Must Love Horses, Must Love Dogs

playgroundhorses

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Lisa Romeo

The first thing I remember about Nancy is her laugh—full throated, companionable, frequent, wise. Nancy was about thirty-three then; I was nineteen, in college studying journalism. With her, I felt secure and mature, understood and supported. We met at a competitive hunter-jumper show stable in upstate New York, where we both boarded horses, hers bought with a husband’s money, mine with a father’s funds. Nancy encouraged me to be more serious about my riding goals and slightly less serious about school, to have more fun, because if I wasn’t at the stables, I did little but study. Nancy was confident, capable, and spontaneous. She had grit, and what my father used to call gusto.

Nancy’s interest in me felt palpable, and it seemed I could tell her everything, if I wanted. I watched her keep confidences and protect others in the often snipey, political world of horse showing, and I saw that she was loyal. I knew a secret sent her way was sealed. And so I told her mine. That I was secretly in love with a black stable manager back home in New Jersey, that I was occasionally and of course also secretly seeing a married horse show manager, and that despite the horses and ribbons and Dean’s List and my father’s polyester money, I’d always felt like an outsider.

But here’s the funny thing about a friendship rooted in a shared and specialized activity: two people can spend a lot of time together—in riding lessons, on the trail, in the stalls, setting jumps, sitting up overnight when the other’s horse is sick, driving to look at horses to buy—and know everything about how the other rides and what she can and can’t do in the saddle, and what she dreams about in that narrow arena of equestrian longing, and still know little of that person’s life outside, in the world. It’s shocking then, and a bit sad, to find that the person you already counted as your closest friend (or maybe that’s closest horse friend), has another life away from you, and that it is also wide, satisfying, and absorbing.

Slowly, I realized that what I knew of Nancy was only what she chose to reveal to other horse people. It wasn’t until six months after we became close that I realized in many ways I did not yet know her at all. I knew she was married, but not to an erudite, urbane man twenty-one years older than she. I knew she was a part-time stepmother, but not to an out-of-control teenage girl who routinely told her to fuck off, and to a twenty-two-year-old money-sucking manchild. I knew the horses came via her husband’s money, but not that he was the founding partner of a prominent local law firm. I didn’t know she’d first met Mark when he was on a business trip and that it broke up his marriage and that his first wife went a little crazy over it and once tried to hurt some people she loved. I didn’t yet know that Nancy had started out in a lower middle class family and floundered after college, but that by the time I met her she could stage a charity gala, do the New York Times Sunday crossword fast and in ink, or that while she loved having time and resources to ride, she secretly speculated about doing something else entirely.

I learned all of this almost all at once the first few times Nancy invited me for dinner at her house, which was about midway between the stable and campus. I’d unknowingly driven past it almost daily. I quickly became a regular, eating, watching movies, playing Scrabble, settling in. I loved having a family to hang out with, a house to feel at home in, where I could walk in the back door without knocking. We three spent many nights, for many months, then for years, around their kitchen table, me trying to figure out so much, including what I should do about the married horseman and how much of my post-college life to spend on the show circuit. Because I took college courses over the summers, Nancy and I grew closer, and because the twenty-mile drive between campus and stable worried my father, I moved into a condominium steps from Nancy’s house.

•••

I was five when my only sister left home in New Jersey for college in New England; the void seemed unfillable, but soon Laura and her family moved in next door. She was two years older; our connection was immediate and intense, and until midway through high school, we were often mistaken for sisters. We liked being called “Lucy and Ethel” for the hijinks we got into, especially when she traveled with my parents and me. Though Laura temporarily abandoned me for a boy, her future husband, I forgave her because I abandoned her, too, when my father’s business profits spiked, bringing me the horses I’d yearned to own.

Once I started riding—late, at age fourteen—I always also had a “best horse friend,” though typically not another spoiled teenager. I drifted instead toward young women who were older than me and either could afford only mediocre horses or whose parents managed a promising horse but not the monthly board and show fees—riders who were “working off” expenses by mucking stalls, resetting fences, cleaning tack, packing the horse van. I liked their workmanlike demeanor and pragmatic approach, because though I never needed to work to whittle expenses (at one point I owned three horses at a time or, I should say, my father did), I also had parents who didn’t brook entitlement.

Laura, a runner, had no interest in horses, and I had no interest in training for a marathon; she had a steady boyfriend, and I had a steady need to spend every moment with my horse. While this might have broken up other teenage girls who had been friends since preschool, it didn’t break us.

•••

Mark and Nancy were good neighbors, and I burrowed further into their family. It was Nancy who found a handyman (before Mark came home) to fix the garage door that I backed into. It was Nancy who folded me in her arms and poured me a scotch and talked me over the unfamiliar grief when the married guy was killed in an accident. It was Nancy who kept me fed when I was too busy studying and too nervous about finals to shop or cook.

When I graduated, it was Mark who gave me a generous check and conducted mock job interviews, and helped me weigh unpaid internships and low wage journalism starter jobs against my father’s offer to fund a few years on the horse show circuit while I tried to make it as a freelance writer—and didn’t criticize my inevitable decision to light out for the West Coast horse show circuit, typewriter in tow.

And when, after eighteen months in California, I moved my horses back to New York and the East Coast circuit, it was Nancy and Mark who gave me their guest room while I apartment-shopped and healed from another break-up, and Nancy who performed a mini-makeover when I plunged into a depression about my big-boned, brown-haired, Italian-girl appearance, fueled by constant exposure to California girls, horse show princesses, and the hopeful actors who had lived in my Los Angeles apartment complex.

Nancy wasn’t classically pretty – she had a long nose, big teeth, kinky hair, freckles, chunky calves—and I liked that about her because I had a wide nose, a broken (and not very elegantly fixed) front tooth, frizzy hair, and thick thighs. But Nancy knew how to buy cosmetics and use them, what expensive clothes could do for a soft figure, the wisdom of paying for a great haircut, and how to use the right blow dryer and brush. She knew, in the early 1980s, about teeth-whitening, juice cleanses, all natural facials, the tonic of a weekly pedicure (manicures were a waste for riders), and what not to wear. She suggested, I nodded. She selected, I agreed. And though I could have paid, she treated.

I’m not sure what I did for Nancy, what I offered or gave her. Perhaps I was the stepdaughter she didn’t get—guileless, rule-bound, happy to hug and hang around the dinner table, who valued her counsel. Maybe I felt like family, when her own was hours away and disapproving, and her husband was consumed with work, and all around town she kept running into people loyal to Mark’s ex-wife. Though she was friendly with other riders, I was the only one whose reach extended beyond the stable driveway. Maybe there was no other reason except, as I’ve always believed, we just clicked.

•••

What I knew about friendship by then was only this: you stuck, until the other person peeled away. And then, you stuck still; things might change. During college Laura was consumed with pre-med studies and her future husband; me with horses and writing, but we reconnected on college breaks and pretended to still understand one another’s lives. I was a bridesmaid in her wedding a few weeks after I graduated; she helped pack when my parents moved to Las Vegas; we loaned each other shoes.

After college, while I was riding on the West Coast circuit and writing for equestrian magazines, Nancy and I kept in touch with phone calls and letters. But her letters grew shorter, clipped, the calls abbreviated. I often reached her answering machine, and I wondered if she was standing in her kitchen listening, as I’d seen her do many times when someone she didn’t care much for phoned with some request. Soon, the letters and calls were mostly about why Nancy and her horses were leaving the fancy equestrian center for a smaller, less competitive stable when she grew more interested in the slow dance of dressage and the science of horse breeding—and in dogs.

When I moved back and settled in an apartment near her house, I returned to our old stable and trainer, but Nancy never visited me there, though I spent chunks of days at the barn where she’d moved her horses.

One chilled spring night she and I met a plane at the nearest major airport, where a flight attendant passed us a sealed medical bucket, a tube of high-priced semen from a champion dressage horse inside. We drove an hour back to Nancy’s stable, freezing because we blasted the air conditioning to keep the sperm active, and when we arrived, I held her mare’s tail aside as Nancy inserted the baster-like syringe. Eleven months later, we slept on horse blankets tossed over hay bales, taking turns to check on that mare every twenty minutes, and I was the one who first spotted the steaming foal in the straw.

Perhaps experiences like this seduced me into thinking we might stay bound, for a long time, forever. When my three-year post-graduate “parentship” of riding and writing ended, I left for a regular job in Manhattan and an apartment back home in New Jersey. There, I found a place at Laura and her husband’s kitchen table, where I also eventually found someone special, someone appropriate and available. I’d still occasionally make the four-hour drive north to visit Nancy and Mark, and one weekend I brought Frank. By then they were living on twenty acres in a stunning Danish modern house they’d designed together. Nancy, by then, had her own barn, but owned more canines than equines and was considering becoming a dog trainer.

•••

For someone who, for thirteen years, had been spending much of each day in a stable and at horse show grounds, where dogs of all kinds and sizes were always in residence, I was surprisingly intolerant of the animal. I found many dogs cute and sometimes admired their loyalty and how their humans loved them, but I did not love dogs. I detested being licked, and I was always tamping down blades of fear that rose whenever any dog, large or small, got too close: as a child, I was once charged by my grandmother’s huge Collie, who lived, wild and wolf-like, on acres of his own.

I wanted to be good-friend-enthusiastic about Nancy’s dog plans, and I thought I was, but that weekend I sensed that she wanted more from me, wanted me to be invested in her three dogs and bigger dog dreams, to be physical with them, and to want to know everything about them, as we once wanted to know everything about one another’s horses. These were Australian Shepherds, energetic, and to my mind, frenetic, aggressive dogs, and I couldn’t get beyond an obligatory pat. The time I’d hoped we’d spend with her horses while Frank and Mark watched a tennis match, we instead spent in an open field, Nancy showing off her dogs’ natural and learned skills. I watched, muttered faint praise, but I was bored and at moments, frightened. I know it showed.

Years later, I would come to think of this as the reason our friendship fractured, but at the time it was clouded by something else that seemed more threatening. On Sunday morning when Frank was in the shower and the three of us were around the kitchen table, I asked what they thought of my boyfriend. Oh, he’s nice, they said, a really great guy—but. But he has no college education. But he’s kind of unsophisticated. But we always pictured you with someone older, someone with money.

I laughed it off, tried to lighten the moment: Ha! I know! Opposites attract, right? But the kitchen air felt heavy and no one was laughing.

I had valued Nancy’s opinions and Mark’s, too, for years, maybe too much. I wanted to remind Nancy that, years before, her friends had warned her off Mark (too old, too married, two kids). I also wanted to say that they were not the only people to think this, that what they were saying I had even said to myself a few times, but that my heart pulled me. But no words formed in my mouth. The subject changed.

