Croc Walks Into a Bar

croc

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer D. Munro

The crocodile slipped out of the underbrush that strangled the opposite shore and eased into the water. He shoved off with webbed paws incongruously small for steering a barge loaded with muscle and teeth, like tricycle tires on a hearse. He moved slowly, as if he had all the time in the world to wreak havoc upon humanity. No hurry, must scrutinize the menu before making his selection.

The freshwater lagoon teemed with local families diving headfirst into crystalline water. They hurtled themselves into the boulder-encrusted pond from a frayed rope swinging from a rickety tree. Standing on a small dock downstream, I’d hesitated to join the splashing crowd. With the croc’s grand entrance through the curtain of mangroves, the terrified mob scrambled from the water. We didn’t speak their language, and the Mexicans didn’t speak ours, but we got the message: get the hell out of the water, pronto! In a country where the national motto seemed to be, I’m reconciled to death, the translation rang loud and clear: Not like this.

“Felipe,” scolded the poolside café’s bartender, shaking his head at the cold-blooded critter who had crashed the party.

Although Felipe apparently pub-crawled here often enough to earn himself a pet name, the bartender had kept mum while the croc remained out of sight. The café had the market for refreshment cornered, perched at the edge of a shady headwater deep in the Mexican jungle. Bad for business, this errant croc who bellied up to his bar with growing frequency, so the bartender wasn’t going to give away the marauder in the back booth as long as the Uzi stayed under the table.

If ever God needed to knock back a stiff one, Tovara Spring is where He’d rap his knuckles for a double shot of Cuervo. Here we could chug an ice cold bottle of Tecate with a lime wedge, then leap into aquamarine water to cool off in the muggy heat. Which my husband, friends, and I were about to do when Felipe took his cue and cruised into the spotlight. Despite his lack of Shakespeare monologues or juggling tricks, he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. There was nothing to stop him if he decided to eat our hands. If Felipe chomped one of us in mid-swig, he’d get the lime, beer, and salty sweat all in one gulp.

We had nowhere to run if Felipe left the water, since the only way in or out of this place was by boat. He idled in neutral about ten feet from where we jammed together on the dock at the lagoon’s base. At the pond’s head, about a hundred feet upstream, a cliff towered. The dock jutted from a narrow strip of paved shoreline along one side, mostly hogged by the café. A handy set of stairs descended into the water so that Felipe could easily emerge from his bath to sip his piña colada with cartilage garnish. On the opposite shore: a solid mass of impenetrable brambles, probably littered with the remains of other tourists.

Too close for comfort, we backed up on the dock. Our friend Mark and our guide Nicho argued about Felipe’s vital statistics. Eight feet long, snout to tail, Mark estimated. Twelve feet, Nicho countered. We agreed on ten, but of a massive girth, solid as skyscraper girders—well-fed. Nicho’s quick calculation: 450 pounds. We settled on 500. Fifty years old, everyone agreed, judging by Felipe’s size—a crafty survivor who knew a thing or two about the food chain.

The bartender wrung his apron, likely hoping Felipe would realize that he’d forgotten his SPF 30 and return to the shade. But Felipe didn’t move an inch of his cement-hard muscle (not bad for a middle-aged bald guy, he’d obviously been disciplined about his Pilates). His scales looked as dense as the concrete pier we stood on. Unimpressed with his admirers, he sunbathed like an aloof Hollywood starlet. An imperceptible current rotated him gently in the limpid water. Squat legs, thick and short as old-growth tree stumps, were motionless. Those feet were made for bitch-slapping as sure as any evolutionary tool, but Felipe didn’t look like he’d bother breaking a fingernail.

Sizable fish tra la la’d under him, and turtles cruised past his snout. If the mood struck, the jaws that made up a remarkable portion of his overall length would widen and then snap shut, with the strongest bite of any animal on earth, and he’d ingest a crunchy tortuga like a taco. Just a snack, more out of boredom than hunger—a television commercial break to interrupt a documentary yawner in which the seasoned killer does absolutely nada. I suspect he hummed an Alice Cooper tune under his breath.

The lagoon beckoned, now peaceful and empty. Truly paradise—except for the crocodile—this idyllic spot that we’d toiled to get to.

I turned around to the downstream side of the dock, my back to Felipe. I stuck my big toe into the water. Here in this pond, disaster wasn’t lurking around a corner, ready to catch me unawares, but stretched out in the water, big as a pontoon bridge.

We had journeyed half a day from Puerto Vallarta to get to this mouth of water, appearing by magic at the base of a verdant cliff. The still and cool freshwater turned to murky saltwater farther downriver—if you could call the maze of channels hacked through the swamp a river—before meandering to the Pacific Ocean. We had hoped to sight crocs as we journeyed up the swamp from where it emptied into the sea, but we never intended to swim with one. Our guide had assured us that crocodiles never crossed from salt to fresh water. So when we putt-putted from brine into the sudden miracle of clear water at the head of San Cristobal Estuary, we stripped down to our bathing suits, eager to take a refreshing dunk in the carnivore-free pond.

A hundred miles from any cash machine or English-speaking waiter, we were the only white folks there—three middle-aged, married couples, all pushing the upper limits of height-weight proportionate and more interested in testing tequila brands than in testing our mettle. We had traveled all morning on rough roads pockmarked every blink by a white roadside cross commemorating a gory death. Buses passed compact cars on blind mountain curves, and the left hand blinker on the car ahead could signify a polite “okay to pass, the road’s clear,” or, “I’m turning left, so don’t pass.” Take your pick, brake or gun it, ’sup to you. You’d find out in a minute what the driver ahead was trying to tell you.

We navigated the tricky Mexican highway system of turning left from the right hand lane. We followed instructions like, “Park at the El Conchal landing. Get out of the car and wait. Eventually someone will come get you.” Fortunately this turned out to mean boat guides, not drug runners or kidnappers.

We spent two more hours puttering up the estuary in a flat panga with no life preservers. Our rented skiff squeezed through the tunnels of trees; in places we ducked to avoid low-hanging limbs that would knock us into brackish tributaries. Covered in bugspray and sunscreen in high humidity, we hunted crocodiles with our digicams and binocs, but they remained elusive. We spotted tortugas, owls, and herons, and the disintegrating remains of a Hollywood movie set, all well and good, but not what we came to see. An hour after we forked over 200 pesos (twenty dollars) apiece and journeyed up the dank estuary without seeing any reptiles, our guide Nicho admitted that it was the wrong season. At this time of year, late in the spring, the parent crocs hid with their newborns deep in the tangled mass of shrubbery and roots. We glimpsed one or two juvenile crocs, a foot or so long, errant adolescents out on the prowl, revving their engines. At sight of us, they startled like teens caught smoking and thrashed away through the undergrowth with an unexpected swiftness from clumsy-looking bodies. So by the time Felipe took the watery stage, I understood his capacity for speed. Looks were deceiving. He was a Sherman tank with a Maserati motor. His fire hydrant legs could move like redlining pistons.

Calm as driftwood, Felipe was an impressive beast, especially given the lack of barbed wire fences, nets, guns, and Peligrosa! signs. A depressing ecological reason must account for Felipe’s emigrating to a new ’hood, where he was as welcome as an oil tanker in the Galapagos, but at the moment, who cared about global environmental crises?

I’d risen before dawn while on vacation and traveled all morning for a dip in this swimming hole. I was an inch shorter than when we’d set off that morning, my spine compacted by our tin van’s thunking through never-ending potholes. I’d worn my swimming suit under my clothes to save myself the hassle of changing. No teeny-bikini, this total coverage bathing costume. I suffered the swamp in a girdle of cling wrap. Felipé would need some serious dental floss to pick this hellacious spandex stuff out of his incisors. The turquoise water glinted. I moved to the empty head of the pond. Felipe did the dead man’s float, the distance between us about the length of a few stretch limos in a funeral procession. I sat on a boulder and dangled my legs into the water. Nirvana, if I ignored the fact that I was flashing my knees at a butcher with a fondness for knuckle sandwiches.

The crocodile has remained unchanged for 200 million years. I’d remained unchanged for forty. Time to shake things up.

I’d spent four decades in my well-defined female role: shopper, navigator, time watcher, reservation- and list-maker. I was a clucking hen, not a wildlife tamer. I blundered into rare exploits by mistake, ignorance, or indifference. I tagged along on other people’s adventures so that I could carry the First Aid kit. Like today. I’d almost stayed back at the hotel with my book, in close reach of the fridge and bottle opener, but I went along to ensure that everyone wore their seatbelts and sunblock. I wasn’t out to wrestle a tooth-crammed predator that would outlive a nuclear holocaust (I hadn’t read any such crocodile prognoses anywhere, but, looking at him, I was certain that cockroach genetics had nothing on his). This sucker’s DNA was all about survival. Obviously unlike mine, since I, sporting cellulite instead of armor, was flaunting my gams at a pilgrim with a penchant for drumsticks.

My idea of daring was eating just-expired yogurt. I’d faced my brand of peril earlier in the shallow end of the hotel swimming pool; I slipped off a child’s inner tube, a too-small frame for my large culo, and cracked my head on the underwater stairs. Did I want to meet my maker in such an inglorious manner, floating ass up in one foot of heated water? Or did I want to go down as the woman who swam with crocodiles, the inspiration for Waltzes with Felipe, an overbudget Costner epic? Just me and Baryshnicroc starring in a memorable pas de deux.

Always too fearful and uncoordinated, I’d never done a cartwheel, never climbed a tree, never did the splits, except once when I slipped on my brother’s Hot Wheels. The primary definition of my life so far was what I had not done: bear children despite repeated attempts. Always an over planner, stocking up on maps and emergency supplies, things had not gone as planned. After seven miscarriages in ten years, I was aimless, drifting like Felipe in the trickling current, uncertain about my next step. My husband and I could not agree about embracing childlessness, further medical intervention, or adoption, so we often ended up discussing divorce. Adopting a child felt as scary as swimming with a crocodile, a leap of faith if ever there was one. My husband was ready to take the plunge, but my reluctance persisted. I wanted to feel whole and complete first, without a child, before I moved forward on adoption—not as if I was missing a puzzle piece, a woman without substance or value until she replicated herself. What I had become was paralyzed. Faced with twelve brands of pickles in the grocery store, I left empty-handed. My future was not nearly as clear as Felipe’s shadow, stretching dark and ominous below him on the pond bottom.

But this decision was miraculously easy. I was sweaty. I was grumpy. I was sore and tired. I was an idiot American with a charge card. I endured hardship for a dunk in this water and damn it—after being denied time and time again the thing that I most wanted—a dunk is what I’d get. I didn’t want to leave this pond adding one more thing I had not done to the already lengthy list. If it was my time, then I couldn’t imagine a better place to go. My demise would be quick. I’d be beheaded like a Cabbage Patch doll snatched by the school bully. (A friend assured me later that in reality the croc would drag me to the rocky depths and toy with me until I drowned in slow agony.) Regardless, we were so far from any hospital that I couldn’t be saved to live out my days with no arms and legs, just a head and torso sipping meals through a straw. No fuss or muss for my family, no choosing cremation or burial, no debating my final resting place, just a wake with margaritas and alligator boots all ’round.

Here, I wasn’t afraid of the unknown, an ambush against my body by my own body that surprised me every time. This was my one and only chance to swim with a crocodile. In the States, a SWAT team headed by Bruce Willis would close the place down before you could say New York Sewer. If I lived through doggie-paddling with a homicidal lizard, I would have this knowledge to carry me through the rest of my life: for once, I didn’t overthink. I finally did something really, really stupid. At long last, I took a risk.

Mostly, though, it was hot, and the water was fine.

So, with a smidgen of a second thought, I eased my body into the water a decapitated head’s throw away from a ferocious reptile. I tooled around my end of the killer-infested pond (I assure you that one large crocodile equates to infested), about as far from Felipe as a baseball catcher from a dirty player on third. I enjoyed myself but tried not to splash and attract Felipe’s attention. This wasn’t about committing suicide. I was simply tired of being afraid. Of course, I was also hyper-aware that I frolicked with a wide-jawed trespasser who could make toothpicks of pelvic bones.

I floated, as near to a prehistoric killing machine as I’d once gotten to Roger Daltrey backstage before my nerves failed me. The water so clear, I saw the tips of my toes five feet below me, and farther. So clear, I would see an underwater torpedo, dark shadow of death, streak through the depths a millisecond before I become dinner. Me, a frothing bubble bath of crimson, red tendrils snaking to the surface as the predator worried me into extinction. The huddled mass of frightened bathers onshore would witness Chef Croc shredding my sinews and tendons like fajita fixin’s. My eyeball might float to the surface before the croc snagged it for dessert, a tasty macaroon. Or my ear a vanilla wafer, my diamond stud twinkling in his teeth like a rap star’s.

Felipe did… absolutely nothing. We each remained at our end of the pond, avoiding eye contact like brooding tennis opponents mid-match. The locals on shore looked from Felipe to me and back again.

Felipe appeared oblivious, off in a daydream, yet I sensed his awareness of every dragonfly that flitted past his snout. When he chose to strike, it would be with the speed of a Daytona finish line. He was the size and shape of a drag racer, poised at the start, wheels spinning, ready to peel out and burn rubber. But he didn’t. He hung out, considering the shapes of clouds.

