There are magical days for fishers, unique because they are both rare and mysterious. These days are also accidents, and they don’t fit naturally into the pattern of causes and effects, so they must somehow be turned into stories.
Last August, Richard and I drove up to McCall, Idaho, and decided to fish the Brundage reservoir. This was a trip we both needed. Richard’s wife was dying, though her medical team continued their attempts to stop the growth of cancerous lung tumor, which had doubled in size in a year. Death struggles cannot be contained; they send their tremors in every direction, and Cheryl’s condition made my own marriage seem vulnerable, a feeling I had not expected or had ever felt before. Richard had lived long enough with an ailing partner that the idea of losing her—and of being alone—wasn’t as terrifying to him as it seemed to me. He was an attentive caretaker, and when I proposed that we take a day to fish, he said he would love to. “But let’s see how Cheryl is doing,” he said. She encouraged him to go.
Reservoirs hold the visible memory of the land they flooded. There are the naked stumps of decaying timber, particularly in low water, and the rise and fall of water often scores the shore with impossibly straight ridges, each a few feet apart, which could be steps one might descend to reach the river that once flowed through there.
Idaho was burning last summer—historic fires in both the desert and the mountains—and the air was filled with smoke, even in McCall, which is at around six thousand feet elevation. Here in the West, gaining elevation is the solution to a lot of problems—heat, inversions, and one hoped, smoke. But when the high country burns, the smoke stays where the fires are. Unlike fishers, firefighters hope for smoke because it helps suppress the fires. It was a sunny day, but the haze created a pewter wash over everything, especially the water on the reservoir, and all else was drained of color.
We launched our small kickboats, and in the morning the fishing was pretty good. I trolled small streamers, and I landed and released five or six fish in a few hours. They were pretty fish, many of them rainbow and cutthroat trout hybrids—“cutbows”—with scarlet backs and golden bellies and sides. But after lunch, the fishing slowed. Kickboats are quietly propelled by flippered feet, freeing the hands to hold the rod, and one of the great pleasures of these small boats is the comradery of trolling with a companion. When the fishing goes south, Richard and I often found each other on a lake, kicking along in unison, and talking now and then. In light of everything—Cheryl’s suffering set against the somber and smoky gloom of that day—those moments together, floating high above a lost streambed, seemed especially poignant to me.
When the conditions are right, the aquatic insects that flyfishers imitate with their feather and fur flies erupt in a hatch—a sudden blizzard of bugs that emerge from the water at once. When this one started, I heard the fish first, rising to take the flies, and then trout were all around us, swirling and splashing, hungrily working the surface. I quickly switched over to a dry fly line and put a big bug on—grasshopper-like with rubber legs. Tying knots when fish are rising around you triggers a desperation that makes knots harder to tie. The mind focuses on one thing—getting the fly to the feeding fish. Meanwhile, the hatch intensified.
“Have you looked up at the sky?” Richard said. When I did, I saw a rolling cloud of flies. They were big black bugs with yellow-orange bellies that defied classification—they weren’t mayflies, or stoneflies, or caddis, or any of the usual aquatic insects that flyfishers typically imitate—and yet they seemed to emerge from the water, hovering around us and nowhere else on the reservoir. Soon I was casting to the rising trout, my fly landing on a carpet of floating bugs. The takes varied from violent to lackadaisical, and before long we were tying into nice fish, nearly all fifteen inches or more. These were thick, well-fed trout that rose hungrily from the bottom of the reservoir. The hatch continued around us for more than an hour, and the feeding and catching continued, each of us pulling fish to our boats and quickly unhooking them to begin again. From time to time, Richard and I would turn to each other and comment on the magic of it all—two men alone together in small boats in the middle of an eruption of flies and fish.
When the hatch finally waned, we floated together for a little while, exhausted but still wondering if somehow the magic would continue. For a few minutes, the sun wanly broke through the smoky sky, but the reservoir’s surface went slick, unbroken by rising trout. For that hour, though, Richard had a break from his death watch. It was an hour filled with life—the golden flash of rising fish, the frantic flight of insects, and the steady, back-and-forth beat of our forearms as we hurled our fly lines out and away to where the fish were. Cheryl died a few days later. But when we returned to Boise that night, tired and exuberant, she was waiting for us on the back deck at Richard’s house, lying in the dark on a chaise lounge and wrapped in a white blanket. Cheryl could not get up to greet me, and yet somehow, in my mind, I see her rising, again and again.
BRUCE BALLENGER, a professor of English at Boise State University, is the author of seven books.
I’m reading my way through a romance series. I’m on the fifth installment, and I’ve gotten a feel for the unique quirks of the books as well as for the ways the books heed romance novel conventions—especially the less enticing conventions.
The convention I’m having trouble dealing with most, one of the most common romance novel conventions of all, is this: All of the heroines, no matter what their age, no matter what century they were born in (there’s some time-traveling involved), are virgins when they meet the heroes.
There’s nothing wrong with being a virgin, of course. Lots of people are virgins, even into their mid-twenties (or later), just like the heroines of the novels I’m reading. But lately, the way virginity is used as a trope in romance novels has started to get to me.
With few exceptions (Courtney Milan, I’m looking at you), one can’t read a historical romance novel, or even many that are set in contemporary times, without encountering a virginal heroine. It’s simply that common of a genre convention.
What’s the big deal?
The big deal, for me, is the particular trope of virginity-as-sacred-gift to the hero. The big deal, for me, is the other trope of virginity-as-stand-in-for-honesty, resolve, valor, courage, and an assortment of other qualities that a romance heroine has no other way of proving she possesses except by guarding her hymen.
In a romance novel that uses these tropes, when the moment of truth—that is, cherry-picking—finally comes, and inevitably the reader enters the hero’s point of view for at least a moment, he feels such gratitude that he’s the one to have received the gift of the heroine’s virginity. And in that moment, he truly admires her.
And in that moment, I feel sick and cheated. I feel like a failure. I wonder why I’m reading the book and consider stopping. Every time. But I set aside my bad feelings and keep reading. After all, it’s not the romance novel genre’s fault that I was raped when I was a child and never had a chance to be a virgin at all.
When I was a freshman in college, my best friend was a girl named Bel. She and I were walking through the student union during what turned out to be rape awareness week. I, of course, was so wildly unaware of everything in college that I didn’t know such a week even existed.
A campus activist group had set up a long, white bulletin board—a memorial. It stretched as long as the building itself. When Bel and I found it, the board was covered by a flurry of yellow index cards, so many that the board looked like a field of daffodils. On a nearby table were more cards, pens, and push-pins so you could write a note and stick it on the board.
I’d never told Bel what happened to me as a child, so I was nervous about writing anything on a card. But she strode to the table, picked up a card and wrote a note, and then stabbed it into the board. Her note read, For the girl who never got to be a virgin.
For a moment, I had a strange feeling that Bel had read my mind. She could have written that note about me. She hadn’t, though. I quickly wrote a note for myself, and we walked outside onto the quad. We sat in the spring North Carolina sunshine on a patch of grass by the gothic-inspired chapel and told each other very similar stories.
Then, Bel told me she had a theory. It went like this: Since she never had a chance to choose whom to have sex with the first time, she got to be a virgin forever.
Bel was an eternal virgin.
At first glance, Bel’s theory seemed similar to the advice given by nurse practitioner Carol F. Roye, in her article about the uselessness of our cultural misconceptions about hymens and virginity: “I believe that virginity is what the individual thinks it is. It certainly is for men, who bear no tell-tale signs of lost virginity. The concept of virginity has an emotional connotation. It is more than just the physical disruption of hymenal tissue.”
But in reality, Bel had flipped Roye’s advice on its head. Bel had declared herself a virgin for as long as she wanted to be one.
Roye, however, was not advising a perception of virginity until you felt like you weren’t a virgin any more. On the contrary, she was advising women to take a broader, not narrower, view of virginity loss: “If a young woman has had a sexual relationship with her partner, and she feels that she has lost her virginity, then she has, regardless of what actually happened to her hymen during the encounter. There are ancillary issues that each woman must answer for herself. Is oral sex ‘de-virginizing?’ Anal sex?”
Roye’s article didn’t consider me or Bel at all. How do you think about virginity when yours was gone before you were sexual being in the first place?
Just a few months before my conversation with Bel, I’d had sex for the first time since since I was raped by a grown man when I was in middle school.
My first adult sexual experience was not the most romantic experience in the world. In fact, in retrospect, I don’t think I wanted it to be. I think I wanted to get it over with. I didn’t have a hymen (metaphorical or no) to discard, but I did have plenty of baggage. I chose someone I knew I would never see again—an ex-boyfriend from high school. I selected him carefully for a one-night stand.
Before we went at it, I told Ex-Boyfriend I was raped when I was a child—I’d never told him before. He seemed, weirdly, relieved. “So you’re not a virgin, then.”
What did that question mean? That he was going to do things differently? Would he have done things differently if I’d said nothing? What if I’d had the eternal virgin conversation with Bel sooner and kept my rape a secret from him? What if I’d told him I was a virgin—what would have happened then? Did he think my body was transformed somehow by its less-than-virginal status, his own duty to me therefore lightened?
Sarah Wendell at the romance novel website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books addressed what she called the “Surprise Virgin” trope in romance novels. It goes like this:
The hero figures out the heroine is a virgin because he encounters some resistance (which, don’t even get me started) and she flinches and of course he Is Very Alarmed and tries to stop but she tells him not to so it’s ok for him to get on with it.
Then after they’ve crested and reached peaks of joy and done the dance as old as time, he says something about how if he’d known she was a virgin, he’d have done it all differently, been more gentle or something.
Wendell has all kinds of criticisms of this particularly weak trope: “First, why would you not bring your A game the first time you sleep with a woman you have major lust pants for? If you groin is on fire and it’s not because of Gold Bond, why would you not do your very best scrumpin? What is this ‘I’d have been more gentle and sensitive’ crap?”
Ex-Boyfriend and I had the awkward I-was-raped conversation. Then I, with my non-virginal eighteen-year-old body, and he, with his extremely non-virginal twenty-year-old body, fucked in my friend’s guest room. It hurt like hell. I cried and made sure he didn’t see. Sex felt terrible, and I never wanted to do it again. Maybe that was his A game. Maybe it wasn’t.
My de-baggaging (you really can’t call it deflowering) did not involve peaks of joy.
I was an unusual species of surprise virgin. I’d been deflowered, yes, when I was a child. But in no way was I sexually experienced. Bel was right, in this instance—that night I was an eternal virgin.
But I didn’t understand any of this back then. After my de-baggaging, I was in so much pain that I believed my body was broken. When Ex-Boyfriend asked me what was wrong—he wasn’t so dense that he couldn’t sense that something was off—I insisted I was fine. He fell asleep. I didn’t sleep at all.
I was probably in shock.
The romance novel is a beautiful genre. That’s why, despite these painful virgin tropes, I keep reading them. When they’re written well, books about the struggle to find human connection—emotional and physical—are deeply gratifying.
Some readers criticize the predictability of the genre. But, like it does for most genres, predictability makes romance novels more enjoyable, not less. Romance is predictable as any genre is predictable: as predictable as a Sherlock Holmes story, as predictable as a sonnet.
“Predictable” simply means that the books share genre conventions to which they must conform and use to tell their stories. These conventions can be constraining, like the quatrains and couplets of a sonnet. But they can also create a freedom within that constraint, as any author of metrical poetry will tell you. Readers appreciate an author who can dazzle from within those conventions.
