Having Backbone

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Terry Barr

I watch her remove the jar of Maxwell House from the top kitchen cabinet. She lets me sniff the stuff inside, the coffee, in the only form I’ll know it for many years. She spoons two helpings into her open dull-green cup, one of a set of six. Except for the colder weeks when they are used for that still rare serving of hot tea, these cups are my grandmother’s exclusive property. When the pan of water is ready, she pours and then stirs in just a bit of sugar. Often her coffee accompanies a buttered and heated slice of yesterday’s pound cake—as if any more butter were needed. More often, the coffee complements her lunch of country vegetables and meat that, when I was a boy, I couldn’t bring myself to try. Not that I try the coffee either; it will be years until, freezing to death at a ball game, I opt for coffee over hot chocolate since there won’t be any hot chocolate on this night at this little league ballpark.

Sometimes your elders are right: coffee does taste bitter. Two sips and I’m done for fifteen more years, until grad school and doctoral pre-lims and the stimulant of champions. My Maxwell House will be “fresh ground” from a can, but my grandmother will have been dead by those same fifteen years. I’ll wonder about the distance between instant and ground, between black and au lait, between us, and our tastes.

It will be another form of coffee, though, that will bring me back to her.

•••

My Carolina Wild Dog, Max, strains at his leash. He’s smelling it now, not the collards I’m slurping but the bacon they’re cooked in. I pull out a meaty morsel and make him sit. We always sat for our supper when I was a boy growing up in Bessemer, Alabama. Unlike me back then, Max has to be asked only once to come to the table. He’ll do anything for bacon and, truly, I understand.

In this moment, coming back from a trip to visit our daughter in Virginia, we’re sitting out front of the Floyd Country Store in Floyd, Virginia, in chairs provided for “wanted loiterers.” My wife nourishes herself with creamy tomato dill soup, a grilled cheese on wheat, and Coke. My pinto platter is not only accompanied by homemade chow chow, and those collards (when the waitress asked “With or without bacon?” I looked at her, at Max, at myself and wondered who’s kidding whom?) but also by a triangular wedge of cornbread, which is a little bitter because they clearly don’t use Rumford Baking Powder.

Max hovers between our chairs because it’s raining now. He might look a bit Lab-ish, but he’s no water-lover. I’m sucking my beans and greens down faster than I want because the once-drizzle is picking up now, compromising the integrity of my lunch. These collards are so fine I don’t need the pepper sauce that I ritually use. Soon the rain lets up, and so I sip my Red Rooster coffee in peace.

Old-time mountain music rains down on me from the Floyd Country Store speakers, making me think of those Saturday afternoons of my childhood, watching The Wilburn Brothers or Porter Wagoner on TV with my Nanny. While I don’t own any music like this, don’t even plan to, when I hear it, I know exactly where I am, and I relax.

Inside the store, where along with pintos and collards you can also order roasted root vegetables—rutabagas, turnips—with gluten-free bread or a cup of Brunswick Stew, I note the blue-dyed hair of one server; the punk cut of another. The man handling sales at the other side of the store sees my Alabama Crimson Tide t-shirt and offers that his grandson is a Tide fan, from Decatur.

“They’re a mighty good team,” he says, and I agree. I tell him how much I’ve enjoyed the food, and while he is gracious, I’m definitely not providing him unheard of news.

Originally, I brought us to Floyd for the coffee, and while I was upset initially that today, and any Monday or Tuesday, Red Rooster Roasters is closed, if they hadn’t been, we might not have wandered, lingered, and found a meal that transfixed me, for when I saw the words “Pinto Bean plate,” my fate was sealed. I had found “home.”

Max feels similarly when we reach the beginning of the big woods. He looks like an old “yeller dog,” a retriever of sorts, but as I said, he’s skittish of water. He yearns for mountain paths; when we take him hiking on Caesar’s Head or Paris Mountain back home, he feels a spirit that can’t be explained, only experienced, which he does as fully and heartily as I attacked those collards. He wants a good trail, and other Carolina Wild Dog owners get this. When he gets the look in his eye, all I can say to him is “It’s okay, boy, I understand.”

It’s what he’d say to me if he could when he sees me eating today.

What he doesn’t know, of course, is the memory that this meal evokes: Saturday lunchtime with my grandmother, Ellen Crowe Terry, her stooped back hunched over her plate. Early on, I didn’t understand what that meat is she’s chewing, or why the smell of those greens appeals to her. I had my home-fried cheeseburger in front of me and wondered how anyone could prefer something else, something almost unnamable.

•••

I would have never heard of Red Rooster Coffee or Floyd had it not been for Yo Cup, a side-street coffee house that opened in my college town back in 2013 and closed this past Christmas. Originally, Yo Cup’s owners offered only frozen yogurt with various fruit and candied toppings, coffee drinks, and homemade cupcakes in both vegan and gluten-free varieties.

My college town, or more accurately the town incorporating the college where I’ve been teaching for the past thirty years, is a former mill village, populated by roughly nine thousand people. The mill closed back in the 1980s, and now there’s not much to do or see there. The town square has its Confederate monument; a train line bisects the middle of Broad Street, the town’s main artery; and while there are one or two lunch/meat and three joints and a Cuban cafe, the main food industry is clearly pizza. There is House of Pizza, Dempsey’s Pizza (formerly Pizza Inn), Pizza Hut Express, Little Caesar’s, Papa John’s, and there used to be Tony’s Pizza, but nine thousand people, including the one thousand students at the college, can consume only so much pepperoni and dough.

At the college, I teach courses in Southern Film, Modern Novel, American Literature, and Creative Nonfiction. When I started in the late eighties, I was told that people in the town didn’t exactly cotton to the professionals at the college. Town and gown, truly. At my initial interview on campus, I spied a downtown movie theater, and my first comment to the group interviewing me was my joy at seeing the old movie house.

“Well, they’re tearing it down next week,” my hosts said with attendant irony.

That told me much, but I still thought I was moving to a college town. Actually, after the interview and a couple of half-hearted searches for housing in the town, I didn’t move there, but chose nearby Greenville. That is, my wife suggested Greenville—it was at least a city that might offer her work. The town, she said, scared her. And I know better than to question her fear. Actually, I understood.

The image of any college town, to me, includes certain features: used or independent bookstores; pubs; homey cafes; alternative or vintage clothing stores; and coffee shops. This little town, though, contained none of these. Actually, there was a place called Robert’s Drive-In that had hamburger plates, and after I ate there once, I reported my discovery to my department chair who promptly informed me, again with all due irony, that Robert’s was a former Klan hangout.

How do you not tell new faculty beforehand of racist history?

I found in the end that I could live without hamburger plates, vintage clothes, and used books, but no coffee?

Our faculty lounge had an old Bunn coffee maker left there decades before by a retired dean. Supplied monthly by a new crate of individualized packets of Folgers ground coffee, complete with powdered and decidedly non-dairy creamer, what we had was not even better than nothing. Eventually, I bought my own coffee maker, brought my whole beans and ground them in my office, and stored half and half in the mini-fridge installed in the lounge.

And though I enjoyed my coffee, I felt like a snob. A snob all alone sipping coffee in his windowless office.

The town now has a McDonald’s and a Waffle House. If I lived there, I could see going to WH late for the experience. Students do that, I hear, or they go to the Sonic Drive-In. I don’t know. It all sounds sad and depressing, a far cry from the Jolly Cholly’s, Dari Delite’s, and Kollege Klubs, in Montevallo, Alabama, the college town of my undergrad years.

So when Yo Cup opened and provided several tables, couches, and piped in alternative sounds from the manager’s iPod, I thought, finally, a place to be.

It was almost hip.

They served lattes, shots in the dark, macchiatos, chai, with soy and almond milk alternatives. The chalkboard listing all the drinks, in flowing, colorful script, even contained my favorite, Café Au Lait. In most small coffee houses I have to instruct the servers how to steam one-third milk to two-thirds dark roast. Yo Cup knew its drinks, and all I said was “Café Au Lait,” and voila, a perfect blend. Just the right amount of froth in a clever design. What killed me, though, was the flavor of the coffee itself.

“What kind of coffee is this?” I asked Courtney, the owner.

“It’s Red Rooster, the Funky Chicken blend,” she said. “My husband and I found the roasting house last summer in Floyd, when we went to Floydfest.”

“Floydfest?”

“Yeah, it’s this great mountain music festival every July. You ought to go.”

Over the months of Yo Cup, I sampled a Bourbon Barrel Blend—definitely hints of the South’s favorite whiskey in the brew—the Sumatra and Farmhouse Blend, and the Old Crow Cuppa Joe.

I love the Old Crow, and I understand now, given its name, the resonant reason for why I would.

•••

My grandmother, Ellen Crowe Terry, led anything but the life of a typical southern woman of her age. At some point either she or her father changed the family surname from “Crow” to “Crowe.” Was this putting on airs, an attempt to distance the family from the common bird of nuisance, or from an almost forgotten tribe of Native Americans? If so, it didn’t work for me—I always saw that black bird when I heard her maiden name—even though I hadn’t seen the spelling change until last week in a family tree my daughter’s husband Taylor is filling in. A Crowe is a Crow is a Crowe again.

Ellen’s family came from northern Alabama, on her father’s side at least: Talladega or nearby Anniston depending upon whether you believe Ancestry.com or my mother. Whatever the town, the Crowes were rural folk, farmers, and from this area they eventually moved to Bessemer, a wide-open mining town to the southwest of Birmingham. In Bessemer, Ellen met a phone man, GC Terry who hailed from Cortland, Alabama. The Terrys were rural folk, too, as I know from family stories and from driving through Cortland once. It’s about as big as Floyd, and as my mother warned, almost every business sign I saw proclaimed that this hardware store, this transmission shop, or this used furniture place was run by a Terry. I could have stopped at any one of them. I should have stopped at least at one of them just to see whom I came from, but I didn’t. A girl in another state, a girl I used to love, beckoned.

My grandmother Ellen—I called her “Nanny”—loved to travel. Unlike my mother, Nanny saw Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, searching for and dealing in antiques.

“She especially loved Chicago,” my mother says, though I don’t remember if I ever heard why.

Before I was born and for the first few years after, my Nanny ran antique stores in Bessemer, one I remember on 19th Street, another not too far away on 9th Avenue, the Super Highway. I remember floating through the various rooms of her shops, all lavishly decorated and independent of each other. Who might live here? I wondered. It was like having another house, though, just as I was admonished in the formal living room of our own house, I was not allowed to touch anything in the shop.

Over the years, Nanny procured our family’s dining room set—mahogany table and six matching chairs—as well as my parents’ Queen Anne bedroom suite. My mother’s house still holds these and many other antiques: vases, side tables, and lamps, all from my grandmother’s wheeling-dealing days.

While those signs of her life were always evident, what was often missing from my mother’s younger days was my grandmother herself.

There’s a photo I found recently of my mother and her father at GC’s retirement dinner in Birmingham. He was wearing a double-breasted suit, tie in a Windsor knot. My mother had on an evening dress and looked so glamorous. No older than seventeen, she was her daddy’s escort at this commemorative occasion, because my grandmother was gone, traveling somewhere, finding new-old goods.

I look at the photo and wonder both about what I see and what I can’t.

•••

In her waning years, my Nanny turned her bedroom in the house I grew up in—the house she had been living in since the 1920s—into an artist’s studio. She painted in oils. Still-life of fruit. Old country barns. Flower arrangements. Not really primitive but not polished either. I can see her, perched at the edge of her rocking chair, dabbing into her palette, scattered tubes of oil paint around her, her easel holding the picture of the day, for Nanny finished one picture per day in the summers and winters of the last years of her life. These paintings would lie under her bed, in all corners of her room, piled at her feet. Many were framed; many more stacked on top of each other.