My husband, the daredevil who’d never left his teens and kept emergency rooms in business, watched me from shore, arms crossed over his shirt. Damp stains spread under his arms and sweat dripped down his forehead. Without children, we often had nothing in common, other than his tendency to set things aflame and my ability to douse them with one of my several fire extinguishers. I had followed him on countless of his spontaneous escapades, more to pick up the pieces in case of catastrophe than to enjoy the moment, nagging him the whole time about safety equipment, safety courses, safety belts, safety goggles. But this tale would be mine alone, my gamble, my glory, if not my funeral.

The crowd grew bored with tossing Felipe tortillas that he left for the fish. One by one, the families returned to the water. A father tossed his two kids in; the toddler couldn’t swim and wore inflatable arm bands above his spindly elbows. A pregnant madre slipped in, cradling her infant. For the first time in my life, I’d been the fearless leader, venturing into the face of menace and proving it safe for the rest of grateful humanity. Me, Bruce Willis, with breasts and hair. Job done and credits rolling, I heaved myself out of the water, cool and slick as an arctic seal and just about as graceful.

Truthfully, I’m sure the locals would have returned to the water without my bumbling example. I couldn’t pretend to sum up their culture after a week there, but I witnessed a willingness for risk that’s absent in the States (except by teenaged boys). The bull-riders at the local rodeo had no ambulance or nearby hospital, the beaches no lifeguards or warnings about riptides, and the taxis no seatbelts, with grannies in rockers riding in the back of open-bed pickups. They exhibited an acceptance of fate that I rarely glimpsed in the U.S. I’m sure they would embrace a pension plan and a teaching hospital in a First World minute but had no choice other than to shrug at whatever nature and providence handed them. Nobody said boo to the bartender for keeping his trap shut when he should have divulged the fact that Felipe had U-Hauled it into a family neighborhood.

In the States, we insist on insurance, assurance, or recompense for what nature or mankind dishes out. We want doctors to fix our ills and demand that lawyers avenge what’s broken. We weigh statistics before we make decisions. I knew the precise odds for each of my pregnancies and thought each of my doctors would eventually cure my problem. I tried to shrug and “let nature take its course” but could not, carrying on an argument about where nature’s path led me. Adoption carried a different sort of risk, with a good chance that alcohol and drugs had been abused during the pregnancy and that the child had been abused since birth. But if I didn’t take that plunge, I would surely lose out on one of the richest experiences of my life.

We climbed back into our panga and began the long journey home. My husband put his arm around me. Felipe still hadn’t moved a pinkie.

But we did. We signed up for foster care and adoption certification training shortly after we returned home. Someday I’ll be able to tell my son, “Mommy once swam with a crocodile.”

Then, “Don’t ever let me catch you doing something so stupid.”

•••

JENNIFER D. MUNRO is a freelance editor whose blog, StraightNoChaserMom.com, is a Top Three Finalist in the 2015 National Society of Newspaper Columnists blog competition. She was also a Top Ten Finalist in the Erma Bombeck Global Humor competition. Her numerous publishing credits include Salon; Brain, Child; Listen to Your Mother; Literary Mama; Best American Erotica; and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. Her humorous stories about sex and the sexes are collected in The Erotica Writer’s Husband. Website: JenniferDMunro.com.

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Transportation

planes

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Wendy Wisner

We’re driving to my cousin’s wedding in Atlantic City. We’re on a tight schedule. We spin past the bare-branched sycamores. The ground is dotted with patches of snow. The wind lashes against our rickety Honda.

Ben says he’s too hot in his coat. Peter says he’s too cold. “Just wait. We’ll be there soon.” We’re getting closer. I begin to smell the waves of the bay.

Then Peter throws up.

We pull over, strip him down. He cries, his bare legs shaking in the cold. We toss his dirty clothes in a plastic grocery bag, find some clean clothes, mop up the vomit with baby wipes.

“Okay,” I say to my husband. “We’ll get there right when the ceremony starts. You’ll drop me off. I’ll change into my dress. I won’t miss it.

We keep driving. Now the ocean is clearer, on the edge of the parkway. I inhale it. I, who hate to travel, inhale the ocean and its expanse, its freedom.

Finally, we arrive at the hotel. Bright lights, gold fountains, Roman god pseudo-sculpture. I was naïve; I expected a simple hotel. It’s like we’ve entered an amusement park.

Dizzy circles through the parking garage. My stomach in my throat. My mother texts me: “It’s okay. She won’t notice if you miss the ceremony.”

A parking spot, finally. I toss all our “fancy” clothes in a garbage bag to change into along the way.

We enter Caesar’s Atlantic City. Immediately the smell of cigarette smoke and misery. The blinking lights of the slot machines. The room begins to spin.

I say to my husband, “Here, watch the children.” I take out my dress and tights, my good bra. I hand him the garbage bag with the children’s clothes, and run inside the ladies room.

I change inside a stall, my bare feet on the cold bathroom floor. I tie up my messy hair, smear on some lipstick.

My husband has changed Peter into his button-down shirt and necktie. He hands me the garbage bag and Peter, then wanders off with Ben to change.

This. This is when I begin to fall apart.

Peter wants nothing more than to climb on all the slot machines. Peter will not stay in my arms. He twists away with all his two-year-old might. I try to carry him, the garbage bag of clothes, and my winter coat. And I cannot. I cannot do it.

My cellphone is low on charge. I have no idea which direction my husband has gone. I am completely lost, alone, with a screaming toddler who is half-covered in vomit.

I can’t hold onto all of it anymore. I can’t stop the panic from boiling over, from my belly, to my throat, to my eyes.

And then I’m not in my life anymore. It is 1983, and I am alone with my mother in the airport. The stench of cigarette smoke in our hair. Is it from the airport, or from the cigarettes my father has been smoking?

My father is gone. He left just as the snow began to fall in life-size, enormous chunks. Just as the baby started to blossom in my mother. Winter and spring colliding.

We are utterly alone in that airport. We do not know where he is, only that we are following him. The airport tilts as the planes rise up into the sky.

•••

The airport was the room between the worlds. But not a room. A cavern. A chamber. An expanse of white that stretched beyond where I could see. There were no exits, no escapes, no way home.

The only way to out was to get on a plane.

We watched the planes through the window—a giant wall of glass. The planes were larger than life. They were dinosaurs: standing still, then suddenly running, lifting their clobbering tails up into the air.

The airport smelled of gasoline, cigarettes, and diaper cream.

It was 1984, and my sister was a newborn, snuggled against my mother. But her presence was slight, muted. She was young enough to sleep quietly in my mother’s arms. She closed her eyes and ignored it all.

My mother and I walked up and down the corridors. We were marbles being rolled up and down and around the tunnels, gates, entrances. We were being rolled by the great hand of my father. He reached for us across the continent. He didn’t want us with him, but he beckoned us nonetheless.

He made us want to find him. He made us look for him in each man’s face we saw streaming past.

Had he shaved his mustache yet? Was it just growing in?

I looked for my father, though I knew he wasn’t there.

I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to go with my mother. I wanted to run away.

I stood at the top of the escalator, and my mother stood below. “Take me home,” I said.

My mother had no words. And now I see my sister for sure, my mother holding her, running up the escalator as it’s moving. There is no way to stop it from moving. My sister, the suitcase, the tickets—everything in her arms but me. It is clear that she can’t carry me as well, that I must will myself up the escalator.

And I do. I follow her. I get on the plane. I begin the endless journey of looking for my father.

•••

I have been trying to piece it together, the origins of my anxiety—why my mind so easily jumps to the worst-case scenario.

I have had to untrain myself from assuming that any time my children get sick that they are going to die. I have to shut out the thought that any time I don’t hear from my husband for a few hours that he’s in grave danger. It is their lives—the ones whom I hold most dearly—that are at stake.

I have some theories. The loss of my father is one. But I didn’t completely lose him. He didn’t die. He just left. As a child, it was a loss that felt like death, but I still saw him often enough over the years. I could still find him, wrap him up in a bear hug.

I think the feeling of doom runs deeper, back to my ancestors, back through my DNA.

The dead babies, the boat, the planes, the entrances, the exits. Portals into the world, and out.

•••

My grandmother slid the box out from under her bed. It was a beautiful brown box, old, faded around the edges, but nicely preserved. Maybe she was going to show me one of her hats, or try to give me another of her soft patent-leather shoes. (We had the same tiny feet, size 5).

She opened it up to reveal a small dress. Light pink, with a lacy, embroidered neckline. It was flattened and neatly laid, like something you would see on display at a museum. Small enough to lie flat in the box—a dress for a very young girl. You could almost see her lying quietly there.

I thought it was perhaps one of my mother’s childhood dresses, or one of my grandmother’s from when she was a girl.

“This is the dress of the girl who died,” my grandmother said. She drew out the word “died.” She had this way of being completely serious, but with an airy, dramatic flair.

Then she told the story. I only heard it that one time and was too scared to ask about again.

Her parents and their daughter were immigrating to America from Kiev, Russia. The boat was dirty, disgusting, people piled on top of one another, nowhere to sleep, living in squalor. There was very little food. Everyone ate rice, she said.

The little girl never made it to America.

My grandmother didn’t know how she died. And I was too shocked to ask.

“They named me Nachama, which means comfort, because I was her replacement,” she said.

But no one ever called her that. Her name was Emma.

She was Emma, my grandmother. But now I knew she was born after trauma, after the deepest loss imaginable. It would haunt her, and me, for the rest of our lives.

•••

We moved thirteen times by the time I was thirteen years old. We were chasing my father up and down the west coast. But there was also a restlessness on my mother’s part that propelled us from house to house—a search for the key to happiness.

I never felt that I had a home. Home was intangible, something reserved for daydreams.

And real dreams, too. I have always dreamt about the houses. I dream that I can go back to a home of mine, one that we left, and is still there, preserved as it was.

I dream of the apartment with the walk-in closet that I turned into a room for myself. I’d make stacks of toy money and play bank, or I’d take in all the books in our house and play library. I remember playing with my charm necklace, hiding the parts behind the coats. I think I tried to sleep in there, curl up into a little ball behind my mother’s boots. But I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t rest.

I dream of the apartment where I did have my own room. The twin windows that faced the mint tree. I’d crack the window open and inhale. My room with the full size bed in the center, the faded pink blanket, boom box on the bureau. When the earthquake began, first the windows rattled, then the radio switched itself off, then the lights. I walked out of my room as my mom and sister were coming out of the kitchen. We watched the chandelier sway, slowly, calmly, as though nothing momentous and devastating was happening.

And last night, I dreamt about the apartment I lived in longest. I knew it would enter my dreams soon enough—the apartment we left last summer. Both of my children were born there. I became a mother in those narrow rooms. Last night, in the dream, I stood in the living room, its soft brown carpet under my bare feet. The carpet felt wet, like soil that had been newly watered. A breeze was coming in. Ben’s stamp collection was lying open on the floor. The couch was gone, but the piano was there—the keyboard open, the keys whiter and brighter than I remember them.

I couldn’t say goodbye to that apartment. The last time we went, to get an ice cream sandwich my older son had left in the freezer (I kid you not), I didn’t want to go in. Because I hate endings. I hate last times. Especially when it comes to houses.

If I never have to move again, I will be eternally grateful. But I know we will move again someday. We rent our new home, and I have a deep desire to own a house someday.

If I own a house, it’s like I will never have to leave. I can grow old there. I can die there. I can sink into it. Get comfortable. A small square of earth that is entirely my own.

•••

Then there was the story my grandmother never told me: the story of the other baby, her baby, the first one. I don’t think they ever named him.

In those days, you didn’t talk about stillbirth. The doctor told them to grieve briefly, then try right away for another baby.

That’s one of the few details I know. That, and the cord wrapped around his neck.

In my mind, the cord is blue, the room is blue, the baby blue. Gray and blue swirling together, enveloping the room in a dense fog.

I wonder if they ever saw him.

Did they hold him? Could they bear it?

Their second son, Raphael, the angel, was born a year later, as the doctor recommended.

But where did the grief go?

You never saw my grandmother in grief, only in fear. Her sister gone, this baby, too. Life so fragile, so temporary.

My grandmother used to read the obituaries every day. She’d sit in the rocking chair next to the aqua-blue telephone.

Did he die as he entered the world, as he journeyed out of her body? Or did he die inside her?

My son Ben was born that way, with the cord around his neck. The midwife told me to stop pushing for second; then she deftly hooked her finger under the cord, and slipped it off him. He came crashing out of me, alive and screaming.

I don’t know what happened with my grandmother’s baby, but sometimes I imagine that I could save him—unloop that cord, set him free, stamp out the panic that passed from my grandmother’s body, into my mother’s, into me.

•••

I started walking when I was eighteen. I was coming out of one of the toughest times of my life: the first time I’d experienced a period of panic attacks.

It started the summer I turned sixteen.

I used to spend the summer with my father in California. That summer was brutal. I missed my boyfriend (who would later become my husband), and I was starting to assert myself in new ways—typical of the teenage years. I began to criticize my father and my stepmom. Harshly. I wasn’t pulling any punches. It got nasty, fast. They couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t handle me. I couldn’t handle them. And I felt trapped.

After that summer, I developed an intense fear of flying (obvious connection there—flying meant visiting my father). And, devastated by my abandonment, my father cut off all communication with me for a year. In that year, my phobias increased. Things I’d never been afraid of before became tinged with the most incredible, raw terror I’d ever felt.

I was afraid of all modes of transportation, really. Cars, taxis, the school bus. There had been a shooting on the Long Island Railroad, and I was sure it would happen again, to me. I was deathly afraid of mass shootings. I’d get nervous in crowded places. The diner. The mall. Thank God school shootings weren’t rampant at the time—I’m sure I would have been too scared to go to school.