Any acrobat can flip and twirl. The acrobat who flips and twirls on a tightrope is astounding. The tightrope is the genre with its constraints and conventions.
But here’s the other thing about genres: they are allowed to grow and change as the needs of their audiences grow and change.
Wendell and her co-author Candy Tan, in their book on romance novels, Beyond Heaving Bosoms, take on the trope of innocence—usually depicted using virginity—in romance novels of all stripes, not just historicals:
One of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica, is the sexually unawakened state of the heroine. She’s relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity. No matter what type she is, she is definitely not the ho-type.
Therein lies the deep, humid, dark, and somewhat curious den that is home to the two sacred mythical beasts beloved to Romancelandia. They’re interconnected, if you know what we mean (and we think you do): the Unawakened Woman and the Heroic Wang of Mighty Lovin’. They are the plague and the backbone of romance.
The virginal heroine and heroic wang are long-entrenched conventions of romance novels. But they need to go. They need to go along with the interminable whiteness of the characters of most romance novels, and other sad holdovers.
Romance writers do push genre boundaries. They stay on the tightrope but retrace the conventions in ways that allow for new ways of thinking about sexuality. For readers like me, for rape survivors, abuse survivors, for those of us whose virginity never was ours to begin with—we are grateful.
Courtney Milan, in her historical romance novel Unclaimed, features a virginal leading man, Sir Mark Turner, and a courtesan, Jessica Farleigh, hired to seduce him and destroy his reputation. The book is sexy, conventional (genre-wise), and wound up tight. And yet it flips the virginal heroine trope on its head. That Milan could do all of this and remain on the tightrope only makes her writerly acrobatics more amazing. Milan avoided the plague and maintained the backbone. And with the rest of her novels, she does it over and over. Other writers manage to avoid the plague as well. (Hello there, Alisha Rai.) But they are rare, still.
I know that having sex for the first time is not usually like it is in a romance novel. Even friends who aren’t rape survivors have told me that their first time was similar to my de-baggaging. Terrible—painful, with insensitive partners who are snoring before you know it’s over.
But usually a girl or woman gets to choose whom she’s with when she loses her virginity. I never got to choose. Bel never got to choose. But more than that, we never got to be virgins. From the moment I was aware of my sexuality, I was already not-a-virgin. The first person to press his lips to mine was the first person to stick his dick in me. I didn’t know what a condom was, and, no, he didn’t use one.
I lost so much that day. Not just my virginity.
It’s curious that we say “lose” when we talk about virginity. The language of “lose,” of “loss,” implies that virginity is something that can be found again. After all, few things are lost forever. The old-fashioned term “ruined” seems far more accurate. Thomas Hardy, ever interested in ruination, wrote a poem called “The Ruined Maid,” taking on Victorian notions of virginity and its close bedfellow (heh), ruination.
“O ’Melia, my dear, this does everything crown! Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town? And whence such fair garments, such pros-per-ity?”— “O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
— “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks, Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks; And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” — “Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
And on it goes, the poor country girl amazed by the dazzling jewels, dress, and speech of her former counterpart, now “ruined,” the reader supposes, by a coincidence of her sexual actions and the rigid moral dictates of society.
What’s not mentioned in the poem is that the ruined woman must be well provided for in her new role as a rich man’s mistress. Ruination in Victorian society did not immediately mean wealth and education, after all, but it could. And, by the end, it appears that both women—the poor working woman, aged early by her hard life, and the rich man’s mistress—are ruined after a fashion. The double meaning of the word “ruined” makes the poem work.
Nevertheless, the line of demarcation is clear. The overworked country girl and the socially ruined mistress are not the same.
A girl does not come back from being ruined. What’s lost cannot be found. You just have to pick up the ruined stuff of yourself, and move on.
KATIE ROSE GUEST PRYAL is a novelist, freelance journalist, and erstwhile law professor living in Chapel Hill, NC. She is the author of the Hollywood Lights Series, which includes Entanglement, Love and Entropy, and Chasing Chaos, all from Velvet Morning Press. As a journalist, Katie contributes regularly to Quartz, The Chronicle Of Higher Education, The (late, lamented) Toast, Dame Magazine, and more. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. When not writing, she teaches creative writing and works as freelance editor. Find her on Twitter: @krgpryal.
The new Executive Director’s father is dying. Her name is Angela; she moved here from northern Virginia and has brought him with her. She holds his elbow, and together they learn this small town in North Carolina. They walk carefully over the cobblestones in the parts of downtown still cobbled. They examine the construction, having never seen the slender strip of grass that used to be where these cement blocks and this mound of dirt now sit. In a year or so the block extending east from the obelisk will be a bigger expanse of grass, a real park: with benches, one of those water spouts for kids in summer.
Her father is old and has dementia. She wears what she can of his condition inside her own body and it shows. She worries, calls her new rental house from the office throughout the day to make sure he answers. When he doesn’t, she drives home and back, reports that he was asleep. This is how she learns her way around.
The Asheville Citizen-Times and the free weekly run articles announcing her hiring. I watch her try to fix her hair for the photos: she stands in the gallery next to a banner I’ve never seen, retrieved from the basement. It has our logo on it. Asheville Area Arts Council: AAAC. Our town is glad she’s here. We shake her hand with both our hands. Sometimes we clasp her forearm. We nod our heads, tell each other Oh, her father. We say to ourselves, It’s so sad. We say, She has so much on her plate. So much to do. We’re a town of artists and college students and retirees, and we have been waiting for her. We radiate excitement to watch her try to live. We love seeing her walk her dad across the street from the office to get ice cream.
In Florida, in the ’90s, families that we knew and did not know were buying tarps and specialty fencing and in other ways trying to prevent this thing that took over like a wave, like an accidental fad. It was the thing that kept happening: people’s children were drowning in their own pools. My dad, a pediatrician, was interviewed on the local news and my sister and I felt famous by extension.
One family we knew bought a pool fence to prevent this exact thing from happening, but their baby followed a cat through the crack between the latch and the rest of the nylon fencing. A grandparent was babysitting and had fallen asleep.
And another: my third grade classmate’s baby brother, a fat toddler who accompanied us on school trips when his parents chaperoned. He was famous for this wiggly dance, probably the product of just having learned to stand upright, that was like the chicken dance only shorter and unplanned. The memory I have, that I return to every few years, is of this baby wobbling around in a diaper outside the Arlington Street pool. We had gone on a field trip. My friend’s brother did his dance and our whole class stood around him, and his dad was there and we laughed.
These things did not happen in public pools, though, only in the carefully planned backyards of the people who loved their babies. And so, weeks or months later, my friend’s father fell asleep while his baby was awake and curious. It was the first funeral I ever attended. I sat with another classmate, and I don’t remember if my parents were even there. The baby’s dad stood at a podium and sobbed. He said he would miss that little dance so much. He held tight to the podium and we watched the rest of his body try to collapse and he shook. His hands were the only still parts.
Four days after Ryane’s dad dies I email all of our friends. “I wanted to let you know that Ryane’s dad died on Monday morning. If you have a chance and are inclined to send her a note, I know she would appreciate it. We don’t yet have email at the house, but the physical address is…”
He died three weeks after his fifty-first birthday. Ryane was twenty-five. Three of our friends respond to my email, telling me to tell Ryane they are sorry. One person delivers Tupperware ravioli while we’re in Indiana for the funeral. One sends a note in the mail saying she wishes she could give Ryane a hug.
At funerals, the idea is to look around: to see the group you’re given to grieve with. A temporary family, or an actual family. A room full of people with similar, complicated feelings.
The idea is once you walk out of that room, away from those people who understand what you feel because they also feel some version of it, subsequent acquaintances are less likely to understand. They might not understand at all.
A friend drops off a Tupperware of ravioli while you’re out, never to mention your loss again.
A friend asks, within months, why it’s still a topic of discussion.
People extend birthday party invitations, or they don’t extend them at all. Both situations feel the same.
No one mentions it.
Or a few people mention it, asking, How are you? when there is no answer. Thinking about you, xo.
I study the grief around me to understand my own, which technically hasn’t happened yet. I grieve a family that still exists, parents I can call on the phone today, who were always just themselves instead of the people I needed them to be.
Waiting to actually lose someone can become confused for actually having lost them, after a while. We humans float around each other in so many ways.
Angela has moved her father back into his house in Florida. At first he manages with the help of nurses whom she pays to stop by. But he falls, forgets who they are, becomes upset when they unlock his front door one by one and enter as though it were their house. He calls her at work, and through the drywall separating her office from mine, I hear her whisper insistent Spanish into the receiver. Mira, Papi.
She has him transferred to an assisted living facility somewhere east of Orlando where he has limited telephone privileges but nurses sometimes call with updates. Every six weeks or so she flies on Allegiant air—tiny planes to tiny airports, something like $86 round-trip—to Sanford, rents a car and drives to visit him. She flies back frazzled, calls from the car on the way back from the airport, asks questions the answers to which she does not hear and says she’ll be in the office later.
“Thanks for coming,” Dad says to us at our gate, before we board. My sister and I are in the Montgomery airport. Because Mom and Dad flew up early, we’re on separate flights and they don’t leave until tomorrow. When he says, “Thanks for coming,” he refers to our attendance of his mother’s funeral. Breast cancer. “Thanks for coming”: we hadn’t thought it was optional. We board our plane and return to high school. Our friends say, “Sorry about your grandma,” and we say things like, “Thanks,” and “She was old,” because we don’t know how else to respond.
She’d been sick for a while, in and out of the hospital, and when my dad wasn’t addressing her by her first name in exasperated tones over the phone he was arguing with my mom about the money he was sending to his brother to care for her. This serves as a reminder to us that it is always possible to walk around something too vast, to fight about something like money instead.
We’ve just moved into a new house and are sleeping on the floor, on a mattress exhumed from the pullout couch. It is seven-thirty in the morning and Ryane is dreaming that her father has died. In the dream, she’s misheard someone. At first she thinks her grandmother is dead. Then she realizes her grandmother is alive, that her father has died instead. She asks again to make sure. Yes, he’s dead, someone tells her. In the dream she cries and cries and cries, and when she wakes up she thinks she’s been crying in real life but hasn’t been. She wakes up because my cell phone is ringing. The light outside is lazy. Did we set an alarm? The phone is plugged in, ringing next to the bed on the floor. I look at the area code. It’s Bloomington, Indiana. I hand the little phone to her and know.
“Hello?” It’s her grandfather. Her phone is dead and he’s been calling it for hours. I watch her start to cry and I hold onto her shoulder. “This morning?” she asks into the phone.
When she hangs up she says, “I dreamed that he died!” She is wearing a white men’s undershirt and she sits upright in the bed, hunched over like another broken thing.
There are the religious concepts. Let us confess the faith of our baptism as we say I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
They do not help. Rather, I do not know whom they help. Rather, they do not help me.
At the funeral of a man who had waited for his wife and children to leave for work and school, walked to the shed, grabbed a shotgun and sat down under a tree in his backyard to shoot himself in the face, hundreds of us pour into a Western North Carolina hillside chapel to hear the minister say, If God is for us, who is against us?
This was when I dated Zoe. The dead man was her coworker. I had never met him or his wife or his children. The day before, after the body was removed and the grass under the tree was cleaned and the shotgun destroyed and the widow and her children had gone to her parents’, Zoe and her coworkers and I drove to the widow’s house with boxes and duct tape and markers. Into the boxes we put his clothes, their photo albums, framed images taken from the walls and coffee tables of their wedding, vacations. We took the sheets off the bed. We collected anything that seemed like his and wrote things on the full boxes like “clothes,” “photos.” Half the house went into storage for when she was ready to come back. She would look through the “clothes” and “photos” when she was ready.