She died in the summer of ’71, and I have no idea what happened to all those works of her mind. My mother kept a few, but the rest? It would be nice to imagine them on the walls of homes near and far, or maybe in one of those roadside antique shops in the country somewhere, near Floyd, where they appreciate the gifts of random and unknown stars.

I wish I had even one of those gifts. I can’t even tell you anymore what one of them looked like, though I can still see the scene of their creation, the spattered paint on the carpet where she worked, near her slippered feet. She always painted in nightgown, robe, and those heel-less slippers. A woman of leisure, herself a subject that no one could ever capture.

For a woman this independent and self-sufficient, even aloof—though she kissed me every night and called me her “darlin’”—you’d think her taste in food would run toward lobster newburg, filet mignon, or baked Alaska. French cuisine befitting one who travelled to large and exotic cities. Not that she wouldn’t eat any of these dishes if served, or the creole pork chops, country captain chicken, and Italian spaghetti—whose recipe my mother got from our second generation Italian neighbors down the street—my mother prepared every night.

But left to her own devices, Nanny preferred simpler fare, rural foods like hominy, baked sweet potatoes, turnip or collard greens, corn muffins, cayenne and Tabasco peppers, and fresh chow chow she’d make herself. Once, she let me try a green cayenne. She cut it open and told me to just put my tongue in its center, where that white meaty layer lurked. I learned quickly that water won’t stifle that sort of heat.

“Try milk,” Nanny advised.

Seemingly more than anything else, though, she loved backbone meat.

When I envision her at our kitchen table, sitting at the end closest to the electric stove, hunched slightly over her plate of country goodness, it’s always a noon winter Saturday. Early on in these memories, my mother might have fixed me a cheeseburger—still to this day the best sandwich I’ve ever had—fried and then with the cheese melted on top in the oven, ketchup and mustard only.

At some point on one of these Saturdays, though, I got up the gumption to try the backbone meat, maybe with some corn or fried okra. It was another cold day, the sun still shining through our multi-paneled breakfast room windows; the bare cherry tree beyond telling me the time of that season.

I discovered then that backbone meat was good, that it was succulent with brown gravy. Then I tried some short ribs, a delicacy now that farm-to-table restaurants in the South charge twenty-five to thirty-five dollars a plate to taste. I haven’t seen backbone meat hit these menus yet, and just last week I asked my mother if you could still buy it anywhere.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I saw some at Publix just the other day.”

“When you come up in a few weeks, we’re gonna have to get some so you can show me how to cook it.”

I’m almost sixty-one years old and still learning life lessons. I can fix the short ribs, braise collards, fry corn, slow-cook pintos and any other dried or fresh bean—olive oil, beef bouillon flakes, salt and/or sugar, and maybe some Cajun spices—fry green tomatoes, and bake numerous varieties of corn bread.

I can make all day meals, and though I try my hand at more sophisticated dishes—boeuf bourguignon, shrimp creole, turkey with oyster dressing, sweet potato casserole, even borsht—I feel proudest when I’ve shucked and cut and creamed my white corn; when I’ve turned slimy okra into salty, slightly-floured fried popcorn; when I’ve brined chicken in salt water and fried it to gluten-free-floured perfection. When my collards, cooked with bacon, melt in your mouth. When my lima beans or lady peas make you want to shout or cry and not worry about the gas to come. When you slice open my cornbread and melt a pat of butter inside and want to stick your face in it, too.

I’d wanted to take this Floyd route many times before, but time and distance held me back. Something kept calling to me, though, and now I see that it wasn’t just a place I had heard about. It was a link to my past. A memory of food and love that I was longing to taste again. And to share.

•••

TERRY BARR is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother, published by Third Lung Press. His work has appeared in Vol 1 Brooklyn, Eclectica, Left Hooks, Wraparound South, The Bitter Southerner, and, of course, Full Grown People. He blogs for The Writing Cooperative at medium.com, and can also be found on terrybarr.com. He eats and lives with Nilly and Max and Morgan in Greenville, SC.

Read more FGP essays by Terry Barr.

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Rescuing Adrian

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Naomi Ulsted

I got the call at ten-thirty at night. It was typically dramatic, as my family was at that time. “They found him,” said my mother. I hung up and shook my boyfriend awake. I let him know I needed to drive to California with my mother tonight. I was meeting her at midnight in the parking lot of the House of Pancakes in Salem, Oregon. We were going to get my brother.

Adrian was twelve and his face could be found on cartons of milk with the giant words “MISSING” on them. He’d been listed as a kidnapping victim since my stepdad (Adrian’s real dad) had driven off with him eight months ago. He’d actually been gone for a while before that, but these were the questions I imagined the police asking my mother.

He’s with his father?

You had custody?

You had custody but you allowed him to live with his father?

You’re not sure of the date he actually went missing?

You’re the one who left the marriage?

You have how many children? Five?

Said or unsaid, these questions delayed the process. Officials put that file on the bottom of the pile.They were questions I still had myself. The weeks had gone on. My mother began taking anti-depressants. I was in college, reveling in books, falling in love and pretending that I had a stable family who didn’t kidnap each other.

•••

My oldest son, Logan, is telling me a very long story that has something to do with Minecraft. As I put away the dishes, I listen to him with about twenty-five percent of my brain. I say, hmm mmm and yeah, and that’s funny, when I realize that he’s just told me something that’s supposed to be funny, although I have no idea what it was. With my remaining seventy-five percent I’m planning what to put in the kids’ lunches and preparing for the eight-thirty meeting I have at work. Adrian used to talk about comics like Logan talks about video games. When Logan finishes his story, he looks at me expectantly. I laugh, hoping that was the appropriate response. He wraps his gangly arms around me for a spontaneous hug, which is something he does still, even though he’s nearly twelve. I run my hand through his thick hair, which needs another cut. He is almost as tall as I am.When he was younger, I sometimes called him by my brother’s name.

•••

My mother had custody of Adrian, but rather than force Adrian to move with her and his three younger sisters into a two bedroom apartment with new stepbrother and stepdad, he was allowed to continue living with his dad and me in our mobile home in Camano Island, Washington. My mother was choosing her battles. I was just starting my senior year in high school, so my mother, thankfully, had left me there as well. Adrian and his dad wiled away the days eating ice cream from the carton and watching Tron. I tried to drag Adrian out of bed so I could drive him to sixth grade, but he was too big and stubborn for me. I gave up, leaving them both sleeping. This went on until my stepdad and Adrian moved to their own apartment and I was the only one left at home, finishing high school. I went to school, worked at the grocery store, sautéed mushrooms for dinner and listened to the silence of the house, telling me it was time to go.

After my first semester at college, I spent Christmas with my brother and my stepdad at their apartment. We ate pizza and they both fell asleep early on Christmas Eve. I stayed up reading Adrian’s X-Men comics, carefully replacing them back in their plastic sleeves when I was finished. Shortly after that Christmas, my stepdad quit his job passively, by not showing up, stopped paying his rent and disappeared with Adrian.

•••

Last summer, Logan went to an overnight camp for a week. He had been excited when we signed him up, but the week before it was time to leave, he insisted he didn’t want to go. His stomach hurt. He couldn’t sleep. I showed him videos from the website of kids around the campfire smiling broadly. I talked about camp games, bonfires and horseback riding. I assured him he was going to love it, so he reluctantly rolled up his sleeping bag. But the camp rules didn’t allow phones and as the week approached, I tried to stifle my own fears. What if some of the kids were cruel to him? What if something horrible happened and he didn’t feel like he could call me? Outside of the letters I wrote ahead of time for him, I would be unable to reach him. By the time a handwritten letter from him arrived in my mailbox, he’d be home. While he was gone, I dreamed when I went to pick him up, he wasn’t there. Kids were reuniting with their parents all around me, but no one knew where he was. I tried to call the police, but over the line the officer said things like you left him there in the woods with a bunch of strangers? and he didn’t want to go, but you pushed him into it?

•••

I left my car at the House of Pancakes. As I climbed in next to my mother, she handed me a thermos of coffee. We pulled onto the freeway. She was all business, filling me in on the way. They were in a small town in northern California. The policewoman who called her had suggested that she just go back to sleep and come get him tomorrow. Adrian was fine so there was no rush. My mother said she’d been looking for her son for eight months and he’d been found, so how could that stupid woman tell her to go back to sleep? She’d come and get her son right this instant, thank you. Adrian wouldn’t have to spend one more night with that asshole he had for a father. I sipped my lukewarm coffee, extra sweet like my mother always made it, so it tasted less like coffee and more like a melted candy. I wondered how we got to be so dysfunctional. I was in a small, private college that I’d bullied my way into with good grades and multiple phone calls and I didn’t see anyone around me with families like mine. I was nineteen and not yet done being embarrassed about my entire life up to this point.

We drove into the night, up through the curving hills of the pass, often silent. I knew I was supposed to be helping my mom stay awake, so I tried to talk about my classes, my friends, my boyfriend, but she didn’t ask many questions. I knew her focus was elsewhere. As we pulled into a lonely open Chevron in the Southern Oregon town of Grants Pass, she said, “I should have never left him with his dad.”

“How were you supposed to know he was going to take off?”

“I should have known. But I’m getting him back now. He’s going to be part of our family again.”

I didn’t mention that her new family with my second stepdad was not my idea of our family and probably wasn’t Adrian’s either. None of us kids knew what our idea of family was anymore. She gripped the wheel tightly as we drove south and the shadows of the trees flew past.

Eventually, she told me to go ahead and lie down in the back. The back seats had been turned down so there was a space large enough to curl into. I pulled a blanket around me. Adrian had never called while he was missing, causing my mother to go frantic with worry. I had figured he was safe. My stepdad had never hurt him. Not physically anyway. However, I also knew my stepdad was a broken and twisted man, one with dark wounds inside. I couldn’t be totally sure of anything about him. Before he disappeared, he’d written me letters describing the futility of life. He was giving away what meager things he had left. I watched the darkness through the window and wondered why my brother had never called. When I woke three hours later, the sun rose over the mountains of northern California.

•••

Logan complains loudly and frequently about school. He tells me he’s bored and he’s learning nothing. In the morning I wake him and he rolls over, whining do I have to go? As if I ever tell him anything different. Yes, you have to go. If he were allowed, he would eat ice cream out of the carton and watch Tron all day. I make him go to school. I get dressed, make lunches and make myself go to work. I don’t call in sick to stay home reading all day and watching bad movies for hours, complaining that going to work is just buying into the system and letting corporate American run your life. I am not my stepdad. I am my mother, who forced herself to finish her last term in college while Adrian was missing, made lunches for my sisters every day and tried to create a family, as complicated and exhausting as it was.

•••

I took over the driving and a couple hours later we rolled into Ukiah, where my brother had been living for the past few months. My mother had closed her eyes, leaning her head against the window, but she had not slept. I longed to grab coffee, but my mother was not stopping. We pulled into the police station parking lot to get Adrian. I wondered if my dad was in jail and if I’d have to see him there.

Inside, I was unnerved by the police officers and the official feel of everything. It was as though I was in a world where I didn’t belong. My mother told the attendant at the front who she was and we were asked to wait. Nobody seemed to be in much of a hurry. After a while, a man came out to shake our hands, introducing himself as an officer. He led us back to a small room where we sat at a round table.

“Where is my son?” my mom demanded, embarrassing me with her aggressive voice.

“Adrian is just fine,” the officer said in a placating voice. “You can get him shortly. I just need to go over some paperwork with you.” In the conversation, the officer said things like, just needed to get away for a while, didn’t mean to cause a big problem and were just getting on their feet. When he told my mother that Adrian had been allowed to go back with his dad yesterday to their apartment for one last night, my mother flipped her lid.