A year or so later, I married him.

Since the weekend visit, Nancy and I had talked by phone, written letters. In those conversations, on those pages, everything seemed the same and also different. Though I still had a horse, my equestrian life was winding down, my career and home life expanding. Nancy was selling off her horses, immersing herself in the dog world.

Years later, re-reading those letters, it seemed clear that she was losing interest in what had tied us together, the horses and stables, and maybe more in the idea of keeping up a long distance friendship with someone whose life and interests now no longer matched hers. All I knew then was that so much was left unsaid, unexamined, so unlike in our previous friendship, the one we’d forged in person, on horseback and around a kitchen table.

•••

Frank and I were getting married on Mother’s Day, and several people had replied “regretfully cannot attend,” citing mothers or mothers-in-law or stepmothers. Months before, Nancy had laughed off my request that she be my matron of honor (I’m too old. You should ask your sister), and she’d shown little interest in my wedding planning. Still, this didn’t alarm me. She’d always favored the unfussy approach to traditional events. I was confident I’d see Nancy and Mark at our wedding; Mark’s mother was dead, Nancy’s then estranged, and they disliked “Hallmark holidays”.

But they did not come to our wedding.

When no response appeared, I called, left messages (Did you get the invitation? Are you guys okay? Are you coming?). Even if the invitation had not arrived, my letters had all the details. I knew only that they were just 200 miles away, and that someone who they once held dear was getting married, and they did not respond, did not come, did not send a gift, or a card, did not.

In the end, one of those who stood by my side was my old friend Laura, and her husband handed Frank the ring. They had a child by then, were settling in to parenthood, had a sprawling expensive house, and ascending careers. None of that resembled the life Frank and I were then forging. But we’d stuck.

I thought I might try contacting Nancy and Mark again after my honeymoon, thinking that there must have been some major problem. Mutual acquaintances, however, shrugged and said they knew of nothing that might explain their absence. In the months that followed, I cried, but that was all I did. I did not call, did not write, did not.

In the silence of rejection, guilt and regret rose up. Something precious and important to me was ending and there must have been something I’d done.

•••

Eight years later, I saw Nancy one more time.

After several years of infertility, I then had a two-year-old son and had just miscarried another pregnancy. What had always helped me after an emotional setback was a weekend on my own. I drove upstate on a Friday and spent Saturday visiting a beloved college professor and my old stable—people and places that once made me feel strong and confident, back at a time when I was sure so much good was ahead.

I knew Nancy and Mark had moved ninety miles away, and I took a quiet, long, out-of-the-way route home on Sunday, see-sawing in my mind those first eighty-five miles, debating if I’d stop in or not. I didn’t have an address, but I assumed it wouldn’t be hard to locate them or perhaps Mark’s son Alex, now a caterer in the same small town. When I phoned information, Alex’s number was the first offered, and when I called, he immediately realized who I was, his greeting so effusive that I wondered if we had once been friendlier than I remembered. He said he’d call ahead to let his dad and Nancy know I was on my way, that he was certain they’d both be so very pleased to see me after so long.

As I turned off the main road, it was Mark who was already waving, already trotting out the front door and across the porch and down the front steps, Mark who was smiling when he jogged to meet my car in the gravel drive that separated their large home, a converted Dutch colonial barn, from a huge metal pole barn and kennels where, I’d learn, Nancy ran a major dog training, breeding, and boarding business.

It was Mark who said how happy he’d been when Alex called, Mark who hugged me. It was Mark who assured me that Nancy would be thrilled to see me when she got back from the farmer’s market. And so it was Mark who I talked with for an hour over coffee, Mark who took me on a tour and explained how they’d moved the barn to the property and restored it with period materials and furnished it with regional antiques. It was Mark I told about my small struggling child and his developmental issues and the babies I’d lost and how I might not have another, and it was Mark who said how he was never so happy to have been wrong about someone, meaning Frank. As he talked, I realized that for the first time—which even then I knew was ridiculous given how obvious it suddenly seemed and must have been since the first night I’d had dinner with them—how much Mark reminded me of my father.

He said Nancy would show me around the dog operation, would want to tell me everything about her thriving new business, and why she didn’t ride anymore.

But none of that happened. Nancy came home and registered surprise but little other obvious emotion. She scrubbed vegetables while we talked, and the conversation didn’t have that intense compressed quality of reunited old friends who talk over one another’s sentences and are unable to stop grinning. She did not show me the dog buildings, and we did not talk of horses or the show ring gossip I’d heard the day before. Since I had already told Mark my other stories, I glossed over it all, hoping he’d fill her in later (hoping, too, that he would not). I felt the visit slipping from me. Until then, the weekend had done its job, replenishing my depleted energy, balm for my sore heart, reminding me of all that can still lie ahead; now, I was spiraling back in the other direction.

I had to go.

First though, and while Mark was out of the room, I did ask what I had come to say: “I’ve always wondered—why you didn’t come to my wedding? Did I do something?” I chickened out at the last moment from adding, Why did you leave me? Was it me? I missed you so much. You broke my heart.

I was prepared for anything—a secret illness, scandal, a simmering grudge, an argument that I’d forgotten or pretended was trivial when it wasn’t, some slight I’d once dealt and then denied—but mostly I was prepared for something, some reason, any reason.

The answer came, on waves of Nancy’s throaty laugh. She couldn’t remember, she said. It was years ago, she said. There must have been something going on, she said. Maybe that was when Mark’s business collapsed. The time she’d had kidney stones. Or when they were moving. It could have been breeding season. Maybe they were in Europe.

•••

I am now warm friends with several women at least a decade older than me. Occasionally, when I’m having brunch or a glass of wine with one of them, I find myself thinking, this is someone Nancy would like. When I’m keeping in touch with them via text, Twitter, and Facebook, I occasionally think, if only we had so many ways to stay in touch back then, maybe Nancy and I would still be in touch. Maybe.

I thought of Nancy most recently when Frank and I were setting out food for the New Year’s Eve board-game-party we toss together at the last minute every year with Laura and her husband. Over the years, they have gone as far in the opposite directions as possible from us in matters of politics, religion, child-rearing ideas—even sport teams. But we stick, still. That night, in those quiet moments between our laughter, I drifted, as I do sometimes, to new theories about losing Nancy: I was searching for another older sister who, unlike my own, thought horses were important, and later, when my sister and I grew closer, Nancy sensed that I had less need of her. I was the younger sister Nancy always longed for, and then I eventually, naturally, outgrew the role. I took advantage of their hospitality too constantly. I was the child that she’d agreed, when she married Mark, never to have, and once I’d moved on to adulthood, we’d all outgrown those poorly understood roles.

•••

A few years ago, I looked for them both on Facebook. Mark returned my friend request within hours: So glad to reconnect…what nice looking sons you have…I hope you and Frank are well. He was in his late seventies, posting about running road races, new business ventures, fine wines. He looked great, fit and friendly. For a year, I hit Like on many of his posts. Then they all stopped. I was afraid to find out why.

My friend request to Nancy (Hello old friendI’d love to be back in touch…I have so many great memories…) languished, and when finally she approved it, there was no personal reply. Her Facebook page was all about dogs. I had nothing to say about that, and finally, nothing to say at all.

•••

LISA ROMEO is a freelance editor and founding faculty member of Bay Path University’s online MFA program. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Under the Sun, Sweet, Hippocampus, Sport Literate, Under the Gum Tree, and several anthologies. She is seeking a publisher for her memoir, The Father and Daughter Reunion: Every Loss Story is a Love Story. Lisa lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. Find her on Twitter @LisaRomeo, or at her blog, where she posts interviews and resources for writers.

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Happy Fourth of July

fireworks

By Mike Boening Photography/ Flickr

No new essay today since I bet a lot of you are scurrying around, getting ready for Independence Day, but for the rest of us, stuck inside with allergies or on hugging-the-shivering-dog duty or what have you, I thought I’d make a sort of FGP mixtape from the archives, on this, the summeriest weekend of the summer.

Nicole Walker’s “Persuasion” for those of us about to get our BBQ on.

Kate Haas’s “Out in the Woods, Away Out There” for campers and the people who love them (anyway).

Rebecca Altman’s “The Homes We Drove Past” for those of us feeling a little nostalgic for childhood memories. (For example, that one Fourth when a certain uncle who was in charge of the fireworks got a little, uh, tipsy and said, “This next one is Golden Flowers. Not Golden Showers, kids. Golden Flowers.”)

Zsofi McMullin’s “The Accidental Immigrant” for those of us thinking of immigration and how we, or the particular huddled masses that came before us, got here.

Carol Paik’s “Running Commentary” for those marathon-running folk out there and the rest of us who will be waiting with a watermelon mojito for them at home.

Jamie Passaro’s “A Mild Suspension of Effort” for the neighborhood potluckers and everyone who enjoys the nice quiet of a summer night.

Jenny Poore’s “I Will Put Your Poem on My Wall” for everyone out there who needs a little pick-me-up because this year in the United States, like every year, great things have happened and horrifying things have happened and it’s easy to feel powerless and small, but your actions matter. They really do.

•••

If you haven’t heard about the amazing new FGP anthology Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex, read all about it. Hey, get a little crazy and pre-order it! I won’t stop you!

Fashioning a Life

dollhouse

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Melissa Ballard

Only after you’ve had two glasses of wine, and only in a joking way, can you maybe admit to having graduated from fashion school. But, after all this time, you still wonder why on earth you did it.

Maybe because all your friends and your boyfriend had somehow been accepted to college, but you had never even applied, because you were a confused and mediocre high school student, and nobody in your family had gone to college. And you had to do something, for God’s sake.

So, when you were moping over the photos of Lane hope chests in Seventeen, maybe you also saw an ad that said something about “a career in a year” and promised graduates entrée to a number of jobs, including buyer for a department store. You liked your after-school job at a small clothing and gift shop, so you cut out that ad and begged your parents to pay the tuition, if you promised to use your savings to cover your living expenses. They finally agreed, so you signed up for fashion school. And on September 13, 1970, fresh from the suburbs of Cleveland, the trunk of your dad’s palomino beige sedan crammed with your personal possessions, you arrived in downtown Toledo, Ohio.

Fashion school was seventeen courses, thirty hours each, for a total of 510 hours in the classroom. Plus homework. Principles of Buying, Fashion Sketching, Fashion Writing, Business Economics, Color and Design, classes like that. And while you could certainly argue that it was not the Harvard of the Midwest, maybe you liked those courses, worked hard, and got excellent grades, because it was so much smaller than your high school, just fourteen other girls and you, and your teachers were mostly women who wore lots of make-up, and hats and weirdly dressy clothes for a weekday, but were real-live career women.

