These Five Hours

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

Steve and I head to bed at the same time in the same room with our two dogs. We kiss each other goodnight, assure each other of our love, and close our eyes to attend to our thoughts and memories, our worries and eventually our dreams. Steve has worn a CPAP since I’ve known him because he suffers from sleep apnea, and if he didn’t wear the hose and nose pillow that pushes forced air into his system as he sleeps, he might stop breathing and die.

We haven’t always slept in the same room. Only in the last three years, since we moved into the new house, have we been able to manage it. In the old house, the sound of the CPAP combined with the white noise machine Steve required to sleep was too much for me. I slept in a different room, in what I thought of as my own bed. I tried not to notice that these arrangements were exactly like the arrangements my mother had with my stepfather. As an adult, I recalled the times my mother would go into Warren’s room at night for a spell and then come back out to the couch-turned-bed she slept in every night. It embarrasses me to remember those times, even now, thirty years later. What did they do with Warren’s wooden leg?

When Steve and I moved into the new house, we got rid of the clunky old white noise machine, which wasn’t actually a white noise machine but an air purifier, and replaced it with a small, more reasonable white noise machine. We got a bigger bed. We put a white noise machine next to my side of the bed. And somehow we made it work. We all four slept in the same room. And it felt right.

But in the last year or so, it has stopped working. Ever since Steve came home from the hospital after his gallbladder surgery, something about the CPAP machine has been off. The hissing sound it makes is unbearable. We’ll fall asleep at the same time, but inevitably, I’ll wake up around twelve-thirty or one to use the bathroom and when I return, the hissing sound makes it impossible for me to fall asleep. I say his name to wake him, scaring the shit out of him in the process. He tells me I’m going to give him a heart attack. I tell him he’s going to kill me with that goddamn hissing. “Just adjust the nose piece, please.” He adjusts it. I roll over in bed. Ten seconds later it’s hissing again.

I tell my friend Hillary that if I ever do end up murdering my husband, my entire defense will consist of me imitating the CPAP hissing sound in court while others are trying to speak. I will drive everybody so crazy that they’ll find me not guilty. Psssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh. Take a breath. Psssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh. Repeat until they set me free.

•••

More than once Steve has told me this story: when he was a teenager on vacation at Myrtle Beach with his family, his mom vetoed his choice in a tee-shirt shop on the boardwalk. He wanted one that said, “The Ayatollah is a Assaholla.” (This was in June, 1980, at the height of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, so Steve had good reason to believe in the Ayatollah’s Assaholla-ness.) Interestingly enough, his mom didn’t have a problem with his getting one that said, “Football players do it in the end zone.”

For years, until so recently that I’m embarrassed to tell you, I thought that tee-shirt was ridiculous because, really, what a stupid pun. Oooh, a play on the words do it. So immature. And then a week or so ago, we got back on the subject of that story and I said something along the lines of how silly this shirt was. “Remember, I was barely sixteen,” Steve reminds me.

“I know, but still. You mom thinks it’s perfectly okay to get you a t-shirt with a really juvenile reference to sex but not one about the Ayatollah, who really was an assaholla. And besides, what does it even mean: football players do it in the end zone? Do they run into the end zone and suddenly celebrate by doing it right then and there?”

“I think it’s more about doing it in the end zone, you know, like anal sex?”

Pause.

“Oh my god. You mean that end zone?” And the uncontrollable laughter begins. I’m dying. I fall over on the couch. I can barely catch my breath, but when I am finally able to, I manage to spit out, “Your mother let you get a tee-shirt about anal sex but not about the Ayatollah?”

“I don’t think she realized it was about anal sex.”

“Did you?”

“Not until a few years ago.”

My stomach hurts from laughing so hard, so I cannot reply. Minutes pass.

I never met Steve’s mother. She died years before I met Steve, but what I do know about her is that she was unhappy. She did not delight in being a mother, she did not delight in Steve, and she rarely demonstrated affection toward him. I do not think I would have enjoyed meeting her. His father, though, was one of my favorite people on this earth. Kind-hearted, warm, funny, empathetic, and unashamed to eat blueberry pie with each meal because otherwise I or Steve might get to it first.

Finally, I find my voice. “What made you realize it was about anal sex?”

“I don’t know. I think I was telling someone the story and it just dawned on me.”

I don’t know how to write laughter. I don’t know how to tell you that my stomach hurt so badly from my laughing so hard at the absurdity of it all. Maybe it wasn’t that the story was all that funny. Maybe it had been too long since I’d had that kind of full-body laugh. Maybe my body needed that kind of embodied emotional experience.

“You do realize, of course, that that tee-shirt could very well be interpreted as being about gay sex, right?”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t the Ayatollah.”

•••

When I crawl into the bed in the guest room, the one with the memory foam mattress, I always squint at the clock to check the time. It’s usually between one and two a.m., which means I have about five hours before I need to get up. These five hours, I think. These five hours have to get me through.

Lately I’ve been noticing when I adjust myself in this bed, rolling over onto my stomach, that my left hip hurts. When I get out of bed in the morning, I have to take an extra second or two because of the pain.

•••

The few times I can remember an adult asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I can remember responding that I wanted to be either a fireman (masculine pronoun) or Little Red Riding Hood. I clearly had a thing for running into, not away from, danger.

•••

I teach undergraduate courses in rhetorical theory and the personal essay regularly, and one of the things I find myself telling students outright again and again, even though I know on some level that it is something they must learn for themselves from experience, is that the louder a person declares their strength or their smarts, the weaker or the less intelligent they actually are. A person who is strong or intelligent doesn’t need to announce her strength or her intelligence, I tell them. Pay attention to the quiet ones. They’re the strong ones.

I do this because I want to give students the benefit of knowing what, for years, I did not understand. I believed that the people in my life who shouted the loudest, “I’m strong, I’m strong, I’m strong!” actually were strong, and that I, who could never declare such a thing about myself, was weak.

When I tell students this, I characterize it as one of Dr. Robillard’s life rules.

•••

At first I attributed the hip pain to all the walking I do with our dogs, Wrigley and Essay. I’ve always walked a lot, even before I adopted my first dog in grad school, and the daily routine with the dogs now is two walks a day. A shorter one in the morning and a longer one in the late afternoon. I probably mentioned the pain to Steve once or twice, but even I will acknowledge that I’m a bit of the girl-who-cried-wolf when it comes to pointing out problems with my body. Having grown up in an abusive home, I have low expectations for this life and I’ve long been on the lookout for the thing that will kill me young. A particularly tenacious pimple becomes, in my telling, terminal cancer, and an upset stomach that lasts more than a couple hours is surely the first sign of stomach cancer. It is not, I am always reassuring Steve, that I want to die, but that I expect to die. It is hard for me to imagine a future for myself that stretches out very far. I understand now that people who have been abused know exactly what I’m talking about, and people who have not do not. People who have grown up in secure homes believe that I am a simply a pessimist or a hypochondriac because that is the easiest way of categorizing my beliefs.

But then one Saturday, the pain got significantly worse. It hurt to stand, it hurt to walk, it hurt to simply exist. I could feel my left lower abdominal area throbbing when I lay my hand on it. Eventually I began to limp. Steve walked the dogs on Sunday. I told him that if the pain persisted, I would see if I could get in to see the doctor on Monday. I began researching ovarian cancer symptoms.

When I was twenty-one, I had a very large ovarian cyst removed. We had discovered it in April, but my doctor had told me it would be okay to wait until I had graduated from college in late May and moved back home to do the surgery. By that time, though, the cyst I had named Henrietta had become impossible to remove by laser surgery, so they had to cut me open once she ruptured. I was in the hospital, miserable, for three days.

Now, at the age of forty-four, I had all the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Abdominal bloating or swelling. Check. Quickly feeling full when eating. Kind of. Discomfort in the pelvis area. Check. Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation. Not really. A frequent need to urinate. Always.

On Monday, the pain was worse. My primary care doctor listened as I told her that the pain had been there for at least a month, but I thought it was my hip. I could hear myself, could feel the narrative forming around my words as I spoke. You waited more than a month to see a doctor?

I pointed out where the pain was and she smiled. “That’s not your hip.”

“Yeah, I’ve figured that out by now.”

She ordered a pelvic ultrasound and told me that it could be another cyst. But she wanted to get this ultrasound done quickly, this week if possible.

“And then,” I’m telling Hillary on the phone, “she starts talking very quickly about how it could also be an abdominal muscle strain, but we both know she’s just talking to talk so that she doesn’t have to say the truth that we both know. This is ovarian cancer.”

•••

There is a feeling I get that I’m not sure I can do justice to in words, when I or those close to me are on the cusp of something dreaded. Where others might wish to run away, I want to run in, for I am most comfortable, I think, in the midst of suffering and pain. I want to hear others’ stories of suffering and pain. I want to see how they deal with it, how they cope. I am eager to live through the drama, if only to emerge on the other side with more strength, even if it’s only vicarious strength. Surviving dreaded situations is the only way I know how to develop strength.

•••

The results of the pelvic ultrasound were delayed. My doctor was supposed to get the results that same afternoon, a Tuesday. I didn’t hear back from her office until Wednesday morning. During that time, from about noon on Tuesday, after the ultrasound—when the head of ultrasound took what seemed like hundreds of pictures of my innards, sighed deeply, and wouldn’t look into my eyes—until Wednesday morning, I considered how I might react to a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

And I surprised myself. I was actually afraid. I could tell that Hillary, the friend who has known me the longest, the friend who understands best my attitude toward life and death, the friend who also expected to be dead by now—she, too, was afraid.

I was afraid but I was resolved. I would do what I had to do. Steve offered to take time off from work to come to the doctor with me if she called and said she needed to see me (she had told me that she would only call me in only if it were bad news). I told Steve that he should save his time off for later, when things got real.

When things got real.

I think it’s time to get real. Rebecca Solnit, one of my favorite writers, says that “liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”

It feels dangerous to admit that I enjoy my life and I want to continue living. It feels like I am being unfaithful to my story to acknowledge that I can imagine a future for myself. I want so badly, I have for so long wanted so badly, to look straight at reality rather than squeezing my life into the narratives our culture offers us. Narratives of overcoming or narratives of triumph. Bullshit narratives. I cherish the personal essay because it insists that I run right in. Jonathan Franzen writes that the essayist “has to be like the firefighter, whose job, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, is to run straight into them.” I can do that! I can look at the ugly, the shameful, the painful. I know I can!

But can I change the story? Can I acknowledge that I want to continue to live?

•••

Steve’s mother didn’t want to buy him a t-shirt that simplified a complicated political situation, so she let him get one with a juvenile sex joke instead. Who knows what her intentions were? It’s easy enough to change that story.

I’m forty-four years old and I’m just now realizing that maybe I want to continue to live. I’ve been afraid of admitting this because I’m afraid it will be taken from me. So much safer to say that I’m not afraid of dying, that I’ve got nothing to lose.