I gained a lot of weight. I’d always been a normal weight—curvy as I became pubescent, but always in a normal range. I gained at least twenty pounds then. I ate to cushion my frightened body. I ate to silence my racing heart.

Somehow—I’m not really sure how—I started to come out of the panic. I decided to see a therapist. She wasn’t great, but just the act of going was good for me. And I started walking, both to lose the weight, and also because I found it amazingly freeing. It seemed to wash the anxiety out of my body. And I liked being out of my house. I liked the fresh air. I liked the endorphins. I liked being able, at last, to think clearly. I liked slicing through the world at my own pace. I liked looking at the perfect houses, with the perfect families inside (or so I imagined).

All these years later, I still walk almost every day. Sometimes with a baby strapped to my chest, or a toddler in a stroller. And on weekends, entirely alone.

Since this past summer, I have added some running to my routine. I’m not sure why. I had been having dreams about running. It seemed absurd to me at first. But the dreams were like magic, like I was gliding through space.

•••

When we moved to the new house last summer, we noticed several white beings swooping across the trees out in the distance, over the pond.

Later, we realized: egrets.

And then the four of us—even the baby—would wait until night came (it came late then, in summer) and wait for them at the window. It was magic. Pure and simple. These great, graceful birds, with wings that were quiet, long breaths.

As the earth cooled, the egrets retreated. Where did they go? No one asked. We moved deeper into the everyday. School started. The days got shorter and darker.

But I have thought over the months, where did they go? You always hear that birds go south. But really—where? Or do some die? I guess that’s what I really want to know.

I am obsessed with beings—people—coming and going. The way they wander in and out of lives. And how they get there.

My grandmother would always ask: How did you get here? By foot? Car? Train? She was interested in modes of transportation—fixated on the travel routes of the ones she loved. She wanted to make sure you would arrive at your destination in one piece. “Call when you get there,” she’d say.

The formation of birds as they migrate—of course it takes our breath away. The unspoken communication, the way their bodies seem to magnetize to each other. Don’t we all just want to know where to go? And with whom to travel? What comfort there. What grace.

Ben wants to get a new camera with a zoom lens so that we can photograph the egrets this summer to preserve the magic. We know it’s temporary. We want to capture it.

Just a week ago, the pond was covered in snow, and under the snow—ice. Now it’s melted, and the ducks swim smoothly through it. On the way home from a walk today, Peter and I heard them quacking.

Yes, spring. Which leads to summer. And all the birds opening their wings, returning home.

•••

We missed the ceremony.

After we were all dressed, we rushed through the hotel, past restaurants and gift shops, up escalators, around corners—everything sharply glittering. We found signs for the reception (there were many) and took the final elevator up to the very top of the building.

The elevator opened onto the wedding. The reception was in full swing. I saw the bride first, my cousin, towering over me in heels, her burnt-red hair, endlessly flowing shimmer-white dress trailing behind her. She was rosy-cheeked, in a just-married daze, and thrilled that we made it.

No guilt. No worries. No fear. We made it.

An enormous picture window overlooked the ocean. It was twilight, and the grays and blues from outside drifted into the wedding hall, bathing everyone in a warm, ethereal light.

I began to breathe.

I scanned the room for my family. There they were, my mother and sister, sitting on a leather loveseat together, plates of hors d’oeurves balanced on their laps. My mother and sister—strange and beautiful to see them here, in this otherworldly place, a place none of us had ever been before, and would probably never return.

For a while I just watched them, and time seemed to melt away. Then I looked at my two sons, who had quickly situated themselves in front of the window, cheek to cheek, watching seagulls sweep across the sea.

My husband appeared beside me, put his arms around my shoulders, asked me if I was feeling better, and walked me down the aisle toward the ones I loved.

•••

WENDY WISNER is the author of two books of poems. Her essays and poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Washington Post, Literary MamaThe Spoon River Review, Brain, Child magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and lives with her family in New York. For more, visit her website www.wendywisner.com. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

My Twenty-Four-Hour Boyfriend

heart leaves

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zachary Zane

I don’t typically go out to bars alone. In fact, I never do. But I’m in Provincetown; I’m cute, tall, and twenty-three. I should have no problems making friends. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told.

After spending some time with my uncles at the P’town Theater, I head directly over to A-House. I walk in and immediately beeline it to the bar. Head on a swivel, I look around, hoping that my smile will be enough to bring people over to me. It does not. I stand next to the bar, only to notice how salient my sobriety feels. I order a Jack and Diet. I notice no one. No one notices me. Chug my drink. Order another. I notice him.

Cut jaw, blue eyes, big lips, scruff. Tight dark jeans cuffed at the bottom. Perfect bubble butt. Black low-laced boots. Light blue button down shirt. Untucked. Top three buttons undone. Humble chest hair. Tattoos everywhere. Backwards hat. Short blond hair underneath. Feather earring. Necklace. Rings. Bracelets.

He’s alone at the other side of the bar. I see him laugh as he talks to the bartender. The music is blaring, but somehow I can still hear him. He opens his mouth wide as he laughs. A real heartfelt laugh. His teeth are white and straight. His tongue, pierced.

I stare. I stare for a long time. He does not notice. I finish my drink and order another. Liquid courage begins pulsing through my veins. He moves to the dance floor. So do I.

I walk up to him.

I love your earring.

Thanks.

We introduce ourselves.

Wanna step outside to talk? I smile and nod. That is exactly what I want.

Do you smoke?

No, I don’t.

Good you shouldn’t. He takes out a cigarette and lights up.

We talk. About places. Where we have lived. Where we will live. Why we’re here. Me, visiting my uncles for the long weekend. Him, for the summer, but moving to Crown Heights shortly.

He’s confident and honest. Comfortable in his own skin. Maybe that’s the difference between being twenty-three and twenty-seven. The difference between my age and his.

His honesty is not abrasive. Not too soon. With anyone else it would be. He grew up in foster homes and left home when he was fifteen. He is the first person in his family to go to college. He created his own major there. Social Entrepreneurism. He was in India for work, helping impoverished children with cancer. Related to a startup he headed. Almost too clichéd. Almost. He comes home to find his husband of four years gone. Picked up and left. It led to a downward spiral of alcohol, drug use, and sex. Mistrust. With himself and others. I can’t blame him.

You’re cute.

Thank you. I would return the compliment, but he is much more than cute. Calling him cute would be insulting.

He recognizes a friend and calls him over. He starts talking to him and introduces us. His friend has a friend. That friend starts flirting with me, while his friend talks to him. The friend of a friend is drunk but kind. I don’t listen to him as he speaks. I eavesdrop. He acts the same with his friend. Confident. Charismatic. The four of us reconvene.

You two are too cute. Do you guys plan on having sex tonight?

He looks at me and smiles. Well, I hope… if—

I look at him. I really hope so.

We smile at each other. Naughty smiles.

A-House is closing. I grab my jacket and take a leak.

I can’t find him when I come out of the bathroom. Minutes go by. God damn it.

He comes up behind me and grabs my hand.

I’ve been looking for you.

I’ve been looking for you, too.

I stare into his blue eyes. They’re intoxicating. His whole face, intoxicating. High cheekbones. Full lips. A subtle rosy completion. We head back to his place. On the way he whips out a pair of prescriptionless hipster glasses and a slingshot.

Please tell me you’ve been carrying around this slingshot with you for the past ten years.

I wish. I got it today at a yard sale.

Why did you ruin the illusion?

Here, look how much fun it is.

He helps me grip the base.

I shoot at a sign.

See! Isn’t it fun?

I smile. Yeah. It really is.

He pulls back the slingshot and cuts his lip. It bleeds. Good. I was beginning to suspect he wasn’t real.

He pulls down the bottom of his lip to show me.

How did you do that?

I don’t even know.

I lean in to kiss it. He pushes me away. I start to worry and stop myself. He’s just waiting. This isn’t the moment. We head back to his place. It’s nice. Really nice. He made friends with a rich man who doesn’t charge him rent. He offers me a beer. I take one. He does too.

Hi.

He’s looking into my eyes. I meet his gaze. No blinking. No smile. He breaks eye contact first to blush.

Sorry, you’re just really cute, and I get awkward.

If anyone else had said that to me, I would have known he was playing me. A game. I trust him. I believe him. He’s nervous. Human. Real.

Don’t be. His eyes lock with mine again. We stare. At the same time we both lean in to kiss. A slow, soft kiss. His lips are slightly chapped, but I don’t mind—again, reminding me that he’s human. I inhale deeply as I close my eyes. He smells of man. No deodorant. It’s a short kiss. Little tongue. He breaks away first.

Wanna head to my bedroom?

I do.

I use the bathroom before heading in. His pants are already off. He wears boxer briefs. Hanes. Nothing flashy. But they fit in all the right places. I take off my boots and jeans. Boxer briefs. Champion. Nothing flashy. He offers me a bedtime shirt. I decline. I know I’m going to take it off shortly.

He keeps the lights on. I like that. We begin kissing. Slowly. I open my eyes to see his closed. To see him losing himself. Losing himself in me. I close my eyes and feel him. Toned. All hair and muscle. Six-foot-one and one-hundred-eighty-five pounds of man.

We get naked, but don’t have sex. We don’t need to. It’s incredible to be with someone my size. His weight on me. His body against me. Holding one another. He falls asleep in my arms. Snoring. I don’t mind. I like hearing him.

The next morning we wake up. Naked. We make out. Cuddle. Feel one another. We lounge around. Still naked. Talking. About work. Family. Friends. Provincetown. Lovers. Past and present.

Do you have boyfriend?

No. I don’t. Do you?

No. There is this guy I talk to in D.C. But no, I don’t. You’d be surprised how many times I ask that and the answer is yes. Why don’t you have a boyfriend?

I’m not sure what to say. I just don’t. Men are new to me. At least dating men. I tell him the truth.

I was faux-dating this guy for many months. I broke things off with him recently. I knew he was perfect for me. I just wasn’t attracted to him physically. I hate myself for it. I know physical attraction is important, but I can’t help but feel shallow when that’s the only reason. I tried forcing it for a while, but that didn’t work.

Yeah, you can never force something like that.

I know that now. The whole thing was so frustrating.

I’ve been there, too. We all have. Doesn’t make you a bad person. You just know what you need now.

I do.

He looks into my eyes again. How do I feel so vulnerable and yet so comfortable? He smiles and gives me a big kiss.

When do you leave?

I’m not sure. I need to head back to my uncles later today, and I’m leaving in the afternoon.

It’s a shame. This always happens. Where I meet someone right before I am leaving for some place new. I like you. I could see myself really liking you and enjoying the process of getting to know you.

I know. I have nothing more to say. I agree.

Well I can be your twenty-four-hour boyfriend.

I would like that.

He kisses me, and we cuddle in various positions. Still naked.

He shows me cute pictures of himself in drag. I try on jeans he throws at me. They fit surprisingly well.

I think I’m gonna steal these.

Don’t you dare! We’ll grab you a pair today in town.

We hop in the shower together. Kiss. Scrub each other. We hop out. I put on my clothing from last night. He puts on something new. Cute. Hip. Tight shirt. Short sleeves. Jeans. Faux boat shoes.

We get brunch. He knows the owner and the waitress by name. It’s incredible seeing him interact. You would think that he’s best friends with everyone. He invites both of them over later to help him make applesauce with all the fallen apples in his yard. He had invited me earlier, but I told him I wouldn’t be around for it. It’s clear he’s never hung out with them before. But he’s happy to invite them over. To meet new people. Experience new friendships.

Eggs Benedict and gluten-free peach and pineapple pancakes.

Do you like ketchup?

Yeah.

Do you like pepper?

Yeah. I like everything.

That’s good. You’re a yes guy. I like that. I could never be with anyone who isn’t a yes guy.

He leans over the table and grabs my arms. I look into his eyes. He kisses me, moving his hand slowly down my jaw. He puts his leg on me as we eat. I pet it throughout brunch.

We split the bill and walk into town.

So you have the one tattoo?

Yeah.

Why just the one?

I got it with my best friend in college. I know it’s silly, but I like it. I’d be happy to get another one; I just don’t know what it would be. I wouldn’t want it to be a joke tattoo like this one. I would want it to mean something. At this point in my life, I don’t think I’ve accomplished anything, or simply lived enough to get another tattoo that means something.

That’s not true at all. Of course you have lived. Just in the short time I have spent with you and from the little you’ve told me. Of course you have lived. Don’t put yourself down like that.

I don’t mean to put myself down, I just … I don’t know.

You’re twenty-four?

Twenty-three.

I know you’re probably thinking that you should have your masters and be able to suck fifty dicks at the same time, but—

Well, I mean, I can.

He laughs. I know you can, but in all honesty, think about it like this. Think about all the things you can teach people. Every little thing from the very small to the very big. I bet you would have a really long list.

Yeah, I guess I would.

A professor once told me that. I like to think about it from time to time.

Yeah. I like that. It’s trite. It’s cliché. It’s something that can be put on an inspirational poster. I know all this. But when he says it, it means something. When he says it, I feel better. I believe him.

We walk into a boutique. He asks the owner, a friend who he lived with previously, if they have jeans my size. They do, but not in a cut he thinks will fit me well. We shop together. Try on hats and glasses. He buys a cute sweater.