Of course, there was that mandatory finishing school component of the curriculum that you overlooked in the fine print. Afternoons, during the first semester, you had to take classes like Visual Poise, Wardrobe Styling, Make-up, and Personality. That part may not have gone as well as the morning classes, because you might have been 5’3” on your tallest day, and less than lithe and, even with your contact lenses, your mother’s nickname for you was “Plain Jane.” Also, you liked to think you already had a personality, even if it was not the correct one. However, you did learn such valuable life skills as how to enter a car like a lady: butt-first.

In the afternoon, there was also a Voice and Drama class, and your teacher assigned a speech from Macbeth, the one that starts with “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, and ends with, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” You were all supposed to memorize it and be ready to recite it in class, but you refused to do it, claiming it was a waste of your time, but really you were terrified that you wouldn’t be able to do it, and there you’d be, standing in front of everyone, with no words coming out of your mouth. Normally, this was not a problem. You were shy, but you had also learned to make fun of yourself before anyone else did it for you. Somehow, you still passed that course and all the others, too, making you, presumably “finished,” not as in “ruined,” but as in “completed.”

And you stayed, even though you were miserable and scared much of the time. Like that Saturday when you and your roommate were the only ones on the floor of the residential hotel that was being converted to offices and that did not, contrary to the school’s ad, provide onsite adult supervision other than the elderly guard who sat at the front desk in the lobby and may or may not have been there 24/7.

You stayed even after you brought your laundry up that day and were folding it and a strange man appeared in your doorway and you froze, but your rural roommate threw the empty clothesbasket and ran at him screaming, “Get out!” and “Go away!” and finally he did.

Maybe one of the students was twenty-one, or knew someone who was, and so, some evenings, you were able to consume as many whiskey and Seven-Ups at one time as you liked. And you learned that those drinks made you calmer, happier; you felt as though you fit in better and were more like other people, until you had one too many and found yourself kneeling on the tiny white hexagon tiles of the bathroom, releasing the contents of your stomach, then sobbing hysterically about how much you missed your boyfriend and how much you hated fashion school.

But, one sunny day in the spring of that school year, you walked into your friend Karen’s room and heard a voice as plain as your own, but on-key, singing, “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue.” You picked up the album cover and studied it: Carole King’s face was as plain as your own, with dishwater brown hair like yours but crazy curly. She wore a loose sweater and jeans, and no shoes. It was the opposite of the dress code you’d been obeying for the past seven months. You weren’t entirely sure about this tapestry business, but it seemed like something worth pursuing, and you suspected it had more to do with the books you were reading on the side than anything you were learning at fashion school. Books like The Art of Loving, The Feminine Mystique, The Chosen, Atlas Shrugged (so much longer and duller than The Fountainhead, but necessary somehow, at least then) and, over and over again, anything by Salinger.

Maybe you graduated with honors, which sounds like a joke, but is true, and you gave a speech about character, both of which you had forgotten about until you were going through your mom’s things a year ago and found the program and, neatly folded inside, a typed copy of your speech, with the key phrases underlined twice, in pencil, so you’d remember to emphasize them.

Maybe you stayed in Toledo and got an apartment with your fashion school roommate. You worked at a newly opened clothing store for Juniors in a newly opened mall, where one of your former teachers was the manager. You did not drive or own a car, and the mall was five and a half miles from your apartment, the bus situation was iffy, and you worked some evenings, so you sometimes got a ride home from work on the back of the assistant manager’s boyfriend’s motorcycle.

In your free time you read, smoked pot, drank, took muscle relaxers and, once, over the counter diet pills. The latter made you really peppy and not at all hungry, until you got stomach pains so bad you doubled over, and after those stopped, you walked across the mall to the bakery, where you ate too many cinnamon rolls and gulped white milk from a small, waxed carton.

You grew tired of spending your work shifts standing in the front of the maroon-carpeted, rough-wood-paneled Juniors’ store, wearing hot pants, and folding and refolding tops, while trying to strike up awkward conversations with people who walked by, so maybe you could lure them inside to buy something.

Once, after the district manager said you weren’t trying hard enough, you marched up to a woman who was browsing the sale rack, guided her to the new rabbit fur jackets, and convinced her she deserved to buy one for herself. You felt your lunch churning in your stomach as you stood behind the counter and watched her slowly pull wrinkled singles from her purse and then the pockets of her jeans, as she tried to qualify for layaway. When she finished, you fought the urge to push the money back to her, pat her hand, and tell her to go buy something practical. Maybe that was when you decided to fashion a life some other way.

Now, you are finally able to bear the thought of going back. The school has closed, but you stand outside the now-historic hotel where you lived forty-three years ago. As you look up at the fourth floor windows, you remember a night when you’d had just enough to drink so you were relaxed but not sick or weepy. You ended up, fully clothed, in a waterless bathtub with several of your classmates. You were all singing, though you’ve forgotten the song. Without a doubt, the cover of The Mamas and the Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, an album you had listened to over and over again during high school, inspired you.

You look down the street at the newly built Mud Hens’ stadium, and you remember Mondays, after your classes were over, when you and your roommate walked in that direction to the meat cutting school that has since been torn down, where you carefully chose a pork chop or some thin sheets of veal for your dinner that night. And after you cleaned up a corner of the filthy, shared kitchen with its limp heads of iceberg lettuce, shriveled apples, and cartons of curdled milk, you cooked that meat along with frozen vegetables and Rice-a-Roni, the latter to make you feel as though you were living somewhere more exotic than Toledo, Ohio.

As you turn the corner to check out the front entrance of the hotel, you think of a guy you dated during your “I’ll go out with pretty much anyone who asks me because my boyfriend is 204 miles away and increasingly absent” phase. This date drove a red Corvette he loved too much to leave downtown unattended, so you waited for him on the corner of Superior and Jefferson. You stood alone on a city street, after dark, no phone booth nearby, one of the many chances you took because you did not yet understand the word “mortal.”

And, finally, you remember that you eventually substituted your Glamour subscription for one for the new Ms. magazine, and you proudly wore flannel shirts and faded, patched jeans to your college classes. You got married, earned two degrees, had a baby, and ended up working with children and, later, teaching college students.

Maybe now you can finally give your eighteen-year-old self a break. Accept that, while it might have been a good fit for someone else, fashion school mostly helped you learn what you did not want, but maybe that’s a big deal, especially when you’re young.

•••

MELISSA BALLARD studied fashion merchandising, worked retail, and was a bank teller and a public school camp counselor before attending college. She has since worked as a speech-language pathologist and a college instructor.  Melissa has written essays for Brevity, Gravel, JMWW, and other publications.

Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex

Soul Mate 101 coverthumbnail

By Jennifer Niesslein

Hi everyone,

I’m working on the new anthology (pictured above, featuring a glorious photo by Gina Easley.) This time, I’m switching things up a bit.

The theme of Soul Mate 101 is love and sex, all done up in the FGP way. About half the essays are brand-spanking new work; the other half are some gems from the site. I’m already so thrilled about it that I can’t imagine the state I’ll be worked up into by the time the book actually is published—I’m shooting for mid-September.

Who are writers in this latest one?

Why, none other than Sara Bir, William Bradley, Gayle Brandeis, Glendaliz Camacho, Carolyn Edgar, Sarah Einstein, Reyna Eisenstark, Dionne Ford, McKel Jensen, Jean Kim, Antonia Malchik, Zsofi McMullin, Catherine Newman, Deesha Philyaw, Browning Porter, Susan Kusher Resnick, Natasha Saje, Tracy Sutton Schorn, Megan Stielstra, and Elissa Wald.

I’ll be introducing them in the notifications letter in the coming months. (Some of them have books coming out or out already. Some good, good stuff.)

I hope you’ll preorder now. I’m the only one who has read this whole collection so far, but all of these true tales of love in the time of adulthood have me swooning. I think you’re going to love the book—and, hey, I haven’t steered you wrong before, have I?

xxoo,

Jennifer

The Population of Me

nut

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jody Mace

For most of my life you’ve been the size of walnuts. Nuts and other produce are standard measurements for small bodily organs and glands. The prostate gland is also the size of a walnut, but by the time a man is forty sometimes it’s as big as an apricot. The pituitary gland is the size of a pea. Whereas we measure hail by sports balls. When hail gets to be the size of golf balls that’s when it starts to get serious. Someone’s going to take a picture of that hail.

When I was born, stored inside the two of you, ovaries, was half the genetic material for a million people. That’s about the population of San Jose, California. I’ve never been to San Jose, but I’m imagining it populated solely by those people, the potential humans whose blueprints you harbored. Tall men and short women. Dark-haired, with poor eyesight. If I were thinking of starting a business in that alternate San Jose, it would be an optical shop. There wouldn’t be a lot of audience participation at concerts, as my people don’t like to draw attention to themselves, but the shows would be well attended. The population would have to pay special attention to sunscreen. It would be a snarky San Jose.

But amid all those brown-eyed wallflowers, maybe there would be a few blonde-haired, blue-eyed standouts. They would be the product of long-forgotten recessive genes that give them the ability and inclination to be cheerleaders or to complete layups in a graceful fashion.

Those million people, though? They’re only a fraction of the story. When I was a fetus, you held seven million eggs follicles. That’s the population of New York City, minus the Bronx. But to be brutally honest, most of those potential people didn’t have a lot of, well, potential. So you performed a culling, keeping only the most promising million egg follicles. And of those million, throughout my lifetime, maybe 500 will get even a shot at the big show.

I think of my San Jose with affection, all those ghost people, the artists, the bricklayers, the teachers, the petty thieves, the bureaucrats, the scientists. The odds were against them, were against all of us. But we made it. How can we ever look at another human being without a sense of wonder? Every person who takes a breath has scaled the Kilimanjaro of biology, has won the Powerball and is standing there with that big check and the shit-eating grin, or should be. We should be embracing each other as comrades, as survivors. Just showing up on Earth at all means we’re winners.

I know we can’t always get along. We need to argue about important things like the environment and the economy. We also need to argue about things that don’t matter, like the Oxford Comma and whether leggings are pants, because written into our blueprints are brains that want to make sense of things, that want to nail down the rules. Also written into our blueprints is the desire to have the last word.

But still, every so often I meet someone and I’m struck by the unlikelihood that I exist and that she exists and that we’re in the same place, having a conversation, and we understand the words that the other says. And I feel a connection to her. When I read about a crime, I sometimes think about both the perpetrator and the victim and feel an almost unbearable sadness that there are perpetrators and victims, after all the work that was done behind the scenes, within the warm, dark factory of the human body, to bring them into the world. I think about my ghost San Jose, and all the other ghost San Joses, and about how we’re the ones who made it into the outside world. We should be a little gentler with each other. We should be gentler with ourselves.