“You allowed what?” My mother had that hysterical tone she got when she was about to throw something. I hoped she wouldn’t. My mother had thrown glass plates, laundry baskets and toys, although generally not at any person. Once she threw a plastic Sesame Street mug so hard it chipped the Formica counter, leaving a vivid reminder to stay out of the way of her wrath. My mother pounded her fingers on the paperwork, stood and slapped her purse down on the table, demanding to know why, when my brother had been kidnapped and missing for so long, he was allowed to go home with the person who kidnapped him. I wondered if I should move the stapler out of her reach.

Even I could tell my stepdad had gotten to this officer. I’d only just recently begun to separate myself from my stepdad’s manipulation and to recognize it for what it was. It was just a year ago that I’d secretly arranged a visit between him and my three younger sisters, against my mother’s wishes. He always seemed so sad, such a victim of circumstances, such a victim period. Nothing was ever his fault. Emotional wounds. Neglect. He twisted things to where I found myself forgiving him, feeling sorry for him, blaming someone else. Sometimes myself.

My mother was having none of it. The officer looked at her as if her hostile behavior proved everything he had suspected. I wished I had slept more. I wished I had coffee. I wished I was at home eating breakfast with my boyfriend. I had a philosophy paper to write. I wished I was anywhere else but here. The officer finally broke in. He told my mother that Adrian could be picked up now. However, he suggested strongly that my mother shouldn’t go, since she was obviously volatile and would likely upset the household. My mother looked like she might upset the entire police force in about five seconds. “I’ll go, Mom,” I said quickly. “I’ll get him.”

•••

Logan and I read together every night, still. He knocks on my bedroom when he’s sick, his lanky form a shadow in my doorway. When he’s in trouble with his dad, he brings his tears to me. When he is pushed or punched at school, he eventually confides in me. He curls his thin body against mine when we watch Harry Potter. I can’t imagine him being without me for eight months. I can’t imagine what I would do or say. What I would throw.

•••

The apartment was one in a row of one-bedrooms on a street with cracked sidewalks with tufts of struggling weeds in the yards. My stepdad opened the door when I knocked, giving his small, sad sigh. “Sorry,” he said, “that you had be here.” He kicked a few empty Chinese food cartons out of the way as he shuffled to the kitchen. His dark hair flopped in his eyes. He wore jeans and a ripped tee-shirt. I doubted he was working. Probably doing advertising copy for the local paper occasionally and calling himself a writer. My brother came in from the hallway, lugging a box of comic books.

“Hi, Nomes,” he said. His hair was greasy and unkempt and he was distinctly taller than I remembered, with ankles showing under his too short jeans. He smiled at me awkwardly, then looked at his dad.

“I’ll get your bags,” my stepdad said, heading down the hallway with a hangdog look.

Adrian and I put his comic books in the car. “Can I have a hug?” I asked and he leaned in. He needed a shower. As we separated, I felt the weight of the trip, my mother sitting back at the station, steaming mad, the months of waiting. As we looked at each other, I crumpled into tears. “Why didn’t you call?” I asked, covering my face with one hand, the other gripping the trunk.

He looked at me, surprised. “Dad said we might as well wait to call until we got our apartment and knew where we were going to be. And he said if I called then I’d never be able to see him again.” He leaned over to pat my arm as I continued to cry. “It’s no big deal. I was fine,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.” He repeated it, “It’s going to be okay, Nomes.”

•••

My mother and I took Logan to the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. It’s an incredible museum full of twists, turns, nooks and crannies. Kids climb up in a tube through the walls and into the ceiling to spy on the people below. Dark and sneaky spots lurk throughout. I thought Logan was right ahead of me, but I lost him. I tried to keep calm, telling myself he was just in one of those dark corners, sorting out a spy code, looking over a watch with a secret blade. I had left my mother choosing her spy name. I walked quickly back through the entire museum, scanning all the crowds. I hurried through the rest of the exhibits, not noticing anything but the fact that he was not there. When I reached the gift shop a second time, I counted back. He’d been missing maybe twenty-five minutes. If he’d been taken, he’d be twenty-five minutes down the road now.In some unmarked van. A lot can happen in twenty-five minutes. I found a security officer and trying not to look like I was hysterical, I described Logan. He radioed out to the other staff and we began walking back through the museum. Thirty minutes? Thirty-five minutes? My breath shortened as I realized that this could actually be happening. The thing that terrifies every parent.We turned the corner to see a different security officer standing with Logan. “Hi Mom,” he said. I started crying. Surprised, he reached over, patting me. “It’s okay,” he said, “I was fine.”

•••

What I remember is Adrian arguing with my mother on the long drive home. He hadn’t been to school the entire time he’d been with his dad so he’d have to repeat sixth grade. Adrian’s protests went on and on as the miles distanced us from California. Insisting he didn’t want to go to school. Demanding his own room. Informing her that his stepbrother was jerk. His stepfather was a sellout to society. My mother tried to reason with him until she finally argued back, in frustration. He was twelve years old, she was his mother and by god, he would be living with her and following the rules of her house. That’s what I remember.

My mother remembers none of that. She only remembers being so grateful, so relieved, so happy, as the road took the three of us back up north through the long afternoon and into the night.

•••

NAOMI ULSTED is a fiction and memoir writer. Her work has been published in Salon, Narratively, and Luna Luna. She is currently working on a middle grade urban fantasy, with help from her son. She lives with her two boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, where she is also the director of a Job Corps center training program for at-risk teens.

Read more FGP essays by Naomi Ulsted.

Urban Race Car Driver’s Manual

Photo by dodge challenger1/Flickr

By Laura Zera

  1. Punch the number sequence on the garage-door keypad with increasing agitation until you get it right. Slide into your supercharged Mini Cooper—red, with white racing stripes—and start it up, engaging “sport” mode so the exhaust backfires when you take your foot off the gas. You like this feature. It makes you feel like a renegade, just as when you drove your first car, a loaner from your father. You were sixteen, and he’d known you for less than a year. He hadn’t a clue about your lead foot when he handed over the keys for a 340-horsepower, four-barrel Dodge Challenger. It was orange, with black racing stripes.
  2. Turn on the radio, harumph at the commercials, and plug in your phone. Scroll through the dozen or so playlists to find one of the only two that you ever play anymore: The Tragically Hip, whose song lyrics have replaced mitochondria in the cells of one out of every three Canadians, or Little India, a band you adore both despite and due to your nephew’s role as bass guitarist.
  3. Crank up the tunes to drown out your next-door neighbor, who near-permanently idles on the front porch to chain smoke and cough a wretched aria that crescendos with him hocking multitudes of loogies over the edge. Sometimes he coughs so hard he vomits, and you almost vomit. Sometimes you want to swear at him, but the menace of the teardrop tattoo on his face keeps your words in check.
  4. Throw the gearshift in reverse. Inch back until you clear the garage; hit the gas and rocket to the driveway’s end. Execute this maneuver by looking over your shoulder, a habit ingrained since your Young Drivers of Canada lessons. It strikes you as ironic that your father paid for the program; it hadn’t struck him as necessary to help with food and rent when you first fled your psychosis-afflicted mother and had nowhere to live. Your sister intervened, negotiating two hundred bucks a month from him so she could move into a bigger apartment and you could have a bed. Once you saw how it worked, you started scheduling your own appointments at his office to plead for what you needed: cash for your senior high school trip; cash to buy a prom dress; cash to see a therapist. He squirmed and flinched and cleared his throat. You took his money.
  5. Hit the brakes hard.
  6. Turn the music down a notch so the neighbors don’t think you’re a tool, though you’ve always loved the adrenaline whammy of operating a moving vehicle while rocking out. You even remember the song that was playing the moment the Dodge Challenger slammed into a lamp post, after your attempt to beat Mike in his silver Honda turned into a fishtail on a corner. Your father was upset that you wrecked his car. You pretended you didn’t care. Physically, you were fine, aside from glass in your hair and a bruise or two. Your cassette tape had a permanent warp at the moment of impact. It was in the middle of Black Cars by Gino Vannelli.
  7. Avoid looking in the rearview mirror. You don’t want to be reminded of the dark circles under your eyes.
  8. Look in the rearview mirror to check for chia seeds between your teeth. Notice the dark circles under your eyes.
  9. Roll back past the perimeter hedge and scout for the sibling set who always seem to be traipsing past your driveway but won’t make eye contact with you. Their mother doesn’t, either. It all started one sweltering day in July, eight years ago. Your husband walked three lots south to their house and asked the patriarch to turn down his music. Its booming bass broke your concentration while you worked on the eulogy for your father’s funeral. Papa was drinking. He swore at your husband for coming onto his property without a shirt on and disrespecting him. Meanwhile, you were trying to write something that was respectful. The anecdotes all originated within the last decade; it had required that much time to cease being merely transactional with your father, for you to pull back on your condemnation of what he wasn’t and allow some acceptance of what he was. Loving is more difficult than driving, you’d discovered. But you were determined to stand in the front of the hall at his service and demonstrate—to his friends, business associates, yourself—that you’d been an attentive enough daughter to speak to his character and accomplishments.
  10. A cursory check for traffic.
  11. Pull out into the street. As you shift from reverse to first, let your car roll before you hit the gas so anyone who’s looking can tell you own a standard, thus putting you in an elevated category of drivers. It’s also vital to impress upon the young man across the street that middle age doesn’t equate to boring and feeble. And yes, you admit, you advance this point with your loud music, too.
  12. Drive off, taking both hands off the steering wheel to fasten your seat belt. The German engineering in your British car makes it so it practically steers itself.
  13. Keep the speedometer under thirty until you turn the corner, otherwise you will be one of the many your husband curses at for speeding on your street.
  14. Head for the highway so you can push the needle on your tachometer past five as you shift into sixth. This is when you need to hang on to the wheel. Right now.
  15. Pull out into the left lane to pass a taupe Toyota, and another taupe Toyota, and an orange Dodge Challenger with black racing stripes. The model was restarted in 2008, a year before your father died. You feel a familiar pang of regret, wishing once again that you’d dropped by a dealership with him and taken the car for a test drive, an homage to how far the two of you had come, outdistancing expectation and obligation. And yet, still not far enough. You would have appreciated the chance to rack up another hundred thousand miles with him before his engine gave out, even knowing the limits of his responsiveness: As much as you itched to bring up the old days—when you were a six-year-old at Christmas and he didn’t show up, and a thirty-three-year old on your birthday and he didn’t show up—if he couldn’t address his failings as a human, neither could you. Emotional limits have an upside, though. In your father’s shortsightedness, he didn’t see your failings.
  16. Sing as you drive. Even if you don’t know all the words, sing. Emulate the vocal stylings of Adele mashed up with Dave Grohl, and scream and thrash your head around and drum on the steering wheel until your conscience is deaf.

•••

LAURA ZERA’s work can be found in Catapult, Quartz, The Washington Post, and other places. She has completed a memoir and is working on a novel set in South Africa. Website: laurazera.com. Twitter: @laurazera.

Regeneration

By Mark Morgan/Flickr

By Carla Sameth

Do you ever have one of those days where nothing feels like what you want to be doing? Like when you said goodbye to your twenty-one-year-old son who is visiting you and your wife in Connecticut where you’re staying temporarily, and he’s heading over to New York City, by train, to experience the city on his own terms? And you are nervous—like old times?

•••

Do you remember saying goodbye to your son as he went into the first inpatient treatment center? Do you remember leaving that day sobbing swimming pools­ worth of jagged tears? Ear-shattering howling when you were in your car. You thought you’d lost him forever. He blamed you for all of it: the drugs, the anxiety, his unhappiness. You saw the other boys. You’d see this again. You knew about the bullying, imagined the fear, intuited the sense of aloneness. Perhaps he was still hating, while desperately missing you, his mom. Trying to run away and wanting to climb into bed with you. He was still tethered but the line was frayed.

