I Know That Elmo Is Not a Child Molester

By Tiffany Terry/ Flickr

By Tiffany Terry/ Flickr

By Andrew Bomback

I’m not sure if crazy is the right word, but I went a little crazy right after my daughter turned one. I thought Elmo was real.

For a two-week period, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, my wife, daughter, and I lived with my parents while we waited for Con Edison to restore power to our home. Juno slept in a Pack-n-Play in my childhood bedroom, while Xenia and I slept next door, in my older brother’s bedroom. In the early hours of the morning, we huddled around an iPad to watch Sesame Street clips on YouTube, trying not to wake up my parents. We watched Elmo give up his binky, Elmo teach his special song to Big Bird and Snuffy, Elmo duet with Jason Mraz about the great outdoors, Elmo fall asleep to the dulcet sounds of the inimitable Andrea Bocelli, Elmo learn how to cross the street with the help of Hootie and the Blowfish, and Elmo try to comfort Norah Jones when the letter Y didn’t come. And, during this time, I never once thought that Elmo was anything other than a little monster. I certainly did not think of Elmo as a piece of cloth with plastic eyes, sitting atop the hand of a middle-aged man who had just been accused of statutory rape.

My wife joked that I was more addicted to the Elmo videos than my daughter, and she was right. I looked forward to diaper changes when I would prop the iPad up next to Juno’s head. Together we’d watch Elmo sing and laugh and just generally be a good kid (good monster) for the next four minutes. I gleefully fell through the YouTube hole, jumping from one video to another. I landed on Elmo singing with Adam Sandler and Elmo playing football with a group of New York Jets players, which struck a particularly nostalgic chord: I used to love Adam Sandler movies, and all of the Jets players on the video were now retired. I found Elmo charming and endearing and, on more than one occasion, intentionally funny.

•••

A month earlier, we had chosen Elmo as the theme for Juno’s first birthday party because she had a few Elmo toys handed down to her from older cousins and, in the weeks leading up to the party, seemed to recognize his face. So we gave her an Elmo cake, we hung Elmo decorations, and my mother-in-law made her an Elmo piñata using chicken wire and paper mache. She screamed hysterically when the first of her cousins smacked the piñata, which her grandparents took to be a sign of her emotional intelligence. I didn’t love the idea of her becoming attached to a single character, especially one whose syntax was just above the level of baby talk and who seemed (to my admittedly naïve eyes at the time) so cloying.

Someone gave her a Sesame Street book at that party. Big Bird narrates and begins with, “Elmo is my friend. He likes to play and have fun. He likes to play pretend.” On the subsequent pages, Elmo pretends to be a fish, a bird, a frog, a dog, a star, and the wind. Big Bird, at the end, concludes, “I know that Elmo is not a bird. Elmo is not a fish or a frog. But it is fun to pretend. It is fun to pretend with a friend.” Each page of the book had a corresponding button that ran along the book’s spine, so that my daughter could press a picture of a frog and hear Big Bird say, “Elmo pretends to be a frog. He hops like a frog. He hops up and down.”

Juno sat on the kitchen floor, pressing the buttons over and over again, which is why I memorized the text. At night, after she fell asleep, I’d walk around the house imitating Big Bird, reciting the book verbatim. I told Xenia my theory on the book’s ending. “I bet it’s a legal thing. Just in case some kid jumps out of a window, trying to be a bird, or jumps into a lake, trying to be a fish, they can’t be held responsible.” She said I was overanalyzing a children’s book. “Seriously, though,” I continued, “it’s such deliberate language. I know that Elmo is not a bird. I know that Elmo is not a fish. He’s just pretending. It’s like a disclaimer on their part.” In my analysis, Elmo was clearly a construct of a corporation, a product meant for mass consumption. He was not real.

•••

My mother was obsessed with the news stories about Elmo’s puppeteer. Every night she gave us an update. “There’s another accuser now,” she said one night. “It’s so depressing,” she lamented another night. “He’s leaving the show,” she eventually told us, “but apparently they already have a number of Elmo backups that have been trained to do the voice.” She urged us to watch the documentary that was made a few years earlier about the man behind Elmo. “It’s amazing to see this big black man suddenly change his voice into a tiny little boy.” She said that the movie makes you feel as if Elmo’s personality is really this big black man’s personality. “That’s why this whole thing is so sad, to think that he was a child molester the whole time.”

The conversations were mostly one-sided. Xenia and I nodded but didn’t really get involved in the discourse. We had other, more important matters worrying us. When would we be able to go back to our home? Would there be any damage when we did go back? What were we going to do with everything in the refrigerator and freezer? What if our pipes burst? How were our neighbors faring? We were also exhausted, because living with my parents added about an hour to our commutes. I suppose I could chalk up my magical Elmo thinking to this temporary state of distress, but, really, how distressed were we? Our house had no power. We were living in my parents’ much nicer house until our power returned. Even at the time, I knew it would sound insane to complain about our situation.

•••

I admired Elmo’s consistency in refusing to speak in first person. When he was asked to do something, he often answered, “Elmo would love to.” Clearly, any monster savvy enough to use the “would love to” construction instead of a simple “yes” was aware of the word “I.” I tried to find moments when he’d slip up and say “I” accidentally but never could find a single misstep. In the video with Hootie and the Blowfish, an instructional song about the importance of holding an adult’s hand when crossing the street, the band and a gang of humans (adults and children) and monsters (adults and children, too) blare out the chorus, “Hold my hand!” If you listen closely, though, Elmo can be heard very clearly separating himself from the others, almost smugly belting out, “Hold Elmo’s hand!”

I found this smugness endearing, though. In fact, precocious is probably a better descriptor than smug. When my daughter was asleep and I had full license to curse, I’d perform for my wife an addendum to the “Elmo’s song” video. In the video, Elmo sings his classic song (“La la la la, la la la la, Elmo’s song”) and teaches Big Bird and Snuffy how to sing it themselves (i.e. “La la la la, la la la la, Big Bird’s Song”). After the song, Elmo calls out for Gordon and explains to Big Bird and Snuffy that he wants to teach Gordon how to sing the song, too. Big Bird enthusiastically responds by suggesting they also teach Gabby the song as the video fades out.

In my addendum, Elmo shifts into a foul-mouthed diva as soon as the camera stops rolling. “Elmo doesn’t remember saying anything about Gabby. Elmo said Gordon. Did you hear Elmo say Gabby? Elmo didn’t think so. Let Gabby do her own shit for a change. Gabby’s always trying to get in on Elmo’s shit. Who the fuck is Gabby?” I did this routine lying in the darkness in my older brother’s bedroom.

•••

As a courtesy for customers who’d called to complain about their power outage, Con Edison placed an automated call when power was restored. I was at work, seeing a patient, when I received the message. I apologized to the patient, told him I had to take the call, and heard a feminine robot voice tell me that I could return home. I hung up and must have done a poor job hiding my emotions, because the patient asked, “Doc, are you okay?”

I answered, “Yes, yes. I just found out my power was restored.”

The patient responded, “Oh, that’s great news, Doc. Great news. I was worried that something bad had happened.”

The house was cold that evening, so we congregated in my daughter’s bedroom with a space heater on full blast. Xenia and I catalogued all the home-related tasks we’d have to do in the coming days, while Juno bounced around from one toy to another. Nearly all of the gifts for her Elmo-themed first birthday were Elmo-related. She “read” some of her Elmo books. She gave hugs and kisses to her Elmo stuffed animal. She threw her Elmo hand puppet up in the air. She worked on a four-piece Elmo puzzle. I was again struck by the sour feeling that Elmo was a product for mass consumption. I did my best Big Bird impression for my wife. “I know that Elmo is not a bird. Elmo is not a frog or a fish or a child molester.”

•••

There’s a video on my phone that I shot during our two-week stay with my parents. One of their dining room walls is a full-length mirror, to give the illusion that the room is bigger than it really is, and Juno loved sitting on the floor and watching herself. I shot the video after we noticed, one night, that she was trying to kiss her reflection. She’d smile, lean in, and then bang her head on the mirror. She did it over and over again, without the slightest hint of frustration. At the end of the video, you can hear me saying through my laughter, “She’s going to hurt herself,” but she never did. When we returned to our home, and I put Juno in front of our mirrors, she never repeated the kissing game. Perhaps, in those two weeks, she learned the concept of a reflection. Or, perhaps, maybe the little girl in the mirror was only real in her grandparents’ house.

Likewise, Elmo ceased being real as soon as I was in my own home, surrounded on all sides by Elmo merchandise. In my parents’ house, where Elmo only existed in YouTube videos on an iPad screen, he was like any other celebrity in my life, someone I thought I knew better than I really did. The same sentiment, of course, applies to the man who held Elmo on his hand and lent his voice to the puppet. We, the consumers of Elmo, did not really know this man. We knew what he pretended to be, and, to quote Big Bird, “It is fun to pretend with a friend.”

•••

ANDREW BOMBACK is a physician and writer. He is the author of You’re Too Wonderful To Die, a novel, and Chronic Kidney Disease and Hypertension Essentials, a textbook. His essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart, Essay Daily, Harlequin, For Every Year, Pharos, New England Journal of Medicine, and Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Sixteen Days

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By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Allie Smith

Standing at the podium, I felt numb with shock. I thought my grief would have subsided a little by now, because three weeks had passed. Three weeks. I had that lost feeling you get when you dream, where you know it can’t be real, but you’re still going through the motions in an altered world. There I was again, in front of a crowd of mourners whose eyes were all focused on me. My palms were wet and my heart raced. I shook, as if pure caffeine were running through my veins, and then in the next moment, I shivered from a cold that only I could feel.

Here, in Pennsylvania, the audience was more familiar to me than it had been at the funeral in Michigan. It was filled with my brother’s closest friends, members of our family, and my children, who sat in the front row. I hadn’t brought them to the Michigan funeral. At the time, they were still in school, and I was in no condition to be a parent. I was doing this all again for them. It was the least I could do; I’d kept them away from their uncle for almost two years.

Edmund had adored my children. Although he didn’t have any of his own, he truly loved kids. He spoiled mine with attention and presents, until he couldn’t anymore. Even after circumstances changed for him, I don’t think that the kids ever really noticed that the gifts and the attention slowed. To them, he was still their loud and gregarious uncle. He remained a steady presence and influence in their lives, until his demons got in the way. Until he didn’t look the same. Until his speech became incoherent. Until their mother made her decision.

In the months prior to his passing, I’d had a feeling that perhaps time was running out. There had been previous hospital stays, and during the last one, doctors suggested nursing care. I had no idea that things had gotten so dire. I called a friend who’s a nurse and she was brutally honest, and I panicked. I was familiar with Edmund’s disease, because it was the same one that had afflicted my parents. It’s the one you get from having a good time. From being the life of the party. From being the person everyone wants to hang out with. That is, until the disease flips the script and no one’s having a good time. And family and friends no longer want to hang out with you. I knew what the outcome would be, although I’d imagined years not weeks. I called my brother and planned a trip. As soon as school got out, the kids and I were headed to Michigan.

During the last few years of my brother’s life, I grew accustomed to late night phone calls. I didn’t enjoy waking to the ringing phone in the middle of the night, but at least I heard his voice and knew where he was. When the calls started, I would wake with fright, instinctively reluctant to pick up the phone, remembering the old adage about bad things happening in the middle of the night. The relief that I felt upon hearing his voice and the he’s okay feeling would soon turn to sadness when I realized that I couldn’t understand anything he was saying.

When the last call came, I wasn’t asleep. It was late, but I’d been restless, tossing and turning, my mind racing over all I had to do in the weeks leading up to the end of school. I jumped out of bed on the first ring, but I also rolled my eyes as I reached for the phone. I assumed he was hoping to get a “Happy Mother’s Day” in, just under the wire. But then I saw Kelly’s number. Kelly, my sweet sister-in-law who never called in the middle of the night. A lump formed in my throat as I answered. Adrenaline started pumping through me because it wasn’t Kelly’s voice that I heard, although her tears echoed in the background and pricked the surface of my skin as an unfamiliar voice said, “This is Lisa, Kelly’s neighbor…”

Almost two years before, I’d made the decision to keep my kids away from my brother on the heels of one of our many heart-to-heart discussions. During Edmund’s last visit we sat at the breakfast bar in my kitchen. He had become a different person and it scared me. He’d lost weight and moved slowly. He looked like a young man, but his gait was labored and wobbly. His speech was hesitant, as if pronouncing each word was difficult. His once bellowing voice was reduced to a hoarse whisper and he was uncharacteristically gentle.

I made my case and used all the clichés you do when you feel helpless. “I’m very worried about you.” “You have to stop.” “I don’t understand.” “You know what can happen.”

He was a master of deflection; he didn’t want to talk about the elephant in the room. Instead, he wanted to talk about my kids. He told me how much he loved them and that if anything happened to me or my husband, he wanted them. Then he took a slow sip of his poison, claiming it was innocuous because it was beer. I was nauseated as I felt the inevitability of history repeating itself. He was going to lose the battle, just as our parents had. With a shaky voice, I tried to explain the fear I had of having to tell my kids one day that he was dead. He promised me, “No, no, you won’t.” But he didn’t look at me and I did not believe him.

The year and a half that followed was a roller coaster, one that I navigated on the fly. There were rough moments, many of which led to months of radio silence between us. The kids would talk about him, but less frequently. Bear broke his foot and appeared on television with his class. Hunter graduated from elementary school and learned to play the trumpet. Audrey was accepted into the Company Ballet Program and received her First Communion. Camden learned to talk and joined a soccer team. Our life went on, minus Uncle Eggie. It was quieter, for sure, but also drama-free.

But when things deteriorated with Edmund’s condition, I had second thoughts. I changed my mind.

My kids missed the reunion with their uncle by sixteen days. Sixteen days.

I didn’t bring them to the funeral. I just couldn’t. I’d never felt grief like this before. Never. I cried constantly and was so dehydrated that no amount of water could satisfy my thirst. I lost ten pounds in four days. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop shaking. I was heartbroken. And angry. And guilt-ridden. I wanted to be alone, and yet people were everywhere. I had to help plan my baby brother’s funeral. There was no way that I would have been able to comfort my children, and I didn’t want them to see me in that condition. I knew that seeing my brother at the funeral would haunt me forever, and I couldn’t risk letting that happen to them.

When I learned that my brother’s friends in Pennsylvania were having a memorial service, I decided to take the children. I wanted them to have an opportunity for closure, although I didn’t know what that would mean.

Edmund was a Marine and a Gulf War veteran. His funeral and memorial service were attended by an honor guard. Watching the Marines fold a flag and ceremoniously give it to his widow wasn’t any easier the second time. As the mournful melody filled the room, my son Hunter sat straighter, filled with pride. Audrey crumbled in tears. Cammy, wide-eyed, stared at the soldiers, not fully comprehending the significance, but watched the ceremony with the awe that only a five-year-old can possess. Barrett, my child with autism, was on a computer in an adjoining room and occasionally made his presence known with giggles.