But back to you, ovaries. Of those million egg follicles you kept in safe keeping for me, two of them became living, breathing people. There’s no mystery like that of a newborn baby. I never saw my job as molding my children, but more as letting their mysteries unfold. Deep in the genetic makeup of my son were instructions to curl his toes under his feet when he sits, like one of his uncles does. How far back does that go? Maybe five hundred thousand years ago there was a Homo heidelbergensis sitting on a rock in what would eventually be Germany, sharpening a stone point for a spear, with his toes curled under his feet.

Etched somewhere in the DNA of those two well-timed eggs were determination, a love of music, sharp wits, and a great capacity for kindness. Also (between the two of them, not naming names) stubbornness, perfectionism, a habit of telling jokes at the wrong time, and difficulty with time management. You did your part and I’ve tried to do my part. I tried to help them find their paths, but to also do a lot of staying out of their way so that they could become who they actually were and not who I imagined they might be. I didn’t do much, but I think I didn’t mess up your hard work. They’re adult and almost adult, and so far, so good.

I’m grateful that these are the two I got, although I guess that I’d feel the same if I’d ended up with two of the ghost children in San Jose instead. I know I’m anthropomorphizing you way too much, ovaries, but you did a good job and I appreciate it.

Of course, you’re only half the story. Testes are nothing to sneeze at either. They stay busy, cranking out genetic material on an as-needed basis, at an incomprehensible rate, like 1,500 sperm cells a second. It’s survival of the fittest when it comes to sperm, and the culling is even more cut-throat than that of the egg follicles. In heat after heat in the race for life, almost all of them lose. Forget about my San Jose or even my New York City without The Bronx. We’re talking twice the population of the earth every month. You, ovaries, are the students who prepared ahead of time. You read the syllabus and did the assignments the first week of class, and then just waited for the due dates. Testes are the students who goofed off all semester and then crammed the night of the test and still pulled off a pretty good grade. But don’t resent the testes. It takes all kinds.

So, with all this talk of eggs and children I want to point out that I’m much more than a mother. I’m a writer, I understand at least ninety percent of the rules of football, and I’m a highly competent parallel parker. Reproduction is only one of many facets of me. But you, ovaries, are unabashed in your single-mindedness. Everything you do is to advance the cause of extending my genetic legacy. I’m going to tell you something, but I think you know it already, if you’re really honest with yourself: no more eggs will become people. For a while now, you’ve been acting as if nothing has changed, but really you’ve just been going through the motions, like a bookkeeper in an abandoned office. There’s no new business, nobody’s asking for the report, nobody’s reading your emails, but you’ve still been keeping the books month after month.

At some point, though, your job will be done. Remember when you were the size of a walnut? Ligaments strained under the weight of the future generations within you. But eventually you’ll be the size of an almond. I wonder what size nut you are now. A pistachio? Or maybe a cashew?

There’s not too much plot to our story, and that’s a good thing. You haven’t been stricken with any diseases or major dysfunctions, although there’s still time, I guess. Most likely one of my organs will eventually do me in, but sentimentally, I hope it’s not you. You’re my connection to the future and my link to the past. Just about every other part of my body could, theoretically, be swapped out for someone else’s, or replaced by a machine. They just have their jobs to do. My heart pumps blood, my kidneys clean that blood and my lungs supply that blood with oxygen, but they don’t do their job differently from anyone else’s heart, kidneys, or lungs. But you took pieces of me, of my mother, of my grandmother, of my great-grandfather, and offered them as possibilities to the future. You know the secrets of who I am and who I could have been. I’d like you to be with me until the end, like two old friends, side by side in rocking chairs, sitting quietly. They know each other so well that they don’t have to say a word.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O MagazineBrain, ChildThe Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Jody Mace.

Swimming Pools of the Rich and Famous

pool

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Laurence Dumortier

1. When I was a child, my family lived in the south of France, in the town of Aix-en-Provence. My father had been transferred there for his job. He worked for Shell Oil and had not yet learned to hate it. Later, when my brother and I were old enough to think seriously about what kinds of jobs we might have, he warned us away from working for anyone; he felt he had wasted much of his life in servitude to bland corporate life. He urged both of us to be our own bosses!, to not get stuck in what he considered the unimaginative hell of middle management.

The advice was mostly lost on me, but that came later anyway. This period in the south of France was before my father’s disillusionment. He was still a young exec in the early seventies and Aix was not an expensive city then. My parents found a second-floor apartment for rent that, while not large, was palatial in its high ceilings, tiled floors, elaborate moldings, and the most extravagant wallpaper in the living room. In photographs, though discolored with time, it is still stunning: a deep green background with bronze vines in vertical lines.

None of this was of much interest to me at the time, though. Instead, for my brother and me, the appeal of the place lay in the gigantic terrace. It still amazes me to think that this was where I learned to ride a bike. It was sized like a mini-mall parking lot. Except it was beautiful and sunny, with geraniums growing out of old planters and a wrought-iron barrier to keep us from tumbling into the street below.

Across from our building was a gated property. Though the house was not visible from the terrace, the garden was, and it had a pool. I heard it said that Alain Delon lived there. The name meant nothing to me then, except I realized it must belong to someone important or famous, because of the thrill I discerned half-suppressed in its saying. It was clear that to have a pool like this, you had to be important or famous or at least rich.

The pool was shaped like an old-fashioned mirror, straight on the sides, and curving in and out at each end. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone swimming in it. It was just there, turquoise and sparkling, inviting but inaccessible.

Amazingly, my father put up a huge blow-up pool on our terrace, big enough for my brother and me to swim in. Now that I’m an adult, I can’t imagine doing such a crazy thing. The terrace was not built to hold the weight of that many thousands of gallons and might have collapsed. Or, if the pool had burst suddenly, I can only imagine the awesome spectacle of all that water gushing out and flooding our apartment and the one below. But neither of these things happened, and my brother and I splashed and shrieked and swam all summer long. It was nothing like the beautiful and stately pool across the street but it was still heaven to us.

Plugging the building’s address into Google maps, I am a little stunned to have a satellite view of the terrace, and, across the street, Alain Delon’s former garden with its cypress trees and Mediterranean pines, and its pool gorgeously intact. It is surprising somehow to see my childhood memories so unambiguously confirmed. We moved away from Aix when I was five so there is much about our life there that I don’t remember clearly. The terrace and the pool and the wallpaper, among a handful of other things, remained vivid to me but it seemed the vividness of a dream.

The convergence of dream and reality in this one memory sends a chill down my spine. Time has passed and so many things have changed, but this thing has remained the same.

 

2. Fast forward fifteen years. After my French schooling, I went to college in the U.S. My college boyfriend, though majoring in history, was a musician, almost famous at a couple of east coast colleges, including Dartmouth where his band played a couple of times a year and where Michael Eisner’s son went to school. The young Eisner had ambitions to start a record label or a management company—I can’t exactly remember now—and he wanted my boyfriend to be his first client. The summer after we graduated, he arranged for my boyfriend to play a showcase gig at The Viper Room. The club was legendary to me, because only a few months earlier River Phoenix had OD’ed on the sidewalk outside, which broke my heart for his family and friends, and for all that wasted talent and beauty.

I was living in San Francisco right after college, though I felt utterly adrift, struggling to find a job and a place to live. My mother had arranged for me to stay for a few weeks with a friend from her own college days. Instead of being grateful for this generosity, I resented having another parental figure and labored to hide my sullenness. By the time my boyfriend called to tell me that he was being flown out to L.A. by Eisner’s son and did I want to spend a few days with him in a hotel there, I felt desperate to escape the claustrophobia of my own fumblings and failure to get a toehold on adulthood. Yes, I wanted to go! I was too broke to fly and didn’t know how to drive so I bought myself a bus ticket to L.A.

This was by far the longest bus ride I had ever taken. It left at five a.m. from San Francisco and took almost twelve hours, through the Central Valley. No one actually wanted to be on the bus, but it was a fifth the price of a plane ticket, and we all had places to go. We stopped in Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Visalia, Delano, Bakersfield—towns with names that were intriguing and mysterious to me. I was new to California, and the Central Valley presented such a strange contrast to the foggy, winsome beauty of San Francisco. I was gobsmacked by this demonstration of how gigantic California was. In France, a trip that long would mean you had crossed into another country, but here mile after mile after mile under the beating, hard sun and still there was more road between the bus and L.A. With each stop the bus filled more until every seat was taken. Many of the passengers were older, and some were infirm. One or two looked like they might have just been released from prison. One woman spoke loudly to herself the entire bus ride.

When we stopped at the Greyhound depot in downtown L.A., I was relieved and euphoric to see A. waiting for me with a borrowed car. My lust for him woke me up from the grogginess of the journey. We hadn’t seen each other since I’d decided to move to San Francisco, and he had decided to pursue his luck in New York. While not exactly broken up, the distance between us had seemed to contain a resounding finality. And now we were here. Together. In L.A.

It was late afternoon but still very warm. As we drove, I noted that I liked L.A.’s wide streets. I didn’t mind that the traffic moved slowly since I had no particular agenda. I was happy sitting next to A., and I was interested in everything moving past my window—billboards, palm trees, convertible cars with their tops down. I felt calmed by the gentle weight of A.’s hand on my leg. I didn’t know what was going to happen to us in the long run, but here we were together now.

In another half hour, A. and I were in Michael Eisner’s pool. I imagined the dust of the trip washed off by this pure and cool water and was pleased at this image. In the back of my mind I was a little horrified at how rag-tag I must have seemed to the Eisners, sweaty and rumpled and dazed from so many hours of sitting in one place. But this was only in the back of my mind because in the front of my mind was A. We stood in the shallow end of the pool, facing each other, skimming the surface with our fingertips. I didn’t trust myself to touch him, but I could feel the water conducting the electricity between us. How perfect it would have been to fuck in this perfect pool. But the whole Eisner family was inside, and in another half-hour we were going to sit down to dinner, and however bold I wanted to imagine myself, I wasn’t bold enough to do that.

I don’t remember much about the dinner, except it was lovely and generous of them to host me and A. Michael talked to his son, giving him advice about dealing with the music bigwigs who were coming that night. I had no idea how to interact with anyone in this particular situation so I was quiet. All I could think about was going back into the pool with A. and having the whole place to ourselves. It no longer seemed incongruous for us to be there. I didn’t consider us out of place. If anything, everyone else seemed out of place, superfluous. Such a beautiful pool only needed two people, in love with each other.

 

3. A few years later, I moved to L.A. Despite our best efforts, A. and I broke up, and I made new friends to distract myself. One of them, Jason, was a production assistant on Ted Danson’s short-lived TV show Ink. Jason had become friendly with Danson and his wife Mary Steenburgen, and they’d entrusted him with their house and pets while they went out of town for a few weeks. Jason found a way to insert “Ted and Mary” into his every other sentence, which I liked because I would have done the same thing.