Once you left him at summer camp and he was the one who would not stop crying, who would not stay on the bus while other kids gave quick hugs and skipped happily away for the summer. Later, you might wonder if you should have turned yourself in to the Child Protective Services because you insisted he go. After all, you had plans, he was going with your friend’s son and you couldn’t just send her boy without your son. Then he sent that letter—you know, the please, Mom, rescue me now before it’s too late letter. And when you called, he told you he was okay, not to come. Later you wondered: were they threatening him with something?

•••

Did you know that worms fly onto your car and manage somehow to hold on even as you drive rapidly down the freeway? What makes them cling so steadfastly to the windshield? What are they doing there? Is it fun? Is someone scared for them? Are they saying Wheeeeee!!!

There is a man, Mark Hostetler, who calls himself a “Splatologist” and studies the “bloody show” that appears on windshields. He wrote, That Gunk on Your Car: A Unique Guide to Insects of North America and will tell you what are the most common insects to splat and leave road kill on a windshield.

Another article by Forest Health tells us about Canker Worms on windshields when I see a picture it looks like the worm on our windshield this morning. We—my wife, my son, and I—all wondered about that worm during the twenty minute drive to the train station to drop off my son where he’d take a train to New Haven and another to New York City.

My son’s dad, who I divorced long ago, was nostalgic about departures in a particular way that I can relate to—like saying goodbye to a loved one in a train station. But he was talking about an ex-girlfriend, “the one that got away.” And how you know that’s the end when you hug goodbye and say, I love you.

When my wife and I said goodbye to my son this morning, we knew he was coming back on Monday, and we know that we will see him again before he goes back to California. But what if someone murders him, or rapes him with a steel pipe, or really anything in the youth hostel? And what if he’s so tired and jet lagged (remember, he said he couldn’t sleep all night) and he loses all his identification? And he gets picked up and put in immigration detention indefinitely because he looks so much like he’s from the Dominican Republic, or Ethiopia, or Brazil. What if he’s racially profiled and accused of something that justifies a taking down by police, then he’s arrested, and he ends up on Riker’s Island?

•••

The worm must have lost the battle and been blown off from his sticky spot on our windshield or crawled off as if nothing fazed it. But it’s no longer there. I looked it up and I’m quite certain this is that sticky worm from North Carolina. How did it get there on our windshield here in Connecticut? I was in Charlotte two weeks ago but didn’t go by car. Did the worm come back with me? Come out of my suitcase, my clothes, my hair? Or maybe I ingested it by mistake and it came out in my poop.

•••

Saying goodbye to my son this morning hurt my heart. There are so many things I wanted to do, to be, to give, as a mother. I wanted to leave my son with the ability or means to have financial security, a house (but my second marriage and recession killed that), with a sense of self worth and safe refuge always (although, my wife and I don’t even know where we’ll be physically living in some years). And of course I wanted to be the all-encompassing earth mother.

I can say that he knows I’ll always be there for him. But always calm, I didn’t make the grade. My list of regrets is long and it’s more like an A –Z essay of all the ways I failed.

•••

Thinking and feeling: Worms have a brain that connects with nerves from their skin and muscles. Their nerves can detect light, vibrations, and even some tastes, and the muscles of their bodies make movements in response.

So they have a brain. Does it cause them pain—do they use it to torture themselves?

What about a heart? (This same article says they have five hearts!)

My son wonders what would it be like to be that worm—would life be simpler, easier, less painful?

What does it mean when my son imagines it easier to be a worm then to live his own life?

I get it; I’ve thought about being a cow.

But if a worm has five hearts and each heart can be broken many times in a lifetime, do worms live in constant grief?

•••

My son says his cousins (my sister’s two kids) are just perfect. I ask him to consider himself an amazing person: passionate, creative, with a great sense of humor and justice. To consider all that he is—partially because of what he went through—who created him/his family, and the experiences positive and negative. His recovery that helped solidify the spiritually sound young man he is. I tell him, again, that he has a big life ahead of him. He didn’t have a ready answer but said he thought he knew what I meant. I tell him I love my niece and nephew, but my time with him, well, I didn’t have the right words, but it’s a real three scoop banana split, maybe strawberry, pineapple and hot fudge, without the calories, and more. It’s joyous I tell him, my life with you, or when he sends me a link to a song or movie and watching it makes me cry. The posts on FB where he tells me that he is proud of my graduating from my MFA program. At fifty-seven.

My son has sometimes seemed like he wished to be someone else. Or that his name be Joe, instead of Raphael. When he was about five, a young girl he went to preschool with would come over to play, and one Friday afternoon they fought over the possession of a worm. Don’t worry, they regenerate, they’ll repair themselves my mom told me when I said I imagined they would rip it in two soon. My mom knew these things; she scored the highest in biology (Regents exams) in New York in her day. Raphael wanted to bring that worm to Shabbat dinner. This is not something my sister’s mother-in-law would have appreciated. I was odd enough already—single mom, lesbian, biracial child, financially…variable.

If worms can regenerate, I wonder if they become two brand new beings?

Do people regenerate themselves; do parents secretly hunger for this, an ability to create a second chance for all the earlier screw-ups? Do they live through their children and then try again with the grandchildren, employing entirely different strategies?

I couldn’t regenerate my business and I’m happy to say I finally traded it away to write for pennies or a kick in the pants. Worries fill my head in a way I doubt would happen as a worm but I suspect at ninety- or one-hundred-years-old, I’ll look up and say, And I went all this time without being homeless or hungry. And my son was just fine. God, I hope I don’t live that long. I just want to be a good enough person for the rest of what life I have. And maybe someday spend time with a grandchild or two.

My wife seems to have no desire to be reborn a worm on a windshield. She says she hates people and rails against every living human in her most curmudgeonly times. She doesn’t wish for regeneration, only rest. Once when I wailed about my stockpiled fatigue to my son’s dad, When do I get to rest? he said, You rest when you die.

My son used to cling to me and we seemed inseparable. And then, in his early twenties, it became time for my son to separate from me, and he had to pull away in a manner that felt almost violent in its starkness. When he was in his teens, drug addiction tore him away from me while at the same time we were still fiercely, unhappily intertwined. In recovery, for almost two years, our relationship under repair and thriving, I saw and spoke with him far more regularly than my friends did with their kids who went away to college. They sobbed tears of empty nesters while I was grateful for getting back my loving son. Then it was time for him to move out of the young man’s recovery house and get on with his life. And his young sober social life was more alive then what most of us experienced (not sober) at that time in our lives. Out there enjoying himself, without the same contained structure of the recovery house he’d lived in for almost two years, after we’d been together so intensely all his young life, he sometimes didn’t return a call or text for a few days. He acted like a “normal” twenty-year-old. I got my first dose of empty nest. He was really leaving home, leaving me, and in a healthy way.

I felt gutted. I just remember his little boy head falling over my shoulder when I carried him, asleep. Warm, soft, muggy sweaty lovey heavy feeling.

I remember his little baby lips moving in his sleep, nursing, leaving little milk blisters from sucking so much. And I remember how many ways a mom is split in half each time we say goodbye to our children: at birth, the rare moments one of us sleeps, at preschool where he feels torn away and you wonder whether he sat alone playing in the sand all day like you found him, or at the last residential rehab where there were more drugs inside then outside? I don’t know if we regenerate or not. Or if we are left unmoored. With only phantom limbs.

When my son left for New York this morning, he seemed ready. And tired. He said we snored and his long lanky body was too big for the sofa. My wife and I argued over whose snores kept him awake. And I wonder, will I hear from him today? That he arrived safely and is living his dream of traveling alone in New York City?

He probably has forgotten about the idea of being a worm right now. I miss him.

And I know that I can’t be the sticky worm on his windshield though; I’d fall right off.

All five of my hearts are breaking.

•••

CARLA SAMETH is a writer and mother living in Pasadena. Her story, “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” which ran in Narratively, was selected by Longreads for “Five Stories About Addiction.” Carla was selected as a fall 2016 PEN In The Community Teaching Artist, and teaches at the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP) at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA).  She is a member of the Pasadena Rose Poets. Carla has an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University. Learn more at carlasameth.com and on Twitter: @carlasameth.

 

Lake House

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Milena Nigam

We arrive at the cottage at night, feeling for the gate latch in the dark. Then, with our arms tightly around the two boys, we slowly make our way down the stone stairs through the patio garden. Kamal, my husband, uses his cell phone to light our path in a single, glowing square. A wolf spider freezes above the screen door, and because the kids are with me, I pretend there’s nothing scary about opening a door in the dark when one enormous spider and who knows how many others hidden outside the cell phone light hover within touching distance.

“Do you have the key?” I whisper to Kamal.

“I’ve got it,” he says in his normal voice, the volume exaggerated over the gentle chorus of night bugs chirping from the forest behind us. We all have loud voices in our family: Kamal, Oscar, Simon, and me. In the dark, standing before the empty cottage, Kamal’s voice booms.

“Can I choose my room?” Oscar, our eight-year-old, asks.

“Shh shh shh,” I say, uncertain of being there until we’re inside.

Kamal unlocks the door.

“Ho, ho, here we are,” he says, punching along the wall to flick the light switch.

The inside smells like baked wood, warm air that hovers without circulation. Here we are. Mingling with the ghosts of my family.

•••

My great-grandparents purchased the cottage on Quaker Lake in 1906 and named it Forest Lodge. The story I know is that the cottage was built as a boarding house for the laborers who constructed the first homes around the lake. Before my great-grandparents bought it, the boarding house was split in two, with one half moved onto a neighboring plot of land. Our family’s half has the Great Room: a heavy, smoky space with a floor-to-ceiling fireplace built from the large stones mined around the lake. The Great Room staircase is made of birch logs, the papery bark curling where it has torn, just like the trees outside. Each bedroom has its own corner sink with only a cold water faucet, so small that it takes just the gentlest of fingers to work it. The wood around the sinks blooms in red water stains from a century of washing.

My great-grandparents died when my grandmother was young, but she still spent every summer at the cottage with her older brother and their commanding Grandfather Sisson. When my mom was a child, she and her sister spent one month every summer at the lake; their cousins enjoyed the house for the other month. By the time it got to my generation, we visited Quaker Lake to celebrate milestones: my grandparents’ fortieth and fiftieth wedding anniversaries, the one-hundred-year anniversary of Forest Lodge.

When Kamal and I were first dating, he joined my family at the lake for a weekend before my college graduation in nearby Ithaca, New York. The water was so cold; the spring ice had just recently melted. Kamal loves to swim. He had his bathing suit on that first afternoon, so of course I had to follow, wrapped in my oversized towel, shivering in bare feet on the stone walkway down to the lake. Before I had time to even dip my fingers in to gauge the temperature, Kamal dove off the stiff diving board, large bubbles escaping from his nose underwater. When we returned to the cottage together a half hour later, damp towels hanging heavily around our bare shoulders, Kamal’s black hair tousled every which way into spiky needles, my grandfather greeted us on the porch, rocking on a wicker chair with a golden old fashioned in his hand.

“Kamal, good job,” he said. “You got her in.” My grandmother was in the kitchen, puttering around with dinner preparations. “In every couple, there needs to be someone who helps us more reserved folk have a little fun.”

My teeth chattered. The sun behind us was weak.

“Papa, I just don’t like being cold,” I said.

He smiled at me. “But you had fun, didn’t you?”

•••

My mom’s cousin, Tom, and his wife, Wendy, have owned Forest Lodge for the past twenty years. Tom inherited it from his father, my grandmother’s brother. They are in their late seventies. Owning the cottage is becoming burdensome for them, but they would like to keep it in the family. Kamal and I live in Pittsburgh, a six-hour drive away. Having the house at Quaker Lake would be a dream come true for both of us. We’ve been talking about the specifics over the phone with Tom and Wendy since January. They invited us to spend this week before Labor Day to test it out. Our assumption is that we will buy the house from them in September.

