Hillary and I had a party to go to. At this party would be the two eighteen-year-old boys (men!) we were attracted to and who we thought were maybe interested in us. We stacked dishes and scrubbed pots for a couple hours until, at the same moment, we each looked at our watches and decided to run. We quit our jobs without so much as a word by running out the back door. We ran and ran. All the way to the bus stop at the mall’s main entrance, where we then waited for the bus to take us home.

When asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would respond that I wanted to be either a fireman (masculine pronoun) or Little Red Riding Hood. It seems I had a thing for running into, rather than away from, danger.

I cannot recall any responses to my expressed desires to put out fires or to deliver baked goods to my grandmother in the woods. What strikes me instead, now, as I think about the Sun jumping in place and Hillary and I running out on our first jobs, is that work is something that we are asked to begin anticipating from the youngest of ages, something we are encouraged to shape our entire lives around, but the jobs that perhaps shape us the most are the ones that are understood to be detours on the way to a career.

•••

The street lamps in downtown Hershey, Pennsylvania are shaped like Hershey kisses and alternate wrapped, unwrapped, wrapped, unwrapped. Silver foil with the trademark paper plume billowing from the top followed by plain milk chocolate.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I taught for a summer at the Milton Hershey school in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I was working for a private study skills company called Readak, which would contract with private schools to teach six- or eight- or twelve-week study skills courses to middle- and high-school students before and after school hours. The Milton Hershey School was my fifth of seven assignments, my last being The American School in Barcelona.

Milton Hershey and his wife Catherine established the school for orphaned boys, beginning with the children they had adopted when they could not conceive children of their own. Today boys and girls of all ages, largely from impoverished backgrounds and largely from Pennsylvania, attend the boarding school and live with married couples called houseparents. While I taught there, I lived in an apartment beneath one of the homes housing middle-school-aged girls, and it was everything I could do to not set the entire building on fire while attempting one night to make stir-fry. Each morning, food was delivered to the homes, and whenever there was too much, which was often, the houseparents, whose names I can no longer remember, offered me fresh produce that might otherwise go to waste. I would wake up in the mornings and take long walks around the school’s property, the decadent smell of milk chocolate in the air.

Children who attended the Milton Hershey School were cared for completely, from food and housing to medical and dental care, to clothing and computers and school supplies. What struck me the most, though, were the nightly dinners I was so often invited to join. The houseparents would tell me dinner was going to be family style, but I had no idea what that meant. I came from a family, but in my family, we ate alone in front of the television or we watched our mother eat standing up near the stove because she didn’t have the patience to sit down at the table before returning to the living room to watch her shows. I was twenty-six years old and I didn’t know what it meant to sit down at a table and eat a meal family style. What had we been doing all my life? Fend-for-yourself-style.

At the other Readak assignments across the country—in Wisconsin and Michigan and Nebraska—I would stay with families of the children I taught. A family would open their home to me, and I would move in to their extra bedroom and become a part of their family for six or eight weeks. They wrapped me up in their lives, including me in everything from the glass of wine with family dinner to the football games on Saturdays. And when I left, they hugged me goodbye. In between, I taught their children and their classmates study skills.

I cried during only one placement and that was because of a fifth-grade child whose name I can no longer remember. Let’s call him Jack. Fifth grade was too young. I did not recall signing up for kids this young, but somehow, at this school in Cincinnati, fifth grade qualified as middle school. I could not control the kids. They did not listen to me. They talked over me. They shouted over me and they did not give a whit about study skills. And Jack—now that I look back, Jack probably had a learning disability or ADHD, but at the time, I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I just wanted him to shut up so I could teach him to take better notes. I called his mother in the evenings and asked her to ask him to please sit still, to please stop talking incessantly.

What I wrote just now about crying only once? That was a lie. I cried in Barcelona, too. There I cried because I was supposed to be teaching on a Saturday morning but the school was locked and I didn’t have any way of reaching anybody to let me in, but the parents had already dropped off the kids and they all looked at me expectantly. I didn’t know what to do. I was tired of teaching study skills. I wanted out. I wanted to start my M.A. program already. I wanted to speak English to more than just these kids. I wanted macaroni and cheese.