When I spoke during the service, I felt a stab of pain each time I made eye contact with my children. Hunter had the anguished expression that he gets when tries not cry, but Audrey made no such effort. She was weeping in my Aunt Ginny’s arms. Cammy looked around at me, his siblings and his aunts with profound confusion. As I spoke, I was desperate to connect my kids with Edmund. I reminisced about how each of them reminded me of him in their own ways. Barrett exudes his innate cockiness. Hunter is emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve. Audrey possesses his dance moves and the need to be the center of attention. Cammy has his charm and his way with the ladies.

I was so worried about the kids. I wanted them to feel the loss, but not the pain. As I watched their carefree innocence at the reception, I knew they were going to be okay.

I’m not okay. Grief aside, I still have much to resolve. If I could do it all over again, knowing how and when it would end, I would do it so differently. I would answer every phone call, I would visit every chance we had. I would say, “I love you” over and over again. I would accept that it is what it is—sometimes people can’t get better and it’s not their fault. I would make the most of the time we had left with him.

I’m so afraid that my kids won’t remember their uncle. I carry the burden of wondering if this will prove to be even more difficult because of the two years they lost with him. I thought I’d made the right decision for my children, to keep Edmund out of their lives. But was it? Or was it my ego and forty-one years of sibling history that drove my decision?

I have beaten myself up for this, talked it to death, forgiven myself, and then repeated the cycle all over again. I have been down the road of unsaid apologies and good-byes that were too late before.

I can claim that events, unfortunately, played out in the manner that I predicted. I knew that he was going to die from the disease, and I was right. Yet I so wish I hadn’t been right. I honestly, naively, thought it would have taken longer for him to succumb, but his body was done. At forty-one years old. In the immediate aftermath of my brother’s passing I doubted my choices. With the passage of time, I’m not so sure. What would have been the cost to my children if I had? What if he’d collapsed in front of them, or been incoherent? Would they have been scared? Or what if they’d laughed at him, not understanding that he wasn’t trying to be funny? As it is now, they smile when they talk about Edmund, which they do quite a bit. Would that have been the case had they seen him at his worst?

I followed my gut and did what I thought was best for my kids. Maybe I did the right thing, but it still hurts and that’s a pain I’ll have to live with, but at least they won’t.

•••

ALLIE SMITH lives in suburban Atlanta and is a wife and mother of four children, with twins and special needs in the mix. She writes about parenting, autism and the journey of motherhood at www.thelatchkeymom.com. She also writes book reviews for Chick Lit Plus. During the summers, Allie takes epic road trips with her children, exploring the wonders of our country. These adventures are documented in a travel column for My Forsyth magazine.

Not Now, and Maybe Never

bassinet

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Beth Bailey

If my life were a sitcom, or one of those feather-light family dramas paraded out each year with its supposedly new treatment of the same dusty issues, I’d have seen the plot twist coming miles out. My sister’s text message should have said everything. “Are you busy? I have something I need to tell you that I don’t want to text.”

While I typed that I was free, I thought of the plethora of things that could have happened. Had she or her boyfriend had another relapse? Did she lose her cat again? Was she going to ask for money to tide her over for the next month? Had I accidentally divulged one of her numerous secrets to our parents?

I didn’t have time to consider other possibilities because the phone was already ringing.

“Hey, how are you? What’s up?” This was me, anxiously trying to gauge the urgency of the situation.

“Sissy, I’m pregnant.”

When people get news like this, they make a big, sweeping statement, something like, “You could have knocked me over with a feather.” I used to think that those types of declarations were overwrought, but suddenly, I could commiserate. My head was reeling. I had to sit down and remind myself to breathe as I underwent a series of indescribable and permanent emotional transmutations.

My five-years-younger sister, a recovering addict with just months left in her several-year course of study in beauty school, was pregnant. The father was working on his own recovery. “He was scared,” my sister admitted when she described her boyfriend’s reaction to finding out he was soon going to be a father. “But then he wrote down this list of things he wanted to do for the baby. It was so cute.”

For the next few minutes, my sister paraded out a very thorough overview of how she came to discover she was pregnant. First, she said, she felt tired. “I didn’t even want to put on my makeup,” she said. The same day, all the other girls at beauty school told her that she looked like shit.

“I knew I was pregnant,” she said. “I told my boyfriend, and he said I was just being silly. He said, ‘You always think you’re pregnant.’ He and I got in a big fight about whether we could afford a pregnancy test. I walked out after the fight and went straight to the store. I spent the last two dollars in my account on some crappy store-brand tests. When I took the first one, there were two lines—faint, but pink. I tried again two days later. They were darker that time. I told Mom, and she said to wait, but I explained to her, you don’t get a false positive. It’s rare. Over the weekend, we went to the free clinic and they said I was definitely pregnant.”

“But … are you happy?” I wondered aloud.

“Yeah. I know it won’t always be sunshine and rainbows, but…”

•••

I had been dying to have this very conversation with my friends and family for what seems like forever. I have wanted to have a baby since the day after I married my husband. We will celebrate our two-year anniversary in six months. In times of old, we would already have one baby. Our second would be cooking in my stretch-marked, vertical-lined belly. I would exclaim with fervor about how often I felt my babies kick, and I’d lament to anyone who would listen about my morning sickness, the aches in my back. I would wax poetic about the knowledge that a life was growing inside of me. This was supposed to be my time in the sun.

Instead, my sister was pregnant at twenty-two. My sister who had been kicked off my dad’s car insurance for having too many speeding tickets and at-fault accidents to remain insurable. My sister who has to rely on a healthy—no, corpulent—injection of funds from my parents to make ends meet every month. My sister who has relapsed several times already, and who doesn’t yet have a year of sobriety under her belt. My sister was going to experience the unbridled joy of parenthood, albeit on a shoestring budget.

I went to the refrigerator and wrenched the cap from a bottle of beer. I walked briskly into the next room, leaned over our mahogany wine rack, and grabbed the first bottle of white I saw. Without ceremony, I threw it in the freezer of our new gourmet refrigerator.

•••

My grandmother had her first child nine months to the day after she was married. She’s Catholic, and whenever we talk, she chides me about not going to mass enough. Several weeks ago, I called her to chat. “You can call during the day?” she asked, incredulous. I explained that my new job was something I did from home, and that I was just a volunteer. “I see,” she said in disgust. I told her about how I was starting to ready one of our spare upstairs rooms for a nursery. I could hear her suck in her breath. “You aren’t pregnant, are you?” She spat the last bit like an accusation.

I cringed. At twenty-seven, didn’t I have the right to be pregnant? “No, Grandma. I just wanted to get the space ready for when we are.”

“Good,” she said, clearly relieved. “You’re not ready.”

I reminded her about the proximity of my dad’s birth to her marriage date, but it made no difference. For a reason I’m not privy to, she doesn’t think we should be having kids.

My husband and I own a five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom house with over an acre of sprawling lawn and mature woods. My husband works as an electrical engineer and I stay home, spending my time curating a startup Etsy shop, funneling my anger and passion into often half-baked writing endeavors, and cooking in our granite and stainless-steel kitchen. Admittedly, I am a terrible cleaner. My husband does all the vacuuming and the only mopping that actually cleans our oak floors. I tend to just spread around the dog hair and dust.

What about any of that made me an unsuitable candidate for parenthood? I wasn’t sure.

It took me weeks after that conversation to realize all over again that I was prepared for my eventual expedition into parenthood. More than half my planning is already done, for heaven’s sake. I know that I want to breastfeed, and which kind of bathtub insert I want for my children. I know that I want to give birth in a hospital where there are birthing tubs, and that I’d like to forego having an epidural, if I can handle it. I know exactly how many prenatal visits our health insurance will cover, and even when I’d like to conceive so that I’m not heavy with child in the hot summer months. Especially, I know that once I am pregnant, my life will change forever, and in ways even I cannot premeditate.

Immediately I sense that my sister is blithely unaware of the intricacies of what she will be undertaking. My first hint is that she doesn’t understand the three-months rule—that most women don’t tell people they’re pregnant until they’re three months along, as that is considered the point after which a spontaneous miscarriage is least likely.

“I’m twenty-two, though,” she says. “I’m young and healthy, so I’ll probably be fine.”

Just throw another dagger, I want to say. But I don’t. Instead, I play the role of the good older sister. I try my hardest to be supportive of her difficult decision and not to let her see how much I am personally and selfishly hurting.

I also fill the rest of my familial duty by peppering her with questions about things she has yet to consider. Has she thought about the price of child care? What happens if the baby’s father doesn’t stick around? Has she considered adoption? I tell her she really ought to keep it in the back of her mind, just in case.

•••

Even as I mention adoption to my sister, I understand how it must sound. My sister and I are both adopted. We are the most different people you can possibly imagine, and that’s because we have vastly different genetic makeups, which I believe contained the hard-wiring for the people we would become.

When we were growing up, my sister refused to accept our parents as her parents. She felt separate from them, and she wanted desperately to be reunited with her birth mother. She was certain that when she did meet her birth mother, she would have the life she always dreamed of: love and unicorns and rainbow glitter skies. Of course, the rest of us knew it wouldn’t have worked that way, but we all loved my sister too much to explain the meaning of “closed adoption.” By the time she was five, my sister’s adoption became the banner she marched into emotionally-devastating battles; her birthday the scene of many a tragic lamentation and outburst rather than a day of joy.

I never felt the way my sister did. I understood what “closed” meant, and I loved my parents. Still, every good drama needs a plot twist, and mine arrived when I was twenty, when I finally learned that my adoption had always been incredibly different than my sister’s.

When my birth mother released me to my parents, she sent along a short letter, which was to be given to me on my eighteenth birthday. My parents gave me this letter two years late. The paper was blue and white, the words written in a lovely round script. “To the baby girl I gave up for adoption,” it read. “If I loved you a little, I would have kept you for myself. But I love you a lot, so I am giving you up.” According to my birth mother’s letter, on reaching adulthood, I could petition Catholic Charities to find her identity. I was astonished. Growing up thinking that I’d never know my birth parents, I hadn’t considered the whole world of possibilities that I now knew could be waiting for me. The prospect was a lot to take in.

“Your sister can’t know,” my parents reminded me, over and over again. “She would be devastated.”

Years later, as I was preparing to marry and move out of my home state, I finally petitioned Catholic Charities. In a matter of weeks, I was united with both sides of my birth family. From the outset, I was startled and pleasantly overwhelmed by the outpouring of excitement and love from the people whose genes I carry. It was, and still is, a fairy tale. Even in fairy tales, however, there is scar tissue underlying all that sparkling joy.

A great deal of sadness permeates my birth family—children tragically lost, relationships strained by lies and secrets kept—but one of the most poignant and untold stories revolves around my birth mother. At twenty years old and between colleges, she had made a hard decision for herself when she found herself pregnant with me. She knew that she couldn’t be the kind of parent she thought I deserved, and she didn’t want me to spend my life shuffling between various family members while she eked out a living.

In the years that passed after my adoption, though, the separation weighed on her. She listened extra hard when strangers spoke of their adopted children, and she looked closely at passing girls or young women who seemed close to my age. Every year on the birthday that we share, she and her husband would take a drive past the hospital where I was born. I can’t imagine how she handled the seven years between my eighteenth birthday and the year we finally met.

Even my newfound relatives bring up my birth mother’s sadness. As only family can, they paint their speculation and concern with a brush that manages to be both coarse and fine.

The only people who really matter in this are my birth mother and myself, and we have rested on the light assertion that we found each other at just the right time, when we were both finally ready.

“You wouldn’t have liked the person I was before,” I told her once, and I truly meant it. I didn’t even like that person.

•••

There is so much baggage inherently tangled up in adoption that I have misgivings recommending it to my sister. But more than that, I have firsthand knowledge of a slew of things that give me deep concerns about my sister’s soon-to-be motherhood.

When we were growing up, my sister was always the difficult one. The chores I took on at age seven, for instance, were not inherited by my sister at the same age. I saw injustice in this, but it was explained away easily. “It’s too much of a fight to get her to set the table, honey,” my mom would say in her most exasperated voice. “Could you please just do it?” And with that, I would be off doing two children’s worth of chores while my sister screamed and cried and gnashed her teeth about things as simple as turning off the television or copying out a list of twenty spelling words.

As she got older, my sister’s issues only escalated. She was bipolar and dyslexic, with a wicked case of ADHD. She was also a serial perfectionist; if a paper my sister wrote or a homework assignment she finished wasn’t clean and error-free, she wouldn’t hand it in. That was only applicable in the classes she liked. In the others, like math, she simply didn’t pay attention. Not surprisingly, her grades were abysmal.

Other issues kept cropping up with increased frequency. My sister chopped off all her hair á là Britney Spears in one of her bipolar depressions, and shortly thereafter, she threatened suicide. Next, she started to lie about where she was on weekend evenings with friends, and on several occasions, I watched in awe as my younger sister was carted home drunk or high. Once, she ran away from home for almost two weeks. While she was gone, neither of my parents would call the police to report her as a runaway; they were too worried that they might give her a police record.

Meanwhile, from what ought to have been a safe distance away at college, I was slowly going insane. My mouth broke out in stress ulcers from all the phone calls from my parents, who vented their frustrations about my sister to me rather than to one another because they no longer spoke. I acted out in stupid and destructive ways, and I went from having a three-point-something GPA to falling asleep in all my classes and getting my first failing grades.

Most of my antics and issues went unnoticed, though, because things were even worse for my sister. Over the next few years, she turned eighteen and started drinking to incredible excess. That quickly escalated to serious drug use. In her post-high school years, my sister trashed several apartments across the state of Virginia because she was always messed up, and unable to function like a normal young adult. Soon after moving back home from a brief stint at a community college near JMU, my sister got incredibly intoxicated and tried to kill herself by overdosing on pills. She called a friend to say goodbye, and instead of accepting my sister’s decision, her friend called 911.

When the ambulance came, my sister was furious. At the hospital, a host of nurses fed my sister whatever you give kids who OD on pills, maybe charcoal. Maybe they pumped her stomach. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that somehow, they saved her.

My dad called me the next evening to tell me what had happened. I was in DC for two weeks of work training at the time, and when I got the belated news, I felt like my life was falling apart before my eyes and there was nothing I could do to stop the shattering. My sister and I may not have ever been close, but I did not want to lose her. She was my sister, my partner in many a silly crime. She was the girl who always woke me up on Christmas morning to tell me how she’d gotten around our parents’ elaborate holiday security barriers. Even though I always begged her not to, she never failed to divulge exactly what Santa had brought each of us the night before.

While my sister was recovering at a psychiatric hospital, I called her several times a day. I remember that it was hard to get her to stay on the phone. She was mad and her fuse was short. The nurses, she said, were mean to her.