•••

We drop our bags on the floor in the front room and go immediately to the dock to stare across the black water where my grandfather used to dive, where my aunt lost her engagement ring. Outside, the air is still and cool and the kids are finally quiet. Kamal lies on his back on the carpeted boards and searches through the Milky Way, the stars stretching above us in wide, dusty swatches. We go back inside, brush our teeth in the little corner sinks, and fall asleep cocooned within the deeply stained wood slats that make up the floors, walls and ceiling of the second floor.

•••

The last time we were at the cottage, just months earlier, it was a short visit to deliver my mother’s ashes to the family mausoleum in Binghamton, New York. My stepfather saved the last handful to sprinkle into the lake water. Before the sun dropped over the pastured ridge, two perfect rainbows bent across the white sky. Oscar, our older son, had been so in love with my mom that he often misbehaved in her presence. He and I sat silently in our kayaks on the darkening water and watched those rainbows until the moment they were no longer there. I have no belief in God, spend no time in spiritual inquiry. Those rainbows, however, hit me hard, reminding me that there are things in the large, large world we don’t understand. Connections hidden in physics, in chemistry, in the metaphysical. A perfect double-rainbow.

•••

When I wake in the morning, steam is rising off the lake. Simon, our younger son, and I take our breakfast onto the front porch and wrap a fleece blanket around our legs. Oscar and Kamal fish off the dock. They pull something glittery out of the water, and Oscar’s bare feet slap against the stone walkway, then up the porch steps.

“We caught a fish!” he announces, then runs back to the dock. The sun has burned through the morning steam. He and Kamal grasp the slippery body, and Kamal removes the hook. Oscar uses both hands to toss the fish back in the water. He runs back to the porch.

“Can we buy this house?” he asks. “Please?” His front teeth are coming in, squeezing out the space of several lost baby teeth. I love how his tongue smacks thickly in his mouth when he speaks. In September, he will start fourth grade, which was my favorite year in school.

Simon puts down his toast on the blanket. “Please? Can we buy the house?” he asks. Simon is growing his hair long; silky brown chunks hang past his ears. He’ll be in first grade soon. Under the blanket, his skinny legs are warm next to mine.

From the porch, I watch my husband on the dock. He stands still, looking out. A fracking truck rumbles down the narrow road on the far end of the lake.

We told the kids we would make our decision at the end of our stay, that we wanted to enjoy our visit to Quaker Lake without spending the whole vacation thinking about something as huge as buying a house. But of course we’ve already decided.

“I don’t know,” I tell the boys. “Daddy and I will tell you when we get home to Pittsburgh.”

“I think we should buy it,” Oscar says.

“We have to buy it,” Simon says.

The one thing I had been uncertain about was whether I might be scared at the cottage. Whether, without grandparents and parents and my sister and cousins, it would feel too lonely. My mom and grandfather both died during the past year, my grandmother just a few years before them. But it’s not ghosts that I feel at Forest Lodge. Instead, it’s the certainty of history. My family history. And now, looking into Oscar and Simon’s faces, I see it’s their family history. It’s so clearly our futures, too.

•••

We make tacos for dinner. The gas burner ticks and then catches, the flame chasing around the circle until it’s well-controlled. Kamal browns the ground beef while I dice grocery store tomatoes, and we talk quietly about the cottage.

“The drop ceilings have to go,” he says, speaking of the kitchen.

I nod my head yes. “But I don’t want to change the feel in here,” I say. “It’s dated. I love that.” The light wood cabinets have brass fixtures; the countertops are pale yellow laminate threaded in splotchy amber veins. One of the cutting boards is a polished piece of a neighbor’s old diving board. “I remember sitting at the table with Gam and Papa, shucking corn. Eating tuna fish on white bread and drinking 7-Up.”

We count things. Weeks of paid vacation. Weeks of unpaid vacation. Years until retirement. The miles from Pittsburgh. We brainstorm how to spend as many days at the lake as possible.

Tom and Wendy call us after dinner.

“We just want to check in. See how everything’s going,” Tom says. He and my grandmother grew up in Binghamton, only a half-generation apart. Over the phone, he sounds just like her, taking time with his vowels.

“How are you?” Wendy asks, almost in a whisper, like telling a secret she wants to take back.

“The cottage is great,” I tell them. “Just like I always picture it. The boys love it.”

“I’ve asked Jeanie Coughlin to stop by this week to say hello. She was great friends with your mom growing up,” Tom says.

Kamal writes me a note on a pad of paper by the phone. Tell them we’ll make arrangements for me to fly out to Binghamton next week. We can hire a lawyer to draft the sales documents. He’s ready.

Simon comes down the stairs in his fleece skull-and-bones pajamas. He can’t fall asleep. I hold back relaying Kamal’s note to Tom and Wendy. We can figure it out in a few days. After Simon is settled in his bed, Kamal and I tuck under our down comforter. We have to stretch across the king-size mattress to find each other.

•••

On our last morning, we take turns swimming the quarter mile across the lake. I swim first. Kamal ties a rope between a boogie board and the rowboat and pulls Simon, in his bright yellow life vest, behind him as he rows. Oscar paddles his own kayak.

I’ve swum across the lake a handful of times, always an event when we gather at Forest Lodge. Like every other time, I’m nervous before heading out. The water is cold. I push off from the algae-slick ladder and curl up my legs until I’m past the waving underwater plants. I know the fish won’t nibble at my skin as long as I keep moving.

Kamal rows beside me. Oscar shouts he wants to paddle ahead. Simon sings an adventure tune from his board. I do the breast stroke with my head above water, like always. My hands meet in front of me, my arms white beneath the surface. Scoop and glide. I blow out through my mouth but the glacier smell of the water still makes its way into my nose. It’s untouched, primeval. I have swum this length with my mom and my sister, with my stepfather. With my aunt in the rowboat, towels piled on the bench seat beside her.

•••

Before Oscar was born, I had a miscarriage. I was pregnant for thirteen weeks, the second half of the short pregnancy spent holding my stomach against waves of nausea. I bled and then cramped and then lost what had been growing inside me. The depth of loss took me by surprise.

“I don’t understand how I can miss something we never had,” I cried to Kamal from the toilet, blood clotting between my legs.

He kneeled next to me, his fingers stroking the palm of my hand.

“It’s because we’ve lost the future,” he said.

•••

When we get home to Pittsburgh, I email Tom and Wendy to tell them that we absolutely want to buy the house, become the next owners of Forest Lodge. Kamal reaches out to our local real estate agent to understand what needs to be done, even though she won’t be part of the final transaction. I don’t hear anything back from Tom and Wendy, so I wait a few days and try again by email.

Kamal’s schedule at work is pretty open. He can book a flight to Binghamton next week. Does that work for you?

The next night, Tom calls.

“I’m sorry to say we’ve changed our minds,” he says.

On the extension, Wendy speaks at the same time. “It’s just too much, you see.”

“It’s my fault,” Tom continues ahead. “I hadn’t talked clearly with Wendy. It turns out, we aren’t ready to sell the cottage.”

I scan my memory, racing through the many, detailed conversations we’ve had over the past eight months. Tom going over phone numbers for the handyman, for the pest control. Tom and Wendy telling us about the families around the lake, suggesting a summer camp the boys will want to try. Both of them certain that our family will love the lake as much as they have.

Tom slips in, almost as if I won’t hear it, “You see, we decided we couldn’t sell it when our granddaughter visited for the fourth of July. She just loves it too much.”

“But our visit was at the end of August,” I say, finally part of the conversation.

Wendy explains, “We were hoping you wouldn’t like it. Then we never would have to tell you we changed our minds.”

•••

I go through a period of mourning. I don’t know if the loss is more difficult because my mom died the year before, or whether I should know better, having lost my mom so suddenly, that a house is just a house. It’s difficult to tell the kids we will not be buying Forest Lodge. That Quaker Lake is not our home after all. There is an emptiness that precedes me through the parts of each day. It is a painful autumn. November is the anniversary of my mom’s death.

“I could see our retirement,” I say to Kamal. The Steelers game on our neighbors’ TV flickers across our living room windows. This time of year, Tom and Wendy are closing up the cottage for winter. “We’d be there, sitting on the porch, looking across the water while the sun goes down over the ridge.”

“I could see it, too,” he says.

•••

MILENA NIGAM is a Pittsburgh-based writer and a 2016 fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She was a finalist in Cutthroat Journal’s Rick DeMarinis 2014 short story contest, and her work has appeared in Slice, The Fourth River, Lunch Ticket, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs and has recently completed a collection of short stories.

A Tribute to William Bradley

By Jennifer Niesslein

The literary community lost a brilliant essayist in William Bradley. For those of us who knew (or “knew” him, via his writing) him, we’ve also lost a great man. After I learned of his death, I wrote to his good friend Christian Exxo that they had the kind of friendship I wish for my son. By that, I meant that they were two guys who are and were ardent feminists, who shared a thriving life of the mind, who (I imagine) weren’t afraid to express love for each other. He was, to my mind, a model of modern masculinity.

Dinty W. Moore has written a fabulous account over at Brevity of William’s accomplishments, and there were many. William’s book Fractals blew me away.

William was my favorite kind of writer, someone who could make me crack up and mist over in the same essay. I published every piece he sent me. He wrote about his mortality often; his health was an ongoing concern after surviving cancer as a younger man. He loved both high culture and pop culture, including soaps, horror flicks, and comic books. Maybe because of this, I pegged him as a super-hero, invincible despite his ongoing health issues.

When I think of William’s life, though, I think of it as a love story. He loved deeply, and most especially his wife Emily Isaacson. Every one of his FGP essays was, I think, a love letter to her. He was cerebral and silly; hilarious without being cynical. It’s hard for me to separate William the writer from William the person because he was so forthright, both when I’d email him questions I had no business asking and when he’d post on Facebook with his characteristic humor and truth.

William was well-loved. For all of us who want to hang out with him a little longer: William Bradley’s FGP essays.

•••

JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People.

Vacation

Hi lovelies,

I’m taking off some time to spend it with my son, who’s heading off to college later this month. (Hey! Another awkward age for me!) I’ll be reading and responding to submissions—I know I’m behind.

We’ll be back after Labor Day. If I survive dorm shopping.

xo,

Jennifer

The Vermillion Thread and the End of the World

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Bir

Washing dishes in the kitchen, I hear the click-clack of our dog’s claws approaching. Half border collie and half Jack Russell, he’s always on the move, forced to herd humans indoors when sheep and the outdoors were unavailable. The floors throughout our small house are hardwood, so Scooter’s whereabouts are constantly audible. At first his clacking drove us crazy, but as the months wore on we grew accustomed to it, and it became a comfort, a manifestation of a happy family idyll.

Turning from the sink to Scooter, I notice a thin, shockingly red trail lead from under his furry body out into the living room. Is he bleeding? He wags his tail and gazes at me placidly from his shiny black eyes, unfazed. Dogs are usually unfazed, which is why people have them.

Directly under his belly I spot a bundle of thick vermillion embroidery thread, which he must have dropped. Scooter isn’t wounded—he’s gotten into my things again. The scamp! He’s six, yet still lapses into puppy-like urges to destroy, and narcissistically prefers soft, small, fuzzy targets.

I follow the thread’s scarlet trail into the living room and then find its terminus in my office, where I also keep my sewing things. I realize Scooter poked his muzzle into a paper grocery sack full of notions I’d picked up at a craft swap the day before. Unraveled, the thread seems impossibly long, as if it stretches out to a hidden dimension, an implication of a path whose visibility would soon dissolve. I’m more upset with Scooter’s impishness than the loss of the thread itself, which I nabbed simply because it was free and maybe someday I’d use it for something.