We walk down Commercial together. Holding hands. He picks his long board up from a friend’s house.

Have you ever ridden one?

No.

Do you wanna try?

Sure.

He steadies me as I hop on the board. His hands on my waist. He’s got me. I know I won’t fall. He helps me kick off, and I ride a little bit. He pulls my hand so I can actually pick up some speed. I hop off.

The walk back to my uncles is about two miles. We talk more. We hold hands. We stop in the street to kiss periodically. He tells me how he got expelled from high school. He beat up a kid who called him a faggot. I like hearing stories like these. People who stand up for themselves.

I don’t know what it is. If it’s just that I know you’re leaving, and I won’t ever see you again, or see you again like this, or if it’s really something more. But I can see myself with you.

I know. I feel the same way. And honestly, I don’t know. It might be both. I shouldn’t have said it—admitting that it may not be real, but I did.

Yeah.

We reach my uncles’ place. He gives me a kiss. A long, real kiss.

Text me. Or don’t.

I know how he means it.

I will.

I’m really glad you came up to me at the bar.

Yeah, and to think I was about to leave right before meeting you.

I’m glad you didn’t.

Me too.

I kiss him again. I don’t want him to go.

Bye.

Bye.

He hops on his long board and rides away. I want to cry. Not tears of joy. Not tears of sadness. Tears of emotion. Raw emotion. What just happened?

Provincetown is already a surreal fantasyland where time stops. Where I feel far away from the city. Where everyone is friendly and queer. In my fantasyland, I met my dream boy.

I didn’t love him. I know that. But it was more than lust. What happened was ineffable. I felt connected, as if I had known him for years. I let myself go to him. I didn’t hold back, knowing there was nothing to lose.

Maybe I’m just a sucker for blue eyes and a pretty smile. Even though this was the first time something like this happened to me, I know it wasn’t the first time it happened to him. His personality, his whole being, lends himself to love and be loved. To real connections. And I’m sure he’s had real connections, just like this one, before. But that doesn’t matter. For twenty-four hours, I was his, and he was mine. All mine.

I don’t know if I’ll see him again. Of course, I could. I’m in New York once every few months anyway, but there is a part of me that wants to keep this a fantasy. To keep this perfect. The moment I see him again, outside of Provincetown, he becomes real. Our relationship, or whatever it was, will be real. Not this perfect dreamlike fantasy. And I won’t be able to think of him as fondly as I do right now.

Still, I have to see him again. Even if it ruins it. Normalizes it. Realizes it. If he made me feel so much in twenty-four hours, imagine what more he can make me feel. Odds are it won’t work out, but it’s a risk I have to take.

•••

ZACHARY ZANE is a Los Angeles native who got lost and somehow ended up living in Boston. He’s a freelance writer and contributor at PRIDE. When he’s not trying to get his book published, he spends his time pondering about relationships and sexuality. You can follow him on Twitter @ ZacharyZane_

Manning the Tollbooth

hallway

By Martin Howard/ flickr

By Jon Magidsohn

It’s a cement and gray-brick structure, unnaturally square, six stories of uniformly tinted windows, compartmentalized and looming large over the winding driveway. Wide, sliding glass doors open onto a pale foyer large enough to park several ambulances. On the right, busy administrators in matching navy-blue jackets sit behind a registration desk; on the left, a café with odors staler than the bodily smells upstairs in the wards. An unused staircase hugs the wall as visitors and faceless figures in teal-green pyjamas crowd the elevators. Blue and silver signs point toward mysteriously withdrawing wings named after equally mysterious benefactors. The ceiling is speckled with plate-sized pot-lights casting a ghostly glow that leaves no shadow along the grey corridors.

It could be any hospital anywhere in the world. A monument to Marie Curie. But this one is in Bangalore, India—where my family and I have lived for the last year and a half—squeezed into a parcel of land between a shopping mall, a community college, and a housing estate all served by a dusty four-lane highway that connects the airport to the center of town. Outside, the road is lined with crumbling pavement and idling auto-rickshaws; inside, it’s eerily absent of indistinguishable announcements or “Code-Reds,” and everybody seems unusually comfortable being there. Both inside and out, like on any Indian street, there are people everywhere.

Never has a hospital seemed so frighteningly familiar yet shaded with a disquieting foreignness. Not the most comforting scenario in which to bring my unwell son.

He’s scheduled for an endoscopy, admittedly not the most intrusive of procedures but not without concern considering the involvement of general anaesthesia. The source of his debilitating stomach aches needs to be found, now several years—and three hospitals in as many countries—after the pains first surfaced.

A few weeks earlier, the scan and blood tests all came back normal. Six months prior, we’d eliminated gluten from his diet, before that dairy. Four years ago, we ruled out IBS and Crohn’s. The endoscopy should show us, once and for all, what we are dealing with.

How many possible conclusions could be left, I wonder?

•••

Like many people, I have a natural inclination to find blame whenever the opportunity presents itself. If I can’t (or won’t) admit responsibility, then I can at least outsource it. The soup shouldn’t have been so hot; poorly-poured cement caused me to stumble on the sidewalk; the teacher withheld vital information—that’s why I failed the exam. Surely someone is to blame.

What about my empty bank account? Gimpy knee? Lack of a publishing contract? Most days I can spin it so that these gray areas tilt more definitively toward the black or the white. Not my fault.

Got cancer? It must be because of the polluted drinking water, unsavory lifestyle, or bad habits. But what if the disease should find random homes in healthy, rural-dwelling, non-smoking, teetotal vegetarians? Or children? Who do I blame then?

Some people insist everything happens for a reason. Others believe that we are all at the mercy of fate. All I know is that when you’ve been as close to cancer as I have, you stop looking for the smoking gun.

If my son, Myles, were to climb the two branches of his family tree, he’d discover signs of cancer before he reached the first bifurcation. From my side, he inherits the genes that betrayed my father and my aunt. On the other side, the woman that brought him into this world was taken by cancer before Myles was old enough to know who she was.

If my son gets cancer, I need look for blame no further than to the disease itself.

When Myles was still just a grainy, faceless pre-human on an ultrasound scan, he was exposed to a cocktail of drugs aimed at reducing the accelerating tumor in his mother’s left breast. With the information available to the team of specialists at the time, they determined that the mild course of chemotherapy would keep the cancer at bay until the baby was born, after which the treatment would be amplified. By all accounts, the placenta did its job well, filtering out all the invasive chemicals designed to target fast-growing cells. Our unborn baby was all fast-growing cells.

Myles was born healthy and strong and has remained so for the past twelve years. So healthy and strong, in fact, that I’ve often wondered if perhaps the anti-cancer chemicals zapped him with invulnerability to a Marvel Comics degree. As a baby, he’d crawl over gravel without scratching his knees; carrying him through the house, I’d clumsily knock his head against a doorframe without so much as waking him up.

But his superhuman tolerance of injury hasn’t pre-empted any of my fears for his long-term wellbeing. When, at thirteen months, he got his first cold, I thought it must be a symptom of something greater. Headaches, allergic reactions, and bruises must certainly be symptomatic of some malevolent intruder. When he complained of stomach aches, I envisioned the tumor burrowing into his abdominal organs. There could only have been one explanation.

Like most parents, I’d peek into Myles’ crib at night to make sure I heard the comforting whispers of his breath during his sound sleep. Now that he’s nearly a teenager, he still sleeps as soundly and I’m still responsible for waking him up in the morning. But after I unceremoniously swipe the covers off him and open his curtains, what if he doesn’t wake up? What if that malicious interloper has taken him from me during the night?

Farfetched, maybe. But to those of us who have witnessed it, cancer is always there, sitting just over everyone’s shoulder in various personae like those imaginary little angels and devils. But nobody is quite sure which one to listen to.

The word itself looms large in the lexicon of our unconscious as one that dare not be spoken. It is at once sacrosanct and taboo, as if saying the word might somehow curse the person who has it or pass it on to someone within earshot. When people do actually speak the word it is uttered quietly, almost politely so as not to aggravate the temperamental God of Terminal Illnesses. It is inherently self-editing, the harsh sound of the first ‘c’ muted by the disapproving sibilance of the second one. “Comeheregoaway,” it says in a radio-static whisper.

When Myles’ mother died, the cancer remained. It floated around me like steam from a boiling kettle. It nosed its way between the pages of my book and under my pillow. It hid between the floorboards or behind my cereal bowl. Sometimes it hung from the wall like a giant tapestry and sometimes it sat lazily in the teaspoon jar. It never taunted or pointed its ugly finger. It didn’t have to.

Through it all I manned the tollbooth at the edge of the cancer highway. Everything had to get through me first: the flowers in a beautiful garden were muted, grayer as seen through my eyes; the conversation that made me laugh was not quite as funny after I hung up the phone; good news was soured, bad news inconsequential. The world was cancer-coloured.

Time has healed the grief, but cancer lingers like dirt under my fingernails. It makes me wonder who the real cancer victim is.

•••

“Dad, I’m nervous,” Myles says after changing into the unflattering hospital gown.

“There’s nothing to be nervous about, Superman.” I try to take heed of my own advice. Until the final results of the endoscopy are in, nervousness is the least of my worries. Besides, I can’t let my son know that there is any risk or discomfort involved in Dr. Dinesh sliding a camera down his throat. Myles will be asleep the entire time.

“But they’ll have to give me a needle,” he says, sitting patiently with his bare toes curled against the freezing floor tiles. “That’s gonna hurt.” I long for the days when the thing I feared most was a prickly jab in my hand.

I wait in the under-stocked, over-priced hospital café, nursing a cup of tea and clinging to my son’s glasses while he’s put to sleep and his insides are probed by the latest inhuman instruments offered by medical technology. I wonder if Dr. Dinesh is looking at the rapidly-growing tumor in my son’s stomach, trying to determine the best course of action before breaking the news to the patient’s father. I plan ahead, ensuring I’m aware of all nearby doorknobs and railings lest I require something to break my fall as I faint after hearing the doctor’s report.

Within an hour I am at Myles’ bedside in the recovery room, holding his hand and counting the blips on the heart monitor. I recall the day of his birth, two weeks earlier than we’d expected, when I sat by the incubator for three hours with the same pings and peeps providing the soundtrack to the Cinemascopic vision that was my new son. Six months later, another hospital where his mother lay dying attached to another monitor. The only benefit of Myles being so young at the time was that I didn’t have to explain to him what flat-lining meant. The sensation never withers, especially when I’m forced to revisit the scenario.

The smoking gun.

•••

Let’s assume that there is no such thing as randomness; that we are forced to bear things like disease and anguish because our predestined fortunes have demanded it of us. If this were so, I might welcome my fate while condemning it at the same time. I might still find blame in circumstance or poor choices while gladly laying guilt with God or the Devil. Someone must be at fault.

But life doesn’t work that way. At least mine doesn’t. No god I’d be inclined to pray to would allow the kind of physical or emotional suffering I’ve seen some people endure. Why would any benevolent source allow itself to be culpable for something that unwittingly assaults people from the inside and lingers immortally in the minds of those who have witnessed it? There is nobody and nothing to which I can point the finger.

Randomness is all around me. From the car that turns the corner as I’m trying to cross the street to running into an old friend at a movie theatre to the pulled muscle in my back. From there, anything can happen; it’s the Sliding Doors syndrome. I choose to believe that we can only prepare for so much; that considering all of the careful choices we make, we are not in as much control of our lives as we might think. Sometimes life just happens to us.

I worry because I am a father; because I am human. I worry because I anticipate the hissing tongue of cancer to taunt me again without warning. I hope for the best and anticipate the worst. I keep my eye on the roulette wheel’s persistent silver ball lest it fall arbitrarily on my number.

When someone I love exercises their hyperbolic prerogative to illustrate a point, I am often short-fused.

“It’s so hot … I’m dying.”

“You’re not dying.”

“No, but … I mean …”

“You’re not dying.”

I don’t cut people much slack. It’s a figure of speech—I get that. Besides, we’re all going to die some day. But I’ve become a hypochondriac by proxy, convinced that all my loved ones will die around me while I remain here to live without them.

•••

Five interminable days after the endoscopy, the results, including tissue biopsies, return normal. No ulcers. No abnormalities. No cancer. The only imaginable explanation for the stomach aches, according to Dr. Dinesh, is a minor hiatal hernia, which many people tolerate without ever suffering from any pain, and slightly raised stomach acid. Eventually, he suggests, Myles will outgrow the excruciating interludes completely.

It’s the good news we’d hoped for. We’ve dodged the bullet. Just a stomach ache. My irrational fears have been soothed once more, and I will myself to be patient until the day we say goodbye to these episodes altogether. Hopefully this is the last time we see the inside of an Indian hospital. Or any hospital.

I don’t consider how bad the outcome could have been until the next morning when I pull the blankets off my son’s sleeping body and wait for him to stir. Short-lived relief bolsters me for another day.

•••

JON MAGIDSOHN, originally from Toronto, Canada, has been featured in The Guardian, The Bangalore Mirror, Brevity, Hippocampus, Full Grown People, Chicago Literati, and currently publishes three blogs. He’s also written about fatherhood for dadzclub.com, The Good Men Project and Today’s Parent magazine. He has an MA in Creative Nonfiction from City University, London. Jon’s memoir, Immortal Highway: Songs From the Healing Tour, is currently crowdfunding toward publishing in September, 2015.  Rewards include a copy of Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume One. www.jonmagidsohn.com

Read more FGP essays by Jon Magidsohn.