I came close to crying during a placement in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Instead of being housed with a family, I stayed for six weeks in the infirmary. On one of my first nights, as I tried to fall asleep, I heard footsteps above me in the attic. Many tiny footsteps. Squirrels. What was to stop them from getting into the room where I was sleeping? What was to say that they didn’t normally have the run of the place? The next morning I called the Readak office on the verge of tears, only to have the teaching coordinator tell me there wasn’t anything she could do about the squirrels from where she was.

One of the speed-reading skills I taught students was called the finger method, and it involved tracing your index finger very quickly along the lines of the text in order to train your eyes to move faster. It was bullshit. And I couldn’t very well laugh or smirk when I introduced the “technique” to high school students. I needed them to take me seriously. But come on. The finger method, for crying out loud.

•••

Today I teach both undergraduate and graduate students. I teach writing and rhetoric, and at the start of every semester, I have anxiety dreams in which I cannot control the class. They’re shouting over me, they won’t sit down, they don’t care what I have to say, and eventually I just give up. This has never happened to me in my waking life. But it’s my biggest fear. It has stayed with me because of my experience with the fifth-graders.

So much of the work of a life is not visible. It involves shaping and reshaping the stories we tell ourselves about the work we do. It involves changing an emotional detail so that we can be the heroes of our stories rather than the villains. We engage, every day, in emotional work about the work we do, and this emotional labor is really what exhausts us. Shame threatens to eat us alive, so we tell ourselves that it was the children who were the problem, not me as a young teacher with no training on how to handle them.

We wrap ourselves in stories as heavy and as thick as the Sun Loans employee’s costume. We tell ourselves that somebody else will give the veteran money. Or, worse, we tell ourselves that the veteran somehow deserves his circumstances.

But like the best work, most of this work is collaborative. We do none of this on our own. We are supported in this emotional labor at every turn by a society that tells us that we are responsible for our own actions at the same time that we should respect those who risked their lives for their country. We have no shortage of stories to choose from. Pick one to wrap yourself up in. When it no longer fits the situation, simply let it go. Wrap. Unwrap.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is an essayist and professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her essays have also been published on The Rumpus and in Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Creative Nonfiction.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

Coming Home

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Hema Padhu

As I saw my mother walk out of the international terminal at the San Francisco Airport barely able to push the cart stuffed with two enormous suitcases, I hardly recognized her.

The mother of my childhood was a stout, severe-looking authoritarian. “Don’t just sit there wasting your time—do something!” was her favorite mantra. She played the role of a mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, and career woman with a sort of zeal that was impressive, intimidating, and almost always exhausting to watch.

Now my eyes rested on a short, drooping woman in her late sixties. Her shoulders curved in weighed down by some invisible burden. Her once long, dark hair, turned salt and pepper, was gathered in a small bun at her nape. White sneakers stuck out conspicuously, at odds with her festive silk saree and the bright red bindi on her forehead. She blinked nervously, scanning the crowd for my familiar face. When exactly did my mother, the invincible superhero of my childhood, shrink into this fragile, vulnerable person? The transformation felt both rapid and stealthy (hadn’t I seen her just a few years ago?). I was not only unprepared for it, I was suddenly aware of the role reversal and unsure of how to navigate this new shift in power.

I hurried towards her, trying to mask my surprise, and gave her a hug, breathing in the familiar smell of Ponds cold cream and coconut oil. I felt her papery lips kiss me on both cheeks and sensed in her touch both excitement and trepidation as if she couldn’t believe she had crossed the ocean to visit her daughter in America. The country I had chosen over my birthplace. The country I now called home and to which she had lost me almost fifteen years ago.