One evening Jason invited me to swim at Ted and Mary’s with a couple of other people. When we got there Jason led us through the back gate to the pool area. He went inside the house to get towels, saying, “You guys stay here.” We hadn’t particularly been planning to go inside, but at his admonition, we teased him by coming up to the French doors. We found he’d locked them behind him. We were faintly outraged at his having done this and teased him—“Jason, we’re coming in!” we shrieked softly, rattling the doorknobs for effect.

I glanced at the interior, which looked cozy in an English-countryhouse-via-Beverly-Hills kind of way. This was a popular decorating style for a certain Hollywood crowd, I guessed, but when I thought of England I didn’t think swimming pool. It was thinking of the south of France, and of Aix, and the mirror of water across the street, that put me in the mind of pools.

Soon enough we were bored of pestering Jason and instead we jumped into the luminous water. At night, pools are mysterious and alluring. With the lights turned on they have an eerie, glowing beauty. The deep shadowy places where the light doesn’t reach makes them a little bit frightening too. Movement at the water’s surface is magnified. Light breaks apart and comes together again. Planar geometry makes its own strange kind of sense in the refraction of moving light. Bodies glow in a way they never otherwise do.

The setting was so beautiful, it seemed to call for some flirtation and it seemed wasteful to pass up this opportunity. I began to banter with a boy in our group.

A few years later, I would marry him, but I didn’t know it yet and just then such a thought would have seemed ludicrous. At that moment we were simply making jokes and observing each other from this new vantage point. We were buoyed by the water and by the sense of having stepped out of our ordinary lives. A few steps away there was a cozy interior but the doors were locked and we were out here in the eerie luminescence.

 

4. In Santa Monica, right off the Pacific Coast Highway is the pool that Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst built for their beach getaway. Now it exists as the Annenberg Beach House, and it’s open to the public in summer. On Sundays I often go with my guy and our kids around five o’clock. The air is still warm then and the pool is heated to a decadent eighty degrees. What a crazy luxury to swim in the late afternoon in clear water that is almost bathtub-warm, with the scent of the Pacific around us and the entire sky overhead. The pool is spectacularly beautiful, its perimeter tiled in a Greek key pattern and its bottom encircled with mosaics of ocean life. Speckled green and blue and yellow fish swim among the octopi and the billowing seaweed.

The main house, designed by Julia Morgan, was torn down in 1956 but I can imagine, floating in the dreamy water, that it is still there and that Hollywood intrigues are just out of earshot. I think of Marion Davies who is so often reduced in popular imagination to her caricature as Charles Foster Kane’s untalented, complaining mistress in Citizen Kane. Watching the real Davies act, in The Patsy for instance, she deploys her charm and her comedic chops with a dazzling ease. She gives side-eye like a boss, she pouts adorably, and she transforms herself in quick-witted imitations of her contemporaries.

It is easier, though, I suppose, to see Davies as the “mistress.” An untalented hack, in other words, for whom a smitten Hearst bankrolled pictures. It is easier somehow to reduce her to that narrow role, than to take in a whole person and her complex relationships to others. Hearst was older than she was. He was by far the richer of the two. We believe we understand what this means. “Oh, it’s like that. Of course it is.”

As I rise and break the surface of the water, I think of the trajectory of my own life, of my early childhood in the South of France, of the life I’ve made in Southern California, of how, if I were rich or famous of the object of any curiosity, it might be read in this way or that, to make more sense, or at least to make easier sense. My choices so far have been rather conventional, but even so each one was made for its own particular reasons, generated by circumstances and emotions that take root in the mix between the personal, the cultural, and the societal. My life is not scrutinized, but I loathe that famous women’s choices so often are, and then reduced to categories of convenience.

Plunging underwater again, the sound of my own blood throbbing in my ears, my mind wanders. I think of Alain Delon, who said recently about his love affair with the beloved Franco-German actress Romy Schneider, that while he still grieved her death at only forty-three, it had at least preserved her beauty: “It’s difficult to admit, but I wouldn’t have wanted to see her at 70. It’s better she went this way.” I turned forty-three this year, and while far from possessing Schneider’s beauty, the thought that in any universe it would be “better” to die at forty-three rather than to age—as we all must if we are to live, as Alain Delon himself has—strikes me as obnoxious in the extreme. Can there be a starker example of reducing a multi-faceted person to a mere surface? If Delon loved her, how could he not take in that she was more than just her physical beauty? That Schneider had depth beneath her surface loveliness, that she was more complicated, more flawed and more profound, should not be so very difficult to understand.

 

5. If I ever figure out how to have a pool of my own, it will be like a David Hockney painting. Sparkling and rippling in the sun, a nude figure emerging from its cool clearness.

When my children are teenagers and have their friends over, I will leave them to their youthful splashing. They will be surprised, and a little annoyed perhaps, at how much skinny-dipping there is when my friends are over, though. They will hardly be able to believe how comfortable we are in our middle-aged bodies. At least that is how I picture it all when I daydream my pool into existence.

I think of growing older with M. How impossible this was to envision when I was a young adult—a lifetime spent by another’s side. How easily I picture it now—now that we have almost two decades together under the bridge.

I think of our children growing up and the pools into which they will dip their own toes. The choices they will make, the paths their lives will take, and the nostalgias they will carry with them. I think of us swimming together in Marion Davies’s old pool. I think of the long summers of their childhood and try to picture where they will choose to make their lives. I imagine the possibility of some far-off day holding grandchildren as I wade with them into welcoming waters somewhere—perhaps even in my own backyard. I am wistful contemplating the adventures my children will undertake, and the unguessed ones still ahead for me, for M., for all of us.

•••

LAURENCE DUMORTIER writes essays and fiction. She is finishing her PhD in English, with an emphasis on gender and sexuality. You can find her online at twitter.com/ElleDeeTweets

Violets, Boxes, and Stars

violets

By Jessy Rone/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

The sight of demure violets and shaggy dandelions against the deep green of recently mowed grass has always delighted you. Normally you don’t like the combination of yellow and purple or yellow and green, because you hate team sports and those eye-searing pairings are often team colors, spotted on high school basketball jerseys or the itchy polyester cling of cheerleading uniforms. But in the context of spring, you love it, those three colors coming together for a few short weeks, radiant under the still-shocking intensity of midday sunlight. It calls to mind a suburban idyll, those violets and dandelions asserting themselves against an herbicide-drenched carpet of lawn.

But it is night now and you are looking at your phone, even though you’ve vowed to spend less time looking at your phone, and one of the feeds of text on it alerts you that a cookbook writer you admire just made violet syrup. It excites you, the very sound of it. Violet syrup. You imagine the violet syrup in a dainty pressed-glass jar, illuminated like an isolated shard of sacred stained glass in the path of an afternoon sunbeam, high on the shelf of a shabby-chic hutch. It calls to mind tea parties and Anne of Green Gables, harkening back to an age before phones that offer tiny visual enticements of violet syrup in the first place.

In your house there are all sorts of things to do, things that get pushed aside because of your job, which is to arrange little black symbols in lines against glowing white screen. It is called editing. The things you edit are lists about food, and you correct the mistakes in these lists because you’ve had enough jobs cooking food to spot misinformation quickly. You know what food does, even though your editing job consumes enough of your time that you now resort to serving boxes of bunny-shaped macaroni and cheese for dinner more often than you are comfortable with.

You do this editing from home, because that’s where the screen is, and your daughter often sees you scowling intently at it, and the magnetic power it holds over you infuriates her. You try very hard to limit her own exposure to glowing screens, both large and small, and yet there you are all day, tapping away at buttons as she implores you to draw with her or listen to her rambling preschooler stories. You want to give yourself fully to those stories, but the lingering demands of unresolved symbol-arranging pulls you away. Her job is to go to daycare, where she can play with other kids her age and build up her social skills so you can be at peace with your screen and your keys.

Sometimes you need a break from editing, so you switch to a different screen for a bit and click on little boxes and stars under photos of babies and dogs. You didn’t click on the star under the violet syrup on your phone. Is this worth a star? What does one do with violet syrup?

You try to shove the violet syrup to the back of your brain, but the violets do not give up on you. They appear all over, suddenly, in low-lying mobs: in the green strip of medians, along the path in the woods where you walk the dog. They grow in clusters, making pinpricks of color at the base of stop signs and between the cracks in the sidewalk. They soothe and disrupt you, because they are just another thing that you won’t get to. If you don’t pick the violets and make them into syrup, you’ll forget about how the purple and the green of violets make you feel.

You go with your daughter to a park without your phone so you can be somewhere and not really think about stars and boxes, and she runs off and then returns, bearing a fistful of white violets collected indelicately in her small hands. “For you, Mama,” she says. White violets? Was that one of Elizabeth Taylor’s perfumes?

The white violets do it. After a whole week confronting their quiet menace, you surrender. It’s Friday and you have deadlines. You are alone at home, busy editing inside and it’s glorious outside and you evict yourself from your dining room-cum-office. You close up the screen and grab a mixing bowl and go to your front yard, which, despite its minimal lawn, is infested with violets. You squat down, and you pick.

And you pick. One violet, two violets, three violets. You need a murder of violets build up in the bowl. You think of saffron, collected from the stamens of tiny crocuses, and consider how ill-suited you would be for the life of a saffron harvester, since after five minutes you are ready to quit this violet-picking business. You cannot give up. You do not give up.

The violet syrup recipe on your phone says to gather three handfuls of violets. You succeed, and you take a close-up picture of the bowl of violets with your phone, and you think about sharing this picture so other people—friends, kind-of friends, vaporous friends—can click on a box or star to agree with you about how great your life is, this life of carefree front-yard foraging. But you look at the real violets and then the violets on your phone, and you notice that they look nothing alike. Your phone violets are blue-ish and stiff and cool, and your real violets are a vibrant violet-purple, and the shiny metal bowl is warm from sitting on your lap. You delete the photo.

You retreat inside, to the kitchen, to separate the tender petals from their green bases that hold them together (a part of their anatomy called, adorably, the pip). So many small flowers, so many pips to maneuver around. Hundreds. Steeping the pips with the petals would make the resulting syrup bitter and to skip it would be to negate the already frivolous work you’ve invested so far. This is exactly the sort of thing you’d love to recruit your daughter for, but pulling petals away from pips requires more finesse than her unruly five-year-old fingers can muster. And so you do it by yourself, outsourcing the supervision of your daughter so you can blow off work and pluck itty-bitty flowers apart for making an essentially useless condiment.