Because my sister was legally an adult, she was able to check herself out of the psychiatric hospital and come back home. She was determined to stay sober, she said. That determination lasted a few days. After that, the Facebook statuses about trying to hide her binge drinking from my parents started coming fast and furious. My sister had blocked my parents from being able to see her page, but she hadn’t blocked me, and I had no qualms about playing the narc. Every time that I saw another indicator that my sister was back on the path of killing herself, I called each of my parents at their separate homes to rat her out. They seemed to think it was no big deal, that everything was fine. “You’re not here,” they’d say. “You don’t see her every day.” And as usual, they continued to speak to me and not to one another.

A few days later, I got a phone call at seven on a Saturday morning. My sister was on the other end, slurring her speech and telling me how sorry she was for myriad random things she’d done wrong. We had a long conversation, none of which she remembers. Finally, I managed to get her to tell me that she was at my mom’s house, that she’d been drinking and she’d overdosed on a handful of pills for a second time. I tried to call my mom, but my sister, who had broken approximately her fifteenth cell phone, was using my mom’s cell phone, and my mom was nowhere to be found. After watching my sister stumble around the house and howl at an imaginary maid on Face Time, I called my dad. He eventually called an ambulance and followed my sister to the ER. He stayed there by my sister’s side as she told an unfazed nurse about the astounding variety and extent of her drug use. Over the next few hours, my sister’s hallucinations grew worse. She told my dad in vivid detail about the ghosts in the hospital room with them. She heard them as clear as a bell and spoke with them as if they really were there.

My sister’s next stop was the same psychiatric hospital she’d been in weeks earlier. This time, however, a judge ruled that she could not check herself out. The hospital was still just a stop-gap measure, and an expensive one; my family needed to hastily find a long-term rehabilitation facility that would accept their health insurance. Within days, they found a place in Florida where a spot was open, and my sister was sent there by herself on a plane with a layover in Atlanta. We all bit our nails to the bone while she was en route; it was entirely possible that my sister might try to jump ship midway through her travels. We took our own separate breaths of fresh air when the rehab facility confirmed that my sister was in their care.

When her time at rehab ended, my sister got and stayed clean living in a halfway house in Pensacola. After a time, she tried to go back to community college to make my parents happy. By her twenty-first birthday, which stupidly coincided with the week of my husband’s and my open bar wedding, she almost had a year of sobriety. She handled the wedding so well that several months later, my parents convinced her to move back to Virginia.

At home, the stress of being near all her old, bad-influence friends was too much for my sister. Just weeks into the new arrangement, some stupid kid convinced her to have “just one” drink. Many addicts will tell you that there’s no such thing as “just one drink.” “One is too many, and one hundred isn’t enough,” my sister used to say. The last time I heard her say it was just a few days before she fell off the thirteen-month wagon. It was August, and my mother was supposed to come visit for my birthday. She didn’t know what to do about my sister relapsing, so she thought she’d bring her up for the visit, too. I thought about the boxes of good Virginia wine stashed in the basement, the main floor liquor cabinet, our wine rack. Mostly, I thought about the way my sister was when she drank, and I wanted to scream. Instead, I was quiet, mouse-like: my usual self. Luckily, my husband played the hard-ass. He said that if my sister was back on the sauce, she wasn’t allowed in his house. It was the right decision, but not an easy one even to relay. Days later, my sister was headed back to her Florida halfway house to start over again.

Somewhere in there, I am missing something. Although my sister has been back in Florida now for over a year, she still hasn’t hit a year of sobriety. I don’t know when she slipped in Florida, or how, but I know she has. So, with a rusty track record of staying away from substances, she is expecting a child. And she is thrilled about it.

•••

My sister is taking in all my advice and my anxiety-filled diatribes like a champ. “I want to make this happen,” she says. “Everything happens for a reason, and maybe it’s time for me. I did all the stupid stuff most people do in their twenties, and I did it in my teens. It’s out of my system. I’m excited.”

I can’t imagine being so calm about being responsible for a life, especially when there has been so much uncertainty in one’s own current existence. I am flabbergasted, gob smacked. Mostly, though, I am jealous beyond measure at her grace and composure, her certainty, and the fact that she is going to have a baby, and I am not. She must sense it, even over the phone lines that span the thousand-and-change miles between us.

“You’re not mad, are you?” she asks me. “I mean, you were supposed to be the one having kids…”

“No, I’m not mad. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not like you planned this. It’s not like you wanted to get pregnant to spite me. This has nothing to do with me.”

This is what I ought to say in my role as supporter, mediator, life-saver. It’s not exactly a lie. I just have not yet figured out how to verbalize—or contend with—my disjointed alternate worlds of past, present, and possible future. Not now, and maybe never.

•••

BETH BAILEY lives in rural Michigan, where she is a wife and the proud owner of two fantastic and neurotic dogs. While finishing her first novel, Among the Stones, about love and the war in Afghanistan, Beth writes the occasional personal essay and has started working on a collection of essays about veterans of war. Her work has been published by Words After War. You can follow her on Twitter at BWBailey85.

Skipped

candles

By Roberto Cacho Toca/ Flickr

By Reyna Eisenstark

I stopped lying about my age when I was sixteen years old. This might not sound like much, but if I were to consider some of my life’s greatest moments of relief (a single but breathtakingly beautiful epidural injection shot perfectly into my spine comes to mind) that would be right up there at the top.

To make some sense of this, I should explain that this happened during the second half of my senior year of high school. I was actually not yet sixteen. My birthday was coming up, however, and my mother thought it would be a fun idea to have a sweet sixteen party for me. Or so she claimed. I’m not even sure what she was thinking, but I suspect she liked the idea of decorating and redecorating our apartment for an actual reason.

One night, about a month before my birthday, she and my stepfather came into my room. “We need to talk to you,” she began, which was enough to cause the panicked terrifying feeling that shot through the entirety of my teenage years. Had she looked through my journal yet again and discovered yet again that I was counting the days until I could leave home? I couldn’t begin to imagine what she imagined I had done. But no. It was simply this: “How old do your friends think you are?” she asked me, with a strange quizzical look.

“I don’t know,” I answered, as my panic increased.

“Do they have any idea how old you are?” she demanded.

And I told her that I guessed they probably didn’t.

Well! It turns out that my mother had called one of my best friends to plan this so-called party and discovered that my friend had no idea how old, or rather how young, I was. My mother suspected that none of my friends knew. And then here’s the part that seems like a miraculous gift to me now but, at the time, seemed like the cruelest punishment imaginable. She demanded that I tell every one of my friends, right this very minute, how old I was. The lie could not go on for a single minute longer.

Which is curious, in a way, because my mother has been lying about her age since I was a tiny child, although she always takes years off instead of adding years on. And she is fiercely protective of her birth date, which has changed slightly as the years have gone on. But for some reason, she would not sit by and watch while I kept my real (remarkably young) age from my friends. Perhaps she thought that I should have been proud of such a thing, but for years I had, of course, been ashamed of it.

For reasons unknown—but I suspect simply because my mother wanted me out of the house—I had started school an entire year before I should have. This wasn’t so terrible, as my birthday is in March and there were some kids born in the fall who were just a few months older than me. You were tall, my mother always told me, as though this was a good reason to start school a year early. I went to a small groovy private school that was happy enough to bend the rules.

But then when I was in fifth grade, this small groovy private school was suddenly no longer the place for me (I was never given a reason for this either), and when I switched to public school, my insane reading ability deemed it perfectly acceptable for me to skip another year. I was tall, remember.

And there I was, suddenly in sixth grade, aged nine-and-a-half, and in a permanent state of panic that people would find out. But as luck would have it, my sixth-grade teacher would not let anyone forget. We began learning Spanish that year, which played out like an exotic form of torture, in which I crossed my fingers tightly under my desk, praying that I would not be called on.

“Cuentos años tienes?” my teacher would ask, strolling around the room. How many years do you have? And in the sweetly vicious voice of a classic bully, she would add, “Reyna?”

“Tengo nueve años.” I have nine years. I would answer her as quietly as I could, my face burning with shame, noticing or possibly just imagining a murmuring sound everywhere in the room.

As the years went past, it became much easier to let people make assumptions about my real age, and if questioned, to lie about it.

“How old are you?” asked the meanest girl of a group of mean girls in my eighth grade class who called themselves The Dizzy Crew.

“How old do I look?” eleven-year-old me answered. She snorted.

“Ha! How old do you look??” Somehow this bought me some time.

And so, on the night I was forced to tell my friends my real age, the usual panicky feeling carried me along as I began to dial the first number, until I realized that something was happening to me. That enormous weight that that I had been carrying with me all this time, the weight of the two full years I had skipped, was slowly, and almost imperceptibly at first, lightening. My friends were surprised and kind of impressed by my confession. None of them thought less of me, as I had feared, and soon it just became part of who I was: their much younger, but still likable, friend.

And I carried on, graduating college at the tender age of twenty and, thus, headed out into the world, still too young to drink legally (confession: I did not let this stop me). I spent years thinking that I had an extra two years to do with as I liked, and maybe that’s why it took me so long to figure out an actual career (if I have, in fact, actually figured one out), since I really had plenty of time. In fact, I had two extra years! I would always have two extra years! It’s hard to pinpoint a single thing that has made me a lifelong procrastinator, but I’m considering that simple thought to be a good candidate.

The fact is that being two years younger than my peers was truly the most significant thing in my life, until one day…it wasn’t. One day, in fact, I was more likely to be the oldest person in a room than the youngest. It’s not really a revelation to point out that there is practically no difference at all between, say, forty-four and forty-six, but it astonishes me every time. After my marriage ended (to a man older than me, of course), I dated someone ten years younger, and my friend Rachel exclaimed, “I didn’t even know there was anyone younger than you!” I knew what she meant. I mean, in theory, there always had been people younger than me. But now, it was obvious. To people looking at me, I’m really just “a woman in her forties.” Or possibly, worse, a “middle-aged woman.” There is literally no evidence that I once felt constantly and hopelessly out of my element, that I tried desperately to catch up with things I was never quite sure I had fully processed. Suddenly, now I am wise. I have perspective. I can offer advice. Getting older has made me feel the one thing I’d never felt before: older.

And so, to the girl who spent several hours on the phone one night not long before her sixteenth birthday, I would like to say this: That thing that bothers you, that nags at you, that drives you to worry and exhaustion nearly every minute you think about it? One day it won’t even matter. In fact, it will cease to be something about you, about who you are at all. One day, and I know you probably won’t even believe this, but one day you might not even remember how old you are. And I am certain that nearly sixteen-year-old me would look at her future self—a maybe forty-something woman?—and turn right back around to what she was doing. I’m pretty certain she’d hardly notice me at all.

•••

REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her essays at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com. At the time of this writing, she is forty-four-and-a-half years old.

Never Say I Didn’t Bring You Flowers

sunflowersBy Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jane Eaton Hamilton

She’d left so many bruises that I needed long sleeves in August, and I finally told her, quietly, firmly, that I couldn’t stand covering up through the heat wave any longer.

“But the windows open now,” she said, annoyed since I’d just hired people to reconstruct the living room sash and pulls.

I’d learned how to phrase things so that I wasn’t talking about what I was really talking about. “Which is really only helpful…” I said, pushing slick strands from my forehead in the thick-aired room, “if there’s a breeze. What I really need is to be able to wear summer clothes.”

•••

She never felt remorse after the intimidation, after the bruises.

Only once, after she scared me seriously with back-to-back rages, a raised fist, and trying to yank me out of my escape car, did she apologize, but even that regret vaporized in twelve hours.

•••

One time she screamed in the middle of a rage, “Tell me who I am!” and her voice went wobbly at the word “am” while she grabbed her hair and shook it.

I don’t know, I wanted to say. Nobody I’d like to meet in a dark alley.

•••

Within three weeks of our knowing each other, she had her first meltdown. That’s the name she already had for these things, her meltdowns.

Her meltdowns.

My wife as a nuclear power plant. My wife as reactor #1 with complete core deliquescence. My wife as a fuel rod with explosive concentration limits.

Red-faced rage is what it was.

I’d risen from bed an hour after she started snoring because I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t stand my insomnia one minute longer. I watched TV in the living room until I nodded off.

I woke to her screaming inches away from my face, spittle rain. “Why are you out of bed you know I can’t sleep if you’re gone you know I need you in bed beside me you’re so fucking selfish you know I can’t be alone!”

I was—I don’t remember what I was. Shocked. Dazed with sleep. Confused. Certainly scared.

“I have to get up unlike some of us I have an important job do you want me to kill someone when I’m overtired because you kept me up?”

If I didn’t sleep beside her, properly, someone could die.

•••

When she was good

She was very very good

And when she was bad

She was horrid

•••

Rinse and repeat. Add suicide threat and shake well.

•••

There at the beginning, she was regularly grumpy and snarky and mean like a child decompensating after a school day.

Eggshells. Crunch, crunch, under mine and the kids’ bare feet, sharp shards of white across our lives like carpet.

But then she got diagnosed and put on a “mood regulator.” It worked like flipping a switch—now we got the other side of her, the woman I had fallen so madly in love with. Her good side was a drug to me; I did anything I could think of to court it.

She was funny and quick, and she thought I was hilarious. I lived for her peals of ready laughter. She was dependable, sweet, and attentive. We read fiction together. We could discuss politics, social justice, feminism. She was plot doctor for my novels. I counted on her intelligence. We made a family together. We bought a house. We adopted a cause, and together with other folks, we sued the government and changed our country’s constitution. We grew a garden. We went to Africa, to Greece, to Paris, to Fiji, to Thailand, to Cuba. To art museums, to dinners, to dance and symphony. We slid down sand dunes in Oregon and Fiji and Namibia; renewed vows on elephant back, at the top of the Empire state building, in a hot air balloon, in a Thai tuk-tuk. When she was happy to see me—which was always until she met someone who’d had a vituperative divorce and she became, herself, imitatively scurrilous—she’d turn around and wave her butt as if it was a thumping tail.

•••

But this was how we still talked about her violence after nearly two decades: politely, with obfuscation. We did not need to refer to where I got the bruises, since both of us knew that, or what she had done to cause them—the two or three times a week, she held me by force and I would repeat, my voice half dead from weariness and repetition, Stop. Let me go. You’re hurting me. Trying to wrench away, I knew, would make things worse. As the bruises bloomed like black roses, five to each stem, she pretended that I had a blood disorder, and once, once, when there were so many, she directed me to have the test to prove this. I did that, and it came back negative.

“You were trying to drag me out of the car that day,” I said.

“That was just one occasion.”

“We fought again and you grabbed me,” I said.

“The things you do. The things you do provoke me. I’m not putting the blame on you. I’m just saying be careful of what you do, be careful of what you do and how you do it.”

•••

I didn’t blame her, so forgiveness wasn’t needed. She was an important woman saddled with employment burdens, and for her, different rules, I thought, applied.  She thought so, too; whatever rule applied to the rest of us was not applicable to her because she was smarter, more educated, held aloft by the reverence her job provided her.

I gave her every benefit of doubt: She didn’t mean to hurt me. It wasn’t the real her who did those things. The real her was the good her.