That was over a decade years ago and I wonder how long it took her to be ready. Has she retrieved those boxes yet? Has she sold the house? Did she even ask for us to do that? All I remember is being invited to join.
If God is for us, who is against us? The packing day and the funeral day: one felt like prayer, the other just something to be done.
After we found out Ryane’s dad had died, there were logistics. We needed to drive to Virginia to pick up her mom and youngest brother, and from there go to Indiana where her dad’s body and Ryane’s grandparents and middle brother were. But first I had to do two things.
When I called Angela to say I wouldn’t be coming to work for a few days she said, Oh my God I’m so sorry and Can you drop those prints at the framer’s before you leave? Ryane and I had been moving from the house on Arbutus to the one on Larchmont, and were supposed to finish cleaning out Arbutus that weekend. Instead we were driving to Indiana. After hanging up with Angela I called the Arbutus landlord and told him we needed more time. He said he had renters moving in on Thursday and couldn’t give us any. I told Ryane I had to run errands before we could leave and she said that was fine even though I knew it wasn’t. She sat very still in the deep-cushioned yellow chair I’d gotten at Goodwill the year before. “I’ll pack a bag,” she said, but she didn’t move.
During the drive to the framer’s I held two thoughts in my head: I’m doing the wrong thing by running this errand and This absolutely has to get done right now. The Arts Council had contracted with a new Hyatt to provide art for the walls, and it was a disaster. The artists were being underpaid for their work and asked to sign away rights of ownership. Because Asheville is a town of struggling artists, they all said yes but hated us for suggesting they do it. For the last week I’d been taking call after call from frustrated painters, trying to calm them and failing. And the framer, who’d agreed to take on the project at a significantly reduced rate, had been waiting for Angela to bring the prints all week. On Friday Angela had finally just stuffed them all in my car and told me to do it Monday morning.
“I have other customers, you know,” the framer said when I got there.
“Michelle, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know why Angela didn’t drop these off.” I suspected she’d just forgotten. Sometimes grief takes over before the person you’re grieving has gone.
Afterward at Arbutus I stuffed everything I could from that house into my car. In the years that followed, every once in a while Ryane and I would realize something else left behind in that basement.
On my last trip to the car I stopped in the front yard. We’d planted sunflowers along the fencing and walkway that spring, and few had bloomed. The soil wasn’t very deep and elms shaded our corner of the neighborhood. But next to the mailbox a mammoth sunflower had been growing up and up. When we’d last left Arbutus, Ryane’s dad was alive and the mammoth’s face had appeared but not opened and Ryane was wondering whether she should go up to Indiana for a while to be with him. I stuffed some loose kitchen utensils in the trunk of the car and stood there. Ryane’s dad was dead. We would never live in east Asheville again. Peter was dead. Later I would see his body. I would need to know the correct things to do and say this whole week. I would need to say the soothing things and first I would need to think of what those things could be. And I would need to say goodbye to someone who had started to become a parent to me.
The sunflower had opened overnight. Half of its fingery petals extended from its face, and the other half still held to the big center circle. It was an eclipse. I convinced myself our one sunflower had opened part way because Peter had died. I texted Ryane a photo and left to pick her up for our drive to him.
At a gallery opening Angela has one glass of red wine and yet appears to be deeply intoxicated.
“Have you seen The L Word?” she asks me, because I am a lesbian and the show is about lesbians and because she is newly brave and apparently has been waiting for the moment to ask. She leans across the sales counter behind which I stand. Patrons mingle around us. Here we are, the only two staff members left. Everyone else has quit.
“Yes,” I say. “But it’s not a very good show.” She agrees and then switches topics.
“Have I told you I have fibromyalgia?” she offers.
“No,” I say.
“For ten years. I’ve been to many doctors.”
What I know about fibromyalgia is that it’s contentious, that some doctors don’t even believe it to be an actual medical ailment, that rather some believe it to be a psychosomatic manifestation of emotional problems: physical repercussions to psychic issues. I know that it presents as a series of seemingly unrelated pains, sometimes diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, other times as the flu, other times as fibromyalgia, other times as depression. Fibromyalgia has no cure or known cause.
What I now know about Angela, as I stand at the sales counter watching the minglers adjacent to her slack body, is that she takes painkillers and occasionally mixes them with alcohol. What I know about Angela is that certain chemical reactions are happening in her bloodstream in possible parallel to the bodily emotional stress of preemptive grief. I know she is suffering in a number of ways.
Of course it’s hard to know how to close the gaps between us. We spend the most trivial moments together: at work, in classrooms, splayed on couches talking on the phone, and when the inevitable happens we look each other in the face and don’t know what to say. We are suddenly strangers and this is how we lose each other in little bits. When my grandmother died, I wrote letters to my mother and her three siblings saying how sorry I was, that I couldn’t imagine their grief at losing their only mother, and none of them responded. I assumed writing the letters had been the wrong thing to do. When Peter died, our friends waited quietly at the edges of Ryane’s grief for her to return to real life. But the place she was in was also real life. Our friends were so patient with their furrowed brows and genuine concern, waiting. Eventually everyone forgot they were waiting. Eventually everyone but Ryane forgot that her father was dead. Inside our little house on the steep hill on Larchmont Road, inside her grief, Ryane and I talked about how what they were doing was the wrong thing.
But how do we do this?
What is supposed to help?
What is the right thing to do?
“Tell me how you’re feeling,” I say to Ryane as she sits upright in bed sometime later, after everything has been moved into the new house. She has tears on her face, but new ones have stopped coming. “You can just feel however you feel about this,” I say, because granting permission for the things I can’t control seems like a possibility somehow. She hears me, and doesn’t respond. She sits propped against two pillows, her shoulders tilted inward, and I rub her back as she looks out from opaque blue eyes toward nothing.
SARAH MEYER is a writer and illustrator who lives in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in VICE Magazine, Paper Darts, and The Manifest-Station.
His one-inch thumbnail picture was cute, but that wasn’t why I stopped on the online profile of “Another John” that Saturday morning in 2003. It was his profile header that grabbed my attention, proclaiming, “You will never be a guest on the Jerry Springer Show because of me.”
Visions sprang to mind of a curly-haired woman in a red tube-top, flinging fistfuls of deli meats at her boyfriend. A bald guy in a tight t-shirt chomping on another guy’s bare calf. I remembered a woman’s tearful confession to her outraged spouse, who then stormed backstage and punched a hole in a wall. One thing was clear. The guy who’d written that headline was funny.
Though I’d spent most of my adult life in a series of long-term relationships, I always felt like it was a fluke, like I was an impostor. The real me had no idea how to date. Maybe my ineptitude had taken root in elementary school where the nuns punished the whole class whenever boys and girls bucked the rules and played together during recess. Or maybe it was due to my love of sports; I’d been outdoors playing baseball with my brother’s friends the summer my female classmates were indoors teaching themselves to dance, apply make-up, and shave their legs. Perhaps it was what I’d noticed from a young age: girls who were little and cute got more practice talking to boys. Whatever the origins of my discomfort, when I imagined dating, I felt as graceful as a linebacker doing ballet.
Thankfully, I’d managed to sidestep true “dating,” since most of my love relationships had grown out of friendships. Only rarely had I gone out with strangers. But things felt different now. I was single, finally emerging from months of hibernation after the excruciating breakup of a six-year relationship. Now forty-four, I was past the age of having lots of single male friends.
So I thought about how I could meet someone. I taught elementary school; 98% of my colleagues were women. Bars and nightclubs wouldn’t work; I didn’t drink, and only my dog was allowed to see my dance moves. Though I started reading personals ads, I never made a conscious decision to try online dating, still not widespread in 2003. Reading the ads on Craigslist reminded me that if other people were out looking, too, maybe I wasn’t such a freak.
But entries like “52-year-old married man seeks slender woman, 20-25, for discreet affair” only reinforced my feeling that I was an awkward alien, lost on a planet of dating-proficient people. Eventually, I decided that it might be less depressing if I went to a website that was solely for dating, rather than one that also told me where to recycle my scrap metal.
I’d been window-shopping on Match.com for six weeks. Following my instructions, the website was showing me single men in their forties who lived within five miles of me. If anyone’s intro paragraph passed my test for “smart” and “funny,” I’d read the rest of his profile and hunt for shared values and interests. So far, I’d granted a few men ratings of “mildly interesting,” but no one had intrigued me enough to make me break out the credit card and pay for the privilege of contacting him. The Jerry Springer guy had my attention, though. I read on.
Then I saw them, my magic words, standing tall and proud in the second sentence: “friends,” “committed,” “monogamous,” and “very long-term.” I felt a little flutter inside from a part of me that had long been paralyzed. I had wondered if my last relationship had killed it, but as I continued reading, I could feel that hope had survived.
Another John sounded like he knew what he wanted. I knew what I didn’t want—another six years with a man who ultimately didn’t want to commit. With each sentence, though, I got a sense of someone who knew himself, someone who wanted a true partner. I scanned the rest, waiting for the one-liner that would stop my forward motion.
But it didn’t come. He wasn’t a rock-climbing, parachute-jumping super-stud longing for a woman who could comfortably strut the red carpet as well as stroll the beach. Neither was he looking for a supermodel fifteen years younger than he.
Instead, he hoped for someone who could watch films with subtitles, who would never cross a picket line, and whose stance toward religion was one of tolerance. If he needed a weekly bungee-jumping fix, he didn’t mention it. He liked having dinner with friends, eating M&Ms in movie theaters, and camping in the mountains.
He was open to a rainbow of ethnicities, and under “you could be,” this agnostic man, Another John, had marked everything from Taoist to Muslim to Jewish to atheist. He didn’t require a younger woman, and he’d even marked that he was open to someone several years older than he. In online dating, that was a rarity.
That was it. It was time to pay up.
I felt a ridiculous sense of urgency as I ran to grab my credit card. After all, Another John had been out there for the entire forty-four years I’d been alive. But now that I’d found him, I didn’t want anyone else to snag him before I’d had my chance. Hurriedly, I re-entered my username and password.
Then I had to decide the length of my pay-in-advance membership. Even though the monthly price would be cheaper if I went long term, wasn’t it pessimistic to assume that I’d need a whole year to find someone? And anyway, hadn’t I already found him? He just didn’t know it yet. So I chose the bare minimum, the one-month plan.
I was dismayed to discover next that I’d have to create a profile before I could contact him. As precious minutes ticked by, I typed sentences about myself that I hoped would appeal to Another John. Would it seem too scary if I used the word “crazed” in my headline? And if I said “Baseball-Crazed Hiking Teacher,” did that make it sound like I taught hiking or like I was a teacher who liked to hike? Was it too much too soon if I wrote that I ultimately wanted to get married? Oh, man. Why hadn’t I thought about this stuff beforehand? My hands trembled as the panic raced through me.
After whipping out a paragraph that I hoped was both funny and substantive, I reached the step where I got to specify the traits I was looking for in a partner. It was like building my own omelet at Denny’s. And in selecting the ingredients that were exactly to my tastes, I found that the omelet-person I was creating sounded an awful lot like Another John.
Finally, I clicked on the “contact” link, and it was done. Feeling giddy, I closed the laptop. All I could do now was wait.
That evening, while congratulating myself for my boldness, I reread his profile. Suddenly, my eyes widened, and I scanned the list of religions that Another John had deemed acceptable. It wasn’t there!