It occurs to you that you should probably taste a violet before you go through with this. For all of the wildflower’s loveliness, its fragrance and flavor is that of the most bland lettuce ever, and you don’t imagine exposure to heat doing it any favors, but by now you’ve decided that making violet syrup will fill some hole in your life that needs to be filled. Even if you are just filling it with lettuce-flavored simple syrup.

Building up a critical mass of violet petals feels Sisyphean, absurd, impossible. Many times in your life, you have repeated insignificant tasks. You pumped the handle of the hopper and squirted a blob of Bavarian cream inside the donut. You stripped away the stranger’s slept-on sheets and unfurled a fresh sheet for a new stranger to sleep on. You took the rectangle of plastic from the customer, slid it through the reader, and made small talk as they paid for their pig-shaped corncob holders or glittery pink silicone spatula.

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Would you like a bag for this?

Enjoy your day!

You took the rectangle of plastic from someone else and slid it through the reader, and then another rectangle from another person, and then another.

A good place to eat around here? What do you like?

That meat grinder’s aluminum, so I don’t recommend putting it in the dishwasher.

Caribbean is my favorite Le Creuset color, too.

Your favorite Le Creuset color is actually Flame. The violets are tedious, still. Twenty minutes in, you have a pint of pip-free petals, not nearly the quart you need for the syrup. Screw it. You instead opt to make violet sugar, which requires only one handful of petals and one cup of granulated sugar.

It’s the big dirty secret of foraging that, with enough refined sugar, all things are possible. Only a few centuries ago, it was an expensive luxury. Crews of African slaves labored around the clock on Caribbean plantations to placate white people’s hunger for the laser-like precision of white sugar sweetness. On those islands that inspired a Le Creuset marketing expert to name a soothing shade of turquoise blue after their waters, there was a constant need for boatloads of new slaves, because they died before they got around to having children. Some fell into the boiling vats of cane juice, and some bled to death after getting their limbs caught in the rollers that pressed the cane, but most were simply worked to the point where they collapsed and never got up again.

Sugar is commonplace now, unavoidable. It infiltrates the snacks your daughter eats at daycare, the Nutri-Grain Bars and Fruit Roll-Ups. Now, the ability to afford eschewing sugar is a sign of membership in the upper class. Your white sugar, though, will not be white. After this, it will be violet.

A few blitzes in the food processor and that’s it. It tastes like regular sugar and looks like wet purple sand. To give it a boost, you add a grating of Meyer lemon zest, but it’s still not punchy enough.

You look at the windowsill over your kitchen sink and spy a vanilla bean pod. Of course you always air-dry the hulls of scraped-out beans after the majority of their flavor has been sucked into custards and compotes. They cost about a hundred dollars a pound and are actually the cured seed pods of a specific orchid, one that’s pollinated by hand a hemisphere away. The producers of these seed pods sometimes use a needle to prick a unique brand on them, just as a cattle rancher would, so the beans can be traced back should a vanilla seed pod rustler come to plunder the crop. Sometimes, before eviscerating them with a paring knife, you examine vanilla beans and you spy the tattoos, looking like leathery runes from another age, and you imagine having to prick thousands of still-green seed pods on orchid vines.

You realize you now have a small stockpile of dried vanilla bean hulls, and you grind them to several tablespoons of fine brown dust in your spice grinder, and you add a fat pinch of this dust to your violet sugar, and it does the trick. They’re kindred spirits, these two esoteric floral essences.

You retrieve your child from daycare, and you both return home to a big bowl of intact violet blossoms, ones that were not massacred into sugar, and you give this bowl to your daughter and send her to the yard and say, “Do you want to play with these?” She sprinkles the violets on the sidewalk and scatters decapitated dandelions and mangled clumps of grass among them, announcing, “I made a store!” and you approve.

The violet sugar is in a jar on the counter. It is subdued in color and soothing to look at, nothing at all like the cartoonish hues of purchased decorating sugar that you sprinkle on cutout cookies, and you just leave it there, even though you have no immediate plans to bake anything. Maybe you will divide it among smaller jars and give it to a few of your friends, the ones who appreciate things like the glancing presence of violets. The violet sugar means you are not entirely a useless and shallow person. You think about it and think about it and then sit and tap on keys and sort those feelings out, and then there it is, Violets, Boxes, and Stars, a few teasing lines on the screen of a phone, and you tap on them, and see this.

•••

SARA BIR is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She lives in Ohio.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

Picking Sides

laughing

By Danor Shtruzman/ flickr

By Amy E. Robillard

We’d talked about going to the German restaurant in Gibson City for years. Well, my friends had talked about it and I’d played along, neither enthusiastically nor unenthusiastically. When I thought of German food, what came to mind was the German restaurant we went to in high school as part of the German class field trip. I didn’t love it. Sausage and schnitzel don’t rate high on my list, I guess. But then Elise reminded me about strudel. Who doesn’t love a good strudel?

So the six of us—Chris and Christy, Elise and Jeremy, and Steve and I—all drove the forty-five minutes through the cornfields of Illinois one Saturday night to give it a try. I’d been hearing wonderful things about Bayern Stube for more than ten years now, and Steve loves sausage. Oh, does he love sausage. He’d studied the online menu for days and he knew just what he wanted: the huge platter of assorted sausages.

We’re seated at a huge table in the very back room, past the rooms decorated in the dark tones we’d come to associate with German-themed anything. This room is too brightly lit and feels more like a banquet room. It’s decorated—if you can call it that—with both parts of and entire dead animals. A deer head here, an entire turkey splayed out and flattened onto the wall over there. Antlers. Bearskins. “Do you get the sense that Grandpa went a little nuts decorating this room?” Jeremy asks. But only Elise and I can hear him because the table is so big and the chairs so wide and the room so loud that conversation is limited to those sitting closest to us. There’s a party of six at a round table behind us, a party of probably ten at the table next to us, and a party of five or so plus a toddler over there in the corner.

The waitresses are wearing dirndl dresses with the gathered white blouse and it’s hard not to notice how prominent their breasts are. It’s like the German version of Hooters. Our waitress takes our drink orders and disappears for a half hour. A half hour. We beg a waiter for water. It arrives only after our drinks. Steam is coming out of Steve’s ears and I’m beginning to feel the stress of his frustration. I try to make him laugh. We joke that we’d get up and leave except that this is the only restaurant in town.

We study the menu. I’m still not quite sure what a schnitzel is, but the one with apples and gruyere cheese on top sounds good. The Bismarck. We watch our waitress deliver a tray full of drinks to the table of six behind us. We salivate. “I’m feeling a little parched,” I say, smacking my lips together. I tell them all about our plans to go on vacation with the dogs up to Door County in June. We’ll be staying at a dog-friendly inn right on the lake and, as part of the “Hot Dog” package, we’ll get a gift card to a local dog-friendly restaurant whose selling points include a doggy menu. It kills me to imagine Wrigley and Essay sitting at a table with us, looking over the menu, deciding what they’re in the mood for. Yes, we’d like four of everything, please, says Wrigley to the waiter. “They’ll probably be served before we are,” someone says.

At last, our drinks arrive. Steve’s full liter of beer is in a huge glass stein and he drinks it very quickly. Mine is in a smaller glass stein and not nearly as impressive looking. Soon our waters arrive and we order. We’re in it for the long haul, it seems, so we’d better get comfortable. These chairs. They’re huge and hard and the baby over in the corner cries every now and then, a sound that grates on some of our nerves. In order to hear each other, we have to practically shout and still some of us are lost in our own conversations.

I come from a long line of loud people. My mother’s sneezes could wake the dead and her laughter could be heard up the street. In nearly every job that I’ve ever had, my loud laugh has been the subject of attention, both good and bad, but mostly good. When I move my office at school from one in a long hallway of colleagues to a much bigger but more remote one, my colleagues tell me how they miss hearing me laugh.

Our food arrives to much fanfare. We’re hungry. We need another round of drinks. One of the tables behind us clears out, making the toddler’s cries more prominent. Midway through our meal, a woman from the toddler table comes over to our table, and I wish I could describe better what happened but I couldn’t look at her and only Jeremy and Elise and Christy and I heard her ask me to please stop laughing because every time I laugh it scares the toddler and she starts crying. I can’t look at her. Jeremy doesn’t look at her. I probably set my lips tight together and nod. Later I learn that Christy gives her the stink eye. I don’t know what we say to her, if anything, to get her to leave, but she’s apologizing as she’s asking me to stop being so loud. Steve doesn’t hear her and we have to report to him and Chris what just happened. I’m mortified. I try to summon anger as my friends respond with outrage as they process what just happened.

“Why isn’t that baby home in bed?”

“It’s clear who runs the show in that household. Baby gets what Baby wants.”

“A kid who’s afraid of laughter. Christ.”

“You are not too loud. I love your laugh.”

“Who does that?”

Steve, realizing what’s happened, says in their general direction, “We’re too loud?”

I want the subject to change. I’m mortified and all I can think about is how I couldn’t even look at her when she was talking directly to me. But my friends continue defending me and I almost can’t bear it. Because I can see the woman’s point. Almost too easily, I slip from my own perspective into hers and I imagine that if I were at a restaurant with my toddler and there was a woman at a nearby table whose laugh was particularly loud, I, too, might ask her if she could perhaps be a bit quieter. Maybe I would have done it differently, more kindly perhaps, but I couldn’t inhabit my own position, feel my own anger and self-righteousness for more than a minute or two before shifting to empathy for her position.

We’re a culture concerned with empathy these days, the popular sentiment being that we don’t have enough of it. But having too much of it and accessing it too quickly can be as destructive as not having any.

Christy asks me what I would have said if I’d been able.

“Probably something along the lines of ‘Fuck you.’”

“You should’ve,” she says.

Our table goes quiet for a little bit as we all absorb what’s happened. I remind my friends of the time that another friend of ours, sitting next to me at patio table on a summer day, got up and moved to another chair after dramatically covering his ear with his hand in response to my laugh.

“Well,” says Jeremy. “This puts a damper on the evening.”

Steve is upset that he didn’t realize what was happening when it was happening because he would’ve defended me better, he says.

I often tell my rhetoric students that once I’m done with them, they’ll never be able to see the world the same way. I tell them that I’m out to ruin their lives. Experiences they’d never thought twice about would become fodder for analysis, and they’d recognize dominant ideology everywhere they turned. As my friends rushed to my defense, I wanted the subject to change because I kept thinking that if they’d been sitting at the table with the toddler, they’d be rushing to the mother’s defense just as vehemently. And they would’ve been very good at it. Their defense of me, I couldn’t help but think, was so obviously biased.

And then, a few days later, telling the story to another friend, I found myself saying that it’s not as though I would’ve wanted the opposite situation: to be called out like that and to have my friends agree with the woman. Yeah, Amy, you’re way too loud. We’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. Could you please just stop laughing?