•••

This is what I did with her violence when I was alone: I added it up—made charts—to see how much of it there was, relative to homework and cooking and sleeping and doing laundry and watching TV and celebrating occasions and ferrying kids and gardening and dancing—and stuff, you know—and it was less than one percent. 90% of the time, we were glowing: engaged, productive, tickled with each other; 9% of the time, we were like any long-term couple, a little inert, unexcited with each other; and only one percent of the time did things go topsy.

I shredded the charts afterwards so she wouldn’t find them.

After she made me leave her, my therapist said, “Would you tell me a car with bad brakes was basically a good car?”

I looked at her.

“If you were on the top of a hill, those bad brakes would be a pretty important flaw, wouldn’t they?”

“We could have moved to Kansas,” I said. “It’s flat in Kansas.”

She cocked her head. “I hate to let you in on this, Dorothy, but nobody lives in your Kansas. Toto doesn’t live in your Kansas. Your Kansas doesn’t even exist.”

•••

Her father went after me, after us, about six months after his wife died, after I started calling him Dad, even though all the other wives called him Dad.

There was no welcoming nomenclature for me, the lesbian. When I tried out my wavery “Dad,” he soon said I (and by extension, his daughter) had killed his wife with my “gay stuff.” I had disrespected his wife. I exploited his daughter. My house stunk and I smelled, too. “Gaijins know they stink,” he said.

This is the problem with never learning even rudimentary communication skills. Things percolate to the surface in destructive tsunamis. After his blow-up, the man refused to see us, his daughter and daughter-in-law, his two granddaughters, his great-granddaughter, for seven years, unless I would stay home.

From father to daughter, the inheritance of bullying.

•••

My relationship was continually under threat from my wife’s disrespectful peregrinations towards break-up, and since she never talked about these, I just sensed them, or wrangled with each lie on its own terms, and did whatever I could, anything I could, to protect us as a couple—silly things like putting white light around her, and her car, around our whole house of cards.

•••

Define domestic violence. Big dudes spring to mind, furious and fisted, their abuse flagrant, flamboyant, fervid. But butch though my wife was, she was not hefty, nor quintessentially angry of spirit, and if I asked you to pick out the likelier batterer in our relationship, ten out of ten people who didn’t know better, I’m guessing, would pick me, because I am raunchy of mouth, untactful, and larger, and just, you know, not “nicey,” whereas she is small, polite, warm, and obsequious.

They’re quite lovely, most batterers.

Lovely at home, too.

Until they’re not.

Size, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with being battered. And neither does gender.

All that you really need for battering is one person willing to batter.

The thing about batterers is that you can see what they’re not doing to you just as much as what’s transpiring. Yes, they are pinning you, but you can also see their gaze sliding sideways and fixing on the knife rack, considering. Yes, they are pulverizing the sofa, but you know by what they’re saying that they wish it was your face. Or they throw a bunch of stuff and then come rushing at you, fist raised, even though at the very last minute, they drop it.

I never hit you is technically correct.

But they have their ways of letting you know where their violence could go—if they want it to.

And this is always clear: You don’t get to decide.

They get to decide.

•••

At first we had a potted garden, but when we moved into our house, she went at the hard clay with a pickaxe, double digging, and we dumped bales of moss and vermiculite and compost into the soil four feet down. Together, over years, we made a perennial garden with different rooms and arbors and sunken pits and water features and pergolas.

Wisteria, roses, clematis, poppies, lilies, hydrangeas, palm trees.

•••

It didn’t fit with her self-image to be an enraged beast—it shamed her, so she “disappeared” it. After flagrant episodes, she’d threaten to kill herself.

Or else threatening to kill herself just ended the fight without dealing with the matters at hand.

•••

After I left her, she admitted that she had no sense of self, and said she had a personality disorder (she declined to say which). She said that she had never—ever, not once—told the truth to anyone. “I just tell them what I think they want to hear,” she said, “and nobody has a clue.”

“What?” I said, “what?”  I had lived with her for almost two decades.  Wouldn’t I have known this?

“Even you,” she said. “I lied to you from the day I met you. Every word out of my mouth? Lies. Every word.”

•••

I was disabled, and she became my legs; over the years, as I grew sicker, I became more and more dependent on her care-giving and support.

She always ran ahead of our lives to see whether I could handle the terrain—and I believed that she didn’t mind. I thought she was in it for me, and I was in it for her, and we were in it for our family.

But after she broke us, she told me that living with a cripple had been like living a quarter life.

“Not even a half life?” I said, blubbering.

“A quarter life,” she repeated.

•••

We made up new words or we mangled the pronunciation of extant words. Our convos looped and spiraled until we were linguistically charmed.

•••

In 1997, she adopted the kids when our laws changed to allow it. They needed independent counsel to understand what rights they were waiving and what rights they were gaining; someone to make certain we weren’t coercing them. In those early years together, we couldn’t, as a lesbian couple, get married, but the adoption made us family and confirmed that we would always be linked, and confirmed who would inherit if she died.

•••

She had breast cancer, in situ; lumpectomy and radiation recommended. She opted for chemo, and the less-generous-me wondered if it was so other people would see her suffer.

After she healed, she held her illness over me like a sword.

“I’m having trouble swallowing,” she said when wouldn’t eat her dinner and didn’t want me to know that she’d already had dinner with her lover.

•••

She twisted my wrist when she held my hand—not once, not a dozen times, but hundreds of times. I talked to her about it often, saying how much it upset me, and also how it wrecked my hands, wrist, and elbow, gave me carpal tunnel and tendonitis etc., and for a few minutes after I said something, she’d stop squeezing, stop twisting, and we’d be just sweethearts, walking, like all the other queer sweethearts strolling around Trout Lake, madly in love, until she started again, bearing down hard, wrenching it left.

My interior monologue ran like this:

She’s happy she loves me she wouldn’t hurt me not on purpose it can’t be voluntary it must be because she’s learning to lead in dance and she’s working on developing a “frame.”

As if sense enters into battering. As if logic has the slightest role to play.

•••

In our long-time house, we had a hot tub, my wife and I. We had it installed right outside our back door, half roof-covered, half exposed, so that it was possible to be protected from the elements or not. We used it every day, pretty well, and that was where we decompressed from the stresses of our days—where we met in chit chat and bubbles.

Where I first saw her naked with the other woman.

•••

There was something hinky in how I loved her after her cancer, how besottedly I cared. I took the car in, dealt with laundry, made dental appointments, hemmed her pants, cleaned the windows, bought the paint, changed the sheets, scrubbed the fridge, ferried the kids, ground the coffee, bought the birthday gifts, sent the thank you notes, booked the ferries, hotels and air, picked up the bulbs, arranged delivery of the compost, paid the bills, renewed the mortgage, and she pretty much worked, came home, and did the heavy lifting I was too ill to manage. She looked at me often, sometimes with derision, and said, “Oh my god, you are just so kind.”

But I was absolutely terrified to lose her. My favorite thing was being with her. Doing anything.

•••

Every year, or every two years, she’d decide she didn’t need her meds anymore, giving us a two-day slide into the bad old behavior.

And I’d ask myself: Which of her is real? Happy or harridan? I wanted to believe in the former, because she glowed with health and satisfaction, but a niggling part of me believed that, actually, it was the latter.

If both were, she was deeply bifurcated.

When off her pills, she’d pick fights. She’d pick pick pick pick at my Achilles’ heels. Bland, I’d remind myself, be bland bland bland, but about day four or five, I’d say something a teeny bit snarky back.

Then I became the reason she was mad. Me being a fuckhead became her explanation for everything.

•••

When she told me that she was leaving, she said that she’d wanted to go since thirteen years before, when she’d had cancer. But that wasn’t what she’d acted like at the time: during that hell, she’d stood on the rocks on a Pacific Ocean beach and asked me to marry her, then we’d become litigants in the same-sex marriage case and fought hard, against the government’s fifty lawyers, for three years—to marry each other. When we’d wed, she was as transported as I was. I’d swear it.

•••

We never stopped having sex, not all through the good times or the bad times, not even through the break-up.

•••

“I’m sorry that I scream,” she said. “Mine just comes out as rage and meltdowns. Yours comes out as hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt. Hurt, hurt. It’s not just me. I will take—I know I’m being fucking insane right now. Please. Please.”

•••

It wasn’t until after I left her and was blemish free that I understood that I wouldn’t have bruised at all—with ease or difficulty—if her fingers hadn’t been pressed into my flesh. It wasn’t until after I left her and I no longer had carpal tunnel, tendonitis, ulnar nerve trouble, and bursitis in my arms that I realized that it hadn’t been computer work causing the pain as she’d said.

•••

That last year, I had a bad reaction to my October flu shot, so the top of my arm was three times swollen, red, and griddle hot. No sleeve was large enough, so I was half-shirtless, my top jerry-rigged, part of the neck under my armpit. My wife pulled back her arm as if winding up to throw a baseball, then slammed her palm onto my wound, shaking her hand vigorously.

While smiling. Not a serial-killer-smile like on TV, but a loving smile.

A smile that ultimately told me whatever was going on inside her was in a code that I was never going to break.

•••

When I got more direct, challenging her on the uptick in violence as our marriage had gone to hell, she told me I had abused her, too. I asked how and she said by rolling my eyes, by smirking. And then she said, “By making me dance.”

In the years when I was well enough: jive, night club two-step, west coast swing, waltz, cha-cha, mambo, samba, meringue, rumba, salsa.

•••

That mid-August week in 2011, we negotiated ways to beat the summer heat so she could go on hurting me in her preferred manner. She set up a fan in front of one of the new windows to push the air around, and even though I lived there, in that room, largely, all day long, because I ran my photography studio from it, and I knew that it wouldn’t work, I appreciated it.

I appreciated it.

I was glad I had a considerate wife.

This is true.

By the next Wednesday, the bruises on my forearms had faded into yellow smears, and my new bouquets bloomed only my upper arms.

She looked at my arms and said, “Well, never say I didn’t bring you flowers.”

I laughed and snorted. Then I sobered. “Hon? Short sleeves I want to wear are, um, a lot shorter. Um. You know. Not, you know, down as far as my elbows.”

Blank stare.

I pulled my shirt back on. “I mean…” I lightly karate chopped my mid-upper left arm. “They end about here, right?”

The next week a new set of marks, dark, circular, insistent, appeared, but just on my shoulders.

•••

Her wedding vows:

“I feel so lucky. We have had ten wonderful years together. I already know that you will love, honor, and cherish, that you will comfort me in illness. I know that we can laugh so hard we end up crying. I now that you will wipe away my tears. I know that we can be angry without hate, that we can confront without fear, that we can resolve without resentment. There are no doubts, no questions. There is only this love. The synergistic miracle that turns one plus one into a billion shining stars. You and I together can do anything. I feel so lucky.”

2003, when she’d already wanted to leave me for five years.

•••

We spent years play-wrestling, giggling our way across our bed. But then I started getting injured, a whack to the head, an elbow pushed into my back, a neck pin. “Can we just go back to how we wrestled when you didn’t hurt me?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

•••

She leaned forward to confide in our couples’ counselor. Exasperated, long-suffering, she said, “I’ve been waiting—and waiting—and waiting for Jane to die.”

The counselor didn’t know what to do. Long, stilted, uncomfortable silence while I waited, sobbing, holding my hands over my face, and then the counselor changed the subject.

My wife hung two voodoo dolls, one white, one brown on her work bulletin board. She shoved pins, lots of pins, through the white doll’s chest.  Brown doll, white doll.  Asian wife, white wife.

•••

I remember all the energy I expended to keep her alive—all my care and concern and sacrifice and worry, how hard I worked to pick up income so we wouldn’t be saddled with financial worries—and when it hits me how she met that hope and drive and protectiveness doing exactly the opposite, wanting me dead, I have to breathe very deeply and slowly not to weep even now, even after four years.

•••

She started going all-the-time hooey when she turned fifty—broody and paranoid in slow increments. It was creepy and weird; she’d curve herself above me in my office chair so that I couldn’t get up, intimidating me, her voice thin and threatening. She’d lay waste to anniversaries and holidays. I took to counting her pills to see if she was medicated because I couldn’t always tell.

And then she didn’t want to garden. She didn’t want to work around the house. She wouldn’t clean the hot tub. She became a vegetarian. She lost sixty pounds. She became a gym fanatic and had to practice multiple musical instruments every evening, plus find time to meditate. During this mania, I knitted and watched TV, waiting for her to snap out of it. She seemed breakably happy. It never occurred to me that the woman she hung out with was her lover, not then, because I thought nothing could threaten us. But my wife no longer really slept. She showed signs of major anxiety—trichotillomania, twitchiness, flicking her thumb hard across her chin. She started referring to our kids as my kids instead of our kids. She started referring to her extended family as her family not our family. She stopped calling me by my nickname.

Her lies grew florid and silly.

She sat me down and told me gravely that she was sure her cancer had come back. Her cancer had been gone for thirteen years, yet everyone—not just me, but all her friends—treated her like it was active, as if she deserved special attention. Okay, I thought, cancer. Cancer again. We can do this. Even if, as I imagined likely, the metastasis was in her brain.

This particular lie, meant to throw me off the scent of her love affair, led me to push her hard towards a series of wholly unnecessary medical tests as serious as endoscopy and colonoscopy.

•••

Love and violence,

love and violence,

go together like

secrets and silence.

•••

Stockholm Syndrome.

•••

She blurted out that she was not a lesbian anymore and was going back to men. When I tried to sit her down to discuss it, and what it would mean to us, she refused to admit she’d said it.

She said I was nuts. You’re crazy. This is what you do. You make up stories.

Did she know she’d said it? Or not? I just could not tell.

In therapy, I brought it up again. I need to talk about some of these things she’s been telling me, I said. She repeated that she had not said it.

You only think that’s what she said, said the therapist. That’s what you heard.

No, I said, what she said was, I’m not a lesbian anymore. What I heard was that my marriage is in grave trouble.

A week later, at check-in, my wife said, Remember what Jane said I told her? Well, I did say that. Beat. Long beat while the therapist and I sat baffled. But I only meant that I had a hard time coming out eighteen years ago.

I said, How does ‘I’m not a lesbian anymore’ equate to ‘I had trouble coming out?’

Jane, said the therapist.  If that’s what she says she meant, I’m sure that’s what she meant. 

A later therapist said that my ex had just denied the things she’d said to mess with my head, a bully’s tactical maneuver.

To mess with my head.

The whole idea that anyone did anything just to mess with someone’s head was foreign to me, like a humanity-abruption, something shearing off, alien and grotesque, from the human womb.

•••

She believed my tears were exactly equivalent to her rages.