Distracted by my pleasure at how open-minded A.J. was, I’d failed to notice that the one religion missing from his “approved” list was the one that was in my bones. I’d attended Catholic school for twelve plaid-skirt-wearing years and had gone to daily Mass for nearly a decade of my adulthood. I’d been courted by hopeful nuns who’d recognized my potential as a future convent-dweller, and I’d worked for Catholic organizations. Though I hadn’t attended Mass or believed in most Catholic teachings for many years, I couldn’t deny who I was. I was pretty damned Catholic.
Another John hadn’t listed “Christianity” in his comprehensive “Muslims and Taoists are fine” list. And since Catholicism came under the Christian umbrella, I’d contacted him under false pretenses, the internet-dating equivalent of a sin.
So I dashed off an, “Oh, no! You didn’t want to meet Christians! I didn’t ignore that on purpose!” email to him.
The next day, I received a very polite response. Another John apologized for the delay, explaining that he was being very conscientious about sending a response to every single person who’d contacted him.
Well, now. It certainly sounded like he’d been very busy. I pictured his frenzied fingers typing wildly in an effort to keep up with the hordes of single women in their forties who, like I, had recognized his potential. I read on.
He gracefully accepted my unveiling of the Catholicism, explaining that he’d left “Christian” off in case he attracted someone who might want to convert his agnostic self. My profile must have communicated, “I do not need to drag you to church”; he assured me that he wasn’t worried about my Catholicism.
The one point on which he did want clarification was my long-time vegetarianism. Fascinating! He was okay with my religious upbringing that believed that dry bread could be turned into Jesus, but he was cautious about my love of garbanzos and cauliflower?
His earnest questions were endearing:
Do you avoid meat on moral grounds? Does it bother you if your dinner partner eats meat? Can you tolerate meat in your house?
The answers were easy. I’d stopped eating meat decades earlier when I’d been a camp counselor and could think of no other way to stop gorging myself at the buffet. After that summer, I’d just let the meat habit die. There was no moral ground; I was simply a recovering glutton.
The rest of my email continued:
“I hope your fingers are okay. Sounds like they’re getting worn down to nubs, what with all the emails you’re sending to interested women.”
We continued back and forth for a few days, lighthearted jokes sprinkled in among the “So what kind of person are you?” questions. Then we decided we didn’t need the website to be our chaperone anymore and exchanged email addresses.
My heart would happily skip a beat when I’d see Another John’s name in my inbox. I thought of him as “The Serious One,” even though it was his humor that had attracted me immediately. In his profile photos, he looked intent and businesslike. Me? Digital cameras were still uncommon in 2003, so I had only one digital picture to post, a shot of me wearing a shiny gold crown. John’s emails were brief and politely inquisitive, usually including a line that made me chuckle. My emails to him were newsy and energetic.
“Hey, John. So my city-kid third-graders are on a field trip in the forest, and the naturalist does a ‘notice what’s around you’ activity. She gathers the kids, then tells them to sit down and listen to the sounds of nature. Kenneth turns to me and whispers, ‘Does she mean sit in the dirt?’ I roll my eyes, nod, and point to the ground. Kenneth looks appalled, and says, ‘But won’t that be—dirty?’ Sheesh. Hope your day was okay. Sue”
“Hi, Sue. I got home early, so it’s all good. Do you think you’d feel comfortable exchanging phone numbers? I would if you would. Then we can figure out a time to talk. John. P.S. Hope Kenneth cleaned up okay.”
We agreed to talk the next night, a Tuesday, after he got home from work. At six-thirty, the phone rang, and I ran toward the bedroom, my collie-mix dog Cody bounding after me.
“Hi, it’s John.”
His voice startled me. I’d been imagining it as deep and maybe slow. Instead, his pitch had a lighthearted, smooth energy that attracted me instantly. Not that anything would have been wrong with deep but hearing his voice was like biting into a cookie with my eyes closed, expecting a ginger snap. Instead, it was chocolate chip, fresh-baked, with the chocolate all warm and swirled and melty.
I didn’t tell him that I’d expected his voice to be deeper. Instead, I told him how funny I’d thought his Jerry Springer headline was. He said he’d figured it would be a humorous way to convey that he wasn’t into crazy drama.
“Yeah, looking for someone is pretty nerve-wracking, so ‘no crazy drama’ sounds excellent,” I said. “It’s been six years since I’ve gone out with anyone new. And I’ve usually only dated people I already knew. I don’t know what I’m doing.” There. I’d confessed to being a dating neophyte. It was a relief.
John topped me, though. “I know what you mean. My last relationship ended two years ago. And we’d been together for thirteen years. So… it’s been a long time.”
I had not considered this possibility. He was even more unaccustomed to the dating world than I was! And yet, he seemed so … so normal. I instantly felt less alone, less like the awkward alien on a planet of dating-proficient people. There was another alien inhabiting my planet. I liked having company.
We talked for half an hour. John made it clear that he wasn’t around on Wednesdays, so we agreed that I’d call him on Thursday. I hung up, and floated from room to room of my little Craftsman bungalow, filled with a sense of accomplishment. I was thinking more about myself than I was about John. “I did it! I did it!” The words sounded loud in my head.
Over the next two weeks, we spoke most evenings. I assumed my position: lying on the floor, feet up on the bed, Cody at my side. Sometimes we’d talk for an hour or more. As our familiarity grew, we experimented both with kidding each other and with sharing parts of our past. And we talked about this experience of seeking a connection with an unseen stranger.
“One thing I liked about your profile is that you were willing to consider women who are a little older than you,” I told him. “So many men only want someone who’s way younger than they are! What is that?” That trend in men’s profiles had infuriated me.
John knew I was a teacher, and his deadpan reply was, “Well, sure, I could try to find someone who’s twenty. But then when I’d ask how her day at school had been, it would mean something very different from when I ask you.”
My laugh rang out. That was happening often. John’s humor would come at me from surprising angles, and I’d laugh from sheer delight.
Another Wednesday was rolling around, and so on Tuesday evening, John reminded me that he wouldn’t be available the following night. Over the past two weeks, I’d been curious about his regularly scheduled Wednesday activity but knew it wasn’t my business to ask. I couldn’t help wondering though.
One thought I had was that maybe he’d not been truthful on his profile when he said that he didn’t have kids. Maybe he had a couple of kids, and maybe his custody agreement was that he got them every Wednesday. I decided that would be okay. After all, I liked kids. And wouldn’t I rather he be a dedicated parent than some deadbeat dad who disregarded his responsibilities, responsibilities who, after all, were little human beings? Yes, I would. Sure, John hadn’t been totally upfront with me about his kids, but at least he was doing right by them. Good for him.
But then I wondered if maybe rather than being a secret parent, he instead was an alcoholic who faithfully attended AA every Wednesday. That seemed more plausible. Respondents were asked about their parental status on the dating profile, but there wasn’t a single question about one’s substance-abuse status. So John could have filled out his profile with total honesty while still being an alcoholic. And I understood that at first he’d hide something so personal. I mean, why should he tell me that right off? No sense in scaring me away. He’d confide in me if we ever got close enough. I decided I would be okay if he were an alcoholic, given that he was an AA regular and all. That way he was a recovering alcoholic, instead of a still-raging alcoholic.
These thoughts were in the back of my mind until that Tuesday night. John brought them racing to the front when he said, slowly, “Well—I guess it’s about time that I tell you what I do on Wednesdays.”
I wasn’t prepared. “Okay,” I said, trying to sound casual. I felt my heart speed up, and I took a big breath. I reminded myself that at least he was a responsible parent/alcoholic.
The silence ticked on. I waited in what I hoped would be perceived as a supportive silence.
John took a breath, and slowly, the truth came out. “On Wednesdays—I bowl.”
My sudden burst of laughter was a cross between a bark and a scream. That innocent little word struck me so funny that I could barely suck in air. “Bowl” was evocative of the wholesomeness of the 1950s, completely undeserving of its role in a shameful confession.
I choked out, “Why do you say it like it’s such an awful thing?” I imagined him in his house, grinning broadly at his success in reducing me to gasps and sputters.
“Well, you have to admit—‘I bowl’ isn’t something you lead with. A person needs time to build up to it. Expecting someone else to accept that right off? It’s too much.” I could practically hear him smiling.
Still giggling, I said, “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I play an instrument that’s the musical equivalent of ‘bowling.’ Want to guess?”
We laughed some more after I said, “Accordion.” I decided not to tell him that I’d already decided to embrace him despite his being a lying alcoholic parent who denied the existence of his two children.
It was that night that we discussed meeting in person. We liked the idea but wanted to make sure neither of us would feel pressured. John already had a little experience with online dates and offered some guidelines.
“They say it should be a neutral meeting place, out in public but not right near one person’s house. And we should also set a time limit the first time, so no one feels trapped.”
“That sounds good. Anything else?”
We agreed to meet during the day, for no more than an hour. We decided on ten-thirty that upcoming Saturday morning at a coffee house equidistant from our homes.
In addition to the guidelines, we agreed on something else—our feelings about the experimental process we’d undertaken, this method of looking for love. We both were finding it liberating. There was something deliciously freeing about starting off already knowing what the other person wanted. There was much less guessing. And the invisibility of the other person only enhanced that sense of freedom. When we dated someone who was already in our everyday life, there was a risk of losing a friend if it didn’t work out. So maybe we’d compromise what we wanted, trying to avoid awkwardness.
But for both John and me, starting with a total stranger helped us commit to being our most honest selves. We each had already found ourselves thinking, If this doesn’t work, I’ve lost nothing because I don’t even know this person. I’m just going to be myself, and if myself doesn’t work, then this wouldn’t work. I can’t try to shape myself into someone else.
I’d entered into the process of online dating because I’d felt so inept at meeting men. Now that I was on the threshold of meeting someone in person, I couldn’t remember ever having felt more clear and free about the prospect of a date. I knew that I’d like to find a partner, but that I didn’t have to find one. I knew I’d be okay. I had good friends, a job that I loved, and a heart that was healing.
I couldn’t have known at the start where things would lead with Another John. I couldn’t know that I’d feel daring enough on the first date to confess my scary health secret to him, or that I’d have trouble falling asleep after our three-hour dinner on the second date because I hadn’t known I could be that happy with someone. I couldn’t know that for him, the decision point would come when we saw Bad Santa two weeks later, when he heard me crying with laughter at the twisted, offensive humor and he realized that we belonged together.
All I knew then was that I was looking forward to that Saturday morning with more excitement than I’d felt in a long time.
SUE GRANZELLA has won awards from MemoirsInk and in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Punchnel’s, Gravel, Citron Review, Hippocampus, Lowestoft Chronicle, Ascent, Crunchable, and Prick of the Spindle, among others. Sue teaches third grade in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her no-longer-bowling husband, John. She loves baseball, stand-up comedy, road trips, and reading the writing of eight- and nine-year-olds. Find more of Sue’s writing at www.suegranzella.com.
Make sure the elastic waistband leggings are clean for Thursday.
Pick six essays to nominate for the Pushcart Prize.
The second task is insanely hard. The Pushcart folks ask small-press editors (and past winners) to nominate six pieces, and the editors of the annual Pushcart anthology choose from those works of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Six pieces, people. My long list is really long.
Last Thanksgiving, my husband and I hopped in a rental car with our three-year-old and drove fourteen hours from Brooklyn to Indiana. We wanted to celebrate the holiday with my parents, my seven siblings, and the chaotic swarm of children that makes up my many nieces and nephews.