I’m coming to see that all this time I’ve been saying that it’s okay if I die young, that I don’t want or expect to live a long time, that I am not afraid to die, I was voicing my actual fears of dying in ways that could be heard and responded to by others. Maybe what I’ve been saying all along about the people who proclaim the loudest that they are strong actually being weak has been true of me all along, too: my proclaiming for years that I am not afraid to die and that I don’t expect to live a long time is evidence, in fact, that I am afraid.

Somewhere along the way I began to expect things from this life. And I allowed myself to accept that I expect things.

That is risky.

•••

Steve is easy to buy for. Lately I’ve taken to buying him tee-shirts with funny sayings on them. If it were up to him, he would wear shorts year-round, so I bought him a tee-shirt that says, “If I have to put on pants, then NO.” For Christmas one year, I bought him a tee-shirt that says, “Please don’t make me do stuff,” but he is dismayed that when he wears it, I still ask him to do things. And one of my recent favorites is the one that says, “I was told there would be cake.” I tell him he can wear that one whenever I make him go somewhere he doesn’t want to go. He can just point to his shirt and look around the room expectantly.

There’s a part of me, a part that is steadily atrophying, that believes that I deserve pain. Or rather, a part that believes that I don’t deserve good things. I’m beginning to understand that these beliefs are vestiges of an old story, one that began so very long ago in other people’s pain, but one that I now have control over. That control is not simple authorial control, the kind that allows me to open a file on a computer and delete a few words here, a couple paragraphs there and, voila, a new story emerges. Rather, the control comes in the willingness to reinterpret the stories that have been fossilized, the ones we think we know.

The pelvic ultrasound found uterine fibroids, but they aren’t causing the pain. They’re relatively small, but I didn’t know that right away. From Wednesday, when I learned about the fibroids, through Friday morning, when I learned that they weren’t the cause of the pain, I imagined a huge red slimy fibroid about to rupture on my left side. I could feel it throbbing. I was afraid to bend over to pick anything up for fear it would rupture. Once I learned that the biggest fibroid is only three centimeters and that the pain is probably coming from a pulled muscle, I could no longer feel the throbbing. I walked the dogs more carefully, holding both leashes with my right hand instead of my left.

The last time I ordered Steve a tee-shirt for his birthday, I ordered one for myself, too. “I just want to pet dogs and throw the sexists into the sun. Is that so much to ask,” it reads. It’s really not so much to ask.

I think I expect more.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD teaches writing at Illinois State University and essays regularly for Full Grown People. She and her husband are the guardians of two special mutts, one named Wrigley Field and one named Essay.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

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When the World Bends

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

Content warning: suicide. —ed.

By Amber Wong

Before the big splash, Elizabeth and I eased our sculling shells into the water and breathed deep the cool morning air. Fifty-four degrees, no wind: perfect Seattle weather for a Fourth of July row. Perfect timing, too. We’d be on the water at six-thirty and back before eight, so we’d beat the rush of pleasure boats—and their butt-soaking wakes—as they crowded into Lake Union for the night’s premier event, the 2017 Seafair Summer Fourth fireworks show. Up at Gas Works Park, where grassy mounds hid tons of hazardous waste that few Seattleites knew about, people would already be spreading out blankets, ready to wait out the day.

Overhead, high clouds began to blur and fade, turning blue skies even bluer, while freeway traffic rumbled across the Interstate-5 Ship Canal Bridge. Just beyond our dock, the narrow bend of water linking the lake to the bay smoothed out like a fan, rippling lightly at the edges. Conditions couldn’t be better, I thought, as I settled into a shell barely wider than my hips. My fingers tripped lightly along the dock edge as I readied to launch.

“To the Cut?” Elizabeth called out above the traffic din, and I nodded. The Montlake Cut, a crucial navigation link between the fresh water of Lake Washington and the salt water of Puget Sound, is the gateway to the University of Washington’s crew training course. Along the way we’d pass under two drawbridges that carried car, bike, and pedestrian traffic.

As I slid into the shadow of the Montlake Bridge, I felt my chest tighten. I stared at the stern of my boat, refusing to watch the parade of feet and undercarriages undulating overhead. My shoulders tensed when something—water? bird poop?—dripped on my cap. But I kept my hands loose. The moment I emerged back into sunlight, my lungs reopened. I gulped at the fresh rush of air.

Even after eight years, rowing under bridges still spooked me. I could almost ignore the steady drone of tires across the University Bridge’s steel deck grate, but not the teeth-clenching ka-chunk ka-CHUNK under the Montlake Bridge. The irregular thump of tires hitting uneven bridge joints, amplified by the concrete walls of the Montlake Cut, thundered in my head like a runaway train. But Elizabeth and I had an understanding. Over the years she’d talked me through enough rough water that I trusted her implicitly. In her encouraging banter—Relax your grip, I’ll never let you fall in—I heard a deadly serious promise.

Legs pumping, I pressed hard, pausing briefly to enjoy the blue heron standing, in perfect profile, on a rock outcrop. Overhead, our resident bald eagle—his light and dark plumage unmistakably outlined against blue sky—circled slowly, fishing for his next meal. When I reached the mouth of the lake, I lifted my oars and glided next to Elizabeth. We spun our boats and reached for our water bottles.

“Mountain’s not out today,” she announced, nodding to the south. Mount Rainier sat cloaked in clouds. A typical day.

Water traffic was picking up as we headed west back to the boathouse. As we approached the Montlake Cut, two motorboats overtook us, kicking up a wake. “Slow down,” we yelled, and in a rare bit of courtesy, they did. Emerging from the Montlake Cut, we skimmed past a cluster of rowers awaiting instructions from their coach. When we cruised into home stretch, we pulled to out of the boat lane and angled our boats south toward the dock. Under the roar of the bridge, we watched for east-west cross-traffic and waited for our turn to sprint the last forty feet across the waterway.

Elizabeth went first. Dashing south between a westbound motorboat and an eastbound eight-person shell, she approached the dock, then slowed to let another woman in a single scull and a standing paddleboarder cross in front of her. I watched over my shoulder, waiting for my opening.

Suddenly, just off the corner of the dock, I saw a huge splash. Heard a deep WHUMP. Waves burst from that point like an underwater depth charge, rebounding off the dock, colliding in a wild interference pattern. Barely five feet away, the sculler and paddleboarder struggled to keep from capsizing. Elizabeth, caught in the erratic water, quickly braced her oars.

What was that? I scanned the shoreline for clues. It was too big and too loud to be a coxswain, who by tradition gets tossed off the dock by teammates after a race. Even a hefty dog would never plunge that deep. As a dark, motionless blob slowly broke the water surface, I bit my lip to keep from gagging. Here was a person, prone and still, and the only place they could have come from was the Ship Canal Bridge, 182 feet overhead.

Disbelief paralyzed me. A suicide jumper? Here? Amidst the fractured waves I strained to see signs of life while my thoughts bounced like a rain squall on granite. They’re blocking my way to the dock! Can I slip by and not try to help? But if I take my hands off my oars I’ll flip over. Without a life jacket I could drown! Must I risk myself for a stranger who is trying to commit suicide? What’s my responsibility here?

Frantic shouts cut the terrible silence. “What was that? Some fireworks?”

“A cherry bomb? Who threw it!?”

“Oh my god, it’s a person! Who knows CPR?”

“I do,” said Elizabeth. “But…”

“Jump in and do CPR!”

A coaching launch zoomed by. I took a few strokes closer and saw no movement, then lost courage and gave the blob a wide berth. The launch slowed and stopped, drifting in the water for what seemed like minutes. Suddenly it made a tight U-turn and roared in close. Had the rowing coach seen something fall? Had she quickly deduced the horror of what had happened? Alone, on her knees, she leaned down to drag the limp body aboard but couldn’t get enough leverage. Still she held on, struggling to keep the person’s head above water.

From way too close a megaphone voice boomed, “Get out of the way!” I looked up in alarm as a crew team and its coach rounded the corner and bore down on us. Couldn’t they see the coaching launch? I couldn’t flag them down so I yelled for them to stop. They didn’t. I wasn’t lined up with the dock, but I took a big stroke so they wouldn’t hit me broadside. Someone on the dock reached out, grabbed my oar, and reeled me in. I cursed at the coach as he raced by.

Sirens wailed from both shores and from mid-channel, growing louder and louder, finally converging on this spot. Blue police lights flashed on the far shore, red fire truck lights on ours. Medics came running to our dock as a speeding Seattle Harbor Patrol boat cut its siren and pulled alongside the rescue launch. Within a minute the Harbor Patrol moved the body to the dock on the opposite side. Three—or was it four or five?—Seattle police officers stood ready. We crowded the edge of our dock but by then the rescue was shielded from view. Behind us, unsuspecting rowers carried their shells out of the boathouse and slid them into the water. The world had bent in a handful of minutes.

What else could we do? Nothing made sense. In a fog we wiped down our boats, put away our oars. As Elizabeth and I left the boathouse fifteen minutes later, another rower approached with an update.

“He’s alive. His eyes were open and he was breathing.”

Elizabeth and I sighed in relief. But I hated myself for my gut instinct for wondering, for how long?

“He was swinging a hatchet on the I-5 freeway. Drivers yelled at him to stop. He lost control of the hatchet. It dropped just before he did.”

•••

At sixteen I was an Explorer Scout, a division of the Boy Scouts. In 1972, Explorer troops were supposed to be all-male, but my friends and I exploited a loophole to start a co-ed troop of Medical Explorers. We scheduled lots of lectures and field trips because several dads, including mine, were doctors with connections. We even got to volunteer in our hospital’s emergency room. During one evening shift, I pressed fist-sized wads of sterile gauze on a motorcyclist’s leg as he lay moaning on a hallway gurney, then watched a doctor pull glass out of a screaming kid’s foot. I peeked around nurses and doctors as a silent Code Blue was whisked in and pumped for an hour before being wheeled to the morgue.

When the hospital pathologist invited us to watch an autopsy, I thought, oh, just another activity. But when I asked Dad to sign my permission slip, he shook his head.

His eyes were steel. He growled, “I don’t recommend it. That’s not something you want to see. Not at your age.” I was still hopeful, thinking, that’s not a flat denial. As if he’d read my mind, he continued, “I’m warning you for your own good!” His tone dropped ominously. “Because once you see it, you can never unsee it.”

•••

Two hours later, Elizabeth texted me. Feels a little surreal, huh?

I was home drinking coffee, eating a bagel, deciding whether to try to remember or try to forget. Turns out that’s a false choice.

I texted back. Yes. How are you doing?

Feels odd to just go on with your day. Concerned for the person of course. But it was a really close call for all of us. Need to just sit a bit.

Exactly. I’m still sitting.

Alone in my sunlit kitchen, I set down my coffee and choked back the sour in my throat. Elizabeth’s comment put me on edge. Right after the awful splash, my thoughts had flown to the jumper: How can I help? Will he survive? But in the silence of home I focused on me and my tribe, the rowers on the water. In one blind moment we could have been killed. We were open and unprotected. Any heavy mass from 182 feet—an errant chunk of concrete, a thrown backpack or garbage bag, a one-hundred-sixty pound person—would crush like a cannonball. The aftermath would have been gruesome as a bomb explosion. A war zone. I’d never seen one, but my husband and stepson had. Never would they unsee the horror.