How Gender Works

headshot

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Alex Myers

Exhibit A

It is 2003, and my wife and I have moved to Florida. I’ve been taking testosterone for a few months. I’d been living as a man for over seven years at that point, but it had been getting harder to pass—I was twenty-four but still looked like a fifteen-year-old boy.

We moved to the Gulf Coast of the state, the conservative side, and I remember sitting in the very-empty living room of our brand-new rental home, calling endocrinologists, trying to find someone who would treat me. I’d dial a number and say to the receptionist: I’m a transgender person looking to continue my hormone therapy under a doctor’s care. Is that something Dr. So-and-so can assist me with?

That afternoon, I got every answer from the professionals but clear: That’s not his area of expertise. To the curt: No. To the shocked: Is this a joke? You’re sick. And others that were ruder. At last, a sympathetic receptionist told me: Try calling someone over in Miami. I ended up with a doctor in the Fort Lauderdale area.

I remember sitting there, on the beige carpet, leaning against the gleaming white wall, thinking that I would never come out in this place.

Our second year in Florida, we moved to an older neighborhood, a little more run-down, but in a good way. Our neighbor was a lesbian who flew a rainbow flag off her back deck, a short woman with spiky blond hair and the fierce energy of a former collegiate lacrosse player. After we’d known her for a few months, we had her over to dinner and, with the slight awkwardness that always accompanies coming out, told her that I was transgender and that my wife, Ilona, was bisexual.

I knew it! she crowed.

How did you know?

She pointed at Ilona. Gaydar. I just knew you weren’t straight. Then she pointed at me. And you—I knew because when that dog was attacking your wife, you chased it with a broom.

She was alluding to an incident that occurred not long after we moved in. Another neighbor had a pit bull that was both mean and always getting loose. One weekend afternoon, I was sweeping the house, and Ilona was outside gardening. I heard her scream and looked out the window to see the pit bull in our yard, growling at her. I ran out the door, brandishing the broom. At that moment, our lesbian neighbor happened to drive by and stopped her car. Taking in the scene, she first called animal control and then picked up a handful of rocks from the roadside and began to throw them at the dog. The pit bull, which had largely ignored my broom waving, responded to the rocks and ran off.

What man fights a dog with a broom? our neighbor insisted.

Exhibit B

It is 1998; I am an undergraduate in college, and I need a physical on short notice for a summer job with the Audubon Society. The doctor I normally saw at Harvard’s clinic didn’t have any open appointments, so I was put with a provider I didn’t know, an older man.

In the little examination room, I handed him the paperwork. I was nineteen, in good health. I expected this to be a mere formality, a matter of checking the boxes off. And at first, it was. Reflexes, blood pressure, peering into my ears. Then the stethoscope, snaked up under my shirt to listen to my heart and lungs: Deep breath. Again. I thought that he might figure it out then, that he might feel my breasts as he placed the cold metal disc against my flesh, but, no, he didn’t. Check, check, check. Immunizations, up to date. In between the components of the exam, he asked small questions about my studies, about the job. Where was the bird sanctuary that I’d be working in? He flipped the page on the form. Okay. Now I’ll need to examine your testicles.

I’m sorry, I told him. I don’t have any. I’m transgender. I was born female, but now I live as a man.

It may have been the most awkward coming out that I’d managed yet.

The doctor just blinked at me. What’s that?

I’m transgender. I’m female. Biologically and genetically female. I was raised as a girl. Now I live as a man.

Oh. So no testicles?

I shook my head.

He looked at the sheets of paper, flipped one over, made a mark. I tried to imagine what he was writing—or what he was looking for. He proceeded with the rest of the exam and then flipped through the pages again before peering at me.

No testicles.

It was half-question, half-statement.

No testicles. I affirmed. I waited, wondering if there was some other test he needed to do in lieu of the testicular exam, wondering if he would need to ask what I had instead of testicles. But he said nothing, just looking at me and then looking at the pages in front of him.

And you’re what, again?

Transgender. I’m biologically and genetically female. I live as a man.

His eyes brightened as he gave a small sigh and smile. Ah! I understand. You’re a woman with short hair.

Exhibit C

It is 1995. I have been out for less than a week. It is an evening in July, and I am at a mixer for GLBT youth. The music is thumping, and I am avoiding the dance floor. There seems to be no good place for me—the lesbians are not interested now that I’m living as a guy; the gay boys are bound to be disappointed once they find out. So I am leaning against the wall, watching the scene.

She comes over to me—round glasses, dangling earrings, and she says: I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m just trying to figure out if you’re a boy or girl.

Me, too, I tell her.

That night, we laugh and talk and even, I think, try to dance for a song or two, unaware that in seven years we will be married, that in all our years together we will never find a better understanding of gender, of who we are, than at that moment.

•••

ALEX MYERS was born and raised in Paris, Maine. For most of his adult life, he has taught English to high school students. In January 2014, Simon & Schuster published his debut novel, Revolutionary. In addition to teaching, he works as an educator and advocate around transgender identity. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and two cats.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

newman

Lesléa and her mother, Florence

By Lesléa Newman

A slim, tattered volume of verse with a dark stain on its gold cover is one of my most prized possessions. The book is called Poems for the Little Ones, written by Edie Scobie and published in 1925. The poems in it are rather dreadful:

I’ve dot a lovely dolly

Her name is Violet May

I always take her wiv me

When I go out to play.

It’s not what’s in the book that I treasure; it’s the book itself, which I received from my mother for my eighth birthday. When I opened it, I learned that my mother had also received the same volume for her eighth birthday. Given by her brother, my uncle Arthur, who was eleven years older than my mother, it is inscribed:

To Florence, from Arthur

January 25, 1935

A foundation stone for your future literary castle

Like me, my mother always knew that she wanted to be a writer. Unlike me, her dream never came true.

Even though I always knew in the back of my mind that my mother had once had literary aspirations, I didn’t think much about it. Growing up, my mother was just my mother: the person who put food in front of me, told me to clean my room, and took me shopping for school clothes every fall. When I became a teenager, my mother was someone to fight with about my short skirts, my long hair, and my militant vegetarian eating habits. As a young woman/budding feminist, I saw my stay-at-home mom as the symbol of everything there was to rebel against. And as a not-so-young woman, I relegated my mother to the sidelines of my life as I pursued my goal of being an author.

Though we always mentioned my writing career during our brief, once-a-month phone calls, my mother didn’t know the whole story. I sent home copies of my books that I knew she’d enjoy and could show off to her friends: picture books like Where Is Bear?, Skunk’s Spring Surprise, A Sweet Passover, and Runaway Dreidel! I did not send home books of mine that I knew she’d find upsetting, the thinly disguised autobiographical novels, short story and poetry collections: Nobody’s Mother, The Reluctant Daughter, Secrets, Jailbait, Just Like a Woman, Pillow Talk. These books starred the same protagonist (though she went by different names) who at various times struggled with an eating disorder, found herself in abusive relationships with men, came out as a lesbian, and always viewed her mother with an unforgiving disdain.

More of my books were published, more years went by, and then my mother got sick. She collapsed on a cruise ship and had to be airlifted to a hospital where she remained on life support for ten days. I flew across the country and remained at her side until she was well enough to come home. For hours on end I sat in her hospital room watching her sleep and contemplating our relationship. Our lack of closeness was something that I had always found extremely painful. And I had always blamed my mother for it. But of course it wasn’t all her fault. What could I do to bring us closer? I decided, though it was rather late in the game, to extend the hand of friendship and try to get to know her better.

A month after my mother was settled back home, I went to visit her. After lunch, I peppered her with questions. I wanted to know about her life as a young woman, if she’d dated anyone before she met my father, and whatever happened to her “future literary castle”?

“It’s not important,” my mother said, dismissing my questions with a wave of one manicured hand. Then she changed the subject. “Do you believe all this rain we’ve been having lately? Well, at least it isn’t snow.”

Since my mother was not forthcoming (to say the least) I called my “aunt” Phyllis, who had been my mother’s best friend since they were both ten.

“Oh, your mother was a very good writer,” Aunt Phyllis told me. “I still remember the story she published in Cargoes, Lincoln High School’s literary magazine.”

What? My mother had never told me she had written, let alone published a short story. Luckily my aunt never throws anything away and is very organized. Two days after we had this conversation, a copy of the story arrived in the mail.

I dropped everything and sat down to read, “M is for….” by Florence Levin.

All in all, it had been a pretty rotten day. If only I hadn’t shot my mouth off. It didn’t do any good. It never did. It only made things worse.

Whoa. My mother had written a thinly disguised autobiographical short story about shooting off her mouth? I read on. “Florence” is at the Sweet Shoppe where, “The rain poked an inquisitive finger through the doorway” and the “stool squealed in protest.” Florence, alone, and too upset to order a snack, watches the rain and remembers a recent fight she had with her mother. A huge fight that ends with the narrator thinking, “It’s a difficult thing to admit, even to oneself, that you hate your mother… ”

I had to put the pages down and ponder that sentence for a long time.

When I picked up the story again, it picked up with Florence remembering another recent fight she and her mother had:

“Look at her. She’s sitting there like a princess and I’m doing the dishes.”

“Please, momma. I’m doing my homework.”

“Oh so you’re doing your homework. So I suppose we’ll have to tiptoe around the house until you finish your homework. Pretty soon maybe we won’t be able to breathe if it disturbs you.”

“Oh, momma, please.”

“Oh momma, please. Oh momma, please again. A fine racket she’s got. She sits like a prima donna while I work until I’m ready to drop and nobody lifts a finger to help me….”

And the fight ends with Florence screaming words I had thought, but never dared to say aloud to my own mother: “I hate you, do you hear? I hate you! I hate you!”

Wow.

As Florence sits in the Sweet Shoppe alone with her memories, an “errant tear chased a freckle down [her] nose.” She studies photos pinned to a bulletin board of “Lincolnites” who are in the military and thinks of all the boys “over there” on Iwo Jima and in Germany.

I picked out the smiling face of my sergeant brother among the bevy of others…..Bob with his white teeth and broad shoulders. Bob who had set feminine hearts aflutter before the days of Tarawa: Before the mail stopped coming. Poor momma. It was such a long time between letters. She must be so terribly worried….

Why my mother chose to change her brother’s name but not her own remains a mystery to me. But no matter. The story ends with Florence coming to a new understanding of her mother.

I thought I had troubles. Troubles—why compared to momma—momma whose eyes had been reddened lately. Momma, who needed comfort so desperately lately. Momma, momma darling.

And as Florence comes to a better understanding of her mother, she suddenly realizes that she is hungry.

My mother’s story absolutely blew me away. It’s extremely well written for a high school student, full of sensory imagery, telling detail, authentic-sounding dialogue, and original metaphor. It makes good use of flashbacks. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Something happens. And in addition to literary merit, I was astonished by the similarities between my mother and her mother, and my mother and me.

Of course I had to telephone my mother right away. After we chatted a bit, I said, “Aunt Phyllis gave me a copy of Cargoes. I read your story.”

It got very quiet on the other end of the phone.

“It’s a wonderful story,” I went on. “You’ve got a lot of talent.”

More silence. And then my mother said, “Thank you.”

“So,” I said, going for a casual tone, “why didn’t you ever tell me about it?”

“I didn’t think it was important.”

“What else did you write?” I asked.

“I stopped writing after that.”

“Why?”

I could almost hear my mother shrug. “I didn’t see the need to pursue it.”

A thought occurred to me. “Did Grandma ever read the story?”

My mother paused. “She did.”

“What did she say when you showed it to her?”

“I didn’t show it to her. She found it. And she wasn’t pleased.”

I wondered if my mother could hear me nodding as I thought about what to say next. “You know, Mom,” I said, “I’ve written some stories similar to this one. Stories I’ve never showed you. Stories that might upset you.”

“So what?” my mother asked. “A lot of things upset me. Then I get over them.”

“Even stories about me and you?” I asked.

“Darling,” my mother said in a gentle voice, “don’t you know I’ve read everything you’ve written?”

“You have?” I asked, my heart pounding.

“Of course I have.”

“And?”

“And I think you’re a very fine writer.”

I started to cry. “But what about the stories where you and I—”

“It doesn’t matter.” My mother cut me off. “What matters is that you tell the truth. That’s what’s important.”

As I wept, it dawned on me: my grandmother must have said or done something to thwart my mother’s writing career. And my mother was not going to do the same thing to me.

“I love you, Mom,” was all I could say.

“I love you to pieces,” was how she answered.

From that point on, I showed my mother everything I wrote. She was generous with both praise and criticism. She had a good editor’s eye and often pointed out weaknesses in my writing that had slipped by me, the members of my writers group, my agent, and my editor.

Then she got sick again.

During my mother’s final hospital stay, she beckoned me to her bedside. “I’m giving you permission to write about all this,” she waved her hand around the room, “under one condition.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Promise me I’ll never have to read it.”

I promised.

After my mother died, I felt her presence most acutely while I was writing about her. My mother loved poetry, and I could feel her sitting beside me as I wrote sonnets, haiku, villanelles, and sestinas about her illness and death, and my own grief. Formal poetry provided the firm container I needed to hold my unwieldy grief. Two and a half years after my mother died, my book of poetry I Carry My Mother was published. As I held the first copy in my hand, I stared at the cover with its painting of red high heeled shoes (my mother loved shoes as much as I do) and my sorrow at being unable to show it to her was palpable. I like to think that wherever my mother is, somehow she knows that I made good on my promise. And that she is very proud.