We set off around four in the morning, and our son had a diaper explosion just before dawn at a rest stop somewhere in Pennsylvania. It was a mess of such magnitude, I stood paralyzed for several moments under the florescent lighting, debating if the best strategy was simply to burn the structure down and flee. I didn’t know it then, but I should have taken my son’s booming bowels as a warning shot: a foreshadowing of the weekend to come.
When we finally pulled up to my parents’ house, we were greeted by black skies and the ominous wail of a tornado siren, which for southern Indiana, isn’t exactly a seasonal sound in late November. My mother hugged us in welcome and croaked into my ear that she had awoken that morning with the flu. But not to worry—she was still making the entire meal.
Which she did, despite protestations and offers of help. The next day she waved us all away, hobbling around the kitchen high on Tylenol Cold, basting the bird in its juices and what we hoped wasn’t the Norovirus.
My brothers and their families trickled in with their children, and the clouds outside hung heavy and low, still teasing the idea of a storm. Adding to the odd energy in the air was the fact that it was my parents’ forty-ninth wedding anniversary. While under normal circumstances this would be a very happy occasion, my father is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. He’s in a wheelchair and can no longer really speak. My mother has insisted on keeping him at home with her throughout his illness while a rotating cast of caretakers comes in to assist her with his needs. There have been various pushes over the years to consider placing him in a nursing home, but my mother was as receptive to this idea as she was to someone offering to cook her Thanksgiving turkey: thanks but no thanks, now please get out of her kitchen.
Growing up in my large, Catholic family, holiday meals are some of my most vivid memories. We used to squeeze into our tiny dining room, my father pressed so tightly against a bay window it’s a wonder he didn’t shatter through to the backyard. We wore our “church” clothes, which for me meant a dress and thick tights that made my legs feel like they were in plaster casts. Gravy was served in a gravy boat shaped like a turkey, and when you tipped it, gravy poured from the bird’s mouth as though it was vomiting beige mucus onto your meal. We used to fight over whose turn it was to use it.
Our local priest would join us for dinner, my parents perhaps hoping that having a man of God at the table might keep us from reenacting scenes from Alien with the turkey carcass. They were wrong of course. Father Jerry or no—someone was still likely to hide a bit of potato in Teddy’s milk, so that he’d take a swig and send his partially digested green bean casserole back up onto the table, barfing in unison with the gravy boat.
When he was well, my dad was what people called “a real character.” And his blue eyes especially blazed to life at these dinners. He’d repeatedly clink his glass, offering various odd toasts and teasing decrees. One year he ordered there to be an election to select one of the family dogs “President.” We each cast ballots, and when his beloved yorkie “Holy” (so named for her tendency to lie motionless upon her back as though deep in devout prayer) lost out to the labrador “Brown” (much more lazily named for the color of his coat) my dad feigned outrage for hours, snorting with laughter as he shouted for a recount.
For years, at the end of each Thanksgiving meal, he’d wink at us kids and flash a thin box of mini Swisher Sweet cigars. Neither of my parents were smokers, and this was the one special occasion where this rule was broken. We’d follow my Dad to a secret location, where he’d allow us to join him in a puff of a post-meal stogie. Unfortunately for my mother, this “secret” hideaway generally turned out to be her walk-in closet, and she’d spend the next two weeks attending church in dresses that smelled like she’d just rolled in from an all night poker tournament.
But those days were now long gone, now. Father Jerry now lived in Indianapolis and, due to health reasons, was unable to travel. Trying to fit everyone into the dining room would be akin to a clown car routine, so now we dined in the living room, at long cafeteria tables borrowed from the elementary school.
As my family wandered through the house last Thanksgiving, I was reminded of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, where the illuminated ghosts swirl through the rooms. My parents’ house now felt more crowded with the past than it did people. To sit as an adult in a nest of childhood memories, before the same vomiting gravy boat, created in me a kind of emotional vertigo. Like one of those disorienting dreams where it’s your house, but also not your house. It’s you—but also not you.
It was clear none of us really had the words for the transformations within our family. No one knew how to talk about the force that was my father and how it was now gone. Yes, he was still at the table with the same bright blue eyes, but there would be no call for a canine electoral college. No brandishing of mini-cigars post meal. The truth was, he would never really speak to us again.
It seemed we were all coping with this in our own way. Offering and re-offering Stove Top stuffing to our children. Repeatedly complimenting my mother on the dumplings. But the air above the table felt as leaden and dense as the air outside.
One of my brothers—who is normally the calm, steady voice of reason—decided the best way to ease the tension was to drink a quarter bottle of whiskey and become as loud as was humanly possible. He tied a dishrag around his face and chased the grandchildren, making them scream with laughter. He pushed aside pie plates and challenged other brothers to arm wrestle. It was practically a one-man show of distraction and diversion, one that culminated in him slamming out to the front porch, shouting, “Watch this!” and proceeding to decimate some wind chimes with a broom.
Around the time the wind chimes clanged to the ground, I realized my mother had left the festivities. I wandered through the house and found her sitting in the library, where my father now slept. The room was dark, except for the flicker of the television. She sat perched beside my dad’s hospital-grade bed, holding his hand. I heard shrieks from the TV, and realized they were watching No Country For Old Men.
“Would you like me to put on something a little lighter?” I asked. “Maybe something with Meg Ryan?”
“No, no,” she said. “We like this movie.”
Forty-nine years ago on that night they’d been cutting the cake at their reception, my dad clutching a black top hat in his big hand. Now my mother sat at the edge of his adjustable bed, holding that same hand, while a veritable tribe of their creation stomped around on the other side of the door. They’d had ten children together. They’d lost two of those children. They’d watched each other’s parents die. Watched the leaves outside the window bud green, turn crimson, and drift to the ground, over and over and over again. They’d raked those leaves together. One holding open the Hefty bag, while the other stuffed it full of fall.
There were words I wanted to say. Words that swarmed through my head and chest. But I didn’t know how to form them or how to corral them into sentences. So instead I simply sat on the floor at their feet. Together we watched Javier Bardem murder people with a cattle gun, while the muffled shouts of my siblings drifted in from other rooms.
The next day most of the family returned to their own nearby homes, and the only ones who stayed on with my parents were my husband and I and our son, and my youngest brother and his girlfriend. While the house was much quieter, it wasn’t much calmer, as my three-year-old seemed to be coming down from the previous day’s mania. He streaked through the house like a toddler on a cocaine bender, eschewing all offers of toys in favor of banging open the china cabinet door and attempting to rake my mother’s Franklin Mint bell collection to the floor. Meanwhile, my mom was still wandering the house in a fever haze and was once again insisting on fixing an elaborate dinner, this time coughing her way through bacon-wrapped steaks.
By the time evening rolled around all I wanted was to put my child to bed, sit down with a fishbowl of wine, and stare off into the middle distance. I finally got him to sleep and collapsed on the couch. We were once again eating in the living room so that my Dad could eat with us because his wheelchair didn’t fit at the kitchen table. Together we sat before the Empire Strikes Back, our plates balanced on our laps. Exhausted, I stared blankly at C3PO and shoveled meat into my mouth on autopilot.
At one point, as I chomped down, I felt something sharp. Oh, well. I thought. Probably just a bone. Which perfectly captures my frazzled mental state. For 1.) I thought steaks should have tiny sharp bones and 2.) That it was perfectly fine to swallow them whole. Only after I cleared my plate, did I glance down and see the broken half of a large wooden toothpick and realize what I had done.
I quietly carried my plate to the kitchen then Googled on my phone: “Swallowing a toothpick dangerous?”
As someone with hypochondriac tendencies, I was all too familiar with turning to Google with strange medical concerns. My search history over the years was a treasure trove of “Mole shaped like a hat deadly?” and “Pain in which arm means heart attack?”
So I wasn’t surprised when my toothpick query sent back the WebMD equivalent of a breathless, wide-eyed woman screaming into my face: “Death comes for us all!”
Heaving a heavy sigh, I walked back into the living room and announced that I had swallowed half of a toothpick and, according to the Internet, it could puncture my internal organs, and so would someone kindly take me to the ER?
Everyone paused. My mother’s glass of white zinfandel hung in the air. Darth Vader breathed heavily from the TV. Everyone’s face did a slow motion dance between laughter and concern, ultimately forcing their features to settle into concern. My youngest brother leapt up and offered to drive me, so that my husband could stay home with our son. My brother’s twenty-four-year-old girlfriend began tugging on her stiletto boots, insisting on coming along.
The ER the night after Thanksgiving was a crowded place. I stood at the window and explained to the nurse that I had swallowed a toothpick.
“Yikes. That’s not good.”
I could see she very much wanted to ask—as any sane human does—how did I swallow a toothpick? Was I, an adult human, unfamiliar with the process of chewing and swallowing food? But she controlled herself, and simply ushered me back to a room, my brother and his girlfriend trailing behind.
A weary nurse came by and explained that because the toothpick was wooden, there was no way to do an X-ray.
“So instead, we’d like you to eat this turkey sandwich.”
I stared in confusion. Was it an electromagnetic turkey sandwich that was somehow capable of detecting wood?
“Look,” she sighed. “It’s to make sure the toothpick isn’t blocking anything. That you can get food down, okay?” She dropped the sandwich in my lap and left.
“It’s going to be okay, Miss Jo. I know it is!” My brother’s girlfriend smiled at me encouragingly. She always called me “Miss Jo,” like I was an old tap dance teacher from her childhood. She placed a hand on the back of my hospital gown, closed her eyes, and began to mumble under her breath something about Jesus taking the toothpick from my person.
I chewed the dry turkey and willed myself not to scream. All I’d wanted to do that night was relax for one goddamn minute. And now I was eating a hospital cafeteria sandwich at midnight while my brother’s wide-eyed girlfriend prayed over me. Not that I wasn’t touched by her kindness and concern in that moment: I very much was. I just didn’t want to be having that moment, period.
The sandwich went down, which seemed promising. Finally, a doctor rushed in clutching a clipboard.
“Ok, so uh…uh…I think…well I think…uh.” He had a nervous, halting way of speaking. Which is precisely the last thing one wants in an ER doctor. We all stared at him in anticipation.
“I think you’re going to…uh…uh…”
YES? Die? Live? Self immolate?
“I think you’re going to be…uh…okay.”
There was a collective sigh of relief.
He informed me that, while, yes, there was a chance it could puncture my liver leading to my untimely death, most likely I would just “pass it.”
“So you can just…uh…go home. But if you don’t feel…you know…okay…then…then…come back. Okay?” He had me sign his clipboard and left.
“Well that sounds…good? Right?” my brother asked, pulling on his coat.
I nodded, though my heart was pounding. That doctor had just doled out the absolute worst possible scenario ever for a hypochondriac: You might be okay, but if you think you’re dying of sepsis, give us a ring.
Did he not realize he was dealing with someone who was pretty much always sure she was dying of sepsis? Someone who had once gotten a CAT scan because she left Crest WhiteStrips on too long and it made her head feel funny?
I tried to take deep breaths while my brother and his girlfriend went to get the car. As I was signing my discharge papers, the nurse looked up at me.
“Oh and listen, if you do, uh, you know, pass it, you probably won’t know. So you shouldn’t. You know… Go looking for it.”
I nodded, imagining myself kneeling in the bathroom at my parents’ house, desperately pounding at my own excrement with a hammer.
“Good to know.”