I sipped the last of my cold coffee, tried to still the ache in my chest. Repeating the salient, immutable fact—none of us got hurt!—I walked to the kitchen window, away from mental carnage that didn’t exist. Below, the yard was drenched in shades of green. Beyond my neighbors’ rooftops I saw a glimmer of Lake Washington.

I imagined the view from the Ship Canal bridge deck: the 182-foot drop, the flatness of the water, and the vast three-dimensional space between. Images could get distorted, narrowed, especially through desperation’s lens. With boats large and small, from barges to sculls, did we move like targets in a video game? Factor in wind speed—after all, I’m a civil engineer—and the open water below the Ship Canal Bridge could constrict to a pinpoint. If the jumper intended to avoid us, he chose the slimmest margin of error. If not, that same margin of error was our salvation.

Would knowing the jumper’s intent have sharpened or blunted the horror?

Each day we live with incalculable risk. Animate and inanimate objects fall from the sky. Meteorites fall. People fall. No one really noticed, but hatchets fall too.

•••

“So did he die?”

Sitting around the kitchen table a day later with my mah-jongg group, four women I’d known well over twenty-five years, I lifted my glass of wine and felt a gnawing unease. Everyone’s first question was always about the jumper. Why did his presumed death garner so much sympathy? If he’d survived, would the tragedy seem more equal, both of us escaping death by inches? How does his willful jumping—and my sheer vulnerability—factor into the equation?

I gritted my teeth and shook my head. “I don’t know.” I’d searched the news but turned up nothing, so there’d be no resolution. As their voices grew louder, each person positing the jumper’s fate, I signaled “timeout” and interrupted. “The Seattle Times’s policy is not to write about suicide jumpers. Unless a lot of people witnessed it, that is.”

“Did a lot of people witness it?”

Tersely, “I don’t know.” Why did it matter? I had.

“How long was he in the water?”

“Ten minutes?” Why this unnecessary detail? My temples pounded in frustration.

“So how close was he?”

Finally. Like a fever breaking, a welcome relief—someone acknowledged my trauma, my anxiety over the random fragility of life. As I gestured across the length of the table, my voice turned unnaturally shrill. “About ten feet. He was so close! If he’d hit us, he could’ve killed us!”

There was a moment’s silence, followed by a quick chorus of retorts. Clearly my words hadn’t had the intended effect. Instead, I felt like I was being scolded.

“Whoa, you sound angry!

“It’s wrong to blame him. Of course he wasn’t aiming at you.”

“Think of his horrendous mental pain! It must have been overwhelming!”

What I heard was this: What’s your problem? Don’t you have a heart?

•••

Four days later, Elizabeth and I eased our shells into the water. Earlier that morning I’d debated with myself—Get back on that horse! Or not…—but the weather promised to be perfect, a promise that Seattleites are unable to resist. I was kneeling on the dock securing my oar riggers when a motion high above caught my eye. My head jerked up. Elizabeth saw my reaction and glanced up too. On the bottom deck of the I-5 Bridge, a cherry picker bucket was slowly lowering two men just below the bridge deck. I sighed in relief. In their hard hats and orange vests, I pegged them as state highway inspectors, likely testing for loose concrete. The bucket stopped with a light bounce. I tilted my head, visually measuring their relation to the water. They were about ten feet south and twenty feet below the spot on the upper deck where the person must have jumped. I stared a little too long.

Elizabeth knew exactly what I was thinking. If they fell, would they hit us? With a forced laugh she said, “Well if it’s your time, it’s your time then.” I could hear the thinness in her voice.

I frowned. I didn’t want Fate to be so lazy. Nervously I snipped, “Nah, I think they’re okay.” As soon as I spoke I was sorry. Why was I so rattled? Was I truly afraid they’d hit us? Was I ashamed to be caught thinking only of myself?

Or was something submerged now coming to boil? Was I reacting to the suicide jumper, how furious I was at him for terrifying me, yet how constrained I felt about expressing that anger? Four days of talking to my husband and close friends hadn’t helped—their comments felt way off the mark, strangely off-putting. So because I was alive, physically unhurt, I was expected to stifle my rage, ignore my feelings, and cluck sympathetically about his plight? How much empathy could I muster? Was it better for me to think of him more like a falling chunk of concrete—an object with no agency—than a suicide bomber who launches himself with intent to kill? Must I absolve him at all? Even if he wasn’t trying to kill us, the fact remained: he terrorized us. I felt like screaming, “There’s more than one victim here!”

Could I never unsee that concussive splash just ten feet from where I was kneeling?

I rose to kick off my shoes and heard the gentle lap of water. Shielding my eyes from the sun, I looked out beyond the dock to the west. There, at the wind-induced open water line between chop and calm, was a sharp demarcation drawn by the form of the land, the bend of the water, and the face of the wind. A warning: do not cross this line. So we’d go east then. I scanned the familiar scene across the channel: the white ferry, the concrete bridge supports belted with graffiti, the row of boats comfortably tucked in their berths. Ivar’s outdoor dining deck, its red and blue table umbrellas snugged down for the night, its dock empty now. All as it should be.

Absently I pulled on my cap and threaded my ponytail through the hole in the back. I stretched my arms wide, felt the air fill my lungs with cool deliciousness. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to get to look for our eagle again. I grabbed my oar handles, centered myself down on my seat. As I pushed off the dock, an involuntary glance—up at the men in the bucket, and from there, to the upper bridge deck. The railing was empty. But from now on I would never stop looking.

“Annual inspection for bridge cracks?” I started at the unexpected sound of Elizabeth’s voice right beside me, her boat so close that our oars almost touched. I couldn’t mistake the drollness in her tone.

As her words slowly registered I began to laugh. She’d caught me looking up at the bridge again, searching for ghosts. Nested within her seemingly benign engineering question was a deeper concern: Are you okay?

Until that moment, I hadn’t quite realized how not okay I was. My feelings sat like a jumbled weight on my chest. Like Elizabeth, I’d always prided myself on my ability to stay calm and reason things out, yet these days I felt so roiled, so defeated. Silently I ranted, Why can’t I just get over this?

But with that laugh, that loosened eddy of air, the atmosphere suddenly changed. My internal smog cleared enough so I could see that she was troubled too. In our exclusive club of rowers-who-barely-missed-being-hit-by-a-suicide-jumper, we were virtually the only ones who could reassure each other, You’re not crazy, I was there, too. We had much to discuss. I would soon talk her through her fixation on the hatchet’s trajectory—I heard it splash, did it land right behind me? It wouldn’t fall blade first, would it? I’d feel her first flash of anger when she thought someone was throwing fireworks, trying to scare us. She’d wade with me through my swamp of guilt. Together we would reshape the story into something we could understand, something we could only arrive at after dissecting every detail and every “what if,” hailing our luck again and again, until the day lost its power to haunt us.

•••

AMBER WONG is an environmental engineer in Seattle who writes about culture, identity, and her firsthand knowledge about risks posed by hazardous waste sites. Recent work has been published in Lunch Ticket (Summer/Fall 2017 featured essayist), Slippery Elm, and Metaphorical Fruit, and her short piece, “How I Learned to Write,” won the Writer’s Connection essay contest. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford University. She is working on a memoir.

Jack and Jill and the Memory Test

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Barbara E. Murphy

Jill is a stockbroker, my nurse practitioner begins, and I listen with attention not just because I’m a sucker for a story and will give any once-upon-a-time a chance to pick up steam but because this is an assessment—a test, really, but no one uses that word anymore—of my alertness and mental acuity. I’ve heard it referred to as The Montreal Test. This session is part of the protocol covered by my new health insurance, the kind of insurance that kicks in when you hang up your spurs or cleats depending on whether you rode or ran or sat—as I did, at conference tables or a desk—and move into the post-work phase of your life.

Jill, meanwhile, has fallen in love with and marries Jack and they move (from where, we aren’t told, though it’s the sort of detail that interests me) to Chicago. About him, we learn only that he is dazzlingly handsome. Really, that’s how he’s described. No more information than that and I risk distraction to wonder who wrote this? A doctor? A psychologist? Male or female? Before or after the recent election? And why does the stock market continue to do so well anyway? Not that dazzlingly handsome isn’t force enough to sway a woman to change her life. It is and dazzle can last a surprisingly long time but almost only if it comes with a good sense of humor and one or two other traits like skill at working the remotes and possession of a valid passport.

What come next are two children. We don’t learn whether they are twins or singletons, adopted or birthed by Jill. Did she have any trouble conceiving? Did Jill have an easy pregnancy or pregnancies? We don’t know her age or whether her insurance covered everything. We do learn that Jill left her job to stay home with her kids—we assume they switched to Jack’s insurance—and my nurse practitioner is silent on how Jill felt about stepping out of the work world. Was she happy beyond reason as a fulltime mother? Did she miss the companionship of her fellow brokers? The thrill of the buy and sell? And Jack: who knows what he was up to except it must have been pretty good work since he’s now supporting a family of four.

The story takes a turn when the kids become teenagers and Jill makes the decision to go back to work. Were she here, were she real, I could ask her to reconsider and hold out for a few more years. Driving them to middle school soccer practice is one thing; watching them get behind the wheel of your or, worse, their own car going who knows where is quite something else. They are about to start hanging out with those kids you told them to avoid, the ones whose parents are telling them not to hang out with your kids.

Risking further distraction—I know I’m going to have to recount this tale or answer some relevant questions—I can’t help but wonder if Jill returns to a diminished salary, how severely she is suffering the mom penalty after her absence from the workforce; I wonder if her technical skills have kept up, if she still thrills to the chase of the market.

And how does the change in family income affect the Jill-Jack household? Do they take more vacations, send the kids to private school, or does the money just get swallowed up and assert itself as the new normal? I’m guessing Door Three.

Jill’s return to the market marks the end of the story as told to me.

I am asked by my now slightly embarrassed practitioner—Jess, is her name —what Jill’s profession is, what made her leave work and when did she feel safe enough—my words, not Jess’s—to return to work. Then the trick question: what state does Jill live in? Funny how this remains exclusively Jill’s story. Maybe Jack’s fading dazzle lessens his role in the drama. The kids remain nameless and absent to us.

My recall is excellent, at least in this particular setting. And, I shine again as I name—freestyle, this time—twenty animals, zoo or farm categories both allowed. Jess does not seem interested in the fact that I cannot always recall the first names of my favorite poets, and increasingly I remember what I once knew as whole in fragments as if the world is repackaging itself in haiku not seamless narrative.

But the world is not seamless and it veers more toward lyrical than narrative. Stories don’t seem to proceed the way they used to: beginning, middle, then the earned ending. Most days, it seems to be all middle but with a blessedly generous supply of chances to begin again. And even the adventures you thought had ended—a career, a first marriage, your children’s childhoods—haven’t exactly finished. Jill will figure this out, too.

•••

BARBARA E. MURPHY is a poet and essayist whose work had appeared in publications including The Threepenny Review, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, and The New York Times. Her poetry collection Almost Too Much was published by Cervena Barva Press. She was a college president for twenty years in the Vermont State Colleges system.