That would’ve been a nightmare.

A few more days later and now I think I get it. It’s never just about what we think it’s about.

When I was a kid, my older sister abused me. She hit me and insulted me and told my friends how stupid and fat I was. She told me to shut up when I sneezed. Margie’s bedroom was next to mine, and the house was configured so that to get to her room, she had to go through mine—just a few steps, but enough to make me feel like I could never really shut the door or shut her out. My door was always open.

Bedtime. Margie walks through to her room. “You little shit. You’re dead.”

Middle of the night. Margie walks back through to the one bathroom in the house. “Little fucker. Fat shit.”

Back to her room. “Skank.”

Morning. “You’re dead, you little shit.”

And so it went, with our mother doing nothing to stop it. I always had the sense that Ma didn’t believe me when I told her about Margie hitting me, giving me bloody noses. But now I think that she couldn’t bear to see it and so she just didn’t. She looked away. She told me to stay away from her. She made it about me, what I was doing or not doing.

When my friends sought every possible way to defend me, to protect me from the shame they knew I’d probably eventually be feeling, they were doing what my mother never did, and I didn’t know how to accept it. I just wanted to change the subject.

I never got my strudel. They had cherry or apple/raisin. Steve and I were going to share dessert, but he doesn’t like cherry and I didn’t want raisins in my apple strudel. Instead we passed around a piece of black forest cake and when the family with the toddler left, Steve said to them, in his most sarcastic voice, “Have a nice night.”

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University, where her favorite course to teach—the one on the personal essay—garners the most enthusiastic responses from students. She and her husband are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley and one named Essay. Her work has also appeared on The Rumpus.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

Unemployed in Paris

By Janet Skeslien Charles

belly

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

JOB OFFER: ACADEMIC PROGRAM IN PARIS has immediate opening for housing coordinator. Bilingual/bicultural skills, experience with Word, Excel & Filemaker. Prefer candidate with middle-aged (or defunct) uterus.

The ad didn’t read that way. But it might as well have.

Jobs for English speakers in Paris abound—if you want to teach business English or wash dishes. The salaries for both are the same, as are the possibilities for advancement. I came to France thanks to a year-long teaching position. Graduate school in my native Montana hadn’t worked out as I’d hoped. We teaching assistants huddled in our offices, hoping to avoid French professors who battled in the halls, and I’d started to hate French. In coming to Paris, I’d hoped to salvage my love of the language, but instead found a different kind of love. I met my husband and decided to stay. For several years, I went from job to job, private lesson to private lesson, metro line one to metro line eight to metro line fourteen, spending more time in tunnels—sometimes an hour between jobs—than I did above ground, and started to dream of having a job with only one daily commute instead of six. I loved my students. But for a tenured position in the French school system, you must be European. So when my contract wasn’t renewed, I decided to write a novel.

I think of myself as on sabbatical. True, this period of enrichment and growth was to have lasted just a year. It is now going on three. “Unemployed” would be the precise term for my condition, but I prefer to be vague.

I apply for jobs. Just this week there was the job at a Jewish NGO, a housing coordinator position, and an editorship for a leukemia magazine. I look at the want ads dutifully and write cover letters so that I can tell myself that although the competition is fierce, I am trying. I send resumes out in the same way children send letters to Santa Claus. Of course, the children eventually wise up. I never seem to.

La directrice of the academic program calls to arrange an interview for the housing coordinator position. I put on my blue suit (only worn three times) and grab my briefcase, bought last year in hopes of making me look professional. My life is so empty that the briefcase is still stuffed with the wadded tissue paper from the store. When I arrive at the office, la directrice smiles and asks if I’d like a cup of tea—she’s just brewed a pot. As we chat, I take in her friendly manner, long, cherry Kool-Aid-colored hair, and pea-green boots and think that she is not your typical director. She asks me to sit down. The office furniture is black. There are no plants. Although we’re both American, she conducts the whole interview in French. It’s strange. She says the salary isn’t great, but employees have three months of paid vacation. They’ll pay for my cell phone. If I want to work only four days a week, that’s fine. The perfect job.

The interview goes well, although near the end, she asks how old I am then notes that I’ve “not passed the child-bearing years.” I stare at her for a moment before answering—she pretends not to notice. As la directrice walks me to the door, she says she feels we’ve clicked. She looks giddy and tells me that there’s another candidate who is forty-nine, which is good on the one hand because she’s already raised her children. On the other, she is not as dynamic as me. La directrice wants me. We’ve clicked, she says again, and invites me back for an interview with la directrice executive on Monday. As I leave, I glance at my watch. The interview lasted nearly two hours. I didn’t see the time pass. For the first time in years, I let myself feel hopeful about a job.

Paris, the city of languorous lunches and long walks along the Seine, has not pounded the need to be prompt out of me. I’d rather be an hour early than five minutes late. So I arrive ten minutes before the 9:00 am interview. I know the building code and hit the numbers on the brass pad. Not wanting to be too early, I wait five minutes in the closet-sized vestibule, then ring the interphone. Once. Twice. Three times. No response. Sigh. It was all too good to be true; they’ve forgotten about me. I consider leaving, then consider my bank account. I stay.

I’ve never gone to an interview in which the interviewer was late. It makes me feel uneasy. I wait five minutes, then five more, then five more. When la directice executive arrives at 9:10, she scowls at me like I am an idiot for being on time. Impeccably groomed and the size of a Kewpie doll, she wears a Hermès scarf. Loosely translated, this word means, “I have four hundred dollars to waste and desperately need people to know that.” She unlocks the door; I follow her up the narrow staircase.

In French, she lectures me on the importance of a gracious welcome. The students—from Harvard, Yale, Stanford—pay almost $30,000 per year, so there’s a lot at stake. La directrice executive mentions the other candidate, “She’s forty-nine. She’s raised her children.”

“How old are you?” she asks.

“Thirty-five.”

“Are you married?”

“Yes.”

“When do you plan on having children?”

Huh?

When I don’t answer, la directrice executive points out that I am “still in the child-bearing years.”

I say my husband and I haven’t discussed it; she looks at me suspiciously.

“But you’re thirty-five,” she informs me, as if I’ve forgotten. “The whole reason people marry is to have children.”

The last person to say this to me was a priest. The day before Edouard and I got married, Father William said he’d refuse to marry us if we didn’t sign the form stating we’d raise our theoretical kids as Catholics.

“Can you promise that you won’t have children?” la directrice executive asks. “Just for the first year.”

I am dumbstruck. The silence makes her nervous. She fiddles with her scarf.

“Not that I’m forbidding you to have any,” she assures me. “I’m a mother. A working mother. I would never deprive any woman of that pleasure. It’s just that now is a bad time for us.” She squints in the direction of my stomach, then she yells, “Tell me when you’re planning on it. When? When?”

It’s so hot in the office that I can’t breathe. La directrice joins us. “Everything all right?” Dazed, I nod. They smile brightly and I know the interview is over. I tell them that the other candidate seems better suited to the job, then thank them and leave as fast as I can.

When I talk about the interview with Parisian friends, they’re surprised I haven’t been asked about having kids—with France’s generous maternity leave, companies have much at stake.

“The next time it happens, pretend to tear up,” one advises. “Tell the interviewer, ‘You’ve brought up a painful topic because I’m sterile.’”

In Courrier Cadre magazine article “Discrimination: Solutions that Work,” Cecile Pincet writes: “Between the ages of 28 and 35, women are often asked ‘Are you planning to have a baby?’ in job interviews. You must respond no. Sometimes, you have to know when to lie.” In the jobs edition of the magazine Femme Actuelle, Amelie Cordonnier and Marion Kressmann note that asking about pregnancy is illegal. “He oversteps his rights, but to remind him of this would be risky. You can respond in all honesty with a minimum of information: ‘Yes, but not in the immediate future.’ You can also turn it around: ‘Is that a problem for you?’ It’s a good way to not fall into a trap and to keep the upper hand.”

La directrice calls to offer me the job. Finally, someone wants me. I sent out dozens of letters and someone responded. We clicked. I thought that I would be happy. She says that her boss loved me and asks how I feel about the interview. I don’t mention la directrice executive’s thoughts on why people marry, or the fact that she asked me not to have kids. Instead, I complain that she was late, and that when she read my hyphenated last name aloud, she said, “Do we have to say it all?” La directrice admits that la directice executive can be… difficult. She, too, has had ups and downs with her boss. Plus, they are both a bit tense after learning their academic coordinator is pregnant. I tell her I felt manipulated when they kept bringing up the candidate past her child-bearing years. In other words, I ruin everything. I’d kept my mouth shut during two interviews, why couldn’t I have kept it shut during one phone call?

La directrice calls to rescind the job offer. She feels that I am volatile and judgmental. Maybe I am volatile and judgmental. I contemplate what bothered me, beyond the invasive questions, beyond the fact that la directrice executive looked at me like I was a liar when I said I wasn’t thinking about having children.

The reason I sabotaged myself is difficult to voice: la directrice executive asked questions I don’t even ask myself. Questions even my mother and mother-in-law don’t ask, though they’re probably dying to. Questions I avoid. Even my husband avoids them. Two years ago, when I asked if he wanted children, he replied it was up to me. And that was the end of the conversation. La directrice executive demanded answers I couldn’t give. When am I going to have a child? When? I don’t know. I keep waiting to feel the desire, some little spark, but it’s been thirty-five years and I still don’t feel it. I don’t think I’ll ever feel it. This is hard to face. So hard to face, I chose to avoid it, until the job interview. Now it’s all I can think about.

I remember an image from the eighties, a woman with foofy hair and too much make-up screeching, “My biological clock is ticking.” I never felt a single tick. If I have a clock, someone forgot to wind it. Until the interview. Now I feel a strange, hard ticking, like a bomb set to go off, making me more and more nervous. “When? When? Just tell me when!”

Growing up, I expected to have kids just like everyone else. I love my husband and know that he would be an amazing father. Why don’t I feel a desire to bring life into this world? Why can’t I at least talk about it? All around me, it feels like people are moving on, moving forward. Friends and family are having babies, having miscarriages, getting fed up with IVF treatments, getting divorced, getting remarried, buying houses, going to recitals, finding better jobs, earning more money, making new friends, having affairs, selling houses, going on diets, reading good books, having deep conversations, making important and not important decisions while I sit frozen.

Two weeks later, I pick up the bilingual job ads and pore over each page like a child making a wish list—project manager for the Invest in France Agency, editor at Datasia, account manager at Azego. I even look at the hotel and restaurant section—Wili’s Wine Bar needs someone, as does the Indiana Cafe.