•••

For socks. That’s what is used it for. Our friend Matt had asked me to embroider socks for him to wear to the airport. Matt is a thinker but also an incurable stirrer-upper. He got a quickie Universal Life Church online ordination to officiate our wedding—he did an excellent job—and in his opening remarks he predictably cited Nietzsche. Shortly after that my husband and I moved to another state, and we carried on our friendship with Matt via emails and a thing we call mail art, which is us sending each other lumpy envelopes stuffed with amusingly bizarre odds and ends (or, more truthfully, garbage).

His sock concept was thus: as he went through security, his shoes in a plastic bin being x-rayed, he wanted the toes of his stocking feet to read

POLICE STATE

It was an unwise decision to enable this scheme of Matt’s. I hated to think of the socks causing a ruckus. This was at the tail end of the George W. Bush era, and the often arbitrary-seeming protocols of the Transportation Safety Administration were still freshly stinging to both civil liberties and personal convenience. Matt would be flying to his hometown with his young son to visit his family, his first trip back east since his wife had divorced him six months earlier. It was an acrimonious split. Always eccentric, Matt’s actions had taken an erratic, wounded bent since.

But in the quiet of my office I stared at the thread, Scooter laying by my side, and it called to me. I cut it into three knotty segments and wound it into three balls. Scooter whined; he wanted attention, or the thread, or both. He was still new to us at the time. My husband and I found him at the Humane Society, where, technically, he was on sale because his first adoptive family had returned him after two days. He was lovable and gentle but hampered with serious abandonment issues, and he demonstrated his resentment at being ignored by peeing or chewing on absorbent, valuable items. When we first spotted him, he had a tennis ball lodged in his mouth, like the apple in the jaws of a roast suckling pig.

Scooter’s fur was immanently touchable, soft and silky and peltlike. His insistence on being near me at all times struck a chord with my vanity, too. If I read on the sofa and Scooter sidled up next to me, his tiny, warm body lounging right against mine, I had to occasionally put the book down, so overcome was I with waves of contentment.

About thirty blocks from our house was a lovely, large park on an extinct volcano. I’d suit Scooter in his blue nylon harness and jaunt past the drug dealers next door, then past the used car dealerships and the broad-daylight sex workers on the corner. We crossed over to the nice side of the neighborhood, where the yards had well-tended flower beds and wooden play structures and elaborate handcrafted lawn ornaments. Then we’d go up the hundreds of steps to the top of the expired volcano and be above everything.

Sometimes at night, I walked Scooter a few short blocks after dark. His white fur glowed with an icy blue tint under the streetlights and his black leash melted against the backdrop of the asphalt, and he appeared to swim into the darkness, moving forward unceasingly into space, into oblivion.

Sometimes on walks my mind melded with Scooter’s and we journeyed together aware of nothing but what was around us at that moment. Usually I mulled over silly things, though, like the challenge of how to embroider letters on tube socks. It was very gratifying when I had a breakthrough, enough so that I ignored my instincts to refuse the project. My brainstorm was to embroider POLICE and STATE on two while felt patches, which Matt could Velcro or glue to the socks himself.

I had plenty of important things to do—get my Oregon driver’s license, complete my music column, write a card to my best friend to welcome her new baby into the world, look for a better job.

I didn’t do those things. I seized the red thread. I sewed the stitches and sealed the deal.

•••

Scooter was our baby. We needed him to fill the holes in our American dreams. I yearned to raise intelligent, sensitive children who would someday be soldiers of reason in this pre-Apocalyptic world of ours. Periodically, searing waves of resentment befouled my mood then retreated into a sea of resigned acceptance. I had crappy insurance, and no coverage through work. I had no sick leave, either. We couldn’t function without two incomes, but my income was dwarfed by what solid child care would cost.

We did it anyway. We had the child. It was selfish, really; there was no way we could afford to raise a kid in the middle-class manner we assumed was our birthright. “We’ll make it work!” I’d insisted. We named her Frances. She eclipsed Scooter.

He did not take it well, and he chewed up two quilts, a handmade Winnie-the-Pooh, and various other lovingly crafted baby shower gifts. Every day after work when she was young, I buckled Frances into the stroller and clipped Scooter’s leash to it with a carabiner, and we went on a million aimless walks through our neighborhood, up the volcano and down again. Scooter stopped to poop and I collected his petite turds in narrow blue bags that the newspaper was delivered in. It gives me a strange satisfaction to imagine those turds preserved in a landfill for thousands of years, nestled right next to Frances’s pee-saturated disposable diapers. I hated having to buy them, but was proud of myself for finding the ones that cost the least per unit. They were called Cuddle-Ups, and were the store brand at the twenty-four-hour grocery outlet where I obsessively compared prices on bulk products and produce sales. I liked Cuddle-Ups for not having cartoon characters on them and not smelling like a baby powder explosion. I always got unscented baby things because I adored Frances’s default baby smell, the one she came with. Every case of Cuddle-Ups gave me dozens more opportunities to bury sodden time capsules of my daughter.

I still like the way Frances smells. She often wakes up in the middle of the night and staggers robotically to our big bed and slides in next to me, and when I wake up I nuzzle the top of her head and I take in the nice plain smell of her little girl hair. Another parent might be doing the exact same thing as their house gets bombed. Another parent might miss the smell of her little girl’s hair because her daughter was killed or taken away by an evil that’s steadily creeping its way to us. Another parent might have no comfort but the notion of his child’s pee in a diaper in a landfill outlasting life on earth.

•••

Frances has been peeing in toilets for ages, and her current contribution to landfills is the plastic packaging of the plastic crap all kids in America seem to accumulate against the wishes of their parents, even though usually it’s us parents who buy it for them. Scooter is sixteen now, we think. He’s slower but continues to shadow me all over the house. There’s no way he could make it up the volcano these days, and he can’t rally the enthusiasm to chew anything but his food. I carry him up the stairs and am thankful for his compact size.

Nothing bad happened when Matt bared his embellished socks in the airport security line. That happened later, and gradually. Matt now has two ex-wives, and he’s not allowed to see his kids. The reason isn’t as awful as you might imagine, but the preposterousness of the situation is beyond imaginable and thus incredibly awful. Essentially, he did a bunch of little things demonstrating poor judgment, amounting to a pile of POLICE STATE socks that were used against his favor.

But I am equally guilty of lapses in judgement. I embroidered those socks; I lavish more attention on our dog than I do on the man I am married to; I scowl at people who buy bottled water while I myself get those cans of fruit-flavored fizzy water; I tap on icons on my phone and dive into digital wormholes while the entire natural world churns on, hobbled from my gas emissions and industrial runoff, without me noticing or caring. I board airplanes as a white, American-born woman and don’t have to consider if my nationality or skin color might lead to my forced removal from an overbooked flight or the denial of my reentry to the country. “We’ll make it work!” I still insist. I choose to be ignorant because I am arrogant.

•••

The bed Frances crawls into is a king-size bed, the epitome of living large. My husband and I are slender people, and there’s no decent reason for us to have such an upgrade, but my sleeping patterns have improved slightly since we bought the thing. Even so, I get nudged awake by Scooter or Frances in the middle of the night and find myself unable to slip back into slumber. Unresolvable blockades in my mind force themselves to the center of my thoughts, things that are ultimately of little consequence: overdue bills, overdue writing assignments, teaching appearances, or roller derby bouts I have coming up. The stillness of the evening turns menacing, and even as I remind myself the world will not end if I don’t turn my cookbook manuscript in on time, I suspect the cookbook or the overdue bill is an innocent front for a universal menace. Why did we have a kid when I sincerely believe human existence will be vastly, miserably altered in our lifetimes? Why do we spend so much emotion and energy—so much­—on this one goofy dog, when around the world, societies collapse? Why does it feel like no big deal as our society collapses?

In the midst of these episodes, I consider the peace of having Joe and Frances and Scooter so close to me, and how perhaps experiencing that is as good a reason as any to have been alive for even a minute. Our king-size bed is a chunk of pack ice breaking off from a polar ice shelf, the penultimate level of an epic video game, and every night we will it to float us into the abyss of our destiny, the frigid ocean waters as black and sleek as obsidian. And we are together and it’s kind of okay.

I step outside of our lives and see us sliding deeper into the ocean lurking in our unassuming house. The vermillion thread winds a path all through the rooms and up the stairs, unspooling as Scooter trots ahead into the shapeless distance with an inexhaustible wad in his mouth, leading us to a land with no exit. We reach out and grasp the thread and yieldingly follow it where it takes us, into the closet down a rabbit hole to the end of the world, and the thing that I mind the most is that we don’t seem to mind much at all.

•••

SARA BIR is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Her first cookbook, Tasting Ohio, comes out in 2018. Currently she is working on a cookbook about foraged fruit.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

The Medicated Writer

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By David Ebenbach

The writer Janet Burroway once famously said that “in literature, only trouble is interesting,” and it’s become a truism in the world of writing. Well, I recently gave a reading where, afterward, I argued that trouble isn’t the only interesting thing in literature. (Honestly, I don’t even think Janet Burroway meant her quote the way we hear it.) And I guess I sounded like a dangerously well-adjusted person for a minute there, because the moderator followed up by asking me how I have anything to write about if I’m not troubled myself. “Doesn’t all literature come out of being miserable?” he said.

•••

Let’s just get this out of the way:

Bupropion, three 150mg tablets once per day, prescribed for dysthymic disorder—that’s depression—usually taken with my breakfast-time glass of cold water.

Though sometimes it’s a glass of seltzer. Because who doesn’t like bubbles?

•••

When my first collection of short stories came out (Between Camelots), a lot of readers asked me the same question:

“But why is your book so sad?”

And I had answers. (In my experience, when you ask authors about their work, we usually do have answers, but we are pretty much guessing, or offering the provisional as fact, or wishing.) My typical answer was that literature in general and short stories in particular are supposed to be sad. After all, per the Burroway quote again, only trouble is interesting. And short stories are long enough to get their characters into trouble, but not long enough to get them out of trouble again.

(This claim of mine is very obviously not true, of course. I can think of a whole lot of good stories where characters end up getting out of trouble. I can even think of a couple of good stories, off the top of my head, where there isn’t any trouble in the first place.)

And then the person would usually go on to ask me this question:

“But why is your book so sad?”

•••

This is the place where I give you the etymology of the word dysthymia. But I haven’t looked up the etymology of the word dysthymia, so I’m going to make it up. Dys probably comes from the Greek for “not” or “can’t” or “against,” or something like that. And thymia, I’m going to say, comes from the Greek word that means “the understanding that good things, lovely things, are also possible in life.”

•••

One thing I know is that there are two worlds: the real world and the writable world. The real world is the real world, every complicated bit of it. The writable world, on the other hand, is what the writer notices and values and sees as material.

The writable world is only a subset of the real world, of course.

In some cases—in some mental states—it’s a very small subset.

•••

Or maybe Dysthymia comes from a single Greek work that describes something big.

I’m talking about an interior howling, a howling that starts up whenever the world reveals a little flaw or problem. You’re out walking and you see a dent in a car door, an abandoned lot, paint peeling from the side of a house, two people arguing, a stray dress shoe lost along the curb, a flush of shame crossing a person’s face. Anything. The size of the flaw doesn’t matter here. Regardless: Howling inside. A howling wind, rising to the chest, a desperate keening, in the throat, cold in the gut.

Anytime. Everywhere.

•••

Maybe this howling—this one voice, consuming but incomplete—is your whole writable world.

•••

But writers worry:

If I do something about my depression…

If I get a therapist, or (even more) if I take pills…

Will it kill the writing?

This can be a very scary question. For a lot of us, sitting down to write is the only thing that ever managed to quiet the howling. Not completely, and not for very long, but still—some relief there.

What if I lose the writing?