My Goofy Gift

 2017 has not been my favorite year—although I’m ever grateful for the readers and contributors to FGP. You’ve all been bright lights for me.

This year has also made me glom on to the moments that have brought me joy. One of those moments happened with my youngest nephews, who are—like me—big fans of Mad Libs. Over Thanksgiving, we didn’t have any handy, so I wrote some.

I figured that, hey, if any of you are goofballs like we are, you might enjoy one, too.

So grab some scratch paper. The story is in the first comment. Please add your results—that’s the best part, isn’t it?

Fellow goofball or not, here’s to a fabulous 2018!

xo,

Jennifer

  1. You or person you know
  2. FGP writer’s name
  3. Holiday
  4. Food
  5. Body Part
  6. Body Part
  7. Adjective
  8. Occupation
  9. Exclamation
  10. Verb
  11. Adjective
  12. Number
  13. Emotion
  14. Plural noun
  15. Verb
  16. Location
  17. Plural noun

McCleaning with the Dustbuster

By gwire/Flickr

By Brooke Champagne

My mother twice bought the pitch of a salesman at the door, and both were, in one way or another, a response to one or another of her failed marriages.

The first sell came in 1992 from David Vitter, chinless Republican candidate for the Louisiana House of Representatives from the 81st district, running on the amorphous platform of family values. He was conducting, in his words, a traditional, old-school campaign, knocking on constituents’ doors and actually listening to their needs and concerns about the future. My mother invited him into our dustbusted living room. My father had been a radical Vietnam/Watergate leftist, lying across the busiest intersection of Robert E. Lee Boulevard in New Orleans to protest the draft, kicking a hole into the TV during Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” telecast. After a few of years of marriage, his behaviors lost whatever charm they once possessed. When Vitter arrived at our door, my parents had been divorced for eight years. For my father, politics was sacrosanct, and supporting a Republican was anathema to everything he believed to be good and true. It was perhaps on this ground alone Mom promised Vitter that he could count on her vote.

Soon afterward, another salesman introduced us to the exorbitant Tri-Star vacuum cleaner, a silver, futuristic-looking contraption with a long hose separating the motor from the power brush. The Tri-Star promised everything: healthier environment, enhanced home appearance, peace of mind. My mother was finalizing her second divorce—she required some sense of “here is something I will never have to think about again.” The Tri-Star, purchased around the time Vitter was sworn into the state legislature, has lived through more than a dozen political cycles, including the public admission by Vitter in 2007 that he’d habitually solicited DC prostitutes over the years. His wife Wendy joined him in solidarity at the press conference. Hands clasped at her front, she wore a form-fitting leopard print dress while her husband repeatedly asked her, his constituents, and God for their collective forgiveness. She said nothing. They remain married today.

My mother passed that Tri-Star vacuum cleaner on to me just after my wedding. Nearly ten years later I remain married to my husband, breaking my mother’s record for her first two marriages.

•••

Dusting my writing desk I recall a foremost precept of cleaning: dust accumulates most quickly in unused spaces. Thus, I am not writing enough. If I wrote more, the dust might more readily fall upon the nightstand, on the oscillating fan next to it, on the sewing machine in the corner of my office which I never use because, as my mother has joked more than once, women shouldn’t learn to sew—they should divorce if it came to that.

Dusting is the minutiae of moving objects around. So is marriage and, sometimes, so is divorce.

I bump my silver philodendron too forcefully with my dust rag—its soil dumps neatly into the small cubic space between my writing desk and bookshelf. The Tri-Star’s hose attachment is broken, and I can’t sweep away the wet soil because it will grind into the carpet. If only an appliance existed, I consider, that will pick up just this dirt, in just this small space.

•••

I have forgotten all about the Dustbuster. For children of the eighties, dustbusting was an invigorating verb. After dinner it was my job to dustbust the crumbs from the table and sometimes, gleefully, from my little sisters’ shirtfronts. Through easy tasks like dustbusting we learned the virtues of responsibility and cleanliness, in the Mc sort of way. My eighties were filled with Mc-food (frozen or fast), Mc-parents (stepfathers), and Mc-neighborhoods (subdivisions built up in a few weeks with the same three house plans multiplied endlessly down the block). Mcs were shoddy replacements for the real thing.

One summer afternoon I attempted a cleaning shortcut: rather than vacuuming the living room, as I’d been tasked, I resolved to dustbust every inch of its twist pile carpet in long, straight lines. But the Dustbuster clogged on my third row, and it died on the fourth. To clean it out, I detached the nozzle from the handle and spilled crumbs everywhere, for which I reluctantly lugged out the Tri-Star.

•••

The Dustbuster was invented in 1979, the same year as the McDonald’s Happy Meal, and a year after that, both the Chicken McNugget and I were born. Carroll Gantz, Black & Decker’s Industrial Design manager, marketed the Dustbuster as a portable suction device for picking up light dirt and debris. But that was the thing: it didn’t do much else. It sucked the surface grime but couldn’t penetrate to the root. In the eighties I knew, McDonald’s Mc-fed and the Dustbuster Mc-cleaned.

•••

The original Dustbuster was a cream-colored plastic duckbill with a single brown button to rev its tiny motor. To charge one meant matching it up to its opposite-shaped wall holder. It looked like two hands clasping together. Like a prayer.

Our Dustbuster hung next to my mother’s wood carving of the Serenity Prayer, which seemed the most permanent thing in our house by virtue of its basically being a letter to God—God, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change—though I never heard Mom ask God to grant her a thing. It might have been during one of her fights with my stepfather when the prayer was knocked from the wall. Once rehung, the carving remained askew for a long time, a rearrangement I thought appropriate.

•••

Were my mother’s remarriages what Samuel Johnson called “the triumph of hope over experience”? Or, ultimately, the failure of assignation? Promises weren’t just made at the end of a church aisle, I intuited. A couple’s foundation wasn’t so simple as “man and wife,” and the sickness and health and love and death weren’t even the half of it.

Often before those bigger tests play out, a couple lives together, slowly ages together, moves around in lockstep or with four left feet, depending on the day. And rather than acceding to the unequal dynamic of our earlier parent-child relationships, in which the parent figure dictates appropriate rules and chores for the child, a married couple makes up the rules together.

Both my stepfathers were natural tinkerers, so they’d be our home’s occasional handymen—cleaning gutters, repairing the toaster, performing tasks inconceivable for my idealist father who was versed in the oeuvre of Graham Greene and themes in Don Quixote but couldn’t hang a picture frame. And my mother, in her postfeminist sensibility that women could do anything and have it all (and much more secure in that ideal than most women I know today) reflexively took up the mantle of “You do the tinkering, and I’ll take care of everything else! I’ll dust and cook and clean and work full time and do pretty much all the kid stuff and still love you unconditionally, because I’m that strong and powerful!” In other words, rather than balancing their duties or at least having a conversation about them which might allow for future fluidity, it was: mother = everything, Mcfather = whatever he’s in the mood for.

At some point, probably when the burden of her constant doing began outweighing her husband’s facility with a screwdriver, or how hilarious he could be when drunk or stoned, my mother’s purview on their respective roles and personas sharpened considerably. Both my Mc-parents, for example, were—in the beginning—described by my mother as real men’s men: handy, diffident, fun. After a few years they were lazy, selfish drunks, that last word always like an uppercut—there was nothing more to say or think about who they were. That lovely marriage pronoun, the we, was gone. Each spoken I became a towering, dauntless god, while the you was a stub of the toe, a malignant growth, something grossly foreign and unrecognizable. Marriage became a war with clearly-defined sides, and as with most warring parties, both sides saw themselves within their struggle as the victims and heroes.

In my adolescence, when my mother was gradually falling out of sync in her second marriage, she became enamored with an epigram of unknown origin, pithy and reductive enough to sound to my young ears like a frightening admonition regarding my future: “Men may work from sun to sun, but women’s work is never done.” The couplet became such a popular refrain for her that, in seeming solidarity, my second Mcfather occasionally parroted it as well, letting us all know he too was aware of its truth: men, in effect, have a singular job in a marriage, while women own all of them. To me the phrase sounded dirty coming from him, a prolix substitute to the beautiful brevity of “thank you,” or “I’m grateful.” But it was even more cringeworthy coming from her, equitable to the “it is what it is” shrug of the shoulders. Why did she accept a position within her own home that drove her crazy? Was it the married woman’s fate to passive-aggressively, ineffectually complain? Was every marriage doomed to stasis until at some point both partners tacitly agreed to stop working on it altogether?

Here’s how, in each of my mother’s marriages, the stopping started: more and more frequently after one of their fights in which words were no longer sufficient to communicate their disgust—his hands on her throat, her nails in his cheeks, each sound and scene a rolling pin across my insides—the most interminable sound became their protracted silence. Weeks without acknowledgement of each other, ghost parents floating around the house. The standard emotional cleanup following a fight—the I’m sorry, honeys and never agains—regressed to a spit-and-shine job at best, hardly even Dustbuster-worthy. Eventually, every ignored resentment piled up too high and deep for anyone to tackle. Betrayal and fear shoved into every closet, mutual antipathy ground down into every thread of our twist pile carpet. I wanted to dustbust the marriage detritus, dustbust her justifications, but I’d already learned: the Dustbuster can only hold so much.

•••

In my marriage I’ve broken all the rules I made for my future self as a child: I’ll never yell, he’ll never drink too much, I’ll never swear or shove, we’ll love just enough to forever keep us in an orderly, perfect alignment. I didn’t know then that getting dirty isn’t a choice—it’s inevitable.

In my marriage, we fight. In our fights my past is often transmogrified. We get mad, we ruin dinner, I break a remote, then break another, he slams a door, punches the wall, I throw myself off the porch and scream into the grass. Yet the difference is the aftermath: that incontrovertible grime it leaves behind that we willfully, immediately recognize, and labor at once to scrub away. Rather than allowing our bitterness to slowly boil then hopefully evaporate with time, mirroring the paradigm of fights I grew up on, we call out the other’s mess when we see it. With every why and what for and please can we not anymore and what did you mean, we wipe down the obvious films of dust and move on to where decay resides: those concealed psychic baseboards and window panes, the forgotten space behind the toilet. We take on this grit together to see clearly where it is we live, and with whom. It is not in a carving on the wall but in this work where we find our prayers, and help each other answer them.

•••

Still, despite these ideals, in my marriage I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit parsing out whose mess is whose. Sure, I’m happy to dust my desk in my office, but when my husband announces our dining room table looks dusty, I ask “Does it?,” give him a look, and wait for him to clean it. The longer I’m married, though, the more I wonder who is delineating the his role and the hers. It’s difficult to unlearn what our childhoods have encoded, what we never believed but enacted for the families who would accept nothing else, because we were playing the parts they’d prescribed.

According to my mother, I should grow up to never take shit from men, let them clean up their own messes. According to my Mc-fathers, I should become the kind of woman who doesn’t give men so much shit. It’s through the continual polishing of my relationship that I’ve been able to gradually reject that either/or dichotomy. The more time we spend dusting ourselves off after a fight, or spot-cleaning our marriage when we’re not, the more the influence of Mc-everythings from the past starts to subside.