•••

LESLÉA NEWMAN is the author of sixty-five books for readers of all ages including the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk, the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, and the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies. A former poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, she currently teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Her newest poetry collection, I Carry My Mother, explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death and her own grief.

 

You Never Know Just How You Look in Other People’s Eyes

train passenger

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Nicole Walker

There are several ways to get to Siena, Italy. For Erik and me, to get out of Lecce, a town notched in the heel of the boot of Italy, and into Siena, where, if these boots had laces, you would tie the knot, we had to take a car, then a train, then a taxi, then a plane, and then another train and then walk straight up hill to the medieval city that is like Florence if Florence had not become heart-of-the-Renaissance-Florence. We took our first train from Lecce, through Brindisi, to Bari.

We are competent train takers. We take the subway when we’re in New York. We know you can sit forward or backward. We don’t get motion sickness. We can walk up and down the aisle. We know it is not like a car or a plane, but, admittedly, even though the Burlington Northern and Amtrak make us wait at the crossing in our Flagstaff hometown twice a day, we know trains as occasions, not everyday transportations.

The train from Lecce into Bari was late. We got into the cab to head to the airport. I told the driver, “We are late,” in whatever pretend Italian I knew then and have since forgotten. We were blond and carrying rolly suitcases. In Lecce, no one pretended to know English like I pretended to know Italian. But in Bari, the cab driver pretended to understand. Maybe I showed him the plane ticket. It was 11:40. Our flight left at 12:15. The train station is nowhere near the airport. I know he understood me because he spoke the international language of late-for-the-airport. He drove on the sidewalk. He took a left in a lane marked “right turns only.” His tires scraped curb. He stepped on the accelerator to speed around a bus to turn in front of it, bus honking, breaks squealing.

Now might have been a good time to tell the cab driver I was pregnant. Being pregnant shifts your perspective. Suddenly, your life, as protector of fetus, becomes much more precious, even if it’s a pregnancy you’re ambivalent about—it’s hard to be pregnant in wine country. Unlike normal times, making the plane on time seemed less important than surviving the cab-ride. But I did not know the word for pregnant and, although my perspective had shifted slightly, I didn’t want to bug the driver who was concentrating very hard to make a third lane for the taxi-cab where two lanes only existed.

•••

We thought we missed our flight. But then we read the arrivals and departures wrong. We had time to make it to the gate where we had prepaid for assigned seats. In Europe, people who fly Ryan Air rush like Barian cab drivers across the tarmac, suit coats flying, hand holding hat, to get their seats. Erik and I fly in America where our seats are assigned, and we board as soon as possible because sitting in a too-small seat ensures on on-time departure. In Bari, I walked to my seat like a pretend-calm person even though I did not understand why there were two staircases leading up to one airplane. The flight attendants had opened the back door of the plane to let us board. I did not know planes had back doors although I did know, thanks to my desperate attempt to keep the plane from crashing by listening attentively to the safety speech at the beginning of every flight that “the nearest exit may be behind you.” That an exit can also be an entrance is a very European idea.

After that, easy peasy, as Max, who was then only a two-month-old fetus, would say as a five-year-old now. He lived. We lived. The flight. The cab ride. I did not know how dangerous knowing only iPod Italian might be. When we arrived in Siena, our host spoke English. The knot that had been in my stomach, squishing fetus Max, unwound. I would give anything for a host for forever, someone to take me to a foreign country, find the airport on time, speak Italian to the taxi driver, explain why Americans don’t use two staircases to board the airplane from the front and the back.

•••

It’s impossible to know how high the seas will rise. Maybe they won’t rise much at all. Maybe whale poop will sequester the carbon. Maybe the mushrooms will. But some maps predict a bleaker future. In Grist Magazine, Greg Hansom describes pictures of sunken cities, newly named reliefs like Sea of San Diego and Archipelago of Bainbridge. San Joaquin Peninsula is all that’s left of Orange County. The coast we know now probably won’t disappear in our lifetime but in the next or the next or maybe sooner if the coal keeps burning and the cars keep driving.

I say “the cars” and “the coal” as if I am not sitting in a house, typing on a coal-burning laptop as the heater kicks on and pours naturally gassed heat upon me. As if the “the” means I won’t drive my Honda CRV to pick up my kids from school. Another article in the same magazine claimed that it’s liberals as much as Republicans who are the problem. We blame them for denying what we believe is there. But somebody else’s denial is necessary for us to believe that we liberals are doing the right thing, which is a whole lot of nothing. Nobody wants to be blamed for the Santa Monica pier falling into the ocean, but no one also wants to turn the heat down to fifty-five degrees in the winter or the air-conditioning to eighty in the summer. Heck, I have a dream to drive Route 66 all the way from Santa Monica to Chicago, Illinois. I wish I’d driven my car to Italy. Cars are a host country, like a planet. Every gum wrapper and seat print is our own. Our dreams are our cars. They take us out of here without it having to feel the pain of the unfamiliar. But, as the seas rise, perhaps we should get familiar with the boat.

•••

In Siena, the Palio happens twice a summer. Around the Piazza del Campo, horses race. Men, called Camparsa, in medieval outfits parade flags from their district through the streets toward the piazza. The streets, lined with nearly black cobblestones, are bordered by tall, connected houses from the 1300s, red flags, black stone, a Duomo, the Siena Cathedral.

The food in Siena was not the food of Puglia, which was dominated by broccoli rabe and orchiette, a whole-grain pasta. Siena had pizza. It had gelato. It had the food of the American Italian Vacation and it had wine I couldn’t drink. Like a proper tourist, I bought a scarf for ten euros. Like a tourist full of regrets, I should have bought a hundred. We stayed in a hotel that overlooked a garden. The piazza formed a circle where, during the parade, the horses rode around and the centuries swirled around and everything was stone which is how you make a city last—make it stone, make it circular to keep the art inside and the pillagers out. You keep the Renaissance at bay by keeping Florence down the street. You keep nature managed by turning it into a vineyard called Tuscany. Italy is a land of circles made by square painting frames and plots of grape and tomato vines. In Siena, you can’t see far because of the tall houses and the circling streets. It is easy to get lost although most of the time, the Duomo is in sight but the middle of the Duomo too is round and so if you end up on the wrong side of it, you might never know.

And I didn’t know, when we were on our way back to Lecce, to return to Zoe, the already-born kid, who was being watched by her attentive but window-opening grandparents who didn’t know about the Vape that you plug into the wall and emits some mosquito death vapor—and who could know of them? They, like we, are from the United States where we have DEET but no Vapes and so invited a thousand or so mosquitoes into their cottage to feast upon our already barely-alive daughter. She wasn’t really barely alive, but she had the Bad Lungs and the RSV and the inhaler broke the minute we plugged it into the wrong wall adapter. We adapt less well to the foreign world. We have made mistakes. We repeat them. Mosquitoes can sting more than once.

•••

The mosquitoes are getting worse. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that mosquito-borne diseases are already spreading more rapidly. In the regular times, like the eighties, at seven-thousand feet elevation, people are safe from mosquitoes carrying Dengue Fever. Dengue-fever-carrying mosquitoes once didn’t travel higher than 3,200 feet. But it’s getting warm up here. Mosquitoes don’t suffer from altitude sickness, just the cold. Which it is not. Not even in December. Scientific American, in a September 27, 2013 article notes that incidences of Chikungunya, a disease carried by the Tiger mosquito, which causes high fevers and rashes, is on the rise in Western Europe. Zanahoria, Italian for mosquito, was a word we all knew when we left Italy. Chikungunya is a word we do not know but maybe experienced that long night in Lecce when Zoe couldn’t sleep.

•••

Erik and I wouldn’t be late for the plane this time. We made it to the Siena train station early. I read the schedule. Or, I tried to read the schedule. Pisa CSE, Pisa Centrale. Trenitalia. One stop in Empoli. Isn’t there a nonstop?

Erik and I peered through the glass, the train schedule old and blurry. Our phones didn’t work then, in Italy. The computer, as the nebulizer adapter died when we plugged it in, died on the plane in from Rome. If it were 1960 and Erik and I were on the platform, perhaps then things would have made more sense. We would have studied the book harder, not being so lulled into submission by easy info access on our smartish phones. We would have taken trains more often, understanding that Centrale and One Stop were the same idea. Perhaps, in the 1960s, when the mosquitoes were happy at 3,200 feet and San Diego was confident of its shores, we would have been more versed in chivalry. Perhaps it would have been a time when Erik understood One Stop and Centrale to be the same destination, I would have trusted him. Perhaps if all our verses had been written in 1960s chivalry, he would have waited for me while I was in the bathroom instead of getting on the train without me. Perhaps I would have trusted him and his new British friends as they all waved to me to get on the damn train. Perhaps my 1960-self would have been more credulous. Of course Erik made new British friends and boarded a train without me. If only we could go back in time and then, again, in time, because it keeps coming, time, perhaps I would have jumped on that train, full of belief and trust in trains I did not know and toward the only Pisa that could have been waiting for me.

•••

We use the word “believe” when we talk about climate change. Fox News doesn’t believe it. Members of the National Resources Defense Council do believe it. Readers of Scientific American mostly believe it. Belief is the word you use when you cannot be sure about the future. And the scientists aren’t sure how high the mosquitoes will fly. They aren’t sure how high the oceans will rise. Belief, though, whether you do it or not, only worries about the future. When you believe in God, you pray to him to make good things happen. When you believe in climate change, you believe that maybe good things don’t. One of my mentors believes science will save us—big carbon scrubbers in the sky. How is hope different than belief?

•••

Instead, I did not get on the train. Erik did not get off the train. I stood on the platform as the train pulled away. Erik stared at me through the train window. Incredulity is another word for stubborn. I sat down on the concrete platform, underneath the schedule that predicted when Erik would come back. I’d figured out the train schedule by then but not my husband. I figured out that he might have been right about all trains leading to Pisa but that didn’t necessarily make me wrong. I waited as one train came back. Two trains. Three trains. He was not on any of them. I figured out that maybe sometimes it’s important to just go with the person you are with rather than let your butt get cold on the concrete platform of the Tranitalia Empoli station. Longing is another word for not knowing what to do next.

•••

If I had a house on the Olympic Peninsula, built fifty feet behind the neighbor’s property, which reaches out to the shore of the Puget Sound, how long would I have to wait until I could claim millionaire status for my now-ocean front property? When the water swallowed the neighbor’s strangely-suburban lawn? When the water lapped at my neighbor’s duck-dotted welcome mat? When the country duck hanging as a welcome sign is as wet as the doormat? When the roof of my neighbor’s house makes a nice fishing dock? You are silly to think oceanfront property will mean anything when you have to stay indoors to keep the mosquitoes from injecting their malarial parasite near the now-warm waters of the Puget Sound.

•••

Eventually, I got on a train to Pisa. Eventually, Erik came back. Our trains must have passed each other. When I got to Pisa, he wasn’t there. I went back to Empoli. He wasn’t there either.

•••

The seas have risen far enough to turn Queen Anne into an island at least once before, Jurassicly. They can do it again. Of course, the pretend house I built on the Sound will be under water by then, but, then, the sea doesn’t mind the taste of human constructs.

•••

Finally, our flight back to Bari, back to our mosquito-ridden daughter, back to our flight back to Rome that would get us out of Italy nearly departing, I rode the train back to Pisa. I had the plane tickets. He had to be there. And he was. He stood at the edge of the platform. If this had been a movie, I would have run to him. He would have run to me. Open arms.

•••

I am a good swimmer. If not a good reader of schedules or husbands. I am ready for you, warm waters of the Puget Sound. I know it would be too much to ask for you, dear ocean, to leave me any oysters.

•••

But this is not a movie. His arms are folded. Crossed. I’m so happy to see him. My heart thrills. I am home. But still. I cannot believe that he left me behind.

He says, “I cannot believe you.”

Which I take to mean, I cannot believe in you.

But I say, “You can’t believe me? I can’t believe you!”

I touch my arms. My hair. I am here.

“You’re the one that left me,” I say.

“You never trust me,” he says.

“I’m the one who speaks Italian,” I say.

“You cannot read a map,” he says.

“I came to you. Twice.” I say.

“I went back for you,” he says.

We each folded our arms because no one wants to believe they misunderstood a schedule, a wave, a bathroom break, a pregnancy, a train-trip to somewhere so beautiful so badly. If this were an O’Henry story, this would have been a love story. But this is not O’Henry. Erik was raised by a single-mom who did everything by herself—made peanut butter and jellies, went to work, paid the mortgage, bought a car, hiked in the desert, took the kids to the dentist, mopped the floors. He doesn’t believe that just because I had to pee, just because I was pregnant, just because I wanted to be convinced by the signage, that I shouldn’t have just gotten it together, got on the next train, and met him in Pisa. A feminist is the guy who figures his wife will figure it out. His mom could have done it herself. And, on my side, I don’t believe I should have just trusted him, just gotten on the train just because he said so, without even talking to me. I’m a feminist who doesn’t believe anybody should tell me what to do, even if that means I wait on the platform for two hours to be rescued by some chivalrous husband who does not believe in chivalry. Two stubborn faces staring through the window. There’s no way to know how to go back. I sing a version of the Charlie on the MTA song,

Did he ever return, no he never returned 
And his fate is still unlearned
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Pisa
He’s the man who never returned. 

Erik doesn’t laugh. And then he does.