Back in my childhood home, all was quiet. My mother and husband, upon hearing my stomach hadn’t in fact exploded, had gone to bed. I eased myself into my parents’ old bedroom, where my husband and son lay in the darkness, lightly snoring.
I wearily pulled on pajamas, jamming my mouthguard into my mouth. I lay down between my husband and son and stared into the darkness. This was the same room I used to pad into as a child when I was frightened or had had a nightmare. It still had the same wallpaper that used to creep me out because the shape of the design reminded me of ET when he was dying. But even with the unsettling wallpaper, coming into this room used to be like stepping into a warm cell of safety. I would climb up between my parents, and the warmth of their bodies would fill me with a certainty that everything was going to be okay.
Now, my mother slept in my old bedroom across the hall, where she’d been staying ever since my dad got sick. Dad was in his bed in the library. And my own son was now stretched out beside me, breathing softly. I was now the parent. I was meant to be the certainty.
The weight of this knowledge fell over me, and suddenly the stress, and sadness, and anxiety of the whole weekend began to whirl in my stomach, along with the dreaded toothpick. I could feel myself start to come undone. My eyes welled with tears, and my chest constricted.
And then suddenly, in the shadows, my son sat up. He turned to me, reached out his tiny hand, and patted my arm. Then he said something he’d never said to me before in his life: “It’s okay, Mama.”
He immediately lay back down, drifting back to sleep. And I stared at him, dumbfounded, wondering if I’d just imagined the whole thing. He had missed the events of the night—had slept through the whole “Mommy swallowing a foreign object” portion of the evening. But he had clearly, in that moment, intuited my distress. And something about hearing his soft little voice, hearing him try to comfort me, it was like a switch flipped, and a wave of calm flooded through me. My eyes went dry. My breathing slowed. And I began to pull myself back together. Because I had to. Because that’s what we do for our kids. For our spouses. For the people we love.
I thought of my parents sitting side by side, holding hands. If their forty-nine years together—a whole lifetime of immense joys and devastating heartbreaks and weird movies in the dark—if it had a lesson to offer, it was that when things get scary, you stay brave for the people who need you. You wade through the muck of worry. You continue to seek happiness, even when overwhelmed by ghosts and sorrow. You do whatever it takes. And sometimes that might mean not spiraling into anxiety. Sometimes it might mean being the strong one. And sometimes, it might even mean pushing out a toothpick.
JOHANNA GOHMANN has written for New York Magazine, Salon, and BUST. Her essays have been anthologized in The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 10, A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Encounters Around the World, and Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers. www.JohannaGohmann.com
A mechanism that enables a pair of wheels to rotate.
At 4’8’’, my grandmother, or paati as I called her in Tamil, was just a few inches taller than I was at age six. It was my paati, sixty-nine years old at the time, who taught me how to ride a bike. Why did she decide to teach me? Because this was something I needed to learn to do. Besides, paati was holding on, so I’d be fine.
At the end of my first driving lesson, I was sore for a full two days after. It turned out I’d been clenching every single muscle in my lower back, neck, and shoulders for the entire two hours I was behind the wheel, driving through downtown Chicago.
At age twenty-six, well past when most Americans complete this rite of passage, I enrolled in driver’s ed. I was determined to get over my fear of operating an automobile and get my U.S. driver’s license, once and for all.
Paati had an arranged marriage when she was sixteen. Her last formal year of schooling was the seventh grade. Despite the abrupt end to her education, she loved to learn so much that she would secretly read her older brothers’ math, science, history, and Tamil textbooks in the attic, when they would discard them at the end of the school year. When paati’s son was in college, she began to teach herself how to read and write in English. Paati stayed with my parents several summers ago, well into her eighties at this point, and proceeded to read the Encyclopedia Brittanica, in English, cover to cover because it was there to be read.
At the start of every driving lesson, I would find my heart starting to race, terror steadily rising from my knotted-up stomach and my dry mouth to my norepinephrine-flooded brain, my fight or flight response kicked into full gear. Every single time.
As a middle-schooler, about a week into summer vacation every year, I would build a paper chain that hung from my bedroom ceiling to the floor. A paper chain to countdown the days before I could go back to school and start the new school year.
Harvard Graduate School of Education (n)
I spent a year drinking from a firehose of ideas, wisdom, and inspiration, before graduating with a master’s degree in how and why people learn, fired with the idealism and drive to change the world, one student at a time.
After my thatha passed away last year, paati morphed into a completely different person. My aunts and uncles claimed it was dementia finally settling in, which led her to ask to her daughter-in-law one day, “Are the elephants going to stay for dinner? They’ve been sitting quietly in the living room all afternoon.”
I bring her the good chocolate when I visit. She hates the sugar-free chocolate-for-diabetics crap.
A few weeks before I left Bombay for college in the States, I got my Indian driver’s license. I didn’t use it again until the following summer. I bravely volunteered to drive my father and two cousins back home from the park, a five-minute drive, acknowledging that I was probably a little rusty. I didn’t account for rush hour traffic. I didn’t account for a six-lane intersection. I didn’t account for what happens when you stall a manual transmission car in the middle of a six-lane intersection during rush hour traffic.
The angry yells and indignant honks should have jolted me into action. But I froze. For the longest fifteen seconds of my life, I blocked out all sound and effectively blacked out. Accompanied by the rising panic in my father’s voice, I finally restarted the car and got us home in one piece.
I didn’t get behind the driver’s seat for another seven years, until I enrolled American driver’s ed.
It was my last driving lesson before the road test. My left turns were a mess, I couldn’t figure out how to place my three-point turns, and I failed to notice stop signs in neighborhoods we’d driven through for weeks. I noticed every mistake three seconds too late and cursed myself for being so stupid. “Stay calm, you can do this,” I told myself. It was when I started to doubt myself that I’d make mistakes and with every mistake, desperation and fear piled on top of the doubt.
It didn’t help that it was Friday evening, after a rough week at work, and my road test was twelve hours away. My instructor was not at his best either. “Can we just stop?” he finally snapped at me. “You’re not getting any better—you’re just getting worse.”
I’ve done the big milestones. I’ve graduated high school, secured an Ivy league degree, landed my first job, christened my first apartment, claimed my first promotion. I’ve moved halfway across the world, navigated the murky waters of immigration paperwork, and learned how to survive in America on my own.
Yet somehow every driving lesson felt like a step closer to a much more momentous life event.
North Carolina (n)
Paati rarely left the confines of their neighborhood in Bombay and had never dreamed that she would leave the country. When paati was in her forties, her third daughter—my aunt—was diagnosed with cancer. My aunt, who’d been living in the States with my uncle for several years by then, was admitted to the Duke University Hospital for treatment. Their son was just a toddler.
That summer, paati left India for the first time. She put her carefully collected self-taught English to use with strangers for the first time. She navigated airports and boarded planes, when until then she’d only ever been to the market down the street unaccompanied before.
I still don’t know how she did it. She says she doesn’t know how she did it either. But she did. And she was okay.
“I had to do what needed to be done,” she would later tell me. “My daughter and grandson needed me. And this was something I needed to learn to do.”
From a young age, I was told that I was a fast learner. I love savoring every “aha!” moment that follows a difficult concept that I’d unlocked for the first time.
I’ve never had to retake a test, repeat a year in school, or re-do an assignment for work because I didn’t do a good enough job the first time.
Every night after dinner, whenever I’ve visited paati or she’d come to stay with us, I’ve asked for a story. When I was younger, there were the stories of the clever crow and the greedy crocodile. As I grew older, I would stay hooked on her tales of kings and warriors and monsters slayed. In my twenties, while my cousins—all much older than me—had stopped asking for stories a decade ago, I would get out my iPhone and hit “record” before settling in for an evening of crocodiles and warriors alike.
After every driving lesson this summer, I have burst into tears.
I last saw paati in late December of last year. It had been four months since thatha passed away. She slept for twenty hours a day. She refused to shower and had to be coaxed to eat meals. That was the first time in all my life that paati wasn’t able to tell me a story.
The morning of my driver’s license road test, I resigned myself to the very likely possibility that I would be standing in the DMV line again in a month. I mean, my own instructor didn’t seem to think I was particularly competent.
When the examiner told me I passed, I didn’t believe him. “Really? Are you sure about that?” I asked him incredulously.
My paati gave me the courage to take a leap of faith, when she taught me how to ride a bike twenty years ago. She held onto the back of my bike as I started to pump the pedals and told me to keep saying out loud, “Paati’s holding on, paati’s holding on.” Certain that she, literally, had my back, I whispered under my breath feverishly until I realized that paati no longer was holding on and that I was doing just fine all on my own.
Everyone says my cousin Sandhya looks just like paati did when she was younger. Same round face, same big eyes, same kind smile. I like to think I’m a Xerox copy of paati’s temperament.
The paati I’ve known my whole life may or may not return. My heart aches when she turns to my mom, after I’ve waved hello to them both over Skype, and asks, “Who was that?” But I will always cherish her for who I’ve always known her to be: my paati, my favorite person in the world.
Getting behind the wheel of a car asks me to take a leap of faith, every single time. I’m invited to have faith not in the machine, not in the rules of the road, not in the civility of other drivers on the road. Driving asks me to have faith in myself.
At some point, I’m sure I’ll stop whispering under my breath, “Paati’s holding on, paati’s holding on.” But until then, I’m going to keep trying to push through the hard things in life, because she wouldn’t have it any other way.
SUNANDA VAIDHEESH is a millennial immigrant. She was born in India, grew up in Indonesia, went to college in Iowa, and has moved houses twenty-one times to date. She explores the identity politics of transnationalism in her writing and loves a good scavenger hunt. Sunanda lives in Chicago and can be found online at sunandavaidheesh.com.
It was a sick joke between me and my two closest friends.
“I know you’re busy, so you don’t have to call. Wouldn’t want you to feel obligated.”
“I know you have a ton of stuff going on, so don’t feel obligated to come to my kid’s recital.”
“Don’t feel obligated to attend my birthday party.”
“I just broke up with my boyfriend, but don’t feel you have to check on me.”
I don’t remember how the joke started. Somewhere in our college years, but it always made me vaguely uncomfortable. They were my best friends. Weren’t we supposed to go out of our way, not out of obligation, but out of love? Every time Fran or Karen cracked that joke, I wondered if that was their way of asking for space. It was no secret that I could be intense. I loved them fiercely—and wasn’t afraid to show it, which could be unnerving to most folks. My desire for sisterhood was borne out of having no close girlfriends in high school. It was from years of growing up with an older sister whom I yearned to emulate and befriend but learned to outshine when I realized how much she resented my existence.
So when teased about obligation, I held back. I was not the first one to arrive at the party. I did not call after a break-up. When Karen’s mom was diagnosed with cancer, I waited. But I may have waited too long.
When someone tells you to leave her alone, you comply. Especially when that person’s mother is dying, something no one has said explicitly, but it is strongly implied. Despite your instincts or concerns, you stay away. It would seem cruel otherwise.
But if you joke about obligation, it could mean the opposite; it could be a cry for attention. Or it could mean what it implies: you are welcome to come, but not too early, and don’t stay to clean up. With Karen, I could never be too sure which way she was leaning on any particular day.
Fran and I got her mother’s initial cancer diagnosis—and subsequent update—from Karen over text. It became her preferred method of communication, which was understandable. She could cry while typing. She could sit by her mother’s sleeping side and send updates. She could be as terse or verbose as she needed or wanted. Luckily she had upped her data plan before her mom’s diagnosis. I was always very careful with the amount I texted her, the memory of the time she chided me about my multiple texts, explaining her data plan could not support me. I felt as if my mom had slapped my hand but only after offering me cookies from the cookie jar.