Because there is no precedent for the scene in which I often find myself: my husband in our kitchen, mixing sauces for Chicken Mario or a red pepper and tofu stir-fry, working purposefully toward each meal that feeds us fully. We never eat from the paper sacks of my youth. For an aesthetic sense of parallelism, and as a gesture of gratitude, I make sure we eat his lovely dinners on my shiny tables. No: our dinners, our tables.

When the Smithsonian acquired an original model of the Dustbuster in 1995, the year my mother began her third marriage, 100 million had been sold. McDonald’s, meanwhile, heavily marketed the Arch Deluxe sandwich in an effort to cultivate a more adult image. Only, no one bought it. It was a standard burger with all the regular fixings, but with the lagniappe of sweet Spanish onions and, as noted in one advertisement, “a secret sauce for grown-ups.” The problem, it seemed, was the tremendous effort and dollars spent in the narrow hope of catering solely to adults. Millions of sesame seeds atop their potato flour buns went uneaten, went unspilled upon the twist-pile carpeted floors of America, went un-dustbusted. McDonald’s experiment with maturity resulted in one of the most expensive flops in the history of branding.

•••

Black and Decker now sells nine popular models of the personal vacuum that pivot easily to pick up larger debris, use lithium-ion technology powered by cyclonic action, offering a more hygienic cleanup with less clogging than ever before. The world apparently still needs the Dustbuster, but I don’t. When I spill plant soil on the carpet I vow to get the old Tri-Star repaired. I’ll accept no substitutes if we’re going to go all the way, because a real partnership calls for a real vacuum.

•••

BROOKE CHAMPAGNE was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her work appears in Los Angeles Review, New Ohio Review, Louisiana Literature, and Bending Genre online, among other journals. She is at work on her first collection of personal essays.

After the End

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Cameron Gearen

There comes a time when you’ve seen the underside of the bus too many times. When you stand up, brush yourself off, and decide you will not be near the bus when it comes flying by. That you’ll be beside it or away from there, but not under.

•••

Three days before our twentieth wedding anniversary, my husband told me he was leaving the marriage. He had talked of being unhappy for some time. We had spent years—weekly—in the office of a marriage counselor. But this time he meant it: he planned to leave. When I asked about the timing, he said he couldn’t stand to go through with the anniversary. I cancelled the hotel, the babysitter. I couldn’t return the custom gift I’d had made for him, a drawing I commissioned by his artist cousin depicting a note that was important to us both from our first months together. If you are wondering why, of two people in the same marriage, one would be commissioning art for a gift while the other would be planning his moment of exit, then you have a good point. We were not, as they say, on the same page.

•••

Before that, many good years.

Our two daughters and I would wait for him to come home at the end of the workday. Since I was a classroom teacher, I got home first. We would sit on the front steps of our house and watch the corner for his bike to come around it. Then there was a race and happy shouts, girls running toward their daddy, my husband: he would stop on the sidewalk and ruffle their hair, listening to their important stories about their days. Up the stairs together, all four, and into the house for dinner. Even as I write this, I can still feel how much his face, his smile, him, would melt me back then.

It’s palpable, the change. Slowly he started to withdraw his hand from mine. One day we finished an errand early and found ourselves without kids, near a favorite restaurant downtown where we had a gift certificate. I suggested we park and grab a meal, just the two of us with a stolen hour. He wanted to go back home and get our kids first. Not because the sitter had to go. Like the anniversary, he couldn’t face the meal alone with me. That’s what we did. We fetched the kids, let the sitter go, and ate as a family.

Say what you like. Maybe it was the brutal cancer treatment I did, coming on the heels of some difficult years as I recovered from childhood sexual abuse. But I’ve seen other couples with as much on their plate, strengthened by the challenges, bolstered by the hard work. I’ve seen it done—with nerve and with grace.

•••

It was probably already too late when we started couples’ therapy.

The pattern became familiar.

Our hour with the clinician began.

My husband would point out my flaw: You don’t fight fair. Something.

I’d agree with him and hustle to change my pattern. (Who doesn’t have a flaw or three?) I’d work on it hard with my own therapist for a week or two until I could shift, show progress. I loved him and I really wanted my treasured marriage to work, so I did it.

The next week he’d agree I had addressed the original flaw and improved. But he had a new flaw for me to work on.

Ad infinitum.

•••

I shouldn’t take online quizzes. I take them sometimes, looking for an answer. What changed? When I see that he gets a 25-out-of-25 as I score him for “behavior your spouse might show if he’s having an affair,” I’m sad for us. It doesn’t ring true—I don’t believe he would cheat. He says no when I ask. In my mind, I retitle the quiz “behavior your spouse might show if he has removed himself emotionally from the marriage.”

•••

Once we moved to Chicago, we would occasionally walk with our daughters by the looming stone building with gargoyles where we spent our wedding night almost twenty years before. I remember we’d had the penthouse suite that night and I’d stood by the leaded glass windows in the dark, watching the full moon over Lake Michigan. I’d felt full of magic and promise that night, like the luckiest girl in the world: sent off by my loving family into the arms of this perfect man.

Whenever we passed the building with the girls all those years later, in the thick of the crowd on the sidewalk, I would point my daughters up to that floor, to that night, where their parents’ official union began. He would shove his hands deeper into his pockets and walk on, ahead of us, silent. They knew not to ask me what was wrong with Dad. We followed in his wake.

There were so many signs, had I wished to read them.

•••

We married in February, my attempt to add something—our love, our anniversary—to a month that, with its gray end-of-winter, wasn’t my favorite. If I disliked February before, I now loathe it. November, the month our divorce was final, bookends the grief. The specific days within those months: February 26 the delirious beginning, November 2 the sober end. Time will return the months to me. Soon I will say to myself, What day was it again? And in this way be healed.

•••

He was livid that I sometimes took a sticker off a piece of fruit and, instead of throwing the sticker immediately away, affixed it to the side of the kitchen sink briefly until throwing it away later. Livid.

He was upset that he had to be the one to make coffee for my visiting, out-of-town friend when he thought I should have made it for her, should have gotten up a half hour earlier.

The bad years. The last ten.

•••

Under the bus. I lived there. Thrown or situated there of my own will. Even in that ditch, I remembered my spunky self who had lost her voice.

Among the signs, according to the Internet:

One partner creates a more private life.

The hours he stayed up with his computer after I went to bed.

His refusal to introduce me to his new friends. “I’ll be back late.”

His weekly poker game to which I wasn’t invited.

His solo appearance to his work holiday party.

His refusal to give permission for our couples’ therapist to speak to his personal therapist.

•••

Disclaimer: Yes, people do find they are in the wrong marriage. He did.

Disclaimer: People can also leave their marriage.

Disclaimer: I’m sure I have many annoying qualities.

Disclaimer: But I have great qualities too. Loving truly and never quitting are two.

Disclaimer: Yes, he can still leave. And he did.

Disclaimer: I don’t get to understand it from his point of view. But I know how I felt. I felt finished.

•••

On the day our divorce was final, almost twenty-four years after our wedding day, I had lunch with my mother. I think I had tuna sashimi and barely touched it, took it home. I think I had wine at two p.m. I kept insisting I was fine, but some iceberg inside me was calving. Later that day, I got an email from my now ex-husband. It was about dividing bank accounts. He said that all in court had “gone smoothly.” (In Illinois, only the one who files must go to court. I stayed home.) It had been so long and, since there was no going back or changing his mind, I did want to be free, but I couldn’t help splintering a little more as I read that note from him. We had undone what we did that beautiful, snowy, hopeful February day so long ago. He did not say there were many things I loved about being married to you. He did not say thank you for the love. I didn’t say those things either. He said that the divorce went smoothly and here are the forms I should sign to divide the assets.

•••

I stayed for my children and because I believed we were having a “rough patch.”

I am not religious, but I believed marriage was forever. At least I believed my marriage was.

I believed in our past. We had been happy. I believed that that husband would come back.

I stayed because I loved him.

•••

February 23, 2014. We were both watching an early hockey game on TV. The weak, February sunlight filtered in through the bay windows of our rented apartment in Chicago. Our pre-teen daughters were asleep. I was on the side of the couch closest to the wall, and he was on the side closest to the doorway. He stood and turned the TV off to make the room silent. Then he told me quietly that it was over and he was leaving. He said he was leaving.

•••

When he graduated from his Ph.D. program the year before that, a triumph even the girls had been involved in, he didn’t want us to fly and attend the ceremony with him.

Of course we would! I said. And I bought the plane tickets.

In his blue robe and cap, in all the photos, his disappointment is evident. He didn’t want to celebrate with us. Or maybe just with me. Like the anniversary, the meal out, birthdays. Like the night of Obama’s second election when I had two VIP tickets and I took a friend because he, a huge Obama fan, preferred to stay home on that same couch. My younger daughter saw me on TV that night. I was in the front row—with a friend.

•••

Once, when I was sobbing at the mediator several months after that fateful February morning of the hockey game and my husband was joking with her, turning on the charm, I asked him why he had filed for divorce.

At first he didn’t hear me over the laughter, so I repeated my question.

He said—smiling, directing his comment to the mediator—“Oh, you weren’t meeting my needs.”

Then they smiled together about it.

I got a lawyer.

•••

I’m embarrassed that I tried for as long as I did.

•••

Two years after my cancer diagnosis, I wrote in a journal that he had said to me that day: “I’m having a midlife crisis and I don’t know how I feel about you.”

It’s a tired old line. This exact line is #14 in the Internet quiz of twenty-five items.

Which doesn’t mean he was having an affair. But it does mean he was removing himself emotionally.

•••

I thought I wouldn’t survive it, his leaving.

The man I had planned to die next to, whom I had loved with all my cells, was gone—to his weekly poker game, his friends, maybe even to his sadness. He took the dining room table and one of the cars, and he was entitled to that. The kids and I were home after school and work, on weekends, and no one would be coming back from work by bicycle just before dinner.

I especially hated the weekends I spent alone when the kids went to his house. I wrote my way through them, pages I would make sure no one ever saw but that still got me to morning. I hardly noticed as it became less acute, as I didn’t need to call a friend or force myself to go to a movie, as I could sink into the evening and know that whatever it brought would be fine. I got to know myself again. I rediscovered my natural spunk, a ferocity that had been burnished during my married years.

The idea that we won’t survive something is a failure of imagination. Now I know: I might not have survived his staying. I’m sure I would have had all the trappings of being alive and fine—but my spirit. Being on my own gave me my spirit back.

•••

He liked to say, especially in couples’ therapy sessions, that he thought I suffered from borderline personality disorder. The first time he said it, I was worried and suggestible. That was a big claim, an incendiary one. He was “diagnosing” me with a disorder that doesn’t respond well to treatment or medication. I went back to my own therapist, with her Ph.D. and thirty years of experience, and I asked her. I asked her, crying, shrinking into the comfy green chair where I spent a lot of time these days. She laughed kindly. She said, “You have PTSD. That’s it,” referring to the fall-out of the childhood sexual abuse I suffered from. Later I asked my psychiatrist as well, my glamorous runner psychiatrist who vacationed in farthest south Chile, who was also a mom: warm and compassionate, worthy of respect, who knew me well. She also swore that that was not my diagnosis.