•••

I told her I was leaving with two weeks notice. I paid our common bills and took my half of our line of credit to live on until we could settle matters. It was finally clear to me after six months of trying, after therapy and one more chance after one more chance, after her telling me she was moving out and then not moving, after couples’ counseling that made everything worse, after her endless gaslighting and mendacity and threatening and pernicious lacks of basic good, after being scared out of my mind that she was actually going to kill me, finally, during those last months when I came to believe she wanted me dead in order not to split assets or pay support, that I had to get safe. But still I was, as I always had been, out of my mind with love for her. Unconditional love. I’d never imagined being apart. I was committed to her. We’d said forever. We’d challenged a government to prove it.

So I shaped leaving as a temporary separation just until she could get through anger management classes.

How do you leave someone you’re still smitten with?

But how do you not?

I was disabled and getting sicker faster and fifty-seven. I would have no income since I was too ill to work and, also, was leaving my studio behind in the house; I was leaping into a very deep well.

I did not believe that I could survive separation, and indeed, according to a cardiologist, I was only ten minutes from the truth. Losing my marriage pushed my disease into months of unstable angina and finally a massive heart attack, leading to more permanent cardiac damage, open heart surgery, and a chancy recovery beset with heart failure.

•••

The kids were packing boxes in the basement when my wife hip-checked me from the dishwasher. She emptied the dishes that I had stacked while I leaned on the kitchen counter behind her. She was more verbally pleasant to me than she’d been for weeks, because the kids were home. She restacked the dishes.

She sent me over a sweet, small smile.

I smiled back, tilted my head in puzzlement. She hadn’t smiled at me in months. Many times, I had asked for hugs. Many times, I had stood in front of her and nakedly said that I admired her, appreciated her, loved her while she stood with dead eyes just staring at me.

Now she came waltzing across the black and white tile and wrapped me in a bear hug. I didn’t know how to react. I started to cry right away from my sheer dumb human need for a little kindness, and from this woman who had been treating me like dog poop for months, and I wrapped my arms around her, too. She was being nice to me? Loving? So sweet, so long overdue.

But then I felt her thumb drilling into my left shoulder. At first it was like deep tissue massage that pinpointed pressure, until I registered pain. Pain? I thought of the children downstairs, embarrassed, and then I just succumbed to it the way I had to a heart attack. My arms fell.

Anyway, I knew our rules: This was (as always) a game of chicken.

I was (as always) half angry and half annihilated. Both together.

The annihilated one said, I am hurt. I believed in you. I trusted you. I gave my whole future to you. How could you do this to us, to me? To yourself?

The angry one said, Go ahead, take it further, you pig, I dare you. Do it. Do it, asshole. Do it harder. Want me to flinch? Well, fuck you fuck you fuck you. I will not flinch.

Who would stop first? Her, hurting me, or me, getting hurt? It wasn’t going to be me, goddammit. It was some point of obscene honor. I wasn’t going to give her my capitulation. I wasn’t going to hand her shrieks of weakness. I was leaving her to get safe when all I wanted was to stay—wasn’t that enough, losing my wife, my best friend, my business, my animals, my home, my garden, my income? Yes, that was all she could take. She didn’t get to see me on my knees, too.

If the kids had come upstairs, all they’d have seen was a hug.

Sure, she had rages. Sure, she threw things. Sure, she came at me with her fist raised. Sure, she screamed. Sure, she threatened suicide.  But a lot of her violence was this kind of violence, stealth violence that was hard to put into words (I think she counted on that).

It wasn’t spontaneous, this attack; it couldn’t have been. She’d had to conjure it up the way she conjured up sticking pins in a voodoo doll’s chest, the way she had to pre-think wrist twists. She probably had to research anatomy, unless it was something she’d learned in training. What I knew when she finished, I knew clear as a bell—she’d been planning this assault, strategically biding her time, studying up for its precision (even choosing my non-dominant arm). I knew that much, and maybe it was the first time in hundreds of incidents that I saw her for what she really was.

With everything else stripped away: a batterer.

At last she lifted her thumb. She broke the hug and fled.

I stared down at my arm, fascinated. It didn’t hurt. Instead it was—gone. My hand and arm were paralyzed. I hadn’t been expecting that; I’d assumed she was just hurting me like normal.

I went slowly upstairs. I didn’t know how to loop a sling without help, and it was clumsy, but I got fabric and used my right arm, my mouth, to rig it, my teeth to help tie the knot. I went back downstairs. She sat in the living room with a packing box and looked up, black-eyed.

“I have to go to Emerg,” I said. “I’m paralyzed.”

“What’s Emerg going to do?” she said. “Think that through. They’ll put you in a sling. You’re already in a sling.”

I thought, Yeah, she’s right, I guess. She’s the medical expert.

“Let me fix the sling,” she said.

So she did.

The kids came up from the basement. “What happened to your arm?” my daughter asked.

“I hurt my shoulder,” I said. Not, your mother paralyzed me. Not, I just got attacked.

The paralysis lasted three days in my arm, and five days in my hand, and damaged my hand permanently.

•••

After the house was sold, the roses were ripped out or died, Dortmund, New Dawn, Compassion, Charles Aznavour. The water feature was unplugged, the birdbath emptied, the mason bee house shaken until the bee-plugs fell. The chairs and table and heater were taken away. The delphiniums bent double on their stalks. New owners trashed the Chinese wisteria with the white raecemes two feet long. Someone threw renovation debris atop the garden beds that we’d carved out of clay, earth, and rocks, junked the sunken garden that my ex had built from glass beads during chemotherapy.

•••

Once, she and I had danced in the Milky Way under the Perseid meteor shower while bats skimmed our heads, out on the yard, me in bare feet, the grass cool and damp and impossibly green in strong moonlight, slugs munching the hostas, snails in their soft, translucent protoconchs slithering out for calcium.

Now I dreamed I walked through Allium giganteums alone, and they were high overhead, big balls, purple and bristling. I dreamed I walked under Magnolia grandiflora, and white blossoms floated down to cover me like tissues. There was a blue sky, but I couldn’t see it for the waxy leaves. Morning glory, tough, with white insistent roots, twined around my ankles and began to climb me, up over my calf and around my knee, binding me, a series of green hearts, then moved higher, higher, until it touched me where she had once put the tip of her tongue, and it stopped there, twitching.

And I stopped there, stopped.

When I woke again, it was moving day.

•••

JANE EATON HAMILTON is the Canadian author of eight books, including the just-released poetry volume Love Will Burst into a Thousand Shapes (available only in Canada). This piece first appeared in shorter form at Letter of Apology. She is the two-time winner of the CBC Literary Awards (2003/2014). Her winning story “Smiley” can be found online at CBC. She (sort of) blogs at janeeatonhamilton.wordpress.com; twitter: @eatonhamilton.

I Will Put Your Poem on the Wall

textfist

By Andrew Mason/ Flickr

By Jenny Poore

I have a meeting with a senator in two days. A real senator, too, not a state one. They say that he’s very handsome in real life. Like, when they make lists of things like that, of handsome senators, he’s usually on that list so it’s been suggested and verified by multiple other people, not just me. As I write this, two days before I meet the handsome senator, I am aware of a giant red bump protruding from my face, sitting above my upper lip and below my nose.

I have been torn all week between messing with the zit and just leaving it alone. I want it to be invisible immediately, but to make it be invisible immediately you have to mess with it, touch it and, poke at it with concealers that thwart the fairly effective spot treatment gel that I sometimes must use. The alternative (leaving it alone) means that the medicine is free to do its work. But to do this, to make it go away faster, means to leave it unconcealed where I must confront it whenever I pass my reflection (in mirrors, shiny appliances, freshly washed windows.) My four year old reminds me of it. Mommy, there’s something red above your nose, she says although she means below my nose.

I got an email last night from the senator’s people; they would like me to introduce the senator to the group of women I am hosting. Can I prepare remarks? Of course I can, of course. I can certainly do that. Instead of thinking of my remarks, though, I wonder how many more coatings of medicine I can get on my face in two days to make the zit be gone.

•••

For several years, an evangelist lived across the street from us. He was a grade-A moron but he loved the lord, and in the city where I live, you don’t have to be smart to make people give you money and tell you you’re awesome—you just have to love the lord and encourage others to do the same. I’d walk past my window and see him across the street behind his screen door wearing nothing but a pair of tiny shorts, talking on the phone, and patting his soft belly. He’d yell into the phone loudly, quoting scripture I assumed, then he’d laugh and pat his belly some more, technically inside his house but he might as well have been outside you could see him so easily. He wore cheap suits and let his dog shit in all the neighbors’ yards. He was friendly and loud and stupid, and I couldn’t stand him. He was a man that takes up space and makes noise like there will never be a shortage of either.

•••

I’m meeting the senator because I run an organization that teaches young people how to love writing. He is a good senator, in addition to being handsome, and he is meeting with area businesswomen. My organization was founded by women and is run mostly by women, so it sort of makes sense.

Yesterday during a workshop, I was helping a girl who always comes to our workshops even though I don’t think she really likes them. Every time she’s there I end up trying to get her to finish whatever she started working on because she just tunes out. She acts like it’s school even though most kids act like it’s the opposite of school—like it’s fun and they’re there because they want to be there. The kids had been led through a series of exercises that left them with a handful of ingredients that they could readily bake into poems. She already had all her ingredients right there on the paper. The poem just had to be assembled, and all she had to do was write it down.

“Nah, I’m not doing it anymore. I hate doing this. I’m not writing.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked her. “You have everything right there—why won’t you write your poem? “

She’d been scribbling with her pencil, generally looking as disinterested as an eleven- year-old can look, crumpling up her paper and moving her chair around. She stopped suddenly and looked right up at me.

“You’re not going to hang it on the wall anyway even if I do.” She said this like it was a challenge.

Sometimes I hang the kids’ stuff on the wall. Not all the kids’ stuff, but some of it if they’re particularly proud of it or it’s especially funny or good or if I need to cover a crack in the plaster. I never thought that she’d noticed or cared but the mother in me realized I’d been played. Of course she cared. She just figured I didn’t.

“I will hang your poem on the wall. As soon as you are done writing it I will hang it on the wall. I promise.”

“Seriously?” Her eyes blazed.

“Seriously.” She sat down and wrote her poem.

•••

The stupid evangelist had a really sweet wife. She was young and fresh and seemed mostly resigned to the fact of her doom with this man. I was walking the neighborhood with my mother one night close to Christmas when we saw him in his front yard. Knowing that his sweet wife had gone into labor that morning, we asked after her and their new baby.

“Well, it’s a girl.” He said and paused. “But that’s okay. There’s always next time.” He waved half-heartedly and was gone before me and my stunned mother realized what he’d said and how much we hated him for it.

•••

When her poem was finished, I hung it on the wall. On her way out the door, she nodded her head as if she was thinking, “It’s about goddamn time.” I put it in a place where the senator will see it when he comes in two days. He’ll notice it either before or after we shake hands and either before or after he notices or doesn’t notice the zit that sits above my lip and below my nose. I have not written my introductory comments yet. I have another thirty-six hours of medication applications before I need to have those done.

I spend my time knowing that I have created something fairly good and interesting and that’s why a senator is coming. I’m wondering why I am thinking more about my face than that fairly good and interesting thing. The stupid evangelist would not be thinking of his face. He was told that he was awesome for so long that he easily believed it even though it was not true. That’s all it takes, maybe. You are awesome, you are awesome, you are awesome, and then you think you are. The stupid evangelist with his cheap suits and his easy maleness and the convenient religion that allowed him to be more than his sweet wife and their sweet new baby girl never flinched. He took up all that space and made all that noise, but that was all okay. He was awesome. People told him so.

Listen, because I need you to hear this: I will tell you that you are awesome. Unlike the evangelist, I will say it because it is true, because I mean it. You are awesome. You are the opposite of taking up space and making noise. You are the poet and the poem. You are the clean piece of paper, smooth, unmarked, waiting for the ingredients to be assembled. I will put you on the wall where the senator can see you, where the world can see you, where we can read you and celebrate you always. I will put your poem on the wall, I will always put your poem on the wall, and I will use the stickiest tape, and I will hang it in exactly the right place, I will do all this for you, I promise.

•••

JENNY POORE is a local education advocate and the director of the children’s writing non-profit WordWorks! She lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, with three kids, a husband, and a yellow dog named June Carter Cash. Two of her favorite things are coffee and Sherlock Holmes. You can read more of her stories and essays at www.sometimestherearestorieshere.com.

Love and Loathing in Las Vegas

joy

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Lynn Marie Houston

If you want to expound on love,

take your intellect out and let it lie down

in the mud. It’s no help.

 —Rumi, “The King and the Handmaiden and the Doctor” trans. Coleman Barks

“What’s it like outside?” my friend Catherine croaked from under the covers. I walked past her bed nearest the door, balancing a cardboard carton of coffee for the three of us: me, Catherine, and the British man who had spent the night in bed with me.

“It’s bright and loud,” I grumbled in the throes of a hangover. “And hot,” I added, looking at the muscular leg and arm that were twisted up in my sheets like a man candy-cane.

Just then, someone knocked on the door. “Housekeeping,” a woman’s voice called with an accent.

“Shit,” I whispered to Catherine as I trudged toward the door. “What’s Spanish for come back after the British guy puts his clothes on?”

I opened the door to a woman whose face said she’d seen it all. I mustered what Spanish I could, “Uh, mas tarde, por favor.”

Later. But it was already so late, the last weekend before my teaching contract started up again for the fall. I had planned a trip to conduct research for the ethnographic study of Las Vegas that I was supposed to be doing. And then Catherine decided she needed to get out of town, too, so she booked a flight to join me. She was a few years older than me and married (and, as I discovered the previous night, a sound sleeper), but she could drink me under the table, and regularly did. I wasn’t getting any research done.

Simon stirred, opening his blue eyes. “Bloody hell, that was some fun we had last night.” He propped himself up bare-chested, stomach muscles rippling down under the sheet, and broke into a boyish grin.

Yes, the problem was the Brit. Or rather, the problem was my hooking up with a complete stranger when I was supposed to be in Las Vegas for serious intellectual work. I had crossed the not-so-fine line between immersing yourself in your subject and getting into bed with it.

Catherine was up now, searching for a bottle of Advil. Simon was sipping coffee in nothing but his boxer-briefs and helping himself to a box of chocolate on the nightstand. I sat down at the small table in the corner of our room, rested my elbow on the Formica top, and placed my forehead in my hand. Unless I figured out the right way to spin this for the research project, Big S was going to kill me.

Big S was the lead researcher on the Vegas project. One of her previous joint-authored projects had been required reading in most graduate programs in cultural studies. The Vegas book was to be her next project. Collaborating with her on it was an incredible opportunity, one that shouldn’t be squandered for casual sex, even if it was with a Norse god. But if I didn’t produce something acceptable soon, Big S would kick me off the project. She had already threatened to do so. Without this project, I didn’t stand a chance of getting a position at a better university. After working with Big S for two years, if she didn’t give me a good recommendation I would be dead meat on the academic job market. So why was I screwing around? It would probably have taken thousands of dollars in therapy to answer such a question. I was well aware that even though Big S’s idea of doing research was just to “hang out,” that that didn’t mean without any clothes on, and yet I did it anyway. My contribution to the book was originally supposed to be a chapter about Las Vegas wedding chapels, but it had quickly become more about women’s issues in Las Vegas. Now, the research was stalled because of my own issues. The last advice Big S had given me after disproving of yet another draft but not giving me any specifics about what I could revise, was that I should “put my soul on the line.” I didn’t know what that meant.