Of course I wanted to call Karen. I wanted to call every day, but I didn’t. I held back. I checked in with Fran instead. “Have you heard from Karen?” She had not.
Instead I stalked Karen on Facebook and Instagram. She infrequently posted about her parents, given her natural private tendencies. Out of the three of us, Karen was the least dramatic, the most pragmatic, and the least likely to overshare—or even share. When she first started to date her now-husband, she casually informed us that she would share all her problems with him, not us, thank you very much. She made it clear that it was her and him, no longer her and us.
Her posts showed an otherwise happy family, daughters in swim meets, plays, concerts, horseback riding—and trips with other families, two in particular. That gutted me in a way that made me feel nineteen years old again. After years of living on opposite coasts, I finally found myself in the same state as two of my best friends. And one of them had dying mom and asked for space, yet seemed to be hanging out with everyone but me.
The three of us have seen each other through every major milestone in our adult lives. We hung out in Karen’s new condo the night before her wedding. We were bridesmaids for each other. They called me from their hospital beds after the birth of their first children, often waking me up in the dead of night. Karen was the second person I called (after my husband) when I unexpectedly went into labor. She drove straight to the hospital and stayed with me for hours until my husband could fly home. It was the most amazing thing anyone has ever done for me. I had always doubted her love for me throughout the years, but after that, to doubt would have been offensive. And when I returned home with my new bundle and a huge case of post-partum depression, she and Fran were waiting for me with food. They washed my dishes, folded my laundry, and helped me through my fog.
When I moved back East, I had fantasies of hanging out every weekend with my friends, becoming an aunt to their children and watching their kids become best friends with mine. Only part of that came true.
We managed to establish little traditions such as annual apple picking and group dinners and the like. As the kids grew older, we became busier. My children became invested in their school activities and I became head of the PTA. Still, we were never as busy as Karen seemed to be. Maybe it was because her children were older. Maybe it was because she was keeping up with the Jones, the Smiths, and the Reynolds. Whatever the reason, every query to meeting up was met with hesitation, a glance at the calendar, and then a litany of what they already had planned with other families. Sometimes we would get a “no” only to see that the week after, they had gone somewhere with someone else.
It was hard not to be jealous, especially when it seemed to be the same families. I found myself justifying the actions, but at some point, Fran plainly stated, “They don’t make time for us. It is just the way their life is.” Unlike me, Fran is accepting, calm, and Zen. Or maybe she already figured out what Karen needed and was waiting for me to get on board.
Instead I went on the defensive. I stopped making Karen and her family a priority, giving their time slot to new families in our community. I stopped asking if Karen wanted to join whenever we saw Fran’s family. It was easier to assume she was busy than to hear once again how she could not fit us into her schedule.
Her mom received a bone marrow transplant. She seemed to get better. Then she got worse. Then she did not leave the hospital at all.
The end came a little over two years later. I had received scant details: little bits I could glean from the occasional conversation. Maybe she thought she had told me. Maybe she did. I felt intrusive even asking how her mom was doing. Sometimes we had whole conversations about everything but her mom.
A couple of weeks into the new year I received a text from Karen’s husband, Sam. He said Karen had been by her mom’s side continuously; her brothers were flying in. The end was near. I waited by the phone for days. They said it would probably happen on Monday. Nothing. Tuesday passed. On Wednesday I texted Sam, not wanting to bother Karen. When I finally heard from Sam, her mom was gone. The funeral would be early next week.
My husband was out of town, and my sitter offered to stay late. I drove north to meet up with Fran and her husband Josh. I didn’t have to ask; Fran automatically waited for me in the parking lot to walk in together.
Karen and her brothers were standing by a white casket in the front with their father. I hadn’t seen them since her wedding almost fifteen years ago. I reintroduced myself, but they remembered me. Or if they didn’t, they faked it really well.
Karen smiled through her tears. She had curled her long hair and wore a very flattering dress that I learned later was on loan from a neighbor, who had marched into her house, like the Today Show ambush makeover with stack of garment bags. I had assumed Karen had the ubiquitous little black dress to wear with the standard black cardigan. I was startled to learn that she did not—and uncomfortable that I was learning about it so late in the game. We used to swap shoes and clothes all of the time in college. Karen’s friend Jane made some comment about how she wanted to bring dresses over, but her dresses would’ve been too large since she was so much taller than Karen, yet she should’ve known Karen needed a dress because she had been in Karen’s closet so much over the years, blah blah. Jane looked at me as she said this. I wanted to punch her in the mouth.
Josh and I hung out with Karen’s sisters-in-law and their children and Karen’s daughters in the back room. We made jokes, helped one of the girls find a lost earring, both of us uncomfortable with not knowing what to say or do. Probably more me than him, since Josh lost his own father ten years prior.
There was no eulogy, per Karen’s mom’s wishes. Just well-wishers gathered to pay respects to the family. The family invited everyone across the street for a Korean style wake. They had reserved several tables: older generation on one side, younger on the other. I sat with Fran and Josh with Sam’s friends and their wives, whom had become close to Karen; the group included Jane and their friend Mel. We had all known each other in some capacity since college. I love Korean food, so this was a treat, but today it felt wrong. I noticed both Sam and Karen picked at their food, glancing every so often at their daughters eating with their cousins at the next table. In comparison, Karen’s dad ate and drank, the onset of loneliness not fully felt until everyone left town a few days later.
It was Jane who reminded me of how much space I had given Karen—and that maybe I had given too much. Jane had known Karen almost as long as I have. They met the summer between our freshman and sophomore year of college at a Korean American program in Seoul and stayed in touch even though Jane was in Indiana and we were in Pennsylvania. It was during a time when Karen and I were on one of our “outs.”
As a result, there seemed to be an unspoken competition between Jane and me. I saw Jane an interloper, always trying to be closest to Karen, jealous of the bond Fran, Karen, and I shared—and making sure I knew it. In hindsight, we were both insecure, but at the time, she was annoying. I remember especially during Karen’s wedding, there was a showdown of sorts among the bridesmaids. Out of the five of us, only Jane had attended a different college. Jane, who had been chosen as the maid of honor because anything else was Sophie’s Choice, was in charge of the bridal shower. But two weeks prior, we still had yet to hear from her. As it turned out, Jane was on vacation and had arranged for a friend of hers to contact us, including soliciting money for a shower that we were sure had not been planned yet. Naturally the rest of us leapt into planning mode, and it resulted in many hurt feelings; Jane went on the defensive, and we wondered why she just didn’t tell us about her plans and ask us to help. In the end, we all agreed to keep this from Karen, least the poor bride become more stressed. We college pals did not want Karen to feel badly that her besties were fighting, but Jane told her everything the minute Karen returned from her honeymoon. Jane explained she wanted to be transparent. I said she wanted to cover her ass.
I always suspected Jane wanted to fit in, desperately. She dated two of Karen’s good friends and later went on to marry one of Sam’s best friends. There was always an unspoken competition between the two of us: who knew Karen better. At Karen’s mom’s funeral, she was winning. And she let me know it. After all, she was not the one who gave Karen so much space that I was practically shouting over the chasm.
Karen’s recollections started small. Soon they increased in page count, emotion and frequency. They became missives with an agency of their own. I had reminded her of the memoir type narrative she had sent me two months after her first daughter was born. She had been in the throes of post-partum depression, something I hadn’t realized when I was childless and living in California at the time. A couple of weeks after her mother was laid to rest, I sent Karen what she had written. She obviously remembered the events, but not writing it—or even sending it to me.
Each of her emails carried the weight of grief mixed with the pressure of moving forward and holding her remaining family together. She didn’t want me to respond, just wanted to send it out there, she said. It was another variation of “don’t feel obligated.” I tried to say something each time my mailbox filled up, a penny for her thoughts, a wish for peace, but I knew she wouldn’t want something long. So I kept it short. In some cases, I said nothing at all.
The most recent missive chronicled her mother’s last days. I couldn’t read it—at first. I started to, but by then I had moved back to Seattle, a place that had unhappy memories, and I was mourning the wonderful life I had smashed in order to chase some dream of extended family that probably would never come to fruition. I couldn’t handle any more sadness. Seeing my sons’ faces filled with disappointment and longing was already too much.
When I finally made myself read Karen’s most recent email, I knew it would be the last of its kind. It was not only the last of her mother, but Karen’s way of purging those feelings to make room for her father’s growing complexities. Perhaps that is why I resisted reading it. Or maybe I was just being a bad friend. I told myself this was space. I was giving her space. Or maybe I was withholding to punish her for pushing me away. When I finally read it, it was raw, but very detailed. Calm, a little haphazard, but very Karen. It was straightforward, chronically. I read it and felt ashamed. Sorry that I still had a mother and Karen did not. Ashamed that I was not there for her. Angry that others were there instead. Bitter that they knew what was going on and I did not because I had been asked to give her space. Did others not give her space? Or maybe she only wanted space from me?
Grief is a funny thing, but one can say that about friendships as well, especially the long, old kind that never forgets, always forgives, and is ever-changing. I don’t know the depths of Karen’s grief; there is no way for me to know. I understand there is a mother-shaped hole in her being, a devastation that she will never recover from. She will instead find a way to live with it, alongside it, accept it as a part of her new life.
There are other things she is accepting too, some better than others. Some welcome, most often not. When I sat down with Karen at a diner somewhere between our homes on a rainy summer day, two weeks before I left for Seattle, I wanted to ask her about us. But only an asshole would be so petty to bother a grieving person. Yet, here I was about to embark on my own journey of grief, mourning the happy life I had created that I was about to leave behind.
Strangely enough Karen had a story about three neighborhood friends who had been close, but were now feuding. Choosing one over the other, friends who had been together for thirty years. They sounded very much like us. In the parking lot, I asked tearfully if she thought that applied to us.
“Are you worried that will happen?” she asked incredulously. I don’t know why she was surprised. She knows me well enough that I would worry about this. She hugged me. “No! That’s not going to happen.”
You could say we’ve been friends for too long. You could throw every cliché in the book at us and say it applies. But it’s true. We have been friends too long for this, but space is also the nature of old friends.
What does one say when one reads her friend’s broken heart on the page? I couldn’t ask Karen out for coffee. I couldn’t help her choose flowers to plant on her mother’s grave. I couldn’t bring her a casserole. I was already—physically—so far away.
I had asked Karen to be my oldest son’s godmother, a position she gladly accepted. After we moved to Seattle, she flew out for a whirlwind weekend to participate in the ceremony. It was rainy, but that did little to dampen our spirits. The baptism ceremony was lovely, and the dinner after was lively. Karen and I stayed up late at night to talk and talk and talk. Drink tea and talk. It was then I had my friendship epiphany.
Apparently I wasn’t the only person who felt Karen had abandoned them. Jane and their friend Mel had felt slighted over pretty silly reasons. Karen had missed a few of their outings and they felt rejected. They were being petty and jealous. Karen felt defensive and exhausted.
I practically shouted that they’re the ones who see her all of the time, but I should have realized that social media lies. They were the ones posting about the amazing times they had. Karen’s priorities—her daughters, her husband, her father—hadn’t changed. All of us had misread her, horribly.
It turns out that space was what Karen needed. And wanted. She was thankful that I had given that to her, to allow her to navigate this new, unwelcome existence without her mother.