I was reassured by their confidence. I had confidence in their confidence.

But he and I had to discuss it many times when he brought it to the couples’ therapist over and over.

A marriage starts to unravel. So many things are said, and most of them are best forgotten. But this piece, this particular grenade he lobbed and relobbed. This “claim” or “concern”: it is outside the way I believe people should be treated. It’s the thing I’ll remember, sadly, more than the father coming home by bike, more than our happy years when he still enjoyed dining out with me. I will remember this little piece of cruelty—repeated and sharp. I looked at him and wondered what in the world, who in the world? And although I didn’t know it yet, I was looking at the end. And the beginning of my spunky, messy life. Hard-won. It turned out that I could survive his leaving. I imagined it, and then I stepped toward that life, my life, the one that had been waiting for me.

•••

CAMERON GEAREN is a poet and essayist living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Dame Magazine, Hippocampus, Ravishly, and elsewhere. She is the Writer-in-Residence at the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. In 2016, her book of poems, Some Perfect Year, came out from Shearsman Press. On Twitter she’s @camerongearen.

The Kidney Who Came to Dinner

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Scott Gerace

“I just had my third kidney transplant.”

He revealed this fact to me on our second date, as I put a forkful of the insalata di frisee in my mouth at the Italian restaurant he’d recommended for dinner.

“I’m sorry?” I said, trying to swallow without appearing overwhelmed by the kidney that suddenly arrived at the table.

“Yeah, I don’t like to get into this conversation so soon after meeting someone. But I wanted you to know what’s been going on with me,” he explained.

Rick, or Rican Rick as he called himself on the dating app where we met, was forty-eight, one year older than me, Puerto Rican, balding, bearded, and four inches shorter than my usual preference in potential suitors. Scootercrunch, my online moniker, was newly single after a two-year relationship that soured, dissatisfied with his corporate communications job, and searching for “the real thing” by finally swapping out drunken hook-ups for serious dating.

I hadn’t expected “serious” to translate to a man who spent most of his adult life on dialysis, dealing with one failed kidney after another.

“What else you got?” I joked in an attempt to unpack all his baggage before the entrees arrived.

“Well, I haven’t really worked in seven years.”

And there it was. This attractive man, obviously thin and dealing with a disease, played his whole hand as my roasted chicken and his pasta nudged in between me, him, his kidney, and his unemployment.

The big revelations in gay dating usually consisted of HIV status, recent STDs, favorite sexual positions, and whether or not one of you suffered a serious porn addiction. On a recent date, a middle school English teacher sipped Merlot and plainly announced, “I like to come home after work, smoke a joint, and watch porn.” I immediately sensed I’d be third in line behind weed and over-the-top orgasms. Now that I was confronted with real life problems, I was unsure how to address my feelings about them.

“This is not the man for you,” said my friend James, when I told him about Rick.

“There are some serious red flags going on here,” said my sister during our weekly phone chats.

“Absolutely not! We’ve already had enough death and illness from cancer, let alone bad kidneys.” That was my brother, who begged me not to take on someone with health problems.

Cancer lurked in the shadows waiting to take the next member of the family—at least that was our fatalistic outlook. First our father from brain cancer almost twenty years ago and then more recently our mother after a brutally quick three-month battle with lymphoma.

Our working class parents weren’t the care-giving kind. The sympathy gene never made it to the next generation. You had a cold; you tried your best to go to school. God help you if you stayed home with the sniffles and spent time whiling away the hours watching television.

“If I come home and find you had that TV on, you’ll get the belt,” assured my father.

And he wasn’t kidding. He’d march upstairs to press his hand on the back of the TV to determine if any offenders had snuck into our parent’s bedroom and watched afternoon soap operas. The trick? Only keep it on until three p.m. so it had an hour to cool before his arrival home.

When our mother struggled with cancer, my siblings and I badgered doctors, questioned nursing home administrators and attempted to rally my mother out of her own feelings of doom. But we already loved her. She wasn’t someone new entering our lives.

I often teased my brother that when we got older I’d move in with him and spend our remaining days as brothers drinking and helping each other to the bathroom. “Look pal, it’s bad enough you’ll live here when you’re old, but I’m not taking in some guy with a bad kidney,” he concluded.

For Rick, an ongoing battle with renal failure combined with fear of romantic rejection seemed easily outmatched by my battery of questions and confessions of uncertainty on entering this relationship. In his former working life, he managed a career in the mental health field, so I was on the defensive from his comebacks to my questions.

“What would I do if you got sick again?” I inquired.

“Well, Scott, you could easily get sick anytime too.” Touché.

I told him to watch out as both my parents died of cancer, and I was surely the next one to be afflicted. He found my sense of humor troubling.

“What happens when I come home from a tough day at the office and I say you don’t understand because you don’t work?” I hoped being up front and honest would win me points.

“So it sounds to me like Scott would have feelings of resentment,” he suggested.

“What about a year from now when you’re still not working?”

“You’re assuming things will be a certain way a year from now, aren’t you?”

He made valid points as I learned how Medicare and a supplemental plan covered his medical bills and how he maintained a living. What I didn’t like was his therapeutic approach in response to my honest hesitations.

When he stumbled once in conversation, I joked, “You’re not stroking out on me are you?” A long pause filled the air.

“Don’t tell me you’ve had a stroke before?” I asked.

“Well, they’re not sure what it was,” he replied.

“Are you kidding me?”

He wasn’t.

During my last relationship with a guy six years my junior, we were dating only a few months when an evening of Mexican food resulted in him rushing to the restroom repeatedly with stomach cramps.

“You’ve got a sensitive stomach,” I proclaimed, chalking his boo-boo belly up to the spicy salsa we just ate.

“No, this is not salsa pain. It’s something more serious,” he said.

“You’re fine. Gosh, what are you going to do when you hit your forties like me?”

My poor attempt at a belly pain diagnosis backfired. The next day he summoned me from work as they wheeled him from the ER into the operating room to remove his swollen appendix. All the while he glared at me with an unspoken “I told you” from underneath the silly surgical hat crammed on to his head. Any ache or pain announced during the rest of our two-year courtship immediately ignited my fears, and I quickly encouraged him to see a doctor or head straight to urgent care.

Our love story already had begun taking shape when the appendix appeared right after that chips and salsa appetizer. And, that was not a chronic illness defined by stages and the possibility of failure. My former boyfriend’s appendix wasn’t making a comeback. Kidney failure, on the other hand, remained a possibility for Rick.

I started to question my goodness and whether I was a bad person for wanting to pass him over because of his maladies or lack of current career mobility. As a grown adult I confessed to ending brief affairs of the heart by ignoring calls or texts or coming up with transparent excuses. It was hard to hate yourself for following a dating blueprint adopted by millions of others. But meeting a truly genuine and honest person confronting real-life struggles and dismissing them outright seemed cruel.

I agreed to another date.

In between our meetings, Rick wondered aloud about sex and when we’d explore physical affection. I kept things strictly above the waist and insisted that somewhere between date three and date ten “something surely was bound to happen.”

But it didn’t.

Sunday brunch and casual shopping served as our third date’s agenda. He arrived fifteen minutes late, a pattern I noticed once the kidney and career conversations took a back seat. Before settling on a selection or deciding on a non-purchase, he subjected every waiter or retailer to a multitude of questions and follow-ups. He complimented my good skin repeatedly as if nothing else interesting about me stood out. My humor, Rick pointed out, wasn’t always necessary, and I needed to listen more and talk less.

I wasn’t a bad person, simply someone on a bad date … a third one of my own making. Forget the kidney, and possibly a stroke. No burning romance ignited inside my heart. There was a sense of emotional availability for sure; we certainly talked about his feelings and what he needed. What my brain forgot was why I started seriously dating again in the first place.

I yearned for a true meaningful connection with another man who complimented my late forties skin, yes, but also my wicked sense of humor and my ambitions. I didn’t need analysis—and while the thought of dialysis didn’t exactly excite me—I did need some stirring below the waist to know that sex wasn’t going to wait until date ten.

I agonized over how to tell Rick my heart just wasn’t in it. Friends told me to get over it and rip the band-aid off now, and early, before feelings took shape or sex slipped in to fill the expected next step I swerved to avoid.

We met a final time a week later, having already purchased theater tickets in advance. I waited between nervously devouring the guacamole and paying the bill to tell Rick that this felt more like a friendship than a budding romance. He listened, of course.

“How do you feel about it?” I prompted him.

He paused for a few minutes before replying. “You know. I think we have very different communication styles.”

It felt like the first real connection and mutual agreement we had since meeting.

After the show we chatted briefly on a cold, windy street corner and hugged goodbyes, promising to stay in touch. We haven’t. I watched him confidently walk down the street, moving on to the next adventure life held in store for him, and I did the same.

I was hung up on his physical ailments and lack of a job too quickly, which delayed my discovery of the real issue—our incompatibility. It wasn’t so much about health or career. Of course they mattered when taking in the whole of a potential mate. And yet, it really did come down to the fact that we simply had no chemistry. Rick wasn’t right for me or I for him. Someone needed to say it and save us both from grasping for companionship so blindly rather than patiently staying single.

Truthfully, the kidney mattered too. I wasn’t ready to love someone who brought renal failure as a possible third wheel in our relationship. But with Rick, I hope I did my best to take care of his heart while I practiced stretching mine.

  • ••

SCOTT GERACE is a corporate writer by day and an essayist by night. He currently resides in New York City. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post and Purple Clover. Read his work at www.scottgerace.com.

How I Came to Believe in The Ally I Can’t See

By Adam B/Flickr

By Eze Paul Ihenetu

He burst through the door of my bedroom, pulling me from blissful sleep. Startled, shirtless, harried, and vulnerable—I still thought of myself as new to New York—I turned to face my intruder. The shirtless man with the scar above his left eye was my roommate of the past five months. His face was as animated as it had ever been. “Hey, Eze,” he said. “You need to get up. Some crazy shit is happening right now!”

Daniel was prone to embellishment and hyperbole. So, I assumed that the “crazy shit” he was hyped about would eventually become much ado about nothing.

I was in no mood to begin the day. Cursing him underneath my breath, I turned away from my roommate. Daniel, still hyper and insistent, would remain undaunted. He parked himself at the foot of my bed and yelled down at me. “Why are you going back to fucking sleep right now? Get up man! The towers are burning down! The fucking towers are burning!”

I was a recent transplant—I’d arrived in the spring of 2001—and still somewhat impaired by exhaustion. I didn’t understand what Daniel meant when he said that the towers were burning down. Daniel, a Brooklyn native, was standing in the common room in front of the television, completely rapt by what was being broadcast on the screen. The tops of two buildings were engulfed by massive flames, and thick, black smoke was snaking its way toward the sky. I thought that he might have been enraptured by a television movie, that is until a banner flashed across the bottom of the television screen that read: Breaking news: World Trade Center Disaster. And then came the video of the two airplanes hurling themselves into the façades of the World Trade Center buildings, followed by reporting from a catatonic news anchor. This was definitely not a movie.