•••

You can know a few things. You can know this: No one is going to rescue us. We are going to miss our flight from Pisa to Bari. We are going to miss seeing our kid, with her mosquito bites, harboring a virus we cannot pronounce. We are going to spend the rest of our lives passing our traveling companions on the train from Pisa to Empoli, from Empoli to Pisa. But we won’t know what it feels like until we open the windows and actually touch the water. Until then, all we will see is our warped faces, reflected back at us. Duck decorations can’t swim. I should have believed Erik instead of staying put and hoping he’d come back to save me.

They say with time, you look back and laugh. For Erik, that’s not so long. For the island of San Diego, it’s too soon to know.

•••

NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg  (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University where she will host the 2015 NonfictioNOW Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.

Read more FGP essays by Nicole Walker.

The Detour Path

dune

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Powell Berger

You started skydiving in college, a dare at first, then an obsession, and now an escape. You like standing on the step of the airplane, clinging to the wing strut, still tethered to the airplane but in just one leap, one moment’s push from the metal sliver holding you, you fall away, the plane banking and disappearing above you. You feel the wind blast against your face, your cheeks pushed flat against your cheekbones, no sounds audible against the wind screaming past you. You revel in the shock of opening your parachute, pulling the little pod tucked on the back of your leg-strap that initiates the sudden stop, yanking you from free-fall, jerking you from your plummeting dive into a quiet, suspended hover above the hues of greens and blues and browns beneath. The rustling sound of the parachute above your head as you glide towards earth fulfills you. In those moments, you are free, certain, invincible.

You pack everything you own in your rattletrap white Chevette—except for the bookshelf that your grandfather built because it’s too big to stuff in the car and you feel bad about leaving it behind but you tell yourself you’ll come back for it—and you drive south. You are in love. Not a man—you’re still too wounded, too raw for that—but a lifestyle, a sport, an escape hatch. You know this isn’t your “real” life, but rather a detour before you head down that inevitable path of career and Washington politics and all things you’ve always known you’ll do. But now, this opportunity beckons, and you can’t say no.

You spent most of your college holidays in Florida—Thanksgiving, spring break, Easter—encamped at the biggest, baddest, best skydiving center in all the world, learning from the sport’s luminaries, trying to hone your skills. World champions congregate there, and you wanted to learn to do the complicated freefall acrobatics like they do, the ones you’ve seen in the magazines. Now they want you to manage this legendary drop zone, and you are only twenty years old. You! You can’t say no, and while you know it won’t be forever, it will be for now.

You drive the eight-hour trek from Atlanta with all your books, your skydiving rig (the one you bought by pawning your beloved flute and hoarding waitressing tips) and your blue jeans and tee shirts and gauzy cotton skirts shoved in the back of the Chevette that your mother gave you when you went left home. You start your new job. The pilots like you because you pay them on time. Most of the other skydivers like you well enough, too. They largely ignore that you still don’t have the skydiving expertise that they have. You’re not fooling yourself. You understand your skiving skills are mediocre, but you love it in spite of your lagging abilities and you appreciate the attention when the skydivers you’ve read about take time to jump with you, to teach you. And you love the scene, alive with risk and money and big dreams. And drugs, planeloads of drugs. It is Florida in the 1980s where planes no longer deemed fit for drug-running haul skydivers. Including you.

You meet a guy—a man, really—and you start dating, and soon you move into together. He’s fifteen years older than you, but somehow that seems okay and he’s part of skydiving’s “it” crowd and you like that. And you like him. Between you, you know all the best skydivers in the world and all the best coke dealers and where all the best parties are. Sometimes you host the parties. The sport’s glitterati turn out for your parties, and your life is full and you forget the bookshelf that you said you’d retrieve, the tongue and groove mitered corners dinged by Nancy Drew and history texts and political science theories. Your mother entrusted you with it when you left for college, and you know that she’d be disappointed to discover you’d left it behind. But you are young and alive and happy and the open hole in your soul left by the boyfriend who died your freshman year is slowly scabbing over and you feel alive again.

•••

The man is cutting the grass in the late Friday afternoon sun when you finally summon the courage to pee on the stick. You are twenty-two now and beginning to forget that this is your detour life with its skydiving and parties and cocaine and life lived large. Until your nipples get tender and your period doesn’t come. You bought the stick at the drugstore where you rarely go, hoping not to be recognized, and hid it until this moment so you can face the stick alone. You open the box and read the small print instructions, studying the clinical sketches illustrating the proper wipe-and-catch peeing position, and you realize you have never done this before. You curse yourself for forgetting the pill so many times, always taking two the next day—or three sometimes—and believing it would still work out. You feel stupid and ashamed and you wish you hadn’t left the bookshelf, hadn’t left that life at all.

Now you pee on the stick and watch the lines appear in a faint plus that bleeds to dark and decisive. You slip out and go back to the drugstore and spend another twenty dollars that you don’t really have for another stick, even though the first one left little room for uncertainty. And again, back in the bathroom you share with the man, the lines cross in the certain plus and your head feels light and the tiny bathroom with his comb and shaving cream and toothbrush on the counter feels cold and prison-like.

You stare at the two sticks, now lined up next to the toothbrush and shaving cream. A fetus grows inside you, maybe six or seven weeks along, the product of this man and you and your life on the detour path. You always said that you didn’t want children, mostly because your now-dead college boyfriend couldn’t have them because the chemo had racked his body and stripped him of heirs, and so you held his hand and agreed that children would not be part of your life. Your life together. But now he is gone and finally, finally after the months of anguish and anger and emptiness, you have moved on to a happier place, on the detour path, and you feel complete again. Although you still talk to him almost every day—tell him stories of your detour life (which he only pretends to understand) and assure him that you are okay— but only when the man is working or sleeping so he won’t know you still live with the ghost of the life that will never be.

The man comes in from mowing the grass and showers and opens a beer. You show him the sticks and wince as the pain crawls across his brow. You sit together on the couch and recount the last six weeks—the all-night parties steeped in alcohol and pot and coke, the meals you’ve not eaten, the sleep you’ve not gotten. You know the first few weeks of development are important, and you know you’ve not behaved well. You are ashamed, and he knows it, but he does not judge.

You talk about the detour life and the future that’s yet to begin—the career, the dreams, the possibilities. He tells you he knows that you never meant to stay and that he supports you, whatever you decide. No one is angry. No one cries.

•••

On Monday, you make the phone calls to find the best doctor, the best place to go. You choose someone who practices at a local hospital and is known to be a good doctor, one who cares about his patients. He assures you it will be simple and that you will be able to have children one day, when you are ready.

It will cost $2500—or maybe it is $1500 or $25,000. Whatever the number, it is money that you and the man don’t have, so he goes to the bank and gets a loan. You wonder what he told the bank, but you don’t ask.

You don’t know that finding a doctor who practices in a real hospital and who takes care to make it simple and sterile and makes sure you are able to conceive and bear children again is not a universal thing. You don’t know that other women don’t have the same options and that you just happen to live in a state where, at least for now, the decision is yours to make. You just know you don’t tell your mother, or your friends, or anyone really, except for the nice lady at the doctor’s office, and she looks at you with understanding and sadness.

You arrive on Thursday morning as directed, and the man waits in the lobby strewn with copies of Time and Newsweek, Ronald Reagan splayed on the covers, while you change and go to the procedure room. You are scared and glad that the man took the day off to be with you. It is as the doctor told you, simple and relatively painless, although the machine makes a sucking sound and you don’t want to think about why. The stirrups are cold and the speculum is uncomfortable and the doctor keeps reminding you to relax your knees as he moves from the sucking machine to his tray of silver probes and scrapers and devices.

The assistant is kind and holds your hand, asking if you are okay when you blink back a welling tear. You are, you assure her, and you feel relieved that it is done yet sad that it had to be.

You sleep all day on Thursday while the man follows the doctor’s instructions to make sure the bleeding isn’t too excessive and that you remain coherent. He brings you a tray of food in the afternoon, which you eat gratefully before slipping again into fitful dreams.

On Monday, the bleeding finally slowed and the pain subsided, the man returns to work. You make phone calls to your friends in Washington, where your real life is supposed to be, and schedule interviews.

•••

In a few weeks, the man will propose to you, sitting at an oceanfront table at sunset, and you will say yes. You will sell your little Chevette—it only starts sometimes now, though it was your faithful friend on the detour journey. The man will join you on your trek to Washington—where you always knew you’d be—uprooting his life so he can be with you as you pursue the career you always meant to follow, and you will build a life together. He will keep skydiving, but you sell your rig while holding tight to the strength found flying free, untethered and so certain.

You and the man will not last forever—the detour too great, your difference too vast—but you will have a son and you will both raise him and cherish him. You will break barriers and your career will flourish, just as you had imagined. Occasionally, usually on starry nights when you feel particularly wistful, you will still talk to that first love—the one who died so young—and you will hope that he’s not disappointed. You will eventually remarry and move again, pursuing your next chapter. The man will remain in Washington, a life he chose because of you, and while you know he is happy, you feel guilty about uprooting him.

Just as the doctor promised, you will have other children—another son and a daughter, who, with your oldest child, form a trifecta of sibling unity, something you cherish because you know it will outlast you, as it should, and you are grateful. They ask about your skydiving days and you smile, remembering the freefall, the invincibility. And every doctor’s visit, every check-up, every test—those routine visits that become part of life as times passes—every time you fill out one of those standard medical forms that ask about your pregnancies, you will flinch and remember. And you will wonder whether to count that first one, so long ago.

•••

POWELL BERGER is a freelance writer living in Honolulu with her two teenagers and two cats, where she revels in their havoc and joy in equal measures. She spends every July as a Program Fellow at the Paris American Academy’s Creative Writing Workshop and dreams of one day living there. Besides her essays for Full Grown People, her work has appeared in various print and online publications, including TravelatiHawaii Business, and Inside Out Hawaii. Her writing world is housed at www.powellberger.com.

To read more by Powell Berger, click here.

Ordinary Artifacts

subway

By slgckgc/ Flickr

By Samantha Vincenty

My gym bag’s zipper is broken. The crinkled fabric’s worn through at the bottom and it’s time to throw it in the trash, but I can’t. Not yet.

My boyfriend finds me in a daze on our bedroom floor, my hands on the empty bag in my lap like I’m clinging to a dead pet.

“You don’t have to throw it away,” he says, crouching down to look at me. He knows what it means, why I hold the receptacle for my sweaty socks in such high regard.

My mother died four years ago, but I’d cleaned out her apartment a few years before that when it became dangerous for her to keep living alone—she was one more forgotten stovetop fire away from harming herself and the other tenants in her building. I’d held on to the bag, among other things, ever since.

The bag is bright fire-engine red, not auburn red like the hair I was born with and the hair my mother dyed to match mine. Mom bought it at New York & Company, that bastion of career separates, as uncool as (or marginally cooler than) Ann Taylor. The zipper pulls resemble MTA subway tokens with an identical “NYC” cutout logo and the words “The NYC Style Authority” wrapping around the circle. I wonder if these details are why she wanted the bag. Maybe the faux tokens reminded her of riding the IRT by her childhood home in the Bronx, or commuting to her nursing job at Columbia Presbyterian before she gave birth to me and we moved to the suburbs that made her so restless.

The New York City subway stopped accepting tokens in 2003. My mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis came into full, horrific bloom that same year. I quit my job to become her part-time caregiver, using subway tokens to ride from Brooklyn to Grand Central. Three times a week I’d take a commuter train to Yonkers so I could take her on walks, clean up all of the nonsensical piles and mysterious stains she’d made around the apartment, and cook us steaks on her George Foreman grill. The oven was now officially off limits, and it was important to stay on-message: Never ever turn it on.

In 2003 my mother, an artist for most of her life, cried because she could no longer sketch or paint realistic likenesses. She forgot to love some of her favorite things (Pet Shop Boys lyrics, romance novels, tweezing her immaculate eyebrows), but I liked how she also forgot to refuse things that she’d previously sworn off (cream soda, sushi, a ludicrous soap opera called Passions). I was twenty-four and envious of the career pursuits my friends described over syrupy-sweet cocktails at happy hour. I drank more than I needed. I drank quickly, too, to forget how exhausting it all was but also to make sure I was having the fun I thought I so richly deserved. In those days my mother would call me constantly to ask when I’d be back, sometimes just hours after I’d been there. Her thoughts were getting foggier by the day, and she hated being alone with them. She still remembered who I was.

By 2004, subway tokens were out of circulation, and I used a Metrocard to get to Grand Central. Mom didn’t want to move into a nursing home, but at twenty-five I had burned through my savings and needed to find a job. Worry, about my future and hers, stole hours of sleep from me at night. My mother needed full-time supervision—in addition to the stove fires and sink floods, she had started wandering the streets alone, forgetting where she lived. So I returned to Yonkers to sort my mother’s things into three piles: Discard, donate, or keep. I kept the red bag because I wanted something she’d used in her normal, pre-illness life. It served me well for a very long time, but now the bag’s demise feels like another ending.

I know I’m not alone. A colleague who lost his father two years ago recently told me that he rummages through his parents’ drawers just to touch his dad’s folded clothes. “I like, lay on his side of the bed and try to smell the pillow and shit, even though I know it’s been washed.”

We’ve talked about that connection we all yearn for, between a lost one’s tangible things and their memory. We need the artifacts. No, I don’t want my small New York apartment to be a Dead Mom Museum. But should I let go of something if it feels like a fresh burial?