Two months before this trip to Vegas with Catherine, I’d travelled to Connecticut to stay at Big S’s farm. My nickname for her, I discovered then, was actually a misnomer. There wasn’t anything big about S, not her size (she was short and petite), not her heart (she could be stingy), and not her farmhouse (we packed five people into nine hundred square feet). I was there, along with many of her kids and step-kids, for her birthday weekend, but I had only been invited to stay for a few days prior to the actual celebration, at which time more people would be coming to the farm and, Big S had told me, there wouldn’t be enough water for everyone. “The well is low,” she said, “and it can only support so many people.” Even though I was not counted among those worthy enough to burden the water supply, I did visit for three days before the party.

I had offered to help Big S on her farm in exchange for conversations about my writing and advice about my career while I was there. We talked about her philosophies of writing while weeding her garden, how she first conceived of joint writing projects as a way to help her fellow colleagues advance in their careers and a way to achieve multiple perspectives on a topic.

From her property she was running a small CSA, where people in her neighborhood paid a flat fee at the start of the season and she brought them weekly baskets of the produce that was in season. Something about the CSA matched the idea of a collaborative research project. Just like she enlisted a group of us to help write about Las Vegas, with the help of a few graduate students she grew a few varieties of greens, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, and eggplant on her farm. In addition, her weekly CSA customers received fresh eggs; some even took raw, unpasteurized milk from her goats. While staking her pepper plants, Big S talked to me about how she thought I could get a job at a university where the teaching load wasn’t so high, so that I had more time for research. Her husband was an internationally award-winning scholar, and she told me that if I made a satisfactory contribution to the Las Vegas book project that she could get him to write me a letter of recommendation. Just the night before, her internationally renowned scholar-husband had complained about the excess of mustard I had used in the zucchini pie that Big S had asked me to make. I hoped he would leave that out of the letter.

Big S also told me about how much of a burden the farm was. It took time away from her writing. It didn’t sound like she actually enjoyed the farm work very much. She said that she couldn’t even take a vacation unless she had someone watching the place who knew how to handle chickens and milk goats.

“Is it really hard, milking a goat?”

“Only one of my kids was able to pick it up.”

“Do you think you could show me how to do it? I’ve always wanted to learn.”

“Yeah, I could let you try. The trick is to pinch off the teat with the upper part of your hand and pull down on it with the lower part of the palm.”

I practiced moving my hand the way she described. Big S looked doubtful but said nothing.

She took me into the barn and rounded up the goats that needed milking. She led one in through the back of the barn and up onto a metal stand. The goat put its head into a contraption on the end and waited for Big S to put its food in the slot. She closed a bar over the back of its head to hold it in position. Then she got down on the stool, grabbed its swollen teat, and pinched it.

“Here’s where you cut it off. Then you pull down.” She demonstrated once, then got up from the stool, motioning for me to try.

It was very difficult to hold the top part closed while running the rest of your hand down, but little squirts of milk started coming out. A few more tries and I had a steady stream. It was taking me forever to get anything in the bucket, though. By now the goat had finished its bagel and was getting restless. The height of the metal bench on which it stood placed its hooves level with my head. The pail was about half full when the agitated goat stepped into it with one of her hooves.

Big S frowned.

“You’ve got to dump that pail now. Her hooves have all sorts of bacteria on them, and we don’t pasteurize here.”

Annoyed, Big S motioned for me to get up off the stool and she took over milking with a fresh pail and without any further acknowledgement of me.

She had never mentioned that I had to somehow keep the goat’s hooves out of the milk.

When we got back to the farmhouse, she announced to her family, “Lynn ruined the milk. She let the goat step in it.”

Big S was not very forgiving of mistakes. Nor was she a great teacher.

•••

The half-naked man in my bed shook me from my reverie, “Do you mind if I use your computer?”

I handed it to him. Catherine was packing a beach bag to take with us to the pool. Simon, now checking his email, was making no motion to leave us. In fact, he seemed rather lonely. He’d already been in Las Vegas for a week, part of his plan to tour the United States until his visa ran out. After this next week, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. That day, though, our plan was clear: we would sit poolside and drink mojitos.

But as we sat there in the reclining chairs and hot sun, I realized that I needed to at least attempt to get some research done. One good session of information about Las Vegas, and I might have enough to fill in the chapter I was working on. I got on the internet from my phone and purchased a ticket for a historic tour. I wasn’t sure if this would give Simon his opportunity to ditch us, but the three of us made a tentative plan for later. Simon and Catherine would go to dinner and walk around while I went on a tour and get some research done. It was a bus tour that promised to give information about the history of the area and some of its notorious figures. Finally, I might have something to write about for the research project. It was the kind of project where I would probably end up writing more about the dynamics of the tour I went on—how it presented Las Vegas to the public—than about the information it presented.

I left Catherine and Simon at the hotel and walked to the location where the tour bus boarded. On the way, I wondered if Simon would really hang out again with us that night, or if he would just silently wander off to something or someone else. I hoped he wouldn’t disappear. But it was silly to think he would follow through on plans with us; he was just some random guy I’d started talking to at the bar.

After the small group of people on the tour took seats on the bus, we were en route to the first stop. The tour guide announced our approximate return, a good hour and a half later than what I had thought. I would be late for meeting Catherine and Simon, if he was even still with us. The guide also announced that with the exception of the first stop, the Flamingo Hotel, we would be in the outskirts of Las Vegas, so there would be no easy way to exit the tour midway and return to downtown. Then he started a video for us to watch about the mob and its influence on Las Vegas. None of it interested me. I only had two more nights left before I had to go back to my crummy life buried by stacks of student papers. I would probably never see Simon again after that. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the desire to get off that boring tour bus and go find him. It seemed there was some larger life choice playing out here. Was I going to spend my time working on chapters of writing that were never good enough for Big S, that would be read by maybe a handful of scholars in my field? Or was I going to go find the hot guy—laugh, drink, and make love?

What would Big S do? I asked myself as motivation to stay on the tour, but I knew that she and I were as far apart in personality as Simon’s home in England was from mine in California. But I needed to be a part of this research project, I reminded myself. Without it, my career would fail. Then I turned to look out the window and saw my own reflection. “How to live?” I asked it softly. The tour guide droned on, delivering worn-out jokes with little enthusiasm. When we stopped at the Flamingo, I pulled him aside and told him I wouldn’t be getting back on the bus. Then I texted Simon to find out where he and Catherine were. Her job of babysitting Simon done, Catherine went back to the hotel and let the two of us to catch up over drinks at NY NY. I went back with Simon to his room that night. We hung the “do not disturb” sign on the doorhandle.

“Vegas feels like cancer,” I moaned the next morning to Simon who was already awake next to me. I was suffering from a cumulative hangover. Every part of my body ached. I returned to my room to catch up with Catherine and sleep for a couple more hours.

That afternoon Simon took me on a coffee date, like normal people who don’t hook up in Las Vegas the first night they meet each other. We spent hours at the Starbuck’s in the Excalibur. Simon told me about his upcoming trip to Los Angeles to attend the Sunset Strip Music Festival. Slash would be playing, as would Smashing Pumkpins, and a group called White Tiger. Rock music was his thing. Growing up, he lost himself in it to escape an abusive stepfather.

“Come with us tonight to a concert at the Hard Rock,” I told him. Tonight would be my last night in Las Vegas, and Catherine and I had tickets to see a band. I couldn’t imagine going without Simon.

“Who’s playing?”

“Wolfmother.”

“They’re pretty good,” he smiled.

“We’re going to see a piece of musical theater beforehand, so maybe you could meet us at the Hard Rock?”

“Maybe. We’ll see.” Then he grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Ready to go sit by the pool?”

I stood up smiling, but I doubted that I would see Simon later. Eventually this good thing had to end. Did it really matter whether it was now or the next day when I left for the airport? And yet somehow it did matter to me. He mattered to me. More than Big S and the research project.

We found Catherine at the pool and Simon taught us to play Top Trumps with a deck of Star Wars cards. It was a game of luck that you won by being dealt the best hand. After Catherine won twice, and after a few more rounds of mojitos, we fell back into our pool chairs, our faces numb in the fleshy bosom of a rum buzz.

I thought about how I had to go back home tomorrow and confront the fact that I had done no research, that I had to go back home where Simon wasn’t.

“I’m feeling a bit melancholy,” I said. Simon turned his head toward me and opened his eyes. He reached out and grabbed my hand, interlacing his fingers comfortably with mine, then closed his eyes again, our hands still touching.

The time came and went for Catherine and me to leave if we wanted to get to the musical we’d bought tickets for. We didn’t move. Well, that’s not exactly true. We raised a hand to call the poolside waitress and ordered another round of mojitos.

“Vegas feels like paralysis,” Simon said.

We took long sips from our drinks so we had to reach for them less. Eventually the time came to leave for the next show.

“Well,” I said. “Who’s going to this concert? We should go get ready.”

“I am,” said Catherine.

“I am,” said Simon.

Catherine had purchased a bottle of vodka and some mixers at a convenient store, arguing that drinks were so expensive at the bars it made sense to buy some in larger quantity. It was an alcoholic’s logic, but somehow, in Las Vegas, it worked. Simon picked us up at our room and we had drinks before leaving. He looked dashing in a pair of form-fitting jeans and a black dress shirt.

Drinks were indeed expensive at the outside bar by the pool of the Hard Rock Hotel where Wolfmother was playing. Simon and I switched to beer. We were in for the long haul. Catherine stayed with vodka and made the mistake of trying to go drink-for-drink with us as Simon and I alternated buying rounds. Before long, she was having trouble walking in her heels. I got her a water. She wasn’t going to make it until the end of the concert.

“She’s saying she wants to go,” I explained to Simon. “I’ll take her and put her in a cab. Will you wait here for me?

He nodded.

I put Catherine into the cab and gave her money, silently betting she would miss her eight a.m. flight. And I stood there for a moment looking out onto the city lights. The Las Vegas night felt like a lover’s body under the sheets with its warm spots and cool spots. The sidewalks emanated the heat they’d collected during daylight, while a slight breeze trickled down from the red rocks of the Spring Mountains. Simon had indeed come to the concert. This was our third night together. But it was all over tomorrow. I’d gotten no research done and would return to California empty-handed. No hope of a future either with Simon or in my career. But I hardly cared. Somehow in that moment I felt more myself than I ever felt working on the chapters for Big S. In that moment, Vegas felt like freedom.

I returned to the raging crowd. Rounding the corner of the bar, I saw Simon right where I left him, waiting. Sensing me, he turned around, put his arm out, and drew me to him. Pressing my head against his chest, I inhaled his man smell. He held me tighter. No book ever hugged back like that.

•••

The next week, during the first week of classes back in California, I got kicked off the Las Vegas project. Big S sent me an email calling me “infantile” and claiming that I was more suited to writing Harlequin romances than I was to cultural studies projects.

Was I an insolent child who sabotaged her own career? Maybe. But I would have done anything that Big S had asked me to do, if only she could have articulated what that was.

Or maybe every day of our lives is another opportunity to choose who we want on our team. I’m still in touch with Catherine and Simon. I just contributed to a fundraising campaign that he was leading for the homeless population of London. I haven’t spoken to any of the members of the Vegas research project in four years. If I were to put together my ideal team—not for a research project, but for life—it would be made of the Simons of the world. The generous spirits, the large hearts, and the easy-going forgivers. And that’s what I chose in Las Vegas.

•••

LYNN MARIE HOUSTON’s essays and poems have appeared in South Atlantic Quarterly, MELUS, Postmodern Culture, Proteus, Prick of the Spindle, Poydras Review, Uppagus, Boston Literary Magazine, 3Elements Review, Extract(s), Watershed Review, and M/C Journal, among others. She is the author of book of poetry exercises for beginners, The Poet’s Playground (Five Oaks Press, 2014). After attending Arizona State University for her Ph.D. in American literature, she now resides in Newburgh, New York, where she lives in a renovated 1968 Airstream camper. When she isn’t teaching English, she tends her honeybees and kayaks the Delaware River.

Learning to Live as the Last of Five in Four/Four Time

alive

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jessica Handler

Last winter, my friend Pete gave me a pair of Vic Firth 5A drumsticks. They were beginner’s sticks, but this would be my first drum lesson: he the teacher, me the novice. I was ready: I’d diligently watched You Tube videos demonstrating Ringo Starr’s and Stevie Wonder’s drumming and listened closely to the drum parts on my favorite CDs. The sticks were surprisingly light, awkward to hold, and pleasantly dinged up. They made me nervous.

I’d agreed to spend a weekend participating in a rock camp for women, a fundraiser for national group empowering teen girls through playing music. I’ve always been a music lover: my very first concert was The Beatles at Shea, even though I was five and the frustratingly sonically obscured objects of my adoration sang from my parents’ portable black and white Zenith television. My younger sister Susie and I listened to our recording of “Peter and The Wolf” on the turntable and acted out the roles. At six, I was the bassoon grandfather, and she, not quite two years younger, the clarinet cat. As I grew, I learned to lose myself in vocals; first John and Paul’s tricky harmonies and later, Mick Jagger’s sneering whine.

My youngest sister Sarah played Satie gymnopedies and Bach for four hands on the piano with Mom. Dad bellowed Dylan as he drove. As a teen, I played guitar reasonably well, piano terribly. I learned all the words to “Stairway to Heaven.” In my thirties, I auditioned once as a singer for a local band; I wiped out not because I couldn’t sing, but because I can’t read music.

And all along, I secretly banged on things. Hard. Usually myself. In elementary school, I beat my head on my bedroom floor until I was dizzy. I tore out handfuls of my hair to distract myself from the way my skin felt, rippling in anger. Enraged and inconsolable in my teens, I punched plaster walls and slammed car doors. In high school, I quietly broke my own finger in an effort to suppress boiling rage and brokenhearted sorrow. And no one ever knew.

My sisters were dying and then dead; first Susie, at eight from leukemia, and then, Sarah twenty-three years later, from an illness related to the rare blood disorder she’d been born with. Our father muted his sorrow with anger, drugs, and alcohol before he left for a job in another country and then a new life. Mom remained determined, loving, and honestly joyful about the best moments of our lives.

When I checked the box beside “drums” on the camp registration form, forty-four years had passed since Susie died, and twenty-two since Sarah’s death. Dad died in 2002, and Mom two years ago. That frantic and sudden need for a physical outlet for my pain and sorrow still lurked close to my surface. I know that self-harm, like hitting or, for others, cutting, is an attempt to seek relief for emotional pain: simple reading tells me that, but I sensed as much when I was ten. Now that I’m grown, reasonably competent, and happily married, my hitting myself until I bruised, or once, driving so fast that I pinned the red on my Honda’s speedometer, freaked my husband out. I didn’t blame him. My periods of desolation were awful for me to live with, too. But banging on drums in a band scared me almost as much. I worried about what I might unleash.