The two of us ran up the hallway stairs until we reached the roof of our East Williamsburg apartment complex. The sky was a clear blue except for the area above lower Manhattan, which had been blanketed with the fearsome black smoke. As we watched the billowing smoke clouds spread more of their pernicious hate across the sky, Daniel posed the question that was like a blinking light inside of my brain: “Is the world ending?”

•••

The September 11th attacks would not prove to be the end of everything, though it did presage the end of something precious that I was unable to put into words.

The world would go on for Daniel, for me, and for everyone else that remained alive in the new world. Daniel was still thinking about securing a license to drive trucks while concocting more nefarious schemes to make money. I’d accepted a job as an actor with a traveling theatre troupe a few days before the attacks had taken place and had received assurances from the theatre director that the show would go on. I thought it was serendipitous timing that I’d been offered the theatre tour a few days before the terrorists attacked the city. For the air that I had been breathing in the wake of the attacks was a miasma of rage, charred metal, and burning bodies, an extremely toxic mixture that was affecting my psychological health. Spending an extended time away from New York City, where breathing in the noxious mixture was a regular thing became necessary.

I exited the city a few weeks after September 11th, one of five passengers of a cream colored van and trailer, relieved and grateful to be leaving a city that was still twisted from the wounds that had been inflicted upon it by terrible men. I was eager for the adventures that lay ahead on the open road, though somewhat peeved that Daniel insisted that I continue to pay rent even though I would not be living in the apartment for the next two months. I hoped things would improve for the city while I was gone.

•••

I returned to our apartment building on December 15th, feeling shrunken and skinny after having walked a few blocks in the bitter cold. The cold was made worse by my worried mind. Repeated attempts to contact Daniel a few hours before had proven unsuccessful.

I scanned the windows of my apartment for signs of activity. There was nothing. No lights. No music. Nothing. It was night, but it was still early, and for there to be no sign of life inside at this time was unusual. I knocked three times on the metal door. No answer. I knocked again, harder this time. Still no answer. Freezing and frustrated, I took a few steps backwards, looked up and screamed his name: “Daniel!”

“Hey,” said a voice, startling me.

I wheeled around to meet the voice. A burly and bearded man, an employee of the adjoining bread factory, was walking toward me. “Are you looking for the guy who lived on the second floor? Daniel?”

Lived? Did he say lived?

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I am.”

“He doesn’t live there anymore and you can’t go in there,” the bread factory worker told me. “Dude got murdered a few days ago. The place is a crime scene.”

“Oh. Okay. Thanks.”

“Yep.”

And in that instant, a once inviting home morphed into a sinister structure. I backed away from the apartment slowly and quietly, so as not to disturb the demons that were at rest inside.

•••

On the subway, I thought, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” Though exhausted after three months of traveling and powering through shows with my theatre group, I should have been able to bask in the glow of a monumental accomplishment: I had established myself as a paid New York City actor. But I’d returned to a building complex that had been locked and sealed by the New York City police, a place that was no longer my home.

Where can I go?

It was the question that I had to ask myself after hours of riding the subway train, hunched over in my seat, still reeling from the news of my roommate’s untimely demise—I was reeling for myself as much as I was for my roommate. Besides the clothes that I was wearing, the suitcase that rested on my shins contained everything in this world that I could call mine at the moment. And it was a very small suitcase. Compounding the shock at my roommate’s unexpected passing was the explanation for why Daniel was no longer alive: murder.

•••

I called the police station a week after I’d found lodging at an upper Manhattan hostel facility. My reasons for calling the flatfoots were not quite so honorable, though. Reaching out to the police—something that I hoped that I never have to do—had not been a byproduct of my suspicions of what happened with my roommate, although I did have an inkling as to why he’d been murdered in cold blood.

What I needed was access to the apartment so that I could retrieve the property that I’d left behind. My computer, headshots, and some of the other things that remained in the apartment were essential components of my nascent acting career.

The cop on the other end of the line seemed to perk up at hearing my reason for calling and said, “Why don’t you come on down to the precinct so that we can talk about a few things? After we talk some, we’ll go to the apartment and pick up your belongings.”

After hanging up, perspiration attached my clothes to my body, blood drained from my face, and my stomach felt hollow—my normal reaction to fear. With that call to the police precinct, I’d enmeshed myself in an open murder case, a real big ball of shit turds! And for what? A couple hundred two-year-old head shots, an obsolete computer, and some other things that were replaceable? I was so hesitant to enter any kind of police station because I believed that it was the place where my current vulnerabilities—young and black, homeless, and alone—would be amplified.

Unable to quell my combustible emotions, I took a walk down Broadway, taking in the cool air to clear my head of poisonous thoughts. When the cloud containing these thoughts cleared after a mile or so of walking, I set my mind on visiting the station house the next day.

•••

After entering the police station, the realization hit me that I was probably within the vicinity of a few human cages.

I was received by two detectives. One of them was a white male, middle aged and balding, dressed in a short white short-sleeve shirt and black tie, a grizzled veteran of the Brooklyn police department. The other was younger, black and better looking, had all of his hair, and sported a slight mustache.

I sat facing the older detective, who proceeded with his harrowing rendition of what had taken place in my apartment while I was on the road.

On a cold night in December, two men rang the doorbell to the apartment building in which Daniel and I had lived, announcing their presence. Daniel made his way to the window overlooking the avenue below, looked down to the street, and recognized the faces of his eventual killers. And so, thinking that he was safe because he knew his assailants, he had permitted the visitors entry into the apartment building. As soon as the killers crossed the threshold of the apartment building, they stopped for a few moments to collect themselves in the dark, then covered their faces with black ski masks. The assailants sprinted up the stairs that led to the apartment, shoved their way through the door with guns drawn, bound and gagged the new residents who were visiting from the apartment one floor up, and then proceeded to torture Daniel while making demands for the money that he owed for drug sales. When it became clear that Daniel would not be able to meet their demands, the assailants forced him down on his knees, shot him twice in the head, and ended his life. He was only twenty-seven years old when he was killed, a baby boy cut down in the prime of his existence.

I was quite shaken. Both the detectives were able to easily ascertain that, and they gave me some time and space to process everything that I’d just heard.

Although I’d lived in that apartment with Daniel for five short months, I knew that he’d been involved in questionable activities involving drugs and drug dealers. Some of the dealers would spend some late nights over at the apartment, laughing and inhaling smoke from gargantuan blunt cigarettes while conducting business in the common room, keeping me awake as I attempted to sleep in the adjoining bedroom.

The most frequent visitor was a guy named Jesus, a temperamental, rotund man of impressive height who wore glasses and sprouted a thin beard on his face. His body type and temperament had been diametrically opposed to that of Daniel, who had been skinny, balding, clean shaven, slight, shifty, and calm while alive. Daniel and Jesus mostly got along despite their many dissimilarities, except for those times when Jesus felt that he’d been “disrespected” by Daniel.

A particular instance came to my mind. Jesus and I were alone in the common room—the only time he and I were alone in my apartment. He fumed as he recounted the story of how Daniel, while being taxied around Brooklyn by Jesus, shed crumbs from a pastry that he’d been eating in Jesus’s car. Jesus remembered Daniel breaking into laughter after he’d chided him for his offense. And then Jesus’s face went beet red as he said, “It’s the ultimate sign of disrespect. Dropping crumbs in another man’s car, right? You wouldn’t like it if someone dropped crumbs in your car and then laughed if you asked that person to clean that shit up?”

“Of course, you’re right,” I said. “I wouldn’t want anyone shedding crumbs in my car and then laughing about it.” I inhaled a breath, for I had transported myself back to the memory of when I returned home from job hunting one afternoon and caught Daniel rifling through the contents of my duffel bag. I was a brand new tenant at the time, and not in the mood for another apartment search, so I shrugged off this disturbing discovery, taking Daniel at his word that he just wanted to make sure that he could trust me, the new guy. “But I don’t know. Maybe he just doesn’t understand that what he did was offensive. Or maybe he thought that since you guys are friends that you would let things slide a bit.”

Then came the explosion. “No, fuck that! I fucking asked him, and he should have taken me seriously. I ain’t got to take that kind of shit from him!”

“You’re right,” I said, waving my hands in surrender. “He should’ve known better.”

The detective seemed to be zeroing in on Jesus as a prime suspect for Daniel’s murder. I was more than eager to answer any and all of the questions that led to the hardening of the detective’s suspicions about the guy. Jesus’s professed trade was that of a professional bounty hunter. Bounty hunters use guns to accomplish their work, and I assumed that Jesus owned a significant stash of weapons. I also knew that if the detectives suspected that Jesus was involved in the murder of my roommate, then I could also be in immediate danger. And I would definitely feel safer if the police were able to capture the man who could potentially commit an act of violence against me. So, I cooperated with the police in every way possible.

But you know how the cops can be. Suspicion of others runs in their blood, even in the case of an individual—a person who was not in town at the time of the murder—who had voluntarily agreed to come down to the station to aid their investigation. The grizzled veteran wanted to know more about the drug sales, which were things that I hardly knew anything about.

He raised an eyebrow at my insistence that I had no knowledge of any actual transactions taking place and said, “A murder at your apartment. Lots of visitors coming over at all hours of the night, and you don’t know anything about any deals that might have went down at your place?”

Fear spread through me, increasing my blood pressure and the intensity of my subsequent breaths. I could hear my pulse pounding on the inside of my ears. My intuition began to whisper. “They’re going to try to keep you in here. Be careful what you say!”

I’d been away from my childhood home for only seven months, and in that time, I’d had to wrestle with the reality of a terrorist attack, the murder of a roommate, and the subsequent bout with homelessness that followed that murder. There was no way I was going to be able to accommodate having to spend a significant amount of time in a police station where cops and criminals roamed, thousands of miles away from home and family, and in a city that I barely knew. I was going to have to smack the nose of the dog that was clamping its jaws. “Look. I don’t know anything about any drugs deals. I have never sold drugs and I never will. You need to find Jesus. He is the one you need to talk to about all of this!”

And when he became resigned to the fact that my story was not likely to change, the bulldog would eventually release his hold on me.

•••

The younger detective took my back to my apartment and allowed me to enter. My heart broke upon first glance at what the apartment had become, the scene of a horrific and terrible crime.

Before it had been defiled and ransacked, this unit had the look of a warehouse that had been converted into a makeshift art studio; an impressionist painting encompassed the entirety of the living room wall. Daniel and I had lived harmoniously with two young actresses in happier days.

Daniel was the native New Yorker, the man with all of these connections to all of the cool and interesting people. These people often graced the apartment with their presence when parties great and rambunctious, small and intimate, were held. He’d even allowed me to tend bar at one of his house parties, even though I knew nothing of bartending. The actresses—both of whom had moved out of the apartment before the murder—and I were grateful to have been within Daniel’s orbit.