I’m still not sure. So the bright red bag remains on the floor, unused and un-useful, while I figure out what feels right. I may turn one of the subway-token zipper pulls into a keychain, as a functional monument to a time that fundamentally shaped me as a person.

There are two zipper pulls, actually, and I’m keeping them both: One for me and one for the woman I remember.

•••

SAMANTHA VINCENTY is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Hairpin, Fuse.tv and BUST, and she is currently at work on a memoir. She tweets about music, pop culture, and weird stuff she finds on the street as @shermanther.

Finding Muchness

blackheart1 (1271x1280)

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By McKel Jensen

On my first night living alone, I found myself in a room containing only a bed, a nightstand, and a single Tiffany-style lamp—the only thing I requested as inheritance from my aunt who passed away just over a year before.

It was Wednesday. Monday I had been in court petitioning an end to our marriage. Tuesday I had closed on a house. It was late at night and the next day my sister and parents would be coming up from Salt Lake and St. George to my little townhome in West Haven, Utah, to spend Thanksgiving with me. There would be no turkey cooking in my oven that year, but I was thankful they came all the way to spend it with me.

I’d received the keys to my house just hours before, and I stayed up late that night prepping the walls of my new bedroom with blue tape, getting ready for a fresh coat of paint. I chose a dark brown color named “Bay Colt” from the Martha Stewart line of colors. It was a comfortable color, grounded, and it would contrast perfectly with my new heavy, red bedspread that I had my eye on buying in the next couple of days. I painted accent walls that included the wall behind my bed. A healthy, rich soil color was perfect as a place to replant myself. Besides, the designer Vera Wang, three-hundred-dollar bedspread would be my way of being seductively mischievous (if only for myself!).

•••

Just two days before, I sat in a courtroom with Jim, two bailiffs, the court stenographer, our lawyer, and the judge. All the gallery seats behind us were empty. Once the proceeding started, life’s reality began to settle in and the tears were uncontrollably escaping, enough that the bailiff brought me a box of tissues. I tasted the saline as the tears dripped past my lips. I had to swear the truth, the whole truth, and I had to convince the judge to grant an annulment to a marriage that could have/should have been annulled four years prior. Though Jim didn’t have to go under oath, he was there and nodded in agreement at the implications of an unconsummated marriage. The judgment was final. It was as if Jim and I were never married.

I never understood the phrase as if you were never married. That’s what our lawyer said an annulment legally meant. How can someone say that a marriage didn’t happen? I experienced it. I was there. It existed to me. Legally, however, it never happened.

Remarkably, I never felt like a failure. Even on that day in my empty bedroom, I was exhausted and relieved. It was finally over. I had done everything I could think of to save my marriage—twice. We’d consulted with therapists (good and bad), physicians, energy healers, and clergy, but none could give us an answer or a cure.

I never gave up until I knew we were done. It was over when the truth that he didn’t even want to want me finally resonated with me. If Jim did not want to want me, then there was no practitioner or prayer that could change his desire. So what was the purpose of discussing big purchases or planning future trips? What else could we get out of this relationship besides frustrated companionship? Those years felt like pedaling a bike on a treadmill, working so hard to go nowhere. There was no progression. If anything, I wished I had caught on sooner that this was a doomed marriage from the start.

We followed our belief to stay chaste before we were married. For a long time, I thought that if I hadn’t been so strict in practicing my religion, I would have known. When we dated, he often told me he was uncomfortable with my forwardness. I thought I was the one whose sexual perspective was skewed due to a handsy ex-boyfriend. After we were married, I felt justified to find a way to ease the frustration outside of the marriage. I could have cheated on him and felt I could defend my actions, but I’m thankful I never strayed. Ironically, there were times I hoped that he would cheat on me so I would be angry enough to call it quits and feel justified to call off a God-sanctioned marriage. Other times, I would entertain the thought of getting him drunk and taking advantage of his stupor. Damn our religion. No sex outside of marriage and no drinking.

After so many years of silence, never telling anyone outside a professional few, I finally opened up. No more secrets from society. My mom lost a lot of her hair trying to take in what I told her. When it grew back in, it wouldn’t hold the color as it did before. She had been caught up in our myth of perfection. Opening up also meant answering a lot of questions. Answering questions about that marriage has always been complicated. To those casual friends or acquaintances I would simply answer the question of “what happened?” with “It just didn’t work”—only sometimes divulging the secret pun on the word “it.” “It just didn’t work” and it didn’t. Others that got more detail would ask, “Is he gay?” or “Was it pornography?” Having been his wife, I could honestly answer “no” to each of those. I wished I had the answer as to why it didn’t work.

•••

That day in my new bedroom was the beginning of my new life. I was McKel Nobody and I could be me and love me and want to be me. And, although I was surviving the trauma of an upturned life, I was going to be selfish for once.

After I moved in, I had a point of realization: this was my house, and I had complete, creative control. There was no compromising, no rationalizing, no male opinion, no collaboration of details. I was going for it. The color: Brazilian Blush. The room: my home office.

I then found a can of bright white, semi-gloss paint that I had used to paint floorboards in another house. I dabbed paint onto a small sponge and pat it onto a stencil of a butterfly. Instead of following straight lines as the stencil intended, I rotated each butterfly, one at a time. I worked myself around the room. I even hid a couple behind the door knowing I would be one of a select few who would get the secret.

By the end, I had a room full of butterflies gliding over my desk and around the black bookcases filled with books, over and around the window and above the closet. The idea of one butterfly being alone made me sad, so each butterfly was paired off with a companion or in families. “Well,” I thought, “only this one can fly alone.” So I let one independent butterfly have her space to prove that she could make it.

•••

About a year into our marriage, Jim finally sat me down to explain what he saw was going on. We sat in our 1975 split-level home that we bought a month before we were married. It had fake hardwood floors that were installed incorrectly by the previous owners.

“I, uh,” he staggered to get the words. “I’ve been praying a lot about us.”

My breath slowed.

“I’ve known I’ve needed to tell you for a while, but…” He stopped again. I thought we had a relationship where we could share anything, but his delay of telling me something made me uncomfortably aware that this wasn’t going to be a fun conversation.

He then proceeded to tell me in the most logically constructed way that he could. “I am not physically attracted to you.”

“What?”

This is where friends would say, “Well, why did he marry you?!” But it would be a few more years before I would ask that question and when I did, he replied, “I didn’t want to be shallow.” At this time, though, my mind processed everything slowly, methodically. I needed to obtain every bit of information I could to make a valid judgment.

“I am not physically attracted to you.” Maybe I needed it repeated because the first one didn’t take. “I see girls on campus that dress immodestly, and I instantly get excited,” he confessed. “I don’t get excited with you.”

I sat there, honestly not knowing what to make of the information he was telling me.

“I think it has something to do with chemistry. We don’t have any chemistry.”

Chemistry. Sex is sex. What does chemistry have to do with it? Besides, isn’t compatibility more important in a relationship than chemistry?

He sat there relieved, grateful that he was finally freed from the weight of his confession. I sat there heavy, burdened and wondering when the tears would start. They didn’t for another twelve hours.

“Well, what do we do now?”

Jim was the one that suggested going to a therapist. When we arrived, we met with a tall, thin man who seemed as if he rode his bike to work and wasn’t willing to make mid-morning appointments because it interrupted his morning ritual. I had no idea how to find a therapist that could help us, especially when we weren’t asking for referrals from friends. I found him on an internet search on a whim. His name wasn’t worth remembering.

“So, tell me what’s going on?” he asked us.

The two of us sat closely on the couch, our arms crossing as we held on to the other’s thigh. Jim explained our situation due to lack of chemistry, that thing that couples have that makes you bubble inside and want to jump on each other. “We don’t have chemistry,” he said. “I don’t want to have sex with my wife.” It never got easier to hear, although at the time I was thankful that I didn’t have to guess what he was thinking.

The therapist smiled as if Jim had made a joke. “You don’t need chemistry.” He then continued with a question to Jim, “What do you not find attractive about her?”

Jim squirmed, “Nothing. I think she’s beautiful.” If he thought I was beautiful, why did we have a problem?

“There is nothing you would change about her to make her attractive to you?” He asked again as if I wasn’t sitting right in front of him.

Ironically, I was hoping he would state something, anything—give this therapist some meat to work with! “No. Nothing,” he admitted again.

I sensed the therapist and I had the same idea; he needed more than just crumbs, “What do you find attractive in a woman?”

“Well, I like redheads,” he stammered.

At this point, the therapist turned to me and asked, “Have you tried dying your hair red?”

Apparently he thought that a year’s worth of sexual incompetency would be remedied by a ten-dollar bottle of L’Oreal. “No,” I said, though secretly wondering if it would work—if only for a second.

It was becoming painfully clear that all the therapist saw were two overweight virgins who got married and now couldn’t figure out how sex worked. “We’re asking for help, not to be your entertainment,” I wanted to say but didn’t. We scheduled two more appointments with that man.

•••

After that, we had a handful of therapists before I settled on one for myself. Her name was Tam, and she was there during my transition from as-if-it-never-happened to single. As I was preparing for my new house, she was the only one that didn’t think I was silly for losing sleep over wall colors and furniture placement. “This is all part of your process for coping,” she said. “You are focusing on your future, and that’s good.” If she had visited me in my house and saw the boldness I expressed in that blushing pink room, she would have been proud.

Although that room was my home office, I referred to it as my Alice in Wonderland room. I spent the following weeks and months finding trinkets and sayings that would fit into the theme. I handcrafted phrases such as “Why, this clock is exactly two days slow!” and “Off with your head!” and placed them on my bookshelves. Displayed on the far wall first seen when you walk were three black frames each holding a word in the phase “Whoo are you” and a fourth frame holding the tailing question mark. There was a time that Alice didn’t know who she was either. Throughout the following months, I added a ceramic tea set, a large Mad-Hatter hat, ceramic mushrooms, a black, old-fashioned alarm clock and a caterpillar on a mushroom.

My fascination with Alice in Wonderland started one year before when Jim and I went to see the new Tim Burton movie in the theatre. Two months before the film’s opening, I found myself forty pounds overweight (trying to fill my emptiness) with back, hip, and neck problems that caused serious discomfort and lots of chiropractic bills. That night at the theatre I was two months into my progressive goals of losing weight and obtaining therapy for myself and not for him (or us). Perhaps that is why I was so open to receive the messages of the film and why the Mad Hatter’s line to Alice—“You have lost your muchness”—resonated with me. Alice couldn’t remember who she was.

Two weeks later, friends and family from both sides descended on our house to celebrate my thirtieth birthday. And since I was born in 1980, what better way to celebrate than by a 1980s theme? Guests arrived in leg warmers, side ponytails of crimped hair, blue eye shadow, brightly colored mixed-matched socks, jelly shoes, upturned shirt collars, and the macho style single earrings that would make George Michael proud. My brother wore his letterman’s jacket from high school that was a little tighter than he remembered. Jim wore a thick, black glamour rock wig and a Goonies t-shirt. People were smiling. I was smiling. The smell of freshly grilled hamburgers hung in the air as my family presented me with a cake with six-inch long candles jetting out of it.

Before the smoke from the extinguished candles reached my nose, I remember thinking, “This year will either be the best year of my life or the worst.” Things would either begin to work or they wouldn’t. I knew a change was coming. I had thought this during the weeks leading up to the dreaded thirtieth birthday, and I added it to my broken-record thought collection which already included the lyrics of the song “I Want You to Want Me” from the band Cheap Trick. That song had been on repeat for over a year already. No one knew about my thought collection. Surrounded by people that truly loved me, I knew that they couldn’t hear my thoughts just as I knew that they couldn’t see the gaping hole hidden behind my new “Everyone loves an ’80’s girl” tee-shirt. McKel had lost her muchness.

•••

The pinkness of that butterfly-filled Alice in Wonderland room proved that I hadn’t quite lost everything. I had made a place for myself. I was still undecided if my thirtieth year was the best or the worst year of my life. It was certainly one of the hardest but deciding to leave that marriage was a relief. For the first time in years, I felt like I could finally progress, even on my own.

As the months followed, I finished painting my house—except one room. It was the third bedroom, between the Alice in Wonderland room and the second bathroom. My L-shaped couch was wall-to-wall without an inch to spare. I dubbed this room the “makeout room,” mainly as a joke. Having been married to a man who couldn’t perform and wouldn’t accept me (and a lousy kisser, at that), I figured, as the phrase goes, “If I build it, they will come.” Pun intended. It must have worked because once, while making out with a guy, the man suddenly jumped up, said, “I’ve got to go,” and ran out of my house. I never got an explanation.

That house served its purpose well through the seventeen months that I lived there. I healed in that house. I started grad school and did my homework while in that house. My husband, Daniel, and I found chemistry in that house while we were dating.

I met Daniel six months after moving in. He was from Brigham City, thirty minutes north of West Haven, and the thought that I almost bought a house closer to Salt Lake made me wince with what-ifs:

“What if I had bought a house farther away from you? We may not have met!”

“I would have found you,” he replied.

Nearly a year after Daniel and I started dating, we were married. And while preserving the sacredness of my marriage with him, I will confess that it is blissfully normal and that it works.

•••

McKEL JENSEN is a newbie to the world of published personal essays. She has worked behind the scenes in the non-fiction book publishing industry and currently works as a technical writer/editor for a large manufacturing company in Utah. She has recently received her MA in English from Weber State University, where she was selected to be commencement speaker for her graduating class.  She lives in northern Utah with her wonderful husband and ever-curious son.