Mickey and I met and fell in love shortly after my sister Sarah died. I was working as a production manager for television programs, and he wrote and produced promos. We didn’t work together, so he only heard from me about the time I blew up and threw a stapler at an assistant. (I missed, thank heavens.) He already knew my reputation on the job as a screamer and a yeller. With him, I was never those things. He calmed me and made me feel safe and loved enough. Music mattered to him, too, even though he never remembered lyrics.

The camp took place over three days on a Valentine’s weekend. The schedule would be full, leaving no time for flowers or chocolates (neither of which I wanted) or a good dinner out (which I did.) My husband and I like Valentine’s Day, and I felt that I’d cheated us a little by the commitment I’d made to occupy myself without him that weekend.

In an empty middle school classroom, five other grown women and I met our loaner drum kits; bass drum and kick pedal, high-hats, snares, floor tom and rack toms, and our own sets of sticks. After running us through the basics of our grips, keeping time on pancake-sized practice pads, the instructor—a rock drummer with indie cred—put on a recording of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” We had to follow along in four/four time. The first two beats came from the bass drum. I stepped on the kick pedal, and the drum responded timidly. This irritated me, too, and the child who flailed in anger and sorrow rose up in me. With her foot, I stepped down hard twice, making two deep, satisfying thuds. With her hands, I snapped my right-hand stick onto the rack tom.

Some rhythms are as simple as breathing, but others require perception far beyond the usual. Children dying before their parents is a peculiar rhythm called reverse order of death. The terror and grief of the surviving sibling was rarely addressed when I was a child. As an adult, behind my first drum kit, I created a basic, steady pulse. Hitting the toms, the snare, stepping on the kick pedal, I pounded out a steady groove. I heard no sorrow; just myself, playing in time.

Camp ended with a raucous showcase at a neighborhood coffee house. While bands played, I slipped my arm through Mickey’s, and we drank our beer and bobbed along to the music. When the time came for my makeshift band to take the stage, I kissed my husband and clutched my drumsticks, fighting the urge to careen alone into the night. I’m ridiculous, I thought. I can’t really channel my thumping anger outward, make music with it, or learn to maintain an even pace on which I can rely. But I took the stage with my bandmates, and in the blinding candy-yellow of the spotlight, held my loaner sticks over my head and counted us in. The bass player responded in time, then the singer, then the two guitarists, just as we’d rehearsed. For about two and a half minutes, I hit and I kicked objects built for striking, and as terrible as I’m sure I sounded, I didn’t feel the way I usually did at a moment of impact. I didn’t feel like weeping. I wanted, instead, to shout with glee.

When we finished, the applause was loud and not unexpected—everyone there was friends or family with someone in a band—and from behind the drum kit, I searched the audience for Mickey. He was at the lip of the stage, his hands raised in victory.

Six months have gone by, with me occasionally practicing to videos, my loaner drum sticks beating couch cushions. This year, I turn fifty-five, and I’ve promised myself to keep my hands and heart away from my own skin during my dissonant outbursts of grief. Mickey bought me a birthday present. I’m starting drum lessons. With Pete, who says it’s time for me to keep those drumsticks he loaned me last winter.

•••

JESSICA HANDLER is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) was named by the Georgia Center for the Book one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Atlanta Magazine called it the “Best Memoir of 2009.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Brevity.com, Newsweek, The Washington Post, More Magazine, and elsewhere. Honors include a 2011 and 2012 residency at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. www.jessicahandler.com.

Final Accounting

Courtesy Jane Hammons

Courtesy Jane Hammons

By Jane Hammons

Executor. That word has defined me and followed my signature on documents for over a year. I’m ready to put it to rest.

I’ve balanced the books on Kath’s account—down to the penny. She, the CPA, would be pleased. Or depending on her mood, she might make fun of me, pretend to be amazed that I—the writer, the teacher of writing—could do basic math. She would ignore—deny even—the story that numbers tell. I listen to them all. Months of unpaid invoices from the ambulance service—two to three rescues a week toward the end. Hundreds of dollars for online games. Enormous vet bills for the cat (sent to a shelter by the Sheriff of Santa Cruz County when he found Kath’s body).

The detailed billing from Mehl’s Colonial Chapel tells its own story. Of the many services offered, we choose the simplest: Direct Cremation.

No traditional funeral service. No cremation funeral service. No memorial service.

I have a hard time explaining this to our father’s family, who call from New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma—places where the traditional roots of his family are sown. They want to know where to send flowers.

Nowhere.

No flowers?

No service.

A wreath then, offers Uncle Jerry, Dad’s little brother, loudmouth, big spender—someone Kath loved. She maintained close ties with our father’s family after our parents divorced. I did not. And I don’t want to talk about my sister’s death with any of them.

I listen while Uncle Jerry recounts his plan to take Kath on a drive down Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, from her home in Santa Cruz to Fountain Valley where his daughter lives near Disneyland. For over twenty years, I’ve heard Kath describe this imagined journey, sometimes as though she had actually taken it.

With this story he wants to claim some part of her, declare a bond. Kath told the story for the same reason: to let me know that she was connected to him—to our father, to that family, those roots—in a way that I never would be, something that has always been clear.

My father’s family is not subtle. Kath was like a baby sister to Dad’s youngest siblings; Uncle Jerry just eight when she was born. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was four, Kath required a lot of attention.

My brother Johnny—two years younger than I—was the first grandson, a sweet, funny boy, a troubled man, and ultimately a disappointment, but male, an heir to the significance they’ve attached to their family name. (My name, too.)

But Kath and Johnny are both dead, so Uncle Jerry spills out his funeral fantasy to me. She liked lilies and roses, he tells me, like it is something I don’t know.

A floating wreath. Put candles on it.

He directs the service.

As the sun sets, walk to the beach near Nancy’s house. (He calls my mother by name; my father refers to her as your mother.)

Sprinkle ashes upon the wreath.

Place it in the waves.

Watch it float out to sea, tiny lights disappearing along the horizon.

He chokes himself up imagining something like the final scene of The Descendants, the last movie Kath saw in a theater. Not that Uncle Jerry would know that. It was our stepfather, Jim, who took Kath to that movie and watched with her as handsome George Clooney and his lovely daughters sprinkled mother-wife ashes into a warm Hawaiian sea.

Here it’s January. The Pacific waters of the Monterey Bay are cold. Waves break hard upon a beach largely abandoned in winter.

Sure, I say, send it to my mother’s house.

No wreath arrives. We fly kites.

It’s something that Kath loved to do, my younger sister Diane reminds those of us who have gathered: me, my youngest sister Libby (my half-sister if you want to get biological, but we don’t in this family), our folks, my children.

We take the kites from Kath’s laundry room to the beach. There is very little wind, but Diane is determined and chugs up and down the beach, churning enough breeze to keep aloft the small yellow triangle with black and white cartoon eyes. We applaud. Cheer. Mom says silly things about Kath looking down upon us. Mostly we pay attention to my niece, Libby’s baby girl. We build a sandcastle. Decorate it with sea gull feathers, tiny shells, and bits of sea glass. Mom and Jim take their young granddaughter by the hand and toddle her to the water’s edge where, delighted, she pounds her tiny feet into the cold sea foam. Around her chubby legs wrap strands of sea kelp, their bulbs sputtering last gasps as they come to rest upon the shore. My two children, young men in their twenties, toss a Frisbee with Libby’s husband. We wish Diane’s family were here, but for work and school, they have stayed in Austin where they live.

The wreath that Uncle Jerry never sent floats, unwelcome, into my awareness that we are avoiding more than memorializing. Kath’s ashes—surprisingly heavy packed into a Tupperware tub by Mehl’s—sit in the garage. For the past few days, with the baby and my two boys here, Mom has been more attentive grandmother to the living than grieving mother of the dead. We don’t mention it for fear it will raise the specter of relief, something we are all feeling but cannot yet admit.

•••

My children and I are the first to depart; then Libby and her family return to Portland. Diane stays a few days longer. From Mom’s carefully cultivated collection, she chooses purple orchids for a car ride down Highway 1. Mom wraps Kath’s Tupperwared remains in a blanket and cradles her oldest child in her arms as Jim drives down the Pacific Coast to Big Sur—not Disneyland—and they have a quiet picnic.

Months later, however, there is still the matter of Kath’s ashes.

I decide to sprinkle some of them around New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, land of our childhood. For the distribution, Mom has purchased several cheap plastic tubes in an array of lollipop colors. When I tell her they look like dildos, she blushes, suddenly prudish as she approaches eighty, this woman who once enlisted the help of her children in decoupaging onto thin pieces of wood pictures of bare-breasted Playboy Bunnies she’d ripped from magazines. We boxed the Bunny plaques up with candy bars and socks and mailed them off to soldiers in Vietnam. My stepfather among them.

I choose the purple one and fill it with Kath. Preparing for our journey, I check airline regulations for rules about transporting ashes but find none. I carry her in my backpack where she rolls along the conveyor belt and is x-rayed—greasy fat, thin skin, tiny shards of bone—along with camera, laptop, cell phone. I go upright skeleton, arms above head, through the body scanner. Can the TSA agent see that I have only one kidney? The other I gave to Kath twenty-five years ago.

•••

I fly into record heat, the entire state of New Mexico in the second year of a terrible drought, pick up a rental car in Albuquerque, put Kath in the shade on the passenger-side floor, and adjust the air-conditioner vents to keep her cool. I don’t want that cheap tube melting in the sun, fusing her forever into a lewd purple conglomeration of plastic and ash. Then we hit the long hot highway, as we have done many times. Trips from Albuquerque, where we both attended the University of New Mexico, to Roswell before we followed Mom’s migration to California. Drives to see Dad and his family—Lawton, Amarillo, Carlsbad, Monroe. Roads stretched out before us then. Any destination possible.

I enter the Village of Capitan along U. S. 380 at one end of the Billy the Kid Trail. Across it hangs a banner reading, “Jesus Christ Lord over Capitan.” I react as though it says “No Sinners Allowed” and hit the brake hard. Kath rolls forward then back and under the seat, hiding. She doesn’t want to be here. And suddenly neither do I.

Capitan, New Mexico: population 1485; twenty churches; 3.2 square miles; home of Smokey Bear. Dad is mayor. The last time I was here with Kath, it was Christmas—the 1970s were about to become the 1980s; we were both getting divorces. We received matching gifts: beige sweaters with suede panels down the front, a big zipper up the middle. Laughing, we put them on under the identical plaid ponchos we got the year before.

Once in the eighties, I persuaded Diane to meet me at Dad’s for a couple of days in the summer—I didn’t want to make the obligatory visit alone.

Once in the nineties, I brought my sons—then five and seven—to meet their grandfather.

It’s been almost twenty years since I’ve visited Dad’s house. He’s never been to mine. In 2008 we all gathered at Kath’s condo in Santa Cruz when we feared she would die, hospitalized in a coma for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me.

I am here because she is not.

After I unload my suitcase and settle into the spare bedroom, I ask Dad and my stepmother, Ellen, if they want to drive over to where Mom’s cabin once stood in Noisy Water Canyon and sprinkle some of Kath’s ashes in the Ruidoso River. They look at me like I’ve shit on their shoes. Jesus Christ lords over Capitan, and, apparently he takes a dim view of cremation. Or perhaps it is the spreading of ashes. No one says a word.

Alone, I drive to the canyon, passing miles and miles of blackened trees and charred earth. The Little Bear Fire, the most destructive in New Mexico’s history, burned for weeks and has been out for little over a month. Ruidoso, once a small, charming village, has bulged into a chaotic mix of ugly pre-fab structures standing right next to the old split log and wooden buildings. It’s summer, so the horses are running at Ruidoso Downs and the traffic is hobbled by gigantic SUVs, RVs, and customized pickup trucks that crowd the narrow two-lane street. I’m happy to leave the center of town and head down into Noisy Water Canyon, sad to see that the wooden plank bridge that once crossed the Ruidoso River has been replaced by a paved over metal culvert. The river is so low that water just creeps around large exposed rocks and boulders.

I drive the short distance to where the cabin, demolished several years ago, once stood, and I park in the dirt driveway. The air is filled with dust and the scent of dangerously dry trees and grasses. The wild raspberries are not growing, the woodpeckers are not pecking, the pine cones on the ground hold no piñones. I had planned to hike along the river and leave some of Kath’s ashes on the big rocks we used to climb on. But I feel trapped in the canyon and panic, thinking about the fire hazard signs along the road as I drove here, Smokey Bear pointing to the red color bar designating extreme conditions. The canyon road is a dead end at the border of the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation. So I retrace the path that led me here and return with Kath’s ashes to Dad’s house where he sits watching the Olympics.

Over the next four days I spend a lot of time riding the Billy the Kid Trail in my rental car. From the Inn of the Mountain Gods Casino to the historic town of Lincoln for visits to the Tunstall-McSween Store, the Lincoln County Courthouse, the old cemetery. One day I make the trek to my hometown: Roswell, a place I haven’t been since the last time I visited Dad.

I follow familiar streets that lead south of town out into the countryside, but I can barely make my way to the farm where I grew up, so much of the landscape now a hideous agro-industrial parking lot and dumping ground. The house I lived in is almost unidentifiable, the lawn Mom struggled to keep green indistinguishable from the gravel driveway, which blends into parched brown fields.

“Catfish for Sale” reads a sign in the yard. The swimming pool is now a fishpond. My eyes full of tears, I get out to take pictures. The car fills with gigantic sticky horseflies. They land and linger on my face and lips; they snuggle in my hair. I snap a couple of sad shots before driving to the cemetery to sprinkle Kath’s ashes on the grave of the stillborn baby she had her first year in college. Pregnant and unmarried, she dropped out, losing her National Merit Scholarship. Banished from our home on the farm, Kath was sent to live in Carlsbad with Dad and his parents, undeserved punishment I thought even then.

In 1970 it was risky for Type 1 diabetics to have children, the monitoring required extensive, the chances of a healthy birth low. Kath’s doctor went on vacation two weeks before her due date. When she hadn’t felt the baby move for a couple of days, she drove herself to the hospital where the absence of life was confirmed. Labor was induced.

I was in high school then and left classes early one afternoon to attend the baby’s funeral. I joined my parents, stepparents, all of our grandparents, and a great-aunt at the little gravesite where a small spray of mini carnations and baby’s breath stood near a tiny white coffin; both were startling, unseemly in both size and luster. I don’t remember if my younger siblings were there. Kath was not. I didn’t question it at the time when Dad said she wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t be present. Only many years later, after giving birth to two sons of my own, could I even begin to imagine how horribly unwell she must have felt. But I remember wondering at the time if she was still in the hospital. Alone while all of us—her family—were at South Park Cemetery out on the highway between our farm and Roswell.