After my strange job interview, I don’t mind being unemployed. At least in my living room, no one asks personal questions. It’s a relief not to be in that stuffy office with edgy women. (I imagine la directrice executive greeting me in the morning with a birth-control pill and a glass of water.) It’s a relief to go back to not thinking about having kids. Glancing down the page, I spot the program coordinator position at an MBA school. I applied for that job five months ago. Third time this year it’s appeared. Apparently the person they chose didn’t work out. Again. I turn on my computer, click on the cover letter, spruce it up and change the date, then send it to the North Pole.

•••

JANET SKESLIEN CHARLES is the author of Moonlight in Odessa (Bloomsbury), which was translated into twelve languages and reflects her time as a Soros Fellow in Odessa, Ukraine. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in Slice and Pharos. Originally from Montana, she traveled to France in 1998. She interviews writers at jskesliencharles.com and is on Twitter as @moonlightodessa.

In the Chair; Change, Change, Change

surprised doll

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Marcia Aldrich

A friend who I hadn’t seen in about a decade visited last weekend. Pat has been a Change Artist in her professional life, taking on and then shedding many careers, and now in her current job she gives workshops on Change Management, a subject she has mastered and I have flunked.

This week when I learned that two walnut trees, fixtures in my back yard, must be cut down because they’re touching wires, I almost cried. Over breakfast, she quoted Toffler from Future Shock: “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read or write. The illiterate of the 21st Century will be those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” I nodded along—this assessment sounded like good advice for more than just professional development. But part of me resisted—I’m recalcitrant, someone who instinctually resists guidance and the newest packaged wisdom about what’s good for me. What did it mean to learn, unlearn, and relearn? I seem to be the sort of person who needs to learn again what I already know, not something new as in for the first time, as much as learning something again. Does that qualify as relearning?

I imagine you shaking your head as my friend Pat did and saying, that’s a sad thing. And you might be right, but our discussion made me think about a recent experience in which I needed to learn what I thought I knew.

•••

I had thought at this stage in my life when I’ve made such progress overcoming my unruly impulses that I would never have this experience again. At the very least, I’d make new mistakes, live through fresh disasters, but I wouldn’t repeat the old disasters like a pack donkey who takes one trail and one trail only even though it’s rocky as hell. The disaster I am referring to is none other than a train wreck of a haircut.

Early in life, they were engineered by my mother, and then later, they were self-inflicted and these are the worst kind—don’t you think?—the kind you can’t blame on anyone else but yourself. You can’t point the finger at your mother; you can only point the finger at yourself and wonder what came over you, what secret currents were fermenting in your little brain that erupted when you took your seat in some hairdresser’s chair and instructed them to do something radical to your hair. Perhaps you would dismiss changes in hair as style and not substance, but I would disagree. Hair matters; when a woman wants a change in her life, she often starts with her hair.

And so it was that I found myself in Sunshine’s chair in front of the big mirror that doesn’t reflect back to you who you’d like to be, but who you are. And yes, the woman who cuts my hair is named Sunshine. It isn’t her birth name. She gave herself that name when she came of age and was charting a very different course for her life than the one she had barely survived. She’s been cutting my hair for fifteen years. We’ve been adventurous, we’ve tried out some cuts and colors that weren’t as becoming as we had hoped; sometimes I’ve left feeling a tad deflated but mostly I’ve been struck that Sunshine saw just what I had been wanting to go forward. Until this last time, I’ve never gotten into my car and slumped over the steering wheel wondering if I could go on, wondering whether I had the will to turn the ignition on and ease my car back into the flow of traffic.

How was I going to return to work and face my coworkers and students who are gifted panelists on the runway of life’s mistakes? How, later in the evening, if I survived the afternoon, would I face my neighbors? I saw my day, post haircut, stretched out before me in one long extravaganza of shame.

Until that noon in Sunshine’s chair, I had medium length hair—a long, loose updated shag that tended towards the messy and wild. As a dedicated swimmer, I tend not to comb my hair after my swim and instead tousle it on the run. I don’t want to be one of those women who swim for thirty minutes and then spend sixty minutes fixing their hair and make-up before they emerge from the locker room. As Raymond Carver advised—get in and get out fast. Like him, I don’t like to linger or fuss. In the days running up to my appointment, my hair felt increasingly heavy. By the time the day arrived, the feeling of gravity was killing me.

When I plopped into the barbershop chair, its cracked leather cushion sighed. I found myself grabbing bunches of my hair and saying to Sunshine in a slightly accusatory manner, Look at this unruly mess! And indeed, when I pulled my hair this way and that, scrunching it up and away from my scalp, I did make a wild spectacle of myself. It is one thing to look stylishly disheveled and another to look like a banshee. I was trending towards the banshee. I had entered Studio 107 planning to ask for my usual, a trim. I wasn’t thinking, let’s do a radical, mind-blowing cut. I was going to make a modest proposal. What was unleashed when I settled into the chair? Little did I realize something larger was motivating my agitation and that I was pursuing my own winding path.

Here’s the thing about the relationship between hairdresser and hair possessor: the power between them is unequal. And the chair, even if you are sitting in it, belongs to the hairdresser. It is hers; she just allows you to sit in it temporarily. I know all this and usually I proceed with caution, if not trepidation. Yesterday, if I had paused and collected myself, I would have realized that my comments coupled with my gestures gave Sunshine a clear opening to interpret what she thought were my real desires. And that’s what she did. She believed my antics were saying I don’t just want my usual trim; I want you to hack the hair from my head like a mother fucker. And Sunshine, being the bold person that she is, did just that. It was quick and dirty and I hardly knew what happened. Did I mention that most of Sunshine’s skin, except for her face, is covered with a tattoo of many colors? Her hair is never the same color or style from appointment to appointment. It doesn’t resemble hair you see on the street or in the work place. It is elaborately constructed of a design that can’t be repeated. Therefore, I do not look to Sunshine for a restrained approach to hair.

Still the question remains—why didn’t I stop her? Having unleashed the fury in her, why didn’t I reach up and grab her arm, the one with the sensational scissors, or open my mouth and say, Wait! Why did I sit passively and mutely in the chair, chunks of my hair drifting down over my face and arms and floating onto the parquet floor? Did I want Sunshine to think I still had risky behavior running in my veins? Did I secretly want Sunshine to do what I lacked the nerve to do myself? Sometimes we forget and must be reminded of this fact: hairdressers are powerful. They are among the most powerful women in the world and other women live in fear of them and place their happiness in their hands. Yesterday I cared more about what Sunshine thought of me than I cared about my hair. A challenge had been laid down, and I’d better see it through.

When the hacking was over, we both looked in the mirror at my head. It was something to behold. Even Sunshine seemed taken aback by her handiwork. My hair, what there was of it, was now remarkably close to my very angular head, and it seemed at cross purposes, some sections twisting up, some twisting down. It made a statement that I was a woman who wasn’t afraid to have my face come before others directly with little formulation, like a short poem without any adornment. At the time I didn’t know whether I wanted to make that statement or not. It seemed not. Weakly she pronounced it a success: “I like it,” she said. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Back in the car, after I managed to lift my head off the steering wheel, I thought about wigs. I wanted one. But then it didn’t seem like me to cover up my mistakes. Following up a mistake with another mistake was not a good practice. Better to live with the results—isn’t that what I had learned from past mistakes?

I got through the afternoon’s work related events without comment and that was a bad sign. I obviously had something radical done to my hair and if it had turned out well, people would have mentioned it, wouldn’t they? I had two meetings with female graduate students and I did not attend to what they were saying because I was so preoccupied by their not saying anything about my hair. I was sure they were thinking, who does she think she is? Jean Seberg in Breathless or Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby? Though both these students were too young to know that Jean Seberg in Breathless was iconic of a certain kind of female waif popular during my era—the role Michelle Williams is now playing. When I was in high school I wore my hair as short as Mia Farrow. These were the days of a female counter-revolution in style when Twiggy and Mia and Jean were all the rage and symbolized a breezy and sexy independence with their boy cuts. Like them, back then, I was a stem of a girl with long legs and long neck, and the short hair worked. Now it would appear that I needed reminding Jean Seberg is dead and we study Breathless in film classes. Even Mia Farrow and Twiggy are no longer waif-like and neither keep their hair short, and if they did, we’d think they were foolishly reclaiming their long gone youth. We’d only be reminded of what they once were and aren’t now. But here I am with my cropped hair.

I slunk out of the Wanderer’s Tea House where I had met my students and felt myself lucky that I didn’t run into anyone I knew on my way to the car. But that evening on an unusually warm spring-like day, I knew that my neighbors would emerge from their winter lairs with their dogs and flock to the street. After dinner on the walk with the dogs, it was as I had feared—many neighbors were out and about. On the curve before our house, we ran into John Beck and the first words out of his mouth were, “I like what you’ve done to your hair.”

I almost blurted out—“You mean my removal of it?” Trying but failing to make light of my chagrin, I told him the sad saga of how I had made a mistake.

“Nonsense,” he said, “It makes you look perky.” Which he considered a good thing, something uttered to cheer me up. Unfortunately I could only think of the bitter irony that now after my mother had died and could no longer see me, I had finally realized her ideal vision of me. She had always wished for me to be bouncy and perky like a ball that you can throw against the wall and it comes back to you.

Before I could move on, another neighbor, Lyle, came by with his dog and again immediately launched into comments about my hair, as if there was no other subject. He really liked the change or alternatively he had quickly ascertained that I was feeling low about it and decided it was his job to buoy up my spirits.

Either way, it was interesting that two unaccompanied men sailed forth into the breach of my hair disaster with spirit and bravado. My own husband joined their ranks to form a trio of positive appraisal. I didn’t trust them one little bit. I thought the earlier female silence was much more likely to be an honest assessment. Still it gave me pause—they seemed unlikely cheerleaders. Or perhaps their cheerfulness reflects the relative lack of importance they place in hair. After all, my husband spends not one iota of his time thinking about his hair. And John Beck doesn’t have any. Only women can be counted on to understand the complications of hair, I thought.

A few days have passed since what I call the epic cut, and I’m coming to realize that the trio of men may have seen something I couldn’t. Maybe my new hair suits me or suits something I wanted but was struggling to articulate. Maybe this is what I wanted and it’s taken a few days to catch up with my hair as has so often been the case in the past. I’ve found to my surprise that I don’t shriek when I catch sight of myself in the mirror. I’m getting to like my new old self—she seems less armored, less covered, and reminds me that being alive is not a well-behaved kind of affair. When I run my fingers along the back of my neck I’m not entirely surprised to find that my hair is growing back just as Sunshine said it would.

•••

MARCIA ALDRICH is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in The Best American Essays. She has just completed a collection of essays, The Art of Being Born. Her website is marciaaldrich.com.

Read more FGP essays by Marcia Aldrich.