•••

Mental illness is the worst kind of illness, it seems to me, because it’s the only kind that produces excuses and lies to protect itself. When you get the flu or break a leg or have a heart attack, you never think, “Oh I should just work through this on my own.” You never think, “Well, this is just my artistic temperament.” You never think, “But I need this problem, for my work.”

Asthma means “You should do something about this.”

Diabetes means “You should do something about this.”

Cystic Fibrosis means “You should do something about this.”

And Dysthymia means…?

•••

You worry that writing is going to leave you.

In fact, you are so committed to writing that you’re willing to neglect your mental health just in case mental health is a threat to your work.

(Does that sound like a person who’s ever going to stop writing, with or without pills?)

•••

Does all literature come out of being miserable?

I’d like to answer that question with a different question: What about all the literature that never arrived because of being miserable?

What would Virginia Woolf have gone on to write if depression hadn’t killed her at the age of fifty-nine? What would Anne Sexton have written? David Foster Wallace? Sylvia Plath? Ernest Hemingway?

•••

My experience:

First there were the pills that didn’t work or caused other problems—side-effects and whatnot. It took a little while to find the right ones. But now I’ve been on the right ones for something like nine or ten years.

Life is better. And I don’t just mean that I feel better, though I certainly do. I mean that I look at life and see that it is a more complicated, better thing than I used to believe.

The howling has quieted.

And it turns out I still need to write as much as I used to. Or maybe more.

I mean, it’s been a busy nine or ten years, these years of medication:

In the three-and-a-half decades before the pills, one short story collection—my book Between Camelots—was published.

In the one decade since, three more books of fiction got published—including a new story collection and a first novel this year—plus a poetry chapbook, a full-length book of poetry, and a non-fiction guide to the creative process.

This is not the story of a person who’s lost his writing.

•••

Meanwhile, my writable world has gotten a lot bigger. I still write about the sad things, because sadness is part of the world’s truth, but it’s only part of it, so I also write about the ridiculous things, the electric things, the absurdity, the quiet beauty and the louder beauty of things.

A writer who believes that things are only sad is a writer somewhat out of touch with reality.

It’s as if I had been working for many years in a tiny room, staring at a tiny few things to write about, and now I’m working in a great big room—or, in fact, out in the open world—staring at everything, seeing things I’ve never been able to see before, seeing it all.

This also means seeing things—even stuff I’d already been in the habit of noticing—in their full complexity. It’s a bummer that the car has a dent in it, sure, but it’s still a car; it can still take people places. The house with the paint peeling is still a house; people can take shelter there. The two people argue and the other person’s face flushes because those people care about something.

•••

Now, I’m not saying pills work for everyone. I’m not saying therapy works for everyone. (Though I think there are a lot of folks who would benefit from both.) I’m not even saying that pills and therapy solve everything. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I still need to write is that, when I don’t, I do get a bit sad again. Not as sad as before, but a bit. In other words, writing still supports me. It’s just that now it has help.

What I’m really saying is I no longer believe that only trouble is interesting.

•••

What if your writing had more than one voice? What if it had the whole world to draw on?

•••

After I get done with another morning of writing, I come out of my office and pour myself a glass of water (or seltzer) and start a bagel toasting, and then I open the little prescription bottle.

Bupropion pills are tiny and white and round and smooth. Even taking three at once, even in the same swallow as a B-12 vitamin, they go down very, very easily.

•••

DAVID EBENBACH is the author of seven books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, including, most recently, the novel Miss Portland. His work has been awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Juniper Prize, the Patricia Bibby Award, and more. Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.

Read more FGP essays by David Ebenbach.

My Brother’s Face

Photo by Bharat Ram/Flickr
Photo by Bharat Ram/Flickr

By Jennifer Lang

“Are you related?” a woman at the wedding asks me. When I tell her the father of the bride’s my brother, she says, “You look just like him.” As much as we resemble one another physically—deep-set eyes, crinkly smile, and fair, freckled skin—we couldn’t be more different emotionally.

My only sibling looks like a stranger, his belly protruding over his pants and a once reddish beard now grey. For his twenty-year-old daughter’s wedding, he dresses in black trousers, pressed white shirt, solid tie, and black hat covering short payot, or sidelocks, tucked behind his ears. He wears a long, black, silk robe, reserved for special occasions. This modern-day Jerusalem affair could be a Hollywood movie set of a seventeenth-century Polish shtetl.

I observe my brother at the bedecken ceremony where my niece sits like a queen in a special chair, her upper body pitching forward and back, as she feverishly mumbles words to God and awaits her groom’s arrival. The couple hasn’t seen one another for a week. In their Ultra-Orthodox community, where males and females eat, dance, and celebrate separately, divided by a makeshift wall, men escort the groom into the women’s section so he can verify the bride is the correct woman then lower her veil, a tradition of Jewish males since Jacob wed a veiled Leah in error.

Mike identifies as Haredi: an Orthodox Jewish sect characterized by strict adherence to Jewish law and rejection of modern secular culture and the state of Israel. I’m secular. Tonight, dressed demurely in a long-sleeved dress that hugs my hips and hits my knees, considered sexy and off-limits in his world, I decline to wear a hat for modesty.

We are two California-born Jews living in Israel, but the chasm between us is wider than the Red Sea. Often, over the past thirty years, I’ve wondered how siblings with the same DNA can be so different. How, after being raised Reform, which emphasizes ethics and behavior over belief, can a brother and sister end up embracing such opposite lifestyles?

•••

Growing up, I’d beseeched my parents for a baby—someone younger to cuddle and carry, to play dolls and draw with, to love me unconditionally. “Please, I want a little sister!” I pleaded throughout grade school. My brother, three years older, had never sufficed.

Sometimes he and I skied off-trail at Northstar or played Battleship in the basement. Mostly, we occupied our own orbits: me with Barbies and coloring books, him with his rock and comic collections. My friends and I devised dance routines to Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” while he and his friends fled to the backyard treehouse. I yearned for heart-to-heart conversations and emotional closeness. He communicated through sarcasm and jibes.

In middle school, after reading Judy Blume’s Forever, my mother delivered the verdict: “My tubes are tied. Our family’s complete.” Then why, I wanted to scream, did I feel so incomplete?

Mike left for college during my sophomore year. The quiet house hurt my ears. My father worked long hours at his law firm, while my mother’s graphic design business dominated her time. They proposed we host a female American Field Service student for a year perhaps to assuage their guilt.

The following August, Lee, a seventeen-year-old South African Jew, arrived. Every night, we stayed up late, analyzing our siblings’ deficiencies and confiding our latest infatuations. We shared tee-shirts and sundresses. We had spit fights while brushing teeth in the bathroom sink. We fought about emptying the dishwasher or folding the laundry. We introduced one another as sister. By Thanksgiving, she called my parents Mom and Dad.

I no longer missed my brother or ached for his attention.

The following year, when Lee returned to Cape Town and Mike spent junior year abroad in Jerusalem, I busied myself with college applications, youth group, and a new boyfriend.

“Have you called Mike lately?” my father sometimes asked. His sister lived in New York, my mother’s brother in Los Angeles, and while they’d been distant as kids, they became closer as adults, reinforcing their friendship with visits, especially on milestone birthdays, bar and bat mitzvahs.

During my freshman year in college, Mike’s senior, I flew from Chicago to Manhattan to see him. He introduced me to friends, showed me the Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Met, and took me to Gus’s Pickles on the Lower East Side. Later, he visited me at Northwestern, where we ate Giordano’s deep-dish pizza with friends and strolled through Lincoln Park Zoo. Still, our conversations remained superficial.

That summer, Mike packed his worldly possessions into two large suitcases, boarded a one-way flight to Israel, and immigrated. I cried during our farewell parting outside our parents’ house, my eyes red and swollen with sadness. I felt distraught, like I’d run out of chances to be friends with my brother, losing my only sibling to a far-away land.

The following winter, during my junior year in Paris, my parents and I met in Jerusalem. Mike greeted us at the airport in his khaki green army uniform, an Uzi over his shoulder, a scraggly beard and a colorful, knitted kippah on his head. I admired his decision to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces, but since when had he become a God-fearing Jew? We’d grown up in a culturally rich Jewish family as staunch Israel supporters, but God, his commandments, and ancient customs had never been the focus.

Throughout our visit, my brother mentioned studying the basic tenets of Judaismthe laws of Shabbat and kashrut—with an American rabbi. Mike began talking in should and should nots, coulds and could nots, Rabbi Eddy said this, Rabbi Eddy said that. His holier-than-thou attitude made me cringe.

A year later, I flew home from Chicago over winter break for my father’s fiftieth birthday. I donned my best Parisian blacks—mini skirt, leather bomber jacket, pointy flats, and a paisley scarf. My mother tinkered in the kitchen. My father and I listened to Suzanne Vega’s latest album in the living room. The bell rang. We glided to the front door.

“Surprise,” boomed a familiar voice. “Surprise,” he said again.

My brother stepped into the foyer. My mother snapped a picture of my expression, a mixture of disappointment and resignation. With Mike around, our family’s easygoing time together exercising, eating sushi, and watching movies would be overshadowed by his newly acquired religious restrictions.

That night we met my grandparents for dinner at an upscale French-Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco. I hadn’t seen them since leaving for school in September. All attention was focused on Mike. “Oy gevalt,” Boba shrieked when she saw my brother. Zeida embraced his eldest grandson, the Zionist, with pride.

Dressed in one of my father’s blazers, a button-down shirt, tie, and trousers, my brother resembled a college professor. In addition to his thick, wavy, reddish head of hair, he sported a moustache and beard. His large, round glasses reminded me of Elton John’s. But this time he wore a kippah under his hat. He couldn’t show the beanie publicly, he said, lest a religious Jew see him and think the restaurant kosher. I’d never seen him wear a kippah in America.

As soon as we were seated, Mike said, “I really don’t want to eat here. It’s not kosher.” He’d already harangued us during the car ride over the Bay Bridge. Didn’t he understand he was the party crasher? “I need to go to the bathroom.”

Once out of earshot, my mother hissed. “I wish he’d take that hat off inside.”

A new family dynamic was emerging: Mike said or did something inconsiderate or insolent, my mother overreacted, and my father sided with his son, so my mother spewed her anger toward me, her safest ally. Her disdain for Mike’s new lifestyle fueled my rage and resentment. He didn’t appear to care how we felt, but I digested every word.

Mike returned. One waiter filled our water glasses, then uncorked a bottle of wine. Another delivered a warm, freshly sliced baguette. My father approved the wine. Zeida reached for the bread. My brother, still standing, bent his elbows and flapped his arms like an injured bird trying to fly. My mother and I looked at one another and back at him. Why the pantomiming? Mike sat, snorted, jabbed his finger in the air, furrowed his brow and grunted so loud diners nearby turned.

“What do you want? The bread?” I asked. He nodded. He took the baguette, muttering something under his breath, words I couldn’t decipher, then bit it.

“Finally. Thank you,” he said. “But it’s a problem the bread’s been warmed in a non-kosher oven.”

Mike explained he’d gone to the bathroom to wash his hands and wasn’t permitted to talk until he’d recited the prayer and bitten the bread. If he’d explained that beforehand then maybe we would have understood. Or maybe not. His new ways were alien to all of us. Even to my Eastern European grandparents.

As my brother plunged into Ultra-Orthodoxy, my parents’ friends offered backhanded condolences: “At least it’s Judaism and not some weird sect. Imagine if he’d become a Hare Krishna or joined a crazy cult.” I wanted to say, “But he did join a crazy cult.”

My brother asked for the chef to discuss his order. Was it okay if they wrapped the salmon in aluminum foil before putting it in the oven? Silver cutlery or plastic? China or paper? They spoke quietly, nodding their heads. My mother elbowed me under the table. I heard her snicker.