•••

When I left Madras for Chicago, I was twenty-five and too old to be living at home with my parents, but this was the early nineties and Brahmin girls like me left home either married (usually arranged) or dead. Neither option was particularly appealing to me. Luckily, I wriggled through a loophole that middle-class India, especially Tamil Brahmins, couldn’t resist: education. I headed to Northwestern University to get my master’s degree.

That day, our home was a tornado of activity, and my mother was at the eye of the storm with a single-minded goal—sending her oldest daughter safely to America. Dad reconfirmed my flight, and my brother was dispatched for the third time to check on the taxi’s arrival. My sister, with rising exasperation, was stuffing my suitcase with things my mother deemed necessary, if not critical, for my life abroad: rice, lentils, spices, pickles, a pressure cooker, and an Idli steamer. I, of course, had no say in the matter whatsoever. “When you land in Illinois”—my mother enunciated the s at the end with a hiss—“and want to make sambar, you’ll thank me.”

I was raised in a traditional “Tam Bram” (short for Tamil Brahmin) home, and my mother had decided that her primary duty was to equip her daughters with skills essential to fulfilling their life’s mission: finding a suitable husband and raising a family. This included learning to cook all the traditional South Indian dishes, studying classical Indian music and dance, and learning the bafflingly nuanced rites, rituals, and superstitions that came with an orthodox Tamil Brahmin way of life—touch your right elbow with your left hand while lighting an oil lamp, prostrate two or four times (not thrice!) at the feet of an elder, and my favorite, when you leave the house never shout, “I’m leaving,” say “I’ll be back.”

I watched my mother juggle the binding responsibilities that accompanied a woman born into an orthodox Brahmin family and a career in banking (unusual in those days) with only a high school diploma. She could have a career as long as she didn’t neglect the duties and obligations of a good Brahmin woman. This meant she was the first to rise, often as early as four a.m., and the last to retire. She kept up with all the rituals and traditions expected of her, tended to the needs of our five-member household while advancing her career and doggedly pursuing her various interests that ranged from learning Sanskrit to playing the violin. Like a bonsai tree, she found a way to grow within her established confines and she somehow made it all seem effortless. She had, without explicitly intending to, passed on her independent, ambitious spirit to me.

My mother careened between pride and despair as the days of my impending journey neared. Part of her was deeply dismayed about sending me to a country thousands of miles away, one she had only seen on TV. She worried that the conservative values she had so painstakingly instilled in me wouldn’t withstand the liberal assault of the West. Part of her was very proud and excited that I was making this westward journey—a first for our family and a woman, no less. She had dreamed of becoming a doctor but had to give up her education to care for her sister who had been incapacitated by polio. She married my father at the tender age of nineteen and had me at twenty-one. My siblings followed shortly thereafter. Her life was never carefree, and she wanted more for her daughters. She wanted us to live freely without societal expectations clinging to us like a petulant child.

I, on the other hand, was already in Chicago. In my mind, I had left the familiar landscape of my Indian life far behind to stroll the streets of Evanston, drive along Lake Shore Drive, and soak up campus life. After years of living under the iron fist of a highly competent but controlling mother, who had either directly managed my affairs or influenced my life decisions, I couldn’t wait to leave it all behind and start fresh in a new place. A place she couldn’t get to easily.

My mother responded to my excitement with an equal measure of fire and ice—one minute sending the household into a tizzy with her rapid-fire marching orders to prepare for my departure, and the next sulking in the prayer room with her books and prayer beads. When friends or neighbors threw a party for me, she would make excuses not to attend. I was annoyed by what I misjudged as petulance (she should be happy for me!). I failed to understand that my eagerness to get away from the home and family she had worked so tirelessly to create only substantiated the fact that I could leave. She couldn’t even if she wanted to.

Three weeks later, as I was navigating the aisles of the local grocery store in Evanston, I stood there, teary-eyed, unable to choose from among the numerous brands of neatly stacked shelves of tea. My mother would have picked out just the right type of black tea to make that perfect cup of chai. My sambar never tasted like hers, and my kitchen could never smell like hers—a seductive mix of sandalwood, turmeric, and curry leaves. I missed her strength, her confidence that everyone’s problem could be solved with a good home cooked meal, her remarkable faith in some universal power that would make things work out just fine for everyone, especially her children. I missed her rare and awkward display of affection (“you’re so thin, eat some more” or “don’t be out in the sun too much, you’ll get dark and then who’ll marry you?”) I even missed her marching orders.