But Daniel was gone now, an unfortunate casualty of a world that is often very cruel and unforgiving, and life was moving on without him. His apartment looked as if a tornado had ripped through it, and Daniel’s dried blood was smeared along the wall behind his desk. I swallowed the urge to hurl at the sight of the blood and continued ahead, wading through the wreckage in the search for my things. The detective’s pattern of movement through the apartment would match my own.

When we arrived in what had once been my bedroom, the detective informed me of Daniel’s older brother, who lived in a more affluent area of the Brooklyn borough. “He has kept your computer for you,” the detective said. “You should go and talk to him.”

He wrote the number of the brother on the back of his card and handed to me. I let out an audible sigh. I was going to have to talk with Daniel’s older brother now? That was certain to be another unpleasant, although necessary, thing that I was going to have to do.

•••

As I approached the L train station with what possessions I was able to grab in hand, I heard a voice from behind calling my name. Heart pounding, I twisted my head around to meet the call and saw that the black detective was jogging in my direction, carrying photographs in his right hand. My headshots! “You forgot these,” he said handing the photos me. “Good luck to you.”

“Thank you,” I said, grateful for the gesture.

It was then that the anxiety and fear began give way to an incipient faith. There was a reason why I had been spared the fate that had befallen my unfortunate roommate. The serendipitous timing of the theatre tour spoke to something larger at work in my favor: I had an ally of the invisible kind, protecting me.

So I was going to be all right, just like the city of New York was going to be. We would both persevere. I’d just have to get through meeting with Daniel’s brother before I could begin to pick up the pieces of a shattered life. It wasn’t fair I had to start again from the bottom, but I was young, energetic, ambitious, and too brave and sure of myself to travel back home with my tail between my legs. Surviving at the hostel for the next few weeks before I embarked on my next tour of the United States of America wouldn’t be too difficult. And after touring, I would return to New York City with the wind beneath my sails, ready for the next stage of my journey.

•••

EZE IHENETU is a hospital worker and freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. Once a teacher and an actor, Eze is confident that writing will be the last stop on his long professional journey. He is currently working on a memoir about his time as an elementary school teacher. You can reach him on twitter at @Eihenetu.

Read more FGP essays by Eze Ihenetu.

Full Grown People’s 2017 Pushcart Nominations

By Jennifer Niesslein

It’s that time again, when editors across the land reread what they’ve published in the last year, then drive themselves bonkers trying to compare all the apples and oranges and figs and molten lava cakes and palak paneers and potato salads and bánh baos they published in the last year. Editors of small presses get six nominations for each year’s Pushcart Prize, and I take it seriously.

I’m excited to present FGP’s Pushcart nominees for this year.

Laura Giovanelli’s “The Size of a Memory, the Size of a Heart”

I am going to be a mother, and all I can think about is my father.

Jody Mace’s “Schrödinger’s Horn”

It seems like there’s only one right answer. I have to keep him safe. But it’s so much more complicated. It’s difficult to know at any given moment if he should no longer be doing something he used to be able to handle.

JJ Mulligan’s “Transference”

My wife left the appointment satisfied with the pediatrician’s explanation—seizures left her mind—and ready to ignore our daughter’s future fist clenching scenes and moments of rage when they should start to appear. I, on the other hand, was distraught; I knew that the pediatrician didn’t have the full story and neither did my wife.

Catherine Newman’s “Just. Don’t.”

Something is wrong with me, only I don’t know what it is. Or how to fix it. In the middle of the day or night, rage fizzes up inside my ribcage. It burns and unspools, as berserk and sulfuric as those black-snake fireworks from childhood: one tiny pellet, with seemingly infinite potential to create dark matter—dark matter that’s kind of like a magic serpent and kind of like a giant ash turd. This is how it is for me right now.

Hema Padhu’s “Coming Home”

I felt her papery lips kiss me on both cheeks and sensed in her touch both excitement and trepidation as if she couldn’t believe she had crossed the ocean to visit her daughter in America. The country I had chosen over my birthplace. The country I now called home and to which she had lost me almost fifteen years ago.

María Joaquina Villaseñor’s “Rent”

Today, almost thirty years later, I long to remember the faces or names or stories of others who were in that safe house with us, experiencing something similar.

Each of these is accompanied by the brilliant photography of Gina Easley, who keeps FGP looking good.

If you haven’t read these, you have a damn good Thursday ahead of you!

•••

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

I, The Jury

Photo By YoLaGringo/Flickr

By Israela Margalit

I walked down the long hallway to the jury room. Aspiring pianists tried to read their fate in my face. Did she smile? Did she frown?

We’d just heard the twenty-four quarter-finalists, and in a few minutes we’d weed out half of them and announce the dozen semi-finalists. The failure to make it to the semis can mean the loss of a scholarship, the erosion of family support, a devastating blow to self-confidence. The jury’s decision is final, its power absolute. There are no appeals.

I savor the opportunity to discover new talent, but I don’t relish playing God in other people’s lives. Most of all, I dread the chats with the losers. They say they want the truth no matter how painful—“Tell me why I was eliminated and how I can improve” —but what they really want is validation, something to assure them their talent has been recognized. I could say I enjoyed their performance and was surprised when we tallied the votes and I saw their names at the bottom. That would give them hope but wouldn’t help them grow. I could say they played beautifully but that the level was just too high. That would be cruel. We educate our children to work hard, we praise them for putting in effort, we assure them that if they apply themselves they’ll be rewarded. Then they go into the world and get crushed by rejection for not being as good as the next guy.

What can I say to sustain their self-esteem without hyping futile expectations? I remember well my younger years when harsh criticism could pierce my heart. Who are we, the judges? What gives us the right to destroy someone’s dream?

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The first jury I served on, I was determined that only the best would win. I suggested to my fellow jurors that we select somebody who could shine at Carnegie Hall rather than play like a well-schooled student. Everybody agreed. We all ranked each pianist and tabulated the results not once, but twice. The pianist who got the most points won. Nevertheless the outcome was disheartening. I thought the silver medalist was outstanding. After the award winners’ gala, I remarked that the second prizewinner would probably become world famous while the recipient of the jury prize might be forgotten. I glanced at my fellow judges—all seasoned musicians—hoping to provoke strong reactions that would betray the culprits who’d propelled the winner to the top. Instead, everybody laughed, and some said, “We’ll see.” And, “Don’t be so sure.”

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The voting system is carefully structured to prevent bias and undue influence. The highest and the lowest marks are thrown out. No deliberation is allowed until the votes have been cast. And yet, mediocrity often wins. Here is how it can happen: I’m a judge from the fictitious state of Transatlantica. My government has sent me to the competition and paid for my airfare. I give the Transatlantic contestant high marks, but not so high as to stick out and get discarded. Then I identify the pianist who poses the biggest threat to the Transatlantic contestant’s standing, and I give him consistently low marks. Multiply me by five, and his chances of winning are null, while my guy may just sneak up to the podium.

There are also unimpeachable motives that propel judges to vote for average performers. What’s pedestrian to my ear may be enthralling to another’s. One judge may disapprove of an interpretation he deems unfaithful to the composer’s intentions, while I may view it as original and fresh. I once served as an observer at a famous competition. Six of the jury members rejected flair, preferring a strict adherence to tradition, while the other six celebrated virtuosity, imagination, and personality. In the end the scores of each group offset those of the other, and the most lackluster pianist, who hadn’t offended either camp, was declared the winner.

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Competitions came and went, and my preferred pianists sometimes won and sometimes lost. In one competition, the organizers campaigned for their favorite contestant, a rather ordinary performer who hadn’t distinguished himself either technically or artistically. Their actions were an affront to fair process, quashed only when some of us in the jury threatened to go to the press. Those of us who’d led the revolt were not invited back.

In another competition, a Russian judge told me on day one that he had been on a hundred fifty-nine international juries—only to add on the last day that a hundred fifty-nine of his students had won awards. One of them got the third prize in our competition. There was nothing remotely remarkable in his performance and I gave him very low marks. Somebody must have liked him a great deal to counterbalance my score.

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My favorite first-prize winner was an American male pianist of boundless sensitivity, who could turn a musical phrase into magic and lose himself in the indefinable. I looked forward to his New York debut recital, a decisive first introduction to the music world’s opinion makers, and an indicator of things to come. Even I, who had championed him throughout the competition, could not be certain that he had the chops for a successful international career until I saw him handle the pressure of a make-or-break concert.

A few weeks after he won he called me in despair: after graduation, he no longer qualified for a scholarship. His family was unable to pay for his lessons, and his teacher wasn’t willing to work with him for free. I assured him he was ready to do it on his own. He had to be, if he planned to embark on an international career. I knew all too well what could happen to a performer who failed in New York. Two of my friends, both excellent pianists, had been relegated to regional careers because they choked on the stage of Lincoln Center. Why a totally in-command pianist, capable of playing to perfection with his eyes closed, would fail to deliver at a crucial moment is a subject of endless analysis.

Think of Andy Roddick. He would have been placed on a pedestal had he won the fifth set in his last Wimbledon final with Federer. I watched that match like a laser, willing him to take that one extra daring shot. Close-up, I could see his eyes spelling caution, and I knew he wouldn’t make it. The line separating the champions from the runners-up is the thinnest of all lines known to man.

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However, the brilliant young pianist I so appreciated withstood the pressure. His prizewinner New York recital was nerve-free and inspiring, the hall was full, the applause enthusiastic. He was on his way to stardom but for the wrinkle of a mixed review in the Times. The reviewer—just like his teacher—failed to recognize his exceptionalism, or he was not in the mood to use big words like “phenomenal” or “one of a kind” that can propel a career into the stratosphere. Some people cry for a few days, then move on. Not the young pianist in question. He viewed the review as the ultimate verdict of his chances, became overcome with doubt, and took a teaching job somewhere far away. Soon after that I lost track of him.

Years later he befriended me on Facebook. His timeline was filled with links to his performances on iTunes. I listened to some of them. Magnificent. He never lost that unique ability to arrest your attention with phrasing that came straight from the depth of the soul. It made me think of Paula Fox, the writer no one talked about until, when she was already over sixty, Jonathan Franzen stumbled on one of her books while browsing at the Yaddo library. You’d think such poignant elegance as, “I often thought of killing myself but then I wanted lunch,” would have caught attention, but no. Her prose was either ignored or unappreciated until the famous Franzen said the word.

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One can resurrect the career of an older writer, but classical music performers must make it at an early age of boundless potential, before the muscles begin to atrophy, the body resists the stress of globetrotting, and promoters turn their attention to the new kids on the block. My beloved pianist has missed the moment, and there was nothing I could do to rejuvenate his career. We, the jury, can only hand a young talent an Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame, and the rest is history. That’s what my first agent said.

“What do you mean, history?” I asked.

He laughed. “You’re a huge success and we make history together, or you’re history.”

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ISRAELA MARGALIT is a critically-acclaimed playwright, television writer, concert pianist, recording artist, and recently a published author of short fiction and creative nonfiction, with awards or honors in all categories, including the Gold Medal, New York Film & TV Festival, an Emmy Nomination, and Best CD the British Music Industry Awards. Visit her website at http://www.israelamargalit.com/