Karen left Seattle with an uncertain future and I watched her go, worried about her, but I felt the most secure in our friendship ever. So now I call her. I call Fran. We text, sometimes we group text. Sometimes Karen calls me. And we never ever mention obligation.
J. LIN has been a twice resident fellow at Hedgebrook and a waiter at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. Her work has appeared in the book Philly Fiction, SoapNet.com, ABC.com, Seattle Weekly, MetroKids Magazine, York Daily Dispatch, AsianAvenue.com, haveuheard.net, and forthcoming in 2017 Women of Color Anthology: All the Women in My Family Sing. She was also part of the Emmy-winning writers’ team at “One Life to Live.” She lives in Seattle with her husband and two sons.
I already loved the desert before I’d met Mike. I’d been seduced during a long weekend a few years earlier, when I’d accompanied a friend to a wedding. I hadn’t paid much attention to the church ceremony, distracted by the spectacle of the San Jacinto mountains looming out the tall windows. Hours later, in the midst of the reception at a tony Palm Desert resort, I’d escaped the ballroom and swirling DJ lights to walk outside. Strolling alone across the dark golf course, the hot, dry breeze instantly calmed the restless want that so marked my early twenties, offered up the same release and luxurious solitude as sinking into a hot bath. I didn’t want to return to the party; I fantasized instead how I might arrange to stay behind when my friend drove back to L.A.
After returning home, my imagination kept returning to the desert. I wrote a short story about a woman who lived alone in a trailer on the outskirts of a grove of date palms. The wind blew at night, and the woman lay alone in bed, trying to decipher the curses and premonitions told in the clatter of palm fronds.
I truly fell for the desert while riding shotgun in Mike’s black Cadillac. On a summer afternoon, we left his little ranch house in Orange County and headed east on the 60 freeway through traffic. His mother and younger sister, visiting from Oregon, rode in the backseat of the secondhand Caddy. Mike had grown up in Cathedral City, the shabbier eastern neighbor of Palm Springs, where his family had relocated when he was still in grade school. They’d followed in the footsteps of Mike’s maternal grandparents, who’d preceded them by a few years.
As soon as we exited the freeway to approach the Palm Springs city limits, Mike tuned the radio to KWXY, a station he said had been on the air forever. We drove down the main drag of Palm Canyon Drive, past shops and restaurants, the sidewalks nearly empty of tourists in the low season. We rode in silence, except for the radio. The station’s playlist consisted of the music one might associate with the desert’s huge population of golf-cart driving retirees: lush instrumentals, choral groups like the Ray Coniff Singers, and a sprinkling of mid-century pop standards. In short, KWXY played “beautiful music.”
When I’d first met Mike, he’d sported a long ponytail, cowboy boots, and a Metallica t-shirt. A later inspection of his large CD collection revealed mostly metal and guitar rock, but my fingers occasionally tripped over Kraftwerk, Neil Diamond, or ’80s funk, artists hinting at deeper complexities than his headbanger image suggested. I also often sported cowboy boots, pairing them with cut-offs and shirts knotted at my waist, a nod to my solidarity to both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thelma and Louise. I didn’t fancy myself a good match for Mike, or for anyone, and had warned him of such. And yet here we were, nearly a year into our romance, cruising his home turf with his mom and listening to more music I’d never have guessed he enjoyed.
KWXY had been the preferred station of Mike’s grandparents. Not so long before, they’d been an extremely active couple, using all the amenities of their gated mobile home community—the golf course and tennis courts, the themed dinners and bridge luncheons. We were there primarily to visit those grandparents, who’d remained in the desert long after Mike’s parents had decamped for the drastically opposite climate of Oregon. His grandmother was now in the later stages of dementia and had been moved to a nursing home.
This would be my first time meeting any of Mike’s grandparents; I’d met his immediate family only months earlier. Mike had invited me along on this journey to his home turf as a matter of course, but I worried how his mother, Brenda, felt about my presence. Unlike me, Mike was something of a serial monogamist. For all his parents knew, I was just another girlfriend who’d disappear a couple more years down the road.
Brenda had booked us all into The Riviera, one of many older Palm Springs establishments claiming itself a former Rat Pack hangout. It was a sprawling hotel with faded carpets and a parrot in its tropical-themed lobby.
That night, after taking his reluctant grandpa out to dinner at a noisy chain restaurant, Mike and I lounged nearly naked on the private balcony off our room. It was late evening, but still well over ninety degrees. As with my previous wedding visit years before, my nerves were soothed by the heat as we chatted over a shared bag of melting M&Ms. Date beetles buzzed a shrill hum in the pepper and palm trees.
Our balcony faced west, toward the mountains; I could make out their silhouetted peaks against the dark sky. Mike pointed up, directing my eyes to a bright light near the top of the tallest mountain. He explained that it came from the tram station, over 8,500 feet up on Mt. San Jacinto. During the day tourists rode on gondolas suspended over a canyon of treetops and jagged boulders while steel cables pulled them thousands of feet up the mountain. The tram ride closed at sunset, but the station light remained on all night. Its beam winked down on us, a low-hanging star.
The next morning we visited Mike’s grandma at her nursing home. I was already awkward around his family—my answers to his mom and sister’s questions alternately too complicated or flippant—so I retreated into the role of silent bystander. In the large greeting room the family crouched in turn before Barbara in her wheelchair, a frail woman with spun sugar hair who didn’t recognize any of them, who possessed barely the faintest spark of sentience.
Perhaps this was my first solid clue that if I stayed with Mike, my only relationship that had lasted more than two months, there would be more than fun times ahead. Of course I knew that, but at twenty-five, I only barely believed it. All of my grandparents were still alive and comparatively healthy, as were my parents. So far they’d dodged the trauma of true illness or infirmity. Before me was solid evidence of the not-fun times: a trim, gruff man who woke alone each morning, who drove his sedan each afternoon to a low-slung beige complex to sit beside his silent wife. He helped her to eat when lunch was brought around; tried to keep her upright when she slumped over in her wheelchair. This was his life now, and he seemed irritated by his family’s gentle suggestions that he might want to go, try, or be anywhere else.
After our visit, we left the grandparents at the nursing home (Mike’s grandpa refused to join us for lunch) and drove to their gated mobile home park. I was struck by how their home was caught in time, preserving a specific flavor of elderly loneliness. The yellow stack of National Geographic spines on the coffee table were several years old. Beside them was a current TV Guide and a remote control for the small TV in the wicker entertainment center. On the matching end table sat a box of Kleenex, a pair of reading glasses. Out the sliding glass door was a tree heavy with grapefruit, out another window a glimpse of mountain tops popped against the sky.
Brenda and Mike’s sister, Liz, tackled some light cleaning, and I offered to help but was kindly rebuffed. It was a small home, uncluttered by much of the past. Yet in the kitchen I yelped in pleasure over the wall clock. Around its yellow face, twelve fives, one for every hour, ringed a martini glass with two speared olives. Across its stem, a curvy font proclaimed Cocktail Hour. Mike recalled how his grandparents used to celebrate cocktail hour every evening, how in their old, larger house with a pool, they’d sit with matching drinks, rattling the ice cubes in their highballs. He also remembered visits to his grandparents after they’d downsized to the senior community, of after-dinner constitutionals, the whole family enlisted to walk the green belts and circular streets, past the pastel mobile homes and white rock yards.
After my outburst at the clock, after Mike’s story, the quiet resumed. The house was so quiet; the neighborhood was so quiet, save for the hum of air conditioners and pool filters. The whole city felt stricken in the glare of noonday sun, hermetically sealed beneath the dome of cloudless blue sky.
Later, we drove again through town on a nostalgia tour. Mike cruised slowly past his family’s old house, describing for my benefit how the front yard used to be much nicer, with a koi pond and tiny bridge built by his dad. Those features were gone, ripped out for an expanse of dying lawn. We drove past his old junior high and elementary school, past the Jack-In-the-Box on Highway 111 where he worked his first job.
From the backseat, Brenda and Liz remarked often at how the area had grown, at the big box stores and strip malls populating what had been a small town with limited shopping. The Cadillac turned left and right, down streets that used to dead-end onto swaths of open desert. In grade school, Mike and his best friend had wandered the desert for hours, encountering snakes and scorpions, abandoned cars, and once, a dead horse. Most of those dead-end streets were now paved through to the next intersection. They continued for long blocks, crossing wide boulevards named for celebrities who’d once been residents: Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Fred Waring, Gerald Ford.
On a corner lot sat a small building with a tall radio tower, the station offices of KWXY. It was the top of the hour; through the car speakers came a burst of harp strings in an ascending stream of notes. It was time for the weather: 104 degrees, a drop from the afternoon high of 107.
A year later, on another trip to the desert, Mike proposed in a dark restaurant, scooting out the leatherette booth to drop to one knee. We didn’t know it then, but Billy Reed’s was something of a kitsch favorite, known for its bordello-pink décor and prime rib specials favored by the Early Bird crowd. Later, after I’d said yes, after the waitress had brought flutes of champagne, we sat out on our hotel balcony facing the mountains, somnolent and happy in the scorching August night, below the tram station’s steady beam.
That was twenty years ago.
Thanks to the internet, in recent years Mike and I often tuned into the live-streaming broadcast of KWXY whenever either of us felt our own specific yen for Palm Springs. For though we live only ninety minutes west, our manicured suburban town feels a world away from the desert and its particular charms. Like any place, it has changed over the years. The Riviera shut its doors, re-opening as a party hotel dripping in Hollywood Regency glamour. Housing prices have climbed, thanks to the renewed appreciation of mid-century architecture. And KWXY, after weathering ownership changes and flipping between AM and FM frequencies, has succumbed to the pressures of twenty-first-century corporate radio. In 2015, it changed for good, becoming, for now, MOD FM. Its playlist still consists of old standards, though too often interpreted by Michael Bublé or Rod Stewart rather than Frank and Dino; the lush instrumentals are mostly gone. Completely vanished are the harp strings signaling the top of the hour, along with the wintertime reading of news from Canada, geared toward the seasonal snowbirds.
“Every day,” he tells me. It’s a thing he says, a reminder when I despair over the passing years, over wrinkles and grays, when I wake to a suffocating dread that blankets me some mornings. This is how much he loves me, then. He will sit with me, feed me, wipe away the pudding dribbling down my chin. “Just like my grandpa,” Mike says. “I’ll be there every day.”
I sock my husband on the arm and tell him to shut the hell up. I have zero interest in living out some West Coast version of The Notebook, and buried within me is that single girl who doesn’t need anyone, who still imagines that solitary trailer beneath the date palms. But my husband is steadfast, as his grandpa was steadfast. His grandparents live on as symbol for Mike, as he insists he’ll remain at my side, no matter what. Is that a promise, or a threat? I joke. We have been married forever; we repeat the same lines often.
I sock him, he holds me close; we hold dear our someday dream of maybe moving a little further east, out to Palm Springs or some other desert community in the Coachella Valley. We’ll sit in the brilliant nighttime heat and never have to say goodbye to the view of those tall brown mountains, the tram light shining from its high perch. Until then, we play harried parents to our middle and high school-aged kids, pay the mortgage and crack dark jokes in our kitchen. Above us, hung high on the wall, the Cocktail Hour clock and its ring of fives ticks the seconds slow and thick, a reminder that forever is all in context, fifty years, twenty years, a life.
KELLY SHIRE writes about family and life as a third-generation native of Los Angeles county. Recent work has appeared in Hippocampus, Angels Flight/Literary West, and the Seal Press anthology Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping. She lives in Temecula, California, with her husband and children, and can be found online at kellyshire.com.