•••

Fifteen years had passed since I left my hometown and a lot had changed in both our lives. My sister married and moved to Malaysia. My brother followed me to America. Suddenly, empty nesters, my parents were nearly strangers. Their marriage, a brittle shell they both chose not to shed. A marriage that was once bonded by children was now held together by familiarity and obligation.

My mother followed my life from afar, reading and hearing about it through snippets in e-mails and static-filled phone conversations: graduation, new jobs, new homes, new adventures in new cities with strange names. Each step forward in my American life seemed to drive a wider wedge between us. The more independent and confident I became, the less I relied on her. She had a life scripted for me: a successful Western life on the outside—respectable education, career advancements, and professional success—and a traditional Eastern life on the inside—a successful (preferably wealthy) Indian husband, a couple of adorable kids, a suburban home where I kept all the Tam Bram traditions alive. I couldn’t blame her—it was what she wanted for herself.

While I happily embraced the former, I resolutely rejected the latter. I married a kind artist who lived modestly after abandoning his career as a geologist to pursue his passion in filmmaking. Although a South Indian like me, his Tamil was terrible. He could barely sit crossed legged on the floor (a basic requirement for a Brahmin) let alone be well versed in all the Tam Bram traditions. Neither of us wanted to have children, which bitterly disappointed my mother. She was convinced that I was missing out on a defining life experience. I refused to blindly follow the Brahmin traditions, declaring myself spiritual and not religious. With every passing day, I was becoming more of a stranger to her. She struggled to understand my new life and the different set of values I was embracing. Yet secretly, I wanted her approval, wanted her to accept my choices, even as I defied her traditional wisdom.

When my husband and I separated amicably after seven years, I agonized for days about sharing this news with my mother. This was yet another first in our family and not a first to be proud of. I had to share this news across a transcontinental phone line, not an ideal medium for such a personal conversation. I mentally prepared myself for her reaction. How would I respond if she reproached me? What would I do if she hung up on me? What if she started to cry or scream at me? I had replayed all these scenarios over and over in my head and crafted “mature responses”—take the high road, I told myself—for each of these potential outcomes.

Finally, one morning I gathered the courage to call her. She listened patiently. After I finished, there was a long pause. Just when I thought that she had hung up on me she asked, “What took you so long?”

It was the one scenario I wasn’t prepared for. Surprised, I blubbered incoherently and she said simply, “I want you to be happy. I don’t want you to spend a minute longer in a life where you are not happy.”

She refused to let me dither about in self-doubt and pessimism and with her trademark unflappable spirit she reached across the ten-thousand-mile divide—I could almost feel her hand on the small of my back—to guide me gently yet firmly towards a brighter future that she was certain was waiting for me. She was in my corner after all. In fact, she had never left.

Over the next few years, our bond, which had floundered due to distance and years of separation, strengthened. I found myself sharing fragments of my life I had never dared to share with her: my fears and anxieties, my stumbling dating life, my travel adventures and misadventures, my hopes of rebuilding my life after my divorce. In the beginning, she mostly listened, but slowly she started to open up. About her own dreams, disappointments, failures, and joys.

I felt privileged. Singled out from my siblings. Her confidante. I remembered a time, not too long ago, when we couldn’t have a conversation without either one of us bursting into tears or storming out of the room. We argued incessantly about everything from hairstyles to grades to boys. After years of mother-daughter strife, we found ourselves embracing our strengths and vulnerabilities, instead of being repelled by them. We were connecting as adults, as women from different generations trying to find our own place in this world.

Now she was finally here. I would have her all to myself for three whole weeks. Our past stood between us both binding and dividing us. My life here continued to puzzle her and I was just beginning to piece together hers. Somehow we managed to establish a connection between our divergent worlds and we found ourselves clinging to it. Each day provided an opportunity to strengthen that fragile bond. As I walked her to my car, my arm around her thin shoulders, I felt that same anticipation that I felt years ago when I left her home. Only this time, I couldn’t wait to bring her into to mine.

•••

HEMA PADHU is a writer, professor, and marketer. Her writing has been published by Litro Magazine and American Literary Review. She lives in San Francisco and is working on a short story collection.

I Don’t Know if These Are Metaphors

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Catherine Newman

The New York Times chastises me in a headline: “You are making your biscuits wrong.”

Seriously? There’s not enough I’m dealing with, what with everyone’s feelings about the compost bucket and the college-savings situation and the typo in my reading-series poster at work that has an event falling on the equivocal “Tursday”—I have to be scolded by a recipe?

And in the body of a different Times story: “A frittata ought not be considered a vehicle for random bits of leftovers.” Oh, ought it not? Not even last night’s home fries? Fuck you.

I have this written down as a note to myself, these two lines from the food section of the paper, and when my fourteen-year-old daughter Birdy asks me about them, I laugh and say, “They’re so judgmental. It makes me angry!”

And she says gently, confused, “Like a metaphor?”

And I say, truthfully, “I really don’t know.”

•••

In our town library’s online system, when you click the box to push back your book’s due date, a panicky little warning screen pops up: “Are you sure you wish to renew the selected item(s)?” Um, thank you for the abundance of caution, but yes. I am. On the off-chance that the continued borrowing of a book suddenly fills me with sorrow and regret, I will go ahead and return it early. Where’s that screen when you really need it, though?

“Are you sure you wish to have a third beer(s)?”

“Are you sure you wish to pick a fight with your husband because he sighed irritably while lighting the dinner-table candle(s)?”

“Are you sure you wish to pop your pimple(s) with a dirty safety pin?”

•••

Over an enchilada casserole, our seventeen-year-old Ben says, “Remember when we watched that one pregnant pig watch that other pig who was already in labor? How the pig in labor was just, like, shuddering and screaming, and the pregnant pig was just so tragically bug-eyed and afraid? So, yeah. It’s like that. ” He is describing junior year of high school.

•••

Birdy is suddenly furious about a song from Doctor Doolittle. “I’m sorry, but everyone can talk to the animals. That’s really just not that special.” A little later, she says, more curious than peeved, “Everyone’s always so sad when their goldfish dies, but it’s not like anyone’s actually happy they’re alive in the first place.”

•••

In the basement, I spray the terrible armpits of my dirty laundry with stain-remover. It foams on contact with sweat, and all of my shirts bloom into a yeasty froth like there’s anxiety embedded in the fabric, bubbling up to the surface. The spray claims to be “oxygen-based.” What does that mean? It’s made of air?

I remember once when I was pregnant and Michael was using something toxic-smelling to strip furniture inside the house. “What even is ‘denatured alcohol’?” I’d asked, and he’d said, cheerful, “I think it’s just alcohol with the nature taken out!” This was not, in fact true, hence the urgent FUMES! MAYHEM! warning I subsequently read out loud from the can.

•••

Ben muses sleepily, a propos nothing, “Being a sunscreen vendor at a nude beach. Now that’s a busy job!”

•••

My dermatologist, who is not famous for seeming human, gestures at my body to his nurse, who’s taking notes. “Moderate sun damage on the upper chest,” he says to her, and then to me, “That’s from not wearing sunscreen.”

“Ugh,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

And he says, “Oh, don’t be. I don’t care.”

I laugh. “I don’t think not caring is what you want to project. I mean, I’m sure you care.”

And he says, unsmiling, “I really actually don’t.” I raise my eyebrows and wink at the nurse, and she laughs.

•••

In my dream, I’m on the toilet, toilet paper wound anticipatorily around my fist, when I suddenly notice the spectacular sunset, the sky graduating from navy to flame. “Check out the view,” I say, embarrassed, to the crowd of people that’s approaching. As it turns out, I’m taking a dump on an exposed mountaintop.

•••

I go to the dentist with a toothache and he makes me bite on the bitey stick to determine definitively which tooth needs a root canal. It is very Little Shop of Horrors. Bite, bite, bite, PAIN—like a Jack-in-the-box, but one that jumps out and smashes an electrocuting mallet into your jaw. “Can we just, kind of, guess at it?” I say, and the dentist says, “Bite down hard.”

•••

“Oh my god!” the queer Birdy says, waving a catalogue at me. “Finally! There’s a butch American Girl doll!” Then, a minute later, peering at it deflatedly, “False alarm. I think it’s supposed to be an actual boy.”

•••

Someone emails to see if I want to go Bollywood dancing with a big group of women. I really do! I squint and squint at the names of the other people included in the invitation, at the name of the person who sent the email. I wrack my brain. I Google the name of the proposed venue. “I’m sorry,” I write. “I don’t think we know each other. And also, I think you live in Oregon!”

“Wrong person,” she writes back.

•••

Ben, eating grapes, observes, “Eating grapes is just a crazy exercise in relativity. At first you’re picking out the big firm ones. You’d never eat those wrinkly, soft ones! Then you eat the soft ones, but you’d never eat the squashed ones! And then you eat the squashed ones but just not the one squashed one that’s fully moldy. Your past perfect-grape-eating self would never believe how low you’ve sunk.”

•••

Ben asks which two animals I’d pick to accompany me if I were the sole human survivor of a zombie apocalypse. When I say, “A horse, I guess, and a cat,” he laughs and shakes his head pityingly. “I don’t think you’re very familiar with zombie apocalypses.”

•••

I say, “Okay,” after my gynecologist asks how I am, and she frowns, stands up, wraps her arms around me.

“Just okay?” A minute later she says, from beneath my left breast, “Hello! Who’s this little dangly little friend?” It’s a skin tag. “Lose or keep?” she asks, then snips it off when I answer.

“I hadn’t realized this appointment was going to be the best part of my day,” I say truthfully.

•••

The kids explain to me what a Skittles party is: prescription pills mixed up in a bowl, and you dip in, swallow whatever. “We should have a homeopathic Skittles party!” Ben says. “Probiotics, fish oil, Rescue Remedy. Everyone can just placebo themselves into a frenzy.”

•••

“Pew!” we cry, then lean in to inhale more deeply when the cats yawn their stinking yawns.

•••

While I’m putting dinner on the table, my family offers an impromptu but detailed critique of the leftover noodle kugel I’m serving. They’re very cheerful and enthusiastic about it. Michael doesn’t like the cottage cheese! Birdy, much to her own surprise, turns out to dislike pineapple in this context, even though she usually loves it! Ben’s just not a real fan of the eggy texture! They wait politely for me to finish serving them before they eat. I am wearing an actual apron. “Bon appetit, motherfuckers,” I say, and they laugh, dig in.

•••

In my dream, my dead friend Ali is alive after all and calls me from hospice. “You haven’t visited me in ages!” she says, and I say, “Oh my god! I’m so sorry. I thought you were actually… uh. … not receiving visitors.” Her husband dreams that he’s sneaking a cigarette in the backyard and she is suddenly standing in the doorway. “Oh!” he says, hiding the cigarette behind his back. “I didn’t expect to see you!”

“Can we just dream that she’s alive and it’s good?” I ask him, and he says, “I don’t think so.”

•••

Ben, who shares my car, has put gas in the tank. It’s like a valentine. When I see the needle point to “full,” I burst into grateful tears. “You filled my tank!” I cry, when I see him, and he smiles and says simply, “I did.”

•••

CATHERINE NEWMAN  is the author of the recently published kids’ books One Mixed-Up Night (a middle-grade novel) and Stitch Camp (a teen craft book she co-wrote with her friend Nicole), as well as the memoirs Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family.

Read more FGP essays by Catherine Newman.