I thought about how much Mike had changed since he’d left his American life. Now, he refused to eat from my parents’ plates in their non-kosher kitchen. He checked the labels on every food item in the pantry for a kosher symbol. He was loud, judgmental, and disrespectful. His extreme fanaticism had become the focal point of our family gatherings, causing me to retreat inside, wishing he’d never come.

Upon his return to Israel, Mike probed deeper into the texts, laws, and interpretations of rabbis, scholars, and God. He began sentences with “Baruch Hashem” (Thank God). Every day he recited countless prayers and blessings upon waking up; when putting on a tallit, a poncho-like garment with a hole for the head and special twined and knotted macramé-like fringes known as tzitzit attached to its four corners; when inspecting the tzitzit; after wrapping the tallit around the body; while laying tefillin—a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah—on the arm, on the head, and around the middle finger. He recited blessings during the ritual washing of the hands upon rising in the morning and again before eating bread, before eating grain products, before drinking grape juice or wine, before eating fruit, before eating non-fruit produce, before eating other foods, and after every meal.

Oftentimes, when asked food- or family-related questions, he said, “I have to ask my rabbi.” His rabbi, I was convinced, paid no heed to the fifth commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother. Because if he had, the communication about my brother’s needs and chosen lifestyle would have been better, perhaps reducing the tension between him and our mother, maybe even him and me.

Despite the emotional strain and geographical distances, my parents, particularly my father, continued to attempt family togetherness. For my mother’s fiftieth birthday the following year, he invited us to meet them in Manhattan, to surprise her. Since I was living in Paris, my brother stopped en route to visit. When he called about logistics, I assured him I lived down the street from several kosher restaurants and near a handful of synagogues. He could eat anywhere, pray any time of day, and sightsee.

I agreed to host my brother but felt ill-prepared to face him. I worked as a bilingual assistant for a Jewish non-governmental organization. Since relocating to Europe, my world had opened in unexpected ways. I befriended people from different backgrounds because of my hard-earned fluency. Mike’s world had shrunk, making him more close-minded. I fretted about his reaction to my French boyfriend.

On Mike’s second day, I broached the conversation. “So I wanted to tell you I’m seeing someone. And he’s coming to Manhattan.” We faced each other in my sun-drenched studio.

“Okay. Is he Jewish?”

My mouth opened in shock except I wasn’t shocked at all. I’d anticipated this question and mustered up my strength to stand up to him. “No, Christophe’s Catholic.”

He sputtered. “What did Mom and Dad say?”

His forehead creased as if trying to solve a calculus problem, his favorite subject in high school. My floor slanted, and I felt its unevenness.

“They don’t know yet. It’s still new, not so serious.”

“If it’s not so serious then why is he—this goy—coming? It’s Mom’s birthday!” He turned his back to me. We fell silent. He spun around and bore his eyes into mine. “I have no intention of meeting whatever his name is, and if you try to introduce me, I won’t look him in the eye or shake his hand.”

How dare my brother spurn my boyfriend without knowing anything about him? His refusal to acknowledge another human being because he didn’t share our religion incensed me. No wonder countries and cultures still fought religious wars in Israel, Ireland, Iraq, and elsewhere. No wonder Eastern and Western Europe remained separate and so unequal. No wonder my brother and I had never been close.

“And what would you say if I really were serious with Christophe, or some other non-Jew? What if we decided to get married?”

“You know you’ll never even be able to marry a Cohen if you sleep with a goy.”

“I couldn’t care less if I ever marry a Cohen, or any Jew for that matter!”

The next day, we took separate trains to the airport. Once stateside, Mike refused to be in Christophe’s presence. My folks blamed me for making them choose sides. Sensing the pressure, Christophe packed his bags, broke up, and bolted. I worried that my brother and I had ruined my mother’s birthday, and she might never forgive us. But, perhaps still immature and self-centered, I felt less remorse toward her than rage toward him. I struggled with anger and found forgiveness difficult. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever forget Mike’s behavior.

•••

For the next two decades, Mike and his shtick dominated our get-togethers. Until, one Thanksgiving weekend, I snapped.

In my early forties, married and a mother now, I stormed out of a three-generation reunion in Manhattan, not far from our house in White Plains. Every year, we divvied up the planning; everyone pitched in except Mike since, he decided, his family lived abroad. My duties involved organizing one field trip and two Shabbat meals—ordering, paying, and coordinating food delivery long before Friday sundown. After extensive research, Mike nixed Saturday’s lunch from a kosher restaurant, claiming it no longer met his standards, forcing me to cancel last minute. Then, he arrived an hour late to Sunday brunch because of services.

“Why is it okay for Mike to do whatever he wants?” I yelled. “Dad, why are you so silent? Are you afraid to stand up to him, to put him in his place?” My relatives stared, stunned by my outburst; usually I behaved as the accepting, younger child.

“It’s okay, honey—we understand why you’re upset,” said my aunt, a social worker. I left.

I may have sounded like a spoiled, second child clamoring for attention, but what I sought was ease during our inherently tense family gatherings. I despised kowtowing to Mike, eating at ultra-kosher establishments and prohibiting TV in his children’s presence. I especially loathed my family of origin’s chain reaction. Following my tantrum, I wrote him and my parents a letter proposing we each start therapy and, when visiting one another, we attend together.

Before parting ways, Mike initiated a meeting. We rendezvoused, a week after our Thanksgiving debacle, at a suburban Starbucks, where, according to his rabbi, the tea was kosher. We barely spoke as the baristas concocted our drinks. We carried our tea to a table in the back corner.

“You start,” I said. I had one hour before carpool.

“Okay, I know you’re angry with me. And I’ve been thinking about how we grew up. I think Mom and Dad paid more attention to me. Maybe you felt slighted. I think Boba and Zeida did the same with Dad, making Auntie Mona feel second best. It’s like a family trend.” I wrapped my hands around my cup and inhaled the faint smell of bergamot.

“Sorry, but that’s not it,” I said. “When someone tells me something that’s hard to admit, I get teary. But what you’re saying doesn’t make me emotional. I don’t question or doubt Mom and Dad’s love or my relationship with them.” I sipped my Earl Grey. “I’m angry because your laws and adopted religious lifestyle make you difficult to deal with. You hide behind Judaism and other arbitrary rules. You use them as excuses, why you can’t spend Shabbat somewhere or eat something. I’m sick of dealing with you.”

Mike remained silent, pensive. He nodded. He listened. He didn’t defend himself or cut me down with his usual sarcastic comebacks.

I pointed out our flawed family dynamic. How my mother had pressured us to attend his eldest son’s bar mitzvah in Israel, making my eldest miss the first ten days of middle school and my youngest, kindergarten. How, a decade earlier, for our firstborn son’s bris on Rosh Hashanah, Mike didn’t attend due to logistics like finding a shul and food for the long holiday in Haifa. My parents never intervened.

“I didn’t know Mom pressured you. I would have told her to stop. It’s your decision, not hers. She’s doing that to make Dad happy. If she does it again, tell me. I’ll tell her to back off.”

When our hour ended, I faced a difficult truth. One I couldn’t admit aloud. While I felt bound to my brother because of our shared gene pool, I didn’t like him as a person. I wouldn’t want to be trapped alone with him on an island. I wouldn’t choose him as my friend. How could I tell him I’d contemplated cutting off our relationship to preserve myself? Each time the thought had crossed my mind, I dismissed it because breaking ties takes just as much energy as maintaining them. I’d also considered my kids. He’s their uncle, his children their first cousins. Despite Mike and me, their bonds are strong.

My brother and I bundled up in our winter coats. I accompanied him to the train station. He hugged me.

“I love you,” he said, turning my face toward his. “Don’t ever forget that. I’m on your side.” It reminded me of our curbside goodbye in California when he left for Israel twenty years earlier.

Over winter vacation, my family flew to San Francisco to see my parents. I accompanied my folks to the therapist they’d started seeing upon my suggestion. During a ninety-minute session, we spent seventy-five discussing my brother. After endless conversations starting with “When Mike this” or “Mike that,” the therapist interrupted.

“Hold on, please. Mike isn’t in this room. Jennifer is. Look at Jennifer and talk to her.” It took my parents several tries before they addressed me, without mentioning my brother.

At the end of the session, the therapist drew an unforgettable conclusion. “No one in any one family should have so much power. Mike shouldn’t hold this much power,” he paused. “And you,” he said, looking at my parents, “you gave it to him.”

I felt affirmed, validated. As if this man gave me words I hadn’t possessed and my parents an opinion they could no longer ignore. But the question became how, forty-five years later, do you reclaim this power?

Maybe Mike and I had never been chummy due to a clash in personality or communication style, and his fervent Judaism only made matters worse, widening our rift. But, I realized during that session, my parents played their part, especially my mother. She hadn’t just started whispering in my ear when Mike found Hashem, Hebrew for God, in Jerusalem’s Old City, immersing himself in the religion of our ancestors. Whenever our sibling strife had struck—whether I was ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years old—she always said, “Your brother reminds me of mine. And we were never friends.”

In that room, I faced my mother. “Please, I beg of you. Stop talking to me about my brother, behind his back. My relationship with him is hard enough.”

•••

My brother approaches his daughter, and I attempt to catch his movements and expressions on camera, to try to understand his need for all-encompassing rules and pre-ordained boundaries. Does he cling to Hashem to avoid making decisions? Does he cleave to the laws because he felt unmoored as a boy, with too many freedoms? My mother remembers feeling challenged by his wit, as if he outsmarted her, while my father stood on the sidelines, only fueling her indignation.

Mike folds his hands on his stomach. He maintains distance from his second-born as he whispers in her ear. Is he allowed to touch the bride? To kiss her? Or does that aspect of their relationship, in their Haredi circle, disappear as soon as a young girl menstruates or announces her impending marriage? Did he consult his rabbi or did he know the answer?

My niece stops rocking to listen to him. Is he gushing over how beautiful she looks, telling her how proud he is, or how much he loves her? Or is he quoting some scholar’s words on marriage, some Jewish proverb about love, or the weekly Torah portion, passing down other people’s knowledge to avoid expressing his own emotions?

I stare at my brother’s face through my lens and recall the familiar words of friends, telling me he might never change and to stop expecting it. “The only thing that can change is the way you react,” they say. One friend whose husband has a huge extended clan shared her trick to surviving family get-togethers: look for the good in each person.

Mike is a devoted father, an uncle who emails my kids jokes and asks about their army service, which his children avoid as Haredi. Would his children think the same of me? Am I a caring, involved aunt or unapproachable, detached? I fear the latter. He might not be the brother I always dreamed of, but I’m probably not his ideal sister either. I remain aloof, removed from him and his offspring. I harshly judge them, their lifestyle, and their decision not to eat in my home. I find them intolerant, but, in fact, I’m equally so.

Yet no matter how challenged I am by our relationship, he remains steadfast—the first to call after recent surgery and on every birthday. He is and will always be the only other person who’ll remember and reminisce about our parents’ foibles and follies and the household in which we were raised.

Mike knows I write about him, about us. Whenever I ask questions, he answers reluctantly, saying, “I don’t want to know why you’re asking.” He doesn’t like digging up the past. I cannot imagine him willingly reading my words, but, if he did, he might surprise me and say, “I’m sorry you feel this way. Because I love you. Remember, I’m on your side.” Like he did nine Thanksgivings ago in the New York train station parking lot.

•••

JENNIFER LANG’s essays have been published in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, among others. Honors include a Pushcart Prize and a Best American Essays nomination and finalist in the Crab Orchard Review’s 2017 Literary Contest. Currently, she serves as CNF Editor for the Flexible Persona literary magazine. Since receiving a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer, she’s been obsessing over every word in her first memoir. Look for her in Raanana, Israel, where she teaches writing at http://israelwritersalon.com/.

For privacy reasons, Jennifer’s brother’s name was changed.  —ed.