When I arrive at the cemetery with the ashes of Steven Christopher Hammons’ mother kept cool in purple plastic, I go to the office to ask directions to the grave. The secretary, one cigarette in her hand, another burning to ash in a ceramic dish on her desk, filling the air with smoke that makes me nauseated, takes her time finding a map. She draws a slow circle around the exact location with her red pen. When she hands it to me, she says Hammons aloud and takes a long look at me. If this were a movie, we’d figure out who we were. Biology class, cheerleaders, annual staff. But we’re old now, and I haven’t lived in Roswell since I graduated from high school. If my last name rings a bell with her, it’s not a very loud or long one. I hurry out the door.

Driving directly to the baby’s grave, I avoid the others that cry for my attention: my mother’s two sisters and a brother, all dead in infancy; my mother’s mother and father; my great-grandmother and two great aunts, women I adored as a child, their husbands. Somewhere, not too far from where generations of my mother’s family are buried, is the grave of my best friend’s brother. He and Kath had dated in high school. I was dating him when he was murdered at age twenty-three. My brother is not buried here. His daughter keeps his ashes with her in an urn. But he is on my mind. All of them are, these dead people.

I sprinkle Kath’s dense ashes and slivers of bone around the granite marker denoting a life never lived.

Then I take a picture of it with the iPad I bought to document this journey, sending my mother, stepfather, sisters, and children photographs of the places where I’ve left Kath’s ashes as I travel around the state for reasons of my own. Kath did not ask this of me as Executor or sister. Maybe she doesn’t even want to mark the territory of our youth with her remains. I snag the cemetery’s wi-fi and email the photo to Mom. Immediately she replies in all caps, multiple exclamation points screaming:

WHY DON’T I REMEMBER THAT THE BABY WAS GIVEN A NAME!!!!!!

I power down the iPad. This is not a question I can answer.

My sisters, my mother, and I continue to ask each other a lot of questions. We verify chronology, plain facts—marriage, divorce, birth, death, hospitalizations, transplant—with available documents. We accept that about many things our memories conflict, contradict and are most certainly imperfect. We try not to argue about right, wrong, truth, confusion, or mistake.

•••

The Ex Parte Petition for Final Discharge and Order sits beside me on the couch as I write. Kath’s condo sold, gifts gifted, beneficiaries benefitted, my Executor duties near completion.

Ex Parte: legal work done on behalf of only one party, in this case a dead one.

Ex Parte: forms give the appearance of conclusion.

Ex Parte the story I want to tell is not. And this is where it begins.

•••

JANE HAMMONS lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she teaches writing at UC Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Brain, Child, Columbia Journalism Review, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and the anthologies Hint Fiction: An Anthology of 25 Words or Fewer, The Maternal is Political, and California Prose Directory. Her photography has appeared at Revolution John and in New York Magazine.

Killing the Magic

santa

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kate Haas

When a grown woman and her seventy-something mother engage in yearly debates about the existence of Santa, I think we can agree: there’s a problem. Of course, my mother believes the problem is mine, while I tag her as the source of the annual angst. But who’s telling this story?

My mother, a bookish only child, grew up yearning for a house full of kids and a big, old-fashioned Christmas, like the ones Louisa May Alcott wrote about. My father, who had ditched his nominal Judaism by the time he married my mom, was willing to comply with her yuletide agenda.

And so began my mother’s strictly secular, Euro-inspired holiday extravaganza. It started early in December each year, with the cookie baking. Buttery Swedish stars; Viennese crescents, rolled warm in vanilla-scented powdered sugar; gingerbread men; Swiss chocolate crisps; linzer cookies, each with its shiny pocket of raspberry jam. Over a three-week period, with her three children as floury assistants, my mother rolled out as many as fifteen different varieties at our Formica kitchen table, carefully packing the finished batches between layers of waxed paper in tins to be stowed in the basement freezer. By my mother’s decree, the cookies would emerge for the first time on Christmas Eve; sampling them before that date was verboten.

Later in the month, we adorned the house with simple pine cone decorations (no tacky plastic Santas in my mother’s home), and we kids fashioned homemade gifts to stash in secret hiding places. The holiday rituals continued with the tree selection (December 20, not a day earlier) and, on the evening of the 23rd, the decoration: while classical music played softly on WQXR, we took out the ornaments while my mother related the story behind every wooden Waldorf gnome, vintage glass ball, or lumpy, pre-school-made button string. The next night, we ate fondue in front of the fireplace, dunking warm pieces of baguette into the melted Gruyere, before hanging our stockings. Finally, there was the ceremonial, dramatic reading of A Visit From St. Nicholas (that’s The Night Before Christmas for you non-literary sticklers).

Permeating the entirety of the festive season was my mother’s Santa Doctrine, enforced with the rigidity of a decree from the Vatican:

1. Santa Claus exists.

2. Doubters: button those lips. If you can’t believe, pretend.

3. Santa alone fills the stockings.

4. Never thank someone in the room for a stocking present. It came from Santa!

5. Befuddled by an item in your stocking? (A not uncommon occurrence in our house.) Mom will interpret. (“I’m pretty sure Santa would say that’s a do-hicky to put your tea bag on.”)

6. Questioning the existence of Santa is tantamount to Killing the Magic.

I don’t know when, exactly, my mother formulated her Santa Doctrine, but my siblings and I absorbed it early, along with the rest of the holiday rituals, each yearly repetition enshrining our customs deeper into the family bedrock. And it worked. Just as my mom had planned, Christmas was indeed a time of festivity and magic for us kids (who, thanks to my mother, believed in Santa longer than was really quite seemly).

But marriages crumble, and children turn into sullen, cynical teenagers, no longer wonderstruck at the sight of the Christmas tree, glowing in the pre-dawn darkness. My mother figured that our holiday traditions were one element of family life that she could keep the same for us. But everything else had changed, and Santa couldn’t make up for that, not really.

Mom remarried eventually, to a tolerant man who knows better than to suggest alien rituals of his own at Christmastime. We kids got on with our lives. But no matter how much we’ve changed over the years, it’s made clear to us each December that, if we come home, there will be no deviation from the holiday of our childhoods, not now, not ever. When it comes to Christmas, my mother adheres to Tradition! with the fervor of Tevye the Milkman.

Which is ironic, considering that these days, when December comes around, I’m on Tevye’s side of the fence.

•••

Like my mother, I was a solitary, bookish child. Like her, I loved books set in “the olden days.” But while Mom was eager to shed the Episcopalian shackles of her stuffy WASP upbringing, I had a secret hankering for religion, a topic so resolutely avoided in our home that I felt a subversive thrill whenever I encountered it in my reading.

I trace the birth of my Jewish identity directly to fourth grade and the copy of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family that I found on the school library shelf. Here were my two fascinations, the olden days and religious ritual, united in the delectable story of five turn-of-the-century sisters growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. Enfolded in that middle-grade novel was a year’s worth of vibrant Jewish life: Mama, praying over the Sabbath candles in their gleaming brass candlesticks, Papa blessing his daughters; congregants chanting Torah at the synagogue; the Passover Seder (unusually somber when scarlet fever strikes the family); and Purim, with its costumed revelry.

Why, I wondered, was this entrancing world closed to me? My father was Jewish, after all. Why didn’t he do anything about it? His silence made the idea of Judaism all the more tantalizing. My friends all belonged to one faith or another. “What are you?” they used to ask. “Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian?” I could only answer: “Nothing.”

My own kids, I vowed, would be something.

•••

By the time those theoretical kids arrived, I had been a member of the Society of Friends for years. I loved the deep, living silence of Quaker Meeting, the concern for peace and justice, the gentle fun we poked at our rivals, the Unitarians. And I still felt Jewish enough to appreciate that the “inner light” of Quakerism doesn’t mean the light of Jesus, if you don’t want it to.

“So we’ll raise the kids Quaker, right?” I said to my husband.

“Sure, sure,” he replied absently, distracted by graduate school and the fog of sleep deprivation that had descended with the birth of our first child. My husband had grown up in a Conservative, kosher home. He no longer practiced, but he had a strong cultural affiliation with Judaism, the kind acquired automatically when your entire extended family hails from Brooklyn. Still, the Quakers were okay by him.

The Quakers were okay by him right up until our first child was four and I was set to enroll him in First Day School, where every Sunday he would learn about George Fox walking in the glory of the inner light.

“The Quakers are great, with the anti-war and the social justice and all,” my husband told me then. “But they don’t have—well, enough tradition.”

The product of Quaker summer camps, Quaker high school, and Quaker college, I knew that the Society of Friends has plenty of traditions. Much like Quakers themselves, these traditions are plain, not easy to spot. But I wasn’t about to argue the point.

“You want tradition?” I said. “Dude, you come from five thousand years of tradition.” (I married a surfer, a move that results in sentences like this.)

My husband gave me a look. “You’re saying you want to raise them Jewish now?”

“I’m saying I want to raise them something. Jewish works for me.”

“You do realize that we would have to join a synagogue. And actually go. And celebrate Shabbat and all the rest of it.”

“Yup.”

We visited the progressive, Reconstructionist shul, where the rabbi assured my husband, who balked at the concept of a deity, that he himself thought of God as the cosmic force of the universe, rather than, you know, God. That my own Judaism came from my father, not my mother, troubled the rabbi not a bit. Did I consider myself Jewish? Did I plan to raise my kids that way? Fine.

And just like that, we were all Jews.

Except for yearly visits at the High Holidays, my husband hadn’t spent much time in a synagogue since leaving home. But when we started attending services, I watched it all come back to him. He knew the melodies, the prayers, and, impressively, he could read Hebrew, a skill I knew he possessed but had never seen in action.

Yet despite my own lifelong pull toward the faith of my forbears—well, half of them—I couldn’t help an initial sense of detachment. I rose with the congregation when the rabbi took the Torah out of the ark, but inside my head a tiny anthropologist was busily taking notes. Observe the tribe ceremonially processing with its totemic object! The language was unfamiliar, the alphabet was different, and while the customs here were intriguing, they felt decidedly foreign.

In other words, I soon realized, it was a situation made for a former Peace Corps volunteer.

With the zest I’d once brought in Morocco to learning Arabic and the proper way to prepare couscous with pumpkin, I now dedicated myself to learning the ways of my people. I signed up for a class in beginning Hebrew (for the record, much easier than Arabic). My toddler in a backpack, I experimented with challah recipes, ultimately achieving a golden, braided loaf that is reliably more photogenic than I am. Self-consciously at first, I lit the Shabbat candles on Friday nights before dinner, experiencing a quiet satisfaction that for my young children, listening to me sing the blessing was simply routine.

I was surprised at first, and a little chagrined, by how easily I’d abandoned the Friends and taken up with the Jews. Just how committed a Quaker had I really been all those years? On the other hand—and I elected to view it this way—my speedy switcheroo was certainly a testimony to the “many candles, one light” theory of religion.

That was over ten years ago. The tiny anthropologist tossed out her notebook long ago and moved in with the tribe, embracing its rituals and community, its scholarly dedication to seeking contemporary meaning in ancient texts and traditions. The holidays that entranced me in All-of-a-Kind Family back in fourth grade have become my family’s, the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, my own: Rosh Hashanah with its apples and honey; the solemn introspection of Yom Kippur; Passover’s festive seder, when we welcome the stranger among us. And in December, the arrival of Hanukkah, with its latkes and candles to warm the winter nights.

Of course, we all know who else arrives in December.

•••

When my boys were little, I gave them the lowdown on Santa, that jolly imaginary fellow, who even grown-ups like to pretend about. Never tell another kid that Santa doesn’t exist, I instructed. Believing in Santa is very important in lots of families, and it’s not your place to say otherwise. This, I thought, was the respectful approach. Unfortunately, I neglected to include my mother in the category of people whose belief in St. Nick must be preserved. And when one of the boys innocently mentioned the words “Santa” and “pretend” in the presence of Grandma—well, the reindeer poop hit the fan.

It was useless to protest that my little band of Jews shows up at her house every December 25th. To remind her that my husband orders the Christmas morning breakfast croissants from her favorite bakery, that I make my share of the cookies, help decorate the tree, stuff stockings. My mother is painfully aware that, really, I’d rather avoid the entire holiday, and my siblings aren’t crazy about it, either. She knows that my family participates only because we love her and she lives seven blocks away. (What are we going to do, stage a boycott?) Nothing could have illustrated this more sharply than my flagrant violation of the Santa Doctrine.

“You actually told them there’s no Santa Claus?” my mother said, her voice rising in disbelief.

“Mom, the kids love celebrating Christmas at your house,” I said. “The presents, the stockings, all that. But I’m not going to tell them Santa is real, or pretend to believe in him myself, anymore. I’m just not.”

“What’s wrong with letting them use their imaginations?” she demanded, adding darkly, “I suppose you tell them there’s no Tooth Fairy, either?”

“Mom, the Tooth Fairy is not associated with the birth of Jesus.”

“Neither is Santa Claus!”

I gave her a pointed look.

“Well, not in our family, as you know perfectly well.”

“Yes, but that’s beside the point,” I said. “Jewish kids don’t believe in Santa. It kind of goes with the territory, don’t you think?”

My mother fixed me with a bitter eye. “You’re just hellbent on killing the magic for those boys, aren’t you,” she said.

•••

A framed passage from Khalil Gibran hung on the wall in my mother’s house when I was growing up. “Your children are not your children,” it read in elegant calligraphy. “You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.” I doubt my mother was pondering this sentiment as she orchestrated her Christmases back then; as she carefully cut out those cookies, grated cheese for fondue, told the stories behind the ornaments. She was establishing a beloved tradition for us. That her children would grow up to reject it must have been far from her mind.

Last year I watched my oldest son stand on the bima at his bar mitzvah. In confident Hebrew, he led the morning service, singing the psalms of praise and blessing. Then he chanted from the Torah, his voice rising and falling in the ancient rhythms. Watching him ritually take his place in the community, I knew that I had given my children what I always wanted for them, even before I knew their names. Not faith, which isn’t the point in Judaism—a good thing, for my little atheists—but identity. Whether they practice its traditions or not, they’ll always have a place, a people, a sense of belonging.

That’s what the Santa Doctrine signifies to my mother, I know. Her Christmas rituals are bound up in family and belonging, too. Now that I’ve strayed from the script, she can’t help realizing that it’s all going to end. Years from now, when she’s gone, there won’t be Christmas Eve fondue, or stockings, or a tree, not in my family. I’ll always make the Viennese crescents in December, but we’ll go out for Chinese and a movie, like the rest of our tribe. I wish that my mother could accept that, instead of fighting it every year, using Santa as a proxy for what really saddens her. I wish she could recognize that she’s given me things I consider far more valuable than Christmas: a love of books and literature, the shrewdness to hunt for a bargain, her piecrust recipe. And if, one day, my kids convert to Catholicism, or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I’m able to greet the news with equanimity—well, in a roundabout way, I’ll have my mother to thank for that, too.

